Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sony Pictures and Lifetime team up for Rosie O'Donnell's "America"

On Saturday, Feb. 28, 2009, LifeTime TV aired a Sony Pictures Independent film (Canadian funding) “America” written by Rosie O’Donnell and Joyce Eliason (based on a novel by E. R. Frank), directed by Yves Simoneau (DGC), apparently filmed in Detroit.

Rosie plays Dr. Maureen Brennan, a guidance counselor and therapist at a state foster care home for teens, and she gradually bonds with one 17 year old mixed race kid named America (Philip Johnson). America (notice that the work “Eric” is embedded) is faced with aging out of the system at 18, where there is an 80% chance of homelessness and crime. If he gets his GED, the state will help him go to college.

The film tells the backstory, through sepia flashbacks, of how he was removed from his crack-abusing mother (Toya Turner) and sometimes lived with a kindly nanny Mrs. Harper (Ruby Dee). But in time the story takes a dark turn, where another male relative abuses him, and insists on keeping it a “secret.” The script, through metaphor, becomes very graphic in a few places.

America tries to relate to one of the female teens, and finds she has scarred herself, almost like a character from “Wristcutters”. He takes on a “job” as a cook at the center and gets into conflict with Marshall, quite chillingly played by young Logan Huffman.

In the end, the film makes an appeal for adoptive parents. Rosie O’Donnell is well known for her efforts to end the ban on adoption by gays and lesbians in Florida.

Lifetime’s own website for the film is here, and it has an interview with Rosie.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

"Out on the Job": documentary about sexual orientation discrimination on the job

“Out on the Job” (2008) is a 43 minute documentary from Logo Online Films (“Truth” and “Punched in the Head” Productions), directed by Craig d’Entone. It traces three people in one of 33 states that don’t have laws protecting gays from discrimination in the workplace.

The film is available for Instant Play on Netflix, and it is also available on Logo Online here. For Netflix subscribers, the Netflix playback seems preferable, as the film is not segmented and interrupted by commercials, and the picture and stereo seem a little sharper.

The film has a pop-like narrative style that reminds one of an “Apprentice” episode, as it goes from one narrative line to the next.

Mateisha works as a hair stylist, owned by an evangelical Christian, in Gainesville, FL. She tells her coworkers gradually but dreads telling her boss, even though her boss knows she has a “roommate” whom she supports. The scene, near the end of the film, where she “tells” is masterful, filmed as reality, so it would have seemed like quite a screenwriting feat if fiction. Yet, in the actor’s studio in Minneapolis we used to ad lib just such scenes.

Laurel Scherer works as a freelance photographer for a ski resort near Asheville, NC, which is supposed to be a liberal enclave in the Bible belt. But when she “marries” her partner the Wolf Laurel resort finds out and drops her. Unfortunately, she does not have a contract. The site “Out in Asheville” has an account of the incident here/ Equal Employment in North Carolina gets organized. One associate pastor tells a story of being fired when it is found he is gay.

Scott is a policeman in Missoula. He and his partner have a disabled foster child. After one gay man is beaten, and another dies of an overdose, he comes out. His truck is vandalized with a carving, but gradually the mood get better, and he is able to organize a GLBT liaison in the police department in Montana. He helps police Pride Day in Helena. He finally takes a job training police officers in Afghanistan. Although going to a Muslim country sounds dicey (and he says he will keep a low profile) there is no problem with gay civilians taking military-like jobs in Afghanistan or Iran.

Particularly in the North Carolina case, the basis of the prejudice comes through. There is talk of the “sanctity of marriage” which seems to mean the idea that the commitment to permanent intimacy expected in marriage deserves a reverence and sometimes a sacrificial deference from the outside world, otherwise such familial commitment, which does provide many descendents with their standard of living, could not exist. That goes beyond religion, and demands a certain candor. To an individualist, it sounds whiney; to someone from earlier generations, it just seems like part of the “community.”

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"The Importance of Being Earnest" (Oscar Wilde): 2002 remake

The 2002 version of Oscar Wilde’s comedy “The Importance of Being Earnest” from Miramax, and director Oliver Parker, who adapted Oscar Wilde’s play himself, is a lavish 1890s period piece, colorful, lush, and full widescreen. The earlier version had come out in 1952 from Universal with Anthony Asquith as director and adaptive writer but was also in Technicolor. In the newer version, Rupert Everett plays Algernon Moncrieff, Colin Firth is Jack Worthing, Frances O’Connor is Gwendolen Fairfax, and Reese Witherspoon is Cecily Cardew; and Judi Dench is the lynchpin as Lady Augusta (Gwendolen’s terrifying mother).

The whole farce sounds like a grand manipulation, a situation comedy with misplaced or deliberately concealed identities. But what really counts is the way Wilde manipulates the Victorian social artificialities with great punchlines that really do expose raw nerves, particularly in the part of Lady Augusta.

