(c) 2009 Ray Wong


Pixar has a lot at stake with their 10th animated feature, UP. The premise – about a senior citizen lifting off in a house strapped to a thousand balloons – seems unlikely for a hit. And after having nine critically and financially successful films, will Pixar fall?

p1We first meet Carl (Edward Asner) as a young boy who dreams of being an explorer, much as his idol Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). Then Carl meets young Ellie (Elie Docter) who is just as much an explorer at heart as Carl is. The two hit it off. They eventually falls in love and have a long, loving marriage.

p2But then things change, and Carl – now a retired balloon salesman -- suffers from depression and becomes a recluse. When he’s forced to evict his house and move to an old folks’ home, he decides to tie a thousand helium balloons to his house and fly off. His plan works out well until he discovers a stowaway – boy scout Russell (Jordan Nagai), who is determined to earn his merit badge by offering his assistance to Carl.

p3Together, they set off to find Paradise Falls, a place where Ellie had always wanted to visit with Carl before real life interfered. On their way, they come across an exotic bird, talking dogs, and eventually Muntz himself. Carl doesn’t expect an adventure of a lifetime, but that’s exactly what he gets.

p4The voice talents all do great work here. Veteran actor Edward Asner (Elf) gives the cranky Carl a solid and expressive voice. His strong, characteristic voice has both warmth and authority. Christopher Plummer (The Lake House) gives Charles Muntz a charismatic and powerful voice. Newcomer Jordan Nagai gives Russell a wonderful, spirited voice without being annoying or overly cute. Writer/director Bob Peterson also provides the voice for Dug the talking dog, one of the most lovable characters in the film.

p5Pixar’s masterpieces all have one thing in common. Okay, they have many things in common, including great animation and colorful characters. But they all start with great writing and great stories, and UP is no different. Written by Bob Peterson (Ratatouille), the story is at once simple and layered, straightforward and complex, funny and touching. There is a dialogue-less montage near the beginning that must be one of the most poignant in movie history. The dialogue throughout the film is snappy and witty, and there are many funny moments, as well as intense and sad moments. In fact, the story covers so many emotions that it may be, sometimes, a bit overwhelming for the young kids. A few scenes could be too intense and scary for them. So parents beware!

p6The direction of Bob Peterson and Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.) is top-notch. They manage to combine so many different elements ranging from romance, heartbreaks, abandonment, loneliness, depression, nostalgia, sadness into a hilarious piece of action-adventure that has the audiences spellbound from first scene to last. Between the funny bits and over-the-top action, there are lovely and poignant moments that make us think about our own lives and relationships. They have succeeded in creating a balance with just the right mix. The pace is excellent, and the animation is gorgeous, of course. Michael Giacchino’s original score fits the film perfectly. Over all, it’s one handsome film.

p7What Pixar has done, though, over and over again is that they use the best animation technologies and techniques to tell a great story. Characters and story always come first, and it is the basis for Pixar’s success. After ten movies, you’d think Pixar will slack off at least a bit. Not a chance; they’ve delivered every single time, and UP is another triumph.


Thumbs up!

Stars: Edward Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, Bob Peterson, Delroy Lindo, Jerome Ranft, John Ratzenberger
Directors: Pete Docter, Bob Peterson
Writer: Bob Peterson
Distributor: Pixar/Disney
MPAA Rating: PG for some peril and action
Running time: 96 minutes

Script: 8
Direction: 8
Animation: 10
Music/Sound: 9
Editing: 9
Production: 10
Total: 8.9

Terminator Salvation

© 2009 Ray Wong


The Terminator franchise is like a Terminator itself: it will never die. This time around, Terminator Salvation (or T4, as the fans call it) is set in the future.

p1The year is 2018. Judgment Day happened and Skynet has taken control of the world after the global nuclear holocaust. The surviving humans form pockets of resistance to fight "the machines." John Connor (Christian Bale) is now one of the resistance leaders, as Skynet and their Terminators are out to destroy mankind. Broadcasting his messages via shortwave radio, Connor becomes the voice of the resistance.

p2Meanwhile, a human named Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) emerges. His last memory is of being a convicted murderer on death row, in 2003. He is shocked to discover that not only is he in the future, but also the world he knew has been destroyed. Aided by the Los Angeles branch of the resistance -- Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) and Star (Jadagrace) being its only members -- Marcus manages to reach John Connor, but not before Reese and Star are captured by Skynet. Marcus is seriously injured.

