Monsters vs. Aliens

© 2009 Ray Wong


3-D seems to be the new hot things, especially for animation features. That's certainly one of the biggest selling points of DreamWorks' otherwise-lackluster new film, Monsters vs. Aliens.

p1A meteorite from outer space hits Susan (Reese Witherspoon) and burns her into the 50-feet-tall woman. She's promptly captured and locked up at a secret government compound by General W.R. Monger (Keifer Sutherland), who calls her Ginormica. While there, Susan/Ginormica meets fellow "monsters": B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), a blue blobby thing; Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), sure to have taken his cue from The Fly; and The Missing Link (Will Arnett), a lizard-man/swamp thing.

p2What they don't know is that an alien space conquerer, Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson), is looking for the all-power element called Quantonium, which apparently existed in the meteorite and turned Susan into Ginormica. Gallaxhar sent a giant robot to Earth to find and extract the Quantonium. Defenseless, the US government decides to use the monsters to fight the aliens. Ginormica and company accept the challenge in exchange for their freedom.

p3After an unsuccessful attempt to destroy San Francisco, Gallaxhar arrives on Earth in his spaceship and captures Ginormica. The other monsters go after Gallaxhar to save her and the world.

p4Reese Witherspoon (Four Christmases) is a decent actress, and sometimes outright brilliant. But as the voice of Susan, she seems out of place, uncomfortable, and forced. Her thin voice also has a rather grating effect. I think the character would have benefited from a deeper, more resonant voice (Anne Hathaway, perhaps). Seth Rogen (Zack and Miri Make a Porno), on the other hand, was born to voice an animated character, and B.O.B. is just perfect.

p5Hugh Laurie (House M.D.) also does a good job with Dr. Cockroach, adding his slightly geeky voice to the equally geeky role. Will Arnett (Horton Hears a Who) also does a fine job as The Missing Link. He has a way to blend in because his voice is not as recognizable as that of Witherspoon or Rogen. Kiefer Sutherland (24) has a fun time playing the obnoxious General W.R. Monger, and Rainn Wilson (The Office) is adequately slimy and weird as Gallaxhar.

p6Other celebrity voices include Stephen Colbert (The Colbert Report) as President Hathaway, Paul Rudd (I Love You, Man) as Susan's boyfriend Derek, Amy Poehler (Baby Mama), Renée Zellweger (Leatherhead), and John Krasinski (The Office).

p7Written by a slew of writers headed by director Rob Letterman (Shark Tale), the script is basically 94 minutes of one-liners and sight gags. The story is so simple and straightforward that it seems like an after thought, or a long commercial for toys and tie-in merchandise. They aim at broad humor and slapstick comedy and they got it. In fact, the whole thing has a Saturday morning cartoon feel to it, despite the big budget and celebrity voices.

p8In fact, the one-liners and pop culture references are so prevalent that they become tiresome after a while. The over-the-top action and humor also wear thin eventually. The characters are all one-dimensional caricatures. The pacing is fine, and some of the animation is impressive (definitely see it in 3-D). It's action-packed and saturated with colors that the young ones would enjoy it.

But for anyone above 8 years old, the thin plot and the jokes seem sophomoric. Compared to Pixar, DreamWorks really does seem to have abandoned good storytelling and characterization in favor of celebrity voices and cheap gags. It's a shame, considering David Katzenberg brought us wonderful stories such as The Lion King and Antz.

Monster hit this isn't. Instead, wait for it to come out on DVD if you must watch it with the young ones.

Stars: Reese Witherspoon, Seth Rogen, Hugh Laurie, Will Arnett, Kiefer Sutherland, Rainn Wilson, Stephen Colbert, Paul Rudd
Directors: Rob Letterman, Conrad Vernon
Writers: Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky, Rob Letterman, Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger
Distributor: DreamWorks SKG
MPAA Rating: PG for sci-fi action, some crude humor and mild language
Running Time: 94 Minutes


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

Total – 6.5 out of 10


© 2009 Ray Wong


Once in a while, there comes a science fiction that blends scientific speculations and theology and foretells a future too bleak to imagine. Alex Proyas, the master behind cult classics such as The Crow and Dark City, returns with an apocalyptic thriller that would sure make you think.

p1Dr. John Koestler (Nicolas Cage) is an MIT professor whose wife died in a fire a year ago, leaving him with a young son Caleb (Chandler Canterbury). At the 50th anniversary of Caleb's elementary school, a time capsule is opened. Caleb received a 50-year-old envelope that contains a drawing from a student named Lucinda (Lara Robinson). But instead of a drawing, it's a paper filled with random numbers.

