Tuesday, March 31, 2015

"Seymour: An Introduction", a look at a loved piano teacher

Ethan Hawke follows his role in “Boyhood” with a directorial effort in a look at pianist-composer Seymour Bernstein, in a moving documentary “Seymour: An Introduction”.
It’s hard to believe that Bernstein is 87, as he is shown still giving piano lessons, to Jiyang Chen, Junko Ichikawa, Marcus Ostermiller and later Liam Kaplan, a teen who plays the opening of the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto in spectacular fashion.
A lot of the lesson scenes involve matters of phrasing and rhythm, with special attention to some of the late Beethoven sonatas (most of all, #31 in A-flat). 
Bernstein’s biography is quite interesting, even if a lot of it was lived inside a library-like one-room apartment on the Upper West Side (apparently).  Was his grand piano in the apartment?
Bernstein also relates the time he was drafted, during the Korean War.  He survived bivouac in the winter cold, and then in Korea entertained the troops, near the DMZ, and the troops loved it.  That recalls my own Army Basic at Fort Jackson, SC in early 1968, when I played the organ a few Sunday mornings at chapel (I tried to play the theme from the last movement of the Mahler Third for one service prelude). 
Some of the footage happens in a Steinway store in NYC, where Bernstein compares pianos.  There are also some scenes from an apartment that appear to be above Central Park West, about 30 floors or so.  The view is practically the same as the one from which Timo Andres gave a concert in December 2010, which I attended, just before the passing of my own mother (Drama blog, Dec. 11, 2010).  Was this in fact the actual unit?
To close the film, Bernstein performs the conclusion of the Fantasy in C, Op. 17, by Robert Schumann, where he builds up to what he claims is one of the greatest piano climaxes in all of music.  Bernstein’s treatment of the coda is seen as controversial. Bernstein keeps up the intensity until almost the end, only softening for the final chords.  (I discuss another performance on the Drama-music blog Jan. 11, 2011).
Seymour does play excerpts of a few of his own pieces. 
Director Ethan Hawke often “intrudes” into the film, moderating the activity, and looks lean and fit at 44 (he had to age a bit for “Boyhood”).

Seymour notes the four foundations of ancient Greece:  arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. 
The official site is here  (IFC films and Sundance Selects).

I saw the film at Landmark Bethesda Row before a fair Monday night audience.  I didn't get to the QA opportunity with the pianist this weekend.   It would be nice to have this downtown at E-Street, too.  Had the West End not closed, it might have played there. 
I recall only one other film about teaching piano, which suitably is called “The Piano Teacher” (2002, by Michael Haenke, from Kino and Studio Canal, France) with Isabelle Huppert as the teacher.   

Monday, March 30, 2015

"Racing Extinction" closes DC Environmental Film Festival, and is quite a spectacle

Sunday, March 29, 2015, The DC Environmental Film Festival closed with the film “Racing Extinction”, by Louie Psihoyos (“The Cove”, Aug. 7, 2009).
The essential theme of the 90-minute documentary is that climate change is combining with over-fishing and over-hunting to threaten half of the species on Earth with extinction. Take a moment to interpret the title of the film, literally.

The film points to five great extinctions in the geological history of the planet.  In all of them, sudden increase in carbon dioxide was a major factor (including a result of the asteroid hit that destroyed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago).  The film makes many side journeys into the specifics of climate change, including examining of sudden releases of large amounts of methane from the permafrost in Alaska.  It says that a “methane event”, leading to a Venus-like runaway effect starting with a 10 degree F increase in world temperature in just a couple years, is possible.  (In fact, Venus seems to have experienced a runway carbon dioxide event about a billion years ago.  Methane has a much greater heat-holding effect than carbon dioxide, but tends to disperse rapidly.  Titan, the moon of Saturn, might be warmer than expected for its distance from the Sun because of methane.)

The film pays a lot of attention particularly to over-fishing of manta rays near Indonesia, and documents the economic change of the island economy from fishing to ocean tourism.  It also shows the results of “shark fin” gathering for shark fin soup, with sharks falling to the ocean floor after amputation of fins. We don’t live in a world of “free fish”.

It also documents the demise of some bird species, as a particular sparrow in Florida sings the last male song.

It encourages people to go vegan and to stop eating animal products.  It claims that the cattle industry causes enormous methane release.  It also presents Elon Musk and his electric car, the Tesla. 
The film, however spectacular (with its photography of impoverished coastal areas of Indonesia) tends to be a bit disorganized and “all over the map” in building its arguments.

The film also showed holographic projections of animal extinction scenes in New York City and Washington, as against the UN buildings.     

I’m used to pondering the moral arguments concerning animal extinction more for animals closer to humans in self-awareness and sensitivity:  that is, carnivores (big cats), primates, cetaceans, and certain other animals like elephants.  Yet, the film did not get into fur poaching, for example, as much as have some other documentaries in the same festival.  The planet, however, depends on the health of everything, especially in the ocean. We destroy algae and plankton in the ocean, the planet could lose its ability to produce oxygen.  Acidic oceans dissolve the shells of many mollusks and other animals.  And what really did happen to Venus?  Is that a lesson for us? 

After the film, there was a lengthy QA, followed by a reception with delicious vegan (if spicy) hors d’oeuvres, at the Carnegie Science Center in Washington DC.

The official site is here.  The film will be presented on cable by the Discovery Channel and in theaters, apparently by Sundance Selects.  The production group is the Ocean Preservation Society.
The QA made several points.  One idea is that the Internet makes information about conservation spread much more rapidly among the public.  Another is that people should be encouraged to go all electric with cars (not even hybrid), and that the racing community embraces that.  Of course, the whole country and western world needs an infrastructure of efficient charging stations before that's practical for most people. Another was the idea that the producers want to “start a movement”, not just make movies!

Wikipedia attribution link for Manta Ray picture by Arturo de Frias Marques,   under Creative Commons 4.0 International license.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Reel Affirmations in DC announces 2015 film festival; two more gay short films

On Saturday, March 28, 2015, The DC Center  sponsored a reception for Reel Affirmations , Washington DC’s International LGBT Film festival, in a private condominium in the Adams-Morgan area of Washington DC.  The food was right out of a future sci-fi fantasy (maybe "Imajica").  

