Monday, December 31, 2012

"What Happens Next": a rather lame comedy about a retiree who "comes out"

The gay comedy “What Happens Next” by Jay Arnold (2011) starts out with interesting enough visuals.  Paul Greco (Jon Lindstrom), a confirmed bachelor and CEO for a center city Philadelphia marketing company, now in his mid 50s, starts out by showing us his fifty four $500 suits, white shirts, and perfect neckties.  We learn he is retiring after a buyout and will be rich with nothing to do.  No, not even volunteer work.

His helicopter sister (Kimberly Fairbanks) is determined to marry him off – and says that love doesn’t matter, just companionship and social appearances.  She gets him a pooch whom he has to learn to housebreak. He calls the doggie “Mrs. Greco”.  

But on dog duty near his Rittenhouse Square condo, he meets an appealing young man, Andy (Chris Murrah) with another dog.  You guessed it.  Paul will gradually come out.

While Andy is appealing enough and someone you would want to know (and we can say the same about Claire’s photographer son Brian, played by Ariel Shafir), the film gets bogged down in cropped and trite script lines. Many scenes start on the same park bench between Andy and Paul, and give the impression that the film is really a stage play. And their final intimate encounter is rather short-circuited. 

The official Facebook is here.

The film is distributed by Wolfe, known for daring and over-the-top LGBT films  on real dilemmas.  But this little comedy is not among the company’s best offerings.

The film seems to come from the same people as “The Big Gay Musical”.
The film can be rented on YouTube legally for $3.99.  

Sunday, December 30, 2012

"Rust and Bone": Running on a moral Mobius strip

Rust and Bone” (“De rouille et d’os”), the new character drama by Jacques Audiard (Sony Pictures Classics), presents a two-sided morality play, with two tragedies, and character and moral developments that turn on their flip sides.  This is a big film, the largest from Sony this season besides “Zero”.

Matthias Schoenaerts plays Alain van Versch, a laborer and drifter who comes from Belgium to Antibes (on the French Mediterranean coast) with a five year old son left from a breakup, where his sister Anna (Corinne Masiero) can help take care of the little boy.  “Ali” is the same kind of person that Matthias had played in “Bullhead” [July 22],  He engages other people, and can take care of them, but does so tactically, and impulsively.  He’s like a chess player offering unsound sacrifices or gambits for attacking chances.  “Positional play” and personal optimization in his life means nothing. You can see that in the "fight club" and boxing scenes. 

In a disco where he works as a bouncer, he meets Stephanie (Marion Cottilard), who trains and performs with orcsas (Killer whales) at a water park.  I hope this isn’t too much of a spoiler, but most viewers probably know that about 40 minutes into the two-hour film, Stephanie encounters disaster.  It appears (though it’s hard to see) that the orca attacks her.  She wakes up in a hospital having lost both legs.  
A good part of the film is about their relationship.  There is a scene where he teaches her to swim again.  He seems to gain as much from her as she does from him.  I don’t know how the filmmakers simulated the stumps, but we see the physical details a lot.  Eventually, she gets prostheses and can walk with crutches.  I recall back in January 1998, after my own hip fracture, while spending a week in rehab in a Minneapolis SNF (associated with the University of Minnesota Fairview Riverside), watching a man take his first steps on prosthetics, with the Mississippi River view in the background. 
The relationship becomes passionate, which is out of my own league temperamentally.  It’s always been important to me that I be able to imagine a potential partner as “perfect”.  Sorry, I would have seen this accident as disfiguring, and would have felt cut off from any possibility of sexual feeling at all. 
This sort of territory has been visited before, in the 1996 film by David Cronenberg, “Crash” (the earlier film by that name) with James Spader, from Fine Line.  That injury or damage provides fetishism is quite shocking to me.  I don’t like to see men go downhill.  (The  gay magazine “Christopher Street” had an article about this issue back in 1985 regarding Ronald Reagan as an actor and the film “John Loves Mary”, saying that the film had “proved the existence of heterosexuality”.  So does this new film.)
The film doesn’t dawdle on the problem of keeping dolphins and orcas in captivity.  The viewer can try “Free Willy” (1993, Warner Brothers, directed by Simon Wincer) for that issue. The orca may be the most intelligent animal after man, equal to the chimpanzee.  This provides a good example of convergent evolution. 
“Rust and Bone” turns us to its flip side (as if the film were one figurative Mobius strip) with the rest of Ali’s work life. He takes a gig as an undercover private investigator videotaping retail workers secretly (doing stuff like taking long breaks, eating the food, smoking) so that the company, over union contracts, can fire them.  Now, it so happens (conveniently) that Anna works in one of these stores.  One of Anna’s coworkers catches Ali setting up cameras just before she is called in to “management” herself to be fired.  Anna also gets fired.  The coworker comes over to the house and chews out Ali for taking an “anti-worker” job like this and playing in cahoots with management.  Out of everyone’s leftist indignation (and at the threat of a rifle), Ali flees for a ski resort.  Anna sends the little boy up with him (he had left the boy behind, out of fear for his life).  That sets up another accident on an icy pond that will test Ali once more.
I saw the film at the Angelika Film Center in Merrifield VA before an ample Saturday night crowd in an large auditorium.  The film is shot full wide screen, 2.35:1.
The official site from Sony is here.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

"Django Unchained" is another Tarantino comic bloodbath

It strikes me as bizarre to open a Quentin Tarantino movie on Christmas day, most of all “Django Unchained’, combination of comedy, gore-fest, western and “southern”. 

In 1858, a former dentist (whatever dental surgery amounted to then) Dr. King Schultz (Chrisrtoph Waltz) buys a slave Djank (Jamkie Foxx), trains him as a bounty hunter and then mentors into rescuing his wife (Kerry Washington) from a sociopathic plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo Di Caprio). 

It’s a little hard to believe the territory this tag team covers in the course of a year (let alone the 165 minutes of the film). It gets up into Wyoming, with views of the Tetons, and plays posse “until the snows melt” (before global warming that could take until June), then somehow scoots back to flat Mississippi to the plantation.  (That part of the movie was actually shot in Louisiana, oft course.)

The shotgun violence, especially in the last half hour, is among the most graphic I have ever seen.  Yes, body parts roll, including some that will not be named here (remember Dallas in the 1980s, “Jo Bob says check it out”).  It does bring to mind Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” (1969, which I saw while in the Army).  At mid point, there is a particularly sick scene where Calvin enjoys a fight to death on a personal stage between two slaves, to end with a hammer.

Samuel L. Jackson (Stephen) talks about the film here (video from DP/30).

The film is circulated by “independent distributor” The Weinstein Company but was made with the “help” of Columbia Pictures (not TriStar or Screen Gems – the latter company sounds like appropriate branding). 

The film has some interesting background music, including the "Dies Irae" from Verdi's Requiem, Beethoven's "Fur Elise" on a harp, and some familiar chamber orchestra music from a modern Italian composer whose name I could not pick up from the credits. 

