Zack and Miri Make a Porno

© 2008 Ray Wong


A quintessential slacker-stoner Gen-X writer-director, Kevin Smith has given up uneven comedies and dramas such as Clerks, Jersey Girl, Chasing Amy and Dogma. This time, he's following his friend Judd Apatow's footstep in making gross-out romantic comedies, starring one of Apatow's stars Seth Rogen.

photo1Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) have been roommates for ten years, and the prospect of them being romantic involved is so gross that they're very comfortable with being best friends and roommates. However, they're living from paychecks to paychecks, and are on the verge of being evicted from their crummy apartment. At their high school reunion, Zack is inspired by former classmate Bobby's (Brandon Routh) boyfriend (Justin Long), who is a gay porn actor. He has the bright idea for Miri and him to get out of their financial jam: by making and selling their own porno.

photo2At first Miri is hesitant about it, but Zack reassures her that nothing is going to change between them. Sex is just sex. The pair secures a small investment from their "producer," fellow coffee shop employee Delaney (Craig Robinson). They also recruit local "actors" such as exotic dancers Stacey (Katie Morgan) and Bubbles (Traci Lords), and Lester (Jason Mewes) who has a "special talent."

photo3A setback threatens to shut down the production, when Zack has a brilliant idea of turning the coffee shop into a set. Everything is going well until Zack and Miri finally shoot their sex scene together. They realize they actually have feelings for each other, and that complicates things.

photo4Seth Rogen (Pineapple Express) pretty much has monopolized the market as the slacker/stoner/overweight romantic leading man. Here, he's doing what he does best, what with his unpretentious but crude demeanors. Certainly he has his appeal to women: he's teddy bear-cuddly and not intimidating. It would be interesting to see Rogen grow out of that niche with The Green Hornet. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Banks (W) shows her range by playing a totally different person than Laura Bush in W. She reminds us that she can be really funny without being gross.

photo5The supporting cast seems to have a good time making this film. Kevin Smith's longtime muse, Jason Mewes (Clerks II), bares it all playing the "talented" Lester. His portrayal of the totally clueless but also harmless porn star wannabe is some of the highlights of the movie. Brandon Routh (Superman Returns) and Justin Long (Live Free and Die Hard) have a great time playing a gay couple. Long, in particular, goes all out playing the gay porn star who likes to talk about his work just a bit too much.

photo6Craig Robinson (Pineapple Express) is lovable as the reluctant coffee guy-turn-porn producer. His naiveté and bluntness are good for a laugh. Ricky Mabe (Trailer Park of Terror) has a small role as one of the porn stars but his performance is the weakest link. And what's a movie about making porn without some real porn stars? Katie Morgan and the legendary Traci Lords (Will & Grace) play a pair of female porn stars with zest -- they seem to really know what they are doing.

photo7The screenplay by writer-director Kevin Smith (Jersey Girl) is generally funny and consistent with a lot of extremely crude jokes and pervasive language. The dialogue is generally believable: I know a lot of people who talk like that in real life. Some of the scenes are hilarious because he captures the awkwardness of amateur porn. The high school reunion, for example, is painfully spot on and embarrassing, even though it does feel rather "old-school."

photo8The problem with the script isn't that it's not funny -- it is, by using a lot of potty and smutty humor. It's not even because it's infantile -- Judd Apatow is very good at that, and clearly Kevin Smith has a track record as well. The problem is, in order to create these hilarious situations yet still maintain the romantic core of the story, Smith sacrifices the character development. The change in Zack seems sudden. The character of Miri just isn't believable. It's not the fault of Elizabeth Banks; she does well with what she's given. The problem is the character was written for another actress: Janeane Garofalo, for example -- someone who is less pretty and classy, but more dorky and socially inapt. When the only reason why Miri would agree to making the porno is that she needs money and both her parents are dead, something is off there.

