High praise for the 5-decade film diary 56 UP, women of India in The World Before Her and Japan’s Studio Ghibli animations
The highest profile film this week is also the weakest. The gems are in among the lesser knowns. Here’s the list.
56 Up: 4 stars
Step up to the Plate: 3
The Fruit Hunters: 3 ½
Studio Ghibli: 4 and 3 ½
The World Before Her: 4
Playing for Keeps: 2
56 UP: I now, having finally caught an episode, see why this “Up Series” has drawn so much praise over the years. It finds drama in everyday life and by telling things as they are and declining to hype anything it enobles ordinary people. As Michael Apted the director says: “Everybody has a story” and he’s been expanding this collection for almost 50 years. Back in 1964 he found 14 English schoolchildren, all seven years old, for a TV documentary in which they talked about their lives and the future they saw for themselves. Every seven years since he’s gone back to them to see what actually happened. The boy who wanted to be a jockey is a cabbie. The farmer’s son is a research scientist in the U.S. The snob is still a snob.
You don’t have to have seen the previous installments to enjoy this one. Apted has lots of clips to show everybody’s evolution. So, Lynn, in the picture above, is now over a “mysterious illness” and Sue has been engaged to a boyfriend for 14 years. A teacher quit the series for almost three decades because he got nasty comments for his anti-Thatcher views. He’s back, to promote a band he’s started with his wife. And most dramatically, a boy with a sunny nature who turned into a homeless wanderer and admits he’s been “completely unsuccessful at finding a paying career of any kind,” has improved his lot, a bit. Most have mellowed with age, maybe having resigned themselves that this is all there is. It’s fascinating to watch the turns these lives have taken. Some of them will resonate with, maybe predict, your own. (VanCity Theatre) 4 out of 5
Also at the same theatre …
STEP UP TO THE PLATE: Foodies should like this. Michel Bras, owner of a 3-star restaurant in southern France, prepares to turn it over to his son, who he's been training for over 15 years. It's hard to let go though and there's considerable tension as son invents and perfects a new dish (milkskin and chocolate play a role) and you can see dad itching to get his two cents in. The film starts with a long construction of dad's signature dish, le gargouillou, a salad with apparently everything, including many herbs and flowers. We then learn about three generations of the family as restauranteurs, see their surprisingly modernistic establishment overlooking a valley and later watch the son cook in Japan where they own a second eatery. I felt too much of that was unexplained and not very involving. There was a more poignant succession story and more artistry in a film that came around in the spring, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. (VanCity, various dates from Friday to Boxing Day). 3 out of 5
And starting Saturday at the same theatre …
THE FRUIT HUNTERS: Obsession is rarely as light and easygoing as this. These people are serious about finding, promoting and, of course, tasting exotic fruit. One calls it a “full-time case of insanity”. In his opening narration, Yung Chang, of Montreal, the film’s director, says he feels “aroused” by fruit. It’s as if “it wants to be devoured”. Later he says fruit trees have been studying us “and know what we want.”
Playful it is, but there’s also a serious message inside. The fruit in the supermarket is mass produced and boring. Bananas, for instance, are always one variety and such monoculture is precarious. Meanwhile, there is an “almost infinite” variety of fruit out there in the world. The film shows us people who search them out through something called The Rare Fruit Council or individually in Honduras, Hawaii, Borneo, Bali, home of the legendary wani mango, Italy, where a woman finds ancient fig trees, and even Hollywood, where movie actor Bill Pullman has a backyard of fruit trees but failed to get land for a large community orchard. The film has intriguing bits of information: how the MacIntosh apple got its name; the Bing cherry’s sad success story and the fruit that brought down a Chinese dynasty. Sweet and tasty. (VanCity, starting Saturday and then various dates until Boxing Day) 3 ½ out of 5
STUDIO GHIBLI: Japan’s top animation studio has produced many storytelling masterpieces, including the beloved My Neighbour Totoro, the anti-war Howl’s Moving Castle and the Oscar winner, Spirited Away. They’re all screening in a major retrospective that starts Friday and runs until January 3 at the Pacific Cinematheque . Then, next Friday the VanCity Theatre also joins in. Japanese versions with subtitles at one; English dubbed versions at VanCity.
