Saturday, January 31, 2009

"Taken" -- a pseudo French thriller with an attitude


Well, “Taken” translates to “prendu” in French. The credits from 20th Century Fox would have us believe that this new B-thriller from Pierre Morel is a real foreign film. But it really is nothing more than popcorn genre stuff (even if the production company is EuropaCorp).

I guess Liam Neeson is the new James Bond or what-it-means-to-be-a-man, although here the fictitious name is Bryan Mills. The Irish actor is now 56, which puts him “up there.”

By now, most moviegoers have heard that there are some real issues. The main one is whether someone can do clandestine or dangerous intelligence or counter-terrorism work and keep his family safe. Mills has retired from the CIA after the job destroyed his marriage, and his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) now wants to go to Paris with her chum Amanda (the name of a key character from “Kyle XY”, an odd coincidence). Now CIA agents have to keep their work so secret – never talk about it – that the premise seems all wet. But, I guess, if you were a spy, the Russian or (here) Albanian Mafia would know who and where you (and your dependents) are at all times. The thought is scary enough. Actually, I doubt it. Hope not.

There’s some other ideas. Yes, when the girls are taken (right after checking in to the posh hotel room in Paris), they’re sold into the slave trade – that itself has been a subject of serious documentary and drama – movies like “Amazing Grace” and “Amistad” and “Meeting David Wilson”, even “Call + Response”. It’s pretty unbelievable that this could ever go on even in the “barrios” in Paris. A more interesting idea is that Kim wants to become a singer, although her father has apparently discouraged it. I’m reminded of an essay that Matt Damon wrote on the old “Project Greenlight” site advising people not to go into movies if they are making a living doing anything else.

There’s a scene where Neeson walks on narrow ledges of a hotel to break in to the hotel room (where Kim had been taken), and I thought, I want to see Damon doing this (as in the “Bourne Identity” movies). But Neeson is pretty brutal as a one-man invasion force, as he uses his "unique set of skills" apparently learned from years as a CIA "hit man".

The film brought back some deja vu from my European trips in 1999 and 2001. I would always fly from Minneapolis to Amsterdam, and then "try catch" a connection to my first destination. The movie has a chase seen at De Gaulle in Paris, and I recognized the exact ramp where I turned in my EuropaCar, the second one after having to exchange after losing the car keys in Bayeux at the "William the Conqueror" museum (with the medieval tapestry that is itself like an action movie storyboard, even with the ravaging of invasion and moral tests). I certainly remember the Bastille section (where some of LGBT Paris is) and it seemed to appear in the film. The Louvre seemed out of the picture, left for "Da Vinci", but the little streets with hostels and laundromats not so far from the Seine and the Champs Elysee came through. The overall scenery of Paris comes through in a few wide shots -- bringing back to mind the rent car drive from Caen and Roeun, the Defense District, the tunnels. You don't have to spend a lot of time in a city like this for it to stick to your mind.

The film played to a large auditorium that was about 2/3 full at a Regal in Arlington in the 9:00 PM show Saturday night. The audience did laugh at a lot of the lines and punchy action.

Friday, January 30, 2009

"Tell": Another indie documentary about the military "don't ask don't tell" policy and its history


First, before getting on the review of this novel film, let me reiterate one peril with “don’t ask don’t tell’. If you’ve said your gay in a commercial non-fiction film, the military will probably consider that telling and toss you out under “don’t ask don’t tell” – probably but not always. So, there’s one 19-year-old who joins in successive protests at military recruiting centers, sometimes getting arrested for trespassing, trying to enlist after “telling” and staying in the center to protest after being turned down [when the group comes to town, some military recruiters close up shop]. Okay, maybe some day he does try to join the military without “telling” so I guess I have to omit his name from this review so that search engines don’t pick it up.

The film is “Tell” from TJMV video, 83 minutes, available now [early 2009] and it seems to be self-distributed by producer-writer-director Tom Murray, from Florida. I mentioned it briefly at the end of a posting Jan. 21 2009 with the website link there, and I ordered it through the website and got it pretty promptly.

The film consists mostly of monologue-style statements from about fifteen or so gay military veterans (and friends) of various ages, with a few additional stills added, such as one of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and the Vietnam War memorial near the Lincoln Memorial. The film says that AVER maintains that there are over one million lgbt veterans. A number of the personal stories are quite startling and I’ll run through a few.

For example, US Navy Captain Joan Darrah (blog entry) tells the story of her experience in the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. She was in a meeting, and the very first reaction to the plane strike was that it could be a test gone wrong. She was outside at a bus stop when the airliner ploughed into the Pentagon, in the very area where she had been seven minutes before. In the ensuring days, they thought there could be more attacks, and it was all very stressful. But, given all the ensuing complications with having a female partner, she found it necessary to retire “quietly” while keeping her pension.

Toward the end, there was a young sergeant from Ohio who would be seriously wounded while riding a Humvee in Iraq. He would decide, as a matter of personal integrity, to come out, in the Advocate and various appearances. His commander found out, but said that as a technical point he never actually said “I’m gay” in any of the media appearances. The commander pretended to do an investigation and dropped it. The soldier talks about the importance, from a personal honor viewpoint, of being able to speak in his own name, rather than anonymously. (Keith Meinhold had a similar experience before he outed himself on television in 1992.)

There is an 80 year old who was taken prisoner of war by the Nazis during WWII, and starved so that he couldn’t flag from the ground for Allies. He would eventually become a Jesuit but be kicked out by the cardinal who is the current Pope.

There was a sailor who was relatively openly gay while in submarine service in the 1960s.

A soldier enlisted to become an operating room medic and was told he would be sent to Germany and Hawaii, and was surprised and dismayed to wind up in Vietnam, where for a year he assisted with amputations and where soldiers died in his arms. He did mentioned being asked if he was a homosexual when joining, but I know (from taking the draft physical myself three times, in 1964, 1966, and 1967, going from 4-F to 1-Y to 1-A, that they had stopped “asking” explicitly in 1966; they resumed in 1981).

Another soldier told of being discharged after WWII for “unsuitable living arrangements” off base when he was living with another man, for what he did in his own time. Another sailor got a discharge from the Navy as a “class 2 homosexual” (which means “butch”; 1 means “Nellie”).

There was one transsexual, now a woman, who had been in submarine service. (I know of another such transgendered person who left the Navy after 15 years to become a woman, and continued as a civilian in the same intelligence job, and appeared on Scott Peck’s radio program in 1993 (Peck the marine officer’s son)).

Dixon Osborne, who had worked with the Campaign for Military Service in 1993 trying to lift the ban before Clinton would announce “don’t ask don’t tell” on July 19, 1993 (the speech is here on Stanford Law Schools site for “don’t ask don’t tell”), would co-direct Service Members Legal Defense Network (SLDN) for a number of years. He gives a brief account of his experience, and explains how the law legally makes gays and lesbians second class citizens, implying to some people that they may be less fit in other areas of society requiring forced intimacy (for example, some teaching situations) even if the letter of the law restricts it to the Armed Forces.

Another officer had served in the Public Health Service (which is technically a uniformed service) and the Coast Guard (apparently PHS doesn’t follow PHS unless the officers are deployed with military units -- see my June 2008 post on my LGBT blog here).

Air Force Academy Cholene Espinoza appears; her blog entry on “Freedom to Serve” is here. She has a book titled “Through the Eye of the Storm: A Book Dedicated to Rebuilding What Katrina Washed Away” from Chelsea Green Publishing, 2006, about her experience volunteering after Hurricane Katrina (the weather map is shown), and she quotes an Army saying, “It’s not who’s right, it’s what’s right.”

The DVD also has a 13 minute short (also directed by Murray) “Remember I’m Here” where a Columbus Ohio man, Ron Willard, leads the effort to make a gay military flag (with an Eagle and pink triangle in the stars section) in memory of a gay soldier who dies of cancer.


Second picture: Vietnam War Memorial, Sept. 2008.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

HBO: "The Trials of Ted Haggard"


On Thursday, Jan. 29, HBO aired its own (that is HBO Documentary Films) long short “The Trials of Ted Haggard,” directed by Alexandra Pelosi (45 minutes). HBO's website for the film is here.

As the film starts, Haggard, pastor of the evangelical and non-denominational New Life Church in Colorado Springs, CO, is roasting marshmellows with his family and celebrating the idea of freedom, in 2005. He had been listed as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in the United States.

But on November 5, 2006, Haggard admits his transgressions, of having been with a gay male escort, and having procured or tried to procure crystal meth, which he says he discarded and never used. (The fact pattern is a bit complicated; go to an MSNBC interview with the escort Nov. 3, 2006, here, for the details.) Soon the church board fires him, and offers him severance pay on some stringent conditions: that he and his family leave the state of Colorado (apparently for “security”), that he never work in the ministry again, and that he attend and complete “spiritual restoration” (which sounds like a euphemism for reparative therapy). This sounds like a vindictive separation, with forced blackballing. I have been familiar with a couple of pastor separations in my life (which I will not identify), but none were quite like this.

For much of the rest of the film he moves his family around in Arizona (he has a four month stay in a home of a friend at first), mainly among extended stay motels. He has, at age 51, his first job interview, with the University of Phoenix as an interviewer. He doesn’t get the job, and he says he hopes they don’t check up on him with search engines (that’s the “online reputation” problem).

He winds up selling health insurance door-to-door, commission only. Even that job would sound precarious if the Obama administration and Pelosi Congress successfully put through a universal health insurance program (much better for the country, I think), but it is possible, in the current fragmented system, to come up with “creative” products that could be sold in target markets. (There are specialized policies, like cancer policies, that life companies sell – I know this from previous employment.)

At the end of the film, the documentary (which provides comments with full screen titles) tells us that the original church allowed him back into Colorado, where he could live in his original home, which had been mortgaged. He and his family had almost gone broke. The film says that he is now selling life insurance.

I’ll add that I was approached to become a life insurance agent in 2005, and was approached even in 2001 (even before my layoff from I.T.) and again in 2003 to get involved with getting people to convert from whole life to term. Since I was homosexual all my life and never married and never had children, my private reaction was the opposite of Mr. Haggard’s: who am I to go into a family’s home and tell them how they should manage their finances, when I haven’t experienced supporting children? I didn’t try to take either such job.

Haggard has a website and it’s interesting that he uses the site to promote his ability to sell life insurance. (I wouldn’t want to do that, but a lot of employers expect their agents or principals to use their personal Internet presence for business purposes, a finding in a recent Pew Internet Group study

I’ve ventured afar, and let’s get back to Mr. Haggard. He has appeared on Oprah and on Larry King Live. He says that Mike Jones (the escort) actually rescued him. Jones appears in the film, and his masculine physicality is apparent visually; it’s apparent to me why Haggard would have felt attracted. (One can ponder the "existential" ramifications; I've explained how they apply to me on other blogs.) Jones has written a book "I Had to Say Something: The Art of Ted Haggard's Fall" (Seven Stories Press, 2007) (with Sam Gallegos, from Seven Rivers Press). At least one other person has come forward with accusations of inappropriate behavior, and the general tone in the gay community (including Mr. Jones) has been to say that Haggard did the community great harm. However Haggard says that he was never focused on homosexuality in his preaching, even as he struggled with his own sexuality.

Haggard says that he is a “heterosexual with some issues” and that homosexual behavior is wrong for him given his belief system. In the film, he makes a lot of proving that he can provide for his family, including the possibility of their survivorship, and of course that fits into the job of selling life insurance (and I don’t relate to that personally, because of having made different life “choices”). He (as on his website) also mentions debt reduction, a timely skill right now. (I did work as a debt collector myself in Minnesota in 2003; debt counseling is a bit separate.)

Haggard says that he had some homosexual thoughts or interest for a brief time in middle or high school, but that the thoughts remained latent until a “blast crisis” at about age 50. (My own thought experience started then – with a lot of teasing and harassment from kids commonly experienced by less “competitive” boys – and then went through two cycles of “coming out” as described in my book.) His wife Gayle (he has five children) appeared on Larry King Live (along with the oldest, 25-year-old son Marcus, who works in overseas development; and they discussed their keeping their marriage together, which probably saved his life.

Some people may recall Jimmy Swaggart's confession and "Apology Sermon" from Baton Rouge LA in Feb. 1988, link here.

Note: HBO apparently no longer has the arrangement with New Line/ Picturehouse for theatrical releases. It would be nice to see that relationship resurrected. Some of these documentaries do make their way into Landmark and other "art" theaters.

Update: June 6, 2010

Ted Haggard apparently is starting a new independent church open to everyone, including gays. The ABC News story (June 2, 2010) is "Ted Haggard to Start New Church in Colo. Springs: 'My resurrection day': Ted Haggard to start new church in Colorado Springs", AP story by Dan Elliott, link here.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

American Animation's "Patrick Henry: Quest for Freedom": a core speech in the development of liberty



I’ve looked through Netflix and imdb for a feature film on the story of Patrick Henry, remembered for his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech at St. John’s Church in Richmond VA (on E Broad, about a mile east of I-95 downtown). I don’t’ find a major film (I thought I would), but there is a great school instructional film DVD from American Animation Studios called “Patrick Henry: Quest for Freedom”, directed by John Derrick. A descriptive link is on “Dr. Toy’s” here (available from Amazon). Curiously, “American Animation” loads a blank page. The voice of Henry is played by Doug Zanger.

The film uses a cartoonish eagle named “Boomer” to prompt the (often middle school) audience (“here it comes”) – a character who reminds me of H. Ross Perot’s “Eagles don’t flock”. But the human characters in 3D animation look quite real.



Early in his life, Patrick’s father tells him he can fight back with words as well as fists. Ten years later, he is married, and objecting to having to quarter the King’s troops (the Third Amendment in the Bill of Rights addresses that, and no one remembers this issue now). The film even calls King George’s demands a “Bailout” (a curious word for a film dated 2007).

He meets young Thomas Jefferson, who tells Patrick that he is headed to William and Mary to study law. (William and Mary is crucial for me for reasons explained elsewhere on these blogs.) Patrick Henry, so far, has been interested mainly in fishing and playing the violin – he’s good, but 18th Century music doesn’t make a living. He home schools himself in law and goes before a board of judges, two of whom have to sign off on his appointment. The law then has four parts: the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia, the laws of King George, the laws of God, and “natural law”. We know where the latter two will lead a couple centuries later. But Henry gets his license.

He wins a major case involving the Two Penny Act and clergy salaries. In those days, tobacco was colonial currency (the fortunes of the tobacco crop controlled the “money supply”), but there were colonial coins, and British currency, and complicated rules converting them and governing how people could be paid. Henry invites an argument that if the King got his way, he would be proven unfit to rule. The plaintiffs wind up getting a penny. This segment of the film often refers to the Hanover Tavern, about 15 miles north of Richmond.

The film moves on to his famous speech in 1775, as war was approaching and peace or appeasement was looking impossible. Just before, Jefferson says something like, the highest form of treason comes when a man goes against his own mind. The word “honor” comes up, and I’m reminded of the famous sentence “personal honor is an absolute” in Joseph Steffan’s 1992 book “Honor Bound.” Henry then says that “a man can be measured by his convictions”, an idea that might have motivated Clay Aiken’s song “Measure of a man”.



The seven words (and Boomer makes sure that we realize that the conjunction is “or” and not “and”) do raise an existential question. If human life is always paramount, then one could be obliged to accept subjugation to the motives of others in order to live. Death can mean that a person’s life has no more value when it is saved by prostitution – by the loss of honor to his convictions. Is this bullheadedness? Some people often think it is. A religious person could say that this attitude leads to condemnation, or at least starting over, at the bottom, in the next life. That’s what brings on collectivism. Or perhaps we have theories that people have to earn the right to follow their own ends. That gets into a lot of our cultural wars today.

The end credits has a stirring song “Give me liberty to be all I can be” by Marty Panzer and David Ganzer. If this short were in the Oscars, the song could get a nomination for best song. It is that stirring.

The DVD contains an additional featurette that introduces American Animation Studios, many of its personnel (most of whom are young) along with founded Bob Mercer. The short explains the value of their films in the classroom for history teachers, and also demonstrates the technical steps in building storyboards, and characters in 2D and then 3D and the use of solid and projective geometry (and hedron solids) to make the characters, a mathematics exercise. There is a lot of work that goes into animated film.

Let me make a suggestion. The independent film business (investors already working with “Hollywood” ought to make a real “live action” dramatic film about Patrick Henry’s life and the meaning of the speech. It ought to be fully costumed, and filmed on location around Richmond, Hanover/Ashland, and Williamsburg. It should look big (2.35:1 – the DVD is 1.85:1). Call it “Give Me Liberty”.

As some of you know, I have the “doaskdotell” site (it’s the title of two of my books, starting in 1997, and I’ve used the domain name since 1999), and I would suggest that “do ask do tell” would be an appropriate name for a production company or distributor (branded with a trademark) of such a film, along with other follow on films about major social issues (including “don’t ask don’t tell”). It could be associated with a present studio or mix of studios, but I would need to be involved with the film. There is no reason why existing film companies can’t add new brand names for distribution if they make business sense.

I think that the screenplay of such a feature would need to present some of the material from the tour of the old Capitol in Williamsburg, as to how colonial government worked and how it maps to our branches today. I took that tour in 1994. I presume it is still offered.

I also think that Colonial Williamsburg ought to film some of it’s outdoor “Revolutionary City” drama as a DVD and distribute it as a theatrical release, probably for the independent film theater market. I’m surprised that it hasn’t.

Obviously making such a film would require a lot of legal legwork to get all the (copyright) licenses (including use of the title song from this DVD) and bring all the right resources together, but it ought to be done. There are production companies around that can do the job.

I know that Hollywood has it’s “third party rule” which in the Internet age doesn’t make much sense for material that’s obviously novel or started by one person. If someone wants to take me up on this idea, contact me. The info is in my Profile.

PBS has a posting about the Henry speech here.

Top picture above: St. Johns Episocpal Church in Richmond, winter 2005, from Wikipedia, reproduced under GNU Free Documentation License, CopyLeft.

Picture above: from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Puppet Theater.

Picture below: St. John's Church near the White House in Washington.


Here is a scene in Ashland, VA (near Hanover), site of the 2000 film "Store Wars" about Wal-Mart.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"Opera": a little horror film from 1987 is another self-reflection on "performing arts"


I found a curious indie film from 1987 and a little distributor called Westlake that again combines performed or written fiction with “reality” (a theme that I took up recently on the “drama” blog with a review of "Pagliacci", as well as “Inkheart”). The title is, prosaically enough, “Opera.”

It’s a film by Italian Dario Argento, and looks Italian enough but is in tacky Queen’s English. It looks gaudy for a indie film, in the full 2.35:1 aspect ratio (not as common for small films in the 80s as today).

The heroine Betty (Cristina Marsillach), and understudy for the (Lady) lead role in Verdi’s Macbeth, gets the part (bad luck) after the star gets crushed by a car. Pretty soon, all the other cast members are getting knocked off by a psychopath, and she has to watch. There are some gruesome effects (one of which is a comb of needles to keep her eyes open) that anticipate the Saw and Hostel movies. I’m not sure of the matchup with the events in Shakespeare, but the movie mentions “the curse of Macbeth” frequently.

Toward the end of the movie, Argento recalls Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” with a harrowing attack at a performance of “Macbeth”. Maybe the idea was also to recall a scene from “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

Then there is a scene where Betty runs through the Alps, in a scene recalling Julie Andrews in “Sound of Music.”

The music score has some of the most characteristic orchestral passages from Verdi’s early opera, however, emphasizing the passage work and progressive harmonies.

Monday, January 26, 2009

"The Last Templar": did studio bean counters weaken a good idea for epic film?


The network mini-series used to be a more common format for long complicated political and adventure novels, or particularly historical novels. Among the most notable are the monumental settings of Herman Wouk’s “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance” in the 80s and 90s on ABC (the “novel for television” concept). A few of Stephen King’s biggest novels have made effective series, most of all “Storm of the Century” (oh, that was sold in book form as a screenplay). Another good example is Colleen McCollough’s Australian epic “The Thorn Birds.” Sydney Sheldon has sometimes been successfully serialized as in “If Tomorrow Comes.”

So, this week, NBC put on the two-part (four hours) “The Last Templar,” directed by Paolo Barzman, based on the adventure novel by Raymond Khoury. Mira Sorvino plays Tess Chaykin, an overly campy and jovial archeologist following in her father’s footsteps. Her “partner” and near-lover will be FBI agent Sean Daley, played by a handsome Scott Foley. As the movie opens, an art opening in New York is attacked by knights on horseback, who plunder and steal a mechanical computer called a decoder.

The two are led on a worldwide chain-letter chase for a mysterious document left by a Templar Knight who escaped a 12th century Muslim battle in Jerusalem. The film is interspersed with backstories of the battle and hiding of the document. The adventure takes them into a buried volcanic ruin that almost collapses on them, and uses an astrolabe to locate the exact document. There is also a present day sea battle and storm to parallel the one in the 12th century.

This sounds like a mixture of “Da Vinci code” and “National Treasure.” Actually, the plot is more like some of the novels of Irving Wallace in the 1960s (I read some of them in the barracks in the Army), that tended to mix Cold War and Vatican politics. (During the Reagan years there would be some substance to that, as the Vatican was very crucial to the fall of the Soviet Union.)

Here, the idea sounds better than the movie is, partly because of the somewhat corny acting and presentation. We watch the worldwide action on a 4:3 television screen, material that ought to be experienced in 2.35 to 1. By comparison, “Da Vinci code” is a real movie; this one seems like a kind of dessert. Why did Universal decide to make this as a mini-series rather than as a close to 3 hour theatrical film? I don’t know how the bean counters determined that the Nielsen ratings would give the studio more revenue than ticket sales (which are doing fairly well in a recession economy). In any case, the creative effort seemed to be diluted by very numbers-driven business decisions. This movie comes out in January, after the awards season, because it just seems limp. Or, perhaps the studio knew, that this just wasn’t that good.

The mystery document, in Aramaic, apparently denies the Virgin Birth, and even the idea of Grace. No wonder the Vatican wants to capture it. It sounds like there’s an area for movie making on the idea that Joseph had to fend off the rumors and then become the father to a child that he did not himself procreate.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Lifetime's "Prayers for Bobby": a straightforward telling of a tragedy


Well, I got to see the second showing of “Prayers for Bobby” (directed by Russell Mulcahy, based on the nonfiction book by Leroy Aarons) on Lifetime tonight (as a “Red Carpet Premier”), just after the careless power company took an outage in fair weather with no problems – just cutting corners and not keeping up “infrastructure.”

The film has gotten a lot of pre-press because Sigourney Weaver (Ripley in the “Alien” movies, and Paulina Escobar in “Death and the Maiden”) plays the religious mom Mary Griffith. Ryan Kelley, whom imdb bills as a “straight actor playing a gay role” (Okay, so way Sean Penn recently) is very appealing as Bobby Griffith. Probably most viewers watch the movie already knowing that it is the “true story” about a mother having to come to terms with the loss of her gay son and the need to face her own religious intolerance.

The script really hits the absolute reliance on religious ideas very hard, with plenty of Leviticus. She does say a lot of prayers and expects Bobby to do likewise. Mary Griffith keeps saying “we’re your family, we can get through this,” and that’s a good clue. There has been a lot of time. It starts when he pushes away a girl and then admits his dreams to his brother, who "tells". Before, he was the perfect son, who knew could tell his mother how the glass of milk in Hitchcock's "Suspicion" gets illuminated.

There’s also the walk in the woods, when Dad (Henyr Czerny) says that Bobby has to get “practical” with what he wants to do with his life, when Bobby says he wants to be a writer. It's sort of like it's time to become a "man" and give up "childish things." (But Bobby doesn’t want to go to college – a contradiction. Remember, basketball player Lucas Scott becomes a famous (and movie-made) novelist in “One Tree Hill”.)

Pretty soon Bobby confronts his mother and “tells.” He says “it’s not the Bible, it’s you.” There is dichotomy of “what I am” and “what you’ve become.” Mom says “I won’t have a gay son” and Bobby says “then don’t have a son.”

Bobby seems to be breaking away, but her words haunt him. He stands on an expressway overpass in a scene reminiscent of L.I.E.

One of the issues, I think, is the “existential” meaning that the traditional straight world gives to a male “gay values.” Let’s say, Bobby has his own world of feeling that will control his impact on his world. But he does not want to feel the same emotions that others feel (or exercise personal power options) and may need to count on him for. “No man is an island,” but sometimes a lot of us want to be – to not only live but control our own destiny. Instead, Bobby feels cornered; the world will not let him experience the world the way he wants to, so Bobby feels he is of no use to the world as it demands him to act or feel, because of the world’s (or “family’s”) “needs.” The world simply demands that he compete on its terms, not on his. It all sounds so collectivist and so right-wing at the same time.

It becomes agonizing. She dreams that Bobby is alive. We often dream about regaining what we have lost. She reads his handwritten diary (it’s not an online blog on Myspace, which would have been more interesting). His written journal forces her to understand who he really was, and the total disconnect in their communication because of her casting everything into religious terms. She realizes a contradiction in her own religious convictions. “Bobby sinned, but he was pure of heart.” She is almost drawn back into the world of the Puritans, as we study their writings in high school English, chasing down every single Biblical clobber passage – to find the end of the road in her own previous thinking. “The Bible was written by mortal men, and it reflects the societies in which they lived.” She says she has never questioned the Bible because she never had any reason to, until now. Now, she has to recognize the contradictions inherent in “inerrancy.”

Eventually she connects up with PFLAG. But then she has to deal with the truth. God did not heal Bobby because there was nothing to heal. Now he is gone. Although a pastor comforts her, the moment is brutal. Gradually, she comes out of her grief and becomes active for gay equality. The last scene shows her at a Pride parade.

Although the story is supposed to take place in the LA suburbs (starting in 1979), the film appears to have been shot in Canada, as many Lifetime films are. Lifetime is the only distributor listed (Daniel Sladek is the production company). The style of the film is more like that of an instructive teleplay, and tends to be a bit didactic (as are many Lifetime films). It seems a little forced and didactic to have made for a convincing theatrical film (compare to “Save Me”, which is much more subtle, or even “Latter Days”, or, of course “Brokeback Mountain” and “Milk”).

The movie says that Mary Griffith testified before Congress in 1995. Maybe she will help again now, in Congress again, to overcome “don’t ask don’t tell”.

Friday, January 23, 2009

"Inkheart": British children's family with a subtle "adult" meaning


The idea of characters in a book coming alive seems novel – but the amalgamation of “fiction” and “reality” storyline has happened before many times, for example, the “play within the play” in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The idea happens in opera, for example, Pagliacci.

Nevertheless, the notion is the eyecatching premise of New Line’s new British “children’s” fantasy, “Inkheart”, directly by Iain Softley, based on the novel by Cornelia Funke. In the Alps somewhere, Mo Silvertongue Folchart (Brendan Fraser) has read aloud to his daughter Meggie (Eliza Bennett) various books, but from one of them, the villains have come to life and one in particular Dustfinger (Paul Bettany), who has befriended a wonderful weasel (a kind of “Rado Suhl”), chases Mo down, warning him. We learn that Mo’s wife has disappeared. To look for "Mom", Mo drives his daughter through a tunnel to Italy, perhaps lake Como, where he meets Eleanor Loredan (Helen Mirren, “The Queen”) and where Meggie discovers the library with the books. There is a bonfire resembling Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” but we learn that the mother went back into the book (the purple volume Inkheart) and the characters came out of it.

There are other things here: it seems as though a lot of books have only one copy. Even though there are modern weapons and vehicles, there’s no information technology and individual “instances” of books are precious.

The idea of reading to others occurs in another recent film, “The Reader” (reviewed Dec. 26 2008) but with a totally different meaning.

But, as so often with kids’ movies, there’s a real message for adults here. There’s a growing legal problem (called “implicit content”) with “fiction” that comes too close to real life, particularly when posted by “amateurs” on the Internet. I wrote about that on Jan. 5 on my main blog; visitors may want to track the categories back. The fear is that it maps to something that the author believes happened or will happen in “real life” and sometimes might be taken as enticing. The Newseum in Washington DC has a First Amendment exhibit that supposes how a school system would react to a fiction story posted on the Internet about a fictitious attack.

Jim Broadbent ("Longford") plays the Inkheart author Fenoglio, and seems to be aware that with his words he is creating not only an alternate but perhaps a "present" reality. There some pretty big fire-breathing golem monsters near the end.

There were media reports that New Line has been completely absorbed as part of Warner Brothers, with layoffs; however it appears that Warner intends to keep using the New Line brand for some of its more unique films.

The large auditorium in a Regal complex in Arlington VA was only about 25% full for a 7:10 showing. Two of the large screens in the complex have curved screens; two are flat; this was shown on a flat fullsized 2:35:1 screen, but I don't know how screen curvature affects projection or lens use. Maybe someone in the business does.

Here's a distantly related observation: The Disney 3-D animated film "Chicken Little" in the fall of 2005 made an interesting point when "Chicken Little" (a "typical" playground "sissy" in right-wing lore) has drawn attention to himself (with "The Sky Is Falling") and is pilloried on the Internet, an event that his father complains about in dialogue that is bizarre for an kid's movie. This makes a point about "online reputation" in a film that was screen-written just as social networking sites were becoming known and popular.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What movies will get the Oscar nom's?; also, new documentary on DADT appears


Fox News tells us that the 2008 Oscar nominations are due tomorrow (Jan. 22), so I’ll make a few predictions. No real surprises.

For best picture, my picks are

"Revolutionary Road" (Paramount Vantage/Dreamworks, dir. Sam Mendes, USA). (Don’t mix it up with “Reservation Road”, the year before, which is also good). This movie is almost like a 50s stage play for AP English, but I love the concepts and issues, and the part of the “mentally ill” character, as well as the mom Kathy Bates who intervenes in the troubled couple played by Di Caprio and Winslet.

"Slumdog Millionaire" (Fox Searchlight, dir. Danny Boyle, UK/India). Fox stole this improbable indie blockbuster away from Warner Brothers. With a low budget, Boyle gives a panoramic view of modern Mumbai and makes Dev Patel into the new role model. Can an eighteen-year-old really win best actor? No doubt. Boyle gets one of the nominations for direction. I guess right now, this wins “best picture” but my mind could change.

"Milk" (Focus, dir. Gus Van Sant, USA) A stunning chronology of gay life in the 70s, culminating in tragedy in San Francisco in 1978. I don’t know why I don’t see Bryan Singer on the list for “The Mayor of Castro Street.” Sean Penn could get the nod for best actor.

"The Reader" (TWC, dir. Stephen Daldry, UK/Germany) A curious post-Holocaust story with a disturbing plot twist, and another stunning young actor, David Kross.

"Frost / Nixon" (Universal, dir. Ron Howard, USA) Michael Sheen stuns as David Frost who traps Richard Nixon (“If the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”) Sheen could get best actor.

All of these except the last are considered “independent film” releases.

In the documentary area, I wanted to mention HBO’s “The Boys from Baghdad High” (dir. Ivan O’Mahoney and Laura Winter, UK) with revelations about what it is like to go to school in Iraq.

There’s no LGBT area as such, but I want to mention four LGBT films (besides "Milk") as really important:

"Ask Not" (Persistent Visions, dir. Jonny Simmons) as a rather matter-of-fact video documentary in small aspect (4:3) about the military’s “don’t ask don’t tell” policy regarding homosexuals. It may gain more traction given Obama’s presidency.
But it’s hardly the last word in film (there has been “Serving in Silence, and “Any Mother’s Son” and “Soldier Girl”). I think Hollywood could consider some bigger projects now, like Joe Steffan’s 1992 book “Honor Bound” about the US Naval Academy in the 1980s.

"We’re All Angels" (Telekenitic, dir. Robert Nunez) about gay gospel singers Jason Warner and De Marco, with a lot of exploration of psychological polarities in a male couple.

"Were the World Mine" (Speak, dir. Tom Gustafson), a subtle gay musical (a bit on the model of the HSM films), filmed on location in Chicago, with a lot of layered Shakespeare fantasy and comedy intermixed. Tanner Cohen dominates the film as another important young actor, with the same sort of energy as you see with Zac Efron in the HSM films.

"Save Me" (First Run Features, dir. Robert Cary). A big looking indie gay film (Cinemascope, taking advantage of New Mexico scenery) about a love story that unfolds in an “ex-gay” camp, but told with great subtlety.

Jan. 22

Check here after 8:30 AM EST for the 2008 nominees. I see that I am 80% right. The Oscars nominated "Benjamin Button" instead of "Revolutionary Road". Brad Pitt is also nominated for best actor; Leonardo Di Caprio is not (I thought he would be; I don't think he was for "Titanic" either). Stephen Daldry is on the list for Best Director.

Update: Jan 22



There is a second major documentary on the "don't ask don't tell" policy. It is called simply "Tell" and is directed by Tom Murray. The caption is "more than soldiers, fighters & patriots". There is a trailer that shows some soldiers and former SLDN head Dixon Osburn. The link is here. The DVD can be ordered through PayPal. The AOL contact is TJoeMurray.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

"The Wrestler": Living on the edge (according to Aronofsky)


Darren Aronofsky has give us another look at living on the edge, this time in fill CinemaScope, but in a grainy looking indie film from Fox Searchlight, "The Wrestler", bringing back Mickey Rourke as Randy “The Ram” Robinson. (I guess the nickname means “Aries”). I know some of his other work (“The Fountain”, the inter-era concept which I loved; “Requiem for a Dream”, and “Pi” – a little black and white film with Rosenfels-like content.

The film “treats” us to all the dirty tricks, including razor wire and stapling guns (and razor blades hidden in wrist tape). Randy is trying to “come back” after 20 years in the New Jersey circuit, but one day, he vomits, gasps again and collapses “like a brick” in the locker room. (That’s one of the most realistic scenes of this nature ever in film; Rourke must have taken ipecac for this; forget the barf-fest of “Another Gay Sequel”). He wakes up in intensive care, doped up, and soon learns that, like David Letterman, he has joined the zipper club. (I didn't know that surgeons would do coronary bypass on an unconscious patient without consent.) The film later makes a spectacle of the chest scar, but that’s anti-climatic after all the indignities done to the wrestler’s bods. There’s no male body hair in a world where the external trappings of manhood are sacrificed to tattoos and sports tape (he’s shown shaving his underarms on camera).

His personal life is a mess, too. Out of money and living in a Trenton trailer park (remember, “Trenton makes, the world takes”) he works odd hours in a convenience store deli; the film makes mincemeat of that kind of a job, making us all hope we don’t wind up in the proletariat. He wants his daughter to assume “filial responsibility” to care for him, and she refuses. He want a bar queen to do a lap dance and date him, and he gets tossed out. He has his problems. He finally has to go back to being "the wrestler" (against "The Ayatollah"), and risk his heart failure. We wonder what the last moments of life will be like, if they just turn to nothing.

I kept wondering what Clint Eastwood would have done with this story (after “Million Dollar Baby”), but Eastwood had two big films of his own this year. I even recalled “Raging Bull” from the 80s, and even "Cinderella Man" from a couple years ago. Okay, I can mix up wrestling and boxing if I want. But this movie shows slapstick wrestling, not the kind they do in high school and college varsity.

As technical filmmaking, the film is masterful. I just don’t personally relate too much to the sort of characters that populate this world.

A great line from Randy is "I'm a broken down piece of meat, and I'm alone, and I deserve to be alone." That line seems to summarize Rourke's resurgence. Bruce Springsteen (a favorite of conservative George Gilder in the 80s) has a song.

The AMC Shirlington theater in Arlington VA, in a large auditorium, was about 20% full for the Sunday night 7:25 PM performance. This is the first weekend of widespread release after a platform opening.

There was an unrelated indie film called “The Wrestler” about “professional wrestling” back in 1974.

There is a news item today on imdb about a professional wrestler in the film being found dead, here which is some odd karma.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

"Defiance": an exercise in WWII forest survivalism (a bit more red than green)


I’d seen previews for “Defiance,” the new WWII drama from Paramount Vantage and director/writer Edward Zwick for some time. Let me prefix the review by noting that the previews had often been shown in 2.35:1 aspect but the long film (139 min) is actually shot 1.85:1.

The concept sounds a bit claustrophobic. Three brothers Tuvia, Zus and Asael Bielski (played by Daniel Craig, Live Schrieber, and Jamie Bell), escape from a Nazi overrun of their village into Belorussia and build a forest camp, attracking many other survivors. The very opening, in black and white reels, is gruesome as the stormtroopers come and yank people out of their homes for the concentration camps. But pretty soon they have built up a substantial community. Tuvia says they will defy the Nazis by living, and remain free as Jews. But, as the movie progresses, Tuvia must become a dictator himself, demanding that women fight alongside men and not get pregnant, and that everyone work.. Later there are squabbles as to whether fighters get more of the limited supply of food, and Tuvia again must start to behave like a little Stalin. They must maintain “diplomatic” relations with the Russians, and convince them that they are good Bolsheviks. Indeed, they seem to be adopting communism, pretty much along the same lines as would the Soviets later. They have to.

Some of the “intellectual” survivors (like the former “accountants”) in the camps are put to the test, and that doesn’t just mean playing chess (which happens). One man has to “give up his books.” That’s what I would have faced if I had been unlucky enough to have lived in Poland in 1939. I would have found that the world had changed, externally, in such a way that it had absolutely no use for me unless I “changed” too. If I didn’t want to, I perish, a coward perhaps, not to appear even in the hereafter, a real disappearance, because my existence as an individual; has no relevance. That is the horrible fact about war, or some other huge external traumas or mega-disasters (which I cover on another blog). Complacency is one of the worst of vices, not being aware that one’s life, however productive at the moment, depends on others in unseen ways and can be at the mercy of forces beyond one’s control. Yet, everyone in the camps adapts. One thing is different from a usual “dictatorship of the proletariat” – they are free to leave – and go back to the Village, where there may be coal and heat and maybe more food sometimes – but also Nazis.

The youngest brother, played by Jamie Bell, seems like the steadiest character in the movie, always steady in battle, always keeping his head and emotions above the panic of the moment.

Most of the film, we are immersed in this forest world that seems almost life a paradise, even given all the want and hardship and hunger, especially in the winter scenes. But the outside world constant threatens with its goblins and monsters. The movie has a twilight-zone like quality.

There is a scene where a woman has an encounter with a forest wolf, who tries to commit “armed robbery” for food, and it is quite harrowing.

The film was shot on location in Lithuania.

The film played to a large auditorium in an AMC theater in Arlington VA (marketed as "AMC Select") and was about 2/3 full on the 7:30 show on Saturday night, Jan. 17.

Friday, January 16, 2009

"A Broken Life": a filmmaker documents a man's last day: a film about filmmaker's ethics?


Sometimes one gets an interesting film by telling the story of an “anti-hero”, but through the eyes of a younger understudy character, who builds the rooting interest.

That is the case with “A Broken Life”, a film by Neil Coombes, from Seven Arts, Card Angel and Parallel Films (97 min, 2008). Tim Sizemore plays Max, a middle aged businessman down and out who hires a young filmmaker Bud (Corey Sevier) to document the last day of his life before he shoots himself.

Much of the first half of the film almost seems like a one-man play, with Max doing the talking. At first, Bud is reluctant to go along with this sick plot, but he feels drawn in. Very early, Max creates a bizarre confrontation with two carjackers when he tries to give away his Mercury but pulls his gun. Bud cans it. Gradually, they begin to bond. Bud finds himself in ethical dilemmas as he follows Max and learns of Max’s wrongdoings, especially after a "home invasion" confrontation with Max’s boss which seems to have resulted in the boss being shot. (Max tells his boss, at gunpoint, something like, "you got rich off our backs" and the boss asks if he is a Commie!) One could say that this parallels the problem of shield laws for journalists. But then Bud is drawn further into Max’s life and learns that he has more personal connection to Max than he had bargained for. (To say exactly what would be a spoiler for this recent indie film.) There is also a backstory about Max's broken marriage, and a pregnancy that he thought had been terminated. The film opens with a brief prologue six months earlier to set up Max's grief. Then, he is unable to tell his wife that he really loves her, and so there are consequences.

Here I’d mention that Corey Sevier, himself 24, has already appeared in “Smallville” and played the part of Josh, the “tempting” student in the very troubling film “Student Seduction” (2003), about how teachers can get set up for false charges. Here, he plays the “good person” (almost like Jamal in “Slumdog”), in fact one of the “best” younger characters in any recent film that I’ve seen. Sevier actually shoots video that appears in the film so in a sense he also doubles as a cameraman, an arrangement that would have raised union or guild questions in some cases.

I could imagine a way to make a film about me that would be more like “A Different Life” and tell it through the eyes of a younger character(s), maybe with some docudrama narration (not done in this film, since Max does most of the talking – but it could have been done that way) – with situations that are critical but not “obviously” life-threatening as they are in this rather brief feature. That’s one thing about screenplays that get bought – they tell you the “crises” have to be clear and immediate. But life is not always like that. There are many shots through Bud's handheld ("dogme") movie camera, with the site lock-in on Max as if he were a mark.

