Monday, June 29, 2009

Shia LaBeouf carries "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen"


Well, Michael Bay’s “Transformers II” – that is “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” indeed turns out to be one of the most visually spectacular films of all time. I saw on a Monday night in a large Regal auditorium with a curved 2.35:1 screen, and I not sure how the cropping maps to Imax 1.44:1. The movie is filmed in many locations, most notably the epic battle near the Pyramids, and the full anamorphic screen seems necessary. The photography is so clear and crisp that it seems like 3-D without glasses; it reminds one of Paramount’s VistaVision or ToddAO, but the credits said Panavision.

“Hiya” Shia LaBeouf plays young hero Sam Witwicky, now entering college as a freshman. One of the best scenes occurs when he visits his dorm room for the first time, and meets his roomie Leo Spitz (Ramon Rodriquez) and immediately enters a world of virtual reality, fraternity and probably women. That’s a far cry from my first Sunday move in to a dorm room in 1961 that lost semester at William and Mary.

There are a lot of “creative” ideas with the expanding, fractal robots. In one scene, a bunch of nanocrystals spill onto a floor, glittering, and build up to Christmas-light robots. In another, Sam is pinned down to an examination table, and given an endoscopy by one of the robots that crawls into his mouth and down his esophagus.

There's a scene where Sam gets thrown out of a lecture for going on a fugue and disrupting it with his equations from modern physics. In six years of college and graduate school in the 60s, I saw something like that happen exactly once.

Toward the end, Shia wears a bandage on one hand; it may have been the cast from his auto accident. Brad Pitt had to wear a sling for part of "Se7en" because of a real accident, and Mark Parrish had to wear a leg cast for part of "Mustang Sally" because of a real motorcycle accident.

The final battle scene around the Pyramids featured a "mountaintop removal" from the largest Pyramid, showing an inner "transformer" structure that certainly does not exist.

The premise of the films may not be as fanciful as we think. A history channel Universe program suggested that an extremely advanced civilization could convert itself to robotic life (silicon based) and roam space without the constraints of needing atmosphere and gravity. Such a “life form” would seed other planets and perhaps perform social or political experiments with the people or creatures on various worlds, including us.

The film was produced and distributed as a Paramount/Dreamworks collaboration.

Attribution link for Wikimedia Commons and NASA photo of Europa, moon of Jupiter.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

"Salesman": Cinema Verite vs. direct cinema; "all con men are poets"


The “Cinema Verite” focus at the recent AFI Silverdocs festival in Silver Spring, MD included a showing of the 1968 film “Salesman” by Albert and David Maysles (link). The film was originally distributed by Janus Films and now is part of the Criterion Collection. The DVD includes a long interview of the Maysles brothers, who call this film an example of “direct cinema” (or “see it now”) which they distinguish from “cinema verite”. Perhaps they are talking about the “fact or fiction” style of docudrama of which the 1998 film “The Last Broadcast” about a hunt for the Jersey Devil is a good example (maybe even “The Blair Witch Project” is another).

The now somewhat famous black-and-white film “Salesman” follows four Irish catholic Bible salesmen (Badger, Gipper, Rabbit, and Bull) as they go door to door selling to low income Catholic families, under quota. The opening sequence, where Rabbit “sells” a housewife on the “greatest literature ever written” and tries to offer a color illustrated Bible, takes leave as the little boy starts playing random descending figures on the upright piano. Later, another customer reacts to the sales pitch with “I hope I get around to reading it.” The families would have to pay only a few bucks a week.

Early in the film there is a sales meeting, where the boss berates them into producing, in a job that is about manipulating others. I am reminded of the comedy by Brent Huff, “100 Mile Rule”, where salesmen are implored “Always Be Closing.”

That does become a career, which leads to a section of the Maysles interview called “every con man is a poet.” The filmmakers even say “most of life is selling” and “we are more salesmen than filmmakers.” But some people – all they do is hucksterize the work of others.

I remember the visit from the World Book Encyclopedia salesman around 1950, and then from Sherwood Music School for my piano lessons.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

"The Cutting Edge: The Art of Film Editing": more meta-film


It’s interesting to look up and watch meta-movies: that is, movies about movie making. “The Cutting Edge: The Art of Film Editing" (2004), directed by Wendy Apple (written by Mark Jonathan Harris, and narrated by Kathy Bates [“Misery”]), from Starz Encore (now Overture Films) is a good example.

The film starts with some visual metaphors: when in doubt, cut it! So, we see some body parts being cut off, et cetera. Pretty soon, we get into a historical trace of the film editor’s job, which used to be considered blue collar or somewhat servile and “unheard” labor. Originally, a lot of editors were women, until sound became standard with film in the 1930s. There is a clip where Quentin Tarrantino explains that sometimes he wants a female (“nurturing”) editor.

