Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
The most refreshing element in “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” based on the screenplay by Phil Johnston and Pamela Ribon, is its lack of villain, especially for a film targeted toward young children. Having a big bad is the easier path to traverse because if there is someone else to root against, then taking some of the focus away from the central protagonists is not as noticeable. The most cathartic moment relies on defeating the enemy. So, in a way, an argument can be made that the sequel is more ambitious than its predecessor. Here, the “villain” is change—specifically, how changes in one’s goals or dreams may threaten to derail a friendship. While I enjoyed its more mature theme, it is far from consistently entertaining.
There is a wealth of detail in this colorful and lively animated picture. The plot revolves around Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) discovering the wonders of the internet. It is filled to the brim with visual jokes, from intense bidding experiences on eBay (even though the items to be “won” are so silly) to annoying pop-up advertisements that plague websites with heavy traffic. The online world is beautiful and vibrant; there is almost always something to appreciate in the background should one bother to look.
Especially amusing is the effort put into the design and voices of the more memorable supporting characters like the search engine Knowsmore (Alan Tudyk) who can speak faster than you can think (or type). Another welcome addition is the fashionable Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), an algorithm that specializes in trending videos on BuzzTube, who decides to help Ralph and Vanellope find ways to earn enough money so they can purchase a replacement for the broken Sugar Rush wheel. Failing to do so would result in Ralph’s best friend no longer having a home since the game would be shut down permanently. (The wheel replacement costs more than how much the game makes in a year, according to the arcade owner.) These characters command distinct looks that match the voice performers’ level of enthusiasm.
Despite the details, however, the more interesting avenues are touched upon but never explored. When Ralph stumbles upon the comments section—specifically comments about how he looks, acts, and comes across—the material introduces the darker, more toxic side of the internet. This may be new to kids because, in reality, the internet offers more than playing the latest trendy games or watching cute cat videos. People can be mean—often for no reason—and they use the anonymity of the internet to say things they would never dare to express should their faces and actual names were exposed for the world to see. While this is on the more serious side, I believe that should the screenwriters made the topic more kid-friendly, the film would have commanded more urgency. Cyberbullying and toxic online environments are certainly more relevant now than ever. And the film’s main target audiences are going to grow up and deal with it.
The picture also suffers when it showcases characters from wildly popular franchises—especially when classic and modern Disney princesses take up the screen. The jokes are so specific, so amusing, and so clever that the original characters in this series fade into the background by comparison. At one point, I caught myself wishing that there was a movie of just the Disney princesses hanging out and saving the world. Sometimes less is more. Vanellope may be spunky, but she does not hold a candle against any one of the Disney princesses that makes a cameo. Speaking of less being more, I would have preferred not to have heard Vanellope’s awful song.
“Ralph Breaks the Internet” is overlong, running out of steam about halfway through. While the more emotional moments may tug at the heartstrings for some, those who have grown impatient, like myself, are likely to see through the manipulation. Still, there are some chuckles to be had here.
Kong: Skull Island (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
It probably would have been more appropriate for “Kong: Skull Island,” directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, to have been released in the middle of summer because, for better or worse, it embodies all elements of a blockbuster special and visual effects extravaganza including the sub-genre’s shortcoming: nice to look at but look closer and realize nothing much goes on inside. What results is a watchable action-fantasy, certain to entertain on late-night cable viewings, but it is not for viewers who demand creativity and intelligence alongside suspense and thrills.
Big names are cast in this monster film but the characters might as well have been played by unknowns because not one of the actors manages to inject something extra special to his or her performance. If less familiar performers had been cast instead, at least they would have benefited from the exposure. Instead, otherwise compelling actors familiar with the art of subtlety are reduced to playing extremes: Samuel L. Jackson as the villainous military man, Tom Hiddleston as the quiet hero hired for a job, Brie Larson as a photojournalist who finds humanity in a gargantuan gorilla, and John C. Reilly conveniently provides comic lines.
Just about everything is so expected, so familiar, that I found minimal excitement in a film that is supposed to balance wonder, horror, action, suspense, and eventual catharsis. I wished to know who the characters are outside of their occupations and what pushed them to partake in the mission. What makes he or she interesting other than being on survival mode? What makes he or she worth rooting for (or against) just because he or she means well (or the quite the opposite)? Clearly, these characters are one-dimensional. There is no excuse for a movie with a sizable budget to have a minuscule imagination. Look at how it portrays scientists. They are silent, cowering, often in the background.
