Thursday, July 17, 2014

FILM REVIEW: PLANES FIRE & RESCUE

A scene from Planes: Fire & Rescue.
Newcomer on the job

By John Esther

Before the opening credits roll in director Bobs Gannaway's Planes: Fire & Rescue, Disney dedicates the movie "To the courageous firefighters throughout the world who risk their lives to save the lives of others." It is a nice, well deserved gesture and it tells you immediately where the heart of this film beats. 

The follow up to last year's Planes, this animated feature follows the highs and lows -- literally and metaphorically -- of Dusty Crophopper (voice by Dane Cook), a plane who is about to fly into the winds of change.

Having just won another aerial race, Dusty is out training for an upcoming local race when his health comes crashing down. Told that he can never race again, Dusty goes out at night and pushes himself to the point of collapse, not only causing more harm to himself, but damage to his community at large. (Was he drunk on oil?)

In order to redeem himself and save his community, Dusty must get certified as an aerial firefighter. 

Up until this point, audiences may wonder where in the world Planes: Fire & Rescue is taking place. There are no humans in the story. Only cars, trucks, trains, planes, and other vehicles (basically Disney merchandise to be purchased) living in a world free of smog, pollution or oil spills. And these vehicles, except one mentioned in a side-of-the-mouth quip, seem to run on gas. Of course, they do speak American English. 

This otherworldly notion is dispersed when Dusty heads across the land to Yosemite, Earth. It is here Dusty will train under the tutelage of Blade (voice by Ed Harris) and with the help of friendly co-firefighters, including a forward-thinking female, Lil' Dipper (voice by Julie Bowen), who, along with Blade, Windlifter (voice by West Studi), are the most entertaining character in Planes: Fire & Rescue. 

No sooner has Dusty arrived a fire alarm is set off, sending the firefighting crew deep into the forest. Immediately the team sets out with brilliant precision: planes swoop in, pick up water and drop it on the fire, while utility vehicles descend in parachutes to the ground where they will do their work with the precision of machines, but with the personalities of toys similar to the ones given to them by imaginative children. It is a heroic coordination with no time to lose.  

To get, or amp, adults in this firefighting scene, the filmmakers set it to AC/DC's "Thunderstruck." As rocking and rolling as "Thunderstruck" may be, lyrically speaking, "Thunderstruck" has just about much correlation to the action taking place in the movie as Kajagoogoo's "Too Shy," Gang of Four's "Better him than Me" or Beyonce Knowles' "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)." If someone asked me, Kansas' "Fighting Fire with Fire," Ultravox's "One Small Day" or Muse's "Knights of Cydonia" would have been more germane, but nobody asked. Actually, Leftfield's "Open Up" comes to mind when considering such pedestrian pandering. Anyway, it is an emotionally charged, intellectually lethargic musical choice. Unfortunately, it is the best song you will hear in Planes: Fire & Rescue. Plus, Mark Mancina's score is worse than the individual songs.

During his initial entry into firefighting it becomes clear Dusty has a lot to learn and to explain to the real firefighters. His ego and his poor health are both a detriment and a danger to himself and the team. Yet he is too arrogant to defer to his betters. Naturally, I mean formulaically, the protagonist will have to jump through hoops of fire before he can become a hero. 

Not only do the government-run, taxpayer-supporting firefighters have the burden of training Dusty, they now have a bigger problem with Cad Spinner (voice by John Michael Higgens), a park superintendent acting more like real estate developer than a ranger. Driven by ambition, Cad diverts firefighter funds to his new restoration project. The Grand Fusel Lodge is about to open and the ambitious, avarice and authoritarian Cad wants to impress the visiting Secretary of the Interior (voice by Fred Willard). And if the forest burns before his retreat, that is just the cost of doing business. 

Now, it does not take a Maru (voice by Curtis Armstrong), to figure out and fix the conclusion of the movie. Co-screenwriters Gannaway and Jeffrey M. Howard are not going to tail and spin this elementary narrative into a tragedy. 

Nonetheless, for a film geared toward smaller children -- the MPAA gave the film a PG rating for "Action and Some Peril" -- Planes: Fire & Rescue is rather intense for younger viewers. Some of the action is fast and there are several scenes where the smoke lingers on, not knowing if our products, I mean protagonists, of the movie, have survived. As one young kid said aloud at the all-Media screening, "What happened? I don't like this movie"; perhaps expressing the sentiments of others. There was adult laughter in response. 

