Friday, October 31, 2008

"The Haunting of Molly Hartley" is just average in the "gentler" horror genre

"The Haunting of Molly Hartley" got some pre-release hype for Halloween, partly because of the appearance Gossip Girl’s Chace Crawford (who, like Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, comes from Texas). The film, with a plot that combines “Rosemary’s Baby” with “The Covenant” seems to run out of steam even in less than 90 minutes. The setting appears to be in Oklahoma (from license plates).

OK, Molly (Haley Bennett) may be losing her mind and face the fate of her mother, already in an asylum. In a backstory, her mother apparently had attempted to kill her to prevent the same fate, and that prologue is somewhat carelessly handled. Now, some of the other kids (a few of them of the "Gossip Girl variety" mixed with the "religulous") at her new prep school are ready to help her, including one girl who is ready to save her soul. And there is the backstory of the “pact” her father made to save her life at birth – she won’t be her own person once she turns 18. That leads to a pretty brutal scene in a baptistery which may offend some people. But it is the role of boyfriend Joseph Young (Crawford) that disappoints. You expect much more from the character in the story, like something “really bad” to happen to him. As an actor, Crawford seems to accomplish a lot more in the “Gossip Girl” series. The special effects and suspense in the film are “average” at best.

The movie (87 min) is rated PG-13 and seemed to aim for a wider audience than an original sharp edge in the art of horror. At a large Regal theater in northern Virginia tonight, it drew a relatively small audience at the 8 PM showing. Regal presented this in HD Digital Projection (1.85:1) but there was no noticeable difference with this print.

The film is directed by Mickey Liddell and distributed by Freestyle Releasing, which distributes mainly low budget independently produced “genre” films or other unusual films. It has worked with a number of other companies including Warner Brothers, Lionsgate, and The Yari Film Group.

In 2006 Freestyle released “An American Haunting,” directed by Courtney Solomon, based on the novel by Brent Monahan of the only documented case of a fatal haunting in US history. A larger looking film (2.35:1) the back story in the 19th Century is effective. Lionsgate released the DVD. This film had some big names, including Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek, and James D’Arcy.

Another related film that comes to mind is “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” (2005), directed by Scott Derrickson, from Sony Screen Gems and Lakeshore, about a priest accused of negligent homicide from an exorcism on a girl.

I remember a friend back in my boyhood who said, "One out of every six movies made should be a horror movie." Indeed. I also remember that he once said, "Only a nitwit would make a movie called "Color" and film it in black and white." Indeed, Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Three Colors" are true to their titles.

I might have working-titled this movie "The Instantiation of Molly Hartley." How about "The Instantiation of Sarah Palin"?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag (IMAX film)

Today I checked out an Imax movie “Fighter Pilot” at the National Air and Space Museum in the Smithsonian on the Mall, in the Langley Imax theater. The film comes from the Stephen Low Company and K2 Productions. Stephen Low focuses on Imax documentaries but could believably expand into other documentary areas and become a significant player in independent film. Stephen Low has an important new documentary coming about global warming, "Cool Planet".

In this time of reduced personal money for travel, this film rewards the viewer with stunning views of the Nevada desert (more or less around “Area 51”) north of Las Vegas, as viewed by fighter pilots on a “Operation Red Flag” maneuvers with other NATO countries. The mountain, canyon and mesa desert scenery varies; sometimes it is surprisingly green, with a little snow, in late October.

The documentary is told from the viewpoint of Captain John Stratton, but the most charismatic figure is Major Robert Novotny, who, looking under 30, is always giving out firm orders, sometimes from an AWACS plane, sometimes from a stage, keeping the maneuvers coordinated.

There are plenty of female pilots, but relatively few African Americans. There are many scenes in maintenance, with many female airmen, doing the hard work of retooling engines overnight or of setting up ordnance.

One point of the maneuvers is that pilots who survive the first ten battles are more likely to survive combat for their entire career. Novotny is always warning pilots (who are commissioned officers, some of them from the Air Force Academy) of small mistakes that can kill them. I presume that the near-misses in the early parts of the maneuvers were “referee deaths” and not real ones. The final exercise is practiced with real ordnance.

In one surprise maneuver, Stratton must bail out and survive and evade capture in the desert. When he is rescued, the chopper goes through elaborate procedures to make sure he is not the enemy.

There is also a demonstration of fire-fighting. Mannequins are pulled from a burning jet, and given CPR. The mannequins look like crash dummies (and look a bit smooth and alien) that sometimes are used as an explanation for “Roswell.”

Most of the fighters are two-seaters, with a pilot and copilot. Sometimes the cockpit is open. I think it would have been interesting to see the medical aspects of the pilot training and monitoring.

The film shows harmonious unit cohesion at all times.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Short documentary films on Asperger's Syndrome; and a note on Obama's "American Stories"

"David Jordan’s Documentary on Asperger’s Syndrome", about 9 minutes, is a short film available on a site named Trusera. The film does not actually have a format title or credit frame.

David is now a young adult who appears to have grown up in Great Britain. He describes his interest in geology and interest in collecting and classifying specimens (how many of us would know there are faults in the British Isles?) He talks about Asperger’s as not being able to interpret body language of people outside of the literal meaning of what they say. He presents a scene with chimpanzees playing in a zoo, where they use body language to communicate their need for social contact in play or need for attention or assistance. The video also shows a brief scene from an Asperger’s support group. The film is longer and has more substance and variety of visual content than most videos on Youtube and would make an effective entry in a short documentary film program.

The film may be viewed from this website.

That web page also offers a 19 minute video by Alex Plank and Yellow Sneakers Media, “Going to College with Asperger’s Syndrome.” Here Plank, now a senior at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, describes his experience as a college student with Asperger’s. There are some audience questions, which are hard to hear on the video. The lighting has a bit of a yellow cast (matching the sneakers), so Plank’s hair looks darker than it did on his NBC4 appearance today where he discussed the experience with reporters. He is majoring in film and video. He mentions having applied to William and Mary (of interest to me because of my own history, dating back to 1961). He talks about doing very well on standardized tests but having to take most tests on a computer because of handwriting problems, and about difficulties in organizing some assignments. The University does have programs to accommodate his needs, as do other colleges, although the availability of these programs is recent. There is even coaching in handling roommates (that would have helped me in 1961). College, he says, was easier to adjust to than high school Plank is the founder of the “Wrong Planet” website here. According to the NBC4 broadcast, he is making a documentary feature on the subject

In 2004 CNN had aired a 40 minute documentary directed by Geraldine Wurzburg about a female college student with full autism called “Autism Is a World”. Asperger’s is sometimes characterized as “higher functioning autism” although that may not be always accurate. Some people say that it can be confused with “schizoid personality”, which involves emotional disconnection from others in social situations where it is normally expected. But it’s debatable if “schizoid personality” (as negative as it sounds) is really a mental disorder, or if it is more predicated on the demands of society for socialization of individuals.

Just another note, a bit off topic: Barack Obama’s paid 30-minute spot (“American Stories”) on NBC and other networks tonight (Oct. 29, 2008) was a “real film,” showing real people with real family responsibilites hit hard by the crisis. Obama (perhaps echoing Suze Orman) mentioned the need to "be my brother's keep and my sister's keeper" and Biden, curiously, talked about loose nukes. As for filmmaking, did Obama have the help of Oprah’s Harpo Productions? The film also brings up the issue of Obama's raising money from private sources without federal funds.

Picture: Rogers Hall, on the William and Mary campus in Williamsburg. When I attended, it housed chemistry and physics.

Monday, October 27, 2008

"An American Carol" -- It's funny, and it renders a dire warning

Well, if you’re going to make a right-wing parody, make it funny. And “An American Carol” is certainly that, with no hint of Dickens. Directed by David Zucker, it is distributed by Vivendi, a French company with ties to Universal (apparently for a film so controversial and irreverent, Focus Features wasn’t an appropriate brand). Let me mention one image that is telling for me: At the closing scene demonstration in New York when a terrorist incident has been avoided, the film shows us soldiers in uniform, going back in time from the present day all the way to the Revolutionary War. In fact, the three “ghosts” (not from Macbeth) present a snapshot of our idea of freedom, too: John F. Kennedy (Chriss Anglin), General Patton (Kelsey Grammer), and George Washington (a foppish but conservative Jon Voight). Zachary Levi even gets to play a lab tech like Chuck. Vicki Browne plays "Rosie O'Connell" in a talk show battle without Donald Trump, but Bill O'Reilly plays himself, since he's a conservative.

