The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Martin Freeman, Zooey Deschanel, Mos Def, Sam Rockwell, Alan Rickman, Warwick Davis, John Malkovich, Bill Nighy, Stephen Fry
Director: Garth Jennings
Writers: Douglas Adams, Karey Kirkpatrick (based on Adam’s book)
Distributor: Buena Vista
MPAA Rating: PG for mild language
Running time: 110 minutes

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

Total Score – 6.2 out of 10

For years now, people have been speculating about how the HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY is going to translate to the big screen, even though there was the miniseries in 1981, adapted by the author himself. Well, Douglas Adams did it again, and this time with the help of a big budget and state-of-the-art CGI.

Arthur Dent (Freeman) is a common man living in a small town in England. As his house is being demolished to make way for a highway, his best friend Ford Perfect (Def) informs him that he is really an alien. To be precise, a researcher who is writing a new edition of the “Hitcher’s Guide to the Galaxy.” At the same time, the Earth is due for demolition as well. Seconds before the world is blown to pieces, Ford and Arthur hitch a ride on a Vogon starship and escape. They’re caught shortly, the get picked up the President of the Galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox (Rockwell).

On board of Zaphod’s ship is the beautiful earthling Trillian (Deschanel), who doesn’t know Earth has been decimated. Accompanied by the chronically depressed robot Marvin (played by Davis, voiced by Rickman), Zaphod searches the galaxy for the ultimate meaning of life. Arthur has no choice but follow them, eventually having the grandest adventures of his life – not to mention a chance to undo the damage to Earth!

Freeman (SHAUN OF THE DEAD) is the perfect everyday man to play Arthur. His deadpan humor and geeky lovability serve the role well. His transition from a befuddled survivor to an unlikely hero is subtle but interesting. Deschanel (ELF) is sweet and charming as the object of Arthur’s affection. Her damsel-in-distress role has been beefed up to be more proactive and resourceful. Rockwell (CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND) is the same zany, self-parodying Rockwell we’ve come to expect and love. He gives Zaphod an interesting creepy/endearing edge. Def (THE ITALIAN JOB) plays Ford with apologetic glee. His character is at once wise and goofy, sort of a Jiminy Cricket-meet-Sebastian the Crab to Arthur.

Davis (RAY) dons a robot suit and slogs around like Humpty Dumpty, but it’s Rickman’s (HARRY POTTER) pathetic voice that gives Marvin a personality. Malkovich (JOHNNY ENGLISH) has a relatively small role as Humma Kavula, Zaphod’s bizarre political rival. Nighy (LOVE ACTUALLY) plays the planet-saver Slartibartfast with warm authority. Fry (HARRY POTTER III) offers a perfect God-like voice as the narrator.

To be honest, I’ve never read the book or seen the TV show. I didn’t know what to expect when I walked into the theater. I only knew it was going to be a funny-crazy ride. In that sense I’m not disappointed. The absurdity of the story is such that we must toss away our logic and look at this as somewhat an Alice In Wonderland in space. At times, it’s difficult for me to understand what the purpose of this film is, beside being a wild carnival ride. Notably, Adams did have an odd imagination, and the “wisdom” bestowed by the Hitchhiker’s Guide is tongue-in-cheek and often amusing (Oh, so that’s what a babelfish look like).

Director Jennings, whose only other credits include two video projects, seems to have a hard time keeping up with the material. The pacing is hectic and crazed, but not in a good way. Some scenes remind me of past fantasies such as THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN, only lacking in finesse. There are some fantastic imageries, in particular the beautifully rendered scenes of the construction of Earth II. But over all, it is a busy production with plenty of inconsistency. If you’re already a fan of the books and shows, you’ll probably love this film. Otherwise, follow my guide: rent it when it comes out on DVD.