Since Disney insists on trying to please both children and parents in these family-friendly ventures, there are obviously some jokes, not the token flatulence ones of course, that will mean nothing to the kids. Lil' Dipper's high-jinks are for those whose hormones have already kicked in. The hybrid car joke about "never heard it coming" will be a "zoom" for the typical kid. And the "CHoPs" metanarrative in the movie, a pastiche of the TV series, CHiPs -- both featuring Erik Estrada -- puzzled the many a kinder eyes and ears during the aforementioned screening. 

This is not to suggest that storytelling for different audience ages (or, at least maturity) is a bad thing. Family members may leave the theater talking to other family members about what he or she took from the movie, which may offer different perspectives on the same text. (Yes, it is extremely doubtful Disney has such intellectual intentions. So called "family films" are geared toward the maximum possible ticket buyers.)

However, there is one thing everyone should be able to take from the film: firefighters do some very important and dangerous work. Even though the characters in Planes: Fire & Rescue are made of metal, that is clear at the movie's most elementary level. 

Planes: Fire & Rescue is available in 3D. 







Monday, July 14, 2014

OUTFEST 2014: SARAH PREFERS TO RUN

Sarah (Sophie Desmarais) in Sophie Prefers to Run.

That running and loneliness thing

By Miranda Inganni

Sarah (Sophie Desmarais) doesn’t just prefer to run, the 20-year-old lives to run in director Chloe Robichaud’s feature film debut, Sarah Prefers to Run.

Sarah’s mother (Hélène Florent) opposes her daughter’s plans on moving to Montreal to run at McGill University, pointing out that running will not pay the bills. Fortunately for Sarah, her coworker, Antoine (Jean-Sébastien Courchesne), has enough money to get both of them to Montreal and into an apartment. However, once there Antoine suggests they marry to take advantage of government grants. Affable Antoine gets more domestic and comfortable with his roommate/wife, but Sarah seems oblivious and continues to focus on running. 

One of her teammates, Zoey (Geneviève Boivin-Roussy), catches Sarah’s eye and a slightly awkward friendship begins. Once Sarah begins to explore, or at least acknowledge, her sexuality, it becomes clear that she is not running toward anything, but rather away from herself. Things are further complicated when Sarah develops a heart condition, but will it stop her from running?


Desmarais does an exceptional job portraying the titular character in all of her youthful innocence cum lack of mindfulness. Sarah seems so removed from everything other than running. She is obsessively focused, even to the potential detriment to her health. 

Robichaud creates an ambiance of dullness for Sarah to live in, replete with a beige- gray color scheme and little dialogue. Sarah Prefers to Run is more of a character study than a typical dramatic narrative, but Sarah (well acted by Desmarais) is an interesting enough character to take a close look at as she follows the course of her life.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

OUTFEST 2014: BFFS

A scene from BFFs. 
Friends and lovers

By Miranda Inganni

When Kat (Tara Karsian) receives an all-expense paid trip to a retreat entitled Closer to Closeness, Kat and her best friend Samantha (Andrea Grano) cannot pass up the offer. The only catch is that it is a couples retreat and both ladies are single.  Or are they?

Posing as a lesbian couple at the retreat, Kat and Samantha work through various group sessions – performing trust and communication exercises with the rest of the couples – in order to take advantage of the beautiful scenery, fabulous food and fun of this free weekend getaway. But somewhere between the ropes course and an exercise in self-expression, the two friends realize that they might have more than a friendship. 

Of course, this is not that surprising. How often do we hear of someone describing their partner as their “best friend?” The difference being that usually those couples already know about their sexual orientation.

BFFs stars Karsian and Grano co-wrote and produced this exceptionally well written and acted film. Directed by Andrew Putschoegl, and with help from an excellent supporting cast -- including Jenny O’Hara, Pat Carroll, Richard Moll, Sigrid Thornton, Sean Maher, among many others --  BBFs explores the answers to pesky questions such as what is important in a friendship and how is that different in a romantic relationship? Karsian and Grano have exceptional chemistry with each other. Between that, the witty writing and massive talent of the supporting cast, BFFs is a sharp-tonged, slyly subversive exploration of love.