The anti-hero is, as everybody knows, Michael Malone aka Michael Moore, played by Kevin P. Farley. He is made fun of as a “documentary filmmaker” who likes Cuba’s health care too much ("Sicko"). His latest film here has a title including the word “Pigs” and it dies in the box office. So some Taliban or Al Qaeda sorts hire him to make an anti-American film, with the idea of abolishing the Fourth of July, by abolishing the country.

At this point, the movie becomes like a dream, moving between a summer family picnic to the filmmaking, to the encounters with the ghosts (Kennedy’s comes right out of the TV screen – the “Ask Not” speech which I already covered on this blog Oct. 18), and, of course, the wild demonstrators. The script manages to throw every imaginable punch line about all the social and political issues and twist them into pretzels.

Very early, there are lines about gay marriage and then “don’t ask don’t tell”, in a context that sounds almost sympathetic to the usually liberal position – because conservatives can say, after all, that gays should share responsibility for the country. And just while the time bomb is ticking in a lavatory comes in, some sailors and Marines come in and eye each other, missing the threat. The best line here is “Marines.”

The film hammers the point that we really do have enemies. Radical Islam is arguably much more dangerous than “radical Christianity” in a real world, even if in theory it shouldn’t be. Hitler and Stalin were intrinsically evil, whatever ideology had consumed them.

The comedy and parody starts to become scary. At one point, I was thinking, I could almost imagine a "Dr. Strangelove" typed script about what this country really would be like in the moments and hours after a suitcase nuke went off somewhere, or perhaps an EMP blew up from a missile fired from off the coast. It could look a bit like the highly touted video game “Fallout”. (One can imagine a script then getting into the moral karma points of the characters. I saw the graphic ads for the game in the DC Metro, including a picture of Washington on "The Day After".) I thought, also, about how silly out financial markets are behaving. Oil prices keep sinking, as if investors had forgotten CNN’s film “We Were Warned” about what would happen if Saudi oil fields were attacked. I thought about the behavior of our Wall Street wizards who have simply forgotten the difference between right and wrong.
And I am a bit frightened.

I saw this in a small Regal auditorium on a Monday night, and I was the only person there. It seemed that the show was held just for me. I asked an employee of the theater who came in to clean how it had done, and he said not particularly well. The movie does say a lot of things a lot of people don’t want to here. I think more people need to see this movie, and take heed. But, people don't go to movies for moral lessons, do they. They don't want to be told to eat their vegetables.

Freedom can not be taken for granted.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

HSM3 "Senior Year": More original than expected, with a little fabulosity

Near the Marine Corps Marathon finish line point today, I heard a bit of “HSM3” bellowing out on some outdoor speakers, and later today I saw “High School Musical 3: Senior Year” The story, on the surface, follows the same paradigm as the indie musical I saw last night: a senior high school class puts on a production, moves into a fantasy world, and the audience bonds to the characters.

Of course, HSM3 comes at us as the third of a series. The first two aired on the Disney channel. The 2006 HSM1 was interspersed with dancing lessons given by Zac Efron. The third is the first to have an initial theatrical release. As it opens, it fills the eyes with a sea of red, with the basketball and dancing and cheerleading from high. It seems like it will be the expected G-rated sequel ready to overwhelm us with wholesomeness. But, in a theatrical version, we seem to get to know the characters better, and the film starts to venture into a bit more original territory, and make interesting references to characters or issues of other films. The film is presented in standard 1.85:1 but I think it would have benefited from a full 2.35:1. I recall that the first film DVD was in full screen. Director Kenny Ortega seems to be building on the cash cow franchise and carefully making excursions into more ambitious material in the third film. So it is by far the best of the set. The singing is not continuous, and the score by David Lawrence has already become well known.

As in the indie film yesterday (HSM3 probably cost about 50 times as much to make!), the English teacher Ms. Darbus (Alyson Reed) sponsors as senior play – this time a musical extravaganza rather than Shakespeare – but a Shakespeare idea could almost have worked here too. The musical will give creative opportunity to Sharpay’s brother Ryan Evans (Lucas Grabeel) as choreographer. He comes across as the “gay” or fab-five type character, as much as expected in a G-rated film. (Yes, he seems to come right out of “Were the World Mine,” yesterday). There is a shot of a car license plate in purple letters “Fabulus” – which in indie cinema is sometimes a code word for gay.

Troy is pressured by his dad to stay in basketball, but has secretly mailed an application to Juilliard (presumably for drama or dance). I don’t think Juilliard takes applications that way. But three other of the kids (including Ryan) have applied, and we’ll find out who gets in during the film’s climax. It almost sounds like Disney wants to atone for the “sin” on TheWB’s show Everwood of bonding us to the piano prodigy character Ephram (Gregory Smith), and then having him bolt out of auditioning at Juilliard because of conflict with his father. In HSM3, several of the major characters, including Troy himself (he’ll do both basketball and theater, after the distractions of possible separation from Gabriella - Vanessa Anna Hudgens) come out very well indeed.

Although a lot of the film fills our eyes with the garish reds of the previous movies, it ventures out into some iconoclasm, with scenes in a tree hour and another in an auto junk yard. The tree house scenes hint at the fantasy of other comparable movies based on having kids perform Shakespeare.

In both this film and yesterday's ("Were the World Mine") we see an English teacher willing to experience her self-concept through the public accomplishments of her students rather than through her own. That itself is interesting to me.

Zachary David Alexander Efron, remember, had made a splash as “Cameron Bale” in the WB series Summerland, and now looks quite bulked up. He just celebrated his 21st birthday without excessive grown-up things to do on TV (remember Shia LaBeouf did the same and had his supposed first drink on Jay Leno). Perhaps soon a hosting of SNL? There's one sequence where Efron does an amazing solo break dance. Efron's best line in the film is the simple "I'm in!" I recall reading that Efron was a good student, took mostly AP courses in high school while becoming a star. Jared Padalecki (CW’s Supernatural) was a presidential scholar when he graduated from high school in Texas in 2000. Ashton Kutcher almost became a pre-med student instead of actor.

When I sub-taught, I covered theater a few times, and I did encounter some real talent.

Update: Oct 28

I don't know how long this link will stay up, but AOL has an Efron picture in its "Stars on the Beach" gallery. You may have to be a subscriber.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Is "Were the World Mine" already HSM4?

The Closing Night Film for Reel Affirmations 18 in Washington was held at the Harman Theater near Chinatown. The film was a coy musical “Were the World Mine”, directed by Tom Gustafson, due out on DVD from Wolfe and with a platform theatrical release in Landmark theaters starting in December. Technically, the projection at the Harman did not use full use of the screen space, and cropped the image vertically to achieve the 1.85:1 aspect. (The film is so rich in set design and subtle colors that I think it could have used the fill 2.35:1 that is common in musicals, although I understand that HSM3 [below] didn’t use it.) The production company is Speak Productions.

The film could be construed, jokingly, as a gay “High School Musical 4,” with Tanner Cohen (Timothy) as the lead instead of Zac Efron. (The film didn’t call the lead character Troy, but it could have.) But it is also a bit of a satire in the “Kids in America” vein, with some Shakespeare thrown in.

OK, here’s the set up. Timothy, is a not so closeted gay senior at a prep high school (in the country, but otherwise worthy of “Gossip Girl” – there’s just no Blake Lively around to write the mobile blog). He senior English teacher challenges him to lead in the senior play, Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He says he had never wanted to be an actor (I didn’t either when I put makeup on my hands in seventh grade for “The Sunbonnet Girl”). But he suddenly takes to the role of make believe. The movie moves into an alternate space of dreams, or maybe it is real. He uses a magic violet potion from the props for the play to shoot into people’s eyes (dangerous) and make them gay. Pretty soon the entire rugby team is like an band of brothers or perhaps a Greek army of lovers. Timothy really does fall in love with one of the teammates. The mention the fact that in Elizabethan times, the female parts were often played by men, which gives some opportunity for forced intimacy. (In fact, the Harman Theater recently put on a stage all male “Romeo and Juliet”.) All the elements come together with the ending where the Shakespeare play and "musical" are performed.

