Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Saying Good-bye to '08 with Broomfield's BATTLE FOR HADITHA

Here is my last post of what was, all 'round, a pretty bad year -- except for movies, thank... god? Hardly. Let's thank the world's moviesmakers. Whomever they might claim gave them inspiration, TrustMovies would prefer to thank the directors, writers and film crews. Complain all you want, ungrateful wretches, but there were plenty of good films this year, as always, and even more with many good things about them, even if their totality didn't match their moments.

I don't like Best Lists, since there's no way I or any single critic can see every movie released in a year's time from every country in the world -- and certainly not by December 31. Best Lists give over to our ever-unsatiated need for more sound bites about things rather than the things themsevles, and there are far too many anyway. They're needless, encouraging audiences to choose only a "select" few films, instead of taking more chances and being surprised. (And considering what's on many of these lists, viewers may well go away angry and disappointed, swearing to leave movies alone for yet another season -- or year.) What's wrong with a list of Good Films Worth Seeing? Of course, that would have to be compiled monthly or weekly to keep it of publishable length. Admission: I do compile what was first requested of me by GreenCine a few years back: The Best Gay DVDs of the Year. (DVDs I can better keep up with than theatrical movies, but even this list is hardly complete. So I welcome your additions, deletions and general suggestions.)

For my last post, since I watched the film today, I strongly recommend Nick Broomfield's BATTLE FOR HADITHA. Now that America has elected some hope for its future (and also because our collective wallet and purse are currently empty and our credit is kaput), we're not hearing much about Iraq. "The surge worked" is oft spoken, but so what? That hardly lets us off the hook for the lies, venality and stupidy that took us to Iraq and will keep us there for who knows how long. I would wager we can expect our own version of the Israel/Palestine scenario and perhaps as longlasting, too. Which will, of course, play nicely into the plans and hands of our military-industrial complex and powers-that-be. So far, not a single film released about our misadventure in Iraq has fared well enough to strike pay dirt with the public and most have failed miserably. I think it is greatly to our filmmakers' credit that they have kept trying.

As for Broomfield's film, it's perhaps the best to come out of our Iraq debacle so far: better even than those I covered in this large lump nine months ago for Greencine. The first thing you may notice about Battle for Haditha is the dialog. It's trenchant, funny, fierce and real, yet much of it has been improvised. The second thing you'll notice is the actual filming: something between a necessarily fast-on-its-feet documentary look and a series of strong, sharp images that resonate esthetically. This director/co-writer (here with Marc Hoeferlin and Anna Telford) melds his present narrative into his past documentary background and comes up with a filmmaking style that rivets. Then you'll start noticing the contradictions.

These are immediately present in the attitude of the American Marines we see, and even more so in the Iraqis, the first of whom tells his wife how utterly crazy are the actions of the Al Qaeda insurgents -- whom he then goes off to work for. Later he and his young "co-worker" accept an assignment to plant and then detonate a roadside IED. There are all kinds of Iraqis pictured here, along with some spectacular scenery (Broomfield filmed in Jordan) and lively characters vividly experienced. Because we know (from history and from the opening title cards) that on November 19, 2005, a roadside bomb killed one American and wounded two others, and that soon after the Americans retaliated by killing 24 Iraqi men, women and children, we suspect that at least some of the characters we are watching -- on both sides -- will be involved. But which? Broomfield's film is a fictional account of what happened and why, who were the killers and who, finally, was blamed. While it begins with what we now know, it then fills in the necessary blanks very well indeed.

Among the many expert scenes is one gem between the two semi-reluctant detonators that beautifully limns the difference between youth and age. Another is among the better whip-the-recruits-into-fighting-frenzy. An occasional bit of overkill rears up, as when the older Iraqi explains to the younger how America's disbanding of the Iraq army has led to its members joining the insurgency. American audiences may need to hear this information, but surely the Iraqis already understand this all too well. These moments are fortunately few, and as Battle for Haditha closes in on the massacre, it shows us exactly what we must see, no more or less, making it as startling and horrible as we can bear. The repercussions are strange -- often as moving as the events were shocking. Broomfield's ending, which in other circumstances might be accused of sentimentality, is instead, given all we now know of the lead character involved, the only possible road to redemption.

That character is played remarkably well by newcomer Elliot Ruiz (shown top right, above), a natural actor who not coincidentally served in Iraq. On the extras, you can view an interesting interview with him and watch the audition that helped cast him. We shall be seeing more of Mr. Ruiz. All of the cast does fine work, and I wish I were better versed in Arab names and language so I might differentiate among its excellent members to give them proper credit.

That's it for '08. I'm planning some interesting things for the new year, and one of the first off the plate will be the story of a new animation filmmaker who's using our NYC Subway system to distribute his work. This will take few days to complete. Meanwhile, let's toast to a better new year.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

DVDebuts: 2 misses that ought to have made it -- HAMLET 2 and GHOST TOWN

I love the films of Andrew Fleming (above) -- well, most of them -- while admitting that they are rarely as good as they could be. Watching them usually makes me happy, as they are so full of small delights and giggles rather than the flat-out (and often flat-footed) humor that buries so many of today's crass comedies. From 1994's Threesome (with Josh Charles, Stephen Baldwin and Lara Flynn Boyle at the top of their game) through the delightful Dick and last year's amiable, under-rated Nancy Drew, this writer/director keeps churning out charm and goofiness keyed to our changing (particularly in the political/social/sexual realm) times.

