★★★ / ★★★★
Carol (Julianne Moore) is an upper-middle class housewife living in the San Fernando Valley who begins to develop a set of non-specific symptoms that has her doctor baffled. Despite her constant headaches and general feeling that something is not quite right with her body, she is perfectly healthy—at least according to the medical exams. What caused this illness—assuming there is one to begin with? Could it be due to the smoke she inhaled while driving on the freeway? Could it be because of the so-called “fruit diet” that she and her best friend took part in? Or is it due to something else entirely?
Written and directed by Todd Haynes, “Safe” is a polarizing film because it is not easy to sit through. The dialogue is sparse and seemingly superficial. The pacing is slow and deliberate. The use of the camera can come across static at times. Not one of the supporting characters are the least bit interesting. It does not provide easy answers with respect to the protagonist’s condition. And yet it is worth seeing.
Moore delivers a magnetic performance. Because dialogue is limited, the performer must be able to pull our attention by exhibiting an intelligence, a desperation, a certain strength that cannot be denied. Although Moore plays a character whose health is flailing, she provides substance by welcoming us to consider what Carol is thinking.
This is particularly apparent when the subject is looking herself on the mirror. Sure, there is the basic question of “What is happening to me?” inside her head but there is also sadness, regret, frustration. Another is when the camera transfixes on her face. Those eyes are haunting—she just as well could be a friend or a loved one in silent suffering.
Notice the writer-director’s ability to frame a scene. Initially, I was thrown off by the camera’s insistence of observing from afar despite a conversation occurring between two characters. The picture made me realize that I am so used to recognizing context or body cues when characters are interacting that once that comfort is removed, I am frustrated. But after the same technique is employed about three or four times, I began to wonder what Haynes is trying to accomplish.
Since Carol’s source of illness is believed be environmental, are we supposed to take notice of the bed flowers from just a feet or two away? The couches that have been delivered recently? The room that provides no proper air flow? Since the clues are there, the film begs for a second viewing. Such is a sign of a great movie.
The latter half piques our interest because there is doubt regarding the validity of the treatment center that Carol comes to join. Because the former half makes us paranoid of what is in the air, the food, the water, on the bedsheets, maybe it is possible that the group is some kind of cult. I looked for classic signs—some are present but many pieces are missing—but was unable to form a precise conclusion. This group lives in isolation. There are many more trees than there are shopping malls. Still, Carol does not appear to be getting better. What is going on?
“Safe” engages the viewer to ask questions and to look a little closer. Not many things are exactly as they appear. There are no twists to make someone go, “Oh! So that’s what’s going on all along!” There are only inferences and sometimes the terror is in the not fully knowing.
★ / ★★★★
Just when Luke Wright (Jason Statham), a homeless man, was about to jump in front of a moving train, he noticed a terrified Chinese girl attempting to hide from a group of Russian gangsters. Recognizing one of them as one of his wife’s killers, he decided to set aside his suicide attempt and get revenge. Mei (Catherine Chan), taken from mainland China to New York City’s Chinatown, had an excellent aptitude for math as well as a photographic memory, an ability that a Chinese gangster leader (James Hong) valued highly for his schemes. Caught in a tug-of-war between the Chinese and the Russians–and, eventually, crooked cops–Luke and Mei tried to survive and come out on top. “Safe,” written and directed by Boaz Yakin, was far from a first-rate action piece because it oozed of conventionality, from a main character who was supposed to be carrying a heavy weight of anger and guilt to the shoot ’em up sequences that mistook high decibels for thrills. Setting up the story prior to the chance meeting of Luke and Mei proved laborious. With such a watered down and repetitive dialogue, every time a character spoke, I found myself losing more interest by the minute and wondering when it was going to deliver something so special that I would be jolted into investing more into what was happening. I wasn’t sure whether Luke’s background was simply uninspired or it had no inspiration at all. Surely different elements were plucked from other bona fide action films but it seemed to have no identity of its own. It couldn’t be denied that the writer-director wanted us to care for its protagonist. However, every so-called sad moment felt very contrived, a one-dimensional but desperate manipulation to get us to buy into the phoniness on screen. Statham’s charisma prevented the picture from drowning completely into its own humdrum formula. His physicality became increasingly attractive with every punch and kick thrown at his targets. But it was in the one playful scene where he was able to shine. Watching Statham perform is always a pleasure because he commands a great seriousness that is necessary for us to believe that, in most characters he plays, he is a figure who is out for blood. However, what separates him from wannabe action stars is his ability to break from that seriousness and deliver a smile and lightheartedness while retaining that belief in us that he’s still a badass. The part when Luke ate a sandwich so teasingly in front of the corrupt cops, who turned out to be his former colleagues, but found themselves unable to hurt him because they needed him was funny and engaging. The film needed more relaxed moments like that and less heavily edited–and boring–gun battle and hand-to-hand combat. Lastly, the relationship between Luke and Mei was not developed sufficiently. While putting a child in the middle of an action movie will always be a challenge because most child actors can only perform up to a certain level, the material never rose above that undertaking. Instead, Mei was absent during chunks of the film and was only summoned, sadly, when she needed to be interrogated. “Safe” was generic, convoluted, and not as entertaining nor engaging as it should have been. While its title had multiple meanings in the film, it could also function as a critique of itself.