STAGE REVIEW: ROMEO AND JULIET

A scene from Romeo and Juliet.

1000

By Ed Rampell

“O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” Why, along with his gal pal Juliet, he’s at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion through Sunday, July 13, as the National Ballet of Canada presents Sergei Prokofiev’s version of Romeo and Juliet. Alexei Ratmansky, the Bolshoi Ballet’s former artistic director, choreographed this elegant production that renders William Shakespeare’s immortal play about doomed young lovers into the idiom of dance and music, pure sight and sound.

As we celebrate the 450th birthday of the Bard who is best known for his plots and arguably (to quote Polonius in Hamlet) “this above all else” his dialogue, it’s intriguing to encounter a Shakespearean experience minus a single spoken line. Can one appreciate the Stratford-upon-Avon dramatist’s work without one word uttered? Is the text as meaningful without any of Will’s indelible dialogue, such as Mercutio’s curse: “A plague upon both your houses”? (Contrary to popular belief, Romeo’s buddy was not referring to the Democratic and Republican parties, but rather to those warring families, the Capulets and Montagues, from whence our title characters sprang.)

The characters and the entire story are expressed through Prokofiev’s music, Ratmansky’s gravity-defying choreo, Jennifer Tipton’s lighting, as well as by Richard Hudson’s set and costume design, which are all important, as they enhance a sense of time (the Renaissance) and place (“fair Verona”). Another important element that tends to be overlooked amidst ballet’s Balanchine- and Nijinsky-like aeronautics is acting. Since there is no spoken dialogue this acting is most akin to that of the cinema prior to talkies, when thespians had to use facial expressions, body movements and the like to convey what they couldn’t by voicing lines. (Notice, Dear Reader, that I didn’t say “silent films,” because many of those early movies were accompanied by piano and even orchestras -- often with music specifically composed for particular pictures. And given Prokofiev’s sonorous score, the ballet is anything but silent.)

Although not as essential as their dancing per se, on opening night the acting by Moscow-born Elena Lobsanova and Quebec-born Guillaume Côté as Shakespeare’s “star-crossed lovers” (other dancers alternate in the Juliet and Romeo roles) was vital in conveying the drama’s romanticism and adolescent angst (worthy of a WB series, by the way). The premiere’s best acting was by Poland-born Piotr Stanczyk as the mercurial, merry Mercutio of the Montagues. His clowning around (Mercutio is surely one of those people who doesn’t know when to quit kidding or enough is enough) is as significant to Stanczyk’s part as is his deft, daft dancing. Not to mention the scene-stealing Stanczyk’s swordplay, as Mercutio crosses blades with the Capulet clan’s menacing McGee Maddox as Tybalt, the quintessential character when it comes to not quite getting the joke. (Both Stanczyk and Maddox alternate in the roles with other performers, but reprise their parts on the evening of July 12.)    

Naturally, the choreography elevates and heightens the drama. When the title characters meet at a masked ball in the Capulets’ household, it’s interesting to see the ballet version of this initial encounter and to compare it with the brilliantly lensed scene in the school gym in 1961’s West Side Story, where all time and space stops as Tony just meets a girl named Maria in that latter day adaptation of Romeo and Juliet set in New York City. When she leaps through the air to alight upon Romeo’s shoulders or back, 27-ish year old Elena Lobsanova’s Juliet seems to be in flight. The two lovers look like birds taking wing in an almost aerial pas de deux in her bedroom, with its four-poster bed and canopy -- an especially lyrical evocation of lovemaking’s raptures. 

From the vantage point of my center row seats in the orchestra, Lobsanova and Côté also looked like teenagers, which seems age appropriate per Shakespeare’s text. The youthfulness of 18-year-old Leonard Whiting and 17-year-old Olivia Hussey helped make Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film version so refreshing and memorable, whereas in 1936, 43-year-old Leslie Howard and 34-year-old Norma Shearer essayed the roles in George Cukor’s screen version of  Romeo and Juliet -- with a 54-year-old John Barrymore as Mercutio!)

