Tuesday, May 31, 2011

"Bedways": A rogue filmmaker in Berlin sets up two "friends" in an "audition" for "real life"

Actors do go through a lot (as Ashton Kutcher specifically noted last year), and one risk is that a filmmaker might be more interested in setting them up for a voyeuristic exercise than in actually making a film.
Such is the premise of Rolf Peter Kahl’s (also called RP Kahl) short feature (74 min) “Bedways”, a closing night feature at the Berlin International  Film Festival last year and due from Strand Releasing in late June, 2011. (I received a free promo; the production company in Germany is Mogador.)

Nina (Miriam Mayet) invites two “friends”, Marie (Lana Cooper) and Hans Alexander (Matthias Faust) to her bare bones, grungy apartment in the “Mitte” secton of Berlin to “audition” for this film which it becomes clear might never be made. And indeed the actors have to go for it, and make the experience real, which is what Nina is after.

Eventually, Nina sets up a gawk section in a basement of what looks like the Connection Disco (from what I remember from my 1999 visit), and straight life and gay life seem to look a lot alike here.

There was a short film, “Casting Call”, in the DC 48 Hour Film Festival, with a similar pretext (see May 26).

The film is technically not rated but very explicit. 

Here is the official original site

Picture (mine, not from film): A much happier scene in a disco.

This review is based on a complimentary copy sent by the distributor. 

Monday, May 30, 2011

"The Double Hour": Be wary of whom you meet at speed dating (especially if your boss is wealth)

When I was attending a screenwriting workshop in Minneapolis in 2003, another young man had a script called something “I Hate Speed Dating”.  But all the sudden (actually it took two years for Samuel Goldwyn to distribute it), we have a romantic thriller from Italy, director Giuseppe Capotondi, with a particular premise.  Be careful about whom you meet, particularly at speed dating, especially the last round (not the same as the last round of a blitz chess tournament).  Be careful if you tend to wind up as a target. Not a nice message.

The title “The Double Hour” or “La doppia ora”, comes from a myth that you can make a wish when your watch shows a time where the hours and minutes are the same; e.g., 08:20 PM is 2020. That’s a little bit peripheral to what happens, for bad things happen from the dating wish.

The relationship is between ex-cop Guido (Filippo Timi) and opportunistic Balkan chambermaid Sonia (Kseniya Rappoport). Guido is a security guard for an estate for a wealthy Turin businessman, and when he takes Sonia there for a getaway, they are attacked by a well-organized robbery and hit, complete with moving vans.  What follows gets complicated. Sonia moves in and out of different states of reality, sometimes believing that Guido is gone – only to find that her delusions are part of a medically induced coma. There are more surprises, but Sonia’s behavior gives plenty of clues.  Why does she need to learn Spanish, and want to go to South America? Less clear is what Guido had done to draw the wrong attention to himself; it’s probably what his boss had done.

The thriller’s premise is interesting to the point that it says that ordinary people walk into things just advancing their own self-interest (as with the character Sean in NBC’s “The Event”, except that Sean will learn he isn’t so ordinary after all). There is talk of an English language version, just as with the “dragon tattoo” films.
Samuel Goldwyn’s official site doesn’t have a film-specific URL, but changes as each new film becomes current. I don’t recommend that practice.

I saw this Memorial Day afternoon at the AMC Shirlington in Arlington, with a small crowd that seemed to respond to the plotting of the movie.

Picture: my own parents, from their 1940 wedding. There was no speed dating in their era. 

Sunday, May 29, 2011

"Thor" falls to Earth; I want to buy a condo on Asgard; the place looks spectacular!

You expect a film by Kenneth Branagh with orchestral music by Patrick Doyle to (1) bring back sets from Medieval or olden times, pre-Shakespeare, and (2) invoke a lot of romantic emotion.  (Maybe that’s not quite true of Branagh on “Sleuth”.)   But when you get to science fiction, you get apples and oranges, or maybe buckyballs.  For “Thor” is indeed a summer movie (Marvel comics, after all), not an arthouse fare, although there is some interesting spectacle.

The premise, that a prince Thor (Australian born Chris Hemsworth) is cast out by king dad (Anthong Hopkins) over a family feud on another planet, and falls to earth, and then has to adapt and learn to become a nice-guy kind of superman,  is a bit hackneyed and is no mystery. (Hemsworth is beefier than David Bowie.) One thing that’s interesting here is the immediate transmission-style telepathy, as if information need not respect the speed of light. (Okay, there could exist a portal that changes space-time, as in a Type III civilization.)  The film makes a point that the ancients (and Norse Vikings) had worshipped the ET’s as “gods”, but that seems distant.

The 3D film jumps back and forth between Asgard (around Gliese 581?) and the New Mexico desert on Earth, with no need for establishing shots.  But the capital city of Asgard, built on a huge waterfront with moats and canals, and British-Columbia-like mountains in the background (Vancouver?) is indeed interesting to the eye.  There is a fiberglass causeway out onto the water to a shrine where a lot of stuff happens, but the city itself is massive, with architecture incorporating elements of both London (the thimble) and Shanghai, with many skyscrapers that look like they were conceived in a solid geometry class.  I wondered how much a condo or apartment would cost in this place (plenty!), how well the economy was doing,  what the restaurants and gay discos would be like, and how good the wireless Internet would be, and if netizens have Facebook accounts.  (Once Zuckerberg colonizes China, he’ll go next for other planets.  There will be Facebook in other solar systems.)  The movie reminded me that a journey to China itself would be, for me, like a trip to another planet, like us but different too.  The next sci-fi movie like this could show us “real life” in a city on another planet.  (I guess Star Wars has done that  -- especially the bar scene in the first film-- but memories fade.  If Clive Barker’s Imajica ever gets filmed, doing so would be a major challenge, as there are several such cities across the “Dominions”.)

Natalie Portman makes a good girl friend for Thor (who is bigger than “Event”’s Sean Walker), and she is less tortured here than as a ballerina; Tom Hiddleston doesn’t remain unscathed as the geeky Loki; Stellan Skarsgard and Colm Feore (as another King, not asking to be given what he wants here as in Stephen King), all star.

Much of the film is shot on location west of Santa Fe, but the indoor production was managed largely in Britain and France.  The film comes from Marvel Studios and Paramount.

The official site is here.

I saw this in a smaller auditorium (cropped from top and bottom) in a Regal in Arlington VA, with air conditioning not working. This is the first time I have seen 3D on a smaller screen.

Pictures: Mine (and from parents' estate): Is there "real life" in an extraterrestrial city? 

Saturday, May 28, 2011

"Cowards Bend the Knee": low-tech peepholes make a "silent movie"

Cowards Bend the Knee” (or “The Blue Hands”) was originally conceived as a series of “shorts” for a peep show at an art gallery, in Toronto or Winnipeg (where the film was shot). To the novice, the movie, from 2003 and Guy Maddin, seems like a tribute to silent film, mostly black and white (for some slight Prussian blue for the “amputated hands”). In ten short sections, each announced with a title, the little horror episodes are accompanied by classical music, including the Allegretto of Beethoven’s Seventh, the opening of Brahms’s Double Concerto,  the Dvorak Cello Concerto, and some opera.

