Man on a Ledge

© 2012 Ray Wong

Definitely a high-concept movie, Man on a Ledge is a fast-paced thriller that does a lot to thrill, not not enough to engage us in an emotional way.

Nick Cassidy (Sam Worthington) checks in the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan under a fake name J. Walker. Soon, he leaves a suicide note and steps out onto the ledge. His attempted suicide captures the attention of the city, the news media, and the police. Officer Jack Docherty (Edward Burns) tries to talk to Nick, who specifically asks for hostage negotiator Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks).

It turns out Nick Cassidy is an escape convict and an ex-cop. He was sentenced for 25 years for grand theft. During his father's funeral, Nick attacked his brother Joey (Jamie Bell) and managed to escape, and soon he disappeared, until this day when he shows up on the ledge of the hotel.

But as the events unfold, we realize the suicide attempt is a ploy. Meanwhile in another building owned by real estate tycoon David Englander (Ed Harris), Joey (Jamie Bell) and his girlfriend Angie (Genesis Rodriguez) is trying to break in. It turns out it's all part of a heist. But why? Why would Nick draw so much attention to himself when they want to rob Englander?

Sam Worthington (Avatar) has made himself a star in a slew of action movies. He's always the Average Joe's action hero, and here he plays a cop with enough grit to pull it off. Worthington is a likable actor with solid skills, but it's still too early to convince us that he has a range. So far, he's played more or less the same character, whether having blue skin, wearing a toga or an orange jumpsuit. Still, he does what he does well, and he anchors the entire film.

Elizabeth Banks (The Next Three Days) shows a bit more range here, playing an officer who has a hard time accepting her failure or trying to fit in. She and Worthington have some good scenes, and she does her part well. Ed Harris (Salvation Boulevard) is an actor's actor, but he overplays his caricature character.

Jamie Bell (Jane Eyre) plays Nick's loyal brother with enough naiveté and gumption to make us want to root for him. But I am not convinced that he and Worthington are brothers. Genesis Rodriguez (Entourage) is a firecracker making her debut feature. She is fun to watch (and easy on the eye, too). Anthony Mackie (The Adjustment Bureau) if fine as Nick's ex-partner in the force.

Written by TV scribe Pablio F. Fenjives (Trophy Wife), the screenplay has all the signatures of a high octane action thriller. It starts off well enough, pulling us in with a mystery and a man who is about to do something crazy. As the plot unfolds, however, more and more threads get tangled in the web, and it feels convoluted and overplayed. Some of the plot twists are predictable while others are contrived. The heist scenes are overlong, and they actually become boring. There are plenty of plot holes, but I've come to expect that in most action movies.

Except for some of the major characters, most characters are flat, one-dimensional, and cliched. They are like cartoons, and you get exactly what you expect. There's not much surprise there -- who the good and bad guys are. I do give Fenjives credit for keeping the plot close to the vest, only to reveal more through dialogue and action. Although he could have cut the flashback in the beginning and sprinkle the explanation in dialogue instead.

Director Asger Leth's (Ghost of Cite Soleil) is adequate for a thriller. He keeps the action going, and it's by and large entertaining. The production is fine for such a movie. He could have cut or trimmed some scenes, however. The heist scenes are overly long and contrived. The pacing is fine for the action sequences, but could have slowed down a bit to get us involved with the characters.

Man on a Ledge does what it says it does: entertain and thrill. If you don't expect deep characters and bullet-proof logic, you could have a good time. But if you're a man on a budget, wait for the DVD instead.

Stars: Sam Worthington, Elizabeth Banks, Ed Harris, Jamie Bell, Genesis Rodriguez, Anthony Mackie, Edward Burns
Director: Asger Leth
Writers: Pablo F. Fenjives
Distributor: Summit
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and brief strong language
Running Time: 102 minutes


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

Total - 7.4 out of 10.0

Tinker Tailor Soldier Soy

© 2012 Ray Wong

An espionage thriller set in the depth of the Cold War, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is surprisingly somber and character-driven.

