© 2011 Ray Wong

Prom, about high school seniors whose world seems to revolve around that one last dance, seems so sweet and old-fashioned that I had to look at its release date again to make sure it was, in fact, made today, and not 1982.

The story follows a group of teenagers as they get ready for their senior prom. Nova (Aimee Teegarden) is the class president who needs everything perfect. She has everything figured out, except she doesn't have a date. Varsity star Tyler (DeVaugh Nixon) is two-timing with sweet Simone (Danielle Campbell) behind his girlfriend Jordan's (Kylie Bunbury) back. Mei (Yin Chang) is torn between her long-time boyfriend Justin (Jared Kusnitz) and going to Parsons in New York. Meanwhile, Llyod (Nicholas Braun) has problems finding a prom date.

After the barn in which the decorations are stored is burned down, perfectionist Nova is forced to work with school rebel Jesse (Thomas McDonell) to get the prom ready in three weeks. Jordan, after realizing she's been cheated on, breaks up with Tyler, who immediately goes after Simone, who is wary of Tyler's philandering and is interested in her lab partner Lucas (Nolan Sotillo). Mei can't bring herself to telling Justin about her decision, and her secret is tearing her and Justin apart. And Llyod still has no luck finding a prom date.

Does it sound convoluted? Don't worry, the plot really is rather easy to follow in Katie Wech's (Dead Zone) script. Wech is an inexperienced TV scribe and it shows in her first movie screenplay. It has the feel of an overly long After School Special, with its stock characters and cliched plot. The perfect class president and the bad boy? We all know where that is going. The smart Asian girl and her equally smart boyfriend? Yeah, we know how that's going to play out. The love rectangle? Been there, done that. The characters are from a cookie-cutter, and they lack genuine depth and development.

The screenplay is filled with stereotypes, as if Wech had a check list of characters, relationships and circumstances. The dialogue is cliched, too, everything from "Get in my office. Now!" to "You'll do what's right for her if you love her." There's nothing unpredictable about the story. Everything works according to plan. We know from the first five minutes how everything is going to turn out at the end. There's no suspense or intrigue. It's as warm as a thawed fish.

That said, what saves this movie from utter disaster is the genuine emotions, as displayed adequately by the young actors. I wouldn't say they're brilliant, but they do their job. Aimee Teegarden (Scream 4) is perfectly cast as the pretty but "too smart for anyone" class president. Thomas McDonell (Twelve) effectively channels young Johnny Depp as the bad boy/love interest. They're well cast because they fit those stereotypes precisely. Can't we have a class president who is not pretty? Or the bad boy who looks like Zach Galifianakis? Fat chance. Why ruin a perfect teenage fantasy?

DeVaughn Nixon (Monster Heroes) is good as the cocky, popular jock but we never really get to know his character enough. He's the caricature. Danielle Campbell (The Poker House) is cute and sweet as Simone, the object of two guys' affection, but she's too passive and calm to make any strong impression. Yin Chang (Paper Girl) does a good job with her character, and Jared Kusnitz (Community) plays well as her frustrated beau. Nolan Sotillo (Madison High) and Cameron Monaghan (Shameless) look like best friends as Lucas and Corey respectively. And Nicholas Braun (Red State) offers some needed comic relief as the clueless Lloyd.

Director Joe Nussbaum (Sydney White) tries his best with the tepid, cliched material and a cast of young TV actors. The production has that TV movie of the week quality to it, but at least it's well paced. He succeeds in not confusing us with the multiple characters and story threads. Still, there's nothing unique or great about this, and the direction is bogged down by the old-fashioned story (as compared to the more contemporary high school romp, Easy A) and stereotypes.

I'll give the movie a C+ for its warm and fuzzy feeling, but a D for the cliched plot and characters. Now, with my final grade, we can all go to the prom.

Stars: Aimee Teegarden, Thomas McDonell, DeVaughn Nixon, Danielle Campbell, Yin Chang, Jared Kusnitz, Nolan Sotillo, Cameron Monaghan, Nicholas Braun
Director: Joe Nussbaum
Writer: Katie Wech
Distributor: Walt Disney
MPAA Rating: PG for mild language and a brief fight
Running Time: 103 minutes


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

Total – 5.6 out of 10

Water for Elephants

© 2011 Ray Wong

Based on Sara Gruen's best-selling novel, Water for Elephants is an old-fashioned story set during the Great Depression. It's marketed as an epic romance, but in reality it is a coming of age story about a young man and his love for the circus.

