Old Dogs

© 2009 Ray Wong


Thanksgiving week, and I had a choice of watching a post-apocalypse movie about cannibalism, or a brainless comedy about two old farts. I chose to laugh, and I'm not sure if I made the right decision.

p1Charlie (John Travolta) and Dan (Robin Williams) have been friends and business partners for over 30 years. Charlie, despite being in his 50s, is a player. Dan, on the other hand, is unlucky in love. They're on the verge of making the deal of their lives with a Japanese company. Then Dan's one-time flame Vicki (Kelly Preston) shows up and drops the bomb on him: he's the father of her twin 7-year-old children.

p2What's worse, Vicki is scheduled to serve some jail time, and situations arise such that she is desperate to find someone to care for the children for two weeks. Dan is horrible with children, but he wants to spend some time with his own children, so he reluctantly agrees. He also coerces the equally inapt Charlie to help him.

p3Meanwhile, the babysitting situation is interfering with their business deal. The children demand a lot of Dan's time, and he can't do it without Charlie. The two "old men" try their best to keep up but they're met with a series of mishaps that threaten both the deal and Dan's relationship with the kids.

p4John Travolta (The Taking of Pelham 123) hasn't done a comedy for a while, and he's okay as the middle-aged playboy. His comic timing is fine but the performance errs on the overacting side. In fact, such can be said about most of the performances in the movie. Robin Williams (Night at the Museum), believe it or not, is the restrained one. He juggles between playing earnest and goofy, channeling Mrs. Doubtfire (who is also trying to play nice with his own kids).

p5Nepotism seems to be in vogue here, with Travolta's wife, Kelly Preston (Sky High), playing Dan's old girlfriend and mother of his children. She's agreeable, although she and Williams don't really have much chemistry; thankfully, her role is minor and her screen time is limited. Travolta's teenage daughter, Ella Bleu, makes her debut playing one of Dan's twin. Her performance is unremarkable, to say the least. Conner Rayburn (The Invention of Lying) does a matter job as her twin brother. He has a memorable face and a goofy grin that is rather affecting.

p6The movie also boasts many guest stars, including Lori Loughlin (90210) as Charlie's love interest, and Seth Green (Sex Drive) in a throwaway part as Dan and Charlie's protege. Other cameos include the late Bernie Mac, Matt Dillon, Ann-Margret, Rita Wilson, Amy Sedaris, and Justin Long.

p7Written by David Diamond (Minutemen) and David Weissman (Minutemen), the screenplay shows how inapt the two are as writers. The story is paper-thin and the situations are forced. The jokes are recycled (for example, yes, we've seen the "tanning gone wrong" bit before; and tell me why Dan isn't mad as hell after that incident) and contrived. The ending is, of course, predictable.

p8As a comedy, though, they should at least make us laugh. The problem is, many of the funniest parts have already been shown in the trailers. There are other funny moments, but mostly the jokes are cringe-worthy and cliched, not to mention ageist. How many times can we laugh at these two guys being "old"? The "grandpa" joke gets old really quickly. Much of the comedy relies on humiliating the two leading men but doesn't serve the story -- I mean, really, getting hit on the crotch, repeatedly? The comedy also depends on racial, ageist and sexist stereotypes.

Director Walt Becker (Wild Hogs) reunites with Travolta for yet another comedy about "a bunch of old guys acting like infants." Granted, Becker is a capable director and he manages to keep the pace moving. Still, the plot is disjointed and irrelevant. The editing is chopping, and the whole execution seems like an afterthought.

Granted, I did find certain scenes amusing and I did laugh out loud a few times. However, over all, this is simply an asinine excuse for making fun a couple of older guys in the name of "family comedy." Despite a few hearty laughs here and there, the movie is a dog.

