Home Again (2017)
★ / ★★★★
Take a living situation inspired by a bad sitcom destined to be cancelled within five episodes and couple it with a whiff of Hollywood nepotism—what results is “Home Again,” a painfully generic would-be comedy written and directed by Hallie Meyers-Shyer. Although it is supposed to appeal to women, specifically those who are divorced or raising children on their own, because messages of single female empowerment are sprinkled throughout, observant viewers will not be fooled: the film has little to no understanding when it comes to the type of audience it hopes to connect with. Great romantic comedies offer insights on relationships while providing entertainment. This project, however, cannot even execute one scene effectively.
There is a drought of jokes that lead up to big laughs. Nearly everything comes across as inauthentic, from the smart-talking child characters—awkward to watch because they have clearly memorized the lines on the script but do not achieve convincing delivery—to the mother, Alice (Reese Witherspoon), who makes the decision to allow three strangers (Pico Alexander, Jon Rudnitsky, Nat Wolff) to stay in her guesthouse. The screenplay never ceases to amaze how often it ends up focusing on the wrong things.
For example, the three men in their twenties have dreams of making it in Hollywood. But instead of focusing on the hard work and sacrifices necessary to even get the chance to speak with an influential industry person, we get one montage after another of them playing with Alice’s children, cooking for them, and doling out advice about life. While it is necessary to show them interacting with the family, the film gives the impression that becoming successful filmmakers just happens if one simply knew the right people. Perhaps this is a reflection of the writer-director’s personal experience, which is great for her, but this does not translate well to viewers who are highly likely working middle-class. The picture stinks of privilege at times and I was bored by it.
As for its treatment of the main character, I found it ugly, distasteful, and uninteresting. Notice how Alice never seeks to actively solve her problems. Events simply happen around her; luck just waves its wand when the plot requires and everyone is happy again. When the character is at fault, others who revolve around Planet Alice find themselves apologizing to her when the problem is equally her expectations of others. It is a shame our supposed heroine is written in such an uninspired and one-dimensional way because Witherspoon is a wonderful performer. In her previous works, it is apparent that she has the ability to make the audience empathize with her characters despite the fact that they may be unlikable.
For a romantic comedy, it curious that the romantic aspect is often pushed to the side. Perhaps because it is embarrassed to tackle the subject head-on: a possible relationship between a forty-year-old woman with kids and a twenty-seven-year-old man whose life is focused on quick sensations. A couple with an age gap could have been funny had the material been brave enough to be honest with its audience. The subject does not need to be awkward, unless, of course, the writer-director is self-conscious about whether mainstream audience would find the relationship to be acceptable.
Man in the Moon, The (1991)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The arrival of the Fosters next door proves to be a turning point in the relationship between two very close sisters, Dani (Reese Witherspoon) and Maureen (Emily Warfield), when both of them fall for the same boy. Although Dani and Court (Jason London) do not get along, the two are able to find a common ground eventually—Dani seeing the new boy next door as a potential romantic figure as Court tries to convince himself to consider Dani only as friend due to their three-year age difference. Although she is fourteen and he is seventeen, she might as well be in her early twenties and he in his fifties—the gap between maturity level is significant.
“The Man in the Moon,” written by Jenny Wingfield, unfolds like a novel that stands the test of time. The situation might sound simple at first glance but since every character is given layers of detailed complexity, we come to identify with all of them. In some way, shape, or form, we want everything to work out. But the game of life is not concerned about what the players want. Some are given disadvantageous cards compared to others.
There is no fake scene that can only be seen in sitcoms or terrible movies that try to appeal to the lowest common denominator. For example, when Dani and Court are introduced to one another by their respective families, the two having met before at a nearby pond and the interaction leading to an argument, there is no “It’s you!” line and then the characters being forced by the script to overreact by stomping off. Instead, they are allowed to express surprise in the different way. The look in their eyes says it all: While their annoyance with each other remains, we suspect a part of them is glad, too. Or maybe they are not yet ready to admit it.
