★★★ / ★★★★
Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost), British comic book fans, on their way to explore the legendary Area 51 came across an alien named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), on the run from government officials who wanted to exploit his extraterrestrial abilities. Written by Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, “Paul” was a quick-witted buddy road trip comedy equipped with a plethora of references to various sci-fi pop culture, obscure and mainstream. The film opened at the San Diego Comic Con. While it did make fun of fans dressing up as their favorite movie and comic book characters, it was never mean-spirited in its approach. In fact, it was a rather good start. Its bona fide sense of humor, situational or otherwise, was exactly why we wanted to follow Graeme and Clive in their epic, awkward, exciting adventure. As usual, Pegg and Frost had wonderful chemistry. The way they delivered their lines and the way they moved around each other convinced me that their characters were true BFFs. I looked at the CGI Paul with grand curiosity. Initially, I found him to be rather stoic. But the longer I stared at him, the more easily I could identify his subtle facial expressions; I almost wanted him to be my pet. He was funny and rather harmless. More importantly, the writing took advantage of the strange creature on screen. We learned specifics in terms of his abilities. For instance, while he had the power to become invisible by whim, he could only do it if he held his breath. Gifts with limitations are interesting. The government agent in charge of capturing Paul was called Agent Zoil (As in Lorenzo Zoil–get it?), gleefully played by Jason Bateman. Bateman being serious in a picture like this was like watching a giraffe attempting to do somersaults. It just didn’t ring together. However, it worked. His attempt to suppress his little ticks was what made the role funnier than it should have been. Also, there was a balance. We saw glimpses of how dangerous he could be. As he aimed his gun toward a moving target, I found myself holding my breath. I took the intensity in his eyes quite seriously and I didn’t expect to. His fellow agents (Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio), ambitious but incompetent and rash, highlighted the man in black’s intractable goal of getting to Paul first. One of the qualities I admired most about the film was it didn’t overwhelm us with cryptic allusions. There were obvious camera angles which served to highlight an important science fiction actor walking in on a frame. I didn’t get some of the references but I wasn’t bothered by them. Either I felt like I was still in on the joke or I was too preoccupied wondering what would happen next. “Paul” was sweet but never sentimental, funny but never obnoxious. I did wish, however, that we could have seen more of the alien hotspots that Graeme and Clive visited. After all, they were supposed to be on an epic road trip. And I would have been floored if Special Agents Mulder and Scully from “The X-Files” made brief appearances. Still, the picture did do without.
My One and Only (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Anne Deveraux (Renée Zellweger) was used to living a wealthy lifestyle. But when she caught her husband (Kevin Bacon), the leading man of a popular band, cheating on her with a much younger woman, she took her two sons, sarcastic George (Logan Lerman) and feminine Robbie (Mark Rendall), on a road trip across America in a Cadillac Coupe de Ville convertible to find herself a new husband for financial support. Along the way, they met colorful characters such as a man stuck in a military mindset (Chris Noth), an old friend with a penchant for dating younger women (Eric McCormack), a real gentleman (Nick Stahl), and someone who appeared normal but quite far from it (David Koechner). From the minute the film began, I was instantly drawn to it. Perhaps it was because of the golden 1950s setting that I’m naturally drawn to or the strong acting particularly by Zellweger and Lerman. It was most likely both. The script was intelligent, nuanced in character development, and had just the right amount of sadness aimed to test how much we’ve invested in our trio. I loved the fact that Anne started off as weak and dependent. With each city they visited, she grew stronger only in small ways but somehow it was enough to make me care and keep rooting for her. Primarily, she wanted to provide for her kids. Living a lavish lifestyle was secondary but it didn’t lose importance. The comedy was often packaged in scenes when the family was running out of money yet Anne couldn’t help but spend. She had great pride in wearing expensive clothing and eating fancy food in the best restaurants. Eating TV dinners was almost a joke to her, a way to catch up with her family. Aside from the pressure of finding a husband for his money, tension grew at a steady rate because Anne looked forward but George kept looking back. We could clearly understand why both of the characters wanted to go in the direction they looked toward. It was nice to see that sometimes they felt chained to one another, but sometimes they were just happy to be together even if nothing seemed to be going right. George loved his father and he wanted his feelings to be reciprocated even in a microscopic way. But the father just seemed emotionally unavailable. Anne wanted to maintain her dignity. And she should. Written by Charlie Peters and directed by Richard Loncraine, “My One and Only” was a funny and touching story about what it meant to be a family. Cleverness was abound and I even caught myself smiling from ear to ear with how certain happenings came into place. The fact that it was inspired by George Hamilton’s actual life experiences was somewhat secondary.
