Sunday, September 28, 2008

"Miracle at St. Anna" - the latest Spike Lee joint


The latest “Spike Lee joint” is probably the director’s biggest and most ambitious, and complicated film. That is, “Miracle at St. Anna” (“Miracolo a Sant’Anna”), based on the novel by James McBride, from Touchstone pictures (Walt Disney Films hasn’t used that brand much lately), running a full 160 minutes, with a stunning orchestral score by Terence Blanchard. The closing credits also play “He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands.” Wikipedia notes that Lee raised his own money ($45 million, apparently much of it in Europe) before Disney picked up the film (for US markets), and in many ways, it is more like a large (even “epic”) independent film (sort of in the genre of “There Will Be Blood”) even though it is distributed under a major studio brand. Much of the flashback dialogue is in Italian or German, with subtitles.

On one level, the novel and book sound like a pretext for recreating the horrific 1944 massacre at Sant’Anna di Stazzema in Tuscany, Italy by the Nazis, in retaliation for local “partisanship”. The press has stated the logline as something like this: four African American in the area are challenged to survive when one of them rescues a small boy who treasures a sculptured head of the Ponte Santa Tranita. The object serves as a macguffin, providing a reason to tell the complicated, layered story in a series of flashbacks, not always in time sequence, from the viewpoint of various characters, gradually developing for the moviegoer (or reader) a political subtext, of understanding the controversy of African Americans fighting in World War II while facing segregation at home.

All of these ideas are developed. At the beginning, the one remaining survivor, in 1984, shoots a man with a German pistol from his job at the post office after the man has apparently indicated an interest in the object. It’s quite a mystery for a belated New York Daily News reporter Boyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to piece together, but his jailhouse interview with the purple heart veteran compiles all the elements of the story. It’s as if one wanted to make a docudrama by putting all the relevant scenes in an order that makes the argument.

At the deepest point in the past, an at the films running midpoint, the soldiers, before going overseas, visit a segregated restaurant in Louisiana, provoking a confrontation (with “War Bonds” posters in the background) that miniaturizes the rest of the film.

The numerous battle scenes, as well as the massacre, contain some of the most graphic war violence ever filmed (contributing to the R rating), even outdoing “Saving Private Ryan”. At one point, the Germans are talking about the Geneva Convention, and call the civilian resistance “terrorists” who will not be covered. Much of the lapsed time in the film takes place in Tuscany, and it is filmed on location, in full anamorphic widescreen, and the results technically are stunning.

There is a long sequence where a solider (Derek Luke) bonds to the boy (Matteo Sciabordi), who calls him a “chocolate giant”

At almost the very beginning, when the protagonist is sitting in his New York apartment watching John Wayne and “The Longest Day” we get a frames picture on a lynching.

The film shows African American and white soldiers sometimes fighting together, with African American platoon leaders. This is at least a veiled reference to the fact that Truman would integrate the military in 1948 (as in the 1996 HBO film "Truman" with Gary Sinese), facing arguments a bit akin to the military policy on gays today.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Fireproof (your marriage)


Recently Dr. Phil aired a program on saving marriages, and introduced actor Kirk Cameron, himself a married father of six children, to promote the film “Fireproof” in which he plays Caleb Holt, a firefighter in Albany GA, facing the breakdown of his marriage to Catherine (Erin Bethea).

First, for the specifics. The film is distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films, and also by a new brand, Sony Affinity (which seems like another brand like Sony Pictures Classics, perhaps for specialized content). Sherwood Films was given as the production company in the credits. The film is directed by Alex Kendrick and written by Alex and Stephen Kendrick. The website is here. The film is marketed as a Christian film, and resembles some made in the 1980s, then often for paid exhibition.

The film is also, shall we say, a bit studious. Caleb and Catherine have no children after seven years of marriage, and that may be necessary to keep the plot focused. Or it could because they are too “selfish.” Now, it’s not unreasonable for Caleb to want to buy a boat or to spend time on his computer. But Catherine is already stressed by eldercare; her own mother has had a stroke and cannot speak. Catherine has taken a job as a hospital administrator to help her mother, and she may well be making more than him. They seem to live pretty well.

Caleb’s parents (played by Harris and Phyllis Malcom) give Caleb a handwritten book called “The Love Dare,” a 40-step program of getting Caleb out of himself and into his marriage.

Here we get into the existentialism and then Christian faith, and the introduction of the faith issue marks the midpoint of the film. Caleb’s father talks about how rational self-interest isn’t enough; marriage needs unconditional love. In particular, Caleb can be a “good person” and still be judged by God for sins of the heart, such as lust (as with his secret Internet life). “Adultery of the heart” is as sinful as actual divorce because it conveys the idea to other people that if they are less than perfect, they will become unworthy of marriage themselves. Interesting point. There is a scene where Caleb, giving up Internet surfing to find fantasy material, smashes his PC in a manner reminding one of "The Terminal Man" (1974, Warner Brothers), based on Michael Chricton's novel.

But the “40 pages” involve a lot of pampering of his wife, a lot of revisiting the courtship that would have preceded the marriage in the first place. It may not be for everybody, but if so, then the film suggests the logical question: how much of this applies to people who don't elect marriage? The indulgences, as well as the faith elements, and her rejections mark the screenplay with well-defined crisis and recognition points. The film certainly promotes “marriage culture” the way Maggie Gallagher and Jennifer Roback Morse argue for it.(In fact, the couple’s fights in the film do indeed show the problems with the “laissez-faire family”; both Caleb and Catherine have to give up some of their ideas of personal sovereignty to be prepared to raise children who themselves can attach to others socially. At the end, the couple has a public "covenant marriage" ceremony. The script specifically says that marriage is not a contract, but a convenant instead.

