My Life as a Dog (1985)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Since their father was overseas, Ingemar (Anton Glanzelius) and his older brother (Manfred Serner) were separated to live with their relatives for the summer so that their sick mother (Anki Lidén) could rest. Ingemar’s dog, who he claimed to love as much as his mother, was sent to the kennel during his time away from home. It was easy to like Ingemar because he was unlike most children. Whenever things turned for the worse, Ingemar would often compare himself to others who were worse off than him. For instance, he often mentioned Laika, the dog who was sent to outer space and never had the chance to return. “Mitt liv som hund,” or “My Life as a Dog,” had some formulaic coming-of-age elements but the execution was pulled off in an imaginative and often touching way. We followed the story through Ingemar’s eyes and we felt the abandonment he felt when he was passed from one home after another. Even though he was a kid, he was perceptive enough to realize that he was essentially like his dog and what the dog must have felt when Ingemar had no choice but to leave it at the kennel. I found myself on the verge of tears at times because he knew that he was slowly losing his mother so he tried so hard to hold onto something easier but something that he loved just as equally (or so he claimed): his pet. I found the flashback scenes very touching because we had tiny peeks to a time when Ingemar was at his happiest. His brother certainly didn’t make things easier because he also had his own way in dealing with negative emotions. I liked the way Lasse Hallström, the director, highlighted the kindness of eccentric people in a tight-knit community to distract the kid from breaking down. Ingemar made a special relationship with a girl named Saga (Melinda Kinnaman) who dressed and acted like a boy. She liked him but he didn’t like her back so there certainly was tension there. They were able to work through their many frustrations by boxing it out in the ring. One of my favorite scenes was when another girl took Ingemar to her room and Saga came busting in like her usual tomboy self and fought for what she felt like belonged to her. I loved the way that particular scene was framed and I felt a certain energy to it that reminded me of those classic romantic love triangle pictures in the golden days of Hollywood. Instead of using the quirkiness just for the sake of being funny or underlining the weirdness of small communities, Hallström successfully focused on the heart of the film. “Mitt liv som hund” was based on Reidar Jönsson’s autobiographical novel and it felt every bit as personal. Every crucial element in the story felt connected and it had a silent power that I will remember for a long time.
The Joneses (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
The Joneses (David Duchovny, Demi Moore, Ben Hollingsworth, Amber Heard) moved into a wealthy neighborhood and quickly integrated in their community. But the Joneses, unlike their name, was no ordinary family. To be honest, I instantly felt like there was something very wrong about them from the first scene when we spent a bit of time with the family in their fancy car. The Joneses seemed like they had it all: the big house, the expensive cars, the hi-tech gadgets, and the designer clothes. Everyone was in awe of them and everyone wanted to have what the Joneses had. I enjoyed how this film was able to construct an argument regarding how materialism was able to drive the American culture forward but at the same time it served as a catalyst toward bankruptcy. I also liked that it touched upon the difference between selling “stuff” and selling an attitude. There’s a subtle difference and sometimes it’s difficult to discern between the two. The fashion industry mastered the difference between the two and that’s why it’s a successful business. Furthermore, writer-director Derrick Borte looked beyond the satire and actually worked on the film’s heart by allowing the head of the household to develop a conscience. There was no doubt that he saw the errors of his ways but it was nice to see his struggle between what made him happy and the right thing to do. Duchovny did a great job in allowing me to understand his character but at the same time not pitying him. “The Joneses” succeeded in getting their audiences to become active participants in its little experiment. Since it had laser-focus in exploring our consumer culture, I thought about myself and my role in advertising certain products. In fact, I’m doing it right now as I recommend this movie. That self-awareness worked in the picture’s advantage. I had fun watching it because I was able to relate it in real life. We all know some jealous neighbors or relatives or even friends who can’t help but give us angry looks (but with a smile) when we have something new. And the next time we see the sour apples, they ended up buying that new thing they saw that we had last week. However, I wish the film could have been a little darker to go along with its edge. Toward the end, it became too sweet. I understood why Borte thought it was necessary to lighten things up because some of the miserable characters needed some sort of light at the end of the tunnel, but the way he executed the ending touched upon the typical romantic comedy territory. Some of the film’s power was lost and instead of ending with a roar, it ended with a squeal. Neverthless, “The Joneses” is worth seeing because it was rich in creativity and irony.
