War of the Worlds

© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Tom Cruise, Justin Chatwin, Dakota Fanning, Tim Robbins, Miranda Otto, David Alan Basche
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Josh Friedman, David Koepp (based on novel by H.G. Wells)
Distributor: Paramount/DreamWorks
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sci-fi violence and language
Running time: 116 minutes

Script – 8
Performance – 7
Direction – 9
Cinematography – 10
Music/Sound– 9
Editing – 9
Production – 10

Total Score – 8.5 out of 10

When Orson Welles did the radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’s WAR OF THE WORLDS in 1938, it scared the bejesus out of everyone. Today, the discerning audience is more skeptical and sophisticated, but Steven Spielberg’s new cinematic version would most likely scare up a hell of a box office take.

New Yorker Ray Ferrier (Cruise) is an irresponsible father of teenager Robbie (Chatwin) and pre-teen Rachel (Fanning). Divorced from his wife Mary Ann (Otto), Ray has partial custody of the kids but he chooses only to see once every several weeks. Ray promises to take care of them when Mary Ann and her new husband Tim (Basche) leave to visit the in-laws in Boston. Instead, he’s still the same slacker bum of a father.

Then something happens. A strange electro-magnetic storm hits the city, sending multiple bolts of lightning to the ground and disabling all electrical equipments. Soon, giant mechanical tripods emerge from the ground and begin to destroy the city, nuking people running for their lives. Ray snatches his kids and begins their own escape for survival. As the world fend for itself against the mass destruction of these alien intruders, Ray must learn to grow up as a father and defend his children.

“This is no war; it’s an extermination” pretty much sums up the stakes.

Cruise (COLLATERAL) plays a reluctant hero (well, sort of) with good intention. He’s a solid and intense actor, although his range of emotions and expressions are rather limited here. But it doesn’t matter. Fanning (HIDE AND SEEK) plays a girl who screams, kicks, yells and gets scared to good effect. She has almost as much screen time as Cruise. But it doesn’t matter. Chatwin (TAKING LIVES) plays Ray’s detached and defiant son with nice determination and steely eyes. But it doesn’t matter. Robbins (CODE 46) plays the neurotic survivor Ogilvy with great creepiness – we don’t know if we should root for the guy or the aliens who want to kill him. But it doesn’t matter. Otto (LORD OF THE RINGS) and Basche (CARRY ME HOME) and just about 3000 other actors are merely extras. But it doesn’t matter.

What does matter is the visuals and the storytelling director Spielberg (MINORITY REPORT) imposes on us. Spielberg truly is a master storyteller. From the first frame on, the film is breathtaking. There is enough tension in almost every scene to suspend ten Brooklyn Bridges. The imageries are simply stunning, haunting, and oftentimes frightening. From the first appearance of the tripods to the mass destruction of the cities and the decimation of people, there are too many of these incredible moments to list. They knock the wind out of us.

In a way, the film is so taut and captivating that we would hardly notice the logical flaws or plot holes or the coincidences. I mean, if I really want to pick it apart, I could: from minor things such as video cameras and military vehicles and ferries that continue to work while everything else electrical (including cars) has been disabled, to the Hollywood-sappy ending that is a notch too optimistic and silly. There are many questions unanswered: Where do the aliens come from? What do they want? How do they get here? Why did they wait a million years and not before there were humans? Why didn’t they do more research before arriving on our planet? Why do they kill people but harvest them at the same time? Perhaps it’s the filmmakers’ intention to leave these questions hanging in our heads. In the end, the answers are probably not that important.

Spielberg knows what really is important. His vision and the script by veteran screenwriter Koepp (SPIDER-MAN) touch on many grand themes, albeit sometimes superficially. From the existential question of our survival and the reversal of roles (we may think twice the next time we kill a nest of ants or slaughter a cow) to the ideas of individual heroism and total social collapse during crises. How naïve we all are and how scared we can be. Obviously, Spielberg evokes intense emotions with imageries that resemble 9/11 and its aftermath, but he shows restraint for not over-manipulating us. It doesn’t matter. This film is so enthralling and mesmerizing that one can simply appreciate it for what it is: great, mind-blowing entertainment with a hopeful ending that leaves us breathless. And isn’t that what this world of wars needs?


© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Nicole Kidman, Will Ferrell, Shirley MacLaine, Michael Caine, Jason Schwartzman, Kristin Chenoweith, Heather Burns, Jim Turner, Steve Carell
Director: Nora Ephron
Writers: Delia Ephron, Nora Ephron, Adam McKay
Distributor: Columbia
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some language, drug and sex references, partial nudity
Running time: 102 minutes

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

Total Score – 6.1 out of 10

Isabel Bigelow (Kidman) is a real witch who wants to start over after strings of fruitless romance with warlords. She vows to live like a mortal and to never use magic to get what she wants, even though her father Nigel (Caine) doubts she’ll ever succeed.

