People Like Is

© 2012 Ray Wong

Based partially on writer-director Alex Kurtzman's (Transformers) own experiences, People Like Us is a small, personal drama that is vastly different from Mr. Kurtzman's other more flashy, extravagant offerings.

Sam (Chris Pine) is a slick salesman who seems to have it all: a great career, a fast car, and a hot girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde) who is crazy about him. But then things start to unravel for him. First, a mistake at work puts him in a tricky situation in which he has to bribe a government official in time to avert legal action. And that puts him in a great debt. Then he gets the news that his estranged father has died. Suddenly, the emotionally unavailable Sam finds himself unable to handle both crisis.

It turns out he hasn't spoken with his parents for years. In fact, he's so afraid to visit his past that he fakes losing his wallet so he can avoid taking the trip. But he ends up back home in Los Angeles, anyway. He and his mother Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer) don't really talk. Worse, he finds out that his late father, famed music producer Jerry (Dean Chekvala) has left $150,000 to Josh (Michael Hall D'Addario), the son of Jerry's "other daughter" Frankie (Elizabeth Banks). Tempted to keep the money for himself, Sam can't help but be curious about the half-sister he never knew.

Without telling Frankie who he really is, Sam keeps bumping into her and Josh, and he slips into their lives pretending to be a friend. Soon, Sam finds himself unable to peel himself away from the family he never knows. He adores Josh, a precocious 13-year-old who keeps getting himself into trouble. And he feels an intense connection with Frankie, a recovering alcoholic who is still struggling with the past. How can Sam make it right for her? How can Sam reconcile his past and present? Will Sam do the right thing?

Chris Pine (This Means War) seems to struggle with finding a footing in Hollywood. No, I don't mean he is struggling as a working actor. I mean that other than being a certain Star Fleet captain, Pine hasn't found a character that he can really sink his teeth into. Sam seems like such a rich, complex character, and Pine does an agreeable job. Still, it's not the kind of definitive performance that makes audiences take notice.

Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Game) is quickly becoming a chameleon. She can do comedy, and she can do outrageous. Here, she plays "down to earth" by portraying a deeply flawed, messed up human being, and her effort pays off.

The supporting cast includes Michael Hall D'Addario (Sinister) as Josh. I find him somewhat annoying, one of those know-it-alls who seem to get on your nerves after a while. Michelle Pfeiffer (Dark Shadows) is marvelous as Sam's mother, who is cold and distant on the outside, but soft and hurt inside. Olivia Wilde (In Time) is strong as Sam's independent but supportive girlfriend, and Mark Duplass (My Sister's Sister) has a brief but interesting role as a next-door neighbor.

The screenplay by Kurtzman is rather conventional. Here, we have a cocky protagonist who is dying to learn something about life (but he doesn't know it, yet), a precocious teenager who is just right for the job, and a messed up half-sister who is ready to be rescued. I like the premise very much -- it's something that is built on a true emotions and relationships. Unfortunately, I think Mr. Kurtzman approaches the material like he did with his blockbusters: Let's pile on the conflicts! Let's throw more stuff at the hero and heroine until they break.

Much of that is unnecessary. In fact, the strongest parts of the movie are the quieter, human moments. The scene with Sam and his mother at the park is rather poignant. The relationship between Sam and Hannah seems real. The feeling of loss and confusion with regard to the father are palpable. So it's a shame that Mr. Kurtzman finds it necessary to pile on the characters with conflicting situations. Instead, they dilute the emotions and cheapen the drama. The choices Sam has to make become contrived and forced. If Kurtzman had focused on the relationships and connections instead of the external conflicts, the story would have been much stronger.

As director, Kurtzman does have a good eye for cinematic effects and visuals. There are key scenes that are quite affecting and sensible. I think he has great potential for doing something masterful instead of the money-grabs such as the Transformers franchise.

He's not there yet. People Like Us is a good first effort, however. And I think it's a solid story; it's simply unfortunate that Kurtzman is tinted by the blockbuster moviemaking mentality. I look forward to seeing his next dramatic effort, however -- he has the potential for making a movie that will make people like us proud. 

Stars: Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks, Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Hall D'Addario, Olivia Wilde, Mark Duplass
Director: Alex Kurtzman
Writers: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci
Distributor: Touchstone
MPAA Rating:  PG-13 for language, some drug use and brief sexual reference
Running Time: 115 minutes 

Script - 7
Performance - 7
Direction - 7
Cinematography - 8
Music/Sound - 7
Editing - 8
Production - 7
Total - 7.3 out of 10.0 

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

© 2012 Ray Wong

The first problem with Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is, well, the title. It's quite a mouthful. The second problem is the premise. "The end of the world"? Talk about depressing. And the third? I'll get to that in a minute.

