Saturday, September 20, 2014

Film Review: ‘Skeleton Twins’

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Two twins, who have been estranged from each other for ten years, reunite after both coincidentally attempt to commit suicide on the same day.

Only Milo (Bill Hader) manages to succeed in fatally injuring himself. And Maggie (Kristen Wiig) is about to go through with the act when she learns that Milo tried to kill himself, which prompts her to travel to see him in the hospital. 

Milo is a struggling alcoholic gay actor, who is upset he has not been able to make it big in Los Angeles. Maggie is a struggling married dentist, who feels trapped by her marriage with Lance (Luke Wilson), an outdoorsy bro who likes to work clearing brush in nature.

When Maggie invites Milo to come live in New York for a while as he heals, the two are confronted with the choices they have each made in the past decade. It makes for a dark and sometimes captivating reflection on depression, as well as a funny and fearless drama between two people, who are relearning how to be the same mischievous and loving brother and sister they once were. 

Both Hader and Wiig, both “Saturday Night Live” alums, bring a kind of magnetism to their performances that stems from their ability to do improvisation so well. Hader has clearly immersed himself in the character and has all the mannerisms and body movements down. It never feels like a stereotype of a homosexual. It feels human and real. 

The same goes for Wiig, as a married woman dealing with the pressure of her husband wanting to have children. Screenwriters Craig Johnson and Mark Heyman have her character contrast Milo by being more subdued in her anxiety and depression. She still manages to hold viewers’ attention with her facial expressions that show so much emotion underneath. 

How do you maintain a film’s sadness as conflict unfolds while at the same time allowing for hilarious scenes to take place within that sadness? How does it not take on this schizophrenic feel, like you are watching two different movies? Or like someone shoved in SNL skits for commercial appeal because here are two former SNL stars? 

Film editor Jennifer Lee manages to navigate all those issues and piece together a film that achieves an even tone throughout. It never seems disjointed because of Lee’s expert ability to handle the performances from not just Hader and Wiig but the supporting cast members like Ty Burrell and Joanna Gleason.

It becomes enjoyable to watch Hader and Wiig come to grips with their deep and suffocating sadness because director Craig Johnson gives them the space to be actors. Their performances leave an impression. And that makes this independent film so much more pleasing than much of the downright unfunny and unappealing corporate fare typically marketed to the masses.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

What Robin Taught Us

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Monday, August 11, 2014

Tribute to Robin Williams

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Robin Williams was a childhood inspiration of mine. I wanted to see all his movies and listen to every comedy show he ever did.  And, in the most absurd ways, I sometimes wanted to be like him even though I was not planning to become a comedian. 

When I graduated from high school, the quote I put in my yearbook was, “You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” 

I remember sitting down and memorizing the lines he delivered when he played Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning Vietnam. "Good morning, Vietnam. Hey, this is not a test. This is rock n’roll. It’s time to rock it from the delta to the DMZ."

I would attempt the voices. There were few voices he did I didn’t privately try to do, whether it was Mrs. Doubtfire or Aladdin. In fact, while the improv he would do often was regarded by critics as a disruptive nuisance, I always enjoyed the movies or late night television show appearances where he would go off and bring his madness to a scene. 

I am pleased to say that I had the privilege to see him in concert when he came to West Lafayette, IN, at Purdue University to perform during his “Weapons of Self Destruction” tour in 2009.

It was not difficult to remain a fan, as I became more politicized. His humor was sharp and remained attuned to some of the worst and infuriating developments in American politics and society. [Allison Kilkenny and Jamie Kilstein, the hosts of the “Citizen Radio” podcast, have noted on Twitter that he donated to support this hugely successful show when it was in its early days.]

He was also a charitable man who throughout the past two decades helped raise money for Comic Relief USA, an organization committed to raising funds for the homeless.

Like everyone, it is hugely devastating. There are people who were there to support him, but that apparently was not enough. 

Williams struggled with drug addiction throughout his entire life and used his addiction to make numerous jokes. 

This was one of my more favorite bits to repeat:

From his “Weapons of Self Destruction” tour, I found hearing about his heart surgery to be one of the best parts of his set [4:47 into the video]: 

It was Williams who, I believe, came up with the joke where he suggested politicians should wear NASCAR jackets so we would know who sponsors them. The line has been repeated often. 

This is Williams doing a bit where he joked about Homeland Security and the color-coded terror alert system:

One of the best aspects of his comedy concerts was what he would improvise with the many water bottles he had with him on stage. 

Here’s a classic bit of Williams doing Ronald Reagan:



Now, what would I consider his top performances in films? 

The Birdcage, Good Morning, Vietnam, Hook and Mrs. Doubtfire for comedy; Awakenings, Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King and Good Will Hunting for his more serious roles. 

I also could not let the wonderful TV show he did, Mork and Mindy, go unmentioned. 

