Thursday, December 31, 2015

"The Game": David Fincher says "Rightsize me!"


The Game” (first released in September 1997), directed by David Fincher, had started as a spec script by Michael Ferris and John Brancato.  But Fincher decided to make “Se7en” (aka “Seven”) first, because of the availability of Brad Pitt – and I recall seeing that film.

But I apparently missed this other film because I was in the middle of my move to Minneapolis then. In fact, the first film that I saw in the Twin Cities would be “Cop Land” at the Mall of America’s General Cinema (now AMC). I would also see Dreamwork’s first picture, “The Peacemaker”, with its nuclear detonation, there.

“The Game” borrows ideas from sources as varied as Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”.

Michael Douglas plays Nicholas Van Orten, an investment banker in San Francisco.  On his 48th birthday, when he has to recall his own father’s suicide by “falling” that same birthday, his delinquent kid brother Conrad (Sean Penn) visits him with a gift certificate for a life simulation game run by a company called CRS, or Consumer Recreational Services.

Nick visits the place, and is shocked at the psychological and physical (including an electrocardiographic stress test) he has to go through to “apply”. He’s told he was “rejected”, but pretty soon bad things happen in his life.  He finds he is being monitored through his television set (an idea that Jamin Winans uses in “The Frame”, April 21, 2015). CRS soldiers invade his house, and soon his bank accounts are drained.  Kidnapped, he winds up in Mexico and has to beg his way back home.  But eventually (in a 128-minute film) “all’s well that end’s well” as, after a “Vertigo” jump from a skyscraper, he is caught by a net and winds up at his birthday party.

One could say he is learning a “life’s lesson” in how “real people” live, walking in their shoes, having to deal with his life being expropriated by force.  One could wonder if Fincher really believes in his lesson about some combo of the “seven deadly sins”: If you get what you have without really earning it with labor, and it gets yanked away from you, just maybe “it won’t grow back”, almost a 1961 William and Mary tribunal.

The rental  DVD seemed to be reduced to VHS aspect ratio, until it told me at the end that I could flip it over and watch it in wide screen.  This was a common practice with rental DVD’s for some older films.

I didn’t feel that the film was a compelling as either “Seven” or, more recently, “The Social Network”.  (Some of the other films, like “Gone Girl” and “Benjamin Button” engaged me a bit less.)


 
Nevertheless, the pacing of the film is crisp, even given the length.  In my own screenplay "Epiphany" (main blog, Dec. 30), a protagonist (like me) is abducted to a space station commune and forced to achieve some tasks in order to “qualify” to go on an evacuation from Earth.  When he and some friends home, he finds his life has been taken away from him and the future back home is bleak.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

"The Hateful Eight" Roadshow brings back the days of grand widescreen filmmaking


The Hateful Eight” (aka "The H8ful Eight") needs to be seen in its Roadshow 70mm celluloid format, in a properly equipped theater, if it is seen at all this holiday season.  That appears available only for one week in most locations. Of course, the DVD will offer a director’s cut later.

The film is the Eight Film by Quentin Tarantino, that is, like a Symphony #8. The orchestra music score by Ennio Morricone comprises a full symphonic suite, with the roadshow starting with a lugubrious monothematic “overture”. There is a “slow movement” of brass, and a fugal “scherzo” that plays twice in violent scene ending on one large dissonance.

The Roadshow, arranged by the distributor The Weinstein Company, includes a 12-minute intermission and no previews (because the special projectors have to be used). IMDB says the Roadshow runs 187 minutes, but it appeared to end at 176 minutes when I saw it at Tysons AMC at 7 PM before a nearly sold-out audience.  The format is similar to another film “Grindhouse”  from TWC and Dimension Films (April 7. 2007).  A booklet is given out with the performances.
 
The opening credits also mention Cinerama (with the trademark still in effect) as well as Ultra Panavision Super 70. Similar formats in the past include Todd-AO (which the Heights Theater in Columbia Heights MN, north of Minneapolis, offered in a special showing of "Oklahoma" for IFPMSP back in 2000.  Most theaters have to do some additional vertical cropping to accommodate the 2.76:1 aspect.
 
The plot seems rather invented as a take-off on spaghetti westerns. Shortly after the Civil War, bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is delivering prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock, WY to be hanged when caught in a blizzard. Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) appears on the trail and “invites himself” as another passenger, when they take shelter at “Minnie’s Haberdashery”, joined by Sheriff Goggins (Walton Goggins), and find a cast of hostile characters, including former confederate general Smithers (Bruce Dern).

The screenplay is divided into five parts, with part 4 (right after the intermission) a backstory of what had happened at the shelter that morning. The film is loaded with gratuitous violence, with body parts (including things that really matter) shot off and “rolling”, something that Joe Bob Briggs would have said “check it out” about back in the 1980s.  There is a poisoning with some projectile vomiting of blood.  It also offers a chess game (and I don’t think chess theory was very advanced in the 1870s); in some scenes, a candle stood at the middle of the board, preventing pieces and pawns from occupying central squares. There is a another crude backstory before the intermission where Major Warren shows his willingness to exploit homosexuality of a “victim”.  The film is rated “R” but gets close to NC-17, and frankly is patently adult.



Here is the Roadshow site for the film from The Weinstein Company. The outdoor winter photography, actually around Telluride CO, is stunning, but much of the film is indoors, where it is not as important (although the haberdashery itself is rather interesting with all its detail until it gets shot up).

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

"Burnt by the Sun": Russian tragic satire set during Stalin's Great Purge


Burnt by the Sun”(1994, “Utomlyonnye sointsem” or  “Wearied by the Sun”) directed by Nikita Mikhalkov, is a Russian satirical drama compressed into one summer day in 1936, in the form of a Sophocles tragedy.  The film manipulates the political conflicts of Stalin’s “Great Purge”.  But the film will be very difficult to follow for those not acquainted with the details of pre-WWII Soviet history.
  
The central character is Russian Colonel Kotov (played by the director), who lives a somewhat privileged (if socialized) life at a dacha with his loving family while he tries to mediate a Stalinist attack on a local wheat harvest. His avocation is that of a classical pianist, which could seem to open the film to explore the notorious Soviet suppression of the work of their composers for political purposes. A former colleague but underground rival Mitya (Oleg Menshikov) arrives, and soon Kotov suspects his former friend, also a pianist (playing several pieces, including a Leoncavallo overture, the Liszt Liebestraume, and some Offenbach and Joseph Strauss) has a plot of political revenge against him.

This long (135 minute) film comes to a head in a field where Kotov is tortured in a car while a balloon lifts an image of Stalin over the wheat field. Mitka will commit suicide, and in a bizarre scene some ball lightning (referred to in the opening of the movie) moves from his bathtub out of the apartment and toward the Kremlin. Kotov will be executed, but pardoned later by Khrushchev posthumously just before Kennedy’s Berlin Wall and Cuban Missile crises.

The film has a sequel, shot in 2010, set on the Russian front during WWII.

The DVD (Sony Pictures Classics official site) compresses the screen size somewhat.  But the original film had a 1.66:1 aspect ratio.  The film won best foreign language film in the 1995 Oscars.

Wikipedia attribution link for "Russland Relief" by Lencer - "own work", used Generic Mapping Tools and ETOPO2-data for reliefsome Photoshop-edits by User:NordNordWest. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

Monday, December 28, 2015

"Point Break": a remake worth seeing on a big screen with 3-D because of spectacular scenery and action, if with a mediocre story and characters


Point Break” (2015), directed by Erickson Cole, is a spectacular 3-D remake of a rather recent film (1991). The story is by Rick King, the film is written by Kurt Wimmer, music by Junkie XL.

The hero, Johnny Utah (a smooth Luke Bracey, heavily tattooed), gets him hired by the FBI to use his extreme sports skills track down an eco-terror group headed by Bohdi (Edgar Ramirez).  While the aims of the group sound at first like Robin Hood in nature, Bohdi seems to be trying to achieve the eight enlightenment points of the “Osaki 8”.

