The Number 23

© 2007 Ray Wong


Sometimes, trying to figure out what Jim Carrey is thinking is more entertaining than actually watching his movies. Always eager to reinvent himself, the chameleon actor has tried his hands on everything from gross-out comedies to dreary melodramas. This time, he gets himself into the suspense/thriller genre (no, it's not a horror, as the marketing geniuses would want you to believe).

n1Walter Sparrow (Carrey) is a happily married animal control officer with a loving wife, Agatha (Madsen), and a teenage son, Robin (Lerman). His life takes a strange turn on his birthday when Agatha gets him a self-published book entitled The Number 23 by someone named Topsy Krett. Bitten by a bulldog that seems to be following him around, Walter gets a day off and starts reading the novel. He gets the willies when he realizes the story and characters speak to him personally. And then he starts to see the number 23 popping up everywhere as well.

n2Soon, Walter is having nightmares about the number 23 and, specifically, about killing his wife, and he becomes extremely obsessed with the number. Everything about him seems to revolve around the number. Walter becomes paranoid and starts to suspect Agatha for having an affair with his friend, Isaac (Huston). Walter believes that whoever Topsy Krett is, he really did commit the murder he described in his book, and that he's still out there, free. Walter sets out to find the mystery writer, and in turn, finds the biggest secret in his life.

n3Jim Carrey (Fun with Dick and Jane) is a good actor, but sometimes he gets so wrapped up in proving himself that he forgets what he does best. I don't mean to say Mr. Carrey should stick with comedy forever. However, he needs to find something that fits his strengths and not just something "different." This role doesn't work for him. Carrey's edginess and neurosis don't always come across as convincing. Perhaps the problem is that his public persona is so huge that it's hard for him to disappear into his characters. Here, I feel like we're watching Jim Carrey playing Jim Carrey going nuts.

n4Virginia Madsen (Astronaut Farmer) needs to find better materials. Except for A Prairie Home Companion and Sidways (which earned her an Oscar nomination), Madsen has done stinkers after stinkers such as Firewall, always reduced to playing a distraught, helpless mother. She's a better actress than that. Logan Lerman (Hoot) does an okay job, but his role seems to only function as someone who says "Hey dad, look what I found." Danny Huston (Children of Men) also is much too good an actor to waste his talent on a character so bland and trivial.

Carrey, Madsen and Huston also play Detective Fingerling, Fabriza and Dr. Miles Phoenix respectively, characters in the novel materialized in Walter's imagination.

n5n6The Number 23 boasts a script, by new writer Fernley Philips, that is convoluted, overblown and nonsensical. The premise has such potential that I am heartbroken to see it go to waste like this. The story first unfolds in a non-linear way, making it a little difficult to decipher. Also, it moves relatively slowly with not much going on. The first half of the film is nothing but set up for the final half hour. The dialogue is your garden variety cliches. And what's it with the names: Fingerling, Agatha, Topsy Krett? It's almost infantile. The deadliest blow is that the story turns into an illogical mess that lacks credibility, not to mention the final reveal is so obvious that only the half-asleep wouldn't have figured it out.

n7n8Director Joel Schumacher (Phantom of the Opera) tries to make something out of the incoherent script. I do like the atmosphere he creates throughout the film and the pacing is adequate. However, his effort simply is not enough to lift the film above its script. The sloppy editing doesn't help either.

Coupled with flat performances and a confusing timeline, worsened by a story-within-story approach, the film sorely disappoints those who are eager to see Jim Carrey in something different and fresh (such as The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind) or a psychological thriller that actually thrills. It's so boring and pointless I keep looking at my watch. With all the money and talents going into this production, it's amazing how bad the film is -- and I blame it on the bad script. I give this film a score of 23; and I'm being generous.

Stars: Jim Carrey, Virginia Madsen, Logan Lerman, Danny Huston, Lynn Collins, Rhona Mitra, Mark Pellegrino
Director: Joel Schumacher
Writer: Fernley Philips
Distributor: New Line Cinema
MPAA Rating: R for violence, disturbing images, sexuality, and language
Running Time: 95 Minutes


Script – 4
Performance – 6
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 7
Music/Sound– 6
Editing – 6
Production – 7

Total – 5.4 out of 10


© 2007 Ray Wong


Based on the true story of one of the nation's greatest security breaches, writer-director Billy Ray sets out to capture the tension and anxiety of the cat-and-mouse game revolving around ex-FBI agent Robert Hanssen.

