Wednesday, May 31, 2006

 

Let's End Boxoffice Tallies

In the end, really, what difference does it make to the average viewer how much a film grossed over the weekend, or for that matter, what its cumulative gross is? Really. What difference does it make? Do we need these markers to help make up our minds? Are we sheep, so conditioned to be a part of financially successful vehicles, that we must know what film was number one so, if we missed it, we should make sure to catch it soon, lest we be outcasts? What happened to individual choice in this country? Do we just follow the money regardless of how bad a film may be? Case in point: Star Wars Episode I was universally panned -- by the FANS of the film -- and still, they all went to see it, some more than once. That film now sits in the top ten grossing movies of all time. But what does that mean? Where is the sense in this? It seems absurd to me. Certainly, I see the value for keeping these tallies at the trade level (in publications such as Variety and The Hollywood Reporter). They can help the industry measure what genres are playing well, how trends are developing, etc. But what value are these figures at the consumer level?

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

 

Will 9/11 Films Give Bush a Bounce?

Will the current crop of major studio films reliving the events of 9/11, in combination with the recently publicized suing of Michael Moore serve to give a beleaguered President George W. Bush, and his administration, a much needed bounce in public opinion polls by reminding Americans of the time they rallied around the President? My guess is no. Too much has already been done in response to 9/11 by this administration with which the American public seems to disagree (including the administration's current decision to cut funding for terrorist prevention and seemingly dole out the money to states with close elections rather than states that are legitimate targets -- a move that even has fellow Republicans outraged). Lawsuits aside, Fahrenheit 9/11 remains a powerful argument against the Iraq War. Baghdad E.R. has also now joined the fold, exposing the true horrors of the war to the American public. So, embracing 9/11 films such as United 93 as the President did by hosting a screening of the film at the White House with families of the victims seems to be more politically motivated than genuine. Why hold it now, more than a month after the film opened? Was Bush waiting to see if America approved of the film before having the screening? How will he handle the upcoming film World Trade Center from outspoken, and left-of-center director Oliver Stone? Will there be a White House screen for that film as well? I wonder. The movie industry is now finally addressing the fallout of 9/11 (bravely led by Moore's film a couple of years ago). Had the administration's actions in response to the attack been genuine at the time (such as immediately pouring troops into Afghanistan to catch Bin Laden, rather than sending a token platoon in, months later), perhaps there would be no need for the President to embrace the 9/11 films. But doing so now will not change public opinion.

Monday, May 29, 2006

 

Sgt Damon vs Michael Moore

It's not the first time Oscar -winning filmmaker Michael Moore has been sued as a result of his controversial films, and no doubt, it won't be the last. However, in an ironic gesture, Sgt. Peter Damon -- a 33-year-old U.S. soldier who lost both of his arms in the Iraq War -- is suing Moore for $85 million, claiming television clips of him, used by Moore for the film Fahrenheit 9/11, were used without his permission, and gave the false impression that he opposes the war (which he doesn't). The scene is question shows Damon at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he describes his missing hands as feeling as if they were "crushed in a vice." Now, I've seen Fahrenheit 9/11 at least six times. And while I realize that Moore's style of filmmaking is generally designed to support a subjective point-of-view, in Fahrenheit 9/11, Damon makes no statements against the war, nor is he identified by Moore as someone who opposes the war. He is simply shown as a soldier who has suffered severe injury as a result of the war (which he has). In fact, Moore goes out of his way to be very supportive of the troops, while opposing the war. Makes me wonder if there is something larger behind this lawsuit that isn't immediately evident.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

 

The Final Girl Hall of Fame

In her brilliant and scholarly work on gender roles in modern horror films, Men, Women and Chainsaws, Carol J. Clover coined the term "the final girl" -- referring to the last woman standing (or running as it were) in a horror (usually slasher) film. So, it got me to thinking of the most memorable of these women (and gave me an excuse to write another list!) These are some pretty strong (and sexy) women. Here it is, my "Final Girl Hall of Fame" from 10 to 1:
10 - Fay Wray (King Kong)
09 - Tippi Hedren (The Birds)
08 - Naomi Watts (The Ring)
07 - Amy Steel (Friday the 13th Part 2)
06 - Adrienne King (Friday the 13th)
05 - Neve Campbell (Scream)
04 - Heather Langenkamp (A Nightmare on Elm Street)
03 - Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween)
02 - Jobeth Williams (Poltergeist)
01 - Marilyn Burns (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre)

Saturday, May 27, 2006

 

Quintessential John Hughes Adult Dies

Actor Paul Gleason, who died today, embodied the essence of what it meant to be an "adult with authority" in the world of John Hughes teen comedies. His character -- principal Richard Vernon in the 1985 classic The Breakfast Club -- was exactly the type of brash, arrogant, yet deeply flawed adult, that populated the teen world Hughes so successfully created during the decade. Gleason -- who appeared alongside the likes of Paul Newman (in Fort Apache The Bronx) and Robert Duvall (in The Great Santini and Tender Mercies) -- is probably best remembered as the stern principal in charge of the Saturday detention class that made up the "breakfast club" -- a who's who of the then-popular "Brat Pack." In Hughes' comedies, adults are either marginalized, buffoonish dolts, or, as in this case, foils for the teen characters to play up against. In many ways, it was a brave move for Hughes to set The Breakfast Club in a single location, forcing dialogue and characterization to carry the film, and principal Vernon was certainly one of the meanest adults to live in the John Hughes world. For example, after verbally threatening one of the children in the detention class, Vernon goes on to ask, "What are you gonna do about it? You think anyone's gonna believe you? You think anyone gonna take your word over mine? I'm a man of respect around here. They love me. I'm a swell guy. You're a lying sack of monkey shit...a gutless turd." Given the role of "symbolically" representing all that Hughes believes teens hate about adults, Gleason's portrayal of principal Vernon did not disappoint. Just last year, Gleason participated in a mini reunion of The Breakfast Club (with Anthony Michael Hall, Ally Sheedy and Molly Ringwald) on stage at the MTV Movie Awards.

