Saturday, November 30, 2013

"The Armstrong Lie": detailed biography of how the famed cyclist's career and charity came down with "The Cheating Culture"

The Armstrong Lie”  is a somewhat bloated and detailed biography of Lance Armstrong (Lance Edward Gunderson), running slightly over two hours.  It takes a position that sounds like a necessary paradox.  The public became big fans or Lance and of competitive cycling, which became so extreme that doping under the tables became accepted.  “Everybody did it.’  That was part of "The Cheating Culture" as described in the 2004 book by David Callahan (books blog, March 28, 2006).  But Lance insisted on perpetuating the lies, and bullied those who threatened him, since he had deeper pockets.  The film starts with this interview with Oprah Winfrey on OWN, where he told all.
I have tweeted before that “Lance Armstrong shaved his legs for nothing.”  In fact, his career, until he was “caught”, seemed to exemplify a certain kind of manly virtue.  The film shows that he became an aggressive bike competitor while a teen in Plano, Texas (I would have been living in Dallas at the time).  After initial successes, he rather suddenly became ill in 1996, coughing up blood, and was found to have advanced testicular cancer, which Lance in the film explains moves up through the abdomen to the lungs and brain.  Amazingly, he survived the brain surgery, and a newer form of chemotherapy prevented permanent damage to his lungs, enabling him to resume competitive cycling (starting out in his home Austin TX neighborhood on a mountain bike).  There was controversy when Betsy Andreu reportedly overheard Lance admit at Indian University Hospital that he had doped (Washington Post story here ) and that doing so could have provoked the cancer.

Lance would found his LiveStrong charity, and promote the idea of emotional commitment to people recovering from cancer, which often results in physical changes to people (hence the “Be Brave and Shave” fundraisers).  Likewise, cycling (as does swimming) allows the idea that the male body is altered to eliminate wind resistance (which is met with more in meets by riders staying together), and that manliness is strictly a matter of performance.  This has always sounded striking to me.
Of interest, too, is the way the publication (only in French, in 2004) of the book “L. A. Confidentiel” by Pierre Ballester and David Walsh.  Armstrong litigated heavily against the authors and publishers, and wound up stopping publication in English and in the United States.  The book is still on Amazon only in French, but there is a 2007 book “From Lance to Landis: Inside the American Doping Controversy and the Tour de France”. 
The film does offer some spectacular scenery of the mountain routes in Italy and France. 
The official site (Sony Pictures Classics) is here.

I saw the film at the AMC Shirlington in Arlington on Saturday afternoon.  The presentation had a problem with sporadic dropout of some channels of the stereo sound, resulting in erratic volume. 

Friday, November 29, 2013

"A Second Knock on the Door: A Documentary of Friendly Fire": the military stalls on admitting its mistakes during the fog of war

A Second Knock at the Door: A Documentary of Friendly Fire” (2012), a documentary by Christopher Grimes, takes a close look at the deaths of three soldiers in Iraq though interviews with family members, and also gives a thorough history of the problem.
The film opens with the story of Jesse Ryan Buryj, from Canton Ohio, a military policemen first said to be killed in a Humvee “accident”; only later did the Army admit he had died of a gunshot wound accidentally inflicted by friendly Polish forces.  The Army feared offended an ally in George W. Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing”.  The film moves on to give the history of native American Lee Todacheene (from New Mexico) and finally Pvt. Dave Sharrett (Va), who died in a desert winter after his commanding lieutenant was apparently lackadaisical in getting him rescued.  Tom Jackman has a detailed account of the Sharrett case and some additional video at the Washington Post site here
The film traces the history of the way families were notified of the deaths of men (and women) in battle, back to WWI.  Until WWII, cases of friendly fire were often discovered only when other members of a soldier’s unit handwrote letters to the families.
The film gives a chilling account of a friendly fire incident in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War, where the brass was nonchalant.  Only about 12 of the 31 cases during that war have been fully investigated, and the government held up notifying next-of-kin about friendly fire until the same time.
The film also shows a lot of chilling footage from the Sharrett incident, which would rival that of Bradley Manning’s leak of an incident in the 40 minute film known as “Collateral Murder” (My “cf” blog, April 7. 2010).
The official site (Cinema Libre) is here
The documentary mentions the 1979 television film for ABC, “Friendly Fire”, with Carol Burnett (directed by David Greene), which I believe I saw while living in Dallas. 
It’s worthy here to mention the 1992 Imax film “Fires of Kuwait”, directed by David Douglas, about Saddam Hussein’s torching the oil fields in Kuwait as he retreated after losing the war. 

Thursday, November 28, 2013

"Philomena": British film explores journalistic ethics, delving into the sexual mores of the past, with tragedies on two continents

The new small-looking British dramedy film “Philomena” really covers a lot of territory, and the sneak previews and screenings and comments from the film festivals really didn’t convey the reach of this film, by Stephen Frears (“The Queen”).  The film is based on the non-fiction book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” by Martin Sixsmith.
As the film opens, Martin (Peter Coogan(, a former foreign correspondent and British government communications director, is looking for work after being “resigned” after a complicated “9/11 email scandal” involving Jo Moore. The details are messy and are explained on Wikipedia here. The film does not explain these very well – and that would seem to be a missed opportunity to make a point about online reputation. The details, involving internal British politics, are so convoluted, however, that they would be hard to convey in a cinematic backstory.
Through social connections, Martin picks up a freelance story about an elderly Irish woman Philomena (Judy Dench) looking for her son who (born after an “accident”) was taken a half century before when she was indentured in a convent.  Sixsmith eventually traces the story to the US, and to the possibility that the Roscrea convent was making money selling babies for adoption.  Ultimately he tracks down the man, who he finds was a gay man working as a counselor in the homophobic Republican Party who died of AIDS in 1995.  There is a confrontation scene with the ex-lover Peter Olson (Peter Hermann), living well in northern Virginia.  Sixsmith learns that the man, renamed Michael Hess (Sean Mahon) had visited Ireland before his death, trying to discover his roots.  The embedded film clips show Hess as ill, with Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions on his face.  His lover, however, looks well eight years later (the film is set in 2003), as if to suggest that, had he been infected, the effective modern medications (protease inhibitors) just didn’t arrive quite in time to save Michael. The film makes a political point that Reagan and the GOP inhibited AIDS funding (a point that is questionable historically) because they blamed male homosexual conduct for amplifying the argument, a common and dangerous argument from the religious right in the 1980s (it almost resulted in a very draconian anti-gay law being passed in Texas in 1983, when I was living in Dallas). (I know of several cases of male couples where one would die of AIDS and the other would survive by years, even living today.  In a few cases, the other couple never became infected, and in a few cases it seems like people did not progress or, in later years, simply responded very well to newer medications.)   
There is a scene near the end, when the film returns to the convent, where an elderly supervisory nun articulates her moralistic views about chastity and abstinence (but this was in the heterosexual world), and then the camera moves to the best visuals in the movie, a wonderful shot of the estate and cemetery after an ice storm, with stunning shimmering landscapes covered by rime ice. 
The film is shot in regular l.85:1 ratio, which allows more closeups in indoor scenes, and may make transfer to television easier. 

