There was no doubt for me going in that this would not be a good movie by any stretch of the imagination. Because Paul WS Anderson is one of the most notorious thieving magpies in Hollywood. With “Pompeii” the guy once again lives up to his reputation. This is basically “Titanic” meets “Gladiator” and it’s ridiculous how much of those classics this one steals from. In “Gladiator” there’s a scene where the slaves re-enact a historical battle but thanks to Russell Crowe things play out differently, leading to the Emperor asking the arena host why they changed the plot. You get almost the exact same thing here. That’s how completely shameless this director is. Neither he nor fellow culprits the screenwriters even seem to care.
To be fair, the film isn’t as bad as I expected. It does have some fun moments, especially towards the end. When Mount Vesuvius finally explodes, the film’s reason for being kicks in. We get blasted with pure disaster porn, and the CG used to bring the various forms of destruction to life are pretty well done. As are the production values like costumes and sets. Anderson stages the action sequences with some semblance of style (originality notwithstanding). Technically at least, he is a competent filmmaker. He still sucks at directing actors, which explains why the acting is so flat. Except for one guy, who comes across like he wandered in from the set of another movie and they decided to keep him. Kiefer Sutherland has the time of his life hamming it up. I’m not even going to give him a hard time about it since he’s the only one who was actually in tune with the crap he was shoveling. It sort of makes you wonder whether the movie would’ve been better if EVERYONE had played it that way.
That way, it might’ve been a perfect satire of the very films it steals from. As is, it is one big, dumb movie. How dumb is it? Let me leave you with this parting shot (Spoiler alert here, but I don’t think this will come as a surprise to anyone who knows how “Titanic” ends). The hero and heroine are the last ones to flee the onset of a pyroclastic surge. Nevermind the fact that their horse can run faster than the death cloud traveling at nearly the speed of sound. They somehow fall off the horse, and the cloud very considerately gives them time to debate who gets to live by getting back onto the horse (familiar?). In the end, they both decide to stay on and face death together. As the fiery plume envelopes them, they kiss. How romantic, right? Here’s the truly dumb part. Apparently, a wall of fire and super-heated gasses doesn’t vaporize you, but lovingly preserves your last embrace in rock for all eternity. The filmmakers were obviously referencing the real victims of Pompeii whose remains can still be seen today, frozen in volcanic mud. That was poignant. This is just plain cheesy.
I find myself in a weird position here. Although I watched this movie over three weeks ago, I only sat down to do this piece over the weekend. Which is when news broke of the tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. I can only imagine the pain and suffering of everyone involved. My heart sincerely goes out to them. The thing is, it’s near impossible not to have all that weighing on your mind when you look at something like “Non-Stop”, a movie that’s obviously meant as entertainment.
Of course, my sentiments come in retrospect and have nothing to do with the actual quality of the movie itself. Still, it does give me added food for thought on the subject now compared to if I had written this back then. Liam Neeson plays an Air Marshal who faces an unknown enemy on board a routine flight threatening to murder passengers one by one until a ransom is paid. Divorced of any external considerations, this a plodding, unexceptional me-too of an action thriller. It gets by — barely — on the sheer screen presence of Neeson, who by now has cemented his status as the elder statesman of the “desperate man in a desperate situation” action sub-genre. He brings his usual imposing physicality and matter-of-fact charisma to the role, but this time it isn’t quite enough to carry the picture. The plotting, even with its twisty whodunit format, simply isn’t all that exciting. Director Jaume Collet-Serra’s rather perfunctory storytelling skills certainly doesn’t do anything to improve on the weak material. And everyone, Neeson included, plays it way too straight for this to be much fun. Now I’m not suggesting this be turned into a comedy, but actioners can have room for some levity.
Re-playing the movie in my mind with recent events factored in, I must admit to feeling a tinge of guilt for wanting to see more bloodshed and carnage, and for the villain to have spent less time texting Neeson and more time doing evil villainous stuff for my viewing pleasure. Again, I’ll qualify that as unfair. Ultimately, a movie is not responsible for any baggage the viewer brings into it. And objectively speaking, it’s equally unfair that I feel bad for wanting those things. It’s a work of fiction, even if it hits close to home in this particular instance. Unfortunately, the film is so bland that in the unlikely event it shows up as an in-flight movie, I doubt it would elicit much of a reaction.
