Sunday, February 28, 2010

"The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers" (review)

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” (directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, 92 min) certainly got me to relive my own coming of age – particularly my own experience with the draft, Basic Training, and then the shenanigans at my own assignment at the Pentagon. Distributed by First Run Features, it attracted a moderate crowd in a smaller auditorium at the 10 PM show Saturday night at Landmark E-Street in downtown Washington DC. (The name of the film reminds me of the famous Richard Connell story, often studied in high school English, “The Most Dangerous Game”, a WB film in 1927).

The film is narrated by Ellsberg himself, now 78, and the live shots trace his gradual physical transformation. He was striking and virile as a younger man, and served as an officer in the Marine Corps in the 1950s. It’s interesting to me how many times our most dedicated political “liberals” experienced challenging military service (that was the case with my high school American history teacher).

The climax of the film occurs when it conveys his indictment and a lawyer is quoted in saying that jury selection would be difficult. You don’t want middle aged men, the lawyer says, because most of them have made “compromises” with their own principles to have families.

Ellsberg, in fact, used his own teen son to help with the massive Xeroxing of 7000 pages.

The film starts in 1964, right after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which occurred on Ellesberg’s first day at work in the Pentagon. He had already worked as an analyst at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, CA. The buildings are shown, and I vaguely remember them from my own job interview there in December 1969 as I was getting out of the Army. (We had a discussion about the simulation programming language “SIMSCRIPT”.)

He would go to Vietnam as a civilian, but helping lead patrols in uniform. (When I was in Army Basic, drill sergeants, mostly returned from Vietnam, told us that in infantry, everyone went out on patrol every third night, but that had not been true until after the 1965 esclation.) He would go back to Rand, setting up the opportunity to copy the papers.

But Ellsberg gradually became suspicious that government officials had been premeditating a southeast Asia war ever since Korea. After all, after Tonkin, it had been his job to feed President Johnson the evidence that Johnson wanted. He did an all nighter to find NVA atrocities and write the report. The long reach of "military industrial complex" premediation reaches far back in a manner resembling that suggested by the film I saw earlier this evening, "The Ghost Writer" (previous review). The escalation in Vietnam in 1965 ordered by LBJ and McNamara would somewhat contradict the account of Robert McNamara's 1995 book "In Retrospect", which would seem to suggest that LBJ and his think tank friends really believed the domino theory.

The election of Richard Nixon in 1968 is covered, and, lo, there was no secret plan to end the war. Ellsberg became even more determined. Kissinger gets into the picture, and there are playbacks of Nixon tapes with vile language, including a not-so-funny reference to nuking the North Vietnamese.

Once Ellsberg got the New York Times involved, the constitutional questions about freedom of the press became questioned to an unprecedented degree. (The New York Times was publishing and "charging" in book form for material legally in the public domain as far as copyright law goes; it's similar in that respect to the 9/11 Commission Report.) How much prior restraint could be expected of a press when publishing material that it suspected had been acquired “illegally” (no small thing in view of the Espionage Act). This was 25 years before the Web on the Internet, but bloggers could face the same questions today.

The film did not cover Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, whom Nixon’s plumbers bugged. But the film does cover briefly the way Ellsberg help bring Nixon down in Watergate.

The First Run Features trailer on YouTube. It starts with LBJ’s saying defiantly “We are going to win.”

The official site for the film is here.

Here is a summary and master index to the Pentagon Papers online, at Mt. Holyoke, Sen. Gravel edition,link.

The New York Times has a Times Topics link here.

The National Security Archive at George Washington University has a webpage with links to the Supreme Court opinion and all relevant arguments submitted to the court, here.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

"The Ghost Writer": why an intellectual becomes a politician, and why a writer doesn't use his own name

Well, the new Roman Polanski film “The Ghost Writer” dramatizes a concept of “writing” as a profession that is the antithesis of my own experience. Ewan McGregor plays “The Ghost” with no other name, who writes for other public figures, and keeps a low profile himself. That would mean no blog, no Facebook page or website under his own name, no online “friends”.

He is hired by a well-capitalized publisher to ghost-write former British Prime Minister Adam Lang’s (Pierce Brosnan) memoirs. That means going to his island retreat off the coast of Massachusetts (sound familiar?), for $250000 plus expenses. Soon, he learns that the poor chap who had the job before him drowned, and was probably murdered.

There’s other interesting stuff. He has to work with the typed manuscript (the flash drive copy is password protected) for security reasons. Pretty soon, his life will intertwine with Mrs. Lang (Olivia Williams) and the assistant (Kin Cattrall). But some of the problem becomes very public: CNN (this movie uses real companies) is broadcasting a story that Lang will be tried at The Hague for war crimes for authorizing extreme rendition (probably without pie charts).

The movie obviously invites comparison with “Shutter Island.” Well, DiCarpio could have carried the role of the Ghost, except that it had to go to a Brit (or at least a Scot). We bond with McGregor’s character in this movie even more than we did DiCaprio’s – he seems to be a Renaissance Man, with no family (he denies that he is gay, and that was unnecessary). This film is tighter, more European, and curiously more focused even if it takes place in more locations (some of it is in London, and The Ghost gets to wander the Island and even make the Massachusetts mainland). To me, it seemed closer to the style of Alfred Hitchcock, although that director would not have used Cinemascope.

The film is a UK-German-French production, and Roman Polanski (because of his legal problems in the US) would have had to film the island scenes in Europe, probably in northern Germany. The movie even has a lighthouse (that’s probably just a coincidence). The film is distributed by the innovative Summit Entertainment, which seems to like socially challenging fare. Summit’s official website for the film is this. I saw this at the Landmark E Street Cinema in Washington DC Feb 27 at the early evening show in the largest auditorium and it sold out. The audience seemed to enjoy it.

