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Cinematic Essentials

Cinematic Essentials: Movie Review – Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Editor’s Note:

In light of the tragic earthquake and tsunami in Japan, cinematic essentials looks back at one of the most devastating animated films of all time.  If you are not well acquainted  with the Japanese film industry, there is no better time than now.  From Kurosawa and Ozu to Miyazaki and J-horror, there is something for everyone within the Japanese filmography.  Grave of the Firelflies is one of the best Japanese films, but more than that it is a reminder of how we should and should not treat one another during difficult times.  If you would like to donate to the Japanese relief efforts, please click here.https://american.redcross.org/site/Donation2?idb=0&5052.donation=form1&df_id=5052

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by Dave Umbricht

Grave of the Fireflies absolutely destroyed me.  Every minute of it filled me with dread and sadness.  It touches upon the dark side of life, showing cruelty, alienation, and loss.  It evokes the emotions that we spend most of our lives trying to avoid.  And it should be required viewing for every parent.

The Japanese movie follows Seita, a boy of 14 and his 4 year old sister, Setsuko, during the waning days of World War II.  It is animated, but it is not for children.  Young kids should stay away, not because the images are overtly violent or disturbing, rather the emotions are beyond their comprehension.

“All war stories are told by survivors,” the director Samuel Fuller once told Roger Ebert.  This is a survival tale as well, but we know within the first few minutes that the children will not survive.  The reasons why the children do not survive make this film vital.  In most films where the audience knows the main character will die, it becomes increasingly suspenseful as the movie progresses.  By the end, we are primed for the moment when the gun goes off, or the accident occurs.  This film offers no easy tragic ending.  Death does not come from a wayward bomb, but from an accumulation of the little acts of selfishness that we commit in our everyday lives.

How often do we put conditions on the love we give one another?  How often do we agree to do something out of obligation and complain about it later?  Early in the film, the children lose their mother and move in with an aunt.  While she accepts them into her home, she refuses to comfort the little girl’s nightmares, belittles the boy for not doing more for the war effort, and doles out meal portions based upon her judgment of who deserves it most.  Despite this, she is no wicked step-mother.  She is trying to survive as well.  Like most of us, she may not even realize that she judges and makes her love conditional.

The children end up alone, forgotten by the world.  Adult selfishness drove them out on their own, but it is childish ego that keeps them there.  The boy refuses to forgive his aunt for her behavior even when their situation becomes so dire that her help is their only hope for survival.  The children spiral downward and all the audience can do is watch as if they are attending a terminally ill relative.  The saddest part is the knowledge that it is all preventable.  All it would take is one person to show compassion to the children or the boy to let go of his ego.

It is difficult for me to connect to a war movie.  I have never lived through a war, so my knowledge comes from the history books and the movies.  Great war movies give you a simulated experience.  But even the best examples, such as the visceral opening invasion of Saving Private Ryan or the brutal imagery of Schindler’s List will never aptly capture the reality.  The most affecting scene about World War II comes from The Straight Story, when two elderly men sit at a bar and tell their war stories.  Both men end the scene crying, overwhelmed by their memories.  The beauty of the scene is its encapsulation of the repercussions of war without focusing on the actions, but rather the feelings.

The emotional impact of Grave of the Fireflies continues to resonate with me weeks after my first viewing.  It has become a touchstone.  It reminds me to be a little kinder, that little actions can have huge repercussions, and to hug my children as much as I can.  There are so many scenes in this film that had me close to tears.  When writing this essay, there were times when I felt a pit in my stomach, choked up from memories of the film.  This does not happen often.

Grave of the Fireflies may not be a pleasant emotional experience, but it is powerful and unforgettable.  As parents, we want to teach our kids to be thankful for what they have and to help those in need.  We want them to be compassionate and to remember those who are forgotten by society.    The movie reminds us of the tragic consequences that can occur if we ignore these ideals.  Show it your children as they become old enough, but before that, watch it yourself and remember what is important in life.

