Cars 2

© 2011 Ray Wong

For more than a decade, Pixar has been enthralling critics and audiences alike. How could they ever do wrong? Well, Cars 2 may just be the answer. Let's hope it's not the beginning of the end.

Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and the residents of Radiator Springs quietly lead their provincial lives until their best friend, superstar Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), returns. But before McQueen can settle in and have some private time with girlfriend Sally (Bonnie Hunt), he's invited to the World Grand Prix by Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard). Reluctantly, McQueen takes Mater with him, but he reminds Mater to change the way he acts on the world stage.

Well, Mater being Mater, he acts the same way he does, and the world sees him as just an idiot who embarrasses McQueen everywhere he goes. Little does he know, though, he's soon involved in an international espionage. Turns out MI6 agents Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) are tracking a mysterious group of terrorists trying to sabotage the race. They mistaken Mater for an American spy.

When Mater causes McQueen to lose his first race, Mater leaves to return to Radiator Springs, but instead McMissile and Shiftwell take him along to track down the terrorists. They realize the terrorists are using a camera gun to blow up race cars in order to sabotage Sir Axelrod and his alternative fuel. When McMissile and Shiftwell are disabled, Mater has to rise to the occasion to help stop the terrorists from destroying the race and killing his best friend McQueen.

Larry the Cable Guy (Witless Protection) returns as the voice of lovable Mater. Larry is fine as a sidekick, and the character of Mater has some endearing qualities despite his irritating idiocy. Stupidity is funny up to a point, but when your main character is stupid, it gets old fast. Owen Wilson (Midnight in Paris) is more at ease this time as McQueen. He's smooth, confident and witty. Unfortunately, he stays in the backseat (pun intended) most of the time.

A slew of new characters are introduced in this sequel. Michael Caine (The Dark Knight) is smart and charming as Agent McMissile, which has some of the funnest scenes in the movie. Emily Mortimer (Shutter Island) is cool and fun as Agent Shiftwell. These two are definitely the most memorable characters. John Turturro (Transformers: Dark of the Moon) is effectively cocky as McQueen's chief rival Francesco Bernoulli. Eddie Izzard (Across the Universe) has a small but pivotal role as Sir Axelrod. And Vanessa Redgrave (Letters to Juliet) lends her sultry voice as the Queen of England.

Some of the cast of the original return in small, supporting role (since much of the story happens outside of Radiator Springs): Bonnie Hunt (Toy Story 3) as McQueen's understanding and perfect girlfriend Sally, Tony Shalhoub (How Do You Know?) as Luigi, and John Ratzenberger (Toy Story 3) as Mack.

Cars 2 is written and directed by John Lasseter (together with Brad Lewis, Ben Queen and Ben Fogelman), and you would think it would be very good. Well, it is very entertaining, for sure. There's never really a dull moment, and this should keep the little boys very happy. But compared to other Pixar films, this is seriously lacking in character development, story, and that je ne sais quoi in almost every Pixar movie including the original Cars. In fact, the original was considered one of the weakest films from Pixar and I was surprised to learn that they were making a sequel. At least the first one has a soul that is anchored in Radiator Springs (with a nice nostalgic theme) with a cast of wonderful characters, and Wilson did a good job playing the reluctant hero. This one? Not so much.

Mater is a funny sidekick, but as the hero, he's just not really that good. The plot is convoluted, what with the James Bond-esque plot and action sequences. When did this become Spy Kids for cars? Most of all, except for a few characters such as McMissile and Shiftwell, we don't care about any of them. There is a lot of noise, action, and explosions (especially for a family film -- in comparison, The Incredibles, Pixar's most action-packed feature before Cars 2, has far less violence). It's very busy, and sometimes you don't even know what's going on.

Lasseter has said that Cars was his favorite because of his love for cars, but it seems that his ego is really getting in the way. Cars 2 is bloated, convoluted, irrelevant without memorable characters and a heart and soul in the middle. Yes, it's entertaining, fast-paced, and the animation is, as usual, top-notch. But it lacks the signature elements of a Pixar production. Seriously, if you don't pay attention, you may actually think this is made by Dreamworks. Are Pixar trying to pander to the Shrek audiences? They really don't need to. Let's hope there is no Cars 3 in the works.

Stars: Larry the Cable Guy, Owen Wilson, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Eddie Izzard, John Turturro, Bonnie Hunt
Directors: John Lasseter, Brad Lewis
Writers: Ben Queen, John Lasseter, Ben Fogelman
Distributor: Pixar/Walt Disney
MPAA Rating: G for action and cartoon violence
Running Time: 112 minutes


Script – 6
Performance – 7
Direction – 7
Animation – 9
Music/Sound– 7
Editing – 8
Production – 9

Total – 7.0 out of 10


© 2011 Ray Wong

It's not the first time Ewan McGregor got involved with a gay story, but this time, in Beginners, he plays a straight man. What's surprising is that his gay father is played by the usually straight-acting Christopher Plummer, who steals the movie in every scene he's in.

Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is a struggling graphics artist whose father Hal (Christopher Plummer) just passed away. You see, Oliver wasn't particularly close to his father until after his mother (Mary Page Keller) had died, and Hal came out of the closet, at age 74, as a gay man. Hal's been gay all his life, and while he loves Georgia, his marriage is a sham. Oliver always knows that his parents are insanely unhappy with each other but he has no idea why until Hal decides he wants to live the gay lifestyle, not wanting to be just "theoretically gay."

While struggling with his stalling career and depression due to his father's passing, Oliver meets a free-spirited actress named Anna (Melanie Laurent). Despite their circumstances, Oliver is drawn to Melanie. He's had several failed relationships -- he has always been the one who pushed people away -- and it seems like Melanie is in the same boat. The odds are against them, but somehow they manage to stay together.

Ewan McGregor (I Love You Phillip Morris) has been struggling to find a niche for himself lately. After soaring a few years ago with the Star Wars franchise, McGregor has been doing smaller movies and quieter roles, and those suit him just fine. However, as Oliver, McGregor gives a joyless performance in a joyless role. It's not easy to play an introverted, quiet, sensitive, passive and depressed man. It's not McGregor's fault: he does his best and his performance is nuanced and understated, but perhaps too understated for a role that is already passive.

Christopher Plummer (The Last Station), on the other hand, gets to play the flamboyant, much more assertive and outspoken gay father. The character itself is already larger-than-life and fascinating (can you imagine someone suppressing his sexuality for 74 years and then letting it all out to live a full gay life?) and Plummer plays the role with humility, depth, sensibility, and humor. His range is amazing. I hope they won't forget this performance come Oscars time.

French actress Melanie Laurent (The Round Up) is delicate, beautiful and sweet. She has no dialogue in her first scenes with McGregor, and she delivers totally from her body language, eyes and facial expressions. She has good chemistry with McGegor, too, but their on-screen relationship is limited by the passiveness of the two characters, who despite liking each other a lot seems to have a lot of problem expressing themselves and staying together. Goran Visnjic (ER) surprises with his nuanced and humorous portrayal of Hal's much-younger boyfriend. He gives the relationship more depth and validation, and a nice juxtaposition next to Oliver and Anna's relationship. Mary Page Keller (24) is wonderful as Oliver's lonely but graceful mother who suffers silently in a loveless marriage.

Written and directed by Mike Mills, Beginners is unabashedly autobiographical. The story is based on Miller's own life: his father also came out of the closet as a gay senior. Miller, a successful graphics designer and now filmmaker, decides to make a "slice of life" film about his life with two parallel threads: one about his relationship with his gay father, especially during the last few years of Hal's life; and his relationship with Anna.

The plot thread about Hal is interesting and heartbreaking. We can't help but love and root for Hal, a man who was stuck by society and his own sense of duty and responsibilities. Hal is only able to find himself and live a full life the way he wants after his wife's death, because he doesn't want to hurt her -- but the fact is, he's hurt her all her life. In a way, Hal is selfish and misguided, but at the same time, you understand him -- he's a creature of his time. Mike Mills' characters are fully developed and wonderfully portrayed by seasoned actors such as Plummer and Visnjic.

It's only when the story focuses on the relationship between Oliver and Anna that it falters. In comparison, Oliver and Anna are dull, and their relationship unfolds in a meandering manner. There's also not much plot, so it feels like we're watching the same thing over and over again and we already know where it's heading. There's a lot of scenes where the characters just stare at each other. While it's been explained why they tend to push away people they love, it's still frustrating to see it in action. The back-and-forth is slow and not very exciting to watch.

I admire Mills for writing and telling his story in such a personal and intimate manner, and part of it is incredibly poignant, funny, and sweet. However, he's made a mistake of focusing the story on Oliver and Anna. If he had stayed on Hal, the story would have been so much better and more interesting. Despite this beginner's mistake, I'm interested in seeing what Mills will do in the future.

Stars: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Melanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic, Kai Lennox, Mary Page Keller, Keegan Boos
Director: Mike Mills
Writer: Mike Mills
Distributor: Focus
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexual content
Running Time: 105 minutes


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

Total – 7.1 out of 10

Midnight in Paris

© 2011 Ray Wong

To me, Woody Allen is hit or miss, and I often fail to understand his allure. However, when he ventures into the realm of fantasy, such as in Midnight in Paris, and stays behind the camera, the result can be rather amusing.

