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The Hanging Tree, 27 November 2014

Greetings again from the darkness. I'm now even further removed from the target demographics than for the first two Hunger Games movies. Regardless, I have read Suzanne Collins' trilogy and have now seen the 3 movies based on her books. Oh, wait. There will be FOUR movies, not three, from her source material. By definition, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is a warm-up act ... it's setting the stage for the finale which will be released in one year.

So for this one we get a Hunger Games movie with no Hunger Games. In fact, there is very little combat action at all. Instead, we are witness to the strategic planning and "selling" of a war (think Wag the Dog), replete with short promo videos featuring Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) as the Mockingjay ... the rallying symbol of the rebels. There is a terrific scene featuring four great actors: Jennifer Lawrence, Julianne Moore (as President Coin), Jeffrey Wright (as Beetee) and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (as Plutarch). Four great actors in harmony elevating a movie based on YA novels. Pretty cool.

With no Hunger Games, the color palette of the film is almost entirely grays and browns. Even Julianne Moore's famous red tresses are toned down to a streaked gray. The bleak look reminds of the Metropolis set, and also makes President Snow's (Donald Sutherland) vivid white wardrobe and beard stand in contrast to rest. Mr. Sutherland has another juicy scene flashing his devilish grin and twinkle. He's another example of the perfect casting, which extends to Elizabeth Banks (Effie), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch), Stanley Tucci, and Mahershala Ali (as Boggs). You should expect much less Josh Hutcherson (Peeta) this time, but a little more Gale (Liam Hemsworth).

Jennifer Lawrence proves again that her recurring role as Katniss is underrated from an acting perspective. She is now best known as an Oscar winner, but that doesn't affect the sincerity, emotion and tenacity that she exhibits here.

This ending of Part 1 feels a bit awkward, but the break comes at the right time considering how the book is written. If you are a fan of the franchise, just accept that you will be buying a ticket for this move as well as next year's finale.

Cure Aging or Die Trying, 27 November 2014

Greetings again from the darkness. These days most tend to define anti-aging as the desire to look younger … vitamins, lotions, botox, and plastic surgery all thrive in a society obsessed with never looking old. Co-directors David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg introduce us to two of the world's leading anti-aging scientists, and neither of them specializes in facelifts.

Bill Andrews is 61 years old, runs ultra-marathons, and his catchphrase is "cure aging, or die trying". Dr. Andrews is convinced human beings can live forever. Fifty year old Aubrey de Gray is the heavily bearded (think "Duck Dynasty") founder of the SENS Foundation, which is dedicated to stopping/correcting the aging process. While some, especially the old guard of biologists, label their missions as pseudo-science, a 2011 Harvard project actually reversed aging in mice – lending credence to the work of these two (and others).

As with many frontiers in science, this subject begs two questions: Can we? Should we? One additional question fits snugly here as well: What happens if we do? Each of our scientists gets his shot at explaining his theory. The two theories actually contradict each other, leading to a somewhat friendly rivalry.

Rather than remaining focused on the science and the works of many other doctors dedicated to anti-aging, the film evolves into a character study of two distinct personalities. Bill's mission is personal as he confesses his desire to live forever, to save his dad who suffers from Alzheimer's, and to cure his best friend who has cancer. Aubrey, on the other hand, states his work is not personal in the least. His sights are set on saving humanity.

The personal side of these two dominates the film. We see a great deal of Bill running – sometimes while giving interviews, and sometimes struggling to breath while (twice) attempting a 138 mile marathon through the Himalayas. We see even more (so to speak) of Aubrey as he enjoys a nude picnic with his biologist wife, and later a glass of champagne with one of his two younger girlfriends in the woods near his California commune. These are two eccentric, but very different gentlemen who are attractive subjects for a documentary. Unfortunately the blistered feet and shaggy beard take away from the more interesting topic of curing aging.

The accusations of quackery are met with the obvious comparisons to early flight technology. We couldn't fly until we could. Will humans someday live forever? Can the aging process be reversed? It appears more likely that de Gray's SENS Foundation has a better chance of success since it has received funding, while Andrews' research company is nearly bankrupt. Very little time is given to the "What happens if we do?" question. The filmmakers assumed we would find the two gentlemen as fascinating as they do. Instead, the film left me wishing for more insight on the science, and less spotlight on the scientists.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Walk a Mile in his Shoes, 20 November 2014

Greetings again from the darkness. Edward Snowden. You know the name and you know the story. Hero of the People or Enemy of the State? Ultimate Patriot or a double-spy for the Russians? Protected as a Whistle-Blower or Guilty of Treason? Chances are you long ago made up your mind on how you view Ed (his stated name preference).

