Saturday, January 9, 2010

Movies of 1999 - Sunshine

I thought I'd kick off a new segment on this blog, both because I love film, and because I want to flex my severely atrophied writing muscles.

X-Men, The Matrix, American Beauty, Fight Club - what do all these movies have in common? Well, if you've read the title of the post, then it's obvious that they all were released in the final year of the 20th century. All of the movies listed above are among my favorites, and yet there are countless others that have had the same degree of success. On that note, there are many, many other films that were released without fanfare, or had not received the recognition that they were due.

My mission is to showcase these feature-length films of 1999 - some you may already be aware of, and others, probably not. And while it would be virtually impossible to touch upon EVERY film released in 1999, I hope that I can at least make you aware that there was more to the end of the millennium than Y2K.

I decided to kickstart my inaugural review with a movie that I had just found out about today: director Estevan Szabo's Sunshine.

Sunshine is a period-piece, set in the Eastern European country of Hungary, which chronicles the lives of three generations of a Jewish family by the name of Sonnenschein. The film focuses heavily on Anti-Semitic attitudes directed towards Hungarian Jews, starting at the end of the 19th century, and continuing onward until the 1950s. Sunshine also looks deeply at the issues of family values and loyalty, of life, love and of the dilemma of keeping one's identity (or, for that matter, compromising it in the name of survival).

This movie...really tested my resolve into pursing this series. I've no knowledge of the backstory behind Sunshine, and as of such, can only assume that it is based off an important work of literature (it's very likely that I missed it in the opening credits, which were very long and tedious).
Update: Actually, this movie is only loosely based on events that have actually happened in Hungary during the Holocaust.

I've seen movies about Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust before, but never quite at the angle that this film chose to approach the subject matter. It opens with some rather dry narrative and then progresses unbearably slowly for about the first 45 minutes.

For a period-piece, I can say that the costumes and sets are positively gorgeous; they make you feel as though you are actually being thrust into the past. The acting is superb and the audience will have no difficulty empathizing with the cast's characters. This film is mired in tragedy (as is most films involving the Nazis). Make no mistake - you will cry after watching this.

I must say the highlight of the movie came from Ralph Fiennes performance. I hadn't realized until after the credits were rolling that Fiennes portrayed the roles of all three generations of Sonnenscheins within the film (perhaps that could be attributed to my fatigue or me being just slow, but I'd like to think that his acting - supplemented with excellent makeup - allowed Fiennes to transform into three completely different men in a much more subtle fashion than what was utilized in "The Nutty Professor"). Fiennes beautifully portrays Ignatz Sonneshine as a soft-spoken but moral judge, a hotheaded and aggressve Adam Sonneshine, and the tortured but determined Ivan Sonnenschein (not to mention that he looks DAMN FINE in a fedora hat!)

Unfortunately, there are some hiccups. The film is long, and there are many spots where seems just seem to drag on endlessly. After a while, even the romances of the three men become a bore to watch.

Overall, this is a movie I enjoyed, but would likely not watch again. For those who crave a palatable method of experiencing early 20th century Hungary, this movie is right up your alley.

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