Friday, July 31, 2009

"Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country": the world's second worst dictatorship?

HBO Documentary, Oscilloscope and Magic Hour, and Danish director Anders Ostergaard (and some UK interests) have made and distributed a riveting docudrama or “reality” (smuggled) video account of the Monks’ protest in Myanmar in September 2007, “Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country” (“Burma VJ: Reporter I et lukket land”). The website is here. The narrator, a gonzo journalist speaking English with an odd monotone accent, tells of the military junta government’s crackdown: curfews, banning of assemblies, attacks on crowds (and killings of monks), and closing off the Internet, while journalists try all kinds of satellite devices to get their story out.

At the very end of the film the cyclone of May 2008 at Iddywaddy is shown.
Afterward, at Landmark E Street Theater in Washington (sold out Friday early show) the director of a democracy for Burma organization spoke, and talked especially about the profits from a gas pipeline of a company bought by Chevron. This reminds me of the issue of the attacks in Nigeria of pipelines by “radical” groups.

In 1995, John Boorman directed "Beyond Rangoon" for Columbia; back in 1954 Robert Parrish had directed the tense "The Purple Plain" for J. Arthur Rank and MGM.

Attribution link for NASA photo of Ayerawaddy Delta.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

"Afghan Star": "Slumdog" vs. "American Idol"

"Afghan Star", from Zeitgeist, British Channel 4 and “Roast Beef films”, conducted by Havana Marking, has created a little bit of a stir as a tiny “slumdog”, perhaps. This time, young Afghan men and women compete for the “Pop Idol” in a snazzy television stage in an otherwise ragged looking Kabul. One young man, Amir, acts as a kind of Ryan Seacrest, and talks about secret music and television during the time of the Taliban – music was against religion, but TV’s were a real luxury and TV repairs and even power generation were booming businesses. (There's more consumer technology evident in Afghanistan than one expects.) One young woman, Savena, gets in real trouble for showing a little too much, and her family in Heart gets the flak and ridicule, to say the least. There’s a sequence where people worry that if the Taliban comes back into power, it will destroy the cell phone system. The people say that they “need” their government!

The website for the film is this.

Attribution link for Wikimedia Commons here.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

"Night Train": a simplified homage to a thriller genre (from Bulgaria)

Night Train” slipped into Netflix’s release as an important-looking recent indie thriller. Directed and written by Brian King, and shot in Bulgaria and the UK, it seems like a boiled down homage to previous on-train thrillers: “Lady Vanishes”, “Strangers on a Train”, “Murder on the Orient Express”, and recently “Transsiberian”. This one throws a sci-fi curve at the end, but otherwise seems myopic, limited to the confines of the train cars and the CGI of a Bulgarian Christmas blizzard. The Christmas lights inside give the interiors a bizarre David Lynch warmth.

The plot is a setup. A passenger carrying a mysterious box thought to enclose a diamond is found, well, expired. The conductor, Danny Glover, is drawn into a plot with “professional salesman” Peter (Steve Zahn) and supposed medical student, Chloe (Leelee Sobieski), to chop up the body, stuff it into a trunk and toss it off the train into a canyon. I have to say that Chloe turns out to be your soap opera witch, but the other principals have their motives, too: after all, salesmen’s identities are based on manipulating people with other people’s words. (As to the “Pieces”, remember the 1983 horror flick by that name – “it’s exactly what you think it is” – and the “Dean” was the villain; their stuff happened on camera; and such movies are supposed to be bad for you.)

The interviews on the DVD present the characters as ordinary people in a confined space -- you can't get off too easily (imagined the 2001 spaceship) who "change" when some mysterious object promises them unlimited wealth -- if they can only hang on to it.

The music score by Henning Lohner is appropriately moody. The film comes from “A-Mark” and National Entertainment Studios.

As for the mystery box, Alfred Hitchcock used to say that the best mcguffin is "nothing".

Sunday, July 26, 2009

"Commune" documents the Black Bear Ranch Commune, started in 1968: "free land for free people"

Some of my earlier novel manuscripts have a protagonist put through externally imposed attacks on his life, and he gets forced away from his fantasy world toward communal life. One manuscript had chapters call “Commune I” through “Commnue III”, the latter after a nuclear war. The movie site is this.

Jonathan Berman’s 2005 documentary "Commune" (distributed by First Run Features in 2007) doesn’t quite carry that out, but it does document the history of the Black Bear Ranch Commune, established in 1968 Siskiyou County, CA, on the Oregon border, an area of glass mountains, petroglyphs, Cascade foothills, and high basin country that I visited in 1975 and again 1978. It’s not too far from Mt. Shasta and the “Great White Brotherhood” country, a place where I saw a dog eat an ice cream cone when fed by hand.

The people who founded it on the tagline “free land for free people” (many of them from the San Francisco area) were somewhat driven away by the Vietnam era draft and classist oppression, as they thought (Nixon wasn’t even in yet) of the late 1960s. Once they got there, sometimes the local law enforcement infiltrated, suspecting them of growing drugs when they said they grew tomatoes and all kinds of organic foods.

They lived in a true commons, sharing clothes, and partners every few days. They thought that a parent’s keeping its own children was bourgeois. Eventually, by the late 70s, some decided they really needed to really raise their own kids and had to leave for “real jobs” in a real “economy” again. But they adapted. One man learned to be a “midwife” and deliver and nanny babies. A group called Shiva Lila, which “worshipped children” tried to take over around 1979, and the commune, which was supposedly propertyless, had to deal with how to get it to leave.

