Phoebe in Wonderland (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I thought this was going to be a light-hearted children’s movie but it turned out to be something more serious. Elle Fanning stars as Phoebe, a precocious 9-year-old girl who was chosen by her drama teacher (Patricia Clarkson) to play Alice for the school play of “Alice in Wonderland.” Phoebe was more at home on stage than she was in the classroom and with her family. She constantly got into trouble for spitting at other kids whenever she would feel like she was cornered and this alarmed the principal (Campbell Scott), a man who obviously had no idea how to communicate with kids and how to treat them. Felicity Huffman plays Phoebe’s mother, an author who felt trapped because she felt like she was incompetent when it came to raising her two daughters. At first, I thought this film was about a child with an obsessive-compulsive disorder; whenever Phoebe wanted something so badly, she would wash her hands until they bled, walk in circles for hours on end, and go up and down the stairs for a certain number of times. But then somewhere in the middle, I thought that it was about childhood depression–that the reason why Phoebe was so engulfed in the play (and excelling at it) and why she saw the characters from “Alice in Wonderland” was because she wanted to escape the pressures of the classroom and the neglect she felt at home. Ultimately, her disorder was revealed at the end of the film and I was disappointed with myself because I should have seen the signs. Regardless, this movie kept me interested from beginning to end because it had a genuine drama in its core. Clarkson absolutely blew me away. I really felt like she cared for the kids by teaching them how to trust themselves, show initiative, and playing on their strengths instead of focusing on their weaknesses. The way she said her lines mesmerized me because her intonations provided real insight on how to live life without caring what other people might think. Her relationship with Phoebe was touching, especially when she consoled Phoebe that being different was perfectly okay, or even great: “At a certain part in your life, probably when too much of it has gone by, you will open your eyes and see yourself for who you are. Especially for everything that made you so different from all the awful normals. And you will say to yourself, “But I am this person.” And in that statement, that correction, there will be a kind of love.” This film undeniably has its flaws, such as its pacing and scenes with the psychiatrist, but the positives far more than outweigh the negatives.
The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)
★★★ / ★★★★
Considered as one of the most important Spanish films, “The Spirit of the Beehive,” written and directed by Victor Erice, tells the story of a little girl named Ana (Ana Torrent) who, after watching the 1931 version of “Frankenstein” and being told by her sister named Isabel (Isabel Tellería) that his spirit exists, goes off to find a real-life monster. I really admired this film because the use of words was minimal yet it was more than able to convey what the characters were thinking and feeling. It truly captured how childhood was the peak of curiosity and how our perception at that point in our lives may be a bit skewed from reality. The way Ana and Isabel tell stories, play games and tricks on each other reminded me and my brother many years ago. I also liked the broken relationship between a husband (Fernando Fernán Gómez) and a wife (Teresa Gimpera). Little do they know that no matter how much they try to interact with their daughters separately (or not interact), the children feel that there’s something wrong even though they do not yet know how to tackle such feelings. The awkward scene at the table when the whole family was eating together was somewhat elusive because I noticed that there was not a frame in the film that each of the family member was in. I think that divide between the two parental figures was another reason why Ana decided to plunge into her own imagination as an escape. The scenes in their big mansion of a home were painful for me to watch because there was a very noticable lack of stimulation such as books and toys for the two children. At least for me, they looked more alive when they were watching a movie in the town, while they were at school, and when they were roaming around outside. This is a very strong motion picture that should be seen by movie-lovers everywhere. However, one should be warned that it requires a lot of patience because it may get a bit slow at times due to the lack of happenings in the small village that they live in. Nonetheless, it’s a rewarding experience because it works on several angles, cinematically and psychologically.