Friday, May 26, 2006

 

6 + 6 + 06

Ok, so here's a question. Was the upcoming remake of the horror classic The Omen produced simply because someone at the 20th Century Fox marketing department realized that June 6, 2006 (the scheduled release date for the film) translates into 666? Someone must have thought it would make a good billboard (they're everywhere!) That's as good a reason as any, I suppose, for remaking a film that did not require a remake (nor, for that matter, the sequels it spawned). And here's a second question: Why aren't the Christians who are currently protesting The DaVinci Code, planning to protest a film about...the DEVIL? Well, here's my theory -- Fundamental Christians need the devil, just as much as James Bond needed the Cold War, and President Bush needs Al Qaeda.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

 

Must See Film: Baghdad E.R.

This is a film that helps put the Iraq War in perspective. Though brimming with the underpinnings of jingoism (and a strong sense of gratitude to the troops), Baghdad E.R. is actually the kind of documentary upon which honest anti-war protests are built. It puts a face on the war. And if history has taught us anything, it's that once a face is put on a war, that war is soon over. The HBO production, co-directed by Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill, allows viewers to experience -- in close-up and graphic detail -- the physical and emotional toll of combat by focusing the cameras on wounded soldiers and their care providers in inside the 86th Combat Support Hospital in Iraq. While the film makes statements such as "Wounded troops in Iraq have a 90 percent chance of survival - the highest rate of war survivors in U.S. history," the images themselves can't help but underscore the futility of the war and the casualties it produces: an eye being sown, arms and legs being sawed off and thrown in a bag, soldiers clinging to life and loosing that battle. Baghdad E.R. is the catharsis many of us need with regard to this war. Everyone should see it, even if some may grow nauseous watching. If the men and women who are forced to fight this war can endure wounds large enough for a doctor to put his hand in (yes, this film shows that), the least we can do is view what they are going through. Sure Baghdad E.R. is in your face. So what? Watch it anyway.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

 

From The Great Dictator to The Great Decider?

Adolf Hitler (May 1, 1937): "Everyone has to obey orders...Today, fate has singled me out to be in command...You, too, must be able to obey orders...We shall educate our People to do this and ignore the obstinacy or stupidity of individuals. Bend or break - one or the other!"
President George W. Bush (2000): "It would be a heck of a lot easier if this was a dictatorship, just so long as I'm the dictator."
President George W. Bush (2006): "I hear the voices, and I read the front page, and I know the speculation, but I'm the decider and I decide what is best."
Hmmmm. Made in 1940, before the extent of the Nazi holocaust of the Jews was known, The Great Dictator was an attempt by Charlie Chaplin to poke fun at the Nazi party, Adolf Hitler, and his (at the time) seemingly ridiculous desire to take over the world. In his 1964 autobiography, Chaplin wrote that he would not have been able to make such jokes about the Nazi regime had he known about the actual extent of the Nazi horrors at the time. This year, the film American Dreamz (a far less successful effort than The Great Dictator was at its time) attempted to poke a similar type of satirical fun at the current U.S. President, George W. Bush. However, in light of statements made by Bush (such as those quoted above), one might wonder if the light-hearted jabs of American Dreamz, down the road, could prove to be far too similar to the humor Chaplin found in Hitler.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

 

Major Movie Studio Planned for the East Coast!

Motion Picture production in the U.S. started on the East Coast. In the 1990s, the U.S. reportedly lost 100,000 film jobs to overseas productions. Today, in Preston, CT, -- ending nearly three years of discussions, negotiations and planning -- voters approved a proposal to build a $1.6 billion movie studio and theme park complex in eastern Connecticut. This is great news! Supporters of the project say it will add tourist dollars into eastern Connecticut and generate tens of thousands of new film production jobs. Opponents argue will lead to crowded roads. With this vote, Melville, N.Y.-based Utopia Studios -- run by Joseph Gentile and his wife, actress Cathy Moriarty-Gentile (Raging Bull) -- will now build movie studios, a climate-controlled theme park, hotels and a film school on the former site of Norwich Hospital. Developers have reportedly estimated that the attractions will bring 8 to 10 million visitors a year, and employ 22,000 workers. Supporters also believe Utopia could help establish a broad-based movie industry in Connecticut and help boost its economy. I agree. We read so often of foreign companies buying up iconic American movie studios (Does Sony own everything yet?) it's nice to hear about a grassroots movement within the country to grow the film industry.

Monday, May 22, 2006

 

It's All About Bandwidth, Baby!

If you have a high speed connection, and if you have a computer with massive amounts of memory, and if you have a DVD burner attached...then perhaps you can enjoy the latest form of movie rental and buying -- direct downloads to your computer! Companies such as Movielink.com are touting the most advanced way to rent or buy a movie, but it discriminates against people with slow connections or low-memory computers. There has been much talk lately about attempts by corporate America to privatize the Internet. Developments such as movie downloads seem to be in lockstep with that thinking. Either you pay to get on the Superhighway or you walk! Is it possible that someday soon, the Internet, and its services, will be the privilege of the elite, with poorer users left to fend for cyber crumbs? Well, if developments such as Movielink catch on, it seems a likely future. Now, music is one thing. It doesn't take much bandwidth to download audio. But the right to download a movie to your computer seems to the privilege of the rich at the moment. Will the further development of this technology eventually make pre-packaged DVDs obsolete? Will it force movie lovers, or even the average citizen, to pony up the dough for better equipment and faster connections -- to just rent a movie? I think it will. Imagine the day you have to pay to Google! Buyer beware!