The premise of the movie (based on the 2007 novel by Richard Harris) is a little hard to believe – as bad as the Bush administration got, I don’t know if it goes back to pre-Ellsberg days. At one point The Ghost is told that by helping the Prime Minister write his press releases he is becoming an "accomplice" (as if that were what the career of a "writer" were all about). There’s a great book-signing party at the end (I’ve had my share of those), and then, well, umph! (no final spoiler).

So I am left to wonder what happens if one writes one’s own memoir and makes oneself a public figure in the process. I could make “Do Ask Do Tell” work as a movie because there are still some personal spoilers left that I can work out only if I finally do make a movie of it. And the story (all of it true) will be as bizarre as this one. In fact, my life is the antithesis of Lang’s (and even of the Ghost’s): the movie poses (and answers somewhat) the question, why an intellectual becomes a politician, and why a writer keeps a low profile. That issue came up in an unflattering review of my own book on Amazon.

Here’s “Gab’s” review on YouTube. She says he “put the finishing touches” on the film from his prison cell.

Friday, February 26, 2010

"The Last Station" for Leo Tolstoy, brings up a lot of dicey issues in a period piece

The film title “The Last Station” refers literally to Astapovo Station in southern Russia, where author Leo Tolstoy died in 1910 after leaving his manor to live as an ascetic, according to his own moral and spiritual voice.

The film, from Sony Pictures Classics and Egoli Tossell Films, directed by Michael Hoffman and based on the historical “novel” by Jay Parini, manages to combine several moral and political themes in this period piece of Russia just before Bolshevism took hold, although many signs were there. Although filmed widescreen (2.35:1) it comes across as a stagey drama rather than adventure, a kind of didactic companion piece for “War and Peace.” Christopher Plummer looks and acts like the real character, with Helen Mirren as wife Sofya, who may seem greedy at first, but who probably sees the issue of Tolstoy leaving the “copyright” of his works to her as a sign of his love.

Paul Giamatti plays Valdimir Chertkov, the confidant who shares Tolstoy’s “socialist” idealism and who wants to leave the proceeds from his work to the people (the term “public domain” appears). Chertkov hires a young male secretary Valetin Bulgakov, played by James McAvoy. There is a hint that Chertkov is attracted to the young man, who seems gay to the family, except that he carries on vigorously with the daughter (Anne-Marie Duff). The concept of his job becomes interesting, as he has to insert his personal charisma into the affairs of the family. Professional employment in the past was sometimes a lot more personal than it is today.

Visually, the film is striking, with the steam trains, the Russian commune, the carriages, and the century old technology filling Tolstoy’s office. Telegraph provided the email of the day, and figures into the story.

A few years after Tolstoy’s death, the Russian government decided to give Sofya the copyright after all, although she should have been fine with the estate. (There is something about the radical Left, you know, that considers inherited wealth as morally invalid. Tolstoy: “I believe that wealth corrupts us all.”) Nevertheless, the movie seems ironic to someone who follows today’s debate about copyright and the Internet. Being honored as an “author” in those days depended much more on formal public approbation than it does today, in the age of print-on-demand.

The original music score by Sergei Yevtushenko includes a triple-time piano melody that sounds like Tchaikowsky. There is a scene showing the playing of 78 rpm records with a victrola horn, an aria from Pucinni's "Madame Butterfly"

This film is not related to the Thomas McCarthy’s “The Station Agent” (Miramax, 2003), but that film also dealt, in a curious sense, with inheriting “property.”
Here’s the TV Guide Youtube clip interviewing Helen Mirren and James McAvoy.

I recall a curious Canadian film about copyright called “Uncut” (dir. John Greyson), which I saw at the University of Minnesota in 1997.

The official site for the film is here.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

"The Family Plan": Hallmark comedy feeds the fantasies of a "Natural Family" manifesto

When I started my career in computer programming a few decades ago, I already sensed that programmers didn’t face the same pressures to conform to social expectations as people with “marketing profiles”. So we have the silly comedy from the Hallmark Channel, “Family Plan”, (2005) directed by David S. Cass Sr. (Oops, I see there is no "the"; but the title seems to need a definite article to me.)

Charlie McKenzie (Tori Spelling), an upwardly mobile executive (in a foods company) who could never stand for the mommy track, finds herself in a sticky position. An acquiring company walks in the door, and the new boss Ed Walcott (Greg Germann) insists on a “family company” (which may not be the same as “family friendly”). It sounds like EDS in Ross Perot’s dynamo of the 1960s at Exchange Park in Dallas. Ed thinks that a ring on her hand is a wedding ring, and she has to hire a gayish male actor Buck (Jordan Bridges) to put on the mirage of a husband. Then Ed wants to rent the house next door, and Charlie has to pretend it will be bad for the golf game, lead to roaches, or maybe even emit radon gas. The ruse turns into a plot like that of comic opera. It’s funny to see people see marriage as a tool of social approbation – or is it? In the end, Buck’s act may not be so much of an act after all. (Remember “Chuck & Buck”?)

There is a funny line about it being February, in southern California, the month for rain. But that typically translates into mudslides.

I recall an episode of the 50’s sitcom “My Little Margie” where you had to be married to get a particular job.

Don’t mix this movie up with “Family Man” which has several incarnations (one of which I saw on an international flight).

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"The Other Woman" ("La sconosciuta"), an Italian thriller about motherhood and exploitation

The film “The Other Woman” (or “The Unknown Woman”, “La sconosciuta”, directed by Giuseppe Tornatore) might be viewed as the Italian equivalent of a Pedro Almodovar retrospective thriller, but here totally heterosexual and seemingly not narcissistic. In fact, it’s about the most basic of biological drives and emotions: motherhood, and the entire jigsaw mystery hangs on that point. But the backstory looks into the world of human trafficking. (A good comparison would be the Mexican film “Trade”, dir. Marco Kreuzpainter, from Roadside Attractions.) A Ukranian woman Irena (Ksenuya Rappoport) arrives in Italy and works her way into a wealthy home by janitorial work, and interviews her way into a job as a nanny for the little girl Thea (Clara Dossena), but only by subterfuge: befriending the current nanny and tripping her to fall. Through flashbacks, we learn that Irena had been forced to bear nine children, and believes that Irena is her youngest daughter. The back story shows that indeed “it’s hard out here for a pimp” (particularly when connected to the mob), whom Irena has to try to do in twice, before winding up in jail. Is Thea her child, and does it really matter in the end? The scenes with Thea are disturbing and hard to watch at times, as are other scenes of her horrific background.

