Sunday, January 31, 2016

"Je suis Charlie" film (at TIFF) interviews those who lived through the Hebdo attacks, and some shocking things are said



Je suis Charlie” (“I Am Charlie”, also titled “L’humour a mort” or “Humor at Death”), directed by Daniel and Emannuel LeConte, interviews many people who survived the attack on the offices of the satirical newspaper of Charlie Hebdo in Paris by Said and Cherif Kouachi on January 7, 2015.

 The attack killed Charlie and ten others, and wounded eleven more.  The attack was part of a series of “L’Ile de France” attacks  in January, including the Porte de Vincennes supermarket in Paris Jan. 9, also covered in the film. This is not the same incident as "11/13" (the Bataclan and other attacks in Paris on Nov. 13), but it foreshadows the subsequent larger incident.

The historical background, of course, deals with the controversy over depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, such as the Jyllands-Posten Cartoon Controversy, and the assassination of  filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in 2004 over the short film “Submission”, as well as a previous fatwa against author Salman Rushdie.  Some say that the Koran does not specifically prohibit such depictions, even if more fundamental groups in Islam take it that way.

The interviews talk about the legal background in France regarding the idea of “laicite” and the 2007 lawsuit against Hebdo for supposed “hate speech” against some of Muslim faith (Guardian article).

The speakers get into various philosophical questions.  If there is such a crime as blasphemy, why isn’t the Prophet above the insults of infidels?  (as Christ would be).  One woman was apparently criticized for not behaving sacrificially during the attack, when she might have saved someone.

The film shows the public demonstrations supporting Charlie, as the newspaper resumes printing millions of copies.  But then a darker element to the discourse starts, that the cartoonists and speakers had somehow brought this upon themselves.



How could this be?  It is a shocking idea in a society that recognizes the rule of law and respects free speech.  Yet, a certain amount of inequality is “essential”, so people tend to make their religious, familial or other cultural associations part of their identities.  They tend to equate attacks on certain pillars of these religious identities as attacks on them from people who are “richer” or more “powerful”’ otherwise, and therefore tolerating these insults becomes a source of personal shame.  So religious rules on speech and other behavior can be placed inside the “inequality” debate.

The Toronto TIFF site is here (Films en Stock, Canal, Pyramide).

The film is available on Netlfix (and from Amazon or YouTube from $3.99).  I’m surprised it wasn’t in the Golden Globes and Oscar lists, and hasn’t appeared in theaters. I had to turn the subtitling on, which I’ve never had to do on Netflix before.

The film should be viewed in conjunction with the book "The Tyranny of Silence" by Flemming Rose (Book reviews Feb. 3, 2015).

Wikipedia attribution of photo by Thierry Caro and Jeremie Hartmann of street scene after attacks, under Creative Commons Share-Alike 4.0 International License.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Oscar Nominated Shorts Live Action for 2016: I pick "Day One"



The Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts for 2016 tended to focus on international social and political turmoil. I’ll present them in descending order of length. The first three of the films presented here deserve possible expansion to features.


Everything Will Be OK” (“Alles wird gut”, 2015, in German, 30 minutes, 2.35:1), written and directed by Patrick Vollrath, starts with a slender, balding, 40-ish divorced dad Micheal (Simon Schwartz) picking up his precocious eight-year-old daughter, doting on her, and taking her to the Vienna airport.  Soon we see his flight to Manila through Dubai is canceled.  He has to be put up in a hotel.  The girl starts trying to call mom o the cell phone when dad sleeps.  It isn’t long before we realize this is a post-divorce, domestic “kidnapping”.  What we also realize is that keeping custody or access to the daughter justifies everything else Michael has in life. Unfortunately, the police are needed.  The official site is here. The film was third in order of presentation.

Day One” (2015, much of it in Urdu, 25 minutes, 1:85:1), is directed by Henry Hughes based on a story co-written with Dawn DeVoe.  A female Army translator Layla (Layla Alizada) journeys with her Afghanistan unit to a high mountain village, surviving altitude sickness and an IUD attack, expecting to interview village elders about a suspected terrorist.  Layla says she is divorced and didn’t want children, and that her ex-husband has children by a second marriage;  there is some hint that she is lesbian. They encounter a pregnant woman who goes into labor.  She delivers the baby alive and well, but the mother bleeds out and dies.  There is an implication that she might raise the child.  Hughes says he served in Afghanistan as recently as 2009.  I do think that the Army would have tried to land medical support by chopper, with a military surgeon to help deliver the baby, had this been possible.  This film is quite gripping and would be my choice to win.  It appears to filmed on location in Afghanistan.  The official site for this “AFI Thesis Film” is here .  Last in presentation order.



Friend” (“Shok”, 2015, in Albanian, 21 minutes, 2.35:1) is directed  by Jamie Donoghue based on his own “true” story, is set in Kosovo in 1998.  Two boys, one Serbian and one from Albania, become friends, to the disapproval of the militant elders who demand loyalty to Serbia. The film shows the embattled villages and countryside in late fall scenery.  This all happens slightly after the violence in Bosnia erupted in the early days of the Clinton administration. Official site; Second in presentation.

Ave Maria” (2015, in Yiddish, 15 minutes 2.35:1), directed by Basil Khafil, brings three religious cultures together on the West Bank.  Early on a Sunday morning, five nuns in a convent are confronted by a car wreck when a settler family crashes into their Mary statue outside.  The nuns actually get one of their ld cars running, as taxis won’t come.  The question of whether the settlements are morally defensible is barely touched. Official Facebook page;  first in presentation  sequence.

Stutterer” (2015, UK, 12 min, 1.85:1) gives us an isolated bisexual typographer, Greenwood (Matthew Needham), trying to reach out to people from his London flat. Official site; fourth in presentation.

I saw the program at Landmark E Street late Friday night in the largest auditorium.  To my surprise, it did not sell out.


Thursday, January 28, 2016

"Drone": documentary explores the moral puzzles around modern geek warfare


Drone” (2014) directed by Tonje Hessen Schei, is a brief but powerful film examining the moral queasiness (at the individual's level) underneath our military’s use of drones in conducting the war on terror.

As has been demonstrated in a couple of fiction films, the documentary shows how American airmen or often CIA employees or contractors, working stateside can take out targets in Pakistan (and Afghanistan) as if they were playing video games.

The Bush administration established the legal “excuse” for using drones in late 2001, shortly after 9/11.  This was long before smaller drones became controversial consumer items.

Of course, a big problem is the likelihood of harming civilians, whom militants use as shields.  Yet many “conservatives” view all civilian populations in some parts of the world as putative militants.  But that is like Osama bin Laden’s viewing all American citizens in the Twin Towers as combatants.

The soldiers experience the idea that “distance breeds indifference”.  Those who have moral qualms can see a psychologist, but that could lead to revocation of security clearance.  So they could see a military chaplain, who might tell them that this is all “God’s plan”.

The use of drones has changed the skillset the military wants, because now it needs “geeks” as well as riflemen.

This dichotomy was a big deal for me during the days of the Vietnam era draft.  I had gotten my graduate degree in math first, and as an assistant instructor had been in a position to affect who might be drafted and sent to Nam.  Once I was in the Army, my “too much education” could be a source of resentment.  Yet, I wound up being sheltered, and never went to Nam.



The film depicts war as providing business models for corporate profits, which exploits the “warrior” mentality of less well-off young men.

