The Grudge

© 2004 Ray Wong

It is interesting to note that screenwriter-director Shimizu would remake his 2003 Japanese horror hit JU-ON: THE GRUDGE only a year later. Perhaps after the incredible success of THE RING, Shimizu understands it’s a good time to enter the American market with an attractive American cast against a Japanese backdrop.

In this updated story, Karen Davis (Gella) is an exchange student from the US studying social work in Tokyo, Japan. Her boyfriend, Doug (Behr), is a fellow architecture student. Karen volunteers at the care center to earn extra credits. When a care worker fails to show up for work, Karen takes her place to take care of an elderly woman, Emma (Zabriskie) who’s suffering from dementia.

Strange things happen in the house, and Karen finds a small boy named Toshio locked inside a cupboard, taped shut. Before long, she sees something horrific that shocks and kills Emma. The story then flashes back to tell us what happens to Emma’s family, including her son Matthew (Mapother), daughter-in-law Jennifer (DuVall) and younger daughter (Strickland). Then there’s the professor Peter who killed himself three years before (during the opening credit). Or the police officers who died shortly after investigating the murder that happened in that house, one day before Peter killed himself.

As detective Nakagawa (Ishibashi) tells Karen, there’s a legend in Japan that when someone dies in extreme horror or anger, the place of his death would be shrouded by a curse – or grudge – and the curse would extend to and follow everyone who enters.

In seeking the truth, Karen puts herself and Doug in grave danger.

Gella (SCOOBY-DOO) plays Karen with great innocence and sweetness, but also an uncharacteristically somber and subdued quality. Her character lacks the spunk and resourcefulness that have become her trademark. Behr (THE SHIPPING NEWS) has a very minor role here, basically playing the same part as the ex-husband in THE RING (with the same ultimate fate). Mapother (IN THE BEDROOM), DuVall (21 GRAMS), Strickland (ANACONDAS) and Zabriskie (CHRYSTAL) all give solid performances in their minor roles as part of a doomed family who moves into the haunted house. The likeable Pullman (INDEPENDENCE DAY) is somewhat wasted in his somber role as Peter. The character is essential for the plot, but his performance is not necessarily so. Japanese actor Ozeki (JU-ON) reprises his role as the boy with remarkable creepiness. And Ishibashi (MOON CHILD) offers gravity to an otherwise simple story.

By simple I don’t mean to say the film is laughable. On the contrary, it serves up some genuinely tense and horrific moments. However, writer-director Shimizu relies too heavily on a non-linear storytelling structure to unfold his mysteries and horror, and I find that method less effective than I’d hoped. The lack of focus makes it hard for us to root for one particular person. Surely we think Karen is the protagonist here, but in many ways, she is not. The Japanese boy and his mother are, and even as we learn of their history, it still takes a leap of faith to root for someone who is “evil” so to speak. However, the director’s transitions from present time and flashbacks are to be commended. Very well done, not at all confusing to the audience.

Shimizu also relies on a lot of standard Hollywood “tricks.” The lingering, long tracking shots; the strange angle shots, the quick “ghost walking past” shots, the sudden “cat jumping out” shots. They are effective up to a point, but after a while, you get desensitized. You know what to expect and the effect is ultimately diminished.

Yet unlike a standard Hollywood scare-fest, the story retains a certain Japanese quality: there is no definitive hero. The tragic story arc and the lack of happy ending or resolve is rather Asian. That’s somewhat refreshing to the American audience, I believe, and I really can’t hold a grudge against that.

Stars: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jason Behr, Bill Pullman, William Mapother, Clea DuVall, KaDee Strickland, Grace Zabriskie, Yuya Ozeki, Ryo Ishibashi
Director: Takashi Shimizu
Writers: Takashi Shimizu, Stephen Susco
Distributor: SONY
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for horror, violence, some sensuality


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

Total Score – 6.7 out of 10

Shall We Dance?

© 2004 Ray Wong

First of all, let me say that I adore the original 1997 Japanese film, which worked on so many levels and fit the Japanese culture like a glove. It was a wonderful surprise. Translating that to the American culture is less than smooth and perfect, however. One might argue: Why remake a movie that is already so good?

