Dante’s Peak (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
One of my first memories was the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. I saw the destruction of our home, felt rocks falling from the sky, panic beginning to grow, and sky being so dark because the ash was so thick. Pierce Brosnan stars as volcanologist Harry Dalton who visited a small town led by Linda Hamilton as the mayor. Harry believed that the volcano was going to erupt soon because classic signs began to emerge, but his fellow volcanologists thought there was no scientific evidence to warrant immediate evacuation. Predictably enough, just when everyone finally agreed on a course of action, Dante’s Peak began to unleash major destruction. Evacuation became complicated for romantically entangled Harry and the mayor because the mayor’s kids (Jeremy Foley, Jamie Renée Smith) stupidly drove up the mountain to rescue dear old grandmother (Elizabeth Hoffman) who wouldn’t leave her home. I understand the negative reviews incited by this film. The acting was thin, the script was mediocre and the story was cliché. However, I admit that I enjoyed watching it because when I see a disaster flick, some of the elements I look for are destruction, visual and special effects, and a struggle for survival. This picture had those three elements. I thought the movie was at its best during the more silent moments where we were led to believe that certain characters were about to meet their demise. I don’t bite my nails (I think it’s a filthy habit) but I felt the urge to do so during the boat scene. The characters had no choice but to take a boat because lava was everywhere. But little did they know that the lake water had been turned into acid and it was eating away the boat’s metallic structure. In a nutshell, the boat was slowly sinking and touching the water meant a painful death. I’m most engaged when characters are trapped and I can’t find a solution for their predicament. Admittedly, some scenes did bother me such as Hamilton’s lack of leadership. As a mayor, I expected to see her making difficult decisions in times need–not just her own or her children’s but also the town’s. Instead, we saw her passing out coffee and going head over heels when she was around Harry. I felt like she wasn’t a very good leader or a role model which was a shame because I knew she was capable of delivering strength because she starred in James Cameron’s first two “Terminator” pictures. “Dante’s Peak,” written by Leslie Bohem and directed by Roger Donaldson, had its weaknesses because of its adamancy to stick with the formula but as a popcorn blockbuster, it had its moments of genuine suspense.
Event Horizon (1997)
★ / ★★★★
A spaceship designed by a scientist named Dr. William Wier (Sam Neill) reappeared near Neptune after disappearing for seven years. The scientist boarded a rescue ship with its crew of specialists (Joely Richardson, Kathleen Quinlan, Richard T. Jones, Jack Noseworthy, Jason Isaacs, Sean Perwee) which was led by the domineering Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne). When the eight finally boarded the mysterious Event Horizon, the original crew was nowhere to be found. However, their advanced instruments detected a life form supposedly located all over the ship. What I first noticed about the movie was its great visuals. Unfortunately, it had nothing else to offer. The movie succumbed to typicalities such as the rescuers being targeted one by one as if they were stuck in a bad slasher film. I think the picture was more interested in generating scares than taking advantage of its creepy setting and the science that is currently out of our reach. It was a crucial problem because I noticed that the majority of the time, the characters were haunted by hallunications. For smart and supposedly well-trained people, I found it hard to believe that they could not detach themselves from the idea that the loved ones they left on Earth were actually on the ship or that someone from their past had come back for revenge. What I expected for the movie to focus on was the possible gateway to another dimension. Space is limitless and thefore open to many kinds of interpretation. I thought it was a wasted opportunity that the writer, Philip Eisner, took the obvious path–a formula that consisted of nothing but blood and violence. Everything was spoon-fed for us and that was one of its biggest crimes. I knew exactly when something would pop out or when someone would die. It was not a fun experience because I felt like it didn’t even try to do something creative. Toward the end, it was plagued with cheesy one-liners and the filmmakers failed to wrap up the story in a respectable way. It seemed like they knew that they made a disappointing movie and just tossed it aside. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, “Event Horizon” is a science fiction film that might have been exposed to a black hole because all of the potentially wondorous elements had been sucked out of it. It didn’t have the bravado to challenge us, to ask questions about its characters and their mission and, most importantly, it didn’t make us think about how we would cope if we were given the same situation because it failed to pause from all the senseless action.
