The Guard (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
When a man was found dead in an apartment, Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson), along with McBride (Rory Keenan), a cop from Dublin on his first day of work in the small town, was called in to investigate. Boyle surmised that the murder involved the occult due to the mysterious number painted onto the wall next to the body and a pot placed between the man’s groin. Meanwhile, an FBI Agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) was brought in from the United States to stop crooks (Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong, David Wilmot) from intercepting five hundred million dollars worth of cocaine. Inevitably, the two crimes were related so Boycle and Everett were forced to work with each other despite a very offensive and awkward first impression. Written and directed by John Michael McDonah, “The Guard” was uproariously funny mainly because of Boyle’s foul mouth. He was unable to keep his thoughts in his brain as long as he felt he had something to say. His racist remarks were very offensive, like publicly saying that he thought criminals only consisted of black people, but since he lived his entire life in a relatively isolated town in Ireland, he wasn’t even aware of his indiscretions. Yet his ignorance was no excuse. From the way the comedy was executed, we laughed at him because he didn’t know any better, not because his claims necessarily had merit. On the other hand, Everett was the humorless straight man who just wanted to get the job done. He was professional, charming, and patient but such qualities were tested whenever Boyle was around. Imagine being forced to work with someone you don’t like, but you need that person to achieve the same goal. As the Irishman and the American engaged in verbal sparring over drinks, the criminals almost did all the work so that they would eventually get caught. Because of this, the picture adopted an unconventional pace. We knew that the criminals’ and cops’ paths would eventually cross. Interestingly, it was actually the criminals who found Boyle first instead of the other way around. What I liked was the fact that the crooks weren’t just bad. They were bad and very funny. The small surprises made a lasting impact without coming off as forced. The film was also effective when the unlikely duo was apart. While Boyle’s interactions with the little boy (Michael Og Lane) with a pink bike and dog was rather whimsical, the scenes with his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan), who lived in a care home, were funny and at times heartbreaking. The time they spent together showed us where Boyle got his fiery personality from and his overall capacity to do good. Just because he had a proclivity for spitting out racial slurs, it didn’t mean that he was incapable of being good person and a good son. What “The Guard” needed to be truly incendiary were more scenes of uncomfortable tension. When one of the cops accidentally encountered the bad guys, the camera remained a few feet away. The lens should have been up close to the cop’s face because he knew as well as we did that there was no possibility that the crooks would let him walk away alive. They had half a billion dollars to lose. Many men kill for much less.
★★★ / ★★★★
Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost), British comic book fans, on their way to explore the legendary Area 51 came across an alien named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), on the run from government officials who wanted to exploit his extraterrestrial abilities. Written by Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, “Paul” was a quick-witted buddy road trip comedy equipped with a plethora of references to various sci-fi pop culture, obscure and mainstream. The film opened at the San Diego Comic Con. While it did make fun of fans dressing up as their favorite movie and comic book characters, it was never mean-spirited in its approach. In fact, it was a rather good start. Its bona fide sense of humor, situational or otherwise, was exactly why we wanted to follow Graeme and Clive in their epic, awkward, exciting adventure. As usual, Pegg and Frost had wonderful chemistry. The way they delivered their lines and the way they moved around each other convinced me that their characters were true BFFs. I looked at the CGI Paul with grand curiosity. Initially, I found him to be rather stoic. But the longer I stared at him, the more easily I could identify his subtle facial expressions; I almost wanted him to be my pet. He was funny and rather harmless. More importantly, the writing took advantage of the strange creature on screen. We learned specifics in terms of his abilities. For instance, while he had the power to become invisible by whim, he could only do it if he held his breath. Gifts with limitations are interesting. The government agent in charge of capturing Paul was called Agent Zoil (As in Lorenzo Zoil–get it?), gleefully played by Jason Bateman. Bateman being serious in a picture like this was like watching a giraffe attempting to do somersaults. It just didn’t ring together. However, it worked. His attempt to suppress his little ticks was what made the role funnier than it should have been. Also, there was a balance. We saw glimpses of how dangerous he could be. As he aimed his gun toward a moving target, I found myself holding my breath. I took the intensity in his eyes quite seriously and I didn’t expect to. His fellow agents (Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio), ambitious but incompetent and rash, highlighted the man in black’s intractable goal of getting to Paul first. One of the qualities I admired most about the film was it didn’t overwhelm us with cryptic allusions. There were obvious camera angles which served to highlight an important science fiction actor walking in on a frame. I didn’t get some of the references but I wasn’t bothered by them. Either I felt like I was still in on the joke or I was too preoccupied wondering what would happen next. “Paul” was sweet but never sentimental, funny but never obnoxious. I did wish, however, that we could have seen more of the alien hotspots that Graeme and Clive visited. After all, they were supposed to be on an epic road trip. And I would have been floored if Special Agents Mulder and Scully from “The X-Files” made brief appearances. Still, the picture did do without.