The film, from an obscure theatrical distributor (Outsider) with DVD from Image, and production company Medusa, is quite professionally made, shot in 2.35:1, with a brooding music score by Ennio Morricone (the music resembles that of Richard Strauss), giving the film an almost operatic effect. (The detailed plot recalls Alfred Hitchcock, and sometimes the film use effects like those in "Vertigo" with a staircase scene.) The DVD subtitling has the annoying habit of displaying Final Draft action directions as well as the script.

Here is a YouTube review from “Instant Reviews”.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"Shirley Temple: America's Little Darling" (PBS runs)

On Monday, February 22, 2010 PBS WETA aired a 1992 one hour documentary from Wombat films, directed by Gene Feldman, edited by Stephanie Paslewski, “Shirley Temple: America’s Little Darlin’”.

The film examines the career of Shirley Temple, born in 1928 (as Shirley Jane Temple), as a depression-era child actress, who (for 15 cents) made workers forget their troubles, and who actually, as a child, helped adult actors recall their lines on the set. She was on contract with Fox, when it became 20th Century Fox, for much of her career.

She would leave her acting career at 21 and move on to other areas, including running for office (something other actors would emulate), as a Republican, and serving as ambassador.

She was privately tutored, in the days before studios had to hire studio teachers, but eventually went to a private grils’ school in Beverly Hills.

Some of the more remarkable scenes in the documentary come from “The Little Colonel” and later “The Little Princess” where the ash-throwing scene is rehearsed.

She also performed as part of the first interracial dancing couple on screen.

The film seems interesting in view of the spectacular success of many teen actors in recent years (like Zac Efron, Daniel Radcliffe, Taylor Lautner, and Gregory Smith).

Wikipedia attribution link for p.d. picture of Shirley Temple with Eleanor Roosevelt

Sunday, February 21, 2010

"Shutter Island" (from Paramount "Vantage"); Scorsese's horror film about the treatment of the mentally ill, in the 50s

Shutter Island” provided a personal reminiscence for me (as had “Spellbound”, reviewed earlier here). I had a bout of inpatient psychiatric treatment at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in late 1962 as an experiment after my college expulsion. And one reaction immediately was that, why Hollywood sensationalizes or even “romanticizes” the treatment of “mental illness”, covering it as it really unfolds would be a real challenge for independent film. (At the moment, another famous film comes to mind: Milos Forman’s 1975 film, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” with Jack Nicholson). Another remote comparison is David Greene’s “The Shuttered Room” (WB) from the UK in 1967.

Paramount (some sources still give the film as Paramount Vantage, making this $60 million production an official “art movie”) is proud of this new bloated 138-minute gothic offering from Phoenix Pictures, directed by Martin Scorsese, based on the novel by Dennis Lehand. It’s an experience at the movies on a large 2.35:1 screen (I saw it at a Regal in Arlington last night, nearly sold out). But it comes across as a stage play.

The set up is bidirectional. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a troubled WWII veteran (Teddy Daniels) who had helped free the concentration camps. He arrives to this coastal New England island housing a supermax facility for the criminally insane, in 1954, on a ferry boat, seasick, with partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), as a US Marshall (he thinks he is one), investigating the disappearance or escape of a female patient whose history sounds like that of Susan Smith, who drowned her children in South Carolina in 1994 (typical account here). But in time we learn more of Teddy’s own personal past, which bears some troubling similarities. A hurricane bears down on the “little tall island” . You guessed it, pretty soon Teddy is trapped as if he were the escaped patient.

Ben Kingsley plays the “compassionate” Dr. Cawley, and Max Von Sydow is his henchman. Michelle Williams is Teddy’s ex-wife, whom we learn early died in a mysterious fire which Teddy will have to explain.

The music for the film is most effective. Gustav Mahler’s Piano Quartet in A Minor, in one movement, is played a lot (and named by Teddy, who knows music), as is modern dissonant orchestral music by Ligeti, Penderecki, Scelsi, and Feldman, Cage, and many others (Wikipedia gives all the music).

The Lighthouse, which was said to house the secrets of the place, provided for me an interesting metaphor: it looks like “The Tower of Ned” in my own 2004 horror screenplay for Project Greenlight, “Baltimore Is Missing.” (I even made up a tagline, “do not go near the Tower of Ned”, based on a dream.)

My own perception, however, of how mental illness was portrayed back in the early 1960s (a few years after the setting of this film) is important to me, at least. Society seemed set up as a competition. Those who “won” got to be in charge and tell those who didn’t compete as well what to do, in exchange for having to take care of them. A lot of this happened in the family. Marriage was not just a commitment of love, it was seen as an achievement. Those who couldn’t fit in to this pattern rebelled, and sometimes were deemed “ill” by the “system.” ("They" would say, "it's nothing to be ashamed of". Really? From NIH, I still remember the cries of one patient at night, with a nurse threatening to give it to her "in the muscle" to calm her. They would write up copious notes of everything we said or did. I have an FOIA copy of hundreds of pages which I used in researching my 1997 book!) Of course, since the early 60s a lot has changed. Social justice became a much more individualized matter, with modern ideas about gender equality, race, and sexual orientation. But it still seems true that if the “system” deems someone mentally ill and incompetent (calls the person an ("gd") "M.P."), there is little he or she can do. This big horror film makes the point well. Inside Shutter Island is a life of true horror.

The official site for the film is here.