The “plot” concerns Winnipeg Maroons ice hockey player Guy, and his misadventures in hockey rink that houses a house of wax populated by ghosts, descending down into parallel worlds of other realities (including an abortion clinic where Guy has taken girl friend Veronica; he’s not the doting, protective boyfriend like Sean in “The Event”). 

There is a rogue hairdresser, who opens people up, perhaps shaves them and removes body parts, like hands – which a mad doctor (with the “blue hands” sewed back on) uses to perform end-of-life.  It’s all rather like a serial dream.  Then the poor Veronica will try to get her father’s hands back.
With Darcy Fehr (as Guy), Amy Steward, Melissa Dominisio.

It strikes me that the word “coward” was a real pejorative when I was growing up; that seems to have been forgotten in recent years.

This 2003 “film” is distributed by Zeigeist.  The DVD contains “Beyond the Peephole “workbook” extras like “Fuseboy” (erotic) , “Zookeeper”, “Chimney” (with Tchaikovsly), and “Rooster”, the Two Auditions (playable on YouTube) and  preview of another film “Band upon the Brain” (Jan. 14, 2010 here).

Somehow, the concept reminds me of the Cremaster Cycle, by Matthew Barney; I saw just one of those at a museum in Minneapolis around 2001.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

DC 48 Hour Film Project 2011: I saw one set of the "best"; a couple films about teachers, and a couple sci-fi's stand out

I attended one screening of “The Best of the 48 Hour Film Festival” this evening at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, MD, at 7 PM.

The required script line was “I’m taking things one day at a time” and the required prop was a pencil.

Here’s the formal list of all the 13 films according to the site: http://48hourfilm.com/dc/

Number 2” by Spectrum (adventure).  A hit (disguised as a burglarly) has consequences three years later, and a man winds hanged upside down.  Maybe a spoof on Disney’s “I Am Number 4”, but not filmed in Ohio (it should be).

Write Hand Man” by Greenview Terrace (comedy). This is a satire on disability, if such a concept works. An appealing young man has a chromosomal abnormality making his fingers into pencils (rather like the tips of Lady Gaga’s shoulders). The team leader, wearing a Nationals Cap, sat in the row before me.

Finding Angora Mynx” by Spastic Spatula LTD (spoof). Just remember that most transvestites, or men who wear panty hose, are straight. This film provides no exception.

A Formal Affaire” by The Lower 48 (romance).  Didn’t register that much with me. I'm not much for EDS dress codes. 

Bob” by Crowded Elevator (black comedy), directed by Big Tony, written by Andrew Bradley. This one touched a serious topic, teachers getting involved with students (like “Wuss” at the Baltimore film festival). It’s usually a serious crime in itself. In this case, the student has knocked off the teacher with a pencil, something the teacher’s wife had wanted to do. But the problem is important, as I have noted before.

Casting Call” by 3/4 Films (layered black comedy), directed by Chad Vossen. This is a bit of a variation of the former. A number of rather handsome actors audition for the part of a “teacher” in a proposed indie film. (It could be my own “Do Ask Do Tell”). The trouble is, something bad happens to each one of them. It’s a trap.

Mayapple”, by Actors With Strings (Fantasy or Sci-Fi, maybe even Freudian horror). This film was shot just in 4:3 aspect. But it was one of the most interesting, a takeoff on “Gulliver’s Travels” (the Hollywood film I did not see). A very handsome and virile actor (”Phillip”) lies, fully clothed, in a field, slowly attacked by Lilliputians (as puppets). They get as far as cutting off some of his pantlegs and shirtsleeves.  Then he outwits them. Could this little gem have been inspired by Carter Smith’s “Bugcrush”?  Strand Releasing would like this one.

Restraint” by Cavegirl Productions (comedy). Didn’t stick for me.  I think people can tell a lot about me by which movies make enough impression on me to blog about them.

Scott” by Courtesy Flush Films (fantasy and comic horror). A father is concerned about his adult son’s incipient breakdown in a boudoir-bathroom. The trouble is, both of them are scheduled for “The Event”  -- 
maybe to make them immortal, but puppets in some bigger god’s world. A very curious concept.

Tenure” by Frozen Penguins (modern film noir).  The use of “Penguins” for a production company name is interesting because of the documentary “March of the Penguins” with Morgan Freeman. But this little gem is not about commitment to reproduction. As one could guess, decisions at a local college as to which professors or teachers to keep and which not to could invoke a backlash, here violent. That last idea might not sit well with some people, given some recent history (2007, and then again this year).

Relative” by WIT Films (family entertainment).  Loyalty to blood is a moral absolute to some people (even “Jake 2.0” for those who remember the UPN series).

Partners in Crime” by Unknown Penguin (modern film noir). Gangsters rule here, in the home, in full Technicolor, although the social climate suggests the movie plots of the 1940s.

Breaking the Bond” by “Lee Mellow & His Ambient Rock Gods” (animated sci-fi). Go ahead and read about grapheme on Wikipedia. Professor Michio Kaku talked about molecular transistors made from grapheme in his book “Physics of the Future” (my books blog, May 23). This allotrope of carbon is considered important for future experiments in quantum theory. AP chemistry students ought to know something about this before their AP credit exams.

The format of the contest reminds me of the “director’s contest” of Project Greenlight, which ought to be revived. I found a 48 Hour team at the Westover Market in Arlington in 2009, making a comedy.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"College Conspiracy" presents college debt and educational "oversupply" as part of the financial crisis

National Inflation Association (“InflationUS”) has a 1 hour (plus) YouTube film “College Conspiracy”.  The website is this

The documentary starts out by stating that grade school prepares for high school, which in turn prepares for college.   It talks about academic learning as “regurgitation” (or as I once said in an Enriched Chemistry class in 12th grade, “All learning is memorizing”.  Well, maybe for trigonometry identities.) Then it turns to the new and used college textbook market as part of the “scam”.

Gerald Celete from Trends Research Institute speaks about “having to think their way.”  He then goes to talk about the scam-ness of student loans, which amount to setting young adults up for servitude.  Total student loan debt now is $830 billion.  Only hyperinflation would help them pay if off.

In the 1960s, during the Vietnam era, college was a ticket to draft deferments, or to less combat-exposed assignments for men if drafted or otherwise in the Army.  I remember when teaching math as a graduate assistant instructor that failing courses was a very sensitive issue because of the draft. (I even told students, "there are too many people going to college" then, 1966.  But I recall that somewhere around 1957, a women's magazine had asked of it housewives' readership, "Who would you want to have a college degree, you or your husband?")

In graduate school, I had a roommate (at the University of Kansas), who extolled the virtues of entrepreneurialism without a degree.  He followed Ayn Rand.  But Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard and look at what he did with Facebook.

In the Army, after graduate school in my case, in 1968, I remember a drill sergeant's telling me that I had "too much education."  No common sense, no social graces, etc.