Sunday, May 21, 2006

 

Be a Part of It...

If you go to the movies in New York, or just live in New York, you may recognize, from time to time, a building or street that you've seen on screen. That's because New York is among the most filmed cities in the world when it comes to the movies. And it's no wonder why -- the city is so rich with character, it lends flavor to any movies it's a part of. (Crews are always setting up a location shoot somewhere in town. Believe me, I've had to drive around enough of them!) Lower Manhattan will give you glimpses into Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (which, of course, also uses many other parts of the city), Abel Ferrara's China Girl, and Oliver Stone's upcoming World Trade Center, among many, many others. Greenwich Village can "put you in" any number of Woody Allen films. Beyond the Village, Allen has used so much of New York in his films -- who can forget the Carnegie Deli in Broadway Danny Rose? Likewise, Rob Reiner's When Harry Met Sally takes you all over town -- If you don't want to live in New York after seeing that film, you would never want to. Times Square might remind you of King Kong, Midnight Cowboy, The Sunshine Boys or even Friday the 13th Park VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan! Herald Square might make you remember A Miracle on 34th Street. The Central Park Zoo could make you feel like you are in Madagascar. But these are obvious locations in New York. The city is, in fact, FILLED with smaller, lesser known buildings and streets that have played a part in thousands of films. If you have the time, just stroll around and you're sure to come across a piece of the city that's been used in a film or two. Or, if you want to make sure you don't miss some of the more famous locations, you can always join an organized tour, such as Screen Tours (www.screentours.com). Either way, it's always a thrill to be a part of a location you can later point out on film and say, "I was there!"

Saturday, May 20, 2006

 

A Nobel Future?

What a great idea for a movie! In the film Nobelity, writer/director Turk Pipkin turns the camera on nine Nobel Laureates -- Steven Weinberg (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1979), Jody Williams (Nobel Peace Prize, 1997), Ahmed Zewail (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1999), Rick Smalley (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1996), Wangari Maathai (Nobel Peace Prize 2004), Sir Joseph Rotblat (Nobel Peace Prize, 1995), Dr. Harold Varmus (Nobel Prize in Medicine, 1989), Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Nobel Peace Prize, 1984), and Amartya Sen (Nobel Prize in Economics, 1998) -- to take a look at the future and discuss strategies on how to solve such global issues as poverty and the eroding environment. Of course, no one has a crystal ball, but unlike the type of so-called futurists who often are commissioned to speak at certain industry events, the combination of the nine Nobel Prize winners, offer a unique, multi-cultural, multi-generational multi-perspective, and well-balanced approach to discussing future issues. It is certainly a noble use of film to document these voices and these thoughts for future generations to consider. Nobelity is just the latest in what seems to be a series of thought-provoking and laudatory documentaries focused on our future. I only wonder why former U.S. President (and recent Nobel Peace Prize winner) Jimmy Carter was not included in the film.

Friday, May 19, 2006

 

Will Titanic Curse Da Vinci Too?

Forget the protests from the Vatican, the curse of Titanic, as first examined here at "Movies on My Mind" (on January 9, 2006) may be enough to sink The Da Vinci Code. Wire reports have already said, "Trade professionals believe The Da Vinci Code could become the biggest-grossing film of all time, eventually surpassing the current champ, Titanic, which took in about $1.85 billion dollars at world box offices." In The New York Daily News, in an article by Joe Dziemianowicz yesterday, there was the following -- "The movie, directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou, blasts into movie theaters tomorrow, and it's expected to be the biggest thing since Titanic." Uh oh. This could spell trouble. Remember how the curse of Titanic works -- once it's suggested that a new film might make as much, or more, that Titanic, that film fails, EVEN IF IT MAKES LOTS OF MONEY!! Sony's big budget remake of Godzilla and Peter Jackson's overblown remake of King Kong, have both fallen victim to the Titanic curse. I wondered how long it would be before another film got sucked into the no-win situation of trying to top the boxoffice of a true phenomenon. It seems now, The Da Vinci Code needs to ward off this curse. If you remember, the curse does necessarily cause bad boxoffice (King Kong actually made lots of money) but rather, it sets up an expectation that even if a film grosses big -- but doesn't reach $1.8 billion -- it's a failure! An early sign of the curse has already manifested itself with The Da Vinci Code -- critics are lukewarm to the film. I can see the sharks smelling the blood...

Thursday, May 18, 2006

 

Congressman/Screenwriter Involved in Scam

Here's an interesting mix of filmmaking and politics: California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher -- who apparently also dabbles in screenwriting -- said today that he would return the $23,000 he was paid by Joseph Medawar -- a con artist who claimed he was a Hollywood producer -- for a screenplay he wrote called Baja. At the time Medawar optioned the screenplay, he also claimed he was preparing a reality TV series on the Department of Homeland Security. With Medawar's interest, Congressman Rohrabacher, a former speechwriter for President Reagan, updated his 30-year-old script from being about a Vietnam War veteran to being about an Iraq War veteran. But the film never materialized. (Nor did the TV series.) On Tuesday, Medawar pleaded guilty in Los Angeles federal court to conning about 50 investors out of the $3.4 million. Rohrabacher reportedly said Medawar took a two-year option on his 1977 script with the understanding it would be updated. "I have done so and another film company is now seriously looking at this," Rohrabacher said. "Now that it has been determined that [Medawar] fraudulently collected the money, I think it is best for me to make sure that we try to return that money to some of the people he defrauded," Rohrabacher told Reuters. An earlier script Rohrabacher penned -- about a female spy in World War II -- was supposedly optioned three times, but has yet to be made. Meanwhile, Medawar could face up to 10 years in prison when he is sentenced in August.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

