© 2008   Ray Wong

Director Baz Luhrman, the visionary behind films such as Romeo+Juliet and Moulin Rouge, teams up with his favorite Australian stars to tell a story about their homeland.

p1Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), an aristocrat from England, is on her way to Northern Australia to find her husband, who owns a cattle ranch. She discovers he has been brutally murdered by King George (David Gulpilil), an Aboriginal "magic man." His grandson, Nullah (Brandon Walters), is a half-white, half-Aborgine who works at the ranch with his mother. Sarah doesn't believe the boy's grandfather killed her husband, and when she realizes King Carney (Bryan Brown) and his help Fletcher (David Wenham) are stealing her cattle and trying to force her to sell the ranch, she realizes she sits on a great piece of property.

p2She decides to give Carney some competition to break his monopoly of the meat business, especially considering the big contracts with the war-time military. She hires Drover (Hugh Jackman) to help her drive about 2000 heads of cattle to Darwin so she can sell them to the military. On their way, Fletcher sabotages them. They prevail, however. Sarah and Drover become romantically involved.

p3Sarah wants to keep Nullah as her son, against the town's objection as well as Drover's. After a heated argument about their future, Drover leaves. Nullah is taken away. During that time, the Japanese attack northern Australia and threaten to break up Sarah, Drover and Nullah forever.

p4Nicole Kidman (The Golden Compass) is in fine form as Lady Ashley. She shows some over-the-top, broad comedic ability at the beginning, but its her dramatic moments that remind us why she is a star. She also has great chemistry with Hugh Jackman (Wolverine), who flaunts his leading man physicality and charisma in every scene. They work particularly beautifully in the first half of the film.

p5Newcomer Brandon Walters is excellent as Nullah, the boy who is central to the racial struggle in the story. Walters is mischievous, genuine and energetic in his role. As his native grandfather, King George, David Gulpilil (Crocodile Dreaming) spends most of his time chanting or being silent, but he exerts certain authority. Bryan Brown (Cactus) has a relatively small role. He does his best with the two-dimensional "tycoon" role. David Wenham (300) is marvelously evil as Neil Fletcher, who schemes his way to success at the expense of everyone else.

p6Written by Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge), Stuart Beattie (30 Days of Night), Ronald Harwood (Love in the Time of Cholera) and Richard Flanagan (Moulin Rouge), the story is an aggressive "epic." The arc follows a traditional three-act structure, and it is a very conventional approach. In a way, the whole thing is a big cliche, and the characters are all archetypical. Let's see: the dashing, rough hero; the spoiled but beautiful heroine; the innocent boy who is pure and lovable; the conniving villains; the amiable sidekicks. Even the dialogue is taken from the rule book. There's not much originality here, but the writing works in that context. If you're expecting something warm and fuzzy and familiar, the screenwriters achieve exactly that.

p7Luhrmann doesn't deny that he wants to make the Australian version of Gone with the Wind. In many ways, that's exactly what he accomplishes: the sweeping landscapes, the vibrant colors, the swelling music, the high drama, and the grand romance. There are no surprises -- the characters are exactly what you expect them to be, and the plot goes exactly where it's supposed to go. But when it works, it works tremendously. The first half of the film, with its broad comedy, action, adventure and brooding romance, is exciting and visually arresting. Luhrmann has a unique visual and storytelling style that is evident throughout the film.

p8However, it also seems like there are three movies in one, not in visuals but in tone. The first act is comedic and story-bookish. Then the tone becomes more somber and more action-packed during the middle, and the comedy disappears. The last act of the film is over-the-top romantic and melodramatic, to the point of being cheesy and over-produced. At nearly three hours, the film also feels long. It almost seems like the last act is redundant, or a way to make it more epic by introducing the Pacific War. I almost feel like the film should have ended at the end of the second act, and it would have been a much stronger film. As is, the last act feels overdrawn, melodramatic and at times just silly. It doesn't move me the way Luhrmann intends. At least not as much as it does in the second act. Luhrmann seems very inconsistent in terms of the tone and themes (love, war, racial prejudice, adventure, history, etc.) -- it's as if he doesn't quite know exactly which story to tell, so he tells them all.

Don't get me wrong. As conventional and cliched as it is, Australia is exciting, entertaining, fun, visually stunning, and has everything you've come to expect from a Hollywood epic. While it has its share of cheese, the cast and crew have done a fine job creating a romantic adventure that is strong on action. And if you're a fan of Luhrmann's visual style and storytelling, you will adore the film. If you're not his fan, you may end up hating the film.

At the very least, we would all want to visit the Australia outback.