 The link for the film is here.

I saw the film in a large auditorium at Regal in Arlington VA on Friday afternoon, with a small crowd, which cackled at the dialogue as much as the violence.  
Pictures: Mine.  The second picture is along the Mississippi coast in early 2006, after Katrina.  

Friday, December 28, 2012

"The Hiding Place": a 1975 Billy Graham film about a Christian Dutch family during the Holocaust illustrates the risk of "radical hospitality"

The Hiding Place” is a 1975 film from Billy Graham and World Wide Pictures, now distributed by Fox on DVD, that seems almost as a harrowing a Holocaust story as in of the larger commercial films, even if it s a little more intimate.  The film, directed by James F. Collier, is based on the books by Corrie Ten Boom and John Sherrill.  The Ten Boom family members are played by Julie Harris, Jeannette Clift, Arthur O’Connell and Robert Riety.

In 1940, Corrie and Betsie work in a family clock and watch shop in the Netherlands.  Out of a sense of Christian generosity, the family gradually starts sheltering Jews in its home.  The early part of the film develops the idea of “radical hospitality” and the idea that Christian faith requires people to share the burdens of others  (including being sheltered, even from enemies) based on need.  There is one scene where one of the Ten Boom family is told by a Jewish person that it would be all right for everyone if everyone had the courage to stand up and be counted as Jewish, which in one sense, everyone is.

Eventually (after an irregularity with ration cards), the family is caught, and the two sisters are sent to a concentration camp.  The sequence with the train journey is similar to that of many other Holocaust films, if a bit abbreviated (although the entire film runs 145 minutes).  The conditions in a women’s camp seem as brutal as in any.  The women are put into slave manual labor, often beaten (by other female guards) and fight for gruel and bread.  Betsie dies, but Corrie survives and is released, by somewhat a lucky break, before the liberation.  She then must deal with the idea of forgiving her captors. I don’t think I could have survived or dealt with this had I lived through something like this.

The film can be found free on YouTube (not sure it’s legal).

Pat Robertson actually interviewed Corrie in 1974.

It would be interesting to hear Rick Warren talk about this film today. 

This is a good place to mention the 1959 film from 20th Century Fox and director George Stevens, "The Diary of Anne Frank", in black and white Cinemascope (one of the earliest films in this format), with Millie Perkins as Anne.  I do recall showing this to a history class around 2004 when I was a substitute teacher.  I believe that I saw it in early 1961 about when graduating from high school; it was discussed in government class.    

Thursday, December 27, 2012

"17 Girls": A pregnancy pact in the U.S. transplanted to France by filmmakers

Does a true story o f controversial behavior by a group of teens in an American small town translate well to France? That’s the experiment in a film by Delphine and Muriel Coulin, “17 Girls” (ot “17 filles” or even “17 jeunes filles”) .

The true story took place in Gloucester MA in 2008, when a number of teenage girls made a pregnancy pact to snub “the system”, so it seemed.  The French film is transplanted to Lorient, France, on the coast of Brittany. 

The film is shot as drama, not as a documentary (which would be more natural for American filmmakers). It stars when Camille (Louise Grinberg) gets pregnant “accidentally” almost out of boredom.  She encourages all her friends to do the same.

Is this all just teen rebellion?  Some of the girls say that having babies make life seem “real” to them. Maybe they have a point.  The subject of the film is ironic in France, since most of Europe has a birthrate deficit and countries have been trying pro-birth policies – but for married couples – that the childless would have to subsidize.  (See review of “Demographic Winter”, June 7, 2011). 

Much of the coupling takes place “on the beach”, and the boys seem immature, smoking constantly (so do the girls – bad for babies), and looking physically immature (like no body hair yet).  Everyone seems reckless, defiant.

Later the movie shows some of the medical results (babies on ultrasound, standing up in wombs), and toward the end,  there are serious accidents and mishaps, perhaps tragedy.
The official site from Diaphana is here

I received a screener from Strand Releasing. The DVD is available Jan. 15, 2013; it had a prebook of Dec. 18. The film places in "Critics Week" at Cannes.  

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

"Mary Magdalene" and the ancient emphasis on procreation

The film “Mary Magdalene” is the first of the “Close to Jesus” or “Friends of Jesus” series from Artisan and Barnholz.  And it may be the most daring.

As the film opens, Mary’s husband, Amos, tells her he is divorcing her because she cannot give him children. He wants heirs.  That’s all he has, the future inherent in his sperm.  That’s as far away from my own temperament as it gets.

Mary  (Maria Grazia Cucinotta) goes on her own life adventure, and soon finds out from the Roman Silvano, that married women under Roman law had some property rights.  But soon she encounters John the Baptist, and starts following the ministry at Jesus.  At the same time, she comes under the wing of a (possibly lesbian) matron who shows her how to become a “lady” and get rich with prostitution. Her story takes her into territory of the opera “Salome” by composer Richard Strauss (which I saw in NYC around 1976, complete with its “Dance of the Seven Veils”), when John is beheaded.  But by now Mary has become a disciple of Jesus.

The natural extension of this story is, of course, Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” (Books, April 16, 2006), which became a major motion picture from Columbia, leading to the theory that Jesus did not really ascend but lived a log time after resurrection but married Mary Magdalene, or might have even married him before the crucifixion.  Ancient Jewish culture was indeed very much “pro procreation” as a matter of survival, and here is a nice source on it.

There is a scene, early, where Mary overhears Jesus commanding his disciples to “love the unlovable”, not just love someone who will love you back.  This would not satisfy Dr. Mehmet Oz, with his comments on social isolation and longevity.

In a scene near the end, shortly before Jesus (Danny Quinn, 36 at the time of filming) is arrested, Mary washes his ankles.  In a way, the visuals here are as explicit and telling as anything. 

Shokos TV has this documentary (45 min) “Secrets of Mary Magdalene” on YouTube.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Universal's new "Les Miserables" packs theaters on Christmas Day; is it as effective as a movie musical as on stage?

I couldn’t get a ticket for the opening of Universal’s “ultimate” movie version of Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables”  ("The Wretched Ones". directed by Tom Hooper) until Christmas night at the AMC Tysons, and indeed this one, in a huge auditorium for ETX Digital, sold out, too.  This particular theater crops only from the top, so a film in 1.85:1 format but otherwise “big”,  gets the most screen area.

I’ve see that I’ve discussed the musical twice on my drama blog. The first of these appears on April 1, 2006, based on a performance at the National Theater in Washington in late 2005; it has played there again this month; I also discuss a performance of Martin Guerre in Minneapolis, bout Boulbil-Schoenberg collaborations. The other discusses the British 25th anniversary “O2” stage production broadcast on PBS, and available on DVD from Universal, which I purchased

I actually saw an earlier dramatic (non-musical) movie version of the novel in the spring of 1998, when I was living in Minneapolis.  That film, from Columbia, was directed by Bille August.  I recall a dinner discussion about this film with a college student in the libertarian party there; the student had helped arrange a college (and television-taped) speech on my book.   So I have some history with this story.