The official site is here. It was shown at many smaller film festivals, as well as San Sebastian.  It is available on Netflix Instant Play.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

"Pump!" depicts addiction to oil and the harm of high oil prices, just two years before prices crashed


Pump!” (2014) is another documentary by Josh Tickell (with Rebecca Tickell) on the traditional energy industry and our dependence on fossil fuels.

It starts with a history of the influence of crony capitalism, how big oil got cities to tear up their electric streetcar lines (as happened in Washington) and replace them with cars and buses.

The film quickly moves to the run-up in gas prices during the Arab Oil embargo, and the severity of the gas lines in early 1974, and the economic disruption it caused.  I think I’ve seen this covered in one of Tickell’s other films.  I remember the time well.

It also talks about the day in the summer of 2008 when oil reached $147 a barrel, two months before the financial crisis which it says was an aftershock.

Of course, in early 2016, the opposite has happened. The stock market tanks with crashing oil prices. As soon as the US increases production of shale and more expensive fuels, Middle Eastern producers flood the market to disrupt the US economy (as happened in the late 1980s to precipitate the savings and loan crisis in Texas). The prospect of "peak oil", as warned by some docmentary films around 2004, seems to have waned.  I can also recall CNN's "We Were Warned" which had predicted a crisis in 2009, and which showed Brazil's sugar cane industry supporting alcohol fuels.
 
During the energy crisis of the 1970s, some pundits claimed the morality of the individual consumer, for taking advantage of "cheap oil" from "exploited" other countries for their personal mobility.



The film goes on to present the legacy of Nikola Tesla and now Elon Mush, with the electric car.  In Brazil, apparently, all new cars are at least hybrids.  A 100-mile range is common now, but the movie says that eventually there needs to be a much cheaper lithium battery and an infrastructure of efficient recharging stations everywhere.  The film also talks about Flex-Fuel, with allows cars to run on a higher percentage of alcohol (including methanol). A car owner can connect his car his laptop by USB and program the fuel system, but most car owners don’t know how to do this.

Ted Cruz has been talking about relaxing rules on blended fuels and encouraging their use.  But some libertarians have claimed that ethanol is not good for engines.

The film notes that it is difficult to buy a car in China now.  A buyer needs to bid at an auction just to get a license plate, which can cost $10,000.  And young men generally need to own cars to be marriageable.

The official site is here (Submarine).  The film can be viewed on Netflix instant play.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"Pixels": heed Stephen Hawking's warning about broadcasting our dirty laundry to aliens


Pixels” (2015), directed by Chris Columbus, is a sci-fi comedy that picks up on a warning issued by Stephen Hawking.  Specifically, if aliens find messages we broadcast to them, they just might pay us a hostile visit.  Apparently, according to the premise of the film, NASA made the unwise decision to send the specs of some of our favorite early 80s video games.

I can recall the appeal of the Pac-man style pastimes of the early Reagan era (and in the film, the aliens use Ronald Reagan’s proxy to announce their threat – but really, they just want to “play”).  People would get disciplined for being seen in convenience stores playing video games when they should have been at work;  and these were the old mainframe days before people had PC’s at work capable of games (which employers usually removed).

As the movie opens, Sam Brenner wins a tournament playing “Donkey Kong” at age 13 in 1982.  The tween, played by Anthony Ippolito, shows a lot of charisma that would predict great things in young adulthood.  But he does not become another Taylor Wilson.  At age 48, in present day, he’s played by Adam Sandler, who does in-home entertainment installations, wearing shorts shamelessly revealing embarrassingly hairless, ladylike gams.  But in the intervening years, his best friend Bill Cooper accomplished a lot more, becoming President of the United States, played by Kevin James.  (To me, Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen are of the same ilk.)

Suddenly, Guam is attacked, and then India, and pretty soon the homeland is under threat.  The NSA (Brian Cox, from L.I.E., plays Admiral Porter) figures out that they have to outplay the aliens in a video game, and Brenner gets called to the White House, still in shorts.  The alien missiles look like little fireflies (like in “Skyline”, on my “cf” blog, Nov. 14, 2010), but they pixelate their targets, even people, into little pieces.  (By the way, I’ll mention here that the end of “Skyline” (the Strauss Brothers), showing what could happen inside to an abductee inside an alien spaceship, really was pretty convincing; nothing like that here.)



The whole concept of “Pixels” is not much more than comic mechanical manipulation of a possibly serious idea.  But saying it’s only a summer movie is a lame excuse.

The official site is here (Sony and Columbia Pictures).  It is available on DVD rental now.

Picture: Huntsville, AL (mine, 2014).



Sunday, January 24, 2016

"Answers to Nothing": Leutwyler's Altman-style mystery leaves a lot of loose plot threads in modern Los Angeles


Answers to Nothing” (2011) is a compelling multi-character parallel mystery drama written and directed by Matthew Leutwyler.  Following the style of prototypical films, especially in the 90s, by Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson (as well as Paul Haggis – “Crash” and Allejandro Gonzalez Inarritu – “Babel”) , it shows interesting lives of a variety of people (in Los Angeles) over a few days drawn together by a single event, in this case, the disappearance of a child feared kidnapped.

The film opens with some black and white historical military shots of one character, a psychologist Ryan (Dane Cook) married to a lawyer Kate (Elizabeth Mitchell).  One of the main plot lines concerns their attempt to conceive a child, and gets into what the expectations of intimacy in married life is all about.  One of Kate’s clients is a woman Drew (Miranda Bailey) who takes care of a disabled brother, out of profound guilt of an auto accident that led to his maiming.  Drew still runs marathons and another plot line concerns her having her brother compete in the disabled’s marathon.

One of Ryan’s “patients” is an African-American writer Allegra (Kali Hawk) who says she hates black people and hates people who don’t see themselves is living in two different worlds. Allegra will date a super-cute guy Rvan (Zach Gilford).

But Kate’s connection to the missing child is a detective (Julie Benz) who suspects the girl’s neighbor Beckworth (Greg Germann), but other police suspect he girl’s father after they find porn on this computer (it may be adult porn).  But it is an introverted teacher (Mark Kelly), who normally plays video games in his spare time, who convinces a fake cop (Erik Palladino) to confront Beckworth, leading to a tragic confrontation that resolves the mystery.



One problem is that some of the plot threads are left open ended, with nowhere to go – as clued by the title of the film.  But that would be real life.  But I think another issue of “Altman-style” films is the integrity of the “omniscient observer”.  Only the moviegoer or reader knows everything;  no one character does.

The official Facebook page is here (Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions).  The official site is no longer available, and distributors don't seem to keep these sites up for long (sometimes they become parked domains or taken over by Asian shopping operations).
 
The film can be rented on Netflix DVD.

The "Deleted scenes" offer a drawn-out alternate ending, as well as a sequence involving Evan, Allegra, and her misbehaving dog.  Some of the deleted scenes show the screenplay (shooting script) lines and directions.  The DVD also offers the video song "Iron Man" by Nico Vega and "Fade" by Egyptian.

My own screenplay “Do Ask, Do Tell: Epiphany” is somewhat an Altman-style drama in an alien ashram.  But most of the characters are tied to the experience of “me”, who “wakes” up and has to gradually figure out if he is in the afterlife, was abducted, in a job interview “apprenticeship”, or whatever else.  Gradually, he encounters other characters from his life, some of whom he venerates, but others who were problematic, and gradually they share with him that they are in the same pickle.  They have to solve the puzzle together (before returning to a now post-apocalyptic Earth).




