Wednesday, February 29, 2012

"Beyond Lemuria: The Shaver Mystery and the Secrets of Mt. Shasta" is a slow but interesting film

Beyond Lemuria: The Shaver Mystery and the Secrets of Mt. Shasta” (2007), directed by Gregory Jenack and based on a story by Poke Runyon, is a slow moving, deliberately spoken and dream-like rendition of the “Lemuria” mystery, with a plot track that runs “in parallel”.

First, the “Shaver Mystery” refers to Richard Sharpe Shaver, who had written sci-fi "Amazing Stories" in the 1940s about an underground lost civilization.  And more of us have heard of Master Phylos the Tibetan (a somewhat elderly Merrick Rees Hammer in this film), and “A Dweller on Two Planets”.  And we all know the legends of Atlantis and the earlier Lemuria. (I recall seeing the edgy 1961 MGM film “Atlantis: The Lost Continent” by George Pal with the handsome Sal Ponti).

The story concerns a young graduate doctoral student William Morgan (Christofer Sanders), at the University of California at Fullerton, who is attending lectures on Lemuria and gets drawn into a group that will initiate him and take him on an adventure on and below Mt. Shasta.  The film takes him through some bizarre personal encounters, such as with a paralyzed man who gets healed, and uniform changes before he meets Phylos.  Then he goes on two simultaneous journeys, one below the mountain, with a society called the Draconians who possess a mysterious “Intragravatron”, and up on the mountain with the “Lothinians”.  Is he exploring a choice between two alternate realities?

The underground kingdom has a lot of beautiful artifacts and machines, and the colors and designs are quite striking. But eventually there is a terrible outcome: the government is going to seal off the cave, and the voyagers will be trapped underground forever.  So better take the alternate.  Even so, William goes through being blinded (as an almost Biblical punishment) and we finally see a little bit of what he is made of.  But there is still a chance to “see the Sun” (or Son) on the mountain.

The film has a side character, a fundamentalist preacher running a "National Crusade" of the most right-wing kind, including a lot of homophobic comments, which do get taken down by the main characters in the story (including William).  

The official site is here.  The film is distributed by Maelstrom Press .

I visited the Mt. Shasta area myself in May 1978 on vacation (during an interesting period of my personal life).  I remember seeing a dog eat a chocolate ice cream cone in the town.  I visited one of the shamans in town myself.  I visited some of the glass mountains and petroglyphs in the area and remember Neil Sedaka on the rental car radio, “There was a time when strangers were welcome here.”

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Mt. Shasta.

For today’s “short film”, look at my “drama blog” on Jan. 26, 2011, with the Feb. 24 update, “I Care If You Listen: Hang #3” (about classical music, 20 min.), by Thomas Deneuville.     

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"In Darkness" is harrowing to watch

The film “In Darkness”, from director Agnieszka Holland, starts with a shot of a model train, and pretty soon we see it running a closed loop on a dining room table. That perhaps provides a metaphor for the scope of lives that the Jews hiding from the Nazis will lead for fourteen months in the sewer system below Lvov, Poland.

There are plenty of comparisons of the film to Steven Spielberg's “Schindler’s List” (1993), but in this film the “hero” Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) has his own financial motives for “hiding” refugees, only to change his attitude and purpose over time.  The film is in a restrained color (the Spielberg film had been in mostly BW), but the environment, about half of the movie talking place in the narrow, dark, oval tunnels, is so contained as to seem anti-visual.  When the film makes forays above the manholes, the effect is that of going to another planet (or emerging from a “Matrix”).  Because of the narrow visual focus, it was probably a good idea to stay with 1.85:1. This is a long film (145 minutes).

The society underground is almost as terrifying as the concentration camps.  There is a subplot where a woman gives birth, and everyone says they will share being parents.  But she smothers it to keep the baby’s cries from attracting the SS above.  The climax of the film comes, just before liberation (by the Russians, into communism) when a thunderstorm fills the sewers and drowns many of the people.

The music score, with many classical quotes, is startling, especially in the end credits, where it seems to use microtones (or quarter tones); it’s composed by Antoni Komasa-Lazarkarkiewicz.

Here’s a site about the history of Lvov during the Holocaust.

Sony’s official site is here

The movie was nominated for best foreign language film. 

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of downtown Warsaw, which I visited in May 1999.  It’s changed a lot in ten years. When I was there, it seemed a bit monotonous compared to other European cities. Krakow is interesting.  

Monday, February 27, 2012

Madonna's "W.E." does an interesting juxtaposition of two parallel stories

We could call Madonna’s new film “W.E.” (or “W./E.”) “The King’s Speech II”  (review Dec. 20, 2010, of the TWC "best picture" of 2010 telling the story of King George VI), as Edward VIII gives his abdication speech, and the film does indeed add to our perception of history in the years immediately before WWII.  Indeed, one of the most disturbing allegations made against Edward (James D’Armcy) was that he could be in cahoots with Hitler.

The film hasn’t been particularly well received by critics, but Madonna has an interesting concept of weaving two stories, from 1930s (mostly) and the late 1990s.  Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), is married to an abusive psychiatrist husband in modern day Manhattan, and has somehow given up her career for motherhood, but has not been able to conceive.  She starts working a Sotheby’s auction and becomes fascinated with the story of Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) – her courtship and marriage to Edward, and what she gave up (as well as Edward’s “sacrifice”). 

The film tends to make the six-decade transitions seamless, and the women interchangeable.  Simpson is indeed living the former heroine’s life in her head.  But she develops a relationship with a  former Russian agent Evgeni (Oscar Isaac).  It gets funny in sots, as when Evgeni plays piano without his breeches on, but his legs are not an embarrassment (despite his smoking – and in the 30s scenes, everybody smokes).

The music score by Abel Korzeniowski reminds one of Philip Glass.  There are a lot of interesting embedded period songs, including a performance of “The Twist” by Wallis as Edward is dying in 1972.

I love that old saying, "what do you mean, We?" 

The official site is here.  As with "The King's Speech", this film is distributed in the US by The Weinstein Company. Alex Keshishian co-wrote the screenplay with Madonna. 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

"Office Space" (1999) pokes fun at the way corporate America treats non-union employees; a warning as to how one can be framed; "The Artist" wins at Oscars.

The 1999 satire-comedy “Office Space”, from director Mike Judge (20th Century Fox), refers to the Y2K effort (which I remember well from my own job then) and shows desktop office computers and workplace cubicles as they really looked then. 

More important, of course, is the “message”. 

A Texas company named Initech struggles with an old-fashioned workplace culture. It’s definitely pre-Google and pre-Facebook; it wouldn’t be fun to work for Initech.   (I actually think I would enjoy working for either of the two “modern” companies I just listed.)  A customer service agent Peter (Ron Livingston) hates his job and tells everybody. In the meantime, some efficiency experts go around and interview all the workers, who take it to mean their being re-interviewed to keep their own jobs.  Despite the currency of that sort of idea, it used to happen, even back in the 1950s (situation comedy episodes in shows like “My Little Margie” were based on this idea).  The company plans to lay off its best paid techies and hire free interns and outsource the rest overseas.  Morale is terrible.  We’ve all seen this before, and we hear about it today in the political debate on unemployment.