Zack and Miri's relationship is also problematic. First of all, it's difficult to believe that a straight man and a straight woman can be best friends and roommates for 10 years. And they talk about sex and everything with each other with the kind of frankness that would make two brothers blush. And most unbelievable is how they suddenly realize they're in love while making a porno. The romantic core of the story is just too flimsy. It sounds more like an excuse than a real character development.

It's not to say it's a complete failure. There are seriously funny moments, and the camaraderie between the actors is excellent. I do think Smith goes overboard with some of the potty humor and smut, but given the context of the story, I'll tolerate that. As a comedy, it makes me laugh. But somehow it's trying too hard to be yet another Knocked Up or 40-Year-Old Virgin, but falls short on the character and dramatic side. Smith hits you on the head over and over with the laughs. It lacks the emotional impact or the subtlety. The result is somewhere in between. It's too raunchy for a romantic comedy, but too lame for porn.

Stars: Elizabeth Banks, Seth Rogen, Jason Mewes, Brandon Routh, Justin Long, Ricky Mabe, Katie Morgan, Craig Robinson, Traci Lords
Director: Kevin Smith
Writer: Kevin Smith
Distributor: Weinstein Company
MPAA Rating: R for strong crude sexual content including dialogue, graphic nudity and pervasive language
Running Time: 102 Minutes


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

Total – 6.7 out of 10

Rachel Getting Married

© 2008 Ray Wong


A definitive independent film, Rachel Getting Married is set on a festive weekend at the Buchman family, when high emotions and personalities come to a head.

photo1Kym (Anne Hathaway) is a young woman who's been in and out of rehab for ten years. She gets to spend the weekend with her family in Connecticut when her older sister, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) is getting married to Sidney (Tunde AdeBimpe). Upon arrival, Rachel tries to fit in and find something in common with her estranged family, but her insecurity eventually gets the best of her.

photo2Kym feels like her father, Paul (Bill Irwin), is constantly keeping an eye on her, and Rachel doesn't even want her there. Meanwhile, her mother, Abby (Debra Winger), is nowhere to be found. Trying to cope with the alienation and the feeling that her presence is the elephant in the room, Rachel starts to act up. She demands her sister to make her the maid of honor, and she lashes out on her father for being protective. The only solace she finds is a new love interest: fellow recovering addict Kieran (Mather Zickel), who is also Sidney's best friend and best man.

photo3As Rachel's nuptial approaches, the tension comes to a boil, and we eventually finds out what happened to Kym and her family. The myriad of emotions resurface as the family tries to put on a happy face. Kym begins to understand that the pain doesn't just go away; she needs to deal with it and there's no escaping anymore.

photo4Anne Hathaway (Get Smart) is an intelligent actress, and she often surprises us with her and grown-up roles in critically acclaimed films such as Brokeback Mountain and The Devil Wears Prada. She's left her cutesy Princess Diary behind her. Here, she goes one step further, portraying a deeply troubled woman with a heartbreaking, nuanced performance. Unfortunately, her character is so depressing and she does struggle to bring some light to the material.

photo5Rosemarie DeWitt (Cinderella Man) is excellent as the "perfect" Rachel, a complete opposite of Hathaway's Kym. But beneath the beauty and grace and happiness, there lies deep resentment and jealousy, and DeWitt does a great job bringing all that to life. It's not easy to be the "perfect child" when your parents spend their lives caring and protecting your "never-do-good" sibling, and DeWitt's subtle portrayal is spot on. Mather Zickel (Balls of Fury) is gregarious and charming as Kieran, the recovering junkie who understands Kym better than anyone else.

photo6Bill Irwin (Across the Universe) is sympathetic as the patriarch who is hiding his true feelings for his children. Anna Deavere Smith (The Kingdom) is in fine form in a small role as Rachel and Kym's stepmother. It's great to see Debra Winger (Eulogy) coming out of her semi-retirement in a small but pivotal role as Abby, Rachel and Kym's mother. She's lovely, beautiful, graceful, and in one particular scene, reminds us why she's still one of the best actresses of our generation.