If you see the film, see it in 3-D on as big a screen as possible.  Settings include badlands in southern Utah, several Alps areas, an open pit copper mine in Mexico, a deep cavern in India, and Angel Falls in Venezuela, as well as Tahiti for the ocean surfing scenes.

The film says that the US has no diplomatic relations with Venezuela due to Chavez and his proto-communism, but this was true for only about a year, starting near the end of the Bush administration. It’s also pretty impossible to climb the Angel cliffs without gear, or fall 3000 feet into water and survive.



You see extreme skiing, snowboarding (even outdoing Shaun White, who might have logically been cast for this movie as Utah but might seem too clean cut), and handgliding, with man flying like Superman.

The official website is here  (Warner Brothers). The main production facilities in Germany (Baselberg), but the credits are as long, with a many separate locations requiring full crews, as I have ever seen.

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Badlands near Caineville, Utah, by Dan Hobley, under Creative Commons 4.0 Share-Alike license.  I think I was near there in 1987 and 2000.

I saw the film at Regal Potomac Yards on a big screen before a small weekday audience.

In 2002, I saw a short (15 minutes) called “A Film in Three Parts” by Shane Nelson, at the Cinema Lounge at Bryant Lake Bowl on Lake Street in Minneapolis, as part of a monthly program by IFPMSP.  The three parts are “Technique”, “Style” and “Who Gives a F_” as he covers skateboarding and ski jumping. Remember Igor Stravinsky’s “Symphony in Three Movements”.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

"Jimmy's Hall" depicts the communist scare in 1930s Ireland, but you need to know some Irish political history


Jimmy’s Hall” (2014), directed by Ken Loach and written by Paul Laverty and based on a stage play by Donal O’Kelly, is set in a period of Irish history, following the Irish Civil War, that will be obscure to many American viewers.

James Gralton (Barry Ward) returns to Ireland from the U.S. in 1932, during the Depression, to help his mother (Aileen Henry) run a family farm. He re-opens a dance hall to invite free-thinking people who are thought to be sympathetic to communism, at a time when the “establishment” of landowners and the Church are very sensitive about the idea of possible revolutionary expropriation in the future.

Jimmy insists his motives are not political, and he wants to help people.  The church shows its hypocrisy when a girl is beaten and shamed in a service after merely having attended a dance at the hall.  Jimmy helps another family being evicted from land, resulting in a political backlash against him and his mother, leading to his deportation back to the US merely justified by his having a US passport (even though he was born in the farmhouse). The idea that other family members can be targeted or endangered by one’s well-intended political or social activities is familiar to me.



“If Christ were here today, there are several members of this parish who would have him crucified again.”

The official site is here (Sony Pictures Classics).
 
A possible film for comparison is “Angela’s Ashes” (1999, Alan Parker, Paramount).

Saturday, December 26, 2015

"Carol" depicts the homophobia of the Cold War era as well as has ever been done in film


Carol” is another effort from Todd Haynes (“Good Machine”), with a lot of big time corporate support (from British companies), as well as the Weinstein Brothers.  It is based on the novel “The Price of Salt” by Texas-born Patricia Highsmith (“The Talented Mr. Ripley” aka “Ripley’s Game”), aka "Claire Morgan".

The story, set in the winter 1952-1953 (Eisenhower's inauguration speech is excerpted near the end of the film), concerns a lesbian relationship between a New York City department store clerk Therese (Rooney Mara) and an aging suburban woman Carol (Cate Blanchett) reeling from a collapsing marriage of convenience.

To the extent that we experience the story from Carol’s viewpoint, it is one of the most convincing dramatizations of the “homophobia” of past generations ever made.  This was a world that tossed me out of school at William and Mary as a freshman in 1961.  Of course, Carol is the much more vulnerable of the pair because she has already “chosen” to already have married and had a child.  But the story shows the paranoia of the time. Her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), to back up nasty legal maneuvers in a custody battle over a “morals” issue, has her followed with a private detective, posing as a traveling salesman of “notations” – and Carol tries to shoot him, both escaping only because she forgot to load her Saturday night special. (If she had succeeded, we have a Hitchcock-type movie, but here Haynes manages to use some of Hitchcock’s close-up techniques (the film is standard aspect) and captures a bit of the creepiness of “Vertigo”.  It’s also apparent that Harge’s problem is that he she no longer responds to him sexually, but still clings to jealousy. (On the private-eye Magnum stuff, my father used to warn, with some paranoia, that my employer would have me followed on evening trips from the burbs to New York City back in the early 70s when I was "coming out" for a second time.)

Therese has an understanding boyfriend (Jake Lacy) who stills seems clueless that homosexuality really exists normally.



The film recreates the look of the early 50s wonderfully (I just needed Bobby Thomson’s home run).  Carol buys a “train set” to help connect with Therese, and the movie shows typical model railroad toys of the era (I had a Mars train of the same gage). Therese is also developing her photography hobby, and the question of when it is OK to photo people comes up.  The movie also shows a bit of the record business in those days, with the early Columbia LP "Microgroove".  Stereo would wait until 1954.
 
Carter Burwell's score, while playing a lot of pop tunes from the era, also echoes the style of Philip Glass.

The official site is here (The Weinstein Company).

There's one scene in some trailers and previews, where Carol says "I know" when challenged about her responsibilities to be a role model for her daughter, that doesn't appear in the feature.  Perhaps it's a deleted scene for the DVD.

I saw the film at Angelika Mosaic late Saturday afternoon before a rather full audience.

For an interesting LGBT short film on YouTube (5 min) try "This Lady Is Dead" by "PAG" with "The Irresistibles" singing "In this Shirt", link. There is certainly a progression (keep the bodies matched to the faces, please), and an exchange and a "love train" at the end.

Friday, December 25, 2015

"Concussion": a determined doctor from Nigeria takes on the NFL establishment


Concussion”, as the title suggests, is a docudrama about the exposure of the previously hidden (in plain sight) risk to football players from repeated concussion injuries.  It is directed by Peter Landesman, who also adapted the screenplay.

The source of the film is the GQ article from September 14,2009, “Bennet Omalu: Concussions and the NFL: How One Doctor Changed Football Forever” (or shortened to “Game Brain”), by Jeanne Marie Laskas, photos by Nick Veasay.   That article became a book described on the author’s website.

The medical facts are that the human brain (compared to that of many other animals) has no natural shock absorbers and was not designed for repeated concussive hits greater than 60G.  The clinical syndrome is chronic trauma encephalopathy (CTE).  It doesn’t show up in normal cat scans or MIR’s (whereas strokes do), but can be detected from brain tissue at autopsy.  The symptoms are gradual dementia and depression.  The end credits say that 28% of all NFL players have shown some evidence.

The difficulty of seeing this in normal medical examination has allowed the problem to stay undercover for decades.  In the movie, Dr. Omalu (Will Smith), from Nigeria, establishing his reputation in an initial courtroom scene, takes his job as a coroner in Pittsburgh more seriously than most.  He delves into the autopsy of an ex-football player who had become homeless before tasing himself to death.  His boss (Albert Brooks) first makes him to this at his own expense.  In the meantime, Omalu’s parish has arranged for him to house a “refugee” from Kenya, Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), with whom he will gradually fall in love.  Omalu learns of other cases around Pittsburgh, and attracts the attention of another sympathetic doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin).  He publishes his findings in an established medical journal, and soon the NFL is on the warpath with him.
The NFL owns Sunday, having taken it from the churches, he is told. Soon he gets the threatening calls, and the fibbies prosecute his boss.  That takes us halfway through the movie, but there is a lot more, and it gets personal.

The film sometimes compares the concussion “coverup” to that of the tobacco industry a couple decades before.  Is this a David-vs-Goliath story about seeking the truth, a determination deep within a man’s character?  Or is there some more unusual life narrative?

The official site is here.  Sony and Columbia Pictures are distributing this picture instead of Warner Brothers, which is the usual distributor for films produced by Village Roadshow.  Scott-Free (Ridley Scott) is also involved in production.

