★★★★ / ★★★★
“Aliens” picked up as we made the grim discovery that our heroine named Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) had been in hypersleep and wandering in space for 57 years. The second surprise was the fact that humans started to colonize the planet where the aliens had been incubating. To no surprise, the human colony, which included a brave little girl named Newt (Carrie Henn), had lost contact with the scientists and a request was made that Ripley join a crew to investigate the strange happenings. The feel of this installment felt considerably different. While the first one was more about the concept and horror of being abandoned in space, this one was more action-oriented and more concerned about the gadgetry such as the weapons and the vehicles used by the characters. That wasn’t necessarily a negative as long as the tension remained relatively equal or greater than its predecessor. And, in some ways, it was able to surpass the original. A definite stand-out was the alien’s ability to learn via trial-and-error. We learned about the aliens such as they tend to hunt in packs and there was a sort hierarchy among them. By learning more about the enemy, we understood their capability but at the same they became that much more terrifying because we now had the knowledge of their great ability to adapt in order to survive. They showed signs of intelligence, not just creatures that wanted to kill for the sake of killing. Two other elements I noticed about the film were the fact that the aliens were easier to kill and they were much more visible. In Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” the organism was practically invincible and we only really saw the creature’s full body toward the end. In “Aliens,” the approach was much more obvious and body parts (along with the highly acidic blood) were flung all over the place. However, that’s what I admired about the sequel: It was different than the original but it was able to make it work for itself and deliver adrenaline-fueled space action-adventure that kept my heart tugging at a frantic pace until the last scene. That is, when Ripley had a duel against the queen of the aliens using a highly familiar-looking robot from Cameron’s “Avatar.” What it did preserve was the feminist undertone that “Alien” played with which was a smart move because the movie was first and foremost supposed to be Ripley’s quest for survival. If I were to nitpick for a flaw, I would say the crews’ interactions toward the beginning had quickly worn its welcome. I especially found Bill Paxton’s character highly irksome and I wished he was the first one to be killed. A redeeming quality was Michael Biehn as Ripley’s potential romantic interest. “Aliens” was not only highly entertaining but it managed to justify that it was a necessary sequel by playing upon existing ideas and expanding new ones.
★★★ / ★★★★
The constantly bullied Alan Parrish (Adam Hann-Byrd) was the son of an emotionally distant factory owner (Jonathan Hyde) who stumbled upon a magical board game called Jumanji. After a row with his father about being sent to boarding school, he rolled the dice and he was sucked into the game and lived in the jungle for 26 years. The new residents (Kirsten Dunst, Bradley Pierce) of the former Parrish mansion then found the game and started playing, all the while unaware of the dangerous situations of which they were about to face. With the help of Alan and his crush (now 26 years older played by Robin Williams and Bonnie Hunt), the four had to finish the game in order restore peace in their town. “Jumanji” was one of those films I watched so many times when I was a kid because I couldn’t get enough of its manic energy and wondrous sense of adventure. It had emotional resonance for me because the heart of the picture was the bond between the father and the son and at the time my dad was in America while my mom, brother and I were in the Philippines. Every time I saw the movie, I thought about my dad and how much I missed him. I identified with Dunst’s character–how imaginative she was and how she had to take care of her brother. I guess it helped that Pierce looked somewhat like my brother with his curly hair and wisecracks. One of the elements I found to be most effective in the film was its increasing amount of danger every time a character rolled the dice. The board game started off with giant African bats and only became more impressive from there. I found my eyes being fixated on the screen in suspense just in case something would suddenly pop out from nowhere. To balance the excitement and suspense, the picture also had a great sense of humor. I loved the small details like a rhinoceros being barely able to keep up during the stampede, Hyde also playing the villainous Van Pelt whose goal was to kill Alan (talk about father-son issues), all the looting that happened in stores when the town was in absolute chaos, and even the dated CGI (those creepy monkeys!) was all part of the fun. It didn’t take itself too seriously but it didn’t dumb down the material for its audiences so it became a solid popcorn entertainment. The film could have been stronger if it had more scenes between Alan when he was a kid and his father. There was a real pain and sadness in their strained relationship. The revelations that happened much later would have been more moving and bittersweet. For a movie being older than 15 years, “Jumanji,” based on the novel by Chris Van Allsburg and directed by Joe Johnston, is still fresh and better than most kid-friendly adventure movies out there today.
