Monday, February 29, 2016

"Genius on Hold": How "regulated monopoly" drove inventor Walter Shaw to work for the mob


Genius on Hold” (2012), directed by Gregory Marquette, is about as clear-cut documentary argument for libertarianism (with compassion and non-aggression, as Mary Ruwart argues in her “Healing Our World” books) as ever.  This film is a tragic biography of inventor Walter L. Shaw , who had worked for AT&T before the 1950s, and also a history of the “regulated monopoly” ATT, as an example of corporatocracy, which finally started to break in the 1980s.

Shaw started inventing things to enhance phone service on his own, but ATT would not install them or let him earn income from them after he quit to go into business for himself.  He was actually given a direct commission to work with the Bell System in designing the communications system called the “Dew Line” to defend the US from Soviet ICBMs during the 1950s, and also on the “red phone” system connecting the US to the Kremlin (like during the Cuban Missile Crisis). After he came back, he fell into poverty because of the Bell system monopoly that would not even buy from him, even as he registered many patents of innovations that would help consumers.
 
Shaw got a “job” in New York making undetectable phone equipment for the Mafia’s gambling operations. His many inventions would eventually become a staple of modern pre-cellular phone service, like the speakerphone, call forwarding and "UFO" conference calling. The ethical and legal dilemmas for the gambling operation somewhat parallel those of the Apple-FBI debate today, about which Tim Cook is passionate.  In time, he would get called before Congress, not completely take the Fifth, and eventually get arrested, apparently three times, and do prison twice, the second stint a four year federal stint, one for each illegal call.

Even so, the regulatory climate started to loosen in the 1970s as ATT started losing in court, despite the FCC.  In fact, Steve  Jobs and Wozniak have said there might have been no Apple computer company without Shaw’s illegal inventions.

Much of the film comprises interviews with his daughter (from a Manhattan highrise0 and son Theo, who rebelled “against the rich” and became a notorious jewel thief, casing the homes of the wealthy mostly in Florida, and did eleven years in prison.



Shaw would develop aggressive prostate cancer and be castrated, before dying penniless in 1996, at age 80.

The film toward the end shows how the "corporate state" discourages competition, keeps consumer prices high, and encourages political problems that can lead to fascism (think about Donald Trump now, bashing "Little Rubio").
 
The official site is here  (Fresstyle releasing).  The film can be watched on Netflix instant play.

My first job offer in 1970 after getting out of the Army was with Bell Labs in Whippany, NJ.  I had also interviewed BellComm at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington DC.  I would start at RCA instead.  But I wonder if the job I turned down had to do with the “red phone” system Shaw had once worked on.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Chris Rock parodies the race controversy at the Oscars quickly; a good short film about "social networks"


Sunday night, Chris Rock came out (pun) onto the Oscar’s stage in a white suit, and went into his comedy routine about the race resentments not only over nominations for the Oscars, but to some extent, who gets important parts.

Rock later suggested that there be “Best Black…” categories, as if race could be a language suffix like gender.   He also gave examples where politically correct casting would destroy “history” (like for “The Danish Girl”).

When I was substitute teaching, Chris Rock spoke at a high school assembly (in the spring of 2007) about avoiding drug abuse.

Joe Biden would appear, and asked everyone to take a pledge to intervene in sexual abuse situations, to “change the culture” (“It's On Us” ).  Lady Gaga then sang “Til It Happens to You” from “The Hunting Ground”.

Today, as a pre-show, I watched a few short films.  The best was a 15-minute comedy from Australia, “The Anti-Social Network”, by Shae-Lee Shackleford.  Lucas George (Sam McMilan) plays a robust, likeable guy who works at an animal shelter and buddies with two cats at home.  He’s also addicted to Facebook.  That turns off a girl friend, in a confrontation that occurs with a splendid view of the Sydney harbor.  Then Facebook goes black. (Use Twitter.) He learns his lesson.  We need to see more of his cats.



Alone”, with Brock Rorunksi (6 min), shot in Nova Scotia, shows a young man who believes everyone else in the world has suddenly perished.  But maybe not.

Bully”, from Indonesia and Tara Arts (directed by Diwan Tara), is an odd tale about a young man who cyber-bullies and hacks people’s phones by IP address, until one of his “victims” hunts him down at home.  It’s a bizarre film with an engaging piano music score.

You can try “How English Sounds to non-English Speakers” (5 min) by Brian Fairbain.

And also Grim Film and Jared Chan ask “What If Money Did Not Exist?” Maybe on another planet somewhere everything is barter.  Or maybe all transactions are by bitcoin, because the “block chain” is a mathematical idea that any advanced civilization will discover.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

"Deadpool" takes the superhero idea into an unpleasant area


Deadpool”, directed by Tim Miller, is the eighth of the “X-Men” franchise from Marvel, a bit more adult (R rated) and unpleasant than most, but doing fairly well as an early year release.
 
The title comes from the name the “super hero” and former Green Beret and then mercenary, played by Ryan Reynolds, takes on after a horrific medical procedure (from Ajax – Ed Skrein) leaves him horribly disfigured as the karma price for his super powers and being cured of unspecified cancers.
 
It really isn’t funny, as a possible metaphor for mutilation from cancer surgery and the humiliation of total hair loss of chemotherapy, although the latter is usually reversible.  Sometimes bloating and weight gain happen.  A pastor recently mentioned a case where spinal surgery for cancer paralyzed a young man for life, when the cancer itself had not.
 
Superheroes have undergone disfigurement before.  At the end of season 2 of "Smallville", teen Clark Kent's chest is disfigured by the alien beam, but the scars go away before season 3 (he spends the summer in the Phantom Zone, maybe).

Reynold’s voice makes fun of the situation with wisecracks all the time, even when he cuts off his own arm (mentioning Anthony Rallston and “127 Hours”), to see a baby’s hand start growing back. He even thinks the disfigurement is reversible until almost the end.

T.J. Miller appeals as the bartender Weasel, Wade’s best friend, as does his girl friend, played by Morena Baccarin. She has to feel attraction to him even after the disfigurement.



The film was shot in Vancouver and made by Marvel for Fox with Australian resources.

The official site is here.

I saw the film at Angelika Mosaic Saturday afternoon before a fair crowd, in its third week.

Friday, February 26, 2016

"Battle for Skyark": Another sci-fi story about when the privileged few build themselves an escaped "ark"


Battle for Skyark” (2016), directed by Simon Hung and written with Guy Malim, is another Earth “evacuation” sci-fi story.

But this time, the chosen survivors are living in a space city or “Noah’s ark” hovering above Earth, in a fascist culture. The official explanation is that the Earth was overrun with alien, mutant-looking monsters.

The kids of the “rebels” get sent back to deal with surviving among the monsters.  In this sense, the setup reminds one of a combo of “The 100” (without Richard Harmon) with “Lord of the Flies”.  The rebel lead’s son, Rags (Caon Mortensen) plays ring leader.  The kids descend in crude vessels, and their forearms are machine-disfigured with brazen blood tattoos that would prevent the later appearance of manly hair.
In time, Rags discovers the explanation of the aliens, which is rather transparent but gives new inspiration.



The movie doesn’t show a whole lot of life on the aerial city, or what it’s “world” looks like to live in.  A “rama” it is not.

A possible comparison could be made to “Dark City” (2002).

