Hall Pass

© 2011 Ray Wong

The Farrelly brothers are well known for their crude, sexual comedies, but they seem to have peaked with There's Something About Mary. That doesn't mean they won't keep trying.

Rick (Owen Wilson) and Fred (Jason Sudeikis) have been best friends since college, and they're happily married to their respective wives Maggie (Jenna Fischer) and Grace (Christina Applegate) for more than 20 years. But "happy" is an interesting word. Their respective marriages are actually in a funk. Fred is obsessed with sex, which he doesn't get a lot from Grace. And Rick is frustrated because Maggie doesn't seem to be interested in him anymore.

Their wives aren't stupid either. They realize their husbands are not happy, nor are they, and the men need to get things out of their system. They decide to give Rick and Fred their hall passes: one week off marriage when they can do whatever they want, no questions asked. The women are taking the children to Maggie's parents' cottage in Cape Cod for a week, while Rick and Fred check into a motel (they don't want to bring chicks to their respective homes -- how thoughtful).

The women are right, though. Rick and Fred are all talk and no action, like domestic cats that are too afraid to go outside the house. They waste 3 days for their "freedom" doing exactly what they do best: putz around with their chums. It's harder than they thought: they are, after all, married middle-aged men, not hot, young studs anymore. Only later in the week do they get closer to action. Meanwhile, Maggie and Grace meet some really nice baseball players and their faithfulness is also being tested…

Owen Wilson (Little Fockers) tones down his surfer boy charm to play a married middle-aged man. He's actually quite convincing, having gained a few extra pounds and looking pale as snow, complete with a dorky haircut. But the look is just part of it. Owen is by and large successful in portraying the family man. He's the "straight man" to Jason Sudeikis' doofus. Sudeikis (The Bounty Hunter) plays a variation of one of his Saturday Night Live skit characters. It's not to say he's not any good; just that he's played that before. His character is mostly a hodgepodge of caricatures and skits; there's not much depth.

Jenna Fischer (Solitary Men) is suitably dowdy as Rick's wife of 20 years. Actually she's a little young to play that role, but somehow she looks older in the movie. The problem is, Fischer seems to play the same character in every movie or TV show. She does it very well, but we'd like to see a better range for her. Same can be said about Christina Applegate (Going the Distance), who plays the Fred's feisty wife with zest, but she reminds us she has a limited range as an actress.

The supporting cast is generally good. Nicky Whelan (Hollywood & Wine) steals her scenes as the object of Rick's affection; and yes, she is super hot. Richard Jenkins (Eat, Pray, Love) is a master chameleon, also stealing scenes as a playboy who is too old for his tricks. Derek Waters (He's Just Not That Into You) is hilarious as a psychotic DJ. And Stephen Merchant (Gnomeo and Juliet) is funny as one of Rick and Fred's best friends.

Written and directed by the Farrelly brothers (The Heartbreak Kid), the story is what we expect: crude sex jokes, embarrassing situations, gratuitous male frontal nudity. The gags generally work; there are some hilarious moments. As the plot progresses, however, the jokes become increasingly tiresome. Near the end, the plot just falls apart, the scenarios outrageous. It's hard to watch. The premise suffers a huge dose of incredulity, too. OK, I understand these are happily married, middle-aged men, but do they have to be such doofuses? Honestly, I don't know any married men like them. They're totally clueless, acting like they're still 12. They have no idea how to talk to women.

Worst of all, they are all talk and no action. I don't know any men who can't get laid if they really want to. So the idea that these couple of guys -- not bad-looking or completely out of shape, either -- have a hard time hooking up is a tremendously difficult suspension of disbelief. And the ending doesn't sit well for me because they regress into these spineless, stupid men who live in the shadows of their respective wives. Rick is, in particular, unbelievable. I don't buy a guy like him having one and only one sex partner (his wife) in his entire life. It's sentimental but highly unlikely.

The problem with Farrelly brothers' movies is that while they're entertaining, they also stretch the truth and become tiresome really quickly. They pander to the teenage boys and lack the sophistication and depths of crude, sex comedies coming from people like Judd Apatow. Hall Pass reminds us the brothers have passed their peak. But for old time's sake, I'll give it a passing grade.

