© 2011 Ray Wong

If you're not familiar with Brian Selznick's Hugo, you'd have thought it's a fantasy set in 1930s Paris judging from Martin Scorsese's fantastical production. It is, in fact, a historical drama.

After his father (Jude Law) died in a fire, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives and works with his uncle (Ray Winstone) at the clock tower at the train station in Paris. He is trying to stay under the radar of the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), for fear of being taken away as an orphan. The boy tries desperately to fix an automaton which could write, because he believes it would send him a message from his father. However, while trying to steal parts from a toyshop owner Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), Hugo gets caught and his notebook is confiscated. Later, Papa Georges tells him that he's burned the book.

But Georges's goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) tells Hugo that Papa Georges didn't burn the book. In fact, he's very sad for some reason. Hugo and Isabelle become fast friends. When she tries to help him find the notebook, they discovers Papa Georges is hiding a secret -- he has a box full of fantastical drawings. In solving the mystery, Hugo and Isabelle find out that the automaton is linked to Papa Georges.

Asa Butterfield (Nanny McPhee Returns) has the tremendous responsibility as the titular character. He more and less have to carry the film on his shoulders (with the help of veteran actors, of course). He does a good job. While he may not be as skilled and talented as an actor like some of his contemporaries, his performance is good enough to make us care about Hugo. Chloe Grace Moretz (Let Me In) is also good, but she plays it safe here, and we miss her edgier roles.

The veterans help lift the performances to a high level. Ben Kingsley (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time) is particular great as Georges. His range is amazing and reminds us why he is one of the best actors of our time. Sacha Baron Cohen (Bruno) is all right as the station inspector, but his performance is rather a caricature. Emily Mortimer (Shutter Island), Christopher Lee (Alice in Wonderland), Ray Winstone (Lost in Italy) and Jude Law (Sherlock Holmes) all have small but affecting parts. Helen McCrory (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) is extraordinarily charming and graceful as Mama Jeanne.

Adapted from Selznick's award-winning novel, the screenplay by John Logan (Rango) follows the original story rather faithfully. The story and plot, however, have the trappings of a children's story -- it's rather simplistic at times. The multiple subplots and threads seem irrelevant sometimes, even though the characters are endearing. The main thrust of the story is basically a mystery, but it feels more like an extended character study. There's nothing wrong with it, and we like the characters just fine.

However, at times the plot does seem to drag, and the pace a bit slow. The story explores certain serious themes such as loss, desperation, and generosity. But for many of its target young audience, these themes may be lost on them.

What is fantastic is the production. Director Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island) gives us a beautiful world, rendered mostly with CGI, set in a romantic time period. The art direction is amazing, and the production sometimes too gorgeous to behold. Scorsese also makes the best use of the 3D technology, and this is a film you must see in 3D. His use of camera angles, sets, perspectives, field of depth, etc. accentuates the effects of 3D. It's truly a feast for the eye.

While it is technically and artistically superior, and with good performances, I can't help but feel somewhat let down by the movie. Perhaps I was expecting something a bit more fantastical or other-worldly. Instead, we get a rather simple story with a simple mystery.

Stars: Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Helen McCrory, Jude Law
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: John Logan (based on Brian Selznick's novel)
Distributor: Universal
MPAA Rating: PG for mild thematic material, peril and smoking
Running Time: 127 minutes


Script - 7
Performance - 8
Direction - 9
Cinematography - 9
Music/Sound - 8
Editing - 8
Production - 10

Total - 8.0 out of 10.0

The Descendants

© 2011 Ray Wong

Movies about death and family can easily sink into the tearjerker territory. Writer-director Alexander Payne, who gave us his Oscar-winning Sideways, manages to tug at our heartstrings while staying just above that line.

Matt King (George Clooney) is an attorney working and living in Hawaii, with a beautiful wife (Patricia Hastie) and two young daughters. Sounds like a perfect life. Except he is a workaholic who has long neglected his wife, who recently had a serious boating accident that put her in a coma. An absentee father, Matt has no idea how to connect with his daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller).

