Sunday, June 29, 2014

"Snowpiercer": I am very offended by belonging to the tail

Snowpiercer” ("Seolguk-yeolcha") seems like a revolutionary film – pun indeed – and it is also a great satire – pick your totalitarian system.  The film, in English and Korea, and made in many international studios (including the Czech Republic) is directed by Bong Joon-ho, and is based on the French graphic novel by Jacques Lob, "Le transperceneige." 

A few decades in the future, most life on Earth has been destroyed by a high altitude global warming fix gone wrong – and we wound up with Snowball Earth.  But Wilford (Ed Harris) had taken his boyhood passion for model trains to the limit, connecting all the world’s railways with a train that runs on a perpetual motion engine, piercing through tunnels and mountains and all obstacles (the CGI is spectacular – see this on a big screen, although it is convention aspect), and has taken some thousands of survivors on the endless journey.

There is a strict caste system, and an ideology of social hierarchy (a predetermined order that enables a society to survive indefinitely into future generations) related to position on the train.  In the beginning of the film, most of the action is at the end, in grim surroundings.  Curtis (Chris Evans) aspires to break the system, and is confounded by the authorities, like Mason (Tilda Swinton).  The script gets deliberately comical in ways hard to describe.  Arms and body parts roll, partly to feed cannibalism.  Curtis makes gradual progress through the train, and the world he finds becomes fascinating to the eye.  One of the powerful points of the film is that tyrants pit underlings against one another “to control the population.”

There have been many train films, like “The Last Passenger” (reviewed here in April, 2014), others mentioned there, “Transsiberian”.
I have a few screenplays based on train ideas. These include “Baltimore Is Missing” (where the railroad is in a parallel world), a DADT script where the train runs on a space station above Titan, and a script “Prescience”, where the train runs in the annular transition zone on a tidally locked M-star planet, populated in part by abductees.  I am covering these on my Wordpress blogs.


The site is here, (The Weinstein Company and CJ films), and the tagline is “I belong to the tail”. I could add, “just for authority”.  Where do I fit in a world and how should I feel about those above and below me?  There are real consequences for how just one person handles this, and sometimes it has to get personal to set an example.  

The film sold out Sunday night at the Angelika Theater on Houston St in Soho in New York City, a theater that appears to have been an older property that does not have stadium seating.  I was lucky to get a ticket after NYC Pride.

Walking to the Angelika, through the East Village, I came across the Film Archive, which happened to be showing old Italian movies. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

"Tiny: A Story About Living Small": a couple builds a tiny house off the grid in Colorado

In the 63-minute documentary “Tiny: A Story About Living Small”,  a couple (Christopher Smith and Merete Mueller, who both direct the film) document their building a 250-square-foot wooden house that will have to remain on wheels to conform to zoning rules.  Over a late winter and spring, they build it with their own hands in the Rocky Mountain foothills near Boulder, CO. 

The house runs completely on solar power, so that it can be placed in an area without grid electric service.  The commode is simply managed with peat.   

The film also shows several other homeowners building small, including one woman with a cancer diagnosis. 
This is not a lifestyle for people who collect things. 

The site for the film is here.  It can be watched on Netflix and was shown at SXSW.
Wikipedia attribution link for view of Great Plains from Boulder. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

"Belle" follows on other films on the history of slave trade like "Amazing Grace" and "Amistad"

Belle”, directed by Amma Asante, tells a story related to the eventual ending of the slave trade in England, and fits in to the television specials and documentaries about the US Civil Rights movement fifty years later.   It also could be compared to “Amazing Grace” (2006). 

The film is said to be inspired by a painting of Dido Elizabeth Blle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) with her white cousin Lady Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) at Kenwood House.  Belle is the illegitimate mixed-daughter of a British Navy officer who is brought to Kenwood to be protected by the Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), a high placed judge who will have to decide a case where an insurance company challenges a claim where slaves were jettisoned (again, this recalls the 1997 film “Amistad”).  An idealistic young lawyer John Davinier (Sam Reid), while first rejected by the Earl in his legal career, stirs up Belle’s interest in justice.  Her social and legal position in the estate is inconsistent and makes no sense to her, or to John.  Soon Belle discovers evidence in documents that the slave ship had killed the slaves because they became ill after they had been packed too closely together (conditions shown in “Amistad”, but not in this film).
All of this sets up an eventual change of heart for the Earl, who at one point is challenged by Lady Murray (Penelope Wilton) that he “doesn’t see people as people”.  My father once said that to me, during the dark days of the end of 1961. 

I saw the film at the AMC Shirlington in Arlington, before a small audience, but the film has been around for several weeks.

The official site is here from Fox Searchlight. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

"Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean": docudrama of the start of the famous actor's career

Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean”, directed by Matthew Mishory (2012), dramatizes the earliest time in the career of legendary actor James Dean, who died in a car crash (somewhat of his own making) in 1955, and would win an award for best actor for “Giant” posthumously.
Most of the film is in stark black and white, including the desert scenes, with a few flashes of 50’s style Technicolor.

Dean (James Preston) was an acting student in LA, with a professor who said that acting was like working out with weights;  when it hurts it feels good.   There are some conversations where Dean has to face what it will be like to be on his own financially and have to support himself with “real jobs” if necessary.  The parental cords have been cut.  The film explores is bisexual lifestyle, which becomes somewhat comfortable in California despite the times.  He becomes intimate with his roommate (probably William Bast, as played by a fatherly Dan Glenn).  Later, he meets a very beautiful young man Arthur (Christopher Higgins), with whom he has a very tender and extended intimate scene, at around the 50 minute mark.  There is some real tension in this scene, which is one of the better of its kind in gay cinema (comparing to similar scenes in “Judas Kiss”, “Old Joy”, “Trick”, and even “Edge of 17”). 

I remember seeing “Giant” with a friend in Dallas at the Inwood Theater in the mid 1980s.  I recall the scene where Dean’s character is introduced.  I don’t recall “Rebel Without a Cause” and “East of Eden” nearly as well (my own boyhood years), but I think I saw them on TV in the 70s.

The Wolfe link is here and the film has been in many LGBT and smaller festivals.