The official Facebook page is here. The DVD can be rented from Netflix.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

"Risen" is pretty effective in presenting the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ as a miracle, extraterrestrial in origin


Risen”, directed by Kevin Reynolds, recreates the Ascension from the viewpoint of a Roman tribune Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), who has been tasked to find the missing body of Jesus (Luis Callejo) by Pilate (Peter Firth). The details of the story (by Reynolds) are somewhat speculatively fictitious, like a historical novel could be.

As Clavius investigates, he softens his heart a bit, and goes from interrogation to nearly bonding with the disciples, like in the “free fish” scene on the Sea of Galilee, just before Jesus cures a leper (whose disfigurement is way overdone as to what would really happen).  When Clavius meets Mary Magdelene (Maria Botto), his change of heart begins.  Otherwise, women figure into the script very little.  The fellowship of the disciples is quite warm and is almost “gay”.

If someone “like me” lived in that world, around Jerusalem, this would have been the most important event that could occur.  Without modern science, people had no practical choice but to look to religious authorities for explanations of the world, and of miracles.

The Ascension scene shows Jesus going up in “ball lightning” (or Rydberg matter), as if it were a UFO and Jesus were a benevolent “alien” as well as a savior.  So I can watch a series like Smallville, with a teen hero with “powers” (who is an “alien”), contemplate someone like that with awe if he really did exist, and then see it would be seen as idol worship.  But there is still nothing else but the authority of others – and personal faith.



The film was shot in Spain (the desolation of the landscape is impressive). This time, Sony is using Columbia Pictures (rather than  TriStar) to release its Christian Affirm Films product.  The style of the film is gentler (and less emphatic with conventional spectacle) than, say, Mel Gilson’s “The Passion of the Christ” or even the 1953 classic "The Robe".

The official site is here.

I saw the film at the AMC Courthouse before a light audience on a Thursday evening.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

"Hotline" examines the world of counseling people over the phone (but not with Internet chat)


Hotline” (2014), directed by Tony Shaff, starts with a scene of a New York City tenement with light snow falling.  Soon we hear a caller taking to a suicide hotline.

The film then branches into a number of areas, most of all LGBT hotlines, which were very important from the 1960s through the 1980s, particularly as AIDS entered the picture. The film even later makes the point that today, causes like gay marriage equality, which is viewed as rather abstract and theoretical by some people, has diluted the importance of helping people come out, although some of that emphasis has also shifted to transgender.

The explores the world of volunteering for hotlines, and also working on the job as a professional counselor, as one young man, with connections to country music, explains from his interesting apartment near downtown Nashville.

It also presents the idea that the telephone, introduced late in the 19th Century, was revolutionary compared to mail and the telegraph.  This was the first time you could get instantaneous feedback from a person without his or her having to be present.  Compare that to Skype today.

The film also explores sex hotlines, where looks don’t matter to work on one, but voice does.  It also explores psychics, introducing one, Miss Cleo who has created some legal controversy.


The film (Gravitas) could be compared to the 2014 documentary HBO short “Crisis Hotline” reviewed here Feb. 3, 2015.

It is available on Netflix instant play.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

"What Happened, Miss Simone?": biography of a classical musician who had to "adapt"


What Happened, Miss Simone?” (2015) is a moving biography directed by Liz Garbus of Nina Simone  (1933-2003), born in North Carolina as Eunice Kathleen Waymon.

She aspired to become a classical pianist, and attended Julliard for a while, but couldn’t afford to continue because of tuition. She applied to Curtis in Philadelphia and believe she was turned down because of race. She needed to make a living and began to play “cocktail piano” and sing in clubs in Atlantic City (to help support other family members).  She used her classical training to enrich jazz and soul music with counterpoint when improvising.  Beside Bach, she had a background with Liszt and Rachmaninoff, but it was earlier “baroque” music that could be adopted in a soul environment much more readily than more opulent romanticism. Her artistic journey would change her into "The High Priestess of Soul".
   
She began to follow the Civil Rights movement.  The film covers the bombing in Birmingham in 1963, and the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968.  She took on the idea of “civil rights music”.

Later she would want to live “African” and moved to Liberia.  When she had to make a living again, he went to Switzerland and then France, and times got tougher.  She would go on medication for bipolar disorder (or manic-depression), and the meds could affect her playing.  Still, she sometimes worked.  In one concert, she calls out a customer in a Paris club and orders him to sit down.



Simone’s story illustrates the practical reality of life for many artists and musicians.  They have to sell their work.  That can sometimes mean changing artistic tastes.  Sometimes Simone would say she wished she could have remained classical and “non-political”.  Even today, that is sometimes an issue with some classical composers and musicians.  Some composers have to come up with clever. “impure” ideas for mash-ups of other people’s music to get commissions.  In other countries, especially the former Soviet Union, classical composers (like Shostakovich) have been throttled or harassed to satisfy a popular, politically acceptable style.  That theme even occurs in Francois Truffaut’s films.
 
I've seen people graduate from conservatory and wind up managing companies that telemarket symphony concerts to ordinary consumers.  Indeed, a real adaptation.

At the end, the film poses the question, “Will you be allowed to be who you really are?”

Sundance site is here;  also, here is a site for Nina.

The film is available on Netflix instant play, and Netflix helped produce the film with Radical Media. The film did have a brief run at Landmark E Street in the summer of 2015.  It is nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

Monday, February 22, 2016

PBS airs a double sting, by FBI and documentary filmmakers, in Pittsburgh in "(T)error", resulting in wrongful conviction


David Felix  Sutcliffe and Lyric R. Cabral direct “(T)error”, on PBS Independent Lens, aired tonight at 10 PM (90 minutes).

This is truly layered, covert documentary storytelling.  Saeed, a Muslim of African descent with a troubled past, is “hired” by the FBI to work as an informant in Pittsburgh and expose a possible terror cell.  He is not supposed to tell them to do anything (that would be legal entrapment) but he can “goad”.

He is supposed to “bust” Tarik Shah, but is in turn led to a puffy white kid from the UK, Khakifah, deep into religion and behind in child support payments.

In the meantime, the filmmakers were contacted by both Saeed and Khalifah, unbeknownst to each other.  The filmmakers do both sides of the story without the counter-party’s knowledge.  I don’t recall hearing about this kind of setup in the movies before.

The FBI arrests both after indictments, and for Khalifah the grounds seem to be flimsy (with no evidence of terror connections), Khaifah is interviewed by a civil liberties attorney.  But in the end, he is convicted for a weapons charge to eight years, with sentence augmented due to an earlier conviction. The weapons charge was proven by a Facebook post already six years old.

But there is another wrinkle, as Klaifah also has posted on social media he believes he is being framed. There is a little subplot where he apparently blocks Saeed – I think on Instagram.  If the film comes out soon on a DVD, the DVD should include a featurette explaining this.  “Blocking” works differently on various platforms and is always not particularly effective (Vox and “The Verge” notwithstanding for advocating the measure).  I was blocked by someone on Twitter a couple months back in circumstances that seem bizarre, to me at least. Art follows life, I guess.

The public is fortunate to see this important 84-minute film “free” on PBS.  It could well have been picked up by HBO, or held first for the festival circuit (especially AFI Docs).  I think it ought to have a theatrical release with Landmark (maybe the West End in DC) and Magnolia Pictures, so that it could get into next year’s Oscars for documentary.  PBS could lose the banners on the bottom and let the film play without interference. It does appear that the film was available in early 2015, so it ought to have been in the 2015 contest, really.



Official Facebook page is here.  To decipher the title, spell "Terror" as "T" and "Error".

The directors’ review is here.  The filmmakers’ own websites don’t seem to resolve yet. One could compare the directoral style to the work of Andrew Jenks (Jan. 22), who likes to go undercover.