On top of his family crisis, Matt is under pressure by his cousins to sell a large piece of property that could make them all very, very, very rich. Matt is the single surviving trustee and has the sole power to make the decision. It's almost a done deal, except the sale would have changed the face of Hawaii and made a lot of natives angry.

And as if that's not enough to drive Matt insane, he finds out that his wife was cheating on him before the accident, and she was considering a divorce. Stricken with guilt and anger and a sense of impotence, he decides to track down his wife's lover.

George Clooney (The Ides of March) has never been better. He lets down his guard and toss away his suaveness to play a bumbling, befuddled middle-aged man who has lost touch of his own life and family. Clooney's performance is self-effacing, nuanced, and heartfelt. He makes us feel his character's anger and sorrow and everything in between without being melodramatic. In fact, his character's cool exterior can be deceiving. Clooney manages to give Matt King a full internal life despite the fact that he's a distant husband and father.

Shailene Woodley (Moola) gets her big screen break here as Clooney's eldest daughter, a potty-mouthed, rebellious teenager who can't connect with either of his parents. Woodley does a fine job giving the character range (from callousness to deep, conflicting emotions). But the standout is newcomer Amara Miller, who plays Scottie with such innocence and vulnerability that you just want to hug her. She's particularly heartbreaking in a scene where she learns of the truth about her mother. If you don't shed a tear watching her, you have no heart.

The rest of the cast include Nick Krause (ExTerminators) as a surfer who is smarter than he looks. He does a great job. Patricia Hastie (Princess Kailulani) spends most of the film in a bed playing the comatose wife. Beau Bridges (Max Payne) plays it loose as Cousin Hugh. Matthew Lillard (Scooby Doo) is an interesting choice for the lover. And Judy Greer (Love and Other Drugs) is affecting as Lillard's wife.

Written by Alexander Payne (Sideways), Nat Faxon (Adopted) and Jim Rash (Adopted) and based on by Kaui Hart Hemmings's novel, the screenplay is rather barebone. The story unfolds rather quickly with a lot of voice-over. It feels a bit too much exposition, but I suppose it has to be done that way to get the information out without bogging down the plot. Once the plot actually starts, though, it follows a loose structure that weaves various plot threads together. At times it feels rather contrived, with just a tad too many coincidences to suspend our disbelief. The motivations behind the characters' actions are also not always clear or convincing.

The strength of the screenplay is the dialogue. And the strength of the film itself is the performances. And director Payne does a great job letting his actors do their thing. Clooney, in particular, shines as the leading man. Payne explores the grieving process without beating us over the head with grand emotions. Don't get me wrong, the emotions are there and at times they are overwhelming. But Payne doesn't dwell on them, or make a big spectacle out of these emotional scenes. In fact, most of the scenes are understated and achieve certain emotional poignancy that takes a lot of restraint on the director's part.

The Descendants is a flawed little film that explores many big emotions. It's about choices. It's about family. It's about betrayal and agony. It's about forgiveness and unconditional love. There are many big themes. Perhaps that's why it can be so overwhelming for a such a small film.

Stars: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Patricia Hastie, Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer
Director: Alexander Payne
Writer: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash (novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings)
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
MPAA Rating: R for language and sexual references
Running Time: 115 minutes


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

Total - 7.5 out of 10.0

J. Edgar

© 2011 Ray Wong

FBI's most famous director, whose personal life was just as mysterious and intriguing as his professional, has often been subjects for the silver screen and pop culture. Clint Eastwood takes an interesting biographical approach to tell the story about the "most powerful man in the world."

Why is J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) the "most powerful man in the world"? He will tell you: because he knows everyone's secret. Even as a youth, Edgar is driven and focused and meticulous. He has sharp observational and analytical skills, and a talent to see through people. While fighting Communists, whom he considers the true evil that could bring down America, he quickly rises up the rank and becomes Director of the FBI before he is 30 years old.

