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Highland Fling For Young Girls
"Brave" is basically a mother-daughter tale set in the Scottish Highlands and spiced with mirth, myth and magic. It is suitably action-packed and centred around a young red-haired heroine that most of today's young girls can relate with. However, its magical elements tend to run away with the story and leave older viewers dissatisfied.

The heroine is Merida (Kelly MacDonald), a skilled archer and impetuous daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Determined to carve her own path in life, Merida defies an age-old suitor custom sacred to the uproarious lords of the land: the massive Lord MacGuffin (Kevin McKidd), surly Lord Macintosh (Craig Ferguson) and cantankerous Lord Dingwall (Robbie Coltrane). Merida's actions inadvertently unleash chaos and fury in the kingdom, and when she turns to an eccentric old Witch (Julie Walters) for help, she is granted an ill-fated wish. The ensuing peril forces Merida to discover the meaning of true bravery in order to undo a beastly curse before it's too late.

The first half of "Brave" is suitably absorbing, fleshing out the characters and personalities, especially of Merida and her mother who are the strongest individuals in conflict against each other. The others in the cast, especially the males, are mostly presented as caricatures, with all of them behaving like buffoons. The free-spirited Merida will not take her pick of them as her suitor - despite Queen Elinor's attempts to bend her daughter's will to the dictates of custom and tradition.

The story gets a bit weirder in the second half when it takes on a body-switch twist. From this point on, the battle of wills between mother and daughter is all but put aside as our attention turns to Merida's new crisis. Some reviewers have attributed the movie's lack of plot coherence to the fact that story creator Brenda Chapman left the project midway, leaving Mark Andrews to maintain the directorial reins. I wish to stay neutral on this debate.

However, I get the feeling that the plot is missing something when we consider that Merida, in pursuing her right to be 'liberated' rejects all suitors, but leaves her future and that of her 'kingdom' unresolved. Verdict: Not as memorable as "Finding Nemo" and "Up", but entertaining for the kids, nonetheless. (Full review at

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Absurd Revisionist Fantasy
From the title, it is obvious that this is NOT the Abe Lincoln that we know from the history books. The curiosity factors aroused by this film, directed by Timur Bekmambetov of "Wanted" {2008} and "Daywatch" {2006} fame, are how creatively the film-makers 'bastardise' American history, and the set action pieces that Bekmambetov and his crew have set up. The answer: They are impressive but a bit ludicrous. Adapted from the book by Seth Grahame-Smith (who also wrote the screenplay), the film chronicles the loss of Abe's mother (Robin MacLeavy) at the hands of a vampire when Abe is still a child. This serves as the motivating factor for Abe's (Benjamin Walker) subsequent vampire hunting mission and his burgeoning career as a lawyer and politician to, finally, his Presidency during the Civil War. Along the way, he kills countless bloodsuckers led by the vile and vicious Adam (Rufus Sewell) as part of his secret war against the undead. The movie is obviously a mix of biopic and horror flick but it fails at both, and ends up being an expensive action film. This is evident in the story which has Abe wielding an ax against the marauding vampires instead of guns with silver bullets. With the ax, we get blood splashes and dramatic combat action - the sort of targets Bekmambetov usually aims for. Still, two of his set pieces stand out: a rodeo-styled chase during a horse stampede, and a climactic fight on a runaway train speeding across a burning bridge. I am not really a fan of the main vampire plot which borders on the ridiculous but Grahame-Smith provides a few interesting and absorbing subplots, namely the relationship between Abe and his wife Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). There is chemistry between Walker and Winstead that makes us care about and believe in this absurd version of the First Couple. Also, Walker, who looks like a young Liam Neeson (he has played the younger version of Neeson's title character in Kinsey), exudes the simple and honest charm one normally associates with Abe Lincoln. Hence, bravo to the casting department. One the minus side, the anti-slavery subplot and his rise to the Presidency are given the short shrift; and the man-vs-vampire clashes are so absurd that we are constantly reminded that this is revisionist pulp fiction trying to get on the bandwagon of "Twilight"'s popularity.

Snow White and the Huntsman

Derivative, Overstreteched But Still Watchable
We have two Snow White offerings this year but the two turn out to be as different as day and night. While "Mirror Mirror" is a comedy spoof aimed at families, "Snow White and The Huntsman" is a darker fantasy for young adults, sans the adult-type visuals and humor.

Director Rupert Sanders, making his feature debut on a screenplay by Evan Daugherty and John Lee Hancock, maintains a murky and gritty narrative that stretches over more than two bottom-numbing hours. Yes, it's somewhat like taking the Grimm tale into "Game Of Thrones" territory, complete with lofty cliffs and expansive snowy locales.

This alternate version set in medieval Europe has a witch named Ravenna (Charlize Theron) as the evil stepmother who kills the king on their wedding night, seizes the throne and imprisons Snow White (Kristen Stewart) in a tower dungeon. Somehow, Snow White manages to escape not to the woods but to the Dark Forest where the queen's magic has no effect.

To get Snow White back, the queen and her beloved brother (Sam Spruell) 'hire' a nameless Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to track her down. Meanwhile, Snow White's former childhood playmate (Sam Clafin as William) is also looking for her, setting up the love triangle that Stewart of the "Twilight Saga" is now so famous for. What about the Dwarfs? you ask. Well, they come in rather late in the movie - and none are whistling while they work. They do sing, surprisingly.

On the plus side, I like the breath-taking landscapes and fantasy sets that remind us of those in "Lord Of The Rings" and "Princess Mononoke". These help to ground the fantasy with a touch of credulity besides enhancing the movie's eye-candy value. Ditto that for the fabulous costumes by Colleen Atwood.

I also like the way the dwarfs (eight here, not the usual seven) are being portrayed by top British stars the likes of Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Johnny Harris, Brian Gleeson and Toby Jones who are computer-digitized to look half their size. They provide comic relief and a touch of rough humor in an otherwise solemn and brooding film.

As for the minuses, the most outstanding is Kristen Stewart whose range of expressions alternates between pouting petulance and silent rage. In other words, she is still playing Bella Swan here. Well, one can easily argue that her Snow White probably gets that attitude after being shut up in the dungeon for so many years. I am inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt, having seen her play the audacious teen rocker Joan Jett in "The Runaways". I believe she can act better if directed to do so. Theron is good although she tends to overact, bursting into her evil rages ever so often; and Hemsworth provides the beefcake moments.

My other gripe is the overstretched length of the film in which the film-makers try their utmost to provide character psycho-analyses for the evil Queen and even the Huntsman. This is quite unnecessary in a popular fairy tale and it just cramps the movie with too much baggage. All in all, it is a derivative but highly watchable fare. Full review and pictures at

Men in Black 3

A Bit Outdated But MiB3 Is Still Fun
Well, whaddaya know, the "MiB" have gone MiA for 10 years already! No wonder many of us have forgotten about them as Men In Cape and Bodysuits (aka The Avengers, Batman, Spider-Man, et al) have been hogging the cinemas while the "Men In Black" go missing-in-action. No matter, they are still a barrel of fun in this three-quel that comes as more of a surprise than a treat that we have been waiting for.

And with Barry Sonnenfeld back at the helm of this troubled and delayed US$215-million production, it is a nostalgic film in more ways than one.

Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones reprise their roles as agents J and K of the secret Men in Black organization that monitors alien activity on Earth. The 'odd-couple' have their work cut out for them when extra-terrestrial serial killer Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) escapes from his maximum security prison on the moon and travels back in time to kill K. Since only J remembers K's existence, it's up to him to venture through time, look for a young K (now played by Josh Brolin) and stop Boris from destroying the world once and for all.

