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.
Chicken Run (2000)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Peter Lord and Nick Park, “Chicken Run” was about a determined British chicken named Ginger (voiced by Julia Sawalha) who wanted to escape from a chicken farm owned by the greedy Mrs. Tweedy (Miranda Richardson). Tired of making small profits and investing time for the chickens to lay eggs, Mrs. Tweedy decided to buy a machine that could create pies made out of chicken for a quick buck. Despite Ginger’s many failed attempts from escaping the farm, her hope was renewed by the sudden appearance of a chicken who could fly (Mel Gibson). This time around, the chickens tried to escape over the fence by means of flight. The first time I saw this movie in the early 2000s, I didn’t care much about the story because I was too mesmerized by its stop-motion animation. At the time, I’ve never seen anything like it–the characters undoubtedly looked like clay but it felt like they had an extra dimension to them, something that was different from most animated films at the time. But watching “Chicken Run” for the second and third time, I was more into the story and I was very entertained by its jokes and ironic touches. I thought it was creative, focused and very energetic. What I thought was so smart about it was the fact that the whole movie was about planning and trying to escape instead of throwing around random jokes from pop culture in order to generate the more generic laughs. The comedy comes from the extreme personalities of the chickens and the increasingly desperate situation they were in. I loved the chicken who thought that chickens who stopped laying eggs were taken by the humans so that the chicken could “go on a vacation.” In reality, chicken that stopped laying eggs were deemed useless and nonprofitable so they were killed and served as food. A particularly strong scene was when Ginger and the American chicken got caught up in all sorts of trouble in an oven. That scene was exciting, suspenseful and amusing all rolled into one, which I thought embodied the general feel of the movie. The picture also knew how to capture a sense of adventure and therefore engage their audiences. Despite a somewhat slow middle portion, “Chicken Run” still gets high marks from me because of the final product’s level of imagination and the amount of time the filmmakers must have put into the project. There were a plethora of complex action sequences and I could only imagine how difficult it was to move one element shot after shot to create an illusion of actual movement.
★★★★ / ★★★★
I loved this film the first time I saw it when I was about seventeen because it taught me that it was okay to take so-called friends out of your life when all they did to you was slow you down as you strived to reach for your potential. With friends like that, who needs enemies? Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremmer and Kevin McKidd star as four friends (three of which were initially heroine junkies) as they fill their empty lives with drugs, sex and violence. They also hang out with a violent older man played by Robert Carlyle who detested drug addicts but, funny enough, kept drinking alcohol to the point where he constantly got in trouble with the law. One of the many things I loved about this film was, unlike the overrated “Requiem for a Dream,” it was not preachy in terms of overcoming addiction to hard drugs. Instead being obvious about its lessons, it simply showed us the circumstances of the characters’ lives and, more importantly, the choices they made that ultimately landed them in either bliss or misery, temporary as they may be. I also liked the fact that it managed to touch upon the issue of the importance of parenting and that parenting doesn’t end when the child turns eighteen. So as hardcore as the lifestyles that were featured in this picture, there undoubtedly was heart underneath it all and it was constantly at the forefront. Furthermore, I enjoyed the fact that the four characters were never really on the same stage of addiction: when one was clean, another one was not, while the other straddled the line between being a slave to the drug and being a master of his life. The film also commented on the dynamics of their friendships. Even though they spent a lot of time with each other because they were getting high, they did not talk about the important things to one another. Each of them felt scared and alone as if they were rats trapped in a maze–constantly living in survival mode and trial-and-error. As serious as the film’s core was, I thought the movie was very witty and very funny. Danny Boyle, the director, made sure that the memorable lines were not just cool in itself but also meaningful and infused with double meanings. Boyle also impressed me with certain shots because the images epitomized the definition of cool and careless disregard. “Trainspotting” will always be one of those films that will stay with me because I was able to extract a lot of meaning from it. For me, its core was not about how drugs are bad for you. It was about the deeper meanings of friendships and having a strong internal locus of control to lead your life the way you want to. Based on the novel by Irvine Welsh, “Trainspotting” is an ambitious and imaginative film that is not afraid to tell the hard truths.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the children’s book by Judi Barrett and Ron Barrett, “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, was a visual treat for the whole family. A scientist named Flint (voiced by Bill Hader) had many inventions that led to disasters and over time lost the respect of his community. But when he accidentally sent a machine that had the ability make food from water to the sky, it began raining all sorts of delectable food. At first the citizens of the island enjoyed the strange weather patterns, covered by a colorful reporter (Anna Faris), but the food started to get bigger as time went on, it turned into a disaster flick with food as weapons of destruction. There were times when I thought the picture was trying too hard with the jokes. The slapstick irked me especially when the target of the joke was a smart (sometimes too smart) and awkward lead character. I wish the directors had toned down the physical comedy and really played more with the double meanings of certain words, phrases and puns. A lot of kids (even younger kids) out there do understand play on words which