Tanner Cohen plays the lead with a lot of charisma and a kind of Efron-like energy. However, had the drag queen at Town DC had at him, his shirt would have needed to come off. But the movie stays well within PG-13 sensibilities.

The original music was composed by Jessica Fogle. The film does not use Mendelssohn's famous theater piece, although it does use some Bach.

The director Tom Gustafson was available for an extensive Q&A after the movie tonight in Washington DC.

This feature is an expansion of a short film called "Fairies" (2003). Logo offers it for sale but does not currently have it available for free viewing. The Logo link is here.

This film might make a good comparison also to "Hamlet 2" (see this blog, Aug. 30). I recall seeing "The Tempest" in Dallas in an arena-type stage and the actors were all suitably costumed and, I must say, prepped. Actors go through a lot.

Picture: The Lansburgh Theater and the Harman Center for the Arts.

Update: May 28, 2009

AOL reproduced an AP story "Gay Male Voted Prom Queen in L.A.", link here. The student was Sergio Garcia at Los Angeles Fairfax High School.

Friday, October 24, 2008

"Save Me" is a balanced look at the "ex-gay experience", and more

The new indie feature “Save Me”, from First Run Features, directed by Robert Cary, is surely one of the most levelheaded and probing films to examine pro and “anti-gay” social values objectively, through story and drama rather than a normal intellectual introspection. The story is by Craig Chester and Alan Hines, and the screenplay adaptation is by Robert Desiderio. The film, shot in full 2.35:1 anamorphic, is quite grand and professional in look, using the scenery around Albuquerque NM to give it a big scale look. It calls to mind my own trips to Lama Foundation, north of Santa Fe and Taos back in the 1980s. It even calls to mind my stop in Espanola to get my wheels cleaned after driving back from Lama through mud after mountain rains.

Probably many viewers have heard of the basic logline concept. A young man is sent away to a Christian “ex-gay” camp and falls in love with another man there. That happens, but only as a result of the real healing that goes on in the camp.

The young man, Mark, played by Chad Allen (also a producer of the film), is brought there, without insurances, after he OD’s on drugs after a trick in a roadside motel. The film takes us through his adjustment to the home, run by a loving couple (Ted and Gayle) played by Judith Light and Stephen Lang. He is assigned a roommate, and given some loving discipline, and introduction to a 12 Step program. There is a bit of overkill: Mark has bigtime problems with drugs and alcohol. But not all residents do; some are there for homosexuality, and the point of that may bemuse some viewer.

There is some humor. As Chad is settling in and meeting the other men, Ted admonishes Dustin (David Petruzzi, perhaps the most obviously “best looking” character, who is first introduced in alternating church scenes early in the movie) to uncross his legs. (I heard that one in Army barracks myself.) Yes, they seem to be trying to train the young men into gender conformity. But the couple has lived into its worldview. While the “morality” of all this is usually described in religious terms, it’s clear that the couple looks at the world as an essentially hostile and dangerous place, where families need to be able to count of total biological and psychological loyalty of its members. The young men are made to believe they are privileged to have a loving place to live while they learn to adapt to the “requirements” of functioning and belonging to the world “on the Outside.” (Yes, they have to “change.”) The “Genesis House” (so it is called) can itself become addictive; some men have been there as long as five months.

One of these men is a fortyish Scott (Robert Gant). The core plot of the film concerns the growing friendship of Mark and Scott (who starts out by offering Mark a forbidden cigarette). Being seen has some effect on others, driving some of the plot toward the end. Eventually, one will almost believe they could become a real couple and still remain in this environment. Well, not quite. Their interests become apparent to Gayle at a scheduled "dance" where the boys are supposed to learn the social skills of meeting girls, and whether a couple of the other characters speak of their discomfort with all the social rituals of dealing with the opposite sex, wrapped up in the social conventions and rituals of square dancing. The hidden message: participating in procreation is mandatory.

After my own expulsion from William and Mary for admitting homosexuality in the fall of 1961, I spent six months as a “patient” at National Institutes of Health for the last half of 1962. I remember well the impression that I had to “get better” to be able to go back to a residential campus college (although I did go to George Washington while living at home and then NIH). The film reminds me of the demands of the outside world, at least in the era of my coming of age, that everyone conform to certain requirements of socialization in order to fit in and “deserve” to have a life that others respect and that, in terms of karma, “pays back” what one has already “consumed” (in emotional terms) from one’s own family. The film has a few scenes of the older proprietor couple in bed (within PG territory) and it seems that their marriage gives them the privilege of controlling the lives of others, as if that were a necessary perk for their marriage to exist. An important plot element, however, is that Gayle has lost a gay son herself to suicide eight years before.

I did encounter men affiliated with the group Love in Action in the early 1990s in conjunction with a couple of men I met at work, and (out of curiosity) actually attended a service at the National Presbyterian Center in Washington in March 1990 associated with the group.

It seems a little amazing that the "ex-gay movement" would come up in an era when gay marriage and lifting the military gay ban are mainstream political issues. The characters seem to live in a more isolated world, where it's possible to impose a "collectivized" code of personal morality, a system that only works if everyone can be made to go along.

This film was shown Oct. 24 at 7 PM in the large auditorium of the AFI Silver theater as part of DC's Reel Affirmations film festival. It nearly sold out.

There have been few other films about ex-gay centers. But one was Jeff London’s “And Then Came Summer” (2000) from Wolfe video. The movie has little in common with Brian Dannelly's "Saved!" (2004) with Mandy Moore, Chad Faust ("The 4400") and Macaulay Culkin ("Home Alone"). There is a one-man play by Peterson Toscano, "Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House: How I Survived the Ex-Gay Movement" (2000), which I saw in Washington in 2004.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Reel Affirmations "Fabulosity" Men's Short Films

Reel Affirmations, on Wed. Oct 22, aired is Men’s shorts films, in a program, called “Fabulosity”, of ten films called “Fabulosity,” at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring MD, in the large auditorium. The full anamorphic films were cropped to fit the standard size screen, rather than allowed to expand to the full potential size of the screen. Not all the films had a clear “beginning, middle and end.”

Here are the films:

(1) “Fabulosity” (USA), directed by Don Newcomb, 5 minutes. This film was shot in the smallest 4:3 ratio. An old-fashioned couple undergoes medical xray vision and sees (on rainbow colors) and unborn with “fabulosity”. The film expands into New York, with many possible adult incarnations of the baby, sometimes in disco-like poses on Christopher Street. Finally one of the men gives them grandchildren with surrogate fatherhood, and they get twins, one with and one without “fabulosity”.

(2) “Dolls” (USA), directed by Randy Casperson, 10 min. A teenage boy clings to his doll during a family yard sale (perhaps spurned by economic recession). The boy is taunted about his lack of conformity.

(3) “Romeo’s Kiss” (France), directed by Jullen Eger, 12 min. When the female lead for a college play has to go away, a boy plays the role of Juliet in rehearsal, and finds himself enamored to the lead. The very end allows him his downfall.

(4) “Something Like That” (Brazil), directed by Esmir Fiho, 15 minutes. A gay boy gets risqué in a mixed Sao Paolo club, and then finds fun with a “girl friend” romping through an empty supermarket. This film is shot in overexposed sepia.

(5) “Neurotics” (USA), directed by Nick Wauter, 14 minutes, in full anamorphic Panavision. This film was done with SAG actors (probably as a SAG Indie). The film traces the thoughts of a number of patrons at a gay bar. One likeable character stands out, trying to get an invitation (or perhaps “a recommend”). He succeeds.

(6) “Herzhaft” (Germany), directed by Martin Busker, 15 minutes. This is the most disturbing film of the set. A soccer coach has palled around with one of the teenage students, and the boy’s mother is suspicious of an inappropriate affair. The relationship may me more like father-son (as the boy does not have one). The movie is ambiguous, but it may not end well. The film has a distance resemblance to the Lifetime film “Student Seduction” (2003).

(7) “Sweat” (UK), directed by John Lochland, 15 minutes. A novice looks for real love at a bath house in the post AIDS world.