The setup happens because Jack, when in London, calls himself Ernest when he pursues Gwendolen, whereas Gwendolen’s cousin Algy, who knows Jack’s “secret,” also “becomes” Ernest to chase Cecily.

No one can make straight men look foolish when pursuing wives as Oscar Wilde, who had plenty of reason to step on the toes of the straight world. Lady Augusta says things like, too much education will destroy the English upper class (as she praises “natural ignorance”), and quips that the French Revolution destroyed family values. She makes a funny comment that fiction is a world in which good ends happily and bad ends unhappily. Later, we learn of an accidental switch of a baby (in a handbag) and a fiction manuscript (in a stroller) that resulted in the relationship between Algy and Jack being lost. Augusta (before that revelation) also tells Jack (in the “interview”) that he has to get himself a parent (or both parents). She also tells her daughter that parents get to choose grooms for their daughters. Wilde seems to be showing that the social meaning given to “family” was a major motivation for marriage to take place at all. There is even a dead hand clause in a will that determines at what age a daughter will be allowed to become an “adult” (it’s 35!).

The film opens with an arresting dark-street prequel with Algy running from debt collectors. In those days, debtors went to jail. Later he gets a visit from a process server -- they had those in Victorian England.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

81st Academy Awards

On Sunday, February 22, 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences holds its 81st Academy Awards ceremony at the Kodak Theater. There was a brief “Red Carpet” prequel at 5 PM PST. There was a lot of talk about scaling down the celebration because of the recession, but that hardly seems to be happening. Two homely male accountants from Price-Waterhouse walked down the carpet in formal wear, with the envelopes.

The ceremony is offering a number of “featurettes”, some of them described here. There was also a “Comedy 2008” featurette where two men (Seth Rogen) watch comedy while being filmed themselves.

The most moving point in the evening so far was the acceptance of screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, 35, for Best Original Screenplay for “Milk.” Black told the story of his Mormon upbringing and moving back to California as a young adult. He spoke of equal rights soon, including the right to marry, and of not being regarded as “less” than others. One of Black’s most impressive earlier films is "The Journey of Jared Price" (2000), with Corey Spears as the most appealing lead; Black also directed that film.

The best adapted screenplay was "Slumdog Millionaire", written by Simon Beaufoy from a novel by Vikas Swarup.

During the screenplay awards, the show presented the “Final Draft” industry sceenplay format of sample screenplay lines as they were read from each nominated film. (Somehow that reminded me of "Barton Fink" or even "Adaptation"). From “Milk”, Sean Penn’s “recruitment” scene was chosen.

Please note the Academy link for the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting.

Spielzeugland” (“Toyland”), from Jochen Alexander Freydank won best short subject (I saw the screening at a Landmark Theater). is announcing the awards immediately on line as they occur.

As of yet, I have not noticed "best song" nominees or "best picture" nominee segments being sprinkled throughout the show. Later, however, the three nominated songs were performed together on stage with "Bollywood" dance (reminds me of an episode of "Passions"), and Slumdog's "Jai Ho" (translates as "Be Victorious", ironically!) won handily.

The orchestra played excerpts from the scores of the five films nominated for best original musical score; Slumdog won, but Defiance looked quite impressive.

Hugh Jackman (Australia) is the MC.

Before Sean Penn got the award for best actor, De Niro posed the question as to how he had gotten so many roles playing straight men (like "Dead Man Walking"). Penn gave an impassioned acceptance speech, for equality.

I’m 90% sure that “Slumdog Millionaire” will win Best Picture. It did win. "Yes we can!"


There is still a lot of talk about SAG. It’s website now offers a trailer from “Behind the Masks”, a film about the Guild. SAG has reportedly rejected AMPTP’s “best and final offer” (press release). I do understand the battle of residuals for Internet reproduction, as the same battle has occurred in the National Writers Union. The “free content” issue on the Internet has some bearing on the problem, and on those less established actors (and writers) who depend on this for a living.


Has anyone looked a p 176 of the current Gentleman's Quarterly (GQ)? Justin Timberlake has been "restored" (after what happened to him before "Alpha Dog" and "Southland Tales".)


ABC News offers Barbara Walter's Oscar Special Preview video (no direct URL) from its main site. The best part of the show was the interview with the Jonas Brothers; also interesting was Mickey Rourke's return.

Friday, February 20, 2009

"Coraline": top of the art in 3-D animation

The animated film from “indie” distributor Focus Features (for Universal) "Coraline", directed by Henry Selick, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, still seems to be packing in the crowds, still is packing in the crowds during this recession. At the sold out early show (starting its third week, and the last week of 3-D screenings) at the AMC Tysons Corner in Virginia, staff asked me to move twice to accommodate large families. That’s unusual.

