Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Ex (Hong Kong 2010)

Question: when a movie feels a lot longer than it's actual running time, does that mean you're not enjoying it? Yes, that's a rhetorical question because the answer is fairly obvious. For me, Ex (前度) was such a movie, one that emphasizes the old expression that you don't know what you've got until it's gone. I had a tough time with this one.

Zhou Yi (Gillian Chung), is a young woman with her hand in one too many cookie jars. She has a boyfriend, Woody (Lawrence Chou), that she's planning a trip with until she finds out, at the airport, that he shared some intimate moments with another woman. The two begin arguing in front of another couple, Ping (William Chan), and Cee (Michelle Wai), and through sheer coincidence, Ping just so happens to be Zhou Yi's ex. Let's not try and explore how that possibility is near absurd. This is a movie after all. Cee, trying to be the nice one in this group, sticks up for Zhou Yi and offers her a ride. Ping is in the backseat wondering how this all came to be while his ex and current girlfriend sit in the front talking about his bad habits. How's that for an awkward car ride? Zhou Yi reaches out to some friends and family for a place to crash, as she no longer has a place of her own, but she ends up having no place to go. Going even further out on that limb of generosity, Cee and Ping agree to let her stay at Ping's place for a few days until she can sort something out. Zhou Yi wastes no time making herself at home in Ping's flat and it's clear that Cee isn't as comfortable with her staying there as we may have thought. She can see the closeness that Ping and Zhou Yi once shared and is starting to feel that the two of them haven't fully moved on. During her time in Ping's flat, Zhou Yi and her ex talk about the good ol' times and the not-so-good of times they had together. Zhou Yi talks about the various guys she spent time with after Ping, including the aforementioned Woody, a triad bad-boy (Jacky Heung), and Sol (Derek Tsang), a nice guy cab driver that's actually friendly with Ping. Sure, she's a bit promiscuous, but I guess you sometimes have to see what else is on offer before you realize what you wanted was right in front of you all along. During this short time of being back together under the same roof, feelings for one another begin to rekindle but it's not just the two of them anymore. Are Ping and Zhou Yi really as good for each other as they think?

There are a lot of stories going on in Ex as Zhou Yi recounts her tales of past loves through the fun of flashbacks. I don't mind a movie using flashbacks to fill me in on various important little bits of information, but as a major story-telling piece where I'm constantly being taken back to specific moments in time, well that becomes a bit tiresome for me. Add to that the fact that every time we go back in time, Zhou Yi has a different hairstyle, a couple of which look like wigs, and Ping has a different hairstyle and style of glasses each time. I understand that it's the past due to me actually paying attention to the story, so I find the poorly done costume props distracting. I will say that the performances were quite good and Gillian Chung in particular proved that she's more than just a pop-star turned wannabe actress. I found her character to be really obnoxious at first but once you discover why she is the way she is, it makes sense. This girl has been through the emotionally wringer and Chung does a nice job at conveying that rollercoaster of emotion. The director, Heiward Mak, does a nice job making everything look good. He clearly has a sharp eye, but there are occasions where things get a little too artsy for their own good, leaving an air of pretentiousness hanging. Ex is reasonable in length at only an hour and thirty-six minutes, but I have to question the director's pacing, as the story seemed to drag on and on. A movie this short shouldn't feel this long.

A near mixed-bag with more bad than good, Ex is a movie that gets points for effort but isn't getting a free pass due to poor execution. There's a slick sheen on the proceedings and it's not a complete misfire, but as it all unfolds you're ultimately left unimpressed and even slightly bored. (Lee)

Grade: C

Monday, July 23, 2012

Miporin no Ekubo (Japan 2010)

Oh boy, movies likes Miporin no Ekubo (みぽりんのえくぼ ) are a bit difficult to review, so I guess I'll use a strange analogy to try and describe it. When you see the rundown of a movie like this, it's a bit like a can of Coke; you know exactly what you're getting. That Coke is gonna taste like a Coke every time and these types of movie are always going to unapologetically go straight for your heartsrings. Based on a true story...oh boy indeed.