Saturday, January 23, 2016

"Little Birds": two girls from impoverished lower California valley test their luck with skateboarding boys, going to LA


Little Birds” (2012), written and directed by Elgin James, who says the film is loosely based on an episode of his own life.

Two teenage girls, Lily (Juno Temple) and Alison (Kay Panabaker) grow up in poverty near California’s Salton Sea. Lily is the least stable and lives with a single mom (Leslie Mann) and Angie has an alcoholic dad (Neal McDonough). The two girls meet three skakeboarding boys (Carlos Pena, Jr., Chris Coy and Kyle Gallner, playing Jesse, to whom Lily is particularly attracted.  They want to go to Los Angeles and get away from the desolation of the inland below-sea-level “sea”.

There are plenty of misadventures.  They encounter an angry black female hustler, and then escape a near citizen’s arrest of Lily in a convenience store by a clerk, before it really gets serious. The boys squat in a house, and then start looking at the dark web for older married men looking for underage girls, almost settling up their own sting like “To Catch a Predator”, but here the idea is robbery rather than arrest, as well as getting the PII of the johns to call the wives. (In California, the age of consent is 18.)  Ultimate, the results can be fatal for one of the perv’s, as the girls know how to use guns.
 
There's a moment where Lily and Jesse share signs of body scars, Lily's from self-abuse.



The values of the kids are interesting.  They are nihilistic, brought up in a world that doesn’t make a lot of sense to them.  But they are really harder on other poor people.  They don’t seem to be aware of the rich.

The DVD has a 40-minute featurette (the film runs 94 minutes) where James interviews all the major actors and principals.  One of the actors talks about actually living as a squatter.

The film can be rented from Netflix or viewed on YouTube for $2.99.  Millennium films no longer has a site for it. The film was popular at Sundance.

Public domain NASA photo of Salton Sea, Wikipedia link.

Friday, January 22, 2016

"Dream/Killer": Andrew Jenks documents the wrongful conviction of Ryan Ferguson based on a acquaintance's "lucid dream" testimony


Dream/Killer” (2015), a documentary by Andrew Jenks, takes on the issue of wrongful convictions, specifically of Ryan Ferguson, now 31, who spent ten years in prison for a murder he did not commit after being named by an acquaintance, Charles Erickson, as a co-accomplice in the attack on a Columbia, MO sports reporter Kent Heitholt on Halloween Night, 2001.  I’ve covered the case in two other posts, on the TV blog Nov. 18, 2013 (a coverage of an NBC Dateline episode, in connection with the Innocence Project) and the Issues Blog, Nov. 14, 2013.

The case is bizarre because Erickson, who did not remember the incident and had been out drinking (underage) and using drugs, and going to parties, accompanied by Ferguson and others, that night.  Apparently the bars and parties were at some distance from where the murder occurred.
 
 Nevertheless, Erickson had some “lucid dreams” and believed he and Ferguson had committed the acts.  He contacted police, who, with prosecutors, manipulated Erickson into a confession and plea deal to testify against Ferguson.

Ferguson maintains he was never even at the scene (was 17 at the time) had lived normally until 2003, giving the murder almost no thought until the arrest came out of the blue.

ABC 20-20 has reported on somewhat similar case in Illinois where a conviction was obtained based on a dream.

There was no physical evidence connecting Ferguson with the crime, and the “eyewitness” testimony used for the conviction was flimsy and later retracted, as the film shows.  The prosecution made some “Brady violations” and withheld information from the defense.

The film focuses on the persistence of Ryan’s father, Bill, to will his freedom.  In time, Bill would hire attorney Kathleen Zellner, who worked pro bono on the case.  A first “habeus corpus” appeal did not work, as the system had to protect itself, but in 2013 the Appellate court in Kansas City vacated the conviction.  Zellner had to use unusual skill and cunning in handling the fact pattern to prevail. It also took a huge public relations campaign, volunteers, and billboard ads to put political pressure on the system and expose it.  Was the win on final appeal just based on the law? Or "solidarity"?  It's disturbing.

The film shows a lot of court footage (I'm surprised recording and public use was allowed), both from the original trial (in smaller aspect) and even police interrogation footage, as well as later appeals footage, with many interviews of both Bill and Zellner as well as one female witness.

There are YouTube videos about efforts to free Charles Erickson, who would also appear to be wrongfully convicted.

The film also shows how Bill and his wife Leslie traveled to northern Europe, Africa, and Australia and used their street smarts to pay their way with odd jobs before coming back to Missouri and having their family.  Bill has a close bond with his children and Ryan grew up to be very athletic.



The director, Andrew Jenks, appeared with Ryan on the Meredith Vieira Show on January 21, 2016.  Jenks said that this kind of set up could happen to almost anyone (as does Zellner near the end of the film).

The official site for the film is here  (Cinedigm).  I rented it for $4.99 HD from Amazon and watched it the morning of the Blizzard of 2016, as everything started shutting down.  The film was an official selection at Tribeca in 2015.
 
The idea that a fictitious narrative (as of a dream) can defame someone and even put someone in criminal peril has been considered on my main blog under the "implicit content label".  Self-libel in fiction is possible and can even be legally dangerous.

Picture: Kansas City Star at night, my visit, 2006.

Update: February 6, 2016

The Washington Post has an editorial about how the adversarial nature of criminal justice tends to lead to wrongful convictions, "The uptick in exonerations highlights problems in our criminal justice system".

Update: April 23, 2016

On April 20, Andrew Jenks appeared with Ferguson on the Meredith Vieira show.  Ferguson said he felt like he had to start life as an adult over at 19. Jenks says this can happen to anyone. (Ferguson appeared alone first, and I tweeted Jenks before realizing he would be on the show.)

Thursday, January 21, 2016

"Bidder 70": the story of Tim DeChristopher's protest against oil and gas leases


Bidder 70” (2012, 72 minutes), directed by Beth and George Gage, tells the storm of civil disobedience by  Tim DeChristopher and founder of Peaceful Uprising.

In late 2008, he disrupted a Bureau of Land Management auction of an oil and gas lease by making a successful bid that he had no “intention” to pay for.  The land was in southern Utah, near Canyonlands and Arches national parks.  He was indicted for making false statements in violation of the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act.  His trial was postponed several times, but was convicted and sentenced to 21 months in prison in July 2011.  Wikipedia reports a of the legal rhetoric on deterrence at the trial and sentencing here. It's interesting that the judge did not have to honor a minimum prison sentence, and could have ordered community service under court supervision instead.  The jury was instructed to rule very narrowly on the law, not sympathy to the cause.

DeChristopher had been a graduate student in economics at the University of Utah.  He maintains that carbon dioxide levels are already about what would be acceptable to keep climate change under control.   The film, while showing a lot of the scenery of the land involved, makes a digression to his protests against mountaintop removal, and it shows impressive footage of the huge Kayford Mine in southern West Virginia.

Of course, it’s ironic that the price of oil has plummeted recently, but mainly because of international competition, not directly out of concern for the environment.



The film sets its moral tone with an opening quote from Dr. Martin Luther King: “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, and must be open to the consequences.”  But we could take the moral question about self-sacrifice further:  is it to be expected from anyone who wants to be heard?

The official site is here (First Run Features).

