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Viewing Journal: SUMMER HOURS, SIN NOMBRE, & PHOEBE IN WONDERLAND

It’s been far too long since my last post, due in part to a hectic end of fall and busy, albeit fabulous, holiday. In the near coming week or so I intend to post my favorite albums of year, as well as my choices for the decade. Also, as I like to do, I will be posting my “favorite things” of 2009. I’ll reveal my favorite album art, music videos, book, etc. Then, probably sometime in early February, I will post my favorite films of the year.

Personally, I find it a bit silly that all the list hoopla goes on so early when there are so many films and albums yet to come out. Seems problematic when the average i-tunes shopper or movie-goer will have long forgotten what Paste or Rolling Stone said way back in December, or even November. The lists should kick off the new year, not conclude the past year. In my opinion.

That said, here are some quick thoughts on three films I’ve seen recently which are worthwhile, and which are, wonderfully, available via Netflix’s miraculous invention: the instant viewer.

1. SUMMER HOURS.
French director Olivier Assayas’ remarkable film about a group of grown siblings who must deal with the fall-out of their matriarchal mother’s death is sure to be near the top of my ’09 list, whenever that list finally makes its appearance. The film is breathtaking in it’s subtleties, in the poetic way that it approaches the nuances of family and of loss. As a friend of mind recently suggested, it’s a film about what happens when people want different things, but are also cognizant of the needs and desires of their loved ones. When dealing with issues of family, American cinema tends to fall into broad, incomplete archetypes, into melodrama. Summer Hours avoids both, instead depicting the problematic, but always meaningful, ways people interact with those they love when faced with crisis. At times, Assayas film is a masterpiece of mood and tone, at others it’s a heartbreaking example of how beautiful lyrically minded filmmaking can be, how even the simplest images, even the most mundane things, can hold within them the deepest meaning. Juliette Binoce, Charles Berling, and Jeremie Renoir star.


2. SIN NOMBRE.
Cary Fukunaga’s debut feature film follows a young Honduran gang member named El Casper and a girl named Sayra as they ride atop the famed “train of death” over the Honduran border, through Mexico, and over U.S. borders. They seek new opportunities, fresh starts, to achieve the same dreams that so many immigrants before them managed to attain, to corral the “American dream.” To El Casper, known as Willy outside of the gang, and Sayra, who El Casper hopes to convey safely into the States, America is bigger than life, almost mythical. Yet, El Casper is in serious danger. He has abandoned his gang, and they are angry and out for blood. At every train station and in every village, gang members wait to ambush and kill him. But he makes it his mission to safeguard Sayra, it is his penance – the opportunity for his redemption. Sayra sees El Casper as a mysterious “devil,” but, after he saves her from being raped, she comes to trust him and hopes even to help him make a new life.

Sin Nombre is a thrilling, tense, and moving film, part crime film, part immigrant tale, part love story. But it doesn’t fall into stereotypical formulas that often define such genre films. In many ways, Sin Nombre reminds me of Malick’s classic Days of Heaven, particular the final scenes that take place in a river and the scenes that take place atop a moving train. If you’ve seen that fine film, you might be clued into how this film concludes.


3. PHOEBE IN WONDERLAND
Another film written and directed by a first-timer (Daniel Barnz) Phoebe In Wonderland features the remarkable supporting cast of Felicity Huffman, Patricia Clarkson, Bull Pullman, and Campbell Scott. But, as an imaginative but troubled young girl, the true star of the film is young Elle Fanning, the younger sister of the now famous Dakota Fanning. She turns in a performance as haunting and strong as any that her older sister has given. And, despite a so-so last half hour, the film is remarkable as well.

Fanning plays a young girl named Phoebe who battles a mysterious mental illness and accompanying personal demons by diving into her own fantasy world, especially Wonderland, where she fancies herself Alice. And so when her school’s new drama teacher casts her as Alice in the school’s performance of Lewis Carroll’s book, she is overjoyed. Soon she finds herself fully immersed in the tale, surrounded, within her imagination, by the book’s many strange characters, many of whom give her advice. After all, they understand her better than her bullying classmates and her mystified teachers and principal. And she identifies more with their “not so fixed” ways much more than the legalistic and socially complicated mores of the school yard.

Meanwhile, at home, Phoebe’s parents are work-aholic writers who struggle with how to approach and help their daughter through her troubles as they struggle through their own marital and work-related issues. As her distraught but caring mother, Huffman is particularly strong, perhaps turning in her finest performance yet. And her little sister, played by the hilarious young Bailee Madison, is tired “of being the normal one.”

Phoebe in Wonderland is a wonderfully strange celebration of the power of imagination and fantasy, but unfortunately is beings to fall apart in it’s latter stages as it takes a swan dive into a mystifying and ultimately unnecessary song and dance number that feels oddly out of place. See it anyway. It’s worth your time.

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