I’ll never lose my spark because of him. And, no matter how sad his loss might be right now and even if few people think of me as a fan of people like Robin Williams, this is just one of those things I wanted to put up in this moment to show appreciation.

Signing off, nanoo nanoo. 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Film Review: A Most Wanted Man


Intelligence agencies working together to fight the so-called global war on terrorism are supposedly making the world a safer place.
A Most Wanted Man, adapted from John Le Carre’s acclaimed novel, approaches this widespread notion with a cold skepticism. Not even the spies collaborating seem to be convinced their work is having such a positive effect.

The story is set in Hamburg, Germany. Text, which appears on screen as the film begins, informs viewers that this is where one of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohammed Atta, hatched the plot. Intelligence agents missed him and have been doing everything they can to prevent a repeat failure ever since.

Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen Muslim, has entered Germany illegally. He was imprisoned by Turkey and Russia. He has a key to a safe deposit box in a bank in the city run by Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe). He would like to use the key to gain access to money his father left him. 

However, German intelligence agent Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), part of a unit of spies operating under the radar to get around the constitution, is tracking Karpov. He also is tracking Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), an Islamic professor who is outspoken about the suffering of Muslims around the world. He has a charitable foundation that gives money to organizations around the world and Bachmann suspects he provides funds to an organization that is engaged terrorism.

In this realistic portrayal of counterterrorism, there are competing interests amongst the intelligence agencies and within the agencies themselves. Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock) plays a character, who in Le Carre’s book is a friend of Washington’s neoconservatives. He very much desires more cooperation with US intelligence while Bachmann prefers to work his unit on his own and without interference from America.

The mood of the film is rather melancholy. The pace of the espionage operation is slow. Decisions are deliberate, careful, and thought-out. The well-being of assets involved occasionally factors into the equation of what to do and not do next. In contrast, the Americans are impatient and want results now and are less concerned with human lives involved.

Hoffman’s masterful performance brings to life a character, who is a workaholic spy toiling along. In some ways, he is similar to the character of Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) in Francis Ford Coppola’s classic film, The Conversation. 

Espionage clearly causes him great misery, and cigarettes help him with the stress. He constantly is seen lighting and puffing on his cigarettes. He’ll strain and also wince when smoking. But he never stops working. Which begs the question, what is he addicted to more: spying or smoking?

Though it goes unmentioned in the film, Le Carre’s story was inspired by the case of Turkish citizen and legal resident of Germany, Murat Kurnaz, who was arrested in Pakistan in 2001. Kurnaz was then subject to rendition and tortured by the CIA. He was confined at a military base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and then later transferred to Guantanamo Bay prison, where he was held in detention for five years before being released in 2006.

The knowledge that this is what Americans do to terrorism suspects lingers throughout the film. It is most apparent when Bachmann attempts to position himself as being different from American agents. He presents himself to others as a person capable of helping potential targets avoid being put in black vans, kidnapped and then tortured. 

When so often fear seems to drive counterterrorism to the point where evidence does not matter, Bachmann seems to utilize a spycraft that aims to connect the dots before prematurely arresting anyone. Others do not share his patience and automatically see any Muslim as a potential threat to get off the streets as quickly as possible. 

Because Le Carre’s story is infused with gripping realism that is often lacking in blockbuster movies where terrorism features, Corbijn and screenwriter Andrew Bovell are able to challenge the most common conceptions of the global war on terrorism. It is not such a clear battle between good versus evil. Often those involved go to the dark side to capture their latest terrorism suspect through methods, which are hasty and heavy-handed.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Film Review: Life Itself

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Those who appreciated film critic Roger Ebert now can be grateful that they have some closure. Because that is really what this documentary provides. It gives audiences the ability to celebrate the influence he had on film and offers us the ability to see Ebert confront the reality that he is dying from cancer and come to terms with the beautiful life he has lived, as he decides to die with dignity.

The documentary from Kartemquin Films traces Ebert’s life from when he was fifteen years-old and working for a local newspaper to the final moments where he was severely struggling with cancer that would not go away and had already taken away his ability to speak and do his weekly film show on broadcast television.

Director Steve James mostly tells Ebert’s life story in the conventional chronological manner yet there is something methodical about the structure. It manages to section off parts of Ebert’s character so those who knew him well can reflect on both his strengths, such as his ability to give five hour-long presentations on films and write a review in thirty minutes, and his flaws, such as his drinking problem and his petulance toward Gene Siskel, his co-host on “At the Movies.”

Filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris appear on screen to talk about how they drew inspiration and how their careers were influenced by Ebert’s criticism and praise for their own films. James captures an unguarded moment where Scorsese is choked up and emotional over Ebert, which really drives home the impact he had on the world of film.

Audiences also see Ebert at his most vulnerable. We witness what cancer did to his life and how he survived for a few more years. But, more importantly, we also get to see the love of his life, Chaz Ebert, show us what it means to care for someone suffering and survive. And she handles her moments on screen in a time of unfolding tragedy with such grace.