For an island that is supposed to be undiscovered—being surrounded by perpetual storms helps—there is a lack of a sense of discovery outside encounters with massive creatures. At one point, the outsiders come across quiet indigenous people covered by paint and jewelry from head to toe. The picture dedicates not one scene in showing a new outsider attempting to make a connection with the curious human inhabitants. The story might have been set in the ‘70s but such is a mere ploy since it fails to capture the essence of that era. Notice that in movies released in the same time period, even in blockbuster films that happen to be set in a strange or new land, there is always an attempt to communicate, to connect, to find a commonality. Not here.
It excels in a few individual scenes, which usually last about five minutes, before forcing us to wait for the next action sequence. Perhaps most impressive is the graveyard scene. Notice how it builds atmosphere and mood. We are awestruck by the mighty skeletons; as the camera lingers on them, we try to imagine corpses that were once there. The yellow-orange dirt highlights the white bones’ surfaces—their cracks, crevices, and holes. All the while we know that something is going to happen soon. It becomes a matter of perfect timing. I felt elated when the execution got it exactly right. At that moment, I caught myself wishing that the entire material functioned on such a high level and on a consistent basis. There are stretches where neither the senses nor the mind is engaged.
“Kong: Skull Island” is not for audiences who demand more than two CGI characters duking it out during the final ten minutes. Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” got it right where this movie got it wrong. In the 1993 classic, there is dimension to the central characters, we get to know some of the creatures up close (sometimes a little too up close), it pushes us to experience a rollercoaster of emotions. It engages us intellectually. We grow to care deeply for our protagonists. Here, I did not care whether they would make it out of the island alive.
Lobster, The (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Viewers with a palate for the bizarre are certain to embrace “The Lobster,” intelligently written by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, and yet the piece is not simply for those with an acquired taste because the roots of the humor, curiosities, ironies, and social commentaries are near universal. For instance, all of us have been in a situation where we find ourselves being the only single person in a group of couples, at times even being the subject of conversation (and judgment) as to why we do not yet have a special someone and simply settle down. The picture is packed with a wicked sense of absurdist and satirical humor.
Our protagonist is named David (Colin Farrell), a man informed by his wife that she is leaving him because she has fallen in love with someone else. According to their society, unpaired adults must go to a hotel where they must find a mate within forty-five days. Failure to do so would compel those in charge to turn those without a partner into an animal of his or her choice. A person can gain more days to stay in the hotel by participating in The Hunt—which involves going into the woods, hunting, and tranquilizing escaped single people so they can be turned into animals for their failure to abide by societal rules.
Part of the humor is the carefully modulated performances. It is interesting that just about all characters speak in a robotic tone and feeling and yet none of them are ever boring. On the contrary, each performer’s interpretation of a schizoid-like personality fascinates especially during longer takes where every word uttered, limb moved, and blinking of the eyes must be well-timed or the gamble falls into itself. Or worse—turns into a parody of itself. Notice that every person David meets does not have a name. They are merely referred to as “Nosebleed Woman,” “Loner Leader,” “Hotel Manager,” “Lisping Man,” and the like. They are defined by these names. A case can also be made that their names define them.
We look into a strange world and the writers provide specifics with glee. Particularly compelling is how we come to learn about the lifestyle in the hotel. There is only one lifestyle and everybody is expected to submit to the rules or be punished severely. For example, in order for singles to become more motivated to pair up, masturbation is not allowed at all times. Lisping Man (John C. Reilly) gets caught and the punishment clearly does not fit the so-called felony. As he cries out, begging for the pain to stop, those in the room—his friends, acquaintances, neighbors—simply look down and go about their day. This is a microcosm of our society. I loved and admired its savage angle.
Those with a more ordinary taste will unjustly label the film as pretentious. I have come across numerous pieces of work that fall under this category and “The Lobster,” directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, is absolutely not one of them. The correct word is challenging, perhaps even ambitious, because it engages us by inspiring us to think a little bit about what is shown on screen. The metaphors, symbolisms, and ironies are not at all difficult to figure out. Still, sometimes material offers answers, other times it does not. A delicious example of the latter is the superb final scene. The film ends right where it should. It is a litmus test of how we define love and whether or not we believe in the old adage that love conquers all. After all, does it, really?
