Only Yesterday: A Review

Only Yesterday (1991) is an anime from Studio Ghibli, that is only now (finally) being released in many non-Japanese markets. Directed by Isao Takahata (Grave of The Fireflies, The Tale of Princess Kaguya), it tells the story of a 27-year-old worker named Taeko Okajima, who travels to the countryside to meet some friends, while reminiscing about her childhood in the 1960’s. Beautiful, poignant, and full of heart, Only Yesterday is a real winner of an anime film.

One of the things that makes Only Yesterday work so well, is how it presents the main character of Taeko (dubbed in English as an adult by Daisy Ridley, and as a child by Allison Fernadez). Taeko is clearly a confident, calm, and reasonably likeable character, despite being presented as being a bit not so bright as a child. Her relationships with her family are seen in flashbacks, including her understanding mother and stubborn, somewhat unlikeable father, and are believable. As is her relationship with Toshio, a farmer who teaches her how difficult and different city life is to that of country life. The flashbacks, as well as her present day story, really contribute to the characters’ story-arc throughout the film.

Only Yesterday is very unique in how it presents its animation. There are several day-dream sequences, where Taeko, as a child has a pink, yellow, and blue sky background. These sequences are clearly done in an attempt to show her imagination going wild. Additionally, director Takahata, in a rare move in Japanese animation, decided to record the adult sequences first, and then animated them. This was an attempt to give the characters more realistic muscles and facial expressions. Thankfully, it paid off, as the film is gorgeous to look at. Allegedly, this is what led to the film taking so long to be released in the United States as dubbing into English would have been extremely hard given these circumstances.

As is the case with as all Studio Ghibli productions, the music by Katsu Hoshi is simply amazing. From the beautiful piano tune, to the Western-sounding theme played at the start of the school’s baseball game, and the Oriental-sounding music played near the end, it all works well to help create the overall mood of the film.

Only Yesterday is a very charming and beautiful movie, about growing-up, and really letting go of the past. It was fun to follow Taeko’s story with beautiful animation and music. It’s a film that can be appreciated by both children and adults, and it feels more realistic than fantasy, and the better for that.

PoemTown St. Johnsbury 2016 Events

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April is filled with PoemTown St. Johnsbury events in celebration of National Poetry Month – see the events listing above.

In addition, The Northeast Storytellers are hosting the following events:
Tues, Apr. 12, 2-3pm: Tribute to Robert Frost – Good Living Senior Center’s Poetry and Tea Hour – Main Street, St. Johnsbury
Sun., Apr. 24, 1-3pm: Haiku Workshop – West Burke Library, Junction of Rtes 5 & 5A
Sat., Apr. 30, 2-4pm: Vermont Maple Syrup History & Stories: Depot Square lawn, St. Johnsbury (World Maple Festival)

Trumbo A Review: Writers Life

Trumbo was a bit of an unexpected surprise. Going in to see the film, I was expecting a pretty generic bio of a man’s life. What I did not expect was a nice tribute to Hollywood screenwriters, as a whole. Trumbo isn’t just about blacklisting Communists, which they did in Hollywood for a decade. It is about freedom of speech and tolerance of other people’s political beliefs. Helped by a strong cast and a solid script, Trumbo rises surprisingly above your average biopic to become something quite special.

Trumbo details the story of Dalton Trumbo, one of Hollywood’s top screenwriters (Spartacus, Roman Holiday) and how he and many others Hollywood artists were blacklisted for their political beliefs. The film details Trumbo specifically, as he struggles to keep his career alive after being publicly criminalized, and turned away by the major Hollywood studios. It successfully portrays the deep affect this all had on his family and friends.

What makes Trumbo work so well, is how these real-life characters are conveyed through the performances of the film’s excellent cast. In addition, in recreating real-life scenes, the film’s director uses archival footage and photographs, post-converted black and white scenes, and digitally inserts the actors into prior footage, which adds to its overall authentic feel. As Douglas Trumbo, Bryan Cranston deserved his Oscar nominations. He’s really, really good in this role. Perhaps the scenes that I found Cranston best in are the ones where he’s interacting with his family, where he seems most natural and believable.

