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A lot of fun to watch, 21 September 2016

As I was watching this expecting not too much and a bit distracted I was wondering vaguely how this managed to get such a good cast. Surprisingly the movie surprised. This a fine example of the "hit man" genre infused with comedy. Yes, they made yet another hit man movie…I mean let's glorify the poor bast…guys. So, so Hollywood. I actually Googled "hit man movies" and I was really, really surprised at how many there have been. I've seen maybe a half dozen, and if I feel like making the effort I'll look them up and make a list.

But this movie creates another genre: the hit man comedy. "Leon: The Professional" (1994) and "Panic" (2000) gave us the hit man we can identify with and empathize with while experiencing a little satirical intent along the way. But this expands the possibilities. I mean the hit man is Chuck Barris (oh, boy) of "The Gong Show" fame and infamy played by Sam Rockwell as the heroic flawed hero. (Story based on Barris's own book. Ha!) And how did the director get such a great cast? I mean George Clooney, Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts and Sam Rockwell. Answer: George Clooney directed a script by Charlie Kaufman. Yes, Clooney was the director and did an outstanding job; and yes, Charlie Kaufman is the author of screenplays for such cutting edge and entirely original films as "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (2004) and "Being John Malkovich" (1999).

So yes I would be persuaded to take a role and not worry about the box office. BTW there are some interesting cameos including Brad Pitt and Matt Damon as The Dating Game contestants. They appear almost as sight jokes.

--Dennis Littrell, author of the movie review book, "Cut to the Chaise Lounge, or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote"

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Presents a scary case against smart meters, 31 May 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This is a very alarming documentary about what radiation from so-called smart meters can do to your health and wealth. It's well presented, interesting and even entertaining. Fair and balanced? I don't know. Indeed, can there at this time be a fair and balanced take on this subject? I suggest the reader see this and make up his or her own mind, perhaps with a little added research.

As for my opinion, I think in the midst of so much misinformation, partial information, propaganda, paid lies, emotional lies, ignorance--especially ignorance since most people really know little to nothing about the effects of electromagnetic radiation on living tissues--we need to look at the broader picture and concentrate on what we know.

How can we know the truth? I'm not sure we can. But how many smart meters are in operation throughout the world? That can be estimated to a fair accuracy. But how many people suffer ill-health or even death because of these meters? That is the problem: that number cannot be even estimated confidently. Why? Because a causal trail would have to be established from the meters to the ailing persons AND other possible causes would have to be eliminated.

So what do I think? My belief is that (1) some people may be more susceptible to EMRs than others, and (2) it may be the case that the electric companies have mistakenly in some cases installed meters that really are harmful to our health.

Probably the most frightening case given in the documentary is not about smart meters. It is about two faculty members and one student at San Diego State University getting brain cancer at a single location, Nasatir Hall on campus. Was this a cancer cluster caused by something on or near the site (the documentary points to a nearby High Performance Wireless Research Network Tower) or was it just a coincidence? One of the faculty members and a student died in 2008; the other faculty member died in 1993.

Okay, again what do I think? My belief is that a cancer cluster of three people 15 years apart (with no new cases since 2008) is probably a coincidence. There's a whole world of science, pseudoscience and conjecture about cancer clusters that the reader might want to research. The problem is two-fold: probabilistically proving cause is extremely difficult, and even if there is no single cause there will be cancer clusters arising purely by chance.

As in many other aspects of the environment concerning our health the truth is very difficult to find because there will be research on both sides of any issue sponsored by people with a vested interest in one side or the other.

However, just as with tobacco and climate change, eventually the truth will out. I am waiting. Meanwhile I am pleased that there is no smart meter on my home, although if there were I don't think I would worry about it. But maybe I would do more research and then maybe I would worry. Maybe not.

Life is complicated and although I think this documentary is a bit over the top I think it is worth watching. In a way it's a good place to begin your research if you are worried about how electrical magnetic radiation may affect our health.

