By Brian E. Wilson
After offering to write this review of Rob Reiner’s nostalgic Stephen King adaptation, set in 1959, I felt a sudden wave of nostalgia myself. Memories of catching this funny, profane, surprisingly moving gem in August 1986 came flooding back to me. The movie, about four misfit 12-year-olds (all with distant and/or neglectful fathers) forming a temporary bond as they travel by foot to see their first real dead body (an older boy struck by a train), set itself apart that summer. I ended up watching it several times at the theater over the next few months, but would not see it again until I recently revisited the movie. Although I was heading into my senior year of college at the time of its release, Stand by Me still spoke to me as I struggled with the notion of wanting to be a writer (just like the film’s lead character Gordie, beautifully played by Wil Wheaton as a boy, and Richard Dreyfuss as a reminiscing adult called simply “The Writer”).
Taut, economically directed by Reiner (I forgot that the film is only 88 minutes long), the film works on so many levels: as a rollicking yet tear-jerking vehicle for its young stars, as a sensitive if troubling coming of age story, and as a successful big screen treatment of a Stephen King novella called “The Body.” The modestly budgeted film not only became one of my favorite movies of 1986, but a sizable hit, and one that helped Ben E. King’s gorgeous title song (co-written by the singer, Jerry Leiber, and Mike Stoller) return to the Billboard Top Ten one more time. (Do yourself a favor, and look at the wonderful video with an effervescent Ben E. King doing some classic dance moves with stars Wheaton and River Phoenix on YouTube.) Side note: the trivia hound in me must note that the movie is set in 1959, but the tune didn’t come out until 1961–but hey, why quibble, when a song is this good and so appropriate thematically?
Before I revisited the movie (for the first time in around 28 years), I asked myself “will this film hold up?” I am happy to report that it does. Continue Reading »
Posted in Brian E. Wilson's movie reviews, Genre Countdown: Childhood Films | 22 Comments »
by J.D. Lafrance
Peter Weir is a filmmaker fascinated by outsider protagonists thrust into strange environments that they must navigate, be it an Australian journalist in 1965 Jakarta (The Year of Living Dangerously) or a veteran Philadelphia cop hiding out in Amish country (Witness) or a headstrong inventor that moves his family from the United States to the jungles of Central America (The Mosquito Coast). Dead Poets Society (1989) continues this thematic preoccupation with a shy student spending his senior year of high school at a conservative all-boys prep boarding school in the 1950s where he falls in with a tight-knit group of colorful students and is in turn taught by the new English teacher whose unconventional methods are alien to the traditional ways of the school.
Right from the opening credits, Weir immerses us in the stuffy, authoritative atmosphere of Welton Academy where its students literally carry its ideals a.k.a. the Four Pillars (tradition, honor, discipline, excellence) on banners into chapel with all the pomp and circumstance befitting such an esteemed institution. Like new student Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), we are immersed in this foreign world and watch as he tries to adapt to and make sense of it all. He starts off as an inexperienced blank slate for Neil Parry (Robert Sean Leonard), the artistically-inclined student (despite his strict father’s wishes), and his friends – Richard Cameron (Dylan Kussman), the strictly-by-the-book type, Gerard Pitts (James Waterston), Steven Meeks (Allelon Ruggiero), Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles), the romantic, and Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen), the rebel who’s up for anything – to imprint upon. They even have their own version of the Four Pillars: travesty, horror, decadence, and excrement.
Their first class with Professor John Keating (Robin Williams) is a memorable one as he takes them out of the classroom and into the hall. He quotes Walt Whitman, evokes the phrase carpe diem (Latin for “seize the day”) and gets them to look at old photographs of students in the trophy case to give an indication of their own mortality and to inspire them to also seize the day. For a brief but pivotal spell, Keating gets his students to think about English literature in a different way than they are normally accustomed to and this starts with having them rip out the introduction to their textbook that posits poetry should be tracked like a graph with its two axises being the poem’s perfection rated against its importance, which then determines its greatness. Through humor, Keating exposes the absurdity of applying a mathematical formula to art. He forces his students to think about poetry differently through the shock tactic of tearing out pages of the book thereby tearing down their pre-conceived notions of how poetry should be studied. Continue Reading »
Posted in Genre Countdown: Childhood Films, J.D.'s film reviews | 16 Comments »
by Sam Juliano
The upcoming week has been diagnosed as a real scorcher with temperatures expected in the 90’s, but the previous seven day span was marginally more tolerable. As always it seems for most that the summer is moving along as a brisk pace, and the month of August lies on the horizon. Many in our fraternity are away or are close to vacation departure. I am myself engaged in the annual summer school program, which is now halfway complete. Friday, August 7th will be the last day.
