Filling in some of the more sizable gaps in a film-viewing history can be a slow process, which is why I’m just now getting around to exploring the films of melodrama master Douglas Sirk. Jane Wyman stars in this 1955 effort as recently-widowed small-town socialite Cary, uneasy about stepping back out into a world of constant club parties and community get-togethers. Her shallow, self-absorbed children encourage their mother’s courtship of a respectable but boring and elderly gentleman, but she has her eyes on rugged man-of-the-soil Ron Kirby, played by Rock Hudson. Despite Ron not having much in the way of wealth or social status, Cary is attracted to the way he easily dismisses those concerns, happy to live his life in his own way, unconcerned with how others perceive him. Their blossoming relationship sparks a scandal amidst the privileged gossipers of the small town, and it becomes clear soon enough that Cary will not be able to continue to see Ron without divorcing herself from the baggage of her ordinary life.
On one level, All That Heaven Allows is classic Hollywood melodrama, an emotion-filled story about one woman’s decision to risk complete social alienation for a chance at love and happiness. Sirk doesn’t shy away from painting with broad strokes, his use of impressionistic color reinforcing all the heightened emotions on display. But there’s also another level to the film, one that functions as a kind of attack on the lifestyles of the privileged, obsessed with their own social statuses and always on the lookout for potential scandals to gossip about. Sirk contrasts two different communities: Cary’s upper-class associates, with their quietly-malicious values, and Ron’s middle-class associates, who are much more friendly and lively. It’s clear where Sirk’s sympathies lie and where he expects the viewer to also sympathize, and most of the film is spent following Cary as she gradually comes to the same realization. The final straw comes in the film’s best moment when, after Cary’s obnoxious son has forced her to end her relationship, he returns later to present her with a brand-new television set. What was once a warm, alive presence in her life has been replaced by a cold, dead machine. This more subversive level doesn’t change the fact that All That Heaven Allows is still melodrama, but it’s melodrama of the highest order, the kind that makes you chuckle at its broadness yet still manages to wrap you up in its web. 7/10.
After the clear Ghibli homage that was Children Who Chase Lost Voices, this 2013 film finds Japanese animator Makoto Shinkai returning to more familiar ground. This shouldn’t be viewed as a bad development; even though I appreciated what Shinkai was trying to do with his last film, he’s much more comfortable with this kind of melancholy-infused material. The opening of the film introduces the viewer to Takao, a high school student with a compulsion for skipping out on his early classes and visiting a quiet Japanese garden whenever it rains. On one of those days, he meets a mysterious young woman, and as the rainy season continues on, the two of them establish a low-key relationship. She’s more hesitant to reveal her background than he is, and when he eventually does learn more about her, the nature of their relationship changes, leading up to a tear-soaked conclusion.
Shinkai’s film clocks in at a brisk 46 minutes. Normally, I’d wish for more time spent in the company of such interesting characters and lovely images, but there is something about working within the limited time constraints that brings out the best in the filmmaker. Voices Of A Distant Star and 5 Centimeters Per Second were 25 minutes and just over an hour, respectively, and contain little to no wasted moments. For comparison, Children Who Chase Lost Voices approaches the two-hour mark, and contains several stretches that admittedly have the tendency to drag. Here, there isn’t enough time to focus on supporting players or any kind of overly-complex narrative, so the focus always remains on the two characters and the complications that arise between them. The sole potentially divisive moment comes at the film’s unabashedly sentimental conclusion. Shinkai employs the same technique he used in 5 Centimeters, using an extended music montage to bring everything to a close. It’s less jarring here than it was in that film though, perhaps because I had already seen Shinkai do something similar before, and perhaps because there is a brief coda after the credits that ends everything on a quieter note. While the bombastic conclusion may throw off a lot of viewers, I appreciate Shinkai’s willingness to allow his characters the freedom to let loose with their emotions, and it’s a memorable ending to another strong showcase of his unique qualities as a filmmaker. 8/10.
It’s not often that you see a high-concept science fiction premise employed in the service of a more low-key and modest purpose, but such is the case with this 2006 film from director Mamoru Hosoda, which uses time travel to add a distinctive flavor to a coming-of-age story. Makoto is a slightly-clumsy but otherwise ordinary high school student, procrastinating on making the decisions that will determine the course of her future. She’s also something of a tomboy, spending most of her free time playing baseball with her two male friends. After a mysterious string of events, Makoto discovers that she has acquired the ability to travel through time. At first, she uses this power to fix some of the small mistakes she has recently made in her life, like preparing properly for a test she failed before and making sure a science lab accident isn’t attributed to her. However, she soon discovers that, while she has been manipulating time to her advantage, there are others who are being affected negatively by her escapades.
What I found most refreshing about The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is its decidedly different approach to its science fiction concept. There are no world-threatening plot devices or elaborate mythologies here, only the story of a girl learning how to handle adult responsibilities, as well as her first experiences with love and heartbreak. When a conversation between Makoto and one of her male friends results in him asking her if she would want to be more than friends someday, she reverses time to try to manipulate the conversation away from that possibility. When she can’t seem to find a path that skirts the issue, she gives up on the conversation entirely. It’s one of the many moments where Hosoda performs a delicate balancing act between humor and pathos, and to his credit he never lets the film become too goofy or melodramatic. The early adventures of Makoto have a breezy, carefree quality, but once the more serious consequences of her actions start to reveal themselves, the film has no problem going to some dark places, including one particular moment that is spine-tingling in its eerie stillness. It’s the kind of animated film I wish were made more in the Hollywood system, where studios disregard any potential for real emotion in favor of a pervasive sense of sarcasm. How about we have more movies like this, built around engaging stories and relatable characters and a genuine sense of creativity and warmth? 9/10.