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.
Peter and Vandy (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Jay DiPietro, “Peter and Vandy” (Jason Ritter and Jess Weixler, respectively) told the story of a couple who initially got along great during the beginning of their relationship but as time went on, the little things that bothered them about each other erupted into big fights and it got to the point where they could no longer stand each other. Told in a non-linear manner, since we started in the middle, we immediately get to see the turning point of their relationship and determine what exactly went wrong as the story inched toward how they met and how they broke up. The more I watch Jason Ritter’s films, the more I am convinced that he knows how to pick independent projects with potential–projects with a certain quiet power that movse and makes me think beyond what was presented on screen. I liked the fact that DiPietro had characters who were charming and likeable but flawed. Therefore, it makes it difficult to pick sides regarding who was in the right or wrong. The scene that stood out to me most was the peanut butter and jelly scene. It was emotionally devastating because everyone knows that what they were fighting about was not about how to properly make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was about how suffocated the characters were of each other. It was about the fragility of the front they put up just so that they wouldn’t have to argue especially when they took up the same space 24/7. It was also about how two people are just not right for each other and no amount of effort could change that fact. Although that scene was very confrontational, oddly enough, I found it to be amusing as well. I was impressed with how something so serious could have elements of silliness. Like the highly successful “(500) Days of Summer,” this film relied on two things: the non-linear structure that aims to reveal its many layers and the strong acting. The two leads know how to use their eyes to convey a specific emotion which differs from the words coming out of their mouths. In other words, the movie treated its audiences with respect because it didn’t settle on the obvious. Although definitely not one of the most romantic movies, I think “Peter and Vandy” is a good movie to watch during Valentine’s Day or whatever-month anniversaries because it was painfully honest in its portrayal of modern relationships. Instead of showing us just the good, it shows us the bad as well which sometimes makes our relationships stronger once we overcome the hurdles. With a running time of only eighty minutes, “Peter and Vandy” was effecient with its time and I actually wanted it to last longer because I wanted to know more about the characters.
Julie & Julia (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
I really enjoyed this movie even though I’m not much of a cook (though I do absolutely love eating) because it was able paint a portrait of two women from very different times but with significant similarities. The film was definitely full of charm and it was funny. Meryl Streep, a chameleon as usual, played Julia Child, a woman who was at first lost when it came to what she wanted to accomplish in life. However, she knew that she didn’t want to be just another housewife who lived to serve her husband. So, with the love and support from her husband (Stanley Tucci), Julia eventually decided to attend a cooking class and worked her way up to publish a book called “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Fast-forward to 2002, Amy Adams played Julie Powell, a woman who worked for the government in a cubicle who was mostly unhappy with her career. After observing how busy and accomplished her friends were, she decided to make a blog: in a span of one year, she was going to cook all of Julia’s recipes. I don’t consider this a spoiler so I’m going to say that she succeeded. She was eventually able to publish a book called “Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen” even though the journey was quite rocky due to her own self-doubt, sometimes unrealistic expectations, and rising tension between her and her very patient and supportive husband (Chris Messina). This movie made me smile from start to finish because of the two leads. Even though Adams and Streep did not interact at all, their commonalities were enough for me to be emotionally invested in the picture. I commend Nora Ephron, the director, because there was something very modern about the style of the movie yet it didn’t sacrifice its substance. I loved looking at the food and I could literally smell their delicious scent whenever they were on screen. The only major criticism I have was that its pace somewhat faltered in the middle. It lost some of its urgency, a feeling that dominated the first and the last thirty minutes. Nevertheless, I thought watching “Julie & Julia” was a very pleasant experience because it really highlighted the passion that Julie and Julia had not only for food but also accomplishing something that they could be proud of. Speaking of being proud of something, Julie reminded me of myself when I started blogging in the early 2000s. The rush she felt when she finally received her first comment on her blog made me feel very nostalgic so I couldn’t help but have this big smile on my face well beyond five minutes after the scene was over. I thought Ephron and Adams really captured, at least from my experience, how it was like to put something out there and have people read it. That theme of connection was nicely explored in this film and it made me feel warm and inspired (not to mention hungry).
