The Last Emperor (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Last Emperor” told the true story of the last ruler of China from 1908 to 1967. Emperor Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi (John Lone as the adult Pu Yi) was crowned when he was three years old. He was a ruler who was both powerful and powerless; powerful inside the Forbidden City but just another person outside its walls which had turned into a republic. Inside the city, the child was treated like royalty but wasn’t really taught how to rule properly especially when the adults inside the city knew that times were rapidly changing. I found the film a bit sad because even though the emperor had so much power, I felt like he was used as a tool so that others could hold onto their past. I’ve seen a number of Bernardo Bertolucci’s films but “The Last Emperor” was arguably the most visually stunning. I admired the way he used color to compare and contrast the past and the present. The past was colorful which was full of innocence where the emperor was relatively happy because his future was bright. The present looked dull, the color gray was everywhere because the former emperor was now considered as a war criminal. His future looked grim because he even though he desperately wanted to rule, he couldn’t because ancient practices did not seem to fit into modern times. The story was tragic because what Pu Yi believed to be his purpose did not necessarily reflect what was expected of him outside of the Forbidden City. Bertolucci then had a chance to explore China’s westernization and its role in World War II. As the picture went on, the ideas became bigger and the execution turned more elegant. I especially liked Pu Yi’s varying relationship between his two wives (Joan Chen, Vivian Wu) and one of the wives’ relationship with another woman who hated China and admired everything Japanese. An interesting observation involved Chinese people betraying each other was more painful than Japanese’s treatment of the Chinese. The issue of blood and loyalty also had a place in the story. However, “The Last Emperor” had one important weakness: Its ambition was a double-edged sword. While the story became grander the further we explored the rapidly changing times, the attention to important characters diminished. Perhaps it was on purpose because Bertolucci wanted to imply that, over time, Pu Yi was slowly being forgotten by his people. I understood that such a technique might have been on purpose but at the same time I found it unsettling because the film was supposed to be about Pu Yi’s personal journey. Nevertheless, “The Last Emperor” is worth watching. It had a critical eye and respect toward the Chinese culture without sacrificing historical accuracy. This was also one of the very few films actually shot inside the Forbidden City.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the novel by Wendelin Van Draanen, “Flipped” was about two young adults who never were quite on the same page when it came to romance. Juli Baker (Madeline Carroll) had a crush on Bryce Loski (Callan McAuliffe) ever since his family moved into the neighborhood. She claimed it was because of his gorgeous eyes. She liked the way he looked at her so she tried to reciprocate. But Bryce was simply annoyed of her from the moment they met. Juli’s hugs in school and attempts at conversations while waiting for the school bus embarrassed him to the core. But their feelings toward each other started to change course in middle school. Directed by Rob Reiner, I found “Flipped” to be funny, heartbreaking, and adorable. It reminded me of television shows like “The Wonder Years” and “State of Grace” because of the plucky but flawed main characters and a different version of innocence of the 1960s. The film was essentially an exercise of perspectives yet it was refreshing to see and hear Juli and Bryce’s take on certain key events of their budding (but mostly dying) pupply love. Both characters were equally interesting. Juli came from a poor family (Aidan Quinn, Penelope Ann Miller) but she was smart. Her approach to winning Bryce’s heart was to shower him with affection that ranged from simple gestures such as giving his family free eggs (she raised chickens) to sniffing him when she sat behind him in class. She claimed he smelled like watermelon and it was her most recent obsession. Bryce’s approach couldn’t be any more different. He was raised in a relatively well-to-do family (Anthony Edwards, Rebecca De Mornay) so he was used to thinking that everything was about him. He constantly asked himself why everything had to happen to him, what he did to make Juli angry, and what he could do make Juli forgive him. It was uncommon for him to think outside of himself and consider the big picture. Yet I loved both in their own way because I found them completely relatable. In fact, I think all of us, one way or another, can see ourselves in both of them and laugh because we were all children at some point. There were some nicely executed subplots such as Bryce’s father being prejudiced toward the Bakers, the grandfather’s adoration for Juli but not for his own grandson, and Juli’s uncle (Kevin Weisman) who happened to have a mental disability. The film’s subject is budding adolescents but that does not mean that it sacrificed complexity for easy answers. It respected its subjects by allowing them to be flawed, self-conscious of their flaws, and eventually break out of their phases without the painfully typical grand gestures and overtures. Like in our childhood, the key moments are hidden in the uncomfortable silences and small details. They become memories we never forget because a specific moment in time, powerful and unstoppable, changed us. For better or worse, it doesn’t really matter as long as we are able to grow.