The Muppets (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Gary (Jason Segel) and Mary (Amy Adams) were supposed to go to Hollywood to celebrate their tenth anniversary of being in a serious relationship, but considering that Walter (voiced by Peter Linz) was very close to Gary, leaving his brother–who happened to be a puppet–just wouldn’t seem right. The trio headed to Los Angeles by bus, leaving Smalltown for a bit of adventure. During a tour in the derelict Muppet Studio, Walter overheard Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), an oil baron, discussing of his excitement about finally getting his hands on the property, demolishing it, and extracting valuable oil from underneath. Within two weeks, if the Muppets could not come up with ten million dollars to buy back the building, their legacy would literally be a pile of dust. While I didn’t grow up watching Kermit (Steve Whitmire), Miss Piggy (Eric Jacobson), Gonzo (Dave Goelz), and the rest of the gang, I found “The Muppets,” written by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, to be very funny because the jokes’ punchlines had a self-awareness and there was always something new to poke fun of whether it was a Muppet’s quirk or a commentary about us and how we, unlike the beloved puppets some of us grew up watching, tend to take ourselves too seriously. While the film was equipped with easy slapstick humor and bathroom jokes for the little ones, most teens and adults would find that the script was unexpectedly witty and charming. For example, have you ever wondered if the really energetic back-up dancers in big musical numbers ever got tired performing and putting on silly grins just in case the camera went for a dire close-up? What had the Muppets been up to ever since they lost popularity? Were people and Muppets at all suspicious that Gary and Walter were actually biological brothers? The film provided a range of answers while, in some cases, it simply asked, “Why not?” The picture was at its most creative when the gang was back together to do a televised fundraiser. From musical numbers, incidental jokes, and downright weird performances, it was impossible to resist the Muppets’ charm. I wished, however, that there were more scenes dedicated to Kermit, Walter, Gary, and Mary attempting to persuade the former Muppets to get together and raise money. As it turned out, the Muppets didn’t do a very good job with keeping in touch with one another for many years. Kermit’s sudden appearance in their lives, some of them actually leading successful ones, being enough to be fully convinced that a reunion was an excellent idea felt, at times, too superficial. The only one who really had to think about it, given her hilarious flair for the dramatic, was Miss Piggy, sporting an Anna Wintour haircut and ‘tude. Nevertheless, “The Muppets,” based on the characters by Jim Henson and directed by James Bobin, moved at an enthusiastic pace, leaving us no time to think about its inconsistencies. But then again why focus on the imperfections when it was there was a storm of positivity outside? According to the similarly addictive and adorable “Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain,” the fool looks at a finger that points at the sky.
Teenage Paparazzo (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
While out in Los Angeles, Adrian Grenier, who directed the film, noticed a thirteen-year-old paparazzo trying to get his attention in order to get the perfect picture. His name was Austin Visschedyk and it seemed like he had been a pop-stalkerazzi, a term he despised, for quite some time. Intrigued with Visschedyk, Grenier decided to contact the teen and make a movie about him and the fame he tried to capture using his expensive camera. “Teenage Paparazzo” had some interesting tidbits to say, some involving the ethics of paparazzi and privacy, but its vision wasn’t always clear. The first half of the picture was Visschedyk’s almost obsessive nature in capturing images of celebrities. He claimed it was fun, easy, and one great shot could get him a thousand dollars. And while he acknowledged that there were dangers in being a part of the paparazzi (he carried pepper spray), he turned a blind eye most of the time. He wasn’t the only one in denial. His parents allowed him to stay out past 3:00 A.M. (including school nights) to follow celebrities in downtown Hollywood. I’ve been in downtown Hollywood around that time of night and to say that the area is “unsafe” is an extreme understatement. The parents’ defense was they wanted to encourage him to pursue his passion. However, most of us can say that it’s simply a case of bad parenting. The second half, while backed with research about teens and how important fame was to them, it felt unfocused because it moved away from Visschedyk’s story. The documentary eventually became more about young people craving to become famous in any way, shape, or form. There was a survey given to middle school students which showed that they would rather become assistant to celebrities instead of being a CEO of a company, presidents of Ivy League institutions, and other prestigious positions. While it was a shocking result, it did not fit the thesis of the movie. I enjoyed the film best when Grenier and Paris Hilton showed the ridiculousness of trashy gossip magazines and television shows like TMZ. The duo informed Visschedyk and his paparazzi friends that they would be at a certain place and time and the rumors created from the pictures were amusing. It was great to look at things from behind the scenes. All the more disappointing was the fact that there were nice insights from great actors like Matt Damon and Whoopi Goldberg as well as intellectuals like Noam Chomsky. It wouldn’t have been a missed opportunity if the connection between the teenage paparazzo’s story and fame was stronger. Visschedyk’s admission that he wanted to be famous was not enough. I’ve seen his website and I have no doubt that Visschedyk has a gift for photography. In the end, I’m happy there was a glimmer of hope that he could channel his talent to something he could actually be proud of.
