Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
I heard about Justin Bieber in 2009, on YouTube, and thought he was some eleven-year-old kid who could sing really well. After a couple of months, he became an international sensation thanks to rabid pre-teen and teenage girls. Directed by John Chu, “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” documented the events that led up to Bieber’s performance in the coveted Madison Square Garden. Performing on that stage in a sold-out show established the peak of his career. The film started off strong because it gave me information I didn’t already know. It showed us personal videos before he was discovered by Scooter Braun. As a kid, he had a natural talent for playing drums, guitar, and he could sing songs from various genres with relative ease. There were also some interesting moments when Bieber revisited places in his hometown where he used to perform to get noticed. Where he used to play guitar now stood a little girl playing violin. We learned that he was very close with his grandparents, especially his grandfather, and he was just like a regular kid when he returned home. However, the documentary lost its fast-paced energy as the performance in Madison Square Garden got closer. A stand-out scene was when the film actually showed us the famous Bieber hair flip in slow motion. It was cheeky and I was glad the material wasn’t above that because the hair, arguably, was one of the reasons why the pop star reached superstardom. While the picture cited some of his struggles like contracting an infection in his throat, I didn’t understand why the director failed to isolate his subject and interview him. Instead, the adults around him did the talking. It was obvious that they were hardworking people and they cared about the business but I wanted to hear what Justin had to say. The adults spoke of having a plethora of record labels refusing to be in business with Bieber but the more interesting information was how Justin felt at the time. After traveling across the country which led to so many dead-ends, did he feel frustrated, angry, or disappointed? We didn’t know. The documentary was supposed to be about Bieber so I found it strange and somewhat maddening that he was never asked questions about how he felt, for instance, about having to do over a hundred shows per year and rarely taking a break. He claimed he wanted to make it to every single show. If he was a robot, I would believe him. Instead, I had a sneaky suspicion there was something more to his story. When he was given a chance to speak, it was always somewhere along the lines of, “Go after your dreams!” I just couldn’t help but feel restless. Perhaps the managers were concerned about Bieber saying something he would regret later on. But, in my opinion, if they did have such reservations, why make the movie at all? The most likely answer is money. I’m afraid Beliebers would see this film and retain the idea that celebrity happens overnight. I enjoyed the first forty-five minutes but the rest felt too idealistic, too superficial.
Dead Snow (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
The Norwegian horror-comedy “Død snø,” or “Dead Snow,” told the story of eight medical students (Lasse Valdal, Vegar Hoel, Stig Frode Henriksen, Charlotte Frogner, Evy Kasseth Røsten, Jeppe Laursen, Jenny Skavlan, Ane Dahl Torp) who decided to go to a cabin up in the snowy mountains over Easter break. Little did they know that the land covered in ice had a history of Nazi occupation and that those Nazis turned into zombies. They only found out about the land’s history when a creepy stranger (Bjørn Sundquist) dropped in on them in the middle of the night. I love zombie flicks so I just had to see this movie even though the synopses I read sounded a bit cheesy. As cheesy as the movie was, I did like it in parts because I thought it managed to capture the eerieness of being in the middle of nowhere and all we could hear was the wind and all we could see were endless land of ice. In a way, the very isolated environment reminded me of a hybrid between “The Thing” and “The Blair Witch Project.” Unfortunately, the setting and the occasional effective scares toward the beginning were the only elements that kept this movie afloat. Perhaps I was lost in translation (I did see the movie with subtitles) but I just did not find the jokes to be funny. In fact, I felt like it was trying too hard, kind of like the American teen slasher flicks. I’m not quite sure if the movie was trying to be ironic by featuring medical students who are not very bright or lacking survival skills and instincts. But what I am sure of is the fact that it became the kind of movie that it was trying to poke fun of. A lot of horror-comedies fall into that trap and this one is no exception. I found the middle portion too stagnant–it felt like it didn’t know where it was going. Nazi zombies that could think and take orders was an original idea but the execution lacked tension. I really hated it when the characters would make jokes at each other when they were aware that a zombie was only a few feet from them. It worked for “Shaun of the Dead” because it wore its cheekiness on its sleeve but it did not work in “Dead Snow” because there were times when it aimed for seriousness. If I saw a zombie, I would either try to kill it (depending on its size and what kind of killing tool I have in my hands–yes, I’ve thought about this) or run like I’ve never ran in my life. Perhaps fans of gore and limbs flying everywhere might enjoy this zombie film. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite buy the universe that the characters were in. “Død snø,” written and directed by Tommy Wirkola, should have just been a straight-up horror picture. If it did, I probably would have liked it a lot more.