The film can be watched on Netflix instant play or rented on YouTube for $3.99.

Wikipedia attribution link for Island in the Sky in Canyonlands, photo by Smithfl, under Creative Commons Share-Alike 3.0 license.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

"How to Change the World", documents the history of Greenpeace (and protecting whales); also, short film "World of Tomorrow"


How to Change the World” (2015), by Jerry Rothwell, documents the founding and history of Greenpeace, with Bob Hunter as the primary founder.  The group coalesced toward the end of the Vietnam war, in a world where many young men thought the right thing to do was burn draft cards and go to Canada.  (I played the system for it was, getting my own sheltering degrees before going into the Army.)

The early part of the film depicts the protests around Nixon’s nuclear test on the Aleutian island of Amchitka, which produced quite a visible earthquake shown in the film.

Later the group turned attention to the exploitation of sea mammals, most of all whales (including orcas) and later seals.  There is a scene where a female orca plays with one of the men and deliberately gives wrong responses to prove she knows what is happening.  The film says that whaling had destroyed 80% of the world’s whale population, and was continuing.



The film takes some strong moral positions, with some inevitable epigrams like “Put your body where your mouth is,” and then “Bearing witness to news is cowardice.”  You have to put your own skin (and shame) into the game.

The official site is here.  ( Madman Films and Picturehouse). The film is available on Netflix Instant play and Amazon ($3.99).

Netflix is offering a 16-minute animate short “World of Tomorrow”, by Don Hertzfeldt (Vimeo link).  A little girl meets a digital copy of her grandmother’s consciousness, from 200 years in the future, and learns how the world will end with the crash of a comet.  There are some pretty interesting ideas, about future robotic mining of the moon and life in deep space, as well as some sociology, in that poor people don’t get a good deal on consciousness storage.  But it seems that the end of the world will destroy the consciousness vessels, too.  This film is part of the list for 2016 Oscar Nominations for Short Films, Animated.

Wikipedia attribution link for Greenpeace balloon picture by Salvatore Barbero  under Creative Commons Share Alike 2.0 license.

Monday, January 18, 2016

"13 Hours:The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi" recreates the second 9/11


13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” (2016), directed by Michael Bay, is a big action film documenting the Battle of Benghazi on September 11, 2012.  It was released as a 2016 film, and not submitted to be eligible for the Oscar season.  The details of the event are probably more remote to most viewers than is the history behind comparable films like “Black Hawk Down” and “American Sniper”, which were submitted in time for Oscars in their respective years.  The film (long at 144 minutes) is more graphic in its violence than the other two, but it manages to show the major history. At the end, the closing credits tell us that Libya is a failed state falling under ISIS.  The opening credits mention the Arab Spring and the fall of Gadaffi, and Nato raids on Gadaffi that happened the same weekend that Osama bin Laden was taken out (in May 2011).

The title of the film also reminds me of “13 Days” (or “Thirteen Days”, 2000), by Roger Donaldson, about the Cuban Missile Crisis, itself very compelling history.

The attack had two parts.  A well-orchestrated attack by militants killed Ambassador Stevens (Matt Letscher) and Sean Smith.  The other part of the attack on a related compound killed two CIA “mercenary” contractors Tyrone Woods (James Badge Dale) and Glenn Doherty (Toby Stephens).

While the early portions of the film stress the machismo of the contractors, the film does show how the Islamic militants used demonstrators as cover for the early stages of the attack. I had not been aware that the CIA “hires” this many contractors for protection (if that’s the case).  The unpreparedness of the US (under Hillary Clinton's State Department -- "What difference does it make?")  for an attack is certainly shown. In the opening scenes, they’re driving around in a desert city larger than one expects as if it were no big deal.



The personal values of the contractors certainly are interesting.  One of them said that, until he got married and had kids, he needed to join a purpose higher than himself, and para-military service for the CIA in a failed state had not turned out to be that calling.  This speech came right out of George Gilder.

The film was shot in Malta and Morocco.

The official site from Paramount is here.

I saw the film at the AMC Courthouse in Arlington VA before a nearly sold out crowd (reclining seats) Sunday night.

Wikipedia attribution link for NASA photo of Benghazi, Public Domain. 

Sunday, January 17, 2016

"Son of Saul" gives a close-up look at personal redemption at a Nazi concentration camp


Son of Saul” (“Saul fia”, 2015) by Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes (co-written with Clara Royer) tells a myopic story of life in the Auschwitz concentration camp in the last days of World War II.
   
The film is shot in the older 1:37:1 aspect ratio, to give it the look of an older movie, although in full color with Dolby Digital. 

The story concerns prisoner Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig), a member of one of the Jewish Sonderkommando  work units, assigned to dispose of bodies and process them into the crematoriums.  Most members found out they would be put to death themselves after a few months. 
New prisoners are sent to showers, and told they will be fed soup and given work as crastmen when they return.  We hear their cries as they are gassed.
   
One day, a boy seems to survive, and the “doctors” have to strangle him, and then perform an autopsy.  Saul thinks the boy may be his son, whom he hasn’t seen since capture.  He fights to have a proper burial of his son as a form of personal redemption. He even attempts to enlist a rabbi (Jerzy Walczak) to help him.
   
In the course of the film, there is a rebellion and an attempt to destroy one of the crematoriums.  Toward the end, some of the prisoners, crossing a dangerous stream, may be able to escape (to Krakow) and get arms in the woods, when another boy appears.
  
The film puts into the world of regimentation, and curiously reminded me of the shock of Army Basic in 1968, when one’s own immediate short-term comfort becomes a preoccupation. 
 It does not have the epic quality of, say, Steven Spielberg’s mostly black-an-white “Schindler’s List” (1993).  But it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
       
The official site is here (Sony Pictures Classics).
   
I saw the film before a moderate late Saturday night audience at Landmark E Street in Washington DC. It did not sell out. 
   
The opening chapter of my novel manuscript “Angel’s Brother” has two men meeting at the modern day memorial site at Auschwitz-Birkenau, but the novel does not return there.  I visited it  in May 1999, and had a one-day taxi from Krakow, having arrived on a train East from Berlin. 

Wikipedia attribution note: "Auschwitz-Birkenau abgebrannte Barracken" by WeEzE - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

"Trophy Kids", a documentary about kids and helicopter parents who force competitive sports upon them


Trophy Kids” (2013), by Chris Bell (co-written with Leland Anderson), is a “reality” documentary presenting clips of the lives of kids whose parents (mostly in southern California) insist that they succeed at any cost.  The sports presented are football, basketball, tennis, and golf.

A tagline would be, “Do we want what’s best for our kids? Or do we just want them to be the best?” Is this a “me generation” for parents rather than the kids? Parts of the film were incorporated into Peter Berg’s series “State of Play” for HBO (not the same as the film).

The film opens with an individualized football practice.  The father seems to be giving the son a hard time about to paying attention to the proper body movements.  Later, the film gets into the issue of how to make the “hits”.  At this point, the helicopter dad seems unconcerned about the idea of concussions and brain damage (Dec. 25).  Later, the film makes the point that some fathers think that physical pain and major risk taking has to be required of all growing boys for them to fit in to society.

The first session about basketball is a little more positive.  A kid who maybe 78 inches all is entering high school, and puberty. 

In the tennis segment, a mom is telling her son that playing tennis is “who you are.” She also says that everything is “God’s will”.  But she complains, “You don’t want to win.”