When Dodge (Steve Carell), like everyone else on Earth, receives the news that the world is going to end in three weeks' time as an asteroid nears the planet, his wife screams and leaves him in a panic. Now lonely and confused, Dodge continues to go to work and resumes his daily routines, trying to feel and act normal. Of course, nothing is normal anymore. He meets his neighbor, Penny (Keira Knightley), who just broke up with her boyfriend and is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Once he realizes that his wife has been cheating on him, and an old girlfriend has written to him, he decides to look for the love of his life. Penny, on the other hand, wants to return to England to be with her family. As all public transportations have ceased to operate, the two strangers decide to take the road trip together (Dodge knows of someone who has a private plane).

Of course, things never go smoothly when you take a road trip, even at the end of the world. Dodge and Penny come across interesting characters and situations, and their experiences help bond them. Will they find what they are looking for before everything ends? Will they find redemption or peace?

Steve Carell (Crazy, Stupid, Love) is best when he plays dorky yet slightly crazy everyman as he did in Crazy, Stupid, Love or The Office. Here, however, he plays it completely straight. The character of Dodge may be complicated, but he is also rather dull. Carell's understated performance doesn't help either. There's just not a whole lot to be excited about the character.

In comparison, Keira Knightley (Never Let Me Go) plays a more interesting character. Penny is anxious, nervous, and rather chatty. She reminds me of Kate Winslet's Clementine in The Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind but with less quirkiness and more whining.

The support cast has a better time playing interesting characters. Adam Brody (Damsels in Distress) plays Penny's jerk of a boyfriend quite convincingly. William Petersen (The Contender) is wonderfully zany as the truck driver who picks up Penny and Dodge on the road. T. J. Miller (Our Idiot Brother) has a fun time playing a grooving restaurant host. And Martin Sheen (The Amazing Spider-Man) gives a solid performance as a man of Dodge's past.

While the cast is respectable, the screenplay by writer-director Lorene Scafaria (Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist) is disappointing. I actually like Scafaria's last screenplay -- she has the knack for capture nuances and young love. With this, however, she opts for an off-kilter concept that doesn't quite work. She tries to offer an alternative, comedic look at the end of the world, but what comes across is something implausibly benign and lackluster. Seriously, with six billion people in the world facing their demises, that's the story Scafaria chooses to tell -- an unlikely love story between two people with huge personality, not to mention age, differences?

Certainly there are some genuine and sweet moments. Scafaria offers some keen observations about humanity and society in general, and asks some interesting questions: "What would you do if you know you, and the rest of mankind, have only a few weeks to live?" What falters for the writer, however, is her answers to that question. As I mentioned before, there are a few major problems with the movie, and one of them is the writing. Dodge is possibly one of the most boring protagonists in recent movie history. He plays the straight man to spunky Penny, but the pair just doesn't seems to fit. There lies another problem -- we simply can't believe that Dodge and Penny can fall in love. Even as an "end of the world" love affair, it doesn't really work for me.

Scafaria also makes the mistake of directing this herself. Don't get me wrong, she's an adequate director. She has the skills. But the movie simply comes off as lazy and dull. The pacing is off. I think Scafaria tries too hard to make a movie for everyone. Is it an end-of-the-world social drama, or is it a romance, or is it a road trip buddy movie, or is it a comedy? She can't seem to be able to decide.

The premise is such an interesting high concept that there is so much potential. Unfortunately the filmmakers have made some bad choices as far as characters and storytelling are concerned. While it's not really the "end of the world" bad, it is also forgettable.

Stars: Steve Carell, Keira Knightley, Adam Brody, Martin Sheen, T.J. Miller, William Petersen, Mark Moses
Director: Lorene Scafaria
Writer: Lorene Scafaria
Distributor: Focus
MPAA Rating:  R for language, sexual references, some drugs and brief violence
Running Time: 101 minutes 

Script - 5
Performance - 7
Direction - 7
Cinematography - 7
Music/Sound - 7
Editing - 7
Production - 7
Total - 6.7 out of 10.0 

Rock of Ages

© 2012 Ray Wong

Rock of Ages is an interesting kind of musical: it is low-brow and it aims to please the mass audience by using hit songs as its soundtrack. And yet within this context, the movie works on some levels and doesn't on others.

