© 2006 Ray Wong


Based on the hit Tony-winning musical, Dreamgirls chronicles the history of a Motown trio that is based on Diana Ross and the Supremes.

d1Deena Jones (Knowles), Lorrell Robinson (Rose) and Effie White (Hudson) are soul sisters of a singing trio, the Dreamettes, looking for a break. They are discovered by Curtis Taylor Jr. (Foxx), an auto dealer who wants to break into the music business as well. As the Dreamettes' manager, Curtis quickly books them as James "Thunder" Early's (Murphy) backup singers. Early also hires Effie's brother, C.C. (Robinson) as a songwriter.

d2Romantically involved with Curtis, Effie thinks she's better than being a backup. She has the best voice and dreams of becoming a star. Then the chance comes: Curtis books their own act, now as the Dreams, at the Tropicana. However, Curtis decides to make beautiful Deena the lead instead of plain and overweight Effie, even though Deena doesn't have the "voice." Feeling betrayed, Effie begins to display passive-aggressive resentment by showing up late and walking out of rehearsals. Eventually, Curtis replaces Effie with Michelle Morris (Leal), and Effie severs all ties with them, including her brother.

d3Years later, the Dreams has become a sensation and Deena is a superstar, while Effie is a poor single mother going nowhere with her life. Curtis becomes more and more controlling, much to the group's dismay. Despite her fame and fortune, Deena, now married to Curtis, is particularly unhappy. C.C. seeks out Effie and tries to patch things up with her. Meanwhile, Deena realizes that the Dreams may have finally come to an end.

d4As the charming but aggressive businessman, Jamie Foxx (Miami Vice) does a great job showing his ruthless side, balanced by some genuine tenderness. He shows some fine singing chops as well. Eddie Murphy (Shrek) is wonderful as a James Brown-esque idol who later becomes washed up and dejected.

d5Beyoncé Knowles (The Pink Panther) is fine as the Diana Ross-esque diva, but her character requires her (and her voice) to be reserved, thus making her performance somewhat one-note and tame. On the contrary, American Idol alumnus Jennifer Hudson makes her impressive film debut as fiery Effie. Her voice is incredible and she shows great acting range. It's hard to believe this is her first acting job.

d6Danny Glover (Bamako) is seasoned as James Early's former manager. Anika Noni Rose (Surviving Christmas) is sweet as Lorrell, and Keith Robinson (Fat Albert) is earnest as C.C.

d7Writer-director Bill Condon (Kinsey) does a remarkable job adapting Tom Eyen's Broadway musical to the big screen. The film's first and second acts feel strong and exciting and energetic. The plot follows the different characters in a streamlined plot that is easy to follow and fascinating to watch. The musical staging is marvelous and seamless. The characters are well-drawn, with clear motivation and conflicts. The character arc of Effie, in particular, is wonderfully developed and acted.

d8The final act, however, loses steam in that it drags the plot into a sappy melodrama. There's a gap in the timeline between the second and the last act, thus a disconnect between the audiences and the characters. Also, the characters start to sing their dialogue in this act, which feels odd and inconsistent with the rest of the film. The plot feels contrived, and the ending is rather anti-climatic, especially after the electrifying first half of the film.

d10The production is scrumptious and the costumes delectable. The musical numbers are fantastic -- the actors all do a great job. Eddie Murphy shines, and Jennifer Hudson proves that she is indeed a diva in the making. The period details (60s and 70s) are spot on. Although not as good as Chicago or Moulin Rouge, with its fine acting and soulful production, Dreamgirls is an entertaining and crowd-pleasing film that should keep the dreams of movie musicals alive, at least for a while.

Stars: Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy, Beyoncé Knowles, Danny Glover, Anika Noni Rose, Keith Robinson, Jennifer Hudson, Sharon Leal, Hinton Battle
Director: Bill Condon
Writers: Bill Condon, Tom Eyen
Distributor: Dreamworks
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language, some sexuality and drug content
Running Time: 131 minutes


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

Total – 7.6 out of 10

The Good Shepherd

© 2006 Ray Wong


The early history of CIA (the Central Intelligence Agency), as depicted in a fictionalized version in The Good Shepherd, is a fascinating premise, especially given today's political climates. What's more interesting is that fiction always mirrors reality, and The Good Shepherd is said to be based on real stories about real CIA agents.

