Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Film Review #165: Kirikou and the Sorceress
1998/DVD 2000
Director: Michel Ocelot
Animation, originally French language; English dub

Safe beyond the summer downpour on her deep front porch, Ramone’s grandmother – you may know her by other names and accomplishments, but this one’s been on the front burner since the two-year-old arrived last Sunday from Florida – was complaining that she’d had a hard time finding The Lion King on a DVD she could buy.

“I’ve heard that Disney locks them away in a vault after the first couple years,” she went on, turning back from watching two cop cruisers and an unmarked maroon sedan streak down Valley Drive. “Then they bring out the so-called collector’s edition for more money. I don’t like that. I just want him to hear James Earl Jones’ voice!”

Well it could seem that Disney has a lock on feature animation movies. Of the top ten named last week in the American Film Institute’s updated listing – The Lion King is fourth on that list – except for DreamWorks’ Shrek (2001), the other nine are Disney products. But if we look past Hollywood’s marketing empire, brilliant animators are working around the world. I still remember a perfectly serious grown woman lighting up when she told me about The Triplets of Belleville, a 2003 French confection. Recently, in a batch of Cuban films – an on-going side project of mine – I discovered Juan Padrón’s witty and terrific Vampires in Havana, made in 1985 but re-introduced over the past several years on DVD and in some festivals because he’s now made a sequel. This week Persepolis – when they’re for adults, we call them “graphic novels” – came out on DVD too.

Then there’s Kirikou and the Sorceress. Whereas The Lion King is set in Africa, you may notice that for all its wonders, it’s strangely devoid of Africans – perhaps Disney’s solution for avoiding the dilemma of visual representation that might be taken as stereotype and thus spark offense. With a vividly differentiated cast of characters, Kirikou fills that gap. Released in 1998 and made available in an English version on DVD in 2000, it’s the first feature-length film by French animator Michel Ocelot, who’d been making award-winning shorts for two decades when his producers encouraged something longer. Kirikou was also the occasion for Senegalese composer-musician Youssou N’Dour’s first feature film score – he had previously rejected every script sent to him – and entirely employs traditional African instruments.

Ocelot spent ages six through 12 in the African nation of Guinea with his parents, who went there as teachers in the mid-1950s. He based Kirikou on the folk tale he heard as a child of an exceptionally brave and curious boy, born already able to speak and walk, who saves his village by out-witting the evil sorceress Karaba. This involves discovering why she is so “mean and nasty” to begin with – men once drove a sharp thorn deep into her spine, causing her constant agony – and twice rescuing the other village children even though they won’t play with him because he’s “too little.”

Besides these lessons, Ocelot packs a great deal more story into Kirikou’s hour and fourteen minutes, a length that’s feasible even for younger kids. Containing many elements of the classic hero’s dangerous task, Kirikou’s quest involves a journey – he must reach the Old Man in the Mountain (actually his grandfather) beyond Karaba’s fortress by getting past her guards, tunneling through the earth, vanquishing several beasts, making friends with some baby squirrels who aid him, taking flight disguised as a bird – in which he seeks answers and finally achieves unexpected transformation.

In the wonderful exchange between Kirikou and his grandfather, the old man deftly manages to support the child’s incessant questioning and still get him focused on the task at hand. Kirikou also hears the wisdom that he is safer and more powerful in his naked innocence than he would be with a special talisman, which the sorceress would only expect him to have and then turn against him. And unlike many modern movie and video game heroes, Kirikou finds something more creative and positive to do with his opponent than kill her.

Since this is a children’s film, it’s important to know that its original release was delayed four years because Ocelot refused distributors’ demands to cover or air-brush some nudity – the village’s small children are naked and the village women bare-chested – because he insisted this authentically depicted the world of this folk tale. However, there is enough else going on in this story, and the graphic style is so thoughtful and so completely unsensational, that it’s unlikely this will occupy children’s attention. If anything, this may be a welcome antidote to the hyper-sexualized bodies that saturate much of US popular culture.

Now screened or sold on DVD in over 50 countries, Kirikou and the Sorceress has been so popular that a movie sequel and a hit stage musical in Paris followed. No matter how tiny, we are all born with seeds with greatness.

