Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary)


These four delightful Japanese girls create sparks.

These four delightful Japanese girls create sparks.

(2015) Drama (Sony Classics) Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho, Suzu Hirose, Ryȏ Kase, Ryȏhei Suzuki, Takafumi Ikeda, Kentarȏ Sakaguchi, Ohshirȏ Maeda, Midoriko Kimura, Yȗko Nakamura, Jun Fubuki, Kazuaki Shimizu, Kaoru Hirata, Shin’ichi Tsutsumi, Masumi Nomura, Shinobu Ohtake, Fight Seki, Saya Mikami, Saya Mikami. Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda

 

The Japanese realize that life is contradiction; the hectic, non-stop pace of Tokyo and the fragile beauty of cherry blossoms coexist in their culture. While it sometimes feels like Tokyo is winning the war within Japan’s culture (although I would prefer characterizing it as more of an animated argument), films like this one are proof that the cherry blossom is still strong.

In an old wooden house near the ocean in the seaside city of Kamakura (about an hour south of Tokyo by train) live three sisters who inherited the house from their grandmother. The oldest is Sachi (Ayase), a nurse who raised her other two sisters after their father left for another woman and their mother, devastated, abandoned them. She is bitter towards both her parents, and in a bit of irony is carrying on an affair with a married doctor (Suzuki) that works in the same hospital.

The middle child, Yoshino (Nagasawa) is a bit of a party animal, getting involved with a conga line of bad relationships and drinking much too much. She works in a bank and doesn’t take life seriously and she is constantly arguing with her elder sister. Finally there is Chika (Kaho), a teen just out of high school who works in a retail store and is perpetually smiling and happy. Her boyfriend may look slovenly but he has a good heart.

One day they are notified that their father has passed away. Sachi has no interest in attending the funeral, especially since it is in a rural village far away but Yoshino and Chika go mainly out of politeness. They don’t have many memories of their dad. They arrive at the funeral and meet Suzu (Hirose), the 14-year-old daughter that their father had by his mistress (and later his wife) who had also since passed away. She was now living with her father’s third wife who seemed uninterested in Suzu and her future, although she was pleased that her step-daughters had attended the funeral – including Sachi who showed up unexpectedly.

It became clear to the three Koda sisters that their half-sister was in a bad situation and that she seemed to be a really genuine person – and it turned out that it wasn’t the wife who nursed their father through his final illness but Suzu. Sachi, moved by a sense of responsibility, asks Suzu if she would like to move in with them and Suzu is absolutely thrilled to say yes. When the three sisters leave on the train, the fourth sister sees them off with absolute joy.

When Suzu moves in, she is adored by those who know the sisters. She joins a local club soccer team and excels. She makes new friends at her new school. The owner of a local café is charmed by Suzu who in turn adores her whitefish bait toast. As for the sisters, they are overjoyed to have her in the house and even though all of their lives are changing, there is more love in the house than ever.

Yoshino gets assigned to assist a loan officer who goes to various businesses to arrange loans and finds herself becoming more responsible and less flighty. Sachi, who has assumed the mother role in the family since she was a teen is beginning to see that she can have a life beyond her sisters if she chooses – and that she can do things just for herself. She is also learning the value of forgiveness.  And Suzu is discovering what having a support system means. In the year from Suzu’s arrival the lot of the sisters changes immeasurably.

Kore-eda is one of Japan’s most promising directors and he has put together a string of impressive films to his credit. Many of them are like this one, which is incidentally based on a popular Japanese manga. He tends to put together movies whose plots on paper look unremarkable, but when experienced on the screen become powerful indeed. This is the kind of movie that makes you feel better when it ends than you felt when it started.

It is also a slice of Japan on celluloid. We get a look how the average Japanese family lives from day to day, be it paying homage to their ancestors, delivering gifts to family, funeral rites and courtship, all of which is a little different than we Westerners are used to, although in many ways the cultural differences between East and West are shrinking.

