For Your Consideration

© 2006 Ray Wong


Christopher Guest and company have made some hilarious mockumentaries in the past: Best in Show, A Mighty Wind. This time, though, they've abandoned the formula and opted for a more straightforward, plotted comedy with For Your Consideration, an insider joke about Hollywood.

picture-fyc1On the set of a little indie film called Home for Purim, obscure veteran actress Marilyn Hack (O'Hara) is more obsessed with looking young than her acting. Victor Allan Miller (Shearer) can't find any work except for low budget movies and silly commercials. The director, Jay Berman (Guest), is eccentric and somewhat clueless. The two young actors, Callie Webb (Posey) and Brian Chubb (Moynihan), play siblings on screen but are lovers in real life. The film is a low budget, campy family drama set in the 40s. No one pays attention, not even the producer Whitney (Coolidge) or the studio executives.

picture-fyc2Then Marilyn finds out there is a brief write-up on the Internet (some obscure movie websites) about her on-the-set performance as being Oscar-worthy; she latches onto it. Through the help of studio publicist Corey Taft (Higgins), they start to create an Oscar buzz around the film, before it's even finished and released. Soon, Victor and Callie also get mentions and all hopes are high that at least one of them would get nominated. A media blitz ensures, and feeding frenzy begins both on and off the set. Studio executives take notice and try to influence the production. The madness culminates in the Oscar nomination, which seems to have the power to make or break careers for these desperate people.

picture-fyc3The large ensemble cast have their moments. Catherine O'Hara (Monster House) is particularly heartbreaking as the washed-up actress who is desperate for fame. Her performance is the most layered of all. Harry Shearer (The Simpsons, Chicken Little) is fine as the veteran actor best-known (and visibly frustrated) as a wiener on TV. His cheery disposition and happy-go-lucky facade fail to mask his quiet underpinning of fame and respect.

picture-fyc4Parker Posey (Superman Returns) is fun as the naive and jealous starlet who dreams of stardom, and Christopher Moynihan (A Mighty Wind) plays her nice-guy boyfriend/costar with sincerity. Their scenes together are sweet, cute, poignant and sad at the same time. Eugene Levy (Cheaper by the Dozen 2) plays a jewish agent with stereotypical flair and Christopher Guest (Mrs Henderson Presents) is interesting as the eccentric director.

picture-fyc5The supporting actors (and Guest's usual players) do their job in their small roles including Higgins as a cheesy publicist, Willard and Lynch as Entertainment TV hosts, Balaban and McKean as struggling screenwriters, Coolidge as the ditsy producer, Rachael Harris as the actress who plays a stereotypical lesbian, Ed Begley Jr. as a fey (but straight) hairdresser. Notable cameos include Sandra Oh, Paul Dooley, John Krasinski, Don Lake, Michael Hitchcock, and Richard Kind, to name a few.

Writers Guest and Levy (A Mighty Wind) go all out with cliches and stereotypes here. As an actor myself, I find some of the observations sharp and hilarious, but wonder if the humor is lost on the general public. There are subtle and not-so-subtle jabs at Hollywood and the bizarre silliness of the business. They've captured the absurd, detached, and desperate nature of show biz perfectly. Granted, they let their actors improvise and create their own characters based on a skeletal script; much of the praise must go to the actors.

In truth, they play it safe with the story arc, which is rather predictable. And in turn, I think they miss the boat with this one. They seem to be more concerned about making fun of the Hollywood stereotypes (what with the fake boobs, botox, media sharks, shallow people, etc.) than giving us a human story as they did in Best in Show or A Mighty Wind. While the jokes are funny in the beginning, they wear thin toward the middle and fall flat by the end. I think part of the problem is that you don't really care for any of these characters -- they are self-absorbed, self-serving, clueless and desperate. We can laugh at them, but we don't necessarily laugh with them, so the film feels cruel by the end.

As an actor, I see many truths in the film and it pains me to watch these people. Perhaps my perception is jaded because of my own insider perspective. Perhaps the general public would find this story and these characters amusing. To me, they are caricatures of something achingly real, and by the end of the film, I am more depressed than enlightened. I didn't expect that, especially not from a comedy. Perhaps it hits me too hard and too close to home; I left the theater feeling kind of sick. In a way, it's a good thing -- these characters force me examine my own objectives and feelings as an artist and person. On the other hand, it may leave the audiences with an unfair impression of the business and artists as they haven't presented the other side. Is show biz truly evil and the people in it all conniving asses? That, my friends, is for your consideration.