Victor Hugo’s novel is one of the longest in existence. I believe that we read portions of it in French in 11th grade French class (for a whole quarter) in high school, back in 1960. The enormous plot deals with moral themes, where Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman in the new film)  has taken enormous risks to provide for others (somewhat out of filial or intergenerational responsibility), first the family of his sister, and then to raise Cosette (Amanda Seyfried as an  adult during the 1832 rebellion). It’s easy to imagine exam essay questions on these ideas (students – take hint; I’ve “taught” before).  It might make a good college application or SOL essay, too.  We’ve seen this idea in other literature, as with Charles Dickens, George Elliot (Silas Marner)  and Harper Lee.  Students ought to correlate “civilizational” concepts across courses, including foreign language.  I’ll toss out one more film to ponder in this regard, Michael Frayn’s “Cophenhagen”, often shown to chemistry and physics classes.  Yet how much of this stuff does one really get until having to “live it” as an adult?

Jan Valjean, himself one of the less fortunate, is redeemed by his own sacrifices -- raising a young woman and giving her up, as Michael Gerson notes in the Washington Post, "Crying at the Movies", here.  (At the age of 10, I remember crying at the end of "The Robe", the first picture in Cinemascope, when the hero is executed at the end by the Romans.)

As a musical, the experience really works better on stage for me.  In film, although the cinematorgraphy is sometimes quite imaginative (as when Valjean escapes), the work tends to come across as episodic, as a plateau for all the wonderful  musical numbers on a movie set that really could almost be seen as an extension of stage.  Russell Crowe is appropriately oppressive as Javert (“the cop”), but the other younger male characters toward the end, in the rebellion, sort of come across as a lineup, although Eddie Redmayne is appealing as Marius.

This sort of big musical in the past would have had an intermission (just like on stage), running 157 minutes.  There is a clear sense of "Second Half" when the 1832 June Rebellion sequence starts.   

The official site for the film is here

The lilt of the music score by Claude Michel-Schoenberg is non-stop, coming to its famous enormous climax in the final number (in A-flat Major, on the stage PBS version – I tested the pitch on my Casio).  In the film, the closing credit music is reasonably well extracted, coming to one more orchestral climax to end the entire film.  I’ve wondered whether the French stage composer has any familial relation to Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg, who largely invented “atonality”.  But the two composers have more in common than one would think, as Arnold also wrote some of the most lush postromantic music ever conceived.  The sunrise passage that closes the “Gurrelieder” really would work in the closing credits of the musical.

Universal and Working Title, have been quick to remind us that the actors (especially Jackman) sing as they act, without back-editing to put in the singing. Jackman is said to have lost 25 pounds for the role so that his face would have that hollowed-out, wretched look.  And Schoenberg (#2) wrote a new song, "Suddenly" for a climatic point in the film version in the  June Rebellion .  
Wikipedia attribution link for Paris picture.  My visits were in 1999 and 2001.  

Monday, December 24, 2012

"Jack Reacher": another kind of military-police superman

It would appear that the character Jack Reacher, from a series of novels  by Lee Child (aka Jim Grant), could become another stereotyped genre franchise, this time for Paramount.  The screen adaptation is by Christopher McQuarrie.

The film by that character’s name  (based on the book “One Shot”) experienced a one-week release delay because of the tragedy in Connecticut, and once the film starts, you see why. 

Locking in his sights across the river in downtown Pittsburgh, a white male sniper knocks off random victims along a riverwalk.  It’s pretty sick stuff.  Soon, another white male, who may not be the same person, is in police custody, and asks that Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) be brought in; he also gets an attractive female defense attorney  Helen(Rosamund Pike).

Now Reacher was a military police investigator, now “retired” at age 50, but is pretty much still a kind of superman.  The suspect Barr (Joseph Sikora), according to Reacher, jointed the military for the “fourth” reason, to have a legal way to kill.  He spent his years in Iraq doing little, just waiting, until the clock ran out, even on George W. Bush.  I wonder if this sounds like a criticism of our  (post conscription) all-volunteer Army, that it would attract “universal soldiers” of that disposition.  (The main reason people join could be employment.  Yes, there is patriotism.)  If Charles Moskos were still alive, he would probably take note.
In time, and in somewhat convoluted fashion (the film runs 130 minutes), Reacher and Helen develop a conspiracy theory, involving a pork-barrel corporation, the district attorney (Richard Jenkins) who happens to be Ellen’s dad, a Bosnian export (Werner Herzog), and the real sharpshooter, handsome Australian actor Jai Courtney, whom we would rather see as a one of the NRA’s good guys.  Courtney looks familiar.

One of the most unsettling aspects of the conspiracy is that the plotters would "mask" their real target with several other randomly chosen targets, making the crime appear motiveness and random when it was not.  This theme has occurred before in one or two Hitchcock films and television series shows, however.
The movie turns on some car chases, including one involving driving the wrong way in the Fort Pitt Tunnel, and a nice part toward the end for Robert Duvall as Cash, operating a rifle range.  The climactic scene happens in a quarry, but it's made to look almost like a mountaintop removal mine.  

The official site is here.
Here’s the logo for Paramount’s 100th Anniversary.    
Paramount used the logo for the Soleil fim (yesterday) but today the film started right off with the music score by Joe Kraemer. 

Picture: Pirates ballpark, my visit in 2007.  

Sunday, December 23, 2012

"Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away" really takes us to other worlds

The special 3-D film “Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away” is being scheduled in a picky fashion, being shown only at noon. 7 PM or midnight at any theater.  I’m not sure if that has anything to do with unusual connections to the Paramount studio’s computer servers. The film seems to have an unusual format for projection (dual strip 3D). It is in regular 1.85:1 aspect, and the 3D use is temperate, giving the film a look that recalls Paramount’s old VistaVision.  I think the result is as good as with the faster frame speed in “Hobbit” (Dec. 17). 

But this is a a real movie, not just a transmission of a stage circus.  As the film opens, a young woman Mia (Erica Linz) watches a train pass in a small town and the enters the Cirque big top. A handsome aerialist (Igor Zaripov) is rehearsing, misses a catch and falls to the sand pit below.  Fortunately, it has enough give to protect him from injury.  But he sinks in to the pit, and Mia chases him.  She finds herself in quicksand (well, that happens in “The Artist”), and then, at the base of some shapeless stage pit, on the shores of endless worlds.  She begins a migration among different worlds, which are supposed to be associated with the various tents (but also to specific resorts in Las Vegas and to specific shows).  She passes among them seamlessly, as if the worlds were among the “reconciled Dominions” of Clive Barker’s Imajica.  Each world has a geography and creatures (Cirque acrobats) who are more or less like people (or extraterrestrials).  The geography is three-dimensional and sometimes has rotational aspects which give it even more dimensions (rather like those of string theory).  Often, there is water,  but that doesn’t prevent one character from being set on fire. (Maybe it’s liquid methane, like on Titan.)  Soon the Aerialist is making the rounds too, as he looks to unite with her. In one scene, he dives into what looks like a model of Venus, only to find it is a sphere of water (that is, a super earth covered with an ocean), and migrates to the next tent-world that way.  Both the young woman and aerialist seem to be challenged to pass "tests" as part of a rite of passage required before they can be reconciled together.