The film takes the position that a college degree doesn’t mean a lot when everybody has one. It mentions grade inflation.

It also talks about prods to sell certain professional schools, such as pharmacy, and law.  “The law has become an excuse for bureaucrats to regulate every aspect of our behavior”, says a law school graduate in Arizona (including marriage and property use).

Toward the end, the film starts to link the "college scam" with the overall problems of debt and unsustainability in our national economy, and the lack of natural correction from the Collapse of 2008 because of all the bailouts and TARP. 

“Everybody can’t be a college graduate, somebody has to grow food.  Not everybody can ride in the wagon, somebody has to pull it.”  Somebody has to do the real jobs, even in the 21st Century. Pay your dues. There's a touch of Maoism in this rhetoric, remarkable in a conservative film. 

And, “the US Dollar is the world’s reserve fiat currency, backed by nothing… The entire US economy is a Ponzi scheme.” The film gets into bubbles (of which college is one), and artificially low interest rates. It predicts a hyperinflationary, Weimar-style great depression.  So all Americans should enter the workforce as young as possible to accumulate physical gold and silver.

The film could have been a better platform for examining “for profit” universities, but it does extoll online learning.

It’s directed by Greg Parker, produced by Gerald Adams.

Remember, however, how the WB show “Jack and Bobby” presented a college professor as saying, college is the start of your adult life.

Monday, May 23, 2011

"Too Big to Fail": HBO film presents a school of scoundrels

HBO’s long-awaited “Too Big to Fail” aired tonight, but it seems rather workmanlike, as docudrama, compared to Sony’s “Inside Job” last year.

The film has an all star cast, including William Hurt as the hidden Democrat Henry Paulson, Paul Giamatti (who else?) as Ben Bernanke, Billy Crudup as Timothy Geithner, Edward Asner as Warren Buffet, Bill Pullman (blond now, remember “Independence Day”), Dan Hedaya as Barney Frank, Matthew Modine (“And the Band Played On”) as John Thain, James Woods as Dick Fuld. It’s based on the book of this name by youngster reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin, written by Peter Gould, and directed by Curtis Hanson.

The story starts in the summer of 2008 with the gradual storm clouds brewing over Lehman, and moves to the takeover of Fannie and Freddie.  Soon AIG is in danger of running out of cash.

Most of us know the story of Black Sunday, September 14, 2008, when Lehman went down.  “They knew” it was falling apart a few days before.  I remember watching the breaking news that Sunday while blogging; Anderson Cooper had been in the wrong place, covering a Texas hurricane.

The movie tends to ride on silly epithets like “cash for trash” (or “pass the trash”) and becoming “un-Republican”, and “lecturing me on moral hazard” and “private sector solutions”.  Or, “We will remember anyone who is not helpful.” Nancy Pelosi, when Paulson bows, says, "I didn't know you were Catholic." In the scene where they explain who credit default swaps insured by AIG could bring down the entire financial system, someone asks "why wasn't it regulated?", the answer is "they were making too much money."

The film is followed by a short, “Opening the Vault on the Financial Crisis” where Andrew Ross Sorkin (who is more attractive than anyone in the feature – in fact, he’s cute) talks.  Hurt makes Paulson look physically hapless; in one scene, Paulson excuses himself to throw up.

The Monday morning meeting of the bank CEO’s in early October, where TARP is announced, is better done.

In a perverse way, I may have, in the end, benefitted from the crisis. I might be in much worse shape had it not happened.  I don’t mind admitting it. I won’t give details here. This is all in spite of the fact that I had some CDS's in my mutual funds. 

HBO’s website for the film is here

Sunday, May 22, 2011

"L'amour fou": Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Berge, a male couple for decades

It’s pretty impressive when someone can make his own initials into a worldwide brand for products that give thousands jobs, but that’s the story behind French design Yves Saint-Laurent, as told in a story posthumously (YSL lived 1936-2008) by his lifetime lover Pierre Berge, in the documentary “L’Amour fou” from director Pierre Thorreton, and IFC Films, Sundance Selects, and Sophie Dulac.

The film focuses on their personal art collection, which filled several homes, and much of it is driven by the auction of the pieces, apparently at the Louvre.  Their collecting art reminds me of my own collection of classical records and then CD’s over the years.  My father once had said, back around 1962 or so, “you’re married to your records.”

The film has a lot of older backfootage, some in black and white, which contrasts with the opulence of their homes, in Normandy, Paris, and particularly Marrakech, Morocco.

They broke up once, at mid-life, when YSL was having his bouts with substance abuse.  Pierre , who talks very dispassionately, just got up and went to a ritzy hotel.  The younger YSL, in BW footage, looks vigorous, if just a but foppish and not too virile. 

The film focuses on their homes, their collections and their relationship (up to a point), but not so much on YSL fashions; this was not like "The September Issue". 

The YSL brand actually refers to the "fashion house" that Yves and Pierre founded together, and is still very strong today. 

Here is an official site for the film (link

I saw it at the late Saturday night show at Landmark E Street, and the attendance was disappointing, as it was shown in the largest auditorium, expecting possible sellouts. 

Wikipedia attribution link for Beverly Hills picture of YSL storefront, pd.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

"Incendies": French-Canadian mystery looks back at the war that destroyed Beirut

English professor John Knowles wrote, besides “A Separate Peace” (the film of which I saw twice in the early 1970s), a short story called “The Reading of the Will”.  The movie “Raising Helen” starts with such a reading.

Wills can indeed live through “the dead hand” and give the bequestor the chance to demand interpersonal exercises from beneficiaries, to limit them, or to make them “pay their dues”. That may be more common in Europe than in the US.  But such is the case with the Hitchcock-like French Canadian thriller "Incendies”  ("Fire"), directed by Denis Villeneuve, filmed in Montreal, Lebanon and Jordan, mostly in French with some Arabic.

In the opening, attorney Jean Lebel  (Remy Girard) reads the will of his deceased employer Nawal  (Lubna Azabal), having perished at 60 after an accident, to two adult thirtyish children who are fraternal twins, Jeanne (Melissa Desomoreaux-Poulin) and hotheaded by likeable Simon (Maxim Gaudette). Jeanne has been pursuing a Ph.D. in Mathematics and wants to solve the Seven Bridges problem in topology.  (The “four color” problem was actually solved and proved at the University of Connecticut in the 1980s, I am told.)  The attorney (or notary) reads that Simon is to locate an unknown brother, and Jeanne is to locate their natural father. Simon resists, but Jeanne takes up the challenge, going to Lebanon and discovering a complicated backstory involving the civil wars of the 1970s that tore Beirut to pieces. The film jumps back in forth in time, showing many violent episodes.  It gets into rapes and unplanned pregnancies, and destruction of “family honor”, as well as Nawal’s stint in prison.  Eventially Simon joins the fray, leading to a climactic meeting with a warlord in today’s war torn Middle East. The brother was engages in activities which western society condemns.  To say more would be to spoil things.  But there is still more to say at the end.