The cinematography is occasionally breathtaking as we see both the rural villages and the small cities (Kamakura has a population of about 174,000 people at present). The film is presented through four different seasons, so we get a sense of the ebb and flow of life for the sisters. Their old house is a little run down but still beautiful in a similar fashion to a beautiful woman who hasn’t taken as good care of herself as she could but remains in her twilight years still a beauty by any standard.

The four actresses who play the sisters all do standout work here which isn’t surprising considering the reputation Kore-eda has for being an actor’s director. Most of the attention is going to Ayase and Hirose for their work as Sachi and Suzu but the other two have nuanced performances in smaller roles. I might have liked a little more attention paid to the two remaining sisters but the movie is fairly long as it is.

This is not a movie that demands your attention. Instead, it presents itself quietly, without fanfare or fuss and just lets you get sucked under its beguiling spell. Honestly, I had thought I might like this movie when I saw the trailer but how much I liked it was a complete and pleasant surprise. Kore-eda creates a beautiful, sweet and melancholy world that you want to dwell in long after the lights come up and he didn’t need a ton of special effects and CGI to do it. If only people realized that you don’t have to see a Star Wars movie to find a new and exciting world to spend time in.

REASONS TO GO: A nice look at Japanese culture and daily life. All four of the sisters have their own personalities and foibles. There’s a mixture of optimism and melancholy that is nicely balanced.
REASONS TO STAY: May lean a little bit too much to the feminine side for some male moviegoers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a small amount of profanity and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All four actresses who played the sisters were nominated for the Japanese Academy Award of which Hirose was the lone winner.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mustang
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: As I Open My Eyes

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New Releases for the Week of August 19, 2016


Ben-HurBEN-HUR

(MGM/Paramount) Jack Huston, Morgan Freeman, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer, Pilou Asbæk, Sofia Black-D’Elia, Moises Arias. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov

Union general Lew Wallace is best known today for his epic novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ from which a silent film classic starring Ramon Navarro was adapted in 1925, and one of the most venerated films in history starring Charlton Heston was released in 1959. Now, 57 years later comes a new version of the story of Judah Ben-Hur, a noble among Jews at the time of Jesus Christ who is betrayed by his childhood friend Messala and falsely accused of attempting an assassination of the Roman governor. Sentenced to be a galley slave for what is expected to be a short life, he manages to escape and seeks revenge against his one-time friend, but an encounter with Jesus Christ changes all that.

See the trailer, interviews, featurettes, a clip and premiere footage here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Swords and Sandals
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of violence and disturbing images)

Breaking a Monster

(Abramorama) Malcolm Brickhouse, Jarad Dawkins, Alec Atkins, Alan Sacks. Three young African-American boys fall in love with heavy metal and put together a band. Calling themselves Unlocking the Truth, they dream of making it big as arena rockers. After practicing at home, they decide to venture out into Times Square and their impromptu concerts draw attention, but not as much as their YouTube videos. They become the subject of major label attention and a 70-year-old industry veteran signs on to manage their careers. However, boys will be boys and as these young guys try to navigate the treacherous waters of the music industry, it is uncertain whether they’ll just get their feet wet or drown in the sorrow of unfulfilled potential.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard (one performance only, Monday 8/22 at 9:30pm)
Genre: Musical Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: NR

Hell or High Water

(CBS) Ben Foster, Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges, Katy Mixon. Two West Texas brothers – one a divorced father trying to support his son as best he can, the other a violent ex-con – come together to rob branch after branch of a bank that is attempting to foreclose on their family land. Essentially fighting a battle to take down an amoral corporate financial institution, they are being chased by a surly Texas Ranger who is nipping at their heels. With one last job to pull before their plan is complete, the forces of law and justice will collide in the dry wasteland of high summer in the Lone Star state.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, premiere footage and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Crime Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for some strong violence, language throughout and brief sexuality)

