Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Strand Releasing's intriguing franchise of short films (BL)

Strand Releasing (link) has always intrigued me as a small indie movie distributor, mostly of GLBT films. A few of the films are relatively ambitious relative to the whole independent art market, such as “Loggerheads,” or recently “The Yacoubian Building”, an ambitious political thriller from Egypt with a GLBT subplot. I love the corporate trademark, a black and white picture of the Manhattan Skyline with 40s style film noir music playing. It makes me think of Ayn Rand and “Atlas Shrugged.” Miramax also uses a NYC skyline as a trademark.

One series of interest is the Boys Life franchise, of now up to six collections of short films. The series appears to be having fun with the “Boys Life” magazine, from the Boy Scouts of America. I knew the magazine back in the 1950s. We all know the controversy of the BSA’s policy on gays and the Supreme Court ruling on it. Since Strand is using the name for a different business line, apparently this is permissible in trademark law.

A number of individual shorts deserve review here. From “Boys Life 3” the film “Pool Days” (Brian Sloan, 1993) has a lifeguard Justin (Josh Phillip Weinstein) on the lookout for misbehavior when he must deal with his own temptations. The visual concepts of virility are striking, even within the bounds of normal taste.

Boys Life 4 (“Four Play” (2003)) first caught my eye because the short “This Car Up” was shot in a downtown Minneapolis skyscraper while I lived there, and the film used an odd split-screen technique. “Bumping Heads” has a friendship developing from an emergency room encounter at Greenwich Village’s St. Vincent’s. Andersen Gabrych (from “Edge of 17”) appears, hurt in an atypical (for gay clubs, though I saw one in London) bar room brawl. The film mentions that dancing is allowed in very few New York City bars. The most striking film in the set, though, is “O Beautiful,” (Allan Brown) shot on a snowless January night in New Jersey, where a “Christian” high school athlete harasses a local gay boy and then tries to atone, at one point offering his chest (for which, according to the commentary, the actor David Rogers had to endure a pre-production ritual.

Boys Life 5 (2006) offers as its main draw Eytan Fox ‘s 40-minute short “Time Out” about gay soldiers on pass from the Israeli Army. Fox is known for exploring the acceptance of gays in the Israeli military in film as his contribution to opposing America’s “don’t ask don’t tell.” Andy Salky’s “Dare” is pretty well known (in GLBT film aficionado circles) as a thespian rehearsal in a swimming pool (again), with some antics.

Boys Life 6 (2007) came out pretty quickly, and has a couple of the most interesting Strand shorts ever. Mark Christopher’s “Heartland” (14 min) explores the troubling and infrequent subject of gay filial responsibility, as a Columbia University student (Corey Sorenson) is called back to his Iowa farm when his father falls ill. He finds that his father has trouble with the bottle (and therefore is morally responsible for his own problems), but he meets a new “friend” in real space.

But the real sleeper of all of these sets is “Bugcrush” (2006), directed by Carter Smith, about 36 minutes. This horror film draws the viewer in to a world of erotic suspense, structured as a road movie leading to a ritual initiation and possible catastrophe. The concept could work with straight men, but here there are a couple of subtle visual foreshadowings, tasteful enough, that gay male viewers are much more likely to get than straight viewers. What really makes this film work is the likability and innocence of the introverted “inititiate”, high school student Ben (Josh Barclay Caras), acted perfectly. Being in the “wrong place at the wrong time” he gets detention when school newcomer Grant (Donald Eric Cumming) is caught smoking. He soon learns of Grant’s odd interests in insects and is drawn in by Grant’s charisma and social connections. He goes on a road trip (the movie is set in rural Maine, as if an homage to Stephen King) with Grant and two of Grant’s “buddies” to a retreat to see Grant’s bug collection and find the intimacy that he craves.

There is a lot of discussion on the Internet about the ending, which I think is just ambiguous. Grant subdues Ben (telling Ben to "relax!") and then unmasks him (a scene excerpted for the DVD flyer). Pretty soon we learn the horrific sci-fi secret and can only imagine the worst. You can watch it on Logo (link ) and decide for yourself (you may need to play the ending several times and pay close attention to every second).

Now, I think that this really could have been a 90 minute horror feature with more money, and probably (if exhibited at the film festivals) attracted a larger distributor like Lions Gate. This film has a short beginning and a middle, and essentially no real conclusion. So imagine a more expanded beginning where we learn more about both boys, especially Ben, at school, taking the pains to explore the rural high school environment for gay kids carefully and realistically. Then for an end, one can imagine that Ben is somehow transformed by the experience (in some meaningful sense he must survive then) and escapes, or perhaps he dies and the police discover the crimes but with some additional surprise. I’m not sure that I buy as much use of the momentary blank screen and closeup on Ben’s eye (there are other examples of the latter: “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and now “The Eye”), although in a short I see how these edits work.

I actually have a script a bit like this, but a bit more complicated, and a bit in Spanish style for horror. Ben’s character in my film is a heterosexual Dallas journalist, Justin, whose pregnant fiancée has disappeared in the high plains while jogging, and he is dating another woman. The town near where the girl was jogging is visited by a UFO and bizarre things start to happen. To clear himself, the journalist goes on a journey that takes him through the gay community, the New Age community, and leads to an “initiation” with a result that is either horrific or wondrous depending on your viewpoint. Justin, facing police suspicions, immerses himself in a world of fantasy that seems to challenge his training as a journalist, but then the clues start to fit together and lead to the shocking conclusion. Like Ben in the BL movie, he must cope with whether he really “wants it.” I call the script “Titanium.” Yes, they say you shouldn’t give away ideas you might give to an agent (studios won’t even open unsolicited mail or look at loglines without third party submission), but on this blog I’ll make an exception. I’ve done it before.