In January 2013, Snowden contacted documentarian Laura Poitras via an anonymous email name "Citizenfour". By June, the two were meeting in a Hong Kong hotel along with journalist Glenn Greenwald. What follows is a mesmerizing look at the actual footage shot of Greenwald interviewing Snowden. This is Ed Snowden before the media storm. This is Ed Snowden continually proclaiming that he is not the story, and he is trusting Greenwald to determine what documents are fit for public release. He voices concern about jeopardizing national security, while at the same time being adamant about exposing the immense and widespread governmental tracking of digital movements by millions of people … most with no known ties to terrorism.

The timeline is public record, so the core of the film is really an intimate look at the man who, acutely aware of the coming fallout, proceeded with pulling the curtain back on NSA actions that he deemed inappropriate. Ms. Poitras structures the film as a thriller, and it will certainly cause tension in every viewer. We can't help but put ourselves in Snowden's shoes. Would we feel the need to go public with proof? Who would we tell? How would we tell them? Would we be willing to release our name, knowing it could put everyone we love in danger? Would we be prepared to watch our President publicly call us out as unpatriotic and a danger to the nation? These questions are impossible for us to answer, but add weight to the scenes of Snowden answering Greenwald's questions while Ms. Poitras works the camera.

One of the more interesting points made in the movie is that what we once termed individual freedom and liberties, is now couched as privacy. We have come to expect our privacy, and certainly don't appreciate our government digging through our emails, search history, texts and phone calls. But how to balance the individual "right" to privacy with the government's need to collect intelligence in the name of national security? That's the key question, and one with no clear answer.

Regardless of your opinion on Snowden and his actions, the film presents him as an idealist believing he is doing the right thing. Most of this occurs before the media firestorm, but we do see the anticipated fallout. Once Snowden goes into hiding, we witness Greenwald becoming the face and voice of the cause. He is a talented journalist and exceptional speaker, and doesn't back down from the reaction of those who stand accused.

The film allows us to take notice of the personal attacks on Snowden as an attempt discredit his documentation. Making Snowden the story distracted the media and the general public from the real issue. It's a fascinating film that will surely make you uncomfortable and cause re-evaluation of the chain of events. You may not change your mind, but you will most certainly have a better understanding of the human side.

Not a Stroll, 19 November 2014

Greetings again from the darkness. There aren't many traditions that span more than 1200 years, and only one of those involves walking 500 miles … the Camino de Santiago. Its origin is as a religious trek to Santiago de Compostela where tradition holds that the magnificent cathedral contains the remains of St. James the Apostle. These days, the Camino is no longer limited to those with Christian beliefs, and in fact many modern day pilgrims take it on as a personal quest rather than a spiritual journey.

Director Lydia B Smith and her camera allow us to travel along with a group of (six) pilgrims, each with their own story, background and motivation. The journey involves both physical and emotional challenges, and results in varying degrees of self-awareness. One obvious difference in today's pilgrims versus those of medieval times is the experience is much more communal these days. Not only do the walkers eat and sleep in the same hostels along the route, they also freely share their emotions and thoughts with each other (and the camera). This contrasts greatly with the tradition of solitude and quiet introspection. Call it a lesson in generational differences.

The elements rotate between favorable and challenging. The pilgrims must face cold, hot, rain, and wind. These obstacles of nature are magnified with foot blisters, sore knees and other bodily ailments. However, for most of these people, the mental challenge is every bit as steep. For 6 plus hours each day over approximately 35 days, they focus on the incredible scenery as well as their own thoughts. It's impossible to hide from one's self, even though friendship … and even relationships … form along the path.

Each of those who complete the journey realizes it's not about the destination, but rather the inspiration and spiritual enlightenment – even if it wasn't their original goal. There is talk about the "internal Camino" and how you walk with your heart. Reflection on this spectacular path leads to harmony with nature and self. A lovely Spanish guitar accompanies our viewing pleasure, and it's impossible not to imagine ourselves on this journey. If inspiration strikes, just be aware that spending that much time with one's self is an activity far removed from our generation's typical day.

Modernize vs Westernize, 16 November 2014

Greetings again from the darkness. Proving once again that real life provides the most fascinating topics and characters, documentarian Norah Shapiro takes a look at cultural identity and the slow process of exiled-Tibetans adapting to the outside world. Her project takes us inside the Miss Tibet Beauty Pageant … "a pageant with a difference".

