Friday, November 30, 2012

"The Pit": A look at culture shock in the world of commodities trading


The Pit” is a relatively obscure 62-minute (barely a “feature”) documentary by Johanna Lee about commodities trading, particularly the lives of people who work at the New York Board of Trade.
   
Unlike other financial trading jobs, this “career” used to be very physical, with (mostly) men shouting and trading slips of paper on a crowded trading floor, where B.O . can really matter.  Like gamblers, the men worked long enough to make their money, typically a few hours a day.  Men don't need college degrees to become traders.  But every day, they put their personal savings on the line.  Trading is a zero-sum game, and some people must lose.  There is enormous short term focus.  “Nobody is bigger than the market”.

The NYBOT was taken over in 2007 by the Intercontinental Exchange (link), which implemented electronic trading and totally changed the culture and workplace experience for commodities traders.
Much of the film deals specifically with coffee futures, and explains how futures trading makes retail prices for consumers seem more stable. But speculation can drive up prices quickly, was we know from the crude oil market.

The film showed the personal lives of some traders, including at least one gay male couple.



Thursday, November 29, 2012

The film "Hitchcock" is a funny account of "how they made 'Psycho'"


I never saw the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock classic “Psycho” in a theater or had a chance to scream at the shower scene (and the later “momism” deployments) , having gotten to it on black and white TV in the mid 1960s (maybe on the old “Chiller” series).  The movie, viewed today, certainly seems to have an intricate horizontal plot, where a young woman steals some money from her employer’s client and is already on the lam before she meets her deserved demise in the Bates Motel.  There is just wonderful attention to detail in the way this director’s stories are put together.

The new comedy “Hitchcock” from director Sacha Gervasi for Fox Searchlight, gives us a tongue-in-cheek account of the filming of the classic, told through the eyes of the director (a corpulent and mushy Anthony Hopkins) and his devoted and industrious wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren).  This was indeed marriage that works. She says, "I'm married to a man obsessed by murder" and herself suggests knocking off the "broad" in "Psycho" just thirty minutes into the film, not half-way through. 

The movie tells us a lot about the evolution of cinema into today’s diverse industry, filled with independent companies.  When Paramount won’t fund “Psycho” because of “production code” issues, Alfred and Alma mortgage their palatial house (and swimming pool) and raise the money themselves.  Paramount is still reluctant to distribute the movie, and initially shows it in only two theaters.  Alfred maintains tight security over leakage of any “spoilers” about the plot (which would have been impossible in today’s Internet age).  

The premier is shown in only two theaters, with tremendous lines, and the audience really screams.
There is a subplot where Alma works as another screenwriter’s partner, and people really did work together with manual typewriters on Malibu Beach in those days.

The movie ends with a cute foreshadow of Alfred’s next movie (“The Birds”).

The distribution of “Psycho” would eventually be taken over by Universal.

The official site is here.


How does Fox decide which films go on its regular brand and which are Searchlight?  I would have thought “Life of Pi” would have been Searchlight, too.  

There is a gay short film of the same name in past tense (see Oct. 13, 2007).

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Bodega Bay, CA, site of "The Birds".  I visited it in 1966 (with other grad students from KU) and in 1995.  

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Parlor "Patriocracy": How to fix our polarized, partisan political system; recalling the debt ceiling debacle


Parlor diplomacy, anyone?  Parlor dictatorship? (or “Timocracy”?)  We might as well settled for that given the partisan, self-stalemating behavior of Congress.  We all started seeing this during the debt ceiling debate of the summer of 2011, and that history forms a backdrop for Brian Malone’s 2011 documentary, “Patriocracy”.  And maybe it stays in the parlor, like in a Clue game.

The film starts out with barren winter shots of Barack Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009. Obama may have said “Yes we can”, but pretty soon it was apparent he had taken over a country more divided and polarized than ever.

Instead of the “greatest generation”, we have the greediest, the most need in need of immediate gratification.  It’s also becoming much more tribal than we think.

Politicians of both parties tend to hear from the ideologues on both sides, rather than “average Joe” Americans in the real world.

The film goes into the we get our news, as much from blogs, social media and forums as from traditional news sources.  No longer is fact-checking or journalistic objectivity required to post news online. Therefore, people with “agendas” can grab attention, sometimes by spreading rumors. (Remember how in the movie “Chicken Little”, the little boy gets in trouble by attracting attention on the Internet.)  I even was guilty of this recently, believing that the Alternative Minimum Tax for 2012 would have a discontinuity, when in fact it will not, even without change.

Here's a great quote: “The media has become a buffet restaurant”.  It’s easy to select “opinions” from the “all you can eat” palette.

It’s easy to pontificate online (as if “Allegro pontificato” were a musical tempo), but it is very hard to run for office.  You have to have enough social power to get people to give you money, and you have to be loyal to every fringe group that gives you money. Yet people (especially Log Cabin Republicans) ask me, why don’t I pay my dues and run for office rather than just muckrake?

There’s also the legal doctrine (from the Supreme Court on “Citizens United”) that equates corporations to people and lets corporations contribute without restraint to campaigns.

The movie discusses the “American Action Network” as a political clearinghouse for right-wing commercials;  “Move On” does the same on the Left.

The film shows a clip from the media coverage of the wounding of Representative Gabrielle Giffords by Jared Loughner in Arizona, and then notes that she had been a voice for compromise and moderation in the House.  But then some people accused the “radicals” in the media for inspiring psychopaths like Loughner.
The film then moves to quick coverage of the debt ceiling debacle. It went down to the wire on the last day. Gifford s returns to Congress on the day of the vote, bringing the House down in applause.  It then covers the nation’s credit rating downgrade by Standard and Poors because of political dysfunction.

The film says that “money equals free speech” and this makes compromise impossible.

Mickey Edwards (R-OK) wrote an Atlantic article about reforms.  He says citizens need to participate more directly, and inform themselves and look at a variety of sources (besides Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh).  He thinks only individuals should be able to make campaign contributions.  He argues for transparency and open primaries.

The film then covers the efforts of “No Labels” (link), and then “Americans for Campaign Reform”, “Ruckus”.

Another reform would be “pay for performance” for Congress. And reform the filibuster rules in the Senate.

The official site  (Cinema Libre, Rhino and Fast Forward Films), is here


Alan Simpson called people like Limbaugh “just entertainers”.  Conservatives have a way of being the more entertaining.  Here’s another saying: “Don’t rise to the bait”. Americans will get the quality of governance that they demand – and deserve.

Did anyone in Congress negotiating the Fiscal Cliff deal see this film?  If not, some of us could get stiffed. 

As for the title of my post, see my "drama" blog, Aug. 24, 2011, for an explanation of the "parlor" part of this. It refers to a satirical piece of piano music (classical).  

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

"Frame 313: The JFK Assassination Theories": 2008 examination of conspiracy theories will be really relevant next year at 50th Anniversary


Frame 313: The JFK Assassination Theories” (2008), by Chris Anderson, for Sundown Entertainment and Monarch Films, gives an analysis of all the major theories behind the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 22, 1963. The 113-minute film has a rather straightforward narrative style.  Much of the film replays fuzzy  black-and-white (and sometimes color) original film. 

The film starts out by saying that there was no federal law against such an act then, just state law, and wonders if one person could have fired the first two shots in less than a second and a half.

