Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Saturday, Jun 23, 2007


When someone says they don’t make movies like they used to, they are probably referring to a title like 1408. Reviving a lost subgenre like the psychological thriller is not an easy task, and when you consider the author of the source material is none other than cinematic hit or miss Stephen King, the odds are substantially stacked against you. Even worse, the release carries a PG-13 rating, which tells most dread die-hards that the narrative they’re about to see has been sanitized for the protection of the viewing public. The final nail in the nonevent coffin is the presence of Swedish unknown Mikael Håfström behind the lens. While his native language efforts have been well received, his 2005 disaster Derailed doesn’t speak well for his ability with suspense.


Luckily, the planets were all in alignment when stars Samuel L. Jackson and John Cusack decided to take on this basically two person drama, and the results more than speak for themselves. While not actually scary, 1408 is unsettling and intense, taking its own sweet time building to a truly disconcerting climax. Predating post-modern horror by a chainsaw or two, and delivering ample angst without having to resort to bloodshed or gratuity, Håfström helms the perfect antidote to all the ‘gorno’ currently claiming the creepshow mantel. His take on King’s sensational short story is a devious little mind game, an eerie examination of one man’s inner demons and how those pent up issues can do much more than haunt a human soul. They can take on an afterlife in the real world as well.


Cynical as hell and falsely heroic, Cusack is Mike Enslin, a writer of horror-themed travel guides. He visits supposedly haunted locales and writes up reviews, Michelin style, of their significant scare factors. Of course, he doesn’t believe in ghosts. He’s a dyed in the wool skeptic and blames desperate hotel owners for concocting – and in some cases, creating – the spook shows for the benefit of their lagging bottom line. One day, Enslin receives a postcard warning him away from the title room, a particularly evil space in New York’s old money Dolphin Hotel. Only problem is, the establishment won’t let him in. After confronting manager Gerald Olin (a smooth and suave Samuel L.) over occupancy, Enslin gets his wish – and a warning. No one has ever lasted more than an hour in the room, the result being death, or dementia. It’s the kind of challenge Enslin can’t pass up. Once he’s inside 1408, however, he realizes he should have heeded Olin’s advice.


To go any further in the plot summary would ruin 1408’s many macabre moments (though, as usual, the preview trailers have happily spoiled more than one). To his credit, Håfström doesn’t rush his prologue. We get to know Mike Enslin very well, his superstitious little quirks, the stinging sarcasm covering up for deep personal pain, and as he moves ever so steadily toward his confrontation with the name terror, we begin to build up a lot of sympathy and caring for him. True, this is your typical King protagonist – self destructive and markedly egotistic, requiring a kind of metaphysical just deserts to reset his stagnant priorities – but thanks to Cusack’s ability to humanize Enslin’s hubris, we find ourselves on the world weary writer’s side. On the other hand, Sam Jackson is not given much to do, but what he has to work with is choice. His initial meeting with Cusack is so classic in its performance potency, it’s like the Closer’s Contest pitch made by Alec Baldwin in Glengarry, Glen Ross.


While there are other famous names in the cast – Tony Shalhoub as Enslin’s publisher, Mary McCormack as his distant wife – they are more like cameos. This is Cusack’s show almost exclusively and your reactions will be wholly based on how you connect with him. He gives an amazing turn, on screen alone for minutes at a time and capturing completely a man caught off guard by circumstances he didn’t anticipate. Nothing is more deliciously enjoyable than watching a know it all proven unprepared, and the initial scenes where room 1408 starts to take on a life of its own offers the actor at his best. Later on, Cusack must turn on the waterworks and the histrionics, and for the most part, he keeps his obvious emotions in check. It’s a tour de force, and the production couldn’t have picked a better star to handle it.


