La Vie en Rose

© 2007 Ray Wong


For the French or those who grew up in the 40s and 50s, they may know who and how big a French chanteuse Edith Piaf was. Even for those of us who are not familiar with her, her life story is a fascinating cautionary tale of love, dreams, excesses and tragedies.

photo1Edith Gassion (Marion Cotillard) is a poor child living on the streets of Paris. Her father, Louis (Jean-Paul Rouve) takes her away from her irresponsible mother and places her with his mother, who is a madam of a brothel. Kind prostitute Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner) quickly becomes Edith's surrogate mother, until Louis returns from WWI and takes Edith with him as he finds work in the circus as a contortionist.

photo2Soon Louis and Edith become street performers to make a living. That's when Edith realizes she is a natural singer. Years later, while hustling on the street with her best friend Momone (Sylvie Testud), Edith is discovered by cabaret entrepreneur Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu), who wants to mold her into a cabaret star -- changes her name to Edith Piaf -- and introduces her to his entertainment friends. One of these friends, Raymond Asso (Marc Barbe), takes her in after Leplee is assassinated. Raymond trains her to become one of France's most celebrated singers.

photo3But nothing is rosy in Edith's turbulent life. Her early drug and alcohol addiction only goes deeper as she finds fame and fortune, which also makes her "difficult" around people who love her, including Momone. She finds true love with married boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins), and that has to be one of happiest times of her life. Her health, however, becomes to deteriorate after tragedies strike.

photo4Like Helen Mirren in last year's The Queen, Marion Cotillard (A Good Year) is a revelation. Her tour-de-force performance transforms her to embody the heart and soul of the legendary singer. I hardly even recognize the beauty from A Good Year. Throughout the film, Cotillard ages from age 20 to mid-40s, from a blossoming street singer to a decrepit empty shell whose dyed red hair is falling out. Marion Cotillard is mesmerizing and deserves an Oscar nomination, perhaps even a win.

photo5The rest of the cast is wonderful as well. Sylvie Testud (La France) is affecting as Momone. You can really feel her anguish when she realizes her friendship with Edith is gone. She and Cotillard have a genuine onscreen relationship. As the prostitute with a heart of gold, Emmanuelle Seigner (Four Last Songs) is heartbreaking to watch. Gerard Depardieu (Paris, Je T'aime) is wonderfully understated as Louis Leplee, the man who changed Edith's life and became her "Papa." And Jean-Pierre Martins (Empire of Wolves) is handsome and charming as Marcel Cerdan, a perfect match for Cotillard's Edith.

photo6The screenplay by writer-director Olivier Dahan (La Vie Promise -- the Promised Life) and Isabelle Sobelman is rather difficult to follow, at least in the beginning, as the story jumps around in time and bits and pieces of Edith's life is presented in sometimes-unrelated segments. I understand what they intend to do and I appreciate the slow and intricate reveals -- it is fascinating to piece everything together, which makes the ending of the film extremely powerful. However, the editing is very challenging for the audiences, and it takes a while to get used to it. It is simply not the best way to tell a story, and it gives off a somewhat "pretentious" art-house vibe.

photo7To their credit, however, the story makes no apologies and never tries to sugarcoat Edith Piaf's life. She's depicted as a junkie, an alcoholic, an adulterer, and a difficult diva. She is constantly rude and cruel to the people around her. And yet, by watching her life in pieces spanned across time, we understand where she comes from and where she is going, and in truth comes to care about her and feel for her, even though we may not identify with her. We come to understand why her friends are loyal to her, even when she treats them like crap. And that is a challenge -- how can we identify with someone who is brash, selfish, and a total wreck in her personal life? I find myself resisting her while being fascinated by her turbulent life and how her star rises and dims.

photo8In Dahan's hands, the movie has a wonderful, romantic period look to it, and the pacing is good, even for such a personal drama, at more than two hours of running time. Dahan is able to capture the energy, the grandeur, the sleaze, the loneliness and solitude, and the cruelty surrounding Edith Piaf. And when the camera is trained on Marion Cotillard, we can't help but be captivated by her essence and presence.

Then, of course, there is the music. I was only slightly familiar with Piaf's songs until now: La Vie en Rose, Padam, Padam, L'Hymne A L'Amour, Lisieux, etc. They are gorgeous, and make me appreciate Edith Piaf's talent, and recognize why she was such a star: the Judy Garland of France. At the end, when she starts to sing Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, which perfectly captures her life and her spirit, it is a powerful scene and a definitive moment that summarizes la vie en Edith Piaf.

