★★★ / ★★★★
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 (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 (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.