Review: A Letter to Momo

A Letter to Momo (Momo e no Tegami) (2011)

Japanese subtitled version: Karen Miyama, Yuka, Toshiyuki Nishida, Koichi Yamadera.
English dubbed version: Amanda Pace, Stephanie Sheh, Fred Tatasciore, Dana Snyder.
Directed and written by Hiroyuki Okiura.

a letterTwelve-year-old Momo has recently moved with her mother Ikuko from a condo in Tokyo to a tiny, rural island in Japan, where Ikuko grew up and where both try to deal with the recent death of Momo’s father.

They are grieving, each in her own, private way. Ikuko busies herself with trying to find a new job, leaving Momo to spend her days doing homework and making friends with other children on the island. In private moments, Ikuko kneels at the household shrine, looking through photo albums. Momo’s alone-time is often spent staring at a piece of paper, blank except for the words, “Dear Momo,” the beginning of a letter written by her father’s hand shortly before his death at sea.

to momoMomo doesn’t tell anyone, but her last words to her father were shouted in anger, a horrible expression of childish disappointment that she can never take back. As she tries somehow to manage the guilt, grief, loneliness, pain, and adjustment of this new life, mysterious things happen in her house and neighborhood. Small personal belongings disappear. Orchards are raided for their fruit before it is ready for harvest. Snacks disappear from the kitchen with only trash left in their place. Momo sees strange shapes and movements out of the corners of her eye as Ikuko leaves each morning, but nothing’s there when she turns her head to get a better look.

A Letter to Momo is directed by Hiroyuki Okiura (director of Jin-Roh and animator of Akira and Metropolis) who sticks mostly to light pastels and gauzy lighting in a way that both highlights the quietude of Momo’s farming community and hearkens to the illustrations in our favorite childhood storybooks. Yet while the I was reminded more than once of the gentle color tones in such stories as William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, the detail and scope of Okiura’s animation can only be compared to the best of its Japanese tradition. I paused the film at least ten times just to absorb the beautiful framing and composition, which ultimately was more affecting than the story’s climax and resolution.

For while this movie is a visual experience I wanted to go through again, its pacing is at times maddening for a grown-up viewer like me. Certain plot revelations take forever to arrive, and most teenaged audiences will see them coming like a bullet train on Lipovitan. I will concede that certain sight gags and bodily stunts will probably amuse a less mature audience, and there are a couple of chase sequences that manage to find a good groove, but even they feel just a bit long despite some excellent timing.

It is unquestionably a movie for children, and older elementary-schoolers will probably enjoy it. While the parents who take them certainly won’t be bored, they will find a good portion of the film silly, and they should be advised that A Letter to Momo doesn’t shy away from the despair two young women confront as they stare down the reality of death. When one major character falls dangerously ill, Momo must deal with the possibility of yet another death, a weighty, sobering thought for viewers of any age, and I would caution parents to consider their children’s sensitivity to such themes before heading to the box office. Young people who can handle the serious issues could leave theaters with a new favorite.

Recommended for tweens and their grown-up, animation-loving adults. Cautiously recommended for children slightly younger.

7/10 (points taken away for excessive silliness but points given back for gorgeous animation)

Read More

Review: A Picture of You

A Picture of You (2014)
Jo Mei, Andrew Pang, Teyonah Parris, Lucas Dixon, Jodi Long. Directed by J.P. Chan. Written by J.P. Chan and Jo Mei.

a pictureKyle and Jen have just lost their mother, and now they are in her rural Pennsylvania house to pack away her things. It says something that neither calls the other by name through the first half of the film, both opting for, “Hey,” which is also the extent of most of their early conversations. They clearly do not get along, and so the grieving process, stoked by the act of going through their mother’s belongings, is a lonely experience for both.

ofAdd to this the fact that one of the siblings took care of their ill mother in the time leading to her death, while the other stayed away out of fear, and the resentment and guilt Kyle and Jen must sift through are as layered as the belongings they pull out of drawers and off shelves.