The “Fall” festival will take place Aug. 28-30 at the Tivoli Theater in Washington DC.  Reel Affirmations is seeking individual and corporate sponsorships ranging from “writer” ($1000) to “Executive producer” ($10000).  A major contact point is Kimberley Bush (email Kimberley at thedccenter). Kimbeley said that many films have been chosen already. 

To that news, I can add a couple of LGBT short films from YouTube now, from “Outlicious TV”.
Brian Pelletier  offers the 18-minute “Monster in the Closet” (2013), with Trevor Allen (Jackson, the street hustler) and David Boettcher (Gene, the right wing closeted married man with a family).

Yup, you got it.  Gene visits a male prostitute, apparently under legal age (according to what Gene says in the script) and just too “smooth”.  They have two rounds of play, the second one getting kinkier.  Gene says he wonders how something that feels so good could be sinful or evil.  But unfortunately there are weapons, like a Taser and pistol around. That’s an invitation to tragedy. The filmmaking style of Jorge Ameer comes to mind. 
Dominic Haxton directs the 13-minute “We Are Animals” (2013), set in the mid 1980s and showing what could have happened if the extreme right wing (represented by the ilk of psychologist Paul Cameron) had gotten its way during the early days of the AIDS epidemic, quarantining not only “AIDS patients” (before there was a test for HIV) but even “all gay men”.  Not only is there quarantine, but chemical and physical castration.  A young “straight” man but all too “attractive” works in a quarantine center and is about to perform the operation on a particularly aggressive (and attractive) prisoner.  Instead, they escape into chaos.  The “straight” man will get it, all right.  Daniel Landroche and Clint Napier star. The link is here. It's important to remember that in 1983, a very draconian anti-gay law was proposed in Texas, HR 2138, by a state representative from Amarillo, that would have prevented gays from working in occupations, and that would have strengthened the state sodomy law (2106) which was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas.  Furthermore, in California, a right wing attorney introduced an anti-gay bill legalizing vigilantism to a ballot, obviously unconstitutional, and the California courts have been asked to disallow its being voted on.  Here's the news story on KQED.
Just a note: In the US and other western countries (Canada, etc), film production companies do have to show that actors who appear in "adult"-themed films are actually 18 or older (Wiki source). 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

"Dark Victory" presents Bette Davis in an early medical tragedy

Dark Victory” (1939), directed by Edmund Goulding, based on an unsuccessful stage play by Casey Robinson, features a young Bette Davis in a curious drama that does fit the “dark place” scenario of a couple of films I reviewed late last year. 

Davis plays socialite Judith Traherne, who takes a spill from a horse one morning.  Already, one remembers the death of Rhett’s daughter in “Gone with the Wind”, and Christopher Reeve’s accident.  Soon, the “doctor” Frederick Steele (George Brent) diagnoses her with a brain tumor.  He operates on her, and lies, saying she will recover.  Actually, he knows that she will go blind (anticipate “Magnificent Obsession”) and die shortly thereafter. Steele does regard himself on the cutting edge of brain biology research (an interesting idea before WWII).  Steele falls in love with her (something that would be beyond my own capacity in the circumstances) and proposes.  But in the ensuring sequence, she finds paperwork indicating her “negative prognosis”, and even asks her secretary what those two words mean.  (Sounds like Sarah Palin.)    Later, she gets a pep talk from the stable manager Michael (Humphrey Bogart), who complains that the world has already become an unsuitable place for a man like him who likes to “ride and fight.” She does marry the good doctor. 

The film scene, where she passes away, really does make the title.
Ronald Reagan plays Alec (as Entertainment Weekly explains). But he doesn't stand out as much as Bogart, who at 39 looks youthful himself. Geraldine FitzGerald also stars. 
There is something curious about the setting on Long Island with mountains in the background.  Why not set it in the horse country of Maryland (like the opening of “Giant”)?
There’s a short “1939: Tough Competition for Dark Victory”, which maintains that 1939 was Hollywood’s greatest.  But this film was a huge hit when it came out, even if it is somewhat forgotten. That year it competed not only with "Gone" but also "Wizard of Oz" and "Wuthering Heights" (a later version of which I have just put in queue).  

Friday, March 27, 2015

"Vanishing of the Bees" examines colony collapse disorder of honeybees

Colony collapse disorder, of beehives, has become a growing issue in the environment and for agriculture.  The 2009 documentary “Vanishing of the Bees”, by Maryam Henein and George Langworthy, and narrated by Ellen Page, takes a systematic look at what is happening.  The documentary does start with some alarming tales of the almost total disappearance of bees from some colonies overnight in various locations, such as in Florida.
The bee colony is indeed the stuff of science fiction, the alien group mind, the ultimate matriarchy. The queen bee is supposed to live about five years in many species, but commercial beekeepers have been replacing them quickly. That sounds “unnatural”.  Furthermore, it’s no surprise the pesticides and miticides could have a gradual effect on bees, over generations.  The film did then cover smaller, organic-only beekeepers.
The film encourages individual people to try to help mitigate the problem on their own property. Lawns could be converted to gardens (but, alas, the lawn is no longer a “field of dreams” for whiffleball). That would take a lot of manual labor of homeowners who might have a lot of other pursuits.  The film also encourages people to buy organic. 
The film is listed for online viewing by the DC Environmental Film Festival, but I found only the trailer there, but did find it on Netflix instant play.
The official site is here from FilmBuff and Dogwood Pictures.  The film can be rented on YouTube for $6.99 from FilmBuff. 
Wikipedia attribution link for bee colony picture by Bjorn Appel Warden, under Creative Commons 3.0 Share-Alike license

Thursday, March 26, 2015

"Climate Refugees" examines the moral responsibility for people made homeless by climate change

Climate Refugees” (2010), at the DC Environmental Film Festival and also with iTunes, written and directed by Michael P. Nash, explores the potential global consequences of the mass homelessness that is likely to develop from global warming, most of all in low-lying areas. 
The film starts out by looking at island countries like Maldives and Tuvalu, before focusing on Bangladesh, and the capital Dhaka. The film does talk about population growth in poor countries, but it doesn’t give as much hope for more use of open land (as did “Population Bomb”, yesterday).  It proposes that some countries will try to negotiate to get sovereign control over new land, to move their people.  It also proposes the radical idea that richer countries, based on their carbon emissions, could be required to house people displaced from poor low-lying (or drought-stricken) countries, to the point that individual citizens are expected to get involved with this “radical hospitality”.
It also mentions the fact that people can seek political asylum today, but there is as yet no procedure to apply for asylum based on environmental destruction of homeland.  And even with political asylum, the administration doesn’t like to discuss what it could demand of ordinary citizens to be sustained.
The film also explores the displacement of people even within the US, especially from areas like Florida, which could lose 40% of its land.  It mentions the displacement of almost a million people by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as a precedent. 
Loss of mountain glaciers will deplete rivers, most of all in SE Asia, home of 3 billion people. 

