Ruby Sparks

© 2012 Ray Wong

Movies about writers usually come in a few flavors: love-sick writers (Neverland), crazy writers (Secret Window), or geniuses (Wonder Boys). The protagonist of Ruby Sparks happens to be all of the above.

Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is a boy wonder, having written a best-selling masterpiece at age 19. He is also haunted and stuck with his early success, not being able to write anything that matches his debut in 10 years. Now 29, creatively blocked and living on his loyalties and occasional speaking engagements, Calvin is a recluse. He's also ended a tumultuous 5-year relationship with fellow writer Lila (Deborah Ann Woll) and is emotionally unavailable. He's trying to sort out his life with the help of psychologist Dr. Rosenthal (Elliott Gould). 

Things start to change when Calvin dreams about a perfect woman named Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan). Inspired by his dreams, Calvin begins to write about Ruby, and realizes that he's falling in love with his protagonist. His brother Harry (Chris Messina), however, chastises him for being unrealistic, even in his fictional world, for a perfect woman like Ruby doesn't exist. Soon, however, Ruby shows up at Calvin's apartment and insists that they're in a relationship. Calvin believes he has finally lost his mind.

When he realizes Ruby is real (other people can see her, too), he becomes ecstatic and baffled. Not only has he created a real person out of pure imagination -- it is magic; that's the only explanation Calvin can give -- she is everything he ever wanted. Smart, sweet, spunky, beautiful, emotionally available. However, as their relationship continues and deepens, problems begin to arise. When Calvin realizes Ruby is losing interest and may leave him, he become desperate. That is, until he realizes he can make Ruby do anything he wants, because he created her!

Paul Dano (Being Flynn) is perfect as Calvin, a pale, scrawny, young but reclusive boy-genius writer. Physically Dano embodies the character wonderfully, but there's so much more to Dano's performance that brings the character to life. He's absolutely convincing as a complicated, genius writer who still prefers to write on a typewriter. Dano has a penchant for playing unconventional, quirky, deeply flawed and complicated characters, and he's struck gold again with Calvin.

Zoe Kazan (It's Complicated), who also wrote the screenplay, is not quite the normal "dream girl." While cute, she is not gorgeous. She's smart, but not a genius. She's affectionate, but not clingy. In another word, she's everything that Calvin would want because she is not threatening and she adores him. Kazan portrays the character with an earnestness that defies the conventional idea of what a "dream girl" should be -- she is absolutely what Calvin Weir-Fields would consider a dream girl.

The supporting cast is rather good, too. Chris Messina (Like Crazy), who plays Calvin's happily married brother, is the complete opposite of Dano. It takes a little time to get used to the idea that he is playing Dano's brother, not best friend, but once we accept that fact, their chemistry leaps off the screen. It works. Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right) is wonderful, as usual, as Calvin's mother. Antonio Banderas (Haywire) has a small role as Bening's live-in lover. Steve Coogan (Darkwood Manor) is superbly smarmy  as Calvin's agent, and Deborah Ann Woll (True Blood) has a brief but intense role as Calvin's ex Lila.

Zoe Kazan's given us a whimsical yet dark fantasy, as well as a witty romantic comedy and a disturbing love story. As a writer, Kazan understands the craziness that happens inside a writer's mind, and the god complex as the sole creator of worlds and characters that become "real." What is interesting is that Kazan also has a keen observation about the matter of love. One of the themes is "what is reality?" From Harry's point of view, Ruby isn't real, even though she appears in as flesh and blood. To Calvin, she is, but in reality, Ruby is total fabricated version of a woman, not a real person. Kazan explores that theme but does not answer it directly.

There are many interesting and humorous moments that warrant a chuckle or two, but as a comedy, the material never quite lifts off. Then the story takes a dark and serious turn, and the movie feels like a different one. The tone is uneven. That's why "dramedies" are difficult to do well -- it's all about the delicate balance between humor and seriousness. Ruby Sparks isn't funny enough as a comedy -- it's whimsical, all right -- but gets a bit too moody and serious for the lighthearted audience.

Maybe the reason is that there are two directors at the helm? Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine) and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) have done a good job with this project, but their co-direction falls a bit short of their past efforts. The pacing seems off at times. Again, the tone is uneven, but I blame that on the screenplay and not the direction.

