Saturday, August 30, 2008

"Hamlet 2": it's not a sequel, but it has a "play within a play"


Would you believe, I read William Shakespeare’s "Hamlet" for a book report my senior year in high school. My 1960 paperback copy still has my study scribbles. The class mandatory unit was "Macbeth", but we had to pick another play. And my seeing the 1996 Kenneth Branagh film from Columbia (all four hours) was a bit of an epiphany for me, especially the “honor” battlefield speech by Hamlet before the intermission (the middle of Act IV) and the stirring music of Patrick Doyle. Curiously, the movie comes across as a Stephen King classic, and the “play within a play” (Act II) makes a powerful point about the significance of dramatized fiction that can incite reality.

Well, Andrew Fleming’s spoof “Hamlet 2” (Focus Features) is not a sequel (imdb is deceiving on this film), and the “play” that drama teacher Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) writes (in FinalDraft, with the help of a humanoid pet cat), all while his unstable wife (Catherine Keener) leaves him, his Tucson, AZ high school principal eliminates his department and then tries to stop his play. So in comes the ACLU (Amy Poehler) along with Elisabeth Shue (herself) to get the show on, with a “time machine” (missing Marky Mark) made by the school’s industrial arts department (call it “shop” where you roll up your sleeves to work), and a big warehouse with enough height for wire acts, especially for aspiring young actor Rand (Skylar Astin), whom Dana tempts regarding his sexuality. In fact, Dana even recruits the Tucson Gay Men’s Chorus. It’s all pretty bizarre behavior for a teacher, and probably over the top for real First Amendment protection given our Supreme Court – but, as Poehler points out, the Ninth Circuit is more liberal. Let's say that the school administration and many parents were "very offended" by his play. They needed to be. (See my posting on "Baghead").

As for the play itself, it supposes the characters in Hamlet go into the time machine so they don’t have to die (the end of the Branagh film is quite wild, as the characters swing from the chandeliers, like naughty kids). Jesus forgives his father the same way Hamlet does. Perhaps the embedded play-within-a-movie is a bit like Terrence McNally’s play "Corpus Christi".

The film also calls to mind Josh Stohlberg's "Kids in America" (2005), with Gregory Smith (as a kind of Holden Caulfield), which also presents a "free speech in schools" comedy.

Let’s reproduce that wonderful Act IV monologue quote of "Hamlet":
"What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed a beast no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse.
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused."
"Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarter in a straw
When honor's at the stake."

Friday, August 29, 2008

"College" -- taken by high school kids; but is it really that funny?


"College", directed by Deb Hagan and written by Dan Callahan and Adam Ellison, is another one of these campus comedies (particularly another “little movie” from grand old MGM) that at first simply seems to continue a silly genre that must live as an inside track in certain caches of Tinseltown. On imdb, one viewer asked who was paying people to write reviews and favorable comments. MGM? Nobody pays me to write reviews. I just want to connect up a few ideas, and even a comedy like this does that. I didn’t see the filming location in the credits, but there was a lot of sand and pine trees on the campus – South Carolina, maybe?

There are plenty of prototypes that a movie like this draws from; “Fast Times…”, the recent “Picture This!” (in TV), the series “Greek”, and a Dreamworks film a few years ago called “Old School.” In fact, compared to “American Pie” movies this romp seems excessive. OK, it shows kids who are supposed to be legally underage doing things for future employers to find on Facebook or Myspace or even on Dr. Phil. Never mind that the “high school” kids are supposed to be on campus for scholarship interviews, and let us say, “The Dean” is not impressed.

Drake Bell plays the part of Kevin with a good deal of lean charisma that makes him seem out of place on a weekend jaunt like this. Kevin Couvais seems babyish as the nerd Morris, and the less said about Andrew Caldwell’s role, the better. Probably most readers have heard the story by now: the three high school seniors pretend to be in “college” already and get more than they bargain for at the wild frat parties and hazing. This is no “American Teen.”

Hazing is not supposed to be “tolerated” any more, and my own first hand accounts of what goes on in campuses (from my indirect dealings when I lived in the Twin Cities with its plethora of campuses) paint a much calmer, saner “real life” picture. (In fact, the newspapers carried accounts of mishaps; one student at the University of Minnesota died from a fall from a dorm building while I was living in the area, but this was rare.) Nevertheless, for some young men, hazing represents a rite of passage, a first dry run of their being able to function in a competitive yet socializing system later as adult men. Never mind that in a comedy like this it seems like just plain teenage rebellion; in practice it was always much more “serious.”

