© 2007 Ray Wong


It's been a while since a science fiction film captured our imagination and emotions the way 2001: Space Odyssey and Alien did. The promotion of Danny Boyle's Sunshine often refers to the the aforementioned classics, and not without reasons.

photo1The year is 2057, and our Sun is dying, and Earth has entered an ice age. After the first attempt failed seven years before, a group of scientist-astronauts were sent to re-ignite the star. The Sun is destroying itself from the inside by a dark matter, and the astronauts are to deliver a payload (basically a nuclear fusion bomb) the size of Manhattan to the center of the Sun.

photo2They've traveled for 16 months in a ship called Icarus II: they have a self-sustaining life support system (home grown food, recycled water, replenished oxygen, etc.) But being cooped up for such a long time makes the crew lose perspective from time to time. As they reach Mercury, they receive a distress signal from the previous crew on Icarus I. They decide to divert their course to unite with Icarus I, trying to reclaim their payload as a backup. Things go terribly wrong when navigation officer Trey (Benedict Wong) makes a serious mistake. When they finally arrive at Icarus I, the mission runs into serious trouble -- not only is their own survival in jeopardy, but the fate of the human race is in question as they are Earth's only hope.

photo3The international cast is excellent. As physicist Capa, Cillian Murphy (Breakfast on Pluto) shines with his broody, understated performance as the man with the mission-critical responsibility: he is the only person who knows exactly how to operate the bomb. Conflicted, uncertain, and soulful, the character comes to life in Murphy's impeccable hands. As Mace, Chris Evans (Fantastic Four) shows his dramatic chops as the aggressive astronaut whose only concern is the success of the mission. Murphy and Evans play off each other very well.

photo4Japanese superstar Hiroyuki Sanada (The Last Samurai) is effectively determined, sullen, and heroic as Captain Kaneda. Cliff Curtis (Live Free and Die Hard) is interesting as inquisitive Searle. Rose Byrne (Marie Antoinette) gives a sincere, sweet, and strong performance as Cassie. Michelle Yeoh (Memoirs of a Geisha) is solid as biologist Corazon, the nurturing mother figure in the cast. Benedict Wong (Code 46) is heartbreaking as the navigation officer whose mistakes put everyone and the mission in danger. Troy Garity (After the Sunset) effectively show the lack of spine as communication officer Harvey. And Mark Strong (Stardust) has a mostly "unseen" role as Captain Pinbacker of Icraus I.

photo5Written by Alex Garland (28 Days Later), the script retains the somber, dire tone of his previous films. The first half of the film is wonderful, probably one of the best sci-fi in recent years with its intelligent dialogue, exquisite setups, interesting character studies, and moody settings. One can see the parallels between Sunshine and, say, 2001: Space Odyssey and Alien. The premise is somewhat far-fetched, but Garland explains it just well enough to suspend our disbelief. The psychological aspect of the film is also spot-on, leaving us with a tense feeling through and through. The film also brilliantly examines themes such as duty, destiny, leadership, heroism, humanity, and spirituality.

photo6Unfortunately, the story takes on a bizarre, and uneven turn after the characters arrive at Icarus I. And the tone of the film changes from a pure man vs. nature disaster sci-fi to a man vs. man horror/thriller. And that switch disappoints, not only because it's incredulous, but also for the derivative execution. The story loses its focus and the plot stretches its credibility. That's when the film tries too hard to be Alien.

photo7Director Danny Boyle (28 Days Later) brings a beautiful vision to the production. The special effects are spectacular, and the moody sets hark back to the greatest sci-fi films in history. Boyle also effectively uses techniques such as extreme close-ups, suspenseful camera angles, colors and lighting to great effects. The first half of the film truly is a masterpiece, one of the best for the genre. Unfortunately, Boyle also falls prey to the second half of the story, resorting to fast cuts, shaky-cam, jerky camera movements and confusing action sequences. The film also loses its vision by following a more standard slasher-horror approach and hurrying toward the denouement (which is actually rather eloquent on its own). The result is uneven at best, and contrived at worst.

photo8Over all, Sunshine is the the gem it could have been, because of the last act. Yet, it is a great departure from the garbage Hollywood is doling out every year. The first two-thirds of the film is an excellent reason to see the film on the big screen. It's just a shame that the sunshine flames out at the end.

Stars: Cillian Murphy, Cliff Curtis, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Benedict Wong, Troy Garity, Hiroyuki Sanada
Director: Danny Boyle
Writer: Alex Garland
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
MPAA Rating: R for violent content and language
Running Time: 108 Minutes


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

Total – 7.8 out of 10

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry

© 2007 Ray Wong


I don't know what I expected from Adam Sandler. I'm not part of his demographics (boys, age 14-25). I didn't enjoy his earlier hits such as Happy Gilmore and Waterboy. I was mildly entertained by Click. That's it. That's probably why I gave I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry a try.

photo1Chuck Levine (Adam Sandler) and Larry Valentine (Kevin James) are two Brooklyn firefighters. And straight. Larry is a widower with two young children, and Chuck is a big-time womanizer. When Larry discovers that the only way he can change his pension beneficiary from his wife to his children is by getting married again, but the only person he can trust to take care of his children is Chuck. So Larry concocts a plan: he and Chuck could pretend to be a gay couple and claim domestic partnership.

photo2Chuck reluctantly agrees. All is going well until the city starts to suspect the legitimacy of their claim. They consult a lawyer, Alex McDonough (Jessica Biel), who happens to be a hot babe. Chuck has to hide his attraction toward Alex while trying to convince Alex that he and Larry are indeed a gay couple. To seal the deal, Chuck and Larry go to Canada to get married. Meanwhile, investigator Clinton Fitzer (Steve Buscemi) watches them with a hawk's eye. So Chuck moves in with Larry and the kids. Words get out, and now they have to deal with the homophobia thrown at them from their colleagues as well as the community.

photo3Adam Sandler (Click) is doing what he does best: playing an infantile man-boy who is homophobic, misogynistic, and downright crude and rude to everyone. Sandler can do all that in his sleep. The trouble is, he is walking a very fine line of being funny and simply being obnoxious, especially if he's a role model for his fan base. Kevin James (Hitch) is in good form as the cuddly, lovable family man -- the straight man (so to speak) in this comedic duo. Still, they both are typecast in their respective roles; nothing wrong with that, really.

photo4As the object of Sandler's affection (or lust), Jessica Biel (The Illusionist) is effervescent, sweet, and sexy. Her comic timing is very good and adds something more sensible to this sophomoric comedy. Dan Aykroyd (Christmas with the Kranks) has not much to do except to deliver some cringe-worthy one-liners as Captain Tucker. Ving Rhames (Idlewild) steals the show by making fun of his onscreen image. Steve Buscemi (I Think I Love My Wife) adds another creepy, weird character on his resume.

photo5Written by Barry Fanaro (Men in Black II), Alexander Payne (Sideways), and Jim Taylor (Sideways), the script is surprisingly coarse, childish, and uneven. I would think the Oscar-winning Sideways scribes would add some class, or at least something though-provoking to the story. Instead, what we get are recycled jokes and outdated gags that may have worked in, say, the 80's. Sure, as an Adam Sandler vehicle, there are some genuinely funny moments, and the chemistry and interplay between Sandler and James are wonderful.

photo6Reuniting with Adam Sandler, director Dennis Dungan (The Benchwarmers) has taken the safe route with this sophomoric comedy. There is really nothing special about the directing, but he does the job.

photo7Still, do we need another "drop the soap" joke and gratuitous male nudity? Not to mention the stereotypes. I know, stressing the stereotypes and ignorance sounds funny. But when you see that all gay men are either sissies or drag queens, or all women are lusty sex objects, or all straight men are bumbling idiots, you just can't help but find it offensive, even in the context of a comedy. There's nothing funny about tiresome old jokes. They do try to shoehorn some sensitivity messages in the film ("gay people are people, too" or "love is love") but they come as almost an afterthought. The whole point of the movie is to make teenage boys laugh, and they sure are not going to laugh at themselves. For example, the recurring "yuck factor" of two guys kissing only serves to make the audience go "Eww!" A blast to the past, isn't it?

photo8The misogyny and racism presented in the film are just as bad as the gay jokes, and I am not sure where the filmmakers really stand. Jessica Biel's character is naive, clueless and all boobs and ass. I find it nauseating that they cast Rob Schneider (uncredited) as a Canadian-Japanese wedding coordinator. Granted, Schneider is part-Asian but the casting choice is not the problem -- the problem is that they have to stress every demeaning Asian stereotype. Why does he have to be Japanese? For no other reason than that funny-looking Asians with funny-sounding accents are supposed to be funny. Now, that's offensive.

There's nothing risky about this film: the casting is safe, the jokes are recycled, and even the sensitivity issue is glossed over in the context of "it's a Adam Sandler comedy." So get over it. The premise could have led to a profoundly humorous look at straight vs. gay America (as in Transamerica). It would have been funnier had one of the characters been gay. But the filmmakers really miss the boat on this one. They choose, instead, to be lowbrow. With that, I now pronounce the film NOT FUNNY.

