Friday, August 31, 2007

Chalk: grainy indie film on teaching in high school

Chalk (2006, directed by Mike Akel, Written with Chris Maas, distributed by Virgil, Hart Sharpe and Morgan Spurlock Presents, 85 min, PG-13) is making rounds at indie theaters as school starts. A comedy docudrama about four public school teachers and administrators, is starts out by telling us that 30% of all new teachers quit within the first three years. It proceeds to present teaching not as a job but as a wholly consuming life that forces teachers into confrontations with one another that make them seem like “The Kids,” a life that may watch The Outside World go by. It is filmed in Austin, TX and spread out over a school year, counting days to Thanksgiving, Christmas, Spring Break and Summer.

The film is shot in digital video, seemingly with handheld cameras, in a style that looks like Dogme. I saw it at a Landmark Theater in Washington DC in a large auditorium, filled mostly with young teachers and some high school students, hopefully not the kind to get senioritis this year. The digital projection did not fill the normal screen, but cropped the 1.85 to 1 image on an area normally used just in 1.33 to 1.

The most important character is the first year history teacher, Andrew Lowrey (Troy Schremmer), a laid-off and recently divorced computer engineer, still youthful, thirtyish. He stammers and improvises in front of the class and staggers through the year with classroom management issues. Another history teacher Mr. Stroope (Maas) lives through the idea of becoming teacher of the year but is intimidated by a sassy student who knows more than he does. Soon Lowrey has that problem with a student who challenges him over cell phone discipline. Coach Webb (Janelle Schremmer, presumably Troy’s wife) teaches co-ed PE and says that the idea that most PE teachers are gay (especially that most female PE teachers are lesbians) is a myth, distantly relevant, I think, to the gays in the military debate; Webb actually fantasies a heterosexual fling with Lowrey in alter-light.) Mrs. Reddell (Shannon Haragan) has recently become ans AP – and we learn that doesn’t mean Advanced Placement, but Assistant Principal. Webb has a lot of people problems, and wanting to enforce IPR hall monitor rules is a real hangup.

This rondo-form film advances into some amusing episodes, such as the "spelling hornet" with teachers as contestants spelling kids' slang (Mr. Lowrey wins, as evidence of his socialization as a teacher), and then the home visit of Lowrey to one of the (female) parents, who gives him pointers on eye contact and personal charisma, a strangely humiliating encounter. There are some other telling scenes that really deal with school issues, such as a discussion about preparing and turning in lesson plans (that's what substitutes depend on) a week before they are taught, and even a discussion about teacher "integrity."

Then there are The Kids. They do not look appealing in this film. The film shows many of them as obese, unkempt, and indifferent at best. (Even the skateboarders don't look that good.) In fact, from my experience in schools, this seems to conform to overblown media stereotypes. Many, even most, kids in high school look and perform just fine, and recreate the same memorable experience of my own high school years. (High School Musical(s) actually come closer to reality; both Zac Efron and (Texan) Jared Padalecki (Supernatural) were good students in high school). In AP and honors classes, usually students are ready to go to work; they know what the stakes are. In regular classes, though—more like what Lowrey faces--students tend not to have a clue. Once, in a history class, students were supposed to write reports on current events, and they wound up cutting up Washington Post stories on Saudi Arabia and the oil supply and throwing paper airplanes. They hadn’t a clue to what was going on 8000 miles away and what it could mean for their lives in a few years.

As for the name of the film, most classrooms today have white boards with colored dry markers. But it’s easy to mistakenly use a non-erasable “wet marker” when subbing.

The film reinforces my impression as a sub, that the public school world is somewhat of a closed society, that does not fully pick up what is going on around it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Leonardo Di Caprio's "The 11th Hour"

Well, Leonardo Di Caprio has become a man. At 32, his forehead even looks furrowed. And in producing and narrating this film, The 11th Hour (2007, Warner Independent Pictures, dir. Nadia Conners, Leila Conners Petersen), he seems to be trying to live out the positive karma of the artist character Jack Dawson, who sacrifices himself in the water for Rose Bukater (Kate Winslet) after the sinking of the Titanic (1997, Paramount, dir. James Horner), who, according to the script, will go on to have babies. As an actor leading toward activism, he had given a clue with his performance in Blood Diamond (Warner Bros.). Another actor who comes to mind with reports of political activism is Josh Hartnett, and one could add Brad Pitt.

