Wednesday, September 28, 2016

House on Haunted Hill (1999)

1.5/4

Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Ali Larter, Taye Diggs, Famke Janssen, Peter Gallagher, Brigette Wilson-Sampras, Chris Kattan

Rated R for Horror Violence and Gore, Sexual Images and Language

I saw this movie in high school (all those years ago) and remember thinking that it was extremely lame.  Now that I'm older, wiser, and have a more refined and personal taste for movies...I still think it sucks.  It's not scary, it's not funny (not even as camp), it's not good.

Evelyn (Janssen) is the pampered wife of schlock mogul Stephen Price (Rush).  Although his reputation as being a cross between Roger Corman and P.T. Barnum nets him a lot of money, she's far from happy (the feeling is mutual).  Nevertheless, after seeing a "Twilight Zone"-ish TV episode about a haunted asylum, she convinces Stephen to throw her a birthday party there.  The guests, much to her displeasure, are not whom she invited.  Nevertheless, the game that Stephen has concocted (stay alive until morning and win a cool $1 million), must go on.  Little do they know that they aren't just going to see a show.  They really are going to have to try to survive.

The characters in this movie range from boring to irritating, with little room in-between.  There is a certain amount of campy fun watching a slumming Geoffrey Rush trade barbs with Famke Janssen (who has never looked so bored), but it would have been funnier had they been better things to say.  Taye Diggs and Peter Gallagher are essentially invisible; no one could be blamed for forgetting they're in the movie.  And Briget Wilson-Sampras and Chris Kattan are incredibly annoying (as if the film weren't painful enough, it's the lesser of two evils that dies first).

On a visual side, the movie has all the materials to make a great movie.  The film looks great (director William Malone later went on to direct "FeardotCom," a better horror movie than this one), and the asylum is perfectly creepy.  The special effects are usually pretty cool (with one exception) and there's a decent amount of atmosphere.  What the film doesn't have is a script worth the paper it was printed on and a director who doesn't know the meaning of the words "patience" or "subtlety."  It's all noise, chaos and blood.  Compare that to "The Conjuring 2."  This summer's horror hit scored a home run because director James Wan knows that special effects can only be used to supplement a story, and that often times silence is scary enough on its own.  More importantly, he knows that what you don't see is always scarier than what you do.

There's really not a lot to recommend this movie.  It's headache inducing, repetitive and dumb.  There are far better choices when you want to watch a movie that will scare the living hell out of you.  Trust me.

Dial M for Murder

2.5/4

Starring: Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings, John Williams, Anthony Dawson

Rated PG (for a Scene of Violence...I Guess)

It takes a special kind of talent to be good enough to have an entire genre named after you.  While Alfred Hitchcock didn't invent the thriller, he created a template to which many are matched up.  Hitch was capable of greatness (he has more than a few masterpieces to his name, and a few that are just below that), but not everything he did worked.  "Dial M for Murder" is one of them.  While it's a smart little thriller, it falls apart at the end.

Tony Wendice (Milland) has a problem.  His wife Margot (Kelly) is cheating on him and he wants to get rid of her.  The problem is that she comes from a hell of a lot of money, and he's grown accustomed to a certain level of living.  So he decides to blackmail an old schoolmate named Charles Swann (Dawson) into committing the perfect murder.  But as brilliant as his plan is, it goes wrong and he's forced to improvise.  But he's got two forces against him: his "friend" Tony (Cummings) who is Margot's real lover, and a police inspector (Williams) who won't go away.

No one who watches this movie will be surprised to learn that this was adapted from a play.  Hitch and playwright Frederick Knott made the decision not to open up the story, which makes sense considering that this is more about psychological mind games rather than action.  But there's an intimacy on stage between the actors and the audience that can't be replicated on screen, and Hitch isn't able to find a substitute.  As it is, the film loses its energy and seems to drag.

The acting varies.  Leading the pack is Ray Milland.  A popular box office draw (not least because he won an Oscar for playing an alcoholic in the groundbreaking Billy Wilder drama "The Lost Weekend"), Milland is delicious as the man without morals.  On the surface Tony is a polite and intelligent man, but beneath there is nothing but rot.  Grace Kelly is flat; Kelly was as good an actress as she was a great beauty, but she's rarely convincing here.  Light character actor Robert Cummings is quite good as the lover, although he doesn't have much to do other than look attractive, act dumb and be a sounding board.  John Williams (no relation to the famed composer) is excellent as Inspector Hubbard.  He's smart and perceptive, but also able to know when to play dumb in order to manipulate his quarry and get the job done.  Williams won a Tony for playing the role on Broadway and recreated the role on screen.

This was not a passion project for Hitch.  He was forced to do it by Warner Bros. to fulfill his contractual obligations, and he directed it with due passion-which is to say, not much.  He claimed that he could have phoned in the direction and the film wouldn't have been any less interesting had he staged it in a phone booth.

Better follow Hitch's idea and rent something else.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Our Little Sister

2.5/4

Starring: Haruka Asaye, Suzu Hirose, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho

Rated PG for Thematic Elements and Brief Language

"Our Little Sister" is the new film from acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda.  I haven't seen any of his other films, but Roger Ebert said that his 1996 film "Maborosi" was one of the best films of the 1990's and James Berardinelli gave his previous film, "Like Father, Like Son," a rare 4/4 rating.  There's no denying that Koreeda (who sometimes only credits himself by his last name, has talent for directing actors.  But it's his screenplay, based on the manga by Akimi Yoshida, is a mess.  It's less than the sum of its parts.

Three adult sisters are living in their late grandmother's house.  Their father remarried 15 years ago and they haven't heard from him since, and their mother left some time after that.  They are Sachi (Asaye), a nurse that took over parenting duties, Yoshino (Nagasawa), a banker and party girl, and Chika (Kaho), who sells shoes.  At the funeral, they meet their half-sister Suzu (Hirose), and they invite her to live with them.  Together, the four of them face the realities of growing up, men, and death.

There really isn't much of a plot to this movie.  I kind of like that in a movie, provided the characters are interesting enough.  Some movies, such as "Whisper of the Heart," this year's "Born Yesterday," or "Win Win," have been interesting because of strong writing and acting.  That's not the case with "Our Little Sister."  The writing is shallow and character development is almost non-existent.  The high quality of the acting soothes the pain, but when you watch a 2+ hour movie with no plot, it helps to know who each character is.

