Tuesday, August 30, 2011

"My Winnipeg": Guy Maddin's soliloquy about his beloved hometown (Blame Canada!)

I visited Winnipeg, Manitoba once, in September 1997, shortly after moving to Minneapolis, and it was actually hot that Saturday night.  I even found a gay bar there.  I have driven 400+ miles across the lake country from Fort Frances, about International Falls, MN.  But usually, Winnipeg is the coldest major city on the North American continent. The land around it is so flat, and the shores of the “Great Lakes” nearby look like the edge of the World, the Erasure. This is the Canadian "Midwest". 

Guy Maddin actually indulges us with a soliloquy about his upbringing in his hometown with his funky (and David Lynch-like) documentary “My Winnipeg” (IFC, 2007). The film is shot low tech in old 4:3 aspect with most of the footage taken from old black-and-white newsreels, even with steam trains. Winnipeg has been a real city for some time.

In the heart of the film, he hires “actors” to recreate a scene of family life using his own real mother.  The film turns into a stream of consciousness, where more happens in his own mind, and is just supported by the images he finds.  He says “We dream where we walk, and we walk to where we dream.” 

After a while, he gets into the issue of tearing down old stadiums (for ice hockey here) because they don’t pander to the rich enough, and he makes fun of some of Canada’s corporate institutions.  Then the film turns mildly homoerotic, as he recalls an old “Golden Boys” contest, to be viewed by women, but featuring a “corridor of thighs” and favoring smooth men.  He even meditates on the old baths, and recalls his reluctance to disrobe in the boys’ area when growing up. Toward the end, he imagines what a Nazi takeover of Winnipeg would have been like. 

There are other funky recollections, such as Winnipeg’s only locally produced TV series, “Ledge Man”.

Here is an official site

Here’s IFC’s trailer for “snowy, sleepwalking Winnipeg”.

 Wikipedia attribution link for MTS Center picture. 

Monday, August 29, 2011

"Hurt" turns a tricky Arizona family drama into quasi-horror, with some social messages

Midwestern and inland west indie filmmakers like to explore family drama, family secrets, and sometimes and admixture with horror, and such is the case with Barbara Stepansky’s “Hurt”, from High Treason Productions and Monterey Video Films.  One cast member calls the plot as about “the difference between a hand and a finger.”

The film does not star William Hurt (it could have), but has an interesting cast nonetheless. It’s set somewhere in the Arizona scrub desert. A family has been widowed (Helen Coltrane is the mother, played by Melora Walters) by a tragic highway "accident" (maybe not) and forced out of its “privileged” lifestyle – first social justice point of many to follow – and it moves (upon "invitation") into the junkyard “ranch” of the uncle Darryl (William Mapother, playing a role similar to that in the later “Another Earth”  (Jul y 31)) .
Pretty soon Helen is pressured (by the estate trustee lawyer) into taking in a mysterious "foster" child Sarah (Sofia Vassilievia).  A subtle element of the plot is that in this case the estate trustee is indeed an attorney and not one of the beneficiaries (maybe there is no wealth left anyway – clue) and can pressure the remaining family members into various channels of behavior (including raising OPC -- other people's children  -- a favorite theme in "progressive" film, indie or not).  That pressuring doesn’t always happen, but it may happen in some families – something to watch for.

After Sarah arrives, things go downhill pretty quickly. It’s not just that Sarah is suspected of the accidents and casualties, it’s that all the family members get into each other’s way and resent their loss of freedom and control.

The mood of the film, however, is somewhat that of a horror film – a horror from the psychological setup rather than the supernatural.

Singapore-born Jackson Rathborne is particularly “cute” as the stud-like Conrad.

The official site is here

I was annoyed by the Monterey rental DVD in that the time watching previews could not be skipped (the first preview had a most tasteless title).

The film can be rented to watch on YouTube for $2.99, a “legal” option that I would recommend. (It’s not on Instant Play on Netflix, just DVD.)

Wikipedia attribution link for Phoenix aerial shot(my last visit was in 2000). 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

"De-Lovely": a musical biography of Cole Porter

De-Lovely” is a somewhat overlooked but thorough (125 minutes) musical biography of Cole Porter, played (mostly in flashback) by Kevin Kline. The 2004 MGM film is directed by Irwin Winkler.

Ashley Judd plays the sympathetic wife (of social convenience), Linda, who remains assertive while supporting his bisexuality, not seeing it as existential disloyalty. A critical confrontation in the film’s middle gives her a chance to tell him off.  Here are some lines:

“You’re music comes from your talent, not your behavior.

“I don’t think I want you to be discreet, but to be different.
“I have spoiled you, and so has the whole world, and for what. Only a little of your music."

Much of the film concerns his relationship with his male partner, played by John Barrowman.  Porter says openly that one person could not satisfy his need for adult love, and neither could one gender.

Porter would have a horse-riding accident that would change his life, and lead to amputation, after many surgeries. The actual riding accident (and stomping by the horse) is quite harrowing, and reminds one of a somewhat similar scene in “Gone with the Wind” with the loss of Scarlet’s daughter.

Practically every major song (most of all, “Anything Goes” – with its now obvious meaning) by Porter gets performed in the film.

The title of the song here ("You're the top") does sound like a pun, doesn't it. 

Saturday, August 27, 2011

"Chasing Madoff": one man's fight for what is right

Chasing Madoff”, directed by Jeff Prosserman and produced by Cohen Media, does tell the story of one man’s forming and tracking down his convictions, and having to ponder the moral aspects of how his activity plays out with his responsibility to his wife and three sons.  I’ll say from the outset, his greatest service to his sons was setting the right example of doing the right thing even when it is risky. That is something he had learned in Catholic school in Massachusetts and then as an Army officer.

That man is Harry Markopolos, who had entered Wall Street after his Army career, married and had twins, and then noticed around 2000 or so that competitor Bernie Madoff (his Lipstick Building is shown) could not have been so steadily successful unless he were running a Ponzi scheme, where new “clients” provide the income to pay older customers.  Markopolos ran models, some of them on a laptop on an Amtrak train, that showed extremely low probability that Madoff’s operation could be making bona fide investments.   In 2001, he approached the SEC, which kept stalling on a real investigation. He also approached the Wall Street Journal, which acted incredulous.

He kept at it, but became fearful for his (and his family members’) lives. He learned from a local Massachusetts cop how to arm himself, and exercise his Second Amendment rights.  He would even look under his car before starting it.  Madoff’s own scheme collapsed only because of the 2008 crisis, when h turned himself in. The film makes  the point that without watchdogs doing their jobs (the SEC) and alert individuals (Markopols) a financial system becomes unstable. Finally, Markopolos has to undergo more tension as he faxes his documents to the WSJ after Madoff confesses at the end of 2008.  Some of this activity reminds me of Daniel Ellsberg's (Feb. 28, 2010 review). 