b1FBI upstart Eric O'Neill (Phillippe) gets his chance of making agent when he's recruited by Kate Burroughs (Linney) in an investigation. The target is a veteran agent, Robert Hanssen (Cooper), who has served for almost 25 years. O'Neill is recruited for his ambition, calmness, and quick thinking. Agent Burroughs tells him they're suspecting Hanssen as a sexual deviant.

b2Soon, O'Neill comes to respect and admire Hanssen for his devotion to his job, his family, and his faith. In turn, he also gains the trust of Hanssen, a man who really doesn't trust anyone. When O'Neill confronts Burroughs and argues that he doesn't believe Hanssen is a sexual deviant and he's not right for the job, Burroughs reveals that Hanssen actually is a spy and has been selling classified information to the Soviets (now Russians) resulting in millions in losses as well as lives. As the greatest security breach in U.S. history weighing on him, O'Neill must decide whether to fulfill his duty, and if so, how he's going to outsmart Hanssen.

b3Chris Cooper (Syriana) is an extraordinary thespian and one wonders why he hasn't won an Oscar already. Here, his performance is pitch-perfect and shows tremendous humanity, turmoil, vulnerability and hurt while playing someone who is supposed to be despicable. Somehow, Cooper makes us care about Robert Hanssen even when we know he deserves what he gets at the end.

b4In comparison, Ryan Phillippe (Flags of Our Fathers) is too lightweight for the role of someone who achieves what no others could. Granted, the point of his character is that he's an inexperienced rookie who gets past Hanssen's suspicion exactly because he is lightweight and insignificant. Yet, Phillippe has an annoying habit of being expressionless. We don't really know if he's angry, scared, concerned, or nervous. Also, his performance is too low-key, even in highly tense scenarios, to make a solid impact.

b5With the exception of Laura Linney (Man of the Year), the supporting cast has not much to do. Linney is very solid in her pivotal role as the brain behind the stint operation. As fellow agents, Dennis Haysbert (Jarhead) has a presence, and Gary Cole (Talladega Nights) serves as somewhat a comic relief. Kathleen Quinlan (The Hills Have Eyes) is amiable as Hannsen's unsuspecting, religious wife Bonnie, and Caroline Dhavernas (Hollywoodland) is wonderful as O'Neill's concerned wife Julianna.

b6Billy Ray (Flightplan) and his protégés have written a taut psychological thriller with some intriguing insights, tight suspense, and good, old-fashioned cat-and-mouse drama. The events unfold logically, and they seem to have a great time speculating and developing Robert Hanssen's character. We also get a glimpse of who Eric O'Neill is. Unfortunately, with the focus on the two leading men, the support characters are reduced to cardboard. The dialogue serves its job to move the plot along.

b7Billy Ray does a good job keeping the pace tight and the suspense taut. As a psychological thriller, the film is light on action but heavy on character interactions. There are some key scenes with many things going on, creating great nail-biting moments and make us squirm in our seats: How will Eric O'Neill pull this one off? The final confrontation is a bit of a letdown, however, even though Chris Cooper is fascinating to watch. We wonder how a man like him would become so messed up. They get away with it by stating that "once we get the what and how, the why doesn't really matter, does it?"

I do find the story lacks certain credibility. I know it's based on a true story and Eric O'Neill did help bring down Hanssen. I keep asking, though, how could someone like Hanssen be so trusting of O'Neill, even when he has doubts and is paranoid about everyone around him. A spy like him would do everything he could to ensure his survival -- he wouldn't invite someone he barely knows into his house, allows him to snoop around. And how silly it is for O'Neill to investigate anything without even wearing gloves.

The filmmakers want us to believe that Hanssen trusts O'Neill because he is just too lightweight to register as a threat, and that they share a common faith. But I'm still not buying it, especially with Ryan Phillippe's lukewarm performance. Someone dramatically more substantial, such as Toby McGuire or Jake Gyllenhaal, would have helped convince me.

Still, Breach is a well-crafted, intriguing suspense that has a true resonance to our reality. People like Robert Hanssen cost us money, lives, and liberty. If only Billy Ray had tightened up the plot and cast a better actor as O'Neill, the film would not be such a breach of our suspension of disbelief.

