Ladykillers

© 2004 Ray Wong

Ever since FARGO, the Coen brothers have given us a lineup of offbeat, starkly dark comedies with odd touches of American literature and culture: O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? and INTOLERABLE CRUELTY come to mind. Their latest outing, THE LADYKILLERS is equally absurd.

An update of the 1955 original with the incomparable Sir Alec Guinness, THE LADYKILLERS stars Tom Hanks as Professor Godthwait Higginson Dorr, PhD – a name that is a parody in itself. Dorr shows up one day on the doorsteps of Mrs. Munson (Hall, SOUL FOOD), an honest, religious woman who adores her late husband. According to Dorr, he is on sabbatical and in need of a quiet place in the sleepy Mississippi town to nurture his real love for church music. “You’ll find that I’m a quiet man,” Dorr says with glee, “and yet – not so quiet.”

Dorr’s ensemble includes MacSam (Wayans, SCARY MOVIE), Pancake (Simmons, SPIDER-MAN), the General (Ma, THE QUIET AMERICAN) and Lump (Hurst, WE WERE SOLDIERS). They congregate in Mrs. Munson’s root cellar every day and night for practice. Little does she know that Dorr & company is planning a heist to rob the riverboat casino, using the cellar to tunnel into the casino’s vault. In a true Coen-esque fashion, little does Dorr know that Mrs. Munson would prove to be a “more formidable antagonist” than he had imagined.

THE LADYKILLERS is a clever, peculiar piece, though the writing is smart but inconsistent. Whenever Dorr breaks into one of his phony, quasi literary recitations, one cannot help but chuckle at the absurdity. The scenes with Dorr and Mrs. Munson exude certain southern charm and – oddly so – sincerity. The writers have planted enough foreshadowing to make the climatic scenes amusing. The scenes involving the quintet of crooks, however, are too over the top. Some of the characters tend to overuse expletives ad nauseam, even in the context of the situation and the characters’ personalities. I think the Coen brothers have sacrificed deeper and more satisfying character developments in exchange for a clever, almost sinister plot (especially in the outrageous climax). We never really know who these people are and why they are there (beside the money). Perhaps the writers do it on purpose – so that we will not care too much about what finally happens to these characters. We become detached from these characters like we are watching cartoon figures instead of real people. I do think that the ending would have been more poignant and hilarious at the same time had we truly care about these characters.

After over a decade of dramatic endeavors, Hanks returns to his comedic roots with great flare. Here, he plays Dorr with wicked charm and a sly demeanor that is truly delicious. By far his eccentric portrayal has the most complex dimensions, shapes, and forms. Hall, as the earthy Mrs. Munson, provides a quietly strong counterpoint to Hanks’ sardonic high notes. She is someone we can all root for, and we do. Wayans can play the kind of smug, loud-mouthed punk almost in his sleep. Simmons must have the time of his life playing the animated pyrotechnic expert who always tries to get a bigger share. Ma is funny as the stern military man who utters no more than ten words in the entire film, four being “shoot her, shoot her.” Hurst plays the dim-witted and unfortunate Lump with the most heart, but his character is simply too light to make any true impression. The Coen brothers seem to have a love affair with southern gospel music, which, together with the languid landscape of the Mississippi town, provides the film with a rich and lively backdrop. Unfortunately, the direction is unfocused: the first half drags while the climax zips along in high speed. The scenes of Dorr and Mrs. Munson, and the ones with the ensemble of crooks seem to belong to two different films. It could have been a much better film. It just kills me.


Stars: Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, Marlon Wayans, J. K. Simmons, Tzi Ma, Ryan Hurst
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Writers: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Distributor: Touchstone
MPAA Rating: R for violence, language


RATINGS:

Script – 6
Performance – 8
Direction – 5
Cinematography – 6
Music/Sound– 7
Editing – 6
Production – 6

Total – 6.1 out of 10

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

© 2004 Ray Wong

If you are familiar with Charlie Kaufman’s work, you would not be surprised by the quirks and strangeness of ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF A SPOTLESS MIND. It is also a bittersweet and poignant love story. By far the most impressive aspect of the film is the writing. Kaufman (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION) has whipped up a brilliant (if somewhat A.D.D.), original and bizarre concoction of love, relationships and regrets.

