Life as We Know It (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Holly (Katherine Heigl) and Eric (Josh Duhamel), complete strangers to one another, were supposed to go out for dinner because their married best friends thought they would get along swimmingly. But they called it quits before they even reached the restaurant. Holly thought Eric was a child trapped in a handsome man’s body, while Eric thought Holly was a pretty but uptight blonde who had no idea how to let her hair down for a change. But when their best friends died in a car accident, they were named as one-year-old Sophie’s guardians. Holly and Eric had to try to put their differences aside to take care of the baby. “Life as We Know It,” written by Ian Deitchman and Kristin Rusk Robinson, were labeled by some critics as emotionally bankrupt because it used death as a source of commercial comedy. I’d have to disagree; plenty of films out there, especially dark comedies, have used the same topic and they received critical acclaim. I say why not as long as the film retained a certain level of respect. The movie didn’t feel malicious toward its subjects. The characters may have felt more like caricatures at times but, in general, it had a bona fide sense of humor. I just wish it had stayed away from too many gross-out humor involving vomit and changing diapers. Two or three of those scenes were more than enough but we were given about seven. The heart of the picture was Holly and Eric’s strained relationship. They tolerated each other but they obviously didn’t like each other. They were so used to having their way because they were single. The only thing they had to focus on was their career. Holly ran a business as a caterer (typically feminine) and Eric worked behind the scenes in a sports network (typically masculine). The story was most interesting when it focused on how they tried to change themselves and each other as they hoped to raise a healthy child. They had to break their typical feminine and masculine roles in order to be well-rounded parents. Their various approaches to parenting were rarely perfect–certain decisions were downright stupid like Eric leaving a baby to a cab driver just so he could go to work–but that was what made them charming. Through trial-and-error, they learned from their mistakes. Another source of conflict was the romance between Sam (Josh Lucas) and Holly. They should have had more scenes together instead of the unfunny scenes with the colorful neighbors (Melissa McCarthy) and the nosy Child Protection Services agent (Sarah Burns). We saw that they cared for each other but their situation was far from optimum. Holly was in a critical state of transition while Sam was ready to settle down. I was glad there wasn’t a typical rivalry between the two men in Holly’s life. “Life as We Know It,” directed by Greg Berlanti, had good elements but it was ultimately weighed down by too many slapstick humor and heavy-handed metaphor such as Holly’s business expansion reflecting Holly, Eric, and Sophie’s life at home. It could have been stronger if the writers eliminated comfortable but unnecessary clichés and taken more risks.
Friends with Benefits (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and Jaime (Mila Kunis) were recently dumped. Kayla (Emma Stone) claimed Dylan was emotionally unavailable while Quincy (Andy Samberg) thought Jamie was emotionally damaged. The next day, Jamie, a head-hunter, picked up Dylan, an art director, at the airport. She was from New York, he was from L.A. Their friendship began when Jamie attempted to persuade Dylan that taking up a job for GQ magazine and moving to NYC was the right thing to do for himself as well as her bank account. While watching a romantic comedy, Dylan had a great idea: they were to take their platonic friendship to another level by sleeping with each other without the emotions inherent to labels like “boyfriends” and “girlfriends.” Jaime thought it was a great idea. Based on the screenplay by Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, Will Gluck, “Friends with Benefits” was hip, fun without overbearing, and overzealous to please even the most cynical viewers. The first half was strong because with each passing scene, it was increasingly transparent why Jaime and Dylan made a good team that we could root for. Interestingly, the script imbued Jaime with enough masculine qualities for men to be able to relate with her. She was the kind of girl that guys would be comfortable drinking beer with. Conversely, Dylan had feminine characteristics in order for women to find him cute and relatable. He was the kind of guy who could get a mani-pedi and not feel uncomfortable with his sexuality. The first couple of sex scenes worked because we wanted them to just do it. The sex scenes didn’t just feature naked people touching each other. It was somewhat like getting in bed with another person: you have fun and you get to learn each other’s weird quirks. But the film suffered from diminishing returns. There were one too many scenes of the non-couple in bed and sharing caring looks while out and about in the city. But the movie really took a nose-dive when Dylan decided to take Jaime to L.A. to meet his family (Richard Jenkins, Jenna Elfman, Nolan Gould) because it started to feel like a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy. The edge was brought to a minimum and the story began to feel like a soap opera. The questions no longer involved how far Dylan and Jaime could take their newfangled sexual freedom and what they were willing to sacrifice to maintain the status quo. The question became about Dylan and when he would realize that Jaime was “the one” for him. Even the word “soulmate” was thrown around a couple of times. “Friends with Benefits,” directed by Will Gluck, was a sheep in wolf’s clothing. It wanted to poke fun of romantic comedies but, at the same time, pass as one. It didn’t need to try so hard. With supporting characters like Lorna (Patricia Clarkson), Jaime’s mom, who liked the idea of loving men but not actually being with them, and Tommy (Woody Harrelson), Dylan’s co-worker in charge of the sports articles, who constantly asked Dylan if he was sure he was straight, I felt that the writers could’ve taken their material, plagued with product placements, in a myriad, more interesting, elliptical directions. Nevertheless, the movie managed to survive from its typicalities by having a strong first hour. It wanted to be daring. Who’s to say you can’t end a romantic comedy just after it passes its one-hour mark because there is nothing to solve? That would have been a statement.