Notes on a Scandal

© 2007 Ray Wong


Based on Zoe Heller's psychological novel, Notes on a Scandal has a very straightforward, no-frill premise, which is encapsulated perfectly in the movie's tagline: "One woman's mistake is another's opportunity."

n1.jpgBarbara Covett (Dench) is a veteran schoolteacher at a lower-middle class district in London. She's well-respected, feared even, but she has no friends or family. She takes a special liking to new art teacher Sheba Hart (Blanchett), a beautiful bohemian who's rather bored with her life as a middle-class wife and mother. Barbara quickly becomes friends with Sheba, even though they don't have much in common. Barbara tries to keep her obsession with Sheba in check, until she discovers a stark secret -- Sheba's having an affair with an underaged student, Steven Connoly (Simpson). Furious at first, Barbara promptly turns her discovery into an golden opportunity to lure, hook and hold Sheba.

n2.jpgBarbara becomes Sheba's ally, promising to keep the secret in exchange of Sheba's loyalty. Sheba vows not to see Steven again. Their friendship grows as they are bound by this secret, and Barbara deftly works her way into Sheba's life. A series of events unravels the trust between them. Feeling betrayed and abandoned, Barbara decides to punish Sheba while positioning herself as Sheba's only hope.

n3.jpgDame Judi Dench (Casino Royale) dons a ratty wig and frumpy clothes to play the spinster who prays on younger, naive women. The great actress gives a performance that transcends the otherwise stereotypical caricature. As the narrator (through her journals), Dench gives us a chilling insider view of her mind, emotions, and schemes. There's actually a sympathetic side to her predatory creature. Cate Blanchett (Babel) is also phenomenal as the naive school teacher who has a fatal flaw in her character. She, too, manages to keep our sympathy while we may loathe the things she does. The relationship between her and Judi Dench seems genuine, making this strange and complex relationship worth watching.

n4.jpgBill Nighy (Pirates of the Caribean: Dead Man's Chest) is affecting as Sheba's doting husband 20 years her senior. His self-deprecation as well as good nature make it easy to feel sorry for him. Andrew Simpson (Song for a Raggy Boy) is cocky and aggressive as Sheba's young lover. It's a little unconvincing to think that someone like Sheba would risk everything for this boy, but his active role in the matter makes it easier for us to give Sheba a break.

n5.jpgWriter Patrick Marber (Closer) is a genius with words. His dialogue and narratives are sharp and insightful. Judi Dench's voice-over has a cold, analytical quality to it, as if a professor is narrating the details of dissecting a frog. There are times when the narrative overpowers the drama itself; thus the story comes off as a bit too cerebral and on the nose. We know Barbara's every thought, and we anticipate her moves, and she doesn't disappoint. That takes out some of the suspense. Granted, this is not really a thriller, but a psychological drama. Still, I think the writer could have trusted the actors more (who are fabulous) and left more to the audiences' interpretation.

n6.jpgAlso, I don't know if it's the fault of the novel or the screenplay itself, but I find some of the motivations and plot points contrived and unconvincing. For example, the circumstances under which Barbara discovers the affair are too text-book convenient. And when a fellow teacher knocks on her door one evening asking her about Sheba, the scene strikes me as absurd and unrealistic, simply to move the plot along. And if not for the wonderful, layered performances of Dench and Blanchett, their characters could very well be described as stereotypes.

n7.jpgDirector Richard Eyre (Iris) has a wonderful, almost claustrophobic style which is perfect for this film. Philip Glass's haunting but repetitive score serves the film well. Eyre makes good use of imageries to suggest and provoke, meanwhile leaving the drama to unfold without making overt judgment. It's the characters who are judging each other, and Eyre lets us see their reactions to the same events through an almost distant eye.

It's not to say the film is void of any real emotions -- it has plenty; but from Barbara's cold narration to her conniving manipulations to the tricky subject matter of pedophilia, the film naturally keeps the audiences at a distance. No doubt it is an intelligent, well-performed drama that explores the psychology of people who play mind games. However, the film is a few notes short of being completely involving.