I’ve visited some communities, the most notable of which was Lama Foundation (site) north of Taos, NM, which I visited in 1980 and 1984 (the latter for a “spring work camp”); it burned in 1996 in a wild fire but has come . One of the women who led a writer’s camp there in 1980 said she came there not to get away from society but to come to the woods. It was the subject of the book “Be Here Now”. (It even offered “purification through fasting” around 1984.) There was also Dan Fry’s “Understanding” west of Phoenix, AZ (Tonopah, on I-10); I would attend a few conventions in the 1970s. Sean Donovan maintains his site here. Their concept was “The Area of Mutual Agreement” which oddly I heard President Obama allude to in a news conference ad hoc answer.
The film is available for instant play on Netflix (78 min) and is cropped 4:3, but in some scenes the people seem “narrowed” by the compression and cropping
Don’t confuse this film with the 2009 horror film “The Commune” (aka “The Father” by Anthony Rolfes), which is unrelated. But I’ll probably see it later.
Attribution link for Wikimedia GNU picture of Mt. Shasta.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

"Humpday": Mark Duplass reminds us of his "puffy chair"

Mark Duplass put on his assertiveness hat at around age 30 when he storms up to an adversary in “The Puffy Chair” and says “I am Josh Sagers and you will do what I say.”

A couple years later, he looks a lot older and softer as Ben in “Humpday,” (website from Magnolia Pictures) like a man with internal sexual vigor, ready for the Song of Solomon an married life, but looking like he will go downhill fast. (He’ll have a better fate than the appealing “Ben” character in “Bugcrush”). His old college roommate Andrew (Joshua Leonard, who looks a little older than he should, even with the full beard) shows up to remind him of the single life. At a wild party where their friends gab about a porn film fest, they come up with the brainstorm: as two straight guys, they’ll meet on a Sunday night in a Seattle motel room and make a porn film. A gay porn film. Not Bugcrush (that’s not porn anyway, it’s horror). They really don’t have the erotic imagination of a Carter Smith.

Anna (Alycia Delmore), Ben’s creative wife with almost lesbian stories of her own, is almost cool with it – as long as he’ll get serious about giving her a baby the next time she’s in estrus. Reproduction rules, doesn’t it? It seems to be all right -- even necessary -- that each is something more than a father and mother. (Compare with the movie "Fireproof", reviewed here Sept. 27).

In the meantime, we ponder the situation of a single man desiring some manly intimacy with a best friend that took the dive. Except that it may be Ben who has some homoerotic interests after all. The screenplay has a lot of metaphoric dialogue with monosyllables (it seems like a stage play at times) and a couple of narrative backstory scenes. In one mid-film intimate conversation, Ben tells Andrew about this lanky post-teen video store attendant with blue eyes and shaggy legs – he kept going back to rent the next Wright Brothers movie to see him, and then, well, getting real and having women after all took over his previously bisexual nature. He became more straight (and that’s not ex-gay). During the scene, I imagined how it would come across if that melancoly little Minuet third movement from Brahms’s Third Sympony were played here (“Aimez-vous Brahms”); and later there is a moog piece in the music score in triple time (original score by Vince Smith) that could almost pass for made-over Brahms.

The film, distributed by Magnolia Pictures, is directed by Lynn Shelton, who plays Monica. There are scenes where the lighting has a lot of unwelcome glare. Was this because of digital video?

The first evening show at Landmark E Street in Washington sold out in a small auditorium Saturday night July 25.

Picture: a puffy chair at a Super 8 motel in Topeka, Kansas (2006).

Thursday, July 23, 2009

"Outsourced": middle class fears the stuff of global comedy

One of the greatest middle-class insults of globalization has been sending someone overseas (to India) to do his job, and then laying him off. It’s inevitable that this would lead to comedy at the movies, and such is the case with “Outsourced” (2006), from Truly Indie and Lantern Lane, produced by Shadow Catcher films, directed by John Jeffcoat.

In the movie’s pre-credits opening, call center manager Todd (Josh Hamilton) is called in to the boss’s office from a game of PC solitaire (I thought computer games were banned at work). The company, in a relatively spiffy Seattle, is “Western Novelty”. The boss tells him to close the door. Okay, then comes the IQ test: the company wants to get the work from eight people in India for every one in the US. Outsourcing, offshoring, call it what you want.

The comedy will be about the cultural differences, which the movie will exaggerate. Todd finds his Indian hosts and protégée nosy about why he isn’t married with kids, and he is told he shouldn’t eat with his left hand. Later he finds that his counterparty is surprised at his separation from his parents and blood family. Once on the job, he tries to “Americanize” the workforce. He tries to impart American speech patterns and “small talk” (rather like Professor Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady”) and one employee feels that they are being ask to behave dishonestly (by saying that they are in “Chicago” and that the weather is “windy”). From an HR perspective, Todd has pretty good people skills.

Then the ironies come. The callers are told they can tell customers that there are American-made versions of their products that cost more. And then, guess what, China becomes the new India, and the outsourcing food chain continues. They even wipe out hard drives. No matter, the employees have skills, and Asha (Ayesha Dharker) will write her book. It comes full circle.

The film has the spirited song "Holi Aayi".

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"Meet Bill": he's not me (don't confuse with "Kill Bill I and II")

Well, “Meet Bill” is indeed a comedy, and “nicer” than the “Kill Bill” franchise, but perhaps even more risqué. The film, from First Look and Greenestreet Film, is directed by Bernie Goldman and Melisa Wallack.