Theory 1 refers to  the lone gunman.  Theory 2 refers to a CIA conspiracy. Theory 3 invokes the Soviet Union KGB, which could have involved French and Vietnamese agemts.  Theory 4 refers to Mafia hitmen. Theory 5 refers to a CIA Cuban exile’s conspiracy, following the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

The film then launches a Prologue, with discussion of post-Cuban crisis US Soviet relations, and then skips to that day. Dallas had become a “city of hate” where posters showing Kennedy as “wanted for treason” because of integration.

The film then chronicles the details of the event.  The first shot was not fatal, and the president said “My God, I’m hit”.

The 40 second Zapruder film (with its Frame 313, corresponding to the wounding of bystander  James Tague as well as the explosion of Kennedy’s head), taken by an ordinary citizen, could not prove one theory.


The film quickly presents the Warren Commission and the “Single Bullet Theory”.

The film soon goes into the theory that the FBI and CIA withheld information from the Warren Commission in order to defuse any conspiracy.  The HFCA (House) then issued another theory suggesting conspiracy. For example, the House found that Jack Ruby had made many calls to mob figures, a fact that the Warren Commission didn’t uncover.

There are several potential enemies, who could have conspired in several ways.  These include the CIA (Kennedy had transferred some power from the CIA back to the JCS), the mob (with its connections to southeast Asia drug trafficking), and both pro-Castro and right wing anti-Castro elements.  Some of the most telling evidence seems to come from the “double life” apparently led by Oswald, who obviously could have been set up as a “patsy”.  Late in the film, another man “confesses” to having been a second gunman from the Grassy Knoll. 

It sounds very unlikely to me that the last two of the three shots could have come from one person (Oswald in the Depository).  It does sound likely that the first two shots did, including both that hit the president. 
Wikipedia says that the last two bullets occur in rapid succession, but the YouTube trailer (above) has  the first two closest together (which could not come from one person).

The film closes with the suggestion that the State of Texas should convene a grand jury to re-open a new investigation. 
  
I recall being at work at the National Bureau of Standards (the old Van Ness campus) when my boss came into the lab and said that the president had been shot.  We heard about the death from Cronkite on the radio shortly.  I remember waiting for the bus on K Street, wondering if there could be a nuclear attack.  (That moment would lead to an uncanny retrospect months later, which I won’t get into now.)
   
I was in the back seat of the family car which my father was driving down 17th St in NW Washington DC, leaving church, again almost to K Street, when we heard Jack Ruby’s gunshot on live radio in the car.  I remember hearing the shot and the words “He’s been shot!”  Later, this would be called “the first live telecast murder.”  I was 20 then, and my own life had been troubled by my own college expulsion for admitting homosexuality.  I had the impression that the world was all about people maneuvering to have power over one another, and I was “weak” and a liability.  So the conspiracy theories fit well here. even if they do not with some of the “lone wolf” domestic terrorism in much more recent history.
   
In November  2013, the 50th Anniversary of the JFK Assassination will occur. In October of 2012, this year, the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, mentioned in the film, took place. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

"Dreams of a Life" examines the life of a woman found dead in a London flat after three years


The new DVD for “Dreams of a Life” has a featurette “Recurring Dreams”, showing interviews with the filmmaker Carol Morley and various participants. At one point, Carol says something like, “as adults, we leave the control of our families, and often they don’t really know what we’re all about, although the people we engage on our own as adults do know us.”  That is one thing some people don’t like about modern individualism.  Later, one of the late Joyce Vincent’s (identified below) friends says she will always wonder what is going on when a  coworker doesn’t show up.  I’ve had that feeling, particularly a couple decades ago.  One time, someone for whom I experienced morning “Erwartung” didn’t appear, and it turned out he had been injured in a softball game.

The movie is a docudrama patching together the life of Joyce Vincent, a woman who was discovered dead, as a decomposed skeleton, in her flat three years after her apparent death in December 2003.  The television was still on, as if the power had never cut off despite unpaid bills.  The body was so decomposed that the coroner could not determine cause of death.  But she was only 38 when she died.  It’s easy to wonder about pills – but were they found.

The film comprises lots of interviews with friends and coworkers, and reconstructions of her life played by Zawe Ashton.

Joyce seems not to have used the Internet and remained reclusive as she lived in a secluded flat above Shopping City in London.  Yet, her life had its moments, including meeting Nelson Mandela.  Her family and sisters lost contact with her for at least a year or two before her death. She held odd jobs, but had left a clerical job where many people knew her in March 2003.  A man had even taken her in for a while.  She had said that she did not want to have mixed-raced children by a white father.

If something happened to me when I was alone in the house, it could be a while before I was found.  I think that the volumes of stuff on the Internet (and my books) would give a pretty good record of what I had been all about, and what I believed.  That is, unless there was a real catastrophe that destroyed our civilization, like an EMP attack. 

We know much less about one another than people did in earlier generations.  Families and communities are often less cohesive, and that could threaten our sustainability.

The website for the film is here.


I reviewed the film from a screener from Strand, which is distributing the film along with E-1. Strand will offer the DVD on December 11, 2012.




Sunday, November 25, 2012

"Chasing Ice": a warning about climate change from the Extreme Ice Survey


Al Gore once said, “Nature does not give bailouts”.

That warning is certainly underscored by the recent documentary “Chasing Ice”, in which National Geographic photographer James Balog sets up a long term experiment to do time-lapse video of the retreat or melting of glaciers in a number of areas of the world, including Iceland, Greenland, the Himalaya, southern Alaska, and even Glacier National Park in Montana.

The project he helped found was the Extreme Ice Survey (link ). 

The film starts by summarizing a number of recent weather-related catastrophes that are likely to be related to global warming. Balog reiterates an observation Al Gore had made in his 2005 film and book, “An Inconvenient Truth”,  that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere has shot up in the past few decades to levels maybe 50% higher than all of those in human history.  The heat retention means a warmer planet, melting ice caps and glaciers, rising sea levels, and much more extreme weather events in areas not previously exposed to them.

Balog  admits that, until he started the project, he had his own doubts on whether man alone could change the climate of the planet.

Very early, the film shows the process of “calving”, where an area of glacier half the size of Manhattan and maybe a thousand feet high breaks off and, in a matter of minutes to hours, falls apart, creating a spectacle with natural structures resembling a dream coastal collapse scene in Christopher Nolan’s film “Inception”.  The film also shows how the glaciers collect carbon black chips from the atmosphere, greatly accelerating melting of glaciers even in polar sunlight, releasing trapped air bubbles from tens of millennia ago.  The film also has shots of surreal beauty, as with some of the night scenes, well  comparable to the ocean photographic work of Ang Lee in his “Life of Pi”. 

The 75-minute film turns into an account of the technical process of setting up the cameras . A major microchip has to be replaced in many of them.  Balog (in his 50s when the film was shot) has developed knee problems. Some of the film shows his clinical problems with some unappealing medical shots of his limbs; he gets better after treatment with his own natural stem cells (again, a potentially politically important observation).  There are several younger men, both American and Icelandic, who help him, and that includes the film director Jeff Orlowski. I was impressed by just how physical the work of “being a scientist” is – there’s plenty of winter camping (even in a warming world), without a commercial yurt to rent.