In fact, in my own life, hazing was actually an issue. During that lost semester at William and Mary in the fall of 1961, I simply played hooky on the “tribunals,” a mysterious ceremony that freshman boys were supposed to go to in some dorm basement the last Friday night in September. Had I gone, maybe the outcome would have been different. (I’m no swimmer.) The point of these "secret ceremonies" was not so much rebellion as to provide a rite of passage that would "justify" the roles that young men would assume one day in a bifurcated and somewhat unjust society otherwise. That could make for a subplot of a good movie, but it might not be a comedy.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

"This Is What Democracy Looks Like" - Visual Irony at the WTO demonstrations in Seattle in 1999


Occasionally, documentary films really can be shot by “amateurs” and compiled, producing a valuable record of a traumatic event. Such is the case with the World Trade Organization Summit (WTO) in Seattle, starting right after Thanksgiving in 1999, when demonstrators congregated for continuous and angry confrontations with police. Well, maybe it didn’t get as bad as it did in Chicago in 1968 with the Democratic Convention, to be documented in Haskell Walker’s “Medium Cool” from Paramount. But it got ugly, with police in riot gear, with laws prohibiting citizens from having their own protective masks, and with the roundups of demonstrators without charge.

Such is the story of the 72 minute documentary “This Is What Democracy Looks Like”, released in 2000, directed by Jill Friedberg and Rick Rowley. The DVD, full screen, includes extended interviews with Noam Chomsky (of course!) and Vandana Shiva. It also has a short about the Cancun demonstrations in 2003 (and makes a point about the division in Mexico between the rich and poor, a long a highway from the tourist area to the inland jungle Maya ruins), as well as another short about the company that produced the film, Independent Media Center.

In fact, the “control of the media” is one of the points of the documentary. Visitors know that I’ve discussed how blogs and social networking sites can democratize the media and break up its grip, but at the possible cost of economic instability and of provoking new personal ethical problems (not as well known in 1999 as now).

Another point is simply the fact that the “authorities” tend to take action when a “protest” starts getting more successful. In Seattle, the police clamped down harder, with the rules about gas masks, when the demonstrators were creating much more disruption than had been expected in the late fall chill.

Chomsky drives home the point that trade policy (in all of its incarnations, whether NAFTA, GATT, etc) is connected to giving large American corporations, as entities, special privileges that ordinary people don’t have. The right to sue a country is one of them (the “Blame Canada” song from “Southpark” came to my mind). In that sense, the film reminds me of Zeitgeist’s “The Corporation” that would follow in 2004 (Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott, Joel Bakan), which also featured Noam Chomsky, and Michael Moore.

I recall getting a call from a pollster in mid 1993 from someone from the Clinton Administration and being asked about how I felt about NAFTA, which the administration supported. I had become politically involved already with the military gay ban.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Overture films goes for the long ball with "Traitor"


As I noted with “Transsiberian” the new vogue for independent films is big stars, spectacular locations, and either a clever story or a politically important story. “Traitor”, directed by Canadian Jeffrey Nachmanoff based on a story by Steve Martin (that tells you something – remember his performance in “The Spanish Prisoner”), is the largest film yet from Overture Films, the new indie studio with connections to Starz, Anchor Bay, and Paramount Vantage.

Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda) this time plays a mobile jihadist, enraged by a boyhood incident in Sudan, who, as the story progresses, may or may not be a double agent. In fact, he may be making up his own mind the whole time. The story moves from Yemen to Marseilles, to London, Toronto, Chicago, and Washington DC. The Middle Eastern part was apparently filmed in Morocco, but most of the rest of the scenes do seem to have been photographed on location and look very real. We see (in full 2.35:1 aspect ratio) Washington DC along the Potomac, from the view of Arlington Cemetery, and pan over to Rosslyn, even picking out the old Newseum. I don’t know whether the FBI really has a separate office in Rosslyn (who does?) but visually the idea is compelling.

The film is essentially a hunt between the FBI (/ CIA?) agent Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce, from Memento) and Samir Horn (Cheadle). The story moves through various prison breaks, plots and sleeper cells, and in a sense the globetrotting seems improbable; this is probably not how the 9/11 plot formed. The premise of the new “threat” is frightening enough: simultaneity. And if Samir is a double agent, he finds a plot solution to almost nullify the damage.

The style of filmmaking seems a bit too “Hollywoodish” in style (or perhaps like a Canadian thriller, as the credits bear the DGC trademark) – closer to Paramount proper or Dreamworks than a relative of “Paramount Vantage.” The global movement is indeed breathtaking, but I would have preferred a little more concentration in the acting and writing, something more like “Babel”, “The Edge of Heaven,” perhaps the Pakistani film “In the Name of God”, or even “Syriana.” There is one brief scene that echoes some TV films about Flight 93 and 9/11: body shaving rituals that apparently (at least according to Internet stories) are practiced before suicide attacks.

The script does have some one-liners about philosophy, and there are shades of guilt and bad karma. At one point, Samir (I think) says, no civilian is innocent for what his government does. (We hear that a lot from radical Islam, but we sometimes heard that from the extreme Left in the 60s and 70s.) There are claimed quote from the Koran, that he who takes a life takes all of humanity, and he who saves a life saves all of humanity. There are plenty of calls of “Akbar Allah,” and a couple of lines about absolute obedience to Allah as the only source of what is right and wrong.

Monday, August 25, 2008

"Baghead": "fact or fiction": write your screenplay and let somebody film you, and there's a releasable movie!