Stars: Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy, Andrew Simpson, Juno Temple
Director: Richard Eyre
Writers: Patrick Marber (based on Zoe Heller's novel)
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
MPAA Rating: R for language, some aberrant sexual content
Running Time: 93 minutes


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

Total – 7.4 out of 10

The Painted Veil

© 2007 Ray Wong


W. Somerset Maugham's 1925 novel had been made into films twice before actor-producer Edward Norton attempted it one more time. What they've made is a scrumptious, passionate film for the thinking crowd.

pv1Kitty (Watts) is a bored socialite in London who has a romantic notion about marriage. Walter Fane (Norton) is a serious biologist who has been secretly in love with Kitty for years. Before Walter sets sail to Shanghai for a research post, he proposes to Kitty, who promptly laughs him off, because she simply doesn't love him. When Kitty's younger sister announces her wedding plans, out of embarrassment and the desire to move away from her parents, Kitty hastily accepts Walter's proposal.

pv2In Shanghai, the Fanes lead rather separate lives. Walter immerses himself in work and neglects his bored wife. Meanwhile, Kitty falls for married diplomat Charlie Townsend (Schreiber). When Walter finds out about the affair, he gives Kitty an ultimatum: either go with him to a small village in the middle of a cholera epidemic, or face the scandal of a divorce on grounds of infidelity. Kitty has no choice but follow her husband.

pv3Once at the village, Walter devotes all his time to his work, trying to find ways to contain the disease. His contempt for his wife is evident. Kitty befriends a former British commissioner, Waddington (Jones), a hedonistic man who serves as her only link to the world she once knew. Eventually, Walter and Kitty get to know each other better, and grow to care about each other while facing the horrific epidemic and the turbulent political climate in China.

pv4Naomi Watts (King Kong) is completely believable as the complex Kitty, and she goes through a wide range of emotions and growth with conviction. In the beginning, she's naive, selfish, and confused. By the end she's mature and responsible and loving. The transformation is natural and she does a fine job letting us see deep into her character's soul. Edward Norton (The Illusionist) has the opposite challenge. His character starts off as being serious, arrogant, and dispassionate. We can empathize with Kitty's straying, given how little in common they have. By the end, Norton has given us a warm and great, altruistic man, and we can see how Kitty would fall deeply in love with him by then.

pv5The supporting cast is superb. Toby Jones (Infamous) plays Waddington with humor, warmth, and earnestness. We form certain prejudices against his character, but his portrayal ultimately leaves us with the impression that he's a good guy. Dianna Rigg (Heidi) is delightful as Mother Superior of a convent in the village, offering comfort and wisdom to both Kitty and the audiences. And Hong Kong star Anthony Wong has an affecting turn as Colonel Yu, whose skepticism of the "foreigners" turns into genuine admiration.

pv6Writer Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) has done a good job adapting the novel. He expands the cultural, social, and political elements of the story while keeping the focus on the relationship between the two leads. The historical backdrop and the cultural aspects of the story are fascinating. What transpires is a rich, multilayered character-driven story that feels real and relevant. The dialogue is sparse but insightful, the relationships between these characters are complex and flawed, and the themes and subtexts are moving.

pv7Director John Curran (They Don't Live Here Anymore) has a grand vision for this film. The sets, the costumes, the production designs are spot on. The Painted Veil is also one of the few recent American films actually shot on location in China, and that gives the film a marvelous realism. Stuart Dryburgh's (The Beautiful Country) cinematography is gorgeous -- a definite feast for the eye. And Alexandre Desplat's (The Queen) scrumptious score complements the film perfectly, giving it a romantic yet despondent feel.

With its delicate production, stellar performances, deft direction, a smart script, and a poignant ending, The Painted Veil harks back to the golden days of Hollywood. It is one of these rare, old-fashioned romantic dramas that delight the senses and nurture the hearts and minds.

