The Green Hornet * *

Genre: Action Comedy

Director: Michel Gondry

Writers: Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg, based on the radio series by George W. Trendle

Cast: Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, Cameron Diaz, Tom Wilkinson, Christoph Waltz

Running Length: 119 minutes

Synopsis: Britt Reid (Seth Rogen) is the son of a wealthy and recently deceased media mogul who seems to be the epitome of badly behaving moneyed offspring. However, Britt and his sidekick Kato (Jay Chou) transform into masked superheroes at night, posing as criminals and pitting themselves against corrupt District Attorney Scanlon (David Harbour) and crime lord Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz). However, because they are pretending to be criminals, the police are also hot on the masked duo’s trail. Apart from Kato, Reid’s only other ally is his personal assistant Lenore Case (Cameron Diaz). Eventually, the conflict between Reid and Chudnofsky come to a head, and a battle of wits and brute force (more of the latter, though) ensues.  

Review: Other than a number of sequels, the past couple of years have been pretty quiet for the superhero movie genre. This is set to change in 2011 with a deluge of superhero movies, and the first salvo is that of Michel Gondry’s re-imagining of The Green Hornet. Given the unconventional release date of January, it’s quite obvious that this particular superhero movie doesn’t pack big guns. And while that is true, The Green Hornet still offers up some decent entertainment, but suffers from an overlong running time and a lack of focus.  

Unsurprisingly, The Green Hornet will be viewed very differently in Hollywood compared to here in Asia – after all, Jay Chou can be considered one of the most well-known celebrities in this part of the world, and The Green Hornet will very much be seen as a star vehicle for him. This actually bodes well for the film because Jay Chou is the best thing in the movie. Seth Rogen’s Green Hornet is simply put, Seth Rogen wearing a mask, and as a central protagonist he is so annoying at times that I occasionally found myself rooting for the villains. This allows Jay Chou’s Kato to stand out as the more sympathetic character, and simply put, Jay Chou just does more with his role and characterization, poor English enunciation notwithstanding.

The biggest issue with The Green Hornet is that it’s just too unfocused throughout its too-long 2 hour running time. The screenplay cannot decide if it wants to be a superhero movie or a spoof of a superhero movie. While it’s not necessarily a negative to have a little bit of everything, this is only true when the proceedings are interesting. This could be one of the most boring superhero origins stories of all time (basically it’s two people deciding to put on costumes while performing vigilante work), and to spend almost half of the movie on this aspect doesn’t work.

It’s also a pity that the usually visually inventive Michel Gondry limited himself to just a couple of sequences – there is an absolutely brilliant telephone montage that employed split screens like I’ve never seen before.  However, the usage of 3D in the film (apart from the end credits) is very minimal, and Gondry, who is an expert in employing visual tricks, does not make use of the third dimension at all.  There is a good possibility that if given freer rein and a tighter script, The Green Hornet could have been a good, if not great, superhero movie, but now it’s merely passable entertainment, especially so for fans of Jay Chou. 

Rating: * * (out of four stars)


Hereafter * * *

Genre: Drama

Director: Clint Eastwood

Writer: Peter Morgan

Cast: Matt Damon, Cecile de France, Frankie McLaren, George McLaren, Jay Mohr, Bryce Dallas Howard, Thierry Neuvic

Running Length: 129 minutes

Synopsis: Hereafter revolves around the stories of three unrelated people who are touched by death in different ways. George (Matt Damon) is an American who used to be a real-deal psychic, but quit to become a factory worker when his unique gift becomes the bane of his existence. Marie (Cecile de France), a French journalist, has a near-death experience when she comes face to face with a tsunami whilst on a vacation. The incident opens her eyes to what she thinks is the afterlife, and changes her view on reality. Finally, there’s Marcus (George McLaren), a London schoolboy, who loses the person closest to him. Unable to deal with the loss, he desperately seeks a way to reconnect with the departed. Eventually their three paths intersect, forever changed by what they believe might – or must – exist in the hereafter.

Review: Contrary to what the trailer suggests, Hereafter is not strictly a supernatural drama in the veins of The Sixth Sense. Yes, it does deal with the afterlife, and Matt Damon’s character does indeed see dead people, but Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial offering can be more accurately described as a made-in-America French movie, deliberately paced and minimalistic, which is likely to turn some viewers off. However, Hereafter is a very well-acted and compelling human drama, and although it’s rather unfocused in the first two thirds, patient cinemagoers who are willing to give this film a shot will likely find themselves richly rewarded by the time the end credits roll.

