Cedar Rapids

© 2011 Ray Wong

Once in a while, a small Indie comedy is like a breath of fresh air that reminds us special effects don't have to be the reason to make a movie. The human condition is.

Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) has been an insurance agent in a small town for years, but he never pushes himself into a leadership role. In fact, he seems like a 14-year-old in a grown man's body, and is perfectly happy with his life. He is having an affair with his ex-grade school teacher Macy (Sigourney Weaver), but he believes he's going to marry her one day. When a star employee "accidentally" killed himself, Tim's boss (Stephen Root), sends Tim to the annual insurance conference in Cedar Rapids, Idaho. Tim's job is to win the fourth Two-Diamond Award for the company, or he may lose his job.

Once there, Tim is like a fish out of water. Or maybe a tiger who's just been let back into the wilds. He makes unlikely friends with steady, quiet Ronald (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), obnoxious brute Dean (John C. Reilly), and red-headed beauty Joan (Anne Heche). Uptight, frightened, and sheltered, Tim begins to loosen up when his new-found friends show him what the conference is all about: Having a good time.

But soon things get out of control, and Tim is at risk of losing everything he values. Worst of all, he may lose his chance to win the award. Or so he thinks. In reality, Tim is about to lose his integrity. Through his adventures and ordeals, Tim learns a valuable lesson.

Ed Helms (The Hangover) is coming into his own as a comedic lead. He is spot on as the sheltered, not-too-smart man-child. Helms underplays the role with restraint and control, but he's still funny. He plays the character with such heart that we feel like laughing with him, not at him. John C. Reilly (Cyrus) is a hoot as the crude and rude insurance salesman. But through his repulsiveness emerges a likable character with surprising depth.

Anne Heche (The Other Guys) is lively as flirtatious Joan. She plays the character as fun, smart, feisty but vulnerable. Good job. Isiah Whitlock Jr. (Main Street) has the difficult job of playing the straight guy in this ensemble piece, but he comes across as genuine and adorable.

Supporting cast includes Sigourney Weaver (Avatar) as the object of Tim's affection. She's a class act. Stephen Root (Red State) is effectively smarmy as Tim's boss, and Kurtwood Smith (Entry Level) is marvelous as the president of the association. Alia Shawkat (The Lie) is sweet as a hooker. Both Rob Corddry (Hot Tub Time Machine) and Mike O'Malley (Glee) have fun playing their minor roles as a thug and religious insurance guy respectively.

Writer Phil Johnston (Ghosts/Aliens) takes a low-key approach with this comedy. Don't get me wrong. The material can be raunchy, crude and outrageous, but the plot unfolds naturally in a relatively random way, as if we were actually eavesdropping on these characters. I can't say the characters are surprising -- I sort of guessed where Johnston was taking us with them -- but they are very interesting and entertaining, and they feel genuine. In fact, the plot is rather secondary; it's a simple coming-of-age plot. But the characters are what make this movie work. The dialogue and situations seem realistic, despite some of the more outrageous moments. It's humorous without forcing the comedy.

Director Miguel Arteta's (Youth in Revolt) style is also low key. The production isn't really handsome. In fact, it's rather grungy. Perhaps that's the idea: Cedar Rapids is not known for being a modern cosmopolitan. But the casting is great. The actors have great chemistry together and they seem to like each other genuinely. The movie has a down-to-earth, almost homely feel, reminding me of the nostalgic Adventureland. No, it's not a handsome production, but it's realistic.

Not knowing what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised by this small Indie film. It has great, interesting and likable characters, a simple and easy-to-follow plot, and themes that are relatable: friendship, life, integrity, and loyalty. I totally enjoyed it, even though I still don't have any interest in visiting Cedar Rapids any time soon.

Stars: Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Stephen Root, Kurtwood Smith, Alia Shawkat, Rob Corddry, Mike O'Malley, Sigourney Weaver
Director: Miguel Arteta
Writer: Phil Johnston
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
MPAA Rating: R for crude sexual content, language and drug use
Running Time: 87 minutes


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

Total – 7.9 out of 10


© 2011 Ray Wong

Based on Alan Glynn's novel, which is an updated version of Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon, Limitless is a glossy, high-concept thriller that examines the power of the mind and how little we're equipped psychologically to deal with such power.

Eddie (Bradley Cooper) is a struggling novelist who has sunk deep into depression. He hasn't written a word on his novel, and his girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) breaks up with him -- at least until he pulls himself together. By chance, Eddie bumps into his ex-brother-in-law Vernon (Johnny Whitworth). Eager to help, Vern tells Eddie about a special pill that can unlock the full power of one's brain. With nothing to lose, Eddie takes it and soon discovers a whole new world where he knows and understands everything. He has access to every piece of memory, however small and insignificant, and he can learn anything with lightning speed. The only problem? The effect of the pill only lasts a few hours, and then Eddie is back to being the schmuck that he is.

