Films: The ‘Little Miss’ that could maybe hopefully


When Peter Saraf signed on to co-produce the film, “Little Miss Sunshine,” he says he did so without hesitation. The script, about a dysfunctional family’s road trip, spoke to him immediately, and he was proud to bring his great-aunt and great-uncle to see it.

As the film began rolling, however, Saraf began to have some reservations. The family comedy features Alan Arkin as a grandfather who snorts heroin and yells obscenities. How would Saraf’s great-uncle, an 80-year-old concentration camp survivor, react?

“I kept looking over at him when Alan would go into one of his expletive tirades,” Saraf said. “He was just laughing!”

Audiences of diverse ages and cultural backgrounds warmed to “Sunshine,” much like Saraf’s relatives, after its July 26 opening.

The film first gained momentum with a standing ovation at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, which led to a bidding war for distribution rights. Box office success followed, with a domestic gross of more than $59 million as of Jan. 4, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com.

The numbers are expected to keep growing, with “Sunshine” still being screened in some theaters, even as it was released on DVD Dec. 19. Not bad for a film with an $8 million budget.

The Fox Searchlight release has also been a critical favorite, garnering film festival awards, Top Ten of 2006 honors from the National Board of Review and American Film Institute, as well as multiple nominations for Gotham, Satellite, Independent Spirit, Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe awards. In light of this, “Sunshine” is poised to be an Oscar contender, as well.

The movie begins with the shabby Arizona home of the misfit, middle-class Hoover family. Richard, played by Greg Kinnear, is the motivational speaker dad who can’t get his book published; his wife, Sheryl (Toni Collette), is depleted from years of running and supporting the family; Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), is a gay Proust scholar, who recently attempted suicide after being jilted by his lover; hedonist Grandpa has been kicked out of the nursing home for his heroin vice; son, Dwayne (Paul Dano), is an angry teen who’s taken a vow of silence; and then there’s Olive (Abigail Breslin), the heart of the film, a pudgy, bespectacled 7-year-old innocent whose dream is to win the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant.

When Olive learns she’s won a last-minute spot to compete in the pageant, she has two days to make it to the competition in Redondo Beach. The family piles into their broken-down yellow Volkswagen minibus and heads west.

The minibus that chugs along despite falling apart through the film is a metaphor for the troubled Hoovers. And “Little Miss Sunshine’s” promoters have enjoyed drawing a parallel between the family’s hard-won personal triumph and the success of this “little indie flick that could.” While an Oscar win might seem like a long shot, dismissing “Sunshine” would be a mistake.

The Golden Globes singled out directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris for a best musical or comedy nod, as well as Collette for best actress in a comedy or musical. And tradition has it that the Globes, to be held this year on Jan. 15, are fairly good predictors of Academy Award nominations.

Another Oscar bellwether is the Producers Guild of America, which included “Sunshine” as one of five feature films nominated for the Darryl F. Zanuck producer of the year award. The Producers Guild Awards will be held Jan. 20.

The film’s universal appeal seems to tap the same spirit that propelled audiences of every background to see “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” another indie feature that toyed with universal themes of family dysfunction. Saraf credits “Sunshine” screenwriter Michael Arndt for writing family relationships that ring true for all audiences.

“There is an honesty in the dynamic in that family,” Saraf said. “The script has a wonderful sense of humor as well as a real emotional underpinning, and I think that’s what people are really responding to.”

Co-producer David Friendly also sees the appeal of “Sunshine” in this light. The son of legendary CBS News president Fred Friendly, David personally identified with the script’s complicated father-son relationships.

“I did have a powerful father figure,” he said, describing his dad as a “larger-than-life character.”

One scene that felt particularly reminiscent for Friendly occurs toward the end of the film, as the family is nearing the freeway offramp for the pageant. Richard, who is driving, can’t figure out the exit, and thus keeps circling, while a cacophony of direction-yelling ensues around him.

Friendly fondly recalled being lost in Portland, Ore., with his father behind the wheel.

“Dad was sort of commander in chief insisting he knew his way around…. Doing loops around the airport,” he said.

The ability to channel such real human moments is what audiences of all demographics have embraced in “Sunshine,” and both Friendly and Saraf say that is enough, regardless of any awards buzz.

Friendly says that’s part of the moral of “Little Miss Sunshine” — to enjoy the experience, rather than being focused on winning — and it’s also something he absorbed from his Jewish upbringing.

“You learn from all the seders around the table. You get a good sense of what’s right and wrong, and the ethics of a good life,” he said.

“I think that also fundamental to the theme of the movie, we all want to succeed, but at what price? If you get too focused on the wrong things, it begins to corrupt other things.”

Israel’s ‘Sweet’ entry in Oscar race a bit sour


Israel’s “Sweet Mud,” a largely somber story of a youngster growing up in a kibbutz, and Holland’s “Black Book,” a thriller about a Jewish woman battling the Nazis as a resistance fighter, are among movies from 61 countries vying for best foreign-language film honors in this year’s Oscar race.

The nominations will be announced Jan. 23; the Academy Awards ceremony will take place Feb. 25.

Director Dror Shaul based “Sweet Mud” on his own experiences as a young boy in the 1970s, living on a left-wing kibbutz in the northern Negev.

For those of us raised with images of the kibbutz as a utopian ideal, representing the very best of Israel and the embodiment of the “new Jew,” this film, for all its artistic virtues, is a downer.

Twelve-year-old Dvir, heart-wrenchingly portrayed by Tomer Steinhof, spends his nights in communal dormitory and the evening hours with his beautiful young mother Miri (Ronit Yudkevitz).

