Sunday, November 30, 2008

"Slumdog Millionaire" is all too timely now

After I saw "Slumdog Millionaire" today, including the spectacular closing credits choreography, performed in a Mumbai train station, led by star Dev Patel (as Jamal Malik) and Latika (Freida Pinto), I got back to my car and turned on the classical station radio and, in the drizzle, listened to the crowning choral passages of Bach’s B Minor Mass. It seemed that that would have worked at the very end of the credits, in this “feel good” layered story, that takes us through all the castes and squalor of Indian society as its people out hustle us in a global workplace.

In fact, in the “middle” of the film, there’s a great scene in an Indian call center, where Jamal manipulates his way through a situation. It kind of frames the entire point of the film.

Well, I get ahead of myself. Danny Boyle co-directs with Indian Loveleen Tandan, an adaptation by Simon Beaufoy of the novel by Vikas Swarup. The ambitious film is aimed at the “indie” market and distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures, but Warner Brothers (the real thing (not "just" Warner Independent Pictures) with its Casablanca introduction) is on there too (probably for International release), and the two production companies Celador and Film 4 are at the heart of Britain’s film business.

The film came out in early November, but it has become timely given the tragedy in Mumbai Nov. 26. The film opens up in the second half, showing us panoramic views of all the new condo development there, on top of the old shantytowns (which we see plenty of), as well as the mass of poverty. We get a visual sense of how India is emerging, and how social tensions play out. That, of course, brings us to the story.

Jamal is on a streak on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” very much taunted by the host. Each question leads back to an earlier boyhood episode where he needed to develop his street smarts to survive in the squalor, as a "slumdog". His only reason to be on the show is to be seen and recognized by his lost love, but he answers the questions by reviewing his own life, escaping the crooked schemes of relatives. So his life becomes the story, leading up to the climax on the last question. The (multiple choice) questions refer specifically to subject matter about India; many Americans would not be able to answer them.

The film begins with the cops dragging him in to a torture and electrical prodding rendition scene (which is quite harrowing) since he is suspected of cheating or, worse, of being part of some kind of corruption undermining the show. He just wants to get back to his "love." That will come out in the back story plot as it unfolds.

Patel pulls off the role with great charisma. Particularly interesting is his ability to control the mood on the quiz show itself. He could get an Oscar nod for this film, and at 18 be one of the youngest ever best actors ever.

Update: Jan. 12, 2009

This film won the Golden Globe award for best dramatic picture. Also, Access Hollywood reports that Warner Independent Pictures was supposed to be the distributor, but Warner Brothers closed the sub-studio, along with New Line and Picturehouse in 2008 (check the stories on Imdbpro). However, New Line (planning "The Hobbit") still has an active website, and so does Picturehouse; and WIP still has a shell with nothing on it. Corporations rarely get rid of their brands entirely, because trademark law encourages them to protect them. In fact, lawyers are likely to tell WB to start using them again just to protect them from any attempts at dilution. These are great movie brands and retiring them makes no business sense at all. Expect to see all these labels back. (Newmarket Films ("Memento") got lost in all of this, too.) I don't know why the regular WB studio didn't want full distribution rights to the film. Fox Searchlight (from the "evil" "conservative" News Corp.) hit a home run by picking up this gem of a film, and Warner Brothers really blew it. The Washington Times ought to have fun with this one.

Dev Patel appeared on "Ellen" on Jan. 14, 2009.

Update: Feb. 22

The movie won Best Picture at the Oscars and many other awards. The song and Bollywood dance "Jai Ho" was performed at the ceremony and the next day on Oprah.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Logo sci-fi shorts: "Oedipe" and "Hirsute"

Logo Online has added some more intriguing sci-fi like shorts (maybe they have been there a while), but a couple are particularly notable.

One is the French short “Oedipe – [N+1]”, (also called “Oedipus – [N+1]”), directed by Eric Rognard, based on the novel by Jean-Jacques Nguyen, running 26 minutes, from Fidelite Productions. The Logo link is here. In a “Brave New World” (maybe without Aldous Huxley), a mother has her expired son’s memory downloaded into a new body, from a company called New Life. She belongs to “the Circle” which is a kind of cabal. The film opens with an attractive young man Thomas (Jalil Lespert) being “unwrapped” and scrubbed by a hospital assistant. Pretty soon he is put into a sensory deprivation tank (remember “Altered States”) and his memories come back.. He is attractive, and is allowed to keep his chest hair. We meet “Mother” (almost out of Hitchcock) and we quickly figure out that she had him ‘recycled” to make his straight. I guess this is the ultimate ex-gay horror possibility. Of course, it (Mother’s attempt to rebuild his “character”) doesn’t work. Thomas circulates in his old world, which may be virtual. He gets a hand chopped off, but, not problem, New Life can replace it. Pretty soon we get into dialogue that sounds like it came out of O’Reilly’s object-oriented programming. Thomas realizes that he is an “instantiation”, and that there are other “instances” of his “class” that have existed. The nightmarish world is a bit like Second Life.

Back in the 1990s, Omni Magazine had an article proposing that, instead of death, a rich person could have his brain downloaded onto a harddrive and live forever on a computer (unless the hard drive crashes, but I guess he could be backed up, even on an optical drive to protect him from future EMP attacks).

I suppose I can image a sci-fi horror short: one is in a dream, and cannot break the dream and wake up. One wanders a world that seems increasingly confined, like that of a model railroad set.

The alternate universe is rather like a kesperate divided into "Outer" and Inner" circles for the poor and the privileged.  The outer circles look like underground dives.
The film now appears on a Wolfe set "Boy Crush" (April 18, 2016).  Wolfe has a site for this short here.

The other interesting film is “Hirsute” by Canadian A. J. Bond, link here, from “The Siblings” and running about thirteen minutes. The link is here. The title seems deceptive at first. The film presents a young physicist, Kyle (played by Bond), having worked out a design for a time machine with all kinds of equations on a white board. He meets his "identical" twin or doppelganger, who seems to have come into existence by the logical paradox created by his time machine. But the twin looks different in one critical way: he has been shorn. (I recall those silly conversations in Army barracks: "Feel!" "He'th thmooth!") Kyle wonders what his future holds for him, psychologically and erotically at least, or if something will be done to him (as could happen in a fraternity hazing or “tribunal”). The actual machine is an egg-like device, and using it could be dangerous, even suicidal, despite the paradoxes.

YouTube has a large number of amateur videos about body hair removal, most of them silly and brief, many from cell phones. Some have catchy titles about lost manhood, and others look at "it" as optional as the facial beard. But there is one video called “Body Hairhere from “Bstnscribe” that puports to have been done for a school project.

Post Script: Dec 2, 2008

Anyone notice the "versatility" of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps on the cover of Sports Illustrated today? It's like the second of these two films, but in reverse.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

"Australia" from Fox: An epic "western" paying tribute to several classic films

The epic film this fall from 20th Century Fox, "Australia", directed by Baz Luhrmann with an original story by him and some others, surely pays homage to a number of other films and genres. It is in a sense a “modern Australian western” but it has elements of “Giant”, “Gone with the Wind”, “Pearl Harbor” and even Peter Weir’s “The Last Wave”. And the writing reflects the style of 50s epic storytelling, creating novel situations with characters in historical circumstances that have since become obscure to most people. That is the job of the movies, to take you into another world, and this movie does that.

