4th 07 - 2013 | 18 comments »

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) / The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Directors: Nathan Juran, Gordon Hessler

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By Roderick Heath

Ray Harryhausen’s death this past May genuinely pained me, like so many fellow film lovers who had grown up with his works. Harryhausen’s work kept the faith in cinema’s capacity to make the illusory and the impossible come to life on the big screen. Whilst the grand old man of movie magic hadn’t done any new work of note since 1981, his life provided a link with the golden age of studio cinema, and beyond that, through his mentors, to the pioneering roots of film. Nerds of many stripes loved Harryhausen, not just for fashioning images that fuelled their imaginations and brightened up the dolour of existence, but also because he seemed one of us. Like a much later generation of filmmakers who would try conjuring epic cinema through backyard thrift and wit, Harryhausen began as an adolescent enthusiast and tinkerer, one who watched King Kong (1933) one too many times.

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Harryhausen sought out the mentorship of Kong’s effects maestro, Willis H. O’Brien, who had forged his famous stop-motion techniques, a version of animation working with malleable figures rather than drawn cells. In 1949, having worked under Frank Capra and George Pal, Harryhausen gained his first feature film credit alongside O’Brien with Mighty Joe Young. Four years later, after crafting a handful of shorts, he helped make The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, partly inspired by a story by his boyhood friend Ray Bradbury, but really a variant on King Kong, albeit one that dragged the mythos into the Atomic Age. Harryhausen’s effects immediately became a kind of film star in their own right.

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Harryhausen followed up Beast with It Came from Beneath the Sea (1954), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), and Twenty Million Miles to Earth (1957), all produced on tight Columbia Pictures budgets that severely limited their scope and drama. Nonetheless, they were highly profitable and are still huge fun, quintessential experiences of the era’s scifi craze, shot full of imagery that helped create a lexicon of the fantastic in cinema that’s more powerful than ever. Harryhausen forged a partnership with producer Charles H. Schneer that would hold until Harryhausen’s retirement. The team first paired with Nathan Juran on Twenty Million Miles to Earth, a former art director who had won an Oscar on John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) and had moved into fantastic cinema with the weak Beast rip-off The Deadly Mantis (1957). Looking for a more expansive and spectacular field in which to exercise his gifts, Harryhausen spearheaded a turn from scifi monsters to mythology and adventure for the first time with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, crossbreeding special-effects-based spectacle with traditional swashbuckling heroics. For the first time, Harryhausen got to make a feature in colour, and he debuted his new technique, called Dynamation, which allowed more sophisticated, layered interaction between photographic elements.

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Harryhausen was always deeply involved with developing his projects and the aesthetics of his films, writing storylines and often dictating their visuals. This was one reason he became identified as their essential auteur over the credited director, on top of the fact that he was often accused of picking journeymen over greater directors to make sure the spotlight remained on his work. This wasn’t exactly true: amongst the directors Harryhausen worked with were Juran, Cy Endfield, Don Chaffey, Gordon Hessler, and Desmond Davis, all talented and engaged smiths of genre cinema who had a way with arresting imagery. Harryhausen and Juran meshed particularly well, as Juran had a sense of decorative colour and design that fleshed out Harryhausen’s worlds, as well as a strong sense of craft. 7th Voyage and Jason and the Argonauts (1963) stand as Harryhausen’s best films, both triumphs of a particularly lustrous and stylised, yet also earthy and robust, brand of adventure filmmaking.

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Harryhausen’s material was cleverly pitched on a level that appealed both to the youth audience, which loved the colour and fantastic intricacy of his work, and to older filmgoers. His films stood fairly lonely throughout the ’60s and early ’70s, when it was widely assumed that to be hip, fantastic films had to be either self-mocking or else loaded with loud satiric or allegoric import: Harryhausen stuck mostly to a tone of bare-boned, unself-conscious intensity, but with suggestions of a deeper awareness. One of the most memorable sequences in 7th Voyage comes when evil magician Sokurah (Torin Thatcher), for the sake of entertaining the Caliph of Baghdad and his court, transforms a princess’s middle-aged, uptight handmaiden Sadi (Nana DeHerrera) into a bizarrely erotic, blue-skinned snake woman who dances with liberated, but deeply disturbing joy, until she almost strangles herself with the new tail she’s not quite aware of. The undercurrents of this scene exemplify the sensibility behind the Harryhausen brand, distilling suggestive and polymorphic ideas into a colourful and deceptive sequence, and also presenting a perfect unity of the special effects and Bernard Herrmann’s scoring.

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In 7th Voyage, Sinbad (Kerwin Matthews) is transporting his fiancé, Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant), whose marriage to Sinbad will seal a peace between Baghdad and her native kingdom Chandra. On the way, he rescues Sokurah from the rampaging assault of a cyclops when his ship anchors off the mysterious island of Colossa. In the process of escaping the cyclops and protecting Sinbad’s crew, Sokurah loses the magic lamp that is his most prized possession. Sokurah is desperate to return to Colossa to recover his lamp, which contains a genie in the shape of a boy, Burani (Richard Eyer), who can emerge to perform feats of wondrous magic. He tries to charm the caliph (Alec Mango) into granting him the ship he needs with displays of sorcery, but Sinbad convinces the caliph it’s too dangerous. Sokurah forces their hands, however, by shrinking Princess Parisa to the size of a small doll: the princess’s father threatens war on Baghdad if they can’t restore her, and they have to accept Sokurah’s word that the princess can be restored with ingredients only found on Colossa. Because so few regular sailors will dare the voyage, Sinbad hires a crew of criminals, who naturally prove mutinous; they are tamed by the terror of encountering Sirens that drive them mad off the Colossa coast. Landing on the island, Sinbad takes a party inland to search for the nests of the fabled Roc, a bird whose shell is a necessary ingredient for Sokurah’s potion. But the island proves a relentlessly dangerous place where Rocs and the Cyclops decimate Sinbad’s crew.

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7th Voyage starts with a motif that would recur throughout Harryhausen’s subsequent fantasy works and that helped mark a new phase in Hollywood’s approach to historical cinema—engaging with the past through approximations of period aesthetics. The credits unfurl over illustrations that mimic the style of the art of the from which cultures the stories are drawn, introducing the audience to the iconography and traditional background of the stories before the narrative proper begins, and grounding the material in a sense of the arcane suddenly brought to life, in much the same way that Harryhausen shocks lumps of latex and metal to life. Juran’s sense of colour and design balances the lustrous location shooting, which, like many epics of the period, was done in Spain. The candy-coloured costuming of the court scenes treads close to pantomime, but the use of old Moorish structures as stand-ins for Baghdad helps give the film a sense of solid physicality, one that pays dividends as it moves to the Colossa coastline, a place filled with genuinely interesting and odd-feeling locations that give lustre to the sense of transportation: Harryhausen’s effects conjure a colossal carved face through which the adventurers must move to penetrate the inland of Colossa, with suggestions of lost civilisations and daemonic power.

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Juran’s direction is canny in his sense of event: knowing a character like Sinbad doesn’t really need an introduction or an origin story, the film dumps into the narrative, with Sinbad’s ship crawling through the dense fog near Colossa, and dissolving to a inward tracking shot that finds the good captain himself at the wheel of his ship, face stricken with keen attention and electric curiosity as well as concern as he ventures into a new unknown, thus immediately identifying the hero’s perspective with that of the audience. 7th Voyage actually strip-mines a couple of different Sinbad stories from the tales of Scheherazade, freely mixed with touches from The Odyssey, notably the Cyclops and the Sirens off Colossa, whose hideous screeching drives Sinbad’s mutinous crew mad but that he, Sokurah, and loyal mate Harufa (Alfred Brown) block out with waxed cloth in their ears. And again, King Kong’s influence is apparent in the motif of a lost world where monsters weird and fantastical stomp, visited by a ship penetrating a veil of fog.

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The first time I ever saw 7th Voyage, I was struck by the unnerving predication of the film’s being partly set in Baghdad—this was around 1990, I was a kid, and the Gulf War was brewing, lending dark immediacy to the threat of the Sultan of Chandra (Harold Kasket) to reduce the city to “rubble and bleached bones.” Of course, being a kid, I still had an occasionally confused sense of film chronology: I recall exclaiming during the finale, when Sinbad and Parisa swing across a chasm on a rope, “Hey, they ripped that off from Star Wars!” Of course, it was the other way around. Indeed George Lucas’ love of referencing Harryhausen’s works was a recurring motif in his glitzy series.

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The beauty of Harryhausen’s work always lay in the exacting sense of behaviour, the articulation and physicality of his figures, and the mischievous qualities of humour and sensitivity so often invested in them. It’s this aspect, difficult to describe, which helped them transcend the realm of mere effects and become creative visions. The Cyclops, great two-legged beasts with horned heads and centaur legs to match their singular eyes, seem like cruel mistakes of nature trapped by being too large to be agile and too dumb to think logically, but with their cages for prey, spits for roasting game, and cumbersome, spiked clubs seem barely less civilised and intelligent than the creeps who comprise most of Sinbad’s crew, and with whom they engage in a battle of brute force and arrogance. When the crew come across a hatching Roc, they promptly spear the huge, fluffy chick and roast it, the newborn’s thigh offering a hunk of meat the size of a buffalo leg. When the chick’s mother, a far larger, two-headed, eagle-like bird, returns and finds what’s happened, she understandably ravages the remnants of Sinbad’s crew and plucks Sinbad himself away to devour at her convenience. This was a quality Harryhausen had partly learnt from O’Brien, who offered such touches as his prehistoric birds scratching behind their ears and an often jarring sense of detail, like the broken-jawed Tyrannosaur King Kong defeated lying prone, dying but still breathing. Harryhausen followed O’Brien in this, his monsters often displaying wrenching, surprising emotion, peculiarly sensitising an audience to their plight: you feel sorry for the Ymir of Twenty Million Years and the Cyclops of these films even as they rampage, often because their human persecutors seem much less lively and individual: so often in Harryhausen there’s a sort of ecological spirit underlying the message. The overt violation of a tenuous balance of a rarefied natural order wrought by Sinbad’s crewmen is replicated less crassly but more dangerously by Sokurah’s alchemist arrogance, having gone so far as to chain a colossal dragon outside his cave laboratory as a watchdog.

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The colour of 7th Voyage, the vivacity of its pace and the mutually complementary power of Harryhausen’s effects and Herrmann’s music rest on the bedrock of a well-shaped narrative, with a kind of simple but rigorous care that’s even rarer in modern equivalents than the exacting personality of Harryhausen’s effects. Characterisations are, of course, one-dimensional in an authentically mythic fashion: Sinbad is brave and honest, Sokurah is evil and wily, Parisa is sweet and plucky, Harufa is loyal and doomed. The younger audience gets a figure to empathise with in Burani, who is essential to the narrative and whose desire to escape his supernatural life accords with Sinbad and Parisa’s tragic frustration in her plight, and contrasts Sokurah’s merciless hunger for power and the threat of war hanging over their respective cities. The clarity of the plotting in Kenneth Kolb’s script, which borders on the naïve but retains integrity, keeps its flow of cause and effect surprisingly precise, even elegant, each element informing another. Parisa’s plight is not just a plot motivator, but a superbly utilised device: with her tiny stature, she can help spring the lock of the cage where the cyclops puts the crew. There’s a lovely sequence of chintzy fantasy in which Parisa realises she can slide down the spout of the lamp to visit Burani within and learn the phrase that calls him out. She finds a pellucid space where fog flows out a tablet and a poem-puzzle that holds the key to freeing Burani, and the boy himself in solitary imprisonment, delighted by the Princess’s visitation but melancholy in his fate as a slave to the will of men: the film aptly fades out on the lad, now human, gleefully taking the helm of Sinbad’s ship. The cyclical rebirth of Burani is echoed by the self-induced destruction of Sokurah. The amusingly literal device he provides for Sinbad’s crew to defend themselves from the Cyclops, a huge crossbow that takes a dozen men to load, is finally used on Sokurah’s pet dragon, which then promptly falls in death on its master.

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The finale, in which Parisa drops the lamp into lava according to the rhyme, looks forward to Peter Jackson’s finale for his The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), Jackson, of course, being another contemporary movie wizard much influenced by O’Brien and Harryhausen. The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) betrayed the influence in its Mines of Moria scenes that mirrored the environs of Sokurah’s underground castle, whilst its dragon protector surely inspired the one guarding Gringotts in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and its film version. It’s not just the ingenuity of Harryhausen’s effects and Juran’s design here that made their work so powerfully formative, but its genuine artistry, the care of the lighting and framing, the gift for capturing the flavour of the arcane with ruins of lost civilisations and lost lore rediscovered, in the midst of primal terrors and alchemic nightmares. Juran’s fondness for high and low angles turn every element in the film into an aspect of a drama built around size in a dialectic of relative strength. Sokurah appears as a silhouetted figure sneaking into Parisa’s palace bedchamber to curse her, her arm seen getting smaller and smaller on the bed, whilst later he looms over her as colossally as the Cyclops do over the others. The taboo is evoked throughout, from Sinbad’s initial knock on Parisa’s cabin door, rebuked by Sadi, to Sokurah warning crewmen he leads not to drink from a stream he claims is poisoned, but they soon find tastes like wine, a different kind of poison in the context of a dangerous land.

