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.
Winnie the Pooh (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings) woke up, his stomach grumbled with great hunger. He knew the perfect cure: delicious, gooey honey. But when he got to the kitchen, all the honey jars were empty. He thought he’d ask his friends if they had some to spare. In the forest, he stumbled upon Eeyore (Bud Luckey) who claimed that his tail was missing. Concerned about their friend, Christopher Robin (Jack Boulter), Owl (Craig Ferguson), Piglet (Travis Oates), Tigger (Cummings), Rabbit (Tom Kenny), Kanga (Kristen Anderson-Lopez), and Roo (Wyatt Dean Hall) held a contest: whoever could find an object that would best replace Eeyore’s tail would win a jar of honey. “Winnie the Pooh,” based on the works by A.A. Milne and Ernest Shepard, brought out the inner child in me. Granted, it isn’t particularly difficult because I’m easily amused by corny childish jokes and puns but the film was on a constant creative overdrive. Coming into it, I hadn’t seen a single episode of the television show nor have I sat through prior Pooh features. (I’ve read a picture book or two.) It really surprised me because the dialogue and the images rapidly reached an effortless comedic synergy. An image could be as simple as Pooh staring at a pinecone and weighing the reasons how or how it couldn’t work as Eeyore’s tail and I would catch myself smiling at how adorable it was. I loved the film because the characters reminded me of my friends and I. Each had a distinct personality and I was glad all of them were given a chance to shine. My favorite scene was when Owl suggested that whoever acquired the best tail replacement ought to receive some sort of remuneration for his or her trouble. Meanwhile, Pooh leaned into Piglet and whispered, “What are we supposed to renumber?” It caught me off-guard with how ingenious it was. There I was watching, essentially, a children’s movie but I lost track of that fact. That moment nudged me, without feeling distracted or detached, of its nature. Most kids (and, I reckon, most adults) won’t know the meaning of “remuneration.” They defined it but it didn’t feel like being in a classroom and learning words because the joke’s punchline came before the definition. The picture also had a great lesson about friendship. Eventually, the animals ended up in a big hole with no means of escape. Piglet was the only one who could rescue them. That scene could easily have been annoying or unnecessary. After all, Owl had the ability to fly. The writers ignored Owl’s innate ability because there was a lesson about patience. In meaningful friendships, when a friend messes up or does things that make no sense, it’s important that we don’t make them feel less than. I think it’s a great message for kids (for everyone, really) not to say things like, “You’re so dumb!” or “You’re so stupid!” As someone who’s worked with children, such put-downs, harmless as they may seem at the time, do germinate anger and self-loathing. Directed by Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall, “Winnie the Pooh” was a delightful animated film. It’s one of those movies I can show my future kids and I wouldn’t mind watching it with them.
★★ / ★★★★
Madeline (Jordan Ladd) and Michael (Stephen Park) had been trying to conceive but the baby didn’t make it full term twice. Madeline, who lived a strictly vegan diet, was pregnant for the third time and would like to try something different. Instead of going to a doctor (Malcolm Stewart), a friend of her controlling and judgmental mother-in-law (Gabrielle Rose), she insisted on going to a mid-wife (Samantha Ferris), Patricia, who also happened to be her friend back in the day. When the couple got in a car accident, the baby died in Madeline’s womb. However, Patricia decided that they weren’t going to induce delivery with respect to Madeline’s wishes. They were going to keep it inside Madeline for a couple of weeks until it came out of her naturally. It did and she somehow willed it to life. “Grace,” written and directed by Paul Solet, lacked two elements: common sense and characters we could root for. In Madeline’s desperation to have a baby, naming it Grace because she thought it was a miracle, she ignored all the creepy signs that there was something not quite right about her child. Babies are known to smell good but Grace smelled rotten. A bath couldn’t get rid of the