For the record, here are the 2016 Oscar nominees.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

"A War" presents the moral ambiguities of combat for a Danish commander in Afghanistan


A War” (2015, “Krigen”, directed by Tobias Lindholm), depicts the tribulations of a Danish unit and one particular commander, Claus Pederson (Pilou Asbaek), as part of coalition forces in Afghanistan, detailed to protect civilians.  The military scenes were actually filmed in Jordan.  It is nominated for best foreign language film of 2015, I think it may well deserve the Oscar.   It is quite gripping, in portraying the fog of war and all the moral (and legal) ambiguities of command decisions. It also portrays life at home for the wives and kids. A possible comparison is “American Sniper”; however, as with "A Hijacking", Lindholm's style tends toward dissection of the material.

In the opening sequence, on patrol, a young soldier steps on an IED.  His legs are blown off (one of the amputations shows on camera), and he quickly bleeds to death.  I felt relieved, not wanting to contemplate the idea of expecting someone to love "you" for life when disfigured, maimed.  Soon, another soldier, himself of apparently Muslim ancestry but very dedicated to protecting his homeland from the Taliban, confesses to Claus that he was supposed to be the soldier in that particular position.

Later, this solider is himself badly wounded in another patrol in a village.  To save the soldier from more firepower, Claus calls in an air strike, which results in the deaths of eleven civilians, including women and children.  He is prosecuted for causing their deaths by not following proper procedures in identifying the presence of the enemy, potentially a war crime. But he had no time for a decision.



The courtroom scenes, with principals in civilian clothing, occupy the last third of the two-hour film.

The deportment of the principals in court is low key and matter-of-fact.  The prosecutor and judge are female. The non-committal language “going down a path we don’t want to go” is used by both sides. There is a surprising plot twist in the courtroom drama near the very end.

The official site is here (Magnolia Pictures).

I saw the film late Sunday afternoon at Landmark E street. I was surprised the audience wasn’t larger.

First picture: From Ft. Jackson, SC, my visit, Sept. 2015 (I took Basic there in 1968).

Saturday, February 20, 2016

"The Last Metro": Truffaut presents a theater in Paris under Nazi occupation


The Last Metro” (1980, “Le Dernier Metro”) is one of the most compelling of Francois Truffaut’s meta-films, dealing with a Gentile wife’s (Marion Steiner, played by Catherine Deneuve) hiding her Jewish husband Lucas (Heinz Bennett) in the basement during the Nazi occupation of Paris, while she does all the work of producing plays at the Theater Montmartre.

In fact, she puts on the Norwegian play, “La Disparue” (“The Woman Who Disappeared”), hires a leading man Bernard (Gerard Depardieu), who will close a love triangle.  The theater carries on underground tolerance, with a homosexual director (Jean Poiret) and lesbian designer (Andrea Ferreol).

The title of the film refers to the fact that patrons would come to escaped unheated homes, and need to catch the last train home to make curfew. The little documentary introduction explains this fact.  It’s interesting that plays and movies kept performing in Paris.

The script contains clues all along of the daily subterfuges.  Actors have to undress to prove they are not “Jewish” (circumcised).  Mail keeps coming to the theater for Lucas, despite the official pretense he had left for South America.  A system of bribes for getting people to the “free zone” is well described.

The film has one subtle villain, Daxiat (Jean Pierre Richard), a writer and critic who anticipates today’s issue of “bad reviews”.  He warns Marion when Lucas’s papers are found, and offers never to write badly about him.  Then he chastises the Norwegian play for its Jewishness.  Near the end, he threatens the theater by trying to take part control of it (a “hostile takeover”), which could expose Lucas. The very end, in a sense, reminds one of "The Sound of Music".
 
The Nazi’s, just like the Communists, wanted to use writers and artists for total public mind control – propaganda.  We saw it with McCarthyism, and we see it with Vladimir Putin in Russia today as well as with China.

Technically the film, while quiet, is garish, with lots of saturated reds.  Some devices from Hitchcock are used, such as characters seen talking through a translucent window.



The DVD from the Criterion Collection and Janus Films offers the film on one disc, and extras on another.

By Tom S. - The English Wikipedia attribution link . Public Domain, 

Friday, February 19, 2016

"The Club": On the Chilean coast, the Catholic church runs a halfway-house purgatory for disgraced priests, and prepares to turn them loose


The Club” (2015, directed by Pablo Larrain), gives a feel of living in a purgatory, a soft of after-life, in a home for at least  disgraced Catholic priests, in a small town on the coast of Chile, with a limited, misty landscape. They are supervised by a nun Sister Monica (Antonia Zegers), who isn’t afraid to make rules (limited visits by foot into town, no cell phones, no masturbation, and maybe having to give up a beloved dog).

A main plot thread is the arrival of a Jesuit counselor Garcia (Marcelo Alsono), who talks of shutting the place down, which could lead the residents to wander to their deaths in abject poverty and homelessness, a living hell. Another new arrival is the pedophile (Jose Soza), pursued by a victim (Roberto Farias).  The other four have disgraceful histories somewhat based on fact;  a weasel played bt Alfredo Castro, a chaplain who may have committed war crimes (Jaime Vadell), a man who kidnapped babies (Alejandro Goic), and a man with dementia (Alejandro Sieveking).

The men tell Garcia their fantasies, all right and make a case got what homosexuality offers them, compared to the raw procreation and physical complementarity of heterosexual unions.  The dialogue gets really explicit as to anatomical deals as to what they “do” (we know they aren't circumcised).  But sometimes the script also seems to get into the area of Paul Rosenfels’s idea of polarities. A couple of the men pose the idea that homosexuality offers a Maslow-like peak experience or high tht is impossible with a "functionable" heterosexuality.
 
Official site is here (Music Box Films).  The story was created and written by the director, along with Guillermo Calderon and Daniel Villalobos.

The music score has a lot of work for unaccompanied cello, by Benjamin Britten and especially Arvo Part  (“Fratres”).

I saw the film at Landmark E Street on the early show Friday night before a small, older male audience, which was cracking jokes about the film as we left the auditorium.

Picture: Cape Cod, mine, Aug. 2015.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

"Coherence": an extemporaneous sci-fi movie about doppelgangers showing up at a dinner party after a comet passes.


Coherence” (2013, directed by James Ward Byrkid, written with Alex Manuglan)  is somewhat a game-board party-game science fiction movie, made on a shoe-string.

The premise is that a bunch of LA yuppies are at a dinner party on the night that a comet is supposed to pass close to Earth. Weird stuff happens:  a cell phone splits, then the Internet goes out, then all the power, but the lights are on a few doors down.  Think of “Melancholia”.  I don't think a comet can cause an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) effect.  The script does mention the Tunguska explosion over Siberia in 1908, and a bizarre comet event in Finland in 1923.

When some members of the party go to the house to investigate, all bets are off.  There is talk of quantum incoherence, and then people seem to find their doubles from alternate realities.  And people (especially women) may not want their doppelgangers to survive them. This comes close to the body-snatcher genre.

An element of the story is a box (like in a Richard Kelly movie), with pictures of all the people inside, each with a number.  And then there are hard-copy books with arcane information (almost with the flavor of my own DADT series).

The film was shot by an ensemble crew without a shooting script.  It seems to have been somewhat ad-libbed (like “Irreversible”, Sept. 17).  The film is very “talky”, as are most “party” mystery movies.