It is editing that makes film an art form and an expression (there is a quote “All art is technology”, which reminds me of my high school blurt-out “all learning is memorizing”). Editing enables one to craft the images into a story, rather than just a time-spanning assembly of impressions. Before editing came along, people wondered what the point of the movies would be.

A particularly interesting demonstration of how editing gets done was provided by Walter Murch and his editing of Cold Mountain, where the array of clips was shown, and the mechanical process is demonstrated.

In the 1960s, unconventional editing such as “jump cuts” (as in “Breathless”) started to become popular, first in foreign film.

There is a process in film production of going from spec script to shooting script and then into editing, to lead to the “final cut.” When I lived in Minneapolis, I took a three-session course in FinalCut from IFPMSP, although now the product would be much easier to use on modern Mac’s. I also saw Premier demonstrated in a Windows environment.

Friday, June 26, 2009

"My Sister's Keeper" is tough to watch, for me at least


Nick Cassavetes has made a film about people playing god, or playing with the knowledge of good and evil, with “My Sister’s Keeper”, from New Line. The film is based on a novel by Jodi Picoult. Abigail Breslin plays a tween girl who was artificially conceived to provide transplant parts for her older sister Kate (Sofia Vassilieva) who has struggled with leukemia since early childhood. Alec Baldwin plays the attorney who will seek “medical emancipation” (he takes his dog into court) and Cameron Diaz plays the determined mother, and Jason Patric her almost loyal firefighting husband. Evan Ellingston plasy the teenage brother and art student.

Why doesn’t Anna have the right to consent before getting cut opened to save Kate? “Because she’s your sister.” Okay, parents, when they have sexual intercourse under martial commitment, have the power to demand sacrifices from others to provide for their own children – even siblings. She’s “your sister” but she wasn’t created by your choices. So, here we get into the moral discussions that can turn all of beliefs on their ends. But it certainly gives some insight into today’s debates about marriage.

The film takes some plot developments that seem predictable, including a “romance” between Kate and another teen cancer patient. And then, there is the courtroom drama, where the sensitive brother makes the almost obvious revelation, out of order.

I saw this in a small auditorium at a Regal complex in Arlington, and there were people crying in the audience. For me, this was not a tearjerker, but it was tough to take, and perhaps to believe.

I guess this film succeeds in making us question our basic concepts of consent and personal sovereignty -- versus natural love and faith. There is always a dichotomy between "she needs ..." (New Testament community consciousness) and "he earned..." And, when are "family responsibility" obligations to blood legitimately created by the actions of others (parents) beyond the scope of choice. We've gotten used to think of everything as choice and consequence (such as with the teen pregnancy issue). It ain't always so.

I've had a moral dilemma or two like this in my own life -- more subtle, but it could really make a movie -- my own.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

PBS "The Music Instinct: Science and Song": very strong documentary film


"The Music Instinct: Science & Song", a film by Elena Mannes, aired Wed. June 24, 2009 on PBS stations. The website is here. I don’t know if there will be special theatrical showings (I didn’t see it come up at AFI Silverdocs, but it certainly would fit.)

The title tells us what this film, beginning at the outset with Rachmaninoff’s 18th Variation, looks at why music is so much a part of human culture. How does it relate to the human brain? Do humans have a music instinct?

Where doe the goosebumps of the climax of a Rachmaninoff Second Concerto (that was my own first experience) come from?

Daniel Barenboim says “every note is a lifetime for itself.” But music is something that is in the mind, animated from the sounds fed to it. Music is relativistic: it takes time and really makes it into a real dimension: we enjoy the individual sounds of a composition only in relation to the sounds before and after each sound. Music may be our way to transcend our normal world of three visible dimensions, and giving us access to past and future time.

There are comparisons of music to language, and whether “French” music sounds different from “English” music or German (or Viennese) because of the differences among the underlying languages.

There is discussion of the role of music in defining “culture” – and perhaps the collective, common experience of things that, even if through individual effort – allows man to build on the experiences of its ancestors, unlike the case of the closest of apes (as shown in another PBS Nova show “Ape Genius”). But some birds actually show response to music.

Music is shown as based on “vibrations” – the basic element of consciousness in New Age philosophy (Rosicrucianism). All objects in the universe vibrate – even black holes, which have very low frequencies.