Gil (Owen Wilson) travels with his fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her family to Paris. His future father-in-law is a staunch Republican businessman, and his future wife and mother-in-law are more interested in shopping and the finer things in life than the culture and history of France. Meanwhile, Gil -- a successful screenwriter and a wannabe nostalgia novelist -- is so convinced 1920s Paris was the Golden Age of the western civilization that he wants to move to Paris and write.

Inez, however, isn't onboard with his romantic idea. Instead, Inez is more interested in hanging out with her friend Paul (Michael Sheen) and his wife. Feeling out of place, Gil takes a stroll down the Paris streets and gets picked up by a few partygoers in period costumes. Before he knows it, Gil is making friends with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll). Gil realizes that somehow he's been transported back to the Golden Age of Paris. And he wants to stay.

He tries to convince Inez to go the party with him the next day, but she thinks he's lost his mind. Instead, Gil returns and is having a great time meeting great artists such as Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Dali (Adrien Brody), and Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo). He also meets Picasso's mistress, Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a beautiful, mysterious and free-spirit woman that captures his heart. Gil realizes he doesn't really love Inez, and he yearns to live in a different space and time, specifically to be with Adriana.

Owen Wilson (Hall Pass) has toned down his obnoxious surfer persona in recent years and continues to take on the more Average Joe roles. As Gil, he basically plays a younger and prettier version of Woody Allen (a successful screenwriter who wants something better -- one has to be blind to not recognize Allen in the character), and he manages to channel Allen without being annoying (since both he and Allen could be). Wilson isn't the best actor in the world, but he displays genuine earnestness for us to root for him.

Rachel McAdams (Morning Glory) for once plays a less sympathetic character as Gil's insufferably shallow fiance. It reminds us of her breakout role in Mean Girls -- I think McAdams should consider returning to her root playing mean girls; she has a knack for that. Marion Cotillard (Inception) is exquisite as Adriana. She is charming but independent and she looks great in period costumes.

The huge supporting cast includes many notable cameos: ever-wonderful Kathy Bates (The Blind Side) as the outspoken and motherly Gertrude Stein, effervescent Alison Pill (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) as Zelda Fitzgerald, charming Tom Hiddleston (Thor) as F. Scott Fitzgerald, handsome Corey Stoll (Salt) as Ernest Hemingway, and Adrien Brody (Detachment) as the wacky Salvador Dali. Michael Sheen (TRON: Legacy) gives a brief but excellent performance as Gil and Inez's braggart friend.

Writer-director Woody Allen (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger) is one of the most prolific filmmakers in Hollywood, and he's earned his right to make whatever films and wherever he wants. His love affair with Europe continues when he moves away from London. His story and direction capture Paris perfectly. Best of all, Allen returns to "fantasy" by giving us a time-traveling romantic comedy. It's by far one of the most "accessible" films Allen has made recently. The characters are very relatable and the dialogue witty and dynamic. The situations are fantastical and joyous. Granted, there's not much of a plot, but the historical characters coming through the revolving door are interesting enough to keep us engaged. One could only dream to have the fantastic experience Gil is having, to meet all his idols.

Allen examines many themes in the story: how many of us go through life meeting expectations without understanding what we really want; how we often idealize things that are different ("the grass next door is always greener") than what we have; how perspective changes to people who are living in the present vs. looking back to the past. It is the last theme that is the most potent throughout the film, emphasized when Adriana takes Gil back to her own golden age -- 19th century Paris. That's why Gil realizes it's all just an illusion, and the best time of his life is NOW, once he figures out who he is and what he really loves.

Allen's direction is fluid and full of energy. Other than a few awkward editing and dull spots, the plot moves along well and the characters are interesting. There's a warm, romantic feeling about the film that is not often present in Allen's work, but it fits the film excellently. Wilson may not be the perfect choice to play Gil (it's probably more of a wishful thinking on Allen's part, to have pretty boy Wilson to play Allen's alter ego), but the rest of the cast play well together.

Midnight in Paris is romantic, whimsical, and entertaining. While the themes are not particularly deep or life-changing, the best part is that Allen doesn't hit you over the head with them. The historical and fantastical backdrops are captivating as well. In a way, the movie is as fun and enjoyable as Paris, if that's your thing.

