You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger

© 2010 Ray Wong

Woody Allen's new personal drama/comedy, You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger proves to us the writer specializes in whiny, unsympathetic people.

The loosely connected story follows a divorced couple, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) and Helena (Gemma Jones), and their daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) and her husband, Roy (Josh Brolin). Alfie is a successful businessman who decides he doesn't want to get old. So he changes his life by going to the gym, eating better, driving a new sports car, and dumping his wife of 40 years. Devastated, Helena seeks advice from a psychic Crystal (Pauline Collins) who can see the future, when in fact Crystal is a fraud -- Sally has arranged the sessions, and she only wants her mother to hear what she wants to hear, to feel better about her divorce.

Meanwhile, Sally is frustrated with her life and marriage with Roy. She wants to have a baby, but Roy, a one-book-wonder novelist, is balking. Roy can't hold a steady job while struggling with writing his fourth novel. Roy is also secretly pining for their new neighbor Dia (Freida Pinto). Sally, on the other hand, has a crush on her boss Greg (Antonio Banderas) at the gallery.

When Alfie announces he's marrying an "actress" half his age, it sends Helena into a tailspin and she desperately wants to find a companion. Her fixation on the supernatural and constant nagging are driving Roy insane and putting a wedge between Sally and him, so he gravitates toward Dia, who is engaged to be married in the summer. Meanwhile, Sally wants a divorce and to open her own gallery, but she needs money…

The good thing about Woody Allen's films is cast roster reads like a "who is who" list in Hollywood. Naomi Watts (The International) is fine as the frustrated wife, who has her own unfulfilled ambitions, of a struggling writer. Her character, though, seems to run around without a true focus -- much like her life, I suppose. Josh Brolin (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) has a better role: significantly flawed but charming, frustrated but flirtatious, conniving but pathetic. Brolin does a great job conveying all those attributes and emotions.

Anthony Hopkins (The Wolfman) is an old pro and he handles the senior Peter Pan with grace and humility. He basically plays a confused little boy in an older man's body, and has done a nice job. As his devastated ex-wife, Gemma Jones (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) is wonderfully neurotic, fragile, and under-appreciated. Her character does get on our nerves after a while, but she's gone through so much we rather root for her to at least find some peace and happiness.

Rounding out the cast are Antonio Banderas (Homeland Security) who plays it straight as Sally's dashing boss; Anna Friel (Land of the Lost) is genuine as Sally's artist friend; and Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) is beautiful and sweet as the object of Roy's affection.

Written and directed by Woody Allen (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), the screenplay is very typically Allenesque: talky, full of innuendos and nuances, and neurotic. His characters are an interesting mix of different personalities, but I can't help but dislike most of them. It's not to say they are not sympathetic with their respective problems, but many of his characters have despicable traits that are hard for me to identify with. These are strongly opinionated characters but without strong convictions. They are basically weak people with big mouths and ideas. I guess that's the theme of the movie: "Sound and Fury that signify nothing." Still, I find myself not totally engaged with these people's lives.

Not to mention, the characterizations are generally contrived and cliched. The man who is going through a late midlife crises and marries a prostitute; the long-suffering housewife in an identity crisis; the bored supportive wife wanting something for herself; the struggling writer who complains about everything except himself. The trouble is, Allen relies on quite a bit of boilerplates for his characters, and the plot also resolves around some typical scenarios (infidelity, mindless quarrels, people falling out of love, etc.) It feels recycled. There's nothing unpredictable. The dialogue, on the other hand, remains Allen's strength. It's witty, smooth, and realistic.

Allen's direction is minimalistic, which I like. And he seamlessly weaves the different threads together. What I don't like is his overt use of voice-over as a narrative shortcut. Someone forgot to tell Allen about "show, don't tell." And the story doesn't seem to have an ending. OK, it does wrap up one plot thread, but leaves the others dangling. That leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Basically, I feel like I've just wasted 98 minutes of my life.

Allen is a smart, talented writer, and he can be a great director (I particularly enjoyed Match Point). But when he indulges in his whimsical little films, the result can be grating. I admit, I'm not always a Woody Allen fan, and this movie hasn't convinced me otherwise. I'm still waiting to meet a substantial, fun and meaningful Woody Allen movie.

