Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Major studios like the indie feel

Late this season we have seen more films distributed by major studios (not their boutique subsidiaries) but marketed to the young adult public in platform fashion as if they were art films (often with very large budgets). AMC Theaters will still call this "AMC Select". Let's hope that this bodes well for a trend for major studios to book more original projects with real substance.

Examples: Columbia: Marie Antoinette, Stranger than Fiction
TriStar: Running with Scissors
MGM: Bobby
Paramount: Babel
Dreamworks: The Last Kiss, Flags of our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima
Warner Brothers: The Fountain, The Good German
New Line Cinema: Little Children, The Nativity Story
Universal: Children of Men
20th Century Fox: Borat

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Revolution OS: Documentary film visits Open Source

Revolution OS, directed by J. T. S. Moore, distributed bt Seventh Art, produced by Wonderview Productions, was available in 2001 but I don't recall the theatrical run. This is an example of making a film about an intellectual concept, which, here, is the Open Source model of competing, credited to Linus Torvalds, the brainparent of the Linux Operating System. The film also discusses how Microsoft developed the idea of proprietary software.

As a documentary, the film is unique in that it is shot in full 2.3 to 1 anamophic, unusual for documentaries of this type where much of the film is showing interviewers and technology.

The open source model comports with the idea of "open content," most of all exemplified by Wikipedia.

Subject matter of this nature has always been viewed as hard to film. But Al Gore pulled off a "college lecture" in his An Inconvenient Truth

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Movie Wish List

While more films still get made (I saw the film of 23-year-old Christopher Paolini's fantasy novel "Eragon" last night -- the next one will be "Eldest") that seem to set new milestones, I still have my wishlist, and I wonder why we haven't seen some of these yet.

(1) Clive Barker's monumental novel Imajica (1991), in two parts "The Fifth Dominion" and "The Reconciliation". That would make two big films on the scale of the Lord of the Rings. But the social issues are much grittier. The Fifth Dominion is present day earth, and it is to be "joined" with the other four civilizations, with the first being "Heaven". At the end, Man beats God (Hapexamendios), which may be a problem. But with Barker's clout, it ought to get made. A good one for New Line Cinema.

(2) Clive Barker's Sacrament (1996), about a gay journalist, and, again, monumental.

(3) Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, in three parts (like The Fountain), but probably three separate films as a franchise. (New Line, again.)

(4) Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, which is really apocalyptic. Mel Gibson should try this one, given the moral message of the ending. I like the idea of seeing NewMarket Films on this one.

(5) Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama. A good one for Aronofsky, maybe Warner Brothers and its Casablanca Theme.

(6) At least one full biography of a gays-in-the-military case. Joe Steffan's account of his harrowing experience at the Naval Academy in 1987 ("Honor Bound", 1992, Random House) would make the best film. It could rival "A Few Good Men". But I like it as an indie film (call it "AMC Select", maybe The Weinstein Company (with MGM -- The Cat).

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Short Films of David Lynch

This is a video/DVD dating from 2002 with no commercial distributor, so it seems to be self-distributed to Netflix and others by the director himself.

David Lynch introduces each of The Short Films of David Lynch -- there are six of them -- by speaking into a mike in a simple black-and-white shot. Though the video dates to 2002, the films range in date from 1966 to about 1998 but tend to look primitive, somewhat in Andy Warhol vintage.

"Six Men Getting Sick" is a painting the self-animates with the stick figures doing projectile vomiting in abstract fashion, through six cycles.

"The Alphabet" is a similar animation with a woman reciting a grade school lesson, and bleeding out at the end.

"The Grandmother" (a "babushka") is the longest film (33 min.), seems to be about child abuse. A little boy rebels against his tormentor by planting a carnivorous plant on soil planted on his bed, and the grandmother enters the picture chasing his affections. The plant (Venus-fly-trap?) anticipates "Eraserhead."

"The Amputee" is very short and crude (1973) with a woman having two stumps attended to with a pedicure while she writes a nonchalant letter.

"The Cowboy and the Frenchman" (26 min), is a satire about cowboys meeting Parisian culture (the Frenchman is lassoed) but makes little narrative sense. It has effects that anticipate "Wild At Heart." Maybe, like in Oklahoma! the Cowboy and the Farmer should be friends.

"Lumiere" is only 55 seconds and simply a progression into apocalypse.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Leonardo Di Caprio on Oprah

It's good to see Leonardo Wilhelm Di Caprio as a grown man, just having turned 32. The main reason I watched Oprah Winfrey today was to see what progress he is making on his documentary on global warming. The film will be called 11th Hour, which he wrote with Nadia Conners, who in turn codirects the film with Leila Conners Petersen. The production company is Tree Media Group (sorry, not One Tree Hill). There is no commercial distributor listed on imdb yet.

The film will make an important complement to Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth"

Di Caprio offers two short films "Global Warming" and "Water Planet" on his "eco-site." Di Caprio was already involved with an earlier Discovery film "The Great Warming" (dir. Judith Hallet). See reviews here.

On the show, Oprah discussed his two other big movies this year: The Departed, in which he co-starred with Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon and Marky Mark Walhberg, and Blood Diamond, directed by Edward Zwick (Warner Brothers), in which Di Caprio plays a mercenary (Australian?) running diamonds in Sierra Leone in 1999, where diamond money funds oppression and civil war, which Sebastian Junger had reported live when it happened. There is controversy about "conflict diamonds" and retailers worry that the film could affect sales. NBC4 story is here. Di Caprio said on the show that consumers should be conscious of the possibility that luxury products that they buy could fund harmful activities ("tainted fruits").

The link for this show on Oprah is here.

A related story where Al Gore appears on Oprah Dec 5 is here.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Would "Do Ask Do Tell" make a good name for a movie studio?

When I designed the black-and-white blocked cover for my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book, my editor thought that the book had a Spartan, “Schindler’s List” look, after the 1993 Spielberg film shot in garish black-and-white.

I have thought that the blocked design would make an effective trademark for a movie studio, production company or distributor. There are a couple of companies that have lightly similar blocked design trademarks (like Strand, Typecast, and Tartan).

Yes, that would be a fantasy, to produce and release films about important political and social issues, with a certain emphasis on documentary. Of course, we have some companies that do that now: Participant (“Good Night, and Good Luck”, “Syriana”, “Fast Food Nation”), and, of course (“life happens”) HBO Documentary (“Hacking Democracy”, “Iraq in Fragments”, “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts”), as well as PBS Point-of-View.

There are a number of projects around that I can see being drawn together by such a company. There is Dream OutLoud’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”, Gode Davis and “American Lynching,” Sam Nunn’s and the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s Last Best Chance, and a recent film by DC area filmmakers Patty Kim and Chris Sheridan, “Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story.” Another good dramatic film from a few years back that dealt with a lot of issues was Nicholas Panagopolus “Five Lines,” with intersecting and compelling stories mapped to the five lines of the Washington DC area Metro system. When I lived in Minneapolis (1997-2003), I saw many interesting local projects in the Cinema Lounge (sponsored by IFPMSP) at the Cabaret Theater at Bryant Lake Bowl, such as some films by Jon Springer and Cricket Films, such as “The Hymens Parable” and “Heterosapiens.”

Another idea would be a good documentary on the achievement gap among various classes of students in public schools, as explained in The New York Times Magazine article by Paul Tough, "What Will It Really Take to Close the Education Gap?"

I tried out for a part as a military captain in Darin Heinis's short 2002 film, "The Retreat", about supernatural remnants from the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. As far as I know, I have been in a crowd as an extra only once, in a silly movie "Major League III" (Morgan Creek), in a scene filmed in the Minneapolis Metrodome in 1997.

Despite the advances in video and digital technology, and the popularity of sites like YouTube, it’s still pretty hard to make a commercially meaningful film by yourself. But I can see that there is room for another innovative company to get films out like some of these. Resources, that is another matter.

(For a discussion of trademark, especially the Trademark Dilution Revision Act of 2005, go here.)

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

What is an independent film?

In the past twenty years or so, major studios have set up "boutique distributors" for independently financed films with usually a more specialized intellectual focus. These included Miramax (Disney, separated from The Weinstein Company/Dimension), PictureHouse (New Line, and this used to be Fine Line), Warner Independent Pictures, Sony Pictures Classics, Paramount Classics (now Paramount Vantage), and Fox Searchlight Pictures.

A number of really independent companies cropped up, including ThinkFilm (Canadian), Magnolia, LionsGate (which absorbed Artisan and also has an interest in Lifetime) and Strand (which has a lot of GLBT material, as does TLA).