On the other hand, Håfström’s work is much more subtle. There are riffs to many previous King adaptations (The Shining and The Dark Half for starters) and this Swedish cinephile understands the basic elements of suspense. There are several edge of the seat sequences in 1408, moments where we fear, along with our hero, what’s around the next corner, or waiting for us in the shadows of the ceiling vent. This is not a film that wants to quicken your pulse or send shockwaves through your spine so much as deliberately dig down just beneath the top layers of your flesh to settle in under your skin. For every set piece of rushing water, freezing interior spaces and grue-gushing walls, there are small, seemingly insignificant beats which tend to amplify the angst. There are even a couple of epic CG shots to spice up the spectacle. But by constantly keeping the film founded in the personal, Håfström’s paranormal excesses work that much better.


It has to be said that the last few decades, a time that literally redefined and reconfigured the thriller/chiller genre, will render 1408 inconsequential to some fright fans. For them, nothing says fear like flowing rivers of bodily fluids, along with the occasional misplaced organ. Others need the celluloid rollercoaster simulation – build-up/release, build-up/release – of the genres more extreme examples. But when you look at how well made and managed this movie is, when you recognize that the seemingly random scenes all have a logical reason to exist (and potentially payoff in the end) you can’t deny 1408’s effectiveness. You can mock its casual style and lack of aggressive arterial spray, but the refreshing nature of such a narrative twist will end up annoying only the most narrow-minded of macabre mavens.


For everyone else, 1408 will be a nostalgic callback to a time when films used ideas and invention to sell its scares. There is nary a moment of snuff stunt showboating or special effects sluice to be seen. In its place are tight construction, tripwire direction, superb acting, and an uncomfortable sense of the sinister. While it may not answer the near half century old debate regarding subtlety vs. splatter as the most successful fear factor, Håfström’s engaging experiment in unforced fright is well worth a look. It definitely defines the kind of movies old fashioned film fans pine for – and may even capture the imagination of the contemporary doom and gloom crowd as well.


7 out of 10


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Jun 22, 2007


When Gigi took the Best Picture Oscar in 1958, sweeping the ceremony with a startling nine wins, it signaled the end of an era. For the film’s director, Vincente Minnelli and producer, legendary MGM Svengali Arthur Freed, the movie symbolized the zenith of their professional success in a partnership that produced an array of breezy ‘50s Technicolor extravaganzas - Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris, Singing in the Rain, and Brigadoon; But the massive productions, complete with unfolding glittering sets and hordes of extras, were becoming too expensive for the studios to finance given the increasingly modest revenues they were generating. The Hollywood musical was losing its popularity. People were more easily bored; they became less inclined to sit through a twenty-minute interpretive dance sequence, even if Gene Kelly was its star. By the time the screen rights for Gigi were up for grabs in the early ‘50s, no studio wanted to touch it. When Paramount passed, MGM gingerly bought them, due in part to the pleadings of its musical-theater genius, Minnelli.


The trends of pop culture, like history, are cyclical. Musicals are back. Rob Marshall’s Chicago, Joel Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera, and Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls are lavish spectacles in the tradition of Freed and Minnelli. It’s a trend that began with Baz Luhrman’s irreverent, iconoclastic, Moulin Rouge, a heady blend of Minnelli, Ken Russell-rock opera (Tommy and Mahler) and plodding Gilbert and Sullivan. I think something about troubled political times makes us cling to the enchantment of musicals and its promise of escapism, whether you’re trying to cope with the memory of a devastating world war, or struggling to deal with a current one.


Gigi is not as well known today as the other Lerner and Loewe favorite that it’s compared too, My Fair Lady. Both are about eager, gauche young women who are transformed into graceful swans by a little manners, money, and the love of a shallow, but earnest, rich young man. Sounds an awful lot like the storyline to Pretty Woman. The plot is banal, and the movie is no more than an Ugly Duckling-style romantic comedy, but it’s enough. It’s not the reason why the movie is a success, or why you should watch it in the first place.