Jacob (Hal Holbrook) wanders from the old folks' home and ends up the circus that has just given its last performance in town. Jacob goes on to tell them a story when he briefly worked for the Benzini Brothers Circus which, we're told, did not see the end of 1931. As a young man, Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is once a promising veterinarian student at Cornell until his parents die in an accident, leaving Jacob penniless. Looking for a job during the Great Depression is not an easy thing, but Jacob lucks out when he gets on the Benzini Brothers' train.

The ringmaster and owner, August (Christoph Waltz), is a charismatic but brutal businessman. He almost throws Jacob, a trespasser, off the train until he learns that Jacob is a vet. He needs Jacob just as much as Jacob needs him. August's beautiful wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), is also the star performer. But when Jacob, out of mercy, euthanizes the star-attraction horse, August succumbs to an uncontrollable rage as his debts continue to pile up and he's on the verge of bankruptcy without a star act.

Luckily, a miracle happens and August is able to acquire a 15-year-old elephant named Rosie. Desperate for Rosie to perform, August is cruel to the elephant and that puts a rift between him and the kind-hearted Marlena. Meanwhile, Jacob takes care of Rosie and develops a crush on Marlena. When Jacob realizes Rosie responds to Polish, August's mood changes. The circus is saved, and Jacob is welcome into the inner circle. All goes well until August begins to suspect something is going on between Jacob and Marlena.

As young Jacob, Robert Pattinson (The Eclipse) is handsome and mild-mannered enough to secure his matinee idol status. However, his character is rather passive, and Pattinson underplays the role. What comes across is a lackluster performance and a character who more often only reacts. Reese Witherspoon (How Do You Know) is miscast as Marlena. Her slight, contemporary looks are a distraction, and her performance lacks the authenticity to pull of the larger-than-life character. Furthermore, she and Pattinson lack chemistry and heat together, especially with their age difference. Their onscreen courtship is unconvincing.

Christoph Waltz (Green Hornet) is perfectly cast -- if not too well cast -- as August. I'm afraid Mr. Waltz is now officially typecast. But he simply does these over the top bad guys so well. In fact, his character is so colorful and bigger than life that we kind of wish August is the hero, and not the passive Jacob.

The large supporting cast includes Paul Schneider (Bright Star) as, amiably, the modern-day circus owner. Jim Norton (The Eclipse) is wonderfully warm as Camel, the man who gave Jacob a chance. Mark Povinelli (Broadwalk Empire) is affecting as Jacob's reluctant bunkmate. Hal Holbrook (Into the Wild) steals the show as old Jacob. But who really steals the show is Tai, the beautiful elephant that plays Rosie. He's the best thing of the entire movie.

Adapted by Richard LaGravenese (P.S. I Love You), the script has all the epic elements and sweeping historical drama, but it can't overcome the innate cliches and melodrama of the source material. The subject matter is fascinating, and in fact the screenplay shines the brightest when it focuses on the circus itself. However, when it shifts to the romance between Jacob and Marlena, the plot falters and sinks into sappy melodrama. The sole villain, August, is overwritten and cliched (Christoph Waltz is able to save the day with his stella performance). The plot is contrived (and filled with coincidences whose explanations are either coyly done or ignored). The dialogue is cheesy at times. Worst of all, the relationship between Marlena and Jacob is boring and almost an after thought.

The story comes to life when LaGravenese focuses on the hardship and absurdity of circus life, but he doesn't do enough. There's a wealth of characters and situations to explore, but he focuses on the August-Marlena-Jacob triangle instead. The climax feels particularly rushed and anticlimactic.

Francis Lawrence's (I Am Legend) direction is rather good, however. The cinematography is lush and rich. The sceneries beautiful and historically appropriate. The costumes are great, and the production is gorgeous. It is a beautiful film. But even Lawrence's direction can't save the slogging, predictable plot, which isn't all that bad if not for the bland leading man and a miscast heroine.

That's just too bad. I was expecting to see a rich, epic romantic drama. Instead, I get a beautifully shot and produced shell of a cliched melodrama. No water for this elephant.

Stars: Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, Paul Schneider, Jim Norton, Hal Holbrook, Mark Povinelli
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writers: Richard LaGravenese (based on Sara Gruen's novel)
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for drug and alcohol use, sexuality, violence and language
Running Time: 122 minutes


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

Total – 7.1 out of 10

Win Win

© 2011 Ray Wong

As an actor, Thomas McCarthy is limited with supporting roles, but as a writer-director, he's been giving us critically acclaimed, poignant, and personal stories. Win Win is no exception.

Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a small town geriatric lawyer specializing and a high school wrestling coach. He's happily married with Jackie (Amy Ryan) with two little girls. But he's struggling to make ends meet, as his business has been slow. When he comes across an elderly client, Leo (Burt Young), who is being forced into a home for dementia (because they can't locate his only daughter), Mike decides to become Leo's guardian. Not out of goodwill, but because he gets $1500 a month. Without telling his wife or the court, he puts Leo in a home anyway and pockets the $1500 for himself.

Everything seems to work out just fine until Leo's grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up. It seems that Kyle has left home. And that means they now know where Leo's druggie daughter is. Mike reluctantly keeps Kyle around until he finds a way to send Kyle home. But Kyle grows on the Flahertys. Mike is amazed when he finds out Kyle is a superb wrestler. With Kyle on the team, they may actually have a chance to advance to the state championship.

But that puts Mike in a tough quandary: Should he send Kyle back to his mother so he doesn't get caught with his little "scam," or should he do the right thing and protect Kyle? That question is made even more urgent when Kyle's mother (Melanie Lynskey) arrives in town to claim custody for both her father and son.

Paul Giamatti (The Last Station) is Hollywood's go-to man to play superbly ordinary men. He's the least likely "movie stars" but because of his tremendous talent and unique type, he's one of the most popular and busiest working actors. Here, Giamatti gives us a wonderful, nuanced, conflicted and flawed character, who is driven by his love for his family and friends and his pride as a failing lawyer, husband and father.

Amy Ryan (Jack Goes Boating) reunites with Giamatti in this movie, playing his strong, opinionated, but loving and supportive wife. Ryan is a perfect counterpart to Giamatti, and their superb acting brings the movie to a high level. Newcomer Alex Shaffer no doubt got the part for his real-life wrestling capabilities, but his acting isn't sloppy either. He's given a heartstring-tugging performance as Kyle. He's someone to watch.

The supporting cast offers some comic relief. Bobby Cannavale (The Other Guys) is hilarious as Mike's wacky best friend. Jeffrey Tambor (Tangled) is adorable as Mike's grumpy assistant coach. Burt Young (The Hideout) is effective as Kyle's curmudgeon of a grandfather. And Melanie Lynskey (The Informant!) is heartbreakingly conniving and vulnerable as Kyle's messed-up, drug addict of a mother.

Thomas McCarthy (The Visitor) is so good at writing "original" people in unusual circumstances. His story is always down to earth and relatable, with memorable but flawed characters. Granted, there are some contrived moments and plotting: I mean, it's quite a coincidence that Mike coaches wrestling and a gifted wrestler just happens to show up, literally, at their doorsteps. Part of the joy of watching a McCarthy's movie is the dialogue and interactions between the characters. They feel so real and unpretentious. We're like flies on the wall watching these people living their ordinary lives. And yet McCarthy doesn't meander, either; there is a plot. And the plot is driven by complex emotions and conflicts, often in the context of "what's right or wrong?"

There's a moral dilemma everywhere you turn, and you realize these characters are good people, but they have their own problems and issues, just like you and me. They make mistakes. They do bad things. They hurt the people they love. But we like them anyway because they're fundamentally good people, and eventually, they know how to do the right thing.

I think that's what's so extraordinary about McCarthy's writing and direction. He's a no-thrill writer and director. No special effects. No big car chases or explosions. No life and death situations. And yet his characters and situations are interesting and relatable. It makes you feel good inside even though the characters may not be perfect, or there is not always a happy ending. Movies like his, independent or not, are win-win for all of us.

Stars: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Burt Young, Melanie Lynskey, Alex Shaffer
Director: Thomas McCarthy
Writers: Thomas McCarthy, Joel Tiboni
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
MPAA Rating: R for language, alcohol and drugs, violence
Running Time: 106 minutes


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

Total – 7.8 out of 10


© 2011 Ray Wong

Director Joe Wright is known for his gripping period and contemporary dramas, so a thriller about a teenage assassin seems like such a great departure for him. However, Wright's signature visual style is evident in every frame.

Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is a 16-year-old girl who's been living in the cold country with her father Erik (Eric Bana) since she was 2. He's trained her to survive the harshest conditions, to hunt and protect herself, and knowledge taken from books. She's trained all her young life for one purpose only: to kill Marissa (Cate Blanchett), the woman who was responsible for the death of Hanna's mother (Vicky Krieps). When Hanna is ready, Erik orchestrates for her to be found by Marissa.