The plot gets zany when Peter is hypnotized and then the “doctor” drops dead, leaving Peter with some subconscious inspiration.  He winds up being groomed for management despite his bad attitude, and in the meantime the techies launch a scheme to shave off the rounding errors of transactions to put in his account, to make him look like a criminal.  The movie, however, has an ending that recalls “Body Heat”.

Seriously, in the mainframe world (or really the client-server world, too, with different parameters), it’s possible that if you don’t follow secured systems elevation procedures with “separation of function”, this could really happen.  A criminal could cause the load modules not to match the source, and plant a date-driven logic bomb.

Today’s “short films” (unrelated to the DVD).

First, “Sunday’s Aliens” (look at the Drama Blog today).

Then, “The Passenger:  Armenia  and Azerbaijan Without War”, International Issue blog, today.

Also, “Bent”, the 1997 film by Sean Mathias based on the play by Martin Sherman, is discussed on yesterday’s entry on the Drama Blog.

Happy Oscars!

Update: 1 AM Monday.

"The Artist" won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and a lot more. 

Friday, February 24, 2012

"Left in Darkness" gives an unpleasant primer on what angels put us through when we go; AND, Bill's pick for "Best Picture"

When driving back to Dallas from Oklahoma on a fall Sunday night in 1983, I heard, on the car radio, a fundamentalist pastor describe what happens when one “dies”.  You are met by an angel, who tells you the lowdown on just how you will be processed.  It sounds like getting drafted into the Army all over again.

I recently did have a dream, of being in some sort of cabin, and wanting to wake up, of being on another planet where they did not use money, and then being in some sort of “Yotel”, and then I finally did wake up.  That was a scare.  Another time I dreamed of being blind, and of not being able to get the lights on.

In “Left in Darkness”, a low budget ($200000) thriller from Anchor Bay and IDT (2006) (director Steven R. Monroe) the “heroine” Celia (Monica Keena) “comes to” on a latrine floor, after being sick, on the night of a 21st Birthday Party. She drank too much, and was slipped a date-rape drug, and her last memory was giving in to an attractive young man.  She has trouble getting a grip on things, and when she sees her own lifeless body, she knows she’s in trouble. She wants to wake up, and wanders around, and finds herself in the same frat house, more or less, but the people are gone.  Her hope that she is dreaming and sleepwalking fails.  Then she meets the guardian angel, Donovan (David Anders), who may not turn out to be her “friend” either, and not even a guidance counselor. 

It seems that she’s caught in a limbo, not exactly Catholic Purgatory, and she has a certain amount of “light” in her parallel-universe “sanctuary”, and she can increase her time if she gets others at the party to come with her. After all, shouldn’t her attacker get what he deserves? There’s a good question as to whether she’s allowed to intervene in any way to save the life on anyone on Earth.

She carries a lot of baggage from her life.  Her mother had died in Childbirth, and her grandfather is questionable, too.  It’s not so clear why she has to go through these tribunals. 

I didn't find myself having a "rooting interest" in Celia. I was more intellectually curious about its view of the afterlife.  That's probably not a good reflection on a "thriller" like this but would be appropriate for an intentionally more intellectual film (like "Inception").  One thing, even though great wrong was done to Celia at the frat house party, she still bears the permanent consequences.  She helps pay for another's "sin". 

They’re been other movies about the afterlife.  I reviewed “Astral City” in December, and I remember an earlier film from Lionsgate, “Wristcutters”, where a young man explores the netherworld, and it ain’t pleasant. 
The complete film appears to be available free on YouTube from Starz.  I would think there should be a $1.99 rental charge. 

The official site is here.

Here’s the trailer:

The DVD has a behind-the-scenes featurette (10 min), and a short-short, “My 21st Birthday” (2 min).

On the weekend of the Oscars, Dave Berg in the Washington Times has a commentary, “Academy awards the unpopular and unprofitable: Hollywood just doesn’t care what Americans want”, link here.    I would disagree with him somewhat:  Americans do want “The Artist” (although some didn’t), and “The Descendants” (even if about a man’s being cuckolded).  I thought they wanted “Hugo”, but a lot of people had trouble with “The Tree of Life”.  I think Hollywood gives us way too many franchise retreads.  Is it snobbery to praise movies for adults that don't pander to suburban mall "family" or teeny-bop cliches?

Once, in 2006, in a screenwriting seminar sponsored by a group from LA, the “coach” tried to take my sci-fi treatment ("Titanium") and add to the “stakes” (with unnecessary chases and police threats), as to undermine the whole concept of the film – as a reporter’s existential  journey when his fiancée “went up”.
Okay, who do I think should win Best Picture?   It’s tough.  Who I would have liked (“The Tree of Life” or “Hugo”, or maybe “The Help”) probably isn’t “best”.  And I loved “The Artist” (but I love Paramount’s re-release of “Wings” even more.) I have to go with “The Descendants”.  It did cover even my creative territory pretty well.   Best LGBT film is “Judas Kiss” – which deserved to be in the running in its own right.  I really got in to all of the characters in that film (even Shane!), and they did what characters do.  But that’s also the case with “The Descendants” in the “straight” world.  

Thursday, February 23, 2012

"An Angel Named Billy" is just that!

An Angel Named Billy”, as a title recalls the 1950s film, “A Man Called Peter,” about a progressive Scottish born pastor (Peter Marshall), a film I saw as a boy with my mother, who passed away at 97 a little more than a year ago.  Eldercare was a difficult experience for me, and I had the experience of hiring caregivers, through agencies, and dealing with the dynamics in my own distant way.

But in this 2007 film by Greg Osborne, Billy (Dustin Belt) is a young gay man, just turned 18 and handsome, who gets thrown out of his California valley farm home by his divorced alcoholic father when “caught” kissing a male friend.  Billy hitches to Los Angeles and has to make it on his own with his wits.  But it quickly becomes clear that Billy is very unusual in his ability to deal with people just as he finds them.  He almost seems Christ-like, facing temptation and pushing it aside.

He finds a job opening as a live-in caregiver for a man about 65 (Mark [Richard Lewis Warren],  with severe stroke aftermath, to relieve his fortyish son James (Hank Fields).  The film never mentions the idea that James could have hired through agencies and never deals with the legal questions of employing people in the home.  In the job interview, Billy says “I think I could do this job” – which is not what you say in a real interview – but he gets the job.  Billy bonds to the nearly paralyzed man, actually having fun with the job, and even can relate to the homeless man in the park in the LA-view scene. He seems ready to “Follow Me” as in the Bible.
James invites Billy to a party, where someone upsets Billy by comparing him to a “nurse” – not knowing that nursing is one of the best fields today for job opportunities.  James comforts Billy, and admits he is falling in love with Billy. The conversation is remarkable.  Billy talks about having "fun with Dad", and then later says he has never known what it is liked to be loved before. 

The film has other characters, including Todd (Brent Battles), a drag queen with total alopecia when not in costume, who has intermittently filled in with the caregiving, and Billy’s mother (Allison Fleming).  She catches up with him and is wonderful, but why didn’t she have custody in the first place.  There is a vulnerable younger brother.  And James has an ex who, destroyed by drugs, tries to come back into the loop.