(8) “Just” (USA), directed by David Maurice Gil. Two Asian Americans, waking up in the morning, share their experiences as writers and with their own “don’t ask don’t tell” rules regarding infidelity. This film is in full anamorphic Panavision.

(9) “Mirror, Mirror” (Australia), directed by John Winter. A man looks at himself in the mirror and believes he lives with the ghost of his dead mother, a la Psycho. In full anamorphic Panavision.

(10) “The Red Dress” (USA), directed by Barney Cheng. A woman breaks into a church morgue to fulfill a friend’s last wish.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Oliver Stone makes fun of his own career with "W."

Oliver Stone enters the independent film market with his artsy history play ‘W.”, about you know who. Lionsgate proudly offers this film that runs 128 minutes and seems as much a satire of his earlier epic films like "JFK" as a fun session with our president.

Nevertheless, the script, by Stanley Weiser, is brilliant. It shows the personality of the president is expresses as a series of manipulations, related to his father’s constant attempts to bring him in line.

Josh Brolin looks little different in his 50s at this film than at 30, when he already looks washed up by alcohol. The film tells two parallel stories: one about the decision to go into Iraq based on self-fulfilling non-evidence of WMD’s, and the other about his “rise” in the Republican Party, pleasing his daddy (James Cromwell) and mama (Ellen Burstyn) who says he is so much like her. We see Texas Democrat Kent Hance (whom I remember from my days in Dallas, played by Paul Rae) make a fool of him, and we see his born-again experience. But, then again, we start off with the fraternity hazings at Skull and Bones at Yale, which are a bit like the tribunals that I skipped in my own lost college first semester.

Stone does not chronicle the 2000 election, or 9/11; I would have been curious as to how he would handle them, but the movie seems to run out of time.

My own middle initial is “W.” but people don’t call me that. Instead the “William” becomes “Bill” which hardly hides me with a pseudonym. But, in the earlier days, his father was called “George Bush” and the son was called “George W. Bush”. And, throughout most of the film, the father, until the son helps him win the 1988 election with the Horton stuff, thinks of him as a drag on the family, having swallowed his silver spoon.

Richard Dreyfuss and Toby Jones are particularly chilling as Dick Cheney and Karl Rove (“Bush’s Brain”) respectively. Rove looks especially like a part-object in this movie. Scott Glenn impersonates Donald Rumsfeld.

There are several funny scenes at a baseball park that looks like the old Arlington stadium that the Texas Rangers used in the 1980s (before building the new Ballpark), since George W. Bush part-owned the Rangers for a while.

The 7 PM showing at a Regal in Arlington VA, in a large stadium auditorium, nearly sold out. Arlington County is heavily Democratic, and might enjoy the voodoo treatment of George W.

Perhaps Stone will some day give us the movie we must all wait for: an Oliver Stone’s “Roswell”. That’s just my imagination right now. Think what he could do with that 1947 UFO cover-up.

News Brief: The AP reports that the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) is (by board vote Sunday) allowing a membership vote on strike authorization and bringing in a mediator. More details may follow in another post. Here is the link to the full story. (no author given, also available on Yahoo!).

Saturday, October 18, 2008

"Ask Not": a documentary about "don't ask don't tell" and gays in the military: would the ban be lifted if Obama wins?

On the way in on the Metro to the Reel Affirmations screening and SLDN panel discussion of “Ask Not” at the Lincoln Theater in Washington, I happened to sit by a college student who said that the train (quite late) had been halted when the cops had to arrest someone for getting on the tracks. The ride, barely arriving on time, was an adventure, as toward the end he said something like, “President Bush never asked for any sacrifice after 9/11, and that is a moral outrage.”

That fits into the movie, the first theatrical documentary on the current “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays in the military, which has been federal law since 1993. There have been a few TV films (and in the 1990s Servicemembers Legal Defense Network had screened the black and white “Coming Out Under Fire” based on Berube’s book). But this is the first film (other than perhaps a History Channel documentary mentioned below) that chronicles the history of the policy, particularly as it unfolded in the angry Congressional hearings held by Senator Sam Nunn in the first six months of 1993. Senator Warner is shown visiting an aircraft carrier and quizzing sailors; they omitted the disgraceful lowcrawl on the submarine “Hammerhead”, or the Norfolk hearings where Senator Strom Thurmond bellowed about homosexuality’s being “unnatural”. The film shows a brief excerpt from President Clinton’s July 19, 1993 speech at Fort McNair where he announces his “honorable compromise.” This part of the film, perhaps twenty minutes, more or less covers the same ground as my own “Chapter 4” in my own 1997 book “Do Ask Do Tell: A Gay Conservative Lashes Back” and my own text is (free access) here. The film shows a clip from the propaganda short “The Gay Agenda” produced by the religious right during the debate. The film also quotes Northwestern University military sociology professor Charles Moskos, who originally helped author "don't ask don't tell" out of the concern over "privacy" in the barracks, but who seems to have changed his mind since 9/11, and who has advocated a draft along with ending the gay ban and replacing "don't ask don't tell" with more reasonable internal conduct rules.

The director is Johnny Symons, and the production company is Persistent Visions, with the film website here The company website is this (note the hyphen). The company has two other documentaries about surrogates and gay fathers, “Beyond Conception” and “Daddy and Papa”. This new film runs 73 minutes and is presented in the smaller 4:3 aspect ratio. The company communicated at the screening that a DVD should be available soon.

Part of the film presents the demonstrations by a group called Soulforce, and the Equality Ride, and a young Minnesotan named Jacob Reitan (link). In a demonstration in Roseville, MN at a national guard recruiting center, a few people are arrested for refusing to leave after trying to enlist and then “telling.”

The film also has several scenes in Iraq, one with Army night vision, another with soldiers lounging in quarters, and several on-location shots of the streets of Baghdad.

One of the soldiers, discharged from the military, is on a Columbia SC radio show, taking calls, including one from a right wing called who says that the military should be reserved for “men who are men.”

The legal concepts behind the 1993 “don’t ask don’t tell” law are tricky. The law was passed on Nov. 30, 1993 as part of the Defense Authorization Bill. (Go here at Stanford University Law School’s site for the text.) The law views a statement that one (in the Armed Forces) is gay as creating a “rebuttable presumption” that one has a “propensity” to engage in homosexual acts. Curiously, it views an attempted gay marriage as such a “statement” even though in 1993 the gay marriage debate was only in the beginnings. The military is not supposed to ask, but any statement that gets back to the military can be grounds for discharge. This has led to witchhunts in some commands, fought by SLDN for 15 years now.

At one point, in a scene where the Equality Bus is driving through Colorado, one of narrators criticizes the naïve idea that “the ban doesn’t matter because it just means I couldn’t get drafted if they brought the draft back” as for the war on terror. Instead, the film takes the position that if you want equal rights, you have to be able to share equal responsibility and even equal risk in defending the freedom of others. The 1993 law, in fact, could be taken as suggesting that gays are somehow “morally unfit” to be placed in any situation where forced intimacy with other males is necessary for some overriding societal necessity. That kind of reasoning has been used in the past to try to fire gay teachers (the Briggs initiative in California in 1978) or exclude gays from fire departments (in New York in the 1970s when anti-discrimination laws were proposed). In my own case, I was expelled from the College of William and Mary in Nov. 1961 for admitting, under duress, to the Dean of Men on Thanksgiving weekend that I was a “latent homosexual” (which might not, in the literal language of the 1993 law, trigger the “rebuttable presumption” that homosexual conduct takes place, in a military application). My reputation, according to the “moral” standards of an era emerging from McCarthyism and about to undergo the Cuban Missile Crisis, would be sundered. I would take the draft physical and go from 4-F to 1-Y to 1-A and eventually be drafted and serve without incident from 1968-1970.

One point stressed in the film is that a number of those soldiers discharged were linguists, and military intelligence apparently failed to translate an obvious warning of the attack in Arabic the day before 9/11. (If that’s true, it’s just possible that without DADT, 9/11 might have been prevented.) Another point is that during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, discharges have dropped as the military needs its forces.

