By Dan Skip Allen
I loved watching sports movies and gangster films when I was a kid. They were two different kinds of movies, but they both had their own way of inspiring me growing up. Sports films put you in the shoes of those heroes on-screen, whether it be Roy Hobbs hitting massive home runs or Shoeless Joe Jackson coming out of the corn, saying, "Where are we? Heaven?" Sports films have an imagination that can make you dream of something greater than yourself. Gangster films have a glamour to them that gives me chills. In Goodfellas, Henry Hill cooks an Italian meal in prison with the Don. You have to cut the garlic very thin, so it melts with the olive oil. It was a great scene of camaraderie between brothers. Gangster films showed a world that was just perfect sometimes.
Ray Liotta was in both of these films. In one, he played a ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson teaching and playing baseball; in the other, he was Henry Hill, a young and impressionable man looking for something to be a part of and belong to. Both characters showed Liotta had acting chops. Both characters brought something to the table regarding my favorite kinds of films: a Martin Scorsese classic and a baseball classic. They are movies I would recommend to anybody. Liotta is excellent in both of them. The scene where he was high on cocaine, driving all over town trying to deliver the guns, but he believes the feds are following him, is brilliant. He's so paranoid in this whole sequence. You feel the paranoia he feels while watching him.
Liotta has had a vast career besides those two iconic roles in those great films. He's played a corrupt policeman in Copland, an FBI Agent caught in the middle of a bunch of hitmen in Smokin' Aces, a police chief caught in a hostage situation in John Q, and Aldo Moltisanti, the father of Christopher in The Many Saints of Newark, the prequel to The Sopranos. He's even been in Bee Movie starring Jerry Seinfeld. He pretty much did it all in his fifty or so years in film. When people think of two of the most iconic films of the last generation, they'll talk about Goodfellas and Field of Dreams. That's what I think of when I think of the great career of Ray Liotta. These two films will cement him as one of the greats of his generation.
The Criterion Voyages (Spine #1125): THE FUNERAL -- A Legend of Japanese Comedy Makes His Feature Debut
By Sean Boelman
Jûzô Itami’s Tampopo has long been a part of the Criterion Collection, so it is certainly a surprise that it has taken this long for his feature debut, The Funeral, to join the fold. However, now that it is in the collection, it is a must-add for any cinephile who is a fan of Japanese cinema.
With an episodic structure, the film follows a family who have a series of unusual interactions during the traditional three-day funeral of their patriarch. Although this is often over-said about films, this is the type of movie where you truly don’t know what is going to happen next, as the film expectedly gives no shits about your expectations.
The comedy in the film is certainly unique. It’s seldom laugh-out-loud hilarious, but it’s quietly wry with a very dark undercurrent. The often weird and random nature of the film is a large part of its charm. Itami focuses on parodying the mundanity of everything that goes on in preparing for a funeral, and the result is something that is extremely relatable.
With an episodic piece like this, it is important to have characters that are interesting, and Itami certainly delivers on that. The motley crew of family members that have congregated to “mourn” the death of their patriarch is full of quirky folks, and the dynamic between all of them is excellent and what makes the film work.
The cultural aspect of the film here is certainly interesting, as this is a commentary on many of the practices that make up a traditional Japanese funeral. However, even the practices that are most sacred and dear — the honoring of a loved one who is passing on from this life — are not too high for Itami to skewer them.
From a technical aspect, it is astounding that this is Itami’s debut feature. His command of the visual craft here is already fantastic and feels fully developed. There are several shots in the film that are simply gorgeous, and others that are framed wonderfully for perfect comedic effect, all thanks to the work of cinematographer Yonezô Maeda.
This Criterion edition features several bonus features, some new and some old. For the new, audiences can expect new interviews with actors Nobuko Miyamoto and Manpei Ikeuchi, which supplement a short program produced by the Criterion Channel and a booklet containing an essay by Pico Iyer and excerpts from Itami’s 1985 book Diary of “The Funeral” and a 2007 remembrance of Itami by actor Tsutomu Yamazaki.
The Funeral is a Criterion that you are definitely going to want to pick up, especially if you are a fan of Japanese comedy. It’s sharp, witty, and still a phenomenal satire even after almost thirty years.
The Criterion Collection edition of The Funeral is now available.
By Tatiana Miranda
Before the creation of Studio Ghibli and its groundbreaking animated films such as My Neighbor Totoro, there were the early animated projects from Ghibli co-creators Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki‘s filmmaking careers. In 1974, they worked on the hit animated series Heidi, Girl of the Alps, and then nearly ten years later, they co-created Studio Ghibli, where they would create plenty of well-acclaimed animated features. Well before the height of their careers and after leaving Toei Animation, they worked together to make two animated shorts, Panda! Go, Panda! and Panda! Go, Panda!: Rainy Day Circus. For these shorts, Miyazaki debuted as a writer, and Takahata utilized his new skills in directing. Their collaboration on the Panda! Go, Panda! shorts paved the way for their eventual collaboration when creating Studio Ghibli.
