Rabbit Hole

© 2011 Ray Wong

Adapted from the Pulitzer-winning play by the playwright himself, Rabbit Hole is an overt metaphor: "The only way out is through." It examines a family's lingering grief while coping with the death of a child.

Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) are an affluent couple living in Yonkers, NY. Becca tends to the beautiful home they share while Howie works a 9-5 corporate job. Everything seems normal, except it's not: their son, Danny, was killed eight months ago.

Becca and Howie try everything they can to cope with Danny's death and the guilt they carry. They go to group therapy, but it's not for Becca when the group turns to religion. Becca decides to seek her own "therapy" when she bumps into a teen, Jason (Miles Teller). She stalks him, and eventually they start to have regular meetings at the park to talk. It turns out Jason was the one who caused the accident that killed Danny.

Meanwhile, Howie is coping with his grief and the cracks in his marriage the best way he can. He finds confidence in a fellow grieving parent, Gaby (Sandra Oh). He smokes pot and hangs out with her behind Becca's back, just as Becca meets Jason behind Howie's back. The lies are only the symptoms of their failing marriage as its seams begin to unravel.

Nicole Kidman (Nine) was considered the frontrunner this award season before Annette Bening and Natalie Portman took over her spotlight, but that doesn't lessen her powerful performance in this personal drama. Her range is amazing, from grieve to self-confidence, and everything in between. Her scenes with Eckhart and Teller are particularly difficult but fascinating to watch. Given the right material, Kidman shines as one of the best actors of this generation.

Aaron Eckhart (Love Happens) is no slouch playing the other half of the grieving couple. He plays Howie, a man who internalizes his feelings by masking them with a more cocksure demeanor, through great, understated skills. The explosive scene in which he and Kidman rip at each other is incredibly intense. He and Kidman work excellent together, and they're believable as an estranged couple who happens to love each other very much.

The supporting cast is all extraordinary. Dianne Wiest (Rage) is a veteran and her unassuming, deeply felt performance as Becca's mother grounds the drama. The interplay between her and Kidman (both playing grieving parents) is exquisite. Miles Teller (The Track Meet) is impressive as the young man whose guilt is confronted by a grieving parent. He's a young actor to watch. Tammy Blanchard (The Good Shepherd) is both vulnerable and feisty as the sister who lives in Becca's shadow. And Sandra Oh (Blindness) is sublime as a grieving parent who has her own battles to fight.

Writer David Lindsay-Abaire (Inkheart) adapted his own play with finesse and subtlety. He skillfully weaves the backstories and mystery with the ongoing drama. While the parents struggle with their griefs and try to keep their marriage together, everyone else is tiptoeing around them. There isn't that much of a plot, most of it dealing with the grieving process and revealing the backstories. What is tremendous about this work is the subtext: If you want to understand subtext, this is the movie to study. The straightforward story is rich in symbolism, themes and subtexts. Characters often don't say what they really want to say, but we get it anyway.

Lindsay-Abaire also has a knack for subtlety, and a unique way of revealing information without exposition. The plot and backstories unfold naturally and organically. In one scene, Becca goes into Manhattan to visit some of her old colleagues. Nothing much is being said, but the wealth of information and emotions are presented through the subtexts: Becca quit her job to raise Danny, and now she wants her job back to get on with her life, but everything's changed. It's a very simple scene, but the underlying information and emotions are anything but simple. That's only one example of the writer's superb ability.

Director John Cameron Mitchell (Shortbus) surprises with his subtlety (the director isn't known for that) and quietness. It's hard to believe this is only his third film. The story unfolds at a slow and deliberate pace. At times, it may seem a bit too slow, but over all, everything fits well together to support the themes and mood. Mitchell loves his actors, and often his camera focuses on them and never lets go. He allows his actors to tell the story, and his trust pays off. The production is gorgeous and appropriately restrained.

Rabbit Hole is not an easy film to watch. It lacks the usual fast-paced plot, but it's not without twists, most of which revolve around the backstories of "what happened." The characters are well developed, and their relationships feel real. It's a quiet, subtle, but emotionally powerful piece. Kudos to the filmmakers for taking us through this cinematic rabbit hole.

Stars: Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, Miles Teller, Tammy Blanchard, Sandra Oh, Giancarlo Esposito, Jon Tenney
Director: John Cameron Mitchell
Writer: David Lindsay-Abaire (based on his play)
Distributor: Lionsgate
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material, drug use and language
Running Time: 91 minutes


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

Total – 7.9 out of 10

No Strings Attached

© 2011 Ray Wong

It seems like raunchy romantic comedies are in vogue these days, possibly to lure the elusive male audiences who wouldn't be caught dead watching a romcom without a girlfriend or wife. No Strings Attached follows that recipe, but the dish doesn't really taste that great.