During the end credits, the film shows some 8mm reels from the life that Hess led, which appears to have included Civil Rights work in the deep South.
The link for the film is here. In the US, it is distributed by the Weinstein Company, and appears to be distributed also by 20th Century Fox and Magnolia.  Even relatively small films these days often use the resources of several major studios and distributors, including also BBC (for television) and Pathe.  The film was a hit at Venice and Toronto film festivals.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

"Sisters of Selma" depicts the Selma-Montgomery voting rights marches of 1965 in visual detail

The PBS film “Sisters of Selma: Bearing Witness to Change” (2006, one hour), by Jaysari Hart, is one of the most detailed accounts of the civil rights marches in 1965 in Alabama ever available.
The sisters felt particularly motivated by the voting rights controversy.  Only about one percent of blacks could vote then, because poll rules allowed examiners to ask voters civics questions that they could not answer.  The rules would change with the Voting Rights Act passed later in 1965, although some issues remained for the Supreme Court even in 2013. A number of activists (named in the film) were attacked and killed (before Dr. Martin Luther King in April; Dr. King speaks in Alabama in the film.
The sisters mention the ecumenical directions of Pope John XXIII, to become more involved in human rights.  It would seem that their actions fit the ideals of Pope Francis today even more closely.
There would be three marches, on March 7 and 9 (met by heavy and bullying police tactics) and a final march, from Selma to Montgomery, AL on March 16, under National Guard protection.

The film shows a lot of black-and-white footage from the Selma marches that is surprisingly crisp and of good technical quality.  There are some interesting pictures of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, both then and today.
The film also shows political operations in Selma in 2005, where African Americans are a majority of voters and have many seats on the city council. It's rather interesting me that Selma is the seat of Dallas County, Alabama. As the film started. it wasn't immediately clear that they weren't talking about Texas. 
There is a compelling scene where a policeman harasses a black demonstrator in Selma, and the activist asks the policeman to pray with him. The policeman barks that he can’t be made to love anyone he doesn’t want to love, and then uses the “n” word.

Demonstrators were told not to march unless they could remain non-violent, even when attacked or harassed.  They couldn’t “hit back”.

The ITVS site for the film is here
Wikipedia attribution link for original 1965 “Bloody Sunday” confrontation at Pettus Bridge.

See also "March to Justice", Feb. 6, 2013. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

"Jerusalem": new Imax 3D film from NatGeo simulates a real trip

The 45-minute National Geographic Imax 3-D film “Jerusalem” gives the viewer a chance to make a virtual trip to the city, at little expense and risk.
The film, by Daniel Ferguson, pays little heed to the political control of the city, which has changed (particularly after the 1967 war), but it does show the co-existence of Christian, Jewish and Muslim culture and religion, even within the walled Old City, which houses the Temple Mount and Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Dome of the Rock and al-Asqa Mosque. 
The film, narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch, often places us on the narrow crowded streets, talking to archeology students of varied faith.  
The film sometimes shows the entire city, on top of a plateau at 2500 feet, from a distance, and ventures into surrounding areas, showing the Sea of Galilee, and old Roman settlements on the Mediterranean, Massada, and a Christian monastery built into many levels in a canyon wall. (This monastery may be St. Catherine's, shown in Christiane Amanpour's CNN series "Back to the Beginning". 
The film also reconstructs what the previous Temple Mount before the birth of Christ looked like.
Jerusalem, over its history, underwent many sieges and destructions and was even abandoned, even forgotten, during some of the period of Babylonian captivity.

The official site is here

Wikipedia attribution link for Old City picture, link

I saw the film in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

Anthony Bourdain, in his "Parts Unknown" series for CNN, had reported on Jerusalem (and the endire Gaza and West Bank problem), reviewed on the TV blog Sept. 15, 2013.

On December 3, 2013, the Washington Post ran a story by William Booth and Ruth Eglash, "At Temple Mount, dreams of prayer raise fears of violence", link here.  Online, the story title is "Jewish activists want to pray on Jerusalem's Temple Mount, raising fears in the Muslim World".  You have to click on the "graphic" embedded in the article, and then you can zoom on the artwork and see the details of the construction on the Temple Mount, along with all the history, matching that in the film.

For another "short film", see my main blog today for "Why Care About the NSA" by Brian Knappenberger of the New York Times.  

Monday, November 25, 2013

"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire": it's the stuff of dreams (and other movies)

I actually dreamed, at least vague, about my expectations for “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”. The tributes were to go through two stages of initiation in the dream, with the second stage testing “worthiness”.  It was a Spartan exercise, one of “taking one for the team”.  I had forgotten enough of the first film to dismiss the idea that the tributes have to form temporary alliances (or teams) to survive temporarily, only to turn on one another so that there is only one last person standing.  My own setting, in one of my screenplay drafts, expresses the idea that the “captive” gets to decide which of his “captors” are really angels and will live forever.  There can be more than one.

That’s not Suzanne Collin’s premise, though.  I thought that the film was somewhat a retread of the furst one, with some more ideas.  The bullet train seems like the only transportation going, and it rather resembles Dagney Taggart’s creation in “Atlas Shrugged”.  With the districts ground down by so  much fascism, there are few “roadside attractions”.  The 75th anniversary games, celebrating the control of the state, pits all the previous winners against one another. Only one can survive.
The film has some good ideas, borrowed from other films.  There is the “Dome”, which gets blown open (I don’t know if that happens in Stephen King’s novel), and there are “The Birds”.  But all the monsters (including the orangutans) and “will of the wisp”, and the boils they create – all of these are holograms.  Of, a bridal gown translates into a “Black Swan” outfit. So are the fires that gladiators wear on their armor.  There are no burns, no scarring.
In an early scene, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) explains to Katriss (Jennifer Lawrence) how appearances of power and heroism have to be maintained to manipulate the proletariat, lest it rebel.  Katriss asks, doesn’t your fear of rebellion show that you are weak?  Authoritarian leaders don’t see things that way.
There’s also a lot of talk about family members sacrificing themselves, and of the candidates having to “protect” their families and elders.
Josh Hutcherson, as Peeta, is likable and sincere as a “husband”, but looks underwhelming for the role. Liam Hemsworth is more robust as Gale, and Sam Clafkin is appropriately foppish as Odair.  It’s a treat to see both Toby Jones and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the same film (it’s easy to confuse them), and Woody Harrelson, as Abernathy, comes right out of the world of Oliver Stone. Stanley Tucci comes across as a caricature of Bert Parks.
The film was released in “4-D”, with odors and quakes, in a few theaters. Does that include 3-D?

