Tuesday, February 27, 2007

An Unreasonable Man: Public meets Ralph Nader at movie screenings

On Friday, Feb. 23 2007 I attended a platform release screening of An Unreasonable Man (IFC Films, dir. Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan) at Landmark E-Street Cinema in Washington DC. Mr. Nader was available for questions for the audience at several of the screenings, as he was uin the lobby when he sold his new book "The Seventeen Traditions" (blog link here). At 122 minutes, the film (which does not have an MPAA rating but would probably qualify as PG) is long for a documentary, but it never drags.

The production company was given as Red Envelope, and like some other topical documentary features recently, this film seems associated with Netflix and sponsored in part by the DVD rental company. (As of today, however, the DVD is still in the Netflix "Save" column.)

From both the book and the movie, a lot of attention can be drawn to what makes Mr. Nader, now about 73 but still lean, tick. His book is heavy on traditional family values and family cohesion, but he never raised one himself. He became a law geek, and lived for his causes. His Dupont Circle (Washington) offices, filled with books and papers, became a kind of intellectual space that anticipates today's cyberspace. He says at the end of the movie, "I don't care about my legacy; you're not going to take safety seats out of cars."

Monday, February 26, 2007

Academy Awards Winners

There are many sources in the media for this information. But here is the short list.

Best Picture: The Departed

Best Achievement in Direction: Martin Scorsese for The Departed

Best Achievement as an Actor in a leading role: Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland

Best Achievement as an Actress in a leading role: Helen Mirren for The Queen

Best Achievement as an Acotr in a supporting role: Allan Arkin for Little Miss Sunshine

Best Achievement as an Actress in a supporting role: Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls

Best original screenplay: Michael Arndt for Little Miss Sunshine

Best Documentary feature: Al Gore with An Inconvenient Truth. (No, Al Gore did not announce that he was running last night, but Leonardo Di Caprio tried to goad him to do so.)

Best adapted screenply: The Departed

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Videos of cats playing piano

There have been some interesting amateur videos on Youtube and other places of cats making music, such as "Nora: The Piano Playing Cat" and "Eric the Cat Plays Piano" (where Eric actually plays a toy piano). In these cases, the cats appear to have watched humans playing keyboard music and become fascinated with the motion and sound, possibly reminding them of activity that could occur during hunting. Cats do seem to understand how tools and devices work, as do, apparently, all carnivores that come into contact with man. It takes intelligence to control a territory or build social relationships to hunt (well, maybe not with social insects).

Reviews: Mine.

Links: Nora (Ravenswing Studio) Eric

I can imagine that shots like these will show up in cat food commercials soon. Although, it is hard to imagine making multiple cats play anything intelligible on a piano. Maybe that is the ultimate in polyphony.

I do think that a good idea for a feature film would be the world as a cat sees it. Allan W. Eckert's novel "Crossbreed" (1968) could make a good starting point, particularly for Walt Disney pictures.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Bill's Picks for the 2006 Oscars

Bill’s Picks for the Best Films of 2006.

I haven’t been able to see the German film “The Lives of Others” about a dissident East German writer before the Berlin Wall falls, yet (it still seems stuck in New York and LA in a platform release), and I expect to add it as soon as I can see it. So I’ll name fifteen films, and leave room for it, which I expect to be on the list. See below for update on this movie.

1. Little Miss Sunshine (Fox Searchlight, dir. Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris, R, Cinemascope) puts forth many issues in a spectacular road movie and makes all of its characters funny. The most interesting situation was the intense, silent teenager Dwayne (Paul Dano) looking after a suicidal gay uncle, with the teen’s epiphany on the road when he learns he is color blind from Olive (Abigail Breslin), who looks ever funnier as a bit pudgy girl at the beauty pagent – when brother Dwayne wants to protect her from the whole thing. The film came out just before the JonBenet tragedy made the news retrospectively with John Mark Karr—was that a coincidence? This film also provided an example of how well a socially edgy independent film can do.

2. An Inconvenient Truth (Paramount Vantage, dir. Davis Guggenheim, PG-13), Al Gore’s epistle on global warming, proves that a college lecture can really work as theater, film, and entertainment. Will Leonardo Di Caprio’s “The 11th Hour” be as effective?

3. Babel (Paramount Vantage, dir Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Mexico, R). First, a great title, based on the Bible story, and a metaphor for telling an international story (remember “Syriana”?) linking together characters, themes, and plot elements from all over the world. In digital projection, this film has a spectacular look, even if the Morocco scenes were supposedly shot in super 16.