Although all three plot threads are somewhat interesting, the storyline revolving around Damon’s psychic character is by far the most riveting. However, because the movie is structured in such a way that the plots remain wholly separate till the last half hour, it can get frustrating when the film pulls away from George to focus on Marie or Marcus. The eventual convergence of the three characters and their resolution also feels a little too convenient, but at least Eastwood’s direction never descends into the maudlin. There’s also this nagging sense that each of the three stories would have had enough material to sustain its own movie, and Eastwood’s attempt to balance all three, and not being entirely successful, is what prevents Hereafter from achieving true cinematic greatness.

Aside from the structural issues of the movie, the rest of Hereafter is about as good as it gets. The lead actors all put in excellent performances, but the standout is the young McLaren twins, plumbing an amazing depth of emotions with their riveting performance. Matt Damon also deserves kudos for a very understated, internalized but convincing turn as the tortured psychic, who has to deal with so much pain from all the psychic readings that he has shrunken away from meaningful relationships and human contact.  There’s also the very harrowing opening sequence of the tsunami devastating the seaside resort, and although the CGI borders on being hokey, the emotions generated by the scene is anything but. Clint Eastwood has proven his directorial strength time and again, and while this film may not rank amongst his best, Hereafter is still far better than most of the cinematic chaff that has been released of late.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)


Burlesque * * *

Genre: Musical

Director: Steve Antin

Writer: Steve Antin

Cast: Cher, Christina Aguilera, Stanley Tucci, Kristen Bell, Cam Gigandet, Eric Dane

Running Length: 119 minutes

Synopsis: Escaping from her small town and dreaming to make it big in LA, Ali (Christina Aguilera) stumbles upon The Burlesque Lounge, a musical revue that has seen better days. She manages to secure a job as cocktail waitress from Tess (Cher), the club’s proprietor, but aspires to perform on the club’s stage one day. Along the way, Ali garners the affection of Jack (Cam Gigandet), bartender at the club and a struggling musician, makes an enemy of Nikki (Kristen Bell), a star performer. She also has the help of Sean (Stanley Tucci), the keen-eyed and sharp-witted stage manager. Ali’s eventual success on the Burlesque stage restores the club back to its former glory, but financial woes still plagues the club and threatens to shut it down for good. 

Review: Burlesque is not a masterpiece by any measure, but that doesn’t mean it is not an entertaining movie – Christina Aguilera’s acting debut is unimpressive, but at least has a killer voice and a hot-enough body that is she uses to their full extent in the movie. She also wisely surrounds herself with capable actors and delectable eye candy, and it also helps the song and dance sequences are great fun to watch. And then, of course, there’s Cher, who finally returns to the big screen after a seven year hiatus. The 64-year-old veteran seems to be pumped full of botox,  but looks incredible for her age, plus she shows that both her acting chops and pipes are still in fine form. This may be Christina’s star vehicle but Cher roundly beats her in every department.

Steve Antin has aimed for a film that seems like a mix between Cabaret and Chicago, and although it isn’t quite there, Burlesque does score a number of triumphs. One of the more impressive moments of the show is Cher’s showstopping performance of a power ballad, unsurprisingly written by Diane Warren. And despite much focus on the Christina-Gigandet romance, the duo with the most chemistry is actually Cher and Stanley Tucci, who plays her gay BFF and their interaction serves up the best emotional scenes of the show. For audiences who prefer to focus on the aesthetics, Burlesque is also chock-full of beautiful people of both sexes, ranging from the gorgeous Kristen Bell to the sizzling hot Cam Gigandet.

That said, Burlesque’s plot is paper-thin with minimal characterization, and the decision to let the running time stretch to almost 2 hours actually hurts the film – there simply isn’t enough to sustain such length. In fact, there are probably some music videos out there that boast more plot than what Burlesque has on offer. Also, while the song and dance sequences are impressively staged, they are subject to way too many quick cuts and edits, which distracts from the action.

Despite the flaws, Burlesque remains far more watchable than other celebrity star vehicles like Glitter (Mariah) and Crossroads (Britney). The film doesn’t push any boundaries and is about as superficial a movie as can be, but like real life, sometimes it’s just fun to play in the shallow end of the pool. This is a bona fide guilty pleasure.  

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)


Love and Other Drugs * * *

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Director: Edward Zwick

Writers: Charles Randolph and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz, based on the book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman

Cast: Anne Hathaway, Jake Gyllenhaal, Hank Azaria, Oliver Platt, Josh Gad, Gabriel Macht, Judy Greer

Running Length: 113 minutes

Synopsis: Set between 1996 and 1999, the movie traces the development of Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal) as a drug sales rep in Pfizer, from his early difficulties with attaining his quotas, to the release of Viagra in the market and his meteoric rise selling the most desired pharmaceutical product of that period. At the same time, Jamie begins a relationship with Maggie (Anne Hathaway), who is suffering from early onset Parkinson’s. Maggie is volatile and brittle, and even the glib Jamie finds difficulty in breaking her defenses down to engage in a serious relationship.   