I have never been a fan of time-travel plots and I still don't like them. However, the time-travel subplot here is just to provide the "Back To The Future" fantasy to the MiB franchise. The narrative, as well as the mood and tone of the movie, are light-hearted, fun and always on the outer limits of credibility. Again, it is nice to see how a deadpan face like Jones' can generate so much mirth. The Smith & Jones pairing is augmented by Brolin who gives a good representation of how K would be in the Sixties, with most of the sequences accompanied by popular Sixties hits on the soundtrack.

One of the staple jokes of the MiB series is the celebrity cameos that suggest alien origins. In MiB3, we have a 'twist' that suggests a certain pop art personality is an undercover MiB agent! Still, the mainstay of the MiB series is Rick Baker's creature designs and make-up rendered in 3D. The 'monster show' does not disappoint, especially that of a huge fish that attacks diners at a Chinese restaurant. Oh yes, there are also a couple of cool gadgets and vehicles like the giant wheel hoover-bikes used by Agents J and K. On the whole, Agents J and K still provide the 'L'. -

Dark Shadows

Not his Best, but Burton is Still Entertaining
Back in 1966, decades before "True Blood", "Buffy" and "Angel", America had a supernatural TV series called "Dark Shadows". This series, which ran up to 1971, was centred on Barnabas Collins, a 200-year-old vampire played by Jonathan Frid (who died after this movie was filmed). Curiously, this campy series had such an influence on director Tim Burton and Johnny Depp that they decided to make a modern version of it.

The result is this lavish production that has Depp playing Barnabas Collins as a 200-year-old vampire who wakes up in 1972 and is forced to navigate an era of hippies, pot, disco and free love. With its clock set in the Seventies, I suspect the movie will resonate better with the older viewers than the youngsters.

A voice-over prologue relates how the Collins family moved from decadent Liverpool to Maine, in the New World, circa 1795. The family set up a fishing industry in a town named after themselves: Collinwood. Just when the future seemed bright for Barnabas (Depp), a love triangle involving a witch (Eva Green as Angelique), and Barnabas' girlfriend Josette (Bella Heathcote) turned tragic - sending Josette to her watery grave and turning Barnabas into a vampire. Angelique then set the townsfolk on Barnabas who was captured and buried alive.

Fast-forward to 1972 and we find young Victoria Winters (Heathcote, again) arriving at Collinwood Mansion to take up a position as governess to David Collins (Gully McGrath), nephew of matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer). Also staying at the mansion are Elizabeth's brother, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller); her impudent teen daughter, Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz) and child psychiatrist Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter). Meanwhile, construction workers unearth Barnabas' coffin and resurrects him...

"Dark Shadows" is certainly not among the best of Burton's films and neither is it among Depp's greatest efforts. However, the weird and offbeat Burtonesque ambiance and tone are evident and coupled with notable performances by the cast, it is an entertaining effort. The gags that sent our preview audience into laughter and guffaws involve Barnabas' view of the 'modern' world of the Seventies. The vampire is intrigued by lava lamps and the songs of Karen Carpenter, whom he thinks also deals in woodwork. And yes, he also thinks Alice Cooper is the ugliest woman he has ever seen.

Burton puts the Seventies hit songs to good use, evoking nostalgia and a sense of campiness among the audience. One of the pleasures of watching a Burton movie is seeing Depp in his deadpan, tongue-in-cheek role, setting a jocular mood to the proceedings. His violent love tryst with Eva Green's sexy Angelique is a highlight of the movie.

Another delight is Chloe Moretz who delivers some of the juiciest lines. Among the flaws are Barnabas' inconsistent reactions to sunlight and other vampire clichés which I prefer to overlook. Overall, a nice change from the "Twilight" offerings. (Full review and pictures at

The Avengers

Definitely A Masterpiece by Joss Whedon
This is one of the most awaited movies of all time - and for the legions of fans in Asia, the wait is going to be over soon. For those who have not yet booked their tickets, I suggest that they do so, preferably at the IMAX cineplex where the action in 3D can be overwhelming.

I must say I was a bit skeptical that writer-director Joss Whedon (creator of TV's "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" and "Angel") can pull off this six-in-one superhero flick. Will it be like assembling six major egos in a small room - and cramming their style? With the plot of 'six against one (Loki)', wouldn't that be overkill and unfair advantage? Will the storyline/plot measure up to the CGI and effects that take up a major part of its US$220 million budget? Will this Disney effort follow in the heels of John Carter and go downhill? All these doubts are dashed after 20 minutes into the movie - when we find Earth being threatened by demi-god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the head of S.H.I.E.L.D (for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division) starts The Avenger Initiative. From here on, it is pure, Marvelous fanboy entertainment of the supreme order! You can bet this one is going to put Whedon among the ranks of top directors like Spielberg and Cameron.

Those who have seen Captain America last year may remember the Tesseract, the all-powerful energy cube found at the bottom of the ocean. Loki, the megalomaniacal brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) manages to get his hands on it and plans to use it to summon his army of outer space warriors to take over the world.

To stop him, Fury and his assistant Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) assemble the various 'superheroes' on his massive 'helicarrier' in preparation for war against Loki's forces. These include Steve Rogers' Captain America (Chris Evans), Tony Stark's Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Dr Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Thor. Special agent Clint Barton, or Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) makes up the sixth member a bit later when Manhattan is being bombarded by outer space monsters.

The climactic battle takes up almost all of the final half-hour but the whole movie is absorbing enough, thanks to a cleverly written script that incorporates a fine balance of sincerity and self-effacing wit. Indeed, before the Avengers battle the alien invaders, they fight one another, both physically and verbally. Like, Iron Man's quips when he first meets Thor: "What's this, Shakespeare in the park?" and "Does your mother know you're wearing her drapes?" Indeed, the punchlines are more powerful - and memorable - than the real punches.

Whedon does not waste time re-introducing his characters. We are already familiar with Iron Man, Captain America and Thor. The physical talents of Scar-Jo's Black Widow are 'introduced' in an interrogation scene where she later beats the brains out of her interrogators while she puts her boss Agent Coulson on hold.

I have always wondered how Mark Ruffalo will fare as the Hulk - and I am surprised he almost ran away with the show. His Dr Banner is a mellow guy hiding out in India before being 'persuaded' by Natasha to join The Avengers. On board Fury's helicarrier, we can see him doing his utmost to keep his temper in check - "you must have been doing a lot of yoga" someone jokes. And yes, when The Hulk emerges, it is really Incredible. Also watch out for Marvel Comics' Stan Lee who gets a self-effacing one-liner during the action scenes.

One of the 'misses' of this film is that Natalie Portman's Jane is left out of Thor's story - except for a picture. This is in contrast to Stark's relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) which takes up quite a few scenes. And even though he has to face-off against six superheroes, Hiddleston's Loki is formidable and menacing enough as the arch villain. Of course, Jackson finally has a proper role here after cameos in the previous Iron Man and Captain America films.

It really isn't about whether you're going to catch "The Avengers"; it's how many times you will want to see it.


Attack of the Alien Yo-yos, Actually
"BATTLESHIP" opens with an introduction to Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch aka 'John Carter'), a brash young man who pulls all sorts of stunts without thinking first. This is especially so when he wants to impress a pretty lass named Samantha (Brooklyn Decker) who happens to be the daughter of US Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson). To get him out of trouble, his brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgard) enlists him into the US Navy - where his reckless behaviour gets him into even more trouble.

