Sex and the City 2

© 2010 Ray Wong

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I suppose when you're dealing with a highly recognizable, international commodity such as Sex and the City, you can simply add a number to the end of the sequel without any subtitle. But does a "2" mean it's twice as good or as fun? Not really.

p1It's been two years since Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) and John "Mr. Big" Preston (Chris Noth) got married. The couple now lives in a posh upper east side loft and Carrie has a new book out. Things are going well, except marital bliss takes a hit when Carrie starts to think she's under-appreciated and, most important, she misses her old life and is worrying if she and Big are becoming an old, boring married couple.

p2Meanwhile, her best friends are dealing with their own problems: Charlotte (Kristin Davis) is stressed out by motherhood; Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) is stressed out by her job at which her boss hates her; and Samantha (Kim Cattrall), at age 52, is battling menopause. Then a potential client of Samantha, Shiekh Khalid (Art Malik), comes to the rescue: he invites Samantha and her three best pals to an all-expense-paid trip to Abu Dhabi for a week. It's a perfect time for the girls to get away from their daily grind.

p3Once in Abu Dhabi, tension arises when Charlotte and Carrie can't see eye-to-eye with regard to their different definitions of marriage. Samantha's overt sexuality is oppressed in the middle-eastern state. And Carrie is having second thoughts about her marriage, especially when she accidentally bumps into her ex (and one true love other than Mr. Big), Aidan (John Corbett).

p4After playing the role of Carrie Bradshaw for more than 10 years, Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex and the City) has no problem easing back into it. However, it seems like the character is regressing; you'd have thought after all these years, she'd have grown up, especially after marrying the love of her life and having everything she ever wanted. Parker's performance is dutiful, but she never quite rises above and beyond what she's given to work with. Carrie Bradshaw is a brat, and she quickly becomes the most irritating, whiny character. I don't fault Ms. Parker, though; I blame it on writer-director Michael Patrick King.

p5The other three actresses are reduced to hugely supportive roles: Kristin Davis (Couples Retreat) is the comic relief by acting like a clueless, stupid housewife; Cynthia Nixon (An Englishman in New York) has almost nothing to do; while Kim Cattrall (The Ghost Writer) steals every scene she's in, her character is also reduced to a caricature. She plays the sexually provocative Samantha with vim, but Samantha simply comes across as clueless, crass and a big joke.

p6The men, in their extremely minor roles, fare somewhat better. Chris Noth (The Good Wife) is dashing and contemplative as Mr. Big. But I can't help but notice his chemistry with Parker is waning. Could it be that Noth has a new love (in The Good Wife) or their relationship is underwritten? David Eigenberg (Sex and the City) and Evan Handler (Sex and the City) are more or less background players as Miranda's and Charlotte's husbands respectively. John Corbett (Baby on Board) reprises his role as Aidan Shaw, and he gives one of the most sensible performances. Willie Garson and Mario Cantone also reprise their roles as Carrie's and Charlotte's gay best friends.

p7Notable cameos include Liza Minelli (playing herself), Alice Eve (She's Out of My League) as Charlotte's hot nanny, Penelope Cruz (Nine) as a flirtatious woman, Max Ryan (Death Race) as a rich businessman and the object of Samantha's lust, and Michael T. Weiss (Marmalade) as a gay man who has the eye for Mr. Big.

p8Written and directed by Michael Patrick King (Sex and the City), the movie is one drawn-out TV episode instead of a feature, despite the exotic locations and glossy production. Unlike the first movie, which addressed real issues such as infidelity, commitment, finding one's true self, etc. in a story rich in plot and character development, this addition deals with mostly superfluous problems such as marital boredom and "need some time off."

The overarching question (as famously asked by that Carrie's inquisitive voice) is: What is marriage? In another story, it could be a thought-provoking, complex, rich theme. In this story, however, it's trivial, contrived and annoying. Carrie's biggest problem is that she's bored because Mr. Big wants to spend time snuggling with her in bed watching black and white movies! Charlotte can't deal with motherhood despite the fact that she adores her daughters, has a doting husband, and a full-time nanny!

