Find Me Guilty

© 2006 Ray Wong


Director Sidney Lumet’s courtroom dramas (12 Angry Men, The Verdict) are always intense and thought-provoking. Based on a true story, Find Me Guilty offers an interesting commentary on our legal system from the point of view of a character that is both intimate with and ignorant of it.

Giacomo “Fat Jack” DiNorscio (Diesel) is a crook: drug dealing, money laundering, pimping… you name it. Soon after he recovers from being shot by his cousin, Tony (Esparza), Jackie is convicted of a narcotic charge. He’s serving a 30-year sentence when prosecutor Sean Kierney (Roache) offers him a deal. You see, Tony squealed, and for the first time Kierney has a chance to bring the Lucchese crime family down on a RICO (Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) indictment. If Jackie agrees to cooperates with the government and testify, he could get out of jail without six or seven years. Jackie, loyal and stubborn, refuses to rat on his friends and family, and the case goes on to become the longest organized crime trial in history.

FMG1Fed up with his attorney, Jackie decides to defend himself in court, much against the objection of the Lucchese family and their lawyers, including Ben Klandis (Dinklage). Jackie faces scrutiny and ridicule from all sides, including the family he’s trying to protect. But he doesn’t give up. He tells the jury that he’s no gangster, but a “gagster,” and proceeds to charm the pants off of everyone, even Judge Finestein (Silver) with his genuine personality.

Action star and sex symbol Diesel (The Pacifier) does a surprising dramatic turn as Jackie D. With makeup and costumes, Diesel looks 20 years older (and rather ridiculous with thinning blond hair) and 30 pounds chunkier than his normal buff self. But his dramatic chops are even more impressive. His portrayal of the uneducated but street-smart “gagster” carries the film. Even though we know he is a crook and he’s protecting a true crime family, we admire his loyalty and resolve, and we actually root for him. Jackie D. has personality to spare, and the bigger-than-life Diesel pulls off a very respectable performance.

But Diesel has help. Dinklage (Fortunes) manages to steal the film from him. Dinklage is articulate, empathetic and authoritative as lead defense lawyer Ben Klandis. His command of the screen is impressive. Silver (Red Mercury) is also wonderful as the just and paternal Judge Finestein. Roache (Twelve and Holding) is intense and spot on as the uptight prosecutor who would stop at nothing to win.

FMG3Rocco (Crazylove) is effective as the cantankerous Uncle Nick Calabrese (the mob boss). His distrust and loathing toward Jackie drive a wedge between Jackie and the family. Sciorra (Twelve and Holding) has a brief but memorable scene with Diesel as Jackie’s estranged wife, Bella. Their scene together speaks volume about the man Jackie is and the change he’s undergoing.

Veteran director Lumet is the go-to guy when it comes to courtroom drama, and Find Me Guilty does not disappoint. Lumet’s vision gives us a strong but down-to-earth feel, to keep us in the personal drama and dynamics without sidetracking us with extraneous details. The pacing is just right.

FMG4The script by Lumet, Mancini and McCrea is well-paced and entertaining, exploring the complex relationships between Jackie and the various relationships in his life. Using real testimonies from the trial as dialogue, they give the story certain sense of authenticity. Most impressive is the characterization of Jackie. The theme of loyalty and integrity really drives home, and we end up rooting for the crooks instead of the “good guys.” The dialogue is often explosive and humorous, and the action to the point. The huge cast of characters can be confusing sometimes and the various subplots can be distracting.

While it’s not really a movie that teaches anything profound, the story and the characters are very entertaining. I thoroughly enjoy the film, and I won’t feel a bit guilty about that.

Vin Diesel, Ron Silver, Linus Roache, Peter Dinklage, Alex Rocco, Annabella Sciorra, Raul Esparza
Director: Sidney Lumet
Writers: Sidney Lumet, T.J. Mancini, Robert J. McCrea
Distributor: Freestyle
MPAA Rating: R for language and violence
Running Time: 125 minutes

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

Total – 7.4 out of 10

Inside Man

© 2006 Ray Wong


Director Spike Lee is best known for his edgy, antsy films about African-Americans. Inside Man must be his most mainstream, commercial work to date, and the result is admirable.

Dalton Russell (Owen) has concocted what he considers the perfect bank robbery. His well executed plan starts off with him and his accomplices posing as painters. Within minutes, Russell has complete control of the bank, holding about fifty people, bank employees and customers alike, hostage. Detective Keith Frazier (Washington) and his partner Bill Mitchell (Ejiofor) are entrusted with the responsibility as hostage negotiators. Frazier tries to figure out what Russell really wants and gain an upper hand.

