Oliver Twist

© 2005 Ray Wong



Stars: Ben Kingsley, Barney Clark, Leanne Rowe, Mark Strong, Jamie Foreman, Harry Eden, Edward Hardwicke
Director:
Roman Polanski
Writers:
Ronald Harwood (based on novel by Charles Dickens)
Distributor:
TriStar
MPAA Rating:
PG-13 for disturbing images
Running time:
130 minutes

Script – 7
Performance – 7
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 8
Music/Sound– 6
Editing – 6
Production – 9

Total Score – 7.0 out of 10

One must ask, how many times can we remake the classic tale of Oliver Twist? Granted, it’s a wonderful, timeless story by one of the best storytellers of all times, and the name Polanski also means certain quality (or promise) that naturally pulls me into the theater. So I’m willing to give this film a chance.

We all know the story. Oliver Twist (Clark) is an orphan. The now infamous “please sir, may I have some more” line gets him into a whole lot of troubles, and changes his life. Sold to a coffin-maker, Oliver defies the poor treatments he receives and escapes to London, where he meets a young vagabond named Artful Dodger (Eden). Seeing that Oliver needs a place to stay, Dodger sends him to his boss/mentor Fagin (Kingsley). An old thief ready for his retirement, Fagin teaches the boys how to pick pocket and steal. He takes a special liking to Oliver. There, Oliver meets the kind Nancy (Rowe) and her gruff burglar boyfriend, Sykes (Foreman).

During a mishap at the marketplace, Oliver is arrested and taken to the magistrate office for steeling a handkerchief from Mr. Brownlow (Hardwicke). Upon learning of Oliver’s innocence, Brownlow takes him in. Fearing that the boy would snitch on them, Sykes coerces Fagin and Nancy to kidnap Oliver and forces him to help burglarize Brownlow’s house. Nancy, remorseful for what she’s done to Oliver, tries to save him. But Sykes has another plan, one that would result in tragic ends for all of them…

Dickens’s classic tale is full of colorful and memorable characters. Heading the cast in this production is Kingsley (SUSPECT ZERO), who is barely recognizable as the derelict master thief. Kingsley disappears and becomes totally absorbed in the role. His Fagin is quite memorable. Clark (THE LAWLESS HEART) is fine as the titular character, a young boy whose fate makes us sigh with anguish. So, he is not as cute and sweet as Mark Lester in the 1968 OLIVER! (Kingsley also portrays Fagin differently than the enlightening Ron Moody in that production), but Clark’s portrayal is more resolute and determined, giving Oliver more edge and hero quality, instead of just a child in distress.

Rowe (BOUDICA) is adequate as Nancy, but she is no Shani Wallis, whose Nancy in OLIVER! was sensational. Same with Foreman (LAYER CAKE) as Sykes. Here, Foreman’s portrayal is rather lackluster, and his malevolence is merely a matter of story instead of character development. Again, in comparison, Oliver Reed made for a much more memorable Sykes in OLIVER!. Eden (PETER PAN) fares better as Artful Dodger – unfortunately, in this adaptation, Dodger doesn’t have much to do.

Harwood’s (BEING JULIA) script is more faithful to the original book than OLIVER! but it also makes the story so much darker and heavier, almost void of any humor. In comparison, OLIVER! was delightful and charming, even with its dark, serious third act. Perhaps that’s exactly what director Polanksi (THE PIANIST) wants. Dickens’s original tale was never cuddly and happy as the musical was. Oliver Twist is full of bad people, with bad intentions. Even with that understanding, this script feels long and dreary, dragging along in the second and third acts. In truth, the first act is this film’s best part.

However, I must give kudos to Polanski’s artistic vision. The production value of this film is remarkable. From the artful, scrumptious, painterly cinematography (by Pawel Edelman, RAY and THE PIANIST) to the costumes and sets and details, Polanski has succeeded in creating a world so real that it pulls us in immediately. We really could feel what it would be like to live in England during that time period. That and the timeless story and characters are what make this film worthy. If only Polanski had instilled some humor to lift the film from its deadly dark mood, this Oliver could have been more entertaining rather than simply depressing.


