© 2013 Ray Wong

French movie Amour is an intimate, extremely personal and nuanced look at aging and dying that calling it "entertainment" would be tremendously wrong.

Retired music teachers Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are in the 80s and have settled into their routines. They have been married for over fifty years and they take pride in their achievements especially in a special student named Alexandre (Alexandre Tharaud) who has become a world-famous, celebrated pianist.

Unbeknownst to their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) and son-in-law Geoff (William Shimell), Anne has been diagnosed with a blood clog, and treatment has failed. Anne's condition begins to deteriorate rapidly as she has a mini-stroke. Her illness puts a huge burden on Georges, who is not completely in good health himself. But love endures, and they would not dare to impose on Eva. Anne asks Georges to never send her to the hospital again, and Georges reluctantly agrees.

As Anne's condition continue to deteriorate, Georges find it more and more difficult to cope on his own, but he's made a promise to Anne. So instead he's dipping into their savings by hiring two part-time nurses, and Georges will take care of Anne in between their shifts. Still, they are just counting the days when the inevitable will come, and every day becomes an emotional challenge of them.

A lot of attention has been given to Emmanuelle Riva (Can't Say No) and her Oscar-nominated performance as Anne. A veteran French actress and unfamiliar to most Americans, Riva is indeed amazing as the dying woman whose only mode of communication with her loved ones is via unintelligible speech and her eyes. Playing an invalid is not easy, and Riva makes us ache with her impeccable and heart-wrenching portrayal.

Yet I have to say Jean-Louis Trintignant (Janis and John) who practically came out of retirement to play Georges, Anne's doting husband and caretaker, is even more superb. The patience, annoyance, pain, and love in the character is expressed in such understated but affecting way that we feel for Georges even more than we feel for Anne. He is the one who is living every moment of agony by watching his loved one suffers with no end in sight, and no one to help him.

The small support cast includes Isabelle Huppert (The Nun) as Georges' and Anne's rather distant daughter, Eva; real-life pianist Alexandre Tharaud as their student prodigy; and William Shimell (Certified Copy) as their often-absent son-in-law.

Writer-director Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher) has crafted an unabashedly intimate and personal drama that is devoid of any tricks and spectacles. In fact, the story is so "mundane" that one can only imagine this is truly a work of personal conviction and not of commercial prospects. Haneke's screenplay is full of nuanced dialogue, seemingly going on and on about everyday's life and uneventful details that at first glance, it sounds boring. Who wants to listen to two senior citizens talking about breakfast? But buried in that mundane dialogue and everyday details is a deep affection between the two characters and an extremely powerful connection that only people who have been truly in love can understand.

What is true love? Haneke explores that theme with the hardest of all challenges in any relationship: sickness and death. I remember someone once said to be, "True love is when you have to wipe your loved one's ass." Literally that's what Georges has to do for Anne, and it's difficult to watch. Coupled with outstanding acting, the story is simple yet elegantly told, with a powerful emotional core without melodrama and overt manipulation.

This is not an easy film to watch -- it is slow moving; it is personal; it is devastating. And yet out of all that is a true love story about two people who absolutely love each other, till death do they part. And that's Amour!

Stars: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert, Alexandre Tharaud, William Shimell
Director: Michael Haneke
Writer: Michael Haneke
Distributor: Sony Classics
MPAA Rating:  PG-13 for mature thematic material and brief language
Running Time: 127 minutes 


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

Total - 7.8 out of 10.0 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

© 2013 Ray Wong

It's inevitable -- expected even -- that director Peter Jackson has brought The Hobbit to the big screen given how incredibly successful financially and critically the Lord of the Rings trilogy was. What is unexpected, however, is how Jackson decided to make it into a trilogy as well, and how tepid the final result is.

Taking off at the start of the Lord the Rings trilogy, where Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) is having his birthday party. At the same time, Bilbo is writing the story of his adventures some 60 years ago. In that story, the great wizard Gandalf (Ian KcKellen) pays Bilbo (Martin Freeman) a visit and speaks of an adventure that would be unlike anything Bilbo has ever experienced. Not interested, or so Bilbo thinks, until some uninvited guests show up at his home. These are dwarfs, led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), who have been driven out of their home by a dragon named Smaug. The dwarves are determined to fight and get back their home, but they need help. Gandalf happens to believe that Bilbo is just the right Hobbit to do the job.

