Thursday, October 23, 2014

Movie Review: Listen Up Philip

Listen Up Philip
Directed by: Alex Ross Perry.
Written by: Alex Ross Perry.
Starring: Jason Schwartzman (Philip Lewis Friedman), Elisabeth Moss (Ashley Kane), Krysten Ritter (Melanie Zimmerman), Joséphine de La Baume (Yvette Dussart), Jonathan Pryce (Ike Zimmerman), Jess Weixler (Holly Kane), Dree Hemingway (Emily), Keith Poulson (Josh Fawn), Kate Lyn Sheil (Nancy), Yusef Bulos (Norm), Maïté Alina (Clare), Daniel London (Seth), Samantha Jacober (Mona), Eric Bogosian (The Narrator).
There has been a lot of talk recently about “likable” protagonists and characters – something that has never much interested me, and clearly doesn’t interest writer-director Alex Ross Perry. The opening scene of Listen Up Philip has his “hero”, Philip Lewis Friedman, played by Jason Schwartzman as the worst possible future version of his Max Fisher from Rushmore, waiting in a restaurant for an ex-girlfriend to give him a copy of his latest novel. When she has the nerve to show up 25 minutes late, he goes on a bile infused rant about what a horrible person she is, never lets her get a word in edgewise, and then stocks off into the streets of New York. Feeling good about his outburst, he then gets together with his old college friend, and similarly browbeats the man as a sellout – about how he has abandoned their declaration of principles, and how only he, Philip, is the real artist. When the old friend decides he has had enough, and leaves, the scenes pitch-black punchline comes, and delivers one of the first of many shocked laughs.
Philip lives in a world where everything is about himself and his work – which he knows is genius, even if no one else seems to quite agree with him. He informs his publisher that he will not be doing any press for his new book – hell, if shunning the press was good enough for Tolstoy, then it’s good enough for Philip Lewis Friedman. His novels draw the attention of Ike Zimmerman, an old author with a similar affliction of narcissism and misanthropy, clearly based on Philip Roth – and played brilliantly by Jonathan Pryce. He feeds Philip’s ego, and encourages him to live the lifestyle that Ike himself has so successfully lived – which if Philip was paying attention he would notice has left Ike a rich, but lonely man – with no friends that he has alienated, and a daughter, Melanie (the always welcome Krysten Ritter) who despises him – and longs to get the better of the man, who will not let her get the upper hand ever.
It’s not like Philip really needs Ike’s advice on how to be an asshole to those who love him, for some reason. Even before he meets Ike, Philip is doing his best to deliberately alienate his girlfriend of two years, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) – a photographer, who like Philip has had her career start to take off a little bit – and is stuck between artistic freedom, and perhaps selling out. From the opening scene with one ex-girlfriend, to a later scene with another ex (played by the wonderful Kate Lyn Sheil, who was the lead in Perry’s last film – The Color Wheel) – where she literally runs away from him in mid-conversation, we know where this relationship is likely headed. Strangely, for a film centered on a man, who leaves his girlfriend behind, the movie itself doesn’t leave Ashley. The movie has one, extended sequence where it follows Ashley after Philip has retreated to Ike’s upstate retreat to write, and eventually take a teaching position at  small college (before he leaves, Philip tells Ashley “I hope this will be good for both of us. But especially me”).  This sequence is unlike much of the rest of the film, where the dialogue flies quickly, and is actually relatively quiet – making the most of Moss’ ability (honed after years on Mad Men) to do so much with her face, which shows such complex emotions without utterly a word – or saying one thing, while meaning another. It’s also a rather welcome respite from all the masculine bile being spewed by Philip and Ike – which because the writing is so sharp, and the performances by Schwartzman and Pryce so good is both hilarious, and disturbing look at a certain type of male, narcissistic artist.
Roth is an obvious impersonation for the film – the brilliantly designed fake book jackets of his novels look very much like Roth’s – and Perry shares his bleak view of humanity and relationships and narcissism. The movie is, in many ways, structured like a novel – with flash backs, and narrative derisions that usually get edited out of movie, and jumps forward in time. The cinematic influences range from Woody Allen to Noah Baumbach – in particular I was reminded of Allen’s own Roth inspired comedy, Deconstructing Harry (1997), one of Allen’s best and most underrated movies – and the one where Allen seemed to care least about his character being liked. Like Allen in that film, Perry most often uses a handheld camera, which captures everything as another character in the film. Mostly, while Allen’s films have examined New York intellectuals and writers like Philip and Ike in the past, there is usually an undercurrent of goodness beneath the outer cynicism of his characters. Nothing like that appears in Listen Up Philip, which dissects both Philip and Ike in merciless detail. These two men feed each other’s ego, and at times they seem to be competing over who can be the bigger asshole. Schwartzman and Pryce are both brilliant in their roles – as is Moss, who eventually sees Philip more clearly than he can ever hope to see himself. The film is narrated by Eric Bogosian, as a kind of all seeing God-like figure – who knows everything, and often narrates it with hilarious detail. His final lines in the movie – which are the final lines spoken – confirm what we already suspected what would happen to Philip when the narrative ends.

