Tag: jennifer garner


Peppermint (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

As far as vigilante action-thrillers go, “Peppermint” is as generic as they come. It should not have been because the lead is the highly underrated Jennifer Garner, no stranger when it comes to balancing drama and thrills given her extensive experience in the excellent television series “Alias” which wrapped up more than a decade ago. One would think that the screenplay by Chad St. John ought to have aimed higher, wearing its inspirations on its sleeve. Tell a cathartic revenge story first and foremost, then perhaps strive to launch an unapologetically violent film series with a strong female lead. Wouldn’t that have been something?

Riley North is looking to serve justice for the murder of her husband and daughter (Jeff Hephner, Cailey Fleming). Corrupt judges and cops shielded members of the cartel from prison time and so North decided to spend the last five years in Asia and Europe to train her body and hone her skills before attempting to take down a massive drug operation. It is most frustrating that we are not shown much during the five-year gap (with the exception of a three-second cage fight video) because showing the character’s struggle, and her seething rage, during that time could have provided much-needed insight into her psychology, to imply that the real North died during the drive-by alongside her family.

Numerous bullets fly and there is a smorgasbord of firearms, but the photography leaves a lot to be desired. The picture looks drab. Thus, although action sequences unfold in different locations, they tend to blend into one another both in terms of look and feeling. It does not help that the central villain, too, is painfully pedestrian, a typical cartel boss who talks tough but when the lights go off and compound is broken into, he ends up hiding behind his tattooed bodyguards. In other words, the antagonist is not equal to, or nowhere near, North’s level of intensity. It might have helped if the character were written with a more colorful personality—make him extreme, insane, anything other than coming across as another thug to be bulldozed.

The material touches upon a mildly interesting topic: the public’s response, specifically through social media, when a person decides to take it upon herself to correct what she perceives to be wrong. For instance, we are shown Tweets and message board responses on television screens, but these glimpses are too quick for us to get a chance to read and appreciate the comments. If something like this happened in real life, you can bet that clever, amusing, cruel, and ignorant responses would get hundreds of likes and responses. Especially when the vigilante is female. And so it is bizarre that the film neglects to pursue a potentially worthwhile avenue. Action movies can have a brain but this work seems incurious to make the story relevant in modern times.

There is nothing wrong with providing violent escapism in the movies. But it has to be absorbing every step of the way, not dead or dying when guns are nowhere to be found and people are simply required to speak with one another. After all, even the best action movies are rooted in drama.

The Tribes of Palos Verdes

The Tribes of Palos Verdes (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

This is a story about a father (Justin Kirk) who leaves his family, his tribe, and the rest of his unit (Jennifer Garner, Maika Monroe, Cody Fern) must deal, in his or her own way, with the sudden shift in the tide. The setup is a standard template for family dramas, particularly melodramas, but what is initially intriguing about it is that it takes place in a wealthy community of Palos Verdes, where keeping up appearances is adhered to as it if were a religious cult. Because it has the potential to be so pointed in its critiques of a specific community and others like it, it is all the more disappointing that the material lacks focus.

“The Tribes of Palos Verdes,” based on the novel by Joy Nicholson, is written for the screen by Karen Croner. While I admired its enthusiasm and willingness to introduce every subplot, notice how the story never stops beginning. While numerous subplots may work in novels, particularly those that are heavy in interior monologues so that every character’s complexity is painted on a canvas, this approach can kill the pacing of lean dramas that must get to the point of every important arc in order to prevent the pitfall of boredom. While not completely tedious, the picture’s content is repetitive—which does not help because its melancholy tone is enveloping. The material requires urgency in order for the viewer to care.

Our heroine is Medina (Monroe) whose identity is largely tethered to her twin brother (Fern). Through narration, we learn of her thoughts and yearnings, her dreams of surfing coasts across the globe. Particularly interesting about her is in how she describes her new community (her family recently moved from Michigan) in a somewhat sarcastic, flat tone. Words flow out of her but the emotions behind those words are actually more interesting. Small but curious choices like this that Monroe gives her character makes Medina tolerable rather than being a complete bore. Realize the lack of depth in her journey from novel to screenplay; she merely reacts to the changes that members of her family undergo: the divorce between her parents, the mother’s breakdown, the father’s apathy, and the brother’s drug addiction.