“Faraway Downs”, the ranch which English noblewoman Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) takes over after having discovered her husband’s mysterious tragedy upon her arrival (she originally wanted him to come back to Britain), reminds one of “Drohega” from “The Thorn Birds” even if it is more run down at first. Her counterpart and eventual lover Drover (Hugh Jackman) is a much better person than Rhett Butler and much more dynamic than Ashley Wilkes, so the comparison to GWTW doesn’t quite match (even if one of the kissing scenes is shot exactly the same). The stampede scene is your basic epic western filmmaking of a half century ago, and quite cleverly plotted. (The point of the cattle drive was originally to make enough money off of Australia to retire in England, but that will change.) After the couple’s relationship cements in Darwin, the film goes through a summary rhapsodic sequence simulating and intermission. I think that a formal Intermission would really work better (the film is 165 minutes). The second half brings the Japs into the War with the 1942 Darwin bombing, and links together the plot with the Walkabout of the aborigine boy, and also brings in all the prejudicial and exploitive racial issues that parallel our own past in the United States.

Drover has a great line early in the movie, "The one thing any man owns is his own story." That rings true for me.

The air raid scenes look a little more artificial than in some comparable films (like Pearl Harbor).

The scenery in the film is simply awesome, with enormous use of deep reds and other shades of color. Most of the topography really does exist in the area, extending into Western Australia. A link (“Outback Information”) that describes the filming and locations is here.

I think of Australia as a geographical parallel universe to the USA, with a cosmopolitan East, a low mountain range in the East (in Australia up to about 7500 feet), and a “Midwest” and a desert West, but the towering mountains of the US are missing, although there are many interesting canyons and smaller formations like those in the American Southwest, but even more desolate.

The script mentions “in the Dry” and “In the Wet”, the latter of which the title of a 1953 novel by Nevil Shute which I read as a senior in high school for a book report (Shute, a British novelist and engineer, often wrote about Australia and other Commonwealth dominions). I recall the racial issues in the Shute novel, which told a "futuristic" story of a quadroon pilot, as I recall.

The music, while including a song by Elton John, used an arrangement of a Bach cantata quite a bit, and included a moving segment from Sir Edward Elgar's "Enigma Variations" in a moving sequence at the end. Still, I prefer that the closing passages from a work like this be included in the soundtrack.

I recall one other personal connection to Australia. After my only "other" layoff, in 1971, I considered looking for work in Australia and got quite a bit of information in the mail, before getting a Navy Department job and moving on with my career, to be stable for thirty years.

Nicole Kidman told Barbara Walters on ABC's "The View" that the director worked with several possible beginnings and several endings (they may appear on the DVD eventually) before settling on the theatrical script. The movie developed from "concept" more than from a typical spec script. Even so, the film demonstrates how one develops a compelling story with material and situations whose priorities may be unfamiliar to most moviegoers.

I saw the film on a large flat screen (2.35:1) in a Regal Cinemas, on Thanksgiving night to a half full auditorium. That particular theater offers both curved and flat screens in four different large auditoriums. I think a film like this looks best on a slightly curved screen.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Gus Van Sant's "Milk" -- compelling gay history three decades ago

Today I saw Gus Van Sant’s new film “Milk” at a weekday afternoon show (OK, the day before Thanksgiving) in a large auditorium in Landmark’s E Street Cinema in Washington DC, and it was almost sold out. The moving film, from Universal Focus Features, is ambitious and pulls out all the stops in getting into the minds of the characters, not just Harvey Milk himself, but also Supervisor Dan White, who assassinated him and mayor George Moscone in 1978, as well as many of Milk’s friends and fellow activists. It also covers, perhaps exaggerates, the anti-gay backlash led by Anita Bryant in 1977, starting out in Dade County FL but leading to referendums that would repeal many gay discrimination ordinances around the country.

I get ahead of myself, though, if I don’t mention two other films. IMDB lists a film “The Mayor of Castro Street”, based on the book by Randy Shilts, directed by Bryan Singer, and due from Participant Productions (and probably Warner Brothers) in 2009. (This is rather like having competing versions of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” at almost the same time.) Furthermore, there is an older documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk,” directed by Robert Epstein, made in 1984, released by New Yorker Films.

The film looks big, although it cost “only” $15 million (probably with stars working for less). I would have liked to see 2.35:1 instead of standard, although, for all the politics and social justice, Gus Van Sant here makes the film in a somewhat Hitchcock style, with preparation for the final tragedy that is executed brutally, and an abundance of closeups (where Cinemascope is a distraction) common in mysteries. He offers plenty of grainy “real” footage from the 1970s. The film trailer and previews featured a lot of pompous baroque music, but the actual film score (original music by Danny Elfman) is often somber and includes (as did “Quantum of Solace”) the violent ending of Puccini’s Tosca.

Sean Penn will definitely get a nomination for Best Actor in this film as Harvey Milk himself, and the film deserves a nomination for Best Picture. It is that engaging. Emile Hirsch looks all too boyish as activist (later covered by Shilts in “Band Played On”) Cleve Jones (it looks like he shaved his arms for this movie – what indignities actors go through!). James Franco, as Scott Smith, is one of the most likeable of the supporting characters. He does age about ten years in looks during the film, which Milk aka Penn really does not. In an openings scene, Milk tells Smith, in an intimate evening (his last day at Jack Benny’s 39), that he may not make it to 50. Lucas Gabreel, as photographer Nicoletta, recalls the tone of his presence in HSM3. Josh Brolin always seems chilling (so he was as George W. Bush in “W” and even as in the “Old Men” movie) and here his character descends rapidly into self-pity and sociopathy. And Dennis O’Hare makes his character State Senator John Briggs into an absolute pig.

Sean Penn starts the film recording his (Harvey Milk’s) own last rites, as if he doesn’t expect to live too long given the targeting and threats. He says he started his speeches with the “I’m going to recruit you,” as if that were too much for some people.

The first quarter of the film makes life in San Francisco look perilous in the early and mid 1970s, with the police raiding gay bars. Milk and Scott Smith gain a foothold in the Castro district with a camera shop, and rather quickly get it “converted.” Now, I moved into New York City in 1974, and visited San Francisco on vacation in April 1975, visiting some bars (and Dave’s baths, near the Transamerica Building then), and didn’t pick up on any of the paranoia. But some of this tracks to my own history. I had worked for Univac from a job in New Jersey from 1972 to 1974 (going to NBC in 1974 in order to move into the City) and during that suburban period would make evening trips by bus to the City, with my father warning “they’ll have you followed.” The older generation really did have that kind of paranoia.

Milk’s activism increases, with multiple tries to get elected as City Supervisor, until he finally wins in 1977, about the time of Anita Bryant’s backlash. It’s a bit confusing that she had that much to backlash against – but I don’t think as a whole conditions were as bad even in the early 70s as the film suggests. We see a lot of footage of Anita in the movie, with orange (and I don’t mean ING orange). Van Sant gradually introduces and then fully develops the story of John Briggs’s Proposition 6, the so called Briggs Initiative, which would have effected a ban on gay teachers a bit like the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for the US military today. And, I have to say, 1978’s Proposition 6 was a lot more venomous that today’s Proposition 8.