All in all, 15 titles will be shown including one that pre-dates Studio Ghibli and two rarities. The Ocean Waves, which was made for TV, and Only Yesterday have never been released in North America in any form. Animation enthusiasts will be delighted. Many titles will show multiple times and you should check out the two theatre’s websites (http://www.thecinematheque.ca/ and http://www.viff.org/theatre) or their widely-available printed schedules for details.
NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND kicks off the series. Hayao Miyazaki directed it from his own anime comic series and because of its success founded Studio Ghibli along with several colleagues. Even though the central character is a typically wide-eyed young woman, this is not a kid’s story.
It’s 1,000 years after industrialized civilization has collapsed. A toxic jungle is spreading. Giant insects are threatening the last of the human race and cause a mysterious airship to crash. When alien soldiers arrive to recover an ancient weapon, Nausicaa has to lead a resistance that includes uniting her people and taming the insects. It’s not always clear who is an enemy or friend. There’s magic and prophecy, big adventure and a strong environmental angle (trees that absorb toxins) delivered in grand, sweeping animation and ultimately a call for human compassion. The resolution comes too fast for a story that’s so complex but it’s early in the Ghibli catalogue. 4 out of 5
CASTLE IN THE SKY (also starting its run on Friday) is Ghibli’s first official film and one of Miyazaki’s most imaginative. It too shows his anime roots. A young woman is kidnapped but escapes from the airship she’s being held in when pirates attack. She falls gently to the ground, into the arms of a young miner and the two set off in search of a legendary and riches-laden island said to be floating in the sky. In this equally complex story, they ally with the pirates led by a scary witch-like woman and find extended adventures with finely drawn battle scenes and an environmental message as a final payoff. Oddly none of the characters look Asian and the film for all its busy action feels a bit long. 3 ½ out of 5
THE WORLD BEFORE HER: In India, beauty pageants are still a big deal. They’re not passé like here but a sign of modernization. They offer an escape to young women who might otherwise never get out of their village, or even their homes. As one of contestants says: “We have a voice. We have a choice.” In this fascinating documentary, Nisha Pahuja, Indian born, now living in Toronto, puts it up against another choice. Young women in a dry, rural camp train for and fervently talk up “the movement,” a strident Hindu nationalist group called Durga Vahini.
They’re against modernization, westernization and Muslims. They learn to shoot guns, to hate Gandhi’s non-violence and, as one woman says, are prepared to kill. “Are you going to spend your whole life chopping vegetables?” an instructor asks them. This is the first time filming has been allowed in one of these camps. Over at the pageant, the girls are learning to walk and pose and get skin-lightening makeup. But gradually as the film switches back and forth between the two venues and visits with a few parents we see the two groups are not as different as we thought. Subtlety and with a great eye for telling scenes, Pahuja shows how alike creating beauty queens and “warrior goddesses” really is. And how little the status of women has improved in India. The film has won many awards at festivals. (5th Avenue) 4 out of 5
PLAYING FOR KEEPS: Gerard Butler must have gotten into this mess willingly. He’s the producer as well as the star. He plays a once-big-name soccer star who’s best days are over. He can’t pay his rent or get a good price for his sports memorabilia. He’s moved to Virginia to be close to his son who his ex-wife lets him see now and then. He dreams of a new career as a sportscaster.
One day, taking his son to his weekly soccer game changes everything. The coach is incompetent and he takes over. The team starts winning. A local mover-and-shaker (Dennis Quaid) latches on to him and the soccer moms, desperate housewives all of them, come on to him. One whispers: “When you see me tugging at my ear, it means I’m imagining you on top of me.” Pretty ludicrous stuff and when one of the moms, (Catherine Zeta-Jones) an ex-sportscaster, gets him an ESPN audition we get the trite dilemma: ESPN or be there for his son and coach the big game. Sunny, cheerful but also shallow and silly. It has the highest profile though, among the new films this week. (International Village and suburban theatres) 2 out of 5
NOTE: All images are movie still supplied by the studios and therefore the exclusive property of their copyright owners.