Just Wright (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
A physical therapist (Queen Latifah) in her mid-thirties couldn’t seem to find a guy who was right for her. They would go out on dates, have good conversations and have a nice time but at the end of the night, the guys would tell her that she would be an ideal girl friend but not an ideal romantic girlfriend. Perhaps it was because of her looks or perhaps she was way into sports. But maybe she just wasn’t their type. Who knows? Men usually don’t know what they want or what’s good for them. But one thing is for sure: I connected with the lead character the moment she appeared on screen because she was played by Latifah. She just oozes a certain honesty and it’s such a warm feeling so I couldn’t stop watching her and hearing her speak. Watching her get in her busted up car made me feel like I’m watching a friend I’ve known for a long time. When the lead character happened to bump into a basketball player (Common), as far as romantic comedies go, you knew that something would happen between them. But conflict started when her sexy best friend (Paula Patton), a golddigger, set her sights on the guy. Despite the fact that this film stuck to the romantic comedy conventions, I enjoyed it because I was in the mood for something light. There were some nice tweaks such as the golddigging friend not seen as evil by any means but she just had a dependent personality. I’m sure we all know women who couldn’t live without a man or couldn’t bear to not be in relationships. The picture had a consistently friendly air to it because Latifah’s character had the maturity to hold her tongue even though people said or did inconsiderate things toward her. In a way, she reminded me of myself on my best days but I admired her because it seemed like she was just that kind of person–always aware of the fact that people are flawed and they don’t mean half of the things they say because of their insecurities. However, I felt like the momentum of the movie stumbled a bit during the last twenty minutes. I felt like the movie could have tried harder to be a bit more original when dealing with the basketball player’s road to recovery from a knee injury and realizing which woman was the right one for him. Embracing the conventions doesn’t mean sticking with it all the way through. The material would have been stronger if it had that special element of surprise instead of just feeding us our own expectations. “Just Wright,” directed by Sanaa Hamri, had a number of flaws but just like people in our every day lives, we can learn to overlook such flaws because it’s so charming.
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.
While You Were Sleeping (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★
“While You Were Sleeping” was one of those romantic comedies in the 1990s with big stars, really cheesy soundtracks and even cheesier storylines. Sandra Bullock plays Lucy, a person who worked on a subway station as a token collector and fell in love with a stranger (Peter Gallagher) who she saw every day but he never paid her much attention. But when the stranger had an accident at the subway station, Lucy jumped in front of a moving train to save his life. The stranger fell into a coma and due to certain circumstances, the stranger’s family thought Lucy was the stranger’s fiancée. To top it all off, Lucy started to fall in love with the stranger’s brother (Bill Pullman) who was curious about Lucy’s true identity. Despite the movie being predictable and formulaic, I enjoyed it because of Bullock. Her charm rescued this picture; she was so good at being vulnerable and her charm mixed with perfect comedic timing and geekiness was refreshing. A movie like this, let alone a star as charming as she is, is hard to come by nowadays. Even though Lucy lied to the family, we couldn’t help but root for her because she was a good person but she didn’t have a family or any close friends. Another reason why I liked the movie was Bullock and Pullman’s chemistry. There was something about the way that they looked in each other’s eyes and interacted with each other that made me feel warm and almost giggly. Since the source of the tension between them was obvious, I think I would have rolled my eyes and rejected the romance angle if the two lacked chemistry. Everything about this movie was nice (except for the obnoxious “real” fiancée but I’m glad she didn’t have much screen time) and if one was familiar with movies like “You’ve Got Mail” and “Sleepless in Seattle,” one would know exactly what to expect from this movie. “While You Were Sleeping,” directed by Jon Turteltaub, managed to get away with relying on the conventions of a romantic comedy because it embraced its genre to the fullest. It wasn’t trying to be edgy or ironic or shocking; it just allowed its actors do what they do best and it worked. These days, romantic comedies almost always consist of teenagers or twentysomethings and those movies often rely on sex or gay jokes. “While You Were Sleeping” is a PG-rated movie that features thirtysomethings who happen to have intelligence and maturity despite the issue of mistaken identities.
Whisper of the Heart (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written by Hayao Miyazaki and directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, this animated film showcases a charming tale of a girl named Shizuku (Youko Honna) and her passion for writing. I liked the fact that as the picture went on, we got to see how the lead character evolved from a girl who spent most of her time reading books (and not studying for her high school entrance exams) to a girl who wanted to do something with her talents so decided to pursue writing a book. Of course, side stories were expected such as her relationship with her best friend, the boy from the same grade who likes her, and the mysterious guy who checks out the same books as her named Seiji Amasawa (Kazuo Takahashi). I also enjoyed watching another layer to the story by showing us the dynamics in her home–an overbearing sister, a literary father, and a mother who is going to school–because it explains why Shizuku is such a self-starter, naturally curious regarding her surroundings, and has a natural taste for adventure. Since it was written by Miyazaki, I have to admit that I thought there was going to be more fantastic elements to the story. There were some of that, such as the strange coincidences and when the audiences had a chance to see what the lead character was imagining. But I was glad that this was grounded in reality and it really showed how it was like to make that transition from being a child to being an adolescent. Questions such as what she wanted to do in her life began popping up in her head when she met Seiji, who knows exactly wanted to do with his life. I admired her persistence in turning her insecurities into achievements. There were definitely times when I was inspired. My one problem with it, however, was it did, in fact, run a little too long. Perhaps if twenty minutes were cut off, it would have been much more focused and powerful. Regardless, I am giving this a recommendation because it made me think about where I am in life. It was sweet but not sugary; though it had its sad moments, it was never melodramatic.