The film makes light of some of the points, especially the self-protection, with some animation and stills.

Official site from Cohen Media. 

Friday, August 26, 2011

"Pianomania": can a documentary about piano tuning be interesting? Only when the music behind it is

I owned a Kimball console piano for years, and occasionally (not often enough) had it tuned.

In the new German-language documentary "PianoMania", First Run Features, Wildart and Oval, with directors Robert Cibis and Lilian Franck trace the work of Austrian Steinway piano tuner Stephen Knupfer, with moderately egotistical client pianists Lang Lang, Aldred Brendel, Buchbinder, and Pierre-Laruent Aimand. The last of these pianists plans to record the Bach "Art of the Fugues" one year later, and much of the film concerns the efforts to tune the piano (with its own production number) for the right effect for this one commercial recording. The film climaxes with the recording session, and joking around. The film has segments of a lot of piano music, including a Haydn Sonata, the Beethoven A-flat Sonata fugal finale, and the opening of the Schumann C Major Fantasy, which is impressive, and some Elliott Carter.

The film takes place in Vienna and in Hamburg (home of Steinway). There are some scenes that show the internal mechanics of a grand piano, and an interesting depiction of a 400 year old clavier.

Here is the link.

I saw this on a Friday afternoon at Landmark E-Street before a small crowd.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Ingmar Bergman's "Persona": a near monologue with a touch of David Lynch, and plenty of existentialism

A friend recommended  Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” (1967) from his blog, and I checked it out on Netflix.

And this little black and white film (from MGM), that seems like a play – even a monologue for the most part – gets into existential stuff, about the meaning of one’s “purpose” and one’s relationships.

A great actress has gone mute from some neurological shock, and a nurse moves in with her into a villa as a “live-in” to take care of her.  Caregivers say their job is to “love” the person cared for, but in this case the nurse (Bibi Andersson) finds herself becoming part of the actress (Liv Ullmann), as if some worldwide contraction of souls could take place.

The film has numerous gems (the DVD offers English dubbing) to quote or paraphrase:

“The constant gulf between what you are when with others and what you are when alone ….”

“You yaught me to smoke.”

“I was told I am a good listener – nobody has ever listened to me.”  That sounds like an instantiation of my pet phrase, “the privilege of being listened to.”

“I always wants a sister.”  I didn’t. But at one point my parents talked about adopting one.

“I become part of you.”

“Great artists have sympathy for other human being.”   What’s the most important effect of art: it’s performance or publication, or the social networking that should follow?  Hence, Facebook.

“Doctors say people like you can’t be gotten at.”

While most of the film hints at some lesbianism (this was the 60s, when “The Fox” and “Killing of Sister George” got made),  we also  learn  that the actress had, in a sense, “failed” at becoming a mother, and had "copped out" with an abortion  (and “that was that”).  

The film has a bizarre prologue (and several interludes) reminiscent of David Lynch, including broken film reels (as a kind of encapsulation) and a nail going through a hand (crucifixion).

The DVD includes a featurette about the film,  “A Poem in Images”  directed by Greg Carson, and also interviews with both actresses. 

Note: In the original posting, "Persona" was accidentally mistyped as "Personal" in the posting heading; the name of the posting when located directly will have the "l".  That is not really a problem!  (It's sometimes spelled as "Personae".)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

"One Day": Can Jim Sturgess and Anne Hathaway remain 20-somethings forever?

Travel among alternate universes, and  negotiating the time-arrow within a life back and forth, have become a compound fad in independent film this year, and the new British flick from Focus Features and Random House (and Film4, of course), “One Day”, directed by Lone Scherfig (based on the novel vy Dave Nichols), is almost like a heterosexual setting of “Judas Kiss”.  One’s first impression is that Britain changes more during the twenty-three years of the film’s span than the characters do, but that needs elaboration.

You know the set up: a couple Dexter (Jim Sturgess) and Emma (Anne Hathaway) fall for each other on July 15, shortly after college graduation: then the “work” traces their relationships every year that day for the next twenty-some years. Sometimes they will have each other, and sometimes they have other partners. Dexter gets to try-out playing Daddy, and he also takes care of his mother, hands on, as she dies of breast cancer.  His relationship with his own patriarchal father is strained. He moves up in his career as a television producer and daytime TV host (a kind of Nate). Finally, he is back with Emma.

Jim Sturgess is about 32 now, and I think he was at his best as an American geek in Columbia's “21” (“I’m good with math”).  But in this film, he doesn’t age at all between ages 22 and about 40 – nary a gray hair or even whitened stubble in his beard, nor any love handle.  Some actors (Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise) age very well.  Emma, a bit homely to start, doesn’t change much either. But then, suddenly, there is a tragedy. People should be careful on bicycles, riding the wrong way past hidden entrances.  Jim’s character Dexter goes to pieces when losing her, and ages 20 years at once. But then he gets himself back a bit, and becomes younger again, especially with a daughter.  You see the time travel.

All this movie needs is a talking dog or a cat like "Paw Paw".  After all, both partners in this "couple" have commitment issues for all twenty-plus years that the movie spans. 

I saw this on a Tuesday night after the DC earthquake, and the film was surprisingly well attended at a Regal, which was late starting the film with a technical issue.

Here is the website.

For today’s YouTube, I’ll note that a Facebook friend pointed me to a 1963 short animated film “The Critic” by Mel Brooks, from Columbia, several years before “The Producers”.

(No longer available as of 11/2011; have to look for it somewhere else. )

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"Toy Story 3": Pixar's series continues to show us what it's like to be a toy in a higher being's world

I have several screenplay scripts (most notably “Baltimore Is Missing”) where the somewhat hapless protagonist winds up living as a toy of a kind of Lilliputian in some rogue person’s (or maybe simply higher being’s) model railroad, or perhaps in a model purgatory set up by angels.  It strikes me that the Disney-Pixar “Toy Story” movies are about this idea. That makes them highly political and a bit satirical, a commentary on almost any situation where one class of beings has dominion over others and has no idea of how subordinates feel.   (I could go on about “The Help” some more right now.)

Lee Unkrich (director) and John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton (writers) set all this up in Pixar’s “Toy Story 3”, on last year’s best picture nominations list.  When Andy (voice of John Morris) is getting ready to go away to college at 17, his mother implores him to sort through his old boyhood toys that “don’t get played with”.  He drops the ball trying to store them in the attic, and the toys get driven by Mom over to a day center, where the toys will get played with by a new batch of kids every year (hint: the politics of population replacement and “demographic winter”).