The business relationships among these companies are complicated. Often a film has one distributor in the US, another internationally, and still another for DVDs. Some companies (like Miramax) double up as production companies and distributors.

Disney uses Buena Vista for most of its domestic distribution, and has Touchstone, Hollywood, and Walt Disney Pictures itself as "brands". Sony does something similar. Columbia, with the Statue of Liberty trademark, is the central brand, followed by MGM, which it absorbed (but it kept the Lion), TriStar, Screen Gems (for horror and action). United Artists, which Tom Cruise is taking over as CEO, was long a "mainstream" brand for large budget independent films, but MGM made it into the "boutique label" and apparently it will maintain an independent focus under Sony/Cruise. Paramount absorbed Dreamworks, and sometimes uses the Dreamworks company for large films with a more intellectual focus (like Clint Eastwood's "Flags of our Fathers" or "The Last Kiss" with Zach Braff -- anything with Zach is automatically independent!). Paramount released Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Babel" with both it's mountaintop Paramount trademark and Paramount Vantage.

Recently, independent art houses like Landmark Theaters have been showing more films marked under major studio brand labels, like "Little Children" from New Line, and "Stranger than Fiction" from Columbia, as well as "Running With Scissors" from TriStar.

And there are some production studios like Participant and Liberty that sometimes distribute their own films.

So, what is an independent film? YouTube?

Friday, November 03, 2006

Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Gore both tackle Global Warming (The Great Warming; An Inconvenient Truth)

Leonardo Di Caprio emerged from "boyhood" with Titanic in 1997, and visibly so with the environmental adventure The Beach in 2000, filmed near Thailand -- where he checks his email in the last scene. In the early part of this decade. Di Caprio has taken on envornmental causes more visibly, and it isn't always easy to follow. His web site offers two short films "Global Warming" and "Water Planet" for free viewing, plus a link to a site about strip mining and mountaintop removal in Appalacia, including another short video about mountaintop removal (over 470 mountaintops have been removed in Appalachia), and the referred site proposes a "mountaintop memorial."

Not as many people know that Di Caprio hosted the cable TV film "The Great Warming" from the Discovery Channel in 2003, and a shortened version of that film (marrated by Alania Morisette and Keanu Reeves has a limited engagement at Regal Theaters in late 2006.

The film seems overpowered a bit by Al Gore's film from Paramount Classics, An Inconvenient Truth, in the summer of 2006, which played all summer at major theater chains, a great record for an independent film, and Mr. Gore made a college lecture really interesting, with all of the graphs, scientific details, and video.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

A Film by Marc Horowitz

I guess they can make commercials into art film shorts now. Blond mop head Marc Horowitz has several versions of his test drive, a couple of which have him dousing his beefcake presence with icewater. He puts on the shades, spins and skids the obstacle road test course (with his Barbie, his gnome, and his toast), and shows us that his CD's didn't move, soft drinks didn't splash, and only his slippery silk tie fell. "Not too shabby." (Or maybe he should say, "not too spiffy.") The car to be sold is a fire engine red Nissan Sentra. I guess the character Max from Days of our Lives could drive it, and it is the fake-Shawn's design. There are other versions of this film ("I win" the gas price war, and one where he lathers himself as part of proving that he could live a week in the car if he had to for a hazing ritual.) Whaterver, always a one minute indie film. Show it with Stella Artois (with Verdi opera -- The Force of Destiny --, and snow in Provence, in the background) at the art houses.

Horowitz has a website "7 Days in a Sentra" here. He also gives his link to his Myspace page there.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Brick -- what kind of hero is Brendan?

Brick (2005, Focus Features, dir. Rian Johnson) was a sensational indie flick, that presents a high school student Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) "working undercover" with the half-approval of the school, to infiltrate a drug ring. The film is fast-paced, and he outfoxes his adversaries with simple mechanical means, like by extending a leg when hiding.

A couple things here. There have been some debates about what was in the "brick." It doesn't matter, because the story works in any case.

There was controversy about the focus (pun intended with the movie company) of the character. Brendan, who seems geeky but turns into a kind of practical superman, is focused upon the disappearance of his ex girl friend. The film fans out from an opening or early scene at the opening of a sewer drainage tunnel, and it stays at that simple visual level.

Nevertheless, Brendan falls in line with other teen or young adult heros in current television series (ranging from Clark in Smallville, Ephram in Everwood, Sam and Dean in Supernatural, or even Holden in Kids in America. The film keeps a tight visual and narrative focus in order to keep the audience hooked, and it stayed within a budget of less than a half million dollars.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a young actor to watch. This "film noir" is now available on DVD.

Hollywoodland, Superman Returns (or does he)?

Hollywoodland is one of those independent films that is intended to be seen in all major theaters. Universal Focus is the US theatrical distributor, and Disney's new Miramax is one of the production companies, in this film noir by Allen Coulter and Paul Bernbaum. We see a haggard Ben Affleck as George Reeves, whose mysterious death is investigated by a wiry Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) who looks a lot more man here than in King Kong. Affleck, on the other hand, far from the "beautiful Ben" of the 90s tabloids or in the gay bar scene with Sandra Bullock in Forces of Nature, here looks chubby and deteriorating, even as he dons a grey Superman suit, and impresses the kids in the 50s.

Superman Returns (2006, Warner Bros., dir Bryan Singer) does put a little more drama into the comic book hero series than the original series in the 70s and 80s with Christopher Reeve. Iowan Brandon Routh plays the young hero, and the most engaging shot of all might be of the surface of planet Kyrpton, with its condo-cities and decaying environment, turning into a Venus with a runaway greenhouse effect. Lex Luthor's model railroad world is intriguing.

But I still think that the most compelling treatment of the Superman legend is TheWB/CW series Smallville, now in its sixth season, with Tom Welling as the teenage Clark. The first two seasons were by far the most effective, starting when Clark is supposed to be a freshman in high school, and has to deal with keeping his extraterrestrial origins a secret and is pilloried by others for being "different" to the point that he is nailed on the Scarecrow cross. The opening episode, in which Smallville (AKA Lawrence, KS) is partially destroyed by a meteor shower, was filmed shortly before 9/11 actually happened. The nearby city is Metropolis, which is a code name for KCMO (Kansas City), though it is filmed in Vancouver, BC.

Clark is supposed to be "19" now, and normally should be a sophomore in college. Instead he is home on the farm looking after his state senator mother after his adoptive father is sacrificed by Jor-El. But I think there is an opportunity here for an independent film about the younger Clark. Put him in college, and have the military approach him (for ROTC) and sports teams (especially baseball -- imagine the home runs or the fastball) approach him and see if he can keep his "secret." This would be an arthouse kind of film, something more in the line of Warner Independent Pictures, with the same production team (Tollin/Robbins). Has this idea been considered?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Prestige; Marie Antoinette; Little Children: What is an independent movie?

This weekend we saw three major releases in the DC area that make one wonder how the industry defines "independent film".

"The Prestige" is a variation of the story for "The Illusionist" earlier this year (the new company the Yari Group, with Ed Norton and Paul Giamatti). Michael Caine, as Cutter, is wonderful as the omniscient observer who explains that a magic trick comprises "The Pledge" "The Turn" and "The Prestige" with the latter being the payoff for the enormous plot of Christopher Nolan's latest film. Here he tells the story of the rivalry of the two magicians (played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman) with David Bowie as the gayish turn-of-the-century mad scientist with real majic worthy of Clive Barker's Imajica, and some plot tricks that resembled David Lynch. Here, as in Memento, Nolan likes to tell his stories out of sequence, and let the auteur of his direction come through. But the most interesting thing about this film is the distribution. The theatrical end credits said "Buena Vista" -- Disney's company, and that is logical, since Touchstone as well as Warner Brothers helped make it. But according to imdb and Nolan's own NewMarketFilms, New Market is the official theatrical distributor. I don't know if Disney has assumed NewMarket, but it is, like Miramax, intended for ambititous indie films. It had made a killing on Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. The arthouses are listing this as an indie film, but it is playing in major area theaters and came out #1 opening weekend. And $40Million is a lot for indie film, but maybe no longer.

Columbia (Sony) helped American Zoetrope make and distribute Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, which explores the idea of heterosexual marriage and procreation as politically mandatory for the stability of a monarchy and the right political alliances. In a sense, the film mocks heterosexual marriage (with the scenes where Marie (Kristen Dunst) and Louis XVI (Jason Schawartzman) are placed into a canopied bed together. Is it a political argument against all the anti-gay-marriage amendments? It was a hit at Cannes in May 2006 and the indie guides contain it.

