Taking Woodstock

© 2009 Ray Wong


Ah, Woodstock. That notorious episode of American counterculture history. The drugs, the sex, the love. And the music. Surprisingly (or not surprisingly), a Taiwan-born director manages to capture the spirit and magic of that moment probably better than any other American director could.

p1Elliot Tiechberg (Demetri Martin) is a struggling artist/interior designer living in New York City. His Jewish-Russian immigrant parents, Jake (Henry Goodman) and Sonia (Imelda Staunton), run a decrepit motel in Catskills, NY on the verge of foreclosure. Elliot moves back during the summer of 1969 to help his parents raise money for the mortgage and insurance. Elliot also is a closeted gay man. He has a hard time opening up to his parents, who don't seem at all interested in him anyway.

p2Elliot is also the president of the local chamber of commerce and every year he runs a music festival. When he hears that a neighboring town has pulled the permit on a "hippie" music festival that features greats such as the Greatful Dead and Janice Joplin, Elliot calls the organizers, including hippie businessman Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff), and offer his property. When the producers reject his swampland, Elliot makes a deal with a local dairy farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) to use his farm in White Lake. Meanwhile, Elliot's parents reluctantly accept the offer, even though the cash payments and potential business would more than enough save the motel. They just don't like the hippies.

p3While the organizers expect to sell 100,000 tickets, Elliot's callous remarks at a press conference result in what could later be called a "movement": more than half a million people show up. That creates insurmountable chaos for Elliot and the townsfolk and local authorities threaten to shut the whole thing down. Uptight Elliot tries to manage the whole fiasco while figuring out how to come out to his parents. At the end, he can't help but being swept away by the ocean of change as he embraces his identity.

p4Demetri Martin (Paper Heart) is highly relatable as the befuddled, frustrated young man who is stuck between his dream and his obligations. His conflict is further complicated by his sexuality. There are a few earlier scenes in which Martin adequately portrays the "deer in the headlight" confusion of Elliot. Later in the movie, however, Elliot's role become more of a passive observer and through his sensitive eyes, we get to experience Woodstock all over again for what it really was. As his parents, Henry Goodman (Hooligans) is marvelously defeated and Imelda Staunton (Nanny McPhee) is spectacularly grouchy and sad. The veterans shine in their respective roles but also buoy Martin's performance by creating the incredible relationships among themselves.

p5The huge ensemble cast (and it's very much an ensemble movie despite the three leads) includes many wonderful actors giving interesting performances. Emile Hirsch (Milk) gets it right by playing a Vietnam vet struggling with post-traumantic syndrome and readjustment. Jonathan Groff (Pretty Handsome) is charismatic (and very calm) as organizer Michael Lang. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Watchmen) is fine as the man who leads the town against the festival. Eugene Levy (For Your Consideration) is great and loosy-goosy as Max Yasgur. Liev Schreiber (Wolverine) is wonderful playing against type as an ex-Marine drag queen, Vilma. Dan Fogler (Fanboys), meanwhile, plays to his strength as a goofy, artsy theatre actor, and Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) is marvelous in a cameo as a hippie who introduces Elliot to his first LSD trip.

p6Adapted from Elliot Tiber's autobiographic account of the events, the screenplay by James Schamus (Hulk) -- longtime collaborator of director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain) -- follows a standard coming-of-age structure by focusing on Elliot's journey set against the historic events as they unfold. Schamus spends a minimal amount of time with the exposition before plunging into the main plot. He also streamlines the hows and whys without bogging us down with the actual logistics of the event. It's through Elliot's eyes that we get to experience Woodstock all over (and again for those who were there for real).

p7Also, most of the characters in the story are transient in that they're part of Elliot's story, but it also doesn't matter what happens to them. Just as the half-million people who descend onto Elliot's backyard, these people come and go, but they leave a definitive impression and lasting impact on Elliot as well as the audience. Schamus also handles the sexuality as-a-matter-of-factly without underplaying or overplaying it. At times, though, the screenplay loses its focus and wanders a bit, but Schamus is able to pull everything back in and let the story tells itself.

