Must Love Dogs

© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Diane Lane, John Cusack, Elizabeth Perkins, Christopher Plummer, Dermot Mulroney, Stockard Channing, Ali Hillis, Brad William Henke
Director: Gary David Goldberg
Writer: Gary David Goldberg (based on novel by Claire Cook)
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content and some language
Running time: 98 minutes

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

Total Score – 6.2 out of 10

Meet Sarah (Lane), DWF, attractive, self-deprecating, self-aware, neurotic, pre-school teacher, in a romantic slump. Her entire family, including married sisters Carol (Perkins) and Christine (Hillis), is determined to play matchmakers. When Sarah is resistant to the idea of dating again, Carol goes ahead and puts up an online dating profile for her. “Must Love Dogs” is only a gimmick, for Sarah doesn’t even own a dog. The dating game proves to be more hassle than it’s worth for Sarah, but she goes along with it.

Meet Jake (Cusack), DWM, attractive, self-deprecating, self-aware, neurotic, rowboat builder, in a romantic slump. His friend Charlie urges him to go out and date, and have lots of sex. But Jake wants to fall madly, passionately in love, much like the leads in his most favorite movie, Dr. Zhivago. So when Charlie shows him a profile of a woman named Sarah, Jake decides to take a chance. He doesn’t have a dog either.

Their first meeting is a semi-disaster, but Sarah and Jake can’t help but feel attracted to each other. Meanwhile, Sarah is smitten with Bill (Mulroney), the dashing single father of one of her students. As her courtship with Jakes goes on and off, Sarah is seduced into having a fling with Bill, only to find out her heart really belongs to Jake…

Lane again plays a distressed, neurotic, unfulfilled woman looking for love at all the wrong places, and spends her life hiding from life itself. She’s basically playing the same character in UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN, but she does it so well. Even when she’s a mess, she’s charming and effervescent, exuding a natural, beautiful aura that we’ve come to love since her career rejuvenated with A PERFECT STORM. Cusack (RUNAWAY JURY) also plays the same love-sick puppy-dog sensitive guy. What kind of men would watch DR. ZHIVAGO over and over again? But Cusack is very good at that, and his expressive eyes are disarming. Surprisingly, Lane and Cusack have great chemistry together. I admit I was skeptical at first – I always thought Lane was simply gorgeous and Cusack had always been just a cad. But their onscreen relationship proves me wrong – I do believe they belong together.

Perkins (FIERCE PEOPLE) was once a leading lady, but now she is comfortable playing the meddling sister roles, and she excels in it. Plummer (ALEXANDER) has a relatively small but pivotal role as the patriarch who, after losing the love of his life, is now playing the field. His chemistry with Lane is affecting. Channing (LE DIVORCE) plays Plummer’s ditzy, husband-hungry white trash girlfriend with a fun spirit. Her character, however, is too much of a caricature. Mulroney (THE WEDDING DATE) plays the guy who is “too good to be true” very well, if predictable.

Predictable. That’s the thing – MUST LOVE DOGS is predictable. Right from the start, the structure and format tell us exactly what we need to know: Sarah and Jake are going to get together; Jake is going to break Sarah’s heart; and it’s going to be a long, drawn-out date. There are some very genuine, touching moments, and some chuckles, but over all, it’s a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy cut from a familiar mold. Writer-director Goldberg, mostly known for his works in TV, can’t seem to rise above novelist Cook’s clichéd story, down the cute gay best friends.

As director, Goldberg also structures the film like he would a cute TV movie. Everything is quaint and cute and well rehearsed. The pretty little town, the beautiful landscapes… I didn’t even know at first it was set in Los Angeles (SPOILER: how hard is it to find condoms in Los Angeles?) The fact is, the story and the direction are too on the nose. You know what is going to happen and it does. The situations seem forced. Granted, it’s a comedy and sometimes comedies do follow certain conventions and structures. Still, I expect more. I like romantic comedies, but if filmmakers keep making us feel like “if you see one, you see them all,” then romantic comedies might die a slow but imminent death. And that would be a dog.

