Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Word Play

Patrick Creadon, 2006
94 minutes, color documentary
7 and up, rated PG for mild reasons detailed in the review of this movie at Kids-in-Mind

Using NPR puzzlemaster and New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz as a focal personality, this documentary is all about crosswords, those who make them and those who complete them—in well under five minutes, every week and at an annual competition held in Connecticut since 1975. Kids should enjoy the story of how Shortz, at a young age, determined to spend his life with puzzles and created his own college major—enigmatology—to prepare himself for his chosen vocation. Others will be amused by the longstanding rule of etiquette that prevents anything remotely scatological from being used in a crossword, a state of affairs that vexes puzzle constructors in need of vowel-rich words like "enema". The DVD comes with lots of bonus features for extra fun that should inspire a run on crossword books at your house.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Women. We'll Settle for Half.

That's the official t-shirt of an organization called See Jane, founded by Geena Davis to correct the remarkable continuing disparity between male and female characters in programming aimed at young people. Incredibly, the entertainment industry needs more studies and data to convince it that girls, and female smurf-like characters and animals and so forth, are still largely missing from the sewage system that is mass media. Such activities keep the Annenberg School in business, I suppose, but sheesh, we all know TV and movies are male-dominated stories told from male perspectives with a pink bow slapped on here and there, and rather frequently a dead mother, to make us shed a tear. What a crushing bore! If it weren't for the exceptions, many of them celebrated right here at Alternative Films for Kids, we'd give up. But the exceptions shine so gloriously that we, like the good people at See Jane, prefer to keep pushing for improvement. Davis spoke about See Jane recently at the National Conference for Media Reform. (After watching Geena, have a look at the amazing keynote by Bill Moyers).

More good news for girls: Henry Selick is now in production with an animated screen adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Coraline. This is a story about a girl. That's it! No boy sidekick, no brother, and very few male characters to distract from the strength, determination and loving maturity of the girl who travels to the dark side on a rescue mission and finds her way back again—without a Frodo, a Skywalker, a Buzz Lightyear or a Sully to help her.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Musik und Zaubereien & Märchen und Fabeln

250 minutes, released 2007

150 minutes, rel. 2006
Lotte Reiniger
Black & white shorts compiled on DVDs
All ages

If you've seen The Adventures of Prince Achmed (scroll down, it's there somewhere), you and your children will no doubt be delighted that more of the work of Lotte Reiniger, the brilliant German animator who lived from 1899 to 1981, is available on DVD. The delicate silhouettes, in black & white, tinted, and in color (though they're best with the more muted backgrounds), enchant in these versions of popular fairy tales such as "The Golden Goose," "Cinderella" (note for younger viewers: the sister slices off her heel and makes a bloody mess!) and "Jack in the Beanstalk." Musik und Zaubereien gives us a Magic Flute with the best bits of Papageno—as he sings, women turn to birds and fly away, eggs hatch to reveal Papageno & Papagena's babies. "Carmen" has a happy ending and a feminist spirit that infuses many of Reiniger's short films. Hours of stunning animation here, mostly suitable for all ages. These may be hard to rent but can be ordered from Amazon.de—I was surprised to find that my U.S. account and password transferred without a hitch.

Monday, April 09, 2007

The Way Things Go

Peter Fischli & David Weiss, 1987
color, 30 minutes
All ages

"Everyday objects doing cool things," is how my daughter described this chain of events set off by a spinning garbage bag. Foam, fire, explosions, liquids and wheels, a bit of physics and chemistry, and you have thirty minutes of ooh-ing and ah-ing. Delightfully, this film is ultimately about story, and children will love being the narrator, but they should spend at least one viewing listening. The Honda ad, "Cog," that purloined the concept and ideas from this film inspires awe too, but the original is more fun—longer, messier, and the objects have more personality.
Highly recommended for all ages.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Alternative Videos of Woodstock CLOSED

Their name was already outdated, as they were replacing tapes with DVDs. So is our other local store, Alice in Videoland. "Alternative DVDs of Woodstock" and "Alice in DVDland" sure don't sound too poetic, but they wouldn't have lasted long anyway.

Members filed into the store at noon to pick over the stock. Hard choices. My son and I wound up with a bag full—a Scooby Doo tape, Cirque de Soleil and an episode of Ghost Writer (scored by a family friend) for him. For me and the rest of the family:

Documentaries: The Wobblies, Sister Helen (I thought it was about Helen Prejean; it's not; I hope it's good), Kilowatt Ours, In the Mirror of Maya Deren, Yours for a Song: The Women of Tin Pan Alley; Cinema Verite: Defining the Moment
Animation: Hiroshima No Pika; The Adventures of Prince Achmed (scroll down for the altfilmskids review)
Features: I Know Where I'm Going, Alexander Nevsky, Last Year at Marienbad
Compilations: America's First Women Filmmakers; Treasures from the American Film Archives
Performance: Great Pas de Deux for the ballet dancer in the family.

I didn't take the best stuff there but what I did get took two hours of standing in line at lunch hour and it was hard to choose.

I ran into four friends there and chatted with strangers. The woman next to me on line and I praised Tilda Swinton's performance in Deep End and discussed other films about motherhood. Another woman held up Black Stallion and said the opening was one of her favorite films, with which I heartily concur. Another woman bought every episode of The L Word. It was like a funeral—nice to be with people but for such a sad occasion, with all our favorite store employees pacing the aisles behind the counter to match empty boxes with tapes and discs. This is one of those stores where the staff is learned, like librarians, not like the vapid crew at Blockbuster, where you go in and ask for Meet Me in St. Louis and the kid has never heard of Vincent Minelli. This is a real loss to the community, and you probably have a similar story in progress in your town.

I wish everyone at Alternative Video a future of luminous endeavors.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Masters of Russian Animation, Vol. 1

Various directors, 2000
Animated, Color, Subtitled, 133 minutes
All ages

Films included: The Story of One Crime (1962), The Man in the Frame (1966), My Green Crocodile (1966), There Lived Kozyavin (1966), Mountain of Dinosaurs (1967), Passion of Spies (1967), Glass Harmonica (1968), Ball of Wool (1968), Singing Teacher (1968), Film Film Film (1968).

A compendium of Russian shorts from the 60s produced in a variety of animation styles. Especially recommended: Vadim Kuchevsky's sweet, lyrical My Green Crocodile, done in stop motion; Nikolai Serebryakov's Ball of Wool about an old woman who knits herself a house from the wool of a magic sheep and is undone by her own greed, also stop-motion; and Anatoly Petrov's humorous Singing Teacher, done in pencil drawings, in which a hippopotamus tries warbling.