Tenzen Khecheo is the film's focus. She appears to be a pretty typical teenager living in Minneapolis, though we soon enough learn her family history. Her father received one of the rare immigration visas issued by the U.S. to exiled Tibetans. His family later joined him in the states, and Tenzen's story picks up after his death. She decides to enter the 10th annual Miss Tibet pageant, and is accompanied by her mother and sisters as they head off to Dharamsala in the Indian Himalayas.

The pageant is run by a self-described "small town impresario" named Lobsang Wangyal, who is more flamboyant and publicity-addicted than any of the six women in the pageant. The stated ideal behind the pageant is to empower Tibetan women and provide them confidence and a platform to have their voice heard. Of course, this seems ironic to us Americans who have heard for years that these pageants are the polar opposite of empowering. But this contradiction helps us understand some of the basic cultural differences in the United States (where freedom is abused) versus exiled-Tibet where morals, honesty, kindness, modesty and spirituality are the most adhered to traits.

What follows is more or less a Westernized Beauty Pageant replete with segments of swim suit modeling, personal talent, current events, and photography sessions. And just like in the U.S., scandal, controversy, and accusations of fraud and unfairness follow the announcement of the winners. This ugly scene captures the essence of what we previously heard from those interviewed – competition goes against the nature of this culture. While they are not against modernization and adapting, the idea of becoming more Westernized is quite unappealing to many.

Ms. Shapiro is kind enough to provide a brief history lesson on Tibet, and how the invasion of China led to the exiled community who for years has followed the guidance of the Dalai Lama. We also meet Ama Adhe, a long time political prisoner, who meets with the girls – driving home the difference between those who have truly suffered for their beliefs and those who simply talk a good game. Tenzen Khecheo mostly behaved like a typical American teenager, though she did show moments of humility when she doubted her relevance among the Tibetan women. It's always interesting to get a glimpse inside another culture, especially one that is in slow transition.

Adolescent Vision, 16 November 2014

Greetings again from the darkness. This is Brazil's official entry for the 2015 Academy Awards, and it's the feature film debut of writer/director Daniel Ribeiro. With some similarities to Truffaut's Jules and Jim (1962), it's a coming-of-age story focused on the adolescent desire for independence, and the awkwardness and curiosity associated with first love.

As the film opens, we meet best friends Leonardo (Ghiherme Lobo) and Giovani (Tess Amorim) as they lazily chat while hanging out by the swimming pool. Their innocent discussion about romance and a first kiss bring to light the naivety of their age and situation. Giovani carries a torch for Leo, but he is clueless to her desire. His blindness since birth is a major reason, but the arrival of new student Gabriel (Fabio Audi) slowly uncovers another obstacle to any future romantic link for Gi and Leo.

To his credit, Mr. Ribeiro never emphasizes Leonardo's handicap and instead allows the three teenagers to struggle through daily existence riding the roller coaster of emotions so typical for the age. Sure, Leo gets bullied a bit at school by the insensitive jerks we all know so well, but he struggles more with his overprotective mother who has yet to come to grips with her son's maturity and desire for the next level of independence. The real core of the story involves the fine line between fragility and strength of friendship, as well as the realization of one's sexuality. These issues are handled expertly and without sermon or grandstanding.

The film has been exceptionally well received at LGBT Film Festivals, and has crossover appeal for those interested in a grounded look at the basic challenges of adolescence.

He's Family, 16 November 2014

Greetings again from the darkness. Kickstarter campaigns will not allow every wannabe director to realize their filmmaking dream, but it did allow writer/director/producer Suju Vijayan to make her first feature. The film has deservedly enjoyed some success on the second tier Film Festival route, and it's done so as a pleasant viewing experience without the exaggerations typically seen in the cultural battles of indie productions.

Priya (Navi Rawat from TV's "Numb3rs") and Ray (Ross Partridge) are a happily married couple who seem relatively content with their life in Van Nuys, California. She is an immigration lawyer who takes her job to heart, while he is a former teacher searching for his place in life … currently designing a jungle gym (he dropped out of architecture classes) while juggling the demands of beer drinking and pot smoking. One morning Priya informs Ray that her 20 year estranged father will be staying with them for awhile during his concert tour with other musicians from India.