Max talks about becoming a writer, wanting to write a novel -- in a confrontation with this ex-wife she challenges him with whether he has anything to say. He says he is a writer or wordsmith but not a thinker -- a very self-contradictory position.

The film has a definite “end”, which does not comport with Bud’s journalistic objectives. It appears to have been filmed in Toronto (I recognized the park, where the two meet a nemesis character (Ving Rhames) who functions almost like a Shakespeare cobbler, and even the church on the park). The subway scene looked like the Toronto subway with NYC BMT signs superimposed (and Bud barely escapes the worst possible “accident” there).

The film has a deliberate pace, with music by Christopher Dedrick that somehow reminded me of Mahler’s “Das Klagende Lied”, and an atmosphere that at times recalls the work of Krzysztof Kieslowski.

The theatrical distributor, Seven Arts, used to be associated with Warner Brothers (usually for smaller films). I wonder if the brand is being used again since Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse were retired.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

"The Deaths of Ian Stone": the idea has been numerous times


Ever had the experience of a nightmare and trying to wake yourself from a dream? It’s probably a dangerous moment. I’ve wondered if for some people the end-of-life moment becomes merely a dream that never ends; if, for the brain, time stops so that it seems to last forever.

Ice hockey player Ian Stone, traveling to London, finds himself in a bind like that, getting murdered and then waking up in another life, going through the cycle repeatedly. That’s the premise of the early 2008 thriller “The Deaths of Ian Stone”, directed by Dario Piana, written by Brendan Hood, from LionsGate and Odyssey films (from the "After Dark" "8 Films to Die For"). Ian is played by a babyfaced Mike Vogel, with female companion Medea played by Jaime Murray.

The idea has also been tried in an episode (Feb. 24 2008) of CWTV’s “Supernatural”. Sam (Jared Padalecki) repeatedly wakes to brother Dean’s (Jensen Ackles) call of “rise and shine” and a pop song (the melody goes “E--D-EDC”), and gets killed, each time earlier in the day.

From a dramatic perspective, a similar concept was tried in a larger thriller, “Vantage Point”, from Columbia, directed by Pete Travis (written by Barry Levy), early 2008, where an assassination attempt on a fictitious president about to speak in a public square in Spain is retold repeatedly from the viewpoints of various characters who may be related in a plot of some kind.

But in the Ian Stone film, each “alternate life” seems to take him back into madness. We don’t know if he is schizophrenic, or on a drug trip. One interview with an unemployment clerk is revealing, as if his life as an athlete was just a fantasy and that he needed to get a real job, perhaps humbling himself to peddle stuff. He keeps encountered this gnarled old man who tells him that “they” (the “harvesters”) are after him, that he hurt one of them. They are sort of like Stephen King’s langoliers, or perhaps just vampires. He doesn’t know if he is one of them or not. And these black monsters with claws (rather in the shape of “The Scarlet Claw”, previous review) keep grabbing him and gobbling him up. (In the first death, he is pushed in front of a train, like in a “Final Destination” movie.) Sometimes the monsters dissolve into black dust, very much as on a “Supernatural” episode.

In the end, we find out if he gets his original life (as an athlete), and his girl friend, back. Or, will he get stuck in a parallel universe, unable to traverse those extra dimensions attached to the "branes"?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

UCLA's restoration of "The Scarlet Claw"


The ULCA Film & Television Archive has restored a number of old classics, including some of the Sherlock Holmes films. One of the most famous of these is "Sherlock Holmes: The Scarlet Claw" (1944), originally distributed by Universal, directed by Roy William Neill, and relatively crisp at 74 minutes. Basil Rathbone (of course) plays Sherlock, with Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson, and Gerald Hamer as the “culprit” Alistair Ramson.

The “claw” looks like a garden pitchfork, and, not, the Project did not colorize it red (like the famous girl’s dress in Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List”) in this black-and-white classic.

Some of the ideas of the film are interesting. The detectives travel to friendly wartime Canada, where near the Quebec village of La Mort Rouge (“The Red Death”) a few people have been savaged murdered, their throats slashed, in the nearby heath. Some sheep have also been slashed, an anticipation of the “cattle mutilation” controversy to start thirty years later.

Furthermore, the “phantom” is shown, with effective filmmaking, and illuminated ghost.

Later, Sherlock tracks down a local, escaped (but supposedly killed in the attempt). It seems that he is a versatile actor, who once killed another rival (a bit of “The Player”) and can play a number of characters with “costumes”. (This brings up the whole matter of “Pagliacci”, reviewed Jan. 8 on my “plays” blog, and the idea of fiction mixing with reality and the legal and life consequences thereof – a problem that seems new with the Internet but now seems very old). In fact, he’s able to use white phosphorus (any high school chemistry student is supposed to know that the allotrope is poisonous and very dangerous) to glow and look like a ghost.

The film ends with an apt wartime quote of Winston Churchill. There's also a curious passage where Watson almost gets swallowed up by a peat bog behaving as quicksand.

The DVD (now distributed by MPI) includes an interview with Robert Gill from the UCLA restoration project. Gill explains that this film was a difficult restoration, done from pieces of acetate film, without reliable positives and negatives. I have some old family 8 mm footage of the Buckingham area of Arlington VA from the days of segregation (the 1940s), that might be valuable (to a filmmaker, maybe me) if I got it restored and copied onto a DVD. I may look into that. I suspect there are film projects around that would buy historical footage of old neighborhoods from WWII times.

Gill says that they had to add back the Universal trademark (here, it’s a New Year’s globe, recently used in “Changeling”), and even the War Bonds ad from WWII. Original distributors or studios have often sold their rights to these old films.

The “cattle mutilation” issue has rarely been treated in film. MGM gave us “Endangered Species” in 1982, directed by Alan Rudolph, with a story by Judson Klinger and Richard Clayton Woods. I do remember seeing this, and the story migrated from the sci-fi and the government helicopters keeping people out to the politics of cattle barons. There is a 25 minute short called “Cattle Mutilations”, directed by George Kuchar (1983), and if any visitor knows where to find the film (legally), please let me know in a comment.

In fact, on Saturday August 6, 1994 (I hope I’ve got my perpetual calendar right), I remember eating lunch in Sterling, CO, an epicenter of supposed cattle mutilations (it’s on the plains in the East, away from the mountains), and coming to the decision to write my first book. It’s a moment I still remember well.

Monday, January 12, 2009

"Grey Gardens": The original 1975 docudrama rather resembles Warhol


On December 30, 2008, PBS Independent Lens had already aired an “Operation Filmmaker” about Michael Suczy’s remake (and a Broadway play from) this 1975 documentary, “Grey Gardens”, which I then rented. Now from Netflix and the Criterion Collection, it originally had been released in 1975 by Janus Films and Portrait Pictures, directed by Muffie Meyer, Ellen Hovde and Albert Maysles. I have a brief review of the PBS show here.

The original controversy was that the film was about the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Edith Bouvier Beale and “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, living in a squalid mansion in East Hampton, Long Island. (“Country Gardens” it is not.) The film opens with a series of newspaper clips showing how the health department had almost evicted them, before they cleaned up. And their housekeeping never is that good; their lively cats still prance in some squalor. Newspapers and junk abound in the home, but so does some pop art. In an interview of Little Edie accompanied by stills on the DVD, Edie says that over 12 agents came to her home and locked her out of the house and threatened them, and that this event almost killed her mother. She claims that they didn't have a valid search warrant. She doesn't know why the government was so nosey.

The film then more or less goes into reality mode, and flows rather like an Andy Warhol movie. (I wonder if the Warhol museum in Pittsburgh has shown it.) While the daughter says she moved in to care for her mother, the conversation makes it seem like the opposite is going on. Like, the daughter has trouble remembering dates. The elder lady is barking orders toward the end. She has a great line, "I've got to have some professional music" while the younger is singing a cappella (and not staying on pitch). At one point, the film shows them playing some old 78 breakable records. At the end, Little Edie says she is looking for people who write music herself, but that her mother doesn't like her friends, and owning the house, can keep them out. Little Edie says she gets bored with just her cats. In the DVD interview, Little Edie says she might have lived a better life had she been on her own in New York (without her mother to look after), yet the interviewer seems to believe otherwise.

I think I set foot in the Hamptons only once (no Gatsby life for me) when I lived in NYC in the 70s, stepping off the LIRR. I went to Montauk once, and Fire Island many times. I still remember the look of the beach houses, the vegetation, the sand art (well!) and, “the other”. I remember meeting a 30-something psychologist who, in the summer of 1978, was in the process of moving to the “good life” in LA, and would visit him later there. Those were days of naivite and innocence, and so much has happened since then.