Stars: Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy, Harry Shearer, Parker Posey, Christopher Moynihan, Christopher Guest, John Michael Higgins, Fred Willard, Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, Bob Balaban, Michael McKean
Director: Christopher Guest
Writers: Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy
Distributor: Warner Independent
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual references and brief language
Running Time: 86 minutes


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

Total – 6.6 out of 10

The Queen

© 2006 Ray Wong


Aptly and succinctly entitled The Queen, this film chronicles a few months in 1997, from the day Tony Blair took power as the Prime Minister and promised a new England, and through Princess Diana's death. In the process, we get an intimate look of what it's like to be one of the world's most revered monarchs.

q1When Tony Blair (Sheen) wins the election by a landslide, Queen Elizabeth II (Mirren) offers her congratulations with skepticism. She advises Blair: "I've had nine prime ministers, and Winston Churchhill was the first." It's a clear show of supremacy -- government comes and goes, but the royalty is here to stay.

q12On August 30, 1997, something changes. With a strange twist of events that shocks the world, Princess Diana perishes in a car accident in Paris. It's no secret that the Queen and her former daughter-in-law didn't get along, but the Queen wants to protect her two beloved grandsons, Princes William and Harry, from the harsh reality and the scrutiny of the public. She believes that it's a private matter and goes into seclusion with her family. Her lack of public statement or emotions sends the country already in shock into a frenzy of finger-pointing.

At first Tony Blair seizes upon this moment to strengthen his political position as well as popularity by appealing to the public. Prince Charles (Jennings) sides with him for exactly the same purpose, trying to distance himself from his mother. But they all underestimate Diana's influence and popularity, and when the country turns to nasty outcries and accusations, Blair realizes the Queen must do something to save both the monarchy as well the country from permanent damages.

q3Helen Mirren (Shadowboxer) is a miracle. Her transformation as the Queen is uncanny both physically and emotionally. Like Jamie Foxx's Ray Charles, she immerses herself entirely into the character and becomes the Queen herself. You have no idea that you are watching an actor playing one of the most recognizable living royalties in the world. On top of it, she manages to bring life and humanity to the Queen. Mirren deserves all the awards she could get her hands on.

q4As Tony Blair, Michael Sheen (Underworld: Evolution) holds his own and does a marvelous job. His physical resemblance to the Prime Minister is an asset, but it's his voice and attitude that make us believe. He also gives us a glimpse of the softer side that we don't normally see in the real Blair.

The supporting cast delivers stellar performances, including James Cromwell (Dante's Inferno) as the Queen's boorish but loving husband, Prince Philip. Sylvia Syms (What a Girl Wants) does her part as the Queen Mother well. Alex Jennings (Babel) manages to give some warmth to the generally helpless and charisma-free Prince Charles. Helen McCrory (Casanova) is brash as Blair's unsympathetic wife, and Roger Allam (A Cock and Bull Story) is charming as the Queen's personal assistant, Robin.

q5Written by Peter Morgan (The Last King of Scotland), the screenplay is actually rather straightforward without frills. It has a TV miniseries feel to it. If not for the incredible performances from Mirren and company, the script would have fallen flat. However, the story does give us an intimate look into the Queen's life not as a royalty, but as a real human being. It shows us when she's not wearing a crown, she's just like our own mothers, in many different ways. She wears frumpy clothes and drives her own car (and she used to be a mechanic). She has her own problems and issues. She holds dear to her family but at the same time, doesn't know exactly how to reach out to them.

At times, it's easy to demonize the royal family and agree with Tony Blair when he says, "Will someone save these people from themselves?" But as the story continues to unfold, we come to really care about them and realize they make mistakes and have flaws just like you and me -- they are just human, despite all the power and jewels in the crowns.