Aaron Eckhart, as low level bank (“Freedom Family Bank”) manager “Bill” is even more beleaguered than in “Thank You for Smoking”. He dabbles in fantasies of career changes (he would even buy a franchise [“Sweetsweet” – other people’s goals!]) and deals with his wife’s (Elizabeth Banks) infidelity, with language around his buddies about what he “does”. But he is invited to “mentor” a high school student, played by a precocious Logan Lerman (“Jack and Bobby”) who was apparently 15 when this film was shot (in 2007). Logan, “The Kid”, gets into definitely R-rated territory, even a drag scene, helping Bill learn to chase women. The movie might have skirted the edge of the law – although everything has a hetero intention. (The Kid drives a vehicle underage, and participates in a pot (or crack)-smoking scene [or electric cigarettes], too' and how about that on-DVD-deleted "doughnut scene" with the lazy parking lot cop?) Now Bill is quite ashamed of his body, seeing his own pot belly when looking at himself (accidentally) in a mirror – and here the film sets up some more foreshadowing with some swimming pool scenes pre Michael Phelps. Finally, in a mandatory locker room scene, Bill gives in to temptation and to Steve Carell’s example and shaves his own chest, and later even his arms and legs. Would his wife care, or notice? What about his own paramours? Eventually he wishes it back. Bill’s athletic skills improve only modestly, as he can’t master the rock climb.

It seems to me in retrospect that Bill has become "decadent" and sees "The Kid" as "virtue".

“The Kid” of course mentors him (even in the early hunt scene, where The Kid misses earplugs), and has to turn in a paper on banking for a final grade. The movie should have generated some jokes for Saturday Night Live.

But, thankfully, “Bill” doesn’t resemble me. After all, the tagline calls this film "a comedy about someone you know." That's dangerous!

Hollywood has plenty of success stories of “developmentally ahead” teen actors – the studios have to hire studio teachers nevertheless. It seems as though acting may demand more all around skill of a teen than anything else (except maybe [classical] music).

Put poor Aaron Eckhart shows us the humiliation actors have to go through, sometimes. And this film does show an attitude, with its camera angles and lighting (particularly in one specific deleted scene from the DVD): that is, a certain visual fascination with the immature. (The morbidly curious can check out David Skinner's prescient article ("Notes on the Hairless Man") about "Hollywood" and its values, from the June 21 issue of the ultra-conservative "The Weekly Standard"). "The Kid", after all, rules the world in this comedy (or call it "satire").

By the way, First Look indulged in the annoying habit of making us watch the previews on the DVD before we could access the mneu.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Thomas Jefferson: A View from the Mountain

First Run Features and Journey Films offer a documentary about Thomas Jefferson, with special emphasis on the issues associated with slavery, in a film by Martin Doblmeier, titled “Thomas Jefferson: A View from the Mountain” with the tagline “a documentary about race, slavery and the new nation”, with running time of 109 minutes. It appears to have been made for public television in 1995 and revised in 2004, and it features voices of Edward Herrmann, Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover and Robert Prosky. The DVD is sold at Monticello.

Jefferson inherited a “business” environment, his plantation, predicated on slavery, and according to Virginia law in mid 18th century, slaves could not be freed, although they had to be provided for. Furthermore, most landowners owed money to the British and needed slavery to pay back their debts. Jefferson had to rationalize his accession to the use of slaves with his belief in freedom from excessive government and his belief in individual sovereignty. So he developed a “science” that examined the “natures” of people, and he concluded that the “negro” was not naturally part of the “body politic” and was not equal in intellect or some aspects of nature (he had some odd sense of awareness of things), but was somehow worthy in “heart.” It sounds like a parallel belief system today.

The colonies had an extreme problem with labor. Some people wanted to invite only native Britons, indenture them for seven years and then give them property. Slaves lived in a separate society, worked six days a week but relieved the monotony of work on the tobacco fields with music, with verse and response. Saturday nights, they had get-togethers, when the future African American community started to develop.

Jefferson had a problem with viewing “property” as part of fundamental human rights; so when he wordsmithed the Declaration of Independence, he changed it to “pursuit of happiness.”

The slaves might have been freed had the British won the war, and indeed the British tried to recruit slaves.

Jefferson was also a very exacting person, who lived by the sun, and who prescribed very exacting standards for his daughter.

Jefferson believed that freedom implied that local kindness among people was necessary to overcome differences that might occur in nature and that might otherwise be exploited by the state or particularly by an institutional hierarchy that would have a psychological motive to make something of these differences for political as well as economic purposes. He believed that man needed to free himself from institutionalism -- a concept that I remember a test question about in senior government class in high school! He also saw that individual "freedom" could be deceptive if its intent was to implement some external "institutionalized" system of (religious) virtue on others. We know now how (with asymmetry) that can lead to fascism eventually.

Jefferson believed that each generation (which he defined as 19 years) should be independent of the legal obligations imposed by previous generations. That certainly matters with issues of sustainability and "generation responsibility" today.

Jefferson had to sell most of his slaves to clear his estate but freed five who could have been descended from a supposed relationship with Sally Hemmings. That story was told in the 1995 Touchstone/Merchant Ivory film “Jefferson in Paris” directed and written by James Ivory, Ruth Power Jhabvala.

Pictures: from personal trip to Monticello, July 2009

Saturday, July 18, 2009

"Thomas Jefferson's World": Short offered by Monticello visitor's center

Today I finally visited Monticello"in modern times", since adding to the Visitor's Center. I had visited before in 2006, and back in 1995, and once in the 1970s. Now there is a spiffy visitor's center that (as of 4/15/2009) shows a 16 minute introductory film “Thomas Jefferson’s World” The film focuses on showing Jefferson’s home at its best, which includes winter scenes with heavy snow (even in Virginia), and on late November days, with the leaves down and touches of color around, with the weather usually still mild and dry.