The New Line Cinema made Little Children, Todd Feild's pensive and hypnotic followup to In the Bedroom (Miramax). The film establishes its mood with the opening Doppler train horn, that plays during New Line's trademark. The subject matter is disturbing, so much so that New Line is putting this into a platform release in art houses; in the DC area Landmark's E-Street and Bethesda Row had an exclusive run, with some sellouts over the weekend. The film cost $14 million, which is typical of a larger art film. The film is narrated by the man who speaks on PBS Frontline.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Summer camp movies in contrast: Jesus Camp, Camp Out

Landmark Theaters has been presenting a chilling digital video documentary "Jesus Camp," distributed by Magnolia Pictures, dir. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. The film is only in 4:3 aspect ratio, but has a lot of on location scenery around Kansas City, and then at Devils Lake, ND where the summer camp is. Becky Fischer plays herself as the Evangelical determined to bring up kids to believe that they will be saved only by literal belief in and obedience to the Bible. The camp scenes show a lot of singing and community bonding that I would have found intimidating as a kid.

A very different kind of film for contrast is Camp Out, produced by Evolution Film and Tape, directed by Larry Grimaldi and Kirk Marcolina. The film follows ten teenagers at a Minnesota Bible camp ("Bay Lake Camp") for gay teens. This was screened free in the DC Film Festival Reel Affirmations on Tuesday, Oct 17, 2006, and I was unable to make it because of an emergency. The details are on the Reel Affirmations site at this link. I am told that the film will be shown on the Logo network, which is unfortunately still not available through Comcast in Arlington, although reportedly this availability is being worked on. I will review it as soon as I can locate a DVD copy or find it on Cable or theatrical release.

The filmmaker has indicated to me (email late today) that a DVD should be available soon through normal channels, and there will be educational screenings in 2007.

The picture here is from the campus of Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Zach Braff: from Garden State to The Last Kiss

The October 2006 issue of Paste features a feature story on Zach Braff. He is described as the “quadruple threat” who writes, directs, acts, and plays head doctor. There are some becoming photos, as there were in the February 2006 issue of Giant, that showed him in good clothes being gradually tugged apart.

No matter when he plays the gentle doctor on Scrubs that there are real issues facing doctors in the future (infection control) that could impact how they look, even in the movies.

But Braff has made documenting his own “coming of age” as an artist into a public museum. Artists can be successful at everything (especially selling their own work); he proves it. His own directed entry was Garden State two years ago (Fox Searchlight), but the current comedy The Last Kiss (Dreamworks, dir. Tony Goldwyn, screenplay by Paul Haggis, based on the Italian film “L’ultimo bacio”) has a thirty year old architect not quite ready to commit himself to one girl, to getting married, to the family bed, and then having a temptation that he can’t quite escape. He will do anything to get her back. I wouldn’t.

Of course, we can all imagine what the conservative mags will write about this. All of this hesitation about marriage and family. It’s always a stumbling block.

Is any film from Zach Braff by definition an "independent movie"? I think so.

The picture is the famous New Jersey quarry rock, viewed from an Amtrak train, about eight miles from Penn Station New York City. It has been mowed down by "mountaintop removal" as in strip mining. "Garden State" was filmed near here. I think that the quarry appeared in the film, as I recall.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Josh Hartnett: from "Faculty" to "The Black Dahlia"; also, the indie film "Regarding Billy" for comparison on filial responsibility

The October 2006 issue of Gentleman’s Quarterly features a handsome headshot of 28 year old Minnesota actor Josh Hartnett, with the story on p. 306 by Alex Pappademas (photos by Terry Richardson), “Josh Harnett’s Arrested Development,” with again, a wholesome police lineup shot (fictitious, of course), an oxymoron to be sure.

Since I lived in Minneapolis from 1997-2003, I remember the St. Paul Pioneer Press story about “the 20 year old actor” (who graduated from South High School in Minneapolis in 1996) when Dimension Films released its reprise “Halloween H20: 20 Years Later” (dir. Steve Miner), as well as the spoofy if “prophetic” “The Faculty” (dir. Robert Rodriquez), which has kids looking for teachers “infected” by aliens. Actually, Hartnett was born in San Francisco, according to imdb, but for practical purposes, he is one of a long series of major Hollywood and indie film/television series personalities supplied by Minnesota. (Others include Patrick Flueger, Sean William Scott, Chris Pratt, Jeff Gilson, and Breckin Meyer; Ashton Kutcher comes from nearby Iowa and essentially the same northern European farm culture). The next important film from Hartnett would be the better known film “The Virgin Suicides.” (Paramount Classics, American Zoetrope, dir. Sofia Coppola). Dimension has since become known for “Sin City” and its support of “Project Greenlight” (another blog entry) after Weinstein Brothers gave up Miramax.

I actually saw the Halloween film in the old Plitt theaters on Hennepin (pretty close to the Gay 90s and similar places); now a handsome Regal cinemas complex has replaced it, in a downtown highrise shopping center, although the gay businesses along Hennepin thrive (and would make unusually good live film locations for drag shows and disco scenes because of their physical layouts). About that time, I also saw Breckin Meyer perform in “54” about the infamous jetset party disco in New York.

Hartnett’s fame would explode in May 2001 with his role in Jerry Bruckheimer’s “Pearl Harbor” (Touchstone), and later as a kind medical sergeant in “Black Hawk Down,” about the kindly sergeant who tended the wounded in the abortive 1993 mission in Somalia.

The GQ article goes on to describe Hartnett’s life in Minneapolis, buying a house (real estate money goes farther there than on either coast, even though Minneapolis is not “cheap” by any means), before moving to New York in 2003. He would hide in plain sight in the Uptown section of Minneapolis (home of the Landmark Uptown and Lagoon Theaters for mostly independent releases, and Bryant Lake Bowl, where IFP held its free local filmmaker indie film screenings), often “disguised” by something as simple as a two-dollar stocking cap. In 2002 he would speak at a battered women’s shelter benefit at the Riverside Theater (south Minneapolis) at a festival screening of “Blue Car” (Miramax, in which he does not appear, but where Agnes Bruckner gave quite a performance).

Over the next few years, Hartnett would make a number of films, and the best, I think, are "Hollywood Homicide" (which was previewed at his 2002 speech) and "Lucky Number Sleven."

That brings us to his latest film, Brian de Palma’s “The Black Dahlia,” a two hour 40s period piece about the LAPD befuddled by a brutal murder of a starlet. The film is said to be overly complicated, descriptive and reflexive. Hartnett plays a young police sergeant, consorting with enough women, and he always seems a bit too wholesome for the part in a movie about police corruption. He (his character, that is) will survive. But the most curious episode in this film occurs early, when he does a couple of prize fights. Now you don’t visualize Hartnett as exposing his brain to concussions of boxing; he is not Cinderella Man, and the reason for his fights (one of them is against his police partner played by a hirsute Aaron Eckhart) is apparently to pay for his aging father’s rest home care. In one scene, the father is making a model the way a child would. But the movie makes a curious social point about filial responsibility, an issue that is likely to explode soon as a public policy debate issue. It is almost as if de Palma (and maybe Hartnett himself, who reportedly campaigned for liberal Senator Paul Wellstone before his tragic plane crash in 2002) want to make a sly social policy statement.

Universal and Millennium Films spent about $50 million to make de Palma’s feature, but there is a 2005 $20 K DVD feature made by Jeff London (Guardian Films) making the same point. It does not include Hartnett. The film is called “Regarding Billy,” and it has a young man returning home upon his parent’s death to take care of a retarded young adult brother. The caretaking may be a “dead hand” probate requirement, but it is genuine. There is only a third character, a boyhood male best friend returning from military service in Iraq, and Billy and the serviceman will discover their love. With less than .1 percent of de Palma’s budget, London manages to dig deep into so many cutting edge social issues.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Latter Days (and God's Army) raises an interesting question

In 2003, the LGBT film festival in Washington DC (see blog entry for reelaffirmations below) presented Latter Days, from TLA Releasing and Funnyboy Pictures, directed and written by C. Jay Cox, as a closing night event. We got to question the director from the audience.

