Babies is a visually stunning, intellectually intriguing and emotionally moving French documentary not quite as well-known (it grossed less in the box office and won no Academy Award), but more potentially appealing than March of the Penguins. Babies is both intimate and familiar; it follows a year in the life of four babies, whose names we know, homes we enter, successes which we celebrate and frustrations with which we empathize. Even though Hattie is from San Francisco, Ponijao is from Namibia, Bayarjargal is from Mongolia and Mari is from Tokyo, they are unmistakably, universally all things baby. Their environments might be different and their parents’ methods might be different but they do the same things: fight with peers over toys, seek comfort in their mothers’ bosoms, express curiosity about pets, explore and learn.

Hattie and Mari’s experiences are very similar, probably because they are both from First World, urban environments. Although none of the families are notably affluent or impoverished, they have advantages – if you want to call them that – over Ponijao and Bayarjargal, who live in rural Developing or Third World nations. However, through ingenious juxtaposition of similar scenes the film subtly conveys the idea that perhaps, despite outward circumstances, babies grow up on a more or less equal playing field (sometimes literally, since Bayarjargal’s play yard is his family’s entire cattle farm). It suggests that nature, not nurture, is the domineering factor in child development. One minute we might note that Bayargargal seems to be alone quite a lot or bullied by his older sibling and yet he is undeterred in his exploration and extremely happy in his discoveries. In the next scene, we might be surprised that Mari is surrounded by toys and yet is frustrated by every single one of them after one attempt at making them work. This particular series of events might even lead one to conclude that all the doting the First World babies get is more harmful than good, but I think that would be reading into things a bit too far.

My companion viewer did note that Hattie and Mari are disadvantaged in regards to socialization. Their parents need to take them to various music classes and play dates in order for them to be around peers, but Bayarjargal at least has his older sibling. Ponijao has the best family/community life, with not one, but two women, nearby and what seems like a dozen playmates in the village children. In his village, the kids look out for one another and for the most part get along very well. Maybe it doesn’t take a village to raise a child, but it does seem like a pretty good idea.

Being accustomed to certain things – particularly a certain level of cleanliness – I will interject that considering the options from every angle, I would always prefer to raise my children in a First World country, thankyouverymuch. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t learn a great deal from how other parents raise their kids. Mainly, it’s a relief that no matter my parenting style or mistakes, it’s likely that all you really need is love.

This film is not only interesting to moms-who-love-babies or obsess about every detail but enjoyable for the whole family.* My husband discussed it with me and my 2 ½ year old son was interested the entire length of the film making it the first full length feature film he’s watched start to finish. Personally, I found it so enthralling that a second viewing only kindled a desire to watch it a third time and perhaps a fourth and almost every day of my life. Though that may seem like quite an overstatement, I’m not quite sure it is. Since there is no interviewing, narration or English subtitles, every piece of information, every feeling is conveyed visually or tonally. I could become an obsessed observer, like an anthropology student. At the very least, it has become one of my favorite films in any genre.

Have you seen Babies?  What did you think?

*I suppose I should throw in a disclaimer here. Uncle Orson disagrees with me because of the potential problem of parents with bare nursing breasts and what I can only guess to be his discomfort with undiapered baby boys. I suppose it has to do with the age of your children and parenting approach.


Toy Story 3

A couple of weeks ago, My husband and I headed out to the movie theater without a plan. All we knew was, we had to get there by 7, because all the movies play at either 7 or 9 and we didn’t want to hang around until 9 and get home later. But we love movies and see one almost anytime we can get free babysitting, so had seen most of the movies playing locally. We decided to check out the theaters off island and found Toy Story 3 playing in 3D at 8. We hesitated because it felt silly to watch a cartoon without our toddler. On purpose. But it was either that or Salt, which got horrible reviews. And quite frankly, I don’t want to watch it out of spite towards the film’s marketing, which piggybacked on the breaking news of the Russian spy ring. (Angelina Jolie even had the cajones to invite Anna Chapman to the premiere.)

