The Sapphires

© 2013 Ray Wong

Australian movies tend to have lots of heart, and The Sapphires, which tells a unique story of four Aboriginal girls who finds themselves in showbiz during the Vietnam War, is no exception.

Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Kessica Mauboy) and Cynthia (Miranda Tpsell), together with their light-skinned cousin Kay (Shari Sebbers), are four Aboriginal girls who love to sing. Looking for a way to do what they love and get out of their small community, they seek out opportunities to showcase their singing talents, even though the white folks in town treat them like garbage.

However, their talents get the attention of Dave Lovelace (Chris O'Dowd), a music man trying to make a buck. Julie -- by far the best singer in the group -- suggests they audition for part of a singing troop for GIs in Vietnam. The gig would pay $30 a week. Out of a job, Dave volunteers to be their manager. The first thing he does is to urge the girls to sing Soul instead of Country/Western. His advice pays off as they pass the audition and earn their way to Saigon.

Once in Saigon, they realize that they may have bitten more than they can chew. The area is deep in the war, and their schedule is hectic without a guarantee that they will get paid, or not get killed, for that matter. Still, the girls are having the time of their lives. Kay falls for a young American GI named Robby (Tory Kittles), and Julie catches the eye of a local talent scout. But soon the war escalates and the group loses their military security. Things take a bad turn… 

Ever since his breakout role in The Bridesmaids, Chris O'Dowd is making a name for himself for playing lovable dweebs. Here, as the down-and-out wannabe musician who sees his way out with these four talented girls, O'Dowd exudes a sense of self-deprecating confidence and like-ability that makes us want to see him win, despite his flaws. O'Dowd just makes it look so easy and affable.

Deborah Mailman (The Secret Life of Us), who plays the oldest of the girls, is excellently feisty, bossy, crappy and yet caring and vulnerable and sensitive. She and O'Dowd have tremendous chemistry together. Australian singer Jessica Mauboy has a great voice and does a good job as Julie, even though her character is probably the least developed. Miranda Tapsell (Magical Tales) is affectingly fiery, like a firecracker, as Cynthia, and Shari Sebbers (Violet) is dutiful as one of the "lost generation" children -- those fair-skinned Aboriginal children who were abducted by the government during the 50s and 60s.

Written by Tony Briggs (On the Nose) and Keith Thompson (Fireflies), the screenplay has a down to earth quality to it. Set in the late 60s, the story has to find a balance between being a period piece and yet connecting with the younger audience, especially with the Vietnam War in the backdrop. The result is that the story does gloss over some of the historical details of either of the plights of the Aboriginal people in Australia and the Vietnam War. While the story focuses on the main characters, which are really well written and developed, the side characters such as Robby or the soldiers, are somewhat sketchy and stereotypical.

In Wayne Blair's (Lucky Leonard) hand, however, the movie clips along at a nice pace, and the character development (of the main characters) is spot on. Blair manages to find a balance between comedy and drama, between excitement and introspection, between high emotions and humor. The movie never quite wanders into melodramatic territory, even though it comes close a few times. Instead, we get a solid musical about these interesting characters, sort of like Dreamgirls but set in Australia and the Vietnam War.

With its crowd-pleasing premise, likable stars and a good, heart-warming story, While not as spectacular as Dreamgirls, The Sapphires offers a different take on the same concept. It's quite an attractive little gem.

Stars: Chris O'Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbers, Miranda Tapsell, Tory Kittles, Don Battee
Director: Wayne Blair
Writers: Tony Briggs, Keith Thompson
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
MPAA Rating:  PG-13 for sexuality, war violence, language, thematic elements and smoking
Running Time: 103 minutes


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

Total - 7.3 out of 10.0 

Olympus Has Fallen

© 2013 Ray Wong

So it's not as bad as Transformers 3, but if you're expect something smart and suspenseful like Air Force One, then you'd be sorely disappointed with Olympus Has Fallen.

After making a difficult decision to save President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) during an accident, secret service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) has been demoted to working at the Treasury Department. Mike misses his old job, hates his new one, and has trouble focusing on other aspects of his life such as his marriage.

On a fateful day, a series of events unfold and caught Washington DC in a surprise terrorist attack led by a North Korean fraction leader Kang (Rick Yune). The White House is under siege; the President, VP and top officials are held hostage in a maximum-security bunker under the White House. Springing to action, Mike finds his way back to the White House on a sole mission to save the President and his son Connor (Finley Jacobsen). Well, and to defeat the terrorists, of course.

