Killing Your Darlings

© 2013 Ray Wong

A biopic of sort, Killing Your Darlings, focuses on a murder that draws together the great poets of the beat generation: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs.

Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) is a budding poet who is stuck with taking care of his mentally unstable mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh). His father (David Cross), however, encourages him to leave and leave he did — to Columbia University, where he meets fellow aspiring writer Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan). Allen is drawn to Lucien’s colorful, rebellious life that is so unlike his timid, restrictive upbringing. And through the wild Lucien, Allen hooks up with other budding writers such as Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William Burroughs (Ben Foster). Together they call themselves the New Vision.

Dissatisfied with the status quo and the privileges they enjoy, these four friends dream of breaking the rules and starting a revolution. Allen’s relationship with Lucien is particularly close, complicated by the fact that Allen is attracted to Lucien, while Lucien has an ambiguous friendship with David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), and older man who seems to appear everywhere Lucien is.

As Allen and Lucien become closer, Allen also becomes jealous of David, as well as confused by his own feelings. His pain and confusion leads to bouts of brilliant creativity that surprises not only himself, but Lucien as well, who has considered Allen “not quite a writer.”  As Lucien and David’s friendship becomes more violent, Allen stands by and watch Lucien distancing himself from their cause, their manifesto, and from Allen.

Life after Harry Potter has been pretty good for Daniel Radcliffe (The Woman in Black) who seems to have defied the “child actor” curse and gone on to do interesting projects. As Ginsberg, Radcliffe has to tackle a wide range of emotions and also the basic conceit that Ginsberg is a closeted gay man in love with his best friend. He’s done a great job with the role, giving us a sympathetic portrayal of a writer on the verge of awakening. Dane DeHaan (The Place Beyond the Pines) has emerged as one of the new brooding, young leading men (think a cross between a young Leonardo DiCaprio and River Phoenix). As the ambiguous, manipulative and temperamental Lucien, DeHaan almost steals the show from the more subdue, nuances of Radcliffe’s understated performance.

Michael C. Hall (Dexter) plays David Kammerer with an intense but also pretentious obsession that at once draws you in and repels you. There is no question that Kammerer is a stalker, but does he deserve how Lucien treats him? Hall gives us a solid performance that makes us question that. Jack Huston (Two Jacks) are charming and handsome as the iconic Jack Kerouac, but he lacks the required edge to pull it off. Ben Foster (Contraband) is fascinating as famed writer William Burroughs; his performance is one of the most memorable in the film.

Co-written by Austin Bunn and director John Krokidas (Sio-Mio), the screenplay is surprising relevant even though it’s a period piece set in 1944. The intellectual dialogue and subtexts could appear pretentious at times, just as the characters could, but both writers reign it in to gound it with the human drama and raw emotions. There is the quality of a play here, what with the play of words and ideas and concepts, as well as the interactions between the characters.

Yet Krokidas introduces interesting visual styles and elements to make this film a visually stimulating piece, instead of a static play about intellectuals saying intellectual things. His characters are first and foremost kids. They may have aspired to be something grand and big and important, but they are still boys. Krokidas’s visual style (and soundtrack) is contemporary and somewhat avant garde. At times his direction seems somewhat too experimental for the material, perhaps pushing the “art” in “art form” a bit too far, but one thing for sure, Kronkidas’ direction is never boring, despite the literary and artsy nature of the material.

As a writer, I thoroughly enjoyed the themes and the nature of this writerly film. As an average moviegoer, I find the plot perhaps somewhat too personal and intimate to have a mass appeal — it may not be a bad thing, after all. This may sound like a gay coming-of-age love story, but in truth Killing Your Darlings is a story about a group of revolutionary writers on the verge of becoming great. If you’re ever interested in the beats generation, go see it, Darling.

Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Michael C. Hall, Jack Huston, Ben Foster, David Cross, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Elizabeth Olsen
Director: John Krokidas
Writers: John Krokidas, Austin Bunn 
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, language, drug use and brief violence
Running Time: 104 minutes


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

Total - 7.8 out of 10.0 


© 2013 Ray Wong

A remake of the 1976 classic that was based on Stephen King's bestseller, Carrie tells the story of a young girl with a tremendous and deadly power. It is also a story about parent-child relationship and bullying. How relevant!

Reclusive, religious seamstress Margaret White (Julianne Moore) lives with her teenage daughter Carrie (Chloe Grace Moretz) in a small town. When the state requires that Carrie be taken out of homeschool and put into a local high school, Margaret reluctantly let her go but constantly reminds her of the sins and evils around them. When Carrie unexpectedly gets her period during P.E. class, her classmates, led by Chris (Portia Doubleday), tease and taunt her as well as record a video of her ordeal and putting it online to humiliate her.

Feeling bad for what she's done to Carrie, Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde) believes that she must set things right. So she asks her popular, boy scout of a boyfriend Tommy (Ansel Elgort) to take Carrie to the prom instead. Tommy reluctantly obliges, but later finds that he really likes Carrie. Feeling wanted and happy for the first time in her life, Carrie defies her mother and agrees to go with Tommy.

