Newsbites: Tree! Antichrist! Ollie! Pompeii!

Another week, another batch of news items.

1. The Screengrab links to a couple of items on Terrence Malick’s typically secretive film-in-progress Tree of Life. First, there is a casting call for “expectant moms” and “Infants one day to ten days old, as well as one-month olds, one-year-olds, and two year olds with brown hair and pale complexions.” Second, movie blogger Michael Corcoran happens to live three blocks from where the film is currently shooting, and he writes:

Smithville is standing in for 1950s Waco, where Malick grew up. We know this because the film has asked the Waco Tribune to make some mock 1950s front pages. Could this be Malick’s first personal memoir film?

Brad Pitt plays the father and Jessica Chastain is the mother of three boys, ages 7- 12. One scene filmed Tuesday was at a barbecue pit on Lee Street and one witness told me that Pitt was driving three boys in a vintage 1950’s car. The day before filming started, the three kids were hanging out at the house on Burleson Street where the title tree is planted. The temporary schoolhouse where all the kids are being tutored is across the street. I asked the teacher, the only adult around, if I could take a picture of the “Tree of Life” and one of the young co-stars, in a colorful Texas drawl, asked me if I knew which tree it was. I think we’ve found the film’s narrator.

A couple days before filming started, there was a casting call for newborn babies, which makes me think the film will follow those three boys from creation to old age or maybe even death. Isn’t the Tree of Life from the book of Genesis?

2. Variety says Lars von Trier will start shooting Antichrist in Germany this summer. In the past, this film has been described as “based on the theory that it was Satan, not God, who created the world” and a “psychological thriller that evolves into a horror film” about “cruelty between the sexes” — but now, Variety adds the detail that it will concern “a couple who retreat to a cabin in the woods to recover from the death of their child.” Sounds like fun.

3. Jerry Beck and Jim Hill report that Ollie Johnston, the legendary animator and last surviving member of Walt Disney’s ‘Nine Old Men‘, has passed away. He was 95 years old.

4. Newsweek says an Italian government official “plans to talk to Pixar and Warner Bros.” about using the ruins of Pompeii as a movie set. The Pixar Blog speculates that the Italians might be pitching the ruins as a possible set for John Carter of Mars, or perhaps for an entirely different project that has not yet been announced. At any rate, the locals are apparently concerned that the ruins might be “Disneyfied” by these sorts of plans.

Bill C-10 — another round of facts and opinions

At last, some interesting perspectives on the controversy over Bill C-10, the proposed law that would deny tax credits to Canadian films after they have been produced, if the government deems them to be offensive or contrary to the so-called public interest.

Alex Strachan, TV critic for the Canwest News Service, writes:

The group of high-profile filmmakers, writers, directors and producers gathering in Ottawa Thursday to protest the bill claim it’s an issue of freedom of speech.

The bill’s supporters, and there are a lot of them, claim it’s an issue of public funding.

They’re both wrong. Bill C-10 is a piece of tax legislation, pure and simple. And not a particularly well- thought-out one.

Public funding of film and TV projects is decided by agencies like Telefilm and the Canadian Television Fund long before a TV or film makes it on to the screen. Proposed projects have to jump through a dizzying number of hoops to get made, and can be derailed — or stopped outright — at any stage of the process. Any proposal featuring a gratuitous amount of sex, violence or other offensive material — whatever “offensive” means — is already at a distinct disadvantage when a fund manager at, say, the CTF has to decide between a degrading exploitation flick and a feel-good family comedy.

Public funding is not the same as a tax credit, though. There’s a difference between public funding, as represented by Telefilm, and tax credits, which are waivers on taxes due.

Economic decisions are just that — economic. As a general industry rule, one dollar spent on TV and film production generates four dollars in economic activity.

The only issue, then, facing a government banking committee should be to figure out how to generate more economic activity, not less.

Bill C-10 is an unnecessary, misguided, wrongheaded and shortsighted piece of legislation. Not because it’s censorship disguised as tax policy, which it may well be and which cultural critics insist it is, but because it’s bad economic policy. . . .