The terrorists are well organized and manage to wipe out the secret service and keep the military at bay. Their demands not only threaten the stability of the two Koreas but also the way of life in America as the they try to break the highly classified Cerberus Code, which would detonate all the anti-nuclear missiles in the country. Alone on a one-man mission, Mike is racing against time not only to save the President, but also the world.

Despite a few missteps in recent years, Gerard Butler (Movie 43) is in top form in a Die Hard-esque role. Somehow Butler manages to add some layers to the super-human character and make us care about him as a real human being. He is also ruthless, strong and determined when he's called to do the incredible. Butler more than redeem himself as an action hero in this otherwise nonsensical thriller.

Aaron Eckhart (The Dark Knight) tries his best to rise above the material but it's just not enough. His President Asher is generic and weak especially compared to superhero Mike Banning. Finley Jacobsen (Marmaduke) is adorable as Connor but doesn't really have much to do -- at least he is not annoying as most child characters are in thrillers. Rick Yune (The Man With the Iron Fist) is one-note and stereotypical -- I counted, like, three expressions on his face and he constantly reminds me of someone who is suffering from constipation; Mr. Yune should learn how to be a memorable villain by studying Javier Bardem.

Dylan McDermott (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) is a caricature of the "good guy turns bad." We never quite understand his motivation or true character, and thus he is just a predictable pawn in the plot and nothing else. Morgan Freeman (The Dark Knight Rises) somehow still becomes presidential as Speaker Trumbull, and he could pretty much sleep-walk while playing his role. Angela Bassett (This Means War) used to do great dramatic work, but lately she's been reduced to playing stock "strong female" characters in otherwise male-dominated films. The standout here is Melissa Leo (Flight) who turns in one of the most memorable performances as Secretary of Defense, Ruth McMillan -- now that's a character we'd love to root for, not President Asher.

The screenplay by first-time writers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Bendikt shows how green they still are. Truth be told, the story and plot follow every genre trope imaginable, and the problem is that the writers don't let the story breathe. Instead, they pile on everything and then throw even more stuff in the sink. Other than a few moments of quiet reflection, they never give the characters a chance to develop. The motivations are often murky and generic. So, let's replace the bad "Russians" with yet another Communist group -- the North Koreans -- and they are basically regurgitating. The dialogue is mostly serviceable but generic as well.

Granted, there are some genuinely clever moments and plot deviations. I particularly like how Kang's plan slowly unfolds with precision and thoughtfulness, with one misdirection after another. Unfortunately, after such promising plot devices and development, the story turns to predictably absurd, only to set up one obstacle after another to make room for Mr. Banning to play Bruce Willis and save the world while going at it. The once-promising open road suddenly turns into a minefield of plot holes.

Director Antoine Fuqua's (Shooter) bombastic style is both a merit and detriment to the movie. On one hand, he keeps the action and thrills moving at a breakneck pace, rarely slowing down enough for the discerning audience to ponder the huge plot holes. On the other hand, it is exhausting as he leaves no room for the characters or the audience to breathe. It's not just one crisis, but multiple crisis and somehow we are  expected to believe that Mike Banning can singlehandedly fix everything. As the body count cumulates, so is a sense of weariness. The production is handsome enough, and the replicas of the White House and Washington are well done, but the music is something else. The score by Trevor Morris (The Immortals) is equally bombastic and cliched -- by the second scene I am already tired of that overbearing score.

Die Hard at the White House is an apt description of what this movie really is. By and large, the best things about it is Gerard Butler, and that is no small feat considering the stinkers he has been in lately. Still, Mr. Butler alone can't save this bombastic by-the-number thriller, even if we manage to check our brains at the door for two hours of pure thrills -- it is just mind-numbing like bad porn.

Stars: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Finley Jacobsen, Dylan McDermott, Rick Yune, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Melissa Leo, Ashley Judd
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Writers: Creighton Rothenberger, Katrin Bendikt
Distributor: FilmDistrict
MPAA Rating:  R for strong violence and language
Running Time: 120 minutes


Script - 6
Performance - 6
Direction - 7
Cinematography - 7
Music/Sound - 4
Editing - 7
Production - 7

Total - 6.1 out of 10.0 

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

© 2013 Ray Wong

Steve Carell used to be funny. What happened? That was the question I kept asking while watching The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.