Diane Lane is really good as Trumbo’s wife, Cleo, conveying enough energy for the role of a strong supportive spouse, mother, and co-worker. Louis C.K. plays Arlen Hird, another blacklisted writer and one of Trumbo’s friends, but his looks and mannerisms don’t necessarily fit the 1940’s and 1950’s as well as Cranston and Lane’s do in the film. John Goodman is great as Frank King, one of the Kings Brothers, who ran their B movie film studio. Goodman signs Dalton Trumbo up as a contract writer, and doesn’t let the likes of the Hollywood Alliance get the best of him. His anger and excitement while furiously destroying glass with a baseball bat is believable. Helen Mirren, who plays Hedda Hopper, a former actress turned gossip columnist and well known for her fabulous hats, is one of the film’s lead antagonists. Mirren’s acting is superb, as usual, except for her forced American accent. As a villain, at times, the script makes her come off as being almost a bit of a cartoon monster, which is something I didn’t appreciate all that much about the film.

The director of Trumbo, Jay Roach, who’s known for directing comedies like Meet the Parents and Austin Powers does a good job, but it’s John McNamara’s script that really elevates the adaptation of Bruce Cook’s book, TRUMBO. It’s bits of humorous dialogue like, “Well, what are we gonna do”, and “Do you have to say everything like it’s going to be chiseled”, that lighten up the mostly serious script of the unfair treatment of blacklisted writers and other film artists of this period of Hollywood history.

I quite enjoyed Trumbo, a decent film, and a tribute to screenwriters, who, in general, tend to be overlooked in the Hollywood scheme of things.  This film is not to be missed.

Embrace of The Serpent: A Native’s Story

The Oscar nominated Embrace of the Serpent is nothing short of a miracle. A Colombian film, shot in black and white, features some of the greatest atmosphere I have seen from a 2015  film. Cico Guerra’s motion picture is an absolutely fascinating piece, which may not appeal to everyone, but certainly had me enthralled with eyes wide open most of the time I was watching it. A real film stunner you might say.

Taking place in 1909 and 1940, Embrace of The Serpent details the story of two explorers, one German named Theodor Koch-Grunberg, and the other American, named Richard Evans Schultes. They find a Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman, and last member of his tribe while on their quest to find a rare yakruna, a very sacred plant. Loosely inspired by the true diaries of these two men, the film details much of the struggles and the people the crew encounters on their journey on the Amazonian River.

One of the things that makes Embrace of the Serpent work so well is that much of the filmmaking is bent on giving perspectives to different characters and locations. For example, there’s a long-widened shot near the beginning of the film where we see the back of the native Karamakate as he first encounters the two explorers. It’s quite fascinating to watch, and really sets up the overall tone of the film. Another example is when we see the shot of a random panther, and we see the large cat looking at the ship of the crew, perhaps trying to get at them, before deciding to settle on eating a snake. It’s filmmaking at its absolute best, and it helps tremendously to escalate the overall somewhat dreary nature of the film.

There isn’t a lot of music in this film. Instead, there’s a bunch of sound effects of cricking, chirping, water falling, and all of the things you’d find in a jungle. There are some ancient styled tribal music used in a few scenes, particularly when one of the tribe leaders they encounter uses a Latin chant in order to give a rousing speech to his people. It’s quite effective and helps to build the mood.  Another good piece of music is playing when they show a long forest shot, which feels quite techno.

There are some really cool sequences in the film, too. The opening features shots of sea creatures, such as an octopus in the water, and a snake swimming before it cuts to the title card. There’s also an apparent dream sequence near the end in which the Karamakate‘s eyes glow yellow and then they shoot out rays. The scene then changes to the stars, where we see constellation designs in the sky. It’s a cool sequence, and it really comes out of nowhere.