Jefferson (the third president of the United States) was known as a “writer” or wordsmith, and he gave us the best known words of the Declaration of Independence, although some of the work drew on George Mason and others. His words would be used in constitutional revolutions in other countries, including India and South Africa, as shown at the end. Also the 1963 March of Washington with Martin Luther King is portrayed at the end. The film pays some attention to the controversy of Jefferson’s owning slaves. It also gives him some credit for forming the “Democratic-Republican” party in opposition to the Federalists.

“JeffersonMonticello” (apparently the foundation) offers a 90 second YouTube trailer from the film.

Friday, July 17, 2009

"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" (short review)

Well, the story of J. K. Rowling’s success is fabled (and reviewed last night on my TV blog), much bigger than “le mien”: it boils down to this: kids like it.

I think it means something: Harry Potter is the “nerd”, the little boy that might have been teased into silence or retribution back in the 50s; but he roars back, starting with chess (in the first film), and becomes a young man of destiny.

In “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”, Harry says to Dumbledore, “I’m going to tell you something” – and then we learn of his destiny. It is a bit like Clark Kent’s perhaps, except that Harry is 66 inches with glasses, and his “powers” (of magic) were taught to him.

Actually, the three major stars (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson) are now entering young adulthood; Radcliffe will be 20 in a few days, and Grint will soon be of “legal drinking age” by US rules. Both Radcliffe and Grint have virilized and bulked up (although Radcliffe stays totally modest in this movie, unlike Equus); Grint, in fact, is imposing enough for a part in “Smallville” as another Kryptonian, probably (Jimmy Olson on that show reminds me of a grown up Potter, who puts two and two together). Grint has a silly episode in this film when he takes a “love potion” (courtesy of the potions teacher Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) and winds up in the Hogwarts infirmary (and Harry doesn’t do the CPR correctly).

The best sequence in this film is the “action” sequence toward the end, which starts with almost pure black-and-white in the underground lake with the stones and turns to fire. It turns into an exercise in film hue and saturation technique, especially digital, for its own sake. The other impressive sequence is the opening, where the City of London (complete with Trump’s and princes’ condos) is under attack from “Supernatural” black excrescence from atypical thunderheads.

There is a curious conversation where the professor (as I recall) talks about immortality, with a mechanism where stem-cell portions of people's souls get stored in common objects (like the Prince book), particularly when people have moral debts to pay. This sounds like the notion of karma, and brings the matter of morality down to the individual, regardless of the function of his community. But the "kids" at Hogwarts seem to get that.

This whole plot (which Potter fans say take liberties with the book) starts with an old book, and remember that the whole world of Harry Potter is a kind of parallel universe, with instant communication that is comparable to our Internet, but happens with magic (and animation of paintings and books). The whole world of these movies is coming to be a bit comparable to “Smallville” – if you think of Hogwarts as that special kind of place for a whole fantasy series.

The airborne quidditch scene is really effective – 3D lacrosse, with Ron (that is, Grint) as a most effective goalie, and a curious elliptical roller coaster structure surrounding them that looks like a contraption from Stephen King’s “Langoliers.”

Of course, the film has the mandatory train ride through the Scottish countryside.

The film is directed by David Yates, runs 153 minutes, and is available in Imax 3D in some theaters. The original music is by Dennis Hooper, but I thought that the quidditch dance theme was by John Williams.

Attribution link for City of London

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

"Bruno" looks like "Borat" after depilation (of his bod); but is he funny?

Okay, Sacha Baron Cohen has conceptualized, written and created his spoof of homophobia, as “Bruno” (I don’t know whether the umlaut counts), directed by Larry Charles. And you have to give him credit for making fun of the idea of wanting to become “famous” – picking up on what kids expect of the Internet.

And, all right, the film is “explicit.” The gay gags are pretty explicit, even if the view of the “gay world” (and for that matter, the ex-gay world, with some explicit references to some of the world’s most publicly notorious homophobes) is pretty jaded. Barbara Walters did the speaking for us in her review on The Huffington Post (Katherine Thomson reporting), here. (Joy Behar, on The View, supposedly found it funny). Olivia Smith has a similar story for the New York Daily News here. Yes, some of the racial allusions (and references to Hitler and other villains) will strike some as in bad taste, as would the episode with the “gayby” kid. But, isn’t a movie like this “supposed” to offend? Would the comedy work if it didn’t?

I caught something else, here, where Bruno keeps talking about “making the A-List.” Well, one of my scripts (at is called “Make the A-List” and involves gay rights, but not in this manner at all (maybe I was a false inspiration). I have a young straight law student befriending an older gay man and arranging fake litigation in order to make the older man “famous” and to promote his own career. I think my own idea could be promising. But not as slapstick porn.

Now, remember Sacha from “Borat”, that he is hirsute; so it’s obvious for this film that “they” shaved him, probably every ten minutes, just like they shaved Robin Williams for "Mrs. Doubtfire" and for "Hook". (Don't overlook Dustin Hoffman as "Tootsie"). Perhaps he went through Tribunals, although his pre-production prep still looks a bit ragged in some scenes. Actors do have to go through a lot to become other people (some of them, that is).

There is an Army barracks sequence that does not help make the argument that "don't ask don't tell" needs to be repealed.

The film (shot in location all over Europe) comes from Universal, which does not treat us to its Valkyrie musical trademark but does advertise its Florida studios at the end. Somehow, I don’t think this “mainstream” movie fits into a gay and lesbian film festival.

The film played to a moderate crowd at the early show on a summer weekday night at an AMC in Arlington VA.

Update: July 16

ABC News makes this report that Sacha Baron Cohen has antagonized Palestinian groups (the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades) overseas, enough to worry the government (ABC has the odd meta title "check/hold for AM push, which shows up on the task bar of my computer) in a story by Luchina Fisher, here.