Stars: Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber, Bin Wu, Toby Jones, Dianna Rigg, Gesang Meiduo, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang
Director: John Curran
Writer: Ron Nyswaner (based on novel by W. Somerset Maugham)
Distributor: Warners Independent Pictures
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some mature sexual situations, partial nudity, disturbing images and brief drug content
Running Time: 120 minutes


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

Total – 8.2 out of 10

Children of Men

© 2007 Ray Wong


Based on P.D. James's novel, Children of Men delivers a grim future that is familiar yet alien: An apocalyptic glimpse of a world that is both frightening and fascinating, yet offering a sliver of hope at the end.

com1The year is 2027 and the world is in chaos due to the fact that humans can no longer procreate. The death of the youngest human on Earth sends the world into intense grief. Theo (Owen) is a former activist who now leads a sterile life not caring about the world around him. When his former lover, Julian (Moore), contacts him about transporting a young Fuji named Kee (Askitey) to a sanctuary at sea called "Human Projects," Theo only agrees to do it for cash.

com2The trip soon turns into nightmares. More important, Theo discovers the secret of Kee -- she is pregnant. The miracle is phenomenal for the human race and everyone wants a piece of her. Theo finds himself sucked deeper and deeper into this conflict and yet he realizes he must do everything he can to protect Kee and get her to safety. The future of mankind literally depends on her and her baby.

com3Clive Owen (Inside Man) is impressive as the dispassionate Theo, who rediscovers a heroic part of himself that he's long forgotten. Owen is moody, intense but casual, not your typical hero type. His disarming quality serves him very well. Julianne Moore (Freedomland) has a small but pivotal role that basically set the whole thing in motion. She's done a good job.

com4Chiwetel Ejiofor (Inside Man) is convincing as fellow activist/terrorist Luke. You may not agree with his character's action, but you understand his motives; Ejiofor makes you empathize for him, given the situations. Claire-Hope Askitey (Shooting Dogs) impresses as Kee, the walking miracle who simply wants to have a life with her baby. She exudes certain innocence that makes it easy for us to root for her.

com5The rest of the cast is equally impressive: Michael Caine (The Prestige) as Jasper, an award-winning political cartoonist who now lives in seclusion, Charlie Hunnam (Cold Mountain) as Patric, a ruthless activist who has no regard for human lives, Danny Huston (Alpha Male) as Nigel, Theo's political friend, Pam Ferris (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) Mariam, as the devoted midwife attending to Kee, and Peter Mullan (Cargo) as Syd, an unstable military type who helps Theo and Kee escape.

com6The script by Alfonso Cuarón's team (Y tu mamá también) is meticulous and well-conceived. I haven't read the original novel so I can't compare it with the film, but the film version is riveting and raw. As a thriller, boy does this film thrill. As a political drama, it serves its purpose without hitting us on the head with its "message." The pacing is excellent, and the tension is insurmountable. Cuarón also has a great way of surprising and enthralling the audience. There are times when they have to give out information in dialogue that feels too expository; but given the complexity of the story and the amount of time they have to tell it, I am okay with that.

com7What Cuarón truly excels is his execution of the film. The incredible sets, coupled with seamless special effects, have created a world that is disturbing and yet familiar. The writer-director also does not shy from extreme violence and gruesome close-ups, but nothing feels gratuitous -- they are essential parts of the storytelling. There are many memorable moments in the film, from the chaotic streets of London to the tortures in the refugee camps to the birth of Kee's baby. There's one particularly impressive scene that will surely go down in movie history: an intense combat scene with complicated stunts, pyrotechnics, acting, and precise choreography, all shot in one extended take. It's amazing.

Children of Men is not for everyone. It's gritty, gruesome, and raw. It's also a beautifully produced piece of art that will haunt the audiences long after they've left the theaters.