Stars: Marion Cotillard, Sylvie Testud, Pascal Greggory, Emmanuelle Seigner, Jean-Paul Rouve, Gerard Depardieu, Clotilde Courau, Jean-Pierre Martins, Catherine Allegret, Marc Barbe
Director: Olivier Dahan
Writers: Olivier Dahan, Isabelle Sobelman
Distributor: Picturehouse
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for substance abuse, sexual content, brief nudity, language
Running Time: 140 Minutes


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

Total – 7.3 out of 10


© 2007 Ray Wong


Like the titular dish (and a clever wordplay), Ratatouille is simple, subtle, yet a wonderful experience to be enjoyed by everyone, young and old.

photo1Remy (Patton Oswalt) is an ordinary rat with an extraordinary sense of smell and taste. Remy's idol is world-renowned chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett), whose motto is that "anyone can cook." Remy dreams of becoming a chef, too, but his family thinks he's nuts, until his sense of smell saves the whole clan -- that is, Remy is assigned the task to sniff out poisonous food.

photo2A disaster on the home front forces the clan to move, and in the process Remy gets separated from his family and ends up, through the sewers, in Paris; and finally at Gusteau's kitchen. When a garbage boy, Linguini (Lou Romano), messes up the soup, Remy comes to the rescue. The trouble is, the soup is a sensation and the head chef, Skinner (Ian Holm), thinks that Linguini is a fake and demands him to re-create the soup. Having no choice, Linguini teams up with Remy in a Cyrano-de-Bergerac way: Remy would cook by hiding in Linguini's toque and controlling Linguini's hands and body. Working together with Colette (Janeane Garofalo), Linguini develops strong feelings for her while trying to conceal the fact that he can't cook.

photo3Remy's cooking is creating a stir and reviving Gusteau's reputation as one of Paris's best restaurants, and rousing the curiosity of food critic Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole), who was responsible for taking two stars away from the once five-star Gusteau's. Meanwhile, Skinner suspects something is behind Linguini's success and he's determined to smoke out the rat, so to speak.

photo4The voice talents in Ratatouille are phenomenal in that they all fit the characters perfectly, delivering lively and affecting performances. As Remy, comedian Patton Oswalt (The King of Queens) is delightful, reminding us of Nathan Lane but also creating his own brand of friendliness in his voice. As the klutzy Linguini, Lou Romano (The Incredibles, also Pixar's artist) is perfectly goofy and sincere. Remy and Linguini don't really talk with each other (while Remy can understand the humans, his speech comes off as squeaks in Linguini's ears), but their individual voices still create a wonderful overall dynamic.

photo5Ian Holm (The Aviator) is remarkable as the frantic, conniving Skinner. He gave Skinner a wildly comical voice, which in the hands of a lesser actor could very well go over the top. As Colette, Janeane Garofalo (Southland Tales) is sweet but spunky. Sometimes she does go over the top and it's a bit difficult to understand her faux French accent. Brad Garrett (Music and Lyrics) provides a jolly and heartfelt voice for Gusteau, the chef who inspires Remy (and later becomes his conscience) to follow his dream. The standout is the formidable Peter O'Toole (Venus) as the feared critic. He helps make Anton Ego become one of Pixar's most impressive "villain."

photo6As writer and director, Brad Bird (The Incredibles) is involved in every aspect of the production, and his magical touches are evident everywhere. Bird's previous works such as The Incredibles and Iron Giant have cemented his place in the world of animation, and Ratatouille will only further establish him as a god. As with The Incredibles, the film is light in tone, high on humor (but void of crude potty jokes), and great with memorable characters and a plot that moves and twists. Sure, the theme of "follow your dream" is not new, especially in family films, but Brad Bird's story goes beyond that. For a G-rated family animation, the story is surprisingly mature. Clearly Brad Bird and Pixar have adults in mind when making this film. While children will definitely enjoy the animation, the action, and the cute characters, the themes are quite mature, and adults will truly appreciate the humor, dialogue, and story. It's not as flashy as The Incredibles or Cars, but I really appreciate the maturity of the story and the broad range of humor (from physical slapsticks to simple, funny lines).

photo7Good writing is only half the battle. I'm pleased to say that Ratatouille does not disappoint as far as the animation is concerned. It's one of the most delightful, beautiful and amazing production even by Pixar's stellar standards. The rats move like real rats (without being grotesque), the furs look real, and Pixar has perfected the water, which is one of the hardest thing to animate. When the characters get drenched, you can feel how their furs clump together or their clothes cling to their bodies. When they cook, you can almost smell and taste the food, which looks deliciously real. And Paris literally comes to life with amazing details -- sometimes the sceneries are so photorealistic we really feel that we're there. The CG animation has the striking fluidity of hand-drawn animation, coupled with the details of CG, giving us a full experience.