The AP has an embeddable video of Scorsese and DiCaprio discussing the film (yop, the price of embedding is a commercial that you have to watch first; it’s not free now).

Wikipedia attribution link for Bass lighthouse at Acadia National Park, Maine. (Doesn't this film remind one of Stephen King after all? But it was filmed in Massachusetts, not Maine.)

Picture below: Lighthouse at Elk Neck State Park, Chesapeake Bay, northern end (near Aberdeen Proving Grounds, MD).

Saturday, February 20, 2010

"Four Brothers": very different from "Brothers", and dangerously believable as a mob story

After seeing “Brothers” this December, I got curious about “Four Brothers”, which is an action crime thriller that brings four adoptive Mercer brothers together to “solve” the convenience-store assassination of their mother in Detroit. (The script, in that scene, turns existential, as the robbers say they will take from others what they weren’t lucky enough in life to have.) The brothers are played by Marky Mark Wahlberg, Minnesota-born Garret Edlund, Tryese Gibson, and Andre Benjamin. Two of the adopted brothers are African-American. Terence Howard (fresh off of “Hustle & Flow” and “it’s hard out here for a pimp”) plays Lt. Green.

The Paramount film (August, 2005) is directed by John Singleton. Detroit is shown effectively, in grimy snow, with much of the city burned down. Some of the film was shot in Ontario, however.

There is a scene early where the brothers open the mother’s safe deposit box and find the will and life insurance (it’s not quite like John Knowles’s “Reading of the Will”), and pretty soon they are reviewing the convenience store security tape of the killing, which they conclude is a hit, with the police not willing to take it beyond a typical robbery. The plot becomes complicated by the fact that one of the brothers (Jeremiah, played by Andre) was named as a beneficiary of the life insurance policy, and that his construction company was going broke over bad dealings with the mob. There follows a series of battles and shoot-outs with enormous firepower and assault weapons, killing Jack (Edlund), the youngest, and then accusations. There’s even an “ice fishing” scene.

Great line: “My mother raised me to be a thinking man.”

The plot has the "hum-dinger" nature that might be similar to what eventually explains the a horrific crime against a family near Pensacola FL last year.

It’s reported that there will be a sequel called “Five Brothers”.

I don’t think you can really say that the idea came from the “brothers” of “Supernatural.”

Wikipedia attribution link for NASA photo of Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.

Friday, February 19, 2010

"The Stepfather": "The boy is the problem" -- Screen Gems remakes a classic thriller (And, no, the boy isn't!)

This autumn Sony Screen Gems released a remake of a classic horror film, “The Stepfather”, originally made in 1987, based on a story by Carolyn Lefcourt, Brian Garfield, and Donald E. Westlake, directed by Nelson McCormick. In the DVD short “Open House,” McCormick talks as if he were looking for a classic horror film to remake, and he had missed this one. (He mentions Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” as well as Minghella’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley”, “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle”, other suspense films (even "The Darkroom"), a genre particularly common in the 80s, where the menace lives within your house – a favorite theme for Lifetime Channel movies, too). The house for the film was actually built on a set, and the actors had to perform some skillful aerial stunts.

The story is well known: a man marries women with kids and does away with them. The “villain” is David Harris, played by Dylan Walsh. But his problem this time is “the boy”, Michael, played by Baltimore-born Penn Badgley. He has been sent away to a military school by his mother, but has returned home wiser, and a swimming champion. (Like Baltimore-born Michael Phelps, he has surrendered his chest hair for this movie, as with “Gossip Girl”; go back and look at Badgley in “The Bedford Diaries”.) Actors go through a lot – if they want to. In the 1987 film, the "teen" was a girl instead.

The director, in the commentary, says that the stepfather is in search of the "perfect family." What a twist on "family values." The movie, in fact, starts in Salt Lake City with the villain leaving his previous "family."

David tries to impress upon Michael that things will change in the family, and that Michael had better watch his step or else wind up in military school again, and, well, he overplays his hand. (Indeed, "Daddy's home"; the patriarchal family is tested to its limits.) Michael, having now to protect his mother, naturally becomes suspicious. One thing about Badgley’s performance: he seems a little too slick and polished (literally) to have needed military academy. Now the Army does give ROTC scholarships, pays for people to go to med school, etc. He fits more into that role – maybe his next movie will be about Afghanistan.

The end – let’s not spoil it – could invite a sequel. It’s not always true that all’s well that ends well.
The official site is here. I had some trouble in Vista and IE making it work. The video trailer is the most complicated to play I’ve seen at a movie site.

Screen Gems, a Sony subsidiary, now has studios in North Carolina and New York, mostly for smaller genre films, link here.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

How does Percy Jackson stack up against Peter Parker, Clark Kent, etc?

We’ve had a litany of role model teens as superheroes in the movies and television series, so it’s natural to wonder where Percy Jackson will fit. That is, we see the rather geeky Logan Lerman (17 when the film was shot) as the son of a Greek god, in a story that transports the battle of theHellenistic, pre-Christian Gods into the present day.

The opening scene, of "Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief", shows Lerman underwater, literally. He’s probably not as focused or sacrificial as Michael Phelps; he has the personality of a computer person, but he has dyslexia and ADHD. A substitute teacher takes more authority than usual in class and asks him about a line from Othello, but his brain scrambles the words. But soon we find out the dyslexia is a gift, enabling him to see the steganographic Greek code in things.

There’s something odd about his home life in a New York brownstone. His mother (Catherine Keener) has gotten him a stepfather with mysterious B.O., which will be explained. But suddenly, at a field trip to a museum, Percy is “conscripted” into his desting, with the help of the centaur (Pierce Brosnan) and protector (Brandon Jackson) with goat’s legs (and no desire for Nair).

