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Opinion

Greedy Lying Bastards | Review

I am sure that there is nothing more frightening than looking outside your car window and watching a fire coming towards you.  When that fire is engulfing yours and your neighbor’s homes as it does so is a nightmare that I cannot even begin to fathom.

The movie Greedy Lying Bastards sets out to inform us that climate change is no longer a prediction for the future, but a startling reality of today by citing examples such as wildfires in the west, Hurricane Sandy, “Brown-Outs” in the east and farmers losing crops to the worst drought since the Dust Bowl.  By effectively showing us a very human face of such tragedies and the incredible loss that these families have had to face, the movie challenges us to no longer ignore what is happening to our environment.

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We are told that even the U.S. Pentagon believes it to be a matter of national and international security. Yet, as the evidence of our changing climate mounts and the scientific consensus proves a human causation, there continues to be no political action to thwart the warming of our planet.

“Greedy Lying Bastards” investigates the reason behind stalled efforts to tackle climate change despite consensus in the scientific community that it is not only a reality but also a growing problem that is placing us on the brink of disaster. The film details the people and organizations casting doubt on climate science. Filmmaker and political activist Craig Rosebraugh, in association with Executive Producer Daryl Hannah, documents the impact of an industry that has continually put profits before people, waged a campaign of lies designed to thwart measures to combat climate change, used its clout to minimize infringing regulations and undermined the political process in the U.S. and abroad.

Some of the arguments made in the movie are effective and compelling; indeed, when we are presented with graphics and archival footage that show the millions that are spent each year by oil and related interests to fund the think tanks, groups, scientists and politicians waging what the film deems a campaign of deceit regarding the science of climate change and its dire impact on the planet, it will make you question how these conglomerates get away with it all and may even make you feel like you may want to do something about it; I certainly felt emotion and a call to action by the filmmakers.

In my opinion however, the movie fell short of great for the following reasons: firstly it was a little one sided apportioning most of the blame at one or two doorsteps i.e. not ours.  The movie seemed a little blinkered when it came to how obsessed the man on the street has become with consumerism and how much our desire to accumulate as much as we can materially may be contributing to the overall problem and hence the need for fossil fuels in the first place.  Secondly, although it legitimately draws parallels between the tobacco and energy industries in their denials of issues squarely aimed at them, it felt like it meandered off at times making the movie feel a little unfocused.  Lastly, it felt a tad dull overall.

In summary, this is an admirable endeavor with an important message which we need to take note of.  Unfortunately the fact that the movie proposed no solutions (other than for us to wage war on Corporations especially those in the energy sector) left me feeling a little unsatiated.  Better pacing and attention to some potential solutions may have made this a little more entertaining and less like a public service message

GREEDY LYING BASTARDS opens nationwide on March 8th.  Check local listings for show times

A Place at The Table | Review

A good documentary should both educate and entertain and Directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush fulfill both of these criteria in their newest movie A Place at The Table.

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If Participant Media’s exceptional 2008 documentary Food Inc. asked us to take a closer look at where our food comes from then their new documentary A Place at the Table, takes a look at the issues that face an estimated 50 million men, women, and children — described by policy makers and advocates as “food insecure.”  Hunger is not just a third world problem. One in four children in the US don’t know where their next meal is coming from.  This issue is examined through the lens of three people struggling with food insecurity: Barbie, a single mother who grew up in poverty and is trying to provide a better life for her kids; Rosie, a fifth-grader who often has to depend on friends and neighbors to feed her and has trouble concentrating in school; and Tremonica, a second-grader whose asthma and health issues are exacerbated by the largely empty calories her hardworking mother can afford. In addition, we have the benefits of insights from sociologist Janet Poppendieck, author Raj Patel and nutrition policy leader Marion Nestle and activists such as Witness to Hunger’s Mariana Chilton, Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio and Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridges.

This documentary manages to infuriate the viewer at the lack of action being taken and ask the larger question about how hunger poses serious economic, social and cultural implications for our nation.  More importantly it makes one wonder how this can be happening in 2013 in a first world country.  Although not a highly political movie, this does make you question politics and the use of hungry people as pawns in a complicated chess game.

