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.
Kids Are All Right, The (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.
Informant!, The (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.
Little Rascals, The (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Little Rascals,” inspired by the “Our Gang” series back in the ’20s and ’30s, was one of those movies I kept encountering on cable on random weekends but never did get a chance to watch it from beginning to end. “The Little Rascals” was about a group of friends in a He-Man Womun Haters Club just being kids, but when Alfalfa (Bug Hall) fell in love with a girl (Brittany Ashton Holmes) who recently moved to the neighborhood, the rest of the gang, led by Spanky (Travis Tedford), tried to break them up in order to adhere to their tradition. I couldn’t help but think this movie was absolutely adorable because there was just something hilarious about children talking like much older adults. It was like watching “Kids Say the Darndest Things” on steroids. While some were disturbed by it, I thought it was very amusing. I thought the kids living in the ’90s but the way they spoke and dressed feeling so much older than they were was a nice constrast. I’ll be the first one to admit that the story wasn’t that great but the movie was really more about showcasing the cute kids and the energy it spent to consistently entertain. On that level, I think it was successful despite its lack of depth or complexity or character development. However, I haven’t seen the original television series so I can’t quite comment on how it managed to remain true to its source. I’m not a big fan of slapstick comedy but I think it worked here because everything about the picture was light and breezy (which reminded me of those “Beethoven” pictures with the St. Bernard in the ’90s). While watching it, I imagined myself as a child in order to evaluate whether the comedy was working. I’m a kid at heart so it wasn’t a stretch for me to change perspectives and I thought it could easily appeal to children. It also gave me a chance to look back on my childhood when things were simple so that was a definite plus. However, I wished that there were more scenes of the rivalry between Alfalfa and Waldo (Blake McIver Ewing) as the rich kid. Their interactions were a nice change from the cuteness (especially the scenes with Porky played by Zachary Mabry) and they showed why we should root for the lead character. I was happy to finally have seen the entire film after years of tuning in and out of it. If one takes the film for what it is and leaves the expectations at the door, one will most likely have a good time.
Good Hair (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
When I look at people, the first thing I notice about them is their hair. Directed by Jeff Stilson, “Good Hair” follows Chris Rock as he interviews all sorts of people from the United States and India about hair: how natural African-American hair is now regarded as less valuable and less appealing as European and Asian hair. I thought this documentary was absolutely fascinating. I learned so much because I don’t have the kind of hair that African-Americans do so I don’t really know much about their experiences and the pressures they feel about getting “good hair,” a type of hair that the media glamorizes. For me the film reached its highest point when Rock went to India and tried to learn about why so much hair was coming from India. I didn’t know that some Indians viewed having hair as a vanity so they sacrifice their hair for a higher power. While in America, hair symbolizes power and directly correlates to one’s self-esteem. I thought that contrast was so nicely done by Stilson and I realized that, despite the film’s amusing look at the hair industry, there was an inherent sadness about it all. I couldn’t believe that hair cost thousands of dollars and some women would rather pay for a weave than make sure that they have food on the table. On the other side of the spectrum, women choose to buy very dangerous “relaxers,” which is pretty much sodium hydroxide, a very strong chemical. I loved the way the picture showed an experiment where a can was placed in a container full of NaOH with varying rate of exposure. (I’m a sucker for science experiments.) I was so shocked when one of the cans literally melted when exposed to NaOH for about five or six hours. The movie then connected the usage of sodium hydroxide to health–how some parents choose for their children, who are barely three years old, to undergo such extreme (and painful) chemical application for the sake of having so-called good hair. What didn’t work for me, however, was the whole hair competition angle. I thought it made the picture very convoluted and it took away some of the movie’s power because the pre-competition and competition scenes lacked momentum. I wanted more scenes of very funny conversations among Chris Rock, regular folks and celebrities. I thought it was a laugh riot when the film switched its focus to men and how they felt pressure to give their girlfriends money for a weave. All these elements show that having “good hair” is not just a woman’s issue nor is it even a race issue. It’s about increasing number of individuals adapting to a particular mindset of society regarding what is considered beautiful and what isn’t.
