Friday, February 29, 2008

Online Islamic film festival, "The Muslim-American Experience"


There is a Muslim-American film festival online, called "The Muslim-American Experience". The basic link is here. The link for the winners is here.

Brigid Schulte has a story about it on p B1, Metro of the Feb. 29 Washington Post, “Filmmakers focused on faith: Movie festival challenges Muslim stereotypes and puts spotlight on diversity,” link here.

All of the films are shorts, most under six minutes. The theme is “stories, not stereotypes.”

The winner was “A Land Called Paradise,” directed by Lena Khan, with Kareem Salame. 2000 Muslims were asked what they would say, and much of their messages are on posters, to lilting music. One person mentioned that some Muslims were once slaves, another mentioned that her sister died in the 9/11 attacks, and another made a joke about Justin Timberlake. The film emphasized that Islam sponsors charity programs and emphasizes sharing with the poor and outlaws interest or usury.

Lena Khan also directed “Sleeper Cell,” a spoof in film noir style where an agent spies on the home of a Muslim suspected of running a cell, and even finds boxcutters. The film opens in black and white and changes to color when the real person shows up.

Lena also directed “Bassem is Trying,” the best one-minute film, where a hapless man tries to prove himself.

The best animated film was “Arranged,” by Mediha Sandhu, where the narrator parodies the norms of some Muslim families with arranged marriages and the demands that women fit into certain norms. The animation fills in the figures as if being colored.

The best documentary was “Healing our Community” by Sharif Rosen, about the UMMA community clinic in Los Angeles, established in 1996.

The best comedy was “Muslim While Flying” by Baba Ali (Ummah films), a spoof where the speaker (on camera most of the time) makes fun of the extra scrutiny Muslims get when flying.

The best drama was “Glimpse” by Qasir Q Basim, where Muslim parents have different vantage points: the father talks about discipline and obedience to Allah, and the mother talks about values, and the kids have to figure this out.

The best film by someone under 18 was "The Countdown", directed by Rene Dongo, narrated by Sofia Snow, who stands on a tenement rooftop in Boston and shows the city from which the hijackers took off on 9/11, and remembers that day. The film sometimes shows the sky with shots of contrails from jets.

"The Children of Adam", by Nina Pari Aghabeikzadeh, shows a young women going to Iran to spend a year, and finding the spectacular country much more livable than she had expected. She describes how the FBI chased her father for writing Islamic poems and how they seize his computer, all right after 9/11.

"21", by Laura Plotkin, in black and white, shows an American born woman describing attacks on her by other Americans because of stereotyping.

"Ordinary People", by Sufe Bradshaw, depicts Muslim artists, including a guitar musician, trying to communicate a message of tolerance and love.

"A USA Patriot Act Story", by Kellie Hiynh, from MAS Media and Inland Empire, shows ordinary Muslim men being spied on in libraries, even in shower stalls when lathering.

"A Question of Race in Islam", by Laylaa Abdul-Khabir, presents a college student in California, half Chinese and half African American and raises as a Muslim. The film points out that there are more Muslims in both Indonesia and China than in Saudi Arabia.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

"No Country for Old Men" wins best picture at Oscars


At the 80th Academy Awards Feb. 24, 2008, at the Kodak Theater,
"No Country for Old Men" took best picture, and best direction (Joel and Ethan Coen), and best adapted screenplay (from the novel by Cormac McCarthy). This is only the Minnesota brothers' second adaptation, the other being from Homer ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?)

There Will Be Blood got best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Cinematography.

The best original screenplay was for Juno, Diablo Cody.

My own pick, Atonement, won only one award, best music score, by Dario Marianelli.

It was a bit ironic to see a deployed soldier announce the best documentary short, Freeheld, directed by Cynthia Wade, about a woman who has to fight with a New Jersey county to get pension benefits when her female partner detective with the police force dies.

"The Mozart of Pickpockets" won best live action short (discussed here Feb. 16).

Jon Stewart hosted, and cracked some brutal SNL-type jokes, like about how Hillary Clinton would like to "forget" her husband, or about how Barack Obama's rise foreshadowed a real life "Armageddon" hit at the Statue of Liberty.