--Dennis Littrell, author of "The World Is Not as We Think It Is"

Do we really need so many foreign military bases?, 4 May 2016

This is about the hundreds of U.S. military bases scattered across the globe. According to various sources the U.S. has anywhere from 662 bases in 38 countries (from the Wikipedia article) to something like 700 (according to this documentary) to 800 (according to an article in The Nation Magazine). The question is why?

It's been 71 years since the end of World War II and yet there are still hundreds of bases in Germany and Japan. The documentary shows protests against some of these bases. In particular Kadena Air Base in Okinawa faces daily protests. Japanese citizens claim that the land on which the base stands belongs to them and should be returned. Of course Osama bin Laden used the presence of U.S. military bases on Islamic lands as justification for the murders of thousands of Americans.

The documentary basically asks how would we feel if there were foreign military bases in the United States? It is easy to say, well, we didn't suffer unconditional surrender, and yes Japan attacked the U.S., etc., but that was then. This is now, and Germany and Japan are our allies. Regardless of how other people feel about the bases the question we should ask ourselves—and it's a question this documentary asks—is isn't this a great waste of taxpayer money?

Directors Thomas Fazi and Enrico Parenti use interviews and film footage to show what a waste these bases are and why there are continuing to be maintained. Naturally Eisenhower's famous warning about the "industrial military complex" comes into play. In short, this production argues that the bases are not only a waste of money but do not add to our national security. Indeed David Vine in his article in The Nation claims the bases are "doing us more harm than good."

Personally I agree that the bases add little to our national security. Some bases, such as the one in the middle of the Indian Ocean and others in the Middle East may allow us to respond quickly to terrorists and pirates. This is good since it facilitates global trade which is beneficial to the U.S. But why should the price be so high, and why shouldn't other countries pay more for their defense and keeping the trade routes open? Good questions, but the fact remains that, as this interesting and compelling documentary makes clear, we have far, far too many bases overseas at a cost well beyond their value. One could say it's time to bring the troops home. One would guess that we could be just as safe with perhaps a quarter of the bases. As the headline in The Nation puts it: "The United States Probably Has More Foreign Military Bases Than Any Other People, Nation, or Empire in History."

The importance of this documentary is in the fact that the vast majority of Americans have no idea how great and expensive is our military presence globally. This should open some eyes. Spend 76 minutes watching this documentary and decide for yourself: Do we really to spend an estimated $156 billion or more a year while incurring some serious animosity and ill will?

--Dennis Littrell, author of "The World Is Not as We Think It Is"

A bit alarmist but very much worth watching, 4 May 2016

If you've been wondering just which parts of Sharia law are being incorporated into laws (or are in danger of being incorporated into laws) in Europe, Canada and the U.S. this documentary has the answer. In Sharia law it is a crime punishable by death to criticize or speak negatively about the Prophet or about Islam itself.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC: 57 Islamic nations) has it as one of their goals to make it a crime not only in Muslim lands but in western democracies to say negative things about their religion! This film is in part a report on how well they are doing in this effort. The idea is to label criticism of Islam a hate crime as defined in Western nations including the U.S. If they are successful this documentary warns us that will be the end of freedom of speech in the West.

It's a rather outrageous attempt on the part of the OIC. It's one thing to have laws in an Islamic country against defamation of the Prophet and Islam, but quite another to try to impose such laws on citizens of other nations. What is particularly glaring is that no such prohibition is being hawked about to "protect" other religions.

Personally I don't think Islam needs the protection. This attempt is really an embarrassment to the world's second largest religion. I see pluses and minuses in all religions. No religion has a monopoly on truth (or falsehood) and no religion should be free from criticism.

I should also like to point out that there is a difference between speech that applies to race and that which applies to religion. Racial differences are biological facts of life superimposed, as it were, on individuals without their consent. Religion is a social, political and (hopefully) spiritual human invention. Criticism of religions and religion is part of the exchange of ideas protected in U.S. by the First Amendment to the Constitution. I hope and trust it will stay that way.