The Interpreter

© 2004 Ray Wong

Stars: Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Catherine Keener, Jesper Christensen, Yvan Attal, Earl Cameron, George Harris, Michael Wright, Clyde Kusatsu, Eric Keeleyside, Hugo Speer
Director: Sydney Pollack
Writers: Martin Stellman, Brian Ward, Charles Randolph, Scott Frank, Steven Zaillian
Distributor: Universal
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, brief sexual content and language
Running time: 112 minutes

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

Total Score – 7.8 out of 10

The INTERPRETER is one of the most anticipated films of spring, 2005, and there are plenty of good reasons. The two leading actors, both recent Oscar winners. The Oscar-winning director (OUT OF AFRICA). The first big budget thriller to hit the screen in a drought year so far. The expectation and anticipation put the film in a vulnerable position. But judging by the reactions at the packed theater, I believe it delivers.

Silvia Broom (Kidman), an attractive United Nations interpreter, overhears a whispered conversation indicating an assassination attempt of Matobo President Zuwanie. Secret service agent, newly widowed Tobin Keller (Penn), together with his colleagues, is assigned to the case. At first, Keller’s instinct tells him Broom is lying – she has a dark secret and she’s not letting it on. He thinks the whole assassination threat is a hoax. But when Silvia’s life is being threatened, Keller has no choice but believe her. He becomes her protector.

Soon Keller finds out Silvia was romantically involved with Rory Robb, a Matobo revolutionary, and was part of the rebel, albeit a long time ago. When Kuman-Kuman, another Matobo revolutionary in exile in Brooklyn, is killed in a terrorist attack, the stakes to protect both Silvia and Zuwanie become very high. Racing against the clock, they must find out who is behind the assassination, and solve the mystery around Silvia’s past.

Kidman (COLD MOUNTAIN) has emerged as one of the best and most mesmerizing actresses of our time. Here, her performance is understated, vulnerable and secretive. Without overacting, she conveys layers of emotions buried deep under Silvia’s mysterious shell. Likewise, Penn (MYSTIC RIVER) gives us a restrained, well-controlled and deeply sympathetic portrayal of a complex man caught between rage and righteousness. He and Kidman share some of their most intimate yet intense moments in deep philosophical discussions. Something you don’t see in a lot of thrillers.

Keener (S1M0NE) is great in her relatively minor role as agent Dot Woods. She is cool and sympathetic, and she delivers most of the film’s best zingers. She almost steals the show from the two leads whenever she’s on. The international cast includes Danish actor Christensen, who portrays Nils Lud, Matobo’s Head of Security, with steely creepiness – yet that’s probably one of the worst flaws of the film (more later); Israeli actor Attal as the doomed photographer Philippe; Cameron (REVELATION) as the idealist-turned-war lord Zuwanie; West Indies actor Harris (BLACK HAWK DOWN) as the charismatic Kuman-Kuman.

The writers have done an admirable job concocting a suspenseful thriller out of a yarn of mangled subplots. As the story unfolds, we get to learn more and more about these characters, and the secrets they are hiding from each other. At times, it gets a little tedious trying to keep track of the large cast and what goes on. But the writers manage to keep the pace tight and the suspense taut. They also manage to keep the main story thread simplistic. There are some plot holes, however, or at least some things that need more explaining. And to me, at least, I feel that the ending is somewhat a letdown and predictable. The casting of Christensen as Nils pretty much gives the ending away, and there are many foreshadowing and hints to help the audience along. It’s probably not a complete disaster, when you consider the main thrust of the story is the relationship between Silvia and Keller. However, the ending could have been more suspenseful and tense if the writers had chosen a different path.

Director Pollack (THE FIRM) is no stranger to nail-biting thrillers and sweeping dramas. Here, he has succeeded in combining the two genres into a thought-provoking political thriller. He also did something no one else could – this is the first film ever allowed to be shot inside the U.N. The real location adds a biting realism. Pollack (who also has a small role as Tobin’s boss) has the mature skills and a sharp eye for details, pacing, and suspense. The film has an uncanny, realistic look and feel to it. At times, it’s intensely intimate and personal. It is this particular quality that sets the film apart from the other thrillers. And a darn good one, too – it’s hard to interpret it any other way.