So, when do the imagined happenings of a fictitious screenplay become real enough to matter? I’ve had some very personal experience with this question, but let’s get to a commercial film that tackles this problem. That’s the silly, reflexive rondo romp “Baghead,” from Jay and Mark Duplass (not exactly “the Jonas Brothers”, maybe the next Coen Brothers instead, with a bit of Cajun heritage), who had given us the manipulating characters of “The Puffy Chair.” (In that film, Mark Duplass played the socially adroit Josh Sagers on a road journey to deliver a puffy chair to relatives in Atlanta.) That is their art, to take a situation with simple things and make a clever story and situation, with no real existential meaning. The film appears to be made in digital video and is distributed by Sony Pictures Classics (e.g., Columbia Pictures) and that’s a big accomplishment for Duplass Brothers Pictures.

Here, four actors hole up in a cabin in the San Bernardino Mountains for a weekend to write a screenplay that will make a good low budget movie for the film festival circuit and launch their careers. “Le quatre” are Matt (Ross Partridge), Chad (Steve Zissis), Michelle (Greta Gerwig) and Catherine (Elise Mullera). Now, it’s fair to say that the 84-minute movie has a 10-minute prologue, starting with John Bryant’s short “We Are Naked” (in black-and-white) and there is an edgy sequence where the actors try to crash a party held by the filmmaker (Jeff Garner, playing himself). (Actually, the opening amateur "screening" reminds me of the Bryant Lake Bowl in Minneapolis, where IFPMSP holds such events.) Garner impresses the four protagonists about the idea of making a hit movie for a thousand dollars or so, rather than $100 million as in Tinseltown. That all will matter later, in a way that seems predictable, after the fact.

So, they’re secluded and exposed, alone in the wilderness. Yup, even as "actors" they know that a commercially viable screenplay has a "beginning, middle, and end." (Actually, there are more components, like "opportunity" and "point of no return".) You have the makings of other movies, like "The Blair Witch Project", or "The Last Broadcast" (with its "fact or fiction" theme), or, more recently, "Funny Games", or, particularly, Rogue Pictures's "The Strangers" (which also has “bag people”). Here, they come up with the idea of a serial killer covered in a shopping bag running around the woods knocking people off, while the victims are trying to pair off in love relationships. (The first idea for the screenplay is, in fact, “love”). Well, you got it, pretty soon they see the bag man. It’s not clear where the idea came from. Michelle says it was a dream. But, she had to dash outside to vomit, and when people are drunk, they don’t have enough REM sleep to imagine such a thing. Clue, the baghead is real. It isn’t hard to imagine you can wrap all this up. There is love, and it swings both ways, mostly straight, but with some gay hints.

Now I had a situation where I wrote a screenplay, at home, and posted it on my own domain. Not violent at all, it nevertheless had some disturbing subject matter and implications. It had a school setting, and it caused consternation where I was subbing. People had to figure out that it was just fiction and a thought experiment, when life and imagination would converge too much for comfort. So, I see what “The Duplass Brothers” are getting at. Next time, they can play with issues that really matter. But that’s too risky, isn’t it.

Picture above: a puffy chair in a Super 8 in Topeka, KS. (See brief review of the earlier Duplass film on this blog, Sept. 17, 2006).

Friday, August 22, 2008

An inconvenient financial truth exposed in Agora's "I.O.U.S.A."


Roadside Attractions (and Agora Entertainment) has us stopping along the movie interstate again with another “inconvenient truth” style documentary, directed by Patrick Creadon, “I.O.U.S.A.”. Agora's website for the film is here.

Let’s start with the moral premise of the movie: it’s just plain wrong for us to spend more than we consumer, and create debts for our children and descendants to pay. It’s just mean, the film says. One observation the film doesn’t make directly is the way this problem is accumulating with long term care resulting from suddenly longer life spans and often fewer children.

The viewpoint of the film is that we have four kinds of deficits: budget, savings, trade, and leadership. They’re all interrelated. We paid down our debt from the Revolutionary War in the 1820s, and then incurred another one with the War Between the States. That got paid down in Reconstruction (or perhaps by it), and the cycle would repeat with World War I. With the Depression and New Deal, followed by World War II, the cycle really got going, although we generally raised taxes then. We had the stagflation of the 1970s after Vietnam and the oil shocks, and then the exploding deficits of the Reagan years (“morning in America”) with the misguided “supply side economics” and Loeffler curve. The Clinton administration would balance the budget, with a surplus in 1998. With Bush, however, the greatest fiscal irresponsibility ever seen would take hold. Part of the problem might have been the “disaster capitalism” cult that took over the administration after 9/11.

