★★ / ★★★★
Enoch (Henry Hopper), nicely dressed in a black suit to go with his solemn demeanor, took the city bus to attend a boy’s memorial service. But he didn’t know the deceased. We came to know that dropping in on strangers’ memorials was a hobby of his. Pixie-haired Annabel (Mia Wasikowska) noticed Enoch and approached him. She knew the boy who died from cancer because she claimed that she volunteered at the hospital. As they got to know each other over a few days, she revealed to him that she, in fact, did not work at the hospital. She had cancer and the doctor gave her about three months to live. Written by Jason Lew and directed by Gus Van Sant, “Restless” aimed to tell a story about two people who came to appreciate life a little bit more by being on the verge of death, but the pacing was so mired in syrupy slow motion that it didn’t get a chance to truly take off. Enoch and Annabel were interesting characters because of their curiosities. Due to his parents’ passing and being in a coma for days or weeks, he was drawn to the dead, or the concept of it anyway. Though he won’t admit to it, he exhibited fear and a little bit of rage when he got too close. His only friend was a ghost, a Japanese kamikaze named Hiroshi (Ryo Kase). They spent most their time playing Battleship and throwing rocks at trains. In some ways, his eccentricities were nicely handled. Because he was closed off, despite his Aunt Mabel (Jane Adams) reminding him that she was always available to talk, we could sympathize with his occasional fits of anger and frustration even though they were often misdirected. Annabel, on the other hand, loved life and everything it had to offer. She was particularly interested in Charles Darwin and ornithology. She always talked about a species of bird that thought it died every time it turned night. When morning came, it would sing songs because it was happy just to be alive. She saw herself in that bird. Though she tried to be positive, her illness limited what she could become. Watching her made me wonder how I would react if I was given news that I had a terminal disease and I only had a certain amount of time to live. I’m not so sure I’d take it as gracefully. I liked watching Annabel for her bravery even though she thought there was nothing especially courageous in facing illness. Unfortunately, when Enoch and Annabel were together, it was like being stuck in a stuffy room with a couple who just couldn’t help but give each other kisses after every other sentence. It was nauseating. There a shot in the film where Hiroshi stood from several feet away and had this look of disgust toward the couple. It wasn’t meant to be funny but I laughed because it was exactly how I felt. It was strange that the material was more romantic when the two protagonists were apart rather than when they were together. While I understood that they needed to love each other in order to realize, especially Enoch since he possibly had many years ahead of him, the value of self-love and loving others sans romantic way, we, as well as the characters, deserved so much better. We didn’t learn until much later on, what kind of cancer Annabel had, an example of the picture’s main problem: it consistently gave us skeletal information but reluctant to delve into the marrow. As a result, it felt as though “Restless” was simply going through the motions for much of its running time. What it needed was fire to grab us and keep us transfixed.
Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Best friends Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael García Bernal) were left by their girlfriends to visit Europe for the summer. Despite their promises to not have sex with other people, the two saw it as a perfect opportunity to meet other women, experiment with drugs, drink until they pass out, and live easy before school started again. But when they met a beautiful woman named Luisa (Maribel Verdú) at a wedding, the boys made up a story about going to an undiscovered beach. To their surprise, Luisa accepted their invitation, unknowing that she wanted to run away from her cheating husband and temporarily forget about her doctor’s grim news. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, “Y Tu Mamá También” is a peerless example of a sex comedy that uses sex to explore its characters’ friendships, highlight the lessons they’ve learned throughout their journey, and what it meant to be young and reckless. As most American teen sex comedy have consistently proven, it’s far too easy to use sex as a weapon of perversion instead of staring at it in the eyes and realizing, with respect, that it’s a natural and beautiful part of our lives. To describe all of the elements I loved about the picture would be an injustice because much of its magic had to be experienced. But I do have to mention one scene that, in my opinion, defined the film so perfectly. Near the end of the trio’s road trip, Luisa was talking to her husband in a telephone booth. On a mirror next to the booth, we could see Tenoch and Julio playing foosball. The shot looked simple but, for me, it held a lot of meaning. The booth was lit but the reflection was dim which I surmised was a symbol for their respective knowledge about what it meant to love both emotionally and physically. Tenoch and Julio thought they knew how to pleasure a woman. But Luisa tried to teach them that sex, or meaningful sex, wasn’t about the strength of penetration or how long a man could last without ejaculation but the growing emotional connection and investment between the two parties. The conversation in the booth had a lot of sadness and maybe a bit anger but the reflection held temporary joy by means of friendly competition. I perceived it to be a summary of Luisa and the two friends’ respective mindsets during their travel. Although the two images were different, both were about characters entering a new phase in their lives. Cuarón had a fantastic ear for dialogue and sometimes I wondered if some of the conversations were unscripted. The naturalistic acting was also enhanced by an inspired environment that looked unedited or untouched, something that we would see if we visited a seaside village right this very moment. If more coming-of-age sex comedies were high caliber as “Y Tu Mamá También,” perhaps most people would be able to ask and talk about sex and sexuality without having to be embarrassed or feel judged.
