Sunday, April 29, 2007

Filmfestival DC wrap up -- for me at least

I closed out my own experience with Filmfest Dc with a doubleheader Saturday. The afternoon “game” was “A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema,” directed by Sophie Fiennes, with Slavoj Zizek doing a lot of analysis of Hitchcock, David Lynch, and even Charlie Chaplin. The fascinating conclusion of the original Moscow version of “Solaris” was shown. Clips from widescreen movies were cropped. The movie was really a “psychologist’s guide” and at 150 minutes was more suitable for a cable broadcast. The production company is the UK’s Film Four, and there does not seem to be American theatrical distribution.

The night game was “Le Couperet” (“The Ax”) from Mars Distribution and Studio Canal in France, where a laid-off executive from a paper company in France takes macabre revenge on his personal competition. The movie made welfare-state France as capitalistic as is the good old USA (it is based on an American novel).

Let’s home that AMC Theaters renovates the property at 4000 Wisconsin Avenue (Washington) with modern stadium seating and re-opens it. The Arlington Courthouse property also needs major renovation (and upgrade of projection and sound).

Desson Thomson has a provocative analysis of the film festival “business” and DC’s lack of visibility in the Washington Post Arts section today, “Are 2 Roles Too Many at Filmfest DC”, here. The film festival business can make money and put people to work, even for pay -- despite the call for volunteers (and the marquee -- "it's showtime). But will the DC festival help some of these films (like Yatra and Yacoubian) find regular American distribution?

Tony Gittens, Executive Director, D. C. Commission on Arts and Humanities, responds on May 6, here.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

FilmfestDC: Yatra, Silly Age, Education of Fairies; note about Antonio Vivaldi

The Washington DC International FilmfestDC in April 2007 brought a couple more major foreign films that enrich some challenging ideas already proposed in better known cinema. Most of the festival is being held in a former Cineplex Odeon / AMC property at 4000 Wisconsin Ave in Washington DC, five blocks south of the American University / Tenleytown Metro Stop. A Ruby Tuesday is next door, and the Presbyterian Center and NBC4 television station are nearby, as is the Dumbarton Creek hiking trail.

I volunteered Monday night, and was lucky enough, after taking tickets and passing out surveys, to catch two important films that I had overlooked. Besides “Yacoubian” (above), which I saw Sunday, there is the sprawling epic (129 min) from India, “Yatra” meaning “The Journey”, directed and written by Goutam Ghose, who was at the festival. The film, in full Cinemascope and first rate Dolby Digital, looks grand (even like “Ghandi” – the tomb is visited in the film) with its multiple shots of trains crossing the tropical but wasted countryside, and teeming Delhi. At one point, the script refers to the languages Urdu and Farsi, as if the embedded stories of love affairs would bridge the tribal and religious conflicts of that part of the world (farther to the west is coastal Pakistan and Karachi, leading to Afghanistan).

The movie’s protagonist is novelist Daserath Jogletar (Nana Paketar), who has just published one novel (“Janaza”) about a torrid adulterous love affair in the countryside. The movie will be about his recreation of the novel in his own life, with tragic results. But this does not happen before he lectures his audience on the harm being done by modern media to our kids (his has an appealing college age musician son himself), and counsels a filmmaker on the importance of storytelling in film screenwriting. He is planning another novel (“Bazaar”) that will play up the multiculturalism of the region. Both novels are acted out as “imagination” in the film with subdued colors of low saturation.

It’s always a challenge in a final film, how to put together different threads of story and history, in different time frames or “imagination spaces” to come up with the statement that the filmmaker wants. The idea of making a film about a book or a past incident does itself provide opportunities to present complex issues. I have broached this in one of my own scripts (“Make the A-List” (link)) and found, in screenwriting clinics and table readings, that such layering is hard for other class participants to follow without seeing the pictures. It’s hard, because with a spec script you are supposed to tell the story, and not present the whole movie as you see it. But Yatra, in the end, turns out to be a movie about screenwriting and movie making, in the tradition of “Sunset Boulevard” or even “The Dying Gaul.”

