Posted tagged ‘Movie Review’

Le Joie d’Ete – “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday”

June 29, 2010

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday/ Not Rated/ 83 mins.

Time to turn off the brains, summer vacation is here.  Let us gorge on hot dogs and fry by the pool.  We deserve a rest, and Hollywood obliges with three months of mindless action and sophomoric hijinks.  Let us be thankful for this, if it wasn’t for summer movies we would never know the answer to the question, “How buff could Jake Gyllenhaal become if he spent endless hours in the gym?”  In honor of the season, I showed my four and seven year olds a movie that epitomizes summer, “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday”.  Did I mention that it is black and white, in French, and nearly silent.  In other words, it can’t miss.

“Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” is a light look at how the French vacationed in the 1950s.  There is no real plot to discuss.  The movie consists of a number of vignettes, capturing the rhythm of a weeklong vacation at the beach.  The characters swim, have lunch, sunbathe, eat lunch again, play tennis, picnic, go swimming once more, eat dinner, and witness fireworks.  Not dissimilar to the way most people could sum up their own family vacation. 

This is the first film featuring the character of Mr. Hulot.  Created by Jacques Tati, Mr. Hulot is as physically recognizable as Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp.  Usually wearing an oversized hat and sporting a pipe, Hulot is amiable and polite, always seeming to apologize for what he has done or what he is about to do.  Of course, this is when he is not bounding away from the scene, trying to escape blame.  He bumbled his way through four films from the 1950s to the early 1970s, each with a message about society at the time. 

While a comedy, the film is not truly funny.  You do not laugh uproariously at the jokes, rather you smile at their cleverness.  Tati was known for his meticulous planning of even the simplest of situations.  The film could be used to help teach older children about the art of a good gag.  The set ups and pay offs are well defined and easy to explain.     

However, let’s tackle the lingering question, “How could any kid possibly enjoy an unfunny French comedy?”  I asked the kids, and in true four and seven year old fashion they gave me no answer.  I do know they laughed out loud twice. The first time when a dog would not move out of the road as Mr. Hulot attempted to drive past.  The second was when beachgoers mistook Mr. Hulot for a shark.

Neither of those scenes sounds any more compelling than your average cartoon.  And that is why kids may gravitate towards Mr. Hulot.  He is a cartoon character in the same way Pee-wee Herman is one.  Mr. Hulot is awkward enough to create problems, but good hearted enough that you want to be around him.  It is true that he causes minor headaches for the characters in the film, but they continue to include him in every group activity.

The kids also connect to the movie’s light air.  The movie may remind adults of their own summer memories, but it reminds kids of most days of their lives.  Kids’ interests in life are not serious, they revolve around play.  Mr. Hulot spends most of his time playing.  The most serious thing Mr. Hulot does is eat lunch.  The most serious thing any character does is take a phone call, and that character is played for a laugh as every activity he attempts is interrupted by an incredibly important call.  He probably reminds many kids of their Dads.

At the end of the film an English woman asks Mr. Hulot if he will return the following year.  Mr. Hulot politely nods yes.  This was our family’s second visit with Mr. Hulot.  Last year my son proclaimed it was better than “G-Force”, prompting one internet film guru to respond, “Let’s hope he is as open minded at eight.”  I’m sure my son was humoring me last year, but this year both he and his four year old sister were actively engaged.  Next year, my son will be eight.  I asked if we should watch it again at that time.  He politely nodded yes. 

What’s your favorite summer movie?

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The Wonderful World of Miyazaki

April 29, 2010

Kiki’s Delivery Service/ Rated G/ Running Time: 103 min

My Neighbor Totoro/ Rated G/ Running Time: 86 min

Ponyo/ Rated G/ Running Time: 101 min 

Disney dominated my childhood.  Nearly every one of my movie going experiences in the 1970’s involved a film by the studio.  While live action Disney movies, such as “The Shaggy D.A.” or “The Cat from Outer Space”, captured my six year old imagination, the big events were the animated films.

Disney created a successful formula with their animated features.  Sometimes they were based upon familiar fairy tales.  Nearly always they included an innocent hero/heroine forced to confront a frightening villain with the help of cute animal sidekicks.  All the while they sang a few catchy tunes. 

Every animation studio since has used this formula as their backbone.  It makes comfortable entertainment, but it also creates specific expectations for the audience.  If a film lacks any of these elements, the audience may tune out.  However, there are animators who have created beloved classics outside of the formula.  Perhaps the most successful is the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki.

I chose three of Miyazaki’s films to show to my kids.  The first, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is about a young witch in training who must live away from her parents for a year.  The second, “My Neighbor Totoro” tells about the interactions between two young sisters, dealing with their mother’s stay in the hospital, and a group of wood spirits.  The last is Miyazaki’s latest, “Ponyo”, a riff on “The Little Mermaid”, about a young goldfish who wants to become a girl.  Each of these movies is beautiful on its own, and taken together they show many examples of success outside of typical formulas.  

