The Aviator

© 2004 Ray Wong



2004 sees a slew of biopics, from NEVERLAND to KINSEY to BEYOND THE SEA. The AVIATOR, about the early life of Howard Hughes, is the newest addition, and arguably the best of the crop.

DiCaprio plays Hughes, a rich, young, ambitious egomaniac who knows what he wants. His family business and inheritance give him the opportunities to go after the things he loves: movies, airplanes, and women. And when he goes after them, he goes after them with everything he’s got. After dumping a staggering $2 million in the film HELL’S ANGELS – a moderate success that propels Hughes into the Hollywood limelight – he turns his attention to his first love, aviation.

That’s also when he meets Katherine Hepburn (Blanchett), the mesmerizing screen actress with a gravelly voice and strong, eccentric personality. Hughes and Hepburn carry on a torrid love affair, while he continues to split his time between Hollywood and the airfields. His obsessions and perfectionism slowly drive a wedge between him and the soaring film star, and soon they part ways. Hughes gets involved with numerous starlets until he finds himself falling for Ava Gardner (Beckinsale), who maintains a distance.

Hughes also battles a private illness. He suffers obsessive-compulsive disorder and he is terrified of germs and diseases. His illness slowly eats at him and eventually turns him to insanity, while his archrival Juan Trippe of PamAm tries to squeeze and swallow his companies: Hughes Aircraft and TWA.

DiCaprio (CATCH ME IF YOU CAN) returns to the silver screen with vigor. While his youth and public persona somehow prevent him from completely immersing himself as the larger-than-life, much-too-well-known Hughes, DiCaprio emerges as true and strong in his performance. One can argue another actor can portray Hughes better. Yet the steely blue eyes, the boyish charm, and the fierce, arrogant demeanors make DiCaprio a worthy Hughes, if only a bit slight. Despite an obvious age difference, Blanchett (THE MISSING) shares immense chemistry with DiCaprio. In her own way, she captures the essence of Ms. Hepburn beautifully and convincingly. Beckinsale (VAN HELSING) fares not as well as the luminous Gardner. Her screen time is limited and you don’t really understand what’s between her and Hughes, making the pivotal scene toward the end less convincing. In a way, her role seems like an afterthought.

The supporting cast is stupendous. Reilly (CRIMINAL), Huston (BIRTH) and Ross (DOWN WITH LOVE) are excellent as Hughes right- and left-hand men. Baldwin (ALONG CAME POLLY), as Juan Trippe, has the oily businessman down pat. Alda (WHAT WOMEN WANT) is also affecting as the corrupt Senator Brewster. Law (CLOSER) has an interesting cameo as Errol Flynn and Holm (GARDEN STATE) is amusing as the befuddled Professor Fitz.

Writer Logan has the thankless job of compressing Hughes’ fascinating life into a comprehensive three hours. I think he does a wonderful job in drawing the complexity of the characters. I can’t say how historically true his story is, but it sure is entertaining and well written. The dialogue is intense and the relationships riveting. The script shows an incredible restraint in showing Hughes’ brilliant as well as shady sides, without passing judgment. Given the complexity of Hughes’ life and the amount of information, events, and characters, Logan does a marvelous job in putting them all in perspectives. However, whether it’s the fault of the script or the editing, there seem to be many gaps between scenes. One has to, at times, strain to connect the dots.

There is no doubt that Scorsese is a master craftsman. The film has the lush look and feel of the Hollywood golden years. His pacing is excellent, and many sequences are simply breathtaking (including one hollowing crash scene). Like Logan, he has the thankless job of composing a complex life like Hughes’ in a cohesive way, even though the film runs a whopping 169 minutes. With great skills and artistic benevolence, he handles Hughes’ ingenious drives, and his slow descent toward insanity with taste and sympathy. And that’s what a good biopic is all about.

Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, John C. Reilly, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, Ian Holm, Danny Huston, Matt Ross, Jude Law, Adam Scott
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: John Logan
Distributor: Warner Bros, Miramax
Rating: PG-13 for language, themes, brief nudity


RATINGS:

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

Total – 8.4 out of 10

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events

© 2004 Ray Wong



Based on the Daniel Handler (writing as Lemony Snicket) children’s books The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Widow, A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS is a surprisingly dark and dreary family film for the holidays.