Ashok (Piyush Mishra) is an obstinate man who proceeds to interrogate the couple on such hot topics as the size of their home, their status as renters, Ray's lack of a job, Priya's fashion and work outside of the home, and of course, the couple's decision not to have kids. The cultural and generational differences are handled in a grounded, believable manner with a tinge of humor as well as insight. Ashok's overblown ego and pride take a direct shot when it's discovered that the concert tour is not what he expected. It's this development that takes the story in an interesting direction … an obvious ending in sight … but interesting still.

Ray and Ashok are forced to spend time together while Priya works, and it's kind of funny to spot their similarities. Ashok's marital and relationship track record illustrates a similar self-centeredness and lack of direction to what we witness with Ray. Soon enough, these two are bonding over wine and the creative nature they share.

The story is familiar enough, and carries the banner for the "he's family" motif. Despite this, the marital strife and family emotions and personality traits are all well written and well performed. Mr. Mishra's work is especially delightful to watch, and Mr. Partridge bears a striking resemblance to Dermot Mulroney, including the corresponding slacker style. The film covers no new material, but does provide an enjoyable look at family life complicated by cultural and generational differences.

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Turning the Tide, 16 November 2014

Greetings again from the darkness. Stephen Hawking would most certainly make anyone's list of the most fascinating people to have overcome severe obstacles in life to achieve greatness. Even today, at age 72, Hawking remains one of the foremost physicists and cosmologists. His extraordinary mind now 50+ years trapped inside a body that failed him, and as we learn, should have killed him by the time he was 23.

Director James Marsh is known for his work on two documentaries: Project Nim, and Man On Wire. His flair with reality in those two films is mostly kept in check with this conventional biopic. Based on Jane Hawking's book "Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen", the film does a nice job of showing us the stages of his motor neuron disease, while never digging too deep into the resulting hardships for Stephen or Jane (his wife).

Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserable, My Week with Marilyn) delivers the type of performance that often results in awards. His physical contortions capture the Hawking we have all seen, yet he also emotes the charm and wry humor that accompanies his genius. Jane is played by Felicity Jones (so terrific in Like Crazy) and since it's based on her book, we are provided a glimpse into her strength and tenacity as she refuses to give up on Hawking or their relationship.

Some basic science is touched upon here - mostly through beer foam on a table or the glowing embers from a fireplace, but it's highly recommended that you read Hawking's best selling book "A Brief History of Time" if you have not already done so. It's written using language so clear and concise, that even I almost understood it! Much more than science, this film is about the tenacity of Jane and her ability to keep Stephen moving forward while still pursuing her own studies and raising their three kids.

The evolution of their relationship is deftly handled, even as they each drift away towards others. When the break eventually occurs, it is the one moment in the film where heartfelt emotion is on full display. Oddly enough, it's more relief for both parties than disappointment. In light of the doctor's original estimate of two years to live, this moment is quite poignant.

Excellent support work comes courtesy of David Thewlis as Hawking's professor and mentor, Emily Watson as Jane's mother, Simon McBurney as Stephen's dad, Charlie Cox as Jonathan (Jane's second husband), and Maxine Peake as Elaine (Stephen's second wife). Also of note, Harry Lloyd plays Stephen's classmate and friend Brian. Mr. Lloyd is the great, great, great grandson of Charles Dickens.

You can see this one without being intimidated by the science, and instead get a glimpse at Hawking's challenges and the strength of Jane.

5 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
Rave at Close of Day, 16 November 2014

Greetings again from the darkness. There are probably three distinct groups that view this as a "must see" movie. First, there are the hardcore science lovers – especially those dedicated to space and time. Next would be the core group of Sci-Fi aficionados (those who quote and debate the specifics of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, The Matrix, etc). And finally, those cinephiles who anxiously await the next ground-breaking film of director Christopher Nolan, whose experimental and pioneering methods are quite unique in today's Hollywood.

Given that I would be laughed out of the first two groups – exposed as less than a neophyte, you may assume that my discussion of this film will not be steeped in scientific or astrophysical theorem. Instead, this will provide my reaction to what has been one of my two most anticipated films of the year (Birdman being the other).

