★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the novel by Jack Ketchum, “Red” was about a man’s (Brian Cox) quest to find justice for the meaningless murder of his dog by three teenagers (Noel Fisher, Kyle Gallner, Shiloh Fernandez), each with varying responsibilities regarding the crime. This little indie gem was a pleasure to watch because it was able to play around with characters who chose to do things that were sometimes morally gray. The question about where to draw the line after seeking justice but not getting it was constantly at the forefront. While I was immediately against the teenager who pulled the trigger and caused the death of the old dog, Cox’ (eventual) thirst for vengeance left me questioning whether he was still capable of logical thinking. I was interested to see what would happen next because the lead character was very multidimensional. He was the kind of character that I could empathize with right away but he was not the kind of character that I necessarily understood right off the bat because of the wall he put around himself. But when he finally opened up about how angry, sad, lonely and tormented he was regarding what happened to his family and the event that changed their lives forever, I felt where he was coming from: why he couldn’t let go of the dog’s death, why he wanted the boys (and their father) to own up to their responsibilities, and why the concept of justice was so important to him. The way he told the story of what really happened to his family left strong images in my head to the point where I felt like I was watching something incredibly horrific. I also liked the fact that there were a lot of unsaid and untackled issues but such things were simply implied. It made me want to read the novel because most adaptations to film do not really get the chance to paint the entire picture. I must commend Brian Cox for his excellent performance. The way he quickly juggled dealing with his character’s physical limitations and inner demons left me nothing short of impressed. “Red” is not your typical revenge film so if you’re expecting a “Kill Bill” sort of movie, this may not be for you. However, if you’re more into character studies, exploring the way the justice system (and humans in general) treats animals, and judging how much particular characters should be punished, this film should be quite enjoyable.
Wendy and Lucy (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I have to give Michelle Williams kudos for starring in this really small, bare bones of a film. Her performance is so visceral and she fully embodies the ever-growing desperation that her character is going through. “Wendy and Lucy,” directed by Kelly Reichardt, tells the story of Wendy and her dog Lucy as the two try to go to Alaska so that Wendy can earn her money at a fish cannery. Things do not go quite as they had planned because Wendy’s car breaks down in Oregon, gets arrested for shoplifting dog food (she only had about $525 which was barely enough), and Lucy is nowhere to be seen when Wendy finally gets out of jail (Wendy left her dog tied to a rail in front of the store where she shoplifted). When Williams started looking for that dog, I felt like I was watching a mother trying to look for her child. It was really sad because things get from bad to worse in a matter of minutes and the hope of Wendy finding the dog grows dimmer and dimmer. Even though I really identified with Wendy’s situation, at some point I thought about just leaving the dog and going on ahead to Alaska. As cruel as that sounds, I think it’s justified because Wendy keeps spending money as she tries to keep looking for the dog. I get that Lucy is her only companion but, at least for me, the practical thing to do is to stop looking for the dog. Williams has come a long way since I’ve seen her first in “Dawson’s Creek” because she really uses her acting chops to carry this picture from beginning to end. I also have to give Reichardt credit for showing us a side of America where it’s not so glamorous. In fact, the places featured in this movie are downright depressing. Although the movie is about Wendy and Lucy’s friendship, sometimes I tried to pay attention to people on the background; some of them look like they’re sleepwalking through life. I find that particularly accurate because, though I didn’t grow up in a small town like the one in this movie, the area I grew up in was small enough to notice those kinds of people. Casual moviegoers may not like this film right off the bat or superficially consider it as “sad.” But film lovers should be able to look at it more closely and analytically and realize that it comes close to becoming something really special.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
★★★ / ★★★★
Hayao Miyazaki’s “Kiki’s Delivery Service” tells the story of a young girl who moves away from her parents’ house to another city in order to be more independent and find out and explore her unique talents. Just when I thought it would focus more on the magic and what it means to be a witch, this animated feature is actually more of human story more than anything. By that I don’t mean that the city has a rule against witches or people are mean to her because she’s a witch. In fact, witches are pretty welcome in this picture’s universe so it had the opportunity to focus on more on the circumstances that forces Kiki to be more of an adult instead of a kid. I also liked the fact that the people she meets on her journey are not mere quirky characters that we see once and never see again. They’re actually people that impact Kiki in many ways and they manage to come back when she needs them most. One could come to the conclusion that those people she meets are role models that help Kiki afloat when everything feels hopeless. All of that said, I can’t say that this is one of my favorite Miyazaki films. It lacks a certain innate edge and darkness of “Spirited Away,” “Princess Mononoke” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.” I say “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is more geared toward children because the story and dialogue are a bit too sweet and sugary. For me, the best part of the film was the talking cat and the old dog. I ended up laughing out loud a lot during those scenes because creatures that one would normally think of as mortal enemies ended up to be something quite the opposite. For the fans of Miyazaki’s movies, this is nonetheless a must-see because it has a certain universal appeal and wit that are very surprising from time to time.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Just when I thought Pixar could not surprise me any longer after such an impressive nine-streak classics and near classics (perhaps with the exception of “Cars”), their tenth film, “Up,” directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, was nothing short of impressive. “Up” tells the story of an aging balloon salesman (Carl voiced by Edward Asner) and his way of honoring his late wife’s dream of visiting South America. After attaching thousands of balloons to his house as it floated to the sky, he discovered an eager wilderness boy scout/explorer named Russell (Jordan Nagai). In South America, the two meet a giant bird named Kevin and an extremely adorable talking dog named Dug (also voiced by Peterson). But that was only the beginning of their breathtaking adventure.