Movie Review: Men, Women & Children

Men, Women & Children
Directed by: Jason Reitman.
Written by: Jason Reitman & Erin Cressida Wilson based on the novel by Chad Kultgen.
Starring: Adam Sandler (Don Truby), Jennifer Garner (Patricia Beltmeyer), Rosemarie DeWitt (Helen Truby), Judy Greer (Donna Clint), Dean Norris (Kent Mooney), Emma Thompson (Narrator), Olivia Crocicchia (Hannah Clint), Kaitlyn Dever (Brandy Beltmeyer), Ansel Elgort (Tim Mooney), Katherine C. Hughes  (Brooke Benton), Elena Kampouris (Allison Doss), Will Peltz (Brandon Lender), Travis Tope (Chris Truby), David Denman (Jim Vance), Dennis Haysbert (Secretluvur), J.K. Simmons (Allison's Dad), Colby Arps (Tanner), Shane Lynch (Angelique), Timothée Chalamet (Danny Vance).

Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children has already been roasted by critics, and greeted with indifference by audiences. My expectations heading into the film were low – not only because of the reviews, but because I read Chad Kultgen’s novel, which Reitman and Eric Cressida adapted, and thought it was horrible. Watching the film, I know why most critics have hated it – it isn’t a good film in any way, it’s characters are one dimensional and for the most part uninteresting, and the film merely skims the surface of the issues it raises. But the film isn’t quite as bad as many critics seem to think – and I don’t really think that the film is the screed against technology and the internet many seem to think it is. What is strange to me is that while computers and the internet have changed everything about our culture – including everything about the movies – there really haven’t been too many movies actually about the internet and social networking. What Reitman film is attempting – and I think for the most part fails to do – is to show how people live now. It doesn’t necessarily lecture about the dangers of technology, but does show how so many people live their lives online – and not in RL (or Real Life) as one character explains to a clueless adult. Much like Reitman’s last film, Labor Day, I admire the effort behind Men, Women and Children, even if I didn’t much care for the execution.

The film has been called the “Crash of the Internet” – a title that should actually belong to last year’s, far worse film Disconnect – because it is another of those films that takes a loosely related group of people, and spins out multiple storylines from it. Don (Adam Sandler) and Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt) are a middle aged married couple, with a couple of sons, who don’t really have sex anymore. Helen decides to go onto Ashley Madison and find a partner for an affair, while Don decides to go online and find a prostitute. Their son Chris (Travis Tope) is 15, and has been browsing increasingly deviant pornography from the time he was 10, and now cannot get it up for “normal” sex with a girl his own age – even when faced with the attractive little cheerleader Hannah Clint (Olivia Crocicchia). Hannah dreams of being a celebrity in the Kim Kardashian way, and her mother Donna (Judy Greer) supports this – it was her own dream once as well – and runs a website for Hannah, which started as an online resume, but now has an “members only” section of pictures of Hannah is various “costumes” requested by her “fans” – all of which Donna takes. Donna, a single mother, and starts to date Kent (Dean Norris) – a man whose wife has left him and run off the California with another man. Kent’s son is Tim (Ansel Elgort), once a star running back on the high school football, who has decided to quit this year – and seems to have no other plans than to play “Guild Wars” online. Then he meets Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), another outsider at her school, and their relationship develops rather sweetly – like we are accustomed to seeing in movies about teenagers. Brandy’s mother is Patricia (Jennifer Garner), who runs an “Internet Safety” group – and monitors every single keystroke her daughter makes online and on her phone, and is obsessive about her daughter’s safety to the point where she can no longer be a normal teenager. Then there’s Allison Doss (Elena Kampouris), who lost a lot of weight over the summer – essentially by not eating anything, and going online for “thinspiration” – who, because of that weight loss, has been able to attract the attention of her crush Brandan (Will Peltz) – although it’s clear from the start the one thing he wants from her.