What also comes through in the film is the populist nature of Ebert’s reviews. As suggested, Ebert was someone who believed that anyone could access and understand a film. He did not condescend in his reviews. He wrote with a Midwestern sensibility that connected with wide audiences. He believed that talk—and especially argument—about film was a critical part of the public square and it was always his mission to convert people into lovers of the films he considered to be great movies.

Additionally, he happened to believe that he had the ability to bring attention to films and filmmakers that would typically go ignored. Ramin Bahrani and Avu DuVernay, two indie filmmakers (both non-white), express their appreciation for the interest he showed in their work. DuVernay powerfully articulates what made Ebert special by noting that her film, I Will Follow (2010), told a deeply personal black woman’s story. She was able to overcome her anxiety over the white male gaze he might impose on her film, as he promoted it to the world, because he managed to grasp every bit of what she was trying to convey in her film.

Ebert said in 2005 when he was awarded his Hollywood Walk of Fame star, “We are born into a box of space and time. We are who and when and what we are and we’re going to be that person until we die. But if we remain only that person, we will never grow and we will never change and things will never get better.

"Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else’s life for a while. I can walk in somebody else’s shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief."

Roger probably saw 10,000 movies. He reviewed thousands of movies and was a critic for the Chicago Sun-Times for almost half of film history thus far. He forgot most but claimed to never forget the ones worth remembering.

He knew better than most people how to watch a film, how to critique it on its own merits and how it could help a person understand the world. It’’s an intensely personal experience for everyone who liked what Roger had to say about film. Through his reviews, which I eagerly anticipated each week as I was growing up, he taught me and many others how to watch movies. He taught me how to find joy in writing about films, particularly those which succeed in generating empathy.

When the moment comes that we’ve been dreading, Chaz tells us it was a peaceful moment when he died. He clearly was ready to go, but thankfully he didn’t leave this world before giving us a chance to celebrate his life with this film.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Film Review: In ‘Omar,’ the Paranoia Palestinians Experience Under Military Occupation

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Set in the West Bank in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel, this Oscar-nominated film is a taut drama depicting the dehumanization that Palestinians experience and the militarized state created by Israeli occupation. It also shows acts of violent resistance, daring to humanize the oppressed people who commit these acts.

Omar (Adam Bakri) is in love with Nadia (Leem Lubany), who is the brother of Tarek (Eyad Hourani), a childhood friend. He has to climb the separation wall each day to see Nadia, and Nadia’s family cannot know they are talking to each other. They covertly exchange letters, both hoping for the day when they could marry and be together.

One day, Omar is seen climbing over the separation wall and stopped by three Israeli soldiers in an armored vehicle. They have Omar put his hands on his head and then stand on a stone barely large enough for him. He is to balance himself for an indefinite period.

This degrading experience leads Omar to ask, “Is this comedy not over yet?” and then grow frustrated. He retaliates so he may hopefully escape. The soldiers beat him up, and he is forced to return to the stone with a bloody nose.

Omar’s experience, which is probably similar to what thousands upon thousands of Palestinians experience during any given year, fills him with rage. It is the catalyst for his decision to conspire with Tarek and another childhood friend, Amjad (Samer Bisharat), to shoot and kill an Israeli soldier.

At one point in the film, after being tortured and targeted in prison by an informant, who gets him to “incriminate” himself and “confess,” Omar faces the ultimate decision: turn in one of his friends and perhaps have a life with Nadia or maintain his loyalty and spend the rest of his life in prison.

Waleed F. Zuaiter plays the ruthless intelligence agent, Agent Rami, who threatens Omar with exposing secrets that will further destroy his life. He takes advantage of the paranoia among family and friends, including Nadia, who wonder if he has become a traitor.

Hany Abu Assad, the director of the film, told Empire that he grew up in a “paranoid society” in Nazareth, Israel. His parents warned him to “be careful.” One could never tell who was working for the Secret Service. And that life experience clearly inspired the film. It also is a necessary mood to incorporate into the story because Israel understands that it has to create this paranoia in Palestinian society to remain in control of communities.

Paranoia consumes Omar throughout the film, as he worries constantly about someone depriving him of a life with the young woman he loves dearly.

Aside from the paranoia, the film addresses how Palestinians confront powerlessness in the face of oppression. A number of Palestinians choose to violently resist.

Life under occupation and as a resistance fighter makes it impossible to maintain a romantic relationship. Israeli agents can use that against you as leverage to manipulate you into serving their interests. Nadia faces immense pressure in trying to cope with what Omar is going through, and, at the same time, she desires to pursue an education and have some kind of independence, which is very difficult in a patriarchal society where your role as a woman is to serve the men fighting for freedom.

Is Omar a terrorist? Assad does not explicitly render a judgment on whether he is or not. However, what Assad does is tell the story in such a way that viewers feel empathy for people who are driven to make many of the difficult life-altering decisions that take place in the film.

