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.