Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous

© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Sandra Bullock, Regina King, Enrique Murciano, William Shatner, Ernie Hudson, Heather Burns, Diedrich Bader, Treat Williams, Abraham Benrubi, Nick Offerman
Director: John Pasquin
Writers: Marc Lawrence, Katie Ford, Caryn Lucas
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual-themed humor
Running time: 115 minutes

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

Total Score – 6.6 out of 10

It took FBI agent/Miss Congeniality Gracie Hart a few weeks to return to the limelight. But in reality, it took five years for the filmmakers (Bullock as producer) to make the sequel. I think it’s quite a feat to make everyone look exactly the same as the original (Oh, Sandra, how do you keep your youth and figure for five years?) But what is it with Hollywood and sequels? Is March the official “sequel till you drop” month?

Fresh off her assignment and winning Miss Congeniality at the Miss United States contest, Gracie Hart (Bullock) tries to resume to duty as an FBI field agent. But her new-found fame gets in the way and jeopardizes her work and her coworkers’ safety. Not to mention it becomes too much to handle for her beau. Broken hearted and trying to become more “acceptable,” she takes her boss McDonald’s (Hudson) offer to become the “New Face of FBI” – a fluffy spokes model job. Assigned to her is bulldog of an FBI agent, Sam Fuller (King), newly transferred from Chicago because of “anger management” issues.

When Gracie’s good friends, Miss United States (Burns) and the pageant M.C. Stan Fields (Shatner) are kidnapped, Gracie is sent to Las Vegas for publicity purposes. Instead, she keeps getting herself involved in the investigation with the help of her gay stylist Joel (Bader) and a fellow FBI agent Foreman (Murciano). As Gracie and Fuller try to do what is right, they continue to butt heads with each other. Eventually, they must learn to work together in order to save the day.

Bullock (TWO WEEKS NOTICE) reprises her role as Gracie Hart as if she just played it last year. By now she has the klutzy, unassuming agent nailed. She continues to exude the self-deprecating, girl-next-door charm that defines her public persona. Gracie Hart fits Bullock like a glove. King (RAY), on the other hand, plays against type as the hard-nosed, anti-social Fuller. She is funny and a dynamite player opposite Bullock. Together they make solid female buddies this side of Thelma and Louise.

Burns (TWO WEEKS NOTICE), Shatner (DODGEBALL) and Hudson (THE WATCHER) also reprise their respective minor roles; they’re very good sports. Joining the cast are Murciano (BLACK HAWK DOWN) as the befuddled but sweet agent Foreman, and Bader (NAPOLEAN DYNAMITE) as the gay stylist (Michael Caine’s service must be too expensive to procure). Both of them pull in adequately funny, if not two-dimensional, performances. The baddies are played by Benrubi (WITHOUT A PADDLE) and Offerman (CURSED), your typical clownish villains. Added to mix is Williams (TV’s EVERWOOD) as the snake/rat-incarnate agent Collins.

Bullock hires director Pasquin (from her executive-produced GEORGE LOPEZ) for this endeavor. The result is on the par with other slapstick comedies (do we have to bring up WHITE CHICKS?) and reminiscent of his other efforts: JOE SOMEBODY or THE SANTA CLAUSE. Writers Lawrence, Ford and Lucas do keep the pace snappy and the dialogue short and sharp. The plot is relatively straightforward – except for some unnecessary clutters and diversions, it remains clear enough that even a child can understand.

I must admit, this is not the smartest and most original script ever written in Hollywood, but it makes me laugh. For a goofball comedy, I think it does the job. It has everything: buddy humor, action, slapstick, gay jokes, farce, physical comedy, and so on. I usually automatically lower my IQ when I watch a comedy like this, so the plot holes don’t bother me that much. On the other hand, it lacks certain poignancy of the original, and one must miss the brilliant presence of Caine and Candice Bergen. But Bullock continues to win our heart with her light-hearted performance, and her chemistry with King is excellent. While this film might not win the comedy crown, its ability to make me laugh out loud suits me quite congenially.

The Ring Two

© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Naomi Watts, Simon Baker, David Dorfman, Elizabeth Perkins, Gary Cole, Sissy Spacek, Ryan Merriman, Emily VanCamp, Kelly Stables
Director: Hideo Nakata
Writer: Ehren Kruger
Distributor: DreamWorks
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, some language
Running time: 111 minutes

Script – 3
Performance – 7
Direction – 5
Cinematography – 7
Music/Sound– 6
Editing – 6
Production – 7

Total Score – 5.8 out of 10

When the first THE RING came out in 2002 (after the Korean original and the Japanese remake, RINGU), it was a surprise hit. It managed to rejuvenate the horror genre by incorporating good (female) characters, supernatural creepiness, scary suspense, and an interesting mystery at its core. DreamWorks intended to follow up with a worthy sequel. The result, unfortunately, is disappointing.