Grave of the Fireflies Trailer

Dave Umbricht loves his family, movies and the NBA (in that order). His unexplainable, genetic attraction to movies flourished in the early ’80s thanks to Siskel and Ebert. It’s also believed Dave was the only 8-year-old to know of My Dinner with Andre, even though he didn’t see it until he was 28. In the ’90s he wrote three awful screenplays, including next summer’s Cowboys and Aliens (or at least a script with the same title). He still can’t dunk a basketball.

Check out his blog here.

Or follow him on Twitter here (@dumbricht).

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Cinematic Essentials: Movie Review – Roger & Me (1989)

Roger and Me Poster

by Dave Umbricht

Sex, politics, religion, and Michael Moore.

Four things one should never bring up in a job interview or a polite dinner party.  A few years ago, one’s views on Moore’s films said something about political leanings.  Think Farenheit 9/11 was hard hitting journalism?  You must be a commie pinko.  Enjoyed Bowling for Columbine?    Then you don’t believe in a little something called the Constitution and our right to bear arms.  Moore’s crusades tend to bring more controversy than actual good these days, and sometimes it feels he is either late to the party or too flippant with his topics.

That should not take away from the fact that once upon a time Moore actually made a great film.  His 1989 debut, Roger & Me, is entertaining, influential, and most of all, an insightful documentary.

Michael Moore was born and raised in Flint, Michigan, birthplace of General Motors.  For 50 plus years, Flint defined itself by its connection to the auto industry, until GM started closing the plants.  In Roger & Me, Moore chronicles the effects that plant closures have on the residents of Flint, interviewing people from all areas of the community.

Because it took Moore a number of years to make the film, the audience witnesses the slow decline of Flint, watching shopkeepers shutter stores and ordinary citizens lose their homes.   He delves into many sides of the story, seeing the reactions of union leaders, line workers, and even post office employees deluged by an influx of change of address requests.

Michael Moore in 'Roger & me' (1989)Moore intercuts his tour of Flint with his attempts to gain a meeting with the Chairman of General Motors, Roger Smith.  This is the gimmick that Moore has become famous for over the past 20 years, bullying his way into corporate headquarters to ask the bosses pointed questions.  In this case, he wants to know why General Motors, at the time one of the most profitable companies in the world, could close plants and move Flint’s jobs to Mexico.

While Moore’s notoriety makes his CEO stalking impossible today, it was incredibly effective then, as his relative anonymity allowed him more time on the premises before being escorted off by security.  Making himself a character in the documentary was ahead of its time.  Without Moore, we may not have had a Morgan Spurlock, or even a Borat.  Critics of Moore point to his involvement as a weakness, but Roger & Me is both a biography of Flint and the closest thing to an autobiography of Moore that we have.

Moore has always been a controversial figure.  After the release of Roger & Me, there were complaints that not all of his facts were straight, including the chronology and magnitude of some events.  This is a charge that has plagued him more so in recent times, as he has bitten off more complex and politically charged topics, such as the healthcare system in Sicko.

And while Roger & Me was critically acclaimed, it failed to receive an Oscar nomination for best documentary.  However, some of the controversy surrounding that incident said more about the documentary nomination process than the movie itself.

Moore has lost a lot of his influence since the release of Roger & Me.   It was inevitable, as once he became well known, he could not swoop in on unsuspecting CEOs and government officials.  In his latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story, as Moore confronts a congressman on a cell phone, the congressman tells his wife, “Michael Moore, the filmmaker is here.”

Christmas Eve eviction from 'Roger & Me'.

Christmas Eve eviction from 'Roger & Me'.

That hardly sets the stage for unguarded comments.

Moore has also taken on more complex subjects: gun control, 9/11, healthcare, widespread financial crisis.  Trying to tackle something so deep in two hours or less will lead to many sections only scratching the surface, and in some scenes, the audience only receives a one-liner like, “Isn’t this a bad situation?”

