© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinket Smith, Sacha Baron Cohen, Cedric the Entertainer
Directors: Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath
Writers: Mark Burton, Billy Frolick
Distributor: DreamWorks
MPAA Rating: PG for mild language, crude humor and brief reference to drugs
Running time: 80 minutes

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

Total Score – 6.4 out of 10

The only thing I can say about MADAGASCAR is this: I’m glad I’m not a parent with tots. I will tell you why in a few minutes. But first, the story:

Alex the lion (Stiller), Marty the zebra (Rock), Melman the giraffe (Schwimmer), and Gloria the hippo (Smith) are four lovable Central Park Zoo animal stars. They live in a pampering and secure environment (albeit captive), and are adored by millions of human fans. Alex, in particular, is the king for attention. His best friend Marty, however, has a literal midlife crisis. He yearns to run free in the wild. So, on the night of his 10th birthday, he escaped from the Zoo trying to get to Connecticut, at the suggestion of four “psychotic” penguins who try to escape.

When his friends find out he’s gone, they go after him. Then they’re captured and sent off to Africa on a cargo ship. The penguins manage to hijack the ship, but in the process, Alex et el are thrown overboard. They end up on a remote tropical island, where they meet a group of lemurs, who think Alex is some kind of savior. Marty wants to stay and be free, and Alex is hungry and dying to go home. Their friendship is put the test when circumstances prevent them from seeing eye to eye.

Stiller (MEET THE FOCKERS) is rather charming as the egotistical but loyal Alex. Though with eight Stiller movies out in the past 12 months, one can’t help but feel relieved that only his voice can be heard. Rock (HEAD OF STATE) actually tones down to give Marty a spirited voice. At times, he still gets annoying, but that fits the character nicely. Schwimmer (DUANE HOPWOOD) is typecast as the dopey, nervous, hypochondriac Melman. But again, his voice is perfect for the character. Smith (COLLATERAL) is sweet and sisterly as Gloria. Singer Cohen lends a frantic voice as King Julian the lemur, and Cedric (BE COOL) gives an interesting personality to Julian’s skeptical chancellor, Maurice.

Directed by Darnell (ANTZ) and McGrath (TV’s KABLAM!), MADAGASCAR has a frantic pace. The tone is generally light and the characters cuddly. The animation is serviceable, if not exceptional. Notable, however, is the quality of the 3D animation that looks, at times, hand drawn. Some scenes are beautifully rendered. The film is certainly pleasing to the eyes, if forgettable.

My biggest problem with the film is the writing. Clearly, the film is targeted at a younger set, what with the cuddly animals, colorful shapes and images, frantic pace and broad humor and action. Nothing wrong with that, unless you’re the adult accompanying the younglings. Usually, we expect witty adult humor and pop culture references from DreamWorks to entertain the grownups as well. Surely there are enough crude humor and pop references (complete with a silly rendition of “New York, New York”) in the film, but they’re just not very funny.

It’s also hard to accept the fact that zoo animals know how to take the subway, steer a ship, build shelters, make fire, drink cocktails and prepare sushi. Sure, they do that in A BUG’S LIFE and ANTZ and SHARK TALES, but it worked in those films because the stories were set in fantasy worlds. Here, the story is set in modern day reality, much like FINDING NEMO, so logic should play a part. I find the logic unacceptable, and so it’s not possible to get into the story.

Not to mention the story is really paper thin. There is no overriding moral, except something vaguely about friendship and the ubiquitous theme of “knowing who you are.” The lack of a strong storytelling makes the film only a slight offering as a family film. It’s probably entertaining enough for the young ones. The adults might be better off watching the obscure 1994 Spanish film, MADAGASCAR, instead.

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith

© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L. Jackson, Jimmy Smits, Frank Oz, Christopher Lee, Anthony Daniels, Matthew Wood, Kenny Baker
Director: George Lucas
Writer: George Lucas
Distributor: Fox
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and themes
Running time: 140 minutes

Script – 8
Performance – 7
Direction – 8
Cinematography/Animation – 9
Music/Sound– 7
Editing – 9
Production – 10
Total Score – 8.2 out of 10

After 28 years, we finally get to see how Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader. That itself is reason enough to see STAR WARS III, one of the most anticipated movies of all times.

REVENGE OF THE SITH opens three years after the initial battle of the Clone Wars. As the conflict nears its end, the Separatists, led by Count Dooku (Lee) and cybog General Grievous (Wood), capture Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (McDiarmid). Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor) and his protégé Anakin Skywalker (Christensen) engage in a dangerous mission to rescue Palpatine. Besieged with anger and revenge, Anakin kills Dooku despite the Jedi way.

Back on Coruscant, Anakin learns that his wife-in-secret, Padme (Portman), is pregnant. Soon, Anakin starts having visions of Padme dying in childbirth, much like how he dreamt of his mother’s death before she died. Meanwhile, Palpatine asks the Senate for more power, so he can finish the wars. He also asks Anakin to be his right-hand man, and to spy on the Jedi Council. Anakin discovers Palpatine’s secrets and the truth about the Sith. Desperate to save his wife’s life and hungry for more power, Anakin is drawn to the dark side of the force. His tragic descent leads to his ultimate transformation and the birth of the Galactic Empire.

