Dan in Real Life

© 2007 Ray Wong

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Marketed as a romantic comedy starring the often-hilarious Steve Carell, Dan in Real Life is actually a film about family. OK, it is a comedy; but not the laugh-out-loud slapsticks you would expect from Carell.

photo1Widowed with three young daughters, Dan Burns (Steve Carell) is an advice columnist still mourning for his wife after four years. Beside his job and his children, Dan doesn't really have a life. While on his annual family vacation at his parents' house in New England, Dan meets the woman of his dream. Marie (Juliette Binoche) is everything he could dream of: beautiful, kind, smart, with a great sense of humor. Suddenly Dan is giggling like a small boy and can't help babbling about Marie.

photo2That is until he finds out Marie is his brother's girlfriend, and she was on her way to join the family for the weekend when Dan and she met. Awkward. Dan tries to force himself to forget about Marie but everywhere he turns, there she is, and his brother Mitch (Dane Cook) keeps reminding Dan how lucky he is and what a fabulous catch Marie is. To complicate matters, Marie is not necessarily saying "no, please keep your distance." Driven by jealousy and self-pity, Dan acts out his frustration like a 15-year-old until his family -- not knowing dilemma -- steps in to interfere.

photo3Steve Carell (Evan Almighty) can be inconsistent. He was extremely funny in supporting roles and as Michael Scott in the hit show The Office, but he was flat in Evan Almighty. However, Carell is able to tap into his psychosis as well as his boy-man sensitivity to bring Dan Burns to life. Strangely, Carell shows great dramatic chops in a comedic role. There are key scenes in which his performance is pitch perfect and touching.

photo4Juliette Binoche (Paris, je t'aime) is always lovely and interesting. As Dan's object of affection, however, her character seems somewhat inconsistent and we can't really tell how she feels until later in the film. Granted, the story is mostly told from Dan's perspective but still, her ambiguity keeps the audiences at a distance. She is like this image of perfection but doesn't quite seem real. Dane Cook (Good Luck Chuck) plays a lovable schmuck with ease, but his acting skills are rather lacking, especially in the company of a great cast.

photo5As Dan's three daughters, Alison Pill (Dear Wendy), Brittany Robertson (Frank), and especially Marlene Lawston (Flight Plan) are adorable -- they have good chemistry with their onscreen dad. Dianne Wiest (Dedication) and John Mahoney (Frasier) are comforting as Dan's laid back but concerned parents. Finally, Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada) turns in a remarkably fun and sexy performance as Dan's childhood friend, Ruthie, albeit her limited screen time.

photo6The screenplay by writer-director Peter Hedges (Pieces of Apple) and Pierce Gardner (Lost Soul) follows a conventional family vacation/romantic comedy routine. The set up is a bit contrived: boy meets girl cute and then boy loses girl quickly. The plot seems conventional as well, and predictable. Still, their strength is in the dialogue; there are some really sharp-witted lines and gut-busting situations. Despite certain slapstick moments, Hedges and Gardner manage to keep the comedy down to Earth and real. The story has a great sense of humor without resorting to extreme hilarity, and that sets the tone of the film nicely.

photo7Those who expect to see Steve Carell doing his Michael Scott schticks or following the comedy footsteps of stars such as Jim Carrey or Will Farrell would be disappointed. However, unlike Evan Almighty, which basically neutered the actor from the first scene, Dan in Real Life gives him a chance to showcase his dramatic skills. There are of course funny moments, but it is the emotionally charged scenes that set Steve Carell apart. He has a way to really touch your heart with a simple look and a lopsided smirk.

photo8Peter Hedges does a fine job letting his star shine. The film has a gentle and calm feel to it and that's such a great juxtaposition to Dan's emotional turmoil. Hedges keeps the pace brisk, although there are a few dull moments. The soundtrack is uninspired -- mostly recycled songs and the score is negligible. Still, Dan in Real Life is a sweet, humorous look at family and love and, most important, self-worth. It's an amusing feel-good movie to which we can all relate in our own real lives.


