Tuesday, July 31, 2007

On the Lot 5 finalists; film in a school literacy program; babies in Hollywood; remember PGL

On The Lot, July 31: Andrew Hunt was sent home. Zach learned that the vote was very close, and that, despite his amazing run of hits, he had almost been “it.” Jerry O’Connell played in the film for the director with the most votes, which this week was Jason. The guest judges were Gary Ross, and Penny Marshall, Garry’s sister, who sounded like him.

This week the these was Cars. (No, I haven’t seen the animated feature.) Films with a lot of visual activity (as do these) will employ technical devices, like "time jumps" that speed the story up, that I personally don't know how to edit, but they probably fall outside the more familiar issues of cinematic storytelling.

Driving Under the Influence (Adam Stein) has a car radio that makes drivers or people near by do things. Total manipulation. It’s good if you can make a cop who pulls you over do a number from “Hairspray.” I thought this film needed Nikki Blonsky (as a police officer).

Backseat Driving Test
(Sam Friedlander). I don’t think any DMV would even put your mother in law through this. It’s a bit safe to be a Passenger Side driver. Or maybe to drive a right-hand vehicle in Britain or Australia. Did anyone see Rupert Grint’s “Driving Lessons”?

The Bonus Feature Two (Zach Lipovsky). It’s ballsy to make a trademarkable franchise out of the concept that almost got you eliminated. This time the sequel works much better than the original. I’m not sure that I can think of an example in real life (not even “Open Water”). This time the car entertainment facility brings on the Pirates of the Caribbean, and all the gizmos needed to defeat them. Zach stays away from darker areas where the visual setups could take us. What makes the film work is that the relationship between the boy and girl as characters actually develops. This one has a little Jerry Bruckheimer on it. Zach's YouTube 969 Interview is here.

The Move (Jason Eperson). Jason likes to play jokes on people in trouble, sometimes out of a somewhat unusual interpretation of his own ideas about faith. Here “the movers” are basically kicking a poor soul out into the woods, but that’s never clear until the demitasse discussion afterwards. I hate moving, personally.

Road Rage 101 (Will Bigham). Will said that he has to win this contest, because he has to feed his family, and will not have the resources to continue directing as an “amateur” given the competitive demands of the real world of work on real breadwinners. Here, in an LA traffic jam worthy of “The Italian Job” (all we need is Napster and Shawn Fanning) a guy finds his car turning on him, and a motorist tries to climb through the skylight to attack him. The tempestuous, vortexed choral close of Beethoven’s Ninth saves him. The music here really works.

Next week, the four remaining directors have to work with a pre-assigned logline (winning a contest, submitted from Maine), which is: A guy wakes up in a dress, and doesn’t remember how he got that way. Good to think about. Is he in full drag (paying his masculinity as a penalty as in “The Rocky Picture Horror Show”?) Maybe somebody will have to do a Troy (like in The Apprentice). Donald Trump could be a judge.

On September 25. 2006 on this blog (see archives on the left of the Blogger page for the links) I wrote a discussion of Project Greenlight, and today, on that older entry for that date, I put a link that I found to the top winning films in the director’s contest in 2004. The contestants would do well to watch these.

Today July 31, 2007 NBC4 in Washington DC had a report “Lights, Camera, Literacy” about a summer school program in a Montgomery County, MD middle school, where grade school kids improve literacy by shooting and editing videos. One video was called “The Mysterious Noise” (reminders of Jules Verne, perhaps) and another showed kids coming out of hall lockers in unison, as in a mock short for a comic horror skit. The group was called “The Steven Spielbergs of Tomorrow”. Spielberg is one of the three founding partners of Dreamworks SKG, which underwrites “The Lot” and will offer a directorial job to the winning contestant.

There was an earlier posting May 9 on this blog about another middle school and high school filmmaking contest, with the films largely about political issues (like the military at home).

ABC World News Tonight presented a story on the use of babies in the movies. In CA, it is legal to use babies no more than fifteen years old, but a studio nurse and studio teacher must be on the set. This is a big business for agencies in LA, especially for soap operas. A part can result in $30000 or more in a trust fund for the infant’s education.

Coca Cola has a cute "short" as an ad where a junior exec is dressed and transported to work, in quick motion, to have coke in the morning at a board meeting.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

No End in Sight (in Iraq)

Netflix (Red Envelope) has paired up with Magnolia Pictures, Landmark Theaters and Mark Cuban to release a stunning documentary on the history of the war in Iraq. The film is “No End in Sight,” directed by Charles Ferguson (about 102 min, no rating given but would fit PG-13). The film's website is here.

It does start reenacting the experience of September 11, 2001 with the crash into the Pentagon (the only existing videotape). Quickly, the Bush administration tried to find a nexus between Saddam Hussein (largely secular) and Osama bin Laden (fiercely religious). Many conservative commentators predicted the same thing during that period. But fact-checking and investigation failed to find convincing evidence. Nevertheless, the Bush administration made its case to the UN, set up a time table, and invaded Iraq and quickly removed Saddam.

