© 2007 Ray Wong


Ian McEwan's 2001 novel, Atonement, is often considered one of his best. Director Joe Wright, following his triumphant directorial debut with Pride & Prejudice, should be commended for creating this faithful but emotionally gripping adaptation.

photo1Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) is a fledging writer with a vivid imagination. She just finished a play, to be performed by her visiting cousins for her brother, Leon (Patrick Kennedy), who is coming home for a family dinner. The rehearsal doesn't go very well, and that's when Briony witnesses something strange that she can't really comprehend. She sees her elder sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), strip down to her undergarments in front of Robbie (James McAvoy), the housekeeper's son, at the fountain. In her mind, she's convinced that Robbie is a threat to Cecilia. When Robbie asks her to deliver a letter to Cecilia, Briony violates his trust and reads the letter, only to find a crude, sexually explicit message. She realizes that Robbie is a sex maniac and must be stopped.

photo2What she doesn't know is that Robbie and Cecilia, after years of having feelings for each other, are finally ready to profess their mutual affection. The series of events lead them to a sexual encounter in the family library, which Briony interrupts. Now, from Briony's point of view, Robbie is attacking her sister and he must be stopped. When her cousin Lola (Juno Temple) was attacked, Briony believes it is Robbie who did it, and she delivers a lie that will forever change Robbie and Cecilia's lives, as well as hers.

photo3James McAvoy (Last King of Scotland) further establishes himself as one of the rising stars from Britain. His performance as the wrongfully accused is heartfelt, nuanced and affecting. There are many key scenes in which he leaves a lasting impression with his understated focus and intensity: meeting with Cecilia at a cafe before shipping off to war, wandering about the countryside in France, confronting Briony in London. Incredible performance. Keira Knightley (Pride & Prejudice), surprisingly, doesn't have a lot of screen time after the first act; but she, too, has delivered a tour-de-force, understated performance. Her beauty is undeniable, but she has successfully crossed over to playing complex, adult roles.

photo4The central role of Briony is played by three different actresses. As the 13-year-old who sets everything in motion, Saoirse Ronan (The Lovely Bones) is intensely sharp -- such a young talent who takes command of every minute of screen time she has. She makes us love to hate her character. As the 18-year-old who tries to come in terms with her "crime," Romola Garai (Amazing Grace) portrays the character with care and sensitivity, trying to understand and finally atone for what she did as a child. Hers is the least showy performance but equally powerful in its subtlety. Finally, Vanessa Redgrave (Evening) is the much-older Briony. Her brief appearance at the end of the film seals the film with a poignant and heartbreaking revelation.

photo5The stellar supporting cast includes Brenda Belthyn (Pride & Prejudice) as Robbie's mother, Juno Temple (Notes on a Scandal) as Briony's less-than-genuine cousin Lola, Patrick Kennedy (A Good Year) as Briony's ernest but clueless brother Leon, and Benedict Cumberbatch (Amazing Grace) as Leon's conniving chocolatier friend Paul Marshall. Notable mention is Daniel Mays (A Good Year) as Robbie's comrade Corporal Nettle.

photo6Christopher Hampton (The Quiet American) has done an incredible job adapting Ian McEwan's introverted, highly expository novel into an emotional journey for the screen. Hampton manages to adhere closely to McEwan's narrative structure, plot, and tone. Granted, a lot of the author's insightful character studies can't be translated, but Hampton successfully trims the fat and keeps the essence of the story and allows the actors to bring their interpretations to life. In many ways, Hampton's adaptation is even more impressive in that it is more emotionally gripping than McEwan's descriptive but cerebral original. Still, there are moments that seem contrived and too deliberate, but such is minor in comparison to the overall quality of the script.

photo7Director Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice) has a grand vision that meshes well with McEwan's exquisite prose. The cinematography is gorgeous, the settings and details are meticulous, the score (by Dario Marianelli) is rich and powerful. It's a beautiful film -- there are many scenes and images that take my breath away. Wright also succeeds in keeping the structure by repeating key scenes from multiple points of view without confusing the audience. The first half of the film is taut with suspense and mysteries, then the second half turns into a character study with pathos and anguish, including a much-talked about single-shot scene at Dunkirk (it is something to behold). The epilogue delivers a final twist and emotional punch. It's epic, romantic, and tragic.

photo8Is Atonement perfect? No. There are certainly contrivance, and some parts do drag. But the story is layered with such richness, sensibility, intelligence, and fine performances that I can confidently say it's one of the best films of the year.