At the end, the film reinforces the overwhelming acceleration in glacier loss (compared to historical evidence( and the scale of it, in miles per year of icecap hundreds of feet thick.  It's just not getting cold enough in winter to refreeze everything.  The film does quote the right-wing naysayers (like Rush Limbaugh), and answers the evidence that a very few number of glaciers have actually grown. 

The film is produced by Exposure Productions and distributed by Submarine Deluxe and National Geographic Films (which may make it non-profit).   

I saw the film at the Landmark E Street in Washington, before an almost sold-out small auditorium on a Sunday afternoon, in crisp high definition digital projection.  This movie would have been a good candidate for Imax for Smithsonian or science museum presentation.

Roger Ebert has commented that the film bears first witness to our own extinction.  The political and social ramifications of climate change may come at us much more quickly than we could have imagined, and have a lot of bearing even on personal ethics and individual life styles, and the relationship between the individual and the family and group. It seems curious to me that the political right wing doesn't even get this yet.  I can see how it could lead us to “radical hospitality”.

The website for the film is here


Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Columbia Glacier in SE Alaska, relatively near Anchorage. I visited the area in August 1980. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

"Silver Linings Playbook": Bradley Cooper proves he can act hyper; moving back to mom and dad isn't a picnic


I’ve sometimes thought of Bradley Cooper as the portrait of the “perfect” young adult male. Well, in “Silver Linings Playbook”, he shows a little gray in his beard, but after all, he’s almost 38 now.

In this film, his persona (Pat) talks too fast, and has a lot on his mind – after all, he’s just returned to live “at home” in suburban Philadelphia under the supervision of his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) after probational release from a mental institution. 

One has some sympathy for his background.  Apparently, he was a high school history teacher, and when he caught a rival teacher or administrator with his wife, he went ballistic.  That doesn’t take bipolar disorder.  But now, he’s lost everything and finds his life very much dependent on the whims of others.  (Since I’ve worked as a substitute teacher, I’d have been interested in having the school back story more developed.)

The rather long and verbose comedy goes into some interesting areas.  Early. Pat throws a copy of Hemingway’s book “A Farewell to Arms” (a 1932 movie from director Frank Borzage) out an attic window, breaking it. His dad is into following pro football and trying to raise money to resurrect a family business.  There’s a scene involving a brawl outside Veteran’s Stadium at an Eagle’s game  (dad is a rabid Eagles and Phillies fan); I wanted to see a scene with some pro football scores (probably very expensive to do).   There’s an interesting subtext here: Dad had gotten into a fight at the stadium now and is now on the “exclusion list”.  (How do stadiums and bars enforce “no fly” lists, anyway?)  And the climax of the film involves a “dancing with the stars” contest in the Benjamin Franklin hotel.  Pat proves that heterosexuals can really do dirty dancing – yet his shirt always stays buttoned.

Much of the plot contains a second girl friend Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who lost her own husband to an accident.  She plays head games with him, but he gradually does start to respond to them in real time.
After my William and Mary “expulsion” in 1961, and my inpatient period at NIH in 1962 for “therapy”< I lived at home while going to college.  I didn’t lose “everything”, but I had lost my chance for a normal college experience, with the social maturity that it affords.  But my whole scene was quite different from what is shown here in this film.  My experience was much more subtle to depict. 

The public's impression of this whole plot theme may have been partially shaped by the history of John Warnock Hinckley (who attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan in 1981), who has sometimes been released to his parents from a lifetime in a mental institution.  He is treated like a child, at least according to media reports. 

The official site from The Weinstein Company (TWC) is here


I saw this film at the Angelika Mosaic in Merrifield, VA.  The new theater is now showing about half independent (usually larger films), half “full studio” films.  I had hoped it could remain all independent.  Let me note that I do love the cafe food (like the "Autumn Salad", where squash tips substitute for croutons). More theaters need to offer more than popcorn, nachoes and soft drinks.  A Rave theater complex at Fairfax Corner rents space to two different food chains and shares the concession profits, to expand consumer choice.  That's the right idea.  

For today’ s short film, look up on YouTube “Pristine Books” (2002), the Adelaide (Australia) film festival. And older man comes between two younger men of a newer generation.  It’s rather grainy. 

Compare this film to "Limitless" (March 24, 2011) where Cooper and De Niro appear. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

"Anna Karenina": Joe Wright gives us a layered fantasy interpretation of Tolstoy's epic


Anna Karenina”, Leo Tolstoy’s expansive novel of the gradual moral breakdown in the upper classes near the end of Tsarist Russia, comes to the “go big” screen for the holiday season from another one of the world’s innovative directors, Britain’s Joe Wright (“Atonement”, reviewed here Dec. 8, 2007, and "Pride & Prejudice"). Wright, like many directors (such as Christopher Nolan, Tom Tykwer, Wes Anderson  and Paul Thomas Anderson) likes to play with layers of reality, and his treatment is characteristically playful and detailed.

Much of the time, the characters are watching themselves perform on an operetta stage, and the story moves into the stage, often elaborately designed but in patterns, with the effect that the film is almost like one incredibly crafted Broadway play (almost a musical or operetta).  3-D might have been appropriate; in any case, it’s important to see this film  in a modern theater with extended digital projection.  It appears to be shot in 70 mm but not Imax. 

Wright sometimes uses model steam trains (in an era before electricity, but very appropriate for the Christmas season) as a way to transition between “realities”.  The music, by Dario Marianelli, tends to emphasize a waltz rhythm that sounds like a mixture of late Tchaikovsky with Glazunov, and maybe a touch of Prokofiev.  The mood varies between operetta and ballet, with some occasional melodramatic orchestral climaxes over a particular ground bass theme (we know that technique from Hans Zimmer).  The waltz music is also played on solo piano in one scene. The last scene shows the stage overgrown with weeds, as if the characters had adapted to the real life (some of it in the countryside) closer to the world of the proletariat.

The main story concerns Anna’s  (Keira Knighley) affair with the handsome bachelor Count Vronksy (Aaron-Taylor Johnson), after her lack of satisfaction from her balding husband  Alexei Karenini (a mature Jude Law). There is a parallel story, loosely tied (and the connections really aren’t clear enough unless you know the story beforehand – the way you would for a literature course in college) of a landowner Levin (Domhnall Gleeson).   The heart of the story concerns, of course, Anna’s  illegitimate child, and its social consequences.  There is a speech by Levin that human society needs to manage and tame sexuality so that it serves a common good (sounds like the Vatican and Rick Santorum to me).  Vronsky seems to want to conquer everyone. The camera tends to focus or even dawdle more on male beauty (of Vronsky and Levin) than female, as if to imply that homosexuality or bisexuality went on quietly and might have been accepted at some level, even (or especially) in the Russian military.

The official website is here


I saw this on Black Friday, late afternoon, at the Angelika Mosaic in Merrifield VA, in a large auditorium, and the show almost sold out. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Naomi Wolf's "The End of America"


I had reviewed Naomi Wolf’s “Give Me Liberty” on Nov. 3, 2008 on the Books blog.  Here earlier book “The End of America”, from Chelsea Green, in 2007, becomes this 75-minute film from Indiepix.

This film consists largely of a lecture by Wolf where she outlines the ten steps that turn a democratic society in to a totalitarian state. She says that the Bush administration has followed these steps since 9/11.

