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.
No Strings Attached (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Emma and Adam met in their teens. They lost contact over the years but they met again in their late twenties. Emma (Natalie Portman) was completing her residency and Adam (Ashton Kutcher) was an assistant for a “Glee”-like television show. The two were obviously attracted to each other but decided to keep their relationship strictly sexual. Adam found it difficult but Emma handled it with ease. Directed by Ivan Reitman, “No Strings Attached” was an amusing sex comedy that was better than it should have been due to the leading actors’ sheer charm and genuinely funny supporting characters. Portman and Kutcher shared undeniable chemistry. Their awkward sex scenes, especially the one when they were under a time limit, were believable enough to the point where we were comfortable to giggle or laugh when watching them. But it was Emma and Adam’s friends who almost stole the film. Emma lived in an apartment with fellow future doctors: Patrice (Greta Gerwig), Shira (Mindy Kaling), and Guy (Guy Branum). They oozed sarcasm, shared knowing looks, and menstrual cycle. There was a hilarious scene of the roommates sprawled on the couch because their period thrusted them into depressed moods. One of them claimed it was like a crime scene in her pants. Meanwhile, Adam’s friends, Wallace (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and Eli (Jake M. Johnson), were there for moral support and, not atypical in men, bad advice. They were funny in an understated way. The picture often had a crude sense of humor but I enjoyed it. As far as romantic comedies, I found it refreshing that the characters were mature enough that they could talk about sex, penises, vaginas without bursting into laughter. However, the movie lost momentum during the second half. Instead of two people enjoying the joys (and pitfalls) of casual sex, it became about Emma wanting what others had–the idea of normalcy in a form of having a man. It was insulting because the product had mixed messages. It wanted to be both commercial and a statement piece about the freedom of sex regardless of gender. As a result, Emma’s change of heart didn’t feel loyal to her character. The problem was mostly the writing. Emma had to face her sister’s wedding (Olivia Thirlby) and her mother having a new man in her life. I found it obvious and unnecessary. There were other, more subtle ways for Emma to realize that Adam was the right person for her. She didn’t have to feel the threat of having to be alone for the rest of her life. I believe she was stronger than that. It should have been enough that Adam had a big heart, that he was funny, and actually not bad in the eyes. Sometimes the walls we have designed to protect ourselves from being hurt just come down on their own. Something just changes inside of us. It doesn’t require explanation because the feeling is beyond reason.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Thomas Balmes took Alain Chabat’s idea of filming babies from four different corners of the world and documenting their journey from inside the womb up until they learned how to walk: Ponijao from Namibia, Bayar from Mongolia, Mari from Japan and Hattie from the United States. What I first noticed about this impressive documentary was its lack of narration. Balmes’ decision to not explain why parents were doing or not doing certain things for their children made us active participants because we had to come up with our own conclusions. The picture having no subtitles to translate the foreign languages was quite bold because then we feel like the child in its very early years–unable to discern what the parents were saying exactly so we rely on the tones of their voices to guess what kind of expression they wanted to portray toward their child. While the movie was undoubtedly cute (I love the scenes when the children would interact with animals, especially when Bayar was petting his cat), it went far beyond, “Aww, how cute!” Since I had a bit of experience studying child development and psychology, it was so much fun applying what I learned toward something I’m actually seeing. We literally see these children grow before our eyes as they change from being entertained solely by toys (or random things in the dirt if they didn’t have any toys) that made strange noises, to learning via simple imitation, to having a sense of self when they realized that their bodies can have a direct effect onto the world. We even had a chance to observe how the children attempted to talk via babbling and say their first word. Furthermore, the film wasn’t just about the babies. Secondary to the subjects were the parents’ child-rearing practices. Since I live in America, I’m used to seeing parents coddling their babies as often as they could. So, initially, I found it surprising that parents in Africa and Mongolia allow, if not highly encourage, to let their child roam in the dirt and explore his and her surroundings. They even let animals like goats, dogs and chickens get near their babies without worry. I guess what the director wanted to tell us was the fact that babies have high resilience physically and psychologically. They have the need to explore the world and experience a spectrum of emotions which includes pain, frustration and anger. What Balmes managed to capture on film was magic. I admired the way it was able to condense over a year of life into a breezy eighty minutes yet successfully highlight the most important elements.