Picking up six months after THE RING, the story begins as single mother Rachel and her son Aidan leave Seattle for a quiet, small neighborhood in Astoria, Oregon. The peaceful transition doesn’t last long when a local teenager dies after watching a strange videotape. Rachel realizes that the copy of the tape she made for Aidan must have gotten out, and now the evil Samara has followed them to Astoria.

Soon, Aidan displays strange behaviors and has nightmares and night sweats. His body temperature also drops to 5 degrees below normal. Rachel discovers the true reason why Samara follows them. To save Aidan’s life, Rachel must find Samara’s origin and put her away forever.

Watts (I HEART HUCKABEES) reprises her role as Rachel with the same intensity and naiveté. She is one of the few genre heroines that are both vulnerable and strong at the same time. Her scenes with Dorfman (THE SINGING DETECTIVE), who also reprises his role as Aidan, are very authentic. Dorfman has a droll, almost creepy quality to him that during certain scenes, you don’t know if Rachel should believe or abandon him.

THE RING TWO is essentially two-and-a-half-person movie. The half would be Samara, played here by Stables (PRIDE AND PREJUDICE). While Samara is a formidable antagonist in the film, and she shows up more frequently than in the original, her role is actually less threatening. Probably because there is nothing new in her ability. We have seen it all before. Baker (TV’s GUARDIAN) has a minor role as Max, Rachel’s colleague at the Daily Astoria. His character is too arbitrary to make any substantial impression. Other minor characters include Perkins (28 DAYS) as a snide psychiatrist, Cole (DODGEBALL) as a real estate agent, VanCamp (NO GOOD DEED) and Merriman (HALOWEEN: RESSURRECTION) as a pair of doomed teenagers. Rounding out the cast is Spacek (A HOME AT THE END OF THE WORLD), rather wasted as Samara’s deranged birthmother.

To prove their serious intention for the sequel, the producers hired RINGU director Nakata to direct. Despite the fact that Nakata also directed RING 2 in Japan, the two films actually have different plots. In a way, it is a good choice because Nakata brings a certain authenticity to the project. You can see the Asian elements in his vision, from the long, languid shots to the symbolic sceneries and compositions. On the other hand, I feel that the Japanese filmmaking and storytelling styles do not suit the American taste very well. Like THE GRUDGE – another Japanese horror-inspired American film directed by a Japanese – THE RING TWO often lacks enough plot movement and suspense to engage the audience. The film becomes burdened by the weight of its symbolisms and mood settings.

To add to the problem, the script, written by Kruger (THE RING), is simply dull. As a horror film, it fails miserably, offering not nearly enough scary moments. As a suspense/thriller, the tension is flat and the plot lacks movement and urgency. As a mystery, the pursuit and revelation are mundane and weak. Except for Rachel and Aidan, the characters are all throwaways. For example, Max is the token male character that gets even less screen time and importance than Noah in the original. Spacek’s role is reduced to a stereotype. There are many plot holes that baffle the mind. For example, as Aidan becomes gravely ill, Rachel doesn’t even think of taking him to the hospital. And no explanation is given as to how the teenagers get ahold of the tape and how they know so much about it. Compared to Kruger’s effort in THE RING, this script is a major disappointment.

Granted, there are a few good scenes and special effects, including a bathtub scene that offers a neat twist to all the bathtub scenes we have seen before. The deer attack also has a bizarre OMEN-esque quality to it. However, there are also many scenes that could be so much more, yet their potential is simply wasted. For example, when Rachel is in the basement of the Morgan house, or when she visits Samara’s birthmother, one can’t help but expect something incredible to happen. The result is utter disappointment. Not to mention they humanizes Samara so much that she is no longer scary, as she was in the original. That is perhaps THE RING TWO’s most fatal flaw. The story doesn’t ring true anymore.


© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Ewan McGregor, Robin Williams, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Mel Brooks, Amanda Bynes, Drew Carey, Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Coolidge, Paul Giamatti, Stanley Tucci, Dianne Wiest, Harland Williams
Directors: Chris Wedge, Carlos Saldanha
Writers: Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel, Jim McClain (story), Ron Mita (story)
Distributor: Fox
MPAA Rating: PG for brief language and crude humor
Running time: 91 minutes

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

Total Score – 6.4 of 10

The “I” in this ROBOTS stands for “eye” candy. The (voice-over) star-studded fair from 20th Century Fox happens in a familiar, civilized world devoid of any human beings, much like last year’s SHARK TALES.

“Made” by dish-washer Herb Copperbottom (Tucci) and his wife (Wiest), son Rodney (McGregor) is an aspiring inventor. After many failed attempts, Rodney finally invents something useful, and he’s ready to leave for the big city to find his fortune with Bigweld Industries, the haven for inventors. When Rodney arrives, however, he is turned away like a pest. Dejected, he makes friends with an eclectic group of misfits who call themselves the “Rusties,” among them hyperactive Fender (Williams), spunky Piper (Bynes), goofy Crank (Carey), and “posteriorly endowed” Aunt Fanny (Coolidge).

Soon Rodney discovers Mr. Bigweld (Brooks) no longer runs Bigweld Industries. Instead, ambitious CEO Ratchet (Kinnear) aims at taking over the company for good, and turning huge profits by forcing every robot to either upgrade or become an “out-mod.” Worse, out-mods would be swept away and turned into scrap metal by his evil mother Madame Gasket (Broadbent).

Unable to afford the upgrades or find replacement parts, many robots are on the verge of becoming scrap metal, including Rodney’s father. Using his skills, Rodney manages to fix the ’bots that come to him for help. But he can only fix so many robots at a time. With the help of sympathetic Bigweld executive Cappy (Berry), Rodney finds Mr. Bigweld and tries to convince him to come out of retirement and take his company back from Ratchet. That doesn’t sit well with Madame Gasket and Ratchet, and they’re out to destroy Rodney and the gang.

The long list of voice-over talents in this film is staggering. McGregor (STAR WARS) lends his spirited voice as Rodney. Williams (THE FINAL CUT) gives some of his most outrageous readings and adlibs ever since his genie in the 1992 ALADDIN. He’s simply hilarious. Broadbent (BRIDGET JONES) is creepy as the voice of Madame Gasket (there seems to be a trend for males doing female voices these days). Kinnear (GODSEND) is interesting as the narcissistic Ratchet. The rest of the cast all perform well in their relatively minor roles, especially Giamatti (SIDEWAYS) – his Tim the Gate Guard is funny, wicked, cute, cruel, and awful at the same time. (*rant* this guy was seriously robbed of an Oscar nomination, man!)

It’s almost impossible to list all the celebrity voices in this film, and that’s part of the problem. There are way too many characters, many of them minor. There seems to be a “who is who” or “blink and you’ll miss them” joke every few minutes. Part of the real problem is the busy, unfocused and frantic script. There is almost no downtime. The fast-paced story does a fine job entertaining the youngsters, but it becomes exhausting for the adults after a while. The climatic “battle” and the happy ending are loud and borderline obnoxious. The story itself is tried and true, thus predictable. An animated feature doesn’t have to be dumb and frantic. Fox should learn a thing or two from the folks at Pixar, who continue to give us smart, witty, sophisticated stories and characters without boring the entire family.

That said, the visuals and animation of ROBOTS are top-notch. The high-energy action and editing serve the film well. The animation is colorful, smooth and complex. The mechanical nature of the inanimate robots as people also creates a fun universe, where babies are “assembled” and they grow by having upgrades, where one can get an instant sex change by swapping gender-specific parts, where cities turn into junkyards and transportation systems work like toys. There are many really, really cool ideas and entertaining eye candies in this film, as well as subtle satire. For example, one can’t help but speculate the implication of the Bigweld-Ratchet relationship (do we hear the names Walt and Michael?) While the story is its weakest link, the lively animation and spirited voice performances help save the film from being robotic and dull.

Be Cool

© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Vince Vaughn, Cedric the Entertainer, Andre Benjamin, Christina Milian, Harvey Keitel, The Rock, James Woods
Director: F. Gary Gray
Writer: Peter Steinfeld (based on novel by Elmore Leonard)
Distributor: MGM
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language, violence, adult themes, sensuality
Running time: 114 minutes

Script – 4
Performance – 6
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 6
Music/Sound– 7
Editing – 5
Production – 6

Total Score – 5.8 of 10

At the beginning of BE COOL, movie producer Chili Palmer gets into a tirade about the pitfalls of doing sequels (like how you can get away with a PG-13 rating with one and only one F-word -- and that's exactly what BE COOL did). The tongue-in-cheek dialogue pretty much sums up this satirical sequel to the 1995 GET SHORTY.

