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Accountants Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz of PriceWaterHouseCoopers confer with Warren Beatty following the now infamous envelope mix-up

Friday March 10,  2017  

THE SHOW (*** 1/2)
Well-THAT was fun!!  But only if you stayed up nine minutes past the interminable three hour ten minute mark.  As the photo above shows, the dude with the headset is not one of the producers of the "winning" film (initially and erroneously announced as La La Land) about to give a rousing acceptance speech, but is actually stage manager Garry Natoli.  On the left are the two Price-Waterhouse employees whose only duty was handing out the coveted winners cards to the presenters.  On the right is a befuddled Warren Beatty, whose sole purpose, along with co-presenter Faye Dunaway, was to announce the most important winner of the evening for Best Picture. What nearly everyone on the planet now knows, this was the Oscar show for the ages after the wrong film was announced and the mistake realized only after acceptance speeches were in full swing by the losing film producers!  Classic!! 

I gave the show 3 1/2 stars based mainly on two factors:  the incredible drama that played out over the last 10 minutes as just described, and the admirable job by first-time host Jimmy Kimmel.  His quips and jabs were on-the-mark more often than not; and his unusually calm demeanor belied any hint of nervousness - delivering each joke with such smoothness that brought to mind the memorable multiple hosting duties by Bob Hope and, later, Johnny Carson and Billy Crystal.  My only quibble:  this is an awards show that should not have a political agenda.  However, in these divisive times, and judging from the agenda on display at the most recent award shows, that would have been way too much to ask for.  And, although Kimmel's references to the current occupants of The White House were generously sprinkled throughout the telecast, none were terribly biting or blatantly disrespectful.  

Once again this year, over produced musical numbers were few and far between. And, as have been the norm in recent years, a few bits involving the audience reared its ugly head, such as dropping parachutes into the audience replete with snacks, and bringing unsuspecting tour bus patrons into the Dolby Theater who were punked into believing they were visiting a celebrity home (more on that later).  

As for the ratings, the viewership just keeps on plummeting.  This years total of 32.9 million viewers was lower than last years 34.4 million, and came dangerously close to 2008's total of 32 million (the all-time low when Jon Stewart hosted).  Maybe the colossal Best Picture flub will have a few more folks watching next year - but I doubt it.

Finally, in a year where "The Electoral College vs The Popular Vote" is getting so much press, I might add that, ever since The Best Picture category was expanded in 2010 a similar method is used to award The BP Oscar. This might account for Moonlight's win over heavy favorite La La Land, the latter of which may have initially garnered the most first place votes but eventually lost out in the end due to the complicated process.

Once again, my annual apologies to Sergio Leone, as this breakdown will pretty much sum up the event through this reviewer's eyes:

Jimmy Kimmel.  I would vote for him to MC the 90th edition.  However, even if invited back, would he even want to be associated any longer with this utterly thankless task? 

- The elimination of the "thank you" crawl during acceptance speeches which last year were present to speed up the awardees.  For the most part, this year the orchestra remained silent as the majority of the speeches were, thankfully, short and concise. 

- The opening.  In a stark break from tradition, the upbeat nominated song "Can't Stop The Feeling" from the animated Trolls, opened the show with Justin Timberlake and dancers performing in the aisles and had many in the audience jumping to their feet while gyrating to the beat.

- The surprise introduction onstage of the real-life NASA mathematician Patricia Johnson portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the nominated Hidden Figures.

- Thankfully, only a couple of speeches leaned toward the political left. 

- The voting academy saw to it that, at least for a year, no longer will there be the lack of diversity issue that dominated twitter (#OscarsSoWhite) after last years nominees were announced, and awarded Oscars to a record number of Blacks.  

- Finally!  The 21st time is the charm.  Kevin O'Connell wins the sound mixing Oscar (for Hacksaw Ridge).  It's always good not to get your first award posthumously. 

- The beautiful moving performance by Sara Bareilles performing Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" during the In Memoriam segment.

- No self-serving political rant from Meryl Streep who, thankfully, didn't present or win.

- The only montage was an effective one:  showing previous Oscar acting winners before this years winners were announced. 

- The incredible drama produced by the most memorable bungle in award show history. Too bad most of the viewing audience had already checked out before seeing it live. The happiest person on the planet has to be Steve Harvey who announced the runner-up contestant as the winner of the 2015 Miss Universe Contest.
- Despite minimal political references which had me putting it in "The Good" column above, the fact that ANY were spoken are out of place during the annual pat-on-the-back "entertainment" extravaganza; and that fact puts it in my "Bad" column.

- Each year one can count on at least one notable omission from the In Memoriam segment.  This time around the producers outdid themselves by not honoring, most notably, comedian Garry Shandling, Robert Vaughn, Florence Henderson and Doris Roberts. The argument could be put forth that they were better known for their TV work; however Mary Tyler Moore was included in the list as well as musician Prince. Not to be outdone merely by these omissions, they also included a photo of still living producer Jan Chapman while mistakenly identifying her as the late fashion designer Janet Patterson.  Must have come as a shock to Ms. Chapman!