This review appeared in the 6/26/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not enjoy a theatrical opening in Central New York & older films of enduring worth. Rent Kirikou and the Sorceress at Netflix or buy it on-line at By the way, Nat Tobin & Eileen Lowell, owners of the oldest operating movie house in Onondaga County, have launched a website & weekly e-newsletter. Sign up, check movie times and coming attractions at
Film Review #164: Youth Without Youth
2007/DVD 2008
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Cast: Tim Roth, Alexandra Maria Lara, Bruno Ganz

“He must have signed a three-picture deal,” mused my friend during the first moments at a Sunday matinee of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, which opens with a rolling, industrial-strength sky that makes you uneasy right away. “Great production values and this cast – after the beating he took the last couple times out, he couldn’t make a film this expensive again so soon otherwise.”

M. Night Shyamalan is no Francis Ford Coppola. But four of us were there at Sunday’s matinee because we’ve found his films worth following and that over-rode the cool skittishness common now among reviewers toward his work, beginning with disappointment in Unbreakable (2000) and reaching pitched hostility with The Village (2004). I’ve always thought the trouble with The Village was mostly a bad advertising campaign that tried to sell something more ambitious as a straight monster film.

The trouble with Youth Without Youth – which opened theatrically last December for a brief 11-week run and has now been out on DVD about a month – is that for many critics, Francis Ford Coppola is no Francis Ford Coppola anymore either. Even if he takes a decade off, it’s hard to start fresh. Earlier this week, for example, network TV further enshrined the preferred “real” Coppola with the American Film Institute special, 10 Top 10, naming his Godfather films, I and II, made in the early 70s, among the best three gangster films ever made (Scorsese’s Goodfellas was second). So Coppola’s first movie since The Rainmaker (1997) – unless you count uncredited work on Walter Hill’s Supernova in 2000 – provoked some downright anger. Coppola self-finances and produces now, so he’s not bound by “three-picture deals” nor protected by diluted blame. Reviewers have called Youth Without Youth a self-indulgent mish-mash of New Age fad philosophies, the evident result of a mid-life crisis, even “a misery to watch.” (As an aside, the plot re-caps some of them offer in print suggest some lazy watching habits too, miserable or not.)

Youth Without Youth is not so much demanding as unexpected – a sort of Indiana Jones Meets Starting Out in the Evening. Visually and narratively, it’s absorbing. Coppola himself calls it “small and personal, not autobiographical.” Fair enough. So this is not Apocalypse Now re-treaded yet again. In hankering after the easy security of fixed categories, you’d miss Coppola’s still brilliant (and often drenchingly lovely) framing, Walter Murch’s nearly perfect editing, and a set of remarkably nuanced performances (including the first time I’ve ever had much sympathy for a Tim Roth character).

Based on the Romanian writer Mircea Eliade’s 1976 novella of the same title, Youth Without Youth relates the story of Dominic Matei (Tim Roth), an elderly academic linguist in a provincial – here, that would mean “backwater” – Romanian city a ways from the capital of Bucharest who reaches a personal crisis in 1938. German Nazis have occupied his country. He has never rid himself of the loss over 40 years before of his first love, Laura (Alexandra Maria Lara), who died in childbirth after leaving him because his obsession with his work had made him so distant. In despair, the old man now determines to travel to the capital and kill himself, having decided he can never finish his life’s work, an exploration of the origins of language – “the first spark of consciousness itself.”

Barely out of the train station, Matei is struck by lightning, which for this story makes that “first spark” literal and transforms intellectual argument into human terms. Miraculously, Matei survives. Unaccountably, he then flourishes, experiencing a surge in his language studies and recovering, sometimes comically, his youth and potency under the fatherly, thoughtful care of Dr. Stanciulescu (Bruno Ganz). Stanciulescu arranges his escape to Switzerland when a Nazi doctor wants to “borrow” Matei for his own gruesome experiments, also involving electricity.