There are some interesting observations and scenes in the film – but for the most part, Reitman tries to accomplish so much in the film, tell so many stories, that he never really gets beneath the surface to any of these stories. The film feels dated – not because of its observations about the internet, but because of its focus on an exclusively white suburbia – where nothing is as perfect as it seems on the surface. It feels like an online version of American Beauty more than anything else – but one in which focuses on so many characters, that none of them can pull attention towards themselves.

There are good scenes in the movie. I almost wish the film had focused exclusively on Don and Helen – and truly explored their relationship – but there is something interesting about two people no longer interested in sex with each other, but still want to stay married – and find satisfaction outside their marriage. DeWitt is a talented actress – and she is able to do a lot with not a lot on page at times. Her scenes with the various men – particularly Dennis Haysbert, as her first, she comes alive – all in the eyes. Sandler is actually quite good in the film – given us a portrait of a middle aged man, who feels impotent, who strays from his marriage and also finds happiness. The final scene between these two is the best in the movie – and that’s mostly due to the way Sandler acts that final scene – with quiet confidence. It is a reminder of how good Sandler can be when he wants to be – which unfortunately only seems like something that happens a couple of times a decade.

The rest of the cast is nearly as good or as interesting as these two. True, Dever and Elgott are both fine, charming young actors – and they sell their relationship as much as the screenplay allows – but that’s not much. Crocicchia is fine as Hannah, as is Kampouris as Allison, but the movie only gives both one note to play. Dean Norris is nicely downbeat and depressed – slowly coming out of his shell throughout the movie. I never did buy the impotent 15 year old boy storyline – it felt forced. And poor Jennifer Garner and Judy Greer are given impossible roles to play, and do their best, but there just isn’t much to do with their roles.

In short, Men, Women & Children never really works. Even in its best storyline – between Don and Helen – the movie doesn’t delve deep enough, and go far enough in its examination of what their mutual adultery actually means for their marriage. Reitman has improved what was a horrible book – thankfully cutting out much of the most ludicrous stuff that Kultgen included purely for shock value. But he cannot solve the main problem with the book – that these characters are just not very interesting, or examined in any meaningful way. I appreciate what Reitman was attempting in the film – but he doesn’t pull it off in any meaningful way.

Movie Review: A Brony Tale

A Brony Tale
Directed by: Brent Hodge.
Written by: Brent Hodge.

In case you don’t know, a Brony is an male, adult fan of the animated TV Show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic – a show that was made for little girls. When the media covers Bronys at all, it’s usually to mock them – or at least poke gentle fun at grown men who like a shown made for little girls. Be honest, your first reaction was probably to laugh a little bit at the idea. The documentary A Brony Tale was directed by Brent Hodge, a friend of the movie’s main subject – Ashleigh Ball – who does the voices of two of the main characters – Applejack and Rainbow Dash – on the show, who isn’t sure how to respond to these fans – or their invitation to attend Bronycon – which is what you would expect it to be, a convention for Bronys. He wanted to examine this seemingly bizarre segment of fandom –and what he finds is actually fairly normal. As one of the first interview subjects says “I’m an adult, I don’t need society to tell me what to like.” This is a man, by the way, who looks like a big, burly biker – because, well, he’s a big burly biker.

A Brony Tale moves from one Brony to another – all of whom explain why they like the show. It is innocent, well animated, has a positive message, is clever, is funny and they just downright enjoy it. It is about friendship more than anything else – and through their lives as Bronys, they have discovered more friends who share their love of the TV show they adore.

This is not a particularly deep examination of the culture – and to be honest, I don’t think one is really warranted. It’s a film that breezes by in just under 80 minutes in an enjoyable way, and doesn’t delve into anything dark – because there doesn’t seem to be anything all that dark there to begin with. These men just like a TV show aimed at little girls – and what the hell is wrong with that.

I’ve seen a few episodes of the TV show – I am, after all, the father of a three year old girl, and although she loves Sofia the First, Jake and the Neverland Pirates and Doc McStuffins more, I have seen a few episode of My Little Pony. It is kind of fun and clever. Would I ever watch it without my three year old? No – but I can see why some people want to escape into a positive piece of entertainment, in a world that is dark – and whose entertainment is almost as dark. What A Brony Tale makes clear – which probably should have been self-evident without having seen the movie – is that people should be free to like anything they want. The Bronys know this – and everyone else should as well.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Movie Review: Fury

Directed by: David Ayer.
Written by: David Ayer.
Starring: Brad Pitt (Don 'Wardaddy' Collier), Shia LaBeouf (Boyd 'Bible' Swan), Logan Lerman (Norman Ellison), Michael Peña (Trini 'Gordo' Garcia), Jon Bernthal (Grady 'Coon-Ass' Travis), Jim Parrack (Sergeant Binkowski), Brad Henke (Sergeant Davis), Kevin Vance (Sergeant Peterson), Xavier Samuel (Lieutenant Parker), Jason Isaacs (Captain Waggoner), Anamaria Marinca (Irma), Alicia von Rittberg (Emma).

As a writer and director, David Ayer has made a career out of exploring masculinity in its most base, violent form. He has had little use for women – wasting the considerable talents of Anna Kendrick and America Ferrara in End of Watch, and pretty much making Mirielle Enos and Olivia Williams play male characters in Sabotage. Therefore, it’s kind of surprising that it has taken him this long to make a war film – the one genre where it’s completely understandable if there are no female characters, especially if, like in Fury, the war in question is WWII. What is perhaps even more surprising than that is that the one scene in the movie that does have women in it, is far and away the best scene in the film – and perhaps the best scene in any movie Ayer has ever written or directed. The rest of the movie is typical, violent war is hell stuff – done with a lot of skill, and elevated by an excellent cast who make up a surrogate family more than just a platoon of soldiers (even if they, purposefully, remain more archetypes than three dimensional characters). But that one scene elevates the rest of the movie.

The film takes place in the spring of 1945 in Germany. Don “Wardaddy” Collier is a sergeant, and leader of a five man tank crew. They have been together for far longer than most tank crews – it was a dangerous job in the army, made more dangerous by the fact that the Germans had far superior tanks than the Americans did – and the group has just lost one of their own for the first time. As Wardaddy says, he started this war killing Nazis in Africa, and he’s now killed Nazis throughout Europe, and now he’s killing in Nazis in Germany. As Pitt’s character in Inglorious Basterds said “We’re in the Nazi killing business, and business is booming”. Wardaddy isn’t that far from Pitt’s character in Tarantino’s masterpiece in fact – except he’s lacking the humorous irony and sarcasm. Years of war have made him forget – at least temporarily – who he was before the war. Now he’s all business – and doesn’t much care what German he kills, as long as he’s German, Wardaddy will kill him. His crew mainly agree with him. To take the family metaphor to its logical extreme – Wardaddy is (obviously) the stern father – one who commands respect, and expects loyalty, and will give it in return. Bible (Shia LaBeouf) is the more caring, nurturing mother character – he is clearly second in command, but also a little more sympathetic to the others. There are actually more than a few moments of quiet tenderness between these two characters, in which it is certainly possible to read something close to sexual intimacy between these two. The two other crew members are Gordo (Michael Pena) – a Mexican American, and Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal), from somewhere in the deep South, who bicker and argue like brothers – and sometimes say incredibly mean, bigoted things to each other – but in a joking way. These men are a family – and they will die for each other.