In one sequence, three ex-soldiers visit a college ROTC unit in Georgia on their tour to educate about the ban, and they see a D&C exercise where the soldiers are chanting songs with the "f" word (derogatory of homosexuals) in the cadence. Use of epithets against any group is supposed to violate regulations. The film documents President Truman's executive order integrating the military in 1948. It doesn't cover the recoupment or Solomon amendment problems for students and campuses.

Aaron Belkin, from the Michael D. Palm Center at the University of California at Santa Barbara, spoke, particularly about the success of lifting the ban in foreign militaries. I visited Dr. Belkin in February 2002 on a personal west coast trip after my own "retirement."

After the film, SLDN hosted a one-hour panel discussion (announced on their Frontlines blog), including Darren Manzella, who was on CBS “60 Minutes” last December and was retained for a long time after a partial self-outing (my previous story on this), and managing attorney Emily B. Hecht. Based on questions from the audience, it sounds as though the Pentagon is getting prepared for the likelihood of a world in which gays are allowed to serve in a manner similar to the policies in effect in Britain or as proposed by the Rand Corporation study in 1993 (a “code of military professional conduct”). Hecht mentioned that servicemembers discharged after 6 years in lose half of their separation benefits if the reason for the discharge is homosexual admission, but such discharges are "honorable." Barack Obama has said that he supports lifting “don’t ask don’t tell” and replacing it with a statute allowing gays to serve (which is necessary, because otherwise the old administrative policy of “asking” based on the 1981 “homosexuality is incompatible with military service” letter would return). However, it could take a whole term to get the Meehan bill (HR 1246, the Military Readiness Enhancement Act through Congress. There is no Senate bill yet.

One question in the discussion is whether any kind of re-segregation by sexual orientation could occur. This idea had been proposed, somewhat whimsically, in 1993 (even four sets of latrines and barracks). No way, everyone says. There was (after dismissal of "foxhole phobia") mention that women have decreasing restrictions on combat duties allowed, but that there was no biological or fundamental reason that such a restriction could apply to gay men.

Probably the largest book on the military gay ban is "Conduct Unbecoming" by Randy Shilts, from St. Martins in late 1993. The History Channel aired a one hour documentary "Gays in the Military" in 2000, with the stories of many other people, including Keith Meinhold, Michele Benecke (who would head SLDN for several years with Dixon Osburn) and murder victim Barry Winchell (in the Showtime film "Soldier's Girl" (2003)).

As John F. Kennedy said on Jan. 20, 1961, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." I think in the past John McCain did practice "country first." I'm not as sure today.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

"Breakfast with Scot" - a gay "Raising Helen"

Well, the Ontario comedy “Breakfast with Scot” is a bit like a gay “Raising Helen.” “Kind of” similar perhaps. Actually, the situation is a bit more complicated and opportunistic.

First, the basics. The film is distributed by Regent and Here! and is directed by Laurie Lynd, with the novel by Michael Downing. It looks gaudy and is shot in full widescreen with “2.35:1” aspect ratio. Eric and Sam (Thomas Cavanagh and Ben Shankman), who look a bit too much alike, are a nice male couple. Eric was a Canadian hockey player and now is a sportcaster, and Sam is a lawyer. Sam’s brother, Billy, is in Brazil when Billy’s girl friend dies and leaves the son, Scot, loose. Eric and Sam wind up taking care of Sam, at first having to deal with making their attic into a real bedroom. Sam turns out to be quite colorful, loving to sing and cross dress, making a sensation at his middle school. The gay couple has to deal with the comic irony that the boy may be more obviously "gay" than they are. The female teacher wants him to have other male role models besides the “fine young male couple.” Eric starts to teach Scot to play hockey, and that leads to comic complications. Finally, Billy returns at a Christmas party, but it becomes clear that Scot wants the male couple to become his family.

Remember, in the NBC soap “Days of our Lives” the character Nick wound up taking care of two boys as a result of a bizarre con in Las Vegas.

The film obviously argues for both gay marriage and gay adoption. But it also shows how childless and often single people may suddenly find themselves in a situation where they are expected to take care of "OPC", other people's children. Here, as in "Raising Helen" and "Saving Sara Cain" (discussed on this blog Aug. 24, 2007), a single person (the new film doesn't say that the men are married according to progressive Canadian or Ontario law) finds himself, after a death and a will, indirectly, at least, confronted with the challenge of child care. The film does include a "will reading" scene with a lawyer. The character Eric has said he doesn't want kids.

This movie was the opening night film for the LGBT Reel Affirmations Film Festival in Washington DC, (the 18th festival) at the Lincoln Theater at 13th and U Sts NW.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The films of Krzysztof Kieslowski, Polish director

One of the most interesting directors in all time, Krzysztof Kieslowski (1941-1996), came from Communist Poland, with most of his work completed before the Iron Curtain fell. Kieslowski loved to take situations that seem to grow out of common environments and imagine existential moral dilemmas that had no clear answer, and play them out. He often cowrites with Krzysztof Piesiewicz. Some of his later work was done in France.

Central to his work was a ten-hour telefilm series, "The Dekalog" (1088), a series of ten one-hour dramas with characters (often appearing in several of the dramas) who live in a Warsaw housing project. Each drama is based on one of the Ten Commandments. The full screen DVDs (three of them) are distributed by Facet, with an introduction by Roger Ebert.

The first drama, for example, presents a professor who trains his son to use science and reason (dramatized with 1980s style personal computers), and that leads to tragedy in a local pond. In another drama, a woman kidnaps a daughter who had been raised as a sister. In still another, a man needs to sell a kidney to complete a stamp collection and is confronted by the moral questions of being open to sharing a part of his own body.

Two of the films generated short features (“A Short Film about Killing” and “A Short Film about Love”, the former a famous exercise opposing capital punishment). But what gets more interesting is how he explores the idea of chance in a couple of his other feature films.

Blind Chance” (“Przypadek”) was originally filmed in 1981 but was not available until 1987 because of political objections from the Communist Polish government. Here, Kieslowski poses the alternative paths in life that can occur when a young man (Boguslaw Linda), a medical student, runs for a train. If he makes it, he winds up becoming an activist in the Communist Party. If he gets stopped and arrested by police, he becomes active in resistance. If he gives up and misses altogether, he becomes a doctor, has a passionate “Song of Solomon” marriage, stays away from politics and emphasizes family and personal matters, but then dies in a random plane crash. The filmmaker’s view is that our basic social and political attitudes are shaped by somewhat random events that the outside world imposes on us. There seems to be no ultimate logically consistent “moral truth.” The same concept would be explored by British director Peter Hewitt in the 1998 film “Sliding Doors” (from Miramax), where a young woman, after being fired from a job, either makes or doesn’t make a London underground train.

But the most interesting concept may be the one film he made outside of Poland after Communism fell, “The Double Life of Veronique,” (1991) with theatrical distribution by Miramax. A young woman, played by Irene Jacob, has two incarnations or doppelgangers, with the same appearance and personality, one in Poland and one in France. They may meet or glance at each other once. Both love music and voice but questionable health. But the Polish incarnation collapses and dies in a stirring concert (with operatic music by Zbigniew Preisner). The French “copy” falls in love with a puppeteer but gradually comes to decide to leave music despite her having worked so hard at lessons. The use of marionettes in the second part of the movie plays with our idea of what makes people “real”. This film would make a great stage opera if the composer would finish it that way; imagine it at the Met!

So, two people can have similar talents and psychic constitution (particularly with gifts in music), and one succeeds and one does not because of external factors or because of some deeper problem with karma. For me personally, this an extremely important idea.

Then the director has his “Trois Coleurs” films. Music comes back in “Blue” as composer Patrie de Courcy dies in an accident, and his widow retreats into a schizoid world. The composer’s opera was to be called “The Unity of Europe” and would obviously relate to the politics of the EU (especially today in the financial crisis). She even destroys the notes of the work out of grief. The music of Preisner is spellbinding, and resembles that in the Veronique film. “White” (“Bilary”) presents the sharp-edged proposition of a man humiliated (in France) by not being able to perform sexually in his marriage. After he goes back to Poland, he comes up with an elaborate scheme that attracts his ex-wife and gets her sent to prison. In "Red," Irene Jacob appears again as a woman spied upon by a judge, who has built up a list of enemies. The film concludes with a mini-Titanic disaster in the English Channel.

