Sunday, January 31, 2010

"Lying to Be Perfect" (aka "The Cinderella Pact"): a ruse pulled off by a Dear Abby imitation (Lifetime TV)

Lifetime TV gloats over another socially relevant premiere (Jan. 30), “Lying to be Perfect”, directed by Gary Harvey, based on the novel “The Cinderella Pact” by Sarah Strohmeyer. (Note the irony for Lifetime in the word “Pact” – check last week).

Poppy Montgomery plays the homely copyeditor Nola, who promotes herself and her mag ("Shine") by secretly writing a weight-loss column. Three of her friends form the Cinderella pact, not knowing who “Belinda Apple”, the “Dear Abby” –like columnist is, so then the ruses to hide the scheme set up the operatic comedy. She can’t even go to her own book-signing party (for "Apple Gets to the Core"), it seems.

The movie, while a bit trite, says something about the laggard magazine publishing industry (it’s hardly on the scale of “The September Issue”), as well as a minimalist version of the “Biggest Loser” idea. There is an episode dealing with gastric bypass surgery, and another dealing with discrimination based on appearance in restaurant seating. There’s a line to Nora “You’re not a face; you’re a big girl with a big dream.”

And get this: "There is a little bit of Belinda in all of us." Really? Or, "I'll never work as a journalist again." Interesting. "You are a writer. Believe in that." But she does face legal implosion.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

On January 30, CBS re-aired the Hallmark (and Paramount) TV film “The Magic of Ordinary Days”

On January 30, CBS re-aired the Hallmark (and Paramount) TV film “The Magic of Ordinary Days”, made in 2004, directed by Brent Shields, based on the novel by Ann Howard Creel. The opening image of a steam engine train, vintage WWII, rolling across the Colorado high plains (actually, Alberta) evokes a similar image from “Giant” for this much more modest and tender little film. Actually, it argues for the “natural family” especially when that family is artificially constructed and arranged.

Keri Russell plays Levi, an ambitious young woman whose anthropology graduate studies have been interrupted a couple times, first when her pastor father got her to give it up to take care of her sick mom because her sister was already married (remember “One True Thing”?) , and then when she had a life and got pregnant herself. To avoid marriage out of wedlock, the pastor dad arranges a marriage with a shy farmer Ray Singleton (Skeet Ulrich) out on the plains.

I’ll digress here a moment. One dusty Saturday afternoon in August 1994, while eating lunch in a diner in Sterling, CO (near where this film probably purports to take place) I came to a definitive decision to write my first book. I still remember the moment, and this movie brought it back to my mind.

We wonder why Ray would agree to such a thing, to help a woman bear another man’s child and perhaps raise it. In the beginning the two are not in love. Gradually we learn that Ray had lost a brother to Pearl Harbor and felt a similar involuntary obligation to his own natural family. This brings up the whole OPC (“other people’s children”) discussion from Phillip Longman and others. I suppose that agreeing to step in as a substitute “dad” could be an act of forgiveness, or it could conceivably represent exploitation; it’s a very delicate balance. But this happens more often than we realize. Sometimes people have to deal with adaptive requirements by manipulating people into forming new families. As a male who has never had sexual intercourse with a woman, I could not accept being put into this position against my own choice or goals. (In the movie, you wonder if Ray has, but eventually we gain some confidence that he will. But he is so gentle and matter-of-fact, and loyal.)

The film has a rich subplot involving Nisei Japanese conscripted to work in the potato fields from a nearby FDR internment camp. The young women have an interest in butterflies (I remember the acronym “OGAB” based on Tiny Tim from my Army days), and that connects to Levi’s academic worldly curiosity. One of the women reports her family’s losing its California home and cleaning it as “make ready” despite selling it for half its value. Their life was just taken from them. The subplot also shows how, in a more collective society as we had in the 1940s, one's own conduct can affect other family members, and that includes parents and siblings, not just one's own children.

The film says a lot about our claim to control over our own lives, and how easily it can be taken from us by others, and be made to look all right.

CBS site for the film is here.

Wikipedia attribution link for NASA picture of much of Colorado.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Jerichow: a love triangle from Germany (with little politics)

I would have thought “Jerichow” might be a political film, as the central character has returned home to a town by that name in northeast Germany from the earlier war in Afghanistan against the Soviets. There is a little about social morality here as the script even mentions mandatory military service. And Thomas (Benno Furmann) has to admit a bug skeleton in his closet: a dishonorable discharge. This sort of set up would normally lend itself to American film.

But his street smarts enable Thomas to sell himself to Ali, a Turkish owner of a snack-bar chain, who has lost his driver’s license to DUI. He becomes Ali’s driver and eventually gets a hand in the business, as well as Ali’s young and morally dubious wife Laura (Nina Hoss). The love triangle ensues, and pretty soon a plot emerges.

The "Making of.." short on the DVD mentions the issue of "wage labor" and regimented manual labor, which the lettuce picking scene (where Thomas with other workers lays down on the floor of a thrasher going across the field and picks the items, with a supervisor above) demonstrates visually. But again, Thomas has been disgraced (although the director in the short says he has little actual history).

The climax of the story will involve the scenery, the cliffs along the Baltic Sea, with some foreshadowing. Ali, we learn, has little time left, but maybe Thomas can self-destruct.

