Final days of this year's film festival

If you live near Lansing, Mich., you still have a few more days to catch the East Lansing Film Festival. That continues through Wednesday at the Hannah Community Center and through Thursday at Celebration Cinema; see

Please read a couple of my other blogs about the festival -- including the previous one, about filmmaking in Michigan. For now, however, I want to make sure you know which shows are left:

-- Shorts programs: There are two, at 8:30 p.m. tonight (Tuesday) and Thursday at Celebration. I'm fond of the Tuesday one, because it includes some offbeat delights. Two -- "Horn Dog" and "The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger" -- are by cartoon master Bill Plympton. Then there's a non-cartoon, "Black Obs Arabesque"; it's filmed with style and gives you the rare chance to see some former quarterbacks at East Lansing High and college (Nathaniel Eyde, who came up with the idea, and his brother Matt) showing some real dance moves. There's more, including a longer cartoon (a long short, if you will), the 21-minute "The Adjustable Cosmos."

-- Show-business documentaries: There are two coming to Celebration. One is on the rock group Rush (8:30 p.m. Wednesday), the other on comedian Joan Rivers (6:30 p.m. Thursday).

-- A small feature: "The Happy Poet" (6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Celebration) may be the driest film in history. Paul Gordon wrote it, directed it and stars as a poet who wants to start a vegetarian food stand. This poet exhibits no strong feelings or emotions about anything, which is where the odd humor comes from. Much of it is way too slow, but I thought one scene -- in which he finally reads one of his poems to a potential girlfriend -- was hilarious.

-- Large features: There are three left. "North Face" (7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Hannah) is the true story of two climbers who were forced to make a dangerous Alps climb in 1936, planned by the Nazi government to prove German superiority. "The Maid" (6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Celebration) was an Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film; it's in Spanish, with English sub-titles. Then there's "Spartacus," sprawling across the Hannah screen at 7 p.m. Wednesday. You could always rent it at home, but it deserves this kind of theater screening. It made history in 1958 by introducing a then-obscure director, Stanley Kubrick, and by finally busting the blacklist, refusing to hide the name of screenwriter Drumbo. This is being shown here because the crowd scenes were recorded at Michigan State University's Spartan Stadium. Ironically, two MSU alumni are currently producing a cable series based around that same Spartacus character. 



State film incentives: The little films get their turn

As Michigan's once-wobbly movie business builds, key questions emerge: Does the 42-per-cent state kickback help? Is it worth it?

That was the key subject when the East Lansing Film Festival had its forum. In a moment, I'll relate what filmmakers said.

Remember that there's still plenty of the festival to catch -- through Wednesday at the Hannah Community Center, through Thursday at Celebration Cinema. (Details are at But the portion of the festival focusing on state filmmakers has passed; here's my account of the forum:

After two years of going Hollywood, how
is Michigan doing?

Bad or good, depending on whom you ask.
“We're such a negative state in general,” filmmaker Amy Weber
said at the East Lansing Film Festival. “Anything positive, it gets
twisted around.”

She's heard the arguments: Michigan
dishes out more in incentives than it gets back in taxes; the program
loses money.

“The whole premise got a little
confused,” Weber insisted. The idea was never to instantly break
even, she said. “It was always to build another industry in

By that standard, filmmakers said, the
program has become a quick success. “This summer, there were eight
films going at once” in Michigan, said Jeffery Schultz, who makes
short Detroit films.

That compares to – well, close to
zero some summers. “We've gone from $2 million (annual impact) to
$600 million,” Weber said. “What other industry can do that?”

A movie industry arrives quickly, but
there's a catch: “It can leave just as fast,” said Scott Magie.

He made films in Mississippi and North
Carolina, before moving to East Lansing for his wife's grad-school.
Hollywood can fall in love with one state, he said, then switch to
one with a better deal.

The worst-case scenario has Hollywood
bringing all its own people into Michigan, taking the incentives (up
to 42 per cent of the budget) and leaving nothing behind. That
happens sometimes, Weber granted. “They bring in their (directors
of photography) and gaffers.”

But gradually, filmmakers say,
Hollywood is filling jobs in-state. “There are people I used to
hire all the time (for documentaries),” said Carrie Lezotte. “But
they're working on bigger features now.”