There is a video copy of "Bugcrush" at the Milkboys blog, not embeddable, here. I still find myself watching the last few minutes to figure out what really "happens". I did buy the Strand DVD, but it doesn't have individual scene links. Another good "photo" review, on Wordpress, is here.  Dread Central has a detailed review and says what this film does to you (last sentence), here.

On a flat screen TV, "Bugcrush" plays in 2.35:1 format.  It looks sharp and detailed when played in BluRay even though it is a conventional DVD.

Update: April 9, 2008

Carter Smith now has a "real" feature from Dreamworks / Spyglass, "The Ruins" (91 min), in which a bunch of young adults visit a lost Mayan ruin, are trapped by "natives" (actually "quarantined") with carnivorous plants. The visual horror concept is similar to that of "Bugcrush" -- things can burrow into people's bodies and grow and destroy them. Another analogy would be "flesh eating bacteria" or even MRSA. Jonathan Tucker plays medical student Jeff, who has both the gentleness of "Ben" and charisma of "Grant" -- but will he make it out? Carter Smith does not promise us happy endings.

There is a YouTube video where Carter Smith discusses both "Ruins" and "Bugcrush" at the Edinboro Film Festival:

Yes, "Bugcrush" still seems like a masterpiece, years later (in 2012).  I still watch the end on my DVD copy once in a while and try to figure out exactly what happens.

Update: Aug. 31, 2010

In view of the bedbug crisis, look at "Howcast's" 5 minute short for MSN, "How to Get Rid of Bedbugs", link here.  It's almost a "Bugcrush 2".  The camera is certainly interested in the "beauty" of the male, as it was in Carter Smith's film. Strand ought to pick this one up for another anthology. The female narrator gives the instructions in a satirical, mother hen tone. (MSN calls the series "Decor & Organizing," as if from Nate Berkus. Sure.)

(I tried to embed the video with the code given, and the Blogger template colors won't release. Weird. Never seen this happene before. But it works it you play it from MSN.)

Update: March 2, 2013

From a recent walk through the Redhook section of Brooklyn. NY.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Persepolis: animated feature about coming of age in Iran

Tonight (Jan. 26) I migrated to the other end of Sony’s indie film world (from last night), Sony Pictures Classics, which in this film was displayed on a black, rather than the usual blue screen with the white letters. That’s because this remarkable animated film "Persepolis" (a kind of Persian "Metropolis" -- Tehran) is in mostly in black-and-white, except for a few scenes at Orly Airport in Paris where Marjane Satrapi (narrating voice is Chiara Mastroianni; her mother’s voice is Catherine Deneuve). Marjane created the comic upon which this film is based, with the screenplay written with Vincent Paronnaud. Most of the film’s events occur technically as a “flashback” from her eventual settlement in Paris, and are shot in black and white. The animation style is relatively simple (compare it, for instance, to "The Triplets of Belleville"), and the drawings of, for example Tehran remind one of the drawing style of Hendrik Van Loon in The Story of the Bible (1928). The film is in French, with subtitles (and a little Farsi).

Marjane comes of age during the years of the Iranian revolution, with the fall of the Shah in 1978 and the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini. She is sent to Vienna to the French school, where, with her newfound freedom for a “frivolous existence,” she meets a number of characters: first an attractive young man who says he is homosexual, and then a (straight) man (unfortunately with B.O., like Jack Nicholson’s character from “The Witches of Eastwick”) who claims to be a writer and types a play in front of her, which makes her vomit when she reads it (that’s a trick in animation). She eventually wants to go back home, which she does, and her family agrees not to ask her about her life in Wien.

In the meantime, the Iran-Iraq war has occurred, an event very little covered in film so far. Navy Petty Officer Keith Meinhold (one of the sailor who challenged the military ban in the 1990s) told me once that he flew missions over the waters near Iran during that war. Saddam Hussein lobbed a lot of hardware on Tehran, and the destruction is shown cleverly in the animation. At the end, there is peace, but no freedom, and Marjane talks about walking through Tehran as like walking through a cemetery. At various points, she struggles with and argues against the dress code for women in the “revolutionary” Islamic republic. In the West, she celebrates her "freedom" by using depilatory strips on her legs (again, weird to do in animation).

The film does give some insight into radical Islam, which in its Shiite version here sounds similar to what we hear about the (Sunni) Taliban in Afghanistan of about Sunni Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia. Of course, Muslims make much of obeying the dictates o Allah (as in the memorized Koran), but there has to be a psychological explanation for this kind of fervor; it must fulfill some kind of need. The emphasis on such strict control of women seems designed to support a patriarchy and a world in which men believe that they can “function” within a family unit. To a westerner that sounds “selfish” or like it is about “men controlling women.” But in a deeply tribal society as in that part of the world, people see it as a means of collective survival, and as a social system that guarantees some kind of meaningful life (in religious terms, at least) for everyone in a world filled with enemies and dangers. Authoritarian societies are always paternalistic (or maternalistic) and do not like the idea of letting individuals fall through the cracks. Yet, somehow, this has morphed into an incredible loss of respect for human life as we now understand it in the West. That is hard to explain.

One may want to check the remarks by Ahmadinejad about women and homosexuals at Columbia University in September 2007, here. Check also this with discussion of “Nina’s Heavenly Delights” (link) which is in Save status on Netflix.


Friday, January 25, 2008

Untraceable: an outer join of a couple of movie genres

Sony Pictures has several brands that it uses when distributing its films, and I’ve always wondered if there was some kind of real. I don’t know definitively how films get sent out as Columbia, Tri-Star, or Screen Gems. Some of the “genre” horror and thriller films get sent out as Screen Gems, but not all of them. “30 Days of Night” (dir. David Slade) with Josh Hartnett as the appealing sheriff fighting winter solstice ghouls went out as Columbia. And “Arlington Road” (dir. Mark Pellington), a chilling film that eerily anticipates what happened to DC on 9/11 (just a different building) in 1999 went out as Screen Gems. Often Screen Gems seems paired up with Lakeshore Entertainment.