In Roger & Me, he took his time, getting to know people throughout the film.  For example, the audience spends a lot of time with Fred, the sheriff’s deputy, charged with foreclosing homes.  We see him evict people he knows, even on Christmas Eve.  We see his conflict and we see the distress of those being evicted.  In Capitalism, we see the evictor portrayed as a stooge of the bank, the people losing their homes as saintly and no discussion of the facts surrounding the foreclosure.  In Roger & Me, he shows the human toll that these situations take, in Capitalism it feels like heavy-handed propaganda.

There is a lot of anger in Moore’s films.  But can they convince people to change the world?  What does it take to move people from indignation to rallying in the streets of Cairo demanding a regime change?  While the complete answer to that question is quite complex, and requires a lot of organization, the simple answer is Michael Moore can never do it.

Production still from 'Roger & Me'.

Production still from 'Roger & Me'.

It is not entirely his fault.  It is the limitation of film as a medium.  Movies entertain and sometimes inform, but most of all they make us feel.  But feelings are fleeting, and any anger or resolve that the audience may walk out with after two hours will dissipate over coffee.  These fires must be stoked, and the logistics of watching movies does not allow for that.

You cannot easily pull out your favorite scene from the movie to show to your friends over lunch. You cannot look at it one more time right before you go to bed, without some serious effort.  Books can be taken out any time, they allow time for thoughts to gestate and are easy to revisit.  That is why the printed word will always trump a film as the most rallying form of media.  Moore may be insightful at times, but he will never be as inciteful as he hopes.

In the end, controversy and lasting impact do not matter.  Michael Moore made an exceptionally affecting film with Roger & Me.  It is a human story, one everyone should be able to connect with, no matter your politics or economic beliefs.  The mark of a great documentary is showing a small, focused story that speaks to a more universal truth.  

Roger & Me tells of the decimation of Flint, but it also speaks to the larger issue of a changing industrial and manufacturing landscape that affected America for the next twenty years.  It even foreshadows Moore’s later work, as the events in Flint are some of the seeds that led to the events that Moore rails against in Capitalism.

Yes, Michael Moore may have become less effective over the years and has ended up being just a big blowhard, but in Roger & Me, he started as an entertaining one.

Roger & Me Trailer

Dave Umbricht loves his family, movies and the NBA (in that order). His unexplainable, genetic attraction to movies flourished in the early ’80s thanks to Siskel and Ebert. It’s also believed Dave was the only 8-year-old to know of My Dinner with Andre, even though he didn’t see it until he was 28. In the ’90s he wrote three awful screenplays, including next summer’s Cowboys and Aliens (or at least a script with the same title). He still can’t dunk a basketball.

Check out his blog here.

Or follow him on Twitter here (@dumbricht).

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Cinematic Essentials: Movie Review – Amadeus (1984)

by Dave Umbricht

Amadeus PosterWe live in the era of Facebook.  Everyone from Lady GaGa to your grandmother has created a page, begging for your approval.   Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, has been named Time’s “Person of the Year”, and now, a movie based on Facebook’s creation, The Social Network, stands as one of the favorites for the Academy Award for Best Picture.  The last item should be the least surprising outcome of the rise of Facebook, as the Academy has always loved films that deal with flawed genius. 

The Social Network follows a long tradition of films from Citizen Kane to Five Easy Pieces to A Beautiful Mind.  They may not always win the Oscars, but these somewhat tragic figures offer rich characterizations.  One film that did take home the awards was 1984’s Amadeus, a fascinating portrayal of the genius of Mozart and the vindictive reaction of one of his contemporaries.

Knowledge of classical music is not a prerequisite for enjoying Amadeus, as it is more than just a biopic of Mozart, but rather, a universal story of jealousy and rivalry.  The story is told through the eyes of Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), a successful composer of the time.   Salieri prays to God every day, pleading for more talent.  He struggles with every composition he writes, and his perseverance pays off.  That is, until Mozart moves to Vienna.  The first time they meet, Salieri

Amadeus Plays Salieri's Composition.

