Thursday, April 30, 2015

"25 to Life": a boy infected with HIV by a blood transfusion grows to manhood without symptoms and secretly

The documentary “25 to Life” (2014), directed by Michael Brown, tells the sobering story of William Brawner, now in his mid 30s, who kept his HIV-positive status secret for much of his life.
But Brawner’s story is one of having to deal with one’s hand in life – call it karma if you want.  He was scalded by an abusive man (father??) as a boy, and given skin grafts and blood transfusions.  This all happened in the early 1980s, well before there was a blood test for HIV (or even before the “HTLV-III” virus has been identified).  So his story is a little bit parallel to that of Ryan White.
His mother (and close family) decided to keep it a secret, and so does he, for a very long time.  Will started taking AZT, which had side effects.  But he grew up into manhood without progressing into symptoms  About 10 percent of people infected with HIV probably do not develop major symptoms (although their blood work is abnormal) for decades, maybe never, if left alone. They may have a gene that resists HIV transmission among T-helper cells.

The film does make a strong point, quickly, that people feared HIV-infected others regardless of how they were infected;  there is an illogical presumption of "guilt" in people's minds.  This was common in the 1980s with people who got HIV at birth for from blood transfusions. 
Brawner grows up, and develops the usual heterosexual interest in women, and wants to have a wife and family.  (He seems to have recovered from the burns, which is no longer an appearance issue itself, and that is rather amazing.) He does, at some point, tell his girl friend (Bridgette), whom he marries (if I follow right – this point is glossed over in the media), and they ponder whether they need to use condoms and can have children.  Finally she does get pregnant, toward the end of the film.  As far as I could tell, she didn’t get infected.  Many  heterosexual partners do not get infected, and the virus is even harder to transmit from women to men than from men to women (an argument that the right wing tried to use against gay men in the 1980s).  He learns to give her shots – is this for diabetes (which sometimes first shows up in pregnancy)?
For years, though, he does not tell close friends, and attends Howard University and is popular, with no one knowing. But it is common in life not to know a lot of things about friends, right?  Some news clips (even more than the film) however, do talk about his behavior,  which sounds questionable.
The official Facebook is here  The distributor is the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, along with Black Lives Matter and
There are numerous articles about the film, such as on indiewire here , PGN here  and “The Root” here. and NPR here.

He is now Executive Director of the Haven Youth Center, link 
Picture: from Baltimore Sandtown neightborhood, my visit yesterday, are Freddie Gray incident.  That will certainly generate a film.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

"Unfriended" aka "Cybernatural" tells an entire horror story through Skype

When I saw the film title “Unfriended”, I thought about ideas like jealousy and revenge porn on the Internet.  In fact, I don’t think that Facebook or Twitter actually tell you when you lose a “friend” or “follower”.
The film, from Levan Gabriadze, originally titled “Cybernatural”, has a strange and confining way of visual storytelling.  Most of the time, you see a computer screen with six chatters, connected by Skype.  A lot of the interaction is on Facebook, and some is through Bit Torrent P2P.
The complications come in the way of a chat message from a classmate (“Laura”, Heather Sossaman) who had committed suicide a year ago after being cyberbullied. Soon, another ghostly chatter appears, and with affects (in embedded Skype) inspired by the “Paranormal” films, the kids start coming to grisly ends. 
The character Mitch, played by Moses Storm, resembles Richard Harmon a bit, perhaps intentionally. Adam (Will Peltz) is appealing, too.
The official site is here  The film is a direct Universal release, and the Universal trademark pixilates as it is shown.  The genre definitely belongs to “I am Rogue”.


I saw the film late Tuesday afternoon at the Regal Ballston Common.  Regal shows a lot of previews, which included "Southpaw", with Jake Gyllenhaal as a boxer, whose bod seems ruined now -- not only epilated, but covered with tattoos.  

Monday, April 27, 2015

"The Draft" gives a straightforward history of military conscription (male-only) in the US, on PBS

Monday, April 27, PBS aired the 50-minute documentary from Partisan Pictures by Aaron Matthews, “The Draft”.  The film is a straightforward account of military (and male-only) conscription in US History.
The film opens by looking at US military situations today, having emerged from long wars in Iraq and (almost) Afghanistan, not too successfully, it turns out (given ISIS).  It is difficult to retain capable forces at strength.  Toward the end, the film shows military recruiters prowling the streets of San Francisco (not as ironic as it used to be).  In fact, some see the "Stop-Loss" (March 29. 2008) policy of redeployments as effectively a backdoor draft, since poor people are more likely to have enlisted in the first place.  

Then the film introduces a Rutgers history professor, Jennfier Mittelstadt, who finally says that we had stopped the debate on whether citizenship comes with the responsibility of shared risk and sacrifice.  That duty involved taking orders from your government for two years (longer during WWII), losing freedom, and possibly undergoing death or dismemberment. She says we ought to consider having the debate again.  Stirring that debate is one of the points of my own series of three "Do Ask, Do Tell" books.  Donald Rumsfeld insists that the plusses of an all-volunteer force outweigh the downside, and we won’t see a draft again in the foreseeable future.
The film goes back to the Revolutionary War time.  While colonies expected men to be ready to join militia with their own weapons (the source of the Second Amendment, maybe), the Continental Congress. In the North, the draft became divisive during the War Between the States, as men could buy their way out, from immigrants who would fight for them.  Draft riots (“The Gangs of New York”) would result.

