The Brothers Grimm

© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Matt Damon, Heath Ledger, Lena Headey, Peter Stormare, Jonathan Pryce, Monica Bellucci
Director: Terry Gilliam
Writer: Ehren Kruger
Distributor: Dimension Films
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, frightening sequences, alcohol and themes
Running time: 118 minutes

Script – 2
Performance – 5
Direction – 4
Cinematography – 6
Music/Sound– 5
Editing – 6
Production – 6

Total Score – 4.8 out of 10

I had really high hopes for THE BROTHERS GRIMM, and thought that the summer season could really go out with a bang with this one. Who doesn’t love the Grimm’s fairytales? Who doesn’t want to know how they come up with all those wicked tales? Alas!...

Wilhelm (Damon) and Jacob (Ledger) Grimm are two brothers. Will is the realist, but Jake is the dreamer. Jake’s wild imagination costs their young sister her life, and Will can never trust him again. Years later, Will and Jake becomes con men, scamming villages across the German landscape as exorcists and witch hunters. And they’re quite famous for their exorcism. Of course, they don’t believe in any of the ridiculous folklores (well, Will doesn’t, and Jake doesn’t want to).

When young girls begin to disappear in the French-occupied village of Marbaden, Will and Jake are summoned to help find the culprit and bring the children back. They reluctantly accept the challenge, thinking they can scam their way out of it. They coerce beautiful Angelika (Headey) to be their guide to the enchanted forest. But General Delatombe (Pryce) and his minion Cavaldi (Stormare) are on to them. They find a strange tower and tombs deep in the forest, and strange things start to happen and Delatombe’s men get killed, sometimes gruesomely. Delatombe’s suspicions turn to the brothers Grimm and Angelika. But Will and Jake know something evil lurks atop the tower.

Damon (OCEAN’s TWELVE) is sorely miscast here. He’s a good actor, but he does well mostly in modern drama or action flicks, not period farce. And he overacts. Ledger (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN) fares better as Jake, since he looks good in period costumes (A KNIGHT’S TALE, FOUR FEATHERS). And he doesn’t overacts as much. Headley (THE CAVE) is wasted here. At first, we’re delighted to see a seemingly strong woman character in a mostly-male cast. But how disappointing that Angelika turns out to be yet another damsel in distress. Not to mention Headley looks more like a supermodel than a hunter. Stormare (BIRTH) overacts, as does Pryce (DE-LOVELY). In fact, the whole cast overacts. It is as if Gilliam told them, “Act as crazily as you can.” And they did.

To say the plot is convoluted is an understatement. Writer Kruger (SKELETON KEY) tries to cleverly include our favorite fairytales (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, etc.) in the supposedly “real” story of brothers Grimm. Unfortunately, don’t expect the charm of, say, SHREK or ELLA ENCHANTED. In fact, “grim” is the word – how appropriate. And that’s okay, if that’s what Kruger and director Gilliam (FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS) are aiming for. I should have known better, given Gilliam’s past endeavors and Kruger’s previous works, that this film is not going to warm and cuddly. Still, it doesn’t stop me from being disappointed.

Why? Because this film is unpleasant. I’ve loved the Grimm’s fairytales and I know a lot of them are far from the cute Disney versions. Still, gruesome as the original stories of Cinderella and Snow White are, they still possess certain charm and intrigue. We care about the characters. In this film, however, I can’t identify with any of the characters. Will is too cynical; Jack is a loon and a wimp; Angelika is spoiled; Cavaldi is an idiot; and Delatombe is a snot. We’re supposed to root for the brothers Grimm, but they’re so unlikable I find myself looking for distraction. Alas! The film is dark and gloomy and chaotic and extravagantly gaudy. It has the look of a gaudy period piece made in the 1970s. It is unpleasant, big, loud, and a mess. Nothing makes sense. It's a cross between SLEEPY HOLLOW and VAN HELSING. But mostly it reminds me of the latter, another unpleasant, big and loud mess. Utterly unpleasant. It’s one Grimm’s tale I’m going to avoid in the future – even if Disney wants to salvage it.


© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Rachel McAdams, Cillian Murphy, Brian Cox, Jayma Mays, Brittany Oaks, Jack Scalia
Director: Wes Craven
Writers: Carl Ellsworth, Dan Foos
Distributor: DreamWorks
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, language, alcohol and themes
Running time: 85 minutes

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

Total Score – 7.5 out of 10

With RED-EYE, Horror master Wes Craven (CURSED, the SCREAM series) branches out and delivers us a terrific, thrilling ride that hinges every bit on fear.

Lisa Reisert (McAdams) is a hotel executive returning to her Miami home after attending her grandmother’s funeral in Texas. Due to bad weather, the red-eye flight is delayed. Lisa has a nice encounter with an attractive traveler, Jackson (Murphy). Smitten but also guarded, she’s actually a little thrilled to later find Jackson seated next to her on the plane. What a coincidence. Or so it seems.

