How Do You Know (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) was so passionate about softball, she made a career out of it. But when she was unexpectedly cut from the team, her life became turbulent as she questioned what she should do next. Coincidentally, one of Lisa’s friends gave George (Paul Rudd) Lisa’s phone number because Lisa, during a drunken night, confessed that she was curious about dating a non-athlete for once. George was as normal as they come other than the fact that he was being wrongly implicated in a federal crime. Will Lisa choose Matty (Owen Wilson), a successful baseball player, over currently unemployed George? One of the problems with “How Do You Know” was all of the characters were painfully needy and nice. When they got angry, they would express it but they apologized almost always immediately, like being angry was a sign of immaturity or that it was something to be ashamed of. I understood why the characters were that way because the material was desperate to be different from other romantic comedies where the characters typically would compartmentalize their negative emotions until the very end. But, without the right execution, as it was the case here, the opposite side of the spectrum was just as toxic as the cliché. Furthermore, the script was just not funny. An hour into it, I laughed probably once and chuckled a maximum of three times. When something funny was about to happen, I felt it coming ten seconds before. Casting Jack Nicholson, who played George’s father, was a letdown because he wasn’t given much to do. He was the distant father with a secret but there was nothing else to him. The majority of the picture’s attempt at comedy consisted of George being awkward around the girl he was in love with. As usual, Rudd was his usual charming, somewhat geeky, harmless persona but his character was also one-dimensional. The film contrasted George and Matty in a heavy-handed way. Aside from the obvious that one was a blonde and the other was a brunette, when Lisa would tell a story about how her day went or what was bothering her, Matty would avoid making eye contact. He would do things like ask her if she was hungry or he would start to talk about himself. On the other hand, when Lisa was with George, the hopeless romantic’s eyes were transfixed on her and when he would ask questions, it was directly related to her problems. Naturally, Matty was someone we would enjoy hanging out with and George was someone one we would marry. It was incredibly transparent who Lisa should choose that tension among the trio wasn’t generated. Written and directed by James L. Brooks, “How Do You Know” was not only predictable but it was also two hours long. How do you know when you’re stuck with a bad movie? When you keep checking the clock and asking yourself how many more bad jokes you have yet to sit through.
30 Minutes or Less (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) was a pizza delivery guy who consistently failed at getting to the doorstep on time that we were left to wonder why he was still hired. When he wasn’t at work, he hung out with his best friend, Chet (Aziz Ansari), a recently hired full-time teacher, played video games, and other things typical single guys did on their spare time. Meanwhile, Dwayne (Danny McBride) could no longer stand being treated by his father (Fred Ward), an ex-Marine and a lotto winner, with disdain for being a thirty- or forty-something slacker. When an exotic dancer (Bianca Kajlich) proposed that Dwayne should find a way to kill his dad so he could get the inheritance, Dwayne thought this was a brilliant idea. Based on the screenplay by Michael Diliberti and directed by Ruben Fleischer, “30 Minutes or Less” should really have lived up to its title because stretching its pia mater-thin premise to eighty minutes felt interminable. All the characters were either stupid or vile or stupid and vile; not one was worth rooting for. Nick was eventually strapped to a code-activated homemade bomb which incited a lot of yelling and screaming out of panic. It would have been different if all the commotion soon led to practical solutions once the characters had enough time to absorb the predicament. However, the situation simply reached various levels of absurdity and not once did I feel danger or fear for the people I saw on screen. Were some lines uttered funny? Undoubtedly, yes. I laughed at the part when the cashier suggested that Nick and Chet buy a condom because the items they bought, which included ski masks and tape, made them look like sexual predators. I also enjoyed some of the banters between Nick and Chet prior to the former’s life being threatened by a bomb. There was something about their geeky friendship that would make a nice sitcom aimed toward guys. Did the movie work as a comedy? It did not. The laughs came few and far between. For instance, after one amusing racist joke, five unfunny ones would come right after. It seemed like the writers managed to brainstorm a lot of jokes but they didn’t bother to be selective enough so that the best ones could make it onto the screen. It felt lazy and with such a low hit rate, it wasn’t worth sitting through. Furthermore, the romance between Nick and Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria), Chet’s twin sister, felt completely unnecessary. Why did the writers even bother to have Nick fall for someone if they weren’t willing to spend enough time to convince us why they were or were not a good fit? To make Nick more sensitive and relatable? Surely there were other ways. I detected more laziness. Not only did “30 Minutes of Less” feel shallow and undercooked, it tried too hard to impress in terms of violence while actually achieving nothing. A thirteen-year-old came up to me and said that he and his friends watched the funniest movie they’ve seen in a while. When I asked what it was, he gleefully announced it was “30 Minutes of Less.” If this passes as comedy for them, I think we’re in deep trouble.
