The Virginity Hit (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Four desperate friends (Matt Bennett, Zack Pearlman, Jacob Davich, Justin Kline) made it a tradition that they would only smoke weed using a special hookah when each of them lost their virginity. When all three but Matt finally had gone all the way, they decided they would help him out and document every step of the way. But when they found out that Nicole (Nicole Weaver), Matt’s girlfriend, had cheated on him with a frat guy, Matt and his friends had to find other means for Matt to experience his first sex. Written and directed by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland, “The Virginity Hit” interestingly adopted a faux-documentary style but completely missed the mark. In the end, it felt like a cheap imitation of Greg Mottola’s “Superbad” and Paul Weitz’ “American Pie” but with characters who took idiocy to the next level. The crux of the movie’s so-called dramatic tension could have easily been solved with a teaspoon of intelligence. For instance, when Matt and his friends heard rumors that Nicole had been less than loyal, not one of them bothered to approach Nicole and ask her version of what happened. They immediately decided to take the cruel path. That is, pretend they knew nothing of the rumors, convince Matt to take Nicole on a date for their anniversary, have sex with Nicole for revenge, and broadcast it over the internet. The characters thought it was all fun and games. I was shocked that not one for them stood up against what was happening and express how mean-spirited it all was. There were also some “funny” scenes like the teenagers stealing from a store, breaking into people’s private properties, and other misdemeanors that could potentially land them in court to get sued or, worse, in jail. I tried to see that perhaps it wanted to comment on rampant youth and its relationship with YouTube culture. However, I didn’t feel as if the directors had full control of their material. Its in-your-face approach was its only technique. The filmmakers should have known that the ability to pull back was an essential weapon in order to highlight the positive feedback of certain videos uploaded on YouTube and people taking pleasure in watching other people’s suffering and humiliation. There was not one character to root for here. I wanted to root for Matt because he was the one who was pushed around. There were some scenes that almost portrayed him being forced to have sex just for the sake of losing his virginity. Why did they care anyway? It was none of their business. I thought it was sad and I couldn’t help but feel angry for him. I kept waiting for Matt to stand up to his friends. Even if he wasn’t successful in his attempt, I would have ended up liking him because it meant that he had a voice and he wasn’t afraid to use it. But he didn’t. Some people had their lives ruined by the things portrayed on this film. It was too bad the material failed to take that fact into account.
I’m Still Here (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
When Joaquin Phoenix announced that he was to retire from acting and pursue a career as a hip-hop artist, the media was abuzz, wondering if he had lost his mind. Some were angry with his decision because they thought it served as a mockery of something they deeply respected. Personally, I did not care so much of the announcement. While I was a bit saddened because he was a very good actor, I thought he was well within his right to change career paths. After all, hundreds of thousands of people decide to change jobs every day. I saw his decision to move from being an actor to a music artist as no different. If I had seen this film prior to the announcement that it was all a hoax, I would have been seriously disturbed. I would not have laughed at the most intense scenes such as when the actor in question had an argument with one of his friends concerning a leak of information (which led to a disturbing payback), the meetings with Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, and when Ben Stiller offered Phoenix a role in Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg.” I find it difficult to find humor in something that I believe to be non-fiction because I take no pleasure in seeing the suffering of others, especially through ridicule. In a way, I took comfort in the fact that it was all a joke so I was able to pay attention in what Phoenix and Casey Affleck, the director, wanted to convey about celebrity life. Naturally, one of the main messages was being a celebrity did not necessarily equate to happiness or financial stability, but I relished small details I wasn’t aware of before like the paparazzi actually booing actors who chose not to pose in front of the camera. The harrassment Phoenix had to endure (some, admittedly, he incited) were sometimes difficult to watch. I could not help but feel sorry for him. However, the paparazzi were not the only ones that showed cruelty. Even people I’ve never even heard of (like YouTube “celebrities”) can have opinions that not only sting but leave a mark in the psyche. At the same time, Affleck’s film was effective in showing the ridiculous nature, as well as dangers, of method acting if taken to an extreme. Mostly everyone was convinced that Phoenix had lost control of his mental capacity and that made me question the amount of truth, if any, in the images I saw. I’m not convinced all of the scenes were designed to simply poke fun. After all, the most convincing lies stem from a truth. “I’m Still Here” is not for everyone because most people don’t understand satire. But I think Phoenix’ fans just might enjoy the film because it really was quite a performance.
Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
I heard about Justin Bieber in 2009, on YouTube, and thought he was some eleven-year-old kid who could sing really well. After a couple of months, he became an international sensation thanks to rabid pre-teen and teenage girls. Directed by John Chu, “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” documented the events that led up to Bieber’s performance in the coveted Madison Square Garden. Performing on that stage in a sold-out show established the peak of his career. The film started off strong because it gave me information I didn’t already know. It showed us personal videos before he was discovered by Scooter Braun. As a kid, he had a natural talent for playing drums, guitar, and he could sing songs from various genres with relative ease. There were also some interesting moments when Bieber revisited places in his hometown where he used to perform to get noticed. Where he used to play guitar now stood a little girl playing violin. We learned that he was very close with his grandparents, especially his grandfather, and he was just like a regular kid when he returned home. However, the documentary lost its fast-paced energy as the performance in Madison Square Garden got closer. A stand-out scene was when the film actually showed us the famous Bieber hair flip in slow motion. It was cheeky and I was glad the material wasn’t above that because the hair, arguably, was one of the reasons why the pop star reached superstardom. While the picture cited some of his struggles like contracting an infection in his throat, I didn’t understand why the director failed to isolate his subject and interview him. Instead, the adults around him did the talking. It was obvious that they were hardworking people and they cared about the business but I wanted to hear what Justin had to say. The adults spoke of having a plethora of record labels refusing to be in business with Bieber but the more interesting information was how Justin felt at the time. After traveling across the country which led to so many dead-ends, did he feel frustrated, angry, or disappointed? We didn’t know. The documentary was supposed to be about Bieber so I found it strange and somewhat maddening that he was never asked questions about how he felt, for instance, about having to do over a hundred shows per year and rarely taking a break. He claimed he wanted to make it to every single show. If he was a robot, I would believe him. Instead, I had a sneaky suspicion there was something more to his story. When he was given a chance to speak, it was always somewhere along the lines of, “Go after your dreams!” I just couldn’t help but feel restless. Perhaps the managers were concerned about Bieber saying something he would regret later on. But, in my opinion, if they did have such reservations, why make the movie at all? The most likely answer is money. I’m afraid Beliebers would see this film and retain the idea that celebrity happens overnight. I enjoyed the first forty-five minutes but the rest felt too idealistic, too superficial.
Winnebago Man (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
I’ve never heard of Jack Rebney and the viral video that made him infamous. I don’t actively search for viral videos because most of them feature people being hurt or humiliated. I don’t take pleasure in watching other people’s misery unless the material is fictional. If I do end up watching a viral video, it’s because either a friend sends me a link with an accompanying, “Watch this! It’s hilarious!” message or I’m at a friend’s or relative’s house and I have no choice but to watch a video they want to show because I don’t want to be impolite. So when Ben Steinbauer, the director, claimed that Jack Rebney was someone he looked up to, I was surprised. After all, how can one look up to someone based on a viral video? I was curious and I considered Steinbauer to be the subject as much as Rebney. The director searched for Rebney and it turned out that the man had isolated himself from society. He claimed to not know about his status as a YouTube sensation, but was he telling the whole truth? One of the documentary’s goals was to explore how Rebney felt about the video tape of him cursing like there’s no tomorrow because he could not deliver the lines correctly for the Winnebago commercial. It was able to touch upon the surface but I wasn’t convinced that Steinbauer went deep enough into the man’s psychology. In the end, I felt sorry for the subject which has been dubbed as The Angriest Man in the World. It was obvious to me that he wasn’t enjoying the process of being in the documentary because he hadn’t yet found closure about the past–the very reason that tarnished his reputation and thereby his decision to live in isolation. I felt his hurt and anger and it made me feel like the director crossed the line between respect and asking pertinent questions and causing further controversy. After watching the viral video, I didn’t find myself laughing too much. I chuckled about three times because Rebney had a knack for cursing like he abhored the world. But then I realized that what he was caught doing was completely natural. We all have different ways of venting our frustration. Some of us break down in tears, some of us internalize (my weapon of choice), and some of us express the frustration into apparent rage. Actors in Hollywood most likely are guilty of the same thing (may I remind you of Christian Bale’s rant?) but they aren’t as visible. So the way I saw it was Rebney was a product of an unfortunate circumstance. I wish Steinbauer had enough courage to confront the specific people who decided to release the behind-the-scenes video. The whole thing may have been a big joke to them but they essentially ruined Rebney’s career. I find that a lot more shameful than a man who was simply having a bad day at work.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon) was now in seventh grade and began to set his eyes on Holly Hills (Peyton List), a girl who recently moved in town from Oregon. Unlike the first film, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules,” directed by David Bowers, focused more on the family. Specifically, Greg’s rocky relationship with Rodrick (Devon Bostick), his older brother, and their parents’ (Rachael Harris and Steve Zahn) attempts, one of which involved earning “Mom Bucks” where Greg and Rodrick could cash it in for real money, to get them to spend more time together. The sequel preserved what I enjoyed most from its predecessor. Greg was still snarky yet awkward, especially when he was next to Rowley (Robert Capron), his well-meaning best friend, sometimes self-centered, but completely sympathetic. He was a bit older now and I enjoyed the fact that he retained the lessons he learned from the last time we saw him. However, I thought it didn’t have the same magic as Greg’s experiences in the sixth grade because it was less adventurous with its storylines. In some ways, it worked. Since it was more focused, it had more time to explore the elements that kept the warring brothers apart. I could easily relate to Greg’s situation because my brother and I aren’t as close as I would like for us to be. Sometimes siblings, especially when they’re a couple of years apart, just don’t share the same interests. While the picture had its share of light-hearted scenes of Rodrick tormenting his little brother, there were enough serious moments to keep us interested. For instance, when Rodrick was prohibited by his parents to play with his band for the talent show, Rodrick, a character we were used to as someone who never took anything seriously, accepted the punishment with a heavy heart to the point where he bitterly told Greg that they might be brothers but they would never be friends. I admired that the material took the less convenient path by sometimes allowing its characters to regress to their old habits. However, there were times when I wished the story wasn’t always about the brothers because their antics eventually became redundant. Gordon and Capron had great chemistry and the hilarious scenes were of their characters recording a funny video so that they could post it on YouTube and get popular. Another memorable scene was the sleepover at Greg’s house which involved watching a campy horror movie called “The Foot.” When Gordon and Capron were side-by-side, I couldn’t help but smile. Based on Jeff Kinney’s book of the same name, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules” had moments of sitcom-like predictability but it was off-set by its manic energy, charm, and wit. Unlike most comedies made for the younger demographic, it earned its more heartwarming moments.