The link for the winners at Oscar.com is here.

Of all the 80 movies that have won best picture, I think I have seen about half of them. Many of the earlier ones I still have not seen. The first such picture, "Wings" (from 1927, Paramount) is still not available on DVD, according to Netflix and is said to have some material mildly predictive of today's debate over "don't ask don't tell."

Saturday, February 23, 2008

"The Signal" does suggest an "interesting" problem, and experiments with segmented storytelling


The B-movie horror film “The Signal” seems noteworthy for bringing up several trends in movie making. First, is that the distributor Magnolia Pictures seem to switch names (to Magnet Releasing) for the release, perhaps to get some distance. Second, it looked like a B-movie, with fuzzy video photography and tinny sound, reminding one of “Grindhouse.” The closing credits didn’t even mention Dolby Digital.

But the main point of interest is that three separate directors wrote and made the three segments of the film, called “Transmissions.” They are, as I remember, “Crazy with Love” (David Bruckner), “The Jealousy Monster” (Jacob Gentry) and “Escape from Terminus” (Dan Bush). (Terminus is a pseudonym for Atlanta, where the film was shot, although it's hard to tell from what is shown.) But these are not three separate “shorts”. They are linked together for the same story. This film sounds like the product of a Project Greenlight “director’s contest” where each director was given the parameters of the material to write. So it seems to lack the creativity that you want from independent film.

Now, for the premise. The film starts with an embedded torture sequence from a B-movie that a character is watching, and the picture and sound start garbling. You’re not sure of it’s in the theater of film. Pretty soon, we see that the cable networks have been interrupted with this transmission of a color Rorshach, and similar cell phones and Internet on computers has been interrupted with something comparable. People start going crazy.

Pretty soon, the horror is upon us. The hallways of a moderate income apartment complex are filled with the corpses people who have turned on one another. The characters starting getting their identities mixed up. It’s pretty gory, and we see a decapitated head talk when brought to life. Finally they try to escape.

You see the problem. The characters (played by AJ Bowen, Scott Polythress, Justin Welborn, Anessa Ramsey, Sahr Ngaujah, Chad McNight) are too interchangeable, as are the events, to matter. It’s OK to have mayhem around if there are strong central characters, but here there are not. And so the three segments of the film are not distinct, and don’t seem to represent individual artistic visions of a storytelling problem, whether in horror or some other area.

One comparison that came to mind was the CWTV series “Supernatural.” There is constant mayhem in this series, but the two young men and brothers (Sam and Dean) are very strong individual characters, always probing to solve real moral problems (especially Sam). An episode a couple weeks ago replayed the same day with Sam (Jared Padalecki) getting up in the morning, “Rise and Shine”, reliving the same day until he can get through it with his brother (Jensen Ackles) surviving the curse of the day. That is segmented storytelling (although it looked like a rehearsal).

Another comparison was another film that opened this weekend, "Vantage Point" (Columbia, dir. Pete Travis, wr. Barry Levy), where an assassination (attempt) is replayed up to seven times from the viewpoint of different characters who come together but who don’t know each other, completing the story. It is a cinematic concept, visual and not verbal, and it’s hard to imagine this idea anywhere except in film. Columbia played its proud upward scale musical trademark this time, good to hear it—even though the film seemed a bit like a manipulative “Screen Gems” thriller.

As many moviegoers have noted, "The Signal" has a premise that reminds one of Stephen King's novel "The Cell" (blogger book review). (There are at least two unrelated films by that name.)

The underlying and disturbing concept, of course, is that people can become influenced to behave destructively, or even have their identities fried, but what they see in the media. There are number of examples known in the movies: “The Ring” movies, “Untraceable” (discussed Jan. 25 on this blog), even “Deliberate Intent”. One theme that I think a filmmaker should take up, is what has led formerly law-abiding men to become unglued and try to solicit minors when anonymous in chat rooms on the Internet (as in the notorious NBC Dateline series). I think a documentary or dramatic film could go into what is behind this from a psychological perspective. It needs to be done.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Magnolia's Best Live Act Short Films for 2007 (Oscar Nominees)


Magnolia Pictures and Landmark Theaters arranged for moviegoers to see the five Oscar nominees for best live short, and best animated short. I saw the collection of five live films, and a couple of them are remarkable in content.