Such is true of Gregory Hoblit ‘s “Untraceable,” a January release (like “Cloverfield” from Paramount) which means that Sony didn’t really think of this as serious Oscar or artistic material. (The movie title does recall M. Night Shyamalan 's "Unbreakable" in 2002 from Touchstone.) A movie like this really can be, “art”, however, depending on how it’s treated, and first-time filmmakers trying their hand on making films about Internet dangers have to reach for art to get into the market. Sony Pictures (and Lakeshore), having the money to throw at this project, probably isn’t hyping the social message publicly as hard as it could. After all, Sony is an “international” company and the premise is troubling for globalization.

This is somewhat of a stereotyped premise as far as the story itself goes (the good old three-act screenplay). A young man (Owen Reilly, played by 21-year-old Joseph Cross, who one hopes gets to be likable in most future movies) is disgruntled and does some horrific things to people on the Internet (via a sophist’s webcam) to “make a statement.” We know the psychology of this well, and need not rehearse the real life tragedies. But what is interesting is how much legal/technical ground the film covers. Here, as the previews indicate, when people log on to his website (just see the movie to get the domain name, hopefully parked and fictitious) the victim on display gets closer to death. That makes voyeurs at home legal accomplices, which is his point. Unless the home (or work) end users actually believe this to be a hoax, yes, these users are committing crimes, too. But the idea that execution of “demand” can be illegal is well known already – consider c.p., or Oliver North’s radio lectures in the 1990s on going after the “demand side” on drugs. The film also makes a point about the illegality of warrantless domestic wiretapping (Patriot Act, etc) when the FBI and local police want to use NSA supercomputers to trace the criminal. At one point, there is a clever comment critical of network neutrality legislation.

There have been other films about punishing voyeurs. A couple are “FearDotCom” (2002, dir. William Malone, Warner Brothers and Sony TriStar both) where visitors of a particularly grisly website meat horrific ends (and to solve the case, the film and detectives literally go into the website). And The Ring (2002, Dreamworks, dir, Gore Verbinski) has watchers of a VHS video meeting horrible ends (followed by an unconvincing sequel in 2005). But there, the voyeurs become the victims of the crime. Well, here, in Untraceable, in a sense they do, too, but now the “voyeurs” are the “abusive” media (an acquaintance once lectured me on “the abuse of the media” back in the 70s) eager for Nielsen ratings.

The film does cover a lot of territory regarding the dangers of hackers, botnets, zombie home computers (that idea raises the speculative idea for a screenplay submission predicated on the idea of a home user’s getting framed – another “Screen Gems/Lakeshore” idea maybe) rotating IP addresses, and spamy Russian servers (global again). I don’t know it if is all correct technically, and the things that Reilly sets up would take more expense and effort than are believable. (In that sense, the film covers ground known in Se7en, The Bone Collector, 8-1/2 MM). And “Live Free or Die Hard” in 2007 (Fox), the most recent film in Bruce Willis’s franchise also covered the dangers of cyber terror (with Justin Long as the attractive geek recruited against his will). "Swordfish" and "Antitrust" are two more examples of films about cyber vulnerability. Movie buffs (and computer security experts) might want to go back to 1995 and review the film “The Net” (Columbia, this time, Irwin Winkler) for plausibility, given all of the stolen identities today. Still another genre direction is illustrated by Screen Gem's slick release "Vacancy" (about hotel video snuff) from 2007. So this new film joins more than one genre. Yup -- that's Screen Gems, a genre company. Also, ION has been showing Artisan's "Fatal Error" (dir. Armand Mastrioanni, novel by Ben Menzrick) in which a computer virus infects people through the eye from computer or web-tv monitors. Former virologist as played by "hunk" Antonio Sabato looks like, well, he has been disinfected and scrubbed to perform surgery.

Untraceable” looks sharp, shot 2.35:1 on location in Portland (which I visited last in 1996) and has vistas that include Mt. Hood. Now we have to mention the hardknuckled performance of Diane Lane as FBI Agent Jennifer Marsh. She looks more grizzled than Scully on "X-Files". And I love her loyal serval-like cat, who helps solve the case (and it’s the kind of cat that you want to jump on you and wake you up in the morning). The story starts with a poor cat as the first victim. Lane has done a lot of promotion for the film – and its ideas about Internet safey – in media appearances.

I wondered about the spelling of the film title -- why the "e" is necessary. Webster does include the "e".

Sony Pictures has created a fake website with the domain name used in the film, here. The site will trigger a pop-up blocker, then a warning about harm to innocent people, and will say 90% of "you" ignored the warming and continued? Where are your morals? (Okay, I knew about Sony's fake site before I visited it.) Then (when you allow popups) it invites you to join the Federal Internet Crimes Task Force with a logon screen. The "real" site does not do what it does in the fictitious film.

Picture: AMC Dupont Circle Theaters closed in Washington DC recently. That area of town does need a modern movie theater; the closest is Landmark downtown, or AMC Georgetown.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Oscar nominations announced: "boutique labels" favored

The 80th Annual Academy Awards made their announcements this morning. The imdb link is here. The Oscar 's own link is here, and the show can be watched on the Internet.

The best picture nominees are "Atonement" (Universal Focus); "No Country for Old Men" (Paramount Vantage) "Juno" (Fox Searchlight) "Michael Clayton" (Warner Brothers) and "There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage) (Yes, there will be.) Only one of these films (Clayton) was released under the trademark of the owning studio (Warner Bros.)

