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8/10
One part of China's pollution problem
16 November 2017
This is not as good as Jiuliang Wang's more recent "Plastic China" (2016) (see my review), but it is very interesting nonetheless. And it covers more ground, as it were; in fact, Wang visited hundreds of trash dumps, landfills, pig sties, high rise construction sites, polluted rivers and streams, etc. in and around Beijing during the filming.

He shows truckloads of human waste poured into ponds, and trucks dumping huge loads of trash, especially plastic trash onto piles and piles of trash in which men, women and children make their meagre living. I was particularly grossed out by how the penned-in pigs are fed their swill (primarily semi-liquid garbage from restaurants). According to Wang, sometimes the oil from the restaurant garbage is filtered out and resold for human consumption.

Of course, what Wang shows in this film could be filmed in many other cities of the world. The point here is that Beijing is a particularly polluted city. The ground water is polluted, the air is polluted and apparently some of the food is polluted.

The reason I believe that "Plastic China" is a better film is because it focuses more closely and revealingly on the people working the trash. This film is more impersonal and not as well- focused. Additionally, in the six years of so between these two films, Wang has become both a better cinemaphotographer and more aware of the viewer's needs.

--Dennis Littrell, author of "The World Is Not as We Think It Is"
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Plastic China (2016)
10/10
Outstanding, understated and unforgettable
14 November 2017
This very interesting documentary shows the life of two Chinese families three generations deep living on, beside and surrounded by plastic waste. Their job is to turn the plastic into pellets to be sold to industry.

It's a Chinese language film with English subtitles. The focus is on 11-year-old Yi Jie, daughter of Pen who works for "boss man" Kun who has come in from the country where he was a farmer to recycle plastic waste so he can afford to pay for education for his children (and no so incidentally) buy nice things like a new car. We see the children at work and play among and amidst the piles of mostly white plastic. We see the workers and children sort through the plastic for the right kind to feed the machine that makes pellets that can be sold. The children play, the families eat together, they sing, they joke, they moan about making the equivalent of five dollars a day. They dream, and strange to say learn a lot about the world by examining and reading the plastic trash from all over the world.

I learned a bit about plastic recycling some twenty years ago when for two months I walked the streets of the beach cities in the Los Angeles area collecting bottles and cans. I found out then that the plastic that was not deposit bottles was gathered into great shipping crates and sold to China. In turn many American companies bought the resulting pellets from China! This film shows why it was economic to ship the plastic waste to China and then effectively speaking buy back a value-added product. Quite simply the labor costs were and are so much less.

Curiously this is an uplifting doc with almost no political message. Because the people are shown going about their daily lives we come to feel we know them, and indeed their hopes and dreams and the way they live with one another is very much like people everywhere.

Director Jiuliang Wang demonstrates in this film that he has a fine eye for the right kind of detail and a good sense of people and even how to tell a story, because, yes this is a story, a true one about people living in poverty but filled with hope. Wang is also the director of "Beijing Besieged by Waste" (2012) which I haven't seen yet.

--Dennis Littrell, author of "The World Is Not as We Think It Is"
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9/10
More evidence that chronic Lyme disease is real and horrible
13 August 2017
This documentary comes seven years after the first "Under Our Skin" from 2008. A lot has been learned about chronic Lyme disease since then not only in the United States but throughout the world. Director Anthony Abrahams Wilson follows some of the victims of chronic Lyme disease from the first "Under Our Skin" while bringing the viewer up to date on both what science has since discovered since and how the political battle between chronic Lyme disease deniers and others have changed. It appears that the deniers are losing.

As I wrote in my review of the first "Under Our Skin" what is apparently happening is this:

(1) some people get a chronic form of Lyme disease and, (2) the insurance companies don't want to pay for the long-term treatment required, and (3) their method for avoiding the costs is to deny the disease exists. (4) Additionally, the sufferers are accused of faking it or having it all in their heads.

Furthermore, doctors who treat (and apparently cure) patients with chronic Lyme disease are threatened with losing their medical licenses because the medical establishment believes that the long- term use of intravenous antibiotics is harmful.

What is obvious from this documentary and the previous is that the pain and suffering that victims have experienced is real and horrible. They are not faking it.

The documentary presents evidence that the infectious agent was able to hide from the immune system in biofilms within the body for months or years. I also believe that the infectious agent Borrelia burgdorferi disrupted or compromised the immune system of some people so badly that it took months or years for their bodies to recover.

