Monday, February 28, 2011

Review of “The City of Lost Children” (aka “La Cité des Enfants Perdus” dir Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, 1995)

            Jeunet and Caro, the same directing duo behind the post-apocalyptic black comedy “Delicatessen” (1991), present us with another masterful rendition of a dystopian society in “The City of Lost Children”. Jeunet is best known in America for his direction of "Alien: Insurrection" (1997),  "Amelie" (2001), and "A Very Long Engagement" (2004). This is a visually gripping work of science fiction steampunk (speculative fiction from a by-gone time - usually Victoran era). Dream-like and whimsical, this film takes place in a mysterious port city and stars Ron Pearlman as a dim-witted yet good-hearted strongman, One, who joins forces with a young girl, Miette (Judith Vittet), and her fellow street urchins in a quest to find his adopted little brother, Denree (Joseph Lucien). Denree has been kidnapped by one-eyed cyborgs known as “Cyclopses” who plan to sell him to a small group of comical clones (all played by Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon) who work for a madman, Krank (German word for “sick”, played by Daniel Emilfork). Krank can’t dream, so he uses a mechanical machine to steal the dreams of young children. The Cyclopses are a fanatical and repressed monastic order who willingly submit to having one eye removed and replaced by a mechanical contraption as part of their initiation rite. 

             The characters in this film are unique and bizarre: evil ex-sideshow Siamese twins called “Octopus” use a classroom as headquarters for street urchin child-thieves; Marcello (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), an opium-addicted former sideshow boss of the Octopus has trained assassin fleas with attached poison vials; and Uncle Irvin is a migraine-ridden brain floating in an aquarium and utilizes an optical lens and two gramophone-like steampunk speakers to communicate.

            The film's subdued colors in combination with the costume designs by Jean-Paul Gautier evoke the  depression era of the 1930s, yet the technology is futuristic, creating a distinct vagueness in regard to whether this takes place in the past or in the future. The multiple dream sequences are visually stunning, non-the-least-of-which is the scene where Miette confronts Krank and they engage in a dance during which Miette transforms from an 8 year old to an old woman in less than a minute. The soundtrack consists of both mesmerizing sideshow organ-grinding tunes as well as comical songs, such as the one about Santa Clause and one about short gnomes (sung with a dance number by one of the clones). 

            Jeunet and Caro brilliantly use a Rube Goldbergesque series of chain-reactions in every film of theirs and “City of Lost Children” is no exception. Here we see how Miette’s teardrop hits a spider web, waking a parrot, who chirps, making a dog bark, waking a hobo who throws a liquor bottle, etc until we have a car accident, a power outage, and a ship crashing into the dock. Another memorable scene is when Krank has one of the clones recite a charmingly fanciful nonsense poem to him in order to help him fall asleep. The clone sits next to Krank and speaks…

“The sea is blue like the sky/And the sky is blue like the South Seas/I don’t know if I’m swimming in the sky

/Or flying in the sea/The hammerhead shark plays xylophone with the catfish bones/The walrus plays Jew’s 

harp with the sperm whale’s suspenders/Igloos turn into Mushrooms”

The fact that this film has no love-story is most admirable. The plot progresses naturally without the tacked-on love-stories which snag plot movement in more formulaic films. This is an exceptional film with a dazzling array of uniquely twisted characters and spellbinding visual effects. Remarkably superb scenes weave their way throughout the film and Marianne Faithful’s track “Who Will Take My Dreams Away?” played during the closing credits wraps the film up beautifully.

            Jean-Pierre Jeunet has a new comedy/drama "Micmacs" (2009) which is about a man who got shot in the head and joins a rag-tag group of outcasts in order to bring down the weapons manufacturer which produced the bullet.

STRANGE INTERLUDE: My Dream, Time-Travel inspired band, "Hypnagogic Telegram" is going VIRAL on Youtube. Timelord Rock. Trock. I play a timeghost (zeitgeist) that inhabits the wardrobe closet in the TARDIS. I come out in costumes from various eras to dance & sing. If Doctor Who would have a band, it might sound like this.