The presentation cropped the 2.35:1 films onto the standard size screen with one lens, and did not take full advantage of the screen space.

At Night (“Om natten”, 2007, Zentropa, dir. Christian E. Christiansen, 39 min, Denmark, 2.35;1) has three young women hospitalized with cancer over the Christmas holidays. One of them has harrowing and risky surgery and wants her parents. Another young woman faces surgery but does not want to call her parents, because before she had not been willing or able to give up school for a year to be with her mother with breast cancer; the father had quit his job. (The situation recalls the film “One True Thing”). Finally, one of the girls goes into a coma, and the prodigal girl calls her father. The film is quite intense, set in hospital wards with nurses responding to night emergencies; the European exteriors barely show. The Scandinavian health care system doesn’t seem to relieve the intense pressure on family members for support in situations like this. Julie Olgaard, Lauara Christiensen, Neel Ronholt

The Tonto Woman (2007, Knucklehead, dir. Daniel Barber, story by Elmore Leonard, 35 min, 2.35:1, UK/Spain). A frontier woman Sarah (Charlotte Asprey) has been kidnapped by Indians and kept as a squaw. He husband (Richard Brake) has found her but kept her out of site in a shack. A Mexican Ruben Vega (Francesco Quinn) arrives and re-unites then but then Richard wants to get rid of this new “threat” with a gun battle. A curious “Spanish western” filmed near Seville, Spain and processed in England.

The Substitute (“Il Supplente”, 2007, Frame by Frame, dir. Andrea Jublin, Italy, about 20 min, 1.85:1) A lively male substitute teacher (about 35) in a high school social studies class both entertains and whipsaws the students, getting a souvenir away from one kid while pretending to be exercising “classroom management.” The sub climbs out a window (I had two middle school kids do that when I was subbing) and goes next door where there is a delegate political negotiation with China. We learn of his ulterior motive. In fact, the school realizes he was even authorized to be in the building. It’s like taking a sub assignment without having a job number assigned or even being hired as a sub. Security would never let you do that (or would it?) The kid still wants his soccer ball back. Artisan /Lions Gate owns a movie franchise called “The Substitute” and has several feature films in a series.

Besides the window incident mentioned above, there is another way that this film fits the paradigm of something that happened when I was subbing. Yes, I have a script for it. Stay tuned.

The Mozart of Pickpockets ("Le Mozart des Pickpockets", 2006, Kare, dir. Phillipe Polet-Villard, about 25 min, France, 1.85:1) Two clever thieves (making gay jokes at one another) “adopt” a deaf homeless boy (even stowing him in a duffel bag) to act as a pickpocket on Paris streets and in cinemas. The cops catch them at a bowling alley. A grimy look at Paris, almost mocking Victor Hugo.

Argentine Tango ("Tanghi argentine", 2006, Dreams in Motion, dir. Guy Thys, Belgium, in Dutch with titles, 2.35:1, 14 min). A businessman gets caught surfing the social networking sites at work for dates, after hooking up with a tango queen; but he manages to get his colleagues beef up his tango skills and throw tango party (even with some same-sex dancing). Filmed in Ghent.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Violin (review): "simple" black-and-white film from Mexico about art, family and war


The Violin (“El Violin”), directed by Francisco Vargas Quevedo, distributed by FilmMovement, shot in 2005 in Rancho San Isidro, Mexico, is now having a platform release in art house theaters, such as Landmark E Street in Washington. The film is shot in a somewhat grainy black and white (it looks like some kind of super 16) with the slightest greenish tint, and has the visual effect that recalls the Japanese warrior or “morality play” films of the 50s like “Rashomon”. The credits note production facilities in San Sebastian, Spain were used.