The film is distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, which this season has distributed most of the foreign language Oscar nominees, which seem to focus on international mysteries with backstories and “treasure hunts” for plots (like Vertigo).  The aspect ratio is standard (which helps the close-ups, as in the tradition of the great British mystery director), but the middle Eastern desert scenery is spectacular.

The link for the film is here.

I saw the late show at the AMC Shirlington in Arlington VA; the crowd was relatively small, but the audience liked it.

Here follows the Hop Scotch Films YouTube trailer:

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Lars von Trier opens his mouth and gets booted out of Cannes, but his film doesn't; remembering "Dancer in the Dark", "Breaking the Waves"

Apparently, if you say the wrong things, you can be ejected from a film festival, even if your film stays. So it is with Lars Von Trier (with “Melancholia” at Cannes). Here’s a story about the remarks.  Roger Ebert weighed in on his own blog here.  As far as the official book, here’s a basic story on Yahoo! 

While Von Trier is well known for his Dogme technique of filmmaking, many of his bigger films are indeed in Cinemascope and use music a lot.

Dogville” and “Manderlay” are filmed entirely on sound stages where the movie sets are like board games.
One of the most bizarre films is “Dancer in the Dark” (2000), ["Dancer", not "Dancing"] where Selma (Bjork) emigrates to try to earn money for an operation to save her and her son’s sight – and she love’s dancing. An accusation of stealing leads to a tragic but bizarre ending on death row, complete with music (like “I Want to Live”, Robert Wise, UA, 1958).   NY composer and pianist Timo Andres (“Shy and Mighty” and “It Takes a Long Time to Become a Good Composer” – it indeed does!) has an interesting detailed perspective on this film (with reply) here

Another epic  is “Breaking the Waves” (1996). In Britain, Bess (Emily Watson) takes the marriage vows and then her husband is gravely injured on an oil rig accident. She seeks “satisfaction” with all kinds of proxies, until she comes to an end “more” tragic than her jilted husband.  The film is in seven named chapters, almost like a stitched TV miniseries, a kind of “Event”. The script makes a clever and existential reference to the Biblical "Parable of the Talents" with its paradox at one point. 

(Sometimes the "Von" in his name is spelled "Van".) 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

"Blogumentary" by Minnesota's Chuck Olsen, describes the web world before "modern" social media

I had seen an early version of “Blogumentary” by Chuck Olsen, at the Bryant Lake Bowl (site) in Minneapolis, in August 2003,  the day before I started my move back to Minneapolis.

He starts out by saying “I am the media.”

He started his blog in September, 2002.

The film mentions the Diary of Samuel Pepys in 1660 as maybe the first virtual blog (site). 

Rebecca Blood appears early to describe early bloggers.  Push Button publishing started Blogger as far back as 1999.

An early blogger followed the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001 with his “buzzmachine.”

The film says that Trent Lott was the Internet’s first “scalp”.  It explores the bottom-up pressure on the mainstream media, which the film sees as largely controlled by liberals and the Left. It became clear early on that blogs could become an effective tool for communicating dissent before there was traditional solidarity. 

But Rebecca Blood makes the comment that there is a big difference between personal blogs and formal journalism, in terms of the expectations of objectivity and in the idea that a blog should express the “bias” of the blogger.

The film is a featured video on YouTube, link here, and runs 65 minutes.

At the partial showing in Minneapolis, the director did talk about how some bloggers had been fired. At the time, Heather Armstrong was just getting started with her famous mommy blog after being “dooced”.   
The film says that 56% of bloggers are women.

There’s a little sleuth story at the end that reminds one of “Catfish”, a supposed female blogger tracked down who turns out to be a man.

Of course, the significance of the blogging environment became a more subtle topic after social media exploded, first Myspace and then Facebook, which practically rules the world today. 

See also the “BillBoushka” blog June 21, 2008.

Chuck’s site on Blogger is here.

The site for the film (no embed offered) is here.

The "Blogumentary.org" site now seems to be a Japanese site. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

"The Hitcher": action "thriller" races away from its own moral message

One of the biggest arguments for social interdependence (and “needing God”) comes from the possibility that “evil” can make bad things happen to good people if “Evil” is determined enough to target them.
That seems to be the point of a 2007 horror B-film “The Hitcher” from Rogue Pictures and Michael Bay’s production company Platinum Dunes, directed by Dave Meyers. The movie, though, gets carried away by its own hyper-activity. “That’s entertainment.”

When  Jim and Grace (Zachary Knighton and Sophia Bush) are driving in the desert to spring break, they miss hitting a man (“The Hitcher”, Ryder, played by an Sean Bean) standing in the road (reminds one of “Jeeper’s Creepers”).  Later, the meet Ryder at a convenience store and Ryder asks for a ride, as a kind of moral debt for a near hit-and-run. So much for the self-protective adage, "never pick up a hitchhiker". 

The ensuing scramble is more complicated than could be productively summarized in a review, but the movie piles up an amazing amount of action and bad karma in 84 minutes.

The “Kids” get arrested for when another family is slain on the highway by Ryder, but escape when Ryder attacks the sheriff’s office.  But they will get arrested again.  The amount of situational manipulation in the shooting script must be unprecedented.

Best line: “We gotta go, he might come back.”

The film has an embedded shot from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 classic “The Birds”.

Before the end, the film pulls some inspiration from the “Saw” franchise.

The film was shot in Taylor, TX (NE of Austin) and in the deserts west of Santa Fe, NM. 

Picture: Rest stop on I-70 entering PA from MD. Don't pick up hitchers there. 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Spalding Gray's "Swimming to Cambodia"

On March 17, I had reviewed Spalding Gray’s “Monster in a Box”, but it seems that the “better” of Gray’s films like this is the predecessor (1987) “Swimming to Cambodia”.  Some of the talk is motivated by his journey to Southeast Asia for a small part in “The Killing Fields”, an excerpt of which closes the film.  I did see that film in Dallas in 1984, when the audience (at Northpark) gave it a standing ovation.

The film opens in a manner that reminds one of the opening of “My Dinner with Andre”; Gray walks to The Performing Garage in New York.

He enters his fast-lipped monologue, speaking behind a table. He makes some good existential points, more of less about the cultural war subsumed by US involvement in Southeast Asia from Kennedy through Nixon.

 He talks about the Maoist cultural revolution, where everyone takes turn being a peasant.  At another point, he talks about a Navy sailor who admits the desire to submit to a man – this was 1987, long before the open debate on the military gay ban.

He uses maps to demonstrate many of his points, like a history teacher making his lessons fun.  He comes up with some clever puns about the Khmer Rouge, and particularly Pol Pot (a subject of many Ted Koppel Nightlines in the 80s), the only permitted intellectual in the ultra-commie world.  Much of the film dissects Nixon’s “Vietnamization” of the War in Vietnam, which spread it to other countries.

There is a soundtrack by Laurie Anderson, which recreates some of the “noise”  and aural menace from Killing Fields.  

