Thursday, January 28, 2010

I SEE YOU, AVATAR -- BREAKING RECORDS!

To ride on Avatar's meaningful line, "I see you", I am sure audiences around the world have already read news that Avatar has surpassed Titanic as the biggest grossing film at the box office (and still counting -- as Avatar is still showing to strong audience support around the world).

Both Avatar and Titanic are directed and written by James Cameron, making the movies basically cinematic brothers.

Here're additional news about the movies -- albeit brief, but useful. We'd like to think that the informative and fun nature of this blog is what sets this website apart from others!


TITANIC:

Titanic was released on Dec 18 1997 in Malaysia. Its US release date was Dec 14.

The film collected its US$1.843 billion record-breaking cash stockpile over 41 weeks, reportedly having played in cinemas globally from Dec 1997 till September 1998.

Titanic's running time is 194 minutes and is rated PG-13 in the US.

Its take at the US box office alone was US$600 million.


AVATAR:

Avatar opened in Malaysia on Dec 17 2010. Its US release date was Dec 16.

At the moment, Avatar has taken in US$1.88 billion worldwide. Of this amount, the movie has raked in US$558.2 million in the US alone. As the film is still running strong in cinemas worldwide, it will in all probability break through Titanic's US$600 million mark very soon. AND it looks poised to be the first movie to cross the US$2 billion barrier at the global box office.

Avatar's runtime is 162 minutes and it too carries the American PG-13 rating.

(NB: Basic information and figures were obtained from www.imdb.com.)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Gaga-fying the world -- one raised eyebrow at a time


By FRANCIS DASS

(REVISED VERSION)

Just how hot is Lady Gaga? Her Bad Romance music video on youtube.com has garnered more than 92 MILLION views --  AND STILL COUNTING!



Imagine if you would, Donatella Versace having a love-child with a man who is the result of splicing together filmmakers David Lynch and Tim Burton, then you would most definitely get the very real and fashionably out-of-this-world Lady Gaga.

Coming like an intermittent downpour on the pop music scene in the beginning with Just Dance, she managed to make an impact on listeners young and old early last year. The song was lightweight synth-pop reminiscent of disco pop tunes of the 80s and 90s. In terms of looks, the video was cheap and cheerful. Was she yet-another-Britney-clone type of artiste, many wondered.

The lyrics of Just Dance was suitably silly, talking about not knowing which club Gaga was in, lost phones and the song also mentions her having had a bit too much to drink, amongst an assortment of the singer's other seemingly harmless and ditzy observations/experiences. The song was completely unserious.

Interestingly, the first ones who were humming the song and miming the words in Kuala Lumpur were teenagers. Not ordinary teenagers, but terribly hip ones. They took to Gaga's dance song like duck to water.

As Just Dance went into heavy rotation on the video music channels, it became an almost overnight hit with pop music fans everyhwere.

Then, as the pop pundits sat back and wondered what this strange woman will deliver next, out came Poker Face.

On Poker Face Gaga sang like some kind of a stern instruction-voiceover to a Dummies Guide to Singing audio book! Her voice delightfully matched the formulaic pop-beat of the song.

Like the earlier video, Poker Face's music video was nothing much to scream about. Just Dance had Akon and pop lightweight Colby O'Donis gracing it. Poker Face was all Gaga and cohorts. Her unique style was expertly harnessed: the wigs, the weird costumes and metal plates stuck on the face (these would become her trademarks in subsequent music videos) were plain for all to see.

From these videos It was obvious that, like a typical New Yorker that she was, Gaga held an amoral view of the human body (nudity) and of relationships.

However, what WAS worth screaming about was her appearance in the Adam Lambert season of American Idol last year. Her stunning live performance of Poker Face on the show had global music fans scrambling to find out more about her. She was superbly theatrical and mesmerising during that Idol performance. The intermittent rain that was Gaga had changed to a full-blown Category 4 hurricane.

It was as if Gaga had pushed aside the imaginary bouncers guarding the global music stage and scampered single-mindedly towards the limelight at the centre with the hit song Poker Face. The song is not revolutionary -- it sounds like a standard-issue synth-pop concoction. It's just that the timing and delivery were pitch perfect.

With lines like, "Russian roulette is not the same without a gun" and "And baby when it's love if it's not rough it isn't fun..." -- listeners were hooked to this naughty young lady.

As a result, those who knew of her music loved Poker Face even more and those who didn't, clamoured for news of Gaga: just who was this Gaga?

Gaga is New York-born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, the daughter of an Italian-American multimillionaire Internet entrepreneur. She was born on March 28, 1986. In case you wondered, both her parents are extremely proud of their daughter.

Her New York origins largely explains her rather avant garde and over-the top sensibilities. The bisexual Gaga's  I-don't-give-a-damn-what-people-are-gonna-say outlook on life has lent her mystique -- that which took silverscreen stars years to attain, she has gained almost overnight, within a span of a year!

Her pop-star name, as everyone knows by now, is a reference to Queen's hit song, Radio Gaga. Apparently one of the many songs she wrote reminded someone of the great Queen's song and they referenced her as Gaga and she took to it.

