Shrek 2

© 2004 Ray Wong

The first summer sequel, SHREK 2, arrives with much fanfare and anticipation. Most of the original cast is back, with some delightful new additions. And the theme of “beauty is what lies beneath” continues.

SHREK 2 gleefully picks up where the first blockbuster left off. Prince Charming is just a tad too late arriving at the castle to rescue Princess Fiona. Meanwhile, after their honeymoon, the Shreks receive an invitation to the kingdom of Far, Far Away, a medieval replica of Rodeo Drive. It turns out that King Harold and Queen Lillian are Fiona’s parents, and they have absolutely no idea that she has married an ogre and become one herself. Harold immediately rejects Shrek, who refuses to be there in the first place. Their squabble upsets Fiona – and that is when her fairy Godmother shows up. It so happens that Harold and Fairy Godmother have planned to bring her son, none other than Prince Charming, and Fiona together, and now the plan has backfired because of Shrek. Their schemes to break up Shrek and Fiona lead us to wild goose chases, mixed identities, complete with a furry assassin, magic, potions, and a show tune or three.

The original SHREK was so chock-full of charm, surprises and satirical jabs at Disney and fairytales in general, one has to wonder how they are going to top that in the sequel. The writers at DreamWorks have done a fantastic job of upping the ante and cranking the mayhem up a few notches. In comparison, the first film was more streamlined and straightforward. In SHREK 2, the dramas, actions and jokes come at such a breakneck pace that one cannot possibly absorb them all in one sitting. The filmmakers must have had so much fun pouring sight gags, pop culture, pop songs, and movie satires in the mix: SPIDER-MAN, MATRIX, LORD OF THE RINGS, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, the Academy Awards, to name a few.

The characters are interesting, colorful, and rich in personalities. We welcome the return of Shrek (Myers), Donkey (the always-hilarious Murphy), Fiona (Diaz), the Gingerbread Man (Vernon), the three blind mice, Pinocchio and the three little pigs (Cody Cameron). The new characters are a blast as well, including King Harold (voiced by a curmudgeon Cleese) and Queen Lillian (the genteel Andrews), Fairy Godmother (a snarky Saunders of the “Absolutely Fabulous” fame), and Prince Charming (the delightfully vain Everett). The standout, however, is Banderas’ Puss N' Boots, in full Zorro mode, who gives Donkey a run for his money.

The animation in SHREK 2 is even richer and more realistic than in the original. The human characters are more expressive and detailed. Some of them look remarkably like the actors who voice them (even Joan Rivers makes a cameo). Sure, there are some gaps in the logic that may be overlooked in the midst of the frantic storytelling. For example, it takes days for Shrek and company to travel to Far, Far Away, but only minutes for Gingerbread Man, et el. to come and save the day. But this is a magical land, and stranger things have happened.

While SHREK 2 may seem to lag somewhat in charm and satirical cleverness, it has done an incredible job of matching, even surpassing, the original in entertainment value. The jokes are fast and furious, and the soundtrack is marvelous to boot. With all that magic going on, DreamWorks must be seeing green.


Stars: Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas, Julie Andrews, John Cleese, Rupert Everett, Jennifer Saunders
Directors: Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury, Conrad Vernon
Writers: J. David Stem, Joe Stillman, David N. Weiss
Distributor: DreamWorks
MPAA Rating: PG for some crude humor and substance references


RATINGS:

Script – 8
Performance – 8
Direction – 8
Animation – 9
Music/Sound– 8
Editing – 8
Production – 9

Total – 8.3 out of 10

Troy

© 2004 Ray Wong

Inspired by Homer’s “Iliad,” TROY chronicles the events leading up to the infamous war between the Greeks and Trojans. The Trojan War might have been about a woman, but TROY is definitely about the men who fought it.

While signing a peace treaty with King Menelaus of Sparta, Prince Paris of Troy falls madly in love (or is it lust?) with Menelaus’ beautiful wife Helen. Despite his brother Hector’s objection, Paris takes Helen to Troy. The vengeful Menelaus turns to his brother Agamemnon, the Mycenaean king for help, who in turn finds a perfect opportunity to attack and conquer Troy.

Agamemnon summons his finest, including the best warrior of all times, Achilles, to fight his war. Achilles holds the king in contempt and has no interest in doing his dirty deeds. However, he has a personal agenda -- his legacy, his legend -- and he agrees to join Agamemnon’s army. With Achilles in service, Agamemnon launches a thousand ships and lands on Troy’s shore. The battles and personal conflicts culminate in a showdown between Hector and Achilles, the Trojan horse and finally, the burning of Troy.

