Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay

© 2008 Ray Wong


Some sequels should never have been made.

photo1Picking up the day after the original movie, Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) are all set for their trip to Amsterdam to surprise Harold's new squeeze, Maria (Paula Garcés), and to partake in legal marijuana. A pot-related incident on the flight causes Harold and Kumar to end in Guantanamo Bay as suspected terrorists.

photo2Having escaped from the prison, they embark on a cross-country journey trying to find Colton (Eric Winter), the fiance of Kumar's ex-girlfriend Vanessa (Danneel Harris). Even though Kumar hates Colton (but Harold thinks Colton is a friend), they realize his connection with the government would be an asset to help them get out of trouble. Over the course of the escape, of course Harold and Kumar get into more and more troubles, including a reunion with the habitually high Neil Patrick Harris.

photo3John Cho (Star Trek) and Kal Penn (The Namesake) reprise their roles as the stoned odd couple. In The Namesake, Kal Penn proves that he could do serious drama. Unfortunately, he continues to be typecast as an ethnic clown in movies such as Epic Movie and Superman Returns. The ridiculously clueless Kumar made Penn a star, but in this sequel, Penn overplays the character to a point you just want to smack him every time he's on screen. Even a 3-year-old boy acts more mature than he does. Cho fares somewhat better as the uptight, by-the-book Harold. Unfortunately, he is not allowed to play to the character's depth as he did in the original.

photo4Rob Corddry (What Happens in Vegas...) plays an incredibly offensive idiot with energy. His character's ignorance and obnoxiousness become repetitive and tiring very quickly. Corddry does the best he can. Roger Bart (American Gangster) has not much to do as the reserved and sympathetic NSA operative; at least he brings some needed humanity to the mayhem around him. Danneel Harris (Extreme Movie) does her job well, despite slim character development, as the object of Kumar's affection. Eric Winter (Brothers & Sisters) joins the rank of ex-jock slimeballs with a wink and super-white teeth. But it's Neil Patrick Harris who steals the show -- once again -- as a fictionalized version of himself. There's just something perverse about watching NPH acting out as a straight, womanizing junkie.

photo5Writer-directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle) try to follow their surprise hit in 2004 with this half-boiled sequel. While the original had similarly graphic sex and humor, it also had a strange innocence about it. After all, Harold and Kumar were high throughout the first movie, so it was actually fun to see two stoned guys doing stupid things. The original movie also was devoid of the sinister aspects that are prevalent in this sequel. There are so many things wrong about this movie -- but I'll try to list them here:

photo6First, Harold and Kumar are not stoned this time. That makes their stupidity and recklessness painful to watch. These guys are Ivy League students, but they act like circus clowns without the influence of drugs. Kumar, in particular, becomes so irritating and unlikable. It's okay to be stupid, but when he's also selfish, unreasonable, and obnoxious, it's really difficult to identify with him. It's a no-brainer why Harold is mad at him, but what I don't understand is why Harold still tags along? Here's a smart, responsible guy. What's his deal?

photo7I get it -- it's a comedy. But even with comedies, we need some rhyme and reasons for these behaviors. Hurwitz and Schlossberg offer us none. Not to mention they include some of the most offensive characters in movie history: Rob Corddry as the National Security official, in particular, is so off-putting that it's not even funny. It's difficult to make racism funny, and they really fail here. I suppose we're supposed to glean from this movie some social lessons: that racism is bad and one must grow up and face their responsibilities, etc. But all is lost in this big yarn of offensive, sophomoric gags ranging from homophobia and scatology. And the biggest problem is, after the first movie and this, Harold and Kumar still won't grow up.

photo8So here's my final recommendation: escape from this stinker!

