"ROOM" - **** (113 minutes)

Sunday October 25, 2015
I despise reviews that delineate all of the plot points, or worse, spill spoilers throughout the critique.  To that end, this review will comprise one of my most simplistic plot descriptions of this extraordinary film by Irish director Lenny Abrahamson.
If you've read Emma Donahue's 2010 New York Times best seller, you have full knowledge of the plot.  If you haven't been exposed and avoided descriptions, this film is best savored without one knowing the twists and turns of this harrowing thought provoking masterpiece. 
The film opens quietly as we observe a five-year-old lying in bed with his mother.  The camera slowly reveals the "room" they occupy.  Measuring a mere 10 feet X 10 feet, we quickly learn why its occupants' lives exist totally in its narrow space.  As previously stated, why they are there and the events that follow will not be described here.  Suffice it to say that what unfolds will have you on the edge of your seat and jump start your analytical imagination as it ponders the psychological effects and incredible bond that exists between child and parent.

What will please those who read the novel is that Donahue also wrote the screenplay and both she and the director take a calculated risk imparting the narration to actor Jacob Tremblay who also plays the five-year-old.  The film is mainly told and viewed from his perspective and the result is one of the strongest child acting performances I have ever witnessed.  (Speaking to several folks in the audience after the screening who had read the book, I was informed that they were extremely pleased by the translation from written page to the screen-which is unsuccessful more often than not.) 

Also on display is a breakout performance by Brie Larson who recently appeared in this years comedic Trainwreck.  Relegated mainly to supporting roles in the past, her rendering as Ma allows her to display a spot-on range of emotions that should easily result in an acting nomination by The Academy in January. 

Supporting the two principals are veterans Joan Allen and William H. Macy, as the grandparents, who add their usual excellent acting chops to the proceedings.

Director Abrahamson is a talent to watch.  Although he has only directed two previous films (2013's What Richard Did and 2014's Frank) each has been critically acclaimed.  His third movie will certainly be well represented come awards time. 

UPCOMING:  The 50's period drama "Brooklyn"

Jack (Jack Tremblay) and Ma (Brie Larson) interacting in the

Ma and Grandma (Joan Allen) discussing their relationship

"SPOTLIGHT" - **** (129 minutes)

September 30, 2015

(Below is a recap of my review of the opening night film at the inaugural Investigative Film Festival in D.C.  Full coverage of the festival, including photos and reviews, are below this post.)

Another gem from writer/director Tom McCarthy (writer/director of 2003's terrific independent film The Station Agent and screenwriter for the animated Up from 2009). With a riveting screenplay (co-written with Josh Singer) and an excellent ensemble cast, including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Brian d'Arcy and Stanley Tucci, this was the perfect film to kick-off and emphasize the focus and goals for an investigative film festival. 

 Just months after 9/11, another blockbuster revelation literally grabbed the headlines that first appeared in The Boston Globe on January 2, 2002: “­ Church Allowed Abuse by Priest for Years”. The Globe's investigative team, know as Spotlight, was responsible for unearthing the abuse which, as it turns out, had been stealthily occurring in Boston for years. The film will bring to mind another great old-fashion newspaper movie, 1976's All the President's Men, as it details the painstaking work to uncover and ultimately bring to print the scandalous misdeeds. They ultimately unearthed about seventy cases in Boston alone and led to the disgracement of ­Cardinal Bernard Law, the Archbishop of Boston, who was later banished to Rome. The group's efforts earned them a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize in 2003 and since resulted in the revelation of multiple acts of clergy abuse in cities in the US and around the world – a fact that is hammered home in the rolling coda list at the film's conclusion. 

 Spotlight is one of the finest films this year and is certain to be well-represented at next years Academy Awards. The movie opened on a limited release on November 6.

UPCOMING:  The harrowing drama "Room"

 The Boston Globe Spotlight team (l to r):  Walter "Robby"
Robinson (Michael Keaton); Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber);
Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo); Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel
McAdams); Ben Bradlee Jr (John Slattery); Matty Carroll
(Brian D'Arcy James)

2015 Investigative Film Festival

With thousands of film festivals scattered throughout the world, the immediate question becomes, “Do we need yet another entry into a already overcrowded festival landscape?” After attending the inaugural 3-day “Double Exposure-Investigative Film Festival & Symposium” held in the nation's capital September 30-October 2, my answer is a resounding YES! Launched by the news organization 100Reporters and with The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as the founding sponsor, this intriguing premise by the nation's first investigative film festival was delivered in spades and then some.
100Reporters is described as a nonprofit investigative news organization that works with journalists in the U.S. and around the world to bring investigative reporting to a global audience. To this end, the organization has presented narrative and documentary features supplemented with compelling symposiums that reflect these goals. Their executive editor, Diana Jean Schemo, founded the festival and brought on board the previous long-time and extremely competent AFI Docs (formerly AFI Silverdocs) director, Sky Sitney to serve as Associate Director. As stated by Ms Sitney,“There’s been an avalanche of creative work that is straddling the lines between traditional filmmaking and investigative journalism. No other event in the nation’s capital is devoted exclusively to creating a space where journalists and filmmakers can interact and engage in an exchange of ideas, resources, and best practices.”
The films and symposiums were presented within easy walking distance in downtown D.C. at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, Newseum, and Wolly Mammoth Theater. The 14 symposiums conducted over two days included a multitude of over 60 prominent personalities including media experts, journalists, filmmakers, and principal players covering such topics as “A Case of Identity”, “Access and Advocacy”, “Encryption Workshop”, “Safety on the Frontlines”, “From Print to Screen”, “C#ns*rshi!p by Proxy”, “Dangerous Docs: A Report”, and “Storytelling on the Cutting Edge”. Another featured a conversation with one of cinema's premiere documentarians, Academy and Emmy Award winner Alex Gibney whose investigative works ranged from sports deceptions (Lance Armstrong) to sexual abuse in the Catholic Church to the inner workings of The Church of Scientology.
However, the highlight of the three days was a morning screening of director Johanna Hamilton's superb documentary 1971. The riveting film, which was released earlier this year and is currently available on iTunes, recounts how a small group of average citizens on March 8, 1971 broke into a small auxiliary FBI office in Media Pennsylvania and proceeded to steal all of the files. When they discovered covert illegal surveillance operations outlined in detail in the documents, they anonymously released the information to prominent media outlets to share with the world. Their actions resulted in the first Congressional investigations of U.S. intelligence agencies and forever changed the culture in which these organizations surreptitiously operated. For 43 years, the participants, which included parents, teachers, and ordinary citizens, remained unknown – until now. Their story is told by Hamilton using archival footage, interviews with the participants and reenactments which detail an operation by folks who risked everything in order to arrive at the truth.
Supplementing the film was an engrossing afternoon symposium entitled “Crossing Boundaries, Then and Now: A Case Study of 1971 Featuring Activist of 'The Burglary” and Edward Snowden” which included these panelists: The filmaker; the attorney representing the eight burglars, David Kairys; Betty Medsger the Washington Post reporter who received copies of the damning files from the burglars and who later wrote in 2014 “The Burglary” on which the film was based; burglars Bonnie and John Raines and Keith Forsyth; and appearing via Skype former CIA employee Edward Snowden currently exiled in Russia who in 2013 leaked classified NSA surveillance information that parallels the ideals and exploits described in 1971.
Here's hoping future Investigative festivals can be expanded into the weekend so that even more patrons will have ample opportunity to experience and savor this fascinating and significant festival. However, the bar has been set extremely high by the events experienced over these three days in D.C.