 

Here We Go Again: World Trade Center Trailer Debated

The trailer for the eagerly awaited Oliver Stone film World Trade Center -- which frames the details of the 9/11 attacks in New York around the heroic rescue of Port Authority police officer John McLoughlin -- debuted today at www.wtcmovie.com and is set to be shown nationwide, before screenings of The Da Vinci Code, on Friday. And just like United 93 earlier this year, the release of the World Trade Center trailer has sparked a debate about whether such a trailer should even be shown. I'll say what I said when the debate surrounding United 93 erupted. Of course it should be shown. Invariably, when articles are written on these issues, journalists seem to automatically go to 9/11 victim family members for comment. Do they have these people on speed dial? The "9/11 Families" have seem to become some sort of lobbying group. Their influence in expediting a 9/11 investigation was certainly a good thing, but their role in subsequent 9/11-related issues -- including the construction of a 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero, and the recent movie trailers -- seem a bit much. I am convinced that the solemnity we have attached to the 9/11 events has given the "9/11 Families" this kind of leverage. I will repeat -- the lives lost on 9/11 are no more or less important that the lives lost during World War II, Vietnam, or Iraq. It's time filmmakers explore 9/11. It's been long enough. These films, as they are produced, should not be stifled by the "9/11 Families" or anyone else. I'll say it again: Let's roll...the projectors!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

 

Sitcom Reunion Movies

On a lighter note today... I've been thinking about TV sitcom reunion movies (you know, where the cast of a popular sitcom is reunited years after the original series has ended) and several popped to mind. It's easy for me to see why, despite the silliness of most of these films, they were embraced by a HUGE number of viewers when they aired. After all, in many cases, we grew up with these characters -- and may, in fact, have known them better than some members of our own extended family! Plus, it's always fun to see how the actors have aged since the sitcom originally aired. Ironically enough, in many cases, these films are conspicuous by the absence of an original cast member who decides not to reunite for the reunion. Tina Louise -- the original "Ginger" from Gilligan's Island -- did not return for the very popular Rescue From Gilligan's Island. The Gilligan's Island reunion sort of started the sitcom reunion genre, and itself spun off two more Gilligan's Island TV movies! While almost all of the principal cast returned for Return to Mayberry -- which, by the way, was the number rated TV movie of the year at the time -- Frances Bavier, who played Aunt Bee on The Andy Griffith Show, did not. In A Very Brady Christmas, youngest daughter Cindy was played by Jennifer Runyon and not original series regular Susan Olsen. (The reunion movie was popular enough however to launch a spin-off series called The Bradys. For that series, Olsen once again returned to play Cindy, but Maureen McCormick, who played Marcia in the original series and the reunion movie, was replaced by Leah Ayres.) InThe Odd Couple: Together Again -- the sitcom reunion I most eagerly awaited, and one which took years to materialize -- almost NO original cast members -- aside from Tony Randall and Jack Klugman -- returned! (Penny Marshall as Myrna Turner, and Garry Walberg as poker buddy Speed, made small appearances.) I'll admit, these films are at most, a curiosity. But so what? We're all entitled some guilty pleasures. TV sitcom reunion movies are mine! I much prefer them to the more recent trend of adapting classic sitcoms into theatrical films. Sadly, cast members of many classic sitcoms have passed on, making it impossible for a reunion. A Three's Company reunion without John Ritter or Don Knotts? All in the Family without Carroll O'Connor? No. But, enough time has passed that it would be great to see TV reunion movies from the cast of Cheers, Seinfeld, and The Cosby Show.

Monday, May 15, 2006

 

Boxoffice No Longer Matters

I am old enough to remember that when a movie broke through the $100 million mark during its entire boxoffice run it was BIG deal! These films received official "blockbuster" status and people remembered them. These days, a film can make $100 million in its opening weekend, but can also disappear into oblivion just as quickly. The gamble the studios are taking with current film budgets, evidenced by a recent report in The Wall Street Journal, seems to officially indicate that boxoffice is no longer the way studios hope to turn a profit. Citing rising special effects costs, The Wall Street Journal reported that the budget of Sony's Spider-Man 3 (scheduled for release on May 4, 2007) is between $250 and $300 million! Likewise, 20th Century Fox's X-Men III is reported to cost $210 million; Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, $225 million; and Warner Bros.' Superman Returns a whopping $261 million! The risk on the new Superman movie is particularly interesting given that the Superman franchise (while experiencing somewhat of a resurgence with TV's Smallville) has not had a successful boxoffice outing in decades! So, if boxoffice alone was the means by which these studios and production companies hoped to recoup their costs -- especially given that today's boxoffice rises or falls on an opening weekend -- it would just be bad business. Even a great boxoffice run these days doesn't usually top $400 million. S why would studios reduce their profit margins by spending so much? The answer is: boxoffice doesn't really matter any more. DVD sales, pay-per-view, licensing, etc -- all have become a standard part of a film's financial success. Long ago in "Movies on My Mind" I argued that films are no more than $200 million dollar commercials these days. This move on the part of studios seems to support that argument.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

 

