© 2010 Ray Wong

As a friend of mine said, Burlesque is just like Showgirl with a simpler plot, better songs, and Cher. In other words, it's only slightly better.

Ali (Christina Aguilera) is a girl from a small Iowa town who dreams to be singer, so she packs for a one way trip to Los Angeles. After a few weeks of trying to break into the business, she comes across a Burlesque lounge on the Sunset Strip. Lured by the glamor and also trying to convince Tess (Cher) -- owner of the club--Ali befriends bartender Jack (Cam Gigandet) and gets a job as a waitress.

After her apartment is broken in and all her money is stolen, she begs to stay at Jack's place, thinking he's gay. Well, what do you know? He's not, but instead engaged to an actress who is, rather conveniently, living and working in New York. As their attraction to each other grows stronger, Ali also succeeds in convincing Tess to give her a spot on stage. While Ali isn't the strongest dancer, she has drive and she wants it bad; and Tess likes that, because Ali reminds Tess of her younger self.

Meanwhile, Tess is on the verge of losing her club because she can't pay the mortgage, and real estate developer Marcus (Eric Dane) wants to buy it so he can build a high-rise apartment. When Tess finds out Ali can sing, she builds her shows around Ali. Marcus begins to court Ali, and she accepts because he can make things happen for her, and clearly Jack isn't "available." Then everything changes and Ali must choose between her future and the people she's grown to love.

Cher (Stuck on You) hasn't been on the silver screen since 2003, and her performance as Mama Tess is welcome. The role is tailor-made for her, and fans of Cher would not be disappointed (except she should sing two more songs while Aguilera should sing two fewer). It's amazing how in the soft glow of movie lights and under the thick layers of cosmetics (not to mention plastic surgeries, but we won't go there), Cher looks like she did 25 years ago.

Christina Aguilera's debut goes much better than Britney Spears', partially because Aguilera is a much better actress and singer. Also, she's found a perfect movie for herself. Playing the ingenue is second-nature to the pop superstar, and the musical materials showcase her powerhouse voice, range, and… damn, isn't she attractive? But don't expect an Oscar for the star -- while her performance is fine for a debut, she has nothing on Justin Timberlake.

The male-dominated supporting cast is okay. Cam Gigandet (Easy A) is quickly becoming the It Boy what with his smoldering good looks and model body (and he shows it off a lot). His performance stills lacks certain finesse and range, however. Stanley Tucci (The Lovely Bones) is, as usual, wonderful as Tess's assistant, but I can't help but think he's playing the same role as he did in The Devil Wears Prada. Exactly the same. Alan Cumming (The Tempest) has practically nothing to do, unfortunately, and Peter Gallagher (The War Boys) has only a slightly better role as Tess's constantly constipated ex-husband and business partner. Kristen Bell (When in Rome) has one of the few female roles (which is ironic, as the film is about Burlesque dancers), and her "vixen" is a bit on the one-dimensional side.

Written and directed by Steve Antin (Gloria) is not new to the business, but as a screenwriter/director, he is still rather green. Burlesque is an odd, ironically old-fashioned concept -- seriously, who still go to see Burlesque these days? The screenplay is riddled with cliches, from the rags-to-riches story to the cockeyed romance, from the wise matron to the conniving vixen, from the boy toy to the suave suitor… you name it, you have it. Plenty of plot holes to go around, too. For example, if Ali is so great (and she is!), why would she still be singing at a Burlesque club? She'd be snatched up by a major talent agent and record label already.

The dialogue is suitably cheesy. What is unintentional, however, is how cheesy and funny some "dramatic" scenes turn out to be. For example, right in the middle of a dramatic "heart to heart" scene between Cher and Aguilera, the audience broke out laughing. Certainly I don't think Antin expected that. The plot is cheese, of course, but I admire that Antin tries to stay simple.

The production is somewhat on the cheap side, considering much of it was filmed on a sound stage. The musical numbers are fine: well choreographed and performed. They are entertaining and reminded me of Chicago. But like I said, Cher should have sung two more songs, while Aguilera has one or two too many. It gets rather tiring to hear her sing every damn song. We need some variety.