p8Ang Lee's direction is impeccable. It's simply amazing for any director to so precisely and masterfully recreate the look and feel of late 60s, not to mention the monumental atmosphere of Woodstock itself. It's even more amazing considering Lee was born and raised in Taiwan. The fact that he could deliver such a deeply American story is a testament to his artistry and vision. While giving us a taste of what Woodstock was like and about, he also keeps the story personal. The relationships and friendships are touching. Lee's camera doesn't shy away from the nudity or sexuality, drugs, the profanity as well as the sublime. There are some truly magical scenes during the festival that makes me wish I could have been there.

Well, I'd just have to experience Woodstock vicariously through the documentaries and this fine idiosyncratic film.

Stars: Demetri Martin, Henry Goodman, Imelda Staunton, Emile Hirsch, Jonathan Groff, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Eugene Levy, Liev Schreiber, Dan Fogler, Paul Dano
Director: Ang Lee
Writers: James Schamus (based on Elliot Tiber's book)
Distributor: Focus
MPAA Rating: R for graphic nudity, some sexual content, drug use and language
Running Time: 110 Minutes


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

Total – 8.2 out of 10

(500) Days of Summer

© 2009 Ray Wong


Forget The Ugly Truth. Forget The Time Traveler's Wife. Forget Funny People. Forget Sandra Bullock. If you only see one movie about relationships this year, make it (500) Days of Summer.

p1For LA greeting card writer Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), meeting Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) is very much love at first sight. Tom is immediately smitten with his boss' (Clark Gregg) new assistant, but Summer remains elusive until opportunities push them together. However, right off the start, Summer tells Tom that she's not looking for a relationship, so let's keep everything casual. On a logical level, Tom is okay with that, but on an emotional level, Tom believes Summer is the one.

p2Summer and Tom's relationship is going very well until Tom begins to question where it is going. He doesn't want to rock the boat, knowing Summer has an aversion to labels. Soon, however, Tom must know and, of course, he does rock the boat and Summer freaks out. The fact is that Summer doesn't want to commit to the relationship. She's enjoying herself, and the minute Tom becomes attached, that's when things change.

p3Joseph Gordon-Levitt (G.I. Joe) is an unlikely romantic hero but he's charming and affecting as the love-sick man. Gordon-Levitt handles the gamut of emotions very well, and gives an inspired and impressive performance. Zooey Deschanel (Yes Man) is lovely as the aloof heroine. There's an offbeat quality to her and she uses it very well to bring the conflicted character to life. Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt have wonderful chemistry together, and that makes it a bit heartbreaking to watch them meander through the muddy path of love.

p4Geoffrey Arend (An American Carol) is dutiful as Tom's dorky best friend, who pulls some strings to get Tom and Summer together. Matthew Gray Gubler (RV) is interesting as Tom's other dorky best friend. The trio works well together. Chloe Moretz (Not Forgotten) plays Tom's unlikely "love guru" with authority, despite her age. Clark Gregg (Iron Man) is sincere as Tom's boss, and Richard McGonagle (The Bucket List) has the right voice and personality as the narrator.

p5Written by Scott Neustadter (The Pink Panther 2) and Michael H. Weber (The Pink Panther 2), the screenplay has a light and fluffy feel to it, even though it tackles some serious issues about relationships. What the writers bring is an insightful and realistic look at relationship without taking themselves too seriously. The structure of film is very interesting. By jumping back and forth in time, the writers are able to create intrigue and mystery while pulling the audience through. We never quite know what happened and what to expect. Meanwhile, we root for the two main characters to succeed in whatever they're doing, because they're so damn likable. At the same time, we know in the back of our minds that nothing is that easy.

p6The dialogue is witty and to the point, without being overly sappy or condescending. The omniscient narrator is a great touch and adds a nice storytelling quality to the film. In a way, it is almost like a fairy tale. Their writing is fresh and interesting, and the characters resonate. The structure also makes an otherwise straight-forward story interesting. It's almost like flipping through a novel trying to find out what happens, and then trying to find out how that happened at the same time.

p7Director Marc Webb (Seascape) is able to put everything together in a light-hearted fashion. The whole production has the look and feel of a romantic comedy and in many ways, it is, but it also defies expectations. Webb's pacing is just right and his style reminds me of Stranger Than Fiction.

p8There's nothing earth-shattering about this little film about love and relationship. In a way, some of it is rather cliched, when it comes down to it. What the filmmakers have done, however, is put a new spin on an old genre, and the result is delightful, witty, and entertaining. The Sundance favorite is a small Summer gem not to be missed.

Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Geoffrey Arend, Chloe Moretz, Matthew Gray Gubler, Clark Gregg, Richard McGonagle
Director: Marc Webb
Writers: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
MPAA Rating: PG-13 sexual material and language
Running Time: 95 Minutes


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

Total – 8.0 out of 10

The Time Traveler's Wife

© 2009 Ray Wong


Audrey Niffenegger's best-selling novel, The Time Traveler's Wife, was itself a fantasy come true: a small-press published science-fiction love story that went supernova totally based on word of mouth. This movie shows how adapting the high-concept, complicated story to the visual media was a challenge.

p1Henry (Eric Bana) seems like any other ordinary Chicago librarians, but he has a secret. Since the age of nine, he's been time traveling involuntarily. His first time-traveling experience also caused his mother's death, when an older Henry arrives just in time to tell nine-year-old Henry everything would be all right. Over the years, Henry learns enough survival skills (such as stealing clothes and money since nothing but his naked self could time travel) to manage his "condition." But he feels alone -- his father blames him for his mother's death, and he can't share his secret with anyone.

p2Years later, Claire (Rachel McAdams) bumps into Henry at the library, and she acts as if she's known Henry her entire life. The fact is, she has, although this is the first time Henry has ever met her. It seems that the future Henry has been visiting Claire at the meadow of her father's stately house since she was six years old. She knows about Henry's condition, but she hasn't seen Henry since she was 18. Furthermore, Claire has been in love with Henry and is determined to marry the man. Which she does, after their short (or long, depending on whose perspective we're talking about) courtship.

p3But Henry's condition poses unpredictability and hardship on their marriage. Henry has no control of when (and to when) he will time travel, and there are times when he would be gone for days or weeks. Also, Henry could end up in dangerous situations during each travel. Claire manages to deal with Henry's absence and potential danger. But when they try to conceive, complications threaten their relationship. Henry's condition turns out to be genetic and the unborn baby could inherit his problems. In addition, Henry begins to visit the future and he doesn't like what he sees...

p4Eric Bana (Funny People) is dashing and appropriately serious and broody as Henry. He also has a difficult task to play a role out of chronological order: one minute he is a 20-something tortured time traveler, and the next he is a mature husband in his 40s. Bana does his best, but sometimes his performance doesn't show enough differences to show us Henry's jumbled life.

p5Rachel McAdams (Holmes) is radiant and love-sick as Claire. Her character has idolized and loved the older Henry since childhood, but she has to reconcile her dreams with the tortured man she actually has to live with, and all the problems that come with his condition. McAdams handles the role nicely and shows growing maturity as the character grows.

p6The rest of the cast has true supporting roles since the story is really about Henry and Claire. Ron Livingston (American Crude) seems miscast as Gomez, Henry's best friend. There is simply no depth to his character and the friendship between him and Henry is underwritten and performed. Arliss Howard (Awake) also seems an unlikely choice as Henry's father: for one thing, he's too young (the actor is only 55 years old); he also share no resemblance to Eric Bana. Michelle Nolden (The Perfect Man) is graceful in her small role as Henry's mother. There's a key scene with her and the older Henry that is poignant and heartbreaking. Mostly known for comedy, Stephen Tobolowsky (Failure to Launch) also is miscast as a doctor who may be able to fix Henry's genetic condition. Hailey and Tatum McCann are wonderful, however, as Henry's daughter (age 9 and 5 respectively).