The administration took several steps to set up various entities to “govern” Iraq. But it failed to take the necessary police action to stop looting and lawlessness (Saddam had released prisoners just before the invasion). After a month of wholesale bedlam, no reasonable control could ever be put in place. Further blunders included disbanding the Iraqi military and some other infrastructure, denying Iraqis of income, shaming them as providers of families, and making the population easy fodder for radicals and insurgents.

Soon the spectacle of American soldiers taking horrific casualties in extended and repeat deployments in a “back door draft” started. At home, the moral debate on whether there should be a draft and congressperson’s children should be in harms way started, while at the same time, nobody was understanding the basic policy blunders in Iraq.

Civilian (and Congressional) control of the military is fundamental to American constitutional law. Yet it was not the military that was failing, it was civilian leadership which repeatedly hired overseers with no personal military service and poor knowledge of the region, language and culture. The leadership failure seemed to not so much a matter of bad intention (even if Saddam’s suspected nexus to Osama turned out to be wishful thinking) as “group think” that tends to undermine intellectual honesty. Even so, bloggers focused on national affairs in general probably did not fully understand how misguided our handling of Iraq really was; we saw problems in a global perspective, too, without paying attention to the specifics of the country.

The film is professionally made, with many stunning on location shots of daily life in Baghdad, well conducted interviews, and with a moving orchestral music score by Peter Nashel.

The theatrical release appeared in Washington DC July 27. Check Landmark Theaters for a schedule around the country. The DVD is due in early 2008 and will probably have many extras.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Simpsons Movie

The SIMPSONS Movie – 2007, from 20th Century Fox, with Homer screaming the Fox corporate trademark. (In Sunshine, released the same weekend in most theaters, Fox again plays with its trademark; see this link.) The movie-satire-of-the-movies starts out 1.85 to 1 and expands to 2.35 to 1 after Homer gets blasted back from the Moon (Thus Spake Zarathustra) and the movie proper begins. Other specifics: directed by David Silverman, written by Matt Groening and James L. Brooks. 87 min, PG-13. Fox runs commercials for its fictitious shows at one point, and has a fake intermission at about the one hour mark. This movie really does belong to Fox. Don't steal it. (A kid has to write on the board 500 times that he won't do illegal downloads.)

You’ve all heard the story. Homer plays wise-a and drives over the concrete barriers into the lake and pollutes it with uranium hexafluoride, the stuff that Saddam Hussein never bought. So President Schwarzenegger decides to dome Springfield, which adjoins four non-adjacent states. (That seems to violate the four-color problem in topology.) Homer goes on an odyssey to Alaska, collects a thousand dollars without card counting, and comes back to right his wrongs. He has a native American epiphany, where he says he only matters as a person when he recognizes that there are other people in the world besides himself. Including his son. Now Schwarzenegger is going to nuke the whole town to create a Grand Canyon II, and Homer saves it all.

Of course, big government is the villain, and taken to the cleaners. In one scene, at the NSA, a clerk cries out, "I actually located somebody." Government can do anything it wants to until American families fight back, it seems. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gets singled out as the worst offender. There is indeed an "irritating truth."

There’s plenty of idiomatic humor, where people “don’t understand things” Gracie Allen style (like the boy who can’t get over the concrete barrier, or the guy who believes literally what he is told). There is satire of the notion of "knowledge management" (maybe Jimmy Wales style) when Schwarzenegger is told something like, "it takes a real leader to make a decision when he doesn't know anything about the options." At one point, Homer makes a joke that Rupert Murdoch's ruling the entire media world, prophetic of Murdoch's acquisition of The Wall Street Journal just after the movie came out.

Now, a comedy man and coffee business expert on the Minneapolis Skyway named John always said that I look like Mr. Burns (voice of Harry Shearer), who does not figure in much except during the closing credits, when he makes a wisecrack about suicide that may I got, and maybe I didn’t. Personally, I support nuclear power. On ABC Good Morning America, on Monday Aug. 13, a woman told a story about how she almost got fired for accidentally sending an email comparing her boss to Mr. Burn (aka me) in The Simpsons.

There were a few gay jokes, and some same-sex humor. Most of the shows here in an Arlington VA AMC were selling out.

Tom Hanks appears in a caricature of himself, and he says, in the end credits, "If you see me in public, leave me alone." I don't take pictures of celebrities in bars. But other people do.

Picture: The coffin kick mugshot of Mr. Burns

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Comedy Club on the Lot

Well, we’re down to six directors On the Lot. Kenny and Mateen went home. This week the guest judge is Brad Silberling.

