Something Wild (1986)
★★★ / ★★★★
Charles (Jeff Daniels) left a diner without paying for his lunch. Lulu (Melanie Griffith) ran after him and started asking him questions about his unpaid bill. Charles, guilt-ridden and insistent that it was an accident because he had a lot of things on his mind, assumed she worked in the diner. But she didn’t; she just happened to eat at the same place. She was attracted to his inner rebel so she invited him for a ride. Expecting that she would drop him off where he worked, Lulu took him to her hometown, the two posed as husband and wife, and attended a high school reunion. “Something Wild,” smartly written by E. Max Frye and skillfully directed by Jonathan Demme, was a fun and breezy romantic comedy with an edge. It started off like a typical screwball comedy with mistaken identities and an amusing trip to a cheap motel. Charles and Lulu were different but the same. Charles was bored of his life’s painful routine and more than welcomed Lulu’s exciting impulses. In bed, she liked to use handcuffs. Charles laughed with disbelief (and pleasure). I related with Charles more than I thought I would. Like him, I depend on routine because it’s safe and predictable. But then there are those moments when I crave to do something so out of character to remind myself that I’m alive and still in control. Half-way through, the tone turned darker when Ray (Ray Liotta), Lulu’s husband who recently got out of prison, bumped into the fake couple at the reunion. He wouldn’t believe that the two only met the day before. He was determined to show Charles and Lulu that despite being sent away, he still owned the girl like she was his convenient plaything. Demme’s direction was key. There was a critical transition between the light and dark tones. I find that most filmmakers, when handling pictures of hybrid genres, forget the importance of flow. Sometimes it makes or breaks the picture. Despite the thriller aspect in which Liotta was allowed to work his devilish magnetism, it stayed grounded in reality. Lulu wasn’t just a quirky girl prone to crazy antics. She knew when she crossed a line and wasn’t afraid to apologize for it. Charles was somewhat wimpy but he wasn’t promoted to vice president of the company he worked for if he didn’t know how to fight for what he wanted. As for Ray, despite his intense jealousy, there was complexity in his eyes. Jail hardened him, disappointed that life had moved on during his institutionalization, and he was desperate to find something that stayed the same. He expected Lulu would be that constant thing. She just wasn’t. We believed the growing affection between Charles and Lulu and we believed that their lives were in danger. Unpredictable, astute, and subtle, “Something Wild” had been unjustly forgotten. It reminds us that we should always be mindful of that rebel in us.
The Tourist (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Elise (Angelina Jolie) worked for a mystery man who ordered her to pick a stranger on a train that resembled his height and build in order to throw the cops (led by the determined but ultimately incompetent detective played by Paul Bettany) off the real identity of the mystery man. Elise had chosen Frank (Johnny Depp), a math teacher from Wisconsin, who inevitably fell in love with the woman who used him. Naturally, the police believed that Frank was the man who pulled all the strings, but a group of gangsters (Steven Berkoff as the mob boss) also wanted Frank for themselves because the mystery man had stolen money from them. Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, expectations were high for the film because it was Depp and Jolie’s first time being together on screen and it was the director’s follow-up to the critically acclaimed “Das Leben der Anderen” or “The Lives of Others.” The most prolific complaint was the fact that the film lacked action sequences but that was exactly what I liked about it. It was a different kind of thriller because it was more about the ambiance between the two leads. Notice the scene when Elise and Frank met for the first time. Initially, there was no chemistry between them. Elise was breathtakingly stunning and Frank was, well, as nondescript as a math teacher who taught in the middle of nowhere. But the more they spoke to each other, the more they wanted to know each other in a deeper level and somehow that was enough. Flirtation was in the air but Elise had to remain focused on her mission. Frank wanted to have Elise but was afraid to take risks. Even his cigarette was not really a cigarette. Maybe he feared getting cancer. Depp’s acting was easy to criticize because the audiences are used to seeing him play characters who were bigger than life. Over-the-top had become the norm for him. I actually enjoyed Depp’s minimalist approach to this picture which was a big risk but it worked. As he attempted to run away from the gangsters on the rooftops, it was actually refreshing to see someone move slowly and stumble. We feared for him because he was just a regular folk thrown into an incredible situation. He was no Jason Bourne. Admittedly, I was slightly thrown off by the film’s many twists, especially toward the end when we finally discovered the true identity of the mystery man. In my opinion, they should have left the identity not known to the audiences so we could have something to talk about. The movie wasn’t really about the man’s identity. It was about an ordinary man swaying an incredible woman to take notice of him. Perhaps they could even fall in love.