In any case, the derivative of our total “hock” is growing. Now, we owe the world 53 trillion dollars, or about $175000 per citizen. Imagine garnishing that. We are prosperous in the short term because, with interest rate cuts, we can consume more than we produce. We depend on China to go along, and depend on its authoritarian, Confucian culture to support our freer lifestyles. This is getting a lot of attention during the Beijing Olympics. The social security surplus has cushioned the blow, but that will go away. In the future, we face much higher taxes, or entitlement means-testing, and much delayed retirements, that could break promises made to people already retired. The film says that we treat public financing in a way that would not be tolerated in private matters, but that it is not quite true: look at how the current working generation is personally affected by escalating needs for personal eldercare.

The movie explains the difference between “fiscal policy” (Congress) and “monetary policy” (the Federal Reserve). But it is the former that our elected representatives can do the most about.

The film often features Robert Bixby, Executive Director of the Concord Coalition. It shows him testifying, and even shows his office, that looks a bit like my past apartments! (There is one shot of his official desk clutter followed by the Potomac River area from Arlington Cemetery, but that is probably not its location.) The film draws a comparison between the United States and the Roman Republic, which also failed to provide for economic sustainability.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Woody Allen lays self-indulgence on the line in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"


Woody Allen is a psychological feminine, my friends tell me. I guess so, because his insights constantly show up in his movies and screenwriting, however frantic. That’s particularly true of his latest opus, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” as if to take the two lead female characters and make them a “family.”

That’s a bit misleading, although they do have one brief lesbian encounter, among many of the pairings in the movie. But first, let’s state the production facts. This is another collaboration between MGM and The Weinstein Company, with Mediapro. It should have been filmed in 2.35 to 1 so that the spectacle of Barcelona (like Gaudi’s “Park Guell” and Sagrada Familia) and would open the film up. The film is seasoned with the incidental bizarre architectural artifacts all over the city.

Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) arrive to spend the summer near Barcelona. The Narrator (Christopher Evan Welch) starts talking and imparting Woody’s eccentric but straightforward story, really. It’s a paradox. Quickly they meet a Bohemian painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who invites them to a weekend in another town. He tries to get Christina in bed, and she throws up. But pretty soon, the various combinations of pairing start to occur. Vicky has a nice fiancĂ©e Doug (Chris Messina) back in New York, who flies to Barcelona to celebrate everyone with a surprise wedding. Antonio has a crazy ex-wife Maria (Penelope Cruz). It gets even more complicated than this.

At one point, Doug says that Juan has essentially two “Mormon wives.” Then, just before a retrospective conversation about the lesbian encounter, Doug makes an existential comment (like something out of one my own books or blogs) that society can’t function this way forever.

Another interesting tidbit: Vicky majors in "Catalan Studies", as if to make a ploy on the political situation in Spain with its autonomous "countries." Imagine the movie being made in Bilbao instead! I even remember that chess has a "Catalan Opening."

The story also makes an interesting sideline into the techniques of photography, whether old-fashioned dark rooms and silver nitrate can do a better job of capturing the spirit of this special city than digital cams. It brought to mind a co-worker who flew to Barcelona two weeks after 9/11 for a long weekend just to prove to himself he could still run around, like these characters. (That’s when Jesse Ventura was telling everybody in Minneapolis, where I lived and worked, “it is safe to fly.)

The “relationships” in the story pop up spontaneously, out of natural, earthy chemistry. Yet the tone of the movie (which has more than the usual beginning, middle and end), along with Doug’s one “moral” comment, makes me wonder about the rest of us who are less exuberant. We’re supposed to prove that we can pay our dues, keep society sustainable and compete in their games until we are heard from. That is, unless we have the “power” of Woody Allen.

I visited Bilbao and San Sebastian myself in April 2001 (but the rest of the country).

Sunday, August 17, 2008

New film from Argentina ("XXY") examines cross-gender issues, with many plot twists


Recently, ABC news has presented women with “androgen insensitivity syndrome” and male chromosomes (XY), who develop socially as women but biologically should be men. A recent film from Argentina, “XXY”, directed by Lucia Puenzo, takes up a related them: a hermaphrodite appearing to grow up as a girl, but possibly desiring to become a man, and therefore (essentially) transgendered. At first, she looks like a girl, completely so but perhaps a touch tomboyish; it takes a while for the visual clues to build up, more in her male-like behavior.

The movie is distributed by "Film Movement" but the opening credits lists a record number of production companies. The principle companies are Pyramide and Wanda Vision.

The story revolves around how other characters interact and how they find out. Ines Efron plays the teen (“Alex”), growing up along the Uruguay coast under a protective father Kraken (Ricardo Darin). One day a surgeon Ramiro (German Palacios) himself transgendered to male as we eventually learn) and his (adopted) teenage son Alvaro (Martin Piroyansky). Alvaro is appealing but, according to his dad, talentless. He starts to take an interest in Alex, which will lead to a physical encounter that reverses the “normal” but also will lead Alvaro into wondering about his own sexual orientation. At first, Alvaro talks about being “normal” as if that were a moral requirement; his own belief system will only break down, as if he is hardly aware of what happened in his own family. The story unfolds in such a way as to make society’s expectations of gender roles to look like a totally adaptive exercise, one that hardly respects the possible natural variety in human beings. The movie builds on some analogies between human sexuality and the varieties of sea life (especially invertebrate) that support the fishing community.