One note about the theatrical release. In Washington DC, it is showing at only one theater this week, the AMC Dupont Circle 5, in a small auditorium. When I saw it tonight there were only six people in the audience. I don't know why the audience isn't bigger, and why it wasn't shown at a better property (the Georgetown).

The obvious comparison of this treatment of global warming would be to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2005, Paramount Classics), with its college lecture style and overwhelming scientific statistics. Di Caprio had, in fact, participated in producing a Canadian TV documentary The Great Warming, which had a brief theatrical run in abbreviated form. Di Caprio has also offered free a couple of shorts he made himself on the Internet: “Global Warming” and “Water Planet”. The style is one of quick images (some of the photography is 16 mm and grainy), a bit in the style of Koyaanisqatsai (“Life out of Balance”) (1982). Di Caprio often stands and talks, as do many experts, who give rather alarming warmings. The most disturbing of all may be Stephen Hawking claiming that Earth could have an explosive runaway greenhouse effect as did Venus, possibly less than a billion years ago (maybe Venus had a civilization), but 2/3 as far from the Sun. Other experts claim that life will go on, but that Man could become extinct, since most species have gone extinct and Man’s history is a blip on the scale of geologic time.

But what sets this film apart from the others on this topic is its moral sweep, which it disguises as a matter of "culture". It is much more concerned with philosophy, and is a bit sketchy as to details. There is a paradigm that is all encompassing, across several ideologies. It points out that Nature offers mankind free, through photosynthesis and biology, a mechanism that would cost, in hundreds of trillions of dollars, several times the gross output of all of the world’s economies. Of course, one can cast this in religious terms (God, Jehovah, or Allah). But the legal system recognizes only “people” (or parties – that is, corporations as persons) and “property.” Nature is “property.” Even in a libertarian construct, it has no rights.

This worked fine until a bit over a century ago, with the Industrial Revolution. Before that, man lived off of “current sunlight.” Once man learned how to get “past” energy from fossil fuels, he could put more carbon into the atmosphere and, besides obvious pollution issues (which have often gotten better in recent decades) eventually cause the planet to warm with greenhouse gases.

The political viewpoint in the movie does start with the typical liberal concern with the behavior or corporations, but then it remarks on the deficiency of a legal system (in the industrialized west) that does not give rights to “Nature.” Yup, that charge is levied against liberal democratic capitalism which we all love and which can bring out the best in many of us as individuals (and which we are trying to export to the Middle East). But if you worry about “Nature” carelessly, you can sound like Aquinas, and pretty soon you will say that a lot of personal behaviors are against “Nature.” (Just ask Andrew Sullivan to analyze “prohibitionism” again.

Now, to give the film due credit, this is where they do give some hints as to how Nature can help us out. Indeed, in our industrial processes, we ought to learn how biological processes work so well. One example is how spiders spin silk, without heat or toxins; another is how fungi dispose of heavy metals. (Fungi are said to be the link between the living and non-living worlds.) Ultimately, the movie does propose the hydrogen fuel cell car, whose practicability has been controversial.

The movie, however, hits a sensitive nerve ending when it talks about the media, as a source of most information for ordinary people, especially young people, in a globalization context. Yes, this blog and my other books and websites are part of this global media. It mentions that people no longer depend on their families for most of their information. Now that has a trickster meaning: some of the meaning of marriage (and the intimacy that needs to be sustained lifetime in a faithful marriage) is lost, in order to give individuals more opportunities to define themselves relative to an entire world. That’s very good for someone “different” like me, who benefits from globalization. But it also makes someone like me dependent on the hidden plunder of others, as well as their exploited labor (the more common left wing argument). That brings this whole discussion away from the behavior of corporations to one of the proper context for the freedom of the individual, in a world that recognizes it has little time left (it is 11:59:59 PM) to ward off global catastrophe. The movie ventures to suggest a carbon tax or consumption tax, to replace much of our income taxes (generally an idea that appeals to conservatives, but that would hurt the poor, wouldn’t it?) I wonder if we have to take the discussion out of just economics (persons and property, factored down to fiat money as a least common denominator) into something more nebulous than even personal carbon footprints: karma. (Actually, mystics said the concept is quite precise: the akashic records can perform integration by partial fractions quite well, thank you.)