(1)  (T)error  (*** 1/2 out of 4 - 93 minutes)
9/11 has ushered in a new era and raised awareness of terrorism. A heightened level of government paranoia has revealed itself in FBI programs designed to flesh out potential terrorists – even when such threats are sketchy at best. Saeed “Shariff” Torres is a 63-year-old Muslim, former Black Panther, and ex-con. For over 20 years he has been an untrained paid FBI informant who now wishes to retire and open a bakery. When he told one of the filmmakers, a Harlem neighbor, that he was an informant, Torres agreed to have them film while he entraps a Pittsburgh target whom the FBI suspects of being a Taliban sympathizer. The catch is that Torres never informs his superiors that a documentary was being filmed. An extra layer of travesty is added when directors Lyric Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe begin interviewing the, at first, unsuspecting target and before long we realize that this Pittsburgh native has no intention at all of terrorizing anyone. This unprecedented documentary is equally humorous while watching the bumbling efforts of Torres, and terrifying as we witness first-hand the trampling of the First Amendment rights of innocent citizens, and is certain to linger in your mind and consciousness after its conclusion. (T)error, which won The Special Jury Prize at this year's Sundance and The Reva and David Logan Grand Jury Award at this years Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, opened in limited release on October 7.

(2)  Cartel Land  (*** 1/2 out of 4 - 100 minutes)
Winner, and richly deserving, of Sundance's Directing Award and Special Jury Award for Cinematography in the U.S. Documentary competition, director Matthew Heineman examines the war against the Mexican drug cartel by focusing, not on two goverments' efforts on the war on drugs, but on two vigilante groups operating from opposite sides of the border. By taking matters into their own hands, each is trying to accomplish what the Mexican and U.S government have failed to do. Dr. Jose Mireles (“El Doctor”) has established the Autodefensas in his home in Michoacan and, as a result, has become a national hero. We follow his efforts to rid the citizens of the ultra violent Knights Templar cartel while clearly risking his livelihood and life in the process. In Arizona's Altar Valley, otherwise known as “Cocaine Alley”, Tim “Nailer” Foley leads a small paramilitary group (The Arizona Border Recon) who try and prevent illegals and drug traffickers from entering the U.S. along a 52-mile desert stretch. Heineman gets extraordinary access to both groups (his opening shot of cartel cooks preparing meth for sale in the U.S. is amazing in itself). The filmmaker cuts back and forth between the two groups with the Mexican story the more interesting (at one point Heineman films while in the middle of a gun battle). Although vigilantism has generally been given a bad connotation, observing the activities and gruesome murders of the cartel will have you rooting for both individuals in their brave and thankless efforts to eradicate the prevailing evil around them. Cartel Land began its limited release on July 3.

(3)  Deep Web  (*** out of 4 - 86 minutes)
Director Alex Winter's documentary raises many more questions than it answers in this otherwise compelling exposé on the Deep Web, aka The Dark Net - the marketplace of the Internet untouched by search engines. In particular, Winter concentrates on Silk Road which was an Internet black market drug clearing house that anonymously hid buyers and sellers and operated from 2011-2013. After an introductory background explanation on the inner workings of the Deep Web, the film shifts specifically to Silk Road's alleged mastermind and administrator: 32-year-old Ross Ulbricht, who was arrested in 2013 and subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment last May. What isn't made clear, as the film intimately details Ulbricht's family and lawyers efforts to exonerate Ross, are the legal and ethical boundaries the government crossed in bringing about this conviction. Winter doesn't attempt to hide his subjectivity and that is my main problem with the doc. However, there is no denying that this work, in conjunction with other noted digital age-related films such as, The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz and the Academy Award winning Citizen Four, continue to raise issues that are sure to be questioned and debated long after the credits roll. Keanu Reeves (who worked with the director in the Bill and Ted franchise) supplies competent narration for the EPIX-produced documentary that is currently available on Apple iTunes.