Back-Up Plan, The (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Jennifer Lopez had been absent from being a female lead actress for quite some time so I was really looking forward to Alan Poul’s “The Back-Up Plan.” Zoe (Lopez) made a proactive decision about having a kid via artificial insemination because she thought she would never find the guy for her. But the moment she stepped outside the clinic, she met Stan (Alex O’Loughlin), a nice, down-to-earth guy who wasn’t bad on the eyes with dreams of leading his own humble business. They didn’t get along initially but after a series of coincidences, the two eventually fell for one another. While I did like the two characters because they were charming and had undeniable chemistry, the material was just not funny. Some aspects of the film that were supposed to be funny but actually dead on arrival include the Single Mothers and Proud support group, Zoe’s incredibly transparent friends, and its lack of commitment in dealing with the serious questions about being a single parent. There were moments when Zoe had a chance to think about her future and whether she really wanted to stay on the path she had chosen but as soon as mood turned a little too serious, the movie would cut to a different scene and deliver slapstick infantile comedy. Not only did it take me out of the moment but I also felt emotionally cheated. The picture also lacked focus. I got the impression that the material was supposed to be from a mother’s perspective but it eventually lost track of its vision by establishing a series of scenes when Stan would meet a stranger at a park and discuss the struggles of fatherhood. While it was nice on the surface, I thought it was completely unnecessary. I already liked Stan and hammering the point that he was a good guy left me impatient. For me, I just saw it as another excuse to not deal with Zoe’s increasingly difficult preganancy, physically and emotionally, as she struggled with trusting Stan to stick around because the father and her child were not biologically connected. I think the movie would have been so much better if it had decided to take either the comedic or dramatic route. In an attempt to balance both, it managed to excel at neither path because every single step was formulaic and uninspiring. In the end, the elements of true exploration about how it was like to be a middle-class single mother were there but it tried too hard to be everything at once. The message of the film was vague–assuming that it wanted to communicate something in the first place. But then again maybe it just wanted to be a typical and too safe a romantic comedy.