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The finale’s eye-popping set-piece is Sinbad’s battle with a skeleton animated to glowering, ferocious life, armed with sword and shield and duelling the hero in the midst of Sokurah’s castle. Sinbad, faced with the impossibility of killing such an enemy, tricks the skeleton into following him up a spiral staircase from which it falls and breaks to pieces. Over a half-century later, this sequence is still astounding, and perhaps more so for knowing that the choreography wasn’t being exactingly mapped out with computers, but rather by Harryhausen’s hand and eye. Of course, Harryhausen tried to top this in the climax of Jason and the Argonauts with a small army of such skeletons battling the heroes. If there’s a dated aspect to 7th Voyage now, it lies only in the blandly American presences of Matthews and Grant, whereas British character actor Thatcher’s magnificent hambone zeal is hugely entertaining. Juran went on to make with Matthews the more overtly juvenile Jack the Giant Killer (1961), almost a remake of 7th Voyage that also featured Matthews and Thatcher, and the horror movie The Boy Who Cried Werewolf (1972).

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Harryhausen did not return to Sinbad as a subject for 15 years. The changes that went on in the world and the film industry in that time were enormous, and Harryhausen relocated to England, joining a small band of American filmmakers who were finding a more rewarding production base there. The interval between 7th Voyage and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is telling, less in the look and quality of Harryhausen’s work and the film, which does a great job of evoking the saturated colour and epic craft of the earlier film, but in the approach it takes to the same basic story: where 7th Voyage is bouncy and comic book, Golden Voyage is terser in dialogue and storyline, tougher and less primly naïve, if also less spectacular and vibrant. The success of One Million Years B.C. (1966), largely owing to the incandescent sex appeal of Raquel Welch, was followed by the nearly ignored The Valley of Gwangi (1968), and a five-year gap intervened before Golden Voyage’s release. Harryhausen’s product had been battered by inconsistent commercial performance, and he had learnt one lesson: Golden Voyage puts the busty beauty of English starlet Caroline Munro front and centre. Director Hessler, fated like too many other interesting directors to spring out of British genre cinema in the late ’60s to essentially disappear, had done striking work in horror films before this, and his subtly oneiric take on Harryhausen’s visions is loving and rich.

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Although it’s often suggested that Harryhausen’s brand was ultimately rendered obsolete by the explosion of fantastic cinema at the end of the ’70s, I think it’s also true that explosion was largely due to the success of Golden Voyage, which revealed there was a new audience hungry for old-fashioned thrills. Sinbad was played this time by John Philip Law, the most conspicuously Aryan of movie stars appearing with dyed-black hair, an American who had become a stalwart in European cinema. His Sinbad is a touch more roguish, if no less ultimately good, in a fashion that looks forward to Indiana Jones as a gritty soldier of fortune leaping into the unknown for good and glory. Like its predecessor, Golden Voyage pits Sinbad against an evil sorcerer and sends him to a mysterious land filled with atavistic peril: Tom Baker earned his epochal run as Doctor Who by playing Prince Koura, the magician with designs to ruling an Arabian city-state, trying to unite the three pieces of a wrought-gold dial that will give him unlimited power, anticipating the plot of Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2009), by another Harryhausen acolyte, Guillermo del Toro. One of the pieces of the crown falls fortuitously into Sinbad’s hands via a Coleridge allusion—the piece is dropped by a tiny winged homunculus created by Koura. The finger of fate is on Sinbad, as he’s visited by that dream of a mysterious dancer with a tattooed eye on her hand and visions of Koura. He finds the dancer, Margiana (Munro), is a slave in a merchant’s house, and, seeing the tattoo and recognising her import, manages to extract her at the price of also accepting the merchant’s bohemian son Haroun (Kurt Christian) as a crewman. Sinbad is enlisted by the Vizier (Douglas Wilmer), who has been so disfigured by Koura’s magic in his efforts to resist that usurper that he has to wear a mask. The Vizier gives Sinbad clues that point to the lost continent of Lemuria in the Indian Ocean as the location of a fountain of divine power, and he accompanies Sinbad in the adventure to retrieve the relic.

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Harryhausen often turned his own showmanship into a subtext of his films: Sokurah’s malefic delight in exhibiting the transformed Sadi in 7th Voyage—“Behold!” he cries before shattering the urn that contains herr transformed self—is the cinema magician’s sneaky avatar, whilst Golden Voyage more darkly suggests the exhaustion as well as the thrill involved in conjuring life from clay. In one of the most fiendishly achieved, but subtle moments of Harryhausen’s craft, Koura is shown resuscitating one of the homunculi, patient and delighted father to an unholy, yet charming beast rising from a lump of artificial flesh to alert, scampering life ready to do mischief. Koura is slowly being aged to the point of wizened collapse by working his magic, a note that accords with Harryhausen’s explanation of his eventual retirement as owing to his wearying of labouring so long and hard on single projects when other filmmakers could make many more. Elsewhere in the film, Harryhausen proffers two sterling scenes of combat by the heroes with animated statues, the first with the figurehead of Sinbad’s own ship, brought to life by Koura to steal a map, and later a figure of Kali, the Indian goddess of cyclical destruction and rebirth, whose six arms present Harryhausen with one of his greatest challenges of articulation, solved with superlative skill.

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Golden Voyage romps gleefully through its essentialist plot: screenwriter Brian Clemens, a stalwart hero of British film and TV genre writing at the time, is mischievous in developing some familiar themes but then distorting them, like orphaned Margiana’s anointed status by the eye tattoo that proves to mark her not, as usual in pulp fare, as a lost heir to a kingdom, but actually a chosen sacrifice/mate to a centaur worshipped as a god by the devolved inhabitants of Lemuria. The film moves through the crucial motifs of the mythic quest, a reminder that Harryhausen and Clemens had a grip on the innate structural sense Joseph Campbell identified. Such motifs come complete with riddle prophecy, delivered by the “Oracle of All Knowledge,” a horned spirit (played by an uncredited, marvellously weird Robert Shaw) that appears in a sacred flame like an eruption of the secret id of humankind. Although the narrative is determinedly traditional, it laces contemporary ideas as well as classical references throughout: whereas 7th Voyage is concerned with frustrated mating rituals, perfect for the repressed ’50s, here Haroun is a coded stoner-slacker needing some advanced application, whilst Margiana offers unabashed cheesecake in a role ironically defined by nascent emancipationist reflexes, as Sinbad, after glimpsing her delirious dancing form in a prophetic dream, liberates her from slavery and makes her one of his crew. There are hints of perverse metaphor as Margiana encounters her intended fate as bride of the centaur, whilst Haroun offers some comic relief redolent of Willie Best: “My heart is full of bravery!…But I have very cowardly legs.” Of course, Haroun mans up enough to become a possible successor to Sinbad, giving the Kali statue a shove over a precipice to save his master.

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“There’s an old proverb I choose to believe in,” Sinbad says at one point, “Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel.” This becomes a running gag, and also reintroduces a thematic strand that runs through so many of Harryhausen’s works—counterbalancing the seriousness with which they question the nature of what’s alive with a belief in human audacity in the face of primal forces. Just as Jason in Jason in the Argonauts tells Zeus to his face that he wants to prove men can challenge the infinite, Sinbad repeatedly proves the value of his blend of guts and caution in taking on the mystical. The polycultural wonderland that Hessler, Harryhausen, and Clemens evoke here encompasses a variety of mythological traditions, keeping its hero in focus as a figure of early cross-cultural outreach and dynamism. The usual climactic battle of monsters takes on overtly symbolic aspects, as the Oracle predicts good and evil battling at the edge of eternity, fulfilled when the centaur is attacked by a griffin. Golden Voyage could have used a little more story complication, but the feel for storytelling minutiae is still strong, in Harryhausen’s effects, like the displays of fear on the homunculus’ face and the bewildered aggression of the centaur, and the production, particularly the excellent sound design that gives corporeal conviction and dread to moments like the figurehead tearing itself loose from its place with the crack of splintering wood. Care and vision are also apparent in the directing, culminating in the finale in which Koura becomes invisible, only to be caught out standing in the waters of the magic fountain, his shadow revealed; Sinbad stabs him, and the fountain turns blood red.

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The success of Golden Voyage gave Harryhausen renewed vigour and clout, but fate proved unkind, as his next film, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), was released in the same summer as the first Star Wars hit. Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects themselves weren’t yet outmoded: inspired to take up the form by 7th Voyage, Phil Tippett would work on the likes of Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Robocop (1987), and use his knowledge to help make the first CGI blockbuster Jurassic Park (1992) more convincing. What was rendered passé was Harryhausen’s attempt to make special-effects-driven cinema without blockbuster budgeting, that could have added greater artisanal vigour and input to the almost cottage industry approach he had to his work: Eye of the Tiger, whilst not as bad as often painted, is still badly hampered by the sluggish, shapeless direction of Sam Wanamaker. Harryhausen bounced back for his final film, the glorious if camped-up Clash of the Titans (1981), but it was the end of an era.

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It’s too tempting to turn a tribute to Harryhausen into another excuse to bash the era of CGI. CGI special effects’ crimes have been exaggerated, as many who work with the form are spurred by the same spirit as Harryhausen’s, but often without that crucial sense of personality and sparing approach to detail and problem-solving that invested his creations with unique life. One doesn’t have to be a luddite to see the difference between, say, the engagement with these creatures as entities with, say, the whirling robots of the Transformers movies or, indeed more aptly, the Kraken of the remake of Clash of the Titans (2010), which become amorphous, characterless blotches of pixels by comparison with Harryhausen’s creatures. More importantly, too many of the movies around them are, compared to these voyages of Sinbad, equally amorphous and dreary successors. Harryhausen did not specialise in cinematic realism: he specialised in cinematic dreams.


23rd 06 - 2013 | 6 comments »

Tiger Eyes (2013)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Lawrence Blume

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Continuing the general contempt for family films with thoughtful characters and situations, exhibitors have all but ignored Tiger Eyes, the first film adaptation of a novel by the reigning monarch of books for young adults, Judy Blume. The independently produced Tiger Eyes opened this week in Chicago on exactly one screen in a small, divided movie theatre in the suburbs that caters more often than not to a Jewish audience. The two elderly women who were with us at the beginning of the movie were gone soon after it started after realizing that they were not watching the documentary they came to see, Hava Nagila (The Movie).

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Had they stuck around, they would have seen that there was some Jewish content in Tiger Eyes, which centers on the grieving process of the Jewish Wexler family. Adam Wexler (Michael Sheets), the owner of a sandwich shop on the boardwalk of Atlantic City, New Jersey, has been gunned down in a robbery, leaving his wife Gwen (Amy Jo Johnson), young son Jason (Lucien Dale), and our main protagonist, daughter Davey (Willa Holland), near destitute both emotionally and financially. Gwen’s sister and brother-in-law, Bitsy and Walter Kronick (Cynthia Stevenson and Forrest Frye), take the Wexlers into their luxurious home in Los Alamos, New Mexico, until Gwen can get over her paralyzing grief. Bitsy, disappointed over not having a family of her own, hopes to keep the Wexlers around permanently, enrolling Jason and Davey in the local schools and doting on a malleable Jason. Davey, seeing what is happening, tries to rouse her mother out of her dependent stupor and separates herself from her surroundings as much as possible, lost in her memories of her father and the horrible day he died. The family dynamics at work between the Kronicks and the Wexlers form the backdrop against which Davey’s slow and painful progress toward healing takes place.

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Tiger Eyes is a film well aimed at young adults grappling with their own growing pains and dark histories. The screenplay by Lawrence Blume and his mother Judy Blume is small, avoiding the kind of complexity for which an adult film might have reached, keeping the focus mainly on Davey and the few people with whom she interacts. Her English teacher (Josh Berry) pairs her on her first day in her new school with Jane Albertson (Elise Eberle), a bright, haughty, very troubled teen with a drinking problem. Despite an offer to join the clique of creative anachronists who live out a medieval kind of existence, Davey stays loyal to Jane; after all, she’s not planning on settling down in Los Alamos and doesn’t really care where she fits. Thus, the cast of characters remains simple, and the complex of problems stratified in an understandable way without completely ignoring other elements in Davey’s environment.

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The most healing aspect of Davey’s life in Los Alamos is Wolf (Tatanka Means), a Mexican-Native American who finds her in the desert after she has accidentally slid down a bluff she was exploring. After worrying that he might do her harm, she drops her guard, but tells him her name is Tiger. They continue to meet over the months, and when she attends a “relation” ceremony among his tribe on the pueblo, she understands that his ties with his home were strained as well and that his tribal family held the ceremony to strengthen his connection to them and support him. Wolf, real name Martin Ortiz, is attending Cal Tech to become a physicist like the many scientists at Los Alamos, and has taken a year off to attend to his dying father (Russell Means). As real-life son and his real-life father dying of cancer, Tatanka and Russell Means had an easy way into these characters and convey the private nature of their real and imagined relationship that matches perfectly with Davey and her memories of her father.

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In this, his second feature film, Blume shows he has more to learn. He’s quite good at using landscape and setting to add mood (of course, that’s not too hard with New Mexico as a setting), but seems rather at sea with his characters. Cynthia Stevenson, who is the go-to gal for conventional, somewhat ridiculous women, gets little help from Blume and chooses to define herself more by her situation than her character’s inner fear. As a tour guide in the Bradbury Science Museum, she cheerfully shows off replicas of the atomic bombs that killed 220,000 people, and later, happily throws a Christmas party while Davey retreats to her room and lights a candle to celebrate Hanukkah in memory of her father. When Stevenson is called on to have a true emotional moment, she just doesn’t have the chops or the director to make it come alive.

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Similarly, despite some kissing, the quasi-romance between Martin and Davey causes no discomfort, and therefore, Tiger Eyes is completely safe as a family film. But without a little chemistry, it’s hard to buy the connection between the two at more than a situational level. While the film gives life to the Native American experience in sharp contrast to the war-fueled prosperity and success ethos of the white Americans in Los Alamos, it still trafficks in stereotype. Martin and his father, whom Davey becomes close to at the hospital where she volunteers, step into the spirit guide roles white Americans have assigned to Native Americans since the crying Indian commercial for the Keep America Beautiful campaign in the 1970s.