Yes, the lime in the tequila shot looks sharp and succulent in black and white. 
The Wolfe DVD includes a 12 minute short “Delphinium: A Childhood Portrait of Derek Jarman”, also directed by Mishory (2009).  The film, with some bizarre rural and boarding school scenes (anticipating “Like It Rough” with Timo Descamps) in post-WWII Britain, shows the gay English film director who would pass from AIDS in 1994. 

Wikipedia attribution link for Joshua Tree National Park ariel view, link here.  Much of “Zabriske Point” took place near here.  I’ve been in the area many times, especially in the 1970s.  

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

"The Singing Forest": Early supernatural feature by Jorge Ameer is too "amateurish" to work

The Singing Forest” is an “earlier” gay film by Jorge Ameer, that also tries to put forth an intriguing situation and premise with some supernatural overturns.  I had reviewed “The House of Adam” (March 12, 2012) before.  But this 2003 film (rather brief at 67 minutes) seems haphazard by comparison, and doesn’t draw me in.  Part of the problem is the technical quality of the DVD transfer;  the definition and detail is not up to even normal industry standards.  (As a caveat, I add that many films and high-definition television sometimes run into problems with getting skin tones right.  But the overall and resolution just look low and “cheap”.)  Another problem is the splicing and editing of the sections of the story.   From the best of my recollection, the technical work in his later films is much better. With this film, I even wondered, does he want the film to look unpolished?  Campiness is not effective with this kind of material. 
The film opens with a middle aged man vomiting into a toilet, a younger man comforting him, and sweet classical music playing.  Ameer likes to open his films with a key scene from the middle, but here the effect is simply offensive.   

But then Ameer goes back to the beginning, presenting his story in sections, starting with “The Visit” and offers his protagonist, Christopher (Jon Sherrin) as an alcoholic, getting lectured to shape up by a sympathetic boss.  Chris goes to visit his daughter Destiny (Erin Leigh Price) and meets her fiancée or boyfriend Jo (Eric Morris) whom Chris believes he knew in a past life.  Chris tries to draw Jo into discussions about reincarnation, and soon Chris tells the story of his past life with a lover during the Holocaust (who of course is now Jo).   The film continues with another section called “The Connection” (there is a disco by that name in Berlin, Germany; I’ve been to it), and a finale called “Reality v. Fantasty”, which Ameer says always has three viewpoints (following like Clive Barker).   Chris tells the story of the Nazi roundups (and he mixes up “Jews” with pink triangles at one point) and mentions Paragraph 175 (which itself it the title of a 2002 documentary by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman). The “purging” scene returns, and the men grow closer.  At the end, there is a wedding, but it’s not so clear who the partners are.
I suppose that meeting someone who was a lover in a past life could be an interesting premise, but it would have to do a better job of hooking the viewer.  You could do this with dreams, too – if you’re Christopher Nolan. Directors like David Lynch know how hook you quickly with possibilities like these. Remember how Lynch makes "Twin Peaks" work. 

The soundtrack uses classical and pop music rather haphazardly.  We hear some Schubert Rosamunde, the Adagietto of the Mahler Fifth, and the love theme from the Tchaikovsky Pathetique. 

My disappointment with this Netflix rental is underlined by the fact that his later feature is a favorite of mine, compared to “Judas Kiss”, “Old Joy”, even “Bugcrush”.
The DVD has four short films, which don’t need much explanation, other than that there is some homage to old fashioned ideas of “what homosexuals do”, from a half century ago. The films are “Uninhibited”, “Misguided Piss” (that has old-fashioned possibilities), “My Straight Boyfriend”, and “Popcorn and Coke”.  The third of these anticipates Ameer’s later collection of shorts (involving straight men desired by gay men) which has much more substance (see March 6, 2012) than these do.  Again, there is some rogue classical music (like the Elgar Pomp and Circumstance).   
The DVD also contains a campy and bloated “Reel Bio” of Mr. Ameer, showcasing his work with fuzzy images, the point of which I don’t get.

Picture: High Heels Race, Washington DC, Halloween 2013. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

"Citizen Koch": from "Citizens United" to the stormy term of Scott Walker as governor of Wisconsin; can rich people buy public policy?

There have been a few documentaries flaming the Koch family (heavy into the energy industry and into conservative political fundraising) and the latest is “Citizen Koch”, directed by Carl Deal and Tia Lessin.

The film starts with narrative of the Supreme Court decision in the “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission” (link) in 2010, which held that the First Amendment prohibited government from stopping companies, unions or interest groups spending money on causes as if they were individuals.  The case had come out of “Hillary, the Movie” (reviewed here May 1, 2009).
Most of the film deals with the stormy tenure of Republican governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, elected in 2010 (wiki ).   To repair the Wisconsin budget, he undermined public employee unions.  This would eventually lead to a recall election in 2012, which he still won.  Most of the film dealt with the fundraising to keep him in office, a lot of it under Americans for Prosperity under the Koch brothers.

The film mentions the difficulty that some lower income people (mostly African American) have in voting even today.  (See "Freedom Summer", June 22.)   

The film also leaves the snarky impression that only people who compete for power with money can prevail in public policy fights;  intellectual honesty of individual speakers doesn't count for much in their "real world". 

The website for the film is here.   The filmmakers say that PBS was originally supposed to run the film, but declined because the Koch family gives PBS so much money.

I saw the film at the AMC Shirlington Theater in Arlington VA, with only one other person in attendance.

Monday, June 23, 2014

"Ivory Tower": Is college still a good "investment" at the start of adulthood?

Ivory Tower” (directed by Andrew Rossi) documents the crisis of unsustainability of American higher education. It’s pretty obvious that the student loan debt problem is getting out of control, and a four year degree is much less of a ticket to earning more than it was for my generation.

