Like Someone in Love

© 2013 Ray Wong

The title of this indie Japanese film refers to a Frank Sinatra popular song, which one of the characters play during the movie. It also summarizes what the movie is about; but as romantic as it sounds, it's not what we expect.

Akiko (Rin Takanashi) is a young prostitute in Tokyo who is living a double life. She is having troubles with her boyfriend (Ryo Kase) who suspects Akiko is lying about many things. She also hides from her grandmother who travels to Tokyo just to see her.

Akiko reluctantly accepts a call from a "respected" client. Takashi (Tadashi Okuno) is a retired Sociology professor who's very well respected in the community. Strangely, however, Takashi is more interested in serving her soup and talking to her about art and music than having sex with her. When exhausted Akiko falls asleep, Takashi leaves her be and in the morning, offers to drive her to school.

Once there, Takashi meets Akiko's boyfriend, who suspects that Takashi is her grandfather.  The boyfriend confesses that he's deeply in love with Akiko but he doesn't trust her, and he believes that if he marries Akiko, she will have to answer to all his questions. Takashi tells him that love doesn't work that way. When one of her boyfriend's customers recognizes Takashi, Akiko begins to panic, thinking that she will be discovered. But Takashi promises her that everything will turn out just fine. Or so he thinks.

As the central character, Rin Takanashi is innocently pretty, demure, distant and distracted. She conveys well the inner struggle this young woman is feeling -- one who is not proud of what she does but seems to have no choice but put up the charade. Tadashi Okuno is solid as the kindly professor, whose gentle, grandfather-like way is rather confusing at first -- what is his intention with Akiko? -- until we learn more about him later. Ryo Kase is also effective as Akiko's edgy, rough, but seemingly devoted boyfriend.

Written and directed by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami (Certified Copy), the film is an interesting concept about love of different kinds, set in modern-day Japan (and French-produced). Talk about an international undertaking. Surprisingly, Kiarostami effectively captures the Japanese contrasting culture -- one that is at once modern and old-fashioned, chaotic and ordered, erotic and respectable, misogynistic and generous. Kiarostami's character study is astute, detailed and yet subtle and understated.

The dialogue is sparse, and the actors get to convey a wide range of emotions and internal struggles by use of their facial expressions and body language alone. When there is dialogue, it serves to convey bits and pieces of information about the character. Sometimes that information seems rather heavy-handed in deliberate exposition (for example, the commentary by the nosy neighbor, or the discussion about a famous painting). At the same time, the information adds layers to the characterization and mystery, and we begin to understand what drives these characters to do what they do.

The first two acts of the film is a fine example of character study that intrigues us. Much is revealed in bits and pieces, gradually. And Kiarostami guides us with his languid camerawork and pacing, never rushing the plot to make a point. In fact, it is like a glass of fine wine -- we must take the time and study it, to really taste it to experience its delicacy.

Sometimes the long shots or purposefully extended shots of characters doing mundane things do seem to drag, however -- they don't really add to the story or the characterization. At 109 minutes, the movie feels long. And the story starts to falter by its third act, when it's clear that Kiarostami doesn't know how to end this delicate character study of love. The ending feels forced and abrupt, with no particular emotional payoff for the audience.

Despite its flaws and the disappointing third act and ending, Like Someone in Love, is delicate and smooth like the finest of wine, and it does succeed in showing the different aspects and faces of love in some of the most tenderest moments without being obvious. With a better ending, it could have been something we love.

Stars: Tadashi Okuno, Rin Takanashi, Ryo Kase
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Writer: Abbas Kiarostami
Distributor: IFC Films
MPAA Rating:  PG-13 for violence and language
Running Time: 109 minutes 


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

Total - 7.1 out of 10.0 

Beautiful Creatures

© 2013 Ray Wong

Based on Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl's popular YA fantasy series, Beautiful Creatures makes no apologies retelling a teenage love story between a "mortal" and a special being -- any resemblance to Twilight or any other fantasies is purely coincidental. Or not.

Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) is a curious and book-smart jock (if there's such a thing) who yearns to leave his South Carolina small-town existence behind. When the Ravenwoods returned, the town is abuzz with speculations about satanic curses and abominations. Lena (Alice Englert), niece of patriarch Macon (Jeremy Irons) becomes the easy target when she enters the local junior high, trying to pass as normal. She also catches the eye of Ethan, who is drawn to the mystery and sensibility surrounding Lena.

In his pursuit of Lena, Ethan discovers that Lena and her family are Casters -- another term for witches -- beings with supernatural powers. Lena tries very hard to act normal and fit in, but she has little control over her increasing power. According to Lena, on her 16th birthday, she will be claimed by either the light or the dark side, depending on her true nature, and she is afraid that the dark side is going to win, just like with her mother or cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum). Ethan convinces her that she has enough good in her to avert the fate of her mother.

As Lena's birthday draws closer, she and Ethan fall deeply in love. However, they also discover that their respective ancestors were once lovers, and the two families have been bound by a curse. And with this curse, Lena's chance of being claimed by the Light becomes slim. With the help of Amma (Viola Davis), Lena finally figures out how to break the curse, but it does come with a significant price.

The two leads, Alden Ehrenreich (Stoker) and Alice Englert (Ginger and Rosa) are relative unknowns. Englert has recently garnered attention for her role as Rosa in Ginger and Rosa. Her portrayal of the teenage witch is charming, vulnerable, and sweet but not without her fair share of darkness. Englert does a good job with her complicated role. In comparison. Ehrenreich is stuck with a stereotypical, too-good-to-be-true character who is simply a female's ideal. The character development doesn't allow Ehrenreich to do much except to be a love-sick puppy. Fortunately, Ehrenreich and Englert have good chemistry together that makes, at least, their relationship seem plausible.

The supporting cast tries their best. Jeremy Irons (The Words) plays Macon with the typical Iron-esque savviness and creepiness at the same time. Somehow, though, I feel that he's channeling everything from Gomez Addams to Snape. Viola Davis (The Help) is reduced to a stereotypical southern African-American woman who knows a thing or two about the underworld. Emmy Rossum (Poseidon) has not much to do with her peripheral character who seems to just storm in and out of town simply as a plot device. The standout here is Emma Thompson (Men in Black 3) who somehow turns a cliched character into someone that is fun to watch (well, it helps that she is actually playing two characters).

Writer-director Richard LaGravenese (Water for Elephant) tries his best to adapt Garcia and Stohl's novel into a coherent story with interesting characters. It has all the right elements: likable leads, a budding romance, Southern mysticism, witchcraft, supernatural powers, a handful of quirky and unusual characters, and for the most part it works as designed. However, that simply reveals the derivative nature of the story and characters. They remind me of everything from Twilight to True Blood with bits and pieces of The Addams Family or Beetle Juice or Romeo & Juliet or Teen Wolf, etc. thrown in.

We also can't overlook the cliches and stereotypes:  a country boy falling for a worldly girl, a creepy patriarch, evil relatives, bratty ex-girlfriend, an African-American woman who happens to be a medium, etc. etc. In comparison, True Blood at least play around these familiar tropes (vampires, witches, werewolves, etc.) and comes up with twisted new ideas. In this story, we come to realize we've seen this show a thousand times already. Not to mention the smart, athletic, loyal, romantic, sweet, kind, and steadfast hero is too much of a female's dream to be believable. Wish fulfillment, anyone?

That said, I did rather enjoy the production. Under LaGravenese's direction, it has a giddy, perky and fun vibe. It is quite beautifully shot. The love story has its sweet moments. And there are a few scenes between Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson that showcase how good these actors can be, if given the right material. Unfortunately, by and large these veteran actors are way too good for this material. Too bad, despite their best efforts, this simply isn't the beautiful creature we've hoped for.