The scenes in the film tend to be drawn out (to a two hour length);  studio films keep a plot like this moving faster.  But at the end, it gets telescoped, and one could speculate that James and Billy took advantage of the window period before Prop 8.

I would want Billy to go to college and probably to nursing school (or med school if possible).

The official site is here. The DVD has several extras in which the director explains the process of making the film on a very limited budget. He says he ran into homophobia in the post processing. 

The DVD had a bump at about the one hour mark, so I had to watch one section online at Netflix. The streaming was full-screen size, and the1.85:1 DVD seems to crop the top and bottom slightly, which really matters in one mildly intimate scene. 

Clearwater Entertainment’s trailer (no embed). 

Angels are said to be "messengers" from God.  We don't know where they come from, but they seem physical and immortal.  In this movie, Billy looks just about perfect. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"How I Ended This Summer" is a stunning two-man Arctic adventure film from Russia -- with a warning

How I Ended This Summer” (“Kak ya provyol etim letom”), now a DVD from Film Movement, directed by Aleksei Popogrebsky) is both a small film with two characters and a spectacular, gripping, epic and enigmatic thriller, and a bit of a mystery.  Alfred Hitchcock would have found this film interesting.  The Russians can make stirring films.

Two men, a forty something Sergei (Perskepelis) and grad student 20-something Pavel (Grigory Dobrygin) man a meteorology station in far northeast Russia, along the Arctic Ocean, in the Chukotka Autonomous Region (Chukchi Peninsula), actually near the Bering Sea and Alaska.  It’s supposed to be August, when the very brief nights start to appear and cold weather can start.  We don’t know this at first, but the outpost apparent stores some nuclear materials and may be contaminated and dangerous.  Men who work there might run a cancer risk later, or be unable to have children.

This is a film with four points of view: the external truth, the knowledge of the omniscient movie goer, and then each of the two men – even if the title suggests a film from Pavel’s (the kid’s) viewpoint. Pavel is apparently an intern and a bit of a daydreamer, liking to play video games and play with his iPod.  The base computers are bizarre black boxes with mainframe screens and no Internet.  Sergei is very dedicated to his work as a meteorologist and somewhat upset with Pavel’s diffidence.  He also likes to go off by himself, without authorization, trout fishing on a motor boat, for reasons that are murky but apparently critical.

While Sergei is off on a trip, Pavel gets a radio message that Sergei’s family back home has been killed in an “accident”.  Pavel doesn’t tell Sergei this.  Why seems like a mystery.  But we start noticing the more bizarre aspects of the setup.  In the midpoint of the film, Sergei displays some homoerotic interest in Pavel, who is quite attractive (he rather resembles James Franco).  Pavel seems to go along with it but acts as if it were unwelcome (that is, he's straight).  What was this family, anyway?  Sergei goes out again, and Pavel  gets more calls from home asking if he told (Pavel says he showed the radiogram) and asking why Sergei is out again.  A rescue ship is supposed to be stuck in the ice (which sounds out of character for August, especially with global warming).  Then, the “nuclear” issue starts figuring into the plot, as well as contamination of the trout.  Pavel seems desperate to escape from Sergei as well as a polar bear (to bring up the Jack London adventure idea, as in many other outdoor films reviewed here, such as “The Grey”).  The ending, when “authorities” arrive, is indeed ambiguous.

Pavel becomes a very strong character is the film progresses, transforming himself into something like an Army Ranger from the "lazybones" attitude he sometimes shows early in the movie. 

For one thing, one could take this film (like another Russian “isolated adventure film” “The Return”, reviewed here Dec 28, 2011) as another dire warning of the loose nuclear material lying around the remnants of the Soviet Union, with the possibility rogue actors could misuse it for terrorist purposes.

The distributor’s website for the film is here. Note that Film Movement offers discounts to subscribers and apparently makes exhibition contracts with smaller art theaters.

The film won prizes at the Berlin and London film festivals in 2011.  I wonder if the Oscars would have seriously considered  a Russian film like this for best foreign language film. 

The film is shot in conventional 1.85:1, but would have benefited from a wider aspect because of the stunning Arctic scenery.   The layout of the compound is a little but hard to follow, and it becomes critical during the final climax of the film (with the “trap door scene”).

The DVD includes a “short film of the month”, “First Day of Peace” (“Prvi dan mira”), directed by Mirko Ruckov, as part of a graduate school thesis.  On the day that a peace agreement to end the Bosnian conflict is announced (in the 1990s), a peasant (Rodoljub Burzaor)  travels to the disputed area to plow the land and bridge ethnic conflicts in person.  Remember that Richard Strauss composed a choral work late in his life called "Peace Day". 

Wikipedia attribution link for map.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

"The Gospel According to Philip K. Dick" is straightforward documentary; the writer's work is not

The Gospel According to Philip K. Dick” (2001), from First Run Features and Mark Steensland, is technically a very straightforward documentary account of the work of the famous science fiction author (who passed away in 1982).  It consists mostly of friends of his speaking, and of simple animations involving a figurine of Philip using a typewriter as if he were Barton Fink.

The documentary opens by stating the famous writer’s prevailing interests: “What is real?” and “What is human?”  He was interested in the perception of reality and its fragility. The film mentions his contemplation of the idea of changing identities with someone else (which actually happens in David Lynch’s cult film “Lost Highway”). 

The documentary tends to focus on a couple of specific incidents in his life. The first occurred in November 1971, when his (California) house was broken into, and the safe exploded.  The crime was never solved.  There’s some talk of drug use and of Philip’s belief he could have entered one of his alternate universes.
The other occurred in March 1974, when Philip thought he had a vision of God as a result of a jewelry artifact he saw when receiving a delivery of medication. 

The writer did not have a lot of financial success during his lifetime, despite the huge volume of conventionally published work.

Nevertheless, largely after his death, Hollywood made a repertoire of big-budget films based on his novels.  I remember “Blade Runner”  (based on “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”) well from 1982 (and the “replicant” concept, as well as a gloomy post-modern Los Angeles).  The other biggest films that come to mind are “Minority Report” (2002, with Tom Cruise and the concept of people being arrested for “pre-crime”), and “Total Recall”, “apparently” (but maybe not really) set on Mars, with Arnold Schwarzenegger.  The most important of these films may be Paramount’s “Next” (2007), with Nicholas Cage (based on “The Golden Man”), who has short-term precognition that plays into trying to intercept a nuclear attack, and the end of this film is quite apocalyptic, as I recall.  “A Scanner Darkly” offered interesting animation, and most recently “The Adjustment Bureau” (here, March 5, 2011).  The 2010 hit film “Inception” certainly uses a lot of this writer’s ideas.

At the end of the documentary, a speaker takes comfort in the fact that no one created a cult religion from the author’s work. He compares the writer to Joseph Smith, who, despite near illiteracy, downloaded the Book of Mormon into his brain from visiting angels, and look at today’s church (see Jan. 10, 2012 here).