Directed by Francis Lawrence, this film is the second in Lionsgate’s biggest franchise ever (or set of biggest films ever). Nobody calls this simply "The Hunger Games II" (except me).  

The official site is here.
I saw this on a Monday night before a 2/3 full large auditorium at the Angelika Mosaic in Merrifield VA. When I arrived the elevator didn’t work and the escalator went the wrong way.  It’s about thirty steps.

 Yes, the pictures are mine (not from the film).  Guess where I took them.  

Sunday, November 24, 2013

"Second Glance": It is indeed a wonderful life, if you;re an angel

Second Glance”, by Rich Christiano, showed up in my Netflix queue. The 1992 Christian film looks dated (no cell phones, no Internet, a little bit dusky) but it at least has some interesting points bordering on sci-fi.
Dan Burgess (David White) is a nice 16 year old teen growing up in an evangelical home.  He actually studies for a literature test – and it’s hard to remember what high school teachers used to ask about Hawthorne or Mark Twain novels now in junior English.  The teacher even says it’s a mix of things, some essay, some multiple choice.  Dan picks up a piece of paper off the floor thoughtlessly during a test, and the teacher accuses him of cheating.  The circumstances are such that the viewer believes he isn’t guilty.
His life unravels.  He doesn’t have the friends he wants.  He carelessly says he wishes he hadn’t been ‘saved”. The next morning, his parents have left the house a mess and given him the run of the place to do what he wants.  A middle aged man appears and claims to be an angel. In a brief retread of “It’s a Wonderful Life”, Dan will learn what his world would have been life if he had never lived, or had never been saved.
Now I like the idea that angels can be real (that maybe a premise of “Smallville”), but I think there is more to be done with the idea that transportation to an alternate universe for a day.  Maybe this move could be called “second chance”.  One person can make a lot of difference, but it’s hard to believe everyone else, including his parents, would have become so catty (and divorced, and not given him a little sister) if he hadn’t been saved. Faith is a lot more subtle, and shouldn’t need proselytizing.
The angel does give the abstinence speech, and puts it in self-interest terms, but it’s the sort of thing that works only if everybody agrees to the same rules, sexuality only in marriage.  But then, what about LGBT people, who don’t create any risk of unwanted pregnancy (well, except Will Horton in “Days of our Lives”)? 
The official site is here

I did wonder if Christian clubs could meet in public schools.

One time a student thought I had cheated on a government test in high school when I hadn’t, because I predicted that the term “institutionalism” would be on the quiz.  I really did guess the question in advance.  Call it convergent thinking. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

"Nebraska" is directly below "South Dakota"; why the black-and-white? Is dementia a suitable subject for comedy?

Nebraska”, the latest regional comedy film by Alexander Payne (based on his own home state), written by Bob Nelson, does play a bit like a screenwriting class exercise.  The lines among the various family members and townspeople, during this “road comedy”, sound so metaphoric and forceful that they might have been designed for a table reading.  Is dementia (maybe outright Alzheimer’s) associated with aging in country folk a suitable subject for comedy.  The large (nearly sold out) audience at the Angelika Mosaic in Merrifield VA laughed with the characters in their situation comedy, as I did.  But this is certainly not something I could have written, and I’ve been through an eldercare episode of my own in recent years.  Dementia, for those who have to deal with it, is not funny.

Bruce Dern plays the gullible Woody Grant, who, as the film opens, is trying to walk from Billings, MT to Lincoln NB to claim his sweepstakes prize.  He doesn’t understand that he needs to have the winning numbers on his coupon.  His wife (June Squibb) is appropriately folksy and thinks, if he really wins the million lotto, she can put him in a nursing home.  The son David (Will Forte) plays the dutiful son, always calling him “Dad”, and takes him on the thousand mile drive, through Wyoming and South Dakota first.

As the film progresses, some real "50s sitcom" situations develop, over “owed money” and a missing compressor, which more or less fulfills the comic function of a Duplass “Puffy Chair”.

Paramount released this film under its indie “Vantage” subsidiary, which it doesn’t use often; but it introduced the black-and-white film as “A Paramount Release” to make it look old fashioned.  I wondered about the artistic decision to film in black and white, given the gorgeous outdoor scenery, truthfully on location.
The official site is here.
Wikipedia attribution link for Lincoln skyline. My only visit was in 1982.

The state right to the north has a film named after it, “South Dakota”, by Bruce Isacson, from Lionheart films.  It is said to be due now, but I haven’t been able to find it yet.  Does anyone know when the film will be available?

Friday, November 22, 2013

"Geography Club": a gentle comedy about LGBT students coming of age in high school, in a sheltering setting

"Geography Club" certainly offers a far gentler experience than the "Dallas Buyers".  Director Gary Entin (with writer Edmund), Huffington Films and distributor Breaking Glass Pictures give us a gentle gay coming of age drama.
In fact, the word “Geography” (however ineffective when it came up in Donald Trump’s “Apprentice”) is a euphemism for an informal support group for LGBT students at a Valley high school somewhere in LA.  Eventually, it will become publicly known as a “gay-straight alliance”.
The protagonist is an articulate, somewhat charismatic high school senior Russell (Cameron Deane Stewart), whose parents want him to get into Yale (where else?) and carry on their family.  (At one point, he tells a pal that his dad will want him to “have a wife”, as if a spouse is something you have rather than love).  The camera quickly makes us believe in Russ as the all-American boy, with a gentle machismo that rather recalls the short film character “Reid Rainbow”.  Early in the film, the students go on a camping field trip for a science class.  They have to collect and identify biological fossils, live together in a typical campsite barracks-style dorm, and even go kayaking.  (To do that, you have to be able to swim and to turn the boat over (something I failed at when I tried it, as I explain in my main blog, Oct. 9, 2007). On the trip, Kevin (Justin Deeley) asks him for academic help, and then falls for him.
One of the girls sees it, which explains how Russ gets invited to geography club.  But the straight kids keep testing him, including Trish (Meaghan Martin) who confronts him in the front seat of a car, with a homeless tramp staring at them. Another gay kid is an accomplished cellist, and plays a theme from the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto in one scene, before he is the object of a forcible cross-dressing and lipstick party, in which Russ participates willingly.
The health class (taught by Ana Gastayer as Mrs. Toles) makes the kids learn child care with robotic dolls, which I saw in use one time on a substitute teaching assignment.   The idea is that all kids will learn child care and parenting skills.  Russ builds a friendship with another straight kid, Gunnar (Andrew Caldwell) with whom he will perform the “modern family” or “Days of our Lives” Will-and-Sonny act sharing fake child care as two daddies.
On top of this, Russ has his one night of fame as a football star, accidentally, when he runs in a 50 yard touchdown to win a game after a beefier teammate throws a key block and removes the last defender.  I think baseball (with a homerun, or with a no-hit pitching performance) would have been a more credible sport for Russ.