Simply stated, the look of this film is stunning and breath-taking. Its theatrical release comes in many formats, and I chose 70mm. This made for an incredibly rich look with probably the best sound mix I have ever heard. The physical sets were remarkable and as varied as the scene settings: a farm house, a NASA bunker, multiple spacecrafts, and numerous planets. Beyond that, we experienced the effects of blackholes, wormholes and the tesseract. Mr. Nolan's long time cinematographer and collaborator Wally Pfister was off directing his own film (Transcendence), so the very talented Hoyt Van Hoytema joined the team and contributed sterling camera work, including the first ever hand-held IMAX shots. Top this off with Hans Zimmer's complimentary (though sometimes manipulative) score, and Mr. Nolan has produced a technical marvel of which known adjectives lack justice.

Take note of the exceptional cast led by the reigning Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyer's Club), and other Oscar winners and nominees Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Matt Damon, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, and Ellen Burstyn. Beyond these, we also have David Oyelowo, Wes Bentley, William Devane, Topher Grace, David Gyasi, Collette Wolfe, Timothy Chalamet, and an exceptionally fine performance from Mackenzie Foy (who will forever be remembered as the Twilight child of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson).

On the downside, I found myself shocked at some of the dubious and distracting dialogue. At times, the conversations were contradictory and even seemed out of place for the situation, character and movie. In particular, the entire Matt Damon sequence and the Anne Hathaway monologue on "love" both struck me as disjointed and awkward. These and other minor annoyances can't be discussed here without noting key plot points, so that's where we will leave it. However, it must be mentioned that the words of Dylan Thomas are so oft repeated, that the phrase "Do not go gently into that good night" can now be officially considered fighting words.

The works of noted Theoretical Physicist Kip Thorne were the inspiration for the story, and even Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has come out in support of much of the science in the film. Be prepared for brain strain on topics such as space-time continuum (Einstein's Relative Study of Time), gravity, and the aforementioned wormholes, blackholes and tesseracts. The blight depicted in the first hour draws its look and even some closed circuit interviews directly from Ken Burns' documentary The Dust Bowl (2012). Beyond all of the science and lessons of human arrogance and survival, I found the story to be focused on loss … loss of home, loss of loved ones, loss of hope … and balanced by the remarkable human survival instinct. Christopher Nolan deserves much respect for addressing these human emotions and desires with the overwhelming vastness of space, and doing so in a time when Hollywood producers would much rather financially back the next superhero or even a sequel to a 20 year old comedy.

A Modern Day Chill, 14 November 2014

Greetings again from the darkness. Director Chris Lowell co-wrote the story with Mohit Narang, and there is really no other way to describe it than a modern day redux of The Big Chill (1983). If you are familiar with that film from 30+ years ago, you remember the narcissism, strained friendships, and emotional turmoil that were offset by a best-selling soundtrack. Three decades later we witness narcissism run amok and a crumbled version of friendship, this time offset by the guzzling of alcohol.

Daniel (Ryan Eggold, TV's "The Blacklist") has organized a reunion of his childhood friends back at the cabin on the lake where they shared many a summer. Daniel's parents recently died in a car accident, and none of his "friends" showed up for the funeral ... hence, the crumbled version of friendship. As they begin showing up, we immediately categorize each: Tom (Beck Bennett, "Saturday Night Live") is the wise-cracking slacker, James (Brett Dalton) is the TV Reality Show celebrity, Martin (Will Brill) and Abby (Erin Drake) are the high school sweethearts stuck in a strained marriage, and Charley (Jessy Hodges) is the free-spirited chick with a lust-filled history. The arrival of Daniel's old flame Olivia (Britt Lower) is offset by her fiancé Henry (Reid Scott). May the oddballs be ever in your favor.

Sounding like the old man I am quickly becoming, this generation of thirty-somethings left me quite saddened. What made The Big Chill work, was the actual bond that tied the group together. Remember, they all showed up for a funeral ... rather than being summoned for skipping one. The original group had charm, personality and were interesting, whereas this group remains focused on their own problems - oblivious to the needs and feelings of others. They find the bottom of a bottle or drugging an adversary to be actual solutions, rather than resorting to the effort involved with intimacy or conversation. Yes, sad I am.

Despite my issues with the possibility of this being an accurate portrayal of this generation, there are plenty of positives with the film. Lovell truly has a photographer's eye and uses it for much of the camera work ... it's beautifully shot. Also, each member of this ensemble jump right in to their characters and do a superb job. There is also a terrific segment of three conversations edited together that play off each other like some kind of wonderful parlor game. It's the highlight of the film.

While much of the film plays like a passive-aggressive expose', the script leaves no room for interpretation or analysis ... Daniel actually spells out his true misguided mission. The game of Whisky Slaps works not just as a scene, but also as a metaphor for watching the movie.

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