The film visually is focused; the coastline looks barren and cool, and cloudy most of the time.

A remote comparison could be made to the 2002 film "XX/XY" (IFC) directed by Austin Chick with Mark Ruffalo as Coles.

Another distant comparison from earlier this year would be Mitchell Lichtenstein's horror film "Teeth" from Roadside Attractions, LionsGate, and Dimension Films.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

"Transsiberian" is a slick, visual thriller


"Transsiberian" (directed by Brad Anderson) is a thriller that combines the Hitchcock-like deceptions of “Strangers on a Train” with the adventure of “Murder on the Orient Express” and maybe a little bit of the intrigue of “The Cassandra Crossing.” Roy and Jessie (Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer) are an American couple with a rocky relationship. In Beijing, they decide to that the trans-siberian train for seven days to Moscow and work on their marriage. Along the way, the come into social contact with a vagabond couple, Spaniard Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and girl friend Abby (Kate Mara). What follows is a chase of disappearances and adventures, some of them off-train, and an unraveling that really would spoil the film if I said too much now.

Another big star is Ben Kingsley as cop Grinko. Well, is he a cop? Two-thirds through the film he utters one of the few philosophical lines in the film. “In the Soviet Union, we lived in darkness. Now we die in the light.” The lifespan for men had dropped from 65 to 58 in all the privatization, and he is 58.” In fact, we are introduced to his character right at the beginning with a shot of a freighter in the ice-laden Vladivostok port.

Other than this one little bit of philosophizing, most of the film is rather simple and basic as to dialogue, with its constant churning of disappearances and emergences. The film moves forward with striking images, which range from panoramic shots of the railroad, ranging from Mongolia to the Siberian taiga, to the towns along the way, like Irtusk. Much of the local outdoor scenery was shot in Lithuania. And visually, the film has some strong foreshadowing cues. At one point, a horse whinnies in the show, and the train passes close, and you notice there are only three cars. There is a spectacular derailment at the end, reminding you of “The Fugitive.”

This is an example of the new wave of independent film. Financing from several countries (principally Spain, but also the UK, with filming in China and Lithuania also), have some big stars, make the film top-notch professionally and technically, had a small distributor (First Run International Pictures, with Filmax and Canal-Madrid and as the production companies) start the platform theatrical release to get the underground buzz.

An AMC theater in Arlington VA last night at the 10 PM show had about 25 people. I am surprised there were not more.

Monday, August 11, 2008

We Are Together: Orphans in South Africa sing


We Are Together: The Children of Agape Choir (“Thina Simunye”), directed by Paul Taylor, written with Slindile Moya, is a documentary about a children’s orphanage in South Africa. HBO presented it on August 11, 2008. Much of the story is seen through the eyes of 12-year-old Slindile. The children have been orphaned by the parents’ dying of AIDS, and some have siblings with AIDS. They find that singing this the one activity they can always do together. Paul actually came up with the idea of the film on a volunteer mission trip.

They travel to Britain, and eventually to New York State and New York City (in winter), to raise money for their orphanage, which burns once and must be rebuilt.

The music consists mostly of a cappella singing of spirituals, with some accompaniment when they travel.

The film shows graphic scenes of illness in a couple of spots. Women in this culture often become infected with HIV despite monogamy. Abstinence or the use of protection is not practical for women in this culture. Blood loyalties are extreme, and children readily accept responsibility for siblings.

The scenery is rather lush compared to what often appears in South Africa. The political history of the people, relative to past apartheid, isn't presented.

There is a link at which the film can be watched, at "Snag Films", here.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

"American Teen" is an upbeat docudrama about senior year in a midwestern high school


American Teen”, directed by Nanette Burstein, is a digital video documentary following several teenagers through their senior year at an Indiana high school. It was made for A&E but has a theatrical release from Paramount Vantage.

The school is Warsaw Community High School, a rambling structure with a large circular cafeteria, and more yellow school busses lined up than ever, in a “red state” middle class town. This is the heartland, the Midwest (except we forget how far East Indiana actually is).

“The Kids” are Hannah Bailey, Colin Clemens, Geoff Haase, Megan Krizmanich, Mitch Reimholt, Jake Tusing, and Ali Wikalinska. The names remind one of how the American Midwest was, more than a century ago, settled largely by immigrants from central and Eastern Europe, and immigration even in past eras provided its own history and controversy. So, merely by being a high school senior you get to be in the movies (one of the girls wants to become a filmmaker).