Briggs made no bones about it. The law supposedly provided a way to “identify” homosexuals among the ranks of teachers (a legal warrant for witch-hunts) and mandated the firing of any school employee who supported gay teachers (oops about the First Amendment for public employees). There are lines about "privacy" but Milk, ironically, says "privacy may be our enemy" as he demands everyone "come out" in rallies. The film climaxes with a debate, which erupts with pseudo-arguments from Briggs (brilliantly phrased by the screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (who also appears in the film) – I don’t know if Black had access to the text of real debates). Briggs's "recruitment argument" sounds particularly garish. The debates definitely turned the tide, showing the bigotry of Briggs position; the film goes on to cover the election night, where the initiative lost almost by 2 to 1. Governor Ronald Reagan opposed it, as did Jimmy Carter.

Had the referendum passed, it would have been attempted in other states – yet it certainly could have been challenged as unconstitutional. In Texas, in 1983, the religious right, in response to the AIDS crisis, tried to pass an extension of the state sodomy law (HR 2138 replacing 21.06) and ban gays from many occupations, but it died in committee. That could have set a bad example for many other states.

The film does zero in on what anti-gay bias or homophobia are all about. There is an encounter between Milk and Dan White where White says “Society can’t exist without the family… but can homosexuals reproduce?” Milk says (with forbidden irony), “you can’t say we don’t try.” White's behavior suggests that he does not believe he can carry out his "social obligations" to society unless everyone else has to do the same thing and "play by the same rules."

I’ve talked about all of this on my glbt and main blog many times, and it amounts to an existential “argument” that can be developed in a number of formulations (outside of na├»ve or facile following of religious precepts and scriptural passages). But it seems to come down to the observation that many “folkish” marital couples depend on the social supports to keep their marriages rewarding and stable, and part of that support is the sense of entitlement to biological lineage from all their adult children, or, at least, non-competitive sexual restraint from offspring not “fortunate” enough to be able to have their own kids. There is a moral point (“karma”) that maintains that everyone owes something in the way of supporting other generations because that was done for every person (presumably, but maybe not), and some of that means sharing the “uncertainty” of procreation, one’s own or supporting that of others. Dan White, at one point, castigates Milk for not being supportive of salary raises for Supervisors, because Milk, not having a wife and kids, doesn’t need the money as much (“you don’t have that problem, do you”).
The movie script gets all this right as to how homophobia really thinks. One wants others to have to share one’s own burdens.

Remember, all of this history occurred before the AIDS epidemic, and before today’s controversies over gays in the military and gay marriage. I have maintained that the federal law establishing “don’t ask don’t tell” for the military could conceivably be used against gay teachers even today, at least for those who must get into intimate situations with disabled students. (I caused quite a stir when my previous Internet comments to that effect were found by the school system when I was substitute teaching.) The military ban today is still potentially quite malignant. Back in the 1970s, I recall a similar controversy over forced intimacy with the idea of gays becoming fireman, but that has been overcome.

Remember the motto: "Never blend in!" Keep a high profile!

See this blog Sept. 9, 2007 for “Saint of 9/11” and Oct. 18, 2007 for “Ask Not” (check archive links).

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

"Rock Haven": a small film about religion and sexual identity

The little film “Rock Haven” (TLA Releasing, 78 min, site), directed and written by David Lewis, sounds, from its title, that it ought to be some kind of gentled fantasy horror. In fact, it is a minimalist “coming of age” gay love story that again takes us through the whole problem of homosexuality and religion. In fact, the “hero” Brady (Sean Hoagland) is almost sent to ex-gay camp but saves himself from that fate, preventing an unfolding like in the much bigger film “Save Me” reviewed here Oct. 24.

Much of the film is shot around Bodega Bay, CA, and includes the famous white church, which I saw in a 1995 visit to the area, which was made famous by the 1963 Hitchcock film “The Birds.” Furthermore, on a pre-Christmas trip to the West Coast from grad school in 1966, I and several buddies from the University of Kansas bounced around the famous beach on the way north to Oregon and eventually to Vancouver (aka Metropolis, pre Smallville).

Brady has moved to the California shore with his mother after his father died, and his mother is determined to carry on Christian evangelism. Carrying the Bible on the beach, he meets the Spaniard teen Clifford (Owen Alabado). Clifford, 19, is surprised from looks that Brady is already 18. The movie gradually makes Clifford almost a second lead (rather than supporting) character. Clifford has a New Age mom and a dad in Barcelona. Gradually, Clifford draws Brady toward his true self. “You don’t have a mean bone in your body” Clifford says. There is a lot of tension in a series of scenes building up to physical intimacy which, when it happens, is not directed as precisely as it should have been, despite the Hitchcock-like use of overhead shots (and there is a trace of NC-17 nudity). Brady starts lying to his mother about his absences, say, from church. There are some script lines about the supposed authority of scripture and the lack of freedom of man to pick what he wants to believe.

In a climactic scene, Brady and his mom each confide that neither one can “change.” His mother seems lost in the authority of scripture, and seems not quite recognize that her expectations from Brady are really more a matter of her own psychic needs than of religion.

When Brady and Clifford are together, they seem to have found freedom and believe, at least as young adults, they may live "as they are" with a certain innocence. I'm struck, personally at least, by a particular contrast. Clifford comes from a family that allows him complete freedom and encourages it. Brady comes from a religious background that demands emotional, as well as spiritual, payback. We become what we are because of the others who made us, and sometimes they seem to have a lien on us.

Monday, November 24, 2008

"The Rape of Europa" -- Nazi plunder of European art

Tonight PBS rebroadcast a documentary “The Rape of Europa,” (117 min) (website, originally produced by Oregon PBS, with platform theatrical distribution (in Landmark Theaters) by Menemsha Films, directed by Richard Berge and Bonni Cohen.

The film traces the Nazi plunder and theft of artwork throughout the conquered areas in Europe and Russia, and its recovery, including care in targeted bombings.

The film shows Adolf Hitler’s drawings at age 18, when he was not accepted into an art school in Vienna. The drawings were considered “adequate” but unexceptional. Hitler did not like abstract art, and wanted the “purification” of Nazi Germany to include destruction of “subversive” modern art. Hitler believed that those who had rejected him were Jews.

Some of these drawings can be viewed at the U.S. Army Center for Military History in Washington DC.

I remember when drawing filmstrips at age 11, I wanted to make my own colors “natural”. But I would draw snow-laced mountains as blue when usually they are grayish brown.

Hitler wanted to build a huge monument to art in Linz, Austria (subtitle of Mozart’s Symphony 36), with architecture that resembled ancient Rome.

Hitler destroyed most of the art in Poland during the 1939 Blitzkrieg, and damaged the Royal Palace in Warsaw, but preserved the paintings in Krakow, including Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Rafael (the last of which never was found). I visited both Krakow and Warsaw myself in 1999 and remember the Royal Palace.

Much of the art in the Louvre in Paris (which I visited in 2001) had been sent to chateaux in the south of France. This included the Mona Lisa. In Ninth Grade, I remember writing a short story “Who Stole the Mona Lisa?”

Hitler also plundered Florence and Pisa.

After the War, the Nazi Party Headquarters in Munich had been left unharmed and was to be a major collecting point for recovering material from Hitler’s collection, as was Wiesbaden. Hitler and Goering had personal collections.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Lifetime again examines the "set-up" of a teacher in "A Teacher's Crime"

Lifetime Television has dealt with this troubling theme before: to wit, a teacher (a female) has to defend trumped up charges or accusations of inappropriate involvement with a minor student. The media reports on real life incidents of this nature seem to have exploded since about 2005. We usually hear stories about the reluctance of men to enter teaching because of this kind of “risk”, but Lifetime, since it is (supposedly) a women’s film channel, likes to set its heroines up.