For the sake of this review, I’m going to try to forget the original and speak of this remake on its own merits and detriments.

John Clark is a successful Chicago estate lawyer, happily married with two wonderful kids and a supportive wife. Everything seems perfect, except that he’s missing something. A spark? A purpose in life? What does he want? As quick as we can say “mid-life crisis,” something catches John’s eyes. On his subway trip home every evening, he passes the Miss Mitzi’s dance studio and a sullen figure at the window intrigues him. One day, his curiosity gets the best of him and he gets off that station and takes up a ballroom dancing class at the studio.

The sullen figure at the window turns out to be Miss Mitzi’s assistant Paulina, an ice princess who used to be a ballroom dancing connoisseur. John meets a grab bag of eclectic personalities, including Link, a closet ballroom dancer who works at John’s firm. Link explains, “When you’re a heterosexual man who loves to dance in sequins, you walk a very lonely road.”

Originally smitten by Paulina, John soon finds that his passion for ballroom dancing is real. The thought of that at once excites and scares him, and he tries to keep it a secret from his family. His wife, Beverly, suspects that he’s having an affair, and hires a private detective to spy on him. When she finds out that he’s taking dance lessons, she’s perplexed by his secrecy, and she feels left out.

The rest of the story takes us through a series of self-discoveries and deepening friendships between these characters.

Gere (CHICAGO) is warm, charming and sincere as John. His shyness and self-deprecating humor is affecting. With CHICAGO, UNFAITHFUL and now SHALL WE DANCE, Gere has reestablished himself as a true actor. He lights up the screen every time he’s on. Lopez (GIGLI), unfortunately, is miscast here. She comes off as sullen and constipated instead of just icy and distant. The chemistry between Gere and Lopez is also quite abysmal. Fortunately, this is really not a “romantic comedy” involving Gere and Lopez. It’s a also a good thing that she gets to show off her dance pedigree, while Gere surprises with his suave dance moves.

Saradon (ALFIE) is wonderful as John’s wife. She and Gere have tremendous chemistry together, making the ending even more satisfying. Tucci (THE TERMINAL) is a real chameleon, giving one of his most flamboyant performances here as Link. The rest of the cast is very good, including Cannavale (STATION AGENT) as the stud muffin Chic, Miller (8 MILES) as the ultra-shy Vern, Walker (BRUCE ALMIGHTY) as the loud-mouthed wannabe Bobbie, and Gillette (THE GURU) as the regal Miss Mitzi. They work very well together.

The script follows the original Japanese version closely, only making adjustment to reference the American society and culture. It is a quiet, heart-warming, and charming little story. In fact, that’s exactly what made the original such an international darling (I know, I promised not to talk about the original).

In the American version, however, the original idea of an oppressed man and the stigma associated with ballroom dancing is gone. I’m not sure if the new characterization of the protagonist serves the story well, because you never really quite understand why he is unhappy and why he commits to the dancing (despite the initial attraction to Paulina) and why he keeps it a secret. That aside, the story remains engaging and charming, so I give a thumbs up to Wells (UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN). Chelsom’s (SERENDIPITY) direction is decent; though there are places he could have slowed down and let the story linger and the characters come to life. The ending seems rushed. The film could have been 20 minutes longer.

There’s no reason why they should make this American version. But I’m glad they did. It still dances.

Stars: Richard Gere, Jennifer Lopez, Susan Saradon, Stanley Tucci, Bobby Cannavale, Richard Jenkins, Omar Miller, Anita Gillette, Lisa Ann Walker
Director: Peter Chelsom
Writer: Masayuki Suo (original 1997 script), Audrey Wells
Distributor: Miramax
Rating: PG-13 for sexual references and some language


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

Total – 7 out of 10

Friday Night Lights

© 2004 Ray Wong

It’s difficult for a sports flick to transcend the Hollywood cliché of heroes and glory. FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, a film about a West Texas high school football team, somehow manages to diverge from that cliché and deliver something more gritty and real.

