Thursday, July 16, 2009

Stop Lookin', Listen

This blog focuses on visual media for children that I, in my infinite personal bias, would say falls outside the mainstream. Truth is, my kids spend more time listening to audio books (and reading), than watching, and I think that's a good thing. Limiting sensory input to one channel often deepens the waters.

This brings me to a plug for the short-story podcasts of The New Yorker. I've been listening to them during downtime lately, and this week I had to pull my kids into my bedroom to have a listen to Jonathan Franzen reading "Coyote v. Acme" by Ian Frazier. Frazier's parody of a legal brief, contrasting the formal, deflective language of legalese and the slapstick antics of the famous Warner Bros. cartoons is deft, hilarious, and affectionate. My children greatly enjoyed it.

Another good one for children (8+up, I'd say) is George Saunders reading "You Must Know Everything," by Isaac Babel. There's plenty to explore in the free podcast area of iTunes, from Selected Shorts and This American Life to more independent efforts—a free library for a rainy day or long car trip.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

What's On Your Plate?

Directed by Catherine Gund
Produced by Tanya Selvaratnam
Co-produced by Sadie Rain Hope-Gund and Safiyah Kai Russell Riddle
With animation by Hubbub Inc.: Emily Hubley and Jeremiah Dickey
Color, documentary, 73 minutes
All ages

Upcoming screening:

BAM Cinemafest/Afro-Punk Opening Night Outdoor Screening
Saturday, June 27th, 6:00 pm

I show my kids a lot of documentaries—more than they want to see, frankly. So when I pulled What's On Your Plate? out of the envelope and said, "It's about food!" my son put on his blah face. "I've seen a ton of that stuff. I know." He's used to home cooking, CSAs, the backyard garden (even if a groundhog has kept it from coming up this year), he knows everything there is to know about healthy eating. But when the rest of the family popped it in and started watching, he came in and got hooked.

Co-produced and 'hosted' by two 7th-grade girls, Sadie and Safiyah, who live and eat in New York City, What's On Your Plate? welcomes a kids-eye view of food politics. School lunches, family farming, the mystery treat "Funyuns," and diet-related diseases are some of the topics, but the 'girl guides' leading the exploration, Sadie and Safiyah, bring humor and energy that keep the material from being dry or didactic, and so do their lively interview subjects—chefs, food activists, and farmers. Director Gund has no wish to feed us a lot of talking heads—she'd rather follow the girls as they amble through the city, visit the Angels, a Mexican farming family, or select cucumbers at their CSA. You get to watch people eat a lot. And Sadie and Safiyah don't shrink from asking the heads of food for NYC schools why Snapple is considered a suitable beverage to be serving kids from machines. "They don't have to drink it," one says.

I think one reason my kids found What's On Your Plate? interesting is that it talks about what happens when the food we see being grown around us—in Ulster County, two hours north of the city—reaches New York City. How do city residents get to know farmers? How does farm-fresh food get distributed to schools? How do people go about changing what's on their plate?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Curious Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird

Available (and preferable) in French as Le Roi et l'Oiseau
Directed by Paul Grimault
Produced by André Sarrut
Color, animation, 63 minutes
Based on "The Sheperdess and the Chimney Sweep," by Hans Christian Andersen, adapted by Grimault and Jacques Prévert
Recommended for 8 and up

Astonishing for its inventiveness and surrealism, this odd and striking story may not be embraced by every child but is sure to give moments of delight. It goes by several titles and is available in both French and English; in this version, the title character, a despot-defying bird (who happens to be a doting single dad), is voiced hilariously by Peter Ustinov. A tyrant king, living in a castle high above his subjects, is in love with the portrait of a shepherdess, who comes to life from a painting. She and her true love, a chimney sweep, escape into a deserted city (picture Venice painted by de Chirico), and are then trapped in an underground kingdom where the king's subjects live without birds or sunlight. Full of surprises, amusements, and stunning animation. Apparently some have picked this gem up for a buck at WalMart, but greatly preferable: order the director's version, LE ROI ET L'OISEAU from The story easily survives a lack of subtitling, and kids deserve to see this level of cinematic art in the version intended by the creators. A few caveats: the king, who is both an object of fun and creepy, shoots bird for sport (though we don't see him kill one) and destroys his city with a giant waldo; there are moments of peril for major characters and the king dispenses with minor ones by pushing a button so they disappear through the floor or by having them flung aside by his robotic henchman. This is available in the English version on VHS from Facets for mail rental.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Star Trek

The buzz was up about STAR TREK 2009. Good for kids, good story, very moving. My kids are now 12 and nearly 10, and maybe because they're a bit older now, tweens in fact, I talked them into going. My husband read me the review from Kids-in-Mind, but no red flags. Violence and gore got a 6 rating from them—compare to the 7 rating given PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, which my kids saw over a year ago.

