© 2008 Ray Wong


Based on a story about Jeffrey Ma, one of the six M.I.T. students who succeeded in cheating Vegas, 21 is an interesting thriller featuring charming young actors and a premise that may prompt you to hit the casinos.

photo1Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is an A student at M.I.T. who is gifted in Math. Sort of a genius, actually. He's just been accepted to Harvard Medical School but he's coming up short in the finance department. He figures he needs $350,000. Except for trying his hands on a coveted scholarship, he has no way of fulfilling that dream. That is, until his Math professor, Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), asks him to join his after-school club.

photo2It turns out that it's not just any academic club, but a special group of students who are learning to beat the system -- Vegas casinos, to be precise. The group includes beautiful Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), goofy Choi (Aaron Yoo), spunky Kianna (Liza Lapira) and cocky Fisher (Jacob Pitts). Micky has invented a sure-fire way of beating the casinos at Blackjack, but the group has to work as a team. Lured by the promises and an opportunity to get close to Jill, Ben agrees to join the team but stresses that he'll be done once he makes the $350,000.

photo3Soon, however, Ben is seduced by the Sin City: the fancy cars and clothes, the complimentary suites and champagne, the girl and, most of all, how easy it is to make money. Ben realizes he's really good at it, and he reaches his goal in no time. But he can't stop. He's sucked into the game just as he told himself he wouldn't. When casino "stop loss" agent Cole Williams (Laurence Fishbourne) hunts him down, he realizes he has much more to lose then he thought.

photo4Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe) has quickly risen in the ranks as a fresh-faced actor who can do serious drama. He's effectively "ordinary" and unassuming as the Math genius. In fact, his character is most likable when he's passive. Once he gets into the driver's seat, Sturgess does a good job portraying a young man who loses his soul to temptation. Kevin Spacey (Fred Claus) exudes charm as the smug, sarcastic professor with an ulterior motive. You kind of know he's not really a nice guy, but you can't help but like him anyway.

photo5Teaming with Spacey again since Beyond the Sea and Superman Returns, Kate Bosworth (The Girl in the Park) is almost too pretty to play a rocket science student (yeah, right), but she's very agreeable as Jill, Ben's object of affection, and does her best in an underwritten role. Laurence Fishbourne (Bobby) adds certain needed dimension to his ruthless, callous Javert-ish character.

photo6The rest of the young cast is fine in their supporting roles, including Aaron Yoo (Disturbia),Lisa Lapira (Cloverfield), and Jacob Pitts (Eurotrip).

photo7Written by Peter Steinfeld (Be Cool) and Allan Loeb (Things We Lost in the Fire), the story takes Ben Mezrich's book and M.I.T. student Jeffrey Ma's story and runs with it. Why they change the main characters to Caucasians, I'm not sure (the real students in Ma's story were all Asian). However, the script has an edge to it, and the dialogue is light but not dumb. Sure, they oversimplify the Math and theories in the film so that the common audience can understand -- I mean, are we to believe that senior Math students at M.I.T. are going to be stumped by a simple probability question? Still, the script has great energy, and when the characters land in Vegas, it turns into a fun thriller with interesting twists and good character development. It's not to say there aren't any irritating plot holes and character inconsistency, but the story doesn't linger long enough for them to significantly damage the film.

photo8Director Robert Luketic (Monster-in-Law) infuses his own youth in the production. It's hip and snazzy. The pace is brisk but not frenetic. The story moves with interesting twists. Not to mention a fascinating premise -- who hasn't thought of beating the casinos? In fact, I'm eager to hit the Blackjack table soon arming myself with what I've learned (I promise I'll stop after I win $350,000!) Luketic has a good eye for movement, colors, and the editing is crisp. There's a great juxtaposition between the glitziness of Las Vegas and cold, scholarly Boston. Even when the story treads into the realm of implausibility, Luketic is able to keep it real.

21 is not serious drama. It doesn't tackle serious or deep personal issues. It's about money, sex, thrill, fun, and love. But it is entertaining and well executed. There may not be 21 reasons why you must see it, but one is enough: as Ben Campbell says while collecting his chips, "Winner, winner, chicken dinner."

