The Most Underrated Movies of 2013 IV: The Stragglers

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Good Ol’ Freda –  Ryan White (Available on Netflix)

The world is running out of original Beatles stories; in fact, this may be the last one, as the Beatles and their contemporaries enter their 70s and, as Freda Kelly notes at one point, many of them are already gone. The story is one of a young girl who won the social lottery, happening upon the Beatles in the Cavern Club before they made it big and becoming tight enough with the band that they eventually asked her to work for them as secretary. Kelly also served as president of the bands’ fan club, hounding each member for autographs and locks of hair for adoring fans who wrote in because she knew exactly what it was to be one. Kelly is remarkable for her service, but more still for not taking advantage of it, cashing in with a tell all book or selling any of her incredibly rare memorabilia picked up from her time with the band. It is at once frustrating and enamoring that Kelly still holds to her Beatles secrets to this day, even with a camera in her face.

No Place on Earth – Janet Tobias (Available on Netflix)

If it came to it, if Nazis were coming, could you survive in a cave for nearly two years? What a question, but that’s what it came to for a handful of Jewish families in rural Ukraine as the Nazis arrived during World War II. The film focuses on the Stermer family in particular in this recreation of the 511 days of fear, hunger and darkness the endured that was brought back to life after a man from New York came across shoes, keys and buttons while caving in the Ukraine. It took him a decade to suss out any part of the story before finally coming upon the diary of Esther Stermer, the matriarch of one of the families who survived life in the cave.

Ip Man: The Final Fight – Herman Yau (Available on Netfix)

By now, you must all know who Ip Man is, the legendary Chinese martial artist and teacher of the Wing Chung school whose most famous student was Bruce Lee. He is the new Wong Fei Hong right now, and your choices are almost limitless if you want to watch a movie about them. The Final Fight is more of a traditional biopic version of the story, condensing much of his life into two hours. There are plenty of fight scenes though, and the film won the Daniel A. Craft Award for Excellence in Action Cinema at the NY Asian Film Festival last year. This is the version of the story that brings its lunchpail to work with it.

Touchy Feely – Lynn Shelton (Available on Netflix)

It’s kind of hard to believe Josh Pais is the same actor who, vocally at least, brought the ball of rage that is Rafael to life in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the first and best one, not this new bullshit). In Touchy Feely he plays a timid, conservative dentist. He is a comic foil for his wild, hippy massage therapist sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) until their fates interchange: he finds that his hands can heal, while she loses the ability she’s been honing and comes to loath the touch of another person’s skin. The cast of this bright, unassuming comedy is filled out by Allison Janney and Ellen Page. Lynn Shelton continues to be a voice to pay attention to in independent film.

Which Way Is the Frontline From Here: The Life and Times of Tim Hetherington – Sebastian Junger (Available to stream on HBOGO)

Tim Hetherington, the photojournalist who came to wide prominence for the Oscar nominated documentary Restrepo, is lovingly profiled here by his friend (and fellow Oscar nominee) Sebastian Junger following his tragic death in Libya, where he was covering the uprising. Featuring interviews from family, friends and fellow journalists, it is a compelling, no bullshit account of Hetherington’s too-short life. He was a brilliant photographer, seemingly because he didn’t care about photography — he cared about the people he was photographing. Borrow someone’s HBOGO password if you have to, but see this.

The Most Underrated Movies of 2013 III: The Animes

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We’re fans of all types of film around these parts, and some of the best films of 2013 were feature length anime. I can’t pretend that Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises even comes close to fitting the “underrated” banner, but it led a particularly strong pack of films this year (it opens in Orlando at the end of February, but has already played NY and LA for Oscar qualification), films worth highlighting as much as any others — and that’s without having seen Mardock Scramble, One Piece Film Z or Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo.

Wolf Children – Mamoru Hosoda (DVD/Blu out now)

I always viewed Mamoru Hosoda as more of an art director than a storyteller, but he fully brushed that bias off of his shoulder with Wolf Children, a coming-of-age story about two half-human/half-wolf children and the trouble their human mother goes through in raising them after their shape shifting wolfman father is killed while out hunting to feed his new family. Before long the childrens’ wolf instincts get them from their Tokyo apartment and their mother decides to move them to a rural town to keep their secret safe. But once there, the secret becomes more explosive. It’s a touching story, and Hosoda’s comedic instincts are both well measured and well timed, something he didn’t manage to do in Summer Wars.

Colorful – Keiichi Hara (DVD/Blu out now)

Though it was originally released in Japan in 2010, it wasn’t until 2013 that Colorful became available in North America. It’s the story of a recently deceased boy who arrives to the afterlife and finds out he’s being given a second chance at life, albeit in the body of a 14 year old boy who has just committed suicide. He is tasked with discovering his own greatest sin in life, as well as discovering the secret of his host’s suicide. I had some problems with this film initially — the characters are very hard to like in the moment — but it’s grown in my mind in the months since seeing it and I find I appreciate the film the more I think about it and its maddening plot twists. Life and death are maddening ideas on their own, ones that you can’t shut yourself off to just because you don’t like the idea of it.