Besides, a younger friend of theirs had gone, and people were saying it's fine for kids.

Whoa, was I mistaken. Neither one of them liked the violence, the volume, the velocity—the three off-putting Vs of PG13dom. I don't know how Kids-in-Mind decided to rate the violence at 6. How could a man bound to a table to be tortured, a large insect forced down his throat, rate a 6? What kind of torture gets a 10? It feels like the world is getting less sensitive, but I'm becoming more grateful for my children's sensitivity.

My son is a particular fan of the MPAA ratings system—he even has it tacked to his bedroom wall. Because of him I've adjusted my attitude toward ratings. When I was single and living in New York, I once interviewed the director Abel Ferrara and recall his outrage that his teenage son might be prohibited from seeing whatever movie he liked. From his point-of-view it was a self-expression issue, and I agreed.

For my son, it's a self-protection issue. He values the ratings system because he's not ready for sexual themes, he doesn't like seeing cruelty, especially if it's aimed at animals, and Hollywood movies tend to overwhelm him with their explosions, constant orchestral climaxing, and endless chase sequences. He's the one sitting through the previews with his fingers in his ears.

Another reason my kids didn't go in for STAR TREK is that they lack the allegiance, formed over decades, to the series that my husband and I have. While we are not Trekkers, I for one spent a good deal of my youth with the crew of the Enterprise. Naturally I paid close attention to the women, the few there were: Nurse Christine Chapel, Yeoman Janice Rand, and the biggie: Lt. Uhura.

Uhura and the actor who played her, Nichelle Nichols, carry a lot of cultural heft. Nichols was one of the first Black women on a TV series not to play a domestic worker (Diahann Carol in the 1968 Julia was another trailblazer I watched without quite understanding, but maybe intuiting, the import—I was seven that year). An episode in which she kissed William Shatner broke a barrier. After the first season, she thought of quitting, but Martin Luther King, Jr. persuaded her to stay on, citing the impact she was having.

Her character never rose to the prominence many viewers would have liked, and struggled in relative obscurity even when STAR TREK crossed into feature film territory.

But it still shocked me, though maybe it shouldn't have, to see how little the capable Zoe Saldana has to work with in the new STAR TREK. While her brethren are given emotionally rich origin stories to add depth to their relationships, she is left with a gag about her first name and a running sex joke about her professional field of linguistics. It's implied that she wants to serve on the Enterprise in order to be near her boyfriend, Spock. Gone is the dignity of the TV version of Uhura, who once came upon a shipmate and began speaking Swahili with him (too bad he turned out to be a monster in disguise). I will never forget sitting in my suburban living room listening to Swahili and thinking it the most beautiful language I'd ever heard.

Friday, April 10, 2009

FLOW: For Love of Water

2008, color documentary, 93 minutes
Directed by Irena Salina
Produced by Steven Starr
8 and up

Salina's documentary views the global water crisis through the eyes of activists struggling for access to clean, free water. The stories told here are fairly easy to follow for 8 and up, and kids used to seeing plastic bottles of 'blue gold' for sale everywhere really ought to hear this side of things. Activist/thinkers Vandana Shiva and Maude Barlow figure prominently in this narrative of an essential question of our time: can nature—the very elements of life—be owned? Or are they aspects of the worldwide commons, our birthright, what we share and steward together?

In the Hudson Valley, this film is making the rounds as a fundraiser for water-related issues such as those raised in Rosendale,NY by Save the Lakes.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Preview + Review of Long-Awaited CORALINE

CORALINE is scheduled for release to theaters on February 6, 2009.

My son Ray has been making movies since he was six: stop motion animation, live action, and lately, CGI parodies of Star Wars. He reads film production books and bios of animators like Chuck Jones, and loves ‘making-of’ bonus features and little biopics about revered figures like Ray Harryhausen. One of his ‘mentors’ is Henry Selick, who has just completed his adaptation (for 3D stop-motion animation) of Neil Gaiman’s novel, Coraline.

It was our enormous good fortune—mine, my son’s, my daughter’s, my husband’s, and his mother’s—to visit the set of Coraline a couple of years ago, and a real treat to see a preview screening of the finished work the other night in Manhattan, with Henry Selick on hand to answer audience questions.