The story begins when the Baudelaire children become instant orphans after a mysterious fire destroys their stately home and wealthy, globetrotting parents. Violet (Browning) is a 14-year-old, imaginative inventor whose motto is: “There is always something.” The middle child, Klaus (Aiken), is an avid reader, and he remembers everything he learns. Infant Sunny (Hoffman) is expressive and curious, with an ability to bite and chew through materials.

Since there are no instructions left by the Baudelaires, the estate executor Mr. Poe (Spall) must send the children to their closest relative, Count Olaf (Carrey), who is an eccentric, diabolical actor. Olaf makes the children do all the chores in his derelict mansion and treats them like animals; his only reason to keep the children around is their inheritance. Soon the children find out Olaf’s plans to kill them for their money. They try to tell Mr. Poe but the oblivious fool does not take their words seriously. Thinking that Olaf is unfit as the guardian, Mr. Poe sends the children to their Uncle Monty (Connolly), who is a herpetologist living with a great assortment of snakes and vipers.

Just when Violet, Klaus and Sunny think they’ve finally found a home and a nice guardian, Olaf shows up, disguised as an Italian assistant to Monty. The children immediately recognize Olaf, but the adults continue to be ignorant. A series of unfortunate events later, Olaf escapes and the children are once again sent off to another relative – Aunt Josephine (Streep) who is afraid of everything. Other unfortunate events happen and as determined as Olaf is to inherit their fortune, the children are determined to survive and find out the mystery behind their parents’ deaths.

Carrey (BRUCE ALMIGHTY) gets top billing here. He is usually a master chameleon, whose ability to transform himself and contort his face and body is his trademark. However, I actually find his portrayal of the cartoonish villain two-dimensional and, at times, excruciating. He is fun to watch at the beginning just because the character is so strange and evil, but after the first third of the movie, his performance becomes increasing monotonic and repetitive. I blame it partially on his skin-deep character. On the other hand, Streep (THE MANCHURIAN CANIDATE) is delicious as the phobiaphobic aunt. Her colorful personality and tragic demise are amusing and troubling at the same time.

The three young actors who play the Baudelaire children do very well, especially when they’re together. Browning (DARKNESS FALLS) exudes calmness and authority as the eldest sister. Aiken (ROAD TO PERDITION) is very charming and resourceful, and his character grows the most during the film. Newcomer Hoffman is probably one of the cutest and expressive infant actors in the business. The director did a great job getting such performance out of her.

The rest of cast is adequate in relatively small roles. Spall (LAST SAMURAI) is trustworthy, although not very reliable, as Mr. Poe. Connolly (LAST SAMURAI) is wonderfully affectionate as the doomed Monty. O’Hara, Coolidge and Guzman all show up for their amusing but miniscule parts. Law (CLOSER) does a marvelous voice-over as Lemony Snicket. But an unaccredited cameo by Dustin Hoffman is a distraction.

Under director Silberling’s (MOONLIGHT MILE) skillful hand, the film is a beauty to behold. It is rich in colors and fantastic imageries. I suspect that everything is done in a studio and with computers, but the production value is high – the sets, the sceneries, the props, the costumes, the makeup, the architecture… everything is top-notch. However, Silberling could have picked up the pace in various places with tighter editing and fewer lingering, Tim Burton-esque shots.

Writer Gordon (GALAXY QUEST) combines plots and elements from three of the eleven Lemony Snicket books to create a relatively cohesive story. Surprisingly though, given the fantasy elements of the film, the over all tone is rather somber and lethargic. We can’t help but feel that something is missing. The plot also becomes increasingly frustrating as Olaf continues to fool the adults while the children can’t do anything to deflect him. We can’t help but yell, within us: “Do something already.” For example, Violet has an out of character moment during the climax, when she should be doing something instead of going through with her ordeal.

The good thing is we know we care about the children. The bad thing is it feels sadistic. The whole film has a sadistic, morose, hopeless feeling to it. It also doesn’t feel real. While the adults drop like flies, somehow we know the children will be okay, so there’s no real sense of worry when it comes to their fate. With such a great production and talented cast, it is unfortunate that the story doesn’t quite live up to the rest.


