English-language 'Poppy Hill' carries on Ghibli tradition

  • A teen student named Shun (voiced by Anton Yelchin) takes home the lovely Umi (Sarah Bolger) in the Japanese animated drama "Up on Poppy Hill." The English version is directed by Elmhurst native Gary Rydstrom.

    A teen student named Shun (voiced by Anton Yelchin) takes home the lovely Umi (Sarah Bolger) in the Japanese animated drama "Up on Poppy Hill." The English version is directed by Elmhurst native Gary Rydstrom.

  • Research assistant Lukas ((Marius Jampolskis) prepares to enter the mind of a coma victim in the erotic Lithuanian science fiction drama "Vanishing Waves."

    Research assistant Lukas ((Marius Jampolskis) prepares to enter the mind of a coma victim in the erotic Lithuanian science fiction drama "Vanishing Waves."

Posted3/28/2013 6:00 AM

Reel Life mini-review: "From Up on Poppy Hill"
Goro Miyazaki's "From Up on Poppy Hill" lacks a bit of the magic of the works of his famous filmmaking father Hayao Miyazaki.

That's OK. "Poppy Hill" continues the Miyazaki tradition of eye-popping, handcrafted animated visuals bursting with luminous colors, impressionist textures and careful compositions. What's not to love?


Besides, this English version of "Poppy Hill" is directed by Oscar-winning Elmhurst native (and York Community High School grad) Gary Rydstrom, backed by an impressive vocal cast: Gillian Anderson, Christina Hendricks, Chris Noth, Jamie Lee Curtis, Bruce Dern, Beau Bridges and director Ron Howard (as the philosophy club president).

Set in 1963 Japan, "Poppy Hill" eschews fantasy for nostalgic realism and makes an unsubtle pitch for preserving the past as the foundation for the future.

Teenage Umi (Sarah Bolger, leading the English cast) goes to school where the student body rallies to save a dilapidated "Animal House"-style club house called the "Latin Quarter," under threat of demolition.

Umi raises nautical flags every morning to the passing ships to remember her Korean War hero father, killed at sea. A classmate named Shun (Anton Yelchin) crushes on her. A subsequent affair of the heart heads into complications that not even Luke and Leia could fathom.

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Had "Poppy Hill" been a live-action movie, its soap operatic plot and stodgy, romantic view of clutching on to the "old" might have rendered it a simplistic experience. Backed by the animated artistry of Japan's famed Studio Ghibli, here, the everyday transforms into the amazingly graceful.

"Up on Poppy Hill" opens at the Century Centre in Chicago. Rated PG. 91 minutes. ★ ★ ★

Reel Life film notes:
• Mel Gibson's controversial 2004 drama "The Passion of the Christ" will be presented at noon on Saturday, March 30, at the Catlow Theater, 116 W. Main St., Barrington. Admission costs $5. Tickets can be purchased at participating stores including The Catlow and Boloney's.

The drama (featuring Jim Caviezel as Jesus) proved to be so dramatically powerful that even religious leaders didn't object to the visceral, R-rated violence. Gibson famously insisted the cast learn their dialogue in ancient Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew languages. The movie is presented by the Passion Art Walk, with live music before the feature. Go to passionartwalk.com.

• You saw Anthony Hopkins as "Hitchcock" earlier this year, now see the original 1960 production of "Psycho" on the silver screen in a digitally remastered version with superb sound. (You'll be able to hear the knife stabbing into Janet Leigh's body -- the sound effect is actually a casaba melon being murdered in a sound studio.)


The Chicago Film Critics Association presents "Psycho" as part of the Film View program at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 3, at the Studio Movie Grill Wheaton, 301 Rice Lake Square, Wheaton. Admission $1! CFCA members Jessica Aymond and Sarah Adamson will host the event, capped by a post-screening discussion. Studiomoviegrill.com.

• Join me and film historian Raymond Benson as Dann & Raymond's Movie Club presents Both Sides of the Camera: Actors Who Direct Themselves, highlighting Mel Brooks, Jerry Lewis, Jackie Chan, Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen, Kenneth Branagh and many others. It starts at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 4, at the Schaumburg Township District Library, 130 S. Roselle Road, Schaumburg. Free admission. Go to stdl.org for details.

• Legendary director (and former Chicagoan) William Friedkin and actress/director Sarah Polley will lead the list of guest filmmakers at the first Chicago Critics Film Festival April 12 to 14 at the Muvico Theaters Rosemont 18, 9101 Bryn Mawr Ave., Rosemont. Two theaters and lots of premieres await you at chicagocriticsfilmfestival.com. Festival passes and individual screening tickets are available. More to come.

