The Innkeepers (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Since their boss was on vacation in Barbados, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) thought it would be a great idea to capture a concrete paranormal activity, via audio and video recordings, in the Yankee Pedlar Inn, its last weekend being open for business due to a lack of customers. The place had a reputation of being haunted by the spirit of Madeline O’Malley, a woman who committed suicide after her fiancé stood her up on their wedding day. The inn had only three guests: a woman (Alison Bartlett) with her son (Jake Ryan) in tow because she had a fight with her husband and an actress, Leanne (Kelly McGillis), who was supposed to attend a convention. During Claire’s graveyard shift, she might just get her wish of encountering a ghost as she started to hear sounds of someone playing the piano on the first floor. What I found most curious about “The Innkeepers,” written and directed by Ti West, was its willingness to spend time with its characters instead of focusing on delivering one scare after another. Because their job was not much of a challenge, Luke and Claire played practical jokes on one another and eventually we began to question whether their friendship was strictly professional. Both the flirtation and the old-fashioned inn had its charms to the point where I started to think it may not be too bad actually working there. Claire and Luke seemed to be fun people to hang out with, mainly in that they were able to deliver and endure pranks, and the place reminded me of an infant version of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” By focusing on the minutiae of the job: delivering towels, escorting a guest to his room, taking out the trash, our subconscious were able to create a mental map of the haunted inn. Inevitably, when the characters started to run away after encountering something rather unexplainable, we had an idea of where they may be running toward. The picture was so detail-oriented that we were even given a chance to explore, even for just a bit, Luke’s website, an archive of paranormal happenings in the Yankee Pedlar. The website, too, had its charm, resembling a now-extinct Expage template that reminded me of my former Lizzie McGuire website, tacky icons and all. The scares were scant but most were executed effectively. I enjoyed that they had variation. Sometimes we were able to see a ghost in the background. At times, though, it was front and center. But then there were other times when only the characters saw something. For instance, in one of the most effectively drawn-out scenes, Luke faced Claire as they sat in the basement and summoned Madeline. Claire began to look increasingly terrified and Luke asked, even though he might have had an idea, what was wrong. We were left to wonder whether it was just another prank or if there really was something behind Luke. However, the ending could have used some work not necessarily in terms of content, though it could have been much stronger, but pacing. It felt too rushed, Horror 101, which did not match the elegance and organic feel of the rest of the picture. Nevertheless, “The Innkeepers” was a nice treat because it treated us like we didn’t have ADD. It’s a fine example that subtlety mixed with charm goes a long way.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon) was now in seventh grade and began to set his eyes on Holly Hills (Peyton List), a girl who recently moved in town from Oregon. Unlike the first film, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules,” directed by David Bowers, focused more on the family. Specifically, Greg’s rocky relationship with Rodrick (Devon Bostick), his older brother, and their parents’ (Rachael Harris and Steve Zahn) attempts, one of which involved earning “Mom Bucks” where Greg and Rodrick could cash it in for real money, to get them to spend more time together. The sequel preserved what I enjoyed most from its predecessor. Greg was still snarky yet awkward, especially when he was next to Rowley (Robert Capron), his well-meaning best friend, sometimes self-centered, but completely sympathetic. He was a bit older now and I enjoyed the fact that he retained the lessons he learned from the last time we saw him. However, I thought it didn’t have the same magic as Greg’s experiences in the sixth grade because it was less adventurous with its storylines. In some ways, it worked. Since it was more focused, it had more time to explore the elements that kept the warring brothers apart. I could easily relate to Greg’s situation because my brother and I aren’t as close as I would like for us to be. Sometimes siblings, especially when they’re a couple of years apart, just don’t share the same interests. While the picture had its share of light-hearted scenes of Rodrick tormenting his little brother, there were enough serious moments to keep us interested. For instance, when Rodrick was prohibited by his parents to play with his band for the talent show, Rodrick, a character we were used to as someone who never took anything seriously, accepted the punishment with a heavy heart to the point where he bitterly told Greg that they might be brothers but they would never be friends. I admired that the material took the less convenient path by sometimes allowing its characters to regress to their old habits. However, there were times when I wished the story wasn’t always about the brothers because their antics eventually became redundant. Gordon and Capron had great chemistry and the hilarious scenes were of their characters recording a funny video so that they could post it on YouTube and get popular. Another memorable scene was the sleepover at Greg’s house which involved watching a campy horror movie called “The Foot.” When Gordon and Capron were side-by-side, I couldn’t help but smile. Based on Jeff Kinney’s book of the same name, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules” had moments of sitcom-like predictability but it was off-set by its manic energy, charm, and wit. Unlike most comedies made for the younger demographic, it earned its more heartwarming moments.
Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
Two very attractive assassins (Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt) decided to get married, unaware that the other worked for their agency’s rival. Five or six years into their marriage, they found out the truth and they were assigned to kill each other or else they would be the ones that would end up dead. I saw this movie back in 2005 but it was not at all what I remembered it to be. While it did have over-the-top and very in-your-face destructive action sequences, I did not expect it to have more than a handful of funny running jokes. Some of which included living in suburbia and adhering to its unstated rules, keeping their extracurricular activities a secret (or is their extracurricular activity their marriage?), the rut of being in a relationship where both are sick of trying to pretend to be normal and, most common of all, the increasing frustration on both parties when sex was taken out of the equation for quite some time. I thought the picture was at its peak in its first two-thirds when the characters were not aware of the truth and the decisions they had to face when finally found out each other’s true identities. It was painfully obvious that they weren’t going to kill each other (I thought it was hilarious that Jolie hit Pitt in the face multiple times but not vice-versa) but I had a good time picking sides regarding who would outsmart the other (I was on Jolie’s team). The two leads were very different and that’s the reason why the movie worked. Mr. Smith liked to have fun on the job and wasn’t afraid to detach from the plan and let his instincts take over. Mrs. Smith, on the hand, was very dedicated to sticking with the rules and was not willing to compromise both on and off the field. The last third was more or less a typical action picture where the protagonists tried to evade grenades, raining bullets and rocket launchers. I started to get bored but at least Pitt and Jolie looked good and it was obvious that they were having fun. As for the supporting actors like Vince Vaughn and Adam Brody, they did not bring much into the film but when they were on camera, it was a nice break from the deafening explosions and pots and pans hitting the floor. However, it would have been nice if there was some sort of twist involving those two. Written by Simon Kinberg and directed by Doug Liman, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” is a very commercial action movie that everybody can watch and have a good time. With movies like this, it’s easy to try too hard and difficult to be effortless. Fortunately, with Pitt and Jolie’s charm and a great script, the film was effortless when it came to balancing action, comedy and sexiness.
Just Wright (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
A physical therapist (Queen Latifah) in her mid-thirties couldn’t seem to find a guy who was right for her. They would go out on dates, have good conversations and have a nice time but at the end of the night, the guys would tell her that she would be an ideal girl friend but not an ideal romantic girlfriend. Perhaps it was because of her looks or perhaps she was way into sports. But maybe she just wasn’t their type. Who knows? Men usually don’t know what they want or what’s good for them. But one thing is for sure: I connected with the lead character the moment she appeared on screen because she was played by Latifah. She just oozes a certain honesty and it’s such a warm feeling so I couldn’t stop watching her and hearing her speak. Watching her get in her busted up car made me feel like I’m watching a friend I’ve known for a long time. When the lead character happened to bump into a basketball player (Common), as far as romantic comedies go, you knew that something would happen between them. But conflict started when her sexy best friend (Paula Patton), a golddigger, set her sights on the guy. Despite the fact that this film stuck to the romantic comedy conventions, I enjoyed it because I was in the mood for something light. There were some nice tweaks such as the golddigging friend not seen as evil by any means but she just had a dependent personality. I’m sure we all know women who couldn’t live without a man or couldn’t bear to not be in relationships. The picture had a consistently friendly air to it because Latifah’s character had the maturity to hold her tongue even though people said or did inconsiderate things toward her. In a way, she reminded me of myself on my best days but I admired her because it seemed like she was just that kind of person–always aware of the fact that people are flawed and they don’t mean half of the things they say because of their insecurities. However, I felt like the momentum of the movie stumbled a bit during the last twenty minutes. I felt like the movie could have tried harder to be a bit more original when dealing with the basketball player’s road to recovery from a knee injury and realizing which woman was the right one for him. Embracing the conventions doesn’t mean sticking with it all the way through. The material would have been stronger if it had that special element of surprise instead of just feeding us our own expectations. “Just Wright,” directed by Sanaa Hamri, had a number of flaws but just like people in our every day lives, we can learn to overlook such flaws because it’s so charming.
