© 2013 Ray Wong

The good thing about March and April -- the months before the summer movies come out -- is that once in a while a gem would slip through. A few weeks ago I was impressed with A Place Beyond the Pines. This week, it is a little movie called Mud.

Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are two precocious teenage boys who have been best friends since they were little, living in Dewitt. The boys are adventurers and they grow up by the river. One day they find a boat stuck on a tree on an island, and when they try to claim it, they discover someone is already living in it. His name is Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a drifter who is hiding on the island, waiting to meet someone.

That someone turns out to be his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Mud tells the boys that he grew up in Dewitt, too, and he's come back so he can run away with Juniper, the love of his life. Eventually, the boys find out why Mud is in hiding -- he has killed the last man Juniper was with, who used to beat her up, and the man's family is hunting him (not to mention the FBI is looking for him, too). Mud's only way out is to fix the boat and ship out quietly.

Mud manages to convince the boys, especially Ellis, to help him. A hopeless romantic who is dealing with his parents' impending divorce, Ellis is attracted by Mud's undying love for Juniper. Despite everybody's warning (including Neckbone's, who is forever a skeptic), Ellis believes a man who loves so deeply can't be all that bad. But by helping a fugitive like Mud, Ellis is putting himself and everyone he loves in danger, as the bounty hunters are hot on their trails.

Matthew McConaughey (Magic Mike) gives a tour-de-force performance as Mud. At once devastatingly handsome and also characteristically disheveled and wrecked, he embodies the character's aloofness perfectly -- we can tell that he's a badass; he's resourceful; but we can't fully trust him either. And yet, he is so likable we know that he means no harm to these boys, and he's fundamentally a good man. McConaughey does a great job portraying a complicated man who is on the run, but whose sense of loyalty may be his real Achilles's heel.

Tye Sheridan (The Tree of Life) is also excellent as Ellis, another complicated character who's sense of hopeless romanticism may be his Achilles's heel. Sheridan's controlled and nuanced portrayal shows maturity of a seasoned actor. Newcomer Jacob Lofland has a more shallow character to play -- mostly as a comic relief and a counterpoint to Sheridan's stoic Ellis. Considering this is Lofland's first role, he's done a great job.

The outstanding supporting cast includes Reese Witherspoon (Water for Elephants) as Juniper. She plays a much different character than those in her recent movies, and reminded us how she impressed us in Cruel Intentions. Sarah Paulson (New Year's Eve) is solid in a small role as Ellis's unhappy mother, and Ray McKinnon (Footloose) shows great strength as Ellis's equally unhappy father. Sam Shepard (Killing Them Softly) is outstanding as the reclusive neighbor Tom, and Michael Shannon (Premium Rush) is in fine form in a surprisingly "normal" role as Neckbone's uncle Galen.

Writer-director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) has crafted a highly moody and atmospheric drama that has all the flavors of a modern-day Huckleberry Finn. His writing and direction are gritty, realistic, and brutally honest. There's a retro feel to his story though -- sometimes I am not sure if it actually happens in 2011, and not 1985. But then again, I suppose some things don't change much in certain parts of the country. And that's what is fascinating about this story aside from the colorful characters -- the location is a character itself.

Nichols have developed interesting characters, large or small, that feel real and flawed and complicated. Even the "bad guys" have reasonable motives and we can identify with them, even though we are rooting for Mud and the boys. There are no real villains here, but there are also no real heroes, either. These characters all have problems and issues, and that's why they are so relatable. And the relationships between the boys and Mud are well developed and believable.

That said, part of the plot is rather contrived and riddled with coincidences that seem rather convenient. By careful constructing the story arc and plot, Nichols have sacrificed some of the spontaneity that makes the movie such as riveting experience to begin with. Still, it is the seemingly irrelevant and minute details which embrace the movie with such an atmospheric tone and sensitivity that impresses me the most. I was at the edge of my seat the whole time, and at the end, I care about these characters deeply.

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon
Director: Jeff Nichols
Writer: Jeff Nichols
Distributor: Lionsgate
MPAA Rating:  PG-13 for some violence, sexual references, language, thematic material and smoking
Running Time: 130 minutes


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

Total - 7.7 out of 10.0 


© 2013 Ray Wong

As science fiction, Tom Cruise's new movie Oblivion follows a familiar story arc that is part mystery and part psychological drama, set against a fantastical post-apocalyptic planet Earth.