Soon she finds out what Jackson does for a living, and he’s “all about her.” Caught in a plot to assassinate the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security (Scalia) and his family, Lisa is forced to do her part or else Jackson would have her father (Cox) killed. Time is ticking, and Lisa would either have to put up or do something…

Granted, the premise of this thriller is a little far-fetched. It seems like the villains are taking a lot of time and unnecessary risks. Why threaten the father? Isn’t it easier to threaten Lisa’s life directly? And why kidnap her on a plane with all those people surrounding them? Talk about inefficient. And please, all she has to do is scream “BOMB!” on the plane – but then, there would be no story.

Once we get past the flaws and leave our logic at the door, RED-EYE is a top-notch thriller. I would have preferred to leave out the “prologue” and follow Lisa immediately to create more suspense at the beginning. But after the initial “hook,” the film moves along like a rollercoaster. Writers Ellsworth and Foos, both first-time screenwriters, have created a masterful, suspenseful and taut script that has many twists and turns that keep the audience at the edge of their seats. What is remarkable is that much of the suspense and tension are focused on the two leads, with nothing more than background noises and a overhead lamp. The thriller doesn’t depend on big explosions and extended car chases – what a whiff of fresh air. Also, as silly as the premise is, the theme hinges on “family” – from Jackson’s threat to kill Lisa’s father, to how Lisa changes her mind after she learns that the Secretary’s family is with him. I think that’s a nice touch.

McAdams (WEDDING CRASHER) has emerged as one of the new “IT” girls after her break-out performances in MEAN GIRLS and THE NOTEBOOK. But she is more than just a pretty face. McAdams is vulnerable, girl-next-door, yet captivating. She really makes us believe in Lisa’s character and her dilemmas. And her conviction as well – she’s willing to do what is right at the risk of her life and her father’s. Murphy (BATMAN BEGINS) is perfectly cast as the charming, creepily handsome conspirator. His steel-cold blue eyes are mesmerizing. I hope he doesn’t get typecast, though; but he’s just so good in playing these roles.

The supporting cast is mostly adequate, with Cox (BOURNE SUPREMACY) as Lisa’s oblivious father. Cox usually plays slimy villains, so it’s a nice change of pace to see him as a loving father whose life’s at her daughter’s hands. Mays (TV’s SIX FEET UNDER, THE COMEBACK) also adds comic relief as Lisa’s hapless assistant. She’s fun to watch.

Director Craven has done a great job transitioning from horror to thriller. His deft execution and keen eye for details and pace have served him well. Here, he delivers a taut suspense that, even at its quiet moments, doesn’t allow the audience to breathe and relax. He doesn’t allow time for us to anticipate the next move either. From the opening credits to the realistic mayhem at the airport (I can surely relate) to the final scenes, Craven has held us hostage. And he’s given us a worthy heroine. All in merely 85 minutes. That’s some talent. In fact, I’d say RED-EYE is one of the best thrillers of this summer (but yes, please leave your logic at home).

My Summer of Love

© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Nathalie Press, Emily Blunt, Paddy Considine, Dean Andrews, Michelle Byrne
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Writers: Pawel Pawlikowski, Michael Wynne (based on novel by Helen Cross)
Distributor: Focus
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexual theme, nudity, drug and alcohol
Running time: 86 minutes

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

Total Score – 6.5 out of 10

Based on Helen Cross’s 2001 novel, MY SUMMER OF LOVE is a coming-of-age tale that touches on religion, spirituality, drugs, family, class difference, deceits, and sexuality.

Mona (Press) is an impressionable teenage girl spending a summer idling in the streets of Yorkshire. Her mother just died of cancer, and her brother, Phil (Considine), got out of prison, and becomes a born-again Christian. Meanwhile, Mona is dumped by her married-guy boyfriend Ricky (Andrews). Bored out of her wits, she meets free-spirited Tamsin (Blunt), who is spending the summer away from boarding school at her father’s mansion.

Connected by their personal woes and tragedies, Mona and Tamsin become very close – and eventual lovers. They ridicule Tamsin’s philandering father and the God-obsessed Phil, and they mourn for Mona’s mother and Tamsin’s older sister who died of anorexia. When Phil finds out about the relationship between Mona and Tamsin, he goes berserk and Mona leaves home, only the find the truth about Tamsin…

Press (MERCY) looks a little too old for the role of the na├»ve Mona, but she’s a good enough actress to convey the teenage angst and confusion. Her tomboyish charm is also affecting. Blunt (BOUDICA) exudes so much sensuality and raw beauty that you get to suspect what’s underneath her gorgeous outer shell. The two actresses look and feel good together, and their intimate scenes are very convincing. And Considine (CINDERELLA MAN) is intense and moody as Mona’s brother Phil. He plays the man tormented by his own demons very well.

Like the novel, write-director Powlikowski’s (LAST RESORT) script deals with a cornucopia of issues. Central to the theme is self-identity and companionship: We tend to believe what others tell us, and go along with the ride, so that we’re not alone. Of course, lesbianism and sensuality are also central to the story, a juxtaposition to the religious fanaticism represented by Phil’s character. More subtle is the class differences, but if you look closely, you can see it. Mona represents the lower-middle class – she simply doesn’t have that many options; meanwhile, Tamsin does whatever and whenever she wants because she belongs to the upper-middle class. As the two girls are drawn to each other, you can see how they try to fit themselves with each other, whether it’s through exchanging clothes or taking a scooter ride or taking drugs. And the ending further displays that class difference.

