Wednesday, April 29, 2009

George Mason: The Bill of Rights (film available from Gunston Hall)

Gunston Hall offers a short film DVD “George Mason: The Bill of Rights” produced and directed by Robert Cole, and narrated by Roger Mudd. The original film was shot in 1991, and the Regents of Gunston Hall, the former home and plantation of Mr. Mason at Mason Neck, Virginia (south of Fort Belvoir, in southern Fairfax County, on the Potomac). George Mason University, in Fairfax City, Virginia (its campus adjacent to Robinson Secondary School, forming quite a property for learning) is named after him, and has a reputation for having libertarian-oriented humanities and political science professors, including seminars in the summer which friends of mine have attended.

George Mason is a bit unusual in that he was both a family man and a principled intellectual, not interesting in manipulating others just for the sake of personal political advantage. I can guess where that places him in the spectrum of the “polarities” but he did have nine children by his first wife, who died at age 39. He married again, and raised children not only as a single dad, but also raised children of the second wife and other relatives. His life illustrates the less-stated fact that in pre-industrial times family life was often more dangerous to women than men, and women who had many children (seen as a duty) often had shorter life spans; today’s demographics have turned all this around, with women living longer. The film says that Mason was quintessentially “American” in that he sought the freedom of private choice – to enjoy his family in his case, even if not necessarily the same for others – and entered public life to make life better for his family and progeny. (Libertarian Party candidate Harry Browne used to say that in the 1990s.) Yet the typical pattern of most “family men” in competitive society is to seek power and money for their own sakes, to make their families stronger than those of other – and that usually means schmoozing, dealing and manipulating (and selling). Mason preferred to read and write. Were he alive today he would certainly blog.

There is a tendency for some “intellectuals” to be distanced from practical or family responsibility, and to stand at society from a distance and scope it. Not so with Mason: we was most of all a businessman and property owner first, successful in making money (rather like Trump). As with Jefferson, the issue of slavery presented a moral conundrum and made him seem like a hypocrite to some people. He owned many slaves, and his plantation had many slave quarters (and many other things, as did Mount Vernon). He thought that slavery not only denied humanity of the slaves themselves, it damaged the children of slaveowners, who would grow up believing that some people (the white upper class) were inherently “better” than other people. But he had inherited the slaves as property, and felt he had no practical alternative to keeping them.

Mason’s political career, even earlier in Williamsburg, had come out of necessity. He had authored a liberty document called the “Fairfax Resolve” (which had aimed to end the trafficking on slaves; see Yenoba here) and then wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights (draft. Although anti-federalist himself, Mason eventually helped convince the federalists (and especially James Madison) to adopt the similar United States Bill of Rights in 1791.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights mentions freedom of the press, but not the broader freedom of speech as today. The right to bear arms is similar, and the freedom of religion passage (at the end) mentions the “Creator” and “Christian forbearance.”

Mason is said to have been a bit of a curmudgeon. When told he didn’t look as well as usual, he fired back that the speaker wasn’t worthy of even being noticed. But Mason did not seek fame or notoriety or publicity for their own sakes as so many people do today (even though I say he would have blogged); his first love was his own family.

One of Mason’s descendents is Paris Hilton. I don’t think she shares the same values.

The full-length film runs 28 minutes; the museum normally shows an 11 minute shortened version; the DVD offers both options.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"Revolution #9": intriguing premise about a schizophrenic breakdown

A little film called “Revolution #9” from director/writer Tim McCann, Exile Pictures and Wellspring Media brings up some interesting problems. The film shows an appealing young man James Jackson (Michael Risley), 27 according to the script but 32 when the film was made [2001]) apparently sinking into paranoid schizophrenia, and being forced by the “system” – even the police powers of the New York City health department – into commitment and medication. And there is a puzzle, was something done to him, or was this just in his mind.

Dr. Phil, today, in fact, talked about “anxiety disorder” as a medical problem that can feed on itself. Is that what is going on? A psychiatrist says that 27 is late for primary schizophrenia, but it does happen, and that only about a third of patients recover fully. Many will have to be on meds for their entire lives. The disease is compared to diabetes.

I went through the psychiatric mess myself in college, as I’ve described in the blogs elsewhere. There was the “nothing to be ashamed of” line. I remember being told, “oh, you’re going to be seeing a psychiatrist for a couple of years, not a couple of weeks.”

Actually, my situation was special, but what it’s like today is more applicable. We connect the dots in our situations and relate them to our own vulnerabilities, and imagine that people will have a reason to challenge our deepest weaknesses and then make them into issues.

That’s how his madness starts, when he accuses a coworker of moving stuff in his cubicle. He is a writer, who reviews movies and media for commercial websites. But it’s no longer creative, it’s a job. His boss calls him in for inserting his own paranoia into his reviews. He gets fired.

There’s his girl friend (Adrienne Shelly) and the reluctance of her family to accept him as a fiancée. Is this what sends him down? Well, pretty soon he sees a perfume advertisement (hence the title of the movie), and he starts imagining that the company is manipulating him with subliminal images. But why would it target him? He contacts the company, with confrontations that seem bizarre. Later, he gets into how movies manipulate people with images. Well, they do. (Just remember “Bugcrush.”)

Toward the end, there are some clues that just maybe his paranoia is justified. But still, the original problems come from within.

The "business" scenes in the film remind me remotely of the 2008 drama "August" about a startup in 2001 (see Nov. 1, 2008 on this blog).

The DVD has two very brief shorts by the same director, “Naughty Eyes” and “Ivoryland” (the later a soloist “musical”).

I make this post today on an older indie, primarily DVD film, on a day when theater chains must be wondering if they could survive mandatory "social distancing" to contain a perhaps overblown threat of swine flu.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

FilmfestDC's "Short Cuts" in 2009

As with most film festivals, FilmfestDC sponsorted a “Short Cuts”, this time some peculiar, iconoclastic concepts (they have to be so to get into a festival).

The principle film was probably the “musical” “La Copie de Coralie” ("Copy of Coralie"), 22 min, dir. Nicholas Engel. Mr. Conforme (Serge Riaboukine) who owns a photocopy shop in a small French town deals is obsessed with a woman who disappeared, and her assistant (Jeanne Cherhal) posts photos all over town, and attracts attention. There are shades of “Chocolat”. The music is by Phillippe Pourier, and the singing is kind of like Sprechstimme,

The other more substantial film was "Instead of Abracadabra" ("Istället för abracadabra", Sweden), directed by Patrick Eklund. A young man living with his parents aspires to become a performing musician, while his dad wants him to get a real, but menial job (even in socialist Sweden). And the boy loves to make his audience think that he really has sawed somebody in half. People can get hurt.

In a film from Quebec, in French, “Next Floor”, directed by Denis Vileneuve, eleven party guests indulge in the worst of the Deadly Sin of gluttony, eating every possible animal product, maybe even the unborn – in a tribute to “The Thief, The Cook, His Wife, and Her Lover”. Then unexpected carnage comes, but the party keeps eating. It’s all about their behavior, and “the eating” stimulates long memories (a private joke from 1992).

In “Good Trip” (“Buen viaje”) Javier Palleiro, Guillermo Rocamora (Uruguay), a turnpike toll taker gets a disturbing phone call and has to get to a family emergency while the job has to get done. The interesting concept is that unexpected phone call, and its consequences. Filmmakers can do a lot with that.

In “Paseo” (Arturo Ruiz Serrano) Gabino, on the Spanish central plateau, has to declare his love to a woman before his execution in the Spanish Civil War.

In “Jerrycan” (Julius Avery, Australia, digital video) a teenage boy faces pressure from peers to prove himself by doing something dangerous, and tragedy can come from it. This is the psychology of gangs, but it can invade the more “normal” middle class. This comes down to the “middle school kids” level.

Friday, April 24, 2009

"The Soloist": Intense biography of a troubled musician, through a friend's eyes

The Soloist” creates great interest in me as it is a story of a “troubled” musician who missed his career, seen through the eyes of a vigorous, “professional person.” Most of us have heard the story now, that Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) befriends a street musician Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) and partially rehabilitates his passion for music. The movie is adapted from the book by Lopez.