★★ / ★★★★
Terri’s life is in a state of transition. When Terri (Jacob Wysocki) is asked where his mother and father are, he answers, “I don’t know” with a painful honesty and vulnerability. In the meantime, he is living with Uncle James (Creed Bratton), who exhibits signs of old age and a mood disorder. At school, he is teased by his peers for being obese and having breasts bigger than most girls. When he starts the habit of going to school in pajamas and being late for class, he is sent to Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), the vice principal, who, surprisingly, can genuinely relate to the outcasts in the school.
Based on the screenplay by Patrick Dewitt and directed by Azazel Jacobs, “Terri” is a wonderfully muffled coming-of-age film–at least for the most part.
It is easy to be able to sympathize with Terri’s loneliness. He has acquaintances he knows from class but no friends with whom he can speak to about his deep thoughts. He stares into nothingness quite often. Perhaps he thinks about his parents, where they are and what they’re doing; maybe he is worried about his uncle leaving him, either by choice or the natural way; or maybe he is simply bored from doing the same thing every day. He walks along the school hallways like a zombie and, when confronted, he runs away like Frankenstein’s monster.
Terri’s physicality, specifically, his obesity, is not utilized in a malicious way. Yes, he is teased but it’s impossible not to feel anger or frustration when his classmates make jokes about his body. The fact is, there are overweight teens at school and I think it’s important that they be represented.
Terri is a kind person. When Heather (Olivia Crocicchia) is caught being fingered by one of the boys in class, her reputation takes a dive. Instead of laughing at her to her face or behind her back, Terri identifies with her being pariah. Their relationship, in an interesting way, straddles romance and friendship quite nicely. Their tender moments are something that I might have seen in class if we happen to share the same table.
Unfortunately, the last thirty minutes drops its humble and simple elegance. Terri, Heather, and Chad (Bridger Zadina), a weird kid with a tendency of plucking the hair off his head whom Terri met at Mr. Fitzgerald’s office, hang out at Uncle James’ house and eventually turn to alcohol and drugs. The decision to turn the characters toward the direction of excess feels completely off because up until that point, drugs and alcohol are not even acknowledged. (Other than Uncle James needing to take medicine for his condition.)
The scene that focuses on the experimentation drags and is tonally awkward. Although I tried to connect the dots, what the filmmakers attempt to communicate–assuming that they are communicating something–is vague. For instance, when offered pills so that he can feel good, Terri responds, “But I already feel good” with a certain tone of authority. Is the material making a statement that some teens just do not feel the need to take drugs to have a great time with their friends? If so, there are not enough scenes to support this claim… as well as the contrary for that matter.
Despite the critical misstep in the third act, “Terri” has morsels of wise advice sprinkled throughout about how to live’s one’s life when it is shaken and the pressure feels unbearable. It does get better, if you want and choose to, one day at a time.
★★★★ / ★★★★
John (John C. Reilly) is sitting outside a diner with hands in his face when Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) comes up to him and offers coffee. John accepts and we learn that the reason why he looks so hopeless is because he lost all his money. John’s good intentions impresses Sydney. That is, John had wanted to win enough money so he can give his mother a proper funeral. Sydney, a man of experience, decides to teach John some tricks in exploiting the casino’s loopholes.
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, “Hard Eight” may be a small film but it is equipped with big guns: a confident, fast-paced, and focused direction; a wonderful ear for dialogue; and characters who continually reveal layers of personalities and histories.
I expected the film to be about John because he is the protégé as well as the first person the camera fixates on. It turns out that while he remains an important figure in the storyline, it is really more about Sydney and how much he grows to love John like flesh and blood. To complicate the plot, right after Sydney teaches John the first lesson in outsmarting the casinos, the picture jumps two years forward. Not only are John and Sydney slightly different from the time we meet them, there are two new characters: Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), John’s sort-of girlfriend for two months, and Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), John’s friend that Sydney doesn’t particularly like.
We are expected to learn about the four and how their relationships change the dynamics of the situation. Hall delivers an incredible performance. In a lot of ways, he reminded me of my grandpa: tough, suave, mostly quiet but very capable of warmth and support. Every time he is on screen, I was drawn to him and he doesn’t have to say a word.
