Tuesday, March 31, 2009

"Liberty or Death": St. Johns Church Foundation film (DVD) on Patrick Henry's famous speech

The St. John’s Church Foundation in Richmond, Virginia in partnership with Idea Stations and PBS produce and distribute a one hour film in DVD format of “Liberty or Death” (2007) directed by Paut Tait Roberts. (The link for sales of the DVD is here.)

I have not been able to find this film on Netflix or on PBS’s website, but it can be ordered from the Church directly above. I went to Richmond today and visited the site. The visitor’s center is in an old brick school house on the corner of the property, on the east side of town, overlooking a spectacular ravine that drops down to the James River.

The film can be compared to the American Animation film reviewed here January 2009. It offers a broader view of the history leading to the speech, with small live action vignette and still drawings of the major historical events, leading to the meeting at St. John’s church in Richmond, which is reenacted by actors to make the last 30 minutes of the film.

The enactment is a bit like a stage play, and includes all the British and colonial mannerisms of speech typical of the period. Kevin McGranahan plays Patrick Henry, and Bob Murphy is Thomas Jefferson.

The earlier history is broader in scope than in the Animation film. It stresses how the colonies had been left alone until the British won the French and Indian Wars, and needed new taxes to support and man their empire. The colonists really started to object when the taxes affected the products that they use every day. Another interesting point, of a libertarian nature, is that the colonists defended themselves against the native population with militia companies. Military service apparently started out as private enterprise (okay, maybe it sounds a bit mercenary), a bit of a cry from the evolution of conscription and all the controversies around today’s military personnel policies.

St. John’s is a real chuch, and his been in operation since 1741. The assembly, to consider the need to go to war (where Henry says “there is no peace”) had been arranged in Richmond because at the time it was farther inland from Williamsburg (the capital) and out of reach of the British, more or less.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

"The Lost Tribe", Logo documentary about gay Mormons; also, review of "Latter Days"

The Lost Tribe”, directed by Rachel Landers, from Pony Pictures and Real Momentum, is an informative documentary (50 min) available on Logo on homosexuality and the Mormon Church (that is, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints). Sue-Ann Post, who speaks with a heavy Irish accent, travels to Salt Lake to speak to Affirmation, Gay and Lesbian Mormons.

In the 1990s, she was removed from the membership rolls, but never had a formal excommunication church trial. The film gives a brief history of the Mormon Church, including the revelation to Joseph Smith, the moral code which ironically allowed polygamy, the persecutions and migration to “Zion” and the “revelation” that led to ending polygamy in the 1890s. The claim that a lost tribe from Israel came over to the New World in the first millennium sound biologically unlikely because the native peoples in the New World were all of Mongoloid race until Europeans started settling it. That this would be believed is itself interesting – what people notice and don’t notice. But Post says she publicly made the three fatal disavowals: belief in the revelation to Joseph Smith, belief in the narrative of the Book of Mormon, and belief in the Holy Ghost. The film briefly touches on the Mormon theology of eternal marriage, and in the interest in genealogy for the ritual of baptism of the dead. In the Army, I knew a soldier who drew genealogy charts because he wanted to convert to Mormonism.

The central male character is Gary, who tries to live “ethically” a double life, following the teachings despite his sexual orientation.

The link for playback is here. The movie plays back in seven segments with a brief commercial before each segment, which is how Logo funds its “free” video and movies. There are many smaller GLBT features, both live action and documentary there now.

There are several other films on imdb with this title, including a sci-fi thriller from Roel Reine later in 2009.

Probably the best known dramatic film on homosexuality and the Mormon Church is “Latter Days,” directed by C. Jay Cox, from TLA and Funny Boy Pictures, with Steve Sandvoss (whom I met at the 2003 Reel Affirmations LGBT film festival in Washington) as Aaron. Toward the end of the film there is frank aversion therapy, but the sequence in which Aaron comes to terms with himself, while remaining so disciplined (down to how he does his daily laundry) while on the two year mandatory “mission” (where young men in shirt and tie “proselytize” to win converts), leading to a harrowing sequences of self-discovery and “apprehension.” The film also presents a deep and brilliantly screenwritten confrontation between Aaron and his mother (Linda Pine) who asks what her role in his life is going to be if he gives up on “family.” The film also featured Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

"In the Electric Mist": Tommy Lee Jones plays a veteran facing his own bayou demons

Some daring independent films are going direct to DVD at the same time they appear in selected film festivals, perhaps with a very small platform theatrical release at first. Image Entertainment apparently can handle some pretty substantial independent films this way.

Such is the case with "In the Electric Mist", the drama-fantasy based on the novel “In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead” by James Lee Burke, directed by Bertrand Tavernier and adapted by Jerzy Kromolowski (screenplay) & Mary Olson-Kromolowski.

This movie seems to belong to veteran Tommy Lee Jones, playing Dave Robicheaux, a deputy sheriff in Iberia Parish, Louisiana. He is drawn into a mystery involving a number deaths of young women, and then learns from an actor Elrod Sykes (a disheveled instance of Peter Sarsgaard) whom he pulls over for DUI, about a mysterious death of a black man (Chukwuma Onwuchekwa) in the bayou, ringing bells from the past. Jones’s character is led into a personal odyssey that will test his grip on reality. At one point he encounters an encampment of confederate soldiers from a local film set and wonder if he is alive. The movie mixes the embedded movie world with its outer reality, as bodies pile up and Jones wonders if he killed them. John Sayles plays producer Goldman, and John Goodman plays magnate “Baby Feet” Balboni, and James Gamon plays the other mobster Ben Hebert. Justina Machado is masterful as the sidekick assistant Rosie, and Mary Steenburgen and Kelly MacDonald impress also.

The concept of taking a veteran person in law enforcement or intelligence and working through his own demons has occurred to me, and actually forms the outer plot of one of my novel manuscripts. In my work, I wind up taking him on a “road trip” into a kind of Armageddon, which I called “the Path Pit.” With an older, grizzled character there is a lot more backstory to provide existential conflicts. Yet, the reader or viewer often identifies with someone young and appealing. Here, Tommy Lee Jones is so dominating that he pulls the movie off.

The film does offer some shots of devastated, post-Katrina New Orleans and the script refers to the 1965 Hurricane Betsy.