The film opens with an extended prologue. Joel (Carrey, BRUCE ALMIGHTY) is a lonely, withdrawn man who wakes up on Valentine’s Day feeling lost and confused. Acting on impulse (something he never did before), he escapes his dull world to a Long Island beach, where he meets the free-spirited Clementine (Winslet, IRIS). Joel and Clem cannot be more different: he is quiet and cautious while she is spontaneous and wild with a penchant for unusual hair colors and potato art; but for some reason they are drawn to each other. Then, in flashback, we see that Joel and Clem are once lovers. As their relationship falls apart, Clem impetuously goes to Dr. Mierzwiak to have her memory of Joel erased. When Joel finds out, he, too, wants to have his memory of Clem erased. During the procedure, operated by hapless technicians Stan (Ruffalo, YOU CAN COUNT ON ME) and Patrick (Wood, THE LORD OF THE RINGS), Joel changes his mind and desperately tries to hide Clem from the inevitable. One “zap!” and she would be gone.

Those who expect to see Jim Carrey in an outrageous role in a laugh-out-loud comedy would likely be disappointed. Here, he has given us one of his most subdued, downbeat performances, a vast departure from his last effort in BRUCE ALMIGHTY. While he is exceptionally grim and heartbreaking as Joel, I can’t help but wish for a little “eternal sunshine” from the master jester. Winslet has less to do but she plays Clementine with the right touch of idiosyncrasy and feistiness, complete with an impeccable American accent. Wilkinson is perfect as the droll doctor and Dunst is fine as the perky and na├»ve Mary, the receptionist who has a secret crush on the good old Doc. Ruffalo is hilarious as the nerdy but responsible Stan and Wood is uncharacteristically slimy as the guy who steals Joel’s identity as Clem’s boyfriend.

The film is unexpectedly intense and sad, though not completely devoid of humor and comic relief -- some of the most hilarious moments happen in Joel’s brain, including a few fantastically wacky scenes, playing havoc with Joel’s childhood memories. The cinematography is moody and nostalgic, saturated with blue and gray hues. Some scenes (e.g. on the beach) are breathtaking. At times the characters go in and out of focus, achieving a rather neat effect (as people go in and out of Joel’s memory). However, I find the extensive use of handheld cameras and the oft abrupt camera movements objectionable. Truly headache inducing. The non-linear storytelling and jerky editing make it hard to follow sometimes. The “visual noises” distract from the riveting story. Also, despite the obvious attraction and sexual chemistry between Joel and Clem, you really don’t have a strong feeling why they should stay together, or whether they would have a future with each other. You get a sense that Joel and Clem really love each other, but you don’t quite understand why. Perhaps Kaufman understands that as well, for the ending is bittersweet yet non-committal, almost too perfect for a cautionary tale about our perpetual struggle with the people we love the most.


Stars: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson
Director: Michael Gondry
Writers: Charlie Kaufman, Michael Gondry, Piere Mismuth
Distributor: Focus
MPAA Rating: R for language, drugs and sexual content


RATINGS:

Script – 9
Performance – 7
Direction – 5
Cinematography – 7
Music/Sound– 6
Editing – 4
Production – 7

Total – 6.4 out of 10

Secret Window

© 2004 Ray Wong

Adapted from Stephen King’s novella “Secret Window, Secret Garden,” SECRET WINDOW is a taut, eerie mood piece that is one of the better “Stephen King” movies. After the utter disappointment that was DREAMCATCHER, writer David Koepp (PANIC ROOM, SPIDERMAN) proves to be a decent director as well.

Mort Rainey (Depp) is a famous mystery writer who is going through a messy divorce with his wife Amy (Bello, THE COOLER). While he isolates himself in his remote cabin, he is depressed and suffers a major writer’s block. He also blames his failed marriage on his wife and her infidelity with Ted (Hutton, SUNSHINE STATE). One day, a stranger named John Shooter (Turturro, ANGER MANAGEMENT) shows up at Mort’s door, accusing Mort for plagiarizing his story, “Secret Window.” Mort rebuffs him. Soon Shooter starts to stalk and threaten Mort, and strange things happen. Mort tries to alert the town sheriff (Cariou, ABOUT SCHMIDT) and his private investigator (Dutton, AGAINST THE ROPES) as well as Amy and Ted. Stranger things happen, which culminate in the final plot twists.

Is SECRET WINDOW nail-biting? You bet, but not because the script is exceptionally clever or suspenseful or the ending is that shocking (despite the movie’s tagline: “the best part of a story is the ending.”). As a matter of fact, the filmmakers have laid down so much groundwork that an attentive audience would have guessed the “revelation” before it arrives, even though the un-Hollywood ending is indeed twisted in a very creepy way. At times you wonder why they spend so much time with Amy and Ted and the divorce that seem to have not much to do with John Shooter. Why does Shooter do what he does? And why is Mort running around, tending to other things when there is a psychopath in his backyard? Then you realize: there IS a point. And then there is Amy and Ted, who act like nothing really matters after their house burns down. You have to wonder: who are these people? By far, I think, the writing is the weakest link in the film. Mercifully, the filmmakers have crafted an entertaining film despite the script’s shortcoming.