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Where the film succeeds beautifully is in the relationship, too little seen, between Davey and her brother. When Bitsy tries to indoctrinate Jason in the Los Alamos definition of success, Davey dreams a life of selling cookies on the boardwalk in Atlantic City for him. In another scene, they play Monopoly one night when the Kronicks double-date with Gwen and a fix-up, and spar joyfully and believably when Davey discovers Jason has been taking money from the bank. The scene, however, turns dark rather abruptly, with Davey accusing Jason of forgetting their father; nonetheless, their argument felt very real and offered the kind of emotional depth I would have liked to have seen throughout the film.

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Blume slowly builds a picture of the day Davey’s father died in intermittent flashbacks, finally revealing Davey cradling her father on her lap as the life drains out of him. These scenes are beautifully shot, suggesting through lighting and lensing an unreal nightmare Davey is forced to relive a bit at a time until she can face the final moments of her father’s life. The progression suggests how grieving works, in a circular manner that spirals us a bit at a time back into our lives. While we don’t see it as directly with Gwen as we do with Davey, it is clear from small actions Gwen takes that she is having a parallel experience.

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Willa Holland has a lot to carry on what the elder Ortiz says are her strong shoulders, and she is mostly up to the task. She has a magnetic screen presence that makes us want to spend time with her, and does indeed have the bright smile and sad eyes that Wolf remarks on when he first meets her. She can project her anger, grief, and struggle to face the rest of her life without her beloved father all at once and provides a relatable role model for girls and boys who are growing toward adulthood. I could see a child who has lost a family to divorce relate to this just as easily as one who has lost a parent to death, and children who have not faced such losses gaining an empathetic understanding toward those who have. In a marketplace bereft of substantial family films, Tiger Eyes is a welcome addition.


17th 09 - 2012 | 12 comments »

In the Family (2011)

Producer/Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Patrick Wang

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In the Family should be seen as soon as possible by as many people as possible.

But it won’t be. In their infinite wisdom, 30 film festivals rejected the film. No distributor has picked it up. The heart of the film, producer/director/screenwriter/actor Patrick Wang, has had to knock on doors himself to get the film on screens, and so far, the results have been scattershot, with a brief one-week run in New York City in 2011, and some showings around the country as Wang has been able to arrange them. Chicagoans are exceedingly lucky to have Facets’ program director Charles Coleman, a big champion of the film, bring In the Family back for an encore run at Facets every Sunday in September; I was particularly lucky to attend the screening at which Wang appeared for a Q&A session.

What’s wrong with In the Family? Why has it been affixed with the label “No Commercial Potential”? That’s hard to parse out, unless you believe that only sex and violence sell. It certainly can’t be because its main character is a homosexual male—that demographic entered the mainstream of film narrative long ago. Is it the 169-minute running time? Not likely, with butt-numbing films all the rage, particularly among supposedly attention-challenged younger audiences.

My theory is that there are three things going against the film. First, Patrick Wang is a first-time director who came to film from the theatre, and there’s a prejudice these days about theatre people transitioning into film, the reverse of a long-standing prejudice of theatre people against the “fleshpot” that is movie-making. Second, the film, though full to the brim with feeling, is emotionally understated, and Americans have come to expect shrill, explosive performances that are easy to read. Finally, the film is set in a small town in Tennessee, and in Hollywood, urban landscapes in blue states are still considered the only places on earth where anything interesting occurs; films set in red states must, by general agreement, be like The Help (2011), that is, criticize backward, racist attitudes. In the Family’s biggest sin may be to expose our own prejudices by depicting a tolerant Southern town where racist and homophobic reactions are far outnumbered by accepting and loving ones.

Wang, who lives in New York, is originally from Texas, and the film was shot in his DP Frank Barrera’s home town of Yonkers, New York. Yet, In the Family has a strong feeling of a small Southern town. I credit that to shrewd location selection, even shrewder casting, and an intimacy of spirit in the finely crafted screenplay that allows both the fears and generosity of this specific population play out without being infected with the usual clichés.

Wang plays Joey Williams, a building contractor who has been in a six-year relationship with Cody Hines (Trevor St. John), an elementary school teacher with a six-year-old son, Chip (Sebastian Banes). Their romance began after Cody’s wife Rebecca (Julia Motyka) died shortly after Chip’s birth, and Joey, who lost his family and then his foster parents, was able to relate to Cody’s grief and comfort him. Their relationship is a surprise to everyone, even them, but Cody’s family accepts Joey into their lives and recognizes how good he is for Cody. Sadly, when Cody dies in a car accident without updating his will to name Joey Chip’s guardian, Cody’s sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew) tries to execute the existing will as best she can by taking over Chip’s care. The rest of the movie concerns Joey’s efforts to bring Chip home.

In the Family could have been a tale of high drama, even melodrama, but avoids both by focusing on the people, not the problems. Wang wants us to really know who these people are, and in a film with a fairly large cast, that he manages to give us something human in almost all of his characters is downright amazing. Joey is the central character, with all actions related to how they touch him, but perhaps because his heritage is Chinese, and even moreso because he lived in an orphanage for several years before finding a foster family, Joey has learned emotional reticence. At crucial moments, Wang turns his back to the camera, allowing Joey to grieve in private, as most of us do, and find comfort in concentrating on finite tasks, such as rebinding some antique books a wealthy client of his, Paul Hawks (Brian Murray), has in the library Joey is helping to remodel.

Even more than Joey, Cody is the character who unlocks myriad doors. Like the polar opposite of the title character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), but much more present throughout the film, Cody’s effect on those who knew and loved him forms the glowing heart at the center of In the Family. We see him alive at the beginning of the film, giving Joey a quick kiss before he goes to work, taking his students through a math lesson in a gentle but commanding way, playing with Chip, who mock-scolds his father for calling him “Chipmunk,” being the efficient one to counter Joey’s lack of organization. After death, Cody is seen in Joey’s mind’s eye—the first time they met when a pregnant Rebecca begs Cody to hire Joey as their contractor, when a drunk and grieving Cody throws up and Joey cleans him up and puts him to bed, when Joey finishes Cody’s home and over a celebration beer and a Chip Taylor CD, Cody impulsively kisses him. Rebecca withheld a flashback of the imperious mistress of Manderley to conceal information that would deaden the suspense. In the Family wants us to know Cody so that we can understand what his life meant and how the legacy of his love helps others find their way back to each other.

It is impossible in the span of one review to touch on the many subtle details that enrich this film, but here are a few. When Joey meets with an attorney (Matthew Boston) recommended by a neighbor (Elaine Bromka) who liked to cook for Cody and Joey and still cooks for Joey, the attorney asks Joey where he’s from. He hears “From right here” in a west Tennessee accent, which unsettles him slightly because of Joey’s Asian features. That’s actually the only place other than when Joey is deposed by an aggressive attorney hired by Eileen that any kind of prejudice rears its head, and even here, it is a fleeting impression. Another effective detail is when Joey’s friend delivers one of a series of wooden blocks Joey made for Chip to teach him about dinosaurs and an audiocassette with a message from Joey. The camera moves slowly from framing the slit in the door on the far right of the screen to a close-up; we can’t really see Chip, but we can hear him rewind and play back the “Hi, Chipmunk” greeting from his dad over and over. Some great lines include Joey telling Cody after he throws up, “This is Tennessee. It happens,” and after the kissing, “I’m not a one beer, two-track guy. You’re going to have to take me out and wine and dine me.”

My favorite small moment occurs when Joey is sitting with his back to us and working on one of Mr. Hawks’ books. Hawks can tell he is missing Chip. He asks Joey if he’s found a lawyer yet, and Joey says they’ve all told him that he has no case. Hawks, a retired attorney, tells him he will take the case pro bono because he believes Joey will actually listen to his advice. He writes down three questions that he wants Joey to think about: What’s important to accomplish, what can’t be messed around with, and what is he willing to give up?

These questions would be a great start for any of us as we enter a negotiation, as Joey does in the climactic scene of In the Family. That he was barred by a restraining order from seeing Chip is the only flaw in this film, as I saw nothing in his or Eileen’s behavior that indicated this was a logical step. Nonetheless, it does offer a supremely satisfying scene in which the emotionally reticent Joey lays bare his heart—I cried all the way through it. In an intense monologue, Joey shows us exactly how humble he is, how grateful he is for the good things in his life, how willing he is to take responsibility for his past, present, and future actions, and how he wants to be welcomed back into the family he had while Cody was alive.

Wang is miraculously good playing a character a bit less intelligent than himself. His interactions with Banes are unaffected and realistically everyday, as are St. John’s. I found St. John’s moments of awkward affection toward Joey touching and believable, and I was grateful that I was allowed to mourn his loss, a hole a lot of films centered on tragedy (Ordinary People, for example) inadequately fill. All of the supporting cast members are terrific, no matter how much or little screen time they have, but special kudos go to Murray, a veteran stage actor, and Park Overall, whose return to view as Cody’s mother I greatly appreciated. One moment when I completely misjudged a character occurred when the nurse (Gina Tognoni) at the hospital Cody was taken to tells Joey that only immediate family can see him. We see in that small detail what the right to marry can mean to many homosexual couples. We also see the nurse come by later with a form Joey can fill out that will give him visitation rights, and completely shatter my assumption that she was a rigid homophobic.

In the Family wants to break down the us vs. them assumptions rife in society and celebrate the very conservative values of family, home, and most important, talking to each other; tellingly, the film got a very warm reception in Tennessee. In the Family will get another shot at reaching New York audiences on November 16; check the official website for a screening in your area.


15th 07 - 2012 | 1 comment »

No Greater Glory (1934)

Director: Frank Borzage

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In the early decades of cinema, the line between family films and adult films was not as rigidly drawn as it is today. While filmmakers were as fond of sentimentalizing children then as we seem to be of marginalizing them now, the variety of roles children played was much more varied and nuanced. No Greater Glory, a true family film, delivers a potent message from one of the most antiwar filmmakers of all time, Frank Borzage.

Borzage was a genius at finding the humanity in any situation and rendering it as an eye-opening experience by burrowing into the effects of social forces on individuals. No Greater Glory has what seems to be a simple plot—two neighborhood clubs of boys, too innocent to call gangs, fighting over a vacant lot—but uses it to show us the warrior roles they have already internalized from their society and how playing soldier is preparing them for actual combat.

The Paul Street Boys and the rival Red Shirts both seek control of the only open lot, a lumberyard, in their part of bustling Budapest. The younger and smaller Paul Street Boys fear the Red Shirts, but after hearing their teacher give a gassy speech about what a great honor it is to fight and die for one’s country, the youngsters decide to organize to fight for their playground. The boys meet to elect a president: Boka (Jimmy Butler) wins easily over Gereb (Jackie Searl) and takes command of the clubhouse and its army of boys.

Ernö Nemecsek (George P. Breakston), because he is smaller than any of the other Paul Street Boys, is the only boy with the rank of private (“Every army has its privates, and you’re ours,” says Boka) and desperately wants to get a commission and wear an officer’s cap. When a small band of Red Shirts steals the club’s flag from atop their clubhouse, Boka agrees to take Nemecsek on a mission to retrieve it, which Nemecsek hopes will earn him a commission. Nemecsek braves every terror, including a fall into the river they must row down to reach the Red Shirts’ assembly and hiding in a freezing pond in the botanic garden where the Red Shirts hold their meetings, a frog croaking in his face. Failing to recapture their flag, they discover instead that Gereb has thrown in with the Red Shirts and bribed the lumberyard guard to eject the Paul Street Boys and let the Red Shirts take over.

Nemecsek catches a cold from the damp and defies his parents’ orders to stay home so that he can return to the garden and complete his mission to recapture the flag. He is discovered and repeatedly dunked in the river by the Red Shirts until their leader Feri Ats (Frankie Darro) calls his soldiers off. Feri Ats and Boka meet to discuss the rules of a war to decide the fate of the lot, while Nemecsek lies gravely ill with pneumonia. A feverish Nemecsek receives his captain’s commission and cap from Boka just before the grand battle, his only thought to get up and join his comrades in arms in defending their playground.

Borzage was one of the very few directors in Hollywood to deal with the plight of Jews in Europe in the lead-up to American involvement in World War II. No Greater Glory is based on the autobiographical book by Hungarian playwright and novelist Ferenc Molnár, a Jew who escaped Nazi persecution in the mid 1930s, and the screenplay was written by Jo Swerling, a Jew who fled persecution in Russia. While the religious affiliations of the characters in No Greater Glory are not revealed, it’s not hard to read between the lines: young Nemecsek’s father (Ralph Morgan) is an impoverished tailor who, in lieu of payment, offers to make a suit or topcoat for a dismissive physician who comes to examine his ailing son and writes him off as a goner. Nemecsek himself is the only private in the Paul Street Boys, that is, the only human private—the other is a dog—an allusion to the subhuman status of Jews among anti-Semites. His desperate need to belong is a typical desire for children, but the lowly rank he has been assigned emphasizes his outsider status in microcosm and poses a real danger to him on a macrocosmic level.

Nonetheless, the film doesn’t get carried away with its larger message. The boys retain their youthful attitudes and concerns as they enact their mock war with a thin veneer of solemnity, with boys missing drills because they have to go home for dinner and other real-world restraints on children. The boys’ war is ingeniously rendered, with the creation of sand bombs and traps to capture the invading Red Shirts offering full range to the children’s imagination and fun. Their martinet attitudes suggest those of the pre-World War I gentleman soldier (the book was published in 1908), defanging the war game just a bit and elevating it as a noble venture.