Travolta reprises the role of Chili Palmer, a gangster-turned-movie producer. After a series of successes, including a few sequels with movie star-pal Martin Weir (Danny DeVito in a cameo), Chili gets tired of Hollywood. His first love is music. As he tries to talk producer Tommy Athens (Woods) into getting into business together, Tommy gets killed by some Russian gangsters in broad daylight, and Chili becomes an eyewitness and possible mark.

At the Viper Room, Chili discovers talented Linda Moon (Milian). But Linda is under contract with Raji (Vaughn), who in turn works for Chili’s rival Nick Carr (Keitel). Chili takes Linda under his wings, angering Raji and Carr, who hires hit-man Joe Loop (Pastorelli) to kill Chili, but their scheme crosses path with the Russians. (Stay with me – it gets better.)

Chili pays a visit to Tommy’s widow Edie (Thurman) and convinces her to produce Linda’s first album. Meanwhile, Tommy’s death rattles Sin LaSalle (Cedric) who manages the rappers DUB MDs. It happens that Tommy owed Sin $300,000. Sin gives Edie and Chili until Friday to come up with the cash. Chili clearly has a knack for getting things under control and keeping himself out of death threats. Not only does he manage to cross, then double cross Carr, Raji, Sin and the Russians, he also manages to get Linda her break – singing with Aerosmith and Steven Tyler (are you with me so far?).

Travolta (LADDER 49) plays it cool again as Chili Palmer. His character is calm, suave, shrewd, fearless, street and book smart at the same time. While the role doesn’t provide Travolta with a lot of complexity to play with (actually none of the characters in this film has complexity), he does a good job portraying Chili the way he’s written. Thurman (KILL BILL) plays Edie with sincerity, cockeyed optimism and a touch of cynicism and world-weariness. Travolta and Thurman recapture their magical chemistry they had in PULP FICTION (down to a similar dance sequence). And that’s a good thing.

In a way, all the other characters are caricatures, and they’re like pawns in a chess game, for moving the plot along. Vaughn (DODGEBALL) is seriously typecast as the oily little jerk that everyone hates. Kudos to him for playing that so well. Cedric the Entertainer (LEMONY SNICKET) is amusing as the devoted father slash ruthless gangster-producer. Milian (MAN OF THE HOUSE) is sweet as the diva-in-the-making, but her role is nothing more than a plot point. It’s fun to watch The Rock (WALKING TALL) play against type as Raji’s gay bodyguard. His comic timing is commendable. Keitel (NATIONAL TREASURE) plays Carr like… Keitel would. One somehow longs for his more dramatic performances. Notable cameos include DeVito as Martin Weir, Woods as Tommy, Steven Tyler, RZA, Joe Perry, and Anna Nicole Smith as themselves.

The problem I have with BE COOL is the script. It has too many threads, too many characters, and too few jokes. All that energy and no focus. I can accept cardboard characters and convoluted plots if there are enough jokes to distract me. Unfortunately, the script by Steinfeld (ANALYZE THAT) fails miserably in that regard. Given his track record, I’m not surprised. The characters are just caricatures of quirks, and many of them are amusing at best, annoying and unlikable at worst. There are numerous plot holes and character inconsistencies that I won’t even bother to list them. The double crossing is confusing and the final plot twist loses its impact because of that.

Director Gray (THE ITALIAN JOB) tries his best in telling a cohesive story with all that is going on. While he manages to maintain some of the charm of GET SHORTY, the story simply degenerates into scenes of self-indulgent skits. The film has a generally cheap look to it, but in a way it’s also fitting to the material. Perhaps I’m not familiar with this genre (I do remember liking GET SHORTY), but this film simply leaves a rather unsatisfying aftertaste for me, and that’s not very cool.

Bride & Prejudice

© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Aishwarya Rai, Martin Henderson, Daniel Gillies, Naveen Andrews, Marsha Mason, Alexis Bledel, Namrata Shirodkar, Indira Varma, Nadira Babbar, Anupam Kher, Nitin Chandra Ganatra
Director: Gurinder Chadha
Writer: Paul Mayeda Berges (based on novel by Jane Austen)
Distributor: Miramax
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sexual references
Running time: 122 minutes

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

Total Score – 6.8 of 10

What do Jane Austen and Bollywood musical have in common? The answer is BRIDE & PREJUDICE, a tongue-in-cheek musical version of Austen’s famous story. Granted, the novel has been made in motion pictures many times. By remaking it Bollywood-style, director Ghadha (BEND IT LIKE BECKAM) manages to put a fresh spin on the familiar tale.

