61 Days of Halloween- Village of the Damned (1960)

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment, I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

Village of the Damned (1960)

The original Village of the Damned is an exercise in dealing with a lot of story with quick, precise strokes and keeping the pace moving. If one were to contrast it to its remake, what this film does it keeps a lot of the mystery about why these children are gifted and terrifying for as long as possible.

It examines aspects of mob mentality but addresses its central issue mostly with a few characters only. Its implications are far-reaching but it never gets bogged down or spreads itself too thin. Similar incidents elsewhere are alluded to in dialogue but not touched upon and the moralistic struggle, is rendered with the same tautness as the horrific concluding struggle is.

This film also excels in using the mind, mind-control and telepathy as its fear factors. The possibilities that it allows story-tellers are nearly endless and it set the stage for many other tales of the like to follow suit. The clandestine nature of the killings: the odd circumstances combined with the unproveable assumption of the children being responsible, are what give the film a lot of its drive.

The compromised nature and moralistic quagmire that the protagonist finds himself is aided not only by the fact that he is the man who knows the case of these mysterious simultaneous births, and supernaturally gifted children so well, but one of them is his own child.

George Sanders plays the lead and is perfectly sympathetic in this scenario. We see him as a man, husband, scientist and patriot; be challenged. He’s a man of reason, which allows for the situation and its ramifications to be debated intelligently and for his uncovering of the fact, those he does get to hit home harder and to make his battle that much more engaging.

The Village of the Damned does a lot with not much in terms of effects, techniques and outlandish production value. Its biggest boon is the successful and fully wrought implementation of its ideas in a brisk, efficient manner.

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Rewind Review- Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

As those who know me, and if such a person exists, cyberstalk me, know I created this blog after writing on another site, which shall remain nameless, for a while. The point is, I have material sitting around waiting to be re-used on occasion I will re-post them here. Some of those articles or reviews may have been extemporaneous at the time but are slightly random now, hence the new title and little intro, regardless enjoy!

Those who don’t like superlatives should stop reading this right now. Those of you who are still reading please believe that it is not for simplistic reasons alone that I am all but ready to anoint Where the Wild Things Are as the best film of the year. It is unquestionably a complete cinematic experience that, for the most part, paralyzed my pencil from note-taking and here are some reasons why.

It lives up to the old manic depressive statement of “I laughed, I cried” but goes so far beyond that. The beginning of the film sets up Max’s home life and imagination in simple, beautiful terms with nary a word wasted, which goes for the whole film. The dialogue was carefully chosen and all lines were simply set traps which if sprung would take you into the deeper meaning of the film.

This is the kind of film that does require multiple viewings for the inquiring mind, and it is the best kind of film because it works on multiple levels without any of those levels interfering with the other. Some argue that some parts of the film are too frightening for children. That is a parent’s decision, not a critic’s, and frankly the book has scared many children while others read it and remain unaffected. It has always been that kind of tale. So to think that Spike Jonze was cavalier or somehow remiss in his filmmaking is ridiculous. Two words of wisdom to keep in mind are first Maurice Sendak the writer of the tale wanted the film “not to condescend to children” as he stated in a featurette released about a month ago. Films have been known to scare kids but kids will watch them anyway. The first film I remember seeing at the theater was a re-release of Bambi and almost off the bat Bambi is orphaned. Is it terrible? Yes. Did everyone keep watching? Yes. Yet people haven’t shouted about Bambi’s inappropriateness as loudly as about this film. The other quote would be Sondheim’s as related by David Poland on his blog “Children will listen…”

Ultimately, that will be what they do – listen and watch as they see a boy be angry with his mother, run off find new friends, but ultimately find that home is the better place. He returns home and is welcomed back, again almost without words. Histrionics are not needed at that point either for dramatic or moralistic purposes. The lesson is learned by all, you have no reason to run from home and you can always go back there and be accepted. A little hard to misconstrue that, and perhaps you need to boil it down for them, but one angry incident or a little yelling and growling shouldn’t deprive a child of this experience. It’s PG for a reason…be a parent and guide your child through the film. Don’t expect it to do all the work for you.

Back to the aesthetics – while CG needed to be implemented on the Wild Things’ faces, you’d be hard pressed to tell. And amen to the practical suits which just add that much more realism. Also, adding tremendously to the mood and overall effect is the score/soundtrack, written by Karen O. and Carter Burwell, which always sets the tone with absolute precision. There is never any doubt as to the intention and correctness of the score and it is almost as wondrous as the film.

The refracted tale, of course, is that of a child trying to cope with the divorce of his parents. Pull the dialogue from some of those scenes and just read them and you heard homely and very parental type battles. In the Wild Things you see various interpretations of those relationships. Again the separation of these layers of the film must be stressed. It is not the kind of tale in which missing on such details would ruin it but perceiving it will only enhance it.