By the way, the disease caused by Borrelia burgdorferi is only one of many similar diseases caused by tick bites throughout the world. Consequently, when doctors are not able to find the Lyme disease agent in a chronically sick person it may be the case they are looking for the wrong bug. Or it could be they didn't look hard enough. In the documentary, we learn that a Norwegian doctor diluted blood samples from patients which allowed him to see previously unseen infectious agents with a microscope.

By the way, one of the questions asked in this video is did "Lyme rage" have anything to do with the horrific murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012? Did Adam Lanza have Lyme disease? This documentary suggests that might have been the case; however, Adam Lanza had a long history of mental and social problems. Nonetheless it is possible since during autopsy he was not examined for Lyme disease.

I invite the reader to see the recent Australian documentary "Our Battle Ongoing: Lyme Disease in Australia" (2017) for more information. Interested people should also read relevant literature on the Web and reach your own conclusions.

--Dennis Littrell, author of "The World Is Not as We Think It Is"
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Save the Farm (2011)
8/10
This didn't have to happened this way
9 August 2017
Warning: Spoilers
This 30-minute video gives the viewer some insight into a very sad story that ended badly with the once proud and productive inner-city farm ending up as an empty lot as of May, 2014. However, it didn't have to end badly. To understand what happened I recommend that the reader bring up the Wikipedia article entitled "South Central Farm." In that article, you'll find the history of the buying and selling of the 14 acres which ended up in the hands of Ralph Horowitz, a developer. You'll also find out why he closed the farm down and had it bulldozed.

Okay, this is a greedy man. He wanted to make a fine profit on the land and didn't care about the lives of the farmers or what the farm meant to the people of South Central Los Angeles. In June 2006 according to the Wikipedia article, "Horowitz told the Los Angeles Times and KFI that he would not sell the land to them even if they offered him $100 million, because of the picketing of his house and anti-Semitic remarks directed towards him."

At that time Horowitz was not only paying taxes on the land but had to hire a private security company to guard the property. So everybody lost. My belief is that if the farmers had had better leadership they might have raised enough money to buy the land. I also believe that if L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had used the power and influence of his office effectively a deal could have been worked out to save the farm.

But I don't know the entire story and I don't know who does.

Featured are celeb cameos from a wide range of artists supporting the farmers including Willie Nelson, Daryl Hannah, Alicia Silverstone, Joan Baez, etc. Additionally, Julia Butterfly Hill helped Hannah and others with the tree sitting gig. You may recall her as having lived in a 1500-year-old California redwood tree for 738 days between December 10, 1997 and December 18, 1999.

There is another 80-minute documentary film on this subject entitled "The Garden" from 2008 that I haven't seen. A third is the PBS documentary, "South Central Farm, Oasis in a Concrete Desert," also from 2008. It runs 24 minutes and includes some commentary from Horowitz.

Although this is a sad story I think the farm which lasted from 1994 to 2006 will prove to be a landmark event as more and more urban areas worldwide set aside land and rooftops for growing fruits and vegetables.

--Dennis Littrell, author of "The World Is Not as We Think It Is"
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8/10
Is it chronic Lyme disease(s) or a neurological disorder possibly caused by the infection?
3 August 2017
What is apparently happening according to this mostly convincing documentary is that

(1) some people get a chronic form of Lyme disease and, (2) the insurance companies don't want to pay for the long-term treatment required, and (3) their method for avoiding the costs is to deny the disease exists. (4) Additionally, the sufferers are accused of faking it or having it all in their heads.

Furthermore, doctors who treat (and apparently cure) patients with chronic Lyme disease are threatened with losing their medical licenses because the medical establishment believes that the long- term use of intravenous antibiotics (as seen in this film) is harmful.

If all of this is true then this is a national disgrace of a criminal nature.

However, according to the article in Wikipedia, "Chronic Lyme disease is a generally unrecognised diagnosis that encompasses 'a broad array of illnesses or symptom complexes for which there is no reproducible or convincing scientific evidence of any relationship to B. burgdorferi infection.'" One of the citations that Wikipedia gives is an article in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The documentary shows several persons who were bitten by a tick or ticks and contracted Lyme disease but continued to have horrendous symptoms months or years after they should have been cured. Then these same persons are treated with intravenous antibiotics over months or years and then become free of symptoms.

