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.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
★★★ / ★★★★
A mother and son (Ellen Burstyn and Alfred Lutter III) decided to go on a roadtrip to Monterey after the head of the family (who was emotionally abusive) unexpectedly passed away. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this movie because I’m used to Martin Scorsese’s other projects which usually involved tough men drowning in dangerous situations. In here, it was more about a woman’s sense of self-worth and the way she kept picking herself up for her son after numerous heartbreaks. I think the picture had a great balance between drama and comedy but at the same time Scorsese wasn’t afraid to experiment with certain shots such as his homage to “The Wizard of Oz” in the first scene. It surprised me how amusing moments came off sad situations and vice-versa. The movie really embodied that 1970s feel; even though it was released thirty years ago, oddly enough, I thought it was fresh and I was fascinated with how it was all going to unravel. Two of my favorite scenes were when Burstyn said goodbye to her best friend and when the son tried telling his mother an unfunny and endless joke. Instead of going for the easy laughs and melodrama, it felt more like a slice-of-life picture that happened to work as a road trip film. I enjoyed the fact that the lead character was dependent on men and although she knew it, it was sometimes difficult for her to put her son first when she had a boyfriend. Even though that specific trait of hers bothered me, I still couldn’t help but root for her because she was essentially a good person. Even though her life was full of disappointments (such as her dream of becoming a singer not being realized), those things didn’t get her down. I also enjoyed watching the side characters such as the plucky waitress (Diane Ladd), the weird waitress (Valerie Curtin), and the kind but sometimes unpredictable farmer who the main character eventually fell in love with (Kris Kristofferson). All of them brought something special to the table that gave the movie a certain edge. “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” is a great film with strong acting (especially from Burstyn) and an interesting script. I’ve read reviews saying that since this was one of Scorsese’s first movies, it didn’t quite have Scorsese’s style that could be found in his other works such as “Casino,” “GoodFellas” and “Raging Bull.” I disagree. One of the things that made those movies so great was a fantastic ear for dialogue and I think “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” had that quality. The dialogue just didn’t have that “tough guy” feel to it but it certainly had strength.
Sex Drive (2008)
★ / ★★★★
A virgin (Josh Zuckerman) decided to drive across the country using a car he stole from his hypermasculine brother (James Marsden) with his best friends (Amanda Crew, Clark Duke) to finally lose his virginity to a girl (Katrina Bowden) he met online. I expected this movie to be somewhere along the lines of “Superbad” because it essentially had the same premise and sense of humor. It turned out to be much worse because, unlike “Superbad,” “Sex Drive” was stuck in the slapstick approach and unfunny sex jokes instead of eventually telling a story that was entertaining and worth sitting through. One of the biggest problems I had with this movie was the fact that the three lead characters spent too much of their time being stranded on the road. How could a road trip be fun if the audiences were forced to watch characters doing absolutely nothing? Sure, the movie had Seth Green as an Amish person who loved being sarcastic (he was one of the two good things here along with Marsden) but other than the scenes with Green, the rest of the supposedly funny scenes fell flat. I also think that the movie didn’t take advantage of its premise. Online hook-ups are becoming more common these days (I actually know some people who participate in it) but instead of really commenting on that issue by balancing seriousness and comedy, it took the one-dimensional route of best friends finally realizing they had feelings for each other. It was like watching a rated R version of a Disney movie where everyone learned a story in the end. It wasn’t refreshing or amusing so I just wanted it all to end. Directed by Sean Anders, “Sex Drive” was definitely an effort to sit through with infuriating characters teeming with unnecessary insecurities. They had no redeeming qualities because they kept making bad decisions that wouldn’t ultimately help them become better individuals. It made me wonder if people like them really existed and if they did, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them. I kept waiting for Zuckerman’s character to realize that everyone he knew who made fun of him for being a virgin were losers and they would always be losers. Unfortunately, he didn’t so the picture didn’t have that edge and angst I was looking for. In the end, he was just a very bland main character wh also happened to only have a one-track mind when it came to sex. While it did have funny moments with Marsden and Green, those weren’t enough to convince me that “Sex Drive” was worth seeing because it lacked heart and an iota of intelligence.
Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006)
★★ / ★★★★
Based on a short story “Kneller’s Happy Campers” by Etgar Keret, “Wristcutters: A Love Story” stars Patrick Fugit as a depressive guy who one day decides to kill himself and later wakes up in an alternate universe where people who have successfully committed suicides are sent to live. In that other universe, he meets a Russian ex-rocker (Shea Wigham) and while searching for Fugit’s ex-girlfriend (Leslie Bibb), the two meet a hitchhiker (Shannyn Sossamon) who claims that she did not kill herself. I thought the first part of the movie was pretty interesting and it did have its darkly comedic moments. However, as the film went on, I just grew tired of it because even though the three main characters are on the road and constantly meeting new quirky persons, I feel like they’re going absolutely nowhere. Therefore, the story becomes stagnant and quite tedious to watch because pretty much everyone is sad or depressed (which, I guess, would make sense because they all decided to kill themselves). The story is a one-note joke/what-if question which could’ve been more interesting if the characters actually offer some insight with each other. Admittedly, there were some really good scenes between Fugit and Sossamon but those deep conversations weren’t enough to save the picture’s stagnant disposition. I also didn’t like the third act of the movie when the Fugit, Wigham and Sossamon arrived in this town where “miracles” happen. It got even worse when they met Messiah (Will Arnett) who claims that he can separate his soul from his body. That part of the picture felt like a foreign appendage which eventually infected the whole body of work. However, I do give credit to the film for offering something different and taking risks when it comes to its humor. I just can’t quite recommend it because the negatives outweigh the positives.