Bonus Feature, by Zach Lipovsky. Zach explained a bit about the green screen. In the movie, a young couple rents or buys a car with a super GPS and playstation device. Well, you shouldn’t watch movies while driving. But maybe if the device takes you on a Zathura like trip to other dimensions you can. One shot was in black and white, and we got to see a bit of Grendel from Beowulf. There was a line about “Adventures in the Sun” and “Where we’re going we don’t need bathing suits.” Somehow, this film seemed like an exercise to challenge opposing teams on Donald Trump’s next “Apprentice LA” (and get somebody fired.) Zipovsky is best when he is in the sweet Stephen King parody (as the week before). He probably knows the 1986 thriller about special effects, F/X (Orion, Robert Mandel). (By the way, Garry Marshall once suggested a name change for him, which was not appropriate. His name, as is, could well become a brand.)

Girl Trouble, by Adam Stein. Two guys compare notes on getting laid, like new college roommates would. Then they’ll meet their “girl friends.” Besides the side tour to the petals of American Beauty, trouble is one of the dates has shaggy legs, tearing up the hose (like in The Graduate). There’s a line that making girls shave their legs is a social convention that doesn’t matter biologically. After all, in hazing sessions (like the Tribunals in my book -- here) "they" shave the boys’ legs. Well, it’s time for a payoff, and the other guy has to show his date, too. And there is some gender bending. This is not exactly gay marriage, but it would scare Richard Santorum.

Unplugged, by Will Bigham. This is a takeoff on Pixar, where lamps in a work cubicle come to life. One problem is that the work world is no longer 9 to 5 (as in the famous comedy).

Keep of Grass, by Andrew Hunt. Perhaps a tribute to both The Incredibles and Heroes, some of the latter arrive comic book style, unnoticed by a gardener, and mess up the lawn, especially when getting a call for a transformer explosion somewhere. Even the gnome (as in Marc Horowitz’s Nissan commercial) gets ruffled. This film bears a little similarity to the "Brian the Gnome Slayer" series, discussed here. The Marc Horowitz short is discussed on Oct 31 2006 on this blog.

American Hoe, by Sam Friedlander. There is a homely couple in a living room, planning their wedding, which men aren’t good at. The guy has bought stamps to mail the invitations, that show making a cow, and apparently a slave raking a field – an “American Hoe.” Apparently Hubby didn’t know about Imus.

Old Home Boyz
, by Jason Epperson. This is a bit of a hip-hop reunion with Jason appearing in various ways (embedded) that the critics picked up more on than I did. Again, this seemed like material for “The Apprentice.”

If you want to do comedy club, invite Shia La Beouf (who now has grown up things to do) and Jon Heder.

Monday, July 23, 2007

CNN YouTube 2008 Democratic candidates debate -- a chance for novice filmmakers?

On Monday, July 23, 2007 CNN held the YouTube debate of the eight 2008 Democratic presidential candidates, at The Citadel in Charleston, SC. I put this event on the movies blog because it is an example of “amateur” filmmaking getting aired. Over 2000 video questions for the candidates were submitted to CNN. About 25 were selected. I did not submit one, although I may do so for the Republican candidates, maybe a question about “don’t ask don’t tell.” No particular reason, I just wasn’t quite ready to resume my own moviemaking. It would be a good legal question who “owns” these videos for distribution – is it the creator, or Time Warner (Warner Bros.), owning CNN?

There was a technical issue with showing the videos. CNN showed a framed image of the video, with the (Quicktime) time bar below. It would have been more professional to fill the television screen (or at least crop it to 1.66 to 1) and let the audience experience each clip as a “film”, the way it would be shown “On the Lot.”

Most of the move clever films were not selected. Anderson Cooper, as the host, explained that some filmmakers used their kids to pose “adult” questions. Some of them overdid the costumes. One video reminded the viewer that Arnold Schwarzenegger had been the Terminator, a redundant point in asking a question about nuclear weapons.

A one-minute film was shown for each candidate.

The very first video, from Portland OR, simply asked if the candidates would answer the questions asked. That’s what our tenth grade biology teacher always said on tests – “answer the question asked.” The last one, from Colorado, was funny, too: it asked each candidate to say one good thing and one bad thing about the candidate on the left, until they got to Dennis Kucinich, who had no one on the left (pun) except Anderson Cooper himself – suggesting that Anderson run for president himself. Maybe that’s a good idea.

There was a question about a female president, and an African American president. There was also a question whether Al Gore would run after all – that is, “An Inconvenient Truth” is one big YouTube movie from Paramount Vantage.

Most of the videos were simple – people just speaking. Mary and Jean, from Brooklyn NY, asked if they should be allowed to marry. Most of the candidates supported full legal rights for same-sex couples without using the word “marriage.” The candidates also reiterated their promises to try to repeal the military’s “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays.

A few videos with some "filmmaking" were included. A video from Minneapolis with a snowman speaking posed a question about global warming, and part of the answer was that coal gasification would no longer be an adequate answer to energy questions because it involved carbon emissions.

Of course, there were many questions about getting out of Iraq, and a lot of quibbling.

One questioner pointed out that, if the social security tax was on all wages, the Trust Fund could be solvent for 75 years.

