Wednesday, April 28, 2010

HBO offers a tempestuous Al Pacino as Jack Kevorkian in "You Don't Know Jack" (and it's too long)

Al Pacino certainly turns in some intensity in his HBO performance as Jack Kevorkian in “You Don’t Know Jack”, airing this week. At 135 minutes and directed by Barry Levinson, it is a bit long for its substance, but it climaxes with some courtroom drama where the judge lectures at sentencing: “thisi is about you, Sir”. (“Do you understand what prison is? Did you see the Shawshank Redemption, sir?” ) It’s about his callous placing himself above the law that civilization depends on.

Yet, Jack manages to convince us most of the time that it’s really about his beliefs and convictions. He acts as his own attorney, and claims that what he demands of a witness is a mathematical tautology, not a “conclusion.” He sees himself in terms of Bach, which plays in fugato in voices in the sound track, not always effectively.

We learn that he did not procreate (apparently did not marry and have children), and that his mother had died of a bone cancer, which he describes as like an intense toothache in every bone in one’s skeleton.

I do remember the debate on the issue in the early days of the Clinton years, which took on a circus-like appearance when compare to the concurrent debate on gays in the military back in 1993.

Kevorkian talks about the problem as a “right”. And most of the time he does seem to focus on the wishes of the afflicted, not of the family caregiver (usually in the film a spouse).

The webpage for the film from HBO is here.

Don't confuse this film with a similarly titled short by Morgan Spurlock, on Jack Andraka, reviewed Sept. 7. 2014.

HBO has a trailer on YouTube:

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience": soldiers journal and blog from Iraq, Afghanistan

The Documentary Group (Docurama) and New Video offer a documentary “Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience”, directed by Richard Robbins.

The film focuses on why soldiers write, which is why anyone writes. Blogging has been a valuable source of journalism about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but a lot of the episodes involve written journals. The film is timely now because recently the Pentagon has authorized more use of social media (but then there is “don’t ask don’t tell”).  The director Robbins says that many soldiers have never been allowed to perceive themselves as "writers" before.

There is a lot of sepia footage of the drab desert base environment and close quarters (Ok, unit cohesion). There is a lot of boredom that suddenly turns to fear.

There is also some clever, woodcut-like animation.

Well known actors provide voices: Beau Bridges (“Aftermath”), Christopher Gorham (“Jake 2.0” – no “Distant Thunder”), Aaron Eckart (“Road Work”), and Justin Black (“Men in Black”).

One soldier says that he volunteers go to back to Iraq, and that his wife should not conclude that he loves the Army more than he loves her. No, just that someone has to do it.

There is a comment that a nation that sacrifices its youth will lose itself.

The last part of the film traces the journey home of the hearse of Chance Phelps, narrated by Robert Duvall. But this story would be told in the 2009 HBO film “Taking Chance” with Kevin Bacon.

The site for the film is at the Documentary Group, link here.

PBS offers a YouTube video on the “Taking Chance” portion.

Monday, April 26, 2010

"Lean on Me": another 80s WB movie about inner city schools: a big boost to Morgan Freeman's career

Another 80’s movie about inner city schools, also from Warner Brothers, not getting quite as much attention today, is “Lean on Me”, directed by John G. Avidsen. The famous song by that title (in its rap instantiation) as well as other spirituals, like “Everybody Is Somebody” populate the story about a tyrannical principal, Joe Clark, who rehabilitates Eastside High School in Paterson, NJ.

Clark is rehired after the school is threatened by state takeover because of low test scores on basic schools. The film, from 1989, certainly anticipates the politics of “no child left behind”.

Freeman is on fire here, anticipating his acting style in later movies (like “Seven”). Clark fires a chorus teacher, and then suspends a football coach (also English teacher) on impulse. Later, he gets arrested for breaking the fire code by chaining the school doors (years before Va Tech) to keep out the drug dealers. But by then the kids are behind him, and demonstrate to get him out of jail. (Okay, he didn’t follow his own advice, “stay out of jail”). The kids see him as a father figure, one who balances the need to achieve as an individual with the need to belong to family and group.

The film is readily available for DVD rental or instant play on Netflix.

Trailer from “Black Wizard Entertainment” on YouTube.

Picture: Downtown Newark NJ from Amtrak; I worked in downtown Newark for Univac at Public Service in the fall of 1972.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

"Greenberg": Ben Stiller plays a slightly austistic man finding himself

Greenberg” (dir. Noah Baumbach, Focus Features) has been around a while, and I personally found the idea of comedy king (Ben Stiller) playing a mildly autistic adult (probably with Aspergers) a bit underwhelming.

Roger Greenberg is the classic underachiever, just out of the “hospital”, apparently treated for apathy and whatever. (In my stint at NIH in 1962 as an “mp”, I recall that “apathy” was one of the diagnoses of another college-aged patient.) He prides himself in well articulated complaint letters to companies and newspaper LTE’s. (He would be a good blogger.) He is invited to temporarily relocate from New York to LA to housesit for his accomplished brother (Chris Messina) as the later takes his family to Vietnam for vacation. A carpenter, he’ll be “employed” by making a doghouse for Mahler, a Labrador retriever who is one of the film’s best characters.