Hooked on the drug, Eddie would do anything for Vern. Unfortunately, the drug isn't exactly legal, and Vern is killed by someone who also wants to get their hands on the pills. But lucky for Eddie, he finds Vern's stash first. With ample supply, Eddie starts to take the pills regularly, sometimes multiple doses in a single day. He feels invincible and limitless. He finishes his novel in four days. Math becomes useful and soon he's one of the most successful day traders in New York. Eddie also realizes he has more important things to do than being a writer. He starts to explore his options.

Even though Eddie is super smart now, it doesn't mean he won't do anything stupid. He makes the mistake of borrowing money from a loan shark, Gennady (Andrew Howard), and then forgets to pay the thug back. When Gennady knows about the pill, he wants it, too. Eddie also realizes the drug has many side effects, including losing track of time and pieces of his memory. Without the drug, his body crashes and goes through withdrawal that can eventually kill him. The drug now becomes a liability. Eddie can't live, literally, without it, but his stash is dwindling quickly. What is he going to do?

Bradley Cooper (A-Team) has quickly emerged as the new leading man in the past few years. The pretty-boy actor has the advantage because he can also act. Cooper is in great form, here, and he carries the movie smartly: he's in almost every scene. He's believable as the downtrodden writer, and he's believable as the man on top of the world.

Robert De Niro (Little Fockers) is at his best when he plays hard, ruthless men. His character, a financial tycoon, is such a man and it fits him like a glove. He doesn't have a lot of screen time, but when he's on, he steals the show. De Niro and Cooper also play well together. I'd be interested to see them costarring again.

Abbie Cornish (Bright Star) has a minor role as Eddie's girlfriend, but she makes it work despite the limitation of the script (more on that later). Andrew Howard (Pig) has a great time playing the bad guy. Granted, his portrayal is rather cliched, but it's a fun, over-the-top character nonetheless. Anna Friel (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger) is good in her minor role as Eddie's ex-wife, who holds an important piece of information. Johnny Whitworth (Locked In) shines brief and bright as Eddie's drug-dealing ex-BIL.

Written by Leslie Dixon (The Heartbreak Kid), the screenplay is taut, tight, and well constructed. It has all the sizzle and trimmings of a suspense-thriller. Normally I don't like prologues that include scenes from later in the film (basically the first half of the movie is all flashback, then), but in this case, it works. The pacing is excellent, and the plot is interesting.

That said, the plot does have plenty of holes, and some scenes are rather ridiculous and contrived. For example, there's a subplot involving Lindy, and how Eddie is putting her in danger. That doesn't really work. I wonder why no one, during production, ever told them, "This scene is ridiculous and dumb." There are also many cliched moments that may have worked in this movie simply because it's a thriller. Let's face it, it's a genre that tolerates cliches.

Neil Burger's (The Illusionist) direction is crisp and excellent. Burger is a visual artist, and that talent is front and center in this production. The movie is visually stunning and arresting. Burger employs some eye-popping visual effects, including a wonderful camerawork of zipping through New York's streets, that would delight moviegoers. His style is slick, sophisticated, and relentless. High energy. And that style fits the storytelling perfectly.

Limitless is a handsome, glossy, visually pleasing production. It has an interesting story, and an interesting, if not entirely likable, protagonist. It has great tension, suspense, and thrills. The acting is good, as well. If only the writing is a bit tighter with its holes firmly plugged, the success of the movie could have been limitless.

Stars: Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Abbie Cornish, Andrew Howard, Anna Friel, Johnny Whitworth
Director: Neil Burger
Writers: Leslie Dixon (based on Alan Glynn's novel)
Distributor: Relativity
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material involving a drug, violence, disturbing images, sexuality and language
Running Time: 105 minutes


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

Total – 7.8 out of 10

Battle: Los Angeles

© 2011 Ray Wong

Being a Los Angeleno, I was excited and eager to see a apocalyptic war movie set in Los Angeles (enough of New York already!) But aliens? We already had Skyline, which wasn't that good, this past summer. Battle: Los Angeles takes a different approach, however.

Staff Sgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) just returned from a tour in Iraq, where his team had suffered a fatal attack. Not able to get over his guilt, he asks for and is granted a discharge. But the very next day, he's recalled for active duty. It seems like the entire military is being mobilized as a cluster of mysterious meteorites enter the Earth's atmosphere. It turns out these are no meteorites; they are actually alien spaceships staging a full-on invasion, targeting every major coastal cities in the world.