But the most startling point of this film is how dangerous fiction can be. The legal issues of fiction that too closely mimics real people (even oneself) are well known. But here the issue is whether fiction entices acting out, even by the author.

Earlier that evening I caught “The Silly Age” (La edad de la peseto) dir. Pavel Giroud, wr. Arturo Infante, labeled as Cuban, actually made in Venezuela. The film is dualistic. One on scale, it is a little companion piece to Andy Garcia’s “The Lost City” (Magnolia, 2006) about the fall of Havana to Castro and the end of a romantic, indulgent way of life for the “rich, decadent upper class.” It’s all about the proletariat and the bourgeoisie that you study in civics class. An earlier New Line film “Before Night Falls” also comes to mind. But here the meat of the movie is salad, a gentle Spanish fairy tale about a little boy that goes to live with his prissy grandmother, and finds all the wonders in her cupboard.

Both of these films need American distribution, and I would hope that Magnolia or Lions Gate would look at them. There is another entry for domestic distributors to look at, too. The film “Antonio Vivaldi, a Prince of Venice” directed by Jean-Louis Guillermou, did not arrive at the festival in print, despite sellouts. I hope a DVD surfaces, but there is no American distribution yet. But Boris Damast (with writer Jeffrey Freedman) plan another film in 2008 about Vivaldi (production Hand-Picked films). I note that imdb still says it is in pre-production for 2008 release. I am told by someone from the film that it should be in production by October 2007.

Sunday I also saw “The Education of Fairies” ("La educacion de las hadas", Buena Vista International (i.e., Miramax), 2006, dir. Jose Luis Cuerda, novel by Didier van Cauwelaert, 103 min. I was expecting an encore of “Pan’s Labyrinth” and here a marriage breakup and reunification is seen through the eyes of a little boy Raul who is taught by his dad about the birds and the bees (Mom is an ornithologist) in terms of fairy tales, and then the boy perceives an injured girl who enters their life as a “fairy.”

I also saw "Fay Grim", Hal Hartley 's belated sequel to "Henry Fool", and a tongue-in-cheek international chase thriller a bit in the style of "Charade": Parker Posey plays the Mom looking for hubby after the son gets a steganographic kaleidoscope. This is already in release from Magnolia as an HDNET film.

The Page Turner
("La tourneuse de pages", directed by Denis Dercourt), a slick revenge thriller about the music world already with distribution from Tartan Films, played in a small auditorium to a pleased crowd. There is a novella by that name by David Leavitt that became the subject of a Spanish film "Food of Love" dir. Ventura Pons, in 2002. There are more details here.

For an earlier post on "The Epic of Black Gold" at FilmfestDC, visit this link. There is a short (83 min) film from Telepool, Cinesite and Netflix (not, unfortunately, in the festival -- it needs to be!), "A Crude Awakening", (directed by Basil Gelpke and Ray McCormack) that presents a particularly grim picture of our soon-to-decline oil production, with the visual imagery of Amish carriages traveling at 9 mph. There is more discussion at this link.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Yacoubian Building (Omaret) -- major film from Egypt

Title: The Yacoubian Building
Language: Arabic (credits in actual Arabic alphabet) with English subtitles; original Arabic title Omaret Yacoubian
Distributor and production company: BAC and Good News, Egypt. No American distributor is known yet. Filmed in Cairo, Egypt with some post production in London. (Note: 2011: IMDB shows Sundance Channel as distributor)
Director: Marwan Hamed
Novel: Alaa Al-Aswany
Length: 172 min
Aspect: 1.85:1, Dolby Digital
Date: 2006 (Vancouver Film Festival; 2007 Washingtin DC International Film Festival, web entry:
Rating: Not rated as of now, but would probably be rated R for violence and explicit sexuality

This knockout film proves that “mainstream” Islam is certainly capable of producing work of enormous intellectual and literary value – which in the case of film means compelling issues, stories, and especially vivid characters. This is the kind of work Islam did a millennium ago before its decline. There is a point at which the religious police invade the apartment of one of the main characters, a young police cadet, and question him about all the books in this apartment. “Books mean knowledge” he says. At one point there is some comment about lost Arabic leadership in science and math. This film really does underscore a huge tragedy of history.