Prokofiev’s superb score, which he’d composed by 1935, is ably performed by an orchestra consisting of local musicians and conducted by the National Ballet of Canada’s music director and principal conductor, David Briskin. Audiences will likely recognize the dissonant "Dance of the Knights", which has been used in movies such as Caligula and TV shows like The Simpsons and the British reality series, The Apprentice. This piece, also known as “Montagues and Capulets”, conjures a mood of foreboding musically expressed through the strings playing pianissimo or softly, contrasted by the woodwinds and horns blowing fortissimo. Prokofiev has a very strong visual sense which served him well in composing music for ballet -- shortly after creating Romeo and Juliet’s sonic score he joined with that other Sergei (Eisenstein) to compose the score for the 1938 epic, Alexander Nevsky. The composer and director closely collaborated on this movie, with Prokofiev composing notes to accompany Eisenstein’s frames of film.

Speaking of which, the National Ballet of Canada production, overseen by artistic director Karen Kain, uses cinematic sleight of hand. Not only in the rapid scene changes but in what is a clever use of split screen, which, minus Shakespeare’s dialogue, is intended to explain how Friar Lawrence’s (Peter Ottmann alternates in this role with Kevin Bowles) potions will affect Juliet. Alas  poor sweet Juliet and her beloved Romeo experience what is probably the stage’s biggest mix up, and their poor timing results in… But you know how the rest of it goes, don’t you dear reader?

I have one minor complaint: the famous balcony scene actually does not feature a balcony per se, but merely Juliet at her window, as the two say sweet nothings to one another. At least Tony and Maria got a fire escape in West Side Story! But this is a mere quibble that should not deter viewers from strapping on their ballet shoes and dancing down to the Music Center while they still can to experience what is otherwise a superb, effervescent production of the Bard’s classic (by way of Prokofiev) with its eternal message: Make love, not war.

Romeo and Juliet runs through tomorrow at LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. For more info: 2130-72-8001; www.laopera.com.


Thursday, July 10, 2014

OUTFEST 2014: LIFE PARTNERS

A scene from Life Partners.
Single out

By Miranda Inganni

The opening night film at this year's Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival, Life Partners tells the somewhat typical story of the trials and tribulations of two best friends when love comes between them. The main difference between this and any other Rom-Com with a similar premise is that one of the friends is a lesbian.
Uptight Paige (Gillian Jacobs) is an environmental lawyer, who is best friends with free spirited Sasha (Leighton Meester). The girls have great times gallivanting about Pride parades and sharing cocktails with their eclectic group of gal pals. That is until handsome and successful Doctor Tim (Adam Brody, Meester's husband off screen) enters the picture.
Hold up. Here’s where I have a slight problem. I just referred to the two leads as girls. The characters are both 29 years old, not little girls, but they often act so childish that it is hard to believe that Paige owns a home or that either is capable of being a fully formed woman. But perhaps that is part of the story.
It is often a tricky transition for young women to go from having best girl-friends to having serious romantic relationships. Figuring out how to divide one’s time between a new lover and an old friend can be challenging. Is there a “correct” way to mature? Does it mean following one’s dreams or a preconceived notion of what exactly mature life is supposed to be? Paige and Sasha tackle these issues from opposite ends of the spectrum. As Paige slides into domestic comfortability with Tim, Sasha finds herself falling for increasingly immature women (who all still live at home). No longer can Paige and Sasha spend the night at the other’s house on a whim (usually because they are too tipsy to drive to their own abode). And gone are the weekly sessions of watching Top Model while drinking wine and quipping at the TV.
But both characters come to a kind of maturity during the course of Life Partners and realize the strength of what their friendship meant to them.

Co-written by Joni Lefkowitz and Susana Fogel, Life Partners is Fogels’ feature directorial debut. The film is an adaptation of a play the two wrote with the same name based on their friendship. The entire cast is chock full of talent --with excellently written and acted supporting characters played by the likes of Gabourey Sidibe, Greer Grammer, Kate McKinnon, Beth Dover and Abby Elliott, among others. It’s also interesting to see real life husband and wife duo of Brody and Meester play against eachother.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

THEATER REVIEW: THE BEATLES LOVE

A scene from The Beatles LOVE. Photo credit: Richard Termine.

