© 2004 Ray Wong

Much has been discussed, debated, studied, lauded and ridiculed about Alfred Kinsey’s studies on human sexuality. Bill Condon’s film, KINSEY, explores the man, his life, and how he changed the world.

Alfred Kinsey (Neeson) is an introspective yet resolute son of a hypocritical, abusive minister (Lithgow). Defying his father’s wishes, Kinsey becomes a zoologist, spending over twenty years studying and collecting gall wasps. During his tenure at Indiana University, he meets and later marries Clara “Mac” McMillen (Linney).

Kinsey’s foray into sexology comes about by accident when a married student couple consults him on their marital problems. Soon he starts a new graduate class on sexuality offered only to married couples, where he offers scientific, frank, and often embarrassing discussions. There, he meets and recruits graduate student Clyde Martin (Sarsgaard) to help him with his research. Realizing that what American couples do in their bedrooms goes far beyond the missionary position, Kinsey believes that the only truth lies in a scientific study, and the only way to carry out that study is by taking anonymous, objective, totally non-judgmental surveys across the wide spectrum of the country’s population. Together with Mac, Clyde and two other researchers – Wardell Pomeroy (O’Donnell) and Paul Gebhard (Hutton) – and backed by the school board and the Rockefeller Foundation, they embark on the groundbreaking yet controversial endeavor.

Meanwhile, the research opens Kinsey’s eyes about his own sex life. One of his most famous assertions is that human sexuality is complex, and people are rarely exclusively heterosexual or homosexual; instead, most people fall somewhere between a 0-6 scale. Admitting that he’s probably a 3, Kinsey lets himself seduced by the bisexual Clyde. He even tells Mac about it. Initially hurt and disgraced, Mac finally accepts Kinsey for who he is, and eventually carries on an open relationship with both men as well.

Kinsey’s “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” is an overnight sensation, propelling him to celebrity status for over a decade. However, his team’s unorthodox research methods come under close scrutiny. When the follow-up “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female” comes out, it creates an uncomfortable and controversial stir. As his team continues on their research on sex offenders, the lid finally blows open and they start to lose support and funding. Kinsey must now look at his life’s work and his personal relationships and decides where he wants to go from there.

As the title character, Neeson (LOVE ACTUALLY) is phenomenal. Kinsey was a complex, strange and damaged man who not necessary knew when he was hurting or offending others, including his loved ones. Neeson portrays him with utter sincerity, respect and empathy. Linney (LOVE ACTUALLY) is, as always, better than good as Mac. Her handling of the character’s internal struggles, love and support for her husband, and self-discovery is wonderfully rendered. Sarsgaard (GARDEN STATE) is equally affecting as Clyde. Normally his character would appear creepy and lecherous, but his performance brings a high level of charm and warmth that you can’t help but understand why both Kinsey and Mac, men and women, fall for him.

The supporting cast, including Platt (PIECES OF APRIL), Hutton (SECRET WINDOW), O’Donnell (VERTICAL LIMIT), is good but not exceptional. Curry (SCARY MOVIE 2) and Lithgow (SHREK), however, offer the same caricature we’ve seen many times. Lynn Redgrave shows up in a great cameo near the end of the film.

Writer-director Condon (GODS AND MONSTERS) is a gifted writer. His script provides many thought provoking moments and reflections, between uncomfortable squirms for the audience. The true strength of his script is the lack of judgment, much like Kinsey’s own research. He simply presents the facts and events, whether it is adultery or homosexuality or other “perversions,” and lets the audience draw their own conclusions. The dialogue is tight and effective. The editing pieces the bio-pic together with great clarity.

Condon’s direction is crisp; the story flows very well between current timeline and flashbacks. Often he is able to stay on a character and let the actor do their magic, gripping the audience with the raw material and emotions without any frills.

At 118 minutes, however, the film feels rushed at times. It’s simply too short and aggressive to cover such a fascinating and diverse life and work. As it is, KINSEY is a tour de force effort on the lead performance and writing fronts, but falls a little short as a bio-pic.