The story concerns a rural musical family resisting the occupation of an invading force. The country and historical circumstances are unspecified, but would fit the early 1900s. The patriarch is Don Plutarco (Angel Tavira), who plays sweet folk melodies on his violin, unaccompanied, despite having only one hand. His son Genaro (Gerardo Taracena) also plays, while the grandson Lucio (Mario Garibaldi) panhandles the money. There is a conversation early where Don explains to the grandson that, after the “Fall” (Adam and Eve), the “Gods” of the “Ambitious people” let their people attack the “Good People” (somehow ruled by their own “Gods” – possibly patriarchs or family heads). Much of the movie becomes a meditation on moral values – the place of music in a society that must adapt to nature and to external threats, the importance of loyalty to family even in spite of one’s own gifts, and the fact that in war each side is firmly convinced it is morally right. The occupiers are particularly cruel in the opening scenes (where there is a rape) but settle down and one of the captors begins to appreciate the music. Don and his family must manipulate the violin, the case, and weapons cache (which he must hide and recover) to set up the final showdown, which is both logical and tragic.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Bill's Picks for the 2007 Oscars


Here are “Bill’s Picks” for the Academy Awards for 2007. I base these on the meanings the movies have for issues that matter the most to me, and on how effectively these movies help viewers “connect the dots” in the various issues that I write about.

Most of the time I follow the Oscar nominations, but maybe not always.

Best Picture:

Well, choosing between “Atonement” and “There Will Be Blood” is like picking a Democratic presidential nominee if you’re a super-Delegate.

I pick "Atonement" (Focus, dir. Joe Wright). The issue of a false accusation and the succeeding consequences are very real to me, as in a sense this happened to me in the early 60s, during my coming of age. I like the way the “atonement” happens in imagination or fiction, and that the “real life” consequences are so dire. The direction and music score are mesmerizing, although I would have preferred 2.35:1. Perhaps Wright wanted a more “Focus” like effect (pun intended) as in a Hitchcock film, which this resembles a bit. One wrinkle that I pick up: there is relatively little time or detail spent on the “real crime” or on police investigation, which seems superficial. It seems everyone is taken in by appearances (“reputation defense” again, have you), like the “typewriter bad word” incident, and then the drawing room passion. Atonement also gets “Best Art Direction.”

For both Best Direction (Paul Thomas Anderson) and Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), the Oscars to “There Will Be Blood.” Now I award a couple prizes to non-nominees for this film. I would add Best Music Score (Jonny Greenwood), not nominated. (The only thing was the compression of the finale of the Brahms Violin Concerto in the closing credits.) I also want to add Best Supporting Actor (Paul Dano). This 23-year-old’s performance as Eli Sunday is absolutely volcanic. Dano may become a superstar.

For Actress, my choice has to be Ellen Page for Juno.

For Supporting Actress, it’s Cate Blancett for I’m Not There (I love the black-and-white Cinemascope). And she can certainly bend the genders.

For cinematography, I’ll pick the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men.

For costume design, La Vie En Rose.

For Best Documentary Short, Freeheld, about a lesbian couple, one of whom (a police officer) dies of cancer and the other partner has to win pension benefits from a New Jersey County.

For best documentary feature, "Taxi to the Dark Side", which gives a riveting account of mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo.

A couple of other (back to mainstream) films on my “best” list:

Best original screenplay: Michael Clayton (Warner Bros., wr. Tony Gilroy), an adult legal thriller. The kind of movie yuppie parents hire babysitters to see.

Adapted Screenplay: Away from Her, Lions Gate, wr. Sarah Polley, adapted from the story by Alice Munro, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” about Alzheimers.

I couldn’t fit these into the award categories. But I wanted to acknowledge Casey Affleck in “Gone Baby Gone” (directed by brother Ben) and “The Assassination of Jesse James by Coward Robert Ford.”

I’ll add a couple categories of my own:

Best GLBT feature: The Yacoubian Building, dir. Marwan Hamed, a political drama and mystery with a gay subplot set in Egypt (Strand Releasing / Good News), in Arabic with subtitles. It's incredible that a film like this came from a Muslim country.