- The show went 19 minutes over their three hour time slot.  Two minutes shorter than last year but still way too long.

- It isn't right that the Best Director didn't direct the Best Picture.  Of the 89 films winning Best Picture, only 62 directors of those movies won.  

-The ratings.  The smallest since 2008 and trending down the last three years.  This year the average viewership was 32.9 million, down almost one million from 2016.

- Although it wasn't known until the next day, one of the tour bus folks, "Gary from Chicago", who received a lot of love from the audience (and was even gifted Jennifer Anniston's pricey shades), was actually a convicted rapist just released from prison three days earlier after serving twenty years.

- One of Kimmel's few missteps was poking fun at the name of Best Supporting Actor winners Mahershala Ali, which one could consider as borderline racist.  Another was the disrespectful tweet he sent to Trump that was posted on the giant screen above the stage.

-Kimmel mounting Lion's young Sunny Prawar on his shoulder miming the iconic scene from The Lion King.  However, the image of a white man holding up a brown child with African music playing might be conceived as having racial overtones and brought back memories of last years ill-conceived use of Asian children on stage that had many afterward charging insensitivity.  


Although you had to wait until the bitter end, Moonlight winning Best Picture had to be the biggest surprise of the night.  After La La Land  being the overwhelming pre-show favorite and already receiving six awards, it seemed a foregone conclusion that it would take home the big one.  However, the small powerful indie was undoubtedly helped immeasurably by the Academy's complicated voting process for determining Best Picture and ultimately became the evenings largest upset.  

Viola Davis winning Best Supporting Actress ("Fences").

The left-leaning Academy voting members awarding Viol Asghar Farhad (director of the foreign language winning The Salesman) who made good on his pre-show promise to skip the awards in protest of the administration's immigration policy.  A fine film but not nearly as deserving as Germany's Toni Erdmann. 

Mahershala Ali who not only won an Oscar for Moonlight but also became a father for the first time when his daughter was born four days earlier.

Kevin O'Connell who ended his losing streak with his Sound Mixing Oscar for Hacksaw Ridge.

Viola Davis.  Her speech was so awe-inspiring that Kimmel right afterward said that she just won an Emmy for it.  

Kevin O'Connell who talked about how his late mom helped him to win his first job as a sound man.  When he asked her how he could ever thank her, she told him to "go win an Oscar and you can stand up on that stage and and you can thank me in front of the whole world.  Mom, I know you're looking down on me tonight.  So, thank you."  With that, O'Connell walked off the stage clutching a Oscar after 34 years and 19 unsuccessful nominations.

La La Land with six out of its record-tying fourteen noms.

Meryl Streep so the world wouldn't have to be subjected to yet another political rant.

The Best Documentary winner, O.J.:  MADE IN AMERICA, at 467 minutes, beat War and Peace by a half hour.

Damiaen Chazelle who, at 32, was a couple of months younger than Norman Taurog who won in 1931 for Skippy.  

Dede Gardner (Moonlight) who also won for 12 Years A Slave. 

Mahershala Ali for Best Supporting Actor (Moonlight).

Justin Timberlakes's rousing performance of the nominated song "Can't Stop The Feeling".

Kimmel's long-running "feud" with Matt Damon.  Kimmel revealed on his late-night show the following night that he was supposed to end the Oscars while seated next to Damon in the audience.  We never got to see that ending as Jimmy ended up on stage trying to explain the debacle that was occurring in full view of the world.

Justin Timberlake and Ryan Gosling - who appeared together a million years ago on The Mickey Mouse Club.  Timberlake was shown hugging his long-ago co-star just before breaking into song and later mingling together during the show.

Nicole Kidman and her ridiculous clapping

Kimmel talking about the country's current state of  divisiveness and then poking fun at Mel Gibson stating, "There's only one braveheart in this room, and he's not going to unite us either."

Stars expounding on what films they loved.  Later, Kimmel used the format to further rip Damon saying how much he "admired" Damon's flop, We Bought a Zoo.

Kimmel using one of his late-night bits:  having Hollywood Stars read actual mean tweets directed to them by "loving" fans

Moana star Auli'i Cravalho while performing the nominated song "How Far I'll Go" had a rendezvous with a dancer's flag without missing a beat. 

John Legend's main squeeze, supermodel Chrissy Tiegen shown sleeping on Legend's shoulder during Casey Affleck's acceptance speech.  I suppose she was catching up on some zzz's before the after-parties.

Do I need to repeat it?

See the top of this article.

When it came time to announce the Best Picture name on the card, a flustered and confused Warren Beatty handed the card to Faye Dunaway to call out the incorrect winner.  As Kimmel humorously explained on his late night show the next night, 50 years later, "Clyde threw Bonnie under the bus".  

Kimmel lifting Lion's Sunny Pawar above his head.

Suicide Squad which won for Makeup and Hairstyling.  Its honors this year also included two Razzies which salutes the worst of Hollywood offerings each year.

The producers of La La Land after realizing they didn't win for Best Picture.