Here is the list of the “Ten Steps”: invoke an internal and external threat; secret prisons where torture or extreme rendition (enhanced interrogation) takes place; develop a paramilitary force; surveil ordinary citizens like me, and keep “lists”, like the TSA No-fly list; infiltrate citizens’ groups;  detain and release ordinary citizens;  target key individuals (like the Dixie Chicks); restrict the press; label speakers as treasonous;  subvert the rule of law.

There are many notes and examples for each step, and she often compares the steps taken by the Bush administration to those of Nazi Germany. She mentions that until 1933, Germany had gay rights and an open society.  The film introduces its subject matter with some graphic, but brief, footage from 9/11 and the 2004 commuter train attack in Madrid and 2005 underground attack in London.

The Geneva convention was said not to apply the “war on terror”; it does not allow the military to torture under any conditions of war.  I remember this from my own Basic Training in 1968!

The president can declare anyone an enemy combatant. Theoretically, a blogger could be accused of “aiding the enemy” under the Patriot and Military Commissions Acts. Wolf says that this provision is an existential threat to journalists.

She describes Blackwater in Iraq as a paramilitary force.  But she says mercenaries shot at civilians in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Naomi Wolf says she is on the TSA watch list, was is Drew Griffin. So was Iraq war critic David Antoon, who says his boarding passes (and all those of family members) have “4S’s” on them.  I never looked at mine!

Chaplain James Yee was held in solitary confinement for 76 days for supposedly using classified information for a master’s paper. Another man was sent back to Syria where he was bodily tortured.

Dan Rather apparently lost his anchor position with CBS under pressure from the Bush administration; and the Valerie Plame (“Fair Game”, Nov. 5, 2010) incident was mentioned.

She discusses the jailing of Josh Wolf, who refused to turn over a video of a protest he had filmed.  He was sentenced to prison, and stayed in a small cell for 8 months.

At the end, she notes that dissent was perceived as a duty by the Founding Fathers.

W. once said, “If this was a dictatorship, it would be a lot easier.  Just as long as I’m the dictator.”

The website for the American Campaign Freedom is  this

The film is directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg. The official site is here

Mark Molaro interviews Naomi Wolf in this YouTube video.


 The film “Red Dawn 2” is reviewed today on the “Films on major threats to freedom” blog. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

"Life of Pi": Equal time for big cats, and why we worship them


There here been a few notable films with long sequences of a man trapped alone in the wild.  Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi”, starting today, is the most recent.  Others have included “Castaway”, “Into the Wild”, “127 Hours”.  This sort of sequence can become painful for the moviegoer, but in Ang Lee’s film, it really works.

The film is based on a novel by Yann Martel, and it is layered to give the viewer a chance to explore with the “truth”.  As the film opens, a journalist  (Rafe Spall) interviews a middle-aged Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) in his home in Montreal.  Pi first tells the story of his comfortable upbringing in the French part of coastal India.  His family had taken over a zoo (hence another reference to “We Bought a Zoo” (Jan. 1 here, also from Fox). Pi is quite bright, and explains how he got his nickname based on the mathematical concept as well as a swimming pool in Paris where he learned to swim (and remember, there is a 1998 experimental film “PI” from Darren Aronofsky).  One day, Pi meets the grown male Bengal tiger accidentally named Richard Parker.  Pi’s farther (Adil Hussain) gives Pi a demonstration that a tiger “cannot be your friend”.

Pi is given to ruminations about religion and faith. He wonders why a savior would suffer and allow the innocent to bear the burdens of the guilty.  But eventually he adopts elements of all major religions in his own belief system.  To him, there is no problem reconciling Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.
  
In 1979 (and the film cuts back to the older Pi telling the story), the family decides to move the zoo to Canada, for economic reasons.  It contracts to move the animals itself on a Japanese freighter ship. When the ship is caught in a storm – possibly a typhoon – it is wrecked, and Pi alone survives on a lifeboat with raft and several of the animals. 

At first, the tiger hides below, and Pi deals with a hyena, zebra, and orangutan.  The animals, frightened, obviously look to Pi to lead and save them, but order breaks down and the hyena wounds and eats his two companions.  The tiger appears, and quickly eats the hyena.  Begrudgingly, the tiger begins to respect Pi as possibly an alpha male himself.  Pi tries to establish his “territory” and offers the tiger food for good behavior.  The tiger almost does become his “friend” when sick himself.  Pi finds that caring for the tiger gives him a new will to survive.  Pi is incredibly resourceful in using the tools and food on the lifeboat and raft. We admire the tiger for his strength and beauty, and expect it to have problem-solving abilities which, by genetics, it just doesn’t have. Only man can do this. But gradually the tiger seems to accept the idea that Pi really knows how to provide for him and keep them both alive.  After another storm, the wash up onto a strange island with carnivorous plants and prairie dogs.  There, Pi is eventually rescued and the tiger disappears back into the wild, finding plentiful food but no (female) opportunity to mate or find the companionship it may actually want.  The tiger has come to appreciate the advantage of "human" qualities, ironically, as Pi sets him free.  Pi has given Richard Parker the biggest gift of all, his freedom.  
  
Then, the shipping company interviews Pi in the hospital and wants to take back another story that can be believed.  In this part of the film, Pi merely talks, the regularly sized screen in a fixed closeup. (Ang Lee seems to eschew widest aspect ratios, as he did in “Brokeback Mountain”).  That stands in contrast to the visual wonders that Ang Lee shows us with Pi’s adventure at sea. We are treated to stunning sunsets, self-illuminated jellyfish, standing whales, and flying fish (which Richard Parker can eat).  We are left believing the story we want.

The official site is here

Themovie, available in 3-D, has the style of independent filmmaking, even though Fox brands this film with its “20th Century Fox” trademark rather than Searchlight (or Fox Faith). 
   
Since the film is in standard aspect, it pays to see it in a theater optimally set up to show it that way. I saw it at the AMC Tysons. I found that I had to take off my regular glasses and put the 3-D glasses as close to my eyes as possible for clarity.  Maybe that’s an argument for contact lenses, which I don’t use.

I wondered how this film would come across if in French with subtitles.

This film ought to lead to focused attention on the likely extinction of many big cats, including tigers.  Of the Bengals, there are only a few hundred left in the world. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

"The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2": Family values for the immortal (and not just vampires)


The Twilight Saga, just like Harry Potter, became not only a movie franchise, but it spawned a franchise within itself, the last two “Breaking Dawn” movies.  The nomenclature gets rather uninteresting, like organic chemistry.

Now that Bella (Krosten Stewart) has given birth to the precocious Renesmee (acKenzie Foy),  we’re somewhat in post-“Rosemary’s Baby” territory. Bella was still human when she conceived, but now he has all the perks of having married a vampire. The child is supposed to be “normal”, but maybe not, and the enemy cla, the Volturi, is coming after her.

The first two-thirds of the film seems to have a lot of perfunctory dialogue and loose ends (when compared to tightly plotted sci-fi like “Inception” and “Cloud Atlas”).  There is a whole lineup of familial characters.  They may be needed because Bella gets instruction from a quote from Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”, “Gather as many witnesses as you can before the snow sticks to the ground. That’s when they’ll come for us.”  But when the forces gather for a great Shakespearian battle on a wintry plain, it all cuts loose.  I never saw such artful decapitations (putting “An American Werewolf in London” and “Wolfen” to shame).  
The film ends on a high note, with the familiar song “A Thousand Years”, and the family reunited.