Best GLBT short: Bugcrush, dir. Carter Smith (Strand), a thriller whose ambiguous, if catastrophic conclusion started a spirited debate online as to what the film “means.” (OKay, make it "best male GLBT short", since I named "Freeheld" as best short already/)

Friday, February 08, 2008

Taxi to the Dark Side: documentary about US interrogation or "rendition" techniques in Afghanistan, Iraq, GTMO


"Taxi to the Dark Side" (2007, ThinkFilm / Discovery, website) is another searing documentary directed by Alex Gibney (he had earlier directed “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” from Magnolia/HDNet in 2005). He covers abuse of Muslim prisoners by US forces in Afghanistan (Bagram), Iraq (Abu Ghraib – that specific prison had been covered in another documentary “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, here), and finally Guantanamo. (Another related film is “No End in Sight”, review here.) He starts his film in Afghanistan, with snowy mountains, and retraces the route where local tribal taxi driver Dilawar was arrested by the Northern Alliance and turned over to US forces. He would subsequently die of a pulmonary embolism indirectly related to repeat trauma to the legs, that had “pulpified” them to the point that they would have needed amputation. The documentary starts to trace the histories of a number of soldiers who would eventually be brought up on charges. Some of them would be transferred to Iraq. The nature of the problem of “rendition” is that the higher-ups pressure the enlisted investigators to abuse prisoners without taking responsibility.

The film is built in chapters, and has many interviews, still photos of the abuse (which are in nude and are quite graphic, although the worst of Dilawar is not shown), and even an inserted scene from Fox’s “24” of chest torture. There is also a lot of black and white still animation. It does show photos from 9/11.

The film traces how the Bush administration instructed the Justice Department to develop legal positions that would allow “rendition.” Cheney seems to be especially vocal in justifying the use of very aggressive interrogation. The administration gets Congress to pass a law that allows it to interpret the Geneva Convention as it chooses in developing interrogation practices. Apparently now Republican presidential candidate Arizona Senator John McCain was pressured to vote for that law. (I recall the "booksmarts" G3 training in the Geneva Convention when I was in Army Basic in 1968, and the rules are clear.) Therefore, it gets away with holding many prisoners at all three locations without charge. Most of those arrested were at the wrong place at the wrong time (like the “taxi driver”) and were not involved with Al Qaeda.

The film has a demonstration interview of how an interrogator might help a prisoner see that he can get on with a different life without torture. The film documents how Colin Powell used incorrect information about WMD’s and Saddam Hussein obtained by waterboarding at the UN and to help justify the Bush administration’s invading Iraq in March 2003.

Landmark E Street in Washington DC had a Q&A afterwards with the Director and with representatives from Human Rights First, more information here.

New Line Cinema covered the topic of "Rendition" in a film by that name in 2007, starring Jake Gyllenhaal.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Romanian Cinema: 4 M, 3W, 2D: a bleak "docudrama"


I don’t recall that “4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile” (Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days, IFC, dir. wr. Christian Mungui, no rating but would be R) was screened in DC’s international festival last Spring, as the emphasis then was France, Cuba, and India. In fact, I don’t recall many films directly from Romania. The language has the rhythm of Italian, but it’s noticeable: the viewer needs the subtitles (it’s gotten so that French and Castilian Spanish are pretty easy these days), and the subtitles had some spelling and grammar errors. Many more Romanian words seem different (non cognates to recognizable English synonyms) than in other Romance languages.

To say the least, this film has a very different effect from other well known films about abortion (“Vera Drake” (UK) “Swing Vote” (USA)). Politically, it presents an odd concept. The film gathers a strange effect. Technically, it’s stunning and professional, in 2.35:1, and it surrounds us with the bleakness of Communist Rumania just before the fall of Nicolae Ceau┼čescu,. You want to go outdoors more, from the bleakness of the Commie flats and hotels, but then you just see more flats and plain trams. It is overcast and cold all the time. None of the landmarks of Bucharest show.

