Better Living Through Chemistry (2014)
★ / ★★★★
Doug (Sam Rockwell) is the only pharmacist in town so one would think that he gets the respect he deserves. His customers see him only as the man behind the counter; his employees do not even bother to hide the fact that they do not like their job very much; his father-in-law gets to keep his last name displayed on the roof despite having sold the pharmacy to Doug; and his wife (Michelle Monaghan) always gets the final word. But when Doug meets the beautiful Elizabeth (Olivia Wilde), he is very drawn to her—even though it is clear that she has a drug problem.
Written and directed by Geoff Moore and David Posamentier, “Better Living Through Chemistry” is a limp comedy despite the talent on screen. This is because the writers fail to construct a well-defined story arc that is designed to convince us that Doug is living a life of quiet desperation. Yes, we are allowed to see how much of a pushover he is. But do not be fooled by these images. Almost all of them are sitcom-like and uninspired.
Not for one second do we believe that Doug’s transformation from a mousy pharmacist to a drug addict is genuine. The biggest miscalculation is that the protagonist is never put into any real danger, just possible threats that back away during the last second. The trick gets really old especially during the second half. The screenplay offers no surprises, just a series of scenes with the same punchline. There is no reason to keep watching.
The most interesting relationship is not Doug’s extramarital affair with the equally unhappy Elizabeth—although it might come close if it had been written more sharply and actually had something significant to say about human connection—but that of Doug and his twelve-year-old son, Ethan (Harrison Holzer). The boy exhibits classic signs of a young person who lacks guidance, an older figure who sees him nonetheless despite his behavior, and someone who he can genuinely look up to.
The best scene involves a talk between the father and his son. The school recommends that Ethan should be on medication since his behavior appears out of control. Doug has a better idea: To spend time with his son and really talk to one another about the issue, or issues, behind the troubles at school. This sensitive moment doesn’t last, however, because the filmmakers would rather show a scene—again, sitcom-like—of the two bonding over committing an act of vandalism.
Moore and Pasamentier should be ashamed for spitting at what should be the heart of the picture: How an unhappy husband, through an extramarital affair, learns to recognize how good of a person he is and how much he can offer, thereby helping his son to get out of a destructive cycle. I loved the shots of how Ethan comes to admire his father later on in the picture. But it is most unfortunate and frustrating that none of it is earned.
★ / ★★★★
Congratulations to the screenwriters, Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling, for taking a really cool premise and diluting it down to tripe so worthless, so unimaginative, and so unfunny, the film is actually insulting to sit through. For most of the picture’s duration, I sat in my chair with an increasing feeling of embarrassment and anger for everyone involved—but especially for the audience going into this with any sort of positive expectation.
In 1982, young Brenner (Anthony Ippolito) and his friends competed in the Arcade World Championships. During the competition, it was announced NASA planned to send a time capsule to outer space and a videocassette from the competition would be included. More than thirty years later, extraterrestrials that received the package send weapons inspired by the 1980s arcade games to attack a U.S. military base in Guam under the false belief that the videocassette contains a declaration of war. It is now up to adult Brenner (Adam Sandler) and his pals (Kevin James, Josh Gad) to face the invaders’ challenges and save the planet from extraterrestrial domination.
The special and visual effects look cheap and ugly. The video game characters shown are always pixellated—with one most unnecessary exception toward the end—and so the action sequences are never convincing, always cartoonish. No tension is generated from the colorful pixels and so the elaborate set pieces end up looking like a bag full of garbage being blown up. Take note of the final battle in the U.S. capital. The visuals look like a made-for-TV movie with a severely limited budget. If I were to scrape the bottom of the barrel for a positive comment, the film is only very mildly entertaining because we cannot help but try to recognize the ‘80s references.
There is no character worth rooting for because they are all caricatures. I am sick of Sandler playing a slob of a man-child always winning the heart of a successful, beautiful woman (Michelle Monaghan). It appears as though he puts no effort while he is in front of the camera. He just shows up brain-dead because the check is already in the bank. Sandler and Monaghan share no chemistry or even an inkling of intrigue. To be blunt, every time the two are only a few inches apart, especially when they go for a kiss, my gut groaned in disgust.
The writers do not bother writing jokes that are even remotely funny. I probably would have been slightly entertained with some well-made and well-placed puns. But no, what we get is Gad doing his usual shrieking routine as if he were a banshee from hell. My ears felt assaulted. I felt my brain cells dying and going deaf by the second. That’s quite a feat. No one deserves such a punishment.
“Pixels,” shockingly directed by Chris Columbus, is a depressingly bad movie. I felt crippled by its inanities disguised as humor. At one point, I began to consider that perhaps it is confused with regards to its target audience. Further, the film lacks a range of laughs, interesting characters, an arc, and a creative script. Although its premise sounds like an entryway to some mindless but bona fide fun, ultimately it fails to deliver from its great potential.