Stars: John Cho, Kal Penn, Rob Corddry, Jack Conley, Roger Bart, Neil Patrick Harris, Danneel Harris, Eric Winter, Paula Garcés
Directors: Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg
Writers: Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg
Distributor: Warner Bros
MPAA Rating: R for strong crude and sexual content, graphic nudity, pervasive language and drug use
Running Time: 100 Minutes


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

Total – 5.1 out of 10

88 Minutes

© 2008 Ray Wong


I get it. Writer Gary Scott Thompson must have taken a "Get Rich Quick: Thriller in 90 minutes" course. Let's see: a semi-likable protagonist, a ticking clock, some gruesome murders, a slew of suspects, impossible situations, and a sympathetic cop. Bingo! You're on your way to a blockbuster. Not.

photo1Dr. Jack Gramm (Al Pacino) is a celebrated forensic psychiatrist in Seattle working with the FBI. His most famous case was the murder of Joanie Cates (Vicky Huang). Her perp, Jon Forster (Neal McDonough), is now on death row thanks to Gramm's convincing testimony. On the eve of Forster's execution, Gramm receives an obscure phone call telling him that he has 88 minutes to live. Tick-tock.

photo2At first Gramm disregards the threat.Then as the threats become more imminent -- and a student got murdered the night before -- he begins to suspect his students and people around him. Clearly Forster couldn't have committed the murder, and he rules out a copycat since the Cates murder was 9 years ago, and the new murder is down to the finest details. So could he have been wrong? Is Forster innocent? As his time is running out, Gramm must piece all the information together to find the real killer.

photo3Al Pacino (Two For the Money) used to be a great, edgy actor doing incredibly unique work. Recently, however, he seems to be cashing in on his fame by doing second-rate thrillers. Yes, he's still intense and, yes, his now-leathery, over-tanned face is still full of personality, but his performance seems to be stuck in a rut. His expressions are often confused and his eyes glazed over. Somehow, the guy is a bit off at all times.

photo4Alicia Witt (Last Holiday) plays one of Gramm's brilliant students. She has by far the second most prominent role in the film, and Gramm (as well the audience) doesn't know whether to trust her or not. Ah, the perpetual unreliable witness. Witt does well with the limitation she's given, often projecting either a shrewdness that makes you wonder about her motives, or a genuine sensitivity that makes you sympathize. At least she's interesting. Leelee Sobieski (The Elder Son) plays another student of Gramm's but she's really not given much to do. Her character should be the most interesting one given the plot twists we're going to witness, but she remains just a caricature.

photo5The remaining cast includes Amy Brenneman (The Jane Austen Book Club) as Gramm's assistant Shelly, William Forsythe (Freedomland) as FBI agent Frank Park, and Deborah Kara Unger (Silent Hill) as Dean Carol Johnson. They all do their best given the material. Benjamin McKenzi (Junebug) has a throwaway part, whose main purpose is that of a red herring. Neal McDonough (The Hitcher) is totally wasted here -- one look at him and we know he's guilty. Is there any question about that?

photo6Gary Scott Thompson's (2 Fast 2 Furious) screenplay has all the apparently right ingredients, and for a while they seem to work together. Once the real action starts, however, the script falls apart at an exponential rate. The plot is preposterous. The characters are paper-thin and their motivations incredibly skimpy and implausible. The twists are merely devices to send our hero on a wild goose chase with enough red herrings to fill the Pacific Ocean. The main problem is that these red herrings are forced, incredulous, and simply idiotic at times. For example, there are bomb threats all over the city and Gramm's Porsche just blew up? What happens next? Gramm just gets into a cab and drives off. Not to mention he does all that, goes to all these places in fewer than 90 minutes? The cell phones get annoying really quickly, too.

photo7Also, Mr. Thompson, everyone who's familiar with mysteries know that the least expected person is usually the guilty one. Give us something more interesting, please. But predictability is not even the fatal flaw of Thompson's screenplay. The cardinal sin is that he completely misses the boat with his protagonist. Gramm is unlikable, unsympathetic (even with the history about his kid sister) and, worst of all, unintelligent. Seriously, this guy is a forensic psychiatrist, and we expect him to use his knowledge and wit to find and outsmart the killer. Not at all. Gramm is passive almost up to the end. He acts more like a confused idiot than an expert psychiatrist. When you fail to make the audience identify and care about the hero, all is lost.

photo8The saving grace of this incredulous potboiler is Jon Avnet's (Up Close and Personal) direction. The pacing is taut and urgent, and the fast cutting keeps the tension going. There are some disturbing images to keep the blood boiling. Unfortunately, there's nothing Avnet can do to lift the film out of Thompson's dreck. Garbage in, garbage out. I'm just surprised someone like Pacino would be involved with such rubbish.

These are 88 minutes I can never get back.