The film starts with the freshman class at Harvard, and yet it even shows Kirkland Hall and mentions Mark Zuckerberg, as well as Peter Thiel, who offers grants to people who will drop out of college and start tech businesses on their own.
It shows us a few other major campuses (Stanford, Minnesota, Missouri, Auburn) and mentions the value of out-of-state paying students at many public universities, before it gets into the topic of free tuition.  That’s still around.  It presents life at a school in the high Mojave Desert, Deep Springs College, where male students live in what amounts to an intentional community, running a farm as well as going to school.  It then moves attention to Cooper Union Institute in New York City, about two blocks from where I lived in the 1970s (the Cast Iron Building), where tuition was free for ages.  But the school invested in a new building, and then in hedge funds, and nearly went down after the financial crisis of 2008.  The students staged a sit-in (with red lights visible throughout the East Village) and eventually reached a settlement.
The film mentions the idea that students (as “customers”) rate teachers and professors online, which tends to lead to grade inflation.  That’s an opposite of the atmosphere when I was an assistant instructor in mathematics at the University of Kansas in the late 1960s.   In my day, being a college student was a way to avoid being drafted and become cannon fodder in Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam.
The film also looks at online education, and the various ways schools have tried to use online models to make it more affordable.  (The film doesn’t get into the “for profit” online university industry.)  At one point, former NYC mayor Bloomberg says that education can’t be free, because nothing in life is free.  Again, I though of Reid Ewing’s short films (“It’s free”), and I hope that Igigistudios gets these back up soon.  They seem so timely now. 
My own personal experience inverts all of this.  I was thrown out of William and Mary for “admitting” that I was gay in 1961, but my parents paid for the education at George Washington University while I “lived at home”.  So I did not have the residential experience of others, but not the debt either.  If I had been lucky enough to be born forty years later, go to Harvard, and live in the same dorm as Mark Zuckerberg, I’d have made great friends and probably be very rich now on my own terms (Facebook would have been part of it, to be sure).  We are all dealt different hands in life.
I saw this on Monday night before a small audience at Landmark E Street, but if fits right into the AFIDocs spirit.  The film did not quite use the full normal 1.85:1 aspect ratio in projection.  
I'm reminded of the WB (or CWTV) series "Jack and Bobby" where the boys' mom, a professor, describes college as the beginning of adulthood. 

The film comes from Participant Media (site) along with Samuel Goldwyn Films for theatrical distribution and later airing by CNN Films.

Picture: Auburn University campus,(Alabama)  my visit, May 2014.  

Update: Nov. 19, 2014

CNN will air the film Nov. 20, 2014.  Don Lemon interviewed a young man who went to Harvard, on a little report "From Homeless to Harvard",  As a young man, his parents' home in Cleveland was destroyed when he refused to join a gang.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

"Freedom Summer": The story of civil rights volunteers in Mississippi in the summer of 1964

The AFI Docs screening of “Freedom Summer” today at the Naval Archive in Washington as part of AFI Docs was indeed a sellout. There was a robust QA with the director Stanley Nelson and with five of the original 1964 volunteers, now in their 70s, who had worked.   The film will show on PBS American Experience on Tuesday, June 24.

In the summer of 1964, I was preparing to return to college full time and stop working in my first ever wage earning job, and still rather naïve as to what really went on in a lot of the world.  The newspapers reported the murders in Mississippi of three civil rights volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, describing them as three “fine young men”.  But the newspapers didn’t describe the level of racial hatred among whites in some parts of the South and they didn’t explain the politics over poll taxes, literacy requirements, and access to the polls.

Put bluntly, southern whites feared that if blacks could vote, they would get into office, take over and evict whites from their ante-bellum inherited properties. 

Mississippi had entered its own world legally, passing strict voter registration laws to keep out blacks after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.  Police and sheriffs were widely corrupt and colluded with white violence to keep blacks out.  There was an attitude that when a black person passed a white man on the street in Mississippi, he was supposed to tip his hat in deference.  That point was made in the opening minutes of the film.
The Freedom Project recruited hundreds of volunteers from the North, most of them white college students and recent graduates, to go down and live in the homes of rural Mississippi black families, and live the lives of black people (taking orders from them) as they went around and ran classes helping black voters learn how to pass the tests.  They “walked the walk”.  I’m reminded of more recent drives of various churches, to send youth and college teams down to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, or to other countries in Central America – some of them becoming more dangerous – to work on missions or various local projects.

The African-American hosts, then, offered what a local Arlington VA church (Trinity Presbyterian) calls "radical hospitality" -- with a twist.  (Check the label on my main blog.)
During the QA, one volunteer made the point that the three civil rights workers didn’t “give their lives”.  Their lives were taken.

The official site  is here (PBS amd Firelight Media).

Toward the end, the film traces the effort of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to unseat the regular white delegation at the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City.  The film shows tapes of Lyndon Johnson’s political maneuvering to save himself.  But in 1965, Johnson would support the Voting Rights Act, which some say turned over the South to the Republican Party for forty years.  Johnson’s own language on the tapes often sounds racist.

Today, Mississippi has the highest percentage of African Americans in state and local government positions and in office of any state.
I visited Philadelphia MS myself in 1985 and was around Tupelo one night in May this year, after the tornado.  

Update: June 25, 2014

Jim Moran writes that SCOTUS undermined the Voting Rights Act with its ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, his op-ed here. Apparently the PBS airing did well last night. 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

