I Love You Phillip Morris

© 2010 Ray Wong

An oddball of a movie, I Love You Phillip Morris is a comedy, drama, satire, action, and love story all rolled into one. Oddest of all, it's all based on a true story.

Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) is a small town police officer happily married to Debbie (Leslie Mann). The only reason why Steven takes the job is to have access to the files that may lead him to his biological mother (Steven was adopted). When he finally locates his birth mother, he realizes she isn't what he's expected, and suddenly his life has no real purpose anymore. A car accident prompts Steven to embrace his true self and live life to the fullest: he comes out to the world as a gay man and divorces Debbie.

Steven moves to Miami and adopt a flamboyant lifestyle with boyfriend Jimmy (Rodrigo Santoro). To support their extravagance, Steven becomes a conman. Eventually, Steven gets caught and is sent to jail. There, he meets inmate Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), a gentle homosexual who is serving time for fraud. They fall in love. Upon release, Steven manages to con his way through the legal system to set Phillip free. From there, Steven's obsession with being with Phillip leads him to a series of impersonations, jailbreaks, and frauds.

Jim Carrey (Yes Man) has tried to extend his range for a while now. He had limited success with dramas such as The Truman Show and disasters such as The Majestic. Playing a gay conman may very well be his most daring role, which is both dramatic and comedic. Carrey's flamboyant comedic talent fits the flamboyant, outrageous character perfectly. But it's his dramatic scenes that set this character apart from the rest. Somehow, Carrey is able to transcend the comedy to play a deeply flawed, complex, but three-dimensional character not just for laughs or ridicule. And believe, there's much to ridicule about (more on that later).

As the love of Steven Russell's life, Ewan McGregor (The Ghostwriter) is genuinely sweet, affectionate, and naive, a stark contrast to the frantic Carrey. While McGregor's performance is admirable, as usual, there's really nothing transcending about it, and he's often overshadowed by the more outlandish Carrey.

Leslie Mann (Funny People) has a small role as Steven's incredibly understanding wife and best friend. I mean, after all Steven has put her through, she's still by his side. Now that's a good woman. However, the role seems too one-note and Mann deserves better. Rodrigo Santoro (300) is sharp as Steven's flamboyant and beautiful boyfriend. We actually believe they can be real lovers.

Based on the true crime account of Steven Russell (who is currently serving 144 years in prison, a sentence that is not proportional to his crimes), the film is written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Bad Santa). They've taken an interesting, episodic approach to Russell's absurd story, and added quirks and broad comedy to it. The result is an odd, outlandish tale that often feels uneven. There are moments of comedic gold that fit Carrey like a glove, but there are also serious moments that test the best of dramatic actors. Sometimes, however, the storytelling is so fast-paced and convoluted that it becomes a parody of itself. I can't help but sense the pretension. It's a bit bothersome that Russell's life story is reduced to a series of jokes and ridicules.

That said, the relationships between these characters feel real and as broad as it is, the character development of Russell and Morris is rather solid. And that's very gutsy for Ficarra and Requa to portray a gay romance as raw and real and heartfelt in a satire like this.

Their direction is frantic and fast-paced; they often gloss over a long stretch of time and crimes with collages and spurts of quick cuts. Therefore, sometimes it's really difficult to fully understand what's going on. Spanning over a few years, the transitions are too often too quick for us to get a sense of time, or to really understand the motivations. But the production is handsome and the film has a glossy look and feel that almost mislead us into thinking it's something else other than a true crime story. OK, they say it's really a romance.

While I appreciate the filmmakers' courage to make this film (the subject matters and gay love story have caused tremendous production and distribution problems, especially in the US), I can't help but wonder if they've chosen the wrong treatment. Had it been a straight-up drama, it could have been better. As much as I admire the intent, I just don't love it.

Stars: Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor, Leslie Mann, Rodrigo Santoro, Antoni Corone, Brennan Brown
Directors: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Writers: John Requa, Glenn Ficarra (based on Steven McVicker's nonfiction book)
Distributor: Roadside Attractions
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, strong language and drug use
Running Time: 102 minutes


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

Total – 6.9 out of 10

Black Swan

© 2010 Ray Wong

Once in a while there comes a psychological drama that blows our mind. Black Swan is less about ballet than the slow mental breakdown of an artist who takes her art too seriously.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) has been with the New York Ballet for four years but has never risen above the rank of "featured dancer." Her opportunity comes when prima donna Beth (Winona Ryder) is "retiring" (basically, she got the sack). Director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) is staging a new version of Swan Lake and he needs a new leading lady who can dance both the White Swan and the Black Swan. Nina, an introverted woman who has superb technical skills, is perfect for the role of the White Swan, but she is too fragile and frigid to do the Black Swan justice. However, Thomas realizes Nina is the best dancer he has (technically) and she is beautiful, so he gives the role of the Swan Queen to Nina, in hopes that she could let loose and pour her feelings into the roles.