<---- View YOUTUBE VIDEO here.

Check out my Time Travel, Dream, surreal artwork, performance art, costuming & photography on the other blog pages!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Review of "Copyright Criminals" (Directed by Benjamin Franzen and Kembrew McLeod, 2009)

Filmmakers Benjamin Franzen and Kembrew McLeod explore the debate over sampling in the music industry with their 54 minute documentary, Copyright Criminals. Various individuals are interviewed presenting a spectrum of viewpoints: sound engineers, DJs, record industry lawyers, media professors, samplers, as well as those getting sampled. The wide range of opinions makes for a stimulating analysis of the topic. The lawyers say that sampling is using other people’s work without their permission and without paying royalties (“Thou shall not steal”); the samplers say they are paying homage to the original artists. Igor Stravinsky is quoted as saying, “A good composer does not imitate, he steals.” The most fascinating perspective of all those interviewed is that of Clyde Stubblefield (James Brown’s drummer from 1965 – 1970, the most sampled drummer in hip-hop), who says that he doesn’t care about the money (royalties), he just wants to get credited on the albums.
 Copyright Criminals discusses the history of music sampling, starting with the Beatles’ use of found tapes and sound loops in “Revolution 9”, “Tomorrow Never Knows”, and “I am the Walrus”, to Public Enemy, and Prince. The Beatles certainly weren’t the first to sample; the documentary could have named specific artists sampling further back in recording history (for example Jazz, Hollywood musicals, Blues, etc).
The collage-like use of split-screen to compare the original music on one side to that of the sampled piece on the other is a metaphor for how sampling is itself a form of collage. It helps to illustrate how samples are used and how they have been altered. It is a valuable aid for the viewer to come to their own conclusion as to where they stand on the issue. The editing is straight-forward without any choppy or distracting cuts.
Many compelling points are made, not the least of which is that if a musician was to go through the legal channels and use a sample in their work, the producer would make a cut of the royalties, but the actual musician who played the original may not.
The advent of a new art-form always brings up the debate “is this art, or is it just the work of lazy people who can’t be bothered to create something new?” Shock G of Digital Underground makes a valid point when he says, “It’s easier to snap a picture with a camera than it is to paint a picture. What the photographer is to the painter, is what the modern producer, DJ, or computer musician is to the instrumentalist.” We are asked to consider “what is art?” Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans and Pop Art are brought up as examples of how art has historically re-invented the old in order to present something in a new light. Steve Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise” sold more as a sample. George Clinton says Snoop Dog’s sample of “Atomic Dog” revitalizing Clinton’s record sales after people who heard the sample wanted to hear the original.
Copyright Criminals is a thought-provoking work which presents multiple facets of this heated debate. Grainy vintage footage of the Notorious B.I.G rapping as a teenager on the streets of Brooklyn evokes scenes of street rappers in “Wild Style” (Directed by Charlie Ahearn, 1983). The filmmakers present the discussion in a clear and in depth manner. The viewer is encouraged to come to their own conclusions on the issue.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Review of The Adventures of Cheburashka & Friends DVD (dir. Roman Kachanov) Чебура́шкa

