Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Is it Just Me?

Maybe I'm too sensitive or drinking too much caffeine but I just called a grant agency for the evaluator's comments on the documentary project and the chick on the phone says...

"If the director of programming hasn't gotten back to you it's because she's busy."

Wow. Okay. Let me not bother you anymore with my ridiculous requests for an evaluation that you invited me to ask for in an effort to strengthen the quality of future applications. It's not like you need Third World Girl and her Third World Film. It's not like the sole reason you exist is to fund, commission and award grants to us to provide public television with quality programming that celebrates the cultural heritage of African Americans and the African Diaspora.

Oh wait...that's right. It is the reason you exist. I just read all of the above in your mission statement. Too bad your junior staff doesn't get it.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Movie Night Review: 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days

Well, if Slate and Netflix are looking for candidates in the most unwatched category next year, this dark but affecting drama out of Romania will probably be high on the list.

I'd heard the tough to remember title "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" referred to as a kind of "The Life of Others" (that Best Foreign Film upset from a couple years ago). I adore "The Life of Others", hubby watches it compulsively and this is one I wanted to see in theaters but missed. I was surprised however when it showed up on the hubby-managed Netflix queue. (He was unaware of the subject matter.)

"4 Months..." is riveting. A fascinating character study framed within an explosive and timely subject: a black market abortion in communist Romania. The film is gritty, naturalistic and graphic. Seeing a 5 month fetus on the floor of a bathroom floor is haunting, a first for me as a movie watcher, and a moment that I'm unlikely to forget.

You know you're watching a foreign film too. The scenes are long, sometimes shot in one take. The tension is excruciating. The camera lingers. The director, Cristian Mungiu, shuns close ups and barnstorming theatrics for quiet moments in the shadows.

The basic plot is about a tech student, Otilia (played by Anamaria Marinca) who in the final days of Communist Romania helps her weepy best friend/roommate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) get an illegal abortion. It's clear from early that they're in over their head. They don't have financial resources and aren't used to dealing with the seedy underworld. It's only the fierce determination of Otilia that pulls them through...but at a brutal emotional cost.

It is impossible to watch a film like this and not think about the current debate on abortion. I came away more convinced than ever that for women like Otilia who want professional lives, who are on par with their boyfriends academically one moment and cooking them and their brood potato stew the next, "choice" is a human right. Having said that, in its gruesome reality, director Mungiu doesn't sanitize the subject, making his audience cognisant of the heart-breaking, flesh and blood sacrifice made in choosing "choice."

"4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" gets 3 1/2 Oscars out of 5.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

"Heavy Metal in Baghdad"

Last night I saw this documentary called Heavy Metal in Baghdad. I'd never heard of it but apparently it's been on the festival circuit a while and had a limited theatrical release back in May in New York and LA.

I love it when I go into a movie with no expectations and am absolutely blown away by it. "Heavy Metal in Baghdad," directed by Brooklyn-based filmmakers Suroosh Alvi and Eddy Moretti is about Iraq's only heavy metal band living in Baghdad at the height of the insurgency in 2006.

The band, Acrassicauda, is a group of four young Iraqis who just want to be free to rock out, grow their hair long and "head bang" but their whole world is literally on fire around them. The bombing of the rehearsal space they used for six years, recounted through the footage of one of the band member's shaky home videos, is gut wrenching, as is his argument that no one cares...that stuff like this is your personal problem. (The filmmakers come back to this moment in a powerful coda at the end.)

The film had a special resonance for me because the night before I went to hear South African poet Dennis Brutus speak at the Brecht Forum. There he was talking about how comfortable life in America is. He made this point to explain why politics exists here on such a superficial level. We aren't desperate. We aren't fighting matters that are life and death. And yet American culture is world culture. The irony of "Heavy Metal in Baghdad" is that it is a love song to American freedom from a place where the advent of democracy brings not release but bullets and bombs.

Walking through the West Village after the screening, the idea of our relative comfort stuck with me. As I stopped to pee in Grom, that fancy gelato place on Bleecker, I kept thinking about how most of us have no idea how it is to live with death and suffering in that very real way. So how do we make the world a more equitable place?

The poet Dennis Brutus suggested it was a matter of educating America about the rest of the world. He claims if people had a real sense of global events, we would do more to work within social movements that create change.

But I'm not so sure. I think somewhere along the line we've stopped caring about anything other than ourselves. We change the channel. We eat gelatos (very delicious gelatos, albeit)...and we rent meaningful movies and fail to watch them.

