In Time

© 2011 Ray Wong

Set in an undefined future, In Time is a pseudo sci-fi thriller that is full of interesting concepts. Unfortunately, like many other high-concept movies, it's bogged down by an awful execution.

Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) has lived in the ghetto (known as Zone 12) all his life. In this world, humans have been genetically engineered so that they'd stop aging at age 25. At the same time, to control population, they also only have one year to live beyond that. To live longer, they have to earn "time" on their hands, literally. Time becomes the new currency. When you run out, you die.

And Will has been living from day to day, scraping by with his mother (Olivia Wilde). After saving an out-of-town stranger Henry Hamilton (Matt Borner) from local thugs, Will receives a gift -- it turns out, at over 100 years old, Henry is tired of living, so he gives Will all of his 105 years before committing suicide. His only request is that Will doesn't waste that time.

Will could have used that time for personal gains (he does, in a way), but he has a bigger plan in mind. Knowing how unfair the system is -- how people die for no reasons while others have more time than they can do with it -- he is determined to bring it down. His first stop is Zone 4, where the richest people, live. Meanwhile, he is wanted for Henry's death, and Timekeeper Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy) is hot on his trail.

As an actor, Justin Timberlake (Friends with Benefits) has some talent. He's particularly good in light comedies such as Friends with Benefits or grungy tales such as Alpha Dog. As an action hero, however, he's too slight and lacks the required gravitas compared to his contemporaries such as Will Smith or Sam Worthington. He is not bad, per se. He just seems out of place.

Amanda Seyfied (Red Riding Hood) seems miscast here. Her sweet and cute persona may have worked for the character in early scenes, but once she made her jump, she is much less convincing. It doesn't help that she's running around in a cocktail dress. Cillian Murphy (Inception) has a more complex role and he does a good job playing the cop. Unfortunately, his character is such an archetype (think Javert in Les Miserables or Samuel Gerard in The Fugitive) to let him really shine.

The other players don't have much to do except to propel the plot. Olivia Wilde (Cowboys and Aliens) is underused, and her scenes lack the emotional weight because her character and relationship with Will are too underdeveloped. Similarly, Johnny Galecki (Hancock) is the typical best friend character that makes us say, "Who cares?" In a brief role, Matt Borner (Flightplan) manages to give us some depth as mysterious Henry Hamilton and make us believe he's over 100 years old.

The film is written and directed by Andrew Niccol (Lord of War), who has given us great stories such as Gattaca and The Truman Show. In the same veins of those movies, In Time is more of a fable or cautionary tale than hard sci-fi. Niccol doesn't even try to explain the science -- we're supposed to accept it and suspense our disbelief on face value. The time and place are also vague. That's all fine until the plot falls apart at the seams. Don't get me wrong. Niccol has a great concept: "Time is money" literally. And he tries to use the fable to reflect on the state of our society. That's some heavy allegory. Unfortunately, Niccol tries too hard.

The plot is a mishmash of different genres. There is, of course, a huge Fugitive-esque subplot. Then there are pieces of Robin Hood, Bonnie and Clyde, Time Cop, The Minority Report, to name a few. That's alright if Noccol had given us a fresh take and taken the story to a new height. Instead, the plot meanders. The dialogue is recycled. And the characters are not engaging or interesting, and they lack enough emotional depths to make us care. It seems to me that Niccol is more interested in exploring every piece of his high concept than giving us truly engaging story and characters. The chemistry between Timberlake and Seyfied also feels forced.

The movie has a gritty look, which is good for the ghetto scenes. However, the entire production has a cheap feel to it, as if Niccol didn't have money to spend. The Los Angeles locations get tiresome very quickly, and make us think we're stuck in a game of Auto Theft: LA. Being an Andrew Niccol fan, I'm sorely disappointed. Perhaps in time I'll forget this ever exists.