Later, the football father gets into an argument with his (separated) wife in front of his 15 year old son his authoritarian manner in making his son “a man”. The wife says “you’re teaching him fear”.  The father asks “What have you done to earn my respect?”  The father very much takes the position that it is his prerogative to mold his son according to his own ideas as a representative of his lineage.  The wife eventually returns and is diagnosed with leukemia, and “Justus” indeed becomes the “man of the house”.


I’m reminded of some portions of the 2004 book “The Cheating Culture” by David Callahan (Book reviews, March 28, 2006), where parents do anything to get their kids to win.

HBO’s site for the derivative series is here. The film (107 minutes, Mance Media) can be viewed on Netflix.

The film should not be confused with the 2011 film by Josh Sugarman. 

Picture: Baltimore Ravens MBank Stadium, 2010;  but how many fathers really would want their sos to play in the NFL? 

Friday, January 15, 2016

"The Propaganda Game" may give the most colorful look of North Korea ever, with a candid assessment of its communist authoritarian culture


The Propaganda Game” (also called “The Korean Dream”, 2015), by Spanish filmmaker Alvaro Longoria, provides one of the most vivid and visual journeys of North Korea (the DPRK) filmed.  Of course, it must have been staged by the hermit kingdom’s government.

Alvaro is escorted by Alejandro Cao de Benos, the only western foreigner to work for the DPRK.  While de Benos is personally converted to the hyper authoritarian (and mystical) version of Communism, he admits that in the Soviet Union and China, communism fell to the aides of the leadership.

De Benos seems to believe that this cultist form of hyper-Maoism is as defendable morally as any system.  There are no crimes against individuals, only against “the people”.  It is simply the result of a different way of thinking about what society should be. He has no compunction about the trampling of individual rights in favor of some common vision.
 
The government ranks citizens by “loyalty” and gives the most loyal the apartments and food and some luxury goods, but no freedom. Everything is “free”.  The camera constantly finds space-age elliptical (“lipstick”) apartment buildings (in Pyongyang) and colorful festivals and spacious museums, and sometimes western sounding symphonic music.

The film also maintains there is no real black market in the countryside, even though people would seem to need it to survive.



The film does cover the DPRK’s sabotage of the release of Sony’s satirical film “The Interview” (Dec. 27, 2014).

China is double-faced on North Korea, which does seem like a buffer to keep US troops away from its border.

The film played at the San Sebastian film festival, and John Hopewell interviews the filmmaker in Variety. The film is distributed by E-One and Memento films (New Market?) and produced by Morena.

Wikipedia attribution link for War Museum and Hotel by Clay Gilliland, under Creative Commons 2.0 Share-Alike license.


Thursday, January 14, 2016

"Virunga": visually stunning documentary of civil war and animal conservation (gorillas) in the eastern Congo


Virunga” (2014, 100 minutes), directed by Orlando Von Einsiedel and with Leonardo Di Caprio as an executive producer, is a sweeping documentary about both animal conservation but also about sweeping history of post-colonial Africa, specifically the Congo, around Virunga National Park, on the border with Uganda and Rwanda.

The film traces the history of the Congo back to 1885, with some black and white footage, and covers the problems of colonialism (and attendant racism) that resemble one of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” episodes, on the Congo (TV blog, June 10, 2013). The film then shifts gears and covers the care of mountain gorillas in the part, especially by two rangers (Emmanuel de Merode and Rodrigue Muraguka Katembo) in the park, which gets threatened by a British oil company (SOCO)  and then by a civil war (against the government and UN) instigated by a rebel group called M23.

One of the rangers would be shot (but survive), possibly by poachers, as the end credits say. The film also has a disclaimer by SOCO of illegal behavior in the park.
 
The film has repeated stunning scenery of the park, especially of the volcano (the inside is shown) and of various lakes and forests, with many other animals (like the hippopotamus).  It could use projection on a big screen, but is mainly available online through Netflix (which distributes it).

The official site is here  (Netflix and Grain Media) and is a 2014 Bafta nominee for best documentary.



There is also a short, “Virunga: Gorillas in Peril” (28 minutes), narrated by Soledad O’Brien, which summarizes the film.

Wikipedia attribution link for the Lava Lake of the Nyiragongo Volcano, by Cal Tjennk Willink, under Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0 license. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

"Sicario" maps out the problems of the "fibbies" in carrying out the war on drugs, especially against the cartels


Sicario” (2015, directed by Dennis Villeneuve) may not be for everyone, but it does dramatize the practical problems law enforcement agents face in conducting this “war on drugs”.  Does the film support libertarian positions?

Emily Blunt plays FBI agent Kate Macer, paired with Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), who discovers corpses and other novel evidence in a big raid in Chandler AZ.  She gets a “recommend” from her boss  Dave Jennings (Victor Garber) to CIA agent Matt Garver (Josh Brolin) with a native partner Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), to help extradite drug kinpin Diaz (Bernado P. Saracino) near Cuidad Juarez, across the border from El Paso.

The ensuing scrambles (including a big scene on the Bridge of the Americas (BOTA), on the weekend that I moved to Texas in January 1979) will certainly test Kate’s ideas of law and order, and loyalty.  She finds out that there is a political agenda, to retain a certain stability, more than just prosecute, where jurisdiction matters.  There are some scenes involving the tunnels that even Donald Trump doesn’t know about yet.



This may be a spoiler, but Alejandro, at the end, forces Kate to sign a statement that they went “by the book”, at gun point.  The effect is somewhat silly.  But the film ends with a scene of kids playing soccer, which recalls the moving epilogue to a 1940s classic, “A Canterbury Tale”.

The brooding, dissonant music score (a lot of use of a half-step interval) was composed by Johann Johannson.

The official site is here  (Lionsgate and Black Label Media). Much of the film was shot in New Mexico.  The film tells us that the title means “hit man” and was also a term used during the fall of the Roman Empire.

Wikipedia attribution link for NASA photo of El Paso-Juarez area, public domain.

Rolling Stone has Sean Penn’s 17-minute interview with El Chapo, and article, online.  Fox News has a story saying that Sean Penn blames the US policies for drug violence. Sean Penn will not face legal repercussions (CBS News).   But El Chapo’s desire for movie fame may have been part of his being recaptured.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

"GMO OMG": Jeremy Seifert takes his own family through the controversy of genetically modified food


GMO OMG” (“Genetically Modified Organisms”, 2013), directed by Jeremy Seifert, shows a father, with great tenderness, taking his kids through a controversy over what he sees as healthful food – the trend over decades for agri-business to modify crops and animals genetically to increase production.

Along with that is the legal problem is that food companies like Monsanto don’t allow consumers to use expired seeds, but require them to buy new supplies. Figuring into the problem is the Supreme Court’s allowing living things or their genes to be patented.

Early, Seifert presents the event where farmers in Haiti, after the 2010 earthquake, committed themselves to burning Monsanto seeds.

The food companies say that you can’t feed the world with organic food, because the growing process isn’t efficient enough. But the film disputes that.  It says that in 1850, 68% of the population was employed in agriculture; now less than 2% of people run farms (fewer than there are prisoners).



Late in the film, Seifert visits a seed storage facility near the Arctic Circle in Norway, offering a lot of stunning scenery that called for 70 MM or Imax.  Later he visits Caen, France (where I once had to replace a car rental in 1999, so I remember the city well) to look at research on mice consuming GMO’s and getting tumors.