Sherrie (Julianne Hough) is a small town girl from Oklahoma who dreams of being a singer in Los Angeles. She finally makes the move and arrives in LA, only to have her belongings stolen. A nice young man, Drew (Diego Boneta), comes to her rescue and helps her get a job at the nightclub where he works. The club is owned by Dennis (Alec Baldwin), an aging rocker who's staging his comeback by booking Rock 'n' Roll superstar Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) for a one-night-only gig.

Stacee Jaxx turns out to be a complete jerk messed up with drugs and booze. Still, he is THE Stacee Jaxx. Everyone is letting him get his way, except Rolling Stones reporter Constance (Malin Akerman), who despite her attraction to Stacee Jaxx refuses to play nice with her interview. Meanwhile, mayoral candidate Mike Whitmore is campaigning on a conservative agenda, and his wife Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is launching a full assault on Stacee Jaxx in the name of cleaning up LA and protecting the children.

Of course, Sherrie and Drew fall in love with each other. When talented Drew is on the verge of getting discovered by Stacee Jaxx's oily manager (Paul Giamatti), a misunderstanding keeps Sherrie and Drew apart. Will their young love survive? Will Dennis save his business? Will Stacee Jaxx sober up and save his career? Will the Whitmores succeed?

Julianne Hough (Footloose) is no stranger to musicals. As the naive girl with huge 80s hair, Hough is sweet and cute. Her performance is somewhat light and her voice is slight. But she has great chemistry with Diego Boneta (90210) who is making his film debut, here. Boneta has a strong pop voice (probably a bit slight for rock n roll) and does an amiable job as the lovestruck musician.

The movie belongs to the veteran actors, however. Alec Baldwin (To Rome with Love) is groovy as the aging rocker-turn-bar owner. His performance is breezy and lovable. Russell Brand (Arthur) is energetic and fun-loving as Baldwin's righthand man. Bryan Cranston (John Carter) hams it up for the role of the conservative mayoral candidate, while Catherine Zeta-Jones (No Reservation) goes all out with her vindictive character. Paul Giamatti (The Ides of March) is suitably slimy, and Malin Akerman (Wanderlust) does a good job switching between lust and disgust as the reporter.

Of course, the standout here is superstar Tom Cruise himself as superstar Stacee Jaxx. Cruise completely embodies the washed-out rocker physically, mentally and vocally. He owns every scene.

Adapted from the hit musical by Chris D'Arenzo, with co-writers Justin Theroux (Iron Man 2) and Allan Loeb (The Dilemma), the screenplay is probably the weakest link in the film. The predictable and cliched story may have worked on Broadway, but it fares less favorably as a movie. At the core it's a love story two small-town dreamers in a big city. Where have we seen this done before? Oh, as recently as yet another musical called Burlesque (in which Julianne Hough costarred). Everything from the characters to the plot and dialogue is cliched and one-dimensional.

Don't get me wrong, though. The familiarity eventually works for the movie in a campy, outrageous way as this is a broad comedy with 80s' hit songs as the soundtrack. And let's talk about the soundtrack, which is what this MUSICAL is all about. If you grew up or lived through the 80s, you would be familiar with the songs, which work extremely well in the context of the plot. The rock anthems and the love ballads fit seamlessly and they are great crowd pleasers. The soundtrack alone (even if it's auto-tuned) is worth the price of the admission.

Director Adam Shankman (Hairspray) didn't set out to make high art. He wanted to make a campy, rousing musical set in the campy, rousing era of the 1980s. With that in mind, I think he has mostly succeeded. The musical is all about huge hair, huge sets, huge sounds and a huge cast. It's a crowd pleaser and boy, does it please. It rocks!

Stars: Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Bryan Cranston, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Paul Giamatti, Malin Akerman
Director: Adam Shankman
Writers: Justin Theroux, Chris D'Arenzo, Allan Loeb (based on musical by Chris D'Arenzo)
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, suggestive dancing, heavy drinking, and language
Running Time: 123 minutes 

Script - 6
Performance - 8
Direction - 7
Cinematography - 8
Music/Sound - 10
Editing - 7
Production - 8
Total - 7.5 out of 10.0 


© 2012 Ray Wong

A lot of buzz and hype have been surrounding Prometheus, Ridley Scott's first sci-fi extravaganza in more than thirty years. Not to mention the rumors that it is an Alien prequel. Well, it turns that it is, and it isn't.