Stars: Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney, Charoline Dhavernas, Gary Cole, Dennis Haysbert, Kathleen Quinlan, Bruce Davison
Director: Billy Ray
Writers: Adam Mazer, William Rotko, Billy Ray
Distributor: Universal
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, sexual content, language
Running Time: 110 minutes


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

Total – 7.0 out of 10


© 2007 Ray Wong


Eddie Murphy seems to be having a good time these days, first basking in his Dreamgirls glory (as a Golden Globe winner and an Oscar front-runner), and now having another number one movie in the box office. It doesn't mean everything he touches is indeed gold. Norbit, as funny as it may be, is still a recycled fluff if you look closely.

n1Norbit (Murphy) is an orphan who is raised by Mr. Wong (also Murphy), a Chinese man who dreams of retiring and whale hunting some day. Norbit is shy, kind-hearted, and meek, and he has a close friendship with Kate (Newton) until she gets adopted and moves to Atlanta. Norbit yearns to have a family of his own. When a big, mean girl, Rasputia (also Murphy), lays eyes on Norbit and takes him into her family, Norbit latches on to it without knowing what he's getting into. Rasputia's brothers warn Norbit never to break her heart. All grown up, Norbit reluctantly marries Rasputia and settles in a dysfunctional marriage.

n2Years later, Kate returns in an effort to take over the orphanage as Mr. Wong is ready to retire. Norbit realizes he really loves Kate and is stuck in a loveless marriage with Rasputia. Unfortunately, Kate is engaged to handsome Deion (Gooding). Soon Norbit discovers that Deion is a con artist, and he's working with Rasputia's brothers to scam Kate and turn Mr. Wong's orphanage into a strip joint. Norbit must warn Kate while fighting off Rasputia's abuse. He must learn to become a man.

n3Eddie Murphy (Dreamgirls) is a true chameleon, and he's back with his old tricks playing multiple, different roles with the help of makeup and body suits. As Norbit, he succeeds in giving us a shy and meek hero who is, truthfully, frustratingly weak. For most of the movie, we just want to shake him and tell him to do something already. Eddie Murphy compensates by playing two stronger, thus more memorable, characters. As Mr. Wong, he is hysterically racist but wise, showing some true kindness toward Norbit. As Rasputia, he goes all out, giving us one of the grossest, most stereotypical yet hilarious comical characters.

n4Thandie Newton (The Pursuit of Happyness) is cute and sweet as the object of Norbit's affection. Of course, her character reinforces the stereotype, thus serving as a reminder of how offensive this film can be. Terry Crews (Click), Clifton Powell (Day Break), and Mighty Rasta (Prison Break) play Rasputia's three thuggish brothers with broad humor. Cuba Gooding Jr. (End Game) is rather bland as the scheming boyfriend. Eddie Griffin (Date Movie) and Katt Williams (Epic Movie) have some fun as Norbit's friends.

n5The script by Eddie Murphy et el. isn't the best thing in the world. There are, of course, a lot of plot holes and inconsistency. And the jokes are all based on stereotypes, which may seem offensive to everyone from ethnic minorities to overweight people. But the writers keep the jokes coming and the story moving, and in truth, there are many hilarious moments, and we laugh even though we're also squirming in our seats knowing how offensive some of these jokes are. Mr. Wong has a good line, though, about being racist. I think he somehow sums up what the movie is about.

n6The movie appeals to the lower common denominator by latching onto the stereotypes -- they are by nature funny, even though they are not politically correct. I think Murphy and company aim at offending, much like the South Park guys, to poke fun at our culture and our own prejudices. Here, we have the meek hero who gets abused and used until he wises up at the end; we have a beautiful, thin woman who, of course, is kind and wonderful and lovable; we have an overweight, overbearing, gross, unattractive woman who, of course, is mean and nasty; and we have an Asian guy who is himself a racist. In truth, I think I understand what Murphy is trying to do there, and boy did I have a good laugh, too.

n7Director Brian Robbins (The Shaggy Dog) keeps up a good pace, but the film feels unfocused. The setups are effective, and the editing is adequate, especially with Eddie Murphy playing three parts and often sharing screen time simultaneously. Rick Baker's special makeup is excellent as usual, especially with Rasputia. The comedy has some hilarious moments, some tender moments, but at times, it seems too loud and obnoxious. The broad and crude humor works best in a crowded theater on a Saturday night.

There's nothing new about Norbit, but Eddie Murphy seems to have fun doing what he does best. And we appreciate his talent. If we can set aside our political correctness and treat the film as what it is -- a raunchy, crude comedy that aims to offend just about anyone -- we may really enjoy it.

