© 2008 Ray Wong


This just in: Pixar can do no wrong. While many people had doubts about their new film about a post-apocalypic world where humans have fled Earth, WALL*E proves to be quite a robot that could.

photo1WALL*E (voiced by Ben Burtt), which means Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class, is a robot made for one purpose only: to clean up Earth after the humans have made a mess of the planet. For 700 years, WALL*E have been compacting garbage and putting them into skyscraper-sized piles. WALL*E also has a sense of curiosity. He's interested in everything about humans -- he fills his bunk with lots of stuff, from tools to toys to just stuff. He's also watched a tape of Hello Dolly for literally a million times. He yearns to experience what it is like to dance and sing and, above all, to love.

photo2One day, a spaceship shows up on Earth and deposits a flying robot named EVE (voiced by Elissa Knight), or Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator. Eve's mission is to scan Earth for any life form (other than the cockroach which WALL*E's befriended). It's love for first sight for WALL*E, and he wants to get to know Eve better. She's rather remote, until she finds something she's looking for in WALL*E's stash. Once activated, EVE is taken back to the humans now living on a giant ship in outer space. WALL*E follows as he tries to pursue EVE, not knowing he may be the key for the humans to return to Earth.

photo3All the voice actors do their job well considering how little dialogue there is in the film. Fred Willard (For Your Consider) is the only real human presence in the film. He's the perfect BnL CEO. Jeff Garlin (Hooked) has the most lines as the Captain. John Ratzenberger (Ratatouille) and Kathy Najimy (Rat Race) are cute as John and Mary respectively, two of the residents on the human ship. Sigourney Weaver's (Baby Mama) distinctive voice makes for a sinister Computer. Ben Burtt and Elissa Knight bring the robots alive with their digitized voices.

photo4The true stars of the film are the animators and writer-director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo). WALL*E is an ingenious creation. We'd never expect a robot could be so expressive and, pardon the pun, animated! WALL*E is one of Pixar's most interesting and affecting characters. WALL*E is also a self-deprecating clown who is nothing but serious. He's the kind of unlikely heroes who doesn't know he's special at all. All he wants is to get to know EVE better. He's not concerned about saving the world or mankind. He's totally driven by his curiosity and love. That makes him endearing.

photo5The cast of characters are all excellent. EVE reminds us of an iPod, and she's by design more distant and even violent. But the great thing is that through WALL*E, she begins to learn that there's more in life than to follow the "directives." By the end, EVE shows enough warmth and concern that we know she really cares about WALL*E.

photo6Written by Stanton, the story is rather simple and straightforward. Truth be told, there's not much depth or sophistication in the characters (as compared to, say, Ratatouille). That's exactly why WALL*E excels -- these are robots, and humans who have become lazy and simple-minded. The simplicity of the story is perfect. It's also physical comedy at its best. You don't need any dialogue to understand the plot, and audiences of all ages can understand the story perfectly. For the kids, it's a wonderful story with a lot of action and comedy. Of course, for the adults, they also have the additional layers of themes to consider, whether it's consumerism or the cautionary tale of losing touch with what is important (love, communication, connection with one another, doing things the hard way, etc.).

photo7The animation is astounding. The post-apocralypic world is amazing to behold. It's even more eerie than that in I Am Legend. The sequences in space are wonderfully rendered and highly imaginative. There are scenes that give me goosebumps, and appear to be rather "spiritual." The scenes in the ship are hilarious. The colors are bright and the design (the ship, the robots, the gadgets, etc.) are extraordinary. Above all, there's certain darkness in the theme lurking underneath all that giddiness. For example, 700 years of easy living have made humans fat (okay, the lack of real gravity has something to do with that, too), lazy, and out of touch. People stare at their computer screens instead of talking and communicating with one another directly. Hmmm, sounds familiar?

photo8The greatest thing about WALL*E is that it doesn't preach and hit the audience with the "message." And in truth, the "message" isn't the most important thing either. The is essentially a "love story" between two robots, and WALL*E gets to learn and experience what makes us all uniquely human: LOVE. And the ability to think for ourselves despite our "programming."

But never mind if you don't get any of that. The film is one of the best in recent years. It's simply a WALL*E good time for everyone.