Stars: Al Pacino, Alicia Witt, Leelee Sobieski, Amy Brenneman, William Forsythe, Deborah Kara Unger, Benjamin McKenzi, Neal McDonough, Leah Cairns
Director: Jon Avnet
Writer: Gary Scott Thompson
Distributor: Columbia
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent content, brief nudity and language
Running Time: 108 Minutes


Script – 3
Performance – 6
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 7
Music/Sound– 6
Editing – 7
Production – 7

Total – 5.2 out of 10

Smart People

© 2008 Ray Wong


Set in academic Pittsburgh, Smart People is a personal story about a bunch of smart people doing not so smart things in some ordinary situations.

photo1Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is a Carnegie-Mellon University English Literature professor. He's unkempt, gruff, grumpy, self-absorbed, and generally disinterested in everything around him except his love for Victorian novels, and his own manuscript no publisher wants to touch. He's also widowed with two children: James (Ashton Holmes), a Carnegie-Mellon undergrad who is trying to impress his father, and Vanessa (Ellen Page), a sharp-tongued young Republican who just got accepted to Stanford.

photo2A series of circumstances result in Lawrence having a stress-induced seizure. His attending doctor, Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker) happens to be a former student who harbored a crush on him. Of course, Lawrence doesn't remember her. Forbidden by law to drive for six months, Lawrence grudgingly accepts it when his drifter of an adoptive brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), volunteers to drive him around, for a stipend and free room and board.

photo3Nonetheless, Lawrence takes on an interest in Janet, even to his daughter's objection. Meanwhile, Vanessa develops an unhealthy affection for her uncle. Lawrence is up for a promotion at Carnegie-Mellon and a big publisher suddenly shows an interest in his intellectually stiff novel. Everything seems to be coming along until Lawrence is forced to realize that he and everyone surrounding him are falling apart.

photo4Dennis Quaid (Vantage Point) is getting better and better with age. A would-be heartthrob in his younger years, the lack of superstardom seemed to have mellowed and seasoned him to be a damn good actor. Here, as an overweight, self-absorbed intellectual, Quaid gives an affecting, nuanced performance even as his character isn't all that likable. He's given his character a deeper core and a soft edge around his hard shell.We can feel that a good guy is in there ready to emerge, even if he needs a lot of prodding.

photo5Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex and the City) is also very good as the conflicted doctor who genuinely likes her Professor despite all his obvious flaws -- and hers, too. Her affection toward him seems to be more on an intellectual level than physical and emotional. Her characterization is subdue and understated. Thomas Haden Church (Spider-Man 3) projects his Sideway character and serves as a counterpoint to Lawrence with wit and charm.

photo6Ellen Page (Juno) plays the same sharp-tongued ingenue as she did in Juno but in a more down-to-Earth, uptight fashion. As her brother James, Ashton Holmes (Peaceful Warrior) doesn't really have much to do other than appearing withdrawn and pissed off.

photo7First-time screenwriter Mark Poirier has given us a keenly observed, introspective story driven by a strong central character and witty dialogue. By far, the strength of the screenplay is in the relationships as well as Lawrence's characterization. Within minutes of the film we're given many clues of Lawrence's personalities, behavioral issues, and psychology. Unfortunately, after some contrived, rote plot development to set up the story, it begins to meander. Furthermore, we don't really get to know the characters except Lawrence. We're left to wonder about the motivations behind Janet's hot and cold attitude toward Lawrence (or Lawrence's insistence in courting her), James' indifference, or Vanessa's belligerence. Chuck's role seems to be the obligatory comic relief -- at least he does serves, at times, as Lawrence's moral mirror.

photo8Directed by commercial director Noam Murro, the film has a no-frill, earthy quality to it. The pacing also feels languid, giving the characters time and opportunity to develop. Unfortunately, the intimate nature of the story as well as the lack of a substantial plot hinders the film. While interesting, the characters are not all that relatable and likable, and that, too, becomes a burden for the dramedy.

With its subtle plot, an intimate but slow pace, and characterization that focuses mostly on a single character, Smart People may just be too smart for us.