The film makes the point that "desperate people" are easily manipulated by "bad people".  It showed scenes of 9/11, and then of Occupy protests to make that point.  
Toward the end, the film takes on a more personal character, saying that expectations of a high standard of living lead people to demand more than the planet can afford.  Hence, it’s not so much population alone as “economic growth”.  But the film is quite optimistic that solar and wind energy can reduce carbon emissions and help maintain living standards.
The main site for the film is here (Netflix Red Envelope). The film may have been slightly edited with more footage recently.  
Wikipedia attribution link for photo by Ahsanul Hoque under Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0 license, of off-grid solar panels in Bangladesh, an irony. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"Population Bomb" turns the argument about overpopulation on its head

Population Bomb”, by Austrian documentarian Werner Boote, lays out the modern understanding of population demographics.  That is, richer populations have fewer kids in order to have better lives for ”grownups”.  The poorer populations accept a kind of moral aesthetic realism and have large families. It's common for immigrants from poorer countries to send money back to relatives (and not just their own kids), something that people from richer countries don't experience much.  I made that point in conversation outside the embassy before we went in, and I ruffled some sails. 
The world’s population recently topped 7 billion, doubling since the mid 1960s.  I can remember cute statements back then, that homosexuals would answer the “world’s population problem”.
Boote starts out driving in Vienna, and then travels the world in a film that is visually impressive.  As a kind of Gulliver, he visits Mexico City, China, India (Mumbai), Kenya (Nairobi and the Serengeti), Japan, Finland, two locations in the US (Georgia and a university in Massachusetts, and a pedal boat conversation on a lake that I think I recognize as in northern New Jersey), and a finale in Dhaka, Bangladesh, with the film ending with a spectacle of a kind of hajj, followed by millions leaving on trains.   

Gradually, the case builds that even in countries with teeming cities, there is ample countryside that could support billions more if people lived simply and consumed fewer resources.  So the richer people become the “guilty remnant”.  The boat conversation has another professor saying that it used to be common for “capitalists” to aspire to eugenics, until Hitler made the concept unacceptable.  So we have euphemisms like “family planning”.  Indeed, the film covers the aftermath of China’s one-child policy (lots of only children who behave like “little emperors” ruling the country now), and looks at family size in some other cultures (like Japan). He also hits hard the problem of the aging populations in richer countries which could, as I have pointed out on other blogs, lead to the enforcement of filial responsibility laws (China and other Asian societies already have a tradition of “filial piety”.

The footage in Finland, where he talks to another prof from Germany after showing Finland’s own demographic research, was interesting to me, because some critical scenes in my own novel happen there, and my own impressions of the area are accurate (looks like northern Minnesota, but even rockier).

The film was shown at the Austrian Embassy by the DC Environmental Film Festival.  The screen could have been bigger.  This film really would benefit from very professional showmanship, because of the spectacular urban and countryside photography.  The absolutely most graphic slums were in India, but the most primitive living conditions were in Kenya.  Somehow, the film also recalled Paramount’s “Babel”.   The title also reminds me of Elinor Burkett’s 2000 book “The Baby Boon”.  Note: “boon” and “boom” don’t mean quite the same things. 

The official site is here. I’m told that the distributor is Icarus for the US.  The company mentioned in the credits is ThimFilm and NGF.  (Any relation to ThinkFilm, now in bankruptcy in the US?  This would seem to fit Radius TWC pretty well.) 

Outdoor embassies shown here are Austria and China, near UDC in Washington.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

"The Gunman": it seems like a routine international thriller, with a rooting interest (for Sean Penn) and aging social message

The thriller “The Gunman,” directed by Pierre Morel (based on the novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette) plays on the international crises in Africa, with civil war and poverty, from a historical perspective (like the 2006 film “Blood Diamond”).
An aging but fit Sean Penn plays the mercenary sniper Terrier, and we actually root for him.  In the opening scenes, set in the Congo in 2006 (but filmed on location in South Africa) Terrier assassinates a government official regulating mines, at the hire of the mining industry.  The opening is quite striking in its depiction of the area’s poverty and decay, in an area a few hundred miles from today’s Boko Haram.  Eight years later, Terrier is working for a contractor with an NGO on a humanitarian relief mission, when he is chased (along with the other workers). 
Back in London, he learns he is on a hit list, so he goes to Barcelona (Catalonia, thank you!) to track down his romantic rival Felix (Javier Bardem), in his palatial setup in the mountains outside the city.  He also finds the former girl friend Annie (Jasmine Trinka).  They get hit hard there in a home invasion, and the chase continues to Malta, and winds up in a bullfight.  The gun violence is pretty gratuitous. Irdis Elba also plays a supporting character (rather CIA-like) at the end. 
The closing credits indicate that Barcelona has banned bullfighting since 2011.  This film offers some spectacular views of the city. 
The official site (from Open Road and Studio Canal Madrid) is here. This film was made directly in English, which is a bit of a surprise.   
NASA photo of Barcelona (p.d.), Wikipedia attribution link. I recall that a workplace "buddy" went there from Minneapolis for a long weekend in the spring of 2001.  I would soon head for Amsterdam and then Bilbao (in the Basque area) myself. 
I saw the film at the Angelika Mosaic, and the late show seemed to be just for me! (The same thing happened on a Sunday afternoon in 2005 with “Kids in America”, which was a very important film at the time.)


Monday, March 23, 2015

"End of the Road": a counter-culture cult classic from the Nixon years

I don’t recall the controversy over “End of the Road”, the avant garde X-rated film by Aram Avakian, coming out in 1970, the year I started working in my adult life.  (By comparison, I remember Antonini’s “Zabriske Point” real well.)  But it seems like a dream, stitched together, of even some of my own rebellious fantasies from the time. The film is based on a 1958 novel by John Barth. 