Of course, after the obscene slaughter of the Great War, it would be hard to ever again see militarism in the same rarified light. Borzage’s addition of elements that tout the evils of war is sometimes very clumsy; for example, he introduces an antiwar tone with a heavy-handed opening scene in which a wounded soldier cries out his anguish and opposition to fighting from a field hospital in World War I to contrast the immediate cut to the gung-ho schoolteacher indoctrinating his impressionable students on its virtues. Despite Borzage’s efforts, the trajectory of the film comes down harder on the side of noble sacrifice, as Nemecsek finds acceptance by lying to protect the traitor Gerek from his angry father, as well as putting his life in danger to help his comrades. Unavoidably, perhaps, the fallen soldier receives the kinds of honors he probably would not have achieved in life, perpetuating the idea that the least of us can attain glory by dying in a socially acceptable way.

Nonetheless, Borzage finds both ironic and emotionally powerful ways for us to understand the human costs of war. The title of the film comes from a quote that offers a full measure of irony to the film:

No greater glory can be handed down than to conquer the barbarian, to recall the savage and the pagan to civility, to draw the ignorant within the orbit of reason, and to fill with reverence for divinity the godless and the ungodly. —Richard Hakluyt, letter to Sir Walter Raleigh

Children are among those needing to be civilized, and the film shows that the barbarity of war is the instrument by which our supposedly civilized societies channel their reckless savagery. Yet the instinct of a parent’s love is brought forward as a truer expression of reverence. Both Ralph Morgan and Lois Wilson give very sensitive, heartfelt performances as Nemecsek’s parents, genuinely worried about their son, scolding him for his own good to stay in and nurse his cold. Morgan’s conflict between attending to a customer and staying with his sick boy is excruciatingly real, and Wilson’s tears strong enough to provoke unfettered grieving not only among the cast of boys, but also this audience member. Soldiers were all children once, and their loss in war is nothing to be proud of, but rather something to grieve as a waste of the tender care with which they were raised to do something wonderful in the world. It was a bitter pill for me to learn that Jimmy Butler, easily the best of the boy actors, would have his promising life cut short on a World War II battlefield in France two days shy of his 24th birthday.

The film has its flaws. Affecting camera work, such as an atmospheric nighttime scene of a marble game under a bridge and the truly interesting angles of the lumberyard action, mix with cheap back projection and a sped-up camera during the mock war, leading to an inconsistent look that tends to take one out of the picture. The mass scene of mourners at the end of the film seemed unnecessary and cheapened the genuine emotion of the previous scene for me. But the weakest link by far was George Breakston. He was, no doubt, told to act annoying to justify his second-class status with the Paul Street Boys, but Breakston just was not able to integrate his pleading dialogue and incessant attempts to whistle through his fingers as the natural actions of a fully developed character. I didn’t grieve for him because of intrinsic qualities Breakston brought out in Nemecsek, but rather because everyone around him was so good at eliciting emotions from me. Because Nemecsek is the main character, this flaw is not minor.

Nonetheless, No Greater Glory offers the kind of dignity to the plight of the young that makes it a stand-out family film. As our era offers little for children to consume but comic book and animated films that often seem more aimed toward the adults who must accompany their children to the movies, I unreservedly recommend No Greater Glory as a film truly fit for the whole family.


29th 04 - 2011 | 8 comments »

Legend (1985)

Director: Ridley Scott

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Even in its early stages, Tom Cruise’s career has been marked by risk taking. Not long after his star-making turn as the privileged teen having a wild weekend in Risky Business (1983), and just before his Air Force recruitment film Top Gun (1986), Cruise appeared in a smallish fantasy film that might have changed perceptions of him among casting directors and fans alike. In it he plays a Puckish forest child whose love for a princess imperils all that is good in the world, though admittedly, he does go on an heroic quest to fight the forces of darkness. That he made this film certainly must be down to his desire to work with the best directors—in this case, Ridley Scott, whose stylish Blade Runner (1982), his last film before Legend, was in a class by itself.

Scott’s earlier scifi/fantasy films, including the highly popular Alien (1979), focused on a menacing near-future. With Legend, Scott turned his gaze toward a pre-Judeo-Christian world. With its emphasis on enchantment, the primacy of true love, and violence without blood and death, this simple story, briskly told, was obviously made primarily for tweens and teens. Yet such is Scott’s skill that this tale is richly embellished with the power of myth for people of all ages via the mythmaking vehicle of the 20th century—film.

Simply, Darkness (Tim Curry) is bothered to learn that two unicorns still roam the earth. No longer content to simply be half of existence, he sends his goblins out to kill the creatures, without which Light will be banished forever. An innocent princess named Lily (Mia Sara), the beloved of Jack (Cruise), is used to lure the unicorns within range of the goblins’ poisoned darts. One is hit, but the other escapes. After the goblins cut off his horn, the world is plunged into darkness, with snow and ice covering the formerly verdant landscape. Lily sets off to right her wrong, and Jack and several elves follow to rescue her and the female unicorn, which has been captured and awaits execution.

Legend honors the era of the Goddess like few mythological works I’ve seen. Some associate the feminine with night, but it is actually the moon, which brings light to darkness, that is feminine. Lily is no silver-spoon princess who looks down on the beings of Mother Earth—its peasants and the embodied spirits of nature represented by elves and sprites. Indeed, when she visits the home of Nell (Tina Martin), a rosy-cheeked peasant woman, she waxes rhapsodic on the riches to be found in the humble cottage and surrounding forest. She loves Jack, whose spritely appearance makes him seem a cross between mortal and enchanted—an earthly man and proper male opposite who is at home in the feminine. When she realizes that she helped the minions of Darkness attack the unicorns, she decides to take action on her own.

Jack is an interesting character. Looking like Peter Pan (traditionally played by a woman), he is mortal, but has crossed over into the semi-deified world. Gump (David Bennent, the wonderful star of The Tin Drum), who seems to be the lead elf, has accepted him completely as a forest being, and let Jack in on all the forests’ secrets, including the location of the unicorns and, when he must fight Darkness, the cache of armor and weaponry he will need for his hero’s quest. He berates Jack for letting Lily touch the sacred unicorn, but recognizes that Jack’s love trumps such rules. In this, Legend is much more forgiving than the deity who expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.

Scott’s film shares some elements in common with his earlier works, particularly Blade Runner. The underground palace in which Darkness lives is reminiscent of Blade Runner in its dark, claustrophobic, semi-fascistic look. Yet it also exists on a scale of grandeur that fits not only the physical size, but also the importance of Darkness in the universe. Earth inscribes a perfect circle not only around the sun, but also on its axis, the latter action giving equal time to darkness and light. “What is light without dark,” says Darkness, a simple lesson for the physical life of our world that Scott honors and showcases. Jack’s ambiguous status also echoes the uncertainty about Deckard’s status as a human.

Scott also creates some wonderful images. When Lily looks at a clock with moving figures in Nell’s cottage, a portend of her future emerges when she sees snow covering the figure of the young girl being chased by the carving of death. The image of the male unicorn prostrate under a tree, snow swirling to cover him as his mate paces and bucks frantically around him is beautiful and poignant. A dancing black dress Darkness presents to Lily as her wedding gown (Liz Gilbert, whose face is covered in black gauze) is macabre and beautifully lit by leaping flames from his enormous fireplace. Scott’s dazzling palette of colors in the early sequences is a splendid tribute to nature.

I quite admired the make-up and costume designs, but alas, some of the masks were ill-constructed and rather laughable, and whatever was used to keep them affixed to the actors’ flesh didn’t work very well. Nonetheless, a green creature arising from the moat around Darkness’ castle to eat Jack was quite impressive-looking, as was Darkness himself. Annabelle Lanyon, who plays the sprite Oona, has an elfin face as it is, and her otherworldliness is accentuated by intense blue contact lenses and pale, wispy hair. I was transfixed whenever she was on screen.

It’s hard to really talk about performances in this film, since the dialogue is so basic and little complexity is required of the actors. Nonetheless, Bennent is an enormously gifted actor who projects gravity and strength despite his diminutive size. Cruise and Sara make an appealing couple who really do seem to be in love. And well, Tim Curry is at his Tim Curryest.

We’ve grown used to filmed myths and legends of the most bloated proportions these days. It’s nice to reflect on a film that infuses our hearts with the same kind of magic with economy and simplicity.


11th 05 - 2010 | 5 comments »

The Shiralee (1987)

Director: George Ogilvie

By Marilyn Ferdinand

“Shiralee” is the Australian term for the bundle of worldly possessions carried by itinerant workers famously known from the unofficial anthem of Australia, “Waltzing Matilda,” as swagmen. In this television adaptation of D’Arcy Niland’s classic book, the infrequent voiceover narrator calls a shiralee a burden, and reckons that the swagman at the heart of the story, Macauley (Bryan Brown), has two of them—his bundle and his daughter Buster (Rebecca Smart). How a tough guy like Macauley ended up dragging his 9-year-old daughter through the Australian bush, sleeping around a campfire and walking miles in the harsh sun, is only part of the story. This wonderful family film creates a time and place you can practically taste and shows how the bond between a parent and child can dissolve even the most stoically borne disappointments and open up possibilities abandoned long ago.

The film flashes back to 1939, when Macauley, the product of an Adelaide orphanage, has left city life behind him and struck off for the hinterlands. He enters a general store and asks for clothing suitable for hard travel. The shopkeeper asks if he’s going on horseback or by foot, and when told foot, slaps down a sturdy pair of walking shoes. “Socks or no?” “Socks,” answers Macauley. “City boy,” the shopkeeper surmises. Macauley eventually pitches up in Eucla, Western Australia, just across the South Australia border, where he lands a job as an apprentice butcher to Thaddeus (Simon Chilvers) and is immediately smitten with Thad’s daughter Lily (Noni Hazlehurst). She returns his affections, much to the annoyance of her current beau Tony (Lewis Fitz-Gerald). He arranges for Lily to think Macauley spent the night with another woman, and when Macauley finds out, he confronts Tony, only to be beaten unconscious, doused with liquor, and dumped in Thad’s ransacked butcher shop. Drawing his own conclusions from the evidence, Thad puts the unconscious Macauley on a train out of Eucla.

Skipping past World War II, the film takes us to 1946. Macauley is working for a traveling carnival as the resident boxer who takes on locals who hope to beat him and win a cash prize. He’s content enough with his carney family until he runs into a man he used to know in Eucla and is introduced to the man’s wife—Lily. Still in love with her, he disobeys orders to let his next local contender win the bout and takes all his hurt and anger out on the hapless bloke. That evening, he informs the carneys that he and Marge (Lorna Lesley), a young barker on the carnival midway, are getting married. The carnival owners warn him about making such a rash match, but he says that the only woman he wanted to marry is already married and reckons that he and Marge can make a go of it.

The film moves forward to 1953, and a small apartment in Adelaide, where Buster watches her mother Marge apply lipstick in preparation for a date. To keep Buster quiet, Marge doses her milk with some liquor. Unfortunately for Marge, Macauley picks that night to come home from his work at rural farms and sheep stations and finds her in flagrante delicto with a town councilman. After breaking the man’s jaw and ribs and smelling liquor on Buster’s breath, he throws the money he made at Marge and walks out with Buster tucked under his arm. So begins his adventure as a single dad.

Macauley is a sun-scorched and solitary man who likes to stay on the move and avoid personal ties. Buster is a typical child who squeals with delight at finding a caterpillar, complains of hunger, runs almost to tripping to keep pace with her hard-stepping father, and worms her way into his heart and ours almost effortlessly. Rebecca Smart is a very natural, appealing young actress whose initial cries for her mother (comforted by an elderly woman on the train she and Macaulay are taking back to the bush) give way to a dogged devotion to her father. He allows her to keep a giraffe plush toy a friend has given her as long as she carries it herself, and it is through “Gooby” that Buster expresses her feelings to her skittish dad and anyone else who is paying attention.

The relationship between father and daughter is somewhat lopsided. Buster falls into the rhythms of Macauley’s life and forms her attachment easily. But Mac comes to love Buster through admiration at her determination and abilities, not through some magical, idealized bond. When she takes a hatchet to chop a piece of wood for their campfire, rather than pull the tool away from her in fear, he places the branch so she will be able to strike it more effectively. A look of pride rises to his face at what a tough and resourceful person she is. It’s so refreshing to see a child treated as an actual person instead of an appendage or a porcelain doll in need of constant protection.

Macauley and a now-widowed Lily meet again, still in love but separated by fear, and Mac reluctantly goes to work for her shearing sheep. Ogilvie’s camera lingers over the shearer quarters and takes its time showing the shearing process, breathing life into the work that has filled Mac’s life. When Lily intervenes when Buster comes down with a bad case of the flu, Mac yells that he doesn’t need anyone to tell him how to raise his kid and sweats the flu out of her during an anxious night. Sadly, he storms off Lily’s farm without realizing that he does, indeed, need help being a parent. When Marge comes back on the scene and threatens his custody of Buster, his love has grown to the point where he is willing to meet Buster and Lily halfway and give up his solitary—and selfish—existence.

The small-town South Australia locations where Ogilvie shoots probably still have buildings that date back to at least 1939; adding some period clothing, sundries, and autos locates the characters over time but doesn’t take away appreciably from the timeless quality of this rural existence. A square dance in the 1939 section is shown at length as a joyous event that celebrates the sense of community among the bush towns; even something as ordinary as Thad’s death makes all the local newspapers, and the bush “telegraph” spreads the word of a crisis Buster and Mac face. Mac may be a loner, but he’s far from alone. But Aboriginals are absent save for one who travels with the carnival, and the look he gets from the locals suggests he is a highly unusual and not altogether welcome sight.

