Google+ Followers

Friday, June 15, 2018

Nippon Review: Meari To Majo No Hana (Mary and the Witch’s Flower)


Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017): Written by Riko Sakaguchi and Hiromasa Yonebayashi, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi.  Starring: Hana Sugisaki, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Yuki Amami, Fumiyo Kohinata, and Hikari Mitsushima.  Running Time: 102 minutes.  Based on the novel of the same name by Mary Stewart. 

Rating: 3/4


            It would certainly be understandable to look at certain recent events- Miyazaki’s half-retirement, the shaky possibility that Studio Ghibli may soon shutter its production wing, and the passing of Isao Takahata- and wonder if Japanese animation will ever be the same again.  Certainly, an era has irrevocably passed, but thankfully new, equally-excellent works have continued to come out in recent years.  Whether or not Studio Ghibli ever reopens for business, its spirit remains alive and well in the likes of Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who directed two of the (so far) last-ever Ghibli productions (Arrietty and When Marne Was There) and has now founded his own animation studio.  Mary and the Witch’s Flower is their first feature film, and will hopefully be merely the first of a great many to come. 

            Mary is sent to the countryside by her parents for school, where she will live in a grand mansion near a forest she’s not supposed to enter when the mists come.  It’s hard adjusting- she is a bit of a bumbler, and being the estate of an elderly lady, there are lots of breakable things around for her to trip into.  She also doesn’t fancy the attitude of the local package boy who brings mail to the lady almost daily, but at least he has two really sweet cats who soon take a shine to Mary. 

            Inevitably, she does end up in the woods one day when the mists come, and finds a strange flower that, when crushed, grants her magical powers, and also activates an old broomstick she found hidden in the vines.  This whisks her and the cats off into a seemingly-parallel world above the clouds, a place of witches and warlocks, and a massive school complex where she is informed that she is clearly a natural talent who will lead the school to great things.  But all is not as it seems, and she soon suspects the school harbors some sort of dark secret within its walls. 

            You can probably guess much of the rest from there.  Narratively speaking, it is a very standard, meat-and-potatoes sort of affair, and that is the movie’s biggest flaw.  An average girl, with several obvious flaws, stumbles by chance into a world of wonder and adventure, mixing fantasy with typical coming-of-age lessons; it’s a very condensed Harry Potter.  An amazing world filled with potential is built up, but we only see a small corner of it and that merely opens up far more questions that the film itself can answer in a satisfying manner. 

            But oh, the visuals that are here to gorge on.  Much like Howl’s Moving Castle, another film that was short on story depth but long on eye candy, the deficiencies of the story are (mostly) made up for by the dizzying amount of imaginative detail packed into every frame.  This is the sort of film that once again proves my longstanding maxing that literally every kind of story, no matter how standard or blasé, is better when it’s animated. 

            There are many effective sequences to appreciate, including the flying scenes, the clearest throwbacks to Miyazaki’s old obsession with flight.  What magical creatures and powers we encounter make for some fascinating possibilities that the third act utilizes very well, and the opening chase scene is dynamite.  And though he is no Joe Hisaishi (who is?), Takatsugu Muramatsu’s score is a fine work that already stands as one of the year’s best to date. 

            Ultimately, though, the film does not reach the same heights Yonebayashi’s first two works achieved.  Arrietty was a small and rather downplayed tale, but filled to the brim with the poignant, nostalgic sadness of memories, and of friendships the trials of life forced apart.  When Marne Was There managed to use a simple ghost story as a catalyst for exploring childhood traumas of identity, abandonment, bullying, physical and mental illness, and even sexuality, and revolved around a surprisingly effective third-act twist; the more I think about it, the more convinced I become that it’s one of the decade’s most underrated masterpieces.    