The film doesn’t mention the Amish, but they are one small religious group that, with the intentional disavowal of modern technology and a compulsory family-centered and church-centered “plain” lifestyle, can sustain itself. Of course this happens, in the view of the typical westerner, at the cost of personal liberty. Like a few other socially extremely conservative cultures (the Mormon Church, Singapore) they seem free of corruption, although generally “moralistic” cultures denying self-expression to the individual tend to become corrupt as they remain rigidly tribal and patriarchal. Is there some moral common denominator that applies to the individual? Maybe it is something like “locality of emotion.”

Friday, August 24, 2007

Saving Sarah Cain; Raising Helen: various films explore involuntary family responsibility

It seems as though Tinseltown gets a subtle point in the cultural wars. Family responsibility doesn’t always wait for procreation of baby making. It can be thrust upon relatives at will and morally demanded of them.

The recent Fox Faith film Saving Sarah Cain, recently shown on Lifetime (dir. Michael Landon, Jr., son of the “Little House on the Prairie” star who died in 1991) makes the point well. A young female syndicated columnist in Oregon has writer’s block and an ambivalent boy friend when she gets a call from Pennsylvania, where her sister had married into an Amish family. She travels there, and learns that under Pennsylvania law, as the closest living relative, she automatically gets custody of the five kids. (She can refuse and let the state take them into foster care, a horrible choice it seems.) She takes them back to the City, and sets up the conflict for the rest of the movie.

An earlier film along this line had been Raising Helen (2004, Touchstone, dir. Garry Marshall, who was one of the judges in Fox’s “On the Lot”). In that movie, Helen, the heroine, is single while one sister is married and expecting, and another dies and leaves custody of the kids to Helen. “Why” becomes a riddle of the story.

This idea had been explored in TheWB series “Summerland” (starting in 2004, from Aaron Spelling) where fashion designer Ava (Lori Loughlin), living on the beach in California, “inherits” her sisters three kids after a car wreck in Kansas. The oldest boy, Bradin (Jesse McCartney) becomes an accomplished surfer. The series features a broken wedding with a middle school principal later.

One of the most harrowing films about involuntary family responsibility was “One True Thing” (1998, Universal, dir. Carl Franklin, novel by Anna Quindlen) when an English professor (William Hurt) drafts his own career daughter Ellen (Renee Zellweger) to give up her own life, her own romance and career to take care of her breast cancer stricken mother (Meryl Streep) and “live her mother’s life” setting up the legal confrontation at the end.

Then there is Ian Polson’s CBS film “Going Home” (2000, dir. Ian Barry) where a career woman goes back home to take care of her Dad with Alzheimer’s, and has to bargain with her sister who scoffs her for not being married.

Another variation of all this comes from Minnesota filmmaker Jon Springer’s “The Hymen’s Parable" (1999, Cricket Films) where a priest has to deal with his own personal dislike of a mentally ill sister.

Even soap operas are getting into this act, as on NBC-Corday’s “Days of our Lives” good guy “Nick Fallon Carraway” (Blake Berris) is duped into marrying a tramp in Las Vegas and winds up responsible for kids (of an opposite race) that he did not father. (In the Sept 18 episode, Nick winds up with the super-geek "opposite race" kids, who talk about chess openings -- weird -- permanently. Remember, Nick has fathered no children himself. He gets a new job as a school teacher and seems like a good role model.)

And even the independent film "September Dawn" about the massacre of pioneers by renegade "fundamentalist Mormons" on September 11, 1857 in Utah, has a plot twist that involves "other people's kids" left from childbirth death, common on the frontier, with a love story between one of the Mormons, Jonathan (Trent Ford), who is kind of the Nick Carraway of the story, and settler Emily Hudson (Tamara Hope) that gives its "Romeo and Juliet" setting a surprising final twist. This movie does explore religious issues around the purpose of salvation by grace.

(For a discussion of Chris Gorak's "Right at your Door" visit this link.)

March 14, 2008

Another film along these lines comes from new indie distributor Overture Films, "Sleepwalking," (dir. Bill Maher, from Canada) where Nick Stahl plays an impoverished young man who tries to take over raising his niece when his sister (the girl's mother, played by Charlize Theron) abandons her.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

On the Lot announces its winner

Tonight, Steven Spielberg walked Will Bigham, the filmmaker from Texas whose run started with "Lucky Penny", through the gates at Dreamworks studios for his one million dollar directing job. We do not yet know what feature film from Dreamworks he will direct.

The show tonight on Fox spent most of the hour showing favorite clips from a number of the contestants, not just the top three.