Bryan Brown is a yeoman actor with a somewhat limited range, but he is perfectly cast as Macauley. Handsome and rugged, he can project pleasure with a smile or clamp down his emotions with the utmost restraint. His growing relationship with Buster is believable and comes to a climax of emotional release that is very moving and realistic. The supporting cast is terrific, including Lorna Lesley, who plays a spurned and bitter wife with a pathetic intensity, and Simon Chilvers, who is decent, understated, and commanding of respect. Even the somewhat melodramatic ending feels grounded in reality and elicits emotions from us that the rest of the film has earned. The Shiralee is must viewing for anyone who values family films with life and depth.

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9th 10 - 2009 | 5 comments »

2009 CIFF: Who’s Afraid of the Wolf (Kdopak by se vlka bál, 2008)

Director/Screenwriter: Maria Procházková

2009 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Six-year-old Terezka (Dorata Dedková) is obsessed with the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, or so her mother (Jitka Cvancarová) says. She makes her mother read it to her night after night. Terezka has bad dreams about the wolf. Blink your eyes very quickly, says her mother, and your fear will vanish. It works! But what will take care of the wolf that is entering Terezka’s home—Patrik (Martin Hofman), her natural father come back to win her mother away from her dad (Pavel Reznicek)?

Who’s Afraid of the Wolf, a great film from the Czech Republic, sets out to tell an all-too-common story for adults and children these days using that magic device of childhood—the fairytale. Markers of Red Riding Hood are all over this film, from the insinuation of Patrik into Terezka’s world, to a trip to grandmother’s (Jana Krausová) with a basket of goodies, to a wolflike German Shepherd sent to find Terezka when she runs away. But this film, largely told through the imaginative eyes of Terezka, remains realistic, exploring the threat of divorce and the tension between work and home faced by most modern families in the developed world as a child might experience them.

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Terezka’s cartoon punctuation on the people around her—a crown for Gábinka (Marie Boková), a disliked classmate who acts like a princess, green alien arms drawn over her mother’s arms (drawn and animated by the director, an award-winning animator)—allow us to see through her eyes. When she talks with her best friend Simon (Matous Kratina) during nap time, she listens to his sage advice as any of us would a trusted friend.

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Simon puts the problems in Terezka’s home down to her mother being an alien, voicing a common concern of all children that they might be adopted. Terezka takes this advice on its face and plans to test her mother. If she doesn’t bleed, says Simon, she’s an alien. It’s horrifying to see Terezka put a fork under her pillow and then lay calmly listening to her mother read Red Riding Hood to her, waiting for the right moment to stab her. Seen another way, Terezka’s fork test is doubtless an expression of her anger with her mother for entertaining the advances of her former lover, a self-centered cellist who left her before he knew she was pregnant and only now wishes to have an instant family.

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Dedková is an energetic, intelligent child who makes us believe in Terezka and her view of life—we deeply care what happens to her. Her mother’s husband, beautifully played by Reznicek, loves her completely and is a wonderful father. The big tension he contributes to his family is that he’s always working at his job as head of airport security, using the excuse of increased security concerns to avoid facing people like his mother-in-law, who disapproves of her daughter giving up her singing career for family life and partly blames him. For her part, Terezka’s mother has denied her own stifled creativity and ambition. Old clippings announcing her retirement fascinate Terezka and haunt her mother. Patrik’s return has forced this couple to confront their problems.

I was captivated by the interplay of fantasy and reality in this film. Procházková confidently intercuts between Terezka’s fantasies of being Little Red Riding Hood and her real-life activities. Terezka’s clever escape from the airport to avoid leaving with Patrik and her mother for Japan is a small masterpiece of choreography and alternating realities.

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Terezka’s mother, disenchanted with Patrik because of his shallow indifference to Terezka’s disappearance, tears the earrings he gave her out of her ears. When Terezka is found and sees the blood drying on her mother’s ear, she—and we—know that maybe everything will be all right after all. It’s a wonderful feeling indeed. l

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21st 12 - 2008 | 12 comments »

Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962)

Director: Abe Levitow

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Oh, Magoo, you’ve done it again!

In 1941, John Hubley and several other animators who were on strike from Disney left that studio altogether to form United Productions of America (UPA) and produce cartoons that use what is now called “limited animation.” Hubley felt constrained by Disney’s emphasis on realism and wanted to create more stylized cartoons. In 1949, UPA came up with a very distinctive character—the short, bald, near-sighted Quincy Magoo, with actor Jim Backus as his first and only voice. The Magoo cartoons were hits, with two of them winning Academy Awards. When times got tough for UPA, Mister Magoo transitioned to television. It was there that Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol first appeared.

Although many consider this animated film a classic, you’re not likely to see it airing with the same frequency as A Charlie Brown Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. In fact, you may not find it at all, and that’s a real shame. Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol tells a shorter, but still faithful version of Dickens’ story bookended with classic Magoo comedy and a glorious score by Jule Styne, composer of “Let Me Entertain You,” “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” and many more great standards. The 1960s would see a radical change in musical styles, but since the setting of Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol is a Broadway stage, Styne produced a score fit for the Great White Way. (In fact, one song not used in the animated film went into a real Broadway show and became a hit—“People” from Funny Girl.)

The film opens with Magoo driving the wrong way down a Manhattan street singing the pizzazz-y “It’s Great to Be Back on Broadway.” Magoo narrowly misses hitting dozens of cars and ends up wrecking against a pole. Never missing a beat, he crosses busy streets, forcing cars to screech to a halt to avoid hitting him, and arrives at the theatre where his musical “A Christmas Carol” is playing to boffo B.O. Looking for the stage door, he misreads the sign of an adjacent restaurant and clangs and clatters his way through it and past a nervous stage manager to make his triumphal entrance in the offices of Marley and Scrooge. This opening is classic Magoo.

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Once the musical gets underway, it’s played fairly straight. Magoo as Scrooge is drawn with a nasty scowl; his face only brightens when he begins counting his gold coins in “Ringle, Ringle.” The song becomes a contrapunctal duet with Bob Cratchit (Jack Cassidy), who contrasts Scrooge’s love of money with his own misery at working in the cold. The song ends as Scrooge stops Cratchit from taking any more coal for his stove. The famous confrontation between Scrooge and the men collecting for charity manages to remain as shocking in cartoon form as it is in live-action versions of the story.

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Returning to his home, Scrooge sees a strange face overlaying his lion’s head door knocker—a bit of a joke on Magoo’s poor eyesight that fits perfectly into the story. No time is wasted once Magoo dons his night clothes and tucks into bed. Climbing up the stairs, only legs, chains, and strong boxes visible, comes the ghost of Jacob Marley (Royal Dano) to confront Scrooge. In response to Scrooge’s dismissals of his reality, Marley gives a truly frightening wail and points through the window to the other chained apparitions wandering the night sky. He tells a shaken Scrooge that he will be visited by three ghosts that night who present a way for Scrooge to save himself from Marley’s fate.

The Ghost of Christmas Present (Les Tremayne) takes Scrooge directly to Bob Cratchit’s home to view his assistant’s meager Christmas celebration. All are waiting for Bob and Tiny Tim to come back from church. When they do, a line Bob speaks strikes a particular Christmas note: “(Tiny Tim) hoped the people saw him in church because he was a cripple and thought it might be pleasant to let them remember upon Christmas Day who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.” I could be wrong, but I don’t remember this line in other filmed versions of the story. Then a wonderful song, “The Lord’s Bright Blessing,” begins in quiet anticipation as the Cratchit children imagine what it would be like to have a Christmas tree, stockings stuffed with treats, and jars and cakes of “Razzleberry dressing,” a particular obsession of Tiny Tim (Joan Gardner). When their humble Christmas dinner of soup is served, Bob leads them in the song’s buoyant chorus.

The past provides two of the best sequences of the film. First, The Ghost of Christmas Past (Joan Gardner) takes Scrooge back to his boarding school where he has been left alone for the holidays. The song “All Alone in the World” has the kind of lyrics a child can relate to, but it is the animation that is particularly poignant. There is no rescuing sister in this version—only a chalk family drawn on a chalkboard. When young Ebenezer traces his four-fingered cartoon hand and attempts a handshake with it, he shows his frustration by smearing the chalk.

If you’re a believer in root causes, this simple song shows how a miserly heart can grow from one deprived of love. We move quickly through Fezziwig’s Christmas party, where Belle (Jane Kean) only dances with Ebenezer, to Belle’s rejection of Scrooge. “Winter Was Warm” is a lovely ballad that talks about the beginning and the end of love; it certainly ranks with some of the best love ballads written.

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Scrooge does not return to his bedroom to await the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come; instead Scrooge is plunged into this part of the tale directly from Belle’s rejection. It is a bit abrupt, but there is something appropriate about juxtaposing the death of love with the death of the body. Nothing is left out of this part of Scrooge’s journey, from the businessmen talking about his death, to the scavengers who pawn his belongings in a ghoulish musical number, “We’re Despicable (Plunderer’s March),” to the death of Tiny Tim and Scrooge’s discovery of his own tombstone.

Scrooge’s rebirth in the morning as a man of love and generosity is handled particularly well. As Scrooge flatters the young boy he sends to buy the prize turkey, the boy shows pleasure at every compliment—again something I don’t think I’ve seen in other versions. When the butcher arrives with an enormous turkey, the near-sighted Magoo pokes the butcher’s belly instead of the bird, a welcome visit by the star within the play. A rousing finale of “The Lord’s Bright Blessing” ends the show, and Magoo literally brings down the house with his bumbling.

I know I’m reflecting the bias of my own childhood in thinking that the simple animation and show tunes of Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol have an enormous appeal, but I also think that for children, anyway, I’m right. Children’s movies are the last refuge of movie musicals, reflecting the importance of music to children’s development and entertainment. There are few children’s films today that have music to match the quality of Jule Styne’s score for this film, and with a return to realism in animation—hyperrealism, actually—visual experimentation of the type practiced at UPA is becoming something of a lost art. I know that illustrators are still interested in it, if the number of visitors linked to my review of The Dot and the Line through graphic design sites is any indication. If they can produce anything as pleasurable, intelligent, and graphically interesting as Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol, I’d personally like to encourage them to pursue movie-making for the whole family. To all those families out there, pick up the DVD of this wonderful seasonal cartoon and welcome a new-old classic into your home. l


8th 09 - 2008 | 6 comments »

Nobel on Film: The Blue Bird (1918 and 1976)

Film interpretations of works by Nobel Laureates in Literature

Directors: Maurice Tourneur/George Cukor
Nobel Laureate: Maurice Maeterlinck

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

In 1911, three years after he wrote and premiered his fairytale play The Blue Bird, Count Maurice Maeterlinck of Ghent, Belgium, won the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel committee said in making its award, “In appreciation of his many-sided literary activities, and especially of his dramatic works, which are distinguished by a wealth of imagination and by a poetic fancy, which reveals, sometimes in the guise of a fairy tale, a deep inspiration, while in a mysterious way they appeal to the readers’ own feelings and stimulate their imaginations.”

The Blue Bird seems to be the stuff that inspires affection from generation to generation. It has been a movie at least five times over (though surprisingly not by German-occupied France in during World War II, which would seem to be a natural fit for the French-language fairy tale)—two silent versions, a 1940 version starring Shirley Temple, an animated telling in 1970, and finally, in 1976, the first U.S.-Soviet film collaboration, with Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda, and Ava Gardner acting alongside dancers of the Kirov Ballet. I doubt we’ll ever see another retelling. Although the story tracks fairly closely to L. Frank Baum’s 1900 classic The Wizard of Oz—animals and inanimate objects that can talk accompanying children on a quest through various lands of enchantment, a mistaken apprehension of all witches/fairies as being ugly, true happiness found right at home among one’s loved ones—The Blue Bird has seen little but failure at the box office. What is it about this fairy tale that fails to appeal, and do the two film versions under consideration here bear the blame for their individual failures?

The play

Maeterlinck’s play tells of a brother and sister, Tyltyl and Myltyl, who live humbly with their woodcutter father and hard-working mother, Mr. and Mrs. Tyl, their dog Tylo and their cat Tylette. One night the children observe a great celebration taking place on the other side of the woods, at a rich family’s home. When they fall asleep, they share a dream in which the Fairy Berylune, who resembles their neighbor whose daughter is sick, sends them on a quest for a blue bird that will bring happiness and ultimate power and knowledge to all humanity.

Bluebird_silent_2.jpgThe fairy gives Tyltyle a hat with a diamond on it. When he turns the diamond, he can bring forth or dismiss the spirits of animals, plants, and things. His diamond brings forth the souls of Tylo, Tylette, Sugar, Fire, Water, Bread, Milk, and most importantly, Light. These beings will accompany the children on their quest. They will die, however, when the blue bird is found and returned to the fairy. Tylette determines to spot the children one way or another, even if it means harm will come to them. Tylo considers Tyltyl and Myltyl gods who he will protect to the end.

The searchers make several stops: the Land of Memory, where the children see their Granny Tyl and Gaffer Tyl and numerous dead siblings; the castle of Night, where Tyltyl bravely enters the many chambers the hold fearsome beings of darkness (ghosts, sicknesses, war, shadows and terrors, and finally, mysteries); the forest where the trees and wild and barnyard animals determine to kill Tyltyl to stop Man from conquering them forever. They go to the Palace of Happiness next to search for the blue bird. They encounter the Luxuries—the Luxury of Knowing Nothing and the Luxury of Understanding Nothing, the Luxury of Being Rich, the Luxury of Eating When You Are Not Hungry and the Luxury of Drinking When You Are Not Thirsty.