CodePINK for Peace

This Mother's Day, mothers from around the country -- united under the banner of CodePINK -- gathered to hold a peace rally in Washington, D.C., in hopes of ending the War in Iraq and stopping any future wars from happening. Among the women gathered were Gold Star mother Cindy Sheehan, who rose to popularity when she challenged President Bush to explain the "noble cause" for which her son was killed in Iraq; radio talk show host Randi Rhodes; and Hollywood's sexiest political activist, Oscar-winning actress Susan Sarandon (Dead Man Walking). Even controversial doctor/clown Patch Adams -- whose life story was told in the film of the same name, starring Robin Williams -- joined the protest. CodePINK, a grassroots peace movement started by women, is dedicated to ending war and advocates redirecting resources into healthcare, education and other life-affirming activities. This year, the organization embraced the origins of Mother's Day in the United States -- which was originally conceived by social activist Julia Ward Howe during the Civil War as a way to unite women (and particularly mothers) against that war -- by organizing the Mother's Day vigil/protest in D.C. During the 24-hour event, Sarandon read a letter to First Lady Laura Bush, urging, among other things, for President Bush himself, to call the mothers of fallen soldiers in the Iraq War, and inform them of their son's demise personally. I agree. Given the celebrity power of the event, I wonder if this Mother's Day protest will find its way into a narrative feature -- just as the Million Man March inspired director Spike Lee to make Get on the Bus. If it isn't already in the works, it would certainly make a great documentary as well!

Saturday, May 13, 2006

 

Most Important Filmmaker Working Today

Michael Moore -- director of Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine, and Fahrenheit 9/11 -- is the most important filmmaker working today. At a time when the directors of narrative features seem to have lost their way, (gone are the glory days of Coppola, Scorsese, Kubrick and Lynch) and no distinctive voices are penetrating through the blandness of contemporary cinema, Moore's brand of subjective, first-person documentary filmmaking has not only created a new genre of documentary, it has, in many ways, made the documentary a more vital form of filmmaking, perhaps for the first time in film history. Now, that's not to say there were no important documentaries being made before Moore starting making them. But Moore's larger-than-life persona has given the documentary film genre its first superstar. In 1989, I attended the National Board of Review Awards ceremony in New York, where Roger & Me was being honored as Best Documentary, and as Moore passed by me in the lobby of the building on the way to the event, I sensed then he had the presence to make it big. But the fact he went on to become the most popular documentary filmmaker of all time is not the reason I suggest he is the most important. Celebrity alone is not what Moore is about. Certainly his popularity helps. But the topics Moore decides to make films about are subjects vitally important to the future well being of this country, perhaps even the world. Bowling for Columbine, which won the Best Documentary Oscar, and in many ways, its unofficial sequel Fahrenheit 9/11, winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, both attempt to illuminate, educate and reveal underlying aspects of our society and government of which many choose to remain ignorant. There was a time when films such as Midnight Cowboy, The Graduate, and Apocalypse Now could reveal such societal truths. Those days are gone. Moore has been able to latch onto the current "reality based" entertainment fascination and turn the media back on itself. It is astounding how Moore and his team are able to cull through mountains of news clips to find the images and the sounds which support the thesis of the given film. The editing of Moore's films is second to none in its brilliance and ability to sway the viewer. Like any great filmmaker, Moore is a master manipulator. But so be it! When you cut through the subjectivity, these are among the most crucial films being distributed today.

Friday, May 12, 2006

 

Immigration on My Mind

With the illegal Mexican immigration issue dominating the news, self-appointed Minutemen patrolling up and down the border, and President Bush preparing to deliver a rare primetime televised speech on the issue, two films which captured the zeitgeist of the Sanctuary/Amnesty movements of the mid 1980s came to mind. The first is the seldom seen short documentary from 1986, directed by Wynn Hausser, called Sanctuary: A Question of Conscience. The film explores the modern day Sanctuary Movement (of the 1980s) in the southwest region of the United States. This movement -- modeled on the medieval law that a church could protect a fugitive from government authorities -- involved American citizens (in this case, a minister, a university professor and his wife, and a layworker convicted of a felony for her work in helping refugees) and was supported by a network of churches, synagogues and other organizations who helped transport political refugees from Central America to places of refuge in the U.S. Through interviews, the film is able to illuminate the motivations and beliefs of these activists, and examines the question of sanctuary as a means of social change. The second film -- the sprawling, yet personal film, El Norte (nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar) -- tells the compelling story of a brother and sister from Guatemala who escape a military massacre in their town and decide they must flee up north, to the United States. After an arduous trip through Mexico, the siblings make it to Los Angeles, where they attempt to start a new life for themselves despite the fact they are young, uneducated, and illegal immigrants. Both these films offer a useful, thoughtful, and historical perspective on the issue of immigration, and the reasons people flee to the U.S. to begin with. One might say the country itself was originally built on illegal immigrants who were sent (or fled) here to form colonies because they were outcasts (of one kind or another) in Europe.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

 