But at the end, Adrianna Costa first told Adam Stein that he was not one of the finalists, and then made us wait through a commercial break to announce the winner.

Will Bigham's films were noted for visual storytelling with moderate use of special effects, and a certain touch of gentleness and irony that is likely to play well with investors. Epperson and Stein both were willing to take on sharper edges and controversy, Epperson with religious issues and controversies within Christianity in a few films, Stein with military and social policy satire. Zach Lipovsky finished fourth was known for strong special effects and visual storytelling that tends to work well in big budget franchises and kids' films; some critics did not feel that his characters were as strong in his final films ("Bonus Feature"). Most of the films in the contest fit would into the PG or PG-13 (sometimes G) category,

Adrianna admitted that a technical glitch prevented Internet voting last week.

Carrie Fisher and Garry Marshall were present, and Garry said, remember that real life is more important than show business.

A number of the directors did outstanding work, and I am sure we will see their work again.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Rocket Science and others: films on debate and on common school-related topics

One of the most important themes in my own writings is the importance of objectivity in public debate, and of making it easier for people to see opposing viewpoints and both sides of every issue. Before signing that petition or sending that form email letter to one’s representative, one should be aware of the possible unintended consequences of some proposal that meets the needs of one group. Of course, most people’s experience with political participation is quite partisan, and goes through advocacy organizations or unions that represent them and that speak for them.

There have been two recent movies about political debate in high school. Now debate is itself a specific subject, rather like journalism, usually handled by the English department, and it becomes a specific extracurricular activity, with school debate tournaments up to the state level. In the movies, the view concerns mainly the mechanics of debate, and, as a competitive institution, that it can be a way of making the general public aware of both sides of any issue. At the same time, it does not go into the substance of the issues themselves.

The recent Rocket Science (brief theatrical distribution by Time Warner New Line’s Picture House, but an HBO film and probably scheduled for showing on HBO soon), written and directed by Jeffrey Blitz, deals with a stuttering boy Hal Hefner (Canadian actor Reece Thompson) whose girl friend Ginny (Anna Kendrick) encourages him to join the debate team at his New Jersey high school. The movie itself stutters along, with clever soundtrack and quick takes of the shy boy’s meanderings through the neighborhood and school halls (even the janitor’s closet); eventually he teams up with a charismatic young man Ben (Nicholas D’Agosto), who had suddenly gone silent at the same time that Hal’s home was breaking up. The movie story starts with an artificial connection between the two events, a plot layering that does not quite work. Along the way, it shows some gritty on location views of the Trenton, NJ area, including the Deleware River bridge (crossing to PA) that reads “Trenton Makes, the World Takes.”

The boy is asked to debate the pro position for the idea that the government should support abstinence-only education. He never gets the words out of his mouth, maybe a sign that such a position is difficult to defend (using public money for social coercion). The girl rattles off the con arguments, and although they sound fine linguistically and didactically, they are actually rather politically correct and trite. Therefore, despite using the Battle Hymn of the Republic as a tool to help Hal talk, the movie never gets into the issue. But maybe it didn’t want to.

The film will of course be compared to Thumbsucker (2005, Sony Pictures Classics, directed by Mile Mills, based on the novel by Walter Kirn) in which another appealing youngster Justin (Lou Taylor Pucci), with parents played by Tilda Swinton and Vincent D’Onofrio (Benjamin Bratt is the mother’s external boyfriend). Here, Justin “hides” a secret narcissistic habit of sucking his thumb, and after an attempt by the dentist (Keanu Reeves) to treat him with hypnosis, the school will diagnose him with ADD and get him on ritalin, whereupon he becomes an articulate “genius” in the debates. The movie, like the more recent one, got into the mechanics of the debate and presented some issues, but has a lot more story around it and is much more of a “movie,” filmed in full 2.35 to 1 aspect ratio.

There have been a few other sequences of films about the same scholastic process. For example, spelling bees have given us Akeelah and the Bee (2006, Lions Gate, dir. Doug Atchison); Bee Season (2005, Fox Searchlight, dir. Scott McGhee), and Spellbound (2002, ThinkFilm, dir. Jeffrey Blitz, like “Rocket Science" above), and a more distantly related documentary about crossword puzzles, Wordplay (2006, IFC/The Weinstein Company, dir. Paul Creadon).

Links for my earlier reviews: Rocket Science Akeelah

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

On the Lot: Three Finalists

The three finalists were Jason Epperson, Will Bigham and Adam Stein.

