★★★ / ★★★★
Oliver (Ewan McGregor) was still mourning over his father’s death when he met Anna (Mélanie Laurent) at a costume party, who couldn’t speak at the time due to laryngitis, an actress who was always on the move. Through her, he hoped to determine his place in terms of making a genuine, stable commitment with another person. Along with grief, Oliver felt confusion. His father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), at seventy-five, came out as a gay man right after his wife died. He claimed that he didn’t just want to be “theoretically gay” and he wanted to do something about it. So, he posted an ad and met Andy (Goran Visnjic), a younger man who was able to give Hal happiness for four great years. “Beginners,” written and directed by Mike Mills, seamlessly jumped back and forth between life and death, father and son. Oliver and Hal’s relationship, though sad and somewhat strained, was fascinating to observe. Not once did we get to hear them say, “I love you” to one another yet we felt that unspoken sentiment through their actions. It may come off that Oliver was a bit repelled by his father’s homosexuality. Regardless whether it be the truth or not, I was convinced that he respected his dad. Hal was, essentially, a prisoner his entire life. He was a prisoner of the times and his sexuality before he came out. When he did, he was still a prisoner because he almost immediately learned that he had a tumor in his lungs and that it had metastasized. What I loved about him was the fact that he didn’t allow himself to be a victim. He was a fighter. He faced difficulties with optimism. He didn’t allow the disease to limit who he was. I could look in his eyes and feel that he thought he deserved happiness. Not even his own son, an adult, could get in the way of that. And it shouldn’t. Most of the picture’s source of comedy was Hal telling his son about his adventures like how much fun he had at a gay club. But telling stories over the phone or in person was different than being physically included. When surrounded by gay men, Oliver almost distanced himself. His discomfort was apparent. There were several scenes that involved Oliver’s childhood and his relationship with his mom (Mary Page Keller). He valued the idea of his mother and father being together even though he, as a child, felt like there was something wrong in the marriage. The idea and the fears that came with it was probably why he consistently had trouble staying in a relationship. Unlike his father, I got the impression that he, subconsciously, felt like he didn’t deserve happiness. But he does. He just needed to let go of the rules, relax, and live his life the way he wanted to. He was a product of an American society that characterized itself as having one “right” answer, one “right” way to live. “Beginners” had a defined theme which was adaptation: Hal’s sexuality and cancer, Oliver’s sense of self-worth, and even Arthur, Oliver’s dog that can telepathically communicate, getting used to his new owner. Touching but never too heavy or suffocating, it was able to impart valuable lessons for both young and old.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Adaptation.,” directed by Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich,” “Where the Wild Things Are”), had many weapons in its arsenal but its imagination was its most powerful. This was a film about many things: the writer’s struggle to adapt a novel to film (Nicolas Cage as Charlie and Donald Kaufman), a woman’s (Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean) desperation to break out from her loveless marriage and find another soul that she’s compatible with (Chris Cooper as John Laroche), sibling rivalry and the fear of being eclipsed by someone who shares our DNA (or worse, someone who we think is less talented than us), and the fusion of reality and fantasy to tell a story that is not only unique as a whole but utterly unforgettable every step of the way. I was also impressed with this picture’s ear for dialogue. Right from the get-go, the audiences get a chance to hear what was going on inside the main character’s head. And in under three minutes, we get to learn his insecurities, neuroticisms and outlook of the world. With such a rich collection of qualities we had a chance to absorb, we got to see him evolve from when he was at his worst up until he was at his best (which didn’t come without a price). I also enjoyed the scenes with Streep as the lonely author who had no connection with her husband. The way the director showed her lying awake thinking about her life next to her husband was touching and I could feel her silent suffering. Even though the choices she made toward the end of the film were not the best, I understood where she came from so I cared what would ultimately happen to her. Jonze’ ability to wash the material in mystery was outstanding; his use of foreshadowing and double/triple identities made the movie that much more alive and engaging. I thought it was amazing how one new piece of information could instantly alter the perspective from which we saw each character. Like his exemplary work in “Being John Malkovich” (how eerie it was to see the set and actors from that movie in this film!) and “Where the Wild Things Are,” “Adaptation.” had a lot of commentary about our psychologies and philosophies regarding our inner selves and the way influence other people’s lives. What I love about Jonze is he does not give us the easy answers and instead lets us think about what is right answer specifically for ourselves. I absolutely loved “Adaptation” because it was a cinematic experience that was surreal, satirical, stunning, self-aware and not afraid to reference to things that were random. Although it had a lot of insight to offer its audiences, it did not come across as pretentious or preachy. This is a film of rare quality and should be seen by those searching for creativity and vivaciousness.
Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When my two friends who are very different from each other told me that they didn’t enjoy the film, I knew it wasn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. “Where the Wild Things Are,” directed by Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.”) and based on a children’s book by Maurice Sendak, tells the story of a boy named Max (Max Records) and where his mind goes after going through a very tough confrontation with his mother (Catherine Keener). But the frustration is deeper than it seems; his sister is growing up and he does not get the same kind of attention he used to, his mother has a new boyfriend and is very involved in her work, and he does not have many friends. He’s a sensitive little kid and even certain bits of information he learns from school (like the sun eventually stopping to give off light) gets to him. That loneliness and wanting to be noticed makes him very aggressive so the audiences get a lead character who is edgy but is someone who we can ultimately root for because we see the story from his perspective.
As a person who has taken courses on child psychology, I think the writing is exemplary. A lot of people may think that Max is just a kid who is self-absorbed and immature. But has anyone really met a nine-year-old who does not have any of those qualities? I can barely even name an adult who is not at times self-centered and lacking maturity. I think one of the main problems when audiences watch a movie from a child’s perspective is that they fail to consider that children think (and therefore act) very differently than adults. Children have yet to find their identities so they seem to be one thing one minute and be another completely different thing the next. That manic sense of energy should not be seen as being annoying but instead should be seen as a rite of passage. I mention this in my review because I think that all of these basic background infromation should be taken into consideration in order to (in the very least) understand Max’ situation and mindset. I found the lead character to be a very lovable person because he was strong enough to turn a very sad situation into an adventure. And to be honest, I could identify with him because I remember back when I was seven or eight years old when sometimes I wasn’t allowed to play with the other children outside so I turned to my toys and made up stories that reflected how I felt at the time. (I loved that scene when Records told Keener a story about a vampire who lost his teeth. It was a metaphor about infinite things and I was deeply touched.)
A friend of mine mentioned that the movie doesn’t really have a defined story. For me, there was: Max takes refuge into his imagination where he meets all these giant puppet-like creatures with very distinct personalities because he feels abandoned–that no one is even attempting to understand what he’s going through. Those creatures (Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Michael Berry Jr., Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano and James Gandolfini) represent all of the major personalities inside him which cannot yet be controlled because he hasn’t experienced life. I thought the varying ways the creatures interacted (and sometimes collided) was very insightful because, in psychology, there is a theory that our dominant personality is simply a combination of our many different (extreme) personalities. Sometimes, there happens to be an imbalance (also reflected in one of the creatures–bipolar disorder, perhaps?) which causes great conflict in how we think and ultimately view the world. And even if my interpretation is “wrong,” there are great movies out there that don’t really have set story that is easy to understand.
“Where the Wild Things Are” is the kind of film I’ll eventually really love with repeated viewings. Yes, it’s sometimes hard to sit through because it’s not the kind of children’s movie one would expect. While there definitely are cute images, Jonze took the material to the next level and it really delves into many emotions such as sadness, confusion, isolation, not being heard or considered an integral part of a group, anger, jealousy, and even depression. I loved the fact that it’s rough around the edges and far from a typical movie where everyone goes “Aww” and easily label it as a great movie. (In fact, we even saw the monsters’ dark sides… which was scary at times because they made it clear that they could eat people.) In “Where the Wild Things Are,” you would actually have to think a little bit, see what’s under the surface to truly realize its greatness. This is an intelligent person’s movie and if you don’t like to take the effort to see some parallels between Max’ reality and imagination, then this movie might not be right for you.
Nancy Drew (2007)
★★ / ★★★★
I knew this was targeted toward children under ten years old but I decided to watch it anyway because I was in the mood for something light at the time. Still, despite my pretty low expectations, I thought the revival of “Nancy Drew,” directed by Andrew Fleming, was a bit of a letdown. Emma Roberts stars as the lead character who moved to Hollywood with her father (Tate Donovan) in a creepy house where a murdered famous actress used to live. Even though Nancy was naturally very curious and liked to solve crimes, she hesitated to do anything that related to the mystery because she promised her dad that she would try to be a normal teenager. At school, we saw her try to get along with her peers but they thought she was way too weird and dressed in an old-fashioned way. With the help of one of the mean girls’ brother (Josh Flitter) and crush (Max Thieriot), she finally decided to get to the bottom of the murder. Aside from being too sugary, I had big problems with its focus. I felt like it was too all over the place. I wished that the filmmakers had stuck to one thing (preferably the mystery) instead of trying to inject side stories about trying to fit in or being in a cute romance where neither Nancy or Ned did anything about it. (Granted, they were young.) The only part of the film I truly enjoyed was the last fifteen minutes or so where I truly felt that Nancy was in danger because the person/persons responsible for the murder had her surrounded no matter where she decided to run. Nevertheless, I do have to say that Emma Roberts has the potential to be a star. With the right movie and the right role, I think she will skyrocket to stardom. But in here, I felt like it was too much to ask for her to carry the movie especially if it’s not even edgy. This is a safe, non-violent, detective movie for kids that features an independent blossoming young woman. Nothing more, nothing less.
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.