Hide and Seek

© 2005 Ray Wong

One might think that HIDE AND SEEK is a spooky ghost story with a child at the center, perhaps with a great mystery in it, a la THE SIXTH SENSE. Unfortunately, what turns out on celluloid is nothing close to that.

David Calloway (De Niro) is a New York psychiatrist who just lost his wife (Irving) to suicide. His daughter Emily (Fanning) saw the ordeal and was traumatized by the experience. To help his daughter recover, David decides to move away from the city, to a small resort town despite Emily's doctor Katherine's (Janssen) protest. He and Emily settle in a big old house by the lake, with no one around except a lonely couple (Leo, Burke) as neighbors.

While at the remote house, Emily starts to exhibit strange behaviors. She's highly antisocial and has severe mood swings. She starts to talk of an imaginary friend Charlie. At first David doesn't think much of it, only documenting her behaviors as stress and trauma related. Then strange and violent things happen, and Emily blames them all on Charlie. At the same time, David meets town resident Elizabeth (Shue) and Emily is not pleased with that. When tragedy strikes, David must now figure out what is really going on. Is Charlie real? Or is Emily an evil incarnate?

De Niro (MEET THE FOCKERS) is one of the best actors of our time, but lately he's been doing some crappy films. Sadly, David Calloway is not a good role for him either. It is a two-dimensional character, leaving De Niro with nothing better to do than to act confused, befuddled or cranky. He's way too old to have a young child like Emily. Even with his acting ability, he still can't rise above the material -- that must say something about the material itself. Fanning (MAN ON FIRE) is a good young actress. Unfortunately, she's reduced to a role that shows only three emotions: spaced out, shocked and sad.

The supporting cast don't fare much better either. Irving (TUCK EVERLASTING) has so little to do it's an utter waste. Shue (MYSTERIOUS SKIN) can use a stronger role to help her career. Baker (KINSEY) is rather creepy as the town sheriff, but his role only serves one purpose. Leo (21 GRAMS) and Burke (CONNIE AND CARLA) are hugely wasted in their minor roles. Janssen (X2), whose character shows the clearest motivation and conviction, has the potential of doing something good here, but the effort doesn't pan out after all.

I won't blame the actors, however. There are two major problems with HIDE AND SEEK, and they are monumental problems. One is the script. Written by Schlossberg (whose only other credit is LUCKY 13), the script is full of holes and thin as ice. Much of the story can be categorized as red herrings: characters and situations that are manufactured for one purpose only -- trying to fool the audience. Alas! The audience is too smart for it. There's absolutely no character development and we could hardly care for anyone, dead or alive. We want to root for the film, and we hope something good is going to come our way. We wait, and wait, and wait. Nothing happens. What we think is a supernatural or a psychological thriller turns out to be a cheap imitation. A boring one at that. It's highly predictable (10 minutes into the film I knew what the climatic twist would be) despite all the tricks Schlossberg employs. One can’t help but compare this film to last year's SECRET WINDOW (down to the dead animal and the "motivation"). Now, that was a good movie.

The second problem with the film is the direction. The only way for director Polson (SWIMFAN) to pull this thin film together is by adding fillers: long, dragging scenes of nothingness, spooky camera moves, mood scenes, situations that make no sense to the plot, and dialogue that doesn't go anywhere. Time would be better spent on developing the characters. What's a psychological thriller without really believable, even sympathetic characters? As it is, the film could have been trimmed to 40 minutes and it would have been a better film. As it is, the film is a big waste of time and we're better off hiding from it then to seek it out in theaters, TV or DVD.

Stars: Robert De Niro, Dakota Fanning, Femke Janssen, Elizabeth Shue, Amy Irving, Dylan Baker, Melissa Leo, Robert John Burke
Director: John Polson
Writer: Ari Schlossberg
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
MPAA Rating: R for fright and violence
Running Time: 100 minutes

Script – 3
Performance – 6
Direction – 4
Cinematography – 6
Music/Sound– 6
Editing – 7
Production – 6

Total – 5.3 out of 10


© 2005 Ray Wong

“Two men reaching middle age with not much to show for but disappointments embark on a week-long road trip through California's wine country, just as one is about to take a trip down the altar.” That’s the premise of SIDEWAYS. It doesn’t sound like much -- boring, actually -- but the film, an Indie that is doing rounds in the award circles, transcends the road-trip genre and delivers something raw and real.

Miles (Giamatti) is a 40-something eighth grade English teacher, a would-be novelist, and a clinically depressed divorcee living in a small two-bedroom apartment in San Diego. Jack (Church) is his over-the-hill ex-TV star-turn-voiceover actor best friend. It is a week before Jack’s nuptial. Miles decides to take Jack on a week-long trip to celebrate Jack’s last week of “freedom.” He also just wants to get out of the conundrum of his own life: some great wine, nice dinners, and maybe some golfing. Jack, however, has another agenda: he wants to get Miles laid while sowing his own wild oats before his big day.