Miho aka Miporin (Manatsu Kimura), is a 13 year old who is going to die. Boom! Right off the bat we're told she's going to die by none other than Miporin herself. This young girl hasn't had the easiest life. When she was two years old she was diagnosed with leukemia but she fought her way through it like the little trooper she is. She's just starting junior high, things are looking good and we can see that her mother (Ryoko Hirosue), father (Tomoya Nagase), and older sister Minami (Mayuko Fukuda), make up a tight-knit, loving family. On Miporin's first day of junior high school, she's in the midst of new-class orientation when suddenly her vision gets blurred and a sharp pain runs through her head, causing her to pass out. She's taken to the hospital to be examined and the doctor's conclude that Miporin had simply succumb to the pressures of starting school. Whew, close call right? Well Miporin is back to school the next day, in the gym with her friends shooting some hoops, when suddenly the same thing happens; blurred vision, sharp head pain and out she goes. Something is definitely not right here. Her parents rush to the hospital to be by her side and the doctor's decide to do some more extensive testing. After an MRI scan, the doctors sadly inform Mom and Dad that Miporin has a brain tumor. The parents agree to let the doctors go forward with a treatment, which isn't a guaranteed cure, but they're desperate.

Since she's stuck in the hospital, Dad picks up some art-letters at the local hobby shop to try and help lift Miporin's spirits. These art-letters are basically letter sized cards that you can paint on to tell a story or simply to create a picture. Mom and Dad figured it would be a nice, creative way for Miporin to express herself during her stay in the hospital. Miporin really takes to the idea and soon finds herself drawing a new picture everyday. The doctors and other patients are really impressed with her pictures and love gathering around to see what she'll draw next. After the initial treatments are finished, the doctors have more bad news for the family and inform the parents that the tumor has come back and that their initial treatment had failed. All this attention that Miporin's getting has also taken it's toll on her older sister, who isn't aware of how serious young Miho's disease is. Minami begins feeling jealous and starts acting nasty to everyone. She's a teenager. What do you expect? Yes, I'm generalizing. A couple of surgeries later, the doctors tell the parents that they've done all they can for Miporin and that she doesn't have much time left before she passes. That being said, the family feels it's best, and the doctors agree, to let Miporin spend the small amount of time she hast left, at home with her family. At this point, Mom has no choice but to tell Minami how serious Miporin's condition is. The time you knew was coming eventually comes and Miporin passes on, leaving behind 359 artistic letters documenting her journey in the hospital and through her illness. Her family knows how important the pictures were to them, to Miporin and to others that saw them, so they make a decision to ensure that people can continue to see them.

Okay, so that's probably the first time I've told almost every bit of a movie in a review before, but I promise I kept it spoiler-free. So before you yell at me, remember that the main character tells you right away that she's going to die when she narrates! Now, Miporin no Ekubo (Miporin's Dimples), was a made-for-TV movie, or as they say here in Japan, a "television special", which has it's heart in the right place; telling a story of a terminally ill young girl who touches the lives of others through her letters. Even though it's based on a true-story, the melodrama in this film just oozes out of every second of it's one hour and forty-one minute running time. Now I don't know about you, but for me, that can get real old, real fast. The acting wasn't particularly impressive, aside from Ryoko Hirosue as Miporin's mother because, let's face it, she's a pro at this point. The story, again while based on real events, felt as by-the-numbers as you can get. Girl is happy. Girl gets sick. Girls get treated and we're given a ray of hope. Hope gets dashed. Girl dies. You've seen that before and probably many times. When Miporin finally does see the light at the end of the film, her final scene is really over-the-top and young Manatsu Kimura puts on a "dying" voice that is cringe worthy.

Don't get me wrong, I didn't have an abundant supply of "Haterade" before watching Miporin no Ekubo. I like the fact that the real Miporin's letters touched peoples hearts and affected their lives for the better, but I guess her story didn't translate well to the screen for me. Sometimes movies can be just too cliche for their own good. (Lee)

Grade: D

(I don't have a trailer, so enjoy the first 15 minutes!)