The film was made with a cast and crew that was Palestinian. It was primarily financed with Palestinian money. “About 95% of the movie’s $1.5 million budget came from the Palestinian Diaspora—from a Coca-Cola distributor in Gaza and the West Bank, to the former chief operating officer of Soros Fund Management in New York,” according to the Wall Street Journal. (In fact, the film uses product placement with a huge billboard from Paltel or the Palestinian Telecommunications Group appearing in some of the scenes.)

Often films shy away from complex human drama, where ambiguity persists and is not resolved. But Assad recognizes how film can give voice to the experiences of those with a deep dark history of resistance and struggle, and he brings to life characters, who simply want to live in a society where they are allowed to live without constantly feeling demoralized and mistreated.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Film Review: ‘Kids for Cash’ Highlights Scandal & Provides Peek at School-to-Prison Pipeline

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The United States incarcerates more children than any other country in the world.

On average, around two million children are arrested each year. Ninety-five percent are arrested for nonviolent offenses. Sending “troublemaker” students to jail has become an American institution.

The film, Kids for Cash, tells the story of judges Mark Ciaverella and Michael Conahan in Wikes-Barre, Pennsylvania. They engaged in a scandal where they sent children to a private detention center after having the Luzerne County juvenile detention facility shut down. They accepted what they called a “finder’s fee” of $2.8 million from businessman Robert Powell to ensure juveniles, whose cases came before them, were sent to the two new for-profit detention centers.

The former convicted judges are serving sentences in prison of 28 years and 17.5 years respectively.

Ciaverella was found guilty of racketeering, “honest services mail fraud,” and tax cheating in 2011. A jury accepted that by taking cash he had taken an illegal payment and then hid the money. Conahan pled guilty to a racketeering charge and essentially agreed to make statements against Ciaverella that would help federal prosecutors convict Ciaverella for his crimes.

Robert May, the film’s director, managed to gain access to both Ciaverella and Conahan, as they were being prosecuted and sentenced. Ciaverella granted May access to not only him but also his family. Conahan let May film him in Florida when he was trying to escape a county that had turned against him for his actions. At least for Ciaverella, his attorneys had no idea that Ciaverella was giving interviews to a film director.

In multiple scenes in the film, Ciaverella maintains that he did not jail any kids for cash. He was only doing what was in their “best interest.” He suggests that “cash for kids was a better story” so it is what the media decided to tell. He admits he did not indicate that he had taken the money in a filed ethics statement. He was not trying to hide the money and there was no coverup by having it transferred to Conahan’s beverage marketing company.

What he did, according to Ciaverella, may have been unethical but he does not believe he did anything that was all that illegal. He also suggests that he was sending kids straight to prison when they came before him all the time, even before taking the money. So, basically, it had no corrupting influence on him because he never appropriately considering their cases.

It was his philosophy that he wanted kids to be “scared out of their minds when they had to deal with him.” He would go to high school assemblies and put the fear into students. When students who attended the assemblies came before him, they would be asked if they remembered him coming to his school. After they said yes, Ciaverella would send them off in shackles and handcuffs to the for-profit detention facility.

The film shows the depth of the corruption in the system through the stories of students who committed petty acts. The acts committed range from getting into a fight with another student to being found to have in one’s possession a stolen scooter (which this student didn’t know was stolen) to making a fake MySpace page to poke fun at an assistant vice principal.

Each of the cases highlighted show how disruptive it was to send these kids to detention rather than discipline them in school. These students were robbed of what were supposed to be some of the best years of their lives. One young woman has post traumatic stress disorder as a result. Another young man is now serving time in prison after committing credit card fraud, which is not unusual. Many of the kids sent to prison return to life and go on to commit offenses again as adults.

Additionally, parents of these children were each told they would not need an attorney when their sons or daughters saw the judge in juvenile court at hearings closed to the public. They waived their right to an attorney not fully understanding that the court was having them sign away their right to have counsel for their son or daughter when they came before the judge.

What may be most infuriating about the subject of this documentary is that the systemic corruption, which underpins the main story, is entirely legal. Nobody is going to go to jail for showing zero tolerance for adolescent or juvenile behavior and sending teenagers to prison. It is only when individuals like the two judges in Pennsylvania go too far that widespread outrage filled the community.

The zero tolerance is explained as a reaction to the Columbine shootings. Schools did not want to take any chances. Administrators also grew to appreciate how they could remove “bad kids” from their schools and not have to deal with them anymore.

Luzerne County believed in what Ciaverella was doing by sending dozens upon dozens to prison for petty juvenile offenses. Members of the community would write op-eds that ran in local newspapers thanking the judge. At all levels of local government, there was widespread support for the school-to-prison pipeline that Ciaverella and Conahan had revitalized.

In the end, that is what stands out after watching this film. The roles Ciaverella and Conahan played in this American institution are not why they are in jail. They weren’t convicted of crimes stemming from shackling and shipping kids to detention facilities to spend time during a crucial development period of their life away from their family.

Jailing kids and depriving them of what are supposed to be some of their best years in life may be a much greater injustice, but that’s legal. Judges in the so-called juvenile justice system can send kids to jail for petty or nonviolent offenses and never have to confront the consequences of their actions. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Reviewing the 2014 Oscar Nominees (Includes Picks)

I managed to see each of the nine films nominated for Best Picture, each of the films nominated for Best Documentary and all fifteen short films nominated for Best Animated Short, Best Live Action Short and Best Documentary Short.

None of the films nominated for Best Picture this year left me bothered because of facets of their storytelling as much as Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty did last year.

Like many, 12 Years a Slave happens to be my selection for Best Picture. It deserves to win for bringing to the silver screen a story that highlights the cruelty and ugliness of slavery in ways few films have dared to do.

While it is about Irish-Catholics taking children from mothers and selling them to couples looking to adopt kids, Philomena is a rather delightful film. The screenplay is nicely crafted with moments of levity from Steve Coogan, who plays BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith, and Judi Dench, who plays Philomena Lee.

Spike Jonze’s Her, a utopian story of an artificially intelligent computer and Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) falling in love that manages to offer some good moments of reflection on the effect of technology on human relationships and life.

Captain Phillips is a story of Richard Phillips being captured by three Somalis, who hijacked the Maersk Alabama. While there are parts of the film that slightly humanize the Somalis and show why they feel they must do what they are doing, the film still derives its story of what happened from an account written by Phillips, which fellow crew members have even contested. And, Abduwali Abdukhad Muse, who is played by Barkhad Abdi, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, has disputed Phillips’ story from federal prison.

With American Hustle, the drama among the players in the film can be rather overbearing, eclipsing the part of the film that should make it an exceptional story: the FBI’s Abscam operation in the late 1970s.

I never agreed with criticism of The Wolf of Wall Street, which suggested it glorifies Wall Street. I thought it showed the depravity and excess inside and outside the office and communicated the sheer level of corruption far better than any extensive explanations of market manipulations ever could.

Why Gravity is a part of the conversation as the film 12 Years a Slave may have to beat to win the Best Picture Oscar, I don’t know. (Plus, I still have not gotten over the fact that Fruitvale Station received no nods.)

I am rooting for Jeremy Scahill and Rick Rowley’s Dirty Wars to take Best Documentary, especially since it is one of the only films made thus far that fully confronts the dangerous basis for continuing the global war on terrorism by bringing some of the worst aspects of it out of the shadows and into the light. However, either The Act of Killing or 20 Feet from Stardom will win.

The Act of Killing is aesthetically and narratively the most compelling of the films in this category. It is an unflinching attempt to understand how mass murderers could possibly be allowed to walk free in a society and not be made to face justice for atrocities they committed. The film is made even more compelling by the surreal manner in which individuals responsible for brutality choose to retell and celebrate their role in killings.

Jehane Noujaim’s The Square on the movement in Egypt for freedom, equality, justice and democracy, which has been caught between the Muslim Brotherhood and military. It highlights the dilemma of how to break out of this conflict to get closer to a society that can establish a constitution and be free, and the footage of scenes from Tahrir Square and insights from individuals from the movement are remarkable. 

Of course, the crowd-pleaser (and a film I greatly enjoyed) is 20 Feet from Stardom, which highlights the contributions of background singers, predominantly African-Americans, to music. Hearing the vocal/hook for The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” isolated does give one chills. The story Merry Clayton, who sang the vocal, tells about getting the opportunity to sing it is a treat and the artists celebrated in this film really do represent some of the best in music.

I reviewed the five Best Documentary Shorts here. The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life and Karama Has No Walls are the strongest films in that category.

Alice Herz Sommer died about a week ago, but this star of The Lady in Number 6 was the oldest living piano player at 110 years-old. She also was the oldest known Holocaust survivor. There’s an infectious spirit to the film as Sommer shares how music is beautiful and helped her continue to live.

Karama tells the tragic story of a day in March 2011 that ignited the uprising that ultimately led to President Ali Abdullah Saleh leaving power after more than thirty years as the country’s leader. The footage shot in the film comes from two young men, Nasr Al-Namir and Khaled Rajah, who record the scenes from that day at great risk. There are snipers shooting at them, bullets being fired by security forces and explosions. This is what Yemenis faced for having the courage to engage in nonviolent protest.

The Hunt (Denmark), a Best Foreign Language Film nominee,delicately handles a provocative story involving a young girl who lies about whether a man sexually molested her and then is afraid of what to do next when this person’s life is destroyed by the community. Mads Mikkelsen gives an exceptional performance. 

Also, in this category, Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium) uses American bluegrass music in a magnificent way to liven up a tragic story about what happens to a couple when their daughter is diagnosed with cancer. 

Omar is an excellent entry from Palestine, which, according to director Hany Abu-Assad, was “made with a Palestinian cast and crew, and is one of the first films primarily financed with Palestinian money.” 

But it is hard to get over the fact that the Academy did not recognize Wadjda (Saudi Arabia) with a nomination in this category. It is such a beautiful film that truly celebrates women in a society grossly dominated by patriarchy. 

Chiwetel Ejiofor deserves the Oscar for Best Actor, but, as with the Golden Globes, he will lose to Matthew McConaughey. I’d like to see Judi Dench win Best Actress instead of Cate Blanchett. Barkhad Abdi deserves the Oscar for his role in Captain Phillips, but he won’t beat Jared Leto.

Lupita Nyong’o will hopefully get the recognition she deserves and win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in 12 Years a Slave. I’d pick Steve McQueen for Best Director yet I think Alfonso Cuaron will walk away with the Oscar instead of him.

OSCAR PICKS

Best Supporting Actor

Will Win: Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)

Should Win: Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)

Best Actress

Will Wiin: Amy Adams (American Hustle)

Should Win: Judi Dench (Philomena)

Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)

Should Win: Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)

Best Animated Feature

Will Win: Frozen

Should Win: The Wind Rises

Best Cinematography

Will Win: Gravity

Should Win: Gravity

Best Costume Design

Will Win: 12 Years a Slave

Should Win: 12 Years a Slave

Best Documentary Feature

Will Win: 20 Feet from Stardom

Should Win: The Act of Killing or Dirty Wars

Best Documentary Short

Will Win: Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life

Should Win: Karama Has No Walls

Best Film Editing

Will Win: Gravity

Should Win: Gravity

Best Foreign Language

Will Win: The Great Beauty

Should Win: Omar

Best Makeup

Will Win: Dallas Buyers Club

Best Original Score

Will Win: Steven Price (Gravity)

Should Win: Alexandre Desplat (Philomena)

Best Original Song

Will Win: “Let It Go” by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (Frozen)

Should Win: “The Moon Song” by Karen O (Her)

Best Animated Short Film

Will Win: The Voorman Problem

Best Live Action Short Film

Will Win: Mr. Hublot

Best Sound Editing

Will Win: Gravity

Should Win: Gravity

Best Sound Mixing

Will Win: Gravity

Should Win: Gravity

Best Visual Effects

Will Win: Gravity

Should Win: Gravity

Best Adapted Screenplay

Will Win: 12 Years a Slave

Should Win: 12 Years a Slave or Philoemena

Best Original Screenplay

Will Win: Her

Should Win: Nebraska

Best Actor

Will Win: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)

Should Win: Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)

Best Director

Will Win: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)

Should Win: Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)

Best Picture

Will Win: 12 Years a Slave

Should Win: 12 Years a Slave


Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Five Documentary Shorts Nominated for an Oscar

Each year five short documentary films are nominated for an Academy Award, but only a limited number of Americans ever get the opportunity to view them.

In independent or art house theatres, they may play for a few weeks. Mainstream theatres owned by corporations like AMC do not program them at their theatres.

When the award is given during the Oscars, the vast majority have no idea what will win because not only have they had no chance to view them but they also have not even heard of any of the films.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences will typically have some kind of comedian come on stage and make a joke about the category to possibly hold Americans’ interest. What fails to be communicated is how many filmmakers had to make short films before they could get their start as feature film directors. 

I saw all five documentary shorts nominated for an Oscar. In all of the films, one finds compelling characters willing to open up about truly personal aspects of their lives and give us an opportunity to leave the shells of our existence momentarily. 

The opportunity to watch all of these films in a theatre is wonderful. And I am sharing some thoughts on each of this year’s nominees because I think this category is one of the highlights of the Oscars. 

Karama Has No Walls

It is March 18, 2011, in Change Square in Sanaa, Yemen. University students and other youth are in the square in an area that has developed into the epicenter of Yemen’s uprising. The day is Jumaat Al-Karama, a Day of Dignity. What transpires will alter the future of Yemen forever, and the film shows what happened in and around the Square that day.

Shot courageously by Nasr Al-Namir, who was 17-years-old, and Khaled Rajeh, who was 23-years-old, thugs brought machine guns to the Square where a people known to love their weapons had given them up and committed to protest. A wall had also been built to separate the square, filled with demonstrators, from a neighborhood.

The wall was already flammable, but thugs poured petrol over it. Youth in the Square that day were not prepared for what happened. Shots were fired into the air, and the wall went up in flames. Security forces arrived. Snipers also fired into the protesters. As Rajeh says in the film, he was warned that the snipers were targeting him. He tried to move yet, as he did, he felt the snipers were following him.

The film shows the brutally injured and those fatally wounded as they carried to a Field Hospital in the Square. “How could you do this, Ali?” ask men with blood on them shout into the camera.