IM1Meanwhile, the bank’s founder, Arthur Case (Plummer) hires top negotiator Madeline White (Foster) to take care of some business at the bank branch. Apparently, Case has something super secret in his safe deposit box and he would like to keep that a secret. White gladly takes the job (for an exorbitant fee, of course) without caring what is inside the box. The cat-and-mouse game continues as Russell, Frazier, and White try to outsmart one another. In time, Frazier realizes that the crime isn’t what it seems.

IM2Washington (The Manchurian Candidate) is charismatic, cocky, but also vulnerable as Frazier. He gives an interesting and down-to-earth performance of a man who is sometimes irritatingly full of himself. Owen (Derailed) is focused as the calm, smart and calculated heist master. His demeanor makes us believe that his character truly believes that he has the perfect plan. Foster (Flightplan) plays against type as the ruthless business woman that even the mayor affectionately calls her a “magnificent c---.” She does a good job.

Plummer (The New World) is stoic and meek as the rich man with a past. Somehow, he gains our sympathy even though instinctively we know we shouldn’t. Dafoe (American Dreamz) is solid as NYPD Captain John Darius, whose calmness and strong command are in direct contrast to Frazier’s confusion. Ejiofor (Serenity) is an interesting sidekick to Washington, but his character doesn’t have much depth, or anything at stake, to really make us care about him.

IM4First-time screenwriter Gewirtz’s script is taut and smart. Sure, he gives a lot away, and those who are smart enough would have guessed the plot twists and the ending, but Gewirtz does his best keeping us guessing, keeping his plot one step ahead of the audience. The dialogue sounds real, and there is enough humor to give the story a light-hearted feel (though not comedic like Ocean Eleven). There are times when the action and plot become heavy-handed, and there are certain holes in the plot that one might argue about their plausibility. But Gewirtz’s script is fast-paced enough that audience is too busy figuring out if Dalton Russell is really going to pull it off, and what Frazier will do.

IM5Lee (25th Hour) is a deft and smooth director. This film seems like a departure from his other films, but he pulls off some good work, here. Lee manages to keep the pace quick and the subplots clear and untangled. Again, through the direction and editing, he gives a lot away and a smart audience would be able to figure things out. However, that’s not the point. Lee doesn’t set out to fool the audience – he is on our side; he wants us to get the story. And that is very interesting and admirable for a director making a thriller like this. Even the title hints at the denouement but the filmmakers still keep you guessing. Inside Man is smart, effective, and it keeps us entertained to the end.

Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Director: Spike Lee
Writer: Russell Gewirtz
Distributor: Universal
MPAA Rating: R for language and violence
Running Time: 129 minutes

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

Total – 7.8 out of 10

V for Vendetta

© 2006 Ray wong


The Wachowski brothers have long had a love affair with graphic novels and their characters. Like their Matrix trilogy and based on Allan Moore’s graphic novel, V for Vendetta is also a cautionary parable of an Orwellian world that is both frightening and fascinating.

The year is 2020 and WWIII has come and gone. America has been reduced to a wasteland, and a group of insurgents in Britain has risen up, taken over, and started a new and “better” government with a new Chancellor, Sutler (Hurt) and his right-hand man Creedy (Pigott-Smith). In this totalitarian country, citizens are under severe surveillance, curfew and strict laws. The government is corrupt beyond reproach. The people fear the government, and they become apathetic over time, existing merely for the sake of being “protected” from the horror of “wars.”

V2Timid and mild-mannered Evey (Portman) works for the government-run broadcast system, which often twists the facts and lies to portray the government in specific, positive light. One night, Evey’s saved from being raped by corrupt cops, by a mysterious man wearing a Guy Fawkes mask who calls himself “V,” for Vendetta. Even though she doesn’t believe in the terrorist tactics and violence, V stirs something deep inside Evey, and she reluctantly becomes his protégé and ally. In the course of one year, V diligently plans to make a statement by blowing up the Parliament, while eluding the pursuit led by police chief Finch (Rhea) and his assistant (Graves).

V3Portman (Closer) is wonderful as Evey, a woman with a past who slowly awakens to her purpose and destiny. She shows great vulnerability as well as resolution. Her transformation is riveting and she gives a solid, affecting performance. Weaving (Little Fish) has an imposing presence and a soft-spoken voice; however, acting mostly in costumes and behind masks, Weaving never gets to show his real acting chops. He and Portman do share some wonderful screen time together, and the romance between their characters have a creepy, erotic feel to it.