There is a scene in a shabby hotel room where panic-stricken Reilly and Paltrow are on the foreground yet I kept noticing Hall on the background, just standing there, completely calm, while his face is drowned in shadows. In each scene, I felt him observing and thinking what he might do next. He never becomes predictable.
In most movies that aim to tackle special relationships between a parent and his or her non-biological child, there comes an obligatory scene where the former tells the latter, “I love you like you’re my own.” I almost always roll my eyes or end up stifling a snicker. It has turned so cheesy, so passé. But not here. I completely bought the set-up and delivery. During that scene, I relished every emotion on Sydney and John’s faces, held my breath at every pause, and found it hard to swallow because I was so moved. The moment is earned.
“Hard Eight,” also known as “Sydney,” is a gem and I’m astounded that it’s Anderson’s first feature film. By the end, it accomplishes two things. 1) It kept me interested in what would happen next. 2) Somehow, I couldn’t think of one thing I would change to make it better.
Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★
Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly), the villain of an arcade game called “Fix-It Felix Jr.” whose sole purpose was to destroy a building only for Felix (Jack McBrayer) to restore, was aware of how lucky he was to be a part something that had endured for almost thirty years. However, he was tired of not being appreciated by his colleagues, treated as a bad guy even when their game was not being played. When the arcade closed for the night and everyone celebrated the day’s success, he was often left on his own, with no companion except for a comfortable tree stump located on a pile of bricks. Ralph concluded that if he could get his hands on a medal, like Felix after a successful mission, everyone would finally realize his worth. Based on the screenplay by Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee, while it was apparent that “Wreck-It Ralph” had fun alluding to a buffet of games, from “Pac-Man” to “Q*bert,” it didn’t rely on the coolness of retro as a crutch to not construct and develop a legitimate story that we could remain interested in as it unraveled. Most of the flashier cameos were appropriately placed in the beginning to help us orient into a universe where video game characters could cross onto different game worlds and interact. The most visually striking sections in the film took place in a station where all sorts of creations, from pudgy-cute to bizarre concoction of monstrosities, passed by one another like they were on a rush to go somewhere. Perhaps they were. They had only so little time until they had to return to their respective games. Its energetic creativity mixed with a sense of community brought to mind Peter Docter, David Silverman, and Lee Unkrich’s “Monsters, Inc.” It was possible to appreciate the hustle and bustle of the background without forcing away our attention from what was happening in the foreground. The two worlds visited by Ralph were both visually outstanding. “Hero’s Duty” consisted of forebodingly dark and angular environment, with men in bulky metallic suits eradicating ugly giant bugs using massive guns. On the other hand, “Sugar Rush” was all about the mouthwatering confections of various colors, textures, and sizes. Ruled by King Candy (Alan Tudyk), it was a place of sticky pink happiness but it wasn’t without its secrets. The contrast between the two gaming worlds was impressive, hinting at the animators’ sheer technical range, but I was less thrilled in the fact that most of the time was spent in candy land. It offered a handful of very funny bits involving Felix and Calhoun (Jane Lynch), the commander of alien exterminators, acclimating to a picturesque but dangerous environs. I laughed myself silly when they fell into Nesquik sand and attempted to get out. Unfortunately, the scenes between Ralph and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), a pariah in what was supposed to be a happy place for car racing, weren’t especially touching nor consistently amusing. The jokes during their interactions were often corny, almost infantile. There were moments when I grew bored of their exchanges. Also, when a pop song begins to play to get an emotion out of us, it is most often a sign of weakness. Why not use silence as an alternative to force us to consider what we are feeling instead of feeding us a specific emotion? Such a technique was utilized here and, admittedly, I cringed at the false note. While done only once, it felt manipulative enough to take me out of the moment. Despite its shortcomings, “Wreck-It Ralph,” directed by Rich Moore, was still very good work in that it oozed potential even until the very last frame. It just needed more of that potential to be substantiated.