I’m not a fan of what they do to Robert Pattinson (Edward Cullen), making him wan and fragile looking. Taylor Lautner is back as Jacob Black – and who wouldn’t want to have the intelligence of a man, the cunning of a wolf, and the ability to choose and flip between the body of a super  wolf and a super-fit 20-year-old man.  (Even Richard Parker, the tiger in “Pi”, can’t flip.)   If you look closely, you can tell that continuous scenes were shot months or even years apart, as Lautner’s body was actually changing during the period as his adolescence ends and manhood begins (although, remember, he hosted SNL at age 17  - he turns 21 in February 2013).

The film (from Summit) was shot in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, and Louisiana (for the indoor stuff).  There was one reservoir scene that looked familiar to me from the Cascades in Washington State.  The budget as $120 million, maybe the largest ever from a supposedly “independent” studio.  The link is here

Note in the trailer, how Bella says she found herself after eighteen years of being “utterly ordinary”.  Is it that important to be special?

Wikipedia attribution link for Mt. St. Helens picture.  I visited it in 1990, and flew over a few months after the eruption in 1980.  The movie has one scene based on volcanism.  

Monday, November 19, 2012

"Unforgivable": A French mystery novelist encounters real life in Venice (and it's all in the background)


A new quasi-thriller film by Andre Techine,  “Unforgivable” (“Impardonnables”) at first seems set up to explore the paradox of a writer’s world: balancing the world of imagination with the ironies and complexities of the people around him in “real life”.  As in my own life, truth can become more bizarre than fiction.

Francis (Andre Dussollier), about 65, already a successful author of A-list crime thrillers, wants to live near Venice for a year to work on his next novel, already under contract from a big French publisher.

It seems all to facile that he falls in love with and marries the fiftyish real estate agent Judith (Carole Bouquet) and rents a house on Torcello Island.  Pretty soon, both he and his wife become obsessed with the “ghosts” of their respective pasts, which will come together.  Francis hires a young ex-con Jeremie (Mauro Conte), apparently the son of his own wife’s ex lesbian lover. The son is on the verge of coming out himself, but this seems to be one of those stories where everyone but the scribe is bisexual. 

The film is organized around the four seasons of the year. 

The movie is based on the novel by Philippe Dijan, which was originally set on the Basque coast.  Now I think that Bilbao (or San Sebastian-Donesta) could make a fascinating backdrop for a romantic thriller.  But Techine and Medhi Ben Attia have taken some liberties with the book to create their own experience, much of it based on the unusual geography of Venice (water, and flat landscapes  -- and a shot of a luxury cruiser made oblivious to the accident with the Costa Concordia).  One can imagine a documentary soon on how Venice is sinking and threatened by climate change. 
  .
The film premiered in Europe in late 2011 and has a DVD release date from Strand of Dec. 4. In the US, it’s definitely a “West End Cinema” sort of film.

The official site is here


No, the movie has nothing to do with Clint Eastwood's 1992 western, "Unforgiven", which is a masterpiece.

This review was done from a screener DVD.

For today’s short film, check out “The Principal’s Office: Dirty Dancing”, from Freight Train Films on Youtube (5 min).  Two gay high school seniors get called into the Principal’s office and counseled on what kind of behavior will be appropriate at the senior prom (and what won’t be). The YouTube link us here

Sunday, November 18, 2012

"Catching Salinger" is more a matter of "chasing Salinger" or maybe stalking him, or making a stakeout


In the 2007 documentary featurette  (53 minutes) from Kultur, “Catching Salinger”, (L'Attrape Salinger") directed by Jean-Marie Ferier, young French writer and filmmaker Frederic Beigbeder goes on his own quest to locate reclusive author J.D. Salinger, author of the famous counter-cultural “The Catcher in the Rye” (1951) with its youthful anti-hero Holden Caulfield.  Even after Salinger’s death in 2010, the estate so far has refused to sell movie rights.  Salinger had even sued to stop publication of a “fan fiction” novel showing Caulfield as an eldery man.  Salinger wrote some other works, like “Franny and Zooey”, and some shorter novellas.  He moved out of New York in 1953 and gradually withdrew from public life, although his family life seems to have been interesting.

Frederic starts his journey in Paris, literally in his own apartment, then goes to New York and finally drives his crew to Cornish, New Hampshire, to look for the home (just the mailbox) of the writer. Along the way he interviews man people, including writers Nicholas Rey, Eric Neuhoff,  Marie Darrieussecq, Jonathan Ames, Jay McInenrey, Rick Moody, singer Ellis Paul, Bruce Benderson, and especially Stewart O’Nan (“D’Angelo”), who talks about “the public side of writing” as dealing with “people who don’t understand the private side of writing”.  I know the latter side, entering the world of my own characters (even my “lineup”) in my script “Angels’ Brothers”.

Frederic near gets tossed out of a Cornish bookstore, where he is told he can’t film – but there is some footage in this movie.  At the end, he flirts with criminal trespass on what appears to be Salinger’s property (three years before his death).

A great quote of Salinger seems to be “Freedom equals solitude.”

At the end, in soliloquy, Frederic asks, “Are you happy Mr. Salinger?”

The film comes from Rappi Productions and Transfuge. Some of it is in French, with voice overlay; but the US part is in English. It was apparently intended originally for French television. 


IMDB shows a new film by the same name scheduled for release in early 2013, directed by Charles Moore.

There is a 2001 film from Lionsgate, "Chasing Holden", dir. Malcom Clarke, in which a rebellious teen played by J. D. Qualls, after being forced to return to boarding school, goes on a hunt for Salinger, believing himself to be like the Holden character.

When I substitute taught, an English teacher did allow “The Catcher in the Rye” to be chosen for a book report early in the ninth grade.  I remember seeing one student’s report, an “A”. 

There’s a great observation by Holden real early that I recall, “Old guys legs are so white and unhairy.” 

Note: this 2007 film, the verb is "catching", not "chasing".  

Saturday, November 17, 2012

"Lincoln": Mostly introspective drama about equality, human rights


Although the period-piece drama “Lincoln” is mostly backroom morality play, there are some horrific images from the War Between the States toward the end, as Steven Spielberg reaches back for the sort of narration he produced in “Schindler’s List”.  There’s dump for severed male limbs that is particularly upsetting.  Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) has to deal with his distant wife’s Mary Todd (Sally Field) objection to their son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) going to war himself, even as an officer.  I recalled the long soliloquies in the 1995 Ted Turner marathon, “Gettysburg”, about fighting, dying, or worse getting maimed (and still getting someone to love you) for a purpose or cause greater than the self.

In the Civil War, you could certainly fight on the wrong side.  That is, if you were from the South.  The film focuses on the story of President Lincoln’s pressing for passage of the 13th Amendment, ending slavery. The problem, as he saw it, was that his Emancipation Proclamation from 1863 had limited legal force (based on war powers), and that he needed to get and win the House vote (on Tuesday, January 31, 1865) before southern states were back in the Union.  In any formulation, southerners faced expropriation of property that they had thought was rightfully theirs by self-evident natural truths.  That all comes to a philosophical head in a scene where Lincoln, with two young officers, talks about Euclid’s axioms, that two things equal to something have to be equal to each other.