gs1Edward Wilson (Damon) is a man of few words, who believes in honoring and protecting the country he loves. As a member of a secret society, Skull and Bones, Wilson makes life-long friends including Richard Hayes (Pace). Both are quickly recruited by fellow Bonesman, General Sullivan (De Niro), who is starting a new intelligence organization for the United States. Wilson is to work in the counter-intelligence department as the war in Europe quickly escalates. The agency is going to be headed by another fellow Bonesman, Philip Allen (Hurt).

gs2Meanwhile, Wilson falls in love with Laura (Blanchard). But a night of passion with the Senator Russell's (Dullea) daughter, Clover/Margaret (Jolie) yields a son. A man of honor, Wilson marries Clover, and is promptly sent to London to aid in CIA business in 1939. After six years, he returns home as a stranger to his wife and son. His job at CIA requires him to be secretive, and he doesn't share anything with his family. For 20 years, he is but a ghost to Margaret and their son.

gs3Matt Damon (The Departed) is fantastic as the taciturn, conflicted, even tormented CIA operative. His character is the complete opposite of his crooked cop in The Departed, and Demon pulls it off spectacular. The only problem is, his character is such a prisoner to his ideologies and sense of duties that it makes the character a rather passive and impotent one. Angelina Jolie (Mr. & Mrs. Smith) has a minor but pivotal role, and conveys the loneliness, bitterness, and helplessness in her situation as Wilson's invisible wife.

gs4The large cast include veteran actors who all excel in their work: Alec Baldwin (Running with Scissors) as FBI agent Sam Murach who cooperates with Wilson, Tammy Blanchard (Bella) as Wilson's unfortunate true love, Billy Crudup (Missing Impossible III) as Arch Cummings, Wilson's counterpart in England, Robert De Niro (Hide and Seek) as the mastermind behind CIA, Michael Gambon (Harry Potter) as Wilson's professor Dr. Fredericks, William Hurt (Syriana) as CIA head Philip Allen, John Turturro (Secret Window) as Wilson's loyal assistant, Eddie Redmayne (Like Minds) as Wilson's son, and Lee Pace (Infamous) as Wilson's friend and colleague Richard Hayes.

Notable cameos include Keir Dullea (2001: Space Odyssey) as Senator Russell, Timothy Hutton (Secret Window) as Wilson's father, Joe Pesci (Lethal Weapon 4) as an CIA informant, and Oleg Stefan (Heartbreakers) as defected Russian spy Ulysses.

gs5Writer Eric Roth (Munich) has weaved an intriguing, if somewhat convoluted, yarn of thrilling drama, juxtaposing a man's journey with national duties, personal secrets and overt patriotism. The multiple timelines and plot threads can feel daunting sometimes, and one has to pay close attention to figure out who is who and what is going on in the world of espionage. The dialogue is exquisite and the historical details are fascinating. The problem is that it's hard to identify with any of these characters fully, including the protagonist. From the get-go, the story is a tragedy and it doesn't help that there's not much humor either. The film feels very heavy.

Actor-Director Robert De Niro (The Score) has given us a great vision with extraordinary production value. The set designs, costumes and props are vibrant with details. Most of the time, De Niro succeeds in keeping the story straight, but by the nature of the story, the plot can be confusing at times. The large cast doesn't make it easier, but De Niro mostly manages to keep his head above water. The pacing could have used some tightening -- there are many null spots and lingering long shots. However, the director's done a great job keeping the suspense and tension throughout the film.

The intriguing story gives us a glimpse of what goes on in one of the most secretive organizations of our history. It's also a human story ripe with moral questions such as "What is good and what is bad?" and "if you have to choose between your country and you/your family, which would you choose?" Such complicated dilemmas. The Good Shepherd may not be the best film of the year, but it's a darn good one.