At issue here is did the antibiotics cure them? And if so, what was it that was cured?

My belief is twofold (1) that the infectious agent Borrelia burgdorferi disrupted or compromised the immune system of these people so badly that it took months or years for their bodies to recover, and (2) the infectious agent was able to hide from the immune system in biofilms within the body for months or years. Consequently, in the first case, the antibiotics did not cure them. The passage of time and perhaps love and good life style choices did. In the second case gradually the antibiotics may have cured the disease. In other cases the immune system may be keeping the bacteria at bay.

By the way, the disease caused by Borrelia burgdorferi is only one of many similar diseases caused by tick bites throughout the world. Consequently, when doctors are not able to find the Lyme disease agent in a chronically sick person it may be the case they are looking for the wrong bug.

I invite the reader to see the recent Australian documentary "Our Battle Ongoing: Lyme Disease in Australia" (2017) for more information. There is also an "Under Our Skin 2: Emergence" 2015 that brings the viewer more up to date. Interested people should also read relevant literature on the Web and reach your own conclusions.

As far as this documentary goes, it is very well done, nicely edited, clearly presented and seemingly fair, but alarming. Perhaps a subject like chronic Lyme disease IS alarming and should be treated as such.

I hope that this documentary will encourage more research so that we can understand what happens to the relatively few people who get "chronic Lyme disease" and find a cure that spares them months and years of pain and suffering.

--Dennis Littrell, author of "The World Is Not as We Think It Is"
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Palo Alto (2013)
8/10
Yes, they're relatively rich, spoiled and lost
23 July 2017
(For the most part.)

Here are some things to know about this movie:

Gia Coppola (Francis Ford Coppola's granddaughter) directed, her first outing. She also wrote the screenplay based on James Franco's short story collection also entitled "Palo Alto." She was 25-years- old at the time.

Emma Roberts who plays April and was 22-years-old when this film was released in 2013 is Julia Roberts' niece. Her father is Eric Roberts (467 credits as an actor).

Palo Alto, California is an upscale Silicon Valley community and home to Stanford University.

Franco, who plays soccer coach Mr. B, is from Palo Alto. He has a degree in English with a concentration in creative writing from UCLA.

There are no helicoptering parents in this movie.

Initially I had a lot of trouble watching this because of all the unnecessary cigarette smoking apparently as product placements. It's sad that some producers can't get funding without taking big tobacco's money. However, I'll give that a pass since some of the smoking had relevance to the story—or "stories." The viewer can see that Coppola cleverly weaved parts of Franco's various stories and characters into a mostly coherent whole that plays as a larger story.

The other problem for me was the intensity and raw teenage emotional abandonment depicted. This is life lived in the fast lane when you're still living at home and have an incredible need for experiences, sometimes regardless of the consequences.

--Dennis Littrell, author of the movie review collection, "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote"
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The Salesman (2016)
7/10
An interesting alternative title might have been "Shame"
13 July 2017
Warning: Spoilers
This won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2017. Its director and script writer Asghar Farhadi is celebrated throughout the world as a great talent. I can see why. He's original and he gets great performances from his actors. Nonetheless I had to force myself to stay with this. It was so depressing in a most annoying way. The fear and the nearly all-consuming self-loathing that Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) experiences after being assaulted in her own bathroom is in part culturally based, as is the plot of her husband Emad (Shahab Hosseini) for a secretive revenge.

Rana's fear is real because she doesn't know who assaulted her, and part of her shame is understandable since she carelessly opened her door of their apartment without knowing for sure who was coming up. But a significant part of her shame is because the more conservative interpretations of Islam (and other tribal religions as well, by the way) blame the woman if she is raped. This complexity of emotions is part of what no doubt fascinated many viewers.

But I stayed with the movie, or actually I returned to it the next day. I was surprised at the resolution; I was surprised at Emad's sense of guilt. Yes, a man should be there to protect his wife, and perhaps if had been quicker at the market nothing would have happened. And perhaps there is guilt because he didn't investigate the circumstances of the apartment rental more thoroughly. (Apparently the previous tenant was a prostitute.) So in a sense they moved into a house of prostitution, as it were. And it is not beside the point to realize that Emad is playing Willie Lohman in a small theatre production of Arthur Miller's acclaimed play, "The Death of a Salesman," a character who is ashamed because he sees himself as a failure.