13 Going on 30 (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
Jenna was a thirteen-year-old girl who desperately wanted to belong in a clique led by a typical mean girl, unaware that her best friend had a crush on her. During Jenna’s ruined birthday party, she desperately wished that she was thirty and thriving; she woke up the next morning in a completely different body (Jennifer Garner) and had no memory of what happened in her life since her terrible 13th birthday party. She had to learn a lot of things such as her best friend being no longer the guy who truly cared for her (Mark Ruffalo) but the mean girl (Judy Greer) she wanted to impress in middle school. This is the kind of movie where we can clearly see how it would all end right from the beginning but I couldn’t help but enjoy it. It was well-aware of its predictability so it made the journey to the finish line so much fun by throwing us good and bad 80s references. It was as light as cotton candy and as sweet as bubblegum but it had wit, intelligence and charm. It was willing to wear its heart on its sleeves, which sometimes made me cringe because it didn’t know when to stop (for instance, Garner joining her parents in bed), but I thought it worked most of the time. Garner was perfectly casted because she was so good at being wide-eyed and innocent. I thought she was so adorable dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and when everybody joined in, I couldn’t help but laugh and tap my feet. As for the romance, Ruffalo and Garner had perfect chemistry. Watching them together had its syrupy moments but I always felt a certain tension or awkwardness between them because their characters hadn’t spoken to each other in a long time. I think they captured the essence bumping into someone you knew from high school and you had no choice but to make small conversation in order to not seem rude. However, I think the picture could have worked more on the cold-hearted Jenna. The script kept bringing up the fact that everybody was scared of her because she was conniving and had no problem abusing her power. I was curious about her darker side. By exploring that angle, I think the movie could have delved into Greer’s character a lot deeper. After all, there is often pain and jealousy between two friends having to compete against other. Directed by Gary Winick, “13 Going on 30” is a bit too safe in its approach but it’s still a highly enjoyable romantic comedy. It could have easily have overdosed with twists and turns because of the magical element that helped to drive the story forward but it refrained. It wasn’t as good as Penny Marshall’s “Big” but it was able to acquire some magic unique to its own.
★★ / ★★★★
A baby orphan snuck into Santa Claus’s bag of presents and ended up in the North Pole. The baby was named Buddy and raised by Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) and whole-heartedly embraced by the elfin community and strange creatures that lived there. But when Buddy became an adult (now played by Will Ferrell), he became more of a nuisance to the elves due to his size so he traveled to New York City to find his biological father (James Caan). The movie started off with promise because it was creative with its joke about a man who was so out of his element but was blind to the fact. Even more amusing were Buddy’s scenes with people in utter disbelief that he actually believed in Santa Claus with fervor to spare. Ferrell did a wonderful job playing a wide-eyed boy stuck in an adult man’s body. The slapstick comedy worked because kids like to put themselves in physically uncomfortable situations. However, the film failed to reach an emotional peak and establish a resonance like the best movies that took place around Christmas. While Ferrell’s interactions with Caan were amusing, I didn’t feel a genuine connection between the father and the son. When the son hugged with enthusiasm, the father reluctantly put his arm around his son to pat him on the back. There was no real growth between them. Too much of film’s running time was dedicated to the biological father’s challenges at work (which did not add up to much) instead of focusing on the problems at home (Mary Steenburgen as the very accepting wife was a joy to watch). I wish there were more scenes between Buddy and a salesgirl who loved to sing named Jovie (Zooey Deschanel). Farrell and Deschanel may not have chemistry (the film unwisely pushed their relationship to a romantic direction), but watching their friendship grow put a big smile on my face. Jovie always looked sad (which was ironic because I’m assuming her name came from the word “jovial”) and did not like to put herself in potentially embarrassing situations. Buddy was all about attracting all kinds of attention. Nevertheless, they got along swimmingly. While the majority of the film was about Buddy’s attempt of reconnection with the human world, the last twenty minutes was more about people believing in Santa Claus. I was left confused and I thought it was completely unnecessary. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that typing up dramatic loose ends was riskier than generating more pedestrian laughs. I thought the last few scenes were a desperate attempt to cover up weak storytelling. Directed by Jon Favreau, “Elf” had its share of funny and silly moments but its story needed a lot of work. Maybe the elves should have worked on the script so it could have had a bit of magic.
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When the sassy socialite Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) was about to marry a man (John Howard) who didn’t grow up from a family with money, Tracy’s ex-husband (Cary Grant) who still had feelings for her arrived prior to the big event to stir some trouble, along with him a reporter (James Stewart) and a photographer (Ruth Hussey). I instantly fell in love with “The Philadelphia Story” because of the effortless, magnetic chemistry between Hepburn, Grant and Stewart. The way they interacted with each other was so natural, I felt like I was listening to friends having a friendly banter and I couldn’t help but smile. I might not have gotten all the jokes because the comedy was a bit different back then but the bona fide feeling of the actors having a good time in their roles transcends time. I loved something about each of the leading actors. Hepburn played a plucky character with a distinct voice who wanted to show the world that she was strong but there were moments where she wore her weaknesses on her sleeve. Grant played a mysterious character who I found the most difficult to connect with but as the film went on, I felt his genuine love for his ex-wife and the pain and jealousy of seeing her with another man. As for Stewart’s character, my absolute favorite, he was charming, funny, and witty–such characteristics culminated when, ironically enough, he was drunk out of his mind. I was surprised with how much I was invested in the characters because some synopses I read described the picture as a screwball comedy. Perhaps I just had bad experiences with movies labeled as “screwball comedy” but I thought the movie was so much more than that. Not only did it have real moments of sensitivity and a little bit of romance but it did not settle for the obvious. I could see why Hepburn’s character was torn between her husband-to-be, her ex-husband, and the reporter because they all have positive and negative qualities about them. I also admired George Cukor, the director, for being efficient with his time. Not one moment did I feel bored or that the movie was going too slow because he kept the lead characters talking and he let the quirky supporting characters in and out at just about the right moments. I especially enjoyed Virginia Weidler as the nosy kid who wanted attention and the way she would act as if she was one of the adults. “The Philadelphia Story” is known as a classic comedy and I believe rightfully so.