The official site is here. The film rents on Amazon, and, being shot 2.35:1, doesn’t quite fill the screen vertically.  Some of the shots allowed the characters to remain out of focus a bit too long, so I question some of the camera work. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

"65_RedRoses" is a biography of a young woman with cystic fibrosis

65_RedRoses” is a user name, but it is also a film biography and medical journey of a young woman with cystic fibrosis.  The film takes the viewer through daily life, which ranges from some normal activity to horrific coughing and suffocation spells, through lung transplant surgery, about a year of normal and active life, and then the downslide of organ rejection.
The film also explores the online friendships of the young British Columbia woman, Eva Markvoort, whose family lives in New Westminster, near Vancouver.  I believe that I stayed one night in that town when on a Christmas vacation trip with some graduate students in December 1966. 
I was surprised at her online access in the hospital. I’ve been led to believe that cell phone service and Internet access is normally not available to someone in the hospital, although it should be if paid for.
The film shows the surgery graphically, and describes the new lungs as slightly discolored from pollution and perhaps cigarette smoking.  They are not perfect.  There occurs a moral question about whether people have a moral obligation to take care of themselves well enough so that their organs are reusable.  Of course, gay men are still banned from donating, and that point has been made into a “moral” argument in Russia.

The film, from Four Force, is directed by Philip Lyall and Nimisha Mukerji.
The best link to give is the live journal from Eva, here..The film is listed as released in 2009 but the Netflix video covers her passing in March 2010.  Her final decline was very quick.

Wikipedia attribution link for Vancouver picture. 
Update: Nov. 28

ABC News reported on the lung transplant for Lindsey McLaughlin here.  The donor was a young man who died in a freak but tragic fall in a subway station in NYC. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

"The Broken Circle Breakdown": an eclectic, asynchronous tragedy, where Flanders looks like Texas

The Broken Circle Breakdown”, by Felix von Groeningen, is a curious film from Belgium, tragic and comic at the same time, and an homage to some other eclectic films usually viewed as belonging to other genres.  These other films might include “The Tree of Life”, “Judas Kiss”, “Mr. Nobody”, and, on the other hand, “Sweet Home Alabama”.  Sometimes, especially in the outdoor farm scenes involving images like black birds flying into windows and dropping, or dogs chasing roosters, I wondered if this were flat, low-country Flanders, or if it were Texas ranch country instead, especially with all the country music the married couple sings.
The couple is Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and Elise (Verle Baetens).  Didier (“Monroe”) is the romantic atheist and cowboy, who, toward the end of the film, gives a speech decrying religion, slamming George W. Bush his faith-based denial of stem-cell research (with the speech about a decent society’s crossing moral lines, with allusion to the Holocaust), to which he attributes the tragedy that befalls the couple’s young daughter, despite Europe’s more liberal stand on the matter.  Elise (“Alabama”) is religious, but one could not guess that from the plethora of tattoos all over her body.  There’s even one scene where, working as a tattoo artist, she decorates the outer forearm of a man, which would have been shaved for the procedure. 
The couple is quite passionate, complete with female screams of ecstasy.  This is the world of heterosexual marital sex as in the Song of Solomon.  Yet, Didier is well aware that others are different, and in his speech condemns homophobia.  The couple also shows plenty of bad habits.  “Alabama” smokes, and did so during her pregnancy, but she blames her husband’s drinking for the tragedy.  That gave him temporary jaundice, she says, and resulted somehow in her withdrawing breast feeding for their daughter.
The story is told out of sequence, as is common in existential science fiction films like a couple of those above – and this movie barely borders on sci-fi, at least in spirit.  The tragedy of the daughter’s leukemia, the chemotherapy and side effects, and the bone marrow transplant, and then the final sudden end, come back and forth, mediating the tone of the film.  This could have been a strictly medical drama, but it is never allowed to become that.  Instead, it loops back to grief, and to the couple itself.  There will be one more round of tragedy, which is not fair to give away.
There is one sequence of an encapsulated account of the 9/11 attacks and of Bush’s speaking about them at the end of the first day.
The official site (from Tribeca) is here.
Wikipedia attribution link for Belgium picture here. I was in the area once, in May 2001. 

I saw this before a fair crowd Tuesday night at Landmark E Street in downtown Washington DC. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

"Codebreaker": A strong biography of Alan Turing, and the tragedy of his end

The British Channel 4 documentary “Codebreaker” (directed by Claire Beavan and Nic Stacey), a biography of Alan Turing, has been expanded to feature length and is available on DVD from Transit Media.  I see that I mentioned this DVD when reviewing a related short film here on Oct. 17, 2012.  It is a bit pricey and not yet available from Amazon; the company told me that selling it exclusively for a while makes it easier to earn back money for investors.  In time, I expect to see it on Amazon and Netflix (where it can be “saved”). 

The format of the film is that of “docudrama”.  Much of the screenplay shows Alan Turing, nattily dressed and handsome (played by Ed Stoppard) doing talk therapy with psychiatrist Franz Greenbaum (Henry Goodman).  Alan challenges Greenbaum to face the idea that Greenbaum himself was a German Jew who escaped the Nazis, the enemy whom Turing’s efforts were so singularly important in defeating. The film has brief interviews with other people including Alan’s nephew, Dermot and Steve Wozniak from Apple.

Alan tells his story in the sessions with Greenbaum, as Paul McGann supplements with a detailed documentary narrative.  The film balances an explanation of Turing’s innovations in computing (he originally saw a computer as a person) and presents many of his published papers, along with illustrations of how his machines worked.  Gradually, the narrative shifts to the horrific tragedy of how his life ended.

Turing explains his platonic love affair with a boyhood classmate, Christopher Morcom (his real-life nephew plays the part in the film).  He explains how feeling in love changed his perspective, as if all of life had been leading up to a relationship. But Christopher died of tuberculosis, leaving him alone.  He describes his capacity to love as limited to the area of upward affiliation.