Each contestant had to pick two films to show again as his best.

Jason picked Eternal Waters and Sweet. Jason had almost been thrown out when some people were offended by his first film "Getta Room" whose religious point (it seemed to relate to the idea of karma) I actually liked.

Will picked The Yes Men and Glass Eye.

Adam picked Dough, the Musical and Army Guy. The "Army Guy", with its shades of Henlein, finding oneself a puppet in an alternate universe and being asked repeatedly to get married, is the ultimate black comedy.

Carrie liked Will the best, and Garry liked Jason. Adam's choice of material is the closest to what I might have done if I were a contestant.

For some reason, the Voting Window on would not open after 9 PM on the East Coast, at least not for me. It kept saying "Your voting window is not currently open. Please come back during your scheduled time following the telecast in your area each week to vote!" but this supposed to be the first two hours after the show airs in the same time zone.

One of the commercials, for, showed an attractive male model getting dressed mechanically among the mayhem around him, rather like a Coca Cola (or Pepsi) ad.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Steve Buscemi follows Theo Van Gogh with Interview

This weekend, in many cities the arthouse theaters started a film called “Interview,” directed by Steve Buscemi, written by Buscemi but re-adapted from an original screenplay by Theodor Holman, for a 2003 Dutch film directed by Theo Van Gogh. (The distributors are Sony Pictures Classics and CinemaVault). The film should not be confused with an Australian thriller called “The Interview” (1999, directed by Craig Monahan about a police faceoff), or some other films with the same name. Buscemi plans to remale 06/05 (below) as "1-900" and "Blind Date".

Van Gogh is famous for the way his life ended, in an assassination in Amsterdam in 2004 from an Islamic extremist (discussed in detail by Bruce Bawer in his book “While Europe Slept", review here), after the religious offense to his short film “Submission,” a ten minute short (where a woman speaks about the patriarchal treatment of her in Islamic society) that was apparently intended to be followed by many pieces. I cannot find it on DVD and I will be glad to let readers know how to find it legally when I find it, or if it is exhibited in theatrical release or cable or Direct-TV. (If a visitor knows, please comment.) Perhaps Buscemi will finish the project.

Today, on Google, the film does show up, but it has been up and down a lot, apparently. The best way to find it is to search for "Submission, YouTube, Van Gogh". There is also a critical analysis (6 min) from which discusses why "Submission" has been removed a few times from Youtube, some verses from the Sura about the subordination of the value of women that some Muslims may not want viewers to hear. (He compares them to Ephesians 5). But I don't know whether the takedowns have been because of "offense" or copyright issues with the Netherlands television company that would have to release it for legal distribution license (to a regular American film distributor).

Most of “Interview” is a confrontation between an over-the-hill journalist (Buscemi) and an actress (Sienna Miller) in her Soho loft, after some preparation with a restaurant scene and a cab accident. Those preparations are the “beginning” and the confrontation is the “middle” and the “end” seems to come from the contents of the actress’s computer, as well as the reporter’s own story. We are left with wondering when art (diaries, scripts, screenplays, narratives) represent reality (real “confessions”) or are just thought experiments or entertainment – a question posed by the “Touching” case (Bindrim v. Miller) in California.

Van Gogh can be compared to other European artists like Jean Luc-Godard (“In Praise of Love”) and Lars van Trier (“Dogville”, etc.) who tend to make films as if they were musical forms with layers of abstraction. Later blog postings will talk about some of the other artists.

His best feature is “May 6th” (06/05) (from Koch Lorber), 2004, based on the book by Thomas Ross, where a young and charismatic tabloid photographer Jim de Booy (Thijs Romer) does a gumshoe investigation of the assassination of homocon Dutch politician Wilhelmus Simon Petrus Fortuyn.

Cool!” (from Picture This!, 2004) is a docudrama about some Dutch youths in a reformatory, and how they get led to a tragic end by a predatory gangster. This film was not as engaging for me, although it does make one wonder how well people living in a “liberal democracy” appreciate its values, or it they will overheat them.

Only 06/05 and Cool! show up on Netflix right now.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Lot is left with its Fantastic Four

On The Lot, down to the semi-final “fantastic Four.” Steven Spielberg and Mike Burnett are executive producers. Gary Gray was the guest director.