The troupe visits the Palace of Happiness next to search for the blue bird. They encounter the Luxuries—the Luxury of Knowing Nothing and the Luxury of Understanding Nothing, the Luxury of Being Rich, the Luxury of Eating When You Are Not Hungry and the Luxury of Drinking When You Are Not Thirsty. The Luxuries try seduce the group to stay with them, but Tyltyl turns the diamond, and the troupe ends up in the Cave of Miseries, where they do not linger, and pass into the Hall of Joys. Here the children learn of all the happinesses on earth—the Happiness of Being Well, the Happiness of Pure Air, the Happiness of Blue Sky, and most important of all, the Happiness of Maternal Love.

They pass through the Graveyard and enter the Kingdom of the Future, where the children waiting to be born work on the gifts they must take with them into the world—from the ability to achieve pure joy to leading a united solar system. The children meet their brother, who is to be born the following year and who will die quickly of the diseases he brings with him to the world.

At last, the children bid farewell to their companions, watching them fall silent again and facing fairy Berylune to tell her they failed to find the blue bird. At that moment, they see how beautiful their own home is. Of course, their parents are dumbfounded at their actions and their story about all the places they visited. Suddenly Tyltyl and Myltyl realize that their pet turtle dove is blue. Overjoyed, they run with it to the sick girl to help her feel better. She pets the bird, but it escapes. Tyltyl tells her, “Never mind…don’t cry…I will catch him again.”

The films

Each film, with some adjustments, is surprisingly faithful to the source material. With a six-act play, some shortening was called for. The silent film omits the forest scene and moves the Land of Memory to just before the children return home. The 1976 film shortens the Land of Happiness to include only Maternal Love’s encounter with her children and omits the beasts from the forest scene.

Each version uses a great deal of the dialogue Maeterlinck wrote, preserving his lessons about the state of the world and the important things in life. In Tourneur’s film, the ghosts in the castle of Night shrivel a bit. Night (Lyn Donelson) says, “(My ghosts) have felt bored in there, every since people Man ceased to take them seriously.” In Cukor’s film, the ghosts are actually frightened by the children. Costuming is different as well, with the silent ghosts little more than sheets and the more contemporary ghosts depicting famous specters, such as the Headless Horseman.

Nonetheless, despite its sometimes stagebound scenes and more rudimentary sets and costumes, Maurice Tourneur’s The Blue Bird is much more highly regarded that the star-studding, international creation of George Cukor. I’ll hazard a few guesses why.

Perhaps most importantly, the children who play Tyltyl and Myltyl in the silent version, Robin Macdougall and Tula Belle, are much more natural and realistic as country rustics than the cloying Todd Lookinland and Patsy Kensit. A good example is one scene in which the children bring back a dozen blue birds they’ve caught in the castle of Night, only to see them die when exposed to light. Macdougall and Belle are perplexed and saddened that they got fooled into catching blue birds that were not the authentic blue bird of happiness. In Cukor’s production, these avian deaths are an excuse to rustle up a song as his camera positively oozes over the crying faces of Lookinland and Kensit. Plus, I was distracted that the latter pair spoke with American and British accents, respectively.

The music is another important difference between these films. The Tourneur version features a brilliant new score by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra that is one of the best silent film scores I’ve ever heard, bringing drama, humor, and mystery in just the right amounts, and featuring sound effects that add to the pleasure of viewing the film. Irwin Kostal, a film scorer for Disney, turns in a banal, even laughable orchestration for the few songs that made the final cut. His Russian collaborator, composer Andrei Petrov, was singularly uninspired in creating songs for this film. His ballet for the genuine Blue Bird as beautifully danced by Nadezhda Pavlova and other members of the Kirov was the lone musical highlight.

Of course, another major difference is the cavalcade of Hollywood legends that lend their talents to Mr. Cukor’s effort. Elizabeth Taylor plays several roles (Mrs. Tyl, Fairy Berylune, Light, and Maternal Love). It has become fashionable to diss Taylor’s work of the 1970s as unbearable kitsch, but I think she does a good job in this children’s film. Her mother Tyl is a bit too harsh and wooden at first, but she is, well, a luminous Light in whose care I would happily put my trust if I were Myltyl or Tyltyl. Jane Fonda as Night plays her part as though she’s always aware that she’s in a children’s film; a more natural, less wicked witch, approach would have served the film better. Cicely Tyson as Tylette is completely wasted in a highly truncated role.

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There is no single star better in this film than Ava Gardner as Luxury. She is dressed beautifully in red and moves among the circus performers, gluttons, idlers, and narcissists with ironic self-indulgence. In an exchange written for the film, Tyltyl asks her which Luxury she is. Her saucy, perfect answer is, “You’ll understand more about that when you’re older.” Cukor’s hand is most evident in bringing this fun performance out of Gardner. Indeed, the entire Luxuries scene is extravagantly entertaining.

Blue_Bird_silent_3.jpgThe Tourneur film, with its color tints and some effective special effects, really has the air of enchantment about it. (I’m told by a friend who saw it at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival a few years ago that it’s absolutely stunning on the big screen.) For example, in a close-up of the kitchen hearth from which Fire (S. E. Potapovitch) emerges, dancing flames are superimposed upon a writhing figure as the body of a man slowly comes into focus. It’s a great effect. Tom Corless as Tylette is absolutely wonderful, mimicking feline movements and habits with great skill and charm. It’s a shame his character is made out to be so nasty, but it certainly shows that actors have more fun playing characters that are bad rather than virtuous.

The audience reception

I was reasonably engaged with both of these films, noting how they departed from the play, yet finding those choices reasonable. I was taken by individual lines in the play that found their way to the screen. For example, in the castle of Night, only War still is a potent threat to humanity. The other spirits of the night no longer hold power. “(My ghosts) have felt bored in there, every since people Man ceased to take them seriously,” says Night. Or when Maeterlinck shows how memory keeps loved ones alive when Granny Tyl says, “We are always here, waiting for a visit from those who are alive. They come so seldom!” and Gaffer Tyl says, “Yes, we get plenty of sleep, while waiting for a thought of the Living to come and wake us. … Ah, it is good to sleep when life is done. . . . But it is pleasant also to wake up from time to time. . . .” Or when he extols the virtue of seeing beneath the surface of life, when Maternal Love says of her brilliant dress, which Tyltyl has never seen his mother wear, “No, no, I always wear it, but people do not see it, because people see nothing when their eyes are closed. . . . All mothers are rich when they love their children. . . . There are no poor mothers, no ugly ones, no old ones.”

So why has this story faded, why was the box office so quiet? The story is quite wide-ranging and a bit confusing, so that may be one problem. However, I think Maeterlinck’s philosophy of static drama, a kissing cousin to Berthold Brecht’s epic form, might be the culprit. Feeling that human beings are controlled and propelled by fate (brought out tidily in the Land of the Future episode), he preferred unemotional line readings. Certainly, the directors of these two films did not adhere to this standard, but the more global concerns of Maeterlinck meant he used his scripts as somewhat preachy bully pulpits. It seems odd that a writer who believed in fate would attempt to school people on the correct way to treat each other and the environment.

I consider these two films to be fine entertainments for children, and if you can get beyond the wretched music of the Cukor version, ones that parents might want to sit in on.


2nd 06 - 2008 | 16 comments »

The Fall (2006)

Director: Tarsem

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Yesterday, I had one of the most pleasurable experiences I’ve ever had at the movies. The hubby and I took a short drive to a clean and modern theatre with great sound not far from our home—normally, we have to drive into the city for the films we want to see. We found parking instantly, went into the theatre, and watched one of the most seriously joyous films on offer today, The Fall. After the film, we had the opportunity to share an extremely informal Q&A session with director Tarsem (he has dropped the Singh Dhandwar), with all of us, including the director, sitting on the floor of the theatre’s lounge. More on that later.

The film takes place in Los Angeles in 1915. The opening credits, a gorgeous duotone, slow-motion sequence, show us a confusing scene involving two men splashing in water below a train trestle, a handsome couple in a rowboat, and a crane on top of the trestle. After a few moments, the crane lifts a horse from the river below and moves it across the frame.

Soon we are in a hospital, where 6-year-old Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), her right arm wrapped in a cast and suspended straight out from her body, moves restlessly through the children’s ward and yells down to Nurse Evelyn (Justine Waddell) that she has a note for her, in English, which she is just learning. Alexandria tosses the note, but it does not reach its destination. She runs down the stairs, holding a thin box from her suspended hand, and discovers that the note has landed in the lap of a young man. She is angry that he is reading it, but he says he didn’t know it wasn’t for him. Trying to calm her down, he says his name is Roy (Lee Pace). She tell him her name, and he tries another ploy to encourage her confidence. “You were named for Alexander the Great?” The girl says yes, without really seeming to know what he’s talking about, and leaves.

She returns the next day, however, and asks him more about Alexander the Great (Kim Uylenbroek). In the first picture-book sequence, she pictures Alexander on a horse, trapped in a courtyard. Roy corrects her, saying he was abandoned in a desert with a few of his troops. The image immediately shifts to great red dunes and parch-lipped men who are out of drinking water. Roy says that a messenger (Aiden Lithgow) rides to Alexander with a helmet full of water—the last Alexander’s army has left. Alexander takes the helmet and pours all of the water on the ground. Alexandria says, “That’s stupid.” Roy tries to explain that dumping the water made all of the men, including the emperor, equal. “I would give every soldier a little bit,” says Alexandria, and she departs.

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Soon, Alexandria and Roy are daily companions, as she comes to his room for a story he builds upon for her. The basic story is the fight against Governor Odious (Daniel Altagirone) by five brave men, each with a different reason for hating the governor. Luigi (Robin Smith) hates Odious for killing his brother and has vowed revenge. An Indian (Jeetu Verma)—pictured as a man from the subcontinent rather than the Native American Roy intends—hates Odious for kidnapping his beautiful squaw (Ayesha Verman) and causing her to commit suicide by locking her in the Labyrinth of Despair. Runaway slave Otto Benga (Marcus Wesley), a mystic (Julian Bleach) who emerges from the trunk of a tree that the men have seen burst into flames, and Charles Darwin (Leo Bill) and his monkey Wallace, each with beefs of their own, round out the vengeful band. The band swears an oath in front of a sacred banner that they will kill Odious—mystically, the tremendously tall, white banner stains red with flowing blood.

The tragedies of the girl and man are soon revealed. The girl’s father is dead following the theft of their horse and the burning of her home. (It’s never clear exactly where this happened—I imagined that she and her mother and sisters were refugees from World War I who were settled in California to pick oranges for American farmers.) Roy, a stuntman working on his first movie, lost the use of his legs in the stunt we saw in the opening sequence. While Alexandria’s bones will mend, Roy may never recover. He is additionally burdened by the loss of his girl to the star of the film he was working on. Roy, in fact, is suicidal and refuses to tell more of the story until Alexandria fetches him some morphine pills from the dispensary that he can use to end his life.

The film builds in intensity, as Roy’s despair ratchets up even as Alexandria grows closer and closer to him. In an attempt to destroy her feelings for him, the fairytale goes very poorly for our heroes. “Why are you killing everyone?” Alexandria cries. “It’s my story,” says Roy. “It’s my story, too,” Alexandria says angrily. This central truth—that audiences make stories every bit as much as their tellers—lies beneath Tarsem’s obsession to make this movie. His emotional catharsis becomes ours as well as he allows us to end the story the way we want to.

The story of this film’s birth is fascinating. The screenplay is very loosely based on a Bulgarian film whose title translates as Yo Ho Ho, and explores the idea of upended fairytales; as Tarsem explained, fairytales as we know them proceed in predictable ways toward happy endings, and he wanted to make a serious film in which “Santa Claus gets cancer.” He mentioned that Ponette was an inspiration for his use of a child in the film. After 23 years of planning, scouting locations in the four corners of the Earth while on commercial shoots, and waiting for the right child for the lead to be born, Tarsem finally finished the film in 2006. It took two more years and the help of Spike Jonze and David Fincher, personal friends of Tarsem’s, to get it a limited theatrical release. Tarsem has been doing personal appearances and publicity tirelessly to help get the word out. A greater spokesperson could not be found.

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Among the topics we discussed was the visual splendor of the film made possible by location shooting and the dazzling costumes of Oscar winner Eiko Ishioka (due for another one for this film). According to Tarsem, the film was shot in at least 24 countries, and none of the visual effects were computer-generated. An image I and others were sure was computer-generated was of Governor Odious’ troops running down a series of zigzag staircases. In fact, these staircases actually are wells that were built with several horizontal lines to mark the water level, an indication of how much to tax the wells’ users. The wells are disused, ancient structures found all over India for which Indians had little regard. Tarsem found one exposed enough in an area experiencing drought and hired extras to play the troops—according to Tarsem, it’s cheaper in India to use real extras than to create images electronically. Now, the wells are showing up more and more in Indian films and commercials. In another example, a shot of an iridescent-blue butterfly dissolves to the very real Butterfly Reef:

In one scene, Alexandria has to translate between her mother and her doctor. For a while, she does it properly. Then, she gets tired of it. Her mother says something lengthy to the doctor, and Alexandria says, “She says, ‘OK.”” To the doctor’s disbelief, she merely says, “That’s how we say it.” This incident was taken from Tarsem’s own experience of translating for his illiterate grandmother. It got a big laugh in the theatre and at the Q&A.

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Tarsem told of shooting in the sacred Indian city of Rajasthan, where the only color that houses are allowed to be painted is blue. During scouting, Tarsem thought the color of the buildings was too faded to pop on screen. He offered the people of the town free paint and the chance to paint their homes any color they chose. Naturally, they all chose blue and freshened up his location with a new coat of paint.