The German film(2008) is directed by Christian Petzhold, and is distributed by Cinema Guild, which offers this trailer:

Wikipedia attribution link for NASA picture of Baltic Sea

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

"A New Birth of Freedom" shows at the Gettysburg National Military Park

The New Birth of Freedom” narrated by Morgan Freeman, is a 22 minute short film shown at the new (finished 2007) National Park Service’s National Military Park at Gettysburg, PA (link here). The film is projected on a wide, curved screen similar to Cinerama. Other players include Sam Waterston.

The film does summarize the Battle of Gettysburg, where the Union line held on a ridge and where the Confederate Army actually had end-arounded and approached from the northwest. The film did not cover Pickett’s Charge in detail.

The film also discussed slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation, in relation to the principles under which the nation was originally founded. While it covered the history of states seceding, it did not cover the constitutional or legal implications of the secession issue.

The film contained many sill photographs taken in the 1860s actually projected on the curved screen.

The film ticket also includes admission to the museum and to the relocated cyclorama, when re-opened.

The film also reminds me of the 1993 four hour epic "Gettysburg" from Ted Turner Films, distributed by New Line Cinema, directed by Robert F. Maxwell, based on Michael Shaara's novel.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"Pregnancy Pact" on Lifetime

Lifetime Television, on Jan. 25, featured a somewhat sensation film, “The Pregnancy Pact”, directed by Rosemary Rodriquez, about a supposed informal agreement among about 18 teenage girls at a Glocuester, MA high school to get pregnant at the same time.

As the film starts, the school district is debating the controversy over handing out condoms while at the same time contemplating “abstinence-only” counseling. One particular girl, Sara Dougan (Madisen Beaty) seems particularly sentimental about early motherhood, while her boyfriend Jesse (Max Ehrich) seems to be getting tricked. (All she wants is to get married and have kids.) The teens seem oblivious to the long term consequences. Gradually, the media (despite the school’s attempts to fend off reporters) gets wind of the supposed “pact” of the girls to have babies at the same time. Even Anderson Cooper appears in a cameo.

At the end, there’s a confrontation between a reporter (supposedly never a mother) and the Sara’s mother, and then Sara herself brings the movie to a climax with alcohol poisoning.

Did the girls behave the way they did to protest the modern value system, pressuring them to “succeed” in the “world” first and devaluing motherhood? Interesting.

The Lifetime link for the film is here.

Here is a CBS YouTube video on the "real" incident.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

What happens when the detective gets put in a mental hospital? ("The Alphabet Killer", a true story)

Here’s a good “have to” situation for a screenwriting class: The heroine, a police officer, has to prove she is sane and get out of a mental hospital to be allowed to solve a case. If she doesn’t get out, the case may never be solved.

Such is the case with the 2008 thriller “The Alphabet Killer” from Rob Schmidt and screenwriter Tom Malloy. It’s based on an unsolved case in Rochester, NY. Megan Paige, the young detective, is played by Eliza Dushku. Pretty soon she starts seeing ghosts of the victims, and winds up hospitalized. The say, she talks to herself – but does that make her crazy? I do that!

Later, in group therapy, another patient talks about not being able to get certain destructive trains of thought out of his mind.

She winds up institutionalized twice, and when she “gets out” she gets in danger in other ways. The film is a bit like “Se7en” and similar films but focuses much more on the personal problems of the detective.

The film was shot (2.35:1) on location around Rochester (appears to be late autumn, with wet snow at times), but the indoor scenes were filmed in Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey.

The movie comes from New Films International and Starz Anchor Bay (DVD), but it does not seem to have had a wide theatrical release in the US outside of Rochester NY and LA (it should come from Overture Films if it did).

The official site for the film is here.

From “TheTrailerDOTCOM” on YouTube:

Thursday, January 21, 2010

"Crazy Heart": rather understated; the scenery is better than the people

"Crazy Heart"(dir. Scott Cooper, based on the novel by Thomas Cobb) is another Fox Searchlight offering in the spirit of "The Wrestler" a year ago. This time, Jeff Bridges plays the loose-skinned 57 year old anti-hero Bad Blake, a country rock singer fighting the bottle, and carrying around the baggage of passed marriages and probably alienated adult children. He meets a journalist Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal) with a four year old son, who starts digging out his story and humanity. He starts playing Dad to the boy, only to lose track of him in a mall at one point when he’s drunk. He has a bad auto accident half way through the film, only to get a stern warning from the doctor that his days are numbered if he doesn’t change. So he checks himself in for rehab.

The New Mexico scenery in this widescreen “small” film is stunning enough, and brings back memories of some of my own travels in the 1980s.

The official site for the film is here.

Wikipedia attribution link for Chaco Canyon picture (p.d.) here.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"The Watermelon" is a very localized Odyssey

The Watermelon” (2009) is a quirky little film written by Michael Hemmingson, directed by Brad Mays. Some of the Southern California characters have Greek names, as if there were some metaphor of Greek plays – okay, the story is a kind of “Odyssey in situ”.

The title refers to a little red and green trailer (mobile home) which looks a bit like the summery fruit that often substitutes for dessert. Achilles Pumpkinseed (Will Beinbrink) is a mild-mannered but aimless young man who lives alone in a hand-me-down house (his deceased Mother’s) and runs what seems like a hand-me-down candy store business, but not well. One day, a visitor (“Homer”, Mike ivy) appears to tell him his stepfather left him this cute little trailer, which gets towed to his property.