Justin Timberlake opens the show performing 
"Can't Stop The Feeling" from "Trolls" 

Nominee Auli'i Cravalho performs "How Far I'll Go" from 

Sting performs "The Empty Chair" from "Jim: 
The James Foley Story"

John Legend performs a medley of  "City of 
Stars" and "Audition (Fools Who Dream)" from
"La La Land"

Kimmel and bus tourists greeting the audience

Emma Stone accepting the Best Actress Oscar
("La La Land")

Casey Affleck accepting the Best Actor Oscar
("Manchester by The Sea")

Mahershala Ali accepting his Best 
Supporting Actor Oscar ("Moonlight")

 Viola Davis accepting her Best
Supporting Actress Oscar

NASA physicist Katherine Johnson is 
surrounded by the actresses of "Hidden 
Figures" Janelle Monae (far left), Taraji P.
Henson (second from right) and Ocativa
Spencer (far right)

Charlize Theron (l) and Shirley Maclaine 
presenting the Oscar for the Best Foreign 
Language Film

Producer Jordan Horowitz ("La La Land" ) holds 
up the correct Best Picture card announcing
"Moonlight" as the true winner


Saturday February 25, 2017


- One can count on three things on Oscar night:
(1)  There will be at least one African-American award winner in the major categories after none were nominated in the 20 acting categories last year.  The diversity issue that surrounded the last two years has been put to bed - at least for a year.  This year a record-tying (with 2007) seven minority actors and a record six black actors are on the list. For the first time, three black actresses are competing in the same category (Best Supporting Actress) and the first time there has been a black actor in all four major acting categories.  However, the Academy still has a way to go nominating women in the director and cinematography categories where none again have been nominated. And only one woman made the ten nominated screenplays list:  Allison Schroeder who co-wrote Hidden Figures.
(2)  La La Land will walk off with at least 5 (of its 14 nominated) statuettes including Best Picture and Best Director (see my predictions below)
(3)  There will be at least one political speech - probably more (and watch out if Streep gets a chance to be alone at the podium - see below).

- This years thankless hosting job goes to the brilliant Jimmy Kimmel after Chris Rock did an admirable job at last years extravaganza.  Kimmel (who, IMHO, is the absolute best of the late night talk show hosts), hopefully, will make this more about entertainment and direct his barbs to the industry and audience instead of the White House.  However, considering the current political climate and the, it seems, constant never-ending negative utterances for the past couple of months from the left-coast, this thought appears to be in the wishful-thinking category.

- Well deserved:  La La Land  tying the 89th Academy Award nomination record of 14 nominations along with 1950's All About Eve and 1997's Titanic.  Will it tie or win more than the record 11 held by Titanic and three others?  We will know around midnight tomorrow for what was, hands-down, the best film of the year that was devoid of big flashy contenders.

- The 2nd best film of the year that practically nobody saw:  Hell or High Water. Released during the late summer, the film has grossed just under $27 million. I was thrilled to see this one make the final list.  The modern "western" mystery/suspense drama boasts one of the best original scripts of the year by Terry Sheridan (2015's Sicerio) accompanied by terrific acting across the board (Jeff Bridges is nominated in the Supporting Actor category).  

- The most obvious nomination snub:  Deadpool.  There are 10 Best Picture category slots available.  Again this year, the Academy has failed to fill all ten.  One that should have been included in the list is this brilliant comedy/science fiction/fantasy film. Despite earning more that $348 million(!), its way early February release date, and the fact that science fiction films and comedies are never a fav of the Academy were probably determining factors.  Two Golden Globe nominations (including one for Best Picture) as well as from the Writers Guild and the Producers Guild did nothing to bring support to the incredibly clever superhero movie.  Too bad as this film definitely deserved to be honored here.

- The 2nd most obvious snub:  Amy Adams - despite glowing reviews as the central actor and driving force in Arrival  and her equally excellent work in Nocturnal Animals. I'm thinking the two roles might have canceled each other out in the nomination voting for the actress who has tied Deborah Kerr and Glenn Close for the most noms (5) without winning.  

- The 3rd most obvious snub:  Pixar's animated Finding Dory despite the almost universal positive reviews coupled with its earning of over $1 billion worldwide.  Was the fact that it was a sequel to Finding Nemo a factor?  Possibly - but it didn't hurt the brilliant Toy Story 3  which won 2011.

- The biggest resurrection and comeback:  Mel Gibson, nominated for Best Director Hacksaw Ridge.  Although he earned his directing chops for 1995's Braveheart, his other directorial efforts since have not come close to equally the success of that film. And considering his near disgraced image and numerous controversies over the years, Gibson appears to have been forgiven by The Academy and has come full-circle with this major recognition.

-They should make a separate category for Meryl Streep.  Now nominated for a record 20th(!) time (including three wins), I fully expect her name to be on the acting list every year she appears in a movie. After her controversial alt-leftist accepting speech at The Golden Globes, one has to wonder if the overwhelming liberal voting Academy members mark their ballot for her if for no other reason than to hear more of the same on the industry's biggest stage. Stay tuned.