Her stars started shining brighter with the next hit song Paparazzi. It was a love song and an ode to fame at the same time.

The video was visually stunning and was simultaneously Lynchian and Burtonesque in the way it told the Gaga story of being wronged by a man, then how her deep love brought her back to form -- and the adoration of the masses!

You see, in Gaga's universe, grave bodily injuries and a wheelchair are not enough to stop a natural-born showgirl like Gaga. For her, with the help of her trusty dancers, THE SHOW MUST GO ON! Burlesque and the grotesque are happily married in Paparazzi. The video was a beautifully conceptualised and artistically realised.

In the Paparazzi music video, audiences had a hilarious glimpse of how Gaga liked her men: dead!

In real life, Gaga, you see, suffered from a really bad break up with an ex called Luke. So, if you listen to any Gaga song that deals with relationship, trust Luke to figure somewhere in there.

Late last year, though, Gaga became a full-fledged Category 5 hurricane in the pop realm with the song Bad Romance.

The thumping Bad Romance is an anthemic dance floor scorcher that is stunningly epic. The music video can only be described as being simultaneously theatrical and visceral! Bad Romance is ten times better and even more over-the-top than the celebrated Paparazzi. It's like James Cameron Avatar to his Titanic, if you like.

Just last week, Rick Dees announced that Gaga's Bad Romance has topped his popular Top 40 radio show.

Thanks to her uncompromising style, Gaga has now become extremely hot property in the music industry, topping charts all over the world. She has also  started collaborating with big names, like the sizzling hot Beyonce.

After reading all this, if you are still asking, "Just how hot is Gaga, exactly?", the answer to that is that her video for Bad Romance alone on www.youtube.com has had 92, 483, 282 views. That's more than 92 MILLION views folks! And still rising. It's a staggering number by any measure.

(Gaga's Just Dance has garnered almost 95 million views on youtube.)

All we can say is Go Go Gaga, as her spectacular career unfolds right before our very eyes!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Hmmm... what should the kids be watching?

By FRANCIS DASS

Chipmunks vs frogs: can't decide which kiddie movie to catch this weekend ?
Let us help you make up your mind - OR NOT, as the case might be!


Let's see... you are a very discerning filmgoer. This being January -- you've spent all your hard-earned money on the children's school expenses. In case they didn't tell you in parenting class -- the kids are not done with you or your helpless wallet yet. Just when you thought the end of the first month would spell relief as the salary comes in -- the kids want to go to the movies. As your budget allows for you, your wife and 14 children to catch ONLY one movie, let us help you decide which film to catch.



THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG
Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker
Voice talents of Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, Michael-Leon Wooley, Jennifer Cody, Jim Cumming, Peter Bartlett, Jennifer Lewis, Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard, John Goodman, Elizabeth M. Dampler, Reggie

This has to be the most insipid, irrelevant animated feature that the Walt Disney company has churned out in ages.

The script is weak and contrived, and the animation is supremely insulting. As if it is already not bad enough that the said "princess" is a figurative one in the beginning (sheesh, could you tell little Abdul and Ting Ting to stop bawling their eyes out already!), this pseudo-princess who is called Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is the daughter of a black man who has such huge stereotypical black lips that you don't know if you are looking at a pair of gargantuan luggage handles transplanted onto his face or whether he went for some silicon jabs and got the supersized-treatment.

Whatever happened to the fairly land and fairy-like things in a story that misleadingly calls itself The Princess and the Frog, then? Well, there is a jazz-loving alligator, a firefly and blind voodoo priestess. They all sing and dance, if that is any consolation at all.

To be fair, there IS a prince in the film. He's a callous young man called Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) whose transformation from carefree (think more along the lines of "I-don't-give-a-frog's-wart") to being responsible is so flimsy that you would miss it if you blinked. Adding a dash of the supernatural is a bad guy called Dr Facilier (Keith David). Facilier is a lifeless rip off of Hades from Disney's other animated film, Hercules (1998).

As fate would have it, Naveen is turned into a frog by Facilier, is kissed by Tiana who turns into a.... (not a princess, if that is what you thought!) and the rest of this pitiful movie revolves around people trying to turn themselves into humans and the baddie getting his just desserts.

There are the customary song-and-dance numbers scattered throughout and the introduction of the blind voodoo priestess Mama Odie (Jennifer Lewis) who is probably the film's highlight. No, she does not have any real merit if you think about it -- but we said it just to spite the idea and any possibility of having to say anything nice about the hard-to-care-for and completely uninspiring leading couple.

Disney cartoons, I frankly think, do not prepare the kids for the real world. Then again, which Hollywood film ever does. It is all escapism in one way or another.



ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: THE SQUEAKQUEL
Directed by Betty Thomas
Starring Zachary Levi, David Cross, Jason Lee, Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler, Jesse McCartney, Amy Poehler, Anna Faris, Christina Applegate, Wendie Malick, Kathryn Joosten

This live action-computer animation merger of a film, is somewhat watchable -- ONCE your hair stops standing on its end and your mind gets used to the sub-intelligent script. You look around, and the kids are rolling with laughter -- all those who are five and below, while you audibly hear explosions in the minds of anyone above 10 whose brain cells start committing suicide.

