Friday, March 31, 2006

 

The Evolution of Moses on Screen

As the Christian feast of Easter and the Jewish feast of Passover approach, to mark the 50th anniversary of Cecil B DeMille's The Ten Commandments -- the Biblical epic by which all other Biblical epics are measured -- ABC, who has faithfully aired that version every Spring for the last 27 years, commissioned a remake of The Ten Commandments, which it will also air this April. DeMille's film, which itself is a remake of an earlier version he directed (in 1923) relates the iconic miracles of Moses with "Biblical proportion," that is to say, on a literal and grand scale. DeMille's film has as much, or more, to do with the popular understanding of this Bible story, than any church or synagogue re-telling of it. For many, the image of Moses is Charlton Heston with a long white beard. The images of his miracles -- parting the Red Sea and receiving of the tablets atop Mount Sinai -- are the images shown in DeMille's film. In between the 1956 version and its modern-day remake, two significant films on the life of Moses were produced, each which attempt, in a some small but important ways, to strip away the "hocus pocus" aspect of the story and get at a more real, more human, more believable Moses. In 1975's Moses the Lawgiver -- directed by Gianfranco De Bosio and starring Burt Lancaster -- at the climatic "parting of the Sea," when the Israelites have a body of water in front of them, and Pharoh's army advancing on them from behind, the waters part, but unlike the magnificence of the DeMille depiction, in which there is literally a wall of water to the left and the right of the escaping camp of Israelites, here the waters simply recede, and the camp, led by Moses, must partially wade through some of this shallow water to get away. The first time I saw the scene it impacted me, because I, like so many others, was brought up on the DeMille image. There was something very satisfying about De Bosio's decision to down play the miracle while not reducing its importance. What if, I thought, the "parting of the Red Sea," as some Biblical scholars were suggesting at the time, was actually low tide at a much smaller body of water to the north of the Red Sea, called the Reed Sea? What if the Israelites and Moses got away from Pharaoh's army not by walking through a sea -- with walls of water miles high on either side -- but rather by wading through a swampy marsh land at low tide? Oddly, the thought didn't diminish, in my mind, the fortuitous fact that a low tide occurred when this group of runaways needed it to. Moses the Lawgiver was the first film to chip away at DeMille's "magic wand" approach to Biblical miracles. In 1996, director Roger Young's Moses, starring Ben Kingsley, made some further chips. While faithful to the Biblical source in many ways, in Moses there is a scene which also made me reconsider actual events. In DeMille's film, when Moses descends from the mountain to find much of his camp worshiping a golden statue of a calf as their god, in a fit of anger, he lifts the tablets and commands those who are for the Lord God to come to him, and then with the proclamation "If you won't live by the law, you shall die by the law," he throws the stone tablets at the traitors causing the ground to split in a conflagration and consume them. In Young's Moses, the scene plays out quite differently. Upon discovering the camp has been divided in his absence. Moses is overcome with sadness. He drops the tablets at his feet, breaking them, and with tears flowing down his face, he instructs his loyalists to cleanse the camp of the traitors, which they do -- by cutting their throats! The value here is the ongoing study of one of the most important men in history in a way which increases the believability while not diminishing the importance of events in his life. For believers and non-believers alike, one thing can be agreed upon -- the foundation of all civilized societies come from Mosaic law -- Don't kill. Don't steal. Don't lie. Don't commit adultery. For the past 50 years, film's exploration of this man and his law has been an interesting evolution.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

 

Happy Endings

Sometimes, as in the movies, life has happy endings. Today, it's a double feature. American journalist, 28-year-old Jill Carroll, a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor, who had been held captive since January 7, 2006 in war-torn Iraq -- in a protest against Iraqi female prisoners -- has been set free, unharmed. As news of Carroll's release circles the globe, newspapers in the U.S. are also reporting Randal McCloy, Jr., the sole survivor of the Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia, has been released from the hospital, almost three months after he was trapped underground in a mine filled with toxic fumes for more than 40 hours. Back when it was believed (and reported) that all but one of the miners had survived, I said the story was sure to become a motion picture. When word came that, in fact, the opposite was true -- all but one died -- I still believed, as I do today, that this story, now along with Jill Carroll's, will make it to the screen. Ironically, it was Carroll imagine on screen, twice seen pleading for her life on videotape, that backfired on her captors, and ignited a worldwide outrage of protests for her release. The power of the moving image to stir. While pursuing both of these stories as films would clearly be a form of "ambulance chasing," it is still, by far, a more noble endeavor to relate these triumphs of human will, than it is to clamor over who will get the tell the tale of an alleged Mafia Cop, currently standing trial for murder and betrayal. I generally don't like film endings which tie things up in a neat little bow, and have always preferred an ending which leaves the audience wondering, and perhaps wanting more (Broken Flowers is a great recent example of this), but today, I must say, "Here's to happy endings!"

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

 

A Betrayal of Trust

Louis Eppolito worked with directors Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas), Woody Allen (Bullets Over Broadway), and David Lynch (Lost Highway); and acted alongside the likes of Robert DeNiro, Sean Penn, Gary Oldman, Ed Harris, Bill Murrary and Robert Blake. He was, at one time, considered one of the most highly decorated policemen in the history of the New York Police Department. But Eppolito's 1992 autobiography, "Mafia Cop: the Story of an Honest Cop Whose Family Was the Mob," could not have been more wrong. Thi, it seems, was not an honest cop. Eppolito it turned out was, apparently, every bit as corrupt as the lineage from which he came. In March 2005, Eppolito, along with his retired NYPD detective partner, was federally indicted for allegedly providing key witness and confidential informant information to the Luchese crime family, as well as carrying out mob hits, kidnapping and turning over individuals to the crime boss, who, reportedly, referred to Eppolito, and his partner, as "my crystal ball." What an utter betrayal of trust! When I was growing up, children were encouraged to seek out a police officer if they were lost or in trouble. Today, we should teach our children to run from them. Reports abound about individuals who, disguised as police officers, mug, car jack and even shoot innocent and unsuspecting individuals. But Eppolito went one step further -- he actually was a police officer -- and a highly decorated one at that -- who allegedly used his position of public trust and law enforcement power to murder people for an organized crime family. What saddens me is, even after this betrayal of trust has been exposed, Hollywood is still banging down his door, creating a movie rights buying frenzy (with reportedly three studios clamoring to produce his story) which has overtaken, and overshadowed the fact that Eppolito is on trial for murder! Why does Hollywood continue to shine the spotlight on this alleged cold blooded killer? Given Eppolito's penchant for fame, leaving him to obscurity might well be his greatest punishment.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

 

Movies on the Beach

The movie on my mind tonight is The Beach Trilogy, a short film told in three chapters, that I'm in the process of adapting, directing and producing. The low budget, independent effort is based on two classic stories, and one classic illustration -- all which take place on a beach. Chapter one is based on "The Starfish Poem," the story of one boy's optimism in the face of overwhelming odds. Chapter two is adapted from "Footprints," which relates, in stirring fashion, one man's crisis of faith and his renewal. The final chapter fleshes out Norman Rockwell's classic 1921 illustration, "No Swimming," in which a group of mischievous boys get caught on a hot summer's day swimming where they shouldn't. Initial shooting for "Starfish," began last fall on location in Rockaway Beach, NY. As that chapter enters the post production phase, principal photography is scheduled to begin this spring on "Footprints" and "No Swimming." The Beach Trilogy is scheduled to be finished, and ready for online distribution and the festival circuit, by the fall.

Monday, March 27, 2006

 

Does Movie Theater Security = Racism?