Adam (Ashton Kutcher) and Emma (Natalie Portman) have known each other since they were fourteen, then again during college. Years later, they bump into each other again in Los Angeles. He's now an assistant writer on a Glee-like high school musical show, and she has started her residency at Westwood Hospital. Their lives seem to go in two different directions. Until one day, after learning his father is having sex with his ex-girlfriend, Adam gets drunk and calls every woman in his contact list and ask them to have sex with him. He wakes up in the morning, naked, at Emma's apartment.

Soon they become "sex friends." Clearly they adore each other and they have great sex together, but Emma is resistant of the idea of having anything more serious. When Adam gets too close, Emma suggests that they start fooling around with other people. But jealousy gets in the way, and they end up sleeping together again. Soon, Adam realizes he truly loves Emma, and he wants more. He crosses the line, and Emma puts a stop in their non-relationship. He warns her that she will never see him again.

Fresh off her brilliant role in Black Swan, Natalie Portman phones in her performance. Don't get me wrong. Ms. Portman is just as lovely, gorgeous, and talented, but there's not much for her to do with this underwritten role. If Emma was a dude, we'd have called her a pig and told Adam to stay away from her as far as possible. Talk about reverse sexism.

Ashton Kutcher (Killers) has done one dud after another, more or less playing the same role (with different jobs), specially in his romantic comedies. Interestingly, he's playing the "girl" part in this: he's the sensitive, forlorn, lovesick romantic. Though he shows a good emotional range (from vulnerability to being hurt) while playing a generally happy person, there's still plenty of room for him to grow as an actor -- he's not quite there yet. And I'm saying this as a compliment.

Kevin Kline (The Conspirator) plays Adam's immature, egomaniacal father who is a famous writer/star (think John Cleese). His role is such a caricature it's hard to take it seriously. Cary Elwes (SAW) is completely wasted in this movie. What exactly is the purpose of his role? And why did they cast Elwes in it? It could have been played by any actor, me even. That's how trivial his role is.

Lake Bell (Little Murder) is fun playing Adam's socially awkward colleague. Greta Gerwig (Northern Comfort) has a nice supporting role playing Emma's roommate. Jake Johnson (Get Him to the Greek) and Ludicris (Gamer) are forgettable as Adam's sidekicks.

The script by first-time screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether shows her inexperience. First, it's bogged down by unnecessary backstories, which highlights one of the glaring problems of the story: coincidence. Sure, I can understand Adam and Emma meet again in college when she returns home to Michigan. But years later, they just happen to both be in Los Angeles? Who goes to MIT and then does their residency in LA? Other coincidences, done for dramatic purposes, include the hooking up of Adam's father and ex-girlfriend. The plot really stretches its believability.

But the biggest sin of the story is there's no motivation for Emma's reactions, and why she pushes Adam, the man she admits is "the catch," away except for a superficial reason ("I don't want to get hurt"). Are you serious? Not to mention the on again, off again "relationship" between Adam and Emma becomes hiring. As a comedy, it's not that funny either, except for a few scenes. The secondary characters all have their respective roles to play, and they are all stereotypical and cliched. None of them are really believable. Simply put, everything seems forced and contrived, and it just isn't that funny despite a few bright spots.

Director Ivan Reitman (My Super Ex-Girlfriend) tends to do lukewarm comedies such as Six Days Seven Nights, and this movie is no different. It feels long despite its runtime of 110 minutes. It drags in the middle when nothing interesting really happens. He bogs down the scenes with unfunny scenarios, cliches, and stereotypical characters. The pace is off as well.

We know given the right material, Natalie Portman could be brilliant. And all Ashton Kutcher has to do is to stand there and act pretty, and we'll buy it. Unfortunately, this isn't good enough to string us along.

Stars: Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Kevin Kline, Cary Elwes, Greta Gerwig, Lake Bell, Olivia Thirlby, Ludacris, Jake M. Johnson, Mindy Kaling
Director: Ivan Reitman
Writers: Elizabeth Meriwether, Michael Samonek
Distributor: Paramount
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, language, drug use
Running Time: 110 minutes


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

Total – 6.1 out of 10

The Dilemma

© 2011 Ray Wong

When we think of Vince Vaughn and Kevin James, we think of silly buddy comedies. When we think of Jennifer Connelly and Winona Ryder, we think of sophisticated women. And when we think of Ron Howard, we think of heart-warming crowd pleasers or blockbusters. That's why The Dilemma turns out to be such a strange bedfellow with this group of filmmakers.

