X-File: I Want To Believe

© 2008 Ray Wong


After almost 10 years, one must ask: "Why do they still want to make another X-File movie?" I'd like to think that it's because they have a good script that may answer and tie up some of the loose ends left unanswered by the TV show. Alas, such is not the case.

photo1When an FBI agent was abducted, Agent Dakota Whitney (Amanda Peet) seeks out Dr. Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), who has quit the FBI and is now working at a hospital. What Agent Whitney really wants, however, is Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), who is leading very much a reclusive life away from everything. The FBI is being helped by a Father Joe Crissman (Billy Connolly) who claims to have psychic power and can see what happened to the missing FBI agent. He sees things, and helps the agent find a severed arm that may have belonged to one of the attackers. Somehow Scully is able to convince Mulder to help in the case even though she doesn't believe Father Joe really has psychic power.

photo2When Scully finds out Father Joe is a convicted pedophile, her view changes. She doesn't want to get involved in the case anymore, while Mulder starts to believe Father Joe. Scully doesn't want the darkness of their old lives, but Mulder lives for it. Meanwhile, Scully's faith is shaken when the hospital rejects one of her patients, a young boy dying of a rare brain disease. In researching for a treatment for the boy, Scully discovers disturbing facts about Mulder's suspects, and she must reluctantly comes to Mulder's rescue as he puts himself in danger trying to pursue the men.

photo3David Duchovy (Californication) reprises his most famous role as Agent Fox Mulder. He looks and acts just like he did years ago, and he eases back into the character. Except he seems to have lost his edge. In this film, Mulder appears to be less driven and sharp (must be all the macaroni and cheese he has while in "retirement"). He gives off a vibe that since he's done the role for so many years, he's just coasting here.

photo4Gillian Anderson (The Last King of Scotland) fares a bit better as Dana Scully, Mulder's equally famous partner. She looks noticeably older than the last we saw her as Scully, and more mature as well. Yet she's successful in keeping her character's intensity and skeptical nature. Also, the revelation about the relationship between Mulder and Scully seems to have dampened, not enticed, their chemistry. And they don't spend enough time on screen together.

photo5Supporting cast includes Amanda Peet (Syriana) and Xzibit (xXx: State of the Union) as a pair of FBI agents. I guess they're supposed to offset Scully and Mulder, but they just come off as lame. Peet has nothing to do, and Xzibit's Agent Drummy is so annoying and incompetent that he adds nothing to the story. Callum Keith Rennie (The Invisible) gives a solid performance as the steely, creepy abductor, and Billy Connolly (Fido) has one of the best roles in the film and he delivers.

photo6Written and directed by the X-File alum Chris Carter, the script is disjointed and mundane. At least we had alien colonization in the last film. This time around, the story seems more suitable for a TV episode than a feature. In fact the whole film feels like a long TV episode of the X-File, and not one of its best either. The relationship between Mulder and Scully, especially after all these years, are not fully developed and explored. The parallel stories of the abduction and Scully's dilemma at the hospital feel forced and disjointed. The mystery and horror remind us of Silence of the Lambs, but it's not fully developed either. I'm extremely disappointed with both the plot and the character development. It seems to me someone must have said, "Let's throw a few things together and call it a feature."

photo7There are some intense moments and how the mystery unfolds in the beginning is intriguing enough. But Carter makes a mistake by following the abductors and yet not giving them enough time to reveal themselves or for the audience to know more about them. Why are they doing what they do? The pacing is off, and the plot loses its focus. The action sequences are tame as well.

photo8I really wanted this to be good -- I was hoping that after all these years, they would have come up with a great script that answers a lot of questions from the original series. Now, I really do think Chris Carter never really has any answers. I don't believe anymore.

