Little Women (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★
The March household consisted of a matriarch (Susan Sarandon) and her four daughters: Meg (Trini Alvarado), Beth (Claire Danes), Jo (Winona Ryder), and Amy (Kirsten Dunst, but later played by Samantha Mathis). The patriarch participated in the Civil War as part of the Union Army. We observed the girls bask in their innocence as they starred in their own plays to pass the time and the way they responded to life’s small and big challenges that threatened their bond. Based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott and directed by Gillian Armstrong, “Little Women” captured how it was like to be young and the feeling that we had all the time in the world to play, laugh, and be loved despite our imperfections. The film started off strong because each sister was given the chance to shine. Meg was concerned that she might never get married. She wanted to marry for love, but being around girls her age, most of them from rich backgrounds, made her realize that perhaps marrying for money was a more practical approach so she could provide for her family. Beth was the quiet and innocent one. It seemed like the only time she stood out was when she played the piano during the holidays. Jo, our protagonist, was the firecracker. She wasn’t like other girls. She was unafraid to roll around in mud and yell at boys from a distance. Older folks, like Aunt Match (Mary Wickes), were seriously concerned about her prospects for marriage. Boys just wouldn’t want to be with girls who acted like boys. Amy was the unpredictable one. Being the youngest, she was a keen observer. She didn’t like being poor and she made a personal promise that she would marry a rich man. The film’s first half was intriguing because there was complexity among the sisters’ relationships with each other and the men (Christian Bale, Eric Stoltz) they interacted with. Unfortunately, the second half didn’t feel as strong because there was a certain tone of detachment. Instead of focusing on the sisters’ relationships, the story turned its focus on the uninspiring romance between Jo and Friedrich (Gabriel Byrne), a German professor, while in New York. Since Jo’s story was supposedly based on the author’s life, I expected the screenplay to pay particular attention to Jo’s struggle in trying to become a woman writer in the big city. There were only approximately scenes which showed us that it was difficult for her to get published because nobody was interested in her “fairytale” stories. There was dramatic weight in the way she put her dreams at bay, that is, writing literature, and instead resulted to writing fantasy stories about vampires and beasts because she needed the money. Even though she was published, she felt like a failure because she wasn’t published for the right reasons. I felt as though there were a lot more meaningful things that needed to be said about Jo’s career. The romance felt unnecessary because it offered no excitement or spark. In fact, the romance almost felt like an antithesis to the film’s feminist undertones. Once scenes of reckless abandonment of youth passed by, the film never looked back and there was an off-putting lack of closure.
Princess Mononoke (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
When a spirit that guarded the forest had turned into a demon, in a form of a giant boar, threatened to attack a small village, Prince Ashitaka (voiced by Billy Crudup) killed the suffering spirit. But Ashitaka did not leave the battle unscathed. The demon managed to touch his arm and put a curse on him. One of the wise men from the tribe claimed that there could be a possible cure out in the West. However, if Ashitaka left the village, he could never return. “Princess Mononoke,” written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, was branded by fans and critics as a classic. I don’t believe it was as strong as it should have been. While I admired that it used animation not just as a medium to entertain younger children, personified by gory beheadings and limbs cut into pieces, its pacing felt uneven and the way story unfolded eventually became redundant. There was a war between guardians of the forest, led by a giant white wolf named Moro (Gillian Anderson), and humans, led by the cunning Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver). The spirits were angry because men cut off trees and killed animals for the sake of excavating valuable iron. If the forest died, the spirits, too, would perish. Ashitaka’s stance was the middle, the one who we were supposed to relate to, and it was up to him to try to bring the two sides together. While I appreciated that there was an absence of a typical villain because the characters’ motivations were complex, there were far too many grand speeches about man’s place in the world versus man’s right to do whatever it took for the sake of progress. As the spirits and humans went to war, the story also focused on the budding romance between Ashitaka and San (Claire Danes), a human that Moro brought up as a wolf. It was an unnecessary appendage because the romantic angle took away the epic feel of the battle sequences. Just when a battle reached a high point, it would cut to Ashitaka wanting to prove his love for the wolf-girl he barely knew. The high point, instead of reaching a peak, became an emotional and visual plateau. It wasn’t clear to me why Ashitaka would fall for someone like San, who was essentially a savage being, who claimed that she hated humans, and who considered herself to be a wolf. There was a painful lack of evolution in their relationship. Did San eventually feel like she was more human than animal after spending more time with the cursed Ashitaka? What was more important to our protagonist: being with the girl he loved or the lifting off the curse so that he could continue to live? The deeper questions weren’t answered. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t deny that “Mononoke-hime” maintained a high level of imagination throughout. I especially enjoyed the adorable kodamas, spirits that lived in the oldest trees, with their rotating heads and confused expressions. If it had found a way to focus more on the big picture, without sacrificing details and actually offered us answers, it would have been a timeless work.
Me and Orson Welles (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) was magnetized toward the arts so when the opportunity of working with Orson Welles’ (Christian McKay) production of “Julius Caesar” had presented itself, Richard just had to be in the play despite lacking theater experience. Through a week of rigorous rehearsals, Richard fell for a secretary named Sonja Jones (Claire Danes) who everyone admired but earned the nickname of being an Ice Queen. Little did Richard know that he had to compete with Welles for Sonja’s affections. I understand that this movie must have been a big deal for Efron because it gave him the chance to finally be considered as a serious actor. In a way, the actor had parallels with his character because Richard wanted to be taken seriously despite his age and lack of connection in the entertainment business. Unfortunately, the movie barely kept my attention. I could not connect at all with Richard because there did not come a point where he had a clear vision between wanting to have the girl or wanting to achieve his dreams. Obviously, he could not have both. To an extent, his lack of understanding about what was more important was understandable because he was young, but I think the writing should have presented a key moment when the audiences would realize that Richard was worth rooting for even though he did not know exactly what he wanted. There were two characters who overshadowed the protagonist. One was Danes as an elegant woman who knew what she wanted and would do anything to go where she wanted to go. Unlike the main character, she had experience and was wise despite the fact that I did not always agree with her actions. The other character that fascinated me was Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan), an aspiring young writer who liked to visit museums for inspiration and when she felt down. Kazan was absolutely charming and, more importantly, the zeal she embedded in her character did not feel forced. Generally, Efron was satisfactory as Richard, albeit too safe, but his lack of intensity was magnified when he had to interact with Danes and Kazan. Furthermore, I do have to say that his optimistic one-liners made me cringe. “Me and Orson Welles” was surprisingly weak especially since Richard Linklater was the director. In most of his films, he has such a great ear for dialogue and sharp vision in terms of capturing actors in their most natural state to the point where it almost looks effortless without sacrificing the characters’ multi-dimensional personalities. “Me and Orson Welles” was very uneven, especially in its first half, and ultimately disappointing.