Stars: John Travolta, Robin Williams, Kelly Preston, Conner Rayburn, Ella Bleu Travolta, Lori Loughlin, Seth Green
Director: Walt Becker
Writers: David Diamond, David Weissman
Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
MPAA Rating: PG for some mild rude humor
Running Time: 88 Minutes


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

Total – 5.6 out of 10

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

© 2009 Ray Wong


Compared to what Hollywood (studio or independent) has given us, Precious is a different kind of movie. It's a rare movie about inner-city life about a impoverish African-American girl that is both genuine and hard to watch.

p1Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) is a 16-year-old welfare child of Mary (Mo'Nique) living in Harlem. She's also pregnant with her second child, and is now flunking out of junior high school. Mary is abusive and negligent; she's using her daughter and granddaughter only for the welfare checks. Precious has to go behind her mother's back to go to an alternative school, trying to get her GED so she can get out of her personal hell.

p2At the alternative school, Precious meets a number of poor, under-educated girls just like her. Her English teacher, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), discovers even though Precious has had good grades in junior high, she's practically illiterate. Ms. Rain encourages all the girls to read and write every day. Just when things start to look up for Precious, she has her baby son.

p3Eventually, Mary finds out what's going on and accuses Precious for ruining her life. Her abuse on the baby becomes the last straw for Precious, who walks out. With Ms. Rain's help, Precious moves into a halfway house and, within a year, she reaches a 6th grade reading level. Just when she thinks everything is going to be okay, her mother pays her a visit and delivers devastating news.

p4Precious is Gabourey Sidibe's (Yelling to the Sky) first feature. She's obviously green but her lack of acting experience may have been her biggest asset in the role of Precious. Sidibe comes off as extremely genuine and naive. Her character is stuck between a hellish reality and glamorous fantasies. Sidibe's understated performance makes us care for the character.

p5Mo'Nique (Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins) is wonderfully disturbing as Precious's mother. What's great about her performance is that she does not rely on the stereotypes -- sure, the character is a walking, talking stereotype of every negligent welfare mother, but Mo'Nique somehow gives the character depth. You want to hate Mary, but at the same time you feel sorry for her.

p6The supporting cast includes Paula Patton (Swing Vote) as Precious's kind teacher. Patton's beauty and elegance are distracting, however. Often she looks like she's just walked off a movie set instead of being a Harlem teacher. On the other hand, Mariah Carey (Tennessee) goes "ugly" to play the dowdy welfare worker. It's nice to see the singer-actress give an understated performance that is grounded in reality. Sherri Shepherd (Who's Your Caddy) has a small role as an alternative school administrator, while singer Lenny Kravitz (Novella) is amiable as a sympathetic nurse who befriends Precious. The "girls" are effectively portrayed by Stephanie Andujar, Chyna Layne, Amina Robinson, Xosha Roquemore, Angelic Zambrana, and Aunt Dot.

p7Geoffrey Fletcher works hard to adapt Sapphire's difficult novel and gives the character-driven story some kind of a plot. Still, plot is an abstract; the strength of the story is the characters, and their dysfunctional relationships. Except for the saintly Ms. Rain, every character is flawed and broken in some way. Fletcher keeps it real most of the time, and presents the fantasy elements as Precious's escape from her reality. He takes his time to peel away the layers and reveal more about the characters. Still, there are some scenes that are too abstract or up for interpretation. The subtlety could be difficult to decipher.

p8The story also touches on very difficult and disturbing subjects, including child abuse and incest. I applaud Sapphire for her unflinching descriptions of reality and Fletcher's uncompromising adaptation. And I applaud the actors for portraying these difficult roles and handling the horrific subject matters with honesty and dignity.

Lee Daniels's (Shadowboxer) direction is laid-back and almost documentary-like. He makes generous use of Precious's voice over, to give the story a deeply personal feel. He captures her bleak reality and existence without offering fantastical, unrealistic hope. He grounds the story and makes us understand how real these problems are, what kind of personal hell these young women are facing every day. What troubles me, however, is how the child abuse and incest go unchallenged and covered up for so long. Daniels does not offer any explanation or solutions. He simply presents the characters and their stories as realistic as he can.

Precious is not for everyone. It's slow and character-driven without a defined plot. It's difficult. It's depressing in many ways. But it also offers a realistic glimpse of a world that many people don't get to see, and gives a voice to these young women who are rarely heard. And that's precious.