Jack Wyatt (Ferrell) is a self-absorbed, newly-separated actor in need of a career makeover. He’s to star in a remake of BEWITCHED and he wants an unknown to play Samantha. One day, he discovers Isabel and these two people “with very low self-esteem” hit it off. He convinces Isabel to become his TV wife, not knowing that she is a real witch. Isabel is strangely drawn to Jack and agrees to work with him, in hopes to get to know him better. When Isabel realizes that she’s been used and lied to by Jack, she decides to get even… by using magic!

Kidman (THE INTERPRETER) is lovely and adorable as Isabel/Samantha. She totally nails the character of the naïve girl-witch who just wants a simple life and someone who loves her for who she is. This is a light, fluffy role, and Kidman shows great range (after coming off from something heavy like DOGVILLE and BIRTH). Besides, she looks just like Elizabeth Montgomery – it’s uncanny. Ferrell (MELINDA & MELINDA), on the other hand, doesn’t fair as well. He is a funny guy, and with the right material such as ELF, he is great. But here, Ferrell is not allowed to do much of his slapstick comedy, and he lacks the dramatic chops to pull off the deeper emotions that are required of the character. One could only speculate what Jim Carrey could have done (Ferrell took over when Carrey passed on the role). Ferrell and Kidman don’t have much magic together. either, and that is a tragic blow to the film.

MacLaine’s (CAROLINA) talent is totally wasted as Iris/Endora. She looks and acts the part, but she has nothing to do. I keep waiting for her to do something outrageous or adversarial, considering Iris is a real witch as well (the show will be so much funnier if there’s a big duel between Endora and Samantha). Caine (BATMAN BEGINS) has a much better role as Isabel’s philandering father. His scenes with Kidman are among the best in the film. The rest of the cast is reduced to cardboard cutouts, and they’re not very funny either. Carell (THE OFFICE) does a good imitation of Uncle Arthur, but his appearance comes too late and too brief to save the day.

I guess you know where this review is going. With the exception of Kidman and Caine, this film is nowhere near worthy of my $10. Ferrell is miscast here, and MacLaine is underused. Writer-director Ephron’s (HANGING UP) script lacks the magical enchantment of the TV series, and the chemistry between Samantha and Daren is absent. Granted, there are some genuinely funny moments (I laughed out loud during one scene with Nigel and a hot chick – Caine turns out to be the funniest guy in the film, not Ferrell), but they’re far and between. The rest of the story just drags on and on. Ephron can’t decide whether she wants to make a romantic comedy or a Hollywood satire. The result is a hodgepodge of missed opportunities.

As director, Ephron lacks the ability to hold the audience’s interest. The editing seems choppy at times. Ephron always writes better than she directs, but this time, her writing suffers as well. One yearns for the return of her sharply-written and heartfelt materials such as WHEN HARRY MET SALLY and SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE. Unfortunately, she might need the help of a witch to make that happen again.

Batman Begins

© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer, Ken Watanabe, Morgan Freeman, Linus Roache
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense violence and disturbing images
Running time: 141 minutes

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

Total Score – 7 out of 10

And we thought Batman was dead.

After the franchise vanished with a whimper in 1997 with the obnoxiously bad BATMAN & ROBIN, the dark knight has returned with a vengeance – and this time in a prequel that sets everything in motion.

Bruce Wayne (Bale; Gus Lewis plays Wayne as a child) is the son of Thomas Wayne (Roache), the wealthiest, most powerful man in Gotham – think of Bill Gates with a social conscience. During a botched mugging, Thomas and his wife are killed, leaving Bruce a guilt-ridden, albeit extremely rich, orphan.

Fifteen years later, when Bruce fails to avenge his parents’ deaths, he goes on a self-imposed exile to Asia. There, he meets a mysterious mentor named Ducard (Neeson), who teaches him everything he needs to know about fighting criminals. When Bruce discovers Ducard’s dark purpose, he escapes and returns to Gotham.

Bruce decides to follow his father’s footstep and tries to save Gotham by fighting the crime and corruption. But he knows he’s only one man – he needs to be more than that, to be a symbol, something that people fear. Searching his own fears, he finds that symbol. Under the charade of the rich, spoiled playboy named Bruce Wayne, he would emerge as… Batman.

Bale (THE MACHINIST) is an intense actor, and his intensity adds to the film, and the personality of Batman/Bruce Wayne immensely. Bale has done a great job capturing the dark inner world of Batman and the playful outer shell of Wayne. By far, I think he’s one of the best Batmans in the franchise (maybe even better than Michael Keaton). Caine (BEWITCHED) is superb as Alfred, Bruce’s loyal butler. He demonstrates the lighter side of the Bat business, but still offers plenty of emotional anchoring for Bruce.