The story opens with a spaceship hovering ancient Earth, and a humanoid ingests something which results in his agonizing death as he disintegrates into a rushing waterfall. Now in 2086, archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discovers ancient cave drawings, dated 35000 years ago, that depicts alien beings and their star constellation. Shaw and Holloway believe these aliens may answer an age-old question: Who created mankind?

Seven years later, an expedition is being funding by wealthy businessman Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce). After a two-year voyage, spacecraft Prometheus arrives at the moon of a distant planet. Led by Weyland executive Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and captain Janek (Idris Elba), and assisted by an android named David (Michael Fassbender), the team discovers a few pyramids on the uninhabitable moon. More impressively, they discover breathable air within one of the structures, as well as bodies of giant humanoids.

The mystery deepens as Shaw and the team realize something horrific happened to these humanoids. Despite Vickers' objection, Shaw takes the head of one of the giant humanoids to the ship to examine it. Meanwhile, David secretly returns with a mysterious urn, which contains a strange dark organic matter. As Janek theorizes the nature of the structures and who these humanoids were, Shaw discovers something far more sinister what completely changes her life and threatens everybody on the ship. And on Earth.

Noomi Rapace (Sherlock Holmes 2) has large shoes to fill as audiences no doubt will compare her to Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in the original Alien series. While Shaw is a completely different character, Rapace holds her own by creating a strong, resilient and resourceful woman. Charlize Theron (Snow White and the Huntsman) is the perfect ice queen, and fill her predictable role as "the suit" with an interesting twist. 

The rest of the cast, however, is a motley crew of familiar characters played skillfully by good actors. Idris Elba (Thor) is charismatic and tough as Janek, making the character's decisions believable. Guy Pearce (Lockout) is barely recognizable as the elderly Weyland, and he is in good form even though the role is surprisingly minor. Logan Marshall-Green (Devil) seems somewhat out of place -- his frat boy looks and demeanors do not convince us that he is a serious scientist. Same goes with Sean Harris (Brighton Rock) and Rafe Spall (Anonymous), who play a geologist and biologist respectively. Emun Elliot (Black Death) and Benedict Wong (The Lady) fare better as copilots.

The standout, though, has to be Michael Fassbender (Shame). As a walking and dancing HAL, Fassbender has created, both physically and psychologically, so many layers to the character, which is intelligent, arrogant, but also childlike, and as Meredith Vickers describes him: without a soul. Fassbender's character serves as a reference point of the entire story and themes, and he has done an incredible job.

Originally written by John Spaihts (The Darkest Hour) and then reworked by Damon Lindelof (LOST), the screenplay is surprisingly more philosophical than visceral. In the veins of the original Alien, which was a sci-fi / horror epic, Prometheus actually shares more similarities with Bladerunner and 2001: Space Odyssey. It is contemplative and at times even introspective, daring to ask some deep existential questions: Where did we come from? Who created us? And why?

These are grand themes that, unfortunately, deserve better treatments. Prometheus doesn't shy from asking these questions, but it falls short of answering any of them. The problem I have with the writing is that the plot goes into familiar territory and seems forced. Despite some terrific setups and intrigues, the plot falls apart when it tries to pay tribute to Alien. Most absurdly, the characters' motivations are never clear or explained. The writers seem to want the audience to think and come to their own conclusions, but the result is that we are simply confused. Not to mention other than Shaw, David and perhaps even Vickers, all the characters are rather cliched or flat.

While the writing falls short, the production under the direction of Ridley Scott (Robin Hood) is masterful. The visuals are astounding. The production value is amazing. Through and the through it looks and feels like an epic. The pacing also is excellent. There really isn't anything bad about Scott's direction or the production -- everything is top-notch. The flaws completely lie in the writing.

Prometheus is intelligent and thought-provoking, and the movie is amazing to look at. But as a horror film, it falls short of being horrific. As an action film, it delivers quite beautifully despite cliched moments and plot elements. As science fiction, however, it leaves too much unanswered. By trying hard not to be an Alien prequel and yet still connected with the original series, Prometheus falls short in connecting with the audience.

Stars: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce, Logan Marshall-Green, Sean Harris, Rafe Spall, Emun Elliott, Benedict Wong, Kate Dickie, Patrick Wilson
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: John Spaihts, Damon Lindelof
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
MPAA Rating: R for sci-fi violence, intense images, language
Running Time: 124 minutes 

Script - 6
Performance - 8
Direction - 8
Cinematography - 8
Music/Sound - 7
Editing - 8
Production - 10
Total - 7.6 out of 10.0