Film Essent Archive for November, 2008

Review: The World Unseen/I Can't Think Straight

It doesn’t happen very often that you have two worthwhile films with lesbian themes, shot within the same year, by the same director, with the same actresses in the lead roles. The World Unseen, which opened earlier this month after a strong showing on the queer film fest circuit, was the directorial debut of Shamim Sarif, who also penned the novel on which the film is based and wrote the screenplay. In the film, Lisa Ray plays Miriam, an Indian wife and mother living within the dual oppressive cultures of her Indian heritage and apartheid South Africa, where she lives with her husband and three children, and Sheetal Sheth portrays Amina, an Indian woman living within the boundaries of apartheid law, which allows her to own a cafe, while her silent business partner, Jacob (David Dennis), a black man, can only work for her.

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Twilight Thoughts

It’s finally the opening weekend of Twilight, the much-hyped movie adaptation of the first book in Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling normal-girl-falls-in-love-with-teen-vampire book series. The hardcore fans of the series have been waiting with bated breath for months, biding their time until the film’s release date by obsessing over the minutae of the production process, from casting decisions to locations, from special effects to song choices.
One thing that fans haven’t seemed to spend a great deal of time and energy on, though, is the backlash against the series that started simmering back in August when feminists started getting wind of what the book series is about. There was a brief flurry of feminist rants that was spurred, in part, by author Meg Cabot (The Princess Diaries) slamming the book (which she’d not even read) on her blog, saying, in part, “Do you honestly think I’d like a story about a girl considering changing SPECIES for a guy? No offense to any of you, but as a feminist, I just can’t go there… ”

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No on H8, Not Yes to Hate

The news this morning about the fest director of FIND’s LA festival, Rich Raddon, turning up as a “Yes on Prop 8″ contributor is forcing those of us on the other side of that vote to seriously ponder our moral lines in the sand. FIND has come out and said a person cannot be fired for their religious beliefs, and they are correct on that, just as the California Musical Theater could not have fired its artistic director, Scott Eckern, for supporting Prop 8. Nonetheless, the gay community does not have to support organizations headed by people known to have voted against equality in marriage. They have the right to say, so long as this person is in your organization, we will not give it our financial support, period. And they will.
And those who argue that supporters of the gay community on this issue have to just accept the will of the majority of California voters on this issue need to take a step back and honestly examine what underlies that argument: You have to ask yourself, quite simply, if you would be making the same argument if that proposition had been targeted at women, or blacks, or any other minority group. If Prop 8 had sought to define marriage as being only between a WHITE man and woman, would your argument still be the same?

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Use a Scalpel, Not an Ax

I’ve been pondering this whole kerfuffle over whether Hollywood should boycott Utah and the Sundance Film Festival over the Mormon church’s financial support of Prop 8. Some have proposed that the Sundance folks move the fest somewhere else for 2009, perhaps Lake Tahoe. Aside from the practical impossibility of relocating a fest the size of Sundance to another location with just over two months to go before the fest, Tahoe sits on the border of California between California and Nevada, and it doesn’t make much sense to me to say, let’s move this fest to the state that just voted 52% in favor of restricting the rights of its gay citizens. Further, Lake Tahoe is located in Placer County, which voted in favor of Prop 8 by almost 60%. Doesn’t make much sense to support gay rights by moving the financial benefits of the Sundance Film Festival to a county that voted that strongly in favor of the proposition, does it?

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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas Review

Directed by Mark Herman

When we look back at the Holocaust and ponder how such a terrible thing could have happened, it’s hard to find the answers; one thing history does tell us, though, is that part of what enabled the oppression and murder of millions of Jews by the Nazi regime were the actions — and inactions — of countless ordinary people, both those who took an active part in the atrocities, and those who stood aside and allowed those actions to go unchecked. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, adapted from a children’s book by Irish novelist John Boyne, examines the Holocaust through the eyes of a young German boy, Bruno (Son of Rambow‘s Asa Butterfield), whose father (David Thewlis) is a commander general in the Nazi army.

The film opens with a scene of childhood innocence: Bruno and his friends are running through the streets of Berlin, playing at flying fighter planes. Bruno’s proud that his father’s a soldier, he admires the uniform and all that it stands for (and not knowing, of course, all that it really stands for). Bruno’s parents announce to him and his older sister Gretel (Amber Beattie) that his father has been promoted, and they are moving “to the countryside” for his father’s new post; Bruno, like any small boy, is concerned only about leaving his house and his friends, but he has no choice but to go along for the ride.

The family’s new home is isolated, there’s no room for Bruno to roam and play explorer, and he’s pining for other children to play with; from his window, he spots a nearby “farm” where there are people working — and other children. Funny thing is, though, they’re all wearing striped pajamas.

If you’ve not got the context for understanding the world you see around you, you simply fit that world into a context you can grasp. But of course, the farm isn’t really a farm at all; it’s a concentration camp (specifically, Auschwitz), and the people living there are not farmers, and the smoke that pours from the farm’s chimneys isn’t wood smoke.