p3What John Connor discovers is that Marcus is not human, although Marcus insists that he is. To Marcus's own surprise, he finds out he is indeed a machine with a human heart. John Connor believes Marcus is sent by Skynet to kill him, until Marcus tells him about Kyle Reese and promises Connor to infiltrate Skynet and rescue Reese for him. Meanwhile, the resistance gains a new technology that can give them an upper hand in the war, but the operation may sacrifice the human prisoners, including Reese. Connor must decide if he should trust Marcus or risk losing the war.

p4Christian Bale (The Dark Knight) is an notorious method actor and his on-set tantrum constantly made headline news. There's no question that Bale is intense and serious. Perhaps a bit too serious. The adult John Connor, with his portrayal, is dense and humorless. Given what he has gone through, it makes sense. Still, Bale's performance is somewhat one note. It's also surprising that John Connor is actually a secondary character in this film.

p5The protagonist turns out to be Marcus Wright, effectively played by Sam Worthington (Rogue). A relatively unknown, Worthington has the film's biggest and most important character arc. His portrayal is mostly along the "tough guy/action hero" line, without a lot of depth. But he does the job and has some good scenes, especially with Moon Bloodgood (Pathfinder), who plays resistance fighter Blair Williams with a nice mix of spunk, charisma and heart. In fact, the scenes between her and Worthington are some of the best in the film.

p6The supporting cast doesn't really have much to do, with the exception of Anton Yelchin (Star Trek), who does a fine job playing Kyle Reese as a teenager. Yelchin makes us believe that the tough teen could grow up to be John's right-hand man and father! Helena Bonham Carter (Sweeny Todd) has a small role as Dr. Kogan, the woman responsible for making Marcus. Newcomer Jadagrace has a stereotypical "child" role in such an apocalyptic world. Bryce Dallas Howard's (Spider-Man 3) talent is rather wasted in a small and irrelevant role as John's wife, Kate.

p7Written by John D. Brancato (Terminator 3) and Michael Ferris (Terminator 3), the screenplay seems to have been written for Marcus Wright instead of John Connor. That's a disappointment in that we've come to expect the story, set in the future after Judgment Day, to be about the war and the rise of John Connor to be the fabled leader. Instead, the main character arc belongs to Marcus Wright. To make things worse, there just isn't a lot of character development for Connor or other characters. The story lacks real human touches and sensitivity. The dialogue is standard. The plot is thin, mostly revolving around major action scenes.

p8Under McG's (We Are Marshalls) direction, the film does have a great apocalyptic look. The production and designs are excellent, and the film moves in a brisk pace. The action is top-notch, and the special effects are very good, too. In fact, the whole film reminds me of a great video game. And I think that is part of the problem with the film: It is a video game. It focuses too much on the machines and action but not enough on the humans. It would be a much stronger film if we had spent more time with John Connor. As an action film, it does the job. But the story simply falls short considering all the possibilities. Instead, we have a half-cooked story with the wrong focus.

There is no salvation for this installment.

Stars: Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Moon Bloodgood, Helena Bonham Carter, Anton Yelchin, Jadagrace, Bryce Dallas Howard
Director: McG
Writers: John D. Brancato, Michael Ferris
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, language, partial nudity
Running Time: 130 Minutes


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

Total – 7.1 out of 10

Angels & Demons

© 2009 Ray Wong


A followup of the Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown's international phenomenon, Angels & Demons continues with the theme that pits science against faith, with secret societies and symbology thrown in.

p1The Pope is dead, and the world watches as the Vatican is set to select a new Pope. Meanwhile, at CERN in Geneva, scientists succeeded in creating the world's first antimatter. But immediately a battery-powered canister containing the antimatter is stolen.

p2When four cardinals were kidnapped, the Swiss Guard comes to Dr. Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) for help. It seems like the Illuminati, a secret society that has disappeared for hundreds of years, has resurfaced. Soon it's clear that the incidents at CERN and Vatican City are related. The Illuminati promises to kill the one cardinal every hour starting at 8 P.M., culminating in the antimatter going off as a powerful bomb that would destroy Vatican City and part of Rome, killing everyone. With less than 24 hours to spare, Langdon must, with the help of Camerlengo McKenna (Ewan McGregor) and CERN physicist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), find the cardinals and the bomb in time by following the clues and solving a series of puzzles.