Stars: Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin, Tammy Blanchard, Billy Crudup, Robert De Niro, Keir Dullea, Michael Gambon, Martina Gedeck, William Hurt, Timothy Hutton, Lee Pace, John Turturro
Director: Robert De Niro
Writer: Eric Roth
Distributor: Universal
MPAA Rating: R for some violence, sexuality and language
Running Time: 155 minutes


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

Total – 7.5 out of 10

The Pursuit of Happyness

© 2006 Ray Wong


The Pursuit of Happyness (yes, it's a typo in the title, which is explained in the movie) is a rags-to-riches story that shamelessly tugs at our heartstrings. In lesser hands, the story would quickly sink to a tooth-aching sugar low. What we have here, however, is a tour de force performance from one of the most popular leading men of our generation.

h1Chris Gardner (Smith) is a down-and-out salesman in San Francisco selling a high-end medical equipment that most doctors consider "unnecessary." He can't pay his rent or his taxes, and has to send his son, Christopher (Jaden Smith), to a daycare in Chinatown because that's all he can afford. His financial troubles put a heavy strain on his marriage. When he decides to do something about it and take up an unpaid internship at Dean Witter Brokerage in hopes of becoming a stock broker, Linda leaves him and moves to New York. Chris insists on keeping custody of his son, and Linda reluctantly agrees.

h2Juggling between being a full-time dad, an intern, and a salesman during the weekend, Chris has a hard time getting it all together. Soon, he and his son are evicted from their apartment. One setback leads to another and they find themselves becoming homeless. There's absolutely no guarantee that he will make it at Dean Witter (only one in twenty interns will be selected), but Chris is determined to never give up. He tells his son, "Never let anyone tell you what you can and cannot do." Even as he carries his suitcase and his son from temporary housing to temporary housing, he still believes that one day everything will work out.

h3Will Smith (Hitch) can do no wrong with this role: it's tailor-made for him. He oozes charisma and charm and sincerity, even during the character's darkest times. He also has the right mix of intensity, humor, and physicality to play Christ Gardner. His tenderness toward his son adds tremendous appeal to the character and the film. It helps that Smith's real son, Jaden (All of Us), was cast to play his onscreen son. Their chemistry is natural and undeniable, not to mention Jaden's charm and cuteness, no doubt inherited from his father. It's one of the most rewarding father-son pairs in movie history.

h4Thandie Newton (Crash) plays Gardner's disheartened wife with sensibility. Yes, she is selfish, she is grumpy, but she doesn't come across as evil or unkind -- just conflicted and worn out. You sense that she does love her husband and son, but she's been eaten by constant disappointment and financial stress for so long that she just gives up. Brian Howe (Deja Vu) is amiable as Jay Whistle, the Dean Witter executive who believes in Chris Gardner and gives him a chance. Kurt Fuller (Ray) has a brief role as a kind CEO who inadvertently helps Chris. Takayo Fisher (Memoirs of a Geisha) has a brief but interesting role as the owner of the Chinese daycare.

h5Based on the true life story of Chris Gardner, owner of Gardner Rich Brokerage, Steve Conrad's (The Weather Man) script sticks to a conventional storytelling structure with a lean and straightforward arc. There really is no subplot in this story (not even a love story or mystery), so at times it feels a little tiring and one-note. The situations Chris Gardner and his son go through also seem contrived at times -- just how much can they take? The morals are rather blatant, and we know how it's going to end, so there are really no surprises. The piling-on feels exhausting, and is only saved by the humor and Smith's sincere performance.

h6And that's the strength of the film that lifts the film. Italian director Gabriele Muccino (Ricordati di me) is wise to keep the camera focused on the father-son leads, and explore the tender relationship between them. The production has a no-frill look to it, and it reminds me of yet another rags-to-riches story, Working Girl, with a similar uplifting ending.

h7In the end, I understand why Conrad has chosen to add insults to injuries over and again to bring down Chris Gardner: as contrived as that is, it does show character. And the ending is made even sweeter, even though the audiences expect that. They make a great choice by ending the film the way it does, because as much as it's a story about Chris Gardner's determination to succeed in business, it really is about his heart and his devotion to his son. We've been pursuing that for the entire 117 minutes, and at the end, we really do relate to that happyness of knowing our true worths, and feeling that love all around us.