Apologies for the heavy post, but I've had two nights of feeling like the universe is trying to tell me something...though right now she's sending it in code and I sure do feel like an inadequate listener.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The End of Spelling as We Know It

They can give all sorts of reasons for the phonetic spelling of the word chihuahua ("chee-wow-a") on the poster for this new movie but as far as I'm concerned some Disney exec just isn't confident enough to take a chance on the education level of the movie's target demographic.

This comes on the heels of with them spelling out "new-clear" on the teleprompter for Sarah Palin's RNC speech so as to avoid Bush-like embarrassment.

All I know is if I hang around long enough, there'll be one less thing us writers have to worry about when churning out our "skripts".

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Movie Night Review: "In Bruges"

A compelling little British hitman character movie with Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes. The real star though is writer-director Martin McDonaugh, on his first feature outing after his Oscar award winning short.

McDonaugh started out as a playwright and he brings the same genius for stage dialog to the screen. Of course it doesn't hurt that he's got the stellar cast here to do it justice. Even Colin Farrell who I am ambivalent about, slips seamlessly into his role as Ray, the unlucky hitman who botches his first job and must go on the run to Bruges with his culture-loving mentor, Brendan Gleeson.

Together they create a strong central relationships as they battle the ghosts of their past in Bruges, Brussels, an atmospheric, medieval town that provides the perfect setting for questions of heaven, hell and purgatory. (Purgatory as defined by Ray: the place you go when you weren't really shitty but you weren't much good either, were ya? Like Tottenham.)

The plot is exquisitely laid out with even the smallest set-ups and pay-offs neatly dovetailing. Even the bit roles are far from thin. Best of all, for a familiar story about guys on the run there are plenty of twists offered up and Ralph Fiennes gets to chew the scenery playing a fierce baddie in the vein of Ben Kingsley's "Sexy Beast".

The only issue I have with McDonaugh and I'll admit my little sensitive soul may be reading too much into this...but boy does he love a race joke. I give him props for the political incorrectness of it, it's funny and my sense is that in real life-- not the sanitized Hollywood version--we do make a whole lot of inappropriate racial comments. But I did feel a little queasiness about the multiple white characters in the movie who traded so comfortably in racial stereotypes about black folk (y'know fat black girls, violent black thugs), though to be fair he did give one of the main characters quite unnecessarily a black wife. See, I even feel bad that I do that to creative work...parse the thing for some sort of evidence of racial evenhandedness.

Forget I even brought this up and see the movie. It's a good one.

"In Bruges" gets 4 1/2 Oscars out of 5.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Writer's Group Update: Burnout

Like I said it was bound to happen. Labor Day did it. One unavailable Monday thanks to the holiday and now the groups are suddenly meeting the same week. (The showdown hasn't happened yet because one's temporarily gone Tuesdays instead of Mondays, but it's coming. It's on the horizon like D-day.)

I love the community of groups, I do...but I can't take two nights in a row of listening to scripts and providing sensible feedback. And I hate being gone from home consecutive days. I don't think that's just mommy guilt talking. I realized in the crazy grant week that I actually like putting the Chicklet to bed. Yeah, I grumble when I have to do it every night but when I have a break, I miss the hell out of it. Singing songs. Counting sheep. Looking at the stars through our skylight.

So the first inkling of what decision I'll probably make dawned last week when I skipped Writer's Group B, a.k.a. the semi-pros. Why did I do this?

1. Loyalty first, I suppose. I only chucked Group A when I thought they were folding.
2. Affinity with the all-lady make up of Group A.
3. I prefer Columbus Circle to the Lower West Side (hello Daffy's and Universal News!) and
4. The Group B script is a mess and depressing the hell out of me and I'm starting to wonder if I can really write dark social dramas or whether I shouldn't stick to being Li'l Miss Sunshine.

I tell myself it was just one session and what I'll probably do is alternate the two...but we'll see.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Daytrippin'...or Excuse Me While I Indulge in Some Brooklyn Love

Last Sunday, in my quest to enrich Chicklet's life and broaden my own horizons, I finally went to a part of Brooklyn I've always driven through but never explored: Cobble Hill.

I'd like to take full credit for this outing, but the idea was inspired by Time Out Kids who featured Cobble Hill in last month's stay-cation, recession inspired issue.