Update: June 30
PBS Nova broadcast a supplement, "Musical Minds," narrated by Oliver Sacks. The show explored musical gifts, and ungifts -- "amusia", inability to perceive melody or rhythm (from a woman from an Irish musical family who finds the piano to have an annoying sound). The show also showed patients with Tourette's syndrome who have gifts for music and drum playing. And it showed, with MRI's, how the brain responds differently to Bach compared to Beethoven. The link is here.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"The Red Violin": a curious international epic


The Red Violin” (“Le violin rouge”) starts with an auction at Duval in Montreal of a mysterious red-painted instrument, whereupon the film constructs a few backstories, one per century, that trace the path of the violin and the curious fates of those who encounter it.

It starts out in 17th century Italy with a fortune teller reading, and then from a monastery in 18th century Austria a boy, in a family speaking both French and German, becomes a virtuoso but collapses and dies (of stage fright, perhaps) at an audition. The violin is buried with the boy but is found by gypsies and carried to England. There, a flamboyant violinist Frederick Pope (Jason Flemyng) carries on an affair with a mysterious writer, who undoes him while he plays, and then precipitates and end paralleling her own fiction.

Then it makes an Oceanic voyage and winds up in China during Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution of “absolute justice.” There is an odd discussion of how western classical music is abstract. bookish and self-indulgent and does not relate to “the people”. There is even to be a “record collection buring” when the violin is found.

Samuel L. Jackson plays the connoisseur who “investigates” the mysterious violin just before the auction, which rushes toward a Hitchcock-like finish.

The original music is by John Corigliano, with Joshua Bell playing much of the music, and Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the moody score.

The film is in French, Italian, German and Chinese (the film’s structure provides the opportunity) with subtitles (the Montreal scenes are in English) and is directed by Francois Girard, and was distributed by Lionsgate in 1998. The DVD is an older one, as it has Lionsgate’s older trademark.

Monday, June 22, 2009

"Food Inc." bodyslams US agribusiness, gets into arcane legal issues


Well, “Food, Inc.”, the new documentary on the American food mega-business, does hit pretty hard. The film was directed by Robert Kenner, and produced by RiverRoad and Participant (a company that emphasizes socially important film) and distributed by Magnolia. It played to a fair crowd on a Monday night in an Arlington VA AMC Theater as a “select” film. The website gives the tagline, “you’ll never look at dinner the same way again.”

The moral lesson is put back on the individual viewer. Messages just before the closing credits implore people to eat together as families, grow their own food, buy locally or from farmer’s markets.

But the film then goes go on to indict the US food industry, which has merged and consolidated into a few companies that march on with a ruthless search for anti-Amish efficiency.

Early scenes in the film interview the one woman with an “open” chicken house in Kentucky. The companies for her into debt, and can cut her off at any time, so most farmers won’t talk to the media. Yup, the companies don’t want you to know…

The film blames the advent of the fast food industry in the 50s as part of the problem. McDonalds showed that you can provide fast food for very low prices by keeping a limited menu of simple items, and by hiring workers who have to do only one repetitive task. (I remember that issue from my own “occupational therapy” back in 1962 at NIH – discussed elsewhere on my blogs.) They used to say, McDonalds is the place that tests “whether you can work.” People get yelled at. Seniors work at them.

In time, the major food companies, especially in the poultry industry, would take on similar tactics in their plants. Some imported immigrants from Mexico to take jobs that Americans didn’t want (or weren’t regimented or desperate enough to do), and this only became a political issue after 9/11, when the government, influenced by food industry lobbyists (both parties), would go only after random workers, enough to make a show of force for the media.

One of the most revolutionary developments in the food industry was the use of corn as feed for grazing animals who evolved eating grasses. The resulting technology would occasionally introduce dangerous bacteria, including particular species of E-coli. A boy’s death from e-coli was documented, presenting the proposals called “Kevin’s law”.

Toward the end, the film gets into some bizarre legal issues. One is the idea that biological products (genes) can be patented, as settled by the Supreme Court in the 1980s. Monsanto owns a dominating patent for a particular kind of soybean, and goes after farmers who used seed cleaning machines and other devices to go on their own for patent infringement, and even maintains black lists. Farmers are intimidated by SLAPP-like lawsuits that may not have merit but that they may not be able to afford to defend. And some states, like Colorado, have “veggie libel” laws which can make it a felony to make false claims against some food products. The film briefly described the lawsuit against Oprah Winfrey by the Texas cattlemen for a comment that she made on her show; Oprah successfully defended herself using the “Opinion Rule” but her defense cost about a million dollars (she can afford it). I remember Oprah’s victory. “Free speech rocks.” (Note: Media Bloggers Association reports that Oprah was involved in another defamation case about the former headmistress Nomvuyo Mzamane of her South African school, story link here.)