Edgar's strict and iron-fisted approach to reshape and reorganize the FBI earns him both admiration and revilement. A complicated man, Edgar relishes the spotlight while he is sensitive to criticism, and when he's hurt, he lashes out. One of his ways of getting even and protecting himself is by digging up dirt on others, including the seven presidents he has served under. While outwardly a staunch moralist, Edgar is a man of contradiction and double standards. He exaggerates his own merits while belittling others for their shortcomings.

Behind closed door, however, Edgar's personal life is full of secrets that could easily ruin his reputation and end his career. He is a mama's boy, for example -- his devotion to his mother (Judi Dench) borders on codependency. I mean, he lives with his mother until he's way into middle-age. Strange for a man with so much power. He once pursued unsuccessful Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), who later becomes his most trusted assistant. Most important, he hires Clyde Tolson as his "right hand man" (Arnie Hammer) even though he doesn't qualify for the job. The relationship between Edgar and Clyde suggests something more than professional.

Leonardo DiCapro (Inception) has played real people many times. He plays Hoover from his teenage years to his death at 77. For over 50 years, Hoover has held on to his post even under the harshest scrutiny. DiCaprio is able to portray the complicated man even though his effort is inconsistent. Surprisingly, he is most successful when playing Hoover at his old age, under layers of prosthetics and makeup. It's then that DiCapro disappears into his character. As a younger Hoover, he seems self-conscious at times.

It's mostly a one-man show, but the supporting cast is good as well. Naomi Watts (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger) is marvelous as Helen Gandy. She plays Hoover's trusted assistant and confidant with grace and heart. Judi Dench (My Week with Marilyn) also shines as Edgar's doting mother. Through her strong performance, we understand her character's influence on our protagonist. Arnie Hammer (The Social Network) is the weak link here. As young Clyde Tolson, he is handsome and charming, and we can see why Edgar is smitten with him. However, Hammer falters when he plays Tolson as an old man.

The screenplay by Dustin Lance Black (Milk) is almost episodic, alternating between past and present as the older Edgar contemplating his life while dictating his biography. The structure is rather disjointed and confusing, with multiple flashbacks but no time specified. So the audience has to deduce the plot and time line via dialogue or context. It's just too much work. The real problem with the story, however, is the lack of a real arc. It covers too much ground, and too much time, without a clear character arc. Mostly it's a "who is who" and "how things came to be" type of narrative. While it's interesting, the story lacks the dramatic oomph or a strong stake. We understand who drives J. Edgar -- his pride, his work, his personal desire and insecurity -- but none of that comes through with an urgency. Mostly, the screenplay feels flat. It's a shame since Black gave us the phenomenal, Oscar-winning screenplay of Milk.

Director Clint Eastwood (Hereafter) seems to have lost his touch as well. While the production is handsome and the period details are admirable, the pacing is off. The movie feels lethargic. I mean, this is a story of a man with great power, flair, and importance. A man who has served seven American presidents and carried on a secret homosexual affair for over 50 years. Yet his life story feels so lukewarm and flat. Much of the sentiments also feel forced. Perhaps I can't really blame Eastwood -- the flaws mostly lie in the writing. Still, I think Eastwood has made some mistakes and couldn't lift the movie from the material.

As a biopic about one of the most famous men in history, the movie falls flat, and it's not due to subpar performances or technical merits (the makeup and costumes are fantastic and should garner some Oscar nominations). J. Edgar himself would have hated it.

Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Arnie Hammer
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: Dustin Lance Black
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: R for brief strong language
Running Time: 137s minutes


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

Total - 7.5 out of 10.0


© 2011 Ray Wong

There have long been skepticism and theories on the authenticity of Shakespeare's body of work: What if Shakespeare never wrote a single word? Roland Emmerich's new film, Anonymous, takes that question and runs with it.

After Edward De Vere (Rhys Ifans) sees a play penned by Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), he decides to procure Jonson's service. It turns out Edward is a prolific and talented writer, but due to his status as Earl of Oxford, he can't let anyone know that part of him. In exchange for Jonson's vow of silence, Edward promises him a steady stream of money and fame.

