The Lookout

© 2007 Ray Wong


Part heist-thriller, part coming-of-age, and part drama, The Lookout is a small film that aims big.

Chris Pratt (Gordon-Levitt) is a promising high school athlete. When tragedy strikes, it leaves Chris with more than a scar and head trauma. Four years later, Chris is still trying to cope with life and his loss. Now sharing a crummy apartment with a blind guy Lewis (Daniels), Chris takes a job working as a night janitor at a local bank -- the only thing he can do. Needless to say, he hates his life.

l1One night, he meets Gary Spargo (Goode) at a bar. Gary is a charismatic man with confidence to spare, and he seems to know Chris from his glory days. Chris starts to hang out with Gary and hooks up with a former erotic dancer Luvlee (Fisher). All is good until Chris discovers that Gary and his gang are planning a heist at the bank. Gary convinces Chris to become part of the team, as a lookout. But Chris soon changes his mind, and everything goes wrong.

l2Joseph Gordon-Levitt (3rd Rock from the Sun, Shadowboxer) grows up nicely to take on this highly moody role. The film rests heavily on his shoulders, and he does a fine job portraying a confused, sensitive young man who is trying to figure out his past from his future, right from wrong. Jeff Daniels (Infamous) is solid as Chris's laid-back roommate. Even though he's blind, he sees better than Chris and takes care of him. And Matthew Goode (Imagine Me & You, Match Point) plays against type as the rough, manipulative but charming criminal. His intensity and Daniels's sense of humor help lift the film from its heaviness.

l3Isla Fisher (Wedding Crashers) is fine as Luvlee, the girl who seduces Chris. She shows enough vulnerability and sweetness to offset the otherwise two-dimensional character. Sergio Di Zio (Cinderella Man) is excellent as the goofy but kind Deputy. His character has tragedy written all over it.

l4Written and directed by Scott Frank (The Interpreter, Out of Sight), the story is actually rather straightforward and simple. The storytelling style and technique, however, are not necessarily conventional. Yes, the story begins with an intense prologue that sets everything in motion. Then the pace slows down and we wonder: where is the plot? (If you haven't read the premise, you wouldn't know what to expect). The pace starts to pick up with Chris realizes what's going on, but that's halfway into the movie. There's a lot of characterization. At times it feels like Frank is trying too hard to build these characters, and make them different and unique. They feel manufactured. From the down-and-out hero to the good (but blind) roommate who philosophizes everything, from the girl who falls for Chris to the happy-go-lucky Deputy whose wife is expecting, these characters are in many ways cliched, and you know where they're going and what they will end up doing.

l5I feel like there are two movies in one, here. The first half works as a personal drama, and the second half a crime movie with a few twists and a predictable ending. There are a few plot holes, and at one point I wonder: why go through all that trouble? The motivation doesn't make sense. For example, the heist could have been easily carried out without Chris Pratt. So why all the charade and then a dramatic reveal. And with Chris's physical and mental problem, why would the DMV allow him to drive? That's a little hard to believe. And then there's that Memento-like subplot about Chris's memory loss -- he needs to keep notes to remember the sequence of events. It serves the plot but, again, it feels contrived.

l6This is Scott Frank's directorial debut, and it's obvious. The pacing needs tightening, and the camera work is inconsistent. But once the action picks up in the second half, Frank is able to sustain the tension and build up to an interesting ending, albeit rather predictable. The stereotypical characters do serve a purpose, and there's a good adrenaline rush at the end. But there are way too many loose-ends and I have a hard time sustaining my disbelief; it also gets a bit melodramatic. So while I was over all entertained by the film, I wasn't too impressed. But look out, Hollywood is going to feed us more of these memory-lapse stories until we say, "Enough already."

Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jeff Daniels, Matthew Goode, Isla Fisher, Carla Gugina, Bruce McGill, Alberta Watson,Sergio Di Zio
Director: Scott Frank
Writer: Scott Frank
Distributor: Miramax
MPAA Rating: R for language, violence and sexual content
Running Time: 99 Minutes


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

Total – 6.9 out of 10

The Last Mimzy

© 2006 Ray Wong


Based on Lewis Padgett's short story, The Last Mimzy is a science fiction with children as its protagonists. While not really a children's story, it is suitable for children of all ages.

lm1Noah Wilder (O'Neil) is a ten-year-old with a vivid imagination. Craving his busy father's attention, Noah loses interest in school and is lagging behind, especially in Math and Science. During a family weekend getaway at their beach house, Noah and his younger sister, Emma (Wryn), find a strange box that contains a few strange "toys," including a stuffed bunny. Emma immediately becomes "friends" with the bunny and calls her Mimzy, as if the toy actually is talking to her.

