Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Catch-Up: Admission, Gimme the Loot, From Up on Poppy Hill

I try to see - and review - as many movies as I can, but there's only so much time in a day.  Here a few that I've caught up with recently...

Admission (2013)
Dir. Paul Weitz

3 out of 5

Tina Fey and Paul Rudd form an indestructible nucleus of affability in Admission, an eager-to-please dramedy that leans heavily upon the well-established personae of its two stars: the quick-witted career woman and the preternaturally laid-back boy next door.  In this iteration, Fey is a Princeton admissions counselor who’s gradually drawn to Rudd’s charming high school administrator and his slightly awkward star pupil (Nat Wolff), who may or may not be Fey’s biological son.  Admission has a few tricks up its sleeve to elevate its fill-in-the-blank premise, including an acerbic supporting turn from Lily Tomlin as Fey’s feminist mother.  Aggressively low-key direction from Paul Weitz keeps tonal whiplash to a minimum (except in the too-silly scenes dealing with the actual grunt work of Fey’s job), but it makes the film feel half-accomplished; he manages the film’s many subplots like a high school senior padding his résumé with a bunch of barely-attended extracurriculars.  Solid but unspectacular - and a bit frustrating - Admission aims for the middle despite its potential for higher marks.

Gimme the Loot (2013)
Dir. Adam Leon

4 out of 5

For most teenagers, summer vacation theoretically brings the promise of the complete freedom and time necessary to hatch grand plans.  In practice, however, such freedom often feels stifling and cruel due to geographic or financial limitations.  That's the dilemma faced by the two young graffiti artists in Gimme the Loot, an honest, naturalistic slice-of-life movie that observes the social and racial stratification of New York City from the perspective of kids just coming to realize how they've internalized the behaviors the world expects from them.  Malcolm (Ty Hickson) and Sophia (Tashiana Washington) are small-time hustlers who yearn to make their names in the graffiti world by "bombing" - parlance for graffiti tagging - the giant mechanical apple that rises from the bowels of Citi Field in Queens every time one of the New York Mets hits a home run.  (The characters' obsession with the downtrodden, cash-strapped Mets instead of the ubermensch Yankees is a brilliant metaphor for the film's modest ambitions.)

The profane but loving rapport between Hickson and Washington is unquestionably the film's greatest asset.  Even at a scant 81 minutes, Gimme the Loot gives plenty of time to the type of digressions and idle complaints that spill out of developing minds when the weather's too hot and there's nothing to do.  And ok, maybe Adam Leon's directorial debut doesn't have a terribly developed plot, tossing in obstacles - a flirtatious prep school girl (Zoë Lescaze) who turns on Malcolm in mixed company, a rival graffiti crew, random crooks on the streets - that mostly distract from the goal at hand.  But that's sort of the point.  Despite a late-breaking twist that comes from out of nowhere and nearly spoils the sweetness of their relationship, Malcolm and Sophia perfectly embody the struggle of countless teens - especially those of modest means - who harbor big dreams but ultimately have little hope of achieving them.  There's definitely a melancholic streak to Gimme the Loot, but it's leavened with humor and nails the little life lessons that tend to have their greatest impact when you're focused on something completely different.

From Up on Poppy Hill (2013)
Dir. Goro Miyazaki

3.5 out of 5

Though Japan’s Studio Ghibli is best known for the whimsical, folkloric flights of fancy from its creative patriarch, Hayao Miyazaki, it also specializes in a much rarer breed of film: the animated period piece.  In the tradition of Grave of the Fireflies and the Miyazaki-penned Whisper of the Heart comes From Up on Poppy Hill, an adaptation of a popular manga about teenagers coming of age in early-1960s Yokohama.  16-year-old high school student Umi (voiced by Sarah Bolger in the English-dubbed version) helps run her family’s all-female boarding house, waiting for her mother to return from medical school in the United States and raising nautical signal flags each morning in tribute to her deceased father.  At school, she meets the passionate Shun (Anton Yelchin), who is trying to prevent the school board from razing a dilapidated clubhouse that serves as the nerve center of his friends’ intellectual pursuits and social life.  They grow closer as Umi assists Shun in his political battle, but a revelation about their shared heritage briefly throws their lives off-balance and threatens their tentative relationship.

Directed by Miyazaki’s son, Goro, and co-written by Keiko Niwa and Hayao Miyazaki himself, From Up on Poppy Hill has a pretty distinguished pedigree for what amounts to a minor Ghibli effort.  It’s pleasant enough for a low-stakes animated drama, though the film is too quick to alleviate any stress with tidy resolutions that make its conflicts seem quite inconsequential.  The soap opera aspect may be partly intentional - it is a high school romance, after all - but it’s missing the maturity and poise that accompanies the best of Miyazaki's films.  And, apart from one or two timely speeches about the importance of preserving the past, Umi suffers from a curious lack of agency for a Ghibli heroine.  It’s also hampered by some questionable English voice casting - few things are more distracting than the deep-fried Southern drawl of Beau Bridges coming from the mouth of a high-powered Tokyo businessman.  Still, Poppy Hill is expertly animated and reflects Ghibli’s fastidious attention to period detail in the film's environments (posters for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics dot the background of scenes in the city), making up for the shortcomings of its source material with an abundance of beauty.

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