Stars: Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Thandie Newton, Brian Howe, James Karen, Dan Castellaneta, Kurt Fuller, Takayo Fisher
Director: Gabriele Muccino
Writer: Steve Conrad
Distributor: Columbia Pictures/SONY
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some language
Running Time: 117 minutes


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

Total – 7.4 out of 10

The Holiday

© 2006 Ray Wong


Nancy Meyers is arguably the new queen of romantic comedy after her tremendous triple-threat (producer, director, writer) in blockbusters such as Something's Gotta Give and What Women Want. Her new film, The Holiday, seems like fluffy light comedy starring some of the world's most photogenic actors. The end product surprises me.

h1Iris (Winslet) is a reporter at a London newspaper living in a cute countryside cottage. Her love life comes to a shocking halt when her on-and-off boyfriend, Jaspers, announces his engagement to another woman. Meanwhile, Amanda (Diaz) is a successful film marketer living in a posh Los Angeles mansion. Her love life also goes nowhere when her latest relationship with film composer Ethan (Burns) ends with his philandering. Their lives intersect when they decide to swap houses for two weeks during Christmas to escape their own lives and, more precisely, men.

h2Iris instantly loves her new L.A. home, and with good reasons. Amanda, on the other hand, is bored to tears in a small England town and decides to return to Los Angeles -- that is, until Iris's handsome brother, Graham (Law), shows up at her door. Their initially casual relationship turns into something a bit more serious, confusing, and "complicated" as they put it. They know the relationship won't last but they can't seem to be able to tear themselves from each other.

h5Meanwhile, Iris is having a difficult time getting over Jasper and she sinks into depression, until she meets her neighbor, famous screenwriter Arther Abbott (Wallach). They form a cute bond and Iris seems to have a new direction in her life. Then film composer Miles (Black) shows up and their mutual attraction further confuses Iris.

h6As with any romantic comedies, the cast is attractive. Kate Winslet (Finding Neverland) is refreshingly girl-next-door. Her portrayal is the most layered, introspective, and despite her emotional problems, you can't help but root for her. Cameron Diaz (In Her Shoes) plays Amanda with broader strokes and less subtlety, and sometimes you can't decide if you like her or not.

h8Jude Law (All the King's Men) secures his leading man status with a dashing and sincere performance. His character, however, seems a bit too good to be true. And Jack Black (Nacho Libre) is the surprise here. You don't usually see him as a romantic lead but he pulls it off beautifully. It helps that his storyline doesn't rely on his sex appeal either. In fact, he and Winslet are so good together that I'm more interested in them than the "beautiful" pair in England.

h7The supporting cast is fine. Edward Burns (The Groomsmen) has a minor role as Diaz's cheating boyfriend. Rufus Sewell (The Illusionist) plays yet another "bad guy" with pizzaz. But the standout here is Eli Wallash (The Hoax): he steals the scenes right off everyone else with his sincere portrayal of the famed but withdrawn writer.

h4Nancy Meyers (Something's Gotta Give) has created yet another knock-out script with The Holiday. Granted, the premise is silly and the early execution is a bit broad, making it hard to suspend our disbelief. But as the two leading ladies' journeys evolve, we come to really get into their shoes and care about them. There are some genuinely funny moments, but the film's more serious and gentle tone surprises me. I was expecting some laugh-out-loud situations. Instead, I am treated with some insightful takes on relationships. At times, it does feel a bit preachy, and you realize the swelling, uplifting music is going too start playing on cue. But Meyers saves these cheesy moments with some wonderful dialogue and interesting twists. There are obvious jabs at Hollywood's commercialism, and it's a bit ironic giving the intense marketing of this film.

h3The main draw to the film is the chemistry between the stars. Diaz and Law are so cute together you realize it really is a fantasy, but you want to believe it, because it feels good. Their "should we, shouldn't we" dilemma does get a bit tiring. In contrast, Winslet and Black are such an unlikely couple. Their relationship is more subtle and nuanced, but you just feel for them, and you want them to get together so badly because Meyers and the actors make you believe these characters belong to each other. The minor heartbreaks are truly touching.

The Holiday is two stories in one, and we get to have it both ways: the gorgeous fantasy love affair in picturesque England, and the down-to-earth "getting to know you" sweetness in sunny California. In the end, we have a feel-good movie about love (self-love, unconditional love, love between friends, love between strangers) that is a nice addition to the holiday season.