The new website for the author and film is here

There is, on this site,  a new (Feb. 2012) 15-minute  film “Dickhead” with Marlon Solomon, directed by Ewan Povey and Mark Emmitt, in which a young filmmaker finds himself living inside one of the author’s novels and wondering if he is a replicant. It’s filmed in Britain, partly in black and white, and refers to a future repressive government. It fits barely within PG-13 territory.

Dickhead from Mark Emmitt on Vimeo.

It strikes me that Dan Fry (author of "To Men of Earth", founder of "Understanding", and a (somewhat conservative) pastor who claimed to have housed an extraterrestrial alien named A-lan in his home for a number of years) would be a good subject for documentary film. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

"Illegal" is an important drama about immigration policy in Europe; the short "Rita" is indeed daring

Most of the time when we hear discussions of immigration policy in the US, we think of Mexico and maybe Latin America. For Europe, we’ve gotten used to thinking about the cultural wars associated with heavy Muslim immigration.

But the Belgian drama “Illegal”, from Film Movement, by director Olivier Masset-Depasse (2010), presents us with Tania (Anne Coesens) as a Russian living with the tween son Ivan (Alexandre Colntcharov) living illegally in Belgium (Tania has been denied legal residence). Tania fears separation from her son.   She burns her fingertips and falsifies an application for health insurance. She advises her friend  Zina (Olga Zhdanova) to apply for asylum from Belarus.    One day Tania is arrested by cops on the street and thrown into detention.  She works as a maid in detention to have the chance to call her son.  She takes over Zina’s identity and gets caught playing the “Dublin Trick” and is told she (Zina) had also applied for asylum from Poland.

The government tries to deport Tania to Poland.  The cops treat her roughly on the plane, and the passengers revolt, filming the police on cell phones, despite the protestations of police (a well known issue in the US). The captain, fearing for safety, orders the cops and Tania off the plane (again, an airline security issue well known in the US with the TSA), and she gets to stay and reunite with her son, however battered.

The film has been hailed as critical of Belgium’s immigration enforcement as among the toughest in Europe.  Although Belgian police objected, the country tried to get the film nominated as best foreign language film for 2009.

The film (1.85:1) is shot with a lot of closes-ups and hand-held cameras, in Dogme style, and has a “Lars van Trier” feel.

The official site in France is here  (Haut et court films).

With Film Movement, the “short film of the month” is always a mystery, but this time it’s a very curious entry indeed, “Rita”, from Italy, directors Fabio Grassadonie and Antonio Piazza.

The 18 minute film presents us with a blind 10-year-old girl, Rita (Marta Palermo).  Her overprotective mother (not shown but heard), after lecturing her again, says she has to run an errand to the haberdashery.  While the mother leaves her alone (maybe illegal in the US), a young man (Marco Correnti) breaks into the house , apparently looking for cash or jewelry.  When he sees her, he suddenly feels compassion, touches her on the face very gently, and encourages her to go outside with him, for the first taste of freedom in her whole life.  The notes refer to him as a “boy”, but on the beach it becomes visually apparent he is a grown young man.  She cannot see him, of course, creating a curious artistic concept.  They start talking about learning to swim.  He encourages her to wade into the ocean, to moderate depth, perhaps chest high.  He then swims away and leaves her, to learn to swim for herself.

The images of the girl might be "illegal" in some states in the US. 

The film is shot 2.35:1.  That seems unnecessary, as for much of the early part of the film the camera is focused only on her face. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Sony-Affirm's Biblical "Jeremiah" has a modern meaning; another note on Sundance

In a Safeway recently, I picked up an inexpensive DVD of the 1998 Sony Affirm film “Jeremiah” (subtitle, “A Prophet of Destruction”), with Patrick Dempsey as the prophet in a less-covered period of Old Testament history.

The film, written and directed by Harry Winer, is sold as part of the Sony Affirm “The Bible Stories” series, but it can be understood as a metaphor for very serious modern problems concerning free speech and the legitimacy of authority, even if the Biblical world it presents is that of a tribal Old Testament society driven very much by religion and its belief that Jehovah runs everything.

Dempsey was about 30 when the film was shot, but the Biblical story actually spans several decades. The look of the film is almost extraterrestrial, with Technicolor very saturated, somewhat in the manner of 50s Fox spectacles. 

The film opens with the boy (Luke Sheppard) growing up in the village of Anathoth as a gifted child.  When he is a young man, God appears to him in angelic form and tells him he will not marry and should leave his family and become a prophet, warning the people and the King that Judah will be attacked from Babylon (Chaldea or Iraq) if they do not give up idol worship and materialism, and foolish political ventures.  The king adopts a “shoot the messenger” approach, and even Jeremiah’s family will not support him, as it believes he endangered them to become outspoken for his own ego (imagine the same situation with today’s Internet – and this film was made just before that possibility with social media was becoming evident).  It’s interesting to wonder how someone is chosen as a prophet by God rather than just being self-appointed.  In a complicated series events (following the Book of Jeremiah), Jerusalem itself is overrun and Jeremiah is imprisoned, in a cage and then a dungeon, and the people captured (in a way that reminds me of the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939).  But Jeremiah is rescued and treated well by the captors (in a manner that somewhat reminds us of Joseph and Egypt), whereas Nebudchadnezzar  (Klaus Maria Brandauer) treats the Judean king most brutally, killing his sons and then blinding him in a brutal scene concluding the film.

Stuar Bunce plays Baruch, more or less Jeremiah’s best friend and also committed to the prophesy. Baruch is often clean-shaven.  There is a tendency for other young men contemporary of Jeremiah (including the Judean king (Hicham Ibrahami) to look a little bit too much like the prophet.  The film doesn’t go into “David and Jonathan” territory, and tends to present Jeremiah as a heterosexual  who really gave up marriage and having children on God’s calling (much like a Catholic priest is supposed to do).  It isn’t too hard to imagine other interpretations.

The film should not be confused with the 2002 science-fiction TV series by the same name, or the 1972 film “Jeremiah Johnson” with Robert Redford.

The full movie is available on YouTube (I’m surprised not to find a $1.99 rental charge, which would be appropriate).

Another curious film on the “prophet-savior” complex is “Joshua” (2002, Artisan Entertainment and Epiphany Films), directed by Jon Purdy, novel by Joseph Girzone, about a young man (Tony Goldwyn) who can “save” people and raise them from the dead, in a modern time small town; he eventually visits the Vatican.  I saw this in school when I was substitute teaching.

Here’s a note: the film “Slavery by Another Name” played at Sundance this year in the Documentary competition.  It aired on PBS and I have already reviewed it on my TV blog Feb. 13, 2012. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

"The Woman in Black": Daniel Radcliffe is in film noir, looking sharp; who remembers Eleanor Parker in "The Woman in White"?

The Woman in Black” at first comes across as a 40s-style noir thriller, gradually morphing more into the “B movie” period horror film, or “chiller”, with the usual array of plot twists and ideas.  The movie is somewhat freely adapted from the 1983 Gothic novel by Susan Hill, and is set around 1910 in an English coastal village, when cars were a novelty for the wealthy.