The trip starts out just fine, as the two men drink wine, eat nice dinners, and confide in one another. Miles is still hung up on his ex-wife Victoria, who recently remarried without Miles’ knowledge. Jack is unsure about his impending marriage, or settling down in general. When they meet up beautiful waitress Maya (Madsen) and wine connoisseur Stephanie (Oh), their adventure takes an unexpected turn.

Giamatti (AMERICAN SPLENDOR) is great as the sad-sack little man. His face is so expressive that you simply can’t help but feel his anguish, pain and self-doubt. Granted, his character is not really that likeable (who wants to hang out with a severely depressed loser for a week?) but Giamatti makes you care and sympathize with Miles. Church (SPANGLISH) is very good as the boy-man who doesn’t want to grow up. His yang complements Miles’ yin. Again, his character is not very likeable in many ways, but he draws you in with his charm and sincerity. Giamatti and Church have incredible chemistry together. They’re one of the best buddies in recent films.

Madsen (NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING) is radiant as Maya, the object of Miles’ affection. She can be cute, fun, wild and deep at the same time. She is like a nice glass of Pinot. Delicious. Oh (UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN) turns on her nasty side and wows us with her fiery, sexy Stephanie. You can’t help but feel her anguish as she falls in love with Jack, only to find out he’s getting married. Oh delivers.

Based on Rex Pickett’s novel, SIDEWAYS is really just a small film about two guys in love with each other (in a very platonic way, of course). The two men have more in common than they realize, each going down a lonely path with a lot of growing up to do. In a way, it’s a typical middle-age coming of age story. What is nice about the script is that it feels real. The relationships feel real. The dialogue feels real. The situation feels real. The pain and the joy feel real. There’s an earthy quality to the story and writer-director Payne (ABOUT SCHMIDT) does not shy away from anything. From the deeply philosophical midnight conversations to raw, naked sex romps, Payne makes you watch. He makes you feel. Even if you don’t identify with the characters, you can’t help but identify with the emotions, and applaud the way these characters bare their souls to you.

Ironically, the film is also about deception. It’s not just about cheating and adultery and lying about missing a date. It’s about lying about who we are. Miles and Jack both lie; in particular, they lie to themselves. In return, they each receives a lifetime of disappointments, lost as a boy way past age 40.

The film has a gritty, down-to-earth, low budget feel to it. It’s not the handsomest production, but it does the job. The wine tasting scenes are great, make you want to drive up there and start your own tour. The California wine country looks beautiful, but one can only speculate what they’d look like with a bigger budget. Technically, SIDEWAYS is nothing to write home about. The real strength of this film is the script and the characters. Their frankness forces you to watch them straight on. Nothing sideways about it.

Stars: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh
Director: Alexander Payne
Writers: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor (based on Rex Pickett’s novel)
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
MPAA Rating: R for language, strong sexual content, adult themes, alcohol, nudity
Running time: 123 minutes

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

Total Score – 7.2 of 10

In Good Company

© 2005 Ray Wong

Part family drama, part corporate satire, part romantic comedy, and part buddy film, IN GOOD COMPANY is giving the marketing geniuses at Universal a hard time trying to peg it. Fortunately, for the audience, it provides a complex, not-too-predictable story that everyone over the age of 12 can enjoy.

Dan Foreman (Quaid), who is turning 52, is a family man with a beautiful wife and two lovely daughters. He’s also a veteran Advertising Sales Manager at Sports America magazine. When Globecom tycoon Teddy K. (McDowell) purchases Sports America, a corporate shakeup is to be expected. In comes hot shot Carter Duryea (Grace), a 26-year-old workaholic, to replace Dan and become his boss.

Suddenly out placed by a “boy” half his age, Dan has a hard time swallowing his pride. He knows he has to keep his job as his wife (Helgenberger) is expecting and his oldest daughter Alex (Johansson) transfers to NYU, one of the most expensive college in New York. Carter, on the other hand, knows he has much to learn from Dan. Carter is also going through a personal crisis when his wife (Blair) divorces him. Suddenly, he’s at a loss -- what is his life really about? To complicate matters, he falls head over heels with Alex, and they carry on a relationship behind Dan’s back.

Quaid (FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX) is in top form, giving one of his most nuanced and affecting performances. It’s really gratifying to see Quaid’s acting ability mature as he ages, and how his career takes off because of that. His portrayal of the grumpy, passive-aggressive “old-timer” is wonderful to watch. His characterization is layered yet subtle, and you believe in his likeable and genuine on-screen persona. Grace (WIN A DATE WITH TAD HAMILTON) has also matured into a fine young actor. He’s no Tobey MacGuire yet, but with his charming smiles and sincerity, he’s slowly catching up. His performance as the young executive lost in his own deception is heartfelt. Grace’s an actor to watch.