(4)  Drone  (**1/2 out of 4 - 80 minutes) Here is a somewhat imbalanced report on drone use in warfare by the US military and CIA. Swedish director Tonje Hessen Schei presents somewhat slated investigative reporting on the effects the use of drones and the ways it is changing how conflicts are waged by the US.   Schei relates the history of its creation (originally drones were manufactured to aid fishermen locate tuna) continuing to its use in the military-industrial complex shortly after 9/11. Included are interviews, archival footage and simulations to pound home her point that drone operation, by recruited video game enthusiasts, kill innocents thousands of miles from their joysticks. Part of the focus is on the Waziristan region of Pakistan where drone strikes have claimed the lives of innocent citizens as US operators attempt to eliminate terrorists in the region. So fearful are its residents of future attacks, they have placed huge posters of children on rooftops to alert drone operators thousands of miles away to drop their bombs elsewhere. Pakistani lawsuits against the U.S. are pending (good luck with that!). In the US, a damaged former drone operator, Brandon Bryant, now campaigns against the techniques. The fact that his actions have killed over 1,600 people is sobering when considering the US's deadliest sniper Chris Kyle (the subject of last year's film Sniper) killed about 150 or so. The doc is so one-sided that I found myself wanting information about drone warfare employed by other countries. Also, I was bothered by her under-reporting of other issues raised. In the end, although competently filmed, the sensationalized documentary left me as cold as its message.

(5)  Spotlight  (**** out of 4 - 127 minutes) The opening night film, and the only narrative presented at the festival, is another gem from writer/director Tom McCarthy (writer/director of 2003's terrific independent film The Station Agent and screenwriter for the animated Up from 2009). With a riveting screenplay (co-written with Josh Singer) and an excellent ensemble cast, including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Brian d'Arcy and Stanley Tucci, this was the perfect film to kick-off and emphasize the focus and goals for an investigative film festival. Just months after 9/11, another blockbuster revelation literally grabbed the headlines that first appeared in The Boston Globe on January 2, 2002: “­ Church Allowed Abuse by Priest for Years”. The Globe's investigative team, know as Spotlight, was responsible for unearthing the abuse which, as it turns out, had been stealthily occurring in Boston for years. The film will bring to mind another great old-fashion newspaper movie, 1976's All the President's Men, as it details the painstaking work to uncover and ultimately bring to print the scandalous misdeeds. They ultimately unearthed about seventy cases in Boston alone and led to the disgracement of ­Cardinal Bernard Law, the Archbishop of Boston, who was later banished to Rome. The group's efforts earned them a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize in 2003 and since resulted in the revelation of multiple acts of clergy abuse in cities in the US and around the world – a fact that is hammered home in the rolling coda list at the film's conclusion. Spotlight is one of the finest films this year and is certain to be well-represented at next years Academy Awards. The movie opened on a limited release on November 6.

(6)  The Storm Makers (66 minutes) (Director Guillaume Suon's documentary looks at human trafficking in Cambodia through the eyes of an ex-slave and was not screened at the festival.)

(7)  The True Cost  (**1/2 out of 4 - 92 minutes) Director Andrew Morgan, whose narration leaves a lot to be desired, covers the “fast fashion” industry discussing the clothes, the people who make them and the impact it is having on the world. Damning statistics include the fact that the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world (oil is #1); clothes consumption has skyrocketed to 500% over the last two decades; and America is currently producing only 3% of its own clothing (compared to 95% in 1960) with the other 97% being outsourced to developing countries. Bangladesh is offered as an example of the deplorable conditions the ridiculously low paid workers undergo in the sweatshops. Coverage includes the tragedy there in 2013 where a building, previously declared unsafe, collapsed resulting in over 1000 workers killed. The doom and gloom continues as Morgan proceeds to illustrate the devastation of the environment where the cotton demand has added an over abundance of pesticides and the resultant river pollution has led to a significant rise in cancer and birth defects. Landfills are shown in Haiti filled with mountains of discarded non-biodegradable used clothing. Interspersed are the obvious advertising YouTube clips of attractive young females as if to proclaim how cool it is possess the cheap wares purchased at your nearest Target, H and M, Forever 21, etc. The director cuts back and forth and back again as he incessantly hammers home points many of which are not revelations and could have been made easily in less than 20 minutes. Also, I would have liked a discussion of how retailers might send their markups to improve manufacturing conditions instead of being earmarked to their pockets or overall, offer some kind of hope for the rest of the planet. In the end, this film about clothes just might have you immediately disrobe and head for the nearest nudist colony.


On the Red Carpet (l to r):  Spotlight reporter Michael
Rezendes; former Boston Globe editor and current executive
editor of the Washington Post Martin Baron; IFF founding
director Diana Jean Schemo; "Spotlight" co-writer Josh
Singer; "Spotlight" director Tom McCarthy; Spotlight reporter
Sacha Pfeiffer; lead Spotlight reporter Ben Bradlee Jr; 
Spotlight reporter Walter Robinson; IFF Associate Director
Sky Sitney
IFF Founding Director Diana Jean Schemo
opens the festival

Post film panel discussion (l to r):  Moderator author,
journalist and TV writer/producer David Simon; Martin
Baron; Sacha Pfeiffer; Josh Singer; Tom MCarthy; Ben
Bradlee Jr;  Walter Robinson; Michael Rezendes

The opening night after-party held in the National Portrait
Gallery atrium

 Director Alex Gibney (l) in conversation with author and
fellow at the New America Foundation and former editor
of "The New Republic" Franklin Foer

Panelists at the "Crossing Boundaries, Then and Now:  A
Case Study of '1971' Featuring Activists of 'The Burglary'
and Edward Snowden":  (l to r), activists John and Bonnie
Raines, journalist and author Betty Medsgar; director
Johanna Hamilton; attorney David Kairys; activist Keith
Forsyth; moderator Charles Lewis (off camera is whistle blower
Edward Snowden appearing from Russia via Skype)