            As pretty as it is, Mary and the Witch’s Flower simply doesn’t have the resonant emotional depth of either of its predecessors, although it does include an interesting sub-theme of animal cruelty and how that inevitably doubles back to bite those who treat their fellow creatures cruelly.  It’s a small lesson, but still an important one.  This is a sweet film, absolutely lovely to look at, and a strong beachhead against those who would insist that without its aging meisters, Japanese animation can never again reach the heights it achieved in past decades. 

            Nonsense.  This is merely the beginning of something quite new, and possibly even better. 

-Noah Franc

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Nippon Review: Oh Lucy!


Oh Lucy! (2017): Written by Atsuko Hirayanagi and Boris Frumin, directed by Atsuko Hirayanagi.  Starring: Shinobu Terajima, Josh Hartnett, Kaho Minami, Koji Yakusho, Shiori Kutsuna.  Running Time: 95 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4


            There is a deep melancholy that pervades Oh Lucy! beneath the comedic sheen of its surface.  Each of its characters is clearly possessed by a clawing desperation, an inescapable sense of despair about something or other, and it is their despair that drives the plot and sets in motion a largely very funny, but partially incredibly tragic, chain of events.   

            Setsuko is shaken out of the drab reverie of her perpetually single city life when the antics of her niece draw her into taking English classes from an oddball American named John (it’s he who gives her the American moniker “Lucy”).  Something about him reaches her, and after one lesson she’s fallen head over heels for him, so much so that when said niece absconds with John when he heads back to the US, she decides to pursue them and try to win his heart.  Her sister (the niece’s mother) comes as well, and soon several huge cans of emotional worms have been opened and dumped out in the open, leaving everyone scrambling to make some sense of the mess they find themselves stuck together in.  Shinobu Terajima’s powerhouse performance in the lead role anchors the film, but she’s matched beat for beat by Hartnett’s quiet sadness as John and Kaho Minami’s insistent arrogance as the sister Setsuko has a long, troubled history with. 

            The movie starts as a cross-cultural comedy of errors, but soon morphs into a family drama, a road trip, and later a profoundly devastating look at loneliness and its bitter effects on people.  There are worlds of past hurts and pain left unspoken, but its presence is clearly felt in every word the family members exchange with one another. 

            Suicide, or at least the idea of self-harm, is a recurring theme.  A random train-jumper in the subway opens the film, and there are several other moments involving standing and waiting for trains that echo this opening later on in the film, keeping a sense of danger ever-present in the viewer’s mind.  This is contrasted with recurring images and moments that have more positive vibes.  Moments when certain characters hug become tiny bubbles of peace and happiness, a chance for the hardness of the world to pause for a second and allow a sense of connection to form, one that may or may not be able to withstand the tribulations of life.  But for that moment, at least, there is human touch, and a connection, however transitive. 

            Postcards play key roles in the second and third acts as well, acting as signposts of how we are able to reach out and touch each other in ways both intentional and accidental, and how it’s more often than not it’s those of the accidental variety that prove most important in shaping the course of our lives.  This is a film that may underwhelm for some, but I found its examinations of the pain of not having something to share your life to be the best parts, and as this is concentrated in the third act, the film’s effect only increased as it went on.  The last image is dynamite, and left me thinking for some time afterwards as I walked home in the spring evening. 

-Noah Franc

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Nippon Review: Yoake Tsugeru Ru No Uta (Lu Over The Wall)


Lu Over The Wall (2017): Written by Masaaki Yuasa and Reiko Yoshida, directed by Masaaki Yuasa.  Starring: Kanon Tani, Shota Shimoda, Minako Kotobuki, Soma Saito, and Shinichi Shinohara.  Running Time: 107 minutes. 

Rating: 2.5/4



            Lu Over The Wall, the latest film by animated director Masaaki Yuasa, is like the lower-budgeted, more frenzied, poor-man’s version of Ponyo, including a story revolving around sea denizens, their mistrustful relationship with humans, and how these misunderstandings very nearly result in the end of the world.  It is bright, colorful, and relentlessly cheerful, but perhaps a bit too much by the end; there are a LOT of dark thematic undertones lurking just below the film’s surface, and the experience would have been invariably strengthened had it turned more resolutely into mature territory. 