4. Letters from Iwo Jima (Warner Bros/Dreamworks, dir. Clint Eastwood, R, Cinemascope, mostly Japanese) recreates the Iwo Jima battle from the point of view of the “enemy” and even the Japanese home front, and makes us ponder the personal sacrifice of war a little more deeply. The near black and white photography is fascinating.

5. Children of Men (Universal, dir. Alfonso Cuaron, R, UK) poses a nightmare apocalypse where women have stopped bearing children, a sociological warning that would suit Philip Longman. Clive Owen is riveting.

6. Blood Diamond (Warner Bros, dir. Edward Zwick, R, Cinemascope) shows Leonardo di Caprio as a grown man, profiteering from blood diamonds and dealing with the moral consequences.

7. Thank You for Smoking (Fox Searchlight, dir. Jason Reitman, R, Cinemascope) is a delicious satire on getting paid to promote someone else’s wares in public for a living – in this case, being public relations for the tobacco industry. The scene where Aaron Eckhart is kidnapped and “gets it” in the van is downright erotic, and Adam Brody still acts like Seth.

8. Notes on a Scandal (Fox Searchlight, dir. Richard Eyre, UK, R) is a delicious love rectangle with inappropriate relationships among teachers, students (at least one underage) and spouses, in a British prep school. Judi Dench is riveting as the vampire lesbian, willing to blackmail a female offender probably afraid of jail – and she winds up there anyway.

9. Pan’s Labyrinth (Picturehouse, dir. Guillermo del Toro, Mexico, R, Spanish) A girl retreats into her fantasy world in fascist Spain. This one film made me dream that night.

10. Little Children (New Line, dir. Todd Field, R, Cinemascope) From a major studio, this movie has enjoyed a long platform release to build an audience about its sensitive material, as middle class families face their own problems and prejudices when an offender moves to town and shows up at the community pool. From the opening train whistle (which replaces New Line’s musical trademark) this film casts a spell.

11. The Departed (Warner Bros., dir. Martin Scorsese, R, Cinemascope). I bet this film wins Best Picture at the Oscars, and it puts together an all star male cast in a drama about Boston’s mafia. Great storytelling, but not as important in message as some of the other films.

12. The Queen (Miramax, dir. Stephen Frears, PG-13, UK) seems to be the public favorite, as it traces Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) with her sons after the tragic death of Princiess Diana in Paris in August 1997. Subtle issues about the British monarchy come to the fore.

13. The Last King of Scotland (Fox Searchlight, dir. Kevin MacDonald, R, UK, Cinemascope) gives the history of Ugandan butcher Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) from the point of view of his young, ambitious personal physician Nick (James McAlvoy). The final torture scene is both brutal and nearly erotic. It’s become a major task for the movie industry to show Africa as it is and has been (but Amin predates the AIDS epidemic).

14. Bobby (MGM/TWC, dir. Emilio Estevez, R, Cinemascope) is a docudrama of the events that led to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in June 1968 in Los Angeles. Some of the kids working as Democratic Party volunteers are funny, as is Asthon Kutcher.

15. United 93 (Universal, dir. Paul Greengrass, R, Cinemascope) reenacts Flight 93 as the passengers would have experienced it. Audiences repeatedly would leave the theater in silence. This is the most important theatrical release about 9/11 to date, and I think opens up more that Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. There have been several cable films about Flight 93, and at least one more book (about Mark Bingham) that seems very filmable for the future.

16. The Lives of Others (Sony Pictures Classics/Buena Vista International, dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, in German, R, Cinemascope) lives up to the hype, and if it weren't for the delay in showing and my desire to pick one of the nominated five, I think I would pick this German film about Stasi surveillance on an East German writer before the wall falls. The comparison of professional writing on typewriter drafts in the old days and the perception of writers as "threats" makes an interesting comparison to the issues raised by blogs and social networking sites today.

Fox Searchlight seems to have done particularly well this year, and independent films really can hit the market.

Picture: The old Varsity Theater in Lawrence, across the street from the Granada (previous post).

Should smoking cause a movie to get an R rating?

The media is full of reports that the AMA and other groups want to pressure the motion picture industry to apply R ratings to all films showing smoking. I don't know if this is just cigarette smoking, or would include cigars (or pot, for that matter). I recall that the first Apprentice winner, Bill Rancic, had operated a "cigarsaroundtheworld.com" business.

Many classic films (as on TCM) show smoking, and what I think is more constructive is for young people to know that smoking was much more socially acceptable a couple generations ago than it is now. There are reasons for this. World wars and depressions occurred, and life spans were shorted. In subtle ways, life was valued differently then. Teens, anyway, should learn this in its proper historical and sociological context.