Some of the activity in this film’s middle gets interesting, like the sequence with the “baby doll” that reminds one simultaneously of Chucky (“Child’s Play”) and Carroll Baker.

Finally, Andy gets back on track and offers to donate his toys the right way, so they can be together forever.  He’s not been into baby play for years.

The official site for the film is here

The movie plot reminded me of an episode of the series “Blue’s Clues”, usually with Donovan Patton and Steve Burns, where Steve goes away to college and the younger siblings have to adjust.

The DVD has a couple of animated shorts:

Day and Night” (6:05), directed Teddy Newton, with a setting of a little bit of the Rossini William Tell overture.

Buzz Lightyear Mission Logs: The Science of Adventure” (4:05), made with NASA, has the toys looking at live-action shots of microgravity experiments on the ISS, the International Space Station, including a little bit of medical monitoring.  I suppose one could imagine experiments with micro black holes.   There was a time when space looked like our collective future, and some day it must be if our species is to survive indefinitely. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Rohmer's "Claire's Knee", however talky, justifies its journey into fetish as a "morality play"

French New Wave director Eric Rohmer (who passed at 89 in 2010) is remembered for his “Six Moral Tales” (“Contex moraux”), which are maybe a little bit like a “Decalogue”  (Krzysztof Kieslowski), and the fifth of these films, “Claire’s Knee” (“Le genou de Claire”) sticks in my mind as a memorable eclectic title from the early 70s.

Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy), a 35-year old diplomat with just a little graying in the beard and starting to ripen (or look older), meets a novelist, Aurora (played by Aurora Cornu) while enjoying his last days of bachelorhood at Lake Annecy in the Alps.  To get material for a book, perhaps, Aurora “tempts” him with her daughter  Laura (about 18 or so), but the younger half-sister Claire (Laurance de Monaghan) enters the scene.  Jerome becomes fascinated with her, perhaps with an abstract crush, and Claire, while flirting with a handsome late teen boyfriend, talks about wanting romance only with a man old enough to fill a fatherly role.

The film, shot in a spectacular venue around the lake (reminds one of “Sound of Music”) continually talks, and gets into the distinction between friendship and love (a favorite topic of New Wave directors – like Jean Luc-Godard and “In Praise of Love”), and into how fantasy would obviate his need for any real life. Knowing he could get into trouble (and starting to look older in comparison to the teens around him), he retreats into preoccupation with fetish. In a climactic scene, he is caught with Claire out in the open in a violent thunderstorm, and after finding shelter and consoling her, satisfies his urge just to touch her knee. 

Of course, given the media preoccupations of more recent years (especially Dateline’s Chris Hansen), such subject matter might seem creepy today. But in this film, it’s all thought out and rationalized at a deep intellectual level.   It seems to justify wanting to live in a fantasy world, and even talking about things that are "just fantasy".  This was an issue during my own 1962 NIH stay (yesterday's post). 

The DVD is part of the Criterion Collection but was originally released by Columbia. Today, if it had a theatrical re-release, it would come from Sony Pictures Classics.

The DVD has a 16-minute short, “The Curve” (“La cambrure”) , directed by Edwige Shaki, who plays the young female model who captures the attention of art collector Roman (Francois Rauscher, who is quite breathtakingly handsome), who focuses on comparing his girl friend to art.  Andre de Debbio plays the sculptor, who reminds me of a friend I had in New York City back in the 1970s, sculptor Phillip Lamle. The film again gets into the idea of turning sexual fantasy into abstraction.  This sounds like one of those films that if, posted illegally from a copyright perspective on a website, would probably get “beaucoup” page requests, because of what is shown in it so explicitly!   As to the title, use your imagination as to what has a “curve”.  It’s not a baseball pitch.

The DVD also as a BW interview short, “Le journal de cinema”, where the actors from the feature are vetted. 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

"Nobody's Child": Biography of Marie Balter shows how over "treatment" of mental illness perpetuated it

Netflix offered for instant view the CBS/Gaylord 1986 film “Nobody’s Child”, a biography of Marie Balter (Marlo Thomas), directed by Lee Grant, and curiously limited the time it would be available (don’t know why); no DVD yet.

The film tells the story of a woman (Balter) who, after a suicide attempt driven in large part by a failed relationship with her mother, spent two decades in Massachusetts mental hospitals, before getting the help it took to move back to being “on the outside”, eventually having a romantic relationship with another patient that would end in tragedy, and then going to college and becoming an advocate for mental health at the very places that had “treated” her.

The early part of the film happens in the early 60s, when Balter is kept over medicated and over-treated (with shock treatments), and remains a vegetable. Slowly, she learns to do things for herself again (there is a scene where she pours milk from a bowl into a glass).  It becomes apparent that many of her schizophrenic symptoms may have been induced by the “treatment”.  

In a review of “Frances” here June 27, I discussed my own experience with “inpatient treatment” back in 1962.  In my circumstances, female patients tended to be much less intact and much more heavily medicated.  In one incident, a female patient feigned catatonia during a group therapy session.

One aspect that I remember well: therapists and nurses would use euphemisms. They would say a particular patient was "not able" to do what is expected. How does personal responsibility fit in to such thinking?

I also remember the "occupational therapy", which in my case comprised working in a lab with cancer patients' urine samples.  The "occupational therapist" talked about learning the discipline to stay with repetivie tasks.  That shows in the movie, as Marie is rewarded for being able to work increasingly long days as a clerk, but still sometimes sees demons in the typewriter. 

The film, dating back to the 80s, has the style of a Lifetime movie today. 

Here is a YouTube video (embedding disabled) where Marie Balter speaks herself. 

Picture: above:  NIH Clinical Center, Bethesda, MD, where I was a "patient" in 1962. 

Below: extract from my own "thermafaxed" patient records. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

"Fright Night": comedy horror remake needs to draw on real character development to work as a film

Anton Yelchin, the Russian born actor who looks a little grizzled for age 22, plays the same kind of kid (Charlie Brewster) in Craig Gillespie’s “Fright Night” as he did with the nerdy “Charlie Bartlett” in 2007.  He notices that a lot of kids are missing from his high school English class, but he doesn’t make as much of it as the even nerdier Adam (Will Denton) who pretty soon has him breaking into a neighbor’s tract Las Vegas house to see if the latter is a vampire.  The movie’s plot borrows from other films like “Rear Window” and even “Disturbia”, but it’s all pretty improbable in terms of character.  Yelchin’s teen character Charlie doesn’t seem as clearly drawn or even as clever as Kale (Shia LaBeouf) in “Disturbia”.