p2However, John soon realizes that these numbers are not random at all. In fact, they are predictions of major disasters since 1959, and all the predictions have come true so far. Skeptical at first, John begins to realize that Lucinda possessed a special gift and somehow she's linked to Caleb. Meanwhile, a group of strange men follows Caleb, who starts to hear whispers around him. Knowing that certain calamities are about to happen, John is desperate to unlock the prophesies and mystery in order to save innocent lives, including his son's.

p3Nicolas Cage (National Treasure) has become a cliche lately, playing over-the-top action heroes in blockbusters and flops alike. In this film, Cage manages to tone down his personality to play an average Joe and desperate father. His performance is uneven, at times touching, and sometimes superficial. However, this is one of the more affecting performances he's given since getting the Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas.

p4As his son, Chandler Canterbury (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) does a good job. Often child actors overacts and become obnoxious, but Canterbury has a quiet, subtle demeanor that fits the role very well. Rose Byrne (28 Weeks Later) is effective as a scared, confused, and protective mother (and daughter of adult Lucinda). It's sometimes difficult to watch her character degenerate from a cheery mother to a hysterical mess. Lara Robinson (Work in Progress) is rather creepy playing dual roles: young Lucinda and her granddaughter Abby. The young actress also has an uncanny resemblance to Christina Ricci. And Nadia Townsend (What They Don't Know) is fine in a small role as Caleb's aunt, Grace.

p5Written by an army of writers headed by Ryne Douglas Pearson (Mercury Rising) and Juliet Snowden (Boogeyman), the story is a suspense-thriller wrapped in science fiction and religion. With its cryptology elements, one may try to compare this to the Da Vinci Code. But this story also reminds us of disaster movies such as Independence Day and Deep Impact. I can just imagine the pitch meeting for this one.

p6As a suspense-mystery, the screenplay does its job holding our interest, revealing only enough information at a time while stringing us along with intrigues and questions. The answers are never too elusive, though, and if the audience pays enough attention, they'd know where the story is going. Still, the film is suspenseful, even though the dialogue can be cliched and over the top. Some of the plot elements also test our suspension of disbelief. For example, the "strangers" have plenty of opportunities and time to do what they're here to do, and yet they just walk around. And don't even get me started on the "messages" they try to leave.

p7As a thriller, the film also does it job just fine, thanks to the tight direction of Alex Proyas (I, Robot). The film boasts some fantastic disaster sequences that are definitely too scary for the young ones. Some of the best effect shots for the genres. The actions are brisk and the tension is strong. What Proyas also succeeds to do is to anchor the story at a personal level. By focusing on John and Caleb's relationship, the film has a strong emotional core that sustains itself through some rather ridiculous plot development. It's a really good ride, though, even though there are enough cliches and similarities with other films (Signs, The Day the World Stood Still, etc.). And the ending has a surreal sense of optimism, even as it is anything but cheery.

p8I really enjoy the film, which leaves me something to think about afterwards. It succeeds in blending sci-fi and fantasy with a dash of religion in the mix. Some may argue that it is pro- or anti-religion. To me, none of that matters much, except for the idea of how we value our lives and what meanings we find in our existence and beyond. I think there's something profound about that. And it's good to know.

Stars: Nicolas Cage, Chandler Canterbury, Rose Byrne, D.G. Maloney, Lara Robinson, Nadia Townsend, Alan Hopgood
Director: Alex Proyas
Writers: Ryne Douglas Pearson, Juliet Snowden, Stiles White, Stuart Hazeldine, Richard Kelly
Distributor: Summit Entertainment
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for disaster sequences, disturbing images, and brief strong language
Running Time: 130 Minutes


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

Total – 7.7 out of 10

Race to Witch Mountain

© 2009 Ray Wong


Based on Alexander Key's book and a remake of the 1975 movie, Race to Witch Mountain is a sci-fi action-adventure aimed squarely at prepubescent kids in the tradition of Disney life-action.

p1Jack Bruno (Dwayne Johnson) is an ex-con who is trying to stay out of trouble by being a cab driver in Las Vegas. He's broke and disillusioned about everything. When two children, Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig), hop into his cab with a big wad of cash, he thinks he's just getting a great fare. Little does he know he's now the guardian of two extraterrestrials.