Burlesque is not a disaster per se, but it's not great either. It's like Chicago's ugly little sister, and she's so ugly she's kind of cute. I suppose, in some ways, it's fitting because the movie isn't called Broadway, but Burlesque.

Stars: Cher, Christina Aguilera, Eric Dane, Cam Gigandet, Stanley Tucci, Kristen Bell, Alan Cumming, Peter Gallagher
Director: Steve Antin
Writers: Steve Antin
Distributor: Screen Gems
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content including several suggestive dance routines, partial nudity, language and some thematic material
Running Time: 100 minutes


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

Total – 7.2 out of 10

The Next Three Days

© 2010 Ray Wong

Disguised (and mis-marketed, in my opinion) as a suspense-thriller, The Next Three Days is in reality a strongly character-driven family drama that examines the unjustness of our justice system.

John (Russell Crowe) and Lara Brennan (Elizabeth Banks) are a happy couple raising a young son Luke (Ty Simpkins) in Pittsburgh, PA. Then Lara is arrested and convicted for murdering her boss. After almost three years, the evidence, albeit all circumstantial, is too strong, and their final repeal is denied. After Lara tries to kill herself and running out of options, John decides the only way to find justice is by breaking Lara out of prison.

John starts to gather information and device a plan. He seeks out Damon Pennington (Liam Neeson), a famed jail-breaker. Pennington's advice is solid but grim: Pittsburgh is one of the toughest cities to attempt an escape, and he doubts John, a community college teacher, has what it takes to carry out a well-executed plan.

Uncertain himself, John decides to move forward, as his wife is being transferred out of Pittsburgh in only three days. His inexperiences and nerves almost cost him his own freedom or, worse, life. Guided by his love for his family, he realizes there's only one way out, and that's to stay focused and keep going until they're free or dead.

Russell Crowe (Robin Hood) is in top form as the devoted family man and teacher-turn-criminal. His performance, while not a powerhouse as that in Gladiators or even Insider, is commendable for its intensity, internal conflict and subtlety. Crowe is not playing a larger-than-life action hero; he's playing an ordinary man forced to take extreme measures. He's convincing and gets our sympathy immediately.

Elizabeth Banks (The Uninvited) is good, but not great, as Lara. Hers is a tough role to play -- a loving wife and mother who has been wrongfully convicted of murder and incarcerated for life. Banks does a good job with her scenes, but her character is not fully written, and thus there's something missing in her characterization. It almost feels contrived.

The support cast is all good. Olivia Wilde (TRON: Legacy) is beautiful and gentle as a mother who has the hots for John. Liam Neeson (The A-Team) has a very small, gruff role as Pennington. Brian Dennehy (Every Day) is wonderfully stoic as John's father. And Jason Beghe (Medium) successfully channels Ed Harris as a sympathetic detective.

The screenplay by Oscar-winning writer-director Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby) is a solid character-driven piece. Perhaps that's at once its biggest strength and problem. The film is heavily marketed as a suspense-thriller. While there are definitely suspense and thrills, especially in the final act, the movie is really a personal drama about family and priorities, and to some extent about our justice system. Haggis's screenplay is full of great personal moments and emotional subtleties, but because of them, the plot drags, and feels rather repetitive at times.

And as a suspense-thriller, there are the obligatory plot holes and implausibilities. He tries too hard to cast doubt about Lara's innocence -- her abrasive personality, etc. It's not necessary; it's not what this story is about. As a Pittsburgh native, I have to seriously suspend my disbelief. Some of the plot twists would never make sense if the story actually happened. However, by then we're so emotionally involved with the characters that we don't care. We just want them to get away.

Haggis's direction is fluid and personal, with lots of close-ups and intimate moments. That said, I think he dwells on those moments too much and they drag down the storytelling. How many times do we need to be reminded that John and Lara love each other? It's like he wants to hit us over and over again how John will do anything for Lara, and that's unnecessary; it only bogs down the plot. What is interesting, however, is when John screws up. Every time John makes a mistake, every time he almost gets caught, the tension is palpable. If Haggis had stayed focused on that plight, it would have been a stronger movie.

Expectations be damned -- those who are looking for a taut, twisty thriller may be disappointed, and those looking for an intimate family drama may miss out on this. I think the movie has been botched by the marketing. I suppose the box office record in the next few days or weeks will tell us if I'm right.