Initially rejecting the idea, Bilbo is soon intrigued by the idea of a once-in-a-life-time adventure. Their journey will take them through the wild of Middle Earth, through the territories of dangerous orcs, wargs and goblins, finally to Lonely Mountain, and they have to get there at the precise time or they'd lose all possibilities of ever finding their way in. Their journey also takes them to Rivendale, the home of the ethereal Elves. The Dwarves and the Elves are not necessary on good terms either, as Thorin blames the Elves, especially the elven king Trandull (Lee Pace), for not helping them defend their home. 

As the dwarves try to escape the goblins' tunnels, Bilbo is separated from the group, and comes in contact with a strange creature named Gollum (Andy Serkis). Here, Bilbo accidentally gets hold of Gollum's "precious" ring. Little does he know how that encounter and the ring will change everything.

The huge ensemble cast is led by Ian KcKellen (X-Men: The Last Stand) who reprises his role as Gandalf. McKellen handles the character as if time hasn't passed between Return of the King and The Hobbit, but this Gandalf is younger and more unsure. Martin Freeman (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) is rather good as young Bilbo, channeling Ian Holm (who also has a cameo reprising the role) while making the character his own.

The dwarves are played, sentimentally gruff and rough, by Richard Armitage (Captain America: The First Avenger) as Thorin, Graham McTavish (Colombiana) as Dwalin, and Ken Stott (One Day) as Balin. Even though the actors are buried in layers of hair and fur, they give each dwarf a distinctive personality and it's easy to set them apart. Hugo Weaving (Cloud Atlas) and Cate Blanchett (Hanna) also reprise their elven roles as Elrond and Galabriel respectively, and Elijah Wood (Celest & Jessie Forever) has a cameo as Frodo. Andy Serkis (Tin Tin) also contributes again as Gollum via motion capture.

The screenplay adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien's timeless work is a collaboration between Peter Jackson, his team of writer, and Guillermo del Toro. The material is similar to that of the Lord of the Rings trilogy except seemingly on a smaller scale. The tone is right, and there's this whimsical aspect of it. However, in a way, it lacks certain urgency as the story is told in flashbacks, and given what we already know about the Lord of the Rings, we already know how it turns out. The stakes are not high enough, and often it feels like a introduction to Lord of the Rings instead of a story of its own right. Also, Jackson et el has turned a 300-plus-page book into a trilogy, and this one installment is almost three hours long! There is just not enough material to give it an epic treatment.

So what we have here is a lot of repetitions. Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves are constantly traveling, dodging one enemy after another, in one familiar setting after another. After a while, it feels very derivative and tiresome. The first hour of the movie also moves along in a dreadfully slow pace -- the plot doesn't move until Bilbo decides to accept the challenge. Even then, there is no sense of real adventure or high stakes, even though we're constantly reminded how dangerous it will be.

Visually stunning, as it should be, The Hobbit remains a masterfully made film in terms of technical achievements and cinematic storytelling. The visual effects are top-notch, even though some scenes do look too computerized or animated. With the advance of technology, Gollum looks and acts even more real -- between Gollum and Peter Parker in the Life of Pi, one can only imagine how incredible digital actors are going to be in the near future.

While technically a triumph, I simply can't overlook the derivative nature of the story, the pacing issue, and the repetitiveness of The Hobbit to make it enjoyable. It should have been one movie, and it should not have been 3 hours long. While it is a much anticipated prequel to the Lord of the Rings saga, how it trudges along is truly unexpected.

Stars: Ian KcKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Elijah Wood, Ian Holm, Andy Serkis
Director: Peter Jackson
Writer: Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyers, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro (based on novel by J.R.R. Tolkien)
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating:  PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence and frightening images
Running Time: 169 minutes 


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

Total - 7.4 out of 10.0 

Anna Karenina

© 2013 Ray Wong

First I must admit that I know not much about the classic novel by Leo Tolstoy, the various cinematic versions before director Joe Wright's interpretation, or basic Russian history. So, I am basically reviewing this as an ignorant American and from a pure cinematic point of view.

On her way to visit her brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) in Moscow, aristocrat Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley), wife of Russia's senior bureaucrat Karenin (Jude Law), fatefully meets young, charming Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Thompson). A high-society married woman with a young son, Anna resists Vronsky's seduction for as long as she can.