Stars: Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Fred Willard, Jeff Garlin, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy, Sigourney Weaver
Director: Andrew Stanton
Writers: Andrew Stanton
Distributor: Pixar/Buena Vista
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 103 Minutes


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

Total – 8.8 out of 10

Savage Grace

© 2008 Ray Wong


Based on the true crime story and the bestselling book of the same title, Savage Grace chronicles the Baekeland family in a series of events that led to the 1972 murder.

p1Living poshly on his family fortune, Brooks Baekeland (Stephen Dillane) and his wife Barbara (Julianne Moore) seem to have everything they desire. Soon after the birth of their son, Tony (Eddie Redmayne), the porcelain surface of their relationship begins to crack. Barbara, a former actress, is more interested in aristocratic lifestyle than being a wife. Brooks, on the other hand, just wants to live quietly as an adventurer. He sees his life as a trap, his marriage a sham, and his son a failure.

p2As Brooks becomes more detached from his family, Tony grows up being extremely close to his mother. Confused about his sexuality, Tony hooks up with best friend Black Jake (Unax Uglade) and Blanca (Elena Anaya), Tony's first and only girlfriend. Then Brooks leaves Barbara for Blanca. Tony vows to take care of his heartbroken mother. Still hoping for his father's love and approval, Tony is caught between his unhealthy devotion to his mother and her manipulation. When Sam (Hugh Dancy), a gay "walker," enters their lives, Tony and Barbara's relationship takes on an unexpected turn that eventually leads to a tragic end.

p3Julianne Moore (Next) has been inconsistent lately in her projects. In Savage Grace, however, she turns in a fearless performance. Period roles usually fit her well, and here, Barbara Baekeland is such as deeply flawed, pathologically unhappy character and Moore did a fine job bring her to life. In certain scenes, she fills the screen with such raw emotions that even as we want to look away, we find our eyes glued to it. She deserves an Oscar nomination just for taking on such a controversial role.

p4Stephen Dillane (Nine Lives) plays the conflicted, taciturn Brooks solidly. His role is stoic and he disappears for much of the second half of the film, but he is a worthy counterpart to Moore's Barbara. Eddie Redmayne (The Good Shepherd) is good as Tony, an awkward teenager and disturbed young man. He shows true affection for Barbara, as well vulnerability and detachment that make his eventual downturn more heartbreaking to witness.

p5The supporting cast is very good. Elena Anaya (Van Helsing) is charming and sincere as Blanca. She seems to be the only honest, sane character (despite the fact that she hooks up with a married man, not to mention her "boyfriend's" father). Abel Folk (The Deal) and Belen Rueda (8 citas) are excellent as the Baekeland's long-time friends Carlos and Pilar Duran. Unax Ugalde (Love in the Time of Cholera) is charismatic and sexy as Black Jake, Tony's best friend and lover. And Hugh Dancy (The Jane Austen Book Club) is debonaire, if a bit flat, as Sam.

p6Written by Howard Rodman (August), the story is adapted from Natalie Robins' bestselling true crime nonfiction. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Rodman at a screening, and he said while he took some liberty at describing certain details and events (including changing the names of a few characters), he stayed true to the actual events. For example, Barbara Baekeland did go home with the first person she saw outside the restaurant, and the incestuous relationship did happen between Barbara and Tony. He admitted it wasn't easy to adapt the book, given the controversial and disturbing nature of the story. 

p7I give kudos to Rodman for attempting to tell the story in an episodic way. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to discern the true motivations of the characters. Rodman doesn't explain everything, which I prefer and appreciate. Still, certain events do not come across as entirely authentic or logical as we're not given an insight into the characters' emotions and thoughts.

p8Tom Kalin (Swoon) has a deft hand and eye for the production. The languorous pace suits the period piece quite well. It's never boring. Even as the episodic storytelling seems disjointed at times, it's always interesting, with vivid characterization and sharp dialogue. Kalin also tackles the disturbing and uncomfortable subject matters, such as incest, sexuality, parental abuse, and the eventual murder, without judgment. He doesn't shy away either. For example, in an extended scene revealing the true nature of Barbara and Tony's relationship, Kalin doesn't cut away. There were audible gasps in the audience, and then there was silence as we found ourselves mesmerized by what we saw on screen. Even so, Kalin doesn't sensationalize, nor does he do it just to titillate. There's a matter-of-fact quality to Kalin's direction that makes the story so riveting, given that it's based on truth.

Savage Grace is not your typical Hollywood movie. It's definitely for mature audiences only. It's slow. It's character-driven. It is disturbing. It is heartbreaking. It's worth a look as the filmmakers have handled it with such care and grace.