Another film that went to DVD and theaters simultaneously was HDNet's "Bubble" from Steven Soderbergh and Mark Cuban (2006).

"Raising Teens": MTV documentary about gay parents

Logo Online offers the 2005 documentary “Raising Teens”, directed by Samantha Counter, originally filmed for and broadcast on MTV. The 48-minute film traces three teenagers with gay parents. Logo's link for the start of the film is here.

The first teen, Aidan, is being raised by two women in Richmond, VA. Aidan is auditioning to be conductor of the drum majors in her senior year in high school. Her teacher is tangentially concerned that her outside activities, including membership in the “Gay Straight Alliance” could prove a distraction. The movie depicts Richmond is ultra conservative (with pictures of the Monuments) and shows the “Homosexuality is Sin” banners outside the Richmond Convention Center before an Equality Virginia dinner in April of 2005.

The second teen, Hope, is being raised by two gay men in Staten Island, New York. They had adopted her as a mixed-race child at the age of four months. She is trying to get into the college of her choice.

The third teen, Cooper, is a 19 year old male raised by two women. He was born after artificial insemination. The surrogacy contract allows Cooper to contact his biological father once, but only once unless the father consents to seeing him repeatedly. There is a scene where the two mothers confront Cooper with this factual reality.

The movie provides a journal of the problem of “generativity” for gay men and lesbians – how to create and maintain family units and take cross-generational responsibility. We see that it can be done outside of established gender roles, but sometimes it is much more complicated, especially for the kids.

I took the picture shown here at the 2005 Equality Virginia annual dinner in Richmond in April. A violent storm had occurred a few hours before.

Friday, March 27, 2009

"Burn" -- new digital short on Wall-e DVD #1

Walt Disney Company’s DVD #1 for Pixar's “WALL*E” includes a seven minute short “Burn” that seems contemporary with the main movie. A quick check on the Web shows lots of video clips; there was one taken down from YouTube, so I guess they’re illegal. You’re supposed to buy the DVD or rent it from Netflix or Blockbuster – yes, you’re supposed to pay for it. Sorry. Too bad it wasn’t in the original theatrical release.

In the opening, we see Saturn, with a list of the number of miles from earth. That’s interesting to me because I wrote a screenplay script “69 Minutes to Titan”, estimating how long it might take light to reach Saturn on a relatively near approach. (It’s a little longer). In fact, there is a nice site that tells how long it takes light to get to various planets, called “6 Billion: The Game of the New Millennium”, here.

BURN’E is another robot to runs around the tracks of the “Axiom” spacecraft-exile-resort, as if it were a kind of streetcar on a kid’s Lego model railroad. You get a little glimpse of the spoiled “exiles” inside. The craft goes into hyperdrive, deforms space-time, and gets back to Earth in a lot fewer than 69 minutes, to see a Manhattan of ruin. At the end, we hear a bit of the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth.

"Burn" calls itself a "digital short" which is not to say that it belongs as an "SNL Digital Short." But it would seem to fit in, wouldn't it. Too bad Samberg's voice isn't in it.

The DVD also includes the “controversial” cartoon "Presto" (dir. Doug Sweeltand), already discussed. It seems like the magician finds out what happens when he doesn’t feed his rabit.

There is an 18 minute documentary on the Animated Sound Design, with an excerpt from Dumbo, and interest effects like the inertia jet engine starter.

Steven Pearlstein has an important perspective today (Friday March 27) on p D1 of The Washington Post, “In Hollywood: Reshaping a Business Model that Emerged with the Talkies” link here. The article discusses how the Internet is challenging the old business model of Hollywood and broadcast television (including “made-for-TV” movies – since I went to the shoot of “Washington Field” Wednesday morning). Hedge funds are having increasing difficulty investing in movies in a conventional way because of the financial crisis. This seems to mean that stars and directors will make their own films independently, outside the established studio system. This could actually bode well for more "iconoclastic" movie concepts.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

"Watchmen" needs to use the "parallel universe" trick

I finally saw the almost-three-hour “almost animated” DC comics spectacle “Watchmen”, directed by Zack Snyder, from Warner Brothers and Paramount together (they both pasted their trademarks onto the yellow smiley button).

Okay, this is a story in a parallel universe, where Richard Nixon (without David Frost around) is in his fifth term, with the media watching the Doomsday clock. The “story” as such has Roarschach (Jackie Earle Hailey) running around with his dynamic spotted clown mask looking for revenge, and encountering characters like Dan (Patrick Wilson, who eventually seems like himself), world’s-smartest-guy Adrian (Matthew Goode) and most of all Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), who was once an Oppenheimer-like physicist, who got zapped in an experiment in 1959, and then reassembled into a golem. That sequence is fascinating, focusing on the electricity hitting the hairs on his arms as if lit up by a loose Christmas tree wire, with his transformation making him completely hairless, recalling the notorious photoflash scene in the 1971 version of “Andromeda Strain”.

As in other movies, Hollywood again destroys New York – except that this time there is a plot involving Adrian and Manhattan to do a pre-emptive strike with a bizarre weapon to force the world into peace – the world’s biggest practical joke.

Dr. Manhattan makes some trips to Mars, where he creates a kind of “fortress of solitude”. Mars is well depicted (although the two moons look too big).

Let me note that Wilson has a great “strip” scene with Carla Gugino (better than anything in “Lakeview Terrace” or even “Little Children”).

As to the “meaning” of the movie, I’m struck by the joke. It seems, in my experience, that intellectual people who at the same time have social difficulties (Adrian is presented like a grand aspie) love to change the rules that other people have to play by – Adrian certainly does that (he looks great in lavender, as if everyone notices), leading to the real moral ambiguity of the ending.

As for “superheros”, the characters here didn’t strike me as in the “hero” league, except maybe for Daniel, who is a bit quiet most of the time, if sexy in that one scene.

My own earlier unpublished novels build on the doomsday idea from the Cold War and the Soviets. While in the Army (around 1969), I wrote “The Proles” where there is a nuke war in the middle of the novel (the whole world goes “back to the bay”). Later (as in “Tribunal and Rapture”) I experimented with the idea that Communists would land clandestinely, plant plutonium-laced truck bombs in large cities (in one pre-HIV novel a gay bathhouse is emptied out) , and then take over the remaining disorganized society which gets forced into living in communes (followed by a UFO landing in one case). The trouble is that history outlives all these ideas; history changes, leaving us to use the “parallel world” idea for movies like this.