Washington, D.C. – September 2, 2015 – The award-winning nonprofit news organization, 100Reporters, announced today the launch of the first-ever Investigative Film Festival (IFF) and Symposium in the United States.
The Investigative Film Festival will run from September 30 to October 2 at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Newseum, and Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C. The festival will offer a new, more social and provocative way of experiencing films, with a focus on dramatic and documentary works inspired by the investigative instinct and discussions that connect films with the real people behind the stories.
The festival will open with the Washington premiere of “Spotlight,” the upcoming film that is the true story of the Boston Globe’s reporting on the sexual abuse of children by priests and the ensuing cover-up by the archdiocese. The Globe’s reporting shook the entire Catholic church to its core, and won the paper a Pulitzer Prize in 2003. Directed by Oscar-nominee Tom McCarthy and featuring an all-star cast including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci, John Slattery and Brian D’Arcy James, “Spotlight” dramatizes the power of investigative reporting to challenge injustice, even where entrenched institutions are involved. Open Road Films will release “Spotlight” in select theaters on November 6 and the film will open nationwide November 20.
“The IFF unfolds amid an explosion of creativity, as traditional boundaries blur and collide between journalists and visual storytellers,” said 100Reporters’ Executive Editor Diana Jean Schemo, who is founding director of the festival. “Our goal with the IFF is to shine a light on the critical role investigative reporting plays in today’s society.”
In conjunction with screenings for the general public, the festival will host investigative journalists and visual storytellers for a two-day symposium, where they can network, share best practices, learn new skills and hear from commissioning editors and funders.
Sky Sitney, industry veteran and former director of AFI Docs, is producing the festival, working alongside Ms. Schemo to develop the program and enlist leading filmmakers and investigative journalists to join the conversation.
“There’s been an avalanche of creative work that is straddling the lines between traditional filmmaking and investigative journalism,” said Ms. Sitney. “No other event in the nation’s capital is devoted exclusively to creating a space where journalists and filmmakers can interact and engage in an exchange of ideas, resources, and best practices.”
The John D. and Catherine T.  MacArthur Foundation is the founding sponsor of the festival, which also enjoys support from the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Ford Foundation and Participant Media.
Those interested in attending the IFF film screenings and symposium can purchase individual tickets online and on-site, as well as a Film Pass, which allows entry into all six film screenings at the National Portrait Galley (excluding Opening Night). An All Access Pass is also available and includes entry to all films and symposium programming, including meals and festival events.
For more information on the Investigative Film Festival and Symposium, including tickets, programming, panels and speakers, visit http://www.investigativefilmfestival.com. 

About 100Reporters
100Reporters (http://100R.org) is a news organization dedicated to forging new frontiers in responsible journalism. It joins scores of the planet’s finest professional reporters with whistleblowers across the globe to report on corruption and promote civic accountability. The organization, spearheaded by veteran correspondents of top-tier news outlets, aims to raise the caliber, impact and visibility of watchdog journalism, as a means of promoting transparency and good government.

2015 AFI DOCS Documentary Film Festival

The 13th edition of the festival showcased 81 films representing 25 countries, including four world premieres, three U.S. premieres and four East Coast premieres.  For the second year, ATandT continues as the main presenting sponsorship for one of this nation’s premiere documentary film festival.

For the third consecutive year, the venues again expand from the previous Silver Spring Maryland home base at the AFI Silver Theater into downtown Washington DC where many of the filmatic issues that are presented on screen are hoped to generate immediate dialogue, and possible change, between Congress, the President’s Cabinet, Supreme Court, and journalists.

Also, the festival now has a permanent director.  Effective January 1, Michael Lumpkin (producer of 1995’s The Celluloid Closet) succeeds temporary Director Christine O’Malley (producer of Wordplay and I.O.U.S.A.) who replaced the very competent Skye Sitney after an eight year stint. Lumpkin was director of the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival and served as a Sundance Film Festival juror.  Most recently he was the executive director of the L.A.-based International Documentary Association.

A couple of noted adjustments from the previous two years included tightening the distance between venues in DC’s Penn Quarter, allowing film goers the opportunity to travel to screenings within a seven block radius.  Also, those wishing to stay put in Silver Spring to avoid the traffic and parking hassles involved in negotiating the seven mile trip south to DC, were rewarded this year by the festival organizers who presented nearly all of the features and shorts programs at the glorious AFI Silver Theater over the course of the five days.  However, one disappointing change for those who wished to see docs that were missed during the five days was shortening the day-after Monday schedule at the AFI Silver to only four films in the smallest theater (the Audience Award winner and three festival favorites) instead of using all three theaters for multiple screenings throughout the day.

Finally, the festival also included special screenings with expanded QandA panels, a two-day Filmmaker Conference and presented its annual Guggenheim Award to Stanley Nelson whose major focus has dealt with African-American History. Among his numerous achievements is The Murder of Emmett Till, which won Sundance’s 2003 Special Jury Prize, the George Foster Peabody Award and an Emmy for Best Director-Nonfiction. The film was instrumental in the reopening of the case by the Justice Department in 1955. Other noteworthy works include Beyond Brown:  Pursuing The Promise, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple and Freedom Riders.  His latest film The Black Panthers:  Vanguard of the Revolution screened at the festival.  Distinguished Washington Post movie critic Ann Hornaday, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2008, was once again on hand to moderate and expertly interview Nelson following a retrospective presentation.

NOTE:  The Audience Award for Best Feature went to WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? which was directed by Liz Garbus (THE FARM: ANGOLA, USA) which made my top 10 (see below for synopsis).  The Audience Award for Best Short went to A CONVERSATION WITH MY  BLACK SON directed by Blair Foster (co-producer of TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE) and Geeta Gandbhir (editor of BY THE PEOPLE:  THE ELECTION OF BARACK OBAMA) which consists of a series of interviews with racially diverse parents describing conversations they had with their young black sons about dealing with racism and their interaction with the police.