He looks after Mahler all right, taking him to the vet and then to the animal hospital when he gets sick. But all sorts of other characters happen by, climaxing in a drug party toward the end (oh, those are The Kids). The “friends” make you wonder how the superficial materialist and hedonistic conformity of our society leaves people out.

His brother’s assistant (Greta Gerwig) provides some explicit scenes and some pseudo-romance for Roger. But it’s the other friends who bring up the back story of Roger’s failure to keep a record deal twenty years before who make things interesting. Old friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans) is generally disappointed at Roger’s behavior, and at one point Roger doesn’t recognize “Vic” as the name of Ivan’s son, referring to the name as “diminutive”. Mark Duplass, as Eric, still acts the part of Josh Segers from “The Puffy Chair" who can forget that movie or that assertive character.

The site for the film is here.

The site offers many trailer and they appear to be embeddable, but Universal’s embed code doesn’t copy (probably a script programming error). The same code is available from Hollywood Streams on YouTube and works. The trailer, in 2.35:1, looks sharp in full screen on a “wide screen” laptop display.

AMC Theaters still doesn't allow outside food, but on Sunday there was a free continental breakfast, with coffee, croissants, and orange juice, and chocolate cake, all from the Harris Teeter next door. But why not redo a deal with Caribou coffee? It just makes business sense.

"The Secret in their Eyes": In Argentina, a former detective rediscovers his life through trying to write a novel

There have been a number of films framed by the idea of writing a novel or screenplay about something in “real life”, but the winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009, “The Secret in their Eyes” (“El secreto de sus ojos”) is a humdinger of a film noir. Filmed and set in Argentina (also filmed in Spain), directed by Juan Jose Campanella, the “film noir” worked for me, getting me to identify with the lead character Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin) who, now deep into middle age, wants to solve the problems of his life by writing.

He is making attempts to scribble the beginning of a novel – I wondered why with pen and paper and then an Olivetti typewriter, when computers were well established by 1999 when the present day of the film is set.

The story moves into flashbacks, back in 1974, when Ben is working for the courts and is working on a rape and murder with many elements, including a possiblly jealous even if grieving husband Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago), and develops an attraction to Irene Menendez-Hastings (Soledad Villamil). Unsatisfied with the cops, he finds some old pictures and identifies an unusual young man Gomez (Javier Godino) who gets tracked down in a sensation scene in a soccer match. He is “teased” into confession, but instead of going to jail he is recruited to become a hit man by the Argentine right wing.

Ben now tries to solve the rest of his mysteries by speculating as to what would happen with such a situation, and tracking down the facts by his own investigation, out on to the Argentine pampas.

The film (shot in widescreen with the unusual aspect ratio of 2:20:1) looks big, bringing us a slice of life in what looks a lot like California, and has a brooding music score with what sounds like the slow movement of an unknown, Liszt-like romantic piano concerto (apparently by Emilio Kauderer).

Some of the other important films which embed the writer's life include "Stranger than Fiction", "Adaptation", "Sunset Boluevard", and especially "The Dying Gaul".

Sony Pictures Classics has a website for the film here.

The large auditorium with curved screen at the AMC Shirlington in Arlington VA was about half full Sat first evening show, with a lot of audience laughter (as with the "tease" scene) and applause at the end. Some people compare the film to the work of Alfred Hitchcock.

Bing gives a torrent download for the movie, which I would not recommend for legal reasons.

Here’s a YouTube interview with the director from BlackTree

Friday, April 23, 2010

"Stand and Deliver": an inspired teacher brings calculus to a low-income LA high school in 1982

The 1988 Warner Brothers film “Stand and Deliver”, directed by Ramon Martinez, came off the Netflix “very long wait” today, but I watched it with instant play, also set up by Startz. I was disappointed to see it shown in full screen (1.33:1) television aspect ratio. The original film had a WB theatrical release but was soon shown on PBS.

The film chronicles the true story of east Los Angeles teacher Jaime Escalante (Edward James Olmos) to upgrade math education at Garfield high school, quickly moving from elementary algebra (and the drills “a minus times a minus is a plus”) to calculus, getting 18 students ready for an Advanced Placement calculus test in 1982. (The number increased to about 80 by 1987.) He made the kids sign a contract for extra class hours and Saturday classes, causing some of them to give up well-paying part-time jobs that might have been supporting siblings.

As a sub in northern Virginia, I often did have the privilege of hosting AP math classes, and they usually comprised upper middle class kids (often with many of Asian descent). The classes tended to be conducted more like college courses, with transparencies developing theorems (one day we did the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus), or sometimes “experiments” such as a demonstration of how a Riemann definite integral can be developed as a limit of a sum of areas increasingly narrow rectangles. (The Arlington VA school system televises some of its AP classes on Comcast.) But in the Garfield scenario, there were behavioral issues even in an AP class.