Friday, January 09, 2009

"Gran Torino": Clint Eastwood makes a stand in Michigan


Once again, Clint Eastwood gives us a studied, intense film with “character” issues, this one a bit of a modern “Michigan western” leading to a “High Noon” style confrontation at the end that he may not survive, and may not want to. The film is "Gran Torino", from Warner Brothers and Village Roadshow. This time the character is Walt Kowalski, just widowed at the start of the film. He keeps his Detroit homestead, a 30s frame house with the internal “chimney” construction that spreads fires, perhaps. He has a huge toolshed (rather like my own father’s workshop, much truly worthy of becoming a museum). And he’s the only white left in a Hmong neighborhood, with which he does not seem to have good relations.

The Hmong are southeast Asian ethic groups who fought with the United States during the Vietnam war. I recall, when living in Minnesota, that they were a significant voting block, particularly in St. Paul. Kowalski asks why they came to the “Midwest” where there are “six months of snow a year.” Generally, there’s less than that. The film depicts the group as prone to gangs, which I don’t recall hearing in the media all when living in Minneapolis. Teenage Thao Vang Lor (Bee Vang) tries to steal Kowalki’s 1972 Gran Torino as part of a “gang initiation”, and when he gets caught, Kowalski, after some reluctance, attempts to serve as a role model for Thao, who speaks good English and sounds like a good kid. Kowalski teaches him how to be assertive, even with bad words, in a macho-valued community, and yet make good things happen. For example, he helps Kowalksi get a construction job. The film, with some exaggeration, seems to make a point of showing how senior men ought to become "social" role models for disadvantaged teens or boys. The movie also shows the socialization of some lower income communities (not at all restricted to the Hmong and perhaps this is not even generally true of the Hmong) that requires boys to show their loyalty to the group as a moral imperative.

Christopher Carley plays the intrusive 27-year-old Father Janovich, as the “virgin” priest who keeps tracking down Kowalski and barging in, out of the desires of his deceased wife. The film does make something of the power of the will. The film also examines the way various groups are socialized, and how people in groups build their own moral values based on part on expected group loyalties--along with the inevitable social clashes that will result.

But Kowalski’s own health is failing – his smoking is a clue – and that may actually motivate the film’s end. The story is by Nick Schenk and Dave Johansson.

The film started very limited release Dec. 19 and opened in wide release today. It had a fair crowd at a Regal in Arlington VA at a 2 PM Friday matinee.

Monday, January 05, 2009

The "Another" franchise of "gay movies": there's more than one now!


The “Another” franchise, now two “gay” films from TLA Releasing and director Todd Stephens, may be the first franchise whose title starts by implying that their were prequels. Even “Star Wars” didn’t do that. I mean, the title of the first film, “Another Gay Movie” implies that some day will see a “First Gay Movie.” (I wonder what the trademark law implications are. If I make a movie, I won’t take a chance and call it “Another …”)

Or, maybe the adjective “another” is supposed to characterize the sub-genre: taking the antics of “American Pie” movies (without Jason Biggs) and using them with gay characters and stories --- nothing but slapstick and total escapism, nothing that could possibly matter. Drag shows are supposed to be like that – they don’t even bother to satirize the politicians. (That is, "Saturday Night Live" is not escapism, even when Jon Heder hosts.) There are many gay-themed films today that are very serious (“Brokeback Mountain”, “Save Me”, etc). But not this series. It is comedy for its own sake, with no hint of satire.

The films even have different casts. But one theme that unites them is that the men come from “accepting” families. Discrimination is something that happened only in a parallel universe, not here.

The first film, in 2006, played a sneak preview to a full house at Landmark’s E Street in Washington on a Thursday night in the fall, some time shortly after Reel Affirmations. As I recall, it started with Michael Carbanaro’s character and his dad encouraging him to get into his own life. But the film then does add just a little seasoning of seriousness with the hunk (Jarod) played by manly Jonathan Chase, who, in one scene, is knocking big league home runs in batting practice. He belongs in Fenway Park.

The second film, in 2008, “Another Gay Sequel: Gays Gone Wild!” is, well, bigger. The story is by a different writer, Eric Eisenbrey (the first film story was by Tim Kaltenecker). It has some of the same "characters" played by different actors. It’s filmed in 2.35:1 aspect and has all the gaudy Technicolor of 50s Cinemascope comedies and musicals from MGM and Fox. There is a little satire here, of hairless porn itself, and of some of the raunchier practices. The setting is Fort Lauderdale (home of Alamo rent-a-car – that’s what I remembered, until I saw this movie). The plot is, well, gays on Spring Break, meeting the frat boys. That’s enough to say about the “story.”
My favorite characters were played by Euriamis Losada and Jake Mosser, with some real tenderness in a couple of scenes (including a drive-in movie).

This film has achieved a certain notoriety because of a few specific sequences: the “rain showers”, the crustaceans-on-bods (probably inspired by Carter Smith’s “Bugcrush”) leading to a bizarre sequence with national razors; the “barf” sequence, and the epoxy glue. The DVD extras go into how some of this was actually filmed (hint: oatmeal, which may make hot cereal a nauseating prospect from now on). But the most interesting featurette on the DVD may be how they turned an actor (I think it was Aaron Michael Davies) into “mer-man” (that is, a dolphin ready for the next Olympics), and the transformation is brutal. They cover his hairy legs with goo and wrap them tight in seran wrap, and then apply the paste.

There’s “Another Gay Franchise”: the “Eating Out” movies (in 2004 and 2006, from Ariztical, but with two directors: Alan Brocka and Philip J. Bartel), the second having the subtitle “Sloppy Seconds”. They, too, have different casts. I liked the first film a lot more. Ryan Carnes plays a very appealing classical musician (maybe inspired by the character Ephram from the WB series “Everwood”) and it has an intriguing “unbuttoning” encounter right in the middle of the film (with a telephone prompt).

Sunday, January 04, 2009

"Manassas: End of Innocence": Battlefield Park documentary is quite harrowing


Manassas National Battlefield Park, operated by the U.S. Park Service, offers an impressive 45-minute film “Manassas: End of Innocence”, filmed in 2002 by Congaree Productions, directed by Ben Burtt, and written by Ray Herbeck, Jr. The Park charges $3 a ticket for the 45 minute documentary even to pass holders because of a legal arrangement necessary to pay back debts associated with the film. (Yes, that’s one way to bail out a production company: ask the customers to actually pay for it’s product; sounds pretty logical under capitalism).

The film dramatizes the Civil War (War Between the States) Battle of First Manassas (July 1861) and Second Manassas (August 1862), also called the First of Bill Run and Second Battle of Bull Run).

The first battle involved a farmhouse belonging to Wilmer McClean (a Washington suburb is named after him); he would take his family south, to Appommatox, where in his own parlor the War would end (as covered in Ken Burns's "The Civil War").

Both sides, despite the amateur nature of their armies in the beginning, expected the First Battle to be the only Battle of the War. (Hence the film’s subtitle.) On a hill overlooking Bull Run, people from Washington (25 miles away) gathered to watch and have picnics. At the time, Union soldiers had 90-day enlistment contracts, and Lincoln feared that the contracts would run out before the War ended. A draft (with a $300 buyout) would follow (in April 1862), a point important to the film “Gangs of New York” (2002, Miramax, dir. Martin Scorsese) when the New York draft riots erupt. But at the time of this first Battle, nobody expected that.

Virginia landowners didn’t want their slaves to know “the meaning of the War” (although the “meaning” as much about the Union as slavery). Nevertheless, the slaves gradually learned the stakes. But the real heart of the film has a local wife going to the Stone House, converted to a field hospital, looking for her (Confederate) husband soldier, treated by a Union surgeon. Just before seeing her spouse, she sees a soldier’s leg being sawed off, without anesthesia or antiseptics, in a room with other organs and body parts strewn around, a gruesome scene and one of the most graphic I’ve ever encountered at the movies.