As Obi-Wan, McGregor (BIG FISH) has matured both physically and intellectually. Calm, logical and compassionate, McGregor successfully channels Alec Guinness, who starred as the original Obi-Wan. The speech McGregor gives at the end of his duel with Anakin is both heartbreaking and profound. And the final image of him on Tatooine sends chills up my spine. In comparison, Christensen (SHATTERED GLASS) seems wooden and out of place. In some pivotal scenes, Christensen fails to convince us the complexity of Anakin/Darth Vader. However, he redeems himself in his final scenes.

Portman (CLOSER) doesn’t fare much better either. She has close to nothing to do in this film except to act concerned or sad or horrified. Compared to her tour de force performance in CLOSER, this seems a letdown. Jackson (COACH CARTER) is consistently good as Jedi Master Mace Windu, and his crucial moment with Anakin and Palpatine is one to be remembered. Oz (MONSTERS INC) once again provides the familiar voice for Yoda, but it’s the digital wizards at ILM that bring the diminutive master to life.

Sadly, Yoda is also one of the best “actors” in the film. For example, Smits (BLESS THE CHILD) has almost nothing to do, considering his importance in the future saga. And Lee (LORD OF THE RINGS) is nearly wasted in a brief scene. Dooku was once a formidable villain. Here, he’s reduced to a mere exclamation point. The standout, however, is McDiarmid (SLEEPY HOLLOW) as Palpatine. His performance is pitch-perfect, leaving us with a sense of dread, exhilaration and wonderment.

Lucas (STAR WARS) is never considered a master screenwriter. His dialogue is often cheesy, and his drama often melodramatic and campy. But that’s one of the reasons why we love STAR WARS: the cheese. Lucas totally delivers here. He is also very good at thematic storytelling. His political and social commentaries strangely echo our current times. His characters, however, sometimes suffer under all the light-saber fights and space battles. One only yearns for the humor of Han Solo, or the interesting interplay between Luke, Han and Leia.

As a director, Lucas is top-notch, as is the production. The special effects are outstanding. The space battles are breathtakingly thrilling. The light-saber duels do not disappoint. And Yoda kicks ass again. At 140 minutes, ROTS is surprisingly fast-paced, none of the drudgery of the previous two installments. Lucas has the good sense of shortening the political mumble-jumble and let the actions speak for themselves (and Jar-Jar Bing does not talk – bless him). The ending, in particular, is satisfying, with or without the cheese. After seeing ROTS, we simply can’t watch the original STAR WARS trilogy the same way again. And that’s a good thing.


© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Jane Fonda, Michael Vartan, Wanda Sykes, Adam Scott, Annie Parisse, Monet Mazur, Elaine Stritch, Will Arnett, Stephen Dunham
Director: Robert Luketic
Writer: Anya Kochoff
Distributor: New Line
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language and sexual references
Running time: 102 minutes

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

Total Score – 6.2 out of 10

The biggest draw of MONSTER-IN-LAW is, of course, Jane Fonda. After 15 years, Fonda returns to the silver screen with not a big dramatic role, but a big comedic role. It’s a great strategic move. It reminds us she’s still one of our best actresses. It also reminds us how funny she could be.

Charlotte/Charlie (Lopez) is a free-spirited, fun-loving “temp” who believes in cosmic karma and destiny, but not plans. Then one day she meets her destiny: handsome, successful, kind, loving Doctor Kevin Fields (Vartan). Can he be more perfect? And it happens that she is the perfect woman for him. Meanwhile, Viola (Fonda), Kevin’s mother and legendary Barbara Walter-esque anchor, is having a nervous breakdown after she’s replaced by a hot, young thing. After spending a few months in rehab, Viola returns home, wanting to spend more time with the only family she has: Kevin. The only problem is, her son now has a new love in his life.

When Kevin takes Charlie to meet Viola, the two women seem to like each other. That is until Kevin proposes to Charlie right in front of his mother. Convinced that Charlie is not good enough for her son, Viola sets out to sabotage the relationship any way she can. Soon, Charlie figures out what’s going on, and the war begins.

Fonda (STANLEY & IRIS) is in fine form. After all these years, she’s visibly older, but just as strong and charismatic on screen. She looks great, actually. And her comic timing is perfect as the controlling and psychotic mother. She lights up every frame. Lopez (SHALL WE DANCE) is unremarkable as the sweet girl who is cornered and forced to strike back. I’m never convinced about her character, but I’m not sure if it’s her fault or the script’s. Sykes (POOTIE TANG) is funny as Viola’s assistant, but she has nothing to do. Her character should be the counterpoint of Viola, but Sykes isn’t allowed to do more than deliver some one-liners. Vartan (TV’s ALIAS) has the tough job of playing the straight, thus boring, “perfect” guy. As the man stuck between his mother and fiancé, he has the potential of creating one of the film’s most complex characters. Instead, his character is as bland as a wine-in-a-box (a reference in the film).