While You Were Sleeping (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★
“While You Were Sleeping” was one of those romantic comedies in the 1990s with big stars, really cheesy soundtracks and even cheesier storylines. Sandra Bullock plays Lucy, a person who worked on a subway station as a token collector and fell in love with a stranger (Peter Gallagher) who she saw every day but he never paid her much attention. But when the stranger had an accident at the subway station, Lucy jumped in front of a moving train to save his life. The stranger fell into a coma and due to certain circumstances, the stranger’s family thought Lucy was the stranger’s fiancée. To top it all off, Lucy started to fall in love with the stranger’s brother (Bill Pullman) who was curious about Lucy’s true identity. Despite the movie being predictable and formulaic, I enjoyed it because of Bullock. Her charm rescued this picture; she was so good at being vulnerable and her charm mixed with perfect comedic timing and geekiness was refreshing. A movie like this, let alone a star as charming as she is, is hard to come by nowadays. Even though Lucy lied to the family, we couldn’t help but root for her because she was a good person but she didn’t have a family or any close friends. Another reason why I liked the movie was Bullock and Pullman’s chemistry. There was something about the way that they looked in each other’s eyes and interacted with each other that made me feel warm and almost giggly. Since the source of the tension between them was obvious, I think I would have rolled my eyes and rejected the romance angle if the two lacked chemistry. Everything about this movie was nice (except for the obnoxious “real” fiancée but I’m glad she didn’t have much screen time) and if one was familiar with movies like “You’ve Got Mail” and “Sleepless in Seattle,” one would know exactly what to expect from this movie. “While You Were Sleeping,” directed by Jon Turteltaub, managed to get away with relying on the conventions of a romantic comedy because it embraced its genre to the fullest. It wasn’t trying to be edgy or ironic or shocking; it just allowed its actors do what they do best and it worked. These days, romantic comedies almost always consist of teenagers or twentysomethings and those movies often rely on sex or gay jokes. “While You Were Sleeping” is a PG-rated movie that features thirtysomethings who happen to have intelligence and maturity despite the issue of mistaken identities.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
★★★ / ★★★★
I usually don’t like screwball comedies because the characters are stupid without any sort of redeeming qualities, the jokes are rude and sometimes mean-spirited, the story has no idea where to go, and I quickly get bored watching them because they fail to get me to think. Strangely enough, I enjoyed “The Big Lebowski,” written and directed by the Coen brothers, because of such qualities except for the fact that it is far from mean-spirited. Jeff Bridges stars as The Dude, whose real name was Jeffrey Lebowski, a guy who was mistaken by two miscreants as the millionaire Lebowski. Since the two didn’t get what they wanted from The Dude, one of them decided to pee on his carpet. What started off as a story about a slacker who wanted compensation for his carpet ended up being about a lot of things: a kidnapped woman (Tara Reid), an artist who had intentions of her own (Julianne Moore), nihilists who craved money, and the dynamics among bowling buddies (Steve Buscemi and John Goodman). All of such disparate elements came to together in a way that didn’t necessarily make sense–in fact, sometimes I had no idea what was going on–but it was very funny because each character was driven by well-defined motivations (no matter how strange they might have been). I did not expect this kind of movie from the Coen brothers because I’m more familiar with their thrillers (“No Country for Old Men,” “Blood Simple”) and dark comedies (“Intolerable Cruelty,” “Fargo”), but after watching the film I was glad that I got a taste of their lighter side. The only real complaint I had with this picture was it had no reason to run for almost two hours long. Somewhere after the half-way point, I began to wonder when it was going to be over because at that point it still did not try to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The characters were still too busy running around like children and it made me restless. Nevertheless, despite its flaws, I still enjoyed watching this movie because of the characters’ funny fixations and interesting mistaken identities. And considering I detest stoner comedies, I think it’s a solid accomplishment.
New in Town (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
This is another one of those chick flicks where a seemingly cold business-minded character (Renée Zellweger) gets assigned to a small town and realizes that it’s not as bad as she initially thinks because the people (led by the hilarious Siobhan Fallon, followed closely by J.K. Simmons) are warm-hearted despite their many quirks. She also happens to fall for a handsome nature-loving guy (Harry Connick Jr.) with a sad past, which of course she initially has to dislike due to the embarrassment of mistaken identities over dinner. It’s all been done before and “New in Town,” directed by Jonas Elmer, unfortunately, does not have anything new to offer. It’s a shame because he has very talented actors under his belt but he failed to inject a certain edginess to the story. I think if the characters were a bit more unlikable, this would’ve been a completely different (and more interesting) picture. I felt like there were only two jokes in this movie: Zellweger’s reaction and adjustment to small town life and the quirky townspeople with funny accents. At first I thought it was cute but it quickly went downhill after thirty minutes because I kept hoping that another joke would come along. The factor that saved this movie was Zellweger’s acting. Even though her character somewhat reminded me of Bridget Jones, it was nice seeing her here because she’s completely aware of the fact that she’s not going to get nominated for an Oscar. Therefore, there’s a certain relaxed feeling about her character that I instantly liked even though she’s the kind of woman who is ambitious and not afraid to put people under the bus to get what she wants (initially). But like I said before, it would’ve been better if she remained that way or changed for the better only a little bit but not sugary and sweet as she was during the last ten minutes. If one is up for a film with gentle laughs and contains no inappropriate or offensive jokes, this is the one to see. However, for those who are looking for something a bit daring and multi-dimensional, I can’t quite recommend it.
Burn After Reading (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
There’s something profound in this picture but Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, who wrote and directed the film, failed to eliminate the distracting elements that dragged this movie down. What I love about “Burn After Reading” is its clear thesis: characters mistaking other characters’ identities and intentions, resulting in one big mess on top of another. It’s really too bad because this film is full of talented actors: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt and J.K. Simmons. McDormand really steps up to the plate whenever she’s asked to play an extremely quirky character. The last time I’ve seen her this good was in “Fargo.” Another stand-out is Pitt, as McDormand’s co-worker and partner in crime. Both of them gave this film a much-needed life and humor. I wanted to see more of them as the movie progressed but we get scene after scene of Clooney messing around Swinton–physically and psychologically. To be honest, it made me look back on “Michael Clayton,” when the two of them are at their prime. In this movie, they are pretty one-dimensional; when the occupation of one of them was revealed near the end, it felt all too forced, as if the Coen brothers were trying to milk the irony. Malkovich is another character that could’ve been explored more (I love his random over-the-top outbursts) but he’s only portrayed as an angry guy who was fired from his job and lost everything. I love dark comedies because there’s a certain smugness to them that other people won’t understand no matter how many times they see the film, but this one felt way too into itself. But, really, in the overall scope of things, this isn’t necessarily a bad follow-up of “No Country for Old Men.” The style is there; it’s just that it could’ve been edgier and more involving.