Control (John Hurt), head of the "Circus" (MI6), realizes that there may be a mole within the highest rank of the Circus, he sends agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Hungary to check out a source, Prideaux is shot in an operational disaster, and Control is forced out in disgrace. His deputy, George Smiley, is also forced into semi-retirement. However, after Control is killed, Smiley is recruited to find out who the double-agent is. The suspicion turns to Circus' new head Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), his new deputy Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik).

Smiley recruits Peter Guilliam (Benedict Cumberbatch) in his covert operation. It turns out that Gulliam's subordinate, Rick Tarr (Tom Hardy), is the one who blew the whistle. Tarr is on the run, as he has key information from a reliable source close to Moscow. Tarr returns to London and hides under Smiley's protection.

Smiley convinces Peter to break into Circus's record room to find important information. Meanwhile, Smiley has a chat with Prideaux, who survived the Soviet assassination and interrogation. Piecing all the pieces together, Smiley finally devices a plan to trap and expose the mole, but not within personal sacrifices.

Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight) is of course brilliant as George Smiley. At first, we have to wonder if Smiley is himself the mole, and Oldman successfully makes us doubt him. Oldman's understated and quiet, introspective performance gives the character his deserved gravitas. He carries the film through and through.

The huge cast of veteran actors complete the ensemble. John Hurt (Immortals) has a relative small but pivot part, and he does an excellent job. Colin Firth (The King's Speech) is dashing and charismatic. Toby Jones (The Mist) is wonderfully harsh and rude, while Ciaran Hinds (The Debt) stays mostly in the background. Benedict Cumberbatch (War Horse) does a fine job as Peter Guilliam, and Tom Hardy (Inception) is affecting as the agent on the run. But the standout is Mark Strong (Sherlock Holmes), whose soulful performance of a conflicted man is memorable.

Adapted from John le Carre's difficult spy thriller, the screenplay by Bridget O'Connor (Sixty Six) and Peter Staughan (The Debt) is just as difficult to follow, if not more. Started in media res, the story unfolds in a nonlinear manner, often interrupted by flashbacks and backstories to fill in the blanks. While the plot really begins with Rick Tarr's discovery, we don't really get to meet him until halfway through the story; the rest is, thus, told in flashbacks. Such storytelling technique can be suspenseful, but I find it annoying instead. There really is no need to tell it in such a haphazard fashion, with so many flashbacks intercutting and stopping the momentum of the main plot.

The writers may think this technique makes the story a thinking men's thriller. But I find it obstructive and difficult, and often it dampens the emotional impact. Further complicated with a complex plot, the story becomes muddled and it takes extreme concentration to understand what is going on. And I did, but the payoff isn't worth it, in my opinion -- I already guessed who the mole was. Granted, I credit the writers for leaving enough clues to help us solve the mystery ourselves. And there are some scenes that are suspenseful and well done -- for example, when Peter tries to "burglarize" the Circus. And the scene, near the ending, with Prideaux, is practically epic and tragic.

Director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) has a very good eye. The production is handsome and period appropriate. The mood is excellent. The pacing, however, seems slow and disjointed at times. There are many fast cuts and montages that may simply go over our heads -- it'd take a few more viewings to understand the symbolism or hidden meanings. Like the screenplay, the intercutting of flashbacks and forward plot can be disorienting. Compounded with a huge cast of characters and plot twists, it becomes a lot of work for the audience.

That said, I do enjoy Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I think it's intelligent, and has enough thrills and suspense to satisfy fans of espionage thrillers, but also enough character development (and good acting to go with that) to satisfy fans of drama. We come to really care about these characters, and that is a plus. Still, with the difficult storytelling and complicated plot structure, I find it hard to digest. Perhaps I'd tinker with my opinion after a few more viewings.

