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.
Dinner for Schmucks (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Tim (Paul Rudd) wanted to be a more powerful executive in the company he worked for. But in order to become one of them, his boss (Bruce Greenwood) invited Tim to attend a dinner party in which the company men were required to bring an idiot with whom they could make fun of as they enjoyed their meal. Plagued by thoughts about why his girlfriend (Stephanie Szostak) wouldn’t accept his marriage proposal, Tim accidentally ran over Barry (Steve Carell), an IRS agent who had a penchant for collecting dead mice and putting them in a box for display. Desperate to impress his girlfriend, he invited Barry to attend the mean-spirited dinner. Based on Francis Veber’s “Le dîner de cons,” “Dinner for Schmucks” committed an unforgivable sin: It was a comedy that was devoid of humor. Forty minutes into the picture, I stopped and wondered why not once did I laugh at the craziness that was happening on screen. There was a lot of yelling, particularly between Tim and Barry, but Jay Roach, the director, had mistaken screaming for energy. Instead of exploring the relationship between the pathetic Barry and the even more pathetic Tim, the movie spent more time with unnecessary distractions. Worse, the distractions were supposed to be amusing. There was Lucy Punch as Tim’s insane one night stand from a few years ago. Her character was taken out of a horrible pornographic film. Jemaine Clement as the vain French artist made me feel uncomfortable and seeing him made me wish he put on a shirt. Even Ron Livingston and Zach Galifianakis’ appearances as Tim and Barry’s rivals, respectively, were uninspired. Each scene was like watching a bad sitcom that lasted for almost two hours. I kept waiting for the film to slow down and take the time for Tim to realize that what he was doing to Barry was not only wrong, that his actions said a lot about himself. In an early scene, he told his girlfriend that there was a version of him that she didn’t know and she should find a way to deal with it. But maybe there was a version of him that he himself wasn’t aware of. There were times when I thought Rudd was miscast. When he was supposed to summon a bit of darkness and malicious intent, it didn’t quite work. He remained harmless and adorable. The lack of focus in terms of the relationship between Tim and Barry ultimately felt forced when Tim’s conscience was finally at the forefront. I couldn’t help but feel that “Dinner for Schmucks” was supposed to be a man and his blind ambition to further his career so that he could live the so-called American Dream. The gags should have been secondary and, more importantly, the humor should have had range.
★★★ / ★★★★
An unexpected trial separation between the patriarch (E.G. Marshall) and emotionally fragile matriarch (Geraldine Page) thrusted three sisters (Mary Beth Hurt, Diane Keaton, Kristin Griffith) into a territory in which they had to deal with their own lives and their parents’–something they weren’t used to because they’ve become accustomed to living a life of privilege and constantly reevaluating their careers. Joey (Hurt) was smart but never found what she was really good at. She held a grudge because she felt like she was the only one who went out of her way to take care of their mother. Renata (Keaton) was immersed with her work and craved to be left alone. She found it difficult because her husband, also an artist, took criticisms too personally. Instead of focusing her energy onto her work, she felt the need to build her husband’s confidence. Meanwhile, Flyn (Griffith) was never around because traveling was a part of being an actress. Her physical beauty was valued more than her wit, kindness, and personality. Despite the fact that the film was essentially about self-centered, white upper-class, highly irksome individuals, I found Woody Allen’s film to be admirable because he held a laser-like focus on the material’s theme. His subjects lived in big houses that felt more like museums than a comfortable home. When they spoke, their voices echoed as if they craved to be truly heard. They filled their houses with expensive material; the figurines had to complement the color of the walls and the texture of the carpet, and the insular themes that just had to work with the ambiance in a specific way. Everything had to be controlled. It showcased their intelligence, their place in society, and what they could offer to visitors who they considered to be on a lower level than them. But they weren’t emotionally equipped people. The sisters were jealous of each other and Allen wasn’t afraid to show us how ugly sibling competition could become. Arguments were abound, but since the characters didn’t know how to treat communication as a two-way street, nothing was really solved. In fact, it seemed like things turned for the worse after explosive confrontations. These people led sad existences but we didn’t pity them in the least. Allen’s script was vivid and the beauty of it was highlighted by the way the actors expressed their characters’ hypocrisies and histrionics. The picture was at its peak when the women’s father brought home Pearl (the wonderful Maureen Stapleton), a woman he wanted to marry. Pearl was supposed to personify people like you and me, someone who had a lot of energy, willing to talk about her imperfections, and wasn’t guilty about eating an extra slice of pie just because it was considered unhealthy. Allen adroitly used her character as both a hurdle and someone to aspire to for the three women in question. “Interiors” was about people who were not unlike the figurines they so deeply coveted: shining on the outside but tragically hollow on the inside. With Allen’s assured direction, the film was bleakly cerebral yet emotionally rewarding.