While working at Bletchley Park, he had a platonic relationship with a female mathematician, to whom he proposed marriage; but told her that he was homosexual and would not be likely to want to be intimate.  The film repeatedly says he was totally honest and naïve about the social inconsistencies in his own society, which eventually would reflect some of the values it had gone to war over.
Turing tells the story of how a household trick led to a minor burglary of his home, with the stealing of a family watch and chain.  He was naïve about admitting even any physical intimacy in the privacy of his own home with adult men to police.  In 1952, “gross indecency” even in private was very much against the law in Britain (as in most of the US) and would sometimes be prosecuted.  He was arrested, and forced to undergo chemical castration with shiboestrol, a form of estrogen, as an alternative to prison.  The drug causes loss of libido and for the body to become feminized, with growth of breasts and loss of the beard and of other body hair.  The treatment was said to be reversible, although that seems like a dubious claim. I used, as a boy, to think of potentially shaving a male body as a way to inflict shame (a reason to “feel feminine”), as it was sometimes done in college hazing ceremonies (I wrote about the practice at William and Mary in 1961 – I skipped out on these “Tribunals”).   Turing would also find that his house was being watched.  This was the beginning of the Cold War and, in the US, McCarthyism, where homosexuals were seen, by some curious circular reasoning, a security threat.

It's important to note that Turing is always shown as male, lean, and attractive (particularly in one underwear scene) as an adult. The film does not show how he would have looked after chemical castration.  This is in line with treating the psychiatric session as like a stage play.  The film does have many flashbacks with live footage in black and white apparently from the 1930s. 

The narration describes the suicide by cyanide, and his being found by a housekeeper, just before the closing epilogue. How much more quickly would computers have advanced in the 1950s had Turing lived?  Again, the world was a more evil place, even at home, than he understood. The British government formally apologized to his family in 2009.

For all his logical brilliance and honesty and contributions, Turing wound up being punished, made into a shameful example, essentially for turning away from offering the world any of himself in "normal" family intimacy. 
The site for the film is here.  The production companies include Story Center and Furnace.

Another important film to mention here is “Enigma” by Michael Apted (Manhattan Pictures).   

Monday, November 18, 2013

"Death by China" looks at our dangerous dependence on imports from China and outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, a corporate addiction for short-term profits

Death by China” (2012, 78 minutes), by Peter Navarro, certainly lays out the case of how dangerous it has become for Americans to become dependent on goods manufactured by low-cost, sometimes almost slave, labor in China. 
One idea that seems striking at first was that the Communist Chinese, more than any other power, made so much of making everyone have the experience of becoming a peasant with the “Cultural Revolution” of the 1960s. Americans do not want to do these kinds of jobs at low wages but want the high standard of living that the manual labor of others can provide.  The film opens with a crowd of shoppers storming into a Best Buy at midnight on a “Black Friday”.
One of the issues explained in the film is Chinese currency manipulation, which makes their goods appear even cheaper.  But China is also one of the larger holders of US Treasury debt, an observation not lost in the debt ceiling debate.  The trade deficit with China might arguably undermine the idea of the U.S. dollar as being the world’s fiat “reserve currency”.
President Clinton was instrumental in getting China admitted into the WTO (World Trade Organization) in the 1990s, in conjunction with his support of NAFTA and GATT, which much of organized labor opposed.
Small manufacturers in the US can’t compete with larger companies that outsource the manufacturing to China and don’t have the lobbying strength in Congress.
The film reports that the Chinese stole the engineering of Google and used it to build their own engine, Baidu, after banning Google.
fmilitary hardware to countries like Iran.  It also discusses the safety issue of depending on products made in China (such as plumbing contaminated by lead).
Senator Chris Smith (R-NJ) open speaks in the film.
The current system in China is a curious mixture of formal communism and statist capitalism, as in the Discovery series “The People’s Republic of Capitalism” (TV Blog, July 9, 2008), by Ted Koppel. There is no freedom of the press and no ability for people to organize or redress abuses of the system. It is a kind of servitude.  China’s system is still one which predicated on “disciplining” the individual into conformity for the supposed “common good”.
The official site is here
The soundtrack has a song by the director by the same name, as well as another song, "Death by Chinese Junk".
The film (from Virgil) can be rented on YouTube for $3.99 or watched in Netflix Instant Play.

Can boycotts do any good?  I doubt it.  We’re addicted to the easy life. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

"The Book Thief" gives a look at civilian life in Nazi Germany, and as to what made people tick

The Book Thief”, by Brian Perival, based on the novel by Markus Zusak (and Australian who seems quite young for such subject matter), renders a close up look at what it was like to live as a Gentile in Nazi Germany before and during World War II, and it gives some insight into why people thought and behaved the way they did.
A young girl Liesel (Sophe Nelisse), adopted with her brother by a kindly shoemaker Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and his wife in the mid 1930s,  helps shelter (after “Crystal Night”) a very appealing young Jewish man Max (Bem Schnetzer), who seems sickly at first but gradually regains strength after a couple of close calls.  The Nazi establishment gradually lowers the boom on private citizens, making them attend patriotic rallies outdoors in the town square and then inspecting homes and basements.  
One gets the impression that the people really believed that they had to hang together to survive and then prosper in a world of “enemies”.  Yet, Hans and his family (with Emily Watson) quickly realize there is something that doesn’t make sense about the rampant anti-Semitism.

The patriotic songs are telling. One is the song of “National Socialism”, and another is based on the slow movement of one of Joseph Haydn’s string quartets. 
Liesel has learned to read from her adoptive father, who has written part of a dictionary on the basement wall.  Max enhances her love of learning, saying that what distinguishes a living from an inert thing is just a word. Today, we would say that is DNA.  Liesel takes to “stealing” books from a local burger’s home.  Maybe there’s no public library, where “it’s free”.
Eventually, war comes to their town, which is bombed and destroyed, leaving the people to rebuild their lives like everyone else after liberation by the Allies.
The film, from Baselberg Studios, is released under the regular 20th Century Fox trademark than Searchlight, which is more commonly used for overseas-sourced films.  Nevertheless, this first weekend, the film is showing mostly in “arthouses”.  I saw it at the Angelika Mosaic in Merrifield, VA before an almost sold-out Sunday afternoon crowd in a big auditorium.
The official site is here

The rather gentled original music score is by John Williams.  The narrator is Roger Allam, and the film opens and closes with images clouds from above. 