            Kai is stuck on a small island whose entire existence centers around fishing.  His dad’s separation from his mother has left him feeling alone and frustrated, and he continuously tries to push away the efforts of people in his class to make friends.  He prefers to go it alone and stick to making music on his laptop.  However, he soon finds out that his particularly adventurous style of beats draws the attention of a local mermaid, part of a school that has long been deeply feared and mistrusted by the islanders, due to their assumptions that the mer-people capture humans and eat them, though proof on this front seems to be rather shallow. 

            He quickly learns through his mermaid friend (her name is Lu) that a lot of this is mostly just superstition and fear based on ignorance, and he and his newly-formed band (each of whom struggles in their own way with the restrictive nature of island life) decide to try and use their music, which Lu compulsively adds to with singing and incredibly frenetic dancing, to bridge the longstanding gap between the two cultures.  As is to be expected, insane hijinks ensue. 

            The music of the film is easily one of its biggest strongpoints, as it combines well with the snazzy visuals and creates an all-around great vibe.  There is also a very solid message about a part of growing involving coming to terms with “normal life” in the places you grew up in, and how time and maturity can allow you to see the beauty in things you thought were stodgy, boring, or dull as a kid.  And a children’s film willing to embrace that point of view is not something to sniff at.  Each of the main human children has something about their lives or places that frustrate or worry them, and the way their arcs are handled and resolved are all really solid. 

            Sadly, the film does start to fly off the rails a bit in the third act.  The story itself, which starts out with a lot of interesting potential directions, ends up being remarkably standard.  The animation also becomes more and more feverish and disjointed, creating a dreamlike effect that just doesn’t jibe with the feel of the movie at the beginning.  It all becomes a bit much and by the time the climax was hitting its peak, I felt like the movie had become more of a chore to get through than a source of entertainment.  There are still moments and sequences of staggering beauty, but they aren’t enough, in the end, to lift the movie above its significant issues. 
           
            However, this is still a remarkably inventive movie with a solid heart and good message beneath the flash.  It is certainly a trip I do not regret taking, although I can’t recommend it to everyone not already taken with certain styles of Japanese animation.  Perhaps a trip to the beach would suit most viewers better. 

-Noah Franc

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Nippon Review: Bamy


Bamy (2017): Written and directed by Jun Tanaka.  Starring: Hironobu Yukinaga, Hiromi Nakazato, Misaki Tsuge, Toshi Yanagi, Yuki Katsuragi.  Running Time: 100 minutes. 

Rating: 1/4 (if it really is a horror film)


            It’s been a week, and I still can’t decide if Bamy, the feature-film debut of director Jun Tanaka, isn’t secretly a satire, a point-by-point takedown of every tired cliché in the horror genre.  If it is, then it just might be the most brilliant thing ever, because I’ve never before seen a film use every trick in the book to (try and) spook me, and yet somehow manage to provoke the exact opposite reaction.    

            The movie begins in an elevator, high, high over the Tokyo cityscape, as Fumiko descends (from her job? No one seems to do actual work in this movie) to the ground floor to head home, when she happens to encounter her old school friend, Ryota.  The movie blinks and it’s a year later; they are now engaged and planning their wedding.  How this happened- why they fell in love, what exactly they see each other, and how Fumiko can stand Ryota’s endlessly stony-faced non-presence- is the film’s greatest mystery, far beyond anything involving the ghosts. 

            Ah yes, I forget to mention, there are ghosts.  You see, Ryota has the ability to see those from The Beyond, and since they apparently sense this via their ghost-radar (ghostdar, if you will), they regularly show up and follow him around, every day, all the time, like a puppy horde dressed in Goth drag.  But not cute puppies, more like pug puppies, the living proof that God certainly is capable of making very grave mistakes.  Their presence, plus the fact that only Ryota and no one else can see them, makes his daily life more and more of a hassle, until he finally starts to crack. 

