Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
A group of college students were driving up to the mountain to have some fun when they encountered two hillbillies, Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine), in a gas station. Having seen a lot of scary movies and heard of stories about grizzly murders in the woods, the college kids couldn’t help but translate Tucker and Dale’s every action as a possible chance to kidnap or kill them. In truth, the duo were only there because Tucker had recently bought a vacation home, a cabin, and they could use a bit of relaxation before heading back to work. “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil,” written by Eli Craig and Morgan Jurgenson, directed by the former, had a chance to really sink its teeth in horror movie clichés about hillbillies being nothing but churlish, incestuous, often cannibalistic, folks but it ultimately felt superficial because the one-liners and the physical stunts lacked range. The set-up was this: The young men and women were so stupid, they ended up killing themselves by accident. Cut to Tucker and Dale’s shocked and horrified reactions. The material was very funny during its initial gags, but the filmmakers failed to detach from the formula, ironically constructing its own clichés by making fun of clichés. The title promised the two friends fighting evil. After they rescued Allison (Katrina Bowden) from drowning, Allison’s friends thought that she was kidnapped because they observed from afar. This triggered Chad (Jesse Moss), innately irascible and shamelessly sporting an ugly popped collar, into a state of rage to the point where he ended up being as ruthless as the murderers his group of friends feared. The movie wasn’t specific in the “evil” that Tucker and Dale had to fight. Was it the negative stereotypes regarding hillbillies that became embedded in the genre’s bones over the history of cinema? Was it the apocryphal placidity in hateful individuals, who lived in the suburbs or cities all their lives, and their secret yearnings of violence just waiting to be unleashed? Furthermore, it failed to acknowledge that stereotyping can be a good thing; it helps our mind to process information faster than it normally would. For instance, they allow us to respond quickly to potential dangers. Relying on stereotypes and neglecting to put more thought into them, hence failing to sympathize with others who are different, is the real tragedy. If the screenplay had focused more on that message, tragedies even outside of horror movie conventions could have been effortlessly highlighted. The story really shouldn’t have been about the body count. Allison was in the process of getting her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, hoping to establish a career as a counselor. I expected her to be more self-aware. The subplot involving Dale and Allison falling for each other was a nuisance, almost worthy of a dozen eye-rollings. Wouldn’t it have been too much to ask if they didn’t pine for each other so profusely? With every bloody confrontation between the hillbillies and the college students, it was interrupted by Dale having to explain to Allison what had transpired. Given that we just saw what happened, the little summaries felt repetitive and I started to wonder if the filmmakers were simply biding their time to push the material to a typical ninety-minute mark because the script became indigent of fresh ideas that cut deeper than boning knives.
Bad Teacher (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) was a gold-digger who taught middle school Language Arts. When she was dumped by her most recent rich boyfriend because she had been spending too much money, she started a quest to find another man who would be able to provide for her lavish desires. Her short-term goal: to get breast implants. She was convinced a new pair would help her seduce Scott (Justin Timberlake), the substitute teacher who happened to be romantically interested with Amy (Lucy Punch), the teacher across Elizabeth’s classroom. Written by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, “Bad Teacher” was great fun because it was able to take stereotypes, bad habits, and unethical practices into more digestible small scenes with comedic punchlines. Once the joke was delivered, it was immediately onto the next scene to set up the next hilarious bit. It was fast-paced and smart. In its own way, it worked as a critique of an increasingly ineffective educational system and the educators who just couldn’t be bothered. I think it had a point: Elizabeth had needs. Her needs were not always be reasonable but they were needs nonetheless. Its inherent argument was, why should teachers be more motivated to go beyond expectations if they weren’t getting paid enough? Some could argue that teachers love their job and they’re very passionate. That very may well be, but in a practical sense, teachers are not rewarded, pocket-wise, as much as they should be, especially when teaching is, supposedly, considered one of the most important jobs in any nation. The material was elevated by the actors’ charm, particularly by the effervescent Diaz. Even though Elizabeth did drugs at the school parking lot, often went to class with a mean hangover, and only showed movies–some of which had no educational value–in her classroom instead of actively teaching, I ended up rooting for her and loving her for who she was. She knew she was bad and did it with a smile. I liked her frankness. For instance, when Russell (Jason Segel), the gym teacher, asked her out on a date, instead of playing games and stringing him along, she had the courage to just shut him down right away because he wasn’t rich enough. However, I did find some glaring plot holes in Elizabeth’s situation. For example, she had her eyes set on the vulnerable and sensitive Scott because of his last name. What bothered me was she didn’t make sure that he was 1) who he really claimed to be and 2) he was the only beneficiary of the family fortune. She put her faith in the fact that Scott wore a very expensive wristwatch. Later, it was proven to us that she was very resourceful. If I was in her shoes, I would plan to have all of my facts straight before I put in the effort to seduce someone. “Bad Teacher,” directed by Jake Kasdan, was often compared to Terry Zwigoff’s “Bad Santa,” which I don’t think is fair. Although both are comedies about people doing bad (but hilarious) things, “Bad Teacher” is a more commercial breed. It needn’t be as edgy as the latter in order to be considered successful because it found a solid footing in terms of how it wished to deliver its jokes. And with so many trite comedies where “mean” characters eventually change for the better, I was more than happy Elizabeth didn’t lose her thorns.