Now comes HAMLET 2, which sold big at Sundance and then bombed theatrically. Its trailer was poorly done and, I suspect, turned off many critics and filmgoers early on. Yet the actual film, while including everything we saw in the trailer, is a lot more of fun than expected. A major reason for this is the wonderful lead performance from Steve Coogan. This comedian already has his fan base, but because he gives such a rich, humane, sad (and funny) performance as a perpetual loser who keeps trying, he may have surprised some of those fans -- who are more used to him in smaller, nastier doses. Fleming and co-writer Pam Brady nail everything from drama teachers (and their gay/outsider students) to Arizona life as seen by those who hail from more urban realms. And fine support is provided by Catherine Keener, David Arquette and all the kids who play the students.

Another better-than-average writer/director is David Koepp (Stir of Echoes), who -- unlike Fleming -- has had his share of boffo hits over the past two decades (for his screenplays, at least): Death Becomes Her, Mission: Impossible, Spider-Man and the latest (and tiresome) Indiana Jones bore. Why his newest endeavor, GHOST TOWN, which he directed and co-wrote (with John Kamps), did not haul in a bigger audience is surprising, as there have not been many sophisticated comedies about of late -- especially one that has a low-key, almost-European quality about it.

Ghost Town is not top-tier material, although it does have its share of very funny moments, a clever premise (the connection between the living and the dead -- used for laughs, rather than the more oft-seen, half-baked scares), and a first-rate cast. Ricky Gervais gets his chance to be a leading man and handles it with surprisng aplomb. His leading lady is the too-little-seen Téa Leoni (above), and one of our most accomplished actors, the so-good-he-makes-it-look-easy Greg Kinnear, completes the triangle. The theme here, as in so many movies about the dead, is redemption, with special attention to the male need for adultery and the anger and grief this causes the female. Out of this come some rich moments of honest feeling which help coax the movie toward a cozy, pleasing resolution. Ghost Town ought to have been a mid-range hit, at least. Did its title lead audiences to imagine some sort of western? Whatever. Perhaps DVD will provide a more condusive venue at a cheaper price.

Monday, December 29, 2008

FURTHER Watching as a New Documentary Takes Shape

A little over three months ago, I encountered the beginnings of a most interesting and hopeful documentary called BURNING IN THE SUN (hereafter referred to as BITS) during Independent Film Week. Currently celebrating its 30th anniversary and formerly known as IFP Market, Independent Film Week hosts 156 projects, including documentary works-in-progress, "emerging narrative" screenplays and "no borders" international co-productions to a mainly industry crowd. The purpose is to get your work seen, in hopes that distribution opportunities will arise or that people with money will like what they see enough to invest and thus help you finish your film.

Producer Claire Weingarten and co-directors Cambria Matlow (above, right ) and Morgan Robinson (above, left) were handed their subject by a friend working on energy in Africa who told them about the particular person and situation, noting that they might want to film it. They did. The result -- BITS -- tracks a young man named Daniel Dembele (shown below) who, raised in Mali but having spent time in Europe, seems to combine the best of both worlds. He has decided to build and install cheap solar panels (shown above, top) that will bring the first-ever electricity to the small villages of his native country. This proves a fascinating subject. The twenty minutes shown to us were riveting, and the ramifications are pretty extraordinary -- for Mali, of course, but for poor countries worldwide and, in fact, for some rich ones, too. If solar energy can be created as easily and cheaply as shown here, perhaps our own government might pay a bit more attention.

A lot has happened in the past three months since I first saw footage from this documentary. A new -- and, one hopes, much better -- political administration will soon assume the reins of our country. Perhaps the USA can again become a positive force in helping itself and then the world at large. But what, I wondered, had meantime happened for BITS, which needs addditional funds for its completion?

On December 18 -- literally three month and one day after my first post about BITS, the 92YTRIBECA screening room, together with Chicken and Egg Pictures and Working Films hosted an evening dedicated to BITS and two other upcoming documentaries in a program devoted to exploring how "story leads to action." Although I was not able to attend, co-director Cambria Matlow tells me that the results appear very encouraging. Here's our back-and-forth e-mails to fill you in. (And, yes, I got Cambria's permission to post them.)

Tuesday, December 16:
Hi, Cambria—
This is so exciting, and all three pix sound terrific (of course, I've seen yours, so I know). Currently, I am trying to cover the entire Spanish Cinema Now series at the Walter Reade for GreenCine, which is 25 programs during this month. So my plate is full for December and I just can't handle anything else right now. Let me know how things go, please! And good luck at this screening. Will this perhaps mean more investment $ and further chance to finish the film?

