Ginger & Rosa (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
Londoners Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) have been best friends since childhood, but little do they know that 1962 is the year that will put a dent in their friendship. As the Cold War escalates between the Soviet Union and the United States, coupled with radio announcements about atomic bombs and missiles, the girls worry about the possibility of the world coming to an end. Though they start in the same path, Rosa is able to find a distraction—her attraction toward a writer, Roland (Alessandro Nivola), who also happens to be Ginger’s father.
Deliberately slow-paced and covered with a veil of gloom, writer-director Sally Porter is able to establish a metaphor between war and a crumbling friendship. However, the picture is not loyal to its title. While we get to know a lot about how Ginger thinks, what she feels, her motivations, and values, Rosa, more or less, functions as decoration. She is shown entering a frame, saying a serious line or two, and then it is onto the next scene.
A more accurate title would be “Ginger & Roland” because the father and daughter are the most interesting characters and their relationship has depth. I enjoyed how my feelings toward what they have changed over time. Initially, I thought Roland is a good influence on his daughter because he encourages her to think for herself, whether the topic be the existence of a higher power or what it means to be young and making a stand. Fanning and Nivola have a way of connecting with their eyes. Though they look very different, there is a sense of family in the way they interact with one another.
After Ginger learns that her best friend is romantically drawn to her father, there are a lot of bold questions worth asking. Naturally, Ginger feels upset. Is she unhappy because she feels awkward seeing the two of them acting like a couple? Does she feel the need to make a choice between her father and her closest friend? Knowing Rosa’s personality a little bit, does she want to protect her father? Or is it that she is upset because, deep inside her subconscious, she also wants to have her father in that way? I imagine Sigmund Freud having a field day with this film.
There is one character with whom I felt had a bigger role prior to the film ending up in the editing room. Bella (Annette Bening) is an American militant who is staying with Ginger’s godfathers (Timothy Spall, Oliver Platt). The screenplay attempts to draw parallels between this woman and the red-haired girl, perhaps suggesting that Bella is Ginger’s future: strong, confident, well-spoken—qualities that Ginger does not yet possess. I was curious to learn more about Bella but, like Rosa, she appears on screen only when convenient—to say a would-be powerful line and then to be forgotten for fifteen to twenty minutes.
The two young women join a youth club where they are able to perform lawful protests against the bomb. The sequences that take place in the club are largely superficial, underwritten, and lacking in energy. As a result, we never really get the feeling either Ginger or Rosa is learning something new. The supposed moments of inspiration feel too phony, movie-like. And I believe the writer-director felt this, too. There is a tendency to go for the closeup on Fanning’s face, so beautiful and so rich with emotion, every time the words uttered by the club leader reach holes in logic.
Ruby Sparks (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★
When Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), a high school dropout, was only nineteen years of age, his novel was published and topped The New York Times Best Sellers. Now that he’s twenty-nine, he feels the pressures of writing a highly anticipated follow-up but he’s experiencing a drought of inspiration. When his psychiatrist (Elliott Gould) encourages him to write–about anything, even if it is far from great–Calvin begins to put into words the ecstasy he feels when he’s with Ruby (Zoe Kazan), the girl in his recurring dream. One day, Calvin wakes up and discovers that not only has Ruby stepped out of his fantasy, she has the memory of them being a couple and living together for some time.
“Ruby Sparks” is successful in being an appealing love story with a twist not because of its quirks in the narrative or the idiosyncrasies of its the characters, but for the filmmakers taking the responsibility to embrace its premise and taking it all the way. The question goes beyond whether Calvin and Ruby are going to make it as a couple given that one of them is a real person and the other is, arguably, only sort-of real. There is a philosophical overcoat that the film explores: what responsibility does Calvin have toward his creation while at the same time wanting to be with her on a physical, emotional, and spiritual sense? It’s funny that the picture even acknowledges the awkwardness of this dilemma.
While the fantasy is the alluring element, the way in which select characters react to and digest the bizarre situation is tethered in reality. Chris Messina as Harry, Calvin’s brother, has a tricky role but manages to hold his own as our protagonist’s voice of reason without coming off overconfident and jealous. When Harry offers Calvin a piece of advice by citing examples from his marriage, we can feel the genuine love he has for his brother and yet at times there is a sly twinkle in his eye which might suggest that if he were in Calvin’s situation, he would take full advantage of what was put on his plate. Harry is given a complexity that is uncommon from supporting roles in zany love stories. I wished, however, that Calvin’s mother (Annette Bening) and stepfather (Antonio Banderas) had not been painted as stereotypical hippies.
