How Do You Know (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) was so passionate about softball, she made a career out of it. But when she was unexpectedly cut from the team, her life became turbulent as she questioned what she should do next. Coincidentally, one of Lisa’s friends gave George (Paul Rudd) Lisa’s phone number because Lisa, during a drunken night, confessed that she was curious about dating a non-athlete for once. George was as normal as they come other than the fact that he was being wrongly implicated in a federal crime. Will Lisa choose Matty (Owen Wilson), a successful baseball player, over currently unemployed George? One of the problems with “How Do You Know” was all of the characters were painfully needy and nice. When they got angry, they would express it but they apologized almost always immediately, like being angry was a sign of immaturity or that it was something to be ashamed of. I understood why the characters were that way because the material was desperate to be different from other romantic comedies where the characters typically would compartmentalize their negative emotions until the very end. But, without the right execution, as it was the case here, the opposite side of the spectrum was just as toxic as the cliché. Furthermore, the script was just not funny. An hour into it, I laughed probably once and chuckled a maximum of three times. When something funny was about to happen, I felt it coming ten seconds before. Casting Jack Nicholson, who played George’s father, was a letdown because he wasn’t given much to do. He was the distant father with a secret but there was nothing else to him. The majority of the picture’s attempt at comedy consisted of George being awkward around the girl he was in love with. As usual, Rudd was his usual charming, somewhat geeky, harmless persona but his character was also one-dimensional. The film contrasted George and Matty in a heavy-handed way. Aside from the obvious that one was a blonde and the other was a brunette, when Lisa would tell a story about how her day went or what was bothering her, Matty would avoid making eye contact. He would do things like ask her if she was hungry or he would start to talk about himself. On the other hand, when Lisa was with George, the hopeless romantic’s eyes were transfixed on her and when he would ask questions, it was directly related to her problems. Naturally, Matty was someone we would enjoy hanging out with and George was someone one we would marry. It was incredibly transparent who Lisa should choose that tension among the trio wasn’t generated. Written and directed by James L. Brooks, “How Do You Know” was not only predictable but it was also two hours long. How do you know when you’re stuck with a bad movie? When you keep checking the clock and asking yourself how many more bad jokes you have yet to sit through.
Children of the Damned (1964)
★ / ★★★★
A psychologist (Alan Badel) took notice of six kids (in which the leader was played by Clive Powell) with great intelligence who came from vastly different cultures. The psychologist wanted to gather them for further study because he believed they could serve to the betterment of mankind. Anton Leader’s “Children of the Damned,” inspired by John Wyndham’s book, was a huge miscalculation. Unlike the first film, its goal was to explain every ounce of detail regarding the background of the children in question and their purpose for existing. The lessons were painfully heavy-handed. I failed to feel the tension that the film wanted to portray because I kept wondering why it felt the need to preach. For instance, there was no good reason for the military to be called in other than the fact that the movie wanted to comment on various nations’ proclivity for war. It was obvious that the political backdrop was the Cold War and the events reflected a nation’s paranoia that it is no longer the most technologically advanced. I didn’t mind the political angle but in the end, the message was we should all co-exist peacefully because we occupied the same planet. While I do believe that the lesson was nice, even five-year-olds know that war is bad and unity is good. It did not know the difference between simplicity and naïvity so it failed to keep my attention for very long. I thought the performances were especially weak. In the first film, the kids were able to speak. It was easy to have a gist of their personalities even though they were cold as ice. In here, the children kept a strict communication through their minds and it made them boring. When they finally were given the chance to talk, they said nothing interesting. While the adults discussed issues such as evolution and survival of the fittest, I thought it was ironic that the movie’s concepts failed to evolve. When the children and a foolish aunt took refuge at a church, it seemed as though the filmmakers ran out of creative ideas; everything else felt like a contrivance for the explosive finale. “Children of the Damned” is a frustrating and almost laughable sequel because it sucked all of the magic and curiosity from Wolf Rilla’s “Village of the Damned.” A splash of droll scenes could have elevated the project because its seriousness made it one-note. What it critically needed were major rewrites in terms of its script in order to get rid of mixed messages and direction with vision, focus, and confidence.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
★★ / ★★★★