IN YOUR SEAT, you will look in great wonder and amazement at the screen and realise that the chipmunks actually DO speak like, err, chipmunks. It's not because they are wearing some super-tight underwear and their you-know-what are constricted -- but because if chipmunks spoke, they really would speak like that -- with that voice!

ON THE SCREEN, the likeable Dave (Jason Lee) is hospitalised because of Alvin misbehaves and so Alvin (Justin Long), Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler) and Theodore (Jesse McCartney) are shipped over to the Aunt Jackie (Kathryn Joosten). The chipmunk boys are enrolled in a school as part of their growing up process and Dave's slacker cousin Toby (Zachary Levi) is entrusted with looking after the rodents. Why Toby, you ask? Because Aunt Jackie is shipped to hospital (yes, feel free to blame the chipmunks.)

At school, Alvin turns his charms on the teenage girls -- and, shockingly, they respond! But the teenage boys know better... or so you think! A wedgie or two here and there and the chipmunks score a homerun against all who stand against them. Sigh!

Don't be surprised if the kids in the audience break out into unrestrained applause as a trio of female chipmunks are introduced: Eleanor (Amy Poehler), Jeanette (Anna Faris) and Brittany (Christina Applegate) as the rival singing sensation to Alvin and the Chipmunks. At about that time, you will notice that David Cross who plays the "evil" Ian is having plenty of fun hamming up his performance. You might feel an urge to smile at the thought of an adult acting so badly and having the license to enjoy doing so for the sake of earning a living. Then, as the thought of abandoning your family and running off to Hollywood to make an easy living enters your mind, suddenly, you will start noticing the other actors: the teenage-cast-of-thousands. When actors are badly directed, they will deliver horrendous performances -- that is a given, and the phoney-ness of their acting is clear for all to see (the hordes of teens reacting, err, wildly to the non-present CGI chipmunks which are added way, way after filming has ended). If you are movie savvy, this can be very painful to watch. On the other hand, if you are just a kid, you would not care at all.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, despite the bad acting and bad script, Alvin and the Chipmunks does manage to find its groove as the film progresses. By the end of it, you will feel money was better spent catching this with the kids rather than Princess and the Frog.



Monday, January 18, 2010

2010 Golden Globes... and the awards season starts!

2010 Golden Globes Awards

By FRANCIS DASS

I saw Ricky Gervais just now. No, not in person, but on television, where he was was hosting The Hollywood Foreign Press Association's 2010 Golden Globes Awards.

The Golden Globes, in case you didn't know, is the awards show that kicks off the movie awards season -- not only in America but also the rest of the world. It -- USUALLY! -- foretells of what will transpires during Oscar night on March 7th. (Sometimes, the Oscars' Academy Awards gang like to cause an upset or two!)

Anyway, back to the 49-year old Englishman Gervais. I usually do not like the man at all. His humour never did translate over well with me. So, I have always avoided his shows (he is the man behind the original The Office in UK -- the show which was then transposed to American television audiences with the extremely likeable Steve Carell at the helm.)

Anyway, as host of the Golden Globes this year, Gervais has indeed chalked a new chapter for all other hosts in future at any awards programme: he has perfected the role of a host as a facilitator to the proceedings rather than the traditional one of the host aggrandizing him/herself to no end. (Sorry Whoopi -- although you ARE indeed very funny -- you are into that self-edification mode that comedians often fall into. Ditto to Jon Stewart of The Today Show.)

Gervais, on the other hand, was very much interested in pushing the programme along, oiling it remarkably with irreverent jokes.

Anyway, back to the Hollywood galaxy (which is not very, very far away) and its constellation of luminous stars.

As expected, Avatar won Best Motion Picture (Drama) and its director James Cameron won the best director golden globe.

Cameron said what the whole world knows by now: he and all the people gathered in the auditorium had the best jobs in the world. It is fitting indeed that Avatar ended on such a top note, as it is still number one at the box offices in the US and around the world. The film has collected a staggering US$1.6 billion around the world (stateside alone, it has bagged almost US$500 million!)

The golden Globes not only celebrates movies on the silverscreen but also television programming, and thus, it was a great, big, fat delight for everyone indeed that TV series Glee won Best Television Series (Musical or Comedy).

In accepting the award, one of Glee's producer/creators said the funniest thing that night when he described the actors in the musical comedy as "fake sexy-teen cast". On a more serious note, he posited that the show is about the importance of arts education and that Glee is -- laugher still had the last laugh! -- made for "anybody and everybody who got a wedgie in school!"

That high of an acceptance speech was easily matched by Robert Downey Jr who won the Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy) nod. In a hilarious speech, that demonstrated this Hollywood royal's wit and intelligence, he demonstrated mock-hubris in the face of all the other overdone acceptance speeches where the stars feigned to be full of humility and gratitude. But a few seconds past not wanting to thank the talented cast and crew that make movies happen, he did thanks those involved in the intoxicatingly clever Sherlock Holmes where his performance was nothing short of magical.