            There are the germs here, in this first part of the film, of a good ghost story.  Portraying ghosts as more of a nuisance rather than a threat is a fine idea for an alternative take on the genre, and our first introductions to the ghosts and how they are filmed, often sliding into the camera in parts of the shots that are deliberately shadowed and out-of-focus, are genuinely good.

            The impressiveness of these moments, though, is pretty much the sole basis for my one star, because they are constantly offset by how teeth-gnashingly aggravating every scene involving the two main characters is.  I can’t decide if it’s the writing, the directing, or the actors themselves, but for a couple supposedly head-over-heels enough to want to get married barely a year after meeting each other, there is ZERO chemistry to be found anywhere between them.  They barely even touch each other outside of a few makeout sessions, which are so forced, loud, and awkward they’re borderline unwatchable.  Honestly, those parts were far scarier than anything involving the ghosts.

            Most of these issues, I feel, stem from Ryota.  Fumiko is at least trying to have a normal life and normal relationship, but Ryota is utterly devoid of expression of any sort from start to finish; he mostly just stares off into the middle-distance, whether or not a ghost is around.  Not only did he apparently never think to talk about his ghost problems with the “love of his life,” he also manages to act completely shocked whenever people get offended when he forgets dates, breaks things at work (seriously, HOW does this man hold down a job), ruins dinners, and insists they can’t shop in certain bridal stores “just because.”  Every scene- seriously, EVERY ONE- involving the two of them trying to plan something or other for the wedding is trashed in this way, and every one of them left me grabbing my head, staring at the screen, wanting to scream “Fumiko, WHY ARE YOU WITH THIS DOUCHEBAG?  And why did all the color suddenly wash out?”

            This was my mindset a little less than halfway through the film, but it’s at that point where things take such a turn, and go to such unimaginable places, that I suddenly achieved a sort of Zen State; clearly, OBVIOUSLY, this is not something I should try to take seriously, or I would die.  All that was left to do was laugh.  And laugh I did, as the second half of Bamy treated me to an endless stream of moments so bizarre, so random, so entirely without purpose or meaning, that they broke anything left of the movie’s horror atmosphere.  Some of them were so unreal I’m not entirely sure I didn’t dream them; one particularly moment involving a washing machine was so far beyond any kind of sense that I’m still struggling to accept that I live in a world where it exists. 

            I do not know how to properly convey this experience with words, but I shall try.  A short summary then; after breaking down at work one day, Ryota chances on a young woman who, it turns out, can also see ghosts, and is as frustrated by them as he is.  Fortunately, Ryota has now discovered the secret to making them go away; just bonk them on the head and hit them with a cardboard box.   

            I swear.  I am not making this up.  Much of the second-half consists of them running around Tokyo (Ryota lasts about 10 hot seconds before he starts cheating on his darling fiancé with his new Seance Flame), finding random ghosts, and abusing them in truly cruel ways until they go away.  At least, I THINK they’re ghosts; some of them are too far away to tell, and I swear that one dude by the river was just a regular pedestrian out for his morning jog.  Maybe there never were any ghosts, and these two are just sociopathic assholes blighting the Japanese nation.  And if these ARE ghosts, and if this movie is in any way reflective of how living-dead relations actually work, then Lord, let me ascend to the next plane as soon as possible, because the living are dicks. 

            Bamy is one of those infamous, you-have-to-see-this-to-believe-it movies that fail so hard at what (I think) it wanted to achieve, it’s actually kind of amazing.  It goes in one direction, and turns itself around so hard by the end that it makes a 360-degree turn back to the start and is more or less parodying itself by the time the contusion-inducing climax hits.  It’s ultimately because of how far down its own rabbit hole the movie goes that I still haven’t managed to convince myself 100% either way if this is a real, serious horror movie, or a satire so straight-face it forgot how to blink.  The director of the film held a Q&A afterwards, but I didn’t want to be the one person to stand up and ask, “So, this was a comedy, right?” only for the answer to end up being, “Um, no.  You asshole.” 