Stars: Julianne Moore, Stephen Dillane, Eddie Redmayne, Elena Anaya, Abel Folk, Belen Rueda, Unax Ugalde, Hugh Dancy
Director: Tom Kalin
Writers: Howard A. Rodman (based on Natalie Robins' book)
Distributor: IFC First Take
MPAA Rating: R for graphic content, nudity, sexuality, and disturbing adult material
Running Time: 97 Minutes


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

Total – 7.8 out of 10

The Incredible Hulk

(c) 2008 Ray Wong


Ang Lee’s Hulk did okay business but enraged the die-hard fan boys for deviating too much from the comic book in terms of style and story. That may have deterred Marvel, but no one can stop the Hulk. The studio reboots the franchise by completely recast and refocus on what makes the Hulk tick.

photo1Dr. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) is in a self-imposed exile in Brazil trying to find a cure to his problem. He tries everything from anger management to martial arts to corresponding with an anonymous man, Mr. Blue, who may be able to help him. Meanwhile, he’s trying to lay low and avoid the US military, led by General “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt). When Ross comes for him, Banner can’t control the Hulk within him anymore. After he escapes, he knows he has to go home to find the data to get his cure.

photo2He meets Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) again since he needs her help to locate the data he needs. Betty is now dating Dr. Samson (Ty Burrell). Ross, on the other hand, agrees to inject one of his star fighters, Blonsky (Tim Roth) with a secret gamma-poison they harvested/developed from Banner’s experiments. Blonsky begins to gain superhuman strengths. They catch up with Banner but the Hulk remains too strong for them.

photo3Banner sets out with Betty to New York City to find Mr. Blue, who turns out to be Dr. Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson). Sterns discovers an antidote for Banner but they have no idea what kind of effects it has. Meanwhile, Blonsky’s obsession with his super power makes him do the unthinkable.

photo4Edward Norton (The Painted Veil) is one of the best dramatic actors of our generation, and it’s great to see him in a popcorn movie such as The Incredible Hulk. What Norton brings to the role is respectability. The actor’s portrayal is more in tune with Dr. Banner in the 70s TV show. He’s lonely, sad, vulnerable, scared, but determined to finding a “fix.” He loves Betty but he’s resigned to the idea that he can never be with her again, for her own protection. Norton’s tremendous talent adds to the characterization of one of the most beloved characters. I really enjoy his Bruce Banner.

photo5Liv Tyler (The Strangers) is sweet and soft and tender as Betty Ross. One can hardly believe she’s a cellular biologist, but her role is mainly a romantic one. Her scenes with Norton are tender and sad. They look and feel good together as a tormented couple. William Hurt (Vantage Point) is very good as General Ross – he has that hard edge and cynicism to pull it off. His character is driven by ambition but at the same time, you do feel that he’s genuinely protective with his daughter. Tim Roth (Virgin Territory) plays Blonsky with a lot grunts and veins. His character is the least developed, I think, and his aggression is someone superficial. That makes his villain a bit bland (although the superhuman stuff is really cool).

photo6Supporting roles include Tim Blake Nelson (The Astronaut Farmer) as Samuel Sterns, who gives a credible performance as the geeked-out biologist, and Ty Burrell (National Treasure) as Dr. Samson. Several amusing cameos include Lou Ferrigno (Hulk) as a security guard and Stan Lee as an unfortunate man who gets in contact with Banner’s tainted blood. Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man) also makes a well-publicized appearance as Tony Stark.

photo7Written by Zak Penn (X-Men: The Last Stand), the script is straightforward, picking up where Ang Lee’s left off (starting with Banner in exile) and continue the self-discovery arc, culminating in a crowd-pleasing finale and a teaser before the credits roll. Don’t expect Shakespeare here, but the story has enough pathos and cynicism to make it work. The plot is very straightforward as well, and should please the fan boys. While the actions are fast and loud, the quieter moments, especially between Banner and Betty, are very good and they make us care about the character. The script is tight without too many plot holes, which is a pleasure considering the genre.

photo8Director Louis Leterrier (Transporter 2) keeps the pace fast and tight. The film can be described as Bourne Identity meets The Fugitive meets Beauty and the Beast. There’s great energy in the camera movements and composition but without the shaky cam that is the staple of the Bourne series. The special effects are general excellent. While the Hulk remains similar to Ang Lee’s vision, they’ve done some good work on him – he looks less CGI and waxy, with more realistic facial expressions. They’ve also altered the Hulk’s face slightly to better resemble Edward Norton. In comparison, the design of “Abomination” is a bit cheesy. The climactic fight is a bit drawn-out, but well executed.

Overall, it is a satisfying “reboot” that will please fans. The general public may get the kick out of a familiar character. The film is very entertaining and at times even poignant. I still like Ang Lee’s version (except the last act), but this one is very good in its own right. It’s by no means incredible, but certainly it’s worth the ticket cost.