Leslie Caron plays as the adolescent girl, Gigi, who is tutored to be a courtesan by her great-aunt (Isabel Jeans) and grandmother (Hermione Gingold), but is so charmingly innocent and guileless that she winds up married to the richest, handsomest young man in Paris, Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jourdan).  Jourdan, arch and imperially slim, brings the appropriate hauteur to the part of this jaded dandy.  Like Rupert Everett, he has the insolent confidence and the elusive sophistication that can turn mannerisms into style. 


In between, the film is serenaded by the august Maurice Chevalier as Gaston’s worldly uncle. Chevalier’s years of experience and his love of performing come together joyously.  His easy manner recalls the atmosphere of 1920s Parisian music halls seen most recently in Olivier Dahan’s Edith Piaf’s biopic, La Vie en Rose - eloquent, sophisticated and unapologetic - a style of entertainment that got France through two world wars, and defined their culture through the 20th century.


Chevalier’s knowing rendition of, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” sung as he leeringly gazes at burgeoning young pre-adolescents in the Bois de Boulougne does not go over so well in our age as it did back then. We’re asked essentially to applaud this dirty old man, and marvel at his wit. The screen persona spawned a thousand imitations, everything from Chuck Jones’s Pépé le Pew to Lumière the candelabra in Beauty and the Beast.



But one of the basic joys of Gigi is pure escapism. It’s one of the fundamental reasons why people are drawn to movies: to marvel at the flow of moving images across the screen. The picture has a buoyancy and playfulness that few movie musicals have. The glorious saturated Technicolor of Minnelli’s images: the oxblood red of the brocade walls of Mamita’s apartment; the vivid green and purple tartan of Gigi’s dress; the sleekness of the men and women all taken from images out of Renoir’s paintings, (the stately tour of Parisian high life is like a two-hour slide show for art-history majors); Cecil Beaton’s lush costumes, all lace and crinoline (he transferred his memories of Edwardian England onto 1900s Paris); the energy and dynamism of the score, jaunty and robust in its musical depiction of fin-de-siècle Paris, which evokes Bizet and Offenbach.


There are some glorious moments: the gossip at Maxim’s sequence is a masterpiece of balletic musical theater. Minnelli with his costume designer and set consultant, artist and bon vivant, Cecil Beaton, recreate an environment of elegance and imaginary innocence. And the scene where Gaston mulls over his growing fondness for Gigi, his top-hatted silhouette against the nighttime streets and fountains of Paris as he roams disconsolately, stunned by the realization that he’s falling in love, is a beautifully laid out sequence—a late Impressionist mood-piece haunted by sketches of Toulouse-Lautrec.


Minnelli was a director primarily interested in the pictorial effect of cinema.  He connected deeply with painters and his most successful, lovingly made movies, Lust for Life, Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris, reflect his vision of a film a moving canvas.  He understood more than anyone else that the spectator’s receptiveness to film hinges on visual pleasure, and Gigi is rapturous in that respect.


*Gigi will be playing on Turner Classic Movies at 11AM, Sunday, 1 Julyt


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Thursday, Jun 21, 2007


Will this month ever end? It seems like we’ve been talking about June for at least the last four weeks, if not longer – and believe it or not, there’s another seven days left. Is the calendar purposefully creeping along or what? Let’s face it; summer is a time of entertainment overkill. The young ones are out of school and loaded down with disposable income, their parents are desperate to get them out of the house and into the marketplace, and Hollywood is working overtime to give them both as many monetary excuses as possible. The pay cable channels are no better. While Cinemax continues with its pledge of first run retreads from last blockbuster season, the rest are regurgitating fare that few should focus on. Seems they’ve given up on the audience as well, assured they will be parked in the local Cineplex waiting for Pixar or John McClane to save the cinematic day. By the looks of 23 June, they’ll be lingering there a long, long time:


Premiere Pick
The Lady in the Water


It was either the biggest leap of filmic faith ever made by an up and coming superstar director, or the sloppiest example of uncontrolled hubris ever exhibited by a yet to be fully established filmmaker. Angry that Disney would not develop his latest script (a project they feared would flop) M. Night Shyamalan pulled up production stakes and turned his talents over to Warner Brothers. Of course, the competitor was more than happy to have the man who helmed The Sixth Sense and Signs under their moviemaking moniker. Then, just to pour cinematic salt in the wounds, Shyamalan cooperated with a book blasting the whole House of Mouse approach to his project. Unfortunately, what got forgotten along the way was the movie. And in this case, the film is a frustrating, forced fairytale that takes up too much time establishing its parameters with not enough effort going toward enchanting the audience. While it has some interesting moments, it’s Uncle Walt’s world that’s having the last laugh now. (23 June, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Sentinel


At first, we here at SE&L were excited. It looked like one of our favorite novels from the mid-70s, Jeffrey Konvitz’s The Sentinel, was getting the remake treatment. The original motion picture adaptation was a pointless little travesty, and an update at the hands of one of our modern macabre experts would be more than welcome. Turns out this is some minor Michael Douglas thriller. That sound you hear is the superstar’s demographic demanding their money back. (23 June, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Night Listener


Robin Williams needs to stop making movies pronto. His hirsute hack stench is ruining what would otherwise be fairly intriguing titles. Take this one for example, the story of a radio talk show host haunted by a phone call from a desperate young boy. Before he knows it, the child has disappeared – though it’s possible he never really existed in the first place. Promising premise, right? Williams whizs it right down his hairy leg. (23 June, Starz, 9PM EST)

 


The Last Holiday


The transformation of Queen Latifah from rap icon to marginal movie star has nothing to do with her talent (and she has some) and everything to do with Hollywood’s race based mea culpa-ing. If you need further proof of such a safe strategy, look at this urbanized disease of the week waste. How the talented Wayne Wang (Smoke, Eat a Bowl of Tea) came to be associated with this drivel is a mystery for movie scholars. (23 June, Showtime, 9PM EST)

Indie Pick
Dark Water


Perhaps you’re familiar with the remake – a decent enough effort starring Jennifer Connelly and directed by Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles. But it’s the original Japanese effort, helmed by the wonderful Hideo Nakata (Ringu, Kaidan) that’s well worth looking up. One of the better J-Horror exports, the first film is far darker and more depressing than the equally evocative Hollywood revamp, but there’s just something about the long haired creepy ghost girl that the Asians have down pat. Particularly intriguing are the scenes where lead Hitomi Kuroki must react to the never ending frustrations of the Japanese legal system. She is so effective here that when she starts stumbling over into the supernatural, we believe her baffled confusion. Sure, the ending still stinks, the kind of ‘could have seen it coming’ cop out that almost ruins everything that came before, but thanks to his subtle style and way with visuals, Nakata singlehandedly saves the story. That’s the sign of a true cinematic artist. (27 June, Sundance Channel, 5:30PM EST)

Additional Choices
Bend It Like Beckham


He’s supposed to be coming to the US to reinvigorate the flatlining sport of professional soccer, but if he was smart, David Beckham would remain a staunchly European icon. Then, he could inspire more marvelous movies like this clash of cultures comedy from Gurinder Chadha. While it does deal with subjects more closely associated with the West Indian way of doing things, the message of self esteem is universal – just like the appeal of football around the world. (23 June, IFC, 7PM EST)

11:14


Some have called it a riotous Rashaman. A few have labeled it a comic Crash. But the five stories served up by writer/director Greg Marcks are meant to act as a commentary on small town life, and how one event (an automobile accident at the title time) can bring divergent lives together. While critics claim that Marcks is more a Tarantino wannabe than an individual talent, others have really gotten behind the filmmaker’s dark and devious way with a knotty narrative. (23 June, Sundance Channel, 10PM EST)

Intacto


Many fans feel that the multifaceted story of separate lives in sync and destiny deconstructing us begins and ends with 21 Grams/Babel auteur Alejandro González Iñárritu. But 28 Weeks Later helmer Juan Carlos Fresnadillo would definitely have something to say about that. This 2001 effort finds the filmmaker intertwining several threads to tell of tale of how the ‘gift’ of luck creates an underground subculture of divergent personalities. (26 June, IFC, 12:50AM EST)


Outsider Option
This Stuff’ll Kill Ya!


