The Notebook

© 2004 Ray Wong

THE NOTEBOOK aims at positioning itself as the counter-program to summer blockbusters filled to the brim with aliens, explosions and superheroes. From the sweeping wide shot of the opening credits, you know what you are getting. In a way, it is a simple story: boy meets girl and boy loses girl, and does the boy get the girl at the end?

Duke is an elderly man who practically lives at a nursing home by choice, keeping a mysterious platinum-haired woman company by reading her a story from a notebook.

The story, as Duke gently recites to her, is about Noah Calhoun and Allie Hamilton, two 17-year-olds who first meet at a county fair.

Throughout the summer, Noah and Allie’s cautious flirtation turns into a serious relationship, despite the objection of Allie’s mother. You see, Allie’s family is rich, and Noah is a poor boy without a bright future. Obstacles separate the young lovers. When Noah returns from WWII, Allie is already engaged to the handsome and “fabulously rich” Lon Hammond. Through convoluted plot machinations, Allie leaves her fiancé and finds Noah. Their fire is re-ignited. Unfortunately, Allie must now choose between the two men she loves.

While Leven’s (THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE) screenplay hints at suspense, the story is as predictable as a bowl of molasses: warm, gooey and extra sugary. There is really no reason to doubt the identities of Duke and the old lady, or where the story is going. Yes, there are some nice moments: Noah hanging on to the Ferris wheel coercing Allie to go out with him; lying in the street watching the traffic lights change; a romantic boat ride among a lake-full of white geese, a rain-soaked love scene… The problem is, these gorgeous moments feel prearranged, manufactured so impeccably that they feel artificial and cliché-ridden.

The inconsistency in character development also adds to the frustration. Noah comes off as a cocky rebel in the beginning, but he quickly turns into a taciturn, reserved man waiting for Allie to make the first move. Allie comes off as irresponsible, spoiled and inconsiderate. At times, I find Allie having more sparks with Lon than with Noah. That is not good if we are supposed to root for the latter.

The film is handsome through cinematographer Robert Fraisse’s lens -- a moving postcard of sorts -- as is the romantic score by Aaron Zigman. But it is so self-aware and it tries so hard to tug at the heartstrings that you feel manipulated. At times, the filmmakers deliver the sentimentality with a 2-by-4 with stilted dialog such as “The problem with you is that you don’t do what you want.” Rowlands’ character keeps saying to Duke, “It’s such a beautiful story, I wonder how it ends.”

Director Cassavetes’ (JOHN Q) capable but unremarkable skills cannot lift the film off its own sap. The editing is inconsistent, leaving holes in the story that make you feel like something is missing. For example, the WWII scenes are way too short and choppy that they become unintentionally funny. And the ending -- all I have to say is that they are trying too hard to make you cry.

What saves the film is the cast. Gosling (MURDER BY NUMBERS) surprises us as a romantic lead. His boyish charm as a 17-year-old matures well into the older and wiser Noah. McAdams (MEAN GIRL) also leaps successfully from comedy to dramatic lead. Her Allie is beautiful, spirited and passionate despite the character flaws. Rowlands exudes muted vulnerability, but playing a befuddled patient does not leave her too much to do. Garner (SPACE COWBOYS) shines as the gentle, charming but passionate Duke, anchoring the film with genuine emotion. Allen (THE CONTENDER) delivers a solid but slightly one-dimensional portrayal of Allie’s deceitful mother. With the story focusing on Noah, the other men in the film simply fade into the background -- Marsden (X-2) as Lon, Kevin Connolly (JOHN Q) as Noah's best friend Fin, and Sam Shephard (BLACK HAWK DOWN) as Noah’s father. Jamie Brown is a stand-out as Noah’s occasional lover Martha.

THE NOTEBOOK is a noble effort in bringing Sparks’ sentimental story to the screen. Fans of old-fashioned love stories and helpless romantics may find this familiar tale engaging, a true tear-jerker. Others may find better materials in similar fairs such as TITANTIC or IRIS.

Stars: Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, James Garner, Gena Rowlands, Joan Allen, James Marsden
Director: Nick Cassavetes
Writers: Jan Sardi, Jeremy Leven (based on novel by Nicholas Sparks)
Distributor: New Line
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for alcohol, sexuality


Script – 3
Performance – 6
Direction – 5
Cinematography – 8
Music/Sound– 7
Editing – 5
Production – 6

Total – 5.7 out of 10

The Terminal

© 2004 Ray Wong

Halfway through THE TERMINAL, you can’t help but feel that something is weird here. The story, the people and the settings all seem real enough, but there is just something surreal about the whole experience.

Then you realize, even though the film is supposed to be based on a true story, it is really a fantasy.