Ruby Sparks is an interesting mix of drama, comedy and fantasy. It reminds me of another writer-related fantasy, Stranger than Fiction, in which a writer's character discovers that he's only a figment of someone's imagination. In a way, Ruby Sparks is more focused and less fanciful. And that may be the reason why it lacks just enough sparks to make it a true gem.

Stars: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Aasif Mandvi, Steve Coogan, Deborah Ann Woll, Elliott Gould
Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Writer: Zoe Kazan
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
MPAA Rating:  R for language, sexual references and some drug use
Running Time: 104 minutes 


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

Total - 7.3 out of 10.0 

The Dark Knight Rises

© 2012 Ray Wong

Writer-Director Christopher Nolan was determined to end his Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises, despite the films' tremendous profitability, popularity and prestige. That takes a lot of discipline, and it pays off.

Eight years after the conclusion of The Dark Knight, where the Batman was blamed for the death of Harvey Dent, billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is still a recluse, still mourning the death of the love of his life, Rachel Dawes. Gotham City, however, seems to bask in its peace and glory, with organized crime almost nonexistent. Everything changes when a new terrorist, a hulking masked man named Bane (Tom Hardy) arrives with an army of underground thugs, determined to tear the city apart.

With the city in turmoil and the police, under the leadership of commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), unprepared and understaffed, Bruce Wayne decides that Batman must reemerge to protect the city and defeat Bane. For fear of his master's death, loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine) urges Wayne to reconsider and reveals the truth about Rachel. The rift forces Alfred to depart, leaving Wayne all alone to fight Bane, whom Wayne later discovers was one of Ra's Al Ghul's (Liam Neeson) proteges, just like Wayne himself. Because of their similar training, Bane is a match for Wayne's skills and mind, but also is physically superior. For some reasons, Bane already knows that Wayne is Batman. Bane succeeds in wiping out Wayne's fortune and seriously hurting Batman and then keeping Wayne in a remote prison so Wayne can watch Gotham City being destroyed, bit by bit, until it is soon to be annihilated by a nuclear bomb.

But Wayne/Batman is not alone in his fight. Helping him is loyal employee Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who continues to outfit Batman with the most technologically advanced weaponry. Besides Gordon, a rookie detective Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) also selflessly assists Wayne in any way -- it turns out that Blake has figured out Batman's identity. There is also Selina (Anne Hathaway), a burglar who has a way of getting Batman to Bane, and Miranda (Marion Cotillard), Wayne's business partner and love interest. Together, Bruce Wayne and his friends will try everything they've got to stop Bane from destroying Gotham and millions of innocent lives.

It's hard to believe Christian Bale (The Flowers of War) is only 38. His resume has been impressive and he clearly has established himself as one of the most versatile and intense actors of his generation. Reprising his role as Bruce Wayne/Batman should not be difficult for Bale, but he manages to bring more depth and soul into the character, taking us on an emotional journey which is rather rare for a superhero action movie.

Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) is of course great as Commissioner Gordon. Tom Hardy (Inception) is a formidable villain as Bane, even though most of the movie he is hidden behind a strange, crab-like mask and layers of winter clothes. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (50/50) plays a new character (but not unfamiliar to fans of the Batman universe) with great empathy and likability. Marion Cotillard (Inception) is rather good as Miranda, but the top female lead award goes to Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables), who is quite sensational as Selina/Catwoman, who for once matches Bruce Wayne in smarts, wit, skills and sexuality.

Written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, the screenplay stays true to the themes and tone of the previous two movies. But the Nolan brothers take a step further and paint Gotham City with a much darker brushstroke. While Bane may not be as sensational and amazing as the Joker, he is every bit as sociopathic and terrorizing. The Nolan brothers tackle many serious themes from corruption to politics, from personal sacrifice to loyalty, just to name a few. Thus, at times, even at a runtime of almost 3 hours, the movie seems to rush. There are simply too many characters, relationships, plot elements and themes to cover. Often we're left with a breathless pace and somewhat a disorientation: "Say what? What just happened?"

I feel that this could have been better if split into two (like what they did with Harry Potter: The Deathly Hallow). They would have had more time to further develop the intricate relationships and personal arcs, slow down the breakneck pace, and give the audience something more substantial to chew on. As is, the movie is good in that it's exciting, with many amazing set pieces, actions, and great characters. It's just not deep enough because the filmmakers have run out of time.