So she hires new people or ones fresh
from bigger jobs. Little films build and sustain a talent pool, Weber
said. “I don't think the Michigan Film Office cares if it's $50,000
or $50 million.”

The $50,000 figure is the minimum
budget for getting incentives. Film-festival examples include:

– Lezotte submitted a $107,000 budget
for “Regional Roots,” a Detroit documentary. Most of that
qualified and she got about $35,000 in state incentives. She was able
to hire top technical talent – and hire herself. “Now I'm
actually able to make a living and pay my interns.”

– Weber budgeted $92,000, got about
$34,000 in incentives and hired heavily. “My crew was humongous,”
she said.

After years of making commercials and
industrial films in Royal Oak, she created “Annabelle & Bear,”
with a hulking, tattooed biker suddenly in charge of a 2-year-old
daughter he barely knows. Sometimes gritty, often charming, the film
has drawn applause and awards at festivals.

Part of the appeal involves Olivia
Walby, who was 2 when this was filmed. In movie history, Weber said,
this is “the youngest film actor to make a feature-film debut in a
starring role.”

Part has involved the movie's rich
music score, with 12 Michigan acts. “It's just beautiful,” she

And much of it involves the production
quality. Talent worked for the minimum, but with the possibility of
deferred payments. If everything clicks, Weber said, the budget
reaches $850.000.

She's talking to distributors and
insisting that “Annabelle” get at least a token moment in
theaters. “If you work so hard, you should go (see it in) a movie

In the independent-movie world,
however, that's just a fringe. “With the Internet and downloading,
it's an industry that's completely been revamped,” Schultz said.

Movies are sold directly, Magie said.
“The niche market is the future of independent filming.”

It allows people to keep making small
movies – and maybe to perpetuate a Michigan movie industry.


Shouldn't "SNL" at least start well?

This is clearly a change of "Saturday Night Live" tradition.

There was a steady pattern: A few funny sketches early and then (except for "Weekend Update" and the digital short) things go bad.

Tonight, "SNL" altered that. The opening sketch -- Obama campaigining in Nevada -- was remarkably humorless; for a comedy show, that's not a good sign. The next sketch consisted mostly of Kristen Wiig screaming and jumping around; we've been there way too often. A later sketch, set in "The View," was almost as bad.

Somehow, in the midst of this, there was a hilarious sketch, satirizing all those news reports claiming to tell us about dangerous teen trends. And "Weekend Update" was terrific, as usual.

How can one show be simultaneously this clever and this witless? I'm not sure; host Emma Stone -- who was born after "SNL" had soared, died and recovered -- did her best, often with weak material.

Incidentally, if you're reading this in the Lansing area Sunday morning, two things:

-- "Boo at the Zoo" -- noon to 4 p.m. Sunday at Potter Park -- is great fun. On Saturday, I went to it with 1-year-old Ezra; he endorses it hardily.

-- And remember that Sunday is the last full day of the East Lansing Film Festival. (See a couple of the previous blogs, plus In particular, catch the free forum by filmmakers, at noon Sunday, on the second floor of the Hannah Community Center. Also, the festival's two cartoon movies at Celebration Cinema -- "The Secret of Kells" at 1 p.m., "Sita Sings the Blues" at 3:30 -- are fresh and terrific.


Film festival: Remember the forum

After opening night of the East Lansing Film Festival, I prattled on a bit. Please check out those comments (two blogs ago), including some recommendations for films to see.

I also wanted to add a note: To me, the annual highlight is the filmmakers' forum; this year, that's at noon Sunday, in the "hospitality room" on the second floor of the Hannah Community Center.

In one place (and with no admission fee), we see people who have pulled off a semi-miracle -- making full-scale movies without full-scale money. This year, they can also discuss the state incentives, which can kick back as much as 42 per cent of the budget for movies ($50,000 and over) made in Michigan.

One of this year's directors (Amy Weber) has already used that, emerging with a well-made and popular film ("Annabelle & Bear"); the others may do the same in the future. It should be an interesting session; I'll see you there and blog about it later.



A very funny night ... and more

The good news: This may be the funniest Thursday since Jerry Seinfeld abandoned us, more than a decade ago.