Again we can see the complexities that Farhadi insists upon.

Okay here are my problems with the movie. First though I should say that viewers who are not Iranian and not Muslim including myself may very well miss some of the subtleties and preconceptions of the action.

1. Why the ambiguity about the rape? Or maybe it was clear and I wasn't able to discern that.

2. Why is the guilty party a character who almost certainly could not commit the rape? (He could barely get up the stairs.)

3. We know why Emad and Rana don't go to the police. (Only shame will result possibly without ever catching the perp.) However Emad's revenge plan of humiliating the assailant seems elaborate and slow to action. After all Emad has overwhelming evidence as to who did it. He just has to find him.

4. The culprit's truck just sits there and then they move it. Is would seem that best strategy would be to report the truck as being parked illegally (do that yourself if necessary since you have the keys), call the police and see who shows up.

But again I don't live in Tehran so I really don't know what would have been the best way to proceed. What I do know is that Farhadi might have guided the general viewer less opaquely.

Bottom line: definitely worth seeing, but I suspect Farhadi's "A Separation" (2011) which I haven't seen is a better film.

--Dennis Littrell, author of the movie review book, "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote"
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Café Society (2016)
9/10
Beautiful 1930's period piece film neatly directed by Woody Allen
10 July 2017
Warning: Spoilers
I watched this more out of curiosity more than anything else and found it surprisingly good. I was surprised since Woody Allen was 80-years-old when this came out in 2016. It's rare to do such fine work in any artistic endeavor at such an advanced age. Of course the opportunity to direct Kristen Stewart was no doubt an incentive. It could be that Woody wrote this years ago and only decided to turn it into a movie when he got the very talented Vittorio Storaro to do the cinematography.

The co-incidence of uncle and nephew (unbeknownst to either one of them) falling in love with the same woman Vonnie (Stewart) was handled skillfully, especially the sequence of events that led to first Phil Stern (Steve Carell) and then Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg ) discovering their surprising rival.

In addition to this being a beautiful film with a lot of pleasing 1930's era atmosphere it is also very cleanly directed by the old master. There is no clutter, virtually everything in the plot is necessary and I was pleased with the realistic treatment of love sadly lost, and then the possibility of it being rekindled as an illicit affair, and then… Well, I won't say. See the movie. It's definitely worth watching.

One more thing: Kristen Stewart at 26 was as pretty as pretty can be.

--Dennis Littrell, author of the movie review book, "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote"
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9/10
Heart-warming, heart wrenching
7 July 2017
Warning: Spoilers
This is an emotional story about human love in a rural American setting. As such it will probably bring tears to your eyes. I know it did to mine. The script by Jayce Bartok and the direction by Mary Stuart Masterson are carefully composed to create a celebration of love that defies convention.

Georgia (Kristen Stewart) is a 15-year-old girl suffering from Friedreich's ataxia. When her to-be lover, cafeteria worker Beagle (Aaron Stanford), asks if she is going to get better, Georgia says, "No, this is pretty much as good as it's gonna get until my heart gives out." She has invited him into her bedroom to help her with her homework. At one point she says, "You can kiss me if you want to." Stewart plays the part with limbs all askew and dangling almost helplessly. Yet her face is so, so pretty and healthy looking that the contrast is striking. The next day they go to a motel. She is determined to experience love before she dies. The idea is so touching.

Also sure to pull your heart strings is the older and mostly secret love affair between Easy Kimbrough (Bruce Dern) and Marg Kaminski (Elizabeth Ashley). Bittersweet is Guy Kimbrough's (Jayce Bartok) realization that his girlfriend Stephanie (Miriam Shor) has married and started a family in his absence.

All of this could easily go from pathos to bathos to the maudlin except for the careful direction by Masterson and the fine acting all around.

What I have been trying to figure out is why the movie is entitled "The Cake Eaters." What came to mind was Marie Antoinette's infamous, "Let them eat cake," but I couldn't see the connection.

--Dennis Littrell, author of the movie review book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote"
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8/10
A sociopathic little darling
5 July 2017
Warning: Spoilers
The curious thing about this movie set in a private Beverly Hills high school is that it is a satire on human sexual practices. Yes, a satire on sex. Usually we have sexploitation, sex titillation, etc., but making humans look ridiculous and a bit comical having sex…? That's a bit unusual. (Well, come to think of it, maybe not.)