The film starts with lots of anti-war and anti-everything images for the Vietnam era, before we’re introduced to the graduating college senior (or perhaps grad student or assistant prof) Jacob Horner (Stacey Keach), leaving the shelter life of campus.  Standing on a commuter rail platform near New York, he goes into a catatonic state.  (The imagery would inspire similar scenes decades later in the sci-fi thriller “Source Code”.)  He is “rescued” by the unscrupulous Doctor D. (James Earl Jones), and taken to a rural asylum, where he is “cured” by all kinds of bizarre sex and fantasy therapy.  The “Doctor” gets him a job teaching English, and stipulates that he must avoid all attachments (and political interests).  He must join Nixon’s Silent Majority.

Perhaps this sounds a bit like “The Manchurian Candidate”. But it goes into a different direction. Jacob meets Joe and Rennie Morgan (Harris Yulin and Dorothy Tristan), who might resembled a young couple I would have socialized with in my pre-second-coming days, living in garden apartments and New Jersey suburbia.  He has an affair with Rennie (forbidden, and that isn’t what I would have done), and faces an abortion, which becomes the controversial high point of the film.  D makes a lot of the fact that he barks orders – to her, not to eat anything before the fatal procedure. 
The moonwalk during the closing credits is interesting.

The film also brings some memories of my time as an “inpatient” at NIH in 1962 (right through the Cuban Missile Crisis) as a “god damn MP”. 

The film was originally released by Allied Artists but the DVD comes from Warner Brothers (Netflix).  It;s noteworthy that it predates "Roe v. Wade" by over three years. 
The DVD contains an extra, “An Amazing Time: A Conversation about ‘The End of the Road’”. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

"It Follows": elementary horror, but storytelling on several levels, in Detroit

It Follows”, directed by David Robert Mitchell, is a slick horror flick, and actually contains some good ideas.
First, it is practically a docudrama of the fallen Detroit, taking us from the moderate income residential areas that are still intact, out into the abandoned ruins of the formerly bloated city. Anthony Bourdain would be proud.
The technology in the film is odd.  There is a Kindle book reader, with WiFi, shaped like a clam.  But no one users cell phones or tablets or even PC’s.  The rest of the film looks set in the early 80s, and there may a good reason for that (although Detroit wasn’t quite as bad then – Tiger Stadium was still there).
The film is also a manipulative exercise in storytelling, about a shafe-shifting stalker. Maybe it’s out of the X-Files, or maybe from “The Thing”.  The premise is a little silly:  someone who is getting followed “passes the trash” by having sex, and the partner (either male or female) then gets stalked.  But if anyone gets killed, the stalker will work its way back up the chain.  This movie ratifies the neuter gender.  It wouldn’t work in a romance language.
Maika Monroe plays the beleaguered girl, Jay.  Her troubles start on a bizarre date with Hugh (Jake Weary).  When they go to see Alfred Hitchcock’s “Charade”, Jeff feels ill when he sees the stalker, and then sleeps with Jay.  He seems to kidnap her, until he “explains”.  We actually believe the scene.  The film might be viewed even as a metaphor for HIV. This is certainly a bizarre, almost cosmological idea of an “epidemic”.
The nice boy Paul (Keir Gilchrist), in the end, may be the only kid who can become a “man” (almost before our eyes) and not be infected.  It’s a bizarre concept. 
The official site is here  (Radius TWC). Film seems to be saving Michigan's economy. 

The music score, by Rich Vreeland, is often very effective in the atonal percussive passages. 
I saw the film late Sunday afternoon at Angelika Mosaic in Merrifield VA, before a large audience. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

"Before You Know It" looks at gay seniors, and some do find romance in "their" own age group

Before You Know It” (2013), by PJ Raval, is a documentary tracing the lives of a few older gay men (especially three of them), dealing with slowing down, and facing either living alone or still trying to find love.
One of the men has a tract house in Niceville, in the Florida panhandle. He picks a gay retirement home (55 and over) in Portland, Oregon, a diagonal across the country.  Eventually he returns to his own home to check (having shown us his cross-dressing knick-knacks from earlier in life) and finds a water leak has left it infested with black mold.
Another man lives in Galveston, TX and runs a bar.  Eventually his story leads to Harlem, in New York City, and an interracial marriage between two 67-year-old men.  The film covers the extra special session for New York State to vote on gay marriage.  It also covers the difference between marriage and the older “civil union”.
Along the way there are many other treats: a gay cruise in the Caribbean, and a Puccini performance.  New York City pride is shown, as is a Mardi Gras parade, apparently in Austin, TX. 
All the men talk about growing up in less tolerant times, when they “couldn’t talk about it”  in front of “family”.
It would be easy to wonder about covering dating sites (I see ads for “older gay men”).  It’s also possible to cover “body fascism”. It’s true, I can wake up from dreaming, and fantasize that I would desire intimacy with a particular young adult who is several decades younger but “perfect” and even angelic.  I don’t feel that way about waking up to another 70 year old.  Could I have kept a gay partnership alive for a half century if I had been allowed to start one in 1961?  Good question.  It sounds like a character question now. 
The official site is here
I saw the film on Netflix instant play.  It is also available on Amazon on iTunes. 


Friday, March 20, 2015

"Insurgent" continues the "Divergent Series" with impressive "alternate reality" effects at the end, but the characters seem rather weak

The Divergent Series: Insurgent” (or, so to speak, “Divergent II”) continues the franchise of dystopian sci-fi films based on the novels by Veronica Roth, directed by Robert Schwentke.
I may have misperceived the “divergent” concept.  “Divergents” have mixtures of traits from all of the factions (Erudite, Dauntless, Candor, Amity, and Abnegation), whereas the “factionless” are those who have flunked their class, so they become the true proles, the underclass that deserves to be so. A good moral question would be this:  Is the dilettante -- the "jack of all trades and master of one" really a worthy "divergent" or just a lazy "factionless"?
The concept seems super Marxist.  People need to “belong”, so that their sometimes self-disciplined or even self-sacrificing choices have meaning (think about this idea with respect to “eternal marriage”), but the problem is, the “faction” you belong to could be “wrong”.  So factions (whether religious groups or nationalities) in the real world go to war.  Individualism (aka “divergence”) seems the answer, except that hyper-individualism leaves even more people behind than those who would normally become “factionless”.
Nevertheless Jeanine (Kate Winslet) is super-woman, someone who can do everything, so she is the obvious threat to the power structures (run by a kind of female Putin).  Miles Teller, as Peter, still has a bit of that Whiplash fight in him, and is a little too wholesome to be truly dauntless.  Caleb (Ansel Elgort) is the nicest guy in the movie (not saying much), willing to come off his post as “erudite” and try abnegation for a while.  Jai Courtney has had more likeable roles than that of a cop in this movie. 
I almost forgot the other dauntless boyfriend, Tobias Eaton (Theo James), who didn’t leave a strong impression.