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton), a once popular author, woke up and found the front of her home covered in red paint. After an interview with a traveling agency, a woman came up to Eva and smacked her across the face, leaving her a bloody nose. A man came to help and asked if he should call 911, but Eva insisted it was completely her fault. We learned that Eva’s son, Kevin (Ezra Miller), murdered some of his classmates back when he was only fifteen. Most of the community held Eva responsible for raising such a morally deficient child. Based on a novel by Lionel Shriver, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” posed very interesting questions about parenting and its role in raising a child who could function in society. Specifically, are there some people who are born evil? The picture explored this question with succinctly maneuvered flashbacks. Eva and her husband (John C. Reilly) enjoyed traveling, learning about other cultures, and having fun together. When Eva learned that she was pregnant, she equated this as the end of her independence. I admired that the film left her feelings toward the being in her womb to be quite ambiguous. Her emotions weren’t as clear as black and white as most would readily jump into. We saw her examining her figure in front of a mirror. Maybe she was concerned what the pregnancy was doing to her body. After all, it was her first time. We watched her looking listless around other pregnant women who seemed very social and excited about being with child. Maybe Eva feared the idea of giving birth and didn’t feel like sharing her feelings with strangers. And that’s alright. There was not one definite clue convincing enough for us to say, without a doubt, that she hated her unborn child. While she could have put more energy or enthusiasm in being pregnant, the fact is that women react to pregnancy in different ways. When the child was born, it was an entirely different matter. I loved that the film was able to switch gears so effortlessly without sacrificing an ounce of subtlety. From what I observed, Eva wanted to love her son but Kevin was a very difficult baby and an impossible toddler. I didn’t always agree with Eva’s methods and I certainly don’t think we were supposed to. I thought the material was ingenious because by providing us a series of meticulously crafted scenes of Eva’s bad parenting, it was like putting us in the shoes of that woman who hit her in the beginning of the film. The issue was our judgment of Eva although for entirely different reasons. Even I have to admit that there were times when I wanted to shake or yell at her. One of those times involved Eva putting her baby near an active jackhammer in order to drown his inconsolable crying. While I felt bad for Eva for feeling that she was an ineffective parent, she could’ve handled the stress much better than putting her child near a construction zone and endangered him of turning deaf. “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” directed by Lynne Ramsay, was smart because, although relevant, it was not about the killings that happened in the school. Notice that the violence was not shown, only the aftermath. By focusing on Eva and her feelings of inadequacy, anger, and depression, the film put a face on a tragedy that permanently changed people’s lives. I certainly didn’t feel for Kevin as a teenager. He was so wrapped up in his hatred toward his mother that eventually I began seeing him as a bomb just waiting to go off. I believe that there are some people who are beyond help. They can’t help it because of the chemical imbalance in their brains. I believe Kevin was one of them and his unpredictability was a great source of suspense.
★★ / ★★★★
In the opening sequence of “Carnage,” directed by Roman Polanski, we observed a group of kids interacting at a park. As one kid walked away from a group, obviously upset, the leader of the group followed. The former kid turned around suddenly and smacked the latter in the face with a long stick. The one who used the weapon was Zachary and the one who ended up on the ground was Ethan. Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly), Ethan’s parents, invited Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz), Zachary’s parents, in their home to discuss, in a calm and friendly way, the issue and what should be done next. Initially, everyone was as serene as a kettle of full of water recently put on a stove to boil. But as the parents spent more time together, they began to turn against one another until the issues they began to discuss were no longer related to the conflict between their children. Based on a play called “Le Dieu du carnage” by Yasmina Reza, for a film packed with four excellent and versatile comedic and dramatic actors, it ended up only slightly comedic and barely dramatic. While nuance in the acting was present, I felt as though there was nothing underneath the surface emotions. Having an experience with working with kids and dealing with equally difficult parents, I can vouch that these people were caricatures. Perhaps they were supposed to be, fine, but it seemed as though Polanski neglected to provide his audience multiple angles of each character so that we would be forced to recognize our parents, or even ourselves, in them. While parents may be as self-centered and sensitive as their children, not for one second did I believe that an adult, after being insulted several times, directly and indirectly, would decide not to flee the situation as quickly as possible. Penelope delivered sententious speeches about how much she loved the history of Africa and how she claimed to understand Africa’s suffering. Nancy felt very ill. Michael kept making jokes in order to palliate the increasing unhappiness. Alan was programmed to pick up his cell phone every time it rang. Didn’t it occur to any of them that it just wasn’t worth it? If I’m talking to someone and it’s obvious that my words are going in one ear and out the other, I’ll feel compelled to no longer speak. I’m not going to waste my time trying to get through to someone who’s too stubborn to consider what I have to say. Deep down, Penelope and Michael felt like Nancy and Alan just didn’t care that their child picked up a weapon and struck another person. The very act had a lot of social, emotional, and psychological implications yet none of them were explored. I argue that if they had been explored, the last shot would have been more powerful. Because the screenplay was adamant in remaining loyal the source material, the movie became asphyxiated by contrivances; I found it difficult to engage with it in a meaningful way. Most plays, like movies, are successful because they make the audiences feel something. Since my emotions remained rather neutral, except for a few snickers here and there, I felt the material did not translate to the big screen. What special quality did this picture have that the play did not? The yelling, screaming, and bickering were aimed, I think, to distract us from its insipidity.