Wednesday, December 17
Hi Jim!
Good to hear back from you. Thanks for the kind words.
EVERYTHING at this point means more investment money and further chances to finish. Chicken and Egg are wonderful and sometimes choose to come on as Executive Producers for some of the films which they support. We can only imagine that being selected to take part in this night, so soon after coming on board with them, is a good sign....
Plus, they are really great at setting up documentaries with non-profits that can help the filmmakers use their films as platforms for action. For anyone offering us finishing funds, I feel like it will be attractive for them to know that we plan to USE our film to enact social change. For example, a leader from Solar One (the solar-powered community center and film venue along the East River in NYC) will be speaking in conjunction with our screening at the event tomorrow night. Cool, right?
We'll definitely keep you in the loop - our composer's music is sounding BEAUTIFUL, that's the latest from me right now.
Enjoy the Spanish Cinema series!
All the best,

Thursday, December 18
Hey –
Thanks for this very newsy and encouraging update. BTW, I have noticed that in the last month my blog piece about you and your film got twice the attention it received during the original month that I posted it. Weird, but it's good to know that people are clicking on it. Let's hope Chicken and Egg and Solar One bring more interest (and $$) to the table. I just watched the documentary FLOW last night, about the world's water shortage and the sleazebags who want to "sell" water to the poor. It reminded me of your film, especially how small communities in Africa and Asia, often led by one person, are rising to the challenge and doing things themselves.
Do keep me posted, in fact if you have a minute in the next few days, let me know how things went tonight!

Wednesday, December 24
Hi there Jim!
Thanks for writing back once again - I am enjoying our dialogue so much!
The screening last week went fabulously. A couple of representatives from Solar One came to speak, and the film seemed to be received very well. We only showed 20 minutes, but the audience seemed very much engaged and to understand the essence and meaning of our work. They had lots of questions afterward, in the 'good' way, and overall there appeared to be so much potential to use this film to encourage change on the local and domestic level - a consequence we had mostly thought of as a 'Part 2' of our outreach program (Part 1 being more international in scope). Excitingly, the film illuminated ideas about taking action here in the USA as being every bit as important as encouraging change in Mali and other places in developing countries.
This was exciting for me for two reasons: One - I had no idea how a more 'domestic' audience would receive the film, and Two - this means that the Africans depicted in the film came across significantly as leaders, and not as victims. This tone was very important for us to achieve and I think we have accomplished it. Not every film about Africa does this but I am proud to say that we have. Anyway - some new partnerships were formulated last week during and after the screening that I think will serve us and the film well!

It's funny that you mention FLOW. Morgan, our co-director, actually spoke in front of an audience at a FLOW screening at BAM last year. He met the director of the film on the subway randomly one day. Using footage from BURNING IN THE SUN that otherwise would have ended up on the cutting room floor, Morgan made a short promotional video for Loriana Dembele (our lead character's mother). She leads a non-profit in Mali that builds water wells in rural villages. That short film is called JI DUMA: Bring Them Water and there is actually a link to it on the FLOW website. We were educated about the water situation in Mali and what people there were doing about it, but we chose to focus our film on Daniel and his efforts with solar energy. There is a lot to talk about indeed. I appreciate the comparison you made very much, though.
Jim - I hope you have a joyful holiday week. I will be working while visiting with my boyfriend's family in Vermont, but I hope that you can take some time to relax!
All the best,

That's the update till now, folks. Given all that is happening for Cambria, Morgan and Claire, it's hard to imagine that we will not be seeing a finished version of BITS -- and sooner rather than later. We'll continue to keep you posted....

Sunday, December 28, 2008

EAGLE EYE: fast-moving shlock with some nice/nasty ideas buried in plain sight

Yes, the movie -- out today on DVD -- is overwrought and unbelievable. But it moves so fast (sometimes too fast) that it seldom bores for more than a minute, even though it's at least ten of those minutes too long. Director D.J. Caruso has followed up his two good films (The Salton Sea and the under-rated Two for the Money) and his two bad films (Taking Lives and the over-rated Disturbia) with this one, which, though his most successful box-office-wise, falls somewhere between the good and bad.

There is a very good reason to watch it, however. What EAGLE EYE offers (that few if any mainstream movies have given us) is a very interesting, even incisive probing of the actions of our about-to-depart political administration. You can't play the who's-who game here because none of the participants follow their respective models. But overall, the actions and sensibility of this bunch is close enough to give us the creeps. The very first scene sets up the moral basis of the entire film and is, in fact, responsible for the actions of the "villain." As the movie progresses, the real tension comes via the notion that there is indeed a way to rid the country of its foul leaders, yet this is a way that absolutely goes against the grain of what so many of us would prefer to believe in. This conflict is invigorating and keeps the movie engrossing, despite its near-constant serving up of additional (and increasingly unnecessary) car chases and slam-bam action scenes.

The two leads (shown above) -- Shia LaBeouf and Michelle Monaghan (some day this actress must play Marcia Gay Harden's daughter or younger self) -- are fine, but it is the supporting cast that provides the most pleasure: Billy Bob Thornton, Rosario Dawson, Michael Chiklis, Anthony Mackie and Ethan Embry. Otherwise, it's the fraught combination of power and morality on view that gives the film its punch -- that, and maybe its nod/crib/homage to 2001.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Spanish Cinema Now draws to a close

For my final and penultimate GreenCine posts re the FSLC's Spanish Cinema Now series, click here and here. If you missed anything previously, the second "here" offers links to the entire array of earlier postings.

This year, as usual, offered a most interesting and (more often than not) entertaining group of films. I wish the Walter Reade Theater has been a bit fuller, however, as many of these movies deserve a much wider audience. I don't recall another Spanish Cinema Now fest with as few in attendance as this one -- another example, I am sure, of "It's the economy, stupid."