It's actually surprising how good the acting is, considering how little they have to work with.  The best performance is given by Haruka Asaye, who at different times looks like Ziyi Zhang or Gong Li.  Her performance as the young, surrogate mother is strong in its low-key way.  She deserves an Oscar nomination (which she won't get).  Her co-stars are just as good, but she has the most rounded character.

It's obvious that Koreeda has something to say with this movie.  What that is, I'll never know.  It's too messy and oblique.  I don't even know the purpose of telling this story.  Is he saying something about families?  Or is it about the passage of time?  If so, what's he saying?  The movie is never clear on this.

There is some worthwhile material here.  The performances are strong across the board, and there are more than a few scenes that work in isolation (there's also an amusing scene where Yoshino and Chika accidentally get Suzu totally hammered).  But, as a whole, the film never comes together.

She-Devil

1.5/4

Starring: Roseanne Barr, Meryl Streep, Ed Begley Jr., Linda Hunt

Rated PG-13 (probably for Sexuality and Some Language)

Don't get mad.  Get Even.

It's a human impulse to get revenge on someone who has screwed us.  When a driver cuts you off, you have the urge to honk the horn or flip them off.  Movies have capitalized on this by creating an entire genre of films ("Death Wish" being the most famous example).  "She-Devil" seeks to be a comic revenge fantasy, but it completely misses the mark.

There's a huge gulf between what "She-Devil" wants to be and what it actually is.  It wants to be a clever and wickedly funny comedy about a cuckolded woman getting revenge on her philandering husband and his annoying squeeze.  What it is is a tedious sitcom about a frump queen doling out uninteresting punishment to her boring husband and his self-absorbed girlfriend.  Yawn.

Ruth Patchett (Barr) is a housewife to Bob (Begley Jr) and mother to their two children.  One night at a party where Bob is trying to make new clients, clumsy Ruth spills wine over Mary Fisher (Streep), a trashy romance writer whose ego knows no bounds and has the tackiest sense of style in all of New York.  Bob is instantly smitten and they fall quickly in love.  When Bob throws Ruth away, she decides to make him pay.  Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned indeed!

A movie like this must be clever and funny, but it's not really either.  Ruth's methods are bland and predictable and too few of the jokes work.  Either it's because of bad timing or because they're simply not funny, "She-Devil" is pretty much mirthless.

It's also safe, which is death for this kind of movie.  A black comedy has to be fearless.  It has to go to places most movies wouldn't dare.  There has to be carnage.  But the writing is at a Friday afternoon sitcom level and director Susan Seidelman has little to no understanding of comic timing.

What are Roseanne Barr and Meryl Streep doing in a movie like this?  One would think that the ever choosy Streep would never come anywhere near a script this insipid, and legendary funny woman Roseanne Barr should have known that this movie was hopeless.  Don't get me started on Ed Begley Jr. who is just awful.  I kept wondering why Ruth would even bother with this loser?  She should be glad to get rid of him.

Seidelman saves the worst for last.  After all this pain and punishment (on the viewer), she softens the blow by finding redemption for characters she attempted to get us to hate.  It's a total WTF.  It cheats on a story that it couldn't get right to begin with.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that this movie wasn't available on Netlix (I was curious about it, so I ordered the Blu Ray from Amazon).  This movie is so bland that no one who sees it will remember it.  I'm already starting to forget it (thankfully).

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Snowden

3.5/4

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Rhys Ifans, Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson, Scott Eastwood

Rated R for Language and Some Sexuality/Nudity

Oliver Stone has never been afraid of controversy, nor has he ever hidden his liberal political beliefs.  His latest film, "Snowden," shows both qualities and wears them with honor.  The film's subject, Edward Snowden, has been dogged by controversy ever since he went public with what he knew, and Stone sees him as a martyr against government snooping.  Whatever your politics may be, "Snowden" is definitely worth seeing because it is one of the year's best films.

Edward Snowden (Gordon-Levitt) just wanted to serve his country.  After injury (actually, a series of them) forces him out of the infantry, he goes to work to provide computer security.  This leads him to the CIA and the NSA, and eventually a contractor.  But the increasingly terrifying behavior of the surveillance programs and the ugly usage of the helpful programs he designed cause disillusionment, not to mention paranoia, to set in.

"Snowden" is riveting.  It's informative and Stone assembles the material in a compelling manner.  He also finds the sweet spot between dumbing down and technobabble (most of the time).  It's fascinating stuff, and there are times when Stone uses documentary techniques (CGI, little animations, etc.) to illustrate what's going on.  Stone also allows the tension to build slowly.  We begin to understand and feel Ed's paranoia.  This is key because it allows us to understand why he did what he did.

One thing that is interesting is that a lot of the details are far scarier than the mass data snooping.  Like, how the data is being used to further petty political conflicts.  Or how the government installed malware in other countries' security systems (which were installed without their knowledge) that they can turn on if they ever become our enemies.  This stuff is much creepier.

The performances are solid, with Stone populating his film with some of the best young talent in the business.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who probably had hopes for an Oscar nomination (one that is long overdue), gives one of his best performances here.  He does the impossible: bring life and energy to a mild-mannered individual.  That's a testament not only to his talent, but his genuine presence and appeal.  His co-star Shailene Woodley is as appealing as ever and holds her own against Gordon-Levitt.  She doesn't have a lot to do other than be the oblivious/emotionally frustrated girlfriend, but she's such a gifted actress that I didn't mind much.  No one else has much screen time except for the trio of journalists (Quinto, Leo, Wilkinson) who are preparing to break the news to the world.  Special mention has to go to Rhys Ifans, who plays Ed's handler/mentor.  The British character actor is splendidly creepy, and deserves an Oscar nomination (that he won't get).

Oliver Stone is certainly playing with fire here, and that's just where he likes to be (this is the guy who made "Natural Born Killers" and "JFK").  This is a fascinating movie that is always compelling.  Flaws are few, but noticeable.  One thing is that, even at two and a quarter hours, it's too short.  There are some scenes that were apparently left on the cutting room floor and more background on Ed's programming would have helped too.  That important element is given the short end of the stick.  Perhaps Stone is going to come out with a Director's Cut.  Regardless, I'm going to see it again to pick up what I missed.