- Both Denzel Washington (Best Actor) and Viola Davis (Best Supporting Actress) for Fences became the most nominated Black actors (the former with seven and the latter with three) and each are likely to win (see below).

- A nomination for Tom Hanks was usually considered as much as a lock as a Meryl Streep nom.  However, he has curiously been overlooked since 2000 (Cast Away) even though his work in Sully as the "miracle on the Hudson" captain had garnered almost universal praise.

- Poor Kevin O'Connell.  He holds the thankless record of most nominations without a win harking back to 1984's Terms of Endearment.  His sound mixing for Hacksaw Ridge is his 21st nomination.  However, I wouldn't bet the mortgage on this being the year the streak is broken as he is up against La La Land - the likely winner.

- Finally, if August Wilson (who died in 2005) wins for Best Adapted Screenplay for his Pulitzer Prize winner Fences, he will be the first black posthumous winner and the 2nd posthumous winner in this category since Sidney Howard for Gone With The Wind  in 1939.

The envelope, please . . . 


What will win:  La La Land
(Very Extreme) Upset Possibility:  Moonlight
What should win:  La La Land
Although I listed Moonlight as an upset possibility, the outstanding independent film has little chance of winning.  La La Land  is a virtual lock for many reasons.  Besides being the best movie I screened this year, it encompasses the reasoning I expounded in my earlier review comparing it to 2010's Best Picture award winner Silent Movie. Hollywood loves throwback films that have all but disappeared from their landscape. Not only does it hearken back to the musical genre so prevalent in films during the glory days of Hollywood past, and not only is it based in La La Land, it is also masterfully crafted.  At its heart, it is infused with an emotional romantic theme complete with a stand-out score and choreography and is beautifully acted by two of today's most talented actors.  After winning almost every major award this year, a upset here would be considered monumental.

FOR THE RECORD:  here are the nine nominated films I rated from best to least: 
(1)  La La Land
(2)  Hell or High Water
(3)  Moonlight
(4)  Hidden Figures
(5)  Lion
(6)  Manchester by the Sea
(7)  Fences
(8)  Hacksaw Ridge
(9)  Arrival

Who will win:  Damien Chazelle (La La Land)
Upset possibility:  Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)
Who should win:  Damien Chazelle
Rarely does the Academy bestow this award to a director of a film that doesn't win the big prize.  Don't expect this to be one of those years.  Chazelle took six years to bring his dream to the big screen, and his patience and skillful talent will pay off in spades Sunday night.  If anything, his direction in the spectacular opening ten minutes of the film alone be enough to qualify for the win!  Jenkins is an obvious talent that bears watching in the future.  His directorial effort for the indie Moonlight , like Chazelle's 2014 Whiplash, puts him high in the running but not nearly enough to overtake the eventual winner. 

Who will win:  Denzel Washington (Fences)
Upset possibility:  Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)
Who should win:  Denzel Washington
The diversity issue ends with the likely win by Denzel who delivers an absolute tour
de force as the lead in Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson's play.  Washington gives a mesmerizing performance as the patriarch of a struggling black family in 1950's Pittsburgh.  However, if Affleck wins, it would not be a total surprise.  His acting as the morose center of the character-driven drama by Kenneth Lonergan, is understated but sure.  Consider also that Casey is up against one of the premier actors of this generation.  And then there is that diversity issue hanging over the voting members as well.

Who will win:  Isabelle Huppert (Elle)
Upset possibility:  Emma Stone (La La Land) 
Who should win:  Isabelle Huppert
One of the toughest categories to handicap.  The great French actress who since 1971 has appeared in over 100 films and TV productions and has won a multitude number of awards over her career, receives The Oscar on her first try as a strong willed sexual assault victim in search of her attacker in director Paul Verhoeven's riveting mystery drama.  Of course Emma Stone has to be considered as part of the La La Land  tsunami; however, I feel that The Academy will acknowledge the better performance.  Stone was certainly wonderful as the female love interest in the musical, but, overall, Huppert gives the more memorable performance.  An extreme upset possibility could be the Ethiopian-Irish actress Ruth Negga who was nominated at Cannes for her role as Mildred Loving in the interracial civil rights true story.      

Who will win:  Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)
Upset possibility:  Dev Patel (Lion)
Who should win:  Mahershala Ali
The Academy needs to deliver at least one major award to the universally acclaimed indie Moonlight and this category seems to fit the bill.  Ali (Netflix's House of Cards) gives a memorable performance as a drug dealer who befriends the young central character in the coming-of-age drama and is certain to walk up to the podium to accept.  A longshot could be the English actor Dev Patel (2008's Slumdog Millionaire) portraying the Australian-adopted Indian who, as an adult, searches to locate his birthplace.

Who will win:  Viola Davis (Fences)
Upset possibility:  Naomic Harris (Moonlight)
Who should win:  Viola Davis
The first black actress to be nominated for three Academy acting awards (including 2008's Doubt and 2011's The Help) will continue the burial of the diversity issue and will finally wins a much deserved win.  Much has been made of the fact that she easily could have been placed in the Best Actress category since she is afforded an incredible amount of screen time.  However, her presence on this list definitely gives her the best chance of winning where her closest competition is Naomic Harris as the crack-addicted mother of the central character.  Her commanding performance, however, does not come close to topping Davis' inspired turn as the matriarch in August Wilson's drama.