Pretty soon all kinds of visitors start showing up and crashing, putting Achilles into the limelight. The local free newspapers want to do stories about him, or about the Watermelon. We start learning more about Achilles’s own past, as his own life takes shape and as he cleans up his act. He becomes quite likeable as he asserts his libertarian "property rights". We learn about his previous marriage and divorce (with some question as to whether he really wanted children), and his stint as a law student. We get a sense that he is drifting because of some deep family hurt that needs forgiveness. Eventually, a vengeful sister (Kiersten Morgan) shows up, has him served at the candy store; when the probate judge sides with Achilles, the film races toward a somewhat violent but almost funny climax.

Elyse Ashton plays two roles, the ex-wife and the hippy, almost homeless “artist”. A lot of viewers are surprised to find out that she plays two roles in the end credits.

There’s a line early about how people who seek “power” don’t have “truth” – that seems to relate to Rosenfels (elsewhere in my blogs), but in Rosenfels’s books on psychological polarities, it’s “love and power” that are opposites (eg. Feminine and masculine), or, correspondingly, “truth and right”.

The CW music score is by Peter Girard, but there are interesting classical excerpts, as with the opening scene showing the “hung over” stepfather Creon (Bob Golub), with Edvard Grieg’s “Morning” from Pier Gynt playing, and later a setting of some of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.

The film has a female narrator as a “storyteller”, who talks with the style of Blake Lively in “Gossip Girl”, without the video blog. I think the narrator is Persephone (Kiersten Morgan).

Istvan Criste and Michael Hemmingson (Facebook profile) co-produced the film.

The DVD contains a featurette about the Making of The Watermelon, as well as optional commentary.

The official site is here.

The production company is Lightsong Films and the distributor is Celebrity Video. To me, this seems like a natural “Roadside Attraction.”

In the featurette, Brad Mays mentions his film "The Trojan Women" (2004, Ark), based on Euripides. I have not seen that film, but I believe that I saw the play at the Circle in the Square off-off Broadway theater on a weekend visit to New York City in 1964 when I was 21 (to go to the World's Fair). I would live in New York after I "came out" from 1974-1978. This all comes back.

Attribution link for Wikipedia picture of a Japanese square watermelon, like the mobile home in the film.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

TWC's "Nine" may be its biggest effort, but it's not too effective as a musical

Rob Marshall’s screen rendering of the Broadway musical “Nine” (most of the music by Maury Yeston) is lively enough, even if it is a little short on volume in music, and sometimes the singing is almost intrusive. Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella adapted the musical for The Weinstein Company, giving TWC one of its largest films since the breakoff from Miramax.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays Guido Contini, a perpetually adolescent filmmaker who plays off a mistress (Penelope Cruz) and a wife (Nicole Kidman). He is making a loosely conceived film called “Italia” but seems to have run out of gas. Directors or screenwriters ruin their films when they talk about them, he says. He calls himself a “businessman.” The film gives us black-and-white flashbacks as to how Contini’s debauchery developed. The musical numbers interlope on a 1965 sound stage in Rome (which looked better to me in “Three Coins in the Fountain” back in the 50s). The music score (amplified by Andrea Guerra), while lively with climaxes, trails off at the end to a pianissimo high note, like the end of Britten’s “Death in Venice” or the first movement of the Mahler Ninth.

Lewis is a real actor: here, he is hairy, and frazzled, like an Updike character. Remember how buff he looked in “The Last of the Mohicans” after epilation.

At the end (spoiler) he has no film, but comes back (with the help of Judi Dench) to film “Nine”, making the plot reflexive.

The official site for the film is here.

"Directing a movie is a very overrated job."

Monday, January 18, 2010

"Journey to Mecca" in IMAX is compelling and up-close indeed

The IMAX film “Journey to Mecca”, directed by Bruce Neibaur, offers the moviegoer, especially non-Islamic viewer, to experience the hajj closeup as it is looks in modern Mecca (surrounded by modern buildings) contrasted with the 14th Century , where the event is much smaller but the black kaaba (“cube”) is still viewed. The film was produced by SK Films and Cosmic Films, as well as National Geographic. The official website for the film is here.

The film depicts the journey of well-to-do law student Ibn Battutah (Chems-Eddine Zinoune) who takes it upon himself to travel to Mecca alone at age 21. On the way, he is waylaid by bandits, who give his money to the poor and force him to draw on rich relatives in Cairo to pay for “protection.” In the Mideastern world, right and wrong seems to be a social thing, despite the inflexibility of the Koran. He wants to cross the Red Sea on a frigate and finds it burned, and has to join an organized pilgrimage in Damascus. The journey takes 18 months. Ibn would not return home for thirty years, but would travel the far East in search of knowledge, during the golden age of Islam when it was intellectually the most advanced culture in the world. Ibn would eventually have a crater on the Moon named after him in his honor.

The last part of the film traces the entire hajj experience in detail, and shows the modern setting. The men wear white robes, usually around one shoulder, and look somewhat vulnerable as they circle the kaaba and go through other rituals, including prayers. The film shows Ibn getting his head shaved. That seems to be all that happens in the hajj, but there are some bizarre discussions of shaving and Islam (including the timing of it in the hajj and some urban legends about the practice and “jihad”) on the web.

For example, this link covers the basic practice. But this “military thoughts” references is a little more specific, here.