Right now, my own favorites are "Atonement" and "There Will Be Blood." I might have been inclined to nominate "The Assassination of Jesse James", too.

Studios have recently been releasing more films on "issues" or historical or literary matters on their "boutique" brands, with most films at least partially financed and produced independently. Paramount has been especially active with its "Vantage" and "Classics" brands, which seem to be interchangeable, and now usually works in conjunction with Disney's Miramax (or sometimes Paramount's own Dreamworks studio, as with "The Kite Runner").

Paramount Vantage makes a good comparison to The Weinstein Company, which broke off from Miramax after a quarrel with Disney, and now usually works with Lions Gate, IFC, and (for slightly larger films, usually), MGM (owned by Sony and Comcast but recently "reinvented" as a brand for somewhat adventurous theme-oriented films than in the "glorious" past). Weinstein operates Dimension films for horror genre. Lions Gate, also known for horror, has recently been making or distributing much larger films on its own (3:10 to Yuma, with Atlas Shrugged to come)and may be able to establish itself as a significant player in the "theme movie" market. Lions Gate has the best trademark in the business, with a visual starting with machine gears from Metropolis, leading to an opening to the real "Lions Gate" in Greece (there's a National Geographic film that shows it), and a triumphant musical signature. Lions Gate took over Artisan Entertainment, which had been a signifcant player with these sorts of films ("The Blair Witch Project") in 2003, and does not seem to be operating Artisan as a separate brand. That's surprising, because revised trademark law encourages media companies to deploy all of their brands aggressively to protect them from future dilution.

When I lived in Minneapolis 1997-2003, the Minnesota AIDS Project sponsored the Oscars Party at either the State or Orpheum Theater in downtown Minneapolis (both near The Saloon) on Hennepin. Some years, they had a volunteer breakfast in a downtown Minneapolis office building (on an upper floor) the morning the Oscars were announced. The Oscars used to be held later, in March (and they used to be held on Monday nights instead of Sunday), and the nominations used to be in February. I remember a "dramatic" moment when I set aside my crutches (recovering from the hip fracture) while at the Oscar Party in 1998, and got by the entire evening without them.

It looks like this still happens; visit the MAP website here. As for the WGA strike and the Oscars, cross your fingers.

Note: Actor Heath Ledger, 27 (Brokeback Mountain) was found dead in his New York City apartment today. CNN story.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Harry's War: many urban legends abound concerning this anti-IRS "comedy" from 1981

Harry’s War (1981, Taft International Pictures and Image, directed by Kieth Merrill (that’s the real first name spelling)) is, as many people learn during the tax season, is a controversial anti-IRS, anti-government movie. In fact, the greatest controversy seems to be the urban legend that it is officially banned, or that it is illegal to possess it. People send emails about clandestine screenings in sports bars. Well, there’s nothing wrong with it by any standard of the law today (oh, maybe a particular attack conducted by the "hero" 2/3 through the film is seen as "inciting", but there is no threat of "imminent lawless action"), and I rented from Netflix, with no wait-list and even from the nearest processing center in Gaithersburg, MD. Netflix gives it the category of “Independent,” and IMDB classifies it as “Comedy.”

Actually, it has some big stars. The best known is Geraldine Page as Aunt Beverly (one can imagine Meryl Streep here), with Washington DC native Edward Herrmann (born there in the same year as me, almost on the same day) as Harry Johnson, the nephew. Now the story sets them up around St. George, Utah (where restaurants serve lime pie but not coffee because of the Mormon influence) living in a shacky estate on what looks like an abandoned silver mine. Already, you have the possibility that the move becomes a “modern western” or comedy western (maybe even like Mel Brooks and “Blazing Saddles”). Soon we learn that Harry already has his bank account attached by the IRS, and that Beverly has been a home-is-castle holdout against paying any taxes at all. The IRS has its own internal homilies and litanies about this, with no homemade church parchment. Harry tries an in person visit to the IRS, gets the runaround, and pretty much gets arrested with his physical telephone attack. Pretty soon Beverly is in tax court, where she has a heart attack and kicks the bucket right in open court after a tirade. All this set’s up “Harry’s War.” The only thing gentle is the beautiful cat that sits in his lap in one scene. In "fairness" to the government in considering what follows, it must be said that Harry hits first, driving a tank into the IRS office that had stiff-armed him. I don't think Koresh (see Waco, below) did anything like that, by way of "future perfect tense" analogy.

Pretty soon the government, to "hit back," is setting up a Waco-style siege and attack against the compound, as if this was the Branch Davidians (twelve years before Janet Reno had to lead her tragic effort against them under the leadership of a naïve President Clinton). Another comparison could be the Randy Weaver incident. It’s funny for a while, and there is a stirring speech about taxation at the consent of the governed. But then, well, there is a holocaust that pretty much anticipates Waco, with Pat Buchanan narrating the catastrophe live (which I heard on the car radio returning to work from lunch in April 1993; I had visited the site with a “boyfriend” myself on a Texas trip in March 1993).

There is, in the script, some philosophizing by the government about our meeting our “obligations” and talk about the danger of anarchy. There is a bizarre line about going back to “constitutional government.” Now, earlier notions of morality were always concerned about this: think about the draft, and even earlier ideas about how mandatory family responsibility helped shaped anti-gay attitudes. The downside is that you have to have an entrenched, self-serving bureaucracy (in this movie it’s the IRS) to enforce this collective “morality.” There is one line in the script where one of the bureaucrats says that he wants to stop the tax protestors from expressing their views (is that why people think this movie is “banned”?) There is a good line from Beverly in tax court about how, if people take care of each other, the government won’t have to take care of them, and it won’t have to collect taxes. Isn’t that the heart of libertarianism? Harry Browne once said, “repeal the income tax and replace it with nothing.” Irwin Schiff wrote his book “The Federal Mafia.”