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris) and Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) dropped off an orphaned baby boy with a lightning bolt scar on his forehead on Privet Drive. Ten years later, we learned that Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), unaware that he was a legendary figure in the magical community, was treated like a help by his aunt and her family. On his eleventh birthday, thanks to a giant named Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), Harry found out that he was a wizard and was invited to attend the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The “Harry Potter” series started off strong because it immediately and consistently captured the magic necessary to keep the audiences involved. Considering that this was the first entry in the series, the pace was incredibly fast as we came to meet important characters such as the brainy Hermione (Emma Watson) and friendly Ron (Rupert Grint). It also had to establish certain crucial storylines in which to be explored later such as Snape’s (Alan Rickman) true allegiance, the aunt’s (Fiona Shaw) relationship with Harry’s mother, and, of course, the rise of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named (Richard Bremmer). This installment is one of the most enjoyable to watch because it gave us a general tour of the students’ classes. (Am I the only one who thinks Potions is like Chemistry?) In each class, something very memorable happened such as a funny joke or a spell gone awry. Although it wasn’t as dark as the later films, I liked that innocence was highlighted because, when I was a freshman in high school and the university, everything felt new and exciting. I was eager to learn and prove that I was worthy. Harry and his friends enveloped those qualities, especially by Hermione who was considered as a know-it-all. One of my favorite lines was when she stated the fact that being expelled from Hogwarts was worse than being killed. On the other hand, Ron desperately wanted to belong. In terms of performances, there were times when I thought the child actors were still uncomfortable in their roles. They tried their best and were able to deliver most of the time but their inexperience could not be overlooked at times especially when they had to interact with veteran actors like Smith and Harris. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” based on J.K. Rowling’s novel and directed by Chris Columbus, was an instant classic because it successfully established a world we would revist for years to come. John Williams’ score was simply magnificent. As a fan of the books, I was impressed with the amount of information it covered. I wished that the later film adaptations were as complete. It would have been an absolute joy if the movies were three or four hours long because there were other interesting tertiary characters (Oliver Wood played by Sean Biggerstaff, for example) and side quests.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Madeo” or “Mother,” directed by Joon-ho Bong, told the story of a mother (Hye-ja Kim) who would do anything to prove her son’s innocence (Bin Won) regarding a schoolgirl’s cold-blooded murder. Realizing that the police was not at all motivated to look into the case a little deeper, the mother did her own investigation about who the real killer was. Her first suspect was her son’s ruffian of a friend (Ku Jin). The look of the movie grabbed me instantaneously. There was something very poetic about the background imagery and the way it sometimes highlighted a character’s state of mind. My favorite scenes to look at were the shots taken outdoors when the mother was one with nature accompanied by music perfect for exotic dancing. Those scenes moved me because, as beautiful as the images were, my focus was on the mother’s facial expressions and body movements. By intently looking at her, I couldn’t help but feel her frustration, desperation and guilt. I am not quite sure that the picture started off well. The first twenty minutes felt like it was all over the place and I did not understand where the film wanted to go. However, it found its identity when the mother decided that she was going to perform her own detective work, specifically when she broke into someone’s home and found (what she believed was) a piece of evidence. I couldn’t help but care for her because she looked so frail and, more importantly, her unwavering conviction that her son was innocent. The last thing I wanted to see was her to be pushed around because she already looked as if she was defeated. I loved how the director framed the idea of truth and let it evolve naturally. Certain truths were true at a specific moment in time but then they changed five minutes later as new pieces of the puzzle were introduced. As a result, the movie was unpredictable and I was constantly questioning whether the mother was truly on the right path to earn her son’s freedom. The last few minutes were full of emotion. I was impressed with the way Bong dealt with the complexities of each emotion as the characters tried to deal with the final hand they were given. “Mother” is the kind of movie that is difficult to place under one genre. There were times when I thought it was a comedy (the beginning), a thriller (the middle), and a drama (the ending). It’s not the kind of movie that everyone will necessarily enjoy because the tone is vastly different compared to more mainstream projects. But what I can say for sure is that I thought the film was a rich morality story and a joy to watch.
