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.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

"…Americans don’t care too much for beauty/they’ll shit in a river, dump battery acid in a stream…" -Lou Reed, "Last Great American Whale" from New York (1988)

‘Strawman’ by Lou ReedI heard after I did a panel in NYC on Chelsea Manning that featured Birgitta Jonsdottir, Alexa O’Brien and Peter Hart that Lou Reed had been in the audience. That was pretty cool to me. 

There are many songs from Lou Reed or the Velvet Underground to play to celebrate him. This is a good one to start with.

‘Strawman’ by Lou Reed
I heard after I did a panel in NYC on Chelsea Manning that featured Birgitta Jonsdottir, Alexa O’Brien and Peter Hart that Lou Reed had been in the audience. That was pretty cool to me. There are many songs from Lou Reed or the Velvet Underground to play to celebrate him. This is a good one to start with.

Monday, May 13, 2013

In Deciding to Cave to Israel, Newseum Forsakes Press Freedom Groups

*The Firedoglake website is currently down. This is being published here instead. When the server host is able to fix the problems, this post will be published to FDL where content I author regularly appears.

The Newseum, after controversy fueled by pro-Israel groups and conservative media, decided to back down and not honor two Palestinian journalists, who were killed in an Israeli strike in Gaza last year.

An annual ceremony at the museum, which explores centuries of news history, was held this morning. News people that died or had been killed “in the pursuit of news in 2012” were memorialized.

Two of those individuals were going to be Mahmoud al-Kumi and Hussam Salama, journalists for al-Aqsa TV, which is affiliated with Hamas. A backlash escalated and Newseum caved. 

NBC correspondent Richard Engel, who spoke at the memorial, addressed the controversy.

…[T]here have been some critics who oppose the inclusion of several people who were killed while working for a Hamas-run television station and state televisions that broadcast propaganda. I frankly agree there is a distinction and several of the people on this list aren’t strictly journalists but political activists who worked in the media, and just because you carry a camera and a notebook doesn’t make you a journalist. A journalist has a responsibility to seek the truth, no matter what it is, even if the story hurts your cause. Journalists shouldn’t have causes. They should have principles and beliefs, but this is where it gets tricky, because who gets to draw the line? 

Several reporters on this year’s list were Syrians, who worked for media outlets that were actively trying to topple Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Were they pure journalists? No, but they wanted to bring down a dictator with words and images and that dictator silenced them. They certainly died trying to do something noble. They were speaking out against oppression. They died trying to quench a thirst for freedom.

Engel incorrectly spoke when he used the word “several.” The number is two. He also played into criticism by agreeing that some journalists are not “strictly journalists” because they are political or have a cause. However, Engel clearly has a cause and that is that the rebels in Syria are fighting a just conflict against Assad’s regime. Does that make him less of a journalist? Isn’t this a game of semantics, the distinguishing between a cause and principles or beliefs? 

Indeed, who gets to draw the line is the critical question. Engel may understand that the Newseum should memorialize the deaths of the Palestinian journalists, but he expressed too many caveats before making his key point. 

To recap, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a right-wing defense think tank, threatened to not hold their annual policy summit at the Newseum this year if the two journalists were honored. The Simon Wiesenthal Center condemned their inclusion in the ceremony. The Israel Embassy in the United States blasted the Newseum for deciding to memorialize the journalists. And, the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee came out against the Newseum.

As of Friday, the Newseum had defended honoring the killed journalists, noting, “Hussam Salama and Mahmoud Al-Kumi were cameramen in a car clearly marked ‘TV.’ The Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers all consider these men journalists killed in the line duty.”

"To be listed on the memorial, an individual must have been a contributor of news, commentary or photography to a news outlet; an editor or news executive; a producer, camera operator, sound engineer or other member of a broadcast crew; or a documentary filmmaker," the Newseum further explained.

However, over the weekend, the Newseum decided to buckle to pressure. It released this statement, which was published by The Daily Caller.

Serious questions have been raised as to whether two of the individuals included on our initial list of journalists who died covering the news this past year were truly journalists or whether they were engaged in terrorist activities.

We take the concerns raised about these two men seriously and have decided to re-evaluate their inclusion as journalists on our memorial wall pending further investigation. 

Terrorism has altered the landscape in many areas, including the rules of war and engagement, law, investigative and interrogation techniques, and the detention of enemy combatants. Journalism is no exception. 

To further our First Amendment mission to provide a forum where all may speak freely, the Newseum will establish a new initiative to explore differing views on the new questions facing journalism and journalists.

In deciding to give in to the uproar created by pro-Israel groups and conservative media outlets, the Newseum allowed thepolitical beliefs of the journalists killed to become an overriding factor in their decision on whether to ultimately honor the journalists. They forsook the wisdom of press freedom groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) or Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and instead determined the “questions” raised by groups were more important than the objective criteria they use for memorializing killed journalists. It permitted detractors to make the deciding factor in whether to memorialize the two dead journalists their political affiliation and not what their deaths represent.

CPJ pressed Israel when they died in a strike because they wanted an answer to the question of how Israel had determined the journalists targeted did not deserve civilian protection that is to be afforded to all journalists “no matter their perspective, under international law.”