The omaret is actually a rococo apartment building in Cairo build by Armenians in 1934. The opening of the film summarizes its glory day history, when the rich lived there in Trump-like fashion, before political and religious turmoil. In current times, an interesting mix of people would live there, and there are open-air rooftop apartments with servants and low income people. I had never heard of an apartment building like that before.

The story mixes the lives of some of the residents, somewhat in Robert Atlman fashion. In time, much of the story focuses on a gay relationship between an aging journalist and the young police cadet. Various other episodes in the script delineate the Muslin idea of family: it is a way to produce and raise children, provide a lineage, kinfolk, and manage property according to a religious legal system (sharia) that believes itself to be just. It does not necessarily promote love for its own sake. Therefore, men might fall in love covertly for their own personal selfish benefit. There is no such thing as homosexual orientation, only homosexual experience. The journalist rationalizes it by saying that only heterosexual adultery is real sin, because only heterosexual relations can produce children by another partner, outside the family system controlled by religious law. This sounds convincing for a while (it is almost like the Rosenfels idea of psychological surplus, and it sounds amazing that it would occur in Islam – but this is the pre-radical Islam). But eventually a corrupt government and police department catches up with its own cadet. They torture him (“Midnight Express” style), strip him and subject him to non-consensual relations themselves. The circle of official corruption is complete. The movie drifts toward a violent – and quite breathtaking -- conclusion in the streets in front of the apartment building. There are many other side excursions, such as a lawsuit by a sister, and discussions of many other controversies in the Islamic world. Particular attention is given in the script to not just the legal formalities of marriage, but the more nebulous idea of "family honor," not just for the married but also among adult children and siblings -- a notion which seems to give people emotional context in a society with much less than perfect individual freedom, and which seems hard-wired into familial heterosexuality itself.

The movie is said to be in litigation in Egypt because it too closely portrays the lives of real people. Let us hope these problems can be surmounted and that an American distributor (say Lions Gate, or maybe Strand) can pick it up.

Picture: 4000 Wisconsin Ave in Washington DC, Filmfest DC site, used to be a Cineplex Odeon theater site (now AMC). Closed, hope it will be renovated and reopened.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Redline: A sports car racing film from a new company, Chicago Pictures

Redline (PG-13, 2007) is a new action show about sports car racing from a new company Chicago Pictures and Chicago Releasing, directed by Andrew Cheng, with the story by Daniel Sadek, with Robert Foreman as another writer. This company is also now making a second film, “If I Knew I Was a Genius.” The film should not be confused with Terence Malick ‘s war film The Thin Red Line (1998).

Sadek is said to have used his own personal car collection in this film, wrecking at least one, and to have spent over $25 million in what seems like a "self-published" vanity movie. Visually, it is stunning. In full widescreen anamorphic, it looks like high definition. I saw it in a National Amusements theater in Merrifield, VA with DLP digital projection. (On a Tuesday afternoon, I was the only person in a 300-seat auditorium; as if the show were just for me!) The races, flips and crashes are breathtaking, as is all of the on location scenery in Nevada (Las Vegas included) and LA, most of all Red Rock Canyon, just west of Las Vegas. Some outdoor scenes, like a private jet landing in the desert to kick out an unruly passenger, seem to be in the movie just for spectacle. The cars themselves are sensational: fire engine red, Milwaukee Road yellow, and so on.

I recall visiting a race in Charlotte, NC in April 1994, on a Sunday when President Clinton visited. I went to the Indianapolis 500 in 1970 when I was working for RCA. There has been publicity about other car collections, such as actor David Gallagher (Seventh Heaven).