Ray, who is 11, wasn’t sure he wanted to see what he called a ‘horror’ movie. His 9-year-old sister, who acts in most of his movies and in her own monologue-driven shorts, was firm: she wouldn’t go to the screening. The monstrous Other Mother of the previews, and the prospect of having her lunge from the screen, were horrors they could live without.

So, Ray and I headed into NYC with the plan that he would shut his eyes, pull his jacket up over his face, and hold his hands to his ears if it all got to be too much. He was willing to endure, if only for the Q&A portion of the evening.

As it turns out, he didn’t have to worry too much. He only shut his eyes once, and not for long. While the idea of Coraline is truly terrifying—a girl is left alone to rescue her supernaturally abducted parents—its creators have allowed the idea to carry most of the weight of emotion, as with the best fairy tales, and haven’t piled onto it with 3D shock effects or long, anxiety-provoking suspense sequences. The Nightmare Before Christmas, with its cast of characters in varying states of decomposition, is more horrific—at least to me, and I think my son, who got to an age where he felt too uneasy to watch it, and wouldn’t go near the undead-dominated Corpse Bride, would agree.

Henry Selick has done a beautiful job of reconceptualizing the novel for the screen and for stop motion. From the first moments, when metal hands sew up a doll-sized version of the title character and cast her into a void, it feels like this is a movie partly about the animator and the animator’s art. These are the hands of the evil Other Mother, creator and destroyer of the Other World, but here they are, bare of fleshly trappings, primordial armature. We come to find that the energy of children is what makes the Other Mother’s material other world, and it is their life force that makes it beautiful, whimsical, and inviting.

If you have watched any of the featurettes about Coraline, you have seen artist after artist toiling and tinkering away, as artists always do on these projects, though now, with the Internet, in less obscurity. They can even blog about their work for Laika Studios. It’s hard to watch that image of armature hands making the Coraline doll and not think of all the human hands that have gone into the making of this supremely hand-made movie, and seeing in these moments a tribute to them all (certainly they deserve a tribute, including those several dozen Laika workers, I was sorry to read, who were recently laid off).

OtherMotherWorld is especially fanciful and so packed with detail it's hard to imagine not seeing the movie many times to try to take it all in. Henry S. has ensured that the Other Mother’s overture to Coraline is suitably seductive. She—and we—are truly tempted to stay and sample more delights from the animators’ cabinet of wonders. (And the wonders really are wonderful; we laughed throughout the early other world scenes.)

Henry Selick’s Other Mother is a kind of ‘50s fantasy mom—she cooks brilliantly in heels, perfect make-up, and manicure and wears a stainless, starched apron. Other Father is affable, doting, and fun (aside from the saucy, riotous French and Saunders as the Misses Spink and Forcible, my favorite vocal performance is John Hodgman's as the Fathers Real and Other).

Coraline's real world parents, by contrast, are familiar to us as contemporary, overworked telecommuters (fortunate in that sense, they write at home on gardening) who share the work of their life equally, don’t exactly excel in the kitchen, and don’t have much time for their daughter.

That Coraline's creativity will rival the Other Mother's is intimated by a lovely scene that is not in Neil Gaiman’s book. Having returned from an early foray into the other world, Coraline finds her apartment empty; her parents have not come home from work and grocery shopping. Newly arrived in a strange place, friendless and now abandoned by her parents, she goes to bed alone, making pillow-people versions of her mom and dad to comfort herself—the Other Mother isn't the only one who can conjure power from a doll. I think Coraline's realization that they're not coming back is the scariest moment in the story (though Gaiman's protagonist is pretty brave at this point, as I recall). Henry S. wisely lingers long enough for us to feel her loneliness and her sadness.

A resourceful adventurer who is, like too few movie protagonists—even at the dawn of the 21st century—a girl, Coraline would be perfect if not for Henry S.’s addition of a boy to come to her aid in her time of need. Or so I thought when I heard about him. But Wybie (nicknamed "Why Be Born" by Coraline—I guess Henry S. knew some of us would resist), who gives Coraline someone other than a (really cool) cat to dialog with, adds a melancholy element to the other world, where he is more expressive for his muteness.

When my son and I came back up the Hudson River the day after the screening, and made our report to his sister, she said, “I think I’ve changed my mind. I do want to see Coraline.” I look forward to seeing it again with her.

We were too shy to ask for a shot of Henry S. with Ray, but here he is after the Q&A. Be sure to view through your 3D glasses.

I'll be blogging more thought on Coraline on my other blog, Oswegatchie. Look for the Coraline tag.