When the kids do so well under Escalante’s leadership (you could say he follows “Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire, Rafe Esquith’s book, reviewed on the Books blog, Sept. 6, 2007), the EDS-suited goons from the Educational Testing Service in New Jersey descend, investigating for possible cheating. Is this racial (Latino) profiling? The kids have to take the test again (it has multiple choice and free response, and we actually see some handwritten mathematical proofs on bluebooks toward the end of the movie) and they all score 4’s and 5’s.

Olmos is ordinary-looking, somewhat pockmarked, and in one scene has a heart attack while teaching adult night school, in a scene that is quite compelling.

Lou Diamond Phillips (as the kid Angel) is the only really well known actor in the film.

Here is a YouTube video by special education teacher DiscoSean21 about the passing of Escalante.

Picture: the "new" Washington-Lee high school in Arlington VA. I graduated from that school in 1961, and did sub there during reconstruction.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

"Nine Dead": a genre thriller, and a bit like a stage play

Image Entertainment offers a curious but stagey thriller “Nine Dead”, directed by Chris Shadley. The film combines elements of the “Saw” movies, but also “The Most Dangerous Game”, “Seven”, "The Steam Experiment", and even “Sleuth”.

Around LA, a masked gunman targets and kidnaps nine people (using a taser) and takes them to an isolated warehouse and handcuffs them to poles (all sound familiar). They have to figure out the connection between them or each one will be executed, one at a time, every ten minutes. Each time the gunman enters the room, he asks “why are you here?”

In time, the mystery is “solved”, more or less. It’s a treasure hunt or “hum dinger” involving elements such as loan sharking, a rogue prosecutor (Melissa Joan Hart), AIDS research and health insurance politics. An important clue occurs when the gunman (Lawrence Turner) gets mad because the prosecutor had hired a nanny for her kids. The prosecutor, it turns out, has a lot more to hide than maybe the rest of the lot. The priest, at one point, says he cannot reveal what had been told to him in a confession because of his loyalty to God.

In the end, there are “Nine Dead” but not quite the Nine you expect. There is a gunshot that reminds one of a scene from American International’s “Born Losers”.

Although the film is set in LA, the credits say that it was filmed in Baton Rouge, LA.

Image Entertainment’s YouTube trailer.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

DiCaprio narrates "Hubble 3D" in Imax for WB; despite the billions of galaxies seen, our home planet is his main concern

Warner Brothers and perhaps other major studios (like Sony) are getting into the business of making IMAX museum shorts, such as “Hubble 3D” (43 min), now playing at the main NASA Smithsonian Museum on the Mall in Washington DC.

Leonardo DiCaprio narrates, and at the end uses the image of Earth from space to buttress his argument about protecting the planet from climate change.

The film comprises two sorts of episodes. There is a lot of footage inside the Shuttle and of the men (including Scott Altman, the shuttle commander) making repairs to the Hubble (in a 2009 launch). At one point, a crew member has to replace 32 screws, and says he has to keep his mind, in Zen fashion, on each instance as he completes the task, and not even keep mental count of how many he has done.

There is also a lot of animation of what the Hubble sees as it peers deeper into space, starting with the Crab Nebula, 1500 light years away, which is a nursery for new stars. The film shows the “Pillars of Creation” (Eagle Nebula) image. The film says there are a few hundred billion galaxies, arranged in hierarchal groups. Since each galaxy has billions of stars, that’s a pretty compelling argument for the likelihood of life elsewhere, no matter how perfect the circumstances of Creation on Earth seem.

The official movie site is here.

Wikipedia attribution link to Pillars of Creation image

Fox News Trailer on YouTube

Sunday, April 18, 2010

"The Perfect Game": feel good movie about a team from Mexico winning at the Little League World Series in 1957

It seems like baseball gives us plenty of material for feel-good movies, and the indie production “The Perfect Game” about the true story of a team of kids from Monterrey Mexico making it to the1957 Little League World Series, with Angel Macias (Jake T. Austin) pitching a perfect game to win the clincher, is a real ride.  The film does refer to the perfect game that the Yankees's Don Larsen had hurled against the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1956.

The film comes from a small distributor called “Industry Works” with “HighRoad Entertainment” as the main production company, with William Dear as director, based on the book and adopted by William Winokur.

The film recreates the shantytown in 50s, along to a sweatshop steel mill where many of the pops work, effectively with sepia tones – much of it may have been done with CGI. Clifton Collins, Jr. plays Cesar, the father figure who is coaxed by Angel, literally, into coaching the team.

The script plays on the race issue and segregation, which did affect Hispanics. There is a scene where the boys will not take the field until they have a priest for prayers. According to the end credits, one of the players had to give up baseball and possible college to take a steel mill job to support his siblings.  It happens a lot.