The story is a bit confusing. A racer Trevor (Marc Crumpton) comes back from military service in Iraq and is racing with his brother. When his brother is burned to death in a wreck, he seeks revenge. At the same time, his evil mafia uncle (Angus Macfayden I believe, one of the better known cast members) owes loan shark debts and is trying to make a movie about racing (there is one shot of a movie lot that looks like WB). Now the movie-within-a-movie idea is something I have played with in my own script writing, but here it gets hard to separate what is “pretended” and what is really happening. Furthermore, the dialogue seems unnatural; the slang usually used in the underworld is missing, and the lines don’t seem to match the characters. (There are even some factual missteps.) At 95 minutes, the movie is brisk, but with the producer’s money I would have hired more experienced help in just the writing to develop the characters, even of that meant a 110 minute film. This particular concept might have worked better if done with the help of more of tinseltown’s “establishment.” Imagine how Quentin Tarantino would work with this material!

A posting about "First Snow" (a film from another new studio, Bod Yari Productions), is here.

Picture: (unrelated but concurrent) DC Voting Rights Rally 4/16/2007

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Shia LaBeouf (Disturbia) has big weekend with SNL

Hi-ya Shia LaBeouf really had his debutante this weekend. (As if, a Disney-started career ranging from “Holes” to “A Guide to Recongizing Your Saints” were not enough.) His newest film, “Disturbia” opened this weekend. There was an announcement, somewhat ambiguous that he will star in Raiders of the Lost Ark 4 (with a very ripened Harrison Ford). And he hosted Saturday Night Live on April 14, playing roles in several skits, at least one of the skits making fun of underage drinking laws. Since Shia is 20, he is below legal drinking age, and (except for Drew Barrymore, according to someone at Landmark Theaters) the youngest host ever for SNL.

The movie, Disturbia, is said to be a loose remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), in which a photographer, laid up in a wheelchair with a cast up to his thigh, becomes concerned about a possible murder in the tenement across the courtyard. The film is famous for its close-ups and the New York City apartment noise chatter effects. Rear Window was shown in downtown Washington in the mid 1940s in an old boxy theater called the Playhouse, pre-Cinemascope, perfect for the intimate shots of Hitchcock’s films. The new film, directed by D. J. Caruso (written by Christopher B. Landon and Carl Ellsworth), sets up a disturbed teenager sitting out a house arrest and noticing the possibility of a killer having moved in next door. But this time the kid Kale (played by Shia) is always tinkering with his computers and video equipment, despite having his iPod and xBox accounts taken away by his mother as part of his “punishment” (fortunately, his real estate broker Mom – right out of “American Beauty” – didn’t know the extent of Kale’s ability to teach himself new skills – a good lesson for kid. The opening of the film, where Kale loses his dad in a car accident and where he punches out a Spanish teacher who insults the memory of his father, is quite riveting.

Disturbia is shot in standard 1.85 to 1 aspect, Hitchcock-style (without Scope) in order to emphasize the close-ups, making Kale the center of the film and keeping the focus (around the house) limited. The opening fly-fishing scene in the mountains, however, reminded one of the scenery of “Brokeback Mountain” and even “Legends of the Fall.” A western, however, this film would not become.

The film is being exhibited as a quasi-art film, produced by Dreamworks SKG LLP, but actually distributed by Paramount as a "regular" release.

Shia gets a lot of media coverage. There is Ellen McCarthy “Shia LaBeouf has come of age” Oct. 13, 2006, here.

Apparently there was at least one real-life incident similar to some of the roles Shia has played. The story is here, but the early 2005 incident apparently blew over.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Grindhouse: A retrospective experiment in movie making for its own sake

Title: Grindhouse
Directors: Robert Rodriquez, Quentin Tarantino (features), Eli Roth, Edgar Wright, Rob Zombie (“previews”).
Distributor: Dimension Films, The Weinstein Company.
Production Company: Troublemaker Studios, Austin Texas
Country of Origin: USA, Mexico
Length: 191 minutes, including both “features” and all “previews”
Release: April 2007

A “grindhouse” is, according to movie slang, a theater showing a platform release of a B-movie double feature. As the reel moves from theater to theater, the print becomes damaged or reels get lost, and so typically the double-feature viewer sees fuzzy, damage prints with snow and stretch marks, and dropouts. It’s the equivalent of playing a DVD that skips.