Ah, the joys of sweet sour mash. Leave it to those solid sons of the soil, otherwise known as hillbillies, to bring moonshine and the still to the cultural forefront. In actually, no one really gives a rat’s patoot about how a redneck lubes his lifestyle, but for some reason, the makers of exploitation felt the rube was ripe for a little erotic exploration. Sure, ever since Lil’ Abner proved that Daisy Mae’s feminine wiles could make men weak, the buxom beauty from the backwoods was potent fantasy fodder. But most of these movies were cut from the same clunky cloth – way too much corn and not enough pone. At least Herschell Gordon Lewis was behind this mess. He could make a boring bootlegger comedy into something quite surreal – and he does so with this brazen bit of rot gut. SE&L suggests you sample at your own risk – too much bumpkin buffoonery could be hazardous to your health. (25 June, Drive-In Classics Canada, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Honeymoon Killers


In writer/director Leonard Kastle’s creative zenith, Tony LoBianco and Shirley Stoler play a mismatched couple who use death as a means of cementing their relationship. He’s an oily lothario. She’s an obese nurse who’s never known real passion. Together, they forge a bond that begins to unravel into madness and murder. Avoiding almost all the standard thriller clichés, this is a crazed character study first, a wonderful work of cinematic art second. (22 June, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

The Man With the Screaming Brain


Everyone’s favorite b-movie badass, Bruce Campbell, plays a wealthy industrialist who has his brain transplanted with that of a Russian cab driver. Of course, all kinds of horror/humor hijinx ensue. While not the classic it could have been, the presence of everyone’s favorite Evil Dead symbol makes this a lot more fun than it should be. Too bad the premise can’t match the title’s ability to inspire waves of schlock sensationalism. (23 June, Sci-Fi Channel, 9AM EST)

Little Voice


It’s movies like this one, the story of a lonely girl with a great big singing voice, that makes fans question the talents of the actors involved – in a good way. While Brenda Blethyn and Michael Caine are always magnificent, who knew that Jane Horrocks (best known as Bubble from Absolutely Fabulous) had such sensational pipes. Her ability to mimic famous divas is only part of what makes this movie so fascinating. (28 June, Indieplex, 9PM EST)

 


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Jun 20, 2007


It’s too bad that Evan Almighty is merely a fluffy summer trifle. It really wants to be something more – or at the very least, it appears to strive for something greater. And once you hear the entire backstory of the film’s production (studio wants sequel, star Jim Carrey passes, Bruce co-star Carell gets the call up, Noah’s Ark script gets the Almighty revamp) you begin to understand the dilemma. The notion of a modern, everyday man with real problems and a regular, day to day existence, suddenly getting the calling to build the Bible’s big boat, and convincing his skeptical family that he’s not a nutjob, has the makings of a meaningful cinematic statement. Toss in issues of faith, how we as a society react to questions of religion and belief, and a last act catastrophe that allows the special effects to turn the small moments into something epic, and you’d have a potential classic on your hands. It could be a grand motion picture spectacle and masterful human drama. There’s even room for comedy in the complicated mix.


But this is not the road Evan Almighty wants to travel down. Oh, you see it every once in a while – a noble look in lead Steve Carell’s electric eyes, a sequence of natural beauty as the world’s animals prepare to board - but, in general, this is a film that wants to mainstream and dumb down all of its ideas. Indeed, if you start questioning the logic of certain elements and the last act denouement, you soon realize that the entire narrative is built on the foundation of find a “reason” for the finale’s flood (this is not a spoiler, the most recent trailers and TV ads show the floating zoo navigating some rough waters). In turn, this renders most of the comedy flat and much of the emotion hollow. What we wind up with is a decent diversion that never quite gels into a clever comedy, or an Old Testament thriller. Instead, it straddles the fine line between missed opportunity and craven crowdpleaser.