The Island

© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, Djimon Hounsou, Sean Bean, Steve Buscemi, Michael Clarke Duncan, Ethan Phillips, Brian Stepanek
Director: Michael Bay
Writers: Caspian Tredwell-Owen, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci
Distributor: DreamWorks
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sci-fi violence, intense action, sexuality and langauge
Running time: 127 minutes

Script – 6
Performance – 7
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 8

Music/Sound– 7
Editing – 7
Production – 8

Total Score – 7.1 out of 10

In 2015, the world has been “contaminated” and survivors, when found and rescued, are transported to a secured facility and nurtured back to good health. They live a sterile, monitored lifestyle; strangely, however, they don’t seem to experience any desire for knowledge. Or sex, for that matter. They seem to all live for the moment of some day winning the “lottery” – the winner is sent to live on a beautiful island, known to be the only uncontaminated place on earth.

Lincoln Six Echo (McGregor) is one of these hopeful survivors. He starts to have lucid dreams about a boat, and he has questions about his existence. The place he calls home is no more than a beautiful prison, and he knows something is not right about the “island.” He befriends a maintenance guy named McCord (Buscemi), who tells him things are not what they seem. Overwhelmed by his curiosity, Lincoln eventually discovers the truth of who he (or they) is and his real “purpose,” and that the “island” doesn’t exist. When his dear friend Jordan Two Delta (Johansson) is selected to go to the island, Lincoln risks his life to save her from her fate. Together they escape the facility into the “real world,” while the facility owner Merrick (Bean) hunts them down with the help of a bounty hunter, Laurent (Hounsou).

McGregor (STAR WARS) plays Lincoln with a good mix of wide-eyed naiveté and cool determination. His performance gives the heroic character an interesting depth, especially if we consider his real identity. McGregor plays another role, Tom, and “their” scenes together are very interesting and telling. Johansson (IN GOOD COMPANY) is cute and sweet as McGregor’s love interest. Her performance is a little bland. Part of the problem is the relative lack of dimension in her character, but it does make sense that Jordan is not meant to be very interesting. Johansson and McGregor are very attractive actors (their characters’ attractiveness does have a point in the story) and exude great chemistry together. One has to agree that they’re perfectly cast.

The supporting cast does a good job, considering the film’s genre. Bean (NATIONAL TREASURE) plays the-guy-with-a-God-complex with calculated coldness. Much like the corporate villains in other movies such as I, ROBOT, Bean’s character is not necessarily evil – just a product of corporate greed and misguided idealism. Hounsou (CONSTANTINE) deadpans his way through the movie as the conflicted bounty hunter. I find his character the least convincing and his performance the most lacking. Buscemi (BIG FISH) aces his role as the Average Joe who gets caught in the middle of a hellfire. Duncan (SIN CITY), Phillips (BAD SANTA) and Stepanek (MURDER BY NUMBERS) are effective as three clueless survivors whose only purpose in life is to go to the island.

Writers Owen (BEYOND BORDERS) and Kurtzman (TV’s ALIAS) have written an interesting, high-concept sci-fi adventure script. There are some neat ideas, especially in the beginning. The script reminds us of a string of other films such as LOGAN’S RUN, MINORITY REPORT, THX 1138, THE TRUMAN SHOW, and the MATRIX series. Unfortunately, the story gets bogged down by the bigger, better, louder action sequences that are typical of Hollywood summer blockbusters. Some of the sequences are silly, if not ridiculous, that somehow spoil the otherwise interesting premise. The story also loses some of its intrigue as the filmmakers try to explain the story from multiple points of view. I believe suspense would be better served had they allowed the audience to discover the truth along with the main characters.