Stars: Gabourey Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Sherri Shepherd, Lenny Kravitz, Stephanie Andujar, Chyna Layne
Director: Lee Daniels
Writers: Geoffrey Fletcher (based on Sapphire's novel)
Distributor: Lionsgate
MPAA Rating: R for child abuse, sexual assaults, and pervasive language
Running Time: 110 Minutes


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

Total – 7.4 out of 10


© 2009 Ray Wong


Once in a while, Roland Emmerich reemerges and we know we're going to get something that is loud, busy, brimming with special effects, with a moralistic message. And we flock to see it, just like we would 2012.

p1It's probably silly to even attempt to outline the plot, but I'll try. Doctor Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a geologist who discovers the sun's radiation and the alignment of the planets (or some such) are going to create a disastrous result for Earth's core and crust. With his help, under the direction of Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt) and President Thomas (Danny Glover), the world leaders are racing against time to make sure that the human species survives, although they know well ahead that most of the world's population would perish.

p2Two years later, the "event" happens way ahead of their anticipation. The plans to evacuate and protect the human race are not fully operational yet. The scientists and world leaders begin to panic. Meanwhile, major earthquakes occur in California with destructions that are of epic proportion. Writer-limo driver Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) manages to get his family out in time. He also learns from the a crazy guy named Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson), who broadcast his messages out of Yellowstone National Park that the world is going to end in 2012. Charlie's predictions have all come true. Charlie also tells Jackson the world's governments have a secret plan to bring only the privileged few onboard of a few ships (possibly spaceships), currently being built in China.

p3Jackson and his family escapes mayhems to arrive in China, only to discover that they're not among the select few to survive. The leaders have decided, secretly, who gets to live and who will die with the rest of the world. Fighting for their lives, Jackson makes a fateful decision. Meanwhile, the end of the world comes sooner than everyone has expected, and even those who are privileged enough to get on the ships may not have enough time to escape.

p4All the actors do their best in their respective cliched and two-dimensional roles. It's rather silly to expect great performances in movies like this. John Cusack (War, Inc.) is slight as the protagonist -- in fact, he's rather annoying and whiny, but his role is not particularly heroic, so that fits him well. Amanda Peet (Martian Child) has only one thing to play: concerned mother, and she's neither convincing or ridiculous. Chiwetel Ejiofor (Endgame) has one of the characters that actually have some depths as the conflicted scientist who helps to save the world.

p5Oliver Platt (Year One) is boring as the stereotypically obnoxious and pompous ass. Thandie Newton (W.) doesn't have anything to do. Thomas McCarthy (Duplicity) and Woody Harrelson (Zombieland) are the comic relief -- we actually get to like them enough to care about their eventual fates. Danny Glover (Saw V) plays the President with dignity, but I have a feeling we're getting tired of the stately black Presidents in disaster movies.

p6Written and directed by Roland Emmerich (The Day After Tomorrow) with cowriter Harald Kloser (10000 BC), the script is just an excuse to get us to all those epic SFX set pieces. The dialogue, as expected, is extremely cheesy and standard. The plot unfolds almost exactly the way it did in The Day After Tomorrow. Emmerich must be the world's greatest plagiarizer of not only his own materials, but other films. Every scene reminds us of something we've seen before. It's so predictable there is hardly any suspense at all -- the only thing to wonder about is who is going to get it and who will survive. Granted, some deaths are rather unexpected and some are, in a way, poignant. But still, we come to see these films to see people die.

p7We also come to expect great special effects from Emmerich, and he does not disappoint. Sure, don't expect everything to be photorealistic. This is, after all, a fantasy. So the special effects are in general grand, epic, loud and spectacular. Los Angeles has never looked so beautifully disastrous before -- a mass tome of awesome deaths in true "end of the world" splendor. There are other spectacular scenes to behold: the demise of Yellowstone, the Poseidon's Adventure-like capsize of a huge cruise ship, the giant tsunamis… the list goes on and on. In fact, Emmerich has piled the film with so many effects he never really lets us stop and take everything in. It's one big disaster after another -- you seriously get your money's worth if you're a special effects junkie.

p8Emmerich also slows down the plot enough, at various points, to let us know more about the characters and their relationships, and to give us some breathers before the next big disaster. But don't let that fool us -- nobody really cares about these characters. They are just pawns to get us to the next mayhem.

Is 2012 a masterpiece? It depends on your criteria. It certainly is not something we should take seriously, but it is entertaining -- it gives us what we expect. I'm also glad that it's not as obnoxious and convoluted as Transformers, so I thank Roland Emmerich for that restraint. Still, seeing it once is probably good enough. OK, maybe just once more on October 21, 2012 just for the fun of it.