The dance music (by Benoit Jutras) is usually in quadruple meters, and becomes post-romantic, leading to a great climax as the movie ends when the couple is united.   There is one odd image that follows with the aerialist, and I’m not sure what it “means” (other than the idea that the various tents and planet-worlds represent “challenges” for the two characters). The music in closing credits then seems like a let down (although it revisits some Beatles and other pop stars).

The official site is here. The film (made in New Zealand) shows more effects than would be conceivable in any stage or ring presentation.  It is directed by Andrew Anderson, and James Cameron is one of the producers. 

The “drama” blog has discussion of Cirque du Soleil on Oct. 6. 2012 and Nov. 1, 2008.  

Wikipedia attribution link for exoplanet Gliese 667 C, 21 light years from Earth, one of the tent worlds. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

"Race to Nowhere" questions the extreme pressure we put on kids, from grade school to high school

The documentary “Race to Nowhere”, directed by Vicki Abeles and Jessica Congdon, builds a case that we are simply piling on unreasonable demands on our upper middle-class kids in public schools, even going back to elementary school, but particularly in high school.

The 85-minute film, with interviews and footage originally shot in 2009 (largely in the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area schools), is finally available on DVD from Reel Link films. The DVD so far hasn’t been sold on Amazon (at least when I ordered it directly).  Schools must order a version licensed for large public exhibition. But the company encourages home use purchasers to hold “house parties”.  That’s no joke; when I was substitute teaching in the Arlington VA school system in 2004, the Career Center kids made a film called “The House Party”.  I have it. (The sequel was  called “Slices of Life”.  Maybe director Russell Burger should meet and network with Abeles; they obviously share common concerns about our teens.)  Seriously, I think that Abele and Reel Link should look for commercial distribution with at least a limited theatrical release in “art cinema” houses.  I don’t know if it was submitted to any film festivals (AFI Silverdocs sounds appropriate to me). 

The film interviews author Etta Kralovec (“The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning”, with John Buell, Becaon Press, 2001).  The problem with this book is that it predates George W. Bush – who, for all his Republican ideology, implemented one of the most intrusive Federal education programs ever – No Child Left Behind.  The film does cover the agony of “teaching to the test” and teacher bonuses based on kids’ performances.  And I think that this film predates DC School Chancellor Michelle Rhee (she appears in “Waiting for Superman”), who held DC teachers to unbelievable standards. 

As I type this, I have to note that CNN is now presenting a teen Alex Berdy, who campaigned for President Obama in 2012, at age 16 – learning real world political skills.  He has actually met Obama.  Consider that report “today’s short film”. Now, back to this movie!!

In fact, the CNN interruption makes the point: that learning needs to be practical.  It is a lot more than standardized and teacher-specific exams, term papers, and  grades.

The film interviews a particular high school student, Sam, who struggled with some aspects of his academics, but also wrestled.   The varsity sports issue is brought in to show that students are expected to do everything for college applications. Sam says he would starve himself to make weight.  “I have to deprive myself for ‘them’.  I belong to them.”   There could have been an even racier opportunity here if the movie had presented competitive swimming, and shown boys “shaving down” (their legs) to peak and supposedly maximize athletic performance and gain the tiniest competitive edge (rather like the “two bishops” in a chess game).

The film also presents a girl who composed music and who had made good grades, but one day (in ninth grade, I think) made an “F” on a math (algebra) test.  She would soon take her own life.  Once you’re a 4.0 student, the only way to go is down.  But that’s true in sports when you’re in first place.

The film does cover the problem of cheating (starting with copying homework and plagiarism), which really was taboo when I went to high school 1958-1961, and when (even in a world with a military draft and student deferments) a lot was made of honor codes.  If you cheat, are you cheating yourself? Maybe not always.  David Callahan's 2004 book "The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead" (Books blog, March 28, 2006) seems relevant. 
The film depicts unbelievable amounts of homework expected in both elementary and particularly middle school.  I certainly had that homework, but I don’t remember its being excessive in the 1950s.  Then, the mantra was “read, don’t watch television”.  Now, kids seem to spend all their time – homework and social – online.  Well, not those who play football, wrestle, or swim.  (I guess Washington Nationals’s ace fastball pitcher Stephen Strasburg didn’t either.  But could today’s schools allow another Strasburg to flourish?) 

When I substitute-taught in the 2004-2007 period, I had the impression that most of the tests and homework as reasonable.  The algebra tests were straightforward and pretty standard.  If I brushed up, I could have worked the AP calculus tests (which were sometimes divided into “with” and “without “ calculator.   In math and physics, it’s possible to make up extra-credit test problems that actually engage students (like how fast would Clark Kent have to run to catch his own forward pass in the end zone, if it reaches a certain height when thrown?)  One AP chemistry class made a short instructional film about a fictitious radioactive element  (see drama reviews, Dec. 14, 2012 for more on this).  The kid who directed” the short film was a pitcher (lefthander) for the high school baseball team.  Yes, if he shows up in the majors I’m going to remember and go to the game.  Actually, I know another high school student very skilled on video and performance arts, probably enough to work in the film business right now.  It’s hard to see that AP and IB courses are too much for students who are capable of the work.
I guess my point is that what I have seen personally is a lot more varied – and encouraging – than what is depicted in this film.  Still, the film makes a point about how far our culture has carried the idea of personal meritocracy.  “Who happens to those who can’t?”  Maybe we are encouraging students to focus so much on “making it” that, besides the obvious medical risks (anorexia, lack of sleep, increased risk of mental illness – suddenly recognized as a serious risk to society) they don’t learn to become social beings.  Look at the issues with fewer children born later in life (International issues blog, Dec. 21).

The official site is here
Here is Reel Link’s theatrical trailer.  So maybe it did have a platform theatrical release, but I never caught wind of it.  The film has a great theme song "Nobody Knows Me at All" by the Weepies.  

Don’t confuse this film with the dramatic film “Road to Nowhere” (July 14, 2012 here). 

I reviewed the film "The Impossible" on my "Films on Major Threats to Freedom" ("cf") blog yesterday, Dec. 21, 2012/

(Don;t confuse with "Road to Nowhere" July 14.) 

Friday, December 21, 2012

"Seal Team VI": remember what Seals did before the first Persian Gulf War; (while we wait for Bigelow film)

The 2009 film “Seal Team VI” (or "Seal Team 6") dramatizes some events with a black-ops team going into Iraq in the days right before “Desert Shield” started in 1990, after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The film is worthy of mention because the Weinstein Company and National Geographic aired another film “Seal Team VI: The Raid on Osama bin Laden” Nov. 4 (reviewed on my "cf" blog that day).  But this similarly spirited film, from Screen Media and directed by Mark C. Andrews, focuses on the beginnings of the first Persian Gulf War, now sometimes forgotten, but very important in how it set up the Middle East for the following years, as well as how it affected the US military.