Daniel Day-Lewis looks tall and haggard, as is appropriate (Lincoln is said to have had Marfan’s Syndrome).  That’s a far cry from how he was cast in the 1990s in “The Last of the Mohicans”.  He seems self-righteous.  That seems to have driven away his wife.  There is one scene where Lincoln bunks with young men.  It’s not clear if that means anything more than the lack of privacy common in the 19th Century.  Wikipedia weights in on the subject here

The level of technology in the 1860s is shown in detail. Already, the telegraph was a predecessor of today's email -- and the telegraph system had just survived the Carrington solar storm of 1859. 
  
The film required most of Hollywood’s resources to produce (although largely in Virginia).  Touchstone-Disney is the official US distributor.  Production companies owning the copyrights include Dreamworks and 20th Century Fox, as well as Participant Media , Reliance, The Kennedy-Marshall Company, and Spielberg’s own Amblin Entertainment.  Post-production, a lot of Warner Brothers facilities were used.  I guess any piracy will result in a lot of plaintiffs!   The film was shot largely around Petersburg and Richmond VA (it’s of interest to me, at least, that there is a major production (New Millennium) studio in Petersburg VA., 50 miles from Colonial Williamsburg).

The official site is here.

 
A note about the presentation:


The film is widely shown in most multiplexes (starting Nov. 16), but at first it was marketed as an “independent art” movie, despite its huge budget and multiple major studios involved in production and distribution.  It’s getting to be necessary to be big now to even be in the festival and art movie market. 
    
I saw it at the Regal Potomac Yards in Alexandria VA (to try a different place), on a large screen in a large stadium with an almost sold-out Saturday afternoon crowd. The projection did not seem to be digital.  I do recommend trying to see it in a theater converted to extended digital projection (most large AMC properties have it). The audience liked the movie; it did not "hold applause".   

This will be nominated for Best Picture, no doubt. 

(Images are my own.) 

Friday, November 16, 2012

"Shooting Dogs": intense British film about a massacre in Rwanda


“The opposite of faith is not heresy, but indifference”, a quote from Elie Weisel.

That quote appears in the closing credits of “Shooting Dogs”, retitled “Beyond the Gates” in the US, a 2005 film by Michael Caton-Jones, about the genocide in Rwanda of the Tutsi by the Hutu.

The Tutsi had been sheltered in a Catholic church-run school (“L’ecole technique officielle), run by priest Christopher (John Hurt) and a young English teacher Joe Connor (Hugh Dancy).  The history behind the film is an April 1994 incident where the UN abandoned protecting the school and it was overrun by the Hutu. There is a scene where a UN commander is challenged to do something, and he hides behind formal international legalities.

When the school is to be overrun, both Christopher and Joe have to make decisions about how far their personal courage goes, or at least how they show it.  Despite doing everything possible to help the mothers and babies, Joe, at the last moment, decides to leave.  Christopher will stay and give his own life in helping the last few women escape on foot.

In the epilogue of the film, Joe is shown conducting a church choir (performing some a cappella Vaughn Williams) in Britain five years later (still looking unscathed and about 25).  One of the young women who escaped confronts him. She talks about how Christopher had looks at making sacrifice as part of accepting the love of God. Then she asks, “Why did you leave us?” Joe hesitates and says, “I was afraid to die.” She says they were both fortunate and must use their time in the rest of their lives wisely.

I did go through the Vietnam era draft, and escaped (because of my level of education) deployment overseas.  Because I had already experienced being physically “inadequate” as a boy, the idea of “sacrifice” was abhorrent to me.  If I had gone and been maimed, I did not want to come back.  To me, sacrifice was just that, and Grace did not mean anyone should try to make it all right – even for the hereafter.  Some people may see this as cowardice, or as a copout.  I just don’t like the idea of trying to make people love you after something like this has happened.

The film has a Blogger entry here


The BBC film was distributed by IFC.  20th Century Fox processed  the DVD, and cropped the 2.35:1 aspect ratio back to 1.85:1.  There is an extensive “Making Of” featurette. It explains how the "West"  (colonialism and mercantilism) set up the circumstances that let this genocide happen.

The film can be compared to the better known “Hotel Rwanda” (2004, United Artists) by Terry George, with Don Cheadle.  That film gave some sense of the history, how the tribes had been set up by the Belgians.  When I was a substitute teacher, a ninth grade English teacher taught the film with video worksheets, showing how foreshadowing works (“Cut the tall trees”)

Wikipedia attribution link for map of Rwanda.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

"The Big Picture": a French thriller echoes "The Talented Mr. Ripley": can you become someone else?


The Big Picture” (the French title is “L’homme qui voulait vivre sa vie”, which means “The man who would want to live his life”), from Eric Gartigau (novel by Douglas Kennedy with the U.S. title) does indeed echo “The Talented Mr. Ripley”.  Paul Exben (Romain Duris) has it all as a big-shot lawyer, but can’t keep his wife Sara (Marina Fois) away from an earthy photographer Greg Kremer (Eric Ruf), who is physically less appealing than the lively, debonair and slender Paul (who also has conspicuously more chest hair). There are small kids in the family, and Paul is a good pap.  But when Paul  confronts Greg and Greg’s old-fashioned studio, he “manslaughters” Greg, and goes on the lam, and destroys all the evidence.

He winds up in Montenegro, rents a secluded  old place on the mountainous coast, and gradually takes on Greg’s identity, merely by playing with Greg’s hobby and attracting local attention to his own artistic talents.  Now, however, he has to keep a low profile and live by his wits to stay out of jail.  Some of the locals are indeed interesting, such as the 60-something Bartholome (Niels Arestrup). 

There are a couple of scenes that play the card of some people objecting to being photographed in public (because of Facebook tagging?)
  
The film even sets all of this up in the opening, when the Parisian establishment lawyer Paul counsels a teenager about to inherit money not to drop school and work just to take up photography.  The “idee fixe” is planted.

Can one really “become” someone else?  This is not a question about "identity theft".  I’ve fantasized the idea of waking up and finding I have a 27-year-old body and the life memory of another musician-composer as well as my own. Another chance? I wonder if any principle in physics or general relativity precludes that idea.  But of course, I can only be myself, for all eternity.  I may find someone who thinks like me and expresses himself life me, and has two or three  generations ahead of him in life, but – well – the original music really is very different, even if the worldview is similar.  At a certain level, everyone is unique.   But the sci-fi film possibilities could be there. 

The film was produced by EuropaCorp and is distributed in the IS by Digital Factory. 


Wikipedia attribution link for Little Canyon (top image).  Although it looks like Provence in France, it’s actually in northeastern Alabama; I visited it in 1989. 
      
I saw this at the West End in Washington DC, before a relatively large crowd for 5 PM on a weekday.  

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

"Pink Ribbons, Inc.": "cause marketing" and breast cancer


Pink Ribbons, Inc.”,  a 2011 documentary by Lea Pool from First Run Features, shows the dichotomy of the way breast cancer research is sold as a charitable cause.  There is the epidemic nature of the disease, now striking one in eight women (up from one in 22 in the 1940s), which can affect almost any woman (and sometimes men).  There is also the opportunity for “cause marketing”, where retail companies launch their public visibility by connection to the cause.

More or less the same might be said about prostate cancer for men, but the public sympathy is less.  Prostate cancer is often very slow-growing, and men usually die of something else (although my own father died of it just before his 83rd birthday, rather suddenly, after only a short illness). 