The story follows football coach Gary Gaines (Thornton) as he takes his team, the Odessa-Permian Panthers, to the 1988 Texas state championship. Odessa, TX is a blue-collar town with an insatiable appetite for football and an unforgiving attitude toward losing. While real life might be bleak in this town, when the lights come on every Friday night, dreams become possible at the Permian High stadium.

Gaines is a no-nonsense, don’t-take-no-crap kind of a coach, but he has heart, and he treats his players with respect. Among these players are quarterback Mike Winchell (Black), running backs Don Billingsley (Hedlund) and Brian Chavez (Hernandez), and the superstar Boobie Miles (Luke). Winchell is a serious, taciturn loner whose sole responsibility of taking care of his mother has taken a toll on his outlooks in life. He can’t see the joy in playing football; instead, he sees it (and a scholarship) as his only ticket to escape the town and his misery. Billingsley tries too hard to impress his alcoholic father (McGraw), an ex-State champion who sees his own life dwindling away. Miles is hot-tempered and cocky, thinking that he’s God’s gift to the football world and that one day he’s going to make it big.

When Miles gets his knee busted, his hopes for superstardom vanishes together with Odessa’s hopes for an undefeated season and state championship. As the team begins to lose, Billingsley’s father becomes more and more violent. Winchell’s despair also deepens as his mother becomes sicker and his hopes of getting out diminish. But Gaines sees their potentials, and what they can accomplish if only they could see the perfection in themselves. “Being perfect is not about winning,” he says to the boys. “Being perfect is about giving your all, being able to look your family and loved ones in the eye and tell them there’s absolutely nothing more you could have done.”

Berg’s (WONDERLAND) direction is tense and personal. The hand-held camera shots do take some time getting used to, but they add to the film by giving it that gritty documentary feel. So does the washed-out look, which I think is beautiful and fitting for the film. The action on the field is rather standard, offering the usual excitement with close-ups, slow motion, and fast cutting. The rapid editing and short scenes, however, do add to the drama. I particularly like the editing – I really think it makes the film more intensely personal. The soundtrack is also very affecting.

There is no grand, complex plot, but each short scene reveals more of the characters in a nuanced way that makes for very compelling storytelling. You don’t get to come too close to the characters, but you care about them nonetheless. And they tug at the heartstring without being obnoxious about it. Little by little you get to know these characters and their situations, and you can’t help but feel attached to them. They feel real.

Thornton is low-key and very effective as Gaines. Every glance or twitch of the mouth reveals something personal and introspective about the character. There’s no overt acting here – you can tell that he’s totally immersed in this role. All of the largely unknown cast give admirable performances: Black (COLD MOUNTAIN) is strong but conflicted as Winchell. Luke (ANTWONE FISHER) is marvelous and heartbreaking as the loud-mouthed Miles. Hedlund (TROY) is not bad as the father’s boy, but he seems to be the weakest link in the cast. Country superstar McGraw is surprisingly good as Billingsley’s abusing father. His one soul-baring scene is heart wrenching to watch.

There’s nothing earth shattering in Cohen and Berg’s script (adapted from Bissinger’s best-selling non-fiction book). We have all the usual ingredients for a sports movie: underdogs with personal problems, abusive fathers, a tough-love coach, and impossible odds. What sets this film apart from, say, MIRACLE (with Kurt Russell), is that the story focuses more on the characters and their relationships with each other than the actual plays and wins. The ending is almost anti-sports movies – clearly it’s not about the destination, but the journey. There might not be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but there is that rainbow, dammit. And that message is powerful.

Stars: Billy Bob Thornton, Tim McGraw, Lucas Black, Garrett Hedlund, Derek Luke, Jay Hernadez
Director: Peter Berg
Writers: David Aaron Cohen, Peter Berg (based on book by H.G. Bissinger)
Distributor: Universal
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, language, alcohol, sexual content


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

Total Score – 7.9 out of 10

Shark Tale

© 2004 Ray Wong

It’s inevitable that Dreamwork’s SHARK TALE would be compared to last year’s FINDING NEMO by their archrival Pixar. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), the only resemblance between the two films is that they’re both animated features with fish in them.