Ronny (Vince Vaughn) and Nick (Kevin James) have been best friends since college. For twenty years, they've been a good team in business as well: He's an extroverted, smooth-talking salesman and he's a shy engineering genius. They're on the verge of breaking in and making a big deal with Chrysler. Also, inspired by the loving relationship between Nick and his wife Geneva (Winona Ryder), Ronny is ready to pop the question to his girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Connelly).

Then Ronny discovers something: Geneva is cheating on Nick with a younger man named Zip (Channing Tatum). Ronny agonizes over whether to tell Nick, his best friend, about the affair. As Nick is working long hours and under stress to deliver a prototype that may make or break their deal, Ronny opts to keep his mouth shut for the time being. But he warns Geneva to break it off with Zip, or else he will tell Nick. Instead, Geneva threatens him with a secret they both have been keeping from Nick since college. Furthermore, Ronny learns of Nick's little secret as well.

Suddenly, Ronny doesn't know who to trust anymore. People he thinks he knows turn out to be something else. He begins to suspect Beth, too, when he receives a phone call from Las Vegas. Is Beth going to leave him? His own paranoia, coupled with his dilemma, unnerves him and he starts to act erratically and unravel.

Vince Vaughn (Couples Retreat) is back playing a similar role. I'm starting to question his range, but I know he can do better, having seen him in Swingers and Return to Paradise. But lately, Vaughn has been stuck in the same role -- he practically plays the same guy in every movie he's been in for the last 10 years. He's become predictable and boring. Similarly, Kevin James (Grown-ups) has been playing the same lovable teddy bear. I understand they're playing to their strengths, as they're strongly typed in these roles. Still, it gets tiring. At least this time James has a chance to show his darker side: his character is not as sweet and lovable as he seems. At least James has a chance to expand his range a bit.

Jennifer Connelly (He's Just Not That Into You) needs better materials. Lately, she's been doing the same thing as well. We'd like to see her in better roles such as hers in Requiem for a Dream or A Beautiful Mind, for which she won an Oscar. She's lovely in this film, but doesn't have much to do. Winona Ryder (Black Swan) has a much better role, playing Nick's conniving but vulnerable wife. She's staged a great come-back and this role may help bring her back on the A-list again.

Channing Tatum (Dear John) seems to have fun playing Geneva's hunky but drugged-out boy toy. His wacky character is one of the highlights of the film. Queen Latifah (Just Wright), on the other hand, has nothing to do but to dole out crass sexual innuendos. There's not much point to her character and her spirited performance is thus wasted.

Written by Allan Loeb (The Switch), the story is a mix of comedy and drama. Marketed as a broad comedy, though (especially with a cast including Vaughn and James), it is a disappointment. There's hardly any laughs, and except for a few scenes, Vaughn and James aren't funny. The subject matter -- infidelity -- is far too serious for a comedy. However, my biggest problem with the screenplay is the characters and their motivations. Ronny's reactions, behaviors, and mental struggles are out of proportion. We're led to believe he feels that way because he is Nick's best friend, but to me, it makes him look crazy.

The central question of "should you tell your best friend his wife is cheating on him?" is an old and clich├ęd one as well. I think Geneva said it best, "Stay out of my marriage." I agree with her, and that makes Ronny's character all the more insufferable, how he meddles and manages to make things worse, how he preaches about honesty and yet is keeping secrets. He's a hypocrite, and his behaviors make him even less likable. I mean, how can you make the only character who hasn't done anything wrong to be the least likable in a movie about infidelity?

There are tons of plot holes, too, and the subplot seems trivial to the central themes of the movie. The plot also feels forced, with plenty of contrived situations.

Ron Howard's (Angels & Demons) direction is workmanlike, but far from masterful. In fact, I didn't realize it was a Ron Howard's film until the credit started rolling. It's not to say it's not a handsome production. It is. There's simply nothing to write home about. Coupled with the plot that drags and baffles at places, and the fact that it can't decide if it's a comedy or a drama, the film falls flat.

I now have a dilemma: Should I give it a C or C+?