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Violet (Jennifer Tilly) and Corky (Gina Gershon) met in an elevator. They eyed each other despite the fact that Violet’s boyfriend Caesar (Joe Pantoliano), who worked for the mob, was right there with them. Violet knocked on Corky’s door, offering her a cup of coffee. Their romance started off like a bad porno movie, Corky being a mechanic and all. Violet confessed to Corky she wanted to escape the mob life so both concocted a plan to steal two million dollars from the mob and pin it on Caesar. The film was a success because it relied on very strong writing and three superb performances. Gershon epitomized seduction. She had a perfect balance of the feminine and the masculine. Pantoliano was sublime as a raging bull–the masculine figure. Tilly, the feminine, was funny, sexy, and compelling in every frame. I’ve seen her in many independent features and I believe she’s more than capable of mainstream success because she’s such a wonderful actress. “Bound” wore its modern noir tone on its sleeve; it rivaled Ethan Coen and Joel Coen’s “Blood Simple.” in terms of nail-biting tension that never lets go until the final shot and Quentin Taratino’s “Pulp Fiction” in terms of complex characters with questionable morals and multilayered motivations. It was able to do a lot with a simple shot. For instance, I’ve never seen a gun sliding through white paint looked more elegant and beautiful. The lesbian eroticism may attract some but may repel others. Some could argue it had elements of sexploitation, which I don’t necessarily disagree with. But my counterargument is that the picture did not show anything offensive. It may offend certain individuals either due to homophobia or fear of sexuality in general, but I perceived the images through a feminist scope. For me, it was about two women who had complete control of their wills and bodies. I would even go as far to say that the sex and seduction scenes were necessary because the picture depended so much on the trust between Violet and Corky. Their attraction with one another was the reason we wanted them to get away with stealing without losing any finger, or worse, their lives. Written and directed by Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski, “Bound” was a ferocious and unpredictable neo-noir thriller. I loved how it prevented me from thinking ahead because I was so engaged with what was currently happening on screen. That is, how the characters could possibly extricate themselves from an increasingly hopeless and dangerous situation. I suppose two million dollars had to be earned but at what cost?
★★★ / ★★★★
I’ve seen Pedro Almodóvar’s work from the late 1990s to the present and have been nothing but impressed so naturally I became interested in seeing his older projects.”Matador” stars Antonio Banderas as a 22-year-old aspiring matador who was working under Nacho Martinez’ wing. When Martinez’ character asked Banderas if he was a homosexual due to his lack of experience with women, Banderas tried to prove his masculinity by trying to rape his mentor’s girlfriend (Eva Cobo). Eventually ending up in jail due to some strange coincidences and choices, a femme fatale lawyer (Assumpta Serna) came running to defend Banderas’ innocence. I love Almodóvar’s films because no matter how much I try to guess what would happen in the story, I always guess incorrectly. He has such a knack for telling unconventional stories that are funny, witty, tragic and ironic often all at the same time. The way he uses color to highlight a character’s fate or what he or she might be feeling and thinking always takes me by surprise even though I’m familiar with his techniques. I also was fascinated with the way Almodóvar used his characters’ occupations as a reflection of what they were really capable of when they think nobody was watching them. Admittedly, the writing can get a bit melodramatic at times but I think that’s half the fun of Almodóvar’s movies. He’s not afraid to reference to the supernatural, such as a certain character experiencing “visions,” to possibly make sense of the natural world. It’s the twists and turns that keep us wanting to watch. Like in most of his later projects, “Matador” was very passionate (or obsessive?) about sexuality–not necessarily sex–how his actors moved and delivered certain lines. Another element that I thought was interesting was the fact that Almodóvar used sex and violence as a backdrop to explore the darker side of human nature. The characters in this film were not necessarily good; in fact, they were far from innocent. But we root for some of them because the protagonists were capable of less evil than their counterparts. I wasn’t sure at first if I was going to enjoy Almodóvar’s earlier works but after watching “Matador,” I’m more than excited to see them. I just hope that they have the same level of vivaciousness, drama and sensuality as this picture.
