Running with Scissors

© 2006 Ray Wong


Adapting a memoir is always a tricky thing, because inherently it's easy to lose the author's original voice, which is usually what makes the memoir work, in addition to the fascinating life stories. In Ryan Murphy's Running with Scissors, adapted from Augusten Burroughs's best-selling memoir, the task is doubly tricky because of the materials: psychosis, drug use, homosexuality, pedophilia, among other things.

s1Augusten (Cross, as the teenager and Jack Kaeding as the six-year-old) is a sensitive child of an alcoholic father, Norman (Baldwin), and narcissistic mother, Deirdre (Bening). Deirdre dreams of being a famous writer, and she feels her life is being suffocated by her husband. After his parents split and his father walks out, Augusten's whole life hinges on Deirdre's swinging moods.

s2Deirdre starts to see Dr. Finch (Cox), a psychiatrist, regularly. The quirky doctor convinces Deirdre to live her own life, so she lets him adopt Augusten. Upset and detached at first, Augusten soon learns to take in his new bizarre family. He has a special bond with Finch's youngest daughter, Natalie (Wood), a misfit who dreams of going to college one day. Finch's eldest and "most favorite" daughter, Hope (Paltrow), is emotionally detached. Finch's wife, Agnes (Clayburgh), is clinically depressed. Then there is Finch's adopted son, Bookman (Fiennes), a gay schizophrenic who later carries on an open love affair with 14-year-old Augusten. As Deirdre's condition worsens, Augusten must finds his place in the world on his own while navigating through the mayhem in the Finch household.

s3Bening (Being Julia) has a knack for playing neurotic, severely-flawed women. Granted, a number of today's top actresses could have played Deirdre (Julianne Moore was one of the names tapped to play the role), Bening has made it her own. In addition to hysterics, Bening also underplays the role with subdued, possibly drug-induced detachment. The performance is certainly Oscar-baiting but I do think she deserves at least an nomination. Cross (Flags of Our Fathers) is not bad as Augusten, the hurt, confused, sensitive young protagonist, except that for those who have read the book, his portrayal has lost the edgy, rebellious barb of the real Augusten's angst. Cross's Augusten seems neutered.

s4Cox (Red Eye) is a prolific old pro, and with great skills he plays the shrink who may not at all be all he cracks up to be. It seems like lately we can't see enough of the actor, and he's not in any danger of overexposure. His character goes from stately authority to zany rambling without even a blink of an eye. Wood (The Upside of Anger) is fine as the rebellious, potty-mouth Natalie. She has a great rapport with Cross. Unfortunately, her character seems to be very sketchy in the film. Paltrow (Infamous) has a relatively small part in the film, and she channels the same character from The Royal Tenenbaums.

s5Fiennes (The Darwin Award) plays it safe with his portrayal of an unstable gay man in the 70s and, in the process, somehow loses the creepiness -- he is, after all, a pedophile. Baldwin (The Department) has a nice understated role as Norman, whose unhappiness with his familial situation is both sympathetic and pathetic. The standout is Clayburgh (Nip/Tuck) as Agnes, Dr. Finch's neglected, clinically depressed wife-slash-maid -- she's heartbreaking to watch.

s6Writer-director Murphy (Nip/Tuck) pieces the events in Burroughs's memoir adequately. In this script, the focus has shifted from Augusten and the Finches to Deirdre. On its own, it's not a bad move because Deirdre is like a train wreck, fascinating to watch. But in the process, Murphy has tremendously changed the tone of the story. Burroughs's book is very entertaining because of his sharp wit, dry humor, and intense observation and introspection. The film version is way too serious, with way too little humor to sustain the soap-operatic, episodic plot. It's surprising, given Murphy's penchant for oddball characters, bizarre situations, and wicked humor. The film simply drags, and without humor, these characters just come across as either dull or unsympathetic.

Murphy does preserve the intricate relationships between these characters and try to make us care about them. Certainly, he has the skills, and the editing is crisp. Unfortunately, he misses the mark on so many things. Losing Burroughs's unique, sharp voice is a big one. Using canned 70s music is another. He also fails to recreate that late 70s mood -- I just didn't feel like I was watching a story set in that time, despite the clothes and cars and set. There are so real, deep emotions, but at the end, the film feels dull, tedious, and depressing, losing the zany luster of the original material. There is nothing sharp about this pair of scissors -- it just doesn't cut it.