The film does show support groups (such as a Stage IV support group in Austin TX). It also shows the two sides of the emotional hype over breast cancer, which is sometimes as put down women who don’t survive.  With a disease so common, “doing all the right things” doesn’t guarantee success for everyone.
  
It is hard for me to get emotional about a cause so “common” like this.  The reproductive systems of both genders are susceptible to cancer simply because they contain cells whose job is to divide and reproduce more rapidly than those of other organ systems.

Of course, though, I get involved in issues that come closer to me:  AIDS in the 1980s, where there was a preoccupation with both the clinical issues and the politics, but not so much with the people who at first simply could not live long with it.  (Compare to “How to Survive a Plague”, June 24, 2012).

One speaker says that many women are alienated by the over-optimistic approach and the “tyranny of cheerfulness”.    It’s not normal; it’s horrible.  Often women with no particular risk factors develop it.  Maybe it is something in the environment, like the plastic we wrap our processed foods in (plastics sometimes emit compounds resembling estrogens).  Maybe its hydrocarbons.   I get it.   

The film makes an interesting point that women use personal care products (possibly with carcinogens) a lot more than do men.

During the closing credits, some women note that the use of the color pink conveys a sense of comfort that is misleading, when not enough is done for prevention.

The song “You Raise Me Up”, which Josh Groban has adapted or written, is used in a different version here.
The official site is here

The “Susan G. Komen for the Cure” site is here.


Much of the film is shot in San Francisco (also Montreal).  Wikipedia attribution link for conservatory picture is here. I last visited the city in 2002.  

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

"Trinidad": small town in Colorado, is a hidden medical ashram for transgendered


Trinidad” (2008), directed by Jay Hodges and P.J. Raval, is named after the town just east of the Rockies, at 6000 feet, in extreme southern Colorado, traces the social climate of the town since 1969, when Dr. Stanley Biber began performing sexual reassignment surgery in the town. Gradually, the town developed a reputation as a place to go for such surgery (although I never really heard that even when living in Dallas in the 1980s).

Much of the documentary deals with a modern day surgeon, Laura, herself having changed after having a daughter and son, both teenagers, in a conventional marriage.  She loses her malpractice insurance when her company is sold to a faith-based carrier.  (She gets another policy but will eventually have to move.) She does face the resentment of some people in the heavily Catholic town over “religious morality” (who try to form an organization called “Coalition of the Willing”).  She says she did what she did for herself, even though she understood it could hurt her family through the opinions of others, so she emerges almost like an Ayn Rand hero. Toward the end, the film quotes a Rush Limbaugh broadcast where Rush claims that gays want a fight, and a religious mogul says that the country could fail to survive if it becomes “sissified”.

Laura helps renovate a house, called Morning Glow, to be used as a rehab center for patients. She also says that the surgery accomplishes “genital reassignment” (or reconstruction, and a few graphic anatomical  stills are shown), and that gender, in contrast, is already established in the mind (hence the word transgender).

A case is presented where a woman, after the surgery, was ordered by a court to leave her home (wife and kids) in a divorce case (and even stay 500 feet away from the house), but she eventually did win visitation rights. 

I recall passing through the town once in May 1984, while on the way back (to Dallas) from a trip where I had visited the Lama Foundation in New Mexico, and then gone out to the Four Corners area and then visited Mesa Verde.

The official site (Surly Puppy, Cinema Guild and Showtime) is here.


Wikipedia attribution link for image of Trinidad locomotive. 

The film is shot in full screen, 4:3 aspect ratio. I watched it in Netflix Instant play. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

"The Giant Mechanical Man" from Tribeca: basic humanity


Tribeca does release a few of its favored films as DVD’s and instant plays (as to Netflix or YouTube rental). Director Lee Kirk says that the concept for “The Giant Mechanical Man” came to him just wondering about what street performers (for tips) were like as real individual people.  Then he would have to create another character for the performer to relate to, and what would that person be like?
    
Producer Jenna Fisher came up with Janice, a thirty year old who is drifting, unable to hold down a job even as a temp.  In fact, early on, she’s told about complaints from clients, that “she’s in the clouds” and disinterested in the job (which can be pretty menial).  She finds another menial job selling concessions at the zoo, where she meets Tim (Chris Messina), who does janitorial duties.  She doesn’t know, as their relationship grows, that he’s a street performer (painted in gunmetal and on stilts), and that revelation provides the denouement of the story.
In the meantime, Janice, having been evicted, leans on her younger sister (Malin Akerman)  for a place to live, and soon finds the sister pushing her into a relationship with the charismatic motivational speaker Doug (Topher Grace).  Now Doug “is an author” – except that I’ve always seen “authors” as either (or both) novelists or journalists (maybe poets), not the sort to sell the idea “I can fix your life” in books.  Really, I can’t fix what’s wrong with your life as a blogger.  No one can.  But that doesn’t stop some people from getting rich this way. 

I have numerous personal anecdotes that relate to all this.  In 1978, I dated a guy (briefly) who made a living playing and singing for tips at Shakespeare’s in Greenwich Village.  In the mid 1980s, in Dallas, another “boy friend” (working for a 7-11) was drawn in to a training program (even a free plane trip to a convention in Waco) selling motivational tapes.  We all remember those “Dress for Success” books from the 80s.  And in 1981, while on vacation and in a rent car, I heard, on the radio, about a seminar about “Feeling Good About Yourself” in Helena, Montana, and made a 150 mile bee-line in a rental car to attend it.  (I almost got caught in the spring blizzard the next morning.)

Tribeca’s site is here

The film was shot in Detroit, and the aging urban surroundings are quite effective.  They do look a little bit like New York, but grungier and colder.  

Saturday, November 10, 2012

"Skyfall": James Bond gets worked on


When you go to see a James Bond movie, you expect to see a world travelogue in four or five exotic locales, and original action and escape sequences – against a stereotyped plot.  British Secret Agent “007” James Bond is the good guy, and there is always a new villain who just wants to be Bad.  It sounds like comic book stuff.

Sam Mendes’s latest installment, “Skyfall” has a great , impassioned theme song (it will surely get an Oscar nomination)

Judi Dench brings a real character to the film as M, a devoted public servant who is not afraid to be ruthless and order “take the shot”.  That sets up the story line:  James Bond (Daniel Craig) gets shot off a freight train (about to enter a tunnel) in a clash, by Eve (Naomie Harris) in the prologue.  He is thought to have expired, but, behold, he rises from the dead.  He has to pass “the tests” which include some exercises with a hidden Holter Monitor. 

The rest of the movie is a race to bring down Silva (Javier Bardem, made blond, to look like hacker Julian Assange).  It takes us to Shanghai (in a dazzling sequence that makes you want to board a plane), the Indian Ocean, and then a deserted island off the coast of Japan (with a ruined city that reminds one of a similar sequence in “Inception”), to the London Underground (where there will be a horrific subway wreck), and finally to a castle in Scotland.

We meet Silva in the abandoned city, and he seems foppish, pretending to be gay when he approaches Bond to unbutton him for chest work (at issue was a uranium pellet that had once lodged near his collar). That scene might have been even more provocative with the original Sean Connery (at least as he was in 1962). Think about it.   For the rest of the movie, Silva stays in the land of comics. 