Nina goes from being elated of finally getting her big break to feeling the immense pressure of dancing the dual roles. She has tremendous problems letting go and getting in touch with her seductress/vixen side. Her protective mother, ex-ballerina Erica (Barbara Hershey), doesn't help either by treating Nina as her "sweet little girl." On top of all the pressure of being perfect, Nina becomes paranoid of a new dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) who, while technically inferior to Nina, has just the right amount of seductive sexiness to pull off the role of the Black Swan. Threatened by her own inadequacy and Lily, Nina struggles to achieve the perfection she so desires, yet begins to learn to let loose and tap into her darker side.

Natalie Portman (Thor) has found a perfect role for herself. The effervescent Portman is excellent as the fragile, frigid, and frightened dancer. To prepare for the role, Portman spent a year training (she already had a background in ballet), and the effort pays off. She looks and acts convincingly (while some of the more sophisticated footwork is done by a double). Most impressive, however, is her emotional range in addition to the physical agility. Ms. Portman's tour-de-force performance would definitely get her an Oscar nomination, if not the actual statuette.

While Ms. Portman carries the entire film on her little dancing feet, the stellar supporting cast includes Mila Kunis (Date Night), who gives possibly her best performance to date as Nina's free-spirit rival. Kunis is gorgeous, of course, but it is her character's sexy, wild personality that is the perfect counterpoint to Portman's frigid beauty. They greatly complement each other. Vincent Cassel (Ocean's Thirteen) is perfect as company director Thomas. He's passionate, brutal, demanding, caring, sexual, artistic… his impeccable performance gives us a three-dimensional character for us to love to hate and hate to love.

Barbara Hershey (Childless) is wonderful as Nina's manipulative and protective mother, Erica. Ms. Hershey's great emotional range adds to the character and also the dysfunctional relationship between Erica and Nina, which is important for us to understand Nina and her plight. Winona Ryder (Star Trek) has always been a good actress, and here, she struts her stuff as the fading star who's been tossed away like yesterday's newspapers. Perhaps Ms. Ryder drew from her own experiences; the result is fantastic. Choreographer Benjamin Millepied, who plays David/the Prince (he is also Ms. Portman's real-life fiance and father of her child; they met on the set of this movie), gives the dancing scenes some gravitas with his superb skills and grace.

The screenplay by Mark Heyman (The Skeleton Twins) and John McLaughlin (Man of the House) follows Andres Heinz's twisted psychology story, which begins slowly. As the fringes of Nina's mental wellbeing unravel, the plot picks up its speed in certain bizarre and unpredictable twists. Suddenly we realize what we see is not always real. Told from the point of view of Nina, who is an unreliable character to say the least, the story takes on interesting turns that leaves us questioning, "What is reality and what is Nina's hallucination?" The taut screenplay also doesn't talk down to the audience by trying to explain everything. In fact, plenty is left unexplained, leaving the story to the audiences' own interpretations.

The most impressive aspect of the story is the character development. We get three-dimensional characters who are neither saints or devils, just human beings trying to find their places in this world but also transcend their mortality. The relationship between Nina and her mother is particularly complex and multilayered. The sexual tension between Thomas and Nina is just as palpable as that between Nina and Lily, which gives the story a dark, unconventional sexual energy that is the antithesis of Nina's control and quest for perfection.

Director Darren Aronofsky is, as usual, amazing. Granted, the story shares a lot of similarities with his last film, The Wrestler. But this version superbly wraps a psychological drama around a beautiful, artistic production. Aronofsky has always been drawn to unusual, dark, and emotionally draining stories such as Requiem for a Dream or Pi. He's done the same here, especially with his extreme closeups and claustrophobic framing. The score by Clint Mansell, mixed with the glorious music of Swan Lake, is fantastically creepy. The editing is excellent and taut, and especially thrilling during the intercuts of the dance movements, between Ms. Portman and her dance double, and between reality and fantasy.