The relationship between Court and Dani is delicate and dealt with maturity even if the characters are not yet mature themselves. Lesser coming-of-age movies would have taken the easy way out by exploiting an initial response. That is, most people being uncomfortable with the fact that a seventeen-year-old boy might be interested romantically with a fourteen-year-old girl. The screenplay chooses an alternative focus: To explore real thoughts and feelings between these two young people in a specific manner. The masterstroke by director Robert Mulligan is this: We recognize why Dani and Court might be a good couple and yet we remain aware of the factors why it might not be a good idea either. We are conflicted and so are the characters. The material has gravitational pull.
The central conflict does not kick in until more than halfway through the picture. The schism in the sisters’ special relationship is explored through the lens of a perceived act of betrayal. It is difficult to choose sides—or maybe we are not meant to—because the situation is not as simple as a classic case of cheating. Lines are blurred and undefined relationships are put under a microscope for interpretation. We hurt for Dani and Court as well as Court and Maureen. Most importantly, we hurt for Dani and Maureen.
I admired the way the conflict is resolved. I found it brave in that it dares to leave the sisters with a lot of healing to go through. It does not hit one false note. The screenplay treats the difficulty of forgiveness with respect—letting go does not equate to saying that everything that has happened is suddenly all right. In a lot of ways, I found the movie to be wise and that is a rare quality in this day and age.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Two boys make their way downriver to check out a motorboat in a tree and claim it as their own. Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) believe it is abandoned but their excitement comes to halt when they find a stack of Penthouse magazines, a loaf of bread, and some canned goods. When they get to shore, a man is there, fishing. A deal is made: if the boys bring him some food, they can have the boat. No-nonsense Neckbone asks why he does not get food himself. The stranger’s name is Mud (Matthew McConaughey) and he says he cannot leave the island because he has arranged to meet with someone. What the boys are not aware of is that the man before them is on the run from the law for murder.
“Mud” is appropriately titled for three reasons and each one is communicated beautifully. First, from the moment Mud enters Ellis’ life, something awakens inside the fourteen-year-old. Though Ellis does not know much about Mud, he is naturally drawn to the stranger and eventually looks up to him. Every time Mud talks about the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), we feel Ellis taking mental notes. He has a lot of love to give but does not quite know how to communicate it all the time–not to his parents (Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon) who are on the verge of divorce, not to the high school girl (Bonnie Sturdivant) he crushes on, and not even to Neckbone, always by his side even when a course of action seems foolish. Through this mysterious man, Mud, Ellis gets a chance to think as a mature adult from time to time. And that is exciting to him.
Second, it embraces the idea that loving someone is very much like going through a field while leg-deep in mud. It is hard work, confusing, sometimes frustrating, and a couple may be unaware of what the other needs because he or she is too busy trying not to fall headfirst into the hurdles of circumstances. This is best shown through the marital struggles in Ellis’ home. We are not given all the facts of the crumbling marriage so it is wise to refrain from judging. His mother and father love Ellis very much, but they are no longer in love with each other. What matters is the fallout and their only child is caught in the middle, afraid of losing either of his parents, being uprooted from where he lives, and veering away from a lifestyle he has grown to love. The very core of his identity is at stake.
Lastly, stepping in mud or rolling around in it tends to get a person dirty. Ellis always being so willing to involve himself in Mud’s personal affairs takes a toll eventually. Writer-director Jeff Nichols helms a classic coming-of-age film in the sense that it is about the main character’s loss of innocence. Before meeting and getting to know Mud, Ellis has a very clear idea of what love is: staying together no matter what. Observe very closely how he handles the news of his parents’ highly likely separation. Compare that to a scene late in the picture which involves a conversation between a father and his son. Sometimes love is letting go.
The adults surrounding Ellis have interior lives. It is critical that we are aware of this because they serve as the young man’s guideposts when he himself is lost. Like him, they have thoughts and motivations. They are capable of change. I found “Mud” to be a respectful and honest film, driven by strong performances, especially by Sheridan, McConaughey, and Lofland, and guided by a smart writing and sensitive direction.