"The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz": powerful biography

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz”, directed by Brian Knappenberger, is indeed moving biography (facts). The earliest scenes show a boy prodigy similar in intellect and quick cognition to Mark Zuckerberg.  He was in the working group that created RSS at age 14, before others knew how young he was.  By 21 or so, he had probably become a millionaire by the acquisition of Reddit by Conde Nast. His activism, with the elaborate downloads from PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) started to lead toward legal trouble.  Swartz passionately fought for the idea that public domain information should be available to the public as easily as possible, whereas PACER was earning money for a publisher (Elsevier) to provide court documents.  His big legal troubles would begin after he downloaded academic journals from JSTOR, wih a “breakin” of an unsecured server area at MIT.  (The film shows video surveillance of his entry inti the server area and placement of a harddrive from his backpack.) His intention seems to have been to cross reference information among the documents to support progressive causes (like climate change). 
The film shows the physical transformation of Swartz into an adult.  He had ulcerative colitis as a teen and took steroids, which affected his appearance; but by age 20 or so he seems to have outgrown that, and looks quite attractive in the film as a young adult, with a real physical presence.  He had a couple of romantic relationships with young women, which may have been largely platonic.  
The last 40 minutes of the film examines the overzealous prosecution of Swartz, with counts of wire fraud and violations of the outdated 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (supposedly motivated by the 1983 film “War Games”).  Prosecutors in Boston seemed to trap themselves in their own cyclical slippery slope.  They said they wanted to make an example of Swartz, but they seemed to think that the public would perceive Swartz as like a typical Russian cybercriminal, or perhaps would conflate his activity with those of Wikileaks (Assange, Manning and later Snowden).  Swartz simply was following his own passionate belief that access to knowledge or the right to disseminate it should not depend on social authority or artificial competition.  Swartz was offered a plea deal, which he refused.  His girlfriend feared that her own computer would be confiscated.   Eventually, indictments piled up while he was on bail; in the meantime, Swartz was largely responsible for the 2012 protests (including Wikiupedia and Reddit blackout) which destroyed support in Congress for SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act). Had it past, service providers might have been forced to prescreen user generated content for copyright infringement, ending self-publishing on the Internet as we know it now (a similar problem exists with downstream libel protections and Section 230, not covered in the film).  Swartz grew despondent as his legal pressures grew, and he was found to have hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment in January 2013.
Had the case gone to trail, it sounds likely he would have been convicted, but it is also very likely that the convictions would have been overturned on appeal.  Can it be a crime to steal public domain information?

There would seem to be an issue with JSTOR inasmuch as many academic journals require paid subscription.  JSTOR and MIT did not want to prosecute, but the government would not relent.
Tim Berners-Lee (largely the inventor of the way the WWW uses HTML) often comments in the film.
The film cites the work of teen scientist Jack Andraka (inventor of a test for pancreatic cancer) as an example of the benefits of Open Access as supported by Swartz. (TV blog, Nov. 6, 2013).

The official website is here. The film comes from Participant Media and FilmBuff.
I saw a screening today at AFI Docs at the Silver theater, large auditorium in Silver Spring, a near sell out.  The director (along with Matt Stoller) was present for QA.

There’s a scene where Swartz talks about a “library” in a way that recalls the “It’s Free” video (2012) by Reid Ewing (the Igigistudios site that has hosted it is down right now; hope it is back soon), discussed May 13, 2013.  

Friday, June 20, 2014

"The Homestretch" documents the lives of three homeless teens in Chicago public high schools; the QA turns out to be challenging

I attended the screening of “The Homestretch” at the Naval Archive Theater on Friday morning (today), as an event of AFI-Docs, found it about half full, and heard that the screening last night in Silver Spring was a sell out.  The documentary on homeless teens in Chicago public high schools, directed by Anne De Mare and Kristin Kelly, is moving;  but what marked today’s event was not just the film itself, but the challenging nature of the comments by several people (not just the filmmakers) in the QA.  I recorded a lot of it, and will present all of my footage soon on another Wordpress blog. 

The speakers bluntly challenged audience members to become involved with homeless young people.  It wasn’t clear if the remarks were intended mainly for other teachers or administrators or for the public as a whole.  The kids need personal attention and “mentoring” (said to be a bad word).  Also, Kristin said that 40% of the homeless teens that she interviewed were LGBT.

The film traces three teenagers: Anthony, Roque, and Kasey.  Roque (Hispanic) actually lives in a teacher’s home.  I’ve never heard of a teacher’s offering shelter before.  Anthony (black) has fathered a child at 14, and that child has been taken from the mother and put into foster care.  He has committed petty theft and been arrested trying to survive in the street.   Kasey (black) seems to have been thrown out of home because she is a lesbian.  Roque gets into acting, and plays a part in Shakespeare’s Hamlet convincingly.  He applies to Northeastern Illinois University and gets in (after paperwork reconsideration) despite a low GPA.  But he still has to get some paperwork done with immigration to work legally.  Anthony gets mentored, and enters a high-tech education program, and gets a subsidy to have his own apartment.  Kasey winds up in a mental hospital for a while.

The film also showed the Belfort Center shelter, and the Temporary Living Situation and Program (TLS and TLP) issues.  It also shows another facility called the Crib Emergency Shelter, where kids line up on cold nights to get in.
The official site is here from Kartemquin Films. The film will appear on PBS Independent Lens at some point in the future (probably Spring 2015, after a theatrical run).

Ironically (or coincidentally), a CD issued by composer and pianist Timo Andres, reviewed on the Drama blog Aug. 1, 2013, is called "Home Stretch" (two words), as is a piano concerto on the album that he composed.   

Thursday, June 19, 2014

"Silenced: The federal government under Obama and Bush goes after whistleblowers (in CIA, NSA, and DOJ); the Kiriakou, Drake and Radack stories

Silenced”, directed by James Spione, tells the story of two of the eight people (as of now) arrested under the Espionage Act of 1917, during the Obama administration.  Only eleven total (three before Obama) have ever been prosecuted under the Act.
One of the people is John Kiriakou, who worked as a CIA operative and brought the waterboarding practices to light (particularly of the American Taliban person John Walker Lindh.  Kiriakou had been hired after a history professor, teaching as a cover and as a “spotter”, recruited him in college.  The other major case was that of NSA officer Thomas Drake (covered in the PBS Documentary series “The Program: The United States of Secrets”, covered on the TV Blog May 14, 2014).  The film also documents the work of former DOJ attorney Jesselyn Radack, who tried to help them when she discovered that the DOJ seemed to be participating in the coverups.

The film is shot as a docudrama, with actors in some scenes (such as FBI raids), and much of the setup footage in crisp black and white. 

Both Kiriakou and Drake were impoverished by the cost of defending themselves.  Drake eventually had most charges dropped, but was unable to find much work and now earns a more modest living working as a “genius rep” in an Apple store.  Kiriakou struggled with a plea deal, which he finally took.  At the end of the film, he is shown going to a Federal Correctional Center in the snow in Pennsylvania, after fibbing to his kids that he had to go away for two years to work on teaching unemployed people how to find jobs. 

The filmmaker points out that the word “whistleblower” has few desirable synonyms in the English language; it’s usually “snitch”, “stool pigeon” or “backstabber”.  The film also points out that the NSA crossed the legal line on domestic surveillance after 9/11 with essentially warrantless domestic spying, which Drake tried to expose.    