I remember my parents taking me to play football when I was about 9, just once.  Never again.  In gym class, it was touch football.  Malcolm Gladwell had proposed that being a college football fan is morally problematic (even for the Fighting Irish?), as I covered on the Issues blog July 21, 2013.

The NFL is already enforcing much longer wait times before players with concussive hits can return to the field (as with the Washington Redskins's quarterback "RG III").

There are other examples of where sources of "entertainment" or consumptive satisfaction involve sacrifices by others.  People who play in symphony orchestras sometimes have hearing loss.

And for all the public support for football, both in college and pro, where it is such big business (look at what happened to Penn State) people do make deprecating remarks. Back in the early 1980s in Dallas, a coworker said, "well, pro-football is proving my "bl..." are better than yours", and obvious exploitation of past slavery.

There is a review of the PBS documentary, "League of Denial: the NFL's Concussion Crisis" on my TV blog Oct. 14, 2014; that film was recently updated.
 
I saw the film Christmas night at the Regal Ballston Common.  It was downstairs in a small auditorium; upstairs has been renovated, and downstairs will follow soon.  The crowd was surprisingly light.

The closest I can come with my own photos is the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball stadium (2007) above.  Wikipedia shows Heinz Field.

This film should not be confused with Stacie Passon's film of the same name in 2013.



Update: Jan. 24, 2016

See the Washington Post Editorial: Football must change. Note the comment, that football was developed to give young men who escaped the Civil War a way to show their physical bravery.  That idea had even affected my own upbringing.

Update: Jan. 29, 2016

Omalu is reported as saying it is likely that O. J. Simpson has degenerative brain disease from concucssions, Atlantic story by AdamChandler here.


Thursday, December 24, 2015

"Cowspiracy": the open secret about raising animals for food, and climate change


So, if your family and friends want to watch a movie online at home this Christmas Eve on a big new plasma Internet TV screen, here’s a present. But you may have second thoughts about what you just ate for Christmas dinner. (I've never been much for a Christmas ham or pork, but yes, I do consume turkey and dressing.) 

Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret” (2014), directed by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn, unveils a dirty secret apparently hidden by policymakers and agribusiness in plain sight:  that human meat consumption (at current population levels as established during the past century) may be responsible for most of the climate change problem. 

The film (92 minutes) tells its story from the viewpoint of Kip, who had done everything as an individual he thought “you are supposed to do”, including riding his bike instead of driving as much as possible (and risk getting struck by cars, something I can’t chance). His attention to the problem started with Al Gore’s 2005 film “An Inconvenient Truth”, which had led to his changes in his own personal living habits, driven by karma. One day, he found a story on the web about the role that raising animals for human consumption has toward climate change and global political instability.
    
Part of the problem is methane from flatulence, but most of it is from exhaustion of resources and the chain reaction in other energy consumption.

Kip and Keegan decided to make the film.  Soon they talked to Al Gore himself, who said the public shouldn’t be confused about carbon dioxide by adding the concerns of methane.  Actually, methane has a much bigger greenhouse effect per mole, but depletes much more easily.  One danger (not covered in the film) is the possibility of rapid methane release from the permafrost or from the oceans as a secondary step of warming.

Kip found that most major environmental organizations, including Greenpeace, Ocean, and the Sierra Club, were downplaying the importance of animal consumption when compared to the use of fossil fuels for electricity and transportation, to protect their funding sources.   A surprising finding was the exhausting of fish populations by large scale fishing practices that ensnare animals like dolphins. (Ocean conservation organizations have instead talked about issues like plastic waste, of course important, and have sometimes said that eating more fish actually helps oceans – the “free fish” argument.)  He interviews people like Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore Dilemma”), Howard Lyman who, along with Oprah Winfrey, was sued for comments disparaging to the cattle industry in the 1990s, Will Anderson, and Will Potter, author of “Green Is theNew Red”.   Kip learns that people criticizing the food industry have been bullied or threated, and that Sister Dorothy Strong was shot after her activism concerning Amazon rain forest clearing. Kip becomes concerned that he could be targeted for making the film, but after a conversation with himself, decides to continue.  He also exposes the “fallacy” of grass-fed animals.

There’s a brutal scene near the end of a “beheading” of a duck. There are also some intimate scenes showing the raising of farm animals, where business decisions determine which female cows live to produce milk or are sold; remember the 1995 movie "Babe". 

Other interviewees include Lindsey Allen (Rainforest Action Network), Michael Klaper (physician), Chad Nelsen (Surfrider Foundation) and Demosthenes Maratos (Sustainability Institute).
At the end, the film makes a strong moral case for everyone’s adopting a vegan diet (not just vegetarian). Bill Clinton has adopted such a diet after his heart problems, and actor Reid Ewing has promoted it recently on Twitter.
   
A physician says that cow's milk (and dairy in general) is actually bad for adult humans, and can actually cause breast enlargement in men and feminize them.


Leonardo DiCaprio is an executive producer.
    
The official site is here (A.U.M., First Spark, and Netflix).

Picture: Farmland in central Ohio (my picture, 2012). 




Wednesday, December 23, 2015

"The Big Short" has fun with the Wall Street behavior that led to the housing bubble and the 2008 meltdown


The Big Short” (2015), directed by Adam McKay, is a delicious satire of the financial shenanigans that led to the Collapse of 2008, and it’s based on the book by Michael Lewis, “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine”, reviewed on my books blog April 6, 2010.

The film traces, with a lot of humor, how several financial gurus tried to set themselves up to profut from an eventual collapse of the housing bubble.  In the beginning, it’s the M.D. Michael Burry (a likeable Christian Bale), whose introversion led him away from patient care into making money on finance. With his unusually focused mathematical mind he put it all together (after looking at the loans in actual portfolios), seeing that once adjustable rate mortgages reset, inadequately qualified home buyers would start defaulting, meaning that bond funds built on the “securitized” mortgages would eventually collapse. Of course, that insight was predicated also on the idea that home prices couldn’t grow forever, even with low interest rates.

Neil Irwin has a piece in The New York Times about what this movie gets right and wrong about the housing bubble. People were getting wary, according to Google searches, around the late summer of 2005.

The second major lead is Mark Baum (renamed from the real life Steve Eisman ) who would protest conventional wisdom of paid financial speakers at various forums.  There’s a line “Truth is like poetry, and most people hate poetry”. I can remember a paid speaker at a ReliaStar/ING forum in August 2001 who predicted a 35000 Dow. Baum is played by a shameless Steve Carell, who looks like he has never recovered by his self-sacrifice as a “40-year-old virgin”.

I particularly loved the scene with the woman heading a ratings agency, which make the whole rating business sound like a formalized Yelp.

Then there is the tag team of Jamie and Charlie (Finn Wittrock -- conspicuously "th-mooth", as this doesn't get past my eyes -- and John Magaro). Ryan Gosling plays Jared Vennett (based on Greg Lippmann)m and Brad Pitt as Ben Rickert (based on Ben Hockett). Brad Pitt is listed as a producer.

The film makes use of "mockumentary" (well known from "Modern Family") commentary directly to the camera from most characters, with comic effect; it also provides a glossary of terms and Wall Street slang along the bottom of the screen sometimes.

At one point, Anthony Bourdain ("Parts Unknown") makes a guest appearance, having fun making a stew for "The Leftovers" from "free fish".



At the end, the film takes the cynical position that the banks, after their bailout, now blame the world’s problems on immigrants and poor people.  Who does that sound like?

During the period right after the crisis and through the bailout, my own blogs achieved their best numbers ever.  Panic sells news stories.

The official site is here (Paramount).

I saw the film opening night at the AMC Shirlington in Arlington, before a sold-out crowd.  The auditorium, with reclining seats, is still large enough for a wider screen; unfortunately the screen was vertically cropped for the 2.35:1 aspect ratio.