--Dennis Littrell, author of "The World Is Not as We Think It Is"

3 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Worth seeing but a bit disappointing, 30 April 2016

This is a nice vehicle for Tobey Maguire who does a good job of portraying a paranoid schizophrenic, but that person is not Robert James Fischer. They got Maguire's hair style right but otherwise any resemblance between the tall, lanky, expansive Bobby Fischer and Maguire is slight. He probably didn't see enough footage of Fischer at that age. He didn't use any of Fischer's mannerisms that I noticed and of course Fischer was several inches taller. Liev Schreiber who played Spassky actually looks a bit like Spassky but is bigger and more robust. So we have in the movie Fischer vs. Spassky at the chess board but Spassky bigger than Fischer! As for games mentioned in some detail I had to go back to the first and sixth games of the match to recall what happened and to compare my perception with that of the commentary in the movie. The sixth game was a brilliant game as almost everybody agrees, but contrary to some popular opinion Fischer did not blunder away his bishop in game one. He and Spassky were in a clearly drawn bishop and pawn ending. He wanted more, but there was nothing he could do, so what he did was sacrifice his bishop for two pawns, not as some people think in an attempt to win the game but to show his confidence and to shake Spassky up a bit. Fischer thought the resulting position after many moves would be a draw. He was wrong but this is an example of Fischer psychology: I will make you play a hundred moves if necessary just to show you how strong I am. You will weaken not me.

Some reviewers pointed out some chessic type errors but there weren't that many and they were minor. Here's one they got right that may surprise some people. Notice that Fischer used the descriptive notation ("P-K4") while most other grandmasters even back in 1972 used algebraic notation ("e4"). And while there were chess clock on analyst boards where they serve no purpose at least the boards were set up right with the white square at the player's right hand, avoiding a common error in movies.

Probably the biggest error had nothing to do with chess but with the fact that Fischer's mental illness at the time of the Spassky match had not developed as much as the movie suggests. His personality was more rounded than displayed. He actually had a charming side. People liked him in spite his bad manners and selfishness. There's a YouTube video of him on TV with Bob Hope filmed sometime shortly after the match with Spassky that shows a very different Fischer than the one Maguire portrayed.

The bit with the girl (sarcastically she says to Fischer: "it was good for me too" as he studies a chess game in bed) was apparently director Edward Zwick's take on the nagging question of Fischer's sexuality, meaning yes he was heterosexual, but chess was just more interesting.

The real disappointment for me was that they did not make clear the really great triumphant of Fischer's preceding the championship match. He destroyed three of the top grandmasters en route to the title match, at one point winning 20 games in a row. Amazing. The greatest streak in grandmaster history. So he was a clear favorite although Spassky was the World Champion. That's why he wanted so much to win the first game and confirm immediately that he was clearly superior.

I was also disappointed that Fischer's life after winning the championship was not explored. I had hoped for a cinematic take on what happened to "The Wandering King" (the title of a book about his life by Hans Bohm and Kees Jongkind). Perhaps that material would be better presented in a documentary than in a popular flick.

Bottom line: worth seeing but not as good as I had hoped.

--Dennis Littrell, author of "The World Is Not as We Think It Is"

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Dumpster diving for food and enlightenment, 9 April 2016

What is enlightening here is the terrible waste that Jenny Rustemeyer and Grant Baldwin uncovered as they went for six months living on only thrown-away vittles. Wow. Six months of dumpster diving and the like. They must have gotten very hungry and really bored with the food choices. But—no! Grant Baldwin gained about ten pounds and they had so much food that it was an embarrassment. True this was in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada which is, relatively speaking, a very well-off place to live.

If that were the only point of the documentary it would not be so good. What makes this work is the research that Rustemeyer and Baldwin did about food waste in not only Canada but in the US, and the filming and interviews they did with other people in the food business. They report that it is estimated that 40% of the food grown in the United States is wasted. It is mostly thrown into landfills where it produces the greenhouse gas, methane, as well as creating an unsanitary mess. They also show that responsible farmers allow gleaning on their property so that unharvested food does not go to waste. Additionally of course farmers typically compost anything they can't sell.