The official site is here  (Submarine films).  The film can be rented from Instant Play on Netflix, or from YouTube for $2.99.

Picture: my own mother's family farm.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Criterion Collection has documentary DVD of material on Francois Truffaut, including the short "Les Mistons"


The Criterion Collection offers a DVD called “Les Salades de l’amour”, a supplement for all of the films by Francois Truffaut about his auto-conceived character Antoine Donel (rather like my own “Bill Ldzet”); “The 400 Blows” is reviewed here July 21, 2011.

The main film on the collection is the 46-minute featurette, in sepia color, “Working with Francois Truffaut”, by Robert Fischer, where co-writers Claude de Givray and Bernard Revon discuss working with Truffaut.  One observation is that Truffaut liked to improvise, so writing an exact shooting script that would be honored could be difficult.  Truffaut viewed childhood and youth as a rite of passage where one is not allowed to make mistakes, which are viewed as major sins from children, whereas grownups can do what they want.  Another idea is that Truffaut was uncomfortable about society’s ambiguity about homosexuality and how gay people should be presented.  Givray mentions his military service in Algeria, and says that he had a college deferment that kept him our of France’s draft for some time.  (I have reviewed “The Battle of Algiers” (1967), by Gillo Pontecorvo, on a legacy site.)

The DVD also includes a condensed documentary simply titled “Francois Truffaut” (26 min), by Serge Leroy, where a young and handsome Francois talks a lot about his work habits, in black and white.  Truffaut talks about the vanity of some amateur filmmakers, who don't have real stories to tell.



But the most appealing item on the DVD is probably the witty 1957 18-minute short film, “The Mischief Makers”, or “Les Mistons”, in black and white, filmed around Nimes.  Five pre-pubescent boys stalk a young woman played by Bernadette Lafont, who already has a 20-ish boyfriend (Gerard Blain).  The immature teasing turns to tragedy when the boys learn that Gerard has died in a mountain climbing accident.

Wikipedia attribution link for “Les Quais”, no author given, under Creative Commons Share-Alike 2.5 license.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

"Anomalisa" has fun with its distinguished motivational speaker in a puppet world


What if I were a 3D-printed puppet manipulated a will in someone else’s model universe (maybe set up on a model railroad)?  That’s the outcome of my own 2004 screenplay “Baltimore Is Missing” (at least entered into Project Greenlight).  And the current little “stop-motion” animated satire “Anomalisa”, directed by Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman, based on Kaufman’s own play (remember “Adaptation” (2001)).

Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is a motivational speaker with a best-selling book about self-improvement.  But on a routine engagement to Cincinnati (I guess landing in Covington, KY), we find out how desolate his life is.  Although “happily” married at home, he calls an old girlfriend Bella, and the meeting in the bar is a disaster.  (“Everyone else” is voiced by Tom Noonan, so we’re fooled for a moment).

Eventually, he hooks up with another chubby soul Lisa, voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh.  We get an idea of what society expects to happen, and it gets ugly.

The physicality of the characters deserves comment.  The puppet heads are assembled in pieces, and in a nightmare dream sequence (involving a homosexual advance) Stone’s falls apart.  But he can wake up.  His body is fattish and absolutely hairless, except in one late scene where suddenly there us sine artificial forearm hair made visible.

The motivational speech scene makes Stone look pretty pathetic.  It has to.  I'm glad I'm not in the business of fixing other peoples' lives in cheesy hotel seminars.  Truth doesn't seem to matter to people who "sell" this way. But, "public speaking is easy." Laugh a little, cry a little.
I saw the film at the Landmark E Street in Washington before a light Sunday afternoon audience (over before the Redskins game).

The music score is by Carter Burwell.

The name of the “Fregoli Hotel” is interesting, because in the Fregoli Syndrome the person imagines that multiple people are the same individual (Noonan’s voice).  The film does a lot with the mundane scenery of a hotel.

The official site is here.  The film, from Starburns Industries, is distributed by Paramount, which rarely uses its “Vantage” or “Classics” trademarks anymore for films obviously intended for the arthouse audience.

The film has a Golden Globe nomination for best animated film.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

"Macbeth": Kurzel makes Shakespeare's Scotland in the Middle Ages look like another planet


We read Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” in twelfth grade when I was growing up (1960), as well as “King Lear"  and one other Shakespeare play of our own choice (I picked “Hamlet”).  We had read “Julius Ceasar” in tenth grade.  When I worked as a substitute teacher, I oversaw some class readings from both “Julius Ceasar” and “Romeo and Juliet”, the latter of which left teachers explaining now legally underage relationships to ninth graders. Anyway, our senior English teacher loaded volumes of reading on us, to prepare us for college, and used to make up tricky one-sentence-answer tests about the motives of all the characters.

The film “Macbeth” by Justin Kurzel, who also composed the brooding chamber orchestra score, is extremely violent, and shows how mature Shakespeare’s subject matter is (although high schools have generally been introducing it in earlier grades).  I’ve reviewed the contemporary setting of a post-dystopian Britain on PBS Great Performances on the TV blog Jan. 30, 2012.  But Kurzel shows that using the world of early pre-Elizathean Scotland can make for stunning visual cinema.  The photographic style here is somewhat similar to that of “The Revenant” (reviewed yesterday) but, especially toward the end, Kurzel uses mist and color filters to create an alien landscape, especially in the last scene (after Macbeth’s death) of a little boy running into a red fog. The use of mirrors and light in the preceding chapel scene looks almost like Tolkien.  The outdoor scenery is that of Scotland, perhaps in late March, as the peaks (nothing reaches 5000 feet there) have plenty of snow. This film could have used 70mm technique to capture even more detail of low-tech real life.



In fact, I would wonder if a film director would set a Shakespeare play (especially this one) on an alien planet with a primitive culture, maybe an M-star tidally locked planet with all of civilization in an annular “termination zone”, which could make for interesting politics.

As for Macbeth, the film leaves us  with the feeling that he indeed slaughtered his way to power, like ISIS.  Here’s some analysis by John Boe of his psychopathy or sociopathy. The murder of Duncan is brutal, as is the burning at the stake of women and children later.  The ghosts (“revenants”) appear often in black.

The film uses an A-list British-French cast, with Michael Fassbinder (who else?) as Macbeth, Marion Cotillard as the manipulative Lady Macbeth (“the power behind the throne” in Rosenfels polarity circles), a 40-ish Paddy Considine as Banquo, Jack Reynor as Malcom, and David Thewlis as the doomed Duncan. It must have cost something like $50 million to make.  It opened in mid December but hasn’t been seen on many screens.  Amazon Studios is one of the producers, and plans to release it to VOD “soon” (exactly when is still uncertain).  I saw this at Landmark E Street before a half-full audience Saturday afternoon a month after release (and Landmark offered only one early afternoon show a day during this past week).  Really, this film needs a big screen, every bit as much as “Star Wars”.

The official site is here (The Weinstein Company, Radius, Film4, Studio Canal, and Amazon).

I remember well seeing the 1996 Columbia film of “Hamlet” (over 4 hours with Intermission”, with the speech by Hamlet that I quoted in my first DADT book, with all the swinging from the chandeliers at the end (and the “play within a play”), in 70 mm, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh with stirring music by Patrick Doyle.
Remember, Marlon Brando plays Mark Antony and Louis Calhern plays Julius Ceasar in the BW 1953 film for MGM by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, sometimes shown in schools.