From Up on Poppy Hill – Goro Miyazaki (DVD/Blu out now)

From Up on Poppy Hill, a high school melodrama set right before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, is somewhat of a departure from the norm for Studio Ghibli. Though co-written by Hayao Miyazaki with Ghibli regular Keiko Niwa, there are no flying pigs, wolf girls or floating cities. Instead, there is young love – and only young love.  It’s a sweet film, almost an idealized film of youth and zeitgeist. The analogies and metaphor might come from the manga that the film is based on, but the soft, measured feel of youth seems to come directly from Hayao Miyazaki’s memory, more like reminiscence than anything else. I do feel a little badly for Goro Miyazaki though, being stuck with that name and forever living under the eclipsing shadow of his legendary father. If he were Goro Suzuki, say, he might be regarded better, a good director but not a great director; at least he would be regarded without a qualifier.

The Garden of Words – Makoto Shinkai (DVD/Blu out now)

Makoto Shinkai and his team are simply the greatest and most detailed artists currently making features. The attention they give the photographic quality of art and the animation in their films is just staggering and worth any price to watch for by itself. Unfortunately the storytelling is a weak point in The Garden of Words, which is about a 15 year old boy who dreams of becoming a shoemaker who meets a mysterious older woman in the park on rainy days. While they bond over poetry and he makes a pair of shoes for her as a gift, the relationship is a little removed from reality. It’s too reserved to handle the burst of emotion in the climax.

The Most Underrated Movies of 2013 II: The Revenge

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For the most part, I say good riddance to 2013. For me and my memory bank, it won’t be a good vintage. But my charge here is to write about movies, and 2013 did see its fair share of good ones. Like I’ve done the last couple of years, I’m going to piggyback the Underrated piece I had in the paper and empty my brain of more under-loved films that I didn’t have room to write about in print.

It wasn’t necessarily a great vintage for the top end of the spectrum of the moviegoing experience either, neither in arthouse nor mainstream films. There were certainly enough films to be satisfied by, but to look over the various top 10 lists is to be slightly disappointed. But what the top lacked, the middle had in abundance. Here are five more to keep an eye out for.

Enough Said – Nicole Holofcener (VOD out now, DVD 1/14)

Enough Said was probably not underrated upon its release as much as it was sent into the spotlight for the wrong reason, the unfortunate death of James Gandolfini. The bright side of this film is that Julia Louis-Dreyfus just keeps getting better and better in a way that’s completely unfair to other comedic actresses, but the downside is that the farther removed from Gandolfini’s death, the clearer it becomes that he will be perhaps one of the most missed actors ever. The two share such an easy on-screen chemistry that the film is a joy to watch even when they are fighting. Holofcener branches out too. Always one to make well observed dramas, this is a well observed drama with an earthy layer of comedy set upon it.

The Past – Asghar Farhadi (Coming Soon)

The twisting and turning of Farhadi’s The Past starts out so slow that you might be tempted to give up on it, but it’s a rewarding drama once the momentum is built up (about 40 minutes in, in my opinion). The story unfolds in a torrent of lies and omissions (still a sin, right?) that are not as fulfilling as guesswork as much as they lead to fulfilling dramatic scenes between Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) and the family of his ex-wife, Marie (Berenice Bejo), and her new fiance, Samir (Tahar Rahim). Melodrama is almost a lost artform but when it’s done right it’s so good.

Mud – Jeff Nichols (DVD/VOD out now)

Where has this Matthew McConaughey been all these years? Since The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past flopped in 2009 he’s done nothing but make risky, amazing films, starting with The Lincoln Lawyer through to his three films this year: Mud, The Dallas Buyer’s Club and The Wolf of Wall Street. Let his career be a light for others because we’re all better off because of it.

The Kings of Summer – Jordan Vogt-Roberts (DVD/VOD out now)

This is about as solid a coming-of-age film as you’re ever likely to find. It’s wish-fulfilling — who hasn’t wanted to run away and live in the woods after a particularly bad fight with their parents? But that’s a heat of the moment decision, not a well thought out plan for a life. The film shows both sides with equal care and weight, and it comes with bonus Ron Swanson rage.

Blue Caprice – Alexandre Moors (DVD 1/14)

This story about the Beltway snipers is told with a quality of paranoia that made New Hollywood such a vital experience. Isaiah Washington and Tequan Richmond are so good together in the first half of the film, while they are bonding, they make it so hard to look away once the film turns into a horror story.

Pieces of April – Peter Hedges (2003)

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Thanksgiving has to be the most forgotten holiday in film history. Rightly so, in my opinion. Still, while plenty of movies have Thanksgiving scenes in them, very few are actually about Thanksgiving. Television might actually have the best track record for Turkey Day. Roseanne used to do good thanksgiving episodes, especially the episode “Angstgiving”, but on every show, every year, it was essentially the same thing: kooky family fights, eventually finds its heart, but not in a sappy way, eats pie.

