© 2007 Ray Wong


Every year, one in 700 patients who go through surgery wakes up during surgery. It's a horrific scenario all by itself. But what if while you're awake, you realize you're being murdered?

photo1At 22, Clay Beresford Jr. (Hayden Christensen) is a billionaire investment wiz kid who is extremely close to his widowed mother, Lilith (Lena Olin). Clay has a congenital heart condition that requires a heart transplant. He becomes good friends with Dr. Jack Harper (Terrence Howard) after Harper saved his life from a heart attack. Clay is also secretly dating his mother's assistant, Sam Lockwood (Jessica Alba).

photo2Against his mother's objection, Clay marries Sam in a rushed ceremony. Then Clay gets a call from Dr. Harper: a heart is waiting for him. The double good news send Clay through the roof and he insists on having Harper do the surgery, even though his mother's friend, Dr. Neyer (Arliss Howard), is a renowned expert in heart transplant surgery.

photo3During the surgery, Clay realizes that he's still fully awake and he knows and senses everything that is going on. He tries to alert the surgeons but, of course, no one could hear him. While listening to the conversations, Clay has the stark discovery that Dr. Harper, Dr. Putnam (Fisher Stevens) and nurse Penny Carver (Georgina Chapman) are in on the "game" -- they plan to kill Clay. But why? (Um, I think his billions would be the first clue). Shocked and disoriented, Clay needs to find a way to alert his concerned wife and mother.

photo4Hayden Christensen (Star Wars I, II, III) looks pale and detached in the role. Even though his character is a wealthy wiz kid, he still looks way too young and inexperienced to pull it off. In addition, Christensen lacks the ability and expressiveness to play the character effectively. His role is too passive and his performance is subpar. It seems that Christensen only has three expressions. Jessica Alba (Fantastic Four) is a beautiful actress, but she, too, lacks the acting ability to portray her complex character. There's absolutely no depth in her performance.

photo5The veterans fare somewhat better. Terrence Howard (August Rush) does a respectable job playing the scheming doctor, but Howard is too good an actor to be wasted in this two-dimensional role. Lena Olin (Casanova) has one of the best roles in the film: her "protective mother" part is complex, sympathetic, and active. She makes things happen and we root for her. Arliss Howard (Birth) does a good job as the concerned heart surgeon. The supporting cast does their job in their relatively minor roles: Fisher Stevens (Red Angel) and Georgina Chapman (The Nanny Diary) as the co-conspirators, and Christopher McDonald (Rumor Has It) as the clueless replacement anesthesiologist whose ineptness sets the plot in motion.

photo6The "what-if" scenario of Awake is fascinating that I'm surprised how badly writer-director Joby Harold's vision fails. Awake is his first feature, and it shows. The script is incredibly predictable: you can smell what's coming from three theaters away. The characters are so underdeveloped (the only thing you need to know is that they all want money) and the plot so deliberate that it's like watching a map unfold -- before it does you already know what it looks like and where the road is going. The dialogue is very pedestrian.

photo7There are some intense moments during the surgery when Clay Beresford is awake. The premise naturally lends itself to some gruesome, cringe-worthy scenarios. Yet it's nothing new either: Didn't Stephen King already write a story about that? Nevertheless, the script fails in that Joby Harold has made many clichéd and uninteresting choices. While we can figure out the obvious plot, it seems even more incredulous that someone as smart as Clay (one needs to be analytical, observant, and psychologically in tune to beat the stock market) could be so stupid when it comes to human relationships. Especially when you're a billionaire with a health problem, wouldn't you become more suspicious of people who want to be your "friends"? Wouldn't you want the best care you can have when it concerns your heart?

photo8That aside, the story follows a typical, predictable plot line that masquerades as a psychological thriller. What we get is really a meandering sob story about a guy who is passively made aware of his shortcomings and stupidity, through certain quasi-supernatural flashbacks. More often than not I keep wondering if the story would be ten times more interesting if someone else had written it. I think Joby Harold was too close to the story that he couldn't see the flaws or how predictable it was. Every clue and evidence are presented with a bright "Look Here" sign. It's so deliberately plotted that there are no surprises at all. So when the big "secrets" are revealed, we're left with a "ho-hum, big deal" feeling, coupled with the laughable expression on Christensen's face. I was surprised I sat through the entire movie fully awake.