Toy Story 3 it was. And at least it was in 3D. Our son would not have sat through the movie, let alone keep his glasses on. Guilt atoned. And we were pleasantly surprised at how much we enjoyed it. Yet again, the Andy’s toys are separated from him and determined to be reunited. However, Andy is growing up and the toys’ fates must be decided: will they be put in the attic to wait for Andy’s kids, put on the curb for the trash to pick up, donated to a Shawshank Redemption style daycare, or – is there another option? Surprisingly, the Toy Story series does not get old. Rather, it matures and stays relevant. It also helps that we’ve probably never stopped caring about all the beloved characters, just like we still remember our childhood toys with fondness.

My husband and I did not regret our choice that night. The movie made us laugh, touched our hearts and even moved us to tears. (I thought, “What’s happening? I’m tearing up over a movie? Over a movie about TOYS?! Well, played, Pixar.”) It’s so hard to say with Pixar’s UP close in the running, but I believe Toy Story 3 is the best family film to date, because it’s directly relevant to almost everyone and across generations.

Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland has been criticized for not being true to the books upon which it is based but I fortunately have not yet read The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass from cover to cover. Usually I am a stickler for that sort of thing. But I enjoyed Tim Burton’s take immensely. All the themes and characters are there including plenty of heart, which is lacking according to one review.

The heart of the story is a young woman finding herself, which is not what she has been defined by society or even her own perception of herself as represented by the characters in her dream. Alice learns that she is much more.

What is not to like? Even a stickler for rules (this girl) can really get behind this story.

Another criticism is the portrayal of Wonderland. Some believe it to be too dark. In comparison to contemporary films, it is really just a little dusky. After all, that’s what you get with a queen like the Red Queen. And what would Alice have to conquer if it were all sunny? She must conquer in her dream or she will never conquer in real life.

And did anyone notice Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter? Did they watch the same movie because the one I saw had Johnny Depp moving me to almost tears. As the Mad Hatter. Anyone else might have tried to make him one dimensional. Helena Bonham Carter, for that matter, portrayed surprising depth as the Red Queen. I actually felt kind of sorry for her, the “off with their heads” lady.

Off with the critics heads and you, my friends, are late for a very important date.

The Wolfman

My husband and I love to watch movies but truth be told, we are also in kind of date night rut. So when we went out for our weekly ritual, we sort of resigned ourselves to seeing a just okay movie. Our conversation as we perused the titles of movies that started at eight was roughly as follows.

Micah: The Wolfman!

Me: Ugh. No. It’s Anthony Hopkins. He always plays a detached, creepy killer.

Micah: True. But it’s Anthony Hopkins in The Wolfman! How about From Paris with Love?

Me: It’s John Travolta and he says the “F” word more often than he speaks. Don’t ask me how that’s even possible but it’s true. How about The Blindside?

Micah: I am done with Sandra Bullock movies for the year. And you owe me for Dear John so I say The Wolfman.

So The Wolfman it was. I am not a fan of monster or even horror films but he had me with the chick flick I made him watch. The reason I do not like horror films is because they tend to be gory and have no plot. Such is almost the case with The Wolfman. It certainly is gory, so I averted my eyes as much as I could; and I didn’t have nightmares last night because there is too much humor – not on purpose, mind you, but it is a laughable film.

The most humorous part of the movie is the costume/makeup of the werewolf. And the transformation effects. And the howling at the moon while perched upon the back of a gargoyle. And the running as a wolf but looking ridiculous and impeded and slow.

The non-humorous parts of the film are either sickening (I won’t get into the graphic detail here) or maddening (most of the so called horror is cheap tricks like dreams and visions instead of real events and tripping and falling while walking into a completely harmless situation) or eye-rolling. I rolled my eyes a lot at the acting. Hugo Weaving and Anthony Hopkins are so typecast it’s – well, it’s not even funny. The only saving grace is Emily Blunt, who is so brilliant, I didn’t even recognize her at first (she is often cast as a sidekick instead of a heroine.)

