Puss in Boots (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
There was word going around that Jack (voiced by Billy Bob Thornton) and Jill (Amy Sedaris), outlaws and lovers, had three magical beans in their possession. If planted in the right spot at the right time, they were to grow for miles and lead to a giant’s castle where a giant goose laid golden eggs. Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) figured that if he were to purloin the eggs and donate them to the small town where he was raised in an orphanage, he would no longer be a wanted cat. Despite his reluctance, Puss eventually teamed up with Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) and Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), the sword, the skill, and the brain of the mission, respectively. “Puss in Boots,” directed by Chris Miller, was a thoroughly enjoyable animated film because the fairy tales in question were incorporated in such a way that the filmmakers were able to add their unique spin yet keep the essence of what made them such memorable fables. For example, instead of Jack and Jill being portrayed as cute kids, they were shown as corpulent, greedy adults with pigs as children. Despite their unexpected appearance, there were some funny bits taken from the nursery rhyme which were convincing enough for us to believe that the two of them were the Jack and Jill who tumbled down the hill. The picture had a lot of energy especially in executing its action sequences. The battle between Jack and Jill and Puss, Kitty, and Humpty in the desert was intense and exciting. Although the road was extremely windy, the battle sequence was flawlessly edited. We knew exactly what was happening and why; the crafty twists and jokes that surrounded that chase made the experience all the more fun. Although I enjoyed the animation in general, with its variegation in style that consistently complemented specific environs, I feel that I have to single out Humpty Dumpty. I never thought an egg could amuse me so much. Although the character had wicked sense of humor (he was deathly unable to jump off small steps), I was regaled by his movements: the way he walked, wobbled, and rolled down a hill. His facial expressions were, at times, slightly creepy, but I can’t imagine anyone not being tickled at the sight of Humpty being caught up in all sorts of trouble balancing while in the middle of high-stakes chases. I wished, however, the movie had less scenes of Puss and Kitty dancing. I understood that the two cats had to flirt for the sake of cute puns, but whenever they had to dance, whether it was for fun or competition, it felt like filler. A twenty-second dance sequence would have more than sufficed. A total of five- to ten-minute montage tested my patience. I rather would have watched a longer flashback of Puss and Humpty’s experiences as children in the orphanage led by Imelda (Constance Marie), their mother figure. Based on the screenplay by Tom Wheeler, “Puss in Boots,” despite its inconsistencies, like the golden eggs’ density, very difficult to move from one scene, easily lifted the next, was entertaining because it prevented shoving pop culture references in our faces. It simply told a story where most of its jokes worked due to right timing combined with contagious, effervescent energy.
★★ / ★★★★
The Maitlands (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) was a bubbly couple on “vacation” in their beloved big house. Sadly, they died via drowning when their car plunged into a river. A couple of months later, initially unaware that the former owners tragically passed away, the Deetz family (Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O’Hara, Winona Ryder) moved into the Maitlands’ former home. After a few failed attempts to scare away the new family, the dead couple recruited the nasty Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton), a self-proclaimed “bio-exorcist” with a talent for verbal double entendres. Directed by Tim Burton, “Beetlejuice” was quirky, fast-paced and had a solid grasp of dark and sometimes macabre humor. I enjoyed watching it as a kid because even though it had elements of horror, the scary scenes were light and the irony embedded in the images (such as a skeleton that obviously died from severe burns claimed that he wanted to quit smoking) overshadowed the grotesque. However, seeing the film from an adult’s perspective, it crossed the line between cute and cheesy too many times. I cringed at the scenes when the characters broke into songs. Once was enough because I understood that the characters were being possessed by ghosts but after several times it happened, the joke became stale. I felt like the material was desperate to entertain but it did not need to because it was at its best when the jokes flowed naturally. Small twists regarding our archetype of haunted houses elevated the picture. For instance, I loved the scene when Baldwin and Davis decided to scare the family by putting designer blankets over their heads. I would have expected their strategy to work because if I was the one that saw two figures with blankets over their heads in an empty hallway, I would have ran out the house in record time. Instead, Burton injected a small twist by having Ryder’s character be weird but friendly and open to paranormal happenings in order to show us that there were other dimensions to her gothic high school stereotype. There was one scene that I found touching which I thought could have been explored further. That is, when Ryder’s character decided that she wanted to die at such a young age. It was a shame the material shied away from the sadness in order to deliver more comedy that did not work half of the time. Nevertheless, I believe “Beetlejuice” is worth watching because it had a spectrum of humor that ranged from deadpan, slapstick to slightly disturbing.