This time around, smarmy news anchor Evan Baxter (Jim Carrey’s nemesis from the first film) is a newly elected Congressman from New York. He moves his doting wife and cookie cutter trio of sons to a massive DC suburb, the kind of planned community that stinks of developer corruption and government payoffs. Sure enough, Evan’s first day on the job finds him admiring his huge new office – and taking an important meeting with a senior Representative. Congressman Long (an uncomfortable John Goodman) wants Evan to support a piece of legislation that would allow our National Parks to be parceled off for – you guessed it - more planned communities. At first, Evan is on board. But then he starts having premonitions about a specific Bible verse (Genesis 6:14), and before you know it, God himself is asking this pampered politician to build his new Ark. Of course, his new objective flies directly in the face of Congressman Long’s plans, and his family’s tolerance of their ‘distant’ dad.


Part of the problem lies with the film’s tone. This is a subtle smile maker that believes it’s an uproarious farce. The script – credited to Steve Oedekerk alone – keeps giving the cast the smallest of jokes, and yet director Tom Shadyac demand his actors swing wildly at each and every one. What are really nothing more than quirky character beats are broadened into the movie’s main yucks. Similarly, the real cinematic strengths of the film (the ark building, the moments of God-like majesty) are marginalized – or worse - become fodder for mindless musical montages. As a matter of fact, you can actually see the focus group reactions to such struggles. They exist in every insert shot of crazy comedian Wanda Sykes cracking wise. So blatantly last minute in their addition that they actually function like a commentary on the film’s success as an entertainment, you can just hear the studio suits screaming “the sassy black assistant scored well. Let’s bolster her profile!”


Sadly, Sykes alone can’t save Evan Almighty’s funny business from flatlining now and then. It doesn’t help matters much that the usually ebullient John Goodman is reduced to a rotund Simon LeGree, or that Knocked Up’sJonah Hill is mandated to play creepy instead of clever.  John Michael Higgins does his best with limited material (it’s all those Chris Guest improv fests paying off) and Morgan Freeman is the coolest higher power this side of The Simpsons. But for every decent turn, there is a performance that’s particularly disturbing – and Lauren Graham just can’t stop giving it. She is horrible here, a shrew in a situation she knows nothing about, an irredeemable downer throughout the first two acts of the story. Gilmore Girls or not, her last minute conversion is cold and completely calculated. Even after her so called ‘enlightenment’, she’s the party pooper that no one really invited.


The one saving grace is Carell. Sure, he frequently flies into freak out mode when a far wittier rejoinder would have worked (his declaration of “SHEEEEEEP!” is classic, however). When he tones it down and plays to the possibilities within the story, he almost pulls the entire project off. His interactions with the animals (real and CGI) are warm and wonderful, and he does find the proper balance between cut-up and concerned toward the end. But we need Evan Baxter to be a more well-rounded personality, to have more to his individual eccentricity than a desire to cleanse his nostrils of nose hair. Indeed, the entire narrative simply races right into the God stuff, barely letting us catch our breath before the omens start overriding everything. But this is a movie that’s not intelligent enough to tell the story it should be exploring. Instead, it skirts smarts to go for the easy gag (lots of bird poop and monkey shines) and manipulative sentiment.


Of course, none of these criticisms will really matter. Evan Almighty is expertly forged to be a superficial audience friendly phenomenon, the kind of movie that has critics and the cultured scratching their heads over its continued success. It is all set up and expected payoff, with just a little ‘Go with God’ positivity to flesh out the lilting life affirmations. It’s destined to drum up box office even as word of mouth wavers between excellent and “eh?”. Modernizing the Bible’s many important parables would seem like a filmmaker’s dream – the stories are sensational and the themes strike all the right chords of righteousness. But Evan Almighty just wants to get in, get out, and leave you feeling somewhat entertained along the way. And frankly, that’s all it does.



Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jun 19, 2007

Little Big Shots: Melbourne’s International Film Festival for Kids
June 6-11 2007
ACMI Cinemas, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia



It was the first day of the festival, first morning, first film, and Marcella Bidinost was standing in a spotlight asking if anyone here understood Hebrew. Yes! shouted part of her audience. Woo! Yeah! We do! The boys who were shouting looked about fourteen years old. Some of them—the ones whose hair I could see in the light from the screen—were wearing teased mullets. You knew they were from well-off families, middle class at least, because no one, no matter how hard they banter and snicker, can look seriously tough in a teased mullet.


What had their teachers brought them to see, these students from Bialik College in Melbourne’s east? They were here to watch a movie called Little Heroes. “One of Israel’s first feature films for kids,” explained the programme. Little Heroes is the story of a telepathic migrant girl, a half-orphan boy, a genially retarded teenager, and a squinting kibbutz kid who looks like Rick Moranis at the age of six. The children are independent and strong, fine-feeling without being saintly (although the girl comes close—many shots of her staring into the distance, eyes pale with contemplation), and they neither reject the adults nor lean on them excessively. There is comedy and danger. There are ostriches and a car crash. This is an adventure film with a good sense of balance. It didn’t make a bad start to a festival.

Little Big Shots runs annually for six days, three for schools, three for the wider public. It’s the largest international film festival for kids in Australia. Melbourne has had a film festival for adults since 1951, but prior to 2005 there had never really been one dedicated to those among us whose parents don’t want them watching nudity, gore, and Lars von Trier comedies. Brief seasons of independent family films were sometimes screened during the holidays (I remember a friend’s father taking us all to see one of them on a summer’s day in a cellar-like cinema, somewhere at the bottom of a government building where there was a lot of concrete slab) but nothing as organised, official and regular as this. Nothing with a programme quite as glossy, or sponsors quite so joyfully prominent or cinemas quite so large and undungeonlike, as this.


Almost half of the films are Australian premiers, two have been nominated for Oscars, and 25 of them are made by children themselves. This is important. One of the festival’s aims—stated in the publicity, and again when you talk to the people who are running it—is to show children that they can make movies themselves, that they can do more than gawk tamely at the screen, that they can be the grown-up filmmakers of the future. Being Australian they’ll make one film here and then hive off to Hollywood and direct Legally Blonde but we don’t tell them that yet. For now, they are our filmmakers. 


The festival travels. This year it’s going around Australia and then to Singapore. Marcella will go with it. Little Big Shots is partly her brain-child. She stands at the front of each session, she welcomes everyone. She is the festival’s face.


She also chooses the films. Her favourite this year is Renuka Jeyapalan’s Big Girl, a deft Canadian short about a girl who challenges her mother’s new boyfriend. “Bartender,” she grumbles at him crankily. “Loser.” There is a twist at the end. It’s a perfectly shaped short story, and one of several films here that would fit equally well into a festival aimed at adults. In 2005 the Toronto Film Festival judged it their Best Canadian Short Film; in 2006 the Children’s Jury at the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival put it in second place behind Nils Mooij’s Fried Rice. Fried Rice screened here at the end of a session that included Small Ant Syndrome (Australian, funny) and Drive (live action from a North American teenager named Joseph Procopio who, going by his festival appearances, seems to be one of the world’s most prolific quality filmmakers under the age of 15).

It’s a festival free of breathless interviews and high-profile names, unless you count Disney, whose Little Match Girl left people sniffling as the lead perished in the deathly blue Russian snow, or Nickelodeon, a primary sponsor. The filmmakers who turned up for question time were all Australian. No one, it transpires, is going to fly umpteen thousand miles around the earth to discuss Het Monsterlijk Toilet, or The Monsterous Toilet, a handsome fourteen-minute Dutch short in which a girl eats a table-load of cakes and chocolates and then has to confront a cistern that growls at her.


These local filmmakers were shy, some seemed nonplussed—they had little instinct for self-promotion. The animator of Big Cat Zoo came down the front with his two co-creators, his children, both of whom were under the age of ten. Was it difficult to make the film? the audience asked.