Based on the Russian children’s book Cheburashka (1965) by Eduard Uspensky, this series of four stop-motion animated shorts features Cheburashka, a cheerful bear-like creature, and his best friend, Gena, a crocodile who works at the Zoo but lives in the city. Cheburashka is almost Chaplinesque in how he combines charm and melancholy when he tries to find his place where nobody knows what he is or where he came from (even the scientists at the Zoo reject him because they don’t know what species he is!). The animation style is charming and sentimental, without the stereotypical characters and sappiness so often found in Disney animation. The characters are unique and full of personality. Gena plays solitaire chess and puts up fliers throughout the city looking for friends; Shapoclyak, an old lady who has a rat living in her purse, goes breaking windows, stealing things, and causing general chaos.
Much of the incidental music is played on violins, acoustic guitars, and/or accordions, giving it an almost chanson feel. Two of the episodes feature catchy songs with endearing, sentimental lyrics. Episode 2, called Cheburashka, opens on a rainy day with Gena playing accordion and singing "The Birthday Song".
“It’s unclear to the passersby,
On this rainy day,
Why I’m so happy…It’s a shame that a birthday comes just once a year”
Shapoclyak (episode3) closes with Cheburashka, Shapoclyak, and Gena sitting on the caboose of a blue train. As they roll away, Gena plays the accordion and sings "Blue Wagon".
“Slowly the minutes are floating away
Don’t expect to meet them anymore
Even if giving up the past is a bit sad
It’s still best to go ahead…
To all new adventures we are rushing, my friends,
Hey, train driver, give some more speed!
Why, oh, why is this day ending?
Let it last the whole year!”
These songs are tremendously popular in all of the former Soviet republics. Adults sing these Cheburashka songs at parties; children sing them as they play. Russia has a long tradition of fairy-tales (skaski) being a major part of its cultural identity, much the same way that bande dessinée (comic books) are part of French and Belgian culture, with adults being equally fans of the genre as children. The line between fairy-tales and cartoons (multiki) is blurred in Russian culture with Cheburashka being the most famous and beloved of all Russian cartoon characters. He has become a cultural icon. Cheburashka is the official mascot of the Russian Olympic team, seen as the stuffed toy waved around by all their athletes at the opening and closing ceremonies since the Summer Olympics in Greece in 2004. He has become popular in Japan and among anime fans internationally. TV Tokyo has announced that it is producing an anime series of Cheburashka, as well as producing a full length feature.
Cheburashka was produced by Soyuzmultfilm (Union Animation in English), Russia’s premier animation company based in Moscow, which was founded in 1936 and has produced over 1500 animated shorts and films in that time. Soyuzmultfilm stands out as both a highly productive and experimental company. Their productions span a wide spectrum of styles; from vibrant films with dancing and singing, to sparsely atmospheric films with odd sound effects, to cut-out animations of 14th - 16th century icons and frescos, to  dark animation reminiscent of Jan Svankmayer’s surrealist shorts. Themes include such diverse subjects as history, fairy-tales, science fiction, existentialism, the cost of war, and feelings of social isolation amongst others.
The English subtitles on this DVD are well translated, although the subtitles on the last episode (Cheburashka goes to School) are a bit out-of-sync (running about 2 sentences behind the actual dialogue), but since the action isn’t so fast, it is still easy to follow. Cheburashka is a treasure from Soviet-era Russia. Hauntingly beautiful music and melancholy lyrics combine with amiable characters for an incomparably unique stop-motion experience for all ages.

As an added treat, we get Vasili Livanov voicing Krokodil Gena. He has a velvety rich voice which is familiar to Russian fans of a series of "Sherlock Holmes"films. He played Sherlock so splendidly, that he was awarded an honourary Member of the British Empire  for his "service to the theatre and the performing arts." A sculpture of Livanov and Vitaly Solomin (who played John Watson) in their now-famous roles, finds its home alongside the Embassy of the United Kingdom in Moscow. He is a brilliant actor, and his distinctive and melodic voice is worth hearing even if you don't speak/understand Russian. Benedict Cumberbatch and Vasili Livanov share a) the fact that they both played distinctively different and unforgettable versions of Sherlock Holmes, and b0 they are both immaculately smooth voice actors. If language is music, than their voices are harmonious melodies.

The DVD runs 67 minutes and is in the original Russian with the option of English subtitles.
4 episodes: Crocodile Gena (1969), Cheburashka (1971), Shapoclyak (1974), Cheburashka Goes to School (1983).

STRANGE INTERLUDE: My Dream, Time-Travel inspired band, "Hypnagogic Telegram" is going VIRAL on Youtube. Timelord Rock. Trock. I play a timeghost (zeitgeist) that inhabits the wardrobe closet in the TARDIS. I come out in costumes from various eras to dance & sing. If Doctor Who would have a band, it might sound like this.
<---- View YOUTUBE VIDEO here.