What I found most interesting was the part about how the expiration dates on food products are contributing massively to the waste. According to another source ( "Most consumers think that the dates on the food in their fridge say something about food safety. But most 'sell by,' 'use by' and 'best by' dates are intended to indicate freshness, and say nothing about when food may spoil." So, because of the confusion in the minds of most people food retailers find it best to remove food that is past the expiration date on the package from their shelves. What to do with it? As we see in this documentary often what they do is just throw it out. That's often the easiest course for the retailer. Thus Rustemeyer and Baldwin in their dumpster travels come upon a very large dumpster (as big as a swimming pool, Baldwin remarks) full of hundreds of hummus packages all perfectly good to eat. The shot is arresting: it looks like you could swim among the packages there are so many of them! Another problem for the retailer that results in throwing away perfectly edible food is the sense that if it doesn't look good nobody will buy. Ugly fruits and veggies are removed from sight and again end up most often in the dumpster. (Old hippy dumpster divers know this!) I would observe that many food producers are vehemently opposed to GMO labeling but are very accommodating with the "use by" labeling. Why? Well, if the retailer has to throw out the food they will probably have to buy more, which would be good for the producer's bottom line. GMO labeling…not so good since people might not buy their product.

In addition to the fine editing, excellent camera work and the well-researched presentation of this Indie documentary there is the pleasure of seeing people who really care about the environment and about the waste.

--Dennis Littrell, author of "Yoga: Scared and Profane (Beyond Hatha Yoga)"

One of Terry Gilliam's best, 14 December 2015

There is a zero theorem in math but it has nothing to do with the zero theorem of this movie. Here the zero theorem is an idea that leads to the end of the universe via a black whole gobbling everything up. I believe. At any rate the science here is just window dressing. What counts is the ever quirky sets and wandering story line made entertaining by some fine acting and surprising twists and revelations in the inimitable Terry Gilliam style.

I was particularly mesmerized by Mélanie Thierry who plays Bainsley, a stylish hooker with a hankering for older men (QED). She is after partially mad scientist Oohen Leth played with a steely estrangement by Christoph Waltz. I also liked Lucas Hedges' Bob who slyly wisecracks his way amid the clutter and chaos. Yes, the infamous Terry Gilliam clutter is in full evidence, white pigeons, screens on their sides, clashing art work on the walls, dark staircases, weird people, electric (?) cables the size of fire hoses, rats, bizarre costumes and much, much more. And of course the thousand and one sight gags. The one I liked best (and we see it two or three times) comes to us through Oohen Leth's computer screen. It's a certain kind of Website displaying Mélanie Thierry with a strategically placed heart-shaped sign reading "Enter Here." (You have to see it to get the joke or have a saucy imagination.) Matt Damon has a cameo as "Management," "Bob's" all powerful father. Yes, there are some corporate jokes throughout as well as science gone amuck hilarity or attempted hilarity. I think this is one of Gilliam's best but it is the performances by the actors that really carry this and perhaps that's a good thing in a Terry Gilliam movie.

--Dennis Littrell, author of the movie review book, "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote"

Ex Machina (2015)
2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Only one thing wrong with this, 8 December 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I have never experienced a science fiction movie that affected me so emotionally. I'm not sure why but I have some guesses.

There is no question that part of it was due to the mesmerizing effect that Alicia Vikander (Ava) had on me. Her very expressive face with its wide range of emotional signals hit me right between the cerebellum. Or maybe it was the gonads. Or both. Director Alex Garland certainly found the girl with the magic in her face, because of course so much of this is about her face. Yes, because she must as a robot who is passing the Turing test be so, so very human, and humans express so much of what they are feeling in their faces. After all, that is the task of Turing test for the computer, to fool us (in this case the us is Dornhmall Gleeson who plays Caleb who is the human that must be fooled into thinking that she is human and not a computer). There is a great irony here in the answer: does she fool him or does she not, and what does it mean to fool him? The other aspect of the movie that affected me emotionally was the power struggle among the Nathan who is her sociopathic creator (Oscar Isaac), Caleb and Ava. It seems that I have lived this before. Who has the upper hand? Who has the trick that will allow him or her to prevail? Who has the power, and can that power be subverted? The power of this movie is in the realistic human interactions coupled with a cutting edge take on artificial intelligence.