In real life, Alex would be deemed a regular jackass but to Hollywood script-writers, he has all the qualifications of the 'reluctant hero' in their action fantasies. This 'heroic turnaround' happens during a huge naval exercise in Hawaii when critters from a distant planet attack Earth with much superior weapons. Teaming up with other unlikely heroes like Petty Officer Cora Raikes (Rihanna), Capt Nagata (Tadanobu Asano) and crew mate Ordy (Jesse Plemons), Lt Hopper puts all his skills to the test to save the world! The action set pieces here are not as awesome as last year's "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" but the early scenes of crashing buildings and exploding battleships are convincing enough to put the point across that the world is being invaded. Director Peter Berg heightens the excitement by showing the point-of-view of the aliens as they prepare to shoot - and the 'flying yo-yo' weapons of the aliens produce extensive destruction for maximum visual impact.

Berg rightly anchors the story on its characters, providing humorous glimpses of how some people react to the alien threat. Of course, we get the feeling that we are missing the 'big picture' because the action is concentrated only on a handful of individuals. We don't get to see how others are affected by the massive destruction elsewhere. These are just mentioned on the TV news.

It is interesting that Kitsch is starring in two of this year's most expensive movies: John Carter (at US$250 million) and Battleship ($200 million). However, unlike John Carter, Kitsch has a better and more developed role here. His Alex is a bit of a caricature - and Kitsch plays him with the requisite touch of humor. Neeson provides the 'veteran thespian' stature to the proceedings as the no-nonsense Admiral while Decker has the eye-candy role even if she is not as sexily decked out as Rosie Huntington-Whiteley in "Transformers: Dark Of The Moon".

Singer Rihanna is unimpressive as Raikes - a role similar to Michele Rodriguez's Trudy in "Avatar". Maybe she does not have good lines - but then most of the dialogue here are sloppy. Also, in order to enjoy the action, we have to overlook the numerous plot holes and suspend disbelief a great deal, especially near the end where we are to accept that a famous 70-year-old battleship can be recommissioned to do heavy battle in just a matter of hours.

THE VERDICT: Hey, everything up on the screen is silly, but "Battleship" is guilty fun and the effects are awesome! Now, will you pass the popcorn, please? Full review at

John Carter

Highly Ambitious But Ultimately Disappointing
Every once in a while, we get a movie that makes everyone in the film industry sit up and take notice. This time around, it is "John Carter", Disney's US$250 million effort that has been causing one controversy after another - including rumours of costs overruns and poor marketing. At US$250, it is arguably one of the Top Five Most Expensive films to date (after "Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End", "Tangled", "Spider-Man 3" and "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"). As a non-franchise film, it is sure testing the box-office waters with lots of fingers crossed. I will even call it Disney's biggest gamble of the year.

After sitting through its media screening at the Sunway Pyramid TGV Imax cineplex in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, I am doubtful that it will be as hot a hit as the above-mentioned expensive blockbusters. It is likely to open with a big bang (probably over US$50 million at US box-office) before word-of-mouth takes it to the back-burner where it takes a longer time to recoup its costs. On the other hand, it may go the way of "The Green Lantern", last year's flop.

Based on "A Princess of Mars", the first of Edgar Rice Burroughs' 11-volume Barsoom novels, this is the story of war-weary, former US Calvary captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) whose search for a cave of gold inexplicably transports him to Mars where he becomes embroiled in an epic conflict amongst the planet's inhabitants. Basically, there are main three 'races' involved in the Martian civil war - the greenish, four-handed and tusked giants called Tharks; the humanoid Zodangas, and the Roman-attired Heliumites.

To complicate matters is a group of shape-changing beings called Therns who manipulate the war for their own ends. The Therns give Zodanga's ruler, Sab Than (Dominic West) a powerful weapon known as the Ninth Ray, forcing the Helium king Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds) to offer his daughter Dejah Thoris' (Lynn Collins) hand in marriage to the brutish Sab Than. Dejah, of course, is not keen on this marriage of convenience and she escapes and meets JC.

Burroughs' John Carter tales pre-date those of Tarzan. Here, in this 'origin movie', Burroughs (played by Daryl Sabara) is shown as John Carter's nephew and heir who arrives at Carter's English mansion to sort out some matters. This device gives the narrative an extra dimension that should boost its credibility. However, as a fantasy film, credibility is the least of the its problems.

The Barsoom (or Martian) sequences are visually spectacular (especially in IMAX 3D), reminding us of the exotic locales of Star Wars and even Avatar's Pandora. The six-limbed Tharks are a sight to behold although we can hardly differentiate the males from the females. However, these sequences are emotionally barren and un-involving. Who do we root for when the Martians battle one another in fancy winged air-ships? Director Andrew Stanton (who gave us "WALL-E" and "Finding Nemo") throws us into the swashbuckling action without prepping us with some plot build-up. But then, even the climactic battle is a blur of clashes because it is difficult to tell the Zodangas from the Heliumites.

The plot about Barsoom's civil strife is familiar, outdated and overtaken by other sci-fi tales (especially so since Burroughs' novels are a hundred years old). The massive budget has allowed Stanton to put emphasis on the creatures and sets but the narrative has not been improved to make Burroughs adventure more cohesive. While some events on Barsoom appear complicated and confusing, others look derivative of "Star Wars" and "Dune". There are few attempts at humor - the most obvious is by Woola, the ugly-cute Martian dog that is JC's sidekick. It provides the few laughs in the movie and should be the favorite character of kids in the audience.

The muscular Kitsch is energetic and handsome as the title hero known in Barsoom for his gravity-defying leaps. However, he lacks chemistry with Collins' Dejah Thoris and their romance seems implied and rushed. Collins, on the other hand, is solid as the feisty princess with both beauty and brains. She dominates the screen whenever she appears. Without its massive budget concern, "John Carter" would have been a passable sci-fi swashbuckler. With it, the off-cinema drama tends to be more interesting than the movie.

Dung sing sai tsau 2011

It's Not Comedy, It's Trash!
One thing that comes to mind after 10 minutes of this movie is: What the hell were the people smoking when they did this gad-awful trash of a movie? Jeff Lau's "East Meets West" is apparently an attempt at spoofing the Hong Kong music industry and a host of popular Cantonese comedies. However, it ends up making a sorry ass of itself.

It boggles the mind how so many famous and talented stars are involved in crazy cinematic circus.

The synopsis provided in the Production Notes is as follows: "Ten thousand years ago eight gods fought incessantly, not realizing that by doing so they were securing their own demotion into the secular world. They can only return to heaven once they can get along with each other harmoniously. Ten thousand years later a stereotypical Hong Kong girl Zhong Xiaoming, and her smart father Ah B, have no idea why they are being chased up for a debt. Having no alternative, they flee to Guangdong to search for the girl's unreliable mother Jia Jia to find out the reason. From antiquity to the present, East and West, dance and flight, a pleasantly surprising cast, magnificent and happy, no great disparity between rich and poor, success and prosperity!" It is a huge put-off to see characters dressed outrageously and acting like idiots even if they are gods incarnate. There is absolutely no emotional connection between the cast with the audience and for the most part we don't know what is happening or why. Is the sight of Kenny Bee in Beatles or Elvis hairstyle funny? No one laughed or even sniggered at the media screening I attended. Will anyone laugh at Ekin Cheng covered in flour and communicating in sign language? Again, no one found it funny enough to laugh.