Meanwhile, because of her part in bullying Carrie, Chris is suspended from school, and thus is barred from going to the prom. Chris decides to take revenge on Carrie at the prom. When Sue realizes what is going on, she rushes to the prom to warn Carrie, but she is too late…

As Carrie's mentally ill, religious mother, Julianne Moore (Don Jon) has given one of her best performances of the year. There is a good range in her portrayal, from the mentally disturbed and Bible-thumping fanatics to being a loving, concerned mother. Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass 2) did her best with the iconic role as Carrie, but she is no Sissy Spacek. Personally I think Moretz was miscast in this role. She is way too cute and pretty and smart (she is Hit Girl, after all), and she never really convinces me that she is this shy, helpless girl. Thus her transformation at the prom seems forced and unauthentic.

Gabriella Wilde (The Three Musketeers) is bland as Sue Snell, the moral center of the story. Don't get me wrong, Wilde is beautiful and sweet, looking the part, but her performance is underwhelming. Portia Doubleday (Almost Kings) does better as the villainous Chris, but her portrayal also edges on being two-dimensional. Judy Greer (The Descendants) does a good job as the no-nonsense gym teacher who is the only person (seriously, where are all the other teachers?) kind to Carrie. Newcomer Ansel Elgort is all right as Tommy, the kind-hearted jock, but Elgort plays it so straight that even Superman would feel threatened.

The screenplay by Lawrence D. Cohen and Roberto Aguiree-Sacasa stays rather true to the original novel and movie. They only updated certain things to make the teen horror more relevant (modern-day technologies, jargons, etc.). However, they didn't do enough to update this (one could use some Hip Hop or relevant pop culture references, for example), and the whole thing feels old-fashioned. It's as if we were watching something made in the 80s but with 2013 technologies. So the result is an odd sense of inauthenticity. It feels off.

And while King's story and characters still feel relevant today (religious zealots, bullying, revenge, child abuse, etc.), I can't help but feel that the treatment of Carrie, at least in this rendition, feels seriously outdated. The idea of some teenage girl's viral video of being tormented for having her period doesn't ring true to me in today's world. Yes, teenagers can still be cruel today, but the things they do would have been much, much worse. As a horror film, I doubt today's audience would find it riveting or scary.

Kimberly Peirce's (Boys Don't Cry) direction also is bland. The visual flair of the original movie by De Palma is gone. True, this movie feels more realistic and less stylized, but the result seems dull in comparison. Why do a remake if it can't be as good or better than the original? In that regard, Carrie fails spectacularly. It is still very entertaining, for sure; but it's also rather forgettable.

Stars: Julianne Moore, Chloe Grace Moretz, Gabriella Wilde, Portia Doubleday, Alex Russell, Judy Greer, Ansel Elgort
Director: Kimberly Peirce
Writers: Lawrence D. Cohen, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (based on novel by Stephen King)
Distributor: Screen Gems
MPAA Rating: R for bloody violence, disturbing images, language and some sexual content
Running Time: 100 minutes


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

Total - 7.1 out of 10.0 

Captain Phillips

© 2013 Ray Wong

Based on merchant marine Captain Richard Phillips own account, Captain Phillips recounts the fateful events in 2009 when Phillips cargo ship and crew were hijacked by a group of Somali pirates.

Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is a veteran captain on his route from Oman onboard of the freighter Maersk Alabama. While in the open waters near Africa, four Somali pirates, lead by Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi), go after the ship. Phillips and the crew fend them off the first time, but the next day, when the pirates return, they successfully board the ship. Phillips tells the crew to hide in the engine room while he negotiates with Muse and his men.

The crew manages to capture Muse, but the other men threaten to kill the crew if they don't release Muse. After Phillips hands $30,000 in cash to the pirates, they take a lifeboat to escape and abduct Phillips with them as a hostage.

The navy and a group of SEALS are now on their way to rescue the crew and the ship while the pirates continue to hold Phillips as hostage and demand a ransom. Phillips tell Muse and the other men that they will not get away, but they would not listen but instead threaten to shoot Phillips if he doesn't cooperate. Phillips has to find a way to save himself.

Tom Hanks (The Cloud Atlas) gives one of the strongest, most intense performances of his career as the resourceful, skilled but not well-liked captain. Phillips's no-nonsense, matter-of-fact style doesn't make him popular among his crew, but that's also a reason why HE is the captain. Phillips's decisions and actions are not always the best, but they are seemingly from the clearest of his own conscience. Hanks' portrayal of the character is thoughtful, stoic and human. He doesn't set out to play a "hero." He just plays a guy who is in a dangerous situation and must use everything he's got to save his crew and survive himself.

Newcomer Barkhad Abdi impresses as the pirate leader Muse. His intensity matches the character's ruthlessness, and yet his character has a sensitive and introspective side that makes the character three-dimensional instead of a cliched, stereotypical villain. In fact, both he and Mr. Hanks play their characters so humanly that they, as leads (as a newbie and a veteran actor respectively), help lift this thriller to a much more satisfying level.