Tonight the film is “A Teacher’s Crime” but at least the teacher doesn’t wind up in a jail cell, the kind where the light stays on all night. The film’s production values are ho-hum, supposedly taking place near Columbia, MD (near Baltimore) but obviously filmed in the Vancouver area. It’s directed by Robert Malenfant, and written by Christine Conradt and Corbin Mezner. I have to add that recently I reviewed Lifetime’s “Two Kissels” movie, and that was a “real” mystery movie, that really should have been an “indie” theatrical release. But not this one.

In fact, the movie is more about the contortions of the extortion and blackmail scheme (and murder, without Hitchcock’s finesse) than about the more likely perils of a classroom high school teacher. Ashley Jones plays Mrs. Carrie Ryans, already in a custody battle post-divorce. She teaches history and a couple of the classroom scenes (like her explanation of how Truman handled the Korean War) have some interesting subtexts. Erik Knudsen gives a gentle performance of the kid Jeremy, raised by a low-level mob-connected uncle, who is trying to drag the kid from college prep to carry on a life or organized crime. The uncle does give the "Life's not fair" speech. Another backstory concerns Jeremy’s father, who was killed in Bosnia when he was a little boy. The uncle has accepted the “family responsibility” and then demanded his payback.

So the kid, at the urging of his uncle, sets up quasi intimate situations (started by tampering with the teacher’s car), with another hired goon photographing the compromising scenes to set up the blackmail. Yes, she is threatened with being on the registry characterized by that forbidden “s.o.” word and living the scarlet letter for the rest of her life.

The other interesting part of the story is the way the uncle “researched” the teacher’s background, not on the Internet, Facebook or Myspace, but just old fashion trade magazines. The film does demonstrate the privacy and “reputation” issues that still exist in the bricks and mortar world as well as online.

The film’s obvious Lifetime predecessor was “Student Seduction” (2003), directed by Peter Svatek, written by Edithe Swensen. In that film, a young married female chemistry teacher (Elizabeth Berkley) somewhat innocently pays too much attention to a male student (Corey Sevier) who turns on her with aggressive advances and, guess what, she’s arrested and prosecuted. That story also has the auto repair scene, and a careless social hamburger scene in at a public Ruby Tuesday’s or some such bistro. This is a larger film, made with Lionsgate, and it ought to have been a theatrical release, as it comes much closer to depicting the practical risk that teachers can face, when it could be very hard for them to defend themselves. I saw this film the day after I started substitute teaching in 2004.

These films don't exactly encourage people to go into teaching (and some teachers say they are flatly offended by them). Do so at your own risk, the movies say. Because life's just not fair. It's not supposed to be.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Summit Entertainment and Robert Pattinson in the "Twilight"

Summit Entertainment has long been known as a producer of innovative dramatic, thriller and horror films, usually released by other studios. Now it is in the distribution business itself (as another “indie specialty distributor” like LionsGate, Overture, Magnolia, ThinkFilm, etc), and its latest hit “Twilight” has suddenly put it on the map. The film is directed by Catherine Hardwicke, based on the famous novel by Stephenie Meyer.

I sat in the front row of a large Regal auditorium last night and heard the teenage girls screaming at every appearance of 22 year old British heartthrob Robert Pattinson, as the 17 year old Edward Cullen. The trouble is, he has been 17 since he was “bitten” in 1918 while recovering from the Spanish Flu.

We all know the story. A teenage girl Bella (Kristen Stewart), having moved with her father to Washington state, falls in love with classmate Cullen, and stays in love even as she learns he is a vampire. And Cullen seems transformed and tamed by the experience. He has powers similar to the teenage Clark Kent in Smallville (saving Bella once from being crushed by a crashing car, and flying through the Pacific Northwest firs, around the Columbia Gorge, with her) . But he becomes protective and chaste. He would wait until “marriage.”

Pattinson looks a bit like Tyler Hanes (the gay “vampire” movie “In the Blood”). There is a scene were he flies Bella to a mountaintop to appear in the skin, and opens his shirt to show a body that twinkles, and that is hairy and smooth at the same time. I suppose the Pattinson will join the list of hunky heartthrobs like Tom Welling, Jared Padalecki, and Chace Crawford. His speaking style is slightly disjointed, as if he hadn’t completely mastered overcoming his British accent naturally. (By way of comparison, note how natural the “American” speech of Jim Sturgess in “21” sounds.)

The film, in full 2.35:1 Panavision, treats us with continuous stunning scenery of the Columbia River country and forests, which I last visited in 1996, and some of Arizona.

Update: March 20, 2009

The April 2009 issue of GQ offers a spread on Robert Pattinson, but one picture shows him with a cigarette in his mouth (p 109). How depressing! Britain's most perfect young adult male, smoking. Not bong hits but cigarette hits! And GQ is no tabloid.

Friday, November 21, 2008

"In the Blood": An LGBT answer to "Twilight"?

Although theaters are hyping “Twilight,” there is another little LGBT horror film around (becoming a sub-genre isn’t it), from TLA Releasing and Superstitious films, directed and written by Lou Peterson, named “In the Blood.” Again, it’s more a horror thriller with the gay element almost secondary, if enticing.

College senior (and iron pumping jock) Cassidy Clarke (Tyler Hanes, who plays the role with a lot of gumption) is experimenting with his sexuality, even to the point of being will to pay a hustler (“Out”) for a “first experience” in the City. In fact, the two scenes with Victor (Carlos Alberto Valencia) show some real intimacy, despite the hostility at first. At the same time, he is concerned with “protecting” his younger sister Jessica (James Katharine Flynn), at a time when a campus stalker lurks. Throw in a complication: Jessica is interested in College Bowl contestant Michael (Robert Dionne), whom Cassidy “likes.” Last, and not least, Cassidy has these sudden nosebleeds, and prescient visions of horrible things happening. And Jessica has gotten bad news from a fortune teller.

It’s interesting that Cassidy is so energetic in protecting his sister when he is not even close to having a family on his own. But he keeps his head above water, and stays a likeable, “role model” type character for the movie.

There is a family secret, and the siblings may well be more than they think they are, something supernatural. The denouement of the film gets a bit choppy and hasty, though. The soundtrack by Sasha Gordon

You can watch the film at Logo Online.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

"Clandestinos" is an impressive Spanish thriller about the Basque issue

There is a little known political thriller from Spain, directed by Antonio Hens, written with Gabriel Olivares. It’s titled “Clandestinos,” and is listed on the database for TLA Releasing here although the DVD doesn’t seem to be out yet.

The story concerns a teenager or very young adult Xabi (Israel Rodriquez) who breaks out of a Spanish prison, accepts the friendship of a young Muslim (Mehroz Arif) fellow prisoner, and tries to develop his skills as a Basque / ETA revolutionary to impress his teacher Inaki (Luis Hostalot). Along the way he occupies Inaki’s old Madrid apartment, takes down a Spanish flag in Columbus Circle in Madrid, and gets in numerous chases and escapes. In one episode he works as a hustler. We always like the character for his passion, energy and charisma, even if he is doing “bad” things.

As in other political oriented LGBT films, the idea that Xabi is “gay” is almost an afterthought, except that his devotion to Inaki seems to have driven his loyalty to Basque causes.

The film makes lively use of its Madrid and surrounding locations, and looks impressive and professionally made, with its 2.35: 1 aspect ratio. European life looks like American life: there is wealth, and there is some squalor. There are cops and car chases.