Will the upcoming film ATL, a coming-of-age story set at a Southside Atlanta skating rink, incite violence at movie theaters? That question is at the center of a controversy some are already labeling a prejudicial and racist act. This last weekend, a memo from W. Mark Crowell, Valor Security Service Perimeter Mall security director, was, reportedly, emailed to seven shopping centers in the Atlanta area, for which Valor provides services, warning, "On March 31, the movie ATL will be released in theaters. A theater manager at one of our properties has alerted the mall team that this movie could cause potential behavior problems. The movie trailer indicates that themes in the movie include moral choices and narcotics trafficking ... Please appropriately prepare your security staffs for the release of this movie." The Hip-Hop themed film, which was given a PG-13 rating by the MPAA, was produced by Warner Bros, who released a statement saying, "ATL celebrates the vibrant culture of the South, particularly the music and energy that emanates from Atlanta. The story follows a group of teenagers as they overcome challenges and discover the importance of friendship, community and personal integrity." So the questions are: Since the action of the film focuses on the lives of black teenagers living in a ghetto of Atlanta, is this memo, in fact, an act of racism? Could this be seen as a public relations "lynching" of the film? Could Valor Security be recognizing an inherent fear in the southern population and taking the opportunity to reap overtime money? Or, is all this just a publicity stunt designed to drum up business for the barely marketed film? Last year, the R-rated film Get Rich or Die Tryin, starring rapper 50 Cent caused similar concerns, prompting the removal of billboards for the film in certain areas prior to the film's release. As if scripted, that was followed by the murder of 30-year-old Shelton Flowers, who was shot and killed in the lobby of a Loews multiplex theater in Homestead, PA, after seeing the film. Get Rich or Die Tryin was subsequently removed from the theater.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

 

Spurlock: A Super Sized Jerk

Director Morgan Spurlock, who turned himself into a fast food consuming human guinea pig for the Oscar-nominated documentary Super Size Me, recently caused a stir after giving a profanity-laced speech to a group of high school students in Pennsylvania in which he also poked fun at "pot smoking teachers in the balcony" and "retarded kids in the back, wearing helmets," prompting teachers to remove the special needs children from the presentation. In the AP report of the incident, in what appears to be a somewhat self-righteous and arrogant response, Spurlock was quoted as saying, "The greatest lesson those kids learned today was the importance of free speech." Really, you ass? I disagree. The fact that we have free speech, I think, comes with some level of responsibility to use it wisely. Sure, Mr. Spurlock, we are still free in this country to sound like a jerk, which is what you are for giving this speech to these high school children in an academic setting. Had you been saying the same things to them at the playground, you still would have been a jerk, but at least then, your statements would not have been received, as they were, in a school sponsored presentation. Rather than so adamantly defend your speech as being protected by the constitution -- Of course it is, so what? So is shitting on a canvas, and calling it art -- perhaps you should have reviewed it, in private, and wondered whether being able to say such things is equal to one's best judgment to say them. Making fun at mentally challenged children, who are trying to have as successful a high school experience as their less challenged classmates, is simply pathetic, as are you for doing it. (Those children have a condition that give them their challenge. What's your excuse?) Just as worrisome is the fact the majority of the student body hearing the speech not only enjoyed it, but offered a standing ovation, and sought autographs afterwards

Saturday, March 25, 2006

 

Doh! The Simpsons Becomes a Movie!

Following the lead of such animated television shows as The Flintstones, Rugrats, South Park, and Scooby Doo, The Simpsons -- the longest running animated series in the history of primetime TV (an incredible 17 years and counting!) -- will soon become a feature film. In an interview with BBC Radio, Nancy Cartwright, (who provides the voice of Bart Simpson) confirmed the long-standing rumors about a feature version of the show, and was quoted as saying, "We've just done the table read for The Simpsons movie, so although we've been promoting that we're going to do it, now we're actually doing it and are in production." The Simpsons, which, as most know, began life as an animated short on The Tracey Ullman Show, has long been known for its predilection for pop culture references and ability to attract the Hollywood's A-list as guest voiceovers. One presumes the feature version will have heaping amounts of both (and you can expect Homer's expletives to be more than just "Doh!"). The writers of the series clearly love cinema. Check out this list of just some of the movies the long-running series has referenced over the years: 2001 - A Space Odyssey, The Amityville Horror, All the President's Men, Animal House, Basic Instinct, Batman, Ben Hur, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Braveheart, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Cannonball Run, Cape Fear, Citizen Kane, A Clockwork Orange, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter, Deliverance, Dr. Strangelove, The Empire Strikes Back, The Exorcist, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Fly, Frankenstein, Free Willie, The Fugitive, Full Metal Jacket, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Gone with the Wind, The Graduate, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Lethal Weapon, The Lion King, Mary Poppins, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Odd Couple, The Omega Man, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Patton, The Planet of the Apes, Poltergeist, Pulp Fiction, Raging Bull, Rain Man, Resevoir Dogs, The Road Warrior, The Shining, Shortcuts, Sliver, Soylent Green, Star Trek, Star Wars, A Streetcar Named Desire, Taxi Driver, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Ten Commandments, Terminator 2, Thelma and Louise, Titanic, West World, and The Wild One. News of the movie version (which could hit theaters as early as this summer) comes as the TV series prepares to unveil a live action version of its famous weekly pre-title segment (in which all the members of the Simpson family crowd onto the couch to watch TV). The question here of course is whether the half hour sitcom can sustain the length of a feature film without feeling too thin. Some have accomplished this successfully (South Park, Rugrats), others not so well (The Flintstones, Scooby Doo). Still, one has to imagine that a team which has kept the series consistently hilarious for nearly two decade will be able to make the transition to the big screen with its integrity intact. No doubt, like the self-reflexive South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, The Simpsons feature will play into the fact that it's a movie, with references and laughs comparable to its now much larger size.

Friday, March 24, 2006

 

Craven's Beginnings

It was a quick, off-the-cuff reference in Saw II that put me in mind of this film -- As the maniacal serial killer Jigsaw leads a police officer to his den of horrors, he subtly points out, "It's the last house on the left." Lost on many, I'm sure, this clever reference is to the infamous 1972 film, The Last House on the Left, produced by Sean S. Cunningham, and written and directed by Wes Craven. Cunningham, of course, would go on to create and direct Friday the 13th, one of the most popular horror franchises in cinema. Craven -- who now joins fellow horror masters George A. Romero (Dawn of the Dead), John Carpenter (Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog), and Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) in seeing one of his early efforts remade (in Craven's case, the just released The Hills Have Eyes) -- would go on to direct the films A Nightmare on Elm Street, the Scream franchise, and (perhaps what will, one day, be considered his masterpiece) Red Eye. Having made only one film previously together -- the sex oddity Together, which gave the first screen exposure to porn star Marilyn Chambers -- Cunningham and Craven loosely adapted Ingmar Bergman's Oscar winning The Virgin Spring as the sadistic Last House on the Left. Containing perhaps the most brutal rape/torture and murder scenes ever filmed (rivaled only by the cult favorite I Spit on Your Grave), Last House quickly became the film everyone dared you to see. For some reason, the film's bizarre poster art, and print ad campaign, mistakenly lead viewers to believe the female victims in the film meet their demise in the notorious "house" of the title, when, in fact, it's actually the violent killers who end up being killed there (in an equally violent manner), by one of their victim's parents! Last House, along with I Spit on Your Grave, spawned a new exploitation subgenre of horror film, which would become known as the "revenge film." Last House on the Left was banned in England throughout the 80s and 90s, and only in 2003 was it allowed to be released on DVD there, with minor edits. Film historians are split on whether Last House is a morality play (the victimized girls ultimately meet their end because they are trying to score some dope on the way to a concert) which reflected the growing violence in the media, or simply self-indulgent trash. Still, few films have as much legend built around it as does The Last House on the Left. Part of what makes the film so difficult to watch is the fact that the violence is protracted, but not romanticized, or given to fancy special effects. It's precisely this kind of pseudo-documentary realism, which The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would master the following year, that revolutionized the depiction of violence in the modern horror film. Something about the slapdash manner in which Last House is put together (including a ridiculously inappropriate upbeat soundtrack) makes it seems all the more disturbing. There's nothing polished about this Craven film, but the unrelenting depravity eventually has a cumulative and numbing affect on the viewer.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

 