The cast includes Emily Baldoni, Maury Sterling, Nicholas Brendon, Loreen Scarfia, Elizabeth Gracen, Hugo Armstrong, and Lauren Maher.  But this is the sort of material that could have appealed to actors and artists like Jesse Eisenberg and Reid Ewing (but then add some scarce Schrodinger’s cats and dogs).
 
The official site is here (Oscilloscope).

The character of the film resembles that of “Primer” (2004), a low-budget sci-fi film about time travel by Shane Carruth, set in Dallas.

The “Behind the Scenes” featurette is by Steve Graham.

For a new short film, try the partially animated character costume comedy “PEEJ” by Butter Balls (6 min), link.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

"45 Years": an elderly couple's passion is disrupted by the distractions of memories of youth


45 Years”, directed by Andrew Haigh, based on a short story (“In Another Country”) by David Constantine, about an old-age married couple (in Norfolk, England) dealing with memories of youth that cold prove disruptive to the intimacies in the relationship.

Tom Courtenay (a young man in “Dr. Zhivago”), as Geoff Mercer, and Charlotte Rampling, as Kate, are a childless couple approaching their 45th wedding anniversary.  We learn that they had missed a 40th anniversary party because Geoff had a medical emergency, which we later deduce was coronary bypass surgery by seeing the huge scar on his hairless chest. The couple has remained passionate, however, until Geoff learns of the discovery of the body, frozen in youth, of a former girl friend, who had fallen in a winter accident while skiing or hiking in Switzerland (maybe an avalanche). Kate fears that Geoff will be caught up in the fantasies of seeing the looks of a younger woman.

Indeed, the “family values” debate sometimes runs around the fear that “traditional marriages” will not form and sustain themselves (especially when there are children to raise) in a culture that values youth and lookism so much.  There is no reason why this couldn’t be a concern in the same-sex marriage world now. But unattached older singles who refuse to consider possible mates “within their range” could be perceived as a disruptive social problem.


The film never leaves the fuzzy English countryside.  I was expecting a flashback, but all of that was verbal.

The official site is here

I saw the film at the AMC Shirlington at the early show tonight before a light crowd. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

"National Parks Adventure", Imax documentary, gives the consumer a quick, visually stunning tour in less than an hour


Greg MacGillivray’s “National Parks Adventure”, a 45-minute documentary in IMAX-3D, plays now at the National Museum of Natural History (while the Air and Space theater is remodeled). Indeed, it is a like a quick vacation tour for a movie ticket price.

The film has so many shots that it doesn’t identify them all, but included are the Grand Canyon, AZ, Grand Teton and Yellowstone in Wyoming, Devils’ Tower, Wyoming (remember “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”), Rewoods, un California (“Vertigo”), Yosemite and Kings Canyon in California, Glacier in Montana (and Waterton in Alberta), many of the thirteen parks in Utah, the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho, Crater Lake in Oregon, Hawaii Volcanoes, Denali-McKinley in Alaska, the Everglades in Florida, and Pictured Rocks National Seashore on Lake Superior in upper Michigan.

There is a touching backstory, about the leader, a late-50s fitness guru Conrad Anchor has adopted or raised as a stepson a now-late 20s son who accompanies him with a girl friend, also an extreme sports practitioner, after the kid’s father died in a mountaineering accident.

Indeed, it’s the fitness scenes that are the most compelling.  All three adults sprint up steep slope in Utah’s parks (echoing Tom Foreman’s “My Year of Running Dangerously”, Book Reviews, Feb. 1), rappel up spires in Utah, or up Devil’s Tower, and perform lively mountain biking in Utah’s deserts.

Near the Devil's Tower (which is actually still on the Great Plains, like the Black Hills), the documentary digresses to present the prairie dog, recalling Walt Disney's "The Vanishing Prairie" in the 1950s.

In Alaska, there is a scene of young bear cubs learning to fish for spawning salmon, with open mouths and not debit cards.

Visually, the most original scene may be the Ice ballroom in a cave along Lake Superior.



There’s also a scene where they dive-bomb in water rafts into Lake Powell, near the Hoover Dam.

The film brought back some memories of my own trips:  Crater Lake (May 1978), Teton and Yellowstone (1981), Hawaii (1980), Utah (1987 and 2000), Grand Canyon (1966), Yosemite (1971), Hoover Dam (1997), and time living in Minnesota.

The MacGillivray-Freeman film site is here.

The film is narrated by Robert Redford, who says he lives in Utah because it has thirteen of the parks.  It also traces the history of John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club.

The Museum was also showing (nearby( the 13-minute History Channel documentary, "Deep Ocean Explorers", as a diving bell goes two miles under the sea.  Sunlight is unavailable 1000 feet down, when many organisms exhibit bioluminesence. At the bottom, some sharks and eels feed on the carcass of a whale that has fallen, stripping it in a year.  Once again, time for "Free Fish".

First picture: Smokey Mountains, NC-TN, not included in film (as Shenandoah is not included).
 
See also "Rock the Park" (TV series), TV blog, April 16, 2016.

Monday, February 15, 2016

"Day for Night", Truffaut's meta-film about his own business


Day for Night” (1973), also known as “La Nuit americane”), directed by Francois Truffaut, is certainly one of the most important meta-comedies in film history – a comedy about making a comedy.

The French title comes from the past “American” practice of shooting night scenes at day and then using a special underexposed film stock.

The inside “acted” story (that is, functioning as a back story in terms of layer screenwriting) is the film being made, “Je vous presente Pamela” (“Meet Pamela” or “I want you to meet Pamela”, suggestive of forced social formalities).  It is directed by Ferrand, played by Truffaut himself;  It would focus around a lynchpin actor Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Aumont), with Jean-Pierre Leaud, Jacqueline Bisset, and Valentina Cortese.

A lot of little intrigues occur among the players of the film, creating a top-level comic plot.  There is a staged car wreck in the mountains in the embedded movie.  But when Alexandre is killed (off camera) in a real car wreck, the film is thrown into crisis, as contracts don’t allow another actor to fill in (as can happen in soap opera), so the writers have to change the script considerably, threatening the meaning of the story.  So business concerns can trump over artistic integrity. Graham Greene makes a cameo as the insurance (completion bond) adjuster.

Truffaut’s relation with Jean Luc-Godard was damaged by the film, as Godard thought the film reflected badly on the New Wave idea.



There is a lot of attention to the challenges in the work of an actor on the set, with the long days.  More attention could have been paid to the issue of makeup.

The film was originally released by Warner Brothers.  The DVD is on Netflix, or it can be rented on YouTube for $2.99. Interest in the film might spark because of "Hail Casear!".

Wikipedia attribution link for soccer stadium picture by Liondartoism under CCSA 3.0.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

"The Beautiful Country": a half-Vietnamese son of an American GI emigrates to the US to look for his father


“Less than dust” or “bui doi” is the derogatory phrase used to characterize children born of American troops with Vietnamese women as a result of the Johnson-Nixon War in Vietnam.  So, the film “The Beautiful Country” (2004), directed by Norwegian Hans Petrer Moland and written by Sabina Murray and Lingard Jervey, tells the story of onesuch  emigrant from Vietnam to the U.S. in 1990, in search of his father. The title refers to the perspective of the hero Binh (Damien Nguyen) who belongs to both countries and therefore to neither.

The film covers a lot of narrative in 125 minutes and moves quickly. Binh  leaves the Communist countryside for Saigon and meets his mother and half-brother.  The mother gets fired and they both work as domestics, before a bizarre accident forces them to flee.  They wind up in a refugee camp in Malaysia and then to America on an underground boat-runninh operations.  They experience being on half rations to stay alive.

