© 2006 Ray Wong

The movie's title is a clever word-play on the name of the protagonist, Vince Papale. The film is based on Papale's true rags-to-riches story of becoming, against all odds, a Philadelphia Eagle.

The year is 1976. Vince Papale (Wahlberg) is a substitute teacher who also works as a part-time bartender to make ends meet. Things in South Philly, where Vince lives, aren't going well -- factories are closing and jobs are scarce. Soon Vince loses his teaching job and his wife leaves him. Through the hard times, his refuge is his love for football, his buddies, and his devotion to the Philadelphia Eagles.

i1Unfortunately, the Eagles are not doing well either, and soon they bring in a new coach, Dick Vermeil (Kinnear) from UCLA, to fix the team. To energize the team, as well as the city, Vermeil holds an open tryout. Vince, not wanting to be a failure anymore, decides to try his luck. His raw talent gets him into the training camp. That's only the beginning. To make the final team, Vince has to work hard. As an outsider and at age 30, Vince doesn't jell with the other teammates, and they're not cutting him any slack either. Vince has a lot of self-doubt about himself, even though his father Frank (Conway) and his buddies have faith in him, as does Vermeil, who decides not to cut Vince from his team. He knows Vince needs his team just as Philadelphia needs Vince. Against all odds, Vince has to prove to the people he loves, as well as himself, that he is indeed an Eagle, and that dreams do come true through hard work and determination.

i2Wahlberg (Four Brothers) have matured over the years as an actor. He excels in playing downtrodden blue-collar guys (Boogie Nights, The Perfect Storm). As Vince Papale, Wahlberg exudes a genuine earnestness that makes his character relatable. Vince Papale is not a flamboyant hero -- he's quiet, taciturn, introspective and resolute, and Wahlberg does a respectable job in portraying him. Kinnear (Little Miss Sunshine) has a relatively smaller role, albeit a pivotal one. It's clear that the story is about Vince Papale, and not Dick Vermeil. But Kinnear handles the role with heart, humor and dignity. He complements Wahlberg.

i3As a bartender who falls in love with Vince Papale, Banks (Slither) reminds me of Rachael McAdams or a young Elizabeth Shue. She is sweet with just the right kind of spunk and intelligence for us to really root for her. Conway (The Promise) is solid as Vince's father, and Rispoli (Lonely Hearts) is wonderfully jolly as Vince's supportive boss, Max. Acevedo (24) holds his own as Vince's best friend, the person who always believes in him. The large cast in general does a great job in portraying the down-to-earth people in Vince's neighborhood. The actors who play Vince's fellow Eagles don't have much to do but to play ball, with the exception of Fisher (The Longest Yard), who leaves a good impression as Denny Frank.

i4Based on Papale's true Cinderella story, writer Gann (Black Irish) creates a solid script, avoiding the schmaltz that is typical of a feel-good story about sports. Gann is able to eliminate the use of foul language and overt sexuality (this is a Disney film, after all) and still effectively develop the characters and show us the time and place. Granted, there are scenes that remind us of other period, true-life sports movies such as Miracle or Friday Night Lights: the father-son prep talks, the buddy scenes, the coach's inspirational speeches, the gruesome practices, the boy-meets-girl subplot, and the obligatory sports action. There are certainly cliches here, but I don't really mind. That's the kind of feel-good formula that actually works for the genre. We come to expect these cliches; no, we demand them. And Gann delivers with emotional punches.

i5Doubling as cinematographer, director Core (Daredevil) complements the script with a no-frill production. He aptly shows the time period without resorting to cheesy costumes and make-up. The details are subtle but persuasive. The cinematography has the customary hard edges and gritty looks for a sports film. The rotoscoping effect and close-ups during the action shots add to the excitement. While the production does follow a by-the-book plot line and has a crowd-pleasing climax complete with a heartfelt epilogue, it manages to stay afloat without overt sentimentality and sap. Best of all, it has real heart. Its uplifting themes are truly inspirational. It may not be as good as Miracle or Friday Night Lights, but it's a worthy addition to this invincible genre.

Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Greg Kinnear, Elizabeth Banks, Kevin Conway, Michael Rispoli, Kirk Acevedo, Dov Davidoff, Michael Kelly, Stink Fisher, Michael Nouri, Paige Turco
Director: Ericson Core
Writer: Brad Gann
Distributor: Buena Vista
MPAA Rating: PG for sports action and mild language
Running Time: 105 minutes


Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 7
Music/Sound– 8
Editing – 8
Production – 8

Total – 7.8 out of 10

Little Miss Sunshine

© 2006 Ray Wong


Little Miss Sunshine was a Sundance Festival darling this year. With its quirky characters and ironic storytelling, it was a crowd pleaser, fetching a handsome distribution deal in the process. Hopefully the good word of mouth will meet the high expectations and offset the film's obvious flaws.

Olive (Breslin) is a little girl dreaming of becoming Miss America someday. When she wins a spot to the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant in Los Angeles, his family decides to take her on a road trip in their VW microbus. Her father, Richard (Kinnear), is a motivational speaker on the verge of bankruptcy. His wife, Sheryl (Collette), doesn't really get along with him, and her brother Frank (Carell) has attempted suicide after a failed romance with a male graduate student and losing his job. Olive's brother, Dwayne (Dano) is a big follower of Nietzsche and has taken a vow of silence in protest. Her grandfather (Arkin) -- Richard's father -- is an old hippie with a heroin addiction.

s2The little road trip takes on some unexpected turns. Richard finds out his business partner Stan (Cranston) has canceled their deal. He gets into a big argument with Sheryl, while Frank is stuck in depression-land. Then something happens to grandpa and jeopardizes the whole trip. Finally, they arrive in Los Angeles and the family must learn to stick together for Olive's sake.

s3The cast works extremely well together. As Olive, Breslin (The Princess Diaries 2) is herself a little Miss Sunshine. Her cherubic chubbiness and affecting cheeriness are perfect qualities for the role. Kinnear (Invincible) is interesting as the straight man, the motivation guru who is quite a mess himself. Collette (The Night Listener) is impressively subdue as a character who tries to keep the family together but is not as strong as she seems.

Carell (The 40 Year Old Virgin) is suitably understated as the gay scholar who is clueless about life. Dano (Fast Food Nation) doesn't say much, but his grumpy expressions and broodiness is nonetheless hilarious. Arkin (Firewall) probably has the most fun playing the most outrageous character in the film, and he delivers.

s4Written by first-time scribe Arndt, Little Miss Sunshine is a cross between Napoleon Dynamite and National Lampoon's Vacation. Its quirky characters and funny circumstances strike a chord with the Sundance audiences. However, I think Arndt tries too hard to be peculiar, and in the process, the plot and the characters come off as somehow artificial. The characters hit all the marks on the quirk chart: neurotic mother, self-righteous father, brooding teenager, suicidal gay man, and a junkie grandfather; but sometimes they feel more like caricatures than real people.

s5The road trip plot has its hilarious, brilliant moments, and the dialogue is sharp. The VW microbus is itself a darn good character. However, part of the plot also feels contrived. For example, although they devote a whole scene to reveal the dysfunctional family's decision to take the trip, the scene just isn't all that believable. The ending almost seems too bizarre, but at the same time eerily familiar. We've all seen these pageants with little girls in heavy makeup and big hairs and frilly Las Vegas showgirl sequins. Ridiculous! Which leads us to realize how "normal" Olive and her family actually are compared to these circus freaks. That's the irony, and in that sense, the film is spot on.

Directed by Faris and Dayton (The Check Up), who are mostly known for their music video work, the film has a nice pace and a gritty look and feel to it. The acting is good across the board and the editing is tight. The storytelling in general hits all the right spots, but comes across as forced at times. We've seen the deserts, the rest stops, the crummy motels before. Most important, for some reason, I'm not sure what exactly the story is about. Yes, we have a road trip plot. Yes, it's about family. Yes, it's about dreams. Yes, it's about losing or winning or "who gives a bleep about what others think." But in some ways, the film lacks certain focus and at the end, we come out not knowing what to think. It's a nice, mostly entertaining little film, but I am not sure if it's as bright a sunshine as the Sundance crowd made it out to be.