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the novel by Wendelin Van Draanen, “Flipped” was about two young adults who never were quite on the same page when it came to romance. Juli Baker (Madeline Carroll) had a crush on Bryce Loski (Callan McAuliffe) ever since his family moved into the neighborhood. She claimed it was because of his gorgeous eyes. She liked the way he looked at her so she tried to reciprocate. But Bryce was simply annoyed of her from the moment they met. Juli’s hugs in school and attempts at conversations while waiting for the school bus embarrassed him to the core. But their feelings toward each other started to change course in middle school. Directed by Rob Reiner, I found “Flipped” to be funny, heartbreaking, and adorable. It reminded me of television shows like “The Wonder Years” and “State of Grace” because of the plucky but flawed main characters and a different version of innocence of the 1960s. The film was essentially an exercise of perspectives yet it was refreshing to see and hear Juli and Bryce’s take on certain key events of their budding (but mostly dying) pupply love. Both characters were equally interesting. Juli came from a poor family (Aidan Quinn, Penelope Ann Miller) but she was smart. Her approach to winning Bryce’s heart was to shower him with affection that ranged from simple gestures such as giving his family free eggs (she raised chickens) to sniffing him when she sat behind him in class. She claimed he smelled like watermelon and it was her most recent obsession. Bryce’s approach couldn’t be any more different. He was raised in a relatively well-to-do family (Anthony Edwards, Rebecca De Mornay) so he was used to thinking that everything was about him. He constantly asked himself why everything had to happen to him, what he did to make Juli angry, and what he could do make Juli forgive him. It was uncommon for him to think outside of himself and consider the big picture. Yet I loved both in their own way because I found them completely relatable. In fact, I think all of us, one way or another, can see ourselves in both of them and laugh because we were all children at some point. There were some nicely executed subplots such as Bryce’s father being prejudiced toward the Bakers, the grandfather’s adoration for Juli but not for his own grandson, and Juli’s uncle (Kevin Weisman) who happened to have a mental disability. The film’s subject is budding adolescents but that does not mean that it sacrificed complexity for easy answers. It respected its subjects by allowing them to be flawed, self-conscious of their flaws, and eventually break out of their phases without the painfully typical grand gestures and overtures. Like in our childhood, the key moments are hidden in the uncomfortable silences and small details. They become memories we never forget because a specific moment in time, powerful and unstoppable, changed us. For better or worse, it doesn’t really matter as long as we are able to grow.
Home Alone (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★
The McCallister household was frantic a few days before Christmas because the entire family and a few relatives were about to head to France for vacation. Kevin (Macaulay Culkin), one of the youngest of the kids, felt neglected because his siblings and cousins wouldn’t take the time to help him pack his luggage. Not even his parents could take a minute of their time to aid the plucky youngster. So, during dinner, Kevin acted out and was sent to sleep in the attic as punishment. The next day, everyone slept in and had forgotten they had a flight. As a result of their hustle and bustle, they boarded the plane to Europe completely unaware that Kevin wasn’t with them. “Home Alone,” written by John Hughes and directed by Chris Columbus, was a huge success commercially because it played upon one of a kid’s and a parent’s biggest fear (being alone at home while burglars tried to force themselves in and leaving behind a child, respectively). One of the many smart elements about the film was the fact that the two criminals (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) were kept outside of the house for the majority of the picture. Kevin was forced to create many creative and funny diversions to make the robbers believe that the house had people in it. Much to Kevin’s advantage, the two criminals were complete idiots. (Their modus operandi was leaving the water running in the sink after they’ve looted the place.) What made the film much better than a typical child-in-trouble story was Culkin’s energetic and hilarious performance. He was as cute as a marshmallow but he was precocious so he was able to pull off lines that adults might say. His facial expressions–may it be surprise, joy, or teary-eyed sadness were simply priceless. Surprisingly, I found the slapstick comedy thoroughly entertaining. It wasn’t done just because it was convenient. The slapstick was a result of Kevin using household items (and his toys) as a defense against men who wanted to hurt him. When someone slipped on the ice or when someone was hit on the head with an iron, I couldn’t help but wince as if I was the one in pain. But the whole experience was enjoyable because we didn’t want the villains to get their hands on our tiny but brave protagonist. What did not work for me as much was the creepy-looking neighbor (Roberts Blossom) who turned out to have a heart. The scene dedicated to exploring the man’s backstory (a typical one at that) slowed the story’s momentum. Nevertheless, “Home Alone” is a very charming film. More that twenty years have passed since its release, but it still holds up as one of the favorite family movies often played around Christmas. I cannot image anyone not being entertained by its sharp wit, heart, and manic energy.