Almost 50 years after the alien invasion that almost destroyed the world, maintenance technician Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and control officer Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) have the thankless job of fixing droids and keeping the "Scavs" -- surviving aliens who still inhabit Earth -- from destroying the hydro-plants that are turning Earth's seawater into reusable resources. For security reasons, their memories have been wiped to protect the integrity of their mission.

With two more weeks to go before they complete their tasks and join the rest of humanity, which has relocated to Titan, Victoria is looking forward to leaving this God forsaken world. But Jack feels differently -- somehow he wants to stay and call the deserted world "home."

After a beacon brings down an old spacecraft that has been orbiting Earth for over 50 years, Jack rescues a mysterious survivor, Julia (Olga Kurylenko), who has recently appeared in Jack's recurring dreams even though he doesn't know her. Having come out of her delta-sleep, Julia immediately recognizes Jack but refuses to tell him how until Jack retrieves her flight recorder. Meanwhile, the Scavs are trying to capture Jack, for reasons that are beyond his comprehension.

What Jack discovers will completely change his perception of who he is and what he is doing on Earth. Suddenly his plans change, and he is determined to do what he can to save Julia and the planet he wishes to call home.

As Jack Harper, Tom Cruise (Jack Reacher) is recycling his arsenal of reluctant hero characters ranging from Ethan Hunt of Mission Impossible to Claus von Stauffenberg in Valkyrie. Even though Cruise's brought nothing new to the character, his performance is affable and believable, especially during most of the movie when Jack is confused and frightened.

The three female leads bring different sensibilities to their roles and the story. Olga Kurylenko (Seven Psychopaths) is gorgeous -- one can believe why Jack can fall for her -- but her performance is rather thin and one-dimensional. Andrea Riseborough (Disconnect) fares better with the complicated role of Victoria -- we certainly feel sorry for her and her dilemmas. Melissa Leo (Olympus Has Fallen) has a limited but pivotal role as Sally, the commander that Jack and Vicky report to. As usual, Leo does a good job.

Morgan Freeman (Olympus Has Fallen) plays Beech, a militant character that is a composite of different archetypes: the mentor, the wise man, etc. He, too, is simply recycling one of the characters he's been playing all along. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Mama) makes an impression as Sykes.

The screenplay by director-writer Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy) and Karl Gajdusek (Trepass) is a step better than the mess that was TRON: Legacy. Working off an existential question of "Who am I?" the story touches more many familiar sci-fi themes and tropes. The story is derivative for sure; I am not going to list the movies because then I will be giving out the plot twists.

Speaking of plot twists, there are a few and they are significant. However, they are not entirely new and unpredictable. Even the title of the movie foretells what some of the twists could be, and any sci-fi fans who pay attention would have seen the twists coming from a mile away. That said, the twists are well executed and timed and the effects are just as draw-dropping if we allow ourselves to be immersed in this production.

And it is a top-notch production under the direction of Kosinski. One of the most impressive elements of the movie is the production design. They have created a post-apocalyptic world that is as much an eye-candy as it is a series of haunting images that remind me of how much we are taking our planet for granted. The technologies devised in the movie also spark certain imagination of possibilities.

While Oblivion is full of sci-fi tropes and derivative characters and storytelling, it does a good job in entertaining the audience for a bit over two hours. He has engaging, though cliched, characters that we can root for. While the plot twists do defy logic at times, they are not severe enough to jar us out of the story. I find myself totally engaged. While Cruise's new adventure may not be a masterpiece by any stretch, I doubt it will disappear into the oblivion any time soon.

Stars: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Melissa Leo, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Zoe Bell
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Writers: Joseph Kosinski, Karl Gajdusek
Distributor: Universal
MPAA Rating:  PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, brief strong language, and some sexuality
Running Time: 126 minutes


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

Total - 7.6 out of 10.0 


© 2013 Ray Wong

The golden rule is that biopics are difficult to do well, especially biopics of someone as iconic and popular as Jackie Robinson, the first African-American Major League Baseball player in American history.