Christopher Columbus (from one of the Harry Potter movies, as well as “Home Alone”, with his company 1492 Films) directed this adaptation of a children’s novel by Rick Rioardan. Now, somehow this admixture of Greek mythology on present day New York, Nashville, Las Vegas, and of course Vancouver doesn’t work as well as spectacles set in ancient times, or, as with the Potter movies, set in a parallel but alternate universe. It has the mangled effect rather like the National Treasure movies. Nevertheless, the movie has a lot of interesting ideas: the treasure hunt across the country for the pearls, and kids in a Las Vegas bar listening to “Poker Face”, in fact one of the most often played songs in gay discos. Later, there is a vivid creation of Hades the Underworld under modern Los Angeles (or maybe Vancouver). Percy, by the way, has to find his mom, who has disappeared in the process. Logan Lerman, remember, was quite protective of his mother as the character “Bobby” in “Jack and Bobby”. The compound world has some interesting rules: the gods are not allowed to meet their own children.

The official site from 20th Century Fox for the film is here.

I wonder how these kids -- not just Macaulay Culkin, but many others including Gregory Smith, Taylor Lautner, Shia LaBeouf, Zac Efron, and now Logan Lerman, can roll off these movies and TV series. I know the movie companies have to hire studio teachers; but acting in productions on this scale sounds like a full time job for any adult. I don’t see how these kids do it. By the way, Jake Abel makes a good contemporary of Percy as the quasi-adversary Luke.

Here’s the Disney-Hyperion book trailer on YouTube.

Percy Jackson can fly, it seems. He is not superman and not spiderman. Nevertheless, he has powers. With great power comes great responsibility.

There will surely be sequels and a "franchise." But it doesn't seem as fresh as some of its precedessors.

Wikipedia attribution link for Parthenon in Nashville. I've been in Nashville only twice, in 1988 and 1992.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"The Butch Factor": Christopher Hines reviews "masculinity" in gay men

Wolfe video offers the Christopher Hines 2009 film “The Butch Factor” (73 minutes), with the summary tagline “What does it mean to be gay and be a man? There’s no straight answer for sure.” A pun is definitely intended, as the early part of the film traverses the area of gay sports, including gay rugby, football and softball leagues, particularly in California. (Mark Bingham, one of the heroes on Flight 93 on 9/11, had played rugby.) The film also covers gay men who work as sheriff’s deputies or as prison guards.

The later part of the film deals with subjects like circuits, and the opposite of what is desired at these parties, “the bears.” Body hair itself seems ambiguous, as some see it as a distraction, and others see it as a part-object indicating masculinity. (The Advocate had a big article on this as I remember around 1984.)

The middle part of the film covers the problem of gay teens being bullied, in high school. A could of websites “Queer Today” (link) and Trevor Hoppe’s “Beyond Masculinity" (link, “Essays by Queer Men on Gender & Politics”). One of the men described extreme bullying in high school, with threats on his locker. I experienced bullying in junior high, which was not as intense, but serious enough that I bullied back, one time (in 1958) making fun of someone with epilepsy in ninth grade, until I learned social bearings. I greatly regret this; but at the time I perceived the bullying as “Darwinian”: I was behind physically, which could mean that others might have to sacrifice in my place. I grew up in an era conscious of the meaning of a military draft, and in a world where men were expected or required to protect women and children, regardless of their own choices.

The film does not take up the subject of the Rosenfels polarities, but that could have become another topic.

The DVD includes a short subject, “For the Love of Sport, Gay Men Play Ball” about the gay softball world series. Dave Kopay talks about his coming out as a pro football player in the 1970s. Gay sports bars are presented (an example that I know is Nellie’s in Washington DC). I played in the gay softball league in Dallas in 1984. This was slow pitch, and yet there a couple of pitchers who were absolutely unhittable, with their ability to toss strikes with an extremely high arc. Some games were low-scoring. One women’s softball game went 17 innings.

The film's website is here.

Wolfe’s YouTube trailer follows:

The film was shown at Reel Affirmations 19 in 2009 in Washington DC, and some of it was shown in the downstairs area of the Town DC club.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"Dear John": a "perfect love story" fractured by 9/11, and lots of misfortunes

A lot of English novels were set up of sets of letters, and “Dear John” tries that concept as the middle section of a romantic wartime drama. The film, directed by Lasse Hallstrom, based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks, comes from Sony Screen Gems (why not Columbia or Tri-Star?)

The basic story reminds me of “Splendor in the Grass” a half-century ago. John (Channing Tatum), an Army Special Forces ranger, falls in love with Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried), a student a conservative Christian college in Charleston, S.C. , who loves to do volunteer work (for Habitat for Humanity) and wants to teach special education. That sits well with John, whose father (Richard Jenkins), obsessed with coin collecting and archaic cooking, seems to have Asperger’s Syndrome. “My dad’s not normal”, John says, but neither is anyone else in the movie, which helps explain why 9/11, which happens in the middle (while John is in Iraq) eventually takes them apart. Savannah gets with a rival of John, who is crushed by receiving her words in Afghanistan by letter. But then that “rival” will get cancer, rounding out the tragedy, while John, re-upping repeatedly, survives wounds and numerous battles.

The 9/11 part is presented minimally, where John watches a television screen, and Savannah walks out onto the campus lawn and sees everyone’s cell phone going off.

There is a cagey line in the script about "asking and telling" but about a different issue. The "unit cohesion" within the special forces units is demonstrated in the quick-take episodes of John overseas. Before 9/11, special forces had clandestine missions in many locations.

John's re-enlistments remind me of the movie "Stop-Loss" (Paramount, 2008, dir. Kimberly Peirce).

Sony pictures offers an embeddable trailer, which follows:

Monday, February 15, 2010

"From Paris with Love": Johnathan Rhys-Meyers takes the show (from skinhead Travolta) as the geek turned physical

The taut “French” thriller “From Paris with Love”, (from Lionsgate, Digital Factory, Europafilm, and Canal, directed by Pierre Morel, story by Luc Besson) seems at first like a stereotyped chase thriller, European style – but it really does make us bond with the geeky James Reece, with Jonathan Rhys Meyers finally in a really likeable role. His 33 year old face looks more weathered than it should, perhaps, but his lanky presence dominates the film and rather upstages be skinhead version of John Travolta as Charlie Wax (whose motto is “wax in, wax out”, as if a male beauty salon were around the Parisian corner, but here it’s not). (Remember what happened to Travolta's bod in the 1983 dance film "Staying Alive"?)