The waterboarding scene is graphic, reminding one of the movie “Extreme Rendition”, as well as “Zero Dark Thirty”.  Lindh is bound with duct tape, and will lose a lot when freed.

Also shocking is the NBC Today interview, where Kiriakou tries to make a statement that might get a pardon from Obama; and it goes very wrong, to say the least.

The official site from Tribeca Film is here. I think the film is likely to have commercial distribution soon, but Tribeca is also a commercial distributor, as is Sundance. 
The film was shown today by the AFI Docs 2014 Documentary Film Festival at the Naval Heritage Auditorium (near the National Archives in Washington DC).  Spione did a QA and the audience was vigorous (the weekday matinee was about half full).  One person attending was critical (to me) that festival venues don’t always provide hearing impaired services.  

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"Ida": a simple film from Poland about a woman entering a convent, and her effect on her aunt

Ida”, directed by Pawel Pawilkowski, is a little black and white movie from Poland (and Denmark) in old 4:3 aspect ratio, and rather simple images.  In fact, life in Communist Poland in 1962 offers more than one would expect.  People have cars, farmland, fixer houses, and go to jute boxes and nightclubs.  Wanda (Agata Kulesza) is a middle aged woman, a respected judge, with a loose life style and dark secrets.   Her niece, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is about to take her vows in a convent where life is very plain.  The mother superior insists that Anna get to know her only known relative first.

Anna’s appearance is disruptive to Wanda, who must explore their hidden Jewish background to find out what happened to Anna’s parents during the Holocaust. Anna will come into contact with the idea of life outside poverty.  But this will be a lot for Wanda to take, maybe too much.

The characters play music from the Mozart Jupiter Symphony (41), on an old record player with a heavy tracking arm.  That work was important to me in 1962, as I often played Bruno Walter’s recording.  I saw the work as life-giving, but maybe it isn’t here.  Other music, including some Bach and the Soviet anthem, come into play. 

The official site is here from Music Box Films.


I saw the 80-minute film at the AMC Shirlington, early show Wednesday night, before a sparse audience. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

"The Letter: An American Town and the Somali Invasion": it parallels a dilemma today over sudden immigration of kids

The 2005 film “The Letter: An American Town and the ‘Somali Invasion’”, directed by Ziad H. Hamzeh, documents the history of the immigration of Somali and Bantu refugees into the city of Lewiston, Maine in the early 2000’s.  “The Letter” itself refers to an open letter by Mayor Larry Raymond in 2002 telling new Somali residents that the town did not have the resources to provide for them. The Mayor did not run for reelection after the controversy.
But there were angry demonstrations in the town, and some hate and neo-Nazi groups present.  There was a basic moral quandary: do you take care of your own first before you take care of people who are “not” your own?  This becomes a profound personal, moral, and spiritual question, but not one that is easily addressed in public policy.

Hamzeh’s documentary starts with a recap of the 1993 debacle “Rescue Hope” when the Clinton administration intervened in Somalia.  That became the subject of the 2001 Ridley Scott film “Black Hawk Down” from Columbia, with Josh Hartnett as the kindly Sgt. Eversmann.  There is also a small film "Love Letter from Somalia", back in 1983, directed by Frederick Mitterand (nephew of French president) which gives a memoir of a gay man living in Somalia before a communist ruler Barre was thrown out in 1991, leading to a world of warlords. 

But to get back to this film at hand: How were the immigrants provided for?  Did the governments (federal or state) subsidize apartments? Did people take them in?

This question sounds important given the recent influx of children into the US from Central America, combined with the fact that mainstream churches have youth-adult membership missions in countries like Belize, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.  (See “The Mission in Belize”, Nov. 4, 2012 on my Drama blog).  It’s also relevant to the possibility of gay men and lesbians from hostile countries seeking asylum in the US. 

The official film trailer is here (curiously, embedding was disabled;  I provided a different short on the issue above). .The DVD is available from Netflix (74 minutes) but there is no video on demand.

The Minneapolis-St. Paul area, where I lived from 1997-2003, has considerable Somali and Hmong presence. 
Wikipedia attribution link for skyline of Lewiston (first picture). 
My only visit to that town was in May 1995.  

Monday, June 16, 2014

"The Letter": a playwright deals with her own layered reality in life

My own fiction work is layered, between desires, as documented in background fiction by one of the major characters on stage (me), and then the reality level of the particular work.  But that prediction didn’t help me make much sense of “The Letter”, by Jay Anania.

Martine (Winona Ryder), a playwright, is rehearsing her masterpiece with actors Raymond (Josh Hamilton) and Tyone (James Franco) among others.  But she slips into dreams or fantasies, where she imagines intimacy that she wants with the actors, and then is disturbed by reports of other accidents, like a car wreck.  She begins to suspect she can’t tell apart her own reality, her dreams, and the text of her play (where she wants to name the characters after the actors anyway).

It’s a bit of a spoiler, but at the end, a psychiatrist tells her she has been poisoned slowly with some bizarre alkaloid from Columbia, something that acts as a truth serum.  The motive for her being targeted is a bit of a mystery, so I can’t say that this meta-movie works, even if the idea of making it is interesting.
The music score includes a famous slow Bach Prelude in C with cello and piano.

 The official site (Japan) is here.  Lionsgate offers the DVD but uses its horror movie intro rather than the new Wagnerian introduction.

The title of the film comes from an idea that Martine has for writing letters for the dead.  When we are gone, we can still read communications from the living about what is going on if the messages are formatted properly.

Wikipedia gives an account of Ryder's disturbing 2001 arrest, here

The film was shot in Queens, NYC.   

