Knight and Day

© 2010 Ray Wong


Tom Cruise + Cameron Diaz + action + romance = Box office smash. Right? I guess that remains to be seen, but as far as the movie is concerned, it's hit or miss.

p01June Havens (Cameron Diaz) is on her way from Wichita back to Boston to attend her baby sister's wedding. She also has a suitcase-full of auto parts because she wants to fix her father's GTO as a wedding gift to her sister. At the airport, she bumps into a handsome fellow named Roy (Tom Cruise). Somehow they get onto the same flight and that's when things turn weird. It happens that Roy is a secret agent and he kills everyone on the plane and crash-lands it.

p02June wakes up the next day in her Boston apartment. Just as she thinks she's had the weirdest dream, she realizes everything that happened was real and she's in imminent danger. Roy comes to the rescue and coerces June to follow him if she wants to survive. He also tells her he's been framed for something he didn't do, and he is on a mission to protect someone (and something -- I won't reveal it here) and prove his innocence. Reluctantly June agrees to go along. Soon, she finds herself deeply involved in Roy's dangerous mission and also falling for him, without knowing whether she can actually trust him or not.

p03Tom Cruise (Valkyrie) returns to his root by playing a dashing, cocky, wild character that he was famous for (Top Gun, Risky Business, Cocktail, Jerry McGuire). Here, he's milking every ounce of his star power, including his trademarked toothy grin. Mostly, he succeeds. Despite how you feel about the actor's personal life, Cruise is still one of Hollywood's biggest stars and his charisma is undeniable. He's at his best when he's playing Cruise-like characters and tries not to "disappear" in a role.

p04Cameron Diaz (My Sister's Keeper) also taps into her strength by playing a naive, klutzy, sweet but "more capable than you think" damsel in distress (Charlie's Angels, My Best Friend's Wedding). Her chirpy voice can be grating at times, but she manages to create a highly likable character despite her neurosis. She and Cruise have worked together (in Vanilla Sky) and they've succeeded in recreating that chemistry and sexual energy.

p05Peter Sarsgaad (Orphan) plays Roy's ex-partner and one of the movie's villains. We're set up to know he's the bad guy from the get-go so there's not much else he can do. His smarmy grin and swagger are stereotypical of that type of characters and mostly he's just another side character. Jordi Molla (Inconceivable), as a spanish arms dealer, is another villain/side character with not much to do but act villainy. Viola Davis (State of Play) is fine as Roy's boss and manages to squeeze some dimensionality to the one-sided role. Paul Dano (Taking Woodstock) has a good time playing a nerd/boy genius.

p06Written by Patrick O'Neill (Dead Last), the screenplay is a cross-genre hodgepodge: romantic comedy, thriller, action-adventure, suspense, spy. It's like James Bond meets When Harry Met Sally. On paper that sounds like great fun. As this is O'Neill's second screenplay (his previous work was an unseen 2001 TV episode), it's no surprise that the execution lacks finesse. The plot is incredibly implausible (even for a James Bond-esque character), starting with the plane. Seriously? Are we supposed to believe that? Then the plot goes from implausible to outright impossible. There are so many plot holes I stop counting by the end of the first act. The twist doesn't work because it's predictable. Everything about the movie screams "implausible" but O'Neill doesn't seem to care.

p07Directed by James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma), the production is slick and well made. The locations are gorgeous and the action sequences interesting, albeit… oh, you guess it… implausible. It should have been called Mission Impossible IV instead (oh wait, Cruise is making MI4. May God help us). Given the genre, the execution is quite top-notch and the pacing is good. If they had added dragons and wizards, it'd be so much better.

p08Now, now, it doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it, snarky as I may be. As soon as I put my brain away and realized this was a glossy fantasy not based on any reality, I relaxed into my chair and started to enjoy it. The banter is cute. The dialogue is cheesy but witty. The action is over the top but entertaining. And the stars do have great chemistry together. So what if the plot is ridiculous? It does, in a strange way, make sense even though it is -- I repeat -- implausible. It's a mindless popcorn movie. As long as we don't have too much expectation, it's good for any raining day.

