⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Unrated but includes nudity, sex, drug use and adult themes. In subtitled Japanese and English.
This culture-clash romance introduces Japanese reserve to American exuberance in a way that demonstrates how oddly opposites can attract. For a while, anyway. Or not. The story blindsides us every step of the way. Director Atsuko Hirayanagi has a way of gradually getting inside her characters that slowly renders them comprehensively known, intimately exposed and surprisingly surprising.
Shinobu Terajima plays Setsuko, an office lady with no social life beyond karaoke retirement parties. Her comfortable sister Ayako (Kaho Minami) is a fire-breathing Medusa whose waiflike teen daughter Mika (Shioli Katsuna) is auntie’s sole connection to life outside work.
That changes when circumstances put Setsuko in her niece’s English-language class, run by tall, handsome, over-hugging instructor John (Josh Hartnett). That lightning strike of love at first sight, plus the tacky blond wig John makes her wear to feel comfortable in her new student identity as Lucy, open feelings she hasn’t experienced in decades. When John returns to Southern California, the newborn Lucy is soon on an international flight to find him.
What she finds amid the palm trees are to some degree experiences she may have hoped for, but not in any form she — or we — could have expected. Setsuko at home defined the term “long-suffering.” As Lucy in the United States, she has abandoned herself on the river of life. There are moments of gregarious generosity, waggish humor and authentic tragedy.
While the characterization of the people we meet is at times running on empty, the film’s affectionate regard for humanity makes it easy to feel their pain and happiness. The show belongs to Terajima, whose performance, along with the film, was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. She has the sort of woman-child presence one can’t help falling in love with. Hartnett, once seemingly destined for screen stardom, does well in his modest part as a young man who, like Setsuko, is kind but ultimately only intimate with himself. It’s a good sideline performance in this winning film oddity.
Submission ⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Unrated but includes nudity, sex and profanity.
The war of the sexes reaches awkward territory in this adaptation of Francine Prose’s novel “Blue Angel.” (Has an author ever had a better name?) Her 2000 exploration of ambition, envy, Lolita-style longing, campus sex, moral panic and political correctness fits into the #MeToo era like Cinderella into a glass slipper.
Stanley Tucci stars as Ted, a blocked novelist who has leveraged his one published work into a professorship at a drab Vermont college. He’s ego-smitten when student Angela tells him he’s her favorite writer — she knows a lot — and that his novel saved her life. Vivacious, pretty, perhaps a bit flirtatious, she also has writing talent. Ted feels himself drawn out of his comfortable married life and toward her like iron filings to a magnet. What awaits is a collision at the intersection of generation gap and gender politics. But who is really in the driver’s seat?
For Tucci, this is a rare opportunity to watch this national treasure of a character actor tackle a leading part that is self-absorbed, pitiable and credibly human. The polished supporting cast (including Kyra Sedgwick, Peter Gallagher and Janeane Garofalo) juggle clear notes of wounded outrage and qualified support as indiscretion and scandal lead to unexpected career U-turns. Playing the charismatic Angela, Addison Timlin shifts gracefully from touching ingénue vulnerability to rapier nastiness.
Directed by TV veteran Richard Levine, the film is short of perfect. But at a time when modestly budgeted movies about human life beyond puberty are all but extinct, it shows us that here and there a heart remains beating.