Amadeus Plays Salieri's Composition.

is in the midst of presenting a new composition to the Emperor.  Mozart, after only hearing it once, is able to replicate it note for note, and then proceeds to critique the piece’s simplicity and makes it more marvelously complex and beautiful.  Salieri is knocked off balance by Mozart’s condescending display of genius, and it is immediately established that Salieri’s talent makes him the equivalent of a one hit wonder while Mozart is a rock god.

Both The Social Network and Amadeus deal with rivalries.  The stakes of the rivalry in each says a lot about our times.  In Amadeus, Salieri’s determination to destroy Mozart is driven by a feeling that God is mocking him.  How dare God give talent of this level to a buffoon, when a tireless appreciative musician like Salieri toils away.  It becomes a matter of life and death, as Salieri’s hatred becomes all consuming.

The audience knows Salieri truly loves Mozart’s music.  In one great scene he explains the magic of a Mozart composition.  In The Social Network, you never feel that anyone truly loves Facebook, not in the way Salieri loves Mozart’s music.  The passion is for the money and notoriety that come from creating Facebook.  There is no life and death at stake, just some money and a little bit of fame.  It is no longer about the act of creativity, but solely about the spoils that come from the creation.

Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network.

Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network.

Acting is the key to both films.  Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg is incredibly subtle.  At all times he knows he could intellectually dominate every person in any room he enters.  The look in his eyes shows a glint of arrogance recognizing this fact, as he sizes everyone up.

Tom Hulce’s Mozart is anything but understated, played as a rowdy rock star rather than the refined individual one would expect when hearing classical music.  And while Zuckerberg is supremely aware of his genius, and believes he deserves more accolades because of it, Mozart is not, he just does we he does, and only knows that it comes easy to him.

The irony in Amadeus is that while Mozart won the historical rivalry and most people think of Tom Hulce when they think of the movie, Salieri won the Oscar.  The fact that Abraham won is a testament to how great the role is, as votes are usually split when two actors are nominated for the same movie, resulting in neither taking home the prize.

F. Murray Abraham as Salieri in Amadeus.

F. Murray Abraham as Salieri in Amadeus.

Winning an acting award usually hinges on one iconic scene.  There are many strong scenes for Salieri in the film, but there is one scene that stands above the rest (see below).  In this scene Mozart’s wife, Constanze visits Salieri to plead for his assistance in finding work for Mozart.  She brings with her a number of Mozart’s compositions, and after some coercing, allows Salieri to inspect them.  He learns these are first drafts, only drafts, and there are no corrections.  As he says, “They are like taking dictation.”

As he reads the music, F. Murray Abraham’s face portrays love and awe and jealousy with such subtle changes.  Salieri realizes that the genius of Mozart is well beyond his imagination.  After this wondrous epiphany, he knows his only choice is to destroy him.

As we grow up, there comes a point when we realize we are not as special as we think.  The sign of our maturity is how we react to this fact.  For most, it is not a major issue.  We understand quickly that very few people actually get the chance to play in the Super Bowl.  Others spend their lives in a bitter state of jealousy.  Salieri had the worst sort of reaction, limiting his own creativity while attempting to destroy something he loved.  In The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg may have been the genius, but he is also part jealous Salieri.

His actions are driven by a need for acceptance from those he feels look down on him.  So is Zuckerberg Mozart or Salieri?  It is too soon to tell.  Perhaps Facebook won’t be remembered 200 years from now, or even 20.  It has the chance to live on, or like Salieri, it may be replaced by something even more genius.

Scene where Mozart’s wife visits Salieri.

Dave Umbricht loves his family, movies and the NBA (in that order). His unexplainable, genetic attraction to movies flourished in the early ’80s thanks to Siskel and Ebert. It’s also believed Dave was the only 8-year-old to know of My Dinner with Andre, even though he didn’t see it until he was 28. In the ’90s he wrote three awful screenplays, including next summer’s Cowboys and Aliens (or at least a script with the same title). He still can’t dunk a basketball.

Check out his blog here.

Or follow him on Twitter here (@dumbricht).