Meanwhile, the Canadian Press reports that large corporations have “scooped up the lion’s share of almost $1 billion in federal tax credits designed to stimulate Canadian film and video productions”, according to an internal study commissioned by the Finance Department:

Over a six-year period ending in 2005, corporate groups received 83 per cent of the $984 million in credits doled out, says the study. Independents, who do not need to use subsidiaries, got the rest.

The beneficiaries were also concentrated in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, with 90 per cent of the credits.

Lester found that almost 3,400 individual productions could be traced back to just 500 corporate groups, with one corporation having created 139 subsidiaries over the period. The top five per cent of corporations snagged 37 per cent of the credits.

Another 2,000 productions were by small independents.

The study, however, was not able to determine how the credit may have helped corporate groups churn out profits because the accounting trail is lost when the subsidiary is reabsorbed into the parent.

For the independents, however, the credit tended to tip the scales, with seven of 10 money-losing productions using the credit to make a profit in the end. . . .

Elsewhere, Marni Soupcoff of the National Post wonders why the feds should be subsidizing filmmakers in the first place, and suggests the anti-C-10 crowd may be guilty of a double standard:

I agree with Bill C-10′s critics that the idea of having the heritage minister start deeming certain movies and shows officially off-message is creepy and ill-advised. But it’s troubling to me that Mallick and others who have come down against Bill C-10 can’t even fathom that a possible solution to the problem is to stop doling out tax credits for films and television shows. Mallick describes Canada’s film industry as having “the size and strength of a doily.” Well, don’t expect it to get much stronger or more vibrant while it remains hobbled by a crippling dependence on government money.

It’s also interesting that Mallick and other Bill C-10 critics are so outraged by the potential of government censorship in the realm of television and movie tax credits, but don’t seem bothered by the fact that such “censorship” occurs indirectly all the time when decisions are made about which artists, dancers, poets, sculptors, authors, etc. get government grants. If it offends C-10 haters that a movie or television show might not get funded because of a subjective decision that it’s too out-there (or too intelligent or too funny or too offensive or too daring), then it should offend them equally that a visual arts project might not get funded because of the subjective decision of the Canada Council for the Arts that it’s too patriarchal (or too Anglocentric, or too bland, or too traditional). But C-10 haters are not equally offended. I suspect the reason is that they trust that the tastes and standards of the Canada Council and other grant-givers will reflect their own (refined, progressive, expansive), whereas they’re worried that the tastes and standards of a Conservative government will be parochial, narrow and reactionary. (Or in other words, different from their own.) . . .

Finally, George Jonas questions many of the arguments that typically come up during debates of this kind, but he ultimately comes down in favour of arts subsidies for his own set of reasons:

This isn’t an argument against subsidies. It’s just an acknowledgment that philistines are right when they intuit that “low” and “high” art cannot be separated by profitability alone. Whether or not a genre is popular doesn’t automatically determine its standing on some eternal scale of values, and how well books or paintings sell doesn’t speak to their quality one way or the other. Artists who rely on subsidies throughout their careers aren’t necessarily “high” artists; often they’re just substandard for the market. Ditto for entire industries that require grants to keep them afloat, from “small” publishers to makers of “art” movies.

However, while people who agree with these propositions usually consider them adequate arguments against subsidies, I don’t. For me, the case for subsidizing the arts isn’t dependent on some demonstrated ability of public funding to put Canadian movies on the cutting edge or set up an assembly-line for masterpieces.

Think of the mining industry. Most explorations don’t strike gold — but this would hardly be an argument against subsidizing explorations. We assist prospectors through direct grants or tax concessions, fully expecting them to shift tons of dirt for each ounce of precious metal.

It’s in the nation’s interest to keep explorations going, if only for the civilizing influence quests have on society, whether in mining or in art. The soil of culture needs to be constantly nourished for an occasional orchid to grow from it. Ultimately, having supported a thousand books, paintings or movies is amply justified by having supported one.