Colin Farrell seems like an improbable, overly muscled choice for the thirty-something vampire, Jerry, who otherwise lives as a yuppie bachelor, but enjoys accumulating victims (not a good message to send).   Maybe I’m acclimated to Brad Pitt and Christian Slater (“Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles” [1992]).

The other characters are played by an appealing cast: Toni Collette is the nice single mom, David Tennant is the lanky British vampire slayer who has a regular act in a Vegas show, and both David Franco (brother of James) and Reid Ewing also appeal.

The setup seems other-worldly: the movie is set in a square mile tract of identical houses in the desert, isolated, almost as if it were someone’s model world. You expect to see a haboob sweep the place away; you don’t even need Anne Rice.

The film shows some dangerous ideas: Charlie learns how to use bump keys to pick locks from his cell phone surfing of mobile websites; and Jerry digs for a gas line to torch Charlie’s house, a horrifying notion.  
There are some of the usual special effects, including some highway scenes reminiscent of “Jeeper’s Creepers”. But, the supernatural ideas are not all that original; a film like this really needs character differentiation to work.

The film is shot in 3-D in regular aspect ratio; I think wider would have been appropriate. The Vegas strip could give more a sense of place.  I love the place, but haven’t been there since 2000 (I stayed in the Luxor in 1997).  Movie-making is probably a necessary replacement industry given the area’s recent economic troubles.  Red Rock Canyon would be a great location for more films.  (IMDB says most of the film was shot around Albuquerque, NM.)

The film was produced and distributed as another collaboration between Touchstone (Disney) and Dreamworks (Paramount).   Yes, this is a remake of an 80’s film, which I don’t recall seeing when living in Dallas.

IMDB has an unusually thorough user review by Joe Marino, which I recommend.  
Here is the official site from Dreamworks. 

One other thing: Back around 1962, a friend actually wrote a college English term paper about vampires.

 Section picture: Wikipedia attribution link for Las Vegas strip. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Bunuel's "earlier" "A Woman Without Love" should be a screenwriting teacher's delight

Spanish director Luis Bunuel’s penchant for situation drama is evident an earlier (compared his escapist color adventure reviewed here Aug. 3) black-and-white Mexican film “A Woman Without Love” (“Una mujer sin amor”), in proper Spanish, with upper class white Mexican society so clearly descended directly only from the Spaniards.

An aging antique dealer  (Julio Villarreal) tries to act like a patriarch, demanding honor from his young son Carlos, but unbeknownst to him, his wife (Rosario Granados) gets involved with a younger beau Julio (Tito Junco), who gives her a second son Miguel (Xavier Loya).  She hides the biological origin of the son from her husband, who has heart attacks that will eventually kill him. But Julio also dies and leaves his inheritance to Miguel, who has become a doctor and wants to use it for a clinic. But the older brother, once he finds out, views accepting the inherited wealth as a stain on his mother’s honor, leading to a final confrontation.
This is one of those richly plotted little films that the 50s were known for (and that screenwriting teachers love), and it seems surprisingly contemporary.  There is some controversy (in the writing) that Miguel is not introduced early.  The title of this film says it all, perhaps.

The film is adapted from a short story by Guy de Maupassant’s story “Pierre et Jean”.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

"The Big Gay Musical": now available (I had missed at Reel Affirmations)

As I had related on the Oct. 24, 2009 issue on my GLBT blog, I missed the “audio” of “The Big Gay Musical” when I couldn’t get to Reel Affirmations on time after a power outage, but the film (directed by Casper Andreas and Fred M. Caruso, who also wrote most of the songs with Rick Crom) is now on DVD and available for Netflix instant replay.

The movie follows the “French Lieutenant” technique of mixing up the plot of a show (here, off-off-Broadway musical “Adam and Steve, Just the Way God Made ‘Em”) with the love lives of the actors playing in it.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s “in” the musical itself.

In fact, the film opens with a spoofy “A Small Straight Play” in black and white, that inspires the musical, which takes the characters through ex-gay attempts run by the “Foundation Against Gayness Society”. So there are songs like “I will change for you” (which later gets repudiated to “I won’t change”), “I wanna be a slut”, and “America Online” (without Huffington). And there is also the pun, “I will go straight, to Heaven”.

Actually, there is some interesting theological speculation: God created angels, who live forever, before he created the Universe with its earth and life forms as we know them, where no one is immortal on this plane.
The actors, who seem rather cookie-cutter as people, have their own little affairs, with concerns over the possibility of HIV infection, and just plain old rejection (and even aversion to cuddling).  And one of them has to face evangelical parents who don’t realize, before he comes to New York, that he’s in a gay musical, let alone the fact that he is gay.

The website for the film is this

Here’s the soundtrack promo for iTunes from the film company (a different video from the other blog).

Pictures: local disco, not from film but similar

"Motherland Afghanistan": PBS Independent Lens documentary explores medical care for women in war-torn country

The PBS “Independent Lens” documentary “Motherland Afghanistan”, directed by Sedika Mojadidi (Aubin Pictures  [link], 2006, 73 min), examines the medical care available to women in Afghanistan during the “war”. Terrence Howard (“Hustle and Flow”) narrates, and much of the narrative is seen through the eyes of a surgeon Qudrat Mpjadidi, who has to bring his own soap for scrubbing down his forearms for surgery, as well as deal with bathrooms that don’t work an horrible unsanitary infrastructure. Much of his work consists of delivering babies, especially by C-section.

There is a brief episode where the doctor goes back to northern VA, but most of the film takes place in back country villages of the war-torn country.

The film is shot in basic 1.33:1 aspect, somewhat muting the visual impact of the film.

The PBS link for the film is here

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

"Cowboys and Aliens": It may take ET's to save us from ourselves

After Universal, Dreamworks, Image, and Relativity Media (Rogue) wave their corporate logos in front of us,  Jon Favreau’s “Cowboys & Aliens” (aka “Cowboys and Aliens”) starts out like a well-conceived psychological western, the kind we used to enjoy in the 60s (to the 90s).  I call to mind films like “MacKenna’s Gold” (with its “old turkey buzzard”), “Silverado”, “The Unforgiven”, with a touch of “She” (maybe even "Five Card Stud" and "Hang 'em High").  In fact, I recall “Open Range”, the last film I saw in Minneapolis in 2003 before moving back “home” to northern VA.  Daniel Craig, as Jake (aka James Bond), does indeed wonder about the strange wristwatch digging on him as he wakes up in a New Mexico canyon.  Pretty soon, we are in “town” (as in 1873), and Paul Dano (as Percy) is taking up a collection in a hat, meekly understating the fiery young preacher he had played so powerfully a few years back in “There Will Be Blood”.  Paul Dano (now 27) still values his youth.