Newcomer Barkhad Albidrahman also contributes greatly as Bilal, one of the pirates. The impressive supporting cast also includes Michael Chemus (The Bourne Legacy) as first officer Shane Murphy, Catherine Keener (Enough Said) as Phillips's wife Andrea, and David Warshofsky (Now You See Me) as crew member Mike.

Adapted from Richard Phillips' own account of the event, the screenplay by Billy Ray (The Hunger Games) is taut, suspenseful, and full of thrills and twists and turns. The fast-paced script almost leaves no room for a sigh. From the very first minutes, the story pulls us in and holds us there. It is not a very complicated plot -- men attack ship, men protect ship and themselves, men survive -- but it is written in such a thrilling way that we can't help but wonder what is going happen next, even though we know Phillips and the crew survived the ordeal.

Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum) has made a name for himself for his thrilling direction of the Jason Bourne series. Here, he uses similar techniques (fast cuts, handheld cameras, extreme close ups, etc.) to give us a thrill ride that is exciting and breathtaking. Unfortunately, as with the Bourne series, I think Greengrass relies too much on the handheld cameras. Combined with the at-sea adventures (in a small ship, nonetheless), the result can be nauseating to watch. At times I feel seasick myself, having to avert my eyes to calm my nerves. Others may have no problem with the pervasive handheld camera shots. 

That said, Captain Phillips is an exciting thriller with very human characters. It is based on a true story that touches on the issues and problems with globalization and the disparity between the haves and have-nots. Even though we know the pirates are bad, we still sympathize for them because they are only humans who are the products of their own circumstances. None of these people are inherently bad people, and that makes the story more realistic and relatable.

Stars: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Albidrahman, Michael Chemus, Catherine Keener, David Warshofsky
Director: Paul Greengrass
Writers: Billy Ray (based on book by Richard Phillips)
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of menace, violence and substance use
Running Time: 134 minutes


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

Total - 7.8 out of 10.0 


© 2013 Ray Wong

As science fiction thrillers go, Gravity is a rare treat. It is big in scale and spectacles, but also intimate in terms of human drama.

Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer enlisted by NASA to install an instrument on the Hubble telescope. Accompanying her on the space shuttle Explore is veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who is doing his final mission before retiring. During one of the procedures, while they're spacewalking, Mission Control (Ed Harris) notifies them that the Russians have demolished one of the Russian satellites, and it has created a chain reaction where debris are heading their way at the speed of bullets.

With little time to change course, the space shuttle and the crew are being bombarded by the debris. Stone gets separated and is spinning out of control into space. With only six month in space training, Stone has no experience in disaster like this. Eventually, Kowalski finds and rescues her. They realize that the Explorer has been destroyed and everyone onboard is dead, and communication with Mission Control is gone. Their only option is to find their way to the Russian space station. As their oxygen is quickly depleting and a new wave of debris is fast approaching, it's a race between life an death.

Sandra Bullock (The Heat) gives one of the strongest performances of her career as Ryan Stone. The story is told almost entirely from her point of view and she carries the film on her shoulders. Bullock's portrayal of the scientist with deep personal regrets combines both brain and heart to make the character believable. Her emotions range from condescension to utter fear and confusion, and she is convincing with her silent resolve and inner strength in the direst situations, when her character is all alone.

George Clooney (The Descendants) also nails it as astronaut Matt Kowalski. He portrays the character as the badass space cowboy with a great sense of humor and humanity. Compared to Bullock, his screen time is relatively limited in this largely supporting and pivotal role. There is one scene where he gives Dr. Stone a lifesaving tip that showcases Clooney's charm, sex appeal and acting versatility.

Written by director Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) and son Jonás, the screenplay is actually rather bare-bone. The plot is straightforward -- it's simply a story of survival. There are not a whole lot of twists and surprises, and the dialogue may edge on the cliche side. Yet the Cuaróns have crafted a suspenseful thriller nonetheless by stringing a chain of events that never leaves Dr. Stone. The events are larger than life with the vast backdrop of space and Earth, and yet the story is surprisingly intimate as we delve into Stone's mind and heart as she tries to survive the unimaginable with little time to mourn.

While the screenplay may be the weakest link, the rest is purely spectacular. Cuarón's attention to details and how he stages the actions and events and space are jaw-dropping. The special effects are stunning, and the action sequences actually pull the audience in, rarely letting go. With the deft use of close ups, reflections, and long shots, he has created a poetic rendering of disasters in space, and that is unlike anything I've seen since, perhaps, yet another disaster movie, Titanic. Cuarón's intense direction, paired with Bullock's and Clooney's impeccable performances, has created an all-immersive experience that is both spectacular and intimate. He has pushed the cinematic envelope further by using all the dazzling technologies and special effects to tell a very human story. Such gravity for a "popcorn" sci-fi thriller!

Stars: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Writers: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, disturbing images and language
Running Time: 90 minutes


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

Total - 8.3 out of 10.0