The Karate Kid (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
A mother (Taraji P. Henson) and her son Dre (Jaden Smith) moved to China for better opportunities. On their first day in China, Dre developed a crush on a girl (Wenwen Han) with a talent for music but a bully (Zhenwei Wang) just as quickly interrupted their conversation. It turned out the bully was not just someone Dre needed to watch out for around his apartment complex because they both attended the same school. The fact that the bully knew kung fu did not help Dre’s confidence. The film was without a doubt commercial and at times cliché, but I could not help but enjoy it. There were three elements I loved about it. First, the maintenance man (Jackie Chan) did not teach Dre kung fu until about an hour and fifteen minutes into the story. I thought it was a big risk because the film had the challenge of keeping the audiences interested. It was a smart decision because it successfully established why Dre was someone worth rooting for. For instance, although Dre was bullied, he was not afraid to fight back. Unfortunately, he did not have the technical skills to stand up against other boys who knew martial arts. I found it very easy to relate with Dre moving to a different country and having trouble fitting in. When I moved to America when I was twelve, to say that the transition was difficult is an understatement because I didn’t know the language well and I wasn’t fully equipped to adapt a new culture. So when Dre finally confronted his mom about how much he hated being in China, that scene had a special meaning to me. Second, Henson was pure joy to watch. I’ve mostly seen her in Tyler Perry’s movies so I knew that she was very capable of delivering angst and sadness. I was surprised that she could actually be funny. Every time she was on screen, I couldn’t help but smile because she injected a certain enthusiasm in her character, that everything in China was great, and she was ready to be strong for her son when the occassion called for it. Her facial expressions were priceless. Lastly, the scenes in the tournament made me feel like I was there. The build-up regarding Dre’s hardwork, the bullying, and honor at stake finally came to fruition. Even though Dre’s mentor consoled him that winning or losing did not matter as long as he earned the audience’s respect, I thought Dre had to win no matter what. I was so invested in what was happening, I couldn’t help but vocalize my thoughts. “The Karate Kid,” directed by Harald Zwart, worked as an interpretation rather than a remake. It did not have anything to do with karate (the filmmakers should have just named it “The Kung Fu Kid” to silence the haters–a simple solution) but I was entertained for over two hours.
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.
A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The Beatles (Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, George Harrison) was the biggest band in the world and this film was a testament why they deserved the title. “A Hard Day’s Night,” written by Alun Owen and directed by Richard Lester, was a relatively simple film about how it was supposedly like to be The Beatles when they ruled the world. From the opening scene of screaming (and screeching) women causing a stampede at the train station in hopes of touching the legendary figures to the last scene when they flew into the sky, every frame was a delectable homage to Beatlemania and the Fab Four. Each member of the band had their own problems to deal with. McCartney took his grandfather (Wilfred Brambell) along their hectic travels and tried to prevent him from getting into trouble. Starr landed in jail after being inspired to live his life to the fullest. Lennon and a TV director (Victor Spinelli) were caught in a war of passive-aggressiveness because the former wanted to have a bit of fun while the latter wanted to strictly focus on the business at hand. And Harrison was hired by a producer (Kenneth Haigh) for his opinion about what was cool and in fashion. The film could be mistaken for a music video if one happened to pass by in the middle of it. The Beatles performed every ten minutes which was a joy to watch because they were very energetic and each brought a unique charm to the table. The songs were absolutely incredible. I couldn’t help but tap my feet and mouth the words. I am familiar with most of their popular songs, but I noticed a big difference between just hearing their songs and hearing their songs while watching them perform. When they did sing lesser-known numbers, I couldn’t help but fall in love with them all over again. The best scenes consisted of the quadruplet dealing with their fans and the media. Aside from the swooning women who would go through anything to get as close to their idols as possible, I was very amused when the band members answered reporters’ questions about their hair, what they liked to do on their spare time, and what they thought about their stardom. Starr, Harrison, Lennon, and McCartney answered according to their personalities and it was aided by Lester’s unique vision and sometimes manic camera techniques. Furthermore, they weren’t afraid to make fun of themselves. I was surprised that Starr acknowledged his unusually large nose and short stature. These days, most pop stars with far less talent tend to ignore the obvious because they fear career suicide. “A Hard Day’s Night” had the perfect amount of vanity, effortless coolness, unconventional adventures, and timeless rock ‘n’ roll. It was another excellent reason why I wish I grew up in the 1960s.
