Archive for July, 2015

by Brandie Ashe

As I grow older, I find that my memories of my childhood take on a largely rosier tint. I guess it’s not all that surprising, really; aging tends to send some of us on a journey backwards, in vain attempts to perhaps recapture some of that elusive combination of innocence, wonder, and hope that we label the “magic of childhood.” After all, that period of time in any person’s life is a severely limited one: it is but a mere moment, precious and fleeting, gone far too soon.

You know, not to get all florid and poetical about it or anything.

But seeing as how we’re on the subject, films like Hayao Miyazaki’s beautiful anime masterpiece My Neighbor Totoro inevitably send me reeling back into the past, remembering some of those purely magical moments from my own childhood. And therein lies the power of this fascinating film, one that is both fantastical and entirely too real.

Simply put: I love this movie, I love this movie, I love this movie.

The movie has no plot, really, to speak of–it’s simply a snapshot of a young Japanese family at a trying time in their lives, as the mother recovers from an undisclosed illness in the hospital. The father, a professor at the university, spends much of his time buried in books, but still takes the time to ensure that his daughters have settled comfortably into their new home, and allays their fears of ghosts in their seemingly “haunted house.” When four-year-old Mei wanders into the nearby forest one day and encounters a mystical animal called “Totoro,” she and her older sister, Satsuki, befriend the creature and discover just how magical their big, cuddly new pal really is. (more…)


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Small change

by Sam Juliano

When movie fans are asked to identify the prime proponents of the cinema of childhood the names of Steven Spielberg and Francois Truffaut invariably dominate the discussion.  In the case of the former the label seems more than justified all things considered, but of the Frenchman Truffaut’s twenty-one films only three could reasonably be framed as as films dealing with and populated by kids.  The reason for the misrepresentation is undoubtedly the fact that the New Wave master’s debut feature, Les Quatre Cents Coup (The 400 Blows) is one of the celebrated and influential films of all-time, and the one most often named as the ultimate work on adolescent alienation.  To be sure Truffaut did chronicle the aging process of his Antoine Doniel character from that film in a series of films like Bed and Board and The Soft Skin, but at that point the youthful parameter had expired.  In 1969 he again explored the true-life story of a deaf and dumb boy raised in the outdoors –The Wild Child- and then  seven years later he wrote and directed what was to be his final foray into the pains and wonders of childhood with his magical Small Change (L’Argent de Poche).  The film is unquestionably the purest manifestation of his part-time childhood preoccupation, and more than any other single film in this countdown it delineates the essence of the subject.  The film’s title was actually suggested by Spielberg, who noted at the time there was another American film called Pocket Money, which of course is the literal translation from the French.

In Small Change Truffaut understands that there is no sense of time continuity in the perception of a child, with the events of one day having no impact or resonance on what happens the next.  It is the best possible excuse for making an episodic film, though like any other narrative film everything must be finely orchestrated and timed.  With kids understanding what is largely at hand the director employs the acute style of the vignette to best transcribe his central themes.  The film is set in the town of Thiers in southern France, and is shot in a naturalistic style with a lot of nonprofessional child actors.  There is wonder, sexual awakening, anarchy, mischief and hidden abuse running through these irresistible chapters driven by kids who exhibit varying measures of resourcefulness, resilience and precocious behavior.  Some of the early classroom scenes recall The 400 Blows, but Small Change is sunnier and infinitely more hopeful, even with the tragic circumstances surrounding one boy’s story.  Truffaut repeatedly implies that kids will always rise to the occasion, never accepting defeat, and always landing on their feet.  This last assertion is visualized in the most literal sense in what is surely the film’s most extraordinary sequence: a toddler  of about two years old is left alone in the apartment after his mother leaves to frantically search for a missing wallet.  Unattended, the boy gleefully opens and empties the contents of food packets that were just purchased by the mom, creating a mess of epic proportions.  He then picks up the cat, and carries it to an open window about five stories high.  It falls to the safety of a ledge, and to the horror of some people who have gathered below the boy embarks on a perilous venture to rescue the animal.  Inevitably, the infant falls to a nearly certain death, but his flyweight, the angle of the fall and the cushioned shrubbery happily conspire for a different resolution.  The mother arrives shortly thereafter, quickly surveys the laughing boy and the lofty window and faints to the ground. (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(USSR 1974 106m) DVD1/2