During World War I, Woodrow Wilson brought the draft back, but he put the decision as to “who should go and who doesn’t have to” in the hands of local draft boards, that knew their communities.  The Selective Service System still exists today, and I actually wrote to it during my first “Do Ask, Do Tell” book doing research. The film doesn’t mention that Wilson made criticizing the draft a form of sedition.
The draft loomed big during World War II, after the shock of Pearl Harbor, and again during Korea.
John Kennedy wanted to defer husbands and fathers, but that idea died when LBJ took over, and we were left with a system of student deferments, after Johnson started increasing draft calls toward the end of 1965. 
The documentary covers how the student deferment system led to an over-representation of the poor and minorities, especially in combat arms, exposing fault lines even as the Civil Rights movement started.  17000 draftees died in Vietnam, and many more came back maimed. 
It also covers the gradual increase in dissent over Vietnam after 1966, with the controversy over the “crime” of draft card burning. 
In 1969, under Nixon, Selective Service went to a lottery system, which tended to bring the draft home to more upper income Americans, who started to question the War even more, putting pressure on Nixon to end the active war (in 1973) and draft.  Yet, only eight years before, LBJ had articulated the domino theory, of protecting freedom from communism as “the enemy”.
I’ve often told my own story, of taking the physical three times, and going from 4-F to 1-A, and getting the draft call in 1968, but enlisting two weeks early for two years to reduce my risk of combat as someone with an advanced degree.  Privilege worked in my case.  I took BCT at Fort Jackson, SC.

There's a scene where West Point cadets debate whether military (or any other structured government) service should be an obligation of citizenship, and there is wide disagreement among the cadets. They also field the question, if you disagree with the country on being in Vietnam, was going to Canada and emigrating the "courageous" thing to do, rather than take a deferment. 
The official site from PBS is here.  A DVD is available.
There was no mention of the repealed military “don’t ask don’t tell” policy and who the draft dealt with gays in the 1960s.  (The Army actually stopped “asking” in 1965.)   But after 9/11, Charles Moskos, one of the architects of DADT, publicly favored conscription along with ending the DADT policy and military gay ban altogether. 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

"The Dark Horse": in New Zealand, a man rehabs himself by coaching an underprivileged kids' chess team

The Dark Horse”, as a movie title, is certainly a metaphor.  The “Horse” is the Knight in chess, with its funny move, and the “dark” refers mildly to the Maori native people of New Zealand. But the film has nothing to do with the “The Dark Knight” of Christopher Nolan.
The film, directed by James Napier Robertson, has a grand look, in wide anamorphic, of the north island of New Zealand, particularly Gisborne and Auckland. But New Zealand here looks a little gritty, not spectacular like in the "LOTR" movies.
The central protagonist is a speed chess whiz Genesis Potini (Cliff Curtis), himself staggering in life after release from a mental hospital.  He decides the way to rehab himself is to become coach of a kids chess team called the Eastern Knights.
It’s not surprising that he meets a lot of resistance in the community, especially his own brother, in a tense scene at midpoint.
Eventually, he gets the kids to a tournament in Auckland.  Some of his behavior at the match would not normally be tolerated at USCF-rated chess tournaments.
There is some chess theory in the movie.  Genesis talks about the difference between the “Spanish Game” (Ruy Lopez opening) and the “Italian”, -- all having to do with where White places a Bishop move three.  The latter is more romantic and recently has gained traction in chess theory.
The tournament games are interesting sometimes.  There is one depiction of a smothered mate (a Queen sacrifice followed by a Knight move checking a King in the corner), which has actually happened in the Italian Game and is a known trap.
The final game, which one of the Maori kids wins with White, appears to be a Two Knights Defense (link) but I had a hard time following the moves.  I also noticed a “queen pawn fork trick” on the board.  I lost a game in the Arlington Chess Club in 2013 in a similar line (with Black).
The official site is here
I saw the film Saturday evening at Filmfest DC, at Landmark E Street, in a smaller auditorium, nearly sold out although I bought the ticket on site with a walk-in.
I think major league baseball players, especially managers, should take up chess.  I guess the same is true for football. 
Wikipedia attribution link for photo by Richard Grevers of Gisborne, NZ, under Creative Commons Share Alike 2.0 License.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

"Limited Partnership": love story about a male couple, over 40 years; with one an immigrant, marriage matters

Limited Partnership”, directed by Thomas G. Miller (actually a physician, according to the QA), tells the story of a male couple which started a relationship in California in 1971 and has followed history for forty years.  This is a love story (as much as the 1970 film called that).
The couple was Filipino-American Richard Adams, and Australian Tony Sullivan.  The couple applied for a marriage license in Boulder, CO in 1975, and the court clerk and local DA found nothing in the law denying them the right to one.  Later the Colorado AG relented, and their status became vulnerable.  Tony needed to be legally married to stay in the US.  They would go to Mexico and re-enter often to extend Tony’s temporary status.  Eventually the couple lived in Europe and became poor in the 1980s, before returning and gradually re-entering the gay marriage battles in the 90s.

A key event was the US Justice Department's ruling in the late 70s that the federal government would not recognize them as married for immigration purposes, as expressed in notorious the letter referring to them as "faggots".  
The film covers gay history since 1970, showing the anti-gay attitudes expressed in Anita Bryant’s campaign in Florida in 1977, and the Briggs Initiative which attempted to get gay teachers removed in California in 1978 (the film didn’t mention that the initiative did not pass  -- I remember getting the news in a bar in NYC in 1978).  The film doesn’t specifically mention DADT.  Younger gay adults may not grasp today how things were.
The film does mention the AIDS epidemic, but, as the couple was monogamous, it was not exposed, as were many of their friends.
After 9/11, immigration became even testier, and Richard’s health began to fail, as he developed stroke and heart problems and lung cancer.  Richard would pass away at age 65 at the end of 2012, a few months before the Supreme Court would overrule DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, which President Bill Clinton signed).  Sullivan is still trying to get the DOJ to recognize his status as a widower.  Richard's passing was too soon for them to do a legal ceremony in the state of Washington.   
The film was shown at FilmfestDC at Landmark E Street, before a nearly sold-out audience in a large auditorium.  Miller and Sullivan were there for questions.  Sullivan mentioned that libertarians were better on marriage equality than many Democrats, and attributed many anti-gay attitudes of the distant past as indirectly related to propping up heterosexual marriage itself. 
The official site is here.

My own take on this is to put the film inside a much bigger context.  Had I met a "Tony" in 1973 (after my own "second coming"), could I have even created and maintained such a relationship, given the external adversity?  That's its own kind of courage.  Could I have supported someone financially because he could not get a green card?  The moral scope of a question like that grows quickly.  If might even affect political asylum (as from anti-gay countries) today. 
The documentary will air on PBS Independent Lens in June, and be distributed by Cinema Guild.