1981 was, of course, the time of Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” and the film was probably actually made at the end of the Carter years.

The DVD transfer is crude, with only a “Play Movie” link, and is full screen, even though Panavision cameras were used (which means we should see it in at least 1.85:1 instead of 1:37:1, as if it were a TV movie). The original orchestral music score by Merrill Jenson (who also conducts a London orchestra) reminds one of Aaron Copland (particularly the music in the Third Symphony), but the mono-only sound on the DVD is mediocre..

There have been several films (some produced for cable TV) about the Waco tragedy. The most important is probably Waco: The Rules of Engagement (1997, New Yorker, dir. William Gazecki, 165 min, R), which I saw in Washington in its initial run at the old Inner Circle (no longer there).

A distantly related film that I recommend is “Bill’s Gun Shop” (2001, dir. Dean Hyers, Dangerous Films), from Warner Home Video (that probably means Warner Independent Pictures). I saw this film at the Columbia Heights theater near Minneapolis in a film festival of local Minnesota-made films in 2000. The story is that of an ambitious young man and gun shop employee Dillon (an appealing Scott Cooper) who gets to ride “shotgun” on a bounty hunt. The film is full widescreen (2.35:1) and is quite professional made. (IFPMSP link). I did know a gun shop owner in Marshall, MN.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Movies anticipate the possible future enforcement of filial responsibility laws

I’ve noted on some other blogs, particularly the “Bill Retires” blog (see my profile for the links) the likelihood that filial responsibility is ultimately going to become a serious political and social issue, driven by demographics. I had talked about this theme in the movies on this blog on Aug. 24, 2007, but mainly in conjunction with films where people are suddenly called upon to raise other people’s (like deceased siblings’) children.

As noted on that entry, the most important of these films in recent years was probably the 1998 film from Universal, “One True Thing,” directed by Carl Franklin, based on a novel by Anna Quindlen, with the screenplay by Karen Croner. I saw this in September 1998 at the Mall of America, about one year after moving to Minnesota for a job transfer, and just as I was beginning to realize how serious a problem this could become for me at some time in the future. Eventually it did. The movie was painful to watch. When the mother Kate Gulden (Meryl Streep, in one of her most powerful roles) is stricken by aggressive breast cancer with big time chemotherapy, her college professor husband (William Hurt) “conscripts” their daughter (Renee Zellweger) to give up her career and boyfriend in the big city and come back to take care of Mom and “live her mother’s life.” Of course, the husband’s motives come under moral scrutiny, as does everyone’s at the end with the mother’s final passing.

Another eldercare film with a political byte comes from Germany, “Good Bye Lenin!”, in 2003 (from Sony Pictures Classics, dir. Wolfgang Becker). A woman (Katrin Sass) who teaches Marxism in East Berlin collapses with a heart attack when she sees her son (Daniel Bruhl, who is most appealing) arrested and carted away while protesting for freedom. He has to pretend to sympathize with Communism to help her recover. After all, “she’s your Mother.”

A small film from Spain, "Solas" (Samuel Goldwyn, 2000, dir. Benito Zambrano), set in a grimy looking Seville, has a girl moving to the city to get away from her father’s authoritarianism, and then he gets sick and needs an operation. I saw this at the University of Minnesota Bell Auditorium during an international film festival.

Another important film, often shown in high school science classes, is "October Sky" (1999, Universal, dir. Joe Johnston) where Homer Hickum dreams of becoming a rocket scientist but his coal miner father resents his walking away from the family. When the father gets hurt, Homer has to drop out of school and support the family, although the older brother says that it is really "his responsibility." Yet the film is usually shown to kids, for the physics it shows, not for the sociology lesson.

The big film on this problem in the 2007 Oscar race ought to be "The Savages," directed and written by Tamara Jenkins, from Fox Searchlight and Lone Star Pictures. A middle aged brother and sister (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) struggle to share the responsibility for their demented father when the family he was living with in Arizona kicks him out. They place him in a nursing home in Buffalo, NY and it appears that Medicaid covers it, but in some states, filial responsibility laws could have forced the adult children to pay, even if these laws are rarely enforced yet. The siblings (whether they have spouses themselves does not come into consideration) fight among each other as to whose life is more “valid” and who should have to “sacrifice.” The professor has a “real job” where as the sister is an “amateur” playwright, so far, but she wants to get her chance to break in.

The other biggie this year is Lions Gate ‘s “Away from Her,” directed by Sarah Polley, story “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” by Alice Munro, set in Ontario under Canadian law, which still does not pay for custodial care. But here the problem is simply spousal loyalty. The husband (Gordon Pinset) must put his wife (Julie Christie – “Dr. Zhivago”) into assisted living and then a nursing home, as her personality deteriorates to the eventual likelihood that she will not recognize him. Instead, she falls in love with a mute man who doesn’t “confuse” her. But the issue her is not involuntary filial loyalty of adult children, it is just the bond of a marriage of 44 years.

Friday, January 11, 2008

French film explores "locked-in" syndrome, from perspective of the person

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (“Le scaphandre et le papillon”) starts out in a way that makes one wonder if there is a projection problem. In a few minutes you realize that you are seeing the world through the one working eye of someone waking up from a massive stroke , or cerebral vascular accident. As much of the film as possible is shown through the perspective for former Elle editor Jean-Dominque Bauby (Mathieu Amalric). He communicates through winking his left eye, once for oui, twice for non. With this, he can dictate a whole autobiography to an assistant, one letter at a time. The book is the basis for the movie. (He had wanted to rewrite Alexander Dumas 's "The Count of Monte Cristo"). The metaphor refers to his existence: being in something like a diving bell, and the idea that a butterfly escapes from the cocoon that housed the pupa. (That is shown visually, recalling a science biology film that I saw in 2001 at the Nemo museum in Amsterdam.) The doctors have explained this as “locked-in syndrome.” The speech in this film is so measured that even with only high school French, one would not need subtitles.