Yesterday and today

By Ed Rampell

As a reviewer of all things cinematic, operatic and theatrical I recently went to see a couple of shows in Las Vegas, Nevada, which is, after all, one of America’s top showcases of live entertainment. Cirque du Soleil’s The Beatles LOVE is a combination of the cinematic, operatic and theatrical -- along with the acrobatic, aerial, ballet, puppetry, projections, lighting, costuming to put Liberace to shame, and more, all presented with a circus-like panache. As soon as one gets out of the cram packed, standing room only lobby inside of the Mirage into the uniquely shaped and designed, custom-built theater in the round, with its scrims and screens for projecting 100 foot digital images upon, one has that “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” sensation of “pictur[ing] yourself in a boat on a river, With tangerine trees and marmalade skies.”

Once the show begins it’s as if “Somebody calls you… A girl with kaleidoscope eyes” as “Cellophane flowers of yellow and green, Towering over your head” draw you into a production that’s more of an experience and evocation of the Beatles, their music and philosophy, instead of a chronological, straightforward narrative of their lives and careers. Rather than a tribute band performing Beatles’ songs live, the Fab Four’s longtime producer Sir George Martin and his son Giles culled cuts from Abbey Road Studios’ master tapes which accompany the mise-en-scène of 60 performers and projections on huge front and back screens, played on a panoramic surround sound system.

The beginning references the quartet’s famous outdoor, impromptu performance on the rooftop of the Abbey Road Studio in 1969, with the Beatles belting out “Get Back” from the “Let It Be” album. But the spectacle that unfolds becomes far more than a reimagining of this plein air concert. Soon the gigantic twin screens are filled with imagery of the Battle of Britain, and for the first time it dawned upon me that the Lads from Liverpool were all children born during World War II; indeed, both Ringo Starr and John Lennon were born while the Nazis blitzed England. The Beatles LOVE made me realize that this played a huge role in their subsequent antipathy towards war and why, after he went solo, I heard John and Yoko croon that Lennon-composed anthem of the antiwar movement, “Give Peace a Chance," at a Manhattan rally in the early 1970s.

The show doesn’t shrink from other specifically political references: There’s a great flower power sequence, which leads to hippies fighting riot police as “Revolution” blares. Another one of the Beatles’ explicitly political songs, “Blackbird," is also played as clips of Dr. Martin Luther King appear onscreen and black performers take the stage.

Of course, although they were musical and lyrical avatars of their tumultuous Aquarian age, there was much more to the Beatles than countercultural politics. As the name of the show suggests, love was very much a concern expressed in the songs of these young men, and there is an exceedingly lovely conjuration of “Something” from the Abbey Road album. Female aerialists elude an earthbound male, who reaches out for them as if he’s seeking love, perfectly expressing the romantic longings of a young man in search of a partner to soothe a seething soul and end his solitude. The piece has the grace one would imagine a Nijinsky or Nureyev ballet would have had.

One of the great things about The Beatles LOVE is that along with their hits such as “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Lady Madonna” (featuring a pregnant black woman) the multimedia show includes some lesser known tunes from the Beatles’ oeuvre. Everyone knows “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” from the 1967 album of the same name, but do you remember “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” from the same LP? This track is ideal for Cirque, which launches into full raucous circus mode in evoking this perhaps forgotten (until now!) song about a festive fair. There is also a powerful version of “A Day in the Life” (which I’ve always considered to have an apocalyptic tinge), complete with a car onstage, from the same album.

And while Sgt. Pepper’s “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” is appropriately psychedelically rendered, complete with flying trapeze artiste, I was unable to understand a number of Cirque’s visualizations and expressions of some Beatles’ numbers. After a while I picked up on the probability that the four boys who were recurring stage characters represented the Liverpool lads during their childhoods. But I couldn’t quite grasp who other characters were supposed to be. For instance, there is a recurring old lady -- is she supposed to be John’s Aunt Mimi who raised him or a version of Brecht’s Mother Courage? Much of it went over this critic’s head -- but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy all of it, even if couldn’t quite get some of it. Somehow this only enhanced the magical mystical nature of this tour through the artistry of what is arguably rock’s greatest band of all time. (Has it really been half a century this year since they stormed The Ed Sullivan Show during the British Invasion of 1964?!)