Best of all, it consistently gives more instead of resting on what already works. For instance, instead of relying on picturesque images of trees leaning on one side and the island’s cracked soil to establish authenticity to its Arkansan delta setting, there are subtle but relevant decisions like showing a hole on one’s clothing and the sorts of business establishments resting on the background of a frame. We appreciate the environment while getting a sense of the characters’ lifestyles.
Water for Elephants (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Jacob (Robert Pattinson) has a promising future despite the claws of The Great Depression running deep. But on the day of his final exam, critical to his certification as a veterinarian in Cornell University, his parents perish in a car accident. After finding out that his family’s house is to be taken by the bank, Jacob, an only child, hits the road and ends up aboard a train which houses Benzini Brothers performers. Camel (Jim Norton) decides to take Jacob under his wing and introduces him to the boss, August (Christoph Waltz), in hopes of getting him a job. August reluctantly hires Jacob as the circus vet but it is not long until the seventeen-year-old orphan notices August’s wife, blonde-haired Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the star attraction of the circus.
Based on a novel by Sara Gruen, “Water for Elephants,” directed by Francis Lawrence, is most engaging when Jacob and August play tug o’ war over Marlena. Even though they are husband and wife, August treats Marlena as his plaything, as something that he can brag about indirectly, shamelessly as they sit next to each other in front of company.
August is a smart but cruel man, especially to animals because he sees them as less than, simply a way of making money. When consumed with rage, he does not think twice about picking up a sharp object and stabbing the animals with it until the anger has been drained out of him and blood has been drained out of the animals. His cruelty to them causes a rift between he and his wife, who genuinely loves animals and appreciates their innate beauty and intelligence.
This is where Jacob comes in. Marlena sees a kindness in him and thinks it is refreshing. Over time, though reluctantly at first, their feelings for each other reach a peak and they realize that they need to get out of the circus before one or both of them ends up dead.
The dark romance, or ownership, between husband and wife and the dreamy romance between wife and younger man is handled with clarity and respect without sacrificing necessary implications for complexity. It is important that we do not see Jacob as someone who is out to destroy someone’s marriage. This is why it is necessary that the exposition be given ample time to be presented and unfold elegantly. We learn to see him as a man–not necessarily a physically strong man but a man with strong convictions–who might hold the key to Marlene’s cage. Pattinson holds his own against Waltz and Witherspoon.
The weakness of the film is not spending more time on Rosie the elephant. Aside from the important scene near the end, what exactly is the elephant’s relationship toward Marlena and Jacob? There is something about the animal, capable of understanding language, that is purposefully magical, almost human-like in its ability to understand emotions and intentions. More scenes are required to strengthen the connection between the elephant and the lovers.
“Water for Elephants,” based on the screenplay by Richard LaGravenese, is beautifully made. I liked the techniques it employs during the circus performances like muffling the sounds just a little bit to emphasize the images and how they are accomplished without CGI. It does not forget that magic is found in what is real.