Stars: Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Peter Sarsgaard, Chris O’Donnell, Timothy Hutton, John Lithgow, Tim Curry, Oliver Platt, Dylan Baker, Veronica Cartwright
Director: Bill Condon
Writer: Bill Condon
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, frontal nudity, graphic descriptions


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

Total – 7.6 out of 10

The Motorcycle Diaries

Diarios de Motocicleta

© 2004 Ray Wong

THE MOTOCYCLE DIARIES is based on Che Guevara’s journals and Alberto Granado’s memoir about their trip across the South American continent in their twenties. However, you don’t have to be familiar with Che’s life and politics to enjoy this film.

Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a 23-year-old medical student and Alberto Granado, 29 and a biochemist, are best friends. Granado decides to take a job in Venezuela, and he convinces Guevara to join him on a trip on his beat-up motorcycle before his 30th birthday, trekking across South America from Buenos Aires to Venezuela through the mountainous terrains of Chile and Peru.

As they leave the comfort of their relatively wealthy city life behind, they come across landscapes and cultures that open their eyes and their hearts. The two friends are as different in personality as they are in their world-views: Guevara is a serious, honest-to-a-fault liberal thinker-poet, while Granado is a materialistic, happy-go-lucky kind of guy who would do anything for a lay.

Eventually they see how unfair the world is, and how one person can affect changes, no matter how small these changes are. They start the journey as two boys, and they end it as two men.

“There are no heroic stories,” the narration states. “Just two lives running parallel for a while.”

Bernal (Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN) and Rodrigo De la Serna (TEMPOFINAL) have great chemistry together. You can see and feel that their friendship with each other is real, at least on screen. They bicker, they fight, they make up, and they take care of each other. Bernal is great in portraying the young Guevara. His transformation from a naïve lad to a serious thinker is subtle yet sublime. He lights up the screen whenever he is on (and from a dependent source, the Mexican actor speaks with a perfect Argentinean accent). De la Serna holds his own against Bernal, effusing wonderful charisma and a great sense of humor as Granado. Through each other, their characters also develop slowly and effectively.

The rest of the cast is good, giving strong support for the two leads.

Director Salles (BEHIND THE SUN) has created a film filled with grand vistas and subtle moments. His film is introspective and resolute. At times the political views and philosophies are somewhat heavy-handed, but fortunately those moments don’t dominate the film. Eric Gautier’s cinematography of Latin America is breathtaking, making us want to take a trip across the continent as well. The soundtrack, heavy on Latin music, is wonderful.

While the film touches on Che’s political views, philosophies and his change, it is ultimately a buddy movie – a significant testament to a great, lifelong friendship. Rivera’s screenplay is subtle, full of nuance, and understated. There’s no complex plot or grand climaxes, but the emotional impact is genuine. As we get to know these two men and their relationship, the cumulative effect is evident by the end of the film, when they say goodbye to each other. We can’t help but feel the genuine admiration, respect and love they feel for each other. And that makes for a very satisfying experience.

Stars: Gael Garcia Bernal, Rodrigo De la Serna, Mia Maestro, Mercedes Moran
Director: Walter Salles
Writers: Jose Rivera (based on Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s book)
Distributor: Focus
MPAA Rating: R for language


Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 8
Sound/Score – 8
Editing – 7
Production – 8
Total – 7.7 of 10


© 2004 Ray Wong

The Hollywood rumor mill is abuzz with an early Oscar nod for Jamie Foxx for his portrayal of the legendary Ray Charles in RAY, a biopic centered on Charles’ early years. Truth be told, the film rests heavily on Foxx’s shoulders, and the praises he’s received are well deserved.

Foxx (COLLATERAL) plays Ray Charles Robinson, a poor southern African-American who became blind when he was a young lad. The loss of his eyesight helps sharpen his sense of touch and hearing. His musical talent also shines through at an early age.