The film also contains some black-and-white clips of major league stadiums and baseball in 1957, the last year that the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn, and a meeting of the boys with President Eisenhower.

Little league games go only six innings. Despite the smaller size of the boys from Mexico, they won many games “on the road” by lopsided scores (including their first game in McAllen, TX, 9-2, with a sudden sixth inning rally).

The film appears to have been shot in California and Mexico (the land around McAllen is not mountainous, and there is a scene with a US flag with too many stars for 1957).

The website for the film is here.

There was no acceptable embeddable trailer of the movie (there are some on the website that I had trouble getting to play properly), but ESPN provides an interesting embed of the Little League World Series.

Wall Street plans a futures exchange market for movie box office success

A futures exchange market for movies is coming during the 3Q of 2010, according to entrepreneur Robert Wagner, interviewed on CNN Saturday. On the other hand, Peter Gruber, CEO of Mandalay Pictures, thinks it’s a bad idea.

Wagner argues that Hollywood takes the initial risk by bankrolling a big film, and that allowing speculation in a futures market simply spreads the risk. This is not a casino, he says.

Nevertheless, Mandalay says that no movie studio would bet against its own films -- at the box office, or in DVD sales or rentals, or, in the future, Internet sales. The market could clearly exaggerate the concerns over piracy (see comments over lawsuite concerning"Uncross the Stars" and other films, Apt 6, 2010 on this blog).

The New York Times published a story on March 10, 2010, by Joseph Plambeck, “A Place to Bet Real Money on Movies,” here.
The business will be run by Cantor Futures Exchange, a subsidiary of Cantor Fitzgerald, a company that had occupied the top floors of one of the World Trade Center buildings on Sept. 11, 2001.

It’s not apparent that the exchange would affect the independent market much; it seems more aimed at big budget thrillers, comedies and romances aimed at the suburban mall audience. So I don’t think it would affect a film like my envisioned “Do Ask Do Tell”. But “69 Minutes to Titan”, or “Titanium”, or even “Baltimore Is Missing”, which are more like “conventional” sci-fi thrillers (if somewhat eclectic), maybe yes. "The Sub" -- that's another matter.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

"The Secret of Kells": unusual animated film about the origin of the Book of Kells (Disney -- Ireland, Belgium, etc)

In 2010, Filmfestdc offered an unusual animated film “The Secret of Kells”, directed by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey.

The story is set in medieval times, when books were scribed by hand and single copies were very valuable, long before the invention of the printing press, let alone the Internet. A boy, Brendan, living in a fortress threatened by Norse invaders, learns about a book of mysteries from a “master” from afar.

The animation looks two-dimensional and tends to migrate into organic, mitochondrial designs. The credits (with work, by the Cartoon Saloon, in several countries, including Ireland, Belgium, France, Hungary, and Brazil) do mention 3-D animation techniques, however. The film will be distributed by Buena Vista International (Disney).

The official website is here.  The FimfestDC site for the film (depicted as for kids) is here

There are various references on the web explaining the Book of Kells, which contains the Gospels and various other mystical canons, such as this from Long Island University, here.

The Cartoon Saloon offers this trailer on YouTube.

The film will show again Sunday April 18, 2010 at The Avalon in Washington DC at 3 PM, link here .

Friday, April 16, 2010

"Sacrifices of the Heart": another "family responsibility" drama with an ironic career twist (Hallmark)

On Friday Apri 16 the Hallmark Channel re-aired RHI’s “Sacrifices of the Heart”, a 2007 film by David S. Cass, Sr. (written by Patti Davis). A tough-minded female defense lawyer Kate Weston (Melissa Gilbert) is called home by her older brother Ryan (Cyril O’Reilly) in the country when their father (Ken Howard) starts showing signs of Alzheimer’s with difficult behavior.

Kate resents the “family responsibility” at first but warms up; but we have already learned in a flashback that she had witnessed her mentally ill brother’s suicide at age 7.

In the meantime, Kate is defending a young girl who left her baby at an ATM machine, and finds out that the girl’s stepfather is the biological father. This creates an ethical and practical problem for her law firm, and leads to a somewhat Hitchcock-like conclusion for Kate’s own law practice for a time. Pretty soon the results of the case and the situation in her own family develop a curious parallel. She will take a long time out and help take care of her father in person (although at one point the movie mentions the possibility of a live-in).

The back stories are told in “brown and white” but pure black-and-white would have looked better.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"Into Temptation": film about a priest's self test made in Minneapolis

"Into Temptation", directed by Patrick Coyle, was made entirely in Minneapolis, and must be a pride and joy for IFPMSP and the Minnesota Film Board and the Mayberry awards that were given out at each year’s Academy Awards party for the Minnesota AIDS Project. The film is distributed by First Look Studios. (I lived in Minneapolis and got to know ifpmsp from 1997-2003.)

The film opens and closes with black-and-white backstory sequences that remind one of “The White Ribbon”.