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Affliction” is a haunting film about a man (Nick Nolte) who was abused by his father (James Coburn) as a child and the ramifications of such negative parenting. I couldn’t help but watch this picture in a psychological perspective because it’s very character-driven. This is one of Nolte’s strongest film acting-wise because right from the moment he appeared on screen, I could discern that there was seriously something wrong with him. Though he doesn’t say a lot during the first few minutes, his facial expressions and body language made me reach to a hypothesis that he internalizes all his troubles. Surely enough, Paul Schrader, the director, brilliantly uses narration and grainy flashback sequences about what Nolte’s character and his brother (Willem Dafoe) have experiences under their father’s roof. I felt so bad for Nolte’s character because he lacks a coping mechanism (or even basic but effective problem-solving strategies) when a problem is in front of him. All he knows is internalization because his father taught him that in order for him to be a man (and not a sissy), he must not wear emotion on his sleeves. His internal conflict regarding his past was worsened by his decaying relationship with his ex-wife and daughter. Nolte becomes so determined to be the complete opposite of his father to the point where he couldn’t see that his daughter is afraid of his presence. He tries way too hard to impress her that he becomes this suffocating figure, who not only puts his daughter under a microscope, but also reacts so aggressively when the daughter doesn’t express enough gratitude or when she claims that she “wants to go home.” I also thought that his tendency to the want to solve mysteries when there’s no mystery to be solved was fascinating. The way I saw it was he couldn’t solve his own inner problems so he tries to look for solutions for things that have nothing to do with him. He needs to constantly compensate for his lack of internal locus of control to the point where he starts drowning in his own problems and his friends start leaving him. That downward spiral was aided by the eventual constant presence of his abusive father; I was deeply affected by scenes when the father would literally put Nolte down some more when Nolte was already feeling like less than nothing. I also thought the story was smart because Dafoe’s character, despite the abuse, was well-adjusted. It offers an alternative argument: child-rearing is not the only factor to blame. Based on Russell Banks’ novel, “Affliction” is a depressing but powerful picture because it’s very multi-layered in its portrayal of the characters and the elements that keep the story together.
The 400 Blows (1959)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I found this classic film’s theme of running away in order to achieve some sort of freedom being particularly impressive: running away from an uncaring home (the parents played by Albert Rémy and Claire Maurier), a strict school system, and a juvenile reform center. Alternatively, it can also be seen as an escape from oneself because Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud), the lead character, cannot live up to society’s expectations on how he should think and behave. Having known that this story was drawn from François Truffaut’s, the director, troubled childhood, I decided to see this film in a psychological perspective. By the end of this picture, I have never found myself wanting to adopt a character because he is pretty much misunderstood by everyone around him. Admittedly, he did commit petty crimes and purposely did not do well in school but I thought the parents were to blame. The kid’s actions were a sort of signal for help and attention. The mother is disloyal and narcissistic in every way; a master when it comes to getting what she wants whenever she wants and not above bribery in order to keep living her fantasy. The father is not a good male role model for his son because he tackles problems with screaming and yelling instead of sitting down and discussing the problem at hand like a mature adult. The two parents have a few things in common: ambivalent feelings when it comes to their child, inconsistent parenting techniques (such as reward and punishment, lack of unconditional positive regard), and transference of their negative energy from outside the home to inside the home. I immediately thought that neither of them really wanted their son and I felt so badly for him. When it comes to the film’s techniques, I was impressed with Truffaut’s use of close-ups to fully convey what the character is feeling and thinking; the use of natural sound and extended takes made me feel like I was actually that much closer to the characters. The way the story unfolded felt organic–there’s a certain fluidity when it comes to the build-up of conflicts and the eventual release from such conflicts. Even though this was released in 1959, it’s still very relevant today because of the modern disaffected youth and people who are supposed to be parents but not quite know how to fill in such demanding shoes. An hour after watching the film, I still feel that sting of emotion on Antoine Doinels face as he was taken by a cop vehicle, crying behind the bars that portrays his crushed innocence. “The 400 Blows” is deeply powerful and resonant film and it’s a shame that I haven’t seen it sooner. You shouldn’t make the same mistake.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Just when I thought Pixar could not surprise me any longer after such an impressive nine-streak classics and near classics (perhaps with the exception of “Cars”), their tenth film, “Up,” directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, was nothing short of impressive. “Up” tells the story of an aging balloon salesman (Carl voiced by Edward Asner) and his way of honoring his late wife’s dream of visiting South America. After attaching thousands of balloons to his house as it floated to the sky, he discovered an eager wilderness boy scout/explorer named Russell (Jordan Nagai). In South America, the two meet a giant bird named Kevin and an extremely adorable talking dog named Dug (also voiced by Peterson). But that was only the beginning of their breathtaking adventure.