The horror of what happened is made personal through the recollections by parents of two young boys—one named Anwar who was killed that day, the other named Saleem who lost his eyes. But their sacrifice is kept in perspective because they helped make a revolution possible that led to Yemen president Ali Abdullah Saleh stepping down from power after ruling the country for 33 years.

There are many factors contributing to despair and violence in Yemen today. A National Dialogue Conference that was to bring about a new democratic future has faltered. US drone strikes have exacerbated issues, fueling the rise of al Qaeda in parts of Yemen. Yet, unmistakably, there was a moment when young Yemenis were willing to turn to peace and boldly take a stand for a new free, equitable and just Yemen. This film powerfully shows the risk of nonviolent protest in a society where demonstrators are likely to get shot and honors those who were in the Square on a day that many Yemenis say everything changed.

The Lady in Number 6

"My world is music," she says. "Music is a dream." It is beautiful. It is like a religion for her. Playing Beethoven, Bach, Brahms—classical music—gives her such an energetic spirit. And it has kept her alive for 110 years.

Alice Herz Sommer is the oldest pianist. She still plays piano. She was born in Prague and lives in the United Kingdom. She played for famous artists when she was young, like writer Franz Kafka, who knew her mother. She also is the oldest known Holocaust survivor, having been sent to Theresienstadt, which was a feeder camp for Auschwitz . At the camp, she was able to play piano since Theresienstadt was a camp where Nazis let artists play music so they could broadcast propaganda to the world and claim they were not seriously abusing Jews.

It is hard not to be inspired by Sommer’s spirit and love for music. She survived the Holocaust. The Nazis considered music to be a luxury and not for Jews so they took away her piano after they invaded in 1939. But she and two of her friends, who survived as well, do not seem to have allowed their horrific experiences to define who they are. One of them even says she “never felt like a victim.” She felt like an “observer.” Which is not to suggest she was not mistreated, but, as she states, “Survival is a very complex matter.”

Watching Sommer play piano and still remember what notes to play at her age (she’s 109 years-old in the film) is magnificent to watch on its own. Yet, what really makes this an exceptional film is Sommer’s character and her commitment to not allow pessimism or hate into her life. She is going to keep on living and be happy. Music makes her happy. In fact, just the thought of music makes her happy.

Music does not only have the power to help a person survive suffering and hardship, but it can also keep one’s spirit eager to wake up and live another day when most would think you haven’t got much life left to live. As she says, the older we are, “the more we are aware of the beauty of life.”

Cavedigger

A middle-aged man, Ra Paulette has a passion for creating art through the digging of caves and he happens to  be really good at it too. Every cave he digs is with hand tools. He is captivated by the aesthetic of creating space in the sandstone of this area in New Mexico, which he suggests is the only place where he would he could do what he does. To him, it is transformative. It provides people a “break in the continuity” of their lives.

How does one live off digging caves? One would have to be pretty well-off to spend years digging because it makes them feel spiritually whole.

Fortunately, Paulette has his wife to provide some semblance of financial security. Paulette has tried to market his craft. He has created spaces for customers with thousands of dollars to spend on paying him $15/hour to dig. But that can be frustrating because sometimes they won’t want to pay him any more and will stop him from finishing the transformation of the space.

Paulette is driven, committed to digging that cave that will be his magnum opus, and there are few stories that are as visually gratifying as the transformation of rock into spaces of beauty.

Facing Fear

The story is unquestionably compelling. When Matthew Boger was 13-years-old, his mom kicked him out of the house for being gay. He had to live on the streets and, in Hollywood, he was nearly beaten to death by young  neo-Nazi punks. Then, twenty-five years later, Boger met one of the assailants who left him to die on the street one night .

Tim Zaal, who  once believed in white power, came to the Museum of Tolerance in Berkeley, California, where Boger is the director. Boger now had an opportunity to talk about the rage left inside of him after he was kicked violently by Zaal.

Zaal had guilt inside of him too. He struggled with what he had done and was willing to express that to Boger.

The serendipitous nature of it seems to have been a factor in convincing the men to talk about what happened that night. Boger forgave him. They now do speaking engagements together to teach people to not let themselves hate.

Is the positive upbeat nature of the film a downfall of the movie? Does one wish the chain of events between Boger and Zaal could be presented in a more stark context to amplify what happened between them?

Finding forgiveness is inspiring. Most gays who are victims of white hate probably may never have what Boger and Zaal have been able to accomplish. Yet, from that reality, the film derives its purpose and life in society.

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall

At the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, private donations fund hospice care for terminally ill prisoners. The idea is that, even if you are a murderer or rapist, you have done the time and deserve to spend your last few days with care, some semblance of comfort and others assisting you as you die.

The film centers on Jack Hall, a World War II veteran. Like many who go to war, he returned home and all he knew how to do is kill and how to kill quickly. He became an alcoholic. He also was a segregationist or  believer in white power.