Check out my Time Travel, Dream, surreal artwork, performance art, costuming & photography on the other blog pages!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Donna Seaman's Approach to Reviewing the Arts

Donna Seaman, a books critic for Booklist and WLUW's Open Books,  recently  attended an online chatroom with a panel of critics including such fields as books, music, theater, and food. The critics present spanned the spectrum between newspaper writers to independent bloggers.

Donna Seaman stated that she believes in passion first, from which a genuine knowledge of the subject matter would naturally follow. Her criteria for a good critic is to be dedicated to one's field, have a healthy curiosity, and be open, while still maintaining distance enough to keep the work in context. When asked if passion is more important than education, she asserted that one should have discipline and immerse oneself into their specialty through self-education. Sharing one's enthusiasm and focusing on what is important in the art they critique is a major factor as well. Donna touches upon  the fact that everybody experiences the same work of art, be it music,  book, visual art, in a different manner. She believes that the critic should be able to envision someone else's perspective, thus seeing the work in a larger social context. Integrity and trust, she said, are vital for a critic, because one has to have the ability to describe in detail why a certain piece falls short and is sharply criticized.

Donna Seaman's point of view struck a chord with me because, as a linguist, I not only believe in much of what she said, I have experienced it. I have spent my entire life learning foreign languages. Simply put, I have a passion for it. Many aspects were self-taught, such as learning to read and write in Russian when I was 6, or teaching myself French at home. As a linguist, I also learned the various mentalities, philosophies, and ways of live of different cultures. I don't have to agree with them, and I often don't, but at least it helps to understand where they are coming from. It puts things into historical, geographical, or cultural perspective. It sometimes even puts me in a better position to mediate disputes between individuals with different mindsets. The drive and curiosity to keep pushing the envelope to see how much one can learn is crucial. Not only does one gain a reputation in a particular field, but one can also learn one's own strengths, as well as one's limitations.

It is fascinating for me to see how this kind of philosophy and approach gets utilized by a critic of the arts. That, in combination with the viewpoints of the other critics on the panel, makes for lively analysis

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Difference between good and bad reviews

Good Review:  Momo, by Michael Ende (Penguin Books, 1992)
Review by Sarah Meador, on (Cultural Arts Magazine)

Sarah Meador wrote a review which is short, clear, and to the point. She (re)familiarizes us with Michael Ende's most famous book, "Neverending story", and tells us how it differs from Momo, the latter being much more subversive in nature (perhaps that is exactly why it is harder to find in America than in Europe). She reminds us, that although both are children's books, Momo touches upon more philosophical and rebellious themes. She tells us who Momo, our protagonist, is, the nature of her relationship to the other characters, who the villains are (the Gray Men of the Time Bank), and how the book has special meaning in today's time-pressed society. The message of the book is discussed in the review: to remain an independent thinker and question societal norms. Grammar is good and Meador makes her point, and unlike the following reviewer, she doesn't use one single "I" in her entire review . This kind of review entices the reader to go forth and buy the book.

Bad Review: The Overton Window, by Glenn Beck (Pocket; Reprint edition, 2010)
Review by CIT76, "Not Very Good", on

This is a rather lengthy review with seven paragraphs. The writer refers to the first person (I) thirteen times (and that's just in the first paragraph!). The writer states in the first paragraph how he is a huge fan of Glenn Beck and how Beck must have a message in the book which needs to get across. The next paragraph talks about how the reviewer thinks the book "really isn't that great" and continues to rattle on about how much he loves Glenn Beck. In the following paragraph is about, you guessed it, how highly he regards Glenn Beck. The fourth paragraph is about how much he cares about Beck enough to criticize him. Fifth paragraph discusses how the story just doesn't work. How and why exactly “does not work” remains a mystery. At least by the fifth paragraph we learn that the book is fiction. Finally we're getting somewhere! Now do we finally find out what the book is about, who the characters are, what Beck's writing style is? Sadly not. The final sentences tell us about important people and source material which can be found in the book. Do we get an example of what people and resources? But that is all we are to learn about this book. The reviewer's writing style is scattered, as well, since he starts one of his paragraphs with "and". This review tells us little about the book and more (some would say too much) about what a fan the reviewer is.

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