Stars: Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira, Jacob Pitts, Laurence Fishburne, Jack McGee
Director: Robert Luketic
Writers: Peter Steinfeld, Allan Loeb (based on Ben Mezrich's nonfiction book)
Distributor: Columbia
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence and sexual content including partial nudity
Running Time: 102 Minutes


Script – 7
Performance – 7
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 7
Music/Sound– 8
Editing – 8
Production – 8
Total – 7.4 out of 10

Drillbit Taylor

© 2008 Ray Wong


Judd Apatow, the producer behind raunchy sex romps such as 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, seems to have set his sight on teen comedies lately. While Superbad was all about seniors trying to drunk and laid, Drillbit Taylor is a bit younger and more existential (with a PG-13 rating instead of R): trying to survive bullies and high school.

picture1On their first day of high school, Wade (Nate Hartley), Ryan (Troy Gentile) and Emmit (David Dorfman) are three dorks who immediately draw the attention of bully Filkins (Alex Frost) and Ronnie (Josh Peck). Hoping to survive high school, they try to hire a professional bodyguard to protect them. They find their man in a war veteran named Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson).

picture2Unbeknownst to them, Drillbit is actually a homeless con-man. His plan is to take the kids' money and burglarize their houses when they're at school. He teaches the kids useless skills and tactics, basically bullshitting them before he finds the opportunity to get his money so he can move to Canada. When the boys get hurt because of Drillbit's bogus advice, Drillbit feels bad and develops real feelings for them, and he decides to actually go through with it, protecting them for real. He masquerades as a substitute teacher.

picture3Owen Wilson (The Darjeeling Limited) is a likable actor who has done some sharp, quirky films such as The Royal Tenenbaums as well as some duds such as I Spy. It seems like Mr. Wilson will take any project or character pitched his way. Drillbit Taylor seems like such a throwaway character, and Wilson has a difficult time holding it together as the only main adult character. He tends to fare better when he's paired with comedians with better chops: Vince Vaughn, Bill Murray, even Ben Stiller. On his own, he stumbles, staggers, and falters.

picture4On the contrary, the boys are a joy to watch. Nate Hartley (Unlicensed) is delightfully scrawny, geeky, naive and sweet. Despite his weak exterior, his character, Wade, has strong convictions including his determination to get to know a girl named Brooke, played by Valerie Tian (Juno). Troy Gentille (Good Luck Chuck) plays the obligatory fat boy with zest, worthy of all the famous fat boys of the past. As the shrimpy, wimpy Emmit, David Dorfman (The Ring Two) has a kind of creepy quality that plays perfectly well in the film.

picture5The adults are less effective in this comedy about teens (Drillbit included, who is basically a big boy who never grew up). As the school bully, Alex Frost (Stop Loss) has a strange stare and sinister look that serves the crazy character well. Leslie Mann (Knocked Up) is hilarious as the sex-crazed English teacher.

picture6Written by Kristofor Brown (The Tom Green Show) and Seth Rogen (Superbad), the script is surprisingly formulaic. The situations and the dialogue are rather cheesy and predictable. The strength of the screenplay is the characterization of the three boys, who help us care about the story. Drillbit is basically a few caricatures meshed into one -- it's kind of difficult to imagine a guy like Wilson as a bum (a surfer, sure). And by toning down the raunchiness and language, the movie feels flat. The bullying scenes, however, are rather disturbing at times, clearly drawn from the painful experiences the writers had (Seth Rogen, in particular, seems to have become the official spokesperson for dorks -- who gets the girl -- everywhere).

picture7Director Steven Brill (Without a Paddle) is no stranger to dorky comedies. His strength is to draw on the chemistry between his leads, and it's no exception here. The young actors have great chemistry together and they play well with big boy Wilson as well. On the other hand, the general directing and editing are choppy. The narrative loses focuses at various places and the pace slows down tremendously, especially when we're following Drillbit. The bullying does get tedious after a while, and the villains are not given enough depth; in fact, many characters are simply cartoon cutouts. The jokes are not always funny either.

picture8Over all, the movie is forgettable and misses the mark. Thankfully the affecting performances and chemistry of the three young actors prevents the movie from becoming as painful as getting our teeth drilled.