If Matei barely survives the spark of consciousness, Coppola’s film certainly asks whether humanity as a whole has done so well, torn by language and thought from our animal being. Matei, after all, has had a lifetime of preparation for that transporting jump-start. (One of the pleasures of Roth’s portrayal is that his rejuvenated Matei still moves like an old man, still retains a certain gravity of demeanor that embodies precisely the title.) Still, possibilities of Frankensteinian wrong turns – scientifically, personally, politically – tinge his story and his time as much as fleeting glimpses of spiritual transcendence. In one scene, Matei imagines a chat with his “double” while stretched supine and nearly naked beside a horizontal mirror and you think you may have seen this figure before. Yes, it’s Hans Holbein’s Dead Christ in the Tomb, suggested by some to depict Christ’s own contemplation, the night before the Crucifixtion, of his double and the rapid physical disintegration he’ll meet in death.

What awaits those less prepared? In Switzerland, Matei encounters Veronica (also played by Lara) while hiking in a mountain wood. Some reviewers assume a neat and literal correspondence – that Veronica is simply Laura returned – but I think Coppola leaves this open, and wisely. Also struck by lightning, Veronica emerges disheveled and distraught from a forest cave, speaking ancient Sanskrit, which Matei knows. They embark on trips to India, locating the cave in which Veronica’s ancient life ended - Matei finds her bones - and to the coast of Malta, where she re-lives even older lifetimes. A point comes where Matei leaves her, since his presence and the work he’s doing in recording her life-times takes grievous toll. Whereas he’s grown younger, Veronica begins to age rapidly. The work he has despaired of finishing is less important than this single life, even in the face of his discovery – which has spanned the cosmos – that any single life is only a temporary container.

Coppola’s now in Buenos Aires filming Tetro, a story of Italian immigrants in Argentina. I’m glad he’s back.

This review appeared in the 6/19/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not enjoy theatrical release in Central New York and older films of enduring worth.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Film Review #163: Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North
Director: Katrina Browne
The Film Class
2006/DVD 2008
Director: Uri Rosenwaks

Of all the ways these two documentary films overlap and echo one another – both deal with women who film their investigations of ancestral involvement in the global slave trade – the most visceral is the mo­ment that each captures on film of the physical recoil against step­ping into the still-preserved underground dungeons where slaves were held before ship­ping.

Katrina Browne’s Traces of the Trade reports there were 70 “slave forts” on the West African coast between 1769 and 1820 (when the De­Wolfe family business was at its height). In the summer of 2001, Browne led a film crew and nine other DeWolfe descen­dants to two of them – Cape Coast and Elmina – in Ghana. Browne is an Episcopal minister raised in Philadelphia who lived in Berkeley, California when she began this project eight years ago. Her Ghanaian trip was the second leg of a three-week journey starting in Bristol, Rhode Island – the historic DeWolfe family seat, where their mansion Linden Hall is now a museum and descendants often return for the July 4th parade – and proceeded to Cuba, where the DeWolfes owned five sugar plantations that used slave labor and sup­plied their rum distilleries well after the end of the US Civil War.

On the other side of the African continent, at Stone Town on the island of Zanzibar off Tanzania, Israeli film­maker Uri Rosenwaks led his filmmaking class – five “Black Bedouin” women from the town of Rahat in the Negev Desert – on a similar pilgrimage in 2005. In south­ern Israel’s Negev Desert, the Rahat Black Bedouins descend from Africans kidnapped by Arab slavers during the same period but taken east.

The mirroring that occurs within each film and between the two films is frequent. In a stroke of cinematic good fortune, Katrina Browne herself carries the same DeWolfe profile that echoes in every family portrait her film puts on-screen, making somberly visible the legacy she experiences so sharply. The DeWolfe family’s return to Ghana coincided with a massive gathering that aimed to ritually cleanse the area of its slaving past; during one moment when Browne watches a procession of hereditary tribal leaders, she wonders if her ancestors and theirs “did business.” That family business was the largest single slaving enterprise in US history, an elaborate “triangle trade route” involv­ing almost 50 ships, their own bank and distilleries, the Ghana­ian and Cuban sites, a Charleston slave auction house and connections in 40 other US cities.