So TWC tried an experiment, to assemble a 50s to 70s double feature “show” and simulate the experience of a moviegoer from that era. There is one introductory preview, a feature, three more previews, and a second feature. (One of the previews, "Don't" subliminally, at least, reminds one of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" which was a spoof horror film, review here.) Not that many area theaters can set aside 3-1/2hours for one admission. I saw it at the National Amusements in Merrifield, VA. The huge auditorium was about half full (Friday night April 6 at 8 PM) and the actual projection appeared to be DLP from a high-definition DVD. Some of the footage deliberately simulates the poor technical quality of old B-movies, and other stretches are quite state-of-the-art. In the second featrue, the Texas Hill Country and downtown Austin scenery is striking, as is the California scrub desert later.

But what was most interesting was the underlying concept. Separate stories or story segments are spliced together for an entertainment experience. Are the stories related? Not really, although that idea is interesting to me because of a concept that I want to try. The second feature (“Death Proof” – the first is the prosaic “Planet Terror”) is interesting in that the story itself is bifurcated. Single women are congregating in Austin bars, meeting attractive University of Texas men, it seems, and then one of the girls meets this creepy character played by Kurt Russell (who just appeared on Jay Leno the other night, across from the charismatic self-made comic Shia La Boeuf from “Disturbia”). The guy wants to give her a hot car ride, and he has murderous intentions. The second half is repeated with another set of women making an adult movie. Not, there is not a lot of connection between the women’s preparatory conversations and the action that will follow. I think there was opportunity here for a more textured story – but after all, this is a B-movie. Yet, Tarantino is known for playing with story structure and even set it up out of time sequence (as in “Pulp Fiction”). Here, he could have tried to work the contents of the supposed adult movie into the story, or the previews in between the features. He really didn’t.

I have an experimental script, not yet public, where I have perhaps three stories to thread. One of them is autobiographical – my being expelled from college in 1961 for saying that I am gay. The second is a modern day setting of a movie director who could have been involved with the 1961 even as a student and who now is interested in making a “Christian film” based on a screenplay that I have written, and who hires a young adult man who knows me. The third is another screenplay that I have written that gets me in trouble with the law—and the young man sets up a situation that would get me out of the trouble, Now, the problem here is how to show all the story threads visually and keep the basic concept clear. So I say, make this (still imaginary – I would need to raise $10 million or so to pull this off movie 2.35 to 1 anamorphic, state of the art filmmaking. Show the college sequence in black and white and present day in neutral, or perhaps garish color. Show the “Christian film” short in 1.85 to 1, cropped. Show the imaginary troublesome script in rotoscope animation (as in “A Scanner Darkly” where characters are in plenty of trouble). The “challenge” at the end and courtroom scenes are in full 2.35 to 1 with normal filming. There would be some provocative “real time” or “present day” scenes that match the rotoscope imaginary scenes.

I’ve seen this sort of furcation before. In “The Prestige” (NewMarket), the story is divided along the sections of the magic trick. In “Memento” the story moves backwards. Th Lars Von Tier ‘s “In Praise of Love” there is a two part “Beethoven 32nd Piano Sonata” structure, the sonata in black and white and variations in Color, where the sonata looks back onto the variations.

More details of the Grindhouse contents: here

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Josh Wolf: All Empires Must Fall

Title: All Empires Must Fall
Director: Josh Wolf
Sources: This URL, which goes directly to the video. More portions of the film have been sold to as yet unnamed media companies
Technical: Digital video, about five minutes

The film shows protests (on July 8, 2005) in San Francisco of a G-8 Summit meeting in Scotland. The protests are vigorous, with phrases like “Down with the War Machine!” and “War is a Symptom, Capitalism is the Disease.” Toward the end, the police are arresting protestors, who claim police brutality and initiate some heated verbal exchanges.