Stars: James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave, Brenda Blethyn, Juno Temple, Patrick Kennedy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Mays
Director: Joe Wright
Writer: Christopher Hampton (based on novel by Ian McEwan)
Distributor: Focus
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing war images, language and some sexuality
Running Time: 130 Minutes


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

Total – 8.6 out of 10

National Treasure: Book of Secrets

© 2007 Ray Wong


If I could have only a one-line review, it would be this: National Treasure equals guilty pleasure.

photo1The story begins as Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) and his father Patrick (Jon Voight) tells a packed audience about the assassination of Lincoln and how their ancestor, Thomas Gates, stopped John Wilkes Booth and the Confederates from finding the clues to a great treasure (and possibly helped preventing them from winning the Civil War). However, Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) shows up and presents the missing page 18 from Booth's diary that allegedly lists the names of his conspirators, and Thomas Gates' name is on it.

photo2Determined to clear his great-grandfather's name and prove that his version of the story is true, Ben sets out to find the treasure. The missing page, as it turns out, contains a cipher written in faded ink. The code leads to a series of clues that send Gates, his assistant Riley (Justin Bartha), ex-girlfriend Abigail (Diane Kruger) and father on a chase. However, Mitch and his minions are after them -- it appears that Mitch's real purpose is to find the treasure before Gates does. Their adventures take them to Paris, the Buckingham Palace, the White House, and ultimately to the "President's Book" that may reveal the location of one of the biggest treasures in the world.

photo3Reprising his role as Ben Gates, Nicolas Cage (Next) is in fine action hero form here. He's like a lightweight cross between Indiana Jones and Robert Langdon (try not to imagine the conception, however). Cage's strength is in his self-deprecating humor and vulnerability. He doesn't take himself too seriously (nor does the film). As his sidekick, Justin Bartha (Failure to Launch) is in full clown mode and delivers some of the best one-liners in the film. Diane Kruger (The Hunting Party) is also back as Ben's love interest. It's really rather a standard operation for all three leads. No one is going to get an Oscar for their performances here.

photo4The veterans seem to have just as much fun stepping out of their heavy drama roles. Jon Voight (Transformers) is affecting as Ben's curmudgeon ex-treasure hunter father. Helen Mirren (The Queen) seems to have a ball after her Oscar triumph. Even Ed Harris (Gone Baby Gone) drops his seriousness for once to play a baddie. Harvey Keitel (The Shadow Dancer) appears briefly as FBI agent Sadusky, and Bruce Greenwood (Firehouse Dog), as the President, is more charismatic than the crop of 2008 presidential candidates.

photo5The script by the Wibberleys (National Treasure) won't win any major awards either, but it's fast-paced, well choreographed, and interesting. Littered with quasi-historical facts and speculations, the story has all the intrigues of the Da Vinci Code without the self-important pretension. This is truly tongue-in-cheek family fun and they know what they are doing: from the cheesy dialogue to the fantastic treasure hunt, the plot is full of energy and forward movements.

photo6And inconsistencies, too. Surely no one is going to believe everything they lay before us: you mean the desks at the Buckingham Palace and White House really hold the clues to the Aztec's lost City of Gold? Do you really want us to believe that Riley can hack into the Buckingham Palace with a makeshift contraption put together from a Blackberry, an iPod, and a Playstation PSP? But that's the point -- it's so preposterous that it forces us to throw our logic away and just sit back and enjoy the ride. And it's quite a ride.

photo7Director Jon Turteltaub (National Treasure) does not disappoint either. And in many ways, this sequel is even better than the original. It has more suspense and the twists are more interesting. The car chases are more spectacular and the locations are more exotic (seriously, Paris and London are more fun that Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.). Turteltaub keeps the pace fast and the one-liners coming. There is hardly any dull moment, thus not a moment to let us stop and think how ridiculous the plot is.

photo8The thing is, no one goes to see a movie like National Treasure for some deep meanings and discovery about life and the human condition. We want action, adventure, goofy characters, jokes, and intrigue. With that in mind, the movie truly delivers. It's one treasure the entire family can enjoy.