This is all of our families, and there is very little variation on the theme, so its mostly worthless to revisit it.

But Peter Hedges’ Pieces of April is as admirable an attempt to try to rend something good out of this terribly mediocre day that you are likely to find. Except for Planes, Trains and Automobiles, which is just a great movie period, Pieces of April stands as Thanksgiving’s lone pure digestible drama.

In it, Katie Holmes plays April, the black sheep of the excessively straight-laced Burns family. Her parents, Jim and Joy (Oliver Platt and Patricia Clarkson), have created something of a model of suburban life, with two goody-goody children in the sticks of New Jersey, except for the fact they’ve spawned this thing called April, who lies and cheats and takes drugs and sets fires (etc).

It’s put a great strain on the Burns family, who have mostly scrubbed April out of their daily lives. She remains in spirit and imprint, as the bad one, or as April puts it, the “first pancake”, the one which you are supposed to throw away, but how badly Joy and her other daughter, Beth (Alison Pill), would love it if she didn’t exist.

Because Joy is sick with cancer, they have decided to drive to New York to have Thanksgiving with April, because this may be the last opportunity to be together. It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without some strife though, and the ride into the City, and April’s adventures in cooking reveal much of the dysfunction in the family: the mistrust, the fear, the angst. Joy must confront the fact that as much as April was a bad daughter, she was perhaps an equally bad mother. Much of it is deflected with humor, but the humor can’t gloss over the fact that Joy’s favorite memory of April turns out to actually be a memory of Beth.

April lies in deep contrast to her younger sister, who is perky and blonde, and has no tattoos or strange piercings. She’s never set anything on fire or shoplifted, and could have easily cooked a much better meal than April. She keeps herself in line, smiling through the offhanded insults from her mother so she can be the good daughter, if only because April has ruined being bad for her.

Allison Pill is the real underrated part of the film. She is note perfect in this role, hiding the bruises and awkwardness behind a cheery smile. It’s not hard to see the hurt in her smile, or the discomfort swirling around in her brain, but its done with a deft subtlety. Beth craves attention in the shadow of April so much, but only positive attention. Sure, that’s what pretty much everyone desires, but Beth takes it a step further, freaking out at anyone who sees her even doing something even slightly imperfect, like adjusting her retainer. It’s great that Alison Pill is getting recognition now, landing roles in MilkScott Pilgrim and even as Zelda Fitzgerald inMidnight in Paris.

But the blow of April’s shady, misfit, possibly criminal past is softened a bit too much by the adorable, un-aggressive Katie Holmes, who wanders through the film with her big eyes and her adult pigtails being impossible to hate. She is a little too vulnerable for someone who has supposedly ruined a family. (Maybe that’s a little bit of the point?) Isolated from that fact, Katie Holmes is wonderful in the role, though. It actually gave me hope at the time that she would break out of her Dawson’s Creek-Kevin Williamson shit phase and blossom into a great young actress.

That never happened, of course. She went on to marry Tom Cruise in lieu of having a real career, though they did produce the most unbearably adorable little person ever in the world together. And Batman, I guess. Mad Money? Not so much.

I do actually find myself revisiting this film every year. I played Planes, Trains and Automobilesout way too early in life, so this has to suffice, even though it’s not perfect. Like I said, it’s digestible, and Alison Pill and Oliver Platt, whom I would gladly watch painting his garage, are always worth revisits.

When you boils this down to its elements, though, what’s it about? It’s about a kooky family who fights, eventually finds its heart and even finds a redefinition of family. But not in a sappy way.

Dogma – Kevin Smith (1999)

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God is all knowing and infallible. Whether in Catholic school, CCD, or just from your parents, you are taught that at an early age. As a kid, I imagined God as an invisible man looking over my shoulder at everything I did. Everything. God was ever present, all knowing, and, hopefully, approving. He didn’t take sabbaticals to go to the Jersey Shore and play pinball.

Did he?

Did she?

In Kevin Smith’s Dogma, God does, and apparently is not all knowing, allowing himself (Bud Cort) to be jumped by demonic triplets wielding hockey sticks, thus falling into a coma.

Two banished angels, Bartleby (Ben Affleck) and Loki (Matt Damon), mean to exploit this absence. Years before, they had been sent by an angry God to suffer for the rest of time in Wisconsin. Needless to say, they’ve grown tired of the Cheesehead state, but more than that, they’ve grown tired of seeing these lesser being — humans — treated with favor by God. Together, with the guidance of Azrael (Jason Lee), they set out for a New Jersey church to exploit a loophole in dogmatic law and make their way back into Heaven.