She’s Out of My League (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
I just realized that the more I watch Jay Baruchel, the more I like him. There’s something very geek-chic about him that’s just adorable–I don’t know if it’s the voice or the awkward body language but he manages to pull it off with such ease. In “She’s Out of My League,” directed by Jim Field Smith, he plays an airport security agent with dreams of becoming a pilot who one day meets a really good-looking girl (Alice Eve). After some coincidences and strange (but amusing) circumstances, she ends up asking him out on a date, leaving the lead character’s friends (T.J. Miller, Mike Vogel, Nate Torrence) shocked and confused. I enjoyed watching this movie as a whole but I think it could have been edgier and it could have used more focus in terms of the odd couple’s romance. I think the movie spent too much of its time with the highly obnoxious family (I think if I met them I would run the other way) and in a way, I saw it as an excuse to deliver the gags so it wouldn’t have to tackle the deeper psychology of an insecure man as often as it should have been. And although I did think that the main character’s friends were funny, they couldn’t just accept the fact that their geeky friend was going out with a gorgeous woman. Their sometimes lack of support irked me and it made me question whether they were really good friends. Perhaps the picture was trying to show the friends’ own insecurities through denial but it would have been nice if they didn’t make fun of the lead character as much. The bit with the ex-boyfriend (Geoff Stults) was also another distracting element that didn’t need to be there. Nevertheless, as a romantic comedy, I think the picture worked; it may have been pretty standard most of the time but there were nice moments when I felt like Baruchel and Eve had a good connection. I think the film was at its best when the two characters were just engaging in conversation about their dreams and failures with all jokes aside. We’ve all seen couples that make us think, “What the heck does she see in him?” This movie was essentially that little (sometimes nagging) thought in our heads. The lessons might have been obvious (beauty on the inside matters) but it’s nice to be reminded of it because there’s a universal truth to that lesson. “She’s Out of My League” has both laugh-out-loud and cringe-worthy moments (mostly with that annoying family) but I think it’s worth watching for its own merits.
How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
This enormously entertaining PG-rated children’s movie was about a small and skinny Viking named Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) who had to capture a dragon and kill it so he could prove that he was a real Viking and make his father (Gerard Butler) proud. Well, he managed to accidentally capture one but he decided to train it instead because he saw a part of himself in the dragon’s eyes when it was scared and helpless. In general, what I love about most about children’s movies is their simplicity. But what I think makes a superior animated feature is how the movie can explore that simplicity and extract valuable lessons about life that even some adults haven’t quite grasped. I think “How to Train Your Dragon,” directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, managed to capture that essence so I was highly entertained. But I must warn others that this film was more about the story than the jokes. The humor was certainly there, especially the scenes that involved Hiccup and his rivals (America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig) fighting dragons, but the focus was on the bond between a boy and his pet dragon. I think it’s a great movie for children to watch because it’s highly energetic, colorful, and there were real moments of suspense (the impressive dragon nest scene and the final battle) and wonder. A main lesson that could be learned was acceptance: treating others with respect even though we don’t agree with their beliefs, putting our feet in someone else’s shoes in order to understand someone better, respecting animals and nature, and being comfortable with who we are even though we may not look or feel like the ideal at the moment. It’s funny because I think in some ways this was comparable to Tim Burton’s version of “Alice in Wonderland.” Both movies ask us to jump into a world where pretty much anything could exist. However, “How to Train Your Dragon” was a superior experience because it did not sacrifice its storytelling and character development for the sake of visual complexity (which was very strong but it was secondary compared to everything else). Moreover, “How to Train Your Dragon” was consistently amusing while “Alice in Wonderland,” lest we forget was also a PG-rated movie, left me somewhat confused and frustrated with how it wasted its potential. In a nutshell, “How to Train Your Dragon” was inspired–inspired to entertain and to just tell a story that was simple but highly involving. In the end, it made me want to have a dragon as a pet so I could train it just like in those very addictive Pokémon games.