Because of Winn-Dixie

© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Annasophia Robb, Jeff Daniels, Cicely Tyson, Dave Matthews, Eva Marie Saint, Courtney Jines, Nick Price, Luke Benward, Elle Fanning, B.J. Hopper, Harland Williams
Director: Wayne Wang
Writer: Joan Singleton (based on novel by Kate DiCamillo)
Distributor: Fox
MPAA Rating: PG for themes and mild language
Running time: 104 minutes

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

Total Score – 6.7 of 10

I admit that the poster of BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE almost stopped me from seeing this story of a preacher’s daughter finding her way around a small southern town. Its Disney movie-of-the-week layout, complete with a cute, smiling pooch in the forefront, aims directly at kids and their obliging parents. But I should also admit that, to my surprise, I enjoyed it.

Opal Buloni (Robb) is a 10-year-old girl who’s been drifting from town to town with her preacher father (Daniels). When she was very young, her mother left her husband and daughter without leaving anything behind. As Opal and her father settle in Naomi, Florida, she laments the loss of her friends. She feels out of place and lonely in a run-down, seemingly poor town where the church resides in a convenient store. Her father is detached and sad, as are the townsfolk, including the prissy Amanda (Jines), the infantile Sweetie Pie (Fanning), and the Dewberry “baldheaded babies” brothers (Price and Benward) who antagonize Opal everywhere she goes (boys will be boys).

One day, while shopping at a local Winn-Dixie supermarket, Opal encounters a dirty mutt. To save the dog from being sent to the pound, Opal claims her and calls her, of all things, Winn-Dixie. Opal begs her father to keep the dog. The Preacher reluctantly obliges, but not without being threatened by his landlord Mr. Alfred (Hopper). Soon, Opal finds out Winn-Dixie has an uncanny ability to make friends with just about anyone. And because of her, Opal starts to make friends with an eclectic group of townsfolk such as the old-maid librarian Ms. Franny (Saint), the reclusive Gloria (Tyson), and the withdrawn drifter Otis (Matthews). As Opal finds out more about these new friends of hers, she also discovers more about herself and her history, and a lesson or two about love, sorrow, and life.

As the young protagonist, Robb (CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY) does seem a little inexperienced in her role. At times she depends too much on superficial facial expressions to indicate her emotions. That aside, she exudes a genuine innocence, and a charming quality that is fresh and delightful. The film rests heavily on her shoulders and she does a respectable job. Good thing, too, that she’s surrounded by veteran actors such as Daniels (THE HOURS), who is adequately melancholy and detached, and at times embarrassing, as the Preacher. Or Tyson (DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN) as the woman who can “see with her heart.” Or Saint (DON’T COME KNOCKING) as the kind and worldly Ms. Franning.

Or songwriter-singer Matthews (WHERE THE RED FERNS GROWS) of the Dave Matthews Band fame, whose sophomore performance as reticent Otis would likely garner him kudos. Likewise, Hopper (MALPRACTICE) is effective as the grumpy old man landlord, and Williams (LUCKY 13) is funny as the doofus police officer. As for the young players – Jines, Price, Benward, and Fanning – they all do well in their respective roles.

Director Wang (THE JOY LUCK CLUB) gives us a leisurely-paced folktale of a film, here. His cameras mostly focus on the characters, and how they interact with each other. At times the film does borderline on fantasy and sentimentality, like how when Otis sings, animals calm down and listen. Okay, just a tad unbelievable (what is he, Snow White?) Granted, this is a family movie so I would tolerate lapses like that. Interesting to note, though, is the eclectic nature of Wang’s career – from the sentimental JOY LUCK CLUB to the adult THE CENTER OF THE WORLD to the pure sap MAID IN MANHATTAN. And now a southern comfort kid’s story. One has to wonder, if Wang is continuously reinventing himself, or if he hasn’t found his own style and voice yet?

First-time screenwriter Singleton has written a script that closely follows the novel by DiCamillo. It’s basically a small, quiet coming-of-age story in the veins of STAND BY ME and MY DOG SKIP. The story depends on the eclectic group of characters and their relationships with the girl and her dog. There is no grand plot, and no apparent villains either (except the more-comical-than-sinister policeman). In a way, it’s kind of fresh and fun to see a film without the clichéd hero vs. villain formula. Even so, the film is unmistakably family- and kid-oriented, even with the more mature themes such as alcoholism. The themes are often simple, straightforward and sweet, if at times too on the nose. As an adult, I don’t find the film insufferably parent-unfriendly. And because of that (and the winsome Winn-Dixie), I believe it’s a good thing.