The theater also showed a 3-minute short, "Porsche", about making a model of the car from ice. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

"Holocaust: The Untold Story" at the Newseum in Washington DC

The Newseum in Washington DC now offers a 56-minute documentary film made in 2001, “Holocaust: The Untold Story”, narrated by Peter Thomas.
The main thrust of the film is that for most of World War II, major newspapers, especially the New York Times, tended to bury reports of the concentration camps with small, unillustrated back page stories that did not attract much public notice.  For a long time, the stories did not acknowledge that Jews were usually the targets of Nazi roundups.  The NYT’s publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, wanted to please Franklin Roosevelt, who at first resisted the idea that Jews were persecuted and should be encouraged to come to the United States. I recall seeing the film "Voyage of the Damned" by Stuart Rosenberg in New York City in 1976 when I lived there, at a big Upper East Side theater, 
The film, toward the end, shows some of the most graphic still photos of concentration camp victims ever, even more graphic that what is seen in the Holocaust Museum nearby.  The bodies are unbelievably emaciated and peculiarly hairless.  The film shows some of the mechanical details of the notorious gas chambers and crematoriums.
Various speakers and journalists (including Andy Rooney) say that the press should have done more.  But it was not deliberately negligent.  The downplaying of the Holocaust was the result of the way the whole industry worked.  Newspapers dominated the world, television did not exist yet, and not everyone had radio.

Is reporting on something itself "doing enough"? 
Anna Blech gives a lecture on the subject of this film on “Ted Talks”. 

There are other sidebars in the film, such as the idea that people got jobs writing “propaganda” for the Allies.  That would not make much sense in the Internet age. 

The Newseum also shows a diorama movie (extreme widescreen) on the fifth floor "The Thousand Days" about JFK's administration (30 min., including Cuban Missile Crisis) and various Kennedy family 8mm or 16mm home movies in exhibits on the sixth floor (the assassination) and ground floor (about the Camelot family), mostly color, many on the White House lawn .  

Friday, November 15, 2013

"Diana": Princess Di's romantic life the last two years of her life, and her desire to help others and "show it"

The film “Diana” (2013, by Oliver Birschbeigel) shows the last two years of Princess Diana’s life (with Naomi Watts), centered around her secret love affair with Pakastani heart surgeon Dr. Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews), followed by a fing with Dodi Fayed (Cas Anvar).  
The film does not show or recreate the actual crash in the Paris tunnel shortly after midnight Paris time on Aug. 31, 1997. But it starts on that date, and creates a sense of foreboding with sound and music effects, as in a Stephen King film. Then it tells the story of the last two years of the Princess of Wales’s life.
I recall the weekend that she died.  I was moving from the DC area to Minneapolis that Labor Day weekend. On Friday night, I stayed with an aunt in an apartment building in Oberlin, Ohio.  I heard about the accident in the elevator.
There’s a scene where Princess Di dons scrubs and watches Khan do a coronary bypass surgery. He says that the patient would have died in a day or two. Now he gets ten more years.  My own mother had coronary bypass surgery two years later, in 1999, at age 85.  She got eleven more years.  But there is a question as to whether society can continue these forever without a cohesive enough family.  See the review of “Money and Medicine, Nov. 5). Here we could get into discussions about Medicare and Obamacare (US) or the National Health System (Britain). 
Princess Di devotes a lot of time to helping people, personally, visiting the sick, and she says (to an intrusive paparazzi photographer she wants to “show it” – with privacy..  Later, she travels to Angola, and walks night (really day) infiltration through a former land mine.  
The official site (E-one and Ecosse) is here
I saw the film at the AMC Shirlington Theater in Arlington VA before a small Friday night crowd.

Picture: Oberlin, Ohio (mine), 2010

Thursday, November 14, 2013

"Puerto Vallarta Squeeze": An interesting CIA-related adventure

Puerto Vallarta Squeeze” at first glance looks like another stereotyped adventure thriller set in Latin America, but it turns out to be quite interesting, for me at least.  The 2004 film is directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman and is based on the 1990 novel by Robert James Waller, supposedly based on a word-of-mouth tale from his wife (so maybe reality-based), with the subtitle “The Run for El Norte”.  It’s a bit like a Cormac McCarthy story and movie, played straight out as a thriller – but it could have been done in Hitchcock or Coen Brothers style and made funny.  The film gets its title from a resort town on Mexico’s Pacific, a long way from any border.

Really, the movie tells two interlocking stories.  Danny (Craig Wasson) is a former American journalist with a local girl friend Maria (Giovanna Zacarias).  They witness a street murder, which seems to be a complicated hit with international ramifications.  Pretty soon, they are accosted by Clayton Price (a sinewy, scarred Scott Glenn) and practically compelled to let him hitch a ride with him to the Rio Grande, that on a map would be many hundreds of miles away.  The movie tells us about Price through his dreams, particularly of accidents and grotesque crimes happening on circus high wires.  Slowly, the movie fills in a puzzle of his background, a former Marine badly let down behind lines in Vietnam, who has become a mercenary, perhaps on the underground payroll of the CIA, perhaps looking for cartel drug dealers.  There are misadventures, like an accident where the car goes over a bank and stays upright and landing on a road below.  In one town, Price encounters some thugs and sets the chest of one of them on fire after throwing lighter fluid on his T-shirt and igniting it.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen that kind of bodily “attack” before in the movies.  They encounter the poverty of village life, including animal trading opportunists.  Price is upset by a man who keeps a beautiful serval in a cage and wants to pay the man to let it go free (anticipating Richard Parker in “Pi”).

The other story concerns another veteran CIA agent Walter McGrane (Harvey Keitel), who is training a young covert military intelligence officer Neil (Jonathan Brandis) to track down Price for him.  Apparently the US government (either Clinton or Bush) wants to get rid of Price to cover something up.  Neil, slender and clean-cut, is quite attractive, and there are some hints that he might be gay.  It’s not clear whether he is still formally in the Armed Forces.  (Did he leave the uniform and join a civilian service because of DADT?)  Throw into the brew the element of corrupt local Mexican police, and you have the ingredients for a showdown and a surprise ending (and relationship).

In my own novel manuscript (“Angel’s Brother”), there is a fortyish CIA agent, masquerading as a history teacher and leading a conventional family life in Dallas, paired up with a gay college student about to graduate with an ROTC commission (maybe), but recruited by the intelligence services for unusual abilities to solve unusual problems (a bizarre epidemic with elements of alien or extraterrestrial origin).  With all the military background, in my own book, there is little use of guns – no battles and very little actual violence (the one attack is actually a way to deliver intelligence). 