Can't Tell a Film By Its Title

Months ago, when I stepped into the theater to see Crash (now the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 2005), I could think of only one thing -- the 1996 David Cronenberg film of the same name. Cronenberg's Crash, based on the J.G. Ballard novel, is a notorious film, filled with explicit sex and scenes of a fetishistic subculture of people who get turned on sexually by car crashes. Ironically, having nothing to do with the Cronenberg film, Paul Haggis' Crash makes the point early on that society has become so callous, it literally needs to crash cars into one another just to feel -- an interesting philosophical overlap with the earlier Cronenberg film. I will admit the title was distracting at first, but I was won over by Haggis' film, and quickly, the fact that Cronenberg's film had the same title, became insignificant. But this isn't the first time one film, with the same title, has usurped another. So it got me to thinking of some other examples. In 1956, two films entitled High Society were released. The first was a big studio musical remake of The Philadelphia Story, starring Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly (in her final acting role before becoming a princess). The other was a low rent vehicle for The Bowery Boys. In wanting to nominate the former for a Best Screenplay Oscar, the members of the Motion Picture Academy mistakenly picked the Bowery Boys film instead! More recently, Roland Emmerich's overblown and silly (albeit highly successful) apocalyptic sci-fi film Independence Day, released in 1996, could certainly not be more different than 1983's Independence Day, which starred the lovely and talented Kathleen Quinlan as a girl torn between her desires to leave her tiny home town, and her love for a car mechanic who lives there. Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby (written by Crash director Paul Haggis) and itself the winner of the Oscar for Best Picture of 2004, tells the story of a conflicted old boxing trainer who takes a young female boxer under his wing. However, in 1941, when a movie called Million Dollar Baby opened, it starred former U.S. President Ronald Reagan as a poor but proud pianist who is conflicted by his girlfriend's sudden acquisition of $1 million. What I think is most interesting is not that unrelated films sometimes have the same title, but rather which film ultimately takes hold in the popular consciousness, effectively stamping out the other.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

 

Documentary Alert: "Mr. Reliable" Retires at 100

Attention documentary filmmakers: This is a life worth documenting. After more than 75 of service for public transit agencies, Los Angeles bus maintenance worker Arthur Winston is retiring today -- on his 100th birthday. Winston's story is essentially the story of the 20th century itself. Consider the fact that he has lived through World Wars I & II, the flu epidemic of 1918, the civil rights movement of the 60s, the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, the Atomic Age, the Space Age, the Nuclear Age, the Information Age, the rise of Terrorism, and the dawn of a new millennium. In his 75 years of service, Winston, nicknamed "Mr. Reliable," -- who started every work day at the crack of dawn -- reportedly missed just one day of work in his entire career (when his wife of 65 years died, in 1988). Beyond that, he's never been late, and has never left early. In 1997, the MTA of Los Angeles decided to name the bus yard where Winston worked after him --The Arthur Winston Bus Division. (It has the distinction of being the only yard or division in L.A. to not be identified by a number.) Winston was born in Oklahoma in 1906 (when Teddy Roosevelt was the president of the United States), and was working as a cotton picker by the age of 10. His family eventually headed west, and in 1924, he began working for Pacific Electric Railway Co. He left the company in 1928, but returned six years later, and stayed on until today. In an article, Winston credited his father for teaching him a strong work ethic. He said he could have retired in his 70s, but he wanted to continue working to support family members who were struggling financially or pursuing college degrees. If would seem to me that his life (with all of its ups and downs), is what it means to be an American in the 20th Century. Perhaps a production company such as Claredon Entertainment, a leader in "New Black Cinema," could take on the project. Maybe director Spike Lee should consider making this film. Or John Singleton. Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Productions could make the film. I suggest these filmmakers and companies only in part because they are also African American (and may share similar cultural experiences to Winston); but more importantly because they have the influence to have such a project produced. And the bottom line is: This man's life and stories deserve to be preserved on film.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

 

Has Digital Acting Come of Age?

Will digital actors eventually displace human ones? Well, to a limited extent, they already have. Director Bryan Singer's decision to have actor Marlon Brando reprise his role as Jor-El in the upcoming Superman Returns has brought a spotlight back to digital acting, especially given the fact that the two-time Oscar-winning actor died in 2004. More and more, digital technology is being used to refine, multiple, augment, and even resurrect real actors. We may have come a long way from the jerky computerized movements of Max Headroom, but making animation appear life-like on screen still takes a long long time. The movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within may have been the most realistic digital performances on screen to date, but it took four years to make. The lead character Dr. Aki Ross' hair is only half as dense as real human hair, but that still left 60,000 strands of hair to realistically put into motion. When designing the computer graphics for this film, it was reported that one fifth of the time was spent on those 60,000 strands of hair. Robert Zemeckis' Polar Express utilized the revolutionary process of "performance capture" to manage a completely "actor-less" film. (But this took 500 visual-effects specialists three years -- and actors "acting" off screen -- to accomplish.). On a less grand scale, in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, rather than hire hundreds of actors to play the Oompa Loompas -- the short orange assistants to Willie Wonka -- they simply hired actor Deep Roy, and digitally multiplied him hundreds of times for his "performances" in the film. Ironically, one of Hollywood's greatest proponents of digital technology, George Lucas, spoke out against digital acting as long ago as 2002. He was quoted in a BBC report at the time saying, "You could do it, but you can't get a perfect actor. Acting is a human endeavor and the amount of talent and craft that goes into it is massive -- Can a composite reproduce that? People don't want to see an imitation of someone who was a strong presence in real life." (Lucas, of course, used digital technology to retro fit actor Hayden Christensen (who plays Anakin Skywalker in the new Star Wars movies) into the end of Return of the Jedi (which was released when Christensen was only two). Whether people are willing to see a digital enhancement of someone who, as Lucas said, "was a strong presence in real life," will be surely be tested when Brando is resurrected for Superman Returns. There are fewer on-screen personalities with as "strong a presence in real life" as Brando. Will his digital self live up to one of his flesh-and-blood performances? Obviously, until a complete script can be realistically voice simulated by a computer, actors will always be involved for lead performances (even if their on-screen presence is digitally manufactured). But, will the movies that used to boast "a cast of thousands" now only need a "cast of ten" to achieve the same result?

Monday, March 20, 2006

 

Is De Palma Ready for His Close Up?

I realize I may be going out on a limb here, but my gut tells me that the upcoming Brian De Palma film, The Black Dahlia -- based on the true story of the gruesome, unsolved 1947 murder of up-and-coming actress Elizabeth Short -- starring two time Oscar winner Hilary Swank and Scarlett Johansson (one of the most dynamic actresses of her generation), may be the film that finally gets him Oscar attention. Based on the novel by James Ellroy (who also wrote L.A. Confidential ), The Black Dahlia tells the story of the investigation into the murder of Short, whose body was found on January 15, 1947, in a vacant lot near Hollywood -- naked, cut in half at the waist, bruised, beaten, and reportedly sodomized after death. The murder rocked Hollywood and has been left unsolved for nearly 60 years. The subject matter seems right up De Palma's alley, but with somewhat more weight, given the fact that it's a true story. De Palma -- who has had some highly influential admirers, including film critic Pauline Kael, who wrote for The New Yorker magazine -- is not without his detractors, many of whom consider him a hack filmmaker who lifts ideas from more-respected directors (namely Hitchcock and Eisenstein) and in turn produces inferior versions of the same ideas. Some critics come right out and accuse De Palma of stealing ideas -- i.e. Blow Out is Blow Up, Dressed to Kill is Psycho, Body Double is Vertigo. Throughout the years, De Palma has worked with great actors and actresses -- some at the beginning of their careers (Tom Hanks, Sissy Spacek, John Travolta, Robert De Niro), others past their prime (Al Pacino) -- but he has never been considered an actor's director (despite directing Spacek and Piper Laurie to Oscar nominations, and Sean Connery to an Oscar win). De Palma's track record is spotty at best, with Carrie, Blow Out, Carlito's Way, Casualties of War, and The Untouchables among his better efforts, and Bonfire of the Vanities, Mission to Mars, Snake Eyes, and Raising Cain, among his worst. At least one of his films, Scarface, has gone on to cult status, more popular now then it was when released. And his early years produced the curiosities Sisters and Phantom of the Paradise. The Black Dahlia may be familiar territory for De Palma, but it has also fascinated Hollywood for decades. With the pedigree of writer Ellroy, and actresses Johansson and Swank, I think we can expect great things.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