A good comparison for this film would be "Documented" (May 30, 2014 here).

This new film would almost certainly have played at the West End Cinema in Washington if it were still open. 

Friday, April 24, 2015

"The Age of Adaline": a fairy tale becomes a date movie

The Age of Adaline”, directed by Lee Toland Krieger, based on a story by J. Mills Goodloe and Salvadore Paskowitz, is indeed a sweet fairy tale.  Right off the bat, the name of the lead character sounds like a city in Australia!  (There is a similarly named town, spelled differently.)  But it’s set in San Francisco, mainly, over 80 years, starting with the earthquake in 1906.  Yes, people rebuilt and didn’t whine about whether it would happen again.
Adaline is born in 1908.  According to the story, she (Blake Lively, from “Gossip Girl”) is driving in the woods in Marin County one night in 1937 when there is a freak winter thunderstorm with snow.  She almost drowns, goes into hypothermia, and then is struck by lightning, which restarts her heart.  And the telomeres of here cells all have forgotten to age.

So for decades she repeatedly changes her identity. Finally, she falls in love with a young entrepreneur Ellis Jones (Dutch actor Michiel Huisman). Ellis is wealthy from having sold an algorithm (maybe a dreaded software patent?) and is a real handyman fixing up his house (I am not).  The romance starts, and soon Adaline meets his dad, William (Harrison Ford).  Here it gets interesting.
William (played by Australian actor Anthony Ingruber as a young man) had dated Adaline decades before when he was a medical student.  One day, she had a small accident in the woods, and he tied the wound with stiches.  In a curious but small topological plot twist (which I won’t elaborate here), decided to migrate from medicine to physics and math himself,
Now, of course, there is the risk that William will recognize her.
Now, one could say that a story like this allows a lot of manipulation for its own sake.  Adaline has a aughter (Ellen Burstyn) who by now is an elderly woman, leading to paradox.  One recalls “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Dec. 29, 2008).  But here, you don’t get even to watch an irony like a body in reverse chronology.

Could this specific (Adaline) story work with a male character? Imagine never going bald (well that's pretty common), even on the legs. 
Another parallel concept would be a story about a character who is an extraterrestrial, but doesn’t know it.  Imagine the “Mark Zuckerberg Is an Alien” movie.
The popular Canadian actor Richard Harmon (“Judas Kiss”, June 4, 2011, and “The Greatest of All Time”), with a huge resume by age 23, appears Fas the artist-photographer Tony, at almost the beginning of the movie, in present day San Francisco. There is some implied deception in the dialogue.  Then, toward the end, it seems he appears briefly as another photographer decades earlier, as if from a Judas-like time warp.
The film is produced by Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, Lakeshore, and Lionsgate, which dispensed its musical signature at the beginning. Again, I prefer that studios use their entire mark and finish trademark display before the actual movie music starts. The official site is here
I saw the film at Regal in Ballston, Arlington VA, before a small crowd in a big auditorium.  Some of the audience clapped. 

Wikipedia attribution link for Golden Gate Bridge picture by Frank Schulenberg, under Creative Commons 3.0 Share-Alike license.  The film shows the Bridge under construction in the 1930s.  Look also at the Bridge Comparison graphic here

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

"Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About his Father": the substance is like that of a Dateline crime report, but it is so personal

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About his Father” (2008), by Kurt Kuenne, a film produced by MSNBC but distributed by Oscilloscope, has the substance of an NBC Dateline crime story. 
The filmmaker tells the tragic story of the parents of a little boy, Zachary, intended as a scrapbook for the kid, whose own life would be taken by his mother (in suicide) as well as his father’s.  The film self-documents its own creation as Kuenne drives across North America, finding Newfoundland an interesting and dank place.  
The narrative starts when medical student (or resident) Andrew Bagby, childhood friend of Kuenne (they used to make home movies together) breaks up with a girl friend Shirley Turner, who is apparently pregnant with Zachary.  Bagby puts her on a plane from Pennsylvania back to Iowa, but is soon shot to death in a state park near Pittsburgh. 
Turner becomes the suspect but flees to Canada, Newfoundland.  Much of the film concerns the legal technicalities about her bail and extradition. After the birth of Zachary, Bagby’s parents  (David and Kathleen) spend their life savings to move to Canada and raise Zachary, but then further tragedy ensues, and the nature of the film itself changes with it. 
The film (93 minutes) has a fast pace;  the narrator Kuenne talks fast, and there are a lot of stills, ad the aspect ratio is only 4:3, as if for pre-wide-screen TV.  But the film played in numerous festivals and won awards and is well-liked by critics and audiences.   
I watched the film on Netflix. 
See the Wiki on Zachary Turner here
The official site is here

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Jamin Winans: "The Frame": Filmmakers -- particularly screenwriters and music composers -- rule the world, at least in Colorado

Jamin Winan’s latest film, “The Frame”, may seem a bit “obvious” at the end, as it depends on reality-bending that has been approached by other directors, like Christopher Nolan, David Lynch, and even Jorge Ameer. The work of Richard Kelly ("Donnie Darko" and "The Box"), transplanted from Virginia to the high plains, comes to mind, too. 
Winans gives us two unrelated characters.  Alex (David Carranza, from “The Blacklist”) works for a cartel, stealing cargo, which appears to be cocaine, but there is a hint it could be something more sinister.  I wondered, what it the cargo were a flux gun for local EMP attacks.  Sami (Tiffany Mualem) works as paty of an emergency medical technician.  The film gives us a long backstory of her troubled family background.
Soon the two characters start seeing each other on television.  I hope that’s not too much of a spoiler.  They wonder if their TV’s have webcams, or some kind of automated Skype.  But the film gradually moves into a kind of Lynch-land.  It’s shot in Denver and the plains to the East (like Jamin’s other movies) but the colors are dark, sepia.  In the skyline, there is an odd wrecked metal scaffolding that almost looks like a crashed spaceship.  Inside, the two protagonists seem to live in dreary and dark but spacious apartments (again, almost out of “Blue Velvet”). 
Sami thinks Alex is a character in a miniseries, “Saints and Thieves”.  She wants to warn him of the danger he is in.  Alex, likewise, begins to get the idea that both of them are being manipulated by some sort of god.  At one point, one of Alex’s cohorts smashes a TV, a scene recalling “The Terminal Man” (1974). Both characters find a bizarre room where a web press spits out a screenplay, in industry forma (like Final Draft or Screenwriter)t, and both people are characters in the movie.