A prostitute Linda Salerno (Kristin Chenoweth) wants to kill herself on her next birthday. Later we will learn about her abuse at the hands of her father, now dying in a nursing home on oxygen. A likeable Catholic priest Father John Beurlein (Jeremy Sisto) will journey into her world to try to stop her, attracting the attention of his boss and of his parishioners, making various confessions. He hugs a gay man, and has to defuse Vatican teachings. He has to forgive a mugger.

I never noticed the Minneapolis location, which is remarkable, since the city lends itself to impressive background but identifiable shots (as in “Fargo”).

The official website is here.

Picture: downtown Minneapolis from the Churchill Apartments (not in film, my picture, 2003)

Monday, April 12, 2010

"Affinity": Sarah Walters novel generates a Victorian thriller, set in prison, that anticipates "Shutter Island"

Logo Entertainment offers the British period piece and mystery “Affinity” as one of its top LGBT films. Directed by Tim Fywell, based on the novel by Sarah Walters, the film and DVD have been offered in conjunction with MTV and Paramount Vantage. The film (much of it shot in Romania) looks like an interesting mixture of Merchant Ivory period piece and Gothic thriller that anticipates Paramount’s subsequent “Shutter Island”. I suspect that Martin Scorsese had become familiar with this film before making the later. It’s about weaving a mystery and horror story in a confined institutional space, here Millbank prison in the 1870s (the actual building was in Romania).

Most film buffs are familiar with the basic setup. A wealthy young spinster Margaret (Anna Madeley) volunteers to become a “lady visitor” at the prison (somehow that reminds me of the diplomatic visit to Supermax in the US that recently ended in a fiasco on an airplane). She befriends Selina (Zoe Tapper), having been convicted for murder, drawn into Selina’s ability (thought fraudulent) to call upon occult spirits, especially Peter Quick, whom she says caused the accident. Gradually a relationship develops, bring out questions from the prison matron on their being “sweet”, but drawing Margaret into a situation that could confront her with prison herself or even end her own life. The plot goes down ambiguous lines (as does Scorsese’s film) setting up an “escape” with a deadly paradox at the end, almost like in an Alfred Hitchcock film. Margaret has to deal with all the conventional social pressures to conform and on the tendency of everyone to interpret motives based on these norms.

The DVD has interviews; when Sarah Walters speaks, she holds a gigantic cat in her lap.

The Logo link for watching the film is here.

Here is a YouTube video about Sarah Walters from “BeakerJT”

Sunday, April 11, 2010

"The Last Song": Disney's version of "Loggerheads"

In 2006, I had seen (at Reel Affirmations) a film called “Loggerheads” (dir. Tim Kirman, Strand Releasing) where Kip Pardue plays a drifting HIV+ gay man who enjoys watching loggerhead turtles on a North Carolina beach while the movie expands into a complex web drama involving families and religious values.

Now in 2010 Walt Disney Pictures/Touchstone gives us "The Last Song", a similarly styled film (dir. Julie Robinson), almost, however, as a “Christian” movie (PG), with the teenage heroine Ronnie Miller (Miley Cyrus, with an acting style like that of “Bella” in the Twilight movies), who comes down to a beach island on the Georgia coast to visit her divorced dad (a weathered-looking Greg Kinnear). She, with her little brother (Bobby Coleman) watch the loggerhead turtle eggs hatch with a passion, and drive away the raccoons (I wonder if those animals were trained for the film). But she moves into a webbed family drama when she meets nice high school senior Will Blakelee (Liam Hemsworth). Slowly the secrets of the situation unravel. Dad blames himself for a church fire, and, with carpentry, is trying to make the church a stained glass window. He also is an accomplished former concert pianist, and then we learn that Ronnie herself had turned away from going to Julliard because of emotional family upsets. (Here we are reminded of the WB show Everwood, where the teenage pianist Ephram (Gregory Smith) loses the chance to go to Julliard because of his father’s heavy handed behavior). But as Ronnie gets closer to Will (who is visually quite striking) and finds out that he hides his origins on a rich family plantation, she starts to learn of other tragedies. For one thing, Will knows the real cause of the fire (having to do with his not-so-upstanding buddies), and Ronnie also learns that her dad has terminal cancer.

The music in the film is interesting. There are a lot of “songs”, but the piano music sounded like it came from the Liszt etudes, but I didn’t see that credited.

The official site for the film is here

The Disney Channel trailer follows

Touchstone is becoming associated with smaller or more indie-like material than in the past. (The film looks big, in 2.35:1 with the coastal scenery, but note the small cast with mostly lesser known actors). How does Disney decide what goes to Miramax instead? This is the sort of film you expect now instead from “Summit Entertainment”.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Tracey Jackson's docudrama "Lucky Ducks": her stormy relationship with her "privileged" teenage daughter

Tracey Jackson (writer of “Confessions of a Shopaholic”) is distributing her own new independent film “Lucky Ducks,” to get us to examine an old-fashioned moral problem: how to look at inequality of opportunity, how to look at people in relation to the circumstances into which they were born, where they started in line.