photo7Written by Jenny Lumet, the script is loosely structured, taking on a documentary way of storytelling. The secrets and information flows in organically. Lumet sets the story in a few days, and frames everything within the context of the wedding. The problem is, the story feels more like a character study, but we don't really get to know anything deep about these characters, except that they're sad, depressed, conflicted. The story is largely plotless, and sometimes we simply don't know where it's going. In a way, it is kind of nice to see a film without any specific plot or resolution -- it's very much counter-programming. On the other hand, it'd take more interesting characters to hook us and string us on. Some of these characters come across as irritating and depressive.

photo8Director Jonathan Demme (The Manchurian Candidate) is a seasoned director with an Oscar to prove it. But here, he opts for a documentary feel completely with shaky cam and a washed-out video look. That's not so bad all by itself, but my feeling is that the film could use a different approach to perk up. The combination of the style and the story makes the film more depressing than it should be.

Demme also goes overboard with documenting the wedding, drawing out the story to almost two hours with a thin plot. There's a certain voyeuristic feel to it, as if we were crashing someone's wedding party. The result is a tiresome portrayal of a dysfunctional family and a story which could have been told in thirty minutes instead of two hours. By the second half, the movie just drags on and on with not much else going on and no definitive resolve at the end.

While Rachel Getting Married is an interesting concept and characters study with some sharp performances, it feels more like an artistic exercise with too much cinematic navel gazing to really make us care. The tone is too somber and the plot is not interesting enough to keep us there. The intention is certainly honorable, but the result is a misstep. If I had my way, the film would likely be retitled as Ray Getting Bored.

Stars: Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mather Zickel, Bill Irwin, Anna Deavere Smith, Anisa George, Tunde Adebimpe, Debra Winger
Director: Jonathan Demme
Writer: Jenny Lumet
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
MPAA Rating: R for language and brief sexuality
Running Time: 114 Minutes


Script – 5
Performance – 8
Direction – 5
Cinematography – 6
Music/Sound– 7
Editing – 6
Production – 7

Total – 6.1 out of 10

The Secret Life of Bees

© 2008 Ray Wong


Set in South Carolina in 1964, The Secret Life of Bees tackles racial, familial and faith issues from the point of view of a 14-year-old girl who is desperate for a family who loves her.

photo1Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) grows up knowing she is responsible for her mother's death and her father's misery. When her housekeeper, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) is brutally beaten up and in danger of being killed by the town's racists, Lily runs away from home and takes Rosaleen with her. Not knowing where to go, they trek their way to Tiburon, SC that may hold the secret to Lily's mother's past.

photo2Once there, a hunch leads Lily and Rosaleen to three African-American beekeeping sisters: August (Queen Latifah), June (Alicia Keys) and May (Sophie Okonedo) Boatwright. The sisters take them in and give them a place to stay and work. Here, Lily learns the valuable lessons of beekeeping, family, friendship, and love -- something she never received from her father. She also falls in love with August's godson, Zachary (Tristan Wilds), a 16-year-old black man who aspires to become a lawyer. While the civil right movement is tearing the South apart, Lily learns the secret lives of her parents, and realizes that she is, indeed, loved.

photo3As the young protagonist/narrator, Dakota Fanning (War of the Worlds) is growing up. She's no longer the naive child we knew; instead, she is on the verge of womanhood, and she portrays Lily's vulnerability and resolve of self-worth convincingly. Fanning has a quiet way of evoking emotions, definitely an old soul trapped in a young girl's body. She's going to have a long career ahead of her.