The Amityville Horror

© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Melissa George, Jesse James, Jimmy Bennett, Chloe Moretz, Rachael Nichols, Philip Baker Hall, Isabel Conner, Brendan Donaldson
Director: Andrew Douglas
Writers: Sandor Stern, Scott Kosar (based on novel by Jay Anson)
Distributor: MGM
MPAA Rating: R for language, violence/gore, disturbing images, brief sexuality, drug use
Running Time: 113 minutes

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

Total – 7 out of 10

My question going into the theater: Why, for cry’in out loud, do we need another THE AMITYVILLE HORROR? The original was already a cheesy classic. Not to mention the rip-offs and sequels. In order for me to judge this film on its own merits, I’d have to forget about the other films and watch this with an unbiased eye. A difficult task to do (I think I’m gonna ask for a raise…)

The film opens briskly, recapping the horrific murders at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville. On a stormy night in 1974, Ronald DeFeo (Donaldson) murdered his entire family in cold blood. He claimed that a “voice” told him to do it. One year later, George (Reynolds) and Kathy (George) Lutz finds the Ocean Avenue property a dream house for their family of five, with Kathy’s three children from her previous marriage: defiant Billy (James), timid Michael (Bennett) and cherubic Chelsea (Moretz). Even the history behind the house cannot dissuade George and Kathy from saying yes to the deal of a lifetime.

Soon after they move in, however, strange things start to happen. Chelsea makes friends with an invisible playmate called Jodie. A babysitter gets a serious fright. Worst of all, George starts to feel ill and hear strange voices in the basement. George becomes increasingly hostile and moody, at least until he leaves the house. Eventually, they realize the house is haunted with an evil presence, and they must try their best to escape and survive as a family.

Reynolds (VAN WILDER) gives a surprisingly affecting dramatic performance here. He’s been mostly known for his goofball comedies, but here, he shows a nice depth of darkness, and his transformation from the loving husband/father to Mr. Psycho is very convincing. George (MULHOLLAND DRIVE) has certain naïve sweetness about her, but she seems too young and inexperienced to be a mother of three (and her eldest is 12 years old!) She looks more like a sister than a mother most of the time.

James (BUTTERFLY EFFECT) is rebellious yet scared as the eldest son, Billy. Bennett (DADDY DAYCARE) is cute as the middle sibling Michael. Moretz (HEART OF THE BEHOLDER) is impressive as the innocent Chelsea; her rooftop scene is especially memorable. Nichols (DUMB AND DUMBERER) also has a memorable scene as the babysitter Lisa, who tries to scare the kids but ends up being scared to half-death. Hall’s (IN GOOD COMPANY) masterful performance as Fr. Callaway also adds weight and opens up the otherwise claustrophobic story. Newcomer Conner is creepy as doomed Jodie DeFeo.

As a stand-alone movie, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR is a good production. Granted, almost 30 years have passed (the original was made in 1979) and we are not so easily scared anymore. So director Douglas has to rely on camera and editing tricks to scare us: strange angles, moody shots of rain and wind, sound effects, fast cutting to grotesque images. These jolting moments and vivid imageries give us a strange adrenaline rush, even though we expect them. Perhaps that’s exactly why the film succeeds in that regard -- we expect these scare tactics and we get them.

However, the story is weak in comparison. First, there’s the controversy surrounding Anson’s original story. 30 years ago, the book was marketed as non-fiction and the Lutzes’ accounts were touted as a real story. 30 years later, we now know they’re simply hoaxes. Part of why THE AMITYVILLE HORROR worked before was the fact that we believed the story was real. And that fact touched us at a visceral level -- this really happened, and it could happen to us. And now, the fact that it is just fiction doesn’t necessarily make it a bad story; we’re just less tolerant of the discrepancies and lack of logic, not to mention the dishonesty. We’re more prone to ask questions. For example, why can Chelsea see Jodie but not the other ghosts or evil spirits? And if Jodie is a good ghost, why does she tell Chelsea to jump off the roof? When Billy is threatened by George during the wood chopping scene, Billy’s reaction is out of character (good thing he redeems himself later). Some of these plot holes are minor, but some become so frustrating that they distract us from the story.