Porco Rosso (1992)
★★★ / ★★★★
I really enjoyed Hayao Miyazaki’s “Porco Rosso,” also known as “Kurenai no buta” and “Crimson Pig,” because it’s unlike the rest of his animated films that are more rooted in fantasy. Although the main character is half-man, half-pig, the movie does a good job commenting and exploring the fact that he’s more human than most of the other characters, especially the pirates and Porco’s American rival in the sky. Its story was a nice surprise because I thought the film was going to be about his journey to remedy the curse that had taken a hold of his body after fighting in World War I. It turned out that Porco was not unhappy with his appearance so we simply got to enjoy him interacting with different kinds of beings, taking strange jobs, and trying his luck with women. It doesn’t have a core story, which strangely enough, I enjoyed because there were many scenes when comedy and heart are at the forefront. However, I wished that I saw this film in its original language with subtitles instead of the dubbed version. I’ve aware of the fact that sometimes dubbing takes away layers of complexities from the original material either due to the language barrier and a culture’s own bias when it comes to what is acceptable for children to see. There were definitely scenes that made me question the subtle differences with what was being said and what was being enacted. Still, I think “Porco Rosso” is still fun to watch (which is probably geared more toward boys because of the many masculine images involving pirates and battles in the sky) despite its flaws because of its energy and it tackled universal emotions. And what I thought made this one special was that I could easily imagine it to be a live action movie, minus the half-pig angle, because it’s that connected to the characters’ humanities. What it lacks in darkness (as I come to expect in Miyazaki adventures), it makes up for romanticism and sometimes dry sense of humor. The animation may not be as “great” as today’s animated flicks but this one might take you by surprise.
★★★ / ★★★★
Arnold Schwarzenegger and his team of commandos (Bill Duke, Jesse Ventura, Sonny Landham, Richard Chaves, Shane Black) take up a mission to rescue fellow members of the army from the Latin American jungle. Schwarzenegger’s old pal (Carl Weathers) who now worked for the CIA also came along with them to put his own agendas into motion. But little did they know that from a distance, an alien creature was observing their every move and mimicking their voices and expressions. Right from the very beginning, it was obvious that this was a “guy movie” because of its great focus on showing the military lifestyle, its weapons and artilleries, and men acting nothing short of masculine. But what makes it better than most typical films targeted for men is that it had a strong ability to build tension while at the same time still delivering the glorious violence and buckets of blood. Directed by John McTiernan, he didn’t let The Predator reveal itself until thirty to forty-five minutes into the picture. It simply observed from afar via the soldiers’ and the surroundings’ heat signatures while trying to practice certain human qualities. As the commandos started dying one by one, each scene became that much more intense because it meant that the final duel between Schwarzenegger and The Predator was that much closer. Acting-wise, this movie didn’t have much to offer because all the actors had to do was either look tough or scared. Nevertheless, I was engaged and curious what would happen next because the soldiers were pretty much fighting a creature who was a master of camouflage. I thought the strongest part of the film was the final twenty minutes. The dialogue was minimal because Schwarzenegger was the last man standing and he had to stay quiet in order to avoid attracting the alien who loves to hunt. The movie then had no choice but to rely on both the movements of the camera and that of the lead actor’s as he tried to find ways to trap and hopefully kill his enemy. Its special and visual effects may seem a bit dated now but with older films, what’s important to me is the concept. I believe “Predator” more than delivers because it was entertaining, sometimes smart, suspenseful and at times downright terrifying. This is a prime example of a sci-fi action flick that learned something from the horror genre.