When aspiring filmmakers (Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen, Luca Barbareschi) decided to go to a rainforest in the Amazon to document real cannibals and never returned, a New York University professor (Robert Kerman) went on a journey to get them back. But when he found out that they have been murdered by the cannibals, he took the footages shot by the crew back to America. Little did he know that the contents of the film reels contained grotesque behaviors performed by the aspiring filmmakers which included rape, flaying animals, and multiple attempts in murdering the natives–all the while putting on a show for the world that the things they stumbled upon were shocking and sometimes enlightening. Directed by Ruggero Deodato, “Cannibal Holocaust” has a reputation of having the most intense images portrayed on screen. What I liked about the movie was its daring attempt to blur the line between simulated and the actuality. When I saw an image and I could not tell whether it was one or the other, that was when I thought the picture was at its most horrific. But there were a plethora of scenes where it was easy to tell if something was real of not. For instance, the flaying of the giant turtle was obviously real. I experience no pleasure in watching animals suffer because when I was a kid, I’ve seen a dog being killed in the bloodiest, most unkind way and it was later served as a meal. So it was a bit of a struggle when I saw that segment. As for the filmmakers being killed by the natives, it did not move me as much–in a positive or a negative way–because the movie tried too hard to make it look real to the point where it looked fake. However, the most disappointing element in the picture was the heavy-handed messages that it tried to get across. Questions such as the media’s role in trying to sensationalize every story in order to get reaction from the people were painfully transparent. There were also some bits and pieces about who the real savages were: the tribes in the Amazon who were “backwards” or the Americans who stupidly decided to walk into the tribes’ territories and terrorized them for the sake of having power over them? As a faux-documentary film, it felt too calculated, too controlled, and too contained so it ultimately worked against itself. As for the graphic nature of the film, I was horrified at some points because it was indeed very violent. But then I started thinking about modern horror movies of today and their gratuitousness. The “Saw” pictures suddenly came to mind and I felt that “Cannibal Holocaust” did not seem as bad as a whole. Nevertheless, “Cannibal Holocaust” is definitely not for everyone especially the squeamish. I wish it left a lot more unanswered questions. Since it answered everything for us, despite the many intense images, I started to forget about it right when the credits started rolling.
Green Zone (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
U.S. Army officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon) decided to go rogue when his team constantly stumbled upon inaccurate intelligence provided a U.S. Intelligence Agent (Greg Kinnear). Miller eventually found an ally (Brendan Gleeson) within the U.S. government and both aimed to expose the false reasons why the United States went to war with Iraq. I’ve read a lot of reviews comparing this movie, inspired by the book “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone” by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, to the actual war in Iraq. I chose not to see it from that perspective because at the end of the day the material was fictional. Instead, I saw it as an action picture with an emphasis on Miller’s struggle on three fronts: his loyalty to his country and the American people, his struggle to trust the powers that lead (or controlled) the U.S. government, and the role of the media (specifically Amy Ryan as a New York Times foreign correspondent) in and out of Iraq. As an action movie, I thought it worked. It was suspenseful because I cared about Miller’s dangerous mission to expose the big lie that led the United States to go to war. Paul Greengrass’ signature shaky camera that defined the second and third “Bourne” films worked especially in increasingly enclosed spaces as Miller’s character chased after targets in residential areas. I felt the danger and uncertainty that he and his men felt so my eyes were glued to the screen. I was also impressed with the way Greengrass’ shots shifted between indoors and outdoors. With each shift, the tone changed but it wasn’t jarring or distracting because the intensity regarding what was happening was consistent. But there were some scenes that fell completely flat. The ones that stood out to me in a negative way were the “Don’t be naive” admonitions accompanied by intense eye contact between Damon and Gleeson. I couldn’t help but laugh because it was so heavy-handed and obvious about the messages it wanted to convey to its audiences. I wanted the movie to let the images and the characters’ decisions to speak for themselves and tone down the obvious propaganda as much as possible. Lastly, I would have liked to see Ryan’s character to have done more instead of just standing around begging for a story. Nevertheless, “Green Zone” ultimately worked as a political (but fictional) action picture because of well-shot and involving action sequences. Others may have the usual complaints of, “The camera was so shaky and I got dizzy” but I suppose it’s an acquired taste. I think Greengrass chose that style because he wanted to us to feel like we were right there with the characters.