So imagine, as an author of a novel, or of your own fictive screenplay, you play god with your characters.  They do your will.  You can have their outcomes follow any value system you want.  I’m reminded of the 2002 critical hit, “Adaptation”, also a meta-story about screenwriting. There aren't many orchids to steal in Colorado, though.  
This latest film from Jamin Winan runs a little over two hours, rather like a director’s cut.  

Conceptually, I think it is his strongest film.  I think he not only wrote and directed (there is a large supporting cast of extras) but composed the music, which has a passacaglia-iike theme reminding me of Hans Zimmer in “Inception”.
The screenplay that I entered into “Project Greenlight” (“Baltimore Is Missing”) envisions a protagonist (me), riding an Amtrak train and winding up in oblivion when the train tries to come out of the CSX tunnel.  The protagonist winds up on “another planet” as a puppet in an old adversary’s model railroad world.  This is sort the same kind of concept.
The official site is here.  The film was available in Oct. 2014.  I watched it on Amazon Prime.  I’m not aware of a theatrical release.  If the West End Cinema in Washington DC were still open, it would be a good fit to show there.  Like “Ink”, it seems to have only “Double Edge Films” as a corporate distributor.  Somehow, it seems to me it might fit A24 or IFC.  His first film was distributed by Tartan. OK, I can entertain myself by playing the Lionsgate intro on YouTube.
Picture: the model world for my “Baltimore” – actually the “space station” on Titan (the training barracks) for my DADT screenplay. I know, it looks a little cluttered, but it is a real alien world. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

"11:59": A reporter's "dream" lets him change history

11:59”, by Jamin Winans (2005), is another dramatic film about a journalist, posing ethical questions, but somewhat artificially set up as a sci-fi thriller.
Aaron Doherty (Raymond Andrew Bailey, chosen from over 300 applicants for the role) is a free-wheeling reporter wanting it all, something like an AC360 career, working in Denver and the high plains to the east.  His one disability is asthma.  After reporting the story of the capture of a suspect in a child abduction and murder, his boss (Liz Cunningham) gives him accolades, and he celebrates in a bar.  Suddenly, he wakes up in an empty prairie the next day.  He soon finds he has missed a whole day, some major news (a political announcement and assassination of the suspect) and his boss almost fires him.
Trying to fix his negligence, he suddenly wakes up in the prairie again.  Was he just dreaming and unable to awaken from rem sleep?  He soon finds out that it is the day before, and the prescience of his “alternate universe” experience enables him to help the cops prevent the assassination, and then expose a plot of political corruption involving getting enemies framed for sex crimes.  Then he finds the boy in the prairie, after which his car stalls and he has to carry the boy to the road and flag a motorist.  Then he has his nearly fatal asthma attack.
This review may have a lot of spoilers – a ten year old film – but the story and screenwriting illustrate the doctrine of creating rooting interest and urgency.  I don’t think that is always necessary – sometimes enigma and mystery work better. The film makes a good point about the danger of being framed for horrible crimes, and it happens more often than our criminal justice system would like to admit. 
Some of the dialogue, from his boss, illustrate the problems in “professional” journalism.  On the one hand, there is the concern over ratings.  On the other, is the expectation that a journalist “pays his dues” by doing dangerous leg work, often investigating crime or doing conflict reporting overseas and risking violence and kidnapping.  In those terms, I haven’t paid my dues.  But maybe my own life story does in other ways.
The director, in the extras, says that he starting raising money for this film at age 20, and it took seven years to make. The actor had to do heavy physical training for the role – as a reporter.
The DVD (Tartan and Double-Edge films) contains a short, “Spin”, about the virtuosity of a DJ in downtown Denver.
The film should not be confused with “11:14” (2004), a rather convoluted thriller by Greg Marcks. 
Wikipedia attribution link for Overland Trail Museum in Sterling, CO on the high plains (also in the supposed “cattle mutilation” country, as in the 1980 film “The Return” and 1982 “Endangered Species”). Photo by Jeffrey Beall, used under Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0 license.  I visited Sterling on a Saturday in August 1994, and it was while eating lunch in a diner there, I made my finale decision to write my first DADT book.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

"True Story" reviews journalistic ethics, overlaying a controversial murder case

True Story”, directed by Rupert Goold, does indeed offer “double entendre” in the title.  The film is based on the book by fired New York Times journalist, Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill), disgraced after he fabricated a story about the African slave trade by combining a lot of interviews into just one character.
Shortly after he returns home to Montana and his wife (Felicity Jones), he gets a call that a captured felon Christian Longo (James Franco), jailed in Oregon for murdering his family, had stolen his identity (not very successfully) and tried to pretend to be him.  Finkel goes to Oregon and starts interviewing Longo, and gets an advance for a book, called the name of the movie. Franco makes his character almost "likable".
Longo adopts a clever strategy to defend himself, pleading guilty to killing his wife and one child, in order to accuse his wife of having killed the other two children.  In a way, that sounds superficially parallel to the story of Stacey Castor in New York State, re-aired April 18 on ABC 20-20.
There have been other important cases and books or movies about journalistic fabrication of deficiency. There was the book “Trading Secrets” by former WSJ reporter Foster Winans, and then the movie.  Then there was the movie “Shattered Glass” about a TNR reporter, and then Jayson Blair (“The Fabulist”).
In the circumstances of the film, it would seem that Finkel could have provided a strong story just by spreading the narrative across the several real people exactly as they were told to him.  It’s not very apparent why he thought just one character would really make the narrative stronger.  Part of the trafficking issue is the number of victims.  It’s interesting also that the film names the charity “Save the Children”, to which I contribute.  The film says that the charity called the fabrication to the attention of the New York Times, and that the mishandling could be harmful to the charity.  I’ll add here that I’m not personally aware of any detracting information about STC, as I am about a couple of other charities.
Of course, high profile publications from the “legacy press” have to maintain high standards of fact checking and integrity.  This isn’t practical for amateur bloggers, and that raises some other potential legal and ethical questions. No one has made a major picture on the issues for bloggers, but I can certainly imagine one. 
The credits of the film mention participants of the table reading of the screenplay.  I’ve never seen this in credits before.
The film appears to be shot in New York State and LA, despite settings in Montana and Oregon as well. I had not been aware that Oregon has the death penalty.
The official site is here  (Fox Searchlight).
I saw the film before a small audience Sunday night at the AMC Shirlington. 
Picture: Near Hudson River upstate, my trip, 2011.  

