★★★★ / ★★★★
Just when I thought Pixar could not surprise me any longer after such an impressive nine-streak classics and near classics (perhaps with the exception of “Cars”), their tenth film, “Up,” directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, was nothing short of impressive. “Up” tells the story of an aging balloon salesman (Carl voiced by Edward Asner) and his way of honoring his late wife’s dream of visiting South America. After attaching thousands of balloons to his house as it floated to the sky, he discovered an eager wilderness boy scout/explorer named Russell (Jordan Nagai). In South America, the two meet a giant bird named Kevin and an extremely adorable talking dog named Dug (also voiced by Peterson). But that was only the beginning of their breathtaking adventure.
I believe this is one of the more mature Pixar films when it comes to dealing with emotion because it tries to tell a story from the perspective of an old man possibly living his last few years. There was a certain sadness that pervaded the film because he constantly tried looking back in his past and feeling an utmost sadness whenever he thinks about his promises to his wife that he never fulfilled when she was alive. I was particularly impressed with the first scene when Young Carl (Jeremy Leary) and Young Ellie (Elie Docter) first met. There was a certain innocence and innate acceptance with it all and it truly reminded me of my parents because they, too, met when they were pretty much kids and eventually got married. I think one of the best scenes of the film was when it showed how their lives progressed from when they were kids, finally moved into a house that was once their playground of imagination, failure to have children, to when Ellie was on her deathbed. I found that scene with no spoken language so powerful because it managed to capture the essence of life–the ups as well as the downs–something that most animated films tend to sugarcoat. I was really touched with Ellie and Carl’s relationship because even though their dreams were not fully realized because life always got in the way (an injury, a natural accident, broken appliances, et cetera), they still stayed strong and together up until the end. I was also impressed that “Up” was brave enough to show blood and bullets and characters really getting hurt so I was that more engaged.
There were a plethora of jokes that made me seriously laugh out loud in the cinema. I had no shame even though I saw this film with a bunch of college students of around my age because it was that funny. The brilliant one liners, such as “I do not like the cone of shame!”, were stuck in my head after I walked out of the theater. They paint a big smile on my face when I think about them now as I write this review. I don’t know what it was–maybe it was the kid in me–but I was just so astonished with (aside from the storytelling) the visual experience (I saw it on 3D–which was worth the extra three bucks!). Pixar has an undeniable talent when it comes to putting certain colors together to make the important images pop up so the audiences will understand without the characters saying a word. The imagers were that effective so I couldn’t help but give it praise. I also liked the colorful characters, especially Dug, the talking dog. Not only was he beyond cute but his character had this vibrant energy that reminded me of, oddly enough, myself. Like Dug, I easily get distracted even when things are at their most critical point and I tend to repeat myself when I’m excited or hyper. Russell, despite his happiness and earnestness, has a certain depth that explores the dynamics in his home. This film was actually able to comment on issues such as the repercussions of poor parenting and the child’s psychology whenever a parent neglects him. I was devastated when Russell finally revealed his motivation for wanting to be a wilderness explorer so badly to Carl. It goes to show that he’s still a child because, to him, accomplishments come hand-in-hand with social or parental approval and not primarily about self-worth (yet). Subtle things like that convinced me that a lot of thought was put into this film. Unlike most animated pictures, this strives to be more than just “cute” and “visually stunning.”
It goes without saying that I’m enthusiastically recommending “Up.” I think it’s one of the more emotionally mature animated films that Pixar has ever come up with because it was able to successfully tackle the depression that comes after a partner’s death and the anxiety that comes when one thinks about his own mortality. While kids may be saddened just a bit during those scenes (as well as adults), the older generations will most likely think about their own lives during or afterwards. I truly hope that this will be considered to be a Best Animated Film, along with “Coraline,” during the Oscars season. And if it happens to win, it will be well-deserved. I cannot help but wonder what Pixar will come up with next.
The Reader (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
If Kate Winslet doesn’t get nominated and win two Oscars for her performances in “Revolutionary Road” and “The Reader,” I would be very disappointed with the Academy. Having seen pretty much all of the films that generated the most buzz in the Best Actress category, I can vouch that she’s the one who truly deserves it. In “The Reader,” Winslet shines as a woman who gets sexually entangled with a fifteen-year-old boy, played with such vulnerability and innocence by David Kross. Strangely enough, even though their relationship is taboo, I’m willing to admit that I did find chemistry between the two of them. In the first half of the picture, Stephen Daldry, the director, was smart enough to focus on the two leads’ hunger. That hunger is presented both emotionally and physically but never completely separate. Both of the characters intentions are never completely clear which makes the film that much more interesting. I was often questioning myself about who was really using the other. Just when I thought it was about to lose its focus, the second half was able to summon all of its power and give its audiences reasons why they should care for the Winslet and Kross (played by Ralph Fiennes as time went on). Even though the two are deeply flawed, we relate to them in many ways because they tend to choose the more difficult path in order to keep protecting their secrets. Such secrets may seem so simple at first glance but there’s a lot of shame in those secrets, especially those that belong to Winslet’s character. Some of the best scenes of “The Reader” are its silent moments when the images do not require an explanation. Having said all of that, I think this film would’ve been much stronger if the last thirty minutes were more fluid. I thought there were many “final” scenes where the film could’ve ended. The “choppiness” could’ve been taken care of with a little bit more time. I’m giving this a high recommendation for the reasons mentioned previously but especially for Winslet’s performance. But the real surprise for me was the newcomer Kross, who I hope to see more in the future. He’s so brave for deciding to star in a film of this caliber. He not only sheds his clothes but ultimately his soul–which is far more challenging for any actor his age.