Two Lovers (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
“Two Lovers” was about a man with bipolar disorder (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with two women (Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw)–one was emotionally unstable with an edge of coolness about her, while the other was more ordinary but was ready to settle down. I’m not sure if I was supposed to believe that Phoenix’ character really did fall in love with either woman because, throughout the film, I felt like he just a little boy with a crush: either he really liked one of the women or both of them one minute but he was as easily able to detach from them. His indecision made him look like a jerk because of the way he juggled his time between the two. I thought the first part of the movie was consistently strong (even though Phoenix’ character was a bit creepy) because I was interested in the dynamics among the characters, especially Phoenix and Paltrow. Unfortunately, somewhere in the middle it got lost within itself due to its languid tone, dark material, heavy-handedness and self-indulgence. I ran out of patience with it instead of actually wanting to watch the story unravel. There were not enough pay-offs dispersed every fifteen minutes or so. In fact, it just started repeating itself when it came to the lead characters’ constant disappointment by Paltrow’s self-hating character. The whole idea of a woman not feeling like she deserved to be loved was played out and I’ve seen the idea explored in better films. I thought she was essentially a user and ultimately did not know what she wanted so I ended up disliking her greatly. She was so selfish and I felt like her apologies were more for her–so she could feel better for the pain she caused other people. I just couldn’t sympathize with her. Directed by James Gray, “Two Lovers” is a small picture but its main problem was just that: it settled with being small. Instead, it should have acknowledged itself for being small but still delivered the big and insightful ideas. I chose to watch this movie because I thought I would get witty and smart conversations between two mature adults. I was very disappointed because I felt like I was watching a romance between fifteen-year-olds stuck in thirtysomething bodies. Don’t even get me started with the eye-rolling typicality of two lovers chatting over the phone as they looked at each other from across the building. It may work on a Taylor Swift music video but not on a full feature film. The film needed more depth, consistency and a stable sense of identity.
Seven Pounds (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I love Will Smith and Rosario Dawson but this film, directed by Gabriele Muccino, did not live up to its potential. The number seven was supposed to be special and I didn’t get to fully understand why it was important. The seven strangers that Smith was supposed to help weren’t fully explored. In some instances, we only get to meet a stranger once but never see him or her again. Instead, the picture chooses to focus on the romance between Smith and Dawson. Since it had a two-hour running time, I found no reason for the picture to not be able to do both. I think the director needed more time helming this project because some scenes either felt incomplete or too convoluted. The melodrama needed to be toned down as well. I’m usually a sucker for films that have a lot of melodrama but in here, I found the symbolism to be too heavy-handed. Instead of being organic and leaving the audiences to decide whether or not they should feel for a particular character, the movie makes that choice for the audiences by showing one sad scene after another. In the end, I was just frustrated with it all and I wanted it to end. If it weren’t for Smith and Dawson, I think I would’ve been harsher with “Seven Pounds.” I did enjoy them interact because they do have chemistry. I’ve always admired Dawson’s ability to balance beauty with an edgy attitude and this one is no exception. My favorite scene was when the two leads were in a field and Dawson claims she wants to run but she cannot because of her weak heart. She expressed that longing so effectively to the point where I teared up a bit. As for Smith, I’m glad that he doesn’t just appear in one action movie after another. This is a nice reminder that he can do dramatic roles and convince us that his character is suffering yet selfless even though the picture itself is barely above mediocre. If one is a fan of these two actors, I still say go see it. However, if one is looking for a film that is insightful and character-driven, go see something else because this one feels recycled.
Beautiful Ohio (2006)
★ / ★★★★
Chad Lowe’s directoral debut is rather difficult to get through because it doesn’t rise above the stereotypes regarding depressing suburban drama. William Hurt and Rita Wilson have two sons: David Call, a certified genius in mathematics, and Brett Davern, who is rather ordinary. Michelle Trachtenberg complicates the storyline by filling in the role as the not-so-girl-next-door who the two brothers happen to be attracted to. The first part of the film is rather interesting because it explores the jealously between the two brothers–mainly Davern struggling to live in his big brother’s shadow versus stepping out of it. I could relate to the two brothers because they pretty much have nothing in common except for their unconventional parents. Things quickly went downhill from there because the dialogue mostly consisted of the characters discussing theories, influential musicians and citing quotes from renowned individuals. Their pretentiousness created this wall between me and the characters. Therefore, when something dramatic happens to a particular character or a revelation occurs, I found myself not caring. I didn’t find anything particularly profound that drove the story forward either. Lowe really needed something above the whole parents-not-really-caring-about-their-children idea because it’s all been done before by better films. Davern reminded me of Emile Hirsch in “Imaginary Heroes,” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but without the nuances of pain and complexity. If Lowe had explored the common theme of characters not understanding each other (literally through language or emotionally) in a more meaningful and not a heavy-handed manner, this picture would’ve worked. The revelation about a certain character in the end felt out of place. Don’t waste your time with this one.