The story of the film, about a Mormon missionary Aaron (Steve Sandvoss) who finds that he is gay while on a mandatory, self-paid mission, then gets ex-communicated when found out (but not before attempted aversion therapy) is well known. About three fourths through the film, Aaron has a confrontation with his mother (Mary Kay Place) in their Idaho home. The mother clearly resents the fact that he would abandon his family. The film expresses the Mormon point of view that the boy owes his family and church loyalty for bringing him up, and that he must pay back a social debt before going out on his own.

The Mormon missionary program is shown in even more detail by a Mormon-produced film itself, God's Army (2000, Excel/Zion Films, dir. Richard Dutcher), from the church's point of view. It is very clear that the Church believes that this debt exists, as in one scene where Elder Allen (Richard Brown) is told by a church elder that he must spend two years doing things for other people (but he will proselytize).

Coming back to Latter Days, I wonder what kind of issues a sequel (a "Latter Days 2") could explore if it were made. If Aaron does well in LA on his own, it's easy to imagine him setting up a website or even making an indepedent film that embarasses his church and his family. Could that lead to legal consequences for Aaron? I wonder, and at least the question poses a good question for a screenwriter. (I add that someone would have to acquire permission to sell a script based on an existing "franchise.")

Some people feel "defamed" when another family member announces that he is gay. They may feel that the person has "rejected" his own blood. Can one person's voluntarily revealing personal facts about himself (as on a social networking site, personal site, or even book or movie) become the target of legal action if another family member feels that his or her "privacy" is invaded? That sounds like a good one for the lawyers. My guess is that it is not, that a person's right to present himself trumps the indirect effect on others, unless he goes beyond what is reasonably necessary to present himself or herself the way he or she chooses. The question seems potentially confounded by several factors, such as the deep sense of insult people with some religious convictions feel when psychologically trampled, and moreover the ease with which people under "free entry" can promote themselves (or, as Ashton Kutcher says -- next blog entry -- "their work" on the Internet). From looking up legal websites, though, it does not seem that these things matter -- yet. The law, however, is likely to change as the problems posed by the Internet become better known. Here is a typical legal reference from a reputable source, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Ashton Kutcher interviewed by Ryan Seacrest; The Guardian; The Butterfly Effect

Ashton Kutcher has always been one of the “quickest on his feet” celebrities when doing interviews, and the session with Ryan Seacrest subbing for Larry King on CNN Sept 28, 2006 proved to be no exception. Yeah, he bragged than his favorite coined work, “punked” had made the dictionary. It means, “having put something over on somebody.”
I can remember sessions with Jay Leno, where every sentence started with “hypothetically…”

Kutcher tells his family story, and he might well have become a medical researcher or a physician. His fraternal twin brother had a heart transplant because of viral cardiomyopathy, probably caused by the common Coxsackie B enterovirus that for most people is harmless but that occasionally causes catastrophic organ damage to heart, liver, brain, or pancreas (leading to Type 1 diabetes). There is still no vaccine (why is not clear); people normally become immune or resistant naturally through repeated mild infection, but occasionally it causes severe autoimmune disease. There are various accounts, such as here

Kutcher talked about his production company, Katalyst Films. I checked that as a URL and found a website under construction. A good site with info is TimeWarner’s: Ashton made an interesting comment, the center of this blog review, that the Internet was changing the way people promote their own work. He said that the right thing to do is to “promote your work” rather than “promote yourself.” Since I do that, I hope he finds this blog. Although he did not say so specifically, his comment could be partially motivated by all the controversy over social networking sites and personal blogs, and the way employers are checking them now. (Kids like "self-promotion") and the observation (and concerns) would apply also to Youtube (and similar) videos.

Actually, however, one’s own personal story, whatever it is, has a large effect on a person’s ideas and the credibility of what one says in one’s work. That’s why you have to use your own story to enter the market, however controversial, and even if that can affect other people. It’s interesting to ponder the meaning of the word (spelled with a K) naming his company, since in chemistry it is a substance that facilitates a reaction.

If you read the AOL story about Katalyst, it appears that a lot of the work is for the web, especially AOL. (Katalyst does have a filmography of several major features, including the sci-fi The Butterfly Effect, from New Line, 2004. At least four films are in production.) And even though it appears that he works mainly with major studios, the direction of filmmaking seems to be moving more from the control of studios, to independent partnerships with financing from hedge funds. Technology, DVD’s, broadband, etc are the major reason, and it is right to be concerned about all of the legal controversies (piracy, copyright, the DMCA, fair use) because they can affect both freedom and profitability in different ways.

(Note: IMDB shows a franchise sequel "The Butterfly Effect 2" from New Line Cinema, 2006, dir. John R. Leonetti. Kutcher does not appear to be involved with the film, according to IMDB, and user comments seem to be unfavorable, compared to the original film. The DVD is appearing in Oct. 2006.)

Of course, the motivation for Kutcher’s interview was the new film from Touchstone, The Guardian (dir. Andrew Davis), where Ashton plays a rescue swimmer in training, with Kevin Costner playing the “drill instructor.” Both characters have demons in their past to exorcise or to atone for. A military career in saving lives (rather than combat, as with the Navy) is the character’s way to make amends. But he will have to learn that he cannot save everybody. And so much of our moral debate in today’s culture wars is about that: trying to save everybody, when we can’t and remain free. The movie has a Disney-like, but straightforward, if long, story, and a gripping conclusion. To be in a movie about swimming, actors have to go through some transformations, to be sure.

There is a brief story about Ashton Kutcher in the Sept. 2006 issue of Details ("Ashton Kutcher may just be the best husband in the world") motivated in part by his marriage to Demi Moore. (The story,by Abdrew Goldman, with photo by Tom Munro, is hard to find, it starts on p. 282, way to the back.) There is a handsome photo on the cover. Details has a reputation among reporters as "metrosexual hetero" but on p. 160 of this issue, there is a story on heterophobia. ("Straight me are sort of ... clueless.") If this magazine is straight, it is interesting that the fashion photos emphasize the "beauty" of the male, very much as that occurs in the avian world (where the males have the brightly colored plummage, with some species).

The picture comes from Boca Raton, FL, not likely to need a rescue swimmer—but exposed to hurricanes.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Screenwriting software, and a Secret Window

The motion picture industry has a well-known format for writing scripts. The formats are slightly different for motion pictures than for television.

Normally, new writers would sell scripts by submitting them through agents, who serve as third party intermediaries with production companies and sources of money. Studios tend to be strict about this “third party” rule to protect themselves from possible copyright infringement or trade secret claims after buying a project or using any material. In practice, writers are often able to network privately to find out who may be interested in a particular kind of script and where to submit it. Often, it is desirable to get a “coverage” report on the script before submitting it.

Another major way to “submit” scripts is screenwriting contests, of which one of the better known is Project Greenlight (on this blog). In all cases, writers must follow the industry accepted format. More contests recently have been accepting electronic submission, usually in PDF format. (It used to be an all paper and print world.)

It is possible, but difficult, to set up the proper format with tabs in word processing software like Microsoft Word. Generally, writers will want to purchase screenwriting software, which easily and properly formats their scripts as they write (with the proper tabs or indentations, Courier font, the proper font size, etc, and the desired "white space" in the manuscript).

The two best known packages are:

Final Draft:

Write Brothers Movie Magic:
With a direct link.

Shortly after buying my iMac in early 2002, I bought Movie Magic, which had been recommended by Project Greenlight. I found it easy to use on the Mac and difficult in a PC environment. So for the Microsoft Windows PC I bought Final Draft.

However, that was several years ago. Software companies can innovate a lot in four years.

Both packages offer a variety of formats, index cards, collaboration features, voice playback, and conversion to PDF (even HTML). Write Brothers offers a comparison chart, which is not necessarily up to date, at this link.

I have used the Final Draft conversion to PDF since mid 2004, and I can say that now the file sizes are reasonable. Occasionally I have trouble with overprinting of character continuation elements (after page breaks) in Final Draft pdf conversions.

Write Brothers offers a smaller “Hollywood Screenwriter”, and offers other tools for writers, such as StoryView, which would help an author pull together loose plot threads in a novel. The company explains some of these products at (I put my plots, for both novel drafts and screenplays, into outlines formatted by a database, Microsoft Access, so that I can sort or parse by any element, like date, character, chapter, etc. These packages would offer similar capabilities. It’s easy to imagine a storyboard database being put onto a webserver with Visual Studio .NET for display to possible investors.)