13 Going on 30 (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
Jenna was a thirteen-year-old girl who desperately wanted to belong in a clique led by a typical mean girl, unaware that her best friend had a crush on her. During Jenna’s ruined birthday party, she desperately wished that she was thirty and thriving; she woke up the next morning in a completely different body (Jennifer Garner) and had no memory of what happened in her life since her terrible 13th birthday party. She had to learn a lot of things such as her best friend being no longer the guy who truly cared for her (Mark Ruffalo) but the mean girl (Judy Greer) she wanted to impress in middle school. This is the kind of movie where we can clearly see how it would all end right from the beginning but I couldn’t help but enjoy it. It was well-aware of its predictability so it made the journey to the finish line so much fun by throwing us good and bad 80s references. It was as light as cotton candy and as sweet as bubblegum but it had wit, intelligence and charm. It was willing to wear its heart on its sleeves, which sometimes made me cringe because it didn’t know when to stop (for instance, Garner joining her parents in bed), but I thought it worked most of the time. Garner was perfectly casted because she was so good at being wide-eyed and innocent. I thought she was so adorable dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and when everybody joined in, I couldn’t help but laugh and tap my feet. As for the romance, Ruffalo and Garner had perfect chemistry. Watching them together had its syrupy moments but I always felt a certain tension or awkwardness between them because their characters hadn’t spoken to each other in a long time. I think they captured the essence bumping into someone you knew from high school and you had no choice but to make small conversation in order to not seem rude. However, I think the picture could have worked more on the cold-hearted Jenna. The script kept bringing up the fact that everybody was scared of her because she was conniving and had no problem abusing her power. I was curious about her darker side. By exploring that angle, I think the movie could have delved into Greer’s character a lot deeper. After all, there is often pain and jealousy between two friends having to compete against other. Directed by Gary Winick, “13 Going on 30” is a bit too safe in its approach but it’s still a highly enjoyable romantic comedy. It could have easily have overdosed with twists and turns because of the magical element that helped to drive the story forward but it refrained. It wasn’t as good as Penny Marshall’s “Big” but it was able to acquire some magic unique to its own.
Good Guy, The (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Alexis Bledel once again plays an ambitious and smart young woman who was torn between two guys who worked on Wall Street. Tommy (Scott Porter) knew what he wanted, wasn’t afraid to act on his impulses, a sweet-talker and a womanizer. On the other hand, Daniel (Bryan Greenberg) was socially awkward, did not have much luck with the ladies, but his insight made it difficult for anyone to not fall head over heels with him. Due to some unforseen circumstances, Tommy enthusiastically took Daniel under his wing and tried to make Daniel be more like a cutthroat businessman than a poet who wore his heart on his sleeves. I enjoyed the movie because it was an observation of modern relationships set in an urban area but I felt like it did not take enough risks. I loved that Greenberg’s character highlighted the theme of the film in which he mentioned that his favorite book was “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen because it was about false first impressions. Although the lead characters had clear dominant personalities, I found subtleties in them and I was interested with what was about to happen among the relationship between the girl and the two guys. I wished that their strained relationship was explored more and that the picture had less scenes of Tommy and his friends (one of which was played by the amusing Aaron Yoo) teasing each other and trying to pick up women in bars. I was also interested in one of the guys who worked on Wall Street who said he valued his wife and children more than his job and money. Greenberg had one scene with him which I thought was handled well because they found similarities in each other but it ultimately felt superficial because it wasn’t further explored. Written and directed by Julio DePietro, “The Good Guy” had the right ingredients to make a solid movie about character studies because I came to understand the protagonists’ motivations. But there were far too many scenes that did not need to be in the final product and not enough scenes that should have made it in. It also needed a bit more edge because there were times when the picture reached an emotional plateau. I could easily relate to the characters because even though they were out in the real world, they were still young and trying to figure out who they really were when with friends, with a special someone, or when forced to look at themselves when they had nobody else to turn to.
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.
Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009)
★ / ★★★★
I knew I wouldn’t like “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” from the moment I saw the trailer because I’ve never exactly warmed up with the lead actor. Matthew McConaughey plays a photographer who gets his way with just about any woman he encounters. But when he goes back home for his brother’s wedding (Breckin Meyer), he sees the woman (Jennifer Garner) who he fell in love with as a child and is visited by the ghosts of his former lovers who tell him the error of his ways. Everything about this film was painfully predictable. From the bad-boy-turned-good lead character to a stressed out bride, it was all too formulaic to be even slightly inspiring. I think one of the fatal errors of the movie is that it didn’t give us a reason to care for McConaughey. During the first few scenes, he could still have been established as a player but if there was one or two sensitive moments when he was just by himself and regretted where his life was going yet can’t quite break from it, that could have been a good start because there was tension. Instead, we get to see a series of cruel stunts from him such as breaking up with women over the internet (over group chat!) and trying to desuade his brother from marrying the girl (Lacey Shabert) of his dreams. But what I loved about this movie was Garner which was not a surprise at all. I just love looking at her because she may look tough on the outside at times but I always feel this light coming out of her. I wanted her to just get over McConaughey and fall for the doctor who the bride set her up with. Inspired by Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past,” directed by Mark Waters, was a very weak attempt at a modern romantic comedy. It desperately needed some edge, focusing of the main storylines, a much needed heart from the main character, better jokes and a significantly more astute dialogue. There were times when I thought to myself, “I don’t know anyone stupid enough to say something like that.” I felt like I was watching high school students trying to put together a wedding instead of adults. Perhaps the writers are partly to blame for writing such a soft and very simplified material. And to be honest, I really don’t understand why this picture even got a green light for production. A romantic comedy can still be successful with a bit of alterations from the usual fare. Watching “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” was, quite frankly, like eating bad cheese.