The supporting cast does a serviceable job. Scott (THE AVIATOR) is effective as Charlie’s best friend. At least he is not stereotypically gay as are most “gay best friends” in movies. Parisse (NATIONAL TREASURE) is hardly noticeable as Charlie’s another best friend Morgan. Her talent is totally wasted. Mazur (STONED) squeezes the most out of her villainous but brief role as Fiona, Kevin’s ex-girlfriend and Viola’s accomplice. Broadway legend Stritch (AUTUMN IN NEW YORK) has a delicious cameo as Viola’s own monster-in-law.

The script by first-time screenwriter Kochoff does feel green. Structurally, the story could have been much better without the straight-line plotting. There is almost no suspense – we can predict every turn and how the film is going to end. Also, it takes over 15 minutes for the film to kick off. There’s really no reason to dwell on how Charlie and Kevin meet and fall in love – it’s all setup. The story is really about Viola and Charlie. The film is boring and irrelevant until Fonda first appears.

Director Luketic (WIN A DATE WITH TAD HAMILTON) does a straight-forward job, as well. The pacing is just about right. The cinematography is cute and lush – but aren’t we sick and tired of all that wealth and poshness? It’s neither exciting nor terrible, just unexceptional. Very Hollywood – which can be a good or a bad thing, depending on your viewpoint. He does succeed in getting the most out of Fonda’s scenes, many of which are rather delicious. She is one monster-in-law with whom we might enjoy getting acquainted.


© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, William Fichtner, Brendan Fraser, Terrance Howard, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Thandie Newton, Ryan Phillippe, Lorenz Tate, Michael Pena
Director: Paul Haggis
Writers: Paul Haggis, Robert Moresco
Distributor: Bull’s Eye Entertainment
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexual content, violence, drug and alcohol
Running Time: 113 minutes

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

Total – 7.8 out of 10

At first glance, CRASH is an interesting title for a film that really is not about car or plane or train crashes. Those looking for mind-blowing car chasing and crashing scenes would be sorely disappointed. As a human drama, however, CRASH is a perfect metaphorical title on so many levels.

The film opens with an apparent car crash in Los Angeles. Detective Graham (Cheadle) is on site when he discovers a body. The film then flashes back to the day before and follows a number of characters whose lives seem to interconnect with one another. Graham and his partner Ria (Espposito) are also lovers. They’re investigating a case involving a cop killing another cop. Meanwhile, two black men, Anthony (Ludacris) and Peter (Tate) discuss racial issues before they carjack district attorney Rick (Fraser) and his wife Jean (Bullock). Across town, white Officer Ryan (Dillon) and Hanson (Phillippe) stop an SUV that belongs to black TV director Cameron (Howard) and his wife Christine (Newton). Cameron and Hanson watch as Ryan verbally abuses and molests Christine.

It’s probably impossible for me to detail the whole plot, since it is so intricate, weaving all the characters in a web of interconnected stories. These characters and the events surrounding them eventually lead to the “crash” in the opening scene. Writer-director Haggis (MILLION DOLLAR BABY) does a commendable job in delivering us a complex, multi-layered story with a huge cast with clarity and a great pace. Never are we confused about who these people are, and how they fit in the whole puzzle. It takes great writing and directing skills to pull that off. In a way, this kind of storytelling is not new (one only needs to watch MAGNOLIA to appreciate this genre), but it is fascinating nevertheless. It has enough details, hints and foreshadowing that we feel as if we need to watch it a second time to catch them all.

It’s not to say the script is without flaws. The biggest problem I have with the film is that it’s too meticulous and sometimes too on the nose. From the outset we realize this is a story about racial tensions and issues, and yes, Los Angeles is a great setting for a thematic story like CRASH. But do we have to be reminded every minute about the racial differences, misunderstanding and injustice? Some of the major emotional scenes are simply too melodramatic. Not to mention Haggis relies too much on coincidence. After a while, our suspension of disbelief begins to crumble: “Oh, come on! This is a city of 12 million people. What are the odds of that happening?”

The all-star cast does a great job in their ensemble roles. Cheadle (HOTEL RWANDA) is intense as the conflicted detective who tries to make something out of his life. Dillon (CITY OF GHOSTS) is in fine form as one of the most complex characters in the film. The scene with him molesting Newton (CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK) would sure make our blood boil. Rapper Ludacris (2 FAST 2 FURIOUS) also turns in an admirable performance as the con man with a big chip on his shoulder. Bullock (MISS CONGENIALITY) plays against type as a bitchy, angry and racist wife. Pena (CALCIUM KID) makes us believe in what is probably the kindest and most affecting character in the whole film. They are the standouts in the large cast.

Perhaps the greatest strength of this film is the characters. They are mostly flawed, complex people but they all seem so real. The actors do their part in breathing life to these characters, and you believe their authenticity, no matter how little screen time they have. And their stories, no matter how contrite at times, do offer us a crash course on the fragility of human relationships.