Director-producer Bay (BAD BOYS II) is well-known for his mindless, rollicking, adrenaline-pumping action flicks. Though his films are usually highly visual and entertaining, we simply can’t take them too seriously. Here, however, Bay is trying to give us something more intelligent and thought-provoking (before he bogs it down with silly stunt sequences) than his usual fares. I think it’s rather commendable. In pure sci-fi mode, THE ISLAND is intriguing with high-concept designs and some stunning imageries. It’s when the film puts on its action/adventure face that it becomes run-of-the-mill. Don’t get me wrong; the action sequences have Bay’s signature all over them, and they’re very entertaining and exciting. It’s just that THE ISLAND could have been more.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, David Kelly, Helena Bonham Carter, Noah Taylor, Deep Roy, Christopher Lee, James Fox, Missi Pyle, Annasophia Robb, Julia Winter
Director: Tim Burton
Writers: John August (based on novel by Roald Dahl)
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: PG for strange situations, action, and mild language
Running Time: 115 minutes

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

Total – 8.1 out of 10

While the first WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971) is considered a classic, I can’t think of anyone better to remake it than Tim Burton (BIG FISH). Burton’s quirky vision and Dahl’s quirky story fit like a jigsaw puzzle.

Charlie (Highmore) is a poor boy living just blocks away from the world’s biggest and most famous chocolate factory, owned by eccentric Willy Wonka (Depp). Charlie’s grandpa Joe (Kelly) used to work at the factory. After spies posing as workers stole his trade secrets, Willy Wonka closed the factory for many years. That is, until recently. The factory reopened without fanfare, and nobody seems to actually work there anymore.

One day, Willy Wonka announces to the world that he’s inviting five children to visit his factory. They will get a lifetime supply of chocolate, but only one will win a special prize. He’s hidden five golden tickets in his chocolate bars, and those who find the golden tickets would be become his guests. Lo and behold, Charlie finds the last of the golden tickets. He and his grandpa Joe are set for an adventure of a lifetime.

Depp (FINDING NEVERLAND) once again channels weirdness is a charming way, much like in his roles as Captain Sparrow or Edward Scissorhands. Spotting a pale face, gleaming white teeth, and a bob haircut, Depp’s Willy Wonka reminds us of yet another eccentric celebrity who surrounds himself with children. But Depp transcends the materials and characterization and makes the role his own. Despite all the weirdness and eccentricity, you believe that Willy Wonka is a kind, wonderful person -- he’s just lost in his own world. Depp also has the insight to request Highmore, his FINDING NEVERLAND co-star, to play Charlie. And we can see why. Highmore’s expressive face, soulful eyes, and disarming smile convey the deep emotions that a boy his age rarely possesses. His range is amazing, and he makes you ache for him even when he doesn’t speak a word.

The supporting cast is all wonderful. Kelly (DUTCH BIRD) is delightful and warm as Grandpa Joe. His chemistry with Highmore is incredible. Bonham-Carter (BIG FISH) and Taylor (TOMB RAIDER) are beautiful in their small respective roles as Charlie’s mother and father. Pyle (BIG FISH) and Fox (THE PRINCE AND ME) are standouts as the Mrs. Beauregarde and Mr. Salt respectively. The children play their bratty parts with glee, with standouts Robb (BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE) and newcomer Winter as Violet and Veruca respectively. Lee (STAR WARS) plays Willy Wonka’s father with creepy authority. Roy (BIG FISH) is sensational as the Oompa Loompas. You just have to see him/they to believe it.

Writer August (BIG FISH) stays fairly close to Dahl’s (JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH) book. Dahl’s stories are often whimsical, strange and extremely imaginative. By staying close to his visions, August has helped create one of the most enchanting scripts of the year. Those who are familiar with the 1971 film might find this version disorienting, because it is darker, and the ending is definitely different. Yet the theme remains one about “family” and “parenting.” The characters are often caricatures, but the good and the bad are very clear. We pretty much know how the story’s going to end from the very first frame, but the joy of this movie is not the destination, but the journey itself.