Saturday, April 18, 2015

"Bikes vs Cars" lays out the pressures on cities to squeeze out cyclists (and public transportation)

The documentary “Bikes vs Cars”, by Swedish director Fredrik Gertten, places most of the emphasis on the dilemma specified by the title on two big cities, Sao Paulo, Brazil and Los Angeles, CA, with one major excursion in Copenhagen, Denmark.
In Sao Paulo, the narrative focuses on a young woman who moves to the city, and gives up driving and using most busses after a few months and becomes increasingly venturesome going everywhere by bike in heavy traffic.
Along the way, the film recounts some horrific accidents in Sao Paulo, where a young woman was crushed between two busses, and where a male cyclist literally had his arm ripped off by a passing car and didn’t know it at first.  The huge city has given up on rail transit and watched the expansion of auto use by the population.
A similar narrative exists for Los Angeles, which once had a decent trolley system.  The automotive lobby gradually pressured the City to become car friendly and to dismantle the trains, by 1960.  In 1900, there had been good bicycle trails throughout LA, and gradually they were abandoned.
The film covers “Carmageddon”, a weekend in July 2011 where the I-405 freeway was closed for construction, and local people stopped driving altogether, resulting in a great decrease in smog.  One cyclist illegally rode down that highway Saturday night and felt like he was in a kind of heaven.  I stayed in the Angelino Hotel on the 405 myself in May of 2012 and remember the highway well.  I was lucjy that week not to run into any real “Traffic Jam”.
Copenhagen (and Amsterdam) have invested heavily in bicycle lanes and have heavy bicycle use because their countries don’t have their own auto industries.  Compare even with Germany, where Angela Merkel gives in to the lobbyists.
As a practical matter, and as a driver who doesn’t bike much at my age, my biggest concern is safety. Cyclists should not ride the wrong way, go through lights, ride between lanes (the girl in Sao Paulo does), or make movements from directions where drivers will not normally see them.  (In one of the Sao Paulo accidents, the people say no one is at fault, just a faulty system.  Baloney.  Bikers should not pass vehicles from blind spots.) 
But I love to see dedicated bike lanes, and will always try to give any cyclist I pass at least three feet of room.  That’s why I don’t want to be surprised by them coming up on me sharing a lane when a slight ca shift could cause a crash.  (I last covered this, with some links, on my Issues blog March 19, 2015).
The film does have a few shots in many other populous cities. One of the most stunning is Beijing in the smog. 
The official site is here  (WG Film).  This will surely find a regular US distributor. 
The film opened the DC Environmental Film Festival in March, and I missed that party, but I saw it at FilmfestDC at Landmark E Street, late afternoon, on Earth Day (nearby), show nearly sold out.
Wikipedia attribution link for Sao Paulo picture by Flavio Ensiki, Creative Commons License 2.0  But note also my own photos of the 405 from the Angelino, and of freeway traffic near downtown LA (2012). 

Friday, April 17, 2015

"Ex Machina": You root for geeky Caleb, given a "prize visit" in a secret technology house, as he finds out who he is; he can surely code

Ex Machina”, the new sci-fi house thriller from Alex Garland, poses a rather obvious question.  What if we really can create conscious people from robots, and they start recreating each other.  Will we have a “Brave New World”, Aldous Huxley style, to the horror of George Gilder?
But the movie is isolated in a hidden luxury house in Norway, separated by fjords.  The protagonist, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) has to be flown in by chopper and hike a stream to the house (rather reminds me of “Old Joy”). He meets the owner, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) who has handpicked him by his search-engine patterns and a belief he has a “moral compass”.
You could imagine this going the direction of a gay flick, but that would be another movie.  In fact, Nathan insists people are born programmed the way they are (heterosexual here).  But the women, first of all Ava (Alicia Vikander) really are obviously robots, with designer nylon skin that looks real.
The “obvious” question is, who are the men.  Nathan looks too young to have advanced this far, but Mark Zuckerberg was not.  Sporting a wiry beard and buzz cut, he looks over-macho, until you notice the hairlessness of his chest.  There are these little clues around as Caleb settles in.
Gleeson plays the part of Caleb with a little more charisma than you usually expect from a geek.  He looks and carries the same body language as the character Shane (Timo Descamps) from “Judas Kiss”, without the problem of being a little spoiled. The other actor who could play this character well is, of course, Jesse Eisenberg (or maybe Mark Zuckerberg himself).  
The film is structured into “encounters” with Ava which become troublesome, but not explicit.  Eventually, Caleb has to come to terms with who he is, and who Nathan is, which is something in between. Not trans-gender, but trans-human.  Maybe even alien?  There is dialogue about the Turing Test, but that's not all of it. 
I would rather the ending not leave us hanging.  You really do root for Caleb. Note the questions about his early memories, his growing up.  (He wasn't an adult always, was he?)  What if he is an alien?  That's just a slight twist. An alien, brought here through a wormhome, could be a really good person 

The story "The Ocelot the Way He Is" concluding my DADT book introduces a character, Nolan, who resembles Caleb -- pretty much as I imagined the character. Mine has a gay twist, and gets into "national security" as well as isolated communities.  But maybe even my own Ocelot is an alien. 
Is this film a warning from Stephen Hawking of the dangers that AI could pose to civilization?