Picture: Mars atmosphere, from Wikimedia (NASA, public domain) -- go to article on Mars in Wikipedia.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Screen Gems makes "Lakeview Terrace" as an "American foreign film" stylish thriller

Late in 2008 Sony Screen Gems (with Overbrook Entertainment) released it’s quasi-indie drama “Lakeview Terrace”, directed by Neil LaBute, story by David Loughery, about a racist African American cop Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson) who torments a mixed-race couple next door, the Matsons, played by Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington.

The movie sets up tension slowly, and somewhat recalls the dialogue writing techniques of “Crash”. In a series of confrontations, words and short phrases come out very skillfully, always just escaping an explosive flash point. In other sense the film recalls an earlier Screen Gems film, “Arlington Road”, where the neighbor may be a terrorist.

There’s a really interesting middle section conversation between Chris Mattson and Lisa’s attorney father, where the father asks him if he intends to have children with Lisa, and how he will “protect” them. In other contexts, the question would be offensive, but here it simply slams the solar plexus.

Wilson is that competent white male who is always being tested, much like a similar character in New Line’s “Little Children”. Chris (that is, Wilson) goes investigating like a tom cat, and winds up at Abel’s wild party, where he is pinned and thrown out. Then his reaction to record, Frost style, and get Abel fired.

There are some backstories in the dialogue. We learn what bothers Abel (there is some parallelism) and it seems that the Mattson’s are a “plant”.

In the meantime the Santa Anna wildfires approach, and it’s not hard to guess where the film is headed. Well, it is. There are a couple of shocking twists just as the smoke pours in, enough to make anyone wary of being himself too much. The burglary scene is particularly shocking.

I don’t know if I’d want to live there. I think I prefer a four-season climate, with some rain and snow. Wildfires are the worst.

This film, in the end, is a shocking indie thriller, even if most of it is quiet drama and suggestive buildup. It is like an American “foreign film”.

Picture: Virginia's Shenandoah Park in a very dry early October (2007)

Monday, March 23, 2009

"I Love You, Man": Rudd, Segel, Samberg face off, but "reproduction rules"

Just like the “Not Into You” film a few weeks ago, here we have another “romantic comedy” from the (heterosexual) guy point of view. It’s “I Love You, Man”, directed by John Hamburg, written with Larry Levin.

Okay, it’s about the dimensions and limits of (heterosexual) male friendship. This time, gentle but hairy-chested Paul Rudd plays a straight male role, a successful Los Angeles realtor Peter Klaven, who has proposed to Zooey (Rashida Jones). But pretty soon, his family and especially his gay brother Robbie (Andy Samberg) are pressuring him into entering the world of male bonding to find a best man for the wedding.

Ah ha. Well, first, he does, when pigout investor Sidney Fife (Jason Segel) shows up at the realtor’s showings for the food. The friendship happens, partly because Sidney impresses Peter with his level of testosterone (although his chest doesn’t count). “I’m a guy”. Sure, so that means he doesn’t have to pick up the poop on Venice CA sidewalks.

Samberg’s role is impressive. He (that is, his character) works as a trainer in a local “free-weights” gym, and there are a few other loose attempts at “friendship” that happen first, even including a male kiss (and a really gross-out drunken projectile vomiting which Peter tosses off). I think the movie could have used an excerpt from Samberg’s SNL digital short “Laser Cats”. (The movie does show an excerpt from the artsy French film “Chocolat” with a young Johnny Depp). His role helped him make the cover of “Out” recently as a “straight” actor. Otherwise, it seems that he keeps SNL together, especially when showbiz amateurs like Michael Phelps host SNL.

In the last scene, Samberg almost winds up as an emergency “best man”. You could say that this is a lesson in the idea that “reproduction rules.” A gay man helping a straight man marry when he doesn’t have the same right to marry the adult of his choice (although maybe when this film was shot, California’s Prop 8 hadn’t passed yet).

The film does show all the social schmoozing (even from workplace cubicles) that goes on in many lines of business, where making money (commissions, especially) is dependent not on direct productivity, but on the capacity to manipulate others socially. Some of the film's funniest scenes take place around relatively humble-looking workplace cubicles.

I sort of missed Justin Long in this movie, because he was so effective as the spoiler in the “Not Into” business. Maybe this script didn’t have a place for that character.

All in all, the film was funny. Funnier than “not into”.

The opening Dreamworks trademark was rather tarnished by the music from the movie. Dreamworks should have used its usual harp music mark first. I’m surprised that its lawyers let that one by.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Warner has director's cut of "Helter Skelter"; nihilism at its worst

Warner Brothers offers a “Director’s Cut” (quasi theatrical) version of the CBS TV film “Helter Skelter”, aired in 2004, directed by John Gray, itself a remake of an earlier 1976 version directed by Tom Gries. The DVD film is long (about 140 minutes) and set up as a standard 1.85:1 film aspect and adds much more of the savage violence (often with ghosting) than could be viewed on standard broadcast network television (hence it corresponds to an R rating). The original book is by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry.

The film is considered remarkable because it tells the story of the Charles Manson cult and the slayings and the Spahn ranch on 1969 from the viewpoint of Manson himself. Jeremy Davies is quite chilling as Manson, and they say it takes a great actor to make you dislike him. (Think about all the “hero” shows on television now, where the male lead’s job is to make the audience feel good.) Most of the narrative of the film concentrates on the latter crime spree and sentencing. The visitor can look at Wikipedia for an excruciating account of the details of Manson’s life of crime. The problem for me with a film like this is that there is really nobody to like.

The nihilism of Manson and his followers previews the mentality of a terrorist, and it makes one wonder about what a film about the inside of an Al Qaeda cell would be like. (Magnolia Pictures's “The War Within” (dir. Joseph Castelo) from 2005 may be a glimpse). There are some rants where Manson vents his own version of class warfare and forceful action against his “enemies” leading to a social Armageddon that he calls “Helter Skelter”. Yet, he personally disliked the underprivileged people be preached that revolution would help. In the film, women join in with the savagery, and my own experience with the radical Left in the early 1970s was that the women were the most “moralistic” of all.