And that's the problem with King's screenplay: there just aren't that many real, pressing issues and conflicts to sustain a feature film. So King pads it with an extravagant, fantasy-filled road trip to exotic Abu Dhabi and attempts to tackle the social and economical commentaries (such as treatments of women, the oppressive sexual customs and laws, class system, etc.) with a half-hearted, and often farcical effort. It's basically a huge opportunity for them to be outrageous (exotic locations, ridiculous fashion that is highly inappropriate for the situations, and outlandish behaviors).

At 146 minutes, the movie feels agonizingly long, since it lacks substance. The extended adventures in Abu Dhabi, especially near the end, is a mess as far as narrative and plot are concerned. I was looking at my watch wishing for it to be over, and then 30 minutes later, it's still going on. It's not to say it's all bad: there are certainly fine moments, funny moments, and some really beautiful locations and people to look at. But that is not a movie -- more like a fantasy travel log.

King really botches this one, taking the good will resulting from the surprisingly poignant and complex first movie and throwing it away with an indulgent, crass, unnecessary addition. The characters are left with nothing to do but to ponder on trivial things such as being bored with their perfect lives, what to wear while taking a ride on camels, or how cheap shoes are in Abu Dhabi. Can these people be more superficial?

Sex and the City is never dull and always quite entertaining, but this sequel is a dud because it lacks substance and forgets about what really matters: it's not the shoes, but the characters! (Unlike Samantha, I'm filled to the brim with estrogen after watching this one. I should have picked Prince of Persia instead; at least I'd have gotten my fill of mass destructions, Bruckheimer-style). There's not enough sex, not enough city, but just a whole lot of hot air and empty promises.

Stars: Sarah Jessica Parker, Kristin Davis, Cynthia Nixon, Kim Cattrall, Chris Noth, David Eigenberg, Evan Handler, John Corbett, Alice Eve
Director: Michael Patrick King
Writers: Michael Patrick King (based on Candace Bushnell's characters)
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content, language and nudity
Running Time: 146 minutes

Ratings:


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


Total – 6.5 out of 10

Shrek Forever After

© 2010 Ray Wong

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The original Shrek was a sardonic, satirical gem of social commentary mixed with fun fairytale entertainment. The second and third? Not so much. In fact, they rather stunk. So it's kind of nice to see the franchise ends (this is billed as their last film… we shall see) on a relatively higher note.

p1Ogre Shrek (Mike Myers) has settled into his domestic bliss with wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz) and three young children. Best friends Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in the Boots (Antonio Banderas) hang around in one big happy, extended family. Shrek is also a mild celebrity in Far Far Away. He should be happy, but he's not. He misses his good old days as the feared ogre and he thinks he's losing his mojo, lost in his daily, mundane life. He yearns for adventures and doing what he wants when he wants it -- I guess he's having a normal midlife crisis.

p2Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohm) comes to the rescue. Rumpel offers a simple deal that is too good to be true: he'll give Shrek one day where he becomes a feared ogre again, in exchange for another day of his past. Shrek gladly agrees -- it's just one day, and who cares if he loses one lousy, insignificant day? He signs the contract and gets his wish. Little does he know, Rumpel has an evil agenda.

p3Soon Shrek realizes what the catch really is: Rumple took away the day Shrek was born! So, in this alternate reality, Shrek never existed, and thus he never rescued Fiona, and somehow Rumple became the ruler of Far Far Away, now overrun by witches. Shrek must fight to get his life back, before the end of the day when he, too, will cease to exist forever.

p4Mike Myers' (The Love Guru) career seemed to have stalled recently, after plans for another Austin Power movie tanked. But lately Myers have refocused, first appearing in the critically acclaimed Inglorious Basterds. This movie appears to be a comeback for both the Shrek franchise and Myers himself. As usual, he gives a spirited voice performance and brings Shrek to life once more. But this time, Myers' performance is appropriately more mature, more thoughtful, more middle-aged. Eddy Murphy (Imagine That) seems to have the same problem with his live-action films, but as Donkey, he continues to be funny and interesting and lovable. He's made Donkey one of the most beloved animated characters.

p5Cameron Diaz (The Box) is in good form voicing a different version of Fiona, the princess warrior. Her voice remains a tad slight for the role, but we've got used to it by now (she was perfect as Fiona in human form, though, just not quite there as the ogre). Antonio Banderas (The Other Man), with the help of animators, continues to steal the show as the kitty cat (who, in this reality, is different in a BIG way). He and Donkey have some of the funnest scenes and repartee as the duo of ultimate sidekicks.