Another funny notable moment was offered by Todd Phillips, director an producer of extremely funny movie, The Hangover, which won Best Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy). Phillips had said he was afraid at winning this award in case he got into a fist fight with Harvey Weinstein, whose musical Nine was up in the  same category.

"But I have My Tyson on my side," Phillips cleverly said, too close his joke, which was appreciated by everyone.

Paul McCartney was a presenter for the Best Animated Feature Film and he CRACK-ed a gem of a joke too. He said animated movies are enjoyed by kids and drug-taking adults, vaguely quipping about the good old drug-fuelled days of long ago.

Talking of speeches, although it was a dignified speech, I was rather put off by Mo'Nique, the actress who bagged the Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture award for her turn in Precious. She took herself too seriously (as did all the other Precious people seated at her table -- making it look like the Grim Reaper's table!) -- with the exception being the sunny spirited Gabourey Sidibe who played the lead role in Precious.

Other memorable moments at the Golden Globes this year was seeing James Cameron's oldest and dearest friend California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger introducing Avatar, the sight of Mike Tyson coyly stepping into the world of filmed entertainment and, of course, the sight of George Lucas seated right at the front table, a few feet away from the presenters -- the most important seat in the house, we reckon, since he is like Zeus, compared to the rest of them!

Gervais, to his great credit, delivered the funniest lines and ribbed his guest to the max. Paul McCartney, who handed out  the animated movies prize got ribbed as did Mel Gibson, just before Gibson gave out the award to director James Cameron.

Gervais had said: "I like a drink as much as the next man, unless the next man is Mel Gibson!" This truly was funny -- Gibson has been arrested slandering Jews a while back while driving under the influence -- and this clearly threw off even the good-humoured Gibson who laughed and flubbed momentarily.

Gervais started the evening with some fabulous jokes: how performers have all put on the show of the best work -- the best work of plastic surgeons, that is! --  and an interplay with Steve Carell who is more famous than Gervais thanks to the stunning global success of the American version of The Office and when Carell mockingly gestured that he would break Gervais in two when Gervais was getting "personal" and "rude".

Here is the complete list of the winners at the 2010 Golden Globes:

Best Motion Picture - Drama: Avatar

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Drama: Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart)

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy: Robert Downey Jr (Sherlock Holmes)

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama: Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side)

Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy: The Hangover

Best Television Series - Musical or Comedy: Glee

Best Director - Motion Picture: James Cameron (Avatar)

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture: Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds)

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Serirs or Motion Picture Made for Television: Chloe Sevigny (Big Love)

Best Television Series - Drama: Mad Men

Best Foreign Language Film: Das weisse Band (Germany)

Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series - Musical or Comedy: Alec Baldwin (30 Rock)

Best Screenplay - Motion Picture: Up In The Air

Best Performance by an Actress in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television: Drew Barrymore (Grey Gardens)

Best Performance by an Actor in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television: Kevin Bacon (Taking Chance)

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy: Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia)

Best Mini-Series or Motion Picture for Television: Grey Gardens

Best Original Score - Motion Picture: Up

Best Originl Song - Motion Picture: Crazy Heart

Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series - Drama: Julianna Margulies (The Good Wife)

Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series - Drama: Michael C. Hall (Dexter)

Best Animated Film: Up

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television: John Lithgow (Dexter)

Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series - Musical or Comedy: Toni Collette (United States of Tara)

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture: MoNique (Precious)

Monday, January 11, 2010

Exquisite photographs of people with a common faith




By FRANCIS DASS


A treat for photo enthusiasts in Kuala Lumpur

The modern millenia's Mona Lisa -- that unforgettable portrait photograph of the Afghan Girl, which was snapped in 1984 and published by National Geographic on the cover of its June 1985 issue -- is in town.

That iconic photograph along with 75 others, all taken by lensman Steve McCurry during his travels around the Middle- as well as varrious other parts of South Asia are currently being exhibited at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia under the title: A Common Faith: Steve McCurry's Travels through the Muslim World.

The thematic string that runs through every photo at the exhibition gives it great relevance for the Islamic Arts Museum where the photos are being exhibited in the capital.

A bonus for visitors is the fact that almost every photo is a must-see masterwork at the exhibition. From afar, some look like exotic Renaissance oil paintings while others are simply visually stunning.

(Yes, McCurry is more than a one-hit wonder -- there are a handful of other classic shots that this talented photographer has captured for posterity besides the soulful and iconic Afghan Girl. BUT, to his great and utter credit, McCurry is very gracious about the fame that this single shot has gained him and he says so unabashedly, demonstrating great character!)

What visitors at the exhibition will immediately note is that, through his work, McCurry gives a face to the troubles and joys in the lives of people in the Muslim world.

However, since there are always people new to the iconic Afghan Girl portrait let us tell the short story that lies behind the image.

In the beginning, the mysterious Afghan Girl, of course, was just a nameless girl in a refugee camp in Pakistan, displaced from her homeland after her whole family was almost annihilated by the Soviets who invaded Afghanistan.