Sunday, June 15, 2014

"The Signal": If you get abducted, expect to go bald in the legs

The Signal” (by William Eubank, based on his own short story) is another sci-fi road movie, with some likeable characters, where you fear what is going to happen to them.  The material and style come from a variety of other movies, ranging from “The Blair Witch Project” and “The Last Broadcast” all the way to “District 9”, maybe with a pinch of “Bugcrush”.  And don’t forget “Legion” (reviewed on my “cf” blog, Jan. 26, 2010).  
Nic Eastman (Brenton Thwaites) is the lead, an all-around brilliant college student who has been mysteriously injured and walks on crutches.  (There are flashbacks suggesting that it could have happened in a stream crossing, or even on a merry-go-round, both with his girl friend Hailey (Olivia Cooke) present.  You really want him to recover fully without complications.)   The other male lead is the even more geeky Jonah (Beau Knapp).  But any parents or teachers would have been proud of them both.  After fooling around with some gaming, they get some bizarre messages from a hacker, showing that they are being watched.  The hacker invites them to drive to meet them somewhere in the Nevada Desert, near Area 51, to solve a mystery.  Of course they go, which is not too prudent.
They arrive at a shackin the scrub desert at around midnight.  As they prance around the ruin (like in Blair Witch) they see Hailey “go up”.  Suddenly, the black out. 
Nic wakes up in a top secret facility, reminiscent of “The Andromeda Strain”.  Pretty soon he learns from Damon (Laurence Fishburne, in a space suit) that he was abducted, and has to be kept in quarantine.  That’s pretty much ditto for the friends, whom he is very concerned about.  It’s about thirty minutes into the 95-minute film now.  The middle of the film is spend indoors in this Area 51 “hospital”, before they break out.  Suffice it to say, Nic will walk  -- and run again, although, let’s say, he had to go bald in the legs.  Well, it’s all Pistorius style.  In fact, he’s not the only character with alien, bionic new replacement body parts.  The last third of the movie has the usual chases and implications that we have an evil, NSA-driven government.
Again, the three main characters are so likeable that the movie doesn’t necessarily need the gee-whiz chases to sell tickets and DVD’s.  (I could imagine this movie with Timo Descamps and Richard Harmon from “Judas Kiss” as the male leads.)  I think there could have been more attention to the “explanation” – for opener, the idea that if we’re going to move to an alien planet some day because ours dies, we need to change bodies (and our notions of body image). I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the very end gives us a glimpse of what a city on another world (20+ light years away) may look like – something right out of one of Clive Barker’s other dominions in the book “Imajica”.
The official site from Focus Features is here

The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge near Taos, NM appears in the film.  The Lama Foundation, which I visited twice in the 1980s, is to the east in the mountains.  Wikipedia attribution link  Second picture, eastern NM, my trip, Nov. 2011. 
 Curiously, some of the movie was filmed in Ohio, but the western locations appear to be in the Taos area. 

I saw the film at the AMC Shirlington in Arlington Sunday night before a sparse audience. I do wonder how they did the prosthetics.

There is a preview trailer scene (with Nic having electrocardiographic leads) that does not seem to appear in the film, so it may be a deleted scene for the DVD. 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

"The Immigrant": self-conscious period drama about "real life" in New York in the 1920s

The Immigrant” (by James Gray), is certainly an artsy period piece of New York in 1921, and definitely shows some “real life” for immigrants coming into the US, and could fit into the political debate today,
Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) arrives at Ellis Island with her sister, who is immediately quarantined with tuberculosis.  Desperate to stay in the US and raise money for her sister, Ewa allows herself to drawn into prostitution by the opportunistic Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix, who had supposedly retired from acting).  But then she meets Bruno’s cousin, the magician Orlando or Emil (Jeremy Renner) who takes her under his wing and turns on Bruno, with a bizarre magical twist.  There were hints of “The Illusionist” and maybe even “The Prestige” in the magic scenes.

There's a socially troubling scene where a father brings a young man to the "house of ill repute:, claiming that his teenager is not "manly".  I thought, I once nicknamed a government teacher (in 12th grade) "Manly Stanley".  
The screenwriting is interesting.  Following the advice of writing teachers, it creates a real-life crisis for the heroine at the opening, and resolves the crisis at the end of the movie with some irony as well as justice.  The only problem for me was getting into living in this particular world. The film is long (120 minutes). 
Harvey Weinstein talks about the film in Variety here. The official site (France) is here.  I saw the film in the Charles Center in Baltimore today (near the gay pride festival) before a scant audience.  I kept remembering “fGangs of New York”.

Friday, June 13, 2014

"The Case Against 8": Marriage equality in California

The Case Against 8”, directed by Ryan White and Ben Cotner, is a comprehensive history of the litigation against California Proposition 8 in federal court.
As the film opens, Barack Obama is winning the general election in November 2008.  While much of the gay community celebrates that win,  a ballot initiative to define marriage as only between one man and one woman passes (narrowly) in California.

Four plaintiffs (a lesbian couple, Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier, and a male couple, Paul Katami and Jeffrey Zarillo, join in a suit, which would become known as Hollingsworth v. Perry (link).  They hire Ted Olson, who had actually worked most of his career as a conservative lawyer (particularly for the GOP in Bush v. Gore in 2000) as well as David Boles.  Some of the film deals with the controversy over Olson’s seeming “change of heart”, where he can defend gay marriage as a conservative cause.
Judge Walker ruled for the plaintiffs in August 2010.  The proponents of Prop 8 wanted the judge to vacate himself because he was gay himself.  Eventually, the Ninth Circuit would hear oral arguments in December 2010, about the same time that the final legislative repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” was gathering steam and getting passed. 

The film moves to the oral arguments before the Supreme Court, in late March 2013, the day after ironically the largest snow of the season.  Perry’s sons, a couple of them now grown and in college, appear, as they do later at the wedding ceremony.  The film covers DOMA briefly, and then explains that the Proposition 8 challenge is thrown out for lack of standing.  That is, proponents of Prop 8 could not show how they were harmed!

The film shows how the arguments originally used to support the referendum were turned on their heads.  Plaintiffs wonder why they have to apologize for themselves to gain equal benefits.  Supporters of Prop 8 make arguments about what is good for children, without considering children raised by same-sex couples, or the reality that in life people often have to raise other people’s children (like other siblings’ children after family tragedies, as in the show “Summerland”).  The whole idea of volunteerism and “giving back” is more problematic without equality.  Yet, in earlier times, even I had suggested that the benefits of “marriage” ought to be given only when there are children or other dependents.

The film is shown this week at the West End Cinema in Washington DC.  The filmmakers and the female couple were present for QA.  The theater manager conducted the session, and asked that comments be phrased as a question.  The show did not sell out, which surprised me.