 

When the City Needed a Hero

Tonight I've been thinking about the movie Hero at Large -- an all-but-forgotten comedy from 1980 starring John Ritter and Anne Archer. I wondered why, after 26 years, this film still comes to mind. I have a theory. Hero at Large came along, not only at an impressionable time in my life, but also at a time when New York (where the film takes place) was desperately in need of a hero. I believe New York found that hero 13 years later in Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, but at the time of this film, the city was in decay and getting worse. Times Square and 42nd St were not the family friendly, Disney-esque destinations they are today. That area, laden with crime daily, was a virtual ghost town of hollowed out theaters, drug dens, streets of prostitution and violence. It was the Times Square that Martin Scorsese so brilliantly depicted, just four years prior in Taxi Driver. And like Travis Bickle before him, Steve Nichols -- a down-on-his-luck actor who can't pay his rent -- is a loner looking for love. The two films, though wildly different in tone, are surprisingly similar. Both take place in New York during an election year. While Bickle is transformed by the campaign taking place, Nichols is ultimately "used" by the candidate to rally the city to him. Bickle's vigilante/hero is an evolution; Nichols' unlike hero status is more of a fluke at first -- he stops a store robbery while dressed as Captain Avenger (the fictional hero whose film he's promoting by personal appearances throughout the city) -- but then is embraced and repeated. But both men, ultimately, are doing the same thing -- giving the city a hero. In both films, politicians can't do that -- In the post Watergate era, they lack the moral grounding. The "take action" heroics of Bickle and Nichols is what the city -- and the country -- craved at the time. It's what I believe put Ronald Reagan in the White House for eight years. Hero at Large may be considered by many to be a second rate comedy, but I think in retrospect, it deserves a second look. Like Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver, it serves as a "slice of life" piece of New York that (for the better) no longer exists.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

 

The Film That Never Was

Can Philip Seymour Hoffman's Oscar win for Capote -- and a renewed interest in the author -- breathe new life into the long dormant plans to film Capote's novella, Hand Carved Coffins? I decided to do a little detective work into the development of this project. Since 1980, two major, but separate, attempts have been made to bring Hand Carved Coffins to the screen. The first involved producer Lester Persky, director Hal Ashby, and actor Jack Nicholson. The second go at it involved producer Dino De Laurentiis and directors Michael Cimino and David Lynch. Capote first published Hand Carved Coffins as a serialized account in Andy Warhol's Interview magazine. In 1980, the story was included as part of Capote's collection Music for Chameleons. Like his masterpiece, In Cold Blood, Hand Carved Coffins is described as "a nonfiction account of an American crime." Immediately following its publication, Persky (producer of such films as Shampoo and Hair ) -- and reportedly a friend of Capote, who was trying to keep the writer sober -- expressed interest in buying Hand Carved Coffins and bringing it to the screen. He wanted Capote to write the screenplay (hoping it would keep him away from alcohol and drugs). According to Patrick McGilligan, author of Jack's Life: A Biography of Jack Nicholson (1994), in the early 1980s it was announced that director Hal Ashby (the director of Shampoo) and Nicholson (who had been directed by Ashby in The Last Detail) would reteam (presumably with Persky producing) and that Jack would play a fictional detective on the trail of a serial killer in the adaptation of Truman Capote's Hand Carved Coffins, to be directed by Ashby. Capote died in 1984 from an overdose. (At the time of his death, in 1988, Ashby was reportedly still attached, as director, to the project.) When the Lester/Ashby/Nicholson matrix collapsed, the film rights to Hand Carved Coffins then moved to producer Dino De Laurentiis and the project was offered to (and rejected by) directors Michael Cimino (for whom Laurentiis produced Year of the Dragon) and David Lynch (with whom Laurentiis teamed for Dune). In April 2001, entertainment columnist Liz Smith reported that producer Persky was still in the picture and collaborating with the nephew of Dino De Laurentiis, Aurelio DeLaurentiis, CEO of Filmauro Films, to bring to Hand Carved Coffins to the screen. Persky died in December of 2001. In August 2003, Variety reported that Hand Carved Coffins was still in the Filmauro Film "pipeline," and, in the article, Aurelio DeLaurentiis is attributed as saying he was seeking a writer to adapt the story to the present day, with women assuming the key male roles. As of 2006, Hand Carved Coffins has yet to be produced.

Friday, March 17, 2006

 

St. Patrick's Day Cinema

How do you celebrate St. Patrick's Day? Do you go to church? Watch the parade? Drink green beer? Eat some corned beef and cabbage? Sip a Shamrock Shake at McDonald's? How about a movie? Is viewing John Ford's The Quiet Man, starring John Wayne, a tradition for you? In Dublin, this year, a double bill of Irish films, spanning nearly a century of filmmaking, will be screened at the St. Patrick's Festival of Film -- taking place at the Irish Film Institute during the upcoming St. Patrick's weekend. The 2005 award-winning short film, The Unusual Inventions of Henry Cavendish tells the love story between an inventor and a beautiful girl; while, In the Days of Saint Patrick, the 1920 silent epic by director Norman Whitten, relates the story and miracles of the patron saint of Ireland. In the Days of Saint Patrick will be accompanied by music from harpist Cormac de Barra. Back home, you can enjoy your own St. Patrick's Day double bill by renting two whimsical leprechaun-centric movies: Darby O'Gill and the Little People and Finian's Rainbow. From 1959, Walt Disney's Darby O'Gill and the Little People is a light-hearted fantasy that gives you a glimpse of a young, pre-Bond Sean Connery. The film is filled with Irish lore and some pretty impressive special effects (for the day). Follow that up with the underrated and overlooked musical Finian's Rainbow. This civil rights minded movie is Fred Astaire's last, and director Francis Ford Coppola's only musical endeavor. (And, it does feature Og, the leprechaun.) You should watch Finian's Rainbow, if for no other reason than to have a look at an early work from the director who went on to make The Godfather films, Apocalypse Now. Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

 

Andrew Kevin Walker to Remake The Wolfman

Add The Wolfman to the list of Universal Pictures' classic 1930s horror films being remade within the last 15 years (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy). This one could be interesting. Oscar-winner Benicio Del Toro (Traffic) has reportedly signed on to co-produce, as well as step into Lon Chaney Jr.'s shoes, in a new version of the classic werewolf film, being written by none other than Andrew Kevin Walker (screenwriter of Se7en, 8mm, and Sleepy Hollow, among others). The Universal horror film remakes of recent years have been spotty at best. While Francis Ford Coppola's take on Dracula was interesting, from a purely technical, cinematic standpoint, its tragic, romanticized approach didn't illicit the pathos for the vampire I believe Coppola was attempting to achieve. Kenneth Branagh's Frankenstein redo (with Robert DeNiro as the monster!) was simply a misguided mess; and The Mummy franchise (while wildly successful at the boxoffice) owes more to the Spielberg/Lucas Indiana Jones series than it does to the Boris Karloff original. However, with The Wolfman, screenwriter Walker can inject his own respected brand of cinematic psychology -- namely, that evil happens for no explainable reason -- and explore, in a meaningful way, the darker side of man's nature here. Compare this classic line from the original Wolfman: "Even a man who is pure at heart and says his prayers at night can become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the moon is full and bright," to these lines from Walker's Se7en script: "Just know that in this case there's not going to be any satisfaction. If we caught John Doe and he were the devil himself, if it turned out he were actually Satan, then, that might live up to our expectations. No human being could do these things, right? But, this is not the devil. It's just a man." These are essentially the same point. I think it's a brilliant idea to filter The Wolfman through Walker's sensibilities. The results, especially with an actor of Del Toro's ability interpreting them, could be something special indeed. Might six-time Oscar winning make up master Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London) be considered for the project as well? The film is scheduled for 2008 release.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

 