Sex and the City 2 (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
It’s been two years since the first highly successful “Sex and the City” movie and the same amount of time had passed since Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Big’s (Chris Noth) wedding. Written and directed by Michael Patrick King, the four best friends–Carrie, Samantha (Kim Cattrall), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) and Charlotte (Kristin Davis)–decided to go to Abu Dhabi for an all-expenses-paid trip because they figured they could use a break from their respective battles regarding career, marriage, having kids, and menopause in New York City. As usual, hilarity and drama ensued when the girls visited bars, talked about sex and faced their problems before heading home. Although not as glamorous as the first (though it certainly did try), I enjoyed this installment because it took us somewhere new, featured a culture other than New York City’s, and there were moments of real sensitivity such as when Miranda and Charlotte talked about their frustrations about work and raising kids. I liked that it didn’t try too hard to top the first movie except for the very cheeky, self-aware, over-the-top gay wedding (with Liza Minnelli singing and dancing to “Single Ladies”) in the first twenty minutes. However, there were some elements that I felt were unnecessary like the appearance of a former lover (John Corbett) that was solely and conveniently designed to make Carrie realize how much she really loved Big and how petty she was for worrying about becoming a “boring couple.” Most of the lessons were pretty obvious (at least to me) but the main reason why I’m a fan is because of the fashion and the glamour. I guess most people don’t realize that the whole thing is supposed to be a farce. I mean, who in their right minds would wear designer clothing in the middle of the desert? It irks me when I read reviews from both critics and audiences concerning the movie’s characters being shallow and the plot being unrealistic. But I guess the joke is on them if they come into the movie expecting the events to reflect real life. For me, “Sex and the City 2” delivered the goods because I got exactly what I signed up for: about two and a half hours to escape my problems and realize how good my life is in comparison. At first glance, these women might be bathing in jewelry, expensive clothes and ridiculously well-designed apartments but they have so much unhappiness in their lives. Sometimes, they even create their own problems in order to make their lives more interesting. As for those who claimed that the movie was politically incorrect, I say it’s nothing new. In fact, the television show flourished because it was exactly that–politically incorrect. “Sex and the City 2” is a good movie to watch with your best gal friends because it’s not just about romantic relationships but also friendship. I just wished that the guys (David Eigenberg, Evan Handler, Jason Lewis) were in it more so we could see things from men’s perspectives from time to time.
The Final Destination (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Arguably the weakest of the first four movies, “The Final Destination” was about four friends (Bobby Campo, Shantel VanSanten, Nick Zano, Haley Webb) who escaped death during a horrific accident at the racetrack. Just like the first three movies, one of them began to see the future and after they escaped their grizzly demise (for the time being), they desperately tried to break the chain in which spelled out the order they were supposed to die. After the first three films when the characters’ strategy of “breaking the chain” did not work, one would think that the writers would come up with a better way of cheating death. After all, if you keep doing what you’re doing, you’re going keep getting what you’re getting. Other than watching the creative ways in which the characters die, I found everything else about this film to be completely recycled. The acting certainly didn’t help elevate the movie because everyone was either underacting or overacting. They looked good but that was about it. Since the actors didn’t embody their characters, I had a hard time believing that they were really in trouble. However, I did like the fact that it made fun of itself during the last twenty to thirty minutes. The final showdown which involved the characters being in a theatre watching a 3D movie with those big (sometimes annoying) glasses was pretty amusing. If I had seen this movie in the cinema, I think people would have laughed because it was so silly. I think that this installment would have been better if it had balanced its silliness with real horror such as in “Final Destination” and “Final Destination 2” (which I think is better than the first). After all, there’s irony in the details in which one dies and ironies have a certain cheekiness to them. If there is going to be a fifth installment (which there most likely will be), I hope that the writers would change the gimmick–specifically the tired “breaking the chain” scheme. We all know that it doesn’t work so they should try something else. What’s the point of us watching a movie if in the end the characters are doomed? There’s just no fun in it. At best, it leaves us scratching our heads. “The Final Destination,” directed by David R. Ellis, is not a terrible movie because it does have redeeming qualities scattered throughout. With its running time of about eighty minutes, at least it didn’t feel like a two-hour movie and it didn’t take itself seriously.