As so often with “children’s” movies (this one is PG for some slight suggestivity in a couple scenes), there is a lot of “meaning” in here for grownups. Coraline’s parents have moved from Michigan to an isolated “apartment” house that is 150 years old hidden away in the Rocky Mountains (hint, Stephen King, his gentler side). It’s funny that it rains a lot and doesn’t snow in the film; it seems to be fall. Mom and Pop are both writers, but their subject matter seems to be limited to gardening (no reputation problems). Mom works on a laptop, but Pop, who is not a geek, works on an old box that looks like a TRS-80 that fails when the power takes a hit. They keep telling her to go away (Pop calls her a “fusspot”), so Coraline finds a wormhole in the house to go to an alternate universe.

There, her parents are glamorous, but with one caveat: their eyes are sewn over with buttons. (The opening sequence of the film shows automated sewing, recalling both “Cold Mountain” and “Spider”). At first, Caroline is happy, because she finds real gardens and beauty, not just textbooks on gardens. The reorganized Pop entertains her with a player piano that is cleverly animated with gears (the piano plays him! – hint!) But then there is the down side. Her “alternate parents” go bad on her, and soon the alternate Mom wants to sew her eyes over with the buttons. And her male friend already has lost his mouth (that also happens in Stephen King’s “Creepshow”).

Coraline makes friends with a Mephistophelean cat who becomes one of the stars of the film. You really want this feline to be real, as the cat helps lead her back.

The question of “who your real parents are” comes up in other films and shows, most notably CWTV’s “Smallville”, and, in a different context, “Supernatural” as well.

Remember, back in 2005, Walt Disney's "Chicken Little" was in 3-D (and made a great subtle point about "internet online reputation" early; Columbia's "Monster House" (2006) was also in 3-D.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

HBO: Alexandra Pelosi's "Right America, Feeling Wronged"

On Thursday February 19, HBO Documentary Films presented Alexandra Pelosi’s “Right America, Feeling Wronged: Some Voices from the Campaign Trail”, 44 minutes. The HBO film link is here.

The film starts with McCain’s concession on Election Night and ends with it, but in between it manages to make a lot of his supporters look foolish. At one point, McCain has to correct an elderly woman who asks him a question inappropriately.

The film follows the “Straight Line Express” bus around the heartland, and it tends to take its (the bus’s) own pun seriously. Almost the first redneck says, “there’s working people and there’s gays”, as if gays are the “freeloaders.” The next one says that the two most important issues are abortion and homosexuality. The rhetoric calms down a little, but not too much. Later on, the filmmaker interviews a young man and asks him about his belief that Barack Obama is a socialist, and to explain what socialism is (like a test question, isn’t it!), and the man says it is something like Hitler, something between communism and the other system whose name he can’t remember (it’s fascism).

A guy in the South says, “we’re backwards” and that he isn’t too partial to … and that it’s not that the South is backward, it’s that the rest of the country is forward. A man in Mississippi says, “we are not ready.” Pretty soon some very bad words get used in the film.

The film shows rallies in a lot of Midwestern places, like Fort Wayne and Columbus, mostly former “red state” country. The film selects the flattest country to show (not all the Midwest is as flat as everybody thinks). The film also visits Springfield, VA and a few other places in the South. There are posters with Obama’s middle name (he did use it in the inauguration). There were some nasty games played with the president’s name. There is mention of the “Anti-Christ” and “666” movies as if anyone with the charisma of Obama somehow presents a risk to repeat the worst of world history.

Katie Couric is briefly interviewed, and she is presented as reviled by the crowd since she is part of the “liberal” media, but Couric insists that an objective press is essential to democracy. One man says that he listens only to Fox news.

One slender, younger man speaks to Pelosi and says that a lot of the other supporters are probably making themselves and their candidate look bad. There is a constant thread among McCain’s supporters to keep the intellectual substance of things very simple.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Seattle film production company offers view of the world as a cat sees it

ABC "Good Morning America" this morning introduced a family-owned Seattle film production company, Cross Films, through the work the couple did with its “self-adopted” male cat, Cooper. The Crosses attacked a miniature digital camera to Cooper’s collar and let him roam, taking stills every few seconds and getting hundred of ground level pictures of a cat’s view of the world. Cooper would return home through the cat door.

The pictures appear in natural color, available along with a video at the Cross Films sublink. However, a cat (its retina has more rods than cones compared to humans) is partially color-blind, not able to see the red end of the spectrum. This site has some pictures adjusted to what a cat really sees. In film, it’s common, however, to use filters to show specialized color schemes or simulate “color blindness”. (Remember the sepia in “Reflections in a Golden Eye”?, or even “Letters from Iwo Jima”?)

The Crosses say that cats have been domesticated (actually, they domesticated themselves) about 7000 years, and have not lost their wild habits. Probably, almost any carnivore is capable of domestication. Why? It tales intelligence and cunning to hunt for a living, and hunting is hard work. It’s easier to get fed (although not necessarily more healthful) by behaving well around someone benevolent who will feed you for companionship. Any carnivore is intelligent enough to figure this out. Domestication has given smaller carnivores (that is, domestic dogs and cats) enormous reproductive advantage in evolutionary terms.

The cat pictures were shown on a December 2008 episode of The Learning Channel’s “Animal Planet.”