p3Reprising his role as Robert Langdon, Tom Hanks (Charlie Wilson's War) at least has better hair this time instead of that ridiculous mop in the Da Vinci Code. I also find Langdon an uninteresting, weak hero, and my feeling is further confirmed here. Langdon is intellectual, of course. But he's also passive. Sure, he did a few things here that may be considered heroic, including jumping into a pool trying to save someone. Still, Langdon is a boring hero. In a way, Tom Hanks is perfect for the role -- and that's not a jab at Tom Hanks as an actor. Simply said, he's not Indiana Jones/Harrison Ford.

p4As Camerlengo McKenna, Ewan McGregor (I Love You Phillip Morris) is effective even though his role turns out to be more complicated than what's on the surface. McGregor has the charm to pull it off. Ayelet Zurer (Vantage Point) is fine as CERN physicist who helps Langdon to solve the puzzles. However, the character never seems to be in real danger, and thus you don't really feel any special concerns for her.

p5The huge supporting cast includes Stellan Skarsgard (Mama Mia!) as Swiss Guards commander Richter, who serves as one of the suspects in this mystery; Danish actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas (Reconstruction) is effectively sinister as the assassin; Piefrancesco Favino (Miracle at St. Anna) and David Pasquesi (Leatherheads) are both good as Swiss Guards inspectors; and Armin Mueller-Stahl (the International) is understated as Cardinal Strauss.

p6Veteran scribes David Koepp (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) and Akiva Goldsman (I Am Legend) have weaved a complicated story with all the threads intact. The pace is fast, and all sides of the story are presented effectively. Still there is a lot of information to present here: author Dan Brown is known for his extensive research, and it's a difficult task to translate all that information to a screenplay while keeping the plot moving. Sometimes, the writers have to rely on heavy-handed expositions and explanation, usually through the long-winded Langdon who probably likes his lectures too much. To the writers' credit, they've altered or deleted some of Brown's most outrageous and implausible plot elements.

p7While the pace is good and the action unfolds in an exciting manner, the dialogue is only standard for thrillers. Nothing outrageously cheesy but also nothing that sets it apart. Also, the plot is bogged down by Brown's own weakness: thin motivations, implausible circumstances and coincidences, and predictable twists. The final revelation and twist are so obvious that anyone who is half a mystery fan would have guessed it already. It is further weakened by the flimsy motivation behind the grand scheme. At least in the book, as outrageous as it can be, has a dark and more believable reason behind everything. Also, the book is far more critical of the Catholic church and religious fanaticism, and lives up to the meaning of the title: angels and demons. The screenplay softens the blow, perhaps trying to appease the Christians who find the original novel blasphemous.

p8Still there is plenty of damning stuff going on, and director Ron Howard (Frost/Nixon) does his job setting up all the scenes, the suspense and the thrills. The actions are general exciting and the pace brisk. There's no question that Howard is a master in what he does. It's just a shame that he nor the experienced writers can't lift the film from the source material.

Stars: Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer, Stellan Skarsgard, Piefrancesco Favino, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Armin Mueller-Stahl, David Pasquesi
Director: Ron Howard
Writers: David Koepp, Akiva Goldsman (based on Dan Brown's novel)
Distributor: SONY Pictures
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of violence, disturbing images and thematic material
Running Time: 138 Minutes


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

Total – 6.7 out of 10

Star Trek

© 2009 Ray Wong


After Nemesis seven long years ago, the general consensus is that Paramount has ruined the Star Trek franchise for good. It's not a surprise that the fans met J.J. Abrams' "reboot" with extreme skepticism and scrutiny. I believe Abrams has proved them all wrong -- and that's a great thing.

p1Born without a father, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is a drifter, despite his great skills and intellect. But Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) sees through the facade and convinces Kirk to enter the Starfleet Academy, where the gregarious Kirk makes friends with fellow cadets Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana). Cockily Kirk promises Pike, who held the record of making officer in four years, that he will be able to do the same in three.

p2Meanwhile on the planet Vulcan, Spock (Zachary Quinto) succeeds in controlling his emotions and decides to join the Starfleet despite his "disadvantage" of being a half-human. Quickly, Spock rises to become a commander. The headstrong Kirk comes into conflict with the logical Spock when Kirk reprograms Spock's famous Kobayashi Maru test and breaks the Starfleet's rules and regulations. Kirk is suspended.