Flightplan

© 2005 Ray Wong



Stars: Jodie Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Sean Bean, Kate Beahan, Michael Irby, Assaf Cohen, Erika Christensen, Marlene Lawston
Director: Robert Schwentke
Writers: Peter A. Dowling, Billy Ray
Distributor: Bruena Vista
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and intense situations
Running Time: 93 minutes

Script – 7
Performance – 7
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 7
Music/Sound– 6
Editing – 8
Production – 8
Total – 7.1 out of 10



* The following review includes SPOILERS *

What if 450 people are trapped in a transatlantic flight with nowhere to go and a little girl is missing? What if it stars Jodie Foster in her action-hero mode? You get a Hitchcockian film called PANIC ROOM AT 37,000 FEET -- oops, sorry. It’s actually called FLIGHTPLAN.

Kyle (Foster) is a bereaved wife whose husband recently fell to his death in Berlin. Distraught and grieve-stricken, Kyle arranges to have her husband’s casket transported back to New York for a family burial, and she’s taking her 6-year-old daughter Julia (Lawston) with her. Ever the protective mother, Kyle tells Julia that everything would be okay and the flight is safe because she helps design part of the jumbo jet on which they’d flight across the Atlantic. See, she knows everything about this airplane!

Exhausted and having taking some sleeping pills, Kyle awakes three hours into the flight to find Julia missing. She alerts the flight crew and captain about her missing daughter. Eventually the captain and his crew suspect that Kyle is deranged and has made up the story about Julia. No one on the plane has seen the little girl, and according the flight manifest, there is no record of the girl ever existed. Worse, the captain tells Kyle the bad news: the mortuary in Berlin confirms that Julia was killed with her father a week earlier. The only person who seems remotely sympathetic is air marshal Carson (Sarsgaard). Confused and anxious, Kyle starts to question her own sanity as well, until a definitive clue tells her that Julia is real and still on the plane, and someone is playing a very dangerous game…

Foster (A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT) reprises her mother-in-peril role as she did in PANIC ROOM. She is an extraordinary actress, conveying both vulnerability and strength at the same time. At times she looks so beaten it’s heartbreaking, but when her triumph comes, we can’t help but cheer her on. However, after PANIC ROOM, and now this, we’re ready to see Foster in something different, perhaps a little gentler. Sarsgaard (SKELETON KEY) is solid as Carson. However, his portrayal of the characters -- the squint of an eye, a scrunch of the nose -- somehow betrays the suspense of the story, as we start to suspect something is not quite up-and-up with this guy. He’s too eager to help.

The rest of the cast have very minor roles, considering the cast of hundreds in this film. Bean (THE ISLAND) plays against type and is effective as the responsible and stern captain. Beahan (MATRIX REVOLUTIONS) is rather creepy as flight attendant Stephanie. Irby (ONCE UPON A WEDDING), Cohen (WEST BANK STORY) and Kristensen (SISTERS) serve their respective roles as would-be suspects.

FLIGHTPLAN opens with a confusing flashback that sets the tone of the rest of the film. The opening sequences tell you almost nothing, and information only starts to trickle in as the story unfolds in real time. The script by first-time writer Dowling and Ray (SUSPECT ZERO) is taut with suspense and unanswered questions almost till the end. Clearly they pay homage to Hitchcock in style and storytelling techniques. Perhaps I’m a little too smart for a thriller like this, for I correctly guessed the bad guys midway through the film. But the bad guys’ motives and schemes remain a mystery to me, and I like that. We keep asking the question: Why? At times, the plot seems convoluted, though. A lot of things, if you really stop and think about them, don’t make much sense. For example, how could there be only one air marshal on an international flight with 450 passengers, who sits in coach (and no where near the cockpit in case of a hijacking)? Why didn’t anyone see the little girl, including the ticket or gate agents? The plot is a little too clever, too perfect as if the bad guys have thought of every detail, every minor wrinkle, and every move Kyle may take. Quite impossible.

As long as we can suspend our disbelief, FLIGHTPLAN is a very entertaining, nail-biting thriller. Director Schwentke (TATOO) has crafted a tight, suspenseful, well-paced story, leaving us not too many opportunities to ask silly questions like the ones I asked above. He has a deft skill and the editing is tight as well, leaving us breathless in many sequences. The ending is somewhat cheesy, I think, even for a big Hollywood movie. But I suppose it’s necessary for a crowd pleaser. With a strong female lead and a tight plot with a soft heart (who can’t identify with a mother losing her husband and her child?), everything will work out at the box office as planned.

