Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
Some people claimed that this was better than the original “Madagascar” flick but I found it to be on the same level–funny here and there but doesn’t add up to anything genuinely deep. Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith and David Schwimmer lend their voices once again as Alex the Lion, Marty the Zebra, Gloria the Hippo and Melman the Giraffe, respectively. The animal pals wanted to return to New York’s Central Park Zoo but their plane crashed in the middle of an African animal reserve. In there, each of them find a niche, at least for a little while, until they eventually started questioning their identities and what was really important to them. I had the same problems with this film as I did with its predecessor. I thought it started out really great but then after the thirty-minute mark, I found myself not caring and questioned how far I was into the movie. The pacing began to feel a little too slow for my liking and I noticed more and more the film’s glaring flaws. While the picture provided a healthy amount of pop culture references, it did not have enough originality to be more than just another wannabe “Shrek.” Just when I thought it was going to start delving more into the characters’ motivations and inner fears, some random thing would appear on screen and it left me frustrated. What kept me from going off the deep end, however, was its interesting use of word play. Some of those things may go over kids’ heads but adults should get it. I just wished that the story was much stronger. At times I thought I was watching a really bad sequel of “The Lion King” instead of an animated film that has a life of its own. If there happens to be another sequel for the “Madagascar” franchise, I hope the filmmakers tone down the jokes that have nothing to do with its universe and focus more on the emotions rather than the obvious slapstick consisting of jokes related to bodily functions. I know that this is mostly aimed for kids and some of the kids I’ve asked who have seen it said they liked it. Ultimately, I’m giving it a mediocre rating because it really didn’t try to step outside of its comfort zone.
★★ / ★★★★
Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell and George MacKay star in “Defiance,” directed by Edward Zwick, as four Jewish brothers who escape from the place where they used to live due to the implementation of the Final Solution. The four seek refuge in the forest as they welcome (though at times reluctantly) other Jewish people. Soon, they become a community; and as with all new communities, problems ensue such as rationing of food, who deserves what, what is allowed and what is not, who the leader should be and so on. Although the audiences get a lot of scenes when the Germans attack the Jews and vice-versa, I really could care less about those scenes. I was actually more interested in the dynamics within the small community such as the differing ways of leadership between Craig and Schreiber. While I found it difficult to align myself with one or the other, I thought it was great because I was engaged with what was going on as well as surprised when they would suddenly change their stance regarding a particular issue. I also liked the scenes when everyone would starve and get diseases in the dead of winter. It’s not that I like watching people suffer but it’s more about being concerned and wondering who will make it in the end and who wouldn’t. Although this was inspired by a true story, admittedly, I didn’t know much about the Bielski brothers so I didn’t know how it would end. What prevents me from giving this film a recommendation is that it all too often becomes generic. With such a unique subject matter, I feel like it took the safer route in order to appeal to wider audiences. It also had too many fighting scenes when it really didn’t need to because it already has a poignant story to tell. Still, there’s some scenes worth seeing here such as when Zwick showed that people are people–that is, monstrosity can be committed by both the Germans and the Jews. I wish this had been a much stronger film because it really is important to recognize what the Bielski brothers have done for the Jewish community. But perhaps the gesture is enough.
(500) Days of Summer (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I am more than happy to say that one of the most outstanding pictures of the year (so far) is a romantic comedy. However, it is far from a typical one. The always impressive Joseph Gordon-Levitt (“Latter Days,” “Mysterious Skin,” “Brick,” “The Lookout”) plays Tom Hansen, a greeting card writer who has a passion for architecture but never quite followed it due to some of life’s circumstances. The lovely Zooey Deschanel (“Almost Famous,” “Elf,” “Flakes,” “The Happening”) plays Summer Finn, a new secretary who does not believe in the concept of love and values independence to the fullest. The two are complete opposites, which serves as an ideal template for romance with genuinely awkward moments on the side. But as the film warns us during the first three minutes, it is not a love story, which can mean that a happy ending may not be on the horizon.
The movie was told in a non-linear sequence. It started with Tom confiding to his precocious sister (Chloe Moretz) and two best friends/apartment-mates (Geoffrey Arend, Matthew Gray Gubler) about his fear that his relationship with Summer might be over. I liked the fact that the film immediately jumped into getting to know the characters. That scene showed that Tom was not your typical macho guy who considered girls as mere conquests; he actually had a heart, a brain, and a soul, someone who was not afraid to cry and fall apart in front of people who mattered to him most. That sense of efficiency pervaded the 95-minute running time as it jumped from the 300th day to day 1 and back to 164th. As the audiences jumped back and forth in time, we get a fuller picture about the dynamics (and not always reciprocal feelings) between Tom and Summer. He slowly realized that Summer was someone who he could never have no matter how much effort he tried to put into the relationship because Summer simply did not feel the same way. But I liked the fact that the picture did not make Summer look like a bad person. Like Tom, she had her own values and ethics and varying capability to do good and bad things. Marc Webb, the director, always strived for complexity with regards to characterization and I appreciated his efforts because most romantic comedies of today are too sugary, one-dimensional, or the characters become more like caricatures instead of reflecting actual individuals in the world. In my opinion, Webb managed to capture how it was like for a twentysomething to feel lost in the world but still have that glimmer of hope that things would ultimately turn out for the better. Maturity is one of this film’s biggest strengths and it was always at the forefront.