This one "about the body" is interesting,

as is this, discussing Mohammed Atta’s practice on 9/11, as shown in a couple of TV films (like Discovery’s “The Flight that Fought Back”), here.

Attribution link for Wikipedia diagram of pilgrim’s Jamraat

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Independent filmmmakers go for "D.I.Y." (do it yourself, sell it yourself)

When I think of “independent film”, I usually think of film that is marketed as such, for adult or grown up (but sometimes specialty children’s) audiences, and shown in theater chains that feature “arthouse” material, such as Landmark Theaters. But other theater chains, such as AMC (with “AMC Select”), Regal, and National Amusements typically reserve a portion of their screens for such films.

But “independent” has come to have multiple meanings. Some of the “independent” films are domestic or Canadian productions with big directors and big stars with more specialized subject matter, typically appealing to “educated” audiences, and tend to come from midsized companies like Lionsgate (has the best musical trademark trailer in the business right now), Summit, and Overture, and sometimes Miramax and The Weinstein Company (after the split). All three of these companies have tended to produce larger and larger films in this market, and Lionsgate also specializes in horror (the “Saw” franchise), as does TWC (with Dimension) and Summit “specializes” in fantasy (the “Twilight” franchise). (There are others: ThinkFilm, and HDNET and Mark Cuban’s Magnolia, which offers ambitious fare.) These companies are often partially involved in production, and sometimes work with other small distributors (like Lionsgate’s working with Roadside Attractions and Freestyle Releasing). “Foreign” films, which come from the UK and Australia as well as foreign language films, come from “boutique” distributors , of which the largest are Sony Pictures Classics and Focus (which gave us “Atonement”). Warner Brothers, New Line, and Paramount officially dropped out of this market over a year ago, although it’s hard to believe that they won’t come back in with other trademarks. Summit and Lionsgate sometimes help distribute foreign films.

In the book world, we think of the “publisher” as the brand giving us the book; in the movie world it has typically been the distributor, most often associated with an international company, and sometimes involved in production (but not always). When larger films, including many films that we think of as “independent” are picked up, they typically are controlled by the distributors, that “brand them”, contributing in the background to some of today’s fights over copyright and the DMCA.

However, theater chains (especially Landmark) have been good enough to bring us films that are really much smaller, sometimes nearly self-distributed. Sadek’s “Redline” was shown by National Amusements in 2007.

As Hollywood tightens it’s belt and as more media consumers go for DVD’s and streaming, self-distribution of film starts to make sense in a manner analogous to on demand printing for self-published book authors. Manohla Dargis has an article on the “Arts & Leisure” section of the Sunday Jan. 17 New York Times, “Declaration of Indies: Just Sell It Yourself”? here, like a car or a home? Indeed, I’ve reviewed a few socially and politically important films that seem to have only festival “distribution” and DVD’s: “Darius Goes West,” “Mountaintop Removal”, “The Greening of Southie”, and documentaries about the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy including “Ask Not” and “Tell”.

It does seem to me that the “don’t ask don’t tell” problem might be ready for bigger time treatment, maybe from one of the midsized companies I mentioned above. (We have had the TV films “Serving in Silence” and “Soldier’s Girl”, but nothing really big.)

I could entertain a D.I.Y. (“Do It Yourself”) approach to my own paradigm for “Do Ask Do Tell”. There was a bizarre incident in 2005 that is a humdinger of a mystery (main blog, July 27, 2007) that reaches back all the way to my 1961 William and Mary expulsion, and “incorporates” how I jumped into the debate over gays in the military, how that led to COPA and to today’s debate over topics like “online reputation.” Ironically, as the article says, Internet presence (Facebook and Twitter especially) are usually a critical component of a D.I.Y. approach.

To cover the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globes tonight, go to the main site. Taylor Lautner, sartorially presented in a tux, got to present “(500) Days of Summer” and he hasn’t even reached is 18th birthday yet. Schwarzenegger (a Republican!) presented "Avatar".

"Avatar" won best motion picture, drama. Cameron said that Pandora was about4-1/2 light years away (I think it's more like 30 light years). Best comedy or musical was "(500) Days of Summer". We saw a lot of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the audience. Remember his tumbling act on SNL, and remember Taylor's?

Update: Monday Jan. 18

Check out the Business Day article by Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes, "In Hollywood, Grappling with Studios' Lost Clout," link here. MGM is having trouble getting $2 billion for a purchase as it has evaporated into just doing smaller films. LionsGate's market cap has gone down by 50% in the past couple years despite some very ambitious releases.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

"Jezebel" is a pre "Gone with the Wind", airs on PBS

The William Wyler film “Jezebel” for Warner Brothers, made in 1938, is a kind of “pre Gone with the Wind” where here a young Bette Davis (she was only 30 then) plays the spoiled socialite Julie Marsden, who plots to get back at her somewhat northerner fiancĂ©e “Pres” Dillard (Henry Fonda). The movie is filmed in sparkling black and white, despite the crucial role that a red (or scarlet) gown plays in the story, and the BW works well with the flames at the end, where a New Orleans besieged by yellow fever takes the place of Atlanta routed by the Yankees. PBS aired the film Jan. 16. There are lots of dinner conversations about the politics of the south in 1850, when people did not grasp what was coming, but they did fear disease, and quarantined victims on an island. At the end, Julie (or Jezebel) brings herself into sacrifice.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

"Brand Upon the Brain!": Horror, with homage to the silent film era

A particular bizarre film is Guy Maddin’s “Brand Upon the Brain!" (2007), from The Seattle Film Company and Vitagraph. It’s a little black-and-white film in twelve “chapters”, all as a (mostly) silent film, telling the story of what happens when Guy returns to a lonesome Canadian island to paint a lighthouse, and recalls the horrid memories of experiments carried out by his parents.