Stars: Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlie Hunnam, Claire-Hope Askitey, Pam Ferris, Danny Huston, Peter Mullan
Director: Aflonso Cuarón
Writers: Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby (based on novel by P.D. James)
Distributor: Universal
MPAA Rating: R for intense violence, language, drug use and brief nudity
Running Time: 109 minutes


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

Total – 8.3 out of 10

Miss Potter

© 2007 Ray Wong


Every parent has told Beatrix Potter's stories, and every child loves them. Miss Potter is a sweet and good-natured biopic about the sweat and good-natured author.

potter1Beatrix Potter (Zellweger) has been drawing and telling stories about her "animal friends" since she was a child (Lucy Boynton). When she takes her stories to publishers Harold (Lesser) and Fruing (Bamber) Warne, they reluctantly agrees to publish her "little book" so that their youngest brother, Norman (McGregor) would have something to do.

potter2Norman and Beatrix hit it off immediately, what with their mutual admiration and enthusiasm. Despite skepticism, her Peter Rabbit book is a success that launches even more stories. Beatrix's mother, Helen (Flynn) disapproves of Beatrix's "career" and would rather her marry off to a "suitable" man. At 32, Beatrix has vowed not to marry, much to her mother's dismay.

Everything changes when Norman and Beatrix fall in love. When Norman proposes to Beatrix, her parents object vehemently. Beatrix defies her parents but agrees to their terms to wait until after the summer, knowing that neither Norman nor her would change their minds. Then everything changes again and Beatrix realizes her life is like her stories -- once they start, she doesn't know where they will lead her...

potter3Renée Zellweger (Cinderella Man) and Ewan McGregor (The Island) reunite after the lukewarm retro-screwball comedy Down with Love. Here, Zellweger is perfect as Miss Potter, a sweet but strong-willed woman who knows what she wants to do. It's always a delight to listen to the native Texan speak with a British tongue. It helps that she and McGregor have tremendous chemistry together. He is remarkably gentle, likable, and ernest as well. Perhaps their characters are somewhat too "perfect" but perfect people do exist, I suppose.

potter4The cast, for the most part, is delightful. Emily Watson (Separate Lies) is affecting as Norman's doting spinster of a sister. She makes a good "third-wheel." Veteran TV actress Barbara Flynn (Cracker) is good as Beatrix's demanding mother, and Bill Paterson (Amazing Grace) is graceful as her good-natured and supportive husband. Matyelok Gibbs (Babel) has a speechless yet amusing role as Miss Wiggin, a housekeeper who inspires one of Beatrix's books. Finally, Lloyd Owen (The Seasons Alter) is dashing as the young solicitor who becomes a very important figure in Beatrix's life.

First-time screenwriter Richard Maltby Jr. has adhered to a family-friendly structure in telling Beatrix Potter's life story. There are no grand conflicts or good vs. evil plot and climaxes. The theme is very clear: it's life. It's refreshing to see a story with no real villains. Maltby's script is crisp but sentimental and conventional. There's nothing risky here, so sometimes it feels a little too old-fashioned. At the same time, the story and the characters are charming enough to hold our interest. The first two acts are particularly lovely and heart-warming. The last act, however, falls somewhat flat as there is no clear plot movement or a definitive ending -- it just somehow lingers, like a sweet memory.

potter5Director Chris Noonan (Babe) returns after a long hiatus and his effort pays off. Miss Potter is exquisitely charming, warm and fuzzy, much like his claim of fame: Babe. Noonan has a knack of capturing the essence of well-meaning characters, affecting relationships, and gorgeous country vistas. The cinematography is lovely. The animation is cute, showing Beatrix Potter's imaginative mind wonderfully. The pacing is solid. All in all, much like her wonderful children books, Miss Potter is a charming story that the whole family can enjoy.

Stars: Renée Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, Emily Watson, Barbara Flynn, Bill Paterson, Matyelok Gibbs, Lloyd Owen, Anton Lesser, David Bamber
Director: Chris Noonan
Writer: Richard Maltby Jr.
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
MPAA Rating: PG for brief mild language
Running Time: 92 minutes


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

Total – 7.2 out of 10