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Usagi Drop (Anime 2011)

Like most anime, at least that I'm aware of, Usagi Drop (うさぎドロップ) is an adaptation of the manga of the same name, which got it's start in print back in 2005. I've never read the manga, but this is an incredibly cute and charming anime series that showcases the importance of love and bonding in the family unit.

Daikichi Kawachi (Hiroshi Tsuchida), is a single, thirty-something, blue-collar worker who lives a relatively mundane life. On one of these relatively mundane days, he receives a phone call informing him that his grandfather has passed away. It's been awhile since Daikichi made his way back home, but few things can bring family back together like the passing of a loved one. At his family's home, he makes small talk with the members of his family but takes notice of a peculiar little girl that he hasn't seen before. She follows him around the house, staying hidden; clearly shy towards people. Eventually Daikichi strikes up a conversation with her and she tells him her name is Rin (Ayu Matsura), and that her father is Daikichi's grandfather. Say what!? It turns out that Daikichi's grandfather had an illegitimate child with his housekeeper, a young lady by the name of Masako (Maya Sakamoto). As you can imagine, this news has the Kawachi family in a bit of a tailspin and no one seems to know what to do with Rin. There's talk of sending her to a foster home but Daikichi, clearly being of a higher moral standing, feels that Rin is a part of the family and can't be discarded so easily. After a bit of thought, Daikichi informs the family that he'll be taking Rin home with him and will take care of her until he can figure out matters with Rin's mother. The family is in a bit of shock but Daikichi is determined to look after Rin and Rin is happy to go with someone that seems to genuinely care for her well-being. Daikichi's life as a lonely, single man has suddenly changed drastically, as has life for young Rin. Can Daikichi handle his life being completely turned upside down by the daily stresses of being a single father?

Throughout the series, Daikichi and Rin find themselves facing a number of challenges. First of all, they have to get used to just being around each other. Daikichi has to figure out how to enroll Rin in school, arranging his work schedule with her school schedule, buying her clothes and other supplies, dealing with Rin's birth mother, Rin getting sick, Rin making friends with a rowdy little boy named Koki, helping her cope with the concept of death (she tries to understand what happened to her father), and all the other challenges one would face when suddenly having a child thrust upon them without any prior preparation. I can't even imagine! I always enjoy these slice-of-life anime and Usagi Drop does a great job showing the difficult transitions that Daikichi and Rin face with what is essentially their new day-to-day lives. Daikichi is a guy who had a very ordinary life before his grandfather's death but he makes incredible sacrifices in order to accommodate this young girl that he really doesn't know. He's not always convinced he's done the right thing and even questions his ability to watch over Rin. However, he does know that she's family and deserves to be treated as such. Therein lies the really special, heartfelt message of Usagi Drop. Add to that the fact that it's all presented with a wonderfully eye-pleasing art style that is simple and clean, yet still shows attention to detail. Each episode begins with the art done in a painted, watercolor style then transitioning into a traditional, penciled art-style and this series just furthers showing it's character. You can imagine that from the show's content that there is a lot of heart in the storyline and Usagi Drop has no shortage of touching moments. I feel that Rin is an adorable character that you just find yourself rooting for and together with Daikichi, their relationship is really cute to watch. 

If you're a fan of "realistic" anime that focuses more on the human element and our relationships with one another, than Usagi Drop is a sweet series that you're sure to find heartwarming. It feels like an incredibly short 11 episodes and whenever a series feels like it's over too soon, that's always a good indicator of how enjoyable it is. (Lee)

Grade: A 

K-On! (Japan 2011)

The much-beloved manga-turned-anime, K-On! (けいおん!), finally gets the big-screen adaptation fans have been clamoring for. We all know that series' do not always translate well when turned into a feature-length film, however, as a rabid K-On! fan myself, I'm pleased to say this animated movie does not disappoint.