At one point in the middle of the film, the mother wants to age backward, in Benjamin Button fashion.

The film has some effects that recall those of David Lynch’s “Eraserhead”. The grainy black and white reminds one of "Blair Witch Project". The tense chamber music score is by Jason Staczek.

The DVD is offered by the Criterion Collection.

The DVD includes three shorts: "It's My Mother's Birthday Today"; "Footsteps"; "97 Percent True" (about the making of the feature). Maddin describes how he got the chance to make this film in 6 weeks; he decided on silent film and his autobiographical story after the fact as he had little time to write a script. The chamber orchestra (eleven pieces, including six strings, 2 horns, and a falsetto voice) plays "the saddest music in the world" (composed by Jason Staczek) and then he got interested in the idea of organs being illegally harvested from orphans. In some festival performances, the "orchestra" played live.

Picture: Woodcut by Robert Adsit (1981).

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"The Horsemen" is a curious combination of horror, family drama, and false prophecy: Michael Bay tests small film?

Michael Bay experimented with producing in the small film world with the Canadian horror thriller-family drama, “The Horsemen”, directed by Jonas Akerlund, from Lionsgate, Platinum Dunes, and Mandate Pictures, and filmed mostly around Winnipeg (and in Chicago).

But the 90 minute film puts together some big ideas with some Saw-type horror (Lionsgate used its horror trademark rather than its ritornel). A widower detective Aidan Breslin (Dennis Quaid) takes on a case of serial murders that come to be connected to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. That concept reminds us of “Seven” (or “Se7en”) or even “The Bone Collector” or “8-/12 mm”. But here the scale is smaller and works its way back to Breslin’s relationship with his two sons, the older of whom, Alex (Lou Taylor Pucci) is quite concerned about his emotional distance, even during his wife’s death from breast cancer.

You can predict where to go with this. Eventually the clues lead back to something in his own family, as well as a predicted Armageddon (it’s not 2012 yet). The most interesting clue involves an embedded computer chip leading to a rogue website that draws people into this cult of being horsemen. (We saw that sort of idea with “FearDotCom” and “Untraceable”). Part of the parallel story involves another (as we learn) troubled gay young man played by Patrick Fugit and his homophobic brother. What happens will not get a film like this into Reel Affirmations. Fugit, as nice as he is and looks, has to play these downer roles (remember “Wristcutters: A Love Story”?)

The climax of the film, involving Alex, is tragic (and graphic) enough, particularly for Lionsgate’s brand of horror. It comes as a warning: if you take away people’s lives by saying they’re not good enough, there are consequences (in the language of the film, uprisings of phamtom horsemen). But that sort of thinking sounds like the religious fanaticism from the otherside of the world that we have to fight now, in another setting. Christian fundamentalism can be as radical and dangerous as radical Islam.

There is a curious reference in the film to the Revelations quote “Come and See”. In 1989 (well before the debate on gays in the military would crank up), I happened to hear a sermon titled that at the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel (Annapolis, MD) delivered by a female chaplain.

This trailer comes from “Support Platinum Dunes”.

Monday, January 11, 2010

"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus": Health Ledger's last film, an a curious fantasy fable

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” is in theaters now as the last film that Heath Ledger, playing sub-protagonist Tony, ever made. As far as director Terry Gilliam’s work is concerned, it is not as compelling to me as some of his imaginary work that sets problems for the “real world” (like “12 Monkeys” in 1996). But visually the concept is interesting. The film moves between modern London, especially some of the squalid dumps, and the fantasy world inside the traveling troupe of Doctor Parnassus (Christoper Plummer) and, the movie provides another example of “independent film’ (here distributed by Sony Pictures Classics in the US and Lionsgate in the UK) loaded with big stars, including Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell, Lily Cole (as daughter Valentia) and Tom Waits as the devil Mr. Nick.

The story has the concept of capturing souls and offering them Immortality, the chance to become gods, if they will make “the perfect sacrifice.” It could pose the question, why am I me and not someone in some other country, or under other circumstances (maybe karma). Maybe one could extend the idea to wonder if souls could be consolidated or contracted.

The imaginarium rather makes me think of the freak show at a county fair. I once visited one in Vernon, Texas, where the performer was very good at making visitors feel silly for wanting to see her.

The official site for the film is here.

Wikipedia attribution license for picture of Globe Theater in London

Here is am AP video on Youtube about the funeral of Heath Ledger

Sunday, January 10, 2010

"Fear Strikes Out": Baseball, and psychiatric treatment in the 1950s

Back in the 1950s, as I followed the hapless Washington Senators baseball team, I remember those dreaded road games in Boston, where one-run leads definitely were not safe in the bottom of the ninth. I remember the controversy over Red Sox player Jimmy Piersall and his mental illness, but I don’t recall that he was particularly dreaded at the plate (Ted Williams was). I do remember the death of Harry Agganis, even the newspaper headlines in 1955, when it was shocking that a 25 year old athlete could die of pneumonia.