Stars: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Amanda Peet, Billy Connolly, Xzibit, Callum Keith Rennie, Adam Godley
Director: Chris Carter
Writers: Frank Spotnitz, Chris Carter
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violent and disturbing content and thematic material
Running Time: 105 Minutes


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

Total – 6.6 out of 10

The Dark Knight

© 2008 Ray Wong


Christopher Nolan's first crack at the Batman franchise was a huge success. Would he and brother/fellow-writer Jonathan feel the sophomore blues with The Dark Knight? Could it even fail with all the talents behind it, not to mention the untimely death of one of its stars?

d1This time around, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has a few interesting things waiting for him in Gotham City. There are number of copycat Batmen running around the city being vigilantes in his name. But that's the least of his problems. A new criminal who calls himself the Joker (Heath Ledger) has come to town. In a show of supremacy, the Joker robs a bank, escapes unscathed, and calls a meeting with half the town's organized crime honchos. His proposal: Kill the Batman and everyone lives happily ever after. And he's the exact person to do the job. The crime bosses laugh him off at first, thinking they have it covered. Then Batman, with the help of new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), picks them up one at time. They realize the Joker is right.

d2The Joker starts to terrorize the city by targeting key players in the crime fight: first a key judge and the police commissioner, then it's the DA himself. When the Joker fails to kill Harvey Dent, due to Batman's interference, he starts to kill innocent people unless the city gives up Batman. An attempted assassination of the mayor puts the city in a state of fear, and the citizens begin to question the authority: Are they going to sacrifice them to protect the Batman? The cunning Joker pits everyone against each other. Most of all, he knows how to get to Batman, by going after Rachael Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is now dating Havey Dent.

d3Reprising his role as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Christian Bale (The Prestige) is fantastic. He's at once charming and obnoxious at Wayne, but stoic and contemplative under the Bat Suit. It's surprising, however, much little we actually get to see him. Aaron Eckhart (Thank You For Smoking) is also excellent as the good guy Harvey Dent. Those who are familiar with the comic books know what would eventually happen to him. Eckhart deals with the duality of the character aptly, laying his good looks, charisma and good nature with hints of darkness.

d4The original cast of Batman Begins returns with the exception of Katie Holmes, who's been replaced by Maggie Gyllenhaal (Stranger than Fiction). She does a fine job playing a woman stuck between Bruce Wayne and his secrets, and the other man she loves. As the sole leading female character, she sure can hang with the boys. And those boys in fine form: Michael Caine (Sleuth) as Bruce's butler and confidant Alfred, Gary Oldman (Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix) as Batman's ally, Lt. Gordon, and Morgan Freeman (Wanted) as Bruce's gadget expert, Lucius Fox.

d5Clearly, though, the star of the film is Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain), who died earlier this year before production wrapped. Ledger's has given a tour de force performance and truly disappeared not only under the pancake make-up, stringy hair, and sinister yet unnervingly voice, but he buried his soul deep inside the Joker's. His Joker is menacing, creepy, psychotic, frightening, intense, and yet also philosophical, soulful, full of wit and unusual charm. Ledger's performance is transcendent. He commands every second of his screen time and yet completely disappears in the role. The performance is unlike anything we've seen from him, and he definitely redefines the Joker and will forever be remembered, much like his transformation in Brokeback Mountain. Even when he's off screen, you can still feel his presence, his threats, his menace, his lingering effect. One particular scene, at a hospital, could be critical in getting Ledger a posthumous Oscar nomination. Over all, it's a fascinating and chilling performance.

d6The Nolan brothers (The Prestige) and David Goyer (Jumper) have weaved a tremendously complex story but managed to stay true to the comic books and mythologies. The Dark Knight has multiple threads concerning multiple key characters, and it asks deep philosophical and ethnical questions. It has enough pathos to make Hamlet blush. All the characters are very well developed and thought out. Don't expect Shakespeare here, but as far as a comic book movie is concerned, it's downright poetic. It's not to say the film is all serious. This is Batman after all. There is a lot of top-notch action, snappy dialogue, and gadgets. The Batpod alone is truly extraordinary. And for the first time we get to see what goes on behind Batman's white glowing eyes (and it's a fantastic piece of geek magic).

d7Christopher Nolan also has the good idea of setting the film on location instead of depending on green screens and CGI cityscapes. Much of Chicago dubs for Gotham, and the result is exhilarating and real. There's also a sequence set in Hong Kong that is cinematically breathtaking. The pacing is tight, and the plot moves along with great urgency. The production design is fantastic, the locations and sets are gorgeous, and technically it's a marvel.

d8It's not a perfect movie, however. Even at almost three hours, the film feels rushed especially toward the end. There seems to be too much story and perhaps a four-hour director's cut would do it better justice. Also, some of the action sequences are too dark and tight. We want to see the Batman fight and use his gadgets; some of the close-ups and tight action rob us of that. There's not enough "quiet" and reflective moments to balance the action and frantic pace. Also, during one key plot development, I feel that there's not enough emotion from most major players (except for one) and it feels unsatisfying, like we've been cheated. It was such a key emotional turning point and I think Nolan missed the boat there.