Stars: Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Emma Thompson, Thomas Mann, Eileen Atkins, Margo Martindale
Director: Richard LaGravenese
Writers: Richard LaGravenese (based on novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl)
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating:  PG-13 for violence, scary images and some sexual content
Running Time: 124 minutes 


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

Total - 6.8 out of 10.0 

Side Effects

© 2013 Ray Wong

After the immense success of his male stripper drama, Steven Soderberg follows up with a slick psychological thriller, Side Effects, that examines our dependency on prescription drugs. Side Effects is also rumored to be Soderberg's last film as he has announced his intention to quit making movies.

Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) patiently and eagerly waits four years for her husband Marin (Channing Tatum) to be released from jail after being convicted of insider trading. They have lost almost everything, and so now they have a chance to rebuild their lives together. However, Emily is suffering from severe depressing that renders her suicidal.

After a failed suicide attempt, Emily agrees to see psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) on a regular basis. Meanwhile, to help Emily cope, Dr. Banks prescribes her various medications but many have severe side effects that make her irritable, sleepless and sometimes even more depressed. After another suicide attempt by Emily, Banks consults her former psychiatrist Dr. Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who suggests that Emily to be put on a new wonder drug called Ablixa.

After taking the drug, Emily's condition improves tremendously, except for the occasional episodes of sleepwalking, which is one of the side effects of Ablixa. Banks tries to convince Emily to get off of the drug, but Emily argues that the drug is helping her putting her life  back together with Martin, and she can deal with the sleepwalking. Reluctantly, Banks agrees to keep her on the medication, until one day he receives a call that there has been an incident…

After giving an impressive performance in Anna Karenina, Jude Law plays a different role here, as a young, charming, helpful psychiatrist who unwittingly gets himself into much hot water by trying to help his patient. Law displays a wide range of emotions and attributes that makes his character believable despite some of the more outlandish circumstances.

Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is fantastic as Emily. A beautiful waif, Mara shows us a fragile, frightened and disturbed woman who is surprisingly strong and willful. I can't really discuss her other attributes as they will reveal part of the plot, but suffice it to say Mara gives a surprising but convincing performance.

The supporting cast is solid as well. Catherine Zeta-Jones (The Rock of Ages) is no stranger to mental illness herself as she battles bipolar disease in real life. Here, as a psychiatrist who may have an ulterior motive, she is collected, distant and somewhat cold, which suits her character perfectly. Channing Tatum (Magic Mike) doesn't have much to do as Emily's husband, but he fulfills his role adequately. Polly Draper (Our Idiot Brother) and Mamie Gummer (The Lifeguard) turn in admirable performances as Emily's boss and friend respectively.

The screenplay by Scott Z. Burns (Contagion) is a taut nail-biter that hooks us from the very beginning and keeps us on the edges of our seats throughout the entire movie. Despite a rather trite and unnecessary short prologue (although it serves as a great bookend with the ending shot), the script has a great set up and structure, and the plot flows well and coherently. Never was I confused by what is going on. The plot twist comes about naturally but also unexpected. Granted, anyone who is observant enough or comes to see the movie having been cognizant of the possible twist would not be surprised. However, the way the plot advances and how director Soderberg (Magic Mike) moves it along makes it harder for the casual audience to grasp the twist.

Soderberg makes a good decision to keep the story clipping along at a brisk pace, leaving no room for the audience to ponder and question what they are seeing. That allows him to set things up and following Emily and Banks's journeys.  As a suspense-thriller, the movie has enough suspense and thrills to entertain and engross us. The story starts out as something The problem is, once we see the plot twists and where it is going, we start to feel somewhat manipulated. That's the inherent problems with suspense as the structure and construction are by nature manipulative. Certain things don't make sense anymore, or start to feel forced.

That said, Soderberg is able to keep the jarring plot elements at bay by keeping the characters in their respective frantic states, thus giving us certain parameters for doubt and inconsistency. Soderberg's skillful execution also reminds me of Ocean 11 or Traffic. It is a shame that Soderberg has decided to stop directing (whether it is true or not, we'll have to see), but if this is indeed his last film, Side Effects is a perfectly enjoyable swan song.