The film has two daring fire rescue scenes, including one with an approaching train (shown on Dr. Phil) and another from a burning house, reminiscent of Ron Howard’s “Backdraft” (1991, Universal). The film also shows the quasi-military "forced intimacy" of life in the fire station, where firefighters (which today can include women) sleep in a dorm-like setting, even having to make their cots in military-style with hospital corners. (In the 1970s, in New York City fire departments objected to proposed discrimination ordinances protecting gays with "reasoning" similar to that for the military today; it turned out to be a red herring).

Today (Sept 27), the Lifetime Channel showed, early in the evening, “Gracie’s Choice” (the title reminds one of “Sophie’s Choice" but the movie really doesn’t), a Columbia release from 2004 (Stephanie Germain productions), directed by Peter Werner, based on a Reader’s Digest story by Joyce Eliason. A 17 year old girl Gracie (Kristen Bell) takes custody and eventually adopts her half-sister and three half-brothers when her drug-addicted mother (Anne Heche) winds up on jail and is forbidden to have contact with her children. Here is another case of family responsibility created by the acts of others.

(Post Script: The Samuel Goldwyn Company and trademark are no longer connected to MGM; see comments.)

Friday, September 26, 2008

Shila LaBeouf is the ultimate "average Joe" turned hero in anti-government thriller "Eagle Eye": fibbies track you with your cell phones!


Okay, “Hiya” Shia LaBeouf appeared on “Ellen” today (taped yesterday), and after she echoed Dr. Phil’s satire of the Wall Street bailout, they sat down to visit. Shia sported his left hand in splints, and says that the hardest thing to do is crochet. Another favorite activity and skill, made hard now, is juggling (once a classmate's parent tried to get me into that as a boy). He says that the ca that ran the light hit him at 70 mph and he flipped twice. He was lucky. Here, Shia reminds us of "Kale" in Disturbia. He is the young Tom Hanks. He could go to Mars.

Seriously, he also told us that up to 20% of ordinary domestic cell phone conversations of ordinary Americans may be tapped (apparently legal under the Patriot Act) and wind up going through NSA computers for matches to terrorist activity. That was part of the factual briefing at Dreamworks for his new thriller, Eagle Eye, with Steven Spielberg as an executive producer and D. J. Caruso as director. The story is by Dan McDermott.

There’s more, and moviegoers are told that in the film. For example, even when your cell phone is off, the government can activate it and trace your movements with GPS. It’s not so different from OnStar, maybe, or even the secret GPS devices car rental companies use. The only defense is to take the battery out.

The film is a real roller coaster. The action never stops and mist more overdone than in almost any previous thriller of this type. Most people know that the story has to do with the apparent accidental death of a super Air Force Academy graduate, apparently hired into a sleuth program, named Ethan Shaw. His underachieving “everyman” twin brother Jerry (played by Shia) is dragged into the plot ("activated") by the fibbies, first by being "set up" and arrested. (Note the political point, that reportedly Steven Spielberg wants moviegoers to get: the government can go after any "enemy of the state" and set him and throw him into jail. It reeks of neo-McCarthyism.) He will be joined by a young paralegal Rachel (Michelle Monoghan). The plotters have every move calculated and timed in detail, with building banners in downtown Chicago, junkyard winches, and even power grid towers. At the heart of the operation is a super computer that more or less resembles HAL (that is, IBM) from 2001, and with a private Internet connection to “eyes” apparently coded down to individual crystals of xenon hexafluoride (which is toxic). The film moves toward a climax in the Washington’s Capitol, and even the musical rendition of the National Anthem by a kid’s band (in which Rachel’s son plays) fits into the plot. The CIA uses its drones, even on its own people, and even in the tunnel on the I-395 Expressway in Washington. I never knew that drones could be thrown like baseballs. In the end, the enemies are not the Islamic terrorists, but our own fibbies, but that is no surprise. The state, in this film, can do what it wants. Well, almost.

The film has a quick clip from the Paramount horror film "Cloverfield".

I have a posting on my network neutrality blog about the requirement that the government have warrants to track people by cell phones or similar devices, here.

Picture: No, the Washington Monument hasn't been knocked over-- look at the Reflecting Pool. With a milky sky and lower definition, the end result looks like a trick.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Jon Avnet and Overture Films present a duel between two veterans in "Righteous Kill"


Once again, the new trend in independent film is find some top stars and put them in a confrontation. And, after all, what kind of pair-bond lends itself to cinematic scrutiny is two aging cops, partners for decades, where one or both of them could be suspects in a series of “righteous” police killings. Robert De Niro (Turk) starts off in black-and-white flashback, apparently accounting for the series of crimes. Al Pacino (Rooster) starts the film with a simultaneous exhibition of chess games, conferring checkmate, seeing six moves ahead on each board, his opponent resigning after being mated (which isn’t possible). Pretty soon their boss is telling them to see a shrink (the “couch” is the metaphor) and keep high-school-like journals of their thoughts in little composition notebooks (not in online blogs).

The film is Jon Avnet’s “Righteous Kill,” distributed by Overture Films (affiliated with Starz and Paramount Vantage, and developing a brand around “larger” independent films about social issues, often with major stars) and produced by several well-known companies, including Millennium Films and Grosvenor Park. It is written by Russell Gewirtz. The music score by British composer Ed Shearmur sometimes sounds like genre police thriller music, but ventures into interesting modalities that sometimes resembled Britten. Visually, the film, though in 2.35:1 aspect, seems a bit confined, mostly indoors, and despite all the physical activity (and flashbacks of the slayings) it seems rather like a play.

The title of the film suggests the idea of vigilantism, and perhaps the idea (or fantasy) that police naturally want to exercise and implement their own version of "justice", whatever the law. There is one scene where a Catholic priest is brutally shot at close range at a confession by one of his past victims. That gives a sense of what some of the revenge motive is about.

The ending may seem a bit of a twist, but there are not that many logical possibilities.