Stars: Jim Carrey, Meryl Streep, Jude Law, Emily Browning, Liam Aiken, Kara Hoffman, Timothy Spall, Billy Connolly, Catherine O’Hara, Luis Guzman, Jennifer Coolidge
Director: Brad Silberling
Writer: Robert Gordon (based on books by Daniel Handler as Lemony Snicket)
Distributor: Paramont, DreamWorks
MPAA Rating: PG for themes, scary moments and brief language


RATINGS:

Script – 5
Performance – 7
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 8
Music/Sound– 6
Editing – 7
Production – 9

Total – 6.9 out of 10

Ocean's Twelve

© 2004 Ray Wong



Danny Ocean and his gang are at it again, but this time it’s not about money or love.

Three years after the Ocean’s 11 stole $160 million from Terry Benedict (Garcia), they’re not doing all that well. Though now blissfully married to Tess (Roberts), Danny (Clooney) has “retired” into a quaint little town, itching and fretting. Rusty (Pitt) is broke, digging a huge financial hole with his failing hotel business. Linus (Damon) is still struggling with his talent company. The rest are either retired or doing something they’re not passionate about.

To their surprise, Benedict tracks them down, one by one, and threatens to either kill or send them to prison if they don’t return the money plus interest, within two weeks. The gang is $97 million short. They quickly assemble again and leave for Amsterdam, as they know they’re hot properties in North America. Tipped off by an underworld contact (Robbie Coltrane), they set out to steal a rare stock certificate from an agoraphobic recluse. But their heist is one-upped by another master thief, the legendary Night Fox. Soon Danny tracks down Night Fox, who is really a Frenchman named Francois Toulour (Cassel). It’s Toulour who tipped off Benedict. He presents Danny with a challenge: Whoever first steals a priceless jeweled egg in Rome can claim to be the best thief in the world. If the Ocean’s 11 win, Toulour will pay Benedict the money they owe, if they lose, Benedict will have them at his disposal.

Meanwhile, Europol agent Isabel Lahiri (Zeta-Jones) is hot on the trail after the Ocean’s 11. You see, she has a personal vendetta, too -- she and Rusty were once lovers, before Rusty left her and disappeared after a “job.” And Ocean’s 11 officially becomes Ocean’s 12 when Tess is pulled into the scheme after most of the group are arrested.

The cast does an adequate job recapturing the original’s camaraderie and spirit. Clooney (INTOLERABLE CRUELTY) and Pitt (TROY) play off each other very well. Damon (BORNE SUPERMACY) has a better role this time around, and offers some of the film’s more humorous moments. Roberts (CLOSER) also has a bigger role, honing her comedy skills and spoofing her own public persona in a funny plot twist. Zeta-Jones (THE TERMINAL) is sexy as the cat chasing the mice. Cassel is interesting to watch as the suave but oily Toulour.

However, the roles of the supporting cast are diminished. Gracia (TWISTED) is left with not much to do, other than huffing and puffing, acting like a Godfather wannabe. Mac, Affleck, Caan, Qin, Cheadle, Reiner, Gould et el are reduced to throwaway roles. Bruce Willis and Albert Finney do manage to show up for their excellent cameos.

Written by Nolfi (TIMELINE) and directed by Soderbergh (SOLARIS), OCEAN’S TWELVE is a slick, by-and-large entertaining con-within-a-con story. The plot is rather convoluted, but not entirely indecipherable if you pay attention. Unfortunately, due to the large and ever-expanding cast, the characters quickly cede to the background. While the original flick wasn’t character-driven anyway, we came to know this eclectic group of con artists and appreciate their personalities, dynamics and interactions together. Such is rather lacking in the sequel.

In keeping the plot moving, there are plenty of plot holes to go around. For example, it takes Benedict three years and all the resources he has, and he still can’t find the Ocean’s 11, but it takes only days for Toulour. And it only takes a few hours for Rusty to find out the identities of Night Fox and his mentor La Marque, when the Europol has been looking for them for years.

OCEAN’S TWELVE is clever with a certain joy watching the entertaining schemes unfold. What is missing, however, are the original’s spirited banter and the clockwork-like coordination within the group. While the original gave us adrenaline-pumped, climatic sequences of an actual heist, much of the dirty deeds are either off-screen or revealed in fast-cutting flashbacks in this film. The excitement is replaced by slick comedies and clever commentaries. Also missing are poignant moments such as the water fountain or the ‘Tess-realizing-what-a-weasel-her-husband-really-is’ scene. In their place is a certain lingering, ‘Hey look at how clever we are’ smugness. As it is, OCEAN’S TWELVE is all fluff. Let’s hope OCEAN’S THIRTEEN (and you can bet they’ll make it) will have more heart and soul, and be less self-congratulatory.