The film was directed by Jonathan Demme, and distributed by Cinecom; the DVD also adds MGM as a distributor.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

"There Be Dragons": "real life" makes "real men" take sides, until they have faith

Roger Ebert often tells us that film has the ability to take us into an unfamiliar world and present and develop a problem through telling a story.

Probably not that many of us know the history of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, but Roland Jaffe puts together the layered elements of his story to examine the elements of faith, forgiveness, and loyalty, in the two-hour  epic film “There Be Dragons”.  I love the “subjunctive mood” in the name of the film.  “Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future” (Oscar Wilde).  

A young journalist Robert (Dougray Scott) has a contract to write a book about a sainted priest Jose Maria Escriva, and contacts his ailing father in Madrid about the project. His father Manolo at first resists, but then beckons him with a letter that tells him the story of the frayed friendship between the father (played by Wes Bentley [remember him in “American Beauty”] as a young man, and Jose Maria (played by Charlie Cox). The relationship between the two men would build to a nearly tragic climax. 
The animated opening of the film (with clever mapwork) clearly (and deliberately) sets up the historical context: the political and social situation in Spain forced everyone to “take sides” and join one Army or the other – and yet it seems as if socially the two sides (Communists and Fascists, basically) have the same values – authoritarianism.  Manolo at one point says his greatest high in life was to belong to an Army.  Jose Maria has embraced the teachings of his own upbringing, that the worst sin of all is to refuse to forgive.  Charlie Cox’s performance is always gentle and compassionate, with a slight hint that he might be gay.  His own father has asked him why he doesn’t want to have his own family.  But Jose Maria still shows the “paternity,” in a psychological sense, that the Vatican says is necessarily part of the priestly vocation. (It’s interesting, by contrast, that Manolo admits to his journalist son that he wasn’t a very good father.) Reviewers make a lot of Jose Maria’s founding  of Opus Dei, but his characterization of it is usually low-keyed, as a kind of family of faith. (There was one minor scene of self-flagellation, often reported of the group.)

The film moves back and forth in time (often framing the time transitions), telling the story of the fractured friendship between Manolo and Jose Maria, to be overtaken by Manolo’s own (heterosexual) romantic interests with women fighting in the war, leading to other deadly “conflicts of interest”.  The film stays in PG-13 territory and plays down the idea of romance or sexuality, as if it could be plugged in from any direction; the bigger issue is how you fit into your larger world around you, which may drag you into its causes.   Manolo sees this as just “real life” which he says his “friend” Jose Maria deliberately escaped.

There is a lot of CGI work in recreating war-torn Spain in the 1930s (with bizarre looking tanks and planes).  I didn’t realize it snows in Spain – it definitely does.  The film was actually shot in Argentina and Spain.  It stays in English, since the cast hired American and English actors (as well as Spanish).  It might well have been made in Spanish.  The scenes in the Madrid hospital lobbies present a sci-fi-looking whiteness. The film stresses the contrast between opulent modern Madrid and its past.

The film is distributed by Samuel Goldwyn.  No, this one doesn’t come from Sony Pictures Classics or Roadside Attractions, although it very well could have.  But it seems as though “independent film” (as AMC labels it) is getting bigger than conventional Hollywood. Call it movies for grownups.
I saw this at the AMC  Shirlington, the early show on a Saturday night, in its second week, before a small crowd. 

The website for the film is this

Rome Reports has a YouTube video on the presentation of the film to the Vatican.

Friday, May 13, 2011

"Forks over Knives": Eat only plant food and you'll be fine

Friday, Landmark E Street in Washington DC started a run of the documentary “Forks over Knives”, from Monica Beach Media, directed by Lee Fulkerson.

The film makes a simple point: if people restricted themselves to plant food, they could probably forestall most heart disease, strokes, and cancer.  Back in the 1990s, radio talk show doctor Gabe Mirkin in the DC suburbs used to promote the similar extremely low-fat diet.

The documentary does trace the history of government dietary recommendations back to the 30s, with the food groups, especially dairy – and maintains that corporate America influenced the conventional wisdom.

The star of the movie is Los Angeles diet physician Matthew Lederman, who is frankly “cute” and looks much younger than his probable forty or so years. It also presents the findings of 30s born Caldwell Esselstyn, from Yale (website) and the Cleveland Clinic, and Colin Campbell, from Cornell.

The film has a lot of clever animation showing how plaques lead to coronary artery disease, and has gruesome shots of coronary bypass surgery ("they crack you open like a lobster" -- Regis Philbin -- maybe not for the keyhole), which the doctors in the film say often doesn't work. My mother had a triple bypass in 1999 at age 85 and lived to 97 (last December) with good quality for over eight years. 

Ashton Kutcher will like the slogan "real men eat their vegetables" (or words to that effect). 

The website for the film is here

It's well to note the films "King Corn" (2007, Balcony Releasing, dir. Aaron Woolf), "The Future of Food" (2004, Cinema Libre, dir. Deborah Koons Garcia), "Fast Food Nation" (2006, Fox Searchlight, dir. Richard Linklater) and of course Morgan Spurlock's "Supersize Me" (2004, Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn), and even Bill Haney's "The Price of Sugar", 2007, Uncommon Films.  Think of this film as the antithesis of the 1995 Australian comedy "Babe", about a piglet doomed to be eaten.

Watch also for the film “The Last Mountain” (about mountaintop removal) coming to Landmark. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"Sympathy for Delicious": A film by Mark Ruffalo and Christopher Thornton: moral dilemmas become personal conflicts

In January, 1998, I fell in a convenience store a few months after moving to Minneapolis, and sustained severe hip and pelvic  (acetabular) fractures.  I was fortunate enough to get a state-of-the-art surgery and new experimental device to put me back together, or face traction. I was back to work in three weeks and threw away my crutches at an Academy Awards Benefit in March, one of the best evenings of my life.  For about a week, I could not lift the left leg.  Just couldn’t do it. I remember the week in rehab (essentially an SNF, a nursing home), seeing another man take his first steps with two artificial legs.

I recovered fully, but had a taste of what dependency could mean.

Actor and writer Christopher Thornton sustained a severe spine injury in an accident at age 25, and may  have been motivated to write “Sympathy for Delicious”, directed by Mark Ruffalo, an actor whom I first “met” in 2004 or so with “We Don’t Live Here Any More”.   (I keep wanting to type "Precious" instead of "Delicious" because of a famous 2009 film.) The story creates a moral dilemma, and then does what agents like to see: creates a personal conflict between the lead characters over the problem.
As the movie opens,  former jammer and DJ “Delicious’ Dean O’Dwyer is living in the LA streets, and a kindly priest Joe (Mark Ruffalo) wants to help him – for example, get into assisted living with Medicaid. Delicious won’t hear of it, but then discovers a remarkable gift: healing people, by laying on of hands, usually with their being “slain in the spirit”.

In November 1998, fully healed, I actually visited the Brownsville Assembly of God in Pensacola, FL, and saw people (mostly women) get slain in the spirit at the pastor’s touch at a revival.

