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.
The X-Files (1998)
★★★ / ★★★★
In 15,000 B.C., an extraterrestrial-looking creature attacked a caveman. In present day, a boy fell into a hole and was attacked by the same type of creature but in liquid form. Despite the fact that The X-Files had been shut down, Special Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) attempted to uncover a government conspiracy involving the alien life form and a possible alien colonization on Earth. Having seen the first five seasons of the highly popular and ingenious television show, most of the film made sense. However, I was not convinced that people who had not seen the show or had only sporadically seen a few episodes would be able to follow the story and ultimately find it rewarding, let alone recognize the references it had to specific episodes. Non-regular fans of the show might not feel the same impact when certain key characters met their demise. However, what I loved about it was Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz, the writers, remained true to the material, such as highlighting the strictly professional relationship between the two protagonists, it brought something new to the table involving the Black Oil (which started in the third season), the important of science to possibly explain paranormal occurrences, and the characters’ quest to capture the ever-elusive truth. It was also able to retain its humor with the actors’ typical deadpan delivery of their lines to situational false alarms drenched with irony. The picture reminded me of science fiction movies in 70s and 80s because it shrouded the alien creatures in darkness. Even though its special and visual effects were capable of delivering at a first-rate level, it was very careful from revealing too much. Only toward the very end did I think it went a bit overboard with the visual effects. In the fifth season, Mulder, for good reasons, lost his faith about extraterrestrial life being on Earth. I understood that the writers needed to restore his faith so the show could continue. However, showing us too much felt strange because the show thrived upon implications. I felt like Carter and Spotnitz could have found a better way to change Mulder’s mind. “The X-Files,” or “The X-Files: Fight the Future,” directed by Rob Bowman, was a solid movie for ardent fans. It moved the story forward by answering some of our important questions from the past five seasons as well as asking new ones. Unfortunately, it could just as well have worked as a three-part episode arc. There were other “mythology episodes” that deserved to be adapted as a feature film.
Boogie Woogie (2009)
★ / ★★★★
“Boogie Woogie,” based on the novel by Danny Moynihan, attempted to explore the many personalities of the London art scene. There was Gillian Anderson and Stellan Skarsgård as a couple addicted to purchasing art, Heather Graham as an ambitious blonde who wanted to run her own museum one day, Joanna Lumley as an older woman who was struggling to keep up with the bills so she decided to sell Christopher Lee’s valuable collection, Jaime Winstone who believed her video self-portrait was art, and Jack Huston who used his artistic persona to seduce women. Despite the many things happening in the film, Duncan Ward, the director, failed to balance the characters in a meaningful way and to convince me why it was worth investing my time to observe these colorful bunch of people. All of them were self-centered, lacked a sense of what was right or wrong, and they were proud of being predators. They were always out to outsmart each other in hopes of filling a void inside of them. They found themselves exhausted day in and day out but they couldn’t take a moment, do a bit of introspection, and perhaps to attempt to make an actual change. They left a bitter taste in my mouth and the distaste never went away. I hoped that as the film went on, my opinions of them would change but there was no redeeming factor in any of them. There was no element of surprise and I felt like there was a wall between me and the characters. Perhaps the most harmless was the girl who loved to rollerblade played by Amanda Seyfried. But even then I had no idea who she was and what she was doing in the film. Was she even interested in art? There were too many characters and not one character was fully explored, so in the end I pondered what the point of it was and couldn’t come up with any. As for the movie’s title, it referred to Piet Mondrian’s painting. The painting was rarely shown and we only saw about four characters (out of fifteen to twenty) to actually see it. And when they did comment on it, it was very shallow and their words felt meaningless. I thought the painting was the main element that could help to place the many personalities in the same room but it didn’t. In a nutshell, sitting through “Boogie Woogie” was a maddening and painful experience. It glorified money, sex, and drugs instead of attempting to explore why depending solely on these these things make up a life not worth living.
How to Lose Friends & Alienate People (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I love Simon Pegg because he never fails to make me laugh in any movie he stars in. Naturally, I had to see this picture despite bad to mediocre reviews. He plays Sidney Young, a writer who takes up a job offer from Jeff Bridges, the leader of a magazine that specializes in publishing stories about celebrities. Amazingly unaware that he’s way different than anybody else who works for the magazine, he constantly butts heads with the serious Kirsten Dunst, and, predictably enough, the two fall for each other eventually. I would have liked this film a lot more if it had focused on the comedy instead of experimenting here and there with media satire. With that indecision, the picture becomes an unfocused mess. I cannot pinpoint which is stronger: the slapstick comedy with Pegg or the poking fun of celebrity life such as the dragon-lady publicist played by Gillian Anderson (really, she was great in every scene she was in). While the two distinct camps do indeed have their moments, they never really come together so I felt like I was watching two different movies at the same time. I think Robert B. Weide, the director, is the one responsible for such a disconnect. If he had spent less time trying to fit Pegg and Dunst’s obvious lack of chemistry, he would have had more time actually shaping the slapstick and the satire into one comedy with a pretty powerful punch. Overall, this is not a particularly bad film; like most critics, I’d say this was a mediocre effort. If people were to see this, I think they would find Pegg very funny (or very annoying) because he has a certain vibrant energy that one cannot find anywhere else. Since his character is a movie-lover, it was fun for me to watch him make (sometimes too obvious) references to other motion pictures. “How to Lose Friends & Alienate People” is a mixed bag so one should decide carefully on whether to actually see it.