It seems as if Colin generates most of the rooting interest. His family is of average means and he really needs that basketball scholarship. Without basketball, he would need to join the military to afford college, even in state, and he says he doesn't want to be paid to kill people. He is one of the most likable, but generally all the kids in the film generate interest in the audience. No one demonstrates a proclivity for "senioritis" (and later the college admission letters come into play for several families). The students may have been hand-picked for this movie as a cross section, but they the director had to pick students that the audience would bond with. One of the girls suffers from depression because of a family tragedy, and is in danger of suspension because of absences; she pulls through. Jake is the geek, and is uncertain about the whole senior prom thing. (The film does not show much computer tinkering, but it could have; remember that elsewhere in the country teenagers have done things like reverse-engineer iPhones.) But his older brother (in the Army) gives him an initiation trip to Mexico just when he turns 18. That sets up his own romance. Mitch may be the most serious and winds up at Indiana University (best known nationally for its music school, an opportunity not used in the film) studying, as I remember, pre-med.

The film shows very little classroom time, and just a little more of the administrators, one of whom has to administer discipline for t-p-ing a student’s house and spray-painting an unacceptable epithet on a house window. (It’s not clear why from the film, but one girl says, it will just wipe off.) One government teacher has told students that adult life in the United States constitutes a competitive "meritocracy." I guess the teacher had never assigned Charles Reich's book "The Greening of America."

For a few episodes, the film uses some interesting animation, with the characters drawn well and accurately, even to the point of including teen acne in one case. There is a nightmare animation scene going down corridors and returning. In the playful (live) scenes, there are some curious techniques, such as the camera's starting at the feet and letting one guess the character for a second. The rooms of a couple of the characters (Geoff and Jake particularly) are interesting with their knick-knacks, to say the least.

“The Kids” look practically grown, but, biologists tell us that their brains still have 6 more years to finish pruning and maturing physiologically; that’s a third of the time they have lived already!

The film did bring back memories of my own (better) experiences as a substitute teacher in northern Virginia. Yes, I would have be glad to have had any of them in one of my classes.

It also brought back memories of my own senior year at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington VA, where I graduated June 1961. I did not go to the senior prom but went on an expedition to Mount Washington, New Hampshire "instead."

The climax of the movie includes a basketball game (with Colin) and a finish worthy of CWTV’s “One Tree Hill”, and a graduation ceremony, with Elgar’s famous march.

This film could be compared to HBO's “Baghdad High” (reviewed Aug 4) and “Hard Times at Douglas High” (reviewed June 23), which present high school for much more disadvantaged populations.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Sony's "Brick Lane" is another drama about 9/11 and the Islamic community (in Britain)


There have been a couple of other epic independent films centered on Islam, and “Brick Lane” fits the bill, slightly shorter than “Yacoubian Building” or “In the Name of God”, and this one from a better known corporate distributor, Sony Pictures Classics. Directed by Sarah Gavron (for production company Film4 and the UK Film Council), it’s based on the novel by Monica Ali.

The film takes place in Bangladesh and London. A flat, tidal coastal area of India was used to simulate Pakistan. After her mother drowns in a pond, Nazneem (Tannishtha Chatterjee) is sent to London for an arranged marriage with an obese flim-flam man Chanu Ahmed (Satish Kaushik). She quickly learns how Islamic culture defines value for men in terms of mandatory family responsibility (regardless of what one “chooses”). She brings in a sewing machine into her flat, and Chanu objects, but then relents and borrows money from an underground usurer to buy a computer to “go on the Web.” Eventually, the exorbitant payments are to go for funding a local radical mardrassah. The film shows the flats as multi-level brick buildings with walkups and landings at each level, not particularly secure. Nanzneem starts falling an attractive younger man Karim (Christopher Simpson, who is not from India despite appearances).

9/11 happens, and the WTC destruction is shown in embedded videos. Then the family has to deal with the local pressure on the Muslim community and consider returning to Bangladesh. Chanu starts to show some wisdom, opposing the radicalism of a local London mosque but loyal to his original family in Bangladesh. He says to Karim, that young men want all things to be possible, but older men need some things to be certain. Yet, Nanzeem has to deal with the fact that Karim probably would make a much better husband and father in the long run.

This is a compact but big-looking film, in full 2.35 to 1 anamorphic Panavision.

The film has no relation to a 2003 short of the same name from Paul Makkar.

Friday, August 08, 2008

"Brideshead Revisited" -- Waugh's novel leads to interesting storytelling, about pre-WWII British society


I never did watch the PBS television miniseries “Brideshead Revisited,” so I approached the film as a relatively self-contained item, a worldview of its own, expecting a somewhat stereotyped British art film that might have been common in the 60s. It is long, and it is stylized, but it had a lot to say. The film is based on the novel by British author Evelyn Waugh (yup, this is what they mean by “English literature”), and directed by Julian Jarold, produced by BBC and distributed by Disney’s Miramax (post Weinstein Brothers). It is a bit long at 135 minutes, and lavish in 2.35: 1 Even so, many of the potentially intimate scenes are cut quickly and move on.

There has not been as much attention as expected to the controversy as I would expect, and perhaps the attention to the gay supporting character and friendship doesn’t attract notice today. But in fact, the entire story, and the course of the adult life of painter Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), as pretty much a Renaissance man, is generated by happenstance that leads to a long friendship with the “obvious” gay Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whislaw) at the Brideshead Estate.