Burton’s quirky, colorful vision serves the film very well. Kudos to cinematographer Phillipe Rousselot (BIG FISH) and Burton’s production and art designers. The incredible sets and digital imageries are what make this film such eye candy. The film is lush and colorful and simply delicious to behold. Digital wizardry also allows Deep Roy to perform, individually, as an army of Oompa Loompas. At times, however, I feel that Burton could have sped up the pace -- there are places where the film drags, and the ending seems a bit anti-climatic, especially after the fantastic elevator ride. The flashbacks also slow down the adventures, even though they add layers to Willy Wonka’s character. Some of the musical numbers by the Oompa Loompas also do not work for me.

Without a doubt, Burton has hit the nail on the head with his vision of Dahl’s fabulous story. His version is distinctive and different enough from Gene Wilder’s version to stand on its own. With the stunning imageries and visual effects, stellar performances by the leads, and a story with heart and soul, this chocolate factory is a scrumptious confection for the entire family to enjoy.

Dark Water

© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, Tim Roth, Dougray Scott, Pete Postlethwaite, Camryn Manheim, Ariel Gade, Perla Hanley-Jardine
Director: Walter Salles
Writers: Rafael Yglesias (based on novel by Koji Suzuki)
Distributor: Buena Vista
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for frightening images and brief language
Running Time: 105 minutes

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

Total – 6.2 out of 10

DARK WATER is the newest J-horror films (US remakes of Japanese horror flicks) that hits the US market. After the disappointment of THE RING TWO and THE GRUDGE, one only hopes that DARK WATER is better. And it is. Just not good enough.

As Dahlia (Connelly) goes through a bitter divorce and custody battle with her husband Kyle (Scott), she struggles to make ends meet and support her daughter Ceci (Gade). To save on rent and get away from Kyle, Dahlia moves with Ceci to a rundown apartment complex on Roosevelt Island, between Queens and Manhattan. Soon, strange things start to happen: an elevator that insists on stopping on the 10th floor, water that continues to damage their ceiling, a backpack that belongs to nobody, and Ceci’s new imaginary friend Natasha. As Dahlia investigates, she continues to battle her own demons and her deteriorating relationship with Kyle and Ceci. Eventually, Dahlia discovers the awful truth.

Connelly (HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG) looks dreary and gaunt as Dahlia. Her portrayal as the distressed woman-in-trouble and single mother is heartbreaking. Connelly delivers a haunting performance both physically and emotionally. As Ceci, Gade (ENVY) is cute and sweet and you really buy her relationship with Connelly as her mother and you really care about her.

Unfortunately, the supporting cast has little or nothing to do. Reilly (THE AVIATOR) is the 2-dimensional building manager who cares only about money and nothing else. His role serves a narrative purpose and nothing else. Scott (THE TRUTH ABOUT LOVE) is angry and detached as Dahlia’s bitter, estranged husband. We really don’t get a sense of why he’s so angry or mean. Postlethwaite (STRANGE BEDFELLOWS) is effectively creepy as the building security/handyman. He has a pivotal role but that fact is not apparent until near the end of the film. Manheim (TWISTED) is wasted as Ceci’s teacher. Her role is rather unnecessary. Jardine (KILL BILL 2) plays Natasha with equal parts of cuteness and creepiness. Roth (THE LAST SIGN) adds certain complexity to the role of a kind-hearted lawyer. Unfortunately, that character complexity is totally wasted in the story.

Adapted from the original Japanese novel and movie, DARK WATER is essentially a psychological thriller with elements of horror and suspense. Slow moving and deeply personal, it fits the mold of the current crop of J-horror films that made the transition to America. Unfortunately, the relative slow pace and lack of scares most probably won’t sit well with American audience, who are oftentimes impatient and thrill-seeking. Writer Yglesias (FROM HELL) manages to capture the dark, dreary, psychological aspects of the story, but fails to make it exciting for the English-speaking crowd. The script is generally dull and uneventful.