Picture: from the National Rifle Museum in Virginia.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

PBS American Masters: The Warner Brothers Story


Tonight, PBS broadcast the first of three programs (2 are 2 hours, the last is one hour) in the series “You Must Remember This: The Warner Brothers Story”, about one of Hollywood’s most prolific studios. The link is here. This is part of the American Masters series.

In 1999, Warner Brothers started to use, occasionally, a rippling orange photograph of its Burbank lot, accompanied by a “piano concerto” like rendition of its Casablanca theme, coming to a crashing conclusion. I remember seeing this trademark before “The Green Mile” and it sets the viewer up for a real journey. Yet, before many of its pictures (especially the Harry Potter ones and many summer action pictures) it does not use the full mark, instead preferring to start with the music or sound background of the film proper. I think it is one of Hollywood’s most effective trademarks. (The other good ones are for Twentieth Century Fox and the “Metropolis”-like mark for Lions Gate).

Casablanca is considered one of the greatest films of all time by many afficiandoes It gest mentioned here, but only after a long history that starts in the 1920s when four brothers in Ohio, of German and Jewish heritage, started with a boyhood hobby of picture shows, gradually added sound and speech, marketed first in nickelodeons and soon had a real movie company and moved to Burbank. The name “Warner Brothers” reminds one of “Jonas Brothers”.

The studio developed a reputation for darker, more cynical films, often with a backdrop of sympathy for the working man victimized by the greed of unfettered capitalism, particularly in the 1930s with the Depression. Many of the movies involved racketeering and the mobs, like “Little Caesar” and “The Public Enemy.”

The documentary traces the careers of Bette Davis, and Ronald Reagan, who describes what it is like to play a man who has just lost his legs.

There were some artsy films like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to Mendelssohn’s music, and Jezebel, where Bette Davis’s red dress is all the more striking in black and white.

The World War II period films examined the morality of balancing the individual and the group, and especially of sacrifice, as well as themes of pacifism. An example was “Sergeant York”. It explored democracy as a system where “everybody’s equal, and the big people listen to the little people.”

Despite its New Deal, leftist roots, the studio was gung ho in supporting the Senator McCarthy’s anti-communist purges and blacklists.

The first evening ends with a mushroom cloud scene from “White Heat” with a change of an era in 1950.

The second evening featured excerpts from some well known WB films of the 70s, including "Deliverance", the Kubrick films ("Full Metal Jacket") and the first series of Superman.

The sections of the documentary are You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet (1923-1935), Good War, Uneasy Peace (1935-1950). A New Reality (1950-1970 (to deal with competition from television), Woodstock Notions (1970-1989), The Big Tent (1980-Present).

Sunday, September 21, 2008

"Battle in Seattle": Docudrama hybrid film about 1999 WTO protests


There is a new film about mass protests and “civil disobedience.” This time, it is about the mass demonstrations and protests during the WTO meetings in Seattle between Nov. 29 and Dec. 3, 1999.

The film is “Battle in Seattle,” and is directed by Stuart Townsend. I had never heard of the distributor, Redwood Palms, but the film is very professionally made (with DGC auspices) with many major stars, who may have put up their own money to make a political statement in film. The link is here.

It is a little different in layout than the typical entertainment film. It starts with a brief newsreel-like history of GATT starting in 1947, and the forming of the WTO. It shifts then to a couple hanging from belayers to string a political sign. The movie starts telling the story of the protests in docudrama fashion. At first the protests were to be peaceful and the police would leave them alone. Some labor and other activists up the ante, and soon representatives were kept out of the meetings by lines. The police eventually used tear gas, and order broke down, with martial law. The streets of Seattle started to resemble Beirut, as the film says, or Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention (“Medium Cool”). The film concludes with some political and social moral summaries, of what has happened since 1999.

The movie’s midsection tells an active story with many stars. Woody Harrelson, bald this time like Lex Luthor, plays a policeman, whose pregnant wife protests and miscarries when attacked by police. That forms the central story, as does another activist whose girl friend eggs him on, eventually to be beaten up by Harrelson’s character. The mayor (Roy Liotta) is tamed by a female lawyer. The cast includes Charlize Theron, Joshua Jackson, Channing Tatum, and Connie Nielsen.

At the end, the film summarizes the world trade protests since 1999, especially the 2003 Cancun event.

The film seems more relevant today as our economic crisis, where western consumers are viewed as living behind their means, adding to the trade deficit, and benefitting off the backs of almost slave labor overseas.

Yes, when I heard about this film, the first title that flashed into my mind was the 1966 French film “The Battle of Algiers” (1966), which I actually saw at Landmark in 2006. Today’s performance (of the Seattle film) played to a small audience (about 20, I think) at 4:30 PM at the Landmark E Street Theater in Washington.

On Aug. 28 on this blog I reviewed another documentary on the 1999 Seattle protests, "This Is What Democracy Looks Like”, released in 2000, directed by Jill Friedberg and Rick Rowley.

Picture: the Amistad slave ship, on display Sept. 16-22 at the National Harbor in Prince Georges County, MD (near the Wilson Bridge).

Saturday, September 20, 2008

"Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West", from Clarion Fund


A group called The Clarion Fund offers a one hour DVD “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West,” directed by Wayne Kopping, also distributed by G-Machine, with website here.

The overall thrust of the film, which largely progresses through a series of commentators (including Kkaled Abu Toameh, Walid Shoebat, Nonie Darwish, and Alan M. Dershowitz), and historical footage, especially of the 9/11 attacks followed by the attacks in Indonesia, Madrid and London. The 9/11 second plane is accompanied by sound that is often missing in other films. As the film progresses, vocal radicals are shown spreading their propaganda. Gradually, the film makes a comparison to Hitler and shows 1930s Nazi footage for comparison.