Nancy Drew (2007)
★★ / ★★★★
I knew this was targeted toward children under ten years old but I decided to watch it anyway because I was in the mood for something light at the time. Still, despite my pretty low expectations, I thought the revival of “Nancy Drew,” directed by Andrew Fleming, was a bit of a letdown. Emma Roberts stars as the lead character who moved to Hollywood with her father (Tate Donovan) in a creepy house where a murdered famous actress used to live. Even though Nancy was naturally very curious and liked to solve crimes, she hesitated to do anything that related to the mystery because she promised her dad that she would try to be a normal teenager. At school, we saw her try to get along with her peers but they thought she was way too weird and dressed in an old-fashioned way. With the help of one of the mean girls’ brother (Josh Flitter) and crush (Max Thieriot), she finally decided to get to the bottom of the murder. Aside from being too sugary, I had big problems with its focus. I felt like it was too all over the place. I wished that the filmmakers had stuck to one thing (preferably the mystery) instead of trying to inject side stories about trying to fit in or being in a cute romance where neither Nancy or Ned did anything about it. (Granted, they were young.) The only part of the film I truly enjoyed was the last fifteen minutes or so where I truly felt that Nancy was in danger because the person/persons responsible for the murder had her surrounded no matter where she decided to run. Nevertheless, I do have to say that Emma Roberts has the potential to be a star. With the right movie and the right role, I think she will skyrocket to stardom. But in here, I felt like it was too much to ask for her to carry the movie especially if it’s not even edgy. This is a safe, non-violent, detective movie for kids that features an independent blossoming young woman. Nothing more, nothing less.
New in Town (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
This is another one of those chick flicks where a seemingly cold business-minded character (Renée Zellweger) gets assigned to a small town and realizes that it’s not as bad as she initially thinks because the people (led by the hilarious Siobhan Fallon, followed closely by J.K. Simmons) are warm-hearted despite their many quirks. She also happens to fall for a handsome nature-loving guy (Harry Connick Jr.) with a sad past, which of course she initially has to dislike due to the embarrassment of mistaken identities over dinner. It’s all been done before and “New in Town,” directed by Jonas Elmer, unfortunately, does not have anything new to offer. It’s a shame because he has very talented actors under his belt but he failed to inject a certain edginess to the story. I think if the characters were a bit more unlikable, this would’ve been a completely different (and more interesting) picture. I felt like there were only two jokes in this movie: Zellweger’s reaction and adjustment to small town life and the quirky townspeople with funny accents. At first I thought it was cute but it quickly went downhill after thirty minutes because I kept hoping that another joke would come along. The factor that saved this movie was Zellweger’s acting. Even though her character somewhat reminded me of Bridget Jones, it was nice seeing her here because she’s completely aware of the fact that she’s not going to get nominated for an Oscar. Therefore, there’s a certain relaxed feeling about her character that I instantly liked even though she’s the kind of woman who is ambitious and not afraid to put people under the bus to get what she wants (initially). But like I said before, it would’ve been better if she remained that way or changed for the better only a little bit but not sugary and sweet as she was during the last ten minutes. If one is up for a film with gentle laughs and contains no inappropriate or offensive jokes, this is the one to see. However, for those who are looking for something a bit daring and multi-dimensional, I can’t quite recommend it.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
★★★ / ★★★★
Hayao Miyazaki’s “Kiki’s Delivery Service” tells the story of a young girl who moves away from her parents’ house to another city in order to be more independent and find out and explore her unique talents. Just when I thought it would focus more on the magic and what it means to be a witch, this animated feature is actually more of human story more than anything. By that I don’t mean that the city has a rule against witches or people are mean to her because she’s a witch. In fact, witches are pretty welcome in this picture’s universe so it had the opportunity to focus on more on the circumstances that forces Kiki to be more of an adult instead of a kid. I also liked the fact that the people she meets on her journey are not mere quirky characters that we see once and never see again. They’re actually people that impact Kiki in many ways and they manage to come back when she needs them most. One could come to the conclusion that those people she meets are role models that help Kiki afloat when everything feels hopeless. All of that said, I can’t say that this is one of my favorite Miyazaki films. It lacks a certain innate edge and darkness of “Spirited Away,” “Princess Mononoke” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.” I say “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is more geared toward children because the story and dialogue are a bit too sweet and sugary. For me, the best part of the film was the talking cat and the old dog. I ended up laughing out loud a lot during those scenes because creatures that one would normally think of as mortal enemies ended up to be something quite the opposite. For the fans of Miyazaki’s movies, this is nonetheless a must-see because it has a certain universal appeal and wit that are very surprising from time to time.