stench. Flies gathered around her crib as if the baby was a corpse. When it did drink milk, it would vomit. The only thing it seemed to like drinking was human blood. Despite all the strange signs, Madeline wouldn’t see a doctor. Through her nipples, the monster she gave birth to eventually learned to suck her blood to the point where she became anemic. Even then she refused to see a doctor. She considered her obstinate nature as a sign of love. A normal person would considered it as a sign of stupidity. However, it was actually fun to see her go through great lengths to protect her dark secret. There was a balance between gore and suspense. The mother-in-law, a judge, wanted the baby for herself. She came up with ways for the law to consider Madeline as an unfit mother. It was only a matter of time until she found out about the blood-hungry baby. Ultimately, I considered “Grace” a missed opportunity. It had a fascinating bit about Madeline and Patricia being involved in a romantic relationship in the past. With a more focused script, Madeline’s increasingly desperate situation could have been a symbol of her fear of accepting her sexuality. When she made love with Michael, there was no passion. She just passively laid on the bed as he planted his seed. One could argue that she didn’t want a man, she wanted a baby. She used him as a tool. The baby did the same to her. “Grace” was disturbing but never exploitative. Although certainly not for everyone, no one can deny it had moments of creativity.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Machete” was a fake trailer so good, it was green lit as full-feature film. Machete (Danny Trejo) was a Mexican Federale who disobeyed his boss which led to his wife’s beheading. Three years later and now in America, Machete was approached by a mysterious man named Booth (Jeff Fahey) for a job. For $150,000, Machete was assigned to kill Senator McLaughlin (Robert De Niro), whose platform was to ensure a stricter Mexican-American border, while making his speech for re-election. But the simple assassination plot was not what it seemed. The heated debate about illegal immigration was directly related to a drug cartel led by Von Jackson (Don Johnson) and the kingpin Torrez (Steven Seagal). “Machete,” directed by Ethan Maniquis and Robert Rodriguez, was an incredibly violent, bloody, laugh-out-loud funny, creative mess. The filmmakers knew that the movie was an exaggeration of good and bad action films that we loved and hated. Most of the action defied the law of physics but it didn’t matter because it was entertaining. It provided an excellent example of a character whose background information we did not need to know or fully understand. We just knew he had to survive because he was a symbol of the people, specifically immigrants, both legal and illegal, who were every day marginalized yet used as a scapegoat when a country was in an economic turmoil. Amidst the flying bullets, blades scraping through skin, and blood being painted on walls, I was surprised that it had moments of thoughtfulness, although wrapped in humor like a burrito. For instance, one of Booth’s henchmen stated that we allow Mexicans to enter our homes to clean, take care of our children or siblings, and park our cars, yet we wouldn’t allow them to enter our country. Controversies concerning illegal immigration aside, there was a painful truth to that statement. Furthermore, as enjoyable as the men were to watch, there were some interesting casting choice concerning the women who eventually came to fight on Machete’s side. Michelle Rodriguez was a perfect choice to play Luz because she was edgy, tough, and beautiful. On the other hand, Jessica Alba as an immigration and customs enforcer was not entirely convincing because she didn’t have enough angst and roughness. I actually squirmed in my seat during her speech, while standing on the hood of a car, about our rights to stand up to a law that failed to protect its people’s best interests. I felt like I was in a room with a high school teacher who got a little too carried away by the subject at hand. The most fascinating was Lindsay Lohan whose dream was to become a “model” but she really meant taking her clothes off over the internet. I gave her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she wanted to satirize her wacky life. “Machete” embraced the offensive, the grimy, and the bold. I embraced it right back.