This is one of the first post-Potter roles for Daniel Radcliffe, 23 in real life, who plays a solicitor, Arthur Kipps,  trying to keep his job. He acts and looks a little older, the cinematography stressing some of the trappings of a grown man, even if he is almost always in a vested suit.  His boss tasks him to do all the discovery on a complicated rural estate after a mysterious wealthy widow.

He travels from London to the Umbrian coast, has to stay in a hotel attic, before venturing to “The House”, isolated by high tides, where he winds up holing up and dealing with the ghost of a Woman in Black, whose appearance foreshadows “kindertotenlieder”, or the deaths of children.  He has befriended a local businessman (with a car), Daily, played by Ciaran Hinds.  The townspeople seem to want Kipps gone and all the horrible secrets to stay buried in the tides and heath.

A prologue to the film, where three young sisters playing with a doll house suddenly go to the window and jump, sets up the "theme".

The story starts to become existential, as Arthur’s own background (as a young widower because of childbirth death and a young son of his own) becomes intertwined with the plot.  We can only say that the denouement depends a bit on the parallel world idea.  To say more would be to spoil.

One of the most technically demanding scenes involves pulling a lost body from the heath at night with a car, a rope, and Arthur’s showing more physical courage than I could demonstrate.  (He also runs into a burning house – but it seems kids and other people come looking for him to be their savior. 

The official site is here

The film is distributed in the US by CBS Films, which seems to be focusing on lower budget thrillers, often of Canadian or British origin.    CBS used to own Columbia, which is now Sony, which operates a comparable brand, Screen Gems.

I saw it in the AMC Courthouse in Arlington VA, downstairs, to a fair crowd, but in a smaller auditorium (third week), with a screen not quite wide enough for full aspect of 2.35:1.

There are some classic films with similar names, even somewhat similar concepts, such as “The Woman in White” (1948, dir. Peter Godfrey, based on the novel by Wlkie Collins, WB, with Eleanor Parker playing two women), as well as “The Woman in the Window" (RKO, Fritz Lang).  The Collins film was actually shown on a horror movie festival on late night television in 1963 called “Chiller”, but it is more conventional suspense and mystery rather than horror. Actually, in this new film, I thought I saw the ghost in white a few times as well as black. 

As for Tommy Lee Jones and “Men in Black”, ("MIB") that’s a totally different world.

Picture (mine), Ocean City, MD, Aug. 2010

Thursday, February 16, 2012

"Surveillance": the FBI, the police, and survivors "watch" each other

Some mystery or crime films seem to be set up to experiment with plot gimmicks.

Such is the case with Magnolia (or Magnet) Pictures’s “Surveillance” (2008), directed by Jennifer Lynch (yes, this brutal film is directed by a woman, in fact, she’s the daughter of David Lynch).  After a bloodbath on the Nebraska plains (the film was shot in Saskatchewan, near Regina, a city whose name begs jokes), three survivors are brought in for separate questioning, by FBI agents (Bill Pullman, aging rapidly, and Julia Ormond).  They survivors are a 10 year old girl (Ryan Simpkins), rogue cop Bennett (Kent Harper), and a coke addict (Pell James).  The crime is reconstructed in flashbacks and pieces from the apparently contradictory testimony (including crayon drawings from the girl), and a story emerges where police officers were shooting the tires out of motorists to stop them for speeding and rough them up for money. Then some rear-end crashes would occur, and things would escalate.  But eventually more stuff escalates in the interviews themselves, leading an improbable (and partly lesbian) and brutal climax with its surprise ending.  

The DVD has a featurette, “Surveillance: The Watchers Are Being Watched”, by Adam Harding.

The DVD also has a couple deleted scenes, one of which shows a bizarre “love-in” between Pullman and Ormond’s characters, complete with shaving cream (or was it shampoo) at the end, as the catastrophe is unfolding. She also offers an alternative ending, which she says is personally less logical given the characters, but more like the ending of her dad’s infamous film “Blue Velvet”.

The soundtrack has one song by David Lynch.

The official soundtrack is here. The film was actually available from HDNet on demand before it was in theaters.  (Magnolia has experimented with this way of platform releasing, as with “Bubble”). 

Wikipedia attribution link for Regina picture   I almost visited it in May 1998 (just barely got into the province).

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

"The Vow": not so much about marriage as "identity"

From the logline, I had expected “The Vow”, by Michael Sucsy, to become an exploration of marriage, of the willingness of people to commit “till death do us part” as much as to keep the commitment. Indeed the backstory of Leo (Channing Tatum) and Paige (Rachel McAdams) has a quirky marriage ceremony, but the vow is just as binding. And Leo wants to live up to it.  I saw this movie the evening that I had been to a gay marriage rally in northern Virginia, and expected to complete the irony. I was wrong.

The car accident in the opening is graphic and shocking, and we’re right into the narrative hook quickly. Well, Paige recovers all to quickly physically, and her amnesia goes back to a critical point a couple years back when she “changed” – gave up law school and followed sculpture, gave up her previous fiancée, and met Leo. Now, it’s as if that whole life had never happened.  It’s wiped from her identity.  It sounds like a subtractive schizophrenia – that what was a full life of a growing person seems now like a life that’s had one of its timelines deleted.

I’m not sure what this compares to.  When you have general anesthesia, you’re given a drug that deletes some of the memory before the operation, so it’s gone from your experience.  And memory loss, when pathological, can destroy what the person was.  But here, in the film, it seems convenient.  It simply removes a portion of someone’s life, as if a dream, and starts over from that point, as if there were no consequences.  Or as if we had jumped to a parallel universe.

The movie gives us a real-world explanation, more family business, and a reasonably romantic conclusion after all.  A wonderful stray cat even figures in.

But it is for science fiction to wonder if one body can house two lives, that start to come together the way dreams, or a previous incarnation, are gradually recalled.  

The film, though made by well-known Spyglass Entertainment, is distributed by Sony Screen Gems instead of the usual Columbia Pictures.  The Chicago location often seems filled in by CGI (most of the film was actually shot in Toronto). 

I saw this on a Tuesday night at the AMC Courthouse in Arlington.  A large auditorium was almost sold out. That’s a surprise for a school night, even if this was $6 night, and Valentine’s Day.

There's a point where Leo (it really is logical that he likes the cat) says, he has to make his life fall in love with him again.  I would never be up to something like that.  It makes for a good plot resolution. 

The official site is here

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Oscar-nominated Short Films, 2012, Live Action.

I attended a performance of the five Oscar nominees for best short film, Live Action, as put together by Magnolia Pictures and HDNet, at Landmark E Street in downtown Washington DC, where there was a fair early Monday afternoon crowd – and this is not a long weekend.

At least three of the films had enough substance that they might have attracted enough capital to make features.

The longest was “The Shore”, 31 min, directed by Terry George, and set in Belfast, presented now as reeling in unemployment with men illegally harvesting mussels from the sands at low tide. I wouldn’t want to eat them.  The story concerns two friends, Joe (Ciarin Hinds) and Paddy (Conleth Hill), separated by the years of separatism.  Joe tells his daughter his back story as they sit on a park bench overlooking the harbor (some flashbacks would help), and then try to track Paddy down, who, with an artificial arm (after losing an arm in the violence) fears the authorities are coming after him, leading to a climatic “race” in the mud flats, with music from “The Professionals” by Maurice Jarre (sounding rather like Malcolm Arnold) plays.   My own late mother’s family has a lot of ties to Northern Ireland, and she made several trips there.