Director/writer/co-creator Dominic Champagne’s ensemble work bubbles. Lighting Designer Yves Aucoin illuminates the space, put to stellar use by theatre and set designer Jean Rabasse. Video projection designer Francis Laporte enhances the visionary ambiance of the live performance, artfully choreographed by Hansel Cereza and Dave St-Pierre, with the cast of 60 fantastically costumed by Philippe Guillotel. Above all, the Grammy Award winning soundscape rendered by George and Giles Martin, sound designer Jonathan Deans, and last but not least, by -- you know -- John, Paul, George and Ringo is nothing short of exquisite.

Overall, The Beatles LOVE is, as Harrison wrote, a “Crème tangerine and montelimar, A ginger sling with a pineapple heart” feast for the eyes and ears. Whether you’re a Beatles fan before you enter the Mirage showroom or not, as the Fab Four sang: “A splendid time is guaranteed for all” -- indeed! Never has Sin City seemed so blissful. Yeah, yeah, yeah!

The Beatles LOVE is at: The Mirage, 3400 Las Vegas Blvd South, Las Vegas, NV 89109. For info and tickets: LOVE; 702-791-7111.





      

Friday, June 27, 2014

FILM REVIEW: CITIZEN KOCH

A scene from Citizen Koch.
To divide they spend

By John Esther

Since the birth of this nation, the rich have held great sway over our government. If it were not for the people participating in the democratic process, namely voting, there would be no stopping the rich from infiltrating every aspect of government – starting with the campaign process. 

However, that changed in 2010 with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens vs. United. A backhanded ruling engineered by the rich neoconservatives, the ruling essentially diluted the influence of working classes in the political process by equating unlimited and often undisclosed campaign contributions with free speech. 

Embolden by the new ruling, billionaires such as Charles and David Koch (AKA the Koch bros.) started this new weapon in class warfare against the working classes in Wisconsin with the 2010 election of Governor Scott Walker, a staunch Republican fixing to dismantle the unions in his state. As a result, a recall movement is born in 2011. People realize the importance of unions. 

Then the Americans for Prosperity from Virginia steps in, becoming Walker’s biggest donor while recruiting Teabagger dupes to back a policy clearly against their best self-interests. Meanwhile Republican members of public unions begin to question his and her longstanding beliefs regarding the GOP just like former Louisiana governor and US Congressman Buddy Roemer did as he ran a different kind of campaign during last year’s Republican primaries. 

Capturing this whirlwind of activity leading up to the historical failure in 2012 to recall Walker, co-directors Carl Deal and Tia Lessin (Trouble the Water) cohesively illustrate what happens when the bad financial powers-that-be cannot be stopped. 

FILM REVIEW: THE INTERNET'S OWN BOY THE STORY OF AARON SWARTZ

A scene from The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz. Photo by Quinn Norton.
A real transformer 

By Ed Rampell

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz is required viewing for anyone who values free speech and justice. Brian Knappenberger’s riveting documentary is also a case study in Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department’s selective prosecution. As liberal commentator/columnist/radio talk show host David Sirota points out in an onscreen interview, the Obama administration has not prosecuted the financial sector for basically wrecking much of the world economy.

While Big Brother and the Holder Company gave the Wall Street banksters (and Bush mass murderers a pass), at the same time, as Matt Taibbi points out in The Divide, American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, “Our prison population, in fact, is now the biggest in the history of human civilization.” But who does the Department of Justice (DOJ) decide to throw the book at? Internet whiz kid Aaron Swartz, who in 2000, at the age of 14, helped develop RSS, which has been called “Really Simple Syndication,” as it enables automatic summarization of online information, among other things. The Chicago-born child prodigy went on to cofound the social networking and news website Reddit, a platform for Net communities.

Swartz attended (but did not graduate from) Stanford and became a fellow at Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics. The passionate advocate of Internet freedom and free access to information became an off- and online activist, harnessing the power of the Web to monitor the powers that be. In 2008 he founded Watchdog.net to aggregate data about politicians and helped launch the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. In 2010, Swartz founded the nonprofit Demand Progress, which spearheaded Net roots resistance that helped defeat Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

Like a sort of Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden of academia, from September 2010 to January 2011 Swartz is believed to have mass downloaded documents from MIT’s JSTOR database, a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary sources. Although it’s not certain what Swartz’s motivation was for allegedly doing so, it appears that the hacktivist was attempting to thwart efforts to profiteer off of human knowledge by making this information available free of charge to the general public, which is a recurring theme of The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz.