As part of his National Geographic assignment, McCurry had to disguise himself as an Afghan and was snuck into the refugee camp by aides hired by National Geographic. At great risk to his life (in a paternalistic society such as the Afghans' and Pakistanis', it is unthinkable for a man to take photos of their women folk, especially one who is neither a family member nor a Muslim), he managed to sew the film rolls into his garb and snuck out of the place.

Then, the photo of the Afghan Girl was selected for NatGeo's cover story titled Along Afghanistan's War-torn Frontier. The article does not identify her specifically -- she was simply a face of the Afghans' plight following the onslaught of the Soviet invasion of her homeland -- but the article did deal with the lives and losses of the people as a result of that deadly conflict.

National Geographic, of course, got added mileage from her, when the magazine engaged McCurry to track down the mysterious girl 17 years later and she turned out to be a woman called Sharbat Gula. Good things did come out of the photo shoot that followed this National Geographic in-search-of documentary: "The documentary we made after finding her again had a big impact on my life. The best part of the story was being able to help make her life better. There was a school built in Kabul based on the donations collected from that picture," McCurry says.

Another stunning photograph (among many others, I might add) that visitors to the Islamic Arts Museum's exhibition will feast their eyes on is Flower Seller in Lake Dal in Srinagar, Kashmir (1996).

Despite the war and pain, McCurry explained, he was moved by the ability of these strong people to continue going about their daily lives and appreciating the beauty in all things around them -- and in the case of the Flower Seller, the beauty of flowers.


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"A Common Faith: Steve McCurry's Travels through the Muslim World" exhibition is currently ongoing at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia until April 8. It is reported to be McCurry's biggest exhibition.

Entrance fee is RM12 for adults. Call 03-22705160; 22705158; 22705164; 22705117; 22705142; 22705135 or 22705110 for details. You can also email info@iamm.org.my.

Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia is located at Jalan Lembah Perdana, 50480 Kuala Lumpur

___________________

You can also visit Steve McCurry's website at www.stevemccurry.com








Friday, January 8, 2010

CIRQUE DU FREAK: THE VAMPIRE'S ASSISTANT -- Oh dear... not really an attractive position, is it?



Review by FRANCIS DASS

CIRQUE DU FREAK: THE VAMPIRE'S ASSISTANT
Directed by Paul Weitz
Starring John C. Reilly, Josh Hutcherson, Chris Massoglia, Jessica Carlson, Michael Cerveris, Ray Stevenson, Patrick Fugit, Morgan Saylor, Ken Watanabe, Salma Hayek, Orlando Jones, Frankie Faison

Movies are like food, if you think about it. Some movies have excellent starters (beginning) a good main course (premise/script/acting/direction) and superb desserts (climaxes/ends on the perfect note).

Unfortunately, like all meals, the cards are also distributed unevenly in Hollywood. Some of these so-called "movie-meals" sometimes have excellent starters, an awful main course and completely washout desserts.

With that in mind, let's just say that Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant is a film made with only a possible sequel in mind. So, if this first movie is the starter, and the second the main course, let's just say that The Vampire's Assistant is merely a glass of water. The introduction of the characters are so cursory and shallow, that you would be right in thinking that you were cheated. It's like food was promise but nothing delivered.

Like Hollywood's Godzilla, Transformers 2 and New Moon, The Vampire's Assistant is the antithesis of its own brilliantly captivating trailer which preceeded it.

(Regardless of whether it is the first episode or not, we like each of our cinematic serials to be hearty meals in themselves, like The Matrix or Star Wars -- Episode IV, don't you agree?)

What will sustain you till this badly fleshed out movie ends, however, is the humour. The jokes will have you laughing, that's for sure. Alas, jokes alone do not a movie make.

The Vampire's Assistant stars John C. Reilly. Neither handsome nor charismatic, his wonderful sense of comic timing and delivery of jokes manage to sustain Reilly's  vampire character called Larten Crepsley. He is part of a travelling freakshow and for company, his acquaintances are his lady love Madame Truska (Salma Hayek) a woman who can grow a beard at will and foretell the future; Alexander Ribs (Orlando Jones) who lives up to his name; Rhamus Twobellies (Frankie Faison) whose name is also self-explanatory as are Evra the Snake Boy's (Patrick Fugit) and Mr Tall's (Ken Watanabe) monickers.

These characters are just so fleetingly introduced that you get no inkling of what drives them or any other aspect of their lives.

As the film begins, the freak show's next stop is Darren Shan's (Chris Massoglia) town and this dull straight-As kid who always does as his parents tell him to, gets winds of the performance and sneaks out in the middle of the night -- when all freak shows start, we imagine -- to catch it. Darren is captivated by what he sees (especially an exotic spider -- an arachnid, not a human freak with eight legs or something like that, as you might have imagined!) and after the show, sneaks backstage and steals Crepsley's prized spider. Darren, you see, is drawn to spiders for some bizarre reason and, to be fair and honest, the vampire's pet spider is a beautiful creature indeed.

The actor Massoglia looks somewhat like Karate Kid's Ralph Macchio and, like Macchio, there's not a hint of manliness about him in both looks or mannerism. (Is this feminisation of American men the reason why Hollywood looks to Australia for macho men like Hugh Jackman, Eric Bana and Sam Worthington? Is there something about the great outback Downunder that makes a man a real man? Oh well -- that deserves a whole critique of its own!)