Howard Stern Launches Film Festival

Robert Redford and Robert DeNiro look out! Howard Stern -- the self proclaimed "King of All Media," who, this January, left a more-than-30-year career in broadcast radio to set up shop at Sirius Satellite Radio -- has now launched The Howard Stern Film Festival. Stern himself tested the filmmaking waters when he starred as himself (and received generally good reviews) in the film adaptation of his autobiography Private Parts. The Howard Stern Film Festival will be produced in association with iN DEMAND Networks -- the home of Stern's pay-per-view Howard TV. Ceremonies will be held in New York on April 27, and aired exclusively on iN DEMAND on April 28 (which just happens to coincide with the beginning of DeNiro's Tribeca Film Festival). Robert D. Jacobson, the president and CEO of iN DEMAND Networks, was quoted as saying that the Howard Stern Film Festival is part of Stern's "commitment to democratize entertainment." In the glutted field of film festivals, one with the Howard Stern brand could certainly rise above the rest. While this is a great marketing move on Stern's part, the festival might in fact prove to be the platform for the talents of a filmmaker who would not otherwise be recognized. In an age of Internet distribution of short films, what I think the Howard Stern Film Festival does above all else is lend credibility to the "democratization movement" with the filmmaking industry. If this works -- like his radio program -- look for imitators to spring up quickly. All qualifying films are due by April 11, and must run five minutes or less. Each film will be judged on how well it "demonstrates a creative interpretation of Howard Stern related storylines." The festival will hand out $25,000 in prizes, with $15,000 going to the first place winner, $7,500 for second, and $2,500 for third. For more information on how to enter the competition, or how to obtain tickets for the festival, go to www.howard.tv.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

 

Charlie Chan Returns Again

Can actress Lucy Liu (who scored big as one the angel detectives in the big screen remake of Charlie's Angels) single-handedly revive the Charlie Chan film franchise? Well, here's one movie fan who hopes she can. As a child, the Charlie Chan mystery movies were always a source of enjoyment for me whenever they played on The Late Movie. I was a pretty dedicated Charlie Chan fan back then. I collected Charlie Chan comics and even watched the Saturday morning animated series Charlie Chan and the Chan Clan. The character of Charlie Chan, who was created by writer Earl Derr Biggers, first appeared in a talking film, portrayed by E.L. Park, in Behind That Curtain in 1929. The most famous actors to play the great Chinese detective were Warner Oland, Sidney Toler and Roland Winters, in the popular film series of the 30s and 40s. Television star Ross Martin (The Wild Wild West) took a turn in 1973's The Return of Charlie Chan. That film was releases theatrically in Europe, but wasn't seen in the U.S. until 1979, amidst protests that a non-Asian actor was once again playing Chan. The character did return to the big screen in 1981, portrayed by (once again, a non-Asian) Peter Ustinov, in Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen. Now comes word that Lucy Liu will star as Charlie Chan's granddaughter in Charlie Chan, which is scheduled to be released by 20th Century Fox in 2007. The film has been described by screenwriter Dan McDermott as "a credible passing of the baton" from one generation of Chan detectives to the next. Liu will also be executive producer on the project. Jennifer Klein will produce. For more information on the original 20th Century Fox/Monogram film series check out www.CharlieChan.net.

Monday, March 13, 2006

 

Where Were You October 25, 1986?

People remember where they were when John F. Kennedy was killed. They remember where they were when Ronald Reagan was shot. If you're a New Yorker, you remember where you where during the blackouts of '65, '77 and '03. If you're a New York Mets fan, then you know where you where on the night of October 25, 1986. I was sitting white knuckled, grabbing onto the edge of the couch, in my living room, leaning forward, towards the television set, with my friend Cesar, both of us holding our breath on every pitch of Game 6 of the World Series between the New York Mets and the Boston Red Sox. For any Mets fan, you know what Game 6 was. You know how you felt. And maybe, you believed in miracles again. The game is one of (if not the) greatest moments in sports history. Now, 20 years after that faithful night, Game 6 is a movie directed by Michael Hoffman (Restoration, Soapdish) and starring Michael Keaton as a die-hard Red Sox fan and playwright who must decide whether to go to the opening night of his latest play or watch Game 6 of the World Series. As a Mets fan, the energy in the city surrounding that entire season, the play-offs (against the Houston Astros), and the World Series itself, was almost surreal. People spontaneously paraded through the streets. Local barber shops posted charts to track every game. All radios were tuned to the games. Mets fans had waited a long time for this to happen. In 1986, younger fans had no recollection of the Mets two previous trips to the series in 1969 and 1973. Older fans had waited more than a decade for the return, and almost two decades for another win. Game 6 is being given a very limited release before it makes its way to DVD in May. Also of note: If 1986 represented the apex of satisfaction for a Mets fan, then 1988 -- and a heartbreaking loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the play-offs -- represented the nadir. But director Abel Ferara, in his masterpiece Bad Lieutenant, weaves a fictional account of that Mets post season into the film, with ironic results. Of course, the Mets would return once again to the World Series, in 2000, in the fabled "Subway Series" against the New York Yankees, but in 1986, the moment was now, and every Met fan in the city, including myself, hung on every pitch, every swing, and every moment of Game 6.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

 

Congress Examines Simulated Sex Scenes

With foreign wars raging, terrorism looming, a sinking economy, an unethical administration, and "bird flu" flying our way, should simulated sex scenes in films (in other words, acting) even be on the U.S. Congress' agenda? Pathetically enough, the U.S. House of Representatives has reportedly approved so called "child-safety legislation" -- on the surface, designed to give law enforcement officials more power to prosecute violent sexual predators -- which also includes a provision that would require "any book, magazine, periodical, film, videotape or other matter" that contains a simulated sex scene to come under the same government-filing requirements that adult films now have to meet. Currently, any filmed sexual activity requires an affidavit that lists the names and ages of the actors who engage in the act. This record-keeping requirement -- known as Section 2257 -- was admirably created to prevent child pornography. However, under the proposed provision -- written by representative Mike Pence, a Republican from Indiana -- the definition of "sexual activity" has been expanded to include simulated sex acts (in other words, acting)often seen in movies and TV shows. (Yes, acting is often seen in films and TV shows.) Under the new provision, two of this year's Best Picture nominees, Brokeback Mountain and Munich, would certainly have had to file. Is representative Pence suggesting that what Sharon Stone, Halle Berry, Hillary Swank and Angelina Jolle do on screen is equal to the on-screen actions of Jenna Jameson, Marilyn Chambers, and the late Linda Lovelace? The proposal has thankfully faced opposition from several Hollywood groups including, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Directors Guild of America (DGA). If passed into law, would the provision also "grandfather in" scenes from such classics films as Midnight Cowboy, The Godfather, Last Tango in Paris and From Here to Eternity? Where would it stop? Since books are included in the provision, would all fictional characters engaging in fictitious sex also need to be reported? Would cartoon sirens, like Jessica Rabbit, be required to comply as well? Do our tax dollars really need to be going to a representative like Pence who wastes the Congress' time and our money with such legislation? An even more important question is -- since this provision was attached to a worthwhile "child protection" bill, and since we now pretty much know that Congress barely reads any of the bills it passes into law -- is it possible the House of Representatives is not even aware it signed such a provision?

Saturday, March 11, 2006

 

Rapid Response Films (With Laughs)

In the days before the Internet, I always wondered how, within days of a newsworthy event, (frequently tasteless) jokes would circulate in offices throughout the country. (One that pops to mind: following the drowning death of actress Natalie Wood -- Question, "What kind of wood doesn't float?" Answer, "Natalie Wood.") Today, with the Internet now firmly established, this antiquated word-of-mouth method of so-called entertainment has been replaced with less offensive (and often, hysterical) animated short films which keenly parody current events. It seems, within a day of a particular event (such as the Dick Cheney hunting mishap), animated short films, commenting on it, are circulating in email boxes worldwide. And, more often than not, the source of these rapid response animated comedy shorts is the Flowgo network of entertainment sites. The Flowgo group of websites (which include Big Fat Baby, Fun One, Fun Town, Funny Greetings, Got Laughs, JustSayWow, and Send4Fun) is a division of the Intermix Media Network, which describes itself as "the world's leading network for shareable digital entertainment." Since its launch in 2001, Flowgo has grown to become one of the most recognized brands of Internet entertainment. Aside from its keen political parodies -- I tell you, the jabs during the 2004 President election, at both sides of the aisle, were among the funniest cartoons I've ever seen -- the Flowgo team of animators and writers also targets celebrities and current films as well. Some recent Flowgo films include: Britney's on the Road Again, When A Stranger Stranger Calls, and Bicurious George?. The site is also not above employing scatological humor in its animated presentations. In fact, some of its best known films include Poopy Pavarotti and Gruntin' and Dumpin' lil' Dumplin. It's most popular title to date? -- Pootin' Tootin' Luau Louie. Love it or hate it, Flowgo has made animated shorts (and political satire) vital again.