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Bryan Brown, David Wenham, Brandon Walters, David Gulpilil
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Writers: Stuart Beattie, Baz Luhrmann, Ronald Harwood, Richard Flanagan
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence, sensuality, and brief strong language
Running Time: 165 Minutes


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

Total – 7.8 out of 10

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

© 2008 Ray Wong

After the wonderfully understated Wonder Boys, I was eagerly anticipating the adaptation of author Michael Chabon's first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, set in the summer of 1983.

Art Bechstein (Jon Foster) is a college graduate spending his last summer in Pittsburgh before taking a job as a stockbroker. He secretly despises his father's (Nick Nolte) real job as a gangster and would have nothing to do with that part of his life. He works at an independent bookstore and have a sexual relationship with the manager, Phlox (Mena Suvari). At a party, he meets Jane (Sienna Miller), a young musician with a loose-cannon boyfriend, Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard).

Art is immediately smitten by both Jane and Cleveland, who have a tumultuous, on-and-off-again relationship. He starts to hang out with the couple a lot, and develops a not so secret crush on Jane. His crush on Cleveland, however, is rather under the surface. Cleveland would sometimes disappear for days, and Art eventually finds out Cleveland is involved with the "bad crowd," including Art's gangster uncle. He also discovers that Cleveland likes to have his occasional fun with men as well.

Art is ultimately confused about his feelings. He loves being with Cleveland and Jane, but he also respects the boundaries. Meanwhile, his relationship with Phlox has deteriorated. His father's disapproval also grows as Art spends more and more time having fun instead of studying. Soon, Art finds himself crossing the line and getting involved with Cleveland and Jane more deeply than he expected.

Jon Foster (Stay Alive) is wooden and dull as the protagonist and narrator. Granted, his character is more of an observer than the "hero," but still, in a coming-of-age drama, we expect a little more spark from the main character. Foster carries 80% of the film but he lacks the acting abilities to leave a positive impression or bring the character to life. We seldom understand his true motive and emotions; it seems like most of the time he just goes along with the ride.

The rest of the cast includes more seasoned and well-known actors. Peter Sarsgaard (Rendition) tries to be charismatic as the drifter, the central object of Art's affection. Sarsgaard is a good, likable actor, but he lacks the je ne sais quoi to pull off a larger-than-life character such as Cleveland. Not to mention he shares almost no chemistry with anyone else on screen, including costar Sienna Miller (Stardust) as Jane. She is beautiful, but her portrayal of Jane is also dull and uninspired. Is she supposed to be the woman that both men fall for? Why?

Mena Suvari (Factory Girl) has a better time playing Phlox, not because her character is any deeper than the rest, but because she has some of the wittiest lines that resemble Chabon's original writing. Her performance lightens the otherwise monotonous plot. Nick Nolte (Tropic Thunder) reminds us why he's one of the best actors of his generation. As Art's gangster father, he gives possibly the best, heartfelt performance of the entire film.

Written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story), the script is disjointed and episodic, but that's the only thing that matches Chabon's languid, lyrical novel. Thurber is an odd choice to write and direct such literary material to begin with. Unfortunately, he can't rise from his limitations. In the process, he utterly butchers Chabon's book. First, he eliminates one of the book's most endearing characters, Arthur. He then reduces Phlox to a comic relief. He also forgoes what's made the book so endearing: Art's friendship with the people he meets during that summer. Instead, Thurber focuses on Art, Cleveland and Jane.

That alone wouldn't have ruined the story had Thurber taken care of developing the characters more fully and given them better motivations and depths. Instead, he keeps the episodic nature of the story. What comes out of that is a disjointed screenplay with baffling behaviors that come out of nowhere. For example, one minute Cleveland is the most charming and lovable person and he and Jane hit it off beautifully, and then the next minute he and Jane are at each other's throats and Cleveland turns into a huge jerk. There is no rhyme and reason, and we're left to take Art's attraction to them as gospel. I don't buy it.

Not to mention the characters are dull, and the treatment lacks Chabon's lyrical quality. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is a character study and a coming of age story. Thurber lacks the ability to give the film a true literary take that is worthy of the original material. Not to mention the main actors lack chemistry. We never really feel the connections between them, let alone being convinced they're in love with one another. That leads to some of the film's most uncomfortable and laughable moments, which should have been poignant, erotic, and complex.

As a rabid fan of Chabon's literary work, I feel especially betrayed and disappointed. The film is set in Pittsburgh, but it hardly shows off the city as the novel did. Even if you're not familiar with the book, you'll understand what I'm talking about when you witness the disjointed, out of character portrayal of these relationships that are central to the story. I really wanted to love the film. So it shouldn't come as a mystery how much I actually dislike it.

