[Entertainment wRap]: A week of provocative films

Agence France-Presse
A women's prison 'dramedy,' James Franco's film on necrophilia, a tragicomedy on the Catholic Church

MANILA, Philippines – Here are some entertainment stories from August 25 to 31.

Acclaimed film director wants Pope to watch his ‘Catholic’ film 

Pope Francis should watch “Philomena,” Stephen Frears’ tragicomic film which puts the spotlight on one of the Catholic Church’s dark secrets in Ireland.

The British film director made this suggestion at the Venice Film Festival on Saturday, August 31.

The film, which took the festival by storm, tells the true tale of a mother’s search for her son in the context of Church-run institutions which stripped young unwed mothers of their children.

“I hope the Pope will see it. He seems a rather good bloke, the Pope, very open,” Frears, director of the award-winning “The Queen,” said in the floating city.

The British director’s other film credits include the neo-noir drama “The Grifters,” which catapulted Annette Bening to stardom as a femme fatale, and his adaptation of Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity.”

Unlikely alliance

“Philomena,” starring Judi Dench as mother Philomena Lee and comic actor Steve Coogan as the ex-BBC journalist who helps her, drew laughs, tears, and rounds of spontaneous applause at its screening in Venice.

Based on the story in Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 book, “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,” the film tells the tale of a teenage girl who falls pregnant in Ireland in 1952 and is packed off to a convent.

Her baby son is given up for adoption and all trace of him is lost. Each time Philomena returns to the convent to ask for information, the nuns clam up and claim they do not know who adopted him.

Ex-journalist Sixsmith, at a loose end after being sacked from his role as a government spin doctor, decides to help, sparking an unlikely alliance between an Oxbridge wisecracker and a feisty Irish pensioner.

Dench, known by many for her role as the head of British intelligence “M” in the James Bond films, gives a compelling performance of a woman grappling with love, loss, and her Roman Catholic faith.

“It is a shocking, terrible story and it’s right that it should be told,” she said.

Coogan, who worked on the screenplay with Jeff Pope, captures a delicate balance between irony and compassion, expressing all the outrage against the “evil” nuns that Philomena herself is unable to feel.

“It’s not a polemical attack on the Catholic Church, which would have been an easy thing to do. The script needed comedy because the story itself was so sad,” he said.

Pope said he and Coogan “were very careful not to judge what happened in the 1950s by modern standards.”

Frears said the real Philomena visited the set during shooting and described her as “a magnificent woman with no self-pity, who… despite all the injustices she has suffered still retains her religious faith.”

Dench said she and Philomena shared a sense of humor but she personally would not have been able to forgive the Church.

“I don’t have the scale of humanity that she has,” she said. “Her scope to forgive, that’s what makes the story worth telling.” (Ella Ide, AFP)

Two Malaysian films stir up racial tensions of the past

Two Malaysian films are challenging longstanding taboos about discussing politically touchy subjects, and the controversy they have generated has triggered fears they could spark racial unrest.

The films, “Tanda Putera” (Mark of Princes) and “The New Village,” are the first serious attempts to portray the human drama of two key episodes in the multiethnic nation’s history.

But though the films have not yet been publicly screened, they are already tearing at unhealed wounds in the often uneasy coexistence between the majority Malays and the minority (if still large) Chinese community.

“Tanda Putera” is said to support the long-ruling authoritarian regime’s official line – widely disputed – that Chinese political parties stoked deadly 1969 riots that remain a source of division to this day.

And “The New Village” has been accused by Malay groups of “glorifying” a bloody insurgency by mostly ethnic Chinese communists in the Fifties and Sixties.

Such content was previously unthinkable under the Malay-dominated Barisan Nasional (National Front) regime, in power since 1957 independence.

But strong public pressure has led to a loosening of controls over the past decade and increasingly polemical discourse.

Sociologist Ooi Kee Beng said the films could feed what he calls a Malaysian yearning for non-Barisan versions of the past.

Potential backlash

Promotional trailers and descriptions by the few who previewed the films have sparked outcries.

Censors held up “Tanda Putera” for more than a year over fears it would inflame racial tension in the runup to the May polls.

“The New Village” was to hit cinemas August 22, but was pulled back for review by censors when Malay groups objected.

Communications minister Ahmad Shabery Cheek defended the move, saying “anything that can cause social unrest and create tension in society must be put back to review.”

The minister’s Facebook page has been hit with postings warning cinemas will be torched if “The New Village” is screened.

But Chinese politicians accused Barisan of bowing to “racist, illogical, and baseless” attacks by its Malay base in sidelining the movie.

Chinese make up a quarter of the 29 million population, dominating commerce, while Malays control government.

Tension has persisted over Barisan authoritarianism and its decades-old privileges for Malays in education and business – policies accelerated in response to the 1969 riots.

The races mostly get along but the potential for a repeat of 1969 is frequently invoked by Malay hardliners.

Makers of both films deny any political motives.

“Other countries have films about their own history without going to the dogs,” “Tanda Putera” director Shuhaimi Baba told AFP.

The film was partially funded by the government, drawing accusations it was Barisan propaganda.

“The New Village” was produced by publicly-listed broadcasting giant Astro, which insists it is mainly “a forbidden love story.”

Openness, polemics

“The only Malaysian films made are horror, comedy, and love stories. Try to comment on anything important and someone is bound to be offended,” said Joan Lau, a journalist who has covered the arts scene for decades.

Books also are often banned or censored and the regime dominates mainstream media.

But Barisan leaders have in recent years yielded to reform calls. Prime Minister Najib Razak in 2011 lifted a range of laws considered oppressive and has slightly loosened some media controls.

Independent directors have recently started to cautiously comment on race and religion, while the Internet percolates with anti-government content, thanks to a Barisan pledge years ago not to censor the Web.