Imperium

(Lionsgate) Daniel Radcliffe, Toni Collette, Tracy Letts, Sam Trammell. An idealistic young analyst working for the FBI is given an assignment outside of his comfort zone – to infiltrate a violent neo-Nazi group that may have ideas of domestic terrorism on their minds. Protesting that he is woefully unprepared for this type of work, he nonetheless takes on the assignment and does his best to make headway in the dangerous underground white supremacist movement which will lead him to question everything he believes. This is inspired by an actual incident.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: AMC Loews Universal Cineplex

Rating: R (for language, some sexual references and brief nudity)

Kubo and the Two Strings

(Focus/LAIKA) Starring the voices of Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, Art Parkinson. A young boy, eking out a living telling stories in a seaside town in a mythological Japan, unintentionally summons a demonic force with an axe to grind on Earth. Fleeing for his life, he will have to save his family, solve the mystery of the fall of his father who happens to be the greatest samurai warrior the world has ever known with only a magical musical instrument to battle Gods, monsters and demons.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril)

Our Little Sister

(Sony Classics) Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho, Suzu Hirose. Three beautiful sisters, living in a Japanese city, are called back to their rural home when their philandering father who abandoned them 15 years earlier passes away. There they meet Suzu, a half-sister they never knew they had. When they discover that her mother has also passed away, they invite her to live with him and begin a new life as a quartet of women in modern Japan.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG (for thematic elements and brief language)

War Dogs

(Warner Brothers) Miles Teller, Jonah Hill, Bradley Cooper, Ana de Armas. Based on a true story, this film follows two twenty-something entrepreneurs who get in way over their heads when they exploit a little-known loophole involving small business for government contracts and land a 300 million dollar deal to arm the Afghan government. This allows them to make deals with people that the U.S. Government can’t negotiate with – which turns out to be an incredibly dangerous proposition.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: True Life Dramedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for language throughout, drug use and some sexual references)

Wiener-Dog

(IFC/Amazon) Greta Gerwig, Kieran Culkin, Danny DeVito, Julie Delpy. A single dog touches many lives in this comedy by indie icon Todd Solondz. The dog goes on a bit of a road trip, garnering multiple masters all in need of something that perhaps may be too much for one soulful dog to supply. This dark comedy is an honest look at the longings and experiences of America circa 2016 with an all-star cast to bring it all into focus.

See the trailer, a clip and a link to viewing the full movie on Amazon here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: R (for language and some disturbing content)

Pick of the Litter – July 2016


BLOCKBUSTER OF THE MONTH

Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters

(Columbia) Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Chris Hemsworth. Who ya gonna call? One of the 80s most beloved films gets a reboot. There has been some grousing that the team of paranormal exterminators is all women, and that has led to a great deal of grousing on the Internet. I know, who would have thought that people on the Internet grouse? Seriously, director Paul Feig has made some of the funniest comedies of the past few years and generally utilizes a female-centric cast. While I generally would have preferred a sequel (although original Dan Aykroyd reportedly makes a cameo here), I’m really looking forward to this. July 15

INDEPENDENT PICKS

Buddymoon

Buddymoon

(Orion) David Giuntoli, Flula Borg, Claire Coffee, Brian T. Finney. Left at the altar on his wedding day, a former child actor is convinced by his German friend, DJ Flula, to take his honeymoon anyway – a hike in the Pacific Northwest’s Cascades Range. Reluctant at first, the two good friends prove to be anything but compatible hiking partners as neither one is used to the great outdoors. But gradually, they find their stride and maybe, discover what it means to be buddies. This played the Florida Film Festival this past April. July 1

Life, Animated

Life, Animated

(The Orchard) Jonathan Freeman, Gilbert Gottfried, Owen Suskind, Ron Suskind. An autistic child presents challenges for his or her family, but Jonathan Freeman’s family faced some enormous ones with him. Their love and devotion to him moved them to create an entire language using Disney animated films so that they could communicate with Jonathan. This documentary, showing their triumphs over adversity, has been wowing the festival circuit since it first made an appearance at Sundance earlier this year. July 1

