Tag: elle fanning

Mary Shelley


Mary Shelley (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus” by Mary Shelley is perhaps one of my all-time favorite literary works, a story about abandonment and desperate longing for human connection. It must be noted that this film, written for the screen by Emma Jansen, is not an autobiography of the author’s life before and after the novel was written despite the title. It is a curious film, certainly one worth watching, because although it takes crucial events from Shelley’s life as a sixteen-year-old with a strong passion for writing horror stories, it is also quite generous in taking liberties of fictionalizing certain elements in order to tell a story with more defined themes between the classic novel and the author’s formative years.

I enjoyed Elle Fanning as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, at first as a naive girl seduced by the idea of romance and escape. It is wonderful casting because Fanning is a type of performer who exudes a youthful aura and an intelligence beyond her years with seemingly minimal effort. Her interpretation of Mary is rooted in strength: misery may befall the figure she embodies, but we always feel as though she will weather the storm. Director Haifaa Al-Mansour is fond of close-ups—and Fanning delivers through her communicative eyes, using her ballerina-like body language as support, as Mary begins to learn that life is tough and tricky outside of her father’s bookstore. To escape from home is, in a way, to abandon a big part of who you are.

At times it comes across as though the picture is going down a checklist of what a period drama should be like. I enjoyed this aspect of the movie far less than when we are simply in a room—not of two people but three—and two individuals are clashing while the odd person out is simply listening and feeling awkward. It is because the material’s strength is in the dialogue. Oftentimes what is being talked about is not actually what the scene is about. To appreciate a scene fully, it is important that we have an understanding of the ones that came before.

For instance, consistently watchable is the tumultuous relationship between Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth). Both claim to believe, for example, that love is freedom—so much so that traditional monogamy may too restrictive for some couples. Mary and Percy may be reading the same progressive book, but they are not at all on the same chapter. Confrontations are dramatic (and occasionally off-putting because the pacing is willing to slow to a crawl when filmmakers wish to communicate how depression might be like, for example), but I was able to find bits of blackest humor in the seams. One says the other is being a hypocrite while the claimant is blinded by his own. We are reminded by how young the unmarried subjects really are when life demands that they pay the consequences for their actions—or inaction. (Mary and Percy met when she was sixteen and he twenty-one.)

I was most fascinated by Mary’s interest in the idea of the dead being brought back to life. One scene in particular is a standout: when Mary, Percy and Mary’s stepsister Claire (Bel Powley) see a show called “Phantasmagoria” in which a headless frog’s limbs move following a jolt of electricity. It is not shot from a horror point of view but hope and inspiration. Also interesting is when Mary meets John William Polidori (Ben Hardy), physician and soon-to-be author of the novella “The Vampyre: A Tale.” I wished their connection were delved into a bit more because the performers share a certain warm, sibling-like chemistry. Maybe it is because Fanning and Hardy choose to play their characters as outsiders who find strength in silence and humility.

Teen Spirit


Teen Spirit (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Anyone familiar with Cinderella’s story will know the precise trajectory of Max Minghella’s “Teen Spirit,” a musical drama that wants to have its cake and eat it, too. In its attempt to embody a quiet independent drama as well as a commercial piece of work, especially since the majority of the songs are pop hits (renditions of songs like Owl City & Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Good Time” and Ellie Goulding’s “Bright Lights” are nothing special), its identity is lost in the process. I realize what it is trying to be, but what it is about is unclear. The reason is due to its lack of perspective: Does it wish to make a general statement about talent competitions? The many colorful personalities of contestants that one might encounter in a high-stakes contest? The cutthroat nature of the music industry? It’s all up in the air, and it’s shouldn’t be.

Elle Fanning transcends an otherwise generic picture. Whether her character, Violet, is dancing, singing, engaging in conversation with someone who doesn’t understand—and doesn’t care to understand—her passion for singing, or communicating a deep loneliness in the dark by herself, Fanning sells every single beat with every fiber of her being. It is so commendable, and it is further proof why the performer is certain to have a career decades from now. And so when the writer-director makes bizarre stylistic choices, it is incredibly frustrating. For instance, when we are in the early stages of getting to know Violet and her voice, her performance is shot like a music video: quick cuts, energetic dancers, energetic lights, overproduced music—empty.