Most people know the story by now. Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) helps her friend Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) get what amounts to a back alley abortion (in a hotel, though), the kind that the 50s show “The DA’s Man” used to dramatize. The movie walks us through the grim underground process in a kind of docudrama fashion. The “doctor” gets pretty stern (the title of the film refers to her calculating the age of the unborn and the legal consequences), and in the middle of the film it is shown pretty graphically. The procedure is a bit brutal, and without anesthesia it must hurt. We even see the fetus once, later, and it does make for a pro-life argument. Afterward, Gabita’s life may hang in the balance, while Otilia must hide the corpse and deal with her own boyfriend and circumstances. Politically, Communist Romania was every bit as anti-abortion as today’s pro-life movement here.

The film leaves one dangling. Other viewers talk about the loose ends with the knife, and the missing ID card, and that Otilia is prepped for revenge. I suppose so, and (as I indicated in the gay film “Bugcrush” that I reviewed a couple posts back) I would have liked to see more of an “end.”

There is opportunity here for followup in another area: the incredible number of deprived orphans who lived in post-Communist Romania, were neglected and were adopted from abroad, by parents ready to deal with special needs children.

There is little music, except for a Romanian pop song during the closing credits.

Update: Feb. 9, 2008

The February 8 ABC "Nightline" mentioned Romanian orphans (after the fall of Communism) in conjunction with possible brain damage done to children left crying for long intervals, by the hormone cortisol. The report was "The Quest for Rest: Should Babies Co-Sleep or Cry It Out?: Controvery Over How Parents Can Win the Bedtime Battle Continues," by Bill Weir and Ted Gerstein, link here. The report promoted "attachment parenting" and "the Family Bed," was well as "the Ferber Method."

Monday, February 04, 2008

Aruba tragedy and some undercover "documentary" filmmaking


ABC 20/20, on Monday Feb. 4, aired a sensational emergency 90 minute report. “The Final Hours of Natalee Holloway,” which followed the airing on Dutch television Sunday (about the time that the US Super Bowl was taking place) of a documentary film containing an undercover “confession” by Joran van de Sloot regarding the disappearance of Natalee three years ago in Aruba, north of Venezuela in the Caribbean.

The undercover operation was arranged by crime reporter Peter R. de Vries and undercover operator Patrick can der Eem, who arranged the hidden cameras, gained Joran’s “confidence” and got him to make his narration in about thirty minutes of footage that was aired as part of the documentary.

The latest story is that Natalee had some sort of seizure during an intimate encounter, and Joran presumed she was dead and did not call for help and hid the body. It is still unclear under Dutch law whether he committed a crime.

However the tape appears to be very chilling and seems to indicate sociopathy. There is a lack of remorse. Her parents say, he does not know what it is like to have children. But even that would not prevent a person with normal moral compass from seeking assistance in an emergency. So it would sound that he had something to hide.

The ABC report is by Chris Cuomo (who conducted the interviews) and Chris Francescani, and the link is here.

Here, someone was contacted to make a film to conduct an undercover investigation (perhaps vigilante, like NBC's notorious Dateline TCAP series). The interesting question here is, what happens when a “filmmaker” goes out on a project of guerilla journalism and does happen to catch a crime on tape. What is his responsibility, and when is it admissible? This is an issue that could occur with a number of low budget filmmaking projects. There was a controversial case in Pennsylvania a few years ago where a crime occurred while supposedly filming a low budget horror film.

There was a “fact or fiction” docudrama shown in 1998, “The Last Broadcast” about a crime in the New Jersey Pine Barrens when some young people were supposedly looking for the “X Files” Jersey Devil. It was shown at the University of Minnesota in October 1998, but the film would seem to raise similar questions. The style of this film resembled "The Blair Witch Project," (about events in the Catoctin area, near Burkittsville, south of Frederick, MD) also released that year by Artisan. Perhaps there is a risk when a docudrama purports to be fact.

Update: May 2, 2008

A somewhat related similar happened with a British couple traveling in Portugal, and was covered on 20/20 May 2, 2008, "20/20 Exclusive: Inside the McCann Home: One Year After Madeleine Disappeared Parents Distraught About Daughter's Question," by Alan B. Goldberg, Elizabet S. Joseph and Shalini Sharma, link here.