The movie is well constructed and well paced and manages to stay focused on the hunger issue versus opening up the larger can of worms around why poverty even exists in this century in the US.  Any movie that can succeed at making a crowd want to take action is one worth watching and I certainly felt roused enough to at least check out the website and find out more at www.takepart.com/place-at-the-table

 

A Place at the Table opens in theaters 1st March 2013.  Check local listings for showtimes

Starlet | Review

What would you do if you found a stash of cash and you thought you knew who it belonged to?  This is the moral question that is explored in Sean Baker’s Starlet (follow-up to the acclaimed Prince of Broadway),

In this movie we meet 21-year-old Jane (Dree Hemingway) who strikes up an unusual friendship with an 85-year-old Sadie (Besedka Johnson).   The two women’s worlds collide in California’s San Fernando Valley when Jane buys a thermos from Sadie’s yard sale.  When Jane gets the thermos home, she uncovers a significant hidden stash of money inside this relic from Sadie’s past. Jane attempts to befriend the caustic older woman in an effort to solve her predicament about whether she should return the money or not and as their relationship grows, secrets emerge.

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This movie does a reasonable job of exploring the moral question at the core of the movie and begs the viewer at times to pass judgment and even question our own morals.  However when it comes to the exploration of the cross-generational friendship between these two unlikely women, the relationship simmers a little too slowly for the first two thirds of the movie and never really comes to a boil.  There is little payoff at the end and not much to hold on to along the way with respect to the friendship which seems at times a little contrived and even marginally overacted

As the movie progresses, we get to see how Jane really earns her money and meet her dysfunctional roommates, Melissa (Stella Maeve) and Mikey (James Ransone) along with other salacious characters along the way.  I give props to Baker for attempting to explore the underbelly of the sex industry, however this seems in complete dichotomy to the core theme of the movie and hence makes for a movie which seems all too choppy and uncohesive.   Overall the viewer is left not knowing what the goal of the movie is or how we should be feeling about what is going on at any given time.

Hemingway (daughter of Mariel and great-granddaughter of Ernest) gives a satisfactory performance but clearly is still green.  The tenderest moments of the movie come from the adorable relationship between Jane and her delightful Chihuahua Starlet who is clearly the star of this movie and worth watching for.

Starlet is Directed by Sean Baker and written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch
 and Stars Dree Hemingway, Besedka Johnson, Stella Maeve and James Ransone

Starlet opens in theatres on November 9th 2012 at the Sundance Cinema Sunset 5 in West Hollywood, Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, Laemmle’s Town Center 5 in Encino, and the Regal University Town Center in Irvine.  Check local listings for availability and showtimes

Backwards I Review

I am not a fan of sports movies per se but with Olympic fever just starting to die down Backwards written, starring and produced by Sarah Megan Thomas and starring James VanderBeek  amongst others comes to cinemas at a perfect time.

Abigail Brooks played by Thomas has spent her lifetime trying to win an Olympic rowing medal, sacrificing friendship, love and a “normal life” along the way. When she is named an alternate on the Olympic team she quits in haste. Defeated, Abi moves back home with her widowed, workaholic mother played by the adorable Margaret Colin. Tension builds as Abi’s mother urges her to “move on” from the rowing life that Abi’s father, a coach, introduced her to. Unable to do so, but needing an immediate job, Abi seizes an open crew coach position at her alma mater, Union High. There, the head of athletics is her old boyfriend, Geoff (James Van Der Beek). Abi trains her high school rowers in an obsessive fashion, taking two girls, Hannah (Alexandra Metz) and Susan (Meredith Apfelbaum) under her wing. After the girls lose an important regional race, Abi reinvents herself as a coach, and in the process, learns to have fun again both on the water and off.

This film boasts great rowing footage and is clearly made with love and care.  The attention to detail leads me to believe that input from someone who is extremely passionate about rowing has been sought.  The cinematography on the water is breathtaking at times and enables us to become one with the racers and experience the fight to the end.  This film also does a fine job of showing us the sacrifices that hopeful Olympians make on a daily basis when they are faced with complex choices.  Where the film falters a little is in the shallow subplots which get introduced and resolved rather quickly and often in one scene.  A little less subplot with more time spent on them may have made for a more powerful experience.