In LA, the military, stationed in Santa Monica FOB, is staging a counterattack. Nantz's team, led by 2nd Lt. William Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez), has the mission to search and rescue several civilians before the bomb drop in Santa Monica. The rescue mission turns deadly when they encounter hostile enemies. They also come in close contact with some of these alien creatures. Nantz, with the help of veterinarian Michele (Bridget Moynahan), tries to figure out how to kill the seemingly indestructible aliens.

Soon their team is joined by a rouge group of soldiers including communication officer Elena Guerrero (Michelle Rodriguez). Nantz realizes the alien drones are controlled by a central communication ship, and if they can take it out, the world's military may have a chance. So the rescue turns into a suicide mission of search and destroy, before the aliens take over Los Angeles and, perhaps, the world.

Aaron Eckhart (Rabbit Hole) is a decent actor if given the right material. Unfortunately, in action hero mode, he doesn't have anything to do but act macho. In fact, much of the ensemble cast suffers the same fate, and it's a large cast. Michelle Rodriguez (Avatar) is playing more or less the same part she's been playing. No surprise there. At least Ramon Rodriguez (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) has a more rounded character who is thrust into the leadership role before he's fully ready; he shows real fear and uncertainty while trying to become the leader he is.

Bridget Moynahan (I, Robot) has nothing to do. Her only real line is "I'm a veterinarian." There's a missed opportunity there to develop her character's relationship with Eckhart's. Cory Hardrict (He's Just Not That Into You) has a good scene with Eckhart but that's about it. Singer Ne-Yo (Stomp the Yard) is amiable as the bookish Cpl. Harris. James Hiroyuki Liao (Management) fills the ethnic quota as the only Asian in the cast. Noel Fisher (Red) is typed as the doomed private. Gino Anthony Pesi (Vampire Diaries) plays one of the most lovable characters and his onscreen chemistry with Ne-Yo is excellent.

Written by Christopher Bertolini (The General's Daugther), the story takes an interesting approach by keeping the focus tight around one military team. Much of the drama and action are told from the team's point of view. The problem is, Bertolini's screenplay is filled with cliches and stereotypes. Everything you have seen from war movies, it's there, from the characters to the situations and dialogue. I give Bertolini's kudos for trying to tell a story from that angle: It's part Hurt Locker, part War of the Worlds, and part Independence Day. But he falls way short of presenting us with a truly human story. What transpires is a tired, cliched recruitment film for the Marines.

There is hardly any character development. What little is done with these characters are one-dimensional cutouts. We're supposed to know and get these characters based on a few lines of dialogue, and that's precisely the problem. Bertolini is so keen on describing the horror and intensity of war that he forgets that we don't really care unless we care about the characters. The situations are contrived and the plot is trite. Most of the time, we don't know what is happening to who, and it's even harder for us to care. When he tries to be heart-felt, it comes across as cheesy and sappy -- it may have worked for Independence Day, but not here.

Jonathan Liebesman's (The Killing Room) direction is intense and fast-paced. The scenes are often full of tension, but once again, unless we care about the characters, it doesn't mean anything. The production is good and the special effects are excellent, giving us a realistic look at LA in mayhem. Often I feel like I'm seeing real war footage. Who doesn't want to see their hometown destroyed?

The character design of the aliens, however, is pitiful. With all the money they've spent on the production, at least come up with something more original and frightening. The action, while intense, is relentless. After about 40 minutes of nonstop action, it becomes tedious. It's exactly like playing a video game, and playing it for too long. I feel numb. Action scenes after action scenes, and I fail to care and just wish for the movie to be over. The shaky-cam may have worked for the action sequences, but its pervasive use during the quiet scenes is nauseating and makes me wonder if Liebesman understands the concept of "enough is enough."

The ending is predictable. Whether it's a tribute to Independence Day or not, it's laughable and corny. If it's supposed to be a recruitment film, I think the military could be proud of it -- certainly it will turn a few heads of the uneducated, macho men-boys with too much testosterone to spare. If nothing else, the video game will be a big hit for the 14-25 year-old males.

Needless to say, Battle: Los Angeles is a huge disappointment for me. I was hoping for something grand, epic and incredibly human. After all, this is about mankind being attacked and destroyed by alien invaders. Instead, what we get is a prolonged video game with stock characters and minimal drama. It really doesn't matter what they're fighting: it could be aliens, Iraqis, or Godzilla. I just don't care. I feel cheated. It's one battle lost.

Stars: Aaron Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez, Ramon Rodriguez, Bridget Moynahan, Cory Hardrict, Gino Anthony Pesi, Ne-Yo
Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Writer: Christopher Bertolini
Distributor: Columbia
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sustained and intense sequences of war violence and destruction, language
Running Time: 116 minutes


Script – 4
Performance – 6
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 8
Music/Sound– 6
Editing – 8
Production – 9

Total – 5.9 out of 10

The Adjustment Bureau

© 2011 Ray Wong

Part science fiction, part fantasy, and part spiritual-philosophical meditation, The Adjustment Bureau is actually a romance at the core.