Dreamworks and Universal paired up for this ambitious effort, and British director Joe Wright brought the same kind of intensity that he had given “Atonement” two years ago. The movie has stunning punctuating aerial shots of the workaday portions of L.A. (one of an enormous cloverleaf, another of the aqueducts) with Beethoven playing. Nate’s tragedy was cause by his schizophrenia, compounded by a system that would not treat him medically properly. Wright provides us the backstory of his upbringing in Cleveland, and of the failure of his time at Julliard, with some brevity. (I think more could have been shown about what really happened at Julliard.) The flashbacks are generated by the goings on in Nate’s brain, stimulated by a tempestuous friendship with the reporter. The story is not complicated, and doesn’t require plot tricks or gimmicks, and there are none.

In boyhood, Ayers took up the cello, and his mother would say that he threw himself into music when the rest of the world around him was falling apart, as he ignored it. Then he would fall apart. Wright (and Ayers) make effective choices of music. The famous polytonal unresolved dissonance in the development section of the first movement of Beethoven’s Eroica marks one of the flashbacks, and later the “Lydian Mode” prayer from Beethoven’s A Minor Quartet is realized with a string orchestra. Wright experiments with music (usually Beethoven, but sometimes Elgar and Bach) in transcriptions. He often plays music from the Eroica “funeral march” on the cello alone. The slow movement from the Triple Concerto is used in a reunion scene. Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Finnish conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, actually conducts in the movie, with the slow movement of Beethoven’s Ninth played at the end of the film when Ayers can sit through a concert with his friend.

There are comparisons to be made with other stories of missed music careers. In TheWB series “Everwood”, the teenage piano prodigy Ephram (Gregory Smith) loses an opportunity to go to Julliard because of complications in his relationship with his father. I took nine years of piano and think I would have made a run of it, but my own story became complicated not only by the ambiguities in my own personality but by the world changing around me (particularly dying McCarthyism and the Cold War).

Nate’s madness show up in some surprisingly rational ways. He hangs on to his stuff, in a roll, and carries it around with him (there are several other instruments) and it is his whole life. He takes a cello lesson that Lopez arranges (painfully) and still shows real talent. The teacher talks about stage fright, even to the point of admitting that he threw up at his first performance (I've actually heard people say that, even back at KU in the 1960s).

The movie does give some treatment of Lopez’s life as a reporter (the same messy offices as in “State of Play”), with the work and chance involved in getting a story before deadline, as well as his own personal life, and his capacity for male bonding. His own meeting with Ayers as a homeless street musician (near a tunnel) comes about as a result of his own bike accident.

I saw this on opening day, at a late afternoon show at a Tyson's Corner AMC, and the large auditorium was about one-third full.

On March 22, 2009 CBS 60 Minutes ran a news story on Lopez and Ayers, written up on another blog here.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Disney's "Earth" revisits an earlier BBC series

The “DisneyNature” feature film “Earth” (Disney website for theatrical film), opening in theaters “Earth Day” on Wednesday April 22, is apparently a theatrical version of materials from an earlier BBC and Discovery Channel series “Planet Earth” already on Netflix, reviewed here on the TV blogs in July 2008.

James Eart Jones narrates the American version, and Patrick Stewart the UK version. David Attenborough had narrated some of the TV version. The “new” film is directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, and the closing credits show them manning a hot air balloon.

The film opens with a polar bear mother and cub as the sun comes up in February during an Arctic winter. “Dad” is at sea, desperately looking for food. Toward the end of the film, in the summer, where so much ice has disappeared to global warming, we see “dad” again make a last attempt to feed himself at a walrus colony before starving.

In between these, the film is filled with wonders, much of it from on high. We watch a herd of elephants go across a South African desert beset with dust devils. A mother and cub get separated. At night, they share a watering hole with lions whom, it turns out, are not trustworthy.

We see a mother and cub baleen whale journey to Antarctica to feed on krill. We see wolves chase a herd of elk in the taiga spring.

The film more or less follows the seasons, but not exactly; there are some quick time-lapse shots that show the progression of color quickly. In the Disney “True Life Adventure” documentaries of the 50s (“The Living Desert”, “The Living Prairie”, “Secrets of Life”) more attention was paid to following the day-night progression and seasonal progression carefully.

All along, we get the impression that “reproduction rules.” Survival of one’s own kind seems to be the only value. A couple of the hunting scenes show the captured animal almost relieved by the surrender. A male "bird of paradise" in the Amazon flaunts his plumage -- reminding us that in nature it is the male (or the "masculine" element) that attracts visual attention, and that female vanity seems like a human cultural invention, perhaps necessary. In a human civilization, all of these things get so much more complicated, but perhaps we can understand where predators come from.

Perhaps because of its BBC and television origins, the film is shot 1.85:1. It could have used full anamorphic.

I wonder what Disney could do with a movie covering the other planets and moons on the solar system, now that NASA has so much footage.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

"Old Man Bebo": a gentle documentary, from Cuba to northern Sweden

Tonight (Wed. April 22) FilmfestDC presented “Old Man Bebo”, (film website) a celebration of the life of Cuban mambo musician Bebo Valdes (actually named Ramón Emilio Valdés Amaro according to Wikipedia, born in 1918 near Havana, now living (at 91) near Malaga, Spain. The film (110 min) is directed by Carlos Carcas and was produced in Spain.

The video projection is cropped to look like 2.35:1 with room beneath the cropping for subtitles. There are many stills, some of them old and in black and white, especially of Cuba long before Castro.

The film discusses his music style, and mentions “impressionism” and the use of ninth chords.

The most interesting part of the film occurs in the middle, as it accounts for Bebo’s reaction to the arrival of Communism and Castro. Bebo wanted to be “neutral” but was told by clubs that his appearance could cause them to become targeted. “You’re for the revolution or you’re against it”. You couldn’t be just neutral.

So he wound up in Sweden, and some of the photography late in the film shows his favorite outdoor areas north of the Arctic Circle. (I visited iron mining town Kiruna myself in August, 1972.) There is a passage where he says that the most important value in his life is his family. Later he would have surgery that could have paralyzed him, but he remained an effective pianist, not really needing “left hand alone” literature. Late in the film there are some recording sessions.

There have been a couple of major indie films about the pre-Castro period in Cuba recently, including "Dirty Dancing, Havana Nights" (Miramax) and "The Lost City" with Andy Garcia (Magnolia). And don't forget Fine Line's "Before Night Falls" (2000) about gay Cuban novelist Reinaldo Arenas.

Picture: Kiruna City Hall, from Wikipedia, republished under a GNU commons license (“copyleft”) explained here. I believe I recall this building from my visit, but Wikipedia says that the city will be relocated in 2010. Bebo would be familiar with this area. When I was in Scandanavia then, I crossed the Arctic Circle twice on the train, once between Trondheim and Bodo, and then coming back to Stockholm from Kiruna (originally from Narvik – itself a city covered earlier on CNBC as having horrific losses in the 2008 financial crisis!). This movie brought back memories of my own coming of age.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Zac Efron looks perfect when he's "17 Again"

I wondered if New Line Cinema’s “17 Again” (dir. Burr Steers) could coincidentally turn out to be a heterosexual retelling of “Edge of 17” (1999, Strand Releasing, David Moreton and Todd Stephens).

I’ll come back to that – maybe there’s a partial parallel – but let’s address what most people have heard – the fairy tale comedy of a middle aged man – now become a loser and fighting off divorce – turning into a teenager (by going through a wormhole at an accident) with the wisdom of age – and get a chance to save his marriage and teenage kids . Boy, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a 17-year-old body with the wisdom and knowledge of age. (I won’t get into brain growth and decay, but seeing around corners, as Dr. Phil points out, is a biological skill. And would I really want to experience high school again?) And Zac Efron, at 21, is just about perfect. But Matthew Perry (actually 40) makes 37 look old here. Not everbody makes it to their 40s looking like Tom Cruise, but that is something that makes you wonder. Why did a kid with so much on the ball fall apart so quickly.

Zac’s dad character gives a speech (to a teen health class on “abstinence” and condoms together) on the satisfaction of marital, procreative sex and the emotional attachments and transformations of parenthood (okay, more than reproduction, which rules). But however I take it in intellectually, I don’t experience it myself. I see the “parents” at a point in time, and tend to question if they deserve it. That’s how I see things, and a world of emotion builds around these values. To me, the setup then seems “manipulative”.