The background music opens with the posthumous B-flat Sonata, which the closing credits mistakenly say is in B-flat minor!
The official site is here.  The film is distributed by A24 and marketed as an “independent film”, but Universal Pictures is also credited with production by its Wagnerian opening.  Why, then, doesn’t this come from Focus Features?  (or possibly Relativity-Rogue).  I saw the film before a small Friday afternoon crowd at Angelika Mosaic in Fairfax Va. 
Wikipedia attribution link for photo by Petr Smerkl of scene in northern Norway, maybe a bit like the countryside as the film opens, Create commons Share Alike 3.0 license.  I visited Norway for a week in 1972 (Osla, Bergen, Trondheim, and Narvik). 

Since I mention Timo Descamps as resembling the lead, I wonder how his own sci-fi project "Floating: The Prophecy" is coming along, YouTube video here. He says the project is in development with his father, Luc, a European sci-fi author. 
This film has no connection to PBS, but I’ve wanted to link to this story, “Is PBS neglecting its mission by Normal Lear in the NYTimes, as the author feels that PBS has a vital role in independent film finding financing. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

"Living in the Age of Airplanes", Imax film takes you round the world for a movie ticket

The IMAX short “Living in the Age of Airplanes” rather reminds me of the 1956 feature “Cinerama Holiday”, that latter filmed when commercial flying was established but still a luxury.  In fact, in that later film, I almost became motion sick as it opened on the Antarctic (the rollercoaster in “This Is Cinerama” never bothered me).
The new film, by Brian J. Terwilliger and narrated by Harrison Ford, makes the case that personal mobility is a recent development in historical context. In ancient times, people walked and typically didn’t go more than 20 miles from home. Well, there were chariots and ships even in ancient times, which is one reason the Mediterranean was a center of civilization.
The development of the internal combustion engine (steam) in the 19th century led to trains, and later to cars.  The first passenger flight didn’t happen until 1908 (look at the Burns and McDowell timeline here ).
The film does visit all seven continents.  I can list the most interesting shots.  One was the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, with the little island where SLDN held a big benefit in 2000 (which I attended).  Another was a Kenyan Airlines takeoff, over the Serengeti and then Kilimanjaro. Then the Iguazu Falls in Brazil follows, and Ayers Rock in Australia. 
The most interesting shot may be much of the island country of Maldives, with the unusual housing on the beaches, as the documentary explains the seaplane.
It will also visit the South Pole, and the “end of the Earth” in Patagonia. The film makes a lot of international flower shipments, tracing one from Kenya to Alaska, arriving in three days, with ten days of “beauty” left.
Before the age of the Internet, the possibility of efficient air travel was an important strategy of my personal “reach”, somewhat threatened by oil shocks in the 1970s. 
The official site is here. (National Geographic).  The film now shows at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington.  The film is like that of the 50s board game “Star Reporter”, where air travel was made instantaneous.  Will worm holes provide us with new modes of travel in the future?  Maybe only going one way.
So next time, don't complain so much about leg room and TSA hassles, but marvel in the personal capability flying gives you. 
Wikipedia attribution link island resort in Maldives, picture by Frederic Ducarme, under Creative Commons Share Alike 4.0 International License. 

Second picture is Lake Michigan (mine, 2011 flight to Minneapolis).  

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

"Furious Seven" is genre stuff, but spectacular

Furious Seven” (or “Furious 7”), the latest of the genre action franchise by James Wan, does take the car racing effects to new levels, with a reasonably contemporary plot.

The late Paul Walker, as Brian O’Connor (he rather resembles Bradley Cooper) and Dominic (Vin Diesel) and others (Michelle Rodriquez) team up to fight master terrorist and old enemy with a personal grudge, Deckard Shaw (Jason Stratham), by triangulating against a super hacker Ramsey, who could make conventional tracking of any terrorist obsolete with a worm called “God’s Eye”.

The first act of the film starts in LA, with a side trip to the Dominican Republic, before moving the Caucus Mountains in the former Soviet Union (actually Colorado), and then to Abu Dhabi, and finally back to LA.

The mountain chase scenes, involving a bus, were creative enough, but the best was the “drive through” of three condos through the air in Abu Dhabi, as well as a sequences with drones in LA tunnels.  I wondered, is alcohol allowed in the UAE only for rich people?
The best line in the film is from Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) who says, “I don’t have friends, I have family.”

The official site is here  (Universal and MRC).

I saw the film at Regal Ballston Common in Arlington VA before a small weeknight audience.

Wikipedia attribution link for Etihad and West Corniche Towers and other skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi. The film needed a trio of similar buildings;  the Burj in Dubai alone wouldn’t have sufficed.  Photo is by FritzDaCat, used under Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0 license.

Monday, April 13, 2015

"A Symphony of Summits: The Alps from Above" should be in IMAX and in science museums

A Symphony of Summits: The Alps from Above” (2013), directed by Peter Bardehle and Sebastian Linemann, really should be an IMAX-3D movie for science museums, but then it would be about half length, which would be about right.  The film is narrated by Udo Wachtveitl.
As implied, the film shows the Alps, from Bavaria to northern Italy, with an emphasis on Switzerland and Austria.  The mountains are much more jagged than I had thought, having been formed by tectonic plates coming together. The ridge crests are narrower than in most mountains in western US.

The film does concentrate somewhat on the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc (the highest) and Mt. Eiger.
The movie does spend some time on the gradual loss of glaciers in the summer, presumably because of climate change, which could jeopardize the water supplies of mountain communities in Europe.
The film shows some spectacular skiing and bungee activity (near dams), as well as mountain biking.

The official site is here  (Strand Releasing).  The word order in the title is reversible;  it is also called "The Alps from Above: A Symphony of Summits".  
Wikipedia attribution link for photo by Allesandro Borgnono of Mont Blanc glacier.  under Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0 license.
Maybe some of the material in this film could be extracted for an IMAX film on climate change, with particular attention to glacier loss, which is also happening in the Andes.  