Anyway, there is also plenty of sexploitation here and the usual hypocrisy about sex is woven in along with a surprising amount of honesty about what people do when they think no one's watching—or better yet WHEN someone is watching.

The script is clever with plenty of over the top raunchy dialog that I can't quote here. (You can go to the lengthy quotes page on IMDb and see for yourself.) But what I really liked about this movie was Evan Rachel Wood who played 15-year-old Kimberly Joyce, the sociopathic little darling. (Wood was 17 at the time.) She was so cute and so, so in love with the part. She delighted herself and me too.

BEWARE POSSIBLE SPOILERS

Part of the comedic and bemusing effect throughout is achieved by contrasting one thing with another. For example Kimberly befriends innocent hijab-wearing Muslim girl Randa (Adi Schnall). Why? Because, Kimberly says, "when I'm standing next to you I'll look more attractive by comparison. Isn't that great?" Randa replies straight-faced, "Very nice."

Another example is when the teacher who is accused of sexual harassment by his students (and found innocent, by the way) gives a birthday present to his wife. It is a skirt very similar to the ones worn by his students. He has her put it on and he more or less drools, suggesting that maybe he isn't so innocent.

Finally I must note in passing that James Woods who plays Kimberly's father looked pathetic on the couch in his underwear as he receives titillation from his cell phone. That scene shows me that James Woods is a pure actor who cares not how embarrassed he's going to be when, yes, he actually sees the movie.

--Dennis Littrell, author of the movie review book, "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote"
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8/10
One of the most disturbing films I've ever seen.
30 June 2017
Warning: Spoilers
You will not be redeemed. You will not find catharsis. You may very well feel deeply depressed at the depravity of some human beings.

We can begin with Alex (Tom Arnold) who "loves" little Leslie (Ryan Simpkins) so deeply and tenderly that he deprives her of her childhood to satisfy his lust. And then there's his bud Frank (Kevin Zegers) who helps Alex drug the children.

Some years pass. Leslie (Gillian Jacobs) is now 17. She is living in San Diego sleeping under a life guard station or under the freeway with Donnie (as a child played by Jermaine 'Scooter' Smith and then by Evan Ross) the other child abducted by Alex and Frank. The viewer can guess that Leslie and Donnie were just dumped somewhere when Alex and Frank got tired of them. (And we can guess that Alex and Frank found other children to enslave and molest.) Leslie smokes, does drugs, prostitutes herself, and hangs out with lowlifes on the streets. One lowlife (I forget his name) wants Leslie to entice a 12-year-old girl into prostitution. She is told that he will give her to only the "best people" including a judge. Apparently he has a ring of enslaved girls that he shops around to the best people.

At this point the viewer is understandably waiting for Leslie and Donnie to find themselves, to break free of the hopeless life on the street. Enter Michael at the homeless shelter (John Malkovich in what is little more than a cameo). He discovers an old flyer with little Leslie's photo and the plea from her loving and distraught parents for the return of their missing daughter. Prior to seeing this Leslie believed from years of being brainwashed by Alex that her parents didn't love her and were glad to be rid of her. Michael says, "It's time for you to go home, Leslie."

And so Leslie does. And what happens is in some ways the most disturbing part of the movie.

The cast is outstanding. I was particularly impressed with Ryan Simpkins, Gilliam Jacobs and Evan Ross. Damian Harris, who wrote and directed, gives us a view of humanity that is unrelentingly debased. There is no doubt about his skill and dark vision. I just hope that next time out he does something positive.

--Dennis Littrell, author of the movie review book, "Cut to the Chaise Lounge, or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote"
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6/10
Facing the truth would work better
24 June 2017
Warning: Spoilers
Despite the fact there is something seriously wrong with this story I found the documentary very interesting, perhaps because (1) I wanted to find out how it ends. Does he stay with the water diet or give up or get hospitalized, or…? And how many pounds does he lose? (2) I wanted to find the fraud in the film, so to speak.

So I kept watching.

(WARNING: SPOILERS TO COME) Our hero Kenny Saylors not only manages to stay on a water-only diet for the planned 40 days, he re-ups for 15 more days in other to break the Guinness world record. He hooks up with a medical firm whose doctors and nurses weigh him, advise him, give him a physical and track his progress. (They get a little publicity from the film which Saylors directed with himself as the leading man.) He is seen again and again at places crawling with food, food, and more food: barbecues, restaurants, dinners with friends, etc. He even cooks. But he just smells the air and smiles, eating nothing.