Besides the iconic hairstyles, the cast also don ridiculous eyeglasses and weird wigs and make-up. The big-name cast, especially Karen Mok, are largely wasted in a movie that largely requires them to make a fool of themselves. Mok is supposed to be playing a woman who yearns for love and affection but is too shy to show it. However, she appears to be just clowning around in a meaningless role. Jaycee Chan has a cameo ostensibly to make fun of his father Jackie. Kenny Bee just looks lost throughout the movie while Ekin Cheng just look pathetic. (Full review at

Seeking Justice

One of Nic Cage's Better FIlms
Dogged by box-office flops over the past few years, Nic Cage's jinx seems to cast a pall over this suspense thriller. For one, the film is opening in Asia before North America. Next, the title, revised from 'The Hungry Rabbit Jumps', sounds rather mundane, but this is definitely one of Cage's better films and it certainly benefits from his performance. The problem with this movie lies in its script. Set in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, "Seeking Justice" has an interesting premise. However, director Roger Donaldson fails to explore it fully - and opts for more melodramatic but semi-relevant conclusion. Cage plays Nick Gerard, a school teacher and a loving husband to Laura (January Jones). He spends his evenings playing chess with his colleague Jimmy (Harold Perrineau) while Laura rehearses her part in an orchestra. This routine changes when Laura is brutally raped one night. At the hospital, as Nick agonizes over his wife's assault, a man who calls himself Simon (Guy Pearce) approaches him with an offer to deal with his wife's rapist in the way that the police and the justice system cannot. In return, he has to do some 'favours' for the group that Simon represents. Initially, Nick is appalled by the idea of vigilante justice. However, when he sees what the rapist has done to Laura's spirit, he agrees. Indeed, Nick is glad that the rape trauma is finally over... but his nightmare is just starting! I am glad that this one does not play like an updated version of "Death Wish" or "Taken". Seeking Justice is more complex and complicated than those flicks - before the plot gets sidetracked after the second half, that is. Cage and Jones are highly creditable for their roles as an ordinary couple trapped in extraordinary circumstances and situations. And it is easy to sympathize with them, especially with Cage's Nick as he grapples with the problem of shaking off from the shackles of Simon's vigilante group. Jones's Laura seems to have been dismissed rather early in the movie. Donaldson would not delve into the after-effects of her trauma, opting to concentrate on Nick instead. Jennifer Carpenter (of TV's "Dexter" fame) is also underused as Laura's best friend, while Pearce is suitable enigmatic and menacing as Sam, a role he can play in his sleep. Another thing I like about Donaldson's directing is his allusions to Hurricane Katrina, comparing its devastation of the city to the psychological assault faced by Nick and Laura. The movie claims that after Katrina, New Orleans folk have taken it upon themselves to keep the city safe, doing whatever it takes. However, Donaldson and writer Todd Hickey fail to explain how the city-wide vigilante scheme works, and they leave gaping holes in the narrative.

Nasi Lemak 2.0

Messy Comedy with a Few Gems
For Malaysians of all races, "Nasi Lemak 2.0" has a built-in lure. Its film-maker and rapper, Wee Chee Meng (better known as Namewee) has attained such notoriety on YouTube and in the news (for various offences which I don't care to mention here) that his name has become synonymous with rebelliousness and subversiveness.

If anything, the public would want to know what he's up to this time around with this movie called "Nasi Lemak 2.0". Is he going to make an ass of himself again? Or make asses out of his cast? But wait, the so-called '1-Malaysia comedy', reportedly made on a shoe-string RM1-million budget, has grossed RM7 million at the local box-office! That should raise a lot of eyebrows, especially of people like me who consider this production a low-brow comedy. Of course, the clamour by a group for the movie to be banned must have given a new boost to its takings.

Namewee plays Chef Huang, a young cook who sets out with his new-found friend Xiao K (Karen Kong) to find the ingredients and make the best nasi lemak in the country. In his quest, he meets up with various local celebs like Datuk David Arumugam, Afdlin Shauki, Reshmonu and Kenny and Chee, and learn what being in a multi-racial country like Malaysia is all about - besides how to make good sambal and curry, of course.

The movie, mostly in Mandarin and local Chinese dialects, looks like it has been rewritten from Stephen Chow Sing-chi's 'mo-lei-tau' (or nonsense) comedies, especially the 1996 "God Of Cookery". Having Karen Kong made up in such clownish-looking eyebrows and spectacles reminds us of the Smoking Landlady (Yuen Qiu) in Chow's Kungfu Hustle, except that Karen Kong's Xiao K just looks silly and not funny. Ditto that for most of the so-called comic sequences in the movie.

The narrative is illogical and messy but in the absurdist sequences can be found a few comic gems. The main plot about the quest for the best nasi lemak recipes is really the 'side dish'. The real garnishings are those little gestures, the song and dance numbers, and visuals that take a swipe at Malaysian culture, society and politics. Examples of these are a kris-wielding scene reminiscent of the exploits of an Umno personality; the famous "looks like me, sounds like me, but is not me" quote refuting a video-clip; and allusions to other Malaysian politicians.

I would like to think that Namewee had fun as the 'hero' in this movie, but his efforts are too self-indulgent and crude to be hilarious. Again, he opts to use obscenities, naming his characters Lan Qiao (colloquial for 'penis') and Gong See Fatt, and idiotic situations that make us cringe rather than laugh. However, his use of local celebs, like Adibah Noor, Afdlin Shauki, David Arumugam, Patrick Teoh and Kenny & Chee help to spark and sustain audience interest in the plot. As director, he seems to have allowed his 'guest stars' to run loose and do whatever they want with their cameos. Let's hope Namewee learns from his flaws and not wallow in its RM7-million gross.

The Adventures of Tintin

Spielberg Does It Again!
When I was a teenager, my favourite comic books were "Asterix" and "The Adventures of Tintin" by Herge. You can guess my excitement and anticipation when I learnt that titans Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson were collaborating to bring Tintin to life on the big screen. However, when I saw the trailers for "The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of The Unicorn", I was a bit apprehensive.

Will they capture the spirit of discovery and adventure of the young Belgian reporter? Can they flesh out the many wonderful characters of the comic books? The trailers weren't that impressive. Well, just after 10 minutes into the media screening last Friday, my fears were dashed - and I was transported back to my childhood again! The movie contains elements from three of Tintin's adventures: "The Secret of the Unicorn" (published in 1945), with some parts of "The Crab With the Golden Claws" (1943), and a bit from "Red Rackham's Treasure" (also 1945). It opens with Tintin (voice of Jamie Bell) buying a model of an old ship called the Unicorn at an outdoor market in an unnamed European city. As soon as he pays for it, two other guys come along to try and buy the ship too! They are a sinister-looking Sakharine (Daniel Craig) and an American named Barnaby (Joe Starr).

Expectedly, Tintin refuses to sell, and he soon discovers that the model ship contains vital clues to hidden treasure involving a Capt. Archibald Haddock (Andy Serkis). The ensuing adventure takes Tintin, Haddock and the boy's faithful dog Snowy over the seas to the Sahara and a fictional Moroccan city of Bagghar in search of hidden treasure.

For me, the most important part of the movie is its richly detailed retro charm that coloured Herge's comic strips of the early 20th Century (especially the pre-war years). Tintin and Snowy are rendered in the performance-capture shots exactly as they were in the comics and the ageless boy reporter seems to be a tad more mischievous than his comic book persona. Serkis' alcohol-loving Haddock looks so realistic that we mistake him for a live character.

Enhanced by 3D, CGI animation affords all sorts of 'impossible' action and stunts and Spielberg exploits this to the full with almost non-stop chases and spectacles. Tintin's chase of a thieving bird through the streets and rooftops of Bagghar is one of the most exhilarating chases I have come across in the cinema. Herge's brand of humour is reflected in the comic relief provided by Nick Frost and Simon Pegg as Interpol officers Thomson and Thompson, respectively. The gags are all very PG-type comic relief, and not hilariously funny.

