What to Expect When You’re Expecting (2012)
★ / ★★★★
“What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” directed by Kirk Jones, showcased four couples who learned that they were going to have a baby. Although the fact was a surprise for some of them, like Garry Marshall’s “New Year’s Eve,” the film felt more like a reason for various celebrities to appear in a movie together instead of a realistic or accurate portrayal of couples really dealing with events that would surely change the course of their lives. At its best, it was somewhat cute despite its overwhelming number of platitudes. Rosie (Anna Kendrick) and Marco (Chace Crawford) were former high school classmates who became food truck chefs. Even though they were attractive, there were moments when I believed that their reconnection contained a much needed weight, a seriousness despite their age, to add to a mostly airy and vapid screenplay by Shauna Cross and Heather Hach. I liked their occasional spark and willingness to be taken seriously. At its worst, it was an idiotic portrayal of middle to upper-middle class in their thirties with no genuine problem other than the pregnancy. Its lack of ambition was maddening. Evan (Matthew Morrison) and Jules (Cameron Diaz) were reality dance competition champions. When they learned that they were going to have a baby boy, their main problem was whether the child should get circumcised. Evan argued that his son should because he was Jewish. Jules believed the procedure was unnecessary and potentially traumatizing. I glared at the screen with an “Are you kidding me?” look. Knowing each other for only three months and obviously having very little in common, it was obvious that the circumcision debate should have been the least of their worries. It was an assault to the intelligence that we were supposed to believe them as a couple when they knew nothing about each other and we knew nothing about them. Meanwhile, while the strand involving Holly (Jennifer Lopez) and Alex (Rodrigo Santoro) offered something different because they had chosen to adopt a baby from Ethiopia, it was also frustrating to watch because the seriousness and difficulties of adoption were too often swept under the rug. An unfocused mess ensued as the screenplay ineptly juggled light comedy in the form of Alex bonding with a group of seemingly miserable dads (led by Chris Rock) at the park and pensiveness of the father-to-be not feeling completely ready to be one. I would rather have had the material focus on either one, preferably the latter. Lastly, we knew that Holly was ecstatic to have a baby–biological or otherwise. However, it was disappointing that it didn’t take a risk by asking how Alex really felt about potentially raising a baby who was not of his flesh and blood. It was a valid feeling worth exploring. It may not have been easy to deal with but tackling it might have forced us to feel closer to the material. The fourth couple involved Wendy (Elizabeth Banks), a new children’s book author and store owner, and Gary (Ben Falcone), her plain husband whose insecurities took center stage whenever his dad (Dennis Quaid) was in the vicinity. Their story was not at all about pregnancy because it was overshadowed by the unhealthy competition between father and son. Each time Gary and his father tried to one up each other, it was an awkward and painful experience. I wondered why Wendy and Gary were even necessary to the film. Based on the books by Heidi Murkoff, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” committed the sin of resting on celebrity power to make funny happen instead of challenging its actors to deliver pleasant surprises. Since the picture lacked variation, scope, and ambition, I was astounded as to why it was made in the first place.
Vanilla Sky (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
David Aames (Tom Cruise) seemed to have it all: he was rich, he could have any woman he wanted, he could be great at his job if he wanted to, and a very good friend, Brian (Jason Lee), was only a phone call away. But what David didn’t have was romantic stability. David and Julie (Cameron Diaz) would hook up and the two share great sex. However, Sofia (Penélope Cruz), Brian’s date, caught David’s eye during a party at his fancy loft. Suddenly, his affection was torn between the two women. Julie did not like it one bit. Based on Alejandro Amenábar’s film “Abre los ojos,” Cameron Crowe’s “Vanilla Sky” deceptively started off like a romance picture but it evolved into a mystery and changed once again into a curiosity. What I loved most about it was its audacity to dream big. Its tone and storytelling techniques always changed; the events felt like fragments of memories and they didn’t seem to fit. A question gave birth to other questions in an exponential rate. We were offered possible explanations but we had a choice not to accept them. I didn’t know what was going on some of the time but I found myself fascinated with what the movie was attempting to say. It was like sitting in front of someone who had been almost completely paralyzed and it tried to communicate with nothing but its eyes. I’ve seen Cruise embody plenty of roles but I believe David was one of his best. Two scenes stood out to me and they reminded me why was he was a movie star. David’s face had been horribly disfigured. He had a meeting with doctors and he expected that they had solutions to fix his face. After all, money was no issue because he commanded an empire. Unfortunately, the doctors had nothing but roundabout ways of saying there wasn’t anything they could do. In that scene, the way Cruise controlled his character from quietly hopeful to a monster full of rage stripped me of my defenses. I probably would have reacted the same way. David claimed it wasn’t about vanity. We should all know it was exactly about vanity but there was something more to it. Reclaiming his face was an act of getting his power back. Another strong scene was when David finally decided to show his scarred face to Sofia after months of hiding in his apartment. Cruise made David extremely vulnerable. He was ashamed of his ugliness and he felt even uglier because Sofia was so beautiful. David must have felt like he wasn’t worthy of being considered a person. It was like watching an exiled king, now a leper, begging to admitted back to his kingdom. Notice that I’m highlighting the emotions because I believe “Vanilla Sky” was, first and foremost, an emotional journey. The last thirty minutes asked us to take a giant leap of faith. Without being emotionally invested, we wouldn’t take that leap. I believe the reason why the film polarized audiences was because half didn’t feel emotionally connected to David. For those that did, half probably felt like they were constantly getting tricked by the push and pull forces of real and fantasy. In other words, they felt cheated. But I consider “Vanilla Sky” a wonderful entertainment because I felt like a homicide detective. In most homicide cases, not all the pieces fit exactly as we expect them to, despite what TV shows led us to believe, but those pieces that do are enough to provide a clear picture.