Regardless of your opinion of Snowden, your time would be well served by seeing this movie.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

When the Bough Breaks

2.5/4

Starring: Morris Chestnut, Regina Hall, Jaz Sinclair, Michael Kenneth Williams, Theo Rossi

Rated PG-13 for Violence, Sexuality/Partial Nudity, Thematic Elements, Some Disturbing Images, and Language

For a long time now, there have been calls for diversity in Hollywood in all areas; acting, directing, producing, and so on.  Finally, the studios have started to listen (or if they aren't, then independent studios have begun to fill the void).  Personally, I'm all for it.  New cultures bring new backgrounds and new perspectives on storytelling, and done right, can make for some interesting movies.  Take "The Cell" or "The Fall," for instance, two creative and ambitious movies from Indian director Tarsem.  Or "Menace II Society" from The Hughes Brothers.  Those movies had a point of view and a storytelling style that made them unique and engaging.

Of course, going away from the mold is always risky, which makes studios nervous.  That leads to movies like "When the Bough Breaks," which are diverse behind the scenes, but what shows up on camera couldn't be more generic.  And despite a daring premise, "generic" and "safe" are two words that sum up this movie completely.

John (Chestnut) and Laura (Hall) Taylor couldn't ask for a better life.  They're extremely wealthy, successful in their chosen fields (he's a lawyer while she is a chef, and they're both at the top of their field) and deeply in love.  The only thing missing for them is a child.  Despite trying so hard, they are not a family.  In desperation, they have turned to surrogacy.  They select Anna Walsh (Sinclair).  She's pretty, humble and eager to help (three red flags right there).  After her brutish boyfriend Mike (Rossi) beats her up, the Taylors invite her to move into the guest house.  But John soon begins to suspect that Anna may not be as truthful as she seems.  And that's before she tries to seduce him.

In essence, this is a "stranger within" thriller, which is okay.  I like these thrillers, formulaic as they may be.  There's an inherent tension to this formula that, done well, is impossible not to get caught up in.  Sadly, the best I can say about "When the Bough Breaks," which has a very odd title, is that it's competent and coherent.  There is some definite tension to be found here and it contains a few twists that I wasn't expecting.  But the script is so bland and the direction so pedestrian than it can't rise above the level of mediocrity.

More than anything, this is a missed opportunity.  I mean, think about it.  How scary would it be to tied to a lunatic with the ultimate trump card?  The Taylors, especially John, would love to put themselves as far away from Anna as possible.  But she's carrying their child, and worse, the law says that she can change her mind and keep the kid at any time.  So not only do they have to put up with her, they have to keep her happy.

But the movie fails to really capitalize on this.  Director Jon Cassar is content to remain on the surface level.  Had it dealt with the situation with intelligence and honesty, it could have been truly terrifying.  I wish it was made by the people who made "Kalifornia."  Now that would have been something.

As it stands, the movie isn't awful.  The acting is adequate and the film contains some tense scenes.  But it's hopelessly generic.  And everyone suffers from brain cramps in the final third, so that's a problem too.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Friday the 13th Part 2

3/4

Starring: Amy Steel, John Furey, Kirsten Baker, Stu Charno, Walt Gorney, Betsy Palmer

Rated R (probably for Horror Violence, Language, and Sexuality/Nudity)

Who knew that an entry in the mega-popular but much maligned "Friday the 13th" slasher franchise could actually be good?  Now, I'm not talking masterpiece level, but for a low-budget gorefest, it has enough thrills and chills to make it worthwhile for horror fans.

The plot is essentially the same as the first one (come to think of it, it's the same as just about every other slasher movie, give or take a few details).  Five years after the events in the first film, a guy named Paul (Furey) has decided to open up a new camp next to the old Camp Crystal Lake.  Two weeks before campers arrive, the counselors show up for training.  On the last night before they get to work, the majority go into town for one final night of partying while a select few remain behind.  They pair up for some hanky panky and end up on the wrong end of Jason Voorhees's rage.

I remember when I was at Camp Minawanca as a kid, there was a section of camp that, like Camp Crystal Lake, was rumored to be abandoned because of a past murder spree.  Of course we all knew it wasn't true (there weren't enough campers to fill up those cabins, although I did stay there another year), but it was fun to believe it in the moment.  Think about it: a bunch of unused cabins in an out of the way section of camp...it was definitely a little spooky.

I got a little of that feeling from time to time while watching this flick, and one of the keys to success for any horror movie is to tap into our deepest fears.  Take "The Descent" for instance, which superbly created the feeling of claustrophobia and desperation.  Or "Saw," which tested our personal morality and fear of severe pain.  Even "Child's Play" used our nostalgia for childhood toys as a jumping point for a homicidal doll.  It's surprising that a movie with such a generic pedigree is able to tap into that.

One reason is that the film is directed by Steve Miner.  Known primarily as a director for hire, Miner knows what he's doing.  "Halloween: H20" is a lot of fun and "Lake Placid" is an underrated B-movie homage.  Miner knows how to use editing and lighting to create atmosphere and set up some decent shocks and suspense.  He can also direct actors, since more than a few of the horny teens populating this movie display some degree of personality.  At least, as far as that goes in a movie like this.

Horror movie fans expect a few things from a slasher movie like this: tension, sex and nudity, cheap shocks, and of course, a generous helping of blood and gore.  Since this film supplies all in acceptable amounts, I'm giving it a mild recommendation.

Affliction

3/4

Starring: Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, James Coburn, Jim True, Mary Beth Hurt, Brigid Tierney, Holmes Osborne, Willem Dafoe

Rated R for Violence and Language

Not all scars are physical.

Sometimes the deepest wounds people carry are on the inside.  Not the result of physical injury, but from blows to the heart and soul.  For Wade Whitehouse, his odd personality and borderline paranoia come not from being, say, hit by a truck.  They come from growing up with his father.

Wade (Nolte) is a small town cop.  He's a bit of an odd duck, believing things to be true that probably aren't, such as that he can rearrange custody of his daughter Jill (Tierney) with his ex (Hurt) with no apparent cause.  But when his friend Jack Hewitt (True) is involved in a hunting accident, he smells a conspiracy.  There's little evidence for it, but Wade is certain.  Then he finds out that his mother has died, which brings him back into contact with his father Glen (Coburn).