p2They're promptly pursued by Homeland Security headed by ruthless Henry Burke (Ciarán Hinds), and his two assistants, Matheson (Tom Everett Scott) and Pope (Chris Marquette). At first Jack thinks the loan sharks are after him. Then they're being pursued by an alien in a small UFO -- that's when Jack realizes he's not in Kansas anymore. It turns out that Sara and Seth came to Earth on a mission, and an assassin from their home planet is also here to stop them. Meanwhile, Homeland Security is keeping their spaceship at a secret facility on Witch Mountain.

p3Jack decides to help these ETs and he seeks the help of UFO expert, Dr. Alex Friedman (Carla Gugino). Of course, Alex doesn't believe him at first. But once they realize the importance of Sara and Seth's mission, they will stop at nothing to protect the aliens and help them return to their home planet.

p4Dwayne Johnson (Get Smart) was born to play this part. Gruff, strong, handsome, not too smart but with a big heart, Jack Bruno seems like a character specifically written for Johnson. He does a good job in a very broad comedic way. Johnson has charisma to spare, but there's not much finesse in his acting. He's the last action hero, and he fills the role well enough.

p5AnnaSophia Robb (Jumper) does what she does best, playing the innocent, wide-eyed girl everyone loves to love. There's an added layer of characterization as she's playing an alien, but still, it's a two-dimensional role. Alexander Ludwig (The Seeker: The Dark is Rising) actually does a better job playing an alien -- his Spockish portrayal, what with all the technical mumble-jumble and emotionless reasoning, is good enough for a chuckle. Carla Gugino (Watchmen) is more at ease here than she did in Watchmen. I'm not, however, convinced that she's a doctor in astrophysics. But she's amiable enough, and cute enough to be paired with Johnson.

p6The supporting cast includes Ciarán Hinds (There Will be Blood) as the bad guy representing the US government. Hinds has a classical villainous face and that serves him well. Tom Everett Scott (Because I Said So) and Chris Marquette (Fanboys) have nothing much to do than running around Hinds. The characters are so two-dimensional that you end up feeling sorry for them because there are opportunities for them to do something good. Finally, Garry Marshall (Chicken Little) has a fun time in his cameo playing Dr. Harlan, an UFO-conspiracy "nutjob."

p7Written by Matt Lopez (Bedtime Stories) and Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard), the script does seem like a mesh of their respective talents: Lopez specializes in children's adventures and Bomback is all about action. The plot is generally non-stop from the very first scene. There's nothing unique or new about this; everything is written by the book, complete with the wisecracks and asinine subplots. It's a tried and true formula and the writers stick to that religiously. The plot is predictable, offering absolutely no suspense or tension. The story is just an excuse for action sequence after sequence. For all its intended purposes, the writers do their job, considering their target audiences.

p8It's director's Andy Fickman (The Game Plan) I have a problem with. Right from the beginning, Fickman's direction shows its ineptitude. The editing is choppy, and the pacing is too fast and furious, leaving no room for real character development. The production feels rushed and chaotic. The score is mind-numbingly repetitive and annoying. Also, there are moments for some of the characters to do something unexpected, but they blow the chances. The result is something that is tiresome and uninteresting. If not for Johnson's immense personality and charisma, this film would have almost no redeeming value.

I understand I'm not part of the target demographics; but still, I don't want to have my intelligence insulted if I had to take some youngsters to see this. A family fun adventure should be enjoyable for everyone in the family. Witch Mountain is juvenile (sometimes outright offensive), chaotic, tiresome and predictable. It's also too violent for a PG movie. It's as if the filmmakers are all on autopilot. It's certainly not something we should race out to see.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, AnnaSophia Robb, Alexander Ludwig, Carla Gugino, Ciarán Hinds, Tom Everett Scott, Chris Marquette, Garry Marshall
Director: Andy Fickman
Writers: Matt Lopez, Mark Bomback (based on Alexander Key's book)
Distributor: Walt Disney
MPAA Rating: PG for sequences of action and violence, frightening and dangerous situations, some thematic elements
Running Time: 98 Minutes


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

Total – 5.4 out of 10


© 2009 Ray Wong


Alan Moore's Watchmen is often regarded as one of the best novels of the 20th Century. "Unfilmmable" as well. That didn't stop director Zack Snyder from bringing the celebrated graphic novel to the big screen.