Stars: Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Peter Sarsgaard, Jordi Molla, Viola Davis, Paul Dano
Director: James Mangold
Writer: Patrick O'Neill
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of action violence, brief strong language
Running Time: 110 minutes


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

Total – 6.9 out of 10

Toy Story 3

© 2010 Ray Wong


It's been 11 years since Toy Story 2 was first released, and something amazing happens with Toy Story 3, the newest Pixar animation: The gang is back and it's as if no time has passed!

p1But things have definitely changed. Andy (John Morris) is now 17. He hasn't played with his toys, including Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), for years. They've been relegated to a toy box, spending years entertaining each other. Before Andy goes to college, his mother needs him to clean out his room so his sister, Molly, can move in. So he has three choices with his old toys: toss them, store them in the attic, or donate them to a daycare center. Andy decides to take Woody with him to college and put everything else (yes, including Buzz) in the attic.

p2But misunderstanding and a series of events take our toy heroes to Sunnyside, a daycare center where the toys are run by a cuddly, purple stuffed bear named Lotso (Ned Beatty). It's a dream come true for everyone -- they get to finally get played with -- except Woody, who believes they must all return to their owner, Andy. What they don't know is that Lotso runs Sunnyside like a prison, and the new toys are consigned to a room with children who are way too young to play with them. Lotso locks them up every night and threatens them if they dare to escape.

p3Realizing they're in danger, Woody tries to help his friends escape. But Lotso and his minions have high security. To make matter worse, something happens to Buzz and he's not himself. With Andy leaving for college, they must escape and return before it's too late.

p4All the voices are back, led by Tom Hanks (Angels & Demons) and Tim Allen (Wild Hogs). They both reprise their respective roles as if no time had passed. Since 1999, Hanks has become one of Hollywood's most bankable dramatic actors and producers. As Woody, though, he shows us exactly why the character as well as the actor himself are so endearing: that guy-next-door quality with a hint of heroism. Allen, meanwhile, is perfectly fine in the second chair as Buzz, playing essentially a supporting role to Woody. Their chemistry remains solid.

p5Joan Cusack (My Sister's Keeper) also returns as Jesse the Cowgirl, and her spunky, perky performance adds to the colorful and diverse cast which includes returning voices such as Don Rickles as Mr. Potato Head, Wallace Shawn as Rex, John Ratzenberger as Hamm, and Estelle Harris as Mrs. Potato Head. Jodie Benson (Enchanted) also reprises her delicious role as Barbie. 26-year-old John Morris (Toy Story 2) returns as the grown-up Andy as well.

p6But it's the new cast members who steal the show, which is a difficult thing to do considering the stellar original cast. Ned Beatty (The Killer Inside Me) is pitch perfect as the cuddly yet twisted Lotso. And the ultimately scene-stealer is Ken, voiced with humor, energy and personality by Michael Keaton (Cars).

p7Written and directed by Lee Unkrich (Finding Nemo), together with Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) and John Lassetter (Cars), the screenplay sticks to the familiar. It's an action-adventure featuring our beloved characters. The themes never shy away from the familiar either: abandonment, friendship, companionship, adjustment, with a bit of romance thrown in. There's a lot of jokes, too -- some very clever and funny, and some not (Potty humor? Pixar, you can do better). What the writers have succeeded to do, though, is to have fun with the material, and come up with something new and fresh. Hilarious and yet touching. Fun and yet profound.

p8The story line, however, is darker than the previous two. There is an unsettling plot development that involves imprisonment, torture, and incineration that could be very scary for the young ones. There is also a pervasive wistfulness and sadness associated with, primarily, Andy's growing up and his pending departure. Parting is such sweet sorrow. There's always this lingering, heart-tugging piece of emotion floating through the entire story, and it comes to a head at the end. I admit, I shed a quiet tear. So bravo! to the filmmakers for making a grown man cry.

Unkrich's direction is just as good as his colleagues. The Pixar veteran has learned a lot from working with the masters, and his debut as sole director is a solid one. The plot moves forward at a great pace, with enough humor, action, suspense and excitement to enchant kids and adults alike. In fact, during the second act, there are moments when I forgot I was watching an animated film with inanimate objects. I was totally engrossed by the suspense and action. There was one scene, at the landfill processing plant, that had me hold my breath the entire time. It was riveting, powerful, and touching. And of course, there's the ending that is simply perfect, and Unkrich delivers it perfectly.

I came to see Toy Story 3 with very high expectation and skepticism -- can they really put a "3" on the title and make this soar? And the result far exceeds that expectation. Toy Story 3 is possibly the best of the trilogy, and it ends on an extremely high note. I can't ask for anything more than a simple phrase: Damn, it's a very, very fine story indeed.