Sherlock Holmes (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Based on Lionel Wigram’s comic books, “Sherlock Holmes,” directed by Guy Ritchie, was an underwhelming experience because it was very confusing at its worst and only somewhat exciting at its best. Unlike most people, I didn’t mind the “upgrade” from the traditional Sherlock Holmes. Holmes in this film was a sleuth who was extremely observant, logical and knew martial arts. In fact, I welcomed such a change because I like watching different interpretations of characters embedded in our pop culture. In “Sherlock Holmes,” the popular detective (Robert Downey Jr.) and his partner Dr. Watson (Jude Law) investigated the strange murders Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) promised would happen right before his death. Was something supernatural going on or was there a logical explanation to all of it? To make things more complicated, Holmes’ former love interest (Rachel McAdams) came into the picture with tricks up her sleeve and loyalties that were even harder to read. I didn’t like the fact that all the explanations were given to the audiences toward the end of the film. It would have been so much more engaging and less confusing if Holmes shared what he was thinking from time to time instead of just trying to be funny or getting under Watson’s nerves. After all, despite the modern interpretation, his core character should have been a detective first and perhaps a comedian second (or fifth). While Downey Jr. and Law did have good chemistry, it wasn’t enough for the movie to feel concrete as we headed toward the climax. I also didn’t feel like they had a really strong bond–like they complemented each other. The picture was too busy shaping the action sequences (which I found entertaining) that it neglected (or didn’t care about) character development. However, in a way, I kind of expected it because Ritchie’s films are usually heavy on style and light on substance (“RocknRolla,” “Snatch”). Still, I hoped that he would strive for something more as a filmmaker instead of resting on what he already knew. The picture also could have used another dimension by standing on the line between logic and magic throughout most of the film. When the answer is too obvious, it’s difficult to feel engaged. “Sherlock Holmes” isn’t a bad movie but it is a generic one. That’s my main problem with it. If you’re going to take a really popular character and change it drastically, you’re going to have to be willing to push the envelope all the way instead of just halfway through. Perhaps the sequel will do a better job with taking risks because the cast and crew will be more comfortable in their respective roles. (Or at least they should be because this installment was a success in the box office.) It needs to stop trying to be so amusing and focus on the detective work at hand without confusing and alienating their viewers.
Funny People (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
“Funny People,” written and directed by Judd Apatow, stars a bunch of funny people: Adam Sandler as a senior comedian who discovers that he has a fatal disease, Seth Rogen as an aspiring comedian who Sandler hires to write jokes for him, Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman as Rogen’s flatmates, Leslie Mann as Sandler’s ex-lover and Eric Bana as Mann’s unfaithful husband. Unfortunately, the material was not as funny as I expected it to be. In fact, it was quite serious because the lead character was obviously depressed because of his doomed fate. There were a few jokes with chuckling from here and there but there were no laugh-out-loud funny moments as they were in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” or “Knocked Up.” If Apatow was aiming for some sort of a dark comedy because it did (or was supposed to) have jokes about death, then I believe it completely failed on that level. I had major problems with Sandler’s character because I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to feel sorry for him. Not for one second did I feel bad for him because he was a jerk even to those who obviously cared for him. When his character finally met up with Mann after years of not seeing each other, he fell in love with her all over again but I didn’t buy it. After all, how could a guy who didn’t value himself and his friendships value some kind of a romantic relationship (and a flimsy one at that)? The film wasn’t logical and it should have been because this picture was supposed to be for adults. I was more interested in the angle regarding what it took to be a successful comedian instead of Sandler’s so-called plight. I enjoyed the cameos from Sarah Silverman, Andy Dick, Charles Fleischer, Eminem, Ray Romano, and others. With such a brilliant cast who are very funny in other movies, this film failed to take risks. Instead it featured one contrived and sometimes uncomfortable moments on top of one another. If it weren’t for the breathers (such as the cameos) that had nothing to do with the drama in the character’s depressing lives, I would have been harsher with this picture. If you’re a fan of any of the names mentioned, then by all means, see it. However, I warn you to not expect too much because it doesn’t have enough meat to carry a two-hour-and-thirty-minute feature.
