Saturday, August 31, 2013

From Up on Poppy Hill

From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)
Animation, Drama, Family, 92 minutes
Directed by Goro Miyazaki
Starring the voices (US dub) of Sarah Bolger, Anton Yelchin, Gillian Anderson, Ron Howard, Beau Bridges and Isabelle Fuhrman

Fans of Studio Ghibli won't have had much chance to see From Up on Poppy Hill. It enjoyed a brief limited release in theaters a few months ago, but the Blu-ray release on September 3rd will allow many other fans to check it out. I've seen it twice over the past two days and I urge Ghibli fans to buy the Blu-ray.

From Up on Poppy Hill looks like a Studio Ghibli film, and packs quite an emotional punch, but don't expect to see the fantasy element present in most of the studio's classics. This is more like Whisper of the Heart than Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro. The film is populated by good people doing good things, and there's not a villain in sight. It will appeal to anyone who remembers their childhood, school, young love, and friendship. Like most Ghibli films, it's full of great messages for us and our children.

Umi Matsuzaki (Bolger) is an eleventh-grader, living in 1963 Yokohama; she takes care of her family and a few boarders while her mother is away studying in the US. She cooks and cleans while trying to maintain her good grades, and is a responsible young woman. One day in school, she meets Shun Kazama (Yelchin). He performs a daredevil stunt to try to gain support for his campaign to save a clubhouse used by him and his friends. Umi and Shun form a friendship that is the heart of the film, but the story isn't quite so simple. This is not just a tale of teen romance; it's the story of a group of young people pulling together to achieve a common goal. Some of the twists are unexpected, and considerably more complicated than those found in typical animated fare.

One of Umi's habits is to raise flags on the pole on her balcony to signal to ships passing in the harbor. I had better not reveal the reason for that, but it's far from trivial and will help you to empathize with her situation. Umi's world is constantly changing. Her small town has a real community feel, and it's common for people to be friendly and help one another in their daily lives. The bigger picture shows Tokyo preparing for the 1964 Olympics, so there's constant pressure to join modern society and leave behind some of the antiquated life that Umi is used to.

One of the high points is seeing how the students work together to renovate their dirty old clubhouse, and the daring way in which Shun, Umi, and a friend attempt to get their message heard by someone who is actually in a position to make a difference.

Some of the themes in From Up on Poppy Hill are pretty serious. I know that I have probably failed to capture the interest of many readers, because this is another Studio Ghibli film without significant conflict. Instead of an evil villain, we are shown some of the problems young people might face while growing up. One twist is heartbreaking, and I won't dare reveal it here. However, I will say that by the end of the film, the mood is extremely positive. Like all good dramas, there must be some challenges and heartbreak in order for us to appreciate the good things in life. When the film ended, I was smiling. I wish my world could be as idyllic and charming.

I'm sure some of you are wondering about Goro Miyazaki's direction, and whether the future of Studio Ghibli is in good hands with Hayao Miyazaki's (72) retirement announced, and Toshio Suzuki (65) probably approaching the end of his career. Goro Miyazaki received plenty of criticism for Tales of Earthsea (2006), and openly admitted that he played it safe and didn't try to extend himself. From Up on Poppy Hill is a much stronger effort, and I hope it enables him to produce works of similar quality in the future. Hayao Miyazaki wrote the screenplay with Keiko Niwa, and I'm sure that it helps make the film feel familiar, and as warm as other Studio Ghibli entries.

Many of the established Ghibli traits are present. I love that the female characters are so strong; something that Pixar could learn from. The importance of family, friendship, and mutual respect is always on display. The young and the old both have a place in the world, and they care about one another. Notice also the scenes involving food. I can remember so many similar scenes from other Ghibli films. Perhaps they are present to remind us how good something as simple as a pleasant meal can be? There's also an umbrella; it's amazing how often they appear in Ghibli's other worlds.

Before I close, I must mention the Blu-ray special edition. Unlike most US Ghibli releases, this one is released by GKids and Cinedigm. The picture quality is wonderful, and the audio features both US and Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0 mixes. I was startled a couple of times by the immersive output from the rear speakers. The package includes a DVD, so you can introduce a new fan to Ghibli, and a rather informative 16-page booklet. Hayao Miyazaki talks about how the project originated, and Goro talks about his work on the film. The special features total more than three hours, and include the film in storyboard form, plus interviews with Goro Miyazaki and Hayao Miyazaki. For those who like to watch the film in the original language, the subtitles are white and unobtrusive.