Religion has always been a wonderful foil for comedy, and none better to poke fun at than Catholicism, who, even with the late rash of evangelical gay sex scandals, still deserves it the most. The film’s main conceit is that man is essentially the flaw in God’s plan. It riffs on the biggest pain in the ass in the history of religious pains in the ass: indulgences. They were one of Martin Luther’s main sticking points in the 1500s, so this isn’t exactly new, but a clever spin on an old problem, though it is more stupidity that causes the ill will here than greed.

The powers that be in Heaven have, of course, caught wind of this plan and have sent the Metatron (Alan Rickman) to rally troops to stop them. Enter Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), a lapsed Catholic; Rufus (Chris Rock), the black 13th apostle who is pissed about being written out of the Bible; Serendipity (Salma Hayek), a muse-slash-stripper; and Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith), the lost New Jersey prophets.

As the motley crew crosses the country they are chased by the hockey stick wielding triplets, and the ever-popular rubber poop monster (voiced by Ethan Suplee), but mostly they just get in their own way. Bethany’s crisis of faith, especially, is something that holds them back. It’s something she just can’t get past, despite having been visited by, you know, an angel — the angel, even. I suppose it’s natural to be suspicious when the help you are given come in the form of Jay and Silent Bob, though, who themselves are wondering why they haven’t yet prophesized anything.

It turns to be not so cut and dry for Bartleby and Loki though. Having been banished to Earth for eternity by God, should they pass through the gates of the Holy Mother Church, a loophole in biblical dogma would have proved God wrong by readmitting the two rogue angels, thus obliterating all existence. It’s exactly what Azrael, another muse who was banished to hell for draft dodging, is banking on. Hell is apparently worse than Wisconsin. I always thought it was a tie.

But despite the 500 year old, well essayed problem, the film exudes and undeniable freshness, and that is entirely down to the equal measures of playfulness and authority in Kevin Smith’s writing. There has never quite been a film like this, and I don’t think there ever will be again (thanks to its box office numbers). Regardless, his jokes are spot on, topical and unflinchingly in the know.

That was, I think, the main problem with Red State. Smith didn’t live in that culture, so it doesn’t ring as authentic. But he grew up in the same kind of Irish-Catholic household that I did, right down to the clueless priests trying to make Catholicism cool for kids and teenagers. He has Cardinal Glick and the Buddy Christ; I had cool Father F**** (I don’t want to out the guy since Google has plenty of articles on him — no, not those kinds of articles) and the Catholic magician whose name I’ve since stamped out of my memory. Still, it amounts to the same thing in the end. Catholicism has more problems than solutions, has made more mistakes than goodness, and is often too aloof to bear, but it makes a lifelong mark on anyone its comes into contact with, whether they like it or not. Like I said, though, it’s a biased view. To me, every joke in the film works both as a joke and as a skewer. Red State didn’t get the joke or the skewer right.

More than a religious document, though, Dogma is a road movie with a stoner comedy flair. Religion is just its topic, not its genre. And it’s such a smart and candid film. It was a growth spurt in filmmaking balls by Smith, one that bears its puny-muscled action set piece muscle with its tongue planted as firmly in its cheek as during it’s comedy set pieces. I’m not sure what happened to Kevin Smith from then until now. His life changed during Dogma, I guess, when he met his wife and started a family. He mellowed, or just stopped being the kid he was. He’s thrown a lot of darts at the board since, and most have ended up somewhere in the wall outside of the board.

I suppose it’s just that some directors have a shelf life. The long distance filmmakers, like Scorsese or Spielberg or Ford, are the anomalies, not the rule. How many of those indie wave filmmakers are still around? Even Tarantino has waned somewhat. Sundance isn’t so kind when it comes to longevity. You can only tell the same jokes for so long before you need new material, and going from stoner comedies to the more adult themes Smith was experiencing in his life just didn’t find the spark it needed when it came to filmmaking.

The World of Henry Orient – George Roy Hill (1964)

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I’m an absolute sucker for a good stalker comedy. Whether it be AmeliePunch Drunk Love or Hana and Alice, there is just something so wonderfully off about them that it makes me happy. Just knowing that the stalkers are harmless and generally good-natured takes entirely all of the creepiness out of what, in reality, is a pretty despicable act. And The World of Henry Orient may actually be the best of the genre.

It stars Tippy Walker and Merrie Spaeth as Val and Gil, a pair of mischievous high school loners who meet, hit it off and along the way accidentally ruin Henry Orient’s (Peter Sellers) liaison with a married woman while playacting in Central Park. And then again. But when they ruin a second liaison between Henry and the woman, something happens to Val: she falls madly in love with him, buys all of his records and, with Gil, creates the Henry Orient Bible, a handmade diary full of press clippings and photographs and a fake love letter that Val keeps meaning to reply to.

The object of Val’s love, Henry Orient, is a middling-to-bad pianist and ladies man, the top billing who has to escape the concert hall through a posse of refund seekers, so bad are his avant garde stylings. He doesn’t practice enough, says Val, who, before meeting Gil, was all alone and practiced too much.

