DVD Picks: Letters to Juliet & Spirited Away

Well, I didn’t get a chance to see The Social Network this weekend, though they hardly need my patronage to take the top spot for the second weekend, dropping only 30% to take in $15.5 mil (per Box Office Mojo). Initially I wanted to see the dark comedy/drama The Joneses with David Duchovny and Demi Moore (see trailer here), but it wasn’t available at the DVD vending machine at my office, so I got this rom-com instead.

Letters to Juliet

I gotta admit I’m not a huge fan of rom-coms in general, but I actually like the trailer when I first saw it. Perhaps it’s the Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero casting that grabbed me, I mean romance knows no age after all, so it’s nice to see the 70-something real-life couple getting all lovey-dovey on screen. Of course there’s the gorgeous setting in Verona, Italy where most of this movie was shot, it’s one of those flicks that made you wish you could be transported right into the screen!

The movie opens with Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), an American girl on vacation with her fiance in Verona who finds an unanswered ‘letter to Juliet’—one of thousands of notes/messages left at the fictional lover’s Verona courtyard. Apparently, at the end of the day these letters are collected by one of the ‘secretaries of Juliet’ and of course it’s no surprise that Sophie inadvertently became one of those secretaries. The story pretty much picks up when the woman who wrote the letter 50 years ago, Claire, receives it and goes to Verona along with her handsome grandson to meet whomever writes her back. You know what happens next, as the trailer pretty much tells us so, that Sophie ends up going on a quest to find Claire’s long-lost love.

Love knows no age… Franco & Vanessa

As predictable as this movie is—you pretty much know what’s going to happen next scene after scene—I actually don’t mind it so much. The 25-year-old Seyfried is such an affable and sympathetic leading lady, she makes you want to experience the journey with her. She has such earnest quality about her that is a rarity amongst beautiful young starlets. Aussie actor Christopher Egan (who looks like a younger version of Matt Damon) makes for a pretty charming love interest, and the two have a considerable chemistry. But the highlight of the movie for me came when Franco Nero finally showed up, the way every prince charming did in those Disney fairy tale flicks… on a horse looking all macho and heroic! It’s schmaltzy no doubt, but I totally bought it and I couldn’t help get all teary-eyed in the scene when the two are reunited.

As I said in my trailer post though, the only head-scratching casting here is Gael García Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries, Babel) as the obligatory oblivious fiance. In the Special Features, it sounds like Bernal wanted to try a ‘lighter’ role, but the professional chef Victor is such a one-dimensional character that the talented Mexican actor is kind of wasted in this role.

In any case, I thought this was a nice little movie to spend on a Friday night. Definitely a good one to watch with the one you love.

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Spirited Away (2001)

I’ve never been a fan of anime, even though growing up I did read a lot of Candy Candy manga novels. I had a high expectation going into this as the credentials are beyond impressive, according to IMDb Trivia: In 2006, this film was still the highest-grossing non-US-produced film in the world and still holds that record to this date. Spirited Away is also the first film to earn US$200 million before opening in the U.S. and the first anime film to be nominated for (and win) an Academy Award! Walt Disney Pictures dubbed this English adaptation, under the supervision of Pixar’s John Lasseter. Lasseter is a personal friend of the Spirited Away’s Hayao Miyazaki, considered one of the best Japanese animation directors.

The movie starts off when 10-year-old Chihiro, the protagonist, and her parents are on their way to their new home in the suburbs. Her dad inadvertently takes a wrong turn into a mysterious wooded path and ends up in front of a peculiar looking tunnel. Despite Chihiro’s persistent protests, her adventurous parents decide to enter the tunnel and find what looks like an abandoned theme park on the other side. As they wander around, they find a deserted restaurant and Chihiro’s parents decide to help themselves to some food while their daughter refuses to take part.

Chihiro finds a friend in Haku

The story pretty much picks up a few minutes later when Chihiro finds her parents have been transformed into food-gobbling farm animals and soon she too is whisked away into a magical and creepy world ruled by an old witch, with only a boy named Haku to help her to survive and hopefully be able to return to her own world once again.

This is definitely not a movie for young kids, there are imagery that would frighten them, and I even find myself spooked–not to mention grossed out–on a few occasions. The story actually speak to adults with themes of loyalty, courage, dedication, diligence, perseverance and ultimately love, that permeate Chihiro’s journey. I really sympathize with the previously-spoiled-brat young girl right from the get go and watching what she has to endure is heart-wrenching as well as uplifting. By the end, you really see her grow as a person and the message is that life lessons sometimes involve hard work and facing challenges head on without losing your identity.

Chihiro picks up interesting friends throughout her journey

I don’t know if it’s what the director intended, but I see the scene of cleansing of the stink spirit the same way that can happen on our human souls when we let it get bogged down with ‘junk’ and evil stuff. If we let all the bad stuff of this world ‘consume’ us and take over our lives, it can have awful consequences to ourselves as well as those around us, and sometimes it could take drastic measures to get rid of those so we could be ‘free’ once again.

Glad I finally got a chance to see this. Spirited Away totally lived up to the hype, it boasts a well-written, touching story and stunning visuals that definitely make a lasting impression on me. I don’t even mind the fact that this was dubbed to English, I normally would prefer that movies are left in its native language with subtitles.

I’m curious to check out Miyazaki’s other works now, such as Princess Monokone and Castle in the Sky.

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If you’ve seen either of these titles and would like to add your thoughts about ’em, you’re more than welcome to do so!