★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Richard Day, “Straight-Jacket” was about a popular 1950s actor named Guy Stone (Matt Letscher) who must hide his homosexuality with the help of his agent (Veronica Cartwright) in order maintain his fans’ adoration. When a jealous fellow actor took a photo of Guy being arrested and was accused of being gay, his agent and the studio head (Victor Raider-Wexler) came up with a plan to keep his name clear by means of marrying an unaware fan/secretary named Sally (Carrie Preston). But things didn’t go quite as planned when Guy met a writer (Adam Greer), someone totally different from his type of “big, dumb and blonde.” I detested this picture’s exaggeration of pretty much everything: the slapstick, the wordplay, the acting, the set, among others. I felt as though it was looking down on me because it didn’t let me try to figure out what’s really going on in the characters’ heads because it was too busy hammering me with “this is funny!” moments. I also found this movie particularly difficult to watch because it had great trouble when it came to finding a consistent tone. With all the craziness that was going on screen, a little stability pertaining to the style of storytelling really would’ve done wonders. I like energy when it comes to the comedy but there’s a vast difference between energy and manic randomness. I found no redeeming factor in “Straight-Jacket” but I really have to mention one thing that deeply bothered me while I was watching it. The characters talked about having different kinds of homosexuals out there in the world, yet the film only focused one kind of a homosexual male: good-looking in the face, a built body, with snappy comebacks readily spit out. They’re in Hollywood, for goodness’ sake! Where are the lipstick lesbians, the drag queens, and stout effiminate directors? For a story that touches upon the glamour of Hollywood, this one simply lacked color and diversity. And I guess that’s why I hated this film: it’s unaware that it’s one-dimensional. There are a plethora of bad LGBT movies out there and this one, unfortunately, belongs in that category. What a waste of a hundred minutes.
Barton Fink (1991)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by the Coen brothers, “Barton Fink” tells the story of a playwright (John Turturro) who was hired to write for the movies in Hollywood after his celebrated success on stage in New York. Everyone assumed he had a natural gift for telling stories about the common man so they thought that his writing would immediately translate from stage to pictures. However, right when Barton arrived in his dingy hotel room, he got a serious case of writer’s block. This film was rich in symbolism and it was fun deciphering each of them. However, unlike some of the Coen brothers’ less enjoyable dark comedies, the symbolism and ironies did not get in the way of the fantastic storytelling. Turturro did such a great job as a writer struggling to find an inspiration. He’s very human because he is full of self-doubt yet it was very easy to root for him to succeed because he doesn’t let fame get into his head. In fact, when annoying neighbors (John Goodman) prevent him from concentrating on his work, he welcomes (at first warily) instead of condescends. I also enjoyed the supporting work of Steve Buscemi, Tony Shalhoub and Judy Davis. Their performances reminded me of the best noir pictures in the 1940’s and 1950’s–sometimes in the extremes but they have certain qualities that are so specifically Coen and therefore modern. The last forty minutes of the film completely caught me off-guard. Just when I thought I was finally going to get a more “typical” movie from the Coen brothers, they pulled the rug from under my feet and gave me twist after twist to the point where I found myself struggling to keep up (in a good way). Putting the pieces of the puzzle together was half the fun in analyzing this project. The other half was more about its play on the subtleties and how those little things eventually add up to trigger something so big that it completely changes the rules of the game altogether. The film may be more comedic on the outside but sometimes the darkness underneath it all seeps out from within. And when it happens, I was nothing short of enthralled. If one is interested in movies that are genre-defying but still makes sense as a whole, then I absolutely recommend watching “Barton Fink.” It requires a little bit of thinking because it takes a lot of risks but it’s more than worthwhile. I hope to discover more treasures (and hopefully love it that much more) the second time I get the chance to see it.
★★★ / ★★★★
I love zombie movies because I’m fascinated with the idea of the dead taking over the world of the living. (Did I mention I have nightmares about zombies?) Not to mention zombie flicks usually have social commentaries which were not absent in this little gem. “Zombieland,” directed by Ruben Fleischer, stars Jesse Eisenberg as Columbus, who wants to make his way to Ohio to be reunited with his parents. On the road, he meets Woody Harrelson as Tallahassee, a man on a mission to find Twinkies; Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin as Wichita and Little Rock, respectively, sisters who initially look innocent but turn out to have a knack for survival. The very “28 Days Later”-like gathering of very different people was smart because all of them yearned for that rare human connection in a world full of flesh-eating monsters. All four of them eventualy head to Southern California in order to find refuge with other humans. I love this movie’s self-awareness. It seemed to know its strengths which were highlighted in the beginning of the film as Eisenberg described his survival guide. It was done with such craft because the jokes were genuinely laugh-out-loud funny so the realization that it was all a gimmick later on became insignificant. The flashback scenes were done well, especially how Eisenberg’s character reflected on how much of a loser he was back when humans still ruled the planet–staying in on a Friday night playing video games, not socializing with people, and not getting enough attention from girls. A lot of people compare him to Michael Cera but I think there’s an important difference between the two. I think Eisenberg’s awkwardness is edgy and his characters usually have a certain toughness. Cera’s awkwardness, on the other hand, is softer and cuter–the kind that makes you go “Aww” and maybe pet him afterwards. That awareness was also highlighted via pop culture references from Russell Crowe, Facebook to Ghostbusters. Comparisons to “Shaun of the Dead” is inevitable because it is a horror-comedy about zombies. But I think “Zombieland” is a little scarier because the characters didn’t stop to analyze a zombie, imitate, and make quirky comments about them. All of that said, I had one problem with the film. I thought it slowed down a bit somewhere in the middle because it spent too much of its time showing the characters bickering on the road. It got redundant and such scenes could have been taken out and instead added terrifyingly slow suspenseful scenes. Lastly, I thought the final showdown at the carnival was inspired. The movie was able to find ways on how to kill zombies using the rides or the characters using the rides to their advantage. It made me want to ride a rollercoaster right then and there. I’ve read audiences’ reviews about how surprised they were with how good the movie was. To be honest, right after I saw the trailer for the first time, I had a sneaky feeling that it was going to be good. It certainly didn’t disappoint and in some ways exceeded expectations. If you love zombie movies, blood and guts, cameos, and pop culture allusions all rolled into one, then see this immediately. It’s total escapism and it has the potential to get better after multiple viewings.