Stars: Annette Bening, Brian Cox, Joseph Fiennes, Evan Rachel Wood, Alec Baldwin, Joseph Cross, Jill Clayburgh, Gwyneth Paltrow
Director: Ryan Murphy
Writers: Ryan Murphy (based on Augusten Burroughs's memoir)
Distributor: TriStars
MPAA Rating: R fro strong language, sexuality, violence and substance abuse
Running Time: 116 minutes


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

Total – 6.5 out of 10

The Prestige

© 2006 Ray Wong


Every great magic trick has three acts: the pledge (something ordinary is presented), the turn (something extraordinary happens), and the prestige (the final, mystifying reappearance that sends the audience wild with imagination). Many great stories also have three acts, and The Prestige follows this structure to create a suspenseful, supernatural thriller-mystery with plenty of twists.

Rupert Angier (Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Bale) are two magicians in turn-of-the-century London. When one excels in his act, the other has to one up the other. When tragedy strikes, their friendly competition turns into bitter, vengeful rivalry.

p1Angier is the better showman, but Borden is the better magician. When Borden creates the "Transported Man" trick, Angier is green with envy. Worse, he can't figure out how Borden does it. The obsession of finding the answer and doing it better than Borden is driving Angier mad, putting a wedge between him and his manager, Cutter (Caine). Angier sends his assistant Olivia (Johansson) to spy on Borden, steals his secret journal, and demands the cypher by kidnapping Borden's brother.

p2Borden's answer sends Angier to America to find Nikola Tesla (Bowie) to build him a machine that would actually transport a person. While Angier spends his time waiting on Tesla and deciphering Borden's journal, Borden is enjoying tremendous success in London and carrying an affair with Olivia, betraying his wife's love. Soon, Angier returns from America and puts on 100 performances of his own "Transported Man," one that is bigger, better, and more amazing than Borden's. Desperate to know Angier's secret, Borden sneaks in and discovers the horrible truth, which may ultimately cost him his life.

p3All the leads do beautiful work in this intriguing mind-twister. As Angier, Jackman (Scoop) is dashing, charming, yet burdened by a sinister obsession that leads him down a horrible path. Equally impressive is Bale (Batman Returns) as Borden, Angier's archenemy. Of the two, Bale's role requires more depth, complexity and emotional distance, and he pulls it off nicely. Caine (Batman Returns) is simply brilliant with his underplayed characterization of Cutter, the narrator and moral center of the whole story.

p4Rounding out the cast are Johansson (Scoop) as Angier's effervescent assistant. Her role is relatively minor, serving mostly as a plot device but eventually offering an emotional reason for Borden's ordeal. Perabo (Imagine Me and You) has a brief role as Angier's wife, and Hall (Starter for Ten) as Borden's wife Sarah. Both women do a fine job in their respective supporting role that ground the male-heavy production and give it an emotional resonance. Bowie (Mr. Rice's Secret) is fun to watch as Tesla, though I didn't even recognize him at first. Serkis (King Kong) is delightful as Tesla's assistant.

p5The Nolan brothers (Memento) has done a great job adapting Christopher Priest's intriguing novel, even though they've changed a lot, adding new twists and fleshing out some plot issues to make the story more comprehensible for the movie audiences. The story is full of twists, one after another; the problem is, director Nolan also gives away a lot of clues, right from the beginning shots, so if you have paid attention (and who wouldn't, once you enter the theater knowing you're about to see a mystery/thriller about magic), halfway through you would know how the story is going to unfold and what is happening. That's the problem with the film. With every great magic trick, you can't tell how it's done even if you look very closely. It's not the case with this film -- it's predictable once you figure it out, and it's not difficult to figure it out.

p6But like a great magic trick, much of it has to do with the presentation. The production is fantastic, with gorgeous cinematography, set designs and costumes. The structure of "threes" is evident throughout the film: in addition to its three acts, the story is told through three separate time lines -- one present-time, and two flashbacks told through Borden's and Angier's journals. The crosscutting, non-linear time lines can be confusing at first, but Nolan is smart enough to leave you visual clues so once you find your marks, the technique is interesting and keeps the audiences guessing. The Nolan brothers are very intelligent and clever, and it shows in every film they've done so far.