Stars: Nicolas Cage, Justin Bartha, Diane Kruger, Jon Voight, Helen Mirren, Ed Harris, Harvey Keitel, Bruce Greenwood, Ty Burrel
Director: Jon Turteltaub
Writers: Cormac Wibberley, Marianne Wibberley
Distributor: Walt Disney
MPAA Rating: PG for some violence and action
Running Time: 124 Minutes


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

Total – 7 out of 10

I Am Legend

© 2007 Ray Wong


Richard Matheson's novel, I Am Legend, was adapted for the silver screen twice already (once as The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price, and then The Omega Man with Charleston Heston). There was always a certain cheese factor associated with the films, though classics they may be. So is the third time a charm?

photo1In a short prologue, a doctor (an uncredited Emma Thompson) reveals on TV that the scientists have found a virus that cures cancer. Now fast forward three years later: Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith), a military officer and scientist, is the only man still "alive" in New York City. The other people have all been infected by the virus and become zombie-like "night crawlers." The infected only strive after sunset, when Neville boards up his house and stands guard with a rifle. During the day, Neville scouts around town for supplies, gas, and food -- and sometimes he hunts with his canine companion, Samantha. Every day he broadcast his message over AM radio in hopes other survivors will find him.

photo2Meanwhile, Neville is determined to find a cure based using his own blood as a basis: for some (unexplained) reason, he's immune to both the virus, both airborne or direct contact. After 100 days, his experiment yields an encouraging result and he traps an infected so he can do a human test. During the process, he stirs up a hornet's nest as the infected begin to seek him out as well.

photo3Like Tom Hanks in Castaway, Will Smith (Pursuit of Happyness) is the only person on screen throughout most of the movie. His only acting partners are Samantha and the occasional zombies. With such a big chip on his shoulders, Smith carries the weight rather well. He is always a very likable actor, and he definitely displays his charisma and abilities in this one-man show, more or less. Still, Smith's larger-than-life personality seems to overshadow the characters he's playing: it is both an asset and a burden.

photo4The relatively thin cast includes Alice Barga (Crossing Over) as Anna, a fellow survivor. She's nice and a sigh of relief for Smith and the audience, but not edgy enough to play one of the few survivors who have to fend off the zombies. She looks and acts like a soccer mom. Charlie Tahan (Once Upon a Film) plays Anna's son Ethan. He has nothing much to do and not much to say either. His role is rather unnecessary. Salli Richardson (Eureka) has a few brief scenes as Neville's wife -- not substantial enough to make an impression. Will Smith's own child Willow plays his daughter: she's mostly just an annoying child.

photo5Written by Mark Protosevich (Poseidon) and Akiva Goldsman (Poseidon), the script has a really good beginning and a faster-paced middle, and a yet-faster-paced ending that culminates in an explosive climax. Unfortunately, it is also riddled with too many plot holes. The flashbacks doesn't really tell us much either, except to slowly reveal what happened to Neville's family -- but seriously, do we have any doubt what happened? It was very predictable. 

photo6Still, they have a purpose in the story to break up the bleak and slow pace as Neville and his dog roam around town. There are worse offenses. For example, when Anna and Ethan show up, I can't really suspend my disbelief and their explanation is not convincing either: she doesn't even have a gun. And then the whole speech about God simply makes me roll my eyes. The second half of the film is littered with such plot inconsistencies and heavy-laden messages which reduce the film to some mindless Zombie action flick.

photo7If that's what it is, then there are better end-of-the-world zombie fares, a genre that has been done to death to begin with (pun intended). 28 Days Later, for example, is a superior film. However, director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) does give us certain groovy visuals: the sceneries of a desolate jungle island -- Manhattan -- is something to behold. There are also some real frights, including an extended scene in an abandoned warehouse, in the dark, that may make audiences squirm in their seats. And the relationship between Neville and his dog is very well developed so in a later scene we can feel the emotional impact; on the other hand, it's rather interesting because we feel worse about his dog than his wife and child. That tells me how unnecessary (or poorly written/executed) the flashbacks really are.

photo8The biggest disappointment, however, is the zombies. They snarl and howl and bite and snap, but they're not scary enough. Most of the time, they look at animated characters from a video game (inspired by Half Life, perhaps?) They're supposed to lose all their humanity, but they're not beastly enough. And the final sequences involving them are way too over the top, leading to a contrived ending. There's so many missed opportunities here; it's unfortunate. Will Smith the actor may one day become a legend, but this film isn't going to make that happen.