The movie has an “angelic” young man generated by a fluke of physics mentoring a man rapidly failing and flunking life in middle age. The young man also mentors the other adults, including the wife (Leslie Mann) and even the nerd Ned (Thomas Lennon) set up as his father (there are some cute extraneous scenes in Tolkien that require subtitles).

I guess in the gay film above, there is a bit of that. Some viewers remember the coming of age on a summer job in a fast food joint in Ohio in the 80s (a bit like “Adventureland”) The third scene selection (DVD) is the “giggle” scene where Rod (Andersen Gabrych) brings along Eric (Chris Stafford, most appealing in the role), and the movie makes a lot of the appearances of physical maturation when the actual differences in ages may be slight and or not at all. Even so, the gay film shares something in common with its new straight counterparty from mainstream Hollywood (I guess New Line counts as that). Both films take issue with Dr. Phil and make teens and young people (apart from the high school jerks) look a lot smarter than the middle aged sophists that they become. But that's not so hard if you can always be "Troy Bolton".

One other thing about the "Edge of 17" movie: Eric's stay-at-home mom (following Laura Schlessinger's values) goes to work so that Eric's parents can send him to New York for college. But they don't know what he wants to do when he gets to college!

"Un-Natural State: Taxation Without Representation in Washington, DC": short and feature versions

On Tuesday, April 21, 2009 Filmfest DC is showing the full-length 65 minute video “Un-Natural State: Taxation Without Representation in Washington, D.C.”, directed by Kirk R. Mangeis, and sponsored by DCVote.

Monday I tried to buy the advance tickets on line and found it already sold out (or at least not available from But I found a nine-minute short version here and many other videos on YouTube, which in sum would approximate what is in the “feature”. I could not find a DVD for sale of the "feature".

[Note from FilmfestDC Tuesday on Advance sales: "Advance tickets are sold out? Don't worry... Except for tonight's screening of The Necessities of Life , tickets for all of this evening's films can be purchased at the theater starting one hour before the first screening of the day (cash or check sales only)." Filmfest current link is here. Director Kirk Mangels and Producer Brad Mendelsohn are scheduled to appear at Landmark E Street April 21. For same day sales gives a phone number of (800) 955-5566 but I found it led to a wait!]

[Note: Filmfest has scheduled another screening for Saturday April 25 at 2:45 PM at Regal. Check their site for tickets!]

The short is offered for download into Real Player or Quicktime (instead of being played from a server). It has some low resolution images (in a 14 meg file) and it downloads into a temporary folder; nevertheless, Mozy will back it up.

But I found the main short on YouTube offered with embedding, here.

Some of the other (short) YouTube videos (from or related to DCVote) include these items:

(1) Erica Spell sings the National Anthem

(2) Veterans Rally for DC Vote

(3) Demand the Vote

(4) Cesar Chavez Charter School protests

(5) Tea Party

(6) Dr. Bill show, animated

(7) Ben Byrd a teacher in Washington DC

(8) Maryland resident Edward Matthews

(9) Nell Schafer

(10) Two Rivers Charter School: Voices of a Nation (nine minutes of song and dance from an elementary school)

(11) Katie Couric on the DC Voting Rights Act

(12) CSpan covering a protest march

(13) Lehrer News Hour

Most school kids are taught now that the District of Columbia has only a non-voting delegate representative in Congress (the House), Eleanor Holmes Norton, who appears on the video, but no formal vote. The title of the film refers to the "artificial" political status of the District. Six other nations have constitutions based on the US but allow the residents of their capital cities to vote fully (the countries are Argentina, Australia, Brazil, India, Mexico, Venezuela).

I grew up in Arlington, VA (created from the original 100 mile square by retrocession shortly before the War Between the States, in 1847) and became aware of the lack of home rule for Washington as I grew up. In 1961 it gained the right to a presidential elector with the 23rd Amendment. In 1973, it was given “partial” home rule and a city council, with link here. Congress can override what the city does, and often does attach matters governing the District to riders on other bills. Congress can interfere with attempts to recognize gay marriage, and with gun control laws (which were recently overturned in their original form by the Supreme Court). Eleanor Holmes Norton, on the video, says “different strokes for different folks” doesn’t apply for the District.

DC area residents are used to District of Columbia license plates that read "taxation without representation" (try Imagechef)

The lack of home rule was thought to be related to remnants of segregation and racism (since the District was over two-thirds African American). It also has a partisan basis: representatives (or hypothetical Senators) for the District (as if it were a state) would almost certainly be Democrats. The lack of home rule and racial tensions may have contributed to the 1968 riots, but furthermore may have eroded the City (compared to the affluent suburbs) in many other ways: the major league baseball teams (whether the Senators in Griffith Stadium or the expansion team created in 1961) were lackadaisically managed losers and left the City after the 1971 season (with the Expos bringing baseball back in 2005). When I grew up, people offered all kinds of "rationalizations" for denying home rule, like "they choose to live there."

The District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2009 is H.R. 157 and was introduced by Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (govtrack reference. The Senate Version is S. 160 and was introduced by Joseph Lieberman (I-CT).

There is also a pre-festival review of this film by Jule Banville in the Washington City Paper, here.

I saw the complete film at the second showing Saturday. It opens by showing the southern tip of the original federal territory, now in Virginia on the edge of the Potomac. There's lots of interesting footage, like a steam train in the 1940s heading toward Union Station. There are interesting shots of the City's "Curling" team, and a hot air balloon sequence.

Monday, April 20, 2009

"Bonecrusher": an intimate documentary about coal miners in SW Virginia

On Monday, April 20, 2009 FilmfestDC presented the new “local” documentary “Bonecrusher”, written and directed by Michael F. Fountain, show at the Regal complex at Gallery Place in Washington. The director was present for Q&A.

The film documents the life of a young coal miner, Lucas Chaffin, who aims to follow in the footsteps of his retired father Luther ("Bonecrusher"), who, at around 62, is dying of black lung disease and lung cancer. Lucas seems determined to continue the “family tradition” despite his father’s wishes, gets married, and then, toward the end, considers leaving and trying to go to work in the cable industry in the DC area.

But why is Lucas so determined to stay in the family tradition? I recall a passage in the movie “October Sky” where an older brother agrees to give up school and work in the mines out of “family responsibility” when Dad gets black lung. (The ambitious younger brother Homer, the future rocket scientist in that film, winds up working in the mines.) Here, though, it seems like part of the motive is the camaraderie of the underground world, whereas the wives have another world above ground.

The movie, shot in HD, shows the countryside in Russell County in SW Virginia, coal country near small town of Dante (and larger town of Norton on “the Trail of the Lonesome Pine”). I visited this area with a former roommate in 1972 when the area looked horribly strip-mined. I visited it again in 1990 when it looked “better”. I wondered how far underground the coal seams have to be before the coal is stripmined by mountaintop removal rather than by underground mining. Most of the outdoor plateau scenery is in the fall (with deep colors) and winter (with icicles and light snow), with plenty of coal train scenes. The “Natural Tunnel” on the CSX railroad is near the site of the film.

The movie also shows the underground mine scenes, in horribly cramped spaces, with all the instruments, and the safety records. This was a non-union mine.

There is a curious sequence where the film shows an endoscopy (actually the view down his esophagus) on Luther, followed immediately by a view of a cart going into a mine. The director insists that the made the film to tell a story about a culture, not to investigate political issues.

Picture below: Natural Tunnel, VA, my picture, July 2005.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

"Fermat's Room": a brain-teasing puzzle, and a technical exercise in screenwriting

Fermat’s Room” (“La habitacion de Fermat”) directed and written by Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopeña is another interesting exercise in “manipulative filmmaking”. It is part “Saw”, part “Spanish Prisoner”, part “Memento”, part “Baghead”, part "The Interview" (Australia), notably "The Most Dangerous Game", the 1932 classic based on Richard Connell's famous and notorious story, and even part “Copenhagen” -- and as much a stage play (for three-fourths of it) as a film.

What’s interesting about this kind of movie is setting up a “problem” and then having to force the characters to walk backwards in time to solve it.

In this case, four mathematicians are brought together in a secluded but well decorated, Spanish style (piano and food included) in a remote castle, for a social experiment. When the moviegoer is first shown the room, she wonders if this going to be a David Lynch "Twin Peaks" episode (sorry, no "warm milk").