What really make the film intense and suspenseful are the performances. Depp is moody, grumpy and benign enough for you to genuinely root for his character, and that sympathy serves the film extremely well. He gives one of his most nuanced performances since EDWARD SCISSORHANDS. Turturro is brilliant as the sinister Shooter, oozing evil and menace, a great juxtaposition to Rainey’s relatively mild if erratic demeanor. Bello is convincing as the oblivious Amy even though we really do not know what makes Amy tick. She is simply there to draw our sympathy. Hutton has always been a good actor, and he proves his skills as Amy’s short-tempered but concerned lover. The rest of the cast is solid, albeit really minor. The cinematography (Fred Murphy, OCTOBER SKY) is gorgeous, showing the tranquil beauty of upstate New York as well as the lurking eeriness of what lies beneath. Koepp uses a lot of the standard tricks to spook the audience (strange angles, sweeping camera movement, extremely close-ups, mirrors, etc.) and the effects are at times superb and at others over the top. Philip Glass’ score adds to the atmosphere of the film, and is not as intrusive as that in THE HOURS. Overall, SECRET WINDOW is a tense, well-acted psychological thriller that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats most of the time. “The best part of a story is the ending.” Unfortunately, despite all of the elements, the ending somehow fizzles, leaving the more astute audience to utter: “Is that it?”

Stars: Johnny Depp, John Turturro, Maria Bello, Timothy Hutton, Charles S. Dutton, Len Cariou
Director: David Koepp
Writers: Stephen King, David Koepp
Distributor: Columbia
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, gore, profanity

RATINGS:

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

Total – 7.5 out of 10

Starsky & Hutch

© 2004 Ray Wong

When we hear Barry Manilow crooning “Can’t Smile Without You” in the opening shot, we know that we are in for a time warp.

STARSKY & HUTCH is part of the current trend: obscure TV shows turned movies. Unlike the updated CHARLIE’S ANGELS, this is a blatant throwback to the ’70s; but like CHARLIE’S ANGELS, it is rather mindless with some funny bits.

If you are not familiar with the original TV series (1975-79) starring Paul Michael Glaser (Starsky) and David Soul (Hutch), it is perfectly okay. This is in essence a good cop/bad cop, buddy movie. David Starsky (Stiller, ROYAL TENENBAUMS) and Ken Hutchinson (Owen, ROYAL TENENBAUMS) are Bay City, CA, detectives.

Starsky is an uptight, by-the-book “good cop” and Hutch is a loosy-goosy, somewhat shady “bad cop.” Their respective mishaps result in their new partnership and their first break comes in the shape of a dead gangster. Aided by an informant Huggy Bear (Snoop Dogg) and two cheerleaders (Electra and Smart), Starsky and Hutch follow the hot trails to a wealthy philanthropist Reese (Vaughn, OLD SCHOOL). Reese is actually secretly arranging a mega deal selling “miracle” cocaine that is totally undetectable. Along the way, the comic duo stumbles through a whacked out disco contest, a bar mitzvah that has a bit too much “horseplay”, a knife fight in Chinatown, shootouts and car chases. You know, the ’70s!

STARSKY & HUTCH is a welcome diversion from the gravity of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. The cast and crew seem to be having a lot of fun, and that jovial mood translates well to the audience.

There is really nothing new here, though. Stiller is playing once again the same character he has been playing for years; but he does it so well that he is pretty much typecast for life. So is Wilson, who always does better work partnered with another actor (except the formidable I SPY with Eddie Murphy).

The co-stars exude incredible chemistry together, and that is the glue that holds the film. The supporting cast is adequate: Vaughn is effectively slimy; Bateman is a good sport as Reese’s right hand man; Electra and Smart have not much to do beside being sexy and cheery; Lewis is totally wasted as Reese’s girlfriend. Glaser and Soul have a cameo at the end that feels too silly and gratuitous. The standouts are the droll Snoop Dogg as a wise guy in the ’hood and funnyman Ferrell as an inmate who has an affinity with needlework and cute cops. And Starsky’s Ford Torino is practically a character in itself. Director Phillips (ROAD TRIP, OLD SCHOOL) keeps the pace brisk and milks every ’70s sight gag (the Afros, leisure suits, hot rods and disco).