On both African coasts, the holding dungeons that remain are bleak gray stone affairs, squat, dank, thick-walled and half-under­ground, made for holding hun­dreds of naked human beings in almost unbelievably tight, dark spaces. And in each place – despite the distance traveled, which has required considerable commitment and overcoming – the visitors must will themselves over the threshold.

Besides celebrating June­teenth (the date when Texas slaves belatedly got word of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation) with events all month – the opening recep­tion for Declaration of Independence-signer descendent Brantley Carroll’s photo exhibit, The Whipping Post, a book-sign­ing at Barnes and Noble and related guest talks – Syracuse’s Community Folk Art Center is also observing the second centennial of the abolition of the slave trade in 1808. They’ll screen both Traces of the Trade and The Film Class twice this month, on the 18th and 26th, as a double bill – just over two hours combined total viewing time – an inspired change of plans from a single screening of each film on separate dates, so viewers can experience the ways each reflects and deepens the other. Mindful of the symbolism of anniversaries, Katrina Brown premiered her film at Sundance on January 12th of this year, Martin Luther King’s birthday. On June 24th, Traces of the Trade airs nationally on PBS, kicking off the new season of the docu­mentary series, “P.O.V.” So Syracuse gets this film earlier than the rest of the country.

Led by Katrina, the ten DeWolfe descendants use their journey to address questions of forgiveness, self-indulgence, whether reparations mean pro­cess or payment, the distinc­tions between guilt and grief, and the need to follow-up with action in the world once they got home. While some DeWolfes went other routes – supporting reparation lawsuits, for example – Browne took her action to the Episcopal Church’s national gathering, successfully shepherding official church recognition of slaving and current racism and laying groundwork for first steps to respond.

Browne’s project began when her grandmother sent her a small booklet on the family’s history that acknowledged the true foun­dation of their wealth and social position. In Rosenwaks’ film class – a small project to teach new skills and community involvement to African Bedouin women begun by the Step Forward NGO in a remote, impoverished Israeli city – the process also began with grandmothers when he asked his students what they knew of their family history.

Whereas the DeWolfes’ unspoken rule was “never to mention politics, religion or the Ne­groes,” the Rahat women found they knew next to nothing about their family histories or how they came to reside, largely despised, in the Negev Desert. No less profoundly than the DeWolfes, the Rahat women return from their African trip to confront their mayor, in a filmed interview, about racism toward the Black Bedouin community within his city.

The Film Class includes that encounter, preceded by footage of the role-playing the women engaged in to prepare for interviewing a practiced politician and his nervous aides, and followed by their reactions afterward when the whole class gathers to watch how the interview went – comically in one spot, since one of the film’s producers, playing the mayor, offered an evasive answer in the rehearsal that predicted, almost word for word, what the real mayor then said. So we get to watch these women’s surprised delight when they watch footage of that exchange. In its own way, this sequence expresses the same profound and universal power of cinema that Katrina Browne is aiming for. Schooled in Aristotle’s theory of drama and catharsis making better citizens, Browne - who has experience with a number of projects using film for community outreach - reasoned simply, “These days, people go to the movies.”

This review appeared in the 6/12/2008 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly in “Make it Snappy,” a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that have not enjoyed a theatrical opening in Central New York & older films of enduring worth. Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North premieres nationally on PBS as the season opener for the documentary series P.O.V. on Tuesday, June 24 at 10 p.m., after which the DVD is available on-line from PBS. The Film Class is available on DVD now from

Friday, June 06, 2008

Film Review #162: Every Woman Here: Remnants of Seneca 1982-2006
2007 - Documentary
Directors: Hershe Michele Kramer, Estelle Coleman for the Peace Encampment Herstory Project

“It’s so peace camp!” laughed Hershe Michele Kramer. “When we say something is ‘so peace camp,’ what we mean is, if you don’t know how to do something, that’s not a reason not to do it. You learn how. That’s what we learned there too. When we started recording these interviews in 2005, we used audio cassette tapes for the first three. Then we met Sarah Shulman from ACT-Up’s Video Project, who said, ‘You have to shoot this on video!’ We didn’t know how to shoot video. Actually, we’re still using the same borrowed video camera. It’s my brother’s.”
Estelle Coleman added, “That means we have to return it for birthdays and Christmas.”