Obviously, the central foundation of the film is the relationship between Wade and Glen.  But director Paul Schrader does so little with it.  He unwisely keeps Glen as an oblique figure, someone who is always at the heart of every conflict even when he isn't there.  It doesn't work because James Coburn has too little screen time to do anything with him.  Glen is a miserable drunk who spews bile and pain to anyone who crosses his path, but as is, he's just a one-dimensional bastard.  It's not Coburn's fault; he's quite intimidating and won a deserved Oscar for his performance.  The role was turned down by James Garner and Paul Newman, neither of whom wanted to play such a despicable character.  Garner suggested Coburn, and when asked by Schrader to prepare, Coburn replied, "Oh, you mean you want me to really act?  I can do that.  I haven't often been asked to, but I can."  He can indeed.

As Wade, Nick Nolte captures the subtleties of Wade's scrambled mind.  It has been a long time since Wade has seen the world for what it is, but fortunately for him, most people in town are content to accept him as a harmless weirdo.  But after the death of a big time union man, his eccentricities take a darker turn.  Nolte does an excellent job of portraying Wade's descent into madness.

I will go on the record to say that Paul Schrader has bitten off more than he can chew.  There are three plot threads and a few other subplots that are all fighting for screen time.  It would take a deft hand to balance them all in a movie that runs slightly less than two hours (if it could be done at all).  Still, I recommend the film for those who are interested.  The performances are stunning and it's never boring.  Plus the cinematography perfectly captures the feel of a small town in the midst of a heavy snow.  If nothing else, it looks great.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sully

2.5/4

Starring: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Mike O'Malley

Rated PG-13 for Some Peril and Brief Strong Language

When I first heard that they were going to make a movie based on the "Miracle on the Hudson," Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger's near-impossible water landing on the Hudson River, I thought it was a bad idea.  I mean, what story is there?  A 90-second crash landing that shouldn't have been possible?  I mean, Sully deserves all the accolades he got, but turning it into a feature film would try the talents of any filmmaker.  And despite his best attempts, Clint Eastwood can't do it.

The majority of the film takes place after the incident.  Sully (Hanks) is dealing with the trauma and all the attention he's getting, but not very well.  Adding insult to injury, the NTSB is breathing down his neck, thinking that maybe he could have landed the plane at another airport rather than take the insane chance and crash land on the Hudson River.

The problem with the film is that there isn't enough material here to fill out a full-length narrative film.  The crash sequence is exciting and well-executed, but the other material built around it is thin and nothing that we haven't seen before.  Sully is traumatized, sniveling bureaucrats want to throw him under the bus, and so on.  Just about everything that is on screen has appeared in other, better movies, and Eastwood fails to find a new angle on it.

The mistake, I think, was to turn it into a film with a narrative thread.  Another film that covered similar material was "United 93," and that succeeded because it didn't do that.  It was a docudrama that was a play by play of the events of the United 93 crash.  By sticking so close to the truth and not massaging it into clear narrative bites, it allowed the events to take center stage.  The problem, again, is time.  The United 93 flight took much longer to play out than the "Miracle on the Hudson."

Tom Hanks, who can really do no wrong, is in fine form as the title character.  He underplays the role, playing Sully as a mild-mannered man thrust into a media firestorm that he wants no part of and sees his daring rescue of 155 people turned against him.  Hanks captures a Sully's low-key personality, but at the same time it robs him of much of his charisma and screen presence.  It's at times difficult to form a bond with him.  By contrast, Hanks did something similar to much better effect in another film based on an incident that took place a few months after US Airways Flight 1549: "Captain Philips" (which, incidentally, was directed by Paul Greengrass, who directed the aforementioned "United 93").  Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney and others provide support, but this is Hanks's show.

The film is oddly structured.  It starts off with Flight 1549 crashing into downtown New York, only to be revealed as a dream sequence with Sully waking up gasping.  It's a cheap shot that, considering the context, is inappropriate and a little exploitative.  Then he follows Sully suffering the indignity of an investigation where the odds are stacked against him.  Interspersed with that are two flashbacks of the crash, one from a neutral perspective and the other from Sully's.  It's an interesting and daring choice that pays off rather than feels repetitive.

I have no real complaints about the film's second half, apart from the tail end which feels overly manipulative.  It's the clichéd first half that prevents me from giving this an complete recommendation.  At the same time, it's good enough that if you want to see it, I'm not going to try to talk you out of it.  There is tension to be found here and I never had the urge to walk out or fall asleep.  But if you do go, see it in IMAX.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Bound

4/4

Starring: Jennifer Tilly, Gina Gershon, Joe Pantoliano, Christopher Meloni, John Ryan

The version being reviewed is unrated.  For the record, the theatrical cut is rated R for Strong Sexuality, Violence and Language

A good caper will come up with an ingenious plot and call it a day.  A great one will know that that's not enough.  You have to come up with a plot that seems perfect, and then watch it go wrong in ways you don't expect.  "Bound" fits into the latter category.  That it has time for strong writing and acting makes it something of a miracle.

Corky (Gershon) is a lesbian ex-con who has just moved into a condo next to a sultry raven-haired beauty named Violet (Tilly).  Violet's lover is Caesar (Pantoliano), who launders money for the local mob.  But Violet is unhappy, both sexually and personally, and when she sees Corky in the elevator, she sees hope for a way out.  It just so happens that a local mob flunkie tried to abscond with $2 million plus, and the punishment ended up being a bloody mess.  Caesar has been tasked with (literally) laundering the money.  And therein lies an opportunity for Corky and Violet to get away with the money and leave the weasel Caesar to take the fall for it.

From an execution perspective, "Bound" is a near-brilliant piece of film noir.  Corky's plan is ingenious, but that's just the set-up.  Caesar is smart, and acts in ways that neither Corky nor Violet anticipate, which leads to a lot of tense moments and improvising.  There were plenty of times where I had no idea what to expect.  Other times, I thought I knew what was going to happen but was proven wrong.

On a technical level, the film matches its plot.  The Wachowski sisters, who at the time were still male, have a visual flair (as they proved with their most famous, and successful, franchise, "The Matrix").  They know that camera movement and plot rhythm are essential in a movie like this, and some of their shots are stunning.  The majority of the film takes place in two apartments, but they make this film into a claustrophobic yet still kinetic experience.  The film is flawlessly paced, which is one of the main reasons why this movie works so well.  The sisters start out slow and allow the tension to build.  Far too many thrillers lack that confidence.