Nah, not really, he said diffidently. The kids did most of the work. He put one hand lightly on his son’s head.


Marisa Lai was more forthcoming. She was 14, with two films in the festival. One of Marisa’s films was titled Talk to the Toys; the other was Military Sandwich. In Military Sandwich there is a funny moment with the lettuce, which I’ll leave you to discover if you ever get a chance to see it.


Why did she decide to animate talking toys? the audience asked.


Marisa said that she liked Creature Comforts and wanted to do a similar thing, but with toys. The decision made sense—animals were already taken. She grinned and brushed her hair off her cheek. The spotlight was on her and she handled it well.


Five of Little Big Shots’ child-made films came from Croatia’s Škola Animiranog Filma, an animation workshop run specifically for children. Wonderful things are done there. Their films were part-surreal without being incoherent. One of them, Rose, was entirely the work of a 13-year-old boy named Toni Zadravec, whose Water appeared in the festival last year. “He draws above his age group,” Marcella said before the screening, and it’s true, he does.


Storytelling and jokes are not the preserve of adults. Nor are they the preserve of countries with an excess of money. The film that got the biggest laugh was a computer animation from Zimbabwe, Moondance, while the United States’ Camp Lazlo: Treehugger was received with plain stares. Lazlo was flip, smart, noisy, and graphically stylised, with a pedigree that stretched backwards through Ren and Stimpy to Roger Ramjet and the UPA. Moondance was a series of simple visual jokes built around a giraffe. After sitting in on Little Big Shots, I wonder if marketers who say that kids won’t watch anything unless it’s edgy and hip aren’t thinking more wishfully than realistically. Funny animals tripping over themselves seem to do the job just as well.


Sad films work too. People were attentive during The Little Match Girl and quiet for Big Girl‘s poignant finale. Come to think of it, girls turned up a lot in these films. Girls brandished plungers at toilets, girls poked dangerous suitcases (Miriam Plays Hide and Seek), girls befriended girls who were different (Sirah), girls conducted interviews with other girls (Children of Nomads), girls survived natural disasters (Ayla the Tsunami Girl), girls built aeroplanes (Lolly’s Box), and, in Marta and her Flying Grandfather, a girl stubbornly tried to cure her grandfather’s Alzheimer’s. (Lovely Marta manages to make the grandfather likeable even after we’ve seen him throw a senile fit, very frightening and inexplicable to his granddaughter, with whom we are asked to identify. At the end of the film all of the bad adults turn over a new leaf and become good. I saw a wonderful Tempest once; it ended like that too).



There were plenty of boys (Wander, The Big Race, Frankie’s Story, Drive, Dobli, etc) but the resilience of the girls was more noticeable, perhaps because it doesn’t always carry through to adult productions. If you’re sick of watching films in which every female character is scripted and cast with the male audience in mind then you should try a children’s movie. It might cheer you up. Try The Time-Out Chair, possibly the neatest little fuck-you to authority ever filmed. The lead character is a silent girl with long brown hair.  Nobody gets hurt; nobody needs to, and the ending is funny.


The other thing I’ve realised, after listening to audiences of adults and children, is just how much rubbish the grown-ups talk. “This film comes from Zimbabwe,” a mother told her daughter next to me, but the film came from Madagascar. A father, trying to figure out the nationality of Marta and her Flying Grandfather, saw a .de at the end of a web address in the credits and said that it must be Danish. Oh kids, kids. Don’t be fooled by our size, our bossiness, the mysterious languages we confidently pretend to recognise. If only you knew how little we know, you’d never trust us again.

Talk to the Toys, by Marisa Lai (Australia, 2006)


Wander, by Joshua Clark (USA 2006)


Small Ant Syndrome, by Anne-Marie Denham (Australia, 2004)


The Lollipop Tree Wish, by Olivia Allen-Wickler (USA, 2006)
Lollipop Tree Wish



Add to My Profile |   More Videos


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.