Friday, January 08, 2016

"The Revenant": this is the western that really needed 70MM


The Revenant” will teach us a new vocabulary word ( a distant synonym for “ghost”), as well as provide one of the most riveting westerns ever made.  It’s an “early” period piece, set in the northern Rockies in the 1820s, recreating daily life for frontier fur trappers and natives with great detail.  This film really needed full 70mm rather than “The Hateful Eight”. Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, it’s part art film, part horror, part blockbuster.  The director and Mark Smith adapted the frontier novel (“The Revenat: A Novel of Revenge”, published by Picador) by Michael Punke, which he could not talk about publicly because of “conflict of interest” with his government job.  If only I could achieve such.  But Punke has gotten beyond his own narrative reality.

After an opening battle with natives (quite brutal) and a brush with a river flood, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio – quite matured from the boy of “Titanic”)  wanders and comes between a momma grizzly bear and her cubs, and that’s a no-no.  The mauling scene is terrifying; ironically the carcass of the bear falls on him, stopping his bleeding as the babies howl. The men are at a lost to help, and the main confidant John FitzGerald (Tom Hardy) leads the other younger men (like Bridger, Will Poulter) to leave him for dead, actually robbing him and burying him barely alive, as the winter blizzards are starting.

But he gradually recovers, with the help of native peoples, and eventually finds the military fort where his buddies bunked down, right around New Year’s.

The final sequence is quite riveting as to how the action unfolds.  Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) seems like a better person than the rest, and should have been born in a later generation (maybe now).


The characters inhabit a world of the here and now, with no clue as to how the future will evolve.  It’s interesting that Inarritu chose a cast of largely British actors for supporting roles.

The photography is surreal, getting stunning effects with clouds and light, almost making the Rockies winter look alien.  There are subtle shots of beauty, such as when snow is melting and dripping from tree branches in brilliant sunlight with rainbow effects. The film was shot largely in Montana and Alberta. DiCaprio calls this film "epic art" which isn't made often anymore.

The official site is here.  The distributor is regular 20th Century Fox (rather than Searchlight), with Regency and RatPac as production companies.

The film opened in LA Dec. 16 (one theater) New York and LA Dec. 25 (for word of mouth), and everywhere today.  Why does Hollywood take so long into the New Year to finish its award season films? The detailed synopsis on imdb is helpful, as the action of the plot and local motivation of the events is quite intricate and dependent on the native American history of the area.

I saw the film before a half-full large auditorium at Regal Arlington Friday afternoon.

Wikipedia attribution link for p.d. picture of Banff by Gorgo  My one trip to the area happened in September 1983.

Update: Jan. 11

Ashton Kutcher's website shares Leonardo's acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, with honoring the First Nation of indigenous peoples, here.  The film won best dramatic picture.

"Tom Segura: Mostly Stories": a visit to a Seattle comedy club, and it gets raunchy (and just stay out of jail!)


Tom Segura: Mostly Stories” is a “for Internet TV” movie released by Netflix, directed by Jay Karas and Rami Hachache, short (at 73 minutes), and mostly a monologue at a comedy club in Seattle.  The general style reminds me of similar work by Kate Clinton.  The film does open with a few street shots downtown on the way to the event. (A few very successful films, like “My Dinner with Andre” and “Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary” have comprised not much more than one-person interviews.)  On this blog, one migrates from the very biggest films to the tiniest.

The comedy is indeed irreverent. It’s a little more explicit than a Minneapolis friend’s “Stay out of the penitentiary.”

Segura is rather portly and unattractive, as he has to be for this kind of comedy to even work.
 
But early on, the talks about body fascism, and admits that for a male, the most “desirable” is tall and slender and muscular, all at the same time.  He actually enjoys upward affiliation, as if it were a bit erotic for him. Later, the talk gets frankly scatological and coarse.



He talks about missing being in the office because he loves gossip and rumor spreading – the idea that you don’t have to fact check anything. He even talks about a rumor that a well-known character actor is gay.

At one point he gets into the Area 51 rumors.

Tom Segura’s own site is here.

The film (from New Wave and Pocketkife) can be rented on Netflix (with a 2016 release date).

Please note that yesterday, I created a domain for this blog (to which it redirects automatically).

Thursday, January 07, 2016

"Chinese Puzzle", the last comedy in Klapisch trilogy, does make fun of immigration rules


Chinese Puzzle” (“Casse-tete chinois”, 2014) is the third of a trilogy of comedies called “Spanish Apartment” directed and written by Cedric Klapisch, using actor Romain Duris as Xavier Rousseau, going through young manhood and now age 40, still as womanizing and “self-inflated” as ever.  (The other two films are “L’auberge espagnole” (2002) and “Les poupees russes” (“Russian Dolls”, 2005).)  Somehow I am reminded of another trilogy by Krzysztof Kieslowski (Oct. 15, 2008)  about the three colors, but this one is more off the wall and not to be taken as too grim.
       
Xavier is still a writer, a novelist (well, isn’t everybody?) and now he is in more direct supervision of an editor or literary agent to keep him from falling into the black hole of midlist sales.  When Wendy (Kelly Reilly), mother of his two kids, leaves him and falls in love with a Chinese man (and she wants to have a  baby by him) and moves across the pond, like a stalker he moves to the Big Apple himself and sets up life in Chinatown or the East Village.  Pretty soon he is confounded by Village geography, where numbers run out an avenues around Tompkins Square Park are named by letters, and where, on the West (gay) side, West 4th Street runs into West 11th.  (I used to live on E. 11th, between 5th Avenue and Broadway.)



 His life is made interesting by various misdaventures.  He gives some of his sperm away so a lesbian can get pregnant.   But more interesting is the way he gets work, off the books, since he has only a tourist visa.  There’s this fat man who says he isn’t supposed to tell him this, but if he lets the fat man take care of everything, he can earn a nice illegal income.  He becomes a bike messenger, which in New York City is dangerous work, risky getting struck in every block.  Some messengers do shave their legs.

The word "chinese puzzle" has been applied to more challenging works, like Clive Barker's novel "Imajica", which we hope will become a TV series.
 
The official site is here (Cohen Media Group and Studio Canal).

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

"The Good Lie" (based on the "Lost Boys of Sudan") is particularly relevant in today's refugee debate


The Good Lie” (2014, directed by Phillippe Falardeau and written by Margaret Nagle) used a double metaphor for its title.  There is a classroom scene, where the Sudanese refugees are in an English class and one of them tells the appropriate story from “Huckleberry Finn”. There is another one near the end of the film, where Mamere (Arnold Oceng), having returned to Kenya, gives Theo (Femi Oguns) his passport (and his identity) so that Theo can have the chance to live in America, while Mamere stays in Africa and works in a clinic, which he loves.

The film, released commercially in October 2014, now seems particular poignant and relevant given the debate over refugees. Later in the film, the script makes a lot of how 9/11 made the US much touchier in dealing with refugees, much as the debate has intensified because of ISIS and the Paris and San Bernadino attacks.

The back story starts years before, with the second Sudanese civil war.  Some young adults and kids escape, and walk 700 miles to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, after families are massacred.  Years later, four siblings win a “lottery” to emigrate to the United States.  Abital is taken by a host family in Boston, and the three brothers are settled in Kansas City, where they are placed in an apartment.  Volunteers and employees from a faith-based agency help the refugees, most notably Carrie Davis (Reese Witherspoon) who has to be aggressive in going to bat for them.