Stars: Owen Wilson, Nate Hartley, Troy Gentile, Ian Roberts, Valerie Tian, Leslie Mann, Alex Frost, David Dorfman, Josh Peck
Director: Steven Brill
Writers: Kristofor Brown, Seth Rogen, John Hughes
Distributor: Paramount
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for crude sexual references, strong bullying, language, drug references and partial nudity
Running Time: 102 Minutes


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

Total – 6.3 out of 10

Horton Hears a Who!

© 2008 Ray Wong


Based on Dr. Seuss's beloved tale, Horton Hears a Who! is a fun romp with a simple message: "A person is a person no matter how small."

h1Horton (Jim Carrey) is a fun-loving, carefree elephant who never forgets. One day while frolicking in the jungle, he hears a voice. At first he thinks he's imagining things, but soon he realizes there's a whole civilization living on a speck resting on a clover.

h2The civilization is the Whos, led by the Mayor of Whoville (Steve Carell). The Mayor is a happy-go-lucky guy, whose only dream is to become one of the great mayors, and for his son Tommy (Jonan Hill) to succeed him. When he hears Horton talking to him through a pipe, the Mayor realizes they're not alone. There's a whole new world outside of their universe, and Whoville is in danger of being obliterated if Horton can't find the speck a safe place to settle. Try as he may, Horton has a difficult time convincing his community, led by Kangaroo (Carol Burnett), that the Whos exist. It's up to Horton alone to protect the Whos.

h3As the lovable elephant who always gives 100% and never forgets, Jim Carrey (The Number 23) lends his energetic and charismatic voice that really brings the character to life. At once sincere, goofy, scatter-brained and simply darn cute, Carrey's performance, paired with his wonderfully animated counterpart, is really fun to watch and hear. Steve Carell (Dan in Real Life) also does a good job as the Mayor of Whoville, even though he's overshadowed by Jim Carrey.

h4It's delightful to "hear" Carol Burnett (Once Upon a Mattress) again. She gives one of the most spirited performances in the film as the unbelieving Kangaroo who is determined to destroy the speck to teach Horton a lesson. Will Arnett (Ratatouille) has a great time playing Vlad, a vulture with an identity crisis. The rest of the voice cast includes Seth Rogen (Knocked Up) as Horton's rodent friend Morton, and Amy Poehler (Baby Mama) as Sally O'Malley.

h5Dr. Seuss's timeless tale of belief is wittily adapted by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (The Santa Clause 2). The dialogue is rapid-fire at times and full of charm and humor. The story is straightforward enough that even small children can understand. Also, they're able to limit the cast of characters to a few main ones (despite the fact that the Mayor has 98 daughters and one son). There are a few places where the dialogue, action, and drama lag and the audience, especially the younger ones, may feel bored. However, the story picks up its pace and snowballs toward the crowd-pleasing finale.

h6Directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino are able to keep a balance between the frenetic nature of the tale and the softer moments, making it entertaining to both the kids and their parents. There are times the pace becomes so fast that I feel a bit lost. Even so, the animation makes up for everything -- it's colorful, beautiful and imaginative. They really bring Dr. Seuss's fantastical worlds to life, especially the whimsical Whoville with its unique details.

h7With its unique and colorful characters, a good central message that doesn't feel preachy, and vibrant and imaginative CG animation, the movie is a joy for the entire family. So listen, and listen well -- you may hear a Who, too!