Kids in America (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
Principal Weller (Julie Bowen) oversaw Booker High School and wanted to run for superintendent of the school district. She cared more about politics than helping her students to become active learners. In her own words, she saw her job as simply about improving statistics. In order to show that she was in control, she started to adopt new rules such as banning students from distributing condoms to promote safe sex (ludicrous but a more realistic goal than abstinence especially in a high school setting) during National Safe Sex Day and going through students’ diaries without good reason. Teenagers from several cliques (Stephanie Sherrin, Caitlin Wachs, Alex Anfanger, Crystal Celeste Grant, Chris Morris, Emy Coligado) came together, with an appropriately named Holden (Gregory Smith) as their leader and one of their teachers (Malik Yoba) as their mentor, to fight for their rights via civil disobedience. Inspired by several true stories, what I enjoyed most about “Kids in America” was the way the characters embraced their stereotypes and concocted a way to make what made them different work for them, which ranged from serious issues (a daughter of a hippie fighting for the injustice of female genital mutilation) to hopelessly silly situations (an Asian pretending not to understand English in attempt to get out of jail). The type of comedy was nothing particularly groundbreaking compared to other teen movies but it had so much manic energy that its typical teen humor was easy to overlook. What I found to be more important was the fact that it wanted to discuss intelligent issues that matter. It had a good message about making an active change in the community if rights were being stripped away. My favorite scene was when Holden challenged the teenagers to find another persons of the same sex and kiss them on the lips as a response to Principal Weller’s homophobia. It was very amusing but it had to be done in order to prove a point: Medieval methods do not coincide with modern times. Admittedly, I wished it spent more time, from a serious angle, about the repercussions of taking disobedience a bit too far. It would have given the movie more edge and therefore would have been more memorable. Directed by Josh Stolberg, “Kids in America” can be inspiring given the right type of audience. Under a critical eye, it may be a bit too simplistic with its themes but I think it is focused and ironic enough to successfully get its points across to its intended audiences.
The Boys in the Band (1970)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Michael (Kenneth Nelson) was the host for Harold’s (Leonard Frey) birthday party and all of their friends were invited. Donald (Frederick Combs) arrived early and we learned that despite Michael’s lavish way of living, he was essentially a kid with little regards to money. He got tired of things easily which could be seen by the many times he changed his clothes before and during the party. All of them considered themselves as homosexual but they ranged from the masculine, like Hank (Laurence Luckinbill), to the feminine, personified with great energy by Cliff Gorman as Emory. Some of the invited friends attended with their lovers (Reuben Greene, Keith Prentice). Another was a birthday present (Robert La Tourneaux), a “midnight cowboy” for the birthday boy. “The Boys in the Band,” based on Mart Crowley’s play, is known as the first movie that tackled homosexuality directly. I was mesmerized by the script and the performances. There were many stereotypes but even I can admit that some of them were true. I found qualities of myself and my gay friends in most of the characters; its goal was not to reinforce the stereotype but use it as a template that beneath it all, every type of gay man is different from one another despite society forcing the ridiculous idea that we belong to one category. Instead of putting homosexuals under only a positive light, I admired the film’s audacity to tackle many negative thoughts and emotions. I may not agree with some of the decisions that certain characters made, particularly Michael’s cruel game, but I was able to relate to the isolation they felt despite being surrounded by others, the anger and sadness they experienced when love wasn’t reciprocal, and the fear of wanting to belong with anyone, homosexual group of not, for a stamp of approval. The person I found most fascinating, and the one who I believe as the heart of the picture, was Hank. He was married to a woman for years, had kids, and had the painful experience of coming out to them. The addition of Michael’s former roommate in the university, a self-proclaimed heterosexual, named Alan (Peter White) made the party’s dynamic more complex. Was there an attraction between Hank and Alan or were the two just friendly? After all, Alan was very uncomfortable being surrounded by gay men. Despite Hank being gay, Alan took comfort in the fact that Hank acted straight. I thought that was very honest because I’ve met straight guys (and some of them I consider friends) who would make remarks about someone from afar being a “queer” or a “fag” while in front of me yet they fully know where my attractions lie. The heavy subject matter in the second half was balanced by funny and witty tête-à-têtes and one-liners when the party was just beginning. “The Boys in the Band,” directed by William Friedkin, was released over forty years ago but it still has relevance in today’s more accepting time because the LGBT community still faces similar issues today.