Mamere and his brothers have difficulty accepting western individualism and bureaucratic selfishness (like grocery stores where they work throwing away expired food, that could be given away).  The family has never had the benefit of a stable commercial infrastructure that makes individualism possible (we take it for granted.)  The brothers have grown up with a very collective and sharing idea of practicing Christianity. Having once said that white people are born without skin, now the kids ask Carrie why she doesn’t have a husband so she will have kids who take care of her.  She answers that she takes care of herself.
Later there is a Christmas party for the “Lost Boys” before Mamere’s return.

“If you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together”.


 The film was shot in Georgia and South Africa.

The official site is here  (Warner Brothers, Alcon, Black Label Media, Reliance, and Imagine).
 
This is the sort of film that a high school social studies teacher could show in class, along with a video worksheet to capture plot and character details, especially of the beginning and end of the movie.
 
The film follows on earlier small works, like “The Boys of Baraka” and “Lost Boys of Sudan” (two films,, including “God Grew Tired of Us”), “Darfur Now” and “On Our Watch”.

Picture: Kansas scene (mine, 2006).

Monday, January 04, 2016

"SlingShot" depicts the work of inventor Dean Kamen, emphasizing his water purification system for third world countries


SlingShot” (2015), directed by Paul Lazarus, is named after the water purification machine from inventor Dean Kamen  (born, 1951), his most recent major invention.

Kamen expects the machine to be used to bring potable water to most of the world’s developing countries.  He has partnered with Coca Cola in Atlanta to deliver the product, because that company has the most experience of any corporation on the planet selling in large numbers of small countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.  The latter portion of the film shows many third world locations (like Ghana) where the machines are being installed.

Mr. Kamen may have been best known as the inventor of the Segway. He lives in a custom-built house near Manchester NH with a 3-D puzzle-like layout with secret passageways, almost like a museum.  Halfway through the film, he defends his decision not to sire his own children, because raising kids requires so much sacrifice of one’s own attention to one’s personal calling.  He decided that his own inventions would give back far more to the world.  Some would see this as a morally controversial decision.

Kamen’s inventions display a mastery if mechanical engineering.  I have a friend who recently graduated from Virginia Tech in that discipline.  It sounds less “glamorous” than EE, super computers, of particle physics.  The work of Taylor Wilson with nuclear fusion (Book reviews, Nov. 14, 2015) makes a comparison.  Kamen’s creativity is a bit like my own fathers, very much about “working with your hands”.

Dean Kamen’s work in the third world follows that of other philanthropy, which has emphasized water projects. (See Book reviews page, June 2, 2007, for some other projects.)  Some commentators, such as at Vox media, have recently written essays saying that the best way to help poor people in other countries is to give them cash (like through Give Direct or Give Well) because they know what they need.  But I would think that what they need help with is infrastructure.  Matt Damon has supported a water projects.  Of course, they need medical support (hopefully elimination of Ebola, and eventually HIV and malaria, with vaccines).



I will not give the link to the director’s site (provided by imdb), because Kaspersky gave me a malware warning  (for an indirectly linked site with an “.ru” extension, for Russia).  Don’t know if it is valid. The director should look into this.
 
Dean's entrepreneurial work could be compared to that of "Joy" in the movie reviewed Jan. 2.

The film has won awards at many local film festivals, as in Boston and Florida.  It is available on Netflix instant play and Amazon ($3.99).  The production company was White Dwarf (that is, a type of star).

The picture above is of Bear Camp Pond in New Hampshire, south of the White Mountains (my trip, 2011).

Saturday, January 02, 2016

"Joy": the street smarts for a woman who makes it big in a home-products business


Joy” (2015, directed by David O. Russell), a biographical film somewhat loosely following the career of Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence) certainly fills a place as a feel-good “conservative” film vindicating capitalism, suitable especially for Fox.

Joy, having married and divorced a handsome singer (Edgar Ramirez) works as a clerk for an airline somewhere in Amish areas of eastern Pennsylvania. One day she cuts her hand trying to mop a floor after dropping glass, and comes up with the idea of a self-wringing mop.

In time, she is meeting a “pre shark tank” personality Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), who sets her up with an actor to pitch her product on QVC, although Joy has to put up the money to manufacture thousands of units. The actor fumbles using it, and there are no calls, so Joy will lose everything. She, as a true movie heroine, bangs on desks (that’s just business) and Neil gives her a chance to pitch it herself.  She freezes on stage, but a lone caller (maybe prearranged) breaks the ice.  Quickly (and its around 1990) the product takes off.

But then the manufacturers pull some patent trolling and fraud on her, which she solves when she learns to be even more aggressive as a businesswoman, as demonstrated in a stagy-looking trip to Dallas.  Electronic Frontier Foundation might have something to say about the patent law abuse in the movie plot.



The film demonstrates how “commodified” most business is.  There is the “always be closing” mentality, and aggressive pimping and courting of buyers. (In one scene, Neil describes his life as a buyer for K-Mart). I’ve run into this myself with my own authored books – being quizzes as to why I don’t promote them as individual copies of a commodity more aggressively, to make a living off of them the way most “real people” have to.

I didn't see any mention of multi-level marketing, but that sounds like something that could be used in businesses like Joy's.  What is used is the "1-800" push, often skipping major stores.
 
The film  is distributed by 20th Century Fox, without Cinemascope, and Fox played games with its usual fanfare. Annapura (which makes politically important films but has usually worked with Columbia or Warner Brothers) is a major production company.

The film was shot in Massachusetts. Most of the outdoor scenes, with the cars, look earlier than 1990.
I saw the film at Angelika Mosaic before a nearly sold-out audience late Saturday afternoon.

Friday, January 01, 2016

"The Cry of the Owl" is a somewhat stereotyped thriller based on a Highsmith novel


The Cry of the Owl” is the eighth novel of Patricia Highsmith and seems to have been filmed three times. This review concerns the 2007 mystery film directed by Jamie Thraves and filmed around Toronto (although the script refers to New York) with financing from German, Canadian and BBC sources.
 
The film sets up the improbable situation where a thirty-something man Robert Forrester (Paddy Considine) stalks a young woman Jenny (Julia Stiles) living in distant suburbs, and, after an awkward confrontation (he surely feels ashamed when caught) the woman welcomes him into her life.

Robert is growing through a messy divorce with Nickie (Caroline Dhavernas); in one early scene in front of lawyers, she teases him by pretending to retract the divorce. And Jenny has broken up with a very jealous Greg (James Gilbert).  She says to him she wishes she had never met him.

Predictably, confrontations occur between Robert and Greg, which result in Greg’s disappearance and apparently faked drowning, aimed at getting Robert in trouble and fired from his job.  Jenny and Nickie meet, and Nickie says that some people are just poison in your life.  But eventually Greg returns, and in a complicated sequence Robert is left as a suspect in the throat-slashing of Nickie.

The book apparently goes more into a cross relationship between Nickie and Greg, and apparently Highsmith had modeled Nickie after woman with whom she had broken up in real life.

The pace of the film seems too frantic toward the end to be believed.  Robert seems like a pathetic stool pigeon (not an “owl”) but that’s a symptom of stalkers.


 
The DVD is distributed by Paramount (Vantage) for BBC and Myriad Pictures.