In the opening scene, Reece, apparently a CIA analyst/operative, wins a chess game with one of his peers, when he gets a call to go get his next partner (Wax) through customs. Apparently Reece was hired because of his fluency in multiple languages. He hasn’t been trained for black ops, so he will be tested. But there’s a reason he was chosen, his girl friend and fiancee Caroline (Kasia Smutniak). Except for the overt heterosexuality of an early scene, Reece sort of acts gay, as if you expect to see him dirty dancing on a disco floor Saturday night somewhere. I even wondered how the story would work if his lover was male. But then, there is that plot twist, which is not too hard to guess.

Reece and Wax go from chasing oriental cocaine dealers to uncovering a jihadist plot (there is a sign “Peshawar” on the Paris streets, naming a city in the Pakistani tribal area) literally buried in the coke powder, and pretty soon the idea that females have been joining jihad becomes important. Reece is faced with moral choices about his own inner nature, like whether he can pull a trigger if he has to.

There are lots of shootouts, and a great car chase on the freeways east of Paris, which I remember from my own rent car experience in 1999. The French drive much too fast.

I wondered if the intelligence services really can turn a “geek” around and make him a physically effective operative. I also wondered how Blake Berris (the unfortunately jailed geek Nick Fallon in “Days of our Lives”) would have fit into the role of Reece.

The film should not be confused with “To Paris with Love”, a small 1955 comedy with Alec Guiness.

Wikipedia attribution link for Defense center in Paris

Lionsgate’s site is here.

YouTube from Feature Movie Trailers:

The morning crowd at a President’s Day show at Tyson’s Corner AMC was moderate (on a day when snow was expected).

Sunday, February 14, 2010

"Spellbound" (1945) recalls a personal mystery for me

The 1945 mystery “Spellbound” at first impression seems a little hokey compared to a lot of Alfred Hitchcock’s other mystery masterpieces, but despite the labyrinthine plot, the film grows on you as it progresses, and gives its view of the mind, of psychiatry, of mental illness, and how that mixes with “personal responsibility”.

The film was produced by Selznick International (the same company that made “Gone with the Wind”, with producer David O. Selznick), was formally released thru United Artists, with the DVD today a joint effort of MGM and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

The film also has a famous music score by Miklos Rosza, and the DVD offers an overture, along with Exit score (which today would accompany end credits). I believe there is a piano-and-orchestra version of the music.

The movie is adapted from the novel “The House of Dr. Edwardes” by John Palmer and Hilary St. George Sanders. Ingrid Bergman plays psychiatrist Dr. Constance Petersen, who falls in love with a young psychiatrist whom she first believes to be Dr. Anthony Edwardes, who has come as a replacement. She falls in love with him and soon finds out that he has amnesia, and that the real Edwardes is dead. A complicated mystery ensues, exploring all the conventions of psychiatry and analysis of the day. Her mentor (Michael Chekhov) is pretty much the stereotype of the shrink of the day. The idea that one gets sicker by repressing memories is explored. So is a dream sequence in a gambling hall in which John Ballantine (the real character played by Peck) plays a game of 21 and is chased by crawling eyes in the wall. Constance unravels a terrible accident in John’s past, and, from evidence in the dream (rather like a similar sequence in yesterday’s “White Ribbon”) pieces together the solution of the real murder. The movie is in BW, but flashed red for a moment in the final suicide.

There is a sequence where John shows his scarred-to-hairless wrist, from a war or other accident resulting in a third degree burn. That sequence and some other theories can be put together to correspond to a “mystery” behind my own sequence of psychiatric treatment at NIH in 1962. To me, the whole thing is quite remarkable. There is some other wandering subject matter, such as a mention by the mentor of urges and compulsive personality. I think that the psychiatrists who “treated” me knew this film well, and the ideas in the film do fill in some missing blanks for me.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Michael Haneke's black-and-white film "The White Ribbon": a preview of Nazism, and a true horror film

Michael Haneke’s black-and-white film “The White Ribbon” (“Das weisse Band: eine deutsche Kindergeschichte”) held on to me like a Stephen King horror film (I can’t wait for “Under The Dome” to be made), with a little M. Night Shaymalan thrown in (remember “The Village”?)

Starting in the summer of 1913 in a rural village in north Germany, bizarre accidents or sabotage incidents, resulting in maimings and deaths, start to happen. The story is narrated from years later by a man who was a 31-year-old teacher at the time (a most likeable Christian Friedel; narrator voice is Ernst Jacobi). In the opening scene, a doctor is riding a horse that is tripped by a razor wire leading to his garden. Other accidents involve a sawmill, a bird, and later a graphic blinding of a retarded boy.

The village seems like a remnant of feudalism, with a baron (Ulrich Tukur), but the man in control is a pastor (Burghart Klaussner), who disciplines the kids, ordering one boy tied to his bed while he sleeps to keep him “pure” (and he has to wear the “white ribbon” as a pledge). There is a hidden suggestion that the pastor may be abusing the kids (the boys) in other ways, and gradually the Teacher becomes suspicious that the kids may be setting up the traps. Then, suddenly, the Village learns about the events in the Balkans about to lead to World War I.

The bw cinematography is crisp, and brings out the basics of village life in post-feudal Europe, and the incidents build upon the technology and communal way of life of the times. It’s not too much to suggest that the kids went on to be the core of Nazi leadership a quarter century later.

The film is distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, official site here. It is in crisp German with subtitles, but the production companies included outfits in France, Italy and the UK as well as Germany. German is the easiest language for me without subtitles. The production included outfits in France, Italy, and the UK as well as Germany.