Legally Blonde (2001)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Law school is for people who are boring, ugly, and serious,” claimed one of the characters from the film but Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) begged to differ. Elle, the head of her sorority, could easily be labeled as a dumb blonde because she was used to using her beauty and penchant for saying “like” every other word to get what she wanted. But when her boyfriend (Matthew Davis) broke up with her because he claimed he wanted to start being serious since he got accepted to Harvard Law School, Elle did her best to get into the same school and excel. The picture was pretty much a case that highlighted (in pink) the lesson about not judging a book by its cover and the importance of self-reliance. Although Elle started out as a girl who depended on a guy, I immediately connected with her because of Witherspoon’s sense of fun and wit. It was like she was channeling a valley girl version of Tracy Flick from Alexander Payne’s “Election,” with equal determination minus the desperation. Without Witherspoon’s ability to balance the airhead laughs and genuine intelligence, I think the project would have fallen apart because it would have been one-dimensional. In a nutshell, Witherspoon proved why she was a star and kept the movie afloat despite the predictable supporting characters. For instance, I would have loved to have seen Selma Blair being someone other than an overprotective law student, Victor Garber as a cutthroat lawyer, and Jennifer Coolidge as a soft-spoken manicurist. While they played their roles well, an extra spice was missing because I did not see them evolve in a non-transparent way. “Legally Blonde” could also work as a satire for elitist jerks in educational institutions. In high school, if asked if I could choose between beauty and brains, I would have easily chosen brains. But now that I’ve graduated from a university, I am a bit more hesitant because having a brain does not necessarily equate to having a good heart and therefore having emotional intelligence when it comes to dealing with people. The uptight and snobbish law school students depicted on this movie were not at all dissimilar from some people I met in college. So, in a way, even though I’m not a blonde or an airhead (although I like fashion), I can relate to Elle because she meant well and she tried her best to not be affected by negative energy that surrounded her. I also like to balance and apply my knowledge of pop culture and the other things I’m passionate about in every day conversations. Based on a novel by Amanda Brown and directed by Robert Luketic, “Legally Blonde” is a very enjoyable movie because although it is as light and sweet as cotton candy, it packs a punch.
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.
Knight and Day (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
June (Cameron Diaz) bumped into Roy (Tom Cruise) at the airport on the way home for her sister’s wedding unknowing of the fact that he was a spy and fellow government agents (Peter Sarsgaard, Viola Davis) were after him. Before she knew it, June got caught in the middle of two camps but eventually it seemed like she was more than happy her life made a drastic turn because she finally found excitement, love and adventure. “Knight and Day,” written by Patrick O’Neill and directed by James Mangold, offered nothing new to the action-comedy genre but it felt refreshing because the actors were having fun, the filmmakers were having fun and so the audiences couldn’t help but have fun as well. Comparisons to “Killers,” starring Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl, could not be helped because the two were released at just about the same time and both pretty much had a similar concept, but “Knight and Day” was lightyears better because it had energy from start to finish. More importantly, it was actually funny. I was glad to see Cruise starring in a film that somewhat spoofed his more serious roles because it showed me that he had a sense of humor. It was also nice to see Diaz being her usual charming sunny self. Her character’s reactions to unbelievable and often dangerous situations amused me in so many ways. In a way, I felt like she was just playing herself and I appreciated that. The movie worked for me even though it did not attempt to have any sort of character development because I was thoroughly engaged. Each passing scene had a higher level of danger and adrenaline from the one before and I was curious about what creative action sequence I would see next. There was a lot to choose from but the three scenes that put a smile on my face were when Cruise informed Diaz that everybody on the plane was dead and it was about to crash but she thought it was all a big joke, the train scene with a lethal assassin who could easily have been taken right from the “Bourne” series and the motorcycle chase in Spain with the bulls. It is definitely easy to judge the movie before seeing it because we are all aware of Cruise’s controversial life. I say give it a chance because “Knight and Day” is a bona fide, fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat, globetrotting adventure that never runs out of fuel. It’s a good movie to see with the family especially those familiar with Cruise’s golden days.
Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Three friends in their forties who weren’t happy with the way their lives turned out (John Cusack, Craig Robinson, Rob Corddry) and a twenty-year-old with no social life (Clark Duke) accidentally went back in time after getting into a hot tub with magical powers. As ridiculous as the premise was, after watching the trailers, I was open to what it was about to bring. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as funny as I thought it would be. I think the picture was stuck in a rut for too long; when the four were transported back to 1986, the characters spent too much of their time trying to stick to what they did fourteen years ago so that they wouldn’t accidentally change the future. As a result, the film felt stagnant and boring because the characters knew exactly what they had to do. Fortunately, the script eventually rose above the formula and really let the characters do whatever they wanted with little disregard to the consequences of their actions. Out of the four actors, I thought Corddry was the most effective because of his histrionics. Cusack, Duke, and Robinson pretty much played themselves and they kind of blended among each other. While I thought the nostalgia was there (music, fashion, the way people spoke, the bad special effects–which I loved), the picture needed a lot of focus. There were times when I was very confused where the story was going and why the characters were doing certain things. Also, lessons like “friends always stick with each other” was too after school special for me. It was corny, unnecessary and, quite frankly, unfunny. Still, I enjoyed watching the supporting actors such as Crispin Glover, Lizzy Caplan and Chevy Chase. They didn’t have much screen time but their appearances were nice breaks from the randomness that were happening. I’ve heard a lot of people claiming that “Hot Tub Time Machine,” directed by Steve Pink, was like “The Hangover” or that it was as funny or funnier than that surprising box-office success. I very much disagree because I felt like “The Hangover” had more control of its material; it didn’t feel as convoluted as this film nor did it feel like it was trying too hard. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy “Hot Tub Time Machine” in parts but there were extended time periods when I wasn’t laughing. I love everything about the 80s (especially fashion and hair that were so out there) but I felt like this movie didn’t take advantage of that era. I felt like the characters were trapped in that ski resort instead of owning it since it was their second time living through that part of their lives. When you’ve got a ridiculous (but fun) premise, you have to deliver in a big way and make sure to rise above the title and avoid using it as a crutch.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the children’s book by Judi Barrett and Ron Barrett, “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, was a visual treat for the whole family. A scientist named Flint (voiced by Bill Hader) had many inventions that led to disasters and over time lost the respect of his community. But when he accidentally sent a machine that had the ability make food from water to the sky, it began raining all sorts of delectable food. At first the citizens of the island enjoyed the strange weather patterns, covered by a colorful reporter (Anna Faris), but the food started to get bigger as time went on, it turned into a disaster flick with food as weapons of destruction. There were times when I thought the picture was trying too hard with the jokes. The slapstick irked me especially when the target of the joke was a smart (sometimes too smart) and awkward lead character. I wish the directors had toned down the physical comedy and really played more with the double meanings of certain words, phrases and puns. A lot of kids (even younger kids) out there do understand play on words which is not common knowledge. I also thought that the movie had a chance to really bring up and tackle social issues such as world hunger and obesity. There were some images thrown in here and there but such moments were too brief. With those criticisms aside, I really did enjoy this animated film because it was creative and imaginative. The surreal images it offered such as giant rolling doughnuts threatening to squash people like bugs, pasta tornados, and palace made entirely out of jello were definitely a sight to behold. It made me think about how magical the film would have been if it was live-action. The movie’s energy level was manic, everything was colorful and there were some really good jokes on the background. I also appreciated the fact that it had a plethora of film references from other disaster movies to strange sci-fi mysteries to dramatic space adventures. Even though the movie had so many random elements, I thought it worked because there was madness happening on screen. Lastly, I thought this was the kind of film that would have benefited with a longer running time. It tried to be so many things, including a bit about father-son relationships, but none of them were fully realized. “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” was a smogasbord of colorful delights and energy that never seems to run out when it really could have used more heart.
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.
Trick ‘r Treat (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Michael Dougherty, “Trick ‘r Treat” is a whole lot of fun to watch and it’s a shame it didn’t get a proper (and well-deserved) theatrical release. The film was an anthology of four stories that featured what would happen if the traditions of Halloween were broken: a virgin (Anna Paquin) who gets teased by her sister and friends for being awkward with men and saving herself for that “special someone,” a high school principal (Dylan Baker) who poisons his candies and has an even darker secret inside of his home, a group of friends (Jean-Luc Bilodeau, Isabelle Deluce, Britt McKillip, Alberto Ghisi) who pulls a prank on a lonely girl (Samm Todd), and a couple (Leslie Bibb, Tahmoh Penikett) whose first scene didn’t make much sense but became pretty important as the film started wrapping up everything. “Trick ‘r Treat” wasn’t particularly scary for me other than Sam, a child-looking sack-headed treat or treater with button eyes, but I thought it worked because all of the mini-stories had a commonality that was explored from beginning to end. However, don’t get me wrong because even though I didn’t think it was scary, it still had an element of darkness. For instance, the film was not scared to kill off children and even show the audiences their dead and sometimes mutilated bodies. This movie reminded me a lot of “Tales from the Crypt” because even though it explored morbid subject matter, there was always that element of humor and campiness which often remind us that it’s just a movie. I also liked that it referenced some of the other actors’ works through their characters outside of this project. For instance, Brian Cox’ independent film called “Red” and Anna Paquin’s popular television show “True Blood.” I admired that self-awareness because it didn’t get distracted from the storytelling, which is very difficult to be achieved, especially by Hollywood mainstream horror flicks. My only complaint about it is that maybe it could have used one more storyline for a slightly longer running time. I was so fascinated with what was going on so when the credits started rolling, I felt a bit sad that it was over. I will not be surprised at all if this eventually becomes a cult classic because it has a purpose, is smart and not afraid to be different. I wouldn’t mind adding this to my film collection.