A Town Called Panic (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
“Panique au village,” written and directed by Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, was an oddball of an animated film. The characters in the film were toys but they didn’t necessarily play the role of the figure they inhabited. Humans and horses were equal beings, horses could play the piano, while cows were used as either food or weapons against intruders. When Indian (voiced by Bruce Ellison) and Cowboy (Stéphane Aubier) had forgotten that it was Horse’s (Vincent Patar) birthday, they panicked and tried to brainstorm for a gift. They figured it would be a nice if they built a barbecue set for Horse before he returned home from picking up the neighbor’s kids, but they accidentally ordered millions of bricks instead of the fifty they had in mind. The delivery of the bricks was a catalyst for an adventure that awaited the three friends which led them to the center of the earth, a land of ice, and an underwater dwelling. As much as I enjoyed the protagonists’ dizzying energy, I think the picture would have been better off as a short film. The first twenty minutes was spot-on; it reminded me of the simple days back when I would just sit in front of a TV and watch Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner’s formula of the former setting a trap in which he was convinced would work without a glitch and the latter escaping and not breaking a sweat. This animated picture had an easy formula to follow, too. A tragic thing would happen, like a house being demolished, and the characters would rebuild from the ground up without making a big deal out of the situation. This was highlighted when one of the characters stated, “There’s always tomorrow.” In a series of simple scenes and without saying the actual words, it was able to highlight that hard work, perseverance, and forgiveness were important aspects of a successful life and maintaining meaningful friendships. Although unconventional, I thought the movie was beautifully shot. Close-ups revealed the flaw of the animation so the majority of the scenes were shot from afar. To recompense, there was always something happening on the background particularly when such a shot was indoors. One should take notice of the amusing details during Horse’s birthday celebration when everybody was dancing like it was high school prom or disco in the 1980s. Nevertheless, the sudden change of pace near the middle made the film feel highly uneven. I felt like it eventually ran out of creative ideas to keep us entertained. The toys were more than plastic things in “A Town Called Panic.” They might not have felt pain when landing from a hundred-foot fall but people who love the idea of just being alive will love these toys and find this bizarre film fun and zany.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Francis (Xavier Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri) were best friends. They relished vintage fashion, enjoyed watching classic films, and quoting respectable poems. But those weren’t all they had in common. When they met Nicolas (Neils Schneider), a curly-haired blonde with a bone structure of a Greek god, the foundation of Francis and Marie’s friendship was tested. Written and directed by Xavier Dolan, “Les amours imaginaires” told its story through the senses. Slow-motion shots were prevalent for a reason. Francis and Marie’s rivalry was mostly shown in an insidious manner. It was only natural that two friends would hide their jealousy from one another to avoid hurting each other and themselves. The slow movement of the camera magnified the little things like a fake smile or a judging look. It also highlighted the pain when reality did not meet one’s expectations. For example, when Francis and Marie greeted Nicolas at a party, Francis noticed that Nicolas hugged Marie for much longer. Francis tried to play it off as if it was nothing but we knew better. The slow motion revealed to us the many questions in his head. Did the Adonis adore Marie more than him? Dolan’s use of bold colors was quite Almodóvar-esque. A scene shot in which red reigned supreme suggested fiery passion, perhaps even obsession. Green signified jealousy as Francis shared a bed with another man knowing that Nicolas and Marie were probably having a good time together. Lastly, I felt the need to point out the lack of a gratuitous sex scene. I admired that the material remained true to itself. The relationship between the trio wasn’t about sex. It was about the longing for someone who may or may not be willing to reciprocate. The fact that the writer-director chose to explore the funny, awkward, painful space between the three characters instead of allowing them to get together sexually proved to me that he was confident with his project. However, what I found less effective were the scenes that involved broken-hearted romantics who pondered over men and women who hurt them. I felt like I was in group therapy where no one made sense. Instead of relating to them, I ended up somewhat disliking them. Most recalled waiting for someone they were interested in and the person being late for over thirty minutes. It was suggested that they felt used waiting when the relationship ultimately didn’t go anywhere. If I was supposed to meet someone for the first time and he or she was thirty minutes late, that person could forget about it. I was there on time so I wouldn’t place the blame on myself. Either those scenes should have been excised or someone should have criticized their way of thinking. Despite its weak miniature intermissions, “Heartbeats” pulsated with creativity. I was addicted to its beauty.
Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
A French thrift store owner (Thierry Guetta), fascinated with filming everything mundane and interesting, began to document street art and the artist themselves (Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Space Invader, and some unnamed others). Guetta was passionate and obsessive; the normally elusive artists decided to work with him because they recognized a familiar fire within him. But this wasn’t Guetta’s film because the Frenchman did not know how to condense thousands of hours into a concise nintey-minute feature. When Guetta showed Banksy his final product, Banksy was incredibly underwhelmed because the movie merely consisted of incomprehensible images devoid of meaning and purpose. The film should have been about the art and why the artists felt the need to make them despite the fact that street art was illegal many cities. Banksy took the footages and tried his best to make what Guetta should have made in the first place. Guetta became the subject of the documentary because he eventually decided to showcase his own street art in Los Angeles. “Exit Through the Gift Shop” was a fascinating film because it was essentially a collage of many thoughts and motivations by artists in an underground movement. It gave us interesting images such as a robot made up of television sets, a live elephant covered in pink paint, and even a terrorist figure set up in Disneyland. It was funny, sometimes thoughtful when the artist was given the chance to explain his work, and it offered some insight about the art world involving hardcore collectors and casual onlookers. Can street art and pop culture occupy the same sphere? Was the Frenchman really an artist if he had an entire crew dedicated to doing the Photoshop, painting, and cutting paper for him? He assisted by splattering paint on some of the canvas, but that does that equate to stamping his signature and passing it as his own work? Was he a bona fide genius or was he simply standing on the shoulders of far more talented individuals who deserved the accolades? I had myriads of questions about Guetta’s creative process. There were times when I was doubtful whether he really knew what he was doing, but then there were times when I was caught by surprise that I actually believed that he was a real artist when he attempted to explain the meaning behind some of his projects. Maybe his thoughts and actions just needed a bit more focus. Narrated by Rhys Ifans, “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is a magnifying glass of a man so inspired by street art to the point where he attempted to become what he admired. I wish it had been a microscope because he was a curious specimen. I was glad it challenged us to think for ourselves.
★★★ / ★★★★
Bazil (Danny Boon) grew up as an orphan because his father was killed by a bomb. On an unlucky night while working in a video store, he was hit on the head by a stray bullet. However, he wasn’t killed despite the fact that the surgeon left the bullet lodged in his skull. A couple of months later, the unemployed Bazil teamed up with strange individuals with even more unconventional talents to bring down two arms dealers (André Dussollier and Nicolas Marié) by setting up a series of pranks that would drive them out of business. Bazil wanted to avenge his father’s death and what had happened to him by eliminating weapons used to kill. “Micmacs,” covered in sleepy yellow glow, was a droll comedy with spoonfuls of interesting imagery. I have to admit that it took me a little bit of time and effort to get into its story. I found out that the more I tried to figure out the plot and where it was going, the more I ended up feeling confused about why events transpired the way they did. A third into the picture, I decided to sit back and just enjoy the ride. Almost immediately, I found myself entertained with the way the dysfunctional family incorporated their talents to spy on the arms dealers. Each scene had its own level of excitement because the gadgets the characters used were essentially scraps from a junkyard. Imagine kids retelling their version of Brian De Palma’s “Mission: Impossible” with objects they found around the house. It was impressive (and amusing) in its own way because the filmmakers wished to showcase their many inspirations, mostly silent films with comedic edge, from under their sleeves. I also enjoyed the way the various characters communicated to each other. Because they were so strange, sometimes a wink during awkward first impressions or a nudge in order to direct attention to a unique invention or a smirk at the dinner table was enough to portray their thoughts and feelings. “Micmacs à tire-larigot,” directed with great imagination by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, wouldn’t fail to put a smile on someone’s face because of its whimsical and bona fide sense of humor and creativity in terms of revealing the illusion between our expectations (what we could hear, see, and feel) and other possibilities which weren’t necessarily transparent to us. Despite its common angle of a dysfunctional family, members of which were unaccepted by society, coming together and working toward a common goal, there were plenty of small twists so the material felt refreshing. I admired the film’s final image of a dress, with a help from a machine, looking like it was dancing with posh and grace. It made me feel like a child again because my eyes were so transfixed at its movements. It was like watching a magic trick.