At 18, he set out to Seattle in pursuit of a career as a musician. Naïve, broke, and lacking confidence, Ray is taken in by some shady people before his talent is discovered by Atlantic Records producers Ahmet Ertesun (Armstrong) and Jerry Wexler (Shiff), who launch Ray’s career and help him find his voice.

With success, Ray also succumbs to the temptations that come with it. Adored by his female fans, Ray finds his way through a long string of affairs on the road. He also finds heroin, which gives him inspiration as well as lets him escape from his personal demons. Feeling alone and the need to overcompensate as a blind man, Ray yearns for love and understanding, and he finally finds it in a pastor’s daughter, Della Bea (Washington). Their courtship is short by sweet, and soon they’re married.

Yet Ray doesn’t find solace in a simple home life. He’s destined for bigger and better things, and his ambition takes him on the road most of the time. While the heroin gives Ray bursts of musical genius that propels him to superstardom, it also renders him emotionally crippled. Though he confesses that Della Bea is the only woman he ever loves (except his mama), it doesn’t stop him from taking up mistresses: his ambitious backup singers Mary Ann Fisher (Ellis) and Margie Henricks (King), who becomes pregnant with Ray’s child. His success eventually breaks up his friendship with loyal friends and partners Jeff (Powell) and Fathead Newman (Woodbine).

Foxx is phenomenal. He’s in almost every scene (except the flashbacks), and his intensity stays constant throughout the whole film. You forget that you’re watching an actor who plays a legend. Foxx is Ray Charles -- not only has he gotten Charles’ mannerisms and voice, he also captures his spirit and soul. It is truly an amazing and inspiring treat to see an actor so utterly absorbed in a role that his own personality disappears. On screen, we’re left with Ray Charles, not Jamie Foxx.

The supporting cast is superior. Washington (AGAINST THE ROPES) plays Della Bea with conviction, kindness, and a genuine love that you’re left with no doubt why her character stays with Charles through thick and thin, even as he cheats and lies to her. King (DADDY DAY CARE) and Ellis (MEN OF HONOR) are wonderful to watch as the women who fall for Charles’ talent and fame. Shiff (THE WEST WING) and Armstrong (DODGEBALL) are equally effective as Wexler and Ertesun. Rounding out the great cast are Powell (FRIDAY AFTER NEXT) as Charles’ personal assistant Jeff and Woodbine (THE BREED) as Fathead Newman. Newcomers C.J. Sanders and Sharon Warren are phenomenal (both Oscar worthy) as the young Ray and Aretha Robinson respectively.

The script does a good job chronicling Ray Charles’ early life and road to fame and heartaches. Writer-director Hackford has created a solid, if straightforward, style of telling the captivating story of the larger-than-life legend. Approved by Charles before his death, the film shows both the good and bad, without making any judgment. We realize that behind the genius and charisma, there hides a man tormented by a childhood tragedy, lost, trying desperately to find his way.

Some of the most intensely emotional moments occur in flashbacks. The scenes between the young Ray and his mother Aretha are gut-wrenching, full of punches and powerful with heart.

Ultimately, this is a definitive star-making vehicle for Foxx, who, until now, has only made a name for himself as a comedian. His dramatic turn in COLLATERAL has put him on the map, but it is RAY that declares for him: I have arrived.

Stars: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Regina King, Clifton Powell, Harry J. Lemix, Bokeen Woodbine, Richard Shiff, Curtis Armstrong, Aunjanue Ellis, Sharon Warren, C. J. Sanders
Director: Taylor Hackford
Writers: Taylor Hackford, James White
Distributor: Universal
Rating: PG-13 for drug abuse, alcohol, sexuality, mature themes


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

Total – 8.7 out of 10


© 2004 Ray Wong

At first glance, BIRTH might appear to be another supernatural film about reincarnation. In reality, it’s a quiet, philosophical piece that examines our psyches, relationships, and social taboos.

