A Good Woman

© 2006 Ray Wong



Oscar Wilde was known for his clever and witty plays. MRS. WINDERMERE’S FAN is no exception, and A GOOD WOMAN, is a worthy theatrical adaptation.

It is the 1930s. Mrs. Erlynne (Hunt) is an American seductress who lives lavishly through the many rich and powerful men in New York. The wives soon catch on, and the infamous Mrs. Erlynne is battered with bad reputations and debts. She turns her attention to a rich, young American couple, the Windermeres. She treks all the way to the coast of Italy, where the young couple currently resides, and is determined to start anew using her charm and sensuality.

Within a short time, she befriends the dashing Robert Windermere (Umbers), who is at once taken by her mature sophistication. Robert starts to have secret meetings with Mrs. Erlynne and pays her large sums of money behind his wife’s back. Meanwhile, Meg Windermere (Johansson) meets handsome Lord Darlington (Moore), the confirmed bachelor who immediately falls under the spell of beautiful and innocent Meg. Lord Darlington, knowing Robert Windermere’s secret, aggressively pursues Meg, but she is totally in love with her husband and refuses to oblige. Meanwhile, Tuppy (Wilkinson) is drawn to Mrs. Erlynne, a woman so unlike all the women he has ever met (or divorced). The women in town start to gossip, thinking they know more than they actually do. Soon Mrs. Erlynne’s past catches up with her, and Meg begins to suspect her husband is having an affair with Mrs. Erlynne, whose secret is bigger and deeper than Meg realizes.


Hunt (EMPIRE FALLS) is in great form here, looking older but very sexy. She has a difficult job of playing a woman who is not entirely sympathetic and trustworthy, even though the character redeems herself at the end. Hunt’s luminous performance is both subtle and showy at the same time. Johansson (MATCH POINT) again plays a young woman caught between lies and deceits around her. She does a good job, though it’s far from being her best performance.


Wilkinson (BATMAN BEGINS) is warm and charming as the beguiling Tuppy, a man who knows what he wants and goes for it. Wilkinson’s seasoned performance is remarkable. Umbers (COLOUR ME KUBRICK) does a fine job as the dashing Robert Windermere with a secret. Moore (BRIGHT YOUNG THING) plays the not-so-subtle Lord Darlington with charm and a touch of sliminess.

The script by Himelstein (POWER OF ATTORNEY) is a worthy adaptation of Wilde’s play. It is a feast of words, wit and humor. The story’s plot and structure are very clever, perhaps a little too clever at times. The audience is led to believe certain things, then it’s revealed later that we’ve all thought wrong. It’s easy to feel manipulated; at the same time, it’s enthralling to see the mystery unveiled, and we can’t help but marvel at Wilde’s cleverness. Wilde’s story, as well as Himelstein’s script, is also a fascinating study of the social mores of the time. Still, the story has its drawback: its lack of real intimacy and deep emotions. The acting, however, helps bring the characters to life and make us care about them despite their superficiality.


Barker’s (TO KILL A KING) deft direction leaves us with a lavish production of gorgeous landscapes and cinematography, beautiful costumes and luxurious sets. He also manages to navigate the intricate web of relationships, characters, and clever plot without bogging us down with inane and convoluted details. If the good-looking film still sounds and feels like a play, it’s a good thing. It’s a shame that, so far, this good film goes largely unnoticed even with its Oscar-caliber performances and production values.

Stars: Helen Hunt, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Wilkinson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Mark Umbers, Milena Vukotic, Roger Hammond
Director: Mark Barker
Writers: Howard Himelstein (based on play, Mrs. Windermere’s Fan, by Oscar Wilde)
Distributor: Lions Gate
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic material, sensuality, language
Running Time: 93 minutes


RATINGS:

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

Total – 7.3 out of 10

Freedomland

© 2006 Ray Wong

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Films that explore volatile racial tension seem to be a rage now. Last year’s CRASH was a tour-de-force ensemble gem. FREEDOMLAND, on the other hand, is a self-indulging mess.

When a woman shows up dazed and confused with her bloody hands at the emergency room in Dempsey, NJ, detective Lorenzo Council (Jackson) is called in to investigate. It turns out the woman, Brenda Martin (Moore), has just been carjacked and her son was in the car. She indicates the suspect as an African-American man living in the Armstrong housing project. The allegation and the perceived bias over a “missing white child” send the community into a frenzy. Tempers flare. The already-taut tension between the police and the residents at Armstrong is coming to a boil. The black community looks up to Lorenzo to avert a riot, but his hands are tied.

fl2Lorenzo’s experience tells him that Brenda has not told the whole truth, that she is hiding something. The more he questions Brenda, the more evasive she becomes. To make matters worse, her brother, Danny (Eldard) is a detective from another precinct, and he’s determined to turn Armstrong upside down to find the culprit and his nephew, and there’s nothing Lorenzo can do to stop it. Lorenzo asks for help from Karen (Falco) and her group of concerned mothers who have worked over the last decade finding missing children in the neighborhood. Together, they attempt to find out what really happened.



fl3Jackson (STAR WARS) is solid as Lorenzo, a man who is filled with regrets and his own demons. Jackson’s slightly over-the-top performance does give the character an edge and some complexity. However, Moore (THE FORGOTTEN) has turned her portrayal of the disturbed Brenda into a caricature. Her usual subtlety and nuance are amiss here. Her crying, screaming, and evasion become tiresome and grating very quickly. It’s sad to see her being typecast in these tormented, weeping mother roles.