Zach was eliminated. It seems that the audience may have been disappointed with his idea of a popcorn "cash cow" Cineplex “franchise” and wanted the substance they were used to in earlier rounds. It certainly looks like he will be marketable now in the independent film world, and we should see some of his work in the art chains soon, at least.

The blog entry for July 31 gives the logline for this week's contest.

The Yes Men,” Will Bigham, the awakening man-in-dress is an executive who fires everybody, especially other executives who try to mimic him with dresses at board meetings. The plural in the title is important.

Dress for Success,” Sam Friedlander, is a mixture of “Saw” and “9 to 5” if you can imagine that, with the chained man-in-dress returning to what put him there in a flashback. He needed to be brought low. This was not exactly an homage to John T. Molloy's notorious conformist book (with its controversial advice regarding race) about sales culture.

Army Guy,” Adam Stein, has a soldier trying hard to fit into a model of unit cohesion when he suddenly, after seeing his buddies pulled apart, realizes that he is a puppet, but still very much alive. That’s an idea that I had tried in my screenplay Project Greenlight “Baltimore Is Missing.” A distant mockery, perhaps, of “don’t ask don’t tell.” This film was a favorite of the judges – combining film art with political satire about our notions of power and loyalty. Around 2001, 'Nsync had a video where the boys in the band pretended to be Army puppets.

Oh Boy,” Jason Epperson has the drag “queen” going door-to-door, getting kissed, while having to deal with a danger. Garry Marshall said that Epperson knows “the power of kindness.” A long way from "Oldboy."

Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Ten, as another example of "anthology" filmmmaking

The Ten is a new comedy directed by Paul Wain from ThinkFILM and City Lights Home Entertainment. It reminds me both of “Paris je t’aime” and of the recent “On the Lot” episodes in being a series of short “films” or short stories, adding up to a length of about 96 minutes. Each story is based on one of the Ten Commandments and pokes fun at the religiosity and righteousness usually associated with this great Old Testament statement of moral values. Each story is somewhat artificial, combining unrelated ideas and making them hang together with plays on words, and the stories are somewhat linked.

The first story, based on the First Commandment, is the most illustrative. Adam Brody plays a skydiver who gets stuck in the dirt and cannot be moved, as if lost in quicksand. A Truman-show like world is built around him and he becomes a celebrity and is worshipped as a “god”.

The second commandment is mocked by a local (Justin Theroux) in Mexico calling himself Jesus, and enticing a librarian (Grethcen Moll) to seduce him.

Then a surgeon (Ken Marino) leaves scissors in his patient as a “goof” and is sent to prison for murder.

Coveting is shown when a policeman (Live Schreiber) covets his neighbor’s cat scan machines, and plays “keep up the Jones” until the neighborhood is covered, to the consternation of zoning laws, with overflow cat scan machines stored in pack rat fashion. Then they are needed.

Honor to parents is shown when an white actor (Oliver Platt) is hired by a mother (Kerri Kenny-Silver) to play Arnold Schwarzegger (just as in The Simpsons) develop loyalty from her African American boys.

The a “wife” is coveted in as an inmate (Robert Corddry) tries to steal the surgeon from another inmate.

Winona Ryder plays a shoplifter (as in real life) stealing a ventriloquist’s puppet.

Gossip is shown in an animated featurette with a lot of scatology and vomiting.

A. D. Miles plays a henpecked husband who plays sick, to start a male pseudo-gay nudists club at home, but then the preacher calls. That’s how he honors the Sabbatah,

And Jeff Reigert plays host Paul Rudd, who carries on an affair that gets in to a divorce, and that spills over into the narration. A stage is set up that sort of reminds one of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” or perhaps even of a Dogme movie. Rudd needs to lose his undershirt.

Curiously, the film also reminds me of Jill Sprechcer’s “13 Conversations about One Thing” (2001), where that one thing is “happiness.” And although very different in tone, David Fincher's film "Se7en" (1995) certain had a similar concept, a religious list (the Seven Deadly Sins).

Film students may want to compare this "anthology" to the loose political satire by Luis Bunuel, "The Phantom of Liberty" (1974, Janus / Criterion Collection) ("La fantome de la liberte"), with its tangential episodes, the most famous being the commode dinner party. Or even Jill Sprecher's "Thirteen Conversations about One Thing" (2001, Sony Pictures Classics) -- that thing being "love" -- with some loosely connected but touching stories, especially the firing scene.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Va woman arrested for taping 20 seconds of Transformers at a Regal theater

Recently, at a Regal Cinemas complex in Arlington, VA (Ballston), where I often go myself, a girl was arrested for taping about twenty seconds of the Dreamworks film “Transformers” on a camcorder, near the end. She wanted to show the clip to her little brother. But she didn’t get to see the end. In a few minutes, Arlington police were confiscating her camera and arresting her for “illegally recording a motion picture.” And Regal Cinemas is prosecuting the case, which can lead to a $2500 fine and up to a year in jail.