Stars: Hayden Christensen, Jessica Alba, Terrence Howard, Lena Olin, Christopher McDonald, Arliss Howard, Fisher Stevens, Georgina Chapman
Director: Joby Harold
Writer: Joby Harold
Distributor: Weinstein Comany
MPAA Rating: R for language, an intensely disturbing situation, and brief drug use
Running Time: 84 Minutes


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

Total – 6.2 out of 10


© 2007 Ray Wong


Once upon a time, there was a magic kingdom that gave us memorable tales such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Then the kingdom was enshrouded by evil and went through a decade of darkness. Until now, when a shred of light lifts the kingdom from this darkness in the shape of a film called Enchanted.

photo1Giselle (Amy Adams) is our typical fair maiden in the kingdom of Andalasia who dreams of her true love's kiss. Then Prince Edward (James Marsden) comes and rescues her from a troll, and they fall in love (fairytale-style) and are getting married "the next morning." However, Edward's stepmother, Queen Narcissa (Susan Sarandon) is determined to stop the wedding because once Edward gets married, she will have to give up her throne. Scheming with Edward's henchman, Nathaniel (Timothy Spall), Narcissa pushes Giselle into a wishing well into another world where there is no "happily ever after": New York City.

photo2Displaced and confused, Giselle wanders the streets until she meets divorce lawyer Robert (Patrick Dempsey) and his young daughter Morgan (Rachel Covey). Believing Giselle has a screw loose in her brain (what with singing, dancing, making clothes out of curtains), Robert is about to send Giselle away when her charms melt his hard shell. Despite the fact that Robert is about to propose to his girlfriend of five years, Nancy (Idina Menzel), he is a skeptic about love and the "happily ever after" nonsense. But Giselle is slowly changing his mind.

photo3Eventually, Prince Edward enters the real world trying to rescue Giselle. As Edward's getting closer and closer to finding Giselle, Narcissa schemes to stop it once and for all by killing Giselle with some poisoned apples. Will Giselle find her true love? Will Narcissa succeed?

photo4If the story sounds clichéd and predictable, it is. But that's absolutely the point and charm of this tongue-in-cheek romantic comedy. Disney succeeds in poking fun at itself with such self-referential humor. Anyone who has loved or hated any Disney films would have recognized many inside jokes and self-deprecating jabs in the story.

photo5Amy Adams (Underdog) is radiant and wonderful as Giselle. Her naiveté and innocence are infectious. She's the sole reason why we can suspend our disbelief and willingly follow her journey. Her singing voice is also a revelation. We believe, truly, that she is the fairytale princess. Patrick Dempsey (Freedom Writers) pales compared to the effervescent Giselle, but that's okay. He has the tough job of playing the cynical straight man. The fact that he and Adams have a wonderful chemistry together more than makes up for his relative blandness.

photo6On the contrary, James Marsden (Hairspray) has a ball playing the over-the-top Prince Edward. He has some of the best lines and he plays the role with such joyous child-like quality that you can't help but like him even though he's such a bonehead. Furthermore, he really can sing! Timothy Spall (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) is very good as the henchman. Rachel Covey (Duane Hopwood) is sweet as Robert's daughter but Idina Menzel (Rent) is underused. Susan Sarandon (In the Valley of Elah) goes all out playing Narcissa, reminding us of several of Disney's most infamous villainesses: Maleficent, Ursula and the Evil Queen in Snow White.