The film also makes a point about global warming and excessive fuel consumption, and the fact that world food shortages are likely to develop despite "efficiencies."

I don't think that the film was included at the 2009 Silverdocs, since it is already in commercial release, but it certain fits the "spirit" of the AFI Silverdocs festival (reviewed in three previous postings).

Picture: Flint Hills, Kansas, 2006 (mine).

Update: Nov. 19, 2009

Martha Stewart Living presented Robert Kenner today on her show, link, as she supported vegetarian Thanksgiving cooking and mentioned veggie libel laws and Oprah's case with the Texas cattlemen.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

"Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives": HBO Documentary (2003)


The HBO Original Documentary “Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives” (2003, directed by Ed Bell and Thomas Lennon) comes from the Federal Writers’ Project of the 1930s, which sponsored an initiative to interview over 2000 former slaves while they were still living.

A number of major African American actors speak, and they include Ossie Davis, Don Cheadle, Samuel L. Jackson. Ruby Dee, Angela Bassett, and Oprah Winfrey.

The film consists of speakers, with lots of stills from the 19th Century and pastoral shots of southern countryside today. The film describes the hierarchy among the slaves on the plantations, with the lowest being the field hands (who came in at “quittin’ time” in “Gone with the Wind”). A slave that tried to read or look at books was likely to be sold. Slave women raised white children, and black children provided playmates to white children who did not understand the social or economic system.

Later one of the former slaves talks about stealing in terms of karma. He said that the firs stealing occurred with the hauling of slaves onto ships from Africa (like Amistad), and that Christ gave his life for the sins of man, so he didn’t have to think about this.

The film shows slave ads and auctions, and introduces the derogatory terminology like “buck” “wench” and “griff”. The stills and descriptions are graphic, as a slave woman describes the loss of her breasts to an attack of her owner’s dogs.

Toward the end, some of the former slaves describe their escape to freedom, even before the official emancipation and the end of the Civil War.

Yet, in the 1930s, most former slaves lived in poverty.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Cinema Verite Forum offered by Discovery Channel and AFI Silverdocs


On Thursday, June 18, AFI Siverdocs hosted a one hour lecture and film examination by R.J. Cutler on “Cinema Verite Filmmaking” or “truthful documentary” (or maybe "provoked documentary") in the HD auditorium at the Discovery Channel in Silver Spring.

Cutler showed clips from five films.

(1) “The War Room” (directed Chris Hegedus, D. A. Pennebaker) with a scene on the Monday before Election Day in 1993, when George Stephanopolous and James Carville talk about the victory that they expect the next day. I saw this film in 1993.

(2) “American High” (2000, a TV documentary series by Allison Ellwood and Dan Partland) shows some teen-parent confrontations, as with a boy that want to borrow $30 from his mother. The series contained video diaries made by the teens at Illinois Highland Park High School themselves. Here the subjects were filming their own stories.

(3) “Freshman Diaries” (2003, another TV documentary by Elyse Springer) In the episode shown, an appealing young gay man of college freshman age goes to a fortune teller and warned he will get a girl pregnant. Then, maybe like Adam Lambert, his bi-sexuality is to be tested.

(4) “Thin” (HBO, 2006, directed Lauren Greenfield) traces four women with bulimia and anorexia nervosa in a Florida rehabilitation center. The excerpt shows a girl asked to draw herself. The film tested the girls’ will to live. I reviewed this on the TV blog in October 2007 here. http://billstvreviews.blogspot.com/2007/10/thin-hbo-documentary-on-treatment-for.html

(5) “The September Issue” (2009), showing at Silverdocs, directed by R. J. Cutler himself, traces Vogue Magazine editor-in-chief Anna Wintour's scurrying the 2008 fall-fashion issue; the look of the anamorphic film reminds me of “The Devil Wears Prada”. It shows at 7:15 PM Friday June 19. The film has US Distribution by Roadside Attractions and should soon have theatrical exhibition in art houses. It is on the Netflix Save list and is expected to be available soon on DVD.

Cutler emphasized that “verite” documentary, or “truthful documentary” is storytelling, and not political advocacy. The film belongs to the filmmaker, but the stories belong to the subjects. The best technique sometimes is to let the subjects film themselves.

There were a number of questions from the audience, including one from me about whether one could make a film about “don’t ask don’t tell” with a verite approach. I noted that most of the independent films on this issue (“Tell”, “Ask Not”) have tended to be advocacy-oriented, because of the nature of the problem. I suggested that one could expand from the military scenario and show the effect of “don’t ask don’t tell” thinking on civilian society as a whole with a verite approach, and he supported that idea. For example, it could start out by looking at the free speech and “free entry” issues in general society, and walk back toward the special environment of the military (and other special environments) all with storytelling, perhaps in Lars Van Trier style.