Microbe and Gasoline

Microbe and Gasoline

(Screen Media) Ange Dargent, Théophile Baquet, Audrey Tautou, Diane Besnier. Michel Gondry is one of the most imaginative directors in the world and his latest is in many ways his most accessible film yet. It is a coming of age tale about two misfit young boys, certain that they will never fit in, who decide to leave town and take a road trip across France to find a place they do fit in. Not being old enough to drive, much less afford a car, they build one of their own – a kind of an RV if you use a little imagination and you can bet Gondry uses a lot more than a little. July 1

Captain Fantastic

Captain Fantastic

(Bleecker Street) Viggo Mortensen, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, Frank Langella. Ben has raised his family in what can only be termed as a counterculture method. Away from civilization and technology, he has crafted a simple life for he and his family. When his wife gets sick, he relents and takes her to the hospital but it’s not enough. Her death sets Ben up against his wife’s heartbroken father, who determines to take the children and raise them in civilization before Ben kills another of them. This film is an allegory of the left vs. the right in a year where politics are everything. July 8

Fathers and Daughters

 Fathers and Daughters

(Vertical) Amanda Seyfried, Russell Crowe, Aaron Paul, Jane Fonda. Following the death of his wife, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author suffers a mental breakdown and is forced to give up his daughter while he recovers. 27 years later, his now-grown daughter struggles to forge connections of her own while trying to help a young girl who has lost everything. From director Gabriele Muccino, Oscar-nominated director of The Pursuit of Happyness. July 8

Our Little Sister

Our Little Sister

(Sony Classics) Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho, Suzu Hirose. Three beautiful young women, sisters all, attend the funeral of their father, from whom they’ve been estranged for his philandering ways. When they arrive at the funeral, they discover that he left behind a fourth sister with the woman who they had blamed for wrecking the marriage of their parents. When they discover she has no place to go, they invite her to stay with them. This Japanese film looks beautiful from both a cinematography standpoint but also an emotional one and is based on a popular graphic novel. July 8

Tulip Fever

Tulip Fever

(Weinstein) Alicia Vikander, Christoph Waltz, Dane DeHaan, Judi Dench. In 17th century Amsterdam at the height of tulip mania in the Netherlands, a young artist is hired to paint the portrait of the wife of a well-to-do merchant. The artist and his subject fall in love, beginning a game of cat and mouse with the husband that might have deadly consequences. With a script by Tom Stoppard and a cast with some of the best actors from Hollywood and Europe, this is undoubtedly a must-see. July 15

Don't Think Twice

Don’t Think Twice

(The Film Arcade) Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Birbiglia, Gillian Jacobs, Kate Micucci. A tight-knit New York City improv group has been laboring in relative obscurity in the city. When one of their number gets called upon to join the cast of an SNL-like TV show, the rest of his troupe begin to realize that they may not be destined for stardom after all. A bittersweet look at life in the comedy lane. July 22

Can We Take a Joke

Can We Take a Joke?

(Goldwyn) Gilbert Gottfried, Penn Jillette, Lisa Lampinelli, Jim Norton. In this age of social media and instant gratification, comedy has come under fire for offending people. Anything that even smacks at poking fun at, say, racial stereotypes, gender stereotypes, religious stereotypes – all of these can end up getting the comedian in hot water, and sometimes in physical danger. This documentary asks if we’ve gotten too thin-skinned for our own good (SPOILER ALERT: yes we have). July 29

Viral

Viral

(Dimension/Radius) Analeigh Tipton, Sofia Black-D’Elia, Michael Kelly, Travis Tope. It isn’t often that I include a horror movie among my Picks of the Litter, but this one looks special. For one, it’s got Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman in the director’s chair, two of the brightest and promising directors in Hollywood. For another, it’s got a look that reminds me a little bit of the excellent FX series The Strain. And finally, it looks scary as hell. July 29