New Reviews: ‘Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa,’ ‘Role Models,’ ‘The Boy in Striped Pajamas’ and ‘The Romance of Astrea and Celadon’

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (dir: Mark Herman)

I’d really like to like this film more than I do. It’s well made, it’s exceedingly well-intentioned, it’s out to teach a lesson about the Holocaust to a young audience in terms they can understand and relate to.

In “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” adapted from the novel by John Boyne, 8-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is the son of an SS officer (David Thewlis as a thoroughly efficient and loyal Nazi) assigned to a concentration camp in an isolated countryside.

The use of a British cast (or at least British accents, in the case of mom Vera Farmiga) for the German family gives the film a feeling that is both warmly familiar — the period British drama in the cocoon of upper-class privilege — and skewed with alien details — the swastika flags, the SS insignias, the “Heil Hitler” salutes. The sense of normalcy slowly cracks under the fatal reality represented by those details.

Bruno and Schmuel and the fence that separates them
Bruno and Schmuel and the fence that separates them

Is it a good film? Not really. It’s simplistic and a purely emotional response to the Holocaust. But there is something quite powerful in the very structure of this approach. The 8-year-old Bruno is a naive observer who is resistant to the stream of nationalistic propaganda and racial superiority that his tutor feeds him (yet his 12-year-old sister is eager to embrace), and he challenges the broad proclamations with simple questions that show it can’t stand up to even naive logic and the tutor resorts to bullying to drill the “lessons” in.

More importantly, as all the evidence mounts about the reality of the camp and the inhuman treatment of the camp workers brought in to work in the house, Bruno can’t follow it to the obvious conclusions because it is beyond his comprehension that his father, his country, could be evil, and that such inhuman behavior is possible.

But by tying us to the German boy who befriends a Jewish boy on the other side of the electrified fence of the “farm” next door, Herman attaches all of our emotions to the boy on the outside rather than anyone on the inside. Bruno is us, in a sense, and the Jews are different from us in this narrative strategy. It’s not Herman’s intentions, I’m sure, but by the end of the film, as the innocent German decides to join his friend on the other side of the fence, all of our fears are locked in on him and his brief confrontation with horror rather than on the people who have been enduring the horror for years as they await execution. In it’s own, inadvertent yet irresponsible way, it suggests that Bruno’s life is somehow worth more than the people in the camp, and that contradicts everything the film is trying to tell us.

Read my review in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer here.

The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (dir: Eric Rohmer)

Eric Rohmer is now 88 years young, long past the age when Hollywood allows directors to keep on working. In France, that just makes him an elder statesman of the craft. (Is that why 72-year-old Woody Allen left the states for Europe when he creeped past retirement age?) And if The Romance of Astrea and Celadon isn not exactly the work of a young man, it is certainly a deft, lovely little film directed with a light touch that looks effortless, perhaps even artless in its simple stylization and poetic rhythms. The source is a 17th century novel about peasants in 1st century Gaul (France during the Roman occupation) in a bucolic setting far from the cities and the Roman rule. The simple peasant dresses and loose shirts and natural fiber clothing looks less like a historical recreation than a Renaissance Faire celebration of an idealized past, where peasant farmers and shepherds frolic in holiday parties and beautiful young folk flirt and fall in love in lush landscapes. There is no hardship here, apart from the feuding families that keep young lovers Astrea and Celadon apart.

But take away the Renaissance Faire fashions, the elevated diction (even the shepherds speak as if reciting poetry) and a beautiful boy (Andy Gillet) passing himself off as a girl, and it’s another tale of gorgeous young people earnestly engaged in philosophical discussions of the meaning of love and devotion. This is no historical portrait of ancient life but a dreamy reflection of 17th-century romanticism of the past, right down to their Celtic culture refracted through a Christian sensibility. There’s a purity to the emotional turmoil of tormented lovers, but it’s the rich simplicity of the filmmaking and the seductive sensuality of a bucolic Eden where maidens innocently fall out of their artfully revealing dresses that makes the romantic frolic so delicious.


Read the complete review here.

Celadon is nursed by the maidens: "I'm with the Gods"

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (dirs: Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath)

The inevitable sequel to DreamWorks’ animated hit finds the urban animals leaving their island paradise to try and get back to the Big Apple. It’s not much a story, actually, mostly lazy recycling of familiar clichés – the son has to proves himself to the father, the upbeat dreamer finds he’s not as unique as he once thought, the lovesick buddy finally confesses his feelings to his oblivious gal-pal – with almost desultory follow through. It’s really no more than a structure for what the film does so well:

The urban animal crew takes on Africa

… marvelous character animation, the palpable camaraderie between animal buddies, and the rapid-fire comedy and energetic parade of sight gags, delivered with visual invention and whiplash timing that recall the loony energy of the classic Warner Bros. cartoons with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.

This also is one of the last films Bernie Mac finished before he died. He voices Alex’s father as a devoted but disappointed dad who loves his prodigal son but doesn’t understand his boy’s big-city sensibility and utter lack of killer instinct. His vocal makeover is so complete that you may not recognize his voice, but you will appreciate the warmth and vivid personality of his creation.

Read my complete review here.

Role Models (dir: David Wain)

Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott are the role models of the title who becomes “big brothers” to troubled adolescents in need of supportive and responsibly authority figures. Hilarity ensues… but not nearly enough. Which is too bad, because Rudd is a terrific actor and a very funny member of so many comic ensembles, and I’d love to see him make it as a comedy leading man.

Paul Rudd is a comic actor with an understated delivery and a gentle presence, and he makes Danny an amiable screwup who genuinely likes Augie without really investing himself in the relationship — until the redemptive finale, of course, when the man-boys finally man up to their authority figure status.

But Rudd is hardly the engine that this underwritten comedy of foul language and gratuitous nudity needs to sell its lazy collection of gags. There’s little imagination in the Renaissance-Faire-meets-Middle-Earth antics and even less in Wheeler’s inevitably irresponsible distractions. In this brand of comedy, nothing succeeds like excess, and this film is seriously deficient.

Read the complete review here.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I’m a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I’ve written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View.

I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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