Stars: Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church, Ellen Page, Ashton Holmes, Christine Lahti, Camille Mana, David Denman
Director: Noam Murro
Writer: Mark Poirier
Distributor: Miramax
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexuality, partial nudity, drug use
Running Time: 95 Minutes


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

Total – 7.2 out of 10


© 2008 Ray Wong


Mostly known for his dramatic roles such as Michael Clayton (for which he earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination) and directorial efforts such as Good Night, Good Luck, George Clooney ventures into the realm of comedy with mixed results.

photo1The year is 1925. Dodge Connelly (George Clooney) is a 45-year-old pro football player trying to make ends meet and keeping his teammates employed. Back then, being a "pro" means someone's being paid to play a game that is no more glamorous than a cockfight or a circus act. When the Duluth Bulldog disbands because its last sponsor pulls out, Dodge is laid off. Without any other skills, he can't find a job and he's down to hist last pennies. That's when he gets an idea.

photo2The idea is to legitimize pro football and make it an national spectator sport much like baseball, and Dodge knows college football star Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) is just the right man to make that happen. A WWI hero, Carter constantly draws thousands of fans to his games. Dodge promises Carter and his manager, CC Frazier (Jonathan Pryce), $5000 a game if Carter plays for Duluth. And he's right. Carter's celebrity helps propel pro football into the national spotlight.

photo3Meanwhile, reporter Lexie (Renée Zellweger) is doing a story on Carter, but she has an ulterior motive. She knows there's more to the story of Carter's heroic act. Her ambition comes into conflict with Dodge's plans, while Carter is becoming very fond of her despite their age difference. Dodge is not willing to expose Lexie because he, too, is enamored of Lexie.

photo4George Clooney (Michael Clayton) is a true movie star in every sense of the word. His Cary Grant-esque charm and suaveness make Dodge a dashing leading role. Not known for his comedic work, Clooney does well in drawing us in with his sometimes over the top performance. John Krasinki (License to Wed) is all earnest and charming as the young football star-war hero. He's still playing the same character as he does as Jim in the Office, though -- the all-American unassuming guy next door.

photo5The weakest link in the trio of leads is Renée Zellweger (Miss Potter). She's supposed to be ambitious, no-hold-bar, and practically a bitch. She comes across as simply confusing. I can't decide whether I should like her. Not to mention she and Clooney or Kcrasinski have no chemistry together. I just don't buy the romance between Lexie and Dodge.

photo6The supporting cast is generally good, including dependable Jonathan Pryce (Pirates of the Caribbean) as Carter's cunning business manager. Stephen Root (Drilbit Taylor) is his usual loving goof as Dodge's partner Suds, and Wayne Duvall (In the Valley of Elah) is goofily lovely as Dodge's coach, Frank. The motley crew of football players are also up to the task in their physical acts.

photo7The screenplay by first-time screenwriters Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly follows the typical screwball comedy formula, reminiscent of classics such as Some Like It Hot and The Sting. As a period comedy about the humble beginning of pro football, the story misses the mark, however, in giving us a relevant social commentary. It should have been a fascinating topic, a look into the past of the sports, but what comes out is nothing more than an excuse to see George Clooney kissing a girl and getting into brawls.

photo8The banter between the characters, especially between Lexie and Dodge, sounds forced and unnatural: Zellweger seems to just dole out the barbed insults out of necessity (or as instructed by the script). The plot never rises above the banality of the situations -- often, it feels irrelevant. The plot falters toward the end, culminating in a climax that feels flat. Even though we spend a lot of time with the characters, we don't really know much about them (Carter's character is the least developed). And at the end, we really don't care about what happens to them.

Clooney (Good Night, Good Luck) is a good director, and he has proven that he can do some amazing things behind the scene. He succeeded in giving us a riveting commentary with Good Night, Good Luck while receding into the background, playing a secondary role. Here, he struggles as he juggles between the director's chair and the leading man's pedestal. The set, costume, and production designs are excellent, and the film has a great 20s look and feel. The cinematography is pleasant and the music appropriate. Everything fits well together, except the script and the leading lady. There's just something about Renée's squint. Leatherheads is entertaining enough but too irrelevant to really turn our heads.

Stars: George Clooney, Renée Zellweger, John Krasinski, Jonathan Pryce, Stephen Root, Wayne Duvall
Director: George Clooney
Writers: Duncan Brantley, Rick Reilly
Distributor: Universal
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some strong language
Running Time: 114 Minutes


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

Total – 6.7 out of 10