Eventually, Anna and Vronsky become secret lovers -- well,  not so secretly, as their social circles begin to gossip about their illicit love affairs. The words finally reach Karenin's ear. Deeply hurt, Karenin warns Anna of the dire consequences of her actions. Driven by a strong desire to escape her duties, her loveless marriage, and the chains of the society's scorn, Anna decides to leave everything behind and try to divorce Karenin, who in turn forbids her to see her son again.

The torrid love affair between Anna and Vronsky turns into mundanity as Anna is driven mad with her desire to see her son again, and the feeling of being trapped. Her pregnancy with Vronsky's child gradually sinks Anna in a deep depression, as she starts to suspect Vronsky's unfaithfulness.

Keira Knightley (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) usually excels in period dramas, as her classic beauty, poise, and solid performance help to transport us to worlds in the past. As Anna, Knightley has shown a different side of her as her character descends into self-loath and madness. This Anna starts out sympathetic and warm and interesting, but as she sinks deeper into the emotional trauma of her own making, she becomes a much more unlikable character. Ms. Knightley walks a fine line here. It's difficult to not like Knightely as this beautiful woman on screen, but my gut tells me that I should hate her.

The men in her life are played deftly by Jude Law (Sherlock Holmes) and Matthew Macfadyen (The Three Musketeers). Law in particular is excellent as Karenina -- looking older and balding, Law conveys the inner conflicts of Karenina rather convincingly, showing great care and love for Anna but also resentment and hurt. Macfadyen is light and airy as Anna's brother Oblonsky, a family man who likes to wander. Unfortunately, the most important man in Anna's life, Count Vronsky, is played by handsome but wooden Aaron Taylor-Thompson (Kick-Ass). Thompson is of the right age, but he looks entire too soft and pretty to play a man that captures Anna's heart. Worse, Thompson plays Vronsky without much flare or personality.

The women in Anna's life are played lovelily by Kelly Macdonald (Brave) as her long-suffering sister-in-law Dolly, and Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair) as naive but kind-hearted Kitty. As Kitty's suitor, Domhnall Gleeson (True Grit) gives one of the most affecting performances in the cast.

Adapted from Tokstoy's massive classic, the screenplay by Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) has the thankless job of streamlining the writer's complex and layered social-conscious novel into a 129-minute movie. Stoppard takes a risk by making Anna an unlikeable character, almost a villain in a sense that the men and women in her life are hurt and damaged in her wake. Such a risk could have been minimized had Stoppard made us relate and understand Anna better. Unfortunately, more often than not we're kept at arm's length from truly knowing Anna.

The story fares better when it focuses on the subplot of Levin and Kitty. As a juxtaposition of Anna's reckless love affair with Vronsky, the relationship between Levin and Kitty is developed gradually and with great care and subtlety. The trouble is that when the subplot resonates with the audiences better than the main plot, something isn't quite right.

Director Joe Wright (Atonement) is no stranger to sweeping period drama with larger than life characters. As usual, Wright's vision is stunningly realized with gorgeous cinematography, costumes and period details. However, he's made a fatal mistake of setting the story in a theater setting. The result is that the movie feels emotionally detached, as the audiences are constantly reminded that we're watching a play instead of something more tangible and real. The theatrical style sounds interesting in theory but in actuality, it strips the story of its emotional potency and keeps us away from the characters. Don't get me wrong, the visuals and the production designs are top-notch; but that's the problem, we are too aware of them that they become distractions, keeping us from totally engaged with the characters and story.

Anna Karenina could have been an amazing film if Joe Wright had taken a more naturalistic approach instead of trying to stylize it so extremely. Also, the risk of making Anna less sympathetic doesn't pay off at the end. It really is a shame.

Stars: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Matthew Macfadyen, Aaron Taylor-Thompson, Kelly Macdonald, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Emily Watson
Director: Joe Wright
Writer: Tom Stoppard (based on novel by Leo Tolstoy)
Distributor: Focus
MPAA Rating:  R for sexuality and violence
Running Time: 129 minutes 


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

Total - 7.2 out of 10.0 


© 2013 Ray Wong

Dustin Hoffman has been an unlikely heartthrob, an actors' actor, and a legend for much of his long career. Now he can add "director" onto his resume as he makes his debut with Quartet.