            And I’m ok with not asking.  Honestly, I would rather this film’s true intent and purpose remain a mystery to me, because any answer offered would never hold up to what I felt and thought during the astounding, mystifying, confusing, and confounding experience that is Bamy.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to prep my hammers by dipping them in holy water, just in case I need to fend off any defenders of this movie who get in through the crawl space in my apartment and stand on the landing, awkwardly pointing at me, mumbling something about my umbrellas. 

-Noah Franc

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Nippon Review: Foreboding


Foreboding (2018): Written by Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Hiroshi Takahashi, directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa.  Starring: Kaho, Shota Sometani, Masahiro Higashide, Ren Osugi, Eriko Nakamura.  Running Time: 140 minutes.  Based on a play written by Tomohiro Maekawa. 

Rating: 3/4


            Fitting for the film given its title and who’s directing, Foreboding is an excellent case study in how to build and keep tension at fever-pitch for over two hours.  Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s latest work is a powerfully atmospheric examination at the horrors that lurk, not in the places where we can see the danger, but in the dark spots where we simply forget that it’s there. 

            Horror classicists will very quickly pick up on the movie’s parallels to Invasion of the Body Snatchers; Etsuko, a day worker at a textile factory, notices odd changes in her boss and some coworkers that she’s hard-pressed to explain.  When one of her friends suddenly snaps at her father, with whom she’s lived her whole life, she discovers that, somehow, someway, it’s because she no longer has any grasp of what “family” is.  She tries to talk with her husband, Tatsuo, about this, but he’s been more taciturn and withdrawn than usual of late, and there’s something decidedly…..off….about his new boss at the hospital, and she immediately suspects this strange, tall man has something to do with what’s happening. 

            From this starting premise, we are drawn further and further into the horrors of what can happen when the human mind, when our sense of self, starts to decay or is taken from us.  It is, in the end, our ideas and our shared agreement of what things are or mean that allow human society to develop and act collectively.  It’s the foundation of everything we claim to “know.”  So what happens to each of us, and to society in general, when these ideas we possess are just gone?  That’s where the real terror lies, not in some outside threat.  No slashed throat, no violation of the body, no pools of blood, just the core of what makes you YOU evaporating into thin air. 

            What could this be an allegory for?  Quite a lot- Alzheimer’s, dementia, memory loss, aging, brain damage- all these things are known (and feared) for how they can lead to parts of what you once thought of as irrevocable parts of your person disappearing.  I think most people fear this more than death itself, but are loath to admit it to themselves.  It’s not pleasant, and worse, there’s no way to return from it, and Foreboding never tries to fool us into thinking there is.    

            As always with Kurosawa, light usage and camera angles are central to how Kurosawa builds each moment in the film and connects them together.  It features a killer score that is perfectly tuned to what each scene requires.  Fluttering curtains are a constant motif appearing in the background of many a key scene, their movements gentle yet still conveying the sense that something unseen could be lurking just out of sight.  

            Its cast provides a solid base as well, with Kaho and Shota Somenati creating a struggling but still affectionate partnership as they try to navigate their way, at first separately but later together, through the coming danger.  The highlight, though, is Masahiro Migashide as Matsuka, the strange doctor in a flowing lab coat who may or may not be the reason all this is happening.  He finds the right balance of being off-putting and a bit quirky some of the time, and terrifying the rest of the time, without ever breaking or contradicting character, not the easiest of feats to achieve. 