Antediluvian: Part II

Yesterday, I talked about current films which propose that our, and our children's generation -- due to global warming -- may soon be referred to as antediluvian. So, I wanted to take a quick look back at how films throughout the years -- both documentaries and fictional -- have addressed the flood which gave birth to the word antediluvian -- Noah's Flood. It has always amazed me how one of the most violent stories in the Bible -- a story in which God is so angry He wishes to destroy His entire creation, by drowning it -- became such a beloved children's fable. Hundreds upon hundreds of children's books and children's Bibles are dedicated to the story of Noah's Flood. Not just books, but baby blankets, mobiles, crib sheets, lamps and curtains are sold the world over with the Noah imagery. The story has also been the inspiration for animal shelters, coin-operated arcade games, comic strips, decorative dishes, magnets and puzzles. Live stage productions of the story are performed regularly in Christian theaters across the country, and the story was recently adapted into an off-Broadway musical called The Ark. Notable attempts to address the Noah story on screen have included Michael Curtiz's 1929 silent version Noah's Ark, and director John Huston's telling (in which he himself plays Noah) in The Bible...In the Beginning. Walt Disney created two animated shorts about Noah's Ark -- the first in 1933 called Father Noah's Ark, and the second, in 1959 (its first stop-motion production) called simply, Noah's Ark. (The latter version was nominated for an Oscar). Modern versions of the story on film, such as The Last Flight of Noah's Ark and the TV movie Noah (starring Tony Danza!), did not make much of an impact. The below average 1999 miniseries Noah's Ark, with Jon Voight as Noah, holds a sentimental place in my heart only because it was the last film I ever saw with my father (as he lay in his hospital bed in CCU). The simple act of our watching a film together made me think, for a moment, everything would be ok. (I was wrong.) Somewhat of a curiosity when it was released theatrically in 1976, In Search of Noah's Ark, was a documentary which attempted to prove the authenticity of the Biblical account of the Noah story. (The success of this film led to the release -- a few years later -- of In Search of Historic Jesus.) It also spawned The Incredible Discovery of Noah's Ark, a 1993 TV documentary which claimed to have authentic photos of the legendary ship, only to be proven a hoax. (The Noah legend would also show up on TV in such series as Unsolved Mysteries and Biography.) A less sensational documentary on Noah's Flood was the National Geographic production entitled The Quest for Noah's Flood. Rather than attempt to prove the existence of a ship high atop a mountain, or a worldwide flood, this engrossing film follows the Black Sea expedition of Robert Ballard -- the man who discovered the Titanic -- as he attempts to help prove the theory of respected geologists William Ryan and Walter Pitman, that Noah's Flood was a local flood of great magnitude which ultimately created the Black Sea as we know it today. I will admit to an ongoing fascination with the Noah story -- afterall, it has survived 10,000 years! But, I have long since stopped believing that Noah's Flood was a worldwide event. Rather than wonder about a boat on a mountain, I have become more fascinated with discovering (with as much accuracy as possible) what the historical event which became the Noah story, actually was. I think film could help to illuminate this as well. The documentary that has yet to be (but should be) made is one based on Robert M. Best's theory that the Noah Flood was a local river flood which lasted six days in what is now southern Iraq. Noah escaped, at the last minute, on a commercial river barge, with a handful of his farm animals and his family, and floated in the Persian Gulf for a while, before grounding and meeting other survivors of the flood. All religious implications aside, a film that could shed light on the actual historical event which created a story that has lasted 10,000 years would be fascinating!

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

 

Antediluvian: Part I

The word antediluvian has come to generally mean "something very old," but literally means "before the flood" -- more precisely, before the flood we traditionally refer to as "Noah's Flood." While some have attached this flood to a prehistoric time when the entire earth was actually covered with water, others have theorized that this particular flood was a large, local event, most likely occurring in what is now southern Iraq. (Ironic, don't you think?) Regardless, it's clear that the event was meaningful enough for ancient men and women who experienced it, to actually mark time with it. (Things either happened before this flood, or after it.) And thus, the creation of the word antediluvian. With current warnings of melting polar ice caps, one might wonder if we, and our children's generation, might one day be referred to -- by future generations -- as "antediluvian." Cinema, both documentary and fictional have been addressing this possibility from different angles with increasing urgency. The new film An Inconvenient Truth -- directed by Davis Guggenheim, and starring former U.S. Vice President Al Gore -- warns of the effects of global warming, and melting glaciers. Likewise -- as previously mentioned here at "Movies on My Mind" -- Stonyfield Yogurt recently commissioned Climate: A Crisis Averted, a short "mockumentary" which illustrates the likely devastating effects of global warming, within a generation -- and has encouraged that the film be spread via the Internet and by email. On the fictional side, the boxoffice flop of a few years ago, Waterworld, imagined an earth consumed by water. And two years ago, director Roland Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow (a thematic reworking of his own earlier film The Noah's Ark Principle) also dramatized a "worst case scenario" for melting polar ice, which resulted in massive flooding and a new Ice Age on the planet. "It is now clear that we face a deepening global climate crisis that requires us to act boldly, quickly, and wisely," says Gore -- and he has finally put his life-long campaign to protect the environment on film, to better spread the word. I agree. See this movie. Then, let's act.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

 

Is This Film Kosher?

A controversy may already be brewing over the soon-to-be-released film Keeping Up With the Steins, a comedy which centers on the planning of an extravagant Bar Mitzvah. More deeply spiritual members of the Jewish faith are condemning the film for showing what they call "stereotypical, self-hating, cultural Jews." Directed by Scott Marshall (son of famous Italian -- not Jewish, as sometimes thought -- actor/director Gary Marshall -- who also stars in the film), Keeping Up With the Steins shows the obscene level to which some non practicing Jewish people (particularly those with more money) will go in throwing a Bar Mitzvah. While this may be offensive to the more spiritual members of the Jewish faith, it also happens to be true. But Jewish people have, by no means, cornered the market on this sort of extravagance. Similarly wealthy (and often Italian) Catholics would also think nothing of spending $800 on a Communion dress for an 8-year-old girl receiving her First Holy Communion, or renting out a wedding-sized catering hall to celebrate the event. In both cases, the humility associated with the ceremonies go out the window. Having had a fair amount of personal experience with the type of Jewish family portrayed in the film, I can vouch for the authenticity. Cultural Jews often want the pomp and circumstance of celebrations with none of the spirituality that goes with it. Just as so-called "A&P Catholics" only show up at church on Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday for ashes and palms. It will be interesting to see it the religious Jewish community continues a strong opposition to the film or, if the cultural Jewish faction -- which the film portrays -- will enjoy laughing at itself and embrace it.