“Our central concern is that governments must not have unilateral discretion to target media facilities they deem to be supporting terrorists, because this would render meaningless the civilian status conferred on journalists under international humanitarian law,” according to CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa Programs Coordinator, Sherif Mansour.

RSF has maintained, “Under humanitarian law, journalists are entitled to the same protection as civilians and should not be regarded as military targets.” Whether they are “propaganda outlets is not sufficient reason to treat them as military targets.”

“Indeed, the commission of experts appointed by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia to examine the NATO bombing campaign in 1999 ruled that journalists and media organizations were not legitimate targets for ‘merely disseminating propaganda,’” according to RSF.

If memorializing killed journalists is intended to call attention to the threats and violence experienced every year, then Israel should not be able to challenge the memorializing of targeted journalists any more than the regime in Syria should be allowed to have influence over which dead journalists the Newseum honors by alleging they were rebel journalists with ties to al Qaeda.  

Furthermore, the institutional spinelessness allows Israel and its defenders to promote an image of Israel as a country, which only targets “propagandists” tied to terrorist or militant groups, when, in fact, it has a history of striking journalists.

CPJ has highlighted:

In 2001, the Board of the Foreign Press Association condemned an IDF report on the shootings of several journalists in 2000, noting that the investigation took 14 months, and with a single exception turned up no guilty parties. In 2008, we urged Israel to release results of its army investigation into the killing of a Reuters cameraman; in 2009, we condemned the IDF for firing a missile directly at a Gaza City building housing multiple news organizations. In 2010, CPJ protested IDF attacks on several journalists in the West Bank and demanded an investigation, but no explanation has been given.

The din created by pro-Israel groups and pro-Israel groups conquers reason. The establishment media utters a minimal response to the criticism, if any response is uttered at all. The liberal class largely refrains from sharing their views on the implications of episodes like this.  

That, as a result, enables the Israel embassy in the United States to use its power of influence to distort journalistic values: 

The Embassy of Israel appreciates the Newseum’s decision to reconsider the inclusion of members of Hamas, a terrorist organization, on its list of journalists who lost their lives covering the news. The decision taken by the Newseum reflects a core journalistic value that it works to honor: the pursuit of understanding the full story.

It makes it possible for Fox News to claim credit for the outcome because they “wrote about the controversy surrounding their inclusion.”

Finally, Newseum said it is going to further investigate whether to honor the journalists. There is nothing more to “investigate” and, presumably, all proper “investigation” was done before deciding to include them in a list of journalists to be honored. In fact, originally, when the strike targeting journalists was covered, another individual was believed to have died. It turned out that individual was not a journalist but a member of the Al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of the Islamic Jihad in Palestine. That this person’s name was not included indicates they did a thorough review before pro-Israel groups and conservative media ignited a controversy.

Thus, the “full story” is Israel does no harm to journalists. No Palestinian journalists should be remembered like other slain journalists from around the world because Israel only targets and kills “propagandists.” The list of those memorialized must omit journalists killed in attacks on Gaza last year.

Or, as Ben Smith for Buzzfeed cravenly articulated, “Israel’s American allies are particularly adept at demanding that institutions take a clear side, and it’s not entirely clear that the Newseum [had] thought this one through.”

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Boston Marathon Explosions: Showing Solidarity with the Victims of Bombings

On April 15, 2013, in Boston, Massachusetts, three people were killed when two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon. Over 144 were wounded. Doctors performed at least ten amputations on those injured.

The same day, in the cities of Baghdad, Fallujah and Kirkuk in Iraq, there were “serial blasts.” Fourteen car bombs and three roadside bombs went off. Thirty-three people were killed and over 160 were wounded. 

The two boys understand far too well what it is like in the immediate aftermath of a terror attack. In their lives, there has been numerous acts of violence as a result of terrorism and US forces waging war and occupation. 

What this powerful photograph shows is how the boys not only stand in solidarity with the victims of the Boston explosions, but they also want acknowledgment.

Undoubtedly, the Boston explosions received far greater attention than the attacks in Iraq yesterday. They continue to receive much more attention than the car bombs that went off in Iraq today. 

In Iraq, bombings are too regular to be news events, which US pundits and news crews respond to by flying to the location of the attacks. They also are happening over there, not here. 

Few Americans would ever stand up and snap a photo when bombs went off in Iraq. They would never do it in solidarity with other countries that are feeling deep pain. They would only wish that people recognize, “We are all (fill in the blank),” when residents of American cities are hit by attacks. 

All of which is not to suggest that people not mourn the dead and wounded or wish that life not be marked by such acts of terrorism. It is rather to highlight in the moment when people are most paying attention that there are other people around the world, who suffer from such violence daily.

What if Americans acknowledge the victims of bombings in other countries daily and every now and then posted photos showing empathy with others impacted by violence? 

One can be cynical and offer a snarky retort or one can brush this off as left-wing hippie nonsense, but it’s a rhetorical question that the two Iraqi boys in the photo should force all Americans to confront.

We are all citizens of the world and our pain can bring us together.