It’s Complicated (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Jane (Meryl Streep) and Jake (Alec Baldwin) had been divorced for ten years. In that time period, Jake married a much younger woman and Jane established herself as an independent woman by running her own business. But the two began having an affair during their son’s (Hunter Parrish) college graduation and that’s when things began to get complicated (and convoluted). The picture had good focus when it tried to explore the dynamics of the relationship between the two former married couple. There was a certain energy about it that felt fresh because the two actors were clearly having fun in their roles. The script may not have been as realistic as I would have liked but I found myself smiling at the fact that two people of a certain age could still be romantic and have fun. Streep and Baldwin had good chemistry because both were so colorful and both could deliver power in their scenes when they really needed to. I also enjoyed Jane’s relationship with her charming architect played by Steve Martin. Spending time with him made her realize things she’s somewhat forgotten such as letting go of control once in a while and just have fun. However, whenever the film shifted its focus to the impact of the romantic entanglements on the children, I just didn’t believe it. I found it difficult to accept the fact that none of the three children (not including John Krasinski as the future son-in-law who was sometimes amusing, sometimes distracting) had the maturity to accept the fact that former couples can fall for each other again. Haven’t they had past relationships themselves? They didn’t act their age (the youngest was in college) and I cringed at the scene when Streep was forced to explain and justify her decisions to them. I felt like all three of them had the same brain and I wished that they weren’t in it at all. The kids dragged the movie down instead of adding a new dimension to the story. However, I did admire the way the movie ended because, just like the three leads, it handled the complicated situation in a mature way and it was able to impart some sort of wisdom regarding trust and fragility of relationships. Written and directed by Nancy Meyers, “It’s Complicated” offers a nice perspective concerning people in their 50s and what it means to find and rediscover romance. I was glad that it took the time to focus solely on Streep and Baldwin initially and eventually just Streep and Martin. It highlighted the positive and negative qualities of both men and it explained why Streep was torn between them. “It’s Complicated” is not a bad movie because it has charm and is accessible. However, it too often suffered from almost tried-and-true sitcom-like set-ups especially the scenes involving the family.
While You Were Sleeping (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★
“While You Were Sleeping” was one of those romantic comedies in the 1990s with big stars, really cheesy soundtracks and even cheesier storylines. Sandra Bullock plays Lucy, a person who worked on a subway station as a token collector and fell in love with a stranger (Peter Gallagher) who she saw every day but he never paid her much attention. But when the stranger had an accident at the subway station, Lucy jumped in front of a moving train to save his life. The stranger fell into a coma and due to certain circumstances, the stranger’s family thought Lucy was the stranger’s fiancée. To top it all off, Lucy started to fall in love with the stranger’s brother (Bill Pullman) who was curious about Lucy’s true identity. Despite the movie being predictable and formulaic, I enjoyed it because of Bullock. Her charm rescued this picture; she was so good at being vulnerable and her charm mixed with perfect comedic timing and geekiness was refreshing. A movie like this, let alone a star as charming as she is, is hard to come by nowadays. Even though Lucy lied to the family, we couldn’t help but root for her because she was a good person but she didn’t have a family or any close friends. Another reason why I liked the movie was Bullock and Pullman’s chemistry. There was something about the way that they looked in each other’s eyes and interacted with each other that made me feel warm and almost giggly. Since the source of the tension between them was obvious, I think I would have rolled my eyes and rejected the romance angle if the two lacked chemistry. Everything about this movie was nice (except for the obnoxious “real” fiancée but I’m glad she didn’t have much screen time) and if one was familiar with movies like “You’ve Got Mail” and “Sleepless in Seattle,” one would know exactly what to expect from this movie. “While You Were Sleeping,” directed by Jon Turteltaub, managed to get away with relying on the conventions of a romantic comedy because it embraced its genre to the fullest. It wasn’t trying to be edgy or ironic or shocking; it just allowed its actors do what they do best and it worked. These days, romantic comedies almost always consist of teenagers or twentysomethings and those movies often rely on sex or gay jokes. “While You Were Sleeping” is a PG-rated movie that features thirtysomethings who happen to have intelligence and maturity despite the issue of mistaken identities.
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.