Spirited Away (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Every time I watch “Spirited Away,” I am in complete awe from start to finish. When Chihiro and her family discovered an abandoned amusement park on the way to their new house, Chihiro’s parents were turned into pigs right when the sun started setting and she found herself alone in an alternate universe full of strange creatures and spirits. Chihiro must then navigate in her new world and find a way to turn her parents to their original form and return to the human world. There many elements to love in this animated film. One of those elements was Chihiro’s drastic change from a whiny, spoiled girl to a mature individual who was capable of making decisions under extreme pressures. With the responsibilities that the bathhouse (where she had to work so that the witch would not turn her into a pig) had thrusted upon her, she eventually learned to break from her “me” mindset and really care for others. I also admired the fact that there were many morals that could be learned from this picture but none of those lessons felt heavy-handed. The movie merely showed what was happening and then it was up to us to determine why certain events were unfolding before our eyes. The concept of false first impressions was definitely at the forefront. Instead of making the hideous monsters one-dimensional, they turned out to be quite docile and adorable in their own ways. I particularly loved the raddish spirit, the stink spirit and No-Face because each of them were put under the spotlight at some point which at first suggested that they were not friendly or had something up their sleeves. The level of imagination of the picture was very impressive. Everything is so magical–from a giant baby capable of making threats to a one-footed lamp that worked as a guide–that it was able to easily entertain the kids and make the adults look back on childhood when anything seemed possible. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, “Spirited Away” was a complex demonstration on the power of imagination. Or better yet, how our imagination can inspire us to pull something from within and make it a reality. I would also like to note that I believe this is stronger than Miyazaki’s other classic animated feature called “Princess Mononoke.” The reason why I prefer “Spirited Away” is that I feel like this one had more magic, depth and malleability. It really offers a first-rate adventure that is unforgettable.
The September Issue (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Anna Wintour, the extremely influential editor of Vogue magazine, stated it perfectly in the very first few minutes of this documentary: Most people are scared of fashion and that’s probably why they make fun of it. Personally, I don’t think fashion is a ridiculous subject at all because it covers every aspect of beauty–something that is very important to me–not just when it comes to the clothes but the attitude that comes with them. Directed by R.J. Cutler, he documented all the hardwork, the conflict, the stress and the funny moments of what it took to release the September issue of Vogue. Two people are at the forefront: Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington, the editor and the creative director, respectively. I love that the movie covers the history of the two so we get some sort of idea where they came from and what it took for them to be where they are now. Although Wintour and Coddington have very different personalities, both of them are aware with how brilliant the other person is. Instead of competing with each other, they constantly push each other to be more critical and to continue to redefine beauty. While Wintour is truly a very intimidating ice queen, she’s not a total diva like how fashion editors were presented in motion pictures. She has her more tender moments, especially when she spends time with her daughter. On the other hand, I found Coddington to be very admirable because she’s not afraid to push for what she wants to be included in the magazine even if Wintour says “No” to her ideas time and time again. She’s a romantic and she remains to be a sweet individual despite the harsh realities of the fashion industry. While the two giants do have their disagreements, they share one crucial bond: They are very passionate with what they do and they want the magazine to be at its best. I was so engaged with this movie because there were times when I agreed with Wintour and there were times when I agreed with Coddington. I found it fun to see which photos would make it to the magazines, which was really hard at the same time because the photographs were stunning. This documentary is obviously targeted for people who are interested in fashion. However, for those who could care less about fashion should see this as well because it will undoubtedly show them that fashion is not a joke (though sometimes it can be). Like other more traditional jobs, it requires a lot of long hours, heartbreaking rejections, stress due to everything not going according to plan, and best of all, a thick skin.