The world as a whole does not understand Basque separatism, and I’m not sure that it still remains the issue that it was. The film suggests that Basque separatism and radical Islam (Al Qaeda) could come together.

I visited Bilbao and San Sebastian in May 2001, including the Guggenheim museum. I had a suite in the Navarro hotel in Bilbao for $100 a night. Being there makes one feel that was is on another planet, like America but somehow very different and far away. I do think the film could have benefited from having some locations in the “Euskadi” area. The Basque province even has a commuter railroad between the two cities. The ETA headquarters were only a few blocks from my hotel, but all was quiet then. Bilbao also has its own subway.

There is a lot written about the mystery of the origin of the Basque people and language, but, judging from my visit in 2001, I could not identify any consistent pattern in how they "look" that distinguishes them. I remember a conversation with a Basque waiter in Lourdes, France about the separatist issue.

I watched the film on Logo Online, but the last segment (the ninth) did not play. The playback script kept returning to the beginning of the film. I emailed Logo and it tells me it is working on the problem.

I someone learns it has been fixed, I would appreciate a comment here.

This is an impressive film. It out to have a theatrical run, it is of potential Oscar or Golden Globe quality.

There was a feature film by this name in 1987 from Mexico, about Cuba, no relation to this film.

Update: Jan 2, 2010

The last segment has been restored. The playback now shows in full 2.35:1 aspect on a proper wide screen computer (like the Dell XPS 1630). The last scene has a plot twist involving Xabi, and some stunning Pyrennes scenery. Logo now plays the full end credits, and the film was shot on location in several cities in Spain.

Playback URL is here.

This film is highly recommended for theatrical exhibition (ly Landmark, AMC Select, etc.)

"You Belong to Me" is a nice little LGBT horror film

Sam Zalutsky has a nice little mystery and horror film “You Belong to Me” (2007, 82 min) that seems like a gay adaptation of a few mystery and horror genres, especially Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psyhco” (here, it’s in reverse) with maybe a tad of Carter Smith, and perhaps Stephen King’s “Misery”, and even the old Tobe Hooper “Texas Chainsaw”. The film comes from Wolf Video, was produced by “Mama’s Boy” and is currently viewable on Logoonline here, with summary here and with the video links (search for the “You Belong to Me” and look for segment 1). Free feature films on Logo lay in segments that range from 6 to 13 minutes, and sometimes the links start with 15 second commercials. The film seems to bear no relation to a 1941 film of the same name with Barbara Stanwyck.

What makes this movie work is the upstanding, almost impenetrable lead character, Jeffrey (Daniel Sauli), a thirty-something architect who has just made partner in New York. He sort of strikes you as someone who could have made it as Donald Trump’s “Apprentice,” and he has the stability of the character Sam in "Supernatural." The opening shots show an architect’s balsa model of a building, with becomes a metaphor for the (New York) brownstone that he moves in to, partly to get more privacy (from his female live-in “friend”) and partly to be near an ex-boyfriend Rene (Julien Lucas), who seems skittish about their relationship, to say the least. Pretty soon he finds that the landlady Gladys (Patti D’Arbanville) is more possessive than he is, with a monstrous mute (Sherman Howard) who stalks Jeffrey like a golem in the night. The place has a panic room, of sorts (the cellar), for the wrong purposes. Will Jeffrey’s body survive?

This is a pretty good example of horror that is effective enough on it’s own terms that you forget that it is a “gay movie.” The title of the film is a metaphor at more than one level.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

"Quantum of Solace": lots of action and Andean scenery; lots of politics; half-baked plot

I remember college friends describing James Bond as the “ideal man” and I remember a sermon at a Methodist church in Lawrence Kansas in the mid 60s about “what it means to be a man” based on Bond movies.

The first Bond that I ever saw was “From Russia With Love” and I got used to the stereotyped Sean Connery, hairy chest and all, as the role model. Roger Moore and others would come along and challenge the fantasies. I read “Dr. No” on a Greyhound bus trip from DC to Pittsburgh in 1965, and still remember Ian Flemming’s characterizations of SMERSH as just plain “bad” and of his villains as global evil. That was when Osama bin Laden was a little boy. I actually would see "Dr. No" in downtown Cleveland at the Arcade in 1965. I remember the horrible tortures “No” put Bond through, and I remember the “Three Blind Mice” beggars at the very opening of the franchise. One of the best was “Live and Let Die” (1973) with the sheriff J.W. Pepper. And I think that the concept behind “Goldfinger” (1964) applies in today’s fiscal crisis.

I recall the first “Casino Royale” in 1967, with the multiple James Bonds, and seeing it at the Granada Theater in downtown Lawrence, KS when I was a grad student at KU. Then Daniel Craig would star in the totally different remake in 2006, and the “Quantum of Solace” is said to be an immediate sequel.

Somehow the title of this film reminds me of the “Fortress of Solitude” in Smallville. Maybe Tom Welling fits the fantasy of the perfect man closer than Daniel Craig.

Seriously, like many Bond movies, Quantum (almost in the spirit of Max Planck’s theory in physics) seems like a hodgepodge of a lot of interesting concepts – visually, and even politically. The storytelling, as far as any real suspense, is a bit thin. Again, this is a world where people who get in the way or who know too much get “hit” (Alfred Hitchcock understood the meaning of this much better than most Bond directors -- remember "The Man Who Knew Too Much"). But the locations are stunning. In the scene with a climactic scene from Puccini’s Tosca, the film mixes embedded an “real life” killings, as did Hitchcock sometimes (like in Saboteur). But the best sequence takes place in Bolivia, actually shot in Chile, but the Andean desert scenery is stunning. (I wish the film had shown an image of Tiahuanoco and the Gate of the Sun on the shores of Lake Titicaca; Hitchcock would have staged a climatic chase and resolution there.) They could have done more with the high altitude problems in La Paz, but the city was made to look interesting, as was the rendition of El Alto. The politics of water supply and oil (with villain Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) as interesting, as was the image of the girl totally covered in black gold (refer back to Goldfinger). The opening reference to money laundering and bank fraud (well illustrated in a computer sequence) may have been meaningful. Judi Dench is appropriately matronly as "M" and forces Bond to go underground even relative to the Secret Service.

The earlier films always had "Q" showing off the new devices. Some of them, like cell phones, are all too common now.

Marc Forster directed, and the film was written by Paul Haggis (“Crash”) and Neal Purvis. The film went out under MGM’s proud lion big cat trademark, but it looks like Columbia did most of the work (production centered in Britain and Eon Productions, as with all Bond films). The famous Bond theme plays during the closing credits.

One of the most important films politically was the 2002 "Die Another Day" that featured a hirsute Pierce Brosnan as Bond, foiling an invasion across the DMZ by North Korea, something that could really happen.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Lifetime's "The Two Mr. Kissels" mixes "Gossip Girls" with a bit of Hitchcock

Tonight (Nov. 14) Lifetime Television aired a Hitchcock-like mystery that is much more like a “real movie” than some of its other offerings. The film is “The Two Mr. Kissels”, directed by Edward Bianchi, written by Maria Nation. This film really should have been a theatrical release, in the independent film circuit. Somehow this strikes me a good potential match for "Roadside Attractions." It is supposed to be based on a true story.