To be fair, there are plenty to like about this film. The tension between the various family members is probably the most frightening aspect of the story, and they’re well integrated and acted in the film. Some of the most powerful scenes exemplify the tension: the rooftop scene with Chelsea, the babysitter scene, the South-of-Music-esque escape at the end, the quiet embraces between George and Kathy. To me, those scenes speak volume of the disintegration of our families, which is the true horror of this ghastly tale.

Fever Pitch

© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Drew Barrymore, Jimmy Fallon, Jack Kehler, Ione Skye, KaDee Strickland, JoBeth Williams
Directors: Bobby and Peter Farrelly
Writers: Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel (based on novel by Nick Hornby)
Distributor: Fox
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for crude and sexual humor
Running time: 98 minutes

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

Total Score – 5.8 out of 10

Didn’t Drew Barrymore co-star in a romantic comedy with a SNL alumnus around this time last year? And didn’t she play a cherubic, cute single woman looking for love in the wrong places? Is Drew being typecast as the next Meg Ryan? (Answer: maybe. She starred in 50 FIRST DATES with Adam Sandler.)

Ben (Fallon) is a funny, smart, and kind grade school math teacher. When he takes his students to interview professionals who use math directly in their lines of work, he meets Lindsey (Barrymore), a corporate executive with a bright mind and a chip on her shoulder. At first, Lucy resists the idea of dating a school teacher because she fears her more successful career would be the death of any relationship. But soon Ben’s charm and kindness simply win her over. Everything seems so perfect, until Lindsey knows of Ben’s problem…

Ben has been an obsessive Red Sox fan since he was seven. At first Lindsey thinks she can handle a little sports fanaticism. As summer rolls along, though, their relationship begins to waffle when Lindsey finds that she can’t compete with Ben’s love for the Red Sox. She’s also becoming someone she doesn’t like – someone who loses herself by trying to please her beau. Can true love conquer baseball?

Barrymore (50 FIRST DATES) pretty much plays herself again: a nice “20-10” career woman addicted to love. It’s not to say she is bad. We love her for playing these roles so well, but I think she can branch out a bit (I loved her in DONNIE DARKO). Fallon (TAXI) plays an extension of his SNL persona here: a funny, cute, neurotic snuggle bunny. Both of them are perfectly cast and they do look sweet together.

The supporting cast is adequate but they really don’t have much to do. Despite a large cast, this is essentially a two-person movie (plus the Red Sox, of course). There are almost no subplots involving the minor characters – their jobs are simply to get Drew and Jimmy places and make them talk.

Based on Nick Hornby’s autobiographical novel about obsession with soccer, the script moves the story to Boston and the obsession is now baseball, or, more specifically, the Red Sox. One wonders if it was a stroke of luck or they planned it all along that the Red Sox won the World Series that year (2004). It doesn’t matter; the story captures that fanaticism very well, with or without the fairytale ending. Not to mention the underlying battle of the sexes. In a way, it’s interesting to see a career woman battling a male school teacher over a game. However, after we strip away all the sports and serendipities and cute dialogue, the plot is rather thin. And for a comedy, I’d say the laughs are far and between.

Given that it’s a Farrelly brothers’ film – the guys who gave us THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY and DUMB & DUMBER – this film is actually quite a letdown. Have the Farrelly brothers finally gotten tired of gross-out humor and gone mainstream? The result is kind of lukewarm. As a romantic comedy, it is rather one-joke, and not that funny a joke either. Granted, the leads are adorable and they’re great together, and the ending is very feel-good. But we’ve come to expect certain things from the Farrelly brothers, and I think they’ve pitched a wrong game this time.