Aka. Zerkalo

Andrei’s childhood

p  E.Waisberg  d  Andrei Tarkovsky  w  Andrei Tarkovsky, Alexsandr Misharin  ph  Georgy Rerberg  ed  L.Feiginova  m  Eduard Artemyev  art  Nikolai Dvigubsky

Margarita Terekhova (Alexei’s mother, Natalia), Philip Yankovsky (Alexei, aged 9), Ignat Daniltsev (Ignat/Alexei, aged 12), Oleg Yankovsky (Father), Alla Demidova (Lisa), Anatoli Solinitsin (doctor), Larissa Tarkovskaya (Nadezha), Innokenti Smoktunovsky (narrator), Arseny Tarkovsky (narrator poetry),

Tarkovsky’s most personal meditation, Mirror is undoubtedly one of the greatest cinematic poems put on celluloid, as well as one of the most beautiful.  It’s a film that undoubtedly will infuriate as many as it will captivate, but I guarantee that anyone who watches it once in a state of rapture will continue to do so in later life.  Like the dreams and remembrances of its protagonist, its memories haunt you for years to come.

A perfect example of this is in the first shot in which we see Terekhova.  She is sitting, back to the camera, atop a wooden fence looking out over a meadow at dusk.  In the distance we see a man approaching.  Then the camera cuts into Terekhova’s face as she smokes a cigarette.  Ever since I first saw that shot it has troubled me, haunting me every time I see it.  As if recalling a memory locked deep in the subconscious that I cannot summon to the conscious.  And the conscious and the subconscious play a large factor here, as there is undoubtedly a dreamlike quality to Mirror.  It’s a film that does not lend itself to a plot synopsis, but does lend itself to unprecedented interpretation.  Just as Terekhova on that fence to me represents that which is lost in time, she could signify something totally different to someone else.  It’s this dreamlike quality, intensified by Rerberg’s gorgeous photography (cutting back and forth from the golden bathed colour into which Terekhova’s hair seems to meld to sepia tinted monochrome) in the infamous magic hour that gives the film its soul.  But a soul in itself needs an expression and Tarkovsky is that mouthpiece.  Mingling together contrasting images of his own childhood and archival footage of the wars and revolutions of the 20th century, he manages to capture the very essence of his nation’s soul in its most turbulent century.  (more…)

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The immigrant experience has been fertile ground for many and sundry films throughout the decades, from David Butler’s Delicious (1931) and George Stevens’ I Remember Mama (1948), to Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992) and James Gray’s The Immigrant (2014). Of course, the seminal immigrant film, which I reviewed here back in 2011, is West Side Story (1961). The parallels between the disaffected, semi-rootless youths from barely established immigrant families in New York and their Taiwanese counterparts in A Brighter Summer Day are very striking, indicating the universal problem of trying to adapt to an alien world. Where director Edward Yang’s first masterpiece differs from West Side Story is in its broad, intricate consideration of entire families of mainland Chinese uprooted by the ascendency of Mao Tse-tung and its examination of the transition from one set of cultural values—respect for authority and one’s elders—to another—Western individualism, emancipated youth, and possession-oriented consumerism. In addition, although there is a central love story of a sort in this film, it is not the enmity of gangs that pulls the lovers apart, but rather their conflicting values adrift in an unsettled and unsettling land.

