POWr Hit Counter

2017 PRE-AA RAMBLING THOUGHTS/PREDICTIONS


Saturday February 25, 2017

THOUGHTS:

- 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 . . . 

PREDICTIONS:

BEST PICTURE
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
THE BEST FILM NOT NOMINATED FOR A BEST PICTURE
        Deadpool     

BEST DIRECTOR
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. 

BEST LEADING ACTOR
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.

BEST LEADING ACTRESS
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.      

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
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.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
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.

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
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.   

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
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.

BEST FILM EDITING
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.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
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.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
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.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
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.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
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.

BEST DOCUMENTARY
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.  


STOP BACK NEXT WEEK FOR MY POST-AA REPORT

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.

BELOW ARE REVIEWS, IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER, OF THE EIGHT FEATURES PRESENTED AT THIS YEARS 3-DAY 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.



OPENING NIGHT PHOTOS:

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
Huang


AFTER FILM PANEL PHOTOS:


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


"ALL GOVERNMENTS LIE:  TRUTH, DECEPTION,  
AND THE SPIRIT OF I.F. STONE" (l to r):
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


"FIRE AT SEA (FUOCOAMMARE)":
Moderator and co-founder of the Migration
Policy Institure Kathleen Newland; New York
Times journalist Ron Nixon


"SOUR GRAPES":
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



"ABACAS:  SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL" (l to r):
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