The preamble is interesting. There is some math, such as Goldbach’s Conjecture (wiki link – every even number can be expressed as the sum of two primes) and Kurt Godel’s “incompleteness theorem (wiki), or even Fermat's Last Theorem (wiki link). A couple of the mathematicians, who may be rivals, play some speed chess. Then they meet, and are led on a “treasure hunt” (including a car equipped with GPS – Spain is certainly on the cutting edge of high tech) to the encounter.

What will follow is a complex of riddles – punctuated by “IQ test” riddles posed on the iPod phone, including a fifth person, who has the pseudonym of “Fermat”. The movie literally implodes into claustrophobia as the walls, powered by Poseidon hydraulic jacks, start to reduce the volume of their space, making a mess. They have to figure out the nature of their lives – including their own petty rivalries – to save their lives. This all seems to come from “The Lord”. The gradual implosion of the room seems like an artistic metaphor.

I’ve had a couple of mysteries in my life, one when I was substitute teaching, that reach into weird places – and they could be solved in a film like this, by working backwards, Benjamin Button style, from the evidence. This film shows how I could write my own.

The film stars Lluís Homar (as Hilbert), Alejo Sauras (as the hot-tempered Galois), Elena Ballesteros, Santi Millán, and Federico Luppi as "Fermat".

The film had theatrical distribution by IFC, but was shown in Filmfest DC this April at Landmark E Street. The production companies are Norvo and BocaBoca. Apparently it was filmed in Barcelona. The film was apparently shot on HD video, but is quite professionally made with a long list of European corporate credits from various countries.

"The Greening of Southie": building a green condo building in South Boston

The Greening of Southie” is a documentary about building a green condo building in the “Southie” section of Boston. The film is directed by Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis. The production company is “Wicket Delicate Films” and the distributors appear to be the Sundance Channel. The film was shown at the DC Environmental Film Festival on March 18, 2009 at the National Building Museum. The film has a website that sells the DVD directly, with a different version for home use than for schools. A discount is offered for volume purchases and it appears that the filmmakers are inviting the participation of resellers.

The building at interest is the MaCallen Building, a new residential project in Boston, website here. The building’s owners and construction company management sought a gold energy and emissions ratings from “Leed Certification”. The film accounts for how the building earned green “points”.

The film emphasizes the use of local and recycled materials, such as from local New England quarries, and recycled steel. Most suppliers were from the New England states, going up to Augusta Maine. The building collects rainwater rather than use city water.

The style of filmmaking included a lot of time-lapse photography and shows lots of intermitted steps in the progress of construction. The movie has some engineering diagrams, such as the dual-flush toilets, for features that earn points.

The employees are young, mostly with engineering backgrounds. One female employee actually got a “green” tattoo. There is a lot of manual labor involved, such as in securing the solar roof.

There is discussion of the use of bamboo as a construction material. Toward the end of the film, bamboo floors have to be filled up to see what caused them to buckle. That could cause air particulates to increase, and cause the loss of points. The management winds up on the cusp between “gold” and “silver” certification.

The film opens with a curious logging sequence in the rain forest (the Pando) of Bolivia (east of the Andes) near the Brazilian border. This is a “controlled forest” for construction materials where selective cutting is allowed. Bolivia (despite its history of political instability) is credited as having the largest “certified forest” on the planet. Toward the end of the film the area is shown again, along with other nearby lands that have been over-cut for ranching.

There is also a quick pass-through of Boston’s “big dig.”

Toward the end, there is discussion of the demographics. The condos will sell for up to $2 million and tend to appeal to young single or childless married (or unmarried couple) professionals. The same-sex marriage ruling in the state was not mentioned, but one wondered if that was a “between the lines” reference. Nothing (green) is being built in inner cities for young families with several children.

I was last in Boston in 2002, to meet with a friend (and Boston native) from the film business in Legal Seafoods in the Prudential Center. I remember the day well. He got trapped a while in the Big Dig on the way to meet me. I drove back through the Southie area before getting to I-95.

This 2 minute video is authorized by the sales website for the film.

Trailer - The Greening of Southie from Wicked Delicate Films on Vimeo.

There is a five minute excerpt on YouTube posted by “Project Change”. I don’t know if its connected to the film’s owners.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

"Breaking News, Breaking Down": the trauma for journalists who cover it (Filmfest DC)

On Saturday, April 18 Filmfest DC showed the 36 minute video documentary “Breaking News, Breaking Down”, about trauma journalism and the effects on journalists, at the Goethe Center in Washington.

The film is produced and directed by Mike Walter, who was present for the screening for extended Q&A.

Walter, employed by USA Today on September 11, 2001, was stuck in traffic on I-395 near the Pentagon, having heard about the WTC attacks by car radio, when he saw the American Airlines plane flying too low as it ploughed into the Pentagon. The film covers another journalist who photographed the South Tower as it imploded and barely escaped the debris.

The film then covers the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a resource for journalists who cover violence.

A major portion of the film covers a New Orleans reporter who injured a policeman in a chase that he does not remember, and was able to plead out as a misdemeanor. He does not remember the incident. He lost his home to Hurricane Katrina.

The film opens in the overgrown ruins of the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, and much of the film shows journalists working together to restore their homes.

The Q&A hit on a bizarre point: people tend to think of journalists as lost in an intellectual world of objectivity and beyond emotional commitment to real people. There is an impression that journalists cannot report on their own lives – which brings up the subject of gonzo journalism (see the review here July 8). But Hurricane Katrina forced many reporters to live what they wrote – many huddled in sleeping bags as they lost their homes. Of course, that perception sounds incorrect, as war correspondents have to live in the field with the troops. Ask Anderson Cooper and Sebastian Junger how they paid their dues.

A related film reviewed on another blog is "Journalists Killed in the Line of Duty".

Friday, April 17, 2009

"State of Play": Washington DC thriller based on BBC: a good look at journalism?

Scottish director Kevin MacDonald along with writers Matthew Michael Carahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray had adapted the concept of a BBC television series (Paul Abbott) to create a domestic political thriller, “State of Play”, from Universal and Working Title.

On the surface, the setup – the mysterious death of a mistress of a congressman Stephen Collins (a slick-backed Ben Affleck) sounds a bit like the Condit affair of 2001 – but that has been solved as totally unrelated to the Congressman and so this story takes a different tack completely.

The other part is the world of the press: reporter Cal McAffrey (a hippy-looking Russell Crowe), blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) and the boss lady Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren). The fictitious paper is the Washington Globe (although the story sounds like something the real Washington Times would go after), but the New York Post and C-Span appear in the film as real. Cal’s cubicle is the most cluttered workplace ever seen (even compared to mine when I worked in IT). He complains that the paper blogger Della has it better – but the story would actually even be more provocative if Della were a totally independent blogger. As it is, it seems like a collaboration of convenience. But, as the story develops, real "ethical" issues for journalists (including the shield issue) arise, and the relationships among the congressman and the journalist become complex (they had been college roommates) and more than utilitarian. Media-employed bloggers are more likely to have access to direct sources than independents (like me), so I do wonder how the change I suggest would play out.

The movie also deals with the notion of "privatization" of Homeland Security, an idea that I have explored in my own writings. In the movies, ex-military are being hired by one particular fictitious company (PointCorp) to run things and benefit from catastrophes. In my own fiction scenarios, a secret right-wing cabal runs an "Academy" to "re-educate" certain kinds of people before a takeover. (One of my own favorite proverbs or "inevitable epigrams" is "There is no They".)

The locations around Washington DC look truer than in many movies – even Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street. The Metro figures into the story in a critical way (and it reminded me of the indie thriller “Five Lines”). The story gathers steam (the parking garage escape is conventional) and does throw a twist at the end, although it unfolds more slowly than the trailers make you think. There is also the sniper Bingham (Michael Berresse) who fought with Collins in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and was said as someone not to share a foxhole with (although the meaning is not what I first thought (DADT)).

Affleck’s performance is gaunt and reserved – he is not the robust young man of “Forces of Nature.” You wonder if Matt could have played to reporter – no, Russell Crowe seems to have the right scruffiness.

Several local Washington DC television reporters make cameos in the film.

I remember that Affleck had a really grating line as a professor in "The Sum of All Fears" -- "you've gotten some really bad information..."

I think that the story bears some resemblance to John Grisham's novel "The Pelican Brief" which became a (Warner Brothers) film in 1993 by Alan J. Pakula, with Denzel Washington (as investigative journalist Gray Grantham) and Julia Roberts (as the law student).