Most of the acting in the film is pretty good, but special mention goes to the lead actor playing Theo, Jan Bijovet, whose breakdown and ultimate craziness is believable. Especially, during a sequence in which the crew encounters a village of natives, and one of them gets shot in the arm during an unusually over the top scene.

Embrace of The Serpent is a real surprise. It’s a film that builds and builds to an unusual climax. It does feel split into segments, involving characters going from one location to the next, but that’s the beauty of it. It doesn’t try to shy away from the dangers of the wild, and it feels like a realistic, adventure movie. There are a few graphic scenes, including one in which native children get whipped, which is disturbing, but overall, as far as Foreign Language films, and native stories go, this one’s a real winner.

Oil Paintings of Terry Ekasala in the Dylan’s Annex Gallery

Catamount Arts is pleased to announce a new exhibition of abstract oil paintings by artist Terry Ekasala, on view through May 21 in Catamount Arts’ Annex Gallery in Dylan’s Restaurant.  Located right beside Catamount Arts Center on Eastern Avenue in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, the Annex Gallery at Dylan’s Café offers patrons an opportunity to enjoy original art as part of their dining experience during the restaurant’s open hours: Monday-Tuesday, 11-3 pm and Wednesdays-Saturdays, 11-9 pm.

About the Exhibition:  The current show contains 25 abstract paintings and one mixed media work by local artist Terry Ekasala completed between 2011 and 2013.  Featuring such poetic titles as Breath In, Breath Out (2013) and Heart and Soul, World Time Over (2015), the paintings are an expressive reflection of personal and artistic experience.  All are for sale.

ABOUT THE ARTIST: Born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, artist Terry Ekasala received her undergraduate degree the Art Institute in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and began work as a freelance graphic designer. Drawn to fine arts, she set up her first studio in the Clay Hotel and Youth Hostel on Espanola Way in Miami Beach in 1983, which was at then a broken down palace of art deco dreams inhabited by refugees, addicts, and unsuspecting youth hostel who all contributed to the creative activity of the young artists who had begun to gather in the area.

Inspired by the rich diversity of the scene, Terry began working representationally, but quickly expanded her practice.  She became a member of the Artifacts Art Group, who staged weekly events at  the Miami nightclub “Fire and Ice” and organized exhibits in their own gallery.  She was also part of a group of grapffiti artists who took to the streets to cover the boarded up and abandoned buildings.  This work was eventually featured on the cover of the Sunday edition of the Miami Herald and as background in major advertising commercials on television.

In 1987 Terry visited Paris moved to Paris and worked as a cook in a tea salon while continuing to paint in her tiny apartment.  In 1990 she set up a studio in Belleville, the colorful 20th Arrondissement at La Forge where she was part a diverse community that included  artists of many nationalities.  With others, she organized the first artist’s “squat” or reclaimed space to become legal in Paris, where she painted until 2001.  During this time, her style underwent many changes, moving from figurative to abstract and she was able to sell directly through annual open studios in Belleville, as well as participate in group exhibitions in Paris, Berlin and New York.

In 2001 Terry moved to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, where she set up a studio in the small village of Lyndonville, but continued exhibiting—notably in a solo exhibition of large abstract oil paintings in NYC’s Metalstone Gallery in 2003.  After the birth of her son Zack in 2004, she created smaller acrylic on board works that were shown at the Metalstone Gallery in 2005.  Terry Ekasala now resides in East Burke, VT with her family, continuing to work on large and small abstracts in what she calls a dream studio in nearby West Burke.

Son of Saul: A Review: A Powerful War

I’ve seen plenty of war films. Some show the true terror and horror of war and don’t shy away from the violence. Other war films downplay the violence and make war out to be glorious. It’s rare I see a film that lacks a huge amount of violence and blood, and yet, can be so affective at the same time. That’s where Lazlo Nemes’ Son of Saul comes in. Son of Saul, which is the first Hungarian film I’ve ever seen, is a war film that is so devastating, without excessive violence.