★★★ / ★★★★
This 80’s-inspired coming-of-age comedy-drama about James Brennan, played by Jesse Eisenberg, who was forced to work on a theme park after his parents (Jack Gilpin and Wendie Malick) revealed to him that they were having pecuniary issues. He also had to sacrifice his trip to Europe, a graduation present that he was obviously looking forward to. What I loved about “Adventureland” was it managed to focus the spotlight on James’ journey to maturity no matter how painful some realizations ended up being. The colorful characters from the theme park, including his romantic interest (Kristen Stewart), and the comedy felt secondary to journey. It was a nice change from typical teen comedies of today. I also really liked the music that were featured. It feels like once in a blue moon that I actually am familiar with 85-90% of the soundtrack. (Mainly because my parents are big on music of the 1980’s and I grew up listening to such.) Written and directed by Greg Mottola (“Superbad”), this film managed to paint all of its characters with a certain sadness which happened to unconsciously come out whenever they interacted with each other. Motolla actually gave his characters a chance to talk about their dreams, insecurities, and the things that were going on at home instead of just giving the audiences easy (and uninsightful) slapstick comedy. The only thing that did not quite work for me was Ryan Reynolds’ character and his relationship with James’ romantic interest. Not only did Reynolds and Stewart have too many scenes together, but the relationship somewhat felt forced. If I look back on the picture and not think about the scenes that mainly involved those two characters, pretty much everything else would have been the same. Having said that, this is still a strong movie about a college graduate who, through trials of hardwork and heartbreak in the theme park, actually learned more about himself and about life than if he had gone to Europe. And that’s a nice message for those who cannot quite leave their hometowns because of their many responsibilities or for whatever reason.
Fired Up! (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
I had very low expectations prior to watching to this movie because of all the negative reviews when it came out but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Two football jocks (Nicholas D’Agosto, Eric Christian Olsen) decided to go to cheerleading camp instead of football camp over the summer to pursue beautiful women. But as time went on, the two really got into it and D’Agosto fell for their school’s lead cheerleader (Sarah Roemer), despite her having a boyfriend. While its premise summons movies like “Bring It On,” this was actually more focused on the relationships between people instead of the cheerleading stunts and the hardwork that comes with winning a competition. Though I did expect gay jokes because the main characters were supposed to be manly jocks, there was something gay-friendly about them so the jokes didn’t come out as malicious. In fact, Freedom Jones, the writer, put in little twists here and there when it came to the two leads’ relationship; instead of just being friends whose common bond was to have sex with as many women as they could, they had a sort of genuine bromance going on (reflected in scenes when they were away from camp) so I believed that they could actually be friends. D’Agosto and Olsen’s characters were not your typical dumb jocks. They actually had a brain and a certain sensitivity that (admittedly) made me go “Aww.” I also really liked the many different personalities within and outside the leads’ cheer group. Even though such characters could get a little one-dimensional, they provided enough laughter to make such a thing somewhat forgivable. This flick, undoubtedly, lacks depth but if one is in the mood for something as soft, harmless and fluffy as cotton candy, this one is a pretty good choice. If it had been edgier (such as pushing the quirky characters to “Election”-level caricatures, which would make sense because they were in a competitive environment), I definitely would’ve liked it a bit more but it still left me satisfied.
★★★★ / ★★★★
This documentary focuses on the students at Stuyvesant High School–the most competitive high school in America–and how they campaigned to be the student body president. What I love about this documentary is its very naturalistic feel. I felt like I was back in high school during the classroom and hallway scenes–none of that “Gossip Girl” glamour and serialized drama that’s all over the CW and MTV nowadays. Since most of the students are very intelligent book-wise (the school’s average SAT score is 1400, if that means anything), I was interested to see how the race would be different to “typical” high schools in the United States. Upon watching this film, I thought it wasn’t really all that different except that the students here are more articulate, even though some of them do not yet know how to correctly use some vocabulary words in a sentence. While there are four candidates, the film focuses on three because one barely put the effort into campaigning. After the primaries were over, the competition got a lot tougher and it was much harder to determine who was going to win. In the first five minutes, I had an idea (more like a bet) on who was going to win but as the film went on, that person’s flaws political-wise became apparent to me to the point where I wasn’t sure if he or she is the right person to lead the student body. I also liked the fact that Caroline Suh, the director, did not shy away when students started talking about the importance of race in the election because the majority of the school is Asian-American (as did my high school). Suh astutely divided the time between the (initially) three bona fide candidates and I felt like I got to know them in some way. Even though the candidates themselves are very flawed, that’s what makes them fascinating to watch. “Frontrunners” and “American Teen” are both documentaries but are very different in many ways. However, if one enjoyed “American Teen,” she will most likely enjoy “Frontrunners.” Ultimately, my favorite theme that this documentary tried to tackle was the idea of hardwork sometimes not being enough to acquire something. To me, the most heartbreaking scene in this film was the reaction of the student who didn’t make it to the final two. That was a prime example of the common conception of America being a land of competition.