The film is also interesting viewing for people outside New York and LA, who have to wait until January 11 to see Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty”, already attracting a lot of controversy from Congress over the “extreme rendition” in the opening scenes.

When four Seal members (played by Jeremy Davis, Ken Gamble, Zach McGowan, and Kristoffer Garrison) go on reconnaissance, they encounter a pre-teen playing with a volleyball in the desert.  (This sequence resembles the mood of Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker”, taking placing during the “Second Iraq War”).  Unfortunately, the kid becomes a casualty, and the Navy is not able to provide the team with the support it needs to save the kid.  Then things get really critical, with underwater medical treatment for one member.

The film has a long epilogue honoring the US military, and it mentions the idea of individual sacrifice for one’s brother, in the context of unit cohesion, a concept that we know would become divisive soon with the debate on gays in the military during the following Clinton presidency.

The official site is here  ; it requires QuickTime.

Another film for comparison is Edward Zwick’s “Courage under Fire” with Matt Damon (1996). 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

"Climate Change: Lines of Evidence": film offered by Koshland Museum at the National Academy of Sciences

The Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC offers a 25-minute short film “Climate Change: Lines of Evidence”.  The link for the museum is here.  Adult admission is $7 and the closest Metro is either Judiciary Square or Gallery Place-Chinatown. 
The film is in seven segments, and each one “ends” as if it stood alone.

The first segment explains the nature of climate (as opposed to weather).  The succeeding portions give the evidence that climate change – global warming – is largely manmade.  At one point, it says that carbon dioxide concentrations are now higher than they have been at any time in the last 800000 years. It makes an interesting comparison between carbon dioxide and methane.  In fact, methane retains much more heat with its blanket effect than does carbon dioxide, but it does not persist in the atmosphere as long. It also says that when the Earth was only nine degrees cooler Fahrenheit, we had an Ice Age.

One segment dealt with natural fluctuation in climate. The Earth’s temperature is on an unmistakable trend upward, but it does have sawtooth dips and rises, with El Nino making it a little cooler and La Nina making it warmer.  Huge volcanic eruptions like Pinnatubo can reduce the Earth’s temperature slightly for about a year.

One of the late segments examines the effect of solar output.  In fact, the Sun has emitted slightly less energy in the past fifty years than it  did during the first half of the 20th Century.  In time, however, solar output may increase.

The film would do well to include some material about solar storms, since thr NAS as issued a booklet on "Severe Space Weather Events" (Book reviews blog, Aug. 9, 2012).

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

"Joseph of Nazareth" had some explaining to do

The second in the “Friends of Jesus” (or “Close to Jesus”) series from Barnholz and Artisan is “Joseph of Nazareth” (2000). 

The film opens with an impressive shot of the kind of work the 35-year-old widower can do with his hands.  We could say he has a “real job” and has “paid his dues”.  Pretty soon, we learn of tragedies in the family dealing with the Romans, and Joseph sees little sense in resisting.  He is asked by elders to wed Mary, who is younger than would be an acceptable age in modern culture.  (English teachers have to cover this point with ninth graders when teaching Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet’.) 

There are a number of versions of the lineage of Jesus, and of the exact manner in which Joseph was approached.  In this film, he promises chastity, but soon notices Mary’s pregnancy.  In ancient cultures, he would have had the legal right to stone her (although that doesn’t make sense here before he is wed).  His kind treatment of her (and willingness to forgo his pride) is seen as a testament to his faith.  In time, he has some explaining to do.  At least, she should not appear pregnant until he has built her home.  If she is not with his child, why is he willing to raise it?  (The same situation is going on right now in the soap “Days of our Lives”.)  It would appear that Joseph accepts chastity and the possible abuse of his reputation just out of loyalty to God.

I have a posting about this Christmas scenario on my “Bill Boushka” blog on Dec. 24, 2007, based on a sermon given by James Somerville of the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC. Somerville said “Joseph had some explaining to do.”  Somerville has since gone on to take a pastorship  in Richmond, VA.
There is a biological aspect to Virgin Birth: Logically, Mary could have only born a female child.  The only way the DNA information for the Y-chromosome for a male child could have gotten to her would have been a virus (even like a retrovirus).

In this society, men had definite obligations to the community, to protect women and children even when not married.  They had an obligation to marry if asked to, when not able to do so out of their own social bearing.
The movie does show Joseph getting instructed in lucid dreams, which may seem a bit hokey, or maybe not.  There is an anticipation of “Inception”.

The well-known story of Jesus in the temple at age 12 appears near the end of the movie. Jesus is obviously “different”.  The Bible has him at a younger age than would be really effective dramatically (say maybe 18).  We do encounter teens like this, sometimes.   I wasn’t aware that Joseph died in his late 40s.
Joseph is played by Tobias Moretti, and he looks a bit weathered for 35.  Mary is played by Stefania Rivi.

The film does not pay much attention to the associated story of Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, which is interesting (as an opportunity for more dramatic controversy) because her husband Zacharias was told not to speak (or blog!) for three months!  Also, there isn't much attention to the angel Gabriel visit.  

Yahoo has an answer page of Joseph’s “online reputation”, here.

The music score (by Marco Frisina) is schmaltzy, and has a Mahler-like theme spanning octaves.  

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Documentary traces gun rampages back to hostile workplace issues ("Murder by Proxy: : How America Went Postal")

I had placed the documentary “Murder by Proxy: How America Went Postal “ in my Netflix instant queue about a week before the tragedies in Oregon and then Connecticut.  The 2010 film (73 minutes), by Emil Chiaberi, from Key Element Films and Aldamisa Releasing, turns out to be all too relevant.  I had to wait a few days, though, just to deal with this.

The film starts out by defining the phrase “going postal”, in reference to the workplace violence (usually perpetrated by recently fired employees) that had become associated with the United States Postal Service because of a few incidents in the 1980s and 90s, particularly at Royal Oak, MI and Edmond, OK.  About half of the film deals with the problems in US post offices or sorting centers as workplaces. Some former employers talk about the brutal management culture, and the tendency of the automation and machinery to overwhelm the workers, and even cause them to be injured (as with carpal tunnel).  I almost had a job as a letter carrier (at age 61) in 2004, and would have gone through with it if it were not for a last minute medical concern about a hip injury in 1998.  My own history, after my career-ending layoff at age 58, post 9/11, at the end of 2001, had become a matter of “paying my dues”.

The film moves on to other workplaces, including a printing company near Louisville, KY and then the 1999 incident at Xerox in Hawaii.   The film then takes the position that the workplace violence has been setting an “example” that encourages outbursts in schools (especially Columbine in 1999) and other civilian settings by disgruntled and sometimes psychopathic people. Given recent history, this is a chilling interpretation.
The film mentions Ronald Reagan’s firing of air traffic controllers in 1982, as a sign of a new kind of belligerence against “ordinary” workers and union –busting that increased in Reagan’s “trickle down”, “supply-side” world.  (As Ross Perot used to say, “Trickle down didn’t trickle”.)  