Friday, March 10, 2006

 

A Dallas Movie in a Post-Enron World?

The planned big screen adaptation of Dallas, the popular primetime soap opera of the late 70s and 80s, has a unique opportunity now to make relevant statements about corruption in the oil industry of corporate America. Given the original series' extreme popularity, one might even wonder if the Machiavellian attitudes expressed weekly on the CBS TV show (combined with those of its ABC rival Dynasty) might have in effect fed the mindset of the executives who ran (and the professionals who worked for) Enron. (Don't forget that legend has it that The Godfather Part II is Fidel Castro's favorite film.) While the insightful Oscar-nominated documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room went a long way to illuminating the largest corporate scandal in U.S. history, Dallas, given its core subject matter, could go a step further in dramatizing the attitudes of such executives and, beyond that, illustrate how such a mindset can spill over into personal relationships, as well. If however, the filmmakers wish to pander to a perceived core audience and make this simply a big screen soap opera, this valuable window of opportunity to use Dallas as a parable for the evils of Enron (as Enron executives themselves stand trial for their crimes) will be missed. Can this big screen version of Dallas rise above mediocrity and really "say" something about big business and family politics in America, much in the way The Godfather did? I think it can. J.R. Ewing. Kenneth Lay. Hmmm. There's a great story waiting to be told here. Epic and tragic even. Dallas can be a great film. Question is, do the filmmakers believe that too?

Thursday, March 09, 2006

 

Starting Small

As the democratization of film continues to expand, so too will this trend: short films which become features. It was rather novel, in 1971, when Francis Ford Coppola, and his fledgling American Zoetrope studios, provided the funds to expand the acclaimed short film THX-1138 -- which was made as a student project, at USC, by Coppola's then unknown intern, George Lucas -- into a feature. This investment by Coppola validated a budding trend in filmmaking at the time: "the student filmmaker." This new phenomenon of "student filmmakers," at the time, produced a number of short films which received industry notice. Coppola's gamble on Lucas' film (which ultimately did not pay off, financially) did pave the way for this new crop of talent. Today, the lower cost of making a film has prompted scores of amateur directors to make their own shorts. Frequent "Movies on My Mind" commentator Jon Silberg recently noted that "films are the new scripts," and I agree. You don't walk into a studio today with a script, you walk in with your short film. A number of well known features started out as shorts. Screenwriter James Dearden based the Oscar nominated Fatal Attraction screenplay on a short film he wrote and directed for British TV entitled Diversion. Bottle Rocket, the film that first teamed director Wes Anderson with the Wilson brothers (Owen and Luke), was originally a 13-minute short. Likewise, the recent hits, Napoleon Dynamite and the horror film Saw, both started life as short films. Luckily, in the age of DVD (complete with a disc of behind-the-scene extras), we can see these shorts and compare them to their feature versions.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

 

Interview With: Steven Greenstreet, Director/Producer

Director/producer Steven Greenstreet, who turns 27 next week, is a filmmaker to watch. While he's worked on the film crews for larger productions such as The World's Fastest Indian (with Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins) and Urban Legends: Bloody Mary (the third in the Urban Legend series), it's the story behind the production of his documentary This Divided State -- which examines "the failure of civil discourse in America" -- that is utterly fascinating. Greenstreet, who was raised Mormon, sensed a storm brewing when, during the 2004 Presidential Election year, Utah Valley State College (UVSC) announced that its student body officers had invited Oscar-winning filmmaker Michael Moore to speak at their campus. Having only lived in Utah for 18 months at the time, (but personally aware of the conservative nature of the state), Greenstreet quickly decided to drop out of college, quit his job, and commit himself exclusively, over the next four months, to the developing story at UVSC. He, and a small crew, soon teamed up with a group of UVSC communication students, who were also interested in documenting the unfolding controversy, and together, often with just minutes of advanced warning, they captured all of the speeches, protests and extemporaneous debates waged throughout the campus. The film, now available on DVD, was released last year. For more information you can go to www.ThisDividedState.com. Greenstreet agreed to take time out from his schedule to talk with "Movies on My Mind" about his film, the current political climate in the country, and what's next for him.

Movies on My Mind: Congratulations on your win at the Santa Cruz Film Festival. What has the overall reaction been to This Divided State from both the left and the right?
Steven Greenstreet: Well, the general consensus to the film is that what happened in Utah during the Michael Moore controversy represents a microcosm of the ideologies that are currently dividing us as a nation. People who have seen the film agree that, despite popular belief, we are not a nation divided into red and blue states. That is a lie and that is a myth. It is absurd to think that you can simply divide an entire body of people into two polarized groups. The human race is much more complex than that and I think This Divided State demonstrates that there are many voices that aren't being heard in America right now. People nowadays do not listen to each other and there exists an unwillingness to get along. Almost 100% of the people against Michael Moore coming to UVSC had not seen Fahrenheit 9/11 nor read anything Michael Moore had written. Those suing the school, or trying to impeach the student body presidency, never once physically met with those they were persecuting. No one listened to each other. And if there's one thing I think we all need to do more of it's to open our ears and honestly listen to those with opposing views. I might add that the film doesn't make Utah look that great. I didn't mean for the film to do that, but people across the country were a little shaken up by what they saw. In fact, one film critic in Detroit wrote, "Do not go to Utah. Don't even visit."

Movies on My Mind: Documentary films sometimes walk the fine line of journalism and moviemaking. Do you consider yourself more of a journalist or a filmmaker?
Greenstreet: This might sound like a cop-out, but I consider myself a documentarian. In my opinion, being a documentarian requires the healthy combination of both journalism and filmmaking. I believe it's the journalist in me that attracts me to stories and subject; but it's the filmmaker that ultimately edits and creates the final project.
Movies on My Mind: Michael Moore is the centerpiece of your film. How has Moore changed the audience's concept of documentaries? Has he had an influence on you specifically, as a documentary filmmaker?
Greenstreet: I think it's safe to say that I do documentary because of Michael Moore. When I came home from my two year Mormon mission to Venezuela, one of the first films that my best friend showed me was Roger and Me. I was like, "Oh, my God. I want to do that". And so I started doing some short documentary pieces with a documentary director in Baltimore named John Paul Kinhart who taught me the basics and then sent me on my own. Michael Moore has had an influence on me in that he tells a fascinating story and incorporates and personal sense of humor and tragedy. That's different from most docs because, normally, docs let the stories themselves develop the emotion. Moore pours his heart and soul into his films. Some might call that propaganda. I call it "an opinion piece".

Movies on My Mind: Who else you admire in this genre?
Greenstreet: I would say that my top three documentary directors that have inspired me technically would be, Errol Morris, Bruce Sinofsky, and Andrew Jarecki. Morris' The Thin Blue Line, Sinofsky's Paradise Lost, and Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans should be studied in every Documentary 101 class.
Movies on My Mind: So, what are the top five documentaries of the last five years?
Greenstreet: Oh, wow. The Fog of War, Capturing the Friedmans, New York Doll, Promises, and Bowling For Columbine.