For as large or small as the part was, the cast both voice and actual couldn’t have been better-chosen. Whether it be Katherine Keener in her limited screen time as Max’s very endearing mother, Mark Ruffalo as the cause of Max’s ire, Max himself played by newcomer Max Records, a surprisingly sensitive and complex James Gandolfini as Carol, or Catherine O’Hara as Judith.

This film is proof that you don’t need a lot of pomp and circumstance to elicit emotion. With the imagination everything can expand like the lecture of a teacher. It is a tale sure to delight the child within us all and also profoundly move adults. A “must see,” and likely the best film of the year.

10/10

Thankful for World Cinema- Le Petit Nicolas

When looking for a theme in which to select films from the start of November until Thanksgiving being literal is not the best option. Films centered around Thanksgiving tend to be overly obsessed with dysfunctional families. So in thinking about the nature of the day which was initially a celebration of survival in the New World, I thought why not focus on foreign films.

Le Petit Nicolas

Maxime Godart, Vincent Claude, Victor Carles, Germain Petit Damico, Charles Vaillant and Benjamin Averty in Le Petit Nicolas (Wild Bunch)

Firstly, I must say that the availability of this film in the US is virtually non-existant. I managed to acquire a Canadian DVD (Also a Region 1) on Amazon. The film didn’t really see distribution here because it is based on a book series by René Goscinny that doesn’t have tremendous cultural impact in the US.

His other major contribution is as one of the architects of the Asterix series of books, which some here do know so the terrible first cinematic adaptation did come here. All this is brought to the fore because its non-distribution in the US really is confounding. The adaptation angle needn’t be used to sell the film. The humor and themes of the film really are universal.

While being familiar with the book, I’m sure, helped some appreciate it. It is a delightfully simple and accessible story that can be enjoyed by audiences of all ages. There are little treats for those in the know like, for example, the boys get inspiration for a scheme from an Asterix strip but it isn’t necessary to enjoy it.

This film is also very funny and while it does test your suspension of disbelief it should pass. Much of the film hinges on misconceptions that Nicolas has about his home life, which could be clarified if he talks to his parents but a child’s fears aren’t always relayed to his parents especially these.

This was a wonderful discovery and hopefully there are others in the offing as the series of books is quite lengthy.

10/10

Review- Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer

Garrett Ryan and Jordana Beatty in Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer (Relativity Media)

The first thing I have to say and I mean this in all honesty is that this film is nowhere near as bad as I feared it would be, however, it’s still not very good at all sadly. It’s not the worst film in the history of the medium and not even of the year, however, a lot of its issues were so correctable it makes it quite a frustrating venture.

Secondly, I feel I should state that my dislike for this film does not stem, as it seems to for some, from the mere fact that it’s a children’s film. I have frequently had films from the genre in my year-end best films list and some have had staying power like Max Keeble’s Big Move. So I can accept a film with a younger target audience if done properly. This isn’t.

The characterization across the board is rather thin. It’s acceptable, in my mind, to have parents be something of a caricature in a children’s film so long as they at certain points reflect actual parents. In their limited screen time Judy’s parents get a rare chuckle but have the aloofness of glue sniffers about them and more parenting, though not quite enough, is done by “crazy” Aunt Opal.

Then there’s Judy, of course, with the not-so-subtle surname of Moody. She is beyond moody, however, and rather a pain in the posterior.

The universe of this film is a very strange one wherein Judy, while not the “popular girl” does have her own cabal of friends yet she has her own distinct vocabulary that no one really adopts despite the fact that she’s clearly the alpha of the group. She leads a club and the only thing we really see her impress on her friends is the concept of a thrill points race to try and make summer “less boring.”

After one attempt to earn thrill points you quickly see what the resolution of the film will be and what she needs more than anything is an attitude adjustment. However, this uptightness is not called out for far too long and when one of her friends does call her out she doesn’t come to realize the error of her ways herself or get the nudge from her loci parentis. Instead the epiphany comes in a photo montage accompanied by lazy voice over.

Granted some of her feelings of inadequacy are exacerbated by the fact that two of her best friends are far off having a thrill a minute but still the singularity of her focus gets a bit annoying without more challenges to her perception.

However, the singularity is preferable to shoehorned subplots. The Bigfoot subplot works and gives Stink, her brother, his own obsession and plays into her modus operandi just fine. The one that doesn’t is that of the teacher, Mr. Todd (Jaleel White, yes, from Family Matters, who is difficult to accept in any other role). The issue with this subplot is how it is thrown in the mix. It starts with an awkward last day of school scene where his summer plans are made mysterious and hints are dropped through an even more awkward and ill-fitting sing-along. It also dovetails very annoyingly at the climax, so annoyingly that I could go on about that alone for quite some time.