Why not simply allow us to hear, listen to, and process the rawness of Violet’s voice? The best approach is simplicity; an act of trusting the audience of evaluating the subject’s possible star power. Because the filmmaker fails time and again early on to establish convincing reasons why Violet should and will become a superstar eventually, the character’s later performances are not as impactful; it feels as though we are watching a product rather than a real young woman with deep feelings who came from a humble background, a small village off the coast of England. In other words, Minghella neglects to give the audience strong reasons why the subject is special and therefore why her story is worth telling.

There is an intriguing but undercooked relationship right in the middle of the film which is shared by Violet and Vlad (Zlatko Buric), an aging drunk who lives in his car. Vlad used to be an opera singer and he considers Violet to be the potential he himself lost when he was at the top of his game. There is real tension in the relationship—not a combative one but a curiosity in whether the gentleman past his prime would be able to keep Violet on the right track so she is able to meet her goal of getting a record contract and get her family’s (Agnieszka Grochowska) financial situation sorted. There are sweet and effortless moments of the two of them simply talking and finding commonalities even they are so different—in looks, in personality, their definitions of success. A highlight of the film involves Vlad supporting Violet during the early rounds of Teen Spirit, an “American Idol”-esque singing competition that may lead to superstardom.

In the end, “Teen Spirit” is just another auto-tuned piece of work—glossy on the surface but it lacks heft, substance, juice. In reality, it is not enough to simply “follow one’s dreams,” as they say. There is no emphasis placed on hard work, making the right connections, sacrifices, or taking risks. We see Violet dancing, singing, meeting people, and pretending to be sick so she can skip work and go to an audition—but these remain superficial level drama.

It presents the “what” of Violet’s challenges as a green talent who knows next to nothing about showbiz but not the “how.” It doesn’t give itself a real chance to break out of the usual clichés and expectations using sharp and well-observed specificity. I felt a level of self-consciousness here. Perhaps it is because the film is Minghella’s directorial debut.

The Boxtrolls


The Boxtrolls (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Right after the kidnapping of the Trubshaw baby, the leader of Cheesebridge, Lord Portley-Rind (voiced by Jared Harris), makes a deal with a social-climbing exterminator, Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), to rid the town of the so-called boxtrolls, pests who come out of hiding from underground to steal trash, valuables, and other knickknacks. As a reward, Snatcher would receive a white hat—a symbol of privilege, prestige, and position—as well as the most delectable types of cheese, strictly reserved for the upperclass. The hunt for the boxtrolls is seemingly coming to a close a decade after the baby was taken from his father.

“The Boxtrolls,” based on “Here Be Monsters!” by Alan Snow, is an entertaining animated picture that is willing to take risks. Be warned, however, that it is not for all children because the characters are not what one might consider to be typically pretty or cute or beautiful. This is exactly the reason why I enjoyed it: We are asked to look beyond the grotesque faces—whether the character is a human or a troll—and consider the story for what it is or what it aspires to be. There are claims that the material makes more than a handful of references to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. There is evidence behind these claims, but it does not mean that it cannot be enjoyed purely as a movie about a boy named Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright) who grew up around trolls.

The villain is surprisingly effective. Although what Snatcher does is evil, there are a few instances where the screenplay allows us to feel his pain and so we come to understand what drives his actions. One of the most memorable scenes involves the character eating cheese in front of his henchmen (Nick Frost, Richard Ayaoade, Tracy Morgan) despite the fact that he is extremely allergic to it. His desperation to belong in a world that does not want him is communicated via grotesque humor of body parts swelling up. I loved that the scene takes its time to unfold, almost on a Hitchcock-ian level of patience.

A bit of development between Eggs and Winnie (Elle Fanning), Lord Portley-Rind’s daughter, might have improved the picture. We appreciate that they share a partnership because they aim toward a common goal eventually, but we never get the sense that they become friends over the course of the story. I did, however, enjoy that Winnie is so fascinated by the idea of blood and guts given that she grew up around horror stories involving boxtrolls and what they supposedly do to children. It is a welcome change from young female animated characters who wear pretty clothes and yearning for a boy or man to regale her.

Snatcher’s henchman, too, do have distinct, memorable personalities. Usually, henchmen are only supposed to do what they are told. Here, they have a few self-aware lines about the duality of good and evil, whether their actions can still be considered to be heroic. Although their work starts off with the premise of saving the townsfolk, especially infants and children, from being taken by the creatures in the sewers, over time they realize that maybe the trolls they are hunting are not so bad, that maybe these creatures are simply misunderstood.

Directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, “The Boxtrolls” is unusual and proud of it. I admired that the writers, Irena Brignull and Adam Pava, and filmmakers choose not to compromise their vision in order to create a more mainstream, typically sweet and pretty animated film. I hope the stop-motion animation studio Laika keeps making movies like this—an alternative choice from Disney and Pixar efforts both in look and feel of their wonderful works.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties


How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

With such colorful roles under her belt, Elle Fanning has proven herself to be a performer whose career could span across decades—should she want it. In “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” she plays an alien named Zan currently in the body of a human in 1977 Croydon where punk rock is more than music, it is a way of life. She commands the role with such gusto, it is is near impossible not to look at her and stare at how she is in control of her entire being… even when the character, bizarre as she is, is apparently out of control. The story is strange and the plot quite obfuscated at times, but her star power anchors the material in such a way that it almost doesn’t matter what’s going on around her.

I wish I could say that the film were stronger because it contains many ideas worth exploring. Based on the short story of the same name by Neil Gaiman, it touches upon why it is important that punk exists, what punk means to those who consider themselves to be a part of its community, and what punk might appear to be based on outsiders looking in. In addition, there are subplots that function as metaphors: being in control of one’s body, sexual awakening, becoming embittered by the passing of time, finding belongingness… All potentially fascinating but not easy to explore and weave together, especially in a comedy.

John Cameron Mitchell is no stranger when it comes to relying on sheer energy to entertain his audience. It works in the marvelous “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and the uproarious “Shortbus,” but the approach is not as effective here. This is because, with the exception of Fanning, the performers are not memorable. For instance, even Nicole Kidman, portraying a manager of a local punk pub, gets lost in the shuffle. Observe closely and notice that, when next to Fanning, it feels as though Kidman is acting rather than embodying the role of a woman who is angry after the bands she helped to get discovered had failed to give her credit or, worse, forgotten her. This character ought to have been utilized more effectively in order to humanize some of the more outlandish elements of the picture.

It excels with the visuals. Aside from the psychedelic faux-intermissions that lean toward cheap instead of hypnotic, I enjoyed, for example, the cheesy clothing of the aliens because the performers who wear them commit. Notice how during pulsating dances, the music, the lighting, and the awkward camera movements aid the clothes to make a statement. An experience is created; it really feels as though we are in a gathering of teenagers who happen to be from another planet. Compare these images to the punk rock gatherings underground. At first glance, they may look worlds apart. But when one really thinks about it, these are parallel images, certainly conjoined ideas.

“How to Talk to Girls at Parties” is endearing because it tries so hard to entertain. In particular, I enjoyed its willingness to touch upon obtuse humor instead of the usual double entendres. However, the material lacks substance—which it is obviously what it is going for during the final hour as it embraces more would-be heartfelt scenarios. I felt bored and annoyed by the melodrama. Perhaps it might have been a stronger work overall had it showed one party after another in which aliens, humans, and those in-between are simply having a blast.

The Beguiled


The Beguiled (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Sofia Coppola’s period drama “The Beguiled,” based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan, is such a beautiful-looking film that its images likens that of looking into a memory from a hundred years ago. From the exquisite details of handmade dresses, curious paintings hanging on walls, to the manner in which only natural light is used even when there is no daylight, it offers a transportive experience as the tension boils from underneath a seemingly straightforward plot involving a badly wounded soldier (Colin Farrell) being taken in by a seminary led by Miss Farnworth (Nicole Kidman).

This is not a movie for viewers who expect fast-paced unfolding of the material, but it is exactly for audiences who appreciate details both in what is shown or merely insinuated. It is most concerned with human interactions and flaws: how female characters interact before and after a man is in their living space, what they are willing to do in order to garner the attention of a stranger, how they change themselves just to be regarded a certain way by someone who they do not even know. This is a film about attraction, how blinding it is—not necessarily romantic attraction but that of lust and how the energy around us is transformed by something or someone we want so badly. Although set in the Civil War era, the subject is timeless.