Stars: Peter Sarsgaard, Sienna Miller, Mena Suvari, Jon Foster, Nick Nolte, Omid Abtahi
Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Writers: Rawson Marshall Thurber (based on Michael Chabon's novel)
Distributor: Arclight Flims
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexual content, violence, and nudity
Running Time: 95 Minutes


Script – 4
Performance – 6
Direction – 5
Cinematography – 7
Music/Sound– 8
Editing – 6
Production – 7

Total – 5.4 out of 10

Quantum of Solace

© 2008 Ray Wong


Picking up where Casino Royale left off, the second Bond film starring Daniel Craig continues to chronicle James Bond's transformation into the Bond we all know so well.

photo1The story begins with Bond (Daniel Craig) in hot pursuit of Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), the man responsible for the death of the woman Bond loves. After capturing and interrogating White, Bond and M (Judi Dench) understand there's a secret organization called Quantum, something even the MI6 does not know, behind all this. A infiltrator tries to kill M, but Bond eventually catches and kills him.

photo2Bond's ruthlessness and disobedience put M in an awkward position. She doesn't know if she can trust Bond either. Meanwhile, Bond follows his leads to Camille (Olga Kurylenko), who leads him to one of the members of Quantum, Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric). It turns out Greene is supporting a local tyrant in exchange of a piece of dessert. But there's no oil there; so what is Green after?

photo3When M realizes Bond is out of control, she suspends him. That doesn't stop Bond from going after what he wants -- he asks for help from former agent Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) and CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright). It turns out Felix is after Greene as well. Armed with personal vengeance, Bond goes after Greene with or without M's blessing.

photo4Daniel Craig (Defiance) surprised everyone with his gruff, rough, and ruthless portrayal of the world's most famous spy. Here, he continues with that personality but adds a bigger dash of charm, soul and slickness -- we can certainly see the savvy Bond emerging from that gruff exterior. Craig again delivers a tour de force performance, especially considering he performed most of his own stunts. It'll be interesting to see where he takes Bond (he's under contract for one more film).

photo5Judi Dench (Notes on a Scandal) reprises her role as M and acts more motherly toward Craig's Bond. Dench is always great, and the relationship she develops with Craig is what makes the film works on a personal level outside of all stunts, pyrotechnics and high-tech gadgets. Italian star Giancarlo Giannini (Casino Royale) brings class and heart to the production, with a small but important reprisal as Mathis -- Bond's friend and mentor. Jeffrey Wright (W) also reprises his role as Felix and has a few good scenes with Craig.

photo6But what's a James Bond movie without the Bond girls and super villains? As Camille, Olga Kurylenko (Max Payne) is gorgeous, of course, but she can also act. She's a good compliment to Craig, and her role is more substantial to the plot than just a window dressing. Plus, her character doesn't sleep with Bond. Gemma Arterton (RocknRolla), as Strawberry Fields, does sleep with Bond. It's a great role, albeit short and tragic. The weakest link of the entire cast is French actor Mathieu Amalric (Munich) as Greene. The villains in Bond films are usually either weird or larger-than-life. Amalric is simply too plain, uninteresting, and outright wimpy. Greene is definitely one of the weakest villains in any Bond films.

photo7The screenwriting team includes pedigrees such as Paul Haggis (Crash), Neal Purvis (Casino Royale), and Robert Wade (Casino Royale). They don't disappoint. Granted, the plot is a bit convoluted with a lot of different characters and various twists, but no one goes to see Bond for the plot anyway. The writers give us sharp dialogue, great action sequences that take us to exotic locations, and interesting espionage scenarios. What impresses me, however, are the relationships. Haggis and company really turn things up a notch by more fully developing Bond's character and his relationships with others, especially M. His friendship with Mathis is particularly well rendered and carried out; yet, it doesn't reduce Bond into a sentimental puddle -- that is very remarkable.

photo8This is director Marc Forster's (The Kite Runner) first Bond film, and likely his last (he declined to direct the next film). His direction is taut and well executed. The stunt work, in particular, is stunning. There are key sequences -- for example, through the streets of Italy -- that are breathtaking. He's also slick when the action calls for it, such as the sequence at the opera house. Sometimes, however, the action is too tight and confusing -- it's really difficult to discern who is doing what to whom. Obviously, Forster's taking cue from Paul Greengrass and the Bourne series, what with the fast cuts, the super close-ups, and the shaky camera. It's no secret that Jason Bourne is now the number one competitor to the Bond franchise, and one must adapt. Still, there are scenes that remind us the Bourne series, and that's not necessarily a good thing.

Still, this is Bond, and this film has everything: beautiful women, exotic locations, supreme stunt work, great chases, stylized violence, machismo to spare, fashion, sex, and martinis. Combined all that with solid performances from the key players (with the exception of the villain), what more could we ask for? We should take solace knowing that at least in the fantasy world of cinema, James Bond is still alive and kicking ass.