We never see films like this anymore, films that prize sweetness and mischievousness over cynicism and edginess. Cynicism and edginess absolutely have their great points, but have been so done over and over again that a film like Henry Orient is a breath of fresh air, a cup of cold water in the face and a joy to watch. If you don’t have a grin stuck on your face for almost the entire film, then I don’t know what is wrong with you.

So what is it about The World of Henry Orient? Is it sunshine and roses, a tale of rich girl Eloise-types running around Manhattan in a bulletproof bubble or privilege?

Hmm, yes and no. There is an air of privilege, and neither girl is about to starve to death. But their stories told in bullet point wouldn’t be terribly different from a youth film that would be made today. Both girls come from broken or breaking homes, chase an older man, screw with authority, and eventually, dabble in the early stages of sex. Yet it remains light and fun.

Val’s father (Tom Bosley) spends all his time traveling for work, and her mother (Angela Lansbury) spends all her time going behind his back with piano players. She is left alone in an apartment with a maid/babysitter and essentially left to own devices. Her shrink sees more of her than her parents.

Gil, too, has family issues. Her parents divorced when she was a baby, and she now lives on the Upper West Side with her mother (Phyllis Thaxter) and her mother’s “friend”, Boothy (Bibi Osterwald). Even though she is happy living with her mother and Boothy, and loves them both, she longs for a normal family life, where father comes home at 6:30 and greets her and her mother.

Things get somewhat serious, though, when Val’s mother snoops through her room and finds the Henry Orient Bible. She demands to know what it is all about, but her mind is already decided what it is about and she has no interest in listening to the answer Val and Gil try to give her.

Towards the end of the film, there is a line by Val that really perfectly sums the film up. It is “awfully happy in a sad sorta way”. The act of coming of age is a sorta sad one, after all. Gone are the days of braces and pig tails and hair ribbons (or pet frogs and racing bikes, if you will), replaced with makeup and boys and the desperate race to grow up too fast. You only miss the younger days later though, and then you feel terribly nostalgic for them, because they didn’t last nearly as long as they should have, and the prize for winning the race to grow up isn’t as nice and shiny as it looked from the starting line. And so The World of Henry Orient stands as a great document of fun, of mischievousness, and a time when film was allowed to reflect the underlying spirit of the world instead of the ugly, bloody image of the world.

The Taste of Tea – Katsuhito Ishii (2004)

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One could attempt to describe Katsuhito Ishii’s The Taste of Tea, but one would fail at doing so. Modest and understated, yet with much depth of spirit, it’s the kind of live action film that only an animator could direct, and, really, only a Japanese animator could direct.

It is the story of a family, but not of their hardships or burdens, dark secrets, infidelities. We see them move through their daily lives, making incremental progress (or not), much like ourselves.

Point a gun at my head and I suppose I’d have to call it a slice of life, but it is one of the most delicious, charming slices I’ve ever encountered, a joyful experience that isn’t cynically engineered to be joyful. Ishii doesn’t bother with manipulations to squeeze the joy out of us. Instead, the characters are left alone and observed, and it is fully an extension of the clear, straightforward humanity they possess that makes this such an exciting film to lie back and disappear into.

As the film opens, we find young Hajime (Takahiro Sato) running after a train to try and scream a last goodbye to his crush as she exits his life. Hajime has never talked to this girl, afraid of what might or might not happen if he did. Not able to outrun the train to get a word in, he watches the train speed away from him. A shape starts to form on his forehead, and, slowly, the train he was chasing down emerges from his head, floating away into the clouds, the girl waving goodbye to him.

On first viewing, it’s a shocking departure from reality that takes a while to come to terms with. But it’s the perfect way to set the film up, because this is the sort of thing that you need to expect from it. Anything can happen at any time. The film is not grounded in any kind of Earth-based reality, but is all the better for it.

The Taste of Tea takes place in the sprawling countryside just outside of Tokyo, where much of the family commutes to by train to the city for school or work. The small, typical Japanese-style house serves as a central checkpoint for each family member along the way, but aside from Yoshiko (Satomi Tezuka), the mother, who spends all of her free time at her kitchen table animating, trying to get back into the game now that she has time again, most of the film takes place in school rooms, offices and recording studios, on trains and casual strolls, where a gust of wind is as important as a gunshot in the scheme of things.

Strange things are occurring to Hajime’s younger sister, Sachiko (Maya Banno), too. Apparently suffering from an early onset existential crisis, she is being shadowed throughout the day by a big version of herself. It sits and watches her at home and at school, curious and half bored like staring into a fish tank for too long. Sachiko is bothered at her core about this, but keeps it to herself.

Ishii is possibly more well known for his “wacky-Japan” type films, like Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip GirlParty 7 and Funky Forrest, all starring the somewhat enigmatic Tadanobu Asano, but he finds his real calling here, I feel. It’s an incredible accomplishment to direct something so subtle, especially when your instinct seems to tell you to go big to get the laugh. But there are just as many laughs here in the quiet movements of The Taste of Tea, which features Asano as well, but in the smaller role of Uncle Ayano, a sound mixer from Tokyo whose existential crisis takes on a different shape than Sachiko’s.