Stars: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Jessica Biel, Dan Aykroyd, Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi
Director: Dennis Dugan
Writer: Barry Fanaro, Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Distributor: Universal
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for crude sexual content, nudity, language, and drug references
Running Time: 110 Minutes


Script – 5
Performance – 6
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 7
Music/Sound– 6
Editing – 7
Production – 7

Total – 5.6 out of 10

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

© 2007 Ray Wong


The darkest and most adult of the franchise (earning itself a PG-13 rating), The Order of the Phoenix is an ambitious undertaking, crossing over to a more kids-unfriendly neighborhood while trying to maintain the wonderment of the series.

photo1After Cedric's death, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is having trouble coping. An attack by the Dementors, while Harry is spending the summer with the Dursleys, forces Harry to use magic in front of the muggles. Harry is promptly expelled from Hogwarts for violating the wizardry code of conduct. An underground group of witches and wizards, who call themselves the Order of the Phoenix, come to the rescue. There, Harry unites with his godfather, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman).

photo2Harry's expulsion is overturned at a hearing at the Ministry of Magic. However, the Ministry of Magic does not believe Harry when he says Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned. They send Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) as the new teacher of Defense Against Dark Art to interfere with Hogwarts matter. Forbidden by Umbridge to defend themselves, Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron convince Harry to go underground and form a group called Dumbledore's Army and teach themselves. When Umbridge discovers Dumbledore's Army, she forces Dumbledore to resign and she takes over Hogwarts with an iron fist.

photo3Meanwhile, Harry is having nightmares, and in one of them, he feels that he is the one who attacks Ron's (Rupert Grint) father. When Harry dreams that Voldemort is attacking Sirius at the Ministry of Magic, he's determined to rescue him, despite Hermione's warning that it may be a trap. Once there, they're trapped by the Death Eaters until the Order of the Phoenix shows up. A battle ensures.

photo4Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter series) has matured as an actor through this series. In this film, the story rests much more heavily on his shoulders, and he's done a good job conveying Harry's angst, confusion and excitement. Emma Watson and Ruper Grint have less to do in this film than previously, mostly retreating to the background as Harry's sidekicks. Their innocence is still evident, but you have a feeling that they're finally coming of age.

photo5Gary Oldman (Batman Begins) reprises his role as Sirius Black. His performance is more subdue and peripheral here, given the complexity of the plot and the large cast of characters, as well as the focus of the film being on Harry and Dumbledore. Alan Rickman (Sweeney Todd) continues to have fun playing Professor Snape, and in one scene reveals a lot of what the character is about. Michael Gambon (The Good Sheperd) is serviceable as Dumbledore, but he seems to be losing that twinkle that makes the wizard such a beloved character. And Ralph Fiennes (Land of the Blind) is still nasty as Lord Voldemort.

photo6Imelda Staunton (Nanny McPhee) deftly personifies Dolores Umbridge, what with her frilly pink dresses, tiny teacups, and kitten plates on the walls. She uses her diminutive size and wicked smile to add that needed spark in Umbridge's evilness. By contrast, Helena Bonham Carter (Sweeney Todd) plays Death Eater Bellatrix Lestrange with uninspired snarling and witch-laughs.

photo7Writer Michael Goldberg (Peter Pan) has the daunting task of turning JK Rowling's behemoth novel (at over 800 pages, it is the longest of the series) into a two-hour movie. Obviously, he has to cut a lot, to the horror of fans everywhere. I think he's done a good job condensing the complex plot into management threads that are easy to follow. He keeps the expository dialogue to a minimum and moves the plot along briskly. What he sacrifices, though, is the intricate relationships because the characters, as well as some significant character development. For example, we're told of the close bond between Sirius and Harry, but we really don't see much of it, or feel it -- that makes the final moments of the film devoid of the emotional punch we expect. He also focuses too much on Harry's plot line, cutting out Hermione's and Ron's subplots, for example. It may have helped make the story more focused, but it definitely takes away some of the emotional elements as we've come to care about these characters so much.

photo8Director David Yates (Rank) is an interesting choice to direct both Phoenix and the upcoming Half-Blood Prince. With his mostly-TV work, He lacks certain pedigree. However, Yates proves to have the technical skills to pull it off. Continuing the dark tone of Goblet of Fire, the film has a look and feel of a horror film: dark, moody settings, odd camera angles and movements. There are parts of the movie that may be too frightening for small children. The pacing is brisk and effective. The cinematography seems dark and muted, certainly a stylistic choice but I am not sure if I agree with it. I think the material is dark enough that he doesn't need to enhance it by turning the ambience down. The special effects, in general, are very good, especially during the final battle scenes (make sure you watch it on IMAX 3D).

