Thursday, September 1, 2011

Week of Sept. 2 to Sept. 8 (Mann)

What’s on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

Ooooh! Booooh! What’s your taste in scary movies? This summer sci-fi paranormal seems to be hot, with the alien-dominated Super 8 and Cowboys and Aliens. But there’s still nothing better than a good old haunted house. The CGI special effects may not be so dramatic, but the spookiness of things that go thud in the night touch us in some primal way.

Guillermo del Toro, the filmmaker behind the visually stunning Pan’s Labyrinth and the cartoon-like Hellboy understands this. Ever since he saw the TV movie DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK in 1973, when he was nine-years-old, he’s been wanting to bring it to the big screen. The setting is Blackwood Manor, a Victorian mansion being restored by a new architect owner Alex (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes). They’re joined by Alex’s young daughter Sally (Bailee Madison) who, going where she is not supposed to go, discovers a basement that is inhabited by eldritch homunculi.

By what? That’s weird, unearthly little creatures, mini humans. And they like to eat children. Need I say more? The parents of course don’t believe the little girl, saying she’s just having nightmares. But these are definitely not tooth fairies. Whether it’s “a gripping, gruesome fable” (, “one creepyass frightmare” (Austin Chronicle), or just “a very good haunted house film” (Roger Ebert), it’s just the thing to finish off your summer.

SARAH’S KEY also deals with monsters, but of a more earthly type -- French gendarmes who, during the German occupation of World War II, are determined to prove that they can be as cruel as their Nazi masters. In the notorious 1942 Velodrome d’Hiver roundup in Paris, they imprisoned 76,000 Jews and shipped them off to death camps. The titular Sarah (Mélusine Mayance) is a pre-teen girl caught in the roundup. She is desperate to escape so she can free her younger brother from a wardrobe where she locked him to hide him from the captors.

The story emerges through a contemporary investigation by an American journalist, Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas), who is writing a magazine article about the Velodrome roundup. She has her own problems with an insensitive architect husband, but the movie is driven forward by her discoveries, shown through flashbacks to 1942 and later years in Sarah’s life. What emerges are two family stories, Sarah’s and Julia’s, that gradually overlap.

I’ve noted before that World War II is an unparalleled source of movie stories, because of the clarity of good and evil, and the stakes involved. In recent years we’ve moved beyond war epics and tales of derring-do to smaller stories: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Winter in Wartime, The Reader. Sarah’s Key is very much of this genre, giving us a young girl who is incredibly brave and who has a heart wrenching experience, and doing so through the window of the modern journalist with whom we can identify. It’s easy to see why it was a best-selling novel before coming to the screen. It’s “that rare Holocaust tale that punches through the cobwebs of history and its dry, inhuman statistics, and brings that terrible past to life.” (Orlando Sentinel)

The Tropic is joining in the upcoming week’s WomenFest celebrations with the United States premiere of JAN’S COMING OUT, a documentary described as “one woman's journey out and the myriad of women who help her to understand what out’s all about.” The filmmaker will be there, along with Jan to answer your questions. One performance only on Thursday night.

It’s also the first week of September’s Monday Night Classics with the theme of Music Madness. First up is HEAVY METAL. Watch for The Blues Brothers and Pink Floyd’s The Wall later in the month.

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