Stars: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, William Hurt, Tim Roth, Tim Blake Nelson, Ty Burrell
Director: Louis Leterrier
Writer: Zak Penn
Distributor: Universal
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of intense action violence, some frightening sci-fi images, and brief suggestive content
Running Time: 114 minutes


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

Total – 7.6 out of 10

The Visitor

© 2008 Ray Wong


I've been wanting to see The Visitor since I saw the trailer. I've always been a fan of the underrated Richard Jenkins, and the premise about a detached widower befriending a couple of illegal immigrants really piqued my interest. During a week when I had to choose between a cartoon about a kung-fu fighting panda (I was so not in the mood for racial stereotyping) and another cartoon about an Israeli hairdresser (I was so not in the mood for racial stereotyping), I opted for something a little more authentic.

photo1Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is a college professor who, ever since his wife passed away, doesn't take an interest in anything anymore, including teaching and writing his books. Reluctantly, he has to go to a conference at NYU to present a paper he didn't even write. Arriving at the New York apartment he shared with his wife for over 25 years (which he hasn't lived since she died), he is mistaken for an intruder. Apparently a con man has rented out his apartment to two immigrants, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira). Feeling sorry for the couple who now has nowhere to live, Walter decides to let them stay for the time being until they can find a new home.

photo2Tarek is a musician from Syria, and Zainab, who designs and sells her own jewelry, came from Africa. Walter eventually takes an interest in the African drums Tarek is playing, and the gregarious Tarek is more than happy to teach him. Unfortunately, on their way back from Central Park, Tarek is arrested. Zainab freaks out because they're both illegal and she fears that Tarek is going to be deported. Walter, feeling an immense connection with the two, wants to help. He hires an immigration lawyer, who advises him their chances are rather slim.

photo3When Tarek's mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) comes to New York looking for her son, he lets her stay and becomes her only connection to Tarek. Inevitably Walter falls for beautiful and kind Mouna. Through the process of trying to help Tarek and learning to play the drum, Walter rediscovers his passion and the meaning of life.

photo4Richard Jenkins (The Kingdom, Six Feet Under) is one of Hollywood's most underrated character actors. It's great to see him in a leading role. As Walter, he has a wonderful grasp of detachment, and the eventual changes he goes through feel authentic and not contrived. Not to mention Jenkins can play the African drum pretty well, too. Jenkins's solid performance anchors the film. While Walter is the soul of the film, Haaz Sleiman's (24) Tarek is the heart. Sleiman exudes great charisma and a sense of grace that make his character so likable. He makes it difficult to watch the things happening to Tarek. We can't help but root him to come through.

photo5Danai Gurira (Ghost Town) has a relatively minor role as Zainab. Her character is guarded, untrusting, and withdrawn. Gurira does a good job, but her character is a bit limited in her emotional range. She lives through Tarek, and after Tarek gets arrested, her character practically disappears. Israeli actress Hiam Abbass (Munich) fares better with the character of Mouna. She's beautiful, graceful, and sad. There's so much sadness in her eyes you just know it hasn't been an easy life, and the things happening to her son and her just seem so unfair and cruel. Ultimately, her character must make a fateful decision and Hiam makes it very believable. Her connection with Jenkins also seems real.

photo6Written and directed by actor Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent), the plot is actually rather sparse and straightforward. The premise is interesting though -- and I'm sure things like that happen in New York all the time. It's very interesting that McCarthy chose such as story to tell. As with his lauded debut effort, The Station Agent (which won a BAFTA), McCarthy excels in telling a truly human story with authenticity and poetry. The dialogue is realistic. The situations are realistic. And the connections between these people are realistic. It's not a complicated story, but McCarthy keeps everything on the personal level, giving the film a tremendous emotional weight that feels authentic.

photo7McCarthy's pacing is also very good, considering the intimate and slow nature of the story. The music plays a key part in driving the film along. The drumbeats and the streets of New York liven up the film as the characters meander through their respective lives. He also has a very earthy style, nothing too stylized or artificial, but at the same time there's certain poetry in his images. The poetry, I believe, lies in the authenticity of life. How sometimes people cross paths with you and change your life when you least expect it.

photo8If you liked The Station Agent, you will like The Visitor. It's an underrated gem of a movie, written by one of Hollywood's finest indie writer-actor-directors, and starring an underrated character actor. It's so worth a visit.

Stars: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Jekesai Gurira, Hiam Abbass
Director: Thomas McCarthy
Writer: Thomas McCarthy
Distributor: Overture
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language
Running Time: 103 Minutes


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

Editing – 7
Production – 8

Total – 7.5 out of 10