The story, in a loose sense, focuses on Achilles and Hector, although their arcs are quite unlike the typical hero’s arc in modern literature and movies. There is no clear victor here. Achilles is an arrogant man who only thinks for himself. He does have a softer side, including his devotion to his cousin Patroclus, and his love for Hector’s cousin, the enslaved Briseis. Hector is closer to our concept of a hero: his honor and loyalty to his family, his kingdom, and his people. Alas! The same cannot be said about Helen and her lover, Paris. They come off as callow, selfish and two-dimensional.

Pitt, despite his commendable acting skills, is simply miscast as Achilles. His blond locks, beautiful face, tanned and toned body, and introspection are too nuanced and modern for a larger-than-life warrior like Achilles. Pitt is such a “movie star” that every time he is on screen, he takes me away from the moment. Bana (HULK), on the other hand, is perfect as the heroic Hector. Bloom (LORD OF THE RINGS) plays against type as the na├»ve Paris, but his role is too slight in an otherwise impressive ensemble cast. While indeed beautiful, German actress Kruger does not convince me as a woman for whom fifty thousand men would die. The regal O’Toole gives the film a lift, as does a cameo by the reclusive Julie Christie as Achilles’ mother Thetis. The rest of the cast is generally wonderful, including Bean (LORD OF THE RINGS) as Odysseus, Cox (X2) as Agamemnon, Burrows (FRIDA) as Hector’s wife Andromeche, and Bryne (STAR WARS II) as Briseis.

Perhaps the biggest flaw with the movie is the script. For one thing, it downplays the Greek mythologies -- not one god makes an appearance, and not much is explained about Achilles’ divine background -- which could have given the film a more spectacular grandeur. As it is, the Trojan War is only a mortal tale. The dialogue seems stilted at times, the conflict of interests superficial, the emotional core shallow.

Where the script fails, Petersen (THE PERFECT STORM) successfully compensates with a fantastic production. Historical details are impeccable. The sets, costumes, makeup, and so on, are exceptional. The special effects are outstanding, unobtrusive and effective, giving us the epic landscape and brutality of these ancient battles. The cinematography is breathtaking. Petersen’s fluid direction and sharp eyes for actions give the film a grand and exciting scope. With that, TROY (forget about VAN HELSING) officially begins our annual obsession of summer extravaganzas.

Stars: Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, Orlando Bloom, Sean Bean, Brian Cox, Peter O’Toole, Diane Kruger, Saffron Burrows, Brendan Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund, Rose Bryne
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Writer: David Benioff
Distributor: Warner Bros
MPAA Rating: R for violence, gore, sexual content, nudity, alcohol, warfare


RATINGS:

Script – 6
Performance – 7
Direction – 9
Cinematography – 8
Music/Sound– 8
Editing – 8
Production – 10

Total – 8 out of 10

Van Helsing

© 2004 Ray Wong

The makers of THE MUMMY and its sequel once again try to jumpstart the summer season with their early entry. Think of VAN HELSING as a hodgepodge of monster stew, and you’ll have a good idea of what kind of a movie it is.

The film opens with a prologue in Transylvania, where Count Dracula sabotages Dr. Frankenstein’s experiment in order to nab his “monster.” Dracula fails. A year later, Van Helsing, after successfully terminating Mr. Hyde at the Cathedral de Notre Dame, answers a task from the Church to protect the Valerious family who has been battling Dracula for centuries.

The family is now down to two: the beautiful Velkan and his even more beautiful sister Anna. Velkan disappears one day after trying to capture the Wolf Man. Van Helsing and Anna set off to Transylvania to find Dracula’s lair to destroy him. In the process, they unearth more than just secrets about the history between Dracula and the Valeriouses. The world’s fate depends on them. Fierce and fantastical battles ensure.

If it sounds complicated, it is. But don’t fret. Much like his MUMMY series, writer-director Sommers has specifically asked the audience to check their brains at the door. As expected, VAN HELSING is a special effects spectacular, where MORE is more. Forget subtlety -- non-stop actions and campy dialogue are in order here. Super-sized. Want fries with that, too? To his credit, Sommers sets out to create a campy, tongue-in-cheek monster movie featuring not one, not two, but all four Universal monsters in a whopping 132-minute extravaganza. And he succeeds in paying homage to classic films such as Whale’s BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Polanski’s THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, among others. The production value is high. In fact, the special effects are spectacular (e.g. how a man turns into the Wolf Man by ripping off his skin). Also spectacular are the plot holes. Anna (a human) leaps and bounces like Spiderman, gets smashed and crushed and dropped like a chew-toy, yet comes up without a single scratch on her beautiful face, making the denouement even more unbelievable.