Kramer and Coleman had stopped their day’s work for lunch early Sunday afternoon at the Women’s Information Center in Syracuse. Kramer lives on the Hudson River in Kingston and Coleman in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Travelling for the Peace Encampment Herstory Project, they’ve recorded over 80 interviews – 20 just last weekend in Syracuse– and plan to make a third DVD documentary about the Seneca Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice, a 53-acre farm on Route 96 near Romulus, New York, first purchased in 1983 by women’s peace activists because it shared a boundary line with the Seneca Army Depot.

Saturday evening about 25 people gathered at Women’s Info to watch the previous two documentaries, Stronger Than Before – which aired on PBS – and Every Woman Here: Remnants of Seneca 1982-2006, completed last year. The latter is an absorbing 32-plus minutes comprising voice-overs from nine oral “herstories,” clips of 15 songs from Sorrel Hays and Marilyn Ries’ Peace Camp Sings (1980), three songs from Average Dyke Band, video and newspaper clips, and over 300 images from “dozens” of photographers.

Immediately inspired by the women’s anti-nuclear peace encampment and huge demonstrations the previous winter outside the US Air Force base at England’s Greenham Common, the Seneca women hoped a summer’s protest would halt the deployment of US first-strike nuclear weapons to Europe that fall. About 12,000 women massed that first summer at Seneca – where they believed the military secretly stored those nuclear weapons – and 950 of them got arrested during non-violent marches, political theater and planned breaches of the Depot’s perimeter fence. Men participated too – pediatrician/peace activist Benjamin Spock addressed one crowd fondly as “all my children” – but only women and kids could camp at the farm itself. Instead of folding after Labor Day, the camp lasted until 1992 and its descendant, Women’s Peaceland, until 2006.

Every Woman Here is eminently watchable. As a film, it’s a good-looking short documentary with a strong visual narrative line and crisp, disciplined editing. It also refreshes several crucial points. First, this was a vast, global movement, involving larger numbers than may fit current hazy recollections. Those who gathered at Seneca came from across the US and every continent. The Seneca women were also acutely aware of women’s history in upstate New York – the nearby Seneca Fall’s Women’s Rights Convention of 1848 and Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad, for example - even the long-ago gathering in 1580 of Iroquois women demanding that tribal warfare end (Onondaga Nation clan mother Audrey Shenandoah came in person to bless the peace camp’s opening). Just as an inspection of the list of alums from the Civil Rights’ era Highlander School reveals a who’s who of movement leaders, the current round of interviews – in Syracuse and around the country at other interview sites – reveals that ex-peace camp women have often continued their activist ways, well known in their own communities long after they left Seneca.

Every Woman Here also documents vividly how peace camp worked in practice, women figuring out by consensus decision how to feed and shelter large numbers, build boardwalks across bumpy fields for wheelchairs, learn non-violence, manage childcare, paint murals on barns, nurture a growing spiritual dimension. Kramer says the interview project itself reflects those practices.

“Just as no one was supposed to speak for anyone else at the camp,” she went on, “this project isn’t done until every woman tells her story. So the internet archive is perfect – it can expand too. And we feel some urgency now because peace camp women are getting older.”

What’s next? The first week-end in August the two women visit Ithaca, home of Cornell University. Then, said Kramer, “Seattle. A trip south to Georgia and Florida. Vermont and Maine. We’ve got our eyes on some women in those spots who’d like to tell their stories.”

On June 7th, Syracuse's daily paper, The Post-Standard, reported that the US Army will again use the Seneca Army Depot to train troops sttaioned at near-by Fort Drum and National Guard from across the country. This review appeared in the 6/5/2008 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not enjoy a theatrical release in Central New York and older films of enduring worth. Visit the Peace Encampment Herstory Project’s website at

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Film Review #161: 2007 Oscar Nominated Shorts
DVD released & distributed by Magnolia Pictures

Once I had a roommate enthusiastically preoccupied with the study of karate and getting ready to test for the black belt. Late-night shopping at Wegman’s during this period often involved sudden high kicks and startling whirls in the course of delivering bags of frozen peas or heads of lettuce to the shopping cart. I thought fondly of those moments while watching Tanghi Argentini, one of the five live-action short films nominated for the 80th Oscars that were awarded in February.