One item of controversy would be posting of one’s scripts on the Internet on a personal site for others to view. This would sound like it contradicts the third party rule, since studios usually go through agents. (Along those lines, studios (like CW) that run message boards always have disclaimers that they “own” any content – which could include story suggestions – that visitors post.) Some ideas indeed should be kept quiet until presented. But other ideas may be so personal or unusual that they could not be “stolen” without the help of the writer. (Remember the film “Secret Window” [2004, Columbia, dir. David Koepp, based on Stephen King’s story, with the line, “You stole my story!”) I think that in some cases personal postings of scripts (in PDF format) can spread word-of-mouth buzz about what a writer could do. I know there is some buzz about my “69 Minutes to Titan”. (Visit this link.)

One has to be careful for another reason, though, when putting one’s own fiction online. The publishing industry (as are movies and TV) is very careful about the possibility of unintentional invasion of privacy or libel, if a character in a story and the events of a story too easily reproduce someone in real life. Sometimes writers may libel themselves as a demonstration or “thought experiment”, as occasionally commercial films have done this (“Frisk”). Even this can have legal consequences that are only now coming to be understood, in these days when employers check personal and social networking sites. Amateur writers are often untrained in the risks.

One development that could be helpful is for screenwriting software vendors to offer content labeling (along ICRA guidelines). I have a blog about this at this link. This would effective allow for “self-rating” of scripts (along the lines of the MPAA rating system) and could warn visitors (or parents) about any usual concerns about a script (like the “thought experiment” problem above). As best I can tell, Adobe does not yet have the ability to label PDF documents, but documents in HTML can be labeled (in the header section, with references to a site’s XML or RDF rating index), and screenwriting software could provide the hooks to create the proper labels, if the companies saw fit to develop this capacity (which follows the technology of the “semantic web”).

Monday, October 02, 2006

Reel Affirmations DC GLBT Film Festival

Washington DC area residents will want to check out the Reel Affirmations GLBT film festival Oct 12-21, 2006. Most of the films show at the historic Lincoln Theater near the U-Street/Cardoza Metro stop on the Green Line. Some show at the Landmark E Street Theater in downtown Washington. A few show at the Goethe Institute, also downtown.

The festival is looking for volunteers (mostly two hour shifts), setup and takedown, and venue managers (day long assignments), as well as special assignments on Oct 7.

The full schedule of films is at this link.

Some of the films that I expect to see are
Shortbus (Thinkfilm, dir. John Cameron Mitchell)
Line of Beauty
(BBC, dir. Saul Dibb, novel by Alan Hollinghurst)
A Very Serious Person (dir. Charles Busch)
Small Town Gay Bar (dir. Malcolm Ingram)
Eleven Men Out ("Stratkarnir Okkar", Iceland, Regent, dir. Robert I. Douglas) Regent often distributes gay films from European offices of major studios.

When I lived in Minneapolis 1997-2003, I attended LGBT film festivals each fall, similar to the DC festival. Many of the films would be shown in the University of Minnesota Bell Auditorium. According the Minnesota Film Arts website, there is no festival in 2006 (there is the International festival in the spring). However, Intermediate Arts has sponsored "Flaming Film Festivals" in the spring; see this link.
In 2002, I showed three minute "Bill's Clips" simulating an air raid drill on the U of M campus, and in a movie auditorium a digital video clip was quite effective and scary.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Project in Progress: Don't Ask Don't Tell from Dream Outloud Films

Dream Outloud films, a non-profit indie TV and film company in LA that specializes in true stories, is working on a documentary about the military's "don't ask don't tell" policy with respect to gays in the military. There is a detailed description and fundraising letter at this link.

There have been a number of films over the years that have dealt in some way with the topic of gays in the military. One of the best known is the television film "Serving in Silence" about Greta Cammmermeyer. There is a spoof film "Don't Ask Don't Tell: Killers from Space" that overlays a campy military thriller with Peter Graves. A list of such films is at this link.

(The photo is the NIS building, the Naval Investigative Service (Washington Navy Yard in Wshington DC), which has conducted a number of the witch-hunts)

Monday, September 25, 2006

Project in progress: American Lynching

I wanted to let readers know about an important documentary project in progress, American Lynching. The filmmaker is Gode Davis. As the visitor can see from the website, the project still needs more funding.

The film would document the practice of maiming or killing and "lynching" African Americans would continue into the 1960s. There has never been a federal statute against lynching. On June 13, 2005, On this day the Senate passed a non-binding resolution apologizing for not doing more about lynching from the Civil War to the 1960s. Appearing in the Senate Building are James Allen, Sen. George Allen, Sen. Mary L. Landrieum Sen. John Kerry, and victim James Cameron. I was present for filming of some of the press conference that Monday afternoon. Live documentary filmmaking can be harrowing work; we were lucky to get lunch supplied to us during the long day.

I have watched some portions of the film in progress.

There are more details here on my Wordpress blog, Feb. 2014.

Update: 6/9/2007.

There is a film "Banished" directed by Marco Williams, about the expulsion of African Americans from three southern towns early in this century. Here is the write up from the AFI Documentary film festival. More at this link.

The picture shown here is an intersection in Alexandria, VA where a lynching took place.

Update: July 30, 2007

Check this CNN story by Eliott C. McLaughlin, "Activists re-enact grisly lynching in search of justice", in Monroe, GA, link here.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Project Greenlignt -- and amber

Okay, first of all, when I took the picture here, the light changed to amber before I could click the shutter. Maybe my fate is in the stars, like Julius Caesar's. The diskette was full, so this "The Color Amber" was the only shot I got.

I'm referring to Liveplanet's Project Greenlight screenwriting contest, of course. The "greenlight" comes from the phrase used when a movie project is funded. (It's also used in Internet content rating now; The ICRA says "this site gets a green light" and has a picture of the appropriate traffic light once a site is properly labeled.)

There has been three contests. The first was, I believe, in 2001. They were run by, a production company then associated with the older Miramax (now, the Weinstein Company). The site provided an upload mechanism, an automated download facility for screenplay scorers and reviewers (even a true-false quiz submitted by the screenplay author that had to be taken by the reviewer first), and a snazzy announcement system to present the winners at each contest stage. The first two contests also offered elaborate message boards, which were quite lively and were similar to those offered by TheWB (now CW). The contestants actually organized a couple of events or parties that I believe took place in LA.

The contests consisted of a writing contest and a director's contest. At least in the most recent contest, the director's contest consisted of a five-minute short based on a bare-bones proprietary script. You can still watch some of the finalist directors' entries at the PGL site above in a movie player.

The three winners have been Stolen Summer, The Battle of Shaker Heights, and, most recently produced, Feast. Each film had an "art house" theatrical platform release. Each movie has resulted in an HBO documentary series depicting the process of making the movie, and the stress felt on the winning team (winning writer and director) to get the movie done within budget and on schedule is quite striking. (Hence the "amber light".) Chris Moore would really ride the winners hard. (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were also executive producers, and Ben Affleck actually announced the 2004 contest in a January Sunday morning NBC Today, as I recall. I do not know whether there will be a fourth contest, or when.

I participated in the second contest as a reviewer, and in the third contest I entered a script. That was "Baltimore Is Missing," details here. It did not place. The winnings script, Feast, is quite witty with punch lines, and would read as a funny monster movie. Winning scripts tend to have simple, structured story telling, following the lessons learned by studying the 1948 Vittorio de Sica masterpiece The Bicycle Thief, apparently a staple of film schools. Every screenwriter entrant had to review at least three scripts. I believe that directors also had to score others' works.

Participation in Project Greenlight was an interesting experience. The automatic uploading facility ought to be emulated by other screenwriting contest operators.

I miss the message boards and I believe that there needs to be a lively message board for "amateur" screenwriters somewhere. If someone knows where there is one, please add a comment letting us know where. I can imagine moderating such a board, but I would not have the time to do it for free. As a baby boomer retiree, I do see doing something like that as a part-time hourly contractor job. Again, I welcome comments to that effect.

I have detailed reviews of the three winning movies at this link.

If anyone knows when a PGL contest might occur, or any other good contests, please feel free to comment.

Subsequent blogger entry on Season 2 finalist screenplay "Renaissance".

Update: July 31, 2007

I found a link for the ten director's submissions, based on a short script owned by Project Greenlight. The link is here. You may need the right version of Media Player. My favorite film was the first one, the only one that was 2.35 to 1, where a young girl shares a last meal with her grandfather and horrific surprises wait.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

International Diversity Film Market

From Thursday Sept 21 to Sat Sept 23, the International Diversity Film Market holds free screenings of new independent films looking for commercial distribution. The events are being held at Landmark's E-Street Cinema at 10th and E Streets in downtown Washington DC (near the FBI Building). The events are held from 1 PM to 7 PM. I believe that the film "Take 3" is being shown at 3 PM today Sat.