is not common knowledge. I also thought that the movie had a chance to really bring up and tackle social issues such as world hunger and obesity. There were some images thrown in here and there but such moments were too brief. With those criticisms aside, I really did enjoy this animated film because it was creative and imaginative. The surreal images it offered such as giant rolling doughnuts threatening to squash people like bugs, pasta tornados, and palace made entirely out of jello were definitely a sight to behold. It made me think about how magical the film would have been if it was live-action. The movie’s energy level was manic, everything was colorful and there were some really good jokes on the background. I also appreciated the fact that it had a plethora of film references from other disaster movies to strange sci-fi mysteries to dramatic space adventures. Even though the movie had so many random elements, I thought it worked because there was madness happening on screen. Lastly, I thought this was the kind of film that would have benefited with a longer running time. It tried to be so many things, including a bit about father-son relationships, but none of them were fully realized. “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” was a smogasbord of colorful delights and energy that never seems to run out when it really could have used more heart.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Adaptation.,” directed by Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich,” “Where the Wild Things Are”), had many weapons in its arsenal but its imagination was its most powerful. This was a film about many things: the writer’s struggle to adapt a novel to film (Nicolas Cage as Charlie and Donald Kaufman), a woman’s (Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean) desperation to break out from her loveless marriage and find another soul that she’s compatible with (Chris Cooper as John Laroche), sibling rivalry and the fear of being eclipsed by someone who shares our DNA (or worse, someone who we think is less talented than us), and the fusion of reality and fantasy to tell a story that is not only unique as a whole but utterly unforgettable every step of the way. I was also impressed with this picture’s ear for dialogue. Right from the get-go, the audiences get a chance to hear what was going on inside the main character’s head. And in under three minutes, we get to learn his insecurities, neuroticisms and outlook of the world. With such a rich collection of qualities we had a chance to absorb, we got to see him evolve from when he was at his worst up until he was at his best (which didn’t come without a price). I also enjoyed the scenes with Streep as the lonely author who had no connection with her husband. The way the director showed her lying awake thinking about her life next to her husband was touching and I could feel her silent suffering. Even though the choices she made toward the end of the film were not the best, I understood where she came from so I cared what would ultimately happen to her. Jonze’ ability to wash the material in mystery was outstanding; his use of foreshadowing and double/triple identities made the movie that much more alive and engaging. I thought it was amazing how one new piece of information could instantly alter the perspective from which we saw each character. Like his exemplary work in “Being John Malkovich” (how eerie it was to see the set and actors from that movie in this film!) and “Where the Wild Things Are,” “Adaptation.” had a lot of commentary about our psychologies and philosophies regarding our inner selves and the way influence other people’s lives. What I love about Jonze is he does not give us the easy answers and instead lets us think about what is right answer specifically for ourselves. I absolutely loved “Adaptation” because it was a cinematic experience that was surreal, satirical, stunning, self-aware and not afraid to reference to things that were random. Although it had a lot of insight to offer its audiences, it did not come across as pretentious or preachy. This is a film of rare quality and should be seen by those searching for creativity and vivaciousness.
Waking Life (2001)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Richard Linklater (“Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset”), “Waking Life” is an animated film that tackles deep questions about what life is and how it is like to live one’s life. Although it is essentially an animated film, it is very adult in its approach to tell a story of a guy (Wiley Wiggins) who “wakes up” in his dream and into other dreams without knowing whether he’s conscious or awake in “real life.” I admired that this film actively does not confine itself into the kind of Hollywood filmmaking where there is a distinct beginning, middle, and end. Just like the look of the picture, the story flows and moves like water, which enhances the film’s overall craft because the issues that it tackles are very abstract. And it also helped because the main character is in a dream. I particularly liked the scene when Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reprise their characters from “Before Sunrise” and had a deeper conversation about what was said in that movie. It really made me think about why, when we dream, time feels endless but in actuality we’ve slept for a very limited amount of time. That constant theme of there having to be something more to life than rules and meaning is explored in such a deep and intellectual way to the point where I found myself struggling to keep up because I wanted to savor the conversations. While I admit that I did not fully understand some of the concepts that they discussed and the names they dropped, it made me want to read up on such topics and people that are unfamiliar. This is a thinking man’s movie and definitely not for people who constantly have to have action scenes thrown at them. The power of this unique-looking film lies in the words and the exaggerated, almost expressionistic, images to highlight the transient meanings of the implications. My only main problem with it is that I felt as though part of the last third somewhat felt apart because it did not fully integrate some of the biggest themes that pervaded the rest of the movie. Still, I’m going to give “Waking Life” a recommendation because it was able to incite various insights on how to communicate and see (or feel?) the world in unfamiliar and not fully explained perspectives.