The film also shows its confidence by sometimes making Calvin downright unlikable. Like real person, he has a specific personality and viewpoint of the world. Watching him, I wasn’t certain that he would be the kind of person I would like to have as a friend. He has a proclivity for neediness and self-pity that I find somewhat repulsive. So when Lila (Deborah Ann Woll), an ex-girlfriend he despises for breaking up with him only days after his father died, criticizes him at a party, what she says has merit. If this had been a one-dimensional screenplay by Zoe Kazan, Lila would have come across as a villain and we would have been completely on Calvin’s side. Though we do not see Calvin and Lila’s relationship develop, we get a sense of their history and the feel the wounds they are still recovering from.
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, “Ruby Sparks” shows insight as to what makes its subjects tick. Because of its consistent awareness and ability to surprise without being showy, I am very disappointed with the ending. It is nothing but a convenient and superficial way of reminding us that it is ultimately a love story. Sometimes love is not about having a person next to you but about having the courage to accept the way things are and hoping not to make the same mistake when another opportunity presents itself.
American President, The (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★
Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas), president of the United States, was up for a possible re-election within a year’s time. His team (Martin Sheen, Michael J. Fox) believed that by passing a bill, vaguely designed to reduce crime, there was a great chance that he could win another term. But when he met Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), hired to get the president’s attention toward a bill aimed to protect the environment, he was swept by her radiance, intelligence, and fearlessness to speak what was on her mind. Senator Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss), the leading conservative figure who had shown interest in running for presidency, took advantage of the budding romance and started to question the president’s character and accused Sydney of being a radical because of a picture taken thirteen years ago. Written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Rob Reiner, “The American President” was a romantic comedy for adults. While the material milked the obvious, like the first few scenes designed to paint the president as not only an amiable person in the work place but also an active figure in his daughter’s life, it was highly entertaining because of the smart dialogue and wonderful performances. In romance pictures, I always look the moment when one or both persons realize that they just might be falling for each other. There was a wonderful scene in the Oval Office when Bening scrambled to find the words to express how embarrassed she was for insulting the president. As she attempted to clean up her verbal vomit, Douglas gave her a specific look, which lasted for about half a second, that meant she was the one for him. As for Bening, I’m used to seeing her in intense performances so it was nice to watch her let her hair down and smile from ear to ear. She was completely captivating as a smart and strong woman who was rendered defenseless by the president’s charm. She could have played her character as a typical ditz throughout the film but as the couple got more comfortable with each other, we saw how passionate and serious she was about her work. As the events turned for the worse, reflected by rainy weather, scenes shot at night and bad poll results, the issue of public versus private space came into focus. While Andrew and Sydney were a great match romantically, there was growing tension between them politically. We even start to think that maybe it was good idea for them to not be together for a while. It gives me great annoyance when I read reviews claiming that the movie was terrible because it was nothing but liberal propaganda. They completely missed the point. The romance was supposed to be the foreground and the politics the background. It might have been Capra-esque in scope of how the government really worked, but there was confidence in its execution and we invested in the couple to make it through the end. Sometimes that’s just exactly what we need.
Mother and Child (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Mother and Child,” written and directed by Rodrigo García, followed three women concerning their stories about having a child and sometimes having the giving up the child. Karen (Annette Bening) gave up her daughter for adoption when she was fourteen years old. Over the years, still single and now embittered, the relationship between Karen and her ailing mother became unbearably awkward. They lived together but they rarely said a word to each other. Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), the child Karen gave up for adoption, was now a successful lawyer. Despite having a great career and being independent, she wasn’t happy because deep inside she had feelings of not being wanted so she constantly felt the need to prove herself. Lucy (Kerry Washington) and her husband had been trying to conceive for years but to no avail. With the help of Sister Joanne (Cherry Jones), they tried to adopt a baby. The film was driven by exceptional performances. I loved the way the characters had an unpredictable way of deflecting and accepting certain comments that might be construed as snide by an outside party especially when the issue of adoption was brought up. The three leading characters were explored during their sensitive tipping points. The way they responded to the challenges presented to them (or the ones they created for themselves for a chance to self-sabotage) did not feel like a Lifetime movie or an after school special that involved learning a lesson or finding a comfortable place. I appreciated the fact that the picture placed more importance in examining their inner demons and what made the characters so broken that they seemed irreparable. Furthermore, it avoided typicalities in plot. The story was not driven by a syrupy mother-daughter reunion. Instead, the characters spent the majority of the time fighting their own battles. Even though they weren’t necessarily people who we could along with upon first meeting, like Karen who demanded too much from everyone, we couldn’t help but root for them to find some sort of happiness because we could relate to them in some way. My mom was adopted. Every time I asked her about being adopted, she would directly answer my questions whether they be about how she was brought up by her adoptive parents, when she found out about the fact, and if she ever attempted to find her biological parents but, no matter how much she tried to hide it (sometimes with a smile), I could still feel a small amount of sadness in her responses. To some extent, I could relate to the women in this film because I wanted to know my bloodline and possibly the family and many personalities I never got a chance to meet. I could only imagine how it must be like if I was the one given up for adoption. “Mother and Child” looked the issue in the eye and brought up intelligent and mature questions. It’s a gem.