It is a murder “mystery” with a long development, much like Hitchcock, but it takes the unusual device (for mystery) of using a docudrama format, starting with the voice of one of the dead brothers (Andrew Kissel, played by John Stamos), who has been found dead in his home. In a sense, that narrative device reminds one of “American Beauty,” which is told from the viewpoint of the “victim” (remember, Kevin Spacey and the “ex-gay”(?) Marine). In another sense, the whole plot concept reminds one of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “Suspicion” – with the plot duplicated and rather on steroids (or perhaps on coke, which both brothers snort a lot on camera). Other viewpoints (even Nancy Grace) get added, and it’s odd to see such an amoral and greedy man tell his own story. His final act may really have been for the good of his family. Greed is not always good (even before the financial crisis).

The younger brother Rob (Anson Mount) maybe has more scruples, but has to resist his brother’s schemes to draw him into all kinds of shady “pre subprime” real estate deals (nobody mentions credit default swaps). The first scheme is to become an urban slumlord on the Jersey side. But Rob’s wife (Robin Tunney) pretty soon is scheming to get the entire lifestyle. Rob’s advancement as an investment banker, which takes him plus family to Hong Kong, isn’t good enough for her. So, well, the plot turns into Suspicion in reverse. There is a “warm milk” scene, just like in the Hitchcock, but here it is a lavender pina colada shake, served by his little girl. She dispatches him on camera, and is so sociopathic not to believe it when she is sentenced to life in Hong Kong prison.

The look of the film is a bit opulent, mixing Martha Stewart’s Connecticut with the Upper East Side of “Gossip Girl” and some good location shots in Hong Kong. All it needs is a belfry or stairwell scene.

Update: Jan 8, 2011

There's more news about the Kissel case: A mistrial declared in December (Greenwich CT paper story here.)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Reprise on Michael Moore: "Roger & Me"

Having seen “Sicko” earlier this year and “Bowling for Columbine” a few years back, I did wonder, when a visitor suggested it, what Michael Moore’s original “Roger & Me”, about the sacking of his hometown of Flint, Michigan, would be like. The film actually carries Warner Brothers’s full studio label (in 1989, the boutique independent labels were not yet well established) and Michael Moore’s own independent “Dog Eat Dog Films” which sounds as political as my own “Do Ask Do Tell”.

Moore goes around Flint doing a lot of asking, and the powers that be don’t do a lot of telling. Security repeatedly tries to evict him from the old GM building in downtown Detroit, from a country club in Grosse Poine (sorry, Michael, you’re no John Cusack, even though I liked “Grosse Pointe Plank”). He shows the very process of his filmmaking, and that becomes part of his political statement. At one point he is told “you’re just a private person” and that he has no credentials. He also shows plenty of home evictions, with the sheriff in full force, putting stuff out in the light snow of a Michigan Christmas, while CEO Roger Smith talks about how great life is at Christmas. Some of the laid-off auto workers wind up getting decent jobs as sheriff’s deputies at the Gennessee County jail, which even celebrates its expansion with an overnight conjugal party.

The cause of all of the difficulties is, of course, multiple plant shrinkages and closings, starting in the late 70s or early 80s (the film gives no dates), as executives move jobs to Mexico and probably Asia. (It all started with the "loss of one product line" rather than a full plant closing. We all remember the recession around 1991 or so that culminated in part from all the leverage buyouts and offshorings of the Reagan years, as long as real estate contraction, which seems mild compared to today’s fiscal crisis in 2008. But, when watching the film, one gets the feeling that the underlying problems in the 80s with the rust belt cities led to our problems today. Big business is not transparent and gets to remain too secretive, and working people do not make enough money to buy what they make. Yes, that helps cause business depression. But it is a little more complicated. Auto workers with union jobs were extremely well paid with great benefits, and other consumers who made less could not afford to subsidize them; so GM executives needed to find cheaper labor, overseas, to make a product that non-union people could afford. It was a race to the bottom that still goes on today. It’s well to bear this in mind as Congress mulls an auto industry bailout.

But, it’s even more than that. GM brings Dr. Robert Schuller and Anita Bryant and others to town to try to preach religious capitalism, and wind up sounding like they are selling nothing. People who make a lot of money do it by manipulating the work or effort of others; it seems like they make or create nothing themselves. Sound familiar?

Some of the ex-employees have to step down, and curiously can’t hold down fast food jobs, which seem to require hard work in comparison to assembly line work. But, it’s no accident that Amway is in nearby Ada, Michigan. One of the women sells color analysis and does a “warm” and “cool” color “audit” of Michael Moore himself. Again, read the message: to make money, you have to peddle and manipulate. I recall back as far as 1970 that people looked at Amway as an insurance policy for financial security. The film also shows the rich having a "Great Gatsby" party and hiring unemployed workers as "statues" to decorate the party.

There is a clip where an executive makes an anti-semitic joke, which should not be repeated here. But there actually was a protest from the same executive later.

Flint tried to repair itself with a four block Water Place, with exhibits from GM itself, and it fails in six months. It brags that it will become a center for “tourism.” Okay, if I do go back to work for ING some day in Minneapolis (maybe that really could happen in 2009), should I make a pit stop in Flint on the way back? It’s a little out of the way.

Curiously, in my own horror screenplay “Baltimore Is Missing” I create a stripped down “Grand Rapids” of what was left of urban America in a nightmare-scape of a world that suddenly finds itself nothing more than a puppet kingdom in some higher power’s scheme. The analogy fits.

At the end of the film, the end credits that the film cannot be shown in Flint, because it has no theaters any more.

Moore says that this is his first film, that he did not go to film school (just to a lot of movies) and he learned to make movies by making this one. Flint, Michigan is his home town. The film shows his brief episode living and "working" in San Francisco (having taken his small newspaper national) before losing this backing and returning. He says he made the film while on unemployment at $99 a week. Some of the material is filmed on 16 mm. He negotiated deals with providers. Warner Brothers, although it did not offer the most money (Miramax made a bid, as did Universal) offered to show it in the most theaters, offer free admission to the unemployed, and even paid rent for two years for people shown being evicted in the film!

Monday, November 10, 2008

"The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas": Might makes wrong

There are not a lot of films about life for Gentile Germans and how they perceived things during Hitler’s time in power. But “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas,” directed by Mark Herman, distributed by Miramax, filmed in Hungary with a British cast, and based on the novel by John Boyne, presents the cruelest of possible ironies of karma.

In the DC area, the film is starting with a limited engagement at Landmark’s Bethesda Row. Perhaps the subject matter is so dark that it does need time to build an audience.

As the film opens, a German military family is enjoying a reception in its opulent home, living as well as one could in the 1940s. Father (David Thewlis) has received orders to take over a concentration camp as commandant, and he will move his family. The rest of the family, including his wife (Vera Farmiga) hardly understand what he will be doing. Father is soft-spoken but very set in his loyalty to the Reich. He tells his 8 year old son Bruno (Asa Butterfield) and older sister that life is more about duty than choice. Father tells the kids that he is serving his country so that they will have a “better life.” When grandmother speaks up at the party, Father warns her that she could really get in trouble for what she says in public.

They move, on a train journey (reminding one of what happened to the victims) to the South and East. The new home is a little more Spartan, but Bruno quickly finds that he can see “The Farm” in the distance. His reactions to his discoveries are logical for a bright 8 year old boy who has no indoctrination to politics. His older sister is catching on, and already has Hitler posters in her room. Their hired tutor tells Bruno that he has to read about the “real world.” Pretty soon, the kids are being told by both father and the tutor that the Jews in the concentration camp and who, however haggard, help out in the house as servants (looking like ghouls from a horror film) are “really not people.”