Even though it's just a tad shy of being a masterpiece, The Dark Knight is a triumphant sequel to the Batman "reboot." It elevates comic book movies to a new level. Its drama is thought-provoking, the action exhilarating, and its plot and characters exciting, fresh, and multidimensional. It's dark, moody, and complex. It's great.

Stars: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and some menace
Running Time: 152 Minutes


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

Production – 10

Total – 8.4 out of 10

Journey to the Center of the Earth (3D)

© 2008 Ray Wong


Loosely -- very loosely -- based on Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, the new family film is a modernized throwback to old, silly adventures aimed at families and kids. What sets it apart is the state of the art 3D digital projection.

p1Professor Trevor Anderson (Brendan Fraser) has been following the footstep of his late brother, Max (who disappeared 10 years before somewhere in Iceland) in geological research, and is on the verge of losing his lab. Meanwhile, his sister just forces him to spend a few days with his nephew, Sean, whom Trevor hasn't seen for six years. Stuck with each other, Trevor and Sean must find a common ground, and it seems like Max is the key. When Trevor discovers Max's notes, as well as strange seismic activities in Iceland, he takes Sean on a field trip in hopes to find out what happened to Max.

p2Once in Iceland, they enlist the help of local guide Hannah (Anita Briem), whose late father was a "Vernian." Convinced that Max was also a Vernian, Hannah dismisses Trevor's assertion that Max might have found the "center of the Earth" as Vernes described. However, soon they find a portal on top of a volcano, just as Verne said they would. Little do they know, they're going to have an adventure of a lifetime.

p3After a few years of absence from the action/adventure genre, Brendan Fraser (Crash) is back in full force with two back to back release this summer: Journey and The Mummy sequel. As Trevor, Fraser is a bit too goofy, childish and clueless. Trevor chalks it up as "too much lab and not enough field work." Still, Brendan acts more like Mutt Williams than Indiana Jones.

p4Josh Hutcherson (Bridge to Terabithia) more or less plays the same role in his previous films: bored, unmotivated preteen boy. But Hutcherson is endearing enough to add certain appeal for the kids. Anita Briem (The Evidence) has more fun as the sole female lead. She's smart, spunky, and resourceful -- in fact, she's more useful than the two male leads combined.

p5Supporting cast includes Seth Meyers (American Dreamz) as Professor Alan Kitzens, Jean Michel Pare (300) as Max, and Jane Wheeler (I Am Not There) as Elizabeth. They have such peripheral roles that they don't really matter much.

p6Written by Michael Weiss (War Stories with Oliver North), Jennifer Flackett (Nim's Island) and Mark Levin (Nim's Island), the story uses Jule Verne's famous book as only a reference and launching pad. It has a slow and patchy start, typical of "family films." But once Trevor and Sean sets out to Iceland, the action picks up. Still, there are a lot of null and talky spots that the younger set may find boring. The adventure only becomes fantastical in the second half, what with the horrific piranas, the giant flesh-eating Venus Fly Traps, lava pools, and a vicious T-rex. Well, if you have read Verne's book or seen the James Mason's version of the film, you'd know what to expect. In an era where kids' adventures are filled with gnarly bugs and scary monsters, Verne's creatures may seem a bit tame. The characters and dialogue are rather flat and typical, even for a family film.

p7Under the direction of David Brevig (Xena: Warrior Princess), however, the film is visually pleasing. The production design is good and the creatures are well rendered. There are scary moments and intense sequences that may frighten small children. For the older ones, the story definitely will whet their imagination. The 3D projection is excellent. In fact, it's one of the most impressive and enjoyable 3D films in recent years.

p8That alone may be worth the price of admission, since few people can experience 3D movies at home. If you are looking to spend a lazy afternoon with a harmless family adventure, it doesn't hurt to make a journey to your local multiplex for this one.