The website for this group is this. Note the use ot the .biz domain. The email contact is films at

I have a review of their "Take 3" project here.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Lunafest DC Shorts Sept 2006

Lunafest was a separate shorts festival emphasizing women's films at the Landmark E Street Cinema in Washington on Spet 21, 2006. It was a benefit for the Breast Cancer Fund and the Mautner Project. Lunabar is a sponsoring company.

The films were as follows:

Mann ke Manjeere, 5:15, dir. Sujit Sircar, which is a musical retrospect of surviving domestic violence.

Plum Flower, 10:00, dir. Serene Moy, set in 1948, poses the moral problems of the temptations for infanticide of female children in China, where male children and descendents were and are heavily preferred in the culture. This would fit into a pro-life argument.

Slip of the Tongue, 4:17, dir/ Karen Lum, what happens when you misspeak at a bus stop. Ethnic sensitivities.

Breached, 18:10, dir. Laura Richard. A very pregnant woman swims across the Rio Grand from Juarez, Mexico in order to have her child born in the United States, and the swim and subsequent live childbirth are harrowing.

City Paradise, 6:00, dir. Gaelle Dennis. An animated fantasy about London, which looks a bit like a model world.

Top of the Circle, 5:00, dir, Shaz Bennett. The title sounds like a geometric oxymoron, although we learn that it can refer to pregnancy. The rest is about the food chain below. A beautiful cat stars.

Dear Talula, 34:40, dir. Lori Benson, the main film of the festival and almost a feature, is a docudrama of the director's own struggle with genetic breast cancer, from diagnosis all the way through chemotherapy. This is a very intimate film and it is quite explicit but sensitive.

Kylie Goldstein - All American, 3:00, dir. Eva Saks, presents a family that has adopted a little girl from China.

Agricultural Report, 2:30, dir. Melina Sydney Paula -- animated, presents a cow as blissfully ignorant livestock.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

DC Shorts Film Festival Sept 2006

The DC Shorts Film Festival was held at Landmark E Street Cinema in Washington DC (with a few films at the Canadian Embassy) Sept. 14-21 2006. The slogan was
"Keep it short, Keep it reel." Note the hononym.

The short films illustrate the commitment that it takes even to make a short film. Many of them have extensive credits. They tend to take a simple concept (as would a short story, perhaps connecting two ideas in a simple way) and elaborate with visual, musical, and character effects.

The theater assembled a list of the best of the festival. Here is a synopsis.

Full Disclosure (about 15 min) dir. Dylan Horn, shows a probably engaged couple dining in an Italian restaurant promising to do the "asking and telling" thing. Dylan shows a barren shirtless picture of himself, and admits that he needs to mind his table manners, else drive people away. Ten years later, at the end of the film, they enjoy a wedding anniversary there and the film shows about the right amount of aging.

Bone Mixers (22.44, dir. Mike deChant and Doug Gritzmacher) is an docudrama of a Wednesday night "bone collector" -- that is, dominos party in a home in Silver Spring, MD. It brings back memeories of the poker parties my coworkers used to have Friday nights in Texas back in the early 80s.

Artistic License (23:00, dir. Michael Wohl) has a snappy actor David Lago playing David Milken, turning his job as the photographer at a California DMV into an exercise in self-expression. Too bad that he (the fictive person) smokes. He does conquer the boss. Full wide screen, compressed by cropping.

Vagabond Shoes (18:06, dir. Jackie Oudney) won the prize for best female direction. It is sumptuous jazz musical with that “Chicago” look. A homeless man with a pair of plaim shoes comes inside becomes a male Cinderella for the event, then he dematerializes, or does he?.

Victoria (6:10, dir. Marc Carlini, Cinemascope) provides a retrospect of a full life time of an elderly woman in her final moments as she lets go. There is no tunnel like in a near death experience.

A Short History of Sweet Potato Pie and How It Became A Flying Saucer (17:25, dir. Nina Seavey) was made with the help of George Washington University and shows a woman in a Washington DC assisted living retirement home who makes her baking of sweet potato pies a labor of love and creativity. Unfortunately, they become flying saucers quite literally.

Dirty Mary (19:00, dir. Stuart Rogers) is a bad girl who tempts men at bars. A couple scenes have a bit of the wine country Sideways look. She teases men, gets one back to her place, and she throws up out of a hangover. Call her Bloody Mary and call him Dirty Harry.

Zombie-American (8:27, dir. Nick Poppy) is a satire about how someone who looks “different” will be treated. The protagonist is made up as a horror film zombie, as if from "Night of the Living Dead", and can even stick himself with voodoo pins, into the forehead and nose. Clever language.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Minneapolis screening and discussion of self-distributed Film by Kacques Thelemaque, "The Dogwalker"

On Tues. Sept 19, 2006, IFPMSP offered a screening at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, MN of The Dogwalker, a "self-distributed" film, written and directed by Jacques Thelemaque. The writer was present to discuss cooperative interactive filmmaking with are Robb Mitchell of ScreenLabs, Lucinda Winter from the Minnesota Film and Television Board, and Walker film curator Sheryl Mousley.

I lived in Minneapolis from 1997-2003 and found the indepedent film community very active. Minneapolis has an active Screenwriter's Workshop that gives new writers opportunities for group readings of their scripts, and some scripts get public table readings, or stage readings with actors.

I will see if this film will come to the DC area where I live. The films website shows it in a platform release in several other cities.

April 16, 2009:

This film is available from Netflix, and I rented it.

The film comes from Truly Indie and Breakthrough Distribution, and was produced by Bigfoot, and directed by Jacques Thelemaque.

A battered woman Ellie (Diane Gaidry) flees to LA and meets up with a down-and-out woman Betsy (Pamela Gordon) who walks dogs in the Hollywood hills for a living. As Ellie tries to help her, they bond in a way and Ellie starts working for her and living in her house. The movie ventures off into exploring the behavior of dogs as social pack animals whose values (especially with hierarchy) mock those of humans. Gradually Ellie learns more about Betsy who is locally “famous”. Pretty soon Betsy’s dark past (including battering and a murder) come out of the woodwork.

The film has some great lines: “better a dog than a wife” and later “bow down to me for giving you a life.”

The DVD interview discusses the shooting of the film on MiniDV (with the sensitivities to lighting). And actress Pamela Gordon passed away shortly after making the film.

Four short films on the DVD by the same director are “Love without Socks" (1998), “Egg” (2001), “Infidelity in Equal Parts” (2001), “Transaction” (2005).

The first film has a couple of professionals hog-tying family, and then the bald-legged man goes back for his socks that he left behind. The family waits, and the girl waits.

In “Egg” a girl on a restraining order has contracted to sell her ova. Then she wants the egg back. It gets violent

The "Infidelity" film splits a full screen into four parts.

Transaction” explores the “dynamic” of a call girl and elderly male client in a motel room.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Puffy Chair

Title: The Puffy Chair
Distributor: Roadside Attractions/Cinesite/Netflix
Director: Jay Duplass
Where Seen: Landmark E Street Cinema, Washington DC, Summer 2006

This is another film with practically simultaneous DVD and platform theatrical release. And what makes it work is that it takes a mundane family situationt to create a road movie and a personality study of the lead, Josh Sagers (Mark Duplass) who can manipulate anyone into doing anything just by being himself. ("This is Josh Sagers"!) He scores 100 on the assertiveness scale. He makes a living in Brooklyn booking musicians, and one day buys a chair on Ebay to deliver to his father. He takes his girl friend and picks up his socially backward kid brother on the trip. Getting the chair re-upholstered takes major maneuvering, but the kid brother will undo everything. This is true Seinfeld-style comedy: a great film about nothing.

(Photo: a puffy chair in a Super 8 Motel room.)

Friday, September 15, 2006

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

This Film Is Not Yet Rated
Distribtor: IFC; Production: Netflix
Where seen: Landmark E-Street, Washington DC, 9/15/2006
Type: Documentary
Director: Kirby Dick
Rating: NC-17 (not listed on the marquee, but the film documents the rating from the MPAA)

This digital video documentary exposes the secrecy of the motion picture ratings process at the Motion Picture Association / National Theater Owners Assocation ratings board in the gated community in Encino, CA. The director hires two female private detectives to track down the board members. You have to have kids to be employed as a rater (how is that for forced family values?) but many of the children of board members are grown. The "unfairness" of the system to gay films, and the focus on explicit sexuality, and the lack of accountability are all covered. The film also discusses the DMCA, and also touches on Internet censorship, a tangential reference to COPA (the Child Online Protection Act), already being litigated. There are many more-or-less explicit film excerpts, themselves converted to somewhat grainy video.