The viewpoint of the film is that radical Islam wants to control the world, and stamp out Judaism and Christianity, and take political control of all western countries, and force everyone to practice Islam at gunpoint for the will of “Allah.” The film disagrees with the theory that Al Qaeda’s main complaint is just “infidel” occupation of historic Muslim lands. We are in a war, the film says, and we are ignoring the warning signs much as isolationists did in the 1930s as the Nazis marched into Europe and Japan expanded.

The film has a section called “Hitler and the Mufti” and documents an agreement made with Muhammed Amin al-Husseini on Nov. 28, 1941. This reference from “Palestine Facts” about “British Mandate Grand Mufti” might be interesting.

This film contains strong disclaimers, at the beginning and end, that most Muslims are moderate and are as harmed by radical Islam as is everyone else.

I had reviewed a similar film “Islam: What the West Needs to Know” on this blog Sept. 10, 2006.

I received a complimentary DVD of this film at my business address.

Friday, September 19, 2008

"Flow: For the Love of Water", film from DC Environmental Festival plays at Landmark Theaters


I recall, as a boy, the summer trips to Kipton, Ohio and the pleasurable chore of drawing water from a well into a pail and carrying it into the kitchen. We used well water to make Kool-Aid and the cake batter that us kids liked to lick. Laundry was done with water from a cistern, basically locally collected rainwater. I thought that well water tasted better than the city water that I would return to when going home to the DC area.

And now, in Texas, some high end homes live off of local water. In fact, decentralization of water supplies could become another mantra like decentralization of energy, as part of sustainable earth.

That’s one theme in the new super-indie documentary "Flow: For Love of Water", directed by Irena Salina, distributed by Oscilloscope, and produced by “The Group Entertainment.” The website is here. Perhaps the most daring, if common sense, political statement is that no one can own or claim property rights to something transient and fluid (both air and water) that flows.

Nevertheless, at least three European companies (Vivendi, Thames, and Suez) make big profits out of building water systems in the developing world.

The film showed poor people in several areas. El Alto, Bolivia (the highest city in the world except for Lhasa, Tibet) was shown as polluting Lake Titicaca; South Africa and Lehoto were shown, as was India. The water companies want to charge people for systematized water, often from dams. The film mentioned the heavy filial obligations imposed on older siblings, often raising their brothers and sisters when parents fall to AIDS.

The film showed the folly of commercially bottled water, and presented municipal water as often polluted, even by jet fuel.

I saw the film at Landmark E Street in Washington DC. The show was almost sold out It had shown earlier this year at DC’s Environmental Film Festival (I believe at Georgetown University). Afterwards, there was a panel discussion held by Food & Water Watch.. The panelists included Nancy Stoner and Paul Schwartz. I asked a question about viewing the water problem in conjunction with global warming and peak oil, with solutions like that in Thomas Friedman’s book “Hot Flat and Crowded” (see my books blog Sept. 15, 2008. Another person asked about the World Bank’s exclusion from the Three Gorges Dam in China, in a political scandal that caused one official to be prohibited from speaking in public about anything for one year. (For the film “Up the Yangtze” see this blog July 2008).

The books blog on June 2, 2007 has, at the end of the entry, some discussion of water projects by others. (link).

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

First Run Features has another important documentary: "Unborn in the USA"


First Run Features likes to distribute documentaries about a lot of controversial political issues. I’m surprised I haven’t seen it in business synergy with Participant Productions or 2929.

Another good example of its work is a 105 minute documentary, distributed in 2007, by Stephen Fell and Will Thompson, “Unborn in the USA: Inside the War on Abortion”. The film does show the strident behavior of activists, training others to spread their “gospel” and sometimes willing to go beyond the limits of the law with regard to clinics, and sometimes harassing women approaching these businesses. Much of the film deals with a group called “Justice for All” and some of it is filmed at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs. Toward the end, the film covers the use of photos and props, showing the results of partial-birth procedures. Of course, there have been responsible efforts (as in National Geographic) to document the growth of the unborn child in the womb, as the child becomes recognizable as human much earlier in pregnancy than many people realize.

The DVD includes interviews with Matt Trevhella, David Lee and Monica Miller. They make a comparison of the effect of their activism with the effect of the public’s learning about Abu Ghraib, but the controversies around Roe v. Wade have aired for decades now.

It seems, to me, at least, that the “religious right”, in focusing on unborn babies as victims and pleading for so much emotion from its audience, may be missing the potentially strongest arguments that it could make downstream. Think about it. Our modern culture stresses “personal responsibility” at an individual level, but there is a strong utilitarian component to our idea of responsibility. If we can decide that an unborn baby does not have fully equal rights because he or she could not be viable, then perhaps we could decide that others do not either. It’s the old “slippery slope” metaphor. The most obvious area of concern that this kind of thinking can evoke would be end-of-life problems, which could well generate another film from this same company. There is a difference. A woman can avoid having to make a “choice” like that posed in the film with self-discipline by not getting pregnant at all (with the exception of an act done against her will, which generates its own controversy), at least outside of marriage and a conscious intention to start or continue a family. A man can avoid the secondary responsibility for fatherhood by controlling his own behavior (until marriage). But, in other situations, responsibility for others (the disabled, the elderly) within a family cannot always be avoided just by “choice” or the narrow and utilitarian idea of personal responsibility that our culture has nurtured. At some level, not all moral issues come down to “choices” and their immediately connected “consequences.”

Monday, September 15, 2008

DC Shorts Showcase 4 (for adults)


DC Shorts Showcase 4 was intended for grown-ups (and I don’t mean the kind that populated Seventh Heaven). The crowd at the Monday night show at Landmark E Street in DC was somewhat scant, but a couple of random moviegoers knew a lot about the Wall Street mess and how short selling and credit swaps work. I think “Attack of the Short Sellers” would make a good short, maybe a good SNL Digital Short for Andy Samberg.

Seriously, here were the films:

Nassuh (8 min). partly animated, apparently filmed at the University of North Carolina, tells the story of a Sufi bathhouse worker who pretends to be female to give permanents. A pearl gets lost, and his “inner identity” is exposed, perhaps. A rather Bartok-like string quartet score by Scott Longworth.