To pick up momentum, the film (directed by Julian Schnabel, produced by Pathe and distributed by Miramax in the U.S.) provides a sequence of flashbacks to the days when Bauby was a vigorous, attractive 43-year-old. We see his life in Paris, then the country trips, a drive through the Pyrenees to Lourdes, for a visit to the grotto, with a bit of irony since he is healthy. The film shows the Hotel Royal, near where I stayed in May 2001. (I recall that a woman collapsed in the restaurant while I ate lunch; then I would have a dinner discussion with a Basque waiter.) He has his stroke while driving with family in the countryside, near a spot similar to where I stayed one night with a rental car in 1999. It seems that the stroke is a totally random event that could happen to anyone. There is a scene where he shaves is father (Max Von Sydow), and then calls him later.

The film certainly puts caregiving in a certain ironic perspective. The French national health care system takes care of him impeccably at the Berck rehabilitation facility on the Mediterranean. A flashback shows when it was a tuberculosis sanatorium. Even Michael Moore would be pleased with the medical care setup. However, the prospects for someone who is so immobile cannot be good. Pneumonia is a grave risk, especially when you can't cough. (I found that out when I had a broken hip in 1998.)

Another recent film that shows the world through a patient's vision is "The Eye" (2008, Lions Gate / Paramount Vantage, dir. dir. David Moreau, Xavier Pulad, wr. Sebastian Gituirrez, remake of the Chinese "Jian gui"), a horror thriller where a formerly blind concert violinist gets visions of her donor through "cellular memories."

Update, Nov. 24, 2009:

A man in Belgium, in a "vegetative state" for over 23 years (after an accident)with "locked in syndrome", was found to have understood everything. Over 40% of people in these "comas" may actually be aware of what is happening.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Golden Globes will be a "press conference," to deal with WGA strike

The Golden Globes has announced that it will air only a scaled-down program in “news conference” format from the Beverly Hilton Jan. 13, so that SAG actors receiving awards do not need to attend and cross WGA picket lines. A typical story appears in Hollywood Report, by Steven Zeitchik, “Unglued Globes Give up Gala,” here. Apparently, as of this writing, NBC will air the reduced show on Sunday. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association had pressed hard for its plan not to televise the ceremony so that (somehow) the stars could attend. Zeitchik writes “NBC and the HFPA settled on a plan Monday to air the Golden Globes without, well, actually airing the Golden Globes.” But the airing will be in a very abbreviated, one-hour form, with much of the advertising revenue lost.

The Washington Post has a story by Lisa de Moraes, "Writers' Strike Forces the Golden Globe Awards to Roll Up This Year's Red Carpet," link, page C7, today, Jan. 8.

First, let me mention that I have covered the WGA strike before in a few places: on Dec 9 on my main blog: Nov. 4 on my TV blog Oct. 23 on the movies blog. I put this latest posting in the movies blog because it deals with the Golden Globes (which does include TV films, whereas the Oscars do not), but I could have put it in any of these three.

Paul Farhi has some stories in The Washington Post Monday January 7, 2008. The headline is “Striking Distinctions: Writers’ Work Stoppage Will Soon Have Quite an Impact: What’s at Stake”, link here. There is a transcript blog here.

Lis de Moraes has a preview of a Washington Post Jan. 11 online debate "Reality, Non-Reality and Everything In-Between." On Monday Jan. 7 she had a column (complementing the stories by Farhi) "As Scripts Run Out, Reality Kicks In", here. And Hank Stuever has the column (p C2) "Just Pull Yourself Down To the Far End of the Cable," here.

There are a number of points of contention. On the basic idea that writers should get a fair piece of re-distributions (whether on reruns, the Internet, DVD’s, PDAs or new technologies) that makes sense, and in the long run it is the best business model for studios, distributors and production companies. The National Writers Union was making a lot of this perhaps even ten years ago. Writers do get considerable income from reruns, but these are decreasing, where as Internet viewing is becoming more important with consumers. I used to wonder, why not just expect the writer to negotiate a fair “salary” or wage, but that sort of model can reduce opportunity, the number of jobs, and can even interfere with projects getting funded. I’m surprised that corporate interests are not more willing to see this model as best for their own long term stability, especially when due diligence is done for mergers. It can create issues, to be sure. If writers get a mathematically tiny piece of every DVD rented from Netflix or every “free” trailer viewed on the Internet, that could seem to increase costs to consumers. However, revenue sharing information technology and automatic payment mechanisms (as with advertising) have been well developed now (by Google and other companies) and ought to be used here. Obviously, the film industry will say that this os one reason to aggressively fight piracy.

It is reported that writers do not like some changes in the production credits. There is a lot of ambiguity in Hollywood in the assignment of credits, which seems surprising given all of the legal intellectual property issues. The Wikipedia link for “producer” pretty much explains the terminology if the links are followed. However, writers should get precise credit for the work that they actually did. They should get credit as producers only when they individually did “production” work beyond the writing of spec or shooting scripts. Giving people “titles” for work they don’t do can set up legal problems or conflict of interest problems down the road.

It is also reported that the guild wants more jurisdiction, in animation and reality TV. There may be a real issue with animation, since scripts are written and many films are a mixture of animation and real action (“Beowulf 3-D”). Many small films are produced outside of the jurisdiction of major guilds, and I would be concerned that eventually demands of increased jurisdiction could make it harder to distribute independently produced films. SAG, as we know, has low budget agreements at various levels with reasonable rates; but generally, if a film uses one SAG member it must be entirely SAG (what if the producer acts in his own small film?)