Several questions about health care were shown in sequence. One filmmaker explained the demographic crisis coming with Alzheimer’s Disease (although nobody touched the upcoming third rail – filial responsibility laws), another talked about diabetes as responsible for 1/3 of Medicare expenses (that sounds exaggerated), and one filmmaker took off her wig to show the alopecia of chemotherapy for cancer that could have been caught sooner by screenings if she could have afforded adequate health insurance. All the candidates repeated that there is no excuse for the United States not having the political will to have universal health insurance (Barack Obama’s plan is not quite ready for the Universal Pictures Valkyries Global trademark).

There was one filmmaker who submitted a question about gun control, and showed an assault rifle that he called his “baby.” Joe Biden suggested that the video suggested that the filmmaker was not qualified to own a gun.

Here is the link to the debate transcript.

Update: July 27, 2007

"Eric Alva -- Gay Marine -- Press Conference"

An important YouTube entry concerns Iraq Marine war veteran, the first Marine to be seriously wounded in Iraq in 2003. The YouTube link of his testimony in Congress -- that is, a press conference in 2005 introducing the Military Readiness Enhancement Act that would lift "don't ask don't tell" with respect to gays in the military, is here:

Update: On Aug. 7, the AFL-CIO sponsored a debate of the Democratic candidates in Chicago. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had a heated exchange of Pakistan.

Picture: VMI (Virginia Military Institute) in Lexington, VA

Los Angeles Pitch Festival -- deja vu

In August, 2006 I went to a Sunset Script conference here in Washington (blog entry on Sept 13 here). The last part of the conference consisted on working on and presenting pitches to representatives from several production companies. The link is here, look for Wed. Sept. 13.

Today, Monday, July 23, 2007, in The New York Times, Arts Section p B1 in print version. David M. Halbfinger has a story “Hollywood Hopefuls (Dream On) At Pitchfest”, here (may require visitor registration and purchase) about the 11th Annual Hollywood Pitch Festival in Los Angeles, where about 200 writers paid $395 a piece for an opportunity to present an “on the lot round one” style pitch for an original story idea.

There is always a tendency for studio executives to claim that the need obvious hooks, conflicts, and the fabled “Three Part Structure” of a beginning, middle and end. (Remember, the first task "On the Lot" was a pitch, but from one of five possible assigned loglines.) There is a tendency for many ideas to seem like manipulations, even though they sometimes actually work when made. The film I talked about in the last blog (“Chuck and Larry”), a big budget production from Universal with big stars (Adam Sandler, who was reportedly at the pitch, as was Leonardo Di Caprio), sounds like a “setup” but it actually worked much better than I expected. There is also a tendency for very intriguing films, often appearing in the independent market, to break all the rules and still work. A British Lion film from 1944 that I rented and watched yesterday, “A Canterbury Tale” (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) was like that. It was all over the map with a loose, open-ended “road trip” (“Pilgrims Way”) story, yet the abstract dreamlike mood it created by mashing World War II with ideas of interpersonal synergy from Chaucer’s poetry produced a fascinating end product. They don’t make that many films like this any more. A good college freshman English theme assignment would be to write a pitch for that movie. Another good exercise is how to pitch the New Line hit musical "Hairspray," (Adam Shankman) a remake musical about desegregation (in 1962 Baltimore) that is really funny and seemed to have a good opening. (By accident, this film also made an indirect statement about same-sex marriage. And don't forget Stanley Donen, Fox, Staircase, in 1969.)

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Independent film takes on gay marriage, whereas big studios gag (pun intended)

The independent film market has certainly taken note of the gay marriage debate, although one might have seen even more activity and on a larger scale by now.

One of the more important films is “Tying the Knot” (2004, distributed by Roadside Attractions, Docudrama dir. Jim de Seve, 87 min). The DVD, full screen, gives some history of attempts to gain recognition back to the early 1970s (when George McGovern had to answer questions in the 1972 campaign) and points out some of the most serious problems today, as when blood relatives try to sunder a will after one partner dies, or when (as in Tampa FL) the female spouse of a female police officer cannot get pension benefits. The pension situation, as it played out in Ocean County, NJ, also was the subject of a 40-minute docudrama Freeheld, dir. by Cynthia Wade. The de Seve film is accompanied by informative panel discussions at both Newfest and the NYC Tribeca Film Festival. He says that the film cost $400,000 to make. It also has a short “Boston May 24, 2004” about the judiciary “victory” in Massachusetts, the first state to formally recognize gay marriage.

A smaller film is “I Can’t Marry You” (2004, F.Y.I. Productions, dir. Catherine Gray), which advances many of the same arguments on both sides. The film presents two charismatic teenage boys raised by a lesbian couple.

Another documentary film to come soon is “Saving Marriage,” dir. John Henning and Mike Roth. Or Garriage (Brett Ryan Bonowicz) about the views of college students. These do not yet show on Netflix.