Note: When the current rating system was implemented in 1968, the ratings were G, M, R, X. The X would become NC-17, and M would be replaced by PG and PG-13.

My Country; War Tapes; In Shifting Sands; The Dreams of Sparrows

My Country, My Country:
Distributor: Zeitgeist
Production: Praxis
Director: Laura Poitras, 97 min
No rating but would probably correspond to PG-13

A solo filmmaker, working alone, tracks the family of an Iraqi doctor during the days leading up to the general elections of January 30, 2005. The director gave a Q&A after the performance at the Avalon in Washington DC on September 2, 2006, and filming this was quite harrowing. There is some discussion of the politics of the election, with the Sunnis withdrawing. But the real value of the film is the opportunity to see the streets of Baghdad as in no other film, since no tourist can go there now.

The War Tapes (2006, from Sen-Art/Scrantom-Lacey, dir. Deborah Scranton, follows several national guardsmen from New Hampshire during their tour in Iraq. The film has graphic footage of poorer sections of Baghdad after the mortar attacks, and the soldiers keep their graphic diaries by hand, as they do not seem to have access to blogging. The family reunions at the end are quite emotional. Early in the film, some video of the WTC site after 9/11, shot by one soldier Mike Moriarity, appears. This film was part of the 2006 DC International Film Festival.

The Dreams of Sparrows (2005, Harbringer/Iraq Eye Group, dir. Haydar Daffar, Hauder Mousa Daffar, 74 min) shows the lives of ordinary Iraqis in Baghdad and Fallujah during American "occupation".

Im Shifting Sands (2001) is an older documentary about Iraq by former UNSCOM Chief Weapon's Inspector Scott Ritter. I saw this in an international film festival in Minneapolis in 2001 in the University of Minnesota Bell Auditorium. Ritter maintains that Saddam Hussein had lost most of his ability to make WMD's after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Ritter maintains that the government tried to suppress this film as it would interfere with its plans to invade Iraq which, as we know, were carried out starting in March 2003.

The Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends (2006, Focus Features, dir. Patricia Foulkrod, 78 min, R) recalls "An Inconvenient Truth" by its title and presents an even more disturbing truth: that the military hoodwinks young adults as "volunteers" into a backdoor draft, trains them to become killing machines, and abandons them when they return. The film consists mostly of interviews of returned soldiers, and shows horrific images of wounds.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Sunset Script conference (Events)

Sunset Script was been offering seminars at various cities around the country. As of early September, it looks like the next major one is in Dallas, TX.

Since I live in northern VA, I attended the conference at the Doubletree Inn near Thomas and Logan Circles in Washington DC Aug 12-13, 2006.

A keynote speaker was screenwriter Peter Iliff, who wrote Patriot Games, Varsity Blues, and Point Break.

There were panels and speakers from various other agencies and production companies, including Mike Esola from William Morris, Brett Forbes from Fortress, and Courtney Calaker from Neo Art and Logic. Sean Stevenson from Writers Guild of America, East explained some of the legal and contractural issues regarding guild membership and benefits.

Production companies that come to these events tend to be very specialized in the kind of material they are looking for. One company here was looking for monster movies. Another wants low-budget family. Esola indicated that family films typically are the best sellers. A representative for Nickelodeon was present and discussed a writers' internship in California. Companies that make television series for children or specialized audiences often must develop their own writers.

Dan Decker, author of Anatomy of a Screenplay, was the MC. He warned participants that he would pull someone out of a chair if he/she tried to make an unwelcome pitch. However, Sunday afternoon we all got to make practice pitches.

My pitch went something like this:

"A young reporter's pregnant fiancee disappears. The police suspect a Scott Peterson-like potentiality because he has been sleeping with another woman. The reporter suspects that the fiancee was abducted and discovers a right wing plot to prepare the public for massive social upheaval that would accompany a real alien landing. The break the plot, the reporter must subject himself to a clandestine night journey and an initiation that will challenge his own self-worth as a man. Will he find the fiancee, who took her, and get back to her?" The sentence in italics was added in a coaching session, to increase the sense of urgency for the movie goer.

A tentative title for the movie is Titanium. building material for the spaceships, maybe.

I personally like Michael Hauge's Screenplay Mastery site with its six-part structure (a refinement of the three-part structure).

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

World Trade Center; United 93: Is Hollywood really ready for 9/11 films?

I've heard instructors say in screenwriting classes that 9/11 is a no-no as a script topic, and that Hollywood won't go near it. That was in 2004. In 2005, the attitude seemed to change, as there were at least two major studio releases of films about 9/11 in 2006. Both were considered riveting by critics.

United 93 (Universal, dir. Paul Greengrass) was financed in France, with some indoor scenes shot in Paris, even though the even is the most traumatic in modern American history. It is in full anamorphic 2:3 to 1 CinemaScope, and about half of the movie deals with the response of air traffic control and law enforcement, with the rest being the buildup of a plan among the United 93 passengers to storm the hijackers in the cockpit. Of course, we all know that the passengers found out about the plan from loved ones through cell phones. Thomas Burnett (Christian Clemenson), Todd Beemer (David Allen Basche) and Mark Bingham (Cheyenne Jackson) were particularly important. At the end of the film, the audience would sit stunned, in silence. I saw this at the Regal Cinemas in Ballston, Arlington VA, in April 2006.

There have been at least two cable movies about this flight that would crash in Shanksville, PA, near the Allegheny Mountain tunnel. There was Flight 93 from Fox (dir. Peter Markle, aired 1/2006) and The Flight that Fought Back (Discovery Channel, dir. Bruce Goodison, aired 9/2005). Both of these films showed brief shots of the ritual body preparation by the radicals in their motel rooms in Portland ME.

World Trade Center (Paramount) is much more minamalist and true to fact that popular myth expects from director Oliver Stone. The film is presented flat, in 1.85 to 1, without the fullest wide screen, in order to focus upon the closeups of the firefighters trapped in the rubble. As such, it seems claustrophobic and a bit like a stage play. The story particularly focuses upon two Port Authority Police officers John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), who would finally be rescued with the very determined effort of an off-duty Marine (Michael Shannon). I would see this film on its opening day at a National Amusements theater complex in Merrifield, VA.

But ABC Entertainment's The Path to 9/11 (Touchstone Pictures, dir. David L. Cunningham) would present a 5 hour detailed dramatization of the events, starting with the 1993 WTC incident on 2/26/2006. It would attract controversy over the way it portrayed various actions within the Clinton Administration (to the point that Bill Clinton would ask that it be pulled). The film gathers steam in the second half and the last forty minutes are riveting. Although shot in regular aspect ratio for TV, this ought to be experienced in a theater screening, with at least one intermission. It was aired on Sunday and Monday 9/10 and 9/11 2006. Reportedly, it did not do as well as ABC hoped in the Nielsen ratings, losing out to NFL football. Yet, the coming of HDTV and widescreen TV and home entertainment centers could make the market (and profit or earnings potential) for longer, historical films like this stronger in the future.

At the same time on 9/10, CBS would rebroadcast its 2002 video documentary (Paramount Home Video) 9/11, the only film with actual footage inside Tower 1 during the rescue attempts. Tower 1 stood about 98 minutes after it was struck. Documentary filmmakers Jules and Gedeon Naudet filmed inside NYCFD Engine 7, Ladder 1. Robert De Niro was involved in the original film that started in 2001 and was to depict the life of a rookie fireman, with his forced socialization into the tribal, quasi-military culture of firefighters.

On 9/11/2006 MSNBC rebroadcast a "Living History Event," the exact Today Show broadcast starting at 9:46 AM on 9/11/2001. Matt Lauer would actually interrupt his regular normal Today Show broadcast at 9:51 when he got his feed, but there was no video of Tower 1 on Today until 9:53.

CNN has offered a similar replay on its "Pipeline" service.

Also on 9/11 Ted Koppel on Discovery presented a three hour show "One Day in September: The Price of Security" about balancing civil liberties with security. There was a town meeting. There were some shocking proposals, and yet a call to go back to our core principles.