lm2Soon, Noah and Emma discover they're starting to have superpowers. Noah's intelligence and new-found academic excellence surprise his parents (Richardson and Hutton) as well as his Science teacher, Larry (Wilson). Larry and his New-Age girlfriend Naomi (Hahn) realize that something is very special about Noah and Emma. Confused and scared, however, the Wilders forbid the children from playing with the toys. Noah's defiance results in a blackout across the state of Washington, and the Feds are hot on their trail. Meanwhile, Noah and Emma discover that Emma has a destiny to fulfill.

lm3Newcomer Chris O'Neil does a wonderful job as Noah. He has a very natural ability to convey emotions and deliver his dialogue, and he's extremely likable as the unlikely hero. Rhiannon Leigh Wryn (Hulk) also is very agreeable as the little girl who is about to save humanity. I tend to dislike child-actors who overact, but O'Neil and Wryn both do a fine job here.

lm4Joely Richardson (Nip/Tuck) is solid as the children's loving and concerned mother. She really does have a good rapport with the kids. Together with Timothy Hutton (The Good Shepherd) -- who does a good job as well -- they give the film a nice balance, and something for the adults to relate to. Rainn Wilson (The Office) and Kathryne Hahn (The Holiday) are perfect together as the zany couple who come to the children's aid. The only sore casting is Michael Clarke Duncan (Talladega Night) as Agent Broadman. He seems out of place, and his character contributes to some of the film's most silly plot holes.

lm5The writers have done an okay job adapting and expanding Padgett's SF short story. The film opens with a prologue and ends with an epilogue, which seem a bit tagged on. And the story unfolds too slowly, losing our interest at various places. They try to introduce the characters and their relationships with each other, but they still feel two-dimensional. The story picks up when the children discover the toys. The dialogue is typically family-oriented, leaning a bit on the "info dumping" side. I believe the narrative could have been stronger if they would integrate these information more effectively with the plot.

lm6Producer-director Robert Shaye (Book of Love) hasn't directed a film since 1990, and it shows. His pacing is off and sometimes meandering, and there are scenes that feel silly and incoherent. There are plot holes along the way, and parts of it are out of character just to move the plot along. There's just not enough tension to keep us interested at all times. The ending is also predictable.

lm7However, as a family film, The Last Mimzy does offer ample entertainment with a good message. Its sci-fi themes should interest fans of SF&F stories. It has enough story to keep the adults interested while engaging the youngsters with something for their lasting imagination.

Stars: Chris O'Neil, Rhiannon Leigh Wryn, Joely Richardson, Timothy Hutton, Rainn Wilson, Kathryn Hahn, Michael Clarke Duncan
Director: Robert Shaye
Writers: Bruce Joel Rubin, Toby Emmerich, James V. Hart, Carol Skilken (based on short story by Lewis Padgett)
Distributor: New Line
MPAA Rating: PG for some thematic elements, mile peril and language
Running Time: 94 Minutes


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

Total – 6.6 out of 10


© 2007 Ray Wong


I really wanted to like Premonition, a mystery-thriller with the über-likable Sandra Bullock, because I enjoyed The Lake House a lot. Actually, I am split about the film, and I will tell you why later.

The story opens on a Thursday. Linda Hanson (Bullock) is a housewife with two beautiful girls, Bridgette (Burness) and Megan (McClure). Her husband, Jim (McMahon) is on a business trip. Later during the day, she notices a strange voicemail from her husband; just then, a sheriff knocks on her door and tells her that Jim was killed in an auto accident the day before. But how could Jim have died if she just got his voicemail today? Shocked, Linda asks her mother Joanne (Nelligan) to come and help take care of the girls and deal with the tragedy. Exhausted, she falls asleep on the couch.

p1When Linda wakes up, she finds Jim alive and well. Confused, she goes about her day thinking maybe she's had a bad dream. But it feels too real to her, and she's seeing people she's never met before (such as the sheriff). Then, Linda wakes up again, and it's now Saturday, the day of the funeral. But Linda has no idea what is happening. She has no memory of anything, including another accident that happened. One bad thing leads to another, sending her into a psychiatric ward.

p2But then, she wakes up again and it's now Tuesday. Once Linda realizes what's going on, she starts to piece everything together, and she realizes that she's having premonitions, and Wednesday (or Thursday, when she heard the news) hasn't really happened yet, and that she can still stop Jim's death. But should she? Her marriage to Jim is falling apart, and she suspects that he's having an affair. She asks, "If I let Jim die, is it the same as murder?" What is she going to do?