Thomas has written a sweet and heartfelt inaugural movie that may have benefited from someone a little feistier in the lead role.  Her laid back style which allows us to get onboard in the first half of the movie doesn’t make for such a character arc in the second half and I found myself not quite being able to make it over the finish line with her.   The romance is predictable which isn’t a problem however, I think the film could just have done with more tension overall.  Despite that, it is great to see James VanderBeek with his puppy dog eyes.  He reminds us why the perennial teenager in us still years for a date with Dawson.

Backwards opens Friday 21 September in Los Angeles at Laemmle’s Music Hall 3.  Check local listings for show times

The Ambassador | Review

Picture this – secret meetings, corruption and the business of selling diplomatic titles in one of the most dangerous places on the planet: the Central African Republic (CAR).  How many of you would be tempted to enter this danger zone for the sake of your art?  Not so may I think – enter Filmmaker/journalist/provocateur Mads Brügger (Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner for The Red Chapel) who has developed a new documentary style that he calls “Performative Journalism” in which he creates an absurd caricature of a corrupt diplomat and arms himself with a phalanx of hidden cameras, black-market credentials and razor-sharp wit.  It’s part performance art and part investigative journalism resulting in humor, shocking revelations and above all a tragic picture of a failed and corrupt state.

“I want to show an Africa stripped of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), Bono, child soldiers and kids with bloated bellies, to show the kind of people you never see in the documentaries: white businessmen and diplomats, the fat cats in the urban centers, all the people who are in post-colonial Francafrique (French Africa) having a great time.”

The Ambassador is less fly on the wall and more immersive journalism as Brügger disguises himself as a rich white business man with diplomatic credentials pursuing all the perks that follows this title (reckless diamond hunt, practicing power misuse etc.), and became a respected member of their society.

This is a dark, intriguing and very funny documentary that has you on the edge of your seat as you watch Brügger go from one absurdly terrifying and hilarious situation to the next as he pulls back the curtain on ongoing corrupt practices that infiltrate many countries and levels of power.  At times you could be mistaken for thinking that you are watching a seventies era Bond movie.

Overall, I found myself oscillating between scared for Brügger as the walls often close in on him to shock as he uncovers the craziness of what is going on in war torn Africa.  One thing is for sure; I was definitely entertained and even educated.

The Ambassador is now playing VOD and out in theaters 29 August.  Check local listings:

 

 

Words of Witness | Review

How many of you exercise your right to vote?  How would you feel if this right were taken away; perhaps you would be relieved because you always thought that there weren’t really any great candidates anyway? You may be devastated that you now no longer have a choice to make even though you didn’t necessarily choose to do anything about it? You may even possibly think that a single voice, your voice doesn’t make a difference?  One thing is for sure however, in the free world, we DO have a right to vote for those who we wish to be governed by and watching Mai Iskander’s latest and first-rate documentary “Words of Witness” will certainly make you feel this way.

Not so long ago, people in Egypt had no choice except to vote for one candidate and for all intents and purposes they were ruled by a dictator.  For decades, people neither had the right to free elections nor were allowed to vote for any other candidates other than Hosni Mubarak.  Inspired by the uprising in Tunisia in the spring of 2011, protests in Egypt began on 25 January and ran for 18 days.  Despite the government’s best efforts to curtail these protests, the people prevailed and finally on 10 February, Mubarak ceded all presidential power to Vice President Omar Suleiman.

Overthrowing a dictator took Egyptians from all walks of life—many of them in their twenties and thirties to come together and social media such as Facebook and Twitter were powerful tools in allowing them to gather to call for universal human rights such as dignity and freedom.  “Words of Witness” tells the powerful and touching story of 22 year old Heba Afify, a newly minted passionate and driven journalist at the English edition of Almasry Alyoum, Egypt’s leading independent newspaper.

Iskander manages to expertly merge Heba negotiating the boundaries of her life with her sympathetic – yet overprotective – mother whilst all around her the boundaries of her country are shifting both societally and politically.  “I know you are a journalist, but you’re still a girl!” Heba’s mother reminds her every time she leaves the house.  We watch Heba take to the streets to report on an Egypt in turmoil, using tweets, texts and Facebook posts. “During the Revolution, all the rules were broken,” Heba exclaims.  “My mother needs to understand that the rules that were broken during the Revolution will remain broken”.