At the end of the first production, however, things get out of hand. The play is an enormous hit, and the crowd demands to meet the writer. Jonson hesitates, and Edward is distraught. An actor, William Shakespeare, decides to claim the credit. The truth is, Shakespeare is illiterate, but Jonson and Edward continues the charade -- for Jonson, he gets to keep the money and stay out of potential political trouble (as the plays can be political risqué), and Edward lives to see his plays produced and admired.

Yet good things don't last for long. The plays stir the interest of Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave), to the dismay of her advisor William Cecil (David Thewlis) and his son Robert (Edward Hogg). The Cecils want James of Scotland to succeed the Queen, but she wants the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid), who is a good friend of Edward and the Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel). The rivalry causes the Cecils to scheme against Essex.

I've always liked Rhys Ifans (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), particularly when he plays peculiar characters. He plays it straight here, however, as Earl of Oxford, and it's a marvelous job. He is handsome, debonaire, refined, and intellectual - exactly what we'd expect from the person who gave us masterpieces such as Romeo & Juliet or King Lear. As Queen Elizabeth I, Vanessa Redgrave (Letters to Juliet) is magnificent in portraying the character's confusion, anguish and internal turmoil. Both are great tragic characters played by great performers.

As their younger counterparts, Jamie Campbell Bower (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) and Joely Richardson (The Last Mimzy) are dashing and spirited with great chemistry together. Sebatian Armesto (Bright Star) seems a bit slight and contemporary to play Ben Jonson, but Rafe Spall (One Day) gives us a William Shakespeare we love to hate. While Armesto is somewhat too modest and passive, Spall is brash and obnoxious.

The rest of the cast is excellent. David Thewlis (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) is superbly sinister and secretive as William Cecil, while Edward Hogg (Alfie) is creepy and broody as Robert Cecil. Xavier Samuel (Eclipse) and Sam Reid (All Saints) play Earl of Southampton and Earl of Essex, respectively, as two frat boys -- they are somewhat too contemporary for my taste.

The screenplay by John Orloff (A Mighty Heart) follows a nonlinear storytelling structure with multiple flashbacks, sometimes flashback within flashback. Not to mention the unnecessary bookends. The structure can be confusing at times. Also, the plot threads don't necessarily connect until later. The main plot, of course, is the true identity of the writer behind the works of William Shakespeare, but we get more than we bargain for. We also get a political drama based on the Essex Rebellion, and a series of conspiracies.

The problem is, the plot and subplots become cumbersome after a while. I have some problem keeping track of all the relationships and secrets and who is doing what to whom. In truth, the main plot of "who is William Shakespeare?" takes a backseat to the conspiracy and political scheming. Certainly that is more thrilling (who doesn't like dirty politics and mayhem?) but it starts to lose the charm and intrigue. It also takes the focus away from the brilliance of and reactions to Edward's work.

Also, by wrapping the story around historical events such as the Essex Rebellion, we come to expect the outcome, and the intrigue becomes one of alternate reality and theory, instead of true mystery. Besides, once we know how it's going to end, there is no positive payoff. Tragedies are fine, but there still needs to be certain payoff to make the experience worthwhile: Romeo and Juliet's deaths result in the resolve of their families' feud, for example. The ending of Anonymous, in comparison, is all too depressing.

Roland Emmerich's (2012) direction is effective and powerful, however. Emmerich's departure from sci-fi or fantasy is also interesting, and surprisingly he has a good eye for the period. The production is lush and gorgeous, and he uses the special effects to create certain epic and poetic feel. Over all, he's succeeded in giving us something fantastic to behold.

If only the storytelling was more concise and less convoluted and bloated, the film could have been a delight. It is not utter crap, of course, but it's far from being first class. -- reviewed by Anonymous

Stars: Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Sebastian Armesto, Rafe Spall, David Thewlis, Edward Hogg, Xavier Samuel, Sam Reid, Jamie Campbell Bower, Joely Richardson
Director: Roland Emmerich
Writer: John Orloff
Distributor: Sony Pictures
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and sexual content
Running Time: 130 minutes


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

Total - 7.8 out of 10.0