Tuesday, December 12, 2006

You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train

Deb Ellis and Dennis Mueller, 2004
color and b+w documentary, 78 minutes
Ages 9? & up

Resident 9-year-old says, "Well, I enjoyed it, but I think most kids would be restless and would rather watch a horrible crappy movie called The Wild instead of this." (Um, we didn't see The Wild.)

It ain't for nothing that you're parked at Alternative Films for Kids, folks!

This profile of professor/activist Howard Zinn, author of The People's History of the United States (which has sold a million copies), covers his adult life, which has spanned many of the key social and peace movements of our time. Ellis and Mueller track Zinn from his labor activism to his experience in the air force to his days as a Civil Rights leader at Spelman College to his peace activism during the Vietman War—and beyond. This is a great way for kids too young to read A People's History to learn some people's history—through the life of an engaged historian who continues to work for social justice.

Definitely not The Wild.

Note: contains some graphic archival footage of American police brutalizing demonstrators, bombs dropping during WWII and Vietnam, and Vietnamese civilians under attack.

Whale Rider (in Maori: Te kaieke tohora)

Niki Caro, 2003
color feature, 101 minutes
Rated PG-13
Could be ok for ages 5 & up but prescreen it and judge for yourself!

I had to wait a few years to show my 7-year-old daughter this amazing tale of a girl who turns life around for everyone in her New Zealand Maori village, because the conflict that drives the story—her grandfather's rejection of her leadership because she is a girl—is so unsettling and sexism is a complex topic. Keisha Castle-Hughes is perfect as Paikea, a girl born into a long line of male chiefs in a society drifting away from its roots. The PG-13 rating seems to come from fly-by uses of d*** and b******, but the real caution is the harshness of grandfather, played beautifully by Rawiri Paratene, who requires a miracle to convince him of the rightness in his family line. This is a story of love among family, community, ancestors and planet that defies gender expectations all around.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Wrinkle in Time

John Kent Harrison, 2003
color feature, 128 minutes
This Canadian adaptation of Madeleine L'Engle's classic would surely not have been as compelling had it been made in the States, where one never finds this much feminism packed into two-hour movies, particularly for children. We have a teenage girl protagonist/hero, three cosmic beings led by Alfre Woodard as Mrs. Whatsit representing Divine Love, a worm-like being with a masculine face representing God-the-Authoritarian-Father, and a very human father too injured to be the one to rescue his young son. Kate Nelligan as Mrs. Which and Alison Elliott as Mrs. Who, a family in which both parents are Ph.D.'s, Aunt Beast (yes! even a Wookie-like monster is female!—this one with magical healing powers) round out this experience of non-stop woman power. Brava! Every kid should see this; my kids have rented it twice; recommended for 7 or 8 and up.
Hollywood please take a lesson from our neighbors to the north.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Beckett on Film

19 plays, four DVDs
Various directors, 2002
Produced by Michael Colgan and Alan Moloney
Age 6 and up

A couple of years ago my children created a drama in which they pretended to leave home with picnic lunches, traveled in a circle on a sofa for a while, and then began to sink in quicksand while trying to eat. "This is just like Beckett," I thought to myself. In the years since, they've become fans of Buster Keaton and the leap to Beckett is a natural one. Beckett on Film offers the perfect opportunity to explore his plays with your youngster, with directors like David Mamet and Atom Egoyan and actors including John Gielgud, Jeremy Irons, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Juliet Stevenson, & John Hurt. As we view the discs, I'll share our recommendations. They can be rented one at a time, at least from Netflix.

Disc 2: Includes "Krapp's Last Tape," "What Where," "Footfalls," "Come and Go" and "Act Without Words I." I recommend trying anything on this disc. My daughter watched all of "Krapp's Last Tape," while my son got bored during the second half—but they both loved the slapstick, which included John Hurt slipping on a banana peel. They both liked the silent "Act Without Words I." My son watched "Footfalls" twice, which I found somewhat surprising, but you never know, which is why anything appropriate and worth viewing, is worth trying with kids. Disc 4: "Act Without Words II," "Rockaby" and "Play" are recommended. "Play" has a few bad words but the characters, who are sitting in urns and brilliantly played by Juliet Stephenson, Alan Rickman and Kristen Scott-Thomas, speak very fast. The other two discs are less compelling to kids, I'd say.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Life: A Journey Through Time

Frans Lanting
Viewable online
All ages

"The Life Project is a lyrical interpretation of life on Earth from its earliest beginnings to its present diversity." Start with the slideshow on the website, then explore the timeline. This is all part of a multivenue spectacle that includes a book, orchestral performance (music by Philip Glass), and exhibition (scheduled to tour the world), in which images by Frans Lanting, a photographer for National Geographic, are placed in the service of telling the story of life on our planet. Read along with the slideshow or not...the pictures tell the story either way. Stunning.

Monday, October 09, 2006

A Touch of Greatness

Leslie Sullivan & Catherine Gund, 2004
54 minutes + bonus material, color/b+w documentary
All ages

This portrait of progressive educator Albert Cullum offers inspiration to anyone who has ever been wearied by the education system. As a teacher in a conventional public school in 60s Rye, New York, Cullum introduced drama, spectacle and fun to his classrooms. For geography, the class went outside and hopped on one foot across a United States chalked onto blacktop, and "swam" a Mississippi River made of a long role of paper. Cullum directed student productions of Shakespeare in which his only notes, he claimed, were "I don't believe you." The results were stunning. Blends interviews and archival television broadcasts with film footage of productions of Shakespeare, Antigone and Joan of Arc shot by Robert Downey, Sr. My son said, "If all teachers were like that, I'd want to go to school." (If you're sending your child to a stultifying place for indoctrination, beware...they may not want to go back after watching this.)