He lost 44 pounds in 55 days. There are a couple of things fishy about this. (You should excuse the expression.) First, at his weight (something like 315 pounds to start) eating nothing for 55 days and only drinking water one would expect him to lose even more weight. Second, he said he only lost four pounds of muscle mass. That too is suspicious. Anyway he was denied the world record probably not because it would endanger others trying to break it (as claimed in the film), but I suspect because quite simply the Guinness people didn't believe him.

Addendum: sometime after the diet Saylors started gaining weight again so that in 2013 he weighed 465 pounds. But wait. On March of this year 2017 he weighed 473.4 pounds. His website Reinventing Kenny where he reports about and You Tubes his latest weigh loss adventures reads in part "Inspire. Motivate. Encourage. TRANSFORM!" Okay. I kind of like the guy. I like the way he has turned his weight problems into stories and apparently a nice enterprise. However extreme yo-yo dieting is dangerous and perhaps he should do his public a favor and guide them to professional people who can help them, if that is possible.

The truth is Saylors is a man who can go to extremes; in fact he apparently cannot live a normal life. I wish him the best and hope he can someday truly slay the dragon of insatiable appetite.

--Dennis Littrell, author of "The World Is No as We Think It Is"
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Timbuktu (2014)
10/10
Fascinating; heart wrenching
10 June 2017
There's a lot of restraint and subtlety in director Abderrahmane Sissako's tragic delineation of what it's like to live under an ISIS takeover of a Muslim community. And there's a beautiful artistry in the way he shows the barbarism of Sharia law so horrifically played out while the subjugation of women is made clear. (Actually the women in the movie stand strong against the subjugation.) Thus the evil of the "jihadists" (ISIS is never named but a black flag is flown) is contrasted with the normal lives of Muslim people.

Sissako, who also wrote the script, is careful to make this distinction—a distinction that a good part of the world is currently working on. It is not Muslims who are bad; it is the extremists. Yet I could not help but think as I watched this with the incessant talk of God will's, etc., that maybe, just maybe, the tribalism of religion itself is at fault. How horrible it is to live with the constant thought and expression that it is all God's doing (with a little help from the forces of evil), and that we are just pawns in some absurd game played by a nearly omnipotent power that can send you to heaven or hell based on the very behaviors built into your psyche.

Well, such would apply to most other religions as well I suppose. So an indictment of Islam is not appropriate. Nonetheless the intense religious climate of the movie was for me almost tyrannical. I felt so sad for all the poor ignorant people and again was reminded of the saying "willful ignorance is the only sin" and again told myself that the only way out of the morass of the Middle East is education leading to enlightenment.

The film is in Arabic, French and a bit of English with English subtitles. A lot of what is said is not translated into the subtitles, but little is lost in the comprehension. There are scenes of great beauty contrasted with ugly violence. Beautiful music is played and sung, and there is a soccer game played without a ball. Such is the absurdity of life under the jihadists, who are really just thugs using a distorted vision of Islam in order to justify their crimes.

--Dennis Littrell, author of "Understanding Religion and Ourselves"
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Lucy (I) (2014)
9/10
"I am everywhere"
9 June 2017
The most stunning thing about this movie (aside from Scarlett Johansson) is the deep spiritual meaning that comes near the end. Yes, amid all the mayhem, the shoot 'em ups, the science impossible there is something very redeeming about this and it has to do with what it means to be alive and to be human.

What Lucy is able to do cannot possibly come about from taking substances into her system as in the movie. However the incredible power, knowledge and freedom she achieves is something that may be possible for humans some distant day--or rather possible for our intelligently designed descendants who will be cyborgs or something beyond that.

The story itself and the way French born director Luc Besson ("Léon: The Professional," "La Femme Nikita," etc.) moves the plot along with action that keeps us enthralled amounts to a first rate sci fi thriller. Johansson who plays Lucy and whose countenance dominates the film is wonderful. And I don't mean merely from the fact that her face is mesmerizing but also because she does such a great acting job in a demanding role.