Stars: Steve Carell, Juliette Binoche, Dane Cook, Alison Pill, Brittany Robertson, Marlene Lawston, Dianne Wiest, John Mahoney, Emily Blunt
Director: Peter Hedges
Writer: Peter Hedges, Pierce Gardner
Distributor: Buena Vista/Touchstone
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some innuendo
Running Time: 100 Minutes

Ratings:

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

Total – 7.5 out of 10

Rendition

© 2007 Ray Wong

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A political drama-thriller that boasts an all-star cast, Rendition examines current hot topics such as terrorism, war, national security, and torture.

photo1Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) is an Egyptian national who holds a green card and is married to American citizen Isabella (Reese Witherspoon). During one of his business trips to South Africa, Anwar is detained by the CIA for his apparent involvement in a suicide bombing in North Africa that has resulted in the death of an American agent. Anwar maintains that he doesn't know anything, even though calls from known terrorists have been traced to his cell phone. Since it's unlawful to detain a US resident indefinitely, Director Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep) authorizes Anwar to be transfered to Africa for "rendition": handing suspected terrorists to a foreign country where torture is allowed.

photo2Anwar's disappearance prompts his wife to make her way to Washington D.C. to seek help. Her old flame, Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard) is assistant to Senator Hawkins (Alan Arkin). Alan's investigation leads him to Corrine Whitman, but his confrontations may jeopardize both the Senator and his own political career.

photo3Meanwhile, Anwar is being interrogated and tortured at Abasi Fawal's (Yigal Naor) facility. Fawal was the target of the terrorist attack, which resulted in 19 deaths. The rendition is being observed by American agent Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who was at the scene of the bombing and lost one of his colleagues. As the torture becomes more and more severe, Douglas questions their validity, Anwar's innocence, and whether he's doing the right thing in the name of patriotism.

photo4The ensemble cast includes Reese Witherspoon (Just like Heaven) as a distraught wife whose engineer husband simply disappears. Despite her star billing, she doesn't really have much to do -- her part of the story is actually rather minimal, even though she represents the audiences' confusion and frustration of the whole mess. Jake Gyllenhaal (Zodiac) is adequate as the CIA analyst whose conscience is called into question as he witnesses the tortures. Meryl Streep (Evening) is precise and effective as the cold, determined operational director who would do anything in the name of national security. And Peter Sarsgaard (Year of the Dog) is sincere as someone who is reluctantly caught in the cross-fire.

photo5Omar Metwally (Munich) is excellent as Anwar, an American who is wrongfully accused of being a terrorist. His ordeal is hard to watch. Mohammed Khauas (Munich) gives an interesting performance as a boy who falls in love with his enemy's daughter, Fatima, portrayed by newcomer Zineb Oukach as sweet and passive. Yigal Naor (Munich) stands out as Fatima's father, Abasi, by showing both his ruthlessness and vulnerability.

photo6The script by Kelley Sane (Franchesca Page) is intense, taut and complex. Following multiple threads, the plot weaves three different points of view into one story: Anwar's wife's, Douglas Freeman's, and Khalid's. It is suspenseful in that we never really know what is going to happen next, whether Anwar is telling the truth, and what actually happens at the bombing. The screenplay also attains authenticity as the actors speak in their languages (with subtitles). Part of the time line is confusing and misleading, but Sane successfully spins the yarn and ties up the loose ends at the end.

photo7However, the suspenseful drama/thriller is marred by inconsistencies and a somewhat heavy-handed message. The situations that lead to Anwar's arrest and subsequent rendition are rather thin, coincidental and incredulous. I mean, couldn't the CIA have done better than following just one lead? While it tries to present the various points of view, we can't help but feel its judgment by way of the character developments: Alan Smith is contemplative and sensitive, Isabella El-Ibrahimi is all-American, and Corrine Whitman is cold and distant. Such subtle commentaries do not go unnoticed and they give the story a perceived "liberal" bias. We would be hard pressed to not get the message: torture is useless; rendition is bad; violence breeds more violence.

Direct Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) has a gentle style, even in the context of the intense drama. Using careful and smart editing, the story unfolds slowly and close to the vest, revealing only enough information to keep the audiences hooked. The suspense and tension are palpable. Hood also succeeds in coherently weaving the different plot threads together. While the pace falters in places, the plot is easy to follow -- except for the plot thread involving Khalid and Fatima. The time line is not clear until near the end. I understand the reason (to build suspense and mystery) but the result is jarring and it yanks the audiences out of the story.