photo8For an animation nut like myself, Ratatouille is a marvel to behold. The story is wonderfully thought out, the performances pitch perfect, and the humor delightful. And for everyone else, the film simply entertains with an unexpected and satisfying finish. Even if you don't care about the lessons, you will no doubt be wowed by the quality of the animation and the lighthearted story about love, friendship, and food. After the movie, I bet you can't wait to rush home and find a recipe for ratatouille -- I did.

Stars: Patton Oswalt, Lou Romano, Peter O'Toole, Ian Holm, Janeane Garofalo, Brad Garrett
Director: Brad Bird
Writers: Brad Bird, Jim Capabianco, Emily Cook, Kathy Greenberg, Jan Pinkava
Distributor: Pixar/Buena Vista
MPAA Rating: G for some intense moments that may scare little children
Running Time: 122 Minutes


Script – 8
Performance – 9
Direction – 9
Animation – 10
Music/Sound– 9
Editing – 8
Production – 10

Total – 9.1 out of 10

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

© 2007 Ray Wong


A surfer from outer space that looks like a life-size silver Oscars statue? Simply judging from the premise, we know we can't take this Fantastic Four sequel too seriously. And we shouldn't. Compared to more "serious" comic-book movies such as Spider-Man or X-Men, Fantastic Four has always been pure camp and fun, and this installment is no exception.

photo1Dr. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), aka Mr. Fantastic, and Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) are getting married. Unfortunately, their nuptial continues to get postponed because of their responsibilities (and celebrity) as part of the Fantastic Four. But this time, Reed is determined to make Sue happy by sticking to the wedding plans, even though he's still obsessed with his research. On the other hand, Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) is still playing the field, as Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) settles down with Alicia (Kerry Washington).

photo2A mysterious meteorite-like object flies over the globe, creating unnatural phenomena and large craters in various parts of the world. A military operation, headed by General Hager (Andre Braugher), demands the Fantastic Four to give them some answers. Soon they find out the object is actually a silver alien (voiced by Lawrence Fishburne, acted by Doug Jones) riding on a silver surfboard, and he's here to destroy Earth. To capture the Silver Surfer, the military enlists Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), who mysteriously reappears. Of course, Victor has his own agenda, and the Fantastic Four discover that it may very well be too late to save the world.

photo3As the Fantastic Four, Ioan Gruffudd (Amazing Grace), Jessica Alba (Sin City), Chris Evans (The Nanny Diaries), and Michael Chiklis (The Shield) reprise their respective roles with good chemistry and energy. Their performances are generally broad and two-dimensional, which serve the genre well. photo4Julian McMahon (Premonition) also reprises his role as Victor Von Doom, the F4's ambitious archenemy. Unfortunately, McMahon is either hidden under a large, dark hood, or reduced to a few stock sinister expressions.

photo5Kerry Washington (I Think I Love My Wife) is sweet as Ben's love interest, but she really doesn't have much to do. Andre Braugher (Poseidon) is brash and commanding as General Hager -- his performance is rather one note. Doug Jones (Lady in the Water) acts as the model for the CG character Silver Surfer, while Lawrence Fishburne (TMNT) lends his deep, soulful voice. Ironically, it's the CG character that provides the most interesting performance in the ensemble production.

photo6The screenplay by Don Payne (My Super Ex-Girlfriend) and Mark Frost (The Greatest Game Ever Played) manages to keep the light, fluffy, tongue-in-cheek tone of the franchise. Truth be told, the story is rather juvenile, even for comic books. The dialogue is campy, and the plot unfolds without much suspense -- it's entirely predictable. And don't expect any character depths and grand themes either. To their credits, the writers do maintain a high octane level of entertainment value. It's never really dull, even if we've seen the show many times before. Much credit goes to the likeability and chemistry of the cast.

photo7Director Tim Story (Taxi) does an adequate job in keeping the pace fast and the tone light. The action sequences are well choreographed, albeit pedestrian. The plot takes us all over the world, but interestingly it seems like all major events only happen at well-known places with monuments (Mt. Fuji, the London Eye, the Great Wall of China, the Washington Monument, to name a few). Truly this film is aimed at the lower common denominator -- there's really nothing wrong with that. It's just difficult to take this movie seriously, even by comic book standards.

photo8There's enough humor and action to entertain us. But with is juvenile plot, cheesy dialogue, and mediocre special effects, the movie is far from being fantastic.

