Thursday, April 18, 2013

Children of Darkness

Not all children grow up in the care of loving parents or under happy circumstances. As the Supreme Court ponders the constitutionality of 1996's loathsome Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and considers some of the more ridiculous arguments put forth by its defenders (i.e. marriage is necessary to protect straight couples who accidentally get pregnant), one cruel fact of life keeps getting swept under the rug.

The reason so many foster children end up being adopted by gay men and lesbians is because they were created by heterosexuals who were either unwilling to use birth control, unable to provide for a newborn, or uninterested in the long-term responsibility of parenting. For many children, unexpected changes in the lives of their parents can lead to a darker future filled with doubt, fear, and misunderstanding.

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The Best of Playground Film Festival celebrates its second season in May with a series of films based on outstanding 10-minute dramas that were created as part of this important local playwriting incubator program. Launched in collaboration with Dances With Light, the program has added a superb new feature for this year's festival. Each short is now accompanied by a brief interview in which the playwright describes the inspiration for the piece, the challenges faced in its initial creation as a stage play, and some of the adjustments that were made in order to turn the play into a short film.

A mother (Jody Gelb) and father (Rolf Saxon) wonder how
they can stop loving one of their daughters in Undone

Written by Diane Sampson and directed by Bruce Coughran, Undone focuses on a couple trying to cope with the realization that their daughter, Alison (Lyndsy Kail), might just be a psychopath. Originally written about a mathematician whose field of expertise is knot theory, the film shows both parents as they try to cope with the fact that  they can no longer trust Alison after she has physically harmed her sister Rebecca's (Heather Gilliland) infant -- who is the couple's first grandchild. While the father (Rolf Saxon) is obviously in denial, the mother (Jody Gelb) has crossed a point of no return.

For those who like suspense films, there is a genuinely cringeworthy moment as the audience watches Alison decide to pour hot coffee on the infant. A bad seed, indeed!

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Based on a short play by Geetha Reddy, Obit leaves the audience with an unexpected shock. Henry (George Maguire) is a senile old man who is obviously suffering from memory problems.

After his wife died at an early age, Henry was forced to raise his daughter as a single father while serving in the military. His daughter managed to rise above Henry's heavily-structured military lifestyle and rigid gender expectations to become a successful doctor (not a nurse). As the film begins, the two of them are struggling to write an obituary.

Liz (Sandra Fish) shows an inordinate amount of patience with her father as she prompts him to try to remember certain details from years gone by. The camera catches Henry in two postures: one where he is lucid and in real time and the other where he is lost in his idealized memories.

George Maguire as "Ideal Henry" (Photo by: Kerry Bitner)

George Maguire as "Real Henry" (Photo by: Kerry Bitner)

With lots of false starts as Henry becomes agitated or can't remember things, the audience assumes that Liz is helping to write an obituary for her father (an Alzheimer's patient) while he can still remember any details about his life. But at the end of the film, when Henry reminds Liz that she forgot to add one very important item, the viewer may be shocked to hear him say "You forgot to write that she is survived by her father."

George Maguire gives a beautiful performance as an irascible old man dealing with advancing dementia while Sandra Fish displays a rare patience (probably brought on by years of clinical practice) in completing a difficult task that must be accomplished while time is still on her side.

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Few archetypes are as recognizable from fairy tales as that of the evil stepmother. While the legend of Cinderella has inspired numerous variations in opera, ballet, and film, Snow White may have experienced fewer attempts at updating and reinterpretation.

In February, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival screened 1916's silent film version of Snow White, starring Marguerite Clark (repeating her characterization from a Broadway stage production). A new version of Snow White (complete with bullfighting!) recently arrived from Spain.

Directed by Pablo Berger, Blancanieves sets the action in Seville in a highly romanticized vision of the 1920s in which Carmen (Sofia Oria) is the daughter of the famous matador, Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho).  At first, Carmen is a cherished child who is doted upon by her grandmother, Dona Concha (Angela Molina).