So the arrival of Norman (Logan Lerman) is not entirely welcome by the men. He’s only been in the army for eight weeks, has no idea what to do on a tank, and thinks his orders are a mistake. But there is nothing anyone can do about them – so he’s stuck with the tank, and the crew is stuck with him. He may well get them all killed, since he clearly has no idea what the hell he’s doing. The crew resents him – and at first it appears like Wardaddy hates him – but gradually, he takes him under his wing, and the pair bond.

The war scenes in Fury are well handled. Ayer favors a chaotic look and feel to the action, in which there is a ton of blood spilled. Ever since Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), many war films have attempted to up the ante in terms of pure, visceral violence and carnage in their war scenes – and while nothing in Fury approaches Ryan’s opening sequence, it is as well down as that film’s many imitators. Ayer doesn’t give us a grand, overreaching view of the overall strategy – but the point by point, ground level view of the war – where they take over one town at a time.

It is in the aftermath of one of those towns falling, that we get a brief interlude initially involving Wardaddy, Norman and two German women in an apartment building. The scene starts out somewhat menacing – we’ve just seen how far Wardaddy will go on his quest to eliminate the Nazis, including some things that are certainly not sanctioned – and the way he looks when he enters that apartment, with those women makes it look like anything is possible. But the scene then takes a rather gentle, surprising turn. Wardaddy is not looking for sex or violence – but a kind of return to normalcy – at least for a little while. And Norman, in his brief “relationship: with the younger of the two women is tender, and heartfelt – two teenagers in love really. It is the type of interlude that Francis Ford Coppola attempted in the French Plantation sequence in Apocalypse Now (1979) – which he was right in cutting for the initial cut of his masterpiece (my vote for best film of all time) – as he never quite found the right note to it. Ayer nails it here – and then the scene takes a dark turn when the other three men on the tank arrive, and turn the brief respite into one more hellish experience – a dysfunctional family dinner.

From there, the movie progresses as it must – with more violent war sequences, leading up to a point where the men of the tank have a choice between standing there ground in what may well be a meaningless suicide mission, or running for cover. Given what happened before, we know what they will choose before they do.
Fury is a fine movie – and that central sequence in the apartment is great. No, the film doesn’t add much new to the war film lexicon, but it does everything it sets out to do with skill and a visceral jolt. Ayer was made to make a war movie – and in Fury he has made his best film to date.

Movie Review: Pride

Directed by: Matthew Warchus.
Written by: Stephen Beresford.
Starring: Ben Schnetzer (Mark), George MacKay (Joe), Andrew Scott (Gethin), Joseph Gilgun (Mike), Faye Marsay (Steph), Dominic West (Jonathan), Paddy Considine (Dai), Imelda Staunton (Hefina), Bill Nighy (Cliff), Monica Dolan (Marion), Freddie Fox (Jeff),  Chris Overton (Reggie), Joshua Hill (Ray), Menna Trussler (Gwen), Jessica Gunning (Sian), Rhodri Meilir (Martin), Lisa Palfrey (Maureen), Liz White (Margaret), Nia Gwynne (Gail), Mary-Anne Dymond (Rowena), Sophie Evans (Debbie), Dyfan Dwyfor (Lee), Jack Baggs (Gary), Johnny Gibbon (Johnny), Kyle Rees (Carl), Bryan Parry (Kevin), Joseph Wilkins (Jason), Laura Matthews (Tina).

There have been many British films like Pride before – and likely there will be many more like it in the future. At their peak popularity, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, some of these films – like The Full Monty and Billy Elliot – became surprising box office hits, and awards players. The Brits do this type of inspirational film better than Americans do – I think in part because the Brits aren’t quite as insistent at keeping everything as inspiring, and sentimental, as Hollywood seems to be. There is always a degree of sadness to the proceedings, and they tap into something real beneath the comedy and artifice of the surface. Pride, which is about the unlikely alliance between striking coal miners in Wales, and the Lesbian and Gay community in London, hits all the notes you expect a movie like this to hit. It doesn’t do anything particularly original – and is basically a very safe, very conservative movie that aims to be an inspirational crowd pleaser – and that’s just about what it does.