It probably sounds like several films you’ve seen or novels you’ve read, especially when the siblings discover something surprising in their mother’s computer. But this isn’t a movie about uncovering the secrets of a family’s past, though the characters do find themselves chasing down information and details in an almost screwball sequence in the final act. What makes A Picture of You worth its eighty-two minutes is that it spends its time first keeping its characters kind of mysterious, and then slowly getting us to care about them and their relationship with each other. When two of Jen’s friends show up at the house to help with the cleanup, I expected them to be a distraction from the good Kyle-Jen stuff, but they actually help it along, bringing an element of humor that had mostly been absent.

youI laughed aloud multiple times, mostly at awkward interactions and silly-but-fitting conversations. There were a couple of moments where I thought, “Oh, no. Not this tired plot device,” but even this film’s direction down overly trodden movie territory is pretty enjoyable. I normally hate marijuana-as-bonding moments in movies, yet here I thought the scene was fun and effective.

The lighting in this film is noticeably well-done, and my appreciation for it is heightened by what feels like a conscious avoidance of soundtrack music (something I admit I am hypersensitive about). Moments are allowed to play out, quietly, paced by the thoughts of characters we are still getting to know, so we take time, while they think about what to say or do next, to notice the slant of sunlight dividing a room in half, or the pattern of shadows made by the forest canopy overhead. I was pleased to discover that the cinematographer is Andrew Reed, who did Quiet City and Cold Weather, two movies whose production I admire.

The acting is at times clunky and at times just right. Andrew Pang as Kyle does a good job of keeping us from seeing, for the first half of the movie, anything to connect with, and sometimes it works well and sometimes it feels like his character’s gestures and mannerisms are from some place far away and long ago. Jo Mei plays Jen as sulky, grouchy, and demanding. When she’s with just Kyle, it’s tough to like her, but in the company of friends or while jogging along around the lake, she seems much more like good people, adding an endearing, bossy physicality that gives the group of characters its center. Teyonah Parris and Lucas Dixon as Jen’s friends bring life to the grouchy siblings, reminding me of a young Rosario Dawson and younger Seth Rogen. Jodi Long, seen only in flashback as the deceased mother, is just beautiful, and viewers familiar only with her role on Sullivan & Son will be in for a little surprise.

I have a friend who has seen so many indie movies that it’s nearly impossible to please him when the indie aesthetic is applied. There are shaky handheld camera moments here that don’t seem to serve any meaningful purpose except to remind you that you’re seeing an indie picture, for example, and I can see how many of lighting decisions might be seen similarly. Such viewers may find not much to love in A Picture of You, but those who appreciate film characters behaving like real people will likely be impressed. Count me among the latter.


Read More

Review: About Time

About Time (2013)
Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy. Written and Directed by Richard Curtis.

aboutTim Lake is just out of college and set to begin a career as a lawyer, moving to London from his family’s seaside home in Cornwall. His father has recently told him that the men in the family have the ability to travel in time, but only to places and times they’ve already been. An inordinately happy and peaceful man, Tim’s father strongly advises against using this ability to pursue money or fame. When Tim meets Mary at one of those dining-in-complete-darkness establishments, he falls in love and uses his skill to make things work (eventually) in his favor.

This is not at all the movie you think it is, with lots of traveling back and forth in time to make things work out okay–there is a kind of Butterfly Effect consideration, but that’s not where the real story lives. Instead, it imagines what you might use this skill for if things were already pretty much okay, or if the ability to move back in time weren’t enough to change some of the things you really want to change. Tim learns early that traveling in time won’t give him everything he wants, and ultimately certain people he cares about are saved by the love that motivates the main character. There is never really a cliffhanger moment of climax here; what we get instead is a nice, sweet movie about a man with a talent, and how the person wielding the talent is the critical element, not the talent itself. The greatest power of the atomic bomb was in its ability to convince us never to use it again. Tim’s time-travel isn’t exactly like that, for in his hands it is not at all a destructive force, but it makes you consider how good life is without it.