Some Herge purists may argue that the movie lacks resonance and an emotional connection to its protagonist. That may be true but personally, I don't remember having much emotional connection to Tintin when I read the comic books. He was a young hero with whom I identified, that's all. Also, watch out for Spielberg's tribute to Herge in the opening scene at the open market. The legendary Belgian author is shown as a street artist who does a sketch of Tintin, looking like one of the original strips. Good for you, Spielberg. (Full review at

In Time

"In Time" Quickly Becomes a 'Waste of Time'
When film distributors slap an embargo on the reviews of critics, it usually means that the movie in question stinks so much that they don't want bad reviews to mar the movie's opening. This one was embargoed until the day it opened (Oct 26) - and you guessed it, it stinks. The premise, about time as currency, is flimsy at best - and it provokes more questions than answers.

The premise: It's the future and it's a world where time is literally being used as money. Aging somehow stops at 25, and the only way to stay alive is to earn, steal, or inherit more time. Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) lives from hand to mouth in a slum-like sector of the city, until a windfall of time gives him access to the world of the wealthy and powerful.

There, he meets beautiful young heiress Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried) and they team up to become a futuristic Bonnie & Clyde, despite being relentlessly pursued by a 'Timekeeper' cop (Cillian Murphy).

The sci-fi world where people stop aging at 25 - is novel and attractive, until you start thinking about the mechanics of it. One of the most disturbing is the LED timer embedded in the left hand of everyone. Is this timer embedded at birth? If so, it is curious how it stays on when the child grows up. What if the timer is discarded before the age of 25? Will the person die at once? People transfer time by clasping each other's hands and even in arm-wrestling. How does the exchange really work, especially in cases of robbery? These questions mar our acceptance of the movie's premise - and makes the whole idea trashy. And even if we can overlook this set-up, the main plot of Will and Sylvia robbing banks of their time and giving it away sounds so implausible that we feel cheated. Will has spent his whole life fighting for time and he has even lost his mother (played by Olivia Wilde as Rachel) because of just a few seconds. To see him squandering it in that Robin Hood manner is just bad writing and poor motivation.

Timberlake and Seyfried are acceptable in their Bonnie & Clyde roles, complete with a titillating underwater scene. Basically, they just need to look macho and sexy respectively, and they succeed in this. Murphy, as expected, shines in his portrayal of a 'time sheriff' where he is part villain and part hero! Thanks to him, there is at least an emotional side to the whole movie. Otherwise, it is a sheer waste of time. (Full review at

Na xie nian, wo men yi qi zhui de nu hai

Heart-warming coming-of-age movie for youths
There has been a clamour for this Taiwanese coming-of-age film among Chinese youth ever since it opened at the Hong Kong Summer International Film Festival in August this year. Indeed, Giddens Ko's directorial debut is based on his semi-autobiographical novel, "The Girl We Chased Together in Those Years" (its Mandarin title), which was a best-seller among online readers. Needless to say, "Apple" reigned at the Taiwan box office for more than a month, landing at second place on the nation's chart of all-time box office hits. For viewers young and old, it is a nostalgia trip to their carefree school days when hormones rage and hope abounds. The narration, by Ko Chen-Tung who plays Giddens (or Ching-Teng), starts off in 2005 when protagonist Ching-Teng is dressing up for a wedding. Next, it takes us back 10 years earlier (1995) to Ching-Teng's school days when he and his buddies, Boner (Yen Sheng-yu), Cock, Groin (Tsai Chang-hsien) and A-Ho (Steven Hao) are students of Ching-Cheng High, a backwater school in Changhua in central Taiwan. All these boys admire ace student Shen Chia-Yi (Michelle Chen) and many of them even have a crush on her. However, Chia-Yi is closest to Ching-Teng because she has been instructed by a teacher to tutor Ching-Teng in his studies and help him stay out of trouble. The two gradually fall in love but have to separate when they go to college. Staying apart, the couple face many challenges and temptations which threaten to tear them from each other... The school pranks and events are seen from Ching-Teng's point-of-view and he pulls no punches to show us what it is like during those heady and crazy days. We see the boys masturbating, disturbing girls and handling heartbreak and separation. One college scene explains why the boys jerk off with their left hand while watching online porn - the right is needed to move the mouse. We see how the girls have to put up with these pranks and crass jokes and somehow manage to hold their own. The best part of Giddens' direction is that we can easily identify with the protagonist and the lead cast. In any co-ed class, there will always be a beautiful bookworm like Chia-Yi whom all the boys will admire and even try to court; and there will be the resident sex maniac, the fat slob, and other weirdos. All these characters are credibly developed although there are some sequences, like Ching-Teng and his dad going naked in his house, that are not satisfactorily explained or rationalised. Another is Ching-Teng's refrain from intimacy with Chia-Yi even at intimate moments. And just as the boys have a crush on Michele Chen's Chia-Yi, we too are charmed by her. Chen is such a natural that her Chia-Yi reminds us of the girl-next-door, captivating our hearts especially in the scene where she is summarily punished with the boys for being disrespectful of the teacher. This is one movie from which you will leave the cineplex with a smile on your face and feeling warm in your heart.

Real Steel

'Real Steel' is Real Fun with Rocky Robots
THE BIG DEAL in this Disney movie set in the 2020s is robot-boxing. The idea is adapted from Richard Matheson's 1956 short story "Steel" previously shown on TV as an episode of "The Twilight Zone." Just think of "Rocky" being played by a robot and you are as close to what Real Steel is about as you can get. Besides the novelty of Robot Rocky, there is only the usual estranged dad-and-son storyline with a little uncanny romance thrown in. Considering that this is a Disney film, you can expect to have your heartstrings tugged - and other predictable stuff.

Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a has-been boxer who now travels the country promoting his tin-can fighter robot. He owes a lot of people money and he finds a way out of his predicament when he gets news that his ex-wife has died in an accident, and he must attend the custody hearing of his son Max (Dakota Goyo, who was last seen in "Thor"). Charlie practically "sells" his son off to his ex-wife's sister (Hope Davis) and her filthy-rich hubby (James Rebhorn) for adoption.

For the time being, however, Charlie is stuck with Max who also happens to be a fan of video games and robot boxing. Together, and with the help of Charlie's girlfriend Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), they patch up used robots for tournaments. When they come across an obsolete sparing 'bot named Atom, Max sees potential in it as an underdog droid capable of taking on the top robots in the Real Steel matches.

"Real Steel" holds thrills for boxing fans because the action is as gruelling and crunching as the human matches. Top that up with realistic-looking effects, we even feel for those boxing machines - just as we have felt for droids like R2D2 and C3PO in the "Star Wars" sagas. Among the human cast, Jackman is in top form as the debt-ridden hustler of a dad who finds a match in his own flesh-and-blood. Indeed, Goyo steals the show as the Dr Pepper-guzzling kid who is highly confident in himself and his abilities. Together, Jackman and Goyo exude fantastic screen chemistry.

Lilly (of TV's "Lost") provides the requisite feminine presence as Charlie's long-suffering girlfriend but the relationship poses some disturbing questions for viewers: like, what is a pretty girl like her doing, waiting for a loser like Charlie when she can have any guy she wants? And as can be expected, another winning performance comes from Atom the cute 'junkyard dog' that dances like a butterfly and takes heavy beatings without flinching. Another entertaining family treat from Disney. (Full review at

Bai she chuan shuo

It's Just a CGI feast with Jet Li In It!
This is another adaptation of the White Snake myth of forbidden love between humans and demons but the good news is that it is hyped up with so much CGI wizardry that it looks almost like an "Avatar" clone, complete with copious amounts of 'wire-fu'. However, the bad news is that director Tony Chin sees it fit to keep the film's IQ at kiddie level with talking mice and clownish rabbits.

What's more is that Jet Li, obviously the star attraction here, is caught in a difficult position, having to mouth silly lines and perform unintentionally funny stunts instead of actual kungfu.