Stars: Antonio Banderas, Josh Brolin, Anna Friel, Anthony Hopkins, Gemma Jones, Freida Pinto, Naomi Watts
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 98 minutes


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

Total – 6.9 out of 10


© 2010 Ray Wong

Based on a popular graphic novel about a group of retired secret agents, RED is a fun romp steering toward the AARP demographic.

Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is like any other retired man -- he works around the house, pays the bills, and expects his government retirement check every month. He's also in love with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), a clerk who works at the retirement office. When a group of operatives attempts to kill Frank, he escapes and finds Sarah, who thinks he's crazy. Frank tells her he's a retired CIA agent and she is in danger because the CIA has been monitoring his and her conversations. Soon, their lives are threatened, pursued by agent William Cooper (Karl Urban), and Sarah has no choice but to go along with the ride.

Frank visits his retired colleague Joe (Morgan Freeman) to find out who want to kill him and why. Eventually he realizes he's on a list of people, most of whom have died of one cause or another recently. except him, Marvin (John Malkovich) and an arms dealer named Alexander Dunning (Richard Dreyfuss). Together, Frank and Marvin figure all the people on the list were involved in a secret operation in 1981.

While evading Cooper and the CIA, they visit their old friends and foes such as ex-KGB agent Ivan (Brian Cox) and ex-MI6 Victoria (Helen Mirren) to break into the CIA. Their mission uncovers the people behind everything, and that knowledge puts them all in imminent danger.

Bruce Willis (Surrogates) is in top form, and the role is tailored for him. Charming, groovy and skilled, Willis can play Frank Moses in his sleep. Instead, he gives a spirited and witty, larger-than-life performance. Mary-Louise Parker (Solitary Man) is a bit slight to play Willis' love interest, and her motivation is the most spotty. John Malkovich (Secretariat) is perfect as the zany ex-operative who has a love affair with weaponry.

Karl Urban (Star Trek) is ruthless as the CIA agent whose mission is to kill everyone on his list. It's such a standard villainy role but Urban gives agent Cooper a softer side that we come to sympathize with him: he's just a man trying to do his job. The rest of the cast include seasoned pros that delight us with their tongue-in-cheek wink-wink performances: Helen Mirren (The Last Station) is elegant and sweet, but also a lean, mean killing machine as Victoria; Morgan Freeman (Invictus) is wonderfully wise and gentle as Joe; Brian Cox (As Good as Dead) is wittily romantic as the ex-Russian spy; and Richard Dreyfuss (Piranhas 3D) once again channels his inner-Dick Cheney to play a ruthless businessman.

Adapted by brothers Joe and Erich Hoeber (Whiteout), the script is a hodgepodge of spy thriller, action-adventure, road trip, and buddy comedy. It's also a high-concept fantasy, a great chance for these older actors to play with guns. The plot is in general unimportant, serving as a way to get the characters together and going from point A to point B. In fact, the central conflict and "conspiracy" is rather thin and full of holes. The motivations are implausible. It definitely has "graphic novel" written all over it. The action sequences are outrageous, but the dialogue is generally funny. The relationships among these characters feel genuine, considering they are mostly stereotypes.

The direction of Robert Schwentke (The Time Traveler's Wife) is fast-paced and entertaining. In fact, the plot moves so fast it doesn't leave a lot of time for us to dwell on the plot holes. Schwentke manages to preserve the humor and camaraderie of the graphic novel (unlike his effort with The Time Traveler's Wife). The production is good and the brisk editing serves the movie well.

RED takes old concepts and gives the genre a new twist by casting retirees (including a sweet cameo by Ernest Borgnine) in the action-hero roles. The result is a fantasy action-adventure that is entertaining and crowd-pleasing. Just don't expect anything earth-shattering or thought-provoking. It's a fun romp and shouldn't be in the red at the box office.

Stars: Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, Karl Ubran, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Richard Dreyfuss, Morgan Freeman, Brian Cox
Director: Robert Schwentke
Writers: John Hoeber, Erich Hoeber (based on graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner)
Distributor: Summit
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of action violence and brief strong language
Running Time: 111 minutes


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

Total – 7.7 out of 10

Never Let Me Go

© 2010 Ray Wong

Based on Kazuo Ishiguro's (The Remains of the Day) critically acclaimed novel, Never Let Me Go is an interesting contemplation on humanity set in a parallel universe.

Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield), and Ruth (Keira Knightley) are three children who have spent their entire childhood at an idyllic boarding school called Hailsham. They are well-mannered, mild children who have been fed stories about the outside world and who never questioned about their parents or backgrounds. They're led to believe they are very special, and they should be happy with what they've been given, and they must try their best to fit in and remain healthy.

Children at Hailsham are often cliquish and capricious, and these three children develop a close friendship. In fact, Kathy likes Tommy very much, but is resigned to realize the creative Tommy and extroverted Ruth are together. Eventually, they learn the truth about who they are, why they are special, and what fate awaits them.

As adult, Tommy and Ruth become romantically involved. They also find out they can "defer" as donors if a couple can prove that they're in love. The tension among Tommy, Ruth and Kathy eventually drives Kathy away, and she applies to become a "carer." Years later, their paths cross again, and Kathy must face her feelings for Tommy and Ruth and the reality of their future.

Carey Mulligan (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) is quickly becoming Hollywood's new "IT" girl. As Kathy, Mulligan is withdrawn, quiet and observant, in the mode of a true narrator. Mulligan takes advantage of her looks and ability to portray innocence, and she makes us care. Andrew Garfield (The Social Network) plays the isolated, shy Tommy with a quiet resilience and an edge of angry outbursts. He's a new star to watch. "Veteran" Keira Knightley (The Duchess) plays the last member of the trio with an interesting mix of connivance and vulnerability. By far, her character is the least sympathetic but most interesting of the three main characters.

Their younger selves are played by Izzy Meikle-Small (Disco), who is adorable and sweet as Kathy; Charlie Rowe (Disco), who is just shy and withdrawn as Tommy; and Ella Purnell (Ways to Live Forever), who is assertive and domineering as Ruth. Charlotte Rambling (The Duchess) has great presence as the intimidating Hailsham headmaster, Miss Emily. Sally Hawkins (Happily Ever After) is wonderful as sympathetic Miss Lucy.

Adapted by Alex Garland (Sunshine), the screenplay has the thankless job of translating a literary work that is highly atmospheric and internal to film. Unfortunately, the script skimps through intricate character development to make us understand why the characters are that way. There's simply not enough plot to sustain the story without deeper character revelation. We're led to believe that the children are raised that way, and they're resigned to their fate. The problem is, these are by and large very passive characters. They don't really do much to change the world around them, to avert their fate. They don't really change either. It makes it very difficult for me to connect with the characters. While logically I understand why they are the way they are, given the world they live in, but emotionally I can't relate.

And since the story is told from the point of view of Kathy, who is a passive character, there isn't much for us to understand that world either. While that may have worked in the novel, in the cinematic context, it fails because this "parallel universe" is at once familiar (it's set in England from 1973 to 1994) but alien. I don't understand how people who live in that world can not see these characters, especially as children, as human. How Hailsham, as an "experiment" to understand these donors, could have failed. Again, I can't connect with that cold reality, and there's nothing else to make us understand. We're not shown anything, such as wars or an apocalypse, to make us believe people in that world could be that cold-hearted and dispassionate.

Mark Romanek's (One Hour Photo) direction is excellent, and he gets the atmosphere right. The cinematography is beautiful in a somewhat creepy and depressing way. The lighting is exceptional. The production is top-notch. The performances are strong all around.

Unfortunately, this moody piece lacks a strong conviction and reasons for us to believe. The characters are too passive; they're almost depressing. The ending is bleak. To be fair, it does make me think about humanity: what makes us human, after all? What is the soul? These are great themes, but as a story, the film lacks a strong plot and active characters who don't just sit around accepting their fate. It's a great disappointment, since I'm a fan of Ishiguro's work. I'll let this one go.

Stars: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Izzy Meikle-Small, Charlie Rowe, Ella Purnell, Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins
Director: Mark Romanek
Writers: Alex Garland (based on novel by Kazuo Ishiguro)
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
MPAA Rating: R for some sexuality and nudity
Running Time: 103 minutes


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

Total – 7.6 out of 10


© 2010 Ray Wong

Based on the true story of Penny Chenery, owner of the legendary racehorse which won the Triple Crown in 1973, Secretariat is a true family movie with an uplifting, if predictable (well, we pretty know what happened, didn't we?) story.