The Crosses offer the camera for sale on their site.

It’s important to note that Cross has a full service production company, explained on the main site. There is a seven minute video showing interesting commercial and humanitarian interests including the Mercy Corps, Health Talk, and Microsoft Office Developer. I’ve never seem Visual Basic code made to look interesting on film.

The website for Cooper films reminds me of my interaction with IFPMSP from 1997-2003 when I lived in Minneapolis (from 1997-2003). IFP has chapters in New York, Phoenix, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Chicago, and Seattle. The main IFP site is starting to offer some specialized “social networking” and offers a lookup of companies, and I could not find this company on its database. I was surprised, but maybe I looked it up wrong (I’d appreciate a comment if Cross Films is there).

Let me suggest a great book for a film from a cat’s viewpoint: Allan W. Eckert’s novel “The Crossbreed” (1968), which may take more resources that independent film usually has (maybe Disney would look at it).

Picture: from a cat show, Sept. 2008, near Dulles Airport, Virginia

Sunday, February 15, 2009

LionsGate's "Saw" franchise suddenly attracts (negative) attention because of NIU tragedy; but this is a great little studio

I saw the first “Saw” film on DVD in 2005 a few months after the release, and the DVD contained a lot of material about the entrepreneurial aspect of the first film, and the daunting screenwriting by Leigh Wgannell and James Wan.

The first film was quite grainy, as two men wake up in a seedy lavatory, chained, and must injure one another (to say the least) to live. Gradually we learn about the character Jigsaw, with the trademarked mask, and Jigsaw’s morbid interest in testing the characters’ will to live by placing them into situations that challenge them to go to the edge. (The punch line was always “Do you want to play a game?” Well, not really. But there’s no choice.) Yes, the worst happens, on camera. Body parts roll.

I didn’t think there needed to be a franchise (a set of a composer's symphonies is a "franchise" I guess), but Lions Gate (site) must have found it made so much money that it couldn’t resist. Tobin Bell plays the old-man villain, and in successive films we find out that he is dying of cancer himself, as chemotherapy gets mixed in to the various mechanical contraptions of death. Beverly Mitchell, from Seventh Heaven, plays in the second film. Actors do not have to be picky.

In the last movie ("Saw V" or "Saw 5"), No. 5, post-Jigsaw, or perhaps not, it seems) we see the ultimate in "killing machines" like the body-bisecting "sling blade" (even outdoing a scene I remember from New Line's "Final Destination 2"). And there's a great line in the script from one of the culprits (there seems to be a multiplicity): "You call this karma, I call it justice." Sounds like Chairman Mao, maybe. Again, the theme of playing individuals against each other to survive is carried to the ultimate. And, if the Universe is to end with "the Big Rip", this finale (and maybe the entire franchise) ends with "the Big Crush".

In fact, the LionsGate opening trademark, which the warm gears of machinery, looking to a keyhole that opens on to the “real” Lions Gate in Greece, seems to be based on this movie. Actually, I’ve always connected the gears to the classic movie “Metropolis” and I think it’s a great trademark, especially with the rising musical signature ending on a triumphant chord.

Lately the Saw movies (official website)) have attracted “negative” attention, that I’ll get to in a moment. I hope Lions Gate keeps the trademark, because it looks great. But if the connection to “Saw” seems too offensive to some, the company could try something like successive satellite photos of earth (or other worlds) beaming down to the Lions Gate in Greece.

The “Saw” franchise has suddenly gotten negative attention from CNN one year after the Northern Illinois University shootings by Steven Kazmierczak. At 11 PM Feb. 14, CNN aired a special report from its newsroom, the report titled “A Lifetime of Red Flags”, with the full news story by Abbie Boudreau and Scott Zamost, here. The report also interviewed author David Vann, with a new book about the Kazmierczak, not yet on Amazon.

There are a lot of red flags in this young man’s life, and they don’t fit anything like what you would expect in graduate school. Lose those tattoos! It’s hard to believe that he could have gotten through Army basic. With his history of mental illness, how could he buy guns? (Same question about Cho and VPI.) But the report did deal with his interest in horror movies. When I was growing up in the 50s they were thought to be “bad for you”, and, to make a "moral" point, maybe the current fad in "torture porn" (also including the two "Hostel" films) really does "entice" some unstable people. The report dealt with his apparent fascination with the “Saw” movies in particular. He and his girl friend went to “Saw IV” and went dressed as Jigsaw to a Halloween party. The CNN report makes a lot of the fact that the Jigsaw character pretends to be a psychologist. This whole development is going to make us in the media ponder when we must be our "brother's keepers", just as in the New Testament.

LionsGate (apparently based in Canada and sometime recently gone public) has always been an interesting company. It used to specialize in small independent film but in the past few years has offered much larger scale films like “3:10 to Yuma”. It sometimes works with other small distributors like Roadside Attractions (“Right at your Door”) and Freestyle Releasing (“An American Haunting”) with more controversial or specialized fare. It has also enjoyed a stake in Lifetime (“Student Seduction”). It seems to be evolving as a “mid level” indie-related studio like Overture or Summit that has several niche markets (including horror). A few years back, it took over Artisan Entertainment (“The Blair Witch Project”) which had always turned out interesting releases. Don’t be surprised if there are more mergers among these companies. But they all have great brands, and all the brands (including Artisan) ought to remain.