In order not to look like a total tourist, I skimmed the half-day itinerary Time Out Kids suggested and wrote down all the relevant addresses. Didn't want to panic the locals with the Crown Heights influx.

As the Chicklet has a way of doing with these adventures, she fell asleep right as we hit Cobble Hill giving me ample time to get my bearings and figure out where the neighborhoody, "ultimate-parental meet and greet" Cobble Hill Park was located. Sadly, the baristas in Starbucks on Court Street were clueless about where Clinton Street was and wanted to send me in the direction of Park Slope but luckily I ran into a track-suited woman on her afternoon fitness walk who told me I was only basically a block away.

Cobble Hill Park is gorgeous and green. People are reading novels, and sipping iced coffees, and typing on laptops and here you are reminded of why people are just ga-ga for Brooklyn. At the risk of sounding totally incoherent, there's just a vibe, man...

Unfortunately, as much as I loved Cobble Hill Park, there were no swings and the Chicklet's gotta have swings or else the park makes no sense. (I cannot figure out this slide phobia thing she has going on.) Actually Cobble Hill Park's playground is pretty pathetic. The "yellow plastic slide" the Time Out Kids editors extol...small, kinda dingy and underwhelming. There's a reason no pics of it made the issue.

Anyway, we decided to head to a few more places on the Time Out Kids itinerary. There was nothing going on in the storefront of "Salsa Salon" except two adults having a leisurely conversation... zero "kids turning the beat around" as the magazine had suggested. Undeterred, we tried Stinky Bklyn which it never occurred to me was a cheese shop. What a cool name I thought without really looking up what jamon serrano is. (Who knows that off the top of their head? Seriously. I'm clearly not the average Time Out reader.) Not in the mood for cheese, we headed for the toy store, Pizzazz.

Pizzazz looks so average from the outside. Small aisles that make for difficult stroller maneuvering, haphazard organization but me and the Chicklet loved it! They have this tiny little play area at the back with a train set and a little red piano and she just sat down on a stool and jammed...while simultaneously pressing a button on a Curious George airplane nearby and making it buzz. Then at the end of our stint she picked out a little Sesame Street soft toy to take home before running back to that piano to have one last session. It's funny. Some toy stores overstimulate. Every time I go into Toys R Us on 42nd Street I feel paralyzed with the flashiness. Pizzazz feels the right size, full of ordinary, old-fashioned toys. We have to go back.

Our half day almost done, we checked out Sweet Melissa Creamerie, next to the Patisserie, where I'd really intended to go...but who can really turn around once their child has set sight on ice cream. So the babe had vanilla with sprinkles which was vanilla with sprinkles. How can you really doll that up? Although I had a moment of squareness when the kid at the register asked me did I want rainbow sprinkles or bumble bee sprinkles (Sweet Melissa's colors of brown and yellow). Third World Girl is not used to living in a world with so many choices.

I gave in and had a chocolate cupcake that I ate half of. It was so rich it tasted like mocha and dirt. (You want a good cupcake go to Ladybird Bakery in Park Slope). Then we sat outside the creamerie and watched the world go by... the old neighborhood ladies, the hipsters, the young pregnant couples, the moms and kids in strollers and marveled at how sometimes in Brooklyn the dogs are always friendly, the people are always cool and you want to find a way to live in this borough forever.

Friday, September 12, 2008

History? What History?

Doing this documentary I'm daily confronted by the fact that people from my part of the world have come to believe that what we achieve is not very important.

Can you imagine NBC or the BBC throwing historic documents into a river to make room in the office or simply recording over old tapes cause they don't have tape stock in the television presentation department to put the lottery drawing on?

Today I talked to the head of the sports department at a news network on Third World Girl's home island who confessed that in transferring old shows from tape to digital much of the material from the year I'd been looking for had been lost. These are tapes dating all the way back to...wait for it...1983.

We'd love to have them, he said helpfully. Yeah, so would we. Maybe I should go sit in my wishing chair.

Nevertheless, onward.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Movie Night Review: "No End in Sight"

For the last six months or so, despite belonging to Netflix I haven't watched a single movie, forget reading a book (haven't done that since Chicklet was born). As far as TV's concerned, I've just caught one or two episodes at abc.com of "Lost" and "Ugly Betty", the only two shows I still putatively watch.