timeDomnhall Gleeson plays Tim, and you’ve seen him as Bill Weasley in the final two Harry Potter movies. He and Rachel McAdams as Mary are wonderfully cast, playing young twenty-somethings with energy and sweetness, with wit and flirtiness and all the things that make you root for a young couple. They slide nicely into what must be their early thirties as the film moves along, and they are as likeable a pair as I’ve seen in a while. If you, like I, have been somewhat put off by McAdams’s recent efforts, here is a movie for you. And if you don’t love Bill Nighy, who plays Tim’s father, by the time this film is over, there’s just no hope for you. Nighy is almost always the best thing about any movie he is in, and this film continues the streak. If you’ve been missing the character he plays in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, grab this movie because here he mostly is again.

There are some films that seem to evade major mainstream success, and then to find their audiences slowly, over several years, as people who need to see them stumble upon them somewhere, and as word spreads gradually by people who’ve been touched by them. I can see all kinds of people whose tastes normally line up close to mine not enjoying this movie as much as I do, at least for the moment. But with absolutely nothing to support my suspicion, I have a feeling About Time is one of those movies. I found myself making all kinds of resolutions about my life, and how I’m going to change the way I think about the daily experiences of my existence, every time I saw this, and I’ve now seen it three times. It is objectively quite a good film. However, I’m throwing objectivity out the window and saying that I just love this movie, and I think there’s a fair chance anyone reading this (with the exception of one friend who I think will merely find it unobjectionable) will love it too. This movie makes me want to believe all the things my mildly cynical heart has slowly begun to crystalize against; it loosens up all the scar tissue, all the adhesions where I’ve Scotch-taped some of the wounds together so they won’t let anything in or out, and makes me think this second half of my life might possibly be better than the first.


Read More

Review: Boyhood

Boyhood (2014)
Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelai Linklater, Ethan Hawke. Written and directed by Richard Linklater.

boSomething I have never understood about parenting (I don’t have any children) is the way all of my friends who have kids wish time would slow down, as if to say they never want these current moments of childhood to go away. This has never made sense to me: I understand that the innocence of childhood is a beautiful thing, but it disappears pretty quickly, and once that’s gone, it seems to me that kids get better as they get older. They become self-aware, thinking, complicated human beings moving toward some kind of enlightenment and purpose, people who make the world better or worse based on the choices they make. Since I have yet to meet the parent who thinks his or her child is making society worse, it baffles me that these parents aren’t eager to see their kids experience all the great things the world has to offer. Sure, a baby is a sweet, safe, cuddly thing, but it has never tried osso bucco, or seen The Princess Bride, or listened to The Dark Side of the Moon with headphones. Who wants to spend extended amounts of time with someone who can’t recite the Battle of Wits scene with Wallace Shawn and Cary Elwes?*

I think parents might really be made uncomfortable by Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a movie filmed across twelve years with the same actors, including the director’s own daughter and a boy who grows up in front of our eyes in a space smaller than three hours. I’ve seen the film twice, with two different groups of people, and almost everyone commented that there were moments when they were unaware whether, from one scene to another, a few hours had passed or several months. If you paid attention to popular music in the years between 2000 and 2012, songs in the soundtrack were indicators, but if you, like most parents I know, stopped paying attention to new music when you became a parent, the songs are all going to sound new, which I imagine is the way a lot of things seem in the time between their kids’ sixth and eighteenth birthdays, just this blur of passing interests, hobbies, fads, and styles.

yhoThe nature of time’s passage is the theme of Boyhood, which stars Ellar Coltrane as Mason, Lorelai Linklater as his older sister Samantha, Patricia Arquette as their mom, and Ethan Hawke as their dad. How does one mark the passage of time? How does one mark a human being’s growth? Seen one way, twelve years flies by, impossibly morphing children into adults and transforming young parents into empty-nesters. Seen another, it is a crawl, an inexorable process of trials and errors, of unseen, life-endangering near-catastrophes nobody thinks twice about, and of in-the-moment poor decisions that only with the perspective and distance of years can we look back upon as not that big a deal. Mason and his sister grow up before our very eyes, neither the same at the end of the film as at the beginning–in fact, neither young adult looks remotely like the children we meet in the movie’s first few minutes–and while we see the before and after and understand what has happened, we can’t definitely point to more than a few specific moments that contribute to their becoming the people they become. How does one character become kind of cynical and thoughtful, and how does another become responsible and level-headed, and why is yet another still kind of undefined as a person?

