Garden State

© 2004 Ray Wong

GARDEN STATE, by actor and first-time writer-director Zack Braff (TV’s SCRUBS) has garnered much attention at Sundance Film Festival. It showcases the multitalented Braff and is lauded as a definitive Gen-X film.

Braff plays Andrew Largeman, a drifter and not-so-successful TV actor who sleepwalks through most of his life. He returns to his hometown in New Jersey – the Garden State – to attend his mother’s funeral. Estranged from his psychologist father, Andrew feels disconnected and alienated from the world in which he grew up. When he meets up with his old pal Mark (a grave-digging slacker), he further sees the meaninglessness of his life.

Heavily medicated to help him get through his days, Andrew decides to stop taking his medications (including Lithium) against his doctor’s and his father’s recommendations. Then he meets the free-spirited and chatty Sam at a clinic and they strike up an unlikely but immediate friendship. Sam has a perchance for telling little white lies, but her cheery disposition and outlooks in life slowly lifts Andrew out of his misery.

In writing the synopsis of the story, I realize that there really isn’t much plot in this story. It’s very slow moving and at 1h:55m running length, you can’t help but wonder: When is this going to end? It’s a predictable story, and mainly a character study, a mosaic of anecdotes on “the lost generation”. In a way, it succeeds in painting a rather bleak picture of a dysfunctional generation that struggles through life without directions. Almost every character in the film has no goals or directions in life. And that’s pretty depressing.

Braff’s script tries too hard to be quirky and irrelevant. Yes, they are irrelevant, and many snippets do make you chuckle at their absurdity. But ingenious? I’m not so sure. Strung together, these scenes create a not-so-pleasant scenery, and a story that just isn’t very coherent. The quirky characters come and go, and you really don’t know much or care about them, and they don’t really propel the plot. They’re like strange paintings on a wall. At times the dialogue is too heavy-handed and the situations too coincidental. The main characters, namely Andrew, Sam and Mark, are not very likable either so it takes effort to actually care about them. In a character-driven, thinly-plotted story, that can prove fatal.

Braff is serviceable as the dysfunctional Andrew, but in many ways he’s only recapping his character on SCRUBS. Portman (STAR WARS) fares somewhat better as the giggly girl-next-door, but her emotional scenes are handled too superficially. Holm (DAY AFTER TOMORROW) is fine in his small role as Andrew’s quiet, withdrawn father. Other actors serve their quirky purposes well in their minor roles: Smart (SWEET HOME ALABAMA) as Mark’s mother; Michael Weston (FINAL DRAFT) as Kenny; Ron Leibman (DUMMY) as Dr. Cohen. Sarsgraad (K19) is particularly good as Mark. His slacker character is not very likable but at least you can see some depth through those glazed eyes of his, and he more or less redeems himself at the end in one of the film’s most poignant moments.

Where Braff might have failed as a writer, he’s compensated with his deft skills as a director. It’s not easy to spot that this film is his directorial debut. His images are often haunting and unique. And quirky. While the cinematography is serviceably bleak, the soundtrack is very good. At times, when there’s not much on the screen to engage our eyes or our brains, it’s rather nice to have something to engage our ears.

Stars: Zack Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgraad, Ian Holm, Jean Smart
Director: Zack Braff
Writer: Zack Braff
Distributors: Miramax, Fox Searchlight
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, strong language, drug and alcohol


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

Total Score - 6.4 out of 10

A Home at the End of the World

© 2004 Ray Wong

Based on his 1991 novel of the same name and adapted by Pulitzer-winning author Cunningham (THE HOURS) himself, HOME is a bitter-sweet, slice-of-life story of an unconventional family driven by love and tolerance.

It’s easy to love Bobby Morrow, a man-child with a sweet and innocent disposition. As a boy, Bobby learns some interesting lessons about love from his brother, before witnessing his brutal death.

As a teenager, Bobby becomes fast and best friend with Jonathan Glover. They share with each other not only their joints, but also their sexual awakening. After Bobby’s father passes away, the Glover family takes Bobby in. He clings to Jonathan’s family as his own and they adore him in return.

Several years later, Bobby moves in with Jonathan and his roommate Clare in New York and they form a tight trio. Jonathan is gay but Clare is straight (and hopelessly in love with Jonathan), and they both love Bobby. When Clare and Bobby hit it off, Jonathan becomes jealous and moves back in with his parents in Arizona. After Jonathan’s father dies, Bobby and Clare visit him, and Clare lets on that she’s pregnant (assumingly with Bobby’s child, although it’s never made clear). The trio decides to relocate to Woodstock to raise the baby. The story continues to follow these three people who love each other so much and how the decisions they make in life change them all.