Penny (Diane Lane) is a housewife and mother of four. She returns to her family ranch when her mother dies, and her father is gravely ill with dementia. They risk losing the ranch if she doesn't turn things around. Against her brother and husband's wishes, she decides to keep the ranch when she realizes she may have a champion in a young colt named Red.

She convinces one of the toughest trainers in the business, Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) to get out of retirement. She also hires a hard-driving jockey named Ron Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth). Now, if only she can convince her investors to believe in Red, now known as Secretariat by Penny's loyal secretary Miss Ham (Margo Martindale).

When Secretariat starts to win races, they get the attention they need, but it's still not enough. When Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell), one of the richest men in the country, offers to buy Secretariat for $8 million, Penny turns him down and convinces him that the horse's value will double or even triple because it will win the Triple Crown, which hasn't been done in over 25 years. Can this young colt deliver and save Penny from losing everything?

Diane Lane (Nights in Rodanthe) is luminous as Penny Chenery, a smart, driven woman trapped in a housewife's body. She has the right charisma, softness and toughness to portray the character, and her performance is very good. However, I do think she is too statuesque, too movie-star looking; it's distracting. John Malkovich (Red) plays his trademarked cranky, weird, crazy dude but somehow he makes us believe he could be this brilliant trainer. Could another actor have done this role? Absolutely -- I can think of half a dozen right now -- but Makovich brings something unique to the character.

Lane and Malkovich are surrounded by seasoned veteran actors in supporting roles. Scott Glenn (W) is appropriately ill-looking as Penny's father. James Cromwell (Surrogates) is stately as Ogden Phipps. Fred Dalton Thompson (Ironmen) is gentle as Penny's mentor Bull Hancock. Dylan Walsh (The Stepfather) is aloof as Penny's not-always-supportive husband.

Penny's loyal help are played by Margo Martindale (Orphan) as the lovely and supportive secretary, Miss Ham; Nelsan Ellis (True Blood) as Secretariat's caretaker Mr. Sweat; and real-life jockey Otto Thorwarth is excellent and intense as Ron Turcotte.

Based on William Nack's nonfiction book, the screenplay is written by Mike Rich (The Rookie) in a familiar rags-to-riches, sentimental style. Yes, it's old-fashioned and predictable, and some of the "uplifting' moments are very much on the nose. Still, it's refreshing to see a family drama in the vein of Black Stallion with a positive message, as corny as it may be: "you don't know how far you can go until you start running." There is the requisite cheese in the dialogue, and the plot is rather predictable. I mean, how can we not know how this is going to turn out? Even Diane Lane looks picture-perfect to be on the cover of Newsweek. Still, you've got to give credit to Mr. Nack for resisting the urge to dial up the schmaltz factor and keeping things relatively simple.

The direction of Randall Wallace (We Were Soldiers) is by the book and fitting for this genre. There's nothing new, however. Wallace gives us exactly what we expect. The cinematography is well done. The production is well put together. And there are some exciting moments on the course. If we grade the direction on whether it does everything right for the genre, I'll give Mr. Wallace a B+.

For audiences who love a story about overcoming adversities and achieving glory, Secretariat is right on the mark. It's a family drama. It's a sports film. It's a personal journey story. It's a beautiful production. But with a PG rating and a familiar arc, it doesn't have enough edge or uniqueness to leave an impression (unlike, say, Friday Night Lights or even Seabiscuit).

Stars: Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Scott Glenn, James Cromwell, Dylan Walsh, Fred Dalton Thompson, Kevin Connolly, Nestor Serrano, Margo Martindale, Nelsan Ellis, Otto Thorwarth
Director: Randall Wallace
Writers: Mike Rich (based on William Nack's book)
Distributor: Walt Disney
MPAA Rating: PG for brief mild language
Running Time: 116 minutes


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

Total – 7.8 out of 10

The Social Network

© 2010 Ray Wong

How much of The Social Network, a movie about how Facebook came to be, is true and how much is fiction? That alone is enough for us to want to see it. It helps if it's a really good movie, too.

Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is a Harvard freshman who majors in Computer Science. He's also a super nerd and he seems to have a problem relating to other people. After his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara) breaks up with him, he gets really drunk and spends the night blogging about her and hacking into Harvard's system to create a site called which allows Harvard students to rate the hotness of fellow female students. The stunt costs him a six-month academic suspension and infamy on campus, but he also gets the attention of the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer), who want Mark to work on a networking site for them.

What they don't know is Mark takes their seed of idea and turns it into his own venture called The Facebook, with the help of his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). Eduardo reluctantly becomes Mark's business partner by funding the work, while he's concerned about Mark's deceiving the twins. The Facebook is a huge hit and soon Eduardo wants to make it into a profit-making company, but Mark believes they are not ready yet, and they need investors. He meets entrepreneur and former Napsters boy-genius Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), who advises him to move to relocate to Silicon Valley.

When the Windlevoss twins realize they've been duped, they want to take action against Mark, but nobody wants to help them. Finally they decided to file a federal lawsuit against Mark for intellectual property theft. Meanwhile, Eduardo is not pleased with party boy Sean Parker's involvement and he feels he's been slowly pushed out of the company he helps founded.

Jesse Eisenberg (Zombieland) is perfectly cast as the genius behind the social network site who, ironically, lacks social skills. Eisenberg has played lovable nerds many times, but here he's displayed something more brutal, aggressive and ruthless. Regardless of who the real Mark Zuckerberg (the youngest billionaire in history) is, Eisenberg's portrayal of a socially inept but intellectually brilliant man is itself brilliant.

As his business partner, Andrew Garfield (Never Let Me Go) is equally interesting. Eduardo is more of an average guy who happens to be Zuckerberg's best friend at Harvard. He's not that great of a businessman -- he's more into getting into and exclusive organization than seeing Zuckerberg's vision through. Garfield nicely plays Eduardo's naiveté and genuineness. Justin Timberlake (The Love Guru) is also excellently smarmy and player-like as Sean Parker, an unlikable character.

Armie Hammer (Reaper) plays dual roles as Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (with Josh Pence as his stand-in when both twins are on screen). Hammer has great presence and fits the roles nicely as the preppy brothers who come from money, but as an actor he's a little slight compared to the others. Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is in fine form in a minor but pivotal role as Mark's girlfriend who, in a way, started Facebook. Max Minghella (Art School Confidential), is making his famous father proud with is performance as the Winklevosses' friend and confidant.

Aaron Sorkin (Charlie Wilson's War) brings his trademarked fast-paced, rapid-tongue style to adapt Ben Mezrich's novel. Sorkin's screenplay is tight, intricate, multilayered and at times a bit too advanced for the average audience to absorb. Sometimes he throws out the legal and technical jargons too readily, it's somewhat hard to follow. However, Sorkin's deft writing and the way he weaves character development with plot movement are commendable. He shows us great drama and conflict and tension do not necessarily involve violence, murder, car chases or explosions. It's evident in the very first scene, where a verbal exchange between Mark Zuckerberg and Erica in a crowded bar, showcases what a great dramatist Sorkin is.

Paring Sorkin with director David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) is an intellectual's wet dream come true. Fincher has made a name for himself for giving us some of the most intellectually stimulating thriller and crime dramas. The construct of The Social Network, which is part "how they all started" and a courtroom drama, lends itself to a fast-paced, gripping thrill ride, and Fincher doesn't disappoint. His direction is crisp, a wonderful complement to Sorkin's sharp script. The cinematography is fantastic (the most impressive shots were seen at a rowing match). The music is hauntingly appropriate. The production is top-notch in every way.

The Social Network is one of the first likely Oscar contenders and will probably earn nods in screenplay, direction, supporting actors, cinematography and picture. It's a first-class production with an intense and intelligent script and all-around great performances. It's definitely something to talk about with your friends on the social networks.

Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Armie Hammer, Justin Timberlake, Rooney Mara, Max Minghella
Director: David Fincher
Writers: Aaron Sorkin (based on Ben Mezrich's novel)
Distributor: Columbia
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, drug and alcohol, language
Running Time: 120 minutes


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

Total – 8.2 out of 10