Stars: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Ned Beatty, Don Rickles, Michael Keaton, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Estelle Harris, John Morris
Director: Lee Unkrich
Writers: Michael Arndt, John Lassetter, Lee Unkrich
Distributor: Pixar/Walt Disney
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 103 minutes


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

Total – 9.1 out of 10

The A-Team

© 2010 Ray Wong


A popular TV series in the 80s which made Mr. T an international star, the A-Team was unique in its own way, with great characters and adventures. The movie tries to recapture the spirit and chemistry of the series while adding over-the-top cinematic action.

p1Col. Hannibal (Liam Neeson) and Lt. Pike (Bradley Cooper) are on a special mission in Mexico when they are captured by the corrupt officials. On their way out, they recruit Baracus (Quinton Jackson) and pilot Murdock (Sharlto Copley), both "Ranger" veterans like Hannibal. Together they complete the mission.

p2While in Iraq, CIA agent Lynch (Patrick Wilson) informs Hannibal of a special assignment involving counterfeit US money that is worth over $1 billion. With the blessing of General Morrison (Gerald McRaney), they carry on the mission and successfully retrieve the plates. However, they are set up by Pike (Brian Bloom), the head of special ops called Black Forest, and Morrison is killed. Believing the A-Team is involved with Pike, the military dishonorably discharges them and sends them to prison.

p3After six months of planning, Hannibal concocts a plan to break all of them out of jail. They are now on a covert mission to seek justice and revenge. They are also working for Agent Lynch to locate Pike and the plates. Meanwhile, Lt. Sosa (Jennifer Biel) is hot on their trail. She is determined to bring the A-Team to justice.

p4Liam Neeson (Clash of the Titans) is dashing and charismatic as Hannibal, the one who always has a plan. In recent years, Neeson has carved out a niche for himself as a middle-aged action hero, and so far it has worked very well for him. Bradley Cooper (Valentine's Day) ventures into action-adventure and he sure got buff for his role, which calls for him to take off his shirt and have sex with many women. He's turning into Matthew McConnaughey lite.

p5Quinton Jackson (Death Warrior) is underwhelming as Baracus, the role made famous by the flamboyant Mr. T. He just doesn't make much of an impression, especially among the all-star cast. Sharlto Copley (District 9) is fun as crazy pilot Murdock, but his performance reminds me of what he did in District 9, kind of frantic. Jessica Biel (Valentine's Day) is super sexy - maybe too distractingly so - as Lt. Sosa, but she holds her own against the boys.

p6Patrick Wilson (Watchmen) plays Agent Lynch with the right cockiness and shrewdness. Gerald McRaney (Saving Shilioh) is good in his minor role as Morrison but we really never got his side of the story. Brian Bloom (G.I. Joe) stands out as the cold and calculated Pike, especially with is unnerving, steely blue eyes.

p7Written by director Joe Carnahan (Pride and Glory), Bloom, and Skip Woods (X-Men Origins), the script is over the top and big and complicated, full of conspiracies and double-crossings and betrayals. At times, it's difficult to understand what really is going on because the plot moves so fast. At 117 minutes, the movie seems rushed. There is not enough time for character development and we are left to fill in the blanks with what we know from the TV series (if you've never seen it, you're out of luck). As a stand-alone movie, though, it feels lacking because part of what makes the A-Team great are the characters and their relationships.

p8The plot is simply outrageous and implausible. But we tend to accept such high fantasy when it comes to our action movies, so I'll give it a pass. But the lack of real relationship building is a letdown. Compared to a similar movie earlier this year, The Losers, this is definitely a step down, despite the bigger budget, bigger stars, and bigger explosions.

Carnahan's direction is slick and furious. The action sequences are well coordinated and executed. The production looks expensive. The stunt work is great. The flow is fine. The soundtrack is exciting and the cinematography does its job.

It's just too bad the writing drags it down. By now they should know bigger and louder is not necessarily a good thing, especially if you sacrifice the character development. I'd be a fool to give this team an A.

Stars: Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Jessica Biel, Quinton Jackson, Sharlto Copley, Patrick Wilson, Gerald McRaney, Brian Bloom
Director: Joe Carnahan
Writers: Joe Carnahan, Brian Bloom, Skip Woods
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense action, violence, language, smoking
Running time: 117 minutes

Script - 6
Performance - 7
Direction - 7
Cinematography - 8
Music/sound - 7
Editing - 8
Production - 8

Total: 7.2


© 2010 Ray Wong


It's almost impossible to watch Vincenzo Natali's new film, Splice, without thinking of Frankenstein or David Cronenberg. Add a dash of moral ambiguity and sexual perversion, we've got a sci-fi thriller-horror that touches on the absurd.