The Kids Are All Right (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
The kids (Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson) of a lesbian couple, Nic and Jules (Annette Bening, Julianne Moore), tried to search for Paul, their biological father (Mark Ruffalo), in hopes of finding more about where they came from. The situation did not sit well with Nic because she felt like she would slowly lose her family. On the other hand, Jules felt a little attraction toward Paul. It is too easy to label this as a “lesbian movie” because of the parents but the film is really more about family dynamics and how it changed when a new factor was added in the equation. I thought it was realistic in portraying the ups and downs of being in an imperfect family but the lessons that were learned or not learned did not feel like it something out of an after school special. The material wasn’t afraid to let the characters make mistakes and live with those mistakes until they couldn’t hold onto their secrets any longer. I enjoyed the way it framed parenting, that most of the time there is no “good” parenting or “bad” parenting but just a couple of adults trying to do their best to make their specific situation work. Bening and Moore were a joy to watch. Even though they kept their performances relatively simple, they were able to deliver the big emotions at the perfect small moments. I really felt like they’ve been together for many years so the way they got under each other’s skin and the way they would mend the wounds from the verbal daggers they threw at each other felt painfully realistic. I also loved the scenes when they would just talk about their past because they were able to paint vivid images in my head. I wish the picture had more scenes of them just talking to each other at home or having a nice dinner date in the city instead of the scenes with the son and his friend that did not amount to anything substantial. The side story about the daughter about to head off to college was a bit underdeveloped as well. However, the picture was consistently strong whenever Moore and Bening were on screen which was the majority of the time. I’ve heard some concerns from the lesbian community involving the film portraying lesbians as way too uptight. I think it’s an unnecessary concern because the lesbians are specific only to this movie and it does not make any generalizations about all lesbians in the world. It’s a story about a family’s bond and it should left as such. Written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko, “The Kids Are All Right” told its story involving the difficulties of transitioning with wit, focus, and brevity. It had a nice mix of charming characters and it had a good sense of balance with its comedic and dramatic elements which most audiences will likely enjoy.
The Informant! (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) had it all: a stable job that paid well, a loving family, a huge home, and absolutely no drama in his life. But his ambition and greed got the best of him and decided that he was going to accuse his company of embezzlement. He just didn’t want to be near the top of the pyramid, he wanted to be at the peak. Somehow, in his mind, he had this idea that if he could take down everyone who was in a higher position than him in the company, he would end up running the whole place. He was logical on the surface but his logic’s core was seriously flawed so he was a fascinating specimen for me to observe from a psychological point of view. “The Informant!,” based on a book by Kurt Eichenwald and directed by Steven Soderbergh, was a hilarious look at a man who was drowning in his lies and delusions, but even funnier was he had no idea when to quit and seek help. I think Damon should have been nominated for an Oscar for his acting in this film because even though he got everyone trapped in his tornado of lies for five years or more, like his wife (Melanie Lynskey) and the two FBI agents (Scott Bakula, Joel McHale) who recruited him as a spy, I had to admit that I ended up rooting for him because his charisma was as powerful as his lies. The desperation that Damon infused in his character made me feel bad for him not just as a character but as a person. In other words, he successfully made a pathological liar look like the good guy. I loved the way Soderbergh helmed the picture. Instead of telling the story in a typical crime drama, it was nicely balanced with dark humor, especially the scenes when the lead character would narrate for a bit so we could hear the many random (sometimes insightful) thoughts and what was really going on inside of his head. Just when I thought I had the movie all figured out, it surprised me because it actually became darker and more amusing as it went on. The director had a way of playing with tones at just the right amount so it didn’t feel jarring when it shifted. Considering the movie covered a span of ten years, the pacing was superb and I actually wanted it to run longer because I was having such a great time. The progression of a confident and obviously smart man who slowly lost all the good things in his life (including his mind) was sad but at the same the journey was quite a ride. I loved that most of the movie’s humor was in the dialogue and situations instead of playing on the obvious. I’ve read reviews from regular folks who claimed that it was stupid. I think those people just need to think for a bit and realize the fact that there’s a Mark Whitacre in all of us (narcissism and all)–the way we lie to people and sometimes how we eventually get tangled up in our own lies to the point where we end up betraying our own ideals.