Raju”, 24 min,  Cinemascope, directed by Max Zahle, has a young German couple in Mumbai, India to adopt an orphan, who then disappears.  The couple must confront the possibility that they are the victims of a scam in “selling” kidnapped children to couples who want children, even though they think they are doing good by adopting an orphan. I’m not sure I buy the twist at the end.  The street locations are quite compelling.

Tuba Atlantic”, 25 min, Cinemascope, directed by Hallvar Witzo, is a “clever” Norwegian film seeming to be inspired by Lars Van Trier, almost as a response to “Melancholia” (with Magnolia pictures likes).  Oscar (Edvard Haegstad) is told he has six days to live, and is determined to contact his brother in the US.  In some denial, he retreats to his coastal shack home, where he lives as a hermit. The paternalistic European government won’t leave him alone, and sends an “angel” Inger (Ingrid Vilken) to look after him. There is a sci-fi-like insinuation that she really can become an angel by tending to him, and despite his passing, achieve earthly immortality herself.  Oskar has built his own doomsday “tuba”, a huge musical tuba capable of sending a blast across the Ocean to reach his brother, but maybe destroying The World in the process.

The movie made me think of another possible scenario, if an exercise in nihilism. So here goes, my own cut at a short film.  On your Last Day, you sign off your computer and lock up your house, and go to the “Center”.  You have a nice reception and party, and then retreat to your “Roomette” with a Murphy Bed (like NYC’s Yotel).   You have some privacy and Internet access. But at midnight, all your own Internet postings get deleted. At 1 AM, your Internet access is turned off. At 2 AM, all other media. You go to bed. At 3 AM, water is no longer available.  At 6 AM, your soul starts its 100000-light-year journey to a black hole in the center of the Galaxy, so you can be reborn in another universe and live out your karma.   In the end, you think you’ve come out of surgery when you’re born again. Sound like a good short film?  Call the movie something like “General Anesthesia”. Your soul can’t be destroyed.  It will always resurface. That’s basic physics, even in the world of Lars Van Trier.

That leads us to the little short “Time Freak” (directed by Andrew Bowler, 11 min),  where nerd Stillman (Michael Nathanson) has built a time machine in a NYC Soho (I presume) loft.  His friend Evan (John Conor Brooke) visits him and goes along with the experiments.  Stillman’s problem is that physics won’t let him undo-redo the Time Arrow, because that would overcome entropy (of the Second Law of Thermodynamics).  The whiteboard in his loft is covered with partial differential equations.   Once, about 18 months ago, on the Metro in DC, a young man, 25-ish, was looking a student handout of what looked to me like Partial Diff-eq’s, when he dropped the handouts on the floor, and something bizarre happened (subject for another short film). I’ll say he was a perfect 10.  He knows who he is.  I guess we use these equations now for engineering, to improve the performance of the newest chips in our toy smart phones.

The first film, "Pentecost", by Peter McDonald, 11 min., has a priest forced to reinstate a delinquent altar boy for a critical Catholic service in Ireland.  The boy has been told if he doesn’t shape up, he’ll have to give up football (that means soccer, or maybe rugby).  The boy Damian (Scott Graham)  returns, and has his way to get even, and play make believe.  The film does have fun with the authoritarian nature of the Catholic Church, and with the power of priests (even before a hint of impropriety) over the lives of young men. 
I think my vote goes to “The Shore”.  For what it has to say, it’s the most original and substantive.
The Cinemascope films (3 of the 5) were cropped on a smaller screen because of digital projection.

Here’s Magnolia’s site for the shorts presentation. 

I saw this New York Film Academy poster on the Ballston Common today.  I didn’t know that the NYFA could confer academic credit and degrees.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

"The Women on the 6th Floor": a rich man passes through the eye of a needle, into an alternate reality in the attic

The Women on the 6th Floor” (“Les femmes de la 6eme etage”) is a delicious French-Spanish morals comedy from Philippe Le Guay, set in the early 1960s, and it may seem like Europe’s answer to “The Help”.

Jean-Louis (Fabrice Luchini) is a middle-aged bourgeois stock-broker and prissy homebody living in an upscale Parisian apartment with his wife Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain) who’s already a little tired of him. The two boys are at prep school.

One day, Jean-Louis fires his maid after a flap a over boiled egg, and in comes the vivacious Maria (Natalia Verbeke). He makes such extreme demands of her that she secretly brings all “the help” from the attic servant’s quarters to finish. When Suzanne later throws him out, he moves upstairs and finds himself entranced with another world on the sixth floor.

The movie has a specific political context – the women have escape Franco and neo-fascism – and it stays away from the sci-fi “alternate reality” opportunities that definitely were there (like in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”).  But the effect is that of a movie about “other world” journeys.  In fact, when he comes back, he hits the road again, to find Maria in Spain. 

The concept of "another world" on a different floor also occurs in "Titantic", where the "real people" live down below and "really live", and where the heroine is introduced to this world.  (For that matter, it also happens in "Being John Malkovitch".)

The film (alternate spelling “The Women on the Sixth Floor”) comes from  Palace Films, Vendome Productions and Strand Releasing (3/13/2012; prebook 2/14).

Strand’s site is here

The title of this film reminds me of a cult gay film from about 1973, "The Light from the Second Story Window", controversial in its day.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Woody Allen's earlier "Manhattan Murder Mystery" pays homage to "Double Indemnity", and presents Woody as his talkative self

Since Woody Allen got Oscar attention for “Midnight in Paris”, it’s useful to look at an earlier black comedy, “Murder in Manhattan”, all the way back to 1993.

Woody and Diane Keaton play Larry and Carol Lipton, living in a Trump-like pad in Manhattan, and Woody is already concerned about his marriage as he ages.  When the lady (Lillian) next door (Lynn Cohen) is hauled out of the apartment  (in a bag) after an apparent heart attack, Carol gets suspicious because the neighbor’s husband (Jerry Adler) seems too happy.  Larry (and Woody plays the part with his usual talkative self) goes along with it to protect his own marriage.

The wicked humor comes after Carol thinks she saw Lillian on a bus, and again on the street.  She gets “Woody” to go snooping with her in the hotel where she supposedly lives (on a mini-treasure hunt like that in “Vertigo”), and she find “the corpse” there.  But then it really gets complicated.

The film uses footage from “Double Indemnity”  ("I did it for the money, I did it for the woman!") in critical points to bolster its own plot, and uses some of the same jazz music that shows up in this year’s “The Artist”.  There is humor at the bottom of an elevator shaft, on the Brooklyn Bridge, and even at a foundry, before a final “smoke and mirrors” climax. Carol’s suspicions might have been merited after all.

An important concept in this film, by implication, is that it really can be hard to identify people by facial glance. It's much harder than you think.  Online, this could lead to mistagging. 