There are solid performances across the board. The females in the seminary vary in age. Notice how each of them has a specific strategy when it comes to getting the attention of the opposite sex. For example, Amy (Oona Laurence), about thirteen or fourteen, uses sweetness and friendship to get on Corporal McBurney’s good side. On the other hand, Alicia (Elle Fanning), about sixteen or seventeen, uses her feminine wiles, her body, her eyes, to lure the attention of a man easily twice her age. And then there is Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), possibly in her thirties, who doesn’t even bother to pretend to be anyone else. Meanwhile, Miss Farnsworth’s strategy (Kidman) is apparent disinterest in the man but she reminds everyone, not only the stranger in their midst, that she has the most power in their home. Laurence, Fanning, Dunst, and Kidman approach their characters with curiosity, grace, and, when necessary, danger.

The picture can be criticized for its lack of fluctuation in delivering emotions. Some may call it downright tedious or boring. I believe its rather monotonous look and feeling is done on purpose because these are characters who are essentially dead. Yes, they are alive physically but they have been hidden from society for so long, away from their friends and loved ones, that they could only refer to the life outside as if they would be stuck forever in a never-ending war. Take special notice of the very last shot. These women and children are prisoners by choice. In a way, this is a horror film underneath dramatic layers.

“The Beguiled” is a product of a precise vision and it can be enjoyed with the right mindset. The picture is not about action but inaction. What are these people saying to one another during moments of silence, how they hold their faces down when should be looking up, the discrepancies between what they choose to express versus what they wish to express? Clearly, the work is, but not exclusively, for deep thinkers.

Ginger & Rosa


Ginger & Rosa (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

Londoners Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) have been best friends since childhood, but little do they know that 1962 is the year that will put a dent in their friendship. As the Cold War escalates between the Soviet Union and the United States, coupled with radio announcements about atomic bombs and missiles, the girls worry about the possibility of the world coming to an end. Though they start in the same path, Rosa is able to find a distraction—her attraction toward a writer, Roland (Alessandro Nivola), who also happens to be Ginger’s father.

Deliberately slow-paced and covered with a veil of gloom, writer-director Sally Porter is able to establish a metaphor between war and a crumbling friendship. However, the picture is not loyal to its title. While we get to know a lot about how Ginger thinks, what she feels, her motivations, and values, Rosa, more or less, functions as decoration. She is shown entering a frame, saying a serious line or two, and then it is onto the next scene.

A more accurate title would be “Ginger & Roland” because the father and daughter are the most interesting characters and their relationship has depth. I enjoyed how my feelings toward what they have changed over time. Initially, I thought Roland is a good influence on his daughter because he encourages her to think for herself, whether the topic be the existence of a higher power or what it means to be young and making a stand. Fanning and Nivola have a way of connecting with their eyes. Though they look very different, there is a sense of family in the way they interact with one another.

After Ginger learns that her best friend is romantically drawn to her father, there are a lot of bold questions worth asking. Naturally, Ginger feels upset. Is she unhappy because she feels awkward seeing the two of them acting like a couple? Does she feel the need to make a choice between her father and her closest friend? Knowing Rosa’s personality a little bit, does she want to protect her father? Or is it that she is upset because, deep inside her subconscious, she also wants to have her father in that way? I imagine Sigmund Freud having a field day with this film.

There is one character with whom I felt had a bigger role prior to the film ending up in the editing room. Bella (Annette Bening) is an American militant who is staying with Ginger’s godfathers (Timothy Spall, Oliver Platt). The screenplay attempts to draw parallels between this woman and the red-haired girl, perhaps suggesting that Bella is Ginger’s future: strong, confident, well-spoken—qualities that Ginger does not yet possess. I was curious to learn more about Bella but, like Rosa, she appears on screen only when convenient—to say a would-be powerful line and then to be forgotten for fifteen to twenty minutes.

The two young women join a youth club where they are able to perform lawful protests against the bomb. The sequences that take place in the club are largely superficial, underwritten, and lacking in energy. As a result, we never really get the feeling either Ginger or Rosa is learning something new. The supposed moments of inspiration feel too phony, movie-like. And I believe the writer-director felt this, too. There is a tendency to go for the closeup on Fanning’s face, so beautiful and so rich with emotion, every time the words uttered by the club leader reach holes in logic.

Twixt


Twixt (2011)
★ / ★★★★

Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer), author of a novel about witchcraft, makes a stop for a book signing in a small town called Swann Valley, famous for its clock tower and a mass murder. Though he is ready to sell and sign some books, it seems like no one has heard of him, let alone having read his work, until Sheriff LaGrange (Bruce Dern) approaches his table and asks for an autograph. As a fan of a good mystery, the cop invites the writer to the morgue and shows him a corpse with a massive wooden stake through it. There is talk about evil and vampires amongst the residents.