The most striking difference is the fact that there are no conventional villains in many of Miyazaki’s movies.  Most animated films boast a memorable villain who embodies our dark emotions.  The hero spends the film overcoming this characterization of greed, fear, or jealousy, often killing them.  Miyazaki films keep the struggle internal.  Kiki’s nemesis is her loneliness from living in an unfamiliar city and her need to belong.  In “My Neighbor Totoro”, the closest thing to a villain is the possibility that the mother may not leave the hospital.

Another difference is the way characters interact.  Many animated films show characters that are one note: “the mean girl”, “the shy boy”, “the wise old woman”.  Characters in these films are more nuanced.  “Kiki’s Delivery Service” shows particularly rich relationships.  Kiki’s female connections span from peer and rival to sister, mother and grandmother.  Just in real life, the characters will have moments where they are friendly or selfish, loving or jealous.  These complex relationships remind us of ourselves, grounding the stories in reality.

The films are also permeated by a love of nature.  In these worlds, the everyday scenes of nature are controlled by invisible magic lying just beneath the surface.  The Totoros are the protectors of the forest, and Ponyo’s father orchestrates the balance and beauty of the sea.  In fact, the main conflict in “Ponyo” stems from an imbalance in nature and the ensuing repercussions.

These films are joyous meditations on life.  The artwork is lush and fantastical.  Words can not do justice to the details of the cityscape in “Kiki’s Delivery Service” or the sea creatures in “Ponyo”.  It is best to immerse yourself in them and let these unique images wash over you.

All of the movies played well to a new generation of kids raised on Disney and Pixar.  My four year old daughter enjoyed “Kiki’s Delivery Service” the best.  “My Neighbor Totoro” was favored by my six year old son.  Perhaps most importantly, my 36 year old wife was able to put away her Disney baggage and loved them all.

Miyazaki will open your horizons and his unique style of animation will intoxicate you.  I may have spent most of my words highlighting some differences between Miyazaki and Disney, but there are nods to the formula.  Kiki’s smart-alecky black cat is a typical animal sidekick and the plot of “Ponyo” is somewhat goal oriented, like many of the fairy tales.  The films are different, but not so much that they should be frightening.  In fact, do you know who distributes Miyazaki’s films in the U.S.?  Yes, once again, Disney has put their stamp of approval on high quality family entertainment.  They have had me since birth, and I guess I’ll always be loyal to the brand.

What’s your favorite Miyazaki Film?

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Meet the Beatles – “Yellow Submarine”

April 18, 2010


Pee-wee Herman: Bridge to the Past

April 11, 2010

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure/ Rated PG/ 90 mins

At four and six, my oldest kids know they love movies. We love going to the theater together, watching DVDs at home, and my son says he wants to be a “movie maker” when he grows up. Santa gave him a Flip camera for Christmas, and he did indeed become a movie maker. Now it’s time to give him something that many wannabe filmmakers forget about, an education.

No matter how interested we are in movies, whenever we show our kids an “old” movie we are giving them a film education. Every movie we show them holds some importance. Sometimes it is as simple as nostalgia, giving them a glimpse of our childhood. Other times it is because a film is deemed important. Exposing them to classic animation is easy. Six year olds love Disney films today just as much as fifty years ago. However, some genres are a little more difficult and require the use of a rule that all parents know: sometimes you need to trick your kids into doing something that is good for them.

To give my kids a proper film education I want to go all the way back to the beginning, the silent film. Silent films can be a challenge for six year olds, as kids generally don’t’ like black and white, they are beginning readers so won’t be able to comprehend the title cards, and most of the storylines will be over their heads. However, they will understand a great deal of a silent comedy. They will recognize the slapstick humor that has been assimilated into nearly everything they watch, from “Bugs Bunny” to “High School Musical”. Of course I want to show my kids the silent greats like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd, but first, I decided to try and trick them with something a little more modern. I began with Pee-wee Herman and “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure”.

“Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” tells the story of Pee-wee and his beloved bicycle. The bike is stolen, leading to a cross country journey that takes him to the Alamo, a biker bar and, ultimately, the Warner Brothers Studio Lot. Pee-wee’s is an abnormal world, one where someone as eccentric as him, can be considered the straight man at times.

Pee-wee is a classic silent film character. His crew cut and red bow tie are as distinct as Charlie Chaplin’s bowler hat and cane. There is no need for elaborate character building with either of these two. The audience knows them as soon as they see them.

Pee-wee’s predicaments are also classic silent film set pieces. Two scenes in the film feel directly removed from a silent comedy. The first is when Pee-wee wakes up and uses an elaborate contraption involving pulleys, hamster tubes and anvils to prepare his breakfast. Buster Keaton would be proud, as he made his meal with a slightly less involved system in his short, “The Scarecrow”. The other is towards the end of the film when Pee-wee comes across a burning pet shop. Pee-wee risks his life to save the animals. Using little dialogue, the scene escalates from Pee-wee saving a group of puppies to his reluctant rescue of a handful of snakes (and subsequent fainting, of course).

A way of testing your kids’ tolerance for silent movies would be to turn the sound down during these scenes. While “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” has a number of memorable lines, the majority of the comedy can be enjoyed without the distraction of the soundtrack.