There is link on YouTube to see the movie “free”, but I don’t know if it’s legal. (I think the trailer below is OK.)  I would think Sony/Tristar would want YouTube to charge $1.99 or so for a legal rental.  That’s the fairest way (besides DVD’s) for studios to continue earning their royalties on older films.

Friday, February 10, 2012

"Safe House" is more like a big B-movie, South African "modern western", where the CIA replaces the local sheriff

I doubt that Universal-Relativity’s “Safe House”, directed by Daniel Espinosa, tells you much about how the CIA works. It’s rather a big budget B movie, a kind of modern western transplanted to South Africa and the mole world. 

Ryan Reynolds plays Matt Weston, a thirty-year-old laid-back CIA operative responsible for manning a safe house in Capetown, South Africa. He longs for an assignment in a city like Paris and thinks he can take his girl friend along, even if she is in medical school.  (It’s hard to have a relationship or to marry in this business.) 

One day, renegade mole Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) crashes in, and despite Matt’s turning tough and letting him be waterboarded, the goons have chased him there and crashed the safe house. That’s not supposed to happen.

The rest of the movie, Matt is trying to bring Tobin in and prove his worth.  There’s a secret “file” or “list” of moles, that everyone will deny – except that in this world Julian Assange can leak it.

The “trouble” with a story like this is its own closed circle.  The rogue operatives don’t represent an existential threat to national security or western civilization, just to the CIA itself.

I’m rather struck with the fact that my own novel script about a CIA operative has no shootouts, almost no chases, but it does deal with an existential “threat” to the world. And I endorse the concept of the CIA picking up an ex-military person and bringing him back to gumshoe a bizarre enough intelligence problem, even while he stays on as a high school history teacher.  Then “the kids” get drawn into the CIA, sort of.  Part of his background was with “civilian emergency reservists”.

I saw this at the Regal Ballston Common in Arlington VA and a large auditorium was fairly full at 8 PM, and an earlier show had sold out (opening night).

The official site is called “No one is safe” and is here

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Paramount's restoration of "Wings" becomes a major event

Paramount Pictures may have several motives (besides profit) to release the DVD of the 1927-1929 silent  WWI  epic, and indeed last great silent film, William Wellman’s “Wings”, to win the first Best Picture Oscar ever. One reason is, of course Oscar season. Another obvious draw is the popularity of “The Artist”, and so this seems like a good time to get people to want to see it.

There are other reasons, which become apparent.  This film, to a modern viewer, provides an amazing experience.  The air fight and trench battle scenes are amazing for the time, and the photography creates an almost fantastical atmosphere. The black and white is lightly colorized, with the orange flame from the planes, some dark green occasionally, and some night time scenes where the black and white takes on a bluish cast. The indoor hotel “bubbles” scenes (half way through the 144 minutes) are as crisp and neutral BW as anything in “The Artist”.  The film is also known for introducing Gary Cooper as “Cadet White”.

But the story is amazing, too.  It’s downright operatic. It’s a three-way love triangle between two airmen and one woman, almost anticipating Tom Tykwer’s “Three”.  And that’s politically relevant now.

As the film opens, Jack (Charles Buddy Rogers), who tinkers with new Ford cars around 1917, tries to get the attention of neighbor Mary Preston (Clara Bow), who loves "rich boy" David Armstrong (Richard Arlen).  The young men are romantic rivals, but join the Army at the same time.  In the background is Woodrow Wilson’s draft (I guess it didn't defer the rich, unlike Vietnam); both men think look forward to the adventure and machismo of flying, and hopefully avoiding the trenches.  The film gets into their training, which in 1917 was more sophisticated than we think.  They both get shipped over, and Mary goes to work as a WAC because she can drive a Ford.  She still wants to be around David but realizes she likes Jack, too.  The men’s rivalry starts to get replaced by friendship, in a way that the modern military says is part of “unit cohesion”.  The men get a luxury experience in Paris hotels with some loose women, before the military police find them and bring them back to war.   Soon, Jack gets a message that David (who has asked Jack to look after his affairs, as he is apprehensive he may not survive the war) was shot down and either killed or captured by the “Iron Cross” (the Germans).  He goes looking for his buddy, not knowing whether he is really alive.  David steals a German plane and tries to escape, but gets shot down in a house in a harrowing scene.  Jack finds him, and the men share affection as Dave dies, almost as if they had been lovers themselves.  The film ends with an epilogue where Jack visits Dave’s parents. 

This sounds like a shocking concept for 1927 (it manages to stay in today’s PG-13 territory, barely).  One wonders if this film had been rehabilitated in 1993 if it could have affected the debate on gays in the military then.  There is certainly a broad world view here, that sexuality and love have different aspects and different purposes and can all exist in the same people, whatever society’s (and the military’s) official legal and social mores.

The music score, composed and “consolidated” by J. S. Zamecnik, incorporates a lot of interesting classical snips, most obviously Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” overture, as well as Lalo’s “Le Roi d'Ys” overture, and Liszt's "Les Preludes", with some Massenet, Tchaikovsky, and Verdi.  There is an original theme that sounds a lot like a motive from the scherzo of Furtwangler’s Second Symphony, which follows the film by 20 years, so one thinks Furtwangler knew this film. There’s another familiar  2/4 tune in F Major with a simple drop-roll that becomes a leitmotif, and that is original with Zamecnik.

The DVD has a five minute intermission at the 70 minute mark, and continues to play the orchestral score. (The DVD also offers an alternative organ soundtrack.)  As the film opens, Paramount shows every corporate trademark it has ever used.  It may be deciding to use a musical theme from “Wings” as its new corporate mark. The DVD played in 1.85:1 aspect.  The original film is said to have been a major theatrical experience, state of the art for the time.

The DVD includes a 34 minute short “Wings: Grandeur in the Sky”, directed by Tim King, explaining how Paramount shot the film on Army property near San Antonio, TX and had the help of the War Department.  It cost $2 million then.  The filming crew had to wait for dry weather with billowy clouds to shoot the airplane scenes. The short displays some of the music score. 

There's even a dog, to anticipate "Uggie". 

If you're in the mood to see a restored old film and have limited time, this may be a better experience than just seeing a 3-D "Titanic" or "Star Wars".  This old film is truly new for modern viewers. 

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

"Arsenic and Old Lace"; A note about moviegoer expectations and Hollywood

The Washington Post “Sunday Style” on Feb. 5, 2012, ran an article by Ann Hornaday, “Dear Moviegoers, Get a Grip”, which is well worth a read, here. Theater owners have been concerned about moviegoer behavior (I’ve commented on that several times here before), and some moviegoers seem easily upset by non-linear films (like “The Tree of Life”, June 3, 2011 here) or even some kinds of musical or strobe effects. And Hollywood, needing its cash cows, has fed the habit with remakes and sequels – and then “attacked” its customers in the piracy battle.

Today, I watched a rented DVD of the classic “Arsenic and Old Lace” (1944, Warner Bros.), directed by Frank Capra.  During WWII and times of gasoline rationing, movies really were an escape, as this comedy, adapted from the Broadway stage play by Joseph Kesselring, seems far from the world.  It is a movie about itself, a meta-movie.

The film opens in Ebbets Field, and then says the real world is across the East River.