There were some storytelling techniques that could either annoy audiences and think that the picture was being somewhat pretentious or impress audiences in every way. I was one of the latter group for several reasons. I absolutely loved the foreign language scene because I thought it represented the disconnect between Tom and Summer. I think it served as a metaphor when two people are constantly at odds to the point where they stop trying to understand each other because every sentence of justification feels like a foreign language. Another scene that stood out to me was when Tom attended Summer’s party. The split-screen between what Tom hoped would happen and what actually happened had a great balance of comedy and tragedy. And I think it painfully reflects real life. There were a lot of similarities between the two split-screens but there were also a plethora of glaring differences and others were quite subtle. Lastly, I admit that I am not a very big fan of dancing in movies but it worked here. It was amusing when Tom, because of extreme happiness that he cannot express with words, started dancing in the park and everyone else started joining him (including an animated bird!). Such scenes mentioned proved to me that this was an edgy picture with a purpose, which was different than an indie movie simply trying to be edgy for the sake of being different.
In a nutshell, “(500) Days of Summer” is a picture for movie lovers who love watching films showcasing real-life instead of films imitating real-life. There is a subtle but important difference between the two and this one is well aware of that line it daringly treads. By the end, others may be saddened by Tom’s journey from naiveté to awareness or be uplifted with the possibilities that face him. I belong with the latter because I believe in the necessity of sacrifices for the learning experience. This is the twenty-first century “Annie Hall” and it should definitely not be missed.
He’s Just Not That Into You (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
This ensemble comedy, directed by Ken Kwapis, tells the intersecting story of late twentysomethings to early thirtysomethings as they endure the challenges that come with their romantic interests. Ginnifer Goodwin seems to have the worst radar when it comes to whether or not guys are truly interested in her. One day, she meets Justin Long and believes that he’s romantically interested in her despite his just-friends-and-nothing-else inclinations toward her (talk about not learning from her mistakes). For me, that was the best part of this movie because Goodwin gave out this certain enthusiastic energy that made me want to root for her even though she might seem a bit desperate and awkward at times. I loved the scenes when she would literally wait by the phone for a call from a guy that she had dinner with only once. Her worries poured into her workplace as her co-workers (Jennifer Connelly, Jennifer Aniston–each having a story of her own) consoled her. My second favorite storyline was Aniston and Ben Affleck’s. The two are in love and living together but they’re not married because Affleck doesn’t believe in marriage. This bothers Aniston’s character, especially when the topic of marriage comes up (the conflict was amplified when she heard about her sister getting married), but she tries to conceal her emotions with all her might. However, during the scenes when she couldn’t handle it anymore, I felt a genuine sadness for her character and I wanted to know more about her. Unfortunately, her storyline did not get as much screen time. The love triangle between Connelly, Bradley Cooper (who happen to be married) and Scarlett Johansson, I thought, was the weakest link. Though I did feel for Connelly’s character because both of us like to fix or organize things when things start to feel out of control, her storyline felt like it did not fit the movie. It was much more depressing than the other two mentioned. Not to mention Johansson is doing her pouty thing again and having an affair. In a nutshell, that storyline left me disinterested. I thought that the first part of the film was much stronger than the second half. The former was genuinely funny, fast-paced and offered a handful of interesting questions about why men and women are the way they are. The latter is the complete antithesis. If the director got rid of Connelly’s storyline, elaborated more on Aniston’s, and injected more of Drew Barrymore’s conflict with dating and technology, we would have a superior picture. Instead, we got a mediocre film that somewhat felt like (or tried to be like) “Love Actually” but considerably less charming.
The Big Feast (1973)
★ / ★★★★
“La Grande Bouffe,” or “The Big Feast,” directed by Marco Ferreri, was such a huge disappointment for me because I’ve heard a lot of good things about it, especially from critics and bloggers that I look up to for recommendations. Since my expectations were a bit hyped up, while actually watching it, it was such a letdown because the characters that came from different backgrounds–a pilot (Marcello Mastroianni), a chef (Ugo Tognazzi), a judge (Philippe Noiret) and a television star (Michel Piccoli)–were so uninteresting for such an interesting premise. The four friends hired prostitutes and had orgies in a massive getaway mansion as they ate more food than they could digest in one sitting. Just when I thought that the story would evolve into something more, I felt like it actually tried to stay in one place and featured more images of sex and gluttony. Admittedly, I’m the kind of person that can endure watching pretty much all kinds of sexual acts but this film made me wince repeatedly. I’m not quite sure if that was the kind of reaction that the director had it mind or if it was supposed to be genuinely sensual or erotic. But since it’s a dark comedy, I’m guessing it’s the former so perhaps, in a way, it succeeded on that level. Morever, for having such a group of supposedly smart gentlemen, they sure acted like adolescent morons for most of the picture. I didn’t see any scenes where any of them offered some sort of insight that made me think of their situation (or any situation for that matter) any differently. I felt like writers just had this one idea of excess but never quite broken from that in order to reach the next level. (And for a picture that ran for more than two hours, there was absolutely no excuse for that.) I also did not appreciate the slapstick that involved scenes with flatulence and excrement. I’m not a big fan of slapstick in the first place because they tend to rub me the wrong way so this film became that much worse in my book. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, the final scenes that revealed the fate of the four main characters felt completely forced and I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. It was a complete waste of my time and I almost wished I never saw it.