(1)  Peace Officer  (**** out of 4 – 109 minutes)

Directors Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber, in a brilliantly constructed first feature, examines the increasing militarization of  America’s police forces by focusing on William “Dub” Lawrence, a retired police officer who founded Utah’s SWAT in the 1970s.  When his son-in-law was killed during a stand-off with police in September 2008, Dub launched an independent investigation to prove he was murdered as a result of unnecessary excessive force.  Other examples are presented which mirror the recent headline grabbing incidents involving police misconduct in Ferguson, Baltimore and New York.  However, it is the extremely likable and charismatic Lawrence who steals the show as the filmmakers detail his incredible detective skills that will have you amazed.   The increasingly disturbing trend in police tactics, a potentially depressing scenario, is made tolerable and gripping that ultimately raises Dub to hero status by films end.  Winner of two awards at this years SXSW Film Festival, the doc is scheduled for an early October theatrical release followed by an airing on PBS’ Independent Lens series in 2016.

(2)  Steve Jobs:  The Man in the Machine  (*** 1 /2 out of 4 – 128 minutes)

Academy Award winner (Taxi to the Dark Side) Alex Gibney begins his CNN-produced exposé on the late computer genius with the announcement of his death in October 2011 showing the immense world-wide outpouring of grief that resulted-mostly by Apple consumers.  However, those who aren’t privy to the particulars of his life and dealings at the start, may have a completely opposite reaction by the end of the film.  Gibney encapsulates the highlights of his achievements beginning with his partnership with friend Steve Wozniak in 1971when they designed a digital-circuit blue box designed to rip off long distance calls from phone companies.  At the time of his demise, under his second leadership stint, Apple had become one of the most successful corporations in the world. Expertly edited by Michael J. Palmer, the film could have benefited from some judicious cuts.  However, the numerous controversies swirling around Jobs’ personal and public persona, are what make these two hours totally engrossing and, in some cases, eye-opening.  Steve Jobs:  The Man in the Machine had its East Coast premier at the Festival and is being released on September 15.

(3)  Uncertain  (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 82 minutes)

First time documentary feature directors Ewan McNicol and Ann Sandilands were making a short film in Lafayette Louisiana.  Having three days to kill they looked at a map of nearby areas and noticed a town named Uncertain next to a body of water on the Texas-Louisiana border.  Their curiosity led them to the sparsely populated town which totaled 94 occupants.  Their planned short film about the unusually named town turned into an 82-minute gem which earned them the Alfred Maysles New Director Award at this years Tribeca Film Festival.  This quietly haunting film, beautifully complemented with an infectious banjo/violin score by Daniel Hart, focuses on three of Uncertain’s residents:  a twenty-one diabetic alcoholic living day-to-day lamenting the lack of work and available women, a reformed ex-con who matches wits throughout the film with an elusive boar and a 74-year-old reborn Christian fisherman who sees nothing but positives in his meager existence.  A back story about Caddo Lake, the town’s main attraction and economic foundation being threaten by an overgrowing weed infestation, weaves in and out of the narrative.  However, it is the personal lives of these three individuals that will hold your interest and have you marvel at those who try to survive in such paltry conditions.

(4)  Welcome to Leith  (*** 1/2 out of 4 86 minutes)

As gripping as any good fictional horror story is this feature by directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker.  Leith is a sleepy 3-square mile town in rural North Dakota with a population of 24.  When bearded loner Craig Cobb arrived in 2012, little did the handful of townsfolk realize the threat to their very existence was at stake.  It turns out Cobb was a neo-Nazi intent on overtaking the enclave by buying property and bringing in his white supremacist cohorts with plans on outnumbering the town council and making Leith their own personal mecca.  The filmmakers show amazing objectivity while raising pertinent questions involving first amendment and legal gun carriage rights as they document a nightmare scenario facing many communities who just want to be left alone in peace.  A brilliant electronic score by Tim Hecker accompanies the amazing footage obtained by the directors.

(5)  What Happened, Miss Simone?  (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 102 minutes)

Biopics as a documentary genre are helped immeasurably when the subjects are complex and talented.  Twice Oscar nominated competent director Liz Garbus, had both of these attributes available to her by the bucket loads with this fascinating profile of the soul/jazz/folk/classical/gospel diva Nina Simone.  Beginning with her performance at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, Garbus then takes us through her complicated life.  Growing up in Tyron, North Carolina as Eunice Waymon (born in 1933) Simone began training at the age of 3 as a classical pianist, her first love, and eventually dreamed of becoming the first black female classical pianist to perform at Carnegie Hall.  Ironically, after the husky voice tenor had her breakout year in 1959 with the standard “I Love You Porky”, she performed there in 1964 as a pop singer.  Garbus infuses the doc with tons of archival footage, photographs, interviews, letters, and diary excerpts that reveal a tortured soul who embraced the Civil Rights movement in the 60s while suffering an abusive relationship with a demanding husband.  In the 70s she later exiled to Liberia.  In the 80s Simone was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder.  However, it is the amazing concert and TV performance footage (often complete takes) showing her enormous talent that makes this film a standout and a must-see.  The film had a limited theatrical beginning June 24 but is currently available on NETFLIX.

(6)  Tyke Elephant Outlaw  (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 78 minutes)

In March of this year, Ringling Bros, under pressure from animal activist, announced they were phasing out their use of elephants by 2018.  When Tyke the circus elephant killed her trainer and severely injured her groom before going on a rampage in Honolulu in August 1994, one has to wonder, after seeing this important heartbreaking film, how it took over 20 years to announce the ban.  Directors Stefan Moore and Susan Lambert takes the viewers into the world of circus elephant training where abuse and torture are the norm so that these majestic creatures can successfully entertain humans.  The filmmakers interviewed circus performers and obtained fascinating eyewitness testimony from those present under the big top when the incident took place.  Also included are interviews with those who worked closely with Tyke and who knew and warned others that she should not be be allowed to perform after previous close calls in the past.  Their unheeded warnings resulted in her violent unnecessary death at the hands of the police on the streets of Honolulu.   The film is expertly edited and is yet another obscene example of man’s continual quest for entertainment at the expense of animal cruelty.