Once in New York, Binh experiences slave-like conditions, with his mother’s marriage certificate as the only possible clue to finding his dad.  He finds out in an offhand poker game that he is entitled to American citizenship and could have been entitled for free legal airline passage to the US as a compensation to the Vienamese people after the war.  He eventually tracks down the ex-wife of his father in Houston, and then his blind dad in the ranch country around Sweetwater, TX.

As with the Mariel boatlift from Cuba and certain Soviet Jews, Vietnamese refugees have some legal advantages not possible today with refugees from Syria or other parts of the world.  Still, the film fits in to a moral discussion of the obligations that well-off Americans might have to people in other parts of the world.

Nick Nolte plays the ranch owner, and Tim Roth plays the unscrupulous boat captain.



The DVD contains a 20-minute interview with the lead writer (Murray), who says she has written novels and is a researcher (living in Austin TX) but had never written a screenplay before; she was raised in Asia and was approached because of her professional background in the subject matter.
 
The film was distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.  It can be rented on DVD from Netflix or from YouTube for $2.99.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

"Hail, Caesar!" The Coen Brothers show the bureaucracy of creativity in Hollywood in the early 50s


Hail, Caesar!” is the latest satire from Joel and Ethan Coen.

The embed in the film is the “making of” an early 50s spectacle, “Hail, Caesar: Tale of the Christ”.  This is just before Fox brought out Cinemascope (with "The Robe"), and the staged scenes are in old aspect (the film itself is the usual 1.08:1).  What comes through, of course, is how all the creativity in Hollywood was “institutionalized”, including the writers (most of all).  “Capitol Pictures” honcho Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) even brings in religious authorities (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish) to make sure the story won’t “offend” a reasonable person.  Oh, yes, the movie starts and ends in the confessional box.

The film focuses on a couple of star actors, most of all Baird Whitlock, played by George Clooney, now 54, always in spectacle-iron shorts, and his legs are in reasonable shape. The other male prima donna is the cowboy Hobie Doyle, played by Alden Ehrenreich, who looks young and virile at the same time.  Hobie has to be coached in pronunciation (a bit like Julie Andrews in “My Fair Lady”).  And the writers are supposed to use more active words, like “rueful”.

The film gradually gets into the subject of communism, and builds a subplot suggesting that maybe there was something to the scare that downed, for example, Trumbo (Nov. 14, 2015).  But it doesn’t get into the problem of writers getting called before Congress.  Toward the end, there is a bizarre encounter with a Russian sub off the California coast.

There’s also a lot about chicanery to protect the appearances of “family values”. When DeeAnna (Scarlett Johansson) “gets in trouble”, they arrange for a film-flam man (Jonah Hill), as an “artificial person”, to “adopt” the baby and then give custody back.  There are some off-base jokes in the dialogue, like about back shaving (not chest), that doesn't actually happen, but I wondered if it was going to.



I saw the film at the Alamo Drafthouse in Loudoun County. VA, where lunch could be served.  Don’t get caught using your cell phone in an Alamo theater.

The official site is here (Universal, Working Title, and "maybe" Open Road).

The pre-show included lots of clips and trailers of early 50s films, including Esther Williams, MGM's "Julius Caesar" with Marlon Brando, and a clip from “Anchors Away” (George Sydney) with Gene Kelly dancing in a berth filled with bunks, making a point about the “forced intimacy” of the military, a major element in the debate about gays in the military twenty years ago.

Joel Coen would be 61 now, Ethan, 58.  My favorite film from the brothers is still the Texas dramedy  "Blood Simple" (1984, USA Films). Also, "The Man Who Wasn't There" (2001), in black and white, with a UFO.  Donald Trump took a cue.  

Friday, February 12, 2016

"Where to Invade Next": Michael Moore travels the world, as if campaigning for Bernie Sanders


Where to Invade Next” is indeed the latest lesson in political morality from Michael Moore.
 
He starts by recapitulating our recent wars, saying that WWII was the last one we won. He speaks before a mock session of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (and not, this time, about “don’t ask don’t tell” now that it is repealed).

Moore goes on a one-man “invasion” of a few countries, to show what they can offer us. OK, some f this comes from the Bernie Sanders recipe for socialism, and it’s hard to see how to pay for it.
Italy and Germany both offer a lesson on the idea that generous workplace benefits for workers pay off for bosses and the economy.  Both offer long vacations, shorter work weeks, and paid maternity leave (and sometimes other family leave). Italy lets workers have two-hour lunches at home.

 Germany keeps its people in tune with the karma of the past, with many monuments of Jewish families that were kidnapped from Berlin and sent East during the Holocaust.

Slovenia (part of the Balkans, in the firing line for Bosnia in the 1990s) now offers free university education, and even a few America students go.  Slovenia is to be distinguished from Slovakia, and Moore's tongue slips once. He introduces the country with a stunning shot of the southern Alps.  (Yup, "it's free".)
           
The most interesting lesson for me was Finland, which introduces Krista Kiuru, Minister of Education, and Tim Walker, an American exchange teacher. Finland has banned homework, at least in lower grades, and has a much shorter school day than the US does, where longer school days and even boarding are being advanced for underprivileged kids.  I found it hard to believe this can work.  But remember that even in the US, the most gifted kids teach themselves math, science, music, and computer programming (look at the histories of Mark Zuckerberg, Taylor Wilson, both Andraka brothers – whom I suspect reinforced each other’s learning curves). Despite the Internet rumors, the people looked exactly like all other Europeans – mixed.

In Norway, Moore visits the prison system, which provides prisoners some amenities of home (and Internet access) even in maximum security.  The longest possible sentence is 21 years. The 2011 attack by Anders Behring Breivik , a right-wing extremist (not connected to Islam), is covered.
 
Moore then turns his attention to issues that may lend themselves to conservative or libertarian solutions.  He visits Portugal (which I visited in 2001) and covers the county’s abandonment of the war on drugs.  Crime goes down as a result. Moore then shows some footage from the US Civil Rights movement, going back to the history of slave auctions in past centuries, as if to suggest that US drug laws are specifically designed for racist purposes.  He shows some lynching photos, and that makes me wonder if Moore would be interested in completing the project of the late Gode Davis, "American Lynching".

The most credible coverage may be of women’s equality.  He visits Tunisia, which was willing to very from religious traditions in secular life and put women in office, and remove the law from home. But ISIS recently launched an attack on tourists in Tunisia (after the film was made).



In Iceland, Moore covers the gradual election of women to office, and then the idea that the 2008 financial crisis, which led to the failure of three banks, was driven by male-dominating behavior in the markets.  Iceland did not do a bailout, but put twenty banking executives in prison, as if their crimes were like Madoff’s.

The film ends at the Berlin Wall, where Moore describes how it was chipped away manually and lasted only thirty years.  He mentions gay marriage as an example of how quickly social change can happen.

He doesn't cover the Charlie Hebdo or 11/13 attacks in France, or the whole assimilation problem of Muslims (and now of the flood of refugees, which is starting to create friction even in Finland). In general things for minorities do not seem as good in France, Belgium, or the UK.  But possibly the over generous workplace benefits makes it impossible for employers to hire immigrant minorities in a way that would help them assimilate -- that would be the conservative or libertarian argument.

The official site is here (IMG and “Dog Eat Dog Films”).  The Philadelphia Inquirer calls this Moore’s “most radical film”. But applauding health care in Cuba in “Sicko” was pretty radical.