photo4Queen Latifah (What Happens in Vegas) is wonderfully maternal as August, the eldest of the Boatwright sisters. She exudes warmth, wisdom, and self-esteem that is contagious. Jennifer Hudson (Sex and the City), in comparison, doesn't fair as well. She's supposedly Lily's "mother figure" but she comes off as weak (except for an earlier scene) and uncertain. Alicia Keys (The Nanny Diaries) is poised and adequately distant as the skeptic of the Boatwright family. Unfortunately, we don't know enough about her character to really get a true feeling about her. Sophie Okonedo (Martian Child) is sympathetic and sweet as May, a tragic character who suffers from depression all her life.

photo5While the women dominate the film, a number of male actors supply the counterbalance rather nicely. Paul Bettany (The Da Vinci Code) is effectively gaunt, intense, and conflicted as Lily's father. Here is a man we're supposed to hate, but he gives T. Ray Owens enough dimension for us to empathize with him. Tristan Wilds (Half Nelson) is amiable as the young man who captures Lily's heart, and Nate Parker (Tunnel Rats) is solid and charismatic in a minor role as June Boatwright's suitor.

photo6Adapted from Sue Monk Kidd's bestselling novel, the screenplay, written by writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball), retains the somber tone of Kidd's story. The plot moves somewhat slow in the beginning. But once the inciting incident happens, especially after Lily and Rosaleen arrive at the Boatwrights', the plot picks up with a character richness that is like honey (pardon the pun). Prince-Bythewood also keeps the symbolism, and layers in the social themes into the mostly personal tale of self-discovery. There are keys scenes that pack extraordinarily emotional punches. The source material has a lot to do with it, but her adaptation as well as the actors help bring everything successfully to the big screen.

photo7That said, there's one tragic turn of event in the story that I feel is forced and manipulative. I'm sure the author and screenwriter have the best intention and there's a whole gamut of emotion that gos into it, but the result seems a bit lacking. It just feels melodramatic and manipulative, when compared to the more genuine and thus more emotional scenes elsewhere.

photo8Prince-Bythewood's direction is steady and effective. Her use of colors, lights, and movements is commendable. The cinematography is impressive. I'm not sure, however, that the production conjures the right feeling about the mid-60s. Something seems off. Perhaps because the actors, especially Fanning, Latifah and Keys, look and feel somewhat too modern for the time period. Still, her slow and steady direction helps give the film a solid foundation. And she allows the writing and the characters to reveal the layers organically without trying to spoon-feed us with exposition. At times, the conflicts seem a bit mundane; however, the characters make us care deeply, even when they're just sitting around sipping sweetened iced tea.

While a "women's story" dominated by wonderfully drawn female characters, The Secret Life of Bees is hardly a chick flick. It's an emotional journey and a genuine drama that delivers powerful feelings and revelations about human relationships, and gives us a glimpse of the time period. Worth a look, and bring your wives, girlfriends, mothers, grandmothers, daughters, aunts and nieces. It's no secret that the writer-director and actors hit almost all the right notes with this one.

Stars: Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo, Paul Bettany, Hilarie Burton, Tristan Wilds, Nate Parker
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Writer: Gina Prince-Bythewood (based on Sue Monk Kidd's novel)
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material, violence and brief language
Running Time: 110 Minutes


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

Total – 7.4 out of 10

City of Ember

© 2008 Ray Wong


While there's plenty of fantasies and adventures for young adults, we haven't seen many science fiction lately, and City of Ember is a nice entry in that genre with some grand themes and neat ideas.

photo1As the world comes to a catastrophic end, a number of engineers and scientists -- the "Builders" -- have built an underground city, which they call the City of Ember, where the last of the human race can live and self-sustain for many years. They have also written specific instructions for their descendants to leave Ember after 200 years. The plan and instructions are kept in a locked metallic box and passed down from mayor to mayor. Unfortunately, the box is eventually lost, and 200 years have come and gone but no one in Ember knows about "the plan."