Overall, I enjoy the film very much and think it's one of the best in the series. However, not having read the book, I have many questions after seeing the film, and that may also signify the problem with the screenplay. Those who have read the novel might understand what is going, but those who haven't might be scratching their heads about the perceived plot holes. There are obvious flaws, and the lack of emotional punch at the end is a letdown.

Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, Michael Gambon, Imelda Staunton, Emma Thompson, Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Ralph Fiennes
Director: David Yates
Writer: Michael Goldenberg (based on JK Rowling's novel)
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images
Running Time: 138 Minutes


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

Total – 7.4 out of 10

The Golden Door


© 2007 Ray Wong


As an immigrant, I'm drawn to the premise of The Golden Door, a family saga set in early 20th century about an Italian family. The film is interesting in that it doesn't have a traditional story arc (conflicts, climax, heroes/villains, etc.); rather, it is an elegant portrait of immigrants told from the eyes of a man with a dream.

photo1Salvatore Mancuso (Vincenzo Amato) is a poor, widowed farmer from Sicily. He's tired of his meaningless life and decides to leave for the United States to find his twin brother. He's heard the tall tales about America: money that grows on trees, rivers of milk, and vegetables as large as donkeys. He coerces his two sons, Angelo (Francesco Casisa) and Pietro (Filippo Pucillo), together with his mother Fortunata (Aurora Quattrocchi), to come with him on the long journey. Angelo is on the verge of becoming a man, and Pietro is too stubborn to talk. Fortunata just wants to stay home, but she comes along to help bring her twin sons back together.

photo2On the ship, Salvatore meets mysterious Lucy Reed (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a British woman desperate to find a husband so she, too, can enter America. Lucy has a lot of suitors, but for some reason, she chooses Salvatore, who is only too happy to oblige. Once they arrive at Ellis Island, they go through a series of trials and tribulations and face the possibility of being deported. Only a small island has the power to separate them from their dreams.

photo3Multilingual Charlotte Gainsbourg (21 Grams) plays the British immigrant with reserve. She hardly smiles, except occasionally at Salvatore. She schemes her way into the Mancuso family only to secure her chance to enter America. We don't know much about her, except that she's been stood up before (and thus deported). Gainsbourg plays Lucy exactly as she should, but her character simply is too two-dimensional to make an impression. Vincenzo Amato (Respiro), on the other hand, portrays Salvatore with a lot of heart and soul. At once he is coarse, unrefined, naive, passionate and sincere. Amato plays the handsome Salvatore as a man too young to be jaded and too old to dream. And yet he's full of wonderment and imagination, thinking of a good life. As he said upon seeing the skyscrapers in New York City: "I want to live among the clouds!"

photo4Aurora Quattrocchi (Melena) is memorable as the grouchy matriarch. She never wants to go to America in the first place, and her resistance against everything new or foreign is a hoot to watch. There are a few scenes in the film that reminds us what a wonderful actress she is. Francesco Casisa (Respiro) plays Angelo Mancuso with much sincerity -- his character is the younger image of Salvatore. Filippo Pucillo (Respiro) has a fun time playing the "mute." His feisty but scared characterization of Pietro leaves a solid impression.

photo5The story, written by director Emanuelle Crialese (Respiro, Once We Were Strangers), can't really be defined by traditional storytelling conventions. There is, of course, a beginning, as well as a middle and and end. But the film feels more like a character study and portrait of the immigrant's life. It's also a subtle love story, through the restrained courtship between Salvatore and Lucy. Crialese interlaces the harsh reality with imageries of magic and imagination, giving us a whimsical, more dreamlike feel to the story. Otherwise, it is a heavy subject, with many unsettling and sad moments.

photo6Crialese captures these moments with fine details, without hitting us over the head with overt sentimentality. In fact, I applaud him for not subjecting us to tired, sentimental shots of, say, a boat passing by the Statue of Liberty. His sparse script and languid style, however, might have dragged the film down a bit. Also, we don't get to know too much about these characters, especially Lucy Reed, so at times it's not easy to care about them.

photo7Yet, as a portrait, the film brings us fully into the world of immigrants. The sequence at Ellis Island, in particular, is fascinating to watch. One can only imagine what our ancestors had to go through to find a new life in a new world. The film reminds me of my own struggles, though not as harsh as depicted in the film, when I immigrated to the U.S. While the film on the whole is not quite golden, Crialese is spot on in capturing the feelings of dread, uncertainty, excitement, and doubt.

Stars: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Vincenzo Amato, Aurora Quattrocchi, Francesco Casisa, Filippo Pucillo, Federica De Cola, Isabella Ragonese, Vincent Schiavelli
Director: Emanuele Crialese
Writer: Emanuele Crialese
Distributor: Miramax
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief nudity
Running Time: 120 Minutes


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

Total – 7.2 out of 10