Tuesday, May 31, 2005

No Dumb Questions

Imagine for a moment that you are the parent of three little girls, ages 6, 9, and 11. They all adore their Uncle Bob, and look forward to his visits. Imagine that you get a letter from Uncle Bob, telling you that he is in the process of becoming Aunt Barbara. What do you do? What do you tell the girls? And how do you answer, when they start asking questions?

This real-life situation is the subject of the documentary No Dumb Questions from filmmaker Melissa Regan. The film follows the girls and their parents from shortly after they get the letter through the first meeting with Aunt Barbara. It is poignant, funny, and educational as all get out.

The title comes from the letter: Aunt Barbara reassures her brother and his family that there are no dumb questions, that it is ok to ask anything. That loving invitation is met initially with a bit of hysteria from the parents, who resolve that the only thing to do is to deal honestly with the kids, and to keep reminding them (and themselves) that there are indeed, no dumb questions.

I am reluctant to say much more about the film; the surprises in it are all good surprises and deserve not to be spoiled. I'd recommend this film to anyone who is uneasy about transgender issues, of course, but I'd also recommend it to anyone who is trying to figure out how to talk with children about any topic that frightens grownups. The children model behavior for adults, here: they are open about their fears, their misgivings, and their hopes for Aunt Barbara. The parents do a remarkable job of supporting their children through the process of getting news that is out of the ordinary. Regan has made a film which takes on the delicate task of going inside the life of a family, and bringing the story out alive.

No Dumb Questions has won a number of awards: an honorable mention for Best Short Film at Sundance, and the Best Short Film Audience Award at the IFP Los Angeles Film Festival, among others. It's a great little film -- thumb's up.

Catch it if you can!

Monday, May 30, 2005

Keep Not Silent (but it will cost you)

"Orthodox lesbian" may sound like a contradiction in terms, but there are organizations of lesbians who identify as orthodox Jews in several cities around the world . They call themselves OrthoDykes. Keep Not Silent is a film about three women in Jerusalem who struggle with lesbian and orthodox identities.

Ilil Alexander directs the film, which takes the viewer inside the women's lives, their families, and the Orthodox communities in which they live. Yehudit is young, single, and very well educated religiously, and she speaks passionately in a conversation in which she argues Torah with her rabbi. She is determined to live out her identity with her partner in a monogamous, open life, and the film documents her process of coming out to family, of seeking a new life with her partner, and of somehow maintaining her values in the process, values she learned in the orthodox community in Jerusalem. It is a costly decision.

Miriam Esther occupies the other extreme of the spectrum: she has chosen to marry in a conventional marriage, and to simply accept that she cannot act upon her feelings and that she is unlikely ever to have sexual feelings towards her husband. She is the mother of ten, and like Yehudit, her decision is costly. She is afraid to speak to the filmmaker, for fear that someone will find out about her and her children's lives will be ruined. She is resigned to her life, but one gets the feeling she is not at peace with it. The most heart-wrenching story, though, is that of Ruth, a woman who has both a husband and a woman lover.

The film is deeply moving, sometimes upsetting, but it offers a view inside ultra-orthodoxy and the difficulties of resolving minority identities within that world. Viewers on both ends of the spectrum, liberal and conservative, may be irritated that the filmmaker presents everyone in the film in the kindest possible light. By doing this, however, she demonstrates the tragedy that results from the denial of identity, and of well-meaning attempts to see lesbian and gay identity as a "phase" that can be "cured" with marriage.

If you have seen Trembling Before God, and think that you have already covered this topic, I suggest that this is a much stronger film. This is a much less polemic film, and it does an excellent job of conveying not only the confinement of Orthodox life, but also the beauty of it. It also deals with family and children, which are largely ignored in the more famous film.

Keep Not Silent won the Ophir, the Israeli equivalent of the Oscar for Best Documentary, and it is every bit as good as that implies. Thumb's up, if you can find it!

Keep Not Silent is distributed in the U.S. by Women Make Movies.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

National Treasure

We always knew Nicolas Cage was a nerd. He adeptly personifies this in National Treasure. But in a good way.