Like in A Chinese Ghost Story, we have a tale of young herbalist Xu Xian (Raymond Lam) and a thousand-year-old snake demon (played by Eva Huang Shengyi). It all starts with an underwater kiss with which the sexy snake incarnate rescues the hapless young man from drowning. After that, she continues to pursue him, against the advice of her close friend Green Snake (Charlene Choi) - until he agrees to marry her.

The match is against the law of nature and sorcerer Fa Hai (Jet Li) of Jinshang temple has sworn to trap and slay all such demons before they wreak havoc on the villagers. Trouble is, the kind-hearted Xu Xian has befriended the sorcerer monk and slaying the White Snake would hurt her innocent hubby.

The spectacular opening sequences of a battle between Fa Hai and the Ice Witch (Vivian Hsu) gives us a taste of what is to come. One thing we can be sure of is that Tony Chin spares no expense over the sets and period setting that provide a deliciously rich fantasy just like those of Jame Cameron's "Avatar" and Tim Burton's "Alice In Wonderland". The animation is a bit tacky though, considering how far CGI has gone today.

Still, the make-or-break factor in any romance flick is the performance of its leads and here Eva Huang and Raymond Lam are not just a good-looking couple but they managed to look like young lovers. Juxtaposed against them are the ghoulish and comical relationship between Charlene Choi's Green Snake and Wen Zhang's novie monk Nen Reng who gets 'converted' to the other side early in the movie. Other stars to look out for include Chapman To, Miriam Yeung and Lam Suet who seem to be having fun playing childish farmyard characters like chickens and rabbits. Nothing to be excited with this CGI extravaganza with Jet Li in it. (

Dream House

This Sheridan Thriller is for the Thinking Viewer
Editor and author Will Atenton (Daniel Craig) quits a high power job in Manhattan to relocate with his wife, Libby (Rachel Weisz), and two girls to a quaint New England town. However, as they settle into their new life, they discover that their house was the murder scene of a mother and her two children. Will tries to befriend his neighbour Ann Patterson (Naomi Watts) and find out from her what happened but she is not too eager to talk.

Meanwhile, Will's younger daughter starts seeing someone lurking outside the window at night. As Will pieces together the haunting puzzle, he must find out who murdered the family in his dream house before the culprit returns to kill again.

"Dream House" is not a suspense thriller that will jolt you with sudden loud music and cheap scares. Instead, it plays games with your mind, keeping you guessing about what's happening and making you sort out the plot yourself. Now, if you like your thrillers done this way, then go for it. If not, this one is going to be a nightmare...

Director Jim Sheridan's plot build-up is almost by-the-book and he makes no apology for it. The opening scenes show Will as a devoted father and loving husband. At first, his daughter's visions of a shadowy figure are dismissed quietly, but when Will gets physical evidence of someone lurking around, our curiosity heightens. Sheridan, who gave us "My Left Foot" and "In The Name of The Father", is not delivering this thriller to his audience in a platter. He just dishes out the cards and lets his audience sort them out - at least until the closing sequences.

At first, it feels rather weird to see beefcake Craig as a domesticated guy. However, there is a good chemistry between he and Weisz who also lends a loving and tender touch to the proceedings. The kids, played by Claire and Taylor Geare, are also convincing and adorable. It would have been great to see more of Naomi Watts but her role is rather limited - and she acquits herself professionally. Fans of Rachel G. Fox, the Scarvo girl in TV's Desperate Housewives, will find her in a cameo as Ann's daughter Chloe. All in all, a thriller for the thinking viewer.


ABS-olutely for fans of Taylor Lautner
If you are a female fan of the "Twilight" series, there is probably only one thing you need to know about this movie: yes, lead star Taylor Lautner takes off his shirt at the slightest excuse to show off those washboard abs.

For those who are not interested in Lautner, I am afraid there's ABSolutely nothing in "Abduction" for you - unless you like half-baked spy thrillers, lame acting and asinine script.

The plot is about high school student Nathan Price (Taylor Lautner) who stumbles upon an image of himself as a little boy on a missing persons website. He realises that his parents (Maria Bello and Jason Isaacs) are not his own and that his life is a lie. As Nathan starts to search for his true identity and his biological parents, he is being targeted by a team of rogue agents, forcing him to flee with his neighbor, Karen (Lily Collins). He begins to realize that his fabricated life is hiding a dangerous truth.

In writing this screenplay, I suspect that writers Shawn Christensen and Jeffrey Nachmanoff must have pieced together ideas from The Bourne Identity and the recent Hanna - and come out with this harebrained plot. But the truth could be that director John Singleton and the film-makers do not really care about the plot: they just want an excuse to show heart-throb Lautner and Collins on the run from some baddies (who included Swedish icon Michael Nyqvist of "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo") in order to film some action sequences.

Indeed, many films have gotten away with idiotic plots - provided they have stars that audiences could root for. Alas, Lautner seems incapable of having more than a couple of expressions and he can't act to save his life. Neither can Collins despite the strong support of veterans like Sigourney Weaver (as Nathan's shrink) and Alfred Molina (as a CIA exec). All through the first half, Singleton keeps the audience wondering why Nathan is being chased and in the second half, his aim is probably to keep them from walking out of the cineplex. ABS-olutely for Lautner fans. (

Johnny English Reborn

Mr Bean Plays Mr Spy for the Kids
We first met Johnny English in the 2003 spoof of British secret agent flicks like the James Bond series. Rowan Atkinson reprises his role in this sequel (which is not a reboot as the title suggests). If you have seen the 2003 film, you will realise that Johnny English is nothing more than TV's "Mr Bean" in a bow-tie, playing an idiotic version of Bond, James Bond.

In "Reborn", it is no different. You get recycled Bean-type gags and you can see how the plot twists and turns a mile away.

Since his screw-up (or "Balls-Up" as the British tabloids said) in the first movie, MI-7 spy Johnny English (Atkinson) has been virtually in exile - in a Tibetan monastery where he is honing his martial arts skills not unlike Poh in Kungfu Panda. But not for long, though.

When MI-7 chief Pamela Thornton (Gillian Anderson) learns of an attempt against the Chinese premier's life, she somehow resorts to bringing English back into action. Now, English must employ the latest in the usual array of hi-tech gadgets to unravel a web of conspiracy that permeates the KGB, CIA and even MI-7. He has a young sidekick in Agent Tucker (Daniel Kaluuva) and some technical help from behaviour expert Kate Summer (Rosamund Pike) but at the back of your mind, you know that no matter how he screws up, he's going to end up resolving the case. Unless, of course, you have just been introduced to spy spoofs.

To the newcomer, Atkinson's Mr Bean may be ludicrously hilarious. Children, especially, are attracted to his Bumbling Briton character. However, after a season or two of Mr Bean, most people will him overly slapstick and contemptuous. Worse, the gags get very predictable. And this is how it is with "Johnny English Reborn". All we see is Atkinson as Mr Bean playing a fumbling spy. Many of the opening gags are laughable, especially those dealing with his kungfu training. However, the laughs and the fun fade when we are faced with an inane assassination plot. If we compare this with Mike Myers' "Austin Powers" we would find this one a bit more childish.

Most of the good gags are already shown in the trailers and Atkinson's clownish agent does not endear himself to the audience. The others, however, fare better. Rosamund Pike and Gillian Anderson are a welcome sight, counter-playing Atkin's silliness, and it is nice to see Richard Schiff (of TV's "West Wing" fame) in a cameo. Another star to watch out for is Kaluuva who supports Atkinson solidly as as the bugged-eyed Agent Tucker. This sequel is for those who just can't get enough of "Mr Bean".

Da wu sheng

Beautiful sets and location but slipshod storytelling
Gao Xiaosong's "My Kingdom" is set in the 'glamorous' world of Chinese opera, with the main part of it based in the tumultuous period of 1920s Shanghai. With Sammo Hung touted as action director, many would expect hot kungfu action - and many would be disappointed. There is a mixture of genres here, part costume drama, part soap opera, part kungfu flick and with a touch of romance. Those who like twists and turns in the plot would like the second half where the vengeance plot starts to unravel.