Just Like Heaven

© 2005 Ray Wong



Stars: Reese Witherspoon, Mark Ruffalo, Donal Logue, Dina Waters, Ben Shenkman, John Heder, Ivana Milicevic, Rosalind Chao
Director:
Mark Waters
Writers:
Peter Tolan, Leslie Dixon (based on Marc Levy’s novel If Only It Were True)
Distributor:
DreamWorks SKG
MPAA Rating:
PG-13 for some sexual content, partial nudity
Running time:
95 minutes

Script – 7
Performance – 7
Direction – 8

Cinematography – 7
Music/Sound– 7
Editing – 7
Production – 7

Total Score – 7.1 out of 10

After a string of stinkers in the romantic comedy department this year, Hollywood seems to be out of ideas. At first glance, JUST LIKE HEAVEN is just like yet another paranormal romance (CHANCES ARE, CITY OF ANGELS). Surprisingly, it delivers something a little fresh and a whole lot of fun.

Elizabeth Masterson (Witherspoon) is an ambitious San Francisco doctor with no personal life or friends. “Workaholic” won’t even do her justice. Her nosy sister Abby (Waters) tries very hard to set her up with every eligible bachelor in town. On her way to a blind date, Elizabeth loses control of her car and comes to a head-on collision with a truck…

David Abbott (Ruffalo) is a withdrawn loner who is looking for a nice apartment with a good couch. Eventually, he moves into Elizabeth’s quaint apartment, which is being sublet on a month-to-month basis. At first, everything seems fine, until David starts to encounter Elizabeth’s spirit. First she wants David to move out of “her” apartment, then she wants him to help her figure out who she was and what has happened to her. Then inevitably, they fall for each other, even though any romance between them seems impossible. But as they always say: love finds a way.

Witherspoon (VANITY FAIR) assumes the Meg Ryan-esque role with spunk. Her portrayal of Elizabeth is somewhat two-dimensional in the beginning – we never really get a sense of why a cute, young thing like her would be such a loner. However, as we warm up to her as a spirit, her character eventually comes to life (Ironic, isn’t it? Or is that intentional?) We get to see bits and pieces of Elizabeth behind that ambitious, control-freak exterior. She does a good job not making Elizabeth irritating. Ruffalo (COLLATERAL), in his full-on romantic lead role since 13 GOING ON 30, is fetching and charming in a slacker sort of way. He has a very funny scene, reminiscent of ALL OF ME, and a touching scene in which he recounts a heartbreaking tragedy.

The film works because Witherspoon and Ruffalo have great chemistry together. It helps, too, when the supporting cast is up to task. Logue (AMERICAN SPLENDOR) has a lot of fun as David’s gruff, womanizing psychiatrist friend. Waters (HAUNTED MANSION) plays ditzy well as Elizabeth’s loopy sister, and Heder (NAPOLEON DYNAMITE) is perfect (and typecast) as the dorky guy who can communicate with spirits.

Granted, JUST LIKE HEAVEN is nothing groundbreaking. In many ways, it’s a standard romantic comedy with an interesting paranormal twist. The characters are often two-dimensional and some of the things they do just make me want to roll my eyes and sigh. Certain things simply defy logic. But! It’s a romantic fantasy, so I’m willing to give it some leeway. The script, by Tolan (GUESS WHO) and Dixon (FREAKY FRIDAY) and based on Mark Levy’s novel, is brisk in pace and rich in humor. The ghostly encounters are really funny, thanks to sharp dialogue and clever delivery from the leads. The twist in the middle is unexpected and well-executed (and thanks to smart marketing and writing, nothing is revealed in advance).