Oscar (Smith) is a smalltime fish that dreams of fame and fortune. He’s stuck in a lowly janitorial job at a Whale Wash; he’s unhappy even though he has many friends, including the lovely Angie (Zellweger). She has a secret crush on Oscar but he is blind to her feelings.

When Oscar’s puffer fish boss Sykes (Scorsese) demands him to pay back his overextension, Angie helps him out with her grandmother’s pearl. However, Oscar uses the money to bet on a (sea)horse race and loses it all. Sykes, whose boss is the Godfather shark Don Lino (De Niro), asks his minions to eliminate Oscar.

Meanwhile, Don Lino’s son Lenny (Black) is a soft-hearted vegetarian, thus a disgrace to his family. While out trying to prove his worthiness, Lenny interrupts Oscar’s “termination.” Unfortunately, Lenny’s brother Frankie (Michael Imperioli) gets killed in an accident. The disgrace and guilt prompt Lenny to leave his mobster family.

Oscar lies to the townsfolk that he’s killed Frankie, and he helps Lenny by pretending to have slain him in a public display. Soon Oscar is lauded as the shark slayer, and fame and fortune follow. Angie finds out the truth and urges Oscar to come clean. Instead, Oscar sinks deeper into the trap of his lies. In the process, Oscar loses himself, and he loses Angie. When Din Lino threatens to kill him to avenge his sons’ deaths, Oscar must tell the truth.

Again, it’s hard not to compare this to FINDING NEMO or Dreamwork’s own SHREK. The CGI animation is good, but not quite up to snuff, surprisingly having a hand-drawn feel to it. The characters are fluid and the colors vibrant. However, some scenes are too fuzzy and the general feel is that it’s too busy and frantic. The fishy characters look remarkably like the actors who voice them – it’s a little disconcerting, for example, to see Martin Scorsese’s head on a puffer fish. Some characters verge on being offensive stereotypes (e.g. Sykes’ two jellyfish minions).

Smith is good as Oscar’s voice, and his likeable mannerism shows through the character as well. I do sense a little self-indulgence in the performance, but his spirited reading serves the character well. Scorsese and De Niro play themselves to great effect, spoofing their own public personas. Zellweger is a knockout as the kind but spunky Angie. Her expressive voice gives the character extra dimensions. Black is really funny as Lenny. Jolie is interesting, if not a little predictable, as the gold-digging goldfish Lola.

In a way, SHARK TALE really is not a tale about fish. It’s basically a spoof of gangster and “hood” stories with characters played by fish. It’s an interesting take. The script has its moments of hilarity. The film is filled brim-to-brim with pop culture references, and the soundtrack is Rap and Hip Hop heavy. I’m surprised by how adult some of the materials are: race track gambling, mob killing, fame, money, lust, etc. Some dialogue is borderline saucy. There’s an undeniable gay undertone in Lenny’s character and subplot. In comparison, FINDING NEMO has a much purer storytelling. It’s not to say SHARK TALE is not suitable for children, but I think a lot of the jokes and messages would be lost on the young ones.

That said, the main plot of the story is rather old-fashioned and lacking in imagination: It’s about being “true to yourself and knowing who you are.” However, the film’s too busy, with too many characters and too many one-liners. It takes me a while to get used to the idea of fish having “hood” talks, singing and dancing Hip Hop and RAP, living in city dwellings with stereos and TVs, and dressing like gangsters or thuds. I’m particularly offended by the nonchalant attitude toward graffiti vandalism, as if it’s a cool thing for kids to do. At times I feel that the setting is ill-suited for the story. It simply feels odd. In comparison, the pop culture references in SHREK work much smoothly with better believability. I think it’d have been a better tale had they used human characters, or stuck to underwater realism.

Stars: Will Smith, Robert De Niro, Renée Zellweger, Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Martin Scorsese
Directors: Bibo Bergeron, Vicky Jenson, Rob Letterman
Writers: Rob Letterman, Damian Shannon, Mark Swift, Michael J. Wilson
Distributor: Dreamweork
MPAA Rating: PG for mild language and crude humor


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

Total Score – 6.8 out of 10