Hostel: Part III (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Scott (Brian Hallisay) was about to be married in a week so Carter (Kip Pardue), the best man, decided to take his friend to Las Vegas, Palm Springs being their cover from Amy (Kelly Thiebaud), for a bachelor’s party with Justin (John Hensley) and Mike (Skyler Stone). As the four gambled, Kendra (Sarah Habel) and Nikki (Zulay Henao) eyed Scott from a distance and later informed them that there was a party way out from The Strip. As the hours passed by, Mike was eventually nowhere to be found. “Hostel: Part III,” written by Michael D. Weiss and directed by Scott Spiegel, was promising because of its surprising first scene involving a scraggly guy in his twenties (Chris Coy) who mistakenly entered an Eastern European couple’s hotel room and was invited to have a drink. While its predecessors were set in Slovakia, it should be noted that this installment took place in Las Vegas. In its own way, on purpose or otherwise, it created a challenge for itself. Since Eli Roth’s “Hostel” and “Hostel: Part II” were set in a foreign country, it was almost easier to identify with the characters, despite their seemingly innate lack of common sense, because of their nationality. There was an underlying statement about the xenophobia found in all of us when we are in a different country and hear people speak in a foreign tongue. In this picture, the Americans became the tormenters, so the protagonists had to have something special in order for us to root for them. They did not. While each had his own distinct personality and temperament, we knew nothing about them other than their quirks and what they told one another. Hence, when the twists in the screenplay finally arrived, I felt little to no emotional impact while watching it. Although the scenes involving torture were still grizzly and bloody, one of them involving bugs, they failed to encourage a visceral response from me. Perhaps it had something to do with the style of shooting scenes and the way they were put together. Instead of having drawn-out sequences designed to increase our dread as the characters became more confused about the whereabouts of their friends, there was more than a handful of scenes interrupted by manic cutting and aerial shots of the city. Furthermore, there tended to be more people in one shot which took away some of the feelings of isolation we were supposed to experience with the characters. There was one change that I thought was somewhat interesting. Instead of simply having a room with just a victim and his tormenter, people were actually allowed to watch from behind the glass. The spectators’ chairs had buttons that they could press if they chose to bet, for example, how many arrows it took to kill a person. The concept worked because it made sense in terms of the film’s setting. If “Hostel: Part III” was able to take that level of creativity and had been more consistent with it, it would have been a passable addition to the franchise. It was hinted that Elite Hunting had more branches, one located in Asia. With all the missing people because of this sadistic group (who liked to hunt Americans) one would think that the FBI or the CIA were more informed.
Hostel: Part II (2007)
★ / ★★★★
Affluent Beth (Lauren German), debbie-downer Lorna (Heather Matarazzo), and brassy Whitney (Bijou Phillips), American art students in Italy, decided to go on a trip around Europe over the weekend for some relaxation. While on the train, one of the models (Vera Jordanova) they had the pleasure of sketching just hours prior recommended a gorgeous must-visit hot springs in Slovakia. It seemed too good to refuse so the trio happily accepted. Little did the girls know that just minutes after they checked into a hostel, there was an auction, held by Elite Hunting, a murder-for-profit group, in which rich men bid on women where the winner could do whatever he wanted with his winnings. Written and directed by Eli Roth, I give a little bit of credit to “Hostel: Part II” because it tried to do something different from its predecessor. Instead of focusing solely on the would-be victims, it actually spent some time with the men who wanted to experience something they’d never forget. Todd (Richard Burgi) was gung-ho about killing something with his hands while Stuart (Roger Bart) was more reluctant. The way Todd and Stuart talked about committing an act of unimaginable violence to another human being was disturbing because certain phrases they uttered, like a joke or a snide remark, reflected an underlying struggle in attempting to make their victims less human. For instance, while sitting in the car on their way to the torture factory, Stuart asked his friend if he thought what they were doing was sick. Todd answered the question as one would express strong dislike toward a certain type of food. Furthermore, the picture allowed us to peek inside the business. We saw the important figures who made the negotiations when something went wrong. We discovered some of the requirements stated in the contract if one chose to be a part of Elite Hunting. We also learned that certain rules were allowed to be broken for the right price. Although it had potential to be a good sequel because it strived to expand its universe, the film just wasn’t good enough. Because there weren’t enough scenes dedicated to Todd, Stuart, and their relationship with the business, watching it all unfold was like observing a drowning person: an occasional gasp of air came hand-in-hand with its desperation to keep afloat. For the sake of so-called suspense, the material had a natural tendency to relegate to the three girls trying to run away from the burly bad guys in leather yet we knew all along that they had no chance of outrunning them. That was a crucial difference between this film and its predecessor. Part of the fun of “Hostel” was we actually believed that Paxton (Jay Hernandez), who made an appearance here, was able to escape despite his odds. There was technique, tension, and, most importantly, humor, in the manner in which he had to camouflage with the environment to avoid being detected. In here, a character ran into the forest and we expected her to trip. And she did. Lastly, I was especially sickened with the scene in which an adult pointed his gun on several children’s heads. One of them was shot in the face. But for what? Some could argue that the adult intended to teach a lesson. I argue it was for mere shock value. It felt cheap. “Hostel: Part II” was plagued with boring protagonists and lackluster execution. I wanted to find dark humor in its extreme nature but I ended up just sitting in my chair, depressed with all that was happening.
Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Katie (Katie Featherston) delivered a box of videotapes to her sister’s house (Sprague Grayden) which contained events in September 1988 when young Katie (Chloe Csengery) and young Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) lived with their mom, Julie (Lauren Bittner), and her boyfriend, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith). Julie and Dennis decided to make a sex tape. Just when things began to become pornographic, they were interrupted by an earthquake. As the couple ran from the room to get the kids, the camera captured an invisible figure with the help from the dust that fell from the ceiling. This strange occurrence inspired Dennis to install cameras for two reasons: to gather evidence that there really was a ghost in the house and to see what it wanted from them. “Paranormal Activity 3,” written by Christopher Landon and Oren Peli, did not only deliver a dearth of genuine scares, it offered only one piece of new information that connected Katie and Kristi’s stories from Peli’s “Paranormal Activity” and Tod Williams’ “Paranormal Activity 2,” respectively. When the credits rolled, I wondered why they even bothered. There was no connection, as a family, between the characters and everyone seemed to be playing dumb. They consistently waited to hear weird noises or see furnitures move by themselves instead of actually doing something to try to prevent them from happening again. Perhaps I would have felt more scared for the family if the parents were more protective of their children by allowing their instincts to take over once in a while. Sometimes we just know that there’s something really wrong. We don’t wait for all the facts before taking action especially when it comes to survival. If Dennis reviewed the tapes each day, I didn’t understand why the filmmakers did not allow him to see the videos in which Katie’s bed was moved by an unknown force and she being violently dragged across the floor. That was an important moment, a potential climax, and it should have been shown. If I was their father and I saw what happened to my kids the night before, there was no way I was going to stay in that house and allow my children to be harmed. In some instances, the film failed to milk what they had. Dennis and Julie hired a babysitter (Johanna Braddy) so they could have some alone time in the city. It was the ’80s and teen slasher flicks, most of them involved babysitters, dominated the horror genre. It could have been more pointed with its irony when the house ghost, with a white sheet over its head, inched toward Lisa as she read a book in the kitchen. Once the sheet fell to the ground, the tension was gone and it reverted to being a soporific bore. “Paranormal Activity 3,” directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, had very limited tricks up its sleeve. I was thunderstruck not because of the visual effects behind the paranormal happenings which, by the way, were just mediocre, but because of its overall lack of imagination to propel the story forward. If I were to compile a ratio between scenes of nothing happening and “scares,” the former would outweigh the latter by a factor of five.