photo2Another century or so later, the City of Ember is on the verge of collapsing. Food is scarce and the generator is failing. Once the generator fails, everyone in the city will die. Their society is living in constant fear and a totalitarian state under the rule of Mayor Cole (Bill Murray). Messenger Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan), a descendant of the city's 7th Mayor, discovers a mysterious box in her grandmother's apartment. She realizes the significance of the box and tries to alert Mayor Cole of a possible "exit" to the outside world. She and pipe-worker Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway) uncover Cole's secrets, and they're now on the run to escape capture, while trying to find the exit that may be the only salvation for the citizens of Ember.

photo3Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan (Atonement) has proved once again what a wonderful young actress she is. Her performance is solid, nuanced, and precise. She's definitely one to watch (with her next project, the much-anticipated adaptation of The Lovely Bones, coming up). Harry Treadaway (Control) is adequate as Ronan's male counterpart, Doon. He's a little bland as the hero, but he and Ronan make a good team.

photo4Bill Murray (Get Smart) stands out like a sore thump, however, as Mayor Dole. I think his personality is too large for the role -- all I can see is Murray playing Bill Murray dressed in robes. He's too comfortable playing the role the Bill Murray way. Tim Robbins (The Lucky Ones), on the other, is rather good in a small but pivotal role as Doon's father; at least, he's able to disappear into the role, unlike Murray. The supporting cast also includes Toby Jones (W) as the Mayor's assistant, Martin Landau (Entourage) as a master pipeworker, and Mary Kay Place (Mama's Boy) as the cherubic and utterly clueless Mrs. Murdo.

photo5The screenplay, adapted from Jeanne Duprau's novel, by Caroline Thompson (Corpse Bride) maintains a nice apocalyptic tension in the story. There are many grand themes such as societal uncertainties, communism/socialism, chaos, corruption, personal choice and freedoms, etc. that are not usually present in YA science fiction or fantasy. While the prologue and the ending are a bit too "storybook," the rest of the screenplay is dramatically taut, with enough mystery, action, suspense, and character development to keep us going. 

photo6The characters are very likable, without being too cute or cartoonish. Once the prologue is out of the way, the plot advances without being stuck with lots of exposition. There are some silly moments and cliched plot elements, but over all, Thompson's succeeded in creating a special world and keep us there.

photo7Director Gil Kenan (Monster House) also helps in bringing the vision of the City of Ember to life. The production is fantastic, with great sets and costumes. the visuals are appropriate and otherworldly without being too outrageous. It's also nice to see real sets and props instead of CGI. Kenan also keeps the pace fast without sacrificing character development. The plot progresses logically and clearly. The action is exciting without a lot of unnecessary violence. However, some special effects do seem like an afterthought, and could have been done better during post-production. Kenan (and Thompson) manages to keep the number of characters small, focusing only on a handful of key players.

photo8I went to the theater not expecting much (and I'm still bothered by Bill Murray's presence), and I was pleasantly surprised. It's well-crafted, well-executed, and well-performed. It inspires a certain awe and I'm impressed by the grand themes that are not normally presented in YA fantasies. And so it's not only appropriate for the younger crowd -- it can be enjoyed by a whole city of folks, young and old alike.

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Harry Treadaway, Bill Murray, Tim Robbins, Toby Jones, Martin Landau, Mary Kay Place
Director: Gil Kenan
Writer: Caroline Thompson (based on Jeanne Duprau's novel)
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
MPAA Rating: PG for mild peril and some thematic elements
Running Time: 95 Minutes


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

Total – 7.8 out of 10

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist

© 2008 Ray Wong


Beside last year's Juno, there really are not many romance or romantic comedies for the Generation Y. Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist fills the gap with a sweet and irrelevant love story.

p1Nick (Michael Cera) is a dorky high school senior who is also the only straight dude in a "gay band" with his best friends Dev (Rafi Gavron) and Thom (Aaron Yoo). Nick is still hung up on Tris (Alexis Dziena) weeks after they've broken up. Meanwhile, Norah (Kat Dennings), who goes to the same prep school as Tris, has a crush on the mysterious "Nick" who makes the best mixed CDs.