There is a cultural question, too, on the whole demand for solidarity. There are widely varying reports on what writers make. When people make their own films independently, they make what they can sell – raw capitalism. New artists may find this all right, if they want to get into the business; why should they be sympathetic to people who make six figures now? Or perhaps they don’t make that much. You can’t live forever in LA on $60000 a year. But, then, why should all of the service industry workers who support the studio go without income to benefit those who make much more? Is that union solidarity?

Just for the “record,” no, I’m not a member of anything. I’ve never walked a picket line. I have scripts to promote. In another way, I’ve experienced the idea of “solidarity” in my own private way. The United States military says that my wearing a uniform would be incompatible with good order an discipline in the ranks. Does that mean it’s wrong for me to work for the Pentagon as a civilian? The military says my presence would invades the privacy of other soldiers. Does that mean it’s wrong, if I’m a teacher or health care worker, to provide custodial care to someone who can’t give consent? Is it wrong to fend for myself and let others with similar issues be discriminated against? I think it is. It is a way to look at solidarity.

The Critics' Choice Awards (link) is a non-union event, and it went on as scheduled, broadcast on VH1. The link for the 2007 awards is here. "No Country for Old Men" won best picture. Nikki Blonsky (Hairspray), winner of the "Best Young Actress" award said that canceling the Golden Globes is like canceling the senior prom. "That's what I went to high school for." Even Zac Efron would probably say that.

Update: January 13, 2008

The Golden Globes results are here. The best motion picture drama was "Atonement" (no surprise, but "There Will Be Blood" had a shot); for musical or comedy it was "Sweeney Todd". I guess "Juno" was too small and too gentle. I like Julie Christie's award in "Away from Her."

Personally, I think NBC made the evening interesting. They interviewed the stars off-line with film excerpts for a couple hours, and then let Billy Bush ("Access Hollywood") do his thing. It looked good.

A good blog making fun of NBC's press conference coverage is "defamer".
There is a lot of talk tonight on whether bloggers undermine the "establishment's" attempt to use hired hands to fend off public access to the "stars." It's all pretty silly. Is this "reputation defender" in Hollywood?

As for the Oscars, we'll see. It's like waiting to see if you can really fail a grade.

Friday, January 04, 2008

There is going to be Sangre

It’s fascinating how one can take almost any historical situation in the growth of civilization, introduce ambitious but flawed and, by their circumstances, limited characters, and add the right atmosphere and here, particularly, music, and come up with a mesmerizing film. This “western” about a California oil tycoon at the turn of the century does just that. “There Will Be Blood” is the latest film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, based rather loosely on Upton Sinclair’s novel “Oil!” Back in the 50s, my father got a copy of “Spindletop” (by James Clark and Michel Halbouty) for Christmas, and I remember the garish dust jacket with a gushing oil geyser. Now this movie, if you want to call it a modern “psychological western” following a tradition from the 50s, adds to that tradition the contemplative style of Robert Altman (to whom the film is dedicated). It somewhat resembles the earlier Jesse James movie from Warner Brothers. However, it was produced as a joint venture of Paramount and Miramax, and is distributed in the US by Paramount Vantage (or Classics).

The movie starts out with southwestern scenery (much of the film was shot north of the Big Bend area in Texas, and the scenery gives the feel of an Italian western) and very dissonant string music. The original music in the film is by British composer Jonny Greenwood. There is a great deal of dodecaphonic string music in the background, and much of it sounded familiar. I could not tell if some of it was by other familiar composers (Ligeti – whose violin concerto was used so effectively in Al Pacino’s / Michael Mann’s Heat; perhaps Schoenberg; the credits rolled too fast for me to pick up the names, although several of them were obscure. It is common in classical music for a few pieces by obscure composers to become familiar in the repertoire and be quoted in the movies). There is one major classical staple in the sound track: the finale of the Brahms Violin Concerto in D Major. During the closing credits, the entire finale is played (rare in motion picture practice, which often introduces awkward breaks into closing credit postludes), with a slight ellipsis at the end to fit it in to the time slot. I have imagined the idea of a movie playing the finale of the Brahms Second Symphony (also D Major) during closing credits, as in a script of mine Brahms fits into the story by aggravating one of the characters not attuned to classical music. (During a critical period of my life covered by my own screenwriting exercises, I had seen the French film “Aimez-vous Brahms?”) When I left the film and got into the car, WETA was playing another favorite, Schumann’s C Major Symphony (#2), a manic work that I think also belongs in the movies. I had just seen a DVD of “The Magnificent Seven” the day before (which has a similar outdoor look to this film), but I can’t imagine Elmer Bernstein’s famous lilting score for that fitting here.