I don't like to see "role model" characters cigarette smoking. But in fact, you don't. For example, Superman is never shown smoking today, and neither are any of the role model teen and young adult characters on TV series (Clark Kent, Chloe, Lana, Dean and Sam, Seth, Ephram, etc.) On a soap like "Days of our Lives" it's easy for me to imagine Sami, Chelsea, Bonnie, or Kate ("Katrina") smoking, although they don't. And definitely not Nick, Max, Shawn, or Belle.

R ratings supposedly affect box office receipts big time. I wonder about this, as many R films do very well.

But, no, applying an automatic R to a movie for showing smoking is an overraction.

For a note on "This film Is Not Yet Rated", go here (look for Sept 15 entry).

Update: (2007/3/7)

On March 7, 2007, the DC Examiner, on p. 34, carried a brief sidebar "R-rated movies may boost teens' smoking rates."

Update: IMDB story on May 12, 2007.

Picture: This was the Granada Theater on Massachusetts Street in downtown Lawrence, Kansas (aka Smallville, near KU).

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Several different views of Andy Warhol

When I was in the Army, in the 1968-1970 time period, "Andy Warhol movies" were thought of as a healthful outlet for anti-system rebellion, even by straight soldiers. I remember Joe Dellessandro and films like "Trash" and "Lonesome Cowboys", and recently I rented "Flesh." The films are not more explicit than a lot of things made today, and there is a certain warmth to them (as a scene in "Flesh" where Joe is told by a dear friend "... as gay as you are".)
PBS featured an American Masters documentary in 2006, in two 120-minute parts, and presented Warhol as an innovative artist, even if his style was to assimilate and record impressions (like of soup cans) rather than tell a real story. An important indie film of the 90s was "I Shot Andy Warhol," (1995, Samuel Goldwyn/Orion, dir Mary Harron, 103 min, R) a biography of radical Valerie Solanis, known for her notorious SCUM Manifesto, self-published and indeed a screed not read by too many people outside of the "choir." Solanis was one of the women that Warhol "used" and supposedly discarded, and led to her assassination attempt in 1968. Then The Weinstein Company released Factory Girl (2006, MGM/The Weinstein Company, dir. George Hickenlooper, prod. Bob and Harvey Weinstein and Bob Yari, wr. Captain Mauzner, 90 min, R). The title refers to Warhol's studio as a "factory" but movie tells the story of another of his actresses, Edie Sedgwick (Sienna Miller). Guy Pearce, heavily made up, is convincing as the pock-marked Warhol, and Hayden Christensen's charima takes the part of rock singer and Sedgwick boyfried Billy Quinn outside, almost making a sub movie.

We are left with wondering if we are supposed to contemplate Warhol's moral position. He was somewhat of a voyeur who made it by giving an urban segment of society the release it wanted to see -- while seeming to pass judgment on the artificially competitive values of the male, family and domain oriented heterosexual world which he had left behind in Pittsburgh. One of Warhol's famous quotes is "Everybody wants to be famous." But not everyone has the right to be famous. That has to be earned.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

YouTube and guerilla filmmaking

Ann Hornaday, critic for The Washington Post, has a major story in the Sunday Arts Section, "Rules for YouTube: Make Art, Note Bore". The link is here. She also mentions other sites with web films, such as Zefrank.com, Mitchellrose.com, Snobsite.com, and Hollywood-elsewhere.com.
Her advice on how to make effective web films is fairly general, but it could be summed up as: genuine originality. Offer a new perspective on something that no one else would have thought of. Avoid being trite, or cute for cuteness sake. In some ways, they are similar to rules for good writing, but applied to visual images. Keep the speaker off site (although I think that lecture films can actually work -- Al Gore has already proven that.)

I'm not sure how the feud betweem YouTube and Viacom/Paramount will affect what you can find there. But I found the controversial Theo Van Gogh short "Submission" there, with some "response films" at this link. I have my own review of this film here. I also have some selected reviews of some YouTube clips here. And I have been guilty of misspelling the site as "Utube".

When I was around 10 (in the 1950s), I and a friend made "filmstrips" that we pretended to be movies. We drew the pictures with crayons, mostly documentaries and scenery. We even had an "academy awards" ceremony for the families. I made a strip called "The Land of the Bible." The picture sizes ranged from 6x4 (about like the 1.66 to 1 aspect ration popular then) to three sheets of paper taped together for "Cineramascope." One sample "filmstrip" is shown on this blog file. They are drawings of scenery from "Alaska." (There was a family film by that name around 1996.)