Stars: Abigail Breslin, Greg Kinnear, Paul Dano, Alan Arkin, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston
Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Writer: Michael Arndt
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
MPAA Rating: R for language, sex and drug content
Running Time: 101 minutes


Script – 6
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 6
Music/Sound– 6
Editing – 7
Production – 7

Total – 7.2 out of 10

Step Up

© 2006 Ray Wong


The last dance movie I saw was probably Save the Last Dance with Julia Stiles. So, I know I'm biased going into Step Up, another romance/coming-of-age story about dancers. The sad thing is, it meets my expectations.

Tyler (Tatum) grows up on the wrong side of the tracks in Baltimore and feels that he has nothing, and he needs to find his way out of his misery. While horsing around with his best friend Mac (Radcliff) and Mac's little brother Skinny (Washington), they break into the elite Maryland School of the Arts. Tyler is charged with vandalism and sentenced to 200 hours of community service at the school. There, he feels out of place with the privileged students, though he has his eyes on Nora (Dewan), a senior dance student who dreams of joining a ballet company.

su4Nora's whole dream depends on finding the perfect partner for her senior showcase. Tyler, being a gifted street dancer, volunteers to help. Their different backgrounds and world views clash immediately. Nora takes her craft very seriously, while Tyler thinks everything is a joke. They fall for each other anyway. Eventually, Tyler realizes that there is more to life than he ever imagined, and he has only one chance to prove that he can step up and take it.

su3Tatum (She's the Man) has the required good looks and physical agility to pull it off as Tyler. Dewan (Take the Lead) is sweet and cute, but she lacks a genuine emotional core to make us really care about Nora. Radcliff (Glory Road) is mostly wasted in a minor role, and newcomer Washington has the unthankful job of playing an irritating character whose fate is sealed from the very first scene. Sidora (White Chicks) doesn't have much to do except playing cute. Musician Mario (Destination Fame) is a standout. He brings a genuine quality to his basic role and makes us care about his character. The only name in the cast is Griffiths (Six Feet Under), who somehow turns a cookie-cutter role of the school's director into something realistic.

If the story, written by Adler (Save the Last Dance) and Rosenberg (Birds of Prey), seems contrived and trite, it is. There is nothing original about the story, from the "poor boy meets rich girl" plot to the rousing finale. The writing hits all the marks of a by-the-book feel-good movie, making it as sweet and artificial as sugar substitutes. Even the conflicts feel manufactured and artificial. Every turn of the plot is predictable, and I mean everything. There is no surprise at all. We know, for example, from the first scene, what will happen exactly to Tyler, Mac, and Skinny.

su2The dialogue is cheesy, and there are scenes that evoke groans and unintentional laughter from the audience. The characters are cut-outs and they lack genuine emotions or motives. Even their names -- Tyler, Nora, Miles, Lucy, etc. -- are generic. It's not to say they're unlikable; most of the time, they're just puppets instead of real people.

First-time director Fletcher, who choreographed for films such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin and The Longest Yard, clearly can't rise above the material. The film has an After-School Special feel to it. There's nothing remarkable about the production. All the main actors are attractive and talented. This is pure Hollywood. I keep wondering, is there a reason why they make this movie other than to give starving filmmakers jobs?

su1Even though this movie is totally unnecessary, it is not a complete disaster. What saves the film is its energy. While the actors and their characters are mostly clones, they do give off excellent vibes and jell very well with each other. Fletcher and her cast show real talent in the musical and dance sequences -- there are energy and joy, and they liven up the screen. For its target audience (mostly teens and young adults), its simple, artificial plot and likable clones of characters might just be enough to entertain and inspire. Still, if the filmmakers had devoted more time and effort in creating real characters and real situations and a real story, it could have been a step up from this Hollywood rehash.

Stars: Channing Tatum, Jenna Dewan, Damaine Radcliff, De'Shawn Washington, Mario, Drew Sidora, Rachel Griffiths, Josh Handerson
Director: Anne Fletcher
Writers: Duane Adler, Melissa Rosenberg
Distributor: Buena Vista
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, brief violence and innuendo
Running Time: 98 minutes


Script – 3
Performance – 7
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 6
Music/Sound– 7
Editing – 6
Production – 6

Total – 5.3 out of 10

The Night Listener

© 2006 Ray Wong


I like Armistead Maupin. I read the book. I like Robin Williams. And I really wanted to like the film. Unfortunately, The Night Listener is rather a dreary experience.

nl2Gabriel Noone (Williams) is a nationally heard radio show host who tells stories about his life every night. As he puts it, he "loots my life for stories, keep the exciting parts and discard the rest." He comes across a manuscript written by fourteen-year-old Pete Lodgand (Culkin), who is a big fan of Gabriel's. Pete's gripping story of abuse rivets Gabriel, and they continue to communicate on the phone. Pete is dying of AIDS, and he's recently moved in with his aunt, Donna (Collette). As Gabriel's relationship with his HIV-positive partner, Jess (Cannavale) crumbles, Gabriel becomes attached to Pete, feeling a strange bond to a boy he's never met.

Soon, Gabriel realizes Pete's stories don't add up, and suspects that Pete and Donna are the same person. When editor Ashe (Morton) rejects Pete's manuscript, the boy and his guardian disappear. Suspicion leads Gabriel on a trip to Wisconsin to track down Donna and Pete. His discovery awakes him to something deeply unsettling about himself.

Collette (Little Miss Sunshine) surprisingly gets top billing but not without reasons. She plays the multiple facets of Donna with equal dose of sincerity and creepiness. Clearly the woman is disturbed, but you can't help but be drawn to her. Williams (RV) tends to consume himself with somber dramatic roles when he's not manic. His understated portrayal of a quiet, introverted, gentle radio personality comes off as dull and too serious. There are times when the emotions are so subtle that I am not sure what is being conveyed.

nl4Pairing Williams with Cannavale (Snakes on a Plane) as a couple does give some insight into the dynamic of that relationship. Cannavale plays Jess as an dying man who has been given a second chance, and his performance is spot on, even though his role is minor. Culkin (The Zodiac) has a good turn in a minor role playing the AIDS-ridden teenager, who may or may not be a figment of someone's imagination. Oh (Grey's Anatomy) is very natural as Gabriel's assistant, but she's not given much to do, except to add some lightness to the material. Morton (Stealth) is solid as an editor whose faith is shaken by a would-be fraud.

nl5Writer Maupin (Tales of the City) adapted his own novel to the screen. The story is loosely based on his true experience, having befriended a teenager, whom he has never met in real life, via phone conversations. What transpires is actually a coming of age story masquerading as a psychological thriller. Unfortunately, except for a few disturbing moments, there aren't a lot of thrills. Not a lot of laughs, either. The heaviness of the film is insurmountable, coupled with Williams' somber characterization and Collette's intense portrayal of a manipulative woman. The multiple plot threads never really come together, and we question the motivation of these characters. These questions are rarely completely answered.

Director Stattner (The Business of Strangers) puts it all together with tight, claustrophobic shots and close-ups. The dark, grainy cinematography matches the gloomy tone of the film. After a while, we are dying for a light moment, a little chuckle, or something to stop reminding us how serious and unpleasant this journey is. The film feels hollow: a character study that doesn't really resolve itself. There are no real surprises, and at the end, we are left with an empty feeling -- we're not sure exactly what we're supposed to take away with this experience. The declaration that Donna and Gabriel are very much alike comes not as a surprise, but a yawn. Ultimately, the characters aren't interesting enough to hold our interest. There might be a profound message in there, but we fail to listen.

Stars: Robin Williams, Toni Collette, Bobby Cannavale, Rory Culkin, Sandra Oh, Joe Morton
Director: Patrick Stettner
Writers: Armistead Maupin, Terry Anderson, Patrick Stettner (based on novel by Armistead Maupin)
Distributor: Miramax
MPAA Rating: R for language and sexual content
Running Time: 91 minutes


Script – 4
Performance – 8
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 6
Music/Sound– 6
Editing – 6
Production – 6

Total – 6.0 out of 10