Hurt (The Skeleton Key) has nothing to do but act mad and nasty as Chancellor Sutler. Pigott-Smith (Alexendar) is equally snide and slimy with only a few expressions to spare. Rhea (Tara Road) does a better job as the sympathetic chief, and Graves (Rag Tale) is amiable as his assistant, Dominic. Allam (A Cock and Bull Story) has a great time playing the Rush Limbaugh-like character, Porthero. Fry (A Cock and Bull Story) is wonderful as Evey’s boss and TV celebrity Deitrich, who has a few costly secrets of his own.

V4First-time director (and the Wachowskis’ protégé) McTeigue (Matrix Revolutions – assistant director) gives us a unique vision that is obviously dictated by the original material. His pacing is often good, and the 132 minutes zip past quickly with lots of action, explosions, and sweeping narrative. The production is neither groundbreaking nor boring.

The script by the Wachowski brothers (Matrix) follows the original graphic novel by Moore (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) closely. The brothers always have a flair for highly philosophical and political fantasies, and V for Vendetta fits them perfectly. I find the political messages rather abrasive and obvious, but also relevant and timely. One doesn’t have to look deep to see references to our current affairs. The writers also pose some interesting and potentially controversial questions: Is terrorism necessary during desperate times? Is vengeance by ways of violence right or wrong toward certain ideologies, no matter how noble? What does it take to make people step out of their apathy and start thinking and acting?

V5The story itself gets a little convoluted in the middle, with a lot of back stories and revelations of who the characters are and how they came to be, through a lot of telling instead of showing. The revelations, I believe, slow down the film. The actual plot is actually rather thin. The story also shows shadows of others, including Batman, Twelve Monkeys, Brazil, Bladerunner, etc.; and the relationship between V and Evey screams Phantom of the Opera. The dialogue is often overwrought and poetic, exactly the kind that would make this film a cult classic. With that in mind, I give it a C, for Cult.

Stars: Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rhea, Stephen Fry, John Hurt, Tim Pigott-Smith, Rupert Graves, Roger Allam
Director: James McTeigue
Writers: Andy and Larry Wachowski (based on graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Llyod)
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: R for language and violence
Running Time: 132 minutes

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

Total – 7.1 out of 10

Failure to Launch

© 2006 Ray Wong


With a cutesy premise that subtly suggests misandry, Failure to Launch is unmistakably a romantic comedy set out to lure women over 30 and their unsuspecting mates-in-training.

Trip (McConaughey) is a 35-year-old bachelor still living with his parents, Al (Bradshaw) and Sue (Bates). A modern-day Peter Pan who refuses to grow up, Trip plays hard with his buddies Ace (Bartha) and Demo (Cooper) – but nothing sinister or naughty, mostly normal, albeit juvenile, activities such as rock-climbing, surfing, video game-playing, and pizza-eating. Trip is also a serial womanizer, and when a woman shows any signs of attachment, he promptly takes her to “meet the parents,” revealing his status as the loser who still lives with his parents, thus thwarting any potential commitment issues.

Enters Paula (Parker), a professional “motivator” whom Al and Sue hire to help Trip move out of their house. According to Paula’s step-by-step program, she plans to become Trip’s girlfriend and eventually convinces him that he should grow up and move on. All goes well until Paula starts to fall for Trip.

f2McConaughey (Two for the Money) once again is the tanned and taut romantic lead who has serious issues with commitment. His portrayal of the character is smarmy at times, and sincere at others. But over all, McConaughey phones in a cookie-cutter performance. Fresh off her respectable performance as a frigid woman in The Family Stone, Parker reprises her Carrie Bradshaw-like role as the sexy but lovelorn Paula. She’s equally tanned and taut as McConaughey, and just as charming. The problem is that we really don’t know much about these two characters, and their performances do not rise above the material. Worse, they share little chemistry together as a couple.

Bradshaw (Robots) is cuddly and fun as Trip’s dad, Al, and he is brave enough to do a nude scene (albeit unsightly, just for laughs). Bates (Rumor Has It) gets to keep her clothes on, but her homely portrayal of mama Sue lacks her usual bite and wit. Bartha (National Treasure) plays to his strength as Trip’s geeky pal Ace, and Cooper (Wedding Crashers) is charming and goofy as pal Demo, the last of the trio. Quirky and lovely Deschanel (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) is the standout here as Paula’s roommate and friend, Kit.

f3Beside the lack of chemistry between the romantic leads, the casting is rather odd. Trip is at least 10 years older than Ace or Demo, so one wonders how they become such close friends. Parker also is older than McConaughey, making the coupling a little uncomfortable. Then there is Kit, so much younger than Parker and yet they are supposed to be great friends (which is never explained). Odd as it is, the ensemble does provide much energy to the production.