p6Julie Andrews (Tooth Fairy) returns as the regal and graceful Queen. Jon Hamm (Mad Men) is fun as an ogre, Brogan. John Cleese (Planet 51) reprises his role as cantankerous King Harold. Jane Lynch (Glee) plays a witch. Writer-voice actor Walt Dohm (Shrek the Third) is rather smarmy as the chief villain, Rumplestiltskin.

p7Written by Josh Klausner (Date Night) and Darren Lemke (Lost), the screenplay is surprisingly tight, funny, and well thought out. I suppose like many people, I've lowered my expectations so much after the last two sequels that I'm pleasantly surprised. Here, they've put back the satire and fairytale elements in favor of overkilling with pop culture references and product placements. The dialogue is in general witty, and the plot makes sense. It's kind of Shrek's take on It's a Wonderful Life. I've always had a soft spot for alternate realities and I think they've done a good job.

p8It's not to say the screenplay is without its flaws. It's still bogged down at times by potty humor, dumb jokes, and some pop culture references that don't quite work (breakdancing witches? No thanks). Still, this is a huge improvement over the last two movies. It is again smart, funny, and with a lot of heart.

Director Mike Mitchell (Sky High) runs a tight ship and is able to pull everything together in a coherent way. The whimsical fairytale elements are back -- what a relief! That's what made us love the original so much. The pace is good and there are some nice moments. The animation, however, seems rather subpar compared to the other films. It's as if technology hasn't advanced in the last few years. Some of the animation is crude, TV quality. Maybe they just ran out of time?

Anyway, as I said before, this is a good chapter (and probably last, if they keep their word) for the franchise and I was pleasantly surprised. It's very enjoyable and serves the beloved characters well. It's a celebration of friends and families, everything that stays with us forever. What's not to like?

Stars: Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas, Julie Andrews, Jon Hamm, John Cleese, Walt Dohm, Jane Lynch
Director: Mike Mitchell
Writers: Josh Klausner, Darren Lemke
Distributor: DreamWorks
MPAA Rating: PG for action, some rude humor and brief language
Running Time: 93 Minutes

Ratings:


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


Total – 7.5 out of 10

Letters to Juliet

© 2010 Ray Wong

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Unabashedly romantic and truly a fantasy -- written and directed by three men, no less -- Letters to Juliet may be predictable as ice cream, but it's just as delicious.

p01Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is a fact-checker at The New Yorker, but she aspires to become a writer. She's also engaged to Italian chef Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal). They decide to take their "honeymoon" early because Victor will be opening his first restaurant soon and will be extremely busy. Once they arrive at Verona -- the City of Love where Romeo and Juliet lived in Shakespeare's timeless tale -- Victor is more interested in talking with his suppliers and sampling wine and local cuisines that Sophie feels neglected.

p02While visiting the House of Juliet, Sophie meets a group of women who work there as "Juliet's secretaries." Their job is to answer all the letters posted on the wall at the house. Soon, Sophie finds a 50-year-old letter tucked inside the wall that has never been answered, written by "Claire" who described herself as a scared young girl who ran away from her true love. Sophie decides to answer the letter. Upon receiving her letter, Claire (Vanessa Redgrave), now in her 60s, and her grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan) arrive at Verona looking for the man she loves, Lorenzo Bartonini (Franco Nero).

p03Claire's story is so sweet and romantic that Sophie decides to tag along so she can write about it, to the displeasure of Charlie. He thinks Sophie is disrupting their lives and creating unnecessary expectations. Mostly, Charlie is worried his widowed grandmother is going to be disappointed or, worse, heartbroken again. At the same time, the seemingly argumentative American and Brit find themselves attracted to each other, and that they share something in common after all.

p04Amanda Seyfried (Dear John) is emerging as one of the ingenues specializing in romantic comedies or love stories that feature exotic and gorgeous locations. However, she doesn't just have a pretty face; Seyfried can act. Her performance is understated and nuanced and affecting. She looks and acts like the girl next door and that's exactly why she's so relatable.