I did identify with The Teacher, and when I was subbing, there were a couple of instances ofd very troubling student conduct that borders on areas covered by this film. Like me, this teacher sometimes had trouble with discipline, although he is assertive in questioning the students and gumshoeing the investigation at the end.

The crowd at the AMC Shirlington Saturday night was moderate, given the snow. AMC needs to make coffee available at all shows, since it no longer allows take-ins from the nearby Caribou Coffee.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Fox and Namesake give us a curious existential thriller "Thr3e": a young man knows good and evil, but not his alter ego

The thriller “Thr3e” (or “Three” – note the title concept like “Se7en” or “Numbr3s”) catches my eye because the protagonist Kevin Parson (Marc Blucas), a seminary student, has taken on for himself “the knowledge of good and evil” as he writes his thesis. He impresses his professors with his photographic memory and seems like a Da Vinci Renaissance man, however marginally heterosexual.

But someone is stalking him and urging him to confess a horrible past sin. It seems he is a professional student, living off the life insurance of his parents after their death, and raised by an unstable aunt (Priscilla Barnes)(some family filial responsibility of the “Raising Helen” type there) who looks like she comes out of the world of Terry Gilliam. Actually, the movie is directed by Robby Henson and is based on a cleverly constructed thriller novel by Ted Dekker (site). It comes from Namesake Pictures and is released by 20th Century Fox (or was this Fox Faith?) It was filmed in Poland, 2.35:1.

The writing is that of a conventional thriller; it keeps Kevin in constant trouble, keeps us liking him (he looks a bit like Ashton Kutcher), and definitely has the beginning, middle, and a real ending with lots of double takes. Because the rest of the plot, behind the scenes at first, concerns a police psychologist Jennifer Peters (Justine Waddell) builds up the “Threes”: she has lost her brother, she thinks, to the Riddle Killer, who seems to be patterned after “Jigsaw” in the Lionsgate Saw movies: he leaves tape recordings describing horrible contraptions and moral riddles. The movie has flashbacks, seen through Kevin’s eyes, of the Riddler, who looks a bit like Jigsaw. Maybe the film is more of a ripoff than the book – but the film also has more structure and really asks some questions about “reality” and our control of it.

The third point of the plot triad is Kevin’s confession that he once locked a middle school bully in a basement to die, and naturally suspects that the Riddler could be him escaped. But then there is the platonic girl friend Samantha (oh, no, not another “Sami”) (Laura Jordan), another reference point that makes us wonder if the Riddler or the risen kid could be a split-off of Kevin’s apparently schizophrenic personality.

The end is a surprise, or maybe not, but it is as clever as in most movies of this type. But it’s the social and moral issues that grab our attention. Is there something wrong with becoming a bookworm and bypassing real life, inspiring the jealousy of others? Is there something wrong with drawing attention to oneself and becoming a mark for the anger of others? There are lines in the script about too much education (like in Army Basic). There are real riddles: what falls doesn’t break, and vice versa. And there is the concept (with more than one character) that what one writes in a book or thesis will create new reality. All that relates to me.

By the way, people use cell phones while driving in this movie. That’s critical to the plot. They won’t be welcome on Oprah. The script also mentions the Eisenhower years.

The movie website is here.

20th Century Fox Alred Newman fanfare is here.

Picture above: from the Eisenhower farm in Gettysburg, PA (mine); below, Gettysburg Visitor's Center.

Monday, February 08, 2010

"Saw VI" at least invokes the health care reform debate

Saw VI, (or "Saw 6") the latest in Lionsgate’s enormously popular horror (and “torture porn”) franchise, at least brings in some social issues apropos the health care debate.

When Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) tries to get experimental gene therapy for his cancer, the bean counter at the Umbrella Insurance company denies him on pre-existing conditions. Earlier there is another scene, where a heart patient is denied a claim because of a trivial dental pre-existing condition (periodontal disease causes inflammation, which causes heart disease, you see).

Jigsaw has another mark to go for with his macabre machineries: loan sharks. These “parasites” become the victims in the opening setup. (Anybody notice how the machines and gears set up Lionsgate’s opening trademark?) Jigsaw seems to be obsessed with the abstraction and the ultimate logical consequences of his thought patterns; not only does one need to "deserve" to live, one needs the will to live. Plenty of body parts roll, sometimes at one's own hand as the attempt to win a "staying alive" contest.

The latest film is directed by Kevin Geutert (DGC), and also features Costas Mandylor (“The Cursed”) as Mark Hoffman. The film was shot entirely in Toronto.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

SyFy's "The Cursed" has an enterprising young novelist digging into a small town mystery -- homage to many other horror films

The little horror thriller “The Cursed” on the SyFy Channel, directed by Joel Bender, from TriCoast and Chain Gang Films, pays some homage to “problems” posed by some horror films of the 90s.

A young aspiring novelist Denny White (Brad Thornton) arrives in Warren County, TN, in the Cumberland foothills, to research a long history of murders and cattle mutilations connected back to the Civil War and antebellum south. Sherrif and Deputy Lloyd and Jimmy Mouldoon (played by Aussies Louis and Costas Mandylor) become suspicious of the curious newcomer, not wanting to face the deep secrets in their own family.

It seems that a golem, something ashen like a Supernatural ghost, goes around doing the bad deeds, and it share characteristics of the Jersey Devil (“The Last Broadcast” -- a great and little known flick, 1998) and the Blair Witch. "Whoever kills the demon becomes the demon."

Denny is a likeable journalistic sleuth, and I rather identified with him, having gumshoed on the road myself. There’s some Internet stuff in the script, but the style of the movie is more like that of an 80s B-movie. The Appalachian scenery is interesting, but I suspect it was shot in British Columbia. I suppose Screen Gems or Lionsgate could have picked this up for theaters.

The only major film that I recall dealing with the cattle mutilations mystery, which broke in “Oui” in the 1970s, was an MGM flick called “Endangered Species” in 1982.