The film includes a montage at the end of dangerous stunts performed during the silent era. Tarsem said he actually wanted to make a film set in contemporary times, but he could not afford to get permission to use stunts from current films. Because silent films are in the public domain, he used those. He thought to have Alexandria age to the present, but his young star could not do an older voice and adding an older actress just didn’t work. Therefore, he kept the film within Alexandria’s childhood.

The hardest part of the film for Tarsem was finding the right child. He said he sent people he knew out with cameras to shoot video of children all over the world. He originally conceived of the part as that of a boy, but when he saw Untaru, he was blown away. Once he secured her services, he shot for 12 weeks in sequence. Untaru spoke very little English at first and imitated him, which basically left her with Indian-accented English, but picked up the language very quickly. He did from one to three takes of her scenes, “because she got cutesy after that.” Her chemistry with Pace is incredible through their semi-improvised scenes, and Tarsem thought after seeing them together that he might just make a straight drama and cut out all the storytelling sequences. I agreed that the reality-based scenes were much stronger and very emotional, but the story grew on me and permutated to reflect Roy’s troubles in an interesting and story-enhancing way.

Unaccountably, the film received an “R” rating in the United States, for what I’m not sure, but perhaps for a very short scene of Alexandria hearing a noise (her nurse and a doctor having sex) and going over to investigate. The rating is a real tragedy, because this is a perfect film for parents and children of about 10 years old and up. Children like stories that seem real to them even as they are being entertained by a fantasy. Parents, take your kids—you have nothing to fear from this age-appropriate film. Adults who are young at heart, check out this wonderful adventure with a brain.

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12th 12 - 2007 | 7 comments »

A Christmas Carol (1938)

Director: Edwin L. Marin

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Of the many screen adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, to my mind, the best and most definitive version is the 1951 production starring Alistair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge. Filled with wonderful performances, evocative settings, and a fully fleshed story, this is the movie that has imprinted my mind’s eye with how the story goes.

So when the hubby said that his favorite Carol was the 1938 version starring Reginald Owen, I suggested we watch it. I was sure I had seen it before, but after a full viewing of this short, 73-minute film, I can say I had only seen clips, not the entire thing. So different was it in so many respects from my cherished version, I found the entire experience a revelation.

First a word of thanks to the good people of Turner Classic Movies who dig up all those interesting facts for their various movie hosts to drop at the beginning and end of each screening. Robert Osborne, the indispensable main host on TCM, introduced the film by saying that to radio audiences of the 1930s, the audio version of “A Christmas Carol” with Carol%20Barrymore.gifLionel Barrymore as Scrooge was as ubiquitous and popular as A Christmas Story and It’s a Wonderful Life are today. To capitalize on the popular radio special, MGM decided to produce a filmed version with Barrymore leading the cast. Shortly before filming was to begin, Barrymore had a crippling fall that, added to an earlier injury, would cost him the use of his legs. Because so much was already invested in the film, MGM decided to forge on. Barrymore suggested Owen as his replacement and did a promotional trailer for the film. This background helped me enormously in understanding the very different choices director Marin and screenwriter Hugo Butler made in telling this familiar story.

The film opens not on the offices of Scrooge & Marley, but rather in the street near the accountancy, where Scrooge’s nephew Fred (Barry MacKay) is sliding on the icy sidewalk with some youngsters. This scene goes on for quite some time, setting up Fred as a handsome and likable lead; this image is further reinforced when he enters his uncle’s place of business and encourages Bob Cratchit (Gene Lockhart) to put more coal on the fire and have some wine Fred has brought as a gift for Scrooge. This scene of good cheer and camaraderie really is delightful. Bob retrieves a glass from his boss’ office and hands it to Fred. “What’s that smell?” Fred inquires. “Cough syrup,” says Bob. They both grimace and chuckle as Fred fills the glass for Bob. It is then that Scrooge makes his entrance. Cratchit hurriedly puts down the glass and runs to the fireplace to remove some unignited coal briquettes.

The scene then progresses as Dickens wrote it, with Fred and Scrooge declaring their opposite philosophies of Christmas and life in general. When Scrooge dismisses some men collecting for charity with the famous line “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population,” it comes as the shock it always does, no matter how often it has been repeated.

The story deviates again from the original by having Bob take off after collecting his week’s wages and getting involved in throwing snowballs with some neighborhood boys. He ends up throwing a snowball at Scrooge and knocking his top hat into the street where a coach tramples it. Scrooge fires him. Bob blows his entire wages on food for Christmas dinner and chestnut treats for his children.

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From this point on, the story proceeds in pretty much the traditional manner, with light sprinklings of sugar here and there. Leo G. Carroll ably acquits himself as Marley’s ghost. The Spirit of Christmas Past, played by Andy Hardy regular Ann Rutherford, is the strangest casting in the film. She is far too glamorous and sounds like a scold as she preaches to Scrooge of his failings. D’Arcy Corrigan as the Spirit of Christmas Future looks like a fugitive from an Ed Wood film. But the brilliant performance and costuming of Lionel Braham as the Spirit of Christmas Present make him my favorite of all those who have played the part.

Carol%20Kilburn%20edit.JPGThe hubby thinks Terry Kilburn is a creepy-looking Tiny Tim, a sort of Peter Lorre in training, but he’s still endearing and manages to toss off “God bless us, every one,” without too much syrup coating the screen. Lynn Carver as Fred’s fiancée Bess takes the romantic lead other versions of the story properly reserve for Ebenezer’s lost love Belle, whose story is never told. Old Fezziwig (Forrester Harvey), a great favorite of mine, is barely a walk-on in this movie. So much is left out of this A Christmas Carol, it seems like a Cliff’s Notes version. Additions leave other moments hanging; for example, Bob Cratchit’s splurge on Christmas dinner makes Scrooge’s purchase of the prize goose on Christmas day rather beside the point. And Owen’s bald wig and roaming eyebrows are atrocious.

What then are we to make of this movie? I think the key is the radio drama it was supposed to emulate and the conventions of the time that demanded an attractive ingénue couple, moving Fred and Bess to center stage. This shorter version, which I’m convinced must have tracked closely with the radio play, certainly fits the restrictions of radio and simplifies some plot twists that might have been confusing to listen to. The film is filled with sounds, from the clock in Ebenezer’s bedroom striking the hour to the pop of Scrooge’s hat under some carriage wheels. These sounds certainly would have brought the tale alive for a radio audience. The omniscient voiceover is omitted to keep the narrative moving, but its absence leads to some heavy-handed moralizing by the Spirits. There is, however, one shocking image that the radio could not deliver—Scrooge reading his own tombstone. That scene still has a lot of power and was well handled in this telling.

And how does Reginald Owen stack up as Ebenezer Scrooge? He had less to work with than Sim or other screen Scrooges, and yet, I think he set a standard that others followed. His gestures and carriage are perfect, and his transformation from a miserly humbug, though a bit too swift, is heart-warming nonetheless. This A Christmas Carol delivers the sentiments we all crave at this time of year. I’m glad to have welcomed it into my home. l


4th 12 - 2007 | 11 comments »

The Man in the Moon (1991)

Director: Robert Mulligan

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I enjoy family films. I particularly like anything that smacks of a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation. There is something so warm and fuzzy about the simple, even lyrical dramas Hallmark chooses to sponsor, particularly during the holiday season; in an earlier era, I remember such homespun pleasures presented by Kraft, interrupted infrequently by recipe commercials using Philadelphia Brand Cream Cheese and “Cheezoid.” Just so you know—I’m hardwired to accept sentimental, commercial dramas that promote family values.

This week it was revealed that Reese Witherspoon is now Hollywood’s highest-paid actress. Although her brittle, obsessed performance in Election had some of us fooled that she might spend her time making challenging indie features, her roots and current career trajectory—now well established by her asking price—are mainstream all the way. The best evidence for that fact can be found in her film debut, The Man in the Moon. While it’s a bit risqué for early evening television, this is the kind of film parents should be happy to watch with their tweens and teens, hoping all the while that the kind of romantic/sexual awakenings on the screen represent the kinds of choices their children are up against in this toddling new 21st century. Nonetheless, I believe there is reason to hope that innocence hasn’t really gone completely out of fashion.

manmoon4.jpgThe story, set in 1957 small-town Louisiana, centers on the Trant family. Mama Abby (eternally rural Tess Harper), pregnant with her fourth child; Papa Matthew (Sam Waterston), a stalwart sort; 17-year-old Maureen (Emily Warfield); and 14-year-old Dani (Witherspoon) live in the kind of large, faux-antebellum house with a wraparound, screened porch we all imagine we’d want to grow up in. It’s summer, and the girls beat the heat by sleeping on the porch. Dani, just starting to awaken to the opposite sex, has a crush on Elvis Presley. She lounges on her cot spinning a single of his “Loving You” as Maureen undresses nearby, revealing her curves and filled-up bra. Maureen is considered a beauty and is much sought after by the boys in town. Dani, plain and still railing against wearing skirts, wonders if she will ever attract a suitor. Maureen cautions her not to hurry. Growing up is confusing, and Maureen is often in despair about ever knowing what she really wants and, worse, ever getting it.

One Sunday, Dani races out of her church clothes and runs to a waterhole on the neighboring Foster farm, now long unoccupied. She goes skinny dipping, unaware that a boy is making his way to the hole. He jumps in, startling her as she quickly covers her breast buds. Both accuse the other of trespassing until the young man, 17-year-old Court Foster (Jason London), says his family owns the property. They’ve just moved back to town.

Court is a handsome boy, and Dani develops a crush on him, signaled, of course, by being as nasty to him as possible until he tells her that he likes her spunk. Then she gets some instruction from manmoon3.jpgMaureen on how to kiss and behave around boys. She tries to get Jason to kiss her in the waterhole, but he rejects her brusquely with the suggestive line, “Well you just almost got yourself more than kissed, little girl.” Eventually, she persuades him to be the first boy to kiss her. But her further ambitions toward him are thwarted when he meets Maureen.

This film has the feel of a play to me in the way the dialogue is written and delivered. The actors seem to declaim more than emote, presenting a classic formula for sentimentality. There are some violent and disturbing moments in the film, but aside from a whipping Matt delivers to Dani, they are the stuff of melodrama. For example, a storm suddenly kicks up after Court rejects Dani at the waterhole, setting up a potential tragedy in the Trant family. When the sisters share a mutual loss and then reconcile their rift over Court, it isn’t deeply felt. A possible love triangle between Matt, Abby, and Court’s mother Marie (Gail Strickland), a widow who dated Matt first, is considered by the screenwriter and dropped. Abby got him, and that’s that. The story demands family harmony no matter what.

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And perhaps that’s the beauty of The Man in the Moon to me. Yes, it romanticizes family bonds, first love, and bygone values even as it allows fear, estrangement, and death to bite around the edges. Children need to know that they are safe while they explore some of the complexities of life yet to come, from disappointment in love to predatory adults and raging hormones. When Dani forgives her father for beating her, “I know you feel bad about taking the strap to me … You were scared, I know that,” we understand that Dani is starting to see her father as a person, not the omnipotent figurehead at the top of the family pyramid. When she runs to him after witnessing a terrible accident near the end of the film, young viewers can rest assured that Matt’s earlier show of weakness and Dani’s recognition of it will not affect his ability to continue to provide her with protection and reassurance.

The Man in the Moon has lessons to teach, but they come out of the experiences of the characters, particularly Dani, and therefore provide young viewers role models with whom they can identify. It is important to introduce children to life in ways that will neither scare them to death nor bore them to tears. Perhaps some teens will be too sophisticated for The Man in the Moon, but many of them won’t. And adults like me with a corny streak as wide as Iowa will enjoy the simple nostalgia, likeable characters, and loving families lovingly presented in this film. l


25th 11 - 2007 | 12 comments »

The Red Balloon (Le Ballon Rouge, 1956)/White Mane (Crin-Blanc, 1953)

Director: Albert Lamorisse

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

We all tend to hold dear the images and experiences of our childhood. For people in their 20s, The Little Mermaid and Scooby Doo may be the beloved images of youth. For people who were young in the mid 1950s and early 1960s, The Red Balloon is sacred ground. The Red Balloon won just about every award for which it was eligible and played in movie theatres around the world. So popular was this magical story of a boy and his balloon that a chain of Red Balloon coffee houses opened. I remember driving past the restaurant with my parents and gazing fondly at the bronze, lifesize replica of the little boy at the top of a Parisian-style light pole reaching for the string of the painted-red balloon.

Like many of the other markers of my youth, the restaurant is gone, and the movie has faded from memory. But now in its 50th year of existence, Janus Films has begun touring The Red Balloon and White Mane, an earlier children’s film by the same director, on the arthouse circuit. The timing not only coincides with the Janus anniversary, but also capitalizes on the recent release of respected Chinese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Flight of the Red Balloon. The childish thrill I experienced when I heard the song over the opening credits of The Red Balloon was an unexpected joy.

Balloon%202.jpgThe film opens with a gorgeous view of a neighborhood in a hilly part of Paris, its grey cobblestone streets and stairways ghostly in a morning mist. Then, our boy (Pascal Lamorisse, the director’s son) comes into the scene. The camera stays at his eye level as we watch him descend a few stairs and walk up a wall while holding onto a light pole. When he reaches the top, we see what he is after—a large, very round, red balloon. He has to grip the string in his mouth to descend the pole. Once safely on the ground, he grips the string and goes off to school.