Viktor Navorski is a tourist from Krakozia, an Eastern European country in political turmoil. Once he lands in JFK, he learns that his country has fallen into a coup and a war has broken out. He is informed by Homeland Security officer Frank Dixon that he is now an “unacceptable,” with no country to return to and forbidden to step onto American soil. Viktor is, however, free to roam inside the International arrivals lounge.

One day turns into weeks, then months. The story follows Viktor through his nine month’s overstay, during which he learned English by reading guide books and watching TV, making the best of his situation. His life intertwines with many colorful characters, including the beautiful but confused flight attendant Amelia.

THE TERMINAL is one of those rare American films (especially from master storytellers such as Spielberg) where the plot takes a backseat to the characters and settings. Nevertheless, you care about the protagonist, and you want to see what happens to him. The central suspense is: will he succeed in seeing America? The real joke, of course, is that he has seen America within the confines of the terminal. Product placements pop up everywhere: Starbucks, Borders, Burger King, the Discovery Store, Brookstone, Coca Cola, etc. and the people Viktor meets span a wide spectrum of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Oh yes, Viktor takes not sips, but gulps of the American idiosyncrasies.

The story is simple enough, and you never lose track of who the good and bad guys are. That is, perhaps, also one of its weaknesses. Don’t get me wrong. I totally enjoyed THE TERMINAL, and consider it one of the best comedies this year. We must, however, realize and accept that it is a fantasy in order to sustain our disbelief. At times the direction does seem somewhat on the nose, shamelessly tugging on our heartstrings and preaching to the choir about compassion and truth. Spielberg’s detractors will no doubt complain about the schmaltzy overtone. The romance between Viktor and Amelia does feel forced as well.

What makes the film so enjoyable, making us laugh and smile at the right places, is the assortment of colorful characters. Hank’s Viktor is almost like a Forrest Gump with a thick accent, which he occasionally overdoes, rendering his dialogue incomprehensible sometimes. But Hanks has enough heart to carry the character anywhere he wants to. Zeta-Jones is delightful as the kind Amelia who hates to be alone. Tucci is wonderfully snarky and neurotic -- a guy you’d really love to hate. Viktor’s three unlikely friends are portrayed with humility and comedic deftness by McBride (NARC), Luna (DIRTY DANCING: HAVANA NIGHT) and Pallana (DUPLEX). Though we don’t really know their motivations, they simply put a smile on your face. And that’s all that matters.

John William’s score is light and fun, perfect for the tone of the film. Spielberg’s direction is masterful, as usual. The editing can use some work, and the ending is about 10 minutes too long. Otherwise, it is a film that the whole family can enjoy. Except, I suppose, when you are waiting for a flight at the terminal.

Stars: Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stanley Tucci, Chi McBride, Diego Luna, Barry Shabaka Henley, Zoe Saldana, Kumar Pallana
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Sacha Gervasi, Jeff Nathanson
Distributors: DreamWorks
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language, drug and alcohol


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

Total – 7.4 out of 10

The Stepford Wives

© 2004 Ray Wong

As Annie Oakley would say in ANNIE GOT YOUR GUN: Love, honor and obey, my ass! THE STEPFORD WIVES, like the 1975 original and based on Ira Levin’s cautionary tale, offers a bizarre, twisted look at the sexes and marriages, and the pitfalls of perfection.

Joanna Eberhart, an ambitious Network president, has a nervous breakdown after a disastrous event gets her fired. To help her recuperate, her nerdy husband, Walter Kresby, quits his job as the Network Vice-President and moves the family to a perfect, picturesque town in Stepford, Connecticut. Perhaps a little too perfect. Even the town mayor Mike Wellington and his wife Claire are oddly cheery and hospitable.

Walter soon finds himself settling comfortably among the men, gathering at the Stepford Men’s Association, smoking cigars and playing video games. Joanna promptly becomes friends with fellow new residents Bobbie Markowitz, a tart-mouth author, and Roger Bannister, a flamboyant gay architect. They spend their time with the other wives at the spa, or at their homes baking and crocheting. Joanna soon suspects something is wrong with this town where the men are men and the wives are, well, perfectly obedient. When, overnight, Roger turns into a reserved gay Republican and Bobbie into a mousy housewife, Joanna realized she is in danger. Then she discovers that the men have turned their spouses into (gasp!) robots.

Unlike the spooky original, which was categorized as a horror film, this STEPFORD WIVES plays to the broadly comedic elements of the material. At times a sharp social satire, and others a dark comedy, the film offers a unique perspective of our views and expectations in terms of our culture, gender differences, relationships and marriages (here’s to gay marriage!). It opens with a brilliant commentary on our obsession with reality shows that ridicule our sacred relationships. As we laugh at the absurdities, we also find ourselves shifting uncomfortably in our seats, realizing that all is not far from the truth. The film offers many more such laughs.