Tuesday, December 22, 2015

"The Day Kennedy Died", from Smithsonian, is one of the most riveting documentaries tracing the JFK assassination


The Smithsonian Channel has an outstanding factual documentary about the JFK assassination, “The Day Kennedy Died” (2013), directed by Leslie Woodhead and narrated by Kevin Spacey.

The 92-minute film traces the events of November 22, 1963 and concludes with Jack Ruby’s killing of Lee Harvey Oswald at the Dallas Police Department basement, almost diverted by a reporter who risked taking the bullet himself.

The film interviews many people still alive today who were close-up witnesses to the events.  One of the most important is Buell Frazier , who drove Oswald to work at the Texas School Book Depository that Friday morning.  Frazier noticed a long wrapped object in the back seat and Oswald told him they were curtain rods. He would be grilled by Dallas Police as a person of interest, and resents being caught in such a horrible situation by chance for something he didn’t do. (There’s more on the “Curtain Rod Theory” here.)

The testimony says there were three gunshots, the last two in quick succession.

There is graphic testimony of people seeing into Kennedy’s skull, and even the fragments of brain that had been blown out.  People vomited at the scene.  Had Kennedy lived he might have been in a vegetative state.

It also indicates the climate of hate in Dallas at the time from the right wing, which considered JFK “guilty of treason”.

The film was first screened on November 22, 2013, on the 50th Anniversary of Kennedy’s death.

The Smithsonian Channel provides the full film here on YouTube but disables embedding.    The film can be watched on Netflix Instant Play.

There are several documentary episodes from various sources about JFK on my TV Reviews Blog.
The biggest film about JFK ever made is, of course, “JFK” (1991) by Oliver Stone, with Kevin Costner and Gary Oldman.

I was at work at the National Bureau of Standards at the old site on Van Ness St in a rheology lab when my boss came in and told the president was shot. Walter Cronkite’s report of his death (at 2:38 PM EST) would come soon, and we would be dismissed, wondering if a nuclear attack could come.  On Sunday, Nov. 24, I was riding in the back seat of the family car of my parents on the way to Sunday dinner, on 17th St in Washington at about M Street, southbound, (about 12:30 PM EST) when Oswald was shot, carried live on radio.  I heard the words, “he’s been shot” as they were said.

Monday, December 21, 2015

"Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens": Yes, the political parallels are a bit coincidental, the family secrets are not


Getting to “Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens”  (directed by J. J. Abrams) was itself a project, even on a Monday.  The most convenient time for IMAX-3D was at AMC Tysons (12:30), and even on a weekday before Christmas, traffic was overwhelming. I lucked out on a parking place quickly. I note that Episode VI, "The Return of the Jedi", goes back to 1983. But Episode II, "Attack if the Clones" dates to 2002, and Episode III, "Revenge of the Sith" came out in 2005. For the titles, numbers and dates of the episodes, see the Wikipedia article. This sounds like a problem with numbering Mozart's works.

And indeed it was a good thing I had bought online, as the auditorium was full except for the first two rows. Lots of kids.

I remember seeing the first “Star Wars” movie in 1977 (actually Episode IV), at a big theater in midtown Manhattan.  (It may have been the Ziegfeld).  The film franchise pretty much punctuates my adult life.

This time, the “Force” comes back, as a franchise of the former Empire, after 30 years, because Hollywood bean counters say it’s time to. (The film opens with a fading print narrative of the time between the testaments, in 1950s fashion.)  But it isn’t hard to see the parallel between the morphing pf the ruins of the empire with the evolution of radical Islam (into ISIS, with the same black costumes) or, for that matter, the successors of Communism.  Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, as he is now) has been taken, and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) returns, without the protection from the progress of aging.

There’s a family secret, and you think Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) makes for a tragedy. He got recruited, maybe on galactic social media.  Princess Leia (Carrie Fischer) has become a clone of Meryl Streep.  The young fighting rebels are best represented by Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega).

The action happens on apparently three planets. Early on, most of the action is on a desert planet (aka Dune) looking like of Middle East (filmed in Abu Dhabi). Then there is a green planet, looking like Brazil (although sometimes more like Britain), where there is a fortress and a nearby gay bar (where the diversity of people from different planets keeps one fantasy stereotype of desirability from dominating the scene, with Jabba the Hutt even welcome – but it’s pretty logical that other planets may have their own versions of TownDC and Station4).  A pansexual elderly person gives some advice in a critical scene in the film’s middle.  The third planet belongs to the Force, an icy world with an artificial canyon, leading to a chamber where the Galaxy’s most lethal gamma-ray blaster is housed.  Whole planets can be blown up (although that happens to Earth in “Childhood’s End”).
 
There is some tragedy in the denouement, which leads one to wonder what happens in the remaining film.  Here are two clues, “Why Han Solo’s Storyline – had to happen” and “33 Questions we desperately want answered”.  Don’t read these links if spoilers bother you.

There is a great line, simply, "I am your father".  And I guess blue is the right color for the sabre.  Lucasfilm doesn't care for red state ideology.



The film is largely in 2.35:1 format, with the screen height raised for the selected IMAX footage (mostly battle details).  Filming locations also include Ireland and Iceland.

The official site is here. The production companies are, of course, LucasFilm and Bad Robot. Walt Disney Pictures (aka Touchstone Pictures) is the only listed US distributor (Fox seems to be out of it, but Fox Production studios were used).

The concert overture music for the closing credits, by John Williams, has a nice fugue, which is a little strange with the Vaughn Williams style harmonics. The music ends quietly.

Disney is planning to add a major Star Wars attraction to both Disneyland in CA and the Hollywood Resort in Orlando, blog information here  opening date not obvious.

Picture: Nevada (mine, 2012 trip).

Sunday, December 20, 2015

"E-Team" observes atrocities against civilians for Human Rights Watch; emphasis on Syria under Assad


E-Team” (or “Emergency Team”. 2014), directed by Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman, traces the work of observers with Human Rights Watch , which documents atrocities by dictators against civilians.

The film focuses particularly on Syria, with the actions by Bashar al-Assad up through 2013 (including chemical weapons) against rebels (just before ISIL became prominent), and Libya, during Qadaffi’s last days.  The film also gives a lot of history of the Balkans and Kosovo, and Milosevic. Several young activists, who say they are not journalists, are traced, including one whose wife has a baby in Paris at the end of the film.



The footage of the film shows a lot of the destruction and squalor in Syria.  At one point, the observers cross from Turkey by walking over a low barbed wire fence. The women (Anna Neistat is the only credited cast) have to were Muslim dress as “disguises”.  There are scenes back “home” in Paris, Berlin and New York (in the Empire State Building, where HRW is located).

Yet, on September 11, 2013, Vladimir Putin offered an op-ed in the New York Time, “A Plea of Caution from Russia”. Putin claimed that poison gas was used by rebel forces themselves and that western intervention was making Syria more unstable.  And today it has ISIL in part of the country.
Dictators and terrorists, for related reasons, view civilians and regular combatants as in one boat.  But when a country’s government has a military draft for some of its citizens (as with only men), it is making a statement that it can demand differential risk of combat from some of its citizens.  The possibility of forced civilian involvement creates moral debates about resilience among regular civilians as well as leadership.

The official site is here , for Big Mouth Productions.  The film was shown at both Tribeca and Sundance, and is distributed online and in DVD by Netflix.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

"The Stanford Prison Experiment": re-enactment of notorious 1971 psychology simulation of military culture with college students


The Stanford Prison Experiment” (2015), directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, is a dramatization of the real 1971 SPE event.   A psychology professor, Philip Zimbaro (Billy Crudup) hired 24 out of 75 candidate male college students, and divided them into prisoners and guards (nine each, with three alternates) so see how young men behave when given and subjected to military-style authority. A “prison” was set up on Jordan Hall at Stanford.
 
The New Yorker has an article by Maria Konnikova, June 12, 2015, "The Real Lesson of the Stanford Prison Experiment".
 