Reel Life mini-review: "Family Weekend"
Benjamin Epps' domestic comedy "Family Weekend" plays like a smartly executed "After School Special" with an extra dash of heart to go along with budding romance and medical marijuana added to spice things up.

Charismatic young actress Olesya Rulin plays Emily, an obsessed, 16-year-old high school rope-skipping champion who finally reaches the end of her, uh, rope with her distant, unengaged parents (Matthew Modine and comedian Kristin Chenoweth in stunning glam mode).

Tired of being ignored, Emily gives Mom and Dad knockout drops, ties them to chairs, then holds them hostage until they become good, attentive parents to their family once again.

"Family Weekend" is just as simpy as its plot sounds, but under Alabama-born director Epps, making his feature directing debut, this comedy skips along on good intentions with actors who put more into the characters than they deserve.

We get a cute romantic subplot. Idiotic encounters with the cops. A sympathetic grandmother played by Shirley Jones. A ridiculous ending that scrambles for pseudo happiness. As after school specials go, this weekend isn't necessarily lost.

"Family Weekend" opens at the Logan Theater in Chicago. Rated R for drug use and sexual situations. 96 minutes. ★ ★

Reel Life mini-review: "Mental"
P.J. Hogan cleverly recreates the beginning of "The Sound of Music" in an Australian backyard at the start of the tone-deaf "Mental," suggesting this movie will be a lighthearted comic romp.

That expectation changes quickly when Hogan's screenplay dives into a blackly comic treatment of mental illness and domestic abuse that simply refuses to be all that funny.

Hogan's clammy, cold and uncomfortable comedy has more personalities than star Toni Collette did in her series "The United States of Tara." This movie doesn't like most of its characters, especially selfish adults and ridiculous, cartoonish suburbanites. It plays nicer with the five sibling girls, but they're still iffy.

In a small Australian town, skeezy, sleazy Mayor Barry Moochmore (Anthony LaPaglia) picks up a homeless woman, Shaz (Collette), from the streets and makes her a nanny for his five daughters whose names he can't bother to remember.

The mayor doesn't care that the knife-and-gun-toting Shaz looks like a hooker/addict/cult member. He needs someone to take care of his kids because his wife Shirley (Rebecca Gibney) has been committed after flipping her lid and prancing around the neighborhood while singing numbers from "The Sound of Music."

As we discover, Shirley would not have married the mayor if he hadn't impregnated her during a date rape. His lovely daughters, led by Coral (Lily Sullivan), still fantasize about having dear old Dad back home, despite being severely damaged by his neglect and Mom's mental illness.

Secrets unfold, grossly off-putting sight gags pump up the ick factor, and an uninspired chase scene ensues. Then, a slightly desperate "Sound of Music" finale number attempts to put joyful polish on a sadly scuffed-up story.

"Mental" opens at the 600 North Michigan Theaters, Chicago. Not rated, but for mature audiences. 116 minutes. ★

Reel Life mini-review: "Vanishing Waves"
Kristina Buožyte's Lithuanian science fiction drama "Vanishing Waves" arranges a literal meeting of the minds between its two protagonists. Lukas (Marius Jampolskis), a research assistant, is part of a sensory deprivation experiment to meld his consciousness with that of a comatose accident victim named Aurora (Jurga Jutaite) to see if her brain is still functioning.

They find each other in a Ken Russell-esque dream world of widescreen eroticism and cinematic showmanship, with passionately writhing bodies bathed in sensuous illumination and captured by floating cameras that rush toward them, float over them, dart around them.

As we soon discover, "Vanishing Waves" has more in common with X-rated films "Night Trips" and "Night Dreams" than Russell's "Altered States."

Lukas keeps his mental liasions secret from the researchers. He drops all ethical pretenses about helping science and the coma victim so he can enjoy guilt-free sex with a perfect dream partner without fear of disease, pregnancy and charges of infidelity.

Buožyte, marking her second feature (her first was 2008's "The Collectress"), creates a quietly spectacular dream world (call it "ContraCeption") complemented by Peter von Poehl's moody, pulsating score and Feliksas Abrukausksas' Kubrickian-quality camera work.

Yet, stripped down to its essence, isn't this movie an artsy, high-end reinvention of the ultimate male teen sex fantasy?

"Vanishing Waves" opens at the Patio Theater in Chicago. Not rated, but recommended for adults only. 124 minutes. ★ ★

• Daily Herald Film Critic Dann Gire's column runs Fridays in Time out!

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