Bad Education

(La Mala Educación)

© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Gael Garcia Bernal, Fele Martinez, Daniel Gimenez Cacho, Lluis Homar, Javier Camara, Nacho Perez, Raul Garcia Forneiro, Francisco Boira, Juan Fernandez, Alberto Ferreiro
Director: Pedro Almodovar
Writer: Pedro Almodovar
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
MPAA Rating: NC-17 for sexual content, adult theme, nudity, language
Running time: 109 minutes

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

Total Score – 7.9 of 10

Pedro Almodovar is possibly one of the world’s greatest and most beloved Spanish writer-directors. BAD EDUCATION is a tour de force semi-biographical story that offers many sharp bites underneath its glossy, eccentric surface.

Budding director Enrique Goded (Martinez) has a surprise visitor one day: Ignacio (Bernal), who tells him he is his old friend from sixteen years ago. Enrique doesn’t recognize the man before him. The Ignacio he remembers was a sweet, loving, angelic boy. This Ignacio is a beautiful young actor who has written a script, entitled “The Visitor.” He tells Enrique that his name is now Angel, and the story tells of their childhoods, and asks Enrique to consider making the film and cast him as the lead.

Enrique reads “The Visit” with great interest. The story begins when a drag performer Zahara (also Bernal) meets a cute boy at the night club. When the boy passes out on her bed during their rendezvous, she discovers that the boy is really her old crush Enrique Serrano (Ferreiro) when they were both young boys. Zahara remembers their time together at St. John, how they fell in love, and also how he was molested by the tormented Father Manolo (Cacho). Zahara seeks out Manolo and blackmails him.

Back in reality, Enrique is overwhelmed with memories and his love for Ignacio, and is intrigued by “The Visit.” But he’s not convinced that Angel is telling the truth. He returns to their hometown and discovers the true identity of Angel. Not telling Angel he knows the truth, Enrique starts to play a dangerous game of deception. That is, until someone named Manuel Berenguer (Homar) shows up…

Bernal (THE MOTORCYCLE DIARY) once again delivers a bravado performance, playing two utterly different characters: the secretive, sexually ambiguous Angel and the fictional Zahara. He plays Angel with a surface sweetness but you know there’s a dark secret beneath. As Zahara, Bernal dons a long blond wig and a tight dress, and becomes a seductress. He is mesmerizing to watch. Bernal is set to become one of the biggest international stars, the next Antonio Banderas in the making. Martinez (TALK TO HER) is equally good as Enrique. His character is genuine and sensitive, yet weary and suspicious. Martinez handles the complex character very well.

Cacho (INNOCENT VOICES) is wonderful as the tormented, deeply closeted Manolo. His character is severely flawed, yet you can’t help but feel sorry for the man. Homar (SUBURBS) plays the real-life counterpart of Manolo with the same intensity and a touch of creepiness. Camara (TALK TO HER) is hilarious as Zahara’s friend and fellow transvestite Paca. As the young Ignacio, Perez is pure and innocent, and he makes our hearts ache. Forneiro is equally affecting as the young Enrique.

Writer-director Almodovar has weaved an intricate story within a story within a story with BAD EDUCATION. His characters are fascinating, the dialogue snappy, funny and touching, and the plot intriguing. He is able to reveal the complex plot with such clarity that the audience can follow along just fine (even with subtitles). One can only speculate how much is true and how much is fictional in this tale. His characters are never purely good or bad – they’re just human. For example, Fr. Manolo’s internal demon and torments make him a sympathetic figure. The adult Ignacio (Boira) also garners our sympathy, even though his character is not very likeable – it’s because we have his wonderful younger self to root for. We understand what hard roads Ignacio has traveled, so we’re sympathetic of his motives. In fact, every character has clear motives and desires. And that’s why we care about them, what happens to them.

The film also has a tart undercurrent about Catholic schools. By no means (I don’t think, anyway) is Almodovar blasting the religion as a whole, or the hypocrisy of the Church as the evil root. However, there are certain sharp satire wrapped inside this twisted tale, which is made more evident by the film’s “epilogue.”

Almodovar’s film is always luscious to look at. BAD EDUCATION is filmed in gorgeous, vivid colors. Everything jells together and that’s why Almodovar is a master. Every scene has a purpose, and not a frame of film is wasted. The editing is tight and the music is adequate. He draws us in and gives us a slice of that world. The language is scrumptious to listen to. If anything, this film is certainly a good education for anyone who wants to study the fine art of filmmaking.

The Wedding Date

© 2005 Ray Wong

Valentine’s Day is upon us. THE WEDDING DATE is getting a head start, before HITCH (with Will Smith) and BRIDE AND PREJUDICE hit theaters next week. It may prove to be a good move.