★★ / ★★★★
Aaron Johnson stars as Dave Lizewski, a typical geek who goes to a typical high school with typical hormonal friends (Clark Duke, Evan Peters). But what’s not typical is his dream to be a superhero, serving people at a time of need and rescuing them from bullies or dangerous criminals. I liked the first and last forty minutes of this film. The first forty minutes was amusing because the lead character was still trying to figure out how it was really like being a superhero; that one does not win every battle and sometimes a trip to the hospital is necessary. In a way, it worked as a spoof of those extremely serious adapted-from-comic-books superhero movies. The last thirty minutes was pure action. Comparisons of Chloe Moretz as Hit Girl to Uma Thurman’s The Bride was pretty accurate because both can deliver the eye-popping violence and snarky sense of humor. However, I didn’t like the fact that Moretz’ character overshadowed the lead character. After all, the movie was supposed to be about the blossoming of a nobody to a possible somebody who everyone adored on YouTube. As for the middle portion of the film, I thought it was weak and lazy. The bit about Christopher Mintz-Plasse as a rich boy wanting to be a superhero was very formulaic. I constantly felt that he was trying to be funny but falling flat every single time. I like Mintz-Plasse, especially in “Superbad,” but I thought he was miscast here. A pompous, know-it-all, conniving kid would have been a much more interesting a character instead of a wimpy wannabe. Other fatal shortcomings involved Nicolas Cage as the father of Hit Girl (and also a superhero). There was a history about his character that I wanted the film to get into. Whenever the camera was focused on Cage, “Kick-Ass” had an added gravity that it desperately needed in order to be something other than a spoof of superhero films. Instead, the movie unwisely spent much of its time showing us scenes involving the main character being mistaken for a gay guy by a girl he liked who happened to want a gay BFF. As cheeky as it was, it was also unnecessary; it got old pretty quickly and I wished I had a fast-forward button. Overall, however, I did enjoy “Kick-Ass,” directed by Matthew Vaughn, despite its shortcomings in terms of pacing and not focusing on the more interesting characters that could potentially provide an extra dimension to the project. The film did hint on a possible sequel which I think is a great idea because there were a number of questions that remained in my head by the time the credits started rolling. People compare this film to “Kill Bill” in terms of violence but I think “Kick-Ass” doesn’t hold a candle to Quentin Tarantino’s bloodbath. I think it’s more accurate to say that this is a teenage version of “Watchmen” that is less focused, less ambitious but more amusing with a modern twist.
sex, lies, and videotape (1989)
★★★ / ★★★★
I really enjoyed “sex, lies, and videotape,” written and directed by Steven Soderbergh, because it was able to deliver intimacy among characters that are extremely flawed and at times downright unlikable. Andie MacDowell (as the wife who is so uncomfortable about sex, she stops having sex with her husband), Peter Gallagher (as the husband who does not get any sex from his wife so he decides to get it from his wife’s sister), Laura San Giacomo (as the extroverted sister who is driven by jealousy to the point where she will get herself in situations that can potentially hurt her sister), and James Spader (as the husband’s college friend who videotapes women and their sexual secrets) all did an amazing job trying to measure each other up–what they know, what they don’t know and how they can untangle themselves from each other. This is a prime example of achieving a lot without a big budget. Instead of flashy special and visual effects, it focuses on the script and the role of psychology in these characters’ lives. The conversations felt real because what the characters say out loud are sometimes lies and we have to constantly figure out what they really mean by looking at their body languages. This film is not only about human relationships. It’s also about voyeurism, how one’s alienation with oneself can sometimes infect others, and how one can share more information when facing a camera instead of facing another individual. I think that’s very relevant today now that YouTube vlogging is such a phenomena. Some of the most popular YouTube bloggers are very soft-spoken in real life but when they get in front of the camera, it’s like they become a completely different person. This film reflected that and I was very, very impressed. This is the kind of picture that I wouldn’t mind watching multiple times because of the complex dynamics between the characters. It’s just that good and I highly recommend everyone to watch it especially those who are into character studies.