The film presents “management” as treating workers as pawns in some sort of Darwinian (or Spencerian) process (not exactly chess).  Management tends to look at lower paid workers as those who “didn’t make it” competitively and are where they deserve to be.  Totalitarian societies and sometimes religious communities try to rationalize this sort of thing by saying that everyone should take his turn with rites of passage experiencing peasantry (in extreme forms, that’s Maoism).  In theory, if everyone took his turn with dirty work, those who survived deserve to be elevated and there could be no worker resentment, and no crime.  In some smaller totalitarian societies, this sort of thing seems to work.

The danger, then, is that when an individual “fails” in this competition (or rites of passage), he might see no value to society’s norms and lash out, believing he is making a final statement.   “It’s your fault that I failed.”  It may not be so different from what motivate the 9/11 hijackers – if you understand the idea of collective shame (even religious) as an unacceptable emotion.  The film takes us through some of the more recent horrors, including schools, with this interpretation.  It’s scary nihilism. The film compares the victims in an incident to ants that we step on – we either don’t see them at all or we don’t see them as people or as valued.  It then defines the word “proxy” in that context.

Underlying all of this presentation is an even more disturbing idea, that we have to demand that people “make it” somehow as individuals, and then don’t see them as inherently personally valuable as people when they just can’t.  There is only the “hidden resource” of compassion left.

The film makes a particularly disturbing point about homeland security, that the greatest danger (to utilities and energy companies particularly) could come from disgruntled workers from within, rather than from overseas enemies.  
There is one other valuable point in the film that should not be glossed over.  It is indeed all too easy for management in an employer to create a hostile workplace environment. Even comments made on the Web in public can show contempt for certain kinds of people and create a workplace issue -- an observation (in the conflict of interest area) that has long concerned me. 

The official site is here


Monday, December 17, 2012

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey": Jackson's talents can be put to more original use; How about "Imajica"?

Well, MGM (even with Oprah’s help) and New Line Cinema don’t stand on their own anymore, but they teamed up, along with Warner Brothers, and director Peter Jackson, to start a “franchise within a franchise”, that is the Christmas season extravaganza (not high school style), “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”.
The new “prequel” franchise is fashioned after J.R.R. Tolkien’s early 1936 novel “The Hobbitt”, some simple English literature that preceded “The Lord of the Rings”.
The concept, as MGM-New Line want to do it, seems bloated.  The subtitle is dippy.  Many of the effects are familiar (especially from “The Two Towers”) and one of the Orc creatures looks like a recreation of Jabba the Hutt from Star Wars.  So was the idea to make a 3-D triology?  True, the gangplank scene was fascinating to look at. 
Technically, it looks good at 48 frames per second.   The 3-D was natural, not exaggerated. (I didn’t get the point of the sepia out-of-focus shots near the end.)  I saw the film in a smaller auditorium at the AMC Courthouse in Arlington VA, a 44-seat auditorium with luxury leatherette bucket seats (everywhere in the theater) that recline.  The show nearly sold out on a Monday night, and many of the people (especially dating couples) seem to be into Tolkien and comics and fantasy movies.  For the first time, AMC skipped its own introduction showing an outdoor AMC Theater on another planet (one of the best trademarked theater chain intros in the industry).
The journey, of course, is seen through the eyes of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) sixty years before, looking middle aged, and Frodo (Elijah Wood) is introduced as a devoted youth early.  Because we know how all of this turns out in the LOTR trilogy (“The ring is mine!”) , the storyline here seems less compelling.  Prequels can be interesting as flashback material, or when they take place in a world that looks substantially different than the world of the main movie.  I do that in my own “Do Ask Do Tell” screenplay.  Alfred Hitchcock was very good with this, shifting environments to set up backstories.   The characters don’t seem original.  If hobbits have hairy feet, they still don’t have teenage shag carpet gams when they reach middle age, at least in this movie.
As for the fantasy world itself, with the spectacular mountain cliffs, waterfalls, Pueblo houses and hobbit huts – I sort of take it as, not so much a parallel universe (Middle Earth) of pre-history, but a speculation about what another civilization 20 light years away could look like (maybe around Gliese).  The hobbits and “people” live well, even without electricity:  magic replaces technology as we know it.  At one point, Bilbo admits that he spends a lot of his life “on the road”, but so did my own father!  The “Middle Earth” planet has “humanoids” of about the same intelligence but with biological capabilities more differentiated than among our own races.  That’s likely to create social and political problems that we have more or less resolved on Earth (not completely).   There is a “Fort Knox” gold cave and a Goldfinger-like villain, which suggests that the economy on Middle Earth is backed by hard currency, not fiat.  But would the economy have business cycles like ours?  Almost certainly, yes.  Economic depression is likely to occur in any intelligent civilization in the universe.  Economics is just math. You can’t change it.

 Here’s the official site blog for The Hobbit from the studios.
I’d like to ask whether Peter Jackson (or perhaps Christopher Nolan) has considered filming Clive Barker’s 1991 fantasy “Imajica”.  The book (see Book reviews, March 28, 2006) would require two movies (it’s in two long parts), and takes place on five dominions: One is Earth, one is Heaven (sort of), and the other three are more or less other planets with “people” (often sexually ambiguous) who sometimes look and act like us and sometimes present fascinating “diversity” (which is one of Barker’s themes).  There was a rumor that Lionsgate or Summit  was looking at it, and that New Zealand could be a filming location.  This film should get made.  It is needed more than a LOTR prequel, and it will  (or would) generate a cult following.  One problem: at the end, Man defeats God and Heaven (for all its hundreds of miles of Dubai-like condos) becomes like another place.  The scenery will sometimes be more worldly (gay bar scenes, but there is one in “Star Wars”  -- what would a gay bar be like on Gliese 581G anyway?).  If someone knows if there is an effort going on to finance it, please comment.  The religious concept could be a hurdle, as would a probable R rating, a problem for big budget projects.  But "Imajica" can generate Oscar Best Picture material. 

There are no trains or choo-choos in Tolkien as as far as I recall.  People fly by being picked up by birds (eagles).  In "Imajica" there's a very important train (n Dominion 3), and bizarre ways of instantaneous travel according to the theory of "Reconciliation".  And, yes, "Imajica" would be a great concept for a resort in Las Vegas.  But so would Middle Earth.
Pictures are mine (not from movie), but illustrate visual concepts of the movie. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

"Any Day Now": gay parents, unconditional love, and radical hospitality

Tonight (Sunday December 16, 2012), President Obama, speaking about the Newtown tragedy, said “we are all parents for all our children.”  That shared responsibility may well include or encompass the childless, which is an important idea in the new film “Any Day Now” from director Travis Fine.