Stars: Will Smith, Alice Barga, Charlie Tahan, Salli Richardson, Willow Smith
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writers: Mark Protosevich, Akiva Goldsman (based on novel by Richard Matheson)
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence
Running Time: 101 Minutes


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

Total – 6.7 out of 10

The Golden Compass

© 2007 Ray Wong


With all the anti-religion controversy around The Golden Compass, one can easily overlook the most important aspect of the film: Is it any good?

photo1The story is set in an alternate universe in which Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is an orphan living at the Oxford's Jordan College with her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig). In this universe, a human's soul is embodied in the shape of an animal companion called Daemons, and the world is governed by an organization named Magisterium. When Lord Asriel discovers the appearance of "dust" in the Arctics, he convinces the university to sponsor an expedition. You see, "dust" is a mysterious material that connects the multiple universes. The Magisterium tries to stop Lord Asriel for the discovery may jeopardize their control.

photo2Before Lord Asriel sets out on his trip, he gives Lyra a special gift: a golden compass called Alethiometer that can show the truth. A mysterious woman, Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman) promises Lyra to take her to the Arctics to see her uncle, but Lyra discovers that she's really after the Alethiometer. When Lyra's best friend, Roger (Ben Walker) is kidnapped, she vows to go to the Arctics to rescue him. On her way, she meets a nomadic group including Ma Costa (Clare Higgins) who used to be her nanny and is also the mother of Billy Costa, one of the missing children. Lyra also becomes associated with an armored polar bear named Iorek Byrnison (Ian McKellen). The group travels north to find the children while Ms. Coulter is hot on Lyra's trail.

photo3Nicole Kidman (Margot at the Wedding) is excellent as the conniving Ms. Coulter. She shows a good range that gives her character some depth instead of playing her straight-up evil. Kidman's beauty further accentuates her expressiveness to give us a convincing performance. While her Invasion co-star Daniel Craig (Casino Royale) also gets top billing, he doesn't really have much to do. His role is completely supportive in this film and we can only assume that it will be bigger and more central in the sequels (The Golden Compass is the first book of Pullman's series).

photo4As the young heroine, Dakota Blue Richards (The Secret of Moonacre) carries much of the film on her shoulders. Considering this is her acting debut, I think she does a marvelous job. She shows enough defiance to portray Lyra's character without making her a brat. Ben Walker (Sweeney Todd) is fine in his small role as Lyra's best friend. The generally good live-action cast includes Eva Green (Casino Royale) as the Witch Queen, Sam Elliott (Ghost Rider) as a traveler, and Clare Higgins (Libertine) as Ma Costa. The huge cast also include Freddie Highmore (Finding Neverland) as Lyra's Daemon, Ian McKellen (X-Men) as Iorek, and Ian McShane (We Are Marshall) as Iorek's mortal enemy, Ragnar.

photo5Despite the huge cast, the story is rather straightforward as an action adventure. The plot picks up rather quickly and moves forward at a brisk pace. However, at 113 minutes, the exposition and character development feel rushed. Based on Philip Pullman's highly spiritual and controversial series, Chris Weitz's (About a Boy) script is convoluted when it comes to the characters' relationships with one another. Characters seem to come and go without a lot of explanation. The exposition about this world is too brief and requires a lot of suspension of disbelief. The Daemons, for example, seem rather silly even if you consider it's a children's fantasy. Talking animals simply look too cartoonish. Not to mention we don't have enough time to explore this alternate universe where witches fight along with armored polar bears, or how exactly the Alethiometer works.

photo6I can follow the plot just fine, but there are too many plot holes and missing pieces for us to be fully engaged. Most of the time, the characters are just running from one place to another, meeting new people along the way. The plot seems to be more concerned about introducing all the key players instead of having a coherent arc or purpose. It feels expository even though it's action packed. Yet, it doesn't spend enough time actually developing these characters and their relationships. Weitz also cuts out the obvious anti-religion messages. I can understand why, but at the same time, it neuters the story for it really is, and Pullman's series are deeply spiritual -- none of that is present in this film.

photo7Weitz's direction is adequate. The production value is good, even though some scenes look too CG. There are some wonderful set pieces, including an exciting combat between two polar bears. Still, even with its delightful visuals, the film lacks certain "magical" quality that is evident in, say, The Chronicles of Narnia. The sense of wonderment is also lacking. Instead, I chuckle at times at the absurdity and silliness of this "alternate universe." The second half is also remarkably dark and violent -- I was surprised by a few battle scenes with enough carnage that I don't think is suitable for children at all.

photo8The film fails at completely immersing me in that world. Even with its visuals and overall good performances, this compass is rather short of being golden.

Stars: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Dakota Blue Richards, Ben Walker, Freddie Highmore, Ian McKellen, Eva Green, Sam Elliott, Ian McShane, Clare Higgins
Director: Chris Weitz
Writer: Chris Weitz (based on novel by Philip Pullman)
Distributor: New Line Cinema
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence
Running Time: 113 Minutes


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

Total – 6.5 out of 10