The film was produced by Art in Motion and released on DVD in 2006 by New Line.  But I seem to recall a short theatrical release then (maybe early in the year), maybe at the Courthouse here in Arlington.  But I missed it then, and watched the Netflix DVD.  This is a long film, listed as 118 minutes.  But the DVD ran up to about 123 minutes before reverting back to minute 114 to start the end credits, so I’ve never seen that done before. Vikki Carr sings a very familiar number (disco?) in the end credits. 

The film recalls other movies, like "Sorcerer" and even "The Mexican".  

Picture: Mine, north of San Diego, along Pacific Coast, 2012. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

"The Case for Israel: Democracy's Outpost" with Alan Dershowitz

The Case for Israel: Democracy’s Outpost” (2009), by Michael Yohay, from Doc-Emet, features Alan Dershowitz speaking at Brandeis University near Boston, giving at first his personal reasons for supporting Israel, which includes mention of gay rights.   He quickly takes issue with Jimmy Carter’s 2007 book “Palestine: Peace, not Apartheid”, which I got for Christmas from my mother in 2007. 
Dershowitz recounts many opportunities for Palestinians to have their own state, going back to the 1930’s.  He says that every time the Palestinians refused, if that meant accepting the existence and presence of Israel.  He also says that the land taken to make settlements on the West Bank was purchased from absentee Palestinian landowners legally, and the people evicted were tenants, not homeowners.  That would certainly seem to contradict what George Meek (from the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program) has been saying at some church-sponsored meetings in northern Virginia (see International Issues blog, May 20, 2013 and Dec. 23, 2012).

The film notes that the security fence in the West Bank is often near the major north-south highway in Israel.

Toward the end of the film there is discussion of the possible dire consequences of Iran’s getting nuclear weapons.  This could eventually include being able to reach the eastern US with missiles, or more likely, giving them to terrorists to launch dirty bomb or EMP attacks. 
The film says that radical Islam, whether of the Shiite or Sunni variety, is hostile to the idea of democracy.
The link for the film is here
The film can be watched in Netflix instant play. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

"Schooled: The Price of College Sports": should college athletes be paid or share the enormous profits of NCAA sports?

Schooled: The Price of College Sports”, a new documentary by Ross Finkel, Trevor Martin and Jonathan Paley, and narrated by Sam Rockwell (whose voice resembles that of Morgan Spurlock), examines the issue of the “amateurism” doctrine for intercollegiate sports, as enforced by the gatekeeper, the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) in Indianapolis.
The doctrine means that college athletes cannot be paid for playing, while the coaches and universities make big money, while under tax-exempt, non-profit status.  The film starts out at UCLA (memories of a basketball game I attended there in December 1969 before a job interview) and shows the math: students get scholarships that fall a few thousand dollars short a year of what it costs to go to school there, so they still get in the hole.  And the schools own the players.  Does this amount to indentured servitude?  After all, other college students get paid, for working in the bookstore, for grading papers, for becoming assistant instructors.  
There is, right now, a class action lawsuit fighting this out in court.  And none of the schools or the NCAA would comment in the film.
There is also the issue of academic fraud, or at least “looking the other way”.  In some schools, college athletes take “paper” classes where the only requirement is to turn in one paper for a full three credit hours.
The film points out that many college athletes, especially in football, come from low income areas and some grew up in gang cultures.  Some have very poor academic skills when entering college.
I wonder if this was a factor when I was an assistant instructor in mathematics at the University of Kansas from 1966-1968.  Actually, I was “relieved” of my duties after too many students were getting down slips and failing “remedial” algebra at mid term.  Was I being a “bad a—“sending young men to the military draft that I had escaped, or was I stepping on the toes of the athletic system and perhaps threatening it?

On the other hand, it’s wrong to characterize all or most college athletes as academically inferior.  Some are excellent students and go on to other things besides pro football, like medicine.  There are young men (the film did not get into women’s sports, which provides another political issue) with seemingly diverse or almost contradictory talents, capable of playing sports at the professional level (like hockey or baseball) or perhaps singing as a pro.  A few times such men have been gay – another controversy not explored.
There is also the issue of safety.  Malcolm Gladwell (Issues blog, July 21, 2013), remember, has said that college football (and therefore pro football) is morally problematic, because of the concussion risk – a big controversy now in the NFL (as well as dementia in some retired NFL Players).  Recently, a high school player in Arizona died after a hard tackle hit. 

 I remember the one time my parents tried to get me to play football, at around age 9.  It was traumatic.   But was that kind of risking take to be expected of every boy?

The DVD from Strand Releasing appears Nov. 19. The production company was Makuhari Media.  It was also distributed by Epix (site ).  I reviewed the film from a Vimeo screener by Strand. 

Picture, mine, from the University of Kansas, 2006.  

Monday, November 11, 2013

"Behind Enemy Lines II: Axis of Evil": a routine thriller about the very real threat posed by North Korea; mystery mushroom explosion there in 2004 explained?

Behind Enemy Lines II: Axis of Evil” (2006), a film by James Dodson for Fox, seems like a B-film potboiler (as a sequel to the first “Behind Enemy Lines” film in 2001 with Owen Wilson as a fighter pilot in Bosnia), but it certain exploits an important theme: the danger to the world posed by North Korea, which became big news again in early 2013. 

I vaguely remember the crisis in 1994 mentioned at the beginning of the film, when we could have gone to war with North Korea.  This was a couple years after the Persian Gulf War, and this kind of war would have been much more costly.
A team of Navy Seals is dispatched to destroy a North Korean missile strike, after intelligence suggests that it could go active and actually hit the western United States with ICBM’s.  George Tenet had warned of such a possibility back in 2002. 
International politics comes into the picture. In time, things escalate to the point that the US generals, to the consternation of the president (Peter Coyote) recommend an all out regime change.  South Korea fears that the US is acting unnecessarily, and that obliteration of North Korea would send refugees into the South.  (Some of this had started to happen in Vietnam in the 1960s).  Or it could be much worse.  South Korea could take millions of civilian casualties.  But they live with this all the time.
The taxi-rickshaw crash near the missile site late in the film reminds one of the stage wrecks in old westerns.  The handglider concept as a means of entry from the mountains is interesting.

The film ends with the mushroom cloud that appeared on Sept. 9, 2004, which provoked several different explanations from both the Bush administration and from South Korea. The short "Decision and Perception": on the DVD explains how the fictional story, of a Seal behind enemy lines, could have triggered a small nuclear explosion to disarm the base; his apprehension would have created a national geopolitical crisis (although in 2004, North Korea wasn't on the radar screen the way Iraq and Al Qaeda were).

During most of the 1990’s, North Korea was probably viewed as a more dangerous threat than Al Qaeda, about whom we heard very little until 1998.