Friday, December 26, 2008

A HOLE IN A FENCE: fascinating view of "progress"

There are a million and one ways to make a movie, I suppose -- as many as there are individual movie-makers. One brilliant way is now on display from first-time filmmaker D.W. Young, who has trained his eye on A HOLE IN A FENCE and come up with something like an entire universe for us to consider. Part of the film's joy lies in its brevity, although I doubt Mr. Young planned his movie around this concept. In only 46 minutes (plus some extras you'll want to watch), you'll be forced to think hard about everything from community decay and gentrification to class differences, big box stores (specifically Ikea), architecture, art, graffiti, where ships go when they require dry land and how, if you needed to, you might best construct a temporary home. And this is just a part of it.

Young's film takes place in Red Hook, Brooklyn, which is not that far from where I live in Jackson Heights, Queens. I've never been to Red Hook, but after watching this short documentary, I feel as though it's as important as where I do live. That's because the subjects addressed by Young and his interviewees are happening all over the U.S. and the world and constitute a continuing problem/opportunity. One of the nice things about the movie is how it manages to include both success and failure, and thus sees progress as incremental, dependent on who is doing the observing, and full of very nearly as many negatives as positives. (In fact, maybe more negatives. And yet, somehow, we still seem to progress. Or did, until recently.)

In the large and interesting cast of characters you'll meet is one young man, Ben Uyeda, who begins the film as a student of architecture and by the end has his own business. Ben -- smart, energetic and positive -- is one guy I'd want on my side as Armageddon approaches. It's his temporary home that's constructed here in one of the film's most interesting sections. He later gives the abode to one of the area's homeless, who then loses it to "progress." What happens to the vacant lot we see through that hole in the fence is what is happening to our world. With plenty of intelligence, understanding and surprising subtlety (but without shouting or undue finger-wagging), Mr. Young gives this view focus -- via an aperture that just keeps widening the more you think about it. Obviously, anyone interested in documentary filmmaking will want to see A Hole in a Fence. Viewing should also be mandatory for every city planner in New York, the U.S. -- hell with it -- the world.

A Hole in a Fence, by the way, is yet another in the sterling array of documentaries and narrative films offered by First Run Features. Take a look at some of its many releases over the years, and if you have not seen them all, start working you way through. In the realm of catholic taste that is also of a very high order, this company is up there with the likes of Film Movement and only a very few other distributors.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

THEATER OF WAR -- and an interview with documentarian John W. Walter

The very title -- THEATER OF WAR -- opens up so many possibilities. The phrase refers primarily to the arena, real or symbolic, in which war takes place (but what kind of theater is war -- something out of Antonin Artaud?). It also describes the play involved here, Mother Courage by Bertolt Brecht), the rehearsals for a production of which form the spine of the film. For anyone who's ever taken part in live theater, war is not a bad metaphor for what sometimes goes on -- between playwright and director, director and actors (we won't even get into the technical staff) until, one hopes, a kind of peace is declared, followed by performances and the judgment of critics and audiences (which can lead to yet a whole new war). Finally though, the film that bears this title is most about theater folk and real war--bloody, vicious, unnecessary (think Iraq, Vietnam, Bosnia, Rwanda) -- with the former trying to find a way around humanity's insistent need to wage the latter.

John W. Walter's film (he directed, edited and was co-cinematographer with Felix Andrew) is, like its title, necessarily all over the place. In addition to tracking rehearsals of Mother Courage during the 2006 in-the-park production by the Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival, the film offers interviews with its leading lady Meryl Streep (above) about the acting process, her role, and the meaning of the play itself. Others interviewed include playwright Tony Kushner, who did the adaptation; novelist and teacher Jay Cantor; Public Theater directors/heads Oscar Eustis and George C. Wolfe; and composer Jeanine Tesori (Ms Streep sings some of Tesori's work here, and better, I think, than she handles the Abba songs in Mamma Mia). Then Mr. Walter heads off in the direction of Brecht himself: the man's life, work and even his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee (has there ever been a sillier, less felicitous moniker?) before he vacated the United States for post-war Germany. (Walter even gives us an image of Brecht on a Dresden china plate, in which he looks remarkably like a young Henry Kissinger.) We also travel to the outskirts of Prague to a famous plain of war where we visit a strange kind of cemetery in which the skulls and bones of the departed -- over eons -- have been stored in high, wide rows that fill the screen.
Bertolt Brecht, left, beside a slightly older Henry Kissinger.
Does anyone else see a certain resemblance?
(Photos courtesy of Wikipedia.)

There's a lot going on here, and even for those of us fairly "up" on the people and events, it proves a heady mix in which the "seams" often show (more of this in the interview below). How well it works for you will depend, I think, on your own appreciation of the people interviewed and of Brecht and this particular play. While I did not find a moment of the film uninteresting and agree with many, maybe most of the ideas and opinions expressed, by film's end I did not feel I'd taken a step closer to better understanding of the questions raised by the film. This is frustrating, but then so, for me, is Brecht. I have never seen a production of any his plays -- professional or amateur/university -- that I felt worked very well. The point is, I guess, to keep trying: to understand ourselves, Brecht, theater -- and our everlasting need for war.

A few days after I'd seen his film -- which opens Christmas Eve at NYC's Film Forum -- I had a good, long talk with Mr. Walter via phone (he was in Michigan and I in New York). The following is as much as my arthritic fingers could manage to type while the director, buoyantly and very quickly, spoke....

TrustMovies: You've been a film editor (My Kid Could Paint That) in between your direction of the 2002 documentary How to Draw a Bunny and this year's Theater of War. How big a part of the directorial process is editing?