I have uncharacteristically curtailed theater movie viewings this summer for two reasons: First off, the quality of the releases is disappointing (though summer is traditionally the weakest time of the year cinematic for films) and secondly I have taken on too heavy a burden for the Childhood/Adolescent Films Countdown that has caused a problem with setting aside time to write. Just this coming week for example I have reviews due up for three successive days (Wednesday, Thursday, Friday) will with plenty more in the coming weeks. While I was happy to take on some films I love, I simply went overboard and am now paying the price. It is virtually unheard of for Lucille and I to skip a Saturday night out. The original plans as per Friday were to trek up to Joey’s in Hewitt to see one of our favorites musicians again, but my responsibilities interfered. Ah well.
The countdown is moving along quite nicely with solid numbers and decent support. As always the quality of the presentations has been first-rate, and the diversity of the choices as voted on by many impassioned film buffs has made for an enthralling show. Continue Reading »
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By Dean Treadway
Many movies in this countdown deal with children confronted with the horrors of humanity–wartime, racism, poverty, crime. Yet, in its own quiet way, Jacques Doillon’s diminutive Ponette is among the most powerful of them all, simply because it gets the details of childhood correct. It also never shirks away from the toughest images of abject grief. One should be warned: it’s pretty nigh impossible not to view this movie through a sheen of constantly falling tears. Victoire Thivisol, in the title role, was only four years old when the film was shot, and this must be regarded as a miracle. It’s tempting to read up on how Doillon actually elicited this highly emotional work from such a young soul, but to do so might spoil our impressions of Thivisol as a performer (she would take the 1996 top prize at the Venice Film Festival–as far as I know, the youngest actor to ever win any sort of major award). And this is deserved: by any measure, her Ponette is unforgettable.
The film is exceedingly, wonderfully simple. With a tiny cast on her forearm, Ponette is the survivor of a car crash that took her mother’s life. As the film begins, her father (Xavier Beauvois) is comforting her in her hospital bed, and getting ready to drive her back to a boarding school. He expresses anger at his deceased wife–one senses that their relationship was on the skids anyway–while Ponette is still unable to accept that her mother is gone forever. As a parting show of love, she gives her daddy her teddy bear to keep, and he gives her his watch, which she sweetly keeps on her wrist throughout the picture. Doillon then follows this girl, with his camera wisely never lifting above her eyeline, as she struggles to come to terms with her loss.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross once broke down the approach of death into five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. One can see each of these stages illustrated here in Ponette’s journey, too, never with a heavy hand and in very much the same order. Some of the film’s most fascinating scenes have her on the playground with her classmates, navigating this process. The film is filled with talk of God and Jesus, and Heaven–both the adults and the kids indulge in this–and we get the sense that Ponette is alternately comforted, confused and infuriated by some of this stuff (at one point, she chides a teacher for feeding her lies). One bossy girl sends Ponette on a playground obstacle course where the ground is a lava pit of Hell, and where there are only scattered islands of safety to which to jump. Her nominal “boyfriend” Mathias listens as she expresses her mind-twisting sadness, and then he kisses her cheek, comforting her in a scene of such aching intimacy that we’re both amused and relieved when he decides to give her his most prized possession: a Batman toy. “You’re nutty, but nice,” he says. All of this dovetails in a superb scene where Mathias and Carla decide to give Ponette one final test, exiling her to a trash bin for five minutes, to replicate the feeling of death and to strengthen her bravery. Just when we think the film is being unimaginably cruel, her friends find pity for the weeping Ponette and rescue her, excitedly telling her she’s passed muster (and Doillon even finds it possible to wring some laughs from the situation). Continue Reading »
Posted in Dean Treadway's Movie Reviews, Genre Countdown: Childhood Films | Tagged Childhood Countdown, Dean Treadway, Ponette | 11 Comments »