Sunday, April 12, 2015

"Vanishing Pearls" shows how the oyster industry on the Louisiana coast reels from the BP oil spill

Vanishing Pearls: The Oystermen of Pointe a la Hache”, by Nailah Jefferson, depicts the loss of livelihood of oyster “farmers” on the southern Louisiana coast and bayous after the BP Horizon oil spill in 2010. This was when the BP chairman "wanted his life back."
The company has tried to pressure the fisherman with a “release of all claims” strategy (similar to employment severance) where the fishermen lose the right to sue in the future if further damages are found.  Then families have also been caught in a “Catch 22” trap trying to get financing to get their businesses back.
The families in the town also say that they will lose the chance to show their teenage children their way of lie, which will be lost.
Much of the film is told from the viewpoint of businessman David Byron Encalade. 
The film also makes the point that the community came back all right from Hurricane Katrina, but not from the oil spill.  The company also apparently says that the volume of oil is a “drop in the bucket”.
The official site is here

The film is available on Netflix instant play. 
Picture: Mississippi Gulf Coast after Katrina, early 2006, my visit.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

"The Longest Ride" is another layered love story from Sparks, with a touch of Douglas Sirk

George Tillman’s new layered melodrama “The Longest Ride”, based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks (“The Notebook”) comes across as a 1950s Douglas Sirk piece.  It also provides a nice lesson in good karma.
The outer story, in present day, concerns a graduating college senior Sophia (Britt Robertson), expecting a paid internship in an art museum in New York, meets a bronco rider Luke Collins (Scott Eastwood, son of Clint Eastwood and an emerging star on his own, which is what Clint wants) at a rodeo.  They quickly start a romance.
Luke has a lot of street smarts, and also his own medical history (not very visible) that makes his continuing to ride dangerous.  Returning from a rodeo at night in a thunderstorm, Luke sees a car in front run off the road.  Luke rescues the driver, Ira (Alan Alda) and Sophia, at Ira’s begging, saves a basket of letters before the car explodes. 
Soon the couple befriends Ira, now a widower.  The letters (and again, we have the handwritten letter used as a movie or novel plot conduit, so common in English literature) tell the story of another challenged marriage between Ira (Jack Huston when young) and Ruth (Oona Chaplin).  Just before Pearl Harbor, Ruth told Ira she wanted a big family with lots of kids.  When Ira goes to war, he rescues another soldier in the trenches in France.  He gets wounded, and after the wound gets infected, he is unable to father children.
The film is not specific as to the medical details, as to whether Ira is in anyway disfigured or impotent. That is an idea that mattered to me in the days I pondered my own exposure and involvement with the military draft and deferments.  It can also be socially destructive;  a society in which couples don’t stand together when challenged can become vulnerable to enemies (a major point when I was at NIH in 1962).
The couple tries to adopt a child, and is rebuffed at even that, after Ruth has become a grade school teacher.  So their marriage becomes a self-testament.  But they build a big art collection in Charlotte, NC and that becomes a big point of karma for the film.
Eventually, Ira passes away, but the aftermath brings the new couple together.
There are some geographical issues.  Sophia goes to Wake Forest, and Greensboro (where Ira recuperates) is some distance away.  The mountains, where Luke has his cabin, are even farther away.  The credits say that some of the outdoor work was shot in New York State as well as North Carolina.
Eastwood looks a lot like Zac Efron, and even acts a bit like him.  He looks maybe a tad older (the real actor was 28 as the film as shot).  The physical intimacy of the film grows gradually.  Eastwood’s chest hair appears to be clipped short, perhaps.  Actors go through a lot, at least some of them do.  The movie marquee posters make Eastwood look “younger” than in the actual film.

My own novel and a major screenplay depend on "layering" through various media, and would present a problem of managing the "look" to keep the context clear. In this film, the backstory is shot with slightly deeper hues.  Everything stays full widescreen anamorphic.

The official site is here for “Fox 2000” and a regular 20th Century Fox release.  (When will it become 21st?). I saw the film at the AMC  Courthourse in Arlington VA, sold out, and the audience liked it (mostly young couples). 

Friday, April 10, 2015

"Free Angela and All Political Prisoners": the Davis case plays out race and left-wing radicalism

Free Angela and All Political Prisoners” (2012), by Shola Lynch, should remind us that combative “revolution” at a personal level used to come from the secular radical Left, rather than from religion as today.  The film is a biography of Berkeley professor Angela Davis
The university, in the late 60s, insisted in defending Davis’s freedom of speech (after governor Reagan tried to get her barred from teaching), as she advocated Communist revolution, and had connections with the Black Panthers.   
But much of the film documents the trial of her life, when she was accused supplying weapons and other assistance to a horrific courtroom attack in Marin County, CA in August 1970. The attack resulted in the kidnapping by Jonathan Jackson on the judge, prosecutor, and three female jurors.  I’m not aware of any other such case in US history.  The ensuing shootout with police resulted in the death of the judge and three black men, and injuries to the prosecutor and at least one juror.  My own reaction to such a situation, by the way, is that I would never be taken hostage alone and singled out (for a political kudo).
Angela fled prosecution and hid out with friends, and even in a Howard Johnson Motor Inn in NYC, before surrendering.  She would be acquitted of all counts (rather foreshadowing O.J. Simpson in the 1990s).  The plea to the jury would discuss the inherited disadvantages of young black men – a topic that comes up today with all the police shooting cases.  

In 1970, as I had started my working life, I was not as aware personally of the dangers of extreme left wing radicalism as I am today of radical Islam.  But I would learn of the Left's capacity for violence when I spied on meetings of the People's Party of New Jersey in Newark at the end of 1972.  There was a major Weatherman bomb in NYC in 1970.  
The Facebook site is here. The DVD is distributed by Lionsgate. The BET network contributed to production.
Wikipedia attribution link for picture of the Berkeley Campanile Mt. Tamalpias, by Tristan Harward, Creative Commons Share-Alike 2.5 License.  

Thursday, April 09, 2015

"Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief" is a new HBO documentary by Alex Gibney

The HBO documentary “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”, directed by Alex Gibney and written with Lawrence Wright (based on Wright’s book), is a documentary on the history and substance of the Church of Scientology. 