The obvious political subtext is “gay parenting” or “gay adoption”, in conjunction with gay marriage. But this film is set in 1979, albeit in West Hollywood, long before these items had become perceived as legitimate political or social issues . It is more about the courage (and wisdom) in getting involved with another’s (particularly someone else’s child’s) hardship when one stumbles into it by happenstance, while struggling to make it oneself.   And what is demanded of nightclub performer Paul (Garret  Dillahunt) and his new man-friend,  a closeted Los Angeles county prosecutor Rudy (Alan Cumming), is a lot more than giving a dollar to a homeless person outside a Metro entrance. 

The movie opens with Paul, who is not exactly a drag queen, but more a caricature of one. For example, he keeps his Mediterranean body hair.  His is an “entertainer” who sings or pantomimes for tips.  (I once dated someone in NYC in 1978 who played guitar at Shakespeare’s for tips).  Down to his last ten dollars, and bothered by his landlord for cash rent, he stumbles on to Marco (Isaac Leyva) , a pre-teen with Down’s Syndrome, left alone by his drug-addicted single mother right after she has been hauled away to jail.  (On the Down’s issue, compare with the film “Girlfriend”, reviewed here July 16, 2012).

I suppose the “correct” (and that doesn’t mean “right”) thing to do is to just call the police, who will turn the kid over to Child Protective Services, for foster placement.  But Paul and soon Rudy are so touched that they take him in (to Rudy’s ample apartment) and become “two dads”.  Parenthood in their case starts with sudden, unexpected "radical hospitality". 
Before I get to the “gay parenting” aspect, let me say that, living in several cities, I’ve encountered a number of surprising issues sprung on me by various people.  They have sometimes involved money or poverty or even political asylum or immigration.   (For example, in 1980, in Dallas, people were asked if they had “spare bedrooms” to house gay Cuban refugees – an issue that led to an interesting plot sequence, for me at least.)  Generally, though, they have been more subtle and nuanced than the situation in this film, real to me, but not as obvious to an omniscient observer, or mainstream moviegoer.  The screewriting in this film does play on urgency and dire straits, more so than usually occurs in “real life”.   

Rudy finds his own boss (Chris Mulkey) socially intrusive.  Eventually, Paul gets into some trouble, and Rudy gets fired.  This happens in the film’s “middle” and isn’t adequately explained.  (I suspect that the DVD will have some deleted scenes on this point, but they needed to be included;   at 97 minutes, the film still had some space for clarity.)  Paul and Rudy mount an effort to legally adopt Marco, and are shown as loving parents (compared to the incompetent mother).  But prejudice and their gay lifestyles get in the way.  There is an appeal, and by this time, Marco’s own situation is precarious enough that he will die without parents capable of loving him unconditionally.  Without adoption, his life will surely end.

All of this does fit into the idea that we are, in some sense, all parents, potentially, as the president said tonight.

Frances Fisher plays the judge, who seems willing to make an about-face in her attitude, but then recants. At one point, there is a cute line in court, "Is that a question?", as if inspired by Lesley Stahl's famous interview of Mark Zuckerberg.
The official site from Music Box Films is here. I overlooked this film when I went to NYC in April for Tribeca. 

I saw the film late Sunday afternoon at Landmark E Street, before a substantial audience (two-thirds full), probably half of the audience gay men  (many older male couples in the audience). 

The movie was written by Fine along with George Arthur Bloom and is said to be based on a true story.
One could compare the film to the 1995 book “Getting Simon: Two Gay Doctors’ Journey into Fatherhood”, by Kenneth Morgen, MD, about adoption in Maryland (Bramble Books).

I  want to take a moment to link to film critic Roger Ebert’s comments on media coverage on the Newtown tragedy, as compared to previous such events.  Ebert does discuss Gus Van Sant’s grainy film “Elephant”, which I saw in 2003 at the Avalon in NW Washington DC.  It’s a frightening film. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

"The Central Park Five": Ken Burns documents NYC's miscarriage of justice after 1989 "wilding" case

Ken Burns, along with Sarah Burns and Ken McMahon, have filmed a grim documentary about wrongful conviction, “The Central Park Five”.  It’s relatively unusual for a PBS documentary to get a theatrical release first (this one from Sundance Selects).  I saw it Saturday night, late, at the Landmark E Street in Washington DC before a small audience.

The film is told largely through the “Five”, one of whom is heard only in voice.  The NYPD apprehended the teens in the overnight hours of April 19, 1989 for mischief, and then tried to pin the assault on a white female jogger on them.  As juveniles, they were not able to resist police pressure to confess.  The police then ignored factual evidence that might have made the confessions look questionable.  One of the five would meet the real rapist years later in prison, and that prisoner would admit the guilt.

Even so, vacating the convictions was difficult at first, and the press attacked DA Morgenthau, as the press could not accept its own role in the miscarriage of justice.

Much of the trial occurred in the media, who grew the story about “wilding”. The City was very divided in the late 80s, with Wall Street booming under Reagan but with the underclass, mostly blacks and latinos, growning even more desperate, following the financial decay and crisis of the 1970s.  Ed Koch, who had become mayor in 1978, often appears, as do New York Times reporters, and at least one juror. 

The jogger, Trisha Miell, would eventually make a difficult recovery and run NYC marathons. 

New York City, in defending a civil lawsuit brought by the Five, tried to subpoena film material from the directors, who refused, claiming journalistic shield.  The filmmakers also say that NYC had DNA evidence that contradicted the accusations against the Five but chose to prosecute them anyway. 

Ken Burns’s company. Florentine Films, has a website here.

Burns has reportedly refused to turn over material from the film to New York City.

See a related review of  the CourtTV fi;m, “The Exonerated”, by the Innocence Project, on the TV Blog, July 23, 2012. 

Update: May 3, 2013

See the New York Times article by Jim Dwyer on p. A18, "From 'Central Park Five' Case, a Lesson in Assigning Blame", about prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer, link here.  

Friday, December 14, 2012

"Selling God" shows up the need to proselytize

Selling God”, directed by Carl Christman, music by GlennMorissette, from Guide Media (and now Breaking Glass Pictures), is an 85-minute documentary (2009), poking fun of the way fundamentalist or evangelical religious denominations “sell” their faith to others.  Their world is very much about winning converts, not arguments.

I recall back in 1979, as I had gotten to know MCC Dallas, that a particular young man (Skip) made a great deal of probing what God meant to me.  I’ve covered this before once, and it can get very personal.
But many faiths demand that one go out and reach out to others.  One could call it “marketing” – overcoming objections – or one could see it (in some people’s minds) as a mission of salvation – of saving people from original sin.  The film quotes  Kirk Cameron  -- “the most important duty is to seek and save the lost.”  No one, in this view, can escape the need for God, for Grace, or for fellowship.  I actually wrote about this somewhat on my “BillBoushka” blog on March 13, 2011. 