For those that don't know, K-On! is about a group of high school girls that join the music club at school and form a band. They call themselves Houkago Tea Time, or HTT for short. The series focuses mainly on their friendships and the moments they share in school and in the music club. The movie finds the girls, Yui (Aki Toyosaki), Mio (Yoko Hikasa), Ritsu (Satomi Sato), Tsumugi (Minako Kotobuki), on the cusp of graduating high school, and while they have big plans to attend university together, they worry about leaving their underclass bandmate, Azusa aka Azu-nyan (Ayana Taketatsu), behind. They're also planning a big graduation trip, because that's just what you do apparently, and after some assistance from the club pet turtle Ton, they pack up and head to London! Yui, Mio, Ritsu and Mugi decide that there's no better way to say thank you and to show their appreciation for Azusa than by writing a song just for her. They plan to write the song while on their trip, looking for a little London inspiration. Azusa begins to grow suspicious as the others do their best to keep their song-writing plans a secret. As you can imagine, while in England, the girls find themselves in a few wacky, unexpected situations while taking in the sights, but that's all a part of the adventure. When an opportunity to perform for the people of London on the gang's last day of vacation presents itself, time suddenly becomes a major issue when you have a plane to catch! Can the girl's put on a memorable show and still make it to the airport in time to catch their flight? And will Azusa catch on to what the others are up to and ruin the surprise?

Having K-On! made into a full-blown movie, not straight-to-dvd, was an exciting announcement. I'm a big fan of the series and I'll admit that it's even become a mini-obsession of mine. I just find the characters to be incredibly endearing and I think the art style is great. I also really like the attention to detail given to the instruments the girls play, which adds a nice level of realism to the music of the show. As a side note, for those who don't know by now, Ritsu, the drummer, is my favorite. I previously mentioned that a TV series, regardless of being animated or not, rarely translates into a successful big-screen movie, but K-On! fans, fear not, this is a movie that will not disappoint. It picks up right where the second series left off, the art is more detailed and the animation has clearly been given an extra layer of polish. It appears that all involved with the film took the extra time (thanks to a nice budget I'm sure) to add a bit more TLC to everything. All of the characters, memorable characters that is, from the series are in the film, even if only for a few minutes (Yui's sister Ui, Jun, Nadako and, Sawako-sensei for example). Most importantly, the movie version of K-On! actually feels like they're doing something big with these characters. It's not just an hour and forty-five minutes of them sitting in their clubroom, talking and having sweets. Sure, there's some of that, because that's what these girls do, but they pack their bags and head out on a big adventure. It's really a lot of fun to see them in a foreign environment (literally and figuratively speaking), because it's something you haven't seen in the series. Also, there are some original songs written for the movie and if you enjoy the music the K-On! girls put out, then these songs will be right up your alley. You'll be sure to hear some of their "classics" in the film as well. Is a near two-hour animated film too long? Perhaps for some, most likely those who didn't read the manga or watch the anime, but for a fan, it's a great running-time and you almost don't want it to end. The only downside for the movie that I could think of is that it's not really accessible for those unfamiliar with the series. Sure you can still watch it, but will you care as much about the characters? The series spent 41 episodes and countless smaller specials, developing the relationship between these characters and getting you, the viewer, invested in it.

All-in-all, I found K-On! the movie to be a great success and I'm the not the only one. It had a huge opening here in Japan, beating out Steven Spielberg's Tin-Tin at the box office when it was released and where I'm from, that's saying something. The people have spoken. Who knows what the future holds for this series, but I can only hope that there's more K-On! somewhere down the line. It would be a shame to say goodbye to these characters, but if I'm forced to, the movie was a satisfying way to do it. (Lee)

Grade: A

Monday, July 16, 2012

Blind (Korea 2011)

I'm going to try and stay as unbiased as possible in reviewing Blind (블라인드), because yes, it has my favorite Korean actress Kim Ha-neul in it. Not factoring that in though, what we have here is a pretty good suspense-thriller that asks the audience to suspend some disbelief in order to achieve maximum entertainment. I was able to do that and walked away fairly entertained. 