I believe this is one of the more mature Pixar films when it comes to dealing with emotion because it tries to tell a story from the perspective of an old man possibly living his last few years. There was a certain sadness that pervaded the film because he constantly tried looking back in his past and feeling an utmost sadness whenever he thinks about his promises to his wife that he never fulfilled when she was alive. I was particularly impressed with the first scene when Young Carl (Jeremy Leary) and Young Ellie (Elie Docter) first met. There was a certain innocence and innate acceptance with it all and it truly reminded me of my parents because they, too, met when they were pretty much kids and eventually got married. I think one of the best scenes of the film was when it showed how their lives progressed from when they were kids, finally moved into a house that was once their playground of imagination, failure to have children, to when Ellie was on her deathbed. I found that scene with no spoken language so powerful because it managed to capture the essence of life–the ups as well as the downs–something that most animated films tend to sugarcoat. I was really touched with Ellie and Carl’s relationship because even though their dreams were not fully realized because life always got in the way (an injury, a natural accident, broken appliances, et cetera), they still stayed strong and together up until the end. I was also impressed that “Up” was brave enough to show blood and bullets and characters really getting hurt so I was that more engaged.
There were a plethora of jokes that made me seriously laugh out loud in the cinema. I had no shame even though I saw this film with a bunch of college students of around my age because it was that funny. The brilliant one liners, such as “I do not like the cone of shame!”, were stuck in my head after I walked out of the theater. They paint a big smile on my face when I think about them now as I write this review. I don’t know what it was–maybe it was the kid in me–but I was just so astonished with (aside from the storytelling) the visual experience (I saw it on 3D–which was worth the extra three bucks!). Pixar has an undeniable talent when it comes to putting certain colors together to make the important images pop up so the audiences will understand without the characters saying a word. The imagers were that effective so I couldn’t help but give it praise. I also liked the colorful characters, especially Dug, the talking dog. Not only was he beyond cute but his character had this vibrant energy that reminded me of, oddly enough, myself. Like Dug, I easily get distracted even when things are at their most critical point and I tend to repeat myself when I’m excited or hyper. Russell, despite his happiness and earnestness, has a certain depth that explores the dynamics in his home. This film was actually able to comment on issues such as the repercussions of poor parenting and the child’s psychology whenever a parent neglects him. I was devastated when Russell finally revealed his motivation for wanting to be a wilderness explorer so badly to Carl. It goes to show that he’s still a child because, to him, accomplishments come hand-in-hand with social or parental approval and not primarily about self-worth (yet). Subtle things like that convinced me that a lot of thought was put into this film. Unlike most animated pictures, this strives to be more than just “cute” and “visually stunning.”
It goes without saying that I’m enthusiastically recommending “Up.” I think it’s one of the more emotionally mature animated films that Pixar has ever come up with because it was able to successfully tackle the depression that comes after a partner’s death and the anxiety that comes when one thinks about his own mortality. While kids may be saddened just a bit during those scenes (as well as adults), the older generations will most likely think about their own lives during or afterwards. I truly hope that this will be considered to be a Best Animated Film, along with “Coraline,” during the Oscars season. And if it happens to win, it will be well-deserved. I cannot help but wonder what Pixar will come up with next.