p7Writer Bruce Joel Rubin (The Last Mimzy) has the thankless job of adapting Niffenegger's chronologically complex and thematically rich romance. And the result shows. Rubin manages to streamline the story to focus on the core relationship between Henry and Claire, but his focus is wrong. The movie is called The Time Traveler's Wife, but the point of view seems to be Henry's and not Claire's. Granted, Henry is a more interesting character, since he is the one doing the time traveling, but the heart of the story is really about Claire's trial and tribulation dealing with her love for a man who won't stay. In that regard, Rubin misses the boat. The dialogue also borders on sappy. Sure, it is a love story, but we don't really need cringe-worthy saccharine-soaked dialogue to understand "yes, they love each other very much." Rubin could have trusted the source material and the actors to pull that off.

p8Rubin also has made the mistake of altering some of the book's most poignant and significant elements. Henry's genetic condition and treatments are glossed over. Henry's friendship with Gomez is underwritten. And the plot doesn't spend enough time on Henry and Claire together. Also, the foreshadows of what would happen to Henry might have worked in the novel, but they seem forced and contrived in the movie. The altered ending also lacks the emotional punch and poignancy of the original -- that's something I wish the filmmakers hadn't changed.

What Rubin and director Schwentke (Flightplan) have succeeded is maintaining the romantic, wistful mood of the story, which is very much about enduring love and separation. The film retains the aches of yearning and parting, of waiting and anticipating, of knowing and not knowing. Thematically, the filmmakers have succeeded in making us care about the characters. Bana and McAdams are great as a couple, and it would have been emotionally more satisfying to see them together. Yet Schwentke's slow and deliberate pacing often dulls the story, exuding certain lethargy that zaps the charm out of the fantastical story. Certain key roles are also miscast, further marring the production.

Under apter hands, The Time Traveler's Wife could have been a sweeping genre-bending love story that fascinates the mind and captures the heart. As is, the film is a missed opportunity and unfulfilled promise. It'd have to take some traveling back to the past to correct that.

Stars: Rachel McAdams, Eric Bana, Ron Livingston, Arliss Howard, Michelle Nolden, Stephen Tobolowsky
Director: Robert Schwentke
Writers: Bruce Joel Rubin (based on Audrey Niffenegger's novel)
Distributor: New Line
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, brief disturbing images, nudity and sexuality
Running Time: 107 Minutes


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

Total – 7.0 out of 10

Julie and Julia

© 2009 Ray Wong


Based on two true stories, Julie Child's (coauthored by Alex Prud'homme) My Life in France and Julie Powell's Julie and Julia, this film is neither a biopic nor a coming of age story. Like The Hours, it's a story about the connection between two women who have never even met.

p1Julie Powell (Amy Adams) is an aspiring writer who is stuck in a cubical job working for the government, handling insurance claims after 9/11. The sob stories she hears every day and the fact that she's living in Queens bring her down, and she feels her life is without a purpose despite having a wonderfully attentive husband, Eric (Chris Messina). She needs a writing project, with a deadline, to keep her creative juices flowing. She decides to spend a year going through Julia Child's 564 recipes in her Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Eric also convinces her to start a blog chronicling her odyssey.

p2Meanwhile, we get to meet Julie's idol, Julia Child (Meryl Streep), who has just moved to Paris with her diplomat husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci) in 1949. Bored and -- just like Julie -- without a purpose, Julia enters a cooking school because she adores food, especially French cuisine. At first she's the laughing stock to the French chefs, but soon she finds her real calling, and her talent does not go unnoticed. Eventually, she meets writers Simone Beck (Linda Emond) and Louisette Bertholle (Helen Carey), who are working on a cookbook. Hoping to target the American market, Beck and Bertholle convince Julia to become their collaborator. Little do they know Julia's ambition and talent are going to take over the project.

p3Back in 2002, New York, Julie has her ups and downs during her year. She has her doubt about finishing what she's started, and she's become more and more obsessed and self-absorbed, and failure scares her to death. Her neurosis is driving Eric batty, and her project distracts her from her job and friendships. Her only real companion is Julia Child, whom she hopes to meet one day (and not so secretly she hopes to have read her blog). By following the recipes day in and day out, it's as if Julia is right there with her through thick and thin.