Director Frears (Mrs. Henderson Presents) brings us back to those fateful months almost a decade ago with deft cinematography and a nice pace. He also allows the best part of the film, Helen Mirren as the Queen, to take over and breathe life to the material without much intrusion. He makes good use of real news footage to bring certain realism to the story. One can only speculate what really goes on inside Buckingham Palace and Downing Street, but the film gives us a rare glimpse into the lives of these almost-mythical beings, and does an incredible job of making us relate to them. And by George, her majesty Helen Mirren deserves to be the Queen at the Oscars.

Stars: Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Sylvia Syms, Alex Jennings, Helen McCrory, Roger Allam
Director: Stephen Frears
Writer: Peter Morgan
Distributor: Miramax
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language
Running Time: 97 minutes


Script – 7
Performance – 10
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 7
Music/Sound– 8
Editing – 7
Production – 8

Total – 8.1 out of 10

Stranger Than Fiction

© 2006 Ray Wong


The ideas around Stranger Than Fiction are so cliched and commonplace among writers that they actually become intriguing. I mean, every fiction writer has writer's block, and they all have felt that godlike power and how real their characters are. So what if their characters are real, that they can actually manipulate their lives, or terminate them?

fiction1Harold Crick (Ferrell) is an IRS agent who lives his life literally by the numbers. He counts his brushstrokes in the morning and times his arrival to the bus stop at exactly the same moment the bus arrives. He eats alone and has no friends. He's rather content with his life until one day he hears a female voice saying, "Harold Crick just counted his brushstrokes." At first he thinks he's going through some kind of psychological breakdown, but soon discovers that the voice is actually narrating his life, accurately. It's simply a minor annoyance, until one day the voice says, "Little did he know, a chain of events have been set in motion to lead to his imminent death." He asks Jules Hilbert (Hoffman), a literary scholar, to help him find the voice and stop her from killing him. Jules suggests Harold to face the inevitable and start living his life.

fiction2It turns out the voice belongs to best-selling novelist Kay Eiffel (Thompson), who is suffering from a major writer's block: She doesn't know how to kill her character, who happens to be Harold. Impatient with her progress, her publisher sends her an assistant, Penny (Latifah), to help her find a way to kill off Harold Crick. Meanwhile, Harold is falling for Anna, a feisty baker whose tax returns he is auditing. In a race against time, Harold must learn to unlearn everything and make every day count until he can find the voice.

fiction3Ferrell (Talladega Nights) is best-known for this juvenile shticks. But if Elf was any indication, Ferrell is best when he lets his quiet, child-like quality carry the humor. Such is the case in Stranger Than Fiction. Ferrell is able to underplay his character with innocence and a subtle yet inherently funny undercurrent of befuddlement and resolve. As the blocked novelist, Thompson (Nanny McPhee) literally lets her hair down and is delightfully neurotic and manic-depressive. Ferrell and Thompson only share a brief scene together, but their chemistry as well as characterization of their respective characters play off each other very well.

fiction4The supporting cast is outstanding. Gyllenhaal (World Trade Center) is fantastic as Harold's unlikely object of affection. She could easily exaggerate her performance as a larger-than-life character opposite Ferrell's Harold Crick, but she chooses to play off her nuances and barb-coated sweetness. Hoffman (Meet the Fockers) is perfect as the indifferent professor who thinks life is either a tragedy or comedy depending on our outlooks. Latifah (Last Holiday) has a minor role as the assistant but she grounds Thompson's character.

fiction5Writer Helm (Other People's Business) has created an interesting high concept, and he executes it with precise Charlie Kaufman-eques strange humor. The script is teeming with cliches, especially when it comes to the characters of author (Kay) and character (Harold). But these cliches work in the framework because in a way, the film is a satire, a cautionary fairytale about art vs. life. It poses an interesting question: If you must choose between art and life, which would you choose? Helm's dialogue and narrative are sharp, witty, and observant, and his characters are interesting. He employs all the writerly cliches in the structure of the screenplay as well: dramatic irony, foreshadowing, mirroring, etc., giving every writer in the audience a chance to giggle at the inside jokes. Even the title is a cliche -- and it's perfect.

fiction1fiction7Director Forster (Finding Neverland) has assembled a perfect cast for this production. Everyone plays their roles and plays off each other wonderfully. Forster also engages us with a brisk pace and minimalist yet visually arresting production. Ferrell's subdued performance compliments Thompson's morose narration perfectly to achieve a certain comic revelation. There is not a dull moment in the film. It keeps us guessing until the end. Okay, maybe not whether Harold is going to live or die, but rather, how exactly Kay Eiffel is going to kill Harold Crick. The question looms over us from the very first reel and it's a smart move. Perhaps this fantasy won't change the world, but it certainly is thought-provoking in an entertaining way. And if it does manage to change the world, even for a bit, that won't be exactly stranger than fiction.