Just 14 minutes long, this Belgian film by Belgians Guido Thys and Anja Daelemans, relates how an office nebbish named Andres (Dirk van Dijck) gives his imperious colleague Franz (Koen van Impe) a most unusual Christmas present in the form of the tango-dancing blind-date Suzanne (Hilda Norga). But first the irritated, unsuspecting Franz must consent to do Andres the favor of teaching him the tango in two weeks’ time – hence several impromptu mini-sessions down a row of dour gray file cabinets – then tag along to the date for moral support and take over when the two-left-footed Andres manifestly isn’t up to the task.

Tanghi Argentini did not take the Oscar – that went to France’s Philippe Pollet-Villard for The Mozart of Pickpockets, in which he also stars as one of two hapless thieves who adopt a deaf-mute Arab boy – but it easily might have. If not for Magnolia Pictures and Shorts International, it’s unlikely most of us would see either one. For the third year, Magnolia has distributed the Oscar-nominated shorts together – five live-action films and five animations - first a brief outing in some 50 US theaters some weeks before the Oscars ceremony, just recently on DVD and beginning two weeks ago, another limited theatrical run around the country through late August. (Alas, no far not in Central New York.)

The neglected orphans of mainstream movie audiences, short films are gaining new attention in the US with such DVD collections after confinement to gallery and museum spaces and the film festival circuit. The Syracuse International Film Festival’s shorts program has consistently been strong throughout its five years – this year showing 25 live-action short fiction films and another 31 in a combined animation/experimental category. Even so, for scheduling reasons, SIFF usually splits up its shorts to fill out the feature film time slots instead of showing them together. As SIFF’s offshoot DVD distribution project gets rolling, let’s hope a selection of Best of Fest shorts joins the features roster.

Magnolia’s Oscar shorts DVD is just the tip of a very large iceberg cruising past mall multiplexes. For example, the Washington Post reported that this year’s Cannes Film Festival, which ended Sunday, screened 2,148 short films. The “big” feature-length entries at Cannes screen in the 2,300-seat Grand Théâtre Lumière to an audience in formal dress. Meanwhile, at the festival’s Short Film Corner, you watch films “in a cubicle, alone, like at work, on a computer,” or – at their official premieres – in a nine-seat screening room.

The 2007 Oscar live-action shorts are consistently excellent – well-written, deftly acted, crisply shot and – more than many a meandering feature – superbly edited. Live-action nominees also include Denmark’s somberly wrenching At Night, by Christian Christiansen and Louise Vesth, about three college-aged women who share late night confidences, New Year’s hopes and family secrets, not in a campus dorm but a cancer ward. From the UK, there’s Daniel Barber and Matthew Brown’s The Tonto Woman, adapted from an early Elmore Leonard Western story about a cattle rustler who befriends an outcast woman. That stars Francesco Quinn, son of Anthony, an actor to look out for. From Italy, Andrea Jublin’s succinct and hilarious The Substitute.

Of the animations, Suzie Templeton’s new treatment of Prokofiev’s classic Peter and the Wolf – a joint UK-Poland production – took the Oscar. A stop-frame animation reminiscent of fellow Brit Nick Park’s hit Wallace and Gromit series, this new version successfully eliminates dialogue and voice-over narrative. Stop-frame animation was also used for the two fantasies, Samuel Tourneaux and Simon Vanesse’s Even Pigeons Go to Heaven (from France) and Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski’s Madame Tutli-Putli (from Canada). The Canadians have long been animation masters, so it’s no surprise they’re represented a second time here with Josh Raskin’s I Met the Walrus, a cartoon-collage illustration of a 1969 recorded interview with John Lennon by a 14-year-old Toronto fan. From Russia, Alexander Petrov’s lush and gorgeously painted romance of youth, My Love. Take a break from the mall and discover something new and wonderful in small packages.

This review appears in the 5/29/2008 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a weekly column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not enjoy a theatrical opening in CNY and older films of enduring worth.