Monday, July 13, 2009

"Uncle Buck": another Tinseltown comedy poking fun at the "family slave" problem

Last week, I reviewed a comedy movie about “mandatory marriage”, namely “The Proposal,” and maybe the currency of that film inspired Ion TV to dig out Universal’s 1989 comedy “Uncle Buck”, directed and written by John Hughes.

When his sister-in-law’s father has a heart attack, Buck Russell’s (John Candy) brother and wife ask him, however reluctantly, to move into their house to look after their kids. Now Buck (quite hefty) is presented as a bachelor slob with little direction in life, and “available” to become the “family slave.” Pretty soon, situation comedy ensues and covers up the social awkwardness of the situation; Buck actually sleeps in the same bed as the kids (hardly appropriate) but then there is the dog to mediate. Pretty soon Buck has to become adventurous to protect them from the evils of the world (drilling out a lock in one scene) and becomes the family man himself.

There are some good lines, like when the older daughter (Jean Louisa Kelly) says that her parents “got stuck with him” and Buck retorts that is no fun when other people hijack your life to meet their needs. Oh, well, we must live in a community.

Hollywood loves this theme of mandatory parenthood (oh, like “Raising Helen”) enforced on the childless and the single; remember the award-winning 1955 comedy “Marty”?

No one could confuse this with the 2000 gay comedy “Chuck & Buck” from Mike Arteta and Artisan Entertainment, where a clingy socially backward gay guy Buck (Mike White) chases and lassos the more assertive and female-friendly Chuck (Chris Weitz).

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Kathryn Bigelow: "The Hurt Locker": the most graphic war docudrama ever, and almost unbearable

Kathryn Bigelow makes tough films. I was captured by her 1995 pre-Y2K caper “Strange Days” with Ralph Finnes, and the film broke 20 minutes before the end. I had to come back another time to see the end. People posted the ending on AOL chat rooms then.

So with Summit Entertainment (“Twilight” and “Knowing”) and Grosvenor Park she goes “indie” with the very male and military “The Hurt Locker,” a docudrama about the last 40 days or so of a bomb tech company in Iraq (presumably Baghdad, although the film is shot on location in Jordan) . Besides Ralph Fiennes and Guy Pearce, some of the other actors may not be as familiar: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackey, Brian Geraghty, David Morse. The film is written by Mark Boal, and this must have been one of the toughest movies ever to screenwrite a shooting script for.

The two hours and ten minutes of the film are relentless, and get to a level of detail almost unprecedented in combat film (except maybe “Saving Private Ryan”) but Bigelow has a sharper edge even than Spielberg. In one episode in the film’s “middle”, the soldiers are pinned down in the desert by snipers in a lone half-blasted building, and the film takes us through the mechanics of weapons fire that outdoes what I was shown in Basic Training at Fort Jackson back in 1968 (although the movie certainly brought back those memories in detail). Later a few of the soldiers have a barren wrestling match (no chest hair) in a “warrior” barracks confrontation that seems like an exploration of the military concept of “unit cohesion”, and makes one wonder about how “non conformity” would affect the unit. Of course, one could think about “don’t ask don’t tell” here and it seems to get blown away. But, in fact, one of the other soldiers, Col. Cambridge (Christian Camargo) stands outside the most down-to-earth forced intimacy, directing the traffic from a bit of a distance, and seems just a bit gentle in nature; one wonders how he winds up in this environment with a more gentle nature – and his outcome will be a matter of suspense, perhaps tragic (I’ll avoid the spoilers).

Everywhere the insurgents set traps, even in the corpse of a kid, even selling DVD’s and playing soccer. Toward the end, a couple of the soldiers talk about their families, and Sanborn (African American, played by Mackie) talks about failing to have had a son. But when one of them returns home to the states and sees his wife and son, he contemplates the reality that “they need bomb techs”. It seems that family is not for real “family men.” Days remaining: 365. Bigelow is tough on us.

The film was shot in regular aspect 1.85:1 instead of Cinemascope, and there is a certain focus on the closeups as a result. The Dolby Digital sound of the weapons fire is as location-specific as I have ever heard. The film played to a fair crowd on a Sunday night at an AMC as a Select film in Arlington VA.

Update: March 8, 2010

Maple Pictures has an interview of Kathryn on YouTube:

"The Hurt Locker" is said to be the lowest grossing film to make best picture (it also got best director for Kathryn Bigelow), beating out (with an $11 million budget) "Avatar" ($300 million). Could Bigelow take on "don't ask don't tell" next?

Update: May 26, 2010

EFF reports that "The Hurt Locker" is included now in the piracy litigation targeting some P2P downloaders.  See the "BillBoushka" blog March 31, 2010.

"The Unmistaken Child": a young monk shows the "power behind the throne" of the next reincarnated lama

"The Unmistaken Child" (link) shows how a disciple of the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Zopa, searches for, finds and nurtures (becoming a new father for) the reincarnation of Lama Konchog. Zopa, an agile man of about 40 but whose agility and ascetic leanness makes him pass for mid twenties, talks about how being a monk was his calling, and how his parents wanted him to marry and have children. The intimacy that follows when he meets the boy in a hovel in the Tsum Valley (on the Nepal-Tibet border) may seem offputting even as Zopa becomes a substitute father figure (the lamas tell Zopa that the boy must be "kept clean"; in one scene, Zopa shaves the boy’s head as the boys resists), but the progress of the boy is remarkable. Although the cries like a toddler, Zopa somehow knows who he is, perhaps from the boys unusual problem solving ability as he demonstrates with his own toys. The parents give up the boy with unusual willingness, and the boy grows into his role as a boy “king” with amazing cognition, perhaps from the "essence" of his past adult lives -- that's as close as the film comes to really presenting "reincarnation". It seems in retrospect that Zopa has unbelievable “power” from the way he lives his life; he has become “the power behind the throne” with his “talent” for picking out the next “king” if he is not quite that himself. The paradigm translates well into my own life.