Annie Hall (1977)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Annie Hall,” written, directed and starring Woody Allen, is considered one of the best romantic comedies in film history even though the couple did not end up together in the end. Alvy (Allen) wanted to determine what went wrong in his relationship with Annie (Diane Keaton) so we were taken back in time and given the chance to observe the major and minor events in their journey. The film was undoubtedly quirky but its intelligence and insight about how it was like to be in a relationship was what took this film from greatness to being a pop icon classic. My favorite scenes were when Allen decided to use elements that could have disrupted the narrative. For instance, I had loads of fun with the split-screen when the director wanted to compare Annie’s WASP family to Alvy’s Jewish family during a meal. The former was reserved, everyone masticated with their mouths closed, and had perfect posture at the table. On the other hand, the latter, like my family, consisted of many overlapping voices, gossip became a source of entertainment, and all sorts of etiquette was thrown out the window. Allen’s willingness to take risks showed me that he was confident about his project and that’s a key ingredient to make a successful picture. I also admired the film’s many references to pop culture and literature and the energy that drove them forward. I did not live in the 70s nor do I read a lot of classic novels. I did understand more than half the jokes but when I did not, I did not feel dumb or left out. That was when the energy became essential because there were about ten jokes in under a minute so I didn’t have a chance to linger on the fact that I did not “get” something. Furthermore, I loved that the director injected various types of comedy in the material. Some of the comedy were slapstick (the lobster scene), anecdotes (when Alvy vividly described his childhood experiences), blunders (a Freudian slip by Annie), and even some repartee between the two leads in the bedroom and the issue of sex and gender roles were put under the spotlight. Alvy and Annie could have easily been caricatures in less capable direction. Instead, the protagonists had great depth. They surprised us because of the inconsistencies in their beliefs and actions, they kept us watching because they spoke of and did things we, one way or another, had thought of and done, and they moved us because it was like watching two good friends deciding to go their separate ways. Clever in its approach in which irony penetrated every scene, “Annie Hall” was not simply as ode to romance but also an absolute love for creative and inspired filmmaking.
Source Code (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a soldier assigned in Afghanistan, woke up in a stranger’s body in a Chicago commuter train in front of Christina (Michelle Monaghan), a woman he never met but who seemed to know him. Later, he found out that he was a part of a military experimental technology, led by Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), and his assignment was to find the identity of the man or woman who triggered the bomb on the doomed train earlier that day. Everyone on the train was already dead and it included the body Colter inhabited. Each time he failed, his day started all over again as if he was imprisoned in a “Twilight Zone” episode. Written by Ben Ripley and directed by Duncan Jones, “Source Code” was relatively small in scope but its ambitions were grand. It had a plethora of exciting ideas about what it meant to be in a specific reality: Is the reality what was outside our bodies or was it within? Metaphysics aside, Gyllenhaal was very convincing as a conflicted soldier who didn’t sign up for the mission he was given. Initially, I found it bothersome that he was reluctant in performing his mission. He let his emotions get in way too often instead of focusing to come up with ways to narrow down his suspects. Inevitably, he failed multiple times and we found ourselves back in square one. Eventually, I realized that his defiance of authority was the point. His neglect in following orders allowed us to see his humanity and what was really important to him Ultimately, he went through with the mission not because he was simply told to do it but because he cared about the many more lives that might be in danger due to the high possibility that the bomber will strike again. There was a difference between a mindless drone and a good soldier. Moreover, I was surprised that the film relied heavily on romance. Even though the scenes of Colter and Christina were pretty much the same, as the picture went on, there was a clear change in the protagonist and it was more than enough for us to be convinced that the feelings they had for each other was real. It was also interesting to see Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), Colter’s guide between the real and computerized world, weigh the pros and cons of the program she was given the chance to control. There was no doubt that the program was genius, even revolutionary, but that brilliance required serious ethical and moral sacrifices. Fast-paced and full of twists and turns, “Source Code” had creative ideas but it never felt insular. Combined with Jones’ confident direction and given that we’re willing to take a leap of faith with regards to the advanced technology, it almost felt grounded in reality.