Okay, I lied. There is more than one saving grace. The other is that there were so many similarities between The Wolfman and Twilight that I think it repelled my husband’s sarcastic remarks for many a – well, moon.

Dear John

Dear Reader,

Of course I liked The Notebook. I mean, I have ovaries, don’t I? (The answer is yes, I do.) But does that mean I want to see it retitled as Dear John? (For the answer, read on.)

For Dear John Nicholas Sparks draws on the same themes of first success. The author admits they are drawn from real life (What an interesting life!), but Nick isn’t too innocent; he’s up to the same tricks, preying upon feminine emotions, and is devilishly good at it, too.

The beginning of Dear John, especially does drag a bit. I have a feeling it is much better in novel form; it can’t be easy to portray on film how two people can fall in love in a short span of time and the two weeks that daughter of Charleston society Savannah and soldier with a past John feel like exactly two weeks.

However the story may drag in parts, though, it does get much more interesting than the title indicates. This is not the typical Dear John story; there is a sub plot with a twist that will hit bones as tender as a lost first love.

The main plot, of course, is predictable: young couple falls impulsively in love, circumstances beyond their control separate them, they make foolish decisions, they are reunited and they realize that they are still in love and have even more obstacles to overcome. But these events are not the “tricks” up the author’s sleeve. Oh, no. If the timeless story does not get you the landscape will. The scenes under the moon will. The love letters will. The making out in an unfinished house while it’s raining (again) will get you. I know. Cheap tricks. And that’s not to mention how Savannah falls in love with John in the first place: he dives into the water to save her purse.

The resolution of the main plot seems a bit too perfect and wishful. As a viewer I felt as though during the last half of the film, I was experiencing John’s daydreams and not his reality. He seems to get everything he wants which makes for a great life but not necessarily a great story. Great stories don’t have an obvious resolution.

So I guess my answer is, this film is worth watching if you don’t mind trudging through some boring parts to watch the good ones. I don’t want to spoil the story, but trust me: it is a sweet surprise.

Sherlock Holmes

When I saw Sherlock Holmes I had neither read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries or watched BBC’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett. As a young reader, I was keen on Agatha Christie’s Poirot. I both read the books and watched the television series. I couldn’t resist the gentlemanly, impeccable, thorough French detective named Hercule. So you may understand my shock as the modern, edgy incarnation of Doyle’s classic character introduced himself by flashing across the scene in a series of fist fights.

As it turns out, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes might not be far off the mark. Okay, so I still haven’t read the books but cheating Spark Notes style, the infamous detective is a fighter. In fact, he is skilled in many weapons and styles. He is eccentric, as Robert Downey, Jr. brilliantly portrays, with a method to his madness, though also kempt, which Downey does not portray (maybe it’s the long, greasy hair?).

Personal neatness is Holmes only similarity to Poirot, it seems. Now knowing what to expect, I might appreciate this adaptation a bit more and like the character more for who he is.

However, not unique to the mystery genre, is the incredibly annoying practice of withholding information which the main character observed all along until the end of the story even though the story is from that character’s perspective. Murder on the Orient Express was the worst offender and turned me off to mystery for years. Thankfully, Christie’s most praised and beloved novel is still the worst offender. Sherlock Holmes is only a minor offender and for that Ritchie deserves some props.

The stylization of the film was amazing – upping the ante on the aforementioned TV series with even more sepia tones and even harsher dissonance. But Ritchie goes a little.too.far in trying to be edgy and ends up in the macabre. There must be at least half a dozen flashbacks to a particular corpse-filled coffin and sometimes when it isn’t immediately relevant.

All in all, I’d probably conclude the film to be mediocre if it weren’t for two performances. Mark Strong, as always, plays a spine-chilling villian and Rachel McAdams surprises with a new saucy kind of role. (I didn’t even recognize her at first.) I really hope to see her in the next Sherlock film.