Police cadet Soo-ah (Kim Ha-neul) is an angry woman when we first meet her. Why? Because her younger brother Dong-hyeon (Park Bo-geom), is at the club again preparing to enter a B-Boy dance competition with his friends. See, he promised to stop this hip-hop dancing and yet here he is about to shake his groove thing again and Soo-ah ain't havin' it! She drags him out of the club, going so far as to handcuff him to the handle on the inside of her van so he doesn't try to run off. The two are arguing during the drive home, with Dong-hyeon reaching for the handcuff keys and Soo-ah trying to stop him. You get the picture...this is not what you should be doing while driving. Sure enough, they get in a pretty horrible accident, where the van is left teetering on the side of the freeway overpass and Soo-ah thrown from the van, laying bloody in the road. Dong-hyeon cries out for his sister's help, but she's unable to make her way to him, her vision horribly impaired. The van tips over the side and a truck crashes into it, ensuring Dong-hyeon's death. The two were family, but not by blood, as they were both raised in the same orphanage. Time passes and we see Soo-ah trying to adjust to her new life as a visually impaired person, with her seeing eye dog Seul-ki. The police station can't employ Soo-ah again, and they claim it has nothing to do with her eyesight, or lack thereof, but more of the fact that she used handcuffs on her brother, resulting in his death. Basically, life is pretty bad for her right now. We oversee/overhear on the news that there is a killer on the loose, taking young woman at night and doing unspeakable things to them. When Soo-ah is waiting for a taxi home one night, she gets in the cab and soon realizes that the driver's (Yang Yeong-jo), behavior is quite abnormal. He says he'll take Soo-ah home even though she doesn't have enough money for the deluxe cab fare. Nice, but a little sketchy. He's persistent on giving her a complimentary coffee and having her drink it. Weird and suspicious. The cab smells like sterilizer. Just weird. While trying to get Soo-ah to drink the coffee, he's not watching where he's going and hits a woman crossing the road. He tells Soo-ah he hit a dog, but when he gets out of the cab, he puts the woman's body in the trunk. Soo-ah is certain he didn't hit a dog and the driver becomes aware that she's onto him. He tries to attack her but Soo-ah is able to fight him off long enough, because another car starts to show up and the crazy dude drives off, leaving Soo-ah on the side of the road.

Soo-ah speaks to the police and tries to convince them that just because she's blind, it doesn't mean she can't give them valuable information. Inspector Cho (Jo Hee-bong), decides to give her the benefit of the doubt and hears her out. Also, a young man Gi-seob (Yoo Seung-ho), comes forward claiming that he saw the accident that night but the information he gives Inspector Cho conflicts with the information provided by Soo-ah. Meanwhile, this killer is still on the loose, taking young women, torturing and killing them. To make matters worse, he's aware that Gi-seob saw him that night and he also has Soo-ah's contact information from that fateful night in the taxi. Soo-ah and Gi-seob can't seem to get along, but they both need to work together because the killer is out there and knows how to find them. Can Inspector Cho help these two get along and put all the pieces together in order to catch this psychopath? 

How about that for a premise!? A visually impaired young woman, with some police training, has to work alongside a young punk and a somewhat bumbling inspector in order to catch a deranged killer. Blind gives us a far-fetched premise but presents it in a way that seems somewhat plausible. That's something I can always appreciate in a film. Even if I'm expected to not believe what's going on, try and make me believe it. I tend to appreciate the effort. Take your material seriously and I'll try to take it seriously. You get what I'm saying. You know I love Kim Ha-neul at this point, and for me, she doesn't disappoint here. She does quite a respectable job playing someone with a visual handicap. It never comes across as phony or laughable, so kudos to her for that. She's proven time and time again that she has great range and isn't just the comedic actress she started off as. Jo Hee-bong, I found out, wasn't always an actor and got his start as a stuntman. I have to say, he does quite well here as a goofy, but charming, detective that you root for. Yang Yeong-jo, as the nutty killer Myeong-jin, is excellent at playing an angry, demented lunatic. This guy is really intense and does at a great job at creating that intense air in a scene where you have no idea when or how he's going to snap. You see this dude, you know something's going down. Speaking of which, there are some really intense scenes in Blind, especially one involving the subway system and what felt like a great commercial for the use of Apple's iPhone. Soo-ah and Gi-seob use their iPhone's in this scene involving Myeong-jin and it's not only intense, but pretty darn cool too. That being said, I did have some gripes with Blind. My biggest problem was that while Myeong-jin was great at playing this incredibly driven killer, he was also damn-near unstoppable. I mean this guy was like the Terminator at times and it had me thinking on more than one occasion, "ummm, what the...? how is he not dead!? He is just human right?" I was also annoyed at how, yet again, the police force come across as incompetent nitwits. I find this more of a problem with Korean films as-of-late, more than as a problem with just this film.