In the Loop (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
“In the Loop,” directed by Armando Iannucci, was a political satire about the United States president and the United Kingdom prime minister agreeing on starting war and the varying reactions of people who work for their respective governments. I wasn’t sure whether I was going to understand this movie coming into it because I’m (admittedly) not very knowledgeable about politics. I mean, I have my opinions but I’m not aware of how specific things work and the specific roles of the people in charge. So I was surprised when I found myself laughing out loud at the American and British jokes that this film had to offer. The characters were fast-taking, poison-spitting loons who run around trying to achieve something but ended up being (at least in my opinion) not doing anything at all. For me, everyone stood out–from Tom Hollander as the minister of international development who kept saying the wrong things to the media, Peter Capaldi as the very intense and downright scary communications director, Chris Addison as the meek political damage control person, Mimi Kennedy as a pro-war, type A lady who nobody wants to mess with, to James Gandolfini as an anti-war general who commands attention when he enters the room. I loved the exaggeration of this picture because then it allowed those who aren’t as into politics to be in on the jokes. Another element that really helped was the way the writers wrapped the political commentaries in pop culture candy. References were made right after another and I absorbed every minute of it. (I found really refreshing because I haven’t experienced so much pop culture references in under an hour since the “Gilmore Girls” era.) However, about three-quarter into the picture, I wondered whether there really was a story. I somewhat got tired of the bantering, people running around and acting crazy. Yes, it was very fast-paced but I found myself needing a breather from everything that was going on. The next thing I knew, the movie was over without a defined falling action. Perhaps I was too caught up on the screaming and yelling. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s more of a personal taste but I mention it here because it really threw me off. I’m giving this film a recommendation because it was funnier than I expected it would be. Although I must warn those looking for a core story not to expect much because “In the Loop” is pretty much one funny scene after another that has a bucketload of razor-sharp wit and a healthy dose of cheekiness.
Broken Embraces (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Los abrazos rotos” or “Broken Embraces,” written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, was about a blind writer named Harry Caine (Lluís Homar) who began to tell a story about a love affair he had in the 1990s with a beautiful actress (Penélope Cruz) to the son (Tamar Novas) of his agent/manager (Blanca Portillo). The affair was riddled with sneaking around, feigning emotions, and spying because the actress had a boyfriend (José Luis Gómez) who eventually became aware of the situation with the help of his gay son (Rubén Ochandiano) who had a penchant for the videocamera. When I dive into an Almodóvar picture, I expect melodrama, complex storytelling, interesting use of camera angles, vibrant colors, and passionate characters. On that level, I strongly believe that the film delivered. However, it didn’t quite exceed my expectations. I think this is the kind of film that requires multiple viewing on my part because there were times in the picture where I found myself confused with what was happening (notably the middle portion). Although it eventually started coming together toward the end because certain characters stopped holding onto their secrets, it didn’t change the fact that I had to take myself out of the experience for several seconds to figure out where everybody else stood. That lack of flow was the main reason why I didn’t quite love “Broken Embraces.” I admired that this film strived not to fit into one genre. Sometimes it was comedic, sometimes gloomy but there were times when it was thrilling; the director’s use of shadows and the way he used the build-up of tension were very noir-like (particularly the stairs scene–a definite stand-out) and almost Hitchcockian. “Broken Embraces” was teeming with ideas. If the director made a film from each genre he tackled, I’d be interested in watching them as well. I was fascinated with how the characters became so engulfed in their passions to the point where they weren’t even aware that they were ultimately hurting themselves. I couldn’t help but get into the lives of the characters because each of them had passion in their eyes and the way they expressed themselves via body movements. Each of them had a purpose and none of them was a simply caricature. I could feel Almodóvar’s passion for filmmaking in every frame. I just wished that he made sure that the audiences could follow his vision without a significant amount of mental acrobatics because there was already a lot going on.