★★★★ / ★★★★
There is no doubt in my mind that this film contained some of the best performances of the year. If Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep do not get nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Best Actress, respectively, an injustice would’ve been done. I love how this film’s thesis was established during the first scene: how doubt can be as powerful as certainty. I have three stand-out scenes that I thought were exemplary: the feathers and their symbolism, Streep’s heartbreaking talk with Viola Davis, and Streep’s final confrontation with Hoffman. Out of those three scenes, I’d say the one with Davis is the most powerful because of all the implications. Issues such as the home, color of one’s skin, and one’s “nature”/embracing God’s gift are all mixed to justify a mother’s decision for her son’s safety as the son is put between a rock and a hard place. Even though Davis was only on screen for about fifteen minutes, she gave this film a certain force that is impossible to ignore. I will be immensely happy if she gets an Oscar nomination as well. As for the always great Amy Adams, she’s able to go toe-to-toe between Hoffman and Streep without sacrificing her charm. I think that takes a lot of effort and subtlety, especially when the other two are constantly on the verge of breakdown. One of the reasons why I admire this picture is its ability to conceal the truth. Most of the time, we do not know whether the priest molested an altar boy. By the end, most people have an idea (including the friend I saw it with), but I was still very doubtful. After all, Hoffman is up against a character who will do absolutely anything–even as far as to embrace a total lie (which is something that is totally against her faith)–just to prove that she is right. Sometimes, it’s wiser to turn the other way than to spend more time in the battlefield and experience more destruction. And let’s not forget a character’s shocking reaction right by the film’s ending (which most likely means more than one thing). The title of this film is “Doubt” and not “Certainty” which, in my opinion, ties in with the movie’s central thesis. Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley (including the play), this film is resonant because it has many implications and can generate strong discussions.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I knew Woody Allen still has it in him to make a really good film. After the wishy-washy “Scoop” and “Cassandra’s Dream,” a lot of people began to lose hope once again because they wanted a film as great as “Match Point.” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is sexy, character-driven and sublime. The premise is two best friends (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson) spend a summer in Barcelona and unexpectedly fall for an artistic and charismatic Spaniard (Javier Bardem). At first I thought I could relate more with Hall because she’s sensible and she knows exactly what she wants. But as the film went on, I could identify with Johansson more because she doesn’t limit herself by following society’s labels. She’s very open to things that can enlighten her not just intellectually but spiritually as well. Things get more complicated when the Bardem’s ex-wife, played by the gorgeous Penélope Cruz who deserves an Oscar nomination, returns after trying to kill herself. She provided that extra spice that the film needed in order be more romantic not in a safe way, but in a dangerous and unpredictable manner. I was impressed with this picture because each scene felt so organic. The characters talked and acted like real people, which I think is difficult to accomplish in a story about the complex dynamics between the characters. All of the actors had something to do and impacted each other in both subtle and profound ways. Another factor that I admired about this film is its stark contrast between American and European. The most obvious one includes Hall’s business-minded, unexciting husband (Chris Messina) compared to raw, passionate Bardem. One can also argue that Hall is more American while Johansson is more European. These differences even go as far as which types of clothes the characters wear. As much as I loved this film, I cannot give it a four-star rating because it needed an extra thirty minutes to reach a more insightful conclusion. I don’t mean tying up some loose ends in order for everyone to be happy. In fact, I love that this film was bold enough to leave some unhappy characters. It’s just that, in a Woody Allen film, you expect something more profound, something more complete. It’s not as introspective as “Match Point” but it comes very close.
