Little Fockers (2010)
★ / ★★★★
It seemed like Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro) and Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) had finally found a way to get along after years of power struggle which often involved physical pain. Much to Greg’s surprise, Jack wanted him to be the “Godfocker” or the head of family. But when Jack began to feel a gnawing suspicion that Greg was having an affair with a beautiful pharmaceutical representative (Jessica Alba), Jack and Greg’s temporary ceasefire was shaken. Directed by Paul Weitz, “Little Fockers” was lifeless, tedious, and humiliating. There was no good reason for these characters to be on screen again because not only was there no story, there was no chemistry among the characters. We learned nothing new about them and they weren’t very funny because all of the jokes were either uninspired or recycled from other lame-brained comedies. The “I’m watching you” joke may have been amusing more than a decade ago but after hearing the same joke over and over again, it wasn’t even chuckle-worthy. The slapstick scenes served no purpose other than to disgust and Alba’s character doing physical stunts felt utterly desperate. The only two characters I found somewhat amusing were Roz (Barbara Streisand), Jack’s mom, and Prudence (Laura Dern), the recruiter for the elementary school Jack and Greg were interested in for the twins. Roz’ jokes about sex and aging were transparent but least they served a nice break from the two warring fathers. Prudence, on the other hand, was amusing because she found herself in disbelief when dealing with the Fockers. Having experience in working with obnoxious kids and dealing with, to put it lightly, difficult parents her fake smile was all too familiar. I enjoyed Dern’s performance, even though she wasn’t given very much to do, because she made Prudence relatable and less of a caricature. Unfortunately, the picture had to return its focus to Jack and Greg attempting to make each other’s lives miserable. It was almost masochistic. Toward the end, I thought its sweetness was completely false because the evolution in Jack and Greg’s relationship was absent. It was insulting that the filmmakers actually believed that we would buy the charade. The scene right before they were nice and gooey, Jack and Greg were so mean-spirited toward each other, I wondered if they genuinely regarded each other as family. Greg perfectly knew that Jack had a serious heart condition yet he wasn’t attuned enough not to throw a punch. With a sharper script equipped with enough character development and jokes that were actually funny and subversive, perhaps “Little Fockers” could have passed as a remotely mediocre comedy. Instead, this movie personified what the bottom of a barrel looks and sounds like: dark, depressing, and desperate.
I’m Still Here (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
When Joaquin Phoenix announced that he was to retire from acting and pursue a career as a hip-hop artist, the media was abuzz, wondering if he had lost his mind. Some were angry with his decision because they thought it served as a mockery of something they deeply respected. Personally, I did not care so much of the announcement. While I was a bit saddened because he was a very good actor, I thought he was well within his right to change career paths. After all, hundreds of thousands of people decide to change jobs every day. I saw his decision to move from being an actor to a music artist as no different. If I had seen this film prior to the announcement that it was all a hoax, I would have been seriously disturbed. I would not have laughed at the most intense scenes such as when the actor in question had an argument with one of his friends concerning a leak of information (which led to a disturbing payback), the meetings with Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, and when Ben Stiller offered Phoenix a role in Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg.” I find it difficult to find humor in something that I believe to be non-fiction because I take no pleasure in seeing the suffering of others, especially through ridicule. In a way, I took comfort in the fact that it was all a joke so I was able to pay attention in what Phoenix and Casey Affleck, the director, wanted to convey about celebrity life. Naturally, one of the main messages was being a celebrity did not necessarily equate to happiness or financial stability, but I relished small details I wasn’t aware of before like the paparazzi actually booing actors who chose not to pose in front of the camera. The harrassment Phoenix had to endure (some, admittedly, he incited) were sometimes difficult to watch. I could not help but feel sorry for him. However, the paparazzi were not the only ones that showed cruelty. Even people I’ve never even heard of (like YouTube “celebrities”) can have opinions that not only sting but leave a mark in the psyche. At the same time, Affleck’s film was effective in showing the ridiculous nature, as well as dangers, of method acting if taken to an extreme. Mostly everyone was convinced that Phoenix had lost control of his mental capacity and that made me question the amount of truth, if any, in the images I saw. I’m not convinced all of the scenes were designed to simply poke fun. After all, the most convincing lies stem from a truth. “I’m Still Here” is not for everyone because most people don’t understand satire. But I think Phoenix’ fans just might enjoy the film because it really was quite a performance.