Step one of my master plan seems to have worked as my kids were engrossed by the movie. They rooted for Pee-wee to find his bike, yelled at him to save the snakes, and were mildly frightened by Large Marge, the “dead” trucker. Ultimately, my son captured the essence of Pee-wee when he asked, “Is he a grown up?” Alas, I had no answer to this, but the introduction was complete.

The success of step two of the plan is still to be determined. I will need to show them a real silent comedy. I’m contemplating using the storm scenes of Buster Keaton’s “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” or maybe parts of Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times”. Whichever film I choose, I will preface it with the same invitation, “Do you guys want to watch something kind of like Pee-wee?”

Have ideas of silent movies I should test on the kids?

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The Second Time I Traumatized My Kid – “E.T.”

March 31, 2010

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial/ Rated PG/ Running Time: 115 mins

My name is Dave and I am a good father.  I know I am.  My lovely wife assures me that it’s true.  I hug and kiss my children many times a day.  I read to them, play with them, and try to give them as much attention as I can.  I am confident that I am a good Dad.  However, we all have our bad days.

On our first family trip to Disneyland I wanted to introduce my son to all of my favorite rides.  I didn’t care how old he was.  If he expressed interest in riding Space Mountain, then we were going to get in line.  He wanted no part of the big roller coasters, but he did love “Toy Story”, so I convinced him to try the Buzz Lightyear ride.  Once we got on, he seemed to be enjoying himself, despite the sensory overload.  Then the Evil Emperor Zurg, Buzz Lightyear’s nemesis, appeared, spewing variations of “I’ll get you, Buzz Lightyear!”  The usually not-so-cuddly two-year old clung to me for protection.  I smiled, because a little fear is cute in a child.  Then the ride broke down, a seven foot Zurg towered over us and my son lay in my lap in a catatonic state.  My attempt to initiate him in the joys of the “Happiest Place on Earth” came close to ending with a visit from Child Protective Services.

Since my son’s birth I anticipated the day when I could share my favorite movies with him.  While I would wait to show him “Star Wars”, I came up with justifications to show him other movies as early as possible.  When he was five, my wife and I agreed that it was time for “E.T.”  It was a classic and we had vivid memories of seeing it in the theater when it was such a phenomenon.  Besides, there was nothing “bad” in it.  

Once again, my son appeared to enjoy himself.  He laughed when E.T. dressed up for Halloween.  He worried when E.T.’s friends left him at the beginning and he rejoiced when they returned in the end.  To him, the only confusing element of the movie was the fact that Elliot didn’t wear a helmet when he rode his bike (I explained that the world was a much safer place back then, roads were made out of rubber and it was impossible to crack your skull). 

I wasn’t prepared for his reaction after the movie.  I asked him, “What did you think of it?”  His response was silence, then uncontrollable sobbing.  I had never seen him cry like that before and I have not seen it since.  I can only think of one time in my life when I witnessed a similar reaction, when I was 15 and my mother broke down at my grandmother’s wake.  Did I really force my child into an experience that equaled the emotional response you have after the death of a parent?  I asked him why he was crying, but he couldn’t answer.  This was raw emotion that could not be articulated, particularly by a five year old.    

Maybe I had found an opportunity for a good teaching moment.  However, I didn’t know what to teach, because it was impossible to know what set him off.  Was it the terror of the scientists chasing E.T.?  Was it finding a sick E.T. down by the river?  Or was it the basic fear of being left behind, like E.T. was?  Maybe it was one of those issues or maybe all of them.  One thing was definite.  It was Steven Spielberg’s fault.

Spielberg is the master of emotional manipulation.  He combines all the elements of filmmaking to evoke a true emotional response better than anyone else.   Watching my little buddy bawling, I thought of my own experience with E.T.  I recalled that, surprisingly, this was only my second viewing of the movie since its release.  I saw E.T. in the theater in 1982, and liked it.  But I never wanted to see it again.  When it was rereleased in theaters a few years later, my brother and mother went to see it again.  I refused.  I realize now that I had the same reaction as my son, the only difference is that he was five and I was ten and could suppress my emotions a little bit more.  I didn’t cry when I was ten, but I didn’t want to feel that way again.

I learned something about my son that day.  I was happy to know that he had the capacity to really feel his emotions.  It was a fully human moment and, even if I traumatized him to a point that he had a year long fear of words that ended with the letters “e” and “t”, it was worth it.

I find that it can be hard to determine the appropriate age to show my favorite movies to my kids.  Primarily because I can only guess what their reaction will be.  Should I have waited until my son was older to expose him to E.T.?  Perhaps, but then he wouldn’t have had that experience and it’s the culmination of experiences like that which make up a childhood.  I feel my job as a parent is to expose my children to as wide a range of opportunities and activities as I can, and let them figure out what they like or dislike.  Hopefully, most of the time the reactions will be smiles of joy, but sometimes there will be tears of pain.  Whatever the reaction, I know that it is all part of being fully human.  When I see that, it makes me proud.

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