The problem I have with the script is the ending. While the first 2/3 of the film is brilliant, the weird, happy ending seems out of place and rushed, as if it runs out of steam. It seems to take on a different tone and path during the last act when Joanna finally discovers the truth. While the ending does offer a few surprises and smart twists, the “epilogue” is simply flat, compared to the brilliance in the first hour. Also, there are major discrepancies that bother me (*SPOILER* ahead): we are led to believe that the wives are made into robots that let out sparks and spin wildly when malfunctioning and dispense one-dollar bills like an ATM machine. But at the end, we find out that they are still human (in the original, the wives are really dead). That makes the scene in which Joanna stares at her robotic shell totally unbelievable.

Gripes aside, there is only one word to describe the cast: PERFECT. I can’t think of anyone else beside Kidman as Joanna, and she has pulled off her best comedic performance since TO DIE FOR. Broderick is perfect as well, if not a little typecast, as the droll but loveable husband. Midler is divine as Bobbie and veteran stage actor Bart (THE PRODUCERS) is a hoot as the very stereotypically gay Roger. Walken can probably sleepwalk through his role as Wellington and still come out shining, and Close is perfectly creepy as his wife. Hill is delightful in her minor role as a Stepford wife. Grant and Lovitz both offer solid support as the respective spouses of Bobbie and Roger.

Writer Rudnick and director Oz (IN & OUT) have done a good job giving us a highly entertaining, sharp satire and dark comedy. The film has a plush, surreal look to it, which is just perfect. The editing is sloppy at times, leaving us with slight disorientations. The score, which is darkly whimsical, and the retro soundtrack are a nice touch. If only the ending is up to snuff, the film would have been as perfect as the Stepford wives themselves.

Stars: Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Glenn Close, Christopher Walken, Roger Bart, David Marshall Grant, Jon Lovitz, Faith Hill
Director: Frank Oz
Writer: Paul Rudnick (based on Ira Levin’s book)
Distributors: Paramount and DreamWorks
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, alcohol use, language


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

Total – 7 out of 10

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

© 2004 Ray Wong

HARRY POTTER is possibly one of the most profitable franchises in history. The third installment, while darker and more serious in tone and content, continues the tradition by bringing us the alternate universe we have grown to love, filled with out-of-this-world creatures, wizards, witches and magic.

AZKABAN opens, as usual, at the Dursleys’ home. Even though student wizards are forbidden to use magic outside of Hogwarts, Harry simply cannot contain his wrath toward Aunt Petunia, turning her into a giant balloon. He leaves the Dursleys’ and expects to get into a lot of trouble, only to find himself escorted back to Hogwarts. As it turns out, a convicted murderer, Sirius Black, has escaped from the prison of Azkaban and is rumored to be looking for Harry.

As Harry, Hermione and Ron struggle through their third year, Hogwarts is under extreme security to guard against Sirius. Eventually, Harry discovers that Sirius betrayed his parents and was responsible for their deaths. He vows to kill Sirius when he sees him. Harry also then finds out what exactly happened to his parents.

Director Alfonso Cuarón (Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN) has created a darkly moody, visually stunning film. It is, however, less playful and fanciful than the first two installments, directed by Christopher Columbus, who remains as executive producer. There is a lot of setup in the first hour (which are important for the second hour), and at times it feels a little slow. As we follow Harry and company around Hogwarts, we wonder: where is the plot? In a way, the magical wonderment of the first two films is somehow replaced by a “been there, done that” feeling, with the exception of the Hippogriff, a fantastical half-eagle, half-horse creature. Characters we have come to love and hate in the past – Professor McGonagall, Dumbledore, Snape, Harry’s archenemy Malfoy, even Hagrid – simply become throwaways. The story focuses a little too heavily on the Harry trio, making it a little dull.

Thankfully, the plot thickens once Harry discovers the secret behind the death of Peter Pettigrew, a former Hogwarts teacher. The second hour picks up in earnest, culminating in a satisfying conclusion. Parents beware: there are some scary moments involving the Dementors that will frighten small children.

Cuarón is skillful, proving that he could handle a Hollywood blockbuster. The cinematography is beautiful to behold and the sets – Hogwarts, the forest, the village, the city of London, etc. – are gorgeous with painstaking detail. The editing is a little choppy at times, but John William’s score is masterful.

Radcliffe has matured into a fine teenage Harry, though his performance remains a little stiff. Hopefully his characterization will continue to improve as Harry becomes more complex. Watson, likewise, has turned into a beautiful, headstrong (and thankfully, less irritating) Hermione. Grint is, as usual, funny and expressive as the timid, awkward Ron. Thewlis is effectively sincere as Professor Lupin, while Oldman is outstanding as the emotional, mysterious Black, stealing every scene he is in. The rest of the cast is adequate, and Gambon makes a fine replacement for the wonderful Richard Harris as Dumbledore. Rickman keeps on doing what he does best, while Smith has only a few cameos.