The plot has a lot to do with getting the power structure, at the end, realize that it needs divergence.  (That is, the world needs the likes of Alan Turning, Jack Andraka, and Mark Zuckerberg – not to mention Bill Gates and Steve Jobs -- to keep moving ahead.) 
One problem with the concept of the movie is its geography.  A high tech world (however totalitarian) in the middle of a ruined Chicago seems not much of a place, especially when walled in.  At the end, the celebrants populate the bottomlands of the Chicago River.  Nevertheless, the “alternate realty” when Jeanine takes her five faction tests at the end, has some striking visual effects in 3-D, reminiscent of “Inception” even though the story context is much less compelling. 
Note the spelling of the title" "Insurgent" is singular, but plural makes more sense to me. 

I saw the film in 3-D before a sparse Friday afternoon audience at the Angelika Mosaic in Fairfax, but the evening show was getting sold out. Curiously, Angelika isn’t showing 3-D at night. 

Lionsgate and Summit will no doubt make money on this series, but I hope they keep some focus on their origins in independent film. 

The feature was preceded by two films from last year’s DC Shorts, including “Silence Is Golden”, something about ignoring proselytizing.    

Thursday, March 19, 2015

"Duel", Steven Spielberg's first feature, still looks fresh today, with road rage in the California desert in 1970

I think that I saw Steven Spielberg’s first feature, “Duel”, on television back in 1971 when I was working for the Navy Dept.  But I barely recalled it, so I watched it on a Netflix DVD.  This is a “Director’s Cut”, with the original 74 minutes expanded to 90 minutes for European release, now from Universal (originally from ABC). 

The film is based on a short story by Richard Matheson, but this is obviously material that lends itself to visual, and not just verbal, manipulation.

In sum, the plot is “road rage” (like an episode of “Wild Tales” reviewed here Feb. 28). Dennis Weaver plays David Mann, an ironic name for the character, tormented by a rogue trucker with an unseen villain chasing him, after David passes him once on a two-lane road in the California high desert, on the way to meet a client.  The film becomes a metaphor for tests of his manliness.  We learn this when he makes a pay phone call to his wife (Jacqueline Scott) who is disappointed that he didn’t react more to another man’s chasing her at a social event.  He can’t protect his wife, and he can’t protect himself.

The world shows southern California as it really was in 1970, with pay phones, his Plymouth Valiant and other big Nixon-era gas guzzlers.  The rogue truck becomes a character.

The DVD contains a long interview with Spielberg, who explains how he worked as a 24-year-old filmmaker.  The original film was shot in TV aspect ratio (4:3) but the DVD plays in standard 16:9.  The DVD also interviews Matheson, who says that in the end the "everyman" prevails against all odds by his wits.  He says he never wrote another story in this genre afterwards. 

The picture above comes from Nevada, my trip, 2012.  

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

"The Lazarus Effect": so maybe our brains really to take us to the Afterlife

I went to see “The Lazarus Effect”, by David Gelb, expecting a B-movie horror romp but hoping to some more theories about the afterlife.  I guess I found what I was looking for.
Mark Duplass (“The Puffy Chair”) plays a scientist at a Berkeley laboratory (with a fictitious name), experimenting with NDE.  They have a theory that at death, the pineal gland releases hormones that gives the brain unusual powers to help it enter the afterlife.  The experiment gets interesting results with a dog, and but soon corporate espionage gets the project shut down.  But the team continues surreptitiously. Soon, an accident leads to the electrocution of Zoe (Olivia Wilde) in whom Frank has a romantic interest.  Perhaps this gets into “Bride of Frankenstein” territory.  Frank and his team (especially young brilliant sidekick Clay (Evan Peters) who violated the smoking rules) bring her back to life, sort of.  She conveys that at death, she was forced to relieve the worst moment of her life, when she lost her sister in a house fire.  It was like “hell”.  So she goes back into space-time to save her sister’s afterlife. In the course, she displays telekinesis and pretty much wipes the staff.  But, no fear, she can bring them back.  The life cycle continues.

All of this is pretty stereotyped stuff.  The official site from Relativity is here “I am Rogue” took over domestic distribution from Lionsgate. I guess this is a film “to die for.” I saw it before a fair audience Wednesday night at Regal Potomac Yard.
Picture:  a curious fire on I-10 near Ontario, CA, my trip in 2012. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

"Red State": Kevin Smith puts together all the elements of right wing horror for teenagers and fibbies

The B-movie thriller, “Red State” (2011), by Kevin Smith, tries to present some of the paranoia of the extreme right in rural areas, in areas like homophobia, weapons, doomsday prophecy, the “sovereign nation” movement, the Rapture of the Believers, and Waco-style resistance to government.
The movie opens with a vulgar hate protest at a funeral of a gay man murdered in a small town in the California foothills (though the script is ambiguous as to location, suggesting in intermountain west in an inland empire state; I thought about Ameer’s “The House of Adam”).  Three teenage boys respond to a social media ad for sex.  On the way to a rendex-vous, they sideswipe a car.  Once at the trailer for the “appointment”, they are drugged by the beers they drink, and wind up in captivity at a local “fundamentalist church”.  Some torture, involving taping people up, ensues.
In the meantime, a local sheriff’s deputy (who may be gay himself) gets suspicious. The end result is an ATF standoff, that first reminds one of Waco in 1993.  But this group is violent, and counterattacks against the ATF and FBI with an unbelievable barrage of assault weapons.  The ATF also has to rescue the teens.
In this movie, unfortunately, “not all’s well that ends well”. There is even a horncall and a fake rapture.
The script mentions the anti-gay church in Kansas (the Westboro Baptist Church) but is careful to say this group (the Five Points Trinity Church) is not the same. 
The hapless kids are played by Michael Angarano,  Kyle Gallner and Ronnie Connell. John Goodman plays Agent Keenan, who has to face the music after the raid in a quirky conclusion.
The official site is here
A good comparison might be the film "Timber Falls" (2007) by Tony Giglio. 