The kid, however is an “explorer” and eventually finds the electric fence on the perimeter, with another 8 year old, Schmuel (Jack Scanlon) playing near it. Bruno wants a friend more than he wants his toys or the material comforts of home. He makes repeated visits and even steals food to bring to Schmuel, able to fool his mother for his adventures. He does not grasp that this is a death camp. Back home, he watches home movies that purport to show that the prisoners are well treated. All of this will lead to tragedy (from the family’s perspective), and irony, if you want to call it that. The climax of the movie, complete with Zytron, reminds one of a scene from “War and Remembrance.”

The movie does not show much of the Nazi “survival of the fittest” mentality among its own people, but a few other foreign films (“Your Unknown Brother”, “Before the Fall” and "The Aryan Couple") did. Here, the Nazi ideology seems focused simply on classifying whole groups of people as enemies. Within the family, however, Father, even when softspoken, guards his own position as if all “morality” in their society was determined by who had earned the right to “power.” "Right and wrong" in their world is determined by the power structure and nothing else; the outside world is to be conquered and otherwise does not matter. No consideration is given the possibility that they could all be very wrong. As it turns out for the kid, his planned life would not have been worth living as a result.

The movie has a piano and orchestra score by James Horner, and most of the music consists of a slow but somber waltz.

IMDB spells the last word in the title with a 'y': "Pyjamas". But the Miramax ad and website gives the title "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas". Webster's gives only the spelling with the "a".

Sunday, November 09, 2008

"Synecdoche, New York": life inside a one's own model world

Charlie Kaufman (“Adaptation”) has again given up an interesting example of creative layering in screenplay storytelling, with his latest film “Synecdoche, New York,” from Sony Pictures Classics and Sidney Kimmel Entertainment.

Pjilip Seymour Hoffman (as Caden Cotard) is the center of attention as a hypochondriac drama professor, and he is appropriately unpleasant to look at (oh, please, those pustules on his gams). I could rehearse a quip from a 1980s issue of Christopher Street and say that a film like this proves the existence of heterosexuality. There is plenty of it, despite the visual assaults. The film (124 min) is thick and moves in a stream of consciousness, like a dream.

Actually, the concept, for the last two-thirds of the film, is quite daring. Cotard, in the early scenes, has been struggling to direct Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” (1949), where the sets fall down on the actors. That does not deter him when he gets a mysterious grant to create a theater piece (aka Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” – remember that?) in a gigantic warehouse in New York. Kind of like the Elephant Man, he makes builds a model of New York inside the warehouse, and hires actors to engage in a continuously running play of self-definition. He says most people go through life as the star of their own show without a double, but an elderly man shows up for an “interview” with no acting experience and offers to become his doppelganger. Cotard accepts. Gradually, life most into the “play city”, as do the lives of the characters. Cotard has an apartment “inside” and “on the outside,” the latter of which he loses.

The film is shot 2.35 to 1 and the pretend city inside the structure is quite breathtaking. The idea reminds me of my concept of living inside a model railroad, or of being abducted and finding out you have become a simplified figure in someone else’s model world (a precept of my own screenplay “Baltimore Is Missing” which I entered into Project Greenlight in 2004). The idea was one tried on Rod Sterling’s “Twilight Zone”. Finally, Cotard’s world is destroyed, and most people lie around dead. Terrorists? Enemies? Or just natural evolution. Cotard has deteriorated further, is now quite bald and quite tired, and ready to expire.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

"2 Minutes Later" -- Is this gay film noir?

It sounds like the idea of mistaken identity among identical twins would be a good plot idea for a Hitchcock-like mystery of 40s film noir. Another theme could explore the likelihood that they, while living apart, have the same personality and particularly sexual orientation. One can even imagine the idea that one gives the other an organ transplant, with strings attached, an idea I have explored.

Robert Gaston has this terse little thriller “2 Minutes Later” (78 min, from TLA Releasing) that has a bit of that 40s noir flavor put into modern day Philadelphia. (Move aside, M. Night Shyamalan). Despite the fact that most of the major characters are gay, you hardly even notice while watching it, as it is a film that pays homage to the heavily plotted thrillers of the 40s. The action moves more quickly, however, than in older movies; scenes progress in a compressed fashion, leading the viewer to fill in the details.

Gay erotic photographer Kyle has disappeared (in the opening sequence he takes a picture at a convenience store, and is told “You see too much” and is chased into the woods.) Pretty soon lesbian detective Abigail Marks (Jessica Graham) is teaming up with his gay twin brother Michael to impersonate him and track down the disappearance, which will lead into your 40s style plot of double-crosses.

But what’s interesting is that Michael, while working in a non-creative field like insurance claims adjusting, is so much like his twin, whom he has avoided for ten years, to avoid living in his more famous brother’s shadow. Born “two minutes later” he thinks he got the raw end of the lucky deal from the womb. An insurance adjuster plays detective just like a real detective, and just like a photo journalist. He meets the shady characters whom Kyle journaled, and has to accept the same level of intimacy.

Michael, having lived a more laid-back and "conservative" life, doesn't smoke and has to learn to smoke to impersonate Kyle. If you think about it, even at age 30 or so that could have led to differences in appearance. Identical twins, as they age, don't have to be completely identical.

There’s an interesting line in the script “It if has a purpose, it can’t be art.” When that comment applies to films, books, or particularly web postings and profiles, it has profound importance, perhaps legally in the murky area of “implicit content” which I’ve discussed elsewhere in the blog. Just turn that statement around into its contrapositive.

You can watch the entire film online in eight segments on Logo, here.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Demme's "Rachel Getting Married" plays like a dream

Jonathan Demme (well known for directing “The Silence of the Lambs” in 1991) has given us another dense “people play” in “Rachel Getting Married”, written by Jenny Lumet, shot in HD video and distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.

The movie is remarkable more for the art form than just the story. It is like a play, mostly set a lavish Connecticut wedding, with the people and music and celebration coming together with increasing density, in a kind of mass. The outsider is Kym (Anne Hathaway), who gets invited to leave her rehab institutionalization for a weekend and pester this celebration “On the Outside.” She will confront her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) over past conflicts, including a possible abuse, anorexia, and so on. She throws slogans around which are hard to remember after the film. Then, there is the music: the violon, the samba players -- much of the music seems to consist of a Brazilian samba dance by a composer named Baptista, according to the credits; it sounds familiar and obscure at the same time. The set Wagner’s Lohengrin to jazz, and whistle Rossini.

The music moves into different spaces when it recalls Kym’s 12 step program, and when she throws a tantrum and wrecks a car in the middle of the night. (The crash scene is quite well done.) On the other hand, the party seems like globalization brought onto a wealthy person’s estate: every kind of person is there at the party, and the idea of mixed-race marriage seems almost incidental. Little snippets of conversation come up that suggest big issues off in other worlds, as when, near the end, Rachel is offered a job in “public relations.”

In sum, the whole film plays out like an early morning dream, the kind you have in REM sleep.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

"Deep Sea 3-D" Imax film takes us into an alien underwater world of invertebrate life

The IMAX film “Deep Sea 3-D”, (film website here) directed by Howard Hall, simulates scuba diving for forty minutes in Imax, without the viewer getting wet or risking the Bends. The film is bit like an aquarium visit, perhaps, or even a laboratory exercise in undergraduate invertebrate zoology. Or, we can imagine we are visiting a kind of alien world on our own planet.