This is a stupid movie, but a fun piece of cinema. The sole purpose of this movie, of course, is to entertain. But we're all suckers for movies that "educate" (in a movie kind of way) us about history. National Treasure concerns the Declaration of Independence as a piece of a puzzle leading to historical and intrinsic fortune.

I, as well as the general public, know nothing about American history. We know only what we learned in high school about American historical artifacts such as the Declaration of Independence and the Liberty Bell. So we're fascinated that our ancestors may have left us a piece of their puzzle. We're on the treasure hunt almost immediately, with a couple of false starts, but always in a linear progression. The line is simple yet is a puzzle-within-a-puzzle. This movie is simply a lot of fun -- stupid, illogical most of the time -- but fun. The trick is to let your mind accept the illogical and just go with it. Since we as the average viewer know so little about history, that's an easy thing to do.

Interesting that the critics panned National Treasure but that the DVD continues to sell briskly. Viewers love the historical chase.

Let's hope the Da Vinci Code is a bit better than this, but manages to hold our interest to the same extent. Thumb's up.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Everything I Know, I Learned from Star Wars

"It's terrible, Master," moaned my young Apprentice to me. "I can't do anything right. I'm depressed."

Not a surprise. You want issues? This young man has Issues.

"What is it this time?" I said, rolling my eyes. "A mentor who doesn't understand you? A secret wife? Disloyal droids?"

"Well, yes, Master...how did you know about all of that? But it's more, much more," said the young man clad in leather and black. "It's, well, I'm a failure. I can't do it. I can't even seem to create suspense in this movie. Everybody knows what's going to happen! What should I do, Master?"

Indeed. Revenge of the Sith isn't a movie one should attend in order to be surprised. We already know the ending. Worse than that, we know we're going to be depressed all the way through it. And we invite it. We invite the Dark Force to take us in.

Things I Knew Would Happen in Episode III, Revenge of the Sith:

1. Padme thinks she's having a child, Anakin Skywalker's child. Ha! To badly quote Yoda, one the number is not.

2. Women won't have the best lines in this movie. Princess Leia got her shots in during Episode 4, but it's been all downhill since then. Natalie Portman is an excellent actress, but she doesn't have anything to say other than, "What's wrong, Ani?"

3. Anakin Skywalker is headed for doom. Okay, we knew that, but why couldn't Padme figure it out? His wardrobe is darker, tending towards dark leathers and blacks. He has nightmares. He tends to like politics. His eyes are shifting towards a yellowish hue. His hair is longer.

4. A lot of Jedi are going to die in this movie. Ah, but we know that Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda will survive.

5. Some droids have a moral center and a lot of heart. It's great to see R2D2 get some great kick-butt scenes (if a legless robot can kick butt). But he is really the heart of the movie, and he sees young Anakin's fall before anyone else. And it's good to see C3PO is as cowardly as ever. "I feel so helpless!" he tells Senator Padme. No kidding. He and the rest of us.

6. The dialogue will be sooo bad. Samuel L. Jackson, a fine actor who has tackled many parts, including Shakespeare, can't seem to speak the dialogue, as it falls not-so-trippingly from his tongue. Mace Windu can't speak Lucas.

7. Everyone with more than one secret name is someone to watch out for. Anakin vs. Darth Vader. Count Dooku as Darth Tyranus. And the ones with a THIRD name are downright evil and should be the star of this film: Senator/Chancellor Palpatine as Darth Sidious as The Emperor.

8. We're really here for one reason only: the fall of Anakin Skywalker and the rise of Darth Vader. Everything else is secondary. And Lucas delivers on this promise.

I wanted to spend more time on those wondrous planets I saw. Spend a little time with Chewbacca's Wookiees. Sheesh, I'd like to have seen General Grievous a little more, peer into those bloodshot half-human eyes of his. But every scene was over too quickly. Quick fight scene, long ponderous exposition with Anakin complaining, quick fight scene, another long ponderous... You get the idea.

But this is Star Wars, the sixth film which is really sorta the third film, and its sole purpose is to tie up all those loose strings and convince us that a young man can learn to love those dark colors. ROTS does all that.