Stars: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Andy Garcia, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, Vincent Cassel
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writers: George Nolfi
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief language, adult themes


RATINGS:

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

Total Score – 6.7 of 10

Closer

© 2004 Ray Wong



Adapted by Patrick Marber from his own play, CLOSER is an intimate film about the lack of intimacy, a close-up character study of four strangers and their tangled relationships with one another.

Dan (Law) meets a beautiful stranger, Alice (Portman), on a London street when a car accidentally runs into her. He is a bored obituary writer and aspiring novelist. She is an ex-stripper-turned-waif from America. They are instantly attracted to each other and soon move in together.

With Alice as his muse, Dan finally gets his book written. In the process of getting his headshots done for the publisher, he meets photographer Anna (Roberts) and falls madly in love with her. Newly separated from her husband, she is intrigued by Dan’s charm and talents, but is reluctant to have a relationship with an involved man. Dan professes that he can’t leave Alice and, all the while, Alice is fully aware of what Dan’s up to. It creates a tense dynamic between the three of them.

Enter Larry (Owen), a dermatologist who has an affinity for raunchy, dirty sex. Through a sinister prank of Dan (one of the film’s most hilarious and telling moments) and a coincidence, Larry meets Anna and they fall in love. When things are going well with them, Dan shows up with Alice at the opening of Anna’s exhibition and declares his love for Anna. Meanwhile, Larry becomes intrigued with Alice. During that fateful night, everything changes for the four of them.

The four leads are very well cast. As usual, Law (ALFIE) is charming and handsome, but plays the selfish, soulless manipulator to great effect. The opening sequence is deceptive, what with Dan’s gawkish and somewhat nerdy innocence. But soon we realize Dan is not very likeable at all; but at the same time, we know why these women are crazy about him. Roberts (OCEAN’S 12) also plays against type -- no more Miss Romantic Comedy here. She is cold, manipulative, and deceptive as well. In a way, her Anna and Dan are made for each other, but we know that their lives together would only lead to destruction.

While Law and Roberts are both excellent, it is Portman (GARDEN STATE) and Owen (KING ARTHUR) who steal the movie. On one hand, Portman plays the same love-struck, na├»ve lass as she did in GARDEN STATE. As we go deeper to understand her character, however, we find a darker, sexually powerful side of her. Portman plays the duality of vulnerability and control exquisitely. This is by far her most adult and complex performance. Likewise, Owen’s virtuoso portrayal of Larry is three-dimensional, exuding both the sincerity and menace of a man who is sexually raw and emotionally fragile. Granted, Owen has the showiest role in the whole film (he played Dan in the original play), his performance is nonetheless fine-tuned and fascinating.

Nichols (ANGELS IN AMERICA) once again offers us a unique, thought-provoking character piece about fatally flawed human beings. His talent is evident in very frame and his skills help put together a tight production. At 98 minutes, the film’s pacing is just right. He also brings out tremendous, career-defining performances from four of Hollywood’s biggest names, without succumbing to their own public personas.

Marber’s (ASYLUM) adaptation of his own play is taut, intricate, and complex. His dialogue is beautifully written, perhaps too perfect and poetic to be spoken by real people. At times, there is an odd sense that we are witnessing a play -- something that is well-scripted, well choreographed, but not organic. Also, the non-chronological storytelling takes some getting used to. The film’s events are told in episodes, with huge gaps in between. While the connections are made flawlessly through dialogue (e.g. “I’ve been seeing Anna,” Dan said to Alice, “almost a year ago. Starting on the night of the opening.”) the effect is somewhat jarring as we try to put all the pieces together, filling in the blanks. It doesn’t help with flashbacks that are inserted unnecessarily.

There are some great moments, though. For example, the aforementioned scene with Dan and Larry. The breaking-up scene between Larry and Anna is both verbally and emotionally raw. The strip club scene with Larry and Alice is complex, twisted and erotic. Marber’s characters are severely flawed, but they’re also insanely human and flesh-and-blood. While Dan and Anna show us the destructive power of deception and cowardice, Larry and Alice offer a juxtaposition of self-actualization and resolution. While they may not be very likeable people over all, their humanity is genuine and relevant, drawing the audience closer to the core of being such creatures of lust and love.