John W. Walter: They are two different things. The director ultimately is the guy who takes responsibility for the story telling. The production part of a movie is where you are out shooting and directing the shoots. The end product of this shooting is a bunch of footage, but the end product of the editing process is a finished film. My bread and butter gig is editing and it is a very satisfying one.

When I am directing and editing my own work, I feel pretty keenly the difference between the two. As a director, I feel I am digging myself into a hole, but as the editor, I am digging myself out of that hole! It all goes together somehow, and for me this is something that just works.

In this film, for instance, what does a play that was put on in 2006 has to do with a the version of it that was produced in 1949 -- and what do both these events have to do with the theater process, and with war.?

It's true: Your movie includes so much. How did you decide to organize it, or did the information you gained begin to organize things for you? Did some of the organization come during the editing process?

Before I started working on the film, I had a sort of shape in mind. I was going to investigate -- document -- these different stories: the NY Public Theater's production of Mother Courage and the story line of how this production of the play took shape in rehearsal. Then there was the parallel story of the play itself and of how this woman, the main character, tried to get through The 30 Years' War with her family intact. And then there is the story of Bertolt Brecht and how he had to leave a successful life as poet/playwright and go into exile. Then how he returned to Germany after the war and staged this play. I wanted to concentrate the movie along montage principles.

How do you mean "montage," in this particular case?

The way I use montage contradicts its meaning, in a sense, in that the meaning is in the connection between all these things, sort of like a way a collage works. You see all these different scenes and they become part of the meaning, the composition. Via film editing, this can become a way to create a kind of seamless whole. But in my work, I like to let the seams show.

And you have. But the viewer then has to do more work in a way, putting it all together.

I like to think of it as the viewer is having more fun. It's a kind of escapist thing from the mainstream. I make movies because I love movies. I'm someone who is blindly following his own enthusiasms.

THEATER OF WAR director John Walter -- Photo Credit: Sarah Shatz

How can you tell what is actually mainstream? By its box-office results, as with the success of The Dark Knight?

I think you can also tell by the faces of the people walking out of the theater. Are they dead-looking or alert? For instance, I was really happy with the response to a screening we had in Traverse City, Michigan. Most of the people in the audience were not NYC insiders, just everyday people. But the themes in this film -- war, protecting our children, the responsibility we have for the actions of our government -- these were things that most people at that screening could relate to: everyday realities that include themes more accessible to the average viewer than, say, with all due respect, those of The Dark Knight.

Mafia hit-men are another questionable subject to me, something rather disproportionately represented by our films and TV in terms of how numerous they really are in our society. I mean, how many Mafia hit men do you, have you ever actually known?

I've questioned that, too -- particularly with all the hoo-haw over The Sopranos. So then, how do we get a film like yours out there so that it can be seen by lots of "everyday people"?

Through critics, writers, blogs, people like you doing what they do. Every avenue helps.

Bertolt Brecht, his life and work, seems to have been a big influence on you and your film.

What was really fun for my wife and me, after we had finished with the Public Theater rehearsals, we went to Berlin for a month, set up an editing room, and just soaked in that vibe, spending a part of every day in the Brecht archive, going through his bookshelves, his notes and photos. We even went to see a production of Mother Courage that was being done in Berlin at the time, and we saw it twice.

Since I have never encountered even one production of any Brecht play that I thought worked at all fully, I would have loved to have been able to see that 1949 production.

There was an East German movie made of the play, not entirely successful because it was more filmed play than something imagined cinematically. But it was definitely worth seeing because it has the same cast as the famous 1949 production.

The use of the old photos in Theater of War was very interesting: After awhile you began to feel like you were almost there.

It's tricky. As a documentary filmmaker, you are dealing with the situation of working from old photos and trying to give them "movement" -- which of course you can't do. So you find yourself wondering, how did Mother Courage's shoulder stand at that particular moment? How long did it take her bend over, to react? Things like that. So in a way your film becomes an attempt to communicate your own experience to the audience -- this journey that you as filmmaker took.

I found watching the film brought back to me a lot of the anger I felt when, at the behest of the Bush regime, we first went to war against Iraq. Maybe because I am an older viewer, it also sent me right back in to our time in Vietnam, and it was so obvious that we were making the same kind of mistake all over again. You must have been just a boy back in the time of Vietnam.

My situation involving Vietnam was like Jay Cantor's (the writer/professor featured in Theater of War) regarding WWII. It's something that lies just over the horizon of your own experience: Its presence can be vividly felt but not touched. So it requires an extra effort, an act of the imagination, to come to terms with it.

Brecht himself, as a young man, had to go through WWI, and then he saw it starting all over again in WWII. When I was going through Brecht's bookshelves, there were a lot of books about atomic weaponry, both in German and in English. He was clearly interested in this subject. In fact, he rewrote his Galileo play after the atomic bomb went off. Before this, he was focusing on economics and did not realize that physics also had the ability to change everything. His journals are fascinating in terms of the perspective on the American home front from an outsider's point of view. After going back to Germany post-WWII, he tried to publish a book of compiled newspapers clippings, documents and photos all put together from a poetic angle.

Had you earlier been involved in legitimate theater -- from the insider's perspective?

No. I was coming to it as an enthusiast, but not as an insider. I think I have always experienced theater more as literature.