In 1945, Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) has a crazy idea: he wants to recruit an African-American ballplayer. Everyone tells him it's a bad idea, but Rickey is determined to find the one player who would prove them all wrong. He finds such a man in Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Bosman), a rookie Rickey recruits to the Montreal Royals despite the displeasure of his players. Even then, Robinson poses no threat to the Dodgers and they tend to let him be, because Rickey says so.

Despite his temper, Jackie learns to control his emotions and ignore the racial slurs and unjust treatments he is and will be getting as he becomes more and more prominent in the sports. Rickey once tells him, "I want a player who has the guts not to fight back." Rickey and Jackie both know that they will have to turn the other cheek if they want to make history, as one wrong move will set them and "integration" back. The only way Jackie is going to change minds is to be a great player that everyone can't refuse to recognize.

In 1947, Jackie Robinson finally make it to the Dodgers. Unfortunately, even some his own teammates refuse to play with him. They only relent because Coach Durocher (Christopher Meloni) is able to intimate and persuade them. But when Durocher is suspended, Rickey and Jackie must face a brewing storm that they may not be able to weather, as the hostility toward Robinson grows while he, ironically, helps the Dodgers getting closer and closer to the Pennant. Can Jackie Robinson endure the racial attacks to triumph?

Harrison Ford (Cowboys & Aliens) seems to have a great time playing the Stogie-chewing Rickey, what with his trademarked smirk and curmudgeon charisma. There is a fine line between playing such a character and a caricature, and Ford walks that line rather well. Even though his Rickey is over the top and larger than life, never does he act or sound unauthentic. Soon you forget this is Harrison Ford, but a lovable guy who just wants to put fairness and dignity back into the game he loves.

Chadwich Bosman (The Kill Hole) is rather good as Jackie Robinson. Bosman definitely has the physicality, the good looks, and the charisma to pull it off. Though his Robinson is perhaps somewhat too earnest and gentle (we expect to see certain cockiness and quick temper), Bosman manages to give the role a voice, and he displays enough of his dark side and doubts to make us care about Jackie Robinson as a human being who triumphs over tremendous pressure and expectations.

The supporting cast is all excellent, from Nicole Beharie (The Last Fall) who plays Robinson's lovely and supportive wife, to Christopher Meloni (Dirty Movie) as the gruff and unbiased Durocher, to iconic Dodgers players such as Pee Wee Reece and Dixie Walker by Lucas Black and Ryan Merriman respectively. Andre Holland (Bride Wars) gives an affecting performance as Wendell Smith, an African-American journalist, and Alan Tudyk (Wreck-It Ralph) gives one of the most shocking and unnerving performances as Phillies manager Ben Chapman, who for over five minutes yells racial epithets to Jackie Robinson.

Writer-Director Brian Helgeland (A Knight's Tale) tackles Jackie Robinson's story with an old-school style and sentiment. This movie could have been made by Disney, and it does have all the typical Disney family movie trappings (despite the aforementioned racial epithets). The characters are mostly larger than life, animated and likable. Even the "villains" are not truly villains, but flawed people who are victims of their times and ingrained prejudices.

While Helgeland energetically and earnestly writes and puts together a beautifully crafted film about one of the most beloved figures in history, one can't ignore the fact that Helgeland also sugarcoats a lot. Sure, Robinson's struggle is there. The racism is there. But he also portrays the post-war America, especially among African-Americans, a glossy reality that feels sweetened and sentimentalized. Even the racism in the film feels rather benign at times, no more than catcalling and a few easy punches. I understand that Helgeland has to balance between telling Robinson's story vs. portraying America as still a land of the free and home for the brave. The movie has that nice, wholesome Americana look and feel as most post-war movies tend to have. But in light of the thematic elements in the films, I can't help but feel a bit letdown by its unabashed sentimentality that skews the harsh reality of a segregated country.

Still, I totally enjoy what the movie has to offer, and the inspirational story of Robinson as well as how his fellow men could see past their racial prisms and limitations. There is something to learn from this, even in 2013.