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.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“El laberinto del fauno” or “Pan’s Labyrinth,” written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, is one of the most compelling pictures I’ve ever seen about the power of imagination. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) used her mind as an escape from several events that she could not fully understand and deal with: moving into a new home in a countryside surrounded by the Spanish guerilla, her mother’s (Ariadna Gil) decision to be with a cruel army captain (Sergi López), her mother’s illness along with having a new sibling and the war that was driving everyone around her into a state of conflict and madness. In her fantasy world, she was an underground princess trapped in a human body. In order to get back to her royal family, a faun (Doug Jones) informed her that she must complete three dangerous tasks. What I admired most about this movie was del Toro’s ability to show us a story seen through a child’s eyes but at the same time keeping the reality at an arm’s length. Although fantastic elements are abound, this film is definitely not for children due to the intense violence and sometimes unbearable emotional suffering. I couldn’t help but be impressed with the way the director weaved in and out and through the reality and fantasy of the story. Even though we get drastic changes of scenery with each mission that Ofelia decided to take part in, tension was something we could not escape. I loved the spy/mother-figure played by Maribel Verdú. She just had this strength that radiated from within which made her a key figure in Ofelia’s life because her bed-ridden mother could not protect her. Verdú’s scenes with the smart and venomous captain gave me the creeps; the looks he so often gave her made me believe that he knew what she was up to all along. Ever since it’s release, “Pan’s Labyrinth” gained great approval from both critics and audiences and deservingly so. A lot of people consider the film as a dark fairytale. While it is that, I believe it only highlights one dimension of this amazing work. (The words “dark fairytale” sounds more like a fantasy.) A large portion of this picture was about how Ofelia looked inwards in a time of need and turned things that she could not control into something she could. That is, the more the main character was forced to grow up due to the circumstances around her, the more she gained an internal locus of control. When fantasy and reality finally collided during a key scene in the end, it was very depressing yet magical–and that was when del Toro’s vision finally came full circle.
A Christmas Tale (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I love movies about depressed and angry people trying to deal with their own issues especially during the holidays but there’s something about “Un conte de Noël” or “A Christmas Tale” that just did not click with me. I don’t know whether it’s because I expected too much since the picture was critically acclaimed but what I am sure about is that I felt like there were far too many distracting technical elements that didn’t really fit in with the emotional turmoil that the characters were going through. I thought the tone was largely melancholic with a spice of irony here and there but there were times when it would detach from the tone (such as the characters going to a disco club… for no reason) and the result was almost jarring. It’s strange because even though I connected with the characters, especially Catherine Deneuve who found out that she had blood cancer and Emile Berling as the schizophrenic teenager, there was still an air of disconnect between me and the film. There were also some storylines that I thought could have used more development such as the tension between Anne Consigny and Mathieu Amalric. We get to see them want to cut each other’s throats (I thought the courtroom scene was exemplary) but we never really got to see what made them siblings. After all, in order to us to really hate someone that badly, we must care (or must have cared) for them in some way. I waited for their hatred to reach a maximum point and reach some common ground but it didn’t really happen. Granted, sometimes that doesn’t happen in real life but I thought it would have taken the film on a new level since the two of them received a lot of the movie’s running time. I also thought Emmanuelle Devos was a bit underused and exited too quickly when I was just about to want to get to know her more. There was something so elegant about her that it was almost mesmerizing. This movie did not at all remind me of my family and relatives during Christmas. In fact, the characters in this film and the people in my life are almost complete opposites. For one, none of us can stop talking during Christmas and laughter (and joyous yelling) is all around. And I guess that’s why I was so interested in watching this picture’s family dynamics. Written and directed by Arnaud Desplechin, “A Christmas Tale” definitely has some power behind it but it came up short because instead of me loving the family despite of their flaws and illnesses, I merely liked them (with some reservations).