Yet, in big budget form, Hollywood seems a bit cynical. Tomorrow, “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" (Universal, dir. Dennis Dugan) has straight men (Adam Sandler and Kevin James) in the NYFD forming a pseudo-civil-union for benefits. This is the conservatives’ pseudo-nightmare. When you worry about rights, they say, this is what you may get. (I saw it July 22.) But actually the film twists and turns on the gay marriage arguments several times, with some good old opera buffet like humor, especially in the "courtroom drama" at the end. Lance Bass makes a singing appearance.
Quick Announcement:

Paramount will release the new Beowulf, in Imax 3-D and Digital 3-D, in November 2007. The director is Robert Zemeckis (Cast Away (2000))and the writers are Neil Gaimand and Roger Avary.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

On the Lot: Camera! Action! It's a Buy!

On the Lot: July 17, 2007: Action! Cut! It’s a Buy! (The script goes something like that.)

Tonight, Adrianna Costa started by announcing the eliminations, as usual, of directors. This time it was a double elimination, of Shalini and Hilary.

As I noted in the TV blog, I once worked as a boom operator on a soap opera set, and when a scene is accepted, “it’s a buy!”

This contest seems to be very “masculine” in nature and has been hard on the female directors. Films that appeal to women are a huge part of the market, especially in independent film. Yes, I can imagine work like “Marie Antoinette” (Sofia Coppola) from these directors. But women have directed major action movies, like the futurist “mind-reading” Y2K cliffhanger “Strange Days” (1995, 20th Century Fox) from Kathryn Bigelow (written by James Cameron, with Ralph Fiennes as the voyeur Lenny Nero), a film that I had to return to see because the reel broke at the most climactic moment.

So tonight, what did we have? A lot of work that follows the paradigm: there has to be a concept that engages the viewer, even if it would be meaningless in real life. But all of these films meant something.

Key Witness (Sam Friedlander, “the Tall Man”) has a chase through tenements with a swallowed key, giving the stint a double meaning. There was so much activity that the totality might have seemed a bit perfunctory. The audience liked it, and booed Carrie’s criticism. Of course, you can have a lot of threads of action in a story and make it all work; suspense authors do it all the time. The movie reminded me of the excessive “threads” in my own novel, something I ponder with comments from a literary agent. (No, Sam isn’t Billy the Kid.) This film does echo a Mountain Dew commercial in which Chuck Norris appears.

Sweet (Jason Epperson) gives us the marital pampering that would please Maggie Gallagher. On wedding day, hubby notices the calendar 15 minutes before his wife is due home. He goes on a wild chase (bouncing from being hit by a car, dodging a bank robbery) to pick up the flowers. His wife comes home, and she forgot, too.

Zero2Sixty (Andrew Hunt). FBI agents enlist a car salesman to help catch a car thief, when the salesman wants to just run the credit check. The salesman becomes the hero, of course.

The Losers (Kenny Luby) Like filmmaker Shane Nelson in Minneapolis, Kenny went for the extreme sports idea, in fact, the old favorite, skateboarding. Kenny actual played cameraman and did a little skating himself. The actual story punch threw me, except that it redeems the father and son bond, I think. One thing that is original is combining extreme sports with humor and comedy. The Dogtown movies from Sony didn’t do this. I wonder what Kenny would do with the services of Shaun White in the cast – and Shaun obviously has the presence for movies (First Descent, and even his American Express ad). White, known for snowboarding, recently competed in a Venice CA skateboarding championship on one of the sports channels.

Catch (Mateen Kamet) is a nice, twisty smash-and-grab job sting in the Bronx, with the Po-Lice at the end, and all the way through. You expected to see the Rat Pack.

These movies all used professional stunt men from major studios and unions.

It’s worth noting that all of the contestants in the Lot series are very composed and professional on the show, and all are capable of representing to the public the capabilities of “show business” well. You know the song – “there’s no business like…” And there are no people like show people. This show tonight was broadcast live. There was one accidental shot of Adrianna that shouldn't have been made.

AMC Theaters have been showing a Verizon Wireless short (oddly in full 2.35:1) "On the Lot" including a one minute skit with a director trying to make a contest film, where one of the actors says, "You need to hire a new writer." That's an interesting view of screenwriters.

While on the topic of short films, it’s worth noting two Pixar films.

Ratatouille (2007) is accompanied by the short Lifted (2006, 6 min, dir. Gary Rydstrom) in which aliens try to abduct a little boy from a house but wind up with the house sans garcon. Had shades of Whitley Strieber’s Communion.

The rerelease in 2006 of The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) was accompanied by Sunny (dir. unknown) which was like a kid’s rendition of the Seven Wonders of the World (which was a Cinerama film in the 1950s).

CBS 60 Minutes (on July 22) aired a commercial attributed to Consumer Freedom and Rick Berman, in which the "Food Police" constantly grab unhealthful food away from people. It was a good comical 90 second short, and could have worked in a director's competition.