The young Carmen (Sofia Oria) dances
with her grandmother (Angela Molina)

But once her father remarries, the girl falls under the dark glare of her evil stepmother, the fashion conscious Encarna (Maribel Verdú), whose self-absorption could make Michele Bachmann seem like a blushing virgin.

One fine day, Carmen follows her pet rooster into the upstairs part of the house (which she has been forbidden to explore).  There she finds her paralyzed father in a wheelchair, the victim of a horrible goring injury during a bullfight.

Carmen's famous father, Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho)

Carmen brings some light into her father's lonely life. In return, he coaches her in how to fight a bull. Encarna has the bird cooked and served for dinner (shades of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?) while plotting and scheming to get rid of the little brat and take over the world.

As the years roll by, Carmencita (Macarena Garcia) becomes a servant in the house. After orchestrating her husband's death, Encarna instructs her chauffeur turned lover, Gennaro (Pere Ponce), to take the child out of town and kill her. Instead of being rescued by Grumpy, Sneezy, Happy, Dopey, and the rest of the gang, she falls in with a group of dwarf bullfighters.

The dwarfs who rescue Carmencita

A curious turn of events finds Carmencita stepping into the bullring, where her beauty, bravery, and talent impress the crowd.

Macarena Garcia as Carmencita in Blancanieves
  • Carmencita's fame quickly spreads and she soon becomes the star attraction who can freshen up the dwarfs' clowning matador act.
  • The young female bullfighter quickly inflames the macho jealousy of the troupe's former lead, Jesusin (Emilio Gavira).
  • Carmencita also attracts the attention of a theatrical manager, Don Carlos (Josep Maria Pou), who signs her to a lifetime contract.
  • She easily wins the heart of Rafita (Sergio Dorado), the most handsome and romantic dwarf.
  • After the elaborate photo spread which was supposed to land her on the cover of a fashion magazine gets bumped in favor of a story about Carmencita, Encarna enters the bull ring with an apple and a syringe filled with poison.
Encarna (Maribel Verdu) brings a poison apple to the bullring

We all know what happens next. In his director's statement, Pablo Berger stresses that his film is:
The viewer must feel rather than think, and be led by a story told only through images and music. Film as ceremony and cathartic experience.

The film is a careful recreation of the unforgettable 1920s in Spain: the wardrobe, the hats, the cars…No detail has been overlooked.

The film captivates our inner child. The audience will feel like they’re sitting on my lap, being told a story full of fantasy, drama, horror and dark humor. Once upon a time…

A sincere glance can contain all the tension of the boldest action. As Norma Desmond said in Sunset Boulevard, “We did not need dialogue. We had faces.”

By the end of the 1920s the language of cinema had been completely developed and great masterpieces had been created. Blancanieves is not a copy but a reinterpretation of the films of that era for today’s audience.

The presence of Alfonso de Vilallonga’s extraordinary music, from the opening credits until the end of the film, intensifies the emotions and deepest feelings of the protagonists. The music is their voice.

The film is true to the dark spirit of the popular tale from the Brothers Grimm. I use melodrama as a way of pushing the limits of characters in extreme situations. Keep your handkerchiefs handy.

The film is a reflection about love as a school of pain and as a demystifying filter to face the ups and downs of life. Love, then you exist.

We have joined artistic and financial resources with other European countries to carry out this exciting adventure. A local film for the global market.

Upon pronouncing Blancanieves, everyone envisages a beautiful girl, a wicked stepmother and seven captivating dwarfs. Our version has all that and much more. Step right up, ladies and gentlemen…"
The evil Encarna (Maribel Verdu)

The film's cinematography by Kiko de la Rica and musical score by Alfonso de Vilallonga make Blancanieves a stunning experience in black and white photography. Although there are times when closeups start to feel as if Berger is trying to emulate The Blair Witch Project's shaky camera technique, many moments are studies in art direction, lighting, and character portraiture (Maribel Verdu is a knockout). Here's the trailer:

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