Other audience members indicated an interest in documenting a range of controversial situations, from the effect of international political issues on people's lives to sensitive issues involving adults with inappropriate interest in minors (probably referring to Chris Hansen's recent Dateline series "To Catch a Predator").

There are some discussions of cinema verite on the Internet, such as “Defining the Movement”, here. Here is the Wikipedia entry where there is discussion of the idea of the use of the camera to “provoke subjects”, an idea that Cutler might challenge. At this point, one wonders if some people perceive "verite" as akin to reality television, not always ending in "You're fired!"

Thursday, June 18, 2009

"Partly Private" is a venturesome documentary questioning the practice of male infant circumcision


Tonight, after missing a couple of other films as sold out and finding the standby lines like those at an airport, I got in to see “Partly Private”, a little film about circumcision originated in Quebec directed by Danae Elon. The film website is this and gives the subtitle “A Long Journey to a Short Cut”/ A thirty-something Jewish couple (Philip Touitou and his wife who is the director Danae Elon herself) living in Queens ponders the practice of circumcising their two sons. Early in the film, they have a religious ceremony and celebration in their apartment for the first boy, but then the wife goes on a quest about the whole practice. It takes her to Turkey, where it is practiced on boys in the 6-9 year range with great festivity, to the Middle East, to an examination of the feldspar supposedly used by Abraham in the Bible. The film notes that, while circumcision is very common in the United States, it is much less common everywhere else, including Britain. The couple works with their obstetrician, who explains the mechanics of those little devices. A little of the footage is quite graphic and would be illegal except for the special context here.

The film won an award at Tribeca Film Festival in 2009 as Best New York Documentary. The film is shot in old 4:3 aspect ratio.

Danae gives an interview on Indiewire here.

Visitors may want to look at the Stop Infant Circumcision website here. The point is that this is really a form of male genital mutilation, taken against babies out of religious tradition and not much else, taking something away that might be part of a whole man.

The film was preceded by a short “Kinda Sutra” directed by Jessica Yu, partly animated, nine minutes, showing where babies come from. Various young people give out the urban legends told by their parents about the stork; one young man thought that everytime he did a number-2 he had to check that he wasn’t responsible for a new baby.

The films played to an almost sold-out audience in AFI Silver Auditorium #2 on the evening of June 18.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

"The Time of Their Lives": Active, geeky seniors (sometimes over 100) in a London home


AFI Silverdocs Documentary Film Festival in Silver Spring, MD today viewed the 68-minute documentary “The Time of Their Lives” by Jocelyn Cammack, produced by Red Bird for BBCF Four in the UK. The film presents the lives of a number of super-elderly “geek ladies” at an unusual senior living center in North London. The women range in age from 87 to 101 and were or are still writers, journalists, novelists, and/or political activists. One talked about freedom of speech, which is not as strongly guarded at a legal level as in the United States.

The women had moved in to an “active senior center” before they really “had to”. The center is non-profit, and charges about $4000 a month (in US) for an apartment with meals and common areas, comparable to assisted living in the US (apparently nursing supervision is available but the residents have to “have their marbles” (have intact short-term memory and know the day of the week, for instance) to get in. (In the US and presumably the UK assisted living is often available for those with memory problems who still can take care of themselves physically, typically for about this price.)

The women all sounded sharp, and could talk about their accomplishments and still were active. Many were computer literate, which is a bit unusual in that age group in a senior center. One said that she was a “spoiled intellectual” who was physically “too slow for a real job” – a politically “acute” comment.

The grounds were beautiful, with gardens, and the buildings were the typically British staid brick flats, but very modern inside, with luxurious halls, furniture and common social and dining areas.

The visitor may want to compare this film to the four-hour film on HBO by Maria Shriver, “The Alzheimer’s Project” (review here on my TV blog). This film was a pleasure to watch, because the women were all mentally sharp, even at age over 100, whereas Shriver’s, much more down to earth about reality for many people, was very tough to take.

The filmmaker was present today, and even on a weekday afternoon, the large auditorium at the AFI Silver was two-thirds full.

Karina Longworth offers a preview of “The Time of Their Lives” on here blog here.