p01Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley) are brilliant biotech scientists (and lovers) who are on the verge of cracking the genetic taboo of creating new species, by splicing the DNAs of various animals together. They've successfully created a new species with the births of two organisms, Fred and Ginger, who are more like fleshy blobs than cuddly pets.

p02Clive and Elsa want to take their research one step further, by introducing human DNA. They hope to find a combination that would produce a collection of proteins and biochemical materials that would cure a whole slew of diseases. However, the the corporation sponsoring their efforts is growing impatient and also nervous about the legality and problems with human DNA splicing, and forces the scientists to go forward with phase two instead. Dejected, Clive and Elsa secretly go ahead with their experiments and successfully create a new creature, which they call Dren.

p03When Dren shows signs of aggressive behaviors -- and it becomes more and more difficult to keep her a secret at the labs -- Clive becomes very uncomfortable and wants to kill the creature and terminate their experiment. But something stirs Elsa's maternal instinct and she convinces Clive to continue, and move Dren to her mother's old house. As Dren grows into an intelligent humanoid with unique attributes and abilities, Clive and Elsa find themselves strangely and inappropriately attached to the creature, despite their scientific approaches and ethics.

p04Adrien Brody (Predator) looks the part as the smart scientist, or at least during the first half of the movie. Later, though, it seems like his intelligence has disappeared while his character starts to make one bad judgment after another. Brody's quiet performance is adequate but needs some fine tuning -- and his character is too passive to really hook us. Sarah Polley (Dawn of the Dead) fares better as the complicated Elsa. She's intense, aggressive (we all know who wears the pants in that household), and at times annoying (not her fault -- her character can be irritating). Polley is able to go deep and provide us with a multidimensional portrayal of the character.

p05Newcomer Delphine Chanéac is excellent as Dren, the creature. Even though her face and body have been digitally altered, it's clear that she has a unique face and beauty that are both captivating and strange. Her body language is also great for the role, which calls for extraordinary physicality and a fearless performance.

p06Brandon McGibbon (Saw V) plays Clive's brother and lab associate with a rather unimpressive one-noteness. Simona Maicanescu (Dante 01) plays the corporate exec with appropriate chill. David Hewlett (Stargate Atlantis) is serviceable as the agitated, clueless boss. And Abigail Chu (The Latest Buzz) gives an interesting performance as Dren as a child.

p07Written by Vincenzo Natali (Cube) and Antoinette Terry Bryant, the screenplay definitely has the elements of classic monster movies such as Frankenstein. It asks the age-old moral question about science: Just because you can, does it mean you should? Clive and Elsa have crossed a lot of lines, and one mistake begets another until things get completely out of hand. Also, Natali and Bryant give the characters moral ambiguities and backgrounds (Elsa survived an abusive childhood with her mother; who knows what lurked in Clive's past?) But they are both seriously flawed people; smart people who make dumb mistakes.

p08What sets this creature/monster film apart from others is the themes that range from parenthood to sexuality. The story takes a strange and perverted turn as Clive and Elsa find themselves emotionally entangled with Dren. Elsa, once feeling maternal and loving toward Dren, becomes increasingly angry, cold, and mean (just like her mother did to her). Elsa goes to some very dark places when trying to deal with Dren. Clive, on the other hand, develops an odd attraction to the creature, even though he knows he shouldn't. Both characters eventually cross their respective forbidden lines.

I find the themes and the plot interesting and twisted, but the writers did a good job providing the background and motivation, so the story doesn't feel forced or out of the left field. Still, there are elements that make us ponder if the filmmakers have gone too far, or if they're only doing it for shock value. Also, there are a few scenes that rouse unintentional laughters -- possibly because they are so absurd.

Natali's direction is skilled and suspenseful. The lighting is wonderful and he's helped created many truly beautiful and haunting images. He also keeps the story simple and streamlined, with a small cast and almost no subplot. Some may see that as a detriment; I think it keeps the focus on the relationships between these three characters.

Splice is a unique movie that crosses genres: horror, thriller, science-fiction and drama. It explores intriguing and uncomfortable territories, and dare to ask questions we may not know the answers to. It's also entertaining, interesting, and at times horrific (as it should). It's certainly not perfect, but I can see Vincenzo Natali has put a lot of thoughts in this -- he didn't simply spliced together a run-of-the-mill monster film.

Stars: Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley, Delphine Chanéac, Brandon McGibbon, Simona Maicanescu, David Hewlett, Abigail Chu
Director: Vincenzo Natali
Writers: Vincenzo Natali, Antoinette Terry Bryant
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing elements including strong sexuality, nudity, violence, language
Running Time: 104 minutes


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

Total – 7.2 out of 10