p05Christopher Egan (Eragon), on the other hand, is a bit too smug -- at least in the beginning -- and generic. His "Brit" (the actor is Australian) comes across as a bit lightweight and fluffy. Not to mention he is a dead ringer for Heath Ledger (down to the accent); it's distracting. Still, Egan is a nice counterpart to Seyfried's Sophie, and the couple looks good together. Gael Garcia Bernal (Bad Education) steals every scene he's in. His passionate portrayal of an Italian chef crazy about food is funny, and he makes us hard not to root for him. The writers try to make us "choose" Charlie over Victor (he's negligent, more interested in food than Sophie, etc.) but Bernal's charming performance makes us wonder who really is a better man, all things considered.

p06Despite the fine performances by the younger cast, the movie belongs to Vanessa Redgrave (Atonement). She's simply radiant, luminous, and effervescent, and her performance is so subtle, nuanced, and wonderfully thoughtful. She's a marvel in everything she does, and she really lights up the screen with her portrayal of Claire, a woman in her final years looking for the love she's lost decades ago. We just can't take our eyes off her. Interestingly, neither can't the Italian men who ever met her, including the real Lorenzo, played by Redgrave's real-life husband Franco Nero (Die Hard 2).

p07Written by Jose Rivera (The Motorcycle Diaries) and Tim Sullivan (Flushed Away), the screenplay is surprisingly fantastical (as in "dreamy") and romantic, something you don't quite expect from a couple of dudes. The story focuses on two women with an age difference of almost 50 years, and it feels genuine despite the contrived situations. Is the plot clich├ęd? Very. Is it effective? Very. There's nothing more fun and magical than a road trip in beautiful Tuscany against the backdrops of lush hills and glorious vineyards. There's also something whimsical and hopelessly wishful-thinking about the story, but it works despite being predictable. There's no doubt in our minds what will happen to Claire, Charlie or Sophie, and yet we're happy to see them come true.

p08Yet Rivera and Sullivan did not bog us down with cheesy dialogue or cookie-cutter scenarios. While it may lack suspense and mystery, there are turns and conflicts, disappointments and heartbreaks, joy and wonderment. Also, they have done a fantastic job in keeping it PG clean. It's rather refreshing, actually, to see something purely romantic and sweet without a lot of cynicism and crude humor. It harks back to the romantic era of Hollywood.

p09Director Gary Winick follows his last dud, Bride War, with this sweet confection, and that's a nice career move. Stay away from silly cynicism and rudeness and keep with the sweet and romantic. He really can't go wrong with the locations, though. The cinematography also serves it well. Every frame looks like a postcard. The soundtrack also is very appropriate, with romantic interludes as well as heartfelt pop songs.

p10If nothing else, Letters to Juliet will boost tourism in Verona. I can see flocks of women and their men traveling there to recapture their sparks (not to mention with the dropping Euros, it's also easier on the wallet). That's something Romeo and Juliet would approve.

Stars: Amanda Seyfried, Christopher Egan, Vanessa Redgrave, Gael Garcia Bernal, Franco Nero, Louisa Ranieri
Director: Gary Winick
Writers: Jose Rivera, Tim Sullivan
Distributor: Summit
MPAA Rating: PG for brief rude behavior, some language and incidental smoking
Running Time: 113 Minutes

Ratings:


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


Total – 7.7 out of 10

Iron Man 2

© 2010 Ray Wong

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Banking on the record-breaking original movie and the popular Marvel comic book series, Iron Man 2 continues where we left off and will no doubt do stellar business at the box office.

p1Ever since Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) came out as Iron Man, he's been enjoying world-wide celebrity and business is brisk. To honor his father's dream, he also built a state-of-the-art EXPO where all year long, Stark Enterprise and other companies can showcase their stuff. The government tries to take the Iron Man suits from Stark but they can't. Things are going great for him.

p2Except they don't know Tony is dying. The reactor core in his chest is slowly poisoning his blood. If he can't find a solution, he will die soon. Knowing his impending fate, he signs over his business to his trusted assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who doesn't know his conditions. She and Tony's best friend, Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), only thinks Tony is eccentric and out of control.

p3Meanwhile, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), son of exiled Russian scientist, has an axe to grind with Tony Stark. He believes Tony and his father stole his father's design of the reactor core, and he vows to revenge. He teams up with Stark's rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) to develop an army of clones. What Hammer doesn't know, however, is Vanko has a different agenda.