Like I said in the open, one could try and explain this film and easily fail at doing so. And I have, I know. It’s almost pointless to keep trying, because I keep getting further from the point the more I write. There is no explaining Grandpa (Tatsuya Gashuin), who is the force behind the film in many ways, for instance, nor the path Hajime decides on taking when he falls in love with Aoi, played by the lovely half-Japanese, half-Russian Anna Tsuchiya. It’s an elusive film that exists entirely in its sense and feel. To put it in sports terms, The Taste of Tea is all intangibles, delivering exactly what is needed when the time comes. Absurd and lovely in equal lengths, beautifully photographed and acted (and animated at times), there is a great and gentle beauty to it, a drifting, gauzy summer lushness that will take you away from yourself for a little while if only you’ll let it. A little bit of faith in the film brings with it a deep reward. It might not help you shake any demons off of your back permanently, but it might put a smile on your face and scare them away for a while.

The Pixar Story – Leslie Iwerks (2008)

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Most of tributes that are pouring in for Steve Jobs are focusing on Apple, but I think Pixar is just as an important legacy for Jobs.

Even though his involvement was more in the role of Godfather than creator, Pixar would have been little more than a footnote in the story of Lucasfilm — the story of an unprofitable subsidiary that creating the digital tools that eventually made The Special Editions possible — if not for the long distance vision that Jobs possessed.

You can love or hate Apple, but there is no denying whatsoever that Pixar has enriched all of our lives, and it’s just as much about Steve Jobs as it is John Lasseter, Ed Catmull, Andrew Stanton or Pete Docter.

“The art challenges the technology, and the technology inspires the art.”

Ever since the first time I saw Who Framed Roger Rabbit? as a kid, I’ve been in love with the idea of cartoons. I’d always loved cartoons. What kid doesn’t? But the idea that they are made, that there is a “behind the scenes” to them became intoxicating for me. Like the young John Lasseter, I became obsessed with Disney and Warner cartoons and was astounded that people did this for a living. I wanted to do it to.  Well, it worked out a little bit better for him than it did for me.

Along with Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs and a handful of other visionaries, Lasseter changed the world of animation, and even — thanks to their state-of-the-art computer Renderman — feature motion pictures forever.

Pixar started out as a faint, impossible idea rattling around the heads of a few scattered idealists: to create a feature length computer animation. Not only had it not been done yet, but the tools were not even invented. But this random collection of PHds and would-be artists eventually settled in together as an unprofitable arm of Lucasfilm that was just too far ahead of its time. So how did it come to be the animation juggernaut that eventually took over Disney Animation Studios? The beginning is not all that different from Disney, really.

Before making a name on Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney began to eek out a living with the Alice comedies, a series of short subjects wherein the live action Alice (played by Virginia Davis) was inserted into a cartoon wonderland by Ub Iwerks, the “man behind the mouse”. The Pixar gang inverted that beginning, taking their first steps before Woody and Buzz by inserting a CGI stainglass Knight into the live action Young Sherlock Holmes when Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic couldn’t achieve the shot. It was from there that they grew and never looked back.

The Pixar Story was directed by Leslie Iwerks, the granddaughter of the innovative genius Ub Iwerks. Ub has a unique place in the world of film, first as the head animator of the Disney Animation Studio, the heart and soul guy who made the place tick, and later as a special effects wizard who, amongst other things, made the birds attack in Hitchcock’s The Birds.

Disney runs deep in Leslie Iwerks’s blood, and it shows. The film is a delicate, loving story about the birth and adolescence of insane greatness, tracing the story back from inception, to growing pains on through it’s massive success.

It is a one sided love affair, yes, but honest in it’s approach nonetheless. Hand-in-hand with the love-in, the original version of Toy Story 2 is thrown under the bus, though the creative team is not. As a Walt Disney Studios production, the film makes the pre-Iger Disney its main villain. The bumbling heavy, Disney is the company that could not see the talent in John Lasseter or the rich future of digital animation, and when it finally did, it wrongly axed the entire hand drawn animation division.

Iwerks starts out with a quick trip through the history of animation, starting out at the dawn of animation, from the mechanical zoetrope and Muybridge’s horse photos on through the computer graphics in Tron. Tracing the story of Pixar back from inception, to growing pains on through it’s massive success, Iwerks interviews all of the important players, from the animators and designers, to Lucas and Jobs and even the star voice talents, like Tom Hanks and Billy Crystal. The love affair with this company seems to be ubiquitous with everyone who comes in contact with it (less Michael Eisner, who is upset when they won’t let themselves be ripped off for short-term profit).

Leslie Iwerks is a fantastic filmmaker, very much in the Disney storytelling mold. Both The Pixar Story and The Hand Behind the Mouse are timeless creations of both fact and fancy. They make you wish you were there at the same time as making you feel as if you were. She simultaneously creates an immersive experience and causes a great swell of emotion through music cues and knowing exactly what shot to cut to at the right moment.