Johansson (A LOVE SONG FOR BOBBY LONG) always turns in good work, and her characterization of Alex is no exception. Perhaps not as good as in her other films (most notably LOST IN TRANSLATION), her Alex is beautiful and restrained, a little more mature than your neighborhood 18-year-old girls. She and Grace display good chemistry, but it’s her chemistry with Quaid that really shines.

The supporting cast all give outstanding performances. Paymer (ALEX & EMMA) is great as Dan’s mousy employee Morty. Gregg (THE HUMAN STAIN) is effectively obnoxious as ass-kissing corporate predator Steckle. Blair (HELLBOY) has a minor cameo as Carter’s bored wife, and Hall (BRUCE ALMIGHTY) is solid as disgruntled client Kalb.

Writer-director-producer Weitz (ABOUT A BOY) has given us a tight, touching story with believable characters and dialogue. The story is not about some out-of-the-world quests. It’s about the basics: family, jobs, education, mortgages. Life. Starting from the very first scene, Weitz has taken care of making everything real. We can all relate to family obligations, personal crisis, and corporate downsizing.

The film may lack award-winning finesse in flow, or style, or even plot. The sound track is effective, if not a little familiar. Its strongest point is the characters. There’s almost no false note, and everything about the characters and story feels real and believable. We can really relate and root for these people. The plot is not predictable, which is a very good thing. The bottom line is: this is a fun, entertaining, touching, feel-good film, in good company of corporate classics such as THE WORKING GIRL. What more could we ask for?

Stars: Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, Scarlett Johansson, Marg Helgenberger, David Paymer, Clark Gregg, Philip Baker Hall, Selma Blair, Malcolm McDowell
Director: Paul Weitz
Writer: Paul Weitz
Distributor: Universal
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, drug references and language

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

Total Score – 7.6 of 10

White Noise

© 2005 Ray Wong

"Can the dead communicate with the living?" It's an age-old question everyone from spiritual leaders to common men have tried to answer. WHITE NOISE takes a look at one of these media -- EVP (electronic voice phenomenon) -- while trying to scare us at the same time.

Jonathan Rivers (Keaton) is a successful architect with a best-selling author wife, Anna (West). When Anna goes missing by the river, Jonathan suffers from denial. One day, a man named Raymond Price (McNeice) comes to him and tells him that Anna is dead, and she has been trying to contact Jonathan. Days later, Anna’s body is recovered. Apparently she died in a freak accident.

Six months later, Jonathan and his son Mike (Elia) move out of their house into a posh condo and try to start over again. When Jonathan starts to receive strange phone calls, he suspects that maybe his late wife is trying to contact him. He pays a visit to Price, who shows him the recordings he has of Anna. Soon Jonathan becomes obsessed with EVP himself and starts to track and record white noises in the hopes of reaching Anna. When Price dies mysteriously, the story takes a sinister turn as Jonathan begins to be surrounded by deaths.

Keaton (FIRST DAUGHTER) desperately needs a hit to revive his career since the 1998 flop JACK FROST. While he's effective as the grieving husband, his performance just seems to lack weight or urgency. Most of the time, he simply paces around, going from one place to another, or stares blankly into a TV monitor. Perhaps it's unfair to blame it on Keaton -- his character is too introspective and reactive to begin with. One has to try hard to find a reason to care about him (which is a bad thing, considering he just lost a wife and an unborn child). Unger (A LOVE SONG FOR BOBBY LONG) has a better but minor role as fellow widow, Sarah. Her presence adds needed urgency and warmth to the film.

West (MISTER STERLING) has a brief role as the effervescent Anna, though her "presence" is felt throughout the film. Rounding out the cast is veteran actor McNeice (BRIDGET JONES: THE EDGE OF REASON) as Price, newcomer Nicholas Elia as Jonathan's son, and Mike Dopud (WALKING TALL) as Detective Smits. They all give respectful performances.

WHITE NOISE is director Sax's (TV's WIDOWS) first feature film. While his technical skills are adequate, he depends too much on standard horror/supernatural thrill shots to shock and startle the audience. Most of these flashes and jumps and booms are unnecessary and they feel cheap. On the other hand, the general pace of the entire movie is slow. There are many lingering and repetitive shots of Keaton's character moping around or sitting silently or staring blankly. After a while, we can’t help but lament: "We get the point. Move on already."