For the best account of Waco, I’ll name “Waco: The Rules of Engagement” by William Gazecki, New Yorker Films, 1997.  

Monday, March 16, 2015

"Cinderella" remake from Disney has strong social, political messages

Kenneth Branagh’s remake of “Cinderella” for Disney (with Chris Weisz adapting the screenplay) is more than a fairy tale for children (or high school English class).  This time, there is a bit of a moral bite.
Lily James plays the heroine, who is left to the whims of the evil stepmother (Cate Blanchette) after losing her parents, most of all her generous father (Ben Chaplin).  She’s forced into servitude and submission to the stepmother’s two daughters, and forbidden to attend the ball.  A lot is made of the fact that association with her would cause the two “real” daughters to lose their chance at marriage.
It’s all so circular, and so familiar. The script plays up the idea that "some people are better than other people" but only because others have predefined them that way. 
We know the story about the fairy godmother (Helen Bonham Carter) and the handsome prince (Richard Madden), and the glass slippers (which could have been made from diamond – but then they wouldn’t break).  And when the king dies, the prince has the same political obligation to marry well – to have good heirs and protect the kingdom.  So he finds his beloved.  The shoe has to fit. She is just who she is.
I wondered, it would get interesting if the heroine were made black, and even give personal “preferences” even more existential importance.
The kingdom has an interesting look with all the CGI, a cantankerous cat, and little gremlins that might come right out of “Imajica”.

The music by Patrick Doyle, while cheerful, was not as powerful as in some of Doyle's Shakespeare films (also with Branagh). Remember "My Thoughts Be Bloody" from "Hamlet". 
There is an animated short “Frozen Fever” with more music and sets and characters from the 2013 hit.
Disney’s official site is here

The animated 1950 “Cinderella” is said to have saved Disney.  But the movie I remember as a boy is “Dumbo”.
I saw the film at the Regal Ballston Common, unfortunately on a smaller screen, on Monday evening before a small audience. 
Also, note: this evening, Blogger invited me to find a domain name for the blog and connect immediately.  I didn't, but I will think about it.  I just can't make decisions like that on the fly. It needs to be tested.  

Sunday, March 15, 2015

"The Hunting Ground" exposes the problem of universities' looking the other way to sexual assaults on campuses

The documentary “The Hunting Ground”, by Kirby Dick, magnifies the incidence of sexual assault on American college and university campuses, and the “systematic” pressure on university officials to look the other way.
The documentary states that 90% of campus assaults are performed by 8% of male students (or outsiders), and a significant portion of this 8% comes from scholarship athletes, many of whom could not have gotten admitted on academics alone. It also covers assault on males, which, while less common, happens and is traumatic.  When it does occur, it seems to be more about bullying and asserting power and control than about real sexuality or attraction.
The film starts at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (“UNC”) but quickly covers problems on many other campuses, including Berkeley, Harvard, Yale, Notre Dame, OU, UVa, KSU, KU, FSU, and Occidental.  At times, the visuals in the film confuse similar bell towers at Berkeley and UNC!
When women try to press charges, they find administrators and sometimes local police unwilling to help them.  An incident at Florida State involving a start football player is covered in detail.  Police and district attorneys, under political pressure over alumni donations for sports, were very slow to investigate and prosecute.
Relatively few students are expelled.  At both UNC and UVa, zero male students were expelled for sexual assault, whereas at UVa about 180 were expelled for honor code violations! At Harvard, a student was expelled and, after appeal, allowed to return the following year.
Administrators also tend to blame the female students for provoking men. 
In some of these cases, men try to claim that sex was consensual, and it can be hard for prosecutors to prove that it was by force.  However, many cases start around fraternity houses (some particular national fraternities are mentioned) and at parties with alcohol (often underage).  Since campuses typically have advanced camera and alarm systems, it would be surprising that outdoor nighttime attacks were not prosecuted.
I’ve covered my expulsion from William and Mary in 1961 for the “opposite” issue here, admitting homosexuality.  But when I was in a dorm again, in graduate school at KU in the late 1960s, sometimes men would brag about conquests, but also speak about fear that a girl would claim later it was rape.  One roommate, normally nice, once when drunk said “no girl does that to me” after being stiffed, and became belligerent.  There was a tendency for men to speak about sex in crude terms, and to expect prostitution to be cheap.

The recent incident at OU with the racist lyric (even invoking lynching) shows that universities can go after fraternities, despite the idea that the "Greek" system brings the academic world a lot of alumni money and provides a "good old boy" network for business and politics. 
The official site is here.  The film is distributed jointly by Radius TWC and CNN.

I saw the film at the Landmark E Street Cinema Sunday afternoon, before a large audience in a large auditorium, and it applauded. 

Wikipedia attribution link for photo of the Morehead-Patterson Bell Tower at UNC, by Yeungb, under Create Commons 3.0 Share Alike license. 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

"House of Boys": European drama showing the early days of the AIDS epidemic, and street life of less fortunate gay men

The film “House of Boys” (2009), by Jean-Claude Schlim, from Luxembourg but in English, is one of the most graphic dramatic films about the early days of the AIDS epidemic made, perhaps eclipsed by only a few like “Angels in America” and “The Normal Heart”.
The story is told from the viewpoint of his lover, Frank (Layke Anderson), who leaves a home of disapproving parents in early 1984, and winds up in Amsterdam.  After bouncing out of a bar, he stumbles on a safehouse or bartenders and dancers supporting another club, run by a middle aged man.  The place is rather a live-in, intentional community. His attractive roommate Jake (Benn Northovera) claims to be straight, but gradually they fall in love, while Frank becomes known as a dancer.
A romantic encounter between the men occurs at the midpoint of the film.  Soon Jake has a little accident, and doctors find his T-helper counts low.  Then they find a blue lesion.
In the last forty minutes of the two-hour film, Jake deteriorates rapidly, becoming covered with Kaposi’s Sarcoma lesions.  The house owner throws him out, since he doesn’t want this “problem”.  The film suggests that Europeans were not as aware of AIDS then as was the US, but we know some of the biggest early drug trials occurred in France, at the Pasteur Institute.

The look of the sets, inside the house, is garish, with brilliant technicolor. The director says he wanted to create a story to educate the public on the personal aspect of history that is already forgotten. 
In the meantime, the film shows TV clips of Ronald Reagan, increasing spending on defense but cutting back on domestic programs at it is “morning” across the Atlantic in America.