Friday, February 13, 2009

"The International": an apt release of an "international" thriller on Economic Stimulus Day

I live movies that state moral dilemmas and paradoxes, even if they sound a bit trite or contrived. A good one appears in “The International” when an ex-comrade Wilhelm (Armin Mueller-Stalhl) tells almost freelance Interpol cop Lou Salinger (Clive Owen) that “fiction has to make sense, but truth does not.” That rung with me, because of a past incident a few years ago about how some of my Internet “fiction” was taken at a school where I had subbed – it made too much sense and scared them, and truth was much more complicated. And somewhere Lou says something like, if you lose yourself you can’t get reconstitute yourself (an apparent paraphrase of “personal honor is an absolute – once honor is lost, it cannot be regained” in Joe Steffan’s book "Honor Bound").

It’s interesting that this 70s-style almost Cold War thriller premiers on the day that Congress is supposed to vote on Obama’s economic stimulus package (already much maligned), as it seems to present an alternative view of how a world financial meltdown might happen (outside of “Goldfinger”, that is). Actually, BCCI (Bank of Credit and Commerce International) (BCCI) is a bank in Karachi, Pakistan and registered in Luxembourg, and it was involved in a major arms trafficking scandal around 1991. The Wikipedia article on BCCI is interesting.

There is an explanation in the dialogue of the script, that the bank supplies People’s Republic arms to both sides of the Middle East crisis to keep everybody in debt. But isn’t that what Wall Street did for the years leading up to the Collapse of 2008, try to make us all debtors?

German director Tom Tykwer (working here with writer Eric Singer on what looks like that writer's first film) is known for crisp and somewhat enigmatic movies (Winter Sleepers, Run Lola Run) based on puzzles; this time, he has made a more stereotyped Hollywood thriller, with plenty of exotic locations and assassins. Well, it’s not quite that stereotyped, as there is quite a bit of indie-like detail common in German cinema. The opening scene, in front of the Berlin train station, is shocking enough; after a middle aged operative gets out of a smoke-filled car, he clutches over, vomits on camera, and drops dead while Salinger gets grazed by a passing car trying to help him. I recalled my own 1999 trip and believe that I must have started my own train journey East (to Krakow) at a different station (and I remember having the reservation date wrong and having to pay off the porter to get a sleeper – how old times come back when one goes to the movies). Soon we are in a morgue, as Owen’s character is well enough to examine the corpse himself, and Tykwer lets us see or at least extrapolate the deceased character’s pre-death state of necrosis: his pudginess and balding legs (after all, he had smoked in the car, hadn’t he). The rest of the film keeps some degree of grit even in the most exotic locations: I’d love to sit in a sidewalk café in Lyon, France myself, and I realize that not all of Europe is slick and pretty by a long shot. Clive Owen is appropriately grizzled; his shirt is always open; in a late scene where he plays tourist in Istanbul, he wears an earpiece but apparently no chest wire (as in “Se7en”) to listen in; he wants to remain unscathed despite all the shootouts. The showdown in New York’s Guggenheim (that didn’t try to use Bilbao’s, which I visited in 2001) is the most brutal modern shootout scene outside of the 1996 film Heat.

This film is a little bit like “Taken” (France) (although Owen is a bit more nuanced than Neeson) in that European directors are trying to morph their national styles into Hollywood thrillers, for Columbia Pictures (site for this film is called Everybody pays) here.

The 4 PM show in a new, large AMC auditorium at Tyson’s corner VA was more than half full on a Friday afternoon, of opening day.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"Teenage Angst", another "boarding school" film, from Germany

Another current film about boarding school games is Thomas Stuber’s “Teenage Angst” from Germany, from Picture This! Running at 64 minutes, it’s almost like an exaggerated short, but it looks sharp, filmed in full 2.35:1.

The Border Prep School is on or near the grounds of an old Bavarian castle and near a reservoir. Several boys have formed a sort of fraternity and, in clandestine meetings sometimes off the grounds, try to initiate the most vulnerable boy, Leibnitz (Janusz Kocaj), who goes along to be part of the “friendship” and to please his parents and show that he can become a “real man.” The modes of initiation are more dangerous that most of the pranks in my own college days – I’ll come back to that in a moment – because here they include forced drinking, drug use, women, waterboarding, and the like. The ring leader Konstantin (Franz Dinda) comes to question all of this, and oddly the oafish, bearded schoolmaster, who’s always testing boys for alcohol and drugs, encourages him to get “real connections to people.” It all winds up to tragedy at the end, a kind of one-act opera without the singing.

There is in school society a preview of the real world, but without money or a free market; so boys tend to develop a society along “rules” and power structures that they think their elders expect and that mimic the “real world.”