What will win:  The Salesman (Iran)
Upset possibility:  Toni Erdmann (Germany)
What should win:  Toni Erdmann 
Politics rears its ugly head as The Academy picks controversy over common sense. The world knows about The Salesman's director Asghar Farhad (2011 Foreign Language winner A Separation) and his proclamation of boycotting the ceremony due to the President's travel policy.  And what better way to honor that action by the left-leaning Academy delivering him The Oscar.  A much better film, however, is the ambitiously moving Toni Erdmann, written and directed by Maren Ade, which practically swept The European Awards.  Alas, politics will probably win out.   

Who will win:  Linus Sandgren (La La Land)
Upset possibility:  James Laxton (Moonlight)
Who should win:  Linus Sandgren and James Laxon (tie)
In any other year James Laxton might have been a shoo-in.  The film's title is based
on Tarrell Alvin McCraney's deeply personal "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue" and Laxton's superb cinematography powerfully reflects the images on the screen. Unfortunately, Sangren's work is equally notable conveying the look and feel of 1950's Hollywood.  The reality is that voters in this category in the past have tended to favor musicals - which, more than likely, will put Sangren on the podium.  As unlikely as ties are in Oscar's history, I would be totally OK if one was announced here.

Who will win:  Tom Cross (La La Land)
Upset possibility:  Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon (Moonlight)
Who should win:  Tom Cross
Mark up yet another win in the technical categories for La La Land.  Although Moonlight's editing was distinctive, Cross' editing, especially during the musical production scenes and the incredibly moving finale, cannot be overlooked in the final analysis.

Who will win:  Justin Hurwitz (La La Land)
(Extreme) Upset possibility:  Nicholas Britell (Moonlight)
Who should win:  Justin Hurwitz
A great musical certainly demands a great memorable score and Hurwitz will win the Oscar in one of the slam-dunk locks of the night.  Hurwitz is currently riding high on Broadway writing the music for Dear Evan Hansen along with his lyric writing pal Justin Paul (who will assuredly win for Best song-see below).  Britell wrote a beautifully haunting score for Moonlight but will finish a distant second to Hurwitz in this category.

What will win:  "City of Stars"  (La La Land)
(Extreme) Upset possibility:  "The Empty Chair" (Jim:  The James Foley Story)
What should win:  "City of Stars"
Another virtual lock is the evocative number performed by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone that is one of the few winning songs in recent years that will actually linger long after the show ends.  Of course, even though it is competing with another worthy La La Land nominee, "The Fools Who Dream", it is nowhere as potent and should not cancel out the votes for "City of Stars". However, if it does, then look for the J. Ralph and Sting number "The Empty Chair" to possible slip in.  Nonetheless, my ducats are on writer Justin Hurwitz along with lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul accepting the statuettes.

Who will win:  Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea)
Upset possibility:  Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water)
Who should win:   Taylor Sheridan
As mentioned above, I absolutely loved Taylor Sheridan's script which made Hell or High Water so memorable.  My heart yearns for Sheridan winning. However, my head screams Lonergan's script if, for no other reason, because the Academy would love to honor the indie film that has garnered so many incredibly positive reviews.

Who will win:  Barry Jenkins and Tarrell Alvin McCraney from "In Moonlight Black   Boys Look Blue" (Moonlight)
Upset possibility:  August Wilson (posthumous) from Fences by August Wilson (Fences)
Who should win:   Barry Jenkins and Tarrell Alvin McCraney
This should be another win for the powerful Moonlight, although it will be hard to overlook a script by a Pulitzer Prize winner.  However, despite that the Academy rarely accords a posthumous Oscar, Wilson's intelligent insightful script comes across more as a play (from which it was adapted) on the screen.

What will win:  O.J.:  Made in America
(Extreme) Upset possibility:  I Am Not Your Negro
What should win:   O.J.:  Made in America
Traditionally a strong category, an argument could be made for any of the nominees winning.  However, this powerful 467 minute masterpiece by director Ezra Edelman (who was nominated for his wonderful 2013 documentary Cutie and the Boxer) that interrelates race, sports, media and politics before, during and after the infamous murder trial of the century, stands head and shoulder about the other outstanding films on this list.   That being said, if any film has a chance of upsetting it would be director Raoul Peck's film based on ideas expounded by American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet and social critic, James Baldwin.  Considering the current racial climate a win by this film would hardly be a major surprise.  