Stars: Owen Wilson, Jason Sudeikis, Jenna Fischer, Christina Applegate, Nicky Whelan, Richard Jenkins
Directors: Bobby and Peter Farrelly
Writers: Pete Jones, Peter Farrelly, Bobby Farrelly, Kevin Barnett
Distributor: New Line
MPAA Rating: R for crude and sexual humor, graphic nudity and drug use
Running Time: 105 minutes


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

Total – 6.3 out of 10


© 2011 Ray Wong

Liam Neeson has been carving a niche lately as the new sensitive action hero, what with his turns in Taken, The A-Team and Clash of the Titans. His latest effort, Unknown, follows the same path.

Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) and his wife Elizabeth (January Jones) arrives in Berlin for an international Botanist convention hosted by Dr. Bressler (Sebastian Koch) and Prince Shada (Mido Hamada). However, upon arrival, Harris discovers he's left an important briefcase at the airport. While heading back in a taxi, he gets into an accident that puts him in a coma for four days.

When he awakens, he can't remember much: he has only pieces of fragmented memories. One thing for sure, though, is that he's Martin Harris, an American stranded in Berlin without any identification. When he returns to the hotel, he's shocked that his wife doesn't recognize him. Worse, another man claims to be him. He's convinced that there's a conspiracy and his wife is in danger when he's being followed by a killer.

He traces his steps back to the accident and finds the driver Gina (Diane Kruger), who reluctantly agrees to help him find the truth in exchange for money. Soon, the killers are hot on their trails. Meanwhile, Harris begins to piece everything together and realizes he is involved in something bigger and more sinister than he ever imagined.

Liam Neeson (Clash of the Titans) is excellent as Martin Harris. He certainly looks and acts the part as the botanist. But when his true identity is revealed, we understand that it's, in fact, perfect casting. Neeson has the right mix of sensitivity and hardness to play the part well. However, this is essentially the same part he played in Taken. While he's great in it, he's in danger of locking himself in as a type.

Diane Kruger (Inglourious Basterds) plays the part of the reluctant heroine well. She's much more down to earth and understated than her flashier roles, and this fits her well. January Jones (We Are Marshall) is good as Harris's icy wife. There's not much depth in her character, however.

Aidan Quinn (Sarah's Key) does his job as the man who "impersonates" Martin Harris. There's a particular interesting scene when he and Neeson are both trying to prove they are the real Dr. Harris. Frank Langella (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) has a relatively small but pivotal role as Harris's colleague Rodney Cole. Once again, Langella plays it with cold precision. German actor Sebastian Koch (The Lives of Others) is in fine form as Dr. Bressler. But the standout is Bruno Ganz (The Reader) as Herr Jurgen, the former secret police who helps Harris. Ganz gave an Oscar-worthy performance in an otherwise pulpy thriller, and that is quite a feat.

Based on Didier Van Cauwelaert's novel and adapted by Oliver Butcher (Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde) and Stephen Cornwell (State of Fear), the screenplay is taut and suspenseful. The pace almost never lets up. The mystery is there right from the beginning and deepens as the plot moves along. Once in a while you get a clue but then the plot takes another turn. However, the observant audience shouldn't have a problem figuring it out.

The dialogue is standard thriller material. Nothing deep here. The fast-paced plot and slow reveal also help to mask some of the biggest plot holes, which we only get a chance to scrutinize when the movie is over. That's the problem with most thrillers for me: while it's entertaining and exciting, I can't help but feel disappointed because of the major plot holes and illogical development. I often wonder, why didn't anyone from the writers to the producers or stars ever raise any concern: "Hey, this doesn't make sense"? One major flaw in the design and construct is that there are so many ways for the killers to finish Martin Harris or Gina off, but they don't. I mean, they have no problem snapping the neck of an unfortunate nurse, but they wouldn't do the same to Harris while he's still sedated?