Ghibli fans, or anyone who cares about life, people, and good storytelling, should not miss this release.

Overall score 4.5/5

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Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Very Long Engagement - The other great Jeunet/Tautou collaboration

A Very Long Engagement (2004)
Drama, Mystery, Romance, 133 minutes, French language
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Starring Audrey Tautou, Gaspard Ulliel, Dominique Pinon, Marion Cotillard, and Jodie Foster

Most North Americans have either never heard of Audrey Tautou, or know her because she appeared in Amelie or The Da Vinci Code. The biggest hurdle is that the majority of her films are French, and I'm well aware that more than 90 percent of people can't stand subtitles. That's a shame, because Tautou is a fantastic actress. She's physically attractive, but her acting contains a depth of emotion that is even more beautiful. It's easy to root for her characters. Just look into those soulful dark eyes and see how much emotion she conveys without saying a word.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet is an extremely quirky director, and his films have an unmistakable style. Think of him as a French version of Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino; at least in terms of humor. Although this film contains more serious subject matter than Amelie, that humor is still there. I usually watch it with a grin on my face and tears in my eyes.

So, what is A Very Long Engagement about? Well, it's set during World War 1, and the first 15 minutes might lead you to believe that it's a war film, but it's actually an epic romance. How many guys have stopped reading already? It's in French and it's a romance! If you're the type of person who can't stand typical romances, don't worry. This film is much more than mere fluff. It has a deep story, with so many interesting characters that you might lose track of what is going on the first time you see it. Just watch what Jeunet does with the character of the postman. Jeunet is perhaps an acquired taste, but I strongly urge you to check out his work if you haven't thus far.

Mathilde (Tautou) is 20, and she's in love with Manech (Ulliel). She developed polio as a small child, and he was the only kid in school who was interested in talking to her. One flashback shows how they met, and how he captured her attention by offering to carry her on his back to the top of a lighthouse. Love comes in many forms, and I often wonder why two people end up together. It can be for all kinds of reasons, but it's clear as we see Mathilde and Manech come to know each other that their relationship is something very special. Unfortunately, it's interrupted when Manech is required to become a soldier. Jeunet doesn't romanticize war at all, so expect a few unpleasant scenes.

The story continues as five soldiers, including Manech, are accused of trying to get out of fighting by deliberately wounding themselves. Rumors reach Mathilde that Manech is dead, but she refuses to believe it. Mathilde suffers a little bit from OCD, and a few scenes are all the more moving because of it.

That's just the set up, and already it's becoming a complicated story. The remainder of the film shows Mathilde's attempts to discover the truth about Manech. Is he still alive? She enlists the help of a private detective to find out what happened.

It's a superb performance from Tautou, and she's ably supported by some of Jeunet's regular actors, including Dominique Pinon, Ticky Holgado, and Jean-Claude Dreyfus. Marion Cotillard shows up as a glamorous assassin, who is intent on avenging the death of her lover. Jodie Foster has a small role, but her story is an important part of the whole, and it's an enjoyable sequence.

It would be wrong of me to review this film without mentioning the wonderful cinematography. Its Oscar nominations for artwork and cinematography were most appropriate. Some of the war scenes are harrowing, but the film is also punctuated by moments of great beauty. The French countryside is one of the stars, and can be breathtaking at times.

A Very Long Engagement is a visceral experience. You'll feel for Mathilde and Manech, and you'll laugh at Jeunet's sense of humor. Some of the best films transport us to a different place, and this is most definitely one of them. I won't reveal the ending, but it worked extremely well for me, and I feel a whole range of emotions every time I see it. I'll always remember the three Ms, the albatross, and my favorite scene as Mathilde tries to beat the car to the bend in the road.

See this film!

Overall score 4.5/5

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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

My own Totoro Story

The best thank you card I ever received

If you are a regular reader of my blog, or even an occasional visitor, you'll know that I worship Studio Ghibli and the works of Hayao Miyazaki and Ghibli's other directors. My favorite Ghibli title changes often, because I consider five or six of the films to be just about perfect. But I would have to say that My Neighbor Totoro is the title that is most often at the top of my Ghibli list.

So why am I mentioning this again, now?