Monday, May 08, 2006

 

Film Journalism at Its Worst

Mission Impossible III, starring Tom Cruise had an opening weekend boxoffice gross in the US of nearly $50 million dollars and, as I suspected, journalists already have pounced on the angle that Cruise's behavior over the passed year -- which included becoming engaged to Katie Holmes, having a baby with her, arguing with Today Show's Matt Lauer and (gasp) jumping on Oprah's couch -- was the reason audiences didn't make Mission Impossible III an even bigger hit in its opening weekend. Here was the lead sentence of the AP report on the film's performance: "Fewer people chose to accept Tom Cruise's latest mission, a possible sign that the odd behavior of Hollywood's biggest star may have taken a toll on his box-office charm." What bullshit. Most of these actions by Cruise occurred last summer, and it certainly didn't stop his version of War of the Worlds from becoming his biggest hit to date (with grosses exceeding $591 million worldwide). Might these journalists have also considered that this is the THIRD of the Mission Impossible films, and no one has EVER claimed to be able to follow their convoluted plots? Perhaps more people listened to the criticism of part three -- which were along the same lines as the first two -- and decided to sit this one out. Or perhaps it had something to do with the fact that the price of gasoline in this country is oppressive, and people are doing less driving. Perhaps the fact a movie ticket costs more than $10 now (which means that a family of four seeing a film, and having snacks would pay in the neighborhood of $100) had something to do with it. Maybe more people are putting the $100 into their gas tanks. Plus, since films come out on DVD so quickly now (much quicker than they did when the first two Mission Impossible films were released) maybe people are willing to wait and rent it for half the price (or, from Netflix, for a fraction of the price) of a movie ticket. Did any of these knee jerk entertainment journalists who covered this weekend's box office even consider any of those possibilities?

Sunday, May 07, 2006

 

Home Movies for Hire: Documenting the Missing Moments

After spending a weekend with them, I just returned from dropping off my children to their mother. And, even though I have made sure that I see my children often (I also drive out to see them twice during the week, go to all their sporting events and school events), the thought of missing all the "little moments," the everyday moments I don't see because I'm not there (moments stolen from me because of divorce), often moves me to tears. I'm sure there are other men (full time fathers who only get to be with their children part time) who feel the same (I also know there are men out there who don't give a shit). But for those of us who do care, wouldn't it be great if there was a service that could take "home movies" of our children so we could somehow experience these little moments? Perhaps the venture might be called "Home Movies for Hire." I'm not sure how it would work, and obviously the children would require their private time as well, but I do know if I could see and hear more of my children's laughter, or off-the-cuff comments -- the kind I get to experience when they are with me -- it would be worth it. The films could fill the empty times -- when I wonder what my children are doing, how they are, and if they are happy. Listen, I'm not sure of the legal implications of such a service, but shouldn't it be an option for fathers who care and miss their children?

Saturday, May 06, 2006

 

The Best Movie Soundtrack Ever

Simon and Garfunkel's song score for the 1967 movie, The Graduate, is the best movie music ever recorded: The Sounds of Silence, April Come She Will, Scarborough Fair - Canticle, The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine, Mrs. Robinson. In the words of Forest Gump, "That's all I have to say about that."

Friday, May 05, 2006

 

Let Dead Theaters Rest in Peace!

Something rare and wonderful is about to occur in a New York neighborhood: A new movie theater, the Regal Cinemas Atlas Park, is about to open in the sleepy middle class town of Glendale, Queens in two weeks. Still, in the last 10-to-15 years, many of the vintage movie houses in surrounding towns have disappeared -- well, almost. As a lover of cinemas, it has always pained me to see a movie theater close, only to have its hollow shell of a building, marquee intact, turned into something else. Many of the neighborhood theaters that have died in NY -- The Drake in Rego Park, The Elmwood in Elmhurst, The Crossbay and The Crossbay II in Ozone Park, The Arion in Middle Village, The Trylon and The Forest Hills Theater in Forest Hills -- had unique (often early 20th Century) architectural designs. Simply put, they looked like MOVIE THEATERS! Taking this same shell and slapping on a sign for an Italian catering hall, or a Duane Reade pharmacy or a Modell's or The Church of the Rock, is a hurtful reminder of what once was. I would much rather see an old theater demolished and a new building erected in its place, than to see the new owners disguise the old structure with some new venture. It's like having your little sister get hold of one of your GI Joe action figures and watching her dress him up for a tea party with her Barbie dolls. GI Joes were not meant to be dressed up for tea parties with Barbies. Likewise, the grand movie marquees of neighborhood theaters were not meant to sport signs for 99 cent stores. It's bad enough these movie houses -- which held so many memories, for so many people -- had to close. Please, let them rest in peace. Give them a proper burial. At least remove their marquees. And sure, if you like, erect a sign at the site, as a fitting memorial to what was once there.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

 

Would You Like a Grande Mocha Frappachino Latte With That Movie?