As Bobby, Farrell (PHONE BOOTH) sheds his bad-boy, tough-guy routines and consumes the role with a wide-eyed innocence and sweetness that surprise and delight us. His Bobby is all about love, and it doesn’t matter who he loves. Whether it is Jonathan or Clare. Or just life itself. But the world is not a simple place, and soon Bobby must choose. Farrell has succeeded in bringing Bobby to life – it’s probably his best work to date. It helps that the actors who play his younger self (Andrew Chalmers as the boy and Erik Smith as the teenager) both give excellent performances.

Wright Penn (UNBREAKABLE) is exquisite as Clare, the woman who loves both men but knows that she can’t have either of them completely. Her characterization is electrifying and achingly touching at the same time. Roberts (THE LUCKY ONES) has a harder time playing the confused, moody and introverted Jonathan. Naturally he is outshone by the stronger personalities of both Bobby and Clare. However, in a quiet, satisfying way, his Jonathan is the one who grows the most in the story.

Spacek (IN THE BEDROOM) is a national treasure, I now declare. She is simply incredible as Alice, Jonathan’s mother. Her character – and her portrayal – is so beautiful and affecting that everyone should want to have a mother like her. Frewer (DAWN OF THE DEAD) is fine as Ned, Jonathan’s father, but his role is too minor to have any impact.

The screenplay by Cunningham is languid and episodic. I figure it is very difficult to adapt a lengthy, literary fiction to the screen, especially one that is dear to your heart. Cunningham has done a good job, even though sometimes the script feels a little melodramatic or “TV movie of the week.” First-time director Mayer (mostly known for his stage work) may not very savvy, but he has a keen eyes for bringing out performances. The film excels in bringing to life the characters and their intricate, complex relationships. At times, it’s difficult to understand between the lines, but you get the feeling that these characters are real and you feel their emotions coming through with such power. A scene near the end, when Bobby and Jonathan scatter Ned’s ashes near their house, brings a rare tear in my eye. It’s because I really care about these characters, even though sometimes I don’t understand them completely. Just as in real life. In many ways, it’s an unconventional story about an unconventional family with an unconventional ending. And that is what makes this film unforgettable.

Stars: Collin Farrell, Robin Wright Penn, Dallas Roberts, Sissy Spacek, Matt Frewer
Director: Michael Mayer
Writers: Michael Cunningham (based on his novel)
Distributor: Warner Independent Pictures
MPAA Rating: R for nudity, sexual content, drug use, language


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

Total – 7.4 out of 10

Little Black Book

© 2004 Ray Wong

Stacy Holt is an ambitious but naïve assistant producer for the Kippy Kann Show, a Jerry Springer knock-off. Life is pretty good. She’s making headway at her job, trying to save the flagging Kippy Kann from her rating lows. She also has a fun-loving relationship with her handsome boyfriend Derek, a sports agent with the New York Devils.

The only problem is that she doesn’t trust relationships: if it’s too good to be true, it is.

Her co-workers at the show, Barb and Ira, convince her that she needs to “look under the hood before buying the car.” So she did, snooping around until she got hold of Derek’s little electronic black book (a Palm Pilot). She tracks down his old girlfriends: supermodel Lulu Fritz, gynecologist Rachel Keyes, and sous chef Joyce. Her bad behavior not only uncovers unpleasant facts about how little she knows about Derek’s past, but also the deep, dark issues she has about trusting someone she loves. Her life is ultimately turned upside down when a betrayal forces her to confront everyone on her deceit and connivance.

Career girls. Snooping and deceit. Scheming. Sounds familiar? Unfortunately the similarities between LITTLE BLACK BOOK and WORKING GIRL stop at Carly Simon (don’t get me wrong, Carly is fabulous in her brief cameo). The trailers try to convince us that it’s a zany romantic comedy. The truth is that there’s nothing romantic about this film. It is too mean-spirited. It tries too hard to be a social satire about reality TV, ala NETWORK or BROADCAST NEWS, to the point that they cast Hunter, who played Jane Craig in the latter film.

Murphy can be really good, as she was in 8 MILES and DON’T SAY A WORD, but she seems lost in the contrived role as Stacy. Her performance comes off as trying too hard to be Meg Ryan-like. Hunter (THIRTEEN) is very good; unfortunately her character is so unbelievable, that by the end even a great actress like her can’t compensate for the material. Livingston (OFFICE SPACE) is charming, but he has nothing to do. There is not much chemistry between him and Murphy, and that’s part of the problem with the film. In minor roles, Bates (ABOUT SCHMIDT) is hilarious as the Jerry Spring send-up, Tobolowsky is funny as the boss without a heart, and Sussman (CHANGING LANES) is interesting as the befuddled but comedic Ira. The standout is Nicholson (SPEAKEASY) as the spunky, compassionate, kind and hurt Joyce. Her performance is one of the real pleasures of this film.