Matter of fact, if I'm honest since January (is that when Iowa was?) all my entertainment has come from the War for the White House. That's no good. How can I do anything of worth if I don't know what's out there, if I'm not learning from the success and failures of my peers? Chris Matthews is great and all but can a constant diet of "Hardball" make me a better writer?

See I'd love to be one of those movie wonks who's a walking IMDB, who can quote lines from their favorite movies, furnish a filmography of obscure directors in a snap, who has Citizen Kane in their collection and watches it....and this fall instead of continuing to dream about it, I've decided in my own little way to fix my general cluelessness by carving out one night a week for movie night.

Movie night means a night spent watching a bonafide movie not a TV episode or an instructional DVD. It must be watched in the living room on the TV in one sitting, not via I-Tunes, not downloaded on the computer and rummaged through when I feel like slacking off work. I'm going to watch a bunch of stuff: new releases, classics, documentaries, including things I've watched before so I can see if they hold up to the grown-up, post-film school scrunity...
(cue the music!)
And now, presenting the Inaugural Review.

The first movie for movie night was Charles Ferguson's Oscar-nominated documentary on the Iraq war, "No End in Sight", cut, incidentally at New York's Edit Center where hubby got his training. This is a Netflix movie that we've been trying to watch for months but armed with my new movie watching manifesto, hubby and I fired it up on the DVD tray, confident that nothing could distract us, prepared to be blown away.

Meh, I didn't love the doc. Yes, it's interesting in its detail of how the US's bungling of three crucial decisions in post-war Iraq led to the quagmire that continues today. It's coherent and clear-eyed but I felt strangely disengaged. I didn't connect to any of the stories or characters on screen but instead kept wondering about production related stuff...which is always a bad sign... You know like how did they get this footage of Muqtada Al-Sadr? How did they manage to score a Richard Armitage interview? Did they do this effect in Motion?

And because I'd tried to watch parts of it before, I became obsessed with where exactly I left off. Also, none of it felt particularly revelatory or shocking, perhaps because much of the inside story on Iraq has seeped out to public knowledge since 2007 when this documentary was made. Finally, we had to keep stopping the DVD, (four times in all), cause the Chicklet was stirring, having a restless night.

I picked "No End in Sight" for movie night (hubby picks the next movie) and it was um...okay. Perhaps in prime screening conditions I might have sparked to it more but I preferred chewing over the larger thematic questions of Eugene Jarecki's documentary "Why We Fight".

Check it out for yourself. "No End in Sight" is the first widely released movie to be broadcast in its entirety on You Tube (between September 1 to November 4).

"No End in Sight" gets 3 Oscars out of 5.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Netflix's Most Unwatched of All Time

Guess what's the most rented, most returned unwatched Netflix movie of all time, judging from a reader survey over at Slate.com?

The dubious honor goes to "Hotel Rwanda" with "Schindler's List" in the runner-up position. (Slate takes this as proof that we don't care about Africa, and I guess by extension the Holocaust, as much as we like to pretend.)

In our house the record goes to "George Washington", David Gordon Greene's debut movie. I still have no idea what it's about. We had it for five months before giving up and sending it back.

What's your "want to watch it...can't bring myself to watch it" movie?

Friday, September 5, 2008


Well it ain't pretty but the European Union grant application I have worked non-stop on for the last week is on its way to Brussels. In the end I was like one of those students who runs out of time and gives half-ass answers but hey, maybe I'll get an easy grader. At any rate, I've come to believe that steely determination can get you through most things...that, and amazing people who can step in when you melt away in despair.

Because friends, I was almost defeated by paper. Yep, paper. It turns out that all that EU grant stuff has to be printed on A4 paper and today, deadline day, I learned that no one in this country knows what A4 paper is. A very sweet lady over the phone at Kinko's kept trying to steer me towards their large format printer, convinced I wanted something bigger than 11x17. (A4 for the record is 8.27 x 11.69 inches.) But eventually I managed to get someone on the phone who told me I could give them the dimensions and they'd cut it down to size...all 5 copies of the 70 page application (like 350 pages in all but what are my options at this point?)

Anyway, I hop it to Kinko's relieved that the package will soon be off my hands and I can put a big fat check mark over the whole affair. I was relieved you see because I have not been to Kinko's in years.

I had forgotten that Kinko's is an understaffed copy center full of highly stressed, highly caffeinated people who are all simultaneously printing their resumes, and hoping to God to save enough money to be spared the indignity of communal computing.