Set at home for retired musicians in England, the story begins as the residents meander through their days and rehearsing for an upcoming gala celebrating Verdi's birthday. The show is being organized by resident diva Cedric (Michael Gambon), a flamboyant musical director. The stars of the show are three retired opera singers: Reginald (Tom Courtenay) is a stoic tenor who has a regretful past; Wilf (Billy Connolly) is a rumbustious bass who has the hots for young (and married) resident doctor Lucy (Sheridan Smith); and Cissy (Pauline Collins) is an alto who is slowly losing her battle with dementia.

Their routines are interrupted when a new resident enrolls. And that would be Ms. Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), a famous opera diva. The residents are at once thrilled by Jean but also threatened by her demands and the special treatments she receives from the staff. Wilf and especially Cissy are thrilled, because they were once friends with Jean and performed together on stage. Most irritated and upset is Reginald, who refuses to talk to Jean. It turns out Reginald had a brief marriage with Jean a long time ago. While Jean tries to reach out to him, Reginald simply cannot forgive and forget.

Much to their chagrin, however, Cedric has a great idea of reuniting the quartet as the headliners of the gala. The stakes are high -- the retirement home is running out of money and many of the resident musical programs will be cut if they don't come up with the fundings. The proceeds from the gala would keep the programs running for another year. Despite Reginald's objection, they try to convince Jean to join them. Jean, however, is horrified by the idea as she realizes she is not young anymore and she would not bear the embarrassment of revealing that she is no longer the amazing singer she once was. Most important, she has a score to settle with Reginald.

Maggie Smith (The Most Exotic Marigold Hotel) seems to play difficult old maids these days, but she is so good at it. As Jean, however, Smith brings certain grace and elegance to the character as well as a nasty temper and arrogance that are required of the role. Smith does a fantastic job portraying the aging star who is part diva and part scared little girl hoping to fall in love again. Tom Courtenay (The Golden Compass) is wonderful as Reginald. As the stoic gentleman who was once a super star, Courtenay comes across as kind and unassuming, while displaying real resentment toward Jean. Courtenay and Smith also work off each other well to convey the complicated emotions and relationship between the two characters.

Billy Connolly (Gulliver's Travel) has one of the most showy role as Wilf. But underneath that randy facade is a man who is frightened about getting old. Connolly strikes a good balance and avoids playing a caricature. Pauline Collins (Albert Nobbs) impresses as the forgetful but perky Cissy, who is the most likable character in the story. That doesn't mean Collins just cruises through the movie. Her nuanced performance is delicate and yet affecting.

The supporting cast includes Michael Gambon (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) as flamboyant Cedric, and Sheridan Smith (Hysteria) as affable Dr. Lucy. The rest of the cast is comprised of mostly real retired musicians and opera singers (not actors), so there's certain level of authenticity if not perfect performances.

Ronald Hardwood's (Australia) screenplay is simple and straightforward, yet filled with interesting anecdotic moments. Some of those, however, are not staged. The real musicians and singers in the cast bring a lot to the story by sharing parts of their experiences. At the core of the story is an elegant question: how do we go on with life with dignity without giving up our identities, who we once were? There is also a love story in there, and it's one about regrets, mistakes, lost opportunities, connections, and second chances.

If the plot is too simplistic or contrived, Hardwood's story is compensated by his characters who are full of vim and vigor despite their age. It's also compensated by Dustin Hoffman's sensitive direction. Being an actor of a certain age, Hoffman fully understands what it is like to get older and the danger of trying to hang on to past glory while forgetting to live in the present. Hoffman hasn't stopped working, and in a way, his characters don't stop working either, even though they are no longer on a public stage. The story is all about keeping going and doing what one loves regardless of age. It's a very sweet and noble idea, and one that should be acknowledged and cherished. Hoffman's straightforward direction led to a heart-warming and poignant finale that lingered in my mind for quite a while. What a fine quartet!

Stars: Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon, Sheridan Smith
Director: Dustin Hoffman
Writer: Ronald Hardwood (based on his own play)
Distributor: Weinstein Company
MPAA Rating:  PG-13 for brief strong language and suggestive humor
Running Time: 98 minutes 


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

Total - 7.5 out of 10.0