p3Sandra Bullock (The Lake House) sinks her teeth in yet another paranormal romance, but this time she shows more of her dramatic edge. She usually picks roles that fit her real-life personality, and as Linda Hanson, she displays a genuine vulnerability that makes us want to root for her. Her emotional range is excellent. As her husband, Julian McMahan (Fantastic Four) holds his own in a relatively small role. His calm and distant performance makes for a great counterpoint to Bullock's emotional turmoil. Though his role is small, his portrayal is pivotal to Bullock's character arc.

p4Courtney Taylor Burness (Fur) and Shyann McClure (House M.D.) are good as the daughters. Thank goodness they don't overact like other child actors, and they give the film its needed warmth and gravity. As Linda's concerned mother, Kate Nelligan (The Cider House Rules) gives a solid performance, with enough conflict to make us ache for her decisions. Nia Long (Big Mama's House) doesn't have much to do as Linda's best friend -- her role is rather peripheral and probably not even necessary. Peter Stormare (Nacho Libre) has a small role as a creepy psychiatrist. For some reason, I suspect that his role was much larger in the original script (I've heard there was as different ending...)

p5Speaking of the script, written by Bill Kelly (Blast from the Past), it's really confusing and complicated -- at least in the beginning -- when the time line is all jumbled and we can't really tell what is real. I got confused because I thought it was a time-traveling story, until I reminded myself that it's about "premonition," as the title indicates. Still, the non-linear storytelling (as far as the real time line is concerned) can be very challenging to understand, especially when things are changed around Linda. Did she cause the changes? Can she change the future? Like Butterfly Effects, the cause-effect plot can be mind-numbing. There are too many inconsistencies.

p6Even if you figure out the time line and the story arc, there still seem to be too many plot holes. And even when I understand what is real and what is premonition, I still have trouble figuring out why the order? Why Monday first instead of Sunday, if she's going to live her real life in chronological order. It's baffling, and judging from the buzz on Internet bulletin boards, I know many people feel the same way. And I think that's a detriment to the screenwriter. True, Donnie Darko has a weird time line and is challenging to understand as well, and it went on to become a cult classic. But I do think that Kelly is trying too hard to be clever and the script becomes needlessly complicated. Unfortunately, the plotting is not as tight or meticulous to compensate for the complexity.

p7German director Mennan Yapo (Framed) should be given kudos for weaving this jumbled plot into something that is at least entertaining. Of course, Sandra Bullock's performance contributes to that. Still, I think much of the movie plods along too slowly. There are of course intrigue and mysteries and suspense, but there were times when I looked at my watch and wished the pace would pick up. And the ending. I think I understand the meaning of the ending, and why they want it that way. Premonition is really a philosophical meditation of love, relationships, meanings, and choices. Still, for anyone expecting some kind of real resolution, the ending is a letdown. The whole thing seems like a long revelation. I'm looking forward to seeing the alternate ending.

p8On top of that, just because of how the events are played out, it's very frustrating to watch Linda repeating everything she "sees" in her premonitions, and without noticing that she's doing it. I mean, hello? She's not all that bright, is she? And that's frustrating. If she knows her husband is going to die or something is going to happen to her daughter, why not try everything she can to stop it, like tying him up or something? I understand -- yes, I do -- why the events have to happen because of its philosophical theme, but as a story, the character loses her credibility. And that's one thing I find very annoying. I really wanted to love this movie, but if I had had any premonition about this before, I would have chosen to wait for it on Netflix.

Stars: Sandra Bullock, Julian McMahon, Shyann McClure, Courtney Taylor Burness, Nia Long, Peter Stomare, Kate Nelligan
Director: Mennan Yapo
Writers: Bill Kelly
Distributor: Sony Pictures
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violent, disturbing images, thematic material and brief language
Running Time: 110 Minutes


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

Total – 6.7 out of 10


© 2006 Ray Wong


Hollywood has long been in love with Frank Miller's graphic novels, from RoboCop to Sin City. His 300 takes us back more than two thousand years to the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. In truth, this is more of a fantasy than a historical drama.

aAs the narrator begins the story, King Leonidas (Butler), like all the kings before him, has been bred and raised as soldiers, the best of the best to represent the military state of Sparta. He and his queen, Gorgo (Headey) enjoy the beauty and the peace of their land with their son until the Persian king, Xerxes (Santoro) rages a war against Sparta and all of Greece.