I guess the obvious follow-up question would be how we define “striking gold” or “growing an occasional orchid” within this context. Have we achieved success if someone makes a Canadian film that is excellent but ignored? Have we achieved it if a Canadian film is a hit at the box office? Etc., etc.

But that’s another question, or set of questions, for another time.

Canadian box-office stats — April 13

Here are the figures for the past weekend, arranged from those that owe the highest percentage of their take to the Canadian box office to those that owe the lowest.

Run Fat Boy Run — CDN $1,170,000 — N.AM $5,447,000 — 21.5%
21 — CDN $6,700,000 — N.AM $62,268,000 — 10.8%

Superhero Movie — CDN $2,090,000 — N.AM $21,202,000 — 9.9%
The Ruins — CDN $1,210,000 — N.AM $13,413,000 — 9.0%
Smart People — CDN $374,209 — N.AM $4,200,000 — 8.9%

Street Kings — CDN $1,010,000 — N.AM $12,000,000 — 8.4%
Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! — CDN $10,030,000 — N.AM $139,628,000 — 7.2%
Nim’s Island — CDN $1,810,000 — N.AM $25,280,000 — 7.2%
Leatherheads — CDN $1,250,000 — N.AM $21,907,000 — 5.7%
Prom Night — CDN $1,250,000 — N.AM $22,700,000 — 5.5%

A couple of discrepancies: Run Fat Boy Run was #10 on the Canadian chart (it was #19 in North America as a whole), while Drillbit Taylor was #10 on the North American chart (it was #18 in Canada).

“He’s got a lot to offer, but . . . he’s not funny.”

Making irreverent quips about Jesus is not exactly a conventional way to promote a romantic comedy, but that’s what Forgetting Sarah Marshall co-stars Jason Segel and Kristen Bell did recently when answering a question that arrived via e-mail:
Click here if the video file above doesn’t play properly.

Daring, especially for a promotional campaign. Do they risk losing any potential audience members over this? Who knows. You might not ordinarily expect religiously sensitive people to go to a raunchy, R-rated comedy, but producer Judd Apatow did make some fans among the socially conservative set thanks to the seemingly pro-abstinence and pro-life themes in The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) and Knocked Up (2007). So, who knows.

At any rate, this video does raise an interesting question. While it may be true that Jesus was not a professional comedian, is it necessarily true that he was not a funny guy? Certainly a number of recent filmmakers have made a point of emphasizing the humourous side of Jesus’ life and teachings — the most extreme example, perhaps, being Bruce Marchiano’s performance in The Visual Bible (1993-1996; my reviews). The comic sketches based on the parables in Godspell (1973) also come to mind, but I am not sure to what degree they bring out the humour inherent in the parables or to what degree they simply burlesque the parables VeggieTales-style. And then, of course, there is the scholarly discussion regarding the role of humour in Jesus’ ministry, which I don’t have time to get into right now — but it’s out there.

In any case, you may be wondering if anything resembling this “blasphemy” — as Segel puts it — exists in Forgetting Sarah Marshall itself. So for now, let’s just say that one subplot concerns a newlywed couple that has bedroom “issues” of a religious nature. More details to come when my review goes up on Friday.

Street Kings — the review’s up!

My review of Street Kings is now up at CT Movies.

A romantic comedy about “starter marriages”?

Variety reports that Universal has acquired the rights to Sascha Rothchild’s recent LA Weekly cover story ‘How to Get Divorced by 30‘ and will use it as the basis for a romantic comedy:

The author, using the disintegration of her first marriage along with those of five other friends, posits it’s best to begin with a “starter marriage” before finding your ultimate mate. She lays out 15 steps to guide readers to ending the first marriage.

The U comedy will focus on a heroine who road-tests the “starter marriage” premise and then finds her perceptions redrawn by reality and relationships.

So … will the movie support her thesis, that it’s good to get the first marriage over with quickly? Or will the movie end up subverting her thesis? Certainly there have been many films about intentionally short-term or superficial relationships that end up being deeper or lasting longer than the participants expected. It’s a longstanding cliché, though I think it reflects a certain truth about the nature of sexual relationships, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the film took that route just out of habit.