Stars: John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, Oliver Platt, Thomas McCarthy, Woody Harrelson, Danny Glover
Director: Roland Emmerich
Writer: Roland Emmerich, Harald Kloser
Distributor: Columbia
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense disaster sequences, mass deaths and some language
Running Time: 158 Minutes


Script – 5
Performance – 6
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 9
Music/Sound– 7
Editing – 7
Production – 9

Total – 6.4 out of 10

The Men Who Stare at Goats

© 2009 Ray Wong


One thing certain about The Men Who Stare at Goats is that it's a difficult film to categorize. Is it comedy? Satire? Personal growth story? Buddy flick? Based-on-true-story drama? War film?

p1Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) is a reporter looking for a break, to prove himself to his ex-wife that he's not a loser. So he heads to the Middle East at the start of the Iraq War, but he is shut out from the major action. That's when he meets Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a special op military guy who is on a secret mission. Lyn also tells Bob that his "stealth" unit comprises of a group of "super" soldiers with super-human abilities such as telepathy and invisibility. Thinking Lyn is crazy, Bob goes along in hopes of getting the story he wants, plus Lyn is able to take him to Iraq, where the real actions are.

p2Once in Iraq, Bob and Lyn get to know one another and the journalist learns quite a lot of about the "New Earth" initiative and its founder, General Bill Django (Jeff Bridges). After Vietnam and a decade of soul searching, Django convinced the army to fund his operation, to create a battalion of soldiers--including General Dean Hopgood (Stephen Lang)--who could defeat the enemy through compassion and mind-control. Lyn was the most gifted soldier, and that made fellow super-soldier Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) jealous. Hooper sabotaged the operation and Django was ousted.

p3Back in the present, Lyn and Bob's adventure leads them through a series of mishaps including being kidnapped, shot at, and a near-death experience in the desert. Bob can't decide whether to believe Lyn anymore, or the man is indeed crazy. Then Lyn's special mission takes them to a secret location headed by no one but Hooper himself, and everything starts to make sense for Bob.

p4George Clooney (Up in the Air) seems drawn to oddball characters like Lyn Cassidy lately. Still dashing and in great shape, Clooney gives the character a good dimension while appearing rather off-center. His scenes during the "earlier years" are less convincing because, well, he doesn't look that much younger despite donning a wig and a mustache. Still, Clooney is able to not let his good looks and celebrity persona distract us from his character.

p5Ewan McGregor (Amelia) is slightly miscast as the American journalist. No, I don't have a problem with his American accent, per se. But he seems rather out of place next to the other American actors. He also carries most of the film, including the voiceovers, so I have a nagging feeling that he's bitten more than he could chew. Jeff Bridges (A Dog Year) is very good as the Zen master who dreams up the whole paranormal military thing. Kevin Spacey's (Moon) talent seems to be wasted in a two-dimensional villainous role. His portrayal is more of a caricature than a full-body development. But I blame the writer; obviously the Oscar winner is capable of doing much better. Stephen Lang (Avatar) and Robert Patrick (Lonely Street) also has stereotypical, shallow roles.

p6Written by Peter Straughan (How to Lose Friends and Alienate People) tackles Jon Ronson's nonfiction book, dissects and fictionalize it for the big screen. His disclaimer tells us many of the bizarre events are really true (but he won't tell us which). The result is kind of an absurdist take on war and military, but it's really not a war film, per se. In fact, I really can't tell you what the film is. It's part dark comedy, part drama, part satire, part coming of age, and part buddy flick. And that can be disorienting.

p7I do like Straughan's structure, though, interweaving backstories with what is currently going on. I also like the fact that the story is told from the reporter's perspective, thus creating an unreliable narrator. We never get to know what is true and what not. At the end, we probably don't really care either.

p8And that's the problem with the script -- there's not much to make us really care. It's interesting, for sure. It's bizarre and intriguing. But there are not high stakes. No personal interest. It's as if I was watching a bunch of strange people running around, but I didn't really care much about them.

Director Grant Heslov (Tony) is able to hold the production together despite the whiplash of plot and backstories. He avoids confusion by streamlining the plot and inserting the right amount of flashbacks at the right moment. The production is by and large slick but unremarkable.

The Men Who Stare at Goats is an enjoyable romp with a strange premise that may satisfy audiences with a taste for the quirky and bizarre. For those who're looking for something more mainstream, they may find themselves staring at the screen, befuddled.

Stars: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Lang, Robert Patrick
Director: Grant Heslov
Writer: Peter Straughan (based on Jon Ronson's book)
Distributor: Overture
MPAA Rating: R for language, some drug content and brief nudity
Running Time: 93 Minutes


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

Total – 6.9 out of 10