★★★★ / ★★★★
The Lamberts, led by schoolteacher Josh and musician Renai (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne), recently moved into a new house with their three kids (Ty Simpkins, Andrew Astor). In the beginning, there were small incidents around the house like books being put out of place but no one ever touching them. Then the changes started to become more noticeable like Renai hearing malevolent voices from a baby monitor when no one was supposed to be upstairs other than the sleeping infant. One night, one of the children, Dalton, went to explore in the creepy attic and fell from a ladder. He was hurt but there was no serious injury. The problem was, the next morning, Dalton wouldn’t wake up. Doctors claimed he was in a coma but they couldn’t explain why. Written by Leigh Whannell and directed by James Wan, “Insidious” was a creative, thrilling, old-fashioned haunted house film. When you’ve seen a lot of horror movies, you start to feel as though you’ve seen everything in the genre, that nothing can surprise you anymore. But there are times when movies like this would come and take you completely by surprise. From its title card in gargantuan red text designed to summon 70s and 80s cheesy horror nostalgia down to its chilling soundtrack, it immediately showcased its knowledge of horror conventions. I got the feeling that maybe it was going to poke fun of the standards. In some ways it did, but I was happier with the fact that it took the known conventions and made them better by altering them just a little bit. In a wasteland of bad remakes and cringe-inducing adaptations, a spice of modernity feels like a new breed. The first half worked as a horror picture because of the way it patiently built the suspense. The ghosts were scary but they didn’t go around following the family (depending on how one sees it). They were just hanging about, taking up the same space as the living. The director was careful in revealing too much. Sometimes the ghosts were on the background and the characters didn’t see them. But the audiences certainly did. Sometimes the apparitions were on the foreground and we had no choice but to scream at the images thrown at us. Because the director varied his camera angles and the types of scares, the film held an usually high level of tension. Each situation was a potential cause of alarm. In a dark room, we knew that something was going to happen but it was a matter of when. “Insidious” also worked as a horror-comedy. Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), a geek tech duo who seemed to have been plucked from Ivan Reitman’s “Ghost Busters,” provided required tension-relievers as they attempted to get bigger weapons to detect the ghosts. Meanwhile, the addition of Lin Shaye as the concerned psychic was an excellent counter-balance to the more comedic moments. Her character reminded us that “Insidious” was a horror movie first and foremost by allowing us to see what she saw in a dark room via Spec’s drawings. For an old-fashioned horror flick, “Insidious” felt progressive, even fresh. Sitting in a packed theater, I felt like the film continually threw snakes of increasing size onto my lap. I screamed louder each time.
Somers Town (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Two lonely teenagers met in London and we have the pleasure to observe them for a couple of days. Marek (Piotr Jagiello) and his father (Ireneusz Czop) were Polish immigrants. Marek mostly kept to himself as he slowly nourished his interest in photography. His father worked during the day and drank with his friends at night. Tomo (Thomas Turgoose) turned sixteen and his first big decision was to move to London for reasons unknown. He was mugged on his first night in the big city but this did not change his romantic view of it. Marek and Tomo met at a local café where Marek told Tomo about his crush on a waitress named Maria (Elisa Lasowski). Then the two devised ways to get her attention, but one day she left unexpectedly for Paris. Shot in grainy black-and-white, “Somers Town” reminded me of those great movies in the 1960s during the French New Wave era. Its plot was relatively thin but the emotions were so complex that it was hard to say goodbye to the two characters after just 70 minutes of them getting to know each other. Despite Marek and Tomo coming from economically poor backgrounds, I loved that Paul Fraser, the writer, did not harden their hearts and their yearning for attention did not predictably lead to violence. In fact, he went the opposite direction. Tomo and Marek made mistakes as most people their age do but they were sensitive and had a clear view of what was right and wrong. Highlighting their positive qualities was a smart move because the picture’s running time was relatively short. By doing so, I immediately related to the characters and I had a chance to explore the dynamics of their friendship. There were more than a handful of very funny scenes but my favorite was when the duo stole a bag of laundry because Tomo did not have any clothes. The bag mostly contained women’s clothing and I couldn’t help but laugh when Marek told Tomo to look at the brighter side: the clothes may not have been for men but at least they were clean unlike the same clothes that Tomo had been wearing since he arrived in London. In return, Tomo made the clothes work but it was still painfully obvious that he wore a dress. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t laugh or even crack a smile if they watched that particular scene. For a low budget film, I was very impressed with the originality, creativity and imagination that “Somers Town” possessed. It was apparent that Shane Meadows directed his film with passion and zeal because I had fun with it throughout. When the movie finally shifted from black-and-white to color, it felt like my eyes opened for the first time. I guess it was also how Marek and Tomo felt when they finally entered a culture so different from theirs. Suddenly, their futures looked bright.