I advised my young Apprentice to take some valium and call me in the morning. Come to think of it, I'll suggest he take something stronger. After all, he just had twins. He has no idea what trouble can be.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Monster-in-Law: The return of Jane Fonda

You'd never know Monster-in-Law was supposed to be a comedy.

It certainly incorporates elements of your worst nightmare: "She met the perfect man. Then she met his mother." That's certainly a sphincter-tightening thought.

However, nobody in this movie, except for Wanda Sykes (who plays Fonda's assistant, Ruby) knows how to deliver a comic line. The odd fact that Ruby has the best lines shows, I think, that even the writers didn't know they were trying for screwball comedy.

But you know this is Jane Fonda's movie. It takes her a bit to get into the movie -- and my friend kept saying, "Where's Jane?" when she'd wake up from moments of deep slumber -- but we understand that boy and girl have to meet before an entity such as the mother and future mom-in-law come into play. You understand why Jennifer Lopez and Michael Vartan are attracted to each other. They're both gorgeous, with reservations (mine). Why does a successful physician always have a 5-o'clock shadow, the length of which never changes? And why does J-Lo look so plain in this movie? I understand they were going for "simple" and "from-the-neighborhood," but, my God, is this the same gorgeous actress I saw in "Shall We Dance"? When Jane comes onto the screen, you're hoping for a little movie magic at that point, and you get it. She looks like she's aged a bit since Klute -- well, duhhh -- but she has attitude, a sexy walk, and clothes to match. She's still got "it."

Except for the comic timing. There aren't very many funny parts in this movie, and because the boy-meets-girl, boy-almost-loses-girl-if-he-even-had-a-clue, boy-gets-girl moments don't sustain the entire movie, the rest is, unfortunately, a bore.

Thumb's down for the Fonda comeback.

My favorite theatres? State-of-the-art, I'm afraid

Long gone are the days when I can sit in an uncomfortable seat at the theatre, listen to my fellow theatre-goers dish about their day at work while the movie is showing on an old and blistered screen, and hope the tallest alien in the Hitchhiker's galaxy doesn't sit in front of me.

Oooh, no. Give me stadium-seating, THX sound, and digital projection. What a wonderful, terrific movie-going experience -- seeing a crystal clear image on a spotless screen with no giant head in front of me, landspeeders roaring by my head in surround-sound. If I have those, I won't whine about not having great popcorn (with real butter).

However, I still insist on going to movies without the conversation, something over which I have less control. Just last week I was at the United theatre on the Las Vegas strip, watching Kingdom of Heaven with about nine other people, when this guy was blasting his business all through the room: he was talking on his cell phone during the first 15 minutes of the film. Horrible. I also have distinct memories of a certain theatre in Torrance, California, where the audience would collectively talk to the screen. DURING EVERY SHOWING. It was a neighborhood thang, I guess. I stopped going to movie houses in that neighborhood.

Having said all that, I really do like the old time movie houses like the Grand Lake in Oakland. There's just something about them that screams "special experience." And if the movie is in Number One (the big one with the great sound), I'll sit off to the right side so that I can see the screen. The popcorn at the Grand Lake is top notch, fresh and with real butter, and the smell hits you smack in the face as you walk in.

The only thing that deters me any more from visiting the Grand Lake is comfort. It's wonderful if the stars align, but these days I'd rather find the theatre with state-of-the-art features. And hope the aliens don't talk too much during the movie.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Theaters I love (a side trip)

Linda, do you have favorite movie theaters?

My VERY favorite is one where, alas, I don't go to many movies anymore; it's the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, CA, which has interesting things on its marqee and is a lovely old art deco gem. Alan Michaan, its owner, is one of Oakland's characters, and runs a theater which has a distinctly local flavor. The popcorn there is superb: fresh with real butter, and not terribly expensive. My only gripe about the place is the seats: they are worn out and I would not want to sit through a long movie in them.

My favorite in Los Angeles is the Majestic Crest, in Westwood. It has a single screen, and beautiful black-light enhanced murals inside. The theater itself is a show!