I have come to it from the other side, as either a performer (way, way back) and later as a playwright. Regarding Brecht's plays, I have never seen a performance of any of them that I felt really brought the play fully to life -- or meaning. Because of this, I have never held the writer in that high esteem. For years, from the time I first came to NYC back in the 1960s, my only experience with actual live productions of Shakespeare's plays and many of the classics -- generally came from the Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival's work. With few exceptions, I would leave thinking what a pile of crap each play was. It was not until I started going to The Pearl Theater's performances here in NYC, from which, finally, I did not get some unnecessary and often wrongheaded concept "overlaid" on the play, that I came out honestly appreciating what these plays really were about, what they offered and why they were "classics."

Writers are incredibly vulnerable. They need good interpreters. And you need a master interpreter for a master playwright. To use a musical analogy, what would it be like if there was not a Rostropovich or Jacqueline du Pre or Glenn Gould to give contemporary audiences their musical experience with the classics?

Recent GreenCine posts: Open Window, Anamorph & A Man Named Pearl

Spanish Cinema Now at the FSLC's Walter Reade Theater has been keeping me fully occupied of late, so you'll have to go to GreenCine for any of my recent new-to-DVD-watching activity.

Included there is a review of OPEN WINDOW, an interesting but not terribly successful movie about rape, and a double review of ANAMORPH and A MAN NAMED PEARL -- two

better-than-average films that offer a look at art, one dark and destructive, the other buoyant and constructive.

More tomorrow, as promised yesterday...

Saturday, December 20, 2008

MY PRISON YARD: a don't-miss movie in the Spanish Cinema Now series

Verónica Echegui, left, and Raúl Arévalo in My Prison Yard

Here's a quick note to anyone within traveling distance of the FSLC's Walter Reade Theater, tomorrow, Sunday, December 21, @ 6:10 pm, when the Spanish Cinema Now series offers the final screening of a wonderful new film -- My Prison Yard (El Patio de mi cârcel). A more complete review from TrustMovies appears here on Greencine's Daily Blog. Because many of these Spanish films will never again see the light of day theatrically in the USA, nor even appear on DVD in the States, the chance to see a film this good is worth your time and trouble.

More on Monday -- with a review of the new documentary Theater of War and an interview with its director, John W. Walter.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A conversation with the RATED-R group: Mar Flores, Félix Sabroso and Dunia Ayaso

The RATED-R girls: left to right, Candela Peña, Mar Flores and Goya Toledo -- surrounded by admirers.

As the Film Society of Lincoln Center's annual Spanish Cinema Now heads into its final week, I want to share a conversation that TrustMovies had with the co-directors and one of the stars of the new film RATED-R (Los Años Desnudos). Featuring two of Spain's most glamorous actresses (Mar Flores and Goya Toledo) and one of its most awarded (Candela Peña), the movie is a spot-on look at the Spanish soft-core film industry that blossomed once Generalissimo Franco had left the building. An engaging/funny/sad mix of melodrama and relatively recent history, the film might not get a pick-up from our some of our tonier foreign-film distributors. But I should think it would prove at least a moderate success for a company like Lionsgate -- as did such Spanish language films as La Mujer de mi hermano and Ladrón que roba a ladrón. (My earlier review of Rated-R for GreenCine appears here.)

Just post the opening-day press conference, we talked with co-directors Dunia Ayaso and Félix Sabroso, as well as the incredibly svelte and glamorous Ms Flores, who seemed as shy as she was sweet and consequently did not say a whole lot.

TrustMovies: I am really glad to be meeting you in person because I could not help wondering how old you two directors were, and whether you had actually even been around during this period of Spain's history (the late 1970s). It’s clear you were around but you must have been children or teenagers, right?

Félix Sabroso: We lived through the Franco period, yes, but we were just kids. We got some of our information and background for the film from our time in school but mostly we got it from our upbringing by our parents who had themselves lived through Franco and had been repressed both religiously and from a cultural perspective. Dunia and I are in our 40s, and we decided that we had enough perspective now to talk about men and women and the Spanish tradition of that period -- but above all about the women, who were our mothers.

Ah... This is very interesting to me as an American who has yet in his lifetime to to live under a dictatorship like Franco's. Although I do wonder, if the Republicans -- ours, not yours -- had won this past election, how long it would be before we found ourselves living under a dictatorship like Spain's? The one time I had the opportunity to go to Spain, back in the mid 1960s, I decided not to because of the Franco regime.

Dunia: Well, in those times the tourists were usually well taken care of.

Of course. Tourists usually are. But if you knew what was going on in terms of the Spanish people, I think that made it more difficult to want to go there. For me, anyway.

Félix: Yes, you would have had to deny what was happening. Spain was pretty gray, pretty bleak in those years. What someone like Hemingway experienced was quite a different Spain: the bulls, and all that.

Ah, those 70s! From left: Candela Peña, Antonio de la Torre, Goya Toledo and Mar Flores.

Your movie Rated-R really took me back to a similar time in our country, where people like Linda Lovelace and Gerard Damiano were in the news and Deep Throat -- the one before Watergate -- was so popular. I found it fascinating to see how things were in Spain. One of the most interesting points about your film was how you showed Spain dealing with its new freedom -- of speech, expression, art. How Spaniards used it and maybe abused it.

Félix: There is a word that we use a lot that perhaps defines how we handled eroticism and the new freedom of the characters in our film -- naïveté. There was a lot of this around, so we tried to talk about sexual freedom from a very basic perspective.