p4Robert Downey Jr. (Sherlock Holmes) is, of course, Tony Stark/Iron Man personified. He plays both sides of Stark very well: the introspective, thoughtful, altruistic genius as well as the narcissistic, obnoxious super playboy. In a way, Stark and Bruce Wayne/Batman have a lot in common, and Downey seems to have more fun playing his part than Christian Bale playing Wayne.

p5Don Cheadle (Hotel for Dogs) takes over from Terrance Howard as Lt. Col. Rhodes, and the transition is smooth. Cheadle sinks his teeth in his role just as he did every other role, and he does a good job. His Rhodes is just as gentle and stoic -- a great contrast to Stark's flamboyance -- but has a more ruthless, aggressive side, paving the way to Rhodes' transformation as Iron Man's sidekick, War Machine. Gwyneth Paltrow (Two Lovers) also reprises her role as Stark's trusted confidant and potential love-interest, Pepper Potts. She's less perky and lovely this time, partially because of the reduced screen time she has, although the bickering between her and Stark is still endearing.

p6New to the cast is Scarlett Johansson (She's Just Not That Into You) as a double-agent. Her role is a bit of a window dressing (she sure looks hot in those tight skirts), but she gets to show her stuff in one action sequence, so that's good. The dual villains are played by Sam Rockwell (Moon) as Hammer and Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler) as Ivan Vanko. Rockwell seems to have a lot of fun playing the slimy, sneaky, ruthless businessman. Rourke definitely is enjoying his rebirth as an actor and he savors every scene as the scary Russian with a single goal in mind -- killing Tony Stark.

p7Clark Gregg (Iron Man) has, unfortunately, limited screen time reprising the role of the droll SHIELD agent; meanwhile director-actor Jon Favreau (Couples Retreat) gives his role (Stark's driver) more screen presence. Paul Bettany (Legion) provides the voice for Stark's computer Javis, and Garry Shandling (Over the Hedge) plays a senator who wants to take Tony Stark down.

p8Based on Stan Lee's popular comic books and adapted by Justin Theroux (Tropic Thunder), the screenplay is less coherent than the first film, and lacks something more tangible and pressing than simply Stark's mortality. The plot has so many holes that I don't know where to start. For example, the way Tony discovers a new "element" that would eventually save his life is not just implausible (even for comic books), but laughable.

Also, the story's focus seems off. They've introduced too many characters and then they didn't give them anything to do except to deliver a few one-liners. Pity. The dialogue is cheesy but at least it's fitting for the genre. I didn't expect the depth and excellence of, say, The Dark Knight which is a class of its own. But at least the first Iron Man is more relevant and fun, an entertaining satire poking fun at the military. This one seems to aim at making fun of Walt Disney (you will know what I mean when you watch the film).

That said, Favreau does a good job piecing this mishmash story together. The production is solid. The action sequences are well produced and choreographed. The special effects do the job nicely. Still, this time around, Favreau fails to keep that spark that made the first film so exciting and fun. Something is missing here and I seriously don't know what it is. It's as if they've forgotten to add the one secret ingredient that gives the thing the special kick. The central conflict simply isn't all that exciting, and the villains -- through no fault of Rockwell, Rourke or even Favreau himself -- lack the intensity and vengeance to really come alive. I blame that on the writing, really.

Also, the climactic fight scenes (including an extended dogfight involving Iron Man, War Machine, and an army of robotic drones) could have been more exciting, but the closeups and confusing camera work dampen the effects. The climax simply frizzles. When it was all said and done, I said to myself, "Is that it? Is it over?" I kept hoping for the "real" climax but never got it.

Don't get me wrong. Iron Man 2 has everything a summer blockbuster should, and is entertaining and will do very well at the box office. But I can't help but feel disappointed. I was hoping the sophomore effort would rival the riveting The Dark Knight or The Empire Strikes Back, but it turns out to be yet another lackluster sequel. The sad irony is, it may actually do better in the box office than the first one.


Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg
Director: Jon Favreau
Writers: Justin Theroux (based on Stan Lee's comic book series)
Distributor: Paramount
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, some language
Running Time: 124 Minutes

Ratings:


Script – 6
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 8
Music/Sound– 7
Editing – 8
Production – 9


Total – 7.4 out of 10