★★ / ★★★★
A syndicate of fashion designers assigned Mugatu (Will Ferrell), a fellow successful fashion designer, to find an extremely dim-witted male model and brainwash him to assassinate the Prime Minister of Malaysia, the man who would be responsible for passing laws against child labor. Mugatu thought Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) was perfect for the job. Zoolander was blessed with great bone structure but he lacked brain power. The poor man-child couldn’t even spell the word “day” (he spelled it “d-a-i-y-e”). Written and directed by Ben Stiller, “Zoolander” was an effective spoof of the fashion industry when its humor wasn’t all over the place. Strangely enough, it had a one-dimensional main character but it worked because he was supposed to be unaware about everything that was happening around him. Much of the film played upon the stereotype about models being dumb and self-centered. For instance, Zoolander claimed he wanted to find meaning in life so he decided that he would establish a center for kids who wished to learn. However, Zoolander didn’t know the first thing about charity or education. His hypocrisy was wild but still amusing to watch because we knew he meant well. There were two scenes that were downright hilarious. The first was Zoolander’s reaction to Mugatu’s model for the children’s center. The man-child was at the forefront; it was as if he had no concept of representation, something that children normally learn during an early age. The other was the walk-off between Zoolander and his blonde rival named Hansel (Owen Wilson). It was cheesy, ridiculous and completely unnecessary, but I couldn’t help but smile because the lead actors and the spectators were obviously having fun. I could just imagine how many takes it must have taken the actors to complete a scene as they struggled to keep a straight face throughout the farce. I do wish, however, that there were more models that were featured. Milla Jovovich was great as Mugatu’s villainous assistant with an edgy haircut and Tyson Beckford milked every second he was given during the walk-off. I wouldn’t have minded crazy Tyra Banks appearing out of the blue and lecturing how important it was to “smize” (smiling with your eyes). There were also some surprising appearances from a young (and barely recognizable) Alexander Skarsgård and David Duchovny, an expert in delivering lines in a monotonous voice but still keeping us interested. “Zoolander” lacked in story and character development but it had memorable lines and manic energy which helped the picture stay afloat. It’s one of those movies I won’t watch for a long time but when I do see it playing on cable while flipping through the channels, I couldn’t help but sit down and enjoy the ride.
Flirting with Disaster (1996)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Ben Stiller and Patricia Arquette star as a New Yorker couple with a five-month-old unnamed baby. Stiller’s character was adopted and he thought it would only be right to find his biological parents (Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin) before naming the baby despite disapproval by his neurotic and self-absorbed biological parents (Mary Tyler Moore, George Segal). So the couple headed for San Diego along with a psychology student (Téa Leoni) who wanted to document the expected warm reunion. It’s a shame this film had been forgotten or overlooked by most as a great comedy. I had such a great time watching it because every minute was laugh-out-loud funny, intelligent and had an element of surprise. All characters had a chance to shine under the spotlight and used to the fullest but they were never exploited. They were made fun of but the sense of humor was never mean-spirited. The filmmakers were obviously aware of the fact that the audiences will most likely see themselves in these characters so the material and execution treated them with respect. The jokes were spot-on and the movie seemed to never run out of them. When the movie ended, I found myself smiling and wishing that it wasn’t yet over. I highly enjoyed the addition of Josh Brolin and Richard Jenkins as an FBI couple who wanted a baby. Again, it was easy to target these specific characters due to their sexual orientation but the material did not succumb to stupidity or bigotry to generate cheap laughs that ended just as the next scene was introduced. I liked the scene when the characters were stuck in a confined car and the script acknowledged the fact that not all gay men were into anal sex. It may sound obvious reading it now but one would be surprised that not a lot of people are aware of that. Sure, there were stereotypes but it attempted to break the mold by allowing the characters to think and act like real people. Furthermore, the director had a great ear for dialogue. I thought it was true to life because I often noticed characters talking on top of one another. It certainly is like that in my family especially during the holidays when everyone seems to lose their minds. (Or maybe we’re just too happy.) Astutely written and directed by David O. Russell, “Flirting with Disaster” is a highly successful roadtrip picture. If I were to be stuck with a group of people, I wish to be with them because I related to their quirkiness, neuroticisms, and flaws. This sleeper hit makes movies like Jay Roach’s “Meet the Parents” look pedestrian because movies like that rely more on slapstick to generate laughs.
★★ / ★★★★
Future supervillain Megamind (voiced by Will Ferrell) and future superhero Metro Man (Brad Pitt) were sent to Earth by their parents right before their home planet was engulfed by a black hole. The former grew up in a prison and the inmates taught him right from wrong–rather, wrong from right. His only friend was an adorable fish, equipped with wit and razor-sharp teeth, named Minion (David Cross). Grade school was horrible for him. He was often picked last for gym and his many attempts to impress his classmates always ended up horribly wrong. Over the years, he became bitter and developed a penchant for kidnapping Roxanne Ritchie (Tina Fey), a reporter, who had a crush on the superhero. But when Megamind, with a bit of blind luck, finally defeated Metro Man, he found his villainous role obsolete. Megamind’s big brain came up with a brilliant plan: He would construct a superhero (Jonah Hill). Would this little experiment backfire like all the others? Absolutely. “Megamind,” written by Alan J. Schoolcraft and Brent Simons, was a kaleidoscope of colors aimed for the younger kids and double entendres for the adults. Its manic energy successfully tickled every sense as it referenced other superhero films and comic books. However, it would have been far stronger if it didn’t try so hard to be funny like the characters breaking into a dance for no reason. If might have sounded cute on paper but painfully awkward to watch and sit through. What I enjoyed most about “Megamind” was although it spoofed other superhero franchises, it had an identity on its own. The scenes were not simply driven by references. There was a defined story, interesting and amusing characters, and a specific perspective in which it remained loyal throughout so the allusions were secondary. It aslo had real moments of creativity. For instance, after Metro Man’s death, Megamind began to rely on his invention which had the ability to make him transform into any being. Due to certain circumstances, he chose to be Bernard (Ben Stiller), a geeky guy who worked in the newfangled Metro Man Museum. As Bernard, Megamind started to fall in love with Roxanne Ritchie. His identity crisis from a lack of a superhero to fight on a daily basis also worked on another level. He started to have a literal identity crisis as he switched from Megamind to Bernard which generated some of the best scenes when both had to appear in front of the girl. Our protagonist rationalized that the villain never end up with the girl so he had to be something else, preferably not blue. There was sadness in his situation and we rooted for him to find happiness. Directed by Tom McGrath, “Megamind” was a good animated film for the majority of the time. If it managed to dial down the cheese and pumped up the edge, it could have been special.