bLeonidas wants to lead his troops to fight off the invaders, but according to Spartan laws, he must obtain the blessing from the Ephors. Little does he know, politician Theron (West) has corrupted them. Not to be discouraged, Leonidas recruits 300 of his finest warriors, each have at least a son to replace them, on a suicide mission to hold off the Persian army while Gorgo tries to persuade the council to send a pan-Greek army to their aid.

cLeonidas' 300 Spartans clearly are outnumbered by Xerxes' 100,000-strong army. But they find a way to fend off the Persians for as long as they can, by guarding the mountain pass of Thermopylae. Xerxes gives Leonidas ten days to surrender, or he threatens to slaughter the Spartans. The 300 Spartans are joined by about 700 Thespians and slave soldiers, and they fight bravely, killing thousands of Persian soldiers, and holding the pass for three days. Unfortunately, a local shepherd, Ephialtes (Tierman), betrays Leonidas by showing Xerxes an alternate path around Thermopylae. The Spartans fight till their last breaths and their sacrifices inspire the rest of Greece to band together to later defeat the Persians.

dGerard Butler (The Phantom of the Opera) has transformed himself physically and mentally to play the fearless King Leonidas. His presence dominates the film, and his characterization is larger than life. Yet he shows great tenderness toward his queen and son. Butler shows a good range without relying on a pedestrian portrayal of a warrior hero. As Queen Gorgo, Lena Headey (Imagine Me & You) is a worthy counterpart to Butler. They share wonderful chemistry, and it's gratifying to see a strong female character in a male-dominated story.

eAs Theron, Dominic West (The Forgotten) plays a through-and-through bad guy with gusto. Too bad his character is really one-dimensional. Vincent Regan (Troy) is admirable as the heroic Captain. David Wenham (The Lord of the Rings) seems a bit weak as fellow Spartan Dilios, but redeems himself as the story's narrator. Andrew Tierman (Murphy's Law) dons heavy prosthetics and makeup to play Ephialtes, and his performance is one of the more layered in the film. And Rodrigo Santoro (Love Actually) is almost unrecognizable as Xerxes, effusing a cold arrogance that is fit for a king. Also, they all earn kudos for working so hard to build those spectacular pecs and abs, and for being brave enough to show up in nothing more than red capes and leather briefs.

fThe script and storyboard by Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad and Michael Gordon follows Frank Miller's graphic novel closely. The storytelling is rather straightforward, with over-the-top narration and on the nose dialogue. Except for the tortured soul Ephialtes, good and evil are clearly defined. gThe story has a surreal fantasy feel to it, and the characters are all larger-than-life with no ambiguity. It seems that the writers are determined to create some catch phrases ("We are SPARTANS!" Leonidas proclaims before kicking a Persian messenger off into a well), which generally work very well for the genre. They have done a good job creating a fluid storyline with Queen Gorgo's subplot as a counterbalance. That creates good tension and drama, even though we all know the story and the ending so well. Unfortunately, the story is a bit thin over all, so it drags in places and some of the action feels somewhat repetitious.

hZack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) compensates with a stunning visual style that gives the film a surreal, fantastical look. Even though it's based on historical events, 300 is made as a fantasy. Except for the actors, their costumes and the props, almost everything else is created by CG, which has created a lush, dream-like world in sepia tone. The monochromatic color scheme might get a little tiring after a while, but Synder should be commended for creating a consistent, and mostly stunning vision. Every frame is beautifully constructed, and many scenes work like a Frank Frazetta's painting set in motion.

iObviously, Snyder and company know who their audiences are. The film is overripe with testosterone, especially with the heavy metal soundtrack. The battle scenes are well-choreographed and rendered, and the stylized violence, gore, and dismemberments are oddly pleasing (at least aesthetically). Yet the females get to have their beefcakes, too. jIf you're looking for something deeper and better rounded, this might not be for you. And those who have been spoiled by Lord of the Rings may not find this movie all that impressive. However, historical accuracies and lack of character development aside, 300 is a spectacle that should appeal to fans of graphic novels and fantasies.