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.
Crank: High Voltage (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
At this point, I can enjoy just about any movie that Jason Statham stars in because even though most of them are mindless, they’re fun to watch. Statham is as charismatic as ever for his return as Chev Chelios, a hitman who gets caught up with gangsters who (literally) stole his heart. In order to survive, he must constantly charge his artificial heart which only lasts for about an hour. Half of the fun about this picture was the lead character trying to look for ways to charge his life force. The film is lewd, crude and downright crazy because even rubbing up against people could create enough electricity for him to survive. However, even I have to admit that I enjoyed this sequel less than the original for a few reasons. Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the writers and directors, brought back certain characters from the original only to kill them off almost instantly. When a character did come back and survived, the character was not utilized in such a way that they could push the film forward. Therefore, there were many points in the film when it felt stuck even though the characters were kinetic in purpose and movement. I liked the campiness of the film but there were also times when it was too campy. In fact, there was a scene when it tried to summon Godzilla parodies. As adventurous as it was, it was dead on arrival for me because the violence that was being portrayed on screen was not funny, which was unlike the rest of the movie when everything else was cartoonish. In fact, that fighting sequence should have been quite epic, in my opinion, despite Johnny Vang (Art Hsu) being a simple-minded henchmen, because Statham’s character spent more than half of the film trying to chase him. Other actors that returned were Amy Smart as the girlfriend, Dwight Yoakam as Doc Miles, Efren Ramirez as Venus (who played Kaylo in the first), and Keone Young as Don Kim. I enjoyed this film’s enthusiasm to entertain but I ultimately have to give it a mediocre rating because it needed to have more focus instead of just aiming to be all over the place. Even though the first one was crazy, it tried to tell a story. On the other hand, “Crank: High Voltage” just felt like a series of random scenes pasted together which did not make sense as a whole.
Monster House (2006)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Rewatching this animated film three years later since it came out in 2006, I still think it’s pretty scary for children. Directed by Gil Kenan, “Monster House” is about three teenagers–sarcastic DJ (Mitchel Musso), portly but hilarious Chowder (Sam Lerner) and precocious Jenny (Spencer Locke)–who learn that the house in front of DJ’s home is alive as it starts taking inside it whatever and whoever it thinks to be trespassing (intentionally or unintentionally). So the three form a plan to finally put the evil house to rest. And who says that defeating a scary living house is an easy feat? What I love about this animated flick is that whenever I watch it, I’m instantly reminded of my childhood. When we were kids, my cousins and I had several adventures while pretending to enter a haunted abandoned house just like the characters did here. The dialogue between the three leads reminded me of those teen movies in the 1980’s (and the fact that the parents are barely on screen), while the soundtrack reminded me of the “Goosebumps” and “Tales from the Crypt” television series. Everything about it just brought me back and I guess that’s the main reason why I instantly fell in love with it the first time. I mentioned that I think this is somewhat scary for children. If the premise of the film that plays on the archetype regarding scary houses next door and the creepy people that live in them is not enough, it also has scenes of the house’ shadows being able to transform into anything as it visits a child’s bedroom, a dungeon-like basement with a shrine that reminded me of those indie creepy serial killer movies when the killer preserves his victims, and more. I’m torn because, at the same time, I’m very impressed with its creativity and willingness to not baby the childreen too much just in case they might get bored. Also, there were jokes about the teens, especially Chowder, not reaching certain developmental levels proposed by some theorists in psychology and I found them to be really funny. Other voices worth noting that added an extra spice to the film are Maggie Gyllenhaal as the babysitter, Jason Lee as the babysitter’s friend/boyfriend, Kevin James and Nick Cannon as the two police officers, Jon Heder as the videogame freak, and Steve Buscemi as the creepy neighbor. “Monster House” is a strong animated movie that should have been seen by more people when it was released. Steven Spielberg is one of the executive producers and I did notice some of his signature styles of storytelling. Even though it can get a bit scary, I’ll still show this movie to my future kids.