The film covered the direct proselytizing of some faiths – the nearly mandatory missions that Mormon young men go to, to sell their faith (they pay for it themselves – and I wonder if Washington Nationals’ star Bryce Harper will do so).  They also covered the door-to-door work of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Getting unsolicited visits at home today is less acceptable (partly for security reasons) that it was in earlier generations.

Another interesting aspect of selling God is procreation.  Actually, that runs a gamut.  The Shakers thought of all sexuality is evil and therefore could not reproduce themselves.  The Catholic church has a celibate priesthood but opposes contraception and demands openness to procreation from most of the faithful. The LDS Church also believes it is important for adults to gear themselves to have and raise many children, with gender roles.

Jerry Falwell  (the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, VA) appears frequently, proclaiming that everyone needs salvation and warning about Hell – and also is quote blaming gays and lesbians (and some others) for 9/11. 

The film makes the point well – that religion is the one area where people are encouraged to leave rationality and critical thinking aside and just believe what they are told by authority. 

The Facebook site for the film is here

A good film for comparison would be “Religulous” (Bill Baher, Lionsgate, 2008)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

"Judas", from "Close to Jesus" series, explores the moral ambiguity of the infamous disciple

The third of the “Friends of Jesus”  (or "Close to Jesus") franchise-series films is “Judas” (2001), played by Enrico Lo Verso.  The film (which seems to have to fit a fixed 94-minute length for television) depicts the narrative of Judas Iscariot, which is a lot more complicated and morally layered than people often realize.

Judas is approached by his fiancĂ©e Sarah  (Aglaia Szyszkowitz)for  hard currency money (that belongs to the disciples), to bribe the Romans to free her brother, Jesta.  He refuses at first, but becomes disenchanted with Jesus’s behavior with the “money changers”, making enemies.  Eventually he gives Sarah the money, not realizing it will be used for an assassination plot involving Barabbas. 

There are some scenes in the middle where Jesus washes his feet – there is a good deal of intimacy, as in the other “Friends” film.  Jesus says that a servant cannot be greater than his master, and that he cannot challenge his master’s message.  (That might sound like an invitation to pandering.)  In the meantime, more of Judas’s family (and other friends’ families) are arrested after the assassination. Judas thinks that if he identifies Judas by kissing him in Gethsemane, Jesus will save himself (using his "powers") and everyone will be freed.  In fact, Judas’s family is freed but Jesus expires on the Cross. Judas has a philosophical argument with Peter (who had denied Jesus, even more “cowardly”) just before the death, and Peter cannot stop Judas from hanging himself out of grief at the end.

The footage in the crucifixion scene seems to be the same as in the "Thomas" film (Dec. 8). The scene where the Romans offer the mob the choice between freeing Jesus and Barabbas is quite effective, and would tie in to some of today's films about wrongful convictions (or the "Innocence Project"), which I will cover soon. 
One of the interesting aspects of the plot is the loyalty that Judas feels to other family members, and to the family of his fiancĂ©.  Family responsibility was a communal thing in this society, extended to siblings and didn’t wait for your own children.

On June 4, 2011, I reviewed a gay-themed film called “Judas Kiss”, and I’m not sure that I see a clean parallel between that film and the Biblical story.  In that film, the young filmmaker has made a short film by that name, which he is trying to get into a campus festival, when he “betrays” and older man who may be a time-travel instantiation of himself.   But the social tenderness among the younger male characters in the film is rather striking, sometimes almost reminiscent of the Biblical story.

There is a short film (13 min), rather a lecture,  from “Rebel Alliance Media”  called “Judas Iscariot: His Betrayal and Death” (no longer available).

Picture: Flint Hills in Kansas (2006), not so far from the fictitious "Smallville".  

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

"Deadfall": a wintry crime spree without Coen-style humor

Deadfall” (also called “Kin”) has a line “You can choose your girl friend, but you can’t choose your family.”  Magnolia Pictures and “2929” have produced a taut thriller, spectacular to watch in the northern woods (it’s supposed to take place on the Michigan U.P. but it was filmed in Quebec, like a good old DGC film) without quite all the ironic black comedy of a Coen Brother’s film (yes, the north country sometimes isn’t for “old men” either.)  It seems that a Sandy-like superstorm has struck Michigan before Thanksgiving, leading to constant whiteouts for the first half of the film.

The movie starts with a spectacular auto wreck in the woods, and a brother  Addison (Eric Bana) and sister (Olivia Wilde) on the lam after an Indian casino heist gone wrong.  With Addison on the run, it’s not safe to live anywhere in the surrounding woods.  The film has two brutal rural home invasions, and another subplot involving an ex-con boxer Jay (Charlie Hunnam), who falls in with the sister as the film heads toward a climax on Thanksgiving Daywith Jay’s parents (Sissy Spacek and Kris Kristofferson).  There’s also an aspiring deputy sheriff  Hannah (Kate Mara), whose dad (“The Sheriff”, Treat Williams, from “Everwood”) tries to keep her down, as she aspires to go to the FBI Academy.  There is something terrifying about Addison's attitude: he is out to prove you a coward if you can't stand up him and protect "family" from his shotgun barrel.  

I saw the film at Landmark E-Street in Washington DC, light crowd, great presentation on a wide screen.  This movie keeps you on edge, and makes you (or me, at least) root for characters you wouldn’t think you could “like”.  Yet, after a number of Coen films to compare it to, it comes across as a “good B movie”, definitely genre-driven.
The film is directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky and written by Zach Dean. The official site is here

There’s an earlier Coppola film by the same name (1993), unrelated story, owned by Lionsgate.

I’ll mention a 1976 film with Kristofferson, “The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea”  (Embassy), a strange film that I saw on the Upper East Side with a friend in my NYC days.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

"Trading on Thin Air" examines financial derivatives based on reducing carbon emissions

Trading on Thin Air” (2010, 77 minutes), directed by Susan Kucera, from CinePartners and Netflix, explores the possibility that the financial services world will exploit the trading of “carbon offsets” and “cap and trade” as part of a worldwide strategy to reduce global warming.

Much of the film is motivated by two appealing male characters (Lee Attenberg and John Barnes)  acting in a stage play, in black and white, where their motives in trading these new kinds of “securities” are questioned. 
They explain how carbon credits are a financial allowance to do less of what you would normally do.  Imagine, for example, if you got paid for every mile you drove less than 12000 miles a year.  Now imagine this as a financial asset or “derivative” that could be traded on Wall Street.

The film also tracks this “derivative” concept back to earlier times in history, when money was created, put on gold standards, and then turned into a fiat system without a backing – currency based on “nothing” – it could vanish into thin air.  It also explains “fractional reserve banking”.

The film gets into some of the international complications possible from this kind of trading. China, for example, wanted credit for its population control policy, and Europe (ironically hampered by low birth rates) agreed. 
The film also says that climate policies, while well intentioned, will lead to massive displacement of poor people in low lying areas to be displaced by dams and hydroelectric projects.   It also says that some reforestation projects are not set up in a biologically or ecologically sound manner.

The official site is here.