The is an interesting scene in London where director Roman Polanski (Marek Probosz) gets a phone call about the brutal death of his wife Sharon Tate (Whitney Dylan).

Picture: from Herington, KS, where McVeigh stored wares in 1995 (picture taken by me in 2006).

Update: Nov. 26, 2017

The Washington Post offers an obituary by Paul Valentine of Manson, who died in prison at 83. on P. B6 Nov. 21. Manson's crew targeted two other families, including a family renting a home from a rich person, and labeled their remains as "pigs"/ 

Saturday, March 21, 2009

"Lonely Hearts" documents the spree of a notorious couple in the 40s

In 2007 Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn Company distributed the docudrama (produced by Millennium Films and Equity Pictures) “Lonely Hearts”, a "Bonnie and Clyde" story (sort of), in an “Eastern” context: a couple, pretending to be siblings, advertises in lonely hearts columns, swindles people and kills them in cold blood, back in the late 40s. Jared Leto and Salma Hayek play the evil couple (Ray Fernandez and Martha Beck), and John Travolta and James Gandolfini. The film takes us through a number of their “scams” and the violence that follows is gratuitous enough.

The story plays out in mid century New York City and in Michigan, where there are interesting extradition questions for the cops. The police cars have four red lights, and look a bit picaresque. The language of the cops is racy and sometimes racist (with the “N” word).

It seems like an ironic DVD (from Sony) to rent today, given the news reports of Internet scams and phishing in the past few years, along with the viral behavior of the financial markets, most of all the Ponzi Scheme of Bernard Madoff. The DVD has an extra on the making of the film as a period piece, and describes Jared Leto undergoing agonizing make-up preparations, including plucking hairs above his hairline to make it look thinning and receding. Actors go through a lot. I remember (in 1955, about the time of this film) being sensitive about having makeup put on me to be in a seventh grade operetta ("The Sunbonnet Girl") but under different circumstances I would not have minded. The extra also says that this film is about people (the couple) as evil as one can get (so is the next film reviewed on this blog; just look).

In the end, the pair get the electric chair in Sing Sing prison in New York State. Ray actually burns when he is jolted. The scene is more graphic than comparable scenes in “Capote” and “Infamous”.

Friday, March 20, 2009

"Knowing": sci-fi tests "the knowledge of good and evil" and wraps around to Genesis

I had thought at first that this review would go on my “disaster shows” blog, but “Knowing” has a bit of everything in it. I hate to spoil things, but there is a bit of “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, as well as 20-20/History Channel’s scenarios for the end of the world, and a quick rehearsal of most of the major 20th and 21st Century catastrophes. From the upstart company Summit Entertainment (with its trademark of pyramids) this dazzling sci-fi epic comes from Australia, and is just a tad more original than the usual big studio sci-fi morality plays (many scenes are shot in New York and Boston). Egyptian director Alex Proyas has previously given us “The Crow”, “Dark City” (a very interesting premise in a closed world), and “I Robot”. Another comparison would come from Joel Schumacher's New Line film "The Number 23" (2007) with Jim Carrey. Here the plot gimmick is a novel possibly about the central character. The story (of "Knowing") is by Ryne Douglas Pearson.

The philosophy of the movie is what carried me along. This is about “the knowledge of good and evil” all right, and the very last scene (touches of Darren Aronofsky’s “Fountain” and maybe even “Contact”, as well as Shyamalan’s “Signs” and “Happening”), with its beginnings (hint: photosynthesis doesn’t have to yield green) evokes the idea in an ironic way. Imagine that you see something happening that seems supernatural, even threatening, and yet it was mapped out in your own head. (I need to mention that, once again, overseas Hollywood has fun destroying New York – it could have picked on Sydney—the last time this happened was “Cloverfield”.

More specifically, fifth grader Caleb (Chandler Canterbury), at an unveiling of his grade school time capsule planted 50 years ago, opens an envelope with a number theory puzzle inside, and it’s not a Fibonacci sequence. Instead, it has the dates, number dead, and coordinates of every major disaster after 1959. Of course, that begs the question how the girl knew this, and whether people find “knowledge” (Jimmy Wales style) in numbers. His father, an MIT physics professor played by Nicholas Cage, pretty soon figures it out and becomes alarmed, and goes on your typical treasure hunt. In the meantime, Caleb is seeing “The Grays”, well, sort of. The aliens can look like anything they want.

Pretty soon the professor has figured out that the end of the world is nigh. (The plane crash and subway wreck are very well done.) Here I have to add that the aliens, and the UFO itself (built of fractals) are among the very best I’ve ever seen in film. I don’t know whether a solar flare could destroy earth (the idea has been proposed on “Smallville”) – but maybe the Maya were right, that on Dec. 21, 2012 the alignment in the heavens could cause something like this (although the movie is set in 2009). 20-20 has proposed that a gamma ray burst could fry us all, but then the aliens would have to take us thousands of light years, maybe to another galaxy, to start over with Adam and Eve.

It's interesting that this movie appears after Australia's recent horrific wildfires, which seem alluded to by one dream scene in the film.

The original music score by Marco Beltrami is concert worthy (I hope some symphony orchestras will play it), and the music really soars to a rousing D Major climax (with a theme reminiscent of the Sibelius Second) as the finale results in Genesis. The closing credits repeat the climax. Curiously, the Allegretto of the Beethoven Second occurs in the just-before-apocalypse pandemonium. At the end, this is actually a “feel good” movie.

Regal Cinemas is now providing print-at-home tickets that tell you which auditorium the movie is in (in this case, it was the largest one, about half full on a Friday night early show in Arlington VA).

You might want to check out Roger Ebert's special blog review here. Yes, it has the spoilers, but it's impossible to discuss this movie meaningfully without saying "what happens."

Picture: Olympus Mons, the largest mountain in the solar system, on Mars. No, I didn't go there; it comes from Wikimedia Commons and Nasa (in public domain). You couldn't restart the world there; in any event, if the Sun expands in 5 billion years to become a red giant, Mars may get it too.