The creatures are fascinating. There is some strange echinoderm that tries to eat scallops, and they break away and chatter like the langoliers “with an attitude” as in Stephen King’s 90s miniseries. The nudibranch, or sea slug, looks so amorphous we don’t even realize it is a mollusk. The octopus, with its body language based on changing skin colors and textures (race doesn’t exist, and neither does laser depilation for them) appears late in the film. The octopus is thought to have the intelligence of a house cat or so, and has been found to be a very quick learner. Cephalopods, including squid, are among the most intelligent creatures in the invertebrate world, about as high as evolution got without a notochord. The angry Humboldt squid also appears.

Jonny Depp and Kate Winslet narrate, in alternation. Toward the end of the film they talk a lot about the balance of the ecosystem, and the damage that man is doing with overfishing. It wouldn’t take too much to extend the film to deal with global warming, and the release of carbon and maybe methane.

I would love to have seen some particularly bizarre creatures, like sea squirts or tunicates (primitive chordates that “eat their own brains” and become sessile), or tubeworms near volcanic vents. The box jellyfish (covered in an Australian film shown on PBS), the most venomous creature in the world and very bizarre and alien indeed, would have made good subject matter.

The film is distributed by Warner Brothers as a regular release as well as by Imax. Curiously the 3-D tended to overframe the shots; without the 3-D glasses the picture did not have the double images that most 3-D has.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

"Changeling": Clint Eastwood makes us ponder official corruption in a 20s period piece

Clint Eastwood has once again given us a probing film in wide-screen with a lot of sepia tones, probing moral problems in slow motion with novel dramatic situations.

This time it’s a period piece, set in Los Angeles in the late 1920s; one wonders how built-up “the City of Angels” really was then. Well, that’s a point of this play-like crime drama, “Changeling” (written by J. Michael Straczynski): the LAPD decided that it was above the law then, so it had to be big enough for all this institutionalism.

Angelina Jolie plays the single mom heroine, Christine Collins, a telephone company supervisor (party lines are her specialty) who moves around the phone banks on roller skates. It seems a little careless to leave her nine year old boy home alone, and one day when she comes back he’s gone, his sandwich uneaten. The cops don’t take her seriously, and then a few months later a boy is returned to her whom she claims is not her son.

What follows seems surreal, as the cops try to manipulate all the “facts” and all her statements into protecting themselves from the press. It’s interesting that, in this movie set 70 years before the Internet, the LAPD so dreads reporters. It becomes a whole world, a whole culture. The cops can even have her committed, and the mental hospital scenes are among the most harrowing in the movie. I had a sequence in my life like that myself in a mental ward at NIH in 1962, maybe not quite as graphic as this, but with some underlying corrupt processes at work. My story is tougher to sell because I'm not the obvious hero(ine) that Jolie's character is. (To underscore the corruption, Colm Feore plays the police chief, and he seems like he comes right out of Stephen King (remember “Storm of the Century”? -- You give him what he wants, but he doesn't go away.) Then a subplot moves in, about a serial pedophile killer kidnapping boys and taking them to a desert ranch, with horrible ends. An activist minister, Gustav Briegleb, takes up Christine’s cause, with nightly radio broadcasts and summoning legal help.

The movie has a sequence of several different courtroom events, intermixed, and that’s a little confusing at first. Then it leads to a death penalty sequence that calls to mind an episode of “The Decalogue” by Krzysztof Kieslowski.

Universal used an old crystal ball trademark as the curtain opened, rather than its usual Wagnerian fanfare, almost suggesting that what follows will be like a 40s film noir. It’s not exactly that. It is more like a dissection. And the film is a bit of a warning: those who are in charge will not tolerate “ordinary people” overstepping their bounds. That seems to be getting to be a more serious problem again today.

Universal is staging this release, slowing adding more theaters each week to build an audience for this tough film. I saw it in a National Amusements auditorium in Merrifield, VA, with maybe 60 people present on a Sunday afternoon, not a big crowd.

The film has nothing to do with a horror film “The Changeling” from Peter Medak in 1980.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

"August" is a probing drama about the underlying "values" of Internet businesses

August” certainly sounds like a prosaic name for a movie. Probably most movie buffs know that it is this film about an Internet start-up struggling in August, 2001, one month before 9/11. Indeed, the film starts with an image George W. Bush on his Crawford, TX ranch, about when he got that Aug. 6 memo on Al Qaeda; then they mention Ben Affleck’s rehab. Funny, the day I watched it, Affleck will host SNL.

“August” is a neat name, all right, a sleepy month. I remember 8/11/2001, a day that I spent at Rehoboth, when I saw a tornado driving back to DC, which would have a big manhole fire that day. Funny how you remember something like this. I even had a commander in Basic Training whose last name was "August".

The film "August" is directed by Austin Chick and written by Howard A. Rodman. It’s short (88 minutes) but looks ambitious (2.35:1). I don’t recall the theatrical release in DC this summer, but it’s been out on DVD for a while. The distributor is FirstLook, and it continues the trend for more indie pictures to use A-List actors.

Josh Hartnett plays Tom Sterling, a brash-spoken young man who does the sales and business side of the new startup called Landshark. His brother Joshua (Adam Scott), is much quieter, seems to be the brains behind the concept, having designed and coded it. The stock has been tanking because, as Tom says, the “business model doesn’t add up.” Joshua has married and has a kid, and has to start making this profitable to live on something. So there is a real crisis, in both business and “morality.”

At the movie’s midpoint, Tom gives a speech, with some rather coarse language, at a luncheon, where he bad mouths the greed and superficiality of a lot of the dot-com business, which is already sinking. The nature of LandShark is not specified (it seems to be more than mortgages and land); Tom says that his brother imagines a “global village” where people share information and perhaps social or political perspectives in a structured way. (That sounds like my “do ask do tell” doesn’t it. They could have called the fictitious company “Do Ask Do Tell” and it might have actually made more sense! (Yes, I had the feeling that this was a movie about an imaginary company extrapolated from me or what I have proposed.) Tom throws around the buzz words like "lockup" on the offering, or "aggregate eyeballing" of web content. The trouble is, it is hard to make a business model work. With so much free content and open source, you have to think in terms of a long term social effect (look, for example, at how Wikipedia works); in the short run, however, investors need their profits. How do you make money with an abstract social good? (Ask Jimmy Wales.) The movie suggests that this is THE problem, without giving much direction as to how to solve it.

Tom is always chain smoking (how depressing!); the tattoos on his neck and wrist look a bit distracting. They do fit the character; I presume they are applied as makeup with temporary ink. I was living in Minneapolis and networking with IFPMSP a lot as Hartnett (from St. Paul) got his career startedr so (I recall seeing one of his first films, “Halloween 20” (1998); he became a regular news story in Twin Cities papers, living in Minneapolis [moved to NYC since] and helping with local film events, before breaking out as a big star with “Pearl Harbor” in June 2001; Minnesota seems to produce a lion’s share of Hollywood’s talent, almost as if it were a Canadian province.) This is Hartnett’s “roughest” role so far.

One could look at Tom and Joshua as two sides of the same personality (rather than brothers). The investors keep Joshua because he has "paid his dues" in real life, but throw Tom out on the street, locked out of the venture forever. Sorry for the spoils, but you can get pushed out of your own business in the dot-com world.

The film does leave us to wonder what would happen on 9/11.

The film could be compared to “”, directed by Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujlam, from Artisan Entertainment in 2001.