Monday, May 30, 2005

Ah! The Hopeful Pageantry of Bread & Puppet

2002, Dir. Dee Dee Halleck & Tamar Schumann
84 minutes, color documentary
All ages

Plunge into the casual, creative community of the Bread & Puppet Theater in northeast Vermont, where people pilgrimage to take part in communal living and the creation of spectacles that advocate peace and decry greed. Children will enjoy seeing how the puppets are made and how people live at the Bread & Puppet farm; learn an important piece of our cultural history; and get an introduction to the work of Dee Dee Halleck, tireless advocate for democratic media. Possibly all ages; you be the judge.

Cane Toads: An Unnatural History

1988, Dir. Mark Lewis
48 minutes, color documentary
First Run Features

Who are the cane toads? Marvelously monstrous mega-toads imported to Australia from Hawaii in 1935 in an attempt to eradicate a beetle. The plan backfired bigtime, and this film tells why and shows how Australians, some of them anyway, took the poisonous, plaguey cane toads to heart. I spoke with a 10-year-old who really enjoyed the film, when I showed it to my children at ages 4 and 6 they were a little young; there are gruesome moments and mating habits are covered .

Radical Harmonies

2002, Dir. Dee Mosbacher
90 minutes, color documentary

The story of the Women's Music Cultural Movement includes interviews and performances of some of the great feminists who revolutionized the music industry with women's festivals, women-owned music labels and women sound engineers. Here is a positive tale of how women seized the means of production at a time and in a field dominated by men. This is also a chronicle of rising lesbian awareness and what it meant to women to attend women's music festivals during the years when they were just getting started. Check out the production company, WomanVision.

One complaint: the performances are interrupted; wish we got to hear full songs interspersed with the interviews.

Ages 5 and up, but as always, pre-screen to verify your comfort level with the material.

I'll Sing for You (Je Chanterai Pour Toi)

2004, Dir. Jacques Sarasin
77 minutes, color documentary
In French with English subtitles

A portrait of Boubacar Traoré, known as KarKar in his native Mali, where he was wildly poplular in the sixties, known as the voice of independence for his nation. Interviews shed light on his life, but unless your child is a facile reader of subtitles, the focus is the man who sings the story of his life and his country, accompanying himself on guitar (the child who sits improvising songs during his or her spare time will relate easily to KarKar). The music, architecture, faces and daily life of Mali give breath and breadth to this melancholy film. Check out this detailed review for more information.

The death of KarKar's wife, which occupies many of his songs, is discussed, guns go off briefly during a celebration, the word "sh*t" appears in subtitles. Recommended for ages 6 and up.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

We Pause for a Moment to Rail at Hollywood

"Which was your favorite character?" My daughter asked me of the film Madagascar, which we saw today. Huh. A favorite. Well, there was basically one female character, a hippopatamus whose job as a character was to support the friendship of the male leads, a lion and a zebra. The zebra's conflict was that he needed some adventure and the lion's conflict was that he was hungry. At the risk of sounding like a humorless feminist, which I often am, I'm just a wee bit bored-to-death with male leads, their male sidekicks, and the females who get a corner of the screen to use staring at the dudes.

My son had been counting down the days until the opening of Madagascar. We had arranged to see it with a friend my children, his mother and his three-year-old brother. Much excitement leading up to it.

My spirits sank as I noticed, while checking showtimes and arranging to meet our friends, the PG rating "for crude humor." "Uh oh," I said into the phone to the other mother without thinking. "Here come the fart jokes. Or worse, if the script is really bad." When I hung up I turned to my son, who had tears in his eyes.

"I'm not going," he said with a choked voice. He really hates "juvenile humor," the provenance of adults with creative limitations who somehow managed, when history named this branch of comedy, to get juveniles blamed for things vulgar. For an hour he argued for staying home. "I won't like it."

"Look," I said. "There are websites for parents where they detail all the things about a movie that might be a problem for parents or kids. I can go read one of their reviews."

"I don't want to know what the problems are."

"That's ok, I'll read and report back to you without the details."