In my review of “The Monkey King” (January Movie Roundup), I lamented the dearth of decent fare for Chinese New Year. If only I’d watched “The Journey” instead of that Donnie Yen turkey. It took me a while to discover what many Malaysians have been saying about this Malaysian film since its premiere. That it is actually worth a trip to the cinema. Frankly, how many movies nowadays merit that, let alone a local effort? By now, it’s become something of an instant legend, having broken national Box Office records to the tune of RM16 million and counting. Sure, that sounds like small change compared to Western blockbusters. But when you consider it was made on a paltry budget of RM3 million — which in the West wouldn’t even buy you a marketing & promotions campaign — then it’s clear just how much of a success story this film really is. Even Hollywood would nod approvingly at that profit margin.
The best part is, it’s accomplished all that by being a pretty solid film in its own right, unlike previous record-holders which were mostly shoddily-made crap. It’s still somewhat rough around the edges in terms of script, acting, plus certain technical aspects like sound editing and lighting. However, it does what most indie films with a lot of passion and some smarts poured in tend to do well. It lures you in with a deceptively simple story and keeps you going with quirky yet endearing characters. “The Journey” is as its name suggests basically a road movie. Benji (Ben Andrew Pfeiffer) is a Brit engaged to a Malaysian Chinese girl. Her father (Frankie Lee) is a hyper-conservative old grump who at first resists this “white devil” but later gives in, on the condition that Benji taxis him around the country to hand-deliver the wedding invitations. So begins a journey of discovery for both men, with the (predictably) gradual meeting of minds taking place over the course of their many encounters and experiences together. Anyone who’s ever seen a road movie will know exactly how things turn out here, and the filmmakers are either unable or unwilling to give us anything fresh. I suppose it’s fresh enough for a local audience though, as the cultural and geographical milieu as viewed through the eyes of an outsider — a Mat Salleh — gives it an amusing spin.
So along the way, we get a glimpse of true blue Malaysiana, from religious festivals to sleepy backwater town life, to some genuinely breathtaking scenery that I can barely believe is of our own country. Props to cinematographer Eric Yeong, even if the colours look a tad over-processed. Director Chiu Keng Guan displays a deft hand at situational humour, and he gets a lot of mileage out of generational and cultural disparities. He also has a handle on the tone of the film, giving it a gentle, mellow vibe with a touch of whimsy. Thankfully, he avoids the pitfall of many local filmmakers: melodrama. His cast is a mixed bag though, with Pfeiffer and Lee coming off the most natural, while (Benji’s bride) Joanne Yew’s inability to convincingly convey even the most basic emotions is a major distraction. Good thing she’s easy on the eyes. Things get a little contrived in places, especially with the climatic realisation of an unfulfilled childhood dream. At the end of the day, what matters most is that this is a story with genuine heart. An all too rare quality that audiences have recognised and duly appreciated. “The Journey” is easily the best Malaysian film I’ve seen in a long time.
One of the toughest challenges a biopic faces is to condense a person’s life into a couple of hours. “Saving Mr. Banks” isn’t so much a biopic as it is a behind-the-scenes account of a milestone in popular culture — the uphill battle Walt Disney faced in bringing author PL Travers’ book “Mary Poppins” to life as a feature film. He may be the more famous historical figure here but this isn’t about Disney, although it does give us some fascinating glimpses into who he was. This is very much about Travers and why she was so precious (read: bitchy) about how her book and its characters were treated by those “crass” Hollywood types.
The why of it is dealt with via a series of flashbacks, and while it is an expedient form of narrative shorthand I find its execution a little clumsy. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, it’s just that the way her childhood experiences and the main storyline are paralleled, it eventually turns into a game of join the dots for the audience: Oh, she’s like this now because of that time when that thing happened. It’s a little simplistic since real human personalities are more complex than that. For the purposes of the story it gets the job done though, so I won’t fault director John Lee Hancock too much.
Performance-wise, this is mostly Emma Thompson’s show. She makes a very unsympathetic and standoffish character somehow relatable and human. Thompson owns the screen every time she’s on it, and not always in a showy way. She does some beautifully understated stuff at times that really drives home Travers’ inner conflict. Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti and Bradley Whitford are also great in smaller supporting roles, adding colour to the proceedings. Tom Hanks is less successful, though the issue I have with him is a blameless one. He simply suffers the Tom Cruise problem of being too famous a face to truly disappear into the role. So every time I look at him, I see Tom Hanks instead of Walt Disney. To his credit, Hanks gets the mannerisms, the vocal inflections and the accent right. And as the script paints him, Hanks does a solid job of portraying Disney as the consummate salesman, charming when he needs to be, relentless and even ruthless when he’s pursuing an agenda.