That said, Jaume Collet-Serra's (Orphan) direction is very good. The production is handsome. The location has its gritty, industrial feel that is perfect for the genre. The action sequences are well put together. The pace is brisk and the camerawork is workmanlike. The problem is, it reminds me so much of the Bourne series, without the breathless, shaky cinematography. It's still good, but I don't think people will be talking about this movie a year from now.

Unknown (and what a lame title!) is good entertainment. As a thriller, it gives us everything we expect and want: car chases, mystery, suspense, murders, conspiracy, and an action hero we can root for. However, as a thriller, it also has the common plot holes that hinder it from being great. While its immediate box-office reaction may be great, its long-term prospect is unknown.

Stars: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella, Sebastian Koch, Olivier Schneider
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Writers: Oliver Butcher, Stephen Cornwell (based on Didier Van Cauwelaert's novel Out of My Head)
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some intense sequence of violence and action, brief sexual content
Running Time: 113 minutes


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

Total – 7.1 out of 10

True Grit

© 2011 Ray Wong

The Coen brothers are known for their quirky original stories. Their remake of a John Wayne classic is so unlike their other films that it's a welcome diversion.

After Mattie Ross's (Hailee Steinfeld) father was murdered, she's determined to track down the killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) and bring him to justice (dead or alive). The headstrong 14-year-old would not take no for an answer. She eventually convinces Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), considered the toughest US marshall, to help her find Chaney. Mattie wants Cogburn, because he has "true grit."

Meanwhile, Texas ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) is after Chaney for his own purpose. He wants to capture and take Chaney back to Texas, but Mattie insists that Chaney be tried in her town for the crime against her father. Soon, Mattie realizes she's been left behind as LaBoeuf's made a deal with Cogburn; the men has gone ahead without her to the Indian country. She follows them and insist on tagging along.

Their trek takes them on a dangerous paths, and they come across some unsavory people and criminals. Through the journey, Cogburn, Mattie and LaBoeuf get to know each other better, and their form an unlikely bond. Just when they give up ever finding Chaney, Mattie accidentally crosses paths with him. And her real challenge has only begun!

Jeff Bridges (TRON Legacy) is excellent in a role made famous by John Wayne, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Cogburn. Bridges brings his own interpretation of the role, and it's an interesting and well-rendered one. Gruff, agitated, and drunk most of the time, Cogburn does show true grit, and Bridges has done a remarkable job with this three-dimensional and deeply flawed character.

Matt Damon (Hereafter), one of Hollywood's most overworked leading men, is somewhat miscast in the role of LaBoeuf. Don't get me wrong. He's good; but there's just something too contemporary about the actor that distracts me from his performance, and his Texas drawl is equally distracting.

The real star of the show, however, is Hailee Steinfeld, who steals all the scenes she's in. That's an improbably feat for any actor performing against veterans such as Bridges and Damon; it's even more amazing considering this is Steinfeld's first role, ever. She commands the screen, and her character is so well drawn that they fit each other perfectly. Her performance is breathtaking.

The supporting cast is great, including Josh Brolin (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) and Barry Pepper (Seven Pounds). But it's really a three-person movie.

Based on the 1969 movie and adapted directly from the source novel by Charles Portis, the screenplay by the Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men) is tight and fluid. From the opening frame and narration (by an older Mattie, played stoically by Elizabeth Marvel (A Dog Year)) to the final shot, the story flows well. The dialogue sounds oddly poetic yet true to the period. The serious drama is also chockfull of humor.

The Coen brothers have done a great job developing the characters and their relationships. The story is less about the quest, and more about how these people who share no common interests and backgrounds become unlikely friends, and how they eventually devote themselves to one another. The gradual development is remarkable, and you can't help but love and care about these characters.

The direction is, as expected, superb. The Coen brothers have a knack for Westerns. Great eyes, too. The production is handsome and the cinematography arresting. They've done a great job recreating the wild wild west. The pacing is right.

True Grit is probably one of the Coen brothers' most accessible films. It's well-made, well-written, and well-performed. It's a delight to watch. Normally I'm not a big fan of Westerns, but this movie holds my interest through and through, right up to the poignant ending, and I come out feeling moved and elated. I love these characters. I love this Western, and it takes some true grit for me to admit to that.