Don’t confuse with the upcoming sci-fi Sunshine (2007, Danny Boyle) or the 1999 German film Sunshine from Istvan Szabo, about three generations of a European Jewish family. We covered a lot of ground tonight.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Manufactured Landscapes: another Inconvenient Truth

While we wait for Leonardo Di Caprio’s “Eleventh Hour” as a kind of “Inconvenient Truth KK” we can see the Canadian film Manufactured Landscapes, distributed by Zeitgeist, from Foundry Films and the Film Board of Canada, 90 min, directed by Jennifer Baichwal, filmed by photographer Edward Burtynsky.

The film opens with a pan and scan from one end of an enormous shop floor in China, emphasizing the blue of the parts and yellow of the uniforms. There must be over 100 lines of proles working on assembling what seem to be auto electrical parts and circuit breakers. You want the film to be shot 2.35 to 1, but it is the standard 1.85 to 1.

A litany of landscapes made by industry follows, with some stunning shots of open pit mines, the endless landfills, coal slags, shipyards, and even high rise buildings (including the holdout against eminent domain in Chongqing). Most of the shots are in China, but some are in coastal Bangladesh. Politically the movie seems focused mostly on two problems: our willingness to buy products made by robot-like regimented labor consisting of repetitive tasks – and the visuals of the tedium of the work are stunning, down to the assembly of circuit breakers—and the sundering of huge areas of land in the third world with exported toxic waste, which pour people rummage through looking for things to recycle. It would be easy to moralize, and extrapolate a Gore-like message. It would be hard to believe that this can go on forever.

Artistically, the manufactured landscape concept is broader. A model railroad or a theme park is, after all, a manufactured scape.

I’ve seen may share of them. I was almost arrested for trespassing in 1971 while photographing in a strip mine in West Virginia. Today, man of the “mountaintop removal” mines are actually often harder to see from the road and hidden from sight. I visited the Anaconda Copper mine in Montana, the iron ranges in Minnesota, and even the asbestos mines in Quebec. They all look overwhelming in person. And we wonder if the western part of Appalachia will just turn into the Midwest.

Many of the shots are based on photographs in a museum and collapse into the photographs. This material would certainly augment the global warming exhibit at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Harry Potter and other geekolators

Major media sources report that theaters took in about $12 million for their 12.01 AM screenings of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” on Wednesday, July 11, 2007. As I write this, I note that imdb has just added “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” for 2008 release.

The local Regal Cinemas multiplex offered such a show, which I skipped, but then offered multiple showings starting at 9 AM Wednesday, too. I went when it opened, and found that the first showing in a large auditorium (I think with DLP projection) would not be until 10 AM. This is a huge, curved screen. Now I think theaters should identify on their websites which performances are on larger screens. So I saw it at 10 AM. The 1000 seat auditorium was about 40% full (in Arlington VA), mostly with kids out of school. Plenty of parents, too.

Daniel Radcliffe is listed as 5 ft 6 in in imdb, and I noticed in the film that he was shorter than most of his (male, at least) friends, especially when compared to best friend Rupert Grint. This may have created some lighting and technical issues for the director (David Yates). The World Book Encyclopedia in 1950 writes “The English people vary greatly in their physical makeup” and the variations are totally random, because of the historical mixing (well before today’s immigration). The same is true of Spain. It’s really noticeable in the Potter films.

Radcliffe gave an interview on Larry King Live July 11. He would have needed to become Clark Kent to make all of the appearance (New York in the morning, L.A. at night). He said, that, unlike many other Brits in the movie business, he thinks London will always be his home. (British horror writer and philosopher-filmmaker Clive Barker moved to LA after finishing the novel “Imajica” in 1991.) Any place else is unthinkable. He said that the first two Potter films were almost made in LA, and that would have been unthinkable. This series is a British phenomenon, and will eventually find its way into 12th grade English literature courses.

Radcliffe sounded a little nervous on LKL, and spoke with a heavy working class accent, rather like Michael Caine (or perhaps Kevin Bishop or James McAvoy, who sound almost unintelligible when interviewed, although they can act American roles with no accent). They talked a bit about his stage career on Equus (link) which has attracted some curious controversy. Radcliffe also mentioned Brokeback Mountain, and the fact that Heath Ledger had to play a character both younger and then much older. (No, he didn’t mention Cold Mountain – “I can embroider but I can’t darn!”) Radcliffe's best line in the latest HP movies is simply "I'm not weak!" That ends a confrontation with Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) where Potter questions his own character and darker side and wonders if he could turn "bad." In a subsequent interview on Today, Radcliffe insisted that this is a very important theme from all of the books and movies.

Radcliffe has become known as Britain’s wealthiest teen. Not sure how his wealth compares with the Two Princes, but it seems like he could have co-hosted the Live Earth concert, or shared the stage with the Two Princes in the “young people’s” Princess Di concert. The latest Potter movie was not, for me, quite as visually compelling as the previous one. There was a first screen kiss, but no flame colored blue with vanadium ions, no underwater swimming or bathtub scene, and no Quidditch stadium, which Wembley so much resembles. In fact, no Wimbledon upsets. The "leather" shot of Radcliffe on p 135 of the August 2007 "Details" is bound to be noticed.