The movie opens, focusing on Mark (Ben Schetzer), a young gay, Irishman living in London who on the day of the 1984 Gay Pride Parade is hit with an idea – that the Coal Miners, currently on strike to protest Margaret Thatcher’s cuts, and the gay and lesbian community actually have a lot in common. In fact, since the strike starter, the lives of the gay community has gotten easier – and Mark thinks this is because the police don’t have time to harass them anymore because they spend all their time harassing the miners. So he decides to start a group – Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) – and although most of the gay community don’t want to join his movement – he does attract a small, but loyal group, willing to collect money on the street for the miners. But then, Mark cannot find a mining group willing to take their money – they do not want the support of gays and lesbians. Finally, through a miscommunication, they do find a small group in Wales willing to take their money. And this starts an unlikely alliance and friendship between the two groups.
From this brief description, you can probably tell where Pride is going to go – and you would almost certainly be right. While the leaders of the Miners – Dal (Paddy Considine), Hefina (Imelda Staunton) and Cliff (Bill Nighy) welcome the gays, and their money, many of the others are more hesitant. This is 1984 after all – where homophobia was even more out in the open and acceptable than it is now, 30 years later. Many of the miners don’t want the support of these “perverts” and “fags”.  But then – as movies have taught us over and over again – all that needs to happen is that the two groups get to know each other, then they start seeing beyond their own prejudices and biases.
Pride works as inspirational comedy, with some more serious elements thrown in. Yes, the film is derivative of a film like The Full Monty – which also used economic hardship as a backdrop for a group of “manly men” doing something they wouldn’t normally do (in that case strip), and Billy Elliot, which used the same miner’s strike as background for one boys growing love of dance – and all the sexual taunts he got as a result. There is nothing new or challenging about Pride. It is precisely the movie it wants to be – for better or for worse. The film works, but I couldn’t help but be somewhat disappointed that the film didn’t try to do something different or more daring.

Movie Review: Camp X-Ray

Camp X-Ray
Directed by: Peter Sattler.
Written by: Peter Sattler.
Starring: Kristen Stewart (Cole), Peyman Moaadi (Ali), Lane Garrison (Ransdell), Joseph Julian Soria (Rico), Julia Duffy (Cole's Mother), John Carroll Lynch (Colonel Drummond).

As an actress, Kristen Stewart is at her best when she does the least. She can be a great actress – one that uses her physical movement, and face to suggest a lot even when it appears like shes not doing much. She has taken some (mostly unfair) hits over the years for her performances in the Twilight movies – none of which were good, but none of which were really her fault – how could she possibly make such a poorly conceived, and written role work. For those of us who liked before the Twilight films, he performance in Camp X-Ray is a welcome return to form for the talented young actress. It's also nice that the film pairs her with an equally good actor – Peyman Moaadi (most famous for A Separation) – and the two of them make their scenes together work. Unfortunately the movie itself is not very well written – and takes some overly clichéd narrative turns, especially in the third act, which takes an interesting premise in the least interesting way possible. The performances here are significantly better than the movie itself.

In the film, Stewart stars as Cole – a young Army Private who is assigned to Camp X-Ray, Guantanamo Bay, where her job will be to supervise the "detainees". She is told early in the film not never use the word prisoner – and she knows why, because prisoners are subject to the Geneva convention, and detainees are not. She is also told that her job will not be to keep the detainees from escaping – the walls do that – but to keep them alive. No one is to kill themselves on their watch – it would make them look bad.

Most of the inmates respond to her in the way we expect – they do not like her, they do not speak English, and basically wither berate and ignore her. These Muslim men do not like Americans in general and in particular hate American women. Ali (Moaadi) is different. He does speak English, and tries to engage her in conversation – specifically about Harry Potter. Apparently, the library has the first 6 books in the series, but not the seventh – and Ali really, really wants to know how it ends. He is been here for 8 years now – arrested in the months after 9é11, and be detained here ever since. We never find out what he did – but to the movie it doesn’t much matter, and it doesn’t matter to Ali either. After spending this long at Camp X-Ray, no country in the world would want him anyway.