My first semester of on campus college, before my 1961 explusion, included a “hazing” session that they called “Tribunals” the last Friday of September. I skipped out on it, but gradually there would be consequences. That could make another movie.

A reasonable comparison is "The Skulls" (2000) dir. Rob Cohen.

The DVD includes a short “Baby Shark” (“Bebe requin”, directed by Pascal-Alex Vincent (16 min). Here, boys rival for a girl and for each other in a silly school environment, with one kid particularly a “shark.”

Monday, February 09, 2009

TLA offers curious movie about a Japanese prep school

There is a curious film from Japanese director Kohtaro Terauchi (from TLA Releasing, and Tornado Film, 2009, “Schoolboy Crush” with elements of “Gossip Girl”, “Fatal Attraction,” “If …”, and even my own little screenplay experiment “The Sub’. It’s set in a rich boys’ prep school in Japan, and concerns a student Sora, who had once sold himself as a prostitute to one of the biology teachers, who tends to engage in some metaphorical classroom lessons about genetics and natural history. Manipulations of this little secret ensue, leading to plot complications that concern the other students, while the male teacher seems to stay above water. (The story could have gone in other directions, to be sure; an American/Canadian film with a vaguely similar starting setup, although hetero, is LionsGate/Lifetime’s “Student Seduction” (2003); Canada also has ThinkFilm’s “Whole New Thing" (2006), and Britain has Fox’s “History Boys” (2006)). In one scene Sora and the teacher are hiding under a bed as a proctor comes in the dorm. Sora wants to buy a house in the teacher’s name (a scary request that could sound like blackmail), but for a good reason, it turns out, for the rest of his family. But jealousies and rivalries among the students (especially Ichyio and Akamaki) erupt, leading to more than one tragedy, and then a kind of redemption.

The use of Japanese language is potentially interesting because the language includes elements of social position and hierarchy, which offers strange possibilities probably not apparent to English speaking viewers. The film is very professionally made, but the white-shirt-and-tie atmosphere gives the film a certain slick appearance, with a music score that is sometimes schmaltzy and at other times has a curious 5/4 rhythm. A few of the characters look more Caucasian than Asian. The male teacher does not look significantly older than the students, who in theory should be of late high school age.

Another plot possibility with this sort of setup is to get the teacher into more trouble, but to tell the teacher’s story from the viewpoint of the students, or even parents.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

"Push" is a compendium of other "heroes" genres, with an Asian flavor

The impression I got from Paul McGuigan’s “Push” was that it is a kind of Asian (eg, having extra martial arts "dance moves") “Smallville” with the very male Chris Evans as Nick Gant, the central character with “powers”. Or, perhaps, it’s more like a Hong Kong “Heroes”.

Well, but there are lot of other people around with different powers. Nick is a “mover”, but the tween Cassie (Dakota Fanning) who warns him is a “Watcher” (she can draw nice frescos). There is telekinesis (action), prediction (feeling), and “pushing” (some kind of combo). All of these powers seem to correspond to “the polarities” or personality types (like Myers-Biggs).

The story is different from other similar shows and movies. Here, the Nazis had groomed some kids for powers to change the future, and after the war, the big bad US government, complete with Unamerican Activities committees, took it over and offshored it. And now, the characters want to escape free from the government and become normal, more or less. Actually, they rather like their powers.

Hong Kong looks shabby in many scenes, and I wasn’t aware of its seedier side.

The film comes from Summit Entertainment (“Twilight”) that seems to be positioning itself as another quasi-indie studio (like Lions Gate, Overture, and Magnolia) with increasing ambition.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Landmark theater Oscar Nominated Short Films for 2009

The Landmark E-Street Theater in Washington is showing the Oscar nominations for best short films this week. Today, the 5:20 PM showing, in a small auditorium, for the live action films nearly sold out, good for a weekday afternoon. The films, all from overseas, worked the problems of moral dilemmas. The distribution ("Oscar Nominated Short Films") is handled by Magnolia Pictures and here is the official website.

The first film is “On the Line” from Germany (“Auf der Strecke”, 30 min), the longest film in the set, directed by Reti Caffi. A security guard in a retail store develops a crush on a clerk and then has a crisis of conscience after an incident on a subway, where he doesn’t help someone he believes a potential romantic rival after a thug attack. The film shows a cold, gray and contradictory modern Germany, and a bit of the paranoia of retailers. A lot is shown through the security cameras. This film should not be confused with the Miramax romance “On the Line” with Lance Bass in 2001.

The second film is “New Boy” from Ireland, 11 min, directed by Steph Green, based on a short story by Roddy Doyle. Joseph, a boy from Africa, having escaped a savage attack (perhaps Darfur or Rwanda) adjusts to arithmetic class in Ireland, with flashbacks to the same math class in Africa. The pedagogy and teacher-imposed discipline are interesting.