But back in August 1979, at the old Metropolitan Community Church in Dallas, a paralyzed woman had been healed and climbed out of her wheelchair at a Sunday Night service.  My best friend at the time sung “He’s Alive” and played it on the guitar, as the congregation came to a rousing experience.  Later, we adjourned to the Bell Pepper.  Earlier, in June, there had been a similar service in the Texas prairie near Abilene, at a place called El Rancho Vista; we were about to suffocate in the heat, even on a Saturday night, when a refreshing thunderstorm drove us to cover.  We weren’t afraid of tornadoes.

I’ve seen some of this in my life, so I was not surprised at the concept, that a young man like Dean could heal others but not heal himself.  But soon Father Joe sees dollar signs – donations for his mission to help the homeless, and Dean sees a career, getting rich, becoming a cult personality. The movie takes on the character of “The Prestige.”  I was wondering if Michael Caine would make a cameo. Orlando Bloom is quite chilling as jammer “The Stain” – in a film where the men would be attractive if they weren’t so tattooes and hairless-bodied.

Nina becomes Dean’s shady “business manager”; played by Laura Linney (not Innes) is quite chilling and cold, almost like Sofia in “The Event”.   Soon there is a tragedy, and the film shifts immediately to “courtroom drama”, with a legal premise that is not all that convincing. Maybe Dean needs “The Lincoln Lawyer”.  He does need Father Joe’s testimony, which he asks for in a climactic confrontation (the kind screenwriting teachers like), where he says to Joe “Do this for me!”

The film has an epilogue, which is a bit drawn out.

This film, with all its big stars, is distributed by tiny Maya Entertainment.  I saw it in a digital projection auditorium at the West End in Washington DC.  IMDB lists the film aspect as 2.35:1 (as is the official trailer), but it was shown as the conventional 1:85:1.  In this showing, the sound track did not take much advantage of the jamming.

The official site for the film is here

Maya Entertainment has an official trailer on YouTube

Still pictures: not from film.

Note: This review as originally posted late Wednesday May 11.   It was removed and reposted during a blogger outage.  When I fixed a problem with the labels, Blogger moved the date to Saturday May 14.  Seems like a small glitch. OKay, fixed now with post options

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"New in Town": Minnesota-nice comedy about workplace restructuing

Corporate raiding and restructuring, and the resulting layoffs of average workers, can be the subject if comedy, at last with Jonas Elmer’s film “New in Town”, from Lionsgate and Gold Circle Films.

Renee Zellweger, a corporate efficiency consultant  (Lucy) enjoying the Florida life style, gets a plane ticket to Minnesota (New Ulm) to make a manufacturing plant more efficient. That theme is old enough: an episode of the sitcom “My Little Margie” from the 50s had such an episode.

The local union head (Harry Connick Jr.) uses his people skills to distract her away from firing people, and pretty soon we go through the “taking it private”, leveraged buyouts and pretty soon the employees are presented with the idea of buying their own jobs. Sound familiar, from the late 80s?  Maybe you could pay them piecework (like Cleveland company Lincoln Electric in the 90s).

But “Lucy” trots out her culinary skills to save all the towns jobs. The yogurt production lines can be adapted to a secretary’s secret recipe for pudding. Sometimes cookbooks really had something valuable.

The story is set in New Ulm, Minnesota, SW of Minneapolis; but the film was actually shot in and around Winnipeg, Manitoba, with the crew reportedly experiencing temperatures of -50 F.

The site for the film is here

Here’s a Stanford Business presentation of employee ownerhship (by Dr. Corey Rosen):

Sunday, May 08, 2011

"Wuss": a somewhat artificial comedy about the tribulations of a (long term) substitute teacher

As I’ve noted before, one of my biggest downfalls as a substitute teacher in Arlington and Fairfax counties (VA) from 2004-2007 was “classroom management” – that is, discipline, in middle school classes, classes with many special education students, or even high school with below-grade-level math and science. The worst problem, for school administrators, was a sub who was perceived as a “Wuss”.

The other big risk, at a diagonal extreme, was a teacher’s getting into an inappropriate relationship with a student. That’s a subject of an experimental screen play by me called “The Sub”, that became the focus of an incident when I was subbing. (Both my problems are discussed on the main “BillBoushka” blog July 25 and 27, 2007.) But Lionsgate and Lifetime had offered a serious film about the issue, showing the risk to a female teacher, with “Student Seduction” in 2003 (reviewed here May 4, 2010).

All of this fits awkwardly into a new indie comedy named, as noted above, “Wuss!”, directed by Clay Liford (from Well Tailored Films and Minor in Possession LLC), that showed this weekend at the Maryland Film Festival in Baltimore. Because of the personal timeliness of the subject matter, I noticed the film as I looked through the festival program when I got there last night, and was lucky enough to find seats available. It did not sell out (Saturday night).

Nate Rubin plays the 20-something “long term sub” Mitch Parker, who takes over a sophomore English class when the regular female teacher goes to the hospital. He looks appealing enough, and my general experience is that most younger male subs to OK with getting their students’ respect. But in this class, there are several gang members and obvious racial and class tensions.  (I guess Mitch is no "Mr. Simon" from the film, "That's What I Am", reviewed here May 1.)

Pretty soon, a few kids beat him up on school grounds, and unbelievably the culture is such that the administration won’t engage the police. (He had been told he wasn’t supposed to send discipline cases to the office, even.) He covers the wounds up with makeup, and gradually goes on a reconnaissance mission with the help of a female student Maddie (Alicia Anthony). That will eventually lead to some tragic consequences, but maybe redemption for him. The “intimacy” never gets very far (a kiss on the lips in a car, PG-13 stuff; but in many states a relationship with a student, even over 18, can get a teacher thrown in jail; there is one conversation to that effect in the film with a band teacher).

Mitch does have some independence problems. He still “lives at home” and gets beat up by his sisters. But he plays board Dungeons and Dragons, a rather ironic hobby given his character. He’s not beyond taking a bong hit (like Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, maybe).

I did buy Mitch's teaching "Dune" (Frank Herbert, 1965; and a film in 1984).  In the opening scene of the film, Mitch is telling an adult girlfriend that he is a writer and novelist, and only then a teacher. (The opening brought to mind the opening conversation at "The Thirsty Scholar" in "The Social Network".)  That plays up another angle: the idea that a writer thinks he can bring his writing and teaching together. A risky business, as I would find out in 2005. There is some synergy, though. A novelist should look at each chapter an imagine: if a high school English teacher assigned this chapter of my work, what would the "reading quiz" questions and answers be.  (Or, for a screenwriter, ask the same thing about a possible "video worksheet'.)  There were some scenes showing teacher camaraderie in the break rooms; that was familiar -- but again, that's double edged.

The film was shot in Garland, Texas, a middle class suburb NE of Dallas. I recall from my days of living in Dallas in the 80s that parents sought to get their kids into the “Richardson Independent School District” (or, better yet, Plano). But I find it hard to believe that a school district in the Dallas area would let violence against teachers go. But, in the end credits, the film has a disclaimer to the effect that this story is not real life.

The film shows very little of the outdoors of the Dallas area, nothing that is identifiable.