Picture above: Lincoln Theater and Ben's Chili Bowl, U St, Washington DC (taken by me, Jan. 2008); Reel Affirmations is held largely in the Lincoln Theater. President Obama has visited the Chili Bowl.

Picture below: homeless populate areas in and near Metro stations, even in suburbs

Thursday, April 16, 2009

"The Spiderwick Chronicles": does "the Field Guide" represent "the knowledge of good and evil"?

As I noted, John Sayles told an audience in Minneapolis in 2002 about a bug kid’s project that he was working on, and I thought that this had to be “The Spidewick Chronicles” (Paramount / Nickelodeon, dir. Mark Walters, screenplay by Karey Kirkpatrick, David Berebaum as well as John Sayles, books by Tony DeTerlizzi and Holly Black, PG, 97 min), which came out in early 2008.

But the chronicles are really based on a series of four children’s books published in 2003. At the outset, the movie doesn’t seem to be another “Harry Potter” as the concept seemed to me more fanciful and yet a bit more modest. But perhaps it is also a bit existential, and that could have attracted Sayles to write for it.

That is to say, how important is knowledge for its own sake? It’s all in a “Field Guide” written by the deceased (but arisen) New England patriarch Arthur, played by (“Good Luck”) David Strathairn. The guide has pictures and writeups of all the faeries and goblins that can be unleashed in “this old house” (as well as how to contain them – most important!) that Mrs. Grace (Mary-Louise Parker) moves in to with her kids, including twin brothers Jared and Simon, both played by a tween Freddie Highmore. The house has been left to the family viatically by ailing Aunt Lucinda (Joan Plowright).

The book is, oh, so durable. It doesn’t burn (there is a “Fahrenheit 451” scene), and there seems to be an extra copy (the whole story falls apart once we’re in a digital world – and one wonders – why not have it published so that there are more copies?) Destroying the book – that is, the knowledge of good and evil – becomes a theme to drive the story.

Director Mike Walters gives and entertaining introduction on the DVD, talking about the salt rings, the honey and crackers, the tomato sauce, as well as some of the characters, especially the dutiful secret gnome housekeeper called a “brownie.” In 1949, our kindergarten teacher divided the class into “brownies and elves” – an idea that might have become offensive in later years – except that I’m sure that the teacher was thinking of characters from children’s literature. The book appears; one can turn the pages digitally, and go to the appropriate scenes in the movie to see the character. If you did that with my book (DADT) and put it on a kindle with the possibility of going to video clips or pictures from keywords, I suppose you would provide an interesting experience.

Walter also insists that the story is "true" and the real family's name has been changed to protect the innocent.

The music score is by James Horner ("Titanic") and it contains a lot of impressionistic, Ravel-like effects.

I went to a Sunset Scripts screenwriting seminar in 2006 in Washington, and Nickelodeon was present, and discussed then the hiring of writers.

Picture: Occoquan, VA (mine).

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

"Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons": important documentary about race and religion

On Tuesday, April 14, Howard University PBS Station WHUT aired an abridged version of the documentary “Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons”, which had aired at the Foursite Film Festival in Ogden, Utah, produced and directed by Margaret Young and Darius A. Gray, from the University of Utah student documentary program.

The film is segmented, with the first section called “The Beginnings” and a later section called “The Movement”. It traces a few African Americans who made the migration to Navoo in the 19th Century, including “Abel” and then Jane Manning James.

The film consistently covers the quixotic problem that the Mormon Church (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) has had with race. The Church maintains that man is judged for his own acts, not for original sin. Others have characterized Mormonism as a “religion of works” rather than “faith”. But then how can you maintain that people of another race are to be judged “inferior” and kept out of the priesthood without doing anything wrong? Brigham Young, in 1852, would make a pronouncement that the descendents of Cain were not permitted in the priesthood. He also used the Cain argument (which biologically does not make sense to modern science) to justify bringing slaves.

The movie goes on to see African Americans struggling with the idea that they are “less valuable” because of their “pre-existence”. Darius Gray then gives the story of his own conversion. Despite his initial exclusion from the priesthood, he was to accept the “Unlocked Gospel” and to join, as by personal revelation. (I can think of other exclusions, like “don’t ask don’t tell” – where you can “hide”, but that’s different. But notice the title of the film -- the first two words!)

Other African Americans tell of turning Mormon missionaries away, out of offense, and yet the realize that missionaries, at around age 19, spend their own money and risk persecution and peril to profess (perhaps proselytize) their beliefs.

Here is another writeup, from “Feminist Mormon Housewives.”

Here is another blog by or about director Margaret Young.

A link to my review of the PBS Miniseries "The Mormons" from April 2007 is here.

Monday, April 13, 2009

"Bug": Friedkin's film on Tracy Letts's play -- really can be compared to the notorious gay short "Bugcrush"; which came first?

I have to admit that I rented William Friedkin’s "Bug" (LionsGate, 2006) out of a curiousity, wondering how it would compare to the gay horror short flick, Carter Smith’s “Bugcrush” (reviewed here Jan. 29, 2008).

Both films were made about the same time, and both have some similar visual and sound techniques: black screens, creepy sounds, a lantern, tubes hanging from a wall, and an apartment or hideaway that has been modified. But Friedkin’s film is a feature, and has a legitimate end – or does it? It still leaves us with questions.

The opening of Friedkin’s film gives us a landscape that looks like Australia – we’re told its Oklahoma, panning down to a tiny motel (Smith starts his film on a bus and takes us on a road trip to open the vision up). Friedkin’s film rapidly becomes claustrophobic and, like Smith, he brings the characters together into confrontation. But is “Bug” a heterosexual “Bugcrush”, or can the question be turned around? Not exactly. In Friedkin’s film, the two protagonists Agnes and Peter (Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon) maybe are a bit comparable to Smith’s Grant and Ben – but you’d have to imagine Agnes as the “badass”. Well, toward the film’s tinfoil and fire climax, we wonder.

Now it’s only fair to say that “Bug” is based on a play by Tracy Letts, who adapted it for film. It’s filled with natural dialogue with monosyllabic idioms, and the dialogue pace increases as the climax approaches, whereas in Smith’s work the dialogue winds down (except for Grant’s now famous line, “I can do whatever I want” – Grant could walk into the setting of “Bug” I think and fit it, but not Ben). This Friedkin film has some great lines, like Peter’s “People can do things to you that you don’t know anything about” and Agnes scream “I am a super mother bug!” Yup, they had to go after the queen, even if they felt like drones!

Friedkin is best known to popular audiences for giving us “The Exorcist” in 1973 (a clip [of Regan's toys] from which occurs after the closing credits). The DVD has a featurette “Bug: An Introduction” and a long interview with Friedkin, who says that films find him, that he likes character studies that bring together the hems of good and evil, Friedkin has also directed opera, such as Bartok’s “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” and Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi”. (Geraldine Fabrikant, “At the Opera House, The Friedkin Connection.” New York Times, Sept. 20, 2006, link here. Friedkin also discusses how picky he was with platform releases of his fikms; the Exorcist originally opened in very limited release, and Friedkin visited each theater, and tells a story about the Mann in Minneapolis. Friedkin also discussed the business evolution of independent film, with the setting up of whole companies like LionsGate, Overture, Magnolia, and Summit (someothers like Focus and Miramax that are subsidiaries of major studios) to sponsor "independent" films, which often enough now draw big directors and established stars who want to "do their own work".

And in “Bug” there is a theory, or sorts. It’s the government, stupid. Peter Evans apparent faces post-combat PTS syndrome, and imagines government conspiracies filling his body with aphids. It’s not pleasurable, even ironically; it’s pure terror. Peter even pulls his own teeth. It’s why Agnes gets into it is what provides a curious twist.

But there are external plot elements to draw things together. Agnes is bisexual, and has a lesbian “friend” (Lynn Collins); there is the ex-con abusive husband Jerry (Harry Connick, Jr.), and the Army psychiatrist (Brian F. O’Byrne). Peter’s body develops the stigmata, more likely self-imposed than from “bugs” implanted by the government (or a thrill seeker like “Grant” from the other film). The motel turns into a fortress that reminds one of (Roadside Attractions) “Right at Your Door”.

I’ve written before that Carter Smith could take his short and turn it into a feature, or maybe a sequel (what happens to Ben?) But what we would get is not solutions but just more elements of story to put together.