With four movies to his credit, director Dey (Shanghai Noon) is hardly a novice, but his direction lacks certain finesse. The editing needs work, especially toward the end, when the constant cross-cutting significantly dampens the plot. There are scenes that seem extraneous. There are some funny moments, but on the whole, opportunities are mostly wasted.

Not to mention the script, by TV writers Astle (Tracy Morgan Show) and Ember (Titus), is paper-thin. The dialogue is trite and forced. The plot is spotty and illogical, and the motivation of the characters murky and unconvincing. For example, shouldn’t Paula know everything about Trip after she takes the job? Why the “secret” at the end? That doesn’t make sense.

f4Worse, for a romantic comedy, the romance doesn’t work; it’s not convincing at all, but the audience is forced to believe that it is. The subplot involving Ace and Kit is cute, but it distracts from the main story. The climatic scene is corny and silly. I do, however, like the ending because it doesn’t blatantly spell out “happily ever after” – there is a chance that the Paula and Trip won’t work out, but it’s not really the point. I think if the writers had focused more on that aspect of the story, the result might have been much more satisfying. As it is, the film fails to… well, it simply fails.

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Bates, Terry Bradshaw, Justin Bartha, Bradley Cooper, Zooey Deschanel
Director: Tom Dey
Writers: Tom J. Astle, Matt Ember
Distributor: Paramount
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, alcohol, partial nudity and language
Running Time: 97 minutes

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

Total – 6.2 out of 10


© 2006 Ray Wong

The title Transamerica has double meanings. The film is essentially a buddy road trip. It is also about a transsexual named Bree. The result is an interesting mix of characters study and absurd plot twists.

Bree Osbourne (Huffman) is a pre-operative male-to-female transsexual who is about to get her gender reassignment operation in a week. Unexpectedly, she learns that she has a 17 year old son, Toby (Zegers), the result of a drunken night with a college girlfriend. Worse, Toby is a street hustler and a junkie. Bree would have nothing to do with him; however, her therapist, Margaret (Pena), won’t sign the consent form unless Bree deals with the situation. Bree flies to New York to bail Toby out, then decides to embark on a cross-country trip back to Los Angeles with Toby. The story unfolds as Bree and Toby get to know each other, while they both have secrets they would never want the other person to know.

Huffman (Desperate Housewives) is the heart and soul of the film. Her performance as a transsexual is brilliant. With the help of makeup that turns the sexy actress homely and mannish, she transforms herself into a man who is not at all comfortable in her own skin (or with a penis). Huffman makes us believe in the character with her wit, humor and humanity. She’s inspirationa. Zegers (The Hollow) is also excellent as Toby. He shows good control of his character’s external cockiness and confidence as well as his internal insecurity, vulnerability and loneliness. The talented young actor holds his own just fine against Huffman’s beautiful performance. They share great on-scream chemistry.

The supporting cast is good, too. Flanagan (Mad About Dog) turns a caricature into an interesting character as Bree’s religious mother. Young (Land of Plenty) is amiable as her husband Murray. Preston (The Stepford Wives) is loopy as Bree’s sister Sydney. Greene (The Green Mile) is solid as Calvin, a kind American Indian who has the eye for Bree. Pena (The Incredibles) is lovely as Bree’s therapist.

The script by writer-director Tucker (The Mountain King) is uneven. Part of the story and the script is very funny and heart-warming, but part of it is rather clichéd and forced. The plot doesn’t flow well in places, and it feels like the characters are doing what they’re told (by the writer) – it lacks certain authenticity. However, Tucker has succeeded in giving us some deep and emotionally three-dimensional characters, especially Bree and Toby. Their relationship gels and you feel for them and want good things to happen to them, even though they both screw up badly. Tucker’s dialogue is often witty and insightful, but can be corny occasionally.

Tucker’s raw skills as a director lends a certain genuine charm to the film. The plain, grainy cinematography and the abrupt editing seem unrefined at times, but they seem to fit the story. Transamerica is an odd story about two outsiders who find each other. While we might not identify with the central characters and their choices, we come to care about them through Huffman’s outstanding performance as well as Zeger’s. While it won’t transform America, this little film deserves notice, and Huffman deserves her Oscar nomination (and maybe even a win).

Stars: Felicity Huffman, Kevin Zegers, Fionnula Flanagan, Elizabeth Pena, Graham Greene, Burt Young, Carrie Preston
Director: Duncan Tucker
Writer: Duncan Tucker
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, nudity, language and drug use
Running Time: 103 minutes

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

Total – 7.2 out of 10