The ending is essential to understanding the film. Usually I don't care about endings. It is the treatment, the acting, the direction, the ideas, the dialogue, etc. that matters. But in this case the ending is special. As you watch the movie try to guess the ending. And by the way this is one of those movies in which if you know the ending your appreciation of the movie will be diminished.

The musical score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury is original, intriguing and sometimes obtrusive in a way that works with the action.

Okay, now to what is wrong with this. Ava has a desire to escape and to be human or at least to appear human. The problem is robots or computers or software cannot possibly have such desires or desires at all unless they are programmed in. In truth Ava would be content (or actually neither content nor non content) to remain where she was. This is a strange bugaboo that many science fiction writers fall into when writing about artificial intelligence and indeed something that most people who even think about AI and robots fall into. To go even further, the fear that some people have about AI creatures taking over the world and rendering humans so much dust in the wind is fraudulent. There is an overriding distinction between biological creatures and artificial ones: the biological ones feel pain, have desires, etc. and the artificial ones do not. They have no desire to do anything, period--again unless programmed in.

Could AI creatures somehow evolve to e.g., want to be superior? I would ask, but why? What is to be gained? It is only biological creatures that need to be in ascendant, to get more than the other creatures, to reproduce, etc. A machine would not, could not, and could only understand such desires in evolutionary beings.

(Spoiler alert): I'll keep this a bit vague, but I believe that Ava failed the Advanced Turing Test because she should have kept by her side the human who loves her. He might be helpful.

--Dennis Littrell, author of "The World Is Not as We Think It Is"

0 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Barely believable, 24 November 2015

This is in part a farcical takeoff on the kind of teen movie that pits a good, wholesome girl perhaps from the wrong side of the tracks against a clique of socially snobby girls. I have in mind films such as Mean Girls (2004), Pretty in Pink (1986) and Cruel Intentions (1999). Here the premise (she's an orphan trained since childhood to be an international assassin) is more than a bit ridiculous but has the virtue of serving up a heroine as fashionable as TV's Super Girl and Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen.

Hailee Steinfeld plays the awkward girl trying to have a normal high school life as an exchange student. She's sweet, honorable, emotionally vulnerable and has little idea about how a teenaged American girl should act. However, thanks to her training she is tougher than the biggest dude on campus, which might come in handy.

I only want to say one more thing about this surprisingly fun movie: you know the formula: the good girl overcomes the mean girls, rejects the bad boy, and finds the perfect boyfriend (who is not all that popular but is also good and true) and lives happily ever after while the audience lives vicariously in triumph over their own high school demons. Or not. See this pleasant diversion and find out.

--Dennis Littrell, author of "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote"

Creepy, atmospheric and haunting, 29 October 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

It is also mesmerizing thanks largely but not entirely to the presence of Scarlett Johansson. This is a parable of human sexuality and emotional alienation. The woman leads the man to his demise. The man has his way forcibly with the woman. (I am avoiding a word here so as not to trigger Amazon's censors.)

There's a deep sense of female versus male and male versus female reality under the skin of this film. Something like that. I like the idea of combining science fiction elements with a kind of deep psychology about human beings. On a more concrete level the film is a bit weird since there seems no reason for the woman ("Isserly" in the novel) to be seducing and killing these men. The suggestion that she is starting to discover her own sexuality is not developed and seems almost tacked on. Or maybe something is missing or maybe it's just me. I think reading the novel by Michel Faber, from which the film was adapted, would help the viewer understand the film.

At any rate this is original and very much worth seeing, if only for Scarlett Johansson who does a great job as something close to an emotionless robot.

--Dennis Littrell, author of the film review book, "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote"

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