The film has no relation to the 1946 Abbott and Costello comedy of the same title.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (recalls "The Killing Fields")


The French-Cambodian documentary “S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine” (“S21: La machine de mort Khmere Rouge”), directed by Rithy Panh (First Run Features and Human Rights Watch) recreates in still images (of the Phnom Penh prison) and descriptions (in Cambodian) by former guards and prisoners, the horror of the purge, which was something like a violent corollary to Mao’s “cultural revolution”, aimed at building a peasant’s egalitarian and moneyless “utopia”, so extreme that it seems like this must have happened on another planet (even more so than did the Holocaust). A “star” of the film is painter Vann Nath, who confronts his captors and torturers. Looking into the history of individual prisoners, the film attempts to explore how this could have happened, as the American involvement under Nixon expanded and then withdrew. Some of the progress of the film's narrative occurs through the paintings. It was common for the Khmer Rouge to threaten and punish entire families (including non-children like siblings) of political "enemies of the people."

Ted Koppel did many reports on Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s; look at Wikipedia for the basic history here.

In checking further, it seems that I had seen this film at the University of Minnesota in 2003.

The obvious comparison for this film would be Roland Joffe’s “The Killing Fields” (1984, Warner Brothers) about journalist Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) and Dith Pran (Haing D. Ngor) who have to make it out through the “Killing Fields” with one of the most chilling sequences of death ever in film, and a tantalizing music score by Mile Oldfield.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Dennis Prager's short documentary "Israel in a Time of Terror" is certainly passionate


The short documentary (25 min) “Israel in a Time of Terror,” directed by Allen Estrin and produced and narrated by Dennis Prager, profiles a number of individuals dealing with the repeated suicide bombings in Israel, some of them victims, some with family members.

The documentary is politically one-sided in that the characters tend to believe that they belong to a chosen people and this is their homeland. The settlements are justified, in their minds, by the security threat. Of course, the media has reported that the attacks are driven by a sense of shame resulting from expropriation of Palestinian lands (what former President Carter called Palestinian “apartheid”).

The people were chosen randomly, and none of them express personal hatred for Arabs. One of the most touching cases is that of a teenage boy with a nail in his brain, unremovable. He has an uninjured twin brother, who will grow up normally, and his parents have the agonizing reminder of what he could have been.

A woman whose daughter was killed by a terrorist still tends to the children of her enemies.

Prager gives an impassioned interview on the DVD.

Had I made a film like this, I would have presented both "sides" of the issue. Ordinary Palestinian people are suffering. Expropriation of people's property is not morally acceptable.

The DVD (from Vanguard, dated 2003) also offers an interview with a German evangelical Christian physical therapist working in an Israeli hospital.

Friday, June 12, 2009

"Every Little Step" recreates "A Chorus Line" in three layers


I wondered if “Every Little Step” (directed by Adam Del Deo and James Stern) would really be a “film” or more a pseudo-play on screen, and I guess it is a mixture of both. The “movie” interleaves 1970s footage of the late Michael Bennett’s original (and of New York then, about the time I moved there, after Watergate) with the tryouts for the 2006 recreation of “Of Chorus Line”.

But the musical itself (book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, lyrics by Edward Kleban, music by Marvin Hamlisch) is about tryouts (“I Need this Job”) for a chorus line, so the entire film seems like a “three layer cake” experience of tryouts. And it’s brutal. Early on, applicants are told “you’re cut, get out”. In time, we start to bond with some of the applicants, or perhaps their characters, especially the gay Paul, who says that he didn’t know how to be a boy. We see some obviously shaved bodies, but not always; and we’re reminded that dance is on a part with major league athletics. Some of the auditionists are full of themselves, such as Tyce Diorio, who thinks Broadway will always have room for more. Why not, he asks.

This film and the last one on this blog are about dance, and I recall an incident back around Thanksgiving Weekend 2004, when I stopped at a family diner in Martinsburg, W Va, and I overheard the managers talking about one of their food servers. “His movements are too slow,” one of them said. I cringed; that would have applied to me. You have to be good at something, and not everybody reaches their dream. One of the female contestants says that auditioning is about learning to “live” because each performance is both your first and last.

The film, which seems to be shot in digital video, is distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, which this time added a musical trademark of two chords. There was a small audience at the AMC Theater in Arlington for the early show Friday night in the second week.

"A Chorus Line" was made into a film in 1985, directed by Richard Attenborough, starring Michael Douglas; screenplay by Arnold Schulman, distributed by Columbia. I saw it in Dallas when living there.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"The Book of Revelation": Aussie thriller, and the title is a metaphor


The title of the Australian thriller “The Book of Revelation” is certainly metaphorical. The film is distributed by Image and Palace Films, directed by Ana Kokkinos, based on the novel by Rupert Thompson.