As a lead, Massoglia is mis-cast by a gargantuan margin of error!

Anyway, to cut a long story short, or make a tall man short, as they would probably say jokingly in freakshow circles, the spider escapes, bites Darren's best friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson) and the young man is forced to strike a deal with the vampire to save his best friend, thus becoming the vampire's assistant and partly undead.

Darren's best friend Steve, unfortunately, has always harboured the desire to become a vampire (this is a comic book adaptation, you know!) and is miffed that Darren has become what he'd really, REALLY wanted to be and promptly sells his soul to and joins Crepsley's nemesis, a sinister fatty called Mr Tiny (Michael Cerveris).

There are a few run-ins between Crepsley's side and Mr Tiny's undead minions and a lame showdown between Steve and Darren takes place to tide you over till the badly thought out film ends. The rubbish battles between these two camps look like they are of no consequence to humanity and are, instead, more like two undead sororities going at each other.

Instead of watching this completely forgettable film, I'd rather recommend folks go buy an Alice in Wonderland book to read in anticipation of Tim Burton's re-imagining of the Mad Hatter's world which should hit cinemas in March.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

CASE 39: You might just be CASE 40 if you are easily scared or startled!


MOVIE REVIEW

By FRANCIS DASS


CASE 39
Directed by Christian Alvart
Starring Renee Zellweger, Jodelle Ferland, Ian McShane, Kerry O'Malley, Callum Keith Rennie, Bradley Cooper, Adrian Lester, Georgia Craig, Cynthia Stevenson, Mary Black

(SPOILER ALERT: The first paragraph pretty much reveals what the film is all about. Read on at your own peril.)

Remember that fabulous modern Japanese horror classic The Ring (Ringu) from 1998? If you are a horror aficionado, you probably do. Well, if dear departed and supremely demented pre-teen Sadako had an American kin, she would probably be very much like Lily in Case 39.

This movie starts off innocuosly enough. Lily (Jodelle Ferland) is just an ordinary child who is so very sweet. Sadly, she is having a troubled young life. Her grades, you see, are down. And she is unable to sleep. You'd be distressed too if your parents are trying to kill you all the time. And mind you, these are not her foster parents. These are her own BIOLOGICAL parents -- and they are very biologically intent on killing this sweet child.

(I know, I know -- that comparison with Sadako gave pretty much a lot away. But the real fun is in watching this film -- it is rather well constructed.)

Anyway, it should come as no surprise at all that a child welfare woman Emily Jenkins (Renee Zellweger) is terribly concerned when she reads the case file numbered 39. She wonders if poor Lily is being abused in anyway at home. If that is the case, could Emily perchance do something to help the poor child?

Following departmental procedure, she pays Lily a visit and finds her parents' behaviour odd. To be frank, they are freaks. The opening scenes that extend to include Emily's visit, are excellent with really, REALLY tight shots (so tight, you feel like saying out aloud, apologetically, "Oh, so sorry Miss Zellweger -- I didn't mean to be so in your face! Oops, you two too -- Mr and Mrs Lily's parents!"). The tension during these moments are so, well, taut, in fact, if you were a musician, you could pluck the spooky Psycho violin tune during these times! Provided you could un-tense yourself, in the first place, to pluck the strings. The acting, of course, has to work for such directorial devices to work and the cast is rather up to the task.

Anyway, not following departmental procedure, Emily pokes her nose into the Lily family's affair and ends up rescuing the little girl from being roasted alive. Yes, literally, as her parents go completely Middle Eastern on Lily and try to "kebab" her.

Lily, is a little maestro at mind games and before you can say, "Emily you stupid fool...", Lily's parents are jailed and Emily has already taken the girl into her very own home. Oh, and a few people around Emily either die or are murdered under suspicious conditions soon after.

What transpires as a result and what Lily is capable of make for an intriguing watch indeed. Case 39 sees, Zellweger (who, incidentally, looks like she has those chipmunk cheeks that are full of nuts, or whatever!) giving a good leading lady performance. We can only hope she attends therapy regularly after being so frazzled playing the role. The child actress Ferland is suitably creepy and understated at times and menacingly over-the-top at the right moments. Mercifully, she is nothing like the horrid child actress that Dakota Fanning was -- Fanning always over-acted or constantly over-emoted and ruined many movies in the process! (However, luckily for movie addicts, Fanning has grown up finally understanding what tolerable acting is all about in "Push" and "New Moon").

Case 39 ends as it should and you won't leave the hall saying, "Why do all horror movies have such stupid endings, as if anyone wants to see a sequel!" Oops, did we just give away the ending?

This is not a major movie by any measure, so the spoliers sprinkled here should not spoil your appetite if you are an avid movie fan and enjoy a good scare!

AVATAR: AN ASTOUNDING MIND JOB!


MOVIE REVIEW

By FRANCIS DASS


AVATAR
Directed by James Cameron
Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Dileep Rao, Joel Moore



When James Cameron accepted his Best Director Oscar for Titanic, he'd declared, "I am the king of the world!" That was eleven years ago!