2016 Investigative Film Festival

The second annual Investigative Film Festival and Symposium (AKA Double Exposure) would have been hard pressed to top last years inaugural opening night film. Spotlight, which was screened at the I.F.F over one month before its theatrical release date, ended up winning Best Picture at this years Academy Awards. Although I doubt The Ivory Game will win a top prize at the upcoming AAs, the Opening Night film was compelling and competent (see my review below) and succeeded in embodying the principles on which this festival is based.
Festival co-creators and co-directors Diana Jean Schemo and Sky Sitney return to present films and symposiums meant to whet the public's appetite for superlative investigative journalism. As these organizers stated in their open letter, “Today, we are seeing visual storytellers and journalists venture deeper into each others' traditional territory, as boundaries collapse, collide, and sometimes melt.” Over the course of three days, eight documentaries (including one U.S. premiere and six D.C. premieres) hammered home the need for a continual search for the truth and to unearth and challenge the abuse of those in power.
Once again, the festival is a project of the non-profit news organization 100Reporters that works with worldwide journalists to bring investigative reporting to an international audience. Principle sponsorship was provided The MacArthur Foundation and The Reva and David Logan Foundation. As last year, the films were all screened at the National Portrait Gallery. Last years symposium location Hotel Monaco served as such once again, while the Woolly Mammoth Theater and Newseum venues were replaced with the National Press Club. Again, all these D.C. Downtown locations were within easy walking distance for attendees.
This year, the I.F.F. opened its three-day run on a Thursday night (last year Opening Night was on a Wednesday). This was a smart move to allow patrons the opportunity to attend this important entertaining festival over the better part of a weekend. Perhaps next year it could start on a Friday evening to totally encompass a full weekend to allow maximum access to one of this nations most unique film festival.


(1)  A Leak In Paradise  (**1/2 out of 4 - 76 minutes)
The D.C. premiere of director David Leloup's expose on Swiss whistleblower Rudolf Elmer is yet another example of the extreme professional and personal risks one undertakes in order to expose corruption and greed. The subject is bank secrecy laws and tax havens of the rich. Elmer was the former senior banking executive for Bank Julius Baer in the Cayman Islands who broke the Cayman banking secrecy law when he turned over sensitive CDs detailing hundreds of offshore accounts to WikiLeak's Julian Assange in 2008. This leak was the first of its kind on the Internet. The director follows two story lines as he chronicles the consequences both on Elmer's life and the resulting effect on the global financial system which faced a crisis the world hasn't seen since 1929. Regarding the former, the film relates how Elmer spent time in prison, was banned from the banking industry, was considered a fugitive from justice who is constantly being stalked by private investigators and who has no secure income. As for the latter, there are consequential links to the subprime crisis and its effect on the economy, the Madoff scandal as well as the tax evasion improprieties in Liechtenstein and Switzerland. The director provides a somewhat stodgy pedestrian narration and I would have liked more information on the tax evasion tactics outlined on those CDs. Overall, despite its scant running time, the film seemed a lot longer than it should have.

(2)  Abacus: Small Enough To Jail  (*** out of 4 - 90 minutes)
Director Steve James burst onto the doc scene in 1994 with his critically acclaimed inaugural Hoop Dreams. He has consistently directed superlative documentary films ever since, including 2014's loving tribute to Roger Ebert, Life Itself. His latest, the D.C. Premiere and the closing night film at the festival, is an eyeopening look at how the 2008 subprime mortgage financial crisis nearly destroyed an established Chinese immigrant family-run business. Would it surprise you that the Sung family's business, which was founded in 1984, was the only U.S. bank to face criminal charges during this dark period in our financial history? Not Lehman Brothers. Not Merrill Lynch. Not Bear Stearns. No – it was the Abacas Savings of Chinatown, New York – the 2,651 largest bank in the US. James follows the 5-year legal battle that began in 2012 involving the septuagenarian founder Thomas Sung as well as his daughters - several of whom are executives of the bank. One actually works in the DA Office which handed down the indictment which included 19 employees. It was discovered that a single employee, a loan officer, was taking bribes while pushing through mortgages. Although James implies that the family-run business was a scapegoat for the big boy institutions (he opens the film showing the family watching the iconic It's A Wonderful Life foreshadowing the financial travails yet to come), the evidence presented is scant and left me desperately wanting more proof as to whether the charges were valid and just.

(3)  All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and The Spirit of I. F. Stone  (***1/2 out of 4 - 91 minutes)
When covering the topic of investigative reporting, what better timely way than to include this tribute to independent journalist I.F. Stone by first-time director Fred Peabody. Stone, who published the weekly investigative newsletter I.F. Stone's Weekly from 1953-1971 and who died in 1989, dedicated his life to uncovering lies and untruths propagated by the government and by the mass media. Operating way before the coming of the Internet, he could easily be labeled as his era's first political blogger. An example of one of his most famous reports was the discovery that the trigger to start the Vietnam War in 1964, The Gulf of Tonkin incident, was misrepresented by then President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara – a fact the mainstream media missed for years. I liked the fact that Peabody takes a totally nonpartisan view of his subject; and, using archival footage over the past 6 decades as well as numerous talking heads (including Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader), the director successfully conveys the importance of the existence of a truly free press. I would have liked a deeper profile of Stone as the film is more a tribute as it reflects on his influence on present-day journalists such as Amy Goodman, Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill and Matt Taibbi – all of which are mentioned in the documentary. In this age of fake news and a ever-growing mistrust of the media, you will undoubtedly leave the film with a greater appreciation of the integrity and due-diligence of these tireless journalists. The documentary had its U.S. premiere at the festival and began a limited theatrical run beginning last November.