Fear Strikes Out” (1957), based on Jimmy Piersall’s own autobiography, directed by Robert Mulligan, tells the somewhat familiar story of the baseball player’s “nervous breakdown” shortly after making it to the Red Sox, as well as his treatment. The film only mentions at the end the long career that he had afterward. The Paramount film is presented in black-and-white VistaVision (I remember that a few years later, “Hud” would be technically controversial because of its use of black and white Cinemascope).

Anthony Perkins plays the young adult Piersall, in a “troubled young man” role that would anticipate his performance as Norman Bates in “Psycho” in 1960. The film takes the position that pressure from his father (Karl Malden) had a lot to do with his breakdown. At one point the film has some dialogue about what men owe their fathers, and then later, when Piersall gets married and contemplates getting a house, he says he will have to support his parents in the house.

There are plenteous warning signs, but after a fracas at a ball game involving the cops, Piersall finds himself in a straightjacket in a mental hospital. The last part of the film goes like an exposition of 50s style psychiatry. There is an episode of shock treatment, but then there is a lot of private individual therapy talk, which seems to go in aimless circles until Piersall has a confrontation with his father.

In my own therapy experience at NIH in 1962 (an “inpatient” setting) there was the same sort of runaround in the individual sessions, as I avoided dealing with certain fantasy material that does feed artistic expression today – a double-edged undertaking that others could take as disguised hostility. But the relationship with my father was a big issue, as it is in this film. (There was no psychiatrist's couch; but therapists smoked during sessions; they supposedly went through analysis themselves to find out why they wanted to become shrinks.) There is a scene where Piersall calls his father as to whether it is OK to play shortstop instead of outfield, and I recall a similar call to my own father in a new-job situation in 1963. Piersall would later claim that the Red Sox were plotting against him with the position change. The books say he had bipolar disorder, but it sounds more like paranoid schizophrenia.

Back in the 50s and early 60s, the accepted mantra was that mental illness is "nothing to be ashamed of." Pyschiatrists used "is not able to" as a euphemism.

The TCM broadcast contained a 10 minute short on the making of MGM’s “International Velvet” in 1978, by Bryan Forbes (with Anthony Hopkins).

Wikipedia attribution link for Fenway Park picture.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

"The Young Victoria" and Albert made a wonderful young couple; big period piece from new distrubutor, Apparition

I don’t know this new distributor Apparation, or GKFilms, but the UK-Quebec production of “The Young Victoria”, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (and produced in part by Martin Scorsese) is sumptuous and professionally made indeed, with plenty of classical music, including Handel and Schubert in the soundtruck.

In fact, the intellectually cultured nature of Prince Albert (Rupert Friend) actually works toward his winning the young Queen Victoria’s heart. It’s as if brains gave a reproductive advantage (to continue lineages for many kingdoms) as well as brawn. He likes Schubert lieder and all kinds of academia available in his German duchy. And Victoria (Emily Blunt) seems to have a fascination for his smooth chest.

Their marriage, which survived some political squabbles and an assassination attempt on Albert because of his power moves, produced nine kids, and then Victoria would reign longer than any other British monarch so far.

A lot of the early portion of the film deals with the politics of the failed attempt by King William (James Broadbent) to set up a Regency (according to the Regency Act of 1830). Victoria comments as the film opens that privilege can be a kind of prison. The very first line of the script states that some people are born into more fortunate circumstances than others.

Victorian England, the stuff of literature courses, is seen as proper and stuff, but the film presents Victoria and Albert as progressive social liberals determined to improve the lot of the poor.

The film also provides a metaphor for today's debate on marriage. Here, the royal marriage not only controls property and political arrangements (thrones); it is supposed to provide an emotional focus for the people in a world that is otherwise very unequal. We don't want that kind of a system today.

The official site for the film is here. It appeared the same weekend as “Avatar” and got a bit eclipsed.

The AMC Shirlington in Arlington played the film in a large auditorium (2.35:1 ToddAO on a full curved screen) to an audience 2/3 full, still. The AMC is offering coffee now (see my Jan. 1 post), free, but you have to know to ask.

Wikipedia attribution link and license for Buckingham Palace Photo. I walked around it in November 1982. The Palace was built during Victoria’s reign.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Showtime's "Out of the Ashes" and moral dilemmas

The 2003 film “Out of the Ashes” for Showtime, directed by Joseph Sargent (DGC), is said to present “the real Sophie’s Choice”.

The heroine is Dr. Gisella Perl (Christine Lahti) who comes to New York right after WWII to practice medicine and deliver babies. But her citizenship must be approved, and the INS has a lot of questions about how she behaved in Auschwitz where the Nazis “let” her work as a doctor for them.

The film, like Sophie’s Choice, works in flashbacks, telling the story of her family upbringing, of her capture, movement through the ghetto to Auschwitz. Early on, as a little girl she says she wants to be a doctor, and her father says that being a mother and producing children for the family ought to be good enough for her. Her pride tends to continue throughout as a major element of the film. The Nazis present a variety of situations that could be taken as moral grayness, even given her wanting to live. She tries to save her brother, dying of pneumonia, before she realizes that the Red Cross appearance is a sham. It’s a while before she completely grasps what the camps are really all about. She is confronted with more existential issues about abortion and eugenics, particularly disturbing to her as an obstetrician.

The flashbacks are quite intense and brutal, just as they were in “Sophie’s Choice”. The Nazis act as if they were playing God, arbiters of who just might “deserve”, on utilitarian grounds, to keep going.