The action revolves primarily around two rival gangs, the Little Park gang and the 217 gang; 14-year-old student Zhang Zhen, nicknamed Xiao (“little”) Si’r (Chen Chang), his parents, and four siblings; and Ming (Lisa Yang), a beautiful 13-year-old girl whose boyfriend and leader of the Little Parks, Honey (Hung-Ming Lin), has run off. The film takes place in 1960, a mere decade after Si’r’s family fled Shanghai in 1949. The Zhangs and other immigrants like them are still looking for a secure foothold in their new country. Mrs. Zhang (Elaine Jin), though a fully qualified university instructor in Shanghai, cannot seem to get certified in Taipei. Mr. Zhang (Kuo-Chu Chang) is a civil servant with a going-nowhere career. Their finances are shaky: they buy their groceries on credit from Uncle Fat (Zhuo Ming), who periodically goes on the warpath to collect what he’s owed, and treasure little but Mrs. Zhang’s good watch and the promises of one of Zhang’s colleagues that he can get them the good jobs they need to really feel established. Their provisional status and free-floating anxiety has their children looking for a sense of belonging and status as gang members. (more…)

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by Brandie Ashe

To say that Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 fantasy El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) borrows from Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s novel Alice in Wonderland is an understatement. But this film is no kids’ tale. Whereas Alice’s adventure serves as a relatively tame diversion from the rigors of boring school lessons, Labyrinth’s sumptuously visual wonderland is, by necessity of the subject matter, a wholly darker, and far deadlier, place.

Taking place during the post-Civil War era in Spain, amid the ongoing struggles between soldiers of the Franco-controlled government and guerilla fighters (the “maquis”), Pan’s Labyrinth focuses on Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), whose pregnant mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), brings her to live in an old mill in the countryside that serves as a base of command for her new husband, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez). Vidal, a cruel and sadistic commander who has been tasked with hunting down the “maquis,” cares little for his new family; his only concern is for the healthy delivery of his soon-to-arrive son, even if it comes at the expense of his bride’s life.

During their trip to their new home, Ofelia encounters a large insect which she instinctively recognizes as a fairy, and later that evening follows the fairy into the crumbling stone labyrinth behind the mill. There she encounters a faun, who claims that she is the lost “Princess Moanna,” who long ago her father’s underworld kingdom for the surface, lost her memory, and died. Per the story, it was foretold that the princess’s spirit, residing in the body of another, would one day find her way back to the underworld, and the faun gives Ofelia three tasks to complete in order to prove that she is indeed the reincarnation of the long-lost princess. (more…)

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stanford prison

by Sam Juliano

The Childhood/Adolescent Countdown registered its strongest numbers yet this past week, so I can only assume the scorching weather kept people inside and on the PC.  Ha!  The biggest day of all was Thursday, when the post on Ordinary People attracted over 30 comments and around 160 page views.  The post on Stand By Me (published Tuesday) scored around 150 page views and over 20 comments.  The reviews for Dead Poets Society and Careful, He Might Hear You also registered impressive numbers.  Hopefully this is proof that the countdown has taken hold with readers, and will continue to thrive.  The venture as stated previously will run into October, ending with the essay for the Number 1 film.

Congratulations are certainly in order for Allan Fish (and for Wonders in the Dark) for the ‘thank you’ comment from Philippine actress Hazel Orencio, who played one of the female leads in the Lav Diaz review he posted late Saturday.   The comment was entered on the comment thread.  Just fantastic.

Lucille and I attended a 50th anniversary party for the 1965 Fairview Babe Ruth League baseball championship team at La Fortuna Restaurant in town on Friday night.  It was thrilling to see people I hadn’t seen in decades, though these men are five years older, and my memories are strained.  We only saw one movie in theaters, but managed to see quite a few more on blu ray or DVD on out 4K flat screen.  Some were repeat viewings of films I reviewed for the countdown this past week, and are huge personal favorites.