This is an effective documentary that takes us right into the heart of the action where change is occurring and shows us the heart of this amazing young and inspiring journalist who wants to make a change not only for her country but more importantly to the life that is expected of her by her family.  In speaking with the director, it is also clear that this story is not a million miles from her own, I think this is why the viewer is left with such a powerful and inspiring message of being the change you want to be

“Words of Witness” is currently playing in Los Angeles Laemmle Noho 7 week of 27 August 2012 but check local listings for other screenings.

Words of Witness Trailer

Kumare – a Film by Vikram Gandhi | Review

One could be forgiven for thinking that you are watching yet another Sacha Baron Cohen stunt on celluloid but, dare I say it, this is much better.  As part of a social experiment, filmmaker Vikram Gandhi dons an orange robe, grows a beard, and transforms himself from a Jersey boy into a wise Indian guru by the name of Kumare.  As Kumare, he then sets out to convince and indoctrinate a group of followers in the west that he is the real deal.  The aim? To challenge one of the most widely accepted taboos: that only a tiny “1%” can connect the rest of the world to a higher power. Concealing his true identity from everyone he meets, Kumare forges profound and spiritual connections with people from all walks of life.  At the same time, in the absurdity of living as an entirely different person, Vikram is forced to confront difficult questions about his own identity.

Gandhi manages to create an engaging documentary that holds a mirror up to his own questions about religion and beliefs and shines the reflection on the unenlightened.  This starts off comical and cliché making us laugh at the directionless new agers but quickly transforms into something deeper as he takes us on a journey of transformation, his own, the people he touches and us the audience.

The story unfolds admirably rather like the message Kumare the great guru is developing as he goes along and has you sweating towards the end when at the height of his popularity he contemplates revealing his true identity to a core group of disciples who are knee-deep in personal transformation. Will they accept his final teaching? Will he be able to prove that no one really needs anyone else to make them feel better about themselves?

Kumare delivers on all counts.  It is educational, informative, funny and entertaining.

Kumare” opens in Los Angeles at The Cinefamily on Friday, July 26th and will have a full week run from August 3rd through August 9th.  In addition, it was voted the AUDIENCE AWARD WINNER – Documentary Feature: SXSW FILM FESTIVAL 2011

Rent-a-Cat / Rentaneko (レンタネコ) | Review

I am sure that not many of us look forward to flying these days (me included), the endless security, fluid confiscation shenanigans, shoes off, laptops out, strip-searches etc. can become all too tiresome especially when it feels like you spend less time in the air than at the airport.

In recent times, and especially on long haul flights, one of my favorite pastimes has become trying to seek out movies that I would not normally get a chance to watch or foreign language movies that have not (and may never) get a US release.

Fellow movie lovers, there are some hidden treasures buried in the back of the seat in front of you (and I am not just talking about what has fallen out of the pocket of the supersized passenger).  On a recent flight from Tokyo, I was lucky enough to catch just such a gem. “Rentaneko” or “Rent-a-cat” (written and directed by USC film school alumni Naoko Ogigami) is a beautiful movie about a young lady called Sayoko who rents out cats to help lonely people fill the emptiness in their hearts. She walks along the banks of the river with a megaphone promoting her service and her animals in a handcart.   This stars Mikako Ichikawa as Sayoko with support from Reiko Kusamura, Ken Mitsuishi, Maho Yamada and Kei Tanaka.

Japanese cinema can often be about extremes, yet in this gentle sweet dramedy, we are delighted, moved and often tickled in the same scene.  Much of this is down to some careful direction and elegant cinematography, and many of the scenes are so beautifully composed that they could be frozen to create photographs.

All of this beauty is augmented by a touching and genuine performance from Ichikawa.  Her human portrayal of a single thirty-something coming to terms with the death of her grandmother (whom she considered to be ‘her rock’) is poignant.  Added to this is her biggest goal in life – to get married.  On the surface there is an air of light heartedness and comedy throughout the movie and yet, when this is scratched, belies a depth that touches your heart and warms you to your central core.  The story meanders a little towards the end, but at those times, the kitty-cat action is more than enough to keep you glued to your screen.

This is a quirky engaging movie that will amuse and enchant everyone – and if you are a cat lover, this movie is a special treat.  Of course being the crazy cat lady that I am, the scenes or outtakes with all of the well-trained moggies were like icing on this near perfect cake.

Rentaneko has been shown at a number of international film festivals through 2012 including Sundance and Edinburgh.  Unfortunately it seems that your best chance of catching it right now is to fly ANA between Los Angeles and Tokyo.  My only hope is that enough people hear about this movie and it get the chance of at least a limited US release.