Reality Bites (1994)
★★ / ★★★★
Four Generation X friends (Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Jeneane Garofalo, Steve Zahn) who recently graduated from college quickly found out that the “real world” was not something they could easily overcome just because they had an education. During her spare time, Lelaina, played by Ryder, documented her life while living with friends, she hated her internship at a television station, and she was torn between her slacker but charming best friend, played by Hawke, and a sucessful music video network executive, played by Ben Stiller. Meanwhile, Hawke had to deal with his ailing father, Garofalo was concerned that she had contracted HIV, and Zahn struggled to keep a secret. It sounded like the movie had a lot going for it. However, I believe the movie was stuck in the romantic angle between Ryder, Hawke and Stiller to the point where it had sidelined what the movie should have been about: the dynamics of friendship outside of the collegiate atmosphere and how their friendship was constantly challenged because their expectations did not often match what is. While the romantic angle was interesting enough to keep the picture afloat, it did not take the project to the next level because the angles that the film explored within the courtship was nothing particularly insightful or new. I thought the film was at its best when Ryder was just with her friends doing stupid things like watching television while talking about things that they did in college and when Ryder was forced to crawl back to her parents for financial assistance. I found those scenes more relatable because the lead character was forced to look at the hand she’s been given and she had to reevaluate what was more important to her: her pride or living a life of relative comfort. After all, at this specific time of their lives, life is more about compromises and the pain of asking oneself, “Am I good enough?” than about choosing between two boys (or girls). However, I did not dislike the film because I sympathized with the characters and I rooted for them to succeed even though I did not always agree with their actions. They tried to navigate their lives the best they could despite the many distractions. Sometimes they succeeded but sometimes they failed. In that regard, I thought the movie was honest despite the majority of it ending up somewhat hollow. Written by Helen Childress and directed by Ben Stiller, “Reality Bites” is a commercial project that thought it was something edgy or original. In its all-too-obvious attempt of digging up something insightful about modern romantic relationships, it achieved, well, hipster status.
★★ / ★★★★
Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) visited Los Angeles to live in his brother’s home right when he just checked out of a mental hospital due to a nervous breakdown. Coincidentally, he started to have feelings for his brother’s personal assistant (Greta Gerwig) as the two of them took care of the family dog that was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder. “Greenberg,” like its main character, tried too hard to stay away from the commercial offerings of pop culture. Sometimes it worked but there were times when it became borderline pretentious. During the picture’s mission to avoid attaching to the norm, I felt as though it built a wall around itself and I found it challenging to access its emotional core. Stiller did a good job playing an against type and I wish he had more characters like Roger in his repertoire. I enjoyed discovering the way he hid behind his sarcastic remarks in order to not deal with his insecurities, the way he constantly ran away from his past but at the same time unable to move on from certain broken relationships, and the way he dealt with aging and not having a career that he found meaningful or rewarding. It was easy to feel sorry for him but I was glad that the film made Roger somewhat difficult to like because there were times when he hurt those who genuinely cared for him for no good reason. Gerwig also did a wonderful job trying to find love in all the wrong places. What I enjoyed about her character most was the manner in which she told her quirky stories that led nowhere. This often bothered the lead character because he wanted to see purpose in everything. Some reviews from audiences claimed that they did not understand why this was supposed to be a comedy when there was nothing funny about it. I believe the film had a dry sense of humor which is sometimes inaccessible. I enjoyed its subtlety because it required understanding the characters a little bit in order to see the reason why something was funny when a character was placed in a specific situation. However, even I have to admit that I questioned where the movie was going or what it was trying to achieve. It had some brilliant moments that came few and far between. My favorite scene was when Roger talked about how different twentysomethings are nowadays compared to twentysomethings back in the late seventies or early eighties. The script was compelling because I felt a mix of bitterness, regret, anger and sadness in Stiller’s delivery, which I was not aware that he could pull off because I was used to seeing him in more obvious comedies. It would have also been nice if the film did not leave us hanging even if I understood why it ended the way it did. Directed by Noah Baumbach, “Greenberg” is a movie that is unpredictably bittersweet, sometimes challenging but often a frustrating to sit through. If it did not have so many walls and did not try so hard, I think it would have been much stronger and more memorable.