I suspect that Grint isn’t doing too badly (People Mag. also included Grint among the richest teens), either, and he may, as a young adult, look more (than Radcliffe) the part of the super-geek for future techno-thriller movies. (Although one can also imagine snowsurfer Shaun White.) It’s interesting that skinny Justin Long, as the “good guy hacker” Matt makes the whole movie “Live Free and Die Hard” (20th Century Fox) work, as he really becomes a new kind of hero. Even everyman Hi-ya Shia La Beouf, so effective as “civilian boy carrying a cube” in “Transformers” (Dreamworks/Paramount) could have rescued the latest Bruce Willis movie, but Long was perfect for the part, and pulls the whole experience off. The other geek to watch in the movies is probably going to be “Days of our Lives” Gatsby-Nick-likeness Blake Berris.

One other thing—Warner Brothers left off its wonderful Casablanca “piano concerto” musical trademark (with the picture of its lot) in the Potter movies, as did Dreamworks in Transformers. The presentation seems much more professional to me if the studio uses its full trademark, always, without exception. (I’m surprised the studio lawyers don’t insist on this.) The best trademark in the business now belongs to Lions Gate, with its picture of the real Lions Gate in Greece and the musical climax.

As for the UK, I was last there in May 2001; I'd love it there, and I hope to visit again relatively soon.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Shell film: Eureka. Will corporate film get into the documentary festivals?

Today I found a “freebie for CM” (Chickenman, as I was called in the Army back in 1969), a DVD from Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company. I’m not sure if it was part of the National Geographic Magazine or was sent to me to review as a “film” because of my movie blogs. So here goes. The film is called “Eureka”, from Shell Films, in Dutch with English subtitles, 9 min long. (Dutch is close to English -- sounding like a mixture of English and German -- almost to the point that one can manage without the subtitles). It is accompanied by a 5 minute documentary about making the film, the documentary called “Making Oil.”

The idea was to make a real short, suitable for a documentary film festival (but it didn’t show up at the AFI festival as far as I know). It is the story of a Dutch oil engineer, Jaap (Marcel Faber), working in Southeast Asia (the country is unnamed, but there is one city scene that looks like Kuala Lumpur, so I assume the country is Malaysia). The countryside rather looks like that in Leonardo di Caprio’s 2000 “The Tempest” derived flick, The Beach. He is flying over the underwater oil field with a female Asian coworker, wondering how to drill enough wells without destroying the environment. The coworker suggests a timeout for him to think. The gets a cell phone call from his teenage son, Max.

Cut to Amsterdam, we he visits Max, who looks ready for a course of acutane, in a park on the canals. They order a milkshake, served in a jar that looks like a bong from the “coffeeshops.” (I was in one of them in 1999 and wasn’t that interested; the aroma is very sweet. I’ll add that I visited a disco called the Soho there, and was quite entertained by the bar cat, who would sit in patron’s laps in the lounge. I also went to the science museum and saw a curious film about pollination made in Montpelier, France, to music of Maurice Ravel – and not just Bolero). The teenager bends his straw to get the last bit of viscous shake out of the bong well, and that is how Jaap gets his idea for a snake well off Malaysia. (Yes, credit the permissive culture in the Netherlands to a major engineering discovery.)

This is a good short, with a beginning, middle and end. Let the directors On the Lot see it!

There is a coordinated review of the films "A Crude Awakening" and "The Epic of Black Gold" at this link (follow other links).

This film has no connection to the sci-fi TV series “Eureka”.

Here are the links: Shell
URL for film.

(Regarding the upcoming film “The Simpsons” (20th Century Fox, dir. David Silverman, due July 27). On the all-star pre-show tonight they referred to “the only man older than Mr. Burns”. People say I look like Mr. Burns. And I approve of nuclear energy.)

See International Issues blog, Aug. 15, 2008, for email about Nigerian situation.

Monday, July 09, 2007

When Worlds Collide on the Lot

When Worlds Collide. Such was the theme of tonight’s viewing On the Lot, with Luke Greenfield as guest critic. Shira was sent home from last week. The filmmakers got to use a major lot at Universal Studios.

All of the films tonight were sort of fairy tale-Twilight Zone like. Once when I was substitute teaching, high school students had to write a fairy tale in class. One of them started “Once upon a time there lived a banana.” I hope I haven’t given away kid’s logline (or tagline) today (studios return loglines unopened unless they come from an agent), but that story would have made a great animated short. Who knows, maybe it will show up “On the Lot” at Dreamworks Animation some day.