Update: April 21

AOL has a story "Huge Solar Storm Could Shut Down U.S.", link here. The original story is on ABC, by Ki Mae Heussner: "

Are We Ready for a Solar Katrina?: Severe Solar Storms Could Harm Power Grid, Navigational Systems and Spacecraft, Scientists Say," link here.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

"Bordertown": sensational indie thriller about the politics of NAFTA

When I first saw “Bordertown” on Netflix, I thought it would be a smallish docudrama made on a shoestring, about immigration issues. It comes from a small Canadian distributor, Thinkfilm, and is directed by Gregory Nava (Capitol is the production company). The film could be compared to “Traffic” from Steven Soderbergh and USA Films (another larger indie company in the past) Roadside Attractions and “Trade” from Marco Kruezpainter and Roadside Attractions; maybe even Orson Welles and “Touch of Evil”. Another comparison is the Starz/CameraPlanet documentary short “Reporters Killed in the Line of Duty”, narrated by Anderson Cooper, on my “challenges to freedom films” blog March 3, 2009. This is a good place also to re-mention Paramount Vantage and "A Mighty Heart" as well as well as Adam Shepard's book "Scratch Beginnings" about a young man who enters the low-wage and homeless life to prove himself and write about it (books blog on March 18).

What I found was an exciting “international” thriller about social justice, shot mostly on location in Ciudad Juarez (also in New Mexico), with big super stars, and yet with a realism uncommon from more conventional Hollywood. Such is the best of independent film. Today we expect such work from companies like Summit, Overture, and Lionsgate. This movie is much more ambitious than the Canadian formulas we see on Lifetime, although it fits the theme of that channel and would be a logical film to show on it. As it develops, the film puts forward a basic moral problem about journalism today: the corporate world, for all its formal standards of objectivity in journalism, can become corrupt, leaving the amateurs to hold them accountable, or else professionals willing to sacrifice for the truth.

Lauren Adrian is an American journalist played by Jennifer Lopez, who takes an assignment to investigate the murders of women in Juarez. It’s to be expected that the film will fall into political territory: not only government corruption, but also the apparent effect of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) which led to the setup of maquildoras south of the border to perform the labor intensive steps of manufacture cheaply. (Wikipedia has a good picture of a typical maquila here). A woman, Eva (Maya Zapata) has crawled out of the grave and survived. Soon Lauren is trying to help her identify and testify the attackers, and she manipulates (perhaps doomed) Mexican reporter Alfonso Diaz (Antonio Banderas) into helping her with a disguise as a Mexican “prole” worker. (The assembly line training scene is interesting—“accelerate production”.) From there on, the plot gets complicated. George Morgan, her editor in the US (played by veteran Martin Sheen) indirectly calls her home (the paper (The Sentinel) doesn’t want to run her story because of the politics of NAFTA – and the “slave trade” accusations in her story), leaving Eva to fend for herself. When Lauren returns (out of her own sense of moral duty, giving up her conventional reporting job) she becomes the mark, for real this time. (There is the conversation about “corporate reporting” v. the “truth” and that investigative reporting is over. The “Sentinel” owns her; no wonder we have independent bloggers!) The movie starts becoming more conventional with its crisis points and cliffhangers. But the climactic fire scene is super with the abstract special effects. There will be some justice at the end as she takes another paper after the final tragedy.

There is a great conversation where Eva asks Lauren why Lauren doesn’t have any children, and Lauren explains what a career is like, a “different kind of job” that you don’t necessary want as badly as you thought in the end. Later Lauren has to deal with the cultural issues as to how Eva perceives things.

I remember getting a call from a polling company in early 1993 as to whether I supported NAFTA.

I believe that the last time I visited Juarez was in January 1979, over a weekend when I was moving from New York to Dallas to start a new job.

The DVD has a featurette "Exposing the Juarez Murders" where Gregory Nava explains the making of the movie and his desire to expose this horrible problem. They shot in Mexicali and Nogales as well as Juarez, because it would be too dangerous to shoot everything in Juarez if people knew about the exposure. The filmmakers did get death threats. Newspapers are not free to print the "truth" about how NAFTA encourages the Mexican government to look the other way on the abuse of female workers.

There is also a short documentary "La Frontera -- The Border" (17 min) about a worker's life in a maquila, in Spanish with subtitles. Poor Mexican women definitely don't get a choice between work and family. One of the women is from Oaxaca. The director is Barbara Martinez Jitner.

There is another short "Dual Injustice: Femininicde and Torture in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua".

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"Katrina's Children" shows at DC Environmental Film Festival

On Wednesday, March 18, 2009, The Environmental Film Festival of the Nation’s Capital (site) presented the film “Katrina’s Children” (site) at the National Museum of Women in the Arts near Metro Center. The director is Laura Belsey, who was present for the Q&A for an audience of about 100. The production company is Shadow Films and the Distributor is Ostrow.

The film presents nineteen grade-school age children who (with their families) were victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, in various neighborhoods. A technique in the film is to take art drawn by the kids and animate it. Often, kids drew vortices, which the film would animate in a counterclockwise direction to simulate a hurricane on a weather map. The vortex was shown gobbling up houses and people.

The film shows much of the ravage that remains today in the New Orleans, as well as some footage of the motels and facilities in Houston, Texas where the kids were evacuated. The parents say that the kids barely understand what has happened but they really do, although they often use simple words (like “sad”) to describe complex sense of loss. Their lives have been mugged, and they don’t know why. One African American girl says she would like to be white. “Katrina” is personified as a female villain (I could suggest the wicked grandmother “Kate” in the soap “Days of our Lives”).

Belsey says she spent over 500 hours filming, and had to spend a lot of time living the life of a returning resident, spending a lot of time with the kids and gaining their trust as well as that of the parents. This is a case where a filmmaker really needed outstanding social skills, an idea not discussed that often in independent film production conferences.

I still wonder why America’s housing industry, which was so wasteful during the financial bubble, could not respond in a more robust fashion to rebuild New Orleans. Why expect so much of volunteers picking up hammers (and often volunteers are not allowed inside moldy houses anyway)? Should all neighborhoods, including the Ninth Ward, be rebuilt? Will the levees really be strong enough for a future Category 5?

Picture: my visit to New Orleans in Feb. 2006, near the Industrial Canal

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"Brother's Keeper" (1992) is a docudrama about possibly abusive prosecution

Brother’s Keeper” sounds like a New Testament concept, based on the Old Testament story of Cain and Abel, a quote from which opens this docudrama about a bizarre and aggressive prosecution of an elderly man for the death of his brother in central New York State in 1990.