"Die Another Day" (2002), the twentieth Bond film, with Pierce Brosnan, showed Bond as having operated behind the scenes and getting captured in North Korea.  I recall seeing this in Minneapolis. 

The Fox DVD has copies of the film on both sides, with different extras.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

"Head On": a rather explicit Australian film about older gay teen rebellion

The 1997 Australian film “Head On” (the title is a bit of a pun), by Ana Kokkinos, certainly explores the idea of teenage rebellion.  Somewhere around Melboune, 19-year-old Ari (Alex Dimitriades) is discovering his identity, with considerable resistance from his Greek immigrant parents.  He shouldn’t explore this gay thing until he has a job and his own money and, well, a wife and kids (contradiction).
 That used to be a belief: you really weren’t on your own as an adult until you were married.

Ari goes on a 24-hour trip, with multiple partners and, unfortunately, snorting.  Things get out of hand as he and some friends (including heterosexual females) are arrested for drug possession.  But Ari, depicted on film as not quite old enough for chest hair, meets a slightly older man Sean (Julian Garner) who may indeed rescue him, in the disco scene.  Their final encounter, at Sean’s apartment, is quite energetic (and well filmed), but Ari is all too determined to take one liberty too many.


The film, available from Netfix, has DVD distribution by Strand.  This film is quite explicit in a few spots, in both straight and gay encounters, and it doesn't seem very tied to the Australian setting.  

Saturday, November 09, 2013

"Dallas Buyers Club" recalls my own iving in Dallas in the 1980s

Dallas Buyers Club” (directed by Jean –Marc Vallee) takes place in the mid and late 1980s, when I was living in Dallas and dealing with the tragic practical aspect (friends dying) and political (some draconian anti-gay state laws proposed by vitriolic right wing elements like the “Dallas Doctors Against AIDS”.  I volunteered as a “buddy” (more like an assistant buddy) with the Oak Lawn Counseling Center.  I heard about alternative treatments in the many information forums and sessions, but I never saw anything like what is shown in this film.
Matthew McConaughey reportedly shed forty pounds to play the electrician and rodeo rider Ron Woodruf, who looks emaciated as the film begins (with a workplace accident).  Apparently he was infected by heterosexual promiscuity, and is quite vociferous in his use of anti-gay slurs in the hospital. But when he can’t get AZT even though he has the money without going through a protocol that he doesn’t have time for, he allies with another patient, a drag queen Rayon (Jared Leto), and sets up an import “buyers club” to get alternative medications from Mexico, which he distributes from an old garden Oak Cliff apartment. 
Both actors had to transform their bodies.  Leto (“Nemo Nobody”)  is shaved even down to the underarms, and McConaughey looks waxed just by the disease.  There is a scene where Rayon gives Ron a massage on the very bald calf for a cramp.  It is not erotic. 
Although Ron appears to have pneumocystis carinii pneumonia in many scenes, he is physically up and down, sometimes showing surprising energy in his good days, enough to continue his assertive and physically confrontational manner.  One of the PWA’s I assisted looked like Ron, and had surprising energy at times despite his ghost-like appearance. I didn't believe it when the doctor told Ron that he had just 30 days to live.  Doctors didn't do that with people who were ambulatory. 
The film was actually shot in New Orleans.  Downtown Dallas is shown as a backdrop, but then there are inaccuracies.  There are no oil wells right in Dallas, and no high western mountains for at least 400 miles to the west. 

The official site is here (for Focus Features, Truth, and Voltage).
The film points out that Woodruf survived seven years, largely on alternative medications like Peptide T.  The film mentions some fictitious papers;  the “New York Citizen” of the film was actually Charles Ortleb’s “The New York Native”, to which I subscribed by mail.  Ortleb was big on alternate therapies and other virus and conspiracy theories, like ASFV.
I saw this film at the Angelika Mosaic in Merrifield VA before a moderate Saturday afternoon crowd.
I started hearing about AIDS while living in Dallas in 1982.  I remember meeting Dr. James Curran from the CDC at an information forum and I corresponded with him by mail in the hostile political climate.  By 1983, there was a lot of publicity.  In the workplace, there were lots of gay men and no one contracted the disease at work for several years.  Yet, I recall going into the restroom and another worker would say, “Bill, let me use your toothbrush.  Oh, don’t worry, you won’t give me AIDS”.  Yes, in those days, people actually said things like that, and you needed a thick skin. 

Friday, November 08, 2013

"Birthday Cake" (the feature following the short "Groom's Cake") really does show us a "modern family"

The long short “Groom’s Cake” (40 minutes) followed by the feature “Birthday Cake” (80 minutes), both by Chad Darnell, tell us, mostly in mockumentary style – somewhat exaggerated from “Modern Family” – the story of two gay men who, in the last days of California’s Proposition 8, decide to adopt a baby, and then a year later, give the child her first birthday party. Of course, they have to tell their families that they’re going to “have” a baby first. 
The short is more “documentary” in style than the feature.  The humor in the characters – the macho, lean and muscular  actor Steve James (Rib Hillis) and his lover Daniel Ferguson, a bit softer and smoother in appearance, played by Chad himself. Chad has a tendency toward a nervous stomach in this sequence. I’ve known married men with that issue They get interviewed by a social worker (Sarah Beth Basak) and make mincemeat of it – all three of them.  They’ll name the kid Sam, but practicality forced Chad to use a girl for the followup film.   So, call her Sami (like in “Days of our Lives”).

The feature brings together a whole slew of extended family, workers and friends for dinners and gatherings in the couple’s Valley home (it seems to be near the “Traffic Jam” intersection of the 405 and 101).  There are lots of verbal jabs; at one point, Steve’s mother says to him that if he is going to be gay, at least he could pick a visibly more manly lover.  But soon the clowns are hired and the Valley toddlers show up for the birthday party.  There is the abuse of an energy drink which can spice up a punch, and then the kids and adults go wild.  Things happen, with the various outputs of body orifices (including at least one afterbirth).  In the end, the kids still are all right, and the two lovers give us an epilogue. Brian Nolan looks a little bit young to be a practicing pediatrician.

The script makes some odd references to other movies (even “The Box”), and there is a chocolate birthday cake made in the form of a baby that recalls to me “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover”.  The cake becomes the butt of literal jokes, mildly racy, with references to what some people are missing.  There’s reference to an obscure TV series called “The Cliff”. 
I attended a screening sponsored by Reel Affirmations at the Jewish Community Center in  Washington DC.  The director Chad was present for a QA, and there was a champagne reception.

The official site is here.
Chad says that the feature was not selected for Outfest but was for most other LGBT film festivals. It will be distributed by Artizical.