The DVD greets us with LionsGate’s musical and “machine dreams” greeting – however the visuals may be based on “Saw” (and maybe “Metropolis”) – this "grand entrance" [ultimately to the real Lions Gate in Greece] Hollywood’s most effective “trade dress.”

Picture: Quartz Mountains in Oklahoma, near the supposed site of the film (some of it was shot in Louisiana, some in the California desert). I got a "courtesy warning" for a speeding ticket there in 2005.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

ABC airs "The Ten Commandments", 1956 DeMille epic; a straightforward take on the "meaning"

Tonight (April 11, the night before Easter), ABC stations aired the Cecil B. DeMille epic “The Ten Commandments”, running for four hours and 44 minutes with commercials, with Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as Pharaoh Ramesses II, .

In fact, I remember, at around age 13, seeing this in down Washington DC (I think at the RKO Keith's theater) with family, and that the film was preceded by DeMille’s walking out on the screen and saying that the story takes three hours and 32 minutes to tell. It’s well to remember that this was his second take on the story (the first in 1923, with some grainy Technicolor at the end).

At the time, there was a lot of controversy about wide screen. Paramount initially was the only major studio that did not want to emulate 20th Century Fox’s CinemaScope. There is a great technical discussion on VistaVision on the “Widescreen museum” site here.

The film wound up as 1.85:1 (standard today), but unfortunately ABC crops the film at 4:3. The look is quite garish, with brilliant orange-reds (as on the mountain at the end), and clashing technicolors in the costumes (like purple and green), sometimes to anticipate modern animation.

The actual conclusion of the Bible story from Exodus seems rushed at the end (even the famous Red Sea parting sequence), but a lot is made of the Passover (with some changes from the Bible regarding Joshua), and there is some sense of real horror from the screams. In ancient tribal culture (Jewish, Bedouin, Egyptian, etc) families played enormous psychological importance on the firstborn male, as beyond lineage (and religion) they often had little else. The film makes a lot of belief in the one God, Jehovah, and on the abstract expression of faith by the “chosen people”.

But I can’t help but take the opportunity to ponder the “hidden” meanings behind the Ten Commandments, especially when I remember the fight over displaying them at the capitol in Alabama some time back.

Not all of them lend themselves to existential examination. But a few do.

For example, “thou shalt have no other God”. I recall so much was made about idol worship in Sunday school. In Schoenberg’s opera Moses and Aaron (we still wait for the DVD), the climax musically comes with the dance of the Golden Calf. (Ever notice that “Aaron” became a much more popular first name for men than “Moses”?, even though Aaron contributed to the plating of the calf and to the lawlessness) But the personal meaning seems to go like this. If you like hanging around someone who is stronger than you, then you should be open to the reverse experience. Someone may need you as a role model. It may put demands for a particular intimacy that is unwelcome (a kind of clinging)--hard to accept in a modern individualistic culture that regards choice of adult intimacy (and refusal of intimacy) as a fundamental right legally. But it seems to be expected by the morality of the commandment. It seems ultimately to become a matter or religious law that anyone can be expected to provide for other people whether he has is own children or not. I recall a particular moment in third grade (1952) when, in an after school religion class (in public school then) the teacher asked us to write down anything we wanted to tell her, and I wrote "I have idols." In the Army, later, the guys in the barracks (like my buddy "Rado Suhl") would say, "ocelots have clay feet!"

On to other commandments: I’ve never made that much out of cussing, or been a fan of blue laws (we had them in the 50s), but the honoring of parents seems to go pretty deep. If your parents have a committed marriage (if they did, “you” were lucky), they expect their kids to revere the relationship they had.

The adultery commandment seems self-evident – except that in the New Testament we get into adultery of the heart or as a thoughtcrime. The commandment seems to have a corollary, that continued lifetime interest in the spouse is demanded (and rewarded by the social approbation of marriage). The commandment seems to attack fantasy (or porn) and demands a certain aesthetic realism.

The not stealing and killing seems straightforward, and seems like a challenge to man to design his justice systems to be reliable. These commandments relate more to a secular legal system separate from the church, supported by individualism and the libertarian notion of harmlessness. Yet, justice is never perfect – is that another reason for the First Commandment (to admit that we “need” God?) Likewise goes the “false witness” commandment. Perjury is a major crime in any secular legal system in any democracy.

The commandments about coveting are interesting. On a material level, they seem to challenge the sort of jealousy that happens in soap operas. Yet, sometimes, jealousy is almost necessary if one is going to provide for others. Or perhaps it means one should not covet material success or even the “attractiveness” qualities of someone else, or even demand that someone else “pay his dues” the same way. Does that lead back to “needing” God?

Old Testament law was capable of raising some pretty deep and sometimes almost contradictory moral questions.

But not much of this comes out in the Paramount movie. Religion is kept simple. In fact, the Pharaoh admits that the God of Moses is the “real God” after the Red Sea episode. Moses doesn't get to cross the Jordan River and carry on in the Promised Land because (besides a specific sin that he mentions) "he knows too much" -- a bit of the knowledge of good and evil. I can even remember grade school teachers in public schools (this was the 1950s) telling us about wandering in the wilderness for forty years for disobedience or lack of belief. In the film, the forty years (a number of significance to Rosicrucians) is enough for the guilty to die out and for their children to have a chance at a new life -- an interesting notion in these days of talk of "generativity" and the world that we will leave our kids.

I had seen “The Robe” (based on Lloyd C. Douglas’s novel, which I think I read for a book report in ninth grade) in CinemaScope shortly after it came out, at the Jefferson Theater in Falls Church, VA, that got retrofitted for CinemaScope. I remember the short before it, explaining the process, and I remember crying at the tragic end of the film. To me at the time, it was so unjust.

And I remember seeing “Gone With the Wind” at about age 11 at the Arlington Theater (which is now a Cinema and Drafthouse), at around 3 on a Sunday afternoon (it may have been Easter). We got there before the end of the previous show, where Melanie has died and Aunt Pittypat is crying. The movie seems like a “she had it, she lost it, she got it back” romance, of losing everything to war and coming out on top, only to lose it (Rhett) again. Yes, I remember the last line of the film. I don’t think I quite understood what Belle Watling did then. And, oh, remember Scarlet’s denial in the beginning that there would be war. She was wrong, and history can mug us.

I never saw George Steven’s “Giant” (with Rock Hudson, based on the novel by Edna Ferber) until the 1980s in Dallas at the Inwood Theater, about the time that Rock died.

Of course, Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski had his own take on the "Decalogue" (Ten Commandments) in his famous series in the 80s, written up on the TV review blog here. His idea of "thou shalt not steal" is off the usual mark.

Friday, April 10, 2009

"Sin Nombre": a look at "illegal" immigration from the desperate immigrant's viewpoint; with gangs in Latin America

The sensational new film (from Focus Features / Canana Films, 96 min., rated R) from Canadian director Cary Fukunaga, “Sin Nombre” (“Nameless”) can be appreciated on two levels. One is the characters, storytelling, and adventure of desperate would-be (illegal) immigrants in gang-ridden poverty in Central America making dangerous alliances and trying to slip through – and we can root for them. The other is a moral and political message.

Really, the two aspects of this film are inseparable. We think of America as a land of opportunity for anyone to “make it” legitimately for anyone who is “good enough” and works hard enough, but in most of Central America and Mexico, boys grow up in gangs, where initiations consist of killing, were ten year olds (like Smiley [Kristian Ferrer]) aim primitive sawed-off shotguns, where assault weapons left around by the drug cartels abound, and where no young male can survive by obeying the “law”. The bronze, hairless bodies of the gang members are covered with mandatory tattoos, almost as if in their culture young men need the body art to distinguish themselves. You can imagine the “left wing” moral lecture, about how we depend on the cheap “maquila” labor of these countries and have no right to consider ourselves “better” than them, just more civilized, maybe. And, yes, Anderson Cooper and other journalists have reported on how the cartels use the gangs within our own borders. We can say that the answer is, well, better democracy, less corruption and improving living standards (such as water projects, medical clinics, green agricultural programs, missions -- most of these from private and sometimes faith-based or charitable efforts), and that would be true, or you could get deeper into the standards of “karma” and personal morality. I won’t go further with that line of thought here; I’ve explored it in the blogs.