Stars: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West, David Wenham, Vincent Regan, Michael Fassbender, Andrew Tierman, Rodrigo Santoro
Director: Zack Snyder
Writers: Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, Michael Gordon (based on graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley)
Distributor: Warner Bros
MPAA Rating: R for graphic violence, battle sequences, sexuality and nudity
Running Time: 117 Minutes


Script – 6
Performance – 7
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 9
Music/Sound– 7
Editing – 7
Production – 9

Total – 7.3 out of 10


© 2007 Ray Wong


Based on James Graysmith's true crime bestseller about an unsolved serial killer case, Zodiac is a riveting suspense-thriller despite its slow pace and long running time.

z1In the summer of 1969, a murder rattles the communities of Vallejo, CA. When the killer, who calls himself the Zodiac, sends an anonymous letter with an encrypted code to the San Francisco Chronicle (as well as the Examiner and other media) admitting to other murders and demanding the codes to be printed, the city rises to the realization that there's a psychotic serial killer among them.

z2James Graysmith (Gyllenhaal) is a cartoonist at the Chronicle, who follows the case closely as reporter Paul Avery (Downey) and the editorial board struggle to get to the heart of the story. When the Zodiac Killer strikes in San Francisco, inspectors David Toschi (Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Edwards) become in charge of the investigation. Letters from the Zodiac Killer threatening to kill schoolchildren send the city into full panic mode, as Toschi and Armstrong try to outsmart the killer.

z3Their leads from four California counties point them to a few possible suspects, including Arthur Leigh Allen (Lynch), who fits all the circumstantial evidences. However, there is never enough hard evidence to make an arrest, and the case remains open for more than 20 years. As the investigation lingers in limbo, Graysmith's obsession with the case, especially the true identity of the Zodiac, leads him on a personal journey despite many obstacles. His discoveries reveal details the police has neglected and make many connections overlooked by others. For once, Graysmith is on the verge of finding the true identity of the Zodiac Killer, at the risk of his own life.

z4Jake Gyllenhaal (Brokeback Mountain) is very good as James Graysmith. His role remains peripheral as he observes his colleagues, but once his takes action and his own story arc takes off, he shows great intensity and the kind of vulnerability that makes you root for him. Mark Ruffalo (All the King's Men) is also excellent as the dedicated, frustrated inspector. He has a down-to-earth quality that makes you believe.

z5In fact, the performance of the entire cast is excellent. There are no frills, no over-the-top extravagance. Just good, solid characterizations that make the fact-based story real. Okay, maybe the exception is Robert Downey Jr. (Fur), who shines in every scene he's in as the flamboyant report. He steals the movie from both Gyllenhaal and Ruffalo. The outstanding all-star cast includes the solid Anthony Edwards (The Forgotten) in his first major role in three years, the prolific and always spot-on Brian Cox (Running with Scissors) as Marvin Belli, the imposing John Carroll Lynch (Full of It) as the creepy Arthur Leigh Allen, Chloë Sevigny (Sisters) as James Graysmith's wife, and Dermot Mulroney (The Family Stone) as Captain Marty Lee.

z6Writer James Vanderbilt (Darkness Falls) has successfully weaved Graysmith's detailed recounts of facts and police procedures into a coherent, complex story with multiple view point characters and a focused arc, spanning over 20 years. Graysmith's true crime story provides a lot of information for Vanderbilt, but it's his ability to develop the characters and the believable dialogue that make this long script tense, suspenseful, and incredibly satisfying. z7Even though there's a true villain in the film, we never really know who that is -- the audiences are guessing as the investigation continues -- and we never really know who the protagonist is either. Sure, in part it's James Graysmith's story, but in truth it really is an ensemble effort, and everyone does a great job.

z8Director David Fincher (Panic Room) returns to the crime genre and delivers a heck of a thrill ride. His approach is methodical, and sometimes deceptively slow. The detailed unfolding of the story may seem anticlimactic at times, but Fincher ensures us that there is enough information, doubts, conflicts and tension to pull us through. There's not a moment without some kind of dread or tension. Fincher has the good sense of revealing the murders upfront in intense (but not specifically graphic) scenes, hooking us immediately, then holding us by sustaining the tension and suspense throughout the entire film.

z9There's always a sense of dread (if and when will the Zodiac strike again?) and intrigues (will they ever find the guy?) At the same time, both Fincher and Vanderbilt don't want to commit to a definitive conclusion -- they try to let the audiences make up their own mind and come to their own conclusion. z10However, they're also true to Graysmith's analysis, experiences and speculations. We may think that they're all trying to coerce us to come to a certain conclusion, but there is always a certain doubt. We just won't know for sure. And as a true crime film, Zodiac is fascinating in many aspects. What a satisfying ride.

Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey Jr., Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch, Chloë Sevigny
Director: David Fincher
Writers: James Vanderbilt (based on Robert Graysmith's bestseller)
Distributor: Paramount
MPAA Rating: R for violence, killings, language, drug, and brief sexual images
Running Time: 158 Minutes


Script – 8
Performance – 8
Direction – 9
Cinematography – 8
Music/Sound– 7
Editing – 8
Production – 8

Total – 8.2 out of 10