Stars: Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Olivia Wilde, Liam Neeson, Brian Dennehy, Jason Beghe
Director: Paul Haggis
Writers: Paul Haggis (based on Pour elle written by Fred CavayƩ and Guillaume Lemans)
Distributor: Lionsgate
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, drug material, language, sexuality and thematic elements
Running Time: 128 minutes


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

Total – 7.8 out of 10


© 2010 Ray Wong

A love-child of War of the Worlds and Cloverfield: that would be the exact pitch for Skyline, an alien invasion story told from the point of view of a few friends trapped in a high-rise apartment.

Jarrod (Eric Balfour) and Scottie Thompson (Elaine) are a couple invited to LA by their successful friend Terry (Donald Faison) for a fun week of vacation. Little do they know, Terry wants Jarrod to move there so they can go into business together. Scottie is upset about it, especially she just discovers she's pregnant.

During the night, they wake up to a strange blue light. When Jarrod stares at the light, he's hypnotized and drawn to it, and odd veins start to overtake his body. Fortunately, his friends save him. Later, the blue lights return; Jarrod and Terry go up to the roof to investigate, and they realize they're the subjects of an alien invasion, the humans are drawn to the light and then taken.

The group of friends hide in Terry's condo as long as they can, until the alien "scouts" try to find them. They try to escape to the open water, where the alien ships seem to avoid. Without any weapons, however, they can't go very far without being chased by alien creatures and machines. How do they survive?

Eric Balfour (The Spirit) is a capable actor buoyed by his edgy good looks, but he seems to be stuck with playing supporting roles. It's nice to see him in a lead role for once, albeit in a small-budge sci-fi horror. Balfour does his best with the role which, like all the other characters, is rather one-dimensional. Scottie Thompson (Star Trek) is in good form as Elaine. She gives the character a bit more emotional depth simply because we're supposed to care about her because she's pregnant. Sometimes, however, her character is irritating in her whininess.

Donald Faison (Scrubs) plays a variation of his Doctor Turk, and doesn't really have much to do except to either act cocky or scared. He needs to broaden his range. Brittany Daniel (Loveless in Los Angeles) also has nothing to do than act either bratty or scared as Faison's superficial girlfriend. Crystal Reed (CSI: NY) and Neil Hopkins (LOST) have even less to do -- in fact, their roles are firmly in the "expendables" column and we don't know anything about them to even care. The standout is David Zayas (The Expendables) as the gung-ho building manager. Another one-dimensional character, but at least Zayas gives it some life and attitude, effectively channeling Bruce Willis.

The screenwriters are Joshua Cordes and Liam O'Donnell, who are both, alarmingly, special effect specialists. It shows, because their dialogue is bare-bone and cliched, and the characterization is flimsy and superficial. The characters are thinly drawn and serves only as pawns. The real stars of the film are the special effects and alien monsters and machines. In some ways, the entire movie is shaped and structured as a sci-fi porn. Still, there are some intense moments and the writers did create a dire situation and the feeling of helplessness as the characters are trapped in the building. However, some of the tension is forced and contrived. I mean, can't the characters find a safe place to hide and hold out as long as they can? The story particularly falls apart at the end, when a silly and depressing ending almost ruins the entire story, which is shaky to begin with.

Directors Greg and Colin Strause (Aliens vs. Predator - Requiem) also started their character in special effects. To their credit, they do have an an eye for cinematic battles, sci-fi tension and setups and, of course, special effects. That's what they do best and they don't disappoint in that department. They make the best use of their limited budget ($10 million - which is paltry for a sci-fi action) and locations (mostly shot at Greg Strause's condo complex). Granted, the designs and execution resemble previous movies, so there's a certain tired "same old same old" feeling.

The major problem with Skyline is the writing and story. It's trite and cliched and unoriginal. Coupled with the disappointing ending, it hardly soars through the sky.