The movie picks up two groups of characters in Honduras and has them riding the freight trains, jumping off and running to escape the police when necessary. Teenage girl Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), reunited with her father, wants to emigrate through Mexico to the United States and rejoin the rest of her family in New Jersey. (There are other ways girls try to do this, as with the sex trade as in the movie “Trade”). The parallel story is about “Willy” (Edgar Flores), trying to be a better person than his gang members, moving north, and meeting her, and wanting to help her. But there are old gang grudges, and he has made enemies, which is unavoidable in that culture.

The brutality of the film is shocking, and we live in this world, of the squalor along the tracks south of the border, from Tegucigalpa to the Rio Grande River, all in anamorphic 2.35:1. The music score, by Marcelo Zarvos, goes way beyond your typical “Touch of Evil” music to add bizarre instrumental effects, complex rhythms, and even quarter tones. The “Mayan” Spanish is so idiomatic that most viewers will really need the subtitles.

I saw the film in a large AMC auditorium (as "AMC Select") in Arlington VA, and it was about 2/3 full for the 8 PM show. The film has played at Landmark Theaters (downtown DC and MD) for a week, so this is the second week, but the first day in Virginia.

Also, "sin nombre virus" is another name or relative of the hantavirus that causes severe disease in the Four Corners Region of the U.S.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

"Foxfire" and "Firefox" -- very different films

Well, there doesn’t seem to be much of a problem with movies having the same or similar (even with a palindrome) names.

There have been at least three major films called “Foxfire” but the most recent (1996) and controversial comes from director Annette Haywood-Carter and was released theatrically by Samuel Goldwyn Films, produced by Rysher Entertainment, and based on a novel by Joyce Carol Oates “Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang”. The topic is rather serious today, for schools and communities, and this was an important early film for Angelina Jolie as Legs Sadovsky.

The movie combines several dicey themes, and shows a lot of flesh and female intimacy. It was supposed to be shown on the Lifetime Channel, but the film was taken off suddenly, probably because of its explicit content. And the way it is filmed, 2.35:1 with very lush scenery in the Portland, OR area with spread among the many characters, could make more effective television presentation difficult.

In the opening scene, some of the high school girls have a confrontation with their male biology teacher Mr. Buttinger (John Diehl) when they have to dissect a frog. The laboratory environment is quite realistically done (I recall this from college zoology), but the behavior of the girls seems extreme, and the teacher seems challenged to stay in control. (One girl climbs out of the window, into the rain; when I was subbing, a student did that, although it was sunny.) The teacher snaps and orders detention (it’s not that easy) and then, at detention seems to make an inappropriate advance. Altercation ensues, and the girls go on the run, and get suspended, but not until a curious incident on a cantilever bridge where Legs climbs around the trestle like spiderwoman to retrieve an art portfolio. Later there is a school fire stemming from the girls, and they wind up on the lam. The relationships build, and finally they kidnap the father (Chris Mulkey) of Goldie (Jenny Shimizu).

There’s a lot more that can be done with the kernel of a potentially abusive teacher and a volatile student – a most sensitive topic, but the Lionsgate/Lifetime film “Student Seduction” (2003) takes this down a different path and makes a powerful statement about how easily a teacher can get into trouble, and how quickly law enforcement can act (a big topic in the media the last few years, partly because of NBC Dateline). This ("Foxfire") film tries to make a lot of the girls themselves, and make them into sympathetic characters – because, I guess, the novelist did. The subject matter (of this kind of teacher or other adult misconduct) is particularly sensitive for "amateur" writers to approach without the risk of accidentally incriminating themselves or others (because of social perceptions), and can be a difficult topic for screenplay submission or online discussion.

Take the title and permute it into "Firefox", and you get a 1982 Cold War thriller directed by Clint Eastwood, based on a spy novel by Craig Thomas, where Eastwood is supposed to steal a jet fighter controlled by telepathy. This was a big movie at the time, and the theater that showed it in Dallas (when I saw it) did not have stereo.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Roadside's "Alien Trespass" is a miniature "Grindhouse"

A couple years ago, remember, Dimension films gave us a whole 50s style horror evening with the compound-fracture presentation “Grindhouse”. Now, Roadside Attractions releases a 50s Saturday-afternoon-at-the-movies experience with “Alien Trespass” (website). This "new" film has nothing to do with the huge Fox franchise "Alien" (despite the excrescence of the monsters, as below).

The experience starts with the screen cropped to 4:3 even for the Roadside trademark and musical jingle, and then goes on with a 1957 newsreel (at the beginning of the Geophysical Year, as I recall from grade school and “My Weekly Reader”) that mentions the Navy Vanguard satellite, which would blow up, allowing the Soviets to pull ahead then in the space race with Sputnik. That was traumatic for the country then in those Eisenhower days, and would help propel social change recognizing the need for nerds and geeks.

But then the screen opens up for the “feature”, which is the spoofy “Alien Trespass”, as directed by R. W. Goodwin, written by James Swift and Steven P. Fisher. There are plenty of summaries out there, but a spacecraft does crash-land in the Mojave Desert (somewhere near US 395, probably), and there is a giant silver robot that takes over a scientist’s body (“Urp”, played by Eric McCormack), and a slobbering giant single cell blob called a ghota, that eats up anything organic (including all the people it can find) before reproducing asexually (and that’s probably its problem). By the way, I had a friend whose email name was “Ghoti”, and I don’t know if there’s a connection. Along the way, there are all kinds of stock characters, such as the fiancées Dick and Penny (Andrew Dunbar and Sarah Smyth) and the Police Chief Dawson (Dan Lauria). The ghota looks a bit like the blue blob on the cover of the April 2008 “Scientific American”, “The Shocking Colors of Alien Plants”, although the ghota is probably an “animal”. When it "eats up" its human victim, it regurgitates the "water" content, leaving a "puddle" that looks like the vomit from a bad case of norovirus.

Then there is the film within-a-film idea when they all go to the moviehouse to see Paramount’s “The Blob”, and just when people are running from the theater in the original, guess what happens in the theater. You get it. The film also displays the poster of the United Artists classic "The Man from Planet X".

The film was actually shot in interior British Columbia, where it gets very hot, and the end credits broadly boast the film’s Canadian origins.

I still think that one could make a dramatic movie about what would happen if aliens made an unmistakeable appearance, with ambiguous results and without destroying much (maybe a little) and went away. How would CNN handle it? How would the stock market behave? What would happen to religion and world politics? I can certainly take a crack at it. Or we could see somebody make Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End”. And maybe Roadside Attractions would release it. (By the way, I notice on Roadside’s blog that it refers to its “chums” at Lionsgate (a larger indie company originating in Canada). I wonder what the real business relationship is.)

For another B-movie grindhouse experiment, try "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Killers from Space; Attack of the Gay Space Invaders", dir. Doug Miles, from Refried Pictures (2002)as a DVD, a spoof on an original Peter Graves film, and people "get it" in the movie, from the aliens.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

"Matewan" by John Sayles: a docudrama that explores the moral issues of coal mining and unions

Lions Gate, through its purchased subsidiary Artisan, offers a DVD of a historic docudrama by John Sayles, “Matewan”. This film (with theatrical release in 1987 by Cinecom), full-screen and long, at 142 minutes, traces the violence at a coal mine in Matewan, Mingo County W Va in 1920 when the company retaliated when Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper) tries to organize the workers.

The film is slow-paced with lots of quite, expository dialogue about the morals and politics. The workers are paid with script and can shop only at the company store, and fired for buying from competitors. They are assigned living quarters that are regulated. The men then were paid by the ton, for piecework.. Later Cooper’s character says something like, “the world has two kinds of people: those that work, and those that don’t.” There’s plenty of left-wing, even Marxist, moralizing.

Union organizers say what we often hear, that individuals mean nothing, and that people must stand together in solidarity.

John Sayles himself plays the “hardshell preacher” (reminding me of the role of Paul Dano in “There Will Be Blood”) – did he look that young at 37? The preacher in one scene renders the parable of the vineyards, and then questions whether life really flows according to God’s plan. He says God creates us and, after we are born, it is up to us to “take it from there.” Amen!

The film opens inside a mine with a solitary miner, and ends that way, with a solitary miner walking down a tunnel. There are some impressive artistic shots of steam engine trains.

Sayles had writing abook “Thinking in Pictures” The Making of the Movie Matewan", and had written an earlier book “Union Dues” in 1977.