A “lucky duck” is a kid born to upper middle class boomer parents who gets showered with material advantages and values based more on what they do than who they are.

But the movie itself is a docudrama about Tracey Jackson’s own family in New York City, and her problems raising her rebellious teenage daughter Taylor, who already acts “spoiled” and has an eating disorder. The film quickly makes the point that children in poverty don’t have eating disorders, and raises all the moral questions that got posed in the HBO film “Thin” (see my TV blog, Oct. 14, 2007). Tracey arranges for her daughter to volunteer teaching English in the slums of Mumbai, India, over spring break. The Mumbai sequence is perhaps the best in the film, almost reminding one of “Slumdog Millionaire”. Tracey stays in a 5-star hotel (she is “too old” for sacrifice) while her daughter “pays her dues” partly by staying with a poor family in the slums (with some security).

But Tracey does not get better when they come back home, and for a while her eating disorder gets more dangerous. She is supposed to keep a food journal (rather like a handwritten journal in a high school English class), but instead she places compromising pictures of herself on Facebook, raising the now well-known “online reputation” issue.

I shared some of the same issues in my own upbringing. I had never earned any money outside home until I was paid $1.25 for accompanying a choir rehearsal on the piano. I didn’t have my first wage-earning job until I was 20. I had some of the same anxieties about grades. I had a chance to go to France in ninth grade but was too afraid to go (I finally made it there in 1999). I was attached to my classical record collection as a set of “possessions”; my father once said, “You’re married to your records.”

There are special interviews with Madeline Levine, PhD, author of “The Price of Privilege”; Carol Maxym, Ph. D, author of “Teens in Turmoil”, Mike Linderman, the “Teen Whisperer”, Paul Williams, and James Frey, author of “A Million Little Pieces.”

The website for the film is here.

My picture: from VA Tech campus.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

"The Steam Experiment" aka "The Chaos Experiment"

The media reports that Detroit may become a major indie film production center, as the area looks for new industries to fill its vacant lots around downtown.

And “Grand Rapids” sounds like a typical Midwestern but slightly other-worldly place for a mental hospital to house a criminally insane former professor who is full of himself and is ready to preach his own version of an “inconvenient truth”. Val Kilmer plays Jimmy, who is no Al Gore. I pause here, to note that “Grand Rapids” was a strategic setup location in my own 2004 Project Greenlight screenplay “Baltimore Is Missing.” It’s a second city that aliens could capture to settle.

I’d like to think I gave a “real” film an idea, at least for a location, and maybe I did. The film was “The Steam Experiment”, and the name was changed (to protect the interest) to “The Chaos Experiment” for the DVD from Genius and Cinepro. It’s another of the five films involved in the litigation against P2P downloaders from the “US Copyright Group” mentioned in the review on April 6.

The “Chaos” refers to what would happen – how people would behave – if the temperature was 130 F for a sustained period. (For one thing, many people would go blind.) The professor tells cops he has locked six people in a steam bath and will ratchet up the temperature unless the newspapers publish his “manifesto” Kaczynski style. On Dec 21, 2012, winter solstice temperatures will shoot up to 130 Fahrenheit everywhere, even in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It’s the end of the Mayan calendar, you know.

The monochromatic yellow-brown steamroom scenes get to be old hat; the setup is nowhere as intriguing as “Saw”.

The official site for the film from Cinepro is here.

YouTube trailer provided by Gasparilla Film Festival:

Wikipedia attribution link for Grand Rapids Picture

Second picture: Old St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Washington DC.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

"The Buddha", documentary on PBS

On Wednesday April 7, many PBS stations aired the film “The Buddha” (Siddhārtha Gautama) by David Grubin. The site for the film is here

The film traces a retrogressive journey into the Buddha’s understanding of his own existence. Born into a sheltered world, he eventually tried asceticism, in order to examine a way to mute mortality. But he kept on running into paradoxes and contradictions in his thinking. Eventually, he developed his Four Noble Truths and developed a following of his own disciples.

He developed ideas like wisdom and compassion, the latter relating the inevitability that we all share some kinds of experiences.

The Dalai Lama appears in the film.

The Buddha would eventually die and deny that he would be reborn. Instead, everyone could become a Buddha.

We have turned the world into a painful place. We can overcome this by becoming Buddhas ourselves.

PBS offers “The Buddha: Meditation”, a 3 minute video, on YouTube.

In 1976, at a small theater in Greenwich Village, I saw the 1973 film by Conrad Rooks, “Siddhartha”, distributed by Columbia.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

"Uncross the Stars": a wife's last wish for her husband to carry on the family

Uncross the Stars”, from Solipist Fims and Echo Bridge, directed by Kenny Golde, is one of those small films about self rebirth and community, sort of like “the Watermelon” reviewed a while back. It is written by Ted Henning.