 Son of Saul is the story of Saul Auslander, a Hungarian prisoner, working as a member of the Sonderkommando at one of the Auschwitz Crematoriums. Saul wants to bury a corpse of a boy he calls his son. Much of the film follows Saul’s trials and plans as he tries to save the remains of the son he never really took care of.

Much of the credit of Son of Saul’s success should go to the lead actor of the film who plays Saul, Geza Rohrig. A relative newcomer to film, Rohrig is quite expressive, and especially for a role that requires a lot of physical acting. One of the great things about Son of Saul is just how sparse the dialogue is, and what dialogue is there is usually drowned out by sound. Our main character, Saul, doesn’t even speak until twenty minutes into the film. His first words being “Doctor, please”, and Rohrig delivers those lines like a man who is on a serious mission.

The first fifteen minutes of the film, in fact, are shot from the perspective of the protagonists, and we only see the rest of the characters from the back. Aside from the great filmmaking aspect of Son of Saul, there’s a lot to appreciate about this film. The cinematography is lovely, very brown and very muddy, fitting the depressing tone of the film.

There are a lot of really uncomfortable powerful scenes in the film, but most of them have the violence being downplayed in the background. There’s a scene where we are shown a gun shooting just as a fire breaks out. It’s a very intense moment, as we hear screaming babies, but we don’t actually see it directly. Instead, we (the audience) experience that scene in an image, and in a way, it becomes more powerful, as a result. Those with really weak stomachs may not enjoy this film as much as I did. The overall experience of the film left me feeling devastated and moved by this man’s experiences.

Carol: A Review: A Tale of Two Lovers

Todd Hayne’s Carol is very much a melodramatic film, while not as overbearing and almost bordering on satire as Haynes’ Far from Heaven (2002). The film is set in the 1950’s and is based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel, Carol, a story of two women from different backgrounds. Therese Belivet (played by Rooney Mara) is a clerk working in a Manhattan department store who wants to go on to do bigger things. When Therese meets Carol Aird (played by Cate Blanchett), who is an older woman in a loveless marriage, their friendship develops. Meanwhile, Carol’s husband, Harge (played by Kyle Chandler), begins to question and confront Carol’s relationships with women, including with her other friend, Abby (played by Sarah Paulson), and her role as a mother.

This movie is not exceptionally directed, and its script is nothing to write home about. hat made this film work for me though, are the performances. Cate Blanchett is very good as the title character, Carol, as per-usual, but who really elevates the film, and is the real star, even having more screen time, despite being nominated as Best Supporting Actress, is Rooney Mara as Therese. Mara is exceptionally good. She’s really restrained and plays a very conflicted character quite well. Her moments of quietness and somberness reflect how good she can be as an actress. When she tells her boyfriend, Richard (played by Jake Lacy), “I’ll take everything”, you believe her. The rest of the cast is pretty good, too. Sarah Paulson is quite good as Carol’s lesbian friend Abby, and the male cast, including Kyle Chandler provides nice support.

One of the aspects of the film, I didn’t like, was how most of the men in this film are not portrayed favorably. Carol’s husband, Harge, is over-controlling of his wife, and Therese’s boyfriend, Richard, seems to only care about himself at first. As the film goes on, these traits seem to be downplayed and the men’s characters are better developed, but, in general, it wasn’t enough for me to care about them.

Carter Burwell’s musical score is exceptional, and one of 2015’s very best. It’s dramatic, poignant, serious, magical, and even when the film has a bit of a tonal shift, a bit dark. It’s just great pieces of music throughout. Carol was nominated for six Oscar awards, but did not win as one of 2015’s very best, but it didn’t need to. With everything it has going for it: great acting performances, good writing and dialogue, as well as, an outstanding musical score, it’s a good enough film all on its own.