While Stonyfield Farms attempts to save the world with its short Internet film, the coffee bar giant, Starbucks, has thrown its hat into the feature film production ring with the formation of Starbucks Entertainment and the recent release of Akeelah and the Bee, a fictional account of one girl's road to the National Spelling Bee contest -- a film which seems to take its lead from the excellent, Oscar-nominated (and similarly themed) documentary Spellbound. Starbucks has seemingly invested a fair amount of marketing dollars behind this inaugural release, leveraging its outlets nationwide to promote it. The larger question here is, "Should a coffee bar franchise be producing films?" Sure, the stores seem to be able to push special compilation CDs with their Grande Mocha Frappachino Lattes (heck, a few years ago, I even bought the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas at Starbucks), but the company's venture into magazine publishing some years earlier, Joe, was dead in the water. It was a magazine about...well everything. The lack of focus seemed to give readers little reason to know why they should read it. Now comes an attempt at movie production. Will this have a similar lack of focus? Will customers even care if the Starbucks brand is extended to a motion picture? Does that connection even matter? At least in theory, with the magazine Joe, customers could sit for a few hours and read the publication at a store -- perhaps even strike up a conversation with another customer and maybe, just maybe, buy another Tall Decafe Latte Supremo. I have no doubt Starbucks will use its locations to push its own films once they become available on DVD, but to be honest, I fail, at the moment, to see the logical brand extension here. Akeelah and the Bee opened soft, but, reportedly, Starbucks still plans to release more films in the future.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

 

Stonyfield Yogurt Film Attempts to Save the World!

I was enjoying a cup of Stonyfield Yogurt (my favorite yogurt) today, when I noticed on the cap word "Futureflix," designed in the style of the Netflix logo. "Ah, another film contest," I thought to myself. Everybody seems to be running film contests these days. (I even noticed one at Boston Market restaurants a few weeks ago, in which the restaurant encouraged its customers to produce a minute-long film showing what they would do with the hour Boston Market saves them from cooking). So, I went to the Stonyfield Farms website (www.stonyfieldfarms.com) to check out "Futureflix." Turns out, it's not a contest at all. In fact, it's something much more ambitious. Stonyfield actually hopes to literally save the world, with a short film it produced and has made available to viewers via the Internet. Here's an excerpt from the letter by Stonyfield CEO, Gary Hirshberg, introducing the film and the concept behind it: "Back in the early 1970s...it was already clear that human activities...were resulting in a warming of the planet...These predictions seemed like forever away back then, but not any longer...Can we save the planet? Is there still time? These are the questions that keep me up at night...I don't pretend that we can reverse climate changes only by switching to more energy efficient household light bulbs.Ultimately, the greatest power to make the most immediate change lies within industry. But that's where you and I come in. In my 2+ decades in business, I've learned that industry does what consumers and investors tell us to do. We've created a short internet film, Climate: A Crisis Averted, that looks back from 2056 and recounts how ordinary citizens in 2006 -- people like you and me -- take action to demand clean energy and other steps to reverse climate change. It's fiction, but it doesn't need to be. WE, each and every one of us, can make it happen. For starters, I'm writing to ask you to watch the movie. It can be viewed at www.renewus.org and then send this link on to all your friends and colleagues. The internet gives us the power to reach millions in hours...If we act together now, I truly believe that we can save the planet." The film is a fictional documentary on how Hirshberg's hopes actually come to pass through a grassroots Internet movement to get the word out about global warming. I applaud Stonyfield for doing this and demonstrating its faith in the power of film to enact change. I urge you to see it, and, as he suggests, send it along to friends. Let's do what we can now to make the planet as good as it can be for our children, and our children's children.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

 

Horror Lives! And Chicks Love It!

Ten years ago, Variety, the show business bible, declared the horror film dead. At the time, I disputed that claim with a piece I wrote in Cinefantastique showing evidence to the contrary. Now, as evidenced by a slew of recent horror film hits, articles are popping up all over the place announcing the "return of the horror film." The twist this time, according to one such recent article in The New York Times, is that more women are going to see horror films than ever before. Ok. Sure. Why not? But these sort of "trend" articles make me leery these days. Now, cerainly, some film trends are more newsworthy than others, but many simply feel like an editor of a publication needing to fill space. I recall an article in The New York Times in the mid 90s which talked about "the new trend of actors becoming directors." But this article came out after actors such as Rob Reiner, Ron Howard, Penny Marshall, and others, had already been directing for about a decade or better. Could we really credit The Times with breaking the news of this trend? Likewise, in the early 1980s, the TV sitcom had been declared all but dead as a form of entertainment when The Cosby Show came along. Within two years, papers everywhere where writing about how the sitcom was the most popular form of entertainment on TV. (To a lesser extent, musicals, westerns, and science fiction genres have all experienced similar renewals from time to time.) So, what are we to make of this recent desire of entertainment reporters to write about the return of horror films? Well, nothing frankly. If attendance slips in a few years, I'm sure we will read articles announcing the "death of the horror film" once more. And that won't matter either. Truth be told, the horror film NEVER left. It may have taken on different forms from decade to decade, depending on the zeitgeist, but it never left. If any entertainment reporter had enough interest to actually gain some historical perspective before simply writing a piece, they might discover the same thing. Then of course they would have no story.

Monday, May 01, 2006

 

United 93 is #1

Hollywood was holding its breath to see if the country was ready for a 9/11 film. While nudged out of the top spot on its opening weekend by the Robin Williams comedy RV, the critically acclaimed film United 93 -- the first major studio effort to relate the events of 9/11 -- did, according to www.boxofficemojo.com, manage to become the most popular film in the country (even if just for the day) today. However, what this means in the large picture is that the cries of "Too soon!" when the trailer for this film was being shown in (and pulled from) theaters, earlier this year, will now change into the mantra "It's time," and open the flood gates for 9/11 and 9/11- themed films to hit the big screen. What United 93's popularity among critics and audiences has removed the taboo on such films. I, for one, look forward to what filmmakers have to offer us about 9/11, and the mindset it created in its wake.

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