When the spaceships come, the townsfolk act as if they were instruments of another kind of Indians tribe.  They really aren’t into metaphysical speculations as to whether “we are alone”.  The gimmick for a movie plot is clever enough, but then the film becomes routine stuff.  Percy (after being jailed with Jake and begging for his politically powerful father (Harrison Ford) to get him freed after “accidentally” shooting a deputy in a hotheaded moment), breaks free during the carnage but gets abducted, on camera.  And that leads us to a “problem” with the film. Many other townspeople disappear, too (they probably deserve it), but we don’t get to see what happens to them on the spaceship. True, Jake “gets it”, but I think the movie missed some major opportunities here. Or maybe not.  (But Percy is so “vulnerable” and like a “tender little baby”, as we used to say on the playground as kids.) The spaceship is not as interesting as comparable craft in many other ET movies.  The “climactic” scenes inside the craft are not on the level of even Rogue’s own “Skyline”.   And finally the craft meets the fate of the 1986 Challenger (spoiler, I know).

I wonder what M. Night Shyamalan would accomplish with this material? Perhaps he would take it too seriously.

 Here is the official site from Dreamworks.

Having given a YouTube trailer right from the movie, I’ll now treat everyone pondering Fareed Zakaria’s suggestion that aliens could save us from economic depression, and if, as another YouTube video says, “Mark Zuckerberg is an alien”, then who really will save us from ourselves?  (He rarely blinks.)  (Video is on my TV blog May 16, 2011 in discussion of Lady Gaga, who also looks like an alien.).

I've reviewed "Battle LA" and "Skyline" on my disaster movies blog. 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

"Frenchman's Farm": Aussie 80's spoof of film noir uses time travel

Recently, I’ve seen some movies about “parallel realities” and the 1987 Australian flick “Frenchman’s Farm” certainly fits in. It’s directed by Ron Way, and the DVD (oddly full screen) distributor is Substance or Magnum.

In Queensland, on a 1984 day where the mercury is over 120F, goes on a drive from her ranch, and her car overheats. When she gets out and tries to fix it, she enters a time warp, and wanders over to a farm looking for help. Before she witnesses a murder, there are copious signs that she has traveled back to the WWII years, before France was liberated.  Then she returns to the present. Pretty soon, she is enlisting boyfriend (David Reyne) into solving the crime. Weird stuff happens, as mainframe computers (the movie shows character display CICS screens as they were in the 80s) act like they have logic bombs keyed on leap year dates and other data seems intentionally corrupted by someone in the past, maybe in the days before computers had good security for access to production files.  (All this could happen if there were no guarantee that the source and load modules match,)

The movie goes into weird territory, link back to retrospects of the French Revolution and the guillotine, with a suggestion that her boyfriend was reincarnated from someone disposed during the Reign of Terror, maybe Robespierre himself.

The film mocks the style of film noir, with shades of Hitchcock, and a music score that varies from Baroque to noir to hip hop. 

Mrparka’s DVD collection update on YouTube includes mention of this movie.

Picture: no, not from movie. but Robert E. Lee's birthplace in VA.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

"If a Tree Falls": Is eco-vandalism more than that? Documentary from the POV of a man who goes to jail for his gradual involvement

As I’ve written before, in my “coming of age”, I witnessed some of the indignation of the radical Left. I was adventurous enough on July 31, 1971 to take pictures on a strip mine in West Virginia before getting stopped and almost arrested by mine officials (I was given a “tour”).  But I was a long way from what happens in “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front”, directed by Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman, from Oscilloscope Films, Tribeca, Sundance and POV (apparently for airing on PBS).

The filmmakers frame their narrative around the story of Daniel McGowan, a former track star who grew up in Brooklyn and then Queens, but who drifted into “protest” as a young adult, seemingly out of lack of personal initiative.  Most of the film takes places as he awaits meetings with prosecutors and then a plea bargain. Four years after moving to New York and going to work in public relations for an NGO, he is arrested a work after a United States Attorney in Oregon had conducted an undercover investigation by one of the ELF members who turned states evidence and wore a wire, tricking Daniel into talking one day at a party in Washington Heights in Manhattan.  The film portrays the horror of something like this happening after four years well.  But McGowan looks overweight and diffident in the film, from the early scenes with the brace around his ankle.  Yet, his life went on; he got married to a woman who knew he would go to jail (the deal was eight years in a supermax in Illinois).  The visual nature of film comes into play here in showing the demeanor and personality of the protagonist effectively, but it will not enlist everyone's sympathy. 

In the mid and late 1990s, the EFL had come together gradually, and targeted assets of lumber and construction companies (and customers of theirs, like a ski resort) it believed had recklessly logged the Pacific Northwest for greed-driven profits.  An incident in Eugene, OR involving cutting down some city trees had triggered much of this, with the police using pepper spray on denuded demonstrators to bring them down.

The defendants, while guilty of enormous vandalism and targeting of people, say they never injured or physically harmed anyone, which they say distinguishes them from “true” terrorists. The US Department of Justice and at least one judge disagree.  The activists make the point, in a couple of places, that only coercion will make people see when they are doing "wrong" (in their view). What's interesting is the possibility that this gets applied to individuals when they have failures in personal "karma". 

The film has a brief episode at the WTO demonstrations in Seattle in 1999, subject of a film "Battle in Seattle" reviewed here Sept. 21, 2008. The film also mentions mountaintop removal, and shows a quick look at the Kayford mine in West Virginia (CNN has a documentary on "The Battle for Blair Mountain", in W Va, Sunday). 

The official site is here

Friday, August 12, 2011

"The Help": embeds its own book of interviews by "Anonymous": exploitation in 1963 Mississippi

This ("The Help") is the second film this week with the word “Help” in the title, and like the “other” one, it is in the style of independent film, even though it has corporate giants Dreamworks (Paramount) and Touchstone (Walt Disney) collaborating  (along with Participant Media) in this long (137 min) dramedy directed by Tate Taylor. It’s good to see big publicly traded Hollywood studios deciding they can make profits on tackling the history of tough social issues, with a real sense of humor.

Eugena “Skeeter” Phelan has come to Jackson MS around early 1963 determined to become a newswoman and writer, and talks her way into a job covering the housecleaning column.  Pretty soon she is working on a “do ask do tell” book of interviews of  the black “help” that raises white families’ children while stiffing its own.  She winds up collaborating underground with one of the “help”, Aibelene (Viola Davis).