New York Congressman David Norris (Matt Damon) is a promising politician about to become the youngest senator to be elected, but college misdemeanor blindsides his campaign. On the eve of his defeat, he meets free-spirited dancer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), and he's smitten. He's also inspired to give one of his best speeches that promptly restores his popularity.

Little does he know there are a bunch of hat- and suit-wearing men running around him making sure certain things happen, including his chance meeting with Elise. The problem is, David is not to see Elise again, and these men make sure that he doesn't. Unfortunately for them, a mishap leads to another chance meeting between Elise and David. As David's determined to pursue Elise, the dark-suited men show up again, led by Agent Richardson (John Slattery) who reveal themselves as the Adjustment Bureau. They are there to make sure certain "paths" are followed according to the plans designed by "The Chairman." They convince David that Elise is not part of his path, and he must never see her again.

Three years later, David is once again campaigning for the senate seat and he's leading by 16 points. Everything looks great for him until he sees Elise again. He believes it's his fate to end up with her. And what do you know, Richardson and his men show up again and threaten David: if he continues to see Elise, it would ruin their respective future. David must make a choice to do the right thing.

Matt Damon (True Grit) is one of the most sought-after actors today, and I'm somewhat worried that he's overexposing himself. Fortunately, Damon has the good sense of taking on very different roles, whether it's LaBoeuf in True Grit or Mark Whitacre in The Informant! However, I feel that as David Norris, he's playing a similar, love-sick character as George Lonegan in Hereafter; and both films have a supernatural/spiritual undertone. Damon's performance is retrained but proactive. However, I can't say it's one of his strongest.

Emily Blunt (The Young Victoria) is better when she's playing quirky, slightly bitchy characters as she did in The Devil Wears Prada. As Elise, she underplays the role and thus comes across as a bit passive. Granted, her character still shows the same quirky, spunky quality. It's just that while the story rests more heavily on Damon's character, Blunt doesn't have much to work with.

The supporting cast has a much funner time. Terrence Stamp (Valkyrie) is wonderfully menacing as Agent Thompson. He gives the movie a much-needed jolt of energy and urgency. Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker) is also excellent as Agent Harry Mitchell, who has a soft spot for David's plight. John Stattery (Iron Man 2) is dutifully droll as Agent Richardson, and Michael Kelly (Did You Hear About the Morgans) is solid as David's best friend and campaign manager.

Written and directed by George Nolfi (The Bourne Ultimatum), the screenplay is based on Philip K. Dick's short story. Now, Dick is well-known for his futuristic, thought-provoking short stories such as Minority Report and Blade Runner. With The Adjustment Bureau, Dick (and Nolfi) examines the notion of fate and free will. The problem with this screenplay, however, is that it meanders. It focuses on David Norris and fails to develop Elise's character fully, so she comes across as more of a concept than a real person. Also, the premise has an uncomfortable religious tone, even though they make sure there is no mention of any particular religion. Still, it's a far-fetched concept that needs to be handled with care.

Unfortunately, I feel that Nolfi misses the boat here. He is no stranger to character-driven, high concept thrillers. But The Adjustment Bureau falls short as a thriller -- there's not enough thrill (even though there are quite a number of chases and one violent car crash). The story meanders when it comes to David's on and off again relationship with Elise. Granted, Damon and Blunt have good chemistry, but their relationship is so thinly developed that I'm not convinced by David's conviction, especially given what he knows. And that's another problem, too. I can't wrap my mind around all the plot holes and illogical twists. For example, after they reveal themselves to David, why don't they just erase Elise from his memory, if they have such abilities? Some of the twists are contrived and predictable.

Nolfi's debut effort of directing is generally smooth and workmanlike. The production is handsome and the location shots are great. He proves that he can be as good a director as he is a writer. However, I think directing has distracted him from the writing, which seems to be the weakest aspect of the movie.

Don't get me wrong. I adore the premise and I think the notion of fate vs. free will is, and always will be, a great concept to explore. I'm just not really buying the concept of a bunch of men running around meddling with fate. It's a bit far-fetched for me and Nolfi's interpretation doesn't engage me enough to change my mind. I may have to see this again to see if I would adjust my opinion.

Stars: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Terrence Stamp, Anthony Mackie, Michael Kelly, John Slattery
Director: George Nolfi
Writers: George Nolfi (based on short story by Philip K. Dick)
Distributor: Universal
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexuality and a violent image
Running Time: 105 minutes


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

Total – 7.2 out of 10