Mission: Impossible III (2006)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), while throwing a party with Julia (Michelle Monaghan), a girl he intended on marrying, received a cryptic phone call, a signal that he was to meet with a superior to discuss a possible mission. Musgrave (Billy Crudup) informed Hunt that one of his former students (Keri Russell) in the agency had been kidnapped. Normally, a captured agent would be disavowed but the agency believed that she knew crucial information about Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an arms dealer they had been tracking for some time, so her extraction was necessary. Hunt accepted the mission and was assigned a team (Ving Rhames, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Maggie Q) to rescue the kidnapped agent. Directed by J.J. Abrams, “Mission: Impossible III” had a wonderful mix of drama and action. Despite the cool gadgetry and intense physical stunts, it felt believable because what was at stake felt real. The theme of Hunt’s struggle to keep his personal and professional lives separate was at the forefront. It seemed like no matter what he did, there was no stopping the two spheres from colliding. That’s why the heart-pounding first scene worked. We got to observe Ethan helpless at the sight of Davian, a figure of his professional life, putting a gun to his future wife’s head, a symbol of his personal life. Even though we had no idea what the Rabbit’s Foot, an item that Davian was desperate to have, was exactly, it didn’t matter. What mattered was the spectrum of emotions Hunt experienced, which moved from confusion to anger then regret, as Davian counted from one to ten, the point when he was to put a bullet into the innocent woman’s head just because he could and he enjoyed watching people suffer. The action sequences, jumping from one continent to another, were as breathtaking and astute as ever. The warehouse scene in Germany provided the template. It was messy, bullets, glass and fire thrown everywhere, but never incomprehensible unlike most poorly edited action movies. Each team member was given something important to do. While Hunt explored the building, someone was underground, another was in the air, while the other was in charge of scanning the perimeter via body temperature. Each time the camera moved from one team member to another, it was consistently interesting. Their teamwork established a healthy synergy of tension that, when threatened, delivered nail-biting suspense. But that isn’t to say that the film was devoid of humor. The scenes with Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), a bumbling tech expert, prevented the project from being suffocatingly serious. Brassel (Laurence Fishburne), Hunt and Musgrave’s superior, had an intimidating aura but his lines had a certain snappy irony that went beyond the archetype of a tough-as-nails boss. “Mission: Impossible III,” written by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and J.J. Abrams, looked and felt like it was made by people who love to make movies. It’s amazing how much clichés tinged with a microcosm of originality can feel something new.
Source Code (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a soldier assigned in Afghanistan, woke up in a stranger’s body in a Chicago commuter train in front of Christina (Michelle Monaghan), a woman he never met but who seemed to know him. Later, he found out that he was a part of a military experimental technology, led by Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), and his assignment was to find the identity of the man or woman who triggered the bomb on the doomed train earlier that day. Everyone on the train was already dead and it included the body Colter inhabited. Each time he failed, his day started all over again as if he was imprisoned in a “Twilight Zone” episode. Written by Ben Ripley and directed by Duncan Jones, “Source Code” was relatively small in scope but its ambitions were grand. It had a plethora of exciting ideas about what it meant to be in a specific reality: Is the reality what was outside our bodies or was it within? Metaphysics aside, Gyllenhaal was very convincing as a conflicted soldier who didn’t sign up for the mission he was given. Initially, I found it bothersome that he was reluctant in performing his mission. He let his emotions get in way too often instead of focusing to come up with ways to narrow down his suspects. Inevitably, he failed multiple times and we found ourselves back in square one. Eventually, I realized that his defiance of authority was the point. His neglect in following orders allowed us to see his humanity and what was really important to him Ultimately, he went through with the mission not because he was simply told to do it but because he cared about the many more lives that might be in danger due to the high possibility that the bomber will strike again. There was a difference between a mindless drone and a good soldier. Moreover, I was surprised that the film relied heavily on romance. Even though the scenes of Colter and Christina were pretty much the same, as the picture went on, there was a clear change in the protagonist and it was more than enough for us to be convinced that the feelings they had for each other was real. It was also interesting to see Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), Colter’s guide between the real and computerized world, weigh the pros and cons of the program she was given the chance to control. There was no doubt that the program was genius, even revolutionary, but that brilliance required serious ethical and moral sacrifices. Fast-paced and full of twists and turns, “Source Code” had creative ideas but it never felt insular. Combined with Jones’ confident direction and given that we’re willing to take a leap of faith with regards to the advanced technology, it almost felt grounded in reality.
Due Date (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Peter Highman (Robert Downey Jr.) was on his way back to California because his wife (Michelle Monaghan) was expected to give birth soon. But Peter’s luck turned for the worse when he met Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis), an aspiring actor with a dog, at the airport. They both got into a car accident. Then they accidentally switched each other’s luggages. They even ended up sitting near each other on the plane. The two ended up talking about bombs on terrorists before take-off which prohibited them from flying. Despite all the unfortunate events and the fact that Peter couldn’t stand Ethan’s crazy antics, they decided to go on a cross-country road trip. Directed by Todd Phillips, the film was a broad comedy with two main characters we couldn’t help but dislike. Peter had a faux confidence about him but he was very sensitive to comments that one could easily let go. When threatened, he showed his mean-spirited sense of humor. One of the ugliest scenes was when he actually hit a kid in the stomach and the boy was left writhing in pain on the floor. It was supposed to be funny. On the other hand, Ethan, having the gall to try to pass off as twenty-two years old, was a total imbecile. I wondered how he made it through life not taking anything seriously. Or worse, living a life so completely unaware that other people needed their personal space. However, the film had few moments of hilarity. The bathroom scene was particularly memorable as Peter gave Ethan hypothetical situations and the aspiring actor had to prove that he had the talent to make it in Hollywood. Even though they didn’t necessarily get along, I felt a strange camaraderie growing between them. Unfortunately, with each good scene, a bad one always came after. Writers should know that when they feel like they should throw in an obligatory car chase, their material is in trouble. I just didn’t see what was so amusing about regular people doing their jobs and they ended up getting hurt because Peter and Ethan had a one-track mind. Casting actors like Jamie Foxx, Danny McBride, and Juliette Lewis was a waste. They were asked to play stereotypes, but I wasn’t convinced, in the five minutes of screen time they were given, that they injected something unique to their characters in order to make their roles memorable or worth watching. They certainly didn’t make Peter and Ethan any funnier or more charming. “Due Date” failed to make me laugh on a consistent basis. I chuckled (and was grossed out) during the masturbation scene and smiled when Ethan discussed getting a perm. But it wasn’t enough. Maybe the writers should have aspired to write a dark comedy screenplay instead.