Eldard (HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG) turns in a two-dimensional, boring performance as Brenda’s hot-headed detective brother. His character is so gratuitous that I actually feel sorry for him. Falco (THE QUIET), on the other hand, gives us one of the best performances in the film as a quiet, resolute, yet grieving mother. She steals every scene she’s in. Forsythe (THE DEVIL’S REJECTS) doesn’t have much to do as Lorenzo’s partner, but Ellis (PERCEPTION) is effective as the compassionate Felicia, one of Brenda’s friends at Armstrong.

fl4One would expect writer Price (CLOCKER) could turn his own emotionally-charged novel into a decent, if not extraordinary, screenplay. Unfortunately, what Price has here is a big mess. The plot goes around and about what Brenda Martin is hiding and how the tension at Armstrong keeps rising, but everything simply feels superficial and forced. It’s as if Price is telling himself throughout the whole process: “I want people to scream at each other, here and now. How about here, more racial tension? Yes.” As the audience, we just don’t buy it. The characters are mostly without depth. The dialogue is forced as well. Even Lorenzo becomes a clich├ęd character eventually. The only well-developed character seems to be Falco’s Karen, whose compassion, pain and resolution feel very genuine and appropriate.

fl5Even at a long running time of 113 minutes, the plot feels thin and lack of suspense. Right at the outset, we know Brenda Martin is lying and we know where the story is heading. At the end, I keep scratching my head, wondering: Why? What are the motivations behind the whole charade? Is it simply that Brenda Martin is screwed up and crazy? The whole thing doesn’t make sense and it falls apart before we hit hour one; then it just goes further downhill. Roth’s (CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS) inept, heavy-handed, and manipulative direction doesn’t help either. The whole film has that air of self-importance – even the title tries too hard. And one last thing: Let us be free of this kind of atrocity in the future.

Stars:
Samuel L. Jackson, Julianne Moore, Edie Falco, Ron Eldard, William Forsythe, Aunjanue Ellis, Anthony Mackie
Director:
Joe Roth
Writer:
Richard Price (adapted from his novel)
Distributor:
Sony Pictures
MPAA Rating:
R for language and violent content
Running time:
113 minutes

Script – 4
Performance – 6
Direction – 4

Cinematography – 5
Music/Sound– 5
Editing – 6
Production – 6


Total Score – 4.8 out of 1
0

Firewall

© 2006 Ray Wong

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Is it summer yet? FIREWALL
, a run-of-the-mill thriller starring Harrison Ford on AIR FORCE ONE repeat would have been an okay popcorn flick for July. Unfortunately, timing is everything.

fw2Jack Stanfield (Ford) is the VP of Security at a prominent bank in Seattle. He has a beautiful home architected by his supportive and loving wife Beth (Madsen). They have a young son Andy (Bennett) and a rebellious teenage daughter Sarah (Schroeder). Jack goes to work one day and discovers that someone has stolen his identity and racked up $95,000 of gambling debt. He chalks it up as a minor irritation but doesn’t pay attention to it. When he meets a client named Bill Cox (Bettany) for a business dinner, he has no idea that his life is going to change.

Cox turns out to be a bank robber of the digital age. With the help of his minions, he holds Jack’s family hostage and forces Jack to help him break into the bank’s computer system and transfer $100 million to his offshore accounts. Jack resists and Cox threatens to kill his family. Reluctantly, Jack carries out the operation, only to finds that Cox has other plans for him and his family…

fw3Ford hasn’t done much after HOLLYWOOD HOMICIDE, the 2003 stinker with Josh Hartnett. Here, Ford cruises his way through the film – he could probably play Jack Stanfield with his eyes closed. He seems content to be doing this for money. Madsen (SIDEWAYS) also wastes her talent in this thriller. Her character has no depth and she’s reduced to playing the helpless mother/wife. The children are chess pieces – their personalities are superficial and it’s hard to care about them. Bettany (WINBELDON) also is wasted. His performance is dispassionately cold and monotonous. The supporting cast including Patrick (WALK THE LINE), Forster (BOUNTY HUNTER), Arkin (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE) and Rajskub (LEGALLY BLONDE 2) don’t have much to do, but they serve the plot as needed.

fw4In fact, that’s one of the big problems with the film. None of the characters have depth. They are exact cardboard cutouts from hundreds of thrillers we’ve seen before. The story and the plot are cookie-cutter material as well. The whole production has that stale, been-there-done-that feel to it. The premise is interesting enough, but the execution is lackluster at best, ridiculous at worse. Anytime we have a thriller that deals with technologies, the result seems to be laughable. The way they break into the bank sounds interesting at first, but totally implausible on second thought. The breakneck pace helps a little, to stop us from asking too many logical questions, but the repetitive actions and consequences become tiresome quickly. The plot takes a more interesting turn two-third in, when Jack realizes the robbery is the least of his problem. However, by then, the audience’s patience has already worn thin.

fw5The script by Forte (SAY I DO) just isn’t very credible. It looks and feels like a thriller, but the plot twists are forced, and they seem to be taken out from a “How to write a thriller” guidebook. Loncraine’s (WIMBLEDON) direction is workmanlike, by-the-book. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just that, with its predictable plot and two-dimensional characters, FIREWALL is so uninspiring as a thriller that it’s a wonder how a project like this took off and attracted stars like Ford and Bettany. If you ever find the secret, please lock it behind a firewall and never let it out again.