As a result, when a romantic subplot involving Medina and Adrian (Noah Silver) comes along, the aspiring veterinarian steals the spotlight from under our surfer girl. He is the more interesting character because not only is there an effortless warmth to him, he is intelligent and there is a stability to his presence, his spirit—traits that we wish our central protagonist possessed despite the tornado within her household. In other words, in order for us to be fully immersed with the drama, viewers require an anchor. There is none to be found here.

At least the picture is photographed in an interesting way. Despite the setting being an affluent California coastal community, it almost never looks completely sunny. It creates the impression that we are seeing the story unfold through sunglasses—an intriguing choice since it underscores the misery and desperation that its subjects must wrestle against. A point can also be made that these sunglasses are meant to blind the audience from recognizing silver linings of sudden, sad plot developments.

There is one silver lining I was not blind to: Garner in a dramatic film. She has played numerous thankless “mom roles” in comedies and children’s movies that many have forgotten that she has the capability, certainly the nuanced facial expressions, to create a truly moving scene out of tired or cliché situations.


Wakefield (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

The curious drama “Wakefield,” based on the short story by E. L. Doctorow, tells the story of a man (Bryan Cranston) who one day decides to check out from the world without any warning, not even to his wife (Jennifer Garner) and two children. Possessing a fascinating premise, ripe for an intense character study, it is most unfortunate that the material neither ever truly takes off nor does it offer deep insights when it comes to everybody’s need, and perhaps longing, to take a break from life. Instead, we listen to Howard bemoan about the life he left for nearly two hours. Did he expect others, even those people who he claims to have, never to move on with life during his absence?

While I admired that the story is about an unlikable person, some may claim detestable, I think he is only interesting on the surface. Cranston does a commendable job in delivering precise facial expressions and subtle body languages meant to communicate great discontent within an otherwise wonderful life. When the camera focuses on that aging, expressive face and simply allows the viewers to extract meaning from the way he looks, the way he sits, and the way he observes from a dirty window, the picture is most engaging.

However, narration is prevalent in this chamber piece. It is used as a crutch to explain when the material’s inherent strength is to show. Words lie, especially given an untrustworthy narrator who is so into himself, but behavior leaves less room for dishonesty. Notice that humor, most often situational, is a welcome addition because it breaks Howard’s monotone and boring thoughts. Conflicts or potential conflicts that arise from situations tend to show rather than tell. I believe the decision to add voiceover is a way to satisfy mainstream audiences. Because it is afraid to be silent, to rely on images, it does a disservice to the nature of the film.

Flashbacks are employed in a smart way. They, too, show rather than tell. While narration is used during flashbacks, the images are powerful enough, and occasionally quite moving, to ignore the words being hammered into our ears. These quick visitations to the past are informative—many of them directly tethered to our further understanding of Howard and why he allowed himself to treat his family the way he did. Initially, we are led to believe his motivation is to punish his wife for a quarrel earlier in the day. It is much deeper than that. For instance, the material touches upon the competitive drive of being “a man,” a twisted, toxic interpretation of masculinity. Note how Howard consistently underlines his role as a provider when, in reality, his wife, too, works in order to pay the bills.

Adapted to the screen and directed by Robin Swicord, “Wakefield” is tolerable because it does not provide the audience easy answers. In fact, it is like sorting through mud with hopes that there are minuscule nuggets of gold hidden among the grime. On this level, I thought it was curious. On the other hand, it absolutely makes compromises in order to have some sort of commercial appeal—strange because I cannot imagine mainstream viewers would be drawn to this type of material or story in the first place. Hence, why not just go all the way and risk it all in order to create work that functions at its fullest potential?

Love, Simon

Love, Simon (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

The first major studio-supported teen coming out story “Love, Simon,” based on the novel “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda” by Becky Albertalli, starts off on the wrong foot and stumbles. Considering the quality cast, I couldn’t help but wonder why nearly every attempt at humor comes across forced and cringe-worthy. A silly attempt at flirting before driving off for school. The overly enthusiastic vice-principal (Tony Hale) collecting cell phones in the hall. An uneasy interaction with the class clown (Logan Miller) by the lockers. These are elements that belong in a television show. Easy to execute, low rewards. But something interesting happens about a third of the way through. The film stops playing everything so safe. I was jolted into paying attention as the title character goes through desperate lengths to keep his “huge-ass secret” hidden. Simon is likable, but some of his decisions are not.