While there is a great opportunity, the director pays only minimal attention to the racial issue that could be explored. All the prisoners taking care of him are African-American. Herky is in prison for murder, but, as he says, he thought when he started doing this it would be about what he could give to patients. He realized with people like Hall that when he takes care of them there is an incredible feeling you get back that is indescribable. And, in prison, Hall is friendly toward these men. He doesn’t seem to have any problem with them touching and caring for him.

But, regardless of that, it broaches the issue of how best to deal with the increasing number of elderly prisoners who are terminally ill and will die in prison. Do they just die in their cell? Is the pain and suffering of dying part of the punishment of being imprisoned? Or is there some program with prison inmates and prison medical staff to ease the pain and suffering because that may be the humane thing to do?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Film Review: ‘Her’ Explores Love with Utopian Concept of Sentient Technology

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Love and human relationships, along with how we relate to technology, are at the center of this film.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) works for a company that sells handwritten letters to loved ones for people who do not have the time to write them. He dictates the letters to a computer often with intimate details about the people in the relationship. But Theodore has split-up with his wife (Rooney Mara), and he is struggling with whether to sign papers for a divorce. He is now very confused in life and uncertain about how to relate with other humans, especially how to have a close relationship with one.

He seeks solace in an artificially intelligent operating system, which gives itself the name Samantha. Voiced by Scarlet Johansson, Samantha is an OS that Theodore learns can do much more than organize one’s emails and remind him of when he has scheduled meetings. It can relate to other humans and show interest in him. It is capable of expressing feelings and, as a result, make a person feel like there is the kind of connection one would have in a romantic relationship with a human.

But, through self-awareness, Samantha comes to recognize some truths while dating Theodore. They make her just as insecure and afraid as Theodore.

The original screenplay won a Golden Globe Award, and the story takes place in the future in Los Angeles.

It is unclear how far into the future. Just about everyone wears retro-futuristic clothing, including high-waisted pants. Theodore’s shirts are often bright colors and the costumes are not unlike the wardrobe a hipster might have.

The wonderful aspect of this film is that it follows all the permutations it should in order to fully explore what it would be like to have a relationship with an artificially intelligent operating system. In doing so, writer and director Spike Jonze tests viewers’ concept of relationships and love.

A dominant thought might be such a relationship would be impossible because one cannot have sex with an operating system. Jonze shows that sex is not only about the physical. It is mental and, if one can feel they are having sex, that might be enough to give one pleasure. It may definitely be enough if a person believes the OS they are in love with is truly experiencing pleasure too.

During one of the scenes, Samantha shares how she has come to appreciate not having a body:  ”I used to be so worried about not having a body, but now I truly love it. I am growing in a way that I couldn’t if I had a physical form. I mean, I am not limited. I can be anywhere and everywhere, simultaneously. I’m not tethered to time and space in a way that I would be if I was stuck in a body that is inevitably going to die.”

She desired the same physical experiences that a human could have with Theodore but came to recognize she could be content without searching for ways to make that happen (like, for example, using a surrogate body).

Remarkably, it is pretty easy for Theodore to accept the idea of having a relationship with an OS because Samantha helps him unravel his initial hangups about loving her. But she develops hangups of her own and, in many ways, it is Samantha, which has more difficulty with having a relationship.

This speaks to human dependency on technology. Theodore does not socialize but stays at home to play a video game. He would rather lie in bed playing his ukulele while talking to his OS. He walks around in public with an earpiece (not unlike the bluetooth earpieces people have nowadays) and talks aloud while walking.

People walking by are not interacting with one another. They are each talking to their OS, whether it is artificially intelligent or not. And so, the extent to which humans have welcome technology into their lives makes it natural to turn to an OS when a relationship falls apart and ends.

Previously, Jonze wrote and directed Being John Malkovich, a film starring John Cusack, Cameron Diaz and John Malkovich, where both the characters played by Cusack and Diaz find a way to have out-of-body experiences as Malkovich, the actor himself. Her has a similar theme with Theodore feeling trapped. He desires something more human than human to provide a reprieve from the doldrums and difficulties of life.

The sentient nature of technology has often been portrayed in a dystopian fashion with self-awareness bringing a loss of human control and the destruction of humanity. For example, 2001: A Space Odyssey features the HAL 9000 mission computer killing the crew when it realizes they might shut him down. The 1970 film, Colossus: The Forbin Project, features an artificially intelligent supercomputer that discovers how to link up with a Soviet counterpart and threaten the world with the launch of nuclear weapons. And, in the Terminator films, Skynet is the artificial intelligence system bent on exterminating the human race. 

Her, on the other hand, presents a utopian concept of the artificially intelligent computer, one where technology might recognize what humans are doing to themselves and save humans because it has concerns about its cumulative effect on human life. There are multiple OS’s interacting with one another on a network but, drawing from a wealth of human knowledge, they can make informed decisions that are in the best interest for humanity.