Aronofsky also uses skillful cinematic tricks to give us the illusions: Is it real or is it not? In fact, I'm beginning to question whether Nina's mother is real, and Aronofsky's direction leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Aronofsky also induces horror by aiming the camera directly at some disturbing images, never shying away. The climactic scenes, from the time Nina transforms herself to the evil Black Swan and then on to the finale as the fragile White Swan, are exhilarating to watch, to listen to, and to feel.

I didn't know what to expect. What I got out of the film is an incredible rush, and a deeply disturbing, fascinating, and emotional journey of an artist sinking into insanity in search of perfection. The film is as black as our twisted thoughts would allow, and as graceful as the swan we revere.

Stars: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writers: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John McLaughlin
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use
Running Time: 108 minutes


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

Total – 8.6 out of 10

TRON Legacy

© 2010 Ray Wong

28 years in the making, the sequel to the original box-office flop and cult classic, TRON, finally makes it to the theaters.

After returning from the digital world, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) gained a true appreciation of the technology and started his company, ENCOM, which gradually becomes the world's largest technology empire. However, he disappeared 17 years ago, leaving his 10-year-old son basically an orphan. Now 27, Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) is still the largest shareholder of ENCOM, which is run by businessmen who only want the status quo, not the innovation. Sam couldn't care less.
Family friend and his father's business partner, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), tells Sam he's received a mysterious page originating from Kevin's old office. Sam goes to the arcade, which has been abandoned for years, to investigate. By initiating a process, he finds himself digitized into a strange digital world. After surviving a series of brutal games, Sam declares he's not a program, but a user. He's brought to the leader of the world. At first Sam thinks the leader is his father, but realizes later his name is Clu (Jeff Bridges), a program made from his father's image.

Sam is saved by mysterious Quorra (Olivia Wilde), who tells her Kevin Flynn is in hiding off the grid. Father and son soon reunite. Sam learns that Kevin, the original program Tron (Bruce Boxleitner), and Clu set out to create a perfect system, but some went wrong. Clu lures Sam to the digital world to try to find Kevin, who holds the key to the outside world. Clu is determined to unleash his army to the real world.

Jeff Bridges (True Grit) reprises his role as Kevin Flynn after almost 30 years. He's older and wiser, and his character is, too. And more Zen-like. Bridges plays a man who's been trapped in a world he created "forever." His performance is subdued and understated, which lacks the dramatic power of his second role as the program Clu. 30 years younger and created by CGI, Clu is eerily realistic but unreal at the same time. Bridges gives a more sinister and aggressive performance via motion capture.

As Sam Flynn, Garrett Hedlund (Death Sentence) has the thankless job of playing the unwilling hero. His character is both active and passive at the same time. Hedlund does what he can with the emotionally distant character. Most of the time, he only needs to react to what is happening around him, instead of taking charge. Olivia Wilde (The Next Three Days) fares better as the strong heroine, Quorra. Her character is more proactive and Wilde does a good job making us care, even though we know she's "just a computer program."

The supporting cast seems to have a good time making this film. Bruce Boxleitner (Shadows in Paradise) gives us a welcome return of Alan Bradley and the original Tron (again, via CGI). James Frain (True Blood) is creepy as Clu's right-hand man. Beau Garrett (Ivory) is weirdly gorgeous as the program GEM, and stunt actor Anis Cheurfa (The Green Hornet) has some great moves as a game fighter Rinzler. But the scene stealer is Michael Sheen (Beautiful Boy), who chews his scenes with flair and panache as Cantor/Zuse.

The screenplay by Edward Kitsis (LOST) and Adam Horowitz (LOST) follows the original TRON, but only to a certain extent. They focus the story on the father-son arc, and that gives it an emotional weight. However, what is missing is the wonderment of the original with regard to the technology. What's great about the original is that it was a fairytale about the digital world -- we actually get to see how computers work within the realm of that fantasy. Here, all that is lost. What's left is just mumble-jumble about a perfect system, but we never get to see it at work. The plot is full with holes and stakes are not as high as they should be. After Sam finds his father, the tension is almost gone -- all they need to do is to get out and take control. Boring!

The dialogue and plot movement are also convoluted. In the original, there is a rhyme and reason for the games, for example. There's no explanation here: Sam's plunged right into the games. The plot requires a huge dose of suspension of disbelief, and it's a fantasy!