A young man Troy (Manitoba born Daniel Gillies) has lost his wife after two years of marriage, apparently to cancer, almost a post of “Love Story.” There is copious outpouring of grief at the funderal. Troy finds a letter from his wife with one last wish, that he go to Happy Valley, Arizona and build his aunt a porch with manual labor, a kind of Ty Pennington project.

Along the way, he encounters a woman delivering a baby (that’s never happened to me on the road), and then finds an odd assortment of old ladies and a codger-cowboy (Ron Perlman), who tests his “courage” with a prop plane ride over the desert. The movie scenery reminds me of the country around Tonopah, AZ, where Dan Fry and “Understanding” had its conventions in the 1970s.

There are plenty of backstories, about compelled marriages and babies that may have not been intended. There is constant emotional cohesion, and gradually Troy has to come to terms with his own grief and how he had been as a husband.

There's a wonderful scene where Troy wakes up in his aunt's home with a self-indulgent tabby cat snuggled against him.

The website for the film is here

This film is one of at least five independent films involved in litigation for copyright infringement in P2P networks brought by the U.S. Copyright Group, as discussed on the “BillBoushka” blog March 31, 2010. I rented this film (and the other four) from Netflix, legally.

Monday, April 05, 2010

"Shadow of a Doubt" brings a family menace to town during WWII era

The favorite film of acclaimed British director of suspense and mystery, Alfred Hitchcock, is said to be “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943), which seems a bit more modest than some of his other films, even of this period.

The essential concept is that the bucolic family life of a northern California town, Santa Rosa (in the wine country) is challenged when a particular family relative returns home, with his family to discover that the man may be wanted by police around the country for ghastly crimes. More pointed is the contempt of the man Uncle Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotton) for people. There is a scene two-thirds thru the film (at the end of the “middle”) when, at dinner, he talks about rich widows as if they were parasites. It’s pretty hard to take (if it weren’t oddly funny in a Ladykillers kind of way) but then you know, as does the heroine, herself named Charlie (rather like “Scout” in “To Kill a Mockingbird”), that is Charlotte (no “hush” here), played by Teresa Wright.  Critics consider Uncle Charlie as an example of a character who is both the villain (or even monster) and hero, much like Norman Bates in "Psycho".

There’s a lot in the film that foreshadows today’s problems with technology. In an early scene, Charlie sends a telegram – the email of the day – telling the family he is coming home. Later, detectives (including MacDonald Carey) pretend to doing a survey of the family when Charlie demands that he not be photographed and even takes the film. There are other touching scenes, as when Charlie shows how to build a toy house with newspaper. The script constantly tests the limits of family loyalty and connectedness, against a growing realization that one of the members has become something monstrous, a man who has something this demon within him. In the real world, one could make the comparison to the Kaczynski family in the 1990s. The music score uses variations of Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow Waltz", and a conversation where a character confuses the music with the "Blue Danube."

The end is ironic, after a typical cliffhanger on a fast moving steam train – the family can honor the uncle at a funeral and not know the truth. The excuse is, you don’t have to hate people (even the kid in “Little Miss Sunshine did that), you just have to accept the idea that the world goes crazy sometimes (this was World War II, in fact, the year I was born).

I think it’s curious that there are two gay bars in NYC named after “Uncle Charlie.”

There’s another curiosity. In one scene, the camera focuses on an unusual dinner glass (black and white) that my father, as a manufacturer’s representative for the long gone Imperial Glass, sold as one of his most popular items. My grandparents’ home in Ohio always used this item at dinner.

The DVD introduces itself with a collage trailer of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, before the Universal “Valkyries” logo comes on.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

"Chloe": a curious "Canadian" love thriller from Egyptian Atom Egoyan

The most stable character in Atom Egoyan’s new thriller “Chloe” seems to be the “boy,” that is, the teenager Michael Stewart, played by Max Thieriot, who gives piano concerts (he plays from Beethoven’s Moonlight and Waldstein sonatas here) and plays ice hockey, and interesting combination. He is always trying to get out from under his nosey gynecologist mother Catherine (Julianne Moore). And his hormones express is a “normal” way, a fact that “bad girl” Chloe (Amanda Seyfried) can exploit when middle aged Catherine approaches her to “tempt” and spy on her music professor husband David (Liam Neeson). Set in effectively Toronto, the film builds up its puzzle pieces the way a film by Alfred Hitchcock would, with an emotive music score by Mychael Danna echoing Bernard Herrmann.

Chloe is (like “Melanie” in the NBC-Corday soap “Days of our Lives”) one of those girls who can ruin everyone she touches. In this case, Dr. Stewart falls for everything, believing all of Chloe’s yarns, and finally falling for Chloe herself. The problem is, partly, so does the son Michael, which propels the film toward a dangerous climax.

The film was partially written by Anne Fontaine, who had directed a similar French film “Nathalie”. Studio Canal produced the film (with DGC and Canada auspices), and Sony released this through its Sony Pictures Classics line, but the film could have fit any of Sony’s four brands. (For example, Screen Gems has released some adaptations of thrillers involving some family deception, such as “The Stepfather”).