Stars: Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Clive Owen
Director: Mike Nichols
Writer: Patrick Marber (based on his play)
Distributor: Columbia
MPAA Rating: R for frank sexuality, raw language, brief nudity, and strong adult themes


RATINGS:

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

Total Score – 7.8 of 10

Finding Neverland

© 2004 Ray Wong



I don’t think there is a person in this world who does not know at least one thing about Peter Pan. But how much do we know about the man behind the story, and how he came about writing such a masterpiece? FINDING NEVERLAND takes us back to a time when a celebrated playwright was both celebrated and cursed for his endless imagination.

James Mathew Barrie (Depp) is a famous playwright in Edwardian England who is having a severe writer’s block, turning out yet another dud. The careless whispers camouflaged by polite nods further put Barrie in despair.

While trying to write at Kensington Gardens, he makes friends with the Davies family. Silvia Davies (Winslet) is a new widow with four inquisitive boys: Jack (Prospero), George (Roud), Michael (Spill) and the withdrawn Peter (Highmore).

Barrie quickly becomes a playmate to the Davies boys. Clearly he and Silva also develop some kind of mutual attraction, but their relationship remains strictly platonic. It doesn’t stop gossips from spreading: What would a married man want from a young, attractive widow? Even worse, what of the prepubescent boys? Silva’s mother, Emma du Maurier (Christie) becomes immensely concerned and interferes. To complicate matters, Barrie spends almost his entire waking hours with the Davies family, ignoring his socialite wife Mary (Mitchell).

Barrie tunes them all out; instead, his vivid imagination is unlocked by his muses. He realizes that he is a boy who doesn’t want to grow up. Peter Davies becomes his blueprint for the character of Peter Pan. His imagination takes him to Neverland. To the delight of his manager Frohman (Hoffman) and fans, Peter Pan becomes a hit. But Barrie’s marriage reaches a dead end, and soon Mary leaves him for another man.

When tragedy strikes the Davies family again, Barrie becomes the surrogate father, even though he struggles to remain childlike. But to the boys who are on the verge of becoming men, Barrie must do the right thing.

Depp (PIRATES OF CARIBBEAN) is affecting as J. M. Barrie. His performance is introspective, restrained, and understated, a direct contrast to the flamboyance of his Jack Sparrow in PIRATES. While I don’t think this is his strongest performance in recent years, he surely has proven again that he is one of the best actors of our times. Winslet (ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND) plays Silva as charming, warm and beautiful; she’s a joy to watch. Christie (TROY) is solid as the cold and strict grandmother du Maurier. Hoffman (MEET THE FOCKERS) and Mitchell (MAN ON FIRE) serve very well in their minor but important supportive role as Frohman and Mary Barrie respectively.

The boys are truly delightful. Prospero (INTIMACY) is charming as the oldest son Jack. Roud (ISLAND AT WAR) and newcomer Spill are good as George and Michael. The standout is Highmore (TWO BROTHERS) as the inspiration behind Peter Pan. His portrayal of the reluctant, defiant and sensitive Peter is heartbreaking. The last scene he has with Depp guarantees to draw tears.

Knee and Magee’s script is taut, compressing the events surrounding Barrie and the Davies to create dramatic conflicts and poignancy. The writers do, however, sidestep the real-life speculation and suspicions of Barrie’s sexuality -- that he might have been a pedophile, trapped in a sexless marriage. While Barrie’s intention with the Davies boys are called into question, there is no hint or talk of any sexual perversion. In a society where a slight misstep would garner ridicule and wild speculations, the reactions from the townsfolk seem somewhat tame.

Director Forster (MONSTER BALL) has a keen eye for nuanced drama. The pacing is languid but not dull. The performances are understated but emotionally weighty. The cinematography is lush but not pretentious. The camera movements are dramatic but not overbearing. His renditions of Barrie’s Neverland and the fantasy sequences are also true to the original play’s spirit, without using overt CGI. And that’s one true Neverland we’d like to find for ourselves -- you just have to believe.

Stars: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Radha Mitchell, Dustin Hoffman, Freddie Highmore, Joe Prospero, Nick Roud, Luke Spill
Director: Marc Forster
Writers: Alan Knee, David Magee
Distributor: Miramax
MPAA Rating: PG for themes and brief language

RATINGS:

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

Total Score – 7.7 of 10