The movie quickly brings up the horrible segregationist laws, which not only made it illegal for “colored” to use whites’ bathrooms in homes, but made it illegal to distribute writings that advocated racial equality. It seems in this movie as if white women in the South then lived like Scarlet O'Hara, spoiled, not comprehending their pathetic dependency. 

Skeeter soon learns of a number of humorous backstories, some of which turn into pure situation comedy (as with one white woman eating chocolate pie, not knowing what was in it  --
“something amazing is about to be served”).  In time, the movie layers itself, as a book by “Anonymous” called “The Help” is published and suddenly takes off.  But then there is one final twist.

The idea that it had to be published "anonymously" is itself interesting. I say, if you mean what you say, identify yourself. 

The movie does cover some 1963 history, such as Medgar Evers’s death, and then the JFK funeral.  And there is plenty of funny story in-line, as with the “white trash” woman Celia (Jessica Chastain) who wants to hire a maid for the middle of the day only and hide her lack of housewife skills from her husband.

Here is the official site from Dreamworks.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

"A Childhood Place", short film about George Washington's birthplace at Popes Creek Plantation (shown by NPS)

The George Washington Birthplace National Monument near Colonial Beach, VA on the tidewater Potomac River shows a 14 minute film “A Childhood Place”, produced by Rick Krepela and written and directed by Edmund F. (I lost the notes – I think that name is "Edmund Frost"), made back in 1975.

The short film takes one through four seasons on the Popes Creek Plantation. Winters were harsher than today, and small children often died during the winters. Even wealthy people grew their own food and for the most part made their own tools (or had blacksmiths living in their employ).

One of the most interesting aspects of colonial life was the use of tobacco for currency.  How could this happen, when tobacco is not inherently scare or in limited supply and was in essence “renewable”?  That indeed sounds strange in today’s discussions of economics.  Part of the explanation comes from the mercantilism with which Britain administered the colonies, as explained in this link, “Economic Aspects of Tobacco”, link here. I remember this matter being on an American history test in 11th grade (essay questions) back in 1959, and nobody understood this.

Another interesting point in the film concerns the way the Washington family fit into society, particularly by serving in the militia.

The NPS link for the National Monument is here

The YouTube video of the Visitor’s Center was made by Lagartosea (I should have made a film here as well as taking beaucoup pictures.)

"Albino Farm" follows a familiar horror plot, with a troubling underlying "concept"

Back around 1982, a computer operator whom I worked with in Dallas told me of a short story he had written.  Some young people explore a camp of “mutants” in Lake Murray, Oklahoma and only one escapes, to be rescued and brought into an evangelical church and saved. Unbeknownst to them, the outside world has experienced a nuclear holocaust.

The little horror film “Albino Farm”, written and directed by Joe Anderson and Sean McEwen, follows this general outline, except that the setting is the Ozarks near Springfield, MO (where the Assemblies of God are headquartered). 

After a backstory prologue, four college students (played by Nick Richey, Sunkrish Bala, Tammin Sursok and Alicia Lagano), supposedly with an assignment to write a research paper on local history, go into the ghost town of Shiloh, MO to pick up on rumors of a lost “Albino Farm”.  The DVD extras, in fact, discuss mention of such a place in the area from Civil War times.  Brian (Nick’s character) is especially daredevlish in tracking the place down.

This is one of those movies where you know that most of the appealing young people are going to “get it”. This is no exception.  The film seems like a sequential dream, with some religious clues (including a revival tent).  Pretty soon they are taken to the “farm”, much of which is inside a cave.

For some time, the movie deals with the "issue" of deformity.  (The script quotes a curious passage from Leviticus Chapter 21, which definitely would seem to contradict the spirit of the Gospels.)  One could take offense with it, especially when Brian is “teased” by one of the female mutants.  Yes, like Shutter Island, this was one of those places were “misfits” were housed away (and then bred).  But finally one female character will escape to “salvation”.

A tagline in the film is “We always welcome those in need.”

Here is the official site

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes": all they want is to go home; but there is a "warning"

My mother used to say I’m not a climber, whenever there was a problem on the roof.

True, and I was struck indeed by the upper body strength and physical boldness of the chimpanzees in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, from director Rupert Wyatt, 20th Century Fox and Dune Entertainment, as the primates swing from the branches of the redwood forest north of San Francisco.

I had actually seen the original “Planet of the Apes” in 1968 at Fort Jackson, SC when in Army Basic during our first weekend of “post privileges”.

The story is a bit contrived, and maybe facile. James Franco plays scientist Will Rodman, who has worked on a couple of virus vectors to implant genes that will cure Alzheimer’s Disease. In chimps, the genes are passed on to progeny.  After an outbreak in the lab, Will takes home a “smart” baby chimp Caesar and raises it as “dad”.  He also treats his dad (John Lithgow) with the virus, and his dad has a brief respite from Alzheimer’s and a normal life for a while before relapsing.

In time, the authorities get wind of all this after some trouble, and Caesar winds up on an animal farm, where he communicates his “plans” to other chimps who break out and stage a rebellion, leading to a battle in the streets of San Francisco and eventually the Golden Gate Bridge. But the chimps – and Caesar can now speak simple sentences – just want to go home to the forest.

The movie has another twist, suggesting a sequel, of what happens to other humans who get “infected” with the virus.  A hemorrhagic fever ensues.  Is this a cross to the coming Matt Damon film “Contagion”?

Here’s the official site

Picture: Orangutan at Washington DC zoo, 2007.  

Monday, August 08, 2011

"The French Lieutenant's Woman": "parallel universes" through movie-making

Since “parallel universes” seem to appeal to filmmakers now, I thought I would watch the 1981 MGM classic “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”, directed by Karel Reisz.  Netflix has a slightly abridged version for instant viewing only, with no DVD available. Harold Pinter adapted the screenplay from the layered novel by John Fowles.

The “parallel universes” are the fiction story set in Victorian England, and then a similar story in 1980 England, with the actors having affairs that mirror those in the backstory, although not exactly.  Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep play the “couple” (s); in modern life, they have other relationships (as Mike, Jeremy’s character is married with kids). In the backstory, Charles has a fiancee but meets the outcast Sarah along the coastal cliffs, which develops into an affair.

Really, the most interesting part of the film is the beginning, where Sarah takes a “job” as a companion of a rich woman after her being widowed leaves her penniless.  She has to read the Bible to get the job. In a critical scene with Charles, she utters her famous line, “I’m hardly human; I’m the French lietenant’s whore”.

The landlady hates the French, too.

The film jumps back and forth, using little clues about the different technology. The first scene in the present day is initiated with a phone call.  Later, trains are compared (steam v. electric). What gets interesting is how seamless and interchangeable these “parallel worlds” become most of the time.