His father died under mysterious circumstances, his older brother is leaving for the army and Dvir is left as the only real companion for his mother, who balances precariously on the edge of insanity.

Between caring for his mother and trying to find her a husband, preparing for his own bar mitzvah and wrestling with adolescence and the first pangs of love, Dvir carries a heavy load.

There are some relieving flashes of humor — none funnier than when a young, flustered woman teacher tries to explain the anatomy of sex to the just-awakening kibbutz boys and girls.

But the underlying tragedy of Dvir’s young years is that for all of its professed idealism, the kibbutz’s indifference or insensitivity to the mother’s plight leaves her to wrestle alone with her demons.

“Sweet Mud” (the Hebrew title is Adama Meshugaat, literally “Crazy Earth”) has considerable acting and visual merits, but it continues the unfortunate tradition by the Israel Academy of Films of selecting the most self-critical and downbeat portrayals of its society to compete in the Oscar races.

Last year it was the self-lacerating “What a Wonderful Place,” which featured a sordid lineup of Israelis who pimp and rape imported Russian prostitutes, brutalize their foreign workers, cheat on their spouses, humiliate their children, and commit suicide.

The quality of Israeli films has improved markedly in the past decade — “Walk on Water” and “Yossi & Jagger” are notable examples — and the willingness of Israeli filmmakers to take on their society’s shortcomings put Hollywood to shame.

But someone needs to tell the Israeli academy that a large proportion of Oscar judges are American Jews who may not all be ardent Zionists but who resent heavy-handed portrayals of most Israeli Jews as all-around lowlives at worst, or uncaring human beings as best.

So it’s little wonder then that no Israeli film has ever won an Oscar, and the last time the country placed among the five final nominees was in 1984.

The Journal put this point to 36-year-old director Shaul during a phone interview.

“We can’t be expected to make films in order to please others,” he said.

From an artist’s point of view he may be right, but now that Israel has garnered its first Olympic gold medal, it would be very nice to see an Israeli producer clutch one of the golden statuettes on Academy Awards night.

“Black Book” marks the return of Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (“Total Recall,” “Basic Instinct”) to his native land, and he has chosen to depict his countrymen under Nazi occupation during the last year of World War II.

The central figure is a beautiful Jewish Dutch cabaret singer, Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) who joins a resistance cell after seeing her parents gunned down by Wehrmacht soldiers.

She is assigned the task of seducing the chief of SS intelligence in Amsterdam, but then falls under suspicion of having betrayed her resistance comrades.

It would be unfair to reveal more of the plot of this gripping, realistic thriller, but what makes “Black Book” truly notable is Verhoeven’s unblinkered view of his countrymen during the Nazi occupation.

Contrary to post-war legends, not all resistance fighters were unblemished heroes. Even strong men and women could break, old political quarrels continued, and some would betray their comrades for money or safety.

Even more surprisingly, the film pulls no punches in showing the widespread anti-Semitism in the land of Anne Frank, even among those who resisted the Germans.

When a farm family hides Stein, she is told: “If you Jews had listened to Jesus, you wouldn’t be in this situation.”

At another point, when resistance cell members discuss whether Stein betrayed them, one opines: “You can never trust a Jew.”

This year’s foreign-language film competition is made even tougher by entries from an unlisted 62nd country, the United States.

One is Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto,” whose dialogue is in Yucatec, a primary Mayan language. The other is Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima,” which is entirely in Japanese.

“Sweet Mud” (www.cinephil.co.il) has been selected by the Sundance Film Festival as one of 16 films in international competition, and will be shown Jan. 24 and on subsequent dates. “Black Book” (www.sonypicturesclassics.com) will open in Los Angeles March 9 at Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Town Center 5 in Encino. For more information, visit www.laemmle.com.

Oy! It’s Oscar Time


Two films that have encountered fierce controversy in the Jewish community and Israel are in the running for Oscar honors as nominations for the Academy Awards were announced Tuesday morning.

“Munich,” Steven Spielberg’s take on the Israeli hunt for the killers of its athletes at the 1972 Olympics, did better than some critics expected with five nominations.

These include best picture, best director (Spielberg), adapted screenplay by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, film editing and original musical score.

Picked among the top five foreign language film entries is the Palestinian “Paradise Now” by director-writer Hany Abu-Assad, which follows two suicide bombers from Nablus on a mission to blow up a Tel Aviv bus.

Nominated in the same category is Germany’s Sophia Scholl: The Final Days,” about an anti-Nazi resistance cell in Munich during World War II.

The actor nominations have a Jewish flavor, as well. Joaquin Phoenix, whose mother was born into an Orthodox New York family, received the nod in the lead-actor category for his portrayal of country music legend Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line.”

Jake Gyllenhaal, another son of a Jewish mother (screenwriter Noami Foner Gyllenhaal) was nominated for best supporting actor in the gay cowboy saga “Brokeback Mountain.”

Fully Jewish Rachel Weisz is in contention for best actress in a supporting role for her performance in “The Constant Gardner.” The London-born actress’ father and mother fled Hungary and Austria respectively in the 1930s in the face of the rising Nazi menace.

Woody Allen was named for “Match Point” in the original screenplay category, as was Noah Baumbach for “The Squid and the Whale.”

“Capote” scored an adapted screenplay nomination for Dan Futterman.

Two Jewish personalities will also have key roles on March 5. Jon Stewart of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” fame will serve as Oscar host for the first time, while veteran producer Gil Cates will captain the 78th Oscar telecast for the 13th time.