The openness brings with it increasingly bitter polemics, especially as Barisan vies with a strengthening opposition for control of public opinion.

“It’s freer than it has ever been, but the need to be offended has become more acute due to political grandstanding,” said Amir Muhammad, an independent filmmaker. (Shannon Teoh, AFP)

Woman’s prison ‘dramedy’ a smash hit in US

A television series by streaming video service Netflix, about a middle-class white woman learning to get by in a women’s prison, has slowly and quietly become a smash hit in America.

“Orange is the New Black” – a “dramedy” based on a best-selling autobiography with the same title – has earned gushingly positive reviews, with “Rolling Stone” magazine praising it as “utterly brilliant.”

“Esquire” magazine says it is the best new television show right now and “reveals the possibilities of a new form, perhaps a new genre.”

The series depicts the interactions and conflicts of blacks, Latinas, whites, and Asians forced to live together in prison.

Lead character Piper Chapman, played by Taylor Schilling, is a well-to-do married New Yorker who makes a living fashioning organic soaps.

But she is sentenced to 15 months in jail for a mistake she made 10 years earlier: she served as a money courier for a sexy female drug dealer named Alex (Laura Prepon), with whom she had a brief affair.

“In a lot of ways, Piper was my Trojan Horse,” series creator Jenji Kohan said recently on National Public Radio.

“You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals.”

“But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories,” she added.

“The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point,” said Kohan, who also created the hit Showtime series “Weeds.”

Plot devices, fresh themes

Kohan has won praise, in particular, for flashbacks that take the action out of the prison and tell the personal stories of the inmates.

She also has earned high marks for the authenticity of her characters: women who are overweight, wrinkled, and otherwise not the kind of women generally seen in starring roles on television.

Dominican actress Dascha Polanco, who plays a Latina prisoner named Dayanara, says it is rare to see a TV program about women and made by women, one that does not define women in terms of relationships with boyfriends, husbands, family, or children.

“In that sense, ‘Orange’ breaks new ground. It is not about a woman and her house with her children and her husband. It speaks of a reality,” Polanco told AFP.

She said she was grateful to the series for allowing her to overcome the stigma of not being stick-thin in an industry in which thin is everything.

‘Strange new community’

For Piper Kerman, author of the memoirs published in 2010 and on which the series is very loosely based, one of the main challenges upon going to jail is “to figure out where you fit in in the social ecology of the prison.”

“When you are first setting foot into this unit, this strange new community which you’ll be living in, race is a really powerful organizing principle,” Kerman, who was 24 when she carried the money-laden suitcase in 1993, told NPR.

“What I found was that, over time, it was less and less important. My work assignment in the electric shop was not made along racial lines. I had co-workers who were black and Latina and Asian,” said Kerman, who defines herself as a former lesbian.

She started doing her time in 2004 in a minimum security jail in Danbury, Connecticut. Since then she has become an outspoken advocate for female inmates and sits on the board of the Women’s Prison Association.

“Orange” saw its debut last month without the hype that has accompanied other original series created by Netflix such as “House of Cards,” starring Kevin Spacey, or “Arrested Development”, which already had a solid fan base thanks to previous seasons on Fox.

Both made history in July by becoming the first online series to earn nominations for the Emmys, the US television awards. “House of Cards” is nominated in 9 categories and “Arrested Development” in 3.

Referring to “House of Cards”, “Rolling Stone” predicted last week that “Orange,” which debuted after the Emmy eligibility period had ended, “will have just as many nominations as its big brother in 2014.” (Leila Macor, AFP)

Actor slept in caves for James Franco film on necrophilia

'PERFORMANCE OF A LIFETIME.' Franco commends Scott Haze's role preparation. Photo from Scott Haze's Facebook

US actor Scott Haze spent months in isolation and slept in caves to prepare for his role as a necrophiliac in James Franco’s “Child of God”, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival on Saturday, August 31.

Based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, Haze stars as Lester Ballad, a violent man living on the fringes of society who descends to the level of a cave dweller and forges relationships the only way he can – by killing women and having sex with their bodies.

“Scott isolated himself for 3 months. He spent nights in caves and when he finally turned up he was transformed, and kept himself isolated for the whole shoot,” said Franco, who described it as “a performance of a lifetime.”

McCarthy’s killer is based on Ed Gein, a real-life murderer and body snatcher from the 1950s.

Gein also inspired the films “Psycho” and “Silence of the Lambs” – and Haze said he had drawn on the Joker character from Batman for inspiration.

“It was hard being isolated, but I was driven by a sense of responsibility to McCarthy, to really capture the character’s animalistic element,” the 25-year-old said.

Character study

The multitalented Franco – an actor, writer, and director – said he had been inspired by Martin Scorsese’s 1976 psychodrama classic, “Taxi Driver,” starring Robert de Niro in his iconic role as the loner-turned-vigilante Travis Bickle.

“It was certainly a model for me, where you have a crazy guy at the center but he is compelling and you want to follow him,” he said.

“Usually with subject matter like this, it would fall into the horror genre. But this is not a thriller or a porn movie, it’s a character study,” he added.

Haze creates a character who disgusts but at the same time evokes pity from the viewer.

“Here’s a killer that is bumbling, not so much a dark killer in the woods as a man who doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Franco said.

Haze said: “Those around him in a way are even more violent.”

The local police and villagers watch Ballard – who dresses up in women’s clothes – with growing suspicion but make no attempt to approach him.

His desperation increases when he accidentally burns one of his precious corpses.

“Those around him become peeping toms, fascinated with this character,” Franco said.

“There is a sort of underlying violence to everyone, it’s just more ruled by the dictates of the law.” (Ella Ide, AFP)

Watch the trailer of ‘Child of God’ here:

– Rappler.com

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