p4I start to wonder if there's anything Meryl Streep (Mama Mia) can't do. As the legend, Streep encapsulates Child's spirit, mannerisms, speech patterns perfectly. With cinematic magic, she also appears, literally, bigger than life (Child was a very tall woman). Streep's performance is full of nuances, delight, and an optimism that is simply contagious. Whenever she's on screen, the actress and her character lighten everything up. She also has a great rapport with her co-stars, most particularly Stanley Tucci (Swing Votes) as her doting husband.

p5Amy Adams (Doubt) reunites with Streep except she does not have any scenes with the latter. The actress returns to being cute and charming, and her performance is also nuanced and attentive. However, the problem is with her character: she doesn't do much except whining about her situations. The most she does is to blog about her problems. Talk about lack of drama. Therefore, the character of Julie Powell is rather dull and ordinary, and that is a huge contrast with the larger-than-life Julia Child.

p6The supporting cast is superb. Stanley Tucci is wonderful as Paul Child. Understated, he has great chemistry with Streep. You simply believe in the relationship between Julia and Paul, and you can't help but love the man. As the other husband, Chris Messina (Away We Go) is marvelous as Eric Powell. He exudes the kind of charm and kindness that are crucial for his role as the supportive spouse. Linda Emond (Across the Universe) is delightful as Child's collaborator Simone Beck. As Louisette Bertholle, Helen Carey (21) is somewhat overshadowed by the other two women, but the trio has great rapport with one another. Jane Lynch (Role Models) made an impressive cameo as Julia Child's sister.

p7Written and directed by Nora Ephron, who has taken a long, deserved break after the miserable Bewitched, the screenplay brings back her usual lightness and lovely core about love and friendship. The writer-director is best known for her characters and dialogue (and less so about plot), and Julie and Julia is no different. Peppered with delectable bits of frothy dialogue, the screenplay focuses on the relationships surrounding the two characters, separated by time and space. Ephron successfully juxtaposes them: New York vs. Paris, a bored housewife vs. a bored cubicle drone, a chef vs. a wannabe cook, a writer vs. a would-be writer. She also took a few opportunities to take a stab at conservatism and the Republicans.

p8What Ephron lacks is true drama and conflicts. Surely, the characters do go through their ups and downs, trials and tribulations, all of which feel trivial at times. The dispute between Julie and Eric, for example, seems forced and contrived. In fact, it does seem like there are two movies in one, here. I have a feeling that Ephron based the story on Julie Powell's book, but felt that the story was a little thin so she added the part of Julia Child's biopic. The result is that Julia Child's story comes to life while Julie Powell's story dulls in comparison. It is partly, I think, due to Meryl Streep's sensational portrayal of Child. That's not to say Amy Adams gave a poor performance; Streep simply did better.

Ephron's direction is crisp and light, especially when she's covering Child's story. The period feel is superb and Paris is absolutely charming. The use of food, of course, is insurmountable to the story, and boy, does it make me hungry. The scrumptious parade of food on display is itself a character in the film. It certainly makes me want to go out and get the book and try all the recipes myself.

The movie is very entertaining despite the lack of real conflicts and drama. It's light, fluffy, and interesting, especially Julia Child's life in Paris and the eventual publication of her first book. As a writer, that is of tremendous interest to me. Still, I wonder if the movie would have been better if Julie Powell's part of the story is completely taken out, leaving us with a true Child biopic. It just seems like such a missed opportunity. As is, the film is a delicious piece of cake, but nothing substantial. There's nothing wrong with a nice piece of cake, however. As Julie and Julia would have said: bon appetit!

Stars: Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina, Linda Emond, Helen Carey, Jane Lynch
Director: Nora Ephron
Writer: Nora Ephron (based on both books by Julie Powell and Julia Child/Alex Prud'homme)
Distributor: Columbia
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language and sensuality
Running Time: 123 Minutes


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

Total – 7.9 out of 10