So I read the review on Kids-in-Mind, a site with a numbered rating system for sex and nudity, violence and gore, and profanity that intends to "enable concerned adults to determine whether a film is appropriate for them and their children according to their own criteria and values."

From their review it sounded like Madagascar would have the usual male-dominated cast, with one female in a principal role, the cliché mild-elder-woman-who-beats-up-a-ferocious animal...and we wouldn't be getting away without a fart joke or two. The only value of mine it seemed to support was that the giraffe gets an acupuncture treatment. All right!

And there would be some "name-calling," Kids-in-Mind noted, including "pansies."

The "profanity glossary" on the site says "Words or expressions that are used to denigrate and insult one's racial or ethnic background, gender or sexual orientation: Examples include the N-word, various anti-Semitic terms, and anti-homosexual terms like fa**ot."

In my book, "pansies" is anti-homosexual, so I wrote and told them so (nonsensically, it's also pejorative for "nonviolent").

To my surprise Kids-In-Mind wrote right back, said 'right you are,' and changed their designation of pansies to "derogatory." Which is why I'm plugging their site, which has been helpful to me on other occasions with the Highly Sensitive Viewers at my house. (Who until today, by the way, had never said "that sucks." Thank you so very much, whoever thinks a kid's movie can't do well without a PG rating.)

Hollywood should have purged itself of the anti-gay thing long ago, so why does it persist? And, aside from: 1) the occasionally-enlightened Pixar, which throws girls crumbs like Dory (Finding Nemo) and Jessie (Toy Story 2) and 2) the women's liberaton allegory Chicken Run, which in any case had to cross the Atlantic to be screened in the land where women's suffrage was first won (1869, in Wyoming Territory), why are female cartoon personalities nearly always one-dimensional, often ruled by sex jokes or shunted to the side?

If a female buddy movie starred a zebra and a lion, would they have to drive themselves off a cliff at the end so audiences wouldn't be too threatened by the awesome power of female buddyship? Please!

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Alice in Wonderland

1999, Dir. Nick Willing
150 min., live action (made for TV)

This is not the version of Alice in Wonderland I'd most like to recommend, but it's the only one I've seen recently, and my eight-year-old son insists I include it here. I could say 'get your own blog' but this activity is bad for posture and eyesight, I only do it as a public service. Favorite elements for my kids are Whoopi Goldberg's Cheshire Cat, Martin Short as the Mad Hatter and Robert Tygner as the March Hare.

Other versions worth checking out are stop-motion master Jan Svankmajer's (though I remember it as too disturbing for young children) and the puppet version directed by Lou Bunin (1951, 80 min.), and I'm sure there are plenty of worthy live-action versions, too.

Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast

1946, Dir. Jean Cocteau
93 minutes, black and white

There is no reason to show your children any other version of Beauty and the Beast but this one, unless your idea of "cultural literacy" means "fluency in the full catalogue of the Disney Studio."

Cocteau's exquisite mystery spellbinds. This is a fairy tale in which the transforming power of love performs the magic, and if Belle is not a bookworm, she is a grown woman ready to separate from her family and make a garden flourish in the woods. The beast's living house will spark a child's imagination.

Suspenseful situations and, of course, a beast. Ages 5 or 6 and up.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

The Magic Flute

1975 / Dir. Ingmar Bergman
135 minutes, color live action
In Swedish with English subtitles

Introduce your child(ren) to Bergman and Mozart at the same time with The Magic Flute! The winsome birdcatcher Papageno, fantastic sets and Bergman's daughter as a member of the audience will draw children into this fairy tale in which a young couple's love matures as it is tested. Could be enjoyed by children as young as four, maybe younger.

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship

1990 / Dir. Francis Vose
60 minutes, color animation

A Russian folktale told with charming stop-motion animation about a boy who wins the hand of a princess with help from friends with special talents. All ages.

The Films of Charles and Ray Eames

Five-Volume Set
Years various, genres various

Those who admire Charles and Ray Eames for their industrial design, art, or architecture but don't know their films should rush right out for this DVD collection. The jewel of the bunch is Powers of Ten, a 1977 short that starts with the aerial view of a man sleeping on a picnic blanket and travels out into the universe and back, then into the man's hand toward the reaches of the infinitely small, all by powers of ten.