(7)  Prophet’s Prey  (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 93 minutes)

Cults have long been a favorite topic for documentarians.  From Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple to most recently Scientology, there exists an endless fascination of the inner workings of  these leaders and the people who follow.  With Prophet’s Prey, Amy Berg tackles the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and its now incarcerated monstrous leader Warren Steed Jeffs.  Using instructive animation at the start, Berg gives a history of the LDS in the 1800s which led to the emergence of the FLDS in the early 20th century.  After  founder Rulon Jeffs died in 2002 (it is strongly suggested that it was the result of foul play) his son Warren took over.  What follows are comprehensive incriminating evidence from some of his 63 wives (some as young as 12 years old) as well as interviews with victims, former members and outside investigators which document repeated sexual abuses (including those with relatives).   A chilling audio recording of Jeffs’ rape of a twelve year old victim is also presented.  The self-proclaimed god also managed to gain complete financial control of  his congregation before his capture.   Despite his 2011 sentence of life plus 20 years, Jeffs still maintains control behind bars of up to 10,000 members that continue to blindly follow him.  Berg includes an effective haunting score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis which complements the disturbing story.  The doc will have a fall theatrical release before premiering on Showtime.

(8)  King Georges  (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 77 minutes)

King Georges is French chef extraordinaire Georges Perrier.  His landmark Philadelphia restaurant, Le Bec Fin (“fine palate”), was considered the nation’s best French dining experience during its over 40-year existence.  When director Erika Frankel heard that the restaurant was closing, she turned her cameras on the passionate owner and exquisite legendary eatery to document its last days and dealings with the changing times and tastes of its customers.  The unexpected twist that transpired after filming began when Le Bec Fin received a surprisingly negative review, could not have been scripted any better.  The doc is made even more enjoyable while profiling Georges’ exuberant fiery personality.  A foodie’s delight.

(9)  The Russian Woodpecker  (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 80 minutes)

Ukrainian eccentric artist Fedor Alexandrovich was 4-years-old and living in Chernobyl during the nuclear disaster in 1986.  He has always been bothered about the cause of the meltdown-the details of which have always been shrouded in mystery.  He was also aware of an abandoned enormous structure, the Duga, located next to the plant.  The Duga cost twice as much to construct as the nuclear plant and transmitted a rapid fired clicking signal (hence the title of the film) that supposedly was designed to interfere with Western government communications.  Fedor theorized the two were connected and set about to prove his theory that the nuclear catastrophe that killed and poisoned  thousands was no accident and was part of a cover-up.   First-time director Chad Gracia follows Fedor as he visits the disaster site and interviews (sometimes with hidden camera) former high ranking Russian officials in order to get at the truth.   Also  included are historical perspectives and current Ukranian unrest footage to place proper context to the overall proceedings which mixes dark comedy (some of Alexandrovich’s antics are outrageous) with sobering realizations. The film was this years winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize For World Documentary.

(10)   Best of Enemies  (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 87 minutes)

Ever wonder about the origins of todays political debates between the multitude of talking heads held on a myriad of networks such as CNN and FOX?  Director Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon have the answer.  Their hilarious look back at the infamous Buckley/Vidal debates during the 1968 Republican and Democratic Presidential Conventions is a total hoot.  ABC, languishing in the ratings basement, decided to enlist right-winger William F. Buckley, a mainstay on PBS’ “Firing Line”, to debate left-winger Gore Vidal, author of the scandalous “Myra Breckinridge”, during the coverage of the conventions.  The match seemed ideal – particularly since it was known that each had total political and personal disdain for the other.  The ideological live clashes between two of the most pompous celebrities of this or any other time reached its nadir near the last of the ten debates when Vidal called Buckley a “neo-Nazi”, who promptly retorted by calling Vidal a “queer”.   The result was delicious television history and sheer fun for all of us.   Best of Enemies has a limited theatrical release on July 31.
City of Gold
Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead:  The Story of The National

Frame By Frame
The Yes Men Are Revolting


(L-R)  BEST OF ENEMIES filmmakers Robert Gordon and
Morgan Neville with AFI DOCS Festival Director, Michael
Lumpkin and American Film Institute President and CEO,
 Bob Gazzale on the Opening Night Red Carpet

Former ABC news anchor Sam Donaldson on the Opening
Night Red Carpet
AFI President and CEO, Bob Gazzale, welcomes the Opening
Night audience to AFI DOCS and the screening of
(L-R) Kristin Roberts, Managing Editor of the National
Journal during the post-screening QandA of BEST OF
ENEMIES with filmmakers Morgan Neville and
Robert Gordon
Guests of the AFI DOCS Opening Night reception at the

"EX MACHINA" - **** (108 minutes)

Thursday May 21, 2015
Finally!  An intelligent sci-fi flick to sink one's teeth and mind into.  British screenwriter Alex Garland (responsible for scripting Danny Boyle's excellent sci-fi films 2003's 28 Days Later and 2007's Sunshine) does double duty for the first time while also directing this indie masterpiece.  
The movie begins with computer programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) starring at an Email informing him that he won an in-house contest run by CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), creator of the world's largest and most successful Google-like company, Blue Book.  The prize:  a week-long stay hanging-out with Bateman at his secluded compound.  Upon his arrival, Smith learns that he was selected to lead a "Turing Test" to determine if Garland's newly created robot exhibits intelligent behavior indistinguishable from that of a human.  As Smith soon finds out, matching wits with the sensual AI leads to a surprising outcome that neither he nor his boss could have ever imagined.
Ava is the animatronic invention under scrutiny, and, as superbly played by Danish actress Alicia Vikander (who was classically trained in ballet), she brings an immense grace and sexuality that equally matches her comprehension. Vikander's portrayal is crucial to the tale and is one of the joys this parable brings forth.  Splendid seamless CGI makes her presence totally believable and utterly logical that she is capable of casting a spell over both her creator and assessor.
The ever competent Oscar Isaac, (The Coen Brothers' 2013 Inside Llewyn Davis), sports a shaved head and full beard and is terrific as he constantly wavers back and forth from benevolent boss to bully in his interactions with his naïve employee. 
Finally, a special mention goes out to the incredible original orchestration composed by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow which underscores and beautifully compliments the increasingly ominous plot.
Ex Machina (based on the Greek deus ex machina, which means, according to Merriam-Webster, "a character or thing that suddenly enters the story in a novel, play, movie, etc., and solves a problem that had previously seemed impossible to solve") is a thriller that is short on action but huge on intellect and suspense that will likely stay with you long after you leave the theater.  And Garland's stylish and unsettling narrative and direction clearly makes him a major talent to watch in the future.
The film was released nationwide on April 24 but is still playing nearly two months later in the Baltimore-DC area.  So far it is the best film I've screened this year and, if possible, should not be missed on the big screen.