For this movie to work, the actors have to sell their characters, and they do.  Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon, both of whom deserve far more fame than they get, are excellent in their roles.  Tilly with her helium voice flouts the dim-bulb girlfriend that Violet initially appears to be.  When she seduces Corky with enough speed and elegance to surprise us, we know that she's a force to be reckoned with.  For her part, Gershon also escapes the stereotype that she starts out as.  Corky may be a bad to the bone butch lesbian, but she's also smart and clever.  The two have a lot of chemistry together; so much so that their sex scene is red hot, despite the fact that it happens only a few minutes after their first interaction together.  Able support is provided by veteran character actor Joe Pantoliano (whom the Wachowskis would infamously cast in "The Matrix") and Christopher Meloni.  Meloni, best known for playing Det. Elliot Stabler on "Law and Order: SVU," is an interesting case.  He's quite good as the psychotic son of the Don.  His background is mainly in comedy, and he has little trouble tweaking it for a menacing effect.

One thing I appreciated is that even in 1996, the Wachowski sisters refuse to make the fact that the two lead characters are lesbians into any sort of a big deal.  Many films that deal with LGBT characters, even the better ones, feel as if they have to comment on it or justify it.  Not here.  That they are lesbians simply makes them stick out in our minds more.  Make Corky (or even Violet...which would be interesting in its own right) into a man and almost nothing would change.

Heist movies and film noir are not uncommon territory for the movies.  Movies that combine both in such a spectacular fashion are.  And that's why I highly recommend "Bound."

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Regression

3/4

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Emma Watson, David Thewlis, Lothaire Bluteau, David Dencik, Dale Dickey, Devon Bostick, Aaron Ashmore

Rated R for Disturbing Violent and Sexual Content, and for Language

Beginning in 1982 with the Kern County child abuse case and not concluding until the mid-90's, the United States, and other parts of the world, was gripped with fear about Satanic sex abuse.  The stories the children told were as horrifying as they were bizarre.  Ultimately, it all began with accusations from a grandmother with mental illness, but exploded into social consciousness due to women's anxiety and guilt over leaving their children in the care of others as they went to work, the rise of evangelical Christianity, and the rise of pop psychology regarding repressed memories and recovered-memory therapy.  Add into that police and authority figures interviewing children and toddlers like adults, and you have an explosive situation.  Hundreds of millions of dollars were wasted and many lives were ruined for what ended up being a bunch of smoke and mirrors.

Minnesota, 1990.  Detective Bruce Kenner (Hawke) is investigating allegations that John Gray (Dencik) has been sexually abusing his daughter Angela (Watson).  John admits to his crimes, but there's something funny about it: he has no memory of doing it.  Kenner consults Dr. Kenneth Raines (Thewlis), a local psychology professor, who puts John under hypnosis.  It turns out that John was only filming the abuse, but in reality it was Kenner's fellow cop, George Nesbitt (Ashmore), who raped her.  When they finally interview Angela herself, she claims that her father and George were a part of a satanic cult that performed sadistic rituals on her and others.  The more Kenner investigates, the more horrifying the allegations become, until he believes he himself is in danger.

"Regression" is a rare thriller that provokes thought.  Like "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," it takes an objective look at its subject.  Writer/director Alejandro Amenabar explores the numerous divides that this situation straddles: fact and fiction, faith and science, guilt and innocence.  It's fascinating to think about all of the ideas the film brings up.

The acting is adequate, but not stand out.  Ethan Hawke is a disappointment.  Like in "Daybreakers," he's in take the money and run mode.  It's hard to believe that this is the guy who played the dad in the American classic "Boyhood."  To be fair, he's never bad, but he's definitely not trying.  Emma Watson, freed from clunky dialogue that hampered her in the "Harry Potter" movies, continues to grow as an actress.  She makes her underwritten character real.  The irreplaceable David Thewlis is an odd but effective choice for the psychologist, but it works.  Lothaire Bluteau is flat as the priest, but fortunately he doesn't have a lot of screen time.

There are two ways to watch this movie.  If you turn off your brain, it's a rather average thriller that is at times quite scary.  But if you use your brain and allow the film to work its magic, it's a fascinating and thought-provoking movie.

Maverick

2.5/4

Starring: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, James Garner, Alfred Molina, James Coburn, Graham Greene

Rated PG for Mild Sensuality, Language and Some Western Action

In comedy, timing is everything.  Especially when it's all about wordplay and slapstick.  A comedy like this is like walking on a tightrope: one element out of place and it all falls apart.  When it works, you get something like "Burke and Hare," a comedy that achieves an almost manic energy.  When it doesn't, you end up with "Maverick."  It's not a terrible movie by any means, but you get the distinct impression that it's not able to pull all the materials together correctly.

Bret Maverick (Gibson) is a quick-witted gambler looking to enter a half-million, winner-takes-all poker tournament.  Unfortunately, the game is a few days away and he's a few grand short.  So he intends to make that money any way he can, whether it be humiliating an opponent played by Alfred Molina or calling up a debt from a surprisingly modern Indian played by Graham Greene.  This all depends, of course, whether he can keep it out of the delicate hands of Annabelle Bransford (Foster), a beautiful pickpocket posing as a Southern belle.  Together with a lawman named Coop (Garner), they strike out for St. Louis and hope to make it rich.

It's not particularly interesting, or especially clever.  But for a light-hearted romp that knows its shortcomings, that's okay if the ingredients are in place.  But the film struggles to achieve that magic that screwball adventure like this needs.  The jokes need to come rapid-fire with razor sharp timing.  "Maverick" only reaches about the halfway point.

At least it has a good cast, and I got the sense that they were having a lot more fun than I was.  Mel Gibson can pull off this type of charming rascal in his sleep, but he's having a ball.  His good friend Jodie Foster, who rarely does comedy, sparkles with mischief.  James Garner may seem like too much of a sad sack to be in something this zany, but his laid back approach fits right in with his deadpan character.  Alfred Molina and the always interesting James Coburn provide solid support, but some of the most amusing material comes from Graham Greene, who along with Gibson has a lot of fun sending up Indian stereotypes.  With better handling, they would have been uproarious.  As is, they're just amusing.