Dark Water (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
After a divorce, Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly) moved in with Ceci (Ariel Gade), her daughter, into an apartment. The two hoped to start a new life but it proved to be a challenge. Ceci began to make an imaginary friend named Natasha, the same name of a little girl who disappeared from the apartment directly above theirs. On the other hand, Dahlia not only had to deal with abandonment issues from her own mother years prior, but she also had to worry about the increasingly large leak in their bedroom ceiling. The apartment attendant (Pete Postlethwaite) and the realtor (John C. Reilly) wouldn’t take the time to genuinely help her. Over time, Dahlia became in danger of reaching an emotional and psychological breaking point. Based on a novel by Kôji Suzuki and directed by Walter Salles, “Dark Water” was at its best when it explored the bond between a mother and her only daughter. I enjoyed the first few scenes when the mother and daughter evaluated the dilapidated apartment. Ceci insisted that she thought the place was creepy and didn’t want to live there, but it was all the mother could afford. Instead of immediately going for the cheap thrills, the material focused on the family’s sad circumstance. The first sign that there was something wrong was reflected in Ceci’s sudden change of mind after she stared at the dark spot on the ceiling. The supernatural horror was effective because it challenged the mother-daughter bond, the only strand that seemed to keep Dahlia’s mentality in a stable point. What didn’t work for me were the tired dream sequences. There were simply too many of them. In addition, it was easy to determine that we were watching a dream because the scenes had a certain glow. That lack of surprise ultimately worked against the film. The dreams were just an excuse to go overboard with special and visual effects involving water leaking out of the walls. There was nothing scary about it. While water was an important component in solving the mystery that surrounded the missing family upstairs, incorporating water with creepy details, like hair coming out of the bathroom faucet, was more engaging than a dream sequence with gallons of water that threatened to drown the character. However, I admired that the picture eventually focused on the ugliness of Dahlia and Kyle’s (Dougray Scott) divorce. More importantly, I was glad that, despite the former couple’s arguments, there was enough hint that they still cared for each other. It was another layer of reality which made the horrific elements stand out. I feel the need to give credit for Connelly’s strong performance. She made me believe that every stress her character went through was a threat to her or her daughter’s physical well-being. I knew she loved her daughter but I feared the moment when she would finally lose her grip on reality. “Dark Water” was a smart and confident horror film because it stayed away from simplifying its mature template. If only others of its type would follow.
★★★ / ★★★★
John (John C. Reilly) couldn’t move on from his divorce so his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) and her future husband (Matt Walsh) decided to drag him to a party where he could mingle and hopefully meet some single women. After a series of forced and awkward conversations, John met Molly (Marisa Tomei) and the two seemed like a good fit. Although she was very attractive, unlike most women at the party, she wasn’t difficult to approach and didn’t make John feel bad about himself whether it be his physical appearance–he described himself as “like Shrek”–or his job. She overlooked his many imperfections because she loved John’s honesty. However, their relationship came to screeching halt when John met Cyrus (Jonah Hill), Molly’s son, who was unnecessarily sarcastic and had a little bit of insanity in the eyes. Having an unhealthy close relationship with his mom, Cyrus’ plan was to drive John out of Molly’s life. Written and directed by Jay and Mark Duplass, “Cyrus” would easily have been a disappointment in the wrong hands. What I loved most about it was it allowed the characters to act like people one could potentially meet at just about anywhere. They were conflicted in what they could offer to someone else, sometimes self-pitying, capable of making royal mistakes, and at times readily able to forgive or overlook certain actions. Even though the material was essentially a comedy, it tried to deal with serious issues in a respectful manner. For instance, we didn’t know who Cyrus really was for the majority of the picture. Despite his selfish actions, I might have disliked his actions but didn’t loathe him. It made me wonder whether his fear of being replaced was driven by another factor like a psychological trauma or a chemical imbalance. I saw John, Molly, and Cyrus’ relationship as three people in a canoe attempting to make it from one island to another, like a relationship in a state of critical transition. John and Molly were content in sitting in the canoe in silence. They had excellent chemistry, almost as if the current wanted them to reach the second island. But Cyrus, despite being twenty-one years of age, was essentially a kid. He talked as if he was years beyond his age but he hadn’t reached a certain level of maturity just yet. He craved attention and so he rocked the canoe with all his might, sometimes even found it gratifying to see the friction between his mother and her new beau. Is the canoe going to tip over? “Cyrus” was an interesting exercise of the dynamics of complicated relationships and the happiness that each character desperately wanted to grasp. It’s refreshing to watch understated comedies where its sense of humor was in the characters’ situations instead of the joke being pointed at themselves.