Stars: Jim Carrey, Steve Carell, Carol Burnett, Will Arnett, Seth Rogen, Dan Fogler, Isla Fisher, Jonan Hill, Amy Poehler
Directors: Jimmy Hayward, Steve Martino
Writers: Ken Daurio, Cinco Paul (based on book by Dr. Seuss)
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 88 Minutes


Script – 7
Performance – 7

Direction – 7

Animation – 8

Music/Sound– 6

Editing – 8

Production – 8

Total – 7.4 out of 10

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

© 2008 Ray Wong


It's rare to see an audaciously old-fasioned screwball comedy these days. Based on Winifred Watson's 1938 novel, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is a delightful, cozy film that reminds us of the golden age of Grant, Garbo, and Hepburn.

p1Miss Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) has just been unjustly dismissed from her job as a governess. Penniless and with no place to go, Miss Pettigrew is desperate for a job and a meal. She takes a chance and masquerades as a social secretary for an American actress, Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams). Little does she know it's going to be one heck of a day for her.

p2It turns out that Delysia, a glamorous social butterfly, is caught in whirlwind relationships with three different men: Nick (Mark Strong) who owns the nightclub she performs in and provides her for the gorgeous flat and extravagant lifestyle; Phil (Tom Payne) who is a young, handsome producer who may give Delysia her first starring role on the West End stage; and Michael (Lee Pace), a passionate pianist who adores Delysia despite all her flaws. Underneath Delysia's outer shell of glamor lies a fragile, frightened girl who can't decide how she should live her life. As different as Delysia and Pettigrew are, they are also very much alike, and they take to each other immediately.

p3Through a series of farcical events, Miss Pettigrew works her magic and averts plenty of disasters for Delysia, who in turn introduces Miss Pettigrew to her busy social world. She meets a conniving fashion designer Edyth Dubarry (Shirley Henderson) and her fiance, well-known designer Joe (Ciarán Hinds). Delysia convinces Edyth to make over Miss Pettigrew, but Edyth knows Pettigrew's secret. Driven by her desires to stay employed but also to help Delysia straighten up, Miss Pettigrew finds herself all caught up in her own dilemmas as well.

p4The entire cast, headlined by Frances McDormand (Friends with Money) and Amy Adams (Enchanted), are delightful. McDormand is deliciously dowdy but full of depth as the insightful but downtrodden governess. She has a great rapport with Amy Adams (Enchanted), who is quickly becoming the IT girl in Hollywood. Like Giselle in Enchanted, her Delysia is naive, clueless, and vulnerable, yet effervescent and darn endearing. The two actresses can't be more different in looks and styles, but they blend together perfectly like tea and honey.

p5The men in this handsomely made film are just as dashing. Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies) is remarkably affecting as Delysia's valiant soulmate. His puppy eyes are so expressive of his feelings for her. Tom Payne (Waterloo Road) is wickedly charming as the silly high-society playboy who has a weakness for beautiful starlets. Mark Strong (Stardust) is deviously debonair as Delysia's boss and lover, and Ciarán Hinds (There Will Be Blood) is all old-time sincerity as the fashion tycoon who has his eyes on Miss Pettigrew. Finally, Shirley Henderson (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) steals every scene she's in as conniving Edyth.

p6David Magee (Finding Neverland) and Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) have done a great job adapting Watson's novel. The dialogue is fast and witty, and the characters are fully drawn despite their over-the-top cheekiness. The plot unfolds with a nice pace and follows a tight three-act structure. Granted, it's also built upon a few implausible coincidences but over all, it's believable, funny (but in a classy way), cute, relevant, and sweet.

p7Under director Bharat Nalluri's (The Crow: Salvation) skillful hands, the production is scrumptious, evoking the look and feel of screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s. The set and costume designs are impeccable and classy. The acting is across-the-board top-notch. The music, heavy on Big Band, is both fitting and a wonderful asset to the film. There's one scene in which Amy Adams and Lee Pace sing (yes, they can sing) to each other that is possibly one of the best on-screen love songs of all times.

p8With the actors' incredible timing, chemistry and charms, as well as the plot's brisk pace and witty dialogue, the film is a fine throwback to Hollywood's golden past, a delectable vintage champagne that is perfect for any day.

Stars: Frances McDormand, Amy Adams, Lee Pace, Tom Payne, Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, Shirley Henderson
Director: Bharat Nalluri
Writers: David Magee, Simon Beaufoy (based on Winifred Watson's novel)
Distributor: Focus
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some partial nudity and innuendo
Running Time: 92 Minutes


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

Total – 7.8 out of 10