Nancy Drew (2007)
★★ / ★★★★
I knew this was targeted toward children under ten years old but I decided to watch it anyway because I was in the mood for something light at the time. Still, despite my pretty low expectations, I thought the revival of “Nancy Drew,” directed by Andrew Fleming, was a bit of a letdown. Emma Roberts stars as the lead character who moved to Hollywood with her father (Tate Donovan) in a creepy house where a murdered famous actress used to live. Even though Nancy was naturally very curious and liked to solve crimes, she hesitated to do anything that related to the mystery because she promised her dad that she would try to be a normal teenager. At school, we saw her try to get along with her peers but they thought she was way too weird and dressed in an old-fashioned way. With the help of one of the mean girls’ brother (Josh Flitter) and crush (Max Thieriot), she finally decided to get to the bottom of the murder. Aside from being too sugary, I had big problems with its focus. I felt like it was too all over the place. I wished that the filmmakers had stuck to one thing (preferably the mystery) instead of trying to inject side stories about trying to fit in or being in a cute romance where neither Nancy or Ned did anything about it. (Granted, they were young.) The only part of the film I truly enjoyed was the last fifteen minutes or so where I truly felt that Nancy was in danger because the person/persons responsible for the murder had her surrounded no matter where she decided to run. Nevertheless, I do have to say that Emma Roberts has the potential to be a star. With the right movie and the right role, I think she will skyrocket to stardom. But in here, I felt like it was too much to ask for her to carry the movie especially if it’s not even edgy. This is a safe, non-violent, detective movie for kids that features an independent blossoming young woman. Nothing more, nothing less.
District 9 (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Sometimes it’s a gift for a film to have a relatively low budget. If this had been another Hollywood-supported movie, it undoubtedly would have been another one of those forgettable special and visual effects-driven films where the aliens had one thing in mind: to destroy humankind. Instead “District 9,” directed by Neill Blomkamp, tried very hard to make up for its lack of budget by creating big ideas that reflect the important events happening in the world which, unfortunately, are being overlooked because Jon and Kate’s divorce are all over the glossy magazines. It also had to compensate by injecting ideas that have been done in other science fiction movies before and actually taking them to the next level. (Some movies that easily come to mind are the “Alien” franchise, “Robocop,” “Starship Troopers,” and even “Cloverfield,” only not as shaky.) Instead of a big introduction that involves an alien spacecraft landing on Earth as everyone panics or prays, the story started off with people offering commentary on how life changed after the spacecraft arrived on Earth years later: the aliens were malnourished, taken to concentration camp-like areas where living conditions were absolutely horrid, and bureaucrats, led by Sharlto Copley as Wikus Van De Merwe, were pretty much forcing the extraterrestrials to sign some paperwork to agree to be moved to another location in order to mollify the anger of nearby human citizens. What started off as “fun” bullying ended up in a tragedy where Copley’s character was accidentally exposed to an extraterrestrial substance which began to change his outlook on humans and aliens through very dramatic means. I enjoyed the fact that the aliens were not the villains here. Instead, it was the humans who thirst for power by acquiring weapons and knowledge by any means necessary (including harming the innocent and throwing ethics out the window), readily able to engage in battle without even once putting in their best efforts to understand the other side, and readily able to turn against their own kind with the slightest sign of supposed disloyalty. I also admired the film’s use of perspective. Right from the first frame, the picture placed us in a certain perspective but as it went on, layers began to peel off (no pun intended) and we got to know more about the motivations of each character or group of people. With its brilliant premise (and viral campaigns), this is an unpredictable film with enough power, imagination, and heart to fill other summer blockbusters that lack such qualities. I can only hope that some of the unanswered questions and lingering plot holes will be answered in the sequel (if there is going to be one). “District 9” more than lives up to the hype.