Toy Story (1995)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A cowboy toy named Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) felt like he was going to be replaced as Andy’s favorite toy when Andy (John Morris) received a spaceman toy named Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) for his birthday. Out of jealousy, Woody tried to get rid of Buzz and the two, after a series of adventures, ended up right next door–where another boy named Sid (Erik von Detten) lived and had a penchant for ordering explosives and blowing up his toys to smithereens. Buzz and Woody then had to work together in order to escape and return to Andy’s care before his family finished packing to move to another house. It is no stranger that Pixar’s first animated film was an international success because it was able to deliver state-of-the-art animation without sacrificing Indiana Jones-like adventure and witty sense of humor. It also had a real sense of danger denoted in scenes where Woody and Buzz had to face the neighbor’s toys after Sid performed cruel surgeries on them. At the same time, there were lessons in scary and dangerous scenes, especially for kids, such as not judging something solely based on its appearance and how creativity and imagination can triumph over the most seemingly insurmountable challenges. There were even lessons about empathy and taking care of the things we own. The picture really was multidimensional in terms of story and the meanings we could extract from the visuals and the script. Even though the characters’ faces looked more wooden and had sharper angles compared to its sequels, “Toy Story,” directed by John Lasseter, is something special because each character had a memorable characteristic and was able to contribute something crucial to the project. Some stand-out scenes include Woody and Buzz meeting green aliens who believed that if they were chosen by The Claw, they would go to a better place, when post-surgery toys acted like zombies in order to teach Sid a lesson, and when Woody and Buzz had to chase Andy’s car in which failure meant losing their friend forever. Based on the screenplay by Joss Whedon, Andrew Stanton, Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow, “Toy Story” proved that animation was not just for children as long as the story had an element of uniqueness that the audiences could invest in. And just like classic films, animated movies could also be timeless not just in terms of visuals but the universal emotions we couldn’t help but feel every time we would watch them.
10 Items or Less (2006)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Brad Silberling, “10 Items or Less” was about Morgan Freeman playing himself who wanted to research being a person who worked in a supermarket for his upcoming role. When his driver (Jonah Hill) did not pick up Freeman after a couple of hours like he was supposed to, Freeman bonded with a checkout girl (Paz Vega). This movie interested me from start to finish because the events and dialogue that we saw and heard felt real. There were times when I wondered if the actors veered off from the script because certain stutters and awkward pauses made the final cut. Even though I noticed such things, strangely enough, I didn’t find them distracting at all. The experience became that much more enjoyable because the filmmakers proved to me that they had confidence in their project. The picture had a nice balance between understated drama and perfect comedic timing. I thought it was hilarious when Freeman would delve into his techniques in terms of building a believable character in his films and how amazed he was when he stepped into Target and couldn’t believe how cheap everything was. I was touched during scenes where Freeman tried to give Vega’s character courage to face her fears, such as her upcoming job interview, and to convince her she was good enough and she needed not prove herself to anybody. Vega reminded me so much of Penélope Cruz not just because of the accent but the way she delivered certain lines with such intensity and passion. I loved how Vega’s character seemed tough at first and eventually she was able to open up character so we could relate to her thoughts, fears and insecurities. If I were to pick one best scene, it would have to be when Freeman and Vega talked to each other about ten things they loved and then things they hated about their lives. There was a certain honesty about it and the scene reminded me of the time when a friend and I did the exact same thing. I read a review saying that nothing happened in the film and there was no progression in the story. I couldn’t disagree more because since “10 Items of Less” was essentially a slice-of-life film, it really was more about how the characters evolved from the moment we met them until the moment we said goodbye to them. From my perspective, both characters grew in both significant and small ways so it was ultimately a rewarding experience. “10 Items or Less” may be simple but it was smart with the way it showcased the ordinariness of life–that the real value of living one’s life, whether one is a celebrity or just an ordinary Joe, is embedded in the moments in between.
Mary and Max (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Mary (voiced by Toni Collette) was an earnest but unpopular eight-year-old girl living in Australia and Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman) was a whimsical Jewish man with Asperger’s Syndrome living in New York City and the two became pen pals in the middle of the 1970s. Initially, the two seemed to not have much in common other than the fact that they both loved the same television show because of the vast age difference, but as years went by we learned that loneliness was only one of the many things that strengthened their friendship. What started off as a cute story of a little girl believing that she was found by her parents at the bottom of a beer mug turned into an insightful exercise in animation with lessons such as what it really means to love ourselves despite our flaws and eventually reach out to others who might be in a similar situation as us. Like the best animated films, we come to know Mary and Max not just as characters from colorful and black-and-white worlds, respectively, but as people who likely exist out there in the world. They openly shared their goals in life, their insecurities, and in what ways they believe their pasts have helped shaped who they were. I loved that the picture did not shy away from showcasing negative emotions such as disgust, jealousy, and greed. I enjoyed the movie from an entertainment angle because it was very funny due to its quirkiness but the more I think about it, the more I’m impressed with the script’s level of intelligence and the subtle ways the characters changed over their many years of often very touching correspondence. Even though the picture lost its way somewhere around the introduction of Damien (Eric Bana) as Mary’s love interest, the final few scenes moved me because certain events were handled with such beauty and maturity. Instead of emotionally cheating the audiences, what had transpired felt right and true to itself. Written and directed by Adam Elliot, “Mary and Max” is an astute, dynamic and character-driven film that is appropriate for both children and adults. Despite some of the issues it tackled such as depression, addiction and losing faith to a higher power, there are important lessons to be learned from the movie (while some lessons were taken upside down for the sake of irony). Best of all, I admired the film for its honesty without sacrficing imaginative details that are worth exploring upon second viewing.