Burt (Steve Carell) was a small town kid who used to get bullied, until he found his calling: magic. On his birthday he was given a Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin) Magic Kit by his mother, and he was hooked immediately. Through his desire to become a great magician like Rance, he became popular and also met his best friend Anton (Steve Buscemi). Anton became his partner in crime and together they became one of the biggest act in Las Vegas.

30 years of friendship and fame later, they see their following dwindling rapidly. There is a new guy in town named Steve Gray (Jim Carey), a street magician who performs outrageous stunts. Burt and Anton at first consider Steve a hack, but as their own act becomes stale and they lose their younger audiences, their boss, casino mogul Doug Munny (James Gandolfini) fires them. Burt's ego becomes so big and his lifestyle so lavish that he's instantly broke but he refuses to acknowledge his problems, and his friendship with Anton suffers. They finally go their separate ways.

Burt has to find odd jobs to make ends meet. Eventually, he works as an entertainer at a retirement home, and that's where he meets his idol Rance. The retired magician inspires Burt once again, as he did 30 years ago, and reminds Burt what magic means to him. Through the help of an aspiring magician Jane (Olivia Wilde), Burt finds his passion again, and most important, his friendship with Anton. Together, they must defeat Steve Gray and get back to the top again.

Steve Carell (Crazy, Stupid, Love) used to be funny when he was just a side character, but since he became a leader man, his brand of humor becomes more and more cliched and tiresome with every new film. That is, except when he is actually doing a dramedy such as Crazy, Stupid, Love. In a full-on comedy, though, he seems to be satisfied with playing the same character over and over again. Burt Wonderstone is no different from the assortment of bumbling fools he's played before, and throughout the film I keep reminding myself "there is a danger of being typecast." No doubt these films have made Mr. Carell very, very, rich, but they are also on the path of career suicide if he keeps taking them.

Steve Buscemi (On the Road) has a better time with the character of Anton, a soft-spoken, gentle friend that is so different from his character in Broadwalk Empire. Buscemi is the true chameleon here. Olivia Wilde (People Like Us) has done some good films as well as duds lately. Unfortunately, this goes to her column of duds -- she needs to find something better if she wants to break out of her "supporting actress in crappy movies" status. Jim Carrey (Mr. Popper's Penguins) also seems to phone in his performance as the eccentric, crazy street magician. There is absolutely no depth or dimensions to his character -- I think Mr. Carrey has resigned to steer clear of deeper, dramatic characters and stick with being a human cartoon.

Rounding out the cast are Alan Arkin (Argo) whose talent is wasted here, and James Gandolfini (Zero Dark Thirty) as the uncaring mogul (aka Donald Trump). Jay Mohr (Hereafter) also has a small role that amounts to nothing.

Written by Jonathan W. Goldstein and John Francis Daley of Horrible Bosses, the screenplay is a letdown considering how sharply satirical and funny Horrible Bosses was. They could have done so much with the bizarre world of Vegas showbiz, but they seriously miss the boat by focusing on the lame aspects of the story and characters that are caricatures and cliches. There is not a doubt where the story is heading and how it is going to end. There is no suspense, no twists, and no depth. If Bridesmaids could achieve all that while being hilariously funny, these writers need to up their game. 

Don Scardino (30 Rock) came from TV, and it shows. His direction is pedestrian and uninspired, and the whole film has a TV episode look and feel to it. He does what he's paid for doing, but I'd be embarrassed to mention this on my resume if I were him, especially if I want to cross over to film from TV.

Burt Wonderstone is a lame, cliched, tiresome comedy that never really takes off.

Stars: Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Jim Carrey, James Gandolfini, Alan Arkin, Jay Mohr
Director: Don Scardino
Writers: Jonathan W. Goldstein, John Francis Daley
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating:  PG-13 for sexual content, dangerous stunts, drug-related incident, language
Running Time: 100 minutes


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

Total - 6.2 out of 10.0 

Oz the Great and Powerful

© 2013 Ray Wong

An unofficial prequel to the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz, Disney's Oz The Great and Powerful unabashed pay homage to the film (while steering clear of any legal issue as the film is property of Warner Bros.) and L. Frank Baum's book.