Yes, a lot of the mystery of how people become who they are in this film is the result of Linklater’s decisions about what to show us and what to leave out, but this is my point: the director has created a film that gives us the feeling, in three hours, of twelve years’ passing, and he’s left us with the same kind of baffled acceptance of how things are but only the haziest of ideas about how they got that way. He leaves in stuff we’d remember, but the stuff we remember is not necessarily the stuff that shapes us.

odI imagine there was really no way to tell what kind of actor Ellar Coltrane was someday going to become, but the early verdict points to some other career. He’s good enough for sure, and I imagine Linklater shaped the story in such a way as to put Coltrane’s personality, acting skills, and screen presence to best use. Lorelei Linklater is somewhat more talented, and a film career is certainly in the realm of possibility. Arquette and Hawke are really, really good, and Arquette is probably going to get some mentions when awards season rolls around.

There is a moment near the end of the film when Mason is leaving for college. He removes something from a box of belongings his mother has packed for him to take along. Mason doesn’t want it. It’s something he created when he was young, something that has no meaning for him today. It means something to his mother, though, and this disparity in the object’s significance upsets her. She has worked so hard, been through so much, and now at the precipice of new lives for them both, she has to accept that the things that mattered to her are not the things that mattered to him. Of course they aren’t. They are different people with different perspectives of these twelve years. In choosing the three hours’ worth of moments that lead to this one, whose perspective is Linklater offering? I don’t have an answer, but I suspect that a meaningful answer tells you what this film is really about. I’m okay with not knowing.


* I realize that not having children of my own disqualifies me in many people’s eyes from making a judgment about young men and women getting better (and more interesting) as they enter their teen years, but I taught teenagers for sixteen years, something many people (most of them parents!) have told me they could never do, and although I sent my students home at the end of every day, because of the nature of the teacher-student relationship, in many ways I have known them better than their parents have. So no, I do not have the perspective of a parent, but I have a different experience that lends my voice at least some creedence.

Read More

Review: Tiger Eyes (2012)

Tiger Eyes (2012)
Willa Holland, Amy Jo Johnson, Tatanka Means. Directed by Lawrence Blume. Written by Lawrence Blume and Judy Blume.

tigerBefore 2012, despite more than eighty-two million sales in forty-one countries, no Judy Blume book had been turned into a major motion picture, a fact that confounds this lifelong fan. In these recent years, when the buying power of the American tweener has fueled fervor for sparkly vampires and wimpy kids’ diaries, you’d think that someone with Blume’s seemingly universal recognition would be a prime candidate for a good movie aimed at young people.

I suspect Blume’s being so far ahead of her time is to blame; at the height of her popularity, movies for young people avoided the frank and open discussion of topics that were then considered too personal for public discourse among teens. Now that the mass media is a bit more liberal with such calls, Blume’s work no longer stands out. It was more than enough, in the late Seventies and early Eighties, for a young adult novel simply to mention racism, bullying, menstruation, or masturbation to put it way out on the cutting edge. But in these years since the AIDS epidemic, since Donohue and Oprah, and since the verbal tiptoeing around a President’s impeachment, merely bringing up such issues doesn’t even qualify a novel for consideration on the After School Special. By the time America was ready for a Judy Blume movie, the source material was relevant only as a reminiscence for aging Gen Xers like me.

eyesIt shouldn’t have surprised me to learn that Blume’s 1981 Tiger Eyes was going to receive the big-screen treatment, but it did. It is Blume’s best book, with her most compelling plot, her best-realized characters, and her finest writing, and its subject matter, a teenaged girl’s dealing with the murder of her father, is generation-proof. Yet it came at the tail end of her prolificity, and it never gained the notoriety of many of its predecessors, so the built-in audience (and buzzy anticipation) that might have come with Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was going to look very different, most likely much smaller, much older, and (forgive my ego’s saying it) much more thoughtful.