Many writers and critics everywhere were shocked by his hubris. I had absolutely no problem with what he said. I loved his Terminator films, Aliens and, of course, Titanic. Never mind that his The Abyss was abysmal! He was a consummate filmmaker whose mastery of the technical aspects of making a film and storytelling expertise were second to none as far as I was concerned.

And, now, more than a decade after disappearing from the silver screen, he is back with Avatar.

All I can say is that, he has crafted a spellbinding film that works at so many levels that this is THE definitive event movie in a long, long time.

As all gamer boys and girls would already know by now, avatar in computer gamers' parlance roughly means a human player inhabiting the virtual shell of fantastical characters in computer games, role-palying anything from soldiers to warriors and sorcerers.

Of course, this being a James Cameron film, the director takes the whole virtual reincarnation game play to a whole new level.

The film is about Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a soldier who has lost the use of his legs and, as fate would have it, ends up stepping into a world where he is recruited to explore another world in this futuristic sci-fi that blends live action and cutting-edge computer animation like you have never seen before.

The world Jake explores is an alien world called Pandora, inhabited by 10-foot tall blue aliens called the Na'vi. Funding the human exploration initiative is a bunch of heartless capitalists (a common theme in Cameron's films, as reflected in Aliens) who are determined to exploit Pandora for a priceless mineral that it possesses.

As the trailer for Avatar already made clear, a large mineral deposit is directly beneath the Hometree, an area that a group of these primitive but tough Na'vis call home. The "corporation" has already failed in its earlier negotiations (ploys which included offering colonialistic English lessons and the supply of medicines etc) with the blue natives to have them relocate so that the minerals can be mined for profit.

These diplomatic dialogues, intriguingly, were initiated with the help of scientific experiments where Na'vi clones were merged with human DNA and these lab-created Na'vi "vessels" are "piloted" by humans via some super sophisticated neuron networking devices. The three Na'vi bodies used by the humans are the avatars and the humans feel, see and experience everything that their avatars go through. Besides Jake, Dr Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and Norm Spellman (Joel Moore) are two scientists who have Na'vi avatars.

As is usual with corporations, time is money and time is exactly what they insists they do not have. These capitalists (represented by Giovanni Ribisi's Parker Selfridge) have guns for hire (led by Colonel Miles, played by Stephen Lang), and decide to take a hardline stance against the Na'vis reluctance to relocate.

This being a James Cameron film, things are not as they seem. Through the Na'vi avatars, the human pilots see life from the Na'vi people's benign and nature-loving perspective. And Jake especially connects with them.

But, before Jake reaches such a compassionate stage, as filmdom's dramatic device dictates, he is just a grunt for hire and in doing his soldierly duties, he feeds back intelligence to the corporation about whatever he learns about the Na'vi. Such information in the hands of the corporation, of course, spells doom for the alien species. Only thanks to the Na'vi-friendly Dr Grace's expert manoeuvering, Jake slowly begins to see and understand the fantastic relationship the Na'vis share with their land.

Into this bowl, writer-director Cameron throws the ingredients that include an interspecies romance, the already mentioned ruthless colonel, the heartless capitalist, a compassionate scientist and a courageous hero, and he sets the Hollywood Kitchen Aid mixer on an "are-you-insane" spin, resulting in a volatile mix of action an adventure. Simply unforgettable stuff!

As is his style, Cameron does not stinge when it comes to effects or details. Audiences are given a thorough sampling of the Na'vis' life philosophy, better than a National Geographic or Discovery channel programme ever could. Their oneness with the world they inhabit is mind-expanding and the way they are built to connect with everything around them is mind-blowing. Their love for nature is very Indian -- Red Indian as well as Asian Indian! (Indians on the subcontinent and in the global diaspora, as you would already know, revere animals and trees.)

The way the planet is organically linked is also impressive -- with roots of trees not only holding everything on and in the ground together but also stringing airborne chunks of Pandora's landmass in a state of connectedness.

The special effects in Avatar, needless to say are out of this world. Things that you or I could never have imagined are depicted in realistic three dimensionality on the screen. The plants, the animals, the terrain -- everything is exceptionally done, rendered and delivered. And these are not offered as quick glimpses but fully orchestrated and visually satiating scenes and sequences.

The way the story folds out is classic Cameron stuff: the premise is clearly laid out, the details are lucidly spelt out, the logic extremely sound and top quality performances are expertly harnessed from the actors.

The multilayered-relevance of this film (it could be a parable for the American invasion of Iraq for oil and Colonel Miles could double up for the Blackwater guards, or to cast your minds back a few centuries earlier in human history, it even reflects the European invasion and annihilation of the South American civilisations hundreds of years ago) makes Avatar perfect and resonant for the time we live in now.

Cameron poignantly delves into the many modes that the human mind works on: the desire for profit, the pursuit of materialsim, the need to defend the weak, the desire to be compassionate and maintain our humanity, the powerful intuitions to obey rules and to break rules.

Worthington is stellar as a soulful man and Weaver is a delight to watch. My favourite actress Michelle Rodriguez gives a memorable performance, as usual.