Stars: Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Queen Latifah
Director: Marc Forster
Writer: Zach Helm
Distributor: Columbia
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some disturbing images, sexuality, brief language and nudity
Running Time: 113 minutes


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

Total – 7.9 out of 10


Cultural Learnings of America for Making Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

© 2006 Ray wong


For those who are not familiar with Sacha Baron Cohen's Da Ali G Show and his character Borat, you're in for a treat. And for those who know him, you won't be disappointed with this hilarious, raunchy, rowdy comedy.

borat1Borat (Cohen) is a TV talk show reporter from Kazakhstan. He's sent to America to make a documentary on the "greatest country in the world" so Kazakhstan can learn from it. He and his crew arrive in New York City to do street interviews and report on American cultures. When Borat sees Pamela Anderson in a rerun of Baywatch, he falls head over heels for the actress and decides to drive across the country to California so he can marry her. He lies to his producer Azamat (Davitian) and convinces him that they will document their trip about the "real" America, traveling south through the Heartland. Cultural shock ensures.

borat2Cohen (Talladega Nights) is a true chameleon and he stays in character at all times. His Borat is crude, rude and ignorant, but through his portrayal, he makes Borat funny and lovable at the same time. At times, his accent slips a bit and he comes off as less than sincere, but over all he holds up very well and never breaks out of character. His Borat is genuine. That's rather remarkable considering the outrageous things he says and does and the sometimes-violent and nasty reactions he gets. What's more remarkable is that the whole film rests on his shoulders and he manages to hold our interest through and through.

borat3Davitian (Holes) has a most unflattering role as Borat's grotesque producer. You have to hand it to the guy to make his character so believable and such a great support for Borat, including some of the most incredibly offensive scenes. Together with Cohen, they really go all out to make this work.

borat4Cohen uses the relative obscurity of Borat, under the guise of a foreign media reporter, to infiltrate the various fabrics of America and show us some of the truly outrageous aspects of the country. Borat might not be real, but the people he interacts with are, and their reactions to Borat are what make the mockumentary so funny. He gets to interview real politicians, celebrities and everyday folks and, in the process, ruffle some feathers. Many of his skits are cringe-inducing, including an interview at a feminist group, singing the national anthem at a rodeo, and learning dinner etiquette at a posh Southern home.

borat5Granted, many of these skits have been done on Da Ali G Show, so Cohen is recycling his materials. But they work wonderfully in the context of the film and even if you have seen them before, they are still funny. And Cohen upgrades them so these hoaxes are now more elaborate. There are moments in the film that are beyond offensive and must be seen in a packed theater (preferably with college students) where everyone howls and claps at the same time. Kudos go to Cohen and company for going all out.

borat6On their own, the skits are hilarious and superbly played out. On the whole, the film does serve as a strange social commentary of how absurd we, Americans, can be. Cohen's comedy not only makes us laugh, but also makes us think. For example, when a prostitute shows up at a stately home, Borat and his companion are ordered to leave immediately. Similar things happen at a rodeo. It shows us that in the land of the free, not everything is free. Cohen is able to make these observations from the eyes of a foreigner (albeit an idiot), and that message of looking at ourselves carries a serious undertone on top of all the raunchiness. Borat himself is a racial caricature, and the inherent racism and sexism in his character as well as the reactions he conjures really open our eyes. So while we laugh our asses off, we understand what Borat is really about. By telling the truth through his adventures, Borat gives Cohen, et al, a comedic power that is beyond measure.

Stars: Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian, Luenell, Pamela Anderson
Director: Larry Charles
Writers: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, Dan Mazer, Todd Phillips
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive crude content including graphic nudity, language
Running Time: 84 minutes


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

Total – 7.8 out of 10