Time Upon a Once, by Zach Lipovsky. This film made me think of the honors English kid’s punch line, and the mood was rather similar. Here Zach creates humor and irony with time as a dimension, wound up as in string theory. A couple moves into a new network neighborhood (Oh, this could be Tron, the 1979 Disney film), and during the move-in, time plays some tricks. Some things happen in reverse. Zach had to get the actors to act the scenes in reverse. It’s a good way to accept the neighbors, even in a creepy place like The Colony (a mid 1990s horror film about a gated neighborhood). This film is all sweetness (Camille Saint-Saens ‘s “Carnival of the Animals” plays in the background -- remember that the last movement of Paul Hindemith's Horn Concerto, played by Dennis Brain, is a palindrome, the same played forward or backward), yet it has that touch of Stephen King in it. I remember walking home from middle school with friends one time as we joked about what it would be like to live backwards.

The Legend of Donkey-Tail Willie, by Hilary Graham. A guy is born with a tail, and that cuts down his romantic prospects. Maybe there’s somebody for everybody. It’s like saying somebody won’t get married because he has too much body hair, or no hair. There are some weird ideas off the sidelines, like a woman who just morphs into someone else because she doesn’t accept herself as she is. The edges of the film were cropped or blurred for effect, and that didn’t work for me.

Spaghetti, by Will Bigham. A couple gets lost off Interstate 5 (I think) and winds up on a Hollywood set, and the guy has a face-off with a High Noon like character from the Dollars movies. The movie was shot full 2.35 to 1, but didn’t make good use of the extra space.

First Sight, by Shalini Kantayya. A girl is moseying through a set, fending off aggressive panhandlers. A stranger gives her a pair of glasses that makes her see herself and others in a new light. When she sees a reflection of herself, there is a hint of the Picture of Dorian Gray. Carrie Fisher said afterward she didn’t like being hit with a moral lesson, but this film hits on the basic moral questions about sharing in all three monotheistic faiths. For me it worked, and in these days we need this.

Worldly Possessions, by Adam Stein. A couple in a southern town gets a mysterious package from the government (as in one of the loglines in the pitching session in the first show), from Andrews Air Force Base in Prince George, MD (actually the real place is Prince Georges County, MD). They open it and find a topographical globe, just like one that I have. They take a viewer and look at it closely, and it becomes a Google Earth map. They try experiments, and pennies from heaven fall out of the sky. Their greed will destroy them. Curiously, this film complements the previous in terms of morality, even though the directors worked and thought independently.

Picture: This topographical globe, similar to that in Stein's film, came from a junkyard in Coney Island (Brooklyn) in 1995, not too far from the Seaside Courts on the Boardwalk, where people play paddleball. Maybe that's a good area for filmmaking.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

On the Lot: 6 contestant horror films

Tonight, Eli Roth (Hostel I and II) was guest director On the Lot as the contestants presented six horror films.

The Malibu Myth, dir. Kenneth Luby, has amateur journalists (maybe bloggers) going into Malibu Canyon to “investigate” some Manson-like killings. The find a victim, and become cannon fodder for the vampire-ghouls quickly. The young man’s hairy leg seems to present an attractive Achilles heel. There’s a touch of Blair Witch, though in full color.

Anklebiters, dir. Sam Friedlander, as a mother putting a little boy, afraid of nightmares, to bed. Pretty soon there is something under the sheets, and it seems that puppets can become carnivorous. Again, his legs are damaged for life (maybe amputated), long before he could be a teenager, and the police come to investigate. It’s no surprise that the cop makes an easy next mark. These puppets are like piranha for the bodily damage they can do. The concept is particularly gruesome.

Midnight Snack, dir. Andrew Hunt. A woman awakens in a Minnesota thunderstorm, and goes to the kitchen for a snack, and sits down to look for the remote for the TV. The power stays on. But she is living with people she knows and accepts to be ghouls.

Eternal Waters, dir. Jason Epperson. The director says he recruited twins in order to have a boy lay in a casket filled with water. A mother loses a son in a swimming pool accident, and then awakens at night to an intruder, who may or may not be real, as she still has visitations from the son.

Open House, dir. Shira-Lee Shalit. A couple with a very pregnant wife visits a real estate open house. They get a name for the unborn son, and a warning as to what would happen to him in the house.

Profile, dir. Mateen Kemet. An African American is stopped by cops, and imagines what could happen (all the way to the waterboarding) if the cop is white.

Also tonight, HBO presented a 15-minute short from New Wave Films and Warner Bros., “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: HBO First Look” with a lot of discussion of the film by Daniel Radcliffe and other cast members. The order is like a secret society. There are a lot of classroom scenes in the documentary, which deals with the role of a teacher of high-school aged kids with special gifts.

Also, today I saw "Hi-ya" Shia La Beouf as the Everyman teenager in Michael Bay 's Transformers (Dreamworks, Paramount) review here; there was a delicious commercial short from American Express "Ready to Travel" showing a most energetic Shaun White, hopskotching the globe on a snowboard (he was also in a skateboarding tourney on NBC recently). But the commercial is a "real" short film.

Latest scoop is that Ben Affleck is directing his first film, "Gone Baby Gone", which he cowrote with Aaron Stockard based on a novel by Dennis Lahane, due from Miramax by the end of 2007. His brother Casey stars, along with Morgan Freeman.