The film, directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, was originally released in 1992 by Creative Thinking International but IFC issued the “10th Anniversary” DVD in 2002, in full screen format. The production companies were American Playhouse, Hand to Mouth, and Docurama (“everything else is fiction”). The film has also been shown on PBS.

The four Ward brothers (Delbert, Lyman, Roscoe, and William), in their 50s and 60s, ran a primitive hairy and hog farm near Munnsville (near Syracuse). They were illiterate and unable to relate to the modern world socially. They lived in a cluttered (really!) one room shack and slept together. In June, 1990, William died, and Delbert was accused of second degree murder by the district attorney. The authorities tried to claim mercy killing, and later a wild theory of “sex gone bad”. The first half of the film shows the men working on the farm, interspersed with interviews of the attorneys. The film is also punctuated with television news reels. Winter shows up half way through the film, which soon moves into a courtroom drama phase. The public has become skeptical of the prosecutions grandstanding, which it gradually comes to believe is politically motivated (much like the 2006 Duke Lacrosse case pursued by now disgraced DA Mike Nifong). At one point, the defense attorney refers to the victim and defendant as having “schizoid personality” although that characterization seems incorrect with such a degree of disability. The greatest value of the film is to show that states need to follow great care in designing criminal procedure to prevent abusive prosecution. For example, states should limit the ability of grand juries to indict without proper separate police procedures first.

The DVD includes a ten-minute short “The Wards Take Manhattan”. The filmmakers say they lived on the farm for a year to make the movie, and then take the three men to New York City, and the men have difficulty understanding the City.

Monday, March 16, 2009

"Hallettsville": young Texas writer Derek Nixon's horror concept

Netflix is offering a new horror flick “Hallettsville” for instant play. It’s interesting because it illustrates what goes on with local film. The film was produced around Austin, Texas in 2007 by Breakthrough Pictures and has distribution by Westlake, and is directed by Andrew Pozza, based on a story by Texas Hill Country actor-writer Derek Lee Nixon, a contemporary of Jared Padalecki. The film was shot in full 2.35:1 and obviously required considerable resources for a small “local” film. Unfortunately, the Netflix video quality when I watched it was not the best.

The story is a kind of mixture of “Supernatural” (probably not an accident) with something like “American Haunting”. The genre is something like what we would expect from larger companies like Rogue Pictures or Screen Gems. There is one interesting sequence where one of the other kids is writing a screenplay in Final Draft on his laptop when he is "attacked" by a spirit and sent on chase, the first major sequence in the movie where someone "gets it."

Derek plays Tyler Jensen (again, his general physical resemblance to Padalecki – “Sam” -- might not be an accident) a college kid (UT?) who leads his friends for a “weekend” at the old family cabin (before its short sale) in the tiny Hill Country town of Hallettsville, over the objections of his mother and the sheriff. It seems like something horrible happened there in 1901 (recalling “Haunting”), and there are demons around with a Passover-like agenda to carry out on the family and the other kids. They kind of sneak around, like ghosts, rather translucent, and you’re not sure what they are – until the end there is some visual reference to Revelations (again, for Bible Belt country).

The scenery is effective – it really does look like the ridges and hills NW of San Antonio. The variable music score works, as it ranges from religious chant to a polytonal chamber waltz sounding like Prokofiev – effective music I know I’ve heard but the credits say the composer is Greg Morgentsein, who is quite prolific in small film.

Does the concept work? The “road movie” – a trip to a dangerous destination is a common formula, and the religious themes ought to have some importance, even a warning – yet it didn’t quite work. A simpler film like Carter Smith’s “Bugcrush” is so much more suspenseful and effective.

Picture: near Uvalde TX (SW of San Antonio), winter 1985, personal trip when I lived in Dallas

Friday, March 13, 2009

"Harlan County USA" - DVD of 70s documentary about coal miners

In 2004, the Criterion Collection released a DVD of the 1976 social PBS documentary “Harlan County U.S.A.”, which had a brief theatrical release then from Cinema 5. I thought it was unusual for Criterion to release independent films, and this one is of major social importance. The director is Barbara Kopple and the original production company was Cabin Creek.

In May 1991 I visited the underground coal mine in Beckley W Va, and in May 1972 I had toured the eastern Kentucky strip mine country with a previous roommate from the University of Kansas (then teaching at Bowling Green, KY, ironically). But this film is about the hard life of underground coal miners in the eastern worn down mountain country. They go into work in low-crawl position on a sluice, into a tunnel 4 feet high. In the course of the film, there is one major fatal accident; there have been several in the U.S. (PA, UT) since 2000.

The film also shows the life in company housing, often with poor utilities. But most of the film deals with the politics of – you guessed it – unions. I recall that about the time I started work in New York in 1974 at NBC, a coal strike loomed as a big economic threat, behind the Arab oil shock from which we had recovered, sort of, with a stagflation recession.

Union boss Lewis, around 1960, is taped in black and white as saying that as an individual worker you have no influence and no recognition. So, organize. I thought, how different that has been for information technology workers, who rarely organize, or bloggers, for whom individual self-expression and recognition a primal virtue, questionable in the minds of some (especially in China).

But the labor strife intensifies, leading to violence and sometimes blacklisting. Finally, there is a rank and file vote.

The film covers black lung disease, including the symptoms, and shows older coal miners taking stress electrocardiograms, their bodies covered with invasive stickers and needles. They are fully humiliated.

The DVD features an interview with John Sayles, who made "Matewan", in 1987, about the 1920-21 coal strife. Sales remarks that citified Americans have little concept of what they owe in karma to underground coal miners, who nevertheless lose their jobs to strip mines.

But I remember Michael Apted’s film from Universal, "Coal Miner’s Daughter" (1980), where Sissy Spacek plays activist Loretta Lynn, holding a sign that reads “union.”

Monday, March 09, 2009

"The Class": Reality high school "drama" in a tough neighborhood in Paris

The Class” (“Entre les murs” or “Between the Walls” [website]), directed by Laurent Cantet, from Sony Pictures Classics, is a “reality” drama of the efforts of a young male teacher in a tough, mixed neighborhood in Paris. Francois Begaudeau, the teacher, wrote the book and script, and is played by Francois Marin. He’s interesting personally because he writes novels, and so he doesn’t live just through the success of his students.