I looked forward to it with high hopes, mostly because I thought it was exactly the right choice.

Tiger Eyes is set in what looks like the current day, and it is directed by Lawrence Blume, the writer’s son, with a screenplay by Judy and Lawrence Blume. It stars Willa Holland as Davey, a teenager whose father was murdered in the family-owned coffee shop. Davey’s mother Gwen (Amy Jo Johnson) and little brother Jason leave their home in New Jersey to spend healing time in Los Alamos, New Mexico, with Gwen’s older sister. Gwen is a mess, retreating to her new bedroom to stay beneath the covers while her children are left to figure things out for themselves.

Davey enrolls at the local high school, but when your father has been murdered, she realizes, and you need time to recover, people will write you all kinds of passes for otherwise unacceptable behavior, so she spends a lot of time in a nearby canyon, where she meets a young Native American man named Wolf. Though neither mentions details, they can sense deep sadness in one another, and they speak instead in generalities about life, living, and moving on.

Those who have nothing personal already invested in this film will find it, at the very least, a competently made movie with a few interesting characters. It manages to be a quiet movie without dragging, and while it suffers in translation from a first-person-narrated novel to an outside-looking-in movie, it does a pretty good job of letting us see some of the complexities surrounding Davey’s immediate and extended families.

Viewers like me, who cannot help but compare the film to its beloved source, will find a few things to quibble with, such as changes in the way Davey’s relationship with Wolf is handled. The Blumes make a misguided decision about the film’s end that leaves me sorely disappointed, but even that is an understandable choice. As a movie about a suffering teen, I’m happy to say that it’s solidly above average. As the movie version of a book I read twenty times before I was sixteen, it gets almost everything right, and almost is really the best any of us can really hope for.


Read More

Haole to You, Too!

A text conversation a couple of weekends ago had @aipohaku and me challenging each other to create lists of our ten favorite movies set in Hawaii. I, of course, am late by a full week.

Note that I’m going for movies set in the Aloha State, not merely filmed here, so Jurrassic Park and The Karate Kid II are out.

10. Pearl Harbor (2001)
kateOkay, forget about the hype surrounding Pearl Harbor, the Josh Hartnett, Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale pic that followed in the wake of Titanic as some kind of love story set against awful, historic events, and just look at is as an entertainment, and you’ll find some good stuff here, including a great recreation of the attack. I realize this is no masterpiece, but there’s some excellent Hawaii period footage like you don’t really see anymore.

9. From Here to Eternity (1953)
kerrThere’s that famous kissing scene on the beach, which I suppose is pretty good, even if it doesn’t live up to its iconic status. The real value in this movie are in seeing the streets of downtown Honolulu in its still-rough, WWII days, before it was cleaned up in the 1990s and before it was the sleaze-pit it became in the 1970s and 1980s, and in seeing this great cast when the actors were vibrant, young, exciting. It’s a great cast while not being a great movie, and it’s entertaining enough to keep you interested on one of those bad-weather play-hooky days, which I think are the conditions under which I first saw this when I was a teenager.

8. The Castaway Cowboy (1974)
I seem to be the only one of my friends who remembers this Disney film with James Garner, and based on reviews I’ve seen online, I may be the only person anywhere who remembers it fondly. Garner is rescued after being kidnapped from San Francisco and then tossed overboard in Hawaii. He sticks around to help his rescuing family with its farm. There is a memorable scene where the cattle are lashed by the horns to the sides of boats and then guided, while they swim, to some new location. I’m afraid to see this one again for fear of its being not nearly as good as I remember.