The Dallas Observer has a review of the film here.

The film was shown at the Charles Center complex with digital projection, and there was some problem understanding the speech, with fluctuating volume and truncation of higher frequencies.

While on the subject of substitute teaching, I wanted to note that the best experience I had was with seven days (two separate sequences) of a sophomore Honors Chemistry classes for a Fairfax county teacher in May and June, 2005. I was told all did extremely well on their SAT’s and SOL’s (one student that year missed only one question in the total of all SOL’s). I saw the work they turned in, and it generally looked pretty good. They were pretty good at using the Internet to look up answers to questions on homework or classwork assignments (on the meaning of electronegativity, for example). I recall that the teacher had a technique in giving tests: multiple choice, but the student had to state the reason for the choice to get full credit. When students have already motivated themselves, they do well.

Second picture: Levine Academy, middle school orchestra doing free performance at Kennedy Center in Washington DC (on stage at end); Third picture: West Potomac High School, near Alexandria, VA

"We Were Here: Voices from the AIDS Years in San Francisco" appears in both DC, Baltimore film festivals

Having missed it at FilmfestDC, I saw “We Were Here: Voices from the AIDS Years in San Francisco” at the Maryland Film Festival (website url site) in the Charles Center Theaters in Baltimore last night. The directors are David Wessman and Bill Weber. 

The film interviews five people who lived through the AIDS tornado in the gay community in the 1980s. These are Ed Wolf, Paul Boneberg, Daniel Goldstein, Guy Clark, and Eileen Glutzer.  Weissman and one other interviewee appeared for the Q and A.

Glutzer decided to go to nursing school just before the epidemic became manifest. Others were men who survived the epidemic, and least two of which are doing very well today on modern medications (protease inhibitors) and have new partners.

The film actually reaches back and looks at San Francisco in the 1970s and briefly covers the Harvey Milk assassination.  The attitude of the gay community around 1980 was “The 80s are ours” as the attitude was that any infection could be treated with a shot. This turned out to be horribly wrong.  In 1981, the initial stories about Kaposi’s Sarcoma (NIH link ) and PCP pneumonia appeared, and by 1982 it was clear there was an epidemic which presented an existential threat to gay men. The film shows graphic images of men covered by the purplish Kaposi’s Sarcoma lesions, which sometimes could cause legs to swell or internal organs to fail. By the late 1980s, KS became less common, even among gay men; there is some evidence that it is caused by a secondary virus, Human Herpes 8 (biologically similar to common herpes), which gets let loose in the presence of HIV infection. That is, KS is more like another "opportunistic infection" than a true cancer; it's growth is multifocal and not usually metastatic. 

The film covers the bathhouse controversy, and I remember Silverman’s order to shut them down. I remember saying at a gay softball party in Dallas “The closed the baths in San Francisco.”  We feared they could close everything, and articles suggesting quarantine were legion.

Other major figures in the history of the epidemic, such as Cleve Jones, Bobbi Campbell, and Neil Schram, appear.  I lived in Dallas at the time, and volunteered with the Oak Lawn Counseling Center. Dallas saw its biggest spike in cases in 1985 and 1986. Men, including volunteers and counselors, would suddenly show up at meetings with their forearms shaved for iv's from sudden hospitalizations. One particular guy, Rodney, had been a flight attendant supervisor for American, simply wore long sleeves to work to cover up the evidence of  illness; he made a seemingly full recovery from KS for about a year and bulked back up, to suddenly become ill in 1986 again and pass away the second time. I remember finding him in the Quilt when it lay in Washington on the Mall in 1989 (which the film covers).

The film doesn’t cover the history of the discovery of HTLV-III aka HIV, or the controversy over the test. In fact, the Dallas Gay Alliance at the time (under Bill Nelson, Terry Tebedo) was advising everyone “don’t take the test.”  And in Texas we had to deal with the right wing group “Dallas Doctors Against AIDS”, which tried to introduce a very draconian bill in the Texas legislature in 1983, HR2138, reinforcing the Texas sodomy law 21.06 (eventually overturned in 2003 by Lawrence v. Texas) and imposing a mandatory “must ask must tell” ban on gays working as teachers, in hospitals, or wherever food is prepared.  Fortunately, that measure never got out of committee, but it would make good fodder for another independent documentary film (maybe for me to make).

The film does cover the gradual improvement in medications. The Suramin trial was a catastrophe, but soon AZT appeared, which offered some delay of disease. Eventually, the protease inhibitors would be deployed in the 1990s, and for many patients, these actually work for many years (despite great expense and the supposed “protease paunch” and muscle wasting, which is thankfully not a problem like it used to be), making HIV a chronic disease that is manageable in the way juvenile diabetes is controllable.  The film could have covered the “safer sex” movement, that was widely promoted in Dallas after about 1986, according to my observation.  The youngest gay men, now in their twenties, may not really grasp the history that went before them, and the danger that is out there, and this film will provide an education, and a warning. Stay safe.  

The original link for the film is on my April 14 entry on my TV reviews blog of the show "The Gay 80s".(see my Profile and follow the links).

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Castro street;   My last visit to the area occurred in Feb. 2002.  

Friday, May 06, 2011

"The War at Home": history of the Vietnam era protests at the University of Wisconsin

An older documentary from First Run Features, “The War at Home”, directed by Glenn Silber and Gary Alexander Brown, traces the anti-Vietnam-war movement at the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s, culminating in the explosion at Sterling Hall in August, 1970, as a protest against the Army Map Service.  The film was originally released in 1980 by the Wisconsin Educational Television Network.

But what’s interesting is how the sentiment built up that people who worked for companies or worked or military civilian agencies were personally responsible for the wrongs supposedly being committed in Vietnam.  An earlier part of the film covers protests against Dow.

The film does cover the draft, and mentions that students who got good grades remained deferred, while those who didn’t could become the fodder of war.  Mandatory conscription was a major factor in the lives of young men of that day.

It also says that President Nixon’s “Vietnamization” was clever because it would lower American casualties while still continuing the war for a while, with increased aerial bombardment.

I remember my stop in Madison on Labor Day, 1997, as I drove out to Minneapolis in a corporate transfer.

I attended the University of Kansas from 1966-1968, when I finished my MA in January before getting “drafted” myself.  I had a professor, in Numerical Analysis, from Wisconsin, who was my thesis advisor. I remember that he thought that the atmosphere in Lawrence was quieter (and winter weather warmer) than in Madison.

Some of the Sterling Hall incident remains unsolved today.

The film could serve as a companion piece to Sony's "The Fog of War

Wikipedia attribution link for Sterling marker. 