Cedar Rapids (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) was an honest insurance salesman. He was comfortable living in a small town and changing people’s lives for the better. He was described as the guy who could have gone places but actually didn’t go anywhere. When one of his colleagues passed away due to autoerotic asphyxiation, he was asked by his boss (Stephen Root) to attend an insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and win an award for their region. Tim was warned not to interact with Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly) but, as luck would have it, they ended up sharing a hotel room. Written by Phil Johnston and directed by Miguel Arteta, “Cedar Rapids” was surprisingly human. I expected the film to rely solely on awkward situations and slapstick comedy to generate most of its laughs. Helms had a knack for the former, while Reilly built his career on the latter. The two actors fed off one another. When the camera was transfixed on them, my body automatically prepared itself to laugh because my brain knew that Helms and Reilly understood both the value of a punchline and, more importantly, precision of delivery. But the movie wasn’t just about the laughs. It was also about Tim venturing out into the world and realizing how fun, dangerous, and rewarding it could be to make friends who were entirely different from himself. There was one very amusing scene when Tim was shocked to find an African-American man, Ronald (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), in his room. Furthermore, I was particularly interested in Tim’s relationship with Joan (Anne Heche), a married woman with kids. She saw the convention as a means of escape from the routine and, although much of it was unsaid, I believed she saw something in Tim that she craved, perhaps a quality that her husband lacked, but could never have because she already had a life. The way Heche delivered certain looks inspired me to dig beyond what her character was willing to outwardly share. There was a certain sadness between the two scavenger hunt partners and the film’s final moments worked because I believed their relationship, not necessarily romantic, would continue. Back home, Tim was involved with his former grade school teacher (Sigourney Weaver). The writing could easily have been lazy, relying on jokes that involved the word “cougar,” but I loved that the material didn’t look down on Tim and Macy’s relationship. Sure, she was over fifteen years older than him but a handful of scenes suggested that they shared something meaningful. “Cedar Rapids” took ordinary people and allowed them to work, play, and form friendships in an honest, emotionally resonant manner. More mainstream comedies can only aspire to be as such.
Boogie Nights (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★
17-year-old Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) was spotted by a pornographic film director named Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) while working as a busboy in a disco. Eddie, after running away from home, decided to work for Jack, changed his name to Dirk Diggler and instantly became an adult film star in the late 1970s. At first, everything seemed to be going well: Dirk’s well-endowed tool skyrocketed him to stardom, he made some good-natured friends (Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Heather Graham, Philip Seymour Hoffman), and the ideas he shared with Jack in order to make the exotic pictures they made together even better earned Dirk awards, money and recognition. But in the 1980s, everything came crashing down as he chose his pride over people that took care of him when he was at his lowest, became addicted to drugs and resulted to prostitution to finance his addiction. I was impressed with writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s elegant control over his material. It could easily have been sleazy because of its subject matter but I was happy he treated his subjects with utmost respect. Anderson may have highlighted his characters’ many negative traits but he made them as human and relatable as possible. His decision to underline the negative aspects of the pornographic industry not only was the driving force of the drama but it also prevented the picture from glamorizing its many lifestyles. It made the argument that the porno stars were sad, desperate and that most of them wouldn’t choose the industry if they knew how to do anything else well or if they had the means to reach for their goals. For instance, Don Cheadle’s character did not have the financial means to start his own business so he used the industry to have some sort of leverage. Details like that made me care deeply for the characters. Their careers didn’t have to be honorable but, like us, they did what they have to do in order to get by. However, I wished the movie could have at least acknowledged the role of sexually transmitted diseases in the industry. I know that the idea was not yet popular at the time but some hint of it could have added another dimension to the script. Furthermore, I found William H. Macy’s character to be one of the most fascinating of the bunch but he wasn’t fully explored. With a wife that so openly cheated on him (she had a penchant for having sex in public), we saw that he was a pushover. But what else was he? I felt like he was merely a joke, a punchline and that stood out to me because, even though others had something peculiar about them, they had layers and complexity. “Boogie Nights” surprised me in many ways because I didn’t expect it to have so much heart and intelligence. It certainly changed the way I saw pornographic material and, more importantly, the people that starred in them.