A Letter to Colleen (8 min). A meth addict writes a “love letter” in pre-9/11 NYC, Very stick-like animation is used, in black and white.

Headache (8 min). In black and white and film noir style, a man “dies” and gets reincarnated as household conveniences. He believes he can change people with his mind. This reminds me of an Omni Magazine article in the 1990s about downloading your brain and giving up your body.

Some Enchanted Evening. (5 min) Based on the Rogers & Hammerstein song from “South Pacific,” with a little bit if history about the invention of the telephone.

Waiting (21 min), perhaps the most inventive film, starts in an auto junkyard. A desperate man waits for his leased car to be repaired and goes on head trips.

The List. (5 min) A male CIA agent is doing an extreme rendition on a female suspect, who turns the tables. Apparently she has a black belt. He winds up with the female chest and bra.

The Art of Stalking (14 min). An appealing young man (Paul Dichter) rationalizes (he says “it’s complicated”) stalking a young woman to protect her. When he is arrested, he’s grateful that she even looks at him. Filmed in 2.35:1 Panavision on location in Chicago.

The Trouble With Summer. (7 min). A man enjoys a fantasy with a doll as a girl friend.

The Professional Interview (15 min). A young man shows up to be interviewed for a sales job at a bra company. He winds up being interviewed by a couple of comics in a drive-in fast food joint. He looks like he wants to throw up. Seriously, I once had an interview almost like this.

Ring-Around-a-Rosie. (10 min, Australia) seems to take off from the debauched scene from “Eyes Wide Shut”.

Balaton Monks (13 min, Hungary). Young men test their commitment to religious celibacy on a camping trip.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

"Proud American" seems to be a sponsored patriotic film


This weekend a number of theaters are airing what appears to be a corporate sponsored patriotic film, “Proud American,” written and directed by Fred Ashman, distributed by Lightsource LLC. The companies listed are American Airlines, Coca Cola, Master Card, and Wal-mart. The website is here.

There is a very curious comment early in the film (with an aerial shot of New York, the kind you might see from one of Donald Trump's choppers). "Back home, if you draw attention to yourself, they put you in jail. In America, they put you on T.V." (Maybe even "Saturday Night Live", or even "The Apprentice".) One immigrant made a comment that China is just beginning to experiment with freedom.

The film is inspirational and episodic, with on location scenery from all over the country, and some brief historical episodes like what would show in a museum film. There are skits showing how Coca Cola and Wal-Mart formed. There is a brief enactment of the NYC fire department, and a shot of the WTC 9/11 site. The film opens with some immigrants taking an oath of citizenship with a judge. But most of the film tells a few success stories. The writing seems a bit sugary and “feel good” and the life stories move quite quickly over time.

The first major story concerns a Vietnamese “boat” girl who impresses her teachers in a California school but angers cliquish female students. Later, she is married to a young computer programmer and her business skills help him start Sunrise Software.

In another episode, vandals attack a Jewish home during the Christmas season, and neighbors rally and display the Hanukkah Menorah (or Hanukkiah) outside each of their homes as part of their Christmas decorations.

The longest episode concerns an African American boy in Chicago who, after a narrow street escape, has an encounter that inspires him to eventually become a doctor. The episode traces his ups and downs all the way through medical school.

Another episode traces a Brazilian young man who starts in the Miami restaurant business as a dishwasher, becomes manager, then joins the Navy, trains as a Seal, is wounded in combat, and then trains to participate in wheelchair Olympics.

There are times when one wants to present a sequence of events of some elapsed time in a short film in order to make a political or social point or perhaps expose some kind of problem. Typically a film like this will have many short scenes with brief conversations or activities than fail to build up much real dramatic tension. It’s important to identify with the protagonist, which is easy in this film, but more problematic if the protagonist is flawed. Sometimes a “sequence” like this works if seen through the eyes of a younger character of another generation who “learns something” from the episode.

Friday, September 12, 2008

"Burn After Reading": Another Coen Brothers Rondo


Well, Minnesota brothers Ethan and Joel Coen really go for tongue-and-cheek, situation comedy, and, yes, some good old gore in the romp from Focus Features, “Burn After Reading” (site.

A straight but slightly womanish-acting Osborne Cox (John Makovich – who else?) gets sacked in his sterile Langley VA CIA headquarters. So, what to do but write a book. His memoirs, no less. He’s sure that the free market will pay for them. His wife (Tilda Swinton) is ready to have a process server visit him so that she can sack up with Treasury guy Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), in his posh Georgetown townhouse, which makes good fodder for a break-in later.

The funny precept is that his memoirs really would be taken seriously as “intelligence” when they fall into the wrong hands: Hardbodies gym employees Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand – remember she had played the pregnant detective in “Fargo” who threw up on the job), ready to part with $40000 for some liposuction work, and comic stud Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) who is ready to sport those big muscles everywhere, because not everybody has them. So the situation comedy begins, and eventually the gore and bodies start to accumulate, and the chieftains at the CIA are none the worse for wear.

The script was clever (with all the metaphors and punch lines), but somehow the movie seemed less natural and more manipulative than the Brothers’ earlier rondos. Filmed in standard aspect ratio, it looked small and intimate. (The credits say that the movie was edited with Final Cut Pro.) Still, the idea that an amateurish book would be chased by spies rings home. One of my image copy files, in my second book, in a chapter dealing with 9/11, got hacked in a passage where I was talking about suitcase nukes, back in 2002. I wonder if the Coen brothers could make comedy out of that.

I thought I caught a cameo of Misty Upham (from "Frozen River", reviewed Sept. 9) in one scene; still in the same matter-of-fact acting style.

My favorite Coen films are "Fargo", "Blood Simple" and "The Man Who Wasn't There" (the latter in black and white, and it even has a UFO!).

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

"Elegy: Dying Animal" recreates memories of my own days in NYC, with a moral twist


I suppose Ben Kingsley could actually play me (how presumptuous!) and I certainly felt akin to the sixtyish literature professor in Spanish director Isabel Coixet’s play-like film “Elegy,” based on Philip Roth’s novel (“The Dying Animal”) and adapted-screenwritten by Nicholas Meyer. The film was produced by Lakeshore and is distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films (connected to MGM and United Artists and ultimately to Sony; the film obviously could have easily come from Sony Pictures Classics).

The film as shot in Vancouver, indoors, or with a few outdoor rainy scenes in front of coffee shops, although it is supposed to take place in New York City. OK, there was a photo of Columbia. There is just a bit of this glistening Kubrick quality (recall that “Eyes Wide Shut” had been filmed in London). There is great impressionism, beaches that look almost black-and-white in their natural color (“the sea meets the sky”), and a lot of piano music (and a little cello), mostly Bach, Satie, and a couple of Spanish composers. Kingsley’s character, David Kepesh, plays the Bach on a slightly out of tune piano, and the music sounds quite modern, almost right for a Dumbarton concert. He can’t even keep time with the metronome.

Well, we know the story. Kepesh is careful not to date his students, and wait for the right moment to start a serial relationship with Conseula Castillo (Penelope Cruz), thirty years his junior. For the first two-thirds of the film we see the other elements of his life, including a mistress his own age, Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson), his thoughtful physician son Kenneth (Peter Sarsgaard) and best friend (and possibly interim gay partner, maybe) George (Dennis Hopper). So we see a Manhattan life (and lifestyle – this film should have been “Made in NY” and wasn’t), moving from one scenario to another, in a series of emotional confrontations, many of which seem internal and a bit schizoid.

My last year in New York City, 1978, was a bit like this, from a gay perspective, and presented a “moral test” for me a bit comparable to that experienced by David in the movie. If I made a movie “1978” (how conceited an idea), it might look like and feel this (and be made in New York). David is definitely psychologically feminine, and has to let Consuela call the pace (there is a long, search-filled hiatus in the relationship, as there was in one of mine). It is Consuela who asks “what do I mean to you?” and who calls the power plays. This is, after all, a film filled with polarities (although it isn’t really consciously about the polarities). And the older mistress is very demanding of loyalty.

Kingsley (head shaved) even looks like me, although better seasoned (even if still gray in places). The visitor can use some imagination here. The film opens where Kingsley's character gives a television interview and explains how our country got started as a Puritanical society by an accident of history; there was a loose colony 30 miles away that died. Later, he says (as a narrator) that it surprises him how suddenly old age comes on. I recall a friend, in that pivotal year of 1978, once saying, to my surprise, how important mere survival could become. So it is here.

The film can be rented on YouTube for $2.99.  

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

"Frozen River" is a well-structured, character driven drama: Yes, a beginning, middle and end!


Well, here’s another movie about moral relativism. And, it is so forcefully told as a story that you forget about the morals and the big issues, unless you insist on thinking about them.

A middle aged, cigarette smoking woman who works in a convenience store and is suddenly thrust into single motherhood of her 15 and 5 year old boys, “befriends” a blunt woman on a nearby Mohawk reservation and, desperate for cash, she gets into smuggling illegal aliens across a frozen river on tribal land on the New York-Quebec border. That’s the set up of the indie thriller “Frozen River,” directed and written by Courtney Hunt, from Sony Pictures Classics. The mother is Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo), the young tribal woman is Lila (Misty Upham), and the kindly state trooper who busts them is Finnerty (Michael O’Keefe), but the star of the movie is probably the resourceful teen T.J. (Charlie McDermott). He is always resourceful, doing what it takes: using welding tools to fix frozen pipes, and starting a telemarketing scam to buy his kid brother a Christmas toy because his mother can’t afford to, and even making a hand-powered, mechanical merry-go-round in the front yard. You wish he had the opportunity to be raised with resources; he seems like the kind of kid that would start the next Internet revolution if given the chance.

But most of the structure of the story builds through the “bond” between Ray and Lila, built up in many escapades, hostile at first, and river crossings. The illegal cargo gets more dangerous, and Ray has real second thoughts when finally she has to carry Pakistanis. She insists on leaving a duffel bag with unknown contents in the snow, because she thinks they really could be terrorists. On that, the denouement of the story will build, with a touch of Silas Marner thrown in. And the “end” says a lot about bonds and relationships, and relatively little about politics.

There are some big questions. First, I know that before 9/11, there were plenty of private dirt roads from border states crossing into prairie provinces with no control. Perhaps that has been stopped since then with fences (nothing like on the Mexican border, though). I doubt that anything like what goes on in the movie is that “easy” in the Plattsburgh area. This is, after all, “only a movie.”

The movie views “morality” as perhaps many working people really experience it: blood family comes first, and that is not to be questioned. T.J. must take care of his younger brother because of the “failures” of his parents (essentially, his father) who set up his world (and had the “power” to do so). Then, the movie does venture into the legal aspects of tribal law and whether conventional authorities really may act on tribal land when necessary. Even that fits into the conclusion nicely.

Visually, the film is striking (the opening shot somehow reminds me of Lake Superior), and it makes me miss my six years in Minnesota. The film could have used wider screen aspect ratio.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

"Tropic Thunder": Ben Stiller's irreverent "mega" and "meta" comedy


Yes, Dreamworks (along with Red Hour and other production companies) is said to have invested $100 million or more in Ben Stiller’s mega-satire “Tropic Thunder.” Beside a “mega” something it is also a “meta film,” in that Stiller’s main “message” is supposed to deal with Hollywood’s making fun of itself. One another level, the obvious references to “Mash” (e.g., the guts) and even “Apocalypse Now” seem almost like a side show, mainly an excuse for mega-gags (some of them rather gross).

Most moviegoers have heard about the setup. Stiller and company (including Robert Downey Jr., Brandon T. Jackson. Jack Black, and “Just Legal” (‘s) Jay Baruchel (who proves he can be a bit macho here) are making an anti-war movie in present day Vietnam (actually, the film shooting was done in Kauai, Hawaii). The shooting gets behind and the studio is about to pull the plug. One of the directors decides to make an impromptu movie, when suddenly the crew are ambushed by drug lords, and have to survive and escape a POW camp in a manner similar to the script of the movie.

That’s where the “meta movie” comes in. They are supposedly filming one of the two books published about a particular 1969 raid, and the armless author figures into the plot. So, on one level, the movie could be viewed as an exercise in “daring reality” by presenting it publicly in fiction, when suddenly a hostile party makes it happen. You talk about something and write about it, and suddenly you have to do it.

Yet, Stiller seems not to have that kind of moral reach. That brings up the subject of the notorious interchange in the jungle (after things have gone “wrong”) between Stiller (called Tugg Speedman) and another soldier, about those with disabilities. The conversation is existential and makes a few comparisons (mentioning “Rain Man”), and may use some “inappropriate” words. The writing is tricky but pointed, and funny in a sick way. The audience was laughing (at a Regal cinema on a Sunday night there were perhaps 50 people). Stiller says he is making fun of attitudes in Hollywood. But that might be more convincing had the conversation occurred before the plot turn. (There is a little of that conversation earlier.) Anyway, we know that some people wanted to boycott the film, but the public seems to have forgotten it. A relevant point, for me at least, is that in war, especially Vietnam where we had a draft, a lot of times the "fittest" young men bear the sacrifice for others.

Material is viewed as inappropriate often with regard to a particular community in which a film or book or other artistic literature is developed and exhibited. I had a problem like this with a screenplay that was on my own domain. A substitute teacher was depicted as giving in to the advances of a student, winding up in prison and dying after some potentially false accusations while the student prospered. In another sequence early in my story, the substitute teacher refused to work in a potentially custodial assignment with a disabled student because he feared that an arcane provision in a federal law (connected to the military anti-gay policy – briefly alluded to in one crude passage near the end of this film) could cause him legal complications, but also because the sub felt humiliated by being asked to appear in swimming gear in the pool in front of students (he felt “ambushed” by the request). A couple of schools where I worked were very “offended” when they found the material on the web. But I maintain that it all a matter of context and intent, and the world that the writer believes that he lives in. Stiller seems to live in a world where anything goes. But I hope he appreciates the idea that not everyone does. All that said, somehow Ben Stiller comes across to me as someone who could be an 11th grade history teacher!

Technically, and in terms of costume and makeup, the film is quite remarkable. There are even some effects reminiscent of the “Final Destination” movies. Tom Cruise plays the greedy studio executive Les Grossman, who is made up as bald and covered with glued-on fake ape-like body hair. During the end credits, Les actually does a “Risky Business” dance. On the other hand, Stiller’s chest, at least, has been shaved because it belongs, almost literally in one place, to his captors.

Friday, September 05, 2008

"A Jihad for Love" is a controversial documentary about homosexuality and Islam


First Run Features has released a daring documentary from Logo and Channel Four Films (K), Halal Films, directed by Parvez Sharma, called simply “A Jihad for Love” (blog). It is about how Islam deals with homosexuality. We all hear the stories about the harsh treatment of gays in Islam, particularly men. But the picture is more complicated.

At the outset, we have to state a contradiction. In its most literal sense, a “jihad” is supposed to be a spiritual journey dealing with moral and spiritual issues. Anyone can experience this. You don’t have to be a Muslim to fight a holy war within yourself over a fundamental issue. One woman in Pakistan says this toward the end of the movie. Yet, very early, the documentary shows an interview with an iman (in Egypt, I think), who minces no words on the supposed terminal penalties for homosexual acts required by the Koran. There is no right to question scripture, he says. Yet, with the Koran, as with the Bible in Judaism and Christianity, there is genuine opportunity for different interpretations. In the Koran the most important scriptural controversy concerns how to interpret the well known story of Sodom and Gomorrah. And Islam has no pope who can issue centralized edicts. By its essential structural nature, and despite the political desire for a caliphate, in Islam matters of scriptural interpretation are decentralized.

The film moves among multiple countries. In South Africa, where a man marries but “comes out” and is “excommunicated” by his Mosque, only to be invited back later to speak. In Egypt, a young man is jailed and abused, but somehow gets to Paris where eventually he gets and apartment and work as a drag queen. Iran presents the most terrifying picture; some young men journey to central Turkey, in a snowy winter, for asylum, and two eventually go to Toronto. Nevertheless, the film cannot show or name of one the men, out of fear of what could happen to parents or siblings back home in Iran.

Pakistan and northern India (the home of the second largest concentration of Muslims) are shown as a bit more “open” in practice, with vestiges of old British laws rarely enforced. That may be surprising. The film also covers dervish Sufism (here's one link about it) as potentially more tolerant. One wonders why the film did not visit Indonesia or Malaysia, or central Africa and the Sudan.

Religious objection to homosexuality is often states in terms of the authority of scripture. Rarely is there an intellectual rationalization, to get around the libertarian harmlessness argument. It’s clear, however, that the most strenuous anti-gay attitudes occur in patriarchal cultures where men have a lot of “emotional” investment in the “power” that they gain from fathering and heading a family. The forbidding of homosexuality is supposed to reinforce the emotional rewards of power, so that the father will “take care” of everyone. Gay men, as often in Christian culture, say they cannot be "themselves" and easily meet the social expectations that their families believe that they have a right to demand of them, let alone the interpretation of religious law.

Lesbianism usually does not bring the extreme sanctions in Islam of male homosexuality (the Koran says very little for women), but women feel pressure to marry and bear children, sometimes too young. In a few primitive countries there is mutilation. In some countries (like Egypt) lesbians who wear veils say that they actually feel freer from the advances of men.

I saw this at the second showing at the Landmark E Street in Washington DC on a Friday afternoon, with about 25 people in the largest auditorium. The film was shown by digital projection and ran 81 minutes. The director was due for the later shows but I came early because the tropical storm was approaching.

Nadya Lani had an interesting story about covert gay life in Saudi Arabia in the May 2007 Atlantic, discussed on my LGBT blog here in April 2007.



This film can be rented for viewing on YouTube for about $3 (as of Sept. 2011).

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Arab businessmen invest in Warner Brothers films


The New York Times is reporting that Abu Dhabi Media Company, which belongs to the government of the capital of the United Arab Emirates, has made a deal for $1 billion to invest in films and video games for Warner Brothers, one of the major Hollywood Studios, a subsidiary of Time Warner. Warner Brothers has the trademark showing an orange picture of its studio lot with the Casablanca musical theme playing with piano and orchestra. I wish WB would always use this musical trademark!

But the Arab entity will have American partners, to be announced at the Toronto Film Festival on September 13. This is said to be an investment from Arab princes “flush with oil money”. Abu Dhabi is a separate city from Dubai (with the Burj) but it isn’t hard to imagine Dubai becoming involved, too.

There has been some loss of hedge fund money in Hollywood because the recent financial downturns associated with the credit crunch. The Weinstein Company and MGM (which sometimes collaborate) are said to have often received hedge fund investment, but the practice is rather common in a lot of larger independent films (and producer's conferences, such as those sponsored by IFP in some cities, cover the process). But some industry people wonder about accepting “a hand that feeds you” tied to governments with religious cultural values, even if places like Abu Dhabi and Dubai seem freer than other parts of the Islamic world.

In the past, Hollywood was affected severely by political loyalty issues and “anti-Communist” purges back in the 1940s and 1950s, along with blacklists. A lot of controversial plots and ideas only gradually became acceptable, with leading actors refusing some controversial roles (“Double Indemnity”) for a long time.

It should be noted that Islam has come up with some powerful independent film, such as “The Yacoubian Building” from Egypt, and “In the Name of God” from Pakistan. The first of these films now is distributed in the US by Strand. Recently, there was an Islamic film festival in Washington DC. First Run Features will soon release Parvez Sharma’s “A Jihad for Love” about homosexuality and Islam. A few edgy short films (“Fitna” and “Submission”) have caused extreme controversy and retribution or at least threats in radical Islam.

The news story, however, appears to be related to big-budget mass market films (especially family films) intended to have widespread appeal in the US and the West, rather than the independent films designed for adult and well-educated urban audiences (typical of The Weinstein Company, Magnolia, Overture, Lionsgate, and similar companies).

The story appears on p C1, “Business Day” of today’s NY Times (Sept 3), is called “Abu Dhabi puts more cash on the line in Hollywood,” is written by Tim Arango, and has this link.

Is the next stop for movie studio financing the Peoples Republic of Capitalism (e.g., China)?

Monday, September 01, 2008

In Search of a Midnight Kiss: A little BW movie from a Factory


OK, “In Search of a Midnight Kiss”, directed and written by Alex Holdridge and distributed by IFC First Take, is a nice, old-fashioned black-and-white movie, that you expect to have the look of film noir from the 40s and 50s, or perhaps some of those gentle comedies like “Sabrina” and "Marty”. Well, not exactly. It’s more like an Andy Warhol movie, something from The Factory LA (or Austin TX now). You don’t see Joe D’Allesandro; rather you see gritty actors (and actresses) and real characters that like for the moment and talk plain, and are hardly aware that the high-tech world of Craigslist and Myspace that starts them off are rather recent add-ons. (The film does make a clever comparison between the two; it's like you get nowhere in life now without checking people out online first.) They haven’t always existed in their black-and-white purgatory that we call Los Angeles.

The black-and-white really didn’t work for me on the outdoor shots. I usually like to fill in color with my mind’s eye. Perhaps it wasn’t crisp and metallic enough (compare to the Coen Brother’s “The Man Who Wasn’t There”) This time, I missed the green of the Hollywood Hills (or is it parched brown), and the red of the roses handed to Vivian (Sara Simmonds) on the Long Beach Metro by some homeless man, embarrassing to his meet-up Wilson (Scoot McNairy, who helped to produce the film). Where the visual approach is in the Hitchcock-like closeups, particularly of the male characters, and particularly Wilson (a struggling screenwriter trying to sell his first big script -- comedies only from this "regular guy"), who starts out scruffy, but when cleaned up for his “date” is most appealing and exudes a simple kind of charisma. The camera lingers on skin tone, making the characters lush or splotched according to the circumstances. It can focus on the little things with Warhol-like attention, as to Wilson’s arm and chest hair.

There have been BW movies in full Scope, like Hud, where the combination of breadth and abstraction work well; but here you just must have the closeups, full frontal, with undivided attention. So 1.85:1 aspect was appropriate. Some of the scenes appear to have been filmed with Dogme technique.

The story is a bit unbalanced, paying more attention to the transformation of Wilson than his pal Jacob (a taller Brian McGuire) who pairs up with Min (Kathleen Luong). There is a crucial scene, transitioning the screenplay from “middle” to “end” where Vivian gets a cell phone call from a jealous ex-boy friend, who wants to talk to Wilson. After shaking his head, Wilson handles the threats quite coolly. “I’m just a guy…” “Say what you want, I’m with her.”

The music score (by Kaz Boyle?) gets interesting in places, especially with saxophone passages that anticipate intimacy. There is one curious passage accompanying a mid-film visit to the Los Angeles Oprheum, which looks odd in black and white.

The end of the movie may seem to head for something like Kathryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days” since it is New Years Eve in LA. The results are intimate, but maybe don’t provide such a cliffhanger.