Likewise, Goldman (HARRY POTTER) is excellent, playing against type as the honest and down-to-earth inspector Jim Gordon. His subdued yet heroic performance fits the character perfectly. Freeman (WAR OF THE WORLDS) also brings a much-needed light-heartedness to the film as Lucius Fox, the techno-wizard (aka Q in JAMES BOND) who outfits Bruce to become the formidable Batman. Wilkinson (ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND) and Murphy (COLD MOUNTAIN) are very good in their villainous roles. Sure, they’re not as flamboyant as the Joker or Penguin, but they’re equally sinister in the context of this film. Neeson (KINSEY) plays the mentor/nemesis with equal parts of sincerity and menace. Hauer (SIN CITY), Watanabe (THE LAST SAMURAI) and Roache (THE FORGOTTEN) do well in their respective roles as Earle, Al Ghul, and Thomas Wayne. The weakest link, however, is Holmes (FIRST DAUGHTER) as Alfred’s daughter and Bruce’s love interest. She simply lacks the spark to bring the character to life – to make us care about her – and she has almost no chemistry with Bale.

Writer-director Nolan’s (MENENTO) script is inconsistent. The first third of the film moves slowly, with lots of flashbacks and expositions. It’s not until Bruce returns to Gotham that the story picks up. The middle part is actually the best in the film – a rarity. The last third of the film degenerates into a standard popcorn, big-explosion extravaganza, but that much is expected. The night scenes are too dark, sometimes, and it’s hard to figure out what is going on. Over all, Nolan does a good job keeping our interest high and the action moving. The dramatic scenes won’t be Oscar-worthy but they give the film some legitimate weight. The best part of the film is that Nolan helps steer the Batman franchise back to the dark side. It’s a fun film but not campy. It’s serious but not boring. It’s emotional but also tongue-in-cheek. I think Nolan finds a good balance, and it’s a worthy new beginning for BATMAN.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith

© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Vince Vaughn, Adam Brody, Kerry Washington, Keith David
Director: Doug Liman
Writer: Simon Kinberg
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense violence, sexual content, strong language
Running time: 120 minutes

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

Total Score – 7.2 out of 10

MR & MRS SMITH, a film about a married couple, surely is not an original title. There was one in 1941, then another in 1996 with Scott Bakula which involved two spies that posed as a married couple. This time around, Mr. Pitt and Ms. Jolie, two of the hottest stars in the world, team up to play assassins who are actually married.

John (Pitt) and Jane (Jolie) Smith have been married for “five or six” years. They met in a war-torn Bogotá, Columbia and fell madly in love. They got married within six months. Now, their marriage is on the verge of disintegrating into nothing – even going to marriage counseling doesn’t help. They don’t communicate anymore, and their lives are beset with lies.

It turns out John is not a building contractor and Jane (we could only guess her maiden name is Doe) is not a corporate executive. Instead, they work secretly as top-rated assassins. And they manage to keep their secret identities from each other for all the years! The charade comes to an end when their respective agencies have them going after the same mark: Benjamin Diaz (Brody). Once their identities are revealed, they have no choice but go after and kill each other.

Separate, Pitt (TROY) and Jolie (ALEXANDER) are both attractive and capable actors (Jolie has an Oscar to prove it). Together, they sizzle on screen. They have such chemistry together, no wonder people are speculating the “are they, are they not” question. And that sexual chemistry is so very important in a movie like this and I think the filmmakers have hit a jackpot. Pitt is smug and vulnerable – in certain scenes he seems especially genuine and overwhelmed by Jane’s strength. Jolie, on the other hand, plays the cool, sharp, almost cold-hearted “bitch” perfectly, but we all know Jane’s actually a good person with a heart. It’s not any easy task to make us root for two protagonists who kill people for money. But these characters are so engaging that we definitely buy it.

Vaughn (BE COOL), once a dashing leading man, is now comfortable playing second bananas with great comical flare. Brody (GRIND) doesn’t really have much to do. His character is a plot point, and nothing more. Washington (RAY) plays Jane’s assistant Jasmine with grace and pizzazz. They all do their part in filling in the spaces when Pitt and Jolie are not on screen. This is ultimately a Pitt-Jolie film, because the supporting cast is merely there to support them.

Kinberg’s (XXX: STATE OF THE UNION) high-concept script is taut and fun. The banter between Pitt and Jolie is especially witty and sharp. He also has the good sense of juxtaposing high-power action sequences with marital bickering. Comic-book actions aside, this film really is a romantic-slash-screwball comedy. Everything is exaggerated to the max and part of the fun is for us to throw away all logic and just go with the ride. Pure popcorn, here.

Director Liman (BOURNE SUPREMACY) juggles smoothly between adrenaline-laden action scenes with the intimate moments. He handles the humor very well, too. The stunts are well conceived and executed (one does expect Jason Bourne or Spiderman to show up). The climatic scene has a John Woo feel to it, and a hint of THELMA & LOUISE or BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID. Everything is tongue-in-cheek, of course.