What saves the film is the direction of newcomer Joseph Kosinski (The Black Hole). He has a great visual style and the production is slick and exciting. The color palette is heavy on black and blue with a splash of neon, however, which gets tiring after a while. The constant action and loud music can get tiring, too, but at least Kosinski keeps everything moving. The visuals are stunning and some of the action sequences are spectacular. On the other hand, that's also a problem for the film: the digital world is too sophisticated and slick for us to believe it's actually electronic.

Sad to say, TRON Legacy is a disappointment for fans of the original. It lacks the imagination and originality. It lacks the geek-worthy inside jokes of how computers work (seriously, no exploration of the Internet and the "social network" phenomenon?) It misses the mark on many fronts. It'd hardly leave a legacy as the original did.

Stars: Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner, James Frain, Beau Garrett, Michael Sheen, Anis Cheurfa
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Writers: Edward Kitsis, Adam Horowitz
Distributor: Walt Disney
MPAA Rating: PG for sequences of sci-fi violence and brief mind language
Running Time: 127 minutes


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

Total – 7.8 out of 10

The Tourist

© 2010 Ray Wong

Harking back to the Hollywood golden age, The Tourist is a glossy, old-fashioned romantic thriller with high wattage star power. The question we must ask: Is it too old-fashioned?

Elise (Angelina Jolie) is being followed by the Scotland Yard in Paris to track down a white-collar thief Alexander Pearce, who stole billions of dollars from gangster Reginald Shaw (Steven Berkoff). Turns out Elise has been romantically involved with Pearce before he disappeared for two years. Elise receives instructions from Pearce to meet him on a train to Venice. In the message, Pearce asks Elise to pick a random stranger with his height and build, as decoy to distract the Scotland Yard, led by Inspector John Acheson (Paul Bettany).

Once on the train, Elise meets American tourist Frank (Johnny Depp), who is a Math teacher from Wisconsin. Attracted to the luminous Elise, Frank is convinced to tag along in Venice. Meanwhile, ruthless Shaw gets the information that Pearce is in Venice and travels there trying to catch him and get back his money. Believing he's mixed up in a conspiracy involving Elise, Frank tries to run away but is eventually captured by Shaw's henchmen. Just then, Elise shows up and rescues him.

Turns out Elise has fallen for Frank, despite her conflicting feelings about Pearce. As Pearce continues to elude them, Elise asks Frank to leave so he won't be in danger anymore. But Frank has other plans, since he, too, has fallen for Elise.

Johnny Depp (Alice in Wonderland) is fine playing an Average Joe who unwittingly gets involved with an international mouse hunt. Depp has an ease about him, and his performance is relatable and subtly humorous. Angelina Jolie (Salt), however, is in full "super star" mode -- she even wears the same glamorous makeup and clothes throughout the entire movie. Don't get me wrong, Jolie is a star and she is gorgeous, but her performance is thus restricted to be poised and mysterious at all times. It's also not a good thing when she and Depp don't have much chemistry together. Sure, they look great together, but that's about it; not once did I believe their characters would fall in love with each other.

Paul Bettany (Iron Man 2) has some fun playing the smarmy Scotland Yard inspector, but his role is too one-dimensional to leave any real impact. Timothy Dalton (Hot Fuzz) is excellent as the droll chief inspector; Dalton has found his calling as a comedic actor. Veteran British actor Steven Berkoff (Perfect Life) gives a stereotypically menacing performance as the gangster. However, his character is so cliched that even with Berkoff's skillful portrayal, it's tiresome. Rufus Sewell (The Holiday) has a small but pivotal role as a mysterious Englishman.

Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (The Lives of Others) (and co-written by Christopher McQuarrie (Valkyrie) and Julian Fellowes (The Young Victoria)), the screenplay is a throwback to the glossy heist movies of the fifties and sixties (think To Catch a Thief or How to Steal a Million). The story has some interesting twists and misdirections, and dialogue that is more "Hollywood" than real. It is, in general, entertaining. However, the plot is paper-thin and, at 103 minutes, it feels long. Also, there is not enough interaction between the two main characters, and that's a shortcoming for a romantic suspense/thriller. Not to mention I figured out the twist ending from a mile again -- not a good thing.

Donnersmarck also favors slow camerawork and long shots. That's the technique that may have worked for Alfred Hitchcock in the fifties, but here it feels drawn-out. I mean, how often are we going to watch the glamorous Jolie spend two minutes walking across the street, enter a building, or sashay through the major attractions in Venice? There are many dull moments. His languid style may have worked for The Lives of Others (which is a masterpiece), but not here. The glamor and drawn-out action only makes this movie feel pretentious. Granted, the cinematography is beautiful and the Venetian backdrop is gorgeous, but we come for the story and characters, not a tour.