            Despite the acting and the undeniable technical quality of the film, I ultimately didn’t find Foreboding to be quite as thoroughly excellent as Kurosawa’s 2016 Journey to the Shore, and I think this ultimately boils down to how the third act plays out and how (most of) the narrative questions are answered.  As is the case with all too many stories of this sort, the mystery and build-up end up being more compelling than the ultimate payoff, although there is one sequence at the very end that is truly heart-stopping. 

            No matter its issues though- this is as solid as end-of-the-world metaphors get, and for anyone needing a good horror fix, this is well-worth your time. 

-Noah Franc

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Nippon Review: Koi to Borubakia (Love & Wolbachia)


Love and Wolbachia: Directed by Sayaka Ono. Running Time: 94 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4


            This brave, challenging documentary by Japanese director Sayaka Ono, just the second feature-length film she’s made, has quite a lot in common with Komunia, another compact, deeply intimate film whose power comes from how it simply allows us to observe the existence of its characters. 

            Initially supposed to do a short TV doc on this topic, the director found herself increasingly fascinated by the unique lives led by Japanese people who defy traditional gender and sexual roles in a country and culture still very rigidly defined by them.  She ended up spending several years filming various parts of their lives, her biggest focus being, among others, men who do drag, transwomen struggling with whether or not to fully transition, and men/women who sit directly on the fence of gender identity and don’t know where they’ll eventually land, if they ever land at all.   

            This is that rare film able to approach gender and the people struggling with it in a way that does not assume one gender role or the other; each of the people we meet are fantastically unique in how they identify themselves, and many of them have been able, often after much pain, to build an existence where they are freely themselves.  For others, it’s still a challenge; one of the transwomen filmed “dresses up” as a boy for her regular office job so as not to arouse the suspicion (and possible ire) of her boss and colleagues.  Another transwoman, herself not interested at all in a full-on physical transition, is dating another transwoman hell-bent on going all the way, and we see, briefly, how keenly that strains their relationship. 

            Throughout the years of their lives we see, the camera is clear and close to people’s faces.  Many scenes are filled with warm colors, oranges and reds commonly associated with love, friendship, welcoming intimacy.  I truly felt, from beginning to end, that I was seeing each of these people in their entirety- complex, hurting, loving, struggling, living.  This is that rare film that truly deserves to be called kaleidoscopic, because it manages to encompass so much of the spectrum of human existence and affirm the worth and dignity of every one of us, without exception or qualification. 

            It is not a film without flaws; there are so many different people shown and so many names we are given that it gets hard at times to keep track of them all, or remembering where and how they are connected to each other.  Sporadic narration by the director attempts to correct this, but these moments tend to be rather clunky, breaking the mood of a scene to state explicitly something that the movie is perfectly able to convey without words at all.  But none of this, in the end, can detract much from what is a strong, memorable, and compassionate portrait of love’s power to transcend, to bind us together despite our flaws and our struggles and make this weird, messy life still something worth seeing out to the end.   

-Noah Franc

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Cinema Joes Podcast: May 2018 Update


            We were not able to get as many recorded episodes out this month due to scheduling difficulties, for which we profusely apologize.  However, those we did work in were of particular meaning to us, so they are still worth listening to and downloading on our Itunes page! 

May 9th: Avengers: Infinity Wars

            Our Marvel role continues with our long, and very detailed, examination of the latest and biggest MCU installment, where we decide if we felt the buildup and wait of a decade was worth it. 

May 14th: Our Movie Memories with Mom (mini)

            In honor of Mother’s Day, we each shared a particular movie, franchise, or theater experience that is of particular importance to our relationships to our mothers.  A bit cheesy?   Maybe, but every bit of it is from the heart. 

May 23rd: Our Favorite Comic Book Movie Villains (mini) 

            Our saga of exploring every which way of superhero movies continues!  We already have an episode dedicated to our least favorite comic book villains, so it’s only fair we took the time to discuss our favorites as well. 


            Please continue to like, share, and recommend our podcast to all with ears!  And even those without! 

-Noah Franc