How did you decide to use those -- what I would call -- "pull quotes" on screen that come from the characters themselves -- rather than from famous people, as is more often the case.

Dunia: They came out of the fact that these people, when they finally got a life of their own, were all just representative of real people. These quotes sprouted out of the writing process. They were in the script originally.

My favorite is the one quoted by the gay cabaret singer to his friend and co-performer (played so well by Candela Pena). "You think you've got freedom because you're able to show your tits on screen. But the guys you are showing them to are the same repressed assholes who were there 20 years ago!" I think you could make that statement here in America, too.

Félix: We always say that in Spain, under Franco, for men and women and the roles they played in that society, that Spain was a fundamentalist country.

Certainly in many respects -- like the way that Church and politics seemed to come from the same place. Can you tell me what the "S" classification in your film signified? Did it mean a "Sex" film?

Dunia: Well, the classification only existed in the 1970s, and the S meant that these films could effect the "sensitivity" of the spectator.

Well, that's an interesting way to put it: a lot more subtle that we have over here.

Dunia: When "X" films finally arrived in Spain, this "S" classification disappeared.

So the films that these women were making then were more like soft-core porn films?

Félix: Exactly.

Nuns gone wild! From left: Mar Flores, Goya Toledo and Candela Peña.

You mentioned in the press conference that you didn't really go into the "transition" period after Franco. Yet to me, the scene in the police station seemed very "transition."

Dunia: Yes, because we were very aware when we were teenagers that we were really in this kind of special area where there was this explosion of freedom all over the place. And the police were very angry about this.

Police often get angry about too much freedom.

Félix: Young people would go out in the evening and would find a policeman in the street, and instead of feeling safe, we would feel afraid. Because, with the police, anything could happen at any time.

Yes, you definitely get that feeling from this film. The scene with Mar Flores in the police station was truly frightening and upsetting. The viewer, just like Mar's character, is kept very off balance.

Félix: Yes, Mar was exceptional in that scene.

Mar, during the press conference, you said you were really a beginning actress. I didn't believe this but when I looked on the IMDB, sure enough, you have not had that much experience. Telenovelas and the like but not a lot of films.

Mar Flores: No, it is true.

The other actress Goya Toledo was very good, too. The manner in which the movie shows us the introduction of AIDS into Spain was quite moving and impressive.

Mar: People experienced that in the 80s, with friends who contracted the disease.

Did you two cast the film before or after you finished the script? And did you have these particular actresses in mind?

Dunia and Félix (at the same time): Oh, we wrote this script while thinking about these actresses! We wanted them for the film!

How was the film accepted in Spain?

Félix: We had very good critical reviews and the box-office result has been acceptable. Taking into consideration what is happening with Spanish cinema now, we really can't complain.

Is Spanish cinema going downhill at the boxoffice?

Dunia: In general, there has been a drop. People have stopped going to the movies. They watch films now at home.

Maybe, when the movie is released to DVD, it'll have a even bigger audience.

Félix: Well, Mar got an award as best actress.

The Goya? (For the uninitiated, that's Spain's "Oscar.")

Félix: No, at one of the festivals. Dunia: The Goyas will come in January, we hope!

For those keeping up with my GreenCine reviews of all the Spanish Cinema Now films, the latest post can be found here.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

More from Spain, CRASHING with Campbell Scott and Gary Walkow, and everybody's favorite "MAMA"

If you're a Spanish-film buff in the NYC region, check in here and here for TrustMovies' recent GreenCine posts covering films in the current FSLC's Spanish Cinema Now. The latest GreenCine post features the best couple of programs I've seen so far -- and each has one more showing you can catch: the splendid Suso's Tower

screens Fri., Dec. 19, @ 6:30 and Shortmetraje, a very fine and diverse collection of short films, plays again Thurs., Dec. 18, @ 9.

One of the best movies about the writing process I've seen since David Cronenberg's weirdly insightful adaptation of William Burroughs' Naked Lunch, Gary Walkow's little (79-minute) CRASHING has arrived straight-to-video. Had it not been for the appearance here of Campbell Scott (below right), an actor I always enjoy and whom I doubt has ever given less than a good performance, I might have passed on this one. Don't you. How a story happens -- this way and that -- in the mind of a writer is the movie's subject, and its execution is clever, witty and surprising. It'll keep you just a tad off-base until the very nice conclusion. Walkow (with Alain Silver, co-credited for story), whose earlier film The Trouble With Dick is referred to often in this new one (I have not seen this but will now try seek it out), handles everything (dialog, incident, daydream) with such economy, intelligence and flair that it's a pleasure to follow him wherever he chooses to go. Mostly, he travels into the writer's mind, making very good use along the way of the male fantasy life. While his film is about writing, it is also about the teaching and criticism of writing, and about male/female relationships, as well as the uses of agents and publishing houses. The mostly female supporting cast -- Alex Kingston (below left), Lizzy Caplan and Izabella Miko -- is quite attractive and up-to-snuff in the performance department. In the credits, there is even a lovely "thank you" to André de Toth. (Maybe the director will tell us about this someday...?) Why on earth, when there is so much dreck distributed to theatres, did something this good miss out? Maybe it's just too damn smart.