The streetcar conductor won’t let him on with the balloon. Rather than let go, he runs all the way to school. He hurries through the door. A few moments later, he hurries back out. He finds an old man on the street and tells him to hold onto the balloon (“and don’t let go”) until he comes out. Miraculously, the man complies. When the boy gets home to his grandmother, we watch up at their apartment window as she opens the shutters and tosses the balloon out. But the balloon has picked the boy to be his friend, and it floats outside the window waiting for the boy to retrieve it.

The boy and the balloon are inseparable. It harasses a teacher who locks the boy up and follows a blue balloon a little girl is holding; the two balloons play and check each other out like a pair of pet dogs. It’s amazing how much personality an object can convey under the skillful direction of Lamorisse and the matter-of-fact acceptance of his son as the balloon’s friend. When the balloon finally is separated from the boy by an envious pack of boys from his school, all the balloons in Paris rush to his side to convey him to a place where he and the red balloon can be reunited. It’s a very special moment, and one of the most beautiful scenes ever captured on film.

White Mane is a new film to me, but this story of a wild and proud horse is a beautiful, somber, and sad affair that I would have loved as the dramatic, morbid child I was. (I asked my teacher to read Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl” to my second-grade class, and she was appalled by the death at the end.) Unfortunately, American parents of yesteryear pretended childhood was nothing but fun and games, and I doubt the film ever played in the States. To today’s parents who are overly paranoid about exposing their children to anything that might harm them—like reality—I issue the caution that this film is intense and violent.

White%20Mane%20lamorisse.jpgThe story takes place in the Camargue, a marshy region south of Arles in France known for its herd of small, wild horses. White Mane, the narrator (Peter Strauss) tells us, is the leader of his herd. He is sought by some gauchos who wish to tame him. They chase him over the dunes and lead him to a pen, where they try to break him. However, he escapes. They try again, setting fire to the marsh to flush him out, but he attacks their leader’s horse, which throws the man to the ground. “Whoever wants him can have him,” says the man in disgust. Young Folco (Alain Emery), a fisherman, overhears this remark and decides to make White Mane his. The horse takes a liking to him, and agrees to come back to his home, where Folco and his young brother (a very cute Pascal Lamorisse) live with their grandfather and a menagerie that includes one of the Camargue’s famed flamingos.

White Mane is happy with Folco, but when the gauchos drive his herd toward their ranch, he gives chase and ends up in a pen with another male from the wild herd that has taken his place as leader. He and White Mane fight for dominance of the herd. The battle of these two males is very intense, lengthy, and violent—nothing staged about it. White Mane is driven out and returns to Folco, who tends his wounds.

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Of course, the proud men are not about to give up so quickly. They decide to humble White Mane, but Folco takes off, riding him to the river. The two plunge into the water and are swept to sea, where the narrator relates that they are going to a place where men and horses live always as friends.

ballon_belleville3.jpgThe sad ending of White Mane rings true, coming from a man who had lived through the Nazi occupation of France and who made this film for children who had survived the war and were still dealing with its aftermath. The Red Balloon touches on the same theme by pitting envious, warring boys armed with slingshots against their smaller classmate and his defenseless, but brave, balloon. Although White Mane evokes the emotion of wartime Europe, reminders of the war are all around in the much more gentle The Red Balloon. Looking at the rubble the boy walks through, it’s not surprising that Lamorisse would want to evoke a bit of magic to take him away. In the end, the boy also leaves the world to go to a place where boys and their balloons can live unmolested. If you want to call these films a plea for peace—or even religious parables—you wouldn’t be far off. If you’re afraid your kids can’t handle them, ask them if they think life is just fun and games. They might surprise you. l

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6th 10 - 2007 | 3 comments »

Atagoal: Cat’s Magical Forest (Atagoal wa neko no mori, 2005)

Director: Mizuho Nishikubo

2007 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Those film fans familiar with Japanese anime know that these full-length “cartoons” very often are anything but kids’ stuff; the bulk of anime that buffs view are very adult tales on serious subjects such as nuclear war. Fortunately, the Japanese anime world has plenty of room for all ages. It’s great to see the CIFF program the very family-friendly Atagoal: Cat’s Magical Forest, based on a popular manga, and show it at a time suitable for children. At the screening I attended, a mom and dad brought their two young children to enjoy the story of a fun-loving cat and his adopted son, and how they saved the world.

The film opens with an entire village of cats and a few humans attending a rock concert starring Hideyoshi (Kôichi Yamadera) and his Full-Belly Band. Hideyoshi is a fat cat who likes nothing better than to eat (especially tuna) and play. At the end of a rousing, colorful production number, Hideyoshi snatches a couple of tunafish and uses his giant zeppelin, shaped to look like him, both to elude the villagers who are chasing after him and basically smash up the immediate area. He seems to be able to fly without assistance as well and dives into a nearby body of water.

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His human friends Princess Tsukimi (Aya Hirayama) and Tempura (Asahi Uchida) go off to find him, muttering understandingly that Hideyoshi thinks he’s livening up this yearly celebration with his destructive ways. They find him at the water’s edge with a sealed chest sitting next to him. He’s sure it has food in it and wants to get into it as soon as possible. Just then, Gilbars (Seiichi Tanabe), a heroic-looking cat with great powers, comes by and senses evil. He tells Hideyoshi that he must never open the chest. “If you tell me not to do something, I simply must” says Hideyoshi, who succeeds in prying open the chest. Out comes a pink cloud that slowly forms into the beautiful Pileah, Queen of the Plants (Mari Natsuki). Hideyoshi demands tuna as his reward for freeing her, but she says she has a reward for everyone. She sings a beautiful song, and all the villagers start floating and dancing, feeling a sense of perfect peace.

Hideyoshi’s search for food separates him from the rest of Atagoal. He comes upon an object that looks like a prickly pear. It suddenly grows arms, legs, and a head with a crown of sprouts on top of it. The object tells Hideyoshi that he is not food but rather a creature with a long name Hideyoshi cannot pronounce. Hideyoshi renames him Hideko (Etsuko Kozakura). Hideko chooses Hideyoshi to be his father, even though the fat cat doesn’t know what a father is.

What Hideyoshi doesn’t realize is that he has unleashed a force that will destroy Atagoal and the rest of world. Pileah seeks perfect order and harmony, and to accomplish this, she spreads her seed all over the world, creating copies of herself and turning all the other creatures into flowers. Once they become flowers, she eats their life force, thereby renewing herself. Hideyoshi also doesn’t realize that his new “son” is actually the King of the Plants, the only being that can stop Pileah.

I found it interesting that the usually ecologically solid Japanese animes would look at plants as possible destroyers of the world. But indeed, the plant kingdom does contain its tough guys, such as the Venus flytraps in which Pileah intends to execute Hideyoshi and his friends.

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Hideko is a completely delightful creation, tiny bodied and tiny voiced. Watching him pit himself against the gigantic Pileah was very funny. His love for his chosen father, Hideyoshi, was unshakable, and Hideyoshi’s devotion to him was sweet. I got a little tired of Hideyoshi always grubbing for food, and the story was fairly disjointed. But visually, this anime is stunning, and the music was nice and singable for the kids.

I can’t say that this film is first-rate anime by adult standards, but it has a lot going for it. Families looking for something a little different should definitely check out the cool cats of Atagoal. l

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1st 03 - 2006 | 2 comments »

The Brothers Grimm (2005)

Director: Terry Gilliam

By Marilyn Ferdinand

When I finished watching The Brothers Grimm last night, this exchange from Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus came to mind:

Emperor Joseph II: Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. But there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.
Mozart: Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?

Substitute Harvey Weinstein for Emperor Joseph II and Terry Gilliam for Mozart, and you may understand what went awry with this picture.

Terry Gilliam has one of the most distinctive and extravagant visions of any filmmaker who ever lived. His fantastical world view is at its best when it is most fully realized. Unfortunately for Gilliam, he can’t make a movie his way without spending something close to the gross domestic product of Switzerland, and his films are so unique that they rarely come close to making back their investment. Therefore, Gilliam films rarely happen, and when they do, they frequently are compromised by the men with the checkbooks.

I think that Harvey Weinstein/Miramax had good intentions when they signed onto Gilliam’s idea for The Brothers Grimm. It seemed that with the help of CGI, the director’s over-the-top production demands could be met at a fairly reasonable cost. Unfortunately, there is a warmth and craftsmanship to Gilliam’s handmade contraptions and fairy castles that cannot be had with even the best computer graphics available today. And believe me, buying into the extreme world of Terry Gilliam requires the proper setting. That’s why The Brothers Grimm only succeeds by half.

The cast only succeeds by half as well. It was a mistake to put Matt Damon in the role of Wilhelm Grimm, the more pragmatic of the two brothers who are sent to a town in Germany by a lunatic French general (Jonathan Pryce) to find, on pain of death, 10 girls who have vanished. The kinds of parts that fit Damon down to the cuticles call on his talent for alienation and subtle intensity. He simply is not up to playing a P.T. Barnum huckster who makes his living by pulling off bogus exorcisms. His slapstick moments are not funny, and he only makes an impression when he yells at his brother. He’s not even sexy when he’s meant to be. So that’s the one half of the Grimms who doesn’t work.

Heath Ledger as Jacob Grimm is the half who does. He completely disappears into this fairytale fanboy who can’t believe he has stumbled onto a real-life enchantment after years of fervently collecting stories that he silently believes. He is taken with Angelika (Lena Headey), the town’s “cursed one,” not because she’s beautiful and available, but because she’s versed in folk arts and a believer in enchantment. At one point, he must awaken her, like Sleeping Beauty, with a kiss of pure love. The love he uses successfully to revive her is not for her, however, but for the fairytale she stepped out of.

Pryce and Peter Stormare as the French general’s master torturer Cavaldi are silly in the best sense. Both love being ruthless, and both reminded me a great deal of my beloved Captain Hook. Stormare lays on a hilarious Italian accent that had me giggling even as I found some of his antics a bit frightening. That was the perfect combination for this caricature. Pryce, with less screen time, had to make more of it. At one point, a fluffy kitten is kicked into the rotating blades of one of Gilliam’s inventive torture devices in a Monty Pythonesque gag. A bit of puree of kitty ends up on the general’s face. He wipes it off with his finger and eats it, humming his approval at the flavor. I was splitting my sides at this send-up of French gourmandizing. Indeed, the French are thoroughly despised in this film shown from the occupied Germans’ point of view, and this national rivalry becomes a running joke as well.

The film is a bit like a “Where’s Waldo” game that piles too many references to fairytales in for its own good, keeping Jacob scribbling in his notebook almost nonstop. The final battle between the Grimms and a 500-year-old witch played by Monica Bellucci is exciting, but it also is CGI overload that seemed to me like a weak imitation of Sleepy Hollow. Degenerating into noise and catastrophe using fair-to-poor special effects, the plot barrels over the characters and teeters on the edge of incoherence until it reaches its wimpering end. I blame this digital excess entirely on Miramax. If only Gilliam had been able to do it his way.

I don’t know whether to recommend this film or not. It held my attention but it’s a bit of a hash. I say, though, that I’d rather have an original like Gilliam making movies than not. I’m sure I’ll go see his next effort—if he manages to get it made, that is. l


10th 01 - 2006 | no comment »

Oliver Twist (2005)

Director: Roman Polanski

By Marilyn Ferdinand

It’s artistically dangerous to remake Oliver Twist. You face the problem of making a very familiar story your own and standing against other film versions, including a very flamboyant, successful, and well-made musical; so will your actors. If you are Roman Polanski, you will be (and have been) accused of trying to find yet another way of revisiting and exorcising your harrowing childhood, which everyone is tired of hearing about (well, not Polanski’s childhood per se, but the Holocaust). You will have to hear the sarcastically rhetorical question of whether a remake was really necessary.

I am of the opinion that a classic is a classic because it bears up to repeated tellings, and if a genius film maker like Roman Polanski decides to put his stamp on Oliver Twist, I am so there! I was not joined in that sentiment by many people—the film was a mere blip on movie screens this past year. However, I am happy to report that I was right, and the droves who stayed away were wrong. This Oliver Twist is wonderful.

As with all of Polanski’s films, the cinematography (in this case, by The Pianist cinematographer Pawel Edelman) is superb, somewhat resembling a hand-colored black-and-white photograph. This look evokes both nostalgia—a tip of the hat to the sometimes sentimentalized legacy of Dickens—and the realism of a gray England steeped in soot and poverty. The script by Ronald Harwood is crisp and elegant, giving the actors maximum aid in creating their characters anew—and perhaps with the exception of Ben Kingsley’s Fagin, every character breaks free of its stereotyping and past performances and truly lives.

It is the great strength of this Oliver Twist that the characters don’t seem to have popped off the page of a penny dreadful. Nancy, as realized by Leanne Rowe, is a very young woman injured by her bad upbringing, probably anti-Semitic, and more a captive of Bill Sykes than the love-starved romantic in deep denial she normally is made out to be. Bill (Jamie Foreman) is a self-pitying bully, not a fire-breathing dragon, little more than one of Fagin’s young pickpockets graduated to burglary and armed robbery. It’s hard for Ben Kingsley to do much to reinvent Fagin, but he does give him a more cutthroat edge than fans of the other Twists may be used to. Finally, Barney Clark impresses as Oliver Twist himself. He seems a bit clueless a lot of the time, but still a real boy who has a talent for adaptation. His appealing, magnetic screen presence is reminiscent of Jackie Coogan. Clark has two good films under his belt so far (The Lawless Heart being the other), and seems to be on the road to a solid career.

Polanski has given us a well-trod classic made of flesh-and-blood characters. If he doesn’t completely escape the pit of familiarity, he at least makes us feel as though we have lived it a little more than we ever have before. That’s well worth the price of admission in my book. I especially recommend this to parents and their children—it’s one of the great family films we were treated to in 2005.


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