Taking of Pelham 123, The (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Tony Scott directed this thriller about a criminal (John Travolta) with a mysterious reason for taking a train full hostages. Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) thought it was just another day in regular train traffic, but once he got a call from the mastermind of the hostage situation, he had to think quickly and act swiftly to get to the right authorities and bargain for the lives of the hostages. For a hostage movie, “The Taking of Pelham 123” should have been more exciting. For me, only the first hour of the picture really worked because Travolta and Washington’s characters constantly tried to measure each other up; they were both smart characters and each had their own flaws and far from innocent past. The mindgames they played with each other was more interesting than the last forty-five minutes’ car crashes, quick cuts aided by random blasting of music and gunfires. In fact, the last forty-five minutes was drenched in typicality, it was hard for me to sit through because I knew where it was heading. That excitement and spark that it had in the first half were completely elimated and I somewhat lost interest. I thought the supporting actors (who are usually great in other films) such as James Gandolfini (as the mayor), John Turturro (as a professional hostage negotiator) and Luis Guzmán (as one of the three criminals) were not pushed enough to make their characters come alive and make a significant impact in the story. Their characters could have been played by other actors and the movie would essentially have been the same. I also believe the movie had some serious problems when it comes to logic. For instance, the extended chase sequence near the end could have been completely avoided if the police had put trackers in any of the money bags. Since the police would know the exact positions of the criminals, the movie would not have wasted fifteen minutes of its time showing confusion and chaos. Overall, “The Taking of Pelham 123” isn’t really a bad movie because more than half of it was right on track (pardon the pun). It’s just that it tried too hard to inject that Hollywood way of storytelling where a big chase sequence is a requisite. For a movie having characters who exuded edginess and intelligence, the movie was pretty dull and safe.
Bottle Shock (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I decided to watch this movie because I was interested to learn more about one of the landmarks of the wine industry (even though I don’t know much about wine). That is, the creation of the perfect Chateau Montelena chardonnay. Alan Rickman stars as Steven Spurrier, the owner of Academie du Vin, who traveled to the United States in order to collect wine for the Judgment of Paris wine competition. One of the places he visited was Chateau Montelena which was owned by Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), a man who was buried in loans and frustration with the fact that his son (Chris Pine) failed to show interest or enthusiasm when it came to the family business. The weaker and less interesting part of the film was the romance triangle among a Hispanic worker (Freddy Rodriguez) in Chateau Montelena, a new intern (Rachael Taylor), and Jim’s aimless son. Another negative was that even though the story was supposed to be set in 1976, it didn’t feel like it was because of both the actors and the script. That sense of authenticity was important to me because I really wanted to be sucked into the time period. I also felt as though the picture played everything a bit too safe. With each scene everything just felt nice and breezy instead of revolutionary, which is a problem because the core of the movie was how the events in the vineyard impacted the wine industry. Randall Miller, the director, should have taken more risks instead of resting on the romance between the three younger characters. In fact, I think the movie would’ve been better off if about thirty minutes were cut off because it would have been more focused and the pace wouldn’t have felt as slow. Still, I don’t consider “Bottle Shock” a bad movie because there were moments of true wonder for the audiences, especially when the wine suddenly changed from clear to brown. I had no idea whether that was a positive or a negative thing prior so I certainly learned something from the film. And the exciting competition scene was quite amusing because the French judges tried so hard to discern which wines were from France and which ones were from the United States. The looks on their faces after the competition was priceless.