But Marissa is no fool. She realizes Hanna's deadly potentials, and when she's proven right, she's hot on Hanna's trail to kill her. Meanwhile, Hanna thinks she's successfully completed her mission and is on her way to reunite with her father in Berlin. Everywhere she goes, however, and unbeknownst to her, she's caused innocent people to be killed, and she's putting herself and her father in mortal danger.

When she finally arrives in Berlin, she realizes there is more that meets the eyes, and not everyone has her best interest in mind. She also discovers a dark secret with regard to her past and who she really is. Her whole life has been a lie, and Marissa is only one of her enemies, the worst of which is Hanna herself.

Saoirse Ronan (The Lovely Bones) is intense and vulnerable as the title character. Even though she plays someone who has tremendous skills and wouldn't blink to kill, she is still a teenage girl. Ronan shows a good range, from cold and calculated to curious and impressionable. She carries most of the film on her small shoulders and does a great job.

Eric Bana (The Time Traveler's Wife) is perfect as Hanna's ex-CIA-agent father. He's cool, composed, fit, but shows genuinely loving feelings toward Hanna. Now, we're not completely sure of his motive, and that makes his character a complicated one. But that's a good thing. Cate Blanchett (Robin Hood) is chillingly fantastic as the cold-blooded Marissa. She's likely one of the most impressive villains in recent thrillers, and yet she shows a moment of vulnerability in a scene where she's about to murder an elderly woman. That kind of juxtaposition is what makes her character even more fascinating.

Tom Hollander (The Soloist) plays a flamboyant killer with relish. It's nice to see him out of his period clothes to play a contemporary bad guy (although, he still seems to be stuck playing a bad guy most of the time). John MacMillan (Heartless) doesn't have much to do as Marissa's associate who questions her actions. Olivia Williams (The Ghostwriter) is great as the free-spirited mother who unfortunately gets entangled with Hanna.

Written by Seth Lochead and David Farr (MI-5), the screenplay is unabashedly thrilling and brutal. It opens with Batman Begins-esque training scenes, suffused with intrigue and mystery. The characters, especially Hanna, are well drawn, even though their backgrounds are not always known. However, there are a few clunky flashbacks to help flesh out the backstories. There are also certain inconsistency and plot holes that mars the story for me. For example, it's inconceivable that Erik would train Hanna all her life just to leave her to the wolves to do a dirty job, without teaching her about human behaviors and relations. It seems rather short-sighted. Also, certain aspects of the storytelling borders on absurd and outrageous: Erik treks all over Antarctica with only a business suit on? What is that about?

That said, the plot has a good pace, and is rather taut and intense. After a while, it does feel a bit derivative as Hanna starts to question who she really is. We've seen that quite a bit in thrillers about assassins and secret agents: Salt and Bourne Identity to name a few. Hanna's story is a bit far-fetched and requires a good dosage of suspension of disbelief.

The strength of the movie belongs to the solid performances of the actors and Joe Wright's (The Soloist) direction. Mr. Wright is one of the most lauded visual stylists in Hollywood these days. The camerawork is arresting: he knows how to tell a story just by using the cameras and lighting. The location shots add to the authenticity of the film. The grungy, techno-inspired soundtrack gives the film an industrial feel. The production is handsome and well put together.

Hanna is a good film with solid performances and direction, and a script that is tight and interesting. However, while I enjoy it, I can't say it's one of Joe Wright's best works. There's a strange detachment to it that makes it harder for me to feel for any of these characters. I think Hanna herself would agree.

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett, Tom Hollander, John MacMillan, Vicky Krieps, Olivia Williams
Director: Joe Wright
Writers: Seth Lockhead, David Farr
Distributor: Focus
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, sexual material and language
Running Time: 111 minutes


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

Total – 7.6 out of 10

Source Code

© 2011 Ray Wong

In many ways, science fiction-thriller Source Code can be described as Quantum Leap meets Groundhog Day meets Agatha Christie mystery. What surprises me is its strong emotional core.

Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up and discovers he's on a commuter train heading for Chicago. The last thing he remembers is that he was on a combat mission in Afghanistan. More confusing to him is that he's in the body of a school teacher named Sean Frentress, and he's traveling with a fellow teacher Christina (Michelle Monaghan). Just when Stevens tries to figure out what is going on, there's an explosion on the train and instantly kills him…

Or so he thought. Instead, he finds himself trapped in a capsule, still in his military uniforms. Through the video communication, he learns from military officer Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) that he's part of mission named the Source Code. That morning, a terrorist attack on a Chicago-bound train killed all the passengers onboard, including Sean and Christina. Through the quantum physics work of Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), Stevens' mind is able to take over Sean's residual brain signature and relive the last eight minutes of his life. Stevens' mission is to find the bomber, so they can avert another attack that may destroy Chicago and kill over two million people.