Movies on My Mind: "Movies on My Mind" has suggested that a film be made of an unscripted debate between Sean Hannity and Randi Rhodes. Would you direct such a film? What's your take on how it would turn out?
Greenstreet: Yes, of course I'd direct it. I would approach it with the thesis of "Civil Discourse between polemics is not possible". I'd follow the two of them preparing for the debate, and then obviously shoot the debate juxtaposed with other examples of "the clash of opposing views". It would be very interesting. Sean Hannity wouldn't last three minutes before getting flustered, angry, and begin name-calling. If my film [This Divided State] doesn't expose him for a douche-bag hack, then this film surely would.
Movies on My Mind: The Left and the Right don't seem to be meeting in the middle much these days. What's not happening to prevent that?
Greenstreet: No one wants to listen to each other. Everyone wants to talk, no one wants to listen and understand. The maturity of civil discourse in the United States is in the toilet. Nobody actually sits down and calmly works through differences. Blindly throwing bombs at each other is both childish and ignorant.
Movies on My Mind: With This Divided State, you, reportedly, had 76 hours of footage that you edited down to 88 minutes. Tell us what goes on in your mind as you do that.
Greenstreet: This was the hardest part of making the film. I locked myself in my editing room for almost three straight months -- 18-20 hour days, and hardly any food or water. I wanted to get the film done as soon as possible, while the story was still fresh on everyone's brains. I knew that I didn't want the film to have a narrator to guide the story and definitely didn't want myself as a central character (the way Moore does his films). I felt the film had many voices that needed to be heard, so my first decision was to stay as neutral and unbiased as possible. This was also very hard, since I have my own strong political beliefs. I could very easily have made both Kay Anderson and Sean Hannity look a hell of a lot worse than they do in the film. I had to bite my tongue a lot. I think it worked. The New York Post review said, "Allows both sides equal time" and the Lexington Herald review commented, "The first balanced political documentary."
Movies on My Mind: What's next for you?
Greenstreet: Currently, I'm attached as a producer to two feature documentaries. My main project right now, though, is producing a feature narrative film entitled One Plus One. The budget is $2.5 million and will, hopefully, be shot this summer. I'm actually working on it right now, at this coffee shop. Trying to raise money. Don't worry, though. It'll happen...

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

 

From Chasing Skirts to Wearing One

After leaving TV's Welcome Back Kotter, where he portrayed the lead Sweathog/teen heartthrob, Vinny Barbarino, actor John Travolta burst onto the big screen as the (Oscar nominated) Brooklyn disco king/heartthrob Tony Manero in the seminal 1970s musical drama Saturday Night Fever, and as gang leader/hearthrob Danny Zuko in the most successful movie musical of all time, Grease. Now comes word that Travolta will once again return to his big screen musical roots, but rather than chasing skirts, he'll be wearing one. Travolta has reportedly agreed to play Edna Turnblad, the mother in Hairspray -- a role originated in the John Waters film by 300+ pound transvestite actor Divine, and then played by openly gay actor Harvey Fierstein in the Broadway musical adaptation. So, this is, to say the least, an interesting choice by Travolta. Hairspray is the latest in a line of projects that have gone from a non-musical movie, to a Broadway musical, and then to movie musical (see Movies on My Mind: "First Little Shop of Horrors, Then The Producers, Now Hairspray," 10/03/05). While the post-Chicago jury is still out on movie musicals, Oscar has had a long history of noticing men in dresses: think, Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot, La Cage Aux Folles, John Lithgow in The World According to Garp, Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, and Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game. (Hell, even Tom Hanks used to wear a dress!) Bold career move for Travolta -- but what would "Vinny," "Tony," and "Danny" think?

Monday, March 06, 2006

 

How Predictable

The smug, self-righteous reactions of film and TV critics today, to the stunning upset of Crash over Brokeback Mountain at the Academy Awards last night, could not have been more predictable, or pathetic, or wrong (for that matter). Ok, so the expected winner didn't win. So what? I was pushing for Crash the entire way. I thought it was the better film. Many of my colleagues and friends agreed. But that aside. To claim the Academy shunned gays, or made a "conservative" choice, as many critics have suggested today, is utterly ridiculous. Lest we forget, this is the Academy (one could argue, with a much more conservative membership at the time) who awarded the Best Picture Oscar to the X-rated Midnight Cowboy in 1969! This is the Academy that gave Tom Hanks the Best Actor Oscar for playing a gay man with AIDS in Philadelphia. This is the same Academy that awarded Best Actress to Hillary Swank for a gender-confused character in Boys Don't Cry. This is the same Academy to give the Best Screenplay award to Gods and Monsters, the story of the openly gay director James Whale. And isn't this the same Academy that this year rewarded Phillip Seymour Hoffman with the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the openly gay Truman Capote in Capote? And since when is it a "snub" to award a film the Best Director and Best Screenplay awards, as the Academy did, this year, with Brokeback Mountain? Can't critics, these days, come up with anything more original to write? They embarrass themselves and their publications when they reach into a pre-fabricated bag of tricks to criticize this year's choice of Best Picture. I could have predicted their reaction months ago. Crash is not a film to be ignored -- especially since it takes on many more social issues than Brokeback Mountain, and does it in a compelling, riveting and heartbreaking manner.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

 

Crash-ing the Oscars!

When I started this column on September 4, 2005, my inaugural posting was a piece entitled "2005 Films So Far: Will Oscar Nod?" In it, I wrote: "These are not predictions. They are films that deserve to be noticed for Best Picture nominations as the glut of late-year hopefuls flood in." I went on to write, "Crash: Some have said this film was too pat, but I found it to be a claustrophobic and masterfully woven tale of the cycle of hatred in this country. It brought me to tears and, at times, made it difficult for me to breathe. A brilliant cast, powerful message, and compelling story." Well, tonight, in the most stunning upset of the last 25 years at the Academy Awards, Crash defied the pundits, and took the Best Picture Oscar over the perceived favorite Brokeback Mountain. Having seen both films, I have to say, I am pleased by this turn of events. Brokeback is a well-made, but highly overrated film. This was not a night of sweeps. In fact, King Kong and Memoirs of a Geisha won just as many Oscars as Crash and Brokeback Mountain did -- all taking home three. Also, as it turns out, the Independent Spirit Awards did not map to the Oscars at all, except for the Best Actor win by Capote's Phillip Seymour Hoffman. The Palestinian/Israeli hand grenade, turned out to be a dud, as both Paradise Now and Munich walked home empty handed. History was made as Ang Lee became the first Asian to win the Oscar for Best Director. For the last 78 years, that category has been an all white male club. But Lee -- whose body of work is as diverse as it is outstanding (Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain) -- was very deserving of the honor. And finally, the penguins marched home with a win over The Smartest Guys in the Room. While not matching the talent of a Crystal, or Carson, Jon Stewart, in his initial hosting duties, kept things light. His best observation of the night: After witnessing the rap song "It's Hard Out There For a Pimp" win the Best Song Oscar, Stewart noted, "For those of you keeping track at home. That's now Three 6 Mafia: 1 Oscar. Martin Scorsese: 0."

 

Blue Print for Oscar?

Well, tonight's the night. Oscar night. But have we already seen a vision of things to come? Last night, the Independent Spirit Awards were handed out, and with so many of this year's Oscar nominees winning, one has to wonder, "Will the Spirits prove to be a blue print for tonight's Academy Awards?" Best Picture and Best Director both went to Oscar frontrunner Brokeback Mountain. Best First Feature went to Brokeback Mountain's closest competition in the Oscars, Crash, which also picked up the Best Supporting Actor award for (Oscar nominee) Matt Dillon. The Oscar nominated documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room took home the Spirit in that category. And Oscar nominees Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Capote) Felicity Huffman (Transamerica) and Amy Adams (June Bug) won Spirit Awards for Best Actor, Actress and Supporting Actress, respectively. So, this raises a couple of questions. Did all the best work in Hollywood, this year, come from non-studio, independent efforts? Or, are the Independent Spirit Awards, like the Golden Globes before them, trying to behave more like Oscar? (They do, afterall, have corporate sponsorship now. And more celebrities than up-and-comers show up at this event every year.) It will be interesting to see how closely the Spirits map to the Oscars. There's no question that the best moments of the Oscars, every year, are the unexpected ones. These days -- with more and more websites trying to narrow down the possibilities (by cross referencing all the awards a film wins leading up to Oscar) -- there seems to be less and less surprises. Is everything a predictor for the Oscars now? Hell, what's the fun in that? Life (and Oscar ceremonies) would be boring without surprises, don't you think?