Stars: Harrison Ford, Chadwick Boseman, Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni, Ryan Merriman, Lucas Black, Alan Tudyk, Andre Holland
Director: Brian Helgeland
Writer: Brian Helgeland
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating:  PG-13 for thematic elements, language
Running Time: 128 minutes


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

Total - 7.6 out of 10.0 

The Place Beyond the Pines

© 2013 Ray Wong

Writer-Director Derek Cianfrance made a great impression with Blue Valentine. He re-teams with star Ryan Gosling in another gripping drama, The Place Beyond the Pines that explores the intricate consequences of a person's actions.

Luke (Ryan Gosling) is a drifter who works as a stunt motorcyclist at a traveling carnival. Back in town, he discovers that his old fling Romina (Eva Mendes) is keeping a big secret from him -- that he has a son, Jason. Determined to stick around and provide for Jason, Luke tries his best to hold a job at a body shop owned by Robin (Ben Mendelsohn). Then through Ben, Luke gets involved in a series of bank robberies.

Unlike Robin, Luke doesn't know when to stop when things get too hot. Desperate, Luke gets into a crossfire with police officer Avery (Bradley Cooper) after a blotched robbery. Their crossed paths created a seismic shift in Avery's life, as he struggles with the outcome of what happened.

Years later, Avery's path crosses with Jason (Dane DeHaan) again. The consequences of his and Luke's actions years ago still ripple through their lives as Avery campaigns for the seat of State Attorney General while trying to connect with his own son AJ (Emory Cohen).

Ryan Gosling (Gangster Squad) is fantastic in the moody, complicated role of Luke. He embodies the character in both body, mind and soul and delivers a tour-de-force performance that is sure to generate some super-early award buzz. As his counterpart, Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook) has never been better in a more savvy and manipulative role as Avery. The two actors have only one brief scene together, but separately, they help glue the two parts of the film together in a mesmerizing way.

Eva Mendes (Holy Motors) finally finds a dramatic role that lets her show off her talent. As Romina, Mendes displays a nice depth as a woman who is torn between her love for the wrong man and doing the right thing for her son and herself. Ben Mendelsohn (The Dark Knight Rises) is impressive -- and channeling Sam Rockwell -- as the man that starts Luke down a path of no return. The supporting cast also includes strong performances from Rose Bryne (The Help) as Avery's neglected wife, Ray Liotta (Bad Karma) as a corrupt cop, Bruce Greenwood (Flight) as a DA.

The two young actors who play Luke's and Avery's sons are, too, to be commended. Dane DeHaan (Chronicle) is superbly moody (just like Luke) as Jason, and Emory Cohen (Four) is solid as the cocky, messed up AJ.

Written and directed by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine), the screenplay boasts a gripping story that, through intricate intersecting threads and plot development, connects us with a varied group of characters. Cianfrance's story explores the themes of consequences, and how these consequences could have impacts and effects for years to come. It also explores the question of what is good and what is bad? Luke is supposed to be the bad guy -- he abandons Romina; he robs banks; he is reckless and violent. Avery is supposedly the good guy -- upstanding, heroic, and smart with a great family. And yet in The Place Beyond the Pines, the line between good and bad is blurry. The characters are three-dimensional, complex and intriguing. They make mistakes, with dire consequences. And that makes them extraordinarily human.

The intersecting plot lines also take us on a wild ride. We follow Luke, Romina and Jason for the first part of the film, then the film switches gear and now we're following Avery. The shift is coherent and essential, while exploring the same themes of morality, crime, and fatherhood. That said, the plot does seem forced at times, especially in the third act, as Cianfrance tries a bit too hard to connect the dots and come full circle.

What is mesmerizing is Cianfrance's gritty, intense and personal style of direction. From the very first frame to the last, the movie doesn't let the audience go. The movie does slow down and flounder somewhat in pace and tone during the third act, but it picks up again near the ending. Over all, Cianfrance's direction is impressive, stylistic and dramatic -- all in very good ways.

The Place Beyond the Pines is a superb drama that explores deep, personal, and troubling themes in very realistic ways with very realistic, relatable characters whose lives intersect and connect with one another's through the dire consequences. It has earned a place in my heart as one of the best films of the year so far.

Stars: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn, Rose Bryne, Ray Liotta, Bruce Greenwood, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Writers: Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio
Distributor: Focus
MPAA Rating:  R for language, violence, teen drug and alcohol use, sexual content
Running Time: 140 minutes


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

Total - 7.8 out of 10.0