Whip It (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
I liked Drew Barrymore’s directoral debut “Whip It” starring Ellen Page but I think it held back when it came to really delivering something different. I loved that the film was about a teeanger who was constantly forced by her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) to participate in pageants only to realize later that she was more interested in roller derby. I thought it was refreshing because there are way too many teen movies out there that focus on (and even glamorize) girly girls and how life is so very hard for them. Give me a break. Seeing tough, rebellious girls on screen, I can identify with them a lot more so I was interested with what was going on in their livies. I thought the first part of this movie was stronger because it was all about pulling away from something the lead character did not believe in and finding something she thought was not only fun but also cathartic. I felt for her wish concerning getting out of the small town she lived in and leading her life however she wanted to. And it helped that Page just had that natural I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude going on. I loved watching the roller derby competition as they busted out interesting tactics to gain points. (I got giddy whenever they pulled out that whip strategy.) But the second half was problematic because it succumbed to the typicality of other teen film fares. For instance, Page’s deteriorating relationship with her best friend, the parents finding out about their daughter’s secret “extracurricular activities,” and finding out about the true colors of a boy the lead character fell for. I’ve seen it all before and I didn’t want to see it in this movie because all I wanted was to have fun. I enjoyed the supporting characters such as Kristen Wiig, Eve, Juliette Lewis, Zoe Bell and Drew Barrymore. Barrymore had small scenes here and there; she stole the spotlight every single time and I almost wished that she had a bigger role. With a running time of two hours, it felt that long at times because the forced dramatic arcs became the forefront somewhere in the middle. Nevertheless, I’ll give “Whip It” a light recommendation because I thought it was enjoyable to watch despite its big flaws. Perhaps with more experience directing, Barrymore can one day create a picture that’s more focused and not resting on recycled material while still telling a story about characters that have some sort of a charming edginess going on.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, “Ponyo” (also known as “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea”) tells the story of a princess goldfish (Noah Cyrus) who truly wants to become human. After escaping from her father (Liam Neeson) whose job is to maintain balance in the natural world, she meets a five-year-old boy named Sosuke (Frankie Jonas) and instantly falls for him. Although I very much enjoyed this latest film from Miyazaki, I don’t think it’s his finest work. The story is beyond cute, the characters’ motivations are easy to understand, the world has a sense of wonder, and the situations the characters are put in have enough danger in them to make the audiences want to root for the characters to succeed. In a nutshell, it’s the perfect movie for kids and adults because it’s highly entertaining. However, I wasn’t as emotionally invested in it as I was when I saw “Spirited Away” for the first time. It must be noted that I saw the dubbed version of this animated picture in theaters so perhaps some of the dialogue was lost in translation. But I wanted a more insightful story regarding the characters. Earlier in the film, there was this tension between Sosuke’s mother (Tina Fey) and father (Matt Damon) because his father was always away at sea. There was a certain innocence and genuine comedy when the mother and father were trying to communicate in morse code by using lights. I wanted more of those situational family moments because then the film becomes that much more personal. What I really liked was that the message about the environment and how we must do our best to take care of it but it the message was never heavy-handed. Such messages were simply shown on the screen as tons of garbage were being collected from the ocean floor and ocean creatures were suffering in more ways imaginable (including the title character). Despite some of the very small negatives I mentioned, I still think this is a very strong film about a creature who tried her best to reach her dreams. “The Little Mermaid” comparisons are justified because of the premise but one shouldn’t imply that it doesn’t rise above the template. In fact, Miyazaki’s signature style of being unbound by realism was constantly at the forefront here. Therefore, every image we get (and the emotions that come with them) is very inspired and it’s very difficult to resist its charm.
The Proposal (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
I was very pleased with this romantic comedy because it more than satisfied my somewhat high expectations. I didn’t think Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds would have any sort of chemistry if they were to star in a movie together but that was quickly proven wrong after I saw the trailer for “The Proposal” for the first time. Bullock plays the dragon-lady editor in a publishing company who pretty much everyone hates and/or fears. Reynolds plays her charming, dryly comedic and sarcastic assistant. When Bullock was called in by her superiors and told her that she was going to be deported back to Canada due to her expired visa (and therefore lose her job), Reynolds came in at a perfect time with just the right words for his boss to think of the idea that they should get married. In return for her citizenship, he would get a promotion and everyone was going to end up happily ever after. But that was before they actually started to genuinely feel something for each other. What I loved about this film was its ability to completely embrace the conventions of the romantic comedy genre that involves two completely different types of people who dislike each other, yet at the same have that certain charm to make the movie feel fresh. Without Bullock’s cold persona (which I found to be completely different from her usual “cheery-hyper” girl roles like in “Two Weeks Notice” and “Miss Congeniality”) with just a drop of humanity and Reynolds’ perfect timing of certain facial expressions and intonations in his voice, this probably would have been just another forgettable sweet movie without any sort of edge to keep me engaged. I also enjoyed the supporting characters such as Betty White, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, and Oscar Nuñez as Reynolds’ grandmother, mother, father and the town guy who seems to be everywhere, respectively. Directed by Anne Fletcher (“27 Dresses,” “Step Up”), “The Proposal” is surprisingly sensitive during its more serious scenes but there’s enough comedy, from light chuckles to hysterical laughters, for it to be completely believable. It also features several stand-out scenes that I couldn’t help but think of on the car ride home. I can only hope that Bullock and Reynolds would star in the same movie sooner. Their funny bickering/jesting scenes are well worth the admission ticket.
Marley & Me (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Marley & Me” was based on a memoir by John Grogan starring Owen Wilson (as Grogan) and Jennifer Aniston (as Grogan’s wife). Wanting to start a family, Wilson and Aniston adopt a Labrador Retriever for two hundred dollars. As Marley grows up, the two leads learn a plethora of life lessons ranging from the dynamics of marriage, balancing job with personal life, raising a family, and staying true to one’s self. Although Marley is not exactly the most well-behaved dog, his energy, ability to destroy furniture and inability to follow his owners’ rules are qualities that make him charming. Although the film is cute and cuddly at first glance, I must give credit to David Frankel, the director, for actually telling a story under the sugar and fluff. Wilson and Aniston were actually given things to do such as when they had to deal with trying to have children and sacrificing their careers. There were moments in the film that carried real dramatic weight because we not only care about the dog but also the dog’s owners. We were able to see how the owners were like when they were on the top of the world and when they were feeling ashamed and defeated. The film was around two hours long and sometimes it seemed to drag on. However, when the final few scenes arrived, I realized that it worked in its favor. I was able to look back on the things that happened when Marley was just a clearance puppy and Aniston and Wilson didn’t have children yet. Although the ending was a bit depressing, it was necessary because this movie was ultimately about celebrating life. I was surprisingly moved by this film because it made me look back on my own life and the choices I’ve made that got me to where I am. “Marley & Me” is not just about a cute dog. There’s a well-defined emotional core and that’s why I was invested in it from beginning to end. Dog-lovers will definitely enjoy this picture.