Neither did Pavel, the old man peeling potatoes in Bruno’s kitchen voluntarily give up his career as a doctor to practice the fine art of peeling vegetables, as Bruno, with his child’s-eye understanding, rationalizes after the old man patches up his skinned knee when he falls from his swing. The irony of this man who once practiced medicine, reduced to acting as a servant for the Nazi regime, who still finds within himself the humanity to pick the son of his oppressor up off the ground, carry him inside, and tenderly care for his wound, may be lost on Bruno … but it is not lost on us.

Bruno, bored one day, sneaks out through the storage shed window and makes his way to the farm to find children to play with; in this way he meets Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), an eight-year-old living in the camp, through the barbed-wire fence. In his wide-eyed innocence, Bruno sees things only from a child’s view; to him, it’s terribly unfair that Shmuel gets to play with the other children in the camp, while he is stuck all alone in the big house. He’s convinced the numbers on Shmuel’s striped uniform are part of some fun game that Shmuel won’t let him in on, and while he does understand that Shmuel is hungry all the time, he doesn’t understand why. Starvation and prison camps, brutality and death, have simply never been a part of Bruno’s world, and he has no context for understanding the sheer horror of his new friend’s situation.

Part of what makes The Boy with the Striped Pajamas such a powerful film is that we know from the minute Bruno and Shmuel meet that their friendship will most likely not have a happy ending, and it doesn’t — but not at all in the way we expect. The narrative structure is built around cause-and-effect: Bruno’s father is in the army, therefore, part of his job is the committing of atrocities in the name of the Motherland. Bruno’s father does well, thereby getting promoted to the overseeing of even greater atrocities — and putting his family in closer proximity to his work. Bruno is isolated and lonely, so he gravitates toward the only playmate available to him. Bruno betrays Shmuel, and his guilt over that betrayal leads directly to the film’s tragic, breathtaking climax. Cause and effect, action and consequence, drive each beat of the story like the steady rhythm of goose-stepping soldiers.

The other thing, though, that makes this film so effective is that we are seeing horrific events through the eyes of innocence. This is a solipsistic view of the world as Bruno sees it: the Mother (Vera Farmiga), loving and kind; the Father, loving but stern; the sister, both a “hopeless case” and a source of comfort; the boy on the other side of the fence, simply a friend with whom to play and assuage his loneliness.

As such, the horrors to which Bruno is witness are never shown gratuitously or graphically. When the kindly potato peeler is ruthlessly attacked by Lieutenant Kotler (Rupert Friend), a steely-eyed soldier under his father’s command, it takes place behind the closed door of the kitchen; Bruno and his family can hear what’s happening, but not see it. What Bruno can see, though, is that his father does not stop what’s happening, even when Bruno’s mother quietly begs him to do something, and that moment shifts his perspective of his father in a way that cannot be undone.

Performances throughout the film, most notably by the two young leads are outstanding. Butterfield has these intensely piercing blue eyes that see and question and judge everything; he’s an eight-year-old boy, and kids that age see things in very black-and-white terms. What Bruno struggles with most are his own internal conflicts: How to reconcile growing to hate and despise his father and what he represents; how to be a brave and honest person and stand up against a bigger, stronger, scarier oppressor, when you’re quaking in your boots with fear.

It’s an issue many adults in a similar situation might struggle with — how many Germans stood by as their friends and neighbors were rounded up, never to be seen again? But for Bruno, the fear is exacerbated by his very real powerlessness to affect any kind of change; he’s just a little kid, and he’s up against Lieutenant Kotler, who’s menacing, violent and terrifying, and his father, who’s become more monster than role model.

Bruno isn’t being brave, particularly, as the film nears its climactic nail-biting, back-and-forth sequence; he’s simply acting and reacting as an adventurous child, with no concept at all of the danger in which he’s putting himself. But he has, finally, come to realize that this odd little boy in striped pajamas, who lives behind an electric fence, is, quite simply, his friend, and that’s all that really matters.

And the film deserves many kudos for sticking with the tonality of the book and handling the film’s final sequence with the same honesty it’s had throughout, rather than taking the easy cop-out of a feel-good, Sound of Music ending of Bruno’s family running hand-in-hand with Shmuel across the Swiss Alps and breaking into song. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is about the Holocaust, yes, but more than that, it’s about the essence of humanity and morality, in the most wrenching and heartbreaking of ways.

-Kim Voynar

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Review: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

When we look back at the Holocaust and ponder how such a terrible thing could have happened, it’s hard to find the answers; one thing history does tell us, though, is that part of what enabled the oppression and murder of millions of Jews by the Nazi regime were the actions — and inactions — of countless ordinary people, both those who took an active part in the atrocities, and those who stood aside and allowed those actions to go unchecked.
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Keep Fighting

I went to a screening of Cool Hand Luke last night on the WB lot. I’d never seen the film in a theater before, and the digital restoration was absolutely gorgeous. Watching the film, I was struck (again) by Paul Newman’s remarkable screen presence, and how much of it came not from the genetics that made him beautiful to look at, but from his inner light, the soul that filled him. Cool Hand Luke is one of my favorite Newman films, particularly for the way in which he captures the spirit of this man who’s been beaten down by life, doesn’t see much good in it, and yet still has the ability to change the lives of his fellow prisoners with his spirit and tenacity.
I was very torn being at the screening because a very big part of me had wanted to skip it and go instead to the huge Prop 8 protest in West Hollywood. I’d made plans to go to this screening before I even got to LA, and I had a guest coming who I didn’t want to cancel on at the last minute, but still, no matter how great and rare an opportunity it was to see Cool Hand Luke in a theater, my heart was wishing I was at the protest.