Despite its flaws, the film is intense, dramatic, complex, and relevant. The performances are generally effective and the storytelling gripping and suspenseful. With a taut script and under a skillful direction, the film is a worthy rendition of the current crop of political drama-thrillers.


Stars: Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep, Peter Sarsgaard, J.K. Simmons, Alan Arkin, Omar Metwally, Mohammed Khouas, Zineb Oukach, Yigal Naor
Director: Gavin Hood
Writer: Kelley Sane
Distributor: Revolution Studios/Columbia Pictures
MPAA Rating: R for torture/violence and language
Running Time: 120 Minutes

Ratings:

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

Total – 7.7 out of 10

Across the Universe

© 2007 Ray Wong

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The mastermind behind the musical hit The Lion King, director Julie Taymor had a crazy idea: What if there's a musical about the volatile 60s based entirely on the Beatles' songs? What transpires is a visually and musically arresting concoction of love and loss.


photo1Jude (Jim Sturgess) is a dock worker in Liverpool, England. He travels to America to find his father, who abandoned his mother when she was still pregnant with Jude. While looking for his father at Princeton University, Jude meets student Max (Joe Anderson) and they quickly become best friends. Soon, Max drops out and moves to New York City with Jude. They find an apartment run by would-be singer Sadie (Dana Fuchs) with an eclectic group of roommates such as JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy) and Prudence (T.V. Carpio).


photo2Meanwhile, after her boyfriend Daniel (Spencer Liff) died in the Vietnam War, Max's sister, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), gets fed up with the boring suburban life and moves to New York. When Jude first sees Lucy, he knows it's love at first sight. While still mourning Daniel and resisting further heartbreaks, Lucy falls in love with Jude as well. Max, Lucy and Jude become inseparable.

photo3When Max is drafted into the army, Lucy becomes an anti-war activist, much against the wishes of the laid-back, Bohemian Jude. After being arrested at a riot, Jude is deported back to the UK. The group of friends and lovers suffer through the uncertain period of loss and separation and fear. Then Max returns from the war, alive...

photo4Evan Rachel Wood (Running with Scissors) is beautiful as Lucy. Her acting, though, is a bit wooden and her singing voice is by far the weakest. But her sensitivity and sweet nature wins Jude's heart as well as ours. As Jude, Jim Sturgess (Mouth to Mouth) is affecting, handsome and sincere. He also has a great tenor voice. Wood and Sturgess are so pretty together and they share a great chemistry with each other.

photo5Joe Anderson (Becoming Jane) has a blast playing Max, the happy-go-lucky dude who becomes a tormented GI. He has a very strong pop voice. Singers Dana Fuchs and Martin Luther McCoy are electrifying as the passionate lovers in their respective film debuts. The gorgeous T.V. Carpio (She Hate Me) impresses as sapphic Prudence with great sympathy and vulnerability.

photo6There are some interesting cameos including Eddie Izzard (Ocean's Thirteen) as an absurd circus ringmaster, Bono (The Million Dollar Hotel) as an anti-war hippy Dr. Robert, and Salma Hayek (Lonely Hearts) as a singing nurse.

photo7Written by Dick Clement (Flushed Away) and Ian La Frenais (Flushed Away), the story actually has a thin and clich├ęd plot: star-crossed lovers thrown together while finding themselves during a turbulent time. The interesting thing is that they keep the spoken dialogue to a minimum, and instead use the Beatles' lyrics to carry much of the conversation. In that regard, they've done a good job weaving the songs into the story. The plot, however, meanders in the middle with unconvincing motivations and consequences. It feels forced as it plods along. It picks up again near the end, coming to a satisfying finish.

photo8Director Julie Taymor (Frida) has a unique visual storytelling style reminiscent of Moulin Rouge. She combines realistic drama with fantastical elements, dream sequences, and artistic, abstract renditions that blend reality with fantasy. Part of the film deals with the 60s' counterculture and "sex, drugs and rock n roll," and the film takes on a psychedelic quality. Taymor employs many imaginative techniques and visuals in a number of set pieces that borders on absurdism, but fascinating to watch, even experience.

The final analysis is that the film is a visual and musical delight, even though it has a thin, incoherent plot. It drags in the middle and goes on too long, but eventually redeems itself at the end. With its beautiful, talented stars, scrumptious visuals, and a gorgeous soundtrack, the film will please fans of love stories and the Beatles across the universe.