A visual wizard if there ever was one, the way Canada-born Cameron expertly alternates between reality and computer wizardry will come as no surprise to his ardent fans. His direction is flawless here.

At the end of this amazing work of silverscreen magic and art, you wonder whether you were actually James Cameron's avatar? Or, was the movie your avatar?"

SHERLOCK HOLMES IS A TIMELY RIP ROARING MUST-SEE UPDATE!


MOVIE REVIEWS

By FRANCIS DASS


SHERLOCK HOLMES
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Eddie Marsan, Robert Maillet, Geraldine James, Kelly Reilly, WIlliam Houston, Hans Matheson, James Fox, William Hope, Clive Russell

When watching Sherlock Holmes, remember that you are probably watching a film that will most probably win the Best Picture Oscar in 2010. That's because Sherlock Holmes has to be 2009's best movie so far. Heck, I would even say that it is the best movie to have come out in the last five years.

It is the kind of film that starts off as a curiosity as you wonder how differently can Holmes be portrayed other than wearing a deer stalker hat, wearing a tartany cloak and, possibly, smoking a pipe. The truth is, initially, anyway, Basil Rathbone's traditional portrayal of Holmes from ages ago still seems definitive and sticks in most people's mind. But then you quickly become enthralled by THIS reimagining of the Victorian Holmes as delivered by -- of all people (I was surprised to find out, anyway) -- Guy Ritchie!

The acting is smart, the script is sharp, the direction is aces and the soundtrack that chases each scene in the film is SO very funky that your sense of delight will be switched on throughout this most excellent film!

The film tells the tale of Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) -- a character created by Scottish doctor-writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) -- solving the case of magic and mystery involving the sinister Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), who is part of a delusional secret society which practices the black arts. Lord Blackwood, like all his fellow megalomaniac cinematic villains, has a keen eye on world domination and he uses trickery to manipulate the weak minded masses (you know, supposed sacrifical offerings, rising from the dead and the like) and comes very close to achieving his dastardly dreams.

Luckily for us, Holmes is on our side. The combination of our heroic detective's keen sense of observation and deduction AND the able assistance of his good friend Dr John Watson (Jude Law), overcome and foil Blackwood's plans, causing the latter to be apprehended and hanged.

But HANG on a minute indeed! As news of Blackwood's rising from the dead spreads and people fear his great powers, Holmes dives headlong into the secret world of research that Blackwood had commissioned and undoes (or rather, explains to the audience) the so-called magic as nothing more than science. If our beloved Gil Grissom from television's CSI had an English forefather, then you can bet that it would have been this particular Holmes!

A movie is nothing without good actors and what really makes Sherlock Holmes fly as a movie is Downey's performance. There's absolutely nothing down-ny about this superb actor's portrayal of the supersleuth. He carries this movie on his strong able shoulders with equal measures of a rascally disdain for propriety, manly callousness and machismo.

Downey's Holmes is very alert to the world he lives in and at the same time very bored with it. He thrives on challenges and lives for it. There's a recklessness to his character that could only come from Downey's real life drug-and-drink excesses. The actor is anything but a bore and he most definitely has character!

The witty lines are superbly delivered. Downey's expressions are also rich and priceless. Despite the films masterly use of stunts and special effects, if anyone deserves a Best Actor Oscar this year, it has to be Downey!

Jude Law, who is absolutely not leading man material at all as all his previous films have made obvious, is surprisingly effective as Holmes' good friend and confidante, Dr Watson. They share a believable bond of friendship and a fondness for one another. Their banter, willingness to protect one another and "addiction" to danger is infectious. Theirs is a friendship that promises to endure through many more sequels. (Hint: Moriarty is sinisterly introduced in this movie with a sequel in mind!)

Into this manly mix of things, we find two rather interesting women. There's the spunky Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) who is as wily, rascally and off-the-straight-and-narrow-path as Holmes, her lover, is. Their attraction towards one another is beguiling and the way they foil one another is delightful. At Dr Watson's side is Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), who is a trustworthy and strong woman. The women match their men equally, in Ritchie's imagining of the Victorian universe. The characters appeal to our modern sensibilities of justice, right, wrong and equality are spot on.

Scattered throughout the film are also highly watchable characters like Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan). Everyone, it appears, is working with a certain level of intelligence.

As for Guy Ritchie. One can only say that it is good that he is rid of that trampy Madonna as a wife. It looks like this man-solo is revitalised as a director, as you can clearly see here. His direction in Sherlock Holmes is tight, the look sexy and the pacing riveting! His eye for details is nothing short of impeccable. Magic moments that everyone will remember surely must be Ritchie's cinematic reconstruction of how Holmes' mind works: the way in which Holmes works out his sequence of actions when confronted by a foe.

If Ritchie's earlier "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" (1998) and 2000's "Snatch" both seemed gimmicky and came across as trying-a-bit-too-hard to win him respect as a filmmaker, then, you can safely say that the man has indeed arrived as an ace director with Sherlock Holmes.

If there is one movie that you just simply have to see in this brand new year, then make it Sherlock Holmes. It will take your breath away in the most satisfying manner!