p3Then the Starfleet receives a distress call and the cadets are sent on a rescue mission. McCoy manages to get Kirk on the Enterprise, commandeered by Captain Pike with the help of Lieutenant Sulu (John Cho) and Ensign Chekov (Anton Yelchin). The distress call turns out to be a trap set by a Romulan mining ship captained by Nero (Eric Bana). Despite their differences, Kirk and Spock really compliment each other, and they are called to duty to help save the galaxy for the very first time.

p4Chris Pine (Bottle Shock), a relatively unknown actor, rises to the occasion and gives us a spirited and likable James T. Kirk. He manages to subtly imitate William Shatner, who has personified Kirk since the '60s, while injecting his own personality into the role. He's cocky, charming, infuriating, and vulnerable at the same time. As his counterpart, Zachary Quinto (Heroes) is superb as Spock, the logical creature struggling with his emotions as a half-human. Quinto's portrayal is precise and affecting. He and Pine make a great team and totally make us believe they can become great friends despite their tremendous differences.

p5Leonard Nimoy is the only original Star Trek cast involved in this film (and you will see how that makes sense in the story). Of course, Nimoy is Spock. The fact that he and Quinto share the role without the audience questioning the authenticity says a lot about the actors as well as the screenwriters. Eric Bana (The Time Traveler's Wife) is quite good as Nero, and he gives the villainous role a "human" side. Bruce Greenwood (National Treasure: Book of Secrets) is excellently stoic as Captain Pike.

p6The rest of the cast is outstanding as they tackle the difficult task of playing well-known and well-liked characters without sacrificing their own personalities. They can't be too much younger than the original cast in the '60s, but they're all believable. Karl Urban (Pathfinder) is especially good as McCoy. Zoe Saldana (Vantage Point) is spunky and lovely as Uhura. John Cho (Harold & Kumar) is sharp as Sulu, and Anton Yelchin (Charlie Barlett) is fun as Chekov. Simon Pegg (How to Lose Friends and Alienate People) is hilarious and awesome as Scotty. Ben Cross (War, Inc.) and Winona Ryder (The Informers) are also excellent as Spock's parents.

p7Written by Roberto Orci (Transformers) and Alex Kurtzman (Transformers), the screenplay is tight with a great plot that reinvigorates the canon without sacrificing it. Without giving out any spoilers, suffice it to say this is not really a prequel. The high-concept plot works beautifully. There are great tension, action, and lots of humor that plays well to the characters' personalities. The banters among the characters are great. And there's just enough character development that even if you are not familiar with Star Trek, you won't feel left out or confused. The dialogue is sharp and there are many references to the series without, again, confusing those who are not familiar with the Star Trek universe.

p8It is a great relief that the writers pay so much attention to the plot and character development to make it an exceptional screenplay. They also manage to embrace the old canon while creating a new direction. They also satisfy the fans without alienating the mainstream audiences. In fact, this may be the first Star Trek film that has a truly broad appeal.

It helps that director J.J. Abrams (Cloverfield) has a knack for creating believable characters and exciting storytelling. Abrams' pace never falters. It keeps the plot moving along without sacrificing characters. There are suspense, intrigues, and tension. Good drama and plenty of humor as well. Abrams also knows when to quit and move on, without bogging us down to exhausting action sequences or expositions. At the same time, he manages to streamline the story -- it is easy to follow even with multiple plot threads and a huge cast of characters.

When everyone has just about written Star Trek off, Abrams and his team manage to not only resurrect the franchise, but also give it new excitement filled with pathos and humor, drama and action, and a tremendous sense of wonder and adventure. Star Trek is a triumph in every sense of the word.

Stars: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Leonard Nimoy, Eric Bana, Bruce Greenwood, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Ben Cross, Winona Ryder
Director: JJ Abrams
Writers: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman (based on Gene Roddenberry's series)
Distributor: Paramount
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, and some sexual content
Running Time: 126 Minutes


Script – 8
Performance – 8
Direction – 9
Cinematography – 9
Music/Sound– 8
Editing – 9
Production – 10

Total – 8.2 out of 10


© 2009 Ray Wong


The X-Men franchise has been so successful, and it has made Hugh Jackman a superstar, that it's just a matter of time before Jackman tries to capitalize on it. Fans of Wolverine and his mythology may welcome the arrival of this film.