The film opens at the end of the 19th Century, when the Prince Regent of the crumbling Qing Dynasty orders the beheading of the entire Meng clan. Awaiting execution, a five-year-old Meng boy named Er-kui sings an aria. Deeply moved, opera Master Yu Shengying (Yuan Biao) and his seven-year-old pupil Guan Yi-long rescue the boy and the two orphans become as close as brothers. Yu, who wins a coveted golden plaque from the Prince Regent, is challenged to a duel by a Shanghai rival, Yue Jiangtian (Yu Rongguang). He loses and is forced to retire.

Master Yu trains the boys as warriors in the Peking opera and when they 'graduate' Yi-long (now played by Wu Chun) and Er-kui (Han Geng) move to Shanghai to reclaim the coveted plaque from Yue, who, together with his co-star Xi Mu-lan (Barbie Hsu), operate an opera show in the British concession of Shanghai.

Many important scenes are left to our imagination. Er-Kui's rescue at the opening and his revenge sequences are done in super quick cuts. Actually the 'rescue' scene is non-existent while the revenge scenes are shown in a series of flying dagger shots followed by newspaper reports announcing the murders. The characters are so poorly defined and portrayed that they appear like caricatures. On the opera stage, the main cast of Wu Chun, Han Geng and Barbie Hsu may get away with unconvincing performances, but not when they are offstage.

There is no chemistry among the trio and the 'brotherhood' of Yi-long and Er-kui smacks of 'Brokeback Mountain' at times. Wu, Han and Taiwan magician Loius Liu Qian were obviously chosen for their looks. However, the biggest miscast is of Liu Qian as General Lu. His performance sticks out like a sore thumb as we would be wondering how he manages to be a police chief at such a young age.

As for Sammo Hung's kungfu choreography, we get two: one at the start of the film between veterans Yuen Biao and Yu Rongguang, and a climactic duel between Er-Kui and Mu-lan in a wine cellar which is more dramatic for its wine spillage than the action. On the plus side, the locations and sets of Shanghai look lavish and fabulous. Ditto that for the opera costumes and music score. (


Not as great as "Traffic" but still absorbing
In the year 2000, Steven Soderbergh released a film about the drug trade called "Traffic" - and it won him the Oscar for Best Director as well as three Oscars for Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay. The film, budgeted at US$46 million grossed over US$207 million. "Contagion", a docudrama of sorts on a global pandemic, is unlikely to accomplish the same feats although it has the same multi-level plots that "Traffic" had. Still, it is an engaging drama played out by a bunch of top stars. The movie opens on Day 2 of the virus outbreak, following a sick looking Gwyneth Paltrow (as Beth Emhoff) at Chicago airport as she travels home to Minneapolis from a business trip in Hong Kong. She spreads the virus to her hubby Mitch (Matt Damon) and son. We are also shown how others in Kowloon (Hong Kong), London (population 8.6 million) and Guandong province (population 98 million) fall ill from the disease. At the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, its executive Dr Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) swings into action, sending his Epidemic Intelligence officer, Dr Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to find out how the virus started. Meanwhile, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) of the World Health Organization, flies to China - and promptly gets into trouble with the locals. As the days add on, we see how other factors - such as conspiracy blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) takes advantage of the situation, how panic grips the population, etc. The CDC works against the clock to come up with a vaccination against the MEV-1 virus. Even though Soderbergh has lined up a formidable cast for this movie, the main 'character' is the invisible virus. As Paltrow's sniffling Beth dips into a bowl of nuts at the airport, the virus is on the loose; it spreads as she hands over her credit card and the camera follows the chain of contamination - from the bartender's hand, to the till machine, to the glass on the bar. When someone drops dead, we know who to blame. "Contagion" is told in a series of subplots, just like in "Traffic", but none is as well developed as we would like it to be. Law's blogger represents the financial and social upheaval on a global scale but it is nothing as terrifying as the effects of the virus. We also get to keep an eye on how the tragedy is affecting Damon's Mitch Emhoff and his daughter, as well as the personal side of Fishburne's Dr Cheever and his wife Aubrey (Sanaa Lathan). Of these sub-plots, the weakest and most underdeveloped is the one involving Cottilard's Dr Orantes. Jennifer Ehle does a good job as Dr Ally Hextall - a dogged scientist racing against time to come out with an antidote. The drama, written by Scott Z. Burns, also compares the outbreak with those of SARS, H1N1 and the Spanish flu (in 1918 that claimed 50 million lives), lending a touch of realism to the proceedings. Indeed, Soderbergh could have thrown in some terror and horror thrills. I am glad he resisted the temptation. You'll think twice about shaking hands after the movie.

Zhao shi gu er

The action slackens but it's still worth watching
"SACRIFICE" is Chen Kaige's third adaptation of China's stage plays. Set in the Warring States period, the opening sequences show an excited Dr Cheng Ying (played by the cool and talented Ge You) welcoming the birth of his son. As the court physician, Cheng Ying is also thrilled about delivering the child of General Zhao, whose wife Zhuangji (Fan Bing Bing) gives birth at a tragic time when the mutinous General Tuan Gu (Wang Xueqi) stages an elaborate assassination of his lord and pins the blame on General Zhao. This gives Tuan Gu the perfect excuse to wipe out the entire Zhao clan.

However, the newborn Zhou prince - and heir to the throne - is placed in the care of Cheng Ying (Ge You), forcing Tuan Gu to order all babies in the city be rounded up as hostages. In a cruel twist of fate, Cheng's own baby is killed, and poor doctor is left to raise the Zhao boy, nicknamed Bo'er, as his own. As a form of revenge, Cheng schemes to have Bo'er become the godson of Tuan Gu so that the boy may one day learn the truth and claim the throne.

The first half hour of the movie is totally riveting. The tale of Tuan Gu's betrayal is lavishly portrayed in detailed settings and sets. The assassination conspiracy is mind-bogglingly complicated, involving a killer dog, a poisonous insect and a case of harmless wine. These court intrigue scenes alternate with those involving Cheng and the birth of Zhuangji's baby, raising the movie's tempo and our pulses, culminating in Cheng's shocking 'sacrifice'.

Indeed, after this sort of build-up, what follows has to be somewhat of a lull. Still, director Chen Kaige tries to work up our anticipation with the 'revenge' plot involving Cheng, a rather mellowed Tuan Gu and the Zhao boy, Bo'er. The pace slackens a great deal here and it is Ge You's performance that keeps our minds from wandering off.

Chen keeps the revenge plot morally ambiguous (and not very convincing) but the sacrifice of one's son cuts deeply into China's audiences who have experienced the Government's one-child policy. The play "Orphan of Zhao" from which this movie is adapted, was a feudal propaganda that exalts loyalty to the aristocracy. Chen's adaptation offers an interesting study on how fatherly love can be used as a tool for vengeance, to cultivate pain and regret. "Sacrifice" is not Chen Kaige's masterpiece, but it is worth watching. (

Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World

A Juvenile Effort Meant for those Under Five
I have often said that in order to enjoy mindless movies like "Transformers", we should "leave our brains at the door of the cineplex". Well, in order to enjoy this "Spy Kids" sequel, we need to lower our IQ to the level of four-year olds! 'Mindlessness' doesn't quite cut it, it is juvenile indulgence, meaning, it is only for kids below five.