★★★ / ★★★★
Retired agent of the CIA, Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) began to flirt with Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker) over the phone. The pair seemed to make a genuine connection. But when assassins came sneaking into Frank’s home, after disarming them with relative ease, he had no choice but to meet Sarah in person because he believed that they were after her, too. Reluctant at first, she eventually realized that maybe this was the kind of excitement and danger she needed–feelings she only encountered in books she so often enjoyed reading. “Red,” which was actually an acronymn for “Retired: Extremely Dangerous,” was a slick action picture that made the smart decision to not reveal its aces too early in the game. Frank and Sarah traveled across America but we, like the dynamic duo, didn’t exactly know why they were being hunted by the CIA which was led by a young agent with a blind ambition and a nice haircut (Karl Urban). The action sequences offered nothing particularly new but they were inspired because the filmmakers and the actors injected a certain hyperkinetic energy to such scenes. I noticed that during the intense violence, the film would often cut to Parker’s brilliantly executed bewildered and sometimes utterly confused expressions. She may not be able to fight but she was charming and we always knew why she was perfect for Frank. We were supposed to relate to her because she represented ordinary folks plucked from the mundane and thrown into extraordinary events. The film benefited from strong and very colorful, to say the least, supporting characters. John Malkovich was excellent as the paranoid former agent with a penchant for hilarious sneak attacks. Morgan Freeman was sublime as the gentle aging man but could easily kill men half his age when pushed to a corner. Helen Mirren was fantastic as the British lady who enjoyed overkill. I’m used to seeing her play roles where she had to be soft and elegant so it was refreshing to see her wield gigantic machine guns. They had individual spark but the real magic was in their interactions. However, the weakest part of the film was how the revelation of the mystery was handled in the end. Questions involving the hit list and the cover-up were answered, but it wasn’t perfectly clear how that was related to a certain politician. The last-minute twist about the identity of the real “big bad” felt forced and unnecessary. Nevertheless, “Red,” directed by Robert Schwentke, was highly enjoyable because it had a balance of suspense, action, comedy, and wit. Similar movies with a younger cast fall on the wayside because the actors either lacked chemistry or the filmmmakers attempted to do too much. Those movies could learn a thing or two from here.
From Paris with Love (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
A CIA agent (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who wanted to leave the safe but boring life of working for a U.S. Ambassador was given a promotion to work in a more exciting but dangerous field with a more experienced partner (John Travolta). The assignment was to track down leads that could help the government prevent a bombing mission. I enjoyed this movie even though there wasn’t much story because of the chemistry between Meyers and Travolta. In fact, Travolta and Meyers were very good. Unfortunately, the material that they had to work with was not as good as them. I must say the odd coupling worked because they had completely different personalities (novice vs. expert, cerebral vs. impulsive, both are smart in their own way) which reminded me of one of my favorite films “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” only with more action, less comedy and quirkiness. And the fact that it was essentially a spy picture definitely helped me get into it that much more. I agree with a lot of critiques about the film such as not truly having a clear purpose from the very beginning. I found myself a bit confused regarding what the real assignment was and why the two leads were running around all over Paris shooting all sorts of people. Yet at the same time, I couldn’t help but stay with them because there were nice twists and amusing jokes sprinkled here and there. It was almost cartoonish so it was unpredictable at times. I wished that the film had been a little longer to work on the character development that it seriously lacked. The bantering scenes and eventual agreement between the characters were nice but it felt too shallow and rushed. It made me feel like it sacrificed a lot of depth for the sake of kinetics and running time. However, there were a lot of memorable scenes such as the Chinese restaurant, a revelation involving a double agent and the intense freeway scene involving a bazooka. “From Paris with Love,” directed by Pierre Morel who also directed the superior action-thriller “Taken,” was a slick movie with energy to spare even though it was hollow in its core. But I’m giving this a recommendation because I really had fun watching it; it was obviously tended for people who enjoy action movies that are adrenaline-fueled and not just relying on the story for everything to make sense. I can say that the more one thinks about why things were happening the way they were (in which I found myself doing), the more one will end up getting confused. I say just sit back and enjoy the escapism.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