Lalita (Rai) is one of the four gorgeous daughters in the Bakshi’s household in a small Indian town. She’s a bright-spirited and (alas!) of-age woman. Her “gold-digger” mother (Babbar) tries desperately to marry her elder daughters Jaya (Shirodkar) and Lalita off to wealthy suitors. During the wedding of one of the Bakshis’ friends, Jaya falls in love with wealthy Bingley (Andrews). At the same time, Lalita and Bingley’s American friend Will Darcy have eyes for each other. But first impression be damned. Lalita thinks Darcy, who owns hotels all over the world, is an arrogant, chauvinistic playboy. Darcy thinks Lalita is stuck-up, provincial, and rude. Their pride and prejudice keep them from really getting to know each other.

Then Lalita meets handsome and seemingly sincere Johnny Wickham (Gillies), a former servant/adversary of Darcy. She becomes very attracted to Wickham and more determined to dismiss Darcy. Oh, is Darcy jealous and concerned. But Wickham is not what Mrs. Bakshi would want for a son-in-law: he doesn’t have money. When well-to-do American accountant Mr. Kholi (Ganatra) comes to the Bakhris looking for a wife, Mrs. Bakshi is more than happy to promise him Lalita, who (again, because of her prejudice) immediately dismisses Kholi as a pig. When Kholi takes Lalita’s friend for a wife instead, he graciously invites the Bakshis to his wedding in Beverly Hills, hosted by none other than Darcy. Finally Lalita and Darcy fall in love, but misunderstanding, pride and prejudice threaten to break them apart again.

As Lalita, former Miss World and India superstar Rai is effervescent and radiant. She’s feisty when she needs to be and she can be incredibly vulnerable. Unfortunately, the tongue-in-cheek production doesn’t leave a lot of depth for her to explore her complicated character (more on that later). Pretty boy Henderson (THE RING) is charming and beautiful and all that, but he lacks certain substance as the “love him or hate him” Darcy. Most of the time, Henderson is reduced to longing stares and tongue-tied awkwardness. It’s not easy to see through him and know what makes Darcy tick. However, Henderson and Rai have great chemistry together, and like their literary counterparts, you feel that they belong to each other from the very beginning.

Gillies (SPIDER-MAN 2) is equally pretty and charming (with an undercurrent of slime) as Wickham. But his role becomes sort of a token villain. In fact, the entire cast seem to consist of extremely attractive actors: Andrews (TV’s LOST) as the loyal and romantic Bingley, Varma (MAD DOGS) as his socializing sister, Bledel (TUCK EVERLASTING) as Darcy’s sister Georgia, Shirodkar and the rest of the Bakshi girls. They all do very well in their minor roles. To complement the list of young, attractive actors, we have veteran Mason (BEREFT) as Darcy’s snobbish and controlling mother, Indian actors Babbar and Kher as the Bakshis – they all provide needed weight and comic relief to the film.

It’s really hard to take the script by writer Berges (BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM) too seriously. First, it’s impossible to translate the complexity of Austen's masterpiece into a two-hour musical extravaganza. And that’s where it suffers – the characters become paper-thin. All of the major characters have very unlikable qualities. For example, Lalita is stuck-up and rude. Darcy is arrogant and prejudiced. Mrs. Bakshi is a gold-digger. All the wealth and festivities and beautiful people also make us feel detached from them. Perhaps that’s Berges’ intention all along, to make the audience express the same prejudice against the characters. However, the film is too short and fluffy to fully realize these characters. We don’t get a clear sense of their transformation.

That said, the film is real eye candy, Bollywood style. Director Chadha (BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM) gives us a lively, colorful and fun production. Granted, some of the musical numbers are rather cheesy, but that’s the point. The screen is constantly filled with exquisite costumes, sets and locations. No doubt it’s a very entertaining, aesthetically pleasing film.

In a way, the filmmakers have wisely chosen a familiar story and seamlessly transferred it to a new culture (Indian) and time (modern day). In a way, the filmmakers has made a mistake by adapting such a rich, layered classic into a fluffy musical. But if we can lower our expectations, I’m sure we can enjoy this film without prejudice.