Everybody’s Fine (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Despite his doctor’s recommendation against traveling, Frank (Robert De Niro) decided to go on a road trip across America when his thirtysomething children (Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore) made last-minute cancellations to come visit over the holidays. Frank wanted to reconnect with his kids due to the recent death of his wife. Also, he felt lonely being by himself at home. “Everybody’s Fine” had an interesting premise but it ultimately left me wanting more. Since Frank’s children had vastly different personalities and temperaments, I thought that each visit would reflect a change of tone. Unfortunately, it remained mind-numbingly one-note. It was depressing because the kids didn’t want to have anything to do with their father which were reflected in their phone conversations when Frank was on the train, the bus, and the plane. Although he was somewhat welcomed with smiles and hugs, the emotions felt fake because we knew what they really thought about the surprise visit. It was like watching a guide called “How Not to Treat Your Parents When They Get Old and You Have Your Own Life.” It would have been refreshing if two of them didn’t want him over but at least one genuinely did without question. One visit could have been strange, the other really funny, and the last quite cantankerous. Big shifts in tone could have signified that the material wasn’t afraid to take risks. So what if everything doesn’t quite fit together? Just keep the audiences interested. There were some mildly comedic scenes like when Frank was portrayed as being out of touch with recent technology and his unawareness that the heavy bag he’d been carrying had a handle and wheels which could have made his life easier. There were also some touching scenes such as when we finally realized that there were some truth in Frank’s high expectations of his children and why they felt distant toward him for years. Nevertheless, I still disagreed with the way they treated their father as if he was a child. Protecting someone doesn’t always equal keeping them in the dark especially when the person had a right to know what was happening. The writing could have used some work. The scene I found most awkward and uncomfortable to sit through was the fantasy scene involving Frank sharing a meal with his children, played by actual kids, and secrets were revealed. Some of the divulged information could be surmised from Frank’s visit but some were simply out of nowhere. That scene felt cheesy, forced, and it diminished the little dramatic pull it had going for it. Written and directed by Kirk Jones, “Everybody’s Fine” had a great cast, with some effective acting from De Niro, but it made far too many missteps because of a weak script. I couldn’t help but feel disconnected during the more serious revelations.
The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
★★★ / ★★★★
A family (led by Russ Grieve and Virginia Vincent, the patriarch and matriarch) got into an accident in the desert while on their way to California. It happened during the most unfortunate time because the area in which their vehicle broke down was a nuclear testing site and was occupied with deformed cannibals. Written and directed by Wes Craven, “The Hills Have Eyes” was a horror film with a simple premise but it expertly embodied an animalistic tone and gathered momentum until the final shot. For a slasher flick, I found it strange because I was able to extract a lot of meaning from it. I enjoyed the way Craven framed regular well-meaning folks and forced them to eventually become like the monsters that terrorized them in order to survive. While it was very violent, especially the events that transpired in the trailer which consisted of murder and rape, it was far from gratuitous. I felt Craven holding back in terms of showing certain images that might glorify the terrible things that there happening. It was successful at allowing us to feel anger so that we could root for the remaining members of the family to not just seek revenge but also obtain something that meant a lot to them. The heart of the picture was arguably the siblings Brenda (Susan Lanier) and Bobby (Robert Houston). Brenda was unhappy about her father’s decision to take an unknown route while Bobby almost immediately sensed that there was something wrong about the environment they had no choice but to occupy. As the title’s anthropomorphic title suggested, the environment was like a creature that lived, capable of defending itself when threatened. However, things such as rattlesnakes and the possibility of dehydration and starvation were the last elements the characters had to worry about. The animalism and savagery became a trend. One angle was when the characters eventually got over their fear and sadness and decided to fight back even if it meant losing their lives. Another was using the family pet, a dog that was normally friendly unless threatened, as a figure readily able to attack and kill. Perhaps Craven hoped to suggest that the deformed cannibals living in an isolated world were really no different than regular people that successfully integrated in society. Lastly, I thought its abrupt ending was a smart decision. There was no explanation about how the characters would end up. It did not need to because the situation in which they were thrusted upon was beyond reasoning. Its main goal was to show whether or not the cannibals would get their comeuppance. “The Hills Have Eyes” did have its flaws, such as characters who whined too much for no good reason, but the quality of horror was consistent and it ended on a very high note.