Writer Johnson (THE BIG SWAP) has created a story that is a jigsaw puzzle of various recognizable ghost or supernatural films: FREQUENCY, DRAGONFLY, and GHOST, to name a few. The story starts out too slowly, lingering on Jonathan's grief when it doesn't show enough of him and Anna to make us care. The emotions are manipulative and superficial. Midway through the film, however, the pace starts to pick up when the story takes a sinister turn. One of the problems is that, despite the time and effort spent on Jonathan’s grieving and obsession, little is spent on actual character development. The characters in this film are too cardboard and bland.

In addition, once the plot makes its interesting turn, it becomes predictable. The script tries too hard to clue in the audience. Many plot elements are left unexplained -- they create suspense of horror that is hardly delivered or satisfied. The final twist, while it makes sense, seems tagged on. The film tries to tug at our heartstrings at the end, but the result is only slightly affecting.

With so many great ghost stories out there, this story simply feels a bit of an unnecessary noise.

Stars: Michael Keaton, Chandra West, Deborah Kara Unger, Ian McNeice, Sarah Strange, Nicholas Elia
Director: Geoffrey Sax
Writer: Niall Johnson
Distributor: Universal
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, language and disturbing images


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

Total Score – 6.1 of 10

Beyond the Sea

© 2005 Ray Wong

Bobby Darin was a pop star that could do it all: sing, dance, write, act, and love. Perhaps that was what attracted Kevin Spacey, himself a triple-threat, to this biopic with a touch of fantasy.

Bobby Cassotto (Spacey) is given only a few years to live after rheumatic fever weakens his heart. He’s not supposed to live past age 15. To show him that life is for the taking, his mother Polly (Blethyn), an ex-Vaudeville performer, teaches Bobby how to sing and dance and play the piano. Bobby discovers that he not only loves doing it all, he also has talent.

Beating his odds and on borrowed time, Bobby sets out to conquer the music world with a slew of close friends as his entourage. He realizes his name is too ethnic and it lacks the zing to take him places. Inspired by a burned-out restaurant sign, he changes his last name to Darin, and his career starts to take off. A teen idol at first, he has his eyes set on displacing Sinatra with popular hits such as “Mack the Knife” and “Beyond the Sea.” Soon, Hollywood comes knocking. He falls for costar Sandra Dee (Bosworth) on the set. After a persistent pursuit, he wins her heart, gains her controlling mother’s (Scacchi) approval, and they get married.

As their respective careers take off, however, trouble brews in the home front. Bobby’s ambitions take him on the road all the time, and Sandra, after the birth of their son, tries to balance between her budding film career and being a wife and mother. At the same time, Bobby’s swelling fame begins to take a toll on his relationship with his sister Nina (Aaron) and brother-in-law (Hoskins). When he loses his bid for Best Supporting actor at the Oscars, everything falls apart.

Spacey plays Darin with earnestness and compassion, even though he’s too old to play the young Bobby, who died at 37. But he sure can sing well and dance adequately. Spacey can be a phenomenal actor when he wants to be; however, this is not one of his best performances. It has too much of that “look at me and see what I can do” quality to it. Bosworth looks beautiful as Sandra, but her portrayal of the teen starlet-turn-wife and mother is somewhat thin. Though the age difference is jarring (Bobby wasn’t that much older than Sandra in real life), Spacey and Bosworth do have good chemistry together.

Goodman is fine as Bobby’s loyal manager Steve, with sincerity and a touch of brashness. Hoskins also is in great form as Bobby’s brother-in-law and confidant, and Aaron is affecting as the unrefined Nina who has a secret. Rounding out the cast is Scracchi as Sandra’s control freak mother, and the delightful Blethyn as Polly Cassotto.

Writer-direct-actor Spacey seems to think that he’s born to play Bobby Darin. The film looks and feels like a labor of love, but self-indulgent. Part of the problem is that in telling the story posthumously, the script often breaks away to remind us: “Hey, this is not real. But memories are like moonbeams; you can do whatever you want with it.” The young Bobby pops up now and then to remind us that Darin is reconciling his life with his younger self. The “this is your life” style of storytelling works very well with films such as DE-LOVELY (the Cole Porter biopic), but falls short in BEYOND THE SEA.

The production looks rich enough, but there’s a nagging “TV movie” feel to it. Spacey’s direction is straightforward, thus boring, although the song and dance numbers are nice. The problem with the film is rather fundamental: Bobby Darin’s life simply isn’t all that exciting. The conflicts and dilemmas seem trivial, and once the film hits its stride midway, it falters endlessly toward the end. By the last musical number, the audience might have gone beyond bored.

Stars: Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, John Goodman, Bob Hoskins, Brenda Blethyn, Greta Scacchi, Caroline Aaron
Director: Kevin Spacey
Kevin Spacey, Lewis Colick
Distributor: Lions Gate
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for strong language, sensuality


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

Total Score – 6.2 of 10