Now, the value of the movie is really the perspective. As it opens, Brideshead has been taken over and made a military headquarters during WWII, and Ryder is a well-ranked officer. The movie becomes a retrospect of the past ten years of his life, and how that centered around the estate, and how much of it came about by chance.

The other major aspect is the way the chance friendship drove Charles’s whole life and even got his artistic career going. Leaving his widowed dad in London for Oxford and settling in, he meets Sebastian accidentally when the first night Sebastian, in an emergency, enters his ground floor unit and vomits while drunk from a party. The butler actually tells Charles, “you don’t have to clean up after yourself.” Sebastian sends flowers and treats Charles to lunch and invites him to the estate. The “friendship” may be just platonic or may be more intimate; one thinks that Charles likes having a soul like Sebastian in his psychological possession (it’s those polarities, again). They travel to Venice, when Sebastian sees Charles moving in on his sister. Charles’s bisexual nature grows with his art, but he moves toward the idea of having a family and children, which generates some of the duplicities and secret affairs and bargainings in the second half of the film. By Sebastian’s Catholic family, disturbed by drinking as a way to escape from his sin, disowns him. Sebastian goes to Morocco and finds a new life, but then gets sick. When Lady Flyte is dying, she apologetically sends Charles down to Morocco to try to fetch him, and Sebastian himself may be dying.

As to perspective, yes, the story comes from Charles’s point of view, because he seems like the “stronger” and more competitive young man, who can do what he has to do according to the expectations and moral rules of his world. It’s possible to imagine a movie from Sebastian’s viewpoint, instead, and wonder how he would come across as the lead protagonist. We more or less learn how Sebastian feels about Charles from Charles’s worldview. (At one point, when Charles is riding in Sebastian’s crank-started jalopy, Charles says his mother died, and he has no family yet, and Sebastian says something like, “I am your family.”) Yet, the Flyte family, while first indulging Sebastian and educating him and managing his appearances, develops an increasingly negative view of his homosexuality, as a possible eventual threat to its privileged class position in British society, a possible excuse for others to say they should be taken down a peg. And, eventually, the estate must be commandeered foe the war, but only after the elder Flyte passes away (it seems to result from lung cancer – all the men chain smoke in this movie), refusing a priest but giving in to extreme unction at the last possible moment.

Visually, the film is stylized, and somewhat evokes the stereotypes of the older British art film world. Younger men (gay or not) never have chest hair, it seems, and all seem a bit prissy, always wearing properly tailored London suits and ties when out in public.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Tell No One: A compound French thriller based on an American mystery novel


Tell No One” (“Ne le dis a personne”), dir. Guillaume Canet, is a curious and encompassing French thriller that puts together an enormous array of ideas, and seems like a Gaulish dream. But actually, it’s an adaptation of American mystery novelist Harlan Coben’s 2001 mystery (published by Orion and Dell), and rather fast paced. It manages to be plot- and character-driven, and amazingly bring ideas together that one would not normally connect.

The film is distributed in the US by The Music Box in Chicago, with a production company or Europa. Very professionally and extravagantly made (it must have cost at least $30 million or so), shot on location in full 2.35:1 with many special effects, it’s interesting that it has such innovative distribution. It is left unrated, and there are probably 20 seconds of footage that would “earn” the dreaded NC-17, and some extra scenes (the film runs 125 minutes) that a larger American distributor would delete from theatrical release (leave for the DVD). This looks like a case where the artist wanted an all-or-nothing presentation. The movie makes a case for Roger Ebert’s idea that we need a genuine “adult” rating without giving a film a bad reputation for the box office.

The title itself is interesting enough. It sounds like “Don’t Say a Word” (2002), or the notorious “don’t ask don’t tell”. Although the film story (and the author’s novel of this name) has nothing to do with the notorious political issue, the dramatic notion, as applied to a person, perhaps applies.

Now, for the situation. The movie opens with a prequel at a lake, where a middle-aging Alex (Francois Cluzet) and his beloved wife Margot (Marie Josee-Crose take a night swim, in the same pond they had played in as kids (the film’s last shot makes this relevant). Something happens to Margot on the opposite shore, and Alex tries to save her, and he is knocked into the water. We don’t know how he is rescued yet. But eight years later, Alex is a pediatrician in a Paris hospital. The story never gets much into medicine, apart for forensics, or the health care debate, and again it’s interesting that the plot is so transportable to Europe from the US. Two bodies are found near the lake, and the police may restart the investigation. At almost the same time, Alex gets a bizarre email on Yahoo! (it looks almost like spam) that links to a video apparently showing Margot alive.