UPCOMING:  Coverage of  the 13th edition of the AFI DOCS documentary film festival held in Silver Spring MD and Washington DC that runs from Wednesday June 17-Sunday June 21
         Nathan Bateman (Oscar Issac)(r), shows Caleb Smith
                     (Domhnall Gleeson) his laboratory

 Eva (Alicia Vikander) happens upon the faces of future robots

"ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL" - *1/2 (104 minutes)

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl movie poster
Wednesday May 20, 2015
As a longtime champion of independent cinema (as my attendance at Sundance for seven years can attest) it was with great anticipation when I sat down for a preview of this years Dramatic Grand Jury and Audience Award winner at Robert Redford's festival last January.  Unfortunately, anticipation melded into utter perplexity.  For me, "Me and Earl and The Dying Girl" is this years "Juno".  You can count me in the minority of critics who gave thumbs down on that 2007 Jason Reitman directed Indie that incredibly made its way to the Academy's Best Picture list. 
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon directed the coming-of-age cliché-ridden script by newcomer Jesse Andrews that focuses on teenager Greg (Thomas Mann), whose annoying narration explaining his thoughts and actions throughout had me cringing nearly the entire length of this disappointing film.  We follow Greg, a self-professed self-indulged loner and geek, who is persuaded by mom (Connie Britton) to pay a visit to Rachel (Olivia Cooke) who happens to be dying of cancer -  a classmate he has never met.  When he shows up, he is greeted at the door by Rachel's boozed-up mom (ex-Saturday Night Live veteran, Molly Shannon) whose character can best be described as creepy as she fawns over the teenager at her door - and throughout the film .  
Greg and Rachel's meeting is naturally awkward -  especially when Greg reveals he is only visiting as a charity request by his parent.  Of course, this leads to a inspirational platonic relationship where Rachel "teaches" Greg to be a more caring grown-up human being. 
Introduced into the story is Greg's African-American friend since childhood,  Earl (RJ Cyler) whom he refers to as his "co-worker".  It seems both have interpreted the world through old film classics and went about creating satirical videos (e.g. The 400 Bros, The Sockwork Orange, and 2:48 p.m. Cowboy).  Their humorous work is scattered throughout, and are the highlights of the movie. 
It is ironic that the word "honest" is mentioned during the film to describe the principals.  However, for me, Me and Earl and The Dying Girl is chock full of  characters that are not fully drawn and was, ultimately, a letdown. 

You can accurately predict where the narrative is leading and, in the end, I could have cared less - other than when it would all end. 
The movie opened nationwide on June 12.

UPCOMING:  The Indie AI Sci-Fi  "Ex Machina"
Rachel (Olivia Cooke), Greg (Thomas Mann) and Earl
(CJ Cyler)