The Eames team made dozens of films, and your kids will find their own favorites. Check out Blacktop, a meditation on the beauty of water splashing across asphalt, or Toccata for Toy Trains (both from vol. 2) or the antique spinning tops of Tops (vol. 5), scored by Elmer Bernstein.

All ages.

The Puppet Films of Jiri Trnka

1951, Dir. Milos Makovec , Jirí Trnka ,
156 min., color animation

Every child should be raised on honest-to-goodness, old-fashioned stop-motion animation, and Trnka, who died in 1969 at the age of 57, was an innovator whose films create rich settings for moving, delightfully playful stories. This DVD collection includes The Emperor's Nightingale (1951, 67 min.), based on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale and narrated by Boris Karloff. Short Subjects: Story of the Bass Cello (13 min.), The Song of the Prairie (21 min.), The Merry Circus (11 min.), A Drop Too Much (14 min.), The Hand (18 min.), Jiri Trnka: Puppet Animation Master (Documentary, 12 min.)

My children's favorite is The Hand, a political story of an artist whose studio is invaded by a giant hand that directs him to make a statue of it and abandon the clay pots he's been making for his plant. To an adult this piece has frightening resonance, and it does end with the artist's death, so your mileage may vary with respect to the kids' reaction. The Emperor's Nightingale is beautiful and effective. The Merry Circus uses stop-motion mixed with flat posable characters that cast shadows. My favorite, Story of the Bass Cello, has chiaroscuro lighting and a contemplative atmosphere. My only complaint about the bonus feature, a documentary about Jiri Trnka, is that it's much too short.

Potentially for all ages; but note that A Drop Too Much is about drinking and driving, and The Song of the Prairie, a hilarious send-up of westerns, involves gun play amid much Nelson Eddy-style singing.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

My Neighbor Totoro / Kiki's Delivery Service

My Neighbor Totoro
Japan / Dir Hayao Miyazaki
86 min, color animation

Kiki's Delivery Service
1989 / Dir Hayao Miyazaki
102 minutes, color animation

His movies are pure magic. Miyazaki may be too big to call 'alternative' at this point, but his films for younger children deserve inclusion here for their gentleness, their fascination with the unfolding details of daily life, their strong girls and tender boys, and the kinetic joy of flying viewers experience when characters go airborne.

Totoro is a magical forest being that comes into the life of two young girls when their mother is hospitalized. The family life at the core of the story gets a dose of whimsy from Totoro and other spirits of the forest, including a Cat Bus.

Kiki's Delivery Service is one of my daughter's favorite witch stories. A young girl coming of age as a witch and leaving home (at the age of thirteen!) befriends interesting women of all ages, who mentor her toward discovering what makes her special.

Recommended for ages 3 and older.

The Cosmic Eye / The Hubley Collection

1986 / Hubley Studio
70 min., color animation

Three musicians from outer space observe Earth and offer a message of peace to our planet. Pioneer animators Faith and John Hubley collaborated often, but this one is Faith Hubley's only feature-length animated work. Our family loves their animations; the drawings seem to flow from the unconscious right to the pen in this work.

Many of their shorts, such as Star Lore, Sky Dance and Cockaboody, and Moonbird have been assembled in The Hubley Collection, a must-see. Daughter Emily Hubley is also an animator with some work posted on her website.

Recommended for all ages.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Global Gardener—Permaculture with Bill Mollison

112 minutes, documentary
home video version of Australian TV series

I don't know about your kids, but my kids love anything having to do with gardening. This one is so fun because Bill Mollison, who coined the term 'permaculture' and is perhaps its chief advocate, goes bouncing around the globe and we get to see people in India, Africa, the U.S. and elsewhere coaxing crops from a variety of soils. Images of seed-sowing, cut to profuse growth a few weeks later, gives us a very satisfied feeling. "I hate bad news," Bill says, folding up his newspaper and putting it under a couple of potatoes, covering it with some straw. "Now that's good news." Yes: roots and shoots through every newspaper!