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Not Today

As I was walking down Fairfax this afternoon, I saw a rather heated fight between two youngish guys; one of them had gotten out of the car and was screaming at the guy in the car while kicking a poor, defenseless parking meter. And an older gentlemen who walked by stopped and said, “Hey guys. Obama was elected president yesterday. This isn’t a day for fighting, it’s a day for unity and celebration. Please, not today.” And they actually stopped fighting.
Who knew the power of Obama to help end a fight on the streets of Los Angeles? If only it would be that easy for him to resolve all the many issues he must now face and deal with…

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History Made

I feel like I’ve been holding my breath all day and can finally (almost) let it out. Over-the-moon elated about Obama’s victory, but feeling pretty devastated that Prop 8 is passing at the moment. We went to an Obama party at the Hollywood Roosevelt; while I was sad not to be in my hometown for this night with my husband, celebrating this historic moment with good friends made it better. The election results in my home state of Washington are looking great, with Christine Gregoire defeating Republican Dino Rossi 53% to 47%. Kickass. And the assisted suicide bill is passing way better than I’d dared to hope, 58% to 42%. Tomorrow, it’s back to movies here, but tonight, I’m celebrating.
My happiness is tempered by Prop 8 looking like it’s going to pass. My heart goes out to all my gay and lesbian friends, who I know are feeling the pain of that way more than I could even begin to imagine. I’m so, so sorry. We have to keep fighting until equality for all really means equality. Until that day, folks, the work is not done.

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Les Misbarack

I thought this was particularly appropriate, given the title of my previous post … love it.

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One Day More

One of the best times I’ve had while attending a film festival: Joining a “No on Prop 8″ protest that Rotten Tomatoes’ Jen Yamato and I happened to stumble upon while going for coffee in West Hollywood yesterday. Some pics from the protest below.
Also, was terribly sad to hear that Barack Obama’s grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, died today. Very sad that she didn’t live to see him become the first black president, but I believe her spirit will be very much with him as he makes his acceptance speech tomorrow night. One more day, folks.

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Like a Virgin

Pretty much unrelated to film, other than that a lot of people I know in this biz happen to work in NY or LA, so just thought I’d share: I flew down to LAX this morning on Virgin American, and I just have to say, it was one of the best flights I’ve ever had. The seats were incredibly comfy (and stylish black leather, even), there was ample legroom and “mood-enhancing” lighting that reminded me of the lighting in the tunnel at the Detroit airport, only more mellow and less trippy.
More importantly, every single person I dealt with at Virgin was happy, perky, and inordinately helpful and pleasant in every possible way. They had good music playing at their ticket counter, and when they announced boarding for the flight they made it into an event, with Earth, Wind and Fire seranading us down the walkway. I didn’t fly first, but the first class section looked great, and you can buy a coach ticket and then upgrade to first for $100 at the gate if there’s room (at least, that’s the rate on the Seattle-LAX flight, I’m sure it’s more if you’re flying SF to NYC.

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Tricks and Treats

obama pumpkin lg.jpgThis is the coolest pumpkin we saw last night while trick-or-treating. I wish I’d thought of it!
Heading to the airport shortly to pop down to LA for a week for AFI Fest. I’m also doing a panel tomorrow for on “Women’s Voices in the Film Blogosphere” for the Women in Film Entertainment Forum with Anne Thompson, Jen Yamato from Rotten Tomatoes, Melissa Silverstein from Women & Hollywood and Dara Nai from AfterEllen.com. Should be an interesting panel with a lively discussion.
I’ll be at the Che afterparty tonight, maybe I’ll see some of you there. I’ll be covering AFI Fest all week for MCN, so come back often for the latest.

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Quote Unquotesee all »

“The purpose of film isn’t to present the kindness of the world.”
~ Isabelle Huppert

The Promised Land steers into the fact that the United States can mean whatever people want it to mean. You may not be able to be Elvis, but you can sure as shit impersonate him for a living. America, like its current President (at least as of this article’s publication), is so dangerous precisely because it’s a blank canvas on which anyone can project their dreams. Whatever it is that you see for yourself, there’s someone you can pay for the pleasure of believing that it’s possible. In his view, the pursuit of happiness is the ultimate con, a delusion that prevents us from seeing our circumstances for what they are.

“Forget the Matrix, it’s the invention of happiness that blinded us to the truth. The rich got richer and the poor help them do it. Jarecki doesn’t argue that the American Dream is dead; he argues that it was never alive in the first place — that we were all lobsters in a pot full of water that was boiling too slowly for any of us to notice. And now it’s time for dinner. Donald J. Trump is the President of the United States. Elvis has left the building.”
~ David Ehrlich