Stars: Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Writers: Bridget O'Connor, Peter Straughan (based on novel by John le Carre)
Distributor: Sony Classics
MPAA Rating: R for violence, some nudity and sexuality, and language
Running Time: 127 minutes


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

Total - 7.2 out of 10.0


© 2012 Ray Wong

What a strange concept, to watch four characters bickering in an apartment for 80 minutes. But that's exactly what director Roman Polanski has made us do, and the four master actors pull it off beautifully.

Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster) and her hardware-store owner husband Michael (John C. Reilly) have a meeting with Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz) at their apartment to discuss an incident that happened between their respective sons. Apparently the Cowans's son acted aggressively with a stick toward the Longstreets's.

At first civilized and cordial, the Cowans admit their son's wrongdoing and agree to pay for any medical bills. Despite the tension simmering below the surface, the Longstreets invite the Cowans to stay to have some apple-pear cobblers. Big mistake. What was once an amiable meeting between two sets of concerned parents slowly descends into chaos when their differences in parenting philosophies and practices turn sharply into personal attacks over politics, marriages, and personalities.

Jodie Foster (The Beaver) plays a tightly-wound, liberal, Africa-loving control-freak, and she does such a great job that we wonder if Foster is playing herself. Penelope's tense personality is evident from the very first scene, but you can tell that she has everything under control, much like the rest of her life. It's great to see Foster's character unravel around the seams until she completely falls apart. Meanwhile, her husband is played skillfully by the often spot-on John C. Reilly (Cedar Rapids). Reilly is excellent as the diplomatic putz, and he makes us wonder how did the two of them meet and stay together for so long.

Kate Winslet (The Reader) plays Nancy, a complete opposite of Penelope. She is a "fake" with no real aspiration or conviction. She cares more about her appearance, pleasing her husband and the well-being of a pet hamster than her son's behavior. She's pretty much in denial with everything. Meanwhile, her husband Alan is deliciously played by Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds), a selfish prick of a lawyer who seems to actually enjoy the fact that his son is a maniac.

These four outstanding actors get to play off of each other and showcase their collective talent (and award-winning skills). It's not easy to pull of 80 minutes of dialogue without some serious talent, and the actors graciously pull it off. Even then, while Foster and Winslet are over the top and Reilly is quietly off-putting, the standout is Waltz. His characterization and performance are so well-tuned and precise it's really hard to imagine Alan Cowan any other way.

Adapted from her own play, Yasmina Reza (Art) has made certain changes to make the dialogue and action more accessible on the big screen. While the situations can seem a bit contrived (I could do without the whole subplot with the vomit), the most important thing here is the dialogue. Often what's being said does not match the action, and then there are times when what's being said reveals so much about the characters. The sharp dialogue is the soul of the whole piece, while the actors bring the heart to it.

That being said, somehow I wonder about the point of the whole story. Is it about how people are vicious animals underneath the facade of civilized behaviors? Is it about relationships and how people pretend and hide and bury feelings just to keep the peace, until a confrontational situation (with the aid of alcohol, perhaps) brings everything to the surface? I'm not sure. After watching the movie, I'm still not sure.

Polanski's (The Ghost Writer) direction is smooth and arresting. His use of camera angles, mirrors and lighting is interesting since the whole story happens in such a confined space. The pacing is good, and he lets the actor do their thing. He uses enough movements and camerawork and close-ups to distract us from realizing that we're basically watching a play.

While the movie is hugely amusing and fascinating, I'm neither touched or educated. It seems that the story is an exercise of intelligence and cleverness and, perhaps, a keen study of human relationships and behaviors. Still, at the end of the day, I am not affected in any way. I never felt the carnage.

Stars: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Yasmina Reza, Romand Polanski (based on play by Reza)
Distributor: Sony Classics
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 79 minutes


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

Total - 7.5 out of 10.0

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

© 2012 Ray Wong

More than 10 years later, films about 9/11 are still difficult sell. The emotional aspects of these stories tend to be either too casual or sentimental. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close tells the story of coping with the tragedy and loss from the unique point of view of a young boy with Aspergers.