Stars:
Harrison Ford, Virginia Madsen, Paul Bettany, Alan Arkin, Robert Patrick, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Carly Schroeder, Jimmy Bennett
Director:
Richard Loncraine
Writer:
Joe Forte
Distributor:
Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating:
PG-13 for intense sequences of violence
Running time:
105 minutes

Script – 5
Performance – 6
Direction – 6

Cinematography – 6
Music/Sound– 6
Editing – 7
Production – 7

Total Score – 6.1 out of 10

Mrs. Henderson Presents

© 2006 Ray Wong

Last summer, I had the good fortune of seeing the Pageant of the Masters at Laguna Beach, and I learned that the idea of tableau vivants first started in Vaudeville to get away with nudity on stage. Therefore, I go to MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS with great interest because of that subject, and the film surprises me.

Newly widowed, Laura Henderson (Dench) inherits a lot of money but also a lot of free time on her hands. She is bored by the usual pastimes until she finds a little rundown theater in the West End of London. She impulsively buys the place and reopens it as the Windmill, a Vaudeville-like variety show theater. She hires an old pro, Vivian Van Damm (Hoskins), as the general manager. Their colorful, hot-headed personalities immediately clash, but their mutual respect for each other keeps them together.

When the theater fails to attract audiences, Mrs. Henderson has a peculiar idea of including nudity in the show. She consults Lord Cromer (Guest), who insists that nudity is against the law, unless it’s done in an artistic format and if the “models” do not move. That gives Mrs. Henderson a grand idea of creating nude, artistic tableaus on stage. At first, the cautious Van Damm objects to the idea, thinking it’s too risky. But when he finds his muse in the beautiful and feisty Maureen (Reilly), he’s sold. The theater becomes a hit, then later becomes a staple in war-torn London, until tragedy strikes…

Dench (PRIDE & PREJUICE) is delicious as the outspoken, lively Mrs. Henderson, worthy of her Oscar nomination (Best Actress). Her brassy yet nuanced performance reminds us of the reason why she is one of the best actor’s actors in the world. She brings the ever-optimistic, take-no-prisoner Mrs. Henderson to life and earns our sympathy and care. Behind that strong outer shell is a warm and vulnerable woman, and Dench does a remarkable job making us believe. Hoskins (SON OF THE MASK) is also remarkable as Van Damm, the equally bossy but soft counterpart to Mrs. Henderson. Hoskins, ever the quintessential character actor, doesn’t get a lot of chance playing leads, but here, he more than holds his own opposite Dench.

British Pop Idol Young plays Van Damm’s long time collaborator Bertie with innocence and charm. His singing voice is immaculate. Reilly (PRIDE & PREJUDICE) is effervescent as the strong-headed Maureen, one of the “nude” stars at the Windmill. Barlow (SWEET CHARITY) is affecting as Mrs. Henderson bubbly confidant, Lady Conway. Comedic writer-director-actor Guest (A MIGHTY WIND) does an impressive dramatic turn as the stiff Lord Cromer.

Based on “true events,” Sherman’s script has sharp dialogue, especially the bickering between Henderson and Van Damm. The events unfold naturally, and the entire story has a humorous tone. Director Frears (DIRTY PRETTY THINGS) has put together a nice production with an equal mix of barbs, humor, and heart. The costumes are gorgeous (also an Academy Award nomination). There are key scenes that are rather emotional. Then there are some quiet, effective scenes that remind me of the beautiful CINEMA PARADISO. The music is lovely and the singers, especially Young, do wonders with the musical numbers.

What is a film about Vaudeville tableaus without nudity? The women are definitely eye candy, what with their beautiful bodies and faces. Yet, the nudity is only secondary in the film, nothing gratuitous. The story and the characters are the focus. Some parts of the film do drag, and other parts border on melodramatic. But over all, I find the film entirely enjoyable and touching, and the performance wonderful by all the leads. Mr. Frears has presented us a little gem of a film about a woman who is not only larger than life, but is full of life herself.

Stars:
Judi Dench, Bob Hoskins, Will Young, Kelly Reilly, Thelma Barlow, Christopher Guest
Director:
Stephen Frears
Writers:
David Rose, Kathy Rose, Martin Sherman
Distributor:
The Weinstein Company
MPAA Rating:
R for nudity, language
Running time:
103 minutes

Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 7

Cinematography – 8
Music/Sound– 9
Editing – 7
Production – 8

Total Score – 7.8 out of 10