p2Nick and Norah finally meet at a club where Nick and his band are playing. To make Tris jealous, Norah asks Nick to be his girlfriend for the night. Nick goes along with that scheme. When Norah's drunk friend Caroline (Ari Graynor) is "lost" in Manhattan, Nick and Norah set out on a citywide search. Meanwhile, they're trying to figure out what they really want out of this adventure.

p3Michael Cera (Juno) has carved out a niche for himself playing the unlikely romantic hero in teen sex/romantic comedies. Dorky and likable, Cera is this generation's Benjamin Braddock. He's naive, sweet, frustrated, and he has a great heart. Cera is pitch perfect and natural -- one only assumes he's playing himself in these roles. Perhaps we'll see, in the future, if Cera can break out and play something else. Kat Dennings (House Bunny) is also excellent as Norah. She's spunky without being obnoxious, sweet without being a pushover, and smart without being nerdy. She's made a great impression.

p4The supporting cast is in fine form as well. Aaron Yoo (21) also has a niche playing the goofy sidekick. Here he's playing gay without "playing gay." The on-screen friendship between him and Cera seems genuine. Rafi Gavron (Breaking and Entering) is charismatic as the leader of the gay band and, ironically, Nick's romantic advisor. Alexis Dziena (Fool's Gold) is deliciously gorgeous and catty as Nick's ex. Jonathan Wright (Youth in Revolt) plays his minor character well, and steals a scene near the end of the movie. The standout is Ari Graynor (For Your Consideration): her drunk girl is hilarious and there is one particularly gross scene that alone is worth the cost of admission.  A few cameos include SNL's Seth Meyers, Akiva Schaffer, and John Cho.

p5Adapted by Lorene Scafaria (The Nines) from Rachel Cohn and David Levithan's novel, the story is basically a romance set in a wild goose chase. The plot mostly feels organic -- how one thing just leads to another -- and somehow reminds me of the dark comedy After Hours, where things just happen and before you know it, it's 5 in the morning. Certain circumstances do feel a bit forced (such as the whole "Fluffy" subplot and the "meet cute" plot line). And I have a hard time believing someone like Tris would hook up with Nick in the first place, and how someone as adorable as Norah couldn't find an age-appropriate boyfriend. But the relationships, as written, work very well, and these actors have great chemistry to pull them off.

p6The dialogue is cute but not too cliched. There are a few "good for you" moments that feel natural and enlightening. The minor characters are particularly lovable. Nick and Norah are two identifiable teenagers. The script is not outrageously raunchy and sexual, so that's a really nice change of pace. Scafaria proves to us that one can be funny without being gross (OK, there is one or two gross but relatively innocent moments).

p7Director Peter Sollett (Raising Victor Vargas) has a knack for teenage dramas and comedies. The energy is formidable, and the pacing is just right. He's able to mix the fanatic movements and the quieter, sweeter moments with equal attention. He also obviously knows New York City -- his use of the locations, the atmospheres, and the cultural references (underground bands, gay plays, all night parties...) are spot on. He makes me want to visit New York right now. For a film about a "playlist," the film also boasts an excellent soundtrack.

p8Granted, the material is a bit out of my age group (I'm by no means an old fart, however). Still, the core of the story is a sweet coming of age romance. It's so devoid of cynicism and anger and prejudice; and I find that very refreshing. There's certain innocence in the whole thing that makes me smile. Nick and Norah will certainly make it into my own playlist.

Stars: Michael Cera, Kat Dennings, Aaron Yoo, Rafi Gavron, Ari Graynor, Alexis Dziena, Jonathan B. Wright
Director: Peter Sollett
Writer: Lorene Scafaria based on novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
Distributor: Columbia
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature themes, teen drinking, sexuality, language and crude behavior
Running Time: 90 Minutes


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

Total – 7.6 out of 10