7. Goodbye, Paradise (1991)
goodbye paradiseLong-time Hawaii news anchor Joe Moore stars in this film set in an old neighborhood bar that’s about to be shut down. Part nostalgia trip longing for the way things used to be, and part let’s-see-if-we-can-make-Joe-Moore a movie star, Goodbye, Paradise is not remembered fondly by those few of us who saw it, but I liked it. There’s a little bit of double nostalgia with memories of this film because it’s the last thing I saw at the old Marina Theater, which many years ago became Hawaii’s only Red Lobster restaurant. The theater by that time was as much a run-down dump as the bar in the movie, but I remember both fondly.

6. Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)
milaBias alert: I love Kristen Bell. I expected very little from Forgetting Sarah Marshall even though I admire the Apatow team for its effort if not usually for its product, but what really makes this film memorable is Mila Kunis, who for the first time kind of emerges as a possible star. She’s the rare non-local who manages to be convincing as kind of a local, and she’s really the highlight of a so-so movie.

5. Lilo & Stitch (2002)
To say I had low expectations of Lilo & Stitch, whose animation style I found boring and whose plot didn’t sound like the stuff of a Disney classic, would be a gross understatement. I went in determined not to like it. And I couldn’t help myself: I was charmed. The title characters, despite having every reason not to, won me over, and I left with renewed hope in Disney. I have known young men and women, cynics to the core, people who find something to dislike in anything conventional, who admitted the same thing.

4. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
emily and adamPunch-Drunk Love, with Adam Sandler and Emily Watson, and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is set in Hawaii about the way Say Anything is set on a jet to Paris, which is to say not really setin Hawaii at all. However, it would appear that I haven’t seen as many films truly set in Hawaii as I once thought, and I only have the faintest memory of some of them, so I had to loosen my restriction just a little and include this in the list. Sandler and Watson are excellent in a movie whose main character resonates more with me than any other, except Paul Giamatti’s Miles role in Sideways.

3. 50 First Dates (2004)
There are about fifty stupid things in this movie, things that should offend me as a resident of Hawaii, where 50 First Dates is set. And in almost any other movie, I suppose they would, but Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore are just too good together, and there is a scene about midway through the film where we see Sean Astin and Blake Clark, as Barrymore’s brother and father, going to great, amazing, and genuinely touching lengths to make her amnesia.-like condition less traumatic. Sandler, at his most sincere and most earnest, does the rest, convincing us that he loves this happy girl in the saddest way. What’s good about the movie far, far outweighs what’s bad about it.

2. The Descendants (2011)
george and shaileneGeorge Clooney and Shailene Woodley are excellent in The Descendants, a movie that looks like Hawaii the way only people who live here can testify to. The story’s got some weird holes (which, it has been explained to me, are omissions from the source novel); however, they are easily overlooked when the rest of the film is so well done. This movie looks and feels like Hawaii better than any other, and that by itself should make it #1 on this list. Yet:

1. North Shore (1987)
niaFor about twenty hyper-subjective reasons, North Shore, for all its badness, is my favorite movie set in Hawaii (I actually like Punch-Drunk Love better, but it’s not set enough in Hawaii to count). For high-school crushes, Nia Peeples is only rivaled by Pat Benatar and Paulina Porizkova for duration and depth. For its many, many quotable bits of dialogue. For being in theaters the summer after my high-school graduation. For cameos by Makaha Sons of Niihau and surfers I actually recognize (because there aren’t many). I can’t help it. My head says a million things but my heart says, “You come back to the North Shore,” and then a second later, “Here on the North Shore, we treat our friends more better!”


I had Ride the Wild Surf on this list before I remembered to include Goodbye, Paradise, so that would be my number 11 if there were a number 11. I would also like to re-see Aloha Summer and Goin’ Cocoanuts (the Donnie and Marie movie set in Hawaii) to see if they somehow could crack this list.

I promised myself I wouldn’t look at @aipohaku’s list until mine was done, so it’s time now for me to go do it. You are encouraged to do the same!

Read More