Stars: Eric Balfour, Scottie Thompson, Donald Faison, Brittany Daniel, Crystal Reed, David Zayas, Neil Hopkins
Directors: Greg and Colin Strause
Writers: Joshua Cordes, Liam O'Donnell
Distributor: Universal
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, language, and brief sexual content
Running Time: 92 minutes


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

Total – 6.5 out of 10


© 2010 Ray Wong

Dreamworks Animation may be vying for second place behind Pixar, but they often come out with solid animation features. Megamind has all the right ingredient: big stars, a larger-than-life superhero premise, and cute characters. The result, however, is rather a mixed bag.

In a Superman-esque opening, we learn that Megamind (Will Ferrell) is the lone survivor of his planet. But he's not the only one. Metro Man (Brad Pitt), from a neighboring planet, also survives, and they both end up on Earth. Megamind has the misfortune of landing in a prison, and because he looks odd, he's constantly picked on. Quickly he and the popular Metro Man become mortal enemies. They often try to one-up each other. Metro Man becomes the de facto superhero of Metro City, and Megamind the super villain who can never win.

At the opening ceremony of the Metro Man Museum, Megamind once again tries to defeat Metro Man. He kidnaps reporter Roxanne (Tina Fey), whom he believes is Metro Man's main squeeze. But his plan goes too well, and he destroys Metro Man for good. For a while, Megamind enjoys his victory and being fearsome, but after a while, he realizes life is boring and there is no point without a hero to fight. And to his surprise, he misses Metro Man.

So Megamind decides to create a new superhero to fight him. By using Metro Man's DNA, Megamind accidentally makes Roxanne's cameraman Tighten (Jonah Hill) a superhuman. Unfortunately, Tighten has none of the quality that makes up a superhero. Instead, Tighten wants to be a super villain like Megamind.

Will Ferrel (The Other Guys) stages his "come back" with the back-to-back comedies. As the voice of Megamind, Ferrel exercises his zaniness with an over-the-top performance. He's entertaining when he doesn't sound obnoxious -- and that's a very thin line at times. Brad Pitt (Inglourious Basterds), on the other hand, is all dapper and charming as the hunky Metro Man. The two voices and characters are definitely yin and yang for each other.

Tina Fey (Date Night) provides the voice for the only major female character. Her performance is spirited and sexy. Her voice and Ferrel's surprisingly compliment each other well. On the other hand, even in animated character form, Jonah Hill (Get Him to the Greek) practically plays himself again. His whiny voice fits the character perfectly.

The rest of the voice cast includes David Cross (Year One) in a funny role as Minion, Ben Stiller (Greenberg) in a small role as Bernard, and J.K. Simmons (Up in the Air) as the deadpanning Warden.

The screenplay is written by two novice writers: Alan J. Schoolcraft and Brent Simons, and it shows. While the story has a natural "coming of age" arc, the treatment is rather chaotic. The first and last act are relatively smooth (and standard -- well, I mean, we've seen it before in something like The Incredibles), but the second act is rather a mess. Over all, I feel the story lacks a focus, and there are too many bits and pieces vying for our attention. It's busy, and which may please the young ones in the audience. But for us adults, it feels bloated and out of control at times. The comedy is often broad, and the dialogue skit-like. The premise is try-and-true, but lacks certain imagination. The beginning, for example, is a complete ripoff of Superman, albeit having a comedic, new twist.

Under Tom McGrath's (Madagascar), the animation, however, is top-notch. We can always count on the animators at Dreamworks to do great work. The colors are vibrant. The characters are well designed. And the action sequences are well rendered. The production value is consistently good. The pacing, however, suffers from the script. Even McGrath can't save the film from the sloppy second act. Fortunately, the third act delivers, even though the ending is predictable.

As a family film, Megamind will certainly entertain the young ones, what with its vibrant animation, zany action and superhero storyline. Ferrell's and Fey's performances as well as the frantic comedy should please fans of broad comedies. For the adults looking for something more substantial in animation features, however, watch Toy Story 3 instead. It doesn't take a mega-mind to figure that out.

Stars: Will Ferrell, Brad Pitt, Tina Fey, Jonah Hill, David Cross, Justin Theroux, Ben Stiller, J.K. Simmons
Director: Tom McGrath
Writers: Alan J. Schoolcraft, Brent Simons
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
MPAA Rating: PG for action and some language
Running Time: 96 minutes


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

Total – 7.1 out of 10