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.
Shrek Forever After (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Lovable ogre Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) was going through a midlife crisis. He missed his old life in the swamp when he was able to do whatever he wanted whenever he pleased. Gone were the times when people would see him and scatter about in fear. After storming out of a party and having an argument with his wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz), Shrek ran across the devious Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn) who was too conveniently trapped under a carriage. Supposedly grateful for being rescued, Rumpelstiltskin, experienced in dark magic, offered Shrek a proposition: Shrek could spend 24 hours in the past if the magician could take any day from Shrek’s life. Before he knew it, the green ogre’s new world was entirely different. Donkey (Eddie Murphy) was no longer his best friend and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) was now a fat cat who could not even lick himself. While I do think that the fourth installment was the best since the first in the series, I failed to see anything special about it. I could feel the voice actors being enthusiastic in playing their roles, which was great, but I didn’t think the jokes were fresh enough to keep me constantly entertained. The familiar characters being completely different in the alternate universe became a running gag that grew tired quickly. I wanted the script to poke fun of Shrek’s so-called midlife crisis more consistently. I almost missed the random pop culture references because even though they came out of the blue, they managed to surprised me. Everything in here felt like a rehash of the first three “Shrek” pictures driven by the concept of Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It didn’t take enough risks so the experience was far from rewarding. The subject of alternate universe had been explored so many times that we’ve grown tired of the formula. The “Shrek” franchise, being a satirical jab at fairy tales and pop culture, could have challenged that familiar formula and invigorated the story. Sadly, despite the swashbuckling adventures on screen, the storytelling was too safe, even predictable. Half-way through the picture, I thought it needed an inspiration to keep going. Even the big lesson that Shrek learned in end could be seen from very far, far away. Directed by Mike Mitchell, “Shrek Forever After” was completely breathless as it reached the finish line. The actors and the filmmakers assured that this was the last picture of the series. Unless the writers have truly creative ideas for a fifth movie, I suggest it remains in a deep slumber.
Knight and Day (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
June (Cameron Diaz) bumped into Roy (Tom Cruise) at the airport on the way home for her sister’s wedding unknowing of the fact that he was a spy and fellow government agents (Peter Sarsgaard, Viola Davis) were after him. Before she knew it, June got caught in the middle of two camps but eventually it seemed like she was more than happy her life made a drastic turn because she finally found excitement, love and adventure. “Knight and Day,” written by Patrick O’Neill and directed by James Mangold, offered nothing new to the action-comedy genre but it felt refreshing because the actors were having fun, the filmmakers were having fun and so the audiences couldn’t help but have fun as well. Comparisons to “Killers,” starring Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl, could not be helped because the two were released at just about the same time and both pretty much had a similar concept, but “Knight and Day” was lightyears better because it had energy from start to finish. More importantly, it was actually funny. I was glad to see Cruise starring in a film that somewhat spoofed his more serious roles because it showed me that he had a sense of humor. It was also nice to see Diaz being her usual charming sunny self. Her character’s reactions to unbelievable and often dangerous situations amused me in so many ways. In a way, I felt like she was just playing herself and I appreciated that. The movie worked for me even though it did not attempt to have any sort of character development because I was thoroughly engaged. Each passing scene had a higher level of danger and adrenaline from the one before and I was curious about what creative action sequence I would see next. There was a lot to choose from but the three scenes that put a smile on my face were when Cruise informed Diaz that everybody on the plane was dead and it was about to crash but she thought it was all a big joke, the train scene with a lethal assassin who could easily have been taken right from the “Bourne” series and the motorcycle chase in Spain with the bulls. It is definitely easy to judge the movie before seeing it because we are all aware of Cruise’s controversial life. I say give it a chance because “Knight and Day” is a bona fide, fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat, globetrotting adventure that never runs out of fuel. It’s a good movie to see with the family especially those familiar with Cruise’s golden days.