The contentious relationship between Travers and Disney over her partly autobiographical book made a musical with dancing penguins raises an interesting subtext about the role of the storyteller. All the greatest storytellers remould truth on some level. Mankind has been doing it since the caveman days when we gathered around a campfire. We build things up much bigger than they actually are in order to inspire, impart lessons, or just to dazzle an audience. Whatever the reasons, storytellers have a very important role in society. Once they’re done telling it the story belongs to everyone and will live for as long as people are willing to seek that story out… and pass it down. Another thing I got out of the film is the idea that sometimes, the best creative work arises out of tension, where only through a clash of personalities and perspectives will the work be pushed into places it would otherwise never occupy. Along with these hints of substance, “Saving Mr. Banks” is often amusing, touching in places, and uplifting at the end.
This is the first film I’ve watched in 2014 that I can honestly say I love wholeheartedly. A bit of a late entry into Malaysian cinemas, it’s easy to see why this quiet little British film received Oscar nominations for Screenwriting and Actress in a Leading Role.
Co-star Steve Coogan wrote this, based on the true story of an elderly Irish woman who embarks on a quest to find her long-lost son, together with a jaded journalist. Dame Judi Dench plays Philomena Lee, a devout Catholic who in her teens had her child forcibly taken away by nuns for adoption. Yet she sees life and people in a sweetly optimistic, almost naive way. On the flip side we have Steve Coogan’s character Martin Sixsmith who is a cynic and a bit of a dick, although a lot of the stuff he says and observations he makes are rooted in the harsh realities of the world. Through them, the film presents a very compelling study of contrasts, and an examination of faith versus faithlessness. It’s not necessarily about religion either, as faith is a universal concept. The nice thing is that the film doesn’t try to make up our minds for us, as it gives us a fairly balanced view of the pros and cons of veering too much onto either side. Philomena is all about pure, unconditional mother’s love and love for humanity in general, but it’s clear that her worldview is a bit too sugar-coated for her own good sometimes. Sixsmith the journo is all about laying the ugliness of humanity bare in the pursuit of “truth”. It’s callous but at the same time, simply more practical and realistic.
By the end there is a shift in the characters, not so much a swapping of mindsets but more of a meeting closer to the middle ground for each of them. Philomena becomes a little more savvy to the ways of the world, and yet she chooses to say “It’s okay. The world may be like that but it doesn’t change MY approach to the world.” Sixsmith’s arc is even more pronounced, and although it’s satisfying to see his cynicism finally crack, the filmmakers never overstate his growth. Coogan’s nuanced performance has a lot to do with it. And Dench shows us why she deserved that acting nom. She’s lovable, complex and heartrending in a role that will probably be her most referenced in the years to come. Director Stephen Frears has delivered a beautifully told story in the style of an absorbing mystery novel, and in the process gives some simple, old-school human values the airing they seldom get nowadays.
George Clooney has directed 5 feature films now, and while that’s not a huge amount it’s a sizable enough body of work for us to form some kind of impression of him as a filmmaker. Unfortunately, if this effort is anything to go by, Clooney gives me the impression that he’s not only lacking an artistic voice, he doesn’t even seem to have a very strong grasp on this whole filmmaking thing. It’s almost as if he’s regressed, as his earlier efforts were much more confidently put-together.
This film has a really winding, disjointed flow to it. Within a given scene, things play out fine, with the intended outcome usually coming across. If it’s meant to be a humorous moment it is, and if it’s meant to be poignant the sentiment is there. But from one scene to the next there does not seem to be a sense of continuity. The tone shifts along with the focus on whatever character is on screen at the time. Overall, there is an arc and a narrative through-line. We know that the mission for Clooney and his rag-tag band of art scholars is to rescue priceless artwork from the clutches of the Nazis while World War II rages around them. Somehow, the catchy premise never quite translates into a clear or cohesive experience for us. Because it apparently escaped the director himself. Clooney has admitted in interviews that he struggled to find the right tone. It’s the kind of film that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, so it tries to be a little bit of everything. There’s a light-hearted “Ocean’s Eleven” type of heist caper at play alongside a self-serious “message” film about the importance of art and how meaningless war is, not just in the loss of life but in the destruction of our creative achievements as well. There’s no reason why these cannot co-exist but at the very heart of it Clooney could not find the film’s identity.
I think this is a case where his limitations as a filmmaker got the better of his ambitions. He simply could not size the material up properly and it got away from him. It reaches a point where the emotional impact of the film becomes muted. Scenes of Nazis destroying precious masterpieces should be terribly upsetting to watch, especially if you can appreciate art in any form. But here, they just happen on screen and you just soak it in impassively. And that’s perhaps the most damning thing. For a film about passion, it is so devoid of it. “The Monuments Men” wants desperately to be a worthy film, and although there’s nothing bad or offensive about it, with all the talents involved in front of (never knew it was possible to make Bill Murray come off boring!) and behind the camera, this is one severely wasted opportunity.