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Cinematic Essentials: Movie Review – Do the Right Thing (1989)

by Dave Umbricht

Do The Right Thing (1989) - Ossie Davis and Spike LeeIn 1989, the media billed Do the Right Thing as a dangerous movie, suggesting lives were at risk if viewed in a theater.  The panic was overblown, but the movie remains incendiary.  From the opening moment when Rosie Perez explodes onto the screen, shadow boxing to the pulsing beats of Public Enemy, few films energize the audience and take them through an experience that captures the highs and lows of being human.

Spike Lee had garnered the attention of critics a few years earlier with his films She’s Gotta Have It, a slight romantic comedy/drama and School Daze, a depiction of life at a small black college.  Most Americans never saw those movies, but they knew Spike from the Nike commercials that paired his She’s Gotta Have It character, Mars Blackmon, with Michael Jordan.  This popular culture notoriety marked Spike as an important auteur before he crafted a film to match that acclaim.  Then he made Do the Right Thing.

The movie spans a hot summer day.  Too hot.  All the residents of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood want to do is make it through the day and stay cool.  The film follows Spike Lee’s Mookie as he delivers pizzas through the neighborhood.  But Mookie is not the real main character, the neighborhood is.  Every resident receives attention, from

Do The Right Thing (1989) - Bill Nunn as Radio Raheem

Bill Nunn as Radio Raheem

Mother Sister, the old matron who sits on her stoop supervising everyone’s actions to Da’ Mayor, the old wino who needs his Miller High Life to escape a life of disappointment and unfortunate decisions.  Each character builds the mosaic of life on the block, highlighting the tenuous racial acceptance of each other, and the small interconnected acts that can undermine it.

Spike Lee started with the very weighty subject of race relations and then used every tool in his director’s kit to create a stylistically memorable movie.  The brightly colored set designs, the way the sun seems to reflect off of the character’s sweaty skin, and the skewed framing of some shots give an otherworldly feeling.  Everything about the style pulses with life, especially the music.  One of the themes in the movie contrasts the teachings of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.  While there are overt references to the two, the score is an auditory reminder, alternating between a soothing jazz score (the loving response of MLK) and the powerful, attacking rhythms of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” (the action oriented response of Malcolm X).

Do The Right Thing - Aiello and Turturro at Sal's Pizzeria

Aiello and Turturro at Sal's Pizzeria

Revisiting the movie twenty plus years later, I was surprised how my perception of it was so different from reality. I remembered the danger, thinking the movie gave me a glimpse of a world I would never visit lest I risked my life. However, the neighborhood depicted is populated by everyday working citizens. There are no drug dealers and no thugs. The only gang on hand dons pastel colors and includes Martin Lawrence as a member, hardly frightening. The real menace to the neighborhood is the mistrust and fear of one another. And we watch as the reactions to this universal human trait slowly builds to a troubling climax. There is a great deal of debate about the ending section. It is not perfect, but neither is life, which makes this film even more life affirming.

Spike Lee is a polarizing filmmaker.  Unlike some, he does not have blind allegiance from film fans.  His movies are judged on their individual merit.  Some of his later work has been very good, such as 25th Hour, and some has been excruciatingly preachy, like He’s Got Game.  In the ’80s, Spike was a lot like the guy with whom he shared the Nike commercial, both had a ton of potential.  Spike reached his pinnacle in 1989, a few years earlier than Jordan.  He may have never reached the same heights as he did with Do the Right Thing, but that does not matter, it is one of the most kinetic movies out there, and it never fails to energize.

Clip from Do The Right Thing (1989)

Dave Umbricht loves his family, movies and the NBA (in that order). His unexplainable, genetic attraction to movies flourished in the early ’80s thanks to Siskel and Ebert. It’s also believed Dave was the only 8-year-old to know of My Dinner with Andre, even though he didn’t see it until he was 28. In the ’90s he wrote three awful screenplays, including next summer’s Cowboys and Aliens (or at least a script with the same title). He still can’t dunk a basketball.

Check out his blog here.

Or follow him on Twitter here (@dumbricht).

Share