Beau Bridges, Richard Crenna, and Bruce Davison also appear.

Wikipedia attribution link for Auschwitz picture (near Cracow, Poland; I visited in May 1999).

The film bears no relation to “Angela’s Ashes”, about Irish immigrants.

YouTube mentions a documentary “Out of the Ashes” about an Afghan cricket team.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Warner Brothers will make Netflix customers wait 4 weeks to rent newly released DVD: a business model experiment?

Netflix subscribers, who enjoy unlimited rental time and movies (although a maximum at one time) will have to wait an extra four weeks to rent Warner Brothers DVD’s after the DVD’s are released. This was part of a concession to allow Netflix to show more WB movies online (it’s not clear if the online availability waits four weeks). WB’s reasoning is that more people who are impatient to see hot movies will purchase DVD’s, at a much higher price than rental.

Blockbuster was not affected by the deal, since it has a more conventional rental model. Netflix has so many movies (including some indie films that it distributes to theaters as Red Envelope Entertainment) that it believes consumers won’t be inconvenienced.

Other studios may follow suit.

The AP story appeared Wednesday Jan. 6 on MSNBC, here.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Gomorrah: a look at the power of one mafia crime family (a scaled down "Godfather?)

The 2008 somewhat acclaimed (enough to win at Cannes) Italian film “Gomorrah” (or “Gomorra”, without the “h” in Italian), directed by Matteo Garrone and based on the book by Roberto Saviano (distributed by IFC in theaters and by the Criterion Collection on DVD – where was Sony Pictures on this one?), seems like a compact answer to the famous series “The Godfather”. But it is more a film like “Babel” or even “Traffic”, where somewhat distinct stories (five in this case, almost capable of treatment as separate short films, are linked to produce a cyclic film that is somewhat like a symphony in music. One even thinks of work like “The Decalogue” (by Krzysztof Kieslowski). Martin Scorsese in “presenter” of the USA release for the Independent Film Channel.

The title of the film is based on Camorra crime family in Naples and Caserta, and shows how dependent the ambition structure of ordinary people, especially young people in this film, is dependent on “the Family.”

The film wanders into some very hip current issues. There is a sequence where a quarry is being filled with toxic waster, leading to a worker’s contamination. This thread seems suggestive of the problem of companies that sell waste to China which then pollutes small towns.

One character , in an episode that seems Decalogue-inspired, moonlights by training Chinese garment workers, who would be competing with Camorra-owned businesses. On the surface, this is your “conflict of interest” issue that legitimate companies must often deal with. The other side of that issue is, of course, exploitation of low-wage workers in Asia or in poor countries, a point often hammered by the Left.

The teens think they have come of age (having passed some brutal rites of passage) as they settle to enjoy a house of ill repute, whereupon they are violently disrupted

The film has a big look; it is shot in 2.35:1, and has a big but detailed look, with the seedy side of Naples, the environmental desecration in the quarry, and the expanse of the beach scene in the “crushing” conclusion. But even the smaller scenes are impressive: the film opens in a bluish tanning salon, which will experience a massacre and show us how personal all of this is.

The film credits say that the Camorra family is a major financier of the rebuilding of the World Trade Center.

YouTube trailer by IFC First Take. The official site is here.

Remember Robert Bork’s book “Slouching Toward Gomorrah?” This film gives some real meaning to that title.

Monday, January 04, 2010

"The House on 92nd Street" (1945) is a shocking story of homeland espionage that kept the atomic secrets from the Nazis

A film that should be watched as a historical companion to “Notorious” (reviewed her earlier) is Henry Hathaway’s “The House on 92nd Street”, made in 1945 by 20th Century Fox right after V-J day and the use of the atomic bomb by President Truman.

In the time frame from 1939 to Pearl Harbor, Nazi spies worked in New York City and were penetrated by the F.B.I. with the help of a recent college graduate of German ancestry who was recruited to act as a double agent, Bill Dietrich (William Eythe). The FBI was closing on an operation that tried to sift American research (Project 97) on the use of uranium that had gone back to the 1930s. The Germans had a brownstone on 92nd St run partly by a woman who turns out to be a cross dresser.

The film, in crisp black and white, provides a fascinating look at technology in the 40s, and it was more advanced than we think. The FBI used one-way “mirrors” of lead glass, and photographed what they saw directly onto 8 mm movies. Instead of taping, they would cut phonograph records directly from wiretapped conversations. They could sift through 100 million fingerprints with a complex set of gadgets in a huge warehouse facility and identify any print in about half an hour. The “woman” is tracked down from the lipstick on a cigarette butt she leaves behind carelessly, leading the FBI to check the customer records of 92 NYC beauty parlors.

The film runs as a docudrama, with some narration but a lot of scenes acted.

One interesting point is that many spies and intelligence agents lead double lives with "ordinary jobs" such that even their own families and spouses don't know that they work as spies.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

"Every Other Weekend": Aussie short film explores separating male couple as parents

There is a new “long short” on Logo that deals with gay male parents, from Australia and “Vast Productions”, directed by Tim Slade, based on a short story by Craig McWhorter, named “Every Other Weekend” (15 min), with the viewing link web URL here.