The very first image in the film is that of a typewriter roll, and soon Zimbaro and his staff are interviewing the candidates. He asks questions like, “Have you ever given in to an aggressive urge or an impulse?” (a “compulsion”).  Kids, offered $15 a day for two weeks, are asked if they would rather be guards are prisoners.  One answers that being a guard would be more work, and that everybody hates guards.

Zimbarro watches the kids on closed-circuit TV with 1970s technology, and half admits the interest of the US military in the experiment.  The guards quickly make the prisoners wear “dresses”, although they don’t go beyond that.  But the psychologists say that the guards are trying to “strip them of their individuality”, “make them more uniform”, and (most controversial and counter-military) “feminize them” (as if out of Rosenfels).  The behavior parallels military basic training.  The men have to make their beds using hospital corners, undergo typical military-like harassment, and address their "superiors" as "Mr. Corrections Officer" as a parallel to "Drill Sergeant".  (In Basic in 1968, we had to address NCO's as "Sir" despite the fact that in the military as a whole one does not.)

But it only takes two days for the experiment to unravel and for men to have to leave.  The whole experiment lasted six days.

The film has an epilogue in which a few participants (played by the same actors) admit how the experiment taught them to understand darker impulses and vulnerabilities within themselves.
The film itself is rather tedious (running over two hours) and could have been a stage play. The scenery is monotonous (a problem with most “prison” movies) and the wide anamorphic ratio was used to get more men into shots at the same time. That somewhat dilutes the ability to show the effects on individual men with closeups (except for Ezra Miller’s character).

Like many projects, this film took over ten years to get made.

The official site is here  The film played at Sundance in 2015.

The film showed at Landmark E Street in Washington last summer, and I missed it, watching the Netflix DVD.  There is a “making of” featurette, and also a brief short on the psychology of the experiment.



The BBC also has a 30-minute documentary on the experiment on YouTube (above).

Wikipedia attribution for source: Stanford Campus Aerial Photo" by Jrissman - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons.

Friday, December 18, 2015

"Zero Day" enacts a school rampage from the viewpoints of two disturbed teen perpetrators


Zero Day” (2003), directed by Ben Coccio, depicts two teenagers planning, over the course of almost a year, and executing a mass school shooting rampage resembling Columbine, although the film was shot in Albany NY and the credits say that it is fictitious. It is one the bluntest and most close-up films on this problem ever made, despite low budget and narrow aspect ratio (1:33:1). The film purports to show directly what makes someone who perpetrates such an event tick.  But it shows little of the effect of the aftermath on others (especially the parents).  The film precedes Sandy Hook by almost ten years.

The troubled teens are Cal Gabriel (Cal Robertson) and Andre Kreigman (Andre Keuck). They seem like nice, even charismatic kids.  But in the opening scene, in July, they declare themselves “The Army of Two”. Soon, Cal has found his father’s guns and gone around town buying additional parts at different stores so as not to draw suspicion. (It strains credibility that the parents are so clueless as to the kids' access to their high-powered weapons.)  In one scene, as the boys clean and rebuild their weapons, Cal’s house cat looks on, knowing something is very wrong with all this. Later, the kids burglarize a neighbor's house where they know there is a "closeted" cache of assault weapons. Maybe in upstate New York they're common?
 
The boys set a date as the first morning the winter temperature hits zero.  It never does, during a mild winter, so they choose May 1 (May Day). The actual rampage, starting about eighteen minutes from the end of the 92-minute video, is shown in black-and-white school security video (which explains the entire film’s being shot like amateur video), much of it in the library.

The kids leave a note for posterity (as they will also take their own lives), explaining their own nihilism. They direct that the notes be read by media personalities, especially Wolf Blitzer. The essentially say “there is no meaning” (which is what James Holmes said in his 2012 notebook). But Cal also reveals his earlier shame and humiliation in life over being called a “f-g-t” because of his JC Penny pants.  They sound like they're on a mission to prove they aren't sissies.  They do sound like teens who could have been recruited by ISIS today, but the underlying problem seems to be how unacceptable their previous sense of shame and impotence had played out to be for them.  For a few moments, they get to be gods, deciding who lives and dies for all eternity.  But their own graves will be desecrated by cross burnings at the end.


The official site is here for Avatar Films, and it played in several smaller film festivals (including Atlanta and Rhode Island).

The DVD has a "making of" short, as well as "Making the Crosses", a "Screen Test" and "Home Footage".

The film could be compared to “Elephant” (2003), by Gus Van Sant, from Fine Line, also shot on video, this time in Portland, where the “kids” (who say at one point they will “pick off” their victims) are more obviously “bad seeds” (though one is gifted in music).  I had seen that film at the Avalon in Washington DC in 2004.

The title of the Avatar film should not be confused with "Day Zero", which is about the military draft (Dec. 12).

Picture: Whiteface (my trip, 2012).

Thursday, December 17, 2015

"In the Heart of the Sea" encapsulates the writing of "Moby-Dick"


In the Heart of the Sea”, directed by Ron Howard, and based on the non-fiction account by Nathaniel Philbrick of the sinking of a whaling ship “The Essex” in 1820, is interesting in that it encapsulates some of the plot of Herman Mevlille’s “Moby-Dick: The Whale” into an outers story of a writer’s paying the source for a story.

In fact, journalists are not supposed to pay for stories.  But in 1850, Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) visits the innkeeper Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) to get the story, which he will fashion into his famous novel, which won’t use the entire story.  Two-thirds through the movie, Nickerson wants to stop, before he gets into the last part, about the cannibalism among the shipwrecked survivors.  Melville feels compelled to pay for sources for his material (the opposite of me, consumed with my own narrative) and frets that he may not turn out to be as good a writer as Nathaniel Hawthorne.  When I worked as a substitute teacher, I remember collecting essays or quizzes on “Moby-Dick” from English classes.

The film also delves into historical morality. At the end, after the rescue, the first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) refuses to keep quiet about what caused the disaster, even though the shipping company would pay him off to keep him quiet, satisfy the insurance companies (fearing “Sea Monsters”), and keeping the whaling industry in business.  The film mentions that about that time, oil was discovered in Pennsylvania. Now, in the 21st century, we’re about to repeat the same kind of cycle. The well-born captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) has to go along with the honesty.

There’s morality tested in an another way.  The whalers had assumed that God intended them to have dominion over all animals. Now, we know with modern biology that whales (as cetaceans) are very close to us in intelligence – essentially non-human persons who should have rights.   Like the elephant Tyke (Tuesday’s review), the whale decided, “I’m bigger than you and I don’t have to put up with your bothering me; I’m coming after you.”  Humans can’t ethically do this to other intelligent, sentient beings and get away with it. The idea that heat and light depended on whale oil for decades or centuries now seems shocking.  History will later teach us that electrification was no sure thing in the late 19th century, and keeping it (from terror and space weather threats) today is not necessarily a done deal.

The film is shot in regular 1.85:1 ratio, which is actually easier to show in IMAX.  I saw it at the AMC Tysons in 3-D but without IMAX; there were very few showings with both.  And lines were forming for the “Star Wars” opening, which I will see early next week, when the crowds are a little more manageable.

The official site is here, form Warner Brothers, Village Roadshow, and Imagine.

Warner Brothers offers a featurette “The Myth of Moby-Dick” (3 min) on YouTube.



The film could be compared to other big sea films, like “Titanic”, “Castaway”, and even the “Jaws” films.  But a whale is much closer to being a person than a shark.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

"Hitchcock/Truffaut" recaps great moviegoing from the past


Hitchcock/Truffaut” (2015), directed by Kent Jones, documents a week-long interview in 1962 of Alfred Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut. The result was a book “Cinema According to Hitchcock” (1966, Simon and Schuster) which elevated Hitchcock’s international reputation from that of mere “entertainer”. Hitchcock was an artist who “painted” or “composed”  (or even “wrote”) with film.