The also-good news: There's an excellent -- and non-funny -- CNN documentary that same night. I'll include a story about it in a moment.

And for people in the Lansing, Mich., area, the best news: The East Lansing Film Festival has started; please read my previous blog. Now about the other two:

1) Big laughs: You start by watching "The Big Bang Theory" (8 p.m., CBS) and "30 Rock" (8:30, NBC). Consider that a standing order on Thursdays. Then you tape either "The Office" (9 p.m., NBC; I've seen this episode and it's a good one) or the start of "Night of Too Many Laughs" (9-11:30 p.m., Comedy Central). The latter has many of the world's best stand-up comics -- Jim Gaffigan, Lewis Black, John Oliver -- plus NBC's Thursday stars (Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, Steve Carell) and Jon Stewart as host. It should be fun.

2) Big issue: Fortunately, "Almighty Debt" runs three days this week -- Thursday and Sunday against heavy competition, Saturday against non-existent competition. Here's the story I sent to papers:



To the Rev. DeForest Soaries, not all
answers are found in the Scriptures. Some are found in bank books,
credit reports and church parking lots.

“One Sunday morning, I came to church
later than usual,” Soaries recalled. “I noted for the first time
all the luxury cars in the parking lot.”

They are part of a crisis viewed in
“Almighty Debt,” a new CNN documentary.

This is under the “Black in America”
banner, but reporter Soledad O'Brien grants that the crisis isn't
restricted to blacks. “We all thought that the party was going to
continue forever,” she said.

People bought and borrowed; when the
boom ended, some experts say, blacks were hit hardest.

Some whites had a relative who could
help out. Some had inherited money; for black families, new to
middle-income, there were fewer safety nets.

That links to the restrictions of
generations past. A suburban home, bought generations ago, might
bring $250,000 in inherited wealth; a black person – limited in
where he could buy – might have less to pass on. “We have to
understand the effects of Jim Crow,” O'Brien said.

She brings a mixed perspective. O'Brien
grew up with a black Cuban mother, an Irish father and a Catholic
background. She marvels at the Baptist activism, including Soaries'
church in Somerset, NJ. “He had a 7,000-member congregation; he's a
businessman; he's a political person.”

The political part came easily, Soaries
said; the business part didn't.

He's 59 and wasn't quite a teen-ager
when Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Soaries worked for Jesse Jackson's “Operation PUSH,” then
followed the vocation of his father (and King and Jackson), becoming
a pastor. Well-educated and worldly (he's been New Jersey's secretary
of state and an unsuccessful Republican candidate for Congress), he
still wasn't strong in finances.

That was crucial when the new church
facility soared over budget. Board members asked him for ideas.

“My response was, 'I'm not a
fund-raiser; that's not my job,'” he said. “That didn't sit well
with them.”

He studied the problem and found money
problems everywhere; “there is a culture of debt.”

That has hit blacks who didn't come
from generations of finance, he said. “We have gone from 'We Shall
Overcome' to 'you have been pre-approved for a credit card.'"

Among black families, Soaries said, 22
percent have no bank account; another 32 percent do have an account,
but end up using payroll advances and other services that bear enormous interest rates.

The problems peaked with easy
home-financing, he said. “You saw the worst of consumer consumption
and the worst of financial greed …. It was like the sub-prime
credit cards of the '90s on steroids.”

In 2005, Soaries began preaching about
being debt-free. “He's been working on this for five years, but
only now do people really seem passionate about it,” O'Brien said.

Now the church has its own economic
development office. In the CNN special, we see it trying to help
parishioners – a man still looking for work, two years after losing
his job as vice-president of an insurance company … a teen, trying
to afford college … a couple with jobs in which the commissions
(selling cars and luxury homes) have vanished, leaving them unable to
pay the mortgage.

“I approach this as a
cultural-spiritual-emotional problem,” Soaries said. And for now,
the debt culture is smothering the spirit.

– “Almighty Debt: A Black in
America Special”

– 9 p.m. Thursday (Oct. 21), CNN; repeats that
night at midnight and 3 a.m.

– Also, 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday;
both nights, repeats at 11 p.m. and 2 a.m.