★★ / ★★★★
Clocking in under 80 minutes, “9” tells the story of ragdoll-like creatures in a postapocalyptic world who struggle to survive against the machines. When one of the creatures named 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood) woke up, he started to ask questions like what had happened in the world, why they had to live in fear, and what they could do so that they would have a better existence. 1 (Christopher Plummer), the leader of the creatures, did not like 9’s questions and they often clashed on how to approach various situations. Other voices included Martin Landau, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover, Jennifer Connelly and Fred Tatasciore. Written and directed by Shane Acker, I did like the imagination and the high level of animation in “9” but I felt like the story could have used a lot of work. Only toward the end did it somewhat come together which was not a good thing because I was confused for more than half the picture. It brought up more questions than answers. For instance, it tried to tackle the war between humans and machines, the concept of having a soul, and immortality. Such complex and controversial subjects were merely glossed over when it should really have been discussed and explored. For a movie that was only 80 minutes long, that certainly did not help when it came to having more depth in the story. I admired the action sequences. They were undeniably exciting because I did care for the creatures. Even though they did not look remotely human, I quickly cared about them due to their ability to think like we do and feel like we do, especially 9 because he was capable of moral evaluation. With that said, I don’t think this film was made for children because it was violent, dark and sometimes the characters met a brutal death. I hate to say this because I know this film took a lot of effort to make but I believe that if the filmmakers spent more time adding scenes that could enhance the issues it tried to deal with, “9” would have been a superior animated feature. I do give it credit, however, for not trying to be another cute Pixar movie designed for children. I could easily tell that it was trying to be something more but unfortunately the missing pieces were just too jarring for me to ignore.
Promotion, The (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
This indie comedy had the power to be something more but it held back so it didn’t quite have that extra punch. I understand why people think that this is a slow-moving movie because it takes its time developing the two main characters (played by Seann William Scott and John C. Reilly) via showing us how they deal with certain situations–basically what makes them a qualified person vs. deserving for the promotion they are applying for. The interesting thing is that they don’t quite compete in front of each other. For the sake of appearances, Scott and Reilly smile and converse with each other but when they’re alone with their thoughts, they start feeling the pressure and they think of ways to sabotage one another, which interestingly enough, often backfires. They then have to clean up the mess they’ve created but half of the time they dig themselves into a deeper hole. I think that rings true to most individuals so I was instantly hooked. Even though these characters are miserable, it’s amusing to us because we feel like if we were them, we could’ve handled the situation better. I think what most moviegoers will have trouble getting is the deadpan, dry comedy of each character and situation. It’s a different kind of comedy and sometimes I don’t get it either. Even though Scott and Reilly find ways to torture each other, they are not bad people. They do the things they do because they simply want to lead a better life for their families. The one quote that sums up the film is “We’re all just out here trying to get some food… Sometimes, we bump into each other.” That’s integral to the story because it’s a connection that we have with the characters. The film begs the question between who is more qualified for the promotion and who really deserves and/or need the promotion. I love that the answer lies in the gray area so it really depends on the justifications of the person who is watching the film. Aside from Scott and Reilly, this picture has a nice supporting role played by Jenna Fischer, not to mention small but really funny appearances by Jason Bateman and Masi Oka. This may seem silly on the outside but the implications it has about the nature of competition, I think, reflects American thinking. Most people will not describe this film as subtle, but it will reward those who try to see below the surface.