The best trailer that I could find is here.

Picture (mine, 2004): Cumberland mountains, north of Chattanooga

Thursday, February 04, 2010

"Pete Seeger: The Power of Song" (2007) from TWC and PBS

The Weinstein Company, Genius Films and PBS teamed up to produce the 2007 documentary “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song”, directed by Jim Brown, about the controversial activist folk singer who gave us “Turn, Turn Turn” and “If I Had a Hammer”. The singer, born in 1919, is now 90; much of the film is told through interviews with his kids.

Seeger was attracted to idealism – the labor movement and early calls for non-discrimination, and joined the Young Communist League in 1936. The film shows footage of some of the protest marches from the Depression era. His songs and activism caught the attention of government even before the US entered WWII, although it had theoretically banned discrimination in government contract work in the summer of 1941. Seeger opposed the draft, but eventually served in the Army, first as an airplane mechanic but got to entertain American troops. He also was active in saying that the military should integrate, which would happen under president Truman in 1948 (as in the HBO film “Truman” with Gary Sinese, 1996). That’s worthy to note today as the debate on the military gay ban and DADT heats up.

Seeger would get called before the House Unamerican Activities Committee and even be threatened with prosecution. The film mentions his being served one day by a G-man who just drive up to his home. We’ve covered the purges of McCarthyism already with the story of Dalton Trumbo.

At the end of the film, Seeger is honored for his lifelong activism. (The Wikipedia article on him mentions David Boaz (Cato Institute) criticizing him in the Guardian with a piece called “Stalin’s Songbird.” )

The DVD contains some Seeger family short films:
(1) "How to Play the 5 String Banjo" BW 1955
(2) "Singing Fisherman of Ghana" BW
(3) "Wrapping Paper"
(4) "How to Make a Steel Drum"
(5) "Finger Song"

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

"Edge of Darkness": a frightening scenario (if believable), especially for a research intern; Mel Gibson is almost superfluous

Well, Warner Brothers touted out its full Casablanca signature for its new film “Edge of Darkness” with Mel Gibson as a macho Boston cop dealing with the violent death of his daughter. GK Films, Icon Films and BBC produced the film, directed by Martin Campbell, with a screenplay adapted from a 1985 miniseries.

The film is somewhat a stereotyped thriller, with clever lines like “Everything is illegal in Massachusetts” (except gay marriage), and Gibson gets to make a like about the nails on the cross.

But the premise of the new film stretches things a bit. It seems that an esteemed Berkshire area defense contractor, and big supporter of a Republican Senator (familiar?) has gone amok, supposedly doing civilian nuclear fusion research but actually making nuclear weapons for rogue regimes. (I suppose that this could qualify this film for my “disaster movies” blog.) It’s hard to believe that the management of a company (Danny Huston is chilling as CEO, with great mountain views from his office; check also Ray Winstone as Jedburgh) like this would go for jihad under our noses and not get caught, drawing politicians to the take. Here, the Boston police are innocent of all knowledge.

But another point concerns the position that the daughter Emma Craven (Bojana Novakovic) is put in as a paid research intern. She feels forced to become an “activist” and surrender her life for the common good. The early scenes of her radiation sickness and then her drive-by hit-style execution are indeed horrific. Generally, when people take jobs like this they sign strict confidentiality agreements, particularly with classified material. In the world of security clearances, the accumulation of information (“connecting the dots”) sometimes conveys more damaging material than isolated items. An individual could find his or her own value systems compromised. Emma's wild boyfriend, Shawn Roberts, also struggles; Craven (Gibson) knows that he is good at heart.

In the later part of 2008 there were a couple of hit-style slayings in suburban Maryland, near Washington, of young workers in classified jobs, the circumstances of which seem recalled by this movie.

It is true that the writing of the film follows the usual technique of putting the "hero" (Gibson's cop character) in dire straits and forcing him to use increasing wits to get out (as when he is tasered and chained down). But his story line is almost superfluous to the "issues" of the film, tracked by background media commentators and even included in posthumous CD's.

The official WB site for the movie is here.

The UK Icon Films trailer is here.

Warner Brother's logo with Casablanca theme is here.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Britain's answer to "Psycho" was "Peeping Tom", also in 1960

The Criterion Collection offers a British film, directed by Michael Powell, also originally released by Janus in 1960, that amounts to a UK counterpart of “Psycho”. The troubled young man (corresponding to Norman Bates) is Mark Lewis, played by Karlheinz Bohm, son of the famous German conductor. The movie is “Peeping Tom”, and the young man takes movies of his snuff victims. But except for a few brief scenes, the movie is mostly psychological drama, in rather glaring Technicolor, with lots of sound stages and miniatures, even the opening scene.

What’s interesting is the 1960 film technology, when today a horror film like this would be based on camcorders, cell phones, or webcams. There’s a lot more hardware to look at, and it’s photogenically interesting, fitting in to the stage-like sets of the film. And the structure of the somewhat cumbersome hardware (by today’s standards) fits into the climax of the film, where daggers are attached to the devices. The police have to get through his make believe world to get at him.

Of course, today’s film industry does use big cameras, like Panavision and Arri, and one wonders if one could write a horror film somehow premised on their use. But the gradual miniaturization of cameras over time, especially in the 1970s when TV cameras became handheld, actually formed the basis of a strike against NBC in 1976 by cameramen; as a computer programmer, I actually worked on strike duty! I also took a projectionist course in the Army, and the equipment was similar to what appears in this film.

Brian Easdale composed the somewhat impressionistic keyboard score (Easdale wrote the music for "The Red Shoes").

The film could be compared to "One Hour Photo" and "Darkroom".

Lionsgate has apparent purchased rights for this film, and offers a video trailer here (no embed offered).

Update: Feb 2, Groundhog Day:

The Oscar nominations are available here. This year, there are ten nominations for Best Picture.