Hey, ever notice how it's easy to find Toy Story at the library, and maybe hard to find the lesser-known stuff, like this one, that you might expect to see at a public library? Sometimes librarians just need a little education. This one is distributed by Bullfrog Films. Their link is to the left of this page, and they specialize in environmental media, much of it directed at children. Tell your librarian.

Recommended for all ages.


2001 / Dir Nicole Hahn
75 minutes, documentary

Women's athleticism is celebrated in this film about mountain bikers that features several lesbians. The grueling practice and racing scenes kept my children engaged. The strength and endurance of the women, and the way they defy narrow gender roles, dominate in this rugged little movie that you should pre-screen with your 5+ child in mind.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed

1926, Dir Lotte Reiniger
65 minutes, black + white silhouette animation

I am so sorry it took me so long to see The Adventures of Prince Achmed by Lotte Reiniger. The exquisite silhouettes and the tints of the restored print now available on DVD captivated my family, my kids stayed up past their bedtime to see the whole thing. My daughter fell asleep during the little biopic about Reiniger that follows, but the rest of us were rapt at the story of this woman who single-handedly (literally—she did all the silhouette cutting) pioneered the animated film and invented the silhouette film, supported enthusiastically by her husband, Carl Koch and three other men who formed her production team. Their collaboration and their vibrant cultural life led to friendships with Jean Renoir and Bertolt Brecht. Racial stereotyping of the villains necessitates some discussion.

Recommended for all ages.


2003 / Prod. Joshua M. Greene
54 min., color animation

Based on a picture book by Peter Spier, here is the story of a girl and her grandfather on an imaginative journey exploring what makes people fight: is it difference? If we were all the exactly same, would we get along? Some of the animation here is stunning, especially a claymation sequence featuring eerie clone-people. Features the voices of Hume Cronyn and James Earl Jones, and music by Peabo Bryson, Al Jarreau, Vanessa Williams and Chaka Khan. Recommended by my 8-year-old for all ages.

Grocery Store Wars & The Meatrix

Here are two you can watch online! From FreeRange Studios come two Quicktime movies that satirize Hollywood movies and introduce organic farming, monocropping, pesticides and other "true costs" of food. Meet Obiwan Cannoli and Cuke Skywalker in Grocery Store Wars. (Vegetables shoot laser weapons and a melon explodes; some other violence.) See if you can escape The Meatrix! (Note: factory farming is at best disturbing. My motto: Before little eyes have seen, a loving guide should pre-screen!) These videos are being used by the Sierra Club in its new campaign to raise awareness of the politics of food.

The Meatrix Action Page: Ten things you can do to stop factory farms.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

2003 / Dir Judy Irving
Documentary, 83 minutes

Mark Bittner became the unlikely field expert on a flock of wild parrots in San Francisco when he decided to take advice from the writings of Gary Snider to heart: "If you want to study nature, start right where you are." The engaging film Judy Irving made about him and the birds lets us get to know several parrots and their personality quirks intimately. My children were saddened by the death of a few of the birds, and scenes involving hawks are suspenseful, but I would recommend this one for anyone aged 5 or older.

The Story of the Weeping Camel

2003 / Dir Byambasuren Davaa, Luigi Falorni

A Mongolian fairy tale based in legend and grounded in cultural tradition, The Story of the Weeping Camel tells an exquisite tale in poetic images. In Spring, camels give birth, and when one mother rejects her baby, refusing to nurse, the family of nomads who tends the herd sends two boys to bring them a musician who can perform a healing ritual. Children love the camels and baby sheep in the film, and the pace is refreshingly slow but visually rich. In Mongolian without subtitles; none needed. All ages.

Kirikou and the Sorceress

France 2000 / Dir Michel Ocelot
74 mins. Color animation, dubbed into English
Original soundtrack by Youssou N'Dour

Kirikou climbs out of his mother's womb and begins to question the tyranny of a sorceress in his African village. A strong child hero, a female villain whose evil is born of pain, and a traditional setting in which characters are frankly and unembarrassedly naked are among the many pleasures of this animated film.

The sorceress can be creepy for children under six, so pre-screen it and use your discretion.