Director Waters (MEAN GIRLS) excels in this type of lighthearted fluff. His storytelling is straightforward with not a frame wasted. Structurally, the film is clockwork, with every element in its right place. It’s light and it does the job – putting a smile on our faces. As long as we’re not looking for deeper meaning in life (there are some blatant Hollywood-style messages, of course), for those of us hopeless romantics, this could be a romantic comedy made in heaven.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose

© 2005 Ray Wong



Stars: Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Campbell Scott, Jennifer Carpenter, Colm Feore, Joshua Close
Director:
Scott Derrickson
Writers:
Paul Harris Boardman, Scott Derrickson (based on a true story)
Distributor:
Screen Gems
MPAA Rating:
PG-13 for thematic material including frightening sequences, disturbing images
Running time:
114 minutes

Script – 8
Performance – 8
Direction – 7

Cinematography – 8
Music/Sound– 7
Editing – 8
Production – 7

Total Score – 7.6 out of 10

Billed as horror/thriller, THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE is really a courtroom drama at its core. It’s a case of faith, and whether or not you believe in angels and demons, this film asks a lot of good questions: “What exactly do we believe?”

Fresh off from winning a murder case, Erin Bruner (Linney) is an ambitious lawyer, a rising star in her firm, hungry for opportunities and eager to become partner. Her publicity leads her to the case of Emily Rose. The Diocese wants her to defend Father Moore (Wilkinson), a parishioner accused of homicidal negligence, responsible for the death of 19-year-old Emily Rose (Carpenter).

Father Moore is not afraid to go to jail and he will not accept a plea bargain. He just wants the world to hear Emily’s story. Erin, on the other hand, is determined to win, but she has doubts. An agnostic herself, she is skeptical at best about demons and exorcism, and the medical case against Father Moore is very strong. Prosecutor Ethan Thomas (Scott) is himself a God-loving man, and he’s determined to prove Moore’s guilt.

As the trial proceeds, Erin feels a grave presence surrounding her, and heaviness in her conscience. Father Moore warns her of dark forces that are set to attack her. She decides to forge ahead and, despite the Diocese’s objection and the risk of losing her job, allow Father Moore to testify and tell Emily’s horrific story.

Linney (KINSEY) is in top form. She’s beautiful, smart, and genuine. She looks and acts the part and her range of emotions is very impressive. Her characterization is one reason why the film works so well, because we have a worthy heroine to root for. Wilkinson (BATMAN BEGINS) is equally impressive as Father Moore. His quiet resolution, concerns, and vulnerability give the character such depth and weight. Scott (DUMA) is good and effective as Thomas; however, the script and his characterization don’t allow us to know more about him. His character is somewhat two-dimensional. Carpenter (WHITE CHICKS) is fascinating and haunting as Emily Rose. Her angelic innocence is a stark contrast to her traumatized, tortured, possessed self. Her scenes are riveting. The rest of the cast does a fine job as well, even though their roles are minor and somewhat two-dimensional as well.

Writer-director Derrickson (HELLRAISER) has crafted a unique genre of horror/thriller with this film. A courtroom drama at the core, EMILY ROSE has its horrific, intense moments. It also has an overpowering religious theme. While the film doesn’t endorse one view or another, it does leave you thinking about faith. As Erin said: “Are there angels and demons? I don’t know. But there’s the possibility.” In a way, Derrickson has grown up from his deep horror root and given us something more adult and thought-provoking.

The script is generally tight and the dialogue smooth. Based on a true story, the plot has certain authenticity to it, even though the subject matter is improbable. Thus lies the central dilemma – what do we believe? Science and facts, or the supernatural and faith? The story unfolds both in real-time and flashback, and the structure is very effective. Special effects are kept to the minimal, serving the story appropriately without overpowering the film. It would have been nice to see more interaction between Bruner and Thomas, to get a fuller point of view from both sides. As it is, the film is clearly sympathetic of Father Moore’s side of the story. That gives the film a slight bias, perhaps even spiritual and religious in nature. That might not bode well with those who do not subscribe to the Christian faith, or any faith at all.

However, as a movie, EMILY ROSE is a fine production, with strong storytelling, themes and central characters. It has drama, horror and thrills, all done with great balance. Derrickson has stated that this may be the first courtroom horror film ever. Whether it’s true or not, it doesn’t matter. What matters is, this is one of the best horror-dramas of the year. If this movie does well in the box office (I suspect that it would), it may take an act of exorcism to prevent filmmakers from making more in the near future.