On the surface, the story of a male dancer is beautifully choreographed, with lots of juicy compound meters in the dance score by Cezary Skubiszewski .

Tom Long plays the “hero” Daniel, and he becomes a mark because he is “perfect”. One day he goes off and disappears from the dance studio in Melbourne where he rehearses. A disappearance of an icon character from work can be an intriguing premise, and idea that I have entertained before (particularly after something that happened in my life around 1989 or so). Then we see him dumped on the edge of the outback, and then what happened to him (a “dark case”) is told in flashbacks. That may not be as effective, as to suspense, because we already know that he is all right. Then come the revelations: three women in what amount to burqas had kidnapped and chained him, and will reveal and strip him and entertain themselves in most imaginable ways (not all), for “our pleasure.” So, maybe it’s revenge for what men do to women. Daniel then has to consider among women he encounters the idea that someone could have been one of his abductors. Was he set up, or was he a random victim, attracted by his looks. The scenes are quite explicit (the film is unrated but probably would get an NC-17 even though the "art" is quite legitimate).

The director says that the story is about a man dealing with an unspeakable trauma, trying to make sense of it, as he finds what makes him a man mugged away from him.

The dance studio shows a lot of garish orange, a rather obvious reference to Kubrick, and some of the rituals seem inspired by “Eyes Wide Shut.” Another interesting comparison would be to the gay horror short “Bugcrush”. Still another suggested by the producer Al Clark is “Last Tango in Paris.” Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers” also comes to mind.

Somehow the title of the movie reminds me also of the title of a TV series on NBC that didn't last long, "The Book of Daniel."

Sunday, June 07, 2009

"Battle for Haditha" reenacts revenge killing in Iraq by US Marines


Image Entertainment and UK Film4 offer a riveting drama about the behavior of US Marines in Iraq, with “Battle for Haditha”, directed by Nick Broomfield. The director's website for the film is this.

The film, quite ambitious (shot in Jordan and presented in full 2.35:1) dramatizes the story of a roadside bombing, and the retaliation by a Marine Unit resulting in the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians, including women and children. The central figure is Corporal Ramirez (Elliot Ruiz).

The Marine unit was one of the first in the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein (as in the HBO series “Generation Kill”).

The early scenes depict the unit cohesion, with the pressure that men tend to put on one another to conform. Then the film shows the insurgents mounting a home invasion of a local Iraqi family in order to have a vantage point. Two thirds through the film, the bomb detonates, with horrific and graphic casualties, and Ramirez and others freak out, and the high command says essentially “take no prisoners”. The slaughter of the civilians ensues.

The film is well-acted, and the film is a well-structured story, which fits well for non-fiction as well as fiction. Only at the end is there any docudrama effect, including an appearance by President Bush, before the court martial scene.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

"Sugar": an interesting film about Dominican baseball players in the minors



The film “Sugar” by Anna Bowden and Ryan Fleck is the first baseball movie that I recall for a long time. Of course, we all remember “The Natural”, “Field of Dreams” and “The Rookie.”

This film was produced by HBO for cable and given theatrical release by Sony Pictures Classics. Until Time Warner disbanded Picturehouse (the successor of Fine Line Features), Picturehouse, with its nifty musical trademark, had done the theatrical distribution for HBO films. Now, its odd to see HBO go outside Warner Brothers (to Sony/Columbia) for distribution. The Sony press kit (a PDF file) makes interesting reading.

Angelis Perez Soto plays Miguel “Sugar” Santos, the Dominican baseball player recruited to play for the Kansas City Royals farm team. (In the movie, the Royals are given a fictitious name which I have already forgotten; I don’t know why it would have been a trademark problem to use the Royals name in the movie.) He comes to Arizona to play in grapefruit league baseball and is sent to the minors in Bridgeton, Iowa, in a ballpark next to a picturesque cantilever bridge.

He is housed with a cohesive farm family that actually says grace at meals, and is slightly drawn to a college age daughter who runs a Christian group. He sends money back to family relatives at home in the Dominican Republic – and this seems to be parents and siblings, not children of his own.

The baseball scenes focus on the pitching, and he has a lot of talent but has trouble being steady. He resists it whenever his manager tries to relieve him from the mound. The baseball scenes don’t show as many balls in flight as some other films.

The film played to a fair crowd on a Saturday afternoon at the AMC Shirlington in Arlington VA.

I want to note that the Washington Nationals, as of June 6, are on track to win only 42 and lose 120 games this year. The Mets in 1962 won only 40.