Well, a couple of weeks ago, I met Ariah. She's the 5-year-old daughter of Michelle, who I have worked with for the past seven months. This was the first time I had met Ariah though, and I found myself grinning the entire time she was there. The first thing she did was run up to mom, looking as eager as Ponyo running across the waves. She told me about the book she was coloring, and what movies she liked. Then I remembered that I had an extra DVD of My Neighbor Totoro after recently upgrading to Blu-ray. What better home could it go to?

I always aim high, and I hoped that this small gift might have a tiny positive impact on Ariah's life, and perhaps Michelle's as well. So few people in North America ever explore Miyazaki's films because they don't receive the kind of marketing that typical animated movies enjoy. I hoped that Totoro would result in the world having one or two more fans of Studio Ghibli and its worlds. I cannot imagine a better series of films to show to a child. The messages are so positive, innocent, powerful, and pure. Any kind of positive feedback would have been reward enough, but I wasn't prepared for what landed on my desk this morning.

The easiest way to explain it is to just show you:

I was worried that I might burst into tears when I opened the envelope, but I managed not to. It was like receiving a giant hug. Look at the effort that went into thanking me. I was close to tears several times during the day. It included one of the stickers I had sent, and the message was written using the pen I added to the package. Yep, Ariah had thought of everything.

I hope that Totoro opens the door for Ariah to see other Studio Ghibli titles. Will she give mom an ear of corn, or ask if she can grow something in the garden? Only time will tell.

So I have been exploding with joy today, and I now know what to do with my spare copy of Howl's Moving Castle.

Just think how many other people Miyazaki's films must have touched over the years. That's a magical legacy. I'll never forget the gift I received today.

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Sunday, August 4, 2013

Triple Headers: Three movies which work well together

Triple Headers Part 2: Crime, Drama, and Fantasy

Do you ever feel in the mood for a movie marathon featuring a particular actor, director, theme, or genre? I plan to write a series covering various genres, and other themes, highlighting movies which would combine well for a triple header. This second entry covers Crime, Drama, and Fantasy.


This is a tough category to narrow down, because crime is such a popular genre. Also, a large proportion of movies have a crime element, even though the bulk of the story may fall into a different genre. I'm going to focus on movies in which crime is a major element.

Pulp Fiction
It's impossible to leave Pulp Fiction off the crime list. Although Tarantino is accused of borrowing from other movies, his efforts seem original to me because of the tone, and the dialogue. All of his movies are dark comedies, and a Tarantino triple header would be a fine way to spend an evening. I would put Pulp Fiction right at the top of Tarantino's filmography because I love every second of it. It's always in my top three of all time.

Wonderful performances by Buscemi, McDormand and Macy make Fargo easy to like. The humor works well, despite the dark story. It deserves to be in everyone's collection, and I view it at least a couple of times every year. 

The Departed
I'm sure many of you are baffled that I had the good taste to include a Scorsese movie, only to end up choosing the wrong one. Where is Goodfellas, Casino, or Taxi Driver? The casting has something to do with my choice, and the movie is loaded with strong performances.


This is the hardest category of all because drama is easily my favorite genre. The problem is, the list is enormous. As with crime, most dramas include elements from other genres. 

The Shawshank Redemption
Here's a film that receives plenty of criticism. It's not that many people actually hate it, but it's often thought to be overrated. I don't agree. I think it's one of the best films ever made and I never tire of seeing Freeman and Robbins in their best roles. It would be easy to include The Green Mile, but two prison dramas from the same director would be overkill.

American Beauty
After the serious and contemplative nature of Shawshank, the dark comedy of American Beauty lightens the mood. Spacey is always good, but this is my favorite performance from him.

Up in the Air
I must have watched this four or five times a year since it was released. Some of the interaction between Clooney, Farmiga, and Kendrick is worthy of Tarantino, although the tone is different. I love every scene, and the sense of calm present during the ending.


I've already included a Miyazaki triple header, so I won't include any of those titles. I'll also omit Lord of the Rings, because that is a triple header in its own right. For the same reasons, I haven't included anything from the Harry Potter franchise.

Yep, it's French. Trust me, it's worth getting over your hatred of subtitles for this one. Audrey Tautou is always good, and Jeunet's direction and sense of humor is delightful.

Midnight in Paris
A movie full of ideas. Owen Wilson is a good substitute in the Woody Allen role. Don't worry, this one is in English.