Just Wright (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
A physical therapist (Queen Latifah) in her mid-thirties couldn’t seem to find a guy who was right for her. They would go out on dates, have good conversations and have a nice time but at the end of the night, the guys would tell her that she would be an ideal girl friend but not an ideal romantic girlfriend. Perhaps it was because of her looks or perhaps she was way into sports. But maybe she just wasn’t their type. Who knows? Men usually don’t know what they want or what’s good for them. But one thing is for sure: I connected with the lead character the moment she appeared on screen because she was played by Latifah. She just oozes a certain honesty and it’s such a warm feeling so I couldn’t stop watching her and hearing her speak. Watching her get in her busted up car made me feel like I’m watching a friend I’ve known for a long time. When the lead character happened to bump into a basketball player (Common), as far as romantic comedies go, you knew that something would happen between them. But conflict started when her sexy best friend (Paula Patton), a golddigger, set her sights on the guy. Despite the fact that this film stuck to the romantic comedy conventions, I enjoyed it because I was in the mood for something light. There were some nice tweaks such as the golddigging friend not seen as evil by any means but she just had a dependent personality. I’m sure we all know women who couldn’t live without a man or couldn’t bear to not be in relationships. The picture had a consistently friendly air to it because Latifah’s character had the maturity to hold her tongue even though people said or did inconsiderate things toward her. In a way, she reminded me of myself on my best days but I admired her because it seemed like she was just that kind of person–always aware of the fact that people are flawed and they don’t mean half of the things they say because of their insecurities. However, I felt like the momentum of the movie stumbled a bit during the last twenty minutes. I felt like the movie could have tried harder to be a bit more original when dealing with the basketball player’s road to recovery from a knee injury and realizing which woman was the right one for him. Embracing the conventions doesn’t mean sticking with it all the way through. The material would have been stronger if it had that special element of surprise instead of just feeding us our own expectations. “Just Wright,” directed by Sanaa Hamri, had a number of flaws but just like people in our every day lives, we can learn to overlook such flaws because it’s so charming.
Tonari no Totoro (1988)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Tonari no Totoro” also known as “My Neighbor Totoro” has been on my Netflix queue for about six months so I was so happy when it finally arrived in the mail. It must be noted that this review is based on the dubbed version so some of the dialogue might have been lost in translation. Written and directed by the great Hayao Miyazaki, the film had a very simple story with a big heart. It was about two sisters (Dakota Fanning and Elle Fanning) who recently moved to the countryside with their father while their mother (Lea Salonga) stayed in the hospital due to an undisclosed illness. The girls, since they were still at a young age, could see dust sprites and spirits, one of which was Totoro, who was supposed to be a troll but he looked more like Snorlax to me (yes, the Pokémon) because of his lax nature but incredibly cute proclivities. The whole movie was basically how the sisters used their imagination as an escape from the ennui of the countryside and dealing with their mother’s illness. I enjoyed that it was simple because the sadness in the core’s story easily appealed to adults while the cuteness appealed to the kids. I’ve read some critiques saying that the movie was slow and aren’t as grand as other Miyazaki projects. In some ways, I agree but at the same time I think those people have missed the point. The movie was supposed to be from a child’s perspective. When you were a child, didn’t everything appear so simple? There’s no taxes to pay off, no job to go to, and no fear of taking an exam that can determine your future. It was all about running around in the outdoors and getting caught up in pretend play. I loved the fact that the younger sister’s qualities reflected real life; she constantly mimicked her older sister, was always in “me” mode and she didn’t quite yet grasp the idea of danger. Details like that elevated this film for me because it showed there was some thought under the sugary cuteness. However, there were some underdeveloped characters that I thought were interesting but were never really explored. For instance, the boy who seemed to like the older sister and the grandmother who once could see the spirits when she was a child. I especially wanted to know more about the latter because I felt like she had a lot of wondrous stories that she could potentially tell the girls (and to us). “My Neighbor Totoro” offers a healthy dose of great imagery (such as when Totoro stood in the rain with the girls) and is obviously inspired by “Alice in Wonderland.” I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it was a masterpiece but I appreciated the innocent feel it had. Characters going on great adventures isn’t a must for animated films to be interesting. And that’s one of this picture’s important messages: adventures can happen right in your backyard.