What Stevens discovers, however, is that every time he returns to that eight minutes of Sean's life, something is different. He's able to change the events and the outcomes. He realizes he has a chance to save Christina's life. However, Dr. Rutledge tells him it's useless, since what Stevens' experiences are just the alternate realities made possible by the Source Code, and those will vanish when those eight minutes end. There's no way to save Christina because she's already dead. However, Stevens thinks they're wrong, and there's no reason why he can't complete his mission and save everyone at the same time.

Jake Gyllenhaal (Love and Other Drugs) is excellent in the role of the confused soldier who doesn't even know why he's on this particular mission or what he's supposed to do. Gyllenhaal manages to show a good range of emotions, from confused, helpless and frustrated to determined, considerate and humorous. His rounded performance helps bring the emotional core to the front.

It's also good to see two strong female roles in a male-dominated thriller. Michelle Monaghan (Due Date) plays the beautiful and kind would-be love interest. Granted, her role is rather minor and supportive -- she doesn't have much to do with the plot, except to serve as Captain Stevens' motivation. But she does it so well and we understand why Stevens has such an urge to save Christina's life. Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air) has a more substantial role as Goodwin. While we don't know much about the character, Farmiga is able to bring depth to the role, especially through her interaction with Gyllenhaal. Interestingly, she and Gyllenhaal never have any actual scenes together.

Jeffrey Wright (Quantum of Solace) plays the scientist with a mix of intelligence, authority and indifference. He's not the bad guy, per se, but he's also not warm and fuzzy. He's all business and rather cold toward Stevens. Michael Arden (Bride Wars), despite his baby face, plays the villain with calculated pathos and menace. He's able to give a two-dimensional, underdeveloped villain some depth. Cas Anvar (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) is interesting while playing a Middle-Eastern suspect.

Written by Ben Ripley (The Watch), the screenplay is a mix of mystery, suspense, thriller and high-concept science fiction. He's able to borrow different ideas and mix them up and make them his own. The premise sounds like an updated version of Quantum Leap, where the main character assumes the identity of his subject. But Ripley puts a twist to it, adding the Groundhog Day ingredients. In this version, the hero can only relive the last eight minutes of his subject's life, and he can't really change the outcome, since he is, in essence, time-traveling. So it's really just information gathering, but that doesn't stop the hero for trying to do the right thing.

While the mystery is somewhat elementary (I figured out "whodunit" within the first few scenes), the core of the story isn't the mystery of the terrorist attack, but what the hero does with that mystery and information. There's a surprisingly strong emotional aspect of the story that is rare in the genre. There are also multiple threads of suspense: Not only does Captain Stevens need to find the bomber, he also needs to find out what happened to him, and why he was chosen for this mission (without his consent, literally). Mr. Ripley is able to reveal the secrets slowly with a tight plot. While the revelations are not specially shocking, it packs a strong emotional punch. We can't help but root for the hero and believes that he's right, and everyone else is wrong.

Of course, this story has its share of cliches that are typical of the genre: the misdirection, the "multiple suspects" trope, the love connection, the unsympathetic authority, the unlikely alliance, and a resilient hero. But the filmmakers have done a great job finding the right balance and making something potentially trite and contrived fresh again. However, the ending is somewhat convoluted, one of those science-fiction mumble-jumble that requires significant suspension of disbelief. Needless to day, the ending also sets up potential sequels and future TV series. Nothing wrong with that, just rather heavy-handed.

Duncan Jones' (Moon) direction is taut and suspenseful. The cinematography is beautiful and the action sequences are well choreographed. The skillful direction adds to the production and keep everything tight and clipping along at a great pace. Not too rushed or slow.

After being disappointed by the genre lately, I'm pleasantly surprised by Source Code. Granted, I still don't know what the title means; it is a vague computer term that has not much to do with the premise. But as an action-thriller, I find it highly enjoyable, relatively free of plot holes, with a strong emotional core that is not too sappy. It's a good source for a satisfying evening at the theater.

Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright, Michael Arden, Cas Anvar
Director: Duncan Jones
Writer: Ben Ripley
Distributor: Summit
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence including disturbing images, and for language.
Running Time: 93 minutes


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

Total – 7.8 out of 10