The film was directed by Richard Donner, who made the first two "Superman" movies with Christopher Reeve (the latter of which was taken out of his hands midway through production and given to another director) and the "Lethal Weapon" franchise.  But comedy doesn't appear to be his forte.  He struggles to gain the necessary comic energy to make this movie really work.  It tries to do for westerns that "Kick-Ass," "Starship Troopers," and "Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse" did for their respective genres: make a legitimate entry while making fun of their common conventions.  It doesn't quite get there, but the end result isn't as painful as it could have been.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Mike's Musings: Do You Know What Your Kids Are Seeing?

I was watching an old episode of "Siskel and Ebert" while at work today (yes, I'm that big of a movie nerd...you're honestly surprised?), and they had a half hour segment titled: "Is Hollywood Selling War to Kids?"  They went on and on about how R-rated movies like "Rambo III" and "Commando," both violent R-rated action pictures, were being merchandised with toys aimed at kids.  While the production of toys from R-rated action movies isn't exactly relevant these days, it did get me thinking.  Have we taken an honest look at the images in today's movies aimed at kids?

Sure, an R-rated action movie that kids might possibly want to see is rare, and has been for the past 15 years.  But while the PG-13 rating is king, that doesn't mean that movies are any less violent.  PG-13 movies have images such as characters getting ripped in half ("Clash of the Titans" remake), impaled ("Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice") or just plain explode (any superhero movie).  Sure, it's "cartoonish" because there's no (or very little) blood.  But do we really want our kids to be seeing this stuff?  Ten years ago, a movie like "Batman vs. Superman" would have gotten a hard R-rating, let alone a PG-13.  And yet parents let their kids see this stuff because it's considered "clean:" limited profanity and no sex or nudity."

The biggest reason for this is that violence sells on a global scale.  A coming of age story like "A Little Princess" might sell to American kids, but Chinese kids would be totally lost.  Everyone responds to superhero movies in the same way, and the way to make the big money is to up the ante.  And to make it accessible, you have to make it broad, so humor and strong writing are passed over in favor of special effects.  And they make big money: massive superhero extravaganzas rake in billions at the box office, and Hollywood's risk averse nature and obsessive pursuit for every last penny means it's going to keep happening.

So why are movies getting so violent?

One thing is the U.S. culture's unilateral approach to anything controversial.  Violence is OK, blood is iffy after a certain level, but there is a zero-tolerance approach when it comes to profanity and sex.  The latter I can understand after a certain level (a PG-13 movie shouldn't have the sexual content of, say, "Neighbors 2"...putting it that way, "Neighbors 2" shouldn't have had any content at all, but that's another argument).  This unilateral approach prevents movies aimed at kids or teenagers from dealing with this material in even in an honest thoughtful way.  It even limits how the characters can talk.  No one will go see a movie if they can't relate to any character on the screen.  Kids use profanity (like it or not), but having characters avoid it all together in the movies, so they can't relate to them.  They don't talk or act like they do.

This also allows movies that are considered "clean" to contain material that kids shouldn't be seeing at all.  Take the "Twilight" franchise.  It had violence and special effects, but because it had no gore, sex or profanity, it was considered okay for tweens.  At the same time, pre-teen girls are presented with a lead character who is defined by her relationships with men.  Bella Swan exists only to love Edward and Jacob and need to be protected by them.  She doesn't have a single thought about anything else and certainly couldn't make an independent decision.  That movie made billions for Summit Entertainment.  The Nicholas Sparks movies are the same way.  Girls are blithering idiots defined by their men, but because of a lack of the no-no material, they're somehow A-OK.

A little movie called "Raising Victor Vargas" was essentially an attack on that mentality.  The lead character was a self-styled stud who thought he needed to "protect" a hot girl named Judy and be the dominant one in the relationship.  He actually thought that's what she wanted.  But Judy had her own thoughts and feelings, and was an independent woman.  She helped him understand that in order get anywhere with her, he first had to respect her.  What did the MPAA give that movie?  An R rating for "Strong Language."

A movie can't even deal with material kids will relate to.  "Only Yesterday," a movie about a girl growing up, was almost not released in the US because it dealt with fifth grade girls menstruating.  Yet it was clean enough for the notoriously prudish MPAA to grant it a deserved kid friendly rating.  What's with that?

The raunchy comedies are even worse.  "This is the End" used rape as a euphemism for sex.  It was a minute long joke on whether a bunch of celebrities were going to rape Emma Watson, who had holed up in their house during the apocalypse.  Or "Neighbors 2," where girls were invited to try out a stripper pole and there was a sign that said "No Means Yes."  Yes, they're R-rated, but don't tell me that no kid wants to see it.  And it's all too easy for them to do so, be it online or sneaking in at the multiplex.

Conservatives have long since claimed that we as a society are losing our values.  I couldn't agree more, but probably not for the reasons they would cite.  Those "squeaky clean" religious movies are repulsive to anyone who isn't a Bible thumper and laughably cheesy.  No, our views of sex, violence and profanity are totally screwed up.  And it's the parents that are part of the problem.  They're allowing their kids to see this and pressing these twisted values upon them.  They buy their kids tickets to these ultraviolent movies, buy them toys and video games that are associated with them (many of them actually enjoy these things too, so Hollywood has gotten into marketing PG-13 movies as "family entertainment"), but refuse to allow them to see movies that actually deal with any controversial issue.  At the same time, parents in many places around the country will buy their kid a gun before they allow them to attend sex ed.

Don't look to the MPAA for help.  They're absolutely worthless and corrupt from top to bottom.  They're paid by the studios to keep the status quo so they can make money at the expense of little independent films that are more relevant, and to appease the far-right politicians who can pass legislation in their favor.  One of the reasons why I so frequently criticize them is that they're not doing their job: they're not giving parents the correct information about what is appropriate for their children.  Would you want your six-year old to see Superman get impaled?  Or a supporting character get ripped in half?

Of course, when you deal with a controversial issue honestly, it can make some people uncomfortable.  That's where the MPAA has a defense.  That's often the point, however.  Take one of the best and most underappreciated thrillers of recent years, "Confession."  It was inexplicably rated R for "Some Violence."  Yes, it was scary and hard to watch.  But that's because a character we liked did terrible things and had to pay the consequences.  In most superhero movies, we're meant to cheer when they kill people.  "Batman vs. Superman" did deal with the consequences, but only in so much as it led to more violence and brutality.  Now tell me which movie has "better values."

