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Screen Grabs: -Ologies

Numerology, Scientology, ideology, and eschatology were the themes of the last week, which was dominated by reports from Sundance and the Academy Award nominations, until news of the untimely death of Heath Ledger overshadowed all else.

Hollywood's fascination with numerology, its tendency to ascribe almost occult significance to dollar figures, was in full evidence last week as various observers wrung their hands over the apparent lack of deals at the Sundance Film Festival, despite what was largely expected to be a sellers' market. Then, suddenly, the deals started happening. The acquisitions included Henry Poole Is Here, starring Luke Wilson; Choke, based on a Chuck Palahniuk book and starring Sam Rockwell and Angelica Huston; and Hamlet 2, featuring David Arquette, Catherine Keener, and Amy Poehler alongside British comic Steve Coogan, which was picked up by Focus Features for a remarkable $10 million. There was also the usual obsession with box office numerology, which last weekend was remarkable—J.J. Abrams' heavily marketed monster movie Cloverfield had the biggest January opening ever, earning $46 million over the holiday as filmgoers were apparently undeterred by the film's shaky handheld camera work, though if you've got a weak stomach, you're well-advised to come armed with a supply of Dramamine.

So much box office numerology is generated by actors who practice Scientology, and that unusual religion was certainly in the spotlight last week. Following a New Yorker expose on the Church's recruitment practices, a rather eerie video of Tom Cruise espousing the virtues of Scientology appeared online, was removed, then was posted again, despite the church's best efforts to suppress it. The video, in which Cruise sounds like a cross between his character in Magnolia and Ben Stiller's Zoolander character, was ripe for satire, and sure enough, a spot-on parody appeared within a few days, courtesy of Jerry O'Connell at Funny or Die.

Scientology is, of course, only one of many competing ideologies that go into moviemaking, and the last week brought news of several other ideologically charged projects. It should come as little surprise that Oliver Stone was behind one of them, given the director's lengthy history of politically oriented button-pushing. The film will see No Country for Old Men actor Josh Brolin portray President George W. Bush in a story Stone likens to Stephen Frears' The Queen. Meanwhile, in Holland, the government was bracing itself for the Internet and TV broadcast of an anti-Muslim film that denounces the Koran. And American theaters began showing trailers for Stop-Loss, the new Ryan Phillipe film from Boys Don't Cry director Kimberley Peirce that critiques the "backdoor draft" in the United States and represents the next in the ongoing wave of socially critical Iraq-themed films.

But none of these "ologies"—nor comedian Margaret Cho's scatological comedy or the psychological implications of the Directors Guild of America's new deal with production companies on the writers strike—seemed very important by Tuesday in light of the untimely passing of Heath Ledger, just a week after the death of fellow young actor Brad Renfro. Eschatology—the question of what happens to you when you die—tends to trump other issues, and news of the tragedy cast a pall over Sundance and made everyone forget about the Oscar nominations, announced earlier that day. Ledger was found unconscious in a Soho apartment around 3:30 pm; the news was on Radar's blog by 4:36, and virtually everywhere else on the Internet within minutes. The information was first added to Ledger's Wikipedia page at 4:44, and more than 600 revisions to the page followed over the next 24 hours. Critics rushed to eulogize the actor's career. Strangely, despite the media frenzy over his passing, many people seemed to think Ledger's first name was Keith. What much early reporting had in common was a rush to attribute his death to a drug overdose or suicide; however, while prescription medication may have played a role, signs point away from suicide. An initial autopsy was inconclusive, and it's also been reported that Ledger had pneumonia at the time of his death. It's human nature to crave explanations for things that baffle and frighten us, but explanations are not always forthcoming. The tragedy—for Ledger's legions of fans, for the film community, and most of all for his family and two-year-old daughter Matilda—is that a great talent, and by all accounts a great person, is no longer with us.


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