The hero, Mortimer Brewster [Cary Grant], a journalist, has made his reputation for books attacking marriage and raving the jobs of heterosexual bachelorhood.  (It’s ironic to watch this movie on the day that Proposition 8 in California was dealt a major legal blow.)  On the day he gets married (Priscilla Lane), though, he pays a visit to his aunts’ Brooklyn apartment, accidentally discovers that they (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) have been murdering other old bachelors for their own good and leaving corpses around.  But his supposed younger brother, Teddy  (John Alexander) has delusions that he is President Teddy Roosevelt (not FDR).  To “protect” his “family”, Mortimer schemes to put Teddy in a nursing home (which already has too many Teddy impersonators). When the police, and other insane brothers show up (looking like ghosts), Mortimer protects himself by pretending he is rehearsing his own play in the house.  All before a Niagara Falls honeymoon.

Monday, February 06, 2012

"Chronicle" is a "Cloverfield"-style Dogme sci-fi hit; you want the kids to be all right

Chronicle” may first be perceived as named after a book of the Old Testament, or it may be indeed constitute a troubled teenager’s video record of his life as it spins out of control.  The movie, shot in hand-held Dogme style, up front, seems like a mix of “Cloverfield”, “Paranormal Activity” and “Super 8”.  (Okay, this time “Hollywood” tanks Seattle rather than New York.)  Unfortunately, the underlying concept, for a film about kids making movies (to start with) is much weaker than in the “Super 8” film. Yes, there’s the three part structure, and a lot of blowup at the end, but we’re left disappointed by the tragedy.

The film is directed by Josh Trank, with story and screenplay by Max Landis.  The film was made mostly in South Africa and Vancouver, with 20th Century Fox using its own brand on what looks like an independent “art B Movie” film, intended eventually for midnight shows.  (Hollywood seems to be rediscovering the “B-art” concept.)  Why isn’t this branded as “Fox Atomic” or Fox Searchlight?  I would say that 3-D would have helped for the sky tricks – but maybe you can’t do that with handheld.  Because of the handheld close-ups and “in your face” shooting style, the director kept the aspect ratio at 1.85:1.  Many of the Seattle and other outdoor locations were simulated by CGI.  

Now for the kids. Dale DeHaan plays Andrew, a nerd who has to deal with a dying mother and disabled and abusive alcoholic dad (Michael Kelly, who is quite strong here).  The movie actually opens with a black screen until we figure out that Andrew is videotaping his life, narcissistically.

He clings to stronger people at high school, Matt (Alex Russell) and Steve (Michael B. Jordan), the latter a class star. One day they go to a rave disco party.  Some people don’t like Andrew’s filming them, and a scuffle ensues.  Andrew’s camera gets broken as he is tossed, but somehow he recovers it and fixes it as the trio goes off into the wilderness, and then down into a sinkhole, drunk, where they encounter (apparently) a blob oozing from a crashed UFO.  The police are on their way to rope it off, but not before the kids are exposed to it.  Soon, all three of them have telekinetic powers.

This may sound like a replay of Smallville. In that ten year series, Clark Kent (Tom Welling) had to fight off some demons (red kryptonite) and temptations before settling in and becoming a hero.  Unfortunately, Andrew will not prove up to the challenge that “with great power comes great responsibility”.  He seems to take hurting people lightly, to say the least, even if he rescues one driver from a wreck he causes telepathically. His father’s pressure, to box him in because of mother’s illness, breaks him. Only one of the trio will turn out well.

The film makes some good points about things. One regards photographing people in public. Although maybe constitutionally protected, it has generated a lot more objection in just recent months, possibly because of the debate over Internet privacy and tagging.  Another good point is that telekinesis might be within our technological reach (as with Stephen Hawking).  But it would destroy our security systems and fail-safe (separated function) procedures so critical to the modern workplace .  Imagine that hackers could change digital files telepathically, or place logic bombs in secure systems.

I wondered if Andrew could have been played by Richard Harmon, who had appeared in Smallville as another troubled teen with kids, and then played an outstanding character as a young gay filmmaker in the sci-fi flick Judas Kiss (June 5, 2011).  Harmon's demeanor is similar to DeHaan's.  But with Harmon, you want him to turn out all right.  (There was a technical oddity in one of the flying or skyscraper scene's -- DeHaan's hairlines was blow back much more than expected.) 

I have met very talented kids, in various circumstances (such as when I worked as a sub), and maybe some of them (perhaps in college now) will find this review. I’ll say, keep your moral focus. Don’t blow it.
I suspect this film will have sequels. After all, there’s a buried UFO to explain.  And (at least) one kid survives the mayhem at the end.

Fox has put its only official permanent site on Facebook, here.

The film has done surprisingly well at the box office for a “small” sci-fi film. It runs a brisk 84 minutes.  I would have liked to see more media reaction to the human flying scenes at the end -- but that would have added some length.  How would CNN report this?

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Indie New Jersey film says: watch out online, especially in those chat rooms ("iMurders")

A 2008 independent film, shot mostly in northern New Jersey apartments, certainly anticipates the concerns over privacy on social networks. The work is “iMurders”, by Robbie Bryan.  The tagline is “No one is safe in cyberspace”.  Maybe not, but most of us aren’t as connected to tragedy (through "friends of friends") as these characters are – or maybe we can be and “they just don’t tell us”.  

In the opening prequel, we see a hit in a rural home, by a jilted partner on an amorous couple upstairs.  Then for the rest of the film, the participants of a “FaceSpace”  (That is "Facebook + Myspace - MyBook") chat room start getting dispatched rather gorily in their own homes, while the police gradually move in.  A 40-something man tells a new tenant in a building about an ambulance-chasing lawyer, and a landlady looks all too ignorant of modern technology to be believed.  A seedy community college professor looks suspicious, but that may be a diversion.  A couple of lesbians and gay men are in the chat room, but sexual orientation in this movie is all too pliable – although it does draw the worst instincts out of the killer.  In this film, a couple cats know but can’t do much about it.

The characters in this film are being silly online, as a lot of yuppies often are.  So, yes, they draw attention to themselves in unnecessarily dangerous ways. Does the film say much that matters in more recent spates about tracking and Facebook and now Google privacy?  Probably not.  Nobody in the movie gets tracked down just because of surfing habits, or even for “political” speech. And I'm getting the impression that "chat" for its own sake, conducted from home, isn't so popular now since people have gone mobile.  One imagines a film where people are targets in public in broad daylight because of their smart phones. 

The film seems to be shot in Dogme style, with a lot of handheld work, and a lot of cutoffs and back-and-forth time transitions in critical scenes toward the end. 

The DVD has a twenty-minute short that interviews the actors and talks a lot about the advantages of independent film.  This one played at the Hoboken Film Festival and is distributed by Anchor Bay.
There’s an alternate ending, which I prefer.  I guess I don’t like landladies.

The site for the film is here.  Curiously, it’s advanced on Myspace but not Facbook.   The film stars Tony Todd, Lori Romano, Gabrielle Anwar, Willam Forsythe (as the professor), Billy Dee Williams, and Frank Grillo.

The trailer is here.
YouTube and Starz offer a “legal” rental online for $1.99.