In early 2011 the Secret Service and Cambridge Police Department starting investigating and the US Attorney’s office opened a criminal investigation into the hacking of MIT’s network. By the end of January Swartz’s office and home were raided and grand jury and subpoena actions commenced. As the documentary meticulously reveals, although JSTOR declined to press charges and MIT proclaimed its “neutrality” in the legal matter (while Jamie Dimon and Dick Cheney skated) federal prosecutor Stephen P. Heymann, Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, who had a background in prosecuting computer hacking, pursued the case with Inspector Javert-like intensity, and on July 14, 2011 Swartz was charged with four felony counts, including theft of computer information. The 24-year-old was arrested days later.

It was the bulldog versus the watchdog, and during the zigzagging trajectory of Swartz’s case, the number of felony counts against him rose to 13, and Aaron pled not guilty. WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange may have been beyond Washington’s long arm of the law and members of the underground collective Anonymous (Knappenberger previously directed the 2012 doc We Are Legion: The Story of the Hactivists) too cagey to be caught, but Swartz was within the U.S. judicial system’s grasp, and it appears that the DOJ was determined to make an example of him. Faced with economic ruin and imprisonment for years by a vengeful administration -- the Obama regime has been extraordinarily vindictive towards whistleblowers, charging more people with the Espionage Act than all previous U.S. administrations combined -- the free spirited Swartz appears to have been pushed over the edge on Jan. 11, 2013.

The 26-year-old’s death prompted protest, including from Congress -- within days California’s U.S. Representative Zoe Lofgren announced she’d introduce “Aaron’s Law” to amend the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. But on March 6, 2013 an unrepentant Attorney General Holder defended Swartz’s prosecution before a Senate committee.

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz is a compelling, powerful, well put together work, combining archival footage and original interviews with notables such as academic/activist Lawrence Lessig, Sen. Ron Wyden, Rep. Lofgren, as well as with Aaron’s relatives, friends, lovers, etc., who provide an intimate look into the personal side of the film’s subject.  This gripping, must-see documentary -- especially relevant as the struggle for Net neutrality continues and the Snowden case unfolds -- is being released theatrically and on Amazon and Hulu.

R.I.P. Aaron Swartz -- aloha oe (farewell to thee): Your bulb burned briefly, but brightly.





  











Thursday, June 26, 2014

FILM REVIEW: A COFFEE IN BERLIN

Julika (Friederike Kempter) and Niko (Tom Schilling) in A Coffee in Berlin.
Dead man waking

By John Esther

Winner of six German Film Academy Awards, including Outstanding Feature Film, Best Director and Best Actor, Jan Ole Gerster's wry indie flick about the metamorphosis a young 20-something named Niko (32-year-old Tom Schilling) experiences -- without getting a damn cup of coffee -- is just as good as his country's men's soccer team. 

A college dropout without a job, Niko has been filling his life with aimlessness, lethargy and his share of citations for drinking and driving under the influence of alcohol. He just left his girlfriend, Elli (Katharina Schuttler) in Paris, his things are not unpacked in his Berlin apartment and his friends have to drag him out anywhere. Sometimes Niko makes an effort to get a cup of coffee, but that seems to be as impossible for him to achieve as anything Niko is not trying to do.

One day, through a series of events, Niko encounters various kinds of individuals -- some new, some familiar. Drug dealers, drunk teenage punks, an actor playing a Nazi in a film (Arnd Klawitter), a kind grandma (Lis Bottner) protecting her drug dealing grandson (Theo Trebs), a smarmy psychologist (Andreas Schroders), and an enraged father (Ulrich Noethen) who has just found out his son's actual matriculation status. These encounters reinforce Niko's sense of alienation and ennui. 

But perhaps his most significant encounter is with Julika (Friederike Kempter). 

At first Niko does not recognize Julika, but she sure remembers him. When they were younger, Niko used to make fun of Julie's appearance. Julika seems to have forgiven him, which only makes Niko feel worse. Her presence begins to instill a self-awareness in Niko, suggesting he is not a cool outsider, rebelling at the system by "spending his days thinking," but rather a childhood bully who has grown up to be an insignificant member of society.

To be fair and to the film's credit, Niko is a rather likable guy. He clearly has a conscience toward other outsiders, can feel the sensitivities of others, and is not afraid to get in between an aggressor and his friend. 