Nevertheless, this is definitely a movie about the “culture” of teaching in difficult environment. Most of the film (shot in full 2.35:1) takes place in his “French” subject classroom (where French has the role of English as a subject) with 15 year olds, with scattered meetings with the other teachers and administrators, as well as, after a crisis, with parents of a kid from Mali about to be expelled. The curriculum comprises grammar and literature, just like American high school English, and there is a particularly interesting lesson about the subjunctive mood, which I remember from French class in ninth grade!

There is one scene that addresses the French or European "educational track" system where students are put on vocational tracks relatively early if they don't perform academically. Teachers meet in session to discuss individual student performance and vote on disciplinary action. The scene reminds me of president Obama's call (Tuesday) that every American complete at least one year of education beyond high school.

Another big issue is maintaining classroom discipline. The young teacher is pretty fluid with this, at one point fending off ambiguous quips that he himself is gay (with many students from Muslim culture). Another time, he gets a female to issue an acceptable apology, and the school principal makes a lot of the respect required when an adult enters the classroom. The film makes a lot of the fact that the teacher needs to function as an authority figure.

I did have issues with discipline and functioning as a “role model” and authority figure when I was a substitute teacher.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

"An American Affair" -- like a 60s Cold War Hitchcock "character study"

Well, one of my “unmade” screenplays is “An American Epic”, so the title of this wonderful Hitchcock-like character – “An American Affair” and spy drama caught my attention. It’s sort of a small scale “Topaz”, set in 1963, tying a teenager’s coming of ate to the Kennedy Assassination – but keeping our attention on the teen protagonist. He’s Adam Stafford, played by young Canadian actor Cameron Bright (originally Cameron Crigger). He was apparently 15 while this film was made – meaning that the production company Astrakan Films (Screen Media is the distributor) hired a studio teacher. And Cameron completely dominates the film. Perhaps he’s already primed to become the “next” Shia LaBeouf. As the film opens, he is supposed to be a 13 year old coming of age in a Washington DC Catholic school, son of journalists (for the Washington Star – now defunct). But as the movie progresses, he seems like the only character with any moral compass at all. He really does do the right things, and finds himself drawn into discovering a supposed plot for the Kennedy Assassination (although the latest Zapruder evidence really does support the idea that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone). Even his parents, we will find, are not just what they seem. He challenges his dad (Noah Wyle) with, "You're my father. You're supposed to do the right thing for me!" The adult world makes no moral sense. “They” will do anything to stay in power.

More specifically, much of the story centers on his “affair” with neighbor Catherine Caswell (Gretchen Mol), who seems to be a glamorous call girl for JFK -- and maybe a commie, ready to set JFK up. He spots her from the “rear window” and is always taking pictures (Hitchcock, again). To earn money for a field trip, he offers to work in her garden, and they develop a platonic affair. Except for a couple brief moments, their behavior is discreet enough (in one scene they have a fingerpainting party) but pretty soon he is spying on her friends, especially along the C&O towpath in Georgetown. All of the film was shot in Washington and Baltimore, and the long staircase near Georgetown University provides a logical place for the film’s murder – and rest assured, Cameron will survive the better. There are other ideas, too: Catherine keeps a diary – in pre-blogging days, it seems like personal journals lying around your house could still bring you down. And there are a couple of X-file-like “cigarette smoking men”.

It’s always a challenge to mix “ordinary people” with the generators of history. Here, at least, the history is known; it’s more challenging to do it with predictions of future history, which can make your work outmoded. No danger of that here (except maybe from Zapruder and Posner).

The film is directed by William Olson and written by Alex Metcalf.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

"Swing Vote II" (and "I"); recalling Florida in 2000, New Mexico in 2012?

The 2000 general election turned on maybe 500 or so votes in Florida, so imagine a movie where the general election depends on one vote.

Such is the premise of “Swing Vote”, directed by Joshua Michael Stern, bankrolled by Kevin Costner, who stars as struggling dad Bud Johnson who gets the chance to cast the deciding vote – and gets all the public attention.

His 12 year old daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll) lectures him about his duty to vote, and sneaks in on election day (in Texico, NM) and signs the register while the election judge, exhausted after an 18 hour day, snoozes. But the voting machine (reminding me of WinVote) fails when a janitor pulls the plug. (Nobody notes that in real life the polls would be closed.)

The election officials track the card down to him, and he gets wined and dined all right by both candidates, Republican president Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) and Dennis Hopper as Democrat Donald Greenlead.

There is a lot of party line bending. Boone, probably influenced by Log Cabin Republicans, favors gay marriage (in quite a skit that reminds me of “The Gang’s All Here”) whereas the boll weevil (or bull dog) Democrat wants to overturn Roe v. Wade (he reminds me of Scoop Jackson).

Johnson himself gets fired from a job early (his boss talks about tardiness, but Johnson talks about “insourced immigrant labor” – and all this happens in a movie released shortly before the bailout crisis erupted).

At the end, he hosts a debate, but only after saying he is a man who never amounted to anything and who has never sacrificed.

Costner says that the movie was not intended to "influence" the 2008 election.

There was an earlier ABC TV film by the same name in 1999 "Swing Vote", first broadcast Monday, April 19, 1999, directed by David Anspaugh, starring Andy Garcia as a Supreme Court justice deciding, after Roe v. Wade is reversed, whether a conviction of a woman for an abortion should be overturned.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

"A Powerful Noise" Live: one-night run for documentary film and town hall about women in the Third World

Tonight (Thursday March 5) iFathom aired a one-time showing of a film (production company Unify Films, director Tom Cappello, Scott Thigpen and Jennifer Fineran, producers, Sheila C. Johnson, executive producer, about 85 min) “A Powerful Noise”, in a town-hall event from Hunter College in New York City called A Powerful Noise Live.

The main theme of the event is that women should be empowered in the developing world as a main strategy for leading the third world out of poverty.

The film traces three women, one in Vietnam, one in Mali, and one in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in their efforts to improve their world.