Gangs of New York (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★
I admire Martin Scorsese as a director but I do not think this film is one of his best even though I did like it quite a bit. “Gangs of New York” tells the story of Amsterdam Vallon’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) thirst for vengeance after his father (Liam Neeson) was killed in the hands of Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) when he was a child. But since this is a Scorsese film, it simply cannot be that simple. It was also about the frustration and eventual uprising of the poor against the corrupt rich and those of power, rivalry between gangs, the rapid rate of immigration to New York, and the intolerance that comes hand-in-hand when people of very distinct cultures and mindsets are forced to live together. It is an epic picture in every sense of the word but yet there’s something about it that made me believe that it did not quite reach its full potential. When I think about it, I believe that one of its main weaknesses is its almost three-hour running time. While the first twenty minutes were necessary to establish the movie’s emotional core, the next hour was banal. Nothing much happened except for the fact that DiCaprio’s character returned to New York and wanted to gain The Butcher’s trust. So they attend social gatherings together, walk along the streets, go drinking… Pretty much what “tough guys” were supposed to do back in the day, I suppose. I found it really hard to care; perhaps if the whole charade did not last for an hour, I would have stuck with it. However, it did regain its footing half-way through after The Butcher finds Amsterdam and Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz) sleeping together. (It’s not a spoiler. Everyone should know it was bound to happen.) Starting with that scene, I felt like DiCaprio and Day-Lewis were playing a cat-and-mouse game from who they really are to what their motivations are, especially Day-Lewis’ character. The second part of the film felt so much more alive and exciting; I also noticed how grand everything looked–the set, the clothes, the soundtrack… I was sucked into this world that Scorsese had envisioned like I was in his stronger motion pictures. Nevertheless, I cannot quite give this film a four-star rating and feel good about it because it did have that one hour that was pretty unnecessary. Regardless, DiCaprio and Day-Lewis gave very strong performaces and should be appreciated. I loved it when they had scenes when it was just the two of them in a room. I felt like I was right there with them and feeling like I shouldn’t be.
My Sister’s Keeper (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the novel by Jodi Picoult, Anna Fitzgerald (Abigail Breslin) eventually gets tired of all the forced medical procedures done to her in order to save her sister (Sofia Vassilieva) with leukemia. She enlists the help of a lawyer (Alec Baldwin) and this immediately causes tension within the family, especially between Anna and her mother (Cameron Diaz). Right off the bat, the audiences come to know that Anna is a test tube baby for the sole purpose of extracting healthy cells (and eventually organs) so that she can help her sister survive. I thought this was a smart film because of all the ethical questions it raised and the way it avoided to define for the audiences what is right and what is wrong. It was definitely easy to immediately side with Anna because I strongly believe that everyone has a right to do whatever he or she wants with his or her body. However, after a series of flashback scenes told in a non-linear way, I was able to sympathize with Diaz because I was convinced that she genuinely loves her family. It’s just that she’s required to make the tough decisions since no one else will even if it means butting heads with her husband (Jason Patric) and increasingly conflicted son (Evan Ellingson). I must say that Diaz absolutely blew me away. I keep forgetting that she can be a good actress because I’ve seen her way too much in a lot of (sometimes lame) comedies. In here, she was able to carry her character with such complexity and dramatic weight. I’d like to see her in more dramas because she can balance toughness, intelligence, sensitivity so well. Another actor I really enjoyed was Joan Cusack as the judge who was supposed to decide whether Anna can ultimately get medical emancipation from her parents. Cusack’s character was still grieving for the untimely death of her daughter (due to a car accident) and it was easy to tell that she was still unstable; it made me think that perhaps she was not quite fit to get back to work and whether she should be the right person to decide the case’s outcome, especially since it involved a child. Cusack’s silent moments, while interacting with Breslin in her chamber, were so powerful, I couldn’t help but tear up a bit. After only a week since my parents almost died in a car accident (which I haven’t really talked about with anyone because whenever I think about it, I just lose it; while a friend of theirs died, my parents luckily got away with a few fractures and bruising), her situation made me think how easy it is for someone to be alive and healthy one day and not here the next. Lastly, Thomas Dekker as Vassilieva’s boyfriend-to-be provided a lot of sensitivity it needed so the audiences could get a better picture that people should not be defined by their diseases. A lot of the fans from the book didn’t like the fact that the ending was altered. From the perspective of someone who hasn’t read the book, I thought pretty much everything about this film unfolded in a way that made sense but still had a powerful impact. It’s extremely difficult not to be moved by this picture.