The film does focus on the rivalry and the one-upmanship, and most often it feels cold. Compared to The Illusionist, which I think is a superb romantic mystery, the story and ending of The Prestige are less than emotionally rewarding. It's exactly like a magic trick: it will leave you giddy, full of wonder and exhilaration, but rather empty emotionally. For those who are not too keen on figuring it out before everyone else does, they would enjoy the twists, turns, and the ultimate prestige of this intriguing film about obsession, deceit, revenge and sacrifices.

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Piper Perabo, Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, David Bowie, Andy Serkis
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan (based on Christopher Priest's novel)
Distributor: Newmarket Films
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and disturbing images
Running Time: 128 minutes


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

Total – 8.1 out of 10

Man of the Year

© 2006 Ray Wong


Almost twenty years after their collaboration in Good Morning, Vietnam, Academy Award winners Barry Levinson and Robin Williams team up again for another politically-charged drama-comedy. This time, however, the result is less than biting.

moty1Tom Dobbs (Williams) is a popular comedian/talk-show host who often offers astute observations and barbs on current affairs and politics. On a lark, Dobbs accepts a challenge and runs for President of the United States. His manager Jack Menken (Walken) and chief writer Eddie (Black) become his campaign managers. Dobbs never expects to win -- in fact, he's just happy to capture 16% of the poll numbers without running a single advertising campaign.

moty2Lo and behold, the underdog beats out his opponent, incumbent President Kellogg (Dave Nichols) and Senator Mills (David Ferry), to win every state where he's on the ballot, and eventually wins the election. That's a surprise to everyone, including Eleanor Green (Linney), the mastermind behind the voting machines developed by Delacroy. The problem is, Eleanor suspects that there's a technical glitch in the Delacroy system, which created faulty election results and made Dobbs the new president. Threatened by her boss Hemmings (Roberts) and Stewart (Goldblum) to cover up the potentially financial disaster, she flees and seeks out Dobbs, believing that he's the only person who would believe her and do the right thing.

Williams (RV) tries to recapture the sparks he had in a comedic-dramatic role as he did in Good Morning, Vietnam. Unfortunately, the result is a character that lack that shine we expect. Sure, he's funny when he's on, but for most of the film, Williams seems slightly out of his element. Dobbs comes off as meek or uncertain, and he is not always funny. He lacks certain oomph to pull it off. Jon Stewart would have been great.

moty3Walken (Click) pretty much plays himself in a role that is tailor-made for him. He has a few good scenes and some good lines, but mostly underused. Linney (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) gets to run around throughout the film babbling and acting agitated. Granted, that's what her role calls for, but her character is also very frustrating to watch: Eleanor makes an effort to prove herself but at the same time retreats from doing the right thing or protecting herself from danger. The supporting cast does their job in their relatively minor roles, including Black (Accepted) as Dobb's writer Eddie, and Goldblum (Fray Grim) as slimy Delacroy executive Stewart who would do anything to stop Eleanor from exposing the truth.

moty4Writer-director Levinson (Envy) has created a story with an identity crisis, much like its central character, Dobbs. A quick glance would almost convince us that this is a political satire much like this year's Thank You for Smoking or Levinson's own Wag the Dog (1997). Unfortunately, the jokes mostly fall flat and the humor disappears after the first act. Then the film turns into a political thriller, but a dull one at that. The situations and the motivations become murky and incredulous. The political commentaries and jokes sound recycled as well. Some of the situations are contrived and predictable. The ending is a fantasy.

moty5Levinson does know how to keep a brisk pace. The story opens with a quick exposition (narrated by Walken) that gets the back story out promptly and creates a sense of suspense. The editing is efficient and the cinematography adequate. The satire works rather well in the beginning and then just fizzles out. It also becomes preachy in the middle -- we can all speculate on Levinson's own political leanings and we won't be too far off. And that's all right had Levinson wrapped his political ideologies in an enthralling tale with a more engaging protagonist. Too bad. Man of the Year is far from being the movie of the year; it's only a dull satire-thriller without a sustainable core.