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Disappointments Room

2/4

Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Mel Raido, Duncan Joiner, Lucas Till

Rated R for Violent Content, Bloody Images, Some Sexuality and Language

"The Disappointments Room" appears to have been made from two different scripts fused together.  Part ghost story and part psychodrama, the film suffers from radical changes in tone and jarring editing gaffes.  In this case, the two often go hand in hand.

Dana (Beckinsale) and David (Raido) are moving to the country with their son Lucas (Joiner).  They've suffered a family tragedy (duh) and think that what they need is a fresh start.  Dana is an architect and David is a businessman, they're looking forward to restoring a huge mansion they just bought.  But then Dana finds an old room not shown in any of the blueprints, and she starts seeing things.  Is she hallucinating, or is she really being haunted?

This isn't a movie where it was a bad idea right from the start.  No, this had potential.  With a more confident director and a less schizophrenic screenplay, it could have worked.  But director D.J. Caruso is unable to wed the two stories together into a satisfying whole.  The psychological stuff is good material, although not standout.  But the ghost story feels shoehorned in by nervous studio executives or an exploitation director.  Scenes appear to be missing entirely and the film fails to link the two in any convincing way, leading to a lot of head-scratching.

I have to ask: what is Kate Beckinsale doing in this movie?  The highly talented British actress is too good for this material, and with the "Underworld" movies I doubt she needs the money.  She is, however, the saving grace.  Without her, this movie would be on my Bottom 10 list.  Her co-stars, Mel Raido and Duncan Joiner, do little to help her.  Raido is sickeningly sweet and Joiner is sickeningly cute.  They're not human beings; they exist to provide sanity/scares for Beckinsale.  Of the other cast members, only Celia Weston and tiny Marcia De Rousse stick out.  They're lively and energetic, but neither has much screen time.

It's hard to know who this movie was intended for.  Horror fans will be bored while those looking for a serious drama will be annoyed by the ghost story clichés.  This is probably why the studio released it in September since it would have gotten lost in the summer blitz.  Not that that is going to make much difference.  This movie arrived DOA and will be forgotten about by the time the month is over.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Morgan

2.5/4

Starring: Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rose Leslie, Toby Jones, Boyd Holbrook, Michelle Yeoh, Paul Giamatti, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brian Cox

Rated R for Brutal Violence, and Some Language

"Morgan" seeks to be this years "Ex Machina:" a low budget sci-fi thriller that explores issues of identity, artificial intelligence, and what it means to be human.  But while Alex Garland's debut feature made my Top 10 list last year, "Morgan" won't be anywhere near it.  Don't take that to mean that this is a bad movie.  It's not.  It's just that it's such a letdown that even when not in comparison, it's still not worth your time.

Morgan (Taylor-Joy) is a new kind of sentient being.  Born from human tissue and artificially created DNA, she's part-human and part-machine (without the abilities of Inspector Gadget, sadly).  But an incident in which she attacked one of her caretakers (Leigh) has raised questions about the viability of the project.  Lee Weathers (Mara), a risk-management consultant, has been sent in to determine if Morgan is stable enough to be profitable, or if she should be terminated.

The movie, which is a first-effort by Luke Scott (son of Ridley), starts out strong.  Lee, a no-nonsense woman with a cold and objective personality, meets all of the people living at the facility.  Scott raises an interesting question, which is whether or not personal attachment has any effect on objectivity.  Some, such as Dr. Amy Menser (Leslie), have grown to love and care for Morgan.  Others, such as the team leader, Dr. Lui Cheng (Yeoh), have elected to remain as impartial as possible.  Skip Vronsky (Holbrook), admits to being creeped out by the whole thing.  This material is interesting, if not terribly original.  But once Paul Giamatti shows up, everything collapses.

Essentially, "Morgan" is a super-serious mix of "Splice" and "Hollow Man."  Scott borrows elements of each, but instead of having fun with it, he plays it without any sort of a wink and a smile.  That's okay with something as smart and perceptive as "Ex Machina," but that was a smart, cerebral thriller where as this is simply a sci-fi slasher movie.  Scott wants it both ways, but it won't please anyone looking for either.  It's too dumb for those looking for a thinking person's thriller, and too serious and sedate for those looking for a gorefest (on that not, it doesn't have much blood either).

What "Morgan" is missing, more than anything, is a middle section.  Typically, stories have a three-act structure: set-up, escalating tension, and climax.  Here, like the best forgotten stinker "The Lazarus Effect," it's set-up then climax.  It's a weird way to tell the story that leaves the viewer feeling cheated.

At least the acting is decent.  The cast, which can be essentially be divided into established stars/up and comers and no-names, can be divided in terms of quality along the same lines.  Kate Mara, an underrated actress, is in top form as the humorless, tough as nails Lee.  She has no time or desire for sensitivity, and when shit hits the fan, she know just what to do and will do whatever it takes to get the job done.  Anya Taylor-Joy, who was quite good in this year's sleeper hit "The Witch," is effective as the title character, but Alicia Vikander did it better last year (to be fair, she was working with a better script).  Boyd Holbrook shows up for some sex appeal as the hunky cook Skip, although for some reason I kept thinking it was Michael Dorman (Frankie from "Daybreakers"), not Dan Stevens's junkie brother in "A Walk Among the Tombstones."  And it's always nice to see Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Yeoh and Paul Giamatti.  The no-names, well, let's just say none of them are going to get a call from Martin Scorcese anytime soon.

"Morgan" feels like a missed opportunity.  The son of a directing legend and armed with a miniscule budget ($8 million), Scott's career is far from being on the line with this debut feature.  He could have had fun with the premise.  Indeed, there are at least two prime opportunities where he could have turned the genre on its ear (and looked like he was going to).  But just as he approaches the precipice, he backs off and plays it safe.  And he takes the material far more seriously than it deserves.  I mean, if you're going to make a formula slasher movie, at least give the audience the adrenaline the genre demands.  Instead, he takes the "high road" and makes an art movie, where he shakes the camera and drains any sort of manipulation from the action.