I saw the film at Angelika Mosaic in Fairfax VA today, before a fair audience.  There was a short film "Toyata Impetus" about the car maker's support of domestic manufacturing in the US.

Picture: Table setting from a Moroccan restaurant in Washington DC (mine); a similar exhibit exists at Epcot in Orlando.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

"The Choice": another Sparks novel, this one a bit over the top, for me at least


The Choice” (2016), directed by Robert Katz, based on a 2007 novel by Nicholas Sparks, and it seems very over-the-top even compared to “The Notebook” or “Safe Haven”.  Go back to the days of Douglas Sirk if you must.

There was an accidental philosophical debate at church Sunday morning (see my main blog Feb. 7) about what is really a “choice” in life.  Remember the phrase in the 1960s, “Choice, not chance, in today’s action Army!”  There are some things in life we have to deal with.

The film is set around Wilmington, NC, itself a big filmmaking center with UNC (and into the low country of S.C. around Charleston).  I thought it was supposed to be set in the late 1980s (with Hurricane Hugo), but there are cell phones.  Oh, well.  Gabby (Teresa Palmer) is a medical student who dates an ER doctor, Ryan (Tom Welling, who, I’m sorry to say, looks boated, a bit like a smoother Alec Baldwin, as he approached 40;  he’s not the agile Clark Kent of the past). She loves dogs, and has a loyal pregnant pooch who delivers.  She moves in next door to a slender thirtyish man who happens to be a vet, Travis (Benjamin Walker).  After he helps her with the dog, they quickly develop a “relationship” and it culminates.  Needless to say, this will lead to the usual complications of a love triangle. There's a marriage proposal scene (with a "No") in S.C. that is pretty ridiculous.


 
But, then, tragedy strikes.  There’s a horrible auto accident, and Gabby becomes Ryan’s patient and has almost no chance of surviving other than as a vegetable.  Travis will make a “choice” of loyalty.  True, this may sound like it turns into a morality play.  But Travis had already made an earlier “choice” that could have been a bit foolish.  The movies actually doesn’t go some places it could go.

The official site is here.
   
Dog lovers will like the way her dog psychically figures into the ending.  The cat doesn’t turn out so well.

I saw the film in the refurbished Regal Ballston Common, now with reclining seats, but very few people there for a weekday showing.

Picture: Charleston, SC, my trip, Sept. 2015 (just before the floods).

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

"Set Fire to the Stars": a younger poet tries to calm down the famous Dylan Thomas


Set Fire to the Stars” (2014), directed by Andy Goddard, is “another” biographical movie that tries to make the life of a literary figure (the kind we have to study in English) interesting.

The film is shot in black-and-white Cinemascope, to distinguish itself and emphasize its period closure.

The set up is that in 1950, and a young English professor of poetry John Brinnin (a non-Frodo Elijah Wood), at the Young Men’s Hebrew Association Poetry Center, invites notorious but popular Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (Celyn Jones) to New York for a retreat, and has to deal with the latter’s drinking.

There’s a scene where Brinnin tries to “teach” Thomas chess, and explains the moves of the pieces.  The

“London Knight” (that’s what Richard Harmon called himself on Twitter for one day) is the most interesting.  But the Queen can eat her mate.  Later, Thomas says he wishes all humans were hermaphrodites.

The film does not cover Thomas’s rather disturbing death in 1953 in New York just at age 40.
 
But maybe the most telling line In the film occurs at the end, when Brinnin is quoted (after his 1998 passing) as saying “I think I am as well-known as I deserve to be.”



Oh, I remember that first college freshman English literature course, with 50 pages of poetry to read for every class, and card quizzes.

The DVD offers a four minute short about composing and adding the chamber music scoreby Gruff Rhys, titled “Gruff in Metropolis” (like Smallville).

The official site is here  (Strand Releasing).  The film was shot in Wales.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

"4th Man Out", a comedy, depicts a young gay adult in the blue collar world


4th Man Out” (2016, directed by Andrew Nackman, brisk at 85 minutes) really is a light-hearted comedy about gay “coming out”.  This time, it happens in the “street smarts”, blue collar world.  An auto mechanic Adam (Evan Todd) celebrates his 24th birthday, and suddenly announces he is gay to his three best friends, also “working men”, two of whom he rooms with, after a night out.  One of them pukes (the toilet is in the same room), but that’s because he’s still hung over.

The setting is Albany NY, and the Fourth of July approaches.  There’s not a whole lot of plot, but his straight best friend Chris (Parker Young) wants to kiss him, while his girl friend drops him.  There’s the usual politically correct talk about “born this way” and avoiding judging people by their looks.
 
But Adam is robust, articulate, and charismatic enough to carry the film.  At the end, a customer seems promising, as a future date.



The closest to a site for the film is an “official Twitter” .  “Fourth Man Out” seems to be an alternate title (Gravitas Ventures).  The film is playing at AMC Hoffman in Alexandria VA but can be rented HD on Amazon for $6.99.

I was reminded of a comedy film I saw on a Sunday afternoon in NYC with a “date” in March 1978, “Blue Collar”, from Paul Schrader and Universal. Three workers (Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto)  rob their union safe, and then try to blackmail their union with some “hot” material.

There is a nice little short film video by Ryan Amador and   Jo Lampert, “Define Me”  It reminds me of Otto Blucker’s work with Timo Descamps. It's a good thing the body art here is water soluble,

Monday, February 08, 2016

"The Finest Hours" seems "average" compared to other sea disaster films


The Finest Hours” (2016), directed by Craig Gillespie, really doesn’t stack up that well against better films about Noreaster storms and ships torn to pieces, and these range from “In the Heart of the Sea” to “The Perfect Storm” to even “Titanic” (or even Stephen King’s “Storm of the Century”).  The film is based on the non-fiction book “The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Rescue” by Michael J. Touglas and Casey Sherman.  The events concern the USCG rescue of the SS Pendleton, an oil tanker that split apart in the storm in February 1952 during a typical New England monster blizzard, probably with ocean winds getting close to 100 mph at times.

The film is punctuated by some “family values”:  a story concerning an aggressive woman Miriam (Holliday Grainger) who has practically forced Boatswain Mate First Class Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) to propose to her.  She won’t leave the CG house when asked to (she sounds like Marco Rubio repeating the same things).  She’s told that marrying a military man is a risky idea anyway, a bit of a paradox.  Then later she gets stuck in the snow in the blizzard.  But she winds up doing something that helps the men find the shore after the rescue.

The oil tanker captain, Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) is teased for still being single, as if his life wasn’t worth as much.  But seriously, that’s how a lot of people thought in the 1950s.

The film is offered in Imax 3-D; I saw it in regular 3-D, and technically that part was well done.  But there is not a lot to look at in this film, besides the insides of the tanker, the Coast Guard office and barracks, and the beach in a blizzard.  The film could almost have been better shot in black and white.



The music score, by Carter Burwell, is rather unremarkable.

The official site is here (Walt Disney Studios / Touchstone). The release in late January, after the awards season, and right during the time of year that the Northeast is most likely to have blizzards, is rather transparent.  The DC-NYC area had just experienced its largest blizzard in 6 years. Cape Cod gets ready tonight. And remember Stephen King's "Little Tall Island"  -- and he's right that President's Day (not Christmas) is the most likely weekend for a catastrophic noreaster -- which on the New England coast happens mostly in late winter.
   