The HARRY POTTER franchise has grown and matured as a major force in the world of entertainment. Expectations are high, and it is interesting to see how it holds up in the future. Even after Rowling finishes her seven books, I am sure that Harry Potter will live on in the movies, much like the other English gentleman: James Bond.

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Gambon
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Writers: Steven Kloves (based on J.K. Rowling’s novel)
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: PG for mild violence, alcohol, scary moments, magic and witchcraft


Script – 7
Performance – 7
Direction – 8
Editing – 7
Sound/Score – 8
Cinematography – 8
Production – 9

Total – 7.7 out of 10

The Day After Tomorrow

© 2004 Ray Wong

Not since DEEP IMPACT and INDEPENDENCE DAY have we seen a disaster movie of such grand scale, especially in the days after 9/11. Last year’s THE CORE attempted, pitifully, to bring the genre back in the game. This year, we have THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, in which the world is nearly destroyed by an Ice Age brought on by global warming.

Professor Jack Hall, a climatologist based in Washington D.C., discovers a dramatic shift in the world’s climate while on an expedition in the Antarctica. As snow falls in New Delhi, he tries to warn the world leaders of a possible new Ice Age. The notion is promptly rejected and ridiculed by the US Vice President (who has an uncanny resemblance to Dick Cheney).

Meanwhile, Jack’s son Sam, an underachieving genius, heads out to New York for a science competition. Soon, as Jack has predicted, the global weather goes haywire, including grapefruit-sized hails that bludgeon Tokyo, multiple tornadoes that destroy Los Angeles, and a tsunami that buries New York City. When massive storm systems form over the northern hemisphere, Jack must convince the world to help save itself while he goes on a quest to rescue his son, who is now trapped in an ice-sealed Manhattan.

Writer-producer-director Emmerich (STARGATE, INDEPENDENCE DAY) has made a name for himself with his state of the art sci-fi spectacles. In this film, Emmerich sets out to make a first-rate disaster movie with an environmental message. As with many disaster movies, the script is the weakest link. Emmerich’s film asks for a massive dose of suspension of disbelief, and it’s hard to do, given its quasi-intellectual techno-babble and on-the-nose self-righteousness about global warming. The basic premise is ice-thin to sustain a two-hour long film. Many subplots either feel artificial (what’s with the wolves?) or do not add to the story (the scenes with Sela Ward are an unnecessary distraction). Jack’s motivation to rescue Sam is noble yet unsound, especially since he would have to go against his knowledge about the storms and the advice on surviving them. Then again, without this plot, the movie would have been over in an hour.

The film, however, excels in its special effects and entertainment value. The New York scenes, for example, are spectacular, sending us chills and taking our collective breath away. Never have we seen massive destructions and utter perils with such details and realism. The effects feel even more chilling as we observe the floods and tornadoes happening right now in our country. Emmerich’s direction is skillful and exciting. The production values are high.

The performances are, in general, adequate, considering the genre where actors usually take a backseat to the story and the special effects. Quaid (FAR FROM HEAVEN) continues to prove that he is a top leading man – his Jack Hall is heroic and sympathetic. Ward (DIRTY DANCING), as Jack’s wife Lucy, does not have much to do but act concerned – her role could have been eliminated without any impact to the story. Gyllenhaal (MOONLIGHT MILE) is fine as the brooding but resourceful Sam, who rises to the occasion when disaster strikes. Rossum (MYSTIC RIVER) is a refreshing face and talent, and her performance, as Sam’s love interest Laura, gives the film a genuine grace. It helps that she and Gyllenhaal have tremendous chemistry together. Rounding out the cast is the always-perfect Holm (LORD OF THE RINGS), whose doomed Professor Terry Rapson shows us real human dignity.

Despite the flaws common in the script of such genre – more outlandishly fictional than factual – THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW is a highly entertaining summer pop-corn movie with characters you can actually root for and care about. And if, in the process of entertaining the fickle movie-goers it helps raise our awareness of global warming issues and policies and prompt a few debates or two, then all the better. Maybe it is time for us to think about our tomorrows.

Stars: Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Sela Ward, Ian Holm, Emmy Rossum
Director: Roland Emmerich
Writers: Roland Emmerich, Jeffrey Nachmanoff
Distributor: Fox
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, depiction of mass death and intense peril


Script – 4
Performance – 7
Direction – 7
Editing – 8
Sound/Score – 7
Cinematography – 7
Production – 9

Total – 7.0 out of 10