The movie, then, is somewhat like an opera with (effectively) "sprechstimme", and it more or less has an opera-like plot. I don’t want to post too many spoilers on the first day that the film showed outside NY and LA. One major theme of the story concerns the relationship between Daniel and his son (Dillon Freasier), who is accidentally deafened by the explosion when the oil gusher is discovered. The mother had died at childbirth, but there are more revelations later. But much of the story deals with the tension between oil man Daniel Plainview (British actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who looks like a man here, a far cry from “Last of the Mohicans”), and a young “preacher” to be described in a moment. Day-Lewis could win best actor for this performance. But if so, then New England born Paul Dano, only 23 in real life, turns on the performance virtuosity (probably a nod for Best Supporting Actor), however buttoned up physically by the costumes, as the evangelical preacher Eli Sunday. He seems like Paul himself in his articulation (so far I have always seen him play the serious geeky character. It's even more complicated, as the character is sometimes called Paul in the movie, when he is a young "businessman," as if he were a twin or an alter ego, or a previous incarnation of Dano himself, who makes one believe that a young man can be all things at once). You get the feeling that preaching was what he got good at as a little boy, and he can turn on the act, saving people and exorcising them. However, whenever necessary, he turns businessman, seeing through Daniel’s schemes and demanding enough money to protect his family, and then himself. At one point, after an earlier "fight" where Daniel forces Eli to wallow in oil mud, Eli tells his family, "God doesn't save stupid people!", showing the underbelly of his own "faith". The movie spans about 30 years, until after the 1929 crash, and curious in the final “lover’s quarrel” confrontation in the home bowling alley, Eli Sunday still looks like an eighteen year old. He hasn’t aged biologically a day, as if he were some kind of angel. He is forced to say that he is a false prophet (when maybe he is true) and then, well, I won’t spoil it. The title tells all. There will be blood.

The 158 minutes of this film pass quickly, and it actually seems lean and mean at that (despite the opulence of the 2.35:1 western photography, which is used to full advantage – as in one scene where a steam train is just barely visible on the right of a full panoramic shot; the colors seem a bit muted by the naturalism). I saw this film in Georgetown in Washington and the audience did seem to have a large GLBT presence, possibly because of the undertone of the psychological nature (sort of platonic, an outward "hatred" and an inner curious attraction) of the relationship between Daniel and the young preacher. There are few women in the film. This is a movie about life for its own sake, apart from reproduction and intergenerational wealth and dynasty – despite all of Daniel’s talk of being a “family man” and about investing in educating kids when he tries to do business in the community early in the film.

Five stars.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Starting Out in the Evening (starting over?)

It does seem that filmmakers (and I suppose fiction writers – read on) are more in tune with the “deeper” moral questions and willing to present them, but perhaps in public only after years of mulling. So is the case here with the quiet film “Starting Out in the Evening” from Roadside Attractions and Indigent Films, directed by Andrew Wagner, written by him and Fred Parnes, from a novel by Brian Morton.

Frank Langella plays aging novelist Leonard Schiller, living comfortably as a widower in a doorman New York City apartment building. Lili Taylor is his still unattached daughter, turning 40, and Lauren Ambrose is Heather Wolfe, a graduate student who has decided to write her master’s thesis on the novelist, or his novels, or both. At issue is that his earlier novels have gone out of print, and he has worked ten years on his latest one, which might never be finished as his health fails. Artistically, his history sounds like that of composer Richard Strauss (or maybe even Jan Sibelius), most of whose works were published and performed early in life.

First, yes, the scenario offers a somewhat untidy, or perhaps enticing scenario, depending on the moviegoer sees things, and the movie goes into that territory only a little. It is a quiet (and quaint) film; it could have been a local play; it calls to mind conversation films like “My Dinner with Andre.” There is a subplot of whether his daughter will ever become a mother, and that doesn’t go a lot of places.

The central issue is, of course, is his writing. Lauren keeps visiting him and prodding him, as to why his style changed and his writing became less autobiographical. A central point comes out when Leonard says that one learns that there can be more important things in life that following one’s own purposes. At some point, one must give up the childish things and be a man, perhaps. That jives with scenes late in the movie where Leonard suddenly has rather intimate needs of the eldercare variety, that are suddenly imposed on an “outsider,” a man unprepared to have his own children.

Loenard makes interesting comments about how he writes. He says he doesn’t have a complete story in mind when he starts a novel. He starts with characters and lets them take him places. One novel starts when a character is ejected for defacing an item in a museum. That contradicts what literary agents tell you (or at least me), where “preparing a plot” is all the rage. And we all know how screenwriting teachers talk about the “beginning, middle and end” – to the point that high school English teachers now present it, at least to AP English kids. It’s true that characters make the plot worth it (we’ll find that when I talk about “Bugcrush” soon). During the past ten years, his characters haven’t done anything interesting, which is why he can’t finish the book.

Leonard (through Langella’s performance) always speaks with great precision and clarity. He sounds like Paul Rosenfels uttering final truths and trying to tear down psychological defenses. There is a bit of self-indulgence in his character, as if “I said it, and therefore it is true.”

Toward the end, there are some health crises that almost end things. He has said that the only way he could get another novel “published” (or write one worth publishing – they never mention self-publishing) is to start over, and not just “start out.” (The film could have been titled slightly differently -- if you believe that life begins at 70.)

There is an interesting contrast in how people write here. Leonard still uses an old typewriter, and after his stroke has to hunt and peck. Lauren, of course, uses a laptop, and can lean over it, as if to spill lattes.

The film mentions other movies. In fact, one of Leonard’s novels is called “Lost City” (there is a movie from Magnolia called this about Havana). At one point a couple of characters go to a theater playing “The Battle of Algiers” and “The Girls of Rochefort,” and they part ways. (I wondered if the theater was the Waverly. This movie has a very “Made in New York” feel.)

There have been other movies about creative writers. I like particularly “Barton Fink,” “Finding Forrester” and “Antwone Fisher,” not to omit “Freedom Writers.”

I do have some unpublished novel manuscripts (I wouldn’t give them to Lauren), but three of them are the same story or set of events (spanning from about 1980 to the present day, leading to an “end of days” denouement), each one told from the point of view of a different character. One is like me, one is another old man who had been a military officer and FBI agent, and one is from the viewpoint of two younger men, one married with kids and one gay and finishing college, who come to terms with the events through interacting with the older characters, and then come together, finally on a road trip (actually two trips with a false climax like in “Vertigo”) leading to a final showdown. It’s the last approach that seems the most promising. But the story is mapped out. But, yet, the characters do what they will.