Official Home Page (Japanese only) – http://rentaneko.com

Patang (The Kite) – A Film by Prashant Bhargarva | Review

Prashant Bhargava is clearly a talented director and writer to be able to bring together both actors and non-actors in this mockumentary style movie which very cleverly blends old Indian outlooks with a fresh non Bollywood storyline

Like its namesake, the movie is light at heart and mostly about the thrill and joy of flying kites during India’s largest kite festival where every year a million kites fill the skies above Ahmedabad-dueling, soaring, tumbling and flying high.  Look a little further however and it makes you realize that this is not only a brilliant narrative about general attitudes in India but also about families, relationships and what we hold important in our lives.  My heart soared during the highs and beat with anxiety during the lows when much tension is created through great direction, good storytelling and a moving and powerful score

PATANG weaves together the stories of six people transformed by the energy of the festival but centers mainly around a successful Delhi businessman (Jayesh) who takes his daughter (Priya) on a surprise trip back to his childhood home for the festival.  Despite the fact that he is an expert kite flyer, he does not count on his visit causing the entire family to confront its own fractured past and fragile dreams.  Jayesh and Priya are definitely “city mice” who discover the pleasures and difficulties faced by their “country mice” family.  Indeed Priya quickly learns that a mild flirtation can quickly lead to something undesirable when she spots an expert kite flyer in a young local hero called Bobby

Clearly one of the stars of this film is the amazing child star who is as adorable and captivating to watch as the children in “Slumdog Millionaire”.  It is hard to believe then that this and the other children in the film are untrained actors who are improvising.  It is very easy to watch the beautiful relationship between a young boy Hamid and his older man- friend Chakku a loser who seems to be unable to relate to anyone else especially his adorable and god fearing mother Sudha who only sees the good in every situation

It is difficult to think that a film about kites can really be this exciting and enthralling to watch.  Stick with the sometimes difficult to watch patchwork quilt of the storyline and I promise you will not be disappointed.

PATANG (THE KITE) will open Los Angeles exclusively at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills on July 20, 2012

In New York, PATANG THE KITE garnered a NY Times Critic Pick and is still playing in New York and Chicago – held over for another week.

The film will continue opening in approximately 18 cities across the US and Canada this summer.

Warner Bros. movie apps. Is this the future of movie distribution?

Warner Bros today announced a couple of iPhone/iPad apps featuring two of my personal favorite movies in recent years.  The Dark Knight and Inception.  The apps purport to offer a more comprehensive movie experience than is possible on other platforms such as DVD or Blu-ray, including interactive games, exclusive soundtracks, trivia and other related content.

Each app relates to one movie and is available as a free download, although many of the features (including the full length movie) need to be unlocked through a $9.99 purchase.  I tested the Dark Knight app this evening and went through some of the freebies.  The experience was mixed with some interesting and reasonably immersive elements, including a fun trivia game with clips from the movie.  The app is not without a few glitches including reports of jittery streaming, although I did not experience this personally.

It’s frustrating to have purchased the Dark Knight on physical media and have to shell out another ten bucks to get the most out of the app.  A slightly lower price point might be more palatable, or at least a way of providing a discount to those who purchased the movie on DVD/Blu-ray.  I would also prefer not to have a single app per movie – my iPhone is already cluttered up with icons.

This isn’t going to work with every movie.  There’s a certain fanboy-ishness about this, as Warner seems to have tacitly acknowledged with the selection of the initial two movies, The Dark Knight and Inception. Furthermore, the appeal may not be universal given that this kind of thing lends itself more to the type of movie fan who just can’t get enough of a movie.  For example, I don’t see the King’s Speech having the same appeal as an app.

So, is this the way of the future?  Well, it’s hard to say.  While I applaud the effort of the studios in giving us yet another way to consume digital content, a lot of what is here could be done with a Blu-ray disc.  It would also be nice to be able to transfer a purchased movie to another device e.g. my computer or AppleTV to watch on the big screen.  In short, the argument needs to be much more compelling before I give up my current preference of DVD/Blu-ray/Digital Copy combo packs.

It’s an interesting experiment.  Expect to see more innovations as the studios look into different distribution models as well as opportunities to increase revenue potential from movie releases.