The official site is here

HBO will show the film on June 23. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

"Long Way Home: The Loving Story" documents the Virginia case that challenged laws against interracial marriage

Long Way Home: The Loving Story” (2011, Nancy Buirski) is a documentary, for HBO, of the history of the case Loving v. Virginia, which resulted, in 1967, the Supreme Court’s striking down Virginia’s law against miscegenation, or interracial marriage.
In fact, Richard Perry Loving (white), and Mildred Delores Loving (part black and part Native American) were arrested for “cohabitation” near Bowling Green, VA on a tip, after being married in Washington DC.  Mildred had been pregnant before marriage.  A jail term had been suspended on condition that they never return to Virginia.

The film traces the appeals (which involved some risk), through the Virginia system and eventually the oral arguments before the Court.  There were arguments about whether the state had the “right” to regulate who got married and how families were formed (or what families were formed).  There was a degree of circularity in the defendant’s argument that children of mixed-raced couples are adversely affected, when it is racism itself that affects them.

One interesting point made in the film is that segregation itself was often focused on keeping whites and blacks separated in intimate spaces, where sex and procreation might be more likely to result.  The film also considers racial purity (as a byproduct of segregation) almost like a pseudo-sexual fetish.  People were addicted to the idea that Caucasian people “ruled the world” (in various historical contexts) had had to be viewed as “morally” superior.  As a boy in the 1950s, I had noticed that men and women were more distinguished by amount of body hair among Caucasians than those of most other races, and wondered if this had anything at all to do with the prejudice.  My father even mentioned that once or twice.  The film comes close to saying that.

Here’s the text of the unanimous Loving v. Virginia opinion on Justia.  don’t know if the oral arguments are online.

The film mixes aspect ratios, with many of the interviews and older news footage in old 4:3 aspect (for TV) and in black and white, or reduced color.
The official site is here. The film has played at Tribeca and AFI Silverdocs.
The film would be of interesting conjunction with documentaries to come on same-sex marriage, particularly in the question of a "fundamental right" to marry a mutually consenting adult/ 

The film uses the theme from the slow movement of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” in conjunction with the couple’s returning home to a town SE of Fredericksburg.  

Update: June 16, 2014

The couple apparently lived at Center Point, VA, a tiny community at the intersection of two Caroline County Roads, 625 and 630, about 10 miles SE of "Bowling Green" VA.  Route 625 skirts the boundary of Fort A.P. Hill, VA (link)  The relatively low-profile base provides combat arms training for reserve units (the "stop loss problem") and is a little bit controversial in having hosted Boy Scout jamborees.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

"How I Live Now": An American teen lives through nuclear terror in Britain

Kevin MacDonald’s “How I Live Now”, not in wide release in the US, is a sobering reality check on what could happen to all of us.  The film is based on a novel by Meg Rosoff.

Daisy (Saiorse Ronan) is a teenager, sent to spend summer with geeky aunt (Anna Chancellor) and teenage relatives in a country house maybe 300 miles from London. (The film was actually shot in Wales.)  A precocious teen Isaac (Tom Holland) picks her up at the airport, and soon she takes a liking to 17 year old Eddie (George MacKay).  Her estranged father has sent her away because of family problems in New York.

Daisy learns that her aunt is involved in national security work and will leave on a business trip.  Soon, the kids notice jets flying over the premises.  While out fishing, they hear explosions, and see ash flying over the property like snow.  They turn on the television and learn that a nuclear explosion has gone off in London, apparently some other cities, and that the government has declared martial law.  Soon the power goes off, for good. 

In time, soldier come and, with some brutality, evacuate and separate the kids.  People in more distant cities are expected to take them into their homes.  But in time, terrorists take over England and the entire country disintegrates.  It’s a bad scene.  Stalled cars (from the EMP effect) sit around everywhere.

In the past, I would have put this review on my “Films on major threats to freedom” blog (or “cf”), but I’ve decided to put all commercial films on this one.  Check “nuclear” labels on that blog for comparable films.

The official site (Magnolia Pictures and Film 4) is here
The director, in an interview, explains how the film intersects the “now” world of a teenager with the real world of adults, who have made a mess for their kids.  She also learns how to take care of younger children in difficult circumstances not of her own choosing, She will have to learn to live "in the now". 

The DVD has many extras. including 50 minutes of interviews.  The book author says she is gratified to see her characters speak lines that she did not directly write.
A good comparison is the 1983 film "Testament" by Lynne Littman. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

"Words and Pictures": a debate about art gets drawn out in a prep school drama

Words and Pictures” (Fred Schepesi) brought to mind a friendship I formed with a coworker back in 1971, when I was working for the Navy Department.  He had been a math teacher himself, and loved intellectual games and puzzles, and the idea of “visuality”.  He wrote an essay in which he tried to explain what “art” is.  (He also got a mathematical paper published, but that’s another matter.)  He used the example of “fog” as an experience that needs art to convey.

The film, set in a Canadian prep school, seemed a bit drawn out as it carried out its premise.  Clive Owen plays Jack Marcus, a middle aged and apparently alcoholic (and divorced) English teacher struggling to keep his job.  Why so, seems a bit of a stretch at first.  He hasn’t “published” in a while, but this is high school.  His classroom habits seem shipshod – he doesn’t write lesson plans, and is delinquent in grading themes.  (I’ve actually seen a young male English teacher grade themes on the DC Metro, with red ink, and another physics teacher looking at differential equations.)  He does offer his almost-18 kids interesting challenges, though, like to coin new words to enter the English language.  (How about “tarea”, Spanish for homework.) 
The school hires an honors art teacher, Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche) who really will challenge the kids to work with the passion of a Pollock.  Marcus gets the idea he can anchor his job  by holding a contest for the annual yearbook to see what holds the most sway, words or pictures.   It seems odd that nobody thinks of Wordsworth (or of T.S. Elliot, or for that matter, J. D. Salinger).
There is the opportunity for adult romance, of sorts.  There is also the issue of Marcus plagiarizing the work of his own grown son (Christian Scheider?), and that a student who uses a drawing, propagated nu cell phone, to harass a girl who has rejected him (unfortunately, very timely given what happened in California recently).  In fact, Jack actually tires to stick up for the student, saying he would never be malicious.
The official site (Roadside Attractions) is here

I saw the film at the Angelika Mosaic in Merrifield VA, early Tuesday evening, before a sparse crowd.   