After grieving for her husband for ten years, Anna (Kidman) finally decides to accept the insistent proposal from her boyfriend Joseph (Huston). Her late husband’s best friend Clifford (Stormare) and wife Clare (Heche) are unhappy about the engagement, but they keep it to themselves.

At the private birthday party at Anna’s mother Eleanor’s (Bacall) posh Upper East Side apartment, a ten-year-old boy (Bright) shows up unannounced. Later, he declares to Anna that he is her late husband, Sean, and urges her not to marry Joseph. At first Anna brushes it aside as a ridiculous prank, and asks Sean to leave her alone. Soon Sean grows more persistent, and seems to know so much about the relationship between Anna and her husband that she starts to waver. What if her husband actually comes back as a boy? What if?

Anna’s family is skeptical, of course, but they can’t explain how Sean knows so much. Is it a spell? A curse? Or is it possible that the little boy really is Sean? As Anna falls under the spell herself, Joseph becomes insanely jealous. Then everything takes a strange turn when Clare shows up, questioning Sean’s true identity.

Kidman (COLD MOUNTAIN) is exquisite as the tormented Anna. Her pixie hair, beautiful and expressive face, and slender figure remind us of Mia Farrow in ROSEMARY’S BABY (so does the film itself). She is mesmerizing in every scene, and her complex performance gives the film the emotional weight and anchor it needs. Huston (21 GRAMS) also is fantastic as Joseph. His performance is both sympathetic and complex, possibly the most multi-dimensional character in the film. As the young Sean, Bright (BUTTERFLY EFFECT) exudes great poise and a creepily adult quality. A young actor to watch.

On the contrary, screen legend Bacall (DOGVILLE) is rather wasted here as the wealthy mother. Her character is too cold and distant to have any kind of emotional resonance with her daughter or the audience (perhaps that’s the whole point, but I’m not buying it). The rest of the cast is adequate, if not underused and underdeveloped. Heche (JOHN Q) brings in a solid performance in the pivotal but small role as Clare.

BIRTH moves with such slow pace that at times you think the film stops rolling. Writer-director Glazer (SEXY BEAST), with the help of the gorgeous, lingering cinematography by Harris Savides (ELEPHANT), creates a moody, languid character study that is both thought-provoking and confusing at times. There is one particularly spellbinding scene at a symphony concert – as the strings swell and timpani thumps, the camera zooms in and stays on Kidman’s face for a long time; and you get to wonder: What is she thinking? I think it’s one of the most memorable cinematic moments.

The score by Alexendre Desplat (GIRL WITH PEARL EARING) is captivating and serves the film exquisitely.

Unfortunately, the writing is not as strong as the production. While consistent in tone and treatment, the plot lacks movement sometimes. The characters (except Anna, Joseph and Sean) are largely underdeveloped. The plot twist seems forced and contrived, not at all convincing. There are some plot holes that baffle the mind (For example, how does Sean know where “he” died? Or why doesn’t Anna’s family ask Sean the details about his work as a physicist?) The biggest problem I have with the script is that it is simply too introspective, even for a character-driven drama. Sometimes the characters don’t even talk to each other. It may have worked as a novel, but in the film medium, it is too internal. The audience is left to their own devices, a lot of times, to figure out what the characters are thinking or feeling, without the help of external events.

Despite its flaws, BIRTH remains enjoyable as it explores the psychological and philosophical aspects of love. What if your loved one comes back to life as a child? Can you fall in love again? With a child? Something to think about.

Stars: Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall, Danny Huston, Allison Eliot, Arliss Howard, Anne Heche, Peter Stormare, Cameron Bright
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Writers: Milo Addica, Jean-Claude Carriere, Jonathan Glazer
Distributor: New Line
MPAA Rating: R for sexuality and nudity


Script – 5
Performance – 9
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 8
Music/Sound– 8
Editing – 7
Production – 8

Total – 6.9 out of 10