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.
Flirting with Disaster (1996)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Ben Stiller and Patricia Arquette star as a New Yorker couple with a five-month-old unnamed baby. Stiller’s character was adopted and he thought it would only be right to find his biological parents (Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin) before naming the baby despite disapproval by his neurotic and self-absorbed biological parents (Mary Tyler Moore, George Segal). So the couple headed for San Diego along with a psychology student (Téa Leoni) who wanted to document the expected warm reunion. It’s a shame this film had been forgotten or overlooked by most as a great comedy. I had such a great time watching it because every minute was laugh-out-loud funny, intelligent and had an element of surprise. All characters had a chance to shine under the spotlight and used to the fullest but they were never exploited. They were made fun of but the sense of humor was never mean-spirited. The filmmakers were obviously aware of the fact that the audiences will most likely see themselves in these characters so the material and execution treated them with respect. The jokes were spot-on and the movie seemed to never run out of them. When the movie ended, I found myself smiling and wishing that it wasn’t yet over. I highly enjoyed the addition of Josh Brolin and Richard Jenkins as an FBI couple who wanted a baby. Again, it was easy to target these specific characters due to their sexual orientation but the material did not succumb to stupidity or bigotry to generate cheap laughs that ended just as the next scene was introduced. I liked the scene when the characters were stuck in a confined car and the script acknowledged the fact that not all gay men were into anal sex. It may sound obvious reading it now but one would be surprised that not a lot of people are aware of that. Sure, there were stereotypes but it attempted to break the mold by allowing the characters to think and act like real people. Furthermore, the director had a great ear for dialogue. I thought it was true to life because I often noticed characters talking on top of one another. It certainly is like that in my family especially during the holidays when everyone seems to lose their minds. (Or maybe we’re just too happy.) Astutely written and directed by David O. Russell, “Flirting with Disaster” is a highly successful roadtrip picture. If I were to be stuck with a group of people, I wish to be with them because I related to their quirkiness, neuroticisms, and flaws. This sleeper hit makes movies like Jay Roach’s “Meet the Parents” look pedestrian because movies like that rely more on slapstick to generate laughs.
★★★ / ★★★★
A couple, one a writer (David Duchovny) and the other a photographer (Michelle Forbes), decided to travel across country to California while visiting infamous murder sites. But since they didn’t have enough funds for gas, they decided to put up an advertisement and another couple, one a killer (Brad Pitt) and the other a girl (Juliette Lewis) unaware that her boyfriend was a murderer, answered. I was fascinated with the way the movie was shot. While it was very violent and gory, it was obvious that the picture’s goal was not to glorify such things but to look into the darkness in hoping that a monster would leer back at us. And it did. There were shots that featured the vast landscape and it allowed us to ponder about what was happening and create ideas about what might happen next. It was an intense experience because for more than half the film, Duchovny, Forbes, and Lewis weren’t aware that they’ve been spending their time with someone who they’ve talked about in person, on tape, and captured in photographs. The three obviously felt fear toward Pitt’s character but they couldn’t quite place what was wrong with him. They felt as though jumping to a conclusion was just as dangerous as not doing so the characters felt trapped despite the open spaces that surrounded them. The film constantly tried to break away from the obvious and it became an increasingly challenging experience as it went on. For instance, the material had constructed an argument that there was a big difference between visiting a place where a grizzly crime had occurred and actually being a victim of someone who didn’t feel remorse and guilt. The characters talked about crimes as if directly taken from the news and books but eventually, once they’ve experienced it first-hand, they realized that no amount of explanation in books could even begin to describe the harrowing experience. Their dark adventure was intensified by Duchovny’s narration (à la “The X-Files” delivery of lines), asking questions like what was the difference between a regular person compared to a killer, or even if there is a difference. Do regular people have an extra something or are they missing something in comparison to someone who kills? “Kalifornia,” directed by Dominic Sena, was an effective thriller not only because it had intelligent characters who knew how to survive but also because the director had control of his material and he always worked toward a goal. It may not be for everyone because it sometimes didn’t offer easy answers. But for those who enjoyed crime thrillers such as David Fincher’s “Se7en” (a more commercial work in comparison to “Kalifornia”) should be able to enjoy this chilling road trip. Along with movies like John Dahl’s “Joy Ride,” this is the kind of film I think about when I stop at gas stations during a long drive.