★★ / ★★★★
A baby orphan snuck into Santa Claus’s bag of presents and ended up in the North Pole. The baby was named Buddy and raised by Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) and whole-heartedly embraced by the elfin community and strange creatures that lived there. But when Buddy became an adult (now played by Will Ferrell), he became more of a nuisance to the elves due to his size so he traveled to New York City to find his biological father (James Caan). The movie started off with promise because it was creative with its joke about a man who was so out of his element but was blind to the fact. Even more amusing were Buddy’s scenes with people in utter disbelief that he actually believed in Santa Claus with fervor to spare. Ferrell did a wonderful job playing a wide-eyed boy stuck in an adult man’s body. The slapstick comedy worked because kids like to put themselves in physically uncomfortable situations. However, the film failed to reach an emotional peak and establish a resonance like the best movies that took place around Christmas. While Ferrell’s interactions with Caan were amusing, I didn’t feel a genuine connection between the father and the son. When the son hugged with enthusiasm, the father reluctantly put his arm around his son to pat him on the back. There was no real growth between them. Too much of film’s running time was dedicated to the biological father’s challenges at work (which did not add up to much) instead of focusing on the problems at home (Mary Steenburgen as the very accepting wife was a joy to watch). I wish there were more scenes between Buddy and a salesgirl who loved to sing named Jovie (Zooey Deschanel). Farrell and Deschanel may not have chemistry (the film unwisely pushed their relationship to a romantic direction), but watching their friendship grow put a big smile on my face. Jovie always looked sad (which was ironic because I’m assuming her name came from the word “jovial”) and did not like to put herself in potentially embarrassing situations. Buddy was all about attracting all kinds of attention. Nevertheless, they got along swimmingly. While the majority of the film was about Buddy’s attempt of reconnection with the human world, the last twenty minutes was more about people believing in Santa Claus. I was left confused and I thought it was completely unnecessary. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that typing up dramatic loose ends was riskier than generating more pedestrian laughs. I thought the last few scenes were a desperate attempt to cover up weak storytelling. Directed by Jon Favreau, “Elf” had its share of funny and silly moments but its story needed a lot of work. Maybe the elves should have worked on the script so it could have had a bit of magic.
Toy Story 2 (1999)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Andy (voice of John Morris) was about to leave for cowboy summer camp with plans of taking Woody (Tom Hanks) with him, but after Woody’s arm had a small rip, Andy decided not to take his favorite toy and was shelved–a place where unwanted toys were placed. After Woody rescued a fellow unwanted toy from a garage sale, Woody himself ended up on the sale where a toy collector (Wayne Knight) spotted Woody and realized how valuable he was. Despite Andy’s mom making it clear to the toy collector that Woody was not for sale, the toy collector stole Woody and sold him to someone residing in Japan. We then get to learn who Woody really was such as his relationship with the cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), Bullseye, and Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammer). “Toy Story 2,” directed by John Lasseter, promised to be bigger than the original with its epic opening sequence in outer space in which Buzz finally faced the evil Zorg. And, in some ways, “Toy Story 2” is arguably bigger and better than the original. I thought the jokes were far more creative and funnier (the happy meal joke was spot-on and I never saw it coming), the supporting characters had more defined roles and it served as a complement to the first installment in which Woody was the one needing to be rescued this time around. Furthermore, it felt that much more personal. We learned more about Woody and the picture began to ask deeper questions about his relationship with Andy; it even hinted at several moving elements that were tackled head-on in “Toy Story 3” such as Andy moving on without his toys and the toys having to accept that reality and they, too, had to move on from Andy being their owner. In a nutshell, “Toy Story 2” had more mature content than its predecessor but the energy was as childlike–one of the main reasons why we fell in love with the franchise in the first place. I was very moved by the scene that showed us Jessie’s relationship with her former owner–how the owner grew up over the years but Jessie remained the same. It made her sad and angry and we came understand why she was so bitter about Woody desperately wanting to return to Andy. As emotional as those scenes were, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), Slinky Dog (Jim Varney), Rex (Wallace Shawn), and Hamm’s (John Ratzenberger) big adventures in the streets and a toy store provided an excellent balance of laugh-out-loud humor and imagination. “Toy Story 2” was a transitory phase which delivered the fun and heart we expected but multiplied by ten.