There are interesting undercurrents, such as discussions of Darwinism (Charles is a paleontologist).  The background score by Carl Davis contains what sounds like a passionate violin concerto, which is apparently original.  There is some Mozart and Bach in the score.

The “parallel world” concept plays out differently than in my own “do ask do tell” screenplay, where “reality” is on another planet or may be the “afterlife”, and the backstories include fiction by one of the characters interacting with his past “real life”. Then, strangely, he finds he can go back to his real life, with a twist.  Meryl Streep would be perfect for the “high school principal” in the back story of my screenplay.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

"A Better Life": (another) remake of "Bicycle Thief"; also a commentary on the cultural divide between "illegal immigrants" and US mainstream

When we contemplate the illegal immigration issue, we often do not recognize the tremendous gap in culture and values among the Latino population affected and the polarized people already here in the US, so well noticed by conservative politicians (like Arizona governor Jan Brewer).

A Better Life”, a new film by Chris Weitz (who starred in “Chuck & Buck”), lays all the “culture war cards” on the table. Carlos Galindo (Demian Bichir) plays an illegal immigrant who has been in the US for a number of years, working as a gardener and arborist in rich people’s estates around LA and Beverly Hills. He is raising a teenage son Luis (Jose Julian, who gives as compelling performance as another young actor), who has to balance street smarts and gang culture with adapting to living in western society. He does badly in school and skips, but is obviously smart and literate; his English is good and Carlos, as do all the grownups and teens in his community, accepts the idea that you hold together and remain loyal to your “natural family”. You don’t worry about following the laws and “rules” of the “bourgeoisie”.  You do what you have to do.  Life is not about you, it is about your place in a lineage. It is about survival, and it is about raising children who will have “a better life” than you. That’s what he wants for Luis.

The movie (about half of it in Spanish) shows life in the Latino community in LA graphically. Garden apartment complexes in East LA are shown as rotating waves of illegals in specific units, who all go out to the hiring halls every day for construction and gardening jobs.  One could make another movie about the operations that bring them here and put them up.

Now we can get into a discussion of the screenplay (Eric Eason, based on a story by Robert L. Simon).  On the surface, it resembles Vittorio Di Sica’s “The Bicycle Thieves” (or “The Bicycle Thief”), discussed here already July 21 in conjunction with a Truffaut movie.  A “friend” talks him into buying a truck, and he is able to start his own business (cash only, probably).  But then another acquaintance steals his truck while he is high up in a palm tree working.  That person sells the truck to send money to his family in Mexico.  See the values war?  Now, Luis, previously ambivalent, jumps to defend his dad, and the two go on a door-to-door hunt for the truck. Eventually they find it, “steal it back”, and get caught by the LA cops, and, guess what, Carlos will be deported. (Luis is apparently native born, which is another point of “a better life” for your kids.)

Summit Entertainment, now (like Lionsgate) a major player in the “large indie” market, is the distributor, and its own site rolls the movies; the best site is on Facebook, here. Summit has finally added music to its trademark. 

Saturday, August 06, 2011

"A Little Help": a family works out its "true lies" after a tragedy

I’ve pretty much skipped Long Island most of my life, having gotten to know the Jersey burbs a lot better. But “A Little Help”, from director Michael J. Weithorn (and Freestyle Releasing) is a somewhat cynical look at heterosexual family life on that long, flat patch of cookie cutter real estate.

Jenna Fischer plays Laura, married to a nice enough real estate broker Bob, played by a now fortyish and variably chested Chris O’Donnell.  He may have seen better days, and his character spends too much time at the office on the road; Laura feels like she needs more “attention”. I’ll backtrack, and note that the film opens with a shot of a talking blue and red parrot in a dental office where Laura works. But pretty soon we’re in the world of summer garden parties ten months after 9/11, and lots of intergenerational dynamics. The film takes its first twenty minutes to bring Bob to his demise, while Laura is trying to get the satisfactions from the Song of Solomon.  Marital sex is supposed to be the most, right?  Bob really isn’t up to it. That particular scene highlights why the heterosexual world could never have worked for me (after I escaped it); it simply makes too many "personal" demands. 

After the funeral, Laura’s sister (Lesley Ann Warren) and mother  “intervene” with “a little help” so that she can stay in the house and raise her flabby and falsely brainy 12-year-old kid Dennis (Daniel Yelsky).  Grandma (who thinks Laura is spoiled) wants to send him to a private school, all with white shirts and bow ties.

Enter the true lies. Part of the survival strategy is a malpractice lawsuit against the emergency room doctor, who could have done more (not really); isn’t that what insurance companies are for?   The lawyer (Kim Coates) is creepy. And her little boy makes up a second big lie, that his dad died as a fireman saving people on 9/11.  Nobody seems to get the harm of this.

Laura’s sister’s husband  Paul (Rob Benedict) does start to take an interest in Laura, leading to telescoped ambiguity toward the end.  Paul has a  handsome, shaggy-legged teenage son Kyle (Zach Page aka Zach Goldstein), talented in guitar, but failing in academics, posing a family issue the story could have dealt with in more detail (or could take up in a sequel); the character is one of the more appealing characters in the film, bereft of likeable adults, who just want to conduct their games in the spirit of “The War of the Roses”.  The actor actually wrote a song for the film, according to the credits.

The film did register with me because of various situations that have occurred in my own life.  I insist on going on my own path, and not being dragged in to playing other people’s games and winding up in the middle of a situation like this.  No wonder “the straight world” sometimes has a bad reputation.

The site for the film is here

I saw this at the AMC Shirlington on a Saturday afternoon in front of a respectably sized audience. People in Arlington seem to be interested in this movie.

Picture: (not in film) around Newburgh, NY, recent trip, 2011.  

Friday, August 05, 2011

"The Future": A stray cat has the key to warping time

When I lived in a garden apartment in Dallas in 1979, I was adopted by an unaltered male cat. He learned to recognize the sound of my Chevette and raced for the second landing apartment door as I pulled up everyday, even reaching to turn the door knob.  Once inside, right to the refrigerator.  He would sometimes climb into my bed before I retired.

The voice over for the injured cat Paw-Paw is hard to understand, and we don’t get to see much of the feline in Miranda July’s new spacy comedy, “The Future”.  (She is known for “Me and You and Everyone We Know”).

Jason (Hamish Linklater) and Sophie (Miranda July, who also dubs Paw-Paw) have found the cat and taken him to an animal shelter, which says he will be ready to go home in a month.  But then we gradually learn of their existential bind: they need to learn to make commitments, or they will freeze in time.  So they will bring their cat home in 30 days and change their ways, and maybe keep him going for 5 years, until they are in their forties.  What about the commitment it would take to have and raise children? That’s more than 5 years of “bonding”. Maybe that means marriage.