(4)  Betting on Zero  (***1/2 out of 4 – 96 minutes)
Yet another look at the inner workings of Wall Street is this eye-opening documentary by director Ted Braun (2007s Darfur Now) which had its D.C. Premiere at the fest. Hedge funder Bill Ackman of Pershing Square Capital believes the nutritional supplement company Herbalife, which was aimed primarily at working class Latino communities, was offering them riches based on what appeared to be nothing more than an elaborate pyramid scheme. He spent three years of his life in his quest to bring down the supplement giant – all the while betting on their bankruptcy by taking a short position and betting a billion dollars that Herbalife's stock value was zero. 2015's The Big Short dramatized the activity of short selling which is the sale of a security that is not owned by the seller or that the seller has borrowed. In the meantime, Herbalife execs contended that the short selling was motivated purely for profit in the belief that their stock price would decline so that Ackman would make a profit by it being bought back at a lower price. Braun adds another layer of intrigue by introducing Ackman's arch rival, billionaire Carl Icahn of Icahn Enterprises, who swoops in and tries to boost the floundering Herbalife's stock value. So as not to present a story of pure greed about a couple of richer-than-rich characters, the director interweaves the devastation of lives of those poor souls who devoted their life-savings by believing the get-rich-quick sales spewed by Herbalife's CEO Michael O. Johnson. Johnson, who ran Disney's international operation under Michael Eisner, is shown leading a Herbalife convention and comes across almost more as a cult leader than as a CEO. Ackman infuses his compelling doc with composer Pete Anthony's equally ominous soundtrack, which serves to emphasize the subterfuge that will ultimately have you debating which side, if any, is operating with a true moral compass. Betting on Zero will be given a limited theatrical distribution on March 10 while the film will be available via video-on-demand and online platforms such as iTunes and Google Play on April 7.

(5) Fire At Sea (Fuocoammare)  (**** out of 4 – 108 minutes)
The Italian island of Lampedusa, the largest (8 square miles) of the Pelagie Islands about 70 miles off the coast of Tunisia in the Mediterranean Sea, is depicted as a land of stark contrast. On the one hand it is a sparsely populated idyllic fishing village. Director and cinematographer Gianfranco Rosi turns his camera onto the mundane quiet everyday activities of several of its residents such as a housewife, a DJ, a family at dinner, a 12-year-old boy in search of materials to make a slingshot. On the other hand, it is a first stop for hundreds of thousands of refugees escaping from their abominable and intolerable living conditions in Africa and the Middle East in overcrowded dilapidated vessels. The director informs us at the start that 400,000 refugees over 20 years have been successful, while over 150,000 have died trying. The locals, despite being geographically separated from the refugees, are well aware of their almost daily arrival by radio announcements of their plight and tragedy. The survivors are relegated to a detention camp whose milieu is as different from the rest of the island as day is to night. The only human link between these two alternate universes is an island resident doctor who constantly determines which of the refugees are well enough to remain in the camp, which need hospitalization, which need to be placed in a morgue. Rosi set up residency for a year on the island to be certain his trained eye correctly captured the humanitarian efforts this crises presented as he intermixes island resident rescue efforts and life in the shelters with the everyday existence of the island inhabitants. Reminiscent of the style of the great documentarian Frederick Wiseman, the film, which had its D.C. premiere at The Investigative Film Festival, is devoid of narration and soundtrack - which only adds to the starkness and desperation of the refugees whose plight is consistently hammered home by the visuals. A film that will stay with you long after the lights come up, the movie won the Berlin Film Festival's prestigious Golden Bear and has been nominated for an Academy Award Best Documentary.

(6) Solitary  (*** out of 4 – 82 minutes)
Director Kristi Jacobson takes a sobering look at solitary confinement inside one of the nations most notorious “supermax” prisons: Red Onion State Prison in southern Virginia's rural Appalachia. There are 44 such prisons which were constructed to maintain its entire incarcerated population in solitary confinement. A total of 100,000 prisons are held in this capacity throughout these facilities where prisoners, most of whom have violated general population rules, are held for months and, in some cases, years, at the whim of prison officials absent reviews by courts or any other outside oversight. A Step-Down program is usually the determining factor as to when the inmate can return to the general population. The director interviews both prisoners, who are in solitary for 23 hours daily in an 8 X 10 foot cell, and those who guard them, providing an intimate examination into the physical and psychological manifestations such confinement has produced. Jacobson spent over a year shooting the documentary which drives home the point that such segregation leads more to madness than rehabilitation. A little more backstory of some of the interviewees would have been a welcome addition rather than the static presentations of interviews over the course of the 82 minutes. However, at its conclusion, one clearly will debate whether it is an effective punitive or rehabilitative answer or just a way to punish extreme offenders. The HBO-produced documentary premiered last September and is currently available on-demand.