The film takes place in Buddhist sites and monasteries from southern India to Nepal, inasmuch as the Dalai Lama is in exile from Tibet itself. The view of the lifestyle is amazing.

The film played to an almost full house at the Landmark E Street theater in Washington DC July 11 at the early evening show.

The film (102 minutes) is directed by Nati Baratz, distributed by Oscilloscope Pictures, and used production companies in France, Britain, Germany and Israel.

Picture: From folklife festival, Washington Mall, Bhutan exhibit, 2008

Saturday, July 11, 2009

"The Children of Huang Shi": Rhys-Meyers steps up and almost plays Christ

There is a point in 1944, near the end of the time covered by “The Children of Huang Shi” where native Chen (Yun-Fat Chow) says to goodhearted British journalist George Hogg (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), “you and I come from good families. We have the luxury of living according to our beliefs.”

But the whole point of this 2008 Aussie film, directed by Roger Spottiswoode, is to explore the moral question of when we just have to “step up” and take responsibility for others – this time, sixty orphan children in China while working as a free-lance journalist (rather adventurer) in China during the invasion by Japan from the late 1930s to 1945.

George makes a lot of his Oxford education and discomfort with Chinese, and seems green and naïve about war as he is “rescued” while leaving the decadent shelter of 1937 Shanghai. He meets a nurse Lee (Radha Mitchell) and Mrs. Wang (Michelle Yeoh) as he is drawn into the world of rural poverty (only one pot to cook in and only old rice to eat). The locals call him “Pig” instead of “Hog” – a trick I saw in Army Basic myself as “the proles” treat those spoiled upperclass people with “too much education”. Finally, yes, he is confronted with the fact that the orphans will not live unless he plays papa and takes responsibility for them. The movie may take some liberties win the mandatory romance with Lee as they travel across mountains and deserts and escape the Japs.

George does meet a tragic end in the mountains with disease, and is regarded as a hero, as an almost Christ-like person – even if the script showed his temptations and upper class vanities along the way. The film presents the journalists’ dilemma: when is the writer just an “objective” voyeur, and when must he jump in and fight. Hogg speaks a metaphor about turining to his typewriter when others carry guns; today that instrument might be a laptop or a Blackberry. Remember the film “A Mighty Heart.”

This rather monumental period war film is distributed in the U.S. by Sony Pictures Classics, which seems to have taken over the indie market.

Friday, July 10, 2009

"Moon": You think you know who you are, even when on another planet

It’s good to see someone write a story and get to direct his own movie, as with UK writer Duncan Jones here, even if another writer did (Nathan Parker) did the screenplay. That’s the case from the minimalist, if CinemaScope “movie play” “Moon”, which seems claustrophobic enough as a contractor, working by himself on a three year contract on an energy “mine” on the far side of the Moon (out of sight) comes to terms with who he is.

Now, there were other naïve spoofs on man on the moon in the 50s – “Destination Moon” for example – until the Apollo missions (and Ron Howard) made it real. But this movie does pose the moral puzzle – what is the moral cost of our extraterrestrial renewable energy source?

It’s OK to talk to yourself, really – but don’t you wonder what kind of man (here, played by Sam Rockwell) could work alone for three years like that? There is the reliable robot based on 2001’s HAL (note – one of the most dreaded PC errors is the HAL dll error! – a coincidence?) but the quarters are squalid, beyond what is explained by solitary male housekeeping and MRE’s – even the cell phones look like more than battlefield hardened issues. The character looks good enough at first, if scruffy; in Moon-gravity, he exercises and keeps in reasonable shape, and retains the hair on his legs. Things get interesting when he meets his double, or perhaps replacement – we don’t want to give away too much. (Hint: rent some ABC Family "Kyle XY" episodes from Netflix.) There is a family back home, available by “blackberry” – and you wonder what kind of many really could stand to be away from wife and progeny for this long. In fact, wouldn’t an outpost like this be well populated by homosexuals? (a reversal of “don’t ask don’t tell”).

There's another interesting visual concept: Sam has made a model of his hometown back on Earth -- or what he believes is his home town, and important distinction.

The outdoor scenes do remind one of "Magnificent Desolation" -- but there are more interesting bodies to make movies about -- not just Mars; how about Titan?

The original piano music by Clint Mansell, with its out-of-tune figure of repeated, slightly meandering notes in the treble, adds to suspense. The whole film tends to stimulate paranoia: how can anyone be sure that his life, memory-trace and all, isn't a construct from the manipulations of others? Keep looking over your shoulder, guy.

The film, running 97 minutes, is distributed by Sony Pictures Classics and produced by Liberty Films UK and Xingu.

Attribution link for NASA picture of far side of Moon.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

"The Proposal": a man is conscripted into marriage

One of the most “offensive” of all suggestions is that a man (before fathering children) should be “drafted” into marriage to preserve the social or business agenda of someone else. But that is the point of the new situation comedy “The Proposal” from director Anne Fletcher and Touchstone Pictures. I notice that Walt Disney Distribution no longer uses its old trademark "Buena Vista". I don't know why.

I liked the sitcoms of the 50s and lot of them (“I Love Lucy” and “My Little Margie”) made fun of marriage and took it for granted. I don’t know that it works as well now. But in this latest Cinemascope caper, book publishing executive Margaret Tate (a bullying Sandra Bullock), Canadian (innocent enough) has let her work visa expire. Her nice young editor Andrew Paxton (Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds) walks into a CEO meeting (in New York) at the wrong time and gets drafted into “marrying her.”