Simon is played by Nick Robinson and it is smart casting not only because the actor has an effortless sad look about him (which served him well in the drama “Being Charlie,” about a drug-addicted teen who decides to terminate his treatment prematurely), required during the more dramatic turns of the plot. It is critical, especially for a commercial coming out story, that the protagonist be convincing as an American boy next door who goes to school in the suburbs in either coast—including the Midwest, perhaps even the South. Because the look of the subject is accessible, relatable, and approachable, gay teenagers still in the closet might look at him and immediately recognize a part of themselves. And for those who may not look or act like him, the screenplay by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger is already a step ahead.

It is true that the main character dreads to reveal his sexual identity. He recognizes that his liberal parents will likely accept him (Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel). And he is almost certain his best friends (Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) will have no problem with it. Looking closely, it isn’t really the coming out that terrifies him most; the core of his fear is those he loves seeing him differently after the fact. And that’s what this picture gets exactly right that so many LGBTQ pictures, many of them comedies, that tackle the same subject get exactly wrong. I admired that the material has the sense to explore what it means to come out of the closet, not just the act of it. Because of this insight and willingness to dive deeper an extra level, despite its shortcomings, it is already a tier above its contemporaries.

About three quarters of the way through, the picture has reached full power. There is a wonderful exchange—moving, delicate, and powerful all rolled into one—between mother and son that highlights what it means to come to terms with one’s sexuality, to decide to live that private sphere more publicly; its effects on one’s state of mind and overall sense of being further down the line even though every day is a long, painful struggle at the moment. Garner reminds us how underutilized she is as a dramatic performer. It reminded me of the disarming exchange between father and son at end of Luca Guadagnino’s sublime “Call Me by Your Name.” Both interactions underscore optimism and hope for the future. It is something that every LGBTQ person, especially youths, ought to hear and take with them.

“Love, Simon,” directed by Greg Berlanti, is not without genuinely amusing moments. Particularly creative are instances when we get a peek inside Simon’s imagination. Cue the striking changes in lighting and pop songs playing in the background. Following an anonymous post at the school website, Simon begins a correspondence with “Blue,” a student who claims he is gay. Part of the fun is following Simon’s journey in trying to guess or deduce the identity of Blue. We are provided a few candidates. Some lead to inevitable heartbreak even though it appears that certain candidates fit the puzzle based on the contents of the e-mails. Admittedly, I had my money on the incorrect candidate, but I appreciated that the material went ahead with the braver choice.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Things have never been better for Alexander’s family: His dad (Steve Carell) just snagged an interview for a video game company, his mom (Jennifer Garner) is up for a big promotion, his elder brother (Dylan Minnette) received news that everyone is voting for him and his girlfriend as prom king and queen, and his elder sister (Kerris Dorsey) is playing the lead on a school musical.

Alexander (Ed Oxenbould), on the other hand, had gum stuck on his hair moments after waking up, almost set the science lab on fire, and received news that no one plans to attend his twelfth birthday party. So, at the stroke of midnight, he makes a wish: for his family to know how it feels like to have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Based on the children’s book by Judith Viorst and screenplay by Rob Lieber, “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” could have gone very wrong. In the wrong hands, its priorities would likely have been on consistent slapstick humor—the more bodily fluids the better—rather than a balance of that and real emotions of a twelve-year-old who feels marginalized, invisible, like he doesn’t matter. Thus, the picture is a bit of a nice surprise, one that the whole family can enjoy.

The material commands an energy that works actively to lure us in. None of the characters are fully developed but because a series of unfortunate events are stacked together like pancakes, sometimes without a breather, we come to a state where we wonder and look forward what will happen next. I was curious as to what point the day would finally turn around for the family. I was surprised in that with some of the negative turn of events, there is a silver lining to them. Or perhaps it is simply my unwavering optimism reflected from the screen.

Although the lead character wishes for his family to have a bad day, we still root for him. When he realizes that maybe his wish really did come true, he genuinely feels bad. There are plenty of so-called children’s movies out there, not dissimilar to this film, where a boy or girl relishes—even temporarily—the misery of his or her family. Here, Alexander feels guilt almost immediately but there is nothing he can do to undo his wish. Instead, the screenplay makes him an active participant in supporting his family to get through the day.

The Coopers are not written to be especially annoying. On the contrary, even though they have their odd traits individually as well as a group, they are the kind of family you want to be around or be a part of. Many family movies struggle to find the fine line between exaggerating the characters and exasperating the audience. Although the film is harmless fun, it does what it aims to accomplish.