The third film, “Toyland”, (“Spielzeugland” from Germany, 14 min, dir. Jochen Freydank, reminds one of the feature “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”. In the 1930s in a working class town, a Gentile boy has befriended a Jewish boy whose family will be resettled to “Toyland”. The boy tries to get on the box car to go with his friend, unaware as to what is going on in the adult world.

The fourth film, “The Pig”, ("Den Gris") Denmark, dir. Tivi Magnusson and Dorte Høgh, 22 min. An elderly man goes into the socialized hospital for gastrointestinal tests and becomes attached to a painting of a pig on the wall. The hospital removes it when a Muslim man moves in to the next cubicle, causing a moral and ideological confrontation, especially between the families, as the Muslim patient turns out to be blind. There is almost a touch of “Magnificent Obsession” in the concept.

The fifth film, "Manon on the Asphalt", France, dir. Elizabeth Marre and Olivier Pont, 15 min. A young woman is struck by a car, and gives us a stream of consciousness of her last moments. The boyfriends and neighbors are engaging. There is a bit of the idea of the “locked in” syndrome of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and the experience is scary .

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Douglas Sirk's "Magnificent Obsession" (1954) is a welcome DVD

I do remember the posters for “Magnificent Obsession” when I was 11, and I vaguely remember the talk about melodrama involving a blind woman played by Jane Wyman, but I don’t think I saw it. For years, surprisingly, there was no DVD of one of Douglas Sirk’s most famous films, until the Criterion Collection recently released a DVD of the “Universal International” romance. Right off the bat, the aspect ratio (an usual 2.0:1) is creating comment, as there is some dispute as to how the film was usually shown. The 2:1 ratio was associated with SuperScope in the 1950s, shortly after 20th Century Fox introduced CinemaScope with its spectacle of Lloyd C. Douglas’s “The Robe”.

“Magnificent Obsession” is also based on a Lloyd C. Douglas novel (from 1929), and, however the details of the plot get changed, it gets into the moral territory that we tend to associate with evangelical Christianity (or at least of the Rick Warren kind). There’s another Douglas film, “The Big Fisherman”, about the Apostle Peter, from Disney (1959), and it still does not have a DVD; hopefully it is on the way.

Most of us know that “rugged” Rock Hudson acts the rich playboy Bob Merrick who builds up the bad karma. But there really is some genuine moral ambiguity about just how much responsibility he has for Helen Phillips (Wyman) and her losses. True, he’s reckless with his speedboat, but is it his fault that the rescue squad has only one resuscitator (this is 1954; I don’t know if they had the defibrillator yet), or that Mr. Phillips had the lifestyle risks that brought about coronary thrombosis and sudden death (maybe he couldn’t have been revived; Tim Russert could not be revived with 2008 technology).

Then, later, it’s true he has an argument with Mrs. Phillips, who considers him churlish and selfish, but it’s a reckless driver who hits her as she tries to leave the car during the argument, causing her head injury and blindness.

But Merrick, in fact, has already tried to change, having met a male friend Christian, who talks about the idea that good deeds need to remain secret and not draw attention, to keep them insulated, like electric wire. (That’s a clever metaphor.) After the second accident, he is desperate to learn what it is to be a good person. So he talks the dean of a medical school to let him in, and you can guess the logical ending. He is pursuing his private "magnificent obsession".

In fact, while she is still blind, he moves in on her (pretending to be someone else), and a couple of the scenes seem a little tasteless today, more or less in soap opera fashion (even “Days”).

The medical scenes, especially the operating room, show surprising intimacy, in the scrub room; Rock is shirtless, and they really have to scrub. Medicine, especially surgery, is more intimate (and more like the military) than people realize. And medicine looks more advanced than I thought it could be in the early 1950s.

Of course, some of us remember the public awakening that followed Rock Hudson’s disclosure that he had AIDS, leading to his death in October 1985.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

"Waltz with Bashir": a filmmaker explores his own past, in animation, at a historical tragedy

The best foreign film for 2008 might very well go to the rotoscopic animated docudrama “Waltz with Bashir” (“Vals im Bashir”) from Israel, directed by Ari Forman. The official site for the film from Sony Pictures Classics is here.

The history is a now less remembered massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian Phalangists in Beirut in September 1982. The name of the event (as on Wikipedia) is the Sabra and Shatila massacre (or Sabra and Chatila massacre; Arabic: “مذبحة صبرا وشاتيلا‎ “ or “Maḏbaḥat Ṣabrā wa Shātīlā”), with the Wikipedia link here giving the history. The tragedy seems to have been triggered by the assassination of Bachir Gemayel.

But from a film world viewpoint, almost everything else about this movie is interesting, most of all the way the director tells the story of his own self “re-discovery” in the film. As it opens, he sits in a bar with a friend to tells him about a recurring nightmare about an attack by dogs (actually, the nightmare is shown first). Gradually, the filmmaker is drawn to reconstruct in his mind the event a quarter century before, when he was an Israeli soldier and might have been deeply involved in it himself. In a sense, the film is quasi-narcissistic in that the filmmaker makes his own life experience, or at least the history immediately surrounding his own life, a structured story, with real beginning, middle and end. Although the rotoscope is brutally effective (in the scenes with motion it almost has a 3-D effect, without glasses), I think it would have been possible to make a compelling film as conventional action.