The documentary pays particular attention to three of Hitchcock’s most famous films. For “The Birds” (1963), Hitchcock was seen as the master of space, showing a dock fire in an early scene from the viewpoint of birds flying above.  For “Vertigo” (1958) Hitchcock showed a detective essentially stalking a fantasy of a woman who has died and seemingly been replaced by a doppelganger (a plot idea for a few more movies recently).  This is essentially erotic fantasy that has also been done in some gay films.  In “Psycho”, we watch the anti-heroine steal money and drive into the desert, but we have no idea what awaits her when she checks into the Bates Motel.  Initial audiences in 1960 screamed incessantly in the shower murder scene.

Hitchcock also was interested in how ordinary people could find themselves inadvertently caught up in worldwide dangerous conspiracies, as in “North by Northwest” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (two films).


Martin Scorsese, Arnaud Desplechin, Daid Fincher, Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson, and Peter Bogdanovich all appear.

The official site is here from the Cohen Media Group (also HBO Documentary).

As I recall, the documentary showed some of "The 400 Blows" as an early example of Truffaut's New Wave.  Truffaut would pass away at 52 and not live much beyond Hitchcock.

I saw the film at mid-day at Landmark E Street in Washington DC before a small audience. The film is rather brisk at 79 minutes and has a lot of black and white footage.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

"Tyke: Elephant Outlaw" documents a circus elephant's rampage trying to free herself from human captivity, in 1994


Tyke: Elephant Outlaw” (2015, directed by Susan Lambert and Stefan Moore, running just 78 minutes, is a gripping documentary story of a female circus elephant who repeatedly tried to free herself from captivity.  In August 1994, in Honolulu, she broke loose under a big top and killed a trainer and injured numerous other people, and ran through the city streets with a ridiculous party hat before being brought down by 87 bullets from police.  She had also created incidents in Altoona, PA and Minot, ND, and run through the county fair grounds in Minot without injuring anyone before being tranquilized.

The animal leasing company, Hawthorn, apparently pressured her use again in Honolulu anyway based on contractual and financial needs.

The film shows footage of the actual rampages in both Honolulu and Minot, with people being stomped on camera.  I don’t think I’ve seen this in a commercial animal documentary film before.  It also shows her grisly end on the streets of Honolulu.

I’ve reviewed a number of documentaries here about the commercial exploitation of animals, mostly about orcas and other dolphins, or about big cats.

The elephant is one of the planet’s most intelligent animals besides man, ranking close to cetaceans (dolphins) who may be distantly related. The elephant (like most dolphins and most primates) can recognize himself or herself in a mirror.


Tyke seems to have “premeditated” her escape, and seemed to take aim at specific people whom she saw as enemies, but would not harm people in general if left alone.

Tyke was born in Mozambique.  African and Asian elephants have both been used in performances, but some say that African elephants are less easily domesticated but still seem to have very specific memories about individual people.  But many other wild animals (especially higher mammals) do, and can sense both hostility and love. I can remember an AE show where a Canadian zoologist, using body language, earned to confidence of a lion pride’s alpha male so the lion would allow him to film the pride up close.

The official site is here. The film was produced with Australian resources (Jumping Dog Productions) and is distributed by "ABC Commercial".  It is available on Netflix Instant Play.

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of pride of African elephants by Charles Sharp under Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0 license.

Update: Jan 11, 2016

Rugling Brothers' Circus has announced it will retire its elephants early, in 2016, Verge story.



Monday, December 14, 2015

"Youth": Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Paul Dano and even Jane Fonda in an otherworldly masterpiece set at a spa in Switzerland


Youth” (2015, directed by Paolo Sorrentino, gives us visually stunning filmmaking, mostly at a mountain spa in Switzerland, and some ideas about the moral aesthetics of film and music. If it didn’t feature the a-list veteran US-UK cast, it probably would be in Italian and be a more conventional member of the arthouse circuit.  It also borrows some directorial ideas from sources like David Lynch and Terry Gilliam.  It borders on sci-fi, and embraces tragedy at the end.

Michael Caine leads the cast as retired composer and conductor Fred Ballinger, who has really “retired” and doesn’t want to keep working on music.  We wonder why he is so apathetic about living even as he is pampered.  His counterpart is screenwriter and director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), who wants to pimp a new film (substance rather unknown) even as he is confronted by the idea that he last few efforts were bad (especially by actress Brenda, played by Jane Fonda).  A positive sidekick is a young actor Jimmy Tree, played by Paul Dano, who has trimmed back down from “Love and Mercy” and, in one hot tub scene, reveals his perfect, hairless chest.

There are other odd characters, like a fat man with a tattoo of Karl Marx, and a caricature of Adolf Hitler, who has dining room tables to himself.  (I thought of the “Budapest” hotel.)

The “story” gets moving when and emissary (Alex Macqueen) for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip arrive to ask him to conduct one last concert with his own song cycle of “Simple Songs”.  At first he refuses, as he says he wrote the first song for his wife, who left him twenty years ago.  (We learn sadly how she left him.) He doesn’t not seek fame or renown now, since his wife has lost her personhood.

Along the way, the film offers us tremendous delights based on physics, like when the fat man plays foot catch with himself (the physics of a tennis ball rising and falling makes a spectacle), or later when a woman blows a tremendous soap bubble that looks like the Orion Nebula.  The mountain scenery (including a scene from a gondola) is sharply photographed, with no loss of detail with varying depths, and taking advantage of the full anamorphic format.

The script has some great analogies and lines.  At one point, Mick says that everyone is either “beautiful, ugly or just cute”.  Mick also says that when you are young, objects in the world look big, and as you get old, they recede.  The film uses a telescope to make the point visually.



At the end, we are treated to a performance of at least one of the “simple songs”, for soprano, solo violin and chamber orchestra.  It is in B Major (according to my Casio), and resembles one of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs.  Mahler (who dedicated some of his songs to Alma, who was also a composer, and deceased child) comes to mind. But he music is original, composed by David Lang.  As I recall there are lyrics about “a simple song” in Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” and maybe in Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols”.  A coworker in Dallas back in the 1980s was a big fan of Mahler and Schubert songs with piano, but not of the big symphonies. The movie also refers to Stravinsky.

The official site is here  (Fox Seachlight).  I saw the film before a fair weekday audience at Landmark E Street in downtown Washington.  It isn’t on many screens.

Wikipedia attribution link for Alpine picture of "Hauteroute" by "JackPh" under Creative Commons 3.0 Share-Alike license.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

"Beautiful Boy": how a mass shooting affects the parents of the perpetrator


Beautiful Boy” (2010, directed by Shawn Ku, written with Michael Ambruster) was filmed two years before Aurora and Sandy Hook (and three years after Virginia Tech), but hits pretty hard how a shooting affects the parents of the perpetrator,

In LA, Bill and Kate (Martin Sheen and Maria Bello) are considering separation, while their son Sammy (an attractive Kyle Garner) seems out of touch as a freshman in college spending his first semester away from home.  One morning they hear about a deadly shooting on Sammy’s campus, killing around 14.  They try to reach Sammy and can’t.  In about an hour, police officers show up at their home.  They learn the worst possible news:  Sammy has killed himself and was the perpetrator.

For much of the rest of the film, the couple has to deal with the ire of other parents, who blame them for the deaths.  Their marriage is at first closer again, but then disintegrates as Sammy leaves.  He has to say he wishes has son had never been born. What’s disturbing is that the parents had regarded their son as “perfect”.  There are a few scenes where others attack the parents (as with one deleted scene in a supermarket).



Being a parent brings its risks in the best of circumstances.

The official site (Anchor Bay) on imdb has been overlaid with a site in an Asian language. The film is available on Netflix DVD and Amazon Instant Play ($2.99).

Saturday, December 12, 2015

"Day Zero" supposes that the military draft is reinstated to fight international terrorism


Day Zero” (2007), directed by Robert Gunnar Cole and written by Robert Malkani, supposes that, as part of the War on Terror (if that is an acceptable term), the military draft has rather suddenly been reinstated in the U.S.  The film was shot in 2007, while Bush was still president and quite a long time before Obama’s pullout of Iraq and drawdown in Afghanistan.

