“Morgan”—Science Embedded in Sci-Fi

morgan
Viewers of science fiction movies have an interest in the scientific ideas driving the plot. In the sci-fi movie, “Morgan”, (http://www.foxmovies.com/movies/morgan) a computer captures Morgan’s behavior with the intention of giving an in-depth understanding of the science behind artificial intelligence.

For years a team of scientific researchers have been at work creating, developing and observing artificial humans. Morgan is their latest prototype. The group of people charged with Morgan’s care were optimistic about the advanced development of its artificial intelligence. Although only five human years old, Morgan appears to be about twelve. There is a reason the central character in the movie “Morgan” has a genderless name. In the movie the main character, Morgan,is referred to as “it”, the product of secretive scientific research at a remote facility. After an unexpected and horrific incident occurs, a risk assessment employee (Kate Mara) from corporate headquarters arrives to investigate, her very presence increasing the tension and drama, moving the plot forward.

Anya Taylor-Joy effectively played Morgan as a haunted creation, trying to understand the world, and how to live in it. The movie’s most compelling character, Morgan’s movements and haunted, expressive face are unforgettable and stay with this viewer long after the movie ended.

Although “Morgan” has some good performances, it lacks character development that mirrors the flaws of some science fiction prose. The characters are flat at times and one-dimensional. Dr. Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti) and Dr. Amy Menser (Rose Leslie) could have been more fully developed personalities with clearly defined motives.

This is a movie for sci-fi lovers but not on the level of “Ex Machina”.

Lenore Gay, guest blogger

This post was written by Lenore Gay, author of Shelter of Leaves, a suspenseful novel about a dystopia reality in the aftermath of terrorism. Lenore was gracious enough to cover for me while I was on vacation.Go to her author website: www.lenoregay.com for more information about her writing.

“Slavery by Another Name”—The Re-enslavement of Black Americans in the US

 

slavery-by-another-name-2

This 90-minute PBS documentary, based upon the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Douglas Blackmon, eviscerates one of America’s most cherished myths: the belief that slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. “Slavery by Another Name” documents how thousands of African Americans were pulled back into forced labor with shocking force and brutality, sanctioned by the judicial and legislative system, and propelled by the loss of slave labor after the Civil War.

slavery-by-another-name1

African Americans were systematically charged for petty crimes, and sentenced to hard labor working for former white slave owners. “Convict leasing” became “Slavery by Another Name”, coercing African American “convicts” to work on chain-gangs and for major corporations. A form of “industrial slavery”, these purported convicts, who worked on month-to-month leases, were used and disposed of at will. Moreover, the brutality imposed on “prisoners” in the last part of the 19th and first half of the 20th century was identical to that used against slaves prior to the Civil War. The mortality rate was as high as 30-40% or more. No records were kept.

One strategy to recreate the slave economy was the creation of the crime of “vagrancy”. This provided a steady supply of “vagrants” forced to work off their sentences under heinous labor conditions. Convicts were repeatedly bought and sold throughout their sentences, again to former white slave-masters and industrialists. Replacing the outlawed debt slavery or peonage, convict leasing resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars of corporate profit. Tolerated by both the North and South as essential for raising the gross domestic product and propelling the United States to unprecedented economic power, this form of industrial slavery did not begin to decrease until the Second World War [motivated in part by the Japanese intention to use US racism to justify their own military actions] and the need for African American soldiers.

Deeply moving, fascinating, and repugnant all at the same time, “Slavery By Another Name” opens our eyes to the deliberate exploitation of African Americans. A courageous refutation of the ongoing myth that “Lincoln freed the slaves,” the documentary “Slavery By Another Name” demonstrates that slavery survived long past emancipation, until less than eighty years ago.

Conveniently overlooked by the nation and perpetrated across an enormous region over many years, the institution of forced labor as a fixture of African American life perniciously suffocated their aspirations and opportunities for their families and their very existence. This documentary film should be a required history lesson for us all.

“Weiner” — An Attention-Getter

Weiner
Weiner

 

Hubris, narcissism, tabloid spectacle and massive self-deception collide with the mesmerizing inevitability of a slow-motion trainwreck in “Weiner”. The movie is an engrossing, almost shamefully entertaining documentary about former congressman Anthony Weiner and politics at its most sensationalist and superficial.

After a promising career as a rising Democratic star that began as New York’s youngest city council member, Anthony