photo7The script by Bill Kelly (Premonition) is incredibly tongue-in-cheek and self-referential. It really is a simple "fish out of water" concept, and yet the story works so well because it's made by Disney. Like the original Shrek, the story pokes fun at fairytales, especially those Disney has made famous. One doesn't need to look hard to find traces of classics such as Little Mermaid, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. What is amazing is that Kelly is able to put it all together in an entertaining, uplifting format that delights kids and adults, men and women alike. The movie tested really well with males from age 18 to 35 -- that says a lot given the genre. And much of it has to do with the humor and stellar performances from the leads.

photo8Director Kevin Lima (102 Dalmatians) inserts his own brand of optimism in the film. The 2-D animation at the beginning harks back to Disney's golden days. We don't see much quality hand-drawn animation anymore, and it is such a treat. When the action moves to New York City, the film switches gear but maintains its cockeyed optimism. There were a few hilarious scenes (one involves hordes of city rats, pigeons, flies and cockroaches). Songwriters Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz team up again and deliver some really catchy songs, and the soundtrack is outstanding. The production numbers are a joy to watch. In fact, when the fairytale characters break out into a song, it leaves us grinning. Sure, the story is predictable (oh, c'mon, did you really not expect the famous happy ending? This is Disney, after all). Granted, the ending goes a bit too long, but the simplicity of the story is precisely what makes the film work so well.

With its simple yet affecting story, wonderful performances, catchy songs, and a beautiful production, this movie truly is a treat to enchant the entire family.

Stars: Amy Adams, Patrick Dempsey, James Marsden, Timothy Spall, Idina Menzel, Susan Sarandon, Rachel Covey
Director: Kevin Lima
Writer: Bill Kelly
Distributor: Walt Disney
MPAA Rating: PG for some scary images and mild innuendo
Running Time: 107 Minutes


Script – 8
Performance – 8
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 8
Music/Sound– 9

Editing – 7
Production – 8

Total – 8.1 out of 10

Love in the Time of Cholera

© 2007 Ray Wong


Based on the exquisite novel by Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera has all the ingredients of a scrumptious historical romance: exotic settings, beautiful costumes, sweeping landscapes, and cultural richness. Unfortunately, even at 139 minutes, the film feels rushed and incomplete.

photo1Mostly told in flashback, the story tells of a poor telegram worker named Florentino (Bardem) who falls madly in love with a beautiful girl, Fermina (Giovanna Messogiorno). Florentino eventually wins her heart by sending her love letters, and Fermina agrees to marry him. Unfortuantely, her widowed father Lorenzo (John Leguizamo) forbids Fermina to see Florentio again; he wants her to marry well. When she defies him, he takes Fermina away for a few years. Florentino is heartbroken but continues to send Fermina telegrams. He wishes to reunite with Fermina once she returns.

photo2A few years later, Fermina returns and is all grown up. However, she rejects Florentino as nothing but a "ghost" to her. Despite that, Florention still believes Fermina is the woman for him, even after she marries distinguished doctor Juvenal (Benjamin Bratt). While their lives may have gone two separate directions, Florentino still believes his destiny lies with Fermina, and he waits for her until one day her husband may perish.

photo3Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men) is an excellent actor and he plays the love-sick Florentino with a lot of heart. Still, he is too old to play the young Florentino that his appearance takes me out of the story. I also find it difficult to identify with the character, despite Bardem's excellent performance. As Fermina, Giovanna Messogiorno (Don't Tell) is indeed beautiful, but her character seems so distant and cold that it's hard to believe Florentino would devote his entire life for the seemingly heartless woman. Messogiorno's performance is thus limited by her character.

photo4The largely foreign cast lends a certain authenticity to the production, which makes the casting of Latino-American actors such as Benjamin Bratt (Catwoman) and John Leguizamo (The Babysitters) somewhat distracting. While Bratt holds his own as Fermina's loving husband, I do wonder if Jimmy Smits would have been a better choice. In a way, I feel that Bratt is simply too "perfect" compared to Bardem's character. On the other hand, John Leguizamo is miscast: he's too young (and short) to play Fermina's father, and he acts like gangster in east L.A. Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace) is wonderful as Fermina's trampy cousin.