Good Dick (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written, directed and starring Marianna Palka, “Good Dick” was about a woman (Palka) who often visited a video store to rent erotic movies and the charming man (Jason Ritter) who instantly fell in love with her. But this is far from a typical romantic comedy because Palka’s character had no interest in Ritter despite his many attempts to win her over. I loved the fact that this film turned the romantic comedy genre on its head and instead tried to tell a modern and more realistic take on budding relationships. I enjoyed that Ritter was the more whiny, idealistic and clingy (“feminine” qualities in most mainstream rom-coms) and Palka was more aggressive, cruel, and detached (“masculine” characteristics). The unnamed lead characters were both damaged in some way even though it might not seem like at first. Their flaws were often explored which was fascinating to watch because some scenes that I expected to be funny ended up being sad and the scenes that I expected to be more dramatic ended up being pretty hilarious. I wanted the characters to succeed and end up happy from the very beginning because they were essentially good people even though the chances that they’d up together was pretty bleak. After all, Palka’s character didn’t want to socialize, didn’t want to explore the area where she lived, and she said in a clear and precise way that just looking at a penis disgusts her to the very core. Even though I liked Palka’s dark and edgy character, there were moments when I thought she was a little too cruel to the guy that adored her, claiming that he’s ugly, that his job was pathetic and he really only wanted her for her money. That strong emotional barrier that she built around herself over the years of trauma was challenged by Ritter, but sometimes a step forward to finally putting that wall down was met by another two steps backward. If one was interested in a new and more honest take on relationships, one she should definitely seek this one out. Chances are not many people have heard about this picture because it is an independent film. “Good Dick” definitely took me by surprise because of how emotional it was. The last few minutes impressed me because certain characters stopped throwing a pity-party and finally claimed their freedom.
I Love You, Man (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Paul Rudd stars as a guy who can relate more to women than men, but he needs a best man for his wedding so he decides to start making some guy friends. He goes on a series of “man dates” and he eventually meets Jason Segel, a fun-loving guy who Rudd can genuinely connect with. Although I really liked this film, I didn’t quite love it because the middle portion wasn’t as funny as the beginning and the end. That inconsistency is glaring because when one experiences a lot of laughter in the beginning, expectations rise and a successful comedy should be able to deliver all the way through. However, all of the actors such as Rashida Jones, J.K. Simmons, Jane Curtin and Andy Samberg added something to the table. Even the side characters are interesting and hilarious because each of them has a certain quirk that doesn’t get old. I thought this buddy comedy was successful at making fun of the quirk instead of the character itself (when it wants to). However, there were moments when the film is actually making fun of the character which acts as a mirror on what the society expects from an individual. Ultimately, Rudd is the star here. I’ve seen him in a plethora of films where he’s the best friend or the funny brother. I think this movie, written and directed by John Hamburg, would’ve fallen apart without Rudd. In many scenes, I could feel his character’s awkwardness to the point where I wish he would stop talking to save himself further humiliation for trying so hard to be one of the guys. In a way, I saw his character’s silent suffering as a commentary about society–how guys are expected to act, look and speak a certain way in order to be accepted as a “man.” So the laughter that the movie gets from the audiences acts as a confirmation that guys who are more in touch with their feminine side are expected to change their ways and be how a “normal” guy should be. Like “Superbad,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” this is a really enjoyable, bona fide film and I would recommend it to anyone who is a fan of awkward characters being forced to deal with awkward situations.
★ / ★★★★
Western is my least favorite genre so I’m probably not the best person to listen to when it comes to reviewing a western film. I’m most familiar with modern westerns like “Brokeback Mountain,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “There Will Be Blood.” However, I know how to ascertain and elucidate why I like or dislike a movie. “Appaloosa” did not work for me for two main reasons: it lacked focus to be thoroughly engaging and it did not have enough material to tell an insightful story. While Ed Harris (who also wrote and directed the film) and Viggo Mortensen did a good job in their respective roles, I felt like their relationship wasn’t explored enough. Were they merely friends or are they more like brothers? Although the tone of the film is masculine, most great westerns that I’ve seen leave room for softness and vulnerability (or otherwise, “feminine” qualities). If walls are consistently up, how are the audiences supposed to identify with and understand the characters? Renée Zellweger didn’t do a bad job but she sounds like she’s from a completely different film. The story focused on her a bit too much while sacrificing potentially rousing action scenes. However, I did like the occasional comedic moments because it shows that the actors and filmmakers are not afraid to have fun with the project. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that I did not like this film because I caught myself zoning out from time to time. Whatever happened to featuring vast landscapes and the poetry of brotherhood? Is Harris simply trying to offer something different to the genre or did he clearly miss the point? I have patience when it comes to certain pictures when most people do not. I’m guessing that a casual moviegoer, especially a person who is not partial to western films, will be bored out of his or her mind.