I met John Sayles at a forum at the Lagoon Theater in Minneapolis in 2002 for the showing of "Sunshine State", another film that examines local politics and society (here in Florida) with a slow-paced buildup (a bit like Robert Altman). Sayles's best known film is probably "Lone Star" (1996), and "Silver City" (New Market, 2004) examined Colorado politics with Chris Cooper. At the Minneapolis forum, Sayles discussed the then upcoming "The Spiderwick Chronicles" which he wrote (Mark Walters directed, Paramount released in 2008).

Monday, April 06, 2009

"The Haunting in Connecticut" - where serious medicine meets horror, and makes a hero

"The Haunting in Connecticut", (website), from LionsGate and Gold Circle, directed by Peter Cornwell, written by Adam Simon and Tim Metcalfe, purports to be a true “morality” story from the late 1980s, about the Snedeker family’s experience with a haunted house in Southington, Ct. In the movie, it’s the Campbell family, which rents the house near a medical center where the most likeable teenage son Matt (Kyle Gallner) must undergo an experiment course in what is apparently whole body radiation therapy for cancer, which sounds like leukemia from the description.

The movie even makes a point of saying that his chest will turn red, like it is sunburned, and it does. Radiation therapy is supposed to be so pinpoint now that such effects are minimal, but maybe that wasn’t true in the 1980s. As far back as the 1970s, cancers like Hodgkins Disease, common in young adults (and sometimes clustered geographically for unknown reasons, suggesting viral origin) were treated with a chemotherapy regime called MOPP, and sometimes radiation. The whole idea of saving lives this brutal way had been first explored at NIH in the early 1960s.

The mother is played by Virginia Madsen, and tenderly supports her son, who gradually seems to climb out of his illness (and vomiting from chemo) to take charge of the whole movie and become its hero. It seems that the house is haunted because it once was a mortuary, and some of the previous inhabitants want to claim new victims (such as Matt). The boy takes medication which may cause hallucinations (many prescription drugs do, as they can also cause depression, suicide thoughts, panic attacks, or runaway anxiety). But what he sees is “real” to him, and eventually to others. Another cancer patient from the hospital, to the discomfort of the family, tries to help, and pretty soon we are seeing ectoplasm just as in supernatural (and not from the chemo).

The combinations of images and concepts of horror with real medical challenges might offends some people, but Matt rises to the challenge, and, when he should be dying from a runaway blast crisis of his leukemia (there is a harrowing unveiling where it looks like he has cut crosses all over his body, or perhaps it is just a hemorrhagic rash, first seen on the ghosts), destroys the demons with fires, and, after being revived, may become the next medical miracle.

Did this really happen? I actually heard about another case like this back in the 1970s when living in New York. I wonder.

The instruments hidden away in the mortuary were pretty brutal, and some of the backstory flashbacks reminded one of the Hostel movies.

The film was actually shot around Winnipeg, Manitoba. Good old DGC work!

Saturday, April 04, 2009

"David Frost Interviews Richard Nixon" DVD

Liberation Media, PBS, and DDS Entertainment make available a DVD “David Frost Interviews Richard Nixon” from 1977 (directed by Jorn Winther). Netflix offers the DVD for rental, but I had to wait about a month to get it.

The older Frost discusses the interviews (“Behind the Scenes”) at the beginning and end of the DVD. He says that Nixon normally would not get involved in small talk, but insisted in it before the interview (in San Clemente, CA).

The real Frost as of 1977 looks amazingly like Martin Sheen in the Frost/Nixon movie (or maybe I should say it the other way around).

The DVD is full screen, and Nixon, dressed in a gray suit with dark diamond tie, fills the screen most of the time, his hairline not receded as much as one would expect. At one critical point (discussing the coverup) airline jet noise interferes.

There is throughout the real tape a tendency for Nixon to rationalize (both sour grapes and sweet lemons) and quibble. He distinguishes between “political containment” and a “coverup of a crime” (or obstruction of justice). He refers to the resignations of Halderman and Ehrlichman metaphorically as “cutting off arms” (and legs). But he reminisces about the cloudless spring day at Camp David when he told them they would have to go. “I was concerned about them and their families” he says. “The first requirement for a Prime Minister is to be a good butcher.” The main story of Watergate is “I did the big things rather well” but “I wasn’t a good butcher.”

Frost asks, was there more than “mistakes” but real crime or wrongdoing; second did Nixon abuse his power, and third, did he put the American people through agony. Frost says about the expected “apology”, “unless you say it, you’re going to be haunted for the rest of your life.” He says he “regrets” his mistakes but he won’t “grovel on the floor.” Later he says that “when I resigned, I impeached myself.”

He mentions ending the draft and bringing home the POW’s.

The “when the president does it” line in the 2008 Ron Howard movie does not appear, but there were six hours of original interview.

Watergate was going on during a couple of the most critical years of my own life, when I was “coming out” a second time.

Friday, April 03, 2009

"Adventureland": Disney meets Pittsburgh, meets the guy comedy world

Adventureland” is perhaps best known as one of the four Disneyland kingdoms, and the source of many documentaries in the 1950s. It’s also an amusement park in Pittsburgh, and that becomes both the setting and title of the latest “guy” comedy, from Greg Mottola and Miramax Pictures (rated R, 107 min).

Actually, it’s also a coming-of-age 80s movie, set in 1987 in the rust belt. I thought of “Edge of 17”, set in Ohio in 1984, and by way of comparison this movie seems like an “Edge of 22”, but for heterosexuals (with pretty much the same game playing as in Strand’s 1999 comedy).

Jesse Eisenberg, determined to look as much like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg (if someone makes a movie about the origin of Facebook, Jesse is the obvious casting choice) as possible, plays the bookish college grad James Brennan, wanting a hostel trip to Europe (without the complications of Lions Gate, thank you), a graduate fellowship at Columbia, and to lose his virginity. (Sound familiar?) Well, remember that 1987 was the time of hostile takeovers. His father has taken a lower paying job after such an event, even as Ronald Reagan (already losing it) appears on television to excuse the contras – the movie takes place a couple months before the stock market crash that year. I remember how things were in my own career then -- a middle manager says, "in this economy, people who don't do their jobs won't have jobs." - And all, in that era, because of corporate raiders -- arbitrageurs and arbitrageuses.

So James (aka Jesse) does the summer job interview circuit and learns about the free market cultural revolution. It seems like he’s never worked before, practically. I’ve heard that. It’s time to become a peasant, or at least a prole. ("I can't even qualify for manual labor!") He gets on the good side of amusement park manager Bobby (SNL’s Bill Hader, who unfortunately spots a bit of a mushy gut through his uniform shirt), who wants to put him on games. And James has to turn up the enthusiasm. But that gets converted to some love rectangles and engagements as he works toward a score, through all his intellectual conversation (“hyperbolic”) about comparative literature (like Moby Dick). He gets a little more loose with the bottle and weed, too, to the dismay of his parents. Oh, Eisenberg, shirtless in a couple scenes, gets to remind us of a small-scale Michael Phelps around the pool. And, yes, to move the movie toward a payoff (in New York, after all), "James" will talk about "intercourse" in the abstract, while knowing full well that guys look at S.I.B.M. as a mandatory life benchmark. (Those visitors who knew me in the Army back around 1969 know what "S.I.B.M." stood for.)

The women in the chain-dating polygons (or perhaps dunes) include Kelsey Ford and Kristen Stewart (Kristen Wiig plays a park's owner), Michael Zegen, Matt Bush and Martin Starr at to the list of "guy things" and carry more obvious male swagger than Jesse's character, at least at first. It seems to me that Justin Long should be cast in any movie like this!

Technically, the film, while quick-paced without breaks, is focused: it seems to move as a series of close-ups, which required the director to use the "traditional" 1.85:1 aspect ratio.

I saw this film at an AMC Theater in Arlington VA, large auditorium, at 8 PM and it was almost 70% full. AMC classifies this film as "AMC Select" despite its obviously "mainstream" adult audience. And the audience laughed, and perhaps cackled.

Update: Sunday April 5, 2009

Visit Ann Hornaday's long discussion on film editing on p E01 of the Washington Post April 5, 2009, "What Makes the Cut?: To Appreciate the Art of Film Editing, You Have to Start With a Frame of Reference", link here. She discusses the editing (and directorial and writing techniques) of "Adventureland". It's all very interesting and I will come back to it later.