Being Julia (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
Julia Lambert (played brilliantly by Annette Bening) was a great theater actress. She was so great, she could not stop acting even though she was not on strage. Most people around her saw her life as nothing but glamorous and fans craved to be around her either for the fame, money, or to advance their careers. This made her bitter and depressed; not even her husband (Jeremy Irons) was sensitive enough to realize that she was overworked and on the verge of breakdown. So when she met a significantly younger American admirer (Shaun Evans) who seemed to genuinely care for her, she decided to take a risk and allowed herself to fall in love with him. I thought the movie took its time to build the rage inside of Julia and it only really started to pay off toward its halfway point. Furthermore, the appearance of Julia’s dead mentor (Michael Gambon) was a big distraction for me, especially when the film did not establish their relationship prior. Although I have to say that the second half was very engaging because we eventually saw who the characters really were and their true intentions. Despite Julia’s sometimes tiresome histrionics, I came to understand why she was angry. Everyone believed that she was on the top of her game but at the end of the day she was the one looking at herself in the mirror and noticing her age show and health deteriorate. She did not know how to deal with the fear of becoming considered as past her prime and lacking a genuine support system did not help her increasingly desperate situation. The only true person in her life was her son (Tom Sturridge–quickly becoming one of my favorite actors) but he was always away. I was in love with the scene when he knocked on her mother’s door, found her crying, and made the decision to share something really personal with her–something that even I am not sure I can share with my parents no matter how close we are. The implications in that scene were rewarding because they were open to interpretation. That scene was special because the look and feel of that scene was a nice contrast to the scenes involving the lies and deceit of showbiz. The last few scenes impressed me because it truly encapsulated Julia’s perspective–the theater was when she felt home and and the real world was just an acting class. It was so bittersweet and I finally saw how strong she was even though she could turn on and off her tears at the drop of a hat. “Being Julia,” based on the novel “Theatre” by W. Somerset Maugham and directed by István Szabó, sometimes felt elegantly cold but it was eventually able to open up and show its warmth. It had strong performances especially by Bening and Sturridge and I wished that the two had more scenes that explored the crucial mother-son relationship.
In Dreams (1999)
★★★ / ★★★★
The movie started off with a breathtaking tour of a town submerged in water that Claire (Annette Bening) saw in her dreams. She also had dreams of a little girl who was kidnapped by a man (Robert Downey Jr.) who lived in a place full of apples. Obsessed with the details of her dreams because they came true before, her own daughter was eventually kidnapped and she had to find a way to get to the man who kidnapped her child while trying to persuade her husband (Aidan Quinn) and psychiatrist (Stephen Rea) that her dreams were real. Even though the movie asked its audiences to take a leap of faith time and again about visions eventually becoming reality and strange coincidences, I could not help but get really into the story because of the way Bening invested in her character. I mean the following as a compliment but she made a very convincing crazy person when she eventually was sent to a mental hospital. I was entertained with how some scenes were supposed to be scary or haunting but they had strong hints of comedy and even tragedy. I liked that quality because although I knew where the story was going, it still managed to surprise in small ways so I did not lose interest. Neil Jordan fascinates me as a director because of the masterful way he balances elements of surrealism and realism. I noticed he would play with the extremes but there would come a point when it became difficult to discern what was real or what was fantasy. In other movies, I am usually aware of the intermediates of the extremes. What I was not very excited about, however, was how useless some of the characters were which negatively impacted the movie’s middle portion. I saw the cops and the psychiatrist as mere distractions or hindrances instead of figures that genuinely tried to help the main character. It was one of those horror movie clichés that just did not work and I grew frustrated with the material because I knew that the director was more than capable of doing something completely different with his characters like in one of his films called “The Butcher Boy.” Since the movie was based on the novel “Doll’s Eyes” by Bari Wood, perhaps Jordan was just trying to remain loyal to the book. Nevertheless, when adapting a novel to film, there should always be an artistic leeway in which the writers could tweak certain aspects in order to avoid the obvious. Upon its release, “In Dreams” did not receive good reviews which I thought was understandable because it tried to do something different in terms of not everything making complete sense in the end. I thought it worked because we don’t necessarily understand our dreams at times and I believe Jordan was deliberate in leaving certain strands unsolved.