Stars: Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, Dana Fuchs, Martin Luther McCoy, T.V. Carpio, Spencer Liff
Director: Julie Taymor
Writers: Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, Julie Tayor
Distributor: Revolution Studios/Columbia Pictures
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some drug content, nudity, sexuality, violence and language
Running Time: 131 Minutes

Ratings:

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

Total – 7.8 out of 10

The Heartbreak Kid

© 2007 Ray Wong

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A modern remake of Neil Simon's 1972 original (starring Charles Grodin and Cybill Shepherd), The Heartbreak Kid has all the Farrelly brothers' crudeness but not much of their charm.

photo1Hardly a "kid," Eddie Cantrow (Ben Stiller) is a 40-year-old bachelor who is clinically commitment-phobic. Then he meets the perfect woman, Lila (Malin Akerman), who is smart, sweet, and gorgeous. The pressure of settling down prompts Eddie to marry Lila after only knowing her for six weeks.

photo2On their way to honeymoon in Mexico, Lila reveals more of her true self to Eddie, who realizes that he may have made a mistakes. Meanwhile, Eddie meets another woman, Miranda (Michelle Monaghan), who is vacationing with her family. Miranda and Eddie hit it off immediately, but Eddie never reveals that he's a married man. At the same time, he completely ignores Lila while pursuing Miranda. Once Eddie's secret is out, however, he has a whole lot of explaining to do.

photo3Ben Stiller (A Night at the Museum) has a knack for playing a nitwit, and he's just as annoying and frustrating here as Eddie. There's enough vulnerability in his character to make us at least empathize with his situation, but there's so much to dislike about the character and his action that Stiller's performance doesn't help. As the object of Eddie's affection, Michelle Monaghan (Mission Impossible III) plays the "straight role" well. Despite a few goofy scenes, Monaghan exudes enough girl-next-door charm to win Stiller's and the audiences' hearts.

photo4Malin Akerman (The Brothers Solomon) impresses as perfect woman from Hell. Even though her character is an exaggeration and caricature, Akerman somehow adds layers and depth. Jerry Stiller (Hairspray), Ben Stiller's real dad, plays Eddie's horndog father mainly for laughs -- who doesn't want to see an 80-year-old man get naked with a well-endowed female? Carlos Mencia (Drawn Together) plays a stereotypical Mexican as Uncle Tito -- the character is half-drawn and rather repulsive. Rob Corddry (I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry) is funny as Eddie's "conscience," who happens to be miserable in his own marriage.

photo5Loosely based on the Neil Simon's original, the Farrelly brothers (Fever Pitch) take a lot of creative license and instill much of their brand of crude humor in the script. Not as raunchy as There's Something About Mary and not as sincere as Fever Pitch, the script feels half-baked. The jokes are not always funny, and the characters are irritating. Granted, I give them credit for not making Lila a complete psycho -- despite her flaws, she is actually endearing for being honest and genuine, unlike the deceptive nature of Stiller's character. The problem is that as a comedy, the script feels forced and uneven. There are some hilarious and gross-out moments, and definitely not politically correct. On the other hand, much of the film feels dull.

photo6The biggest flaw is that even as a comedy, there should be some kind of character growth. Knocked Up, for example, is a comedy with a good heart and at the end, the characters grow up. Not so in The Heartbreak Kid. At the end, Eddie is still the same and we can't help but feel frustrated.

photo7Technically the film also feels uneven. Part of the movie drags incessantly, and the jokes fall flat. The amount of sensible humor and crude jokes seem out of balance, and the effect is jarring. One gross-out moment that resembles the famous "frank and beans" in There's Something About Mary feels out of place.

photo8Certainly, The Heartbreak Kid is not a complete waste of time, but given the choice, I don't think Neil Simon would be heartbroken to find out we prefer his film to the Farrelly brothers'.

Stars: Ben Stiller, Michelle Monaghan, Jerry Stiller, Malin Akerman, Carlos Mencia, Rob Corddry
Directors: Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly
Writers: Scot Armstrong, Leslie Dixon, Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly, Kevin Barnett (based on Bruce Jay Friedman's short story and Neil Simon's original screenplay)
Distributor: DreamWorks
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content, crude humor and language
Running Time: 115 Minutes

Ratings:

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

Total – 6.2 out of 10