The film opens with a prelude summarizing the history of the military draft from World War I through Vietnam.  Later, it makes the strong point that today’s Millennials grew up without the draft and barely understand its possible moral implications.  At least one reviewer on imdb calls the film “ballsy”.

Of course, the film presents plenty of outdoor protests, and makes the point that many people believe that the draft would only justify US aggression in Iraq and other middle Eastern (Muslim) lands.

The reimposed draft appears to apply only to men (but up to age 30, rather than the previous 26), and homosexuals are excluded.  The film was shot four years before the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and Outserve-SLDN had done some contingency work on how a draft could affect gays after 9/11.

The film traces the history of three male friends in the thirty days before they have to report to Penn Station at 7 AM on a Saturday morning, starting with each one’s getting a draft notice in the mail.  Actually, the film doesn’t show them being formally inducted and sworn in before be transported, which is how it would really work.  The film does not show

One of the guys is a writer Feller, played by Elijah Wood (“Frodo”).  He tells his publisher he won’t finish his next book and has been seeing a female therapist for years, and she tells him to make a bucket list. He smokes, and complains at the gym that he is skinny and fat at the same time.  Toward the end, he shaves and tattoos his head.  And, the night before he is to go, he jumps.  (The film shows a noose at one point as a foreshadow.)  In one scene, he says his other book was an example of plagiarism.  It was a story of a man rescuing his sister from a volcano (hint – physical courage to protect unchosen family).  He had heard the tale on a trip to the South Sea islands and moved the setting to Alaska.  He was a real writer, doing other people’s stories for hire, not his own narrative (like me).

The second guy is a Rifkin, a corporate lawyer played by Chris Klein.  He may have the political connections (and “book smarts”) to get out of it.  Well, I didn’t care for his chest.

The third guy is Dixon, a cab driver played by John Bernthal, the guy with street-smarts and the ability to protect others.  He has less doubt that he should go than the other two.  He even says at one point that if the enemy (presumably “radical Islam”) is not stopped overseas, it’s only a matter of time before it detonates a nuclear weapon in the US, with New York City the first choice. I could add other dangers, like dirty weapons, or EMP devices (which don’t have to be nuclear).

There is a pivotal scene in the middle where the guys go into a gay bar with the idea that they can fake open homosexuality to get out of the draft.  A fight ensues (as they don’t know how to behave when cruising) and they get bounced.

For all the good points it makes, how realistic is this movie?  I recall that on Sept. 14, 2014,  Senator Carl Levin was discussing restoring the draft on CNN, just three days after 9/11.  Charles Moskos, who had authored “don’t ask don’t tell”, argued for restoring it and in an email to me said “Gays should get behind conscription; then the ban would be lifted.”  Moskos, with Paul Glastris, wrote an article arguing for conscription in the Washington Monthly in November 2001, link here.  Israel drafts men and women (and lifted the ban on gays in the early 90s), and Switzerland also drafts men (including gays).
 
A good question would be, why doesn’t the film present women as being drafted?  Maybe 90 minutes was not enough time to delve into the possibilities. There's a line where Dixon says getting drafted is a test of manhood.

There are times in life when you have to deal things from the outside world you didn’t choose.  Of course, the more common moral problem is simply making bad choices.  But “getting out of things” can become a moral problem too.  There was a time when leaving dangerous risk taking to others was regarded as cowardice.  That style of thinking is no longer as prevalent as it used to be.  But overlooking it can make us vulnerable to enemies.



The official site on listed on imdb has been overlaid by an advertising site having nothing to do with the film. The distributor was First Look Studios.

This film hits as hard as it can in its brief run time.  It could have used more expansion.

Last picture is of the Fort Jackson Basic Combat Training Museum (in Columbia SC), now closed to civilians because of security issue;  the museum may be moved off base so civilians can visit it (p.d. picture provided by the U.S. Army Post); I've discussed this with them by phone. That's where I took Basic in 1968.  The third picture is the Ft. Jackson cemetery (open to everyone).

Friday, December 11, 2015

"The Danish Girl": the story of one of the first transgender people having reassignment surgery back in the 1930s


The Danish Girl” (directed by Tom Hooper) related the life of one of the first transgender persons to have male-to-female sexual reassignment surgery. That person was Lili Elbe (Lili Isle Elvenes) who had been known as Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener, played by Eddie Redmayne, previously married to Gerde (Alicia Vikander).   The movie is also based on a book by David Ebershoff, which apparently includes some degree of fiction as a “novel”. Lili died at age 48 after a fourth surgery in Dresden in 1931 of massive infection.

In the film, Gerde is a Danish painter trying to break into the European art market, and is told to look for better “subject matter”.  Gerde turns to her husband, who is slowly developing an interest in cross-dressing, ad gradually confronting the fact that she believes she is a woman.  There is some flirting with a preppy  gay man Henrik (Ben Whishaw, “Q” in the Bond movies).  Einar also paints until his surgeries, and seems pretty good at it.

Einar meets the usual crude treatment by the medical establishment at first, and is threatened with involuntary commitment more than once.  He is called a “homosexual”, which was still a poisonous word at the time.  Medical texts on sexuality are shown that look as bad as those in my own parents’ attic when I was growing up. He also gets beaten up in Paris by French teen hoodlums.

The script makes the point that either Einar or Lili exists, but not both at the same time. Maybe Lili is proof of reincarnation!
 
Redmayne seems all too comfortable acting in the role.  Except for his legs, covered up by panty hose quickly, his body is smooth, so he can begin the change (which is not a masquerade for long, and never fools Henrik) with little preparation.

The film is shot in Denmark, Paris, the UK, with a few coastal scenes in Norway.

The official site is here  (Working Title Films and Focus Features).

I saw the film before a light Friday afternoon audience at Angelika Mosaic in Fairfax VA.  The film has expanded its release this weekend.

A much earlier film for comparison is "The Christine Jorgensen Story" (1970), directed by Irving Rapper, with John Hansen (MGM/United Artists).

Wikipedia attribution link for Copenhagen picture by Furya, under Creative Commons 2.0 Share-Alike License. My one visit was in July 1972. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

"Dolly Parton's Coat of Many Colors": true story of the singer's religious family upbringing


NBC aired a Hallmark-like Christmas-season movie tonight, a joint effort of Universal and Warner Brothers, directed by Stephen Herek, “Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors”, based on an episode in Dolly Parton’s childhood in the mountains of Easy Tennessee in 1955.

I’ve always wondered when a movie title starts with the possessive case of a star’s name.  But at least we know it’s a modern setting, not the original Bible story. The episode is framed by Dolly's appearances in Christmas garb in modern day Atlanta at the beginning and end of the film.
 
Alyvia Alyn Lind plays the little girl Dolly, with Jennifer Nettles as her mother, Ricky Schroder as Dad, and Gerald McRaney as Dolly’s granddad pastor.

The family is challenged when mother Avie Lee’s baby dies in childbirth.  The marriage itself is challenged, as is Dad’s faith, even though they already have eight kids.  In this family, the older kids are expected to learn to tend to their younger siblings.  Family life is extremely socialized and centers around the Bible.  Dolly gets spanked once in an early scene when she challenges an idea about Heaven.

I have never experienced this degree of intimacy and emotional intensity associated with familial and Christian personal connection. I am watching someone else's experience that I don't share. My own mother had five siblings (growing up in Ohio from 1913-1934) and two others died shortly after birth;  it was common in the past.
     
Avie has stitched together a coat of varied colors for Dolly, and that gives a chance to bring in the Biblical story of Joseph, who was cast away and sold into slavery because he raised the ire of his brothers for drawing too much attention to himself in telling the stories of his dreams.  Instead, his clairvoyance would become very useful in Egypt and he would become a major patriarch of his people.  The coat became the inspiration for one of Dolly’s songs in 1971.



The farm has a log-cabin home, that looks more appropriate for 1900 than maybe 1950, when a house would likely have been frame.

NBC’s site is here.

I remember Dolly Parton for “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” (1982, Collin Higgins)

There is a Broadway show "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" discussed on the drama blog June 1, 2007.