(7) Sour Grapes  (*** ½ out of 4 – 85 minutes)
The crime of fraud is usually nothing nothing to smile about. However, when little sympathy can be drawn for the victims, then the subject of fraud can become a somewhat humorous affair. 2014's brilliant Art and Craft focused on Mark Landis, one of the most prolific art forger in U.S. history. He donated his handiwork to museums across the country with no questions asked by the recipients. The irony: he was never arrested because he received zero remuneration for his donations. The end result was total embarrassment of those museum officials which displayed his works on their walls. Directors Jerry Rothwell and Reuben Atlas' D.C premiere of Sour Grapes deals with another kind of fraud perpetuated by one Rudy Kurniawan (labeled "a Gen X Great Gatsby by one investigator), an Indonesian whose mastery of producing counterfeit wine ultimately swindled many rich wine so-called “connoisseurs”. Kurnaiwan was actually re-bottling and re-labeling right in his Southern California residence. Although he ended up being caught and rightly prosecuted in 2013 when he tried to sell his counterfeit ultra-fine wine at auction (one such bottled was labeled with a vintage year that didn't exist), the story's parallel to Landis' escapades cannot be ignored. The embarrassment of the duped elitist target group, many of whom spent thousands upon thousands of dollars on what they believed to be bottles of vintage vino, will bring a lot of smiles but little compassion from those in the audience. The caper, which is presented as a detective story in a light breezy manner with an excellent accompanying score by Marseille's Lionel Corsini (aka DJ Oil), is currently available on Netflix.

(8) The Ivory Game  (*** out of 4 – 116 minutes)
There have been several outstanding documentaries recently dealing with animal abuses, most nobly 2009's The Cove about the Japanese dolphin slaughter and 2013's Blackfish about the treatment of killer whales at performance parks. The former won an Academy Award for Best Documentary, while the latter didn't but should have. The D.C. Premiere and the festival's opening night film by directors Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani is not quite in the same league as these outstanding works. However, the revelations here, concerning the possible near future extinction of the largest mammal on earth, the African elephant, due to ivory poaching, is no less important and eye-opening. The filmmakers spent 16 months investigating this activity which has resulted in over 150,000 elephants killed for their tusks in the last five years, which, in turn, are sold over the black market where a single kilogram of ivory can sell for as much as $3000. In the past 100 years the population has dwindled 97%. At that rate, extinction would be a reality in 15 years. The doc is presented as an international thriller complete with a dramatic score that at times seem contrived, as the directors traveled to Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, China, Hong Kong and Vietnam to expose the extent of the slaughter and the trading of ivory. Most successful is the story of Hongxiang Huang, a Chinese investigative reporter who tries to reveal the insidiousness of the ivory trafficking, and Georgina Kamanga, head of intelligence for National Parks and Wildlife in Zambia whose passion fuels her efforts to end the poaching and save the elephants. However, despite the fact that the filmmakers spread themselves too thin and offer little explanations behind some of the intrigue, there is no doubt that this dour subject demands immediate attention and action. The Ivory Game is currently streaming on Netflix.


ON THE RED CARPET (l to r):  Hongxiang Huang, 
independent journalist featured in "The Ivory
Game"; Andrea Crosta, executive director and
co-founder of WildLeaks; Diana Jean Schemo, 
co-creator and co-director of Double Exposure;
Kief Davidson, co-director of "The Ivory Game;
Sky Sitny, co-creator and co-director of Double 
Exposure; Richard Ladkani, co-director of  "The
"Ivory Game"

(l to r)  Co-creators and directors of  Double
Exposure, Sky  Sitney and Diana Jean Schemo
open the Investigative Film Festival

Opening night panel discussion (l to r):
moderator Diana Jean Schlemo, Andrea Crosta,
Kief Davidson, Richard Ladkani and Hongxiang


"A LEAK IN PARADISE" (l to r):
New York Times correspondent and moderator
Eric Lipton; Director David LeLoup; Film subject
Rudolf Elmer

Moderator and journalist Ray Suarez;  Journalist
with The Intercept Dan Froomkin; journalist and 
grandson to I.F. Stone Peter Stone; Director Fred 
Peabody; Executive Producer Peter Raymont; 
Author of "All Governments Lie" Myra MacPherson

"BETTING ON ZERO" (l to r):
Moderator and journalist Ricardo Sandoval-Palos;
Activist and film subject Julie Contreres; Film subject
Bill Ackman; Director Ted Braun

Moderator and co-founder of the Migration
Policy Institure Kathleen Newland; New York
Times journalist Ron Nixon

Moderator and  National Feature report  for The
Washington Post Manuel Roig-Franzia; Film subject
and wine expert Maureen Downey

"SOLITARY" (l to r):
Director Kristi Jacobson; Moderator and freelance
journalist Lisa Armstrong

Producer Mark Mitten; Director Steve James;
Journalists Dave Lidorff and T-Hua Chang; Film 
subjects Chanterelle and Vera Sung

UPCOMING LATER THIS WEEK:  My annual Academy Award predictions-What will win and what should win