Despite an interesting premise, one that could work as a campy, fun, B-movie shenanigan, “Twixt,” written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, insists on being so serious about the horror-mystery that it bores the living daylights out of the mind. At best, it is like a TV movie adapted from a Stephen King novel only the good stuff are drained out of it. It is all beautiful visuals and moody glowering but not enough pull to get us to invest.

Kilmer is not a bad choice at all to play a writer whose career is on a nosedive. He plays Hall almost in an off-kilter way, retaining a sense of humor even if the character’s alcoholism consistently gets in the way of his work. The way he interacts with people around town has a whiff of detachment—like he is not a hundred percent present. We wonder if he is fit to be doing any kind of investigation to solve a mass murder.

There is a sadness to the protagonist as well but the screenplay fails to drill deeply into its core. An accident is mentioned twice or thrice and his relationship with his wife is about to reach a boiling point. There is not enough exploration of his home life—problems that he cannot fix on a whim—to make us believe that he feels he must solve the mystery in Swann Valley in order to gain a certain of level of control in his personal life. Instead, his main motivation becomes about writing a book involving the murders which, looking at the big picture, does not solve his feelings of inadequacy as a man who is losing his family.

Several dream sequences comprise of about a third of the picture. There, Hall meets a famous writer (Ben Chaplin) and a girl with bucked teeth named V (Elle Fanning). While nice to look at because colors like red and yellow are allowed to pop out and all other colors are dulled, the visuals do not add much to the table. You would want to look at it for about two minutes to admire the aesthetics, but once the novelty wears off, it fails to pull us in consistently. Dreams are often symbolic but everything here is literal which takes away some of the necessary intrigue.

“Twixt” does not have a third act. It just ends. Instead, we are given a title card that informs us what happens to the characters. As a veteran filmmaker, Coppola should know better than to submit unfinished work. He has cheated his audience of their time and that is a crime that he should be forced to revisit in his dreams.

The Neon Demon


The Neon Demon (2016)
★ / ★★★★

Nicolas Winding Refn is an interesting and capable writer-director; anybody would be proud to have “Bronson” and “Drive” in their oeuvre. However, although a gifted filmmaker in that he has a knack for picking near-perfect soundtrack to accompany specific images, he is not yet at the level to pull off a beast like “The Neon Demon,” a would-be arthouse psychological horror film about a sixteen-year-old trying to make it into the modeling industry.

To be successful in this type of film, the helmer of the picture must underline the story’s theme, or themes, in just about every scene. Despite the numerous beautiful high fashion magazine inspired images, the forefront is almost always the visuals rather than what is, or are, coursing in veins of the facade. This creates a superficial experience, which is partly the point because I believe the story is a critique of the fashion industry or Hollywood in general given the rigorous standards of women’s physical beauty, but it is never involving since we never get to learn what makes the heroine tick.

Elle Fanning plays Jesse the young aspiring model and she is convincing as an innocent girl navigating her way through a cutthroat industry. There is a pureness and softness to her that radiates a warm feeling and so when Jesse enters a room we understand why photographers, designers, and casting directors look her way. Less impressive, however, is when Fanning portrays the flip side of the coin. The glowering looks, the tight jaw and mouth, the long but empty silences come across too much as a performance. This is why the second half is much weaker than the first; we no longer believe or relate to the character that anchors the story.

There are a few interesting themes, one of which involves Jesse always being regarded, whether it be a boy (Karl Glusman) with whom she meets mere days after her arrival in Los Angeles, a makeup artist (Jena Malone) with an interesting job at night, creepy photographers (Desmond Harrington), and fellow fashion models. Compliments are always being thrown her way, some genuine but mostly out jealousy. We are given a chance to laugh at the highly competitive models (Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee) and their incredibly poor self-esteem.

Perhaps most noteworthy are scenes that show a room full of people but no one is talking to one another. The use of silence amplifies the fantasy. People, looking soulless, corpse-like, are either looking away or at Jesse, the sunshine in the middle of winter. When the critique is pointed and specific to our modern culture of selfies, wannabe/self-proclaimed models, and celebrity-worship, the film commands relevance.

