Silence / Poppy Hill / Mental
Angst and Anime
by Glenn Lovell
A rough week for the ol’ orbs, which went from brown to bruised. I caught six films, including Germany’s “The Silence,” Japan’s “From Up on Poppy Hill,” and Australia’s “Mental.” I also saw two U.S. indies, including “Killing Them Softly,” which after a promising Cannes berth last year was pretty much dumped by its U.S. distributor (I finally caught it on pay-per-view). I’ll stick to the international releases here and deal with “Killing Them Softly,” starring Scoot McNairy and Brad Pitt, under a separate cover.
The Silence (✮✮✮1/2)
It has taken almost three years for this brooding little murder mystery to make it to our shores. That’s surprising because it has much to recommend it, not the least of which is an intricate narrative that deftly loops back on itself for a heart-crushing denouement. Maybe it took the success of Sweden’s “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” to assure the film’s distributor that it had a potential art-house hit on its hands. Like “Dragon,” this one deal with a long-ago crime and its lingering impact on strangers linked by their grief. (“The Silence” is now playing the Opera Plaza in San Francisco and Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.)
Director-writer Baran bo Odar, adapting Jan Costin Wagner’s novel, opens with an unspeakable crime. Two men follow an 11-year-old girl down a country road; one chases her into a wheat field, rapes her, then bludgeons her to death. The second man watches in horror. Flash forward 23 years. On the anniversary of the murder, an 11-year-old girl named Sinikka disappears from the exact same spot. Besides the girl’s parents, drawn to the new crime are the first girl’s permanently damaged mother (Katrin Sass), the recently retired detective (Burghart Klaussner) who couldn’t crack the case, and an architect named Timo (Wotang Wilke Möhring), who, through wife and children, has attempted some semblance of a “normal” middle-class life. That is, until Peer (Ulrich Thomsen), the killer in the field, stages a reunion.
Det. David Jahn (Sebastian Blomberg) is assigned the case. He doesn’t inspire confidence. He’s disheveled, pathologically shy ‒ a fusion of Columbo and (for his proclivity for cross-dressing) Norman Bates. It slowly emerges that Jahn is recovering from his own tragedy. This makes him acutely attuned to the victims in both cases, as well as the pedophile assailants, who, in their way, reminded me of the lethally complementary killers in “In Cold Blood.” If you’re in the mood for an offbeat police procedural, “The Silence” should be on your must-see list. It teases, unnerves and, finally, leaves one muttering, “No, this can’t be The End …” Who would have thought something this unrelievedly grim could be, at its dark heart, about unrequited love?
From Up on Poppy Hill (✮✮1/2)
Studio Ghibli? Check. Miyazaki? Check. The latest anime from the supremely talented director of “Spirited Away” and “Princess Mononoke”? Ah, not quite. The awkwardly titled “From Up on Poppy Hill” (shortened and dubbed into English by Disney) is a feature-length cartoon co-written by the 72-year-old Hayao Miyazaki; however, it was directed by his son, Goro Miyazaki, who made his directorial debut with “Tales from Earthsea.” Like his old man, Goro favors limited character animation and exquisite water colors (his azure skies are streaked with orange and pink). Unfortunately, Goro lacks the old man’s flair for storytelling. For all its design virtues, the leisurely “Poppy Hill” sometimes feels like a dry class debate. Consequently, it may prove too talky for its target audience, adolescents and young teens.
Like the elder Miyazaki’s best work, including his recent “Ponyo,” this story is about love, loss and ancestral fealty. What’s missing are the fantasy elements. “Poppy Hill” could just as easily be a live-action drama. Set in the port city of Yokohama on the eve of the 1964 Summer Olympics, it focuses on Yumi (Sarah Bolger), a lonely but driven high-schooler whose mom is away studying in America and whose Navy officer father is still MIA from the Korean War. Besides attending school, Yumi runs a boardinghouse with her grandmother. She begins each day by hoisting signal flags, in the remote chance that they will be seen by her father. At school, she allies with the rebellious Shun (Anton Yelchin) and his gang of eggheads, who are determined to save their frat house from developers. “You cannot move into the future without knowing the past,” Shun declares in a debate that turns rowdy. “Destroy everything old and you dishonor those who lived and died before us.”
Interwoven with this noble, typically Japanese sentiment is a star-crossed lovers plot that touches on adultery and incest. “It’s like a cheap melodrama,” says Shun when he discovers he and Yumi may be more than classmates. Not to worry. Everything turns out fine in this blend of teen angst and history lesson (with references to repatriation and the devastation of Nagasaki). And there’s certainly nothing cheap about this hand-drawn, gorgeously mounted production, which employed hundreds of artists, plus, for the Disney version, the voice talents of Gillian Anderson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Beau Bridges and, for the old salt who arrives just in time to set things straight, Bruce Dern.