Stars: Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Michael Chiklis, Julian McMahon, Kerry Washington, Andre Braugher, Lawrence Fishburne, Doug Jones, Beau Garrett
Director: Tim Story
Writers: Don Payne, Mark Frost, John Turman
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
MPAA Rating: PG for sequences of action violence, some mild language and innuendo
Running Time: 92 Minutes


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

Total – 6.5 out of 10

Ocean's Thirteen

© 2007 Ray Wong


George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and director Steven Soderbergh reunite to bring us yet another glossy tale of one-upmanship, and they’re starting to struggle to stay new and fresh.

o1Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his gang are at it again, and this time it’s personal. Reuben (Elliott Gould) has suffered a heart attack after he’s been forced out of a co-ownership by casino tycoon Willie Bank (Al Pacino). Danny, Rusty (Brad Pitt), Linus (Matt Damon) and the others decide on a revenge mission: a) to make Bank lose the coveted 5-diamond ranking for his hotel-casino, and b) to cut his opening night profit so deep that the ownership will revert back to Reuben.

o2As security expert Roman Nagel (Eddie Izzard), one of Ocean’s cohorts, tell them: they’re analog players in a digital world. The advance technologies Bank employs at his casino are state of the art and impenetrable – or so they say. Danny and the gang have to prove them wrong. They concoct a deliberate scheme to not disable the security – they can’t – but to use it to their advantage. All is going well until a major setback forces them to ask their nemesis, Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), for help. Of course, nothing comes for free – Terry’s condition is for the Ocean’s gang to steal Bank’s diamonds, which are housed in a super-secure vault room.

o3Since Ocean’s Eleven, many of the cast members have gone on to stardom, so it’s a true testament of the camaraderie, the films’ successes, and Steven Soderbergh’s draw to reunite all of them again. One can only imagine the payroll just for the stars’ salaries. The three major players are Brad Pitt (Babel), George Clooney (The Good German), and Matt Damon (The Good Shepherd). Taking a break from their critically acclaimed dramatic performances, they’re back with their slick haircuts, button-down shirts and designer shoes. Their comedic timing and camaraderie are evident on screen. These guys are true buddies, and it shows.

o4The other cast members are having a great time as well, even though they’re all vying for screen time. Elliott Gould (Ocean’s Twelve) spends most of his time lying in bed, but manages to have some fun at the end. Eddie Jemison (Waitress) plays the technical guru to perfection – he has a great scene trying to pass a lie detector test. Don Cheadle (Reign Over Me) doesn’t have much to do this time but he has one funny scene as Fender Roads, a motorcycle daredevil. Shaobo Qin (Ocean’s Twelve) only gets to show his acrobatic skills once. Casey Affleck (The Last Kiss) and Scott Caan (Friends With Money) have a good time playing con men Virgil and Turk – they are a funny duo. Bernie Mac (Pride) and Carl Reiner (Ocean’s Twelve) are more low key this time. And Andy Garcia (The Air I Breathe) is mellower, having a good time toying with both sides.

o5New cast members include Al Pacino (88 Minutes) as the ruthless Willie Bank. He, too, has a good time letting a bit of his Michael Corleone persona come through (it's also interesting to note the Godfather connections within the cast). Eddie Izzard (My Super Ex-Girlfriend) has a small role as one of Danny Ocean’s consultants. Ellen Barkin (Trust the Man) is the sole female player in the entire cast, playing Willie Bank’s right-hand woman who has a thing for Matt Damon’s alter ego. And David Paymer (In Good Company) is hilarious as the V.U.P. (Very Unlucky Person).

o6The script by Brian Koppelman and David Levien (both for Runaway Jury) is tight and smooth. Given the complicated plot and a huge cast of characters, they’ve done a good job keeping it straight and less confusing. Of course, with that comes the tradeoffs – everything seems too smooth and easy. It’s slick and glossy, and the plot plays out like a Coyote/Roadrunner cartoon (incidentally, this is a Warner Bros. movie). The dialogue is crisp and the humor is potent. The pace is fast and sometimes disorienting – you really have to pay attention or else you’ll blink and miss important plot points.