Stars: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Kathy Bates, Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy, Michael Sheen, Nina Arianda, Tom Hiddleston, Corey Stoll
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Distributor: Sony Pictures
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual references and smoking
Running Time: 100 minutes


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

Total – 7.5 out of 10

X-Men: First Class

© 2011 Ray Wong

Before they were X-Men, they were just kids. X-Men: First Class is a reboot/prequel of the original trilogy and the Marvel comics.

Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender, Bill Milner as child) is a concentration camp survivor during WWII when the Nazis collaborator Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) discovers that Erik is a mutant who has the power to manipulate metals. Meanwhile, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, Laurence Belcher as child) is a precocious, privileged child who discovers that he can read and alter others' minds. Charles befriends a shapeshifter named Raven (Jennifer Lawrence, Morgan Lily as child) and realizes he's not the only one. He decides to study human mutations to figure what is going on.

Years later, Charles successfully completes his PhD and becomes Professor Xavier, and Erik is on a mission to find Shaw, who killed Erik's mother and tortured him at the camp, for revenge. Their paths cross when Xavier helps the CIA find Shaw, who is collaborating with the Russians to start WWIII. They realize Shaw and his group of mutants would be unstoppable unless they raise their own army of mutants to fight Shaw. Using his telepathic capabilities, Charles recruits young mutants and train them.

Soon, Shaw's plan to manipulate the Russians to place nuclear missiles in Cuba is revealed. More surprising is that they discover Shaw himself is a mutant. In a race against time, they must locate and defeat Shaw before he starts WWIII. Meanwhile, despite their friendship and mutual admiration for each other, Charles and Erik have fundamental differences in their philosophies especially when it comes to the "normal" human race. Erik doesn't trust the humans and believes the mutants are a better race (which is ironic given what he went through during WWII), but Charles believes in the goodness of men and how they can all accept one another. Their differences cause a rift between them and may jeopardize their mission.

James McAvoy (The Last Station) is an interesting choice to play Charles/Professor X since Patrick Stewart played the older Charles. McAvoy is smart and unassuming. He's charming but sincere. He's the guy-next-door you can trust. McAvoy does a good job with the character, making it his own without invalidating Stewart's work. Michael Fassbender (Jonah Hex) is also excellent as Erik/Magneto. He has the steely James Bond-esque suaveness and chill, but also the sensibility and heart of the character that Ian McKellen has paved the way.

Kevin Bacon (Super) once again does pure evil with relish. His Sebastian Shaw is creepy, outrageous, larger-than-life, and simply evil. Normally I rather cringe at such as two-dimensional character, but Bacon's flashy performance makes it work. Shaw is a comic villain, and Bacon gives us just that. Rose Byrne (Bridesmaids) has the thankless job of playing the "straight girl" in a movie about superheroes. She's fine, but just can't rise above the material.

The mutants all have their unique abilities and personalities. Jennfier Lawrence (Beaver) is very good as Raven/Mystique. We know her from the previous movies (played by Rebecca Romijn) and Lawrence adds more layers to the familiar character. January Jones (Unknown) is fantastic as Emma Frost. Nicholas Hoult (A Single Man) is effectively naive and bookish as Hank McCoy/Beast.

The list of writers including director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) may suggest a potential "write by committee" disaster. But generally speaking, the screenplay is coherent and well-thought out. There are places when the multiple threads get tangled up and become somewhat confusing. The plot that ties with the Cuba missile crisis in the 60s is somewhat contrived (seriously, the mutants with all their powers can think only of starting WWIII with a Russian nuclear missile?) Despite the corny plot and some holes, the story is by and large fluid and plausible. Though flawed, the movie's historical backdrops do give it some gravity and realism. It's as good as alternate history gets.

Most impressively, the screenplay further develops the personalities and relationships between these popular characters we have come to know and love, especially the three major ones: Professor X, Magneto and Mystique. I suppose that's the most satisfying aspect of the story. Don't get me wrong: the plot is interesting and entertaining, but it is the characters that make us care.

Matthew Vaughn's (Stardust) resume isn't that long, but his movies have not disappointed so far. X-Men: First Class continues his winning streak. His direction is fluid, brisk, and sensible. The pacing is just right, and he leaves enough room for the characters to breathe and bond and make an impression. We come to actually care about them. And that's not an easy task given the full plot and the large cast of characters.

I have to say, beside the first X-Men movie, this may be the best of the bunch. It has intrigue, mystery, action, humor, excitement, horror, and heart. It makes us care about these characters again. It's very entertaining and leaves a nice impression. It's first class all the way.

Stars: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, Oliver Platt, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Writers: Ashley Miller, Zach Stentz, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, Sheldon Turner, Bryan Singer
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for themes, language, alcohol, violence
Running Time: 132 minutes


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

Total – 7.9 out of 10