Stars: Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Jack Black, Eli Wallach, Edward Burns, Rufus Sewell
Director: Nancy Meyers
Writers: Nancy Meyers
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content and some language
Running Time: 138 minutes


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

Total – 7.5 out of 10

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus

© 2006 Ray Wong


Diane Arbus was arguably one of the most influential and brilliant, well-loved photographers of our time. Her personal background, struggles, and eventual death at her prime have intrigued many. In Fur, the filmmakers decide to create a fictional account of Diane's life to reflect on her internal struggles and inspiration. It's definitely an interesting but risky idea.

fur1Diane (Kidman) grows up in a rich but strict, conventional family. She always think of herself as strange, and outsider, despite the fact that she's very attractive and talented. After marrying the dashing photographer Allan Arbus (Burrell) and having two beautiful daughters, Diane feels trapped as a housewife and her husband assistant. She is a fish out of water and she yearns to break free, but she doesn't know what and how. Allan encourages her to pick up photography so that she's not too stir-crazy.

fur2When Lionel (Downey) moves into the apartment above hers, Diane is intrigued by the strange, mysterious masked man. Armed with a square camera Allan gave her, Diane visits Lionel in the hopes of taking his portrait. Of course, she has an ulterior motive. Soon, much to Allan's suspicion and scrutiny, Diane is spending all her time with Lionel, neglecting her family. What he doesn't know is that Diane has fallen in love with Lionel, and she has discovered the part of her that cannot be suppressed anymore. She is like a caged bird -- once the cage door is opened, there is no way the bird's not flying away.

fur3Nicole Kidman (Bewitched) has a luminous career, spanning both big budget blockbusters and art-house projects. She definitely takes a lot of risk in Fur as an artist. While she shares a slight resemblance with Diane Arbus, Kidman opts to portray Diane in her own way, in a fictional setting that is both absurdist and fascinating. She delivers a quiet, almost withdrawn, protected performance, similar to her role in Birth. In less capable hands, the character would have come off as either too outlandish or boring, but Kidman conveys the inner storm very well with her vulnerability.

Robert Downey Jr. (A Scanner Darkly) is wonderful as Lionel, which is very much a mystical figure in this fantastical tale. He spends almost the entire film behind thick layers of hair or a mask. His performance comes through in his eyes, voice, and body language. There's certain depth in the character -- resignation, peace, irrelevance -- that comes through in his portrayal. The hirsute Lionel and the bewildered Diane are a mesmerizing pair to watch.

fur4The supporting cast has relatively minor presence, including Jane Alexander (Warm Springs) as Diane's insufferably bourgeois mother and Harris Yulin (The Treatment) as her equally conservative husband. Emmy Clarke (The House in Umbria) and Genevieve McCarthy (Parallax) play Diane's daughters, the skeptical Grace and innocent Sophie respectively. The standout is Ty Burrell (Friends with Money) as Allan Arbus, Diane's loving husband who's torn between his dream for a normal life and his love for Diane to be happy. The scenes in which he realizes how brilliantly talented Diane is and that he has indeed lost her are truly amazing and heartbreaking.

fur5Writer Wilson (Secretary) based her fantasy on Bosworth's biography. She and director Stainberg (Secretary) make sure that the audience knows this is not a factual biography of Diane, that the characters of Lionel et el. are fictional. Still, the story examines and claims to reflect the inner workings of Diane Arbus, paying tribute to her strangeness and her unique sense of beauty. To Diane, beauty was not confined by any conventional definitions. She found beauty in the most unlikely places, and the most unusual people. Anyone who is familiar with Diane's work would agree that her subjects are often not regarded as "beautiful" but there's this mesmerizing power and sense of awe. In that sense, I think Fur has succeeded in capturing that strange awe.

In Stainberg's hand, the film is uneven. The cinematography, by Bill Pope (Spider-Man), is gorgeous and fits the mood well. The score by Carter Burwell (Kinsey) also has a strange quality to it, but can be distracting. The pacing seems odd at times, sometimes too slow and sometimes too rushed. There are definitely rough edges. But over all, I find the film fascinating and the performance captivating. I am never bored. And at the end, I find my own inspiration in Diane's story, fictional or not. Even though you may not agree with Diane's seemingly selfish motivations and behaviors -- she is, after all, a wife with a devoted husband, and a mother of two -- you can't help but connect with her sense of identity at the end. And she does it out of love and respect for herself. Her journey is one of imagination, depth and growth.

Stars: Nicole Kidman, Robert Downey Jr., Ty Burrell, Harris Yulin, Jane Alexander
Director: Steven Stainberg
Writers: Erin Cressida Wilson (based on Patricia Bosworth's biography "Arbus")
Distributor: Picturehouse
MPAA Rating: R for nudity, sexuality and language
Running Time: 120 minutes


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

Total – 7.1 out of 10