About two-thirds of the movie takes place at the “estate” of Andrew’s family in Sitka, Alaska, where he had planned a long weekend for his grannie’s 90th birthday. The film decorates the landscape and home to look like Sarah Palin’s home as we saw it during the political campaigns last summer. Margaret finds out that Andrew has a family that really loves him, with a degree of attachment alien to her. But does the comedy that leads to the broken and then repaired marital promises really work? It sounds a bit like Mozart.

She does indeed blackmail him, at one point saying that his book will never get published and that his own writings will never get read unless he marries her. Sounds like “pay your dues” doesn’t it.

There was one other obvious plot opportunity. What if Andrew had been gay? How would the Alaska weekend have worked out then.

There was one really interesting sequence where a hawk chases Margaret and Andrew’s little dog, and picks up the dog, eventually giving the dog back in favor of Margaret’s cell phone. I didn’t know and bird would eat a dog. I think the movie could have used a cat, as well. There was another interesting image of a coin-operated Internet computer in Sitka; I once had to use one in a motel in Texas.

Attribution link for NOAA scene in SE Alaska. I visited the area in August 1980.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

"Music Within": the story of Richard Pimentel and the ADA

I had overlooked, in my own memory, the title “Music Within” when I ordered it from Netflix, and indeed I saw it a couple years ago and reviewed it at doaskdotell – but the MGM film about Richard Pimentel (Ron Livingston), the Vietnam veteran whose speeches and demonstrations helped launch the Americans with Disabilities Act needs noting again.

The DVD includes a 20-minute motivational speech by the real Richard Pimentel, who, however hefty, is surprisingly funny, suitable for comedy club if not so serious. A nation that demanded “sacrifice” of its young men to stall Communism in Vietnam, treated its disabled citizens with apartheid, even when they were Vietnam veterans. He starts out by mentioning how the urine of diabetics was loaned to perspective draftees, although that didn’t work for him. He spends some time talking about a veteran friend of his being thrown out of a restaurant for being "too ugly", a harrowing scene in the film.

The film was harrowing enough, and he lost most of his hearing in a bunker implosion. He was the only soldier with any hearing left at all. In fact, I left Basic Training in 1968 with a slight tinnitus in my right ear, that needs masking with white noise (a fan) when I sleep, at around 4000 cps. That occurred on the rifle range, where the M14 blast when “coaching” went right into the right ear, while the earplugs issued were inadequate. (You could buy a molding kind that worked better.) Then, while on permanent party at Fort Eustis, we had to requalify once a year; I would have tinnitus when it was over – the ears would ring when you bit down on your teeth to eat.

The DVD has some interested deleted scenes – one of corporal punishment by a vindictive teacher for chewing gum (the little girl really screams), and another scene where Richard admits to a girl friend that he’s never been responsible to another person before.

The ADA has made many people productive at work, sometimes made them indispensable. At one workplace, the most productive computer support analyst was legally blind, but accommodated with a super-large terminal monitor. We went to him as the last resort to solve almost all problems that no one else could figure out. We used to say “the instantiation of D.T.”

Sunday, July 05, 2009

"The Stoning of Soraya M.": gripping Iranian cinema, and about journalists!

There is a point as the foreground story of “The Stoning of Soraya M.” returns when, in 1986, the mullahs of a remote Iranian village tell French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam (James Caviezel) that they can’t let him go because “You are a journalist, you are a writer!” Fortunately the storyteller Zahra (Shohreh Aghdashloo) has a spare cassette, and his just-fixed car barely cranks its engine.

Most of the movie is a horrific backstory of how Soraya (Mozhan Marno) is falsely accused of infidelity by a brutal husband after an arranged marriage, fed to the town rumor mill, tried, and, in a horrific scene lasting almost half an hour, stoned to death, one of the most brutal ravages I have ever witnessed on film. And, of course, the villager want to keep it secret.

The film does, of course, dramatize the tribal and patriarchal values of radical Islam (whether Shiite or Sunni doesn’t really matter). The men feel that they protect their families from a brutal outside world, so their families owe them absolute “loyalty.” That’s the way it is in their world.

The film is distributed by Roadside Attractions and was produced by Mpower, and directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh (himself American). It is shot in full 2.35:1 and contains breathtaking middle eastern mountain scenery (the credits don’t specify exactly in what country it was filmed). It played to a fair crowd on Sunday night at an AMC in Arlington VA.

The official website is here.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

"The Limey": typical Soderbergh technique?

Steven Soderbergh is on the radar screen right now, after the flap about “Moneyball” (July 2 entry), so I watched one of his “typical” small films, “The Limey”, dating back to 1999, from Artisan Entertainment (now absorbed by Lionsgate).

Soderbergh likes character-driven “mysteries”, spanning time, situations, different places, and mixes of people from different cultures coming into confrontation. In this film, he uses a lot of flashback and flash-forwards, to convey the idea that one’s life crosses space-time as if time were just another dimension. Of course, time (for mortal humans) isn’t reversible, and that gets in the way. Sometimes, Soderbergh will unscramble out-of-sequence material from other directors, such as his revision of Lodge Kerrigan’s “Keane”.

One question with a concept like this is, will the “protagonist” keep us interested in who he is, if he is as flawed and grizzled as is the ex-con “limey” (that is, Brit) Wilson, played by Terrence Stamp. He comes to LA to investigate the mystery of his daughter’s (Melissa George) “accidental” death. He will enter a web of complexity, testing is acculturation and making him face his daughter’s nature and his capability as a father. The other characters enter the neo-noir atmosphere with a brashness that almost makes you think of Andy Warhol, as Joe Dellasandro plays Uncle John, and Peter Fonda, a 60s icon, plays possible culprit (and lover of his daughter) Valentine.