Back-Up Plan, The (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Jennifer Lopez had been absent from being a female lead actress for quite some time so I was really looking forward to Alan Poul’s “The Back-Up Plan.” Zoe (Lopez) made a proactive decision about having a kid via artificial insemination because she thought she would never find the guy for her. But the moment she stepped outside the clinic, she met Stan (Alex O’Loughlin), a nice, down-to-earth guy who wasn’t bad on the eyes with dreams of leading his own humble business. They didn’t get along initially but after a series of coincidences, the two eventually fell for one another. While I did like the two characters because they were charming and had undeniable chemistry, the material was just not funny. Some aspects of the film that were supposed to be funny but actually dead on arrival include the Single Mothers and Proud support group, Zoe’s incredibly transparent friends, and its lack of commitment in dealing with the serious questions about being a single parent. There were moments when Zoe had a chance to think about her future and whether she really wanted to stay on the path she had chosen but as soon as mood turned a little too serious, the movie would cut to a different scene and deliver slapstick infantile comedy. Not only did it take me out of the moment but I also felt emotionally cheated. The picture also lacked focus. I got the impression that the material was supposed to be from a mother’s perspective but it eventually lost track of its vision by establishing a series of scenes when Stan would meet a stranger at a park and discuss the struggles of fatherhood. While it was nice on the surface, I thought it was completely unnecessary. I already liked Stan and hammering the point that he was a good guy left me impatient. For me, I just saw it as another excuse to not deal with Zoe’s increasingly difficult preganancy, physically and emotionally, as she struggled with trusting Stan to stick around because the father and her child were not biologically connected. I think the movie would have been so much better if it had decided to take either the comedic or dramatic route. In an attempt to balance both, it managed to excel at neither path because every single step was formulaic and uninspiring. In the end, the elements of true exploration about how it was like to be a middle-class single mother were there but it tried too hard to be everything at once. The message of the film was vague–assuming that it wanted to communicate something in the first place. But then again maybe it just wanted to be a typical and too safe a romantic comedy.
★★ / ★★★★
Aaron Johnson stars as Dave Lizewski, a typical geek who goes to a typical high school with typical hormonal friends (Clark Duke, Evan Peters). But what’s not typical is his dream to be a superhero, serving people at a time of need and rescuing them from bullies or dangerous criminals. I liked the first and last forty minutes of this film. The first forty minutes was amusing because the lead character was still trying to figure out how it was really like being a superhero; that one does not win every battle and sometimes a trip to the hospital is necessary. In a way, it worked as a spoof of those extremely serious adapted-from-comic-books superhero movies. The last thirty minutes was pure action. Comparisons of Chloe Moretz as Hit Girl to Uma Thurman’s The Bride was pretty accurate because both can deliver the eye-popping violence and snarky sense of humor. However, I didn’t like the fact that Moretz’ character overshadowed the lead character. After all, the movie was supposed to be about the blossoming of a nobody to a possible somebody who everyone adored on YouTube. As for the middle portion of the film, I thought it was weak and lazy. The bit about Christopher Mintz-Plasse as a rich boy wanting to be a superhero was very formulaic. I constantly felt that he was trying to be funny but falling flat every single time. I like Mintz-Plasse, especially in “Superbad,” but I thought he was miscast here. A pompous, know-it-all, conniving kid would have been a much more interesting a character instead of a wimpy wannabe. Other fatal shortcomings involved Nicolas Cage as the father of Hit Girl (and also a superhero). There was a history about his character that I wanted the film to get into. Whenever the camera was focused on Cage, “Kick-Ass” had an added gravity that it desperately needed in order to be something other than a spoof of superhero films. Instead, the movie unwisely spent much of its time showing us scenes involving the main character being mistaken for a gay guy by a girl he liked who happened to want a gay BFF. As cheeky as it was, it was also unnecessary; it got old pretty quickly and I wished I had a fast-forward button. Overall, however, I did enjoy “Kick-Ass,” directed by Matthew Vaughn, despite its shortcomings in terms of pacing and not focusing on the more interesting characters that could potentially provide an extra dimension to the project. The film did hint on a possible sequel which I think is a great idea because there were a number of questions that remained in my head by the time the credits started rolling. People compare this film to “Kill Bill” in terms of violence but I think “Kick-Ass” doesn’t hold a candle to Quentin Tarantino’s bloodbath. I think it’s more accurate to say that this is a teenage version of “Watchmen” that is less focused, less ambitious but more amusing with a modern twist.
Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009)
★ / ★★★★
I knew I wouldn’t like “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” from the moment I saw the trailer because I’ve never exactly warmed up with the lead actor. Matthew McConaughey plays a photographer who gets his way with just about any woman he encounters. But when he goes back home for his brother’s wedding (Breckin Meyer), he sees the woman (Jennifer Garner) who he fell in love with as a child and is visited by the ghosts of his former lovers who tell him the error of his ways. Everything about this film was painfully predictable. From the bad-boy-turned-good lead character to a stressed out bride, it was all too formulaic to be even slightly inspiring. I think one of the fatal errors of the movie is that it didn’t give us a reason to care for McConaughey. During the first few scenes, he could still have been established as a player but if there was one or two sensitive moments when he was just by himself and regretted where his life was going yet can’t quite break from it, that could have been a good start because there was tension. Instead, we get to see a series of cruel stunts from him such as breaking up with women over the internet (over group chat!) and trying to desuade his brother from marrying the girl (Lacey Shabert) of his dreams. But what I loved about this movie was Garner which was not a surprise at all. I just love looking at her because she may look tough on the outside at times but I always feel this light coming out of her. I wanted her to just get over McConaughey and fall for the doctor who the bride set her up with. Inspired by Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past,” directed by Mark Waters, was a very weak attempt at a modern romantic comedy. It desperately needed some edge, focusing of the main storylines, a much needed heart from the main character, better jokes and a significantly more astute dialogue. There were times when I thought to myself, “I don’t know anyone stupid enough to say something like that.” I felt like I was watching high school students trying to put together a wedding instead of adults. Perhaps the writers are partly to blame for writing such a soft and very simplified material. And to be honest, I really don’t understand why this picture even got a green light for production. A romantic comedy can still be successful with a bit of alterations from the usual fare. Watching “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” was, quite frankly, like eating bad cheese.
Nothing Like the Holidays (2008)
★ / ★★★★
A Puerto Rican family gathers during the holidays and a lot of their secrets come pouring out at the dinner table. If this movie didn’t remind me of “The Family Stone” a little too much, I would’ve liked it a little more because I constantly found myself comparing the two. While “The Family Stone” had real dramatic weight to it, “Nothing Like the Holidays,” directed by Alfredo de Villa, only injected the drama just so that it would feel sad on the surface. Alfred Molina and Elizabeth Peña were having marriage problems, Freddy Rodríguez just arrived from Iraq and everyone thought we was some big war hero, John Leguizamo wanted to have kids with his wife (Debra Messing) but she considered her career as more important, and Roxanna Rodriguez was viewed by her family as a big Hollywood actress but she couldn’t bring herself to say that she was quite the opposite. I quickly grew tired of the big arguments and everyone being loud. At least when I’m with my family, although it may be loud and everything seems to be happening at the same time, things are interesting and we feel united. In this picture, we don’t get that certain feeling of warmth because their liking for each other doesn’t seem all that genuine. It’s as if the actors didn’t connect with one another or their characters; they’re just different people placed in a room and are forced to interact with each other. It was painful and awkward for me to watch. When the characters don’t have anything to say, the movie features a whole lot of dancing scenes as filler. I found myself constantly looking at the clock and asking myself when it was going to be over. The side journeys that each character took didn’t resonate so I felt like the lessons they learned were very contrived. “Nothing Like the Holidays” is definitely nothing like the holidays (my holidays anyway) because it lacked one of the most basic things: being fun. It suffered greatly because it was too formulaic. It actually didn’t need the sappy drama because the key lies in the human interactions and comedy that comes with the attractions and repulsions of each varying (sometimes histrionic) personalities.
★ / ★★★★
I thought I would like this film more than I did. I certainly didn’t expect to feel like I couldn’t sit through it less than the half-way mark. “The Wackness” is about a teenage drug-dealer (Josh Peck) who does it for two reasons: to keep his distance from his parents because the two adults fight like children all the time and to support himself (and eventually his family). The main character is also a loner whose only friend is a strange psychiatrist going through a midlife crisis (played by Ben Kingsley). Incidentally enough, Peck falls for Kingsley’s stepdaughter, played by the always brilliant Olivia Thirlby. And Kingsley preys on a girl Peck initially liked (Mary-Kate Olsen). That’s only some of the strange coincidences that didn’t work at all. Pretty much all of the characters are unlikeable–they have the chance to make their lives a lot better but they choose to drug themselves instead. In other words, it’s another one of those “Hey, look at me! I’m being indie!” kind of movies that I’ve grown to abhor over the years. Jonathan Levine, the director, thinks that by changing the setting into something urban (instead of suburbia) and featuring rap music (instead of indie pop), he’s doing something unique. To me, it’s not a breath of fresh air because, despite being the antithesis of most indie comedies, it still follows the same tired formula. It’s supposed to be a comedy but it’s not funny at all because the characters are beyond miserable. I want to feel sorry for them more than I want to laugh with them. Not to mention that the humor is mostly directed to early to mid-teens because of the way the younger characters speak. The only thing I could stand about this film is Thirlby and that’s because I’m a big fan of some of her past work (“Snow Angels,” “Juno”). I found no redeeming quality in this film. It will forever remain a mystery to me why it got so much praise at Sundance.