photo5I understand that it's impossible to adapt Márquez's extraordinary novel to the screen. But I suspect that much of the beauty of the novel is in its historical and cultural richness; the love story would almost seem secondary. Unfortunately, what transpires into a script by Ronald Harwood (Oliver Twist) is a disjointed, hallow tale of two marginally unlikable characters. Much of the historical and cultural richness is absent. Instead, the story meanders along with Florentino's obsession that spans over fifty years. The scope of the story simply is too big for the film to carry, and we're left with superficial settings where major events are glossed over.

photo6The biggest problem is that we can't identify with the two main characters. The hopelessly romantic Florentino comes off as a cry baby. Even with Bardem's skillful portrayal, Florentino is annoying, not to mention a creepy stalker. I can't remember how many times I said, "Get over it already." There's eternal love, and then there's creepy obsession, especially when a woman has already rejected you once too many times. On top of it, Florentino turns his obsession with Fermina to one with sex -- at one point, he boasts to a protégé for having sex with over six hundred women, and he causes a married woman her death because of the affair. Then later he tells Fermina that he's kept his virginity for her. What a scoundrel!

photo7Furthermore, we're not allowed to experience why Florentino should be forever in love with Fermina, because she comes off as a cold, distant, ungrateful bitch. As beautiful as she is, she just doesn't exude warmth or kindness toward anyone. She's outright mean to Florentino. We are not allowed to go deep in her heart and see why she makes those choices. We're only left with one quote -- "You must learn to find happiness without love" -- to summarize her motivation. It becomes difficult to root for these two characters when you stop to care about them as individuals.

photo8Director Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) gives us a beautiful production with exquisite location shots and cinematography. The makeup is well done as well. Unfortunately, he, too, is crippled by an unsatisfying script. The epic feel is lost as the story jumps in almost an episodic, disjointed fashion and fails to engage the audiences and evoke the right emotions. We're just left with an apathy about these characters, and by the end, we keep wondering why we even bother.

The film is beautifully shot and made, but the story and characters are emotionally superficial and empty. The cinematography and make-up (which is quite impressive) cannot compensate the film's major weaknesses and flaws. True and eternal love is grand, and I can understand and even cheer for flawed characters. But the filmmakers have made one mistake that leaves me hanging: a real connection. The two lovers fail to connect with each other, and they fail to connect with the audience. Thus the emotions are superficial: Love should be more than just a thought.

Stars: Javier Bardem, Giovanna Messogiorno, Benjamin Bratt, Liev Schreiber, John Leguizamo, Catalina Sandino Moreno
Director: Mike Newell
Writers: Ronald Harwood (based on novel by Gabriel Garcia Márquez)
Distributor: New Line
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, nudity, brief language
Running Time: 139 Minutes


Script – 5
Performance – 7
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 8
Music/Sound– 7

Editing – 7

Production – 8

Total – 6.4 out of 10

Lions for Lambs

© 2007 Ray Wong


Six years after 9/11, a barrage of films on the war on terror have finally emerged and just in time for the award season. First we had The Valley of Elah, The Kingdom, and Rendition. Now producer-director Robert Redford brings us Lions for Lambs, perhaps a film most direct and philosophical in being critical of the current administration and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

photo1The story follows three separate but remotely linked threads that happen simultaneously within an hour, at different places in the world. In Washington D.C., veteran reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) is granted an exclusive interview with Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise). She has no idea what the Senator wants from her. In fact, Irving reveals to Janine that a new military strategy has been deployed as they speak: small special units are sent to capture a strategic high ground in the Afghanistan mountains. Irving wants Janine to write a feature on this news, promising this new strategy will finally win the war. Janine, however, is more than skeptical.

photo2Meanwhile at UC Berkeley, CA, Professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford) summons student Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield) into his office. Malley regards Todd as one of those students who have great potentials, but are slacking off because they stop caring. Malley tries to knock some senses to Todd by relaying the story of two juniors, Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Peña) and Arian Finch (Derek Luke), who postponed their education and joined the military because they cared and wanted to do something.