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.
★★★★ / ★★★★
When twelve-year-old Josh (David Moscow) wished on a strange fortunetelling machine at a carnival that he wanted to be big, he woke up the next morning as a grown-up (Tom Hanks). With the help of his best friend (Jared Rushton), Josh moved to New York and ended up working for a toy company that really needed refreshment on what children really wanted and Josh fell in love with a much older woman (Elizabeth Perkins). In the meantime, his parents thought that he was kidnapped. I’ve seen a number of movies with pretty much the same premise so I must admit I wasn’t that excited to see the movie. But I decided to watch it anyway because I’ve heard great things about it and at the time I felt like watching something light and harmless. From the minute the movie started, it was consistently amusing, imaginative and touching without being too cheesy. The writing was confident and the combination with Hanks’ ability to embody a twelve-year-old’s innocence was very entertaining to watch. An absolute stand-out scene for me was when Hanks and his boss (Robert Loggia) who was a kid-at-heart played a giant piano in a children’s store. There was something so pure yet subtle about it and I couldn’t help but smile from ear to ear throughout the performance. I also loved the fact that “Big,” being a children’s movie, proved that it could entertain kids as well as adults without having to result to slapstick humor. It was above trying to disgust audiences with bodily functions and I admired it for that. Instead, it took advantage of mistaken identities and fantastic elements to tell a story that commented on physically growing up not necessarily equating to maturity both intellectually or emotionally. It was sometimes character-driven but it was done in a fun way so that you never really notice it. I also enjoyed the picture that much more because I promised myself when I was in high school that I would try my hardest not to loose my childlike tendencies as I reached adulthood. I saw parts of myself in Hanks’ character as he worked in and around the company, more specifically how his enthusiasm inspired others to think outside the box and love what they do more. “Big,” directed by Penny Marshall, was ultimately a film for both children and adults that was intelligent, creative and highly enjoyable. It may have been released in the late ’80s but I haven’t yet seen a recent movie with essentially the same premise that was quite as strong.
★★★ / ★★★★
I’ve seen Pedro Almodóvar’s work from the late 1990s to the present and have been nothing but impressed so naturally I became interested in seeing his older projects.”Matador” stars Antonio Banderas as a 22-year-old aspiring matador who was working under Nacho Martinez’ wing. When Martinez’ character asked Banderas if he was a homosexual due to his lack of experience with women, Banderas tried to prove his masculinity by trying to rape his mentor’s girlfriend (Eva Cobo). Eventually ending up in jail due to some strange coincidences and choices, a femme fatale lawyer (Assumpta Serna) came running to defend Banderas’ innocence. I love Almodóvar’s films because no matter how much I try to guess what would happen in the story, I always guess incorrectly. He has such a knack for telling unconventional stories that are funny, witty, tragic and ironic often all at the same time. The way he uses color to highlight a character’s fate or what he or she might be feeling and thinking always takes me by surprise even though I’m familiar with his techniques. I also was fascinated with the way Almodóvar used his characters’ occupations as a reflection of what they were really capable of when they think nobody was watching them. Admittedly, the writing can get a bit melodramatic at times but I think that’s half the fun of Almodóvar’s movies. He’s not afraid to reference to the supernatural, such as a certain character experiencing “visions,” to possibly make sense of the natural world. It’s the twists and turns that keep us wanting to watch. Like in most of his later projects, “Matador” was very passionate (or obsessive?) about sexuality–not necessarily sex–how his actors moved and delivered certain lines. Another element that I thought was interesting was the fact that Almodóvar used sex and violence as a backdrop to explore the darker side of human nature. The characters in this film were not necessarily good; in fact, they were far from innocent. But we root for some of them because the protagonists were capable of less evil than their counterparts. I wasn’t sure at first if I was going to enjoy Almodóvar’s earlier works but after watching “Matador,” I’m more than excited to see them. I just hope that they have the same level of vivaciousness, drama and sensuality as this picture.