This Means War (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
After FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy), best friends and partners at work, turned a supposed covert assignment into a public catastrophe, their boss in the CIA (Angela Bassett) relegated them away from field work. During their time off, Tuck thought it would be a great idea to join an online dating service and see women. Luckily for him, Trish (Chelsea Handler) clandestinely created a profile for Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) because she thought her friend could use a man in her life. Eventually, though, Lauren decided to see both FDR and Tuck because she was the kind of girl who liked having options before settling for a product. “This Means War,” directed by McG, had a ridiculous premise which almost worked because its early scenes were full of swagger. Unfortunately, as it went on, it couldn’t be denied that there wasn’t much to the story and Witherspoon as a blonde Barbie was not only unsympathetic, she was not funny. Pine and Hardy had wonderful chemistry and the screenplay by Timothy Dowling and Simon Kinberg capitalized on their characters’ opposite qualities. FDR’s softer facial features was a nice contrast against his blasé playboy lifestyle. He was so slick, he even had a swimming pool elegantly, mesmerizingly placed on his apartment ceiling. On the other hand, Tuck’s more angular features provided an interesting incongruity to his more sensitive side. Having a young son and a passive-aggressive ex-wife, it was very easy to root for Tuck to find some sort of happiness in his personal life. When FDR and Tuck were together, there was a natural bromance that oozed out of their verbal sparring, a very fun, funky energy that reminded me of how it was like to be with my best friend. Because the two were so charming in their own right, scenes that might have been creepy, like the two breaking into Lauren’s home to know more about her and use the knowledge they had acquired to gain an advantage in the dating scenarios, had a playfulness to them. Sadly, Lauren was as boring as a cardboard cutout. The writers injected neuroses in her in order to convince us that she had a semblance of a personality, but not only did her quirks not come off as amusing, it felt almost desperate. It seemed like in every point where she had to make a decision, she consulted Trish. Lauren had a fancy job in downtown L.A. but how come she couldn’t she think for herself? Trish had the funniest lines and Handler was more than capable of reaching a certain level of energy to deliver the punchlines. I wish the picture was more about her. In the middle of it, I began to wonder how the movie could have been more interesting if the two handsome bachelors tried to win Trish’ affections even if she was happily married most of the time. There was a subplot involving Heinrich (Til Schweiger), a person of interest in the eyes of the CIA, wanting revenge for the death of his brother but, like Lauren, it was just so banal. The action scenes were very uninspired, almost unnecessary. “This Means War” was an innocuous romp that desperately needed edge in order to keep its audience on their toes, to feel like we were active participants in the charade. Since pretty much everything was so safe, I noticed that there were times when my eyes began to gloss over out of the dreariness happening on screen.
How Do You Know (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) was so passionate about softball, she made a career out of it. But when she was unexpectedly cut from the team, her life became turbulent as she questioned what she should do next. Coincidentally, one of Lisa’s friends gave George (Paul Rudd) Lisa’s phone number because Lisa, during a drunken night, confessed that she was curious about dating a non-athlete for once. George was as normal as they come other than the fact that he was being wrongly implicated in a federal crime. Will Lisa choose Matty (Owen Wilson), a successful baseball player, over currently unemployed George? One of the problems with “How Do You Know” was all of the characters were painfully needy and nice. When they got angry, they would express it but they apologized almost always immediately, like being angry was a sign of immaturity or that it was something to be ashamed of. I understood why the characters were that way because the material was desperate to be different from other romantic comedies where the characters typically would compartmentalize their negative emotions until the very end. But, without the right execution, as it was the case here, the opposite side of the spectrum was just as toxic as the cliché. Furthermore, the script was just not funny. An hour into it, I laughed probably once and chuckled a maximum of three times. When something funny was about to happen, I felt it coming ten seconds before. Casting Jack Nicholson, who played George’s father, was a letdown because he wasn’t given much to do. He was the distant father with a secret but there was nothing else to him. The majority of the picture’s attempt at comedy consisted of George being awkward around the girl he was in love with. As usual, Rudd was his usual charming, somewhat geeky, harmless persona but his character was also one-dimensional. The film contrasted George and Matty in a heavy-handed way. Aside from the obvious that one was a blonde and the other was a brunette, when Lisa would tell a story about how her day went or what was bothering her, Matty would avoid making eye contact. He would do things like ask her if she was hungry or he would start to talk about himself. On the other hand, when Lisa was with George, the hopeless romantic’s eyes were transfixed on her and when he would ask questions, it was directly related to her problems. Naturally, Matty was someone we would enjoy hanging out with and George was someone one we would marry. It was incredibly transparent who Lisa should choose that tension among the trio wasn’t generated. Written and directed by James L. Brooks, “How Do You Know” was not only predictable but it was also two hours long. How do you know when you’re stuck with a bad movie? When you keep checking the clock and asking yourself how many more bad jokes you have yet to sit through.