I saw the film at the AMC Shirlington on Monday night, before a fair audience.  It seemed to be a “father and teenage sons” night.  The Shirlington, since remodeling for reclining seats, has gone back to showing some larger studio films, and is splitting the independent market with the Courthouse.

Picture" USCG Academy, New London, CT, my picture, 2011.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

"Monday at 11:01 A.M.": what happens if you're in a resort town and the clocks stop moving?


The title “Monday at 11:01 A.M.” of Charles Agron’s derivative thriller should give something away, as a spoiler.  That is to say, at the end of life, it may be that time stops forever.  That’s a good “what if”.  Agron wrote and leads in this “reviewing your life” escapade, directed by Harvey Lowry. After a murky maybe-death, Agron (as “Michael”) takes to the steering wheel, hairy wrists showing, with girl friend Jenny (right out of “Swiss Family Robinson”, Lauren Shaw), driving through a tunnel of light (I thought of North Carolina’s “Road to Nowhere”) to an isolated mountain town that looks all too set up.

And it is such. Michael shows his personal assertiveness in getting a “high season” room in this isolated town, and soon he is hearing things, like a schizophrenic.  And seeing things, like a clan of druids, who, in a second-level dream, kidnap and almost cremate him. There’s the other girl friend (Briana Evigan), and a history of a love triangle.

It isn’t hard to image that this is a kind of purgatory, or after-life, or Another World.  What would it be like to suspect you are dead but not know for sure?  The movie was shot in Guthrie, OK, near Oklahoma City, so the mountains must have been filled in by CGI.  (Well, the Wichita Mountains and Quartz Mountains – site of a minor scene in my own novel -- aren’t too far away).


 
Agron and Lowry borrow a lot from a lot of genres:  Stephen King (both “The Green Mile” and “The Shining”), David Fincher (“The Game”), “The Wicker Mam”, “High Noon”, and “The Twilight Zone”.

The official site is here (K Street Pictures, a new indie film distributor named after Washington DC’s lobbying neighborhood, associated with Agron, although it fits the culture of “Breaking Glass” (Philadelphia) or even “Bleecker Street” (NYC).  Maybe Agron will look for other filmmakers to work with, like Andrew Jenks or Jamin Winans – “11:59” bears some comparison --  Jorge Ameer, and Carter Smith). Although this film is heterosexual, it’s easy to imagine variations in gay sci-fi (and get to films like “Judas Kiss” and “The Dark Place”).

I never heard the song "Monday" from the 1960s.  I thought I would.

The film shows at the AMC Hoffman Center in Alexandria, but it can be purchased HD (Cloud) from Amazon for $4.99.  The film is shot in full 2.35:1 (imdb is incorrect).

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Oscar nominated shorts, documentary, for 2016, deal with tough social issues at a personal level


The 2016 Oscar nominations for best documentary short all deal with brutal problems, and all (except maybe the first one below) challenge a lot of us as to our own karma.

The most visible film is probably “Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah”, now from HBO, 40 minutes, by Adam Benzine. The filmmaker interviews Lanzmann, now 90, who speaks in French, about the filming of the 10-hour film “Shoah” about the Holocaust, between 1973 and 1985.  Lanzmann talks about the subterfuge, wearing a wire to talk to former Nazi officers, with one narrow escape, and about his near drowning one time in the Mediterranean Sea after filming “Israel: Why?”  The documentary includes a lot of material from the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.    I do recall the airing of “Shoah” in episodes on HBO in the mid 1990s when I was living in a Fairfax County highrise and working on my own first book (“War and Remembrance” also aired then).  I discussed my own visit to Auschwitz in a review of “Son of Saul” here Jan. 17.

A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness” (Pakistan) also 40 minutes, from Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, examines the problem of honor killings, from the viewpoint of a one of the victims, a young woman who has recovered well from being shot in the jaw, with obvious scars.  Her voice sounds like that of Malala Yousafzai (Oct. 9, 2015). Her father and uncle are now in jail for shooting her and dumping her in a river, and she is presented with the “opportunity” to “forgive” them.  Her former lawyer explains the shortcomings if the Pakastani criminal justice system, that does not punish honor crimes reliably to provide a deterrent.  Her newer lawyer, younger and more religious, won’t talk to her  She is under considerable practical pressure to “forgive” even though she says in the film that in her heart she does not.  It seems that men in rural fundamentalist Islamic societies tie their own sexual function to the idea that their wives are “pure” (indeed, “Pakistan” means “the Land of the Pure”).  The film shows street scenes in LaHore and the rather drab look of much of its residential area, from above.
 
Chau, Beyond the Lines” (Vietnam, 34 minutes, also called “War Within the Walls”), by Courtney Marsh, tells the story of a teenager in Ho Chi Minh City (Hanoi), with limbs seriously deformed by the prenatal effects of Agent Orange left by America during Vietnam War defoliation. Chau is one of many kids (some appear “mixed”) presented in the film, institutionalized, in settings now modernized.  He desires to become an artist and self-supporting, and overcomes self-doubt during the film.  In the end, there is a happy ending, sort of, as he can paint with his feet, and get reasonable prices for his work.  But what kind of help do all the other kids need?  I don’t recall hearing much about this problem now from major charities, given so many other issues in the world.  But this is one that the US (and therefore Americans) have some responsibility for



The film will come from “Seventh Art Releasing”.  I think this is the best of the set.

Last Day of Freedom” (32 minutes), directed by Dee Hibert-Jones and Nomi Talisman, is mostly in Spartan, woodcut-like, black and white animation, not really that detailed, but it tells a chilling story.  It is narrated by Bill Babbitt, who describes how his younger brother Manny sunk into mental illness, committed a murder, and was executed in 1999 after seventeen years on death row in California. Manny (born in 1950) sustained serious brain injuries and learning disabilities after a car accident at age 12. Somehow, he was accepted into the Marine Corps and did two tours in Vietnam, sustaining more mental and physical trauma.  Mental illness has him living in the streets, when his brother takes him in.  But one night, after a bizarre sequence of events, he kills an elderly person.  Bill turns him in, not realizing the worst will happen.

 “Body Team 12” (13 minutes), by David Darg, presents the work of a Red Cross team disposing of bodies of people in Liberia who have passed away from Ebola.  The families are denied the ability to give then normal funerals, and people are told to stay in their homes.  The worker says that the teams definitely need women as team members.  At the end, a worker shows just how much gear she has to wear. The squalor of Monrovia shantytowns certainly shows.

I saw the program at Landmark West End in Washington DC early Saturday afternoon.  The auditorium was about half sold.  Landmark presented all films in one seating (163 minutes), but the Program A comprises the first three films, and B, the last two.

Friday, February 05, 2016

"The Navigators": British drama looks at rail privatization: safety and job security


Libertarians may want to take a look at the 2001 British drama film “The Navigators”, directed by Ken Loach and written by Rob Dawber.  The (partly true) movie traces the lives of five (former) Sheffield railway workers in southern England in the 1990s after the railroad is privatized.

The company talks that the workers must embrace change (including supposedly better customer service), and that those who don’t are out the door.  But the workers run into a variety of situations in which they are worse off.  Part of the problem is loss of some benefits and the increase of out-of-pocket expenses.  The movie perhaps anticipates the mentality of the sharing economy that has developed to decades later, where people invest a lot of their own gear (cars and living spaces) to rent out to others.

The film is also a bit timely to watch right now given the controversy today of the report issued on the Amtrak 188 crash in Philadelphia last May.  Railway safety comes up, especially with an accident near the end.