I'd also forgotten that Kinko's is a slow-mo PC world. (Third World Girl has "gone Mac and never gone back" since 1999 and breaks out in hives when she has to deal with anything DOS related and all that gosh-darn initializing.) And when I finally did get Word opened up, I spent a good two minutes just staring at Office XP thinking, did the application accidentally swallow Corel Draw or something? The program has shuffled around the old interface so much I couldn't even figure out how to adjust the paper size. When I did, or I think I did, I hit print and made my way over to the printer where a blinking red light next to the start button said, "Ha, ha Third World Girl, you're a sucka. When Office XP said it was printing your page, you didn't really think it was printing your page...right?"

After heading back to the computer, fiddling around some more and enduring the antagonistic stares of the unemployed clutching their flash drives and waiting for empty kiosks, I hijacked one of the three workers who was in the service center and demanded she come help me figure out the task. She was pleasant enough but it took her five minutes of checking and unchecking menu boxes, changing the printer's bypass tray, reloading the paper, checking for paper jams and punching "resize" keys on the printer's key pad to get a single test page of my 70 page document to print. I could tell she was relieved when that one page purred out and took that as her cue to flee. "You'll figure out the rest," she said returning to folding and trimming behind the service desk.

Needless to say I did not. I sat there battling the Properties Tab in MSWord and watching the time mount on my credit card and I thought, forget this. Screw you EU. This little Third World filmmaker has given it the best she can. All I had but it just wasn't enough. Then hubby called and of course he told me to snap out of it and fixed everything with his connections cause he's just a super people person and always knows the right dude who can print and copy your stuff and cut it down to A4 size for nothing. (No, you cannot have the connect.) And so at the end of a very long week, I've learned that hard, focused work can get you a long way but most of the times you can't finish the journey without a whole lot of help.

And I got to say the EU's crazy, obtuse questions helped me discover a couple things about the documentary and the grant's fixation on having you identify partner organizations made me form alliances I didn't have a week ago. So even if we don't get a cent, I think it's been a net gain. Plus, I did miss the entire Republican National Convention because of it!

And now, excuse me, I have to crawl in to bed and get some well-earned sleep.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Great! No Wait...Damn It! A Book I Love Finally Sold To Someone Else

I used to freelance read for a couple New York production companies, ten scripts a week. And boy I would hate when they slipped in the occasional book. I hated writing coverage on novels. They were hell to skim. Pages and pages to read and in the same time period you're given for the elegant, super lean screenplay.

In my "reading" years, I don't remember recommending a single novel to either of the two prodcos I read for. But there was this one book that I bought on a whim back in 2000 without knowing a single thing about the writer. I picked it up based on the blurb on the back of the book and read it in three days. It was laugh out loud funny and I thought, absolutely wrong for Company A who I read for (looking for teen-driven material) and for Company B (looking for edgier fare). A couple weeks ago over at Done Deal Pro I read that the rights for the book ("My Legendary Girlfriend") sold to the brand new Tribeca-based production company, Princess Pictures with the adaptation being written by some dude called Mike Glock.

At first I felt triumphant. A little gem I'd spotted years ago was getting its due. Then the jealousy came. I never passed it up to the production company because I think on some level I always hoped some day I'd be in a position to produce it. It was the type of book I love and it was aching to be a Richard Curtis movie. Breezy, funny, charming. But after the first Google I discovered the writer, Mike Gayle, was something of a hot commodity in England, and the reality hit: I was a lowly reader with no connections just trying to pay off student loans. Still, one day if I find the book like that again, the proverbial one I can't put down, I'm finding that writer and I'm going for it.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

And I Thought Submitting a Script to a Screenwriting Contest Was Bad...

Man, I will never again complain about the day spent three-hole-punching my 110 pages of genius with a crappy hole punch when I submit last minute to contests. Applying for this EU grant is the absolute worst. I'm on page 27 of the application. I have to read every question four times and then translate it from English into English.

Will they give me money? Hell if I know, but right now sending this application out is a point of honor. It's something I have to do for me, regardless of what the guys in Belgium think when they get it. Cause if I can't get this done, I'm weak. A quitter. Down at the first hurdle. Must submit!!! Will not give in to despair.

Just for good measure, of course, everything's against me. My MS Word keeps quitting every five minutes, I don't know what a "Logical Framework" is, (I need to submit this quaint item as Annex C along with the application) and my eyes are blurring over as I keep typing one letter after another.