Neil Patrick Harris

Friday February 27, 2015 
THE SHOW (** 1/2)
In my preshow commentary, I questioned whether Neil Patrick Harris would add to the growing current list of non-consecutive hosts of the annual telecast.  Here's my early prediction for next year:  Yes.  Not that the dude was horrible.  He just wasn't that good or even memorable.  I almost missed Degeneres' syrupy shtick from last year.  Well, almost.    NPH's opening, where CGI inserted him in movie clips, has been done before; so nothing memorable there.  And his best bit where he roamed the aisles bantering with the stars he happened upon was done better and easier by Ellen.  His flubbing of names on several occasions actually made John Travolta proud.  And his overlong joke/magic trick involving Octavia Spencer, insisting that she watch his prediction box throughout the show, was embarrassing and annoying.  Was anyone awake at the end to see he had predicted events during the show?  Did anyone really care??  The producers need to hire writers and a host with more of an edge.  Jimmy Kimmel or, now that he might have more time on his hands, Jon Stewart come to mind.
As for the show itself, the 87th version clocked in at 3 hours, 22 minutes and 9 seconds (but who's counting).  It was 8 minutes longer than last years extravaganza (and, once again, it seemed a lot longer); but, thankfully, it still was 61 minutes shorter than the all-time snooze-fest in 2002 (can you even imagine!). And, according to "Variety", the final Nielsen numbers translated to a average of 36.6 million viewers and a 10.8 rating in adults 18-49 — declines of 16% and 18% respectively from last year (43.7 million and 13.1). These were the lowest totals in six years.  A large part of that was probably due to the dearth of known popular films among the nominated as only one of the Best Picture nominees (American Sniper) was a box office hit.   Or was it partly due to Harris as the host?  The answer to that one will have to wait until next year.   
Again, my annual apologies to Sergio Leone, as this breakdown will pretty much sum up the event through this reviewer's eyes:
- The acceptance speeches were, for the most part, concise and even memorable (more on that below).  Also, the orchestra only had to chase the lessor award winners on only a few occasions for going over their time limitation.  (However, see my comment under The Bad where the orchestra did a faux pas during one of these speeches.)
- No audience selfies.  Social media had to settle for the multitude of tweets invading cyberspace during the show.
- Travolta finally getting Idina Menzel's name right in one of the better introduction bits.
- Lady Gaga's tribute to Julie Andrews and The Sound of Music.  The pop star can sing and is trying to prove it to most of the world who consider her as merely a caricature.  The praise she received from Dame Andrews afterward was more than well-deserved. 
- The Best Song performances were memorable - especially the upbeat "Everything is Awesome" (from The Lego Movie) and "Glory" (from Selma).  The rousing performance by John Legend and Common from the latter, with support from about 200 folks onstage, had many in the audience in tears. 
- Good (but not memorable) was this year's opener mentioned above.  It's time to change things up in this department, Oscar producers. 
- Production numbers (other than some of the song nominees) were, once again absent,  which helped keep the running time down (but, unfortunately, not down enough).  Also missing were the usual themes infused with 2 - 3 second clips from past films which usually failed to satisfy and only served to lengthen the proceedings.
Birdman walking away with four major awards:  Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, and Cinematography:  all totally deserved.   
- Harris' name pronunciations.  Was Travolta his coach?  Didn't he have long enough time to practice?? 
- And Harris' extremely misguided "joke" after Citizenfour won Best Documentary (about Edward Snowden and his whistleblowing on the massive covert surveillance programs run by the NSA and other intelligence agencies).  The host stated the Snowden couldn't "be here tonight for some treason".  Hey Neil - it would be nice to include that snide remark if the guy, who many consider a national hero, was actually convicted of this crime!  A disgusting ignorant statement that was totally inappropriate and, I'm sure, offended many a viewer - including myself. 
- Once again, the producers left out notable mentions during the In Memoriam segment:  Joan Rivers as well as screenwriter Elaine Stritch who has penned numerous scripts during her career.  Rivers definitely should have been included having appeared in numerous films, including writing and directing Billy Crystal in 1978's Rabbit Test.  Not to mention that her yearly presence on the Red Carpet was a mainstay at The Oscars.  Their excuse that there wasn't enough time to include her on the telecast so they placed her on their website, was lame at best. 
- According to how you look at it, Harris' bit mocking Birdman in which he was, ultimately, locked out of his dressing room and appearing onstage in his tighty whities.  First of all, a lot of America probably didn't get the joke since so few have seen the film.  And the idea was stolen from the writers over at The Independent Spirit Awards televised the night before - whose skit by ISA hosts Fred Armisten and Kristen Bell was funnier and more original.  (Note:  The Independent Spirit Awards, honoring independent films and held in Santa Monica while being televised each year on IFC the day before the Oscars, is the best award show of the season.  The 30th edition this year was funnier and miles more entertaining that The Oscars.  Held in a tent with liquor on every table makes it an unpredictable affair and worth seeing!)
-  The writing - especially for Harris' one-liners and puns which, more often than not, misfired and fell flat. 
- The orchestra unfortunately chimed in and rushed Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Dana Perry (who won the Oscar for best documentary short subject for their film Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1) just as Perry began to relate her son's suicide in 2005.  The conductor, or someone, needs to listen to the speeches and determine when it is not appropriate to start the rush-off music. 
- If that wasn't bad enough, Harris comes out and poorly times what, unfortunately, was his funniest line of the night (see below).
- John Travolta still refusing to age gracefully.  Hey Barbarino, stop groping women's faces and start looking and acting your age already!
- Lady Gaga's red leather gloves worn up to her elbows on the Red Carpet.  I wasn't sure if she was attending the Oscars or getting ready to perform an autopsy. 
- Sean Penn's announcement of  the Best Picture Winner.  Before divulging the winning film, he referred to the Mexican national director Alejandro G. Iñárritu by joking "Who gave this son of a bitch his green card?" I personally wasn't offended but social media was on fire with the politically incorrect reference.  Including inside jokes is never a good idea when only two people (namely, Penn and Iñárritu) get it while millions of folks, including those in the audience, don't. 
- Not getting this broadcast, again, at least under three hours. 
Neil Patrick Harris, commenting on the Dana Perry's dress, which looked liked someone attached a bunch of large black furry balls, joked, "It takes a lot of balls to wear a dress like that".
Neil Patrick Harris' joke about Danna Perry's dress came just after Perry's suicide announcement.
 Repeated references to John Travolta's mispronouncing of Idina Menzel's name - even by Menzel herself. 
John Travolta 
Imitation Game's screenwriter Graham Moore after winning the Best Adapted Screenplay.  After revealing that he attempted suicide at the age of 16, Moore spoke to teenagers who might be similarly struggling.  "Stay weird, stay different, and then when it's your turn and you are standing on this stage, please pass the same message to the next person who comes along."
Best Director winner Alejandro González Iñárritu who said that, for good luck, he was wearing Keaton's tighty whities.
J.K. Simmons who implored everyone to "Call your mom, call your dad. If you're lucky enough to have a parent or two alive on this planet, call 'em. Don't text, don't email, call them on the phone. Tell them you love them. Thank them and listen to them for as long as they wanna talk to you."
Best Foreign Language Film winner Pawel Pawlikowski (Poland's Ida) ended up thanking everyone from his film crew, his late wife, his deceased parents and his children ("who are hopefully watching, who are still alive!") while telling his drunk crew in Poland to keep drinking.
Lego Oscars handed out to several audience member during the "Everything Is Awesome" performance.
The Birdman spoof which was done so much better the night before during the Independent Spirit Awards.  I presumed the producers figured virtually no one would be tuning in to the most entertaining awards show of the season, held each year on IFC.  
Patricia Arquette calling for wage equality for women, which resulted in a firestorm in social media on both sides of the issue. 
Harris' remark while introducing the Outstanding Animation Feature proclaiming that, "If you are at an Oscar party with the guys who made The Lego Movie, now would be an excellent time to start distracting them."
Eddie Redmayne who won the the Best Actor Oscar who genuinely proclaimed, "“I can’t believe I’m up here!”
Best Director winner Alejandro G. Iñárritu who related that, "Fear is the condom of life. It doesn't allow you to enjoy things."  
UPCOMING:  The 2015 Sundance Dramatic Grand Prize and Audience Award winner:  "Me & Earl & The Dying Girl"
Oscars TV Review
Harris brings some dignity to the annual extravaganza
87th Annual Academy Awards - Show
  Lady Gaga belting out the musical highlight of the evening