It’s a special talent — more of a filmmaker’s talent than a documentarian’s talent — that few have. She doesn’t just deliver the stories but the feelings behind the stories: the sadness of Ub and Walt parting ways, the “oh, shit” moment when Pixar realized they had to do it again after Toy Story and that none of their old tricks would work a second time. She makes you feel what it was like in that small computer lab, with John Lassiter’s futon stuffed under his desk, working for three days straight to help make the company what it is today.

It’s a remarkably exciting and insightful film, and shows Pixar to be the kind of fun filled place to work we wish we could work at, while also giving us a glimpse of the pressure to perform on the entire staff. Once success is achieved it has to be maintained, and that’s a tough bit in their business. But they deserve every scrap of it they’ve gotten.

Kiss Me, Stupid – Billy Wilder (1964)

http://blogs.orlandoweekly.com/index.php/2011/09/underrated-kiss-me-stupid-billy-wilder-1964/

Out of Billy Wilder’s entire filmography, Kiss Me, Stupid is the one that really stuck in his craw. Lambasted by critics and censors alike for being too crude for its time, it was seemingly doomed from the get-go, when Jack Lemmon, fresh off of back-to-back-to-back hits with Wilder (Some Like it HotThe Apartment and Irma La Douce) had to pass.

The film stars Dean Martin in a playful parody of himself as the charmingly drunk, eternally handsome nightclub singer and actor named, cleverly, Dino. He has just closed his run at the Sands in Las Vegas (treating us to a really wonderful rendition of ‘S Wonderful by the Gershwins, who also provide new songs to the production). Travelling to LA for an engagement, he is stopped in the podunk town of Climax, Nevada, where he is Shanghaied by two song writers, hoping that Dino will take on their compositions, Orville (Ray Walston)  and Barney (Cliff Osmond). But it’s not songs that Dino is interested in, it’s girls. So like any normal fellas would, Orville and Barney hatch a plan to chase away Orville’s wife, Zelda (Felicia Farr), and hire a hooker with a heart of gold, Polly (Kim Novak), to seduce Dino so he’ll be more inclined to buy the songs. Hijinks and switcheroos ensue.

It’s a plot that could easily play these days in a black sex comedy, but for 1964 was too risque for mass audiences, even as the Hays Production Code was slowly fading into obscurity. Such blatant, open adultery was still a tough sell, even though it worked like gangbusters in The Apartment. But it was a softer form of adultery in The Apartment, where the adulterer, CC Baxter’s boss Shelldrake, was the film’s heavy, not the film’s hero, a small-town piano teacher like Orville.

Orville, too, was a problem. It is a lead role that was so clearly written for and tailored to Lemmon’s personality and sense of style that it was almost unfair to expect anything but a long reach from Ray Walston. Walston, to his credit, is amiable in the role as the slightly dense but skilled composed and tries hard to hit the story’s finer notes, but he just doesn’t fit the bill. The film is intended to be raunchy in a really lovable way — almost a New York apartment film, like an Odd Couple or a Two for the See Saw, but with a little more “gee, whiz” to it than savvy Greenwich Village intellectualism.

But outside of that, there is a lot to like here. Much of the raunchiness still works, or perhaps works even better now, and Dean Martin and Felicia Farr are both excellent in their roles. Martin’s parody of himself is second only to the long-running gag act of Tony Clifton, and Felicia Farr even steals the film a little bit in her short scenes after she’s run away from Orville.

Billy Wilder, along with his co-writers Charles Brackett and Izzy Diamond, had one of the best runs of any filmmaker in the history of film, and even though the wheels were coming off of the train by the time he got around to Kiss Me, Stupid, you can still see the Wilder of old at work. If Kiss Me, Stupid can be said to not work on the whole, you would at least have to admit that it works in pieces, and that some of those pieces are pretty great. There is a slightly absurd touch to the whole thing, especially the ending, but it’s no less absurd than the end of Sabrina or Some Like it Hot.

Hana & Alice – Shunji Iwai (2004)

http://blogs.orlandoweekly.com/index.php/2011/09/underrated-hana-and-alice-shunji-iwai-2004/

In the normal run of things, there are very few love triangle films you would ever find me enjoying on the sly, let alone openly praising and defending, but Shunji Iwai’s Hana & Alice is one of them.

A beautiful, deceptively complex film, one that is as touching as it is funny, and one that works just fine on its surface but that gets better and better as you peel back the layers, Hana & Aliceconcerns the lives of two teenage girls living in the suburbs of Tokyo as they are about the graduate junior high and move on to high school.