The Upside of Anger

© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Joan Allen, Kevin Costner, Erika Christensen, Evan Rachel Wood, Keri Russell, Alicia Witt, Mike Binder, Tom Harper, Dane Christensen
Director: Mike Binder
Writer: Mike Binder
Distributor: New Line
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexual content, mild violence
Running Time: 118 minutes

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

Total – 6.4 out of 10

Joan Allen as an attractive but angry mother? Kevin Costner as an ex-baseball star? Erika Christensen as a defiant daughter? At a glance, THE UPSIDE OF ANGER does sound, smell and feel like a typical family drama (or chick flick, depending on your definition) with some archetypical characters.

Terry Wolfmeyer (Allen) becomes a very angry woman after her husband left her for his young secretary, leaving her with their four daughters, all with their own problems. The eldest, Hadley (Witt), goes off to college to escape her dysfunctional family; second child Andy (Christensen) decides not to attend college but get job instead; Emily (Russell) wants to follow her dream to become a ballerina, despite her mother’s fierce objection; and the youngest, “Popeye” (Wood), struggles to find her identity as the only “child” in the estrogen-heavy family. Unable to cope with her emotional outbursts, Terry hides from her reality by reaching for the bottles.

That’s when next-door neighbor/single guy Denny Davies (Costner) comes to the rescue. Well, sort of. A baseball star-turned-radio celebrity, Denny is a mess himself. Indifferent about his past and aimless about his future, he, too, hides himself by getting drunk and stoned. Denny and Terry soon develop an interdependent, mutually-destructive relationship, trying desperately to find their places and get through with their lives.

Allen (THE BORNE SUPREMACY) is in great form here. Her portrayal of the bitter, angry, irresponsible yet controlling mother is heart-felt. You can’t help but dislike and sympathize with her character at the same time. While there are plenty of emotional outbursts on display here, it is Allen’s more subtle mannerisms and expressions that remind us what a great actress she is. Costner (DRAGONFLY) does well here in one of his more loosy-goosy, laid-back and nuanced performances. He’s at his best when he’s his all-American old-boy self. Allen and Costner also have a nice chemistry on screen.

The supporting cast is strong. Wood (S1M0NE) is particularly sweet and affecting as introspective Popeye, who also serves as the narrator. Christensen (SWIMFAN) is smart, feisty, and not-so-naïve as the independent Andy. Russell (WE WERE SOLDIERS) is the fairytale princess here, masking the fact that she also is also the most underappreciated, conflicted and bitter of the four girls. Witt (TWO WEEKS NOTICE) has a relatively minor role as the eldest and most defiant daughter -- little does she know she also resembles their mother the most. Writer-director Binder (MINORITY REPORT) also acts as Denny’s lecherous, cradle-robbing producer, Shep. Finally, Dane Christensen (Erika’s younger brother) is charismatic as Popeye’s object of affection.

Beside the fine performances, the production value of this film is top of the line. Cinematographer Richard Greatrex (A KNIGHT’S TALE) does a fine job giving us a film with lush and rich colors, lighting and compositions. Detroit has never looked so lovely.

The problems I see with the film are the script and direction. Considering Binder also writes and acts, he simply tries too hard. At 118 minutes, the film feels long. Sometimes we have no idea why the characters do or say certain things. The motivations of these characters are rather murky, and it’s a bad thing for a character-driven story. There are times when you simply don’t believe in the characters. For example, (*spoiler*) I don’t for a second believe in the relationship between Andy and Shep. Or the fact that Terry was a “warm and loving and nice mother” before her husband left her.

The direction is coy as well. For example, when I saw the first scene, I groaned. Oh no, not another funeral in the rain, please. And when that shot came back after the “plot twist,” I groaned again. How manipulative. I don’t like to be manipulated. Then there are the obligatory wedding and hospital scenes. Oh, spare me. These are the moments when I get angry at the writers and director. Binder can do better than that.