What do I want from a theater? First and foremost, I want a theater where the majority of the moviegoers seem to agree that they are there to see the movie, not to talk to each other or chat on their phones or something. I want good sound, and a sharp picture. I want a comfortable chair. I want it to be clean. And yes, as you can tell from my picks above, I really enjoy a beautiful theater.

Lately I've seen most of my movies at the Century City 14 in the Century City Shopping Mall. I just found out that it will be closing when the new Century City multiplex (15 screens) opens. I hope that the new one is as comfortable; I love the little theaters where it is almost like watching the movie with a few friends.

So Linda, what are your favorite theaters? And what are your criteria?

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Kingdom of Heaven

Kingdom of Heaven is a visual feast surrounding a moral play about a grieving blacksmith drawn to Jerusalem to seek redemption. It's also a movie that rewrites history for the most appealing reasons.

KoH is Orlando Bloom's quest to become a leading man in the most physical sense. He almost holds his own in this movie, but instead of being the central point, he is actually the conduit through which we seek a higher moral ground. And that's not a bad thing.

Orlando perhaps found out in Lord of the Rings that he should surround himself with stellar actors, and that he does in Kingdom of Heaven. Liam Neeson, unfortunately, dies a bit too soon, but not before he explains to us what a knight should look like and be, tenets repeated often by Orlando's Balian. Absolutely wonderful is Martin Csokas as the totally evil Crusader Guy de Lusignan, whom Xena fans will recognize as the lover from Xena's past, the man who helped her during her "bad" period but who showed some restraint in moral choices, something the evil Xena couldn't fathom. But standing out from all the rest is the newcomer (in Western movies) Ghassan Massoud, who plays the iconic Saladin as a very human Saladin. In addition, we get a real treat when Alexander Siddig appears on screen as Saladin's aide; Star Trek Deep Space Nine fans will recognize Sid from his role as "Dr. Bashir."

Kingdom of Heaven has the heavy burden of correcting all the inequities of the Crusades. No movie can do that, of course, but it deserves at least a "B" for effort. KoH has the lofty goal of telling us that fanaticism comes in all races and religions, as do good and evil. The flaw in the movie is that Ridley's film tries to make us believe that only fanatics are evil, and that all the heroes shown here were not fanatical. It's impossible to believe, though, that these people would make a pilgramage from their European homes to Jerusalem if they were not convinced of their religious potency.

And in addition, the intensity with which we should feel for Balian's moral dilemma is not there, mainly because we're just not drawn to Orlando's Balian, he of the boyish face but stilted dialogue. We are instead drawn to the lesser characters -- the leper king, for instance, but not his sister, and Jeremy Irons' knight -- and their personal stories, triumphs and struggles. Good films have been built on less.

Thumb's up, barely, for a flawed film that aims higher than it can ever achieve.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

I'm kinda like Marvin, our hum-bug robot in Hitchhiker, when reviewing this film. Oh, well....nobody expected much anyway.

I'm not a fan per se of the genre, Douglas Adams' fantastic sci-fi-esque ride into British humor. But I can appreciate the jokes, the visual humor, sometimes even the parodies. But most of the time it's lost on me.

So, that being said, and with Marvin looking over my shoulder, nodding, I can say that the movie has its splendid visual moments. For example, when John Malkovich glides across the table in little robotic feet, one had to marvel at the special effects efficacy, and even laugh out loud. There are many other eye-popping effects like that. They put their money where their mouth was.

And all your favorite characters are there, fleshed out. Well, they were never really fleshed out in the book, but you can recognize them. What they are, really, are travel guides into this fantastic realm. But there's really no there there (to paraphrase Oakland's sister, Gertrude Stein), no plot, no real story. Screenwriters (who included Adams before he died) tried to give us a common enemy, a real ugly one, but they failed.

I'll have to pass on the thumb's up for this one. This is probably a must-see for those who loved the book, and for those who love bitter British humor perhaps, but it's pretty much a nodding-off bore to the rest of us.

Oh, but be sure to stay until the end. Never leave until the credits have rolled.