Stephen Fry ("Copenhagen") plays Dr. Marsh, who discovers Jake's disease and relates it to the earky epidemic in the US, before HTLV-III (aka HIV) has even been identified.  Udo Kier and Steven Webb also star.
The film takes a full fifteen minutes to present all of the opening credits!
The film has an intriguing epilogue set in Morocco in 1986 as Frank moves on (with Jake's previous girl friend). Both leads play their parts with a great deal of charisma.
The German site for the film is here. The DVD now comes from Breaking Glass. 

The film says that after 25 years, the death toll from AIDS is 25 million.

Amsterdam photo by Michielverbeek, attribution link, under Creative Commons 3.0 Share Alike license. My two visits occurred in 1991 and 2001. 

Friday, March 13, 2015

"Merchants of Doubt": people make careers doing PR for industries spreading false info, especially about climate change

Merchants of Doubt” is a new documentary about the lobbying of “denial” based on the book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway.  The film is directed by Robert Kenner, written with Kim Roberts. 
The film actually starts with a magician’s session, almost out of “The Illusionist”.  That’s a metaphor for how the process of selling “denial” works.
Corporations fear government regulation, so they tend to form small trade groups to represent their common interests and then hire lobbyists to spin the denial.  This has been true of issues like asbestos, tobacco, acid rain, and other pollution concerns, and now is particularly the case with climate change.  The process of denial started probably in the late 80s, but had to accelerate particularly after Al Gore’s prize-winning “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2005 (directed by David Guggenheim).
Oreskes, sitting in a small apartment (apparently in Cambridge, MA near Harvard) describes how she researched the academic journals on climate change, and found zero peer-reviewed articles supporting the denier crowd.  Incidentally, that little segment could make an argument for “open access” to journals, which was a cause of Aaron Swartz (and more recently Jack Andraka).
The denial crowd becomes partisan, and is particularly critical for the Tea Party, which engineered the primary loss for a South Carolina Senatorial candidate who wanted to take a much more pro-active position on climate change reform.
The denial crowd appears to a certain quasi-libertarian element, which fears that government regulation (aka socialism and communism) will take their way of life away. The Cato Institute gets mentioned.

The film does mention a basic moral point. Our grandparents' generation probably had no way to know that industrial practices would lead to climate change.  Ours does.  So are we stealing from future generations?  Can you commit a crime against someone who does not yet even exist?  (That's not the same as the usual right-to-life question.)
What strikes me is people get hired to speak somebody else’s message, join someone else’s cause, regardless of “truth”.  They’ve got to earn a living, right?  I’ve stayed away from this, but even that becomes morally problematic.  After “retirement” in 2001, I was often approached with a “we give you the words” pitch.  My answer is that you have to win arguments with facts and sound reasoning before you can win converts. 

The official site is here and it has enormous resouces.
Above, Naomi speaks at Kansas State University (Manhattan). 
The theatrical release is from Sony Pictures Classics and I saw if before a small but appreciative early evening show at the AMC Shirlington.  

Thursday, March 12, 2015

"The Expedition to the End of the World": A Danish crew takes a schooner to the Greenland coast

The Expedition to the End of the World” (“Ekspeditionen til verdens ende”) is a gorgeous 90-minute meditation by Daniel Dencik, presenting a spectacular journey by three-mast schooner to the area of northeast Greenland, in summer, during the short time it is completely ice free.
A cast of about ten artists and scientists from Denmark go on the journey, and go on various hikes and little adventures (like gliding).  They do comment on global warming but sound like it is inevitable. Most of the scenery is near water and is based at low altitude, but the surrounding mountains appear to have snow down to about 2000 feet.
The photography is sharp and, quite simply, spectacular, and as good on this ordinary DVD as BluRay.  There’s a curious scene with a mystery red cabin on the cliffs.
The DVD (from Virgil) does not have breakdown by scenes.  When you load it, it simply plays.  The original distributor was Argot.
The official site is here  and it has many more stills from the film.
I’m reminded of the 1997 thriller “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” that has a subplot in Greenland.

Wikipedia attribution link for topographical map of Greenland, by “Skew-t”, under Creative Commons 3.0 Share-Alike License. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

"Ballet 422": Justin Peck choreographs a new work for the New York City Ballet at age 25

Ballet 422”, directed by Jody Lee Lipes, is a valuable documentary about how a young ballet professional, Justin Peck, at age 25 takes on the honor and creative challenge of creating a ballet program for the New York City Ballet, using music of Philip Glass, Martinu, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky (the “Polish” Symphony) and Bizet.  The film also features Tiler Peck, coincidentally the same last name (no relation, source).  Justin's work is commissioned as the 422nd program of the Ballet company. 

The film shows minimal detail on the technical aspects of composing choreography (for example, here.  Instead, the film shows Justin interacting with the dancers, showing energy, assertiveness and charisma (and beefcake), and finally preparing himself to dance in the final sequence of the film on opening night.  There are also other details on making the clothing and on makeup, as well as the notorious stretch and fitness exercises.

Generally, for ballet I prefer works written by composers specifically to be performed as ballet (like “Swan Lake”, “The Firebird”, etc).  Some of Chopin’s piano pieces are adapted into a ballet called “Les Sylphides” (Diaghilev).  But some compositions might benefit from being choreographed.  I wonder if this is true of Timo Andres’s one hour 2-piano suite “Shy and Mighty” (Drama blog, May 20, 2010) since the ten movements are all rather descriptive of “somethings.”   Have I met Justin on one of my trips to concerts in NYC?
The official site is here  (Magnolia Pictures).  Here’s an interview with Justin, link
Wikipedia attribution link for picture of interior of New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, home of the New York City Ballet, taken by David Shankbone, under Creative Commons 3.0 Share-Alike license.  I was on the premises in the 1970s.  Second picture is mine, Dec, 2010, taken when I went to a recital nearby by Timo.  

