Tuesday, April 30, 2013

How to Save a Clubhouse (If You Can't Breakdance)

Much to the confusion of some of you who are wondering why these haven't been on Thursdays like they used to be (...oh, come on, I'm sure one of you's noticed!,) it's time for another visit to the Third Row.
You know, this year's been off to...kind of an interesting start.  Up until sometime earlier this month, this year's theatrical releases were...kind of a mixed bag.  By that, I mean, for a while there, of the films I'd seen in theaters, two of my top three weren't even actually made for release this year.

This, as you might guess from a comment like this, is in review of one of those above mentioned two of three - more specifically, Studio Ghibli's 2011 film From Up on Poppy Hill, that only recently got a wide release here in the US.

I'd like to take a moment to say, yeah, the captions on this one won't be quite the usual zingers here...cause man, riffing on a Ghibli film feels strangely wrong.  Like hitting a cat wrong.

I have to say, I went into this film with some degree of reservation.  On the one hand, yes, it's Studio Ghibli, which is almost always a sure bet for quality.  On the other, this was the follow-up directorial effort of still up-and-coming Goro Miyazaki, whose previous debut was the rather lackluster Tales of Earthsea.  Now I have not read the books there yet (though the movie did make me curious to look into them,) but from what I heard from those who have, this wasn't even a case of fault in the material - the movie was just weak all around.  It had interesting ideas, but a rather listless story and no real sense of a directorial voice behind it.

Why am I starting this review by unloading on Tales of Earthsea that much?  Because after seeing his follow-up feature, I am honestly starting to come around on Goro as a director.  This isn't to say I'm looking the other way on ToE's faults. However, the more I look at it, the more it reads as a case of an inexperienced director in over his head.  From Up on Poppy Hill, meanwhile, shows Goro in a bit of a stronger light.  It's still a bit rough around the edges, but with this, he's starting to show signs of improvement and thankfully, a strong voice.

The movie's story is adapted from the 1980s shoujo manga of the same name by Tetsuro Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi.  Its focus is on protagonist Umi Matsuzaka, voiced by Masami Nagasawa and Sarah Bolger.  As the elder sister in her family, she's been minding the house while her mother has been away, her father having died during the Korean War.  Every day, she raises signal flags in memorial to his father, which she later finds out someone has been responding to.  Alongside her life at home, she becomes involved in a movement at her school to save an aging club house that is in danger of being demolished (Editor's note- AW SHIT. Does this turn into Breakin' 2?).  As a result of this, she gets involved with the president of one of the clubs, the popular Shun Kazama (Junichi Okada/Anton Yelchin.)  This is also mixed with a storyline involving school love and a question of lost family connections, which I won't elaborate too much on, one part because they try to build it up to a reveal, and one part so we can get to talking about the movie itself.

While the screencap is kind of small for it, one other thing I have to hand to this movie - the backgrounds are quite nicely done.  Especially in the clubhouse before it gets cleaned up.  They do a great job with making the place look lived in and cluttered.  I kind of wanted to just keep poking around that building.

The story itself is, as you might guess from that synopsis, a bit busy at points.  In order to keep things moving at a decent pace, some stories are given precedence (the romance/mystery around Shun and Umi is the primary plot with the club house taking second.)  This is something of a mixed blessing, in a way - the stories that get the focus are handled fairly well, but the secondary plot strands do somewhat peter out with the diminished attention.  Much of Umi's home life, for example mainly just winds up feeding back around into the main romance storyline and doesn't really stand otherwise on its own.  This somewhat hurts characterization for the boarders in their home, who mainly just seem to serve to help nudge the plot forward.

Of course, like the story, on the other side of the coin, the characters that do get the more direct plot focus do far much better.  Umi and Shun are fairly fleshed out, and while not as fully carried out, many of the locals at the school's club house are still quite entertaining, even if a couple of them are one note characters.  Part of what helps in this latter case is some of the dialogue in the script (written by Keiko Niwa and Hayao Miyazaki.)  Several great bits that make the various clubs memorable are little moments in passing (an exchange between two club members: "How can we make archaeology cool again?" "We can't.") help make up some for the fact the cast are really too large for everyone to really get a chance in the limelight.

In some ways, it does feel a bit odd looking at this movie compared to many of Studio Ghibli's other films.  Compared to many of their greats, I will admit, it does come up a little light.  But at the same time, I don't find myself minding that.  Partially because I still see this as an improvement for its director.  It's still rough around the edges, but this film shows some promise for where the younger Miyazaki could go as a director.  While it still shows a couple of the flaws that he had in ToE, he also has a better sense of focus on this movie.  More importantly, this film has more of a distinct voice to it.  A voice that, thankfully, isn't that of his father's.  Put down the pitchforks, that was NOT a slam on Hayao.  He's a great director (one of his films is actually on my favorite movies list,) and I would not challenge that.  What I mean is, I'm actually pleased to see that his son is trying to strike out a path on his own and with his own voice as a director, instead of just trying (and potentially failing) to emulate his father's style.  With this film, Goro shows some potential to be able to handle character-centered pieces well, if he can just narrow his scope from here.  I can't say at this point if he has the potential to be as good as his old man, but at the same time, I do at least see in this movie the signs he could still stand on his own quite well.

All in all, if you're a fan of Ghibli's work, I'd say it's worth a watch.  It's admittedly not on the scale of some of their peak offerings, but given the nature of its storyline, that's not necessarily a problem.  It's a very down to earth story and its narrative and direction reflect that fairly well.  For all its rough edges, it still has the heart that has really helped allow Ghibli to become such an established name in the states over the past 20 years or so.

Just remember - if you fumble with Ghibli, it's lucky if you can get a second chance.  The injury featured here is strike one.  Let's just say no one's seen strike three...at least, as far as the authorities are concerned, anyway.

Goro, you're almost in the clear.  Just keep at it, cause I'd hate to feel like I was wrong in saying you could still go places.

Join us next time when I...OK, next entry isn't actually a review (STOP CHEERING, DAMMIT!) but still, hopefully will see you guys then!

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