Occasionally, the story gets bogged down by over-the-top, mind-numbing action sequences. The film is at its best when Pitt and Jolie are allowed to show their emotional sides in the quieter moments, and three scenes come immediately to mind: 1) after their first night in Bogotá, Jane woke up to an empty bed, resigned to the fact that it was just a one night stand, when John walked in with breakfast; 2) when John and Jane danced an erotic but comical tango; 3) when John and Jane talked about their first impressions as they raced home for their death match. These are moments that set the film apart from yet another film with car crashes and big explosions. Pitt and Jolie are delicious as the Smiths – just don’t expect to be invited over for dinner anytime soon.

Cinderella Man

© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger, Paul Giamatti, Craig Bierko, Paddy Considine, Bruce McGill
Director: Ron Howard
Writers: Cliff Hollingsworth, Akiva Goldsman
Distributors: Universal/Miramax
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense boxing violence and some language
Running time: 144 minutes

Script – 7
Performance – 9
Direction – 9
Cinematography – 9
Music/Sound– 8
Editing – 9
Production – 10

Total Score – 8.5 out of 10

Ron Howard and Russell Crowe are at it again. After their Oscar-nominated collaboration of A BEAUTIFUL MIND, the two men join forces again for yet another uplifting all-American story about man triumphing over his circumstances.

James J. “Bulldog” Braddock (Crowe) is a successful boxer with a supportive wife, Mae (Zellweger), and three beautiful children. Everything seems to be going well until the Great Depression hits America. Braddock loses his house, his money and, when he breaks his hand during a match, his boxing career.

To support his family, Braddock works at the dock whenever jobs are available. Still, no matter how hard he tries, life finds a way to beat him down. He can’t afford to pay the rent and heat and food, and is on the verge of losing his kids. He swallows his pride and “begs” for help. His former manager, Joe Gould (Giamatti), takes pity on him and offers him a one-time-only chance to redeem himself, and perhaps earn enough money to get out of the pit. With nothing to lose, Braddock delivers. Soon, the boxing world takes notice and suddenly Braddock has a career again. Then comes the time when he must face the reigning heavyweight champion, Max Baer (Bierko), who has killed two men in the ring before. Fearing for her husband’s life, Mae begs Braddock to reconsider.

Crowe (MASTER AND COMMANDER) does a great job as the taciturn and resolute Irishman. Jim Braddock is a man of very few words, and it takes great skills to convey the emotions and make us believe in the hero. Crowe’s performance is more restrained and powerful than in A BEAUTIFUL MIND. Zellweger (BRIDGET JONES) is lovely and effectively demure as Mae. She always look sensational in 30s garbs (as she did in CHICAGO). She and Crowe also have wonderful, sweet chemistry together. You really do believe in their relationship. Giamatti (SIDEWAYS) continue to amaze us with his acting chops. His Joe Gould is one of the most endearing characters in the whole film. Together with Crowe and Zellweger, he completes a dynamic trio.

Bierko (DICKIE ROBERTS) swaggers with menace as the womanizing Max Baer, the boxing champ/actor and father of BEVERLY HILL BILLIES star Max Baer, Jr. Rumor has it that Crowe and Bierko don’t see eye to eye on and off the set. If that’s true, it only helps the film because we can truly feel the tension and distain between these two men. Considine (STONED) seems to be a little lost in his small role as Braddock’s tragic friend Mike Wilson, but McGill (COLLATERAL) is effectively chilly as Prizefighting chairman Jimmy Johnston.

The script by Hollingsworth (TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE) and Goldsman (A BEAUTIFUL MIND) is consistent and solid. One can argue, however, if it’s factually accurate. The film does depict Braddock as an almost-saint, Mae as an almost-Mother Teresa, and Baer as an utter jerk. However, in a “feel-good” all-American biopic, sometimes such archetypes are necessary to draw in the viewers, and cutting character complexities helps streamline the plot. In this case, the writers have done a great job. The story is taut and it flows extremely well – one hardly notices the 144-minute running time.

After the miserable THE MISSING, director Howard goes back to his schmaltz root. Fortunately, even though the film hinges on being manipulative, Howard does not dwell on it. Sure, there are swelling triumphs, down-trotted heartbreaks, nail-biting suspense and cute little kids in sad situations, but Howard never lets them linger to make them corny and unbearable. In fact, the film is so engaging that I can’t keep my eyes off the screen, and so I don’t have time to ponder how sentimental it is. Granted, I don’t really have a problem with sentimental movies, if they’re done well. Here, Howard has given us a top-notch production with a true heart. The details of the period are amazing. The cinematography is gorgeous. Combined with a stellar cast, it’s a Cinderella story we could all root for.