Monday, June 09, 2014

"The Fault in Our Stars": This setting of "Love Story" really works; middle of film, set in Amsterdam, is the best part

I had expected “The Fault in Our Stars” (directed by Josh Boone, novel by John Green)  to try to manipulate me into openness to “relationships” with people with physical challenges, and the very beginning seemed to reaffirm my concern. Hazel (Shailene Woodley), at 17, lives on oxygen, her lungs ruined as a secondary consequence of thyroid cancer (which Robert Ebert died from).  Her parents (Sam Trammell and Laura Dern) encourage her to continue in cancer patient support groups, and build rapport with other people in her circumstances.   But she meets an outgoing young man, Gus (Ansel Elgort), who seems fully recovered from earlier bone cancer, to which he has lost a leg.  The relationship works, and it might be too much of a spoiler to say that appearances, as to who is physically the stronger, could be deceiving.

They meet a Dutch fiction author (Willem Dafoe) from Amsterdam, and Hazel wants to know what will happen in his next book.  He gives her a curious answer, suggesting that authors (those who depend on their novels for a living) can’t give away their secrets online to anyone they don’t trust, but seems to invite her to Holland.  This may sound a bit like a manipulative “make a wish” situation.  They get to make the trip, and it seems as though the author’s assistant had set it up.  The house is a mess (filled with unanswered mail), and the author is rude, although the comment he made about the Cantor Set in real analysis (in mathematics) was interesting to me.   I really didn’t get the point about Swedish hip hop.  But the couple has a wonderful three days anyway.  They visit the Anne Frank house, which I visited myself in May 2001, on the last day of a trip.  I don’t recall climbing a ladder to the highest floor of the house. 

I do have a problem with the idea of promising intimacy to someone who is “not perfect”, since the dynamics of my own relationships depends on “upward affiliation”.  I can melt in the hands of the “right person”, but what if something happens later and the person falls off the pedestal.  It’s hard for me to imagine physicality with someone “till death do us part”.  Can I do someone who needs a boost some good?  That depends.  What does the person really need?  Where am I in my own life?

I saw the film at the AMC Courthouse in Arlington, with the reclining seats, and on a Monday night the 90-seat auditorium sold out for the 8 PM show, so it’s a good thing I bought on the Internet.

The official site(from Fox 2000 aka Fox Faith) is here. I don’t know how the filmmakers created the convincing effect of Mr. Ansel’s prosthesis, because imdb makes no mention of it.  Nat Wolff plays a teen who loses both eyes to retinoblastoma.

I do recall seeing “Love Story” in Princeton NJ the first year I was working (Arthur Hiller’s film with Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw).  I have rented “The Diary of Anne Frank” and it was shown once when I was substitute teaching.
Wikipedia attribution link for Frank House.  There is also an LGBT museum nearby. Second picture, from my 2012 visit to Indianapolis, at 30th St and Meridian. 
The new film was shot partly in Pittsburgh, even though the story is supposed to happen in Indiana.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

"Night Moves": a character study of three "eco-terrorist" radicals living in an intentional community in Oregon

Kelly Reichardt has given us another look at the lives of ordinary rural people in the Pacofoc Northwest with “Night Moves”.  This time, she presents what looks like an intentional community somewhere near Bend, Oregon (named Siskiyou, which is also the name of a county in northern CA) .  Three activists in the commune decide blow up a hydroelectric dam as an eco-terror protest.  And there will be tragic consequences. The title of the movie is the name of a used boat that one of the radicals obtains under false pretenses. 

Jesse Eisenberg plays Josh, the centerpiece of action.  The actor is known for his work with homeless animals in real life, and some of that comes across here.  Early, he puts a bird’s nest in the right place, and stops his truck to help a fallen pregnant doe by the road.  The camera often dawdles on his face (a good reason for the director to stay with standard aspect ratio and not Cinemascope, to get that Hitchcock effect), and his dialogue is soft-spoken.  He has good street smarts, as anyone living in that environment must have.  Still, his actions after the tragedy, leading to the deception at the very end, don’t seem credible.  Apparently Josh was “hired” by the collective, but actually communities like this screen people with trial periods living there. 

The other two principals are Josh’s girl friend Dena (Dakota Fanning) who is quite self-righteously radical (rather like someone from the People’s Party back in the 1970s), and the ex-con Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), who helps give the impetus for the act.  There’s a scene early on where Dena tries to buy ammonium nitrate from an industrial store and doesn’t have her social security card for ID.  The film, after a protracted dialogue (yes, people in these communities really do have to fuss about how they grow their vegetables), presents a less than convincing resolution to her crisis. Really, why wouldn't sodium nitrate do as well, for legitimate purposes?  It would.  Dena seems to have an unexplained rash around her neck, looking almost like lupus. 

The film, however, with its quiet buildup, keeps you engaged, particularly at Josh’s desperation.  (He’s poor enough not to have Internet on his cell phone and to need to use the public library – where “it’s free” -- to find out what really happened after the explosion.)   Earlier, by the way, there is a humorous allusion to the reach of the NSA when Harmon says to stay off the phone,  But Josh's actions toward the end I find hard to believe. The ID theft scheme can't possibly work.  Jesse Eisenberg just portrays too gentle a soul.  Even one of the residents Dylan (Logan Miller) seems more aggressive, maybe.

Cinedigm’s site and press release for the film is here. Cinedigm seems to like edgy films. Reichardt is known for "Old Joy" (Dec 4, 2011 here). 
I’ve been in that specific area of Oregon once, in 1978.  But I’ve visited a couple of intentional communities before, including Lama in New Mexico (visits in 1980 and 1984), and Twin Oaks in Virginia (a one-afternoon tour in April 2012).

 I saw this film at the Angelika Mosaic in Merrifield VA Sunday night before a fair crowd.  One female moviegoer thought that the film fed into the Tea Party's hands and gave environmentalists a bad rap. 

Wikipedia attribution link for lake in Bend Oregon