When you make a film and go back into an earlier mystery, there are two or three ways things can go. You can stay in the past and “solve” a mystery if there is some great social or moral lesson. You can link up to evidence of some calamity that is going to happen soon to a lot of other people. Or you can create confrontations with today’s characters in today’s time and place, which Soderbergh (and writer Lem Dobbs) do beautifully. The action scenes, while Spartan, are well done, from the rollover car wreck (40s style) in the Hollywood hills, to a kneecapping shootout at the guest house – again a bit of 40s noir, with a degree of abstraction that softens the brutality of the injuries and the obvious suffering.

The original music score (Cliff Martinez) contains some out-of-tune or quarter-tone piano music that reminds one of Ligeti’s music in “Eyes Wide Shut”. There is a bit of a Kubrick quality to the piano music. In other places, it reminds one of the "gymnopedic" or "phonometric" or just plain minimalist music of Erik Satie.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Soderbergh strikes out at Sony with "Moneyball": a bad omen for movie creativity: A-List support is not enough

Major studios are getting increasingly skittish about unconventional film projects, even when backed by major stars.

Michael Cieply has a front page story in the Thursday July 2 New York Times about Sony’s pulling the plug on “Moneyball” despite the presence of Brad Pitt as the star and Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”). The story title is “Money Worries Kill A-List Film at Last Minute” and the “most viewed” frame on the Times website identifies the story as “Moneyball: Strikeout, or in extra innings?” The story link URL is here.

But the news story ends with a note that the production, though shooting had been delayed, might be back in business, with the team looking for a new director.

The film (the title reminds me of “Rollerball”, which has been made twice – the 1975 Norman Jewison version “There will be Rollerball” was prescient enough about future corporate America) deals with how the Oakland Athletics tried to build a team with less expensive players.

The concept seems necessary for the Washington Nationals now, who, at 22-54, could wind up as bad as the 1962 Mets. In fact, I could imagine a movie “First in War, First in Peace, Last in the American League” and trace the 1950s Senators (the 18 game losing streak in 1959) and the “New Senators” and how they wound up in Minnesota and Texas (remember Bob Short and that last forfeit to the Yankees?)

Sony had apparently spent $10 million in script development and location scouting, with screenwriter Steven Zaillian. The total budget was to be about $57 million, low for studio films, at the high end of independent (“Landmark Theaters”) films typically cost. (Many are much cheaper: Shane Caruth’s time-machine-driven “Primer” was made for just $7 K in Dallas).

The story suggests that studios are becoming wary of investing in riskier concepts and mentions “Michael Clayton” and “Benjamin Button” as films that would be harder to finance now.

My own interest in this, of course, comes from my own “Do Ask Do Tell” book and material. I do have some pretty definite ideas as to how it should be rendered on screen and it wouldn’t cost $10 million for script development. (Put me up in a high rise condo in Toronto, Vancouver, LA, or maybe Madrid or London [even Bilbao], wherever, and pay me what I was making in IT when I retired, adjusted for cost of living, and I can do it. It’s more like $125000, not $10 million. It’s much cheaper.) But somebody who would like “Michael Clayton” or “The Will Be Blood” or “Atonement” (or, for that matter, “Slumdog Millionaire” or even “Crash”) would like “Do Ask Do Tell.” And then watch the “real” don’t ask don’t tell policy fall like a house of cards.

Here's another idea for a future film title "Make the A-List". Oh yes, there is a script.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

"Sophie Scholl: The Last Days": a heroine challenges Nazi "moral thinking" in a chilling film

There are relatively few movies about what life was like for Gentiles in Germany was Hitler came to power (“The Unknown Brother”, “The Aryan Couple”, “Invincible”) and during WWII, but surely “Sophie Scholl: The Last Days” (“Die Letzten Tagen”) is one of the most powerful. The two-hour film, directed by Marc Rothemund, is distributed (2005) on DVD by Zeitgeist and was produced by Film Bavaria and Goldkind.

Sophie Scholl, 21 in 1943, and her brother were among the most fearless anti-Nazi activists in Germany. She is brought in and interrogated for leafleting, and at first she claims it is a clumsy accident. The film spends a lot of time as a “play” with verbal confrontations between her and her interrogators. Gradually the script becomes more ideological. Eventually the courtroom (“the People’s Court”) drama appears, and she and others are put to death by guillotine.

The dialogue moralizes a lot: it is apparent that the Nazis had talked themselves into believing that they had created the perfect “moral” system were people somehow wind up with what they are worthy of. Then, how dare a young girl speak out against a system that had brought “prosperity” to “dem Deutschen Volke.” It seems laughable that leaflets could become such a treasonous threat, but after all, that’s what the Allies did from the Air. Freedom had become a vice. The leafleting was that society’s equivalent of the Internet today.

There is a line where she says she is Protestant, but later the Nazis deny the existence of God as Christians understand him.

The film perhaps also recalls “The Diary of Anne Frank”, and the tragic end also reminds me of “The Robe”.

The DVD is two-sided, with the extras on side 2; you place the side you want to play down. I got this wrong, and when I started the real movie it tried to play it full screen; I had to take out the DVD and close the Mac DVD player and put the DVD back in to get the aspect ratio right.

The back-side interviews (including one with Sophie's sister, and another with a former Gestapo member) bring out the fact that older Germans remained quiet and passive, unwilling or afraid to speak out since the economy was getting "better", whereas some younger Gentile people believed that it was wrong and that the Nazis would lose the war against overwhelming Allied forces. The sister calls the German people of the era "cowards". The Nazis considered any counter-speech as "treason".

Attribution link for public domain (Canadian copyright expired) of Berlin at end of WWII