Hana (Anne Suzuki) and Alice (Yu Aoi) have been joined at the hip for years, best friends that are so similar and used to each other that they move in unison, something helped along by their ballet classes. When we first meet them, Alice has fallen deeply in love with a boy she sees on the train platform every day, a Japanese-American mix who Hana isn’t interested in. As an aside, mostly joking, Alice says she can have his little brother, Miya (Tomohiro Kaku). Hana’s nose immediately crinkles at the idea, but its posturing to hide the embarrassment from Alice. Her eyes tell the real story: something in her brain makes her want him.

What exactly that is is hard to say. Thinking back on some of my high school crushes, I can’t explain the attraction either. It was just a fact. Like the sun rising every morning and setting every evening, there was a crushing weight on my shoulders.

I’m somewhat hesitant to provide a synopsis because the film defies explanation, really. It is the sort of silly-serious material that needs the right hands to works, and in Iwai, it does have the right hands. Iwai is a master filmmaker, and material that would be weak and frivolous in anothers hands are spun into lace by his. We are meant to laugh a little at the girls, at the lengths they go to for such a fleeting end, but we are meant to empathize with them as well, to see the silliness through their eyes, to see that it’s not silly at all, it’s just one of those things that slowly gathers an unstoppable momentum.

The film actually began life as a series of internet shorts commissioned by Kit Kat Japan for their 50th anniversary. Its popularity quickly sent it into a feature production, but the film still has a vignette feeling to it, weaving together several concurrent stories rather than relying on a heavy plot. At it’s core, the film is essentially a gentle stalker comedy, but it is so intensely self-aware of what its comedy is, where it is and how to mine it, that it somehow manages to escape creepiness. Any hint of creepiness is immediately defused by subtle absurdities, well timed self-deprecating jokes and ultimately by the lively charm of characters themselves, even though the spin out of control into a jealous rage over Miya by the end.

Love triangles are one of the worst inventions of life, never mind the movies. Guys fight over girls, girls fight over guys. It’s usually for shallow, petty reasons, where the girl or guy in question has been stripped of their flesh and humanity, transformed into a golden statute, a trophy to win. Positive traits are hyper-focused on and the openly visible negative traits are handily ignored. In the end, they are hardly ever worth all of the anguish and bickering they cause. Most love triangles, though, are a natural outcropping of competitive relationships, where you want to possess the things your friend wants or already has because of our stupid lizard brain remnants. It comes in quite a different flavor in Hana & Alice. There is no machismo or cattiness to contend with here. In fact Alice is only spending time with Miya as a favor to Hana to deepen the “truth” of the game she is playing with him. In Alice’s desire to please her friend, she builds an even more elaborate game with Miya, one that they both have trouble easily dismissing.

Whenever I show this film to someone, or make them watch it against their will, they always turn it into a contest of which girl they like better. The answer is always – always – Alice. Even the girls pick Alice. It’s not hard to see why people would immediately pick her. She is adorable, sweet, intelligent and quick witted. Her ballet makes her graceful, and we see all of that right out in front.

I’ve never personally made a decision between the two. I like Hana as much as I like Alice, though for conversation’s sake I usually side with Hana because no one else does. You have to work for her, take time to consider what makes her tick. On the surface she appears to be the more mature one, more eager to be an adult and quickly grow up than Alice. But inside she still retains the romantic notions and emotions of childhood, though they manifest in decidedly mature ways. Whatever her deceits, they are very adult in nature, even if the intent behind them is juvenile. Much of the material added to make it feature length focused on Alice’s family, so Hana lacks a certain depth of story development, but there is enough visible to make small leaps of faith about her character and background. In that way, she is a little bit more rewarding a character to spend time with.

There is a hazy quality to the cinematography, something like a shadowy, overcast day that follows the film around, even in the bright sunshine of the spring scenes. It works like magic to the film, making it feel more like the fairy tale, and even though I know in my head that it’s just a problem inherent in old digital cameras (Iwai has shot much of his work on video instead of film), and I know how much I hated digital cinema until very recently, I can’t help but give it a pass in this film for the magic airy feeling it inspires in the film. I say airy, but really it’s more about a heft. These problems in these years of a persons life are heavy stuff. There is a reason why everyone can identify with Charlie Brown and the rain cloud above his head, and that’s exactly the feeling that is evoked here.

The film was shot by Noboru Shinoda, and was one of the last films he worked on before his sadly premature death in 2004. Shinoda, who appears in a cameo role as a commercial director, and Iwai had a working relationship that went back to 1994 when they made the short film Undotogether.

Over 10 years they worked together often, building a truly unique visual style together. He was the cinematographer for  every feature length film Iwai had made up until his recent film,Vampire, Iwai’s first feature length English film, which failed to secure North American distribution after mixed reviews at Sundance. Between 2004 and 2009, Iwai only has a documentary on Kon Ichikawa to his credit, and I don’t believe it an accident, I believe it to be a period of mourning for his friend, who was such an important part of his films, and who might have gone on to direct his own as Iwai moved into more of a mogul role, giving directing opportunities to others he’s worked with over the years on films like Rainbow SongHalfway and Bandage.