Stars: Vince Vaughn, Kevin James, Jennifer Connelly, Winona Ryder, Channing Tatum, Queen Latifah
Director: Ron Howard
Writer: Allan Loeb
Distributor: Universal
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic elements, sexual content, partial nudity
Running Time: 112 minutes


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

Total – 6.8 out of 10

Country Strong

© 2011 Ray Wong

It's been a few years since Gwyneth Paltrow was in a lead role in a feature film, and she chose to "come back" as a Country singer in Country Strong. The result may not be exactly what she hoped for.

Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a "washed up" Country superstar who has spent the past eight years in and out of rehab. Her husband and manager James (Tim McGraw) takes her out of rehab before she's ready, since he's staging her comeback tour in Texas. She insists on having her "sponsor," Beau (Garrett Hedlund), open for her since he's a good singer, too. Meanwhile, James wants a pretty ex-beauty queen Chiles (Leighton Meester). After a brief fight, they compromise and bring both singers along.

Beau is supposed to keep an eye on Kelly, keeping her off booze and drugs. But while Beau is on stage doing his opening numbers, Kelly sneaks past everyone and starts taking pills again. James is frustrated. Kelly is jealous because both James and Beau are flirting with Chiles. Little does James know, Beau and Kelly are actually carrying on an affair behind his back. Meanwhile, Chiles is developing a crush on the cool and talented Beau. Talk about a love square.

Knowing Kelly will never leave James and having feelings from Chiles, Beau breaks it off with Kelly. That sets her into a tailspin and she starts to drink heavily again. James is stuck in an estranged marriage while trying to be the best manager for Kelly -- except Kelly is tired of it all. Through it, Beau realizes he doesn't want or need any of that showbiz bullshit: he just wants to sing, and he makes a proposal to Chiles to come with him to Los Angeles.

Gwyneth Paltrow (Iron-Man) has shown off her singing talent before, and she's matured here (and Country seems to fit her relatively thin voice just fine). She plays the vulnerable but effervescent superstar just fine -- that is a lot of emotions and crying and feeling sad. I just can't help but feel this is nothing but Oscar-bait, and I'm not completely convinced by her performance. Garrett Hedlund (TRON Legacy) is surprisingly strong as a singer, and he gets to act in this movie (he had nothing much to do in TRON). In a strange way, he reminds me of Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain and that's a compliment.

Tim McGraw (The Blind Side) continues to show his acting chops. Ironically, the country star doesn't sing in this movie. But McGraw's maturing acting skills make us forget "oh, he's a singer first." Leighton Meester (The Roommate) is pretty, sweet, cute and vulnerable as Chiles. Her acting is a bit on the soft side, but I see good things happening to her in the near future.

Written and directed by Shana Feste (The Greatest), the drama is heavy on internal feelings, struggles and interrelationship mumble-jumble and light on plot. In fact, I could have summarized the entire plot in one line: "Country superstar wallows in self-destruction and messy relationships with two men she loves." That's pretty much it. The rest is just to get them from point A to point B.

Now, character-centric dramas are not necessarily a bad thing. The King's Speech, for example, does that beautifully with intrigue, tension, and genuine characterization. The problem with this screenplay is that it's devoid of any suspense, intrigue, or tension. Sure, there are conflicts, but they feel forced and unconvincing. Often I don't understand the motivation, and it seems these characters only exist to shout and cry just because they feel like it. We're given enough backstories to understand the reasons why they're so screwed up, but they are not enough to connect the dots. The dialogue ranges from heartfelt to really cheesy.

The main problem, other than the lack of a plot, is that as a character-driven drama, the characters are thinly drawn. I never fully understand them. As emotional and thoughtful as they are, they never seem deep to me. More like "paint by numbers" at times, like there's a checklist for each character: She's perky and vulnerable, and he's cool and thoughtful… While the actors do their best to bring three-dimensionality to the roles, the characters and situations simply feel contrived, all the way to the predictable ending.

And then there are the songs. Many of them are quite catchy and pleasant, but none really stand out. And Feste lingers for too long, and often it feels more like a music video than a drama. We even get an extended 10-minute-plus performance by Paltrow at the end complete with costume change. I understand music is important in this genre, but in more skillful hands, the music could have been integrated better (for example, Walk The Line, Crazy Heart).

On paper, this may have sounded like a great character-centric drama that showcases Paltrow's talent. In reality, this is anything but strong.

Stars: Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester
Director: Shana Feste
Writer: Shana Feste
Distributor: Screen Gems
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, alcohol and drug abuse, sexual content
Running Time: 112 minutes


Script – 5
Performance – 7
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 7
Music/Sound– 8
Editing – 7
Production – 7

Total – 6.4 out of 10