Forman tracks done some of his own Army friends to reconstruct the event. It is as if one made a movie by tracking down people from earlier in his life and interviewing them in interesting settings. One of the settings here is the canal country in the Netherlands (you see it from the air when you land in Amsterdam), the flattest country in the world (visually striking for that reason), and we see it in winter with deep snow (unusual) and then summer. One of the soldiers says that he had “masculinity problems” that somehow got resolved on a “love boat” on its way to battle. Another one of them had a fascination with porn – itself leading to some rather interesting animation, showing, among other things, hairy men, but in encapsulation. There is a fascinating sequence of “water survival”, and some self-examination as to whether one has shown courage or cowardice.

The tragic massacre takes shape toward the end of the film. The film here draws a fascinating parallel: the Israeli soldiers are witnessing something comparable to the Holocaust in their own history, but are not sure what they can do about this, or whether they should. There is no clear way to fix blame. Yet, the end of the film is as horrific as possible, finally going to real footage of the results of the massacre.

The “Waltz” refers to the Chopin Waltz in c-sharp minor (the Minute Waltz is in D-flat), but there is other fascinating classical music: some Bach, and a lot of use of an f-sharp minor slow movement (in triple, “slow waltz” time) from a late Schubert piano sonata, “reorchestrated”. The original music, by Max Richter, has some unusual rhythm, where a half-beat is cut off, almost making the meter septuple.

The film leaves me wondering if the same approach would work for my own material. If I were to go back into several major episodes of my life and interview the appropriate people today and review records, a deeper story would emerge, and it would impart a nuanced, subtle moral meaning. The story would no longer be so much as just about me as it would provide a slice of history, almost in a special dimension. You could imagine it as like a model railroad where the round trip goes through time as much as space. The trick would be to make the other characters who intervene themselves interesting enough to sometimes cause a rooting interest.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

"Appaloosa": Ed Harris directs, writes and stars in adaptation of Parker's western novel

Ed Harris has the reputation of playing forceful lawmen and sometimes forceful artists (an oxymoron), but it seems that just twice he has directed, and started in both films. (Tom Welling sometimes does that with “Smallville” episodes.) In 2000 he stormed on the screen as gonzo-like artist Jackson Pollock, but a complicated western like "Appaloosa" seems closer to his true calling. This was New Line’s major fall release, and it is base don the novel by Robert B. Parker.

Teachers of the craft (of screenwriting and filmmaking) make a lot of the notion that familiar elements of story and character grow out of very different circumstances and it is the filmmaker’s (and writer’s) job to get us to live that different life for two or so hours. That’s really the case here. The film has it’s beginning and it seems several “middle sections.”

But first, look at the notion of the law itself. Back in 1882, in New Mexico territory, a rancher Randal Bragg (Jeremy Irons) (any relation to Stephen King’s “Walkin’ Dude” character Randall Flagg in “The Stand”? -- we need a Trashcan Man, then) has killed three lawmen trying to summon him (before the opening credits). The town council hires “private” lawmen Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and partner Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) to be absolute rulers of this little model town (that’s how it looks from the distance – like a toy set). It’s interesting to ponder the libertarian idea of “private” rule, but it’s almost like that. Then there is the courtroom drama scene – a young employee (quite appealing) testifies against Bragg. The Judge has made up his mind, and advises the young man (after asking him if he owns a horse – a curious question) to ride and not look back. Harris indulges in some unusual direcotral discretion, showing an outdoor shot of the town while the testimony dialogue continues, and then later showing a mountain lion looking over the prisoner train, as if to pounce, or to foreshadow something that doesn't come. (Makes you wonder what it would be like to become a big cat, doesn't it?)

Then we have the death penalty train ride (recollections of the prisoner transport of James Mangold's “3:10 to Yuma”) which gets waylaid, quietly, with some interesting filmmaking that makes us think about model railroading. That other film, by the way, also reminds us of the days from everyday enemies in the old west: a horseback payroll robbery; and then remember the "train jacking" in Andrew Domink's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" -- and we see that the newly expanding societies of the 19th Century had their Achilles heels just as we do.

The third vertex of the plot is, of course, a woman, a young widow Allison French (Renee Zellweger) who arrives, and comes between the two lawmen and figures into the film’s escape sequences and rewires the entire story. Is she a bit of “Nurse Betty” here? She plays these gentle pieces on out of tune pianos – in one scene, even a Hanon study. The film’s denouement is less striking than the entire setup.

Zellweger herself, in the DVD notes, remarks that this is a movie that shows how real people behave in frontier society in the 1880s. Harris remarks that it is a movie about male friendship, tested by a woman of course. The great tagline is "Feelings get you killed." How "psychological"!