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.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg spent a year with Joan Rivers to document her rollercoaster ride of a career. Joan Rivers is a comedian, but she claimed she was an actress at heart; she simply played a comedian and she knew she did it well. I saw Joan Rivers for the first time on TV when she interviewed people on the red carpet during the Oscars. There were two thoughts that ran across my mind: “Who is this hilarious woman?” and “She’s had way too many facelifts.” She knew exactly what people thought of her yet she decided to forge on like she didn’t care. It’s not that she wasn’t hurt by mean comments (especially critiques directed at her acting abilities), but being in show business was what quenched her appetite yet at the same time fueled her hunger to be relevant and reinvent herself. Despite the ups and downs of Rivers’ career in a span of one year, the directors successfully painted a well-realized picture of their subject. I had no idea that Rivers had been around since the early 1960s and had appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” I didn’t even know she won in a reality show. But it was the small details in her life that moved me, one of which was when she expressed to the camera that one of her biggest fears was that one day, she’ll turn around and find nobody she knew well enough to ask, “Do you remember?” Despite her lavish lifestyle (and she told us bluntly that she loved living comfortably), I’m convinced she held more value to personal links and true companionship than she led us to believe. That moment swept me off my feet because I did not expect it from a comedian who made outrageous jokes about AIDS, abortion, and even handicapped individuals. I was also moved at the part when she and her grandson decided to volunteer for God’s Love We Deliver to deliver food to handicapped people who couldn’t leave their homes on Thanksgiving. At end of the day, Rivers concluded that “Life is mean.” For a woman who was seventy-five years old, working at very strange (and very late) hours, sometimes traveling in the middle of nowhere, I couldn’t help but ask how she continues to do it. I found her story inspirational because it made me think about where I want my career to go. “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” is full of beautiful contradictions that weren’t necessarily easy to swallow but that’s exactly what I loved about it. Ultimately, that’s what I loved about her. She’s edgy, ironic and she knew the business (and the busy-ness) of show business. People thinking of establishing a career under the scrutiny of the public eye should see this documentary. They just might think twice. Joan Rivers said she’s never seen her name without a positive adjective right before it. How about the resplendent Joan Rivers?
Going the Distance (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Garrett (Justin Long) lives in New York and works for a record company whose main goal is to find bands that have the potential to be popular even though they’re not necessarily talented. Garrett finds his job unrewarding because he genuinely loves good music despite a band being non-commercial. Erin (Drew Barrymore) is an summer intern for a newspaper in New York who resides in the Bay Area with her sister (Christina Applegate). Being over thirty years old, she’s still in school because she once derailed her career plans for a guy. Garret and Erin meet and they get into an initially undefined long-distance relationship. Written by Geoff LaTulippe and directed by Nanette Burstein, “Going the Distance” is without a doubt a commercial romantic comedy but has an edge because it is actually believable in terms of how it’s like to be in a modern relationship. The script contained extremely funny lines and situations, the supporting characters (Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis as Garrett’s best friends) were used in a smart way but never overshadowed the leads, and we believe that Garrett and Erin had something special so we are invested in the story. The small details were the things I appreciated most. I liked how the camera consistently focused on the man–the thoughts that were running around in his head and the pain that he must be feeling because he is very attached to the girl. It stood out to me because there were studies I’ve read about, compared to a woman, a man feeling more pain than he lets on when a romantic relationship is broken. And even though it wasn’t addressed directly, there was probably an age difference (Garrett’s age was undisclosed). I thought about why the two main characters valued certain things over others, their maturity levels, and the pros and cons of being in long distance relationship. Even though, on the surface, Garrett and Erin had a lot in common, they also had a lot of differences but somehow the director was able to highlight what great chemistry they have without resulting to being sappy and so we want them to be together even though not all of the characters believed they would make it. “Going the Distance” is an unexpectedly fast-paced comedy that manages to capture the diversity and the hustle and bustle of New York City (I actually liked the scenes with purposely bad lighting because it felt that much more realistic). It’s an intelligent film that isn’t afraid for both men and women to directly talk about sex and address what they really need in order to be happy. The movie even had time to refer to the economy’s impact the job market. I strongly believe that couples, not just the girl, will find themselves enjoying this laugh-and-loud romcom.
Post Grad (2009)
★ / ★★★★
Directed by Vicky Jenson and written by Kelly Fremon, Alexis Bledel stars as Ryden Malby, a recent college graduate who planned out her entire future well before high school. (Which isn’t really a stretch from her very lovable character Rory Gilmore on “Gilmore Girls.”) Unfortunately, things didn’t quite go as planned when she found herself being unable to get a job because of the fierce competition in the job market. This movie had the potential to be really good because of its modern way of approaching one of the most common questions of recent college graduates: Will I be able to immediately get a job after college? I thought the first twenty minutes was strong because it dealt with that particular issue head-on. It may not be incredibly realistic but at least it tried to be relevant. However, the deeper we got into the picture, the movie suffered because of bad writing and the material easily succumbed to eyeroll-worthy typicalities. Ryden had to choose between her kind-of boyfriend (Zach Gilford) who was torn between law school and music and the exotic guy next door (Rodrigo Santoro) who seemed to have his life together, deal with her eccentric and sometimes funny family (Michael Keaton, Jane Lynch, Carol Burnett), and question where her future was heading. All those distractions certainly did not distract me from the fact that the writer ran out of creative and meaningful ideas to really tackle the issue of unemployment after college. I liked the movie best when it focused on Bledel’s struggle in trying to define her career and encountering her rival (Catherine Reitman) from time to time. It’s a classic case of having emotional intelligence (Ryden) versus lacking one (her rival); it was so frustrating to me because the elements of making a smart movie were there but the writers didn’t take full advantage of putting them together in an insightful manner. I felt insulted that the film threw clichés right at me. I couldn’t care less about the kinda-sorta boyfriend and the sexy guy next door because if I wanted to watch a movie about that, I’d probably go see a film based on a Nicholas Sparks novel. I couldn’t care less about the family either because their side stories didn’t add up to anything. The performances were mediocre at best but I didn’t mind much because I was more concerned about how it was going to approach the main issue. For a character who was supposed to be prepared to face the world (with enthusiasm to spare), the movie felt unprepared to discuss the real issues. The writer and director should’ve assumed that smart people would see this film. Maybe then they would’ve challenged themselves not only to challenge us but also inspire.