Questions can be raised as to whether everyone is better off with quasi-government-owned passenger service in the US (Amtrak), compared to Europe and Japan.  But a major part of Britain's railways are private.  I've ridden the major trains there in 1982 and 2001 and it could happen again soon, at least this year some time, for me.

The film is a bit talky and the script sometimes sounds a bit preachy.



The DVD is available on Netflix. I was released in the US in early 2003 by FirstLook.
 
There are reviews of “Unstoppable” and “The Cassandra Crossing” on my “Films on Major Challenges to Freedom” blog (under the label “railroads).

Thursday, February 04, 2016

"The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution": historical documentary puts spotlight on Hoover


The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” (2015), by Stan Nelson, gives a detailed history of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense which was active from 1966 to 1982.

Indeed, some elements of the party advocated violence, and opposed capitalism as inherently exploitive and oppressive of minorities.  Therefore, police were often emphatic with operations, with quick raids often fatal for some people.   The title of the film implies that the Party already believed a revolution, leading to expropriation and redistribution, was in progress. (Since "Vanguard" is singular, it's a collective concept.) The film pays a lot of heed to J. Edgar Hoover’s role from the FBI, saying he feared a “Black Messiah” or that the militancy (and desire for government overthrow) would spill over to young white men.  Hoover is quoted as saying “Justice is incidental to law and order”.  This all happened late in Hoover’s life, but it sheds some light on the FBI’s past preoccupation with gays, too. (See film about Hoover, Nov. 9, 2011).

The party would eventually operate from Algeria (shown), and would even try to contact North Korea.



Things came to a head in 1968, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, who was seen as the last hope for non-violence.  The devastation from the riots especially in Washington DC is shown.

My own experience with extreme radicalism came when I “spied” on the Peoples Party of New Jersey in late 1972.

The official site is here  (PBS, ITVS, Firelight and Dogwoof Pictures).

The film is for sale on Amazon, $9.99 to $12.99 for cloud copies of SD and HD, about the price of a movie ticket.   It played at Landmark E Street in Washington this fall, but I missed it.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

"Hot Coffee" looks at tort reform, and whether big business would benefit from it


Hot Coffee” (2011, 88 minutes), directed by medical malpractice attorney Susan Saladoff, examines the movement of tort reform as a creation of the “business” right wing wanting to reduce exposure to liability litigation, claiming that it is almost always frivolous, and quoting libertarian journalists like John Stossel.

The film opens with the case  of Stella  Liebeck in Albuerque, who was severely scalded in the pelvic region after spilling a cup of hot coffee (over 180 F) in a car in a drive through store.

It then examines Gourley v. Nebraska Methodist Health System.  A woman was pregnant with twin boys.  When a placental disorder was not properly detected, one of the twin boys lost oxygen supply and was born with severe disability.  The film shows the older twin brother sometimes taking care of him.

It looks at the career of Mississippi state supreme court judge Oliver E. Diaz, Jr., who elected to the office but then harassed by big business and falsely prosecuted for bribery.

It also looks at James Leigh Jones v. Halliburton, as a vehicle to looking at mandatory arbitration clauses in most business contracts with consumers.

The Mississippi narrative also discusses the novel “The Appeal” by John Grisham (a Mississppi author of legal novels, with movie adaptations like “The Firm” and “The Pelican Brief”).  In many states, judges are elected, which undermines the idea that the judiciary should be beyond the reach of lobbyists so that it can protect the average consumer or individual from abuse by those with power and money.  That was so in Texas, where I lived from 1979-1988.  I witnessed a bench trial for “public lewdness” in 1980 during a period where police were raiding gay bars, and then served as a jury foreman in 1982 on a weapons case heard by the same judge, who remembered me.



The film makes the case well that consumers and employees need access to the civil torts system (and the film shows that a lot of people don’t know what the word “tort” means).  But the tort system can indeed be used by unscrupulous parties to chill innovation and speech.  Look at the problem of patent trolls (especially of software patents), and previously an infamous copyright troll named Righthaven. The prospect that a small business or individual (particularly a writer or blogger) could have to spend thousands defending against frivolous or dubious intellectual property claims can indeed chill free speech, although others will say that such speakers are promoting “amateurism” without having their own ”skin in the game”.

The official site is here  (HBO).


The film is available on Netflix.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

"Mustang" is a Turkish satire of women's roles in moderate Islamic society


Mustang” is a curious satirical dramedy shot in northern Turkey (and Istanbul) by director Deniz Gahmze Erguven, written with Alice Winocour.

The basic storyline is that when five sisters engage in some minor flirtatious behavior with boys on the Black Sea beach, their family (grandmother and uncle) take a dim view, ground them, start changing their education from book smarts to housekeeping, and then try to arrange them marriages.

 The youngest sister Lale (Gunes Sensoy) leads the girls to freedom in Istanbul, where they meet up with a beloved teacher.

Of course, this movie pokes fun at the conservative “family values”, even if mild for the Islamic world. The girls are told that they will learn to love the men picked out for them.  Some of the men are quite “cute”, and one has returned from his military service (a reference to Turkey’s conscription).   One of the girls, Selma (Tugba Sungurogiu) doesn’t show any evidence of bleeding after the wedding night, lead to investigation as to whether she was a virgin.

The film has won awards at Cannes and TIFF and is an Oscart nominee for best foreign language film for 2015.

I saw the film today at Landmark Bethesda Row, and there was surprisingly large weekday audience.

The official site is here (Cohen Media Group).  The film was produced in Turkey, France and Germany.  The film has no relation to "Mustang Sally", reviewed here Nov. 7, 2007.

Monday, February 01, 2016

"Gideon's Army" looks at the work of public defenders working with the indigent, often "framed" for crimes


Gideon’s Army” (2013), directed by Dawn Porter and written with Matthew Hamachek, documents the work of public defenders (with a special focus on three of them) in Georgia.

It is very difficult for indigent defendants to get sufficient representation when charged with crimes.  The debt from college and law school precludes many graduates from going into public defender wor because of the pay, and a culture that discourages really putting out for the defendants.

The film shows that when poor people are arrested (and that often means minorities, especially black) they rarely have the money for bail and must often sit in jail a long time for trial, often losing employment, housing, and even marriages permanently.  And poor people are more likely to be arrested and charged for crimes they didn’t commit, based on “being in the wrong place at the wrong time”, running around with the “wrong” crowd, or appearances that many see as anti-social (such as tattoos). And eyewitness identification and testimony is notoriously unreliable.

At least one case mentioned in the film concerns an 18 year old boy charged with statutory rape for "consensual" sex with a 14 year old girl, biologically mature for her age;  he did not even understand this could be a crime and apparently didn't try to learn her age before having sex.  This reminds me of a recent case in Michigan where the girl "lied" on social media.
 
The film ends with a defendant being acquitted with the help of an African-American female attorney, in a typical “courtroom drama” scene.

Along the way, the film shows a gay male couple raising a troubled teen that the couple had adopted.



It’s important to realize that, under the Bill of Rights and our notion of constitutional fundamental rights, the right to a speedy trial does not include the right to be immune to financial or personal damage from wrongful accusations.  People’s lives are deeply affected by incorrect accusations (or framing), and in a sense there are no victims.  Practical risks of charges, and the pressure of plea bargains, can often lead to pleading guilty to crimes one did not commit (see the Andrew Jenks film reviewed here Jan. 22).  The system is biased very much in favor of the prosecution in most cases, except for the very rich.

The official site is here (HBO and the Orchard).

The film can be viewed on Netflix or rented from Amazon for $3.99.