The coincidence sounds almost gratuitous. You wonder why it doesn’t sound half-baked. Yet, the movie launches us on an adventure through Paris, its suburbs, and the problems in French society that keep us on a roller coaster, all the way to the denouement, which is probably not as convincing as the ride itself. Various characters, almost as if from a Victor Hugo novel or perhaps even from Chaucer, populate the story. Among these apparently are some North Africans who give us a little bit of a visual picture of the discontent of unassimilated Muslim young males in Paris suburbs. (The 2004 thriller “District B13” comes to mind.) In another stretch the film dabbles with lesbianism. There are spectacular chases, and a well-staged freeway car pileup as a result. I believe that I drove through that exact area in 1999 when I rented a car in Paris from EuropeCar (I would lose the keys in Bayeux, prompting an adventure that I could tell in some other blog posting). The French drive too fast, it seems (and that’s what I found personally). At one point, Alex is abducted, taken into the back of a vehicle, and unveiled and worked over in a manner that reminds one of Carter Smith’s “Bugcrush”. The double crosses and action pile up (with plenty of flashbacks to the “back story”), even if the two central protagonists emotional lives have been in limbo for the eight years.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Baghdad High: BBC/HBO documentary about school in Baghdad


"The Boys from Baghdad High" aired on HBO Monday, Aug. 4. The 82 minute film from the BBC and HBO is directed by Ivan O’Mahoney and Laura Winter. It traces four teenagers in Bagdad with different religious backgrounds through a year of school. BBC has a link for this film here.

Unlike many documentary films, this film has no narrator. It is just a sequence of scenes that builds up an increasing sense of intimacy with teen life under the war conditions in Baghdad. One boy wants to be a songwriter. One just wants to hear from his girl friend. Gradually, we learn that the unstable conditions around them seriously affect their ability to focus on schoolwork. Rotating power outages make homework impossible.

In the middle of the film, a couple of the boys watch the trial of Saddam Hussein on television in their home, and then his sentence to death on Dec. 30, 2006. The film then moves toward a final phase. The boys sometimes exchange kisses, which is surprisingly accepted in their culture. One boy worries that his beard is not growing heavy enough. He also says that in Iraq kids can depend on their parents until age 24, rather than 18 as in the U.S. At the end, they have their final exams, and most boys fail one or more subjects. The report cards are simple handwritten cards, not computerized reports as in the U.S.

The film certainly makes an interesting comparison to "Hard Times at Douglas High", reviewed on this blog in June, about a low-income area high school in the United States.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Kiplinger short documentary: "Who Cares: A No-Nonsense Look at Long-Term Care


Kiplinger offers a 25-minute short subject video “Who Cares? A No-Nonsense Look at Long-Term Care” at this site. The film was produced with the help of John Hancock Life Insurance.

The video is in seven segments, rolls real credits at the end, and received the Aegis Award for the video.

The most important moment in the video from the viewpoint of the film and information world comes near the end, when Mary Beth Franklin, the consultant who often speaks in the film, talks about the limits of buying critical family-protection insurance (including long term care insurance) on your own by comparison shopping on the Internet. “You need a real financial planning professional who has your interests at heart,” she says. Since I was invited to interview to become a life insurance agent in the spring of 2005, the comment rang loudly for me. I declined to proceed because I didn’t want to “live the life” or “walk the walk.” Of course, a professional has some kind of license to justify earning a living from working with and vetting and selling products for families. (Actually, applicants for long term care are carefully interviewed, medically evaluated, and screened for underwriting.) Yet, long term care, for other family members (parents) is one walk no one can choose to avoid, and one cannot reliably say he or she will never cause this responsibility to fall on others, whatever his libertarian philosophy of personal responsibility. So, in the biggest picture sense, I appreciate the film's comment on financial planner professionalism even if I personally feel put off by the social pressure to build lists of leads (I get the emails in the industry every day as a result of those interviews three years ago.)

I do, in fact, enjoy collecting the information and displaying it on a website or in a film. I enjoy that more than playing family for another family. The point is well taken. A financial planner is paid to help the client use the existing laws to the client's best advantage, not to question the "morality" or public policy behind the laws, as I like to do in my blogs and writings.

The film starts out in a “continuing care center” which can lead to assisted living and eventually a nursing home. It did not mention “senior apartments” or “age restricted apartments” which offer lower rents to 55 and over with upper and lower income restrictions regulated by HUD. It talked about the cost, which averages about $3000 a month for assisted living and maybe $6300 a month for nursing homes, with considerable variation around the country. The film explains that most health insurance and Medicare do not pay for custodial care. About half of nursing home care does get paid for by state Medicaid programs. The film mentions the (federal and recently tightened) look-back rules and controversy about spend-downs, but does not go into detail. The film also estimates that about 20% of custodial eldercare really takes place in nursing homes.

Franklin does discuss the concept of long term care, the Elimination Period, the fact that the benefits don’t have to be continuous, and the discounts for married couples (who are more like to care for each other). She doesn’t mention that generally a patient needs to meet 2 of 6 criteria of disability for benefits to kick in.

There was a small feature “Assisted Living” directed by Elliot Greenbaume in 2003, from Economic Projections, about a young man who takes a job in an assisted living facility.

This short should not be confused with an in-development project “Who Cares?” a British feature drama about eldercare from Urban Way Productions for TV release later this year. No information is available yet when or where it will air.

I have a lot more posts about long-term care on the "BillRetires" blog (see Profile).