Stars: Robin Williams, Christopher Walken, Laura Linney, Lewis Black, Jeff Goldblum, Rick Roberts
Director: Barry Levinson
Writer: Barry Levinson
Distributor: Universal
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language, brief violence, some crude sexual references, drug-related material
Running Time: 115 minutes


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

Total – 6.6 out of 10

The Departed

© 2006 Ray Wong


When we combine Martin Scorcese with a hard-boiled gangster story, we come to expect certain quality. Based on Hong Kong action film Internal Affairs (Wu Jian Dao), The Departed has all of Scorcese's signatures and intensity. Still, I am not sure if it belongs up there with his other masterpieces.

td1Billy Costigan (DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Damon) are two Irish boys who grow up on opposite sides of the law. Sullivan is loyal to organized crime boss Costello (Nicholson). Joining the Boston State Police and climbing up the ladder, Sullivan becomes a mole, the eyes and ears for Costello. Meanwhile, detectives Queenan (Sheen) and Dignam (Wahlberg) recruit Costigan to become an undercover operative for them, infiltrating Costello's nest and feeding the "Staties" invaluable information.

td2Thus begins a cat-and-mouse game through the glossy lifestyle and dirty underbelly of Boston's organized crime. Sullivan is able to keep Costello stay one step ahead of the police, while Costigan succeeds in gaining Costello's trust. The tension, though, is keeping both men sleepless at night. Complicating matters is that Costigan is a patient of psychiatrist Madolyn (Farmiga), who happens to be Sullivan's girlfriend. Soon the two men realize their positions are being jeopardized by a "rat" in each other's camp, and they're determined to smoke each other out without revealing their true identities.

DiCaprio (Aviator) is Scorcese's new Robert De Niro. Intensity, personal torment, and anxiety are evident through his portrayal of Billy Costigan. We come to care about whether he's in too deep and how he's going to sail through everything. Damon (Syriana) is also impressive as the "rat." His smarmy ways make us want to smack him upside the head. DiCaprio and Damon have created a nice contrast with each other, even though they don't share much screen time together.

td3Nicholson (Something's Gotta Give) seems to always play the same role. But! He's so good at that. Ruthless and scummy, his Costello still wins us over with his zest and, well, ruthlessness. He sure is a colorful SOB. Sheen (Bobby) also manages to win our trust and affection as Queenan. Wahlberg (Invincible) plays the potty-mouthed, abrasive special agent with gusto, but his role is way two-dimensional to leave any lasting impression. Farmiga (Breaking and Entering) stands out as the woman caught between two men and their lies, kept in the dark until the end. Baldwin (Running with Scissors) has a fun role as Sullivan's clueless boss.

td4The script by Monahan (Kingdom of Heaven) is tight and suspenseful. He makes great use of intersecting plots and timelines to weave an engaging, knuckle-cracking story. Adapted from Hong Kong's Internal Affairs, the script focuses more on the men's psyches and relationships and less on the action. There are still gore and extreme violence and language that would make a sailor blush, but the psychological aspect of the film is what makes it really tick.

Director Scorsese (Aviator) is a true master. His pacing is impeccable. All his cinematic skills and tricks work flawlessly together, transparent yet making the film a sensorial feast. The editing also plays a key role in the fruition of this suspenseful tale. The crosscutting and intersecting of plot and timelines are inventive but clear. The audiences are led through a maze of deceits, betrayals and loyalty without losing a step.

td5Unfortunately, the first two-thirds of the film is so tightly woven and gripping that it makes the ending look half-boiled. To me, the ending fizzles out so badly that I wonder if the same man wrote it. Even with its plot holes and inconsistency, most of the film is highly plausible and holds our interest and empathy for the characters. At the end, though, that feeling of trust has vanished. I am not going to give away the plot, but what transpires at the end turns into tricky twists that feel out of place. Worse, somehow the ending betrays our connection to the characters, leaving us with a bad taste in the mouth as the last reel starts to roll.

We've gone through a wild ride with these characters and grown attached to them. The ending is clever, and you feel like the screenwriters want to look clever. Sadly, it makes the ending highly unsatisfactory for this reviewer. I don't need a happy ending -- in fact, I demand an unhappy ending for the genre -- but I want to feel rewarded at the end of this experience about betrayals. Instead, I end up departing the theater feeling defeated and betrayed myself.

Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Vera Farmiga, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Alece Baldwin
Director: Martin Scorcese
Writers: William Monahan (based on screenplay "Wu Jian Dao" by Alan Mak and Felix Chong)
Distributor: Warner Bross.
MPAA Rating: R for strong, brutal violence, pervasive language, strong sexual content and drug use
Running Time: 149 minutes


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

Total – 7.3 out of 10