Picture: From US 441 at NC-TN border, my trip, 2013

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

"Print the Legend" explores the business world of 3-D printers, which will lead us to make everything we need at home again, just like the pioneers did


Print the Legend” (2014), directed by Luis Lopez and J. Clay Tweel, explores the business world of 3-D printing company startups, without showing us much about how the gizmos work.  The appear now to be the size of large microwaves. They still require do-it-yourself projects.  If you don’t like to have to assemble furniture with workshop tools, then maybe they are not for you.

But people, around 1975 or so, couldn’t imagine that the personal computer, then Internet connection, and then smartphone would be a necessity for almost everyone (not just nerds). With 3-D printing, you can make clothes that fit perfectly.  (Well, the spinning wheels of “Silas Marner” could do that.) Personalized manufacturing would become the next great revolution.  But you have to be good working with your hands.  My father was.  So are lab experimenters and surgeons.  People will make their own clothes, own cookware, and own weapons again.  They used to.

The film traces several startups.  The greatest attention is given to MakerBot in Brooklyn, NY, which gets merged with Stratasys.  The film also covers the patent lawsuit by 3D Systems in South Carolina against Formlabs near Boston (story), even the service of process.

Yes, the film covers The Liberator, the homemade plastic pistol.  Sen. Chuck Schumer wants to ban homemade guns, which you can’t control.  I wonder if Schumer would ban Taylor Wilson from making his own nuclear fusion machines (to be covered in an upcoming book review).

Toward the end, techies who survive the mergers and firings say that working in this business has made them break promises to themselves in ways they had never envisioned.



“A legend is a carefully curated version of the truth. Whose truth is debatable.”

The music includes music from Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony #6 in F, the Allegretto from Symphony 7, and Wolan’s Farewell from “Die Walkure” by Richard Wagner.

The official site is here (Audax Films and Netflix Red Envelope and Instant Play; also available on Amazon).

Update: Dec. 23

A 13-year-old girl was fitted with a prosthetic hand created by a 3-D printer and donated, story

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

"Blitz": a gay police chief helps outsmart a serial cop killer in London


Blitz” (2011), directed by Elliott Lester, based on a novel by Ken Buren, is a curious and complex (if a bit stereotyped) British police thriller that explores the personal vulnerabilities of police, perhaps anticipating similar problems in the U.S. more recently, even though race isn’t the issue here.

The underlying premise is that a serial killer is targeting and shooting cops (who may often not be carrying guns in Britain). One of the lead policemen, Sgt. Tom Brant (Jason Stratham) has come under scrutiny for brutalizing some suspects (as with a hockey puck in an opening sequence). Another cop, openly gay Porter Nash (Paddy Considine) is transferred to Brant’s district in tight-lipped west London to oversee the investigation.  The professional interaction between Nash and Brant, quite therapeutic for Brant, is a major point of the film.



Pretty early, we get a lead on the likely suspect, a “thmooth” Barry “Blitz” Weiss (Aiden Gillen), who taunts a reporter, Harold Dunlop (David Morrissey).  Weiss even murders the Chief inspector Roberts (Mark Rylance) who pukes before dying when his highrise flat is set on fire. But police are not able to get convincing evidence against Weiss in a series of incidents.  (“I want a lawyer and a sandwich.”) That will lead to a curious plot twist at the end when Weiss masquerades as a cop himself.

The official site is here (Millennium, Lionsgate, and E-One).

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of London by Daniel Chapma, under Creative Commons 2.0 Share-Alike license.

Monday, December 07, 2015

"Creed" brings back an aging Rocky Balboa in Philly


The film “Creed”, by Ryan Coogler, is touted as an informal successor to the popular “Rocky” franchise and better than the earlier films.  It’s long (133 minutes) but picks up steam as it progresses, even for non-boxers.

As the film opens, Adonis Johnson, in juvenile detention, goes into the custody of the widow of his previous unknown father, the great Apollo Creed. Later, as a young adult (Michael B. Jordan), he takes up training in Philadelphia with the former star Rocky Balboa (the aging Sylvester Stallone, of course).

Promoters intend to set up a big prize fight in Liverpool, England with Pretty Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew), rather defaced by tattoos. Rocky wants him to use the name of Creed, but Adonis wants to make his way in the world under his own name, and not ride on his disgraced father’s.

A critical point comes when Rocky suddenly vomits and collapses in the ring while training Adonis.  In the hospital, he learns he has an aggressive non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (which Maryland governor Larry Hogan has been successfully treated for).  It must have already entered his digestive tract.  He recoils at the thought of chemotherapy until Adonis refuses to fight unless he undergoes treatment.  So you could say this is a statement about the will to live.

The film moves toward the inevitable prize fight, and close calls with a KO.



The film has done well, and could recall other films besides the Rocky movies, including “Cinderella Man” and even “Raging Bull”.  I’ve always wondered about the “morality” of the sport when the object of the game is to cause a concussion for the opponent.  Malcolm Gladwell is sure to weigh in.

The official site is here.   The film is a combined production from MGM and New Line Cinema, with formal distribution by Warner Brothers.  It’s good to see MGM coming back as a studio (with Oprah’s help?)

I saw the film at the Angelika Mosaic in Fairfax VA on a Monday afternoon, small audience.
 
Picture: Fishtown in Philadelphia, (one of author Charles Murray's favorite places) my visit, Jan. 2015.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Some short videos examine attitudes toward gays and lesbians in South Korea and Japan


Today, among all the tension in the news, and staying home to hear the president speak, I just watched three more short videos (YouTube) about GLBT life overseas, this time in Asia.  These are interesting, but could use less mundane titles.
 
Stephanie and Richard do a presentation, “Homosexuality and Being Gay in Korea”.  A friend suggested this in a tweet today, after another tweet critical of “lookism” in the male gay community (call it “body fascism”, which can have social and political implications).



South Korea, although one of the most wired in the world as for Internet use, is described as socially very conservative, with a “don’t ask don’t tell” attitude toward homosexuality.  Many people think it doesn’t exist in Korea.  There is an attitude that “you have to make your parents happy” by giving them and raising grandchildren or else you are a mooch. Strangely, in South Korea men can hold hands without implying they are gay. At gay pride events, photography (and subsequent online posting) is supposedly banned, because showing up in a video can get someone fired. (Remember how it was in the 1980s, whenever television cameras came to the Metropolitan Community Church, those who didn't want to be shown had to sit in a protected area.) In Asian and other non-white cultures, it may be less likely for ideas of male attractiveness to become psychologically imprinted.

The 11-minute shortDo Koreans Hate Gay People?  My Gay Pride Experience”, by Charly Cheer shows, in high-quality (apparently hi-def) video, a pride parade in Seoul in the summer of 2014. The filmmaker pays some heed to the supposed photography ban and manages to get a lot of great shots of the city streets, with people usually at a distance, but some people consent to being close up (often western visitors).  Toward the end, some “Christian” protestors try to interfere with the parade by lying down on the street in front of floats or marchers.  I have never seen this in the US. No doubt, the short distance to North Korea and its missiles could be on people’s minds. This video is really quite impressive and could be a reasonable entry into a shorts film festival.

CNN has covered "The Problem with Being Gay in South Korea" in a recent (Oct. 2015) article by Kathy Novak, here.

The 9-minute short Homosexuality in Japan” by Ero Jero, maintains that gay life is tolerated in Japan but there is an attitude that it can’t be a problem in Japanese culture.  That’s curious inasmuch as Japan has a real problem with low birth rate and aging society (somewhat related to work culture). Ero, who himself is a white “hunk”, then talks about his experience proselytizing in Japan as a Mormon missionary in the past, and then explains how he makes his videos, without needing a computer (just a tablet or phone and camera), although he admits he’ll need a real laptop again soon.

Quora and Slate have an article from May 2015 about the attitude toward gay people in Japan here.
 
Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Lotte Tower in Seoul by Teddy Cross, under Creative Commons 2.0 Share-Alike License