Monday, September 11, 2006

WTC View; 25th Hour

Name of movie: WTC View
Distributor: Logo
Production Company: Edgeworx
Director: Brian Sloan
Rating: No rating known but would likely be R (soft)
Length: 102 min
Where seen: Landmark E-Street Cinemam Washington DC, DVD projection, Oct. 2005. Netflix now shows DVD availability
Event: DC GLBT Film Festival, One in Ten, Reel Affirmations

In this film, an appealing young gay man Eric (Michael Urie) places an ad for a roommate in an apartment that overlooks the 9/11 World Trade Center site, and meets an interesting assortment of people, some of them quite appealing by conventional ideas. A young stockbroker Max (Jay Gillespie) recounts how he got out of the North Tower before it collapsed.

In Spike Lee's film 25th Hour (Touchstone, Buena Vista, 2002), a convicted dealer (Ed Norton) spends his last 24 hours of freedom, but in one important scene there is a nighttime view of the World Trade Center site, with some heavy equipment in the cavity dwarfed by the size of the opening. This may be one of the first known references to 9/11 in a major film since the 9/11 attacks.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Islam: What the West Needs to Know

Distributor: Quixotic Media
(This is also the website for the film)
Date: 2006
See: July 2006, at Landmark E-Street Washington DC
Director: Gregory M. Davis, Bryan Daly
Rating: Not rated by MPAA. But if it were rated, it would probably receive a PG-13.
Length: About 95 min.

Speakers: Walid Shoebat, Robert Spencer, Serge Trifkovic

This film presents interviews and discussions by various scholars on Islam, and presents the controversial viewpoint that Islamic ideology, taken literally out of the Qur'an, seems to promote aggression against non-Islamic, western societies.

This interpretation is certainly debatable. We also know about other scholars who maintain that much of the "gripe" of radical Islam is based on historical abuses of Islamic lands rather than specific resentment of western individualism and modernism.

The film does discuss nihlistic ideology and traces it to apparent ideas in Islamic thought.

I am listing and giving references and links to this movie out of a desire to inform the reader of this viewpoint. I do not necessary subscribe to it personally.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Kids in America

"Kids in America", dir. Josh Stolberg, Launchpad Releasing, 2005 (also now, Screen Media Pictures)
Seen at AMC Courthouse Plaza, Arlington VA, Oct. 2005

When I designed the backcover of my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book I somehow miscalibrated the age of the Bill of Rights, saying it was 160 years; and many copies I hand-applied a sticker to change the number to 210. I did correct this for the second printing, of course. I don’t know how that happened; many eyes missed it. Actually, the date of the Bill of Rights (12/15/1791) is the accepted date in history books – (here is a good web reference: ) - figures in to the story, as “The Kids” plaster their high school lockers and walls with “12/15” as one of their peaceful protest tactics against Principal Weller (Julie Bowen) in this drama-comedy of constructive student rebellion.

The story features several incidents early on, as Weller suspends a girl for wearing condoms on her dress (when the girl claims to be promoting abstinence), suspends another for an overly graphic paragraph written in a free journal period in English class (a short journal period in a notebook is a common practice in high school English), and then suspends and then expels Holden Donovan (Gregory Smith) for a stunt in a school acting performance.

Now here we have to get into more of the setup. Most of the action centers around film, drama, and English classes where the kids are making videos and setting up short drama skits. (On a substitute teaching assignment last year I actually supervised a class where “kids” edited an entertaining instructional film on chemistry, using Premiere and other editing tools.) One girl has made a video “manifesto” appeal to protest the brutal practice of female clitoral mutilation in some African societies, and her teacher asks (“ask why!”) if it would not have been more appropriate to pick a cause that affected her own family or environment more directly. (This is a good question that probes into the moral underpinnings of one’s own speech.) The tension has been building when Holden pulls off his stunt.

He starts with the famous Hamlet (“play within a play”) “To be or not to be,” and hesitates. Then he goes on an effective monologue to protest the administrations treatment of several specific student efforts and then says that he is “not to be.” He then fakes suicide and slitting his wrists, then of course gets up and demos the prop underneath his long sleeve hiding the fake blood. (I’ve known of HIV patients who hide iv’s at work this way, even when working as flight attendants.) Of course, the administration is “very offended.”

Expelled, Holden rather takes over the movie, leading more protests and arranging to rig the microphone systems at school. There is another rather charismatic out gay student Lawrence Reitzer (newcomer Alex Anfanger) who has made a strategic opening appearance in the film nude except for boxer shorts, revealing what is essentially a perfect teenage male body (at least according to many tastes). Alex has sung and participate in a pivotal manner in various classes. Then he suddenly falls into the (false) gay stereotype when he can’t climb rope in gym class (it would appear that the real life actor would have no problem doing so). During all the protests, Alex kisses his boyfriend in the school hall within sight of The Principal, and is of course suspended, too. (Who is going to be left behind?) So Holden engineers all the students to engage in a same-sex kiss-out in front of The Principal. All of this from a character who is cast as energetically heterosexual in his own life as possible, with various making out scenes.

Holden will then get himself and several other kids thrown in jail when they try to burn a sign (even using laser alignment pointers) onto the football field to defeat Weller’s bid for election to the School Board. Lawrence catches on fire in a terrifying moment and is hospitalized, although fortunately his (second degree) burns are not that serious. It’s not clear that this was necessary for the story.

Is Holden named after the J. D. Salinger character from "The Catcher in the Rye"? It seems that his is much more forceful. (Remember what Salinger writes about "old guys' legs"?)

Apart from Alex Anfanger, in fact, Gregory Smith dominates this movie so thoroughly as the puppetmeister that it seems to me the movie must have been partly his idea. He does play the part as “Ephram plus” (for those viewers familiar with his work as the teenage piano prodigy Ephram in Everwood). He talks with the same colorful metaphors that seem to be Smith’s own personality. A the end, during the closing credits, he has a six minute “disco break dancing” kiss-out (part of it on the hood of a car), his shirt very loose and half-open as he tries to set a time record. The viewer can look for a couple of minor technical directorial errors here (or maybe there is double entendre).

This film is coming out as a platform release, and when I saw it in Arlington VA and an AMC theater on a Sunday afternoon I was the only one in the auditorium. Obviously the film is intended primarily for Cable and DVD. Since TheWB has advertised it on its own network, I would think WB could promote it more successfully if it took over formal distribution (as WIP). It is interesting that this political comedy was released at the same time as Warner Independent Pictures’s hit about McCarthyism, “Good Night, and Good Luck.” And this comedy is one of the most important films of the year, even given the likelihood of a budget under, say, $1 million.

I want to make a note here, to, about the legal issues regarding free speech in schools. There have been many cases over the years. Generally, school administrations can control student speech and teacher on-premises (particularly classroom) speech that would disrupt the school environment or undermine the credibility of accepted curricula. (With gay and lesbian issues in many areas of the country, this can be a problem, as it may also be with some parents.) At one point in the film, principal Weller draws an analogy between her control of students and the Patriot Act after 9/11, a comparison that is obviously inappropriate. There is a paradox here: the school wants to develop critical thinking skills in its students, so it would seem to need freedom of expression. But in public schools, even high schools, students vary so much in cognitive skills with abstract thought that many students need a carefully nurtured environment.

Off-campus speech is more edgy, and the legal barrier that a school system would face in proving a student’s or a teacher’s speech to be disruptive would probably he higher. Even so, the presence of the Internet and World Wide Web raises unprecedented issues because of the Web’s global pervasiveness. There have been issues with regard to student web sites that grade or criticize teachers, as well as those that promote certain cultures perceived as anti-social (Gothic, or even gangs). Students have sometimes made statements from home computers that were perceived as threats and have been disciplined as a result. Teacher speech on the Web could become an issue if students found it through search engines and if the speech was somehow perceived as offensive or disruptive. Yet, one would not want schools to be able to censor the content of teacher off-duty speech. Therefore, the responsibilities of the teacher (at least if he or she is responsible for grading students) to mediate his own speech on the Web sounds like a potentially serious subject, maybe for another movie (maybe even mine).

Here are some legal references on free speech in public schools:

Gregory Smith and Lee Norris (One Tree Hill) sponsor “The U” on TheWB:

I would recommend showing this film along with John Stossel’s ABC 20/20 documentary “Stupid in America: How We Cheat Our Kids”.

This film appeared at a time when I was involved in my own controversy regarding school "free speech" ("BillBoushka blog, July 27, 2007).