Bart (Benjamin Windspear) and Roger (Damian de Montemas) were a male couple, and Bart was the natural father of Jessica (Adeline Harvey). Roger decided to leave, but every other weekend comes back for visitation with Jessica, while Bart keeps custody. Both men are looking for love in other relationships, but when Roger comes back, some of their old passion seems to still be there. Bart says that Roger left out of his own choice.

I’ve never been close to being in such a situation myself, but I can envision it.

(Picture: random, New Years Eve in DC, not in film).

Friday, January 01, 2010

"Broken Embraces" is another masterpiece in layered storytelling from Pedro Almodovar

When you go to the movies to see foreign or “art” films, it used to be you expected something quirky or low-budget or both. No more. Today, independent films, foreign or not, become massive and epic undertakings. Such is the case with Pedro Almodovar and his latest “big vision” personal epic, “Broken Embraces” (“Los abrazos rotos”). The film has joint distribution around the world from Sony Pictures Classics (Columbia), Focus (Universal) and Warner Brothers. The production companies include El Deseo (Spain), Universal International (which used to be the name of Universal Studios in the US), Studio Canal and apparently Sony Pictures. The budget was in the high teens (of millions), but it looks like it cost much more, with brilliant filmmaking.

Almodovar loves to build his stories in layers and flashbacks, reaching back into the past for mystery, much like Alfred Hitchcock. The stories and situations are subtle and universal. Also the director paints his home Spain in reds and oranges and gives it a sunny look, we’re always impressed by the super-modern aspect to the European mother country (contrasted to Mexico), almost as if it were a sci-fi setting, as well as the diversity of the population, matching that of Britain. That’s ironic as Almodovar’s expressive style is that of film noir, with a menacing music score by Alberto Iglesias (well worth concert suite performance).

Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar) is living his life soley under his pen name, Harry Caine, as the film opens. He is blind and has somehow reinvented his life after some terrible end to Mateo. He writes novels and screenplays, and is approached by “Ray X” (Ruben Ochandiano) to make a film about a gay man whose homophobic father Martel (Jose Luis Gomez) had done some terrible things, but has recently died of stomach cancer. (There is an interesting political sidelight: the family tries to treat him in a private clinic when the government-paid doctor and hospital discharge him so that the doctor can go on vacation; is this a comment on socialized medicine and the current health care debate?) He enlists the talented wordsmith son Diego (Tamar Novas) of his production manager Judit Garcia (Blanca Portillo). Diego, apparently gay or bisexual and, with his lean presence, physically the most attractive character in the film (except for one, whom I’ll get to in a moment) is apparently drugged in a bar, and as he recovers quickly to full health (we learn he had been sickly as a child) he gives away the fact that he knows something about Harry’s past life.

Here Almodovar goes back from 2008 to 1992 to 1994 to tell us about Martel’s wife Lena (Penelope Cruz, the “other” eyepopper in the film), and Mateo’s past affair with her, leading to a confrontation. But it gets more complicated. Mateo was making a film then “Girls and Suitcases” that apparently would have been legally libelous about Martel, perhaps helping to motivate the name change. (I’m reminded how Dalton Trumbo and others wrote under secret pennames after the McCarthy era purges of Hollywood.) Almodovar uses the interesting technique of showing segments of the embedded film in 1.85:1, whereas the film (“this” film) is in 2.35:1. (I’ve thought that the other way to handle this kind of thing is to use black and white for the embedded film.) Now Caine-Mateo faces a similar challenge, apparently to make another film about the man, one which would show the son’s psychological pain and make the son feel redeemed.

Some of the mystery concerns how the car crash that blinded Mateo happened. The scene, two-thirds through the film, is quite shocking and brutal, and masterfully done. Martel’s gay son is eventually identified and transformed as Ernesto Martel Junior, who, with spectacles, follows his father around with his camera and figures into the discovery of the crash.

Rounding out the story toward the end, we learn another family secret about Diego, who has worked so hard to reconstruct Mateo’s lost film and images, for good reason, we learn.

The film presents some striking parallels to some situations in my own life, which I could elaborate on later.

Besides Avatar and perhaps Invictus, this entry from Spain is the most ambitious and most political film of this Christmas season. Would the Oscars consider a “best picture” nomination for a Spanish-language film of this scope?

I would be inclined to compare “Broken Embraces” not so much to "Volver" as to “Bad Education”, which had combined themes from “Double Indemnity” with “The Talented Mr. Ripley” with back stories about priest’s abuse and again the layering of story elements into characters’ screenplays.

Here is Sony’s official site for “Broken Embraces” (link)

Sony Pictures Classics has a trailer on YouTube.

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Bilbao, which I visited in 2001.

Note on concessions and "no outside drinks or food" policy:

I saw this film at a New Years Day morning show at an AMC Thearer in Shirlington Village in Arlington, to a fair-sized crowd. Suddenly, it seems, AMC has a policy of "no outside food or drink" when the Theater has allowed Caribou coffee from next door because it had stopped making coffee. If theaters believe they need this policy (for "business model" reasons), they should serve more items (including coffee, and perhaps hot dogs) and keep the lines moving. This particular theater, from the 70s, is surrounded by real estate development. South Arlington needs a modern, state of the art multiplex (Pentagon City doesn't have one any more). Would a new venture joining AMC and Signature Theater (stage) make sense as a real estate project? National Amusements in Fairfax Corner has the right concept: a modern facility which rents space and share revenue with several food chains on the premises, offering a much wider range of concessions with much faster service. This is a model that Regal and AMC would do well to emulate.