The film presents the way science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard had developed his ideas in fiction, while serving in war, and evolved a self-help system called Dianetics.  The film presents early the question of why the group and belief system has such a hold on some people.  One person reports encountering someone selling books in the street.  Hubbard is reported to have said, “the only way to make any money is to have a religion” because the government could otherwise take everything away. 

Dianetics, the film says,  regards the mind as having a factual or intellectual side, and then a reactive side. 

The film presents the process of auditing as a bit analogous to lie detection.  Then it goes into the “backstory” of Hubbard’s sci-fi, going back to a previous alien civilization, resembling ours, which destroyed itself, but whose “spirits” now possess people today.  It has some pretty good animation to show this story.

The film also shows how members are convinced to pay for a series of courses in the material, but not shown the full scope of belief until an enormous financial investment that leads to higher “levels”.  Most faiths have an overview that an ordinary person can learn for no financial investment.
The documentary also goes into its struggle with the IRS to prove that it is a real “religion”.  But even a “cult” (a dirty word the film finally uses toward the end) generally will meet the IRS meaning of faith, which is obviously very difficult to define outside of itself.

The film does present some of the history of some of the more famous members, including Tom Cruise and John Travolta.  (Oh, remember when Travolta waxed his bod for “Staying Alive”?)  It also paint an unflattering picture of leader David Miscavige (wiki ). 

The church, according to the film, would threaten to reveal personal information about dissident members, although this is not “blackmail” because no financial payment is involved.  The film reports the church as exploiting homophobia, with forced outings and (like the LDS church for a while) support for California’s Proposition 8.

The film also documents the practice of the Church’s forcing dissident members to “disconnect” socially from critics. 

There is something strange to me about believing something and making a way of life out of it just because someone sold you on it or told you to believe it.

The official HBO site is here
Picture: Cherry Blossoms near the Scientology building in Washington. Second picture is a former DC property near Dupont Circle, which has moved.  I’ll try to get a picture of the actual building next time I’m there. 

Update: April 28

Pictures of the Washington DC Scientology Center at 16th and P Sts NW.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

"Living Downstream" documents the work of cancer survivor Sandra Steingraber, and presents startling research on how some chemicals "feminize" animals

The documentary “Living Downstream” (2010), by Chanda Chevannes, presents the life and work of Sandra Steingraber, based on her book.  The author had survived a slow-growing bladder cancer which she suspected was related to carcinogens in the Illinois river near where she grew up.

The film documents a number of famous cancer clusters in Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and the Midwest.  I can remember there were bizarre clusters of Hodgkin’s Disease in the late 1970s (oddly prescient of AIDS), as well of other clusters of non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas (when tend to be deadlier), and various other tumors, especially bladder and breast.
It also documents the results of experiments with some pesticides and other chemicals on amphibians, which can turn male tadpoles into females, which grow up to become hermaphrodites. They even have “children” who are bi-sexed, in a crude parody of human gay relationships or gender identity issues.  Some pollutants tend to convert androgens into estrogens, which result in feminization and increase chances of breast cancer (even in men). 

Steingraber  (website) also describes what it is like to be in medical limbo, going back for repeated tests because of “abnormal cells”.
The official site is here

The film can be watched on Netflix instant play. 

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

"The Amateurs" does indeed poke fun of newbies to filmmaking (with some important satire about racial and gender stereotypes)

People may have a lot of notions about status associated with a lot of the “positions” in the filmmaking process, like “being” a writer, producer, director.  If you go to some table readings of amateur screenplays, you dispel the notions.
Nevertheless, the 2005 comedy “The Amateurs”, by Michael Traeger, feeds these ideas, until the filmmakers in a small California burb learn the hard way.  Jeff Bridges is not in his most wholesome place, as Andy, who gets laid off and faces a mid-life crisis.  He is so distracted that he pees on his desk, like a cat marking his territory. Some of his buddies get behind the idea of making a porno film.
One set of comic implications occur when the African-American “adult” actor can’t “perform”. The actor resents the idea that he was picked on the idea that people from his race are more “potent” (which used to be a belief in the American South – opposed to my own “prejudice” that I was willing to find only my own “race” as potentially attractive). 
Later, one of Andy’s buddies, Moose (Ted Danson) comes out to the group as “gay” but the conversation that follows gets rather clumsy.  Of course, today, indie film is one of the “gayest” segments of culture there is. But these were still the Bush years.
Also appearing are Patrick Fugit (“Wristcutters”) and Tim Blake Nelson. 
The film has some rather explicit dialogue, but it’s appropriate for the satire on personal “values” (especially as pertaining to race), and has no visually explicit scenes. 
The DVD (First Look) has a rather long, bloated “Behind the Scenes” extra.

Monday, April 06, 2015

"Crossing the Line" documents the life of an American soldier defecting to North Korea in 1962

It will sound shocking that an American soldier could defect, across the DMZ into North Korea in 1962 and live a relatively stable and physically comfortable life, but the documentary “Crossing the Line” (2006) by Daniel Gordon (translated “A Blue-Eyed Pyongyang Citizen” or “푸른 눈의 평양시민” in Korean), and narrated by Christian Slater, proves just that point.

The documentary focuses on the narrative of James Joseph Dresnok (or “Joe Dresnok”) who, raised near Richmond VA from a broken home, joined the Army with little education. After a tour in West Germany, he was stationed in the DMZ.  He falsified some papers to go on pass, and when threatened with court-martial, he went AWOL and crossed the border and through mine fields.

Dresnok was one of four defectors.  Having married and divorced once already, he married a Romanian woman and had (white) sons who would be raised as North Korean but in somewhat privileged circumstances in the radical communist state. Another defector, Charles Robert Jenkins, married a woman who had been kidnapped by North Koreans from Japan.  When Jenkins went to Japan, he was arrested and prosecuted for desertion.

Dresnok got his rice and other food rations over all the years (he was about 66 when the film was shot) while rural peasants (“the proles”) starved.

There are many shots of Pyongyang (and of the DMZ).  There is an iconic sculpture showing the worker, peasant, intellectual.  The streets look empty among high-rise buildings.  This could be another planet.
The film, from the UK, is distributed by Kino (and is on Netflix DVD).