I believe this is one of the more mature Pixar films when it comes to dealing with emotion because it tries to tell a story from the perspective of an old man possibly living his last few years. There was a certain sadness that pervaded the film because he constantly tried looking back in his past and feeling an utmost sadness whenever he thinks about his promises to his wife that he never fulfilled when she was alive. I was particularly impressed with the first scene when Young Carl (Jeremy Leary) and Young Ellie (Elie Docter) first met. There was a certain innocence and innate acceptance with it all and it truly reminded me of my parents because they, too, met when they were pretty much kids and eventually got married. I think one of the best scenes of the film was when it showed how their lives progressed from when they were kids, finally moved into a house that was once their playground of imagination, failure to have children, to when Ellie was on her deathbed. I found that scene with no spoken language so powerful because it managed to capture the essence of life–the ups as well as the downs–something that most animated films tend to sugarcoat. I was really touched with Ellie and Carl’s relationship because even though their dreams were not fully realized because life always got in the way (an injury, a natural accident, broken appliances, et cetera), they still stayed strong and together up until the end. I was also impressed that “Up” was brave enough to show blood and bullets and characters really getting hurt so I was that more engaged.
There were a plethora of jokes that made me seriously laugh out loud in the cinema. I had no shame even though I saw this film with a bunch of college students of around my age because it was that funny. The brilliant one liners, such as “I do not like the cone of shame!”, were stuck in my head after I walked out of the theater. They paint a big smile on my face when I think about them now as I write this review. I don’t know what it was–maybe it was the kid in me–but I was just so astonished with (aside from the storytelling) the visual experience (I saw it on 3D–which was worth the extra three bucks!). Pixar has an undeniable talent when it comes to putting certain colors together to make the important images pop up so the audiences will understand without the characters saying a word. The imagers were that effective so I couldn’t help but give it praise. I also liked the colorful characters, especially Dug, the talking dog. Not only was he beyond cute but his character had this vibrant energy that reminded me of, oddly enough, myself. Like Dug, I easily get distracted even when things are at their most critical point and I tend to repeat myself when I’m excited or hyper. Russell, despite his happiness and earnestness, has a certain depth that explores the dynamics in his home. This film was actually able to comment on issues such as the repercussions of poor parenting and the child’s psychology whenever a parent neglects him. I was devastated when Russell finally revealed his motivation for wanting to be a wilderness explorer so badly to Carl. It goes to show that he’s still a child because, to him, accomplishments come hand-in-hand with social or parental approval and not primarily about self-worth (yet). Subtle things like that convinced me that a lot of thought was put into this film. Unlike most animated pictures, this strives to be more than just “cute” and “visually stunning.”
It goes without saying that I’m enthusiastically recommending “Up.” I think it’s one of the more emotionally mature animated films that Pixar has ever come up with because it was able to successfully tackle the depression that comes after a partner’s death and the anxiety that comes when one thinks about his own mortality. While kids may be saddened just a bit during those scenes (as well as adults), the older generations will most likely think about their own lives during or afterwards. I truly hope that this will be considered to be a Best Animated Film, along with “Coraline,” during the Oscars season. And if it happens to win, it will be well-deserved. I cannot help but wonder what Pixar will come up with next.
Marley & Me (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Marley & Me” was based on a memoir by John Grogan starring Owen Wilson (as Grogan) and Jennifer Aniston (as Grogan’s wife). Wanting to start a family, Wilson and Aniston adopt a Labrador Retriever for two hundred dollars. As Marley grows up, the two leads learn a plethora of life lessons ranging from the dynamics of marriage, balancing job with personal life, raising a family, and staying true to one’s self. Although Marley is not exactly the most well-behaved dog, his energy, ability to destroy furniture and inability to follow his owners’ rules are qualities that make him charming. Although the film is cute and cuddly at first glance, I must give credit to David Frankel, the director, for actually telling a story under the sugar and fluff. Wilson and Aniston were actually given things to do such as when they had to deal with trying to have children and sacrificing their careers. There were moments in the film that carried real dramatic weight because we not only care about the dog but also the dog’s owners. We were able to see how the owners were like when they were on the top of the world and when they were feeling ashamed and defeated. The film was around two hours long and sometimes it seemed to drag on. However, when the final few scenes arrived, I realized that it worked in its favor. I was able to look back on the things that happened when Marley was just a clearance puppy and Aniston and Wilson didn’t have children yet. Although the ending was a bit depressing, it was necessary because this movie was ultimately about celebrating life. I was surprisingly moved by this film because it made me look back on my own life and the choices I’ve made that got me to where I am. “Marley & Me” is not just about a cute dog. There’s a well-defined emotional core and that’s why I was invested in it from beginning to end. Dog-lovers will definitely enjoy this picture.