Oskar (Thomas Horn) is a precocious and smart boy who has been diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome. He's not antisocial, per se, but he is particular in his social contacts and behaviors with people around him. He has a close relationship with his father Thomas (Tom Hanks), a jeweler whose idea of fun with his son is the search of answers of the universe. Thomas understands his son's needs so much that he will do anything to provoke Oskar's curiosity, to help him come out of his shell.

Everything changes on 9/11/2001. Oskar watches in horror as the "worst day" unfolds. Worst of all, he listens to messages on the answering machine left by his father, who is trapped on the top floor of the World Trade Center. As Oskar and his mother Linda (Sandra Bullock) deal with their loss of that fateful day, Oskar's relationship with her turns cold and distant as nothing makes sense to him, now that his father is gone.

A year later, Oskar discovers a key among his father's belongings and he sets out of find the lock for the key. He believes that it is a clue left by his father, so that he can still be close to Oskar. His quest becomes an obsession. Meanwhile, he makes an unlikely friend with his grandmother's renter (Max von Sydow), a lonesome mute man who has a dark secret past. Together they set out to search for an answer, and Oskar is in for a big surprise.

Tom Hanks (Larry Crowe) has an important but brief role as Oskar's father in flashbacks. Hanks' performance is amiable and affectionate, but perhaps a bit too earnest, almost an idealized version of what a perfect father should be. Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side), after a two-year hiatus, fares better as Hanks' grieving wife. Bullock does a good job conveying the pain and loneliness and distance as well as the love toward her sometimes-difficult son.

The star of the show is newcomer Thomas Horn, who carries the movie almost from beginning to end. That's no small feat for a young actor, not to mention in his first acting job ever. Horn does a respectable job, considering he has to act not just a normal kid, but one with Aspergers. At times, he fails to convince us, but given the challenging role, his performance is fine.

Zoe Caldwell (Birth) is excellent as Grandma. Her silent grief and pain are evident in her expression and mannerism. Talk about understated acting. Max von Sydow (Shutter Island) is amazing as the Renter, while he acted without a single line of dialogue. His scenes with Oskar are some of the best in the movie. Viola Davis (The Help) is in good form as a sad divorcee, and Jeffrey Wright (The Source Code) is wonderfully stoic as her estranged husband.

Adapted from Jonathan Safran Foer's novel, the screenplay by Eric Roth (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) walks a fine line between poignant and pretentious. Roth has a penchant for introspective narration. The problem is, the first-person narration of a young boy with Apsergers can be annoying at times. The intercuts between flashbacks and present-time can be disorienting at times. Nonetheless, the plot unfolds interestingly, and we're always curious about where it's going, and whether Oskar will find what he's looking for. Intellectually, the story is spot on. Emotionally, it seems to somehow miss its mark. Often, the emotions seem forced and manipulated, and I feel like I am being coerced into feeling something that may or may not be there. Thus I find myself not often emotionally moved as expected.

Stephen Daldry's (The Reader) direction is masterful. His use of camera and imageries and sounds and colors is great. The production is handsome and realistic at the same time. Unfortunately, at 129 minutes, the film feels overtly long, and sometimes Daldry lingers, perhaps trying too hard to invoke certain emotions. The result is a feeling of pretentiousness.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is an interesting story with an interesting protagonist and a journey that is worth telling. Unfortunately, the execution simply tries too hard and the result falls short. It's incredibly close, though.

Stars: Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Thomas Horn, Zoe Caldwell, Max von Sydow, Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright, John Goodman
Director: Stephen Daldry
Writers: Eric Roth (based on novel by Jonathan Safran Foer)
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for emotional thematic material, disturbing images and language
Running Time: 129 minutes


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

Total - 7.6 out of 10.0