Although I may have made it sound really bad, "Morgan" is actually decent.  I was never bored, and there is adrenaline to be found here.  And the cinematography by Mark Patten is quite lovely (if for a different movie).  If the second half falls into the trap of having supposedly smart characters suffer brain cramps and taking itself too seriously, well, at least it's R-rated and not a superhero movie.  Most importantly, Seth Rogen is nowhere to be found.

For which I am eternally grateful.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Wide Sargasso Sea

3/4

Starring: Karina Lombard, Nathaniel Parker, Claudia Robinson

Rated NC-17 for Strong, Explicit Sexuality

I got the distinct impression that when making this movie, the sex scenes came first.  And there are plenty of them (hence the NC-17 rating).  Actors Nathaniel Parker and especially Karina Lombard throw themselves into their roles and they look great.  But there's no mistaking director John Duigan's focus: put as much hot sex into this movie as he can.  It's not porn; it's intentions are to do something more than simply marry gratuitous sex and nudity with story.  But that's where his focus lies.

Unfortunately, the only thing worth praising other than the eroticism is the film's look and feel.  The camerawork by Geoff Burton is truly evocative; you can feel the heat and humidity of the Caribbean.  Add to that the moody score by Stewart Copeland, and you've got an intensely atmospheric little film.  It's a pity that the story and the acting aren't on the same level.

The film takes place in the 1840's.  Slavery has been recently abolished, which took away a considerable amount of the savings of the Cosway family.  Through a series of events too tedious to explain, Antoinette (Lombard) is entering into an arranged marriage with an Englishman named Edward Rochester (Parker).  The two hit it off great, with their life at her mountain cabin being filled with their passionate and acrobatic acts of sex and love.  But a man named Daniel (Ben Thomas), who claims to be the illegitimate son of Antoinette's father, sows seeds of distrust between the newlyweds, and what was once a great start to a marriage begins to curdle.

This is dime-store romantic melodrama 101.  That's not such a bad thing.  We all like a little cheese in our movies from time to time.  More importantly, the film knows its hokey.  Granted, the plot has about as good of a flow as a car with a dead battery and the dialogue is at times embarrassing, but at least it has the good sense to wear its flaws with honor.  It never pretends to be something that it's not.

Clearly, the actors were chosen for what they would show and do, rather than whether they could create interesting characters.  Or even recite dialogue halfway convincingly.  Take Karina Lombard for example.  She looks incredible and there's nothing that she doesn't show to the camera, but she can't act.  The simplest line of dialogue defeats her.  Her co-star, Nathaniel Parker, is better, but his co-star and script limit what he can do.  The only person of any interest is Claudia Robinson, who plays Christophene, the obligatory local witch.  She's one of the bright spots in the film, but sadly she's strictly a supporting character with little to do.

In a rare move, Fine Line Features didn't appeal the NC-17 rating and released it uncut.  The DVD includes the NC-17 version and an R-rated cut.  I watched the former, but I don't know why they bothered, since the sex is really the only reason to see this movie.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Only Yesterday

3.5/4

Starring (voices): Daisy Ridley, Alison Fernandez, Dev Patel

Rated PG for Thematic Elements, Some Rude Behavior and Smoking

Studio Ghibli is one of the best secrets in filmmaking.  Time and time again they release complex, artistically innovative and emotionally rich motion pictures, and yet their films have never broken into the mainstream.  It's a shame because Pixar, their closest cousin, has got nothing on them.  Not all of their films are flawless, but they are compulsively watchable.  If only for the visuals.

One thing that sets the studio apart is that they are unafraid of breaking the conventions of animation.  Hollywood's animated movies, even the best ones like "Beauty and the Best" or anything by Pixar, are very busy.  There's always something going on and always, always, plenty of action and broad comedy.  Studio Ghibli, which releases anime, is more patient.  It allows the characters to pause, to think, to consider what they're going to say and do.  In fact, many of their films, such as "Whisper of the Heart" or "Only Yesterday," could conceivably be filmed in live action with some CGI.  But they know how freeing animation is.  These films are not bound by the laws of physics or lighting.  We see exactly what the director wants to see and how he sees it.  The dark becomes darker and the light becomes darker.  It's all about how they use their tools, and no one knows better than master filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki (who produced this film) and his friend and contemporary, Isao Takahata (who directed it).

"Only Yesterday" is not strong on story.  It's about a woman who is going on vacation to work on a farm and on the way she finds herself reflecting on her experiences as a ten year old.  The movie is a lot more interesting while watching it unspool than in the one sentence pitch, I promise you.  That's because the lead character, Taeko (Fernandez as a child, Ridley as an adult), is written so specifically and with so much honesty that she becomes a fascinating individual.  Guy or girl, everyone who watches this movie will flash back to when they were ten.  It knows how kids at that age thought and acted, and more importantly, how they felt about growing up.

That last aspect of the film caused a bit of a controversy for Disney.  Disney owns Studio Ghibli, but they were unwilling to release this film because it was aimed at kids and dealt with menstruation.  One of the stipulations of ownership is that Disney cannot edit a film from Ghibli, which put the film's US release in limbo.  Fortunately, a company called GKIDS acquired the rights to the film from Disney and Ghibli and the film was released without edits.

Disney's position baffles me.  For one thing, menstruation is a part of growing up, which this film acknowledges.  Were there no women at Disney?  I know for a fact that there are.  Secondly, it is portrayed as a part of growing up, not sexuality.  It's dealt with honestly and practically.  Nothing that anyone could consider controversial is shown.  Playing the devil's advocate, the most graphic moment is when a little boy lifts up the skirt of a girl (who isn't menstruating) and calls her "period girl."  Explosive, huh?  It's not at all graphic, and considering the context, important to the story.

The voice acting is effective, but by nature it's low-key.  The characters are played pretty close to the bone, which enhances the film's effect.  Dev Patel and Daisy Ridley don't have a lot of chemistry, but they do good work.

One thing I didn't care for was the environmentalist, pro-labor scenes.  It's not that I disagree with them, but that they take too long and don't fit.  The film works best when it sticks to character development and the coming of age stuff.  The film's strongest portions are the flashbacks, although I think that's kind of the point.

Animation, particularly anime, isn't highly respected as filmmaking.  They're considered "kid's stuff."  While this is certainly appropriate for pre-teens, this is great and enriching entertainment for adults.  When I make my Top 10 list this year, "Only Yesterday" will certainly be on it.