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.
Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Paradise Lost 2: Relevations,” directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, picked up four years later after three former teens were convicted to go to prison–two (Jessie Misskelly, Jason Baldwin) for life and one (Damien Echols) on death row. Most of the victims’ families declined to participate in the documentary except for the stepfather (John Byers) of one of the slain kids who, after the first movie, people began to suspect for killing the boys. There were a lot of changes that I thought were fascinating. First of all, the three guys who were sent to prison grew up so much and it really made me sad because it showed me that they were essentially just boys when they were convicted. Unlike in the first movie, they were much more willing to talk to the camera and they were much more eloquent. I liked the way the directors showed scenes from the first film such as asking a question to one of the boys and not getting an answer and the way it asked the same question but getting an answer this time around. What’s unfortunate was the fact that the lawyers from both the prosecution and the defense did not allow the filmmakers to record scenes inside courtroom because the first movie gained so much notoriety. It would have been much more compelling if we were actually there alongside scenes where Byers tried to prove his innocence using a lie detector test. I thought the project sometimes became too convoluted because it spent too much time focusing on Byers and his anger. I understood that there was a lot of suspicion surrounding the man and it was important to provide a psychological portrait of him, but I would rather have spent more time watching and hearing more about Misskelly and Baldwin. By showing Byers and his strange mannerisms and tendency to lie on camera, it painted him as a monster. I didn’t think it was a correct decision because what if the man did not have anything to do with the murders? It could possibly lead to another tarnished reputation all for naught. Instead, the movie had to rely on the result of the lie detector test (which had its own red flags) and the overlooked bite marks on the victims’ bodies. Were those really bite marks? How did the medical examiners miss such critical information that could have helped exonerate the three so-called satanists? Was there some kind of a conspiracy within the small town that they were willing to withhold important information for the sake of easy answers? I had a million questions and I genuinely worried about the results of the case (I tried not to read too much about it prior to seeing this film) because I believed that Misskelly, Baldwin and Echols did not receive a fair trial. In year 2010, the three guys are still in jail and the real killer–or killers–is still out there. They’ve spent practically half of their lives in jail not because of hard evidence but because of people’s stereotypes. That, too, is another tragedy.
The Breakfast Club (1985)
★★★ / ★★★★
Five high school students who personify a geek (Anthony Michael Hall), a princess (Molly Ringwald), a jock (Emilio Estevez), a basket case (Ally Sheedy) and a criminal (Judd Nelson) spent a Saturday in detention under the eyes of a begrudged principal (Paul Gleason). The picture’s argument was the fact that although we label ourselves (or others label us) to be in a specific category in the high school social strata, we can relate with each of the five characters because we share one commonality: in high school, all of us are just hoping to get by and waiting for our lives to actually begin. The film was astute in observing the teenagers while they interacted with each other and when they were on their own. Even if the characters were not saying anything or if they were just on the background, I was able to read them and I thought of things that they might have been thinking at the time. Having been released in era where typical teen flicks were abound, “The Breakfast Club” almost immediately gained a cult following because of its honesty, right amount of cheesiness, and cathartic quality. My favorite scene was toward the end when the five were in a circle and decided to share why they were sent to detention. I liked the fact that it wasn’t a typical “sharing time” where everybody was solemn and serious all the time. They were actually able to make jokes toward and around each other in between discussing their issues. It made me think of me and my friends when would do the same thing. Out of the five, I could relate to Hall’s character the most (and a bit of Ringwald’s because of her slight conceitedness). It made me think of the way I was in high school concerning my penchant (or perhaps even obsession) for getting straight A’s. It got to the point where getting straight A’s was something that I expected of myself instead of something that I had to strive for. I remember being so hard on myself for making small mistakes when, looking back on it, I didn’t really need to. Now that I’m older, I just think of grades as letters on a piece of paper and nothing more. They don’t define us and they certainly don’t dictate what we can offer the world. The difference between me and Hall’s character was my parents did not pressure me into getting the perfect grade point average. However, I can just imagine how it must have been like for other students who were not so lucky–those that jumped off buildings in college because they felt a need to have the “perfect academic record” to have a “secure future.” Written and directed by the legendary John Hughes, I thought he did a wonderful job capturing the essence of teenagers despite their place in the high school hierarchy.