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Kokuriko-zaka kara (2011)
Miyazaki replaces fantasy with realism in deeply moving film
From the moment "Up on Poppy Hill" opens, scans its world in photographic panorama, and takes you into an ordinary Japanese kitchen where early-teen Umi is preparing a meal, you sense that this will not be like any Miyazaki film that you have ever seen. Still present is the flawless Studio Ghibli animation, but all traces of fantasy are gone. Instead the film grabs your heartstrings and won't let go. It's a simple enough story, neither harrowing nor heartbreaking, but its telling is so rich and enveloping that you're quickly as close to it as if you were on the back of a careening bicycle with Umi. // Young children will be entertained by the wonderful animation and may have questions to ask about the differences between how Umi lives her daily life in 1963 Japan and how they themselves live. Anyone older than about nine will grasp the full depth of the story and will enter it through its richness and detail. If you are empathetic at all your eyes will be wet from recognition, and, often enough, from joy. See this film and hope for more like it from the new Miyazaki generation. (Note: This review is for the English-dubbed, non-subtitled version that opened in Los Angeles in late March, 2013.)
Somewhere Between (2011)
A truly moving, honest doc about four uncommon young women
What is it like to be a little girl, flown out of China with some sense of past home, place and life, then adopted and raised as an American in a secure home with love and good parenting? This skillfully-made documentary puts you in the shoes--no, the skins--of four young women who, in the words of one, are like bananas, yellow outside and white inside. They are all bright, well-educated, hard-working, and grounded, but something is still missing in their lives.
Just what should China mean to them? Is it the tiny but tantalizing possibility of finding a birth parent, with the surprises that might bring--a story that has been told many times? Is it the sense of a place where they visibly fit in? Is it the need to share their feelings with other kids like themselves? And what of the lingering feeling that, before they were adopted, they were rejected? You will experience all these things alongside these young women, as they travel to Europe and China, grow, and open up like flowers. Is it enough to feel Chinese, or must she feel like a Dai (minority) person because she looks like one? Where does that lead her? What does it feel like to be in the stark orphanage that she dimly recalls? And what does she feel when she sees a bright little girl like she was, but trapped in a box in that orphanage because of a disability that could be treated?
I agree with Los Angeles Times reviewer Kenneth Turan, whose professional review I commend to you, that only a stone would not be moved by this film.
Finding Jenua (2011)
Don't waste your time
Don't waste your time. This is an unbelievable one-paragraph plot padded to a ponderous hour plus. Here's the paragraph (spoiler warning):
A young woman drives into a tiny town and attaches herself to an old lady who is losing her memory. Using conveniently-available diaries she pretends to be a granddaughter while stealing money and jewels and waiting for a lackadaisical repairman to fix her car. Meanwhile a mother's boy has a one-hour, one-night stand with her and starts yearning to leave town with her, but fails. The old lady dies as the young woman realizes she had begun to love her; she leaves when her car is trivially repaired, then returns to add her house to everything else that she has stolen.
The actress who plays the old lady does a fine job with her range-limited role, but unfortunately she cannot carry the film. (seen at the 2011 Newport Beach Filmfest)
Fort McCoy (2011)
A first-rate, flawless family film that aims high and hits its target
A first-rate, flawless film worth going out of your way to see. It's all there--an engaging story with believable characters and fine acting, a piece of history worth knowing about, a perfectly-detailed recreation of place and time--and it's a true story! Granddaughter Kate Connor has lovingly and unflinchingly brought her family back to life, and you and your family will thank her for it. This film deserves wide, mainscreen distribution and will make some smart person a lot of money. Americana, a happy ending, and a G rating! And this from a guy who would usually avoid a film with those parameters! (Seen at 2011 Newport Beach Filmfest)(reviewer has no personal or financial connection to the filmmakers)
My So-Called Enemy (2010)
Moving, real, and guardedly hopeful
This moving, real, and guardedly hopeful documentary follows six young women--three Palestinians and three Israelis--during and after a "peace camp" which insists that they listen to each others' deepest feelings about what divides them. They struggle to open each other up, reach out, become friends, and significantly though tenuously bridge the chasm between them even as bombs and rockets explode. These young women, each in her own way, choose futures which may light paths out of an intractable conflict. You will be glad you met them.
Oh, and bring hankies. Even the guys in the audience were crying, and not for sadness.