Christopher Nolan's direction is superb, nonetheless, despite the sometimes-rushed pace. Nolan has chosen to limit CGI special effects, and instead relied quite a bit on old-fashioned movie magic. And the result is both exhilarating and exhausting at times. Some scenes are truly amazing (the opening sequence, for example, of the sequence at a football stadium). Some, however, seem overdone or understated, leaving me with an impression of unevenness. Still, there's no question that Nolan is at the top of his game, even though I can see some of his fatigue seeping through in this production. I'm sure it's a relief for him that he's done with this trilogy for good.

And what a good job. Surely, this is not the best of the trilogy (the second movie, as usually, is the best). But Nolan ends it with quite a bang. It's a solid conclusion to a great trilogy.

Stars: Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Matthew Modine, Liam Neeson
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating:  PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some language and sexuality
Running Time: 164 minutes 

Script - 7
Performance - 8
Direction - 8
Cinematography - 8
Music/Sound - 8
Editing - 9
Production - 9
Total - 7.9 out of 10.0 

My Sister's Sister

© 2012 Ray Wong

You know it's a small, personal, intimate project when you see the sole writer is also the sole director. Such is Lynn Shelton's Your Sister's Sister, an indie drama that centers entirely on three people at a cabin.

Jack (Mark Duplass) is an unemployed drifter. His best friend is Iris (Emily Blunt), who is also Jack's brother's girlfriend. Was. Jack's brother Tom died a year ago. While Tom's friends all revere him, Jack has a different take -- he thinks his brother was a prick and none of their friends know Tom the way Jack did. Except Iris, of course.

Jack is still struggling with Tom's death and his own aimless life, so Iris invites him to stay at her family island cabin for the weekend to "sort things out." Upon his arrival, Jack bumps into Hannah (Rosmarie DeWitt), Iris's older sister who happens to need to "sort things out" at the cabin as well. One thing leads to another, and Jack ends up having a brief sexual encounter with Hannah, even though she is a lesbian.

The next morning, Iris shows up at the cabin unannounced. Jack tries desperately to hide the truth from Iris, and that leads Hannah to suspects that Jack is secretly in love with Iris. Then Iris drops the bomb with her sister: Iris, too, is secretly in love with Jack. Hannah agrees to keep the secret to herself. What Jack and Iris don't know, however, is that Hannah has a secret of her own!

Ever since she broke out with The Devil Wears Prada, Emily Blunt (The Five-Year Engagement) has been busy. Except for The Young Victoria, for which she received an Oscar nomination, she hasn't really found the same standout roles yet. As Iris, Blunt is playing it safe again. Don't get me wrong. She is lovely and there is nothing wrong with her heartfelt performance. It's just that it's within her comfort zone -- she is playing the same character she's played in her last few projects.

Actor-writer Mark Duplass (People Like Us) is quickly becoming a name in Hollywood, particularly in the indie circle. Duplass has a very relaxed, natural acting style, which may, too, typecast him as the lovable Joe Average. Again, nothing wrong with that, if it makes him one of the busiest working actors in the business. I really like Duplass's performance, and would like to see what he can do outside of his comfort zone.

By comparison, Rosemarie DeWitt (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) seems more versatile. Her Hannah is lovely and graceful and charming, of course, but there's also this cold and calculated person lurking underneath all that niceness. Her character is by far the most complicated of the three and DeWitt does a fine job with it. It helps, too, that she and Ms. Blunt have great chemistry together -- one can really believe that they are actual sisters.

Written and directed by Lynn Shelton (Humpday), the screenplay has an incredibly intimate feel to it. Three characters, one location, and a whole lot of conflicting emotions and secrets. I think Shelton has done a good job setting the story up and establishing the characters and their relationships. Still, part of me is bothered by the familiarity and contrivance of the situations and circumstances. I understand that it's a personal drama, and not really plot-driven. Still, the story and plot are rather predictable.

Much of the dialogue seems to be improvised as well, which is a nice touch. I like how the actors are so comfortable playing their respective characters -- they seem to really know the characters inside and out, and the dialogue seems genuine and real. Their chemistry with one another is also good, especially between DeWitt and Blunt. The ending is a bit schmaltzy, however.

Stars: Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass, Rosmarie DeWitt, Mike Birbiglia
Director: Lynn Shelton
Writer: Lynn Shelton
Distributor: IFC Films
MPAA Rating:  R for language, sexual content
Running Time: 90 minutes 

Script - 6
Performance - 8
Direction - 7
Cinematography - 7
Music/Sound - 7
Editing - 7
Production - 7
Total - 7.0 out of 10.0 

The Amazing Spider-Man

© 2012 Ray Wong

Just 10 short years from the original Spider-Man movie starring Tobey MacGuire and Kirsten Dunst, do we really need a reboot? That's the question many people are asking, but they will also most likely be going to see this new "origin" movie starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone.