Jackman (X-MEN) has perfected the “brooding, lonesome” hero archetype to a fault. His performance serves the title role well, which is one-dimensional and flat to begin with. Ironically, Jackman seemed to have a better time playing the “wolf” creature in the other super-human film. Beckinsale (SERENDIPITY), with her dark features and bodice-ripping figure, looks and acts scrumptiously different than her classical roles in films such as EMMA, PEARL HARBOR or THE GOLDEN BOWL. She adds spice to the otherwise formulaic heroine role as Anna. Wenham (LORD OF THE RINGS) is a hoot as Friar Carl, possibly the best role in the film. Roxburgh (MOULIN ROUGE), however, fares not as well with his one-note, overacting villainy. He makes for a very unconvincing Count Dracula -- one yearns for the return of Christopher Lee or Bela Lugosi. The rest of the cast is serviceable. Granted, this is not a film with which to win an Academy Award.

In a way, VAN HELSING is exactly what a summer blockbuster looks, sounds, and feels like -- loud, bold, and unabashedly dumb. If you can stop yourself from asking any logical questions, it could actually be quite a guilty pleasure. And that is what the film is all about.

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, Shuler Hensley, Elena Anaya, Will Kemp, Kevin J. O’Connor,
Director: Stephen Sommers
Writer: Stephen Sommers
Distributor: Universal
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, sexual content, alcohol use


RATINGS:

Script – 4
Performance – 6
Direction – 5
Cinematography – 7
Music/Sound– 5
Editing – 4
Production – 8

Total – 5.3 out of 10

Laws of Attraction

© 2004 Ray Wong

Right from the start, you’d notice that LAWS OF ATTRACTION is a handsome film, with its handsome stars and handsome locations and handsome sets and costumes. The opening credit reminds us of the slick screwball comedies in the 50’s and 60’s that the film is trying to emulate. Alas! Like in real life, beauty may only be skin-deep.

Audrey Woods is a single, beautiful, successful divorce lawyer who has never lost a case. That is, until Daniel Rafferty (Pierce Brosnan), a single, handsome, successful divorce lawyer, storms into town. Despite their professional rivalry, they develop an instant attraction to each other. Audrey (Julianne Moore) is high-strung, insecure and competitive. Daniel is smart, laid back and prolific. Together they make an odd couple in and out of the courtrooms (and the bedroom).

When Daniel snatches a client -- neurotic fashion designer Serena -- from under Audrey’s ambitious feet, she strikes back by representing Serena’s husband, the philandering rock star Thorne Jamison.

On an investigative trip to Ireland, they fall in love and get married -- only they do not remember doing either. The high profile case soon brings their “fake” marriage into the limelight, and they agree to keep up the appearance for the sake of their careers. “Intimacy has nothing to do with it; business is business.” Of course, things get out of hand and they let their professional competition get in the way.

Although this is far from being her best performance, Moore (THE HOURS) does a commendable job of bringing Audrey to life with her nuances and mannerisms. Brosnan (EVELYN), however, cannot shake his Bond slickness to fully take advantage of the role as Daniel. He has no shortage of charm and charisma, but he lacks the dose of complexity to make us care about the character -- he is too good to be true. The supporting cast gives us a broad spectrum of caricatures: Sheen’s (TIMELINE) rock star is all outrageousness but no depth; Posey’s (A MIGHTY WIND) Serena does nothing but scream, bite, jump or cry. Fisher (HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG) plays Audrey’s youth-obsessed mother with flare and elegancy, but the role is too insignificant. The standout is Dunn (BRUCE ALMIGHTY) as Judge Abramovitz -- her acrid characterization is ironically one of the most complex ones despite the size of the role.

The film starts off very well, effectively introducing us to the odd couple and their individual quirky personalities. Their mutual attraction is believable. Director Howitt’s (ANTITRUST) style is brisk and slick. The soundtrack is snappy and the cinematography is rich. However, the script starts to fall apart when it sends our lovebirds to Ireland, gets them drunk and marries them off. The story’s believability takes a nose dive after that. Even a screwball comedy has to ring true at a fundamental level. Their motivations and obstacles simply seem too superficial. It is all too convenient to blame everything on alcohol, coincident or bad intention. And I keep asking: Why would a successful, rich lawyer like Daniel have a decrepit law office above a grocery store in Chinatown? Details like that and flaws in the plot handicap the film’s credibility. And that’s one law you don’t want to break.


Stars: Pierce Brosnan, Julianne Moore, Michael Sheen, Parker Posey, Frances Fisher, Nora Dunn
Director: Peter Howitt
Writer: Aline Brosh McKenna
Distributor: New Line
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, language, drug and alcohol


RATINGS:

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

Total – 6.4 out of 10