Kieslowski produced numerous short films, mostly in black and white. The “Veronique” CD includes “Factory”, “Hospital” and “Railway Station,” all of which have some fun with life under Communism (in the hospital, doctors don’t practice good hygiene). That DVD also includes "The Musicians" ("Muzycanci"), 1960, dir. Kazimierz Karzbasz, about a factory orchestra. There is also “Tramway” and “A Night Porter’s Point of View” and “Workshop Exercises” where a filmmaker interviews reluctant youth about life in Communist Poland.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

DiCaprio shines in "Body of Lies", an episodic spy caper (not quite like 007)

First of all, Warner Brothers got it right, proudly playing its Casablanca theme over an orange shot of its studios, and then following that with “Scott Free”, Ridley Scott’s company. This latest spy movie, "Body of Lies", as watched seems a bit episodic, like a TV series, with multiple locations and situations, yet there is a single unifying idea, or a body of ideas, from the novel by Davis Ignatius. Now, I don't mean "episodic" like a James Bond movie; perhaps I could say quixotic.

Leonardo DiCaprio is great as a grown man (all the more convincing with his global warming efforts – when will he be on Oprah?) and as CIA agent Roger Ferris he exudes quite a bit of charisma (as in “Blood Diamond”), even if the dyed hair looks a bit fake or silly. (Ferris is no "007"; he is a lot more human.) The central plot is his setting up a fake terrorist cell to smoke out the real one Al-Saleem (Alon Abutbul). Underneath this is his relationship with Jordanian security chief Hani (Mark Strong) and a pseudo-romance with a nurse Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani) who gives him his five shots in the stomach for rabies exposure (I had just seen Quarantine yesterday!, review here), all part of plan. The movie moves from the Iran-Iraq border to Washington, to Jordan, Dubai (to set up the ruse) and Turkey, and back to Jordan, and then Syria for the final confrontation with Saleem. The locations in the movie were often substituted: Morocco for a lot of the Mideast scenery, the Eastern Market in Washington DC (recovering from a fire in real life) to simulate terrorist explosions in Britain and Amsterdam. The Dubai scenes look real (I didn’t see the Burj), although I think an aerial shot of the artificial Palms could have been interesting. One of the most amazing shots is from far overhead in the desert, as Di Caprio walks alone, waiting for his deliberate trap.

There are a lot of interesting confrontations, as when Ferris fires the former chief in Jordan, or at the very end, when he turns down the CIA’s offer (from his boss, played by a pot-bellied and double-chinned Russell Crowe) with typical Ridley consequences. The “relationship” with the nurse is interesting but is subtle.

The political message in the story sequence is conventional and artificially clever. There is the usual rhetoric about how radical Islam wants to convert all infidels or kill them, and that a democracy can never really tolerate black ops. Then there is the life of the CIA agent, obviously a good person, but in divorce, enjoying his adventurous life as a young adult male too much to really put out for marriage (“Fireproof” style). (Jennifer Roback Morse and Maggie Gallagher will not approve.) The layers of deceit get expressed in the movie’s middle, with the fake cell, the Dubai contacts, and all the computer email hacking and reverse phishing.

I have a draft of a novel (too long at 140000 words) that I call “Brothers” (rather like Dean and Sam in "Supernatural") that duels a thirty-something “family man” CIA agent who lives a double life, working (like his wife) as a history teacher much of the time, who meets a gay college student overseas, who draws him into, not just a relationship, but a double plot where the government is trying (in its right-wing element) to conceal the arrival of aliens, which a shocking revelation of who the aliens are, while covering up a mysterious epidemic of schizophrenia-like dementia that seems to happen mainly at high altitudes or in areas with dangerous occupations (like mines). My CIA agent (who has a curious and manipulative boss comparable to Crowe’s character) doesn’t use weapons or assertive violence (or even control) until his own middle school son is kidnapped by the fibbies. I have the characters going on a final road trip to blast off as the world faces the end of life as we know it.
Maybe a good one for Scott Free?

Friday, October 10, 2008

"Call + Response" is an important indie film about global slavery

Justin Dillon’s film “Call + Response” (or “Call and Response”, website) is being shown, one late show an evening, at the two Cinema and Drafthouses in the Washington area, in Arlington and Bethesda. I saw it tonight at the Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse to a full audience, almost sold out. I’ve never seen an independent film platformed this way before. The film is distributed by Fair Trade Films.

The issue is compelling: worldwide slavery. The film offers some focus on the sex trade overseas, which often victimizes young girls (sometimes boys). There is a particular vicious circle: Girls get “sold” by fathers in poor countries to pay debts or pay for dowries. If a girl is the oldest child, in some cultures she is expected to allow herself to be sold this way to provide for her parents, a warped form of filial piety. In some cases girls are "sewn" to create the appearance of virginity for "customers." In Africa, especially, girls are likely to get HIV, which results in a finite life span, after which they are "thrown away."

The film explains how the slavery “business” works and why it is so profitable. It also points out that many consumer items that we take for granted (coffee, many clothes and electronics) depend on slave labor overseas.

The film presents short interviews with many celebrities, including former Clinton administration secretary of state Madeleine Albright, Ashley Judd, and Cornell West. A reporter for the New York Times relates stretching his formal journalistic ethics (neutrality) and buying three girls out of slavery, only to see one of them return because of methamphetamine addiction.

The other activity in the film is musical concerts, especially by “Cold War Singers” and “Concert to End Slavery.” Some of the music is composed by Dillon himself. Many of the concert clips are in black and white. There are many overseas scenes of the squalor in Asia and Africa (including the largest lake, with kids diving for fish around tree trunks). There are other stills and clips, often in black and white, with kids’ faces muted.

It is against federal law to travel overseas for the purpose of activity with minors.

Other important recent films dealing with slavery include “Amazing Grace” and “Amistad”. In May 2007 I reviewed Zack Hunter’s book about slavery, “Be the Change,” here.

The Arlington Theater has been around since the 1940s, when it was a "neighborhood" theater that showed movies for a few days at a time after they had played downtown. I saw "Gone with the Wind" there as a boy in 1954.

The film was mentioned (with a brief music clip shown) on the Dr. Phil show on Friday Oct. 10, 2008.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Documentary "The Outsider" pairs with James Toback's "When Will I Be Loved?"

It’s not often that a documentary about the making of a movie is really a separate movie in its own right. But that’s the case with “The Outsider” (don’t confuse with “Outsiders”), about the career of maverick director James Toback. This is not an exercise in narcissism or self-reflection: it has its own director, Nicholas Jarecki, with a lot of commentary from other stars, especially Robert Downey Jr., as well as Woody Allen and Harvey Keitel. The film was distributed to Cable by Showtime and the DVD is distributed by Red Envelope (Netflix) itself.

Most of the documentary traces the 12-day shoot in New York of the stylish sex thriller “When Will I Be Loved”. Toback says he got $2 million from British investors to make any movie he wanted. The documentary goes through some of his earlier highlights: Bugsy, Black and White, Exposed, and Fingers.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Toback’s work is his freedom and independence. A Sony Pictures executive says, well, he could get a studio job adapting screenplays, but he would have to compromise.

As for the “Loved” film, he talks a lot about his actors, how they adapt. He gives some details about a sequence in “Loved” where Frederick Weller’s character Ford is smothered by beauties in the Rambles in Central Park (I guess it’s there), and how they undo his shirt and practically perform surgery. In the actual film that sequence is intercut with scenes where Vera Barrie (Neve Campbell) looks for love herself (including at least one lesbian episode), but on the “gobacks” not much of Weller is shown, as most of the shots are distant (although the camera approaches a bit) and he is covered with, well, young women.

Toback talks about his techniques, especially the Steadicam camera.

That brings us to the film itself. The documentary shows Toback meeting with IFC (Independent Film Channel) for initial theatrical distribution (I don’t know if it got into festivals), and it did not get much attendance. But then MGM picked up the DVD rights, and the film made $5 million. (For investors, that’s a PE of 0.4, effectively).