p1James Logan (Hugh Jackman) and Victor Creed (Liev Schrieber) are two brothers from the late 19th century. The brothers are mutants with special power to heal themselves, thus they're immortal. They live through over a hundred years of wars as soldiers, until they're recruited by General William Stryker (Danny Huston) who knows about their abilities.

p2Stryker has organized a special force made of mutants including John Wraith (Will i Am), The Blob (Kevin Durand), Bolt (Dominic Monaghan), Zero (Daniel Henney), and Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds). The special unit is a military secret and that suits the brothers well. But soon Logan realizes the true mercenary nature of the team, and he walks out.

p3Six years later, Victor (now known as Sabretooth) tracks down the former team and kills them. Eventually, he finds Logan and destroys his quiet life. Seeking revenge, Logan teams up with Stryker, who is heading a secret project. Stryker convinces Logan that the treatment would make Logan indestructible, and he shall have his revenge. Thus, Logan successful becomes Weapon X, and the X-Men are born...

p4The character Wolverine made Hugh Jackman (Australia) a star, and he doesn't disappoint by reprising this role. Jackman is a versatile actor -- he can sing and dance as one of Hollywood's most dashing leading men, or he can be rough and gruff as an outcast. As Wolverine, Jackman has both the physicality and intensity to pull it off. However, something is lacking in his portrayal this time around. The humor is gone. The role is way too serious and we just want to say, "Hey, pal, relax, or you're going to bust a gut."

p5Liev Schreiber (Defiance) is rather one-note as Victor/Sabretooth. Sure, he's menacing and arrogant and ruthless, but that's about it. He and Jackman are supposed to share a great brotherly bond but I just don't feel it. To me, they may as well be complete strangers, instead of two men who have spent over a hundred years together. On the other hand, Danny Huston (How to Lose Friends and Alienate People) is very good as Stryker. However, once again, his character is underwritten and one-dimensional.

p6The remaining cast doesn't really have much to do. Rapper Will i Am is fine as John Wraith but his role is simply too peripheral. Lynn Collins (The Lake House) is also fine as Logan's girlfriend Kayla. Kevin Durand (Winged Creatures) has some fun donning a fat suit as Blob. Dominic Monaghan (The Lord of the Rings) seems out of place in the testosterone-fueled action flick. Taylor Kitsch (The Covenant) has a better chance to show his stuff as Gambit. Korean actor Daniel Henney (Ma-i pa-deo) is sharp as Agent Zero. Ryan Reynolds' (Definitely, Maybe) talent is wasted in a small, one-dimensional role as Wade/Deadpool.

p7Written by David Benioff (The Kite Runner) and Skip Woods (Hitman), the screenplay is the weakest link in the production. The story starts strong with a brief prologue and back stories, but as the plot develops, it becomes more and more convoluted and implausible. Often, the characters' motivation is murky and unconvincing -- it seems they're only acting as pawns to move the plot along. Certain plot elements and twists are outrageous, cliched or illogical. The dialogue is typical and exposition-heavy. The ending is anticlimactic: yes, we know they have to set up the sequel and the rest of the X-Men mythology, but the denouement just goes on for too long.

p8The biggest issue I have with the film is the lack of real character development. The focus is on Logan/Wolverine -- and that's fine. But we need to know more about him. He's supposed to be a tragic hero, but all we see is just angst and naiveté. As for the other characters, especially Victor/Sabretooth, there is almost no character development. And no real relationships between these characters either. Logan and Victor are supposed to be brothers in arm, but the relationship is unconvincing.

Technically speaking, Wolverine is adequate but not at all spectacular. Under Gavin Hood's (Rendition) skillful direction, the movie moves along with good pace, and there are enough action to keep the fans happy. The special effects seem cheesy and cheap at times, however. The action is good, however, and should please the fans.

Over all, I think Wolverine is disappointing. Granted, it probably delivers what the fans are looking for: great stunts, action, adventure, intrigue. But it lacks what really makes the X-Men series fun: character development, sharp dialogue, coherent plot. We also realize that as great as Wolverine is, he is not enough. We miss the other X-Men, sorely.

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, Will i Am, Lynn Collins, Kevin Durand, Dominic Monaghan, Taylor Kitsch, Daniel Henney, Ryan Reynolds, Scott Adkins
Director: Gavin Hood
Writers: David Benioff, Skip Woods
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, partial nudity
Running Time: 107 Minutes


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

Total – 5.8 out of 10