We all know the story well… Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is an "orphaned" teenager living with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). He's a shy but bright kid that is often bullied in school. He has a crush on Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), daughter of police Captain Stacy (Denis Leary). Most often, Peter is just trying to survive high school while trying to figure out what happened his parents, who one day just disappeared.

Then Peter comes across a briefcase left behind by his father Richard (Campbell Scott) that contains a secret "zero degeneration" algorithm on cross-species gene therapy. Peter visits his father's former partner, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), who insists that he doesn't know what happened to Peter's parents. Meanwhile, while snooping around, Peter is bitten by a genetically enhanced spider. Suddenly he gains special powers.

Even as Peter gains new strengths and abilities, and his relationship with Gwen is advancing, he still can't get his mind off the fate of his parents. His erratic behavior helps cause the death of Uncle Ben, and Peter's guilt makes him realize he needs to use his power to help others. Meanwhile, Dr. Connors uses Richard Parker's algorithm to successfully create a serum, and he uses himself as the subject of a human trial. He is both frightened and excited to realize the result as he turns into The Lizard…

Andrew Garfield (The Social Network) holds his own against his predecessor as the iconic Peter Park/Spider-Man. He is different from Tobey MacGuire in that his Peter Parker is more angsty and motivated, and his Spider-Man is more giddy. He also gives his character enough depth. As Gwen Stacy, Emma Stone (The Help) is effervescent, intelligent, and strong-willed. However, Ms. Stone falls a little short in making this character really shine. Unlike Dunst's MJ in the original series, Stone seems to be in Peter Parker's shadow most of the time. She deserves better.

Rhys Ifans (Anonymous) is excellent as Dr. Connors/The Lizard. As the good doctor, Ifans is gentle and sharp, but he has enough of a shady side to make us believe he can be the bad guy. Denis Leary (Ice Age) is dutiful as Captain Stacy. While he's somewhat one-note as the Captain, he shows a soft side when he's playing father to Gwen. Martin Sheen (Imagine That) and Sally Field (Say It Isn't So) are both excellent as Uncle Ben and Aunt May respectively. That's no surprise.

While the all-star cast is good, the problem with the movie lies with the writing. The screenplay by James Vanderbilt (Zodiac), Alvin Sargent (Spider-Man 2) and Steve Kloves (Wonder Boys) is pretty much a regurgitation of the original. It's a surprise considering they are all talented writers, and Sargent actually wrote Spider-Man 2 and 3. The familiar plot feels rushed (in comparison, the original movie took its time). While trying to distinguish this from the original, the writers make some changes to the characters and circumstances, but the result seems like a hack job and is not convincing. The circumstances leading to Uncle Ben's death, for example, is rather dumb, to be honest.

The problem with doing a reboot, especially in such a short time, is that the original is still rather fresh in our minds. Comparison is inevitable. Fair or not, by comparison this movie pales. As I said, the plot seems rushed, and the circumstances are contrived. What the writers did well, however, is that they have succeeded in developing the key relationships: between Peter and his uncle and aunt, between Peter and Gwen, between Peter and Dr. Connors, and between Gwen and Captain Stacy.

But nothing is new here -- nothing we haven't really seen before, and unfortunately director Marc Webb ((500) Days of Summer) also didn't bring anything new to this production. It's a shame because I love (500) Days of Summer. Perhaps this movie is simply too big as Webb's second feature. He's not seasoned enough to handle a big blockbuster, yet.  Don't get me wrong, the movie has all the elements and special effects, etc. and it is quite entertaining. It's just that there's nothing new and fresh here, and one keeps asking the question, "Why a reboot?" without getting a clear answer except "because they can milk more money out of this."

That's a shame, and I am sure that's exactly what Marvel and Sony are planning to do. But I am not impressed. This is far short of being amazing.

Stars: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen, Sally Field, Campbell Scott
Director: Marc Webb
Writers: James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, Steve Kloves
Distributor: Sony
MPAA Rating:  PG-13 for sequences of action and violence
Running Time: 136 minutes 

Script - 6
Performance - 7
Direction - 7
Cinematography - 8
Music/Sound - 7
Editing - 8
Production - 8
Total - 7.1 out of 10.0