Now Josh had been in jail for eight months for contempt of court for refusing to turn over portions of the footage to a grand jury to assist in a prosecution. There were legal battles over whether he could claim journalistic immunity since he apparently did not have credentials of the established press. Furthermore he had not promised anyone confidentiality. Recall that in some cases even “established” reporters have been jailed for refusing to name sources, such as with Judith Miller.

The Washington Post story by Howard Kurtz, “Blogger Makes Deal, Is Released from Jail,” appears on page C01 on April 4, 2007, here.

The rights of bloggers or self-publishers and filmmakers without press credentials is legally and philosophically controversial. Electronic Frontier Foundation maintains that the legal rights of amateurs are still considerable.

Here is their FAQ page on bloggers as journalists.

On media access:

On Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) access:

A relevant legal case on this controversy is Apple v. Does. Here is EFF's detailed information page on that case.

Jeff Wolf’s story would itself make a good documentary film, either for the arthouse and film festival market, or maybe for something like HBO Documentary (which has access to major theater distribution companies when needed). I hope we see it soon.

There may be some controversy over amateur video taken at a demonstration April 3 about Karl Rove (“Bush’s Brain”) at American University.

Update: May 14, 2007

USA Today has a point-counterpoint editorial today on the propsoed Free Flow of Information Act, here. One con is that reporter immunity could have compromised the Watergate prosecutions against Richard Nixon in 1973/1974.

Picture: SLDN demonstration to lift "don't ask don't tell" regarding gays in the military, assembly on west lawn of Capitol, Monday March 26, 2007.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Into Great Silence: absorbing reality documentary film about monastic life in France

Title: Into Great Silence (“Die Grosse Stille”)
Distributor: Zeitgeist; website for this film:
Director: Philip Gronig
Language: French
Country of origin: Germany, France
Length: 162 min
Technical: Super 8 and apparently high-def digital video, Arri, 1.85 to 1, Dolby Digital
Rating: Not Rated, but would probably qualify for PG
Date: March 2007
Where seen: Landmark E-Street Cinema, Washington DC, 4:30 April 1, 2007, show sold out in advance.

As far back as 1984 filmmaker Gronig had sought permission to film the life of the monastic order of the Carthusians in the French Alps, at their Chartreuse Monastery, a layered edifice with stone four-story dorms and other buildings built on a mountainside. The order gave him permission around 2000, but he had to live there according to the order’s ascetic rules, and film without artificial light, and little dialogue.

So this is a “reality film” with a glimpse of the everyday life of the monks, as winter moves into spring. There are a lot of still shots, and some abstract impressions in Super 8 that look like Renoirs, blended in with stunning, usually snowbound (almost the mood for Stephen King) mountain scenery, turning into the natural greenery of spring, all surrounding the simple life of the monks. The men, ranging from mid 20s to probably 80s, at least one African, are often shown in head shots, or doing simple tasks, sometimes with excruciating detail, to the point that the filming looses focus because the camera is just too close for the natural lighting conditions. You see all kinds of everyday things, ranging from feeding cats to feeding the men in their rooms through port holes. You see some fun, like the men hiking and then skiing without real skis. You see the men prayers. And this gets us to the film’s message, if any.

Gronig indulges us with quotes from their prayers, in French, German and English. It is interesting that the German and English look much more alike than either does to French. He repeats the same aphorisms many times, especially the one about being “seduced” by God, and about giving up everything for Christ. So we are left wondering if this is also Gronig’s personal message.

The men live a life of simplicity but also conformity. In one dinner scene they refer to themselves as a “family.” There is a barbering scene where the heads are cropped into monastic (rather military) buzzcuts, and one tender scene where the young monk gives an old blink monk a backrub with medicinal salve. Of course, one has to respect the religious commitment at face value. But it is inescapable that these men avoid a life of traditional male competition for lineage or some kind of individually expressive success. They lead lives of limited but very focused emotions. Devotion to God in a monastic environment, with very little consumption, at least avoids the emotions involved in meeting the real needs of people in an open society.

The film has no orchestral music soundtrack, as that was prohibited by the monks. The only music is their chanting, a cappella, on occasion.

Will this "reality film" be in line for best documentary for the 2007 Oscars?