Actual prosecutions of this nature have been rare, although some states, including Virginia, have such laws (as well as federal criminal copyright violation laws). The theater insists it has a zero-tolerance policy on “piracy” and that its employees have no discretion in deciding what is a below-the-radar-screen infraction.

The story by Daniela Deane is “Out of the Theater; Into the Courtroom: Brief Taping Brings Charges,” page B01 print of The Washington Post, Thursday Aug. 2, 2007. Here is the link:

Although there are lots of stories of pirated DVD’s from China made from illegal camcorder recordings, it’s hard to believe that people really buy them, and that it drives away revenue from studios. I guess it does. I would expect the copies to be of poor quality. More of a threat would be piracy over the Internet with P2P, something already discussed, and a serious issue for parents and teenagers (who have gotten sued suddenly by phone from the RIAA for music piracy, at least) and for colleges with dorms.

Teenagers and sometimes adults have trouble understanding what is "wrong" with all of this. Shia La Beouf really isn't going to lose any royalty income from his part, right? Who is getting hurt? The industry says it is a model problem, like many moral problems. Movies cannot be made and employees cannot be hired if there is not an expectation that consumers will pay a "fair market price" for the product with good faith. But many other issues have this kind of paradigm.

There have been variations of this theme before. Back in the 1960s, sometimes counterfeit phonograph records were sold.

And, although rare, I’ve seen odd behavior by theater chains. Once, late on a Saturday afternoon in September 1992 when I went to see Clive Barker’s “Candyman” at an AMC chain (no longer there) at a Bailey’s Crossroads shopping mall, a woman came into the small auditorium and lectured the audience about talking during the movie, and that people could be evicted. And the theater chain advertised a “no talking” policy at its Union Station property in Washington.

I do think it is a good idea for theaters to block cell phone signals in their auditoriums and spare us turning them off. But, in the meantime, when I ride Metro to the Landmark E-Street downtown, I leave the camera (otherwise used for digital pictures and videos in Washington) home, since it cannot legally be brought into the theater. They haven’t said we can’t bring cell phones in yet, but they are technically capable of piracy.

Also, I’ve seen moderators on TheWB or CWTB message boards (“Goddess of the Internet”) delete posts of topics encouraging piracy and warning participants not to make such postings.

I am two-faced on how I feel about the whole issue. As an artist-in-process myself, I see that piracy threat could affect new filmmakers from getting investor money. On the other, copy protection technology in digital devices could interfere with new filmmakers distributing their own material legally (this sounds a bit like turf protection).

When I went to see "The Bourne Ultimatum" at an AMC last night, the theater was giving away a CD with twelve trailers (at the concession stand). I forgot to pick it up, but it's clear that the studios "give away" clips at their own discretion. (And what about those DVD's that force you to watch the previews, wasting time, first?)


Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Ghosts of Abu Ghraib

Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (2007) is a new HBO original documentary directed by Rory Kennedy (daughter of Robert F. Kennedy who as assassinated in Los Angeles in 1968 – the MGM/Weinstein Company film “Bobby”), produced by Liz Garbus, from Moxie Firecracker Films and Sundance.

The film starts with a black and white skit of a training session in 1961 where agents are conditioned to administer what they believe to the electric shocks, from a distance, to actors in another room.

The film proper consists of “topic pages” with white on black, and builds up with interviews of the soldiers. There was a certain contagious group think, as soldiers began to perceive this as quasi-normal. When the murder of one Iraqi was covered up, one soldier was prosecuted for taking illegal pictures.

The film ends with a return the black-and-white 1961 experiment, with a sobering warning that individual people tend to have little moral compass when they believe others in charge are making decisions for them. Although this film is in a military context, historically this has staggering ramifications for all of us.

The film is not rated, but it has many still photos of the Iraqi prisoners in complete nudity, in one case in a "pyramid." It would likely correspond to "R".

The film was not screened in the recent AFI Silverdocs in Silver Spring, but it would appear that it could have been. Another HBO film “Coma” was screened.