The film is at its best in the first hour – as it establishes the routine of the camp, and how everything works. An understated thread in the movie is how women in the military are treated. Cole tries to remain all business – she never lets her hair done at all, unless she is alone in her room – and mainly keeps her distance from the male recruits, who in various ways let her know they are interested. She is there to do a job – and wants to be treated like everyone else – but knows she isn’t being treated that way.

The relationship between Cole and Ali develops slowly – getting off to a bad start, because both hold certain ideas about the other one, until gradually they get to know, and like each other. It’s here where the movie falls into the narrative traps we expect, and ends up in the least interesting place imaginable for the movie itself. The last half hour is essentially one cliché after another. It doesn’t help that the movie feels a little long as well – it’s nearly two hours, and moves rather slowly at that.

But Stewart and Moaadi are able to mostly rescue the movie from itself. It is the debut film for writer-director Peter Sattler – who at least knows not to try and do too much with one film – a rarity among first time directors. But a little imagination could have led to some more interesting directions for the movie to go. As it stands, it has two great performances in a fairly average film.

Movie Review: A Letter to Momo

A Letter to Momo
Directed by: Hiroyuki Okiura.
Written by: Hiroyuki Okiura.
Starring: Karen Miyama (Momo Miyaura), Yuka  Yuka (Ikuko Miyaura), Daizaburo Arakawa (Kazuo Miyaura), Toshiyuki Nishida (Iwa), Kôichi Yamadera (Kawa), Cho (Mame), Yoshisada Sakaguchi (Great Grandfather), Ikuko Tani (Great Grandmother), Takeo Ogawa (Koichi), Kota Fuji (Yota), Katsuki Hashimoto (Umi).

A Letter to Momo shares some similarities with Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Tortoro – and suffers by comparison. That gentle film by the Japanese master is one of his enduring classics – so simple and straightforward, but also beautiful to look at. A Letter to Momo is also a beautiful film in many ways – but it is also needlessly long to tell such a simple story. I admired the visuals of the film, but ultimately, I was rather bored by the film.

The film is about Momo, a young girl of about 12, who gets angry with her father and tells her she hates him. Little does she know it is the last time she will see him – as he dies in an accident. She finds a letter in his office with two words – Dear Momo – and it haunts her, because she wanted to know what her father was going to tell her. Her mother packs her up, quits her job, sells their Tokyo condo to move back to her small, island hometown – right next door to her parents. Momo tries exploring the island, and meeting the local children – there are not many, as most of the inhabitants are old. But then strange things start happening – food is disappearing, and there are strange noises in the attic. Soon Momo will find out who is making those noises – three spirits – Kawa, who is somewhat cynical, Mame who is like a small child, and the massive Iwa – a gentle giant. But they are not there to harm Momo and her family – but protect it.

If you’ve seen My Neighbor Tortoro you can spot the similarities between the two films. While the mother in Tortoro is not dead, just really sick, both films deal with an absent parent and its effect on children – as well as moving the children to a remote, countryside location, and have mystical creatures there to protect them. In Tortoro, I think it’s a little more clear that the creatures are merely invented by the children as a way of dealing with fear, whereas in A Letter to Momo, I’m not sure if that’s the case, or whether the creatures in the film truly exist.

So the film shares a lot in common with one of the great anime movies of all time. By itself, that wouldn’t really be a problem – what is a problem is that writer/director Hiroyuki Okiura doesn’t really do much with the premise other than just simply let it play out in the most obvious way imaginable. A Letter to Momo is certainly a pleasant film – it looks great from start to finish, and the character design on the three creatures is impressive, making them into individual creatures, rather than interchangeable entities. But the film also clouds its simple narrative with too many complications – the neighborhood kids, and the pressure on Momo to jump off a bridge into the river below, the strange disappearances, etc. The film is two hours long, and after about an hour, it really starts to feel as if it is too long.

I appreciated the visual look of A Letter to Momo from beginning to end – and I liked that the film didn’t talk down to children, like so much American animation does. However, if you’re going to make something that so deliberately references one of the greatest films the medium has ever produced, you should try to do something different with it. My Neighbor Tortoro is simple perfection. A Letter to Momo is not.