The Last Man On the Moon: A Spacey Portrait

I’m sure many people wonder what it would be like to travel into space. Who wouldn’t want to go exploring other planets and discovering new life? Most people, however, would be scared of dying in space, but for the most part, the people who become astronauts have dreamed of traveling into space and seeing the stars up close and personal most of their lives.
The Last Man On the Moon is a documentary by Mark Craig that really shows the aspirations the astronauts of the Apollo program had when it came to traveling in space. In particular, the film tells the story of Eugene Cernan, who has been launched into space three times. Once, as a pilot of the Gemini 9A in June, 1966. Next, as the lunar moon pilot of the Apollo 10 in May,1969. And again, as Commander of the Apollo 17 mission in December,1972, for the final Apollo landing.
Cernan has had a great deal of experience in space. The documentary follows his story, but it doesn’t try to sugarcoat him into being some guy who could never do anything wrong. No, the film very much shows his successes, his failures, and everything else involving Eugene’s missions. The people who are interviewed in the film include Fred Baldwin, a naval admiral and friend of Eugene’s, Alan Bean, a fellow astronaut, and other friends and family who are familiar with Eugene. Each of them paints a different picture of their admiration for Eugene, and his ambition and courage.
The film also takes its time to show Eugene’s personal life with both his ex-wife and current wife, and the sacrifices he had to make when it came to his family due to his career choice. In one of the film’s funnier moments, his wife says, “If you think going to the moon is hard, try staying at home”.
The score by Lorne Balfe’s is magnificent. It’s haunting, almost poetic, very mythical, and surprisingly quite dramatic. It’s even adventurous at times. There’s also an animated sequence involving and depicting the start of Eugene’s space journey. It’s a nice little touch to an already very well-done and outstanding documentary.
In the end, The Last Man On the Moon is not just the celebration of a man’s many accomplishments that went far beyond most people’s dreams, but also a celebration of human success and what we can do when we, literally, expand our horizons. It’s truly a fantastic piece of documentary filmmaking.

The Danish Girl: A Review

There’s a really great film to be made based off transgendering, but this film isn’t it. The Danish Girl follows the format of a typical Oscar-baiting film, and feels like something that would fit quite well on BBC. The Danish Girl is based off the true story of Einar Wegener (played by Eddie Redmayne), a man who is married to a Danish painter, named Gerda (played by Alicia Vikander in an academy-award winning performance), whose personality starts to change after his wife paints him as a woman in a picture. The painting slowly gains popularity and Einar begins dressing up as the woman in the painting, named Lili Eibe. Dressing as this woman begins to affect his personality to the point where he believes he is the woman in the picture.
There are some real positives to The Danish Girl. The production design is very well done and the film looks like a period piece. The score, by Alexandre Desplat, might in fact, be the best thing about the film. It’s very beautiful, yet, mysterious, and at other times, even dreary and dark-sounding.
Redmayne’s performance as a transgender was a bit of a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, I can understand what he’s trying to do, by acting all quiet as a transgender person, and he does a fine job in the role. At the same time, he might as well be playing his character from Jupiter Ascending, judging by the amount of times he whispers and acts insane in the film. He also spends a lot of his performance trying on dresses and looking at himself in the mirror. Alicia Vikander, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, gives a very good performance, although saddled with the stereotypical role of a suffering wife. A talented actress, she should have also won an award for her role in Ex-Machina.
Lucinda Coxon’s script, however, is very melodramatic and contains some overbearing, unnatural and clichéd dialogue. There’s literally a moment in the film where Lili’s admirer, Henrik (played by Ben Whislaw), tells her (or him) the story of the “Have you heard the story of the great oak tree? It is said that if you catch its fallen acorn, you will be granted a wish”. It’s makes for a very slow moving story.
Considering Tom Hooper’s successes in The King’s Speech and Les Miserables, I was disappointed with The Danish Girl’s directing as it was a little bit uninspiring. The film spent so much time building up Einar’s obsession and ultimate transformation that we never really see the consequences of how people viewed him, aside from his wife. This film goes for the more conventional and “safe” storytelling, but it did appeal to the older crowd at the showing I attended. Let’s hope another film takes on this important topic again, and perhaps sets the film in a modern time.