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

"The Infidel": a satire about an adopted Muslim who finds out his birth origin

In 2010, Tribeca (with corporate sponsorship from American Express for all films) showed and distributed a satire “The Infidel”, about a London businessman living as a “relaxed” Muslim who finds out, when his mother dies and he cleans out her effects, that he had been adopted and that (according to a government office he visits, with some anger) his birth parents had been Jewish.  That’s not easy to take, even if he had more or less rejected Wahhabism,  maybe more out of laziness than political conviction. The film, directed by Josh Appignanesi, was produced by Slinghot, Mef Film, and Salt, stars Omid Djalili as Mahmud Nasir, the businessman.  His son Rashid (Amit Shah) plans to marry Uzma  (Soraya Radford), the stepdaughter of a local Muslim fundamentalist cleric, Ashad (Yigar Naor); and for some time Mahmud has known he would have to be on “best behavior” to get the “father’s” approval for the marriage.

Mahmud learns a lot about his “other” heritage from Jewish neighbor  Lenny (Richard Schiff).

Of course, the movie raises all the questions about tribalism and blood lineage.    There is a climactic meeting where Mahmud hides in the audience under a burqa.  After some  confrontations like those of a Shakespearian comedy, the movie ends with a Pakastani interfaith wedding.

The official site for the movie is here.  

Tribeca’s trailer:

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

"Liberace: Behind the Music" is a quick biography

I remember having a 10-inch LP of Liberace (1919-1987) back in the early 1950s, one of the first “classical’ records I ever had.  In 1997, I did drive past his museum in Las Vegas. 

Liberace: Behind the Music,” from Tango Pictures, directed by David Greene, is an older “video style” DVD (1988, and just full screen 1:31:1 aspect) “biography” of the performer, with Victor Garber playing the young adult artist (Wladsiu Valentino Liberace, or “Walter”).

The opening scene shows him gilded, and then he announces that Chopin is his favorite composer as he bangs our the A-flat “Heroic” Polonaise.  Then the movie shifts into acted biography mode.

Liberace talks about his ideas, of mixing classical and popular music for practical economic reasons (he says its about raising the standards of the average public), about the importance of “belief”, and his way of making eye contact with both the camera and the audience.

Inevitably, the movie will get into the “personal” area of his reticence, at first, with women.  Halfway through the film, his lawyers visit him at his home to confront him with rumors in the press about his then supposed homosexuality (and Oedipus complex).  Then, “there’s no smoke without fire.” His agent says “Start becoming more like everyone else.”  He’s pressured to fire Seymour (Saul Rubinek) over the rumors, but resists.

In 1963, as the film enters its second half, Liberace suffers kidney failure after inhaling cleaning fluid, and struggles to get a dialysis machine, and surprises everyone by recovering, after almost giving everything away.  The film then switches to his relationship with “chauffeur” Scott Thorson (Michael Dolan) which would result in a palimony suit, after he throws Scott out over his drug abuse.

Although the estate tried to conceal the fact somewhat, it’s highly probable that Liberace’s death at 67 was due to HIV infection. Toward the end, as he listens to the news about Rock Hudson, he takes off his toupee. "I just want to stay home and smell the roses."  He tells another friend that he wants to remain a private person, as he really had to in the 1950s.  He wants to "go out on top." 

Imdb lists a film “Liberace”, with Matt Damon and Michael Douglas, planned for 2013.

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of the museum on Las Vegas. 

Sunday, May 01, 2011

"That's What I Am": a preview of the culture wars in a 1960s middle school

A movie about middle school life in the 1960s does indeed show us that our “culture” has come some way since then. “That’s What I Am” (not to be confused with Shadyac’s  “I Am”, but some mix-up would be a good thing), directed by Michael Pavone, from WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment, which did not make “Win Win”) and Samuel Goldwyn Films, makes us wonder why families and kids behave in the prejudices (by today’s standards) the way they do.  Set in California (but filmed in Louisiana) and centered around an elderish English teacher Mr. Simon (Ed Harris), we wonder why the introspective school principal (Amy Madigan) tries to be understanding with the film’s principle confrontation – but then she’s not understanding enough until she has to be, and we wonder why she has turned a blind eye to all the bullying going on.  But schools today wonder that.

The story is narrated through the eyes, retrospectively from decades later, of one bright kid Andy Nichol (Chase Ellison).  Late in the school year, Mr. Simon assigns a “final paper” for eight grade, and assigns the students to work in pairs.  Simon already has an agenda of teaching tolerance – just now coming out of the Civil Rights movement (the news clips overheard in the movie concern Vietnam), and assigns Andy to work with the “Big G”, a tall redheaded kid  (Alexander Walters) whom others bully only because he is smarter and taller than the other kids and tries to ignore them.  By today’s standards, Big G would be a youth role model.  (No kidding: in Army Basic, “Big G’s” were a PT exercise.)

Andy’s father picks at him for not doing his chores (like mowing the lawn) right the first time, and calls him a “jughead”.  Yet Andy’s parents seem to be more tolerant than some of the others; one blue collar family gets the idea to spread rumors that Mr. Simon, who hasn’t married for 19 years since losing his wife, is a “homosexual.”  (Actually, the first two syllables are used alone.)

The principal is forced to confront Simon and make him deny it. Simon refuses to dignify the demand. But the blue collar parents insist that the teacher is a role model, that kids look up to him.  He must deny it (almost the way Peter denies Christ, it seems).  Simon eventually “retires” and moves to another part of the country, but not until he sponors a talent show where Big G sings a song a cappella that he had composed (about dreams – and unfortunately, the film made up soundtrack music while he sung, which was a distraction from the effect of the scene.)

No question, Mr. Simon is subjected to a witch-hunt. This is not even "don't ask don't tell" for teachers (well before the Briggs Initiative in California in 1978); it's "do ask do tell" in the worst sense. 

Of course, this brought back all my own memories about William and Mary in 1961, discussed elsewhere on my blogs and books (and a planned movie).  But why does the culture encourage parents and kids to behave so badly, according to more modern standards of not just tolerance (Newt Gingrich) but equality, acceptance, and diversity?

Perhaps we have to deal with the idea that man is a social being, and tends to demand conformity so that the family, community, or country can not only survive and have a future. That leads to some pretty awful behavior and corruption, at times.  Now we are more in a world where the individual can do something about it as a “team of one” than were past generations (before the Internet and Facebook). 

Toward the end of the film, Andy convinces his Dad to let him mow the lawn his own way, that he will still get the job done, his own way. I know the feeling from my history with my own late father.

Also, “what I am” is many things in the movie. In the openings scene, Mr. Simon says effectively “I am a teacher” and he convinces young Andy that he IS a writer, despite his problems with spelling and grammar.

In the film, middle school ends with eighth grade. When I went to school, it ended in ninth grade (in 1958).  I was teased somewhat in “junior high” for my conformity problems, but not in Washington-Lee High School in Arlington VA, which in the late 50s and early 60s was a good place for science nerds.   

Students, teachers, and particularly school administrators and school boards should see this film. It’s rated PG (I would have thought PG-13).

He reads “Joan of Arc” to the class as a metaphor of his message about tolerance.   I actually saw Columbia’s “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc” (directed by Luc Beeson) in Aberdeen, SD in November, 1999.

You have to hunt for the film at Sameul Goldywn, just this URL

IMDB lists the film as 1.33 to 1 (video), but it was shown at West End in Washington DC as 1.85:1.