Stars: Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfied, Cillian Murphy, Olivia Wilde, Johnny Galecki, Matt Borner
Director: Andrew Niccol
Writer: Andrew Niccol
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, sexuality, partial nudity, language
Running Time: 109 minutes


Script - 6
Performance - 6
Direction - 6
Cinematography - 7
Music/Sound - 7
Editing - 6
Production - 6

Total - 6.1 out of 10.0

Johnny English Reborn

© 2011 Ray Wong

It's been eight years since the last Johnny English movie, and Rowen Atkinson tries his best to revive the character and his antics, but the result may not be something he expects.

After Johnny English (Rowen Atkinson) was dismissed by the MI7 because of a botched operation, he's been in hiding, taking lessons from the Tibetan monks. But soon he finds himself reinstated, being personally requested for a mission. There is a plan by a secret group to assassinate the Chinese Prime Minister, and English is to find out the identity of the group and to stop the assassination.

English goes to Hong Kong with rookie Agent Tucker (Daniel Kaluuya). Their contact Fisher (Richard Schiff) reveals that he's part of a trio of professional assassins called the Vortex, and they each carries a special key. When Fisher is killed, English attempts to retrieve the key but loses it at the end. While investigating further on the Vortex, English realizes that one of them is a mole within MI7. As time is running out, English must find the mole and stop the assassination attempt. Most important, he must clear his name.

Rowen Atkinson (Mr. Bean's Vacation) is best known for being Mr. Bean, with Johnny English his second most recognizable role. Even though the two characters are different, there's significant similarities and Atkinson tends to play them the same way. Obviously, English speaks and seems smarter than Mr. Bean (but not much), and he's an MI7 agent! Atkinson is treading old water here, so there isn't much to be excited about.

The cast consists of some recognizable names, however. Gillian Anderson (X Files: I Want to Believe) is droll and serious playing MI7 director Pamela. Rosamund Pike (Surrogates) is lovely and interesting as Kate, English's love interest. Dominic West (Centurion) is dashing and mysterious as Agent Ambrose. Richard Schiff (Solitary Man) has a very small part that doesn't really take advantage of his talent. The standout is Daniel Kaluuya (Chatroom), who channels Chris Tucker in Rush Hours but makes the role his own. Honorable mention goes to Pik Sen Lim (Plenty) whose recurring role as a cleaning-lady assassin is hilarious.

The screenplay by William Davies (How to Train Your Dragon) and Hamish McColl (Mr. Bean's Vacation) is surprisingly sophomoric considering Davies's resume. True, this is Johnny English, and we come to expect certain crude, infantile humor. Still, much of the humor doesn't work, and is too infantile to even mention. I also know what they're going with English's character, but sometimes he is simply too clueless and stupid that he makes me cringe. How the heck did he get to be a secret agent? Certain situations are so ridiculous that it fails to be funny because you just can't believe someone can be so stupid. A few running gags overstay their welcome by the time the movie ends.

The story and the plot are not that bad. There actually is a coherent plot, albeit flimsy -- much of it is to get English from one place to another and see how he screws up. However, the sendup to the Bond films is spot on and I appreciate the parody.

Director Oliver Parker (An Ideal Husband) gives us a nicely paced production, but the production quality seems subpar. There's a cheap look to the movie. Then suddenly there's an over-produced sequence that looks expensive to make. The quality is uneven to say the least.

I like Atkinson and I like Johnny English, but I can't help but feel disappointed by this. There are a few genuine laughs, but most of it has been done before or simply isn't funny. I have a feeling Johnny English won't be reborn again for a very long time.

Stars: Rowen Atkinson, Gillian Anderson, Rosamund Pike, Dominic West, Daniel Kaluuya, Richard Schiff
Director: Oliver Parker
Writers: William Davies, Hamish McColl
Distributor: Universal
MPAA Rating: PG for mild action violence, rude humor, language and brief sensuality
Running Time: 101 minutes


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

Total - 6.2 out of 10.0

The Thing

© 2011 Ray Wong

The 1982 The Thing has a cult following and is considered one of the greatest horror/monster movies of all times. This 2011 version of The Thing is both a prequel and a homage to the John Carpenter film.

Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a paleontologist at Columbia University, has been hired by scientist Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) to go to Antarctica to examine a specimen. When they arrive, they realize it's an alien creature that landed in a spaceship over 100,000 years ago. They succeed in retrieving the alien frozen in ice. However, unbeknownst to them, it is still alive and later escapes.

The team, including American pilot Braxton Carter (Joel Edgerton) and research assistant Adam (Eric Christian Olsen), begins to search for the alien. In an attack, one team member is killed and they destroy the alien by burning it. While examining the remains, Kate discovers that the alien imitates its prey at the cellular level. What's more frightening is that the creature is still alive, and thus can be anyone of them.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) is in fine form as the female lead in this male-dominated horror. Her performance (and her character) is smart but vulnerable, yet she's not a damsel in distress. She can certainly handle herself and save the day. Winstead has a strong presence and dominates in her scenes. Joel Edgerton (Warrior) is the Kurt Russell of this movie: charming, strong, and resourceful. He and Winstead have good chemistry and a palpable sexual tension between them.

Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen (Duplicity) has the thankless role of the arrogant boss who makes the wrong decisions and puts everyone in danger's way. He serves his purpose, but the character is simply too predictable to make any impact. Eric Christian Olsen (The Backup Plan) has a better time with his amiable would-be love interest for Kate, plus he has one of the best scenes of the movie. Trond Espen Seim (The Frost) leads a fine cast of Norwegian actors in this production, including Jorgen Langhelle (Betrayal), who plays Lars (the character also appeared in the 1982 movie) with great intensity.

The screenplay, written by Eric Heisserer (Final Destination 5), takes great pain in recreating and expanding on the 1982 movie. It's not just a prequel and homage, but a companion film. What impresses me is that Heisserer manages to match the details of the John Carpenter film and devise a plot that explains these details logically. Best of all, we don't have to watch that film to understand this one, but by watching both films together (which I did upon returning home from the theater), we get a sense of completion and understanding.

But time has changed. While the John Carpenter movie unfolds slowly, this has a much faster pace. The plot takes off immediately and keeps going. Because of the inherent limitations (since most people have problem seen the original), Heisserer doesn't waste too much time building the suspense or trying to over-explain what the alien can do or how to kill it -- we've seen it already in the 1982 film. Also, the tone is different. The original was all about paranoia and desperation. This is more about the horror and confusion of first contact, while the characters figure out what is going on and trying to survive.

Sure, there are cheesy dialogue, predictable moments and plot holes (what horror film, especially a prequel or sequel, can avert that fate?), but the screenplay is surprisingly coherent and taut. Suspenseful even though we already know so much about the alien and what may happen. The thrill is more in what exactly happened, instead of what will happen.

Director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. (Zien) is a surprising choice because of his short resume. However, I think he's succeeded in creating a new movie that matches so well the original without losing its own identity. The tone is intact. The production is generally good, matching the original movie to create a coherent continuation. While the direction lacks John Carpenter's finesse, patience, and cinematic effects to induce suspense and awe, it does the job nicely. The upgraded CGI, together with physical effects, serve the film rather well.

While this prequel lacks the suspense, tension and dread (and pure horror) of the original, it is solid entertainment and holds up very well against the classic. As a companion film, it's a thing to behold.

Stars: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Ulrich Thomsen, Eric Christian Olsen, Jorgen Langhelle, Trond Espen Seim
Director: Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.
Writers: Eric Heisserer (based on short story by John W. Campbell, Jr.)
Distributor: Universal
MPAA Rating: R for strong creature violence and gore
Running Time: 103 minutes


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

Total - 7.5 out of 10.0

The Ides of March

© 2011 Ray Wong

Political drama has a certain appeal because politics in itself is fascinating, and what goes on behind closed door is not something to which we're privy. The Ides of March is more than just a political drama, though. It also chronicles the downfall of an ambitious but idealistic young man.

At 30, Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) is the youngest junior campaign manager in a presidential race. The Democratic governor, Mike Morris (George Clooney), is neck in neck in the polls with his opponent in the final days of the Ohio primary. Stephen's boss, senior campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is in a closed-door negotiation with Ohio Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright) in hopes of getting the latter's endorsement. If Morris gets the endorsement, he'd most certainly get the nomination.