Director Salles (MOTORCYCLE DIARIES) brings certain needed skills to pull together a rather sophisticated film. Unfortunately, he made a bad decision to populate every frame of the film with pouring rain or running or dripping water. Granted, that’s the theme of the film, but the overt and prolonged representation of water becomes overbearing and dreary. In fact, the whole film has a very edgy, creepy, and dreary look and feel to it. It could be a good or bad thing depending on your expectation. In a way, this film is all moods but little substance. The filmmakers try too hard to manipulate us to feel certain way -- scared, disturbed, distressed, and isolated. Despite all the flaws, the ending of the film is interesting, unexpected, poignant and sad -- by far the most enjoyable aspect of this very dark film.

Howl's Moving Castle

(Hauru No Ugoku Shiro)

© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Jean Simmons, Emily Mortimer, Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall, Billy Crystal, Blythe Josh Hutcherson
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writers: Hayao Miyazaki (based on novel by Diana Wynne Jones)
Distributor: Buena Vista (US)
MPAA Rating: PG for frightening images and brief mild language
Running Time: 119 minutes

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

Total – 7.2 out of 10

I’ve been a Miyazaki fan for many years now, from his Saturday morning cartoon series to films such as TOTORO, CASTLE IN THE SKY, and the Oscar-winning SPIRITED AWAY. With HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE, Miyazaki returns to the fantasy world set in a war-time western society.

Young Sofi (Mortimer) is a quiet, introverted girl who works at her mother’s hat shop. She’s fascinated by Howl (Bale), a handsome wizard who travels in his magical castle. Her brief encounter with Howl angers the Witch of the Waste (Bacall), who turns Sofi into an old woman (Simmons). Determined to find a way to undo the spell, Sofi sets out on a journey, amid a war between her country and its neighbor. Helped by an enchanted scarecrow, Sofi finds her way into Howl’s moving castle and becomes his cleaning lady. Eventually, Sofi falls in love with Howl, who has given his heart to the fire demon Calcifer (Crystal). Sofi must help Howl fight the war and find his heart…

There is really no good way to summarize Miyazaki’s story. His plot has so many twists and turns and some of them come from nowhere and are very irrelevant, and yet, his story never fails to enchant us. Based on Diana Wynne Jones’ novel, this fantasy is a wild ride, involving everything from wizards and witches to magic to fantastical machines to mythologies to fairytales to angels and demons. Miyazaki has a vivid imagination, and his vision is a testimony to that.

The voice talents in the English version are excellent. Mortimer (DEAR FRANKIE) sounds a little too old as young Sofi, but her voice has a great, mature quality to give Sofi’s character some weight. Simmons (FINAL FANTASY) is fantastic and spirited as the elderly Sofi. You really identify with her character and you’re willing to follow her around. Bacall (BIRTH) is really funny, actually, as the Witch of the Waste. Combined with the animation, that is one wicked character. Bale (BATMAN RETURNS) also gives a wonderful performance as the titular character, a vain, detached boy-man. Crystal (ANALYZE THAT) lends his distinctive voice as Calcifer, the fire demon. Danner (SILVIA) is cool and mean as Howl’s nemesis, the sorceress Madam Suliman.

Saturated with realistic details, Miyazaki’s animated features have certain surreal quality that enthralls audience from around the world. The film is no exception. His western world is populated with many typical Japanese-inspired characters and mythical creatures. The animation is, as usual, a feast to the eyes. Vivid colors, interesting characters, and the natural beauty of the sceneries are Miyazaki’s trademarks. At times, there is too much to take in and the animation seems to take on a rather ridiculous tone. Over all, that is what we come to like about Miyazaki’s animation: imaginative and thought provoking, great fun for the entire family.