Cowboys & Aliens (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) woke up in the middle of the desert unable to remember anything prior to his collapse, not even his name. In a state of confusion, he looked at his left arm and there was a bulky bracelet around it. Despite its imposing appearance, it seemed harmless enough. So, he made his way to Absolution, a mining town, its economy depended on Woodrow Dolarhyde’s cattle business (Harrison Ford). The residents feared him greatly so they allowed his son, Percy (Paul Dano), to act like a fool and bully others. But not Jake. When Percy pulled a gun on the amnesiac, the young man was greeted with a knee in the groin. Later, when Jake and Woodrow met to settle an old score, spaceships flew over Absolution, fired destructive laser beams, and kidnapped select citizens. Based on the graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, “Cowboys & Aliens,” was a somnolent lullaby despite the staccato of horses’ hooves, swooshing Indian arrows, and thundering explosions followed by beautiful hovering dust. When certain characters met their demise, usually induced by the aliens’ sharp claws, I felt no emotion toward the person struggling for his last breath. This was because the characters were not given enough depth. More time was dedicated to the characters riding horses, squinting at something from a distance, and arguing which was the best course of action in order to track down the extraterrestrial base. The script didn’t help the otherwise good actors who were very capable of embodying heroes we could root for despite forcefully convenient plot devices. Jake and Woodrow were motivated by very different things which was appropriate considering that each figure symbolized a different type of hero in the American Old West. The former wanted to know the truth about who he was while the latter hoped to rescue his only son, internal and external motivations. Yet when the two interacted, the dialogue was so egregious, it sounded like Jake and Woodrow were not really speaking to each other but through one another. Jake’s stoicism and Woodrow’s irascibility became exasperating. I wondered what else the material had to offer, if any, and when, or if, the sluggish pacing would eventually pick up and get the adventure going (or started). Furthermore, the aliens were not very interesting villains. They landed on Earth to look for gold and extract them. Did they need the metal for food, as fertilizer to sustain their dying planet, or was it some kind of a panacea for their diseased or dying comrades? We weren’t given the exact details. But why not? I don’t know if the original material offered a reason, but even if it did not, that was no excuse. Somewhere in the middle of the film, Jake began to have feelings for Ella (Olivia Wilde), a woman who seemed to know Jake’s history. Their feelings for each other poisoned the movie. Not only did their relationship not make any sense, their scenes together took away time from possible explanations about the aliens. This was another example of using romance to band-aid holes in the story that ought to be dealt with directly and astutely. “Cowboys and Aliens,” directed by Jon Favreau, was a failed mash-up of the western and science-fiction genres. It offered no magic nor a sense of adventure.
Straw Dogs (2011)
★ / ★★★★
David (James Marsden), a screenwriter for movies, and Amy (Kate Bosworth), a television actress, husband and wife from Los Angeles, moved to the South so David could get some work done. While Amy was welcomed by the people she grew up with, especially Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård), a former high school flame, David experienced some friction with most of them. As the two settled in their home over a couple of weeks, Charlie and his friends pushed David bit by bit by implying he wasn’t good enough to land a woman like Amy, that he wasn’t enough of a man for her. David aimed to prove them wrong. Based on the novel “The Siege of Trencher’s Farm” by Gordon Williams, watching “Straw Dogs,” written and directed by Rod Lurie, I felt an overwhelming lack of dimension from its characters. David was the unaware city boy who overstepped his boundaries by flaunting his hundred dollar bills, Amy strutted around outside without a bra but became upset when men looked at her lasciviously, and Charlie was the two-faced villain who felt inferior whenever he heard David’s classical music. As the events slowly escalated from snide comments to full-throttle violence, we learned nothing much about the three them. Amy became very frustrated with her husband’s passive approach. If David did confront Charlie and his friends, it was her husband’s battle (or life) to lose. If she supposedly grew up with them, she should have been more aware of what they were capable of. If anything, she should be one pulling back David’s leash, not getting upset with him when clearly he just didn’t want trouble. Meanwhile, David decided to go hunting with the boys to prove he was a man. If he was so smart and worldly, as depicted on the day the couple moved into their new home, I wondered how he didn’t catch that it wasn’t even hunting season. “What time of year is hunting season?” was easy to type on Google considering he was on his laptop during most of the day. Furthermore, the film introduced characters such as Tom (James Woods), a former high school coach turned alcoholic, and slow-witted Jeremy (Dominic Purcell), in his thirties, who happened to have a history with underaged girls. When David asked why the latter wasn’t put away, Charlie responded, “We take care of our own.” Far from it. Tom’s daughter (Willa Holland), fifteen years old, was attracted to Jeremy. Despite people constantly telling her to keep her distance from him, she couldn’t help herself. Naturally, the father had something to say with his fist. Although Woods’ explosive antics were attention-grabbing, most of the time, the things he had to say felt independent from the movie. Must he be angry all the time? Again, the script was devoid of depth and good performances couldn’t keep the material afloat. “Straw Dogs,” despite its handful of symbolism involving animals, left nothing much to the imagination. I almost forgot about it as soon as it was over. Except the bare-chested Skarsgård. His glistening pecs were memorable.