photo3And in Afghanistan, the special unit operation fails when their chopper is hit by the resistance. Rodriguez falls out and Arian follows. Waiting for rescue, the men face the approaching guerrilla force with severe injuries, no shelter, and limited ammunition. Their only hope is for the military to find them before the enemy does.

photo4The three leads are all good actors. Meryl Streep (Rendition) plays the frumpy reporter with earnestness. That's a nice departure from the shrewd roles she has played recently (The Devil Wears Prada, Rendition, The Manchurian Candidate). Tom Cruise (Mission: Impossible III) is slick, smart, and aggressive as the Senator with an ambition. And Robert Redford (The Clearing) is focused as the liberal professor. The problem, however, is that these characters are all talking-heads. There isn't much depth or story about them to make us care about them, one way or another.

photo5In contrast, Michael Peña (Shooter) and Derek Luke (Glory Road) are excellent playing the naive but purposeful duo of best friends/comrades. Their conviction and friendship seem genuine and that adds certain authenticity to the story. Andrew Garfield (Boy A) is the weakest link in the cast -- perhaps his smart-aleck character is underwritten, but he just comes across as smarmy, rude, and annoying. Maybe I'm showing my age, but I don't know anyone who speaks to their professors that way.

photo6The screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom) is marketed as a drama-thriller. But there really isn't much drama or thrills in the story. Except for the military scenes involving Michael Peña and Derek Luke, the rest of the film is just talk. Granted, the dialogue seems intelligent and confrontational, and it aims at provoking thoughts. Still, without an actionable plot and resolutions, the story falls flat. Even the military scenes feel manufactured and "been there, done that" only to make a point.

photo7To his credit, Robert Redford keeps the three threads focused and the characters at center stage. Unfortunately, there is just not enough dramatic tension to carry the film through. Two-thirds of the film is more philosophical musing than plot. This may have worked as a play, as the dialogue is one of its strengths. However, as a film, the story doesn't really go anywhere and it feels manipulative.

photo8There's a whole lot of preaching, even for a message movie, and moralizing. It seems very clear that Redford and the filmmakers have already made up their minds and they're trying very hard to make the audiences see their point of view. There's nothing wrong with that: we artists all have our particular points of view. Still, the characterizations from the slick Republican senator to the smarmy undergrad all manipulate the audiences into agreeing with that point of view, leaving no room for real debates. While relevant, the film aims at being a roaring lion, but ends up being a quiet lamb.

Stars: Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise, Michael Peña, Andrew Garfield, Peter Berg, Kevin Dunn, Derek Luke
Director: Robert Redford
Writer: Matthew Michael Carnahan
Distributor: United Artists
MPAA Rating: R for war violence and language
Running Time: 88 Minutes


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

Editing – 6

Production – 7

Total – 6.3 out of 10

Bee Movie

© 2007 Ray Wong


Set in a humanized society of a beehive and a color-corrected world of humans, Jerry Seinfeld's pet project, Bee Movie, is an unabashedly environment-conscious film. There is nothing wrong with message films, if it's written well. Unfortunately, Bee Movie isn't one of those.

p1Barry Benson (Jerry Seinfeld) is a bored honeybee that, upon entering the work force, is terrified by the idea that he's going to be stuck doing the same job for the rest of his short life. Seeking adventure, he briefly joins the rank of the "Pollen Jocks" and spends a day in the human world. There, he meets beautiful human Vanessa Bloom (Renée Zellweger), a kind florist/environmentalist who would not even hurt a mosquito. Barry falls in love with the human against the rules, skirts his duties, and becomes ostracized by his peers.

p2Then Barry discovers that humans have been keeping bees in horrible conditions, drugging them, and "stealing" honey from the bees. This becomes Barry's cause and he vows to take on the humans and get back the honey. His plans soon backfires as the bees find no reason to work anymore.