The Wrestler (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I thought this film came out of nowhere because I never heard of it before the awards season. Since many critics gave it enthusiastic recommendations, I thought I’d check it out. I’ve never been that much of a big fan of Darren Aronofsky because his films start out really good but as they go on, they lose that powerful momentum that initially piqued my interest. “Requiem for a Dream” and “Pi” are perfect examples. That said, I think “The Wrestler” is one of his most consistent and touching films. Mickey Rourke is devastating as Randy “The Ram” Robinson and he deserves to be nominated for an Oscar. I’ve never seen him so broken down, trying his hardest not to scream out of frustration even though pretty much everything in his life is going wrong. Throughout the film, we get to understand that he feels more at home in the ring than out in the real world because he is accepted and respected in there. Moreover, he prefers the ring over the real world because physical pain is more bearable than emotional and psychological pain. I admired the way he kept his cool when people are annoying or insulting him; even though he can just as easily result to violence, he refrains and that’s what makes me want to root for him. It was painful for me to watch his interactions with the daughter he neglected (Evan Rachel Wood). There was a scene when they were sitting down and Rourke decides to pour his heart out to his daughter. That was one of the most poignant scenes I’ve seen in any movies that came out of 2008 because it felt so genuine. What I found distracting, though, was Rourke’s relationship with Marisa Tomei. At first it was sweet then it got ugly; ten minutes later it’s sweet again and then it’s the total opposite. It was somewhat effective the first two times but it quickly got repetitive and it was a waste of screen time. I felt like Aronofsky wanted to increase the drama when the picture already has enough. Still, I recommend this film to everyone because it has something to say about faded glory and one’s relationship with people who matter most when one has lost everything.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Directed by the enigmatic David Fincher (“Se7en,” “Fight Club,” “Panic Room,” “Zodiac”), “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is a sight to behold, but it is too long for its own good. While the first and last hours are absolute perfection, I couldn’t help but feel tired during its saggy middle. There were so many repetitive elements that Fincher could’ve left out because they do not contribute to the overall big picture. I consider this film as one of Brad Pitt’s most complete performances. Throughout most of the picture, we see him with wrinkly skin and broken down posture; however, we feel for his character so much because even though he is born in extraordinary circumstances, he leads a pretty ordinary life. Pitt reminds everyone that he is more than just an actor who is mostly known for his pretty face. Prior to watching this film, I thought this would be another “Big Fish” which highlights oddities and fantasies but I was glad to be proven wrong. Although the characters we meet during Pitt’s journey are colorful, they are not out of the ordinary–they are people who are not unlike anyone we can meet off the streets, but they have fascinating stories to tell because of their beliefs and drive. My favorite character who Pitt meets is played by Tilda Swinton. She craves to do something with her life, but she feels trapped because of a specific failure she experienced in her past. That fear to continue only to possibly fail again is universal so I couldn’t help but get affected. Cate Blanchett is always amazing in every movie I see her star in so it was no surprise that she delivered. I couldn’t take my eyes off her during her ballet sequences. I could feel the pain in her eyes whenever the topic of getting old is discussed; her insecurities are heightened whenever she sees her lover get younger every time they meet. Like the fear of failure, the fear of getting older is universal as well. Although those two actresses did a great job, I think Taraji P. Henson, as Benjamin’s mother, should be recognized as well. She played her character with such sincerity, I felt warm whenever she’d express her enthusiasm. Even though this film is about many universal ideas, my favorite issue it tackled was the idea of returning home. There was a quote that made me think because, being a college student that goes to school about seven hours away, it is true in my case: “It’s a funny thing coming home. Nothing changes. Everything looks the same, feels the same, even smells the same. You realize what’s changed, is you.” I didn’t love this picture, but I really liked it because it has so much to say about life. In a nutshell, despite its depressing tone, it made feel so thankful and so happy to be alive.
Revolutionary Road (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Even though “Revolutionary Road” is set in the 1950’s, it’s still very relevant today. Directed with such skill by Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition,” “Jarhead”), he tells the story in a non-linear fashion and it works because the audiences are asked to immediately contrast how the couple was like when they met and after they’ve been together for a couple of years. I will be surprised if Leonardo DiCaprio and/or Kate Winslet do not get nominated for an Oscar. Even though I don’t think this is DiCaprio’s best performance, I think this is one of his most mature and he deserves to be recognized. It’s about time he wins an Oscar for consistently giving us characters that are both memorable and worth caring for. Winslet is magnificient in every movie I see her in and this one is no exception. To be honest, the reason why I loved this film is that I got to watch these two extremely talented actors (with great chemistry) scream at each other for long periods of time; they gave me some sick satisfaction because they are so good at it. I keep reading complaints from reviewers about the selfishness of the characters and how that quality makes it hard to relate to them. I cannot disagree more–I think selfishness is what makes them relatable because that’s a quality that everyone has whether he or she realizes it or not. And it’s not like the characters are selfish for no apparent reason: DiCaprio thinks his job is pointless but won’t quit because he knows that he has to provide for his family, while Winslet is desperate to move out of suburbia because she’s dying on the inside and craving for some excitement. All that frustration is not expressed in a healthy way so they lie, play mind games with each other, and become selfish because they couldn’t get what they need from one another. I thought the film was raw and realistic; at some points during the film, it made me reflect on my childhood when my parents would fight in front of me. Mendes managed to catch the awkwardness, shame and crushed egos after a big argument. In fact, one of my favorite scenes in the film was the morning after a big fight and how Winslet and DiCaprio pretended like nothing happened. I thought that scene was haunting because that’s when I realized that they act more like strangers when they’re peaceful with each other. In some ways, even though the tone of the film is sad and depressing, there are pockets of darkly comedic moments. I don’t know what it is about me but I always find something amusing when it comes to depressed rich people living in suburbia. This is the kind of movie that I would recommend to couples everywhere who think that they’ve fallen in love after only going out for a short amount of time. In essence, this is a cautionary tale for people who believe in love at first sight.