Yes, it's a beautiful film with beautiful stars and beautiful locations. And yes, it has an interesting premise and the old-fashioned storytelling is welcome. But the execution is short of being good, and the result is a drag, unless you're preparing yourself to be a Venice tourist.


Stars: Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, Paul Bettany, Timothy Dalton, Steven Berkoff, Rufus Sewell
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Writers: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Christopher McQuarrie, Julian Fellowes (based on motion picture Anthony Zimmer written by Jerome Salle)
Distributor: Columbia
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and brief strong language
Running Time: 103 minutes


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

Total – 7.1 out of 10

The King's Speech

© 2010 Ray Wong

I often wonder why movies about the British monarchy are so entertaining: The Queen, Young Victoria to name a few. Is it because they are often so well written and made, or we're just naturally fascinated by one of most visible empires in the world?

Prince George (Colin Firth) has a speech impediment: he stammers, especially during public speech. He constantly lives in the shadow of his more charismatic brother, Edward (Guy Pearce), who is heir to the throne and favorite of their father, King George V (Michael Gambon).

To help him get over his stammering and fear of public speech, George's wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) enlists speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Lionel, promising the prince his utter privacy (Lionel doesn't even tell his wife about "Bertie," his new patient), is known for his unorthodox methods. While he is successful in helping the prince improve, his antics and lack of personal boundary enrage Bertie, who eventually quits the treatment.

After King George V dies, Edward becomes King. Unfortunately, King Edward VIII is more interested in throwing parties and his relationship with an American divorcee than ruling the empire. Soon, Edward abdicates so he can marry Wallis Simpson. Bertie is thrust onto the throne, and he desperately needs Lionel's help or else he would become the laughing stock throughout the empire. As WWII approaches, King George VI must give one of the most important speeches in his life, and only Lionel can help him deliver.

Colin Firth (A Single Man) is brilliant as Bertie/King George VI. He shows great arrogance, temper, and vulnerability as the unwilling king who lives in the shadows of his father and brother all his life. Firth's performance is vibrant, affecting and mesmerizing. You can't help but root for him even though at times he could be such an ass. Geoffrey Rush (Elizabeth: the Golden Age) is equally impressive as Lionel. Rush successfully portrays a man who finds his calling, despite the lack of formal training, after his failure as an actor. The chemistry between Firth and Rush is undeniable, and that makes the relationship between their characters so much more believable and enjoyable to watch.

Helena Bonham Carter (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) finally gets a chance to stretch her dramatic ability again. As Queen Elizabeth ("The Queen Mother" as we know her), she is quietly strong and supportive, and she never passes a judgment and always treat people with respect. Derek Jacobi (Endgame) is effectively creepy as the Archbishop. Michael Gambon (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) is regal and mean as King George V, and through him we get to understand Bertie's emotional trauma. Guy Pearce (The Road) eerily looks older than Firth (who is 7 years older than Pearce) and is a dead-ringer for King Edward VIII. The weakest link is Timothy Spall (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) as Winston Churchill -- his imitation is very distracting.

Written by David Seidler (The King and I), the screenplay is very play-like and dialogue-heavy. As a movie, it is a bit threadbare. That said, the dialogue is well written, and there is plenty of conflict. The characters are well developed, with a lot of tension. The plot may have been simplistic, but the execution is fluid and unfolds nicely. The little bit of history, with WWII as the backdrop as well as seeing Queen Elizabeth II as a precocious little girl, (especially about Edward's abdication) is fascinating. Best of all, it's the unlikely relationship between a common man like Lionel and the future king that is so well written.

The performances are stellar in general, where Rush and Firth will most likely get their Oscar nominations. Under Tom Hooper's (The Damned United) direction, the film has a steady, almost nostalgic feel. The color tone is muted, and Hooper makes effective use of the simple sets. Hooper also focuses on the performances, with a lot of close-ups and steady shots that feature the actors' expressive faces.

The result is a well made character-driven personal story during one of the most interesting times of modern history. Firth and Rush should start practicing their acceptance speeches.


Stars: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon, Guy Pearce, Timothy Spall
Director: Tom Hooper
Writers: David Seidler
Distributor: Weinstein Company
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 118 minutes


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

Total – 8.2 out of 10