Stars: Daniel Craig, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Amalric, Judi Dench, Giancarlo Giannini, Gemma Arterton, Jeffrey Wright, David Harbour, Jesper Chrsitensen
Director: Marc Forster
Writers: Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade
Distributor: MGM
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, sexual content and brief nudity
Running Time: 106 Minutes


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

Total – 8.1 out of 10

Role Models

© 2008 Ray Wong


At once a buddy flick and a coming-of-age story, Role Models follows the footstep of 40-Year-Old Virgin, but with kids.

photo1Wheeler (Seann William Scott) and Danny (Paul Rudd) are two 30-something guys whose jobs are to go from school to school selling a crappy sports drink. Wheeler is a habitual womanizer and he actually loves his job. But Danny is having an early midlife crisis and he realizes he's been wasting his life. He tries to "fix it" by proposing to his longtime girlfriend, Beth (Elizabeth Banks), who ends up breaking up with him instead.

photo2Unable to deal with his identity crisis, Danny acts out his frustration and lands both Wheeler and himself in trouble. They're sentenced to 150 community service by mentoring kids at an organization run by Gayle (Jane Lynch), an ex-junkie-turn-Mother-Teresa. Danny is assigned to a teenager named Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a socially inept nerd who's into Renaissance reenactments. Wheeler, on the other hand, is assigned to a potty-mouthed kid named Ronnie (Bobb'e J. Thompson).

photo3Danny hates his life, and he hates everything about being an mentor as well. He doesn't care about Augie or anyone else, and he just wants to get the community service over with. Meanwhile, the happy-go-lucky Wheeler is starting to bond with the difficult Ronnie. It turns out Gayle is right, however, that the kids need them just as much as they need the kids.

photo4Paul Rudd (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) has made a name for himself playing the everyday Joe in raunchy comedies. Rudd has the looks to become a romantic leading man, but I have a feeling his heart is in comedy, and he does a good job. Granted, he seems to play similar characters lately. Likewise, Sean William Scott (The Promotion) is basically reprising his infamous Stifler (from American Pie) character, with a little more heart. They're both typecast; their casting is both uninspired and perfect at the same time.

photo5Their counterparts are the nerdy Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Superbad) and wild-child Bobb'e J. Thompson (Columbus Day). Mintz-Plasse practically burst into the Hollywood scene with is wonderful portrayal of "McLovin" in Superbad. Here, he plays a milder but equally nerdy teenager who seems to be stuck in his own little world. He does a good job. Thompson, on the other hand, is outrageous as Ronnie. The things that come out of this kid's mouth is sure to give any parent a heartburn. Thompson manages to make an obnoxious child adorable -- no small feat for a tiny actor.

photo6The supporting cast is dutifully typecast: Elizabeth Banks (Zach and Miri Make a Porno) is earnest and kind as Danny's frustrated girlfriend. Jane Lynch (Another Cinderella Story) is hilarious as the off-kilter advocate for kids. Ken Marino (Reno 911) and Kerri Kenney (Reno 911) have fun playing Augie's parents, and Ken Jeong (Pineapple Express) is remarkably groovy as "King Argotron."

photo7Written by Rudd, Marino, and director David Wain (The Ten) and Timothy Dowling (Evil Hill), the script is rather standard, following a tried-and-true hero's arc. What they do, however, is abandon the normal PG route and go all out with the raunchiness. They manage to mix the family genre with gross-out, sex comedy. They also succeed in tapping into the common theme of "be yourself" with a fresh twist -- the climactic scenes are well played and jovial.

photo8The dialogue is a bit lame, though. And many of the situations are not really that funny. The characters are drawn well enough, considering the genre -- we're not going to expect Oscar-calibre writing and acting here, but the actors all do their job, and they're cast exactly for what they do best.

There really aren't a lot of surprises. And the plot generally lacks certain believability. Danny's final revelation comes off as inauthentic and sudden -- after two months of moping and not caring, suddenly he is willing to put his future on hold just to help out a kid? Right. In contrast, Wheeler's evolvement seems more genuine; his character is definitely a crowd-pleaser.

The direction by Wain (The Ten) is standard and uninspiring. He does the job. No complaint there. The story clips along just fine without a lot of dull moments. There just really aren't any "highs" or "lows." Instead, there is a steady "average" throughout the whole movie, up to the predictable finish. Yet, the film has enough heart to still put a smile on my face. It's just not quite the role model for future "family comedies."

Stars: Seann William Scott, Paul Rudd, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Bobb'e J. Thompson, Elizabeth Banks, Jane Lynch, Ken Jeong, Ken Marino, Kerri Kenney
Director: David Wain
Writers: Paul Rudd, David Wain, Ken Marino, Timothy Dowling
Distributor: Universal
MPAA Rating: R for crude and sexual content, strong language and nudity
Running Time: 99 Minutes


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

Total – 6.6 out of 10