p3Comedian Jerry Seinfeld (Seinfeld) produces, acts and writes the movie. Seinfeld has a very distinctive, nasal, whiny voice, and that either significantly enhances or hinders the characterization of a tiny sweater-wearing bee, depending on how you like his famous voice. To me, he's a distraction. The problem is that everywhere you go, you hear and see Seinfeld the comedian, and not a bee -- the two don't quite jell. After while, you kind of get annoyed.

p4Not to mention that, despite the huge cast of voices, Bee Movie is basically a one-man show. The whole story hinges on Barry's story line. Everyone else, including Renée Zellweger (Miss Potter), is only a supporting player. After a while, you rather can't hear the other voices except Jerry Seinfeld's. Zellweger does her best injecting her brand of spunky cuteness to the character of Vanessa. The "love" angle of the relationship between her and the bee is a bit creepy as well. Matthew Broderick (The Producers) seems to have a little fun playing Barry's best friend, the geeky bee Adam. Patrick Warburton (Underdog) is hilarious as Vanessa's meathead boyfriend, and John Goodman (Evan Almighty) is deliciously slimy as the corporate lawyer who tries to, literally, squash the bees.

p5The huge cast also includes Chris Rock as a mosquito, Kathy Bates and Barry Levinson as Barry's parents, Oprah Winfrey as Judge Bumbleton. Other cameos include Larry King, Ray Liotta, Sting, Megan Mullally, Rip Torn, and Michael Richards.

p6Written by Jerry Seinfeld and his team, the script boasts an incoherent plot that is schizophrenic even for a kids' flick. It's not that it's difficult to follow the story -- it actually has a single thread that focuses mostly on Barry the bee -- but the plot jumps from one thing to another, almost on a whim. It has the attention span of its target audiences: children aged 5 and up. The jokes and sight gags come fast and furious; while there are a few genuine chuckles, the jokes just aren't that funny. Jerry Seinfeld's signature brand of dry, irrelevant humor seems to be amiss here; instead, he's following DreamWorks' lead in dumping more in-jokes and pop culture references in the vein of Shrek III. The result is a story that is only mildly amusing to the adults.

p7Don't get me wrong. The movie is probably a delight for the kiddies. Bright with primary colors and shapes, the animation is exciting and pleasing to the eyes. The frantic pace and slapstick actions definitely would please the youngsters. I give them kudos for not including any bathroom or burp jokes. There's a huge logic leap, however, that may be difficult for the adults to fully enjoy it: Talking bees? Bees that wear sweaters and drink coffee? It is fine if the film is set entirely in a humanized world of bees, but when you mix the bees with the human world, you've got a problem with suspension of disbelief, even for a cartoon. Older children who have studied insects may find the story incredulous as well -- there are a lot of misinformation and inconsistencies, thus diluting its environmental messages.

p8So, while the film is entertaining for young children, it is a huge disappointment considering how much promotion Jerry Seinfeld and DreamWorks have put forth. It's not a complete disaster, but Ratatouille it is not. With their penchant for pop cultures and potty humor, the folks at DreamWorks seem to be going down a path that caters to the lowest common denominator of their audiences, and that is alarming. As an adult, I started to get bored by Act II. With that in mind, I don't think I can even give it a Bee.

Stars: Jerry Seinfeld, Renée Zellweger, Matthew Broderick, Patrick Warburton, John Goodman, Chris Rock, Kathy Bates, Barry Levinson, Larry King Ray Liotta, Sting, Oprah Winfrey
Directors: Steve Hickner, Simon J. Smith
Writers: Jerry Seinfeld, Spike Feresten, Barry Marden, Andy Robin
Distributor: DreamWorks/Paramount
MPAA Rating: PG for mild suggestive humor, and brief depiction of smoking
Running Time: 90 Minutes


Script – 5
Performance – 6
Direction – 7
Animation – 8
Music/Sound– 6

Editing – 8

Production – 8

Total – 6.7 out of 10