★★★★ / ★★★★
When Annie (Kristen Wiig) was informed by Lillian (Maya Rudolph), her BFF, that she was getting married, Annie was very happy for her friend yet she was reminded of her own failures. The list included her business venture involving a bakery that went under because of the recession and the fact that she was far from being in a stable romantic relationship. She thought the best she could do was to be in a no strings attached relationship with a womanizer (Jon Hamm) who drove a fancy car and was brazen enough to criticize her teeth. Upon hearing the news, the lingering moment when we noticed her genuine happiness change into critical self-evaluation was “Bridesmaids,” written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, at its best. It wasn’t just a comedy about a wedding but it was about the people that made the celebration stressful and special. When Lillian introduced Annie to little-miss-perfect Helen (Rose Byrne), Annie felt threatened. Helen was rich, men noticed her when she entered a room, and had a natural elegance in the way she carried herself. Annie was just none of those things. One of the most memorable scenes, gloriously awkward and laugh-out-loud funny, involved Annie and Helen attempting to deliver the best toast. The way they snatched the microphone out of each other’s iron grip defined their relationship. As audiences so used to seeing the maid of honor and her rival in more generic and spineless comedies, we expected Annie and Helen to eventually deliver a punch (or purposefully dig one’s stiletto in another’s foot) as the scene went on. But they never did. Part of the joy of watching them together was experiencing the uncomfortable and unbearable tension, their passive-aggressiveness, their willingness to prove that, for Annie, Lillian chose the right friend to be the maid of honor and, for Helen, that she was the more practical choice because she had a talent for micromanagement and the fact that she had connections. The other hilarious bridesmaids were Melissa McCarthy, unapologetically profane and we love her for it, Wendi McLendon-Covey, the extremely unhappy mother of three boys, and Ellie Kemper, bored of her life because everything was rooted in being safe. The unhappiness of these women were relatable, engaging, and ultimately touching. But “Bridesmaids” had its share of gross-out humor. I’m particularly difficult to impress with scenes involving bodily functions but I actually enjoyed those moments. It worked because the material was already very funny. The over-the-top gags were simply icing on the wedding cake (or should I say wedding dress?). Directed by Paul Feig, “Bridesmaids,” character-driven, calculated shots but effortless delivery, and appealing to both women and men, is a rarity in mainstream comedy.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg spent a year with Joan Rivers to document her rollercoaster ride of a career. Joan Rivers is a comedian, but she claimed she was an actress at heart; she simply played a comedian and she knew she did it well. I saw Joan Rivers for the first time on TV when she interviewed people on the red carpet during the Oscars. There were two thoughts that ran across my mind: “Who is this hilarious woman?” and “She’s had way too many facelifts.” She knew exactly what people thought of her yet she decided to forge on like she didn’t care. It’s not that she wasn’t hurt by mean comments (especially critiques directed at her acting abilities), but being in show business was what quenched her appetite yet at the same time fueled her hunger to be relevant and reinvent herself. Despite the ups and downs of Rivers’ career in a span of one year, the directors successfully painted a well-realized picture of their subject. I had no idea that Rivers had been around since the early 1960s and had appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” I didn’t even know she won in a reality show. But it was the small details in her life that moved me, one of which was when she expressed to the camera that one of her biggest fears was that one day, she’ll turn around and find nobody she knew well enough to ask, “Do you remember?” Despite her lavish lifestyle (and she told us bluntly that she loved living comfortably), I’m convinced she held more value to personal links and true companionship than she led us to believe. That moment swept me off my feet because I did not expect it from a comedian who made outrageous jokes about AIDS, abortion, and even handicapped individuals. I was also moved at the part when she and her grandson decided to volunteer for God’s Love We Deliver to deliver food to handicapped people who couldn’t leave their homes on Thanksgiving. At end of the day, Rivers concluded that “Life is mean.” For a woman who was seventy-five years old, working at very strange (and very late) hours, sometimes traveling in the middle of nowhere, I couldn’t help but ask how she continues to do it. I found her story inspirational because it made me think about where I want my career to go. “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” is full of beautiful contradictions that weren’t necessarily easy to swallow but that’s exactly what I loved about it. Ultimately, that’s what I loved about her. She’s edgy, ironic and she knew the business (and the busy-ness) of show business. People thinking of establishing a career under the scrutiny of the public eye should see this documentary. They just might think twice. Joan Rivers said she’s never seen her name without a positive adjective right before it. How about the resplendent Joan Rivers?
Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)
★★★ / ★★★★
A year after the McCallisters accidentally left Kevin alone at home during Christmas, the family decided to go to Miami for vacation in hopes of getting some sun. Once again, the parents (Catherine O’Hara and John Heard) overslept the night before so the family had to rush to the airport in order to catch a plane. But they didn’t leave Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) at home this time around. They actually lost him at the airport because Kevin followed a man with the same coat as his father which resulted to our little protagonist boarding a plane to New York City. The sequel to the highly successful “Home Alone” proudly followed the same formula as its predecessor which was not necessarily a bad thing. While it was slightly weaker than the original because it did not feel as fresh, this installment was still entertaining because Culkin was still endearing as young Kevin and he had a knack for solid comedic timing mixed with being cute as a button. The fantasy of being in the Big Apple, staying in a fancy hotel, and spending as much money as possible was something that we can all to relate to. I have to admit I did salivate when I saw the obnoxious amount of candy and ice cream that surrounded Kevin in his hotel room. The two idiotic burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) from the first movie escaped from prison (now calling themselves “Sticky Bandits”) and planned to rob a toy store in which all of its profits were supposed to go to a children’s hospital. Kevin heard about their evil plan so he planned to punish the two in a relatives’ house currently being renovated before handing them over to the cops. The confrontation scenes were much longer and much more violent. I especially enjoyed the scene with the seemingly endless number of bricks being thrown at the villains. It was very violent but no one lost consciousness or died (there wasn’t even a drop of blood). It felt like watching an episode of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner–the slapstick came hard and fast but every chuckle and laugh was earned. I was surprised that a giant hammer or an avalanche did not make an appearance. “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York,” written by John Hughes and directed by Chris Columbus, embraced its cuddly simplicity, but both children and adults would most likely find it very entertaining. Everything felt bigger in scope with excellent supporting actors like Tim Curry as the suspicious hotel clerk and Rob Schneider as the bellboy who just wanted a generous tip but couldn’t get any. It is unfortunate that most sequels lose the energy and charm that made the original material so fantastic. Luckily, It wasn’t the case here.
Home Alone (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★
The McCallister household was frantic a few days before Christmas because the entire family and a few relatives were about to head to France for vacation. Kevin (Macaulay Culkin), one of the youngest of the kids, felt neglected because his siblings and cousins wouldn’t take the time to help him pack his luggage. Not even his parents could take a minute of their time to aid the plucky youngster. So, during dinner, Kevin acted out and was sent to sleep in the attic as punishment. The next day, everyone slept in and had forgotten they had a flight. As a result of their hustle and bustle, they boarded the plane to Europe completely unaware that Kevin wasn’t with them. “Home Alone,” written by John Hughes and directed by Chris Columbus, was a huge success commercially because it played upon one of a kid’s and a parent’s biggest fear (being alone at home while burglars tried to force themselves in and leaving behind a child, respectively). One of the many smart elements about the film was the fact that the two criminals (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) were kept outside of the house for the majority of the picture. Kevin was forced to create many creative and funny diversions to make the robbers believe that the house had people in it. Much to Kevin’s advantage, the two criminals were complete idiots. (Their modus operandi was leaving the water running in the sink after they’ve looted the place.) What made the film much better than a typical child-in-trouble story was Culkin’s energetic and hilarious performance. He was as cute as a marshmallow but he was precocious so he was able to pull off lines that adults might say. His facial expressions–may it be surprise, joy, or teary-eyed sadness were simply priceless. Surprisingly, I found the slapstick comedy thoroughly entertaining. It wasn’t done just because it was convenient. The slapstick was a result of Kevin using household items (and his toys) as a defense against men who wanted to hurt him. When someone slipped on the ice or when someone was hit on the head with an iron, I couldn’t help but wince as if I was the one in pain. But the whole experience was enjoyable because we didn’t want the villains to get their hands on our tiny but brave protagonist. What did not work for me as much was the creepy-looking neighbor (Roberts Blossom) who turned out to have a heart. The scene dedicated to exploring the man’s backstory (a typical one at that) slowed the story’s momentum. Nevertheless, “Home Alone” is a very charming film. More that twenty years have passed since its release, but it still holds up as one of the favorite family movies often played around Christmas. I cannot image anyone not being entertained by its sharp wit, heart, and manic energy.
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.