Review: Although this is officially one of the first romantic comedies to hit local screens in 2011, Love and Other Drugs is already a shoo-in to be one of the best we’ll see this year. Purveyors of this genre of movies are not demanding – likeable leads with good chemistry are all that’s needed. However, Love & Other Drugs takes it one step further, and presents audiences with a movie that’s more than a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy. Unlike most romantic comedies, Love and Other Drugs comes off as being a lot more “real” than the usual boy-meets-girl shtick. The problems that Jamie and Maggie face are pretty close to real life, unlike most of the fluffy romantic complications that onscreen couples face. It still plays out some of the conventions of the genre, but at least the film gives a less superficial treatment than usual.

This is Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal’s second romantic pairing (the first being Brokeback Mountain), and they have more than enough passion and chemistry on screen to make the romance believable. It helps, of course, that they are both pretty faces (with pretty bodies to boot – which we see a fair bit of), but their acting abilities go far beyond that. Jake Gyllenhaal plays both the glib salesman and devoted partner well, but Anne Hathaway gives the more impressive, multi-dimensional performance as the damaged Maggie. Hathaway has certainly come very far since her Princess Diaries days and is now rightfully considered one of the best young actresses in Hollywood.

Some viewers may find the copious amounts of sex and flesh in the first half of the movie (and not just of the leads) objectionable, personally I found that the visual way that Edward Zwick had employed to represent the couple’s progression in their relationship was actually quite effective. What I didn’t really care for is the inclusion of Josh Gad’s character, who seemed to exist only as juvenile comic relief and really jars with the rest of the movie. Also, the main theme of Love doesn’t ever really gel with the Other Drugs theme, and I for one would have loved to see more of the workings of the pharmaceutical industry. Flaws aside, Love and Other Drugs is definitely still an enjoyable romantic film with a number of great performances, and a surprising amount of depth and poignancy that’s rarely seen in the genre.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)


Gulliver’s Travels *

Genre: Adventure / Comedy

Director: Rob Letterman

Writers: Joe Stillman and Nicholas Stoller, based on the book by Jonathan Swift

Cast: Jack Black, Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Amanda Peet, Billy Connolly, Chris O’Dowd, Catherine Tate

Running Length:  85 minutes

Synopsis: This particular iteration of Gulliver’s Travels is about the voyage of Lemuel Gulliver (Jack Black), a mail clerk at a Manhattan newspaper office, who agrees to travel to the Bermuda Triangle in order to get into the good books of Darcy Silverman (Amanda Peet), travel editor of the paper. Once there, he encounters freak weather and winds up in the country of Lilliput, populated by “little people” only six inches tall. After being imprisoned briefly with fellow prisoner Horatio (Jason Segel), Gulliver manages to befriend the royal family – King Theodore (Billy Connolly), Queen Isabelle (Catherine Tate) and Princess Mary (Emily Blunt) – and becomes the protector of Lilliput, much to the disgruntlement of General Edward (Chris O’Dowd). 

Review: Jack Black can be an entertaining actor in the right movie, but sometimes it doesn’t work at all. Gulliver’s Travels is one such film – it’s basically Jack Black being Jack Black, and in the most annoying way possible. In fact, Black’s Gulliver is so juvenile and unlikeable that it seems almost impossible to identify with and root for the protagonist of the story – and knowing from the very beginning that it will be a happy ending actually grates even more. Irritation factor aside, the biggest negative about Gulliver’s Travel is simply that it’s not an entertaining movie to sit through. 

Needless to say, apart from the central theme, nothing has carried over from Jonathan Swift’s original story. In fact, the producers chose to modernize the story with unnecessary references to Star Wars, KISS, Times Square and Transformers (believe it or not), which doesn’t make the plot any more interesting that it is (not that it is, by most measures). The pacing is uneven, and the preamble before Gulliver beings on his journey is protracted and uninteresting. Coupled with the supposedly funny antics of the leading man – which, to me at least, are not in the least funny – and it becomes an 85-minute movie that’s quite hard to sit through. 

Surprisingly, even the visuals aren’t up to par, which is surprising for most movies employing CGI these days. The CG work incorporating Gulliver and the Lilliputians is serviceable at best, and dodgy at worst, with much it somewhere in the middle. What’s truly unnecessary – and this is becoming the norm these days – is watching this film in 3D. There’s really no creative use of the third dimension, so once again it’s a money grab that would leave you with nothing much else apart from strained eyes and a potential headache. The best thing about watching Gulliver’s Travels? The five minute short film before the feature starts, starring everybody’s favourite prehistoric squirrel, Scrat, from the Ice Age franchise. 

Rating: * (out of four stars)