I wonder what kind of film you would get if you told it mostly from Michael’s point of view, weaving in the usual classical music and team sports dichotomy.

Sony’s site for the film is here.

HollywoodStreams has the following trailer on YouTube:

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Frederic Back's "The Man Who Planted Trees" and "Crac!" -- simple animation, simple messages on the environment

The Man Who Planted Trees” (“L’homme qui plantait des arbes”) (1987) is one of the most famous short animated films by Quebecois environmental filmmaker Frederic Back, for the CBC, originally distributed in theaters by Expanded Entertainment.

The narrator, walking through a dry area of southern France just before WWI, encounters a shepherd, Elzeard Bouffier, who lives alone and collects acorns meticulously to plant groves of trees. The man is somewhat of a Thoreau hermit, but planting trees is his way of “playing God” and leaving a legacy. The film then traces the history of his forests through both World Wars.

The animation is pastel and rather simple, a bit in the style of the drawings in Hendrik Van Loon’s 1928 book “The Story of the Bible”.

Christopher Plummer narrates in the English version; Phillipe Noiret narrates in the French version.

The first part from imdb on YouTube:

The earlier 1981 animated short “Crac!” had portrayed the modernization and industrialization Montreal. That city I have visited twice, in 1972 and 1993.

I could not find the full 15 minute film Crac! On YouTube, but I found a derivative work “Learning to Fly”, by Nedeliko Dragic, D, posted by Cheshirecat333

I discussed the biography short on Back on March 28 here,

(Note: the Youtube video give unknown errors today, May 2015, no info right now.) 

Friday, April 02, 2010

"Burning the Future: Coal in America", earlier but perhaps even more compelling documentary on strip mining and mountaintop removal

“Burning our Future: Coal in America”, directed by David Novack, from Pop Twist Entertainment and Firefly Pix (2008) is another film that examines the coal industry and with emphasis on the transition from underground mining (which it traces briefly in the beginning, with the story of a miner who raised seven kids as a single father) to mountaintop removal (there are less destructive forms of strip mining). The film described mountaintop removal as removing 300-400 feet of summit typically. Some finished reclamation efforts, with land turned from mountainous to rolling hills and flat-spot plateaus, are shown, and there is debate as to whether natural vegetation can really return.

Pretty early the film makes the point that over half of the electricity in the eastern United States comes from coal. We can’t get rid of coal and live on electricity!

The film talks about both the Clean Water and subsequent Clean Air Acts, and the way coal slurry relates to these. Even more than yesterday’s film, this film talks about the flash flood risk from coffer dams, and then goes on to cover the illnesses of the families in the coal regions due apparently to contaminated water.

At the end, there is a demonstration in New York; there are arrests; and community activism gets a clean water facility built in the mountains.

Back in 1971, I was almost arrested for trespassing taking pictures of a strip mine east of Davis, W Va (farther north than the area in this film). In the spring of 1972, I went on road trip with a former grad school roommate and looked at the strip mines in southwestern Virginia and eastern Kentucky. USCS topographical maps of many areas west of the Allegheny Front showed “strip mines” as far back as the early 1950s. But the “Big Muskie” drag lines came into use mostly in the 1970s and 1980s.

The film’s websites is here.

The Obama administration, on April 1, announced more restrictions on mountaintop removal mining. Details coming soon on my Issues Blog.

The short subjects on the DVD are as follows:

“Coal and Energy”

“Coal and Climate Change”

“Pollution and Public Health”

“Democracy and Action”

Isaiah 40.4

4 Every valley shall be exalted

And every mountain and hill brought low;

eThe crooked places shall be made 3straight

And the rough places smooth;

Picture: strip mine near Mt. Storm, W VA, taken by me, 2004.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

"Coal Country" examines mountatintop removal and stripmining

Coal Country”, directed by Phylis Geller, was shown in abbreviated form in the DC Environmental Film Festival, is available from Liaison Distribution and Evening Star Films on DVD as an 85 minute documentary feature (2009). The site for the movie and DVD is here.

The film focuses on mountaintop removal, particularly in southern West Virginia, with aerial pictures of what looks like the Kayford Mine. A second mine, even larger, is planned nearby. It is surprisingly difficult for ordinary motorists to see these mines from public roads. Typically, they cover several square miles and involve moving off several hundred feet of overburden and dropping it into valleys.

The coal industry claims that of 1800 mining permits in West Virginia, only 59 involve mountaintop removal.

The film traces the efforts of an attorney to get the “buffer zone” rules of the Clean Water Act enforced, and his lower court victories getting overturned by the conservative Fourth Circuit in Richmond. The state and politicians, including Senator Harry Byrd, try to defend the practice of mountaintop removal as economically necessary for jobs, generating much resentment. The coal industry holds carnivals, shown in the film, to remain on the good side of the people.

The DC Festival also showed a short film “A Crime Against Creation” from the series “Renewal Project”.