The next in command, at the Secret Service, is Gareth Mallory, played by a solid Ralph Fiennes.

“Q” is a very slender, attractive youthful geek (Ben Whishaw, the composer-pianist in “Cloud Atlas”), who takes command of everything during the subway disaster sequence.  Somebody like “Q” is probably much more physically capable than most people realize, maybe even  able to pass a Seals (or secret agents) physical himself.

MGM has been resurrected for a few special movies, like this one, along with Columbia a distributor; the official site is here. The best Bond ever?  How about "Dr.No!"


Wikipedia attribution link for northern Scotland picture  I was near this area on the northernmost railroad in November 1982.  

Friday, November 09, 2012

"Man on a Ledge" is a stereotyped quasi-noir thriller


The title “Man on a Ledge” suggests a 1940s style film noir thriller, and in fact the early 2012 film from director Asger Leth and Summit Entertainment is a rather stereotyped thriller.

It starts with a handsome Nick Cassidy (Sam Worthington, from “Avatar”) climbing out onto a 30th floor ledge of an rococo mid-town Manhattan hotel.  We learn that he is an ex-cop and, pretty soon in a well-down flashback with a car chase (from a funeral) and a train wreck, that he’s also an escaped con.  And it isn’t long, before, in conversation with a deposed police negotiator (Elizabeth Banks), we learn that he was framed.

The villain is Wall Street magnate David Englander (a gaunt Ed Harris), who had framed Nick for a jewelry heist (anticipating the plotting of a more recent British film “Comes a Bright Day”), faked for insurance money to recover his own losses from the pre-financial crisis of 2008 (involving Lehman Brothers).  He says that a real man “gets back what is taken from him”.

Much of the rest of the film concerns the efforts of Nick’s "baby" brother Joey (a very lithe Jamie Bell) and girlfriend Angie (Genesis Rodriquez) use all kinds of 70s technology (including liquid nitrogen) to break into Englander’s vault.  These sequences are quite detailed and extensive, but are rather stereotyped; we’ve seen this in movies before (like the smash-and-grab in "Oceans 11") – as well as in some “Smallville” episodes. The young couple becomes the "heroes" and most likable characters in the film. 

A crowd gathers on the street, wanting to see a jumper; it was rather surprising to me that a police air cushion is enough to break someone’s fall from that height.

Summit Entertainment does not have a separate site domain for this film.


The picture is the Hotel New Yorker (2012).  I stayed there in summer of 1964 (World's Fair) when the rate was just $9 a night. 

Thursday, November 08, 2012

"The Bay": Could little monsters from an ecologically damaged watershed wipe out a small town in one day?


When I was stationed at Ft. Eustis in 1969 in the Army, the phrase “Back to the Bay” (or “BTTB”) meant loss of “privacy” and probable KP and was a standard buzzword, maybe promoting unit cohesion.
But residents of the DC area know that “The Bay” refers to the beloved Chesapeake Bay and watershed (and Bridge, on the way to the beaches).  Yes, ecological damage to the Bay has been a point of controversy in recent years (and subject matter for the DC Environmental Film Festival).

What’s a little bizarre, though, is that in this film by Barry Levinson, that is – “The Bay”, in boldface – becomes the source of rapidly escalating horror and local apocalypse.  This 88-minute film pays homage to much bigger treats in the past – including “Jaws”, “Alien”, “Night of the Living Dead”, “L.A. Zombie”,  and even “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. 

But the reason I went to see the film was the narrative style – the story is told through the eyes of a young amateur blogger-journalist Donna (Kether Donohue).  The local business interests  (and the puppet mayor Stockman (Frank Deal) and the government are so scared of her story getting out that they shut down her blog (or get her service provider to do so).  Somehow, she alone survives the carnage and gets her soap box back, though.  Electronic Frontier Foundation will love this little movie.

The story is told through grainy cameos, interview clips, and spliced narratives, much in the style of docudrama.  In the 1990s, this sort of “reality docudrama” proved to be a pretty effective vehicle for low-budget horror, with films like “The Blair Witch Project” and the lesser known (but even better) “The Last Broadcast” (the latter film was about the Jersey Pines Devil).  The narrative is rather random, and there is no way that Donna could personally have witnessed some of the peripheral (but effective) characters like the oceanographer and his girl friend.  And she hardly could have survived filming in the local hospital, all of whose staff succumbs to the “isopod” parasite like everyone else. (She does have a frustrating experience with the 911 operator, just as the doctors in the hospital find the CDC rather standoffish, as if out of 'Dr. Strangelove".)  
  
The story takes place on Saturday, July 4, 2009, at an Independence Day celebration in the Bay town of Clairidge, Maryland (which does not exists, but Oxford would be a good approximation – I’ve biked there).  Let’s mention here that the film was actually shot in Georgetown, S.C.  Donna gives us some flashbacks to the previous May with some mysterious deaths and disappearances that suggest a coming ecological scandal.  Bullsharks this far up The Bay?  A likely story.  And, by the way, fish don’t bite other fish of the same species (not even the Miami Marlins). 

Things get out of hand quickly when a fat lady gets out of the water and run downs by a crab eating contest on the shore.  People are horrified to see her covered with boils.  The contestants start puking. Very quickly, a lot of other people are getting the boils, and this infection is spreading fast.  It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that by nightfall the whole town will be littered with half-eaten corpses, as will the hallways in the local hospital. 

The “epidemic” is caused by a parasite (a crustacean like the common sea lice) that explodes into a full-sized isopod (maybe two inches long) quickly and eats the victim from the inside.  Could something like this happen because of ecological damage?  Could 700 deaths in a small town be concealed forever by government and could the town be cut off forever?  Not very likely, except for maybe a nuclear power plant disaster (and that idea gets mentioned). 
    
What could happen, and maybe make the subject of another horror movie, is a contagious flesh-eating bacteria (and that would be really horrible), or maybe a sudden outbreak of Ebola virus or a hemorrhagic fever (spread by body secretions and blood but not through the air – unless you believe the 1987 story about Ebola Reston). If you survive something like this, you could be horribly disfigured, physically ruined, and challenged as to how to get someone to love you. 
    
I’ve reviewed some other movies about pandemics on my “Films about major threats to freedom” blog (like “Contagion”, Sept. 9, 2011), “Carriers” (Dec. 7, 2010), “Thirst” (Korean, March 16, 2010), “Quarantine” (Oct. 11, 2008), and “Blindness” (Oct. 3, 2008).  I reviewed “The Bay” here (on the regular Movies blog) because the “threat” didn’t seem credible, nor did it have to be.  This movie seemed more like an experiment in horror filmmaking, and that is interesting enough.

The film is distributed by Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate (with the horror trademark), big corporate distributors (and, sorry, TWC wasn’t in on this one) – but then why did this play in only one theater in the DC area?  That was the West End Cinema in Washington.  The screen was small, but the digital projection was perfect.  (I like Regal’s “Think big or go home!”) There was a fair crowd for a weeknight, and some interesting discussion before the show started about how badly Romney had lost the election.

The official site is here


The show was preceded by a little short film about the Documentary Center at the George Washington University, link here. I believe that the center offers a documentary film school, and I will check into this further.

Wikipedia attribution link for isopod parasitizing picture, link here. Other picture (mine), inlet from Bay at Cambridge, MD (sounds like "Clairidge", doesn't it).