Saturday, March 04, 2006

 

The Democratization of Filmmaking

Today -- as the film industry gathers to recognize the best in "non-studio" productions at the annual Independent Spirit Awards (sponsored by Pop Secret Popcorn) -- I watched (on my computer) the short film My Space - the Movie, after reading how its 21-year-old director, David Lehre received a development deal from MTVU (MTV's on-air, online and on-campus network), and calls from Hollywood managers, due to the film's popularity on the Internet. To date, the film has been viewed six million times! Now that's independent spirit! Six million downloads is roughly equivalent to a $54 million opening weekend. Not bad. Clearly, the rules of filmmaking have changed (that is, if you're willing to not use film to make your movie). The lower costs of digital cameras, desktop editing systems, and DVD burners, and the ability to easily upload and distribute a film on the Internet, have all finally converged in critical mass to revolutionize and exponentially democratize the art (and the business) of filmmaking. There are more people making films than ever before (and now the Internet gives these filmmakers an audience!) Lehre (who still lives at home with his parents in Washington, Michigan) is a prime example of this new crop of 21st century filmmakers. Lehre started making films in 10th grade, using the same group of friends, as cast and crew. Together they have amassed 50 films to their credit, many of which can be viewed at Lehre's website www.davidlehre.com (that is, of course, unless the two million hits a day the site receives don't slow you down). Lehre first screened My Space - The Movie about a month ago at his 21st birthday party. It was then posted on Jan. 28 to Lehre's site and, three days later, was placed on YouTube.com. (Approximately 20,000 films are uploaded to YouTube.com every day, and more than 15 million are viewed daily.) With 3.4 million viewings to date, MySpace - The Movie currently ranks as the site's most viewed film. Gone are the prohibitive costs of making and distributing a film. Does this mean more crappy films will be made then ever before? Sure. But it also means that a talented director, who might have otherwise gone unnoticed, due to fiscal restraints, can now be discovered. I'm excited about what the future holds in filmmaking and what treasures are out there waiting to be found!

Friday, March 03, 2006

 

Israeli/Palestinian Conflict Returns to Oscars

On Sunday night, it may be 1978 all over again at the Academy Awards. In what could shape up to be the most controversial moment of this year's Oscar ceremonies, Paradise Now -- the Oscar-nominated Foreign Film which explores Palestinian life and violence under Israeli occupation -- is facing protest from a group of Israeli families who have lost children in Palestinian suicide bombings. These families, armed with a petition of 32,000 signatures, are urging the Motion Picture Academy to disqualify the film from competition. With just two days to go before the ceremony, there is no indication that the Academy has any intention of complying. If Paradise Now (which was already named Best Foreign Language Film, in January, at the Golden Globe Awards) ends up winning the Oscar as well, it might spark the most controversial moment since pro-Palestinian activist and actress Vanessa Redgrave gave her now infamous speech at the 1978 ceremony in which she applauded Hollywood for not being "intimidated by the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums," but was met by boo's from the audience, and was burned in effigy outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Her speech was also chastised moments later by the great screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, who responded, "Before I get on to the writing awards, there's a little matter I'd like to tidy up -- at least if I expect to live with myself tomorrow morning. I would like to say ... that I'm sick and tired of people exploiting the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal propaganda. I would like to suggest to Miss Redgrave that her winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation, and a simple 'thank you' would have sufficed." Adding more fuel to this year's fire is the Best Picture nominee Munich. In addressing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, this Steven Spielberg film does not draw clear lines of right or wrong either, and has also been met with protests. Best Picture front runner Brokeback Mountain and Best Picture nominee Capote, seemed to indicate that this year's ceremonies might focus on gay rights, but the age-old conflict in the Middle East seems poised to overtake it as the more controversial topic this year.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

 

World's Fastest Film Shoot, Inspired by Schiavo Case

Acclaimed Indian film maker Jayaraj has just completed post production on Wonder (Atbhutam), a film, he says, was inspired by the Terri Schiavo right-to-life case which captivated the United States (and the world), in 2005. However, while the subject matter here is certainly timely and interesting, the unique and compelling aspect of this production, for me, is the fact that Jayaraj completed shooting the 74-minute feature film in December, in just two hours and 14 minutes! (Documentation has been filed with The Guinness Book of World Records for consideration as "the fastest film shoot in the history of cinema.") Wonder tells the story of an Indian-born playwright, living in the U.S., who is suffering from pancreatic cancer. His wife, an attorney, supports his wish to die; while his parents (who are unaware that a "right-to-die" even exists) oppose their son's wish, when they arrive at the hospital. Jayaraj chose an Oregon hospital as the setting for the film, since the state's 1997 "Death with Dignity Act" made physician-assisted suicide legal. The director reportedly approached several film studios in the United States and Great Britain five years ago with a story on assisted suicide. But, it was the Terri Schiavo case that convinced Jayaraj the movie's time had come. (Last year's winner of the Best Picture Oscar, Million Dollar Baby, also had a similar theme.) The Indian film industry is far more prolific these days than in the Untied States, and Jayaraj has been known to make up to two films a year himself. The globalization of cinema is greater than it's ever been and new voices in cinema are no longer regulated to the U.S. and Europe. There was a time when the great filmmaker Satyajit Ray (who was awarded an honorary Oscar just weeks before he died) seemed to be the sole voice in Indian filmmaking. But that time has passed, and film makers such as Jayaraj, combined with advanced technology, now allows visions to be produced from around the world in, well, two hours and 14 minutes.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

 

Rocky Lives, Adrian Dies

Ok. I love the Rocky films. (Although, even I was disappointed by Rocky V.) So, tonight, the upcoming Rocky Balboa is on my mind. I will admit, the announcement of this sixth film in the series excited me (although I wondered, and still wonder, if it can work). The film is all but completed, although it's not scheduled to be released until February 2007 (thus, not taking advantage of the fact that 2006 is the 30th anniversary of the Oscar-winning original). Still, if the reaction to the photos posted on the official Rocky blog is any indication, this series may finally be retro enough to be a huge hit again. (Keep in mind, it's been 15 years since Rocky V!) Internet chatter is reporting that Rocky finally dies in Rocky Balboa, but in recent interviews, Sylvester Stallone insists that Rocky lives to see another day at the close of the series. The love of his life, Adrian, however, does not even make it to the new film. She has passed away (from cancer) before the film begins (although, this may not be news to those of you who read the excerpts from the new Rocky script in Stallone's health and fitness magazine, Sly). When we first meet the character of Rocky in the original film, he is boxing at a local club, and has no one in his corner. Mickey has long ago stopped believing in him. Adrian has not yet fully entered the picture. He hasn't met Apollo Creed (or Creed's trainer Duke). Yes, he has a friendship with (Adrian's brother) Paulie, but Paulie is an alcoholic, and the friendship is rather uneven, at best. So, Rocky is basically alone. It's been 30 years since Rocky, but Stallone has managed to finally bring his star-making character full circle. Slowly, he has killed off those who have meant the most in his life. In Rocky III, Mickey dies. In Rocky IV, Apollo dies. In Rocky V, his fortunes (and part of his brain) die. And now, in Rocky Balboa, Adrian is dead. And so, Rocky, once more, is alone. And with this chapter, Stallone claims the series itself will die (although we've heard that one before). Three endings have reportedly been shot (but one has yet to be chosen). The first ends over Adrian's grave. Another, in the boxing ring. And still, a third, on the now-famed steps leading to the Philadelphia Art Museum. (One more interesting note: The plot of the new film, employs the use of a computer-generated fight between Rocky and the current heavyweight champ, a gimmick used in the now legendary film The Superfight, which showed a choreographed match between Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali -- also decided by a computer. But keep in mind, Rocky Marciano was 47 when he stepped in the ring with Ali, and Rocky Balboa would be 61 at this point.)

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