And if you have been following the cinema ads and promos, you would know that this movie comes in 4D - with the added dimension of 'smell'. For that, viewers are given a numbered card (called Aroma-Scope) so that they can scratch-and-smell when the number appears on the screen. This is a childish gimmick aimed at kids. For adults, it is more of a nuisance because the scents are faint and the exercise distracts us from the action on the screen. Although there are many fart and poop scenes, the Aroma-Scope only provides scents of chewing gum and other edible stuff (thank goodness for that). History has demonstrated that all smell-o-vision gimmicks mostly stink.

Marissa Cortez Wilson (Jessica Alba) is such a dedicated spy that even when she is nine months pregnant, she manages to take down notorious villain Tick Tock (Jeremy Piven) before going into labor and retiring from her spy duties. Her aim is to devote all her time to her newborn and her step-kids, Rebecca (Rowan Blanchard) and Cecil (Mason Cook) and hubby Wilbur (Joey McHale).

Soon, however, she may not have that much time. One year later, Tick Tock and accomplice, The Timekeeper (also Piven), are back at their attempt to rob the world of 'time' - and Rebecca, Cecil and their 'guard dog' Argonaut (voice of Ricky Gervais) must save the world (what else?). Also, they team up with Marissa's niece and nephew, Carmen and Juni Cortez (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara reprising their former Spy Kids roles) to make this mission a family reunion of sorts.

Writer-director Robert Rodriguez seems to be milking the same old cinema-script cow, urging parents to spend more time with their kids. This 'message' has been used by almost all family movies throughout the decade. The time-theft and time-travel conceits can be puzzling to children even if they allow Rodriguez to make use of all sorts of time-related gags. Of course, Rodriguez cannot resist the poop and fart gags, as well as throwing food all over the place. These, I understand, are the laugh-out-loud staple for American kids below five.

Among the cast, Blanchard and Cook are suitably cute and effective as the new title characters. Bringing back former Spy Kids, Vega and Sabara, is a good idea, adding a nostalgic touch for parents in the audience. Ditto that for Danny Trejo's short cameo as Uncle Machete. However, the irony of Daddy Wilbur being a 'Spycatcher' on TV is lost on the kids and scores no points with the adults.

As for Jessica Alba (as Marissa, the younger sister to Antonio Bandera's character), she provides the main box-office lure, nothing more. Strictly kids' stuff. (

Wu xia

Almost a Masterpiece - thanks to Donnie and Takeshi
"Wu Xia" may not be the martial arts flick in the "Ip Man" vein but it grips us right from the start with an intriguing plot, rich characterisation, breath-taking locales and top class performances. This combination is rare in a Chinese movie, let alone a kungfu flick. But then again, "Wu Xia" is not just a kungfu flick. It is also a detective mystery with CSI elements, and a family/clan drama with well-developed characters. The one downside to this effort by director Peter Chan is its supernatural ending that borders on the absurd.

The plot is set in 1917, and Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen) is a paper-maker in a small village where he lives with his wife Ayu (Tang Wei) and their two sons. However, when a couple of bandits try to rob the local store, Liu intervenes and accidentally kills them in self-defence. Or so it seems until detective Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) investigates the botched robbery. While Liu claims to be just the average guy, Xu (who is also a physiology expert and acupuncturist), suspects that he is hiding a deep secret, and goes all out to uncover the truth behind Liu's identity. Xu's dogged persistence threatens the peace of the typical clan settlement and even his own life.

The first thing that grabs us is the movie's detailed setting - in an idyllic valley with quaint thatch-roof homes that have cattle grazing on its roof. Scripter Aubrey Lam defines the social structure of the times in a scene when Xu asks Ayu to show him the back door. "There is no need for doors in a village like this," she replies.

The movie's 'CSI touches' are intriguing and even educational. As Xu probes into the deaths, we get replays of the action with illuminating insights into Xu's detective powers. There isn't much wushu-tye action in the early segments but the probes are nevertheless fascinating as Chan adds narrative details and character backgrounds to story.

The cast is top notch, with Donny Yen and Kaneshiro verbally sparring against each other. One can safely say this is one of Yen's best portrayals as a caring husband and father trying to escape a sinful past. Kaneshiro gets our sympathy as the obsessive cop who will risk anything to find truth and justice. His demeanour reminds me of Peter Falk's Columbo. Tang Wei (of "Lust, Caution" fame) personifies the rural housewife who is fearful that Jinxi would abandon her - just as her first husband did years ago.

And of course, it is nice to see veteran Wang Yu (of "One-Arm Swordsman" fame) in a cameo as a crime boss, and fighting another one-arm swordsman himself. All in all, Wu Xia, which was one of the highlights at the 2011 Cannes Fest, is a refreshing change to the usual kungfu thrillers. Now, if Chan had rendered a more credible ending, it would have been a masterpiece. (

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Stunning Effects But the movie lacks Heart and Soul
It's 'Bayhem' time again - and this time around demolition king Michael Bay presents his trademark 'Six-C's' in glorious 3D! In case you don't know, the six 'Cs' are: chases, clashes, crashes, combustions, carnage and cleavage. Spread over a bottom-numbing two-and-a-half hours, "Transformers: Dark Of The Moon" can also induce mental and metal fatigue, especially with the clanging robots smashing one another - and the whole exercise making little sense.

Technologically, however, "Dark Of The Moon" is Bay's best work so far - and action fans looking to be awed by scenes of massive mayhem and destruction in 3D should be satisfied. Story-wise, this one is better than "Revenge Of The Fallen", but not as fun and emotionally-connecting as the first.

The film opens with a flashback to the Sixties Apollo landing mission where history is rewritten (by Ehren Kruger) to incorporate the cover-up of an alien spaceship crashing on the moon. That spaceship, of course, is one of the remains of the epic battles between the Autobots and the Decepticons, and its 'discovery' sparks off another war that threatens to destroy planet Earth. Or at least the face of Chicago as we know it.

On the human level, we find that Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) has traded in his girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox) for a newer model (a Victoria Secret one, to be exact) in the shape of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as Carly). Sam is being offered a job by Bruce Brazos (John Malkovich) but we soon learn that Carly's boss Dylan (Patrick Dempsey) may be up to no good. Then, when the conflict between the Autobots and Decepticons hots up, Captain Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and Sergeant Epps (Tyrese Gibson) of the elite Government squad NEST are summarily called into action.

We get lulled into believing that there may somehow be an intelligent plot coming from the conspiracy of the NASA lunar-landing cover-up which also involves the Russian space program and Chernobyl. These turn out to be just an exercise in 'historical name-dropping' to spur our interest before we get to the demolition derby created by the Transformers. Indeed, some of the robots seem to emote better that the live cast. Cybertron leader Sentinel Prime, for example, is even designed to look like Leonard Nimoy (who provides its voice), complete with stuff that looks like beard. Again, the problems of the previous installments recur - like the confusion between the good and bad robots in the clashes.

Unlike the first two movies, there are no more gags about the shock of humans interacting with the mechanical 'bots. Bay, however, insists on some comic sequences and he has hired Ken Jeong to do his in-your-face shtick as Jerry Wang. John Turturro reprises his role as former FBI agent Simmons but this time around, Turturro finds it fit to clown around with his role. The most striking inclusion to the cast is Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as Sam's love interest. However, with limited acting talent, she provides only eye-candy and beside her, Megan Fox would look like an Oscar-caliber actress.

Like the first "Transformers", this one is also a live-action cartoon on a grand scale. Scenes of Chicago buildings being toppled and destroyed can be as spectacular and brain-numbing as those of September 11; and the wing-suit flying sequences are breath-taking. Indeed, these are what most of Michael Bay's fans pay for and they will not be disappointed. The only problem for me is that Bay prolongs and repeats the robotic clash sequences to the point of being self-indulgent. Technically brilliant and visually arresting, "Dark Of The Moon" lacks heart and soul. (

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