Legally Blonde (2001)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Law school is for people who are boring, ugly, and serious,” claimed one of the characters from the film but Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) begged to differ. Elle, the head of her sorority, could easily be labeled as a dumb blonde because she was used to using her beauty and penchant for saying “like” every other word to get what she wanted. But when her boyfriend (Matthew Davis) broke up with her because he claimed he wanted to start being serious since he got accepted to Harvard Law School, Elle did her best to get into the same school and excel. The picture was pretty much a case that highlighted (in pink) the lesson about not judging a book by its cover and the importance of self-reliance. Although Elle started out as a girl who depended on a guy, I immediately connected with her because of Witherspoon’s sense of fun and wit. It was like she was channeling a valley girl version of Tracy Flick from Alexander Payne’s “Election,” with equal determination minus the desperation. Without Witherspoon’s ability to balance the airhead laughs and genuine intelligence, I think the project would have fallen apart because it would have been one-dimensional. In a nutshell, Witherspoon proved why she was a star and kept the movie afloat despite the predictable supporting characters. For instance, I would have loved to have seen Selma Blair being someone other than an overprotective law student, Victor Garber as a cutthroat lawyer, and Jennifer Coolidge as a soft-spoken manicurist. While they played their roles well, an extra spice was missing because I did not see them evolve in a non-transparent way. “Legally Blonde” could also work as a satire for elitist jerks in educational institutions. In high school, if asked if I could choose between beauty and brains, I would have easily chosen brains. But now that I’ve graduated from a university, I am a bit more hesitant because having a brain does not necessarily equate to having a good heart and therefore having emotional intelligence when it comes to dealing with people. The uptight and snobbish law school students depicted on this movie were not at all dissimilar from some people I met in college. So, in a way, even though I’m not a blonde or an airhead (although I like fashion), I can relate to Elle because she meant well and she tried her best to not be affected by negative energy that surrounded her. I also like to balance and apply my knowledge of pop culture and the other things I’m passionate about in every day conversations. Based on a novel by Amanda Brown and directed by Robert Luketic, “Legally Blonde” is a very enjoyable movie because although it is as light and sweet as cotton candy, it packs a punch.
Four Christmases (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
“Four Christmases,” directed by Seth Gordon, was about a couple (Reese Witherspoon, Vince Vaughn) who decided to go to Fiji for Christmas instead of visiting their relatives. Unfortunately, due to the weather, their flight was cancelled so they chose to visit their four divorced parents (Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen, Jon Voight). I loved how this picture started because the lead characters were happy with where they were in life; they weren’t constrained by marriage and people’s expectations about what people in a relationship should do or be. I thought it was a smart way to start because the couple was very modern and it was easy for me to relate with them. However, as the two visited their families, the couple’s way of life was challenged by traditions such as getting married and having kids. And what’s worse, they started buying into the ideas. I was surprised (not in a good way) because I thought the couple was so much stronger in their stance of not having to have children (even though I don’t necessarily agree with it) and getting married. As the picture went on, the more I became annoyed because its modern feel became traditional and it really was not necessary at all. Instead of standing out from other Christmas-themed movies, it started blending in with them and I was left unimpressed. I liked the movie best when it was just Witherspoon and Vaughn talking to each other whether they were in a bar, their home, in a family’s bathroom, or in a car. They had such a great chemistry because their characters were different from each other and, as actors, they had a perfect sense of comedic timing. They were able to talk to each other in a rapid-fire way and I enjoyed that feeling of constantly having to catch up to them instead of being bored. What could have been a good movie set in a Christmas backdrop became convoluted with slapstick, annoying and condescending characters, and unnecessary sidequests (such as the painfully unfunny trip to the church). It would have been so much more refreshing if Vaughn and Witherspoon simply jumped from one home to the next and convinced the audiences why the two of them never wanted to spend the holidays with their families without all the marriage-and-having-kids-will-make-you-happier-as-a-couple lesson. Maybe it was trying too hard to be liked. I wished that the rest of the material was as intelligent and successful as the characters we met during the first twenty minutes.