There are some genuinely funny moments but in general, the writing is choppy and flat. It is a formula that may have worked well in the ’70s; now it simply seems a little old fashioned and tired. It seems like Hollywood is running out of ideas. What is next? ROSEANE the movie?


Stars: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, Fred Williamson, Carmen Electra, Amy Smart, Jason Bateman, Juliette Lewis
Director: Todd Phillips
Writers: John O’Brien, Todd Phillips, Scot Armstrong
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexuality, partial nudity, language, drugs and violence

RATINGS:

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

Total – 6.6 out of 10

The Passion of the Christ

© 2004 Ray Wong

Amid controversies, Mel Gibson produced and directed THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST with his own money and much conviction. Regardless of our faith and religion, we must agree that the film is powerful and provocative. One can argue if it can be called “entertainment” at all.

THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST chronicles the last twelve hours of Jesus of Nazareth’s life, culminating in his crucifixion and death (with a brief epilogue with the resurrection). Those who are familiar with the Bible would be familiar with the story. The film begins in the Garden of Olives, where Jesus must resist the temptations of Satan. Betrayed by Judas, Jesus is arrested and taken to Jerusalem. The Pharisees, led by High Priest Caiaphas, accuse Jesus of blasphemy and condemn him to death. They urge the Roman governor Pontius Pilate to execute Jesus. Seeing no crime and reason to condemn the man to death, Pilate reluctantly agrees to the demands for fear of his own political future. The last half of the film details the beating and flaying of Jesus – possibly the most excruciating and brutal part of the film – the fourteen Stations of the Cross, and finally, his crucifixion and death at Golgotha.

Gibson’s vision is sensational. Though interspersed with flashbacks (the Last Supper, Palm Sunday, Jesus’ life as a carpenter, etc.), the film focuses mostly on the human story and less on the theologies. The use of Mary (Morgenstern) and Magdalene (Belluci) deepen the emotional gravity of the sufferings. Granted, Gibson does inject his own Catholic interpretations and artistic licenses (the long, sweeping shots, the prominence of Mary as the co-sufferer, Veronica with the cloth, the wine of mass, etc.), and granted, this is Gibson’s film, it is still interesting to note which “version of truth” he is presenting here. Non-Catholics or even non-Christians may have a harder time understanding the symbolisms and meanings, as well as the true motives and emotions behind these characters. One does need to go to Sunday school to fully understand the true scope of the story.

The biggest controversy surrounding the film: Is it anti-Semitic? I do not feel that Gibson has intentionally cast an anti-Semitic light on the film. However, I do think that his portrayal of Pilate as a weak and empathetic ruler against the ruthless and malicious Caiaphas and his clergies could contribute to the sentiment. To his credit, Gibson also portrays the Roman soldiers as mostly cruel bastards while many Jews in the crowd cry in compassion, including Simon who carries the Cross for Jesus.

Controversies aside, the film on its own does achieve significant cinematic grandeur. The cast is outstanding (one would question why Gibson cast mostly Catholic actors in the main roles). Caviezel (FREQUENCY) gives the best performance of his life as Jesus, albeit looking just a tad too handsome and divine like one of those Jesus portraits; his deep eyes movingly convey the anguish, love, compassion and pain. Morgenstern as Mary is heartbreaking, as is Belluci’s Magdalene. To achieve authenticity, the actors speak only in Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew. One small gripe though: Why did Gibson cast Catholic actors in the main roles, even the Jews? For example, Belluci’s Italian beauty is a distraction to me. Not very authentic, is it? The cinematography by Caleb Deschanel is marvelous, evoking strong emotions with sweeping movements, haunting vistas, subtle hues of gray, blue, and red. The music is, unfortunately, typical of any biblical epics, but it does the job well in sustaining the film. Gibson is a talented and skilled director, reminding us that BRAVEHEART was not a fluke. The film is extremely violent and it is almost impossible to look at every frame at times. Like the first half hour of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, the violence is justified for what the filmmakers are trying to accomplish – to provoke the kind of disgust, horror and pain within the audience itself. For that, Gibson has succeeded in bringing us a work of art that is sure to rouse passionate debates and personal reflections about inhumanities, suffering and intolerance. And that is itself a good thing.


Stars: James Caviezel, Monica Belluci, Maia Morgenstern, Mattia Sbragia, Hristo Shopov, Jarreth Merz
Director: Mel Gibson
Writers: Benedict Fitzgerald, Mel Gibson
Distributor: Newmarket Film
MPAA Rating: R for graphic violence


RATINGS:

Script – 8
Performance – 10
Direction – 9
Cinematography – 9
Music/Sound– 8
Editing – 8
Production – 9

Total – 8.8 out of 10