Friday, June 05, 2009

"Adoration": Interesting"hoax" on the Internet, great performance by new actor Devon Bostick


"Adoration," a (relatively) new film (Canada/Israel, with distributor Sony Pictures Classics) from Atom Egoyan presents the intriguing idea of making up a story and posting it on the Internet and gaining response, in order to delve into family secrets behind one’s identity. There are two basic sides to the movie: one is the unraveling of the family story, and the other is the public reaction to a teen’s Internet “hoax”. The title of the film refers to a wood sculpture that actually seems a bit tangential to the issues of the story.

The teenager, Simon, is played by Devon Bostick, and seems like the perfect kid. A (female) French teacher, in a translation exercise, gives him the idea of examining a terrorist incident that doesn’t get pulled off, from the viewpoint of an unborn kid that would have died in the attack. On the most surface level, that’s a right-to-life argument, mainly because Simon is so talented and articulate. He spars with the thirty-something single-parent uncle Tom (Scott Speedman) who has raised him after his being orphaned by the tragedy (a horrific car-truck wreck). The uncle operates a towing service, and we wonder why he is still single. (It wouldn’t take much work to put in the gay parent angle – but obviously the uncle has done a great job of raising the kid). Then there is the dying grandfather (Kenneth Welsh), a kind of Janus-faced patriarch who may have sometimes been up to no good, despite Simon’s trusting him.

But the most interesting is the Internet ruse that Simon sets up. His mother, pregnant, unknowingly carries a bomb on a plane possibly placed by her fiancĂ©e, and is caught and arrested by Israeli airport authorities. The other people who actually were on the flight join in the webcam (believing him), and get into existential discussions of martyrdom, revenge, and sacrifice, and some of the participants seem very addicted to their ideological positions. This part of the film provides a good example of the opportunity for one person to play a lot of mischief on the Internet, although in Simon’s case the “morality” of what he did (with the help of the indulgent French teacher who sees it as a drama experiment) is double-edged again, as he pulls so many secrets out of the woodwork.

The film played to a sparse crowd at the early evening show at the AMC Shirlington in Arlington VA Friday night.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

"Grace Is Gone": A widower mourns the loss of his wife in combat, must tell his daughters


A small film from The Weinstein Company and Plum Pictures, “Grace Is Gone” (2007, written and directed by James C. Strouse. “Everyman” actor John Cusack plays Stanley Phillips, whose wife Grace is deployed in Iraq. One day two Army officers appear at his door and inform him of her death in combat. After a period of intense grief, Stanley takes his two daughters (Heidi and Dawn) on a road trip to Florida, and resists telling his girls about the tragedy. One of the girls wants to go to a place that seems to be Cypress Gardens in Florida (which I visited as a boy). Some involvement with an anti-war brother (Allesandro Nivola) almost leads to Heidi’s finding out. Eventually he tells them on a Gulf beach that their mother is gone, and there follows a church eulogy from Heidi.

The movie is very intimate, low keyed in tone, and focuses on emotional attachments.

The film could be compared to Mark Friedman’s “Home of the Brave” (MGM), also in 2007.

Monday, June 01, 2009

"Saul e David": 1960s Italian-Spanish version falls short


Another in the series of San Paolo biblical films is “Saul and David”, directed by Marcello Baldi (1964). Again, the film has muffled sound and seems a bit substandard compared to the best spectacles of the 50s. It appears to have been filmed in Spain.

Norman Woodland plays an angry King Saul, Gianni Garko plays the red-headed David, and Antonio Mayans plays Jonathan. The obvious potential controversy in any film like this is how the homosocial relationship between David and Jonathan is portrayed.

In this film, the young David, who slays Goliath with a slingshot, seems effete and “gay”. The grown David is more conventionally “masculine” but still doesn’t compete that well with Saul in games. There is something a bit different about him, even given his relationship with Bathsheba, hardly mentioned in this movie.

The “famous” wilderness encounter occurs at about midpoint; there is a light kiss, conventional for those times, but little else, although their talk is rather intimate. At the end, David calls out for Jonathan, after Jonathan’s death.

The entire script of the movie shows the people as dependent on the will of Jehovah, and there is little sense of choice or self-determination that we experience in modern society.

As for sexuality and social bearing, however, one gets the impression that one could have “dual relationships”. One could have a same-sex male “partner” and a platonic but intimate relationship (with some of the dynamics of the “polarities”), and still be married, faithful, and have a family at the same time. It seems sometimes that western society has forgotten how to do this. That was my concept as a teenager, and even that turned out not to work.

The best setting for this Bible story is probably Carl Nielsen's volcanic opera (on Chandos), with its great choral fugue in the middle and triumphant ending. David would become the Renaissance Man of his time after all, because he was different.