Jason gives up his at-home tech support job and starts selling tree-planting door-to-door. Sophie teaches dance to kids and wants to do something big with it.  For some reason, the Internet is going to be turned off—is this their “voluntary” plan, or something external that is happening as the world unravels?

The movie then gets weird. Sophie carries on an external affair with an unattractive older man, but wants to stay with Jason, as if she could have two existence trains at the same time and had become her own doppelganger.  Jason seems to have learned how to stop time. 

What disappoints me in the end is that we don’t see more of the cat, who needs to be put on an equal plane with the dog in “Beginners” (made my July’s husband).

Here is the “official blog” for the film from Roadside Attractions, the distributor. 

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

"Death in the Garden", is a garish 50s French film in the spirit of "Sorcerer"

The idea of characters thrown together to survive in a wilderness has inspired quite a few movies of the “Sorcerer” type;  in the spirit of “Wages of Fear” there is a similarly spirited film by Luis Bunuel, “Death in the Garden” (“La mort in ce jardin” which translates to “this garden”, 1956), based on the novel by Jose Andre LaCour.  The film, originally released in French and Spanish, was filmed in Mexico, is shot in garish Eastmancolor.  The film also plays on the political instability and lawlessness of Latin America.

Shark (Georges Marchal) is an “adventurer” and prospector, exploring an unnamed Latin American country bordering Brazil. He is arrested and falsely accused of a bank robbery. But then the corrupt police seize the gold, leading to a revolt and a chance to escape through the jungle with several other people.  Simone Signoret,  Charles Vanel, Michel Piccoli, and Tito Junco star. In the end, there are themes familiar from other films since: friendly fire, a crashed plane (“Lost”), and limited survivors.

There is an interesting line to the effect that family men, with kids, don’t take ridiculous risks. That idea could be challenged.

The original distributors were Cenedis and Astor; the DVD comes from Microcinema.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

"Life in a Day": The filmmaker is "you"

The “ScotFree” (Ridley Scott and Tony Scott) and “National Geographic Entertainment”  -- and YouTube -- have given us a “social experiment” with amateur filmmaking, with a collage of several hundred clips in “Life in a Day”, which was Saturday, July 24, 2010.

The “directors” (editors and selectors) are listed as Kevin Macdonald, Natalia Andraidis, and Joseph Michael.  

Here was Google’s own original blogger entry on the “contest”: link.  The clips very definitely give a feel for "Earth One" (all of which reminds me of "Another Earth", just reviewed, or the 90s series "Earth Two" with Antonio Sabato -- remember that?) 

I guess in a way this is the Internet company’s “first film”.

There are a number of graphic scenes: a man in the ICU after coronary bypass surgery, a woman after cancer surgery.  There is a Korean man on a bike trip, going through Nepal but talking about “unification” of Korea.  There are lots of scenes, especially early in the film, with a lot of family emotional intimacy.

There is a wonderful scene where a good looking young gay man, in shorts and minimal tanks, talks on the phone in his NYC apartment and comes out to his parents.

At the end of the film, a young woman filming a thunderstorm near the oil rigs off the coast of Scotland wonders “what happened today”. 

Here is National Geographic’s site.

The "spirit" of this effort reminds me of the 48 Hour Film Project, although it was not affiliated with that. 

I saw this at the 3 PM show on a Monday afternoon at the West End Cinema in Washington DC and it was fairly well attended for a weekday.  The film seemed to run about 100 minutes. 

Picture: not from film, a party (a disco party could get into a film like this). 

Monday, August 01, 2011

"Koran by Heart": a "spectacular" documentary look at a contest regarding learning the Koran

The HBO Documentary “Koran by Heart,” by Greg Barker, gives an intimate look into the world of Islam.

Boys from Tajikistan and Senegal, and a girl from Maldives all enter a contest in Cairo on reciting the Koran, which is actually sung in a strict cadence which would be of interest to voice musicians.

The students memorize all 600 pages and 100+ chapters without necessarily understanding the text. They don’t always even speak Arabic as their home tongue. (See Book Review blog, March 10, 2010.)   After 9/11, the role of local madrasahs, where boys memorize the Koran, had been portrayed in a very negative light by the media. This film might turn that around. 

In Maldives, an iman says that "a man is a single person, a woman is a man's future" and says his daughter will not work and will take care of the home. I understand that "intellectually" but cannot relate to it emotionally.

Another iman talks about the strict rules of the Koran (which seem to guarantee that everybody "pays his dues"), but says that the Koran forbids violence and terrorism. 

The film has spectacular shots of Cairo, Maldives, and Tajikistan and looks particularly sharp in HiDef, like BluRay.

Here is HBO’s official site

"Witnesses": gritty thriller from Croatia about the horror of the early 90s war, with "vantage points"

The word “witness” occurs in movie titles a lot.

Recently, I rented the well-produced and expansive, if brief, Croatian film “Witnesses” (“Svjedoci”), from Vinko Bresan (2003), from Film Movement. A man and his family are assassinated in a kind of home invasion, and there are multiple witnesses. The film traces several characters, affected by different poits of view. But this film is not so much about what happened (like “Vantage Point” by Pete Travis and Columbia in 2008) as how it affects the characters going forward. And generally, it’s badly. There are family strifes over the sacrifices already made (one man has lost a limb), and a general mood supporting the “ethnic cleansing” that the media reported back in 1993 about Bosnia. One man urinates on his prisoners, and another blows up a religious statue, almost the way the Taliban did in 2001 in Afghanistan. There is a certain meanness to all of this, a willingness to mow down victims for “my side”. Sound like our current political crisis?

Here is the official site.

Apparently the film did well at a 2004 Berlin Film Festival. The on location photography, 2.35:1,however rain-soaked and gray, is stunning.

The DVD has a short, 13 min, “Little Terrorist”, by Asvin Kumar. A little boy, Jamal, a Muslim, crosses the border from Pakistan into India, and is sheltered by an Indian family that shaves his head as a disguise.

There are a couple other major films about “witnesses”. One is “The Witnesses” or “Les Temoins” (2007) by Andre Techine (Strand Releasing), about a young man from North Africa who develops AIDS (even Kaposi’s Sarcoma) after befriending a physician and a police officer.

But the best known film with this title keyword is “Witness” (1985, Paramount) by Peter Weir, where Harrison Ford plays a cop who must work with an Amish family after a woman from that group witnesses a murder.

And don’t forget Billy Wilder’s convoluted “Witness for the Prosecution” for United Artists in 1957, courtroom drama with unbelievable last minute surprises that questions marriage itself, all the way back then.