Yes, Meryl in the MAMMA MIA movie is now on DVD, where it will probably be as big a success as it was in theatres worldwide. While I can fully understand why it brought down the wrath of many critics (it begins very poorly, Abba songs or no). Yet, if you do not exit the room fast enough (or simply turn off entirely as you sit there), I swear you may finally be won over. My theory is that, because the movie does indeed seem to get better as it goes along, first-theatrical-film director Phyllida Lloyd was simply learning on the job. On-the-job training is important in all walks of life, so why not movie-making? And, if she filmed the movie in anything close to "sequence," this explains a lot. If not, well, I'm wrong again, and it must just be that Abba thing.)

Oddly, as much respect as I have for La Streep (above right), I think she manages to drag the movie down, overall. I know she's had musical theatre experience and that she can sing. But she doesn't always bring much meaning to her lyrics (yes, they're Abba, but there are times when the proper inflection might have done wonders). Pierce Brosnan (above left) received a number of critical raspberries for his singing, yet when he first opens his mouth to do a solo, the result is surprising -- in a good way. The man brings real drama and caring to the moment, and his voice is not that terrible, either. Are many of our critics simply tone- and drama-deaf? (He's no Callas, but she had, as he has, the smarts to put dramatic talent over vocal talent.) Of all the cast, only Christine Baranski (above center) manages to make you know you are watching a musical. Her deft, subtle sense of movement, smart and stylish line readings and ability to handle choreography, melody and more all contribute to the relaxation the viewer feels when she takes over. If only she were able to do it more often. Still, as I say, this "Mamma" gets better as she moves along.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Comedies, Small and Big: LOWER LEARNING and STEP BROTHERS

Watching these two comedies on successive days put TrustMovies in mind of money, power and our PR/celebrity culture. Neither film is all that good, but, in fact, LOWER LEARNING offers more originality and the comedic laughter that sometimes accompanies this than does STEP BROTHERS -- for all its "star power" and budget. Both films have interesting concepts that deal

with children thinking and behaving like adults (the former) and adults behaving and thinking like kids (the latter).

In Lower Learning, Jason Biggs (below right), Eva Longoria-Parker (below center) and Rob Corddry (the standout, below left) head a cast that takes on elementary education in our country and the "power of the principal" -- particularly one very greedy example of this breed. What makes the movie stand out a bit (and gives it some welcome laughs) are the children shown, some of whose dialog should have fundamentalists running for the hills. The plot is rather obvious and not very believable, but the humor and situations more than make up for this. The teachers/staff on view range from feeble to sad, but most of them are quite funny (the supporting cast includes Will Sasso and Monica Potter) and their childish behavior makes that of the kids even odder and more pointed, for when adults abdicate their responsibility, kids will be quick to assume it.

Step Brothers, on the other hand, offers Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly as adults who are still children for all practical (and impractical) purposes. Their antics are sometimes quite funny and just as often a little tiring. There's too much repetition here, and, as with so many current comedies, the running time is maybe 15 minutes too long (so's that of Lower Learning). But what most rankles is the idiot stretch for yet another feel-good ending, which is totally unjustified by any standard (except the ever-lowering IQ of American audiences, primed, as always, on blockbuster/celebrity schlock). Mary Steenburgen (below right), Richard Jenkins (below center) and Adam Scott (below left) offer good support.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

DVDebut: MAN ON WIRE -- plus the latest in the Spanish Cinema Now series

Let's leave Spain briefly (though you can check in here for my most recent post re the FSLC's Spanish Cinema Now on GreenCine) for a look at one of the documentaries shortlisted for possible "Oscar" attention.

After all the start / stop / change horses midstream / begin again / "Mother-May-I" indecision regarding a memorial to commemorate the late World Trade Center, now that I have seen James Marsh's eclectic documentary MAN ON WIRE, I realize that the memorial already exists. It's this film -- that recalls the WTC in exactly the way I want to remember it: as the (at one time) tallest building in the world, around, in and on which some wonderful -- and terrible -- things happened. Among these, and probably the most remarkable and now purely pleasurable to view, is the amazing high-wire act of Frenchman Philippe Petit.

Mr. Marsh (below center and right) has pulled from all over the place -- NYC, France and Australia; present and past; old footage, re-creations and present-day interviews; guy friends, girlfriend, cops and officials -- to put his film together. The result encapsulates Petit's (below left) amazing talent and skill, the enormous amount of seemingly selfless help he got from friends and acquaintances, the staggering task at hand and -- finally -- the blessed result. Marsh has assembled his movie like a heist film, which in a sense this was, in which the loot is the event itself. Definitely an illegal act, Petit's high-wire walk nonetheless (as its participants point out) harmed no one and provided, out of the blue, a piece of near-miraculous history.

The movie itself provides even more: a modern-day remembrance of things past that includes a lost love for whom the loser seems to bear no ill will and waxes beautifully philosophic (how French!). For this viewer, however, the film brought home most resonantly something else to think about. How close in odd ways was Petit & company's act to that of some terrorists 27 years later: the initial it's-not-possible concept, followed by enormous planning and logistics, including even some physically rigorous training-camp experience, and finally the immense faith the participants had to have in their goal in order to continue. The terrorists' goal was destruction, Petit's group wanted a celebration. In both cases, security was lax, which allows us now to mourn the former and rejoice in the latter.

Imagine if, as shown here, all the energy, intelligence, talent and skill used to dance in the air over New York City could be channeled into achieving new and workable energy solutions? Now there's something for the Obama administration to consider. Rent the movie and consider this -- and a lot more -- yourself.