Blind is a suspense-thriller that hits all the marks in most cases. The characters are likeable, the villain is detestable and there are some real nail-biting moments. Some ideas are far-fetched, but this is a movie for crying out loud. Suspend some disbelief, sit back and firmly grip the side of your chair. Now you're ready to watch! (Lee)

Grade: B


Sunday, July 1, 2012

From Up on Poppy Hill (Japan 2011)

Serving as Goro Miyazaki's second film as director, and my first review in almost a year, From Up on Poppy Hill (コクリコ坂から) is just about what you'd expect at this point from Studio Ghibli. Yeah, that's a good thing.

Umi Matsuzaki (Masami Nagasawa) is a 16 year old girl that probably works harder than most teenagers you and I know. Not only is she a student, but she helps to run a lodging house, taking on cooking and cleaning duties. Why? Because her mother, Ryoko (Jun Fubuki), is a researcher, currently in the United States. She stays at the house with a mix of different characters including her younger siblings Sora (Haruka Shiraishi), and Riku (Tsubasa Kobayashi), doctor-in-training Miki Hokuto (Yuriko Ishida), and her grandmother Hana (Keiko Takeshita), among others. At school, she and friends notice that a group of boys are protesting the demolition of their clubhouse. The school wants to tear it down because it's become incredibly rundown, a safety hazard and basically an eyesore. Taking the lead in protest is Shun (Junichi Kozada), the president of the school newspaper. He's a rather confident, well-spoken young man that Umi soon finds herself admiring. Typically too busy for anything but school and the lodging house, Umi now finds herself getting involved with different projects at the clubhouse just to help Shun and his friends. She wants to impress Shun and even gathers a ton of students to help clean the place up. The two begin developing a friendship and their feelings for one another grow stronger with each encounter. When Shun visits Umi's house for a dinner party, she tells him about her father and how his ship went down in the Korean war. She stills raises the flag for him every morning outside of the lodging house, even though he passed when she was just a child. When Umi shows Shun a picture of her father and his friends, Shun seems taken aback by the image. When he returns home from the dinner party, he looks at his photo album and realizes he has the exact same photograph in his collection. But why? Feeling uneasy and unsure about this revelation, he begins to give the cold shoulder to Umi, regardless of her manning the helm and continuing to help in restoring the clubhouse so that it can avoid being torn down. Why would Shun have the same photograph as Umi? And will the students be able to save the clubhouse from being demolished?

Goodness me, the trials and tribulations of Japanese youth in the 60's. From Up on Poppy Hill, unlike most other Studio Ghibli films, is a film that puts the focus strictly on the characters and their relationships without any fantasy element, thus giving it a great sense of realism. I'll tell you flat-out that I'm a sucker for all things Studio Ghibli. They can almost do no wrong in my eyes. I also didn't hate on Goro Miyazaki's directorial debut, Tales from Earthsea. That doesn't mean I'm biased though. I got this way because Studio Ghibli continues to put out excellent pieces of art with these films. From Up on Poppy Hill is no different in that it continues that fine tradition. I'm pleased that the running time for this movie is only around 90 minutes, because most of my criticisms in the past towards Ghibli films is that they tend to run a bit long. Umi's character is instantly likable, as is Shun, and the twists this movie throws at your are quite intriguing without being too long-winded or far-fetched. I was genuinely interested in what the connection between Umi and Shun was and it was fun to watch the students band together in order to save their clubhouse. The animation was pretty top-notch in my opinion, which is also the Ghibli standard, and the musical choices fit perfectly.

If you love Studio Ghibli films as much as I do, then you're going to enjoy From Up on Poppy Hill. For those who aren't sold on Ghibli works, then this probably isn't going to win anyone over. Harsher critics may feel this is run-of-the-mill stuff, but for those with a soft-spot for Miyazaki, it's guaranteed entertainment. (Lee)

Grade: B