The script by first-time screenwriters Carter and Bell has the potential to be really sharp, hilarious and heartbreaking. However, what has transpired on screen is choppy and unfocused. Granted, there are some entertaining moments (the interview with Lulu, or Stacy smashing Derek’s answering machine) but they’re far and few between. But dubious motivations, clichéd dialogues and unbelievable incidents waste a potentially great twist toward the end of the film. By then, the characters including Stacy have become so unlikable or incredulous that it is difficult for us to identify with them. I have a feeling that the writers and filmmakers simply tried too hard to be clever and tart.

Director Hurran further diminishes the film with his clichéd direction and editing, constantly cutting to talking heads, office mayhem, and convoluted dialogues – at times, it is difficult for me to understand what’s being said; too much going on at one time. Too many minor characters you don’t know much or care about. The editing is sloppy in many places. This must be one of the ugliest visions of New York in recent films.

Looks like I’m going to have to erase this one from my little black book.

Stars: Brittany Murphy, Holly Hunter, Ron Livingston, Julianne Nicholson, Kathy Bates, Stephen Kobolowsky, Kevin Sussman
Director: Nick Hurran
Writers: Melissa Carter, Elisa Bell
Distributor: Columbia
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content and language


Script – 6
Performance – 6
Direction – 3
Cinematography – 5
Music/Sound– 6
Editing – 4
Production – 6

Total – 5.1 out of 10

The Manchurian Candidate

© 2004 Ray Wong

Some people may question the reasoning behind remaking a 1962 classic that was already perfect. Obviously, the timing and the updated material seem suspect in this election year. Political agendas aside, it is only fair to judge this film on its own merits instead of comparing it to the original.

Captain Ben Marco is a decorated war hero suffering from the "Gulf War Syndrome." Over the years since the war, he has become a borderline recluse while watching his ex-comrade, congressman Raymond Shaw earn his Medal of Honor and rise to become a Vice President candidate.

Marco finds himself having troubles reconciling his recurring nightmares and what he considers memory of what happened in Iraq. When Al Melvin, a man who fought with him in the war, pays him a visit (and later drowns), he realizes that someone has brainwashed them, replacing their memories with manufactured ones. He also finds an electronic implant in his back.

Marco's investigation leads him to Shaw, who also shares the same nightmares. Like Marco, Shaw remembers "that things happened, but I don't remember doing them." Further probes lead Marcos to a mega-company named Manchurian Global, the biggest government contractor and a major backer to Shaw's mother, Senator Eleanor Shaw. Convinced that a conspiracy is in the works involving him and Shaw, Marcos becomes paranoid and desperate as the election draws near...

Washington (MAN ON FIRE) is intense and depressing as Marco, playing against type as the hapless protagonist who is jerked around like a sock puppet. Given the passive nature of the role, it is far from being Washington's most electrifying performances. Streep (THE HOURS) plays the conniving Eleanor Shaw with a fierce virtuoso. However, I find her role lacking convincing motivations, making her performance shallow. There is, however, a creepy scene with her son that hints at her complexity -- Alas! It arrives too late and too briefly. Schreiber (THE SUM OF ALL FEARS) excels in portraying the unlikely hero in Raymond Shaw as a flawed and complex man. The rest of the cast is good, including Voight (HOLES) as Eleanor's rival Senator Jordan, Wright (ALI) as the tormented ex-veteran, and Elise (BAIT) as the sympathetic stranger who helps Macro.

The script by writers Pyne (THE SUM OF ALL FEARS) and Georgaris (PAYCHECK) is lukewarm at best, missing the opportunities to deliver us a sharp political thriller. While the modern-day update is timely and interesting with the Iraq War and the 2004 election looming over us, the story still comes across as a tall tale as the stakes are simply too high and the motivations not clear and strong enough. Greedy corporations simply do not have the same credibility as evil communists.

Director Demme (THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE) has concocted a serviceable suspense/thriller with a quasi sci-fi tilt. His use of flash-cutting and extreme long shots is effective in tightening the tension. In general, however, the execution is lackluster and the plot is rather predictable, making the film a better candidate for the home theaters than the big screens.

Stars: Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber, Kimberly Elise, Vera Farmiga, Jon Voight, Jeffrey Wright
Director: Jonathan Demme
Writers: Daniel Pyne, Dean Georgaris (based on novel by Richard Condon)
Distributor: Paramount
MPAA Rating: R for alcohol, violence, strong language


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

Total – 6.5 out of 10