A weak script and a formulaic second half can't prevent me from putting Avatar on this list. The visuals make up for all of the obvious flaws. I actually felt as if I was on another world.

The next installment in this series will cover Foreign Film, Heists, and Horror.

What would be your choices in the categories I covered today?

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Searching for Sugar Man

Searching for Sugar Man (2012)
Biography, Documentary, Music, 86 minutes
Directed by Malik Bendjelloul

I had read so many good things about Searching for Sugar Man, but something stopped me from watching it until yesterday. I was afraid that it just wouldn't be my kind of thing. Would I like the music? Probably not. Would I care about a musician that I had never previously heard of? Doubtful. Furthermore, only a select few documentaries have captured my imagination to the point where I would watch them more than once.

I'm happy to report that all of my doubts were quickly erased within the first few minutes.

Sixto Rodriguez was born in Detroit in 1942, and made two albums in the 1970s. The first, Cold Fact, was released in 1970, and Coming from Reality followed in 1971.

His singing style was raw, along the lines of Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Like both of those artists, the lyrics carry a lot of meaning, and it's obvious that Rodriguez wrote songs that were both personal and authentic. His US sales were almost non-existent, and, like me, most people weren't aware that he existed before this documentary was put together.

Here are a few of his lyrics:

Climb Up on My Music
Have you ever had a fever
From a bitter-sweet refrain
Have you ever kissed the sunshine
Walked between the rain
Well, just climb up on my music
And my songs will set you free
Well, just climb up on my music
And from there jump off with me

I'll Slip Away
And you can keep your symbols of success
Then I'll pursue my own happiness
And you can keep your clocks and routines
Then I'll go mend all my shattered dreams
Maybe today, yeah I'll slip away

This is Not a Song, It's an Outburst: Or, The Anti-Establishment Blues

The mayor hides the crime rate
Council woman hesitates
Public gets irate but forget the vote date
Weatherman complaining, predicted sun, it's raining
Everyone's protesting, boyfriend keeps suggesting
You're not like all of the rest

Garbage ain't collected, women ain't protected
Politicians using people, they've been abusing
The mafia's getting bigger, like pollution in the river
And you tell me that this is where it's at

Woke up this morning with an ache in my head
I splashed on my clothes as I spilled out of bed
I opened the window to listen to the news
But all I heard was the Establishment's Blues

Gun sales are soaring, housewives find life boring
Divorce the only answer, smoking causes cancer
This system's gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune
And that's a concrete cold fact

The pope digs population, freedom from taxation
Teeny Bops are up tight, drinking at a stoplight
Miniskirt is flirting, I can't stop so I'm hurting
Spinster sells her hopeless chest

Adultery plays the kitchen, bigot cops non-fiction
The little man gets shafted, sons and monies drafted
Living by a time piece, new war in the far east
Can you pass the Rorschach test?

It's a hassle it's an educated guess
Well, frankly I couldn't care less

A couple of early interviews in the film report that Rodriguez committed suicide. One account states that he set himself on fire on stage, while another claims that he shot himself after his tiny audience ridiculed his performance. But this is not a sad tale; it's actually extremely uplifting. Please trust me on this.

The film explains that Rodriguez was a huge success in South Africa, with a bigger following than Elvis or The Rolling Stones. He was completely unaware of this at the time, and never saw any of the money. His records were initially unavailable, but word spread after bootleg copies were distributed among fans. When the albums were finally released, more than half a million copies were sold. Imagine having all that success without being aware of it. It almost sounds like a hoax or a spoof documentary, doesn't it?

In South Africa, people adopted some of the songs and made them part of the anti-apartheid movement. One fan decided to find out the truth about this mysterious man, and made it his mission to discover exactly what happened. He began by tracking where the royalties went, and also visited places mentioned in the songs. While on the verge of abandoning his search, a blog post gave him new hope and a fresh lead. I don't want to reveal what he ultimately found, because you deserve to find out for yourself if you don't already know how the story ends.

This is a film for music fans, and for anyone who enjoys uplifting stories. I know that I haven't told you why you need to see Searching for Sugar Man, but you'll be glad you did if you do decide to check it out. It may be the best documentary I have ever seen, and I am already thinking about watching it again.

It's not essential to view the film in high definition as much of the 1970s footage is low quality, but the recent interviews do benefit from the Blu-ray treatment, as does the sound quality.

Overall score 4.5/5

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