Kids Are All Right, The (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
The kids (Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson) of a lesbian couple, Nic and Jules (Annette Bening, Julianne Moore), tried to search for Paul, their biological father (Mark Ruffalo), in hopes of finding more about where they came from. The situation did not sit well with Nic because she felt like she would slowly lose her family. On the other hand, Jules felt a little attraction toward Paul. It is too easy to label this as a “lesbian movie” because of the parents but the film is really more about family dynamics and how it changed when a new factor was added in the equation. I thought it was realistic in portraying the ups and downs of being in an imperfect family but the lessons that were learned or not learned did not feel like it something out of an after school special. The material wasn’t afraid to let the characters make mistakes and live with those mistakes until they couldn’t hold onto their secrets any longer. I enjoyed the way it framed parenting, that most of the time there is no “good” parenting or “bad” parenting but just a couple of adults trying to do their best to make their specific situation work. Bening and Moore were a joy to watch. Even though they kept their performances relatively simple, they were able to deliver the big emotions at the perfect small moments. I really felt like they’ve been together for many years so the way they got under each other’s skin and the way they would mend the wounds from the verbal daggers they threw at each other felt painfully realistic. I also loved the scenes when they would just talk about their past because they were able to paint vivid images in my head. I wish the picture had more scenes of them just talking to each other at home or having a nice dinner date in the city instead of the scenes with the son and his friend that did not amount to anything substantial. The side story about the daughter about to head off to college was a bit underdeveloped as well. However, the picture was consistently strong whenever Moore and Bening were on screen which was the majority of the time. I’ve heard some concerns from the lesbian community involving the film portraying lesbians as way too uptight. I think it’s an unnecessary concern because the lesbians are specific only to this movie and it does not make any generalizations about all lesbians in the world. It’s a story about a family’s bond and it should left as such. Written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko, “The Kids Are All Right” told its story involving the difficulties of transitioning with wit, focus, and brevity. It had a nice mix of charming characters and it had a good sense of balance with its comedic and dramatic elements which most audiences will likely enjoy.
Women, The (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I was really excited when I first saw the preview for this movie but that all excitement was taken away after I read a plethora of bad reviews upon its release. However, I still wanted to watch it because of the four lead actresses: Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Debra Messing and Jada Pinkett Smith. Reading those egregious reviews actually helped because if I had seen this film with high expectations, I think I would’ve been more disappointed. Even though this film offers nothing new to subgenre of women’s relationships and point of views, it had some good ideas but they were never fully explored. One of the things that I liked most about the film was Ryan’s relationship with her daughter (played by India Ennenga) and friends. However, I feel like Benning was on screen a lot more which is unfortunate because Messing and Smith’s storylines are much more light-hearted and comedic. Still, Benning’s storyline was essential to the story; a woman and her career is important to any feminist projects. Since this movie is about two hours, I felt like Diane English, the director, had more than enough time to focus on each friend. The fact that there was no men that could be found in this film may sound unbelievable but I actually didn’t mind it that much. I completely accepted the fact that this film wanted to focus on women’s issues. There are myriads of films that focus on men (despite women’s apperances in the background) so why shouldn’t there be a film that tries to turn that whole idea around? A lot of people make a big deal about this whole “not having men in the movie” idea but when women are invisible in moving pictures, it is often ignored or is considered as a norm. However, what I disliked most about this film was when it tried to be funny. I hated it when the soundtrack would be heard whenever something “funny” happens. To me, it suggests that filmmakers are afraid that the audiences may not understand that something amusing is going on so they constantly need to add that “This is funny!” cue. That lack of confidence is a big negative on my book, especially when this film took a long time to get made. Instead of being inspired to take risks, it ultimately succumbed to the genre’s conventions.