The story is the stuff of soap opera. Vera and Ford break up, and they plot at each other. Ford comes up with a scheme to pimp her to a rich Italian (Dominic Chianese). She tricks him when she says, “set it up!” and that sets up a tragic confrontation at the end. (By the way, the same concept drives some of the current plot of the NBC soap "Days of our Lives.") The movie (shot in full 2.35:1) looks glitzy, kind of like “Gossip Girl”. Weller usually doesn’t play mean characters (he’s likeable in “Stonewall” and in “The Business of Strangers”) but here he proves he can play the part of a slimeball who is perhaps redeemable after all.

The music is quite effective: Vera's scenes (especially intimate ones) are accompanies with music from the slow movement of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 7 in F major: "Rasumowsky Quartet"; Glenn Gould playing Bach and a pensive Brahms intermezzo (staple performance on Columbia records from the early 1960s) also deepens the mood of the film.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

IndieVest provides a portal for investors in independent film

On Monday, Oct. 6, The Wall Street Journal “Marketplace” ran a story (p B1) about a company called IndieVest which offers small ownership stakes in people who want to invest in movies. IndieVest (“connecting film and capital”) calls itself an “independent film studio, financier and distributor” on its webpage, eager to work with wealthy individuals interest in sponsoring film. (Hint: if you’re a fledgling filmmaker, you need to find somebody rich to sponsor your film—and it may be more complicated than that.) It has a membership page intended for potential investors only (not filmmakers needing money). The Journal says that there are several levels of membership, the highest being $5000. Members can review film projects and decide which one’s to invest in.

The WSJ mentions the film “Saint John of Las Vegas” in production, to star Steve Buscemi.

The WSJ story is by Peter Sanders, and is called “High-Risk Glamour: A Piece of an Indie Flick: IndieVest members pay fee, get right to buy into a film”, link here.

I’ve seen effective films made for less than $10000 (such as Brian Herzlinger’s “My Date with Drew,” 2003, from Lucky Crow) and the sci-fi time machine fantasy-drama “Primer,” 2004, by Dallas filmmaker Shane Caruth, from ThinkFilm.

It’s typical, though, for a film that aims to make a social or political statement effectively and get major attention in the “establishment” indie market to cost $5-$40 million to make professionally, but sometimes they get made more cheaply. “Good Night and Good Luck” (Participant and 2929) cost a little under $10 million. “Fireproof” (a “Christian” film, distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films) cost about $500000 because many people worked without compensation. Josh Stolberg’s libertarian satire of public school suppression of free speech, “Kids in America” (Launchpad, 2005, with Gregory Smith as “Holden”) cost a bit less than $1 million. A key to successful financing is finding big name stars and talent who will work for less (or even invest themselves) because they believe that the message of the film is necessary. This is likely to be true in the future for films with major themes about the environment (global warming, oil), the economy (like health care or the fiscal crisis) or international outrages (like Darfur), or social issues (ranging all the way from gay rights to evangelical Christian material).

It would seem that companies like IndieView can provide an effective alternative for filmmakers who might be frozen out by today’s difficulties in more conventional credit markets, caused by the recent global financial panic.

In another brief topic, the Oscars (the National Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) has created controversy by requiring that documentary features have at least a one week platform theatrical run by Aug. 31 of the year of consideration. The Academy says it is trying to get more documentary into theaters. It seems to me that Landmark, Regal, and AMC Select are showing a lot more documentary already.

Monday, October 06, 2008

New museum in DC offers documentary short: "The AMW Story" (America's Most Wanted) with John Walsh

The National Museum of Crime & Punishment in Washington DC (link) (near the Gallery Place Metro) offers a ten minute film downstairs by John Walsh, “The AMW Story: America’s Most Wanted.” (link. The film documents how a family tragedy inspired him to start a television show on Fox in 1981, that at first was aired on only five stations. The result was the capture of a suspect within hours. The film marches quickly through the AMW program to emphasize footage of the most recent catastrophes. There are detailed shots of the ground around 9/11 the evening of the tragedy, as never shown before, really emphasizing the “war zone” look. He shows an area in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans long before the water went down after Hurricane Katrina. Then he shows Interpol in Lyon, France and then finally a scene in Dubai (without the Burj).

The film ends with a short comic add-on if AMW “Bloopers”. Walsh had no television or media experience when he started the hit primetime program, still on Fox (related to 20th Century Fox studios).

The Museum home page has several interesting photos, including the inside of a typical jail cell, and a cadaver about to be examined in an autopsy. My stand up comic friend in Minneapolis used to say, “Stay out of jail” to everyone as he gave them coffee.

The "American's Most Wanted" is separate from the FBI's 10 Most Wanted Fugitives (including Osama bin Laden), link here.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Documentary "Boogie Man" tells the story of Lee Atwater's GOP hitman career, illness, and impact

Lee Atwater (Harvey Leroy Atwater), 1951-1991 was a controversial political operative in the Republican Party. He collapsed at a fundraising breakfast in early 1990 after having been made chairman of the Republican National Committee. The media covered the catastrophic and aggressive nature of his brain tumor, an astrocytoma, as he died a year later. Had he not been struck down, there George H.W. Bush might have run a much more effective campaign against Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in 1992, and Bill Clinton might not have been elected. History could have been very different. (For example, the whole “don’t ask don’t tell” policy would never have been attempted.) At the end, Atwater comes to feel that his cancer, which made him quite helpless, had become his just karma.

All of this is covered in the video documentary “Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story”, from InterPositive Media, directed by Stefan Forbes. It was shown this week at Landmark E Street cinema with digital projection, with the picture slightly cropped into a trapezoidal format. (The movie has nothing to do with “Boogie Nights” with Mark Wahlberg.)

The medical story takes up about the last ten minutes of the film, and shows Atwater as bloated by steroids given in addition to radiation therapy. The rest of the film is a biography, tracing his origins in South Carolina, and his love of superficial political competition. In fact, his favorite sport was show wrestling, because it’s demonstrably dishonest. He worked for segregationist Strom Thurmond, and helped defeat Tom Turnipseed. He would manipulate words to say potentially mean things in a socially acceptable way.

The best known episode of his career would occur in 1988. George H W Bush was unsure of his leadership of his campaign at first, but when he started winning primaries, Atwood got entrenched. During the campaign against Michael Dukakis, he would pull off some dirty tricks, including an unsubstantiated flag burning charge against wife Kitty. Then the Willie Horton affair, with Dukasis’s supposedly unwise release of prisoners was exploited.

The movie shows him playing in a rock band. There is plenty of archival footage, and his face seems to age more rapidly than it should have. There are a couple of still photos of lynchings in the film.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Bill Maher's great satire "Religulous"

Bill Maher, who once, as I recall, said he is interested only in the grown-up world, pokes great fun at “religiosity” (or perhaps, “Churchianity” as Rosicrucians call it) in his latest satire documentary “Religulous,” directed by Larry Charles (“Borat”), from LionsGate and Thousand Words.

Most of the film consists of Maher’s interviewing various religious leaders and followers; you wonder how he got in to get the interviews. Well, in fact, he gets thrown out of the Vatican, and there’s background in a couple scenes “don’t talk to that TV guy.” Many of the discussions are sophistic, with Maher, alert and speaking with great comedy, drawing out the contradictions in the way many religious leaders state their positions. The film is punctuated with quick shots of animation, war footage, or demonstrations or anything else to reemphasize his point.

Very early, the talks to Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists. Pretty soon he gets to the gay issue, and quotes Jerry Falwell and, worse, Fred Phelps (from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka KS). He interviews an “ex-gay” counselor in a low-rise Florida office, with the typical merry-go-round debate on immutability. The counselor leaves the impression that marriage and children make an affirmative moral duty. They actually hug.

He visits the Holy Land Experience in Orlando. He interviews a hippy-haired young man in a robe with a string-tied open shirt who pretends to look like Jesus (with a hairy chest). The young man says that God will wipe out evil soon. But then there is a re-enactment of the Passion, with a real actor, scraped and bloodied (almost like James Caviezel in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”) who has to play the scene live several times every day. Visitors in the audience actually cry. That’s a brutal acting job.

The then visits a museum celebration creation science in Kentucky, with dioramas showing early man living with dinosaurs.

He visits a scientology demonstration in Hyde Park in London, where they talk about audits and ridding oneself of Thetans. There is a one-second cameo of Tom Cruise.