Oscar "Oz" (James Franco) is a Kansas carnival magician, or a self-proclaimed conman, trying to make a few bucks. He is also quite a ladies' man. While escaping from a beating, Oz climbs into a hot-air balloon only to find himself in the middle of a tornado. Soon he finds himself in a strange land full of wondrous sights.

The first person he meets after he crash-landed is Theodora (Mila Kunis), who tells Oz that she is a good witch, and that Oz must be the wizard according to the late King's prophecy. The Theodora convinces Oz to come with her to the castle so he can help her and her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) defeat the wicked witch. At the same time, Theodora falls in love with Oz.

Lured by the promises of the kingdom and riches beyond his belief, Oz accepts the challenge of helping the sisters. He sets off, with is humble sidekick Finney (Zach Braff) to the Dark Forest to find the wicked witch and on his way, he saves a porcelain girl named China Doll (Joey King) from the ruins of her village. When they find the wicked witch, they discover something they didm't expect…

James Franco (Lovelace) could have been a great Wizard of Oz, what with his dashing looks and charm. But it is not an easy character to play -- at first Oz appears to be an unlikable conman and womanizer. Franco's portrayal never goes deeper than the obvious, and his goofy grins and demeanors are distracting. The role was originally written for Robert Downey Jr and I can see him as a much better Oz. That's not good for Franco.

Mila Kunis (Ted) is fine as Theodora, especially in the beginning. Later, as her character goes through some changes, Kunis' performance becomes less convincing and more grating. Rachel Weisz (The Bourne Legacy) is dazzling as Evanora, however. She is deliciously flamboyant and evil, even though she is extraordinarily beautiful in those outrageous costumes. Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn) is also fantastic as Glinda the Good.

The supporting cast includes Zach Braff (Tar) who plays both Frank (Oz's real-life assistance) and voices the flying money Finney. Braff does a fine job with both. Bill Cobbs (The Muppets) is steadfast and stoic as Master Tinker. Joey King (The Dark Knight Rises) also plays dual roles but her voice as China Doll is wonderful.

The original story is written by Michael Kapner (Romeo Must Die) and David Lindsay-Abaire (Rise of the Guardians), based on L. Frank Baum's classic novel. They've taken many elements of the book and weaved a backstory surrounding the arrival of the Wizard of Oz. It's hard not to compare this to the 1939 movie starring Judy Garland. It is not an easy job to steer clear of the classic film (since Disney has no rights to it) but true to the book. By and large, the writers have done an admirable job piecing it all together, although the story arc and plot do seem to feel tired and cliched -- after all, it is a story and characters we've come to love (and copied) for 100 years.

Sam Raimi's (Spider-Man) direction is a mixed bag. Visually stunning, the production is as fantastic as we can get. A good mix of CGI, old-fashioned effects and real ornate sets, Raimi obviously pays homage to the classic film while also trying to steer away from anything that is clearly not in the book but in that movie. While the imageries are fantastical, the pacing is off at times, especially in the middle when Oz is trekking his way to find the wicked witch. Also, Raimi's direction, at times, are bogged down by the huge production, large cast of extras and the special effects. It feels drawn out.

That said, the movie is every bit as colorful, vibrant, fun and entertaining as the MGM classic, and is a worthy prequel to it because of it.  Raimi's taken care of matching the two films while sidestepping any legal issues with Warner Bros. and the result is a careful, thoughtful collaboration of creativity. Despite its flaws and a rather lackluster lead, I thoroughly enjoyed the film and it is mostly to Raimi's credit. Oz may not be great or powerful, but it certainly is lovely.

Stars: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Bill Cobbs, Joey King, Tony Cox
Director: Sam Raimi
Writers: Michael Kapner, David Lindsay-Abaire (based on L. Frank Baum's novel)
Distributor: Walt Disney
MPAA Rating:  PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language
Running Time: 130 minutes


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

Total - 7.8 out of 10.0 

Jack the Giant Slayer

© 2013 Ray Wong

A retelling of the famous fairy tale, Jack the Giant Slayer follows a familiar story arc with added plot twists, actions and characters (a lot more characters).

Jack (Nicholas Hoult) is a farm boy always dreaming of adventures. He grew up reading the great story of King Erik and the kingdom of the Giants. One day at the market, as Jack is trying to sell his horse and cart so he can fix the decrepit house he and his uncle live in, he has a chance encounter with Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson). Smitten with the Princess, Jack knows his place even though he has left an impression on Isabelle.