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fwib 2

by Allan Fish

(Philippines 2014 336m) not on DVD

Aka. Mula sa kung ano ang noon

Bai rahmah will arrive in full moon

p Krzysztof Dabrowski, Lav Diaz d/w Lav Diaz ph Lav Diaz ed Lav Diaz art Liryc Paolo Dela Cruz, Kim Perez

Perry Dizon (Sito Almazan), Roeder Camanag (Tony), Hazel Orencio (Itang), Karenina Haniel (Joselina), Reynan Abcede (Hakob), Joel Saracho (Father Guido), Evelyn Vargas (Miss Acevedo), Miles Canapi (Heding), Ian Lomongo (Lt.Perdido), Bambi Beltran (Bai Rahmah), Dea Formacil (Tinang), Ching Valdes-Aran (Babu),

When Lav Diaz’s Norte, the End of History played in the English-speaking world, it was greeted with a sense akin to rapture. One recalls Peter Bradshaw’s referring to it as a Dosteyevskian saga, and he wasn’t far wrong, but you won’t find an entry for Norte here, because to these eyes Norte seemed conformist, diluted from Diaz’s real vision. I had the advantage of knowing Diaz’s work well prior to Norte, and it seemed phoney; it’s shot in colour for starters, and in ‘Scope, and was only barely four hours long; a marathon for western viewers, a mere prawn side salad for Lav. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Careful, He Might Hear You, released in 1983, followed in the footsteps of some exceedingly well-regarded late 70’s films like My Brilliant Career, Gallipoli and Breaker Morant, all of which initiated what is now framed as the Australian New Wave.  Based on the novel of the same title by Sumner Locke Elliot the film is set in Depression-era Sydney, and centers around “T.S.,” a six year-old boy, who lost his mother while she gave birth to him.   The two initials were given to the boy by the mother during her pregnancy to denote was was apparently a post script to her tempestuous life.  A bitter custody battle ensues between an asthmatic aunt and her poor Labor party politician husband who have raised the boy since birth in a comparatively impoverished section of the city- and the wealthy but unstable aunt who returns from England, and deciding she can offer the boy much more than her sister can.  Few Australian films before or since have offered up such unabashed, naked emotions on a melodramatic stage, nor have left viewers so shattered by narrative events that are dictated by class structure, misinterpretation and tragedy.

The novel was a big hit in the US, Britain and Germany, but in Elliot’s then-native Australia it sold literally just a handful of copies, because of the country’s intolerance for gay writers of the early 60’s.  Sumner moved to New York City in 1948, where he remained until his death of colon cancer at the age of 74.  It was Sumner’s first and most critically praised novel in a successful writing career, and it largely autobiographical, relating the events of his own childhood, starting with the corresponding death in childhood of his mother, who was at the time a famous writer herself.  Elliot’s deadbeat father, Logan, was the same irresponsible alcoholic he is portrayed as in the book, though the film paints him more sympathetically.  Both sisters refer to the dead mother as “Dear one,” and are similarly headstrong, but for the most part are studies in contrast.  Lila can’t offer the boy anything remotely extravagant, but he is very happy living with her and her husband George in a young life that is uncomplicated and sufficiently affectionate.  To be sure the childless couple demonstrate little patience, and harshly overact to the boy’s unintentional foul ups connected to the sparsity of basic domestic items.  Still, they are fiercely protective of the boy, and doggedly defend what they see as their inherent right to maintain custody.  Vanessa, obviously spoiled, neurotic and a prime purveyor of manipulative strategies is rich, refined and beautiful, and once had an affair with the boy’s father.  A surprise visit by Logan at her palatial estate on the other side of the harbor midway through the film reveals the extent of their past  and the speaks of the present that invariably leads to a dead-end street. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Note:  The following is a transcript of an extended conversation I had back in the fall of 2002 within the student union building at Montclair State University with a good friend, and a fellow movie fan, English literature graduate student Bill Riley.  The section of the talk printed here is the one dealing with Robert Redford’s 1980 award winner ‘Ordinary People.’

Sam:  Bill, have you ever found it more than a little curious that the 1980 Best Picture Oscar winner Ordinary People has suffered such an extensive backlash with critics and movie goers since it won, with some even going so far as to assert that it isn’t even a good film?!