Stars: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum, Polly Draper, Mamie Gummer
Director: Steven Soderberg
Writer: Scott Z. Burns
Distributor: Open Road Films
MPAA Rating:  R for sexuality, nudity, violence and language
Running Time: 106 minutes 


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

Total - 7.7 out of 10.0 


© 2013 Ray Wong

Somewhat of a biopic but more a historical drama, Lincoln does not chronicle Lincoln's life or his death, but instead focuses on the President and his effort on passing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

In 1865, US President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) has just started his second term in office, and the American Civil War is winding down after four tumultuous years. During this delicate time, Lincoln intends to push forward the passage the the 13th Amendment which would abolish slavery from the United States. 

Lincoln believes the amendment would be his mots important achievement, and that he is racing against time because if the war ends before the amendment is passed, the southern state could stop it. By trying to pass it before peace comes, he may just have enough votes. However, he is torn because an early peace would save thousands of lives, thus Lincoln struggles with his own conscience: end slavery forever or save lives.

The Amendment has already passed in the Senate, but Lincoln needs to persuade the Democrats to vote for it in the Congress to get enough votes, which may require compromises in other areas that may test his integrity. Meanwhile, the President also struggles with a difficult rift with his wife Mary (Sally Field) over  their oldest son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who wants to leave law school to enlist.

Daniel Day-Lewis (Nine) only won his second Oscar five years ago for There Will Be Blood, and he might win his historical third (no actor has ever won three Academy Awards as best actor) for this performance. Granted, half the battle (pun intended) is already won as Mr. Day-Lewis, with the help of make up and costumes, looks and acts like what we envision the President would. However, he is such a great actor that he aptly disappears in the character, having us believe that we're witnessing the real Lincoln instead of an actor playing Lincoln. While an ensemble piece, the movie rests heavily on Day-Lewis's shoulder and the actor gives an extraordinary performance.

Sally Field (The Amazing Spider-Man) is solid as Mary Todd Lincoln, the President's supportive wife even though I find her portrayal somewhat over-dramatic in comparison to the rest of the cast. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Looper) has a good turn as Robert Lincoln, whose patriotism gives Lincoln and Mary their dilemma.

The supporting cast is extraordinarily strong, led by Tommy Lee Jones (Men in Black III) as Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the radical Republicans who are staunch opponents of slavery. Jones's stellar performance rightfully earns him an Oscar nod, and perhaps even a win. David Strathaim (The Bourne Legacy) is stately as Lincoln's Secretary of State William Seward. And James Spader (Boston Legal) returns to film with a strong performance as white supremacist T.G. Bilbo.

The screenplay by award-winning scribe Tony Kushner (Munich) is rather breathtaking in its details and literary quality. Kushner's gift for words are highlighted in this dialogue-heavy production as the actors deliver the lines beautifully and authentically. The drama and tension unfolds organically as Kushner weaves together the political wrangling, the storms and relationships between these characters, and he offers us a fascinating piece of history.

And this fascinating piece of history is brought to us in vivid and immersive details by master Spielberg (Tin Tin), who seems to redeem himself after a slew of lukewarm projects. Granted, Spielberg does borrow from other classics, including his own. For example, the open sequence is intense and brutal, reminiscent of the opening sequence in Saving Private Ryan. The production is masterful and technically superior. The pacing can be a bit slow, and the drama may be dragged down by the heavy dialogue at times. Still, Spielberg steers a tight, grand ship with Lincoln.

While Lincoln is a tremendous and beautiful film about the fascinating time, politics, dilemmas of a fascinating President, it is not for everyone. Non-history buffs may be deterred by the material and pacing. Also, I feel that as good as the film is, it is a safe bet for Spielberg, and it lacks the edge and risk-taking of something like Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List, and I am not sure if it can be considered as one of Mr. Spielberg's best. Still, on the whole, Lincoln is something of which President Lincoln would be proud.

Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathaim, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, John Hawkes, Hal Holbrook
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Tony Kushner (based on book by Doris Keams Goodwin)
Distributor: Sony Classics
MPAA Rating:  PG-13 for mature thematic material and brief language
Running Time: 127 minutes 


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

Total - 8.0 out of 10.0