Film 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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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

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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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 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.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon