Tuesday, December 30, 2008
“E pluribus unum” is found on the Seal of the United States, and the phrase becomes the title of a 13-minute short film “Out of Many, One” in the new Visitor’s Center at the United States Capitol, link here. The HD film, shown on a large screen (ratio 1:85:1) in a new auditorium with stadium seating, traces the history of the Capitol in current and past photos. The original structure was built with largely slave labor in 1811, and was burned by the British during the War of 1812. It was repaired quickly, and construction on the Dome continued during the War Between the States, as President Lincoln believed that the continued construction would give the people confidence that the Union would continue. The film mentions the Great Compromise, which changed the paradigm for the country from a collection of separate states (freed during the Revolutionary War by “sacrifices of families”) to a republic governed under a system marked by federalism as well as representative government. The film covers some of Article I of the Constitution, as the legislative branch represents the people the most directly.
Monday, December 29, 2008
Who wouldn’t like to have the bod of an 18 year old again and the “wisdom” of a 65 year old? Maybe that's just vicarious identification. I recall once, in seventh grade, walking home from school and speculating with friends what it would be like to live backwards. As for me, I can imagine the panoply of events that I witnessed, regressing into better times and then eventually back to the days of McCarthyism. I can imagine watching my own body, although it would take decades for the right hair, on my legs and then my pate, to grow back, and then other hair, like chest, to disappear.
The problem with Brad Pitt’s perfect character Benjamin Button at biological age 18 is that he already knows how much time he has life to live. That helps frame the storytelling experiment, David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” (I think the word "Life" should have been used instead of "Case".) The short story (that makes a 165 min film) comes from F. Scott Fitzgerald, but the concept sounds more like it came from Oscar Wilde, perhaps with a touch of Dorian Gray. Pitt has worked for director David Fincher before, in 1995 with Se7en, where the script was changed when Pitt broke his arm.
The film has a lot of CGI special effects and dawdles a bit, taking almost two hours to get to where he is no longer an old man – but one of the best scenes happens after the tug that he works on is “conscripted” into WWII and it destroys a German submarine.
The outer story has Button’s life long love, who aged forward, dying in a New Orleans hospital as her daughter reads Button’s story, while Hurricane Katrina approaches. Early in the film, at biological age 65 or so, Button says he has never had an "experience"; same here.
The opening of the backstory shows a badly deformed baby abandoned in 1918 New Orleams. Medically, the baby seems to have pregoria, but the child is “healed” by being slain in the spirit during an Assembly of God rally. That starts the backward aging miracle that gives Button the epic life. I once saw the “laying on of hands” at a revival at the Brownsville Assembly of God in Pensacola Florida in November 1998.
When I recovered from my own acetabular fracture (hip) over two months in 1998, I sort of experienced reverse aging, as I got back to life. I remember shedding the crutches as a convenience store (after a small speaking engagement) on a Sunday afternoon, a few days after a major speaking engagement while on the crutches. Three weeks later, I went to the Minnesota AIDS Project Academy Awards Party at the Orpheum Theater on Hennepin in Minneapolis and shed the crutches for the whole evening. It was wonderful, one of the best experiences of my own curious life.
I suppose my titanium plate could attract lightning strikes, just like the codger (with dementia) in the movie, who says (7 times) he has been struck by lightning seven times. Eventually, Button, as he ages backward into infancy, doesn’t remember his epic life or who he is because he has become a tabula rusa, essentially nothing without parents to build him back. Like a baby who cannot thrive, he dies in the arms of his former love in a special needs home.
Fincher provides other metaphors for the story, like the Grand Central Station clock that works backward. He has almost remade “The Time Machine” or perhaps even “Time Bandits.”
I saw the film in a large AMC Auditorium in Arlington VA on a Monday night, 7 PM show, and it was about half full, very good for a weeknight. The film is distributed by Paramount in the USA and Warner Brothers elsewhere. Paramount has tried a neat experiment with its trademark.
Picture: Me, lecturing at Hamline University, St. Paul, MN, Feb. 25, 1998. The crutches were nearby. I actually got a speeding ticket driving "home" that night.
Sunday, December 28, 2008
"The Amish: A People of Preservation": this documentary short actually provides good insight into the "culture wars"
PBS, Netflix and Heritage Films offer a 54 minute documentary film “The Amish: A People of Preservation”, filmed in 2000, written by John Hostetler and John Ruth, with direction by Burton Buller. Here is a “PA Dutch” link for purchase. The film can be watched in “Play Mode” on broadband at Netflix (by paid Netflix subscribers).
A study of the Amish probably helps us understand the moral thinking underneath most socially conservative religious groups, especially more communal groups. For example, the Mormon Church shares some of the same community values of the Amish even if the Mormon Church often, in its own ways, embraces modernity.
The film starts with the early history of the group, in Switzerland in the middle of the last millennium. The group migrated to Alsace, and then the most conservative members came over to America. The Mennonites have beliefs similar to the Amish but are not as strict in controlling modernity. I have seen Mennonite communities in West Texas. The Amish are best known in Pennsylvania, around Lancaster, but also have settled in many other states, particularly in the Midwest, such as Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin.
Amish society emphasizes communal discipline and humility (“daamut”) instead of individual pride (“hochmut”). Typically, children go to school for eight grades and the teacher has only a grade school education. Amish society distrusts knowledge for its own sake (it is kind of “anti-Wikipedia”). It is a culture of “doing” rather than “saying”; it is “in the world” but not “of the world.” On one level, Amish values sound like they are scripturally driven. But the moral rules of the culture seemed to be designed around both sustainability (the Amish could survive a collapse of civilization if technology were destroyed by war or terror, like with an EMP attack, or some sort of astronomical calamity), and an intention to protect to life of every member of the community as a member before being an individual. Church elders monitor technological innovation very closely (usually rejecting electricity, especially), wary that efficiency will take over community, that the individual will become separate from social meaning, and that end results will become more important than the experience of work in a communal context. Elderly people do not become “obsolete” because of “progress.” Marriage exists not for the individuals in the relationship only but for the entire community. It is difficult for many modern western people today to accept this notion: that the most intimate parts of one's life -- love and marriage or partnership -- are driven by the needs of others in the community and not just one's own psychic needs. There is no such thing in Amish (or similarly communal) societies as individual psychological surplus; the individual is not allowed to operate independently enough to experience surplus. Everything that happens reinforces and emanates from the extreme socialization of members of the community. One could say that it is karma carried to the extreme, to the extent that karma itself becomes communized: the individual is not allowed to transcend responsibility for that which makes his or her life possible. As a result of this balance, everyone is guaranteed a meaningful place in the community for life. The Amish have maintained a culture where no individual "fails" in the usual western sense.
Other secular cultures have tried to carry this notion of “justice” to extreme, such as Communism (particularly under Mao). But some religious groups, like the Amish, that practice communal discipline are actually quite successful and stable and free from corruption. Others have not. Contrary to popular belief, Amish will pay for accept conventional medical services from the outside world. One benefit for such a group is that individual poverty and homelessness, so familiar in open capitalist society, don't occur; there is a bit of Utopian intention in such communities.
Amish church services are held in homes (which are often augmented for extended families), with lay ministers. Women and men sit separately in adjacent rooms. The hosting homes go through great food and hospitality preparations for the entire Sunday events.
Young people are allowed more “experiments” with modernity than older people, who, once they take their vows, can be excommunicated if they break ranks. Kids learn to accept the social experience of communal labor as "pleasurable" and have simple recreations, like a game of cornerball (similar to dodgeball) shown as played with some neighboring Mennonites.
Amish teenagers often leave the culture, but sometimes come back. They can be disadvantaged by the stoppage of school at eight grade, which the Supreme Court ok-ed in 1972, according to the film (ironically, Justice Burger talking about the value of diversity). On my TV Blog, I have a review of the ABC "Primetime Live" program “The Outsiders: The Amish Speak Out” on June 25, 2008, here.
The documentary briefly mentions the 1984 Hollywood film “Witness” from Paramount (directed by Peter Weir) in which a young Amish widow (Rachel McGillis) takes her son to Philadelphia, where he witnesses a murder of a policeman. Harrison Ford plays John Book, the detective who must protect them in their own community. The movie increased public interest in the Amish.
Picture: Amish schoolhouse near Bird-in-Hand PA, 2006.
Saturday, December 27, 2008
Christmas Day, the new film from Tom Cruise and his resurrected MGM/United Artists, “Valkyrie” opened, after preparation with a matching documentary on the History Channel (reviewed here Dec. 2). The film dramatizes the last attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler at the Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia in July, 1944.
The film was directed by Bryan Singer and written by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander. Tom Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the ring leader tor the coup and revolt.
Pretty early, the film explains the term “Valkyrie” (or Walkure, from Wagner) as the plan for restructuring Hitler’s government as the Allies approach. Stauffenberg reinvented Valyrie according to his own prescription, and even gets Hitler to sign off on it, blindly.
Cruise has to play the film with missing fingers on one hand, a missing hand (covered by a sleeve in dress uniform) and an eye patch. That’s from a wounding in North Africa as the film opens. In one critical scene, he has to give the “Heil” salute and the prosthetic is shown cleverly. As the documentary pointed out, people were jailed for not doing the proper salute to the Fuhrer.
Cruise's acting emphasizes military assertiveness, as he has to undo the "truth" and manipulate others when the rumors of Hitler's death are challenged. He still keeps barking orders and trying to pull off the coup.
Historians say that Stauffenberg may have been as concerned about Hitler’s apparent military ineptitude as with saving Germany and Europe, the latter theme presented throughout the movie. Cruise gets to remain the hero, although battered and her coming to his end.
The film is presented in standard aspect ratio, when it seems wider screen would have been appropriate. As drama, it is fairly straightforward, if over zealous, but it may not present history as clearly as the documentary above. The noisy, busy technology of the times – the teletypes (and typing pools), the emphasis on physical couriers and paperwork to carry military correspondence, now seems striking to us in the Internet age; by the time of the Vietnam war, the US military carried on pretty much the same way.
I saw the film on a Saturday afternoon in a large Regal Auditorium in northern Virginia, and it was over half full.
Friday, December 26, 2008
I visited the memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau about 30 miles from Krakow, Poland on a sunny day, May 25, 1999. I had rented a taxi from the train station for the day for less than $100 to spend the morning there (and then visit the Salt mines). I even remember the night train “East” from Berlin, and then many stops on the way, and the laggard travelers on the train in the early morning.
There were serious issues back home, which I won’t go into now, and it was questionable that I should have made the prepaid trip to Europe. But I did, and I recall going through the artifacts: the shoes, the wigs, and worse. I was acutely aware that had I lived in that part of the world in the 1930s or early 1940s, I might well have wound up there. The ruling ideology had no use for someone “like me” who would not justify what he consumed by reproducing. It sounds horribly callous now, but in the 1930s, for people who lived under Nazism (and some who live in any extremist or totalitarian system), it sounded like any other “moral” rationalization to achieve some desired order.
In Stephen Daldry’s new film, “The Reader” (The Weinstein Company, 122 minutes, based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink) the male protagonist, who is a genuine hero, walks through the ruins as a law student at age 23, in 1966. That particular scene gave me a real case of déjà vu, and brought back everything going on in my life in 1999. I felt like I was Michael Berg myself for five minutes. The young Michael Berg is played quite skillfully by David Kross, himself only 18 now. Earlier in the film he is 15, and I’ll come back to that in a moment, but note there were subtle visual “pre-production” preparations required of the actor to even mature a bit at 23 (just watch carefully). Actors go through a lot, even with their own bodies. The middle aged Berg (from 1976-1995) is played by the veteran and grown-up Ralph Fiennes, who looks a bit gaunt, and doesn’t change that much from age 32 or so to 52.
I want to divert myself for a moment here and just mention one of Ralph Fiennes other “socially” charged films, “The Constant Gardener”, from 2005 (Focus Features, dir. Fernando Meirelles, where Fiennes plays diplomat Justin Quayle and tries to get his wife (Rachel Weisz) from investigation corporate misdoings, out of fear that doing the right thing publicly will bring harm to him and the family. That sort of moral double standard comes back in this film, and seems to mark much of Fiennes’s career.
The story jumps back and forth in time, but nevertheless the film (“The Reader”, that is) has the definite “beginning, middle and end” which frames all the moral relativism, and there is plenty of it. In the middle, Berg is an idealistic and verbal law student, attending a law school seminar in Heidelberg taught by a Holocaust survivor. The professor lectures on the difference between “morality” and “the law” and stresses that “the law” must always remain narrow (much as Jeffrey Toobin always says on CNN about American law). Now, the seminar students are supposed to attend a War Crimes trial of a number of female guards from Auschwitz, one of whom is Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). The trial has come about because of a book written by one of the survivors of a particularly horrific incident. The trouble is, Berg has personal history with Hanna, and he knows information that might get her acquitted or a lighter sentence. And she is too ashamed of her real secret to let go. There is a scene where they meet, and most of it seems "deleted", which almost seems like a screenwriting ruse to prevent premature spoiler; I think we should have seen the actual conversation. (I'll bet it is on the DVD.)
Before getting back to the story, I wanted to note another point about “morality”, which did affect the law in West Germany, at least, after WWII. If someone participates as a soldier or employee in an organization that commits a crime, is the person personally responsible for the crime? That’s complicated in American law, and the point is explored here even for War Crimes trials. It figures into the verdict in some technical ways, and her secret would have mattered. My own personal feeling has always been, you share the karma of any group you depend on. One of the law students has an outburst in the seminar, asking why the S.S. guards didn't just kill themselves rather than contribute to the Nazi crimes and inherit their guilt.
Anyway, that takes us to the first act of the film (nearly half of it), which is the 1958 backstory. As a teenage boy, Berg was sick, vomiting and collapsing in the winter rain, when Hanna took him home. He would recover quickly enough from scarlet fever, and Hanna would befriend him. The intimacy is almost accidental at first, but grows. I don’t know if the affair was illegal according to West German law at the time, but it would be in many states in the U.S. But Berg does not seem “victimized”; he seems able to master the situation, for better or worse. Hanna seems to be bringing him out of vulnerability (anathema in the German society in which Hanna had grown up) into physicality and virile manhood, and this, on the surface, seems like an immediate virtue. Soon Hanna taps into his intellect (always his inborn strength), and he starts reading books to her, which is a clue to the secret, and to the movie’s paradoxical third act. If the behavior (particularly Hanna's) in the sequences seems immoral or offensive to some, it needs to be put into perspective of the real moral issues in the courtroom drama of the film’s second act – and all this makes the “moral structure” of the film quite interesting. This turns into a “meta-film” – an exercise on how we should think about film as a moral medium. The film also bears comparison to "Doubt" (from Weinstein's separated company Miramax) reviewed here Dec. 16.
The last act of the film has the lawyer Berg sending tapes to Hanna, who spends her remaining 22 years in prison until she dies. There is a closing of circle of karma here.
The film played to a 2/3 full large auditorium on Friday afternoon (3 PM) December 26 at the Cinema Arts Theater in Fairfax Virginia. Despite the gravity of the material, the film may do very well at the box office.
I wrote a screenplay short once about a substitute teacher who is accused of an improper relationship with a student, which may not have “actually” happened (the screenplay is not explicit physically) and the teacher’s imprisonment (which becomes harrowing, just as in this film) may be unjust. Nevertheless, the student benefits, publicizing the teacher’s music and his own career, where the teacher soon dies in prison of medical problems. That set up is roughly similar to this movie in some ways, and yet when a principal (where I subbed) found it on my website, I got in trouble – over being connected (perhaps by personally resembling the character too much -- the new “fiction” problem) to an idea, a potentiality, something that could happen in a parallel universe perhaps. This is, after all, all meta-talk.
Thursday, December 25, 2008
"Richard Milhous Nixon: If the President does it, then that means it is not illegal.
"David Paradine Frost (after hestitaging): I’m sorry?"
Okay, I’m not going to try to import FinalDraft into Blogger to reproduce some of Peter Morgan’s screenplay for Ron Howard’s latest big film, “Frost / Nixon”, from Universal (with the Valkyrie opening), Imagine, Relativity Media, Working Title and Studio Canal (France). The non-fiction biographical account of the “the trial of Richard Nixon” (played by Frank Langhella, at the hands of the young, foppish enterprising British journalist (played by British/Welsh actor Michael Sheen) hits all the multiplexes Christmas Day, after two weeks of very limited runs. I saw it this morning (Dec, 25) for just $6 at a modern AMC in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, in a large auditorium about one third full, with a surprising amount of (Holiday) activity on the mall when I came out, giving the economic circumstances. AMC bills this as “AMC Select” but Universal is using its own trademark rather than its indie brand “Focus”, which it did use for “Milk”.
The film may look a bit too big. The 2.35:1 format makes the closeups on Nixon a little less tortuous than they might be (I think this movie almost needs an Alfred Hitchcock focus -- one even wonders how Gus Van Sant would have done it.)
I’ll get to the “moral” problems, obviously important to Morgan in a moment. But the movie has a real “story,” the progress of Frost’s own venture, and the amount of risk he took to set up Richard Nixon’s day of reckoning (near his San Clemente, CA home) in the spring of 1977 (when Jimmy Carter, having defeated Gerald Ford, had started his one term presidency). Frost is unable to get the major networks to buy his effort, and sets up a self-syndication that anticipates business strategy for today’s Internet. (Yet, we see him walking around holding rotary phones – this film really looks like the 70s.) His career in exuberant satire had gone from Britain to Australia (the film has brief shots from London and Sydney), and here is this media comic from “Mother Country” almost about to claim America back (only kidding, or course). It strikes me that it would take “Mother Country” to bring Nixon to his knees. Frost even taunts Nixon with a personal assessment that if Nixon doesn't come clean about his obstruction of justice, it will taunt him for the remainder of his life.
There is a point where Nixon, in some kind of extended “senior moment”, calls Frost, and gives an impassioned speech to the effect that only one of them will survive to remain “in the limelight.” That recharges Frost’s own batteries, and sets up Nixon’s final unraveling.
The movie does start with a rendition of Nixon’s “37th White House address” on Aug. 8, 1974, and the hollow triumph of his shameful departure (as a 37th President) from the White House Aug. 9. The Ford pardon is briefly covered. Later, after a series of exchanges where Frost seems to put up his own money, Nixon’s advisers (Jack Brennan, played by an aging Kevin Bacon) hover to protect him. Brennan wants “Watergate” to consume only 25% of the elapsed time of the tapes, and quibbles with Frost over the “definition” of Watergate. Brennan notes that Frost's lace-less Italian shoes look "effeminate", and Nixon repeats the comment to Frost, almost insinuating a belief that the flamboyant Frost could be gay while still wondering about his dating African American girl friends. (The film explains the evolution of the political suffix “-gate”.) But at the first interview, Frost runs out of his starting place by asking “Why didn’t you burn the tapes?”
On Frost’s side, there is plenty of cover, most of all researcher James Reston Jr. (a youngish Sam Rockwell) who so desperately want to bring Nixon down just out of indignation so familiar from that period of history.
At the very end, there is a moment of quiet conversation as Frost and Nixon overlook the Pacific Ocean, and Nixon asks Frost if he likes parties. The Nixon says it must be wonderful to like people and be liked by people. He says that Frost should have been the politician, and Nixon the journalist or writer. Nixon says he is still fascinated by solitary ruminations and "intellectual discipline." Nixon knew (pun intended) that he could rationalize any set of beliefs. At the Ninth Street Center, Nixon was classified as a "subjective feminine." Yes, we had a psychologically feminine man in the White House in Richard Milhous Nixon.
All of this happened at an important time in my life. I was leaving Univac, and starting work as a mainframe computer programmer at NBC in New York City on Aug. 12. People from the network who stumble on this blog probably remember me, and what was going on then. I was driving my Pinto in suburban New Jersey when I heard Nixon’s Aug. 8 speech (“I am not a quitter…”), and spent Aug. 9 at a customer site in White Plains NY on my last day with Univac, while Nixon was leaving the White House. On Aug. 12 I would start at NBC, and that evening I would hear Gerald Ford say “I am a Ford, not a Model T”. He could say some bizarre things (like his comment about eastern Europe). I would move into the East Village (the border of it) on Sept. 7 (after a celebrative weekend in Mexico City Labor Day) and start a very important four-plus years in my life. It seemed fitting for me that one period end and another begin while Nixon was leaving. A film like this brings back those days. I did watch Ford’s pardon speech from my Cast Iron Building apartment on Sunday afternoon Sept. 8, almost the first thing to happen after I moved in.
This film is like a term paper that the teacher marks up in red ink with constructive criticism, but still gives an "A" to. I was quite moved, and give it a full five stars.
Liberation Video offers "David Frost Interviews Richard Nixon" (1977), directed by Jorn Winther, which is in my Netflix queue (with a long wait).
Picture: Mine, taken from the Washington Monument, Aug. 2007. Watergate is to the right of the Kennedy Center. I don’t happen to have a closer one right now of my own. I’ve been in the Watergate just once for a party. In the early 1970s, it was one of Washington’s most “prestigious” condominiums.
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Brian Cox, whom I certainly remember from L.I.E. (“Long Island Expressway) turns in a quiet yet compelling performance in "Red", directed by Trygve Allister Diesen and Lucky McKee, from Magnolia Pictures. It should not be confused with “Red” in the trilogy “Three Colors” from Krzysztof Kieslowski.
Cox plays Avery Ludlow, a store proprietor in a river town. Red is the name of his 14 year old mutt dog. He’s also a widower, and at the film’s midpoint he tells the chilling story of what had happened to his family due to a mean son. In this film, his telling the story verbally is more effective than trying to act it out as a backstory. But at the opening, he is fishing with his dog when three local teenagers come up, threaten to rob him, and shoot Red for no reason. They say something like “you should keep more money on you.” There is a senseless meanness. Avery tries to get the cops and the boys fathers to take action, and then starts following the boys around to get justice. A reporter tries to help by offering to air the story without mentioning names (out of fear of libel). Avery starts to be perceived as the stalker, and then become the hunter (starting about with the baseball field scene; we don’t get to see the ball get batted).
The film does bear a little bit of relation to other films about pointless rural ambush crime, like “Deliverance” but this is much more intense as a character study, almost in the style of a (modern) western (it’s supposed to take place in Oregon, but much of it was filmed in Baltimore and Westminster, MD). But it is also a bit like a stageplay in places. The film uses the color "red" strategically in a few places (reminding one of Kieslowski) and even to blank the screen in scene shifts.
The film is likely to be popular in screenwriting classes because of its straightforward structure. Stephen Susco wrote the screenplay, adapted from a novel by Jack Ketchum.
Brian Cox gives an interview on the DVD. He says that studio films indirectly fund independent films, and that he generally prefers independent films that pose more questions of a moral nature than they answer.
Sunday, December 21, 2008
I expected “Dead Serious”, directed by Joe Sullivan (in 2005), available at LogoOnline (here) (from Moodude films) to be a gay “Feast” and I’ll get to that in a moment. But it’s more like “Timber Falls”, the take-off on “Deliverance” that aired recently on the Sci-Fi channel.
The premise of “Dead Serious” is that a right wing group (called “The Christian Action Army”) takes over a fictitious gay disco (called the “Boulevard Tavern”) more or less on New York City’s west side (presumably near “The Trucks”), kidnaps some patrons and presumably will convert them to straight on reality TV on “The Decency Channel” that comes ready with production assistants. The cult leader (Tom Cahill) purports to fix the “pervert” brain with a serum. (He makes a curious comparison between homosexuality and left-handedness, viewing them both as "abnormal". Chandler Burr's book "A Separate Creation" in 1996 on homosexuality and biology had compared sexual orientation to handedness.) Well, he does, and that’s by converting them to vampires. Gradually, the film turns into a gore fest.
There’s some opportunity to explore his existential motives. He wants to make everybody normal, make everybody play by his rules, and he gets off on capturing others into his world of virtue. And they live forever (vampires do) as slaves, of the head vampire, as long as he lives. So, I guess there is some sort of allegory to how all our historical political and moral problems play out.
“Feast” (2005, dir. by John Gulager) won the Project Greenlight III screenwriting contest (by Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton) in 2004, and was screened at Landmark’s E-street in Washington. Here, an ordinary bar (or plain dive) in the desert is attacked by monsters in the night. There’s no real meaning or pretense of it. HBO ran a series on how this film was made for Dimension for less than $1 million, and how tough it was. (HBO had series on the other Greenlight winners (“Stolen Summer”, and “The Battle of Shaker Heights”, which featured Shia LaBeouf), and there was enormous pressure on all the directors from Miramax executive Chris Moore). Anyway, “Feast” was more “straightforward” than this Logo film; “Feast” was just a rondo.
“Timber Falls” (from Slowhand Releasing and A-Mark, dir. Tony Giglio) looks a little more ambitious. (Don't confuse with "Seraphim Falls"!) A young couple goes hiking in West Virginia (it looks like British Columbia, sorry) and is waylaid by a religious cult that will make mockery of the idea of “marriage” in order to give the cult leader an heir and an anti-Christ. This pretty much combines “Deliverance”, “Misery”, with the “Saw” and “Hostel” movies. The decapitation at the end is so well done. All this movie needs is Betsy Palmer from “Friday the 13th”. “They were doomed,” indeed. Nothing could save them, except themselves.
Saturday, December 20, 2008
Once in a while we see a film with a character making bizarre contacts with others, recalling backstories from his life, and we know he is heading for something, and the mystery is – what’s the big secret. Memento was a bit like this.
In “Seven Pounds” – a title with several meanings – Will Smith plays the Everyman, on a mission to pay back his karma. For a while we wonder if he really is some kind of supernatural angel. He could have been, but that would make a different movie and teach a different lesson. (No, there’s no real connection to the Seven Deadly Sins, or is there?) The film, from Columbia (with Overbrook Entertainment, Escape Artists and Relativity Media) is directed by Gabriele Muccino and written by Grant Neoporte. Will Smith is one of the producers of the film. The film is shot in full 2.35 to 1 and emphasizes dark, orange or “Titan-like” grim colors.
As the film begins, Ben Thomas (Will Smith), masquerading as an IRS agent, is taking a telemarketing call from a beef salesman Ezra Turner (Woody Harrelson) who will be one of seven needy people to whom he says something like “you get me.” Later we’ll see Ezra show up playing a Baldwin as a “blind pianist” in lobbies, and Ben has figured out he was blind over the phone. The most important is Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson), a woman with cardiomyopathy and on a list for a heart transplant. (Think how much a heart weighs.) She may be the most obvious beneficiary. There's some interesting stuff involving operating old fashion lithograph presses, and it's odd that Ben knows how to fix one. There is the abandoned Hispanic woman in the LA barrio (Elpidia Carillo) who will become homeless. There is the best friend played by Barry Pepper. The film starts and stops and builds up in syncopated fashion, and we don’t learn about the horrific car wreck that set up his karma until toward the end.
The other interesting clue is the flea bag motel (the manager asks him “how many hours?” – I was asked that in 1985 in Birmingham, AL – and Ben says two weeks – and later he tells the manage her will die there – so the manager wants his money – got all that?) He also sets up an aquarium in the motel room, feeding fish to a pet box jellyfish (Chironex fleckeri), the most venomous creature on the planet. He gets some sack ice and fills up a bathtub. Perhaps the box jellyfish venom neutralizes the RH blood factors (although I don’t see that as fact anywhere). But you get what is going to happen.
Ben is on a mission, and feels very determined and involved in his mission. He is living his life to the fullest, but he knows that he is in his Last Act.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
The idea of a gay man’s reuniting with a past (high school days) best friend is the subject of at least (as far as I know) unpublished novel so far, and it also builds the story of the extended short (55 min) “Like a Brother” (“Comme un frère) from French directors Bernard Alapetite and Cyril Legann. Sebastien (Benoit Deliere) leaves a seaside French town for gay life in the Bastille section of Paris, and leaves behind his straight-leaning and very virile (oh, those gams!) best friend Romain (Thibault Boucaux). The movie story unfolds out of sequence, and uses sepia for the back story of their friendship, which is quite tender. I had a “best friend” toward the end of my high school days which figured in to my life in a way important to me, but the friendship here was closer physically. The suspense, of course, is what will happen when Romain comes to Paris.
The DVD did have a problem with pixillation of the images toward the end of the film.
The notion that young men who run around together can be “brothers” in a way suggestive of “lovers” has figured into fiction before. I have a suspense novel script based on that idea, and one could even say that about the CW “Supernatural” series. The relationship between the men, while tender at times, does not include the social "pampering" that many heterosexual couples expect. There is no sense of "monopoly" as it is OK for each to have their own adventures. There is no anticipation of future hardships or the need for interdependence.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Once again, we put together two veteran stars and let them fight it out in a new independent film "Doubt", from John Patrick Stanley (direction his own adaptation of his own play), distributed by Miramax (which has expanded its NYC trademark with a little air tour). Philip Seymour Hoffman is the marginal priest, and Meryl Streep is the schoolmaster, head nun and principal who suspects him of inappropriate behavior with the Catholic school’s one African American boy. The movie looks stagey, with a lot of long dialogues and one-on-one debates, but upper New York City in the oncoming winter in late 1964 is effectively recreated in a film that looks a bit minimalist.
Very early, Hoffman’s character (Father Brendan Flynn) gives a sermon indicating that doubt can be essential to faith, and at the end Streep’s Sister Aloysius Beauvier confesses tearfully of her own doubt, Mother Theresa style. I can remember MCC communions where the celebrant says something like “I’m a believer, not a doubter.” The word appears to derive from French, but I don’t know where the unnecessary ‘b’ comes from.
As to the “evidence,” it is ambiguous enough for really reasonable “doubt”. True, Flynn gives the boy a magnet driven ballerina (rather a physics lesson in angular momentum) early. Then there is the story that the boy drank wine and was removed as an altar boy. Did Flynn give it to him? Then there were the phone calls by Beauvier to other parishes where Flynn had worked. Is this an early example of how the Roman Catholic scandal got started? Even at the end, Flynn is kicked upstairs and “promoted.” Is this “passing the trash” or a coverup?
Most interesting is the conversation (in an outside walk) with the mother (Viola Davis) who, with a surprisingly cool diction, gradually reveals that the boy was placed in Catholic school (as the only “negro” in the language of the LBJ, pre-Civil Rights days) because the boy had been taunted in public school and hated by his father for his “pre-homosexual” (to use the words of Peter Wyden’s notorious 1968 book “Growing Up Straight”).
The film effectively conveys the "atmosphere" of the Church among those who take the vows of poverty; it seems clear that the austere institutions are set up to give the "non marrying kind" a leadership role in Catholic society without disrupting the sexual and social norms of "the normal majority." I say austere, but the priests and nuns eat well. Classroom discipline is also shown well, and is quite pro-active. Amy Adams plays the eight grade teacher (and youthful confidant of both "combatants") well.
I once had a conversation with a principal when I was subbing about a serious incident (regarding my own website) that, though brief, had somewhat the tenor of this film. I could create the scene word for word, and with Meryl Streep playing the principal, it would blow the audiences away.
Viewers may want to check out the documentary “Deliver us from Evil” (2006, directed by Amy Berg) about the scandal surrounding California priest Father Oliver O’Grady.
Update: Dec. 27
Through Facebook, I found another screenwriter's blog with a notation about "Doubt". The link is here.
Saturday, December 13, 2008
First, the review below goes in the regular movies blog, not the “disaster movies” blog which tries to pull together films that really depict plausible threats to our civilization. Popcorn sci-fi doesn’t quite fit there.
I’ve often thought that one could make a compelling film about just what would happen socially and politically if there were absolutely uncontestable proof of an alien landing, with ambiguous evidence of hostile intentions. No movie has ever done that, really; not “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, not “War of the Worlds.” Actually, Shyamalan’s “Signs” gives a much more effective rendition of what it might be like.
The 1951 Fox version of “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” with the hokey music and crisp black and white photography did convey a bit of this (and it has some of the urgency of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” of the same era). Based on the story by Robert Bates and directed by Robert Wise, it gets us into the game quickly with flying saucers over Washington, and the landing of the ship, the man Klaatu (Michael Rennie) and robot Gort, the meetings between Klaatu and the fibbies (I like his saying he’s 78 and looks like Jack Benny), and his going on the lam. Of course, the message is transparent enough: the world had better control nuclear weapons. There’s a great line about substituting fear for reason (like the title of Al Gore’s book “The Assault on Reason”).
The Christmas 2008 remake from Fox (directed by Scott Derrickson) really doesn’t hold up at all. It’s too corny to hold up when blown up with modern special effects. This is not an expanding universe with red shift. This time, Klaatu (Keanu Reeves, not as convincing here was he was as Neo in the Matrix movies) is born on earth once he crawls out (and is shot) as a fetus covered by a synthetic placenta, from a fuzzy globe that looks like the inside of a black hole – in Central Park, of course. He goes on the lam, and pretty soon he tells astrobiologist Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) that he is here to save the planet, but not its beings. Read between the lines if you will.
Alls not well that ends well here. There are more globes all over the world, taking in animals like arks (a bit of “Signs” here, maybe), and then the attack starts. It looks like a sandstorm, but the particles are nano-insects, in a stream that sandblasts buildings into rubble (it starts with New Jersey Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands). ("Cloverfield" does a much better job of destroying New York, and has much more "streetsmart" suspense.) Oh, all over the world, there is an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that turns off everything forever (a nuclear weapon from a 200 mile high orbit would do that, they say). The world will go into the stone age; the planet will not become another Venus with greenhouse gasses emitted by fossil fuel burning, and the invaders will claim Earth and colonize it on their own at a time of their choosing. I don't think that the Earth stands still here; it just gets reformatted and loses all its old data.
"The world isn't ending. We are!"
Friday, December 12, 2008
"The Conrad Boys" (from Newport Films and Pro-Fun Media), written and directed by Justin Lo, is a nice gentle film about “family responsibility” with some twists. Charlie Conrad (Justin) is a conscientious honor student who dreams to go from California to Columbia to study history. His mother dies of an unexpected heart attack, and he sacrifices his own college opportunity to take care of his younger brother Ben. The father (Barry Shay) had left and not even returned for the funeral, which means that Charlie is sacrificing because of his father’s “sin.”
Charlie meets a 22 year old drifter Jordan (Nick Bartzen) who claims to be an aspiring novelist and wants to use Charlie as a character in a book, while at first knowing little. Charlie breaks away from raising his brother to do “grown up things” to follow through on his attraction to Jordan. But Jordan has a shady past, with misadventures in Mexico. In the meantime, the father returns and wants to repair the relations. Jordan’s acquaintance tries to set up a caper, but Charlie uses his smarts and his father to outwit the caper. Then everyone reconciles. There is some tenderness in the movie and it is sometimes effective.
The Logo link for online viewing is this.
A related short film is Daniel Ribeiro's "You Me & Him" ("Cafe com Leite", from Brazil, 12 min) in which two young gay men try to keep their relationship while one man must raise his younger brother after the parents died in an accident. On that DVD (Picture This! "Boys Briefs 5", a title which is a pun) there is a film Dave Snyder's "Yeah No Definitely" in which a young man gives his lover an insulin shot for juvenile diabetes; I've never seen that on film before.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
“Nanking”, (web site here), directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman, and released early at the end of last year by ThinkFilm with HBO Documentary) shows that one can make a compelling film about a tragic episode in relatively recent history by interviewing actors who stand in for people who were there, along with survivors speaking in their native tongue (Chinese) and interspersing with black and white footage (often quite clear) and newsreels. The incident is the “Rape of Nanking” at the end of 1937 by Japanese invaders, who sack Shanghai and then march to Nanking 180 miles to the Northeast. The westerners are played by Woody Harrelson (as Bob Wilson), Jurgen Prochnow (as John Rabe, who would be impoverished after the War), Stephen Dorff, John Getz, and others. The style of the film goes beyond Ken Burns (“The War”) and History Channel documentary (like Valkyrie) and keeps a compelling beat.
The westerners, at some risk, created and maintained a 2-mile-square “safe zone”. At one point, Nazi businessmen were actually supposed to “help” them. But the Japanese invaders swarmed in and looted the city with what seemed like genocide, with graphic war scenes and particularly of the civilian casualties, with gross brutality seeming to exceed the Holocaust. Some of the description is just verbal (as with the woman breastfeeding after being stabbed) but others are on smuggled 16 mm film with incredible disfigurement. Family relationships and Chinese filial piety were exploited.
In the beginning, the narrators actually say that life was good and prosperous; the average family had two bicycles. The music is compelling, played by the Kronos Quartet, with the Funeral March from Beethoven’s Eroica symphony played in the background of an early bombing raid.
I watched this film with Netflix "play" which required a long update to Windows Media Player, and a restart (which took a long time), with some complicated sciprts involving Digital Rights Management keys. This all took 25 minutes, but the film looked great online. The rental DVD was scratched and had the annoying previews in front.
Monday, December 08, 2008
Sunday night (Dec. 7) National Geographic TV aired it’s “Journey to the Edge of the Universe” as narrated by Alec Baldwin. It is not completely new, as apparently it aired first in August 2007. There was some trouble, at least with Comcast, with the 8 PM transmission, and I had to record the 11 PM re-transmission to see it. The web link for the film is this. (Somehow the title reminds me of Jules Verne: "Journey to the Center of the Earth", a New Line film this year by Eric Brevig. But the NatGeo film moves out, not in.)
Baldwin starts at home on earth, takes us to Luna (the Moon), where a dozen men have walked in person, then to Venus, with a view of Dante’s inferno and an atmosphere of carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid clouds – earth’s future, maybe. He moves to Mercury, which he says may be the iron core remnant of a larger planet after a cosmic pinball accident, and then the Sun itself. Then he moves out, with spectacular animated simulations of Mars based on NASA photos, then Jupiter, with the volcanic moon Io, and the iceball Europa, which could have life in its tidal ocean. The film shows some pretty interesting animations of what Titan may look like, with its ethane lakes – it’s probably darker than this. We might settle Titan (rather than Mars) in a couple billion years when the Sun has become a red giant, frying earth, and Titan is warm enough. He moves on to Neptune and the curiously scenic moon Triton, with its nitrogen geysers. He moves out through the solar system and Oort cloud, to the nearest star, and into the Milky Way. He offers evidence of a star 20 light years away with an earth-like planet that could be watching our TV shows from late in the Reagan years. (If it has a civilization like ours with trade and fiat money, you can safely assume that it has business depressions just like we do.) He explores other wonders of the galaxy, including the Crab nebula, with no wind, white dwarfs, neutron stars, and finally black holes, which could roam around unseen dangerously close at any time. He mentions the possibility of the “hypernova”.
Baldwin’s narration offers some other speculative ideas: that life itself is viral, seeding itself from one place to the next. When he talks about black holes, he suggests that they invoke the edge of human understanding, and that our universe might reside inside a black hole in a parallel universe.
He goes into deep space, past other galaxies, a few billion light years where galaxies as we see them are younger. He talks about dark matter, which could hold much of the universe together. Finally he comes to a quasar, the largest and most violent object in the known universe, powered by a super massive black hole.
In the end, our whole world is the merest speck compared to the enormous, impersonal universe.
Now to come to the reason I put this on my movies blog and not the TV blog: One point for me was that a film like this really should have a theatrical release, and be shown on large screens, especially to see planetary surfaces. Imax has given us a look at the Moon (“Magnificent Desolation”) and Mars (“Roving Mars”). But wouldn’t it be wonderful it NatGeo could get together with some other companies like Pixar or HDNET/Magnolia and make a commercial theatrical release (maybe Imax 3-D) showing us what Titan, Europa, Triton, and other less commonly explored objects really look like up close. For Titan we have a lot of photos from Huygens-Cassini. Even in this economy, this could be a fresh direction for Hollywood to go in.
NatGeoTv preceded the film with a one hour “Naked Science: Deadly Planets” that explored some of the Solar System for possible future abodes. For Mars, the show explained how dust devils (little tornadoes) coalesce to form a planetary dust storm. The same thing happens on Earth over wide areas, like the Sahara. The show gave a fascinating view of Triton, but curiously skipped both Europa and Titan. All of the earth-like bodies and gas giants in the Solar System, besides Earth itself, are deadly, although Mars has a chance. The biggest problem for Mars might be the loss of its magnetic field (see NASA discussion).
Back in 1998, there were two big films that simulated what Mars could look like: "Mission to Mars" (Disney) and "Red Planet" (Warner Brothers), the second of which, as I recall, presented a vision of terraforming Mars. Titan would be even more challenging.
Visitors will want to browse NASA's "Cassini-Huygens Home" from the 2005 flyover and landing on Titan, here.
Update: Sept. 27, 2013
There is a British version of the film narrated by Sean Pertwee (wikipedia) here. It seems as though it is the same video and same text with a different narrator. I've never seen this done before. The director is Yavar Abbas. The British version is release by Pioneer Productions UK and, oddly, is shown in 2.35:1. The director (both versions) is Yavar Abbas.
The new YouTube video of the British version is dated 2013.
Viewers may want to look at “Titan: A Place Like Home” (BBC), TV blog on Sept. 20, 2013, and “Evacuate Earth” (NatGeo), on my “CF” blog , Aug. 20, 2013. The best films I’ve seen that speculate on advanced alien life are “Alien Planet”, Discovery, TV blog, May 4, 2012, and NatGeo’s “Extraterrestrials” (50 min, 2005), International Issues blog, April 25, 2007 (an odd place to review it, I admit). And Alec Balwin seems to have narrated a NatGeo documentary by the same title (Dec 8, 2008 here) as this film.
Sunday, December 07, 2008
Tonight CBS broadcast the new Hallmark film “Front of the Class”, directed by Peter Werner. In this true docudrama, Jimmy Wolk plays the young adult Brad Cohen, who achieves his goal of becoming a teacher despite having Tourette Syndrome. He does benefit from the Americans for Disabilities Act, but volunteers explanations in the interviews. He moves to Atlanta and gets a job as a second grade teacher, and the second graders are much more able to accept him than somewhat older kids might have been. He wins the Sallie Mae award as First Year Teacher of the Year for Georgia.
The movie shows many flashbacks to young Brad, who talks about Tourette’s as a “constant companion.” He is told to practice self-control (I remember that with my own problems in grade school with “interrupting”). He is taunted by bullies, and a less enlightened middle school administration allows him to be humiliated, but in high school the principle invites him to explain his condition at an orchestra concert.
Treat Williams (who played the surgeon Dr. Brown in “Everwood”) plays the headstrong father and construction supervisor, and is slow to accept his son.
Brad apparently cannot go into certain venues (like movie theaters) and has to rent all his movies. That’s a bit of an irony. The film might have been hard to watch in a theater rather than as a TV movie.
Friday, December 05, 2008
The “Nobel Son” is not exactly a noble son, although the plot of this indie comedy thriller almost mimics the intrigues in European courts. (I seem to remember that in Ninth Grade I wrote a “play” about the Duke of Burgundy with a plot like this. The manuscript is lost.) No, the movie really is set in modern day LA, shot in full 2.35:1 Arri widescreen, with a touch of bluish sepia and some overexposure, all the way down to a robo-car chase in the Puenta Hills Mall, which rather mimics the Mall of America in the movie. It doesn’t even earn the “DGC” seal, although it has the look of a Canadian thriller.
It’s directed by Randall Miller, written with Jody Savin, and has this tooth-throbbing sound track by Mark Adler and Paul Oakenfold (with a little Haydn thrown in). You sort of expect this from Screen Gems, but actually it comes from Freestyle Releasing (usually distributes horror and thriller genres, often appearing on DVD from Lionsgate), with “Unclaimed Freight” LLP as the production company. And like so many “indie” films today, it features big stars, some from the past, like Danny De Vito (who winds up dead in a bathrub in true Hitchcock fashion), Alan Rickman as the obnoxious professor Eli Michaelson, and Bryan Greenberg and Shawn Hatosy as the scheming “King Lear” type half brothers.
There is a bit of reference to Irving Wallace and Paul Newman’s movie “The Prize” as Eli and his strained wife (Mary Steenburgen) journey to Stockholm for the Nobel Prize in chemistry, but the fraternal kidnapping plot happens back home.
The other thing is that Barkley (Bryan Greenberg) is a PhD grad student himself, studying cannibalism in cultural anthropology, resentful of his Dad’s leash. That generates some startling violent images in the film (remember “Misery”?), even during the opening credits. The sequence where he gets seduced by his girl friend (with the help of a cat) is quite intimate, and is more like what you might find in gay cinema (even with a straight couple). Barkley makes himself the “hero” of sorts and remains quite likeable, staying above his own conniving.
I saw this movie in a small Regal Cinema auditorium on a late Friday night show and only three people (including me) were in the audience. I was surprised, given the somewhat favorable comments I've seen around about this intriguing and witty film.
Tuesday, December 02, 2008
The History Channel, on Nov. 24, offered a primer for the new United Artists film “Valyrie” with a two-hour documentary of its own: “Valkyrie: The Plot to Kill Hitler”. The link is here.
The “real” film is directed by a youthful Bryan Singer and written by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander. The History Channel offered a few brief shots from the new film, due this month from MGM/United Artists and starring Tom Cruise.
The documentary starts by giving us a glimpse of modern Germany (which I last visited in 1999), the third largest economy in Europe.
The documentary traced the history of the Third Reich, mentioning facts like how Hitler paid for his early propaganda by charging admission for his rallies. Soon Hitler, after taking power (how this was even possible would make a good film or documentary) made himself about the law or the “constitution.” Stool pigeons would report people who listened to foreign radio or spread rumors verbally (well before the days of Internet “reputation”), and such persons could be executed for treason. The film mentions briefly the Nazi theories of “biological superiority” and eugenics.
The documentary picks up speed and summarizes Hitler’s increasing paranoia over security and his fear of becoming a hot house plant. Real plots developed, the most important being the July 20 1944 plot at Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia, with the main participant Count Claus Philipp Maria Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg (Wikipedia here). Stauffenberg needed cooperation from his commander Fromm. Eventually the plot was foiled and, with some excruciating delays and thin noose wires, everyone was hung or shot. The documentary gives some details, but Singer’s film will dramatize them fully.
The film also covers the role of Carl Goerdeler, who had refused to remove a statute of “Jewish” composer Felix Mendelssohn from Leipzig (link). There was also a period where the plotters pretended that Hitler had been killed when he hadn’t.
After the Allies won the War, the widows and children of German soldiers received no pensions, but the survivors of the plotters were in more ambiguous straits. Germany’s culture would take a while to absorb the shock of what had happened; according to the documentary, Germany resisted the idea of “hero” for a long time, even though the concept has become popular in American television.
Monday, December 01, 2008
"Wetback: The Undocumented Documentary": a harrowing, up-close look at illegal immigration, both sides
"Wetback: The Undocumented Documentary", directed by Arturo Perez Torres, released by ReThink Films and National Geographic in 2005, 90 min., is a harrowing documentary that really does present both sides of the illegal immigration issue. (I don’t know if “ReThink” is related to “ThinkFilm”.) Warner Brothers distributes the DVD.
The first two thirds of the film trace the movements of a number of men from Honduras and El Salvador, who have to pass through Guatemala and Mexico to get to the United States. The film shows the crossing across the Suchiate River from Guatemala. In Mexico, the men try to board and ride the “Train of Death”. Two men are showing losing feet and legs (at least, the aftermath) from missed jumps. Another scene shows refugees riding on the tops of oil cars.
Men also have to evade gangs or “maras” armed with shotgun-like devices called chimbas. Men sometimes stay in a “Migrant safe house” which helps 9000 people a year.
Once the slip across the border, they are hunted down not only by the Border Patrol but also by community or vigilante groups. On the American side, men make all kinds of arguments about stopping potential terrorism (they outline some plausible scenarios) and other crimes. It is true that a few of the horrific crimes in the DC area in recent years appear to have been committed by illegal aliens.
Nevertheless, the film points out that “illegal emigration” from Central America is very important to the economies of these countries, from Guatemala on down. Workers send money home to families, and that represents over 25% of the economy of some of the countries. The film notes that the United States apparently executes a covert "Plan Sur", to encourage Mexico to deport its own "illegals" deeper into Central America, and it obviously notes that the divide between rich and poor south of the border, and lack of decent wages (a mill that makes mascera is shown closing at the beginning) drives the illegal emigration, downgrades moral sense, and therefore creates to grave potential security problems in the United States. On the other hand, faith-based groups and other NGO’s have sponsored water projects, schools and medical clinics in countries like Guatemala (Mission Impact) and Nicaragua (Nacascolo) (I am familiar with some detail of these by knowing people participating personally). But these don’t seem to make a significant dent in the poverty and economic stress that drives illegal emigration – or could they?
The director Torres offers a brief interview on the DVD, with his "Super Hero" animal hunter. He says we need to think of things more communally.