Although not short of ambition, as detailed above, for the most part, however, the “The Neon Demon” is a trial to sit through. There are things to see but there is no one to root for. There is not one specimen worth putting under a microscope to undergo a thorough examination. Also, I felt that the resolution is so literal (given a particular common saying about the fashion industry), I wondered if Refn gave up on trying to come up with a more inspired way to end his story. Clearly, David Lynch he is yet not. At least with Lynch, there is no compromise.

The Nutcracker in 3D


The Nutcracker in 3D (2010)
★ / ★★★★

All Mary (Elle Fanning) wants for Christmas is for her family to spend time together during Christmas Eve. To the child’s disappointment, her parents (Richard E. Grant, Yuliya Vysotskaya) choose to attend the renowned Palace Ball where important people like Sigmund Freud are invited. Instead, Uncle Albert (Nathan Lane) is asked to look after Mary and Max (Aaron Michael Drozin) which is most opportune because they have not seen each other in a while. Uncle Albert has a present for the kids: a dollhouse which contains a nutcracker (voiced by Shirley Henderson), a chimpanzee (Peter Elliott), a clown (Hugh Sachs), and a drummer (Africa Nile), all of which come alive in Mary’s dreams.

Based on the screenplay by Andrey Konchalovskiy and Chris Solimine, directed by the former, watching “The Nutcracker in 3D” is like putting your hand into a bag of mixed candy, grabbing the one with an interesting shape, and hoping that it is not the kind that tastes bland. At its best, the quality is superficially mediocre while the deeper message is a storm of confusion. I liked the visuals because they are crisp, especially those set in a snowy backdrop, and I found them readily adaptable to specific moods and settings. The imagery that take place in reality and those that occur in dreams are equally delectable. However, the acting is often wooden and this is not limited to the talking CGI nutcracker who prefers to be addressed as NC.

While Fanning has undeniable charm, I found her consistently out of her depth when she is required to act against a green or blue screen. Particularly painful to watch involves a flying scene up and down a giant Christmas tree with snowflakes guiding the little girl’s flight. When she screams in delight and expresses her disbelief that flying is entirely possible, it comes across completely disingenuous—and irritating. I do not take pleasure in saying things like what I am about to say but it must be said: There is something about her expression of glee that I found unbearable—almost similar to the sound of nails scraping on a chalkboard. I wondered if children, the picture’s target audience, would buy the emotions given that they are especially sensitive to intonations.

The plot is mostly driven by the conflict between a prince (Charlie Rowe), whose soul is trapped in a nutcracker’s body, and The Rat King (John Turturro), who wishes to turn the prince’s formerly bright and merry kingdom into a Stygian kitchen of burning toys. The rats, as it turns out, are afraid of the sun and so they force the residents to burn toys in order to make a dark cloud that blocks the star. One can see it as an allegory of Nazi Germany which is reasonable because of the words used and behaviors employed in scenes that take place in Mary’s reality. The Nazis viewed the Jewish people as flawed objects—the toys—and so they were burned in giant ovens. Their ashes—the dark cloud—were seen for miles.

Although I admired the risks the filmmakers had taken, I was not convinced that the final product makes enough strong connections between Mary’s dream world and one of the darkest and shameful times in our history. I was not at all sure as to what the filmmakers’ intentions were. The risks are present but they do not go all the way. Perhaps the picture simply does not want to offend anybody. After all, it is supposed to be a movie for the whole family.

On the other hand, if the filmmakers had wanted to make a typical family fare, the interpretation of the ballet could have gone into a completely different direction without taking the path of toys being burned in a factory as children line up with their parents and looking like they were about to be killed.

And yet despite the miscalculated allegory, the film makes other missteps. For instance, I found the casting of Frances de la Tour as The Rat Queen and Vysotskaya as The Snow Fairy to be very odd. The former doubles as the caring family maid and the latter doubles as Mary’s emotionally distant mother. It might have made more sense if de la Tour had played The Snow Fairy and Vysotskaya had taken on the role of The Rat Queen. I got the impression that age was a factor in the decision because The Snow Fairy is supposed to be young and beautiful while The Rat Queen was supposed to embody the opposite. It would have been refreshing to see an old but still beautiful Snow Fairy.