I am giving this film only 9 stars because of the rather lame idea that we use only ten percent of our brains. That idea was disposed of decades ago. Of course as a metaphor it works okay. However it could be better said that we are currently achieving only ten percent of what we could achieve.

I also don't think Besson, who also wrote the script for the film, has the right notion about time. He has Lucy say, "Time is the only true unit of measure. It gives proof to the existence of matter. Without time, we don't exist." However, time like other units of measure really just compares two or more things, in this case events. Many scientists believe that time per se does not exist and is an abstraction, or as I see it time is a mathematical point.

But much of the philosophy and/or psychology in the film is if nothing else interesting and worth thinking about. For example Lucy says, "We've codified our existence to bring it down to human size, to make it comprehensible, we've created a scale so we can forget its unfathomable scale." This is true in a practical sense but I believe it is also true in a philosophical and a spiritual sense.

I will be seeing this film again.

--Dennis Littrell, author of "The World Is Not as We Think It Is"
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10/10
Original, daring, fascinating
3 June 2017
Not to mention beautifully and cleverly directed.

This is the first of Chan-wook Park's films I've seen and if the others are half as good as "The Handmaiden" I'm going to see them all. Min-hee Kim stars as Lady Hikeko, a young Japanese woman of wealth and beauty living in an isolated estate with her sadistic uncle in Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s. A gaggle of Korean thieves and con artists dream up a scheme to separate Hikeko from her fortune. The idea is for one of them to pose as a Count Fujiwara, seduce Hikeko and then marry her. Aiding this scheme is a pretty little pickpocket named Sook-Hee (played with great skill and charm by Tae-ri Kim).

That's all I can tell you about the plot. Rest assured it is fascinating with some very surprising twists and turns. This is also one of the sexiest movies I've ever seen. It is billed as a crime thriller but actually it is the story of a beautiful love affair. Again I will not elaborate since any more information might spoil the film for many viewers.

Bottom line: I plan on seeing this again and I seldom watch films more than once, only the great ones.

--Dennis Littrell, author of the movie review book, "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote"
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No Way Out (1987)
10/10
This is one of the best thrillers I ever saw
20 May 2017
I didn't see this when it came out in 1987 which is just as well because I really enjoyed seeing it the other night. It's a political thriller with Gene Hackman as David Brice, U.S. Secretary of Defense. Brice employs the kind of political machinations usually seen in corrupt congresspersons as he tries to wiggle his way out of a terrible jam. At his side is the particularly sleazy sociopathic Scott Pritchard (Will Patton) who defends his boss with true devotion.

Okay what makes this so good? I mean Sean Young is to die for pretty of course and Kevin Costner is just the kind of guy few women can resist. So we've got good eye candy, but what makes "No Way Out" head and shoulders above almost all other thrillers is the oh so ingenious plot. Yes the plot in this movie is very clever—some might say too clever, especially the ending which some viewers may feel is unlikely or tacked on. It is a doozy of an ending and it follows some mesmerizing twists and turns along the way. I found most of them plausible, and I think the only thing wrong with the ending was Kevin Costner's accent! The screen play was adapted from Kenneth Fearing's novel "The Big Clock" which I haven't read. There was also a movie with the same title from 1948 starring Ray Milland, Maureen O'Sullivan, and Charles Laughton. I do know that while "No Way Out" is about the Pentagon and the intrigue centers around the secretary of defense and a naval officer, Commander Tom Farrell (Costner) "The Big Clock" was about a publishing tycoon. Apparently what is the same is some kind of similar action removed from the backdrops.

I find most thrillers have too many plot holes and implausibilities while relying too heavily on action and chase scenes, car crashes, etc. Here most of the chase scenes are on foot. What made me decide to take a look at this was to see the young Sean Young again. Who could forget all the close-ups of her face in "Blade Runner" (1982).

By the way, the title "No Way Out" is especially apt since it really does look like neither Brice nor Farrell have any way out. The plot is that diabolical.

--Dennis Littrell, author of "Dennis Littrell's True Crime Companion"
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10/10
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"
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6/10
Presents a scary case against smart meters
31 May 2016
Warning: 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"
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Standing Army (2010)
9/10
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"
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8/10
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"
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6/10
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"
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10/10
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 (treehugger.com) "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)"
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8/10
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"
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Ex Machina (2014)
10/10
Only one thing wrong with this
8 December 2015
Warning: 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"
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Barely Lethal (2015)
5/10
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"
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