Stars: Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson, Anita Briem, Seth Meyers, Jean Michel Pare, Jane Wheeler
Director: David Brevig
Writers: Michael Weiss, Jennifer Flackett, Mark Levin (loosely based on Jules Verne's novel)
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: PG for intense adventure action and some scary moments
Running Time: 92 Minutes


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

Total – 6.8 out of 10


© 2008 Ray Wong


Have enough superhero movies this year yet? Probably not, or else Hollywood wouldn't be lining up everything from Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Hellboy, to Batman for this summer. And now Will Smith is joining the ranks as Hancock, the most unlikely superhero of all times.

photo1John Hancock (Will Smith) is a drunk living in a remote trailer somewhere in Los Angeles. He's rude, obnoxious, and simply indifferent to everyone around him. And people hate him. The funny thing is, he also has some kind of superpowers. The ability to fly, super strength, invincibility... that sort of things. While Hancock will step in and help people and the cops in case of emergencies or crime, he does it in a way that just makes people not want his help -- such as millions of dollars of damages and putting innocent people in harm's way.

photo2After Hancock saves Ray Embrey's (Jason Bateman) life, he's intrigued by Ray's proposal. You see, Ray is a public relationship consultant who has a "save-the-world" complex. He wants to make Hancock a real superhero, someone everybody would look up to. All Hancock needs is a little push in the right direction, some new clothes and attitudes. Oh, and a stint as an inmate. Reluctantly Hancock follows his advice, while still trying to figure out who he is and why there's only one of him in the whole wide world.

photo3Ray's effort pays off, even to his wife Mary's (Charlize Theron) disapproval. As Hancock slowly regains his respectability, he also starts to figure out his history and he realizes Mary plays a key role.

photo4Will Smith (I Am Legend) is super cool as Hancock, a downtrodden man with immense powers. A reluctant hero, Smith portrays Hancock with sensitivity, depth and humor. Granted, this is far from being an Oscar-caliber performance, but Smith does a commendable job and demands attention with the film resting heavily on his shoulders.

photo5Charlize Theron (In the Valley of Elah) is also very good as the conflicted housewife. Appropriately gorgeous and approachable at the same time, Theron gives the film a needed soft side (even though her character is not entirely soft, as we find out). Jason Bateman (Juno) has the most amiable character in the film. Very likable, but perhaps a bit bland in comparison with Smith or Theron. And Jae Head (Friday Night Lights) is fine as Ray's son and Hancock's number one fan, Aaron.

photo6Written by TV writers Vincent Ngo (Fearless) and Vince Gilligan (The X-Files), the script is unfortunately unfocused and somewhat schizophrenic. The first half of the film has a overwhelmingly comedic tone to it. And it is funny. Hancock's character is well-drawn and he delivers in some hilarious scenes. It sounds like a very unusual superhero story... until midway into the film when the writers switch gears. It takes on a much more somber, serious and introspective tone, as Hancock goes through a 12-steps type rehabilitation while asking "who am I?"

photo7Then the last third of the movie turns into a tried and true action flick, except there isn't really any specific villain for us to root against. There are villains, of course, but they're very secondary. As Hancock's history is revealed, we're reminded of many other stories including X-Men, Highlander, and Unbreakable even down to the climactic scene complete with a lot of water and slow-motion shots. What's disappointing is that Hancock starts out as a rather original take on the genre, but eventually turns into a familiar blend of past movies.

photo8The direction under Peter Berg (The Kingdom) reflects that unfocused nature of the script. The first two acts are relatively fast-paced. The tone is decidedly lighter and the plot unfolds smoothly. During the final act, however, the drama becomes heavy, and so does the pace. The action is further bogged down with melodrama and exposition.

Don't get me wrong. Hancock is entertaining and Will Smith delivers once again. But the film feels like two different movies stuck together. It could have been a much stronger film had the writers and director thought it through. As is, the film is rather half-cocked.

Stars: Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Jason Bateman, Jae Head, Eddie Marsan, David Mattey
Director: Peter Berg
Writers: Vincent Ngo, Vince Gilligan
Distributor: Columbia
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence; language
Running Time: 92 Minutes


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

Total – 7.1 out of 10