In middle school, my mixed chorus teacher actually composed a piece called "Ballet Music" in B-flat, back in the 1950s. Let me mention a favorite classic old film. "The Red Shoes", 1948, J. Arthur Rank, Powell and Pressburger (who gave us "A Canterbury Tale") with music by Easdale.   
I saw the film before a fair late weekday audience at Landmark E Street in Washington DC.  Many stayed for the credits to identify the music.  This film is definitely for ballet and classical music enthusiasts. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

"The Kid Stays in the Picture" is a self-serving autobiography of film producer Robert Evans

The Kid Stays in the Picture” is the 2002 film autobiography of film producer Robert Evans (born Robert J. Shapera in 1930 in NYC), based on his own book, directed by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen.  The film was originally released by USA Films, and the Netflix DVD comes from WB.
The movie is narrated by Evans in fast “sotto voce”, sounding a bit like a character out of the Coen Brothers world.  He is best known for rehabilitating Paramount as a studio producer starting in the late 1960s, and continuing a successful connection after going independent in the late 1970s.  But then a conviction for drug possession and then an indirect connection with a murder (he was never charged in that regard) made it impossible for anyone to do business with him for a while, until he came back in the 1990s.  Even then he would survive a stroke.
Evans was breathtakingly handsome, which raises the question as to why he didn’t make a go as an actor. 
Evans talks about many of his important projects.  One of the earliest was “The Detective” (1969).  Remember that line that Frank Sinatra speaks, “p.. cut off”.  The film was indeed a bit homophobic (“What did you like about his body …. It was soft, like a girl’s.”)  Evans sidesteps Hollywood’s gradual emergence from its own prejudices He talks about a couple of his greatest hits, most of all “Love Story” (with Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw), as culture-setting feel-good-about-bad story (people saw it multiple times, and I remember it well, having just started working).  That film would inspire today’s “The Fault in our Stars” (June 9).  Then he moves on to “The Godfather”.  I remember setting aside a whole afternoon to see that in a New York City theater near Columbus Circle in 1972.  Remember Brando talking about the “services” he delivers that people want, a forerunner of libertarianism.  In the many testimonials included with the DVD, Evans takes credit for making the original books upon which these movies were based commercially successful.  I wondered, could a producer do that for me, today?
The film can be rented on YouTube for $2.99. 
Note that “The Kid Stays out of the Picture” was a “Will and Grace” episode.
I know someone in the clubs people call  “The Kid”, a musician with his career in the sciences and medicine.  It’s rather common.  But it’s hard to stay in the picture, especially if you go to medical school.  
Picture: Disney (my CA trip in 2012).  

Monday, March 09, 2015

China orders take-down of "Under the Dome", lecture-documentary by journalist Chai Jing

There is a lot of controversy as China’s Communist Party ordered the removal of the film “Under the Dome” by journalist Chai Jing, 39, who spent about $160000 of her own money to produce the 104-minute film in a “Ted talk” format, about the air and water pollution crisis in China.
The film is widely available in the West free in various YouTube uploads, many in several parts. It has English and Chinese subtitles.
Jing admits that she was inspired to title her film as such by the CBS series of the same name, based on Stephen King’s novel (see TV blog, Sept 22, 2014).  So I guess Stephen King is not too popular with the Chinese government either.
Jing mentions Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”, and the December 1952 smog event in London. She also covers the progress of Los Angeles since the 1960s in controlling smog, and compares Los Angeles to Beijing.

She also mentions her reporting of the SARS epidemic in 2003, and the Chinese desire to keep it quiet. 
A lot of the time spent by the video of the film shows her talking.  I would have preferred even more live footage of Chinese industry than she showed.  There is some nice animation, such as an explanation of how soot affects lungs (reminding one of “Fantastic Voyage”).  There is some detailed footage of lung surgery.
The Guardian has a story on the Chinese government’s shameful action here. The very detailed story by Edward Wong in the New York Times today by Edward Wong is here.  Vox Media has a review and discussion of the politics of pollution in China by Katy Lee here
Wikipedia attribution link for photo by Bobak comparing Beijing on smoggy v. clear day, under Creative Commons Share-Alike 2.5 license.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

"Chappie" raises issues about artificial intelligence, and about crime in post-apartheid South Africa

Documentary film has dealt with the horrendous crime problem in post-apartheid South Africa (“Tell Me and I Will Forget”, Feb. 4, 2014). So it’s good to see a major studio take this problem up, even if overdressed in a science fiction melee about robots.
The other point of “Chappie” (the robot, like “Robby the Robot from MGM’s “Forbidden Planet’) is, of course, whether man can create a sentient, free-willed being with computers.  The charismatic, likeable and even athletic geek (even if always wearing a tie) Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) says to Chappie “I am your maker”.  Deon tries to be a good dad to a precocious teen, almost his buddy, but teaching the kid morality, despite the pressure on him from enemy gangs tied to his own company (led by Vince, played by Hugh Jackman).  He experiences fatherhood without romance, procreation or even sexuality.  He takes on responsibility.  But if man could do that, think of the implications.  Stephen Hawking warns us that A.I. is one of the things that could destroy us.  Another implication is that a God or Allah or Jehovah must have created us after all, or certainly could have.
The story also encounters a Jo-berg kidnapping, start with a carjacking of Deon, who has gone against his CEO boss’s (Sigourney Weaver, hardly a Ripley here) orders by rescuing a robot from the dump and rehabbing it and giving it new life.  There are ties between the company Tetravaal and organized crime gangs in Jo-berg.
In the aftermath, the robots go rogue and attack the police, and have to be shut down.  The usual fight and chase scenes, like from “Transformers”, happen.  Deon decides he can save Chappie by download his consciousness and uploading it to a new robot’s body.  Now maybe this is a spoiler, but the next logical question is, can this happen with a real person?  Deon gets shot, and we find out. 
Imagine the implications again.  Immortality in the body of a robot is possible.  Or what if I could hijack an 18-year-old’s body and wake up in his instead of my aging body now? Maybe all I need is enough money.
The film offers detailed and impressive location shots of Jo-berg, and they’re pretty grim.
The film is released under Sony’s regular Columbia label, rather than Sony Pictures Classics or TriStar, which would be more common with foreign (in this case, South African) films.  Maybe that’s because it is also available in Imax.  The official site is here.
Sharlto Copley becomes Chappie’s voice.  The film is directed by Neill Blomkamp. 
A good comparison could be made to Steven Spielberg's "A. I. Artificial Intelligence" in 2001. 
I saw the film at the AMC Courthouse in Arlington, VA, with the recliners, not quite sold out, Saturday night.  The Courthouse appears to be sharing the showing of more independent films with the Shirlington, which is welcome given the impending loss of the West End Cinema.
Wikipedia attribution link for Jo-berg picture by Rodney and Paul, Creative Commons 3.0 Share-Alike license.