Stephen is ambitious but also idealistic. He has been in the business for several years, and he's never been more sure about a candidate. He believes in all the goodness Morris possesses and represents. However, as the race in Ohio heats up and backdoor deals are being made, Stephen's faith begins to unravel. Stephen makes a mistake by speaking in private to his opponent's campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti). While he turns down Duffy's offer to switch side, the damage has been done. Somehow the secret meeting is leaked to reporter Ida (Marisa Tomei), who threatens to print the story (which would possibly get Stephen fired) unless he gives her the inside scoop on the Thompson deal.

At the same time, Stephen discovers the governor has had a one-time sexual liaison with a young intern, Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), who happens to be the daughter of DNC Chairman Jack Stearns (Gregory Itzin). Loyal to Morris, Stephen tries to cover up the indiscretion for him. However, soon he is fired by Paul, with the blessing of Morris, and he feels betrayed. He swears to get even. An unexpected turn of event gives Stephen just the ammunition to fire back.

Ryan Gosling (Drive) has been lauded as an actor's actor of his generation -- he has proven his ability in smaller, independent movies. Now, it looks like he's ready for big things and superstardom, given his latest big, flashy roles in Crazy, Stupid, Love and Drive. As the protagonist, Gosling is charming, introspective and intense. His performance is very measured and reserved, much like the character itself, and he portrays well a man jolted to the dark reality of politics.

George Clooney (The American) has a supporting role as Morris, the charismatic "good-guy" candidate that is perfect for him. Clooney's performance is solid and reserved, and he knows when to step into the limelight vs. in the background to let Gosling shine. Philip Seymour Hoffman (Moneyball) is excellent as Morris's senior campaign manager. He is gruff and tough, and manages to portray a man who has been in the business for way too long -- a great reflection for Stephen. Paul Giamatti (Win Win) is great as Stephen's slime-ball opponent. He has only a few pivotal scenes, but he steals every one of them from the superb Gosling.

As beautiful intern Molly, Evan Rachel Wood (The Conspirator) is a great match for Gosling. Her character gives the movie a needed emotional core, and she gives an impressive performance as the spirited but naive young woman. Marisa Tomei (Crazy, Stupid, Love) is perfect as the ruthless reporter, and Jeffrey Wright (Source Code) oozes sliminess as Senator Thompson.

The screenplay is written by George Clooney (Good Night, and Good Luck), who also directs, Grant Heslov (Good Night, and Good Luck), and Beau Willimon, based on the latter's play Farragut North. Given Willimon's involvement, one can assume the screenplay adheres to the original material. It is more of a fable or cautionary tale than a true, realistic politic drama. It reminds me Star Wars, how we follow Anakin Skywalker's descent. Stephen Myers is a contemporary Darth Vader. The main characters are relatively well drawn and developed.

The screenplay is taut and fast-paced. It can be a bit intimidating and confusing as the political chess players are introduced and the game unfolds. The dialogue is generally sharp and intelligent. The plot is well thought-out and structured, but at times it feels contrived or forced. Certain plot twists seem too well orchestrated and woven, as if the players knew exactly what would happen next: It's a writer's fantasy and doesn't really translate that well in a drama. It feels more plot-driven than it should be.

Clooney's direction has matured. This is a world-class production, and he's done a great job. Everything works well together, and technically the film is superb. There is not a dull moment and Clooney keeps the plot flowing well.

The Ides of March is a thought-provoking, handsomely made fable. I like the way these players play each other with intricate moves and hidden motives. I like how the hero slowly gets sucked into the corrupt underbelly of politics. Yet it's not a perfect movie, and it leaves you feeling manipulated afterwards. It's not necessarily a good feeling, much like politics itself.

Stars: Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Evan Rachel Wood, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright
Director: George Clooney
Writers: George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon (based on play Farragut North by Beau Willimon)
Distributor: Columbia
MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexuality
Running Time: 101 minutes


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

Total - 7.5 out of 10.0