The film is quite realistic in other ways. Teenagers are shown training to become soldiers, and a teenage boy is asked to count the dead in a ditch but gets sick and stops. Earlier in the film, the gentry in Washington are shown, with the Capitol with its dome still under construction quite realistically shown with CGI programming. Lincoln decided to keep building the Dome to give the public confidence in keeping the Union together. (Had the Union lost, Washington might not have remained the capital of the North since Maryland had such a strong secessionist presence.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Frank Miller's "The Spirit" follows his "Sin City"


Lionsgate (instead of Dimension) is offering us a “sequel” to the bloated Frank Miller noir thriller “Sin City”, called “The Spirit”, named after the "born again" superhero played by Gabriel Macht. (Johnny Simmons is effective as the young Spirit.) Scarlet Johansson plays Silken Floss, the closest thing to his love that is possible in this kind of model world where snowflakes look like Kleenex. Eva Mendez (who appears on "Ellen" Jan. 5) plays Sand Seraf. Directed and written by Miller, the film again is based in the comic book series by Will Eisner. This time, the aspect is a full 2.35:1, and the look of the film is even more abstract, almost black and white with lots of red splashes, and some scenes that look almost like woodcuts (like the tennis shoe image). This is not a movie about who "has the Spirit."

The villain in the Central City is Octopus (reminds one of a James Bond movie character), played by Samuel L. Jackson. There is this stark, metallic scene where he says he doesn’t care about money because as God he just get what he wants. He reminds us of Lex Luthor in Smallville. In that scene is an image a miniature clone of Octopus, a flapping web foot with a head stuck on that scuttles along the laboratory table like an extract from “The Thing” in the 1982 version of that film. As comic horror, it’s pretty effective.

A world like this always seems like a dream, a parallel universe where forms are simpler and there are fewer places to go, and where conflicts must be settled. The Spirit seems to have his retinue of intelligent cats, felines who seemed well trained to act in this movie.

The production company is Odd Lot Entertainment, and I wonder if it has anything to do with “Lot 47”, which distributed L.I.E. in 2001.

An image from the earlier "Sin City" that hits my mind is Josh Hartnett, in the opening, playing some kind of huckster, as I recall.

The film tonight was lightly attended at a Regal in northern VA, small auditorium. I don't like the way smaller screens crop for 2.35:1.

Friday, January 02, 2009

"Reservation Road": DiCaprio and Kate Winslet face off again, a decade after "Titanic"; (Oops! that's "Revolutionary Road"!)


We all remember a lean, boyish, earthy Leonardo DiCaprio wooing the socialite played by Kate Winslet in (the not quite a Harlequin romance) epic Titanic (“this is it!”); and, one could say, DiCaprio’s alter soul is resurrected to continue the relationship as an “old married couple” (that is, each about 30) in the 1950s in Sam Mendes’s new film “Revolutionary Road”. The film, made by Dreamworks and BBC and distributed as an “arthouse” release by Paramount Vantage, is more “American Beauty” than “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” although the latter is what I expected. Although photographed in widescreen Arri, it runs like a stageplay, almost with a touch of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf” (which I remember seeing in Lawrence Kansas in the 60s). The movie is based on the novel by Richard Yates and the screenplay adaptation is by Justin Haythe.

DiCaprio is definitely a grown man when he makes movies about the environment (“The 11th Hour”, in a league with “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Planet in Peril”) but not so much here, at least when it comes to matters of bod. His chin is a bit too thick, he’s got love handles, and he chain smokes, but so do all the other male characters in this film. (That’s depressing, but that’s the 50s.)

The movie-play is genuinely funny. The sold out show tonight in a large auditorium at Landmark’s E-Street in Washington was laughing at the most serious lines. “I want to feel” conformist Frank Wheeler says, as he and April contemplate really giving it all up and going to Paris, where he becomes house husband and she thinks secretaries make good money. (Frank's "wanting to feel" would contradict a masculine personality; in purely psychological terms, it seems that April is the masculine personality in the marriage to me; no wonder Frank hates his job.) She was ahead of Betty Friedan in line, I think. But what shreds their marriage is the “MP” son of her realtor, played by Kathy Bates who (almost out of Stephen King) acts almost like a witch ready to sell haunted real estate in Connecticut (I think the filming was actually done in the UK). The son John Givings, played by Michael Shannon, is supposed to have a PhD in mathematics; he just needs help (nothing to be ashamed of, mind you, as was the mantra for “psychiatric help” in the 50s) conforming. He has this way of blurting out the brutal truth whenever he visits the Wheelers with his parents (while on pass from the hospital). The first time, he says, “so to have all this you stay in a job you don’t like”. I don’t know if he has Aspergers, or fits the DRG criteria for “schizoid personality” – it’s fun to diagnose the character, but not so easy to diagnose the Wheelers. He sees through everything, and reminds conventionally married people that they need to keep up the fa├žade of social support (requiring silent acquiescence of the unsocialized) to make it worth staying together.

The haggard John Givings character -- the stereotyped "subjective feminine" with plenty of compulsiveness and sadism -- does indeed emulate me during those bad old days at NIH in 1962 (discussed on my main blog; start with Nov. 28, 2006); I tend to be the person to "attack" others with "the truth" and make them uncomfortable with involuntary but hidden co-dependencies. Maybe these blogs accomplish the same thing; they're just a lot more civilized.

In the end, we do have a tragedy. Let’s say that Michael Wheeler (DiCaprio) resents April’s desire to control her own body about the most personal things. Abortions are illegal, and there’s no Vera Drake around to help her, or is there. The psychology comes right out of George Gilder’s book “Men and Marriage” (1986).

The scenes at Wheeler’s job at “Knox Industries” are interesting. He has a cubicle with no computer but a black rotary phone. He is a manipulator and salesman, not a thinker. Although Knox is supposed to be in Toledo, it sounds like a fictitious analogue of IBM, as they are talking about making computers (with vacuum tubes, mind you).

There was a film in 2007 from Focus Features, directed by Terry George, with a similar title, “Reservation Road”. It had the provocative premise of a lawyer running from a hit-run accident (in which a young musician dies) and then forced to work with the victim while hiding his guilt.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

"Cinema's Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood", documentary from PBS about filmmakers who fled Nazi Germany


On Jan. 1, 2009 Maryland Public Television, WNET-13 in New York, and PBS aired a documentary, partly sponsored by New Line, “Cinema’s Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood." The website is this.

In the 1920s, German film culture blossomed despite the economic difficulties in the country, and German directors (like Friz Lang and Billy Wilder) and producers like Erich Pommer developed an expressionistic film style. A typical hit in Germany was “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” Other important films were “People on Sunday” (with great visual intimacy) and “Asphalt.” Peter Lorre was an important actor, with “M” was one his most famous performances. Nazi takeover and the rise of Hitler appeared rather suddenly, and Jewish artists found themselves being shunned socially, too. Goebbels took over the film industry, and the Jews were prohibited from working.

So Jewish film artists began to emigrate, first to Paris, and then to America. They arrived in “Hollywoodland” and had to adjust to the American studio system. Fritz Lang, who had been so popular in Germany, had difficulty getting his ideas accepted at MGM, but eventually did “Fury.” In the 1930s, Americans, including those in Hollywood, did not fully understand what was going on in Europe.

In 1939, RKO Radio made Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (William Dieterle) and it was the only film screened at the Cannes Film Festival (the documentary shows the Pantages Theater) when the festival was canceled because of Germany’s blitzkrieg invasion of Poland.

In the US, resettled artists had various success. Peter Lorre’s performance in “The Maltese Falcon” became famous. Gradually, German Jewish talent helped Hollywood develop the genres of horror and film noir. Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” would be one of the most famous of the film noirs, about the total corruption of society, with wicked people doing wicked things, encouraging the dark music score of expatriate composer Miklos Rosza. (“I did it for the woman and I did it for the money.”) I recall Fred Zinemann’s real-time western "High Noon", seeing it at an old neighborhood theater in Arlington VA (the Buckingham, now a Post Office) on the way to meet my father at National Airport. I still remember the clock.

After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. allowed only immigrants who had financial support, and those of German origin (and not yet American citizens) had to honor curfews.

Some of the artists, and especially their wives, had to adjust to much harder lives in the United States than they had enjoyed in Germany because Hitler essentially expropriated the lives that they had once commanded. This was much harder on older people that it would be on teenagers or younger adults. This kind of thing happens, as a kind of anti-justice. That sounds like the moral “message” of this documentary.

This documentary should be compared to “Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography.”

There were similar issues in other arts, such as music performance and composition. The story of composer Wilhelm Furtwangler is interesting. In 2001, MGB released a film about Furtwangler, "Taking Sides", directed by Istvan Szabo, based on a play by Ronald Harwood.