o7Director Steven Soderbergh (The Good German) seems to have a ball making this third installment of the highly popular series. It helps that there’s great chemistry among the cast and crew, and the banters and repartee on screen seem genuine. Soderbergh keeps the pace moving, and the crosscutting is interesting. There’s great energy in the film and he manages to keep things straightforward enough so they don’t confuse the audience. Still, with so much going on and so many characters, it is possible to get lost. Soderbergh uses many tricks to clue in the audience, including quick inserts, smart flashbacks, and expository dialogue. The production value is good – it really is a well-oiled machine.

o8While Ocean’s Thirteen is entertaining and great fun, I do feel that the series is coming to an end. The players have grown up and most of them have moved on to bigger, better things. And the plot, however smart and fun, is losing its originality and freshness. How many times do we want to see similar cons and tricks? Maybe it’s time to pack up – after all, Ocean’s Fourteen will not only sound funky, it’ll also be a parody all in itself.

Stars: Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Elliott Gould, Al Pacino, Eddie Jemison, Don Cheadle, Shaobo Qin, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Bernie Mac, Carl Reiner, Eddie Izzard, Ellen Barkin, Andy Garcia, David Paymer
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writers: Brian Koppelman, David Levien, George Clayton Johnson, Jack Golden Russell
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for stylized violence and language
Running Time: 122 Minutes


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

Editing – 8

Production – 8

Total –7.6 out of 10

Paris, je t'aime

© Ray Wong


Ah, Paris, the City of Light. The City of Love. A few dozen directors contribute their short stories, all of which set in Paris, to draw a picture of what Paris is all about.

The film is divided into about 20 short segments, each seemingly unrelated to others, with the exception that the stories are set in Paris. In Tuileries, for examples, an American tourist (Steve Buscemi) gets himself into a bit of trouble when he makes eye contact with a pretty French girl. In Place des Victoires, Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) is a grieving mother looking for solace. In Quartier des Enfants Rouges, Liz (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is an American actress looking for a fix. In Pigalle, Bob Leander (Bob Hoskins) is trying to reignite a fire between his wife (Fanny Ardant) and him.

In Quartier de la Madeleine, a tourist (Elijah Wood) is being attacked by a vampire (Olga Kurylenko). In Pere-Lachaise, William (Rufus Sewell) is about to lose his fiance Frances (Emily Mortimer) if not for the ghost of Oscar Wilde (Alexander Payne). In Faubourg Saint-Denis, an American actress (Natalie Portman) hooks up with a blind man (Melchior Besion) in a turbulent relationship.

Each of these unrelated stories are named after a Parisian neighborhood in which they happen, and they have a common theme: Love. Sometimes the love is forced, sometimes lost. Sometimes it's simulated, and sometimes awakened. Sometimes it's misunderstood, and sometimes it withers. Sometimes it's mundane and sometimes fantastical. Some of these stories have a beginning, middle and end, maybe even a twist. Sometimes, it's just a slice of life, a vignette of circumstances and feelings.

Given the various talents involved in this film anthology, the writing can be uneven sometimes, ranging from bizarre to profound. But each segment gives us a glimpse of humanity, whether it's mundane or desperate.

The actors all do wonderful work here. American audiences are going to be delighted by the familiar faces such as Natalie Portman, Elijah Wood, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Steve Buscemi, or Bob Hoskins. But the French and British actors such as Juliette Binoche, Gerard Depardieu or Miranda Richardson. The unfamiliar cast, too, adds magic to the production. Their performances are by and large real, nuanced, and heartfelt.

The directors get to work their magic in small chunks as well. For example, Wes Craven, known for his blood-lusting horror, turns in a rather sweet examination of couple-hood. The Coen brothers, on the other hand, are true to form in delivering a biting satire starring the hapless Steve Buscemi. Alfonso Cuaron loosens up to give us a wonderful little nugget starring Nick Nolte. And the list goes on.

While there's no real plot, no obvious story arcs, and sometimes it may not even make sense. And yet, individually each presents something interesting and unique. And on the whole, they give us something to think and smile about.


Stars: Steve Buscemi, Miranda Richardson, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Nick Nolte, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Bob Hoskins, Elijah Wood, Rufus Sewell, Emily Mortimer, Alexander Payne, Natalie Portman, Gerard Depardieu, Gena Rowlands, Wes Craven
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Wes Craven, Alfonso Cuaron, Gerard Depardieu, Alexander Payne, Walter Salles, Gus Van Sant, etc.
Writers: Gus Van Sant, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Walter Salles, Alfonso Cuaron, Wes Craven, et el.
Distributor: First Look International
MPAA Rating: R for language, drug use, sensuality
Running Time: 120 Minutes


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

Total –7.8 out of 10