At 86 minutes, the film feels long. Except for the twist at the end, the plot is rather straightforward and uncomplicated. Powlikowski adopts a slow pace in telling the story about these two young women. There are lot of lingering shots, silence, and symbolic camera works. The dialogue is generally revealing, especially between Mona and Tamsin. Their relationship unfolds at a slow but steady pace. There are a few spontaneous scenes that put a smile on my face. Powlikowski depends on the actors to convey exquisite emotions through their expressive faces and gestures. There are some breathtaking scenes, but in general, the cinematography matches the bleakness of the rundown British town. The languid pace reminds us of a long, lush, humid summer, and that’s a good thing if you can stand the heat.

Broken Flowers

© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Bill Murray, Jeffrey Wright, Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton, Chloe Sevigny, Julie Delpy, Alexis Dziena
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Writers: Jim Jarmusch
Distributor: Focus
MPAA Rating: R for language, adult themes, drug use, and nudity
Running Time: 105 minutes

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

Total – 7.3 out of 10

Writer-director Jim Jarmusch said he wrote BROKEN FLOWERS and the role of Don specifically for Bill Murray, and I can see why. In many ways, this film is a rehash of the critically acclaimed sleeper hit LOST IN TRANSLATION.

Don Johnston (Murray) is a well-to-do, middle-aged bachelor who has had strings of love affairs with women throughout his life. After his newest girlfriend Sherry (Delpy) leaves him, he receives an anonymous typewritten letter from a woman who claims to have bore him a 19-year-old son, and that his son is on a road trip looking for his father. At the urge of his nosy neighbor Winston (Wright), the skeptical Don embarks on a reluctant journey to seek out five women with whom he had affairs during that time of his life. These women include sexy Laura (Stone), reserved Dora (Conroy), free-spirited Carmen (Lange), and white-trashy Penny (Swinton). The fifth woman, Pepe, has been dead for two years.

In a way, it’s a very simple story that takes on the familiar, literal and metaphorical journey format. Each brief reunion with the women of his past helps Don (and the audience) learn more about himself and his life choices.

As the middle-aged Don Juan, Murray (LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU) recaptures his LOST IN TRANSLATION brilliance for deadpan humor. There are moments when the audience laughs out loud just by looking at Murray’s expressionless face and mannerisms. I think Murray has found and mastered a new art of comedy-dramatic performance. Wright (MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE) also gives us an impressive performance as Don’s nosy, mystery-obsessed neighbor. Ironically, in a film about a man’s relationships with the women in his life, it’s the relationship between Murray and Wright that is the most genuine, funny and poignant. They make a perfect team together.

The women couldn’t be more different. At her age, Stone (CATWOMAN) remains very attractive and she instills a giggly, girlish quality to her role. Conroy (TV’s SIX FEET UNDER) plays the reserved, shy Dora to perfection. The stolen glances she shares with Murray are telling and hilarious at the same time. Lange (BIG FISH) is classy and sweet as Carmen, and you can feel the hurt and yearning in her every move and facial expression. Swinton (CONSTANTINE) is barely recognizable as the downtrodden Penny. Her anger, after all these years, toward Don is heart-wrenching and seems real. Delpy (BEFORE SUNSET), Sevigny (MELINDA & MELINDA) and Dziena (STRANGERS WITH CANDY) represent the younger women in Don’s life. Dziena specially has a surprising but hilarious scene with Murray as the man-obsessed and appropriately named Lolita.

Writer-director Jarmusch (COFFEE AND CIGARETTES) has crafted a minimalist film in the vein of LOST IN TRANSLATION. Much of this film is played out without dialogue, against the backdrop of ambient noises and a trippy Jazz soundtrack. Jarmusch doesn’t bother to explain everything to the audience. Most of the time, especially as Murray deadpans his way through the film, we have to guess the emotions experienced by these characters. The scenes with the women tell us more about Don than the women themselves. Jarmusch doesn’t want to spoon feed the audience with sensory stimulations and information; he wants us to work for them. But under his deft direction, and with the superb skills of the actors, it’s not difficult to understand these characters and the relationships at all. For example, the terse, almost silent scenes between Murray and Conroy are sublime -- they reveal so much with so little said.

At times, however, the minimalist approach can become grating, especially if you don’t have the patience for it. A cinematic equivalent of literary fiction, the film can be too heavily character-driven, too obscure, too symbolic, too subtle or obvious (I mean, okay, we get the connection between Lolita and her penchant for older men), too clever, or too cute. The lack of a definitive ending could also turn off some people. It’s definitely an intelligent film for an intelligent audience, trying to achieve a delicate balance between the profane and the profound. And judging from the packed theater at which I attended a showing, I think the audience gets and digs it. The film certainly isn’t for everyone, but if you like this type of artsy, literary works, like a vase of broken flowers, I think you’re in for a treat.