Somewhere


Somewhere (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) was a successful actor who lived in a posh hotel. He spent his days playing video games, sometimes attending interviews to promote his upcoming film, but there were times when he just sat around and stared into nothingness. His nights consisted of partying, drinking, watching two blonde exotic dancers work a pole, and sleeping with women he barely knew. In his case, a successful career did not equal happiness. Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, I feared that “Somewhere” began on the verge of insularity. Johnny driving around in circles in his fancy car was a heavy metaphor of his life going nowhere and fast, supported by unnecessary and more symbolic extended scenes. For example, the two women dancing on and around a pole which finally ended when Johnny fell asleep. I get it–he was apathetic even to things that excited most men. The director was so desperate to show us that Johnny was a lonely person when she didn’t need to. The moment Cleo (Elle Fanning), the actor’s eleven-year-old daughter, arrived, the story picked up because of her young, vibrant energy. The scene that stood out to me most was when the father, in such a simple way, looked at his daughter dancing on ice. It was one of the very few scenes when Johnny wasn’t the one being watched. When he was at the hotel, women gave him seductive looks. Sometimes a fan would recognize him and he or she would try to make banal conversations. When Johnny drove around Hollywood, he felt like he was being followed by someone in a black SUV. Many of the scenes centered around people looking for or looking at him. When nobody was looking at him, it was refreshing for him. He felt like he could breathe, like he was as normal as he once was. It felt like freedom. Furthermore, watching his daughter was the moment when I believed Johnny made an active decision to strive to be a better man–not necessarily the best father, but a better person who could be there for his daughter regardless of the reason. His personal promise was tested when Cleo’s mother, presumably divorced from Johnny, suddenly decided that she needed a break from life. Johnny had to go to Italy for the premiere of his movie so he took Cleo along. Cleo didn’t always agree with her father’s lifestyle, especially sleeping with random women and allowing them to stay until morning, but she wasn’t a brat. She internalized yet her eyes said everything what simple words couldn’t express. I was able to relate with her because I tend to do the same thing when I’m upset with someone who caused a negative situation. I believe “Somewhere” had a wonderful lesson about parenting. Sometimes a parent being there is just what a child needs. I stared into Johnny’s eyes and I couldn’t help but feel moved. It was like looking into the eyes of parents who think they’ve failed or that they’ve achieved nothing, not realizing that, in their children eyes, they mean absolutely everything.

My Neighbor Totoro


My Neighbor 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.

Phoebe in Wonderland


Phoebe in Wonderland (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★

I thought this was going to be a light-hearted children’s movie but it turned out to be something more serious. Elle Fanning stars as Phoebe, a precocious 9-year-old girl who was chosen by her drama teacher (Patricia Clarkson) to play Alice for the school play of “Alice in Wonderland.” Phoebe was more at home on stage than she was in the classroom and with her family. She constantly got into trouble for spitting at other kids whenever she would feel like she was cornered and this alarmed the principal (Campbell Scott), a man who obviously had no idea how to communicate with kids and how to treat them. Felicity Huffman plays Phoebe’s mother, an author who felt trapped because she felt like she was incompetent when it came to raising her two daughters. At first, I thought this film was about a child with an obsessive-compulsive disorder; whenever Phoebe wanted something so badly, she would wash her hands until they bled, walk in circles for hours on end, and go up and down the stairs for a certain number of times. But then somewhere in the middle, I thought that it was about childhood depression–that the reason why Phoebe was so engulfed in the play (and excelling at it) and why she saw the characters from “Alice in Wonderland” was because she wanted to escape the pressures of the classroom and the neglect she felt at home. Ultimately, her disorder was revealed at the end of the film and I was disappointed with myself because I should have seen the signs. Regardless, this movie kept me interested from beginning to end because it had a genuine drama in its core. Clarkson absolutely blew me away. I really felt like she cared for the kids by teaching them how to trust themselves, show initiative, and playing on their strengths instead of focusing on their weaknesses. The way she said her lines mesmerized me because her intonations provided real insight on how to live life without caring what other people might think. Her relationship with Phoebe was touching, especially when she consoled Phoebe that being different was perfectly okay, or even great: “At a certain part in your life, probably when too much of it has gone by, you will open your eyes and see yourself for who you are. Especially for everything that made you so different from all the awful normals. And you will say to yourself, “But I am this person.” And in that statement, that correction, there will be a kind of love.” This film undeniably has its flaws, such as its pacing and scenes with the psychiatrist, but the positives far more than outweigh the negatives.