A Sound of Thunder

© 2005 Ray Wong





Stars: Edward Burns, Ben Kingsley, Catherine McCormack, Jemima Rooper, Wilfried Hochholdinger, August Zirner, Corey Johnson
Director: Peter Hyams
Writers: Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, Gregory Poirier (based on a Ray Bradbury’s short)
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, partial nudity and language
Running Time: 103 minutes

Script – 4
Performance – 6
Direction – 5
Cinematography – 5
Music/Sound– 6
Editing – 7
Production – 6

Total – 5.6 out of 10

OK, let’s get it out of the way: A SOUND OF THUNDER is a “bad” movie. What you might have heard about this film is probably all true. But, in my opinion, it’s also the kind of bad movie that is often misunderstood. Like GODZILLA or the SWAMP THING, a Ray Bradbury’s story about time travel shouldn’t be mistaken for high art.

The year is 2055. Charles Hatton (Kingsley) is an entrepreneur who, through the advance time-traveling technologies he acquired, is building his money-making empire by offering clients prehistoric safari hunting trips. Dr. Travis Ryer (Burns) is his top scientist and safari tour guide (HR budget must be tight). During the “highly-controlled” excursions, clients are instructed to never step off the path and change anything in their surroundings. Their nitrogen-guns can only be fired after Ryer’s first shot. The animal (in this case, a T. rex-like dinosaur) must be destroyed at the last seconds of its life, so its death won’t inadvertently change history. They must observe the three rules: 1) never change anything; 2) never leave anything behind; and 3) never take anything back.

Of course, accident happens, and on one of their trips, a client does inadvertently change something in the past. Something has altered the chain of evolution. Soon, ripples of “time waves” hit the earth and new species of plants and animals begin to appear and terrorize the world. Ryer and his team, with the help of Dr. Sonia Rand (McCormack), must find a way to find out what happened, go back in time and set things right before mankind is changed forever.

As the hero-scientist, Burns (ASH WEDNESDAY) is the unlikely choice for the role. It’s not just that he’s a pretty boy -- one could easily imagine someone like Matthew McConaughey as Travis Ryer. Burns, better known for his urban comedy-dramas, is wooden and unconvincing as the brainy-yet-macho hero. Burns’s performance is even more expressionless than Keanu Reeve’s. Kingsley (SUSPECT ZERO), on the other hand, manages to get the most out of his 2-dimensional role as the greedy, soulless boss. I have to wonder, though, besides money, what drives someone like Kingsley to play such a character in such a production?

The rest of the cast, mostly comprised of TV actors, is actually not bad. McCormack (SPY GAME) is at least interesting as the smart physicist-heroine. She’s the brain behind Ryer’s brawn. And she’s pleasant to look at. Rooper (SNAP SHOT) plays Jenny with a nice dash of sweetness. German actor Hochholdinger (SPEER UN ER), Zirner (SPEER UN ER) and Johnson (HELLBOY) are adequate in their minor supportive roles.

Now the bad parts. For a film with a reported $80 million budget, the special effects are surprisingly cheesy. One speculation is that the advance screenings went so badly that the studio simply dropped the ball and cut their losses. I mean, the creatures look like bad Ray Harryhausen imitations, and what’s with the bad green screen rear-projection/treadmill shots on the streets of a futuristic Chicago? The cityscape looks like bad matte paintings done in the 60s. The Jurassic safari looks like a huge soundstage left over from ONE MILLION YEARS B.C.. How can a big budget movie with stars like Ben Kingsley and a pro like Peter Hyams be so consistently bad?

So, I have a theory. It was deliberate. Director Hyams (THE MUSKETEERS) must be trying to re-create the cheesy look and feel of yesterday’s B-movies. From the shoot-from-the-hip writing (by SAHARA scribes Donnelly and Oppenheimer) to the clich├ęd story and dialogue to the cheesy FXs. To be fair, I think they’re actually very endearing. By now, we’ve heard the “butterfly effect” enough that Bradury’s original tale sounds trite and silly. But we have to agree: it was, and still is, an intriguing idea -- how something as small as a butterfly can change the future. Granted, there are enough plot holes and logic flaws to baffle the mind, but I sort of expected that. I have yet to find a time-traveling story that doesn’t require a high dose of suspension of disbelief. The truth is, I was thoroughly entertained. It’s predictable but fun. Still, one thing leaves me baffled: What the heck does the title, A SOUND OF THUNDER, mean?