Made during the height of the panda craze in Japan during the seventies, Panda! Go Panda! took inspiration from many different popular influences at the time. The plot’s fairy tale themes are similar to that of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” particularly in the second short, Panda! Go, Panda!: Rainy Day Circus. The short film opens with circus employees searching the main character Mimiko’s house for their lost tiger. As they search, they grow increasingly anxious to discover who lives in the house as they come across the overly large items meant for the anthropomorphic panda character PapaPanda; this is similar to Goldilocks examining the different sized items in the three bears’ home.
Mimiko’s character design, such as her bright orange braids, take influence from Pippi Longstocking, which Takahata and Miyazaki had been working to adapt into an animated series. While some designs are remnants of scrapped projects, others would become an inspiration for later animated films. For example, PapaPanda, the large panda father to baby panda Panny and father figure to Mimiko, has very clear similarities to the design of Totoros from My Neighbor Totoro. Mimiko’s clothing is also very similar to that of Mei and Satsuki from My Neighbor Totoro.
Beyond being an insight into the development of later animated films by Miyazaki and Takahata, Panda! Go, Panda! is also an enjoyable watch in itself. These shorts make the most of their thirty-minute run time, with unique characters and adorable design choices matched with a simple but captivating plot premise. The first installment introduces Mimiko, a young orphan who is fiercely independent, as she creates a makeshift family with anthropomorphic pandas PapaPanda and Panny. These characters have an air of childlike wonder to them as they go on adventures, saving Panny and, in Panda! Go, Panda!: Rainy Day Circus, saving their new circus friends. Compared to later works by Miyazaki and Takahata, the plot of Panda! Go, Panda! is self-explanatory and straightforward, although one could infer something deeper about the forced entrapment of anthropomorphic animals that reoccurs in both shorts.
Almost fifty years after its initial release in 1973, Panda! Go, Panda! has the same charm as modern animated shorts. Currently, a digital restoration of both shorts is being shown at select US theaters just in time for a new DVD and Blu-ray release on June 21.
By Sean Boelman
Regional festivals are awesome, especially those that focus on a specific theme and highlight films that support that message. Held in Dallas, TX, the EarthX Film Festival returns for a 2022 edition with the theme of “A Celebration of the Outdoors”. With a lineup encompassing everything from festival favorites to some exciting premieres from acclaimed filmmakers, this is an event not to miss.
Opening the festival is Ben Masters’s (The River and the Wall) new film, Deep in the Heart. Narrated by Academy Award-winner and iconic Texan Matthew McConaughey, this is the perfect local interest film to open a festival like this. Exploring the stories of several species of wildlife native to the ecosystems of Texas, this is the type of gorgeous nature documentary that just demands to be seen on the big screen. You will be in absolute awe of the natural beauty you see on screen.
Another high-profile film playing the festival is Rachel Lears’s To the End. The filmmaker’s follow-up to the acclaimed Knock Down the House, Lears is again following Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (as well as two other subjects), this time as they fight for the Green New Deal and an overall shift in the way climate politics are done. It’s a very angry, timely film, and one that you will definitely want to see to ensure that you are part of the conversation.
For those looking to take a chance on something more independent, check out Tigre Gente, directed by Elizabeth Unger. Telling the story of a Bolivian park ranger and a Hong Kong journalist who are investigating the illegal jaguar trade, the film does a great job of exploring this issue that you might not have known is much of an issue in the first place.
Another hidden gem at the fest is Newtok, a documentary that explores an Alaskan community that is under threat of ending because of climate change. It’s a very different perspective of the climate crisis than you’ve probably ever seen before. Instead of inundating the audience with facts, directors Andrew Burton and Michael Kirby Smith show us the very real, human consequence of this ecological crisis, and it’s powerful.
For the closing night of the festival, attendees can see the newest film from acclaimed director Stacy Peralta (Dogtown and Z-Boys), The Yin and Yang of Gerry Lopez. This biography of surfing legend Gerry Lopez is one of the more fun films to see in this year’s lineup — a nice break from some of the darker themes that many of the film’s in the festival cover.
Other highlights in the lineup include Ron Howard’s We Feed People, Alex Pritz’s The Territory, and Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love, all films which premiered at the major festivals earlier this year to great acclaim. The festival aims to showcase the amazing planet we live on and the people who are trying to make a difference for the world, and all of these films do just that.
The EarthX Film Festival runs from May 12-15.
The Snake Hole
Retrospectives, opinion pieces, awards commentary, personal essays, and any other type of article that isn't a traditional review or interview.