Saturday, October 28, 2006

Virginia Film Festival, Day 3

Another blustery day in Charlottesville, and of course -- more films. Here's the rundown on today's screenings (I'm dubbing this "celebrity day" because every screening I attended had a celebrity guest from the film).

First screening
: a 10am screening of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In attendance were Mark Johnson, the film's producer and (I think) a Virginia native, and William Moseley, the actor who played Peter Pevensie (the oldest of the four children) in the movie. I saw this in the theater with my oldest daughter when it came out, and I liked it but didn't love it at the time, so I'm not sure why I decided to go see it again (especially when it was playing up against Bergman's The Seventh Seal, a favorite of mine that I've never seen on the big screen. But I found myself enjoying Chronicles more this time than the first time. I was moved by many scenes, especially ones that focused on the siblings and their love and care for each other. I was especially taken with the scene wherein little Lucy first discovers Narnia and meets Mr. Tumnus, the faun. What a special scene. It contains all the wonder of a child discovering this new world, and at the same time shows Lucy's genuine heart and her kindness (not to mention Tumnus's kindness in spite of what he tries to do to Lucy).

Second screening: Michael Tolkin's The Rapture, with Tolkin in attendance. Tolkin has written several movies and novels and is probably best known for The Player (the novel and the screenplay for Altman's film). The Rapture is a strange film. It tells the story of Sharon, who goes from a sexually promiscuous but empty life to fulfillment through a relationship with Christ -- but who goes kind of crazy after her husband is killed by a crazed coworker, believing that God is calling her to the desert to take her home. When she and her daughter wait for weeks in the desert without a word from God, she kills her child (at the child's urging) to send her to "be with daddy in heaven" but ultimately can't kill herself as this would send her to hell.

And as she is in jail, the rapture does happen (for those of you who read my blog who don't know the rapture is -- it's basically the Christian belief that the world will end and Christ will return, and those who believe in Him will be taken up to heaven; it's more complicated than that, with lots of differing opinions on the details, but that's the essence of it). So the rapture actually occurs. With the four horseman of the apocalypse and everything. But in spite of the spirit of her daughter urging her, pleading with her, Sharon won't say she loves God, even though the truth is revealed through the fact of the rapture, because (as Tolkin explained it), she can't forgive God for all the pain that she had to experience (and put her daughter through) to get to this point. Which is an interesting take.

But ultimately the film is very uneven, with performances that don't convey the massive shifts in perspective that the characters adopt (i.e., I don't buy Mimi Rogers's switch from promiscuity to devout Christian -- it seems fake; and I really don't buy her shift from "loving Jesus" to full-on cult-like fanaticism. But Tolkin's talk afterward really clarified some things -- a member of the audience asked if he "believed," and after some hemming and hawing, he admitted that he did in fact believe something (he said he knows we live in a "created universe," for example), but that he struggles to balance that with the unfairness of our existence. While I didn't say it in the room (it wasn't the right venue), I was thinking, "But God didn't create the unfairness. That's what WE added to the picture."

The other thing that stood out to me as problematic in the film was the depiction of Sharon's church. She gets connected with these "Christians" who talk about the dream of the pearl and who listen to an eight-year old boy's prophecies and take them as gospel truth. The boy whispers to an adult, who relays the "truths" the other believers. Later, when the film cuts to "Six Years Later," the now-fourteen year old boy proclaims his truths himself, albeit awkwardly (I wasn't sure if the awkward delivery was intentional or just a result of bad acting on the kid's part).

Sharon talks about belief in Jesus, but the religion she practices is hardly "mainstream Christianity," which left me wondering what Tolkin was going for here? Was he trying to make it seem cult-like rather than looking like "true Christianity"? Is (or was) this his true understanding of Christianity? Was this a popular approach to Christianity out in L.A. in the late 80's and early 90's, when the film was made? I've never seen or heard of Christianity like this without it being called a "bizarre offshoot." In any case, because of this, the depiction of her faith didn't ring true for me at all. It was nothing like my experience of Christianity, and I have been through the Catholic church, a deep-south Protestant evangelical denomination, a "multi-denominational" church (Protestant), and now Texas (spirit-filled) Baptist. Never heard of anything like this "boy prophet" who is essentially their leader. Nor have I ever heard of the "dream of the pearl" of which all the believers speak.

Third screening: Liev Schreiber was here to present his writing/directing debut, Everything is Illuminated. I hadn't been all that interested in this film, which I think is ultimately the fault of the marketing behind it, because the film is really a gem. It tells the story of Jonathan Safran Foer, who travels to Ukraine to understand who his grandfather, a Ukrainian Jew who escaped the Holocaust, really was. He hires a company that does "Jewish heritage" tours, which is a small operation run by an Odessa family. And the son who acts as translator (Alex) provides much of the comedy in the film. I'm not describing the film very well, which goes to show you why the Warner Independent Pictures marketing people had such a hard time, but it really touched me and had me on the verge of tears several times (and had a lot of laughs, too). Liev Schreiber was articulate and heartfelt in his post-film discussion about making the film. He's funny and well-spoken. Sounded to me like the kind of guy you'd love to sit down to dinner with.

Fourth screening: I came back to my hotel room and skipped the screening of Bruce Almighty (with director Tom Shadyac in attendance). But I'm sorely tempted to run back over there to catch the post-film discussion as well as the sneak preview clips of Evan Almighty (the sequel to Bruce Almighty). I'll update later if I go. (Update: I didn't go. Just laziness. It's a bit of walk from my hotel room; it's cold; I stayed in.)

Tomorrow, I head back to Texas. They're sending a limousine service to take me back to the Richmond airport -- an hour-long drive. Let me tell you, the Virginia Film Festival is a class act. I've been impressed by pretty much every aspect, and I hope to be back with future films. In fact, when I got back to my hotel this evening, there was a package waiting for me at the front desk: a pewter cup engraved with the film festival's name and dates.


Blogger DanBuck said...

LOVED Everything is Illuminated. Such power and beauty. I love the sunflowers all facing the same direction like the faces of the town and their descendants that woul've been. Glorious.

I just got an earlier film of his: Spring Foward. I'll let you know what I think.

10/31/2006 4:35 AM  
Blogger Chris Hansen said...

Dan -- in the Q&A after the film, he said they grew that whole field of sunflowers for the film, using a farmer's almanac to determine where the sun would be shining on the day/time of shooting, so that the flowers would all face the sun (and thus the camera)!

10/31/2006 7:46 AM  
Blogger DanBuck said...

very cool

11/01/2006 5:58 AM  

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