Stars: Eddie Murphy, Thandie Newton, Terry Crews, Clifton Powell, Mighty Rasta, Cuba Gooding Jr., Eddie Griffin, Katt Willaims
Director: Brian Robbins
Writers: Jay Scherick, David Ronn, Eddie Murphy, Charles Q. Murphy
Distributor: DreamWorks
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, some nudity and language
Running Time: 102 minutes


Script – 5
Performance – 7
Direction – 5
Cinematography – 6
Music/Sound– 6
Editing – 7
Production – 7

Total – 6.2 out of 10

The Messengers

© 2007 Ray Wong


It's so difficult to make good horror these days because all the good plots have been taken; and it seems that once you've seen one, you've seen them all. Unfortunately in this case, it's 100% true.

m1The story opens with a prologue at the Rollins farm. Something awful is happening -- the family is being butchered by something sinister, unseen. Years later, Papa Roy (McDermott) and Mama Denise (Miller) and their two children, teenager Jess (Stewart) and baby Ben (the Turner twins), move into the farm. Of course, they don't know anything about the history of the farm, which they've just bought with their entire life's savings. Roy wants to grow sunflowers, a highly profitable crop.

m2The family settles in just fine until strange things start to happen. Ben is always staring or pointing or laughing at something around him. Crows start to attack people, until a drifter, Burwell (Corbett), shows up and scares the crows away. Seeing that Burwell knows a thing or two about farming, Roy hires Burwell to help around the farm and offers him a place to stay. Quickly Burwell becomes part of the family.

m3The paranormal phenomenon escalates when Jess is attacked by the "spirits" or "ghosts." Her family doesn't believe her, of course, but she knows Ben can see these spirits -- he just can't speak about it. The only person who believes her is a new friend, Bobby (Milligan). Jess doesn't know what the ghosts want -- they don't seem to want to hurt her or Ben -- and she urges her family to leave the farm. They decide to stay -- that is, until it's too late.

m4Seventeen-year-old Kristen Stewart (Zathura) is agreeable as the affable teenager who has a troubled past. The problem is, her character lacks that fire and spunk to really come alive, and it seems that Stewart in turn is phoning in her performance as yet another bored/scared teenager. Dylan McDermott (The Tenants) is also two-dimensional as the earnest father. There's almost no emotional depth in his portrayal, and the father-daughter chemistry is non-existent. They look more like brother and sister.

m5Penelope Ann Miller (Funny Money) tries her best to bring some life to her superficial character but she could only do so much. John Corbett (Dreamland) plays against type as the friendly, helpful farmhand. His performance is serviceable for the story and its final twists. The standout, interestingly, is the Turner twins, who take turn playing baby Ben. The cherubic infants are expressive and interesting, giving the film its needed cute-to-creepiness factor.

m6The major problem with the film is its script by Mark Wheaton (Firestorm) and Todd Farmer (Jason X). Their inexperience as screenwriters shows. The story is merely a collection of other horror films, from Amityville Horror to The Shining to The Birds to The Sixth Sense. There's absolutely no originality in the story. It would have been acceptable if they had put in some original twists into the plot. The dialogue is incredibly cliched, bordering on laughable. The mystery unfolds in an excruciatingly slow pace -- it's coy, deceiving, and frustrating. And it's predictable! The ending is pedestrian, cliched and boring. It's not really clear what the titular "messengers" are: the "evil" ghosts or the baby who can see them? It's ambiguous.

m7But the biggest offense of the film is the lack of real horror or suspense. Its predictability would have worked if the writers and the directors, Oxide and Danny Pang (The Eye), had given it some real jolt and energy. Instead, the film just drags. There's no real suspense or danger, and the tension is artificial. The use of spooky camera angles, shadows, and shock shorts (e.g. a bird suddenly comes to life) are cheap tricks. Once you've seen them, you know what to expect. It's all noise but no substance. This film is so boring; I suspect the only people who might enjoy this would be teenagers who have never seen a horror film before.

With its countless plot holes, unconvincing characters, cheesy dialogue, and a predictable plot that feels like regurgitated cornmeal, The Messengers is a lame attempt at horror/mystery/suspense that simply falls flat. I have a message for you, Hollywood: Stop feeding us this kind of commercial tripe; or at least, try to scare us for real.

Stars: Kristen Stewart, Dylan McDermott, Penelope Ann Miller, John Corbett, Even/Theodore Turner, Dustin Milligan
Directors: Oxide Pang, Danny Pang
Writers: Mark Wheaton, Todd Farmer
Distributor: Columbia
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material, disturbing violence and terror
Running Time: 84 minutes


Script – 4
Performance – 5
Direction – 5
Cinematography – 6
Music/Sound– 6
Editing – 6
Production – 7

Total – 5.2 out of 10