Men, Women & Children

Men, Women & Children (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Jason Reitman’s “Men, Women & Children” is an attempt to look at our relationship with the internet and how it has come to define our lives in the past decade or so by focusing on a small American suburb. While the picture commands an interesting and relevant premise, it is not a successful picture. Not only is the running time too bloated—a surprise given there are multiple subplots worthy of exploration—but characters, especially in the latter half, are reduced to clichés. For a movie that tries to tackle a modern subject, it is not forward-thinking enough.

The varying strands are all cautionary tales. Perhaps most fascinating is Patricia (Jennifer Garner) who makes it her mission to protect her daughter, Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), from the dangers of social media. She is convinced that if she learns every password, keeps track of every keystroke, and knows about her daughter’s location at all times, Brandy will be safe. Patricia is so busy keeping up that she fails to realize that she has a good daughter and her “protecting” is doing more harm than good. Garner plays the mother with fervor but stifles the emotions just enough to prevent the character from turning into a caricature.

A curious but undercooked character is Allison (Elena Kampouris), formerly a fat girl who lost a lot of weight during the summer. She has anorexia but she is admired by her friends for “looking for beautiful.” Boys even want to sleep with her now. Each time the focus is on Allison, I could not help but think about Lauren Greenfield’s excellent but not widely seen documentary called “Thin.” That movie understands eating disorders at its core. On the other hand, this film, for the most part, makes it look like Allison’s eating disorder is about wanting to be liked rather than having an irrational obsession to restrict.

Weaker still is the strand involving a married couple (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt) who are bored with each other and so they use the internet to hookup with strangers. We never understand why their marriage is stale. Instead, we watch them on the couch looking bored and sort of mentioning about how often they had sex years ago. Many of their scenes come across almost farcical—situations that are easily found in bad comedies. Don and Helen are not characters but stick figures. I would rather have learned more about Kent (Dean Norris) and Donna (Judy Greer), a father with a depressed son (Ansel Elgort) and a mother with a daughter craving stardom (Olivia Crocicchia).

To get us into the mood of its characters, the picture is shot in warm, pale light especially when a scene is taking place at night and indoors. This is an elementary approach but the way it is done here is most inelegant. We notice the technical elements because the drama is not completely captivating.

Lastly, given its subject of the internet’s ability to affect all lives, I was surprised to not have seen more diversity in both casting and characters. By the end, one gets the impression that this story is only about white, middle-class, heterosexual people. Them being more or less the same contributes to the screenplay running out of steam just before the halfway mark.

13 Going on 30

13 Going on 30 (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★

Jenna was a thirteen-year-old girl who desperately wanted to belong in a clique led by a typical mean girl, unaware that her best friend had a crush on her. During Jenna’s ruined birthday party, she desperately wished that she was thirty and thriving; she woke up the next morning in a completely different body (Jennifer Garner) and had no memory of what happened in her life since her terrible 13th birthday party. She had to learn a lot of things such as her best friend being no longer the guy who truly cared for her (Mark Ruffalo) but the mean girl (Judy Greer) she wanted to impress in middle school. This is the kind of movie where we can clearly see how it would all end right from the beginning but I couldn’t help but enjoy it. It was well-aware of its predictability so it made the journey to the finish line so much fun by throwing us good and bad 80s references. It was as light as cotton candy and as sweet as bubblegum but it had wit, intelligence and charm. It was willing to wear its heart on its sleeves, which sometimes made me cringe because it didn’t know when to stop (for instance, Garner joining her parents in bed), but I thought it worked most of the time. Garner was perfectly casted because she was so good at being wide-eyed and innocent. I thought she was so adorable dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and when everybody joined in, I couldn’t help but laugh and tap my feet. As for the romance, Ruffalo and Garner had perfect chemistry. Watching them together had its syrupy moments but I always felt a certain tension or awkwardness between them because their characters hadn’t spoken to each other in a long time. I think they captured the essence bumping into someone you knew from high school and you had no choice but to make small conversation in order to not seem rude. However, I think the picture could have worked more on the cold-hearted Jenna. The script kept bringing up the fact that everybody was scared of her because she was conniving and had no problem abusing her power. I was curious about her darker side. By exploring that angle, I think the movie could have delved into Greer’s character a lot deeper. After all, there is often pain and jealousy between two friends having to compete against other. Directed by Gary Winick, “13 Going on 30” is a bit too safe in its approach but it’s still a highly enjoyable romantic comedy. It could have easily have overdosed with twists and turns because of the magical element that helped to drive the story forward but it refrained. It wasn’t as good as Penny Marshall’s “Big” but it was able to acquire some magic unique to its own.