There is an excessive use of animated graphics and titles in the film but while some actually work few do and none are as awkward as the sing-along.

My feelings about the parents as characters is lower than my opinion of their performance. Heather Graham does a lot to keep this film from wallowing into oblivion. Paradoxically by being a comedic oddball character she keeps it grounded and fun as much as she can. Judy’s brother (Parris Mosteller) and friends (Preston Bailey, Garrett Ryan and Taylar Hender) all contribute greatly and do quite well in their parts especially Bailey, whose fight with Judy is the best scene such that it’s almost as if it was taken from another film.

The most impressive thing Jordana Beatty does is lose her Australian accent. Her task is a difficult one in as much as she has to be annoying yet sympathetic and that doesn’t come across. I will grant that she was handcuffed by the script in some regards but the end result is insufficient.

This film is based on a series of books and considering that there’s much material to pull from I wouldn’t rule out Judy’s big screen return, pending its box office, I also wouldn’t write the films off. Yes, this film failed and miserably so but the parts of there in terms of concept and most of the cast but the vehicle was wrong. The actors given a different script may yield different results.

3/10

Review- In a Better World

Markus Rygaard and William Jøhnk Nielsen in In A Better World (Sony Pictures Classics)

In a Better World is a Danish film which won Best Foreign Language Film at the most recent Academy Awards and that is a moniker which can carry a stigma for many. The two that come foremost to mind are that either it’s an inaccessible by the masses art film or that it’s essentially an American film transplanted and taking place overseas. None of these notions apply to this film at all.

However, this film did vaguely bring to mind the Best Picture winner The King’s Speech in as much as its accessibility and relatability are part of its appeal. However, there is still an artistry and at times poetry in the way the simple subject of this film is handled that makes it excel just beyond being something passable and there’s still that European sensibility to it that’s just a little more deft even when handling things in a very straightforward manner.

This film is really telling two stories most of the time: it tells of Elias’s struggle to deal with bullying (which is quite relevant to the current climate) and his father Anton’s struggle as a doctor working in Africa who has to treat a malicious man who has sent many women to his hospital tent clinging to life and the locals beg him not to. These narratives only truly intersect once, otherwise the film shifts, as Anton does, from location to location.

The third factor, one who starts on his own but becomes involved in Elias’s story and dominates that, is Christian. After the initial images of Africa grace the screen, Christian is heard reciting a poem in English (this is one of the longest L-Cuts I’ve ever seen). As the film frequently does it conveys information visually showing us he is at his mother’s funeral. Following her death he moves from London back to Denmark and meets Elias. He has a very different, more confrontational way of dealing with bullies and sticks up for Elias who gets picked on about his teeth and anything else they can think of. Eventually Christian’s way of seeing the world catches on with Elias and his father Anton struggles to show both of them otherwise.

This is the kind of narrative that could get quite preachy and pedantic but it doesn’t do so. It does take the opportunity and has the narrative to serve as a teachable moment but the characters never talk at us but to each other and each of them throughout prove themselves to be far too imperfect to be self-righteous. In the past employing children in meaty dramatic roles had been the sole purview of the foreign film, specifically those from Europe, while there are are now more opportunities here there’s still something a bit more genuine in the portrayal of the positive and negative aspects of youths overseas.

With the themes and plots that this film has it makes doubly sure to make all of its characters engaging, interesting and human and yet also makes most of them likable as well. In doing so these simple struggles which balloon to massive issues with each decision carry more and more weight due to the investment we’ve made in each of them and their well-being. While dealing in the philosophical it still has that emotional pull we need.

This identification made all the more easy by the cast which is nothing short of superb. The kids, of course, deserve first mention. Between the two of them they shoulder a lot of the burden of bringing this tale to life and each one of them has their own journey, and aside from one hiccup which I’ll attribute to willful misdirection, they make nary a misstep. What that misstep is doesn’t bear mentioning beyond the above. The bottom line is both Markus Rygaard as Elias and William Jøhnk Nielsen as Christian are fabulous in it and I was not surprised to learn that the latter was nominated as Best Actor in Denmark’s national film award (Zulu) and may factor greatly in mine (BAMs).

Furthermore, you have supporting them the very talented actors who play Elias’ parents: Mikael Persbrandt, whose own moral dilemma occupies much of our time and he shows the great range to be both tremendously sensitive and caring and extremely enraged and Trine Dyrholm whose despair drives this movie into your core and makes you feel it if you haven’t already.

The only thing I thought was consistently off was one theme from the score, which played quite frequently and seemed the most discordant of all the pieces. This is a shame because many sections were quite effective but are rendered less memorable by the repetition of the most unpleasant section.

In a Better World is certainly the kind of film which could improve with a second viewing and was most definitely worth not only of its awards but of your viewership.

9/10