Indeed, it is one of the strengths of the Gerster's complex, touching and humorous screenplay that the protagonist is at once sympathetic, pathetic and maybe even a little heroic at times. Niko is the kind of guy we would like to help out, but it is probably better we did not. Niko needs to find his own identity, rejecting fatalism...or that worst of all F words. 

Impressively shot in black and white by Philipp Kirasmer, Berlin, Germany gets an updated look at the debris of its newest generation in terms of character, content, and concrete. History has been etched in stone, cement and Friedrich (Michael Gwisdek), a man who was there during the days when young, idle Germans like Niko were given something bloody awful to do. A fear of such a recurrence is alluded to more than once in A Coffee in Berlin (Oh Boy). 

Monday, June 23, 2014

THEATER REVIEW: THE LAST CONFESSION

Cardinal Giovanni Benelli (David Suchet) in The Last Confession. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Vanity and the Vatican

By Ed Rampell

Roger Crane’s The Last Confession is first rate drama at its best. Not only does it tackle the big issues, but it also has a topnotch cast that delivers solid, riveting performances. The ensemble is rather cannily led by David Suchet, who from 1989 to 2013 has portrayed Inspector Hercule Poirot on TV adaptations of Agatha Christie’s celebrated sleuth. 

The major topics that The Last Confession takes on are the role of religion and the behind-the-scenes infighting of Holy Mother Church, which is both a spiritual as well as a temporal power. As the latter, Vatican City is literally an independent state and as the earthly representative of the official creed of almost a billion people, it’s also a political and economic entity to be reckoned with. Viewers of 1990’s third installment of The Godfather saga may be familiar with the Vatican’s purported banking scandals and Mafioso ties.

After Albino Luciani, aka Pope John Paul I (Richard O’Callaghan in a moving performance), replaced Pope Paul in 1978, he lasted only 33 days as the pontiff, triggering conspiracy theories about foul play in the Vatican. Thus the sheer genius of casting Suchet as Vatican powerbroker Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, who investigates the death of the benevolent man who turned out to be far more liberal than the conclave of cardinals had expected, and only wore the shoes of the fisherman for a month before his mysterious death. 

His demise occurred shortly after he purportedly attempted to remove entrenched Vatican bureaucrats from their sinecures of power. Suchet’s sleuth lives again -- although not as a suave Belgian in this theatrical whodunit. This time he’s an Italian cardinal trying to crack the case of: Who murdered the pope.

But this is a detective case unfolding in the corridors of power. And, as it is the Vatican -- and not the White House, like in TV’s Scandal series -- where the story takes place, the subject matter includes the significance of faith. The playwright does an excellent, even philosophical job, of interweaving Christian beliefs with Vatican faction fights (move over Trotsky and Stalin! The Kremlin has nothing on the Vatican!).

The costumes by Fotini Dimou impart and reinforce the realism necessary to convey the pontifical subject matter. William Dudley’s stage design likewise conveys a sense of being inside the Vatican, and his use of cage-like sets is, well, a cagey way of expressing a sensibility of imprisonment and crime.

Crane is, unsurprisingly, an attorney, but it is quite shocking that this script, suggested by what may have been actual events, is the playwright’s first produced drama. Kudos, Mr. Crane! The Ahmanson Theatre’s ambitious production is the second stop on an international tour for this taut, thought-provoking play about conspiracy theories at the very highest levels of the Bishop of Rome’s realm. It is very astute to present this show just as another reformist-minded pope rocks Christendom.

With what appears murder most foul afoot, will Benelli, like Inspector Poirot, get his man? You’ll just have to find out for yourself by high-footing it Downtown to the Music Center. Your humble scribe doesn’t mean to pontificate, but original, modern drama written for the stage doesn’t get much better than this work, which is reminiscent of Jean Anouilh’s Becket. And your critic must confess, that’s the god’s honest truth.



The Last Confession runs through July 6  at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012. For more info: Confession (213)628-2772.   



L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored The Hawaii Movie and Television Book. See: Hawaii Book. Rampell and co-author Luis Reyes will be signing books at the Egyptian Theatre’s 10th Annual Tiki Night Sunday, June 28 at, 7:00 p.m., at 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, CA 90028. See: Tiki for more information.