Kat Ellis (Messing) is a single career woman living in New York, recently dumped by her fiancé after a seven-year relationship. All hopes were on her to get hitched, so she feels like a big disappointment. The bad news is her younger sister Amy (Adams) is now getting married in London. The worse news is her ex-fiancé Jeffrey (Sheffield) is the best man. Desperate to appear normal and happily involved (to irk Jeffrey), Kat tracks down a sought-after escort, Nick Mercer (Mulroney), offers him a first class plane ticket, and pays him $6000 out of her 401(k) to pose as her new beau for the weekend.

When Nick shows up, he’s everything she’s hoped for: handsome, suave, sophisticated, soft-spoken, and romantic. Compared to him, Kat is a wreck (a lovely one, however). She’s tense and clumsy, too self-aware to have a good time. At the family estate in London, everyone goes gaga over Kat’s new boyfriend. The girls are jealous of Kat, and the boys are envious of Nick. Jeffrey, in particular, seems to be jealous and remorseful. Kat’s plan is working. Thanks to Nick, she’s getting back at Jeffrey. She becomes the center of attention, stealing thunder from Amy. And she finds herself falling for the American gigolo. Little does she know things will soon get out of hand, and secrets will surface, threatening to destroy every bit of happiness she’s just starting to find.

As Messing’s (ALONG CAME POLLY) first leading film role, Kat Ellis is almost exactly the same as Grace Adler on WILL & GRACE. It’s perfect casting and Messing has the self-doubting, flustered, neurotic girl down pat (just hope she’s not typecast forever). She’s gorgeous and fun and sexy and self-deprecating. Mulconey (ABOUT SCHMIDT), in comparison, is cool and suave and thoughtful. He exudes incredible confidence as the high-priced object of lust and affection, but I think he’s a little too restrained; too debonair, if you ask me. Granted, Mulconey is perfect as the perfectly pretty boy, but one longs for his more nuanced, wacky performances like the way he played Randall in ABOUT SCHMIDT.

Adams (CATCH ME IF YOU CAN) is good as the bride with a secret, what with her rudeness, self-absorption and a touch of vulnerability. Her character is one of the few three-dimensional ones in the film. Davenport (PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN) is delightful as the devoted, straight-laced, clueless groom. Parish (REVERSALS) does the job as the token wildcard, crazy cousin. Taylor (SPY KID) also phones in her performance, playing once again the ditzy, embarrassing mother. Egan (THE I INSIDE) adds a dash of warmth and dignity as Kat’s loving stepfather. The only oddity is Sheffield (CREEP): he’s the token “bad guy” but we really don’t get a good sense of what his character is about. It’s really not Sheffield’s fault – he’s a charming fellow with good skills. His character is simply the least developed, that’s all.

First-time screenwriter Fox gives us a tongue-in-cheek romantic comedy that is part screwball and part touchy-feely. The premise is a bit far-fetched. I mean, why does a woman like Kat need to risk being exposed (not to mention a big chunk of her savings) to hire a hooker, especially sight unseen? Despite that initial flaw, THE WEDDING DATE has a light and fluffy feel to it. Fox borrows everything from her arsenal, from PRETTY WOMAN to MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING to FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL (or any romantic comedies that have to do with weddings and hookers). While the story is as fresh as a two-days-old bloom, it’s interesting to observe the reversal of gender roles. Here, the men are the sex objects, the romantics, or the voices of reason. It’s a film in which the men don’t have to play victim to feminism a la Hollywood style.

It’s not the say the story is as tight as it should be. The plot is rather thin, the dialogue rather banal at places. There are plenty of holes to pick apart. For example, one can only ask, aside from the money ($6000 for a weekend is not chump change), what prompts a guy like Nick to prostitute himself. He’s simply “too good to be true.” We learn quite a lot about Kat, but we know almost nothing about Nick. The audience are required to love and trust and root for Nick based on faith. Luckily Mulroney is a charming enough actor to pull that off.

Kilner’s (HOW TO DEAL) direction is slack and uninspiring. There are scenes that drag and make you want to scream “C’mon, let’s move.” There are scenes so choppy that we can’t help but think how much was left on the cutting floor, or whether the director and editor have a bad day. The editing and pacing need a lot of fine tuning. At 90 minutes, the film actually feels long. To her credit (or cinematographer Oliver Curtis), however, the sceneries of English towns and countryside and the cities of New York and London are serene and pleasant to look at.

One of the good things about THE WEDDING DATE is that it’s pure fluff, and it’s not embarrassed to tell us so. There’s no false advertising and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Unfortunately, neither will the audience. If we can leave our high expectations at home, it’s really not a bad date movie to behold.

Stars: Debra Messing, Dermot Mulroney, Amy Adams, Jack Davenport, Sarah Parish, Jeremy Sheffield, Peter Egan, Holland Taylor
Director: Clare Kilner
Writer: Dana Fox
Distributor: Universal
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, language, brief nudity
Running time: 90 minutes

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

Total Score – 6.2 of 10