Bill: Sam, I have in fact.  What makes it even more difficult to fathom is that the film won far more than the Oscar –  I recall it copped the Best Picture prize from the prestigious New York Film Critics Circle and similar citations from other groups nationwide and abroad.

Sam: So basically, most critics and moviegoers -or at least a good number of them- thought Ordinary People was the best American film of that year.

Bill: Pretty much so, I’d reckon.  Backlash is a potent force in arts competitions, and resounding success will always bring on more scrutiny and the Monday morning quarterbacking.  Success breeds it.  I’d say backlash includes the heightened voices of the devil’s advocates, naysayers and those who are thinking in terms of “I told you so.”  Those are the ones likely to admonish those who commit the mortal sin of overrating a motion picture.  (snickers)

Sam:  I know just what you mean Bill.  Oh it won the Oscar for Best Picture, so it has to be Oscar bait, unworthy or just plain forgettable.  Heck, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Godfather, On the Waterfront, Casablanca and Lawrence of Arabia won Best Picture Oscars too.  Does it make them overrated or undeserving?  Hmmm.

Bill:  Yeah, and my beloved Amadeus and The Last Emperor won Best Picture as well.

Sam:  I never disputed that the Oscars are a joke for all sorts of reasons.  Many voters don’t see all the films, studio money often buys nominations, and the group is generally myopic to recognizing foreign language films in the major categories.  Timing means more than artistry three-quarters of the time, and the time between the nominations and the actual awards can be framed as a shameless rat race.  Yet, they do make some good choices if for no other reason than the odds are on their side.  Every awards organization gets it right some of the time.  I’d like to say that I continue to believe that Ordinary People’s reputation was negatively impacted because of its Best Picture win.  The reason is because it won over Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, a film that most think was superior.  Some, like Roger Ebert, named it the best film of the 1980’s, and those in that camp will always take Oscar to task for snubbing it. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The road picture genre is one that’s been so plentifully visited through the years that one would have little disputation giving it an independent classification.  Some of the American cinema’s most celebrated characters have traveled across states, trying to evade capture, embarking on various escapades or just geographically fueling their unrest.  Joan Graham and Eddie Taylor, Tom Joad, Clyde Barrow, Kit Carruthers, Keechie and Bowie and recently Woody Grant have made their marks on the landscape offering up their blood, sweat and tears, and in some instances their lives to achieve a subversive brand of the American Dream.  Of course the Americans don’t remotely hold a monopoly on the stamp, and cinephiles will fondly recall accomplished works such as La Strada, Alice in the Cities, The Vanishing, Wages of Fear, Alice in the Cities and The Trip among others that explore the form with special attention to the sociological, psychological and political elements that fuel the narratives.  It is no wonder that a great many of the films that fall into this category are largely about crime, as after all criminals on the run are apt to travel long distances for obvious reasons, but the elements of adventure and transience are the initial or prime proclivity of many road movie protagonists.  Of course there are some celebrated road trips made in the recesses of dreams in  fantastical locations, with none more famous than the one that featured the yellow brick road and an emerald palace.  What unites all road pictures is the insatiable thirst of its characters to leave behind, however temporary, what is invariably seen as a dead end street, and the need to act on some of their hankerings to attain either material or spiritual benefit.  The results are a mixed lot.

The acclaimed auteur Peter Bogdonovich followed up on two monster hits in the early 1970s- his magisterial classic The Last Picture Show, and a screwball comedy, What’s Up Doc?  The latter was a box-office smash, while the former was greeted by some of the best reviews and American film had received in years, and secured a host of awards and eight Oscar nominations including Best Picture.  His third project was actually recommended to him by the studio, but the director initially balked.  He later changed his mind largely at the urgings of his former wife Polly Platt, but also because of his fondness of period films and his confidence in the screenwriter Alvin Sargent, who was brought in to adapt Joe David Brown’s novel “Addie Pray.”  The renowned cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs was given the assignment, and of course Pratt herself explored locations, for what was to be arresting art direction.  The film was to be titled Paper Moon. (more…)

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