★★ / ★★★★
I feel like I’m the only person in the world who didn’t enjoy this western classic about two fugitives, Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford), who decided to go to Bolivia in order to escape the law and rob banks there instead. Directed by George Roy Hill, Newman and Redford were definitely charismatic and their characters had a brotherly chemistry without even trying; unfortunately, everything about it was so blasé to the point where I thought I was watching boys acting on their id rather than men trying to accomplish something that they could be proud of (no matter unlawful such things may be). Although it had a lot of energy especially during the chase and gun-wielding scenes, the movie had no idea when to turn down the energy and focus on the characters so that the audiences would know more about the two leads, such as where they came from, why the turned to the life of crime and what was it about their relationship that made them dependent on each other. The romantic angle regarding Katharine Ross as Etta Place was a mere filler for me. Those scenes lacked passion and sensuality so I was somewhat uncomfortable watching it. I wish Redford and Newman’s characters had more edge or danger instead of just being likable because there were times when I thought the film glorified violence. Except for the final minutes, I didn’t feel like their actions had any sort of consequences so the movie became one-dimensional for too long. I expected a lot coming into this film because I’ve heard from both critics and audiences alike that it was nothing short of exemplary. Perhaps I was in a bad mood when I saw the picture, I don’t know, but it didn’t engage me like “Bonnie and Clyde,” with which it had a number of parallels. I wouldn’t have minded the (very light) humor so much if it let the darkness took over from time to time. It’s a shame because I really do love watching Newman and Redford because I think they’re very talented actors. Luckily, they star together again in “The Sting,” a movie that really showcases the two of them as a whole package backed up with superior writing and direction (also by George Roy Hill).
Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
This third installment of the “Ice Age” series, directed by Carlos Saldanha, is one of the more visually impressive of the three even though story-wise, it’s not as strong as its predecessors. While Manny (Ray Romano) and Ellie (Queen Latifah) prepare for the arrival of their baby, Diego (Denis Leary) decides to leave and pursue his own adventures. Sid (John Leguizamo) begins to feel lonely because he feels like he doesn’t have a family so he steals three T-Rex eggs from underneath the ice in order to feel like a mother. Meanwhile, the mother T-Rex returns and finds her babies missing so she hunts for the perpetrator. A series of funny things and loads of adventures ensue as the group of friends discover an underground habitat full of dangerous plants and even more menacing dinosaurs. I always look forward to each “Ice Age” movie because of the very amusing one-liners and the way it applies human characteristics to its animal characters. In this film, it focuses on parenting but the jokes are easy to understand so the little kids would not feel left out. There were more than a handful of highlights in the picture including the three baby T-Rex as they follow Sid around because they think he’s their mommy, the venus flytrap-like plant sticky situation and the battle in the air using some of the flying dinosaurs. While they may be interesting to look at, I enjoyed the fact that there were still jokes being thrown at the audiences while all the action was happening so it didn’t at all feel mindless or pointless. A new character was introduced, a weasel with an eye-patch and a British accent voiced by Simon Pegg. He really increased the manic factor of the film which was a good move because when he arrived on screen, all the other characters didn’t feel as energetic. The only problem I had with the movie is that it didn’t really have defining storyline as it did in the first installment. Like the second, this one is more about the fun and the adventures rather than dealing with real emotions. Still, I consider this a good movie for kids because it’s fast-paced, there’s a plethora of colors and attractive images. I couldn’t help but smile whenever I see Sid being his silly self and the infamous Scrat as he tries to (desperately) obtain an acorn from another rock rat. “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” may not be deep, but it’s satisfying enough.
Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
You know, I’ve got to say that twenty minutes into this movie, I thought it was going to be just another shallow chick flick about a woman, played by Isla Fisher (“Definitely, Maybe,” “The Lookout,” “Wedding Crashers”), who liked to shop for expensive clothes and eventually fell in love with a guy who speaks with a European accent, played by the very charming Hugh Dancy (“Beyond the Gates,” “Ella Enchanted”). Yes, that was the basic premise. But then the last forty minutes of the picture arrived and it convinced me that it wanted to be something more. And it succeeded on multiple levels. When all of the main character’s lies and credit card bills finally caught up with her, there was an inherent sadness about her whole predicament. I was convinced that she genuinely did want to change, but like an addict, she kept going back to her old ways despite the advice from her family and friends. I’ve read some critiques that the tone of this film was uneven. Strangely enough, that’s what I liked about it. The first part was more comical and blasé because it intended to establish a character who was very energetic and had a real passion for fashion. The second part was more about her insecurities, conflict with her inner demons (and bill collector played hilariously by Robert Stanton–that elevator scene was absolutely brilliant), crumbling relationships with the people who are most important to her, and the things that she had to do (no matter how much it pained her) to stop drowning in debt. Directed by P.J. Morgan (2003’s “Peter Pan” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding”–another film that was surprisingly effective), “Confessions of a Shopaholic” has a little bit of edge just below that pink, glittery surface. I also liked the fact that the romance between Fisher and Dancy was always secondary. Their scenes were a nice break from the money issues and I could not help but laugh during their dancing scene. Though they did have some chemistry, I’m glad that Harvey chose to focus more on the lead’s addiction. I also very much enjoyed the supporting characters such as Krysten Ritter, Joan Cusack and John Goodman as Fisher’s best friend, mother and father, respectively. If the film had less slapstick and a stronger core, this probably would have had a pretty powerful punch considering that most Americans are now wary of the things they buy due to the failing economy.
Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
This sequel to the highly successful “Night at the Museum” finds Ben Stiller, once a night museum guard in the first film, as a thriving businessman. But after he gets ahold of the news that the museum where he met the historical-figures-turned-to-life is to be closed, he feels like he must do something in order to repay them for inspiring him to do something better with his life. More conflict ensue when Stiller gets a call from Jedediah Smith (Owen Wilson), obviously in danger because Kahmunrah (the hilarious Hank Azaria) and his Egyptian army wants the artifact which turns everything in a museum into life to pursue his dream of world domination. Like the first installment, what I love about this picture is its energy. It’s not afraid to put disparate and random elements into the picture so it constantly surprised me. If I were to pick highlights from the film, I would definitely pick any scene when Stiller and Amy Adams (as the charming Amelia Earhart) would talk because they do have genuine chemistry. By the end of the movie, I wanted to know what would happen between them even though we all know that she’s going to turn into a statue when the sun rises. I would also point out that one scene when the both of them decided to jump into a popular photograph (a soldier/sailor and a woman kissing during the end of a war) and everything turned into black and white. During those scenes, I felt like I was watching more than a family-friendly film with funny one-liners. Having Azaria and his Axis of Evil (Steve Coogan as Octavius, Christopher Guest as Ivan the Terrible, and Jon Bernthal as Al Capone) was absolutely brilliant because of his well-timed sense of humor. Every time he spoke (lisp and all), I couldn’t help but laugh because of that one scene where he (too enthusiastically) declared, “I have… come back… to life!” That bit when he tried to decide whether Darth Vader and Oscar the Grouch were evil enough to join his team was pretty darn amusing. Still, I wished that Rami Malek (as Ahkmenrah) was in it more because he really was very funny in the first movie. His increased appearance would’ve also made sense because his older brother (Azaria) was the main villain here. Yes, the slapstick is still present (though in lesser amount compared to the first) but I really didn’t mind it because everything was happening all at once. The historical and pop culture figures may have been portrayed in a cliché manner but I think that’s half the fun of it. I say this one is just as good as the original even though it feels like it doesn’t have a profound story, just one funny scene after another. If they do make a second sequel, I’ll still be interested in watching it.