In Vietnam, HIV infection is becoming rampant, and the heroine leads a effort to discourage heroine use, and visits a coal mine. In Mali, a woman fights the tribal customs of female circumcision and builds a rural school. In one scene, fifth graders are shown getting a plane geometry lesson that looks pretty sophisticated for the grade (I know, I have taught math before). In Bosnia, scenes of manual harvesting are shown (I saw manual tilling from a train from Cracow to Warsaw in 1999) and a woman starts a raspberry processing factory as a local business. In all the areas, women are often raising families without husbands, and older children often wind up raising younger siblings who are not “theirs.”

The one-show at a Regal in Arlington VA was almost sold out, in a large auditorium. The sound did not work for about ten minutes.

The panel discussion was hosted by Ann Curry, with these guests: Nicholas D. Kristof, Christy Turlington Burns, Dr. Helen Gayle, Natalie Portman, and Madeleine K. Albright.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

How to tell when "He's Just Not That Into You": Get the straight scoop from a guy!

I remember what it was like in Greenwich Village in the 70s, before email, when people were just getting answering machines. You called someone. If he had a roommate, the roommate took a message. If he didn’t call back, you knew that he just wasn’t that into you. It was tough to take, but OK if you had your own identity and own life.

So it is with straight people in Baltimore (it looks like Baltimore – did I get the location right?), with a cast of young adults to make potential couples. The ring leader is bar manager Alex (geek actor Justin Long), who purports to know when “He’s Just Not Into You” because he’s a guy. (Actually, there’s a similar wholesome character in “In Search of a Midnight Kiss” into just being a guy.) The overlong romantic comedy from New Line Cinema (I’m glad that Time Warner has kept the brand after all – and I wish Warner would to the same for Picturehouse) is directed by Ken Kwapis, written by Abby Kohn and Mark Silverstein, based on a book by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo ("He's Just Not That Into You: The No-Excuses Truth to Understanding Guys", from Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2009.

The cast is a disco who’s who: Gennifer Goodwin, Kevin Connolly (as the opportunistic realtor Conor), Scarlet Johansson , “manly” Bradley Cooper (SNL), Ben Affleck, Jennofer Anisten, Jennifer Connolly. All that suggest a big pricetag (I would guess well over $50 million) with production company Flower Films.

The film is not quite “all’s well that end’s well”, but is is almost so. Divorce happens here, but so does new marriage. There is no real sense that the couplings come at anyone else’s expense, but gay people are always “hovering around”. There are pictures of “The Blade” (actually the Washington DC gay paper) and a party scene where a gay couple explains how rejection by gay men differs from rejection (of women) by straight men.

It seems odd to focus on the idea that men turn women down, but they do. Yet, Bradley Cooper’s character says it’s hard to give up other women to get married, but, when you’re in love, you do. In the end, this movie could have been envisioned by George Gilder (“Men and Marriage”).

A personal aside: Back in 1971, when I had my one period of heterosexual dating, I would stop calling when “I just wasn’t that into you.” So I did the guy thing. I’m struck, however, by the young couples: their insistence on their “right” to experience passion, leading to marriage and the “right” to mold the lives and relational priorities of their children, perhaps not aware of how dependent they are on the systems of others around them, even the LGBT people.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

"The Pixar Story" is a documentary feature on its own (on WALL*E supplementary DVD from Disney)

The bonus DVD for “WALL*E” (original theatrical film reviewed here July 3, 2008) contains an important feature on its own, “The Pixar Story” (87 min), directed by Leslie Iwerks.

The film starts with the background of the 1970s, particularly the dreams of John Lasseter, who at got fired from Disney when his ideas for computer generated animation were not at first accepted. However, technology institutes in California and New York pushed the idea along, and in 1979 Pixar was founded with part of the computer division of LucasFilm as a Graphics Group, when Dr. Ed Catmull was hired from the New York Institute of Technology.

The documentary mentions some of the earliest features that used computer animation, including "Futureworld" (1976, a sequel to “Westworld” (1973), where nothing ever goes wrong) and "Tron" (1979) (“Users are what our programs are for”), where a silicon semiconductor chip became a universe.

Pixar would eventually receive investment from Steve Jobs of Apple. In the meantime, George Lucas was getting tired of trying to supplement his living by selling his technology to the medical industry. John Lasseter would produce Pixar’s first film, "Luxo Jr." a 2-1/2 minute film with two Anglepoise lamps as characters. In general, the new animated film culture would build stories out of abstraction, with objects conceived of as characters as well as people and animals.

Eventually Pixar had to issue and IPO and become a full-fledged studio, rather than “just” a production company. But eventually Disney would acquire Pixar, with Lasseter as the Chief Creative Officer.

The documentary goes through the evolution of Pixar’s now widely lauded masterpieces, such as the "Toy Story" movies, "Monsters, Inc.", "A Bug’s Life", and "Nemo", and finally "WALL*E", directed by Andrew Stanton.

The documentary discusses 2D and 3D animation, without thoroughly explaining the difference. 3D animation does not imply the use of 3D glasses. But a few years ago the demand for 2D animators apparently dropped, and many lost their jobs.

The DVD also have some other extras.

There is a series of brief short subjects on the fictitious “Buy N Large” corporation of the Wall-e movie. The company reminds one of “Buy More” in the NBC show “Chuck” (or even “Best Buy”). The shorts are “The History of Buy N Large” “Operation Cleanup” “All Aboard the Axiom” “Captaining the Axiom” “Meet the Bal Boys”. Note: “BNL Shorts” invokes “SNL Shorts” (without Andy Samberg), although “Laser Cats” almost fit here. Some of the BNL shorts capture what “passengers” in a “space city” (the Axiom – a name that I used to imagine belonging to a mortgage company in my own fiction efforts) really might encounter as part of their “lifestyles.”

The shorts regarding the making of Wall’e are “The Imperfect Lens: Creating the Look of WALL*E”, ” “Captain’s Log: The Evolution of Humans” “Notes on a Score” “Robo Everything” “WALL*E and Eve”.

The deleted scenes are interesting, and bring up topics like “bone loss” which would occur in space travel. The director Stanton explains how an overly detailed “ideological” scene can stop the momentum of the story of a movie.

There is also a "Families" section of "Treasures and Trinkets" and bots (with a "Lots of Bots" storybook). They don't seem the same kind of bots we work about with P2P or Internet security.