Somehow Jack ends up trading his horse for some beans. His uncle is furious with Jack and knocks the beans on the ground -- one of them falls through the crack between the floor planks. Trying to escape her royal duties and seeking adventures herself, Isabelle is lost in the woods when she comes across Jack's house. The two hardly have time to fall for each other when missing bean magically grows into a giant beanstalk, taking Isabelle with it.

The King (Ian McShane), upon seeing the giant beanstalk, arrives with his rescue warriors, headed by his royal advisor Roderick (Stanley Tucci) and valor knight Elmont (Ewan McGregor). Jack volunteers to join the rescue as he worries about Isabelle. When they finally reach the top of the beanstalk, they discover a strange land full of grotesque giants -- whose leader is General Fallon (Bill Nighy). Fallon has a plan to lead his warriors down the beanstalk to invade the kingdom. And little do Jack and Elmont know that Roderick has a plan of his own, too.

Nicholas Hoult (Warm Bodies) has lately craved a niche for himself as unlikely fantasy/science fiction heroes. While his role and performance in Warm Bodies were interesting, the same can't be said about this. As Jack, Hoult is bland and generally passive and, in some ways, too much of a nice kid to rise above the material. Eleanor Tomlinson (Alice in Wonderland) does better with her character Isabelle -- an interesting mix of traditional damsel in distress and the modern princess warrior. Unfortunately, Hoult and Tomlinson have almost no chemistry together, and the added romantic element to the fairy tale is distracting.

Fortunately, the supporting cast does a better job. Ewan McGregor (The Impossible) is loyal, charming, exciting, valorous, dashing as Elmont. And what great hair he has. One only wishes he were the hero of the story, and not Jack. Ian McShane (Snow White and the Huntsman) is solid and King Brahmwell, who vacillates between arrogance and kind consideration quite nicely. Stanley Tucci (The Hung Games) seems to have had a lot of fun playing the schemer, san that twirled mustache. Bill Nighy (The Most Exotic Marigold Hotel) provides the menacing voice and motion capture for General Fallon, and he does a great job.

Written by an army of writers headed by Darren Lamke (Shrek Forever After), the screenplay is a hodgepodge of familiar stories, cliches, and something new. The story adheres to the time period -- a cross between Medieval and Renaissance -- and the general arc of the original fairy tale. Still, there are plenty of upgrades. No longer just a tale of Jack and the beanstalk, there are many added characters and subplots, including an army of giants who look suspiciously like the trolls in The Hobbit. In many ways, this story and these characters are derivative, filled with old cliches and archetypes. If you're looking for something totally new and fresh, then look elsewhere.

Still, even though confined by these constraints, the movie manages to entertain. It is surprisingly violent and gruesome for a "family" movie, thus the PG-13 rating (don't worry though, parents; there is hardly any sex except maybe some mild kissing between the two leads). Young children may have nightmares afterwards after seeing men (and some sheep) being stomped on and chomped on, kind of like Jurassic Park set in Medieval times (and no, that movie isn't suitable for young children either).

Bryan Singer's (Valkyrie) hasn't directed a movie since 2008, and he jumps back into the fray with such a big budget movie. The risks are certainly there. The fact is, Singer didn't do anything that is phenomenal here, or really leave his mark. Instead, it seems like he is just a director for hire, and his movie could have been directed by someone else and we probably wouldn't even have noticed. That's not the say it is bad. The direction is skillful and the pacing is just fine. The production is quite easy on the eye, and despite some early criticism, the CGIs are adequate.

Jack the Giant Slayer is by no means a disaster. It is just not a very good movie, and it seems such a failure when we consider the budget. In truth, it is an enjoyable escape to a fantasy world which reminds us what it was like to be kids, fascinated by adventures and gruesome monsters. Boxoffice slayer it may not be, but it sure accomplishes what it is supposed to do.

Stars: Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Ian McShane, Bill Nighy
Director: Bryan Singer
Writers: Darren Lamke, Christopher McQuarrie, Dan Studney, David Dobkin
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating:  PG-13 for intense sequences of fantasy action violence, scary images and brief language
Running Time: 114 minutes


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

Total - 7.0 out of 10.0