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

Davis Guggenheim, 2006
100 min, color documentary
Ages 8 and up

"If this is happening, why don't they do something about it?" was my daughter's response after watching An Inconvenient Truth at the Hyde Park Drive-In, a special screening organized by the environmentalist organization, Scenic Hudson. I had worried that the movie would upset her, but I think she related to it as more of a science lesson, and Al does leave things on a rather bright note, stressing the potential for change and the generous ability of the earth to bounce back after extreme injury. My son (9), saw it with me when it opened, and now has seen it twice, and I think it's a good one for the right young viewers. They get a lot of earth science, particularly graph-reading experience, and Al's story of how he became a global warming activist, interspersed with his lecture on the state of the planet, is moving and inspiring. No time like the present to get kids thinking about the defining issue of their generation.

Who Killed the Electric Car?

Chris Paine, 2006
92 minutes, color documentary
Ages 8 and up

I took my kids to the theater to see this, and they had no trouble sitting through it, though the 9-year-old seemed to have an easier time following the story of the rise and fall of the electric car—and the various parties complicit in its demise—than my 7-year-old. This is one of the best-paced, most absorbing documentaries of its type I've seen, presenting a wealth of material in an intelligible way. A great discussion-starter about Big Oil, Big Autos, transportation alternatives, how public policy is created, consumer activism, and so on. The shadow issue lurking in the background of course, is whether automobiles are viable at all, but at least this is a place to start.

Who Killed the Electric Car? has a nice website with a teacher's guide, if you're into that sort of thing (In my experience kids come up with more interesting discussion questions than grown-ups.)

Rated PG for "brief mild language," but I can't even remember what it was. I think it will fly past most ears but make sure you pre-screen if you're concerned.

Monday, October 02, 2006

A Note About Subtitles

Introduce subtitled movies early in your child's movie-viewing life (which should begin as late as possible) and don't make a big deal about it, is my unasked-for advice.

Most of the subtitled films I mention here are primarily visual and children can understand the story without reading. Some kids will be willing to read subtitles (if they are reading in general), some will just watch the images (fine), others will ask you to read (my husband and I take turns).

As they say, it's all good.

Except for the "English" option on DVDs. In my experience that is intolerable, but my 7-year-old did watch much of The Bicycle Thief with it turned on. Oh well, at least she saw the film.

The Bicycle Thief

Vittorio de Sica, 1948
93 minutes, black & white
Italian with English subtitles
Ages 6 or so and up

My 9-year-old was rapt watching the elegant, simple story of a man on a mission to find a stolen bike without which he can't work or feed his family. The life of the young son, so different from ours, was a good starting point for a discussion of postwar life, poverty, urban hardship...depressing, but it worked for us, and it's an accessible cinematic classic.
Good go-with: Marcovaldo, short stories by Italo Calvino, set during the same period and later, can definitely be enjoyed by children.

Solidarity Not Charity

Common Ground Collective
Posted to their website
Viewable online
All ages, but 5+ will get the most out of it

This organization has been working with New Orleans communities to gut homes, offer healthcare, keep people fed, fight evictions...you name it, all with a view to sustainable, nontoxic operating strategies. If you want your children inspired by the possibility of social change even in the midst of unthinkable disaster and governmental abandonment, here's a short, free stop you can make on your information highway cruise. Wish I'd known to post this a long time ago, but it's never too late to watch it with your kids and donate, send supplies, or better yet...take a working vacation. These folks have skills we can all use.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Heart of Tibet: An Intimate Portrait of the 14th Dalai Lama

David Cherniack, 1991
60 minutes, color documentary
5 up

This portrait of the 14th Dalai Lama was created during a visit to California and includes interviews with American scholars of Buddhism such as Robert Thurman, plus footage of the Dalai Lama being interviewed by journalists, meditating, and making the rounds as he is greeted by supporters in the U.S. I especially liked these scenes, which focus on close-ups of people as they look into his eyes—one thing everyone seems to agree on about the Dalai Lama is that meeting him is an experience of pure joy. Parents of very young children be advised: provides background on the Chinese invasion of Tibet that includes archival footage of soldiers brutalizing Tibetans. An introduction to Buddhism that kids 5 and older should understand, as the Dalai Lama, the "simple monk," speaks plainly on fundamental subjects: love, compassion and service to others.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Primal Mind

Don Lenzer, 1996
With Jamake Highwater
58 minutes, color documentary
Ages 5 and up

Author Jamake Highwater talks about his own experiences growing up as an Indian in a foreign, dominant culture and the peceptual divide between primal and European cultures. He moves fluidly among topics—art, architecture, dance, painting. This is aimed at viewers of at least young adult age, but there is so much of interest to look at, and Highwater makes his points so clearly, that any child could benefit from one or more viewings.

Making Grace

Catherine Gund
87 minutes, color documentary
All ages

A warm document of the journey of a couple, Anne Krsl and Leslie Sullivan, toward motherhood, following them through several visits to a doctor for insemination and culminating in the birth of their daughter, Grace. I watched this with my seven-year-old daughter and during and after, we talked about the various ways families are created. She loved it. When I asked her what she loved about it, she said "Everything." When I asked her what images stayed with her from the movie, she said "Grace." I think she got the idea. It's about love, perseverance and naturally, grace. Incredibly moving to see how a child's birth can heal a family and create community.