He has a brief interview with ex-Mormons in view of the Salt Lake Temple, and gets into ridiculing some of the stories, such as the idea that native Americans are descendents of lost tribes from the Holy Land.

He even finds a pothead in an Amsterdam "coffee shop" who has made a religious experience out of getting high.

The most telling part of the film occurs near the end, as he examines Islam. The film stresses radical Islam (perhaps unfairly for Islam as a whole), particularly in the Netherlands. In one scene he stands in front of the Grand Central Station in Amsterdam. I myself have taken the yellow and blue double-decker trains back and forth to Schiphol and seen the apartment flats along the rails many times. He visits the spot where Theo van Gogh was assassinated and shows a brief clip from “Submission,” mentions the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy and shows a brief 1989 clip of a violent Muslim demonstration against Salman Rushdie for his novel “Satanic Verses.” Maher gets into arguments why it is so unacceptable to “insult” or blaspheme the prophet. He interviews Geert Wilders, the Dutch legislator who (with Scarlet Pimpernel) directed and wrote the short “Fitna” (reviewed on this blog March 28, 2008).

He interviews an orthodox rabbi who maintains that Jews do not deserve a homeland. He visits the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and goes over the conflict between the three major faiths.

Finally, he takes aim at the attitude behind much of organized religion. He says that “doubt” is good (even if he is no Michael Douglas), and that he sees religion as a childlike need to create certainty (or a “system of certainty”) in a world where hardships and losses cannot be prevented or goals accomplished by one’s efforts alone. I can remember prayers in communions in MCC where the celebrant says, "I am a believer, not a doubter."

The film opened with LionsGate's full musical overture, starting with the machinery of Metropolis, and ending with a view of the real Lions Gate in Greece. This is Hollywood's best trademark. (Sorry, LionsGate is a Canadian company.)

The film nearly sold out in a large auditorium at the 7:40 PM show at an AMC theater in south Arlington, VA, near a Shirlington street fair for the day.

Picture: Outdoor "Freedom of Religion" near a Metro station in Arlington VA: all visitors are welcome.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

"Towelhead" aka "Nothing Is Private"

When I saw the movie poster for “Towelhead” my first association was the comic parody “Baghead”, reviewed here recently (Aug 25, 2008). In fact, that is a coincidence; the new film directed by Alan Ball and distributed by Warner Independent Pictures has an alternative title, “Nothing Is Private.” It is definitely in R-rated territory. The "Towelhead" title was the title of the original novel by Alicia Erian.

That is so among the more collective, patriarchal cultures of the Islamic world as well as Christian families in suburban Houston. This is one of those films where reviewers don’t disclose much of the plot or substance, and it doesn’t sound at first as if the setup or characters would be all that interesting. But they indeed are.

The colloquial title of the movie seems to refer to at least informal masking of women in middle eastern cultures, in opposition to what goes on behind closed doors. Thirteen-year-old Jasira (Summer Bishil) arrives at Houston to live with her autocratic Lebanese Christian father Rifat (Peter Macdissi, actually born in Lebanon). You know there are problems when, at the airport, his conversation seems to blame her for the plane’s being late. They settle down for Christmas and the mild Texas winter while then following the US war against Saddam Hussein at the beginning of 1991.

Now, in a nice ranch house neighborhood (that rather looks like the area near EDS in Plano) there are the neighbors. One is an African American teen Thomas (Eugene Jones III) out to prove his manhood. That isn’t too surprising today, other than that it gives the script the chance to play the race card. Rifat even says, “I didn’t make the world the way it is.” The other big complication is much more troubling. Manly Aaron Eckhart plays Travis, a reserve soldier claiming he will be deployed to the Middle East for “humanitarian” purposes. He behaves deceptively enough at first, but pretty soon we realize he is a creep, and, with his staged and invasive advances against Jasira, you expect Chris Hansen to show up anytime from NBC Dateline and “Peej”. In fact, the police eventually show up and cart him off in handcuffs, and you want to see more screen time seeing him get what he deserves.

In fact, the behaviors of the male characters in this drama demonstrate what’s wrong with, and what’s sometimes right with, the “heterosexual world.” Travis already has a family, with a precocious and curious grade school son Zach (Chase Ellison) who somewhat inadvertently jump starts the complications to follow with his schoolboy voyeurism for dirty mags. But Travis, Thomas and Rifat (in different ways) seem obsessed with “possessing virginity,” and the context (including Jasira’s culture-driven obsession with certain intimate cosmetic preparations that cause her mother (Maria Bello) to ship her to her dad to start with) suggests that they perceive this as how they will provide families and “justify” their lives as competitive men. On the other hand, a neighboring family, Melina and Gil Hines (Toni Collette and Matt Letscher), with Melina very obviously pregnant, at one point shelter Jasira and act much more like a family that has accepted “modern family values” while still remaining faithful and disciplined. At one point, Melina mentions the social problems that result when married adults (especially women) have to "compete" with the fantasy images in dirty magazines.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures

Warner Brothers ( as a 2001 release) offers a rather lengthy documentary about one of its most famous and visionary directors, "Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures" (2001, directed by Jan Harlan). Kubrick (1928-1999) was born in New York but lived much of his life and did some of his most important work in Britain.

Kubrick developed such “power” in his area that no one could contest his vision. His movies were always so much more than the sum of their parts. There was always an attitude about things that transcended the words and pictures. His work expressed ambiguity for its own sake, a concept generally not previously accepted in the movies, where storytelling (“beginning, middle and end”) had become its own end.

He also made music, often drawn from the classics, like a “character” in his films. He used the music of Ligeti to great effect in “2001” and later in “Eyes Wide Shut” (with the two-note piano motive).

One of his early masterpieces was “Paths of Glory” and the documentary excerpts the famous line about cowardice, in a story where the charge is vented at soldiers by drawing lots. Many of his early masterpieces were in black and white. One of the most famous is “Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1963). I actually saw that with a friend in a little theater on 8th Street in Greenwich Village in the 1970s. People watch this film over and over because of its odd way of being funny, beyond the obvious moral satire of the Cuban Missile Crisis world. A general talks about being “funny in the head” and the “silly thing” of attacking a country.

Another black-and-white masterpiece was “Lolita” (1962) which Kubrick agreed to trim in the US because of the strenuous objections of the Catholic church of its promoting licentiousness (and of the underage girl). The movie generates the name of an important psychiatric syndrome.

I saw “2001: A Space Odyssey” (based on Arthur C. Clarke’s story—Clarke appears in the documentary) at the Uptown Theater in Washington shortly after finishing Army Basic training myself in 1968. There’s irony, to be sure, in what the year “2001” finally represented. The Strauss tone poem opening is used to stunning effect, as is the abstract symbol of the monolith. At the time, it seemed logical that Howard Johnsons would offer accommodations on a space station, and that Pan Am would offer space travel like air travel. Look at what happened. Instead of ready-made space travel and computers that run our thoughts like HAL, we have the Internet.

One of the most controversial and violent films was “A Clockwork Orange” (1971, based on the novel by Meredith Burgess). There were a number of imitation “Clockwork” beatings in Britain, and many accused Kubrick of inciting youths to violence. Kubrick himself had the film pulled from British theaters after a year, and found himself unable to live there or protect his own family in the climate of hostility that followed. The experience raises moral questions about the influence of media creators on the actions of others. The documentary does show a minimal amount of the “X” footage from the movie.

Some of his other films, like "Waterloo" and "Barry Lyndon", did not attract a wide audience, although they were certainly visionary. In the lengthy Lyndon, Kubrick made the clothing almost like a character in the movie. He would use one of Schubert’s piano trios as a “character” in the movie. In adapting Stephen King’s “The Shining” he would make the Overbrook hotel a character, with the rooms (especially the lavatories) turning into monochromatic menace.

“Full Metal Jacket” would recreate the traumatic experience of an ordinary man’s draft and service in Vietnam, and provide a somewhat dreamlike memory of the horror of the experience rather than a straightline story.

The documentary shows a little of the “initiation” scene from “Eyes Wide Shut”, but points out the ambiguity of the film. It is shot in a place that looks like New York, but isn’t (it’s London(. It is like a dream. Remember Tom Cruise's last word in that film?