w1The story begins with Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) being brutally murdered by a mysterious assassin. Blake works for the government, headed by three-term President Richard Nixon, in a time when the world is deep in the Cold War in which the U.S. and the Soviet Union are on the verge of an all-out nuclear war. Blake, known as the Comedian by his peers, was also part of a now-defunct group of superheroes called the Watchmen.

w2Blake's murder gives reasons for the Watchmen to be concerned about their own safety. Headed by Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a blue, radioactive "superhuman" with tremendous power to change anything including time and space, the Watchmen have been inactive a few years and the members are now in hiding as normal citizens. Previous members have been oppressed, persecuted and locked up by the Nixon adminstration. All except Adrian Veidt, a.k.a. Ozymandias, now the world's smartest and richest man. The other members include Walter Kovacs/Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), and Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman). Rorschach believes they're all in danger unless they find out who is behind Blake's murder. The mystery leads to a discovery that would test their faith in humanity and their own conviction of right and wrong.

w3Billy Crudup (The Good Shepherd) is mostly seen as the proxy of a CGI-generated blue giant. Dr. Manhattan is cool, calm, and disinterested in the human race. There's really not much for Crudup to do except for a few scenes where he plays Dr. Manhattan's former mortal self, Jon Osterman. Matthew Goode (Brideshead Revisited) also has only a few key scenes, especially toward the end, and his portrayal of the world's smartest man seems a bit weak.

w4Jackie Earle Haley (All the King's Men) is awesome as Kovacs/Rorschach. He has the right intensity, toughness and bad-ass attitude required for the role. His odd looks are also perfect. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (P.S. I Love You) is wonderfully slimy and gruff as the morally ambiguous Blake/Comedian. Patrick Wilson (Lakeview Terrace) is interestingly droll as Dreiberg but dashing as his alter-ego Nite Owl II. He has some really good scenes with Malin Akerman (27 Dresses), who plays Jupiter/Silk Spectre as sweet, vulnerable, sexy and tough.

w5Adapted from Moore's novel by David Hayter (X2) and Alex Tse (Sucker Free City), the screenplay is complicated, given the complexity and layers of Moore's original. The story starts with a murder mystery, then slowly unveils within the context of a noir-style dystopia and alternative history in which Richard Nixon is the President in 1985. The story has two main threads going on at the same time: one, the mystery and two, the back stories about these "retired" superheroes. It's an interesting way to introduce these characters and tie that to the theme of "the world still needs superheroes." Moore has a fascination with alternative history and dystopia, evident in his other works such as the superb V for Vendetta. Here, the writers continue to explore those themes as well as the moral ambiguity: is something inherently right or wrong? And is it okay to do something extraordinarily horrible for the greater good of mankind?

w6The dialogue and action are very typical of comic book movies, however. And sometimes the writing seems bogged down by all the back stories, flashbacks, and exposition. It feels tedious at times, even as we appreciate the character development and explanations -- trust me, we need them. Often I feel that the writers are saddled with the huge responsibility of working everything in, all the layers, complexity, character relationships, themes, messages, atmosphere, expositions, etc. The result is a movie that feels long and tedious at times, exhilarating and stunning at others.

w7Director Zack Snyder (300) has established himself as a stylish director with his unique visions. He doesn't disappoint with Watchmen. Snyder, like some of the major action directors such as John Woo, favors slow motion and extreme camera angles. His visual styles are arresting, busy, and dark. His use of popular music is time- and content-appropriate, which at the same time creates an odd juxtaposition to the visual style.

w8Snyder also doesn't shy away from extreme violence, sexuality and language. The film is rightfully hard R-rated. At times, however, the abundance of Dr. Manhattan's nakedness and big, blue appendage are rather distracting. Still, in many ways, I applaud Synder for staying true to his vision and the source material (unlike, say, Robert Zemeckis's shameful and silly coverups in Beowulf).

Watchmen is not the masterpiece we came to expect, nor is it a disaster. Over all, it is a cinematic tour-de-force and fans of the graphic novel would be pleased. For the mainstream audiences, however, this could be a hit or miss depending on their tastes in comic book movies. It is definitely not The Dark Knight or even Spider-Man, but remains very watchable by every standard.

Stars: Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, Carla Gugino, Matt Frewer
Director: Zack Snyder
Writers: David Hayter, Alex Tse (based on Alan Moore's graphic novel)
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: R for strong graphic violence, sexuality, nudity and language
Running Time: 163 Minutes


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

Total – 7.8 out of 10