Stars: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, Elizabeth Marvel
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Writers: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen (based on Charles Portis's novel)
Distributor: Paramount
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some intense sequence of western violence and disturbing images
Running Time: 110 minutes


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

Total – 8 out of 10

The Fighter

© 2011 Ray Wong

Based on the true story of fighters and half-brothers Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund, The Fighter is actually a gritty tale about brotherly love and rivalry, family, and drug addiction.

Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) is an ex-boxing champion staging his comeback. He's also training his younger half-brother, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg). The quiet, introspective Micky has always been living in the shadow of his charismatic but troubled brother and their overbearing mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), also the boys' manager.

Micky feels stifled by his aggressive brother, who has a drug addiction problem, as well as his mother. When he's given a chance to train with someone else in Vegas, his big break is squashed by his family, who sees him as a cash cow. Micky's new girlfriend, barmaid Charlene (Amy Adams), convinces him he must cut his ties with his family if he wants to advance his career. Especially Dicky, who, while running from the law, causes Micky a serious, potentially career-ending injury.

Determined to fight back, literally, Micky cuts his brother and mother off, and trains with old friend O'Keefe instead. Soon, Micky's winning fights and has a chance at the championship. However, Dicky and Alice want to come back and be part of Micky's career, and that creates a huge rift between Micky, Charlene and O'Keefe.

Mark Wahlberg (The Other Guys) has the thankless job of playing the stoic, quiet brother, even though he is front and center in the story. Wahlberg has, over the years, proven to be a solid actor. However, I think his performance is too understated and standard (for a fighter's story) to really stand out, especially against the flamboyant Christian Bale (Public Enemies).

Bale pulls out all the stops to play Dicky. He even lost tremendous amount of weight and shaved his hair, and he studied the mannerisms of the real Dicky. The effort pays off. Bale is completely immersed in his role, which is unlike his past works (ironically, Bale tends to play the stoic, quiet characters such as John Connor in Terminator Salvation). At times, though, perhaps it's because the character is so unlike Bale himself that I can feel him acting.

Amy Adams (Leap Year) is excellent as Charlene. No more goody-two-shoes, she is sexy and gutsy as the barmaid who takes no crap from anyone. Melissa Leo (Frozen River), however, has the showier role as the boys' mother. She's brash, unapologetic, and deeply flawed. Her performance, at times, comes across as forced, but there are key scenes when she simply blows us away with raw power. Mickey O'Keefe gets to play himself in the film (although, of course, the real story happened almost thirty years ago); not much acting required here.

The screenplay by Scott Silver (8 Miles), Paul Tamsay (Walking Across Egypt) and Eric Johnson is a hodgepodge of personal triumphs with boxers (The Wrestler, Rocky), family struggles and redemption. Since it's based on a true story, there's certain authenticity and realism in the script. The dialogue is typical, though, and the plot is simple enough.

What is good about this is the dysfunctional relationships between Micky, Dicky and Alice. Dicky gets the best of the character arcs, and the movie could have been strong enough if it had been just about Dicky. It's such a strong character. In comparison, Micky comes across as weak and passive, even though he's the "fighter." There are moments when I can't help but yell, "Get a spine, bud, even your girlfriend has more courage than you." It's a bit difficult to root for the hero when everyone else has stronger convictions than he.

David O. Rusell (I Heart Huckabees) is back in the director's chair after six long years. He gives the film an appropriately gritty look and feel, and an urgency that fits the story. It's solid and good, but I'm not sure if it's Oscar-caliber.

The Fighter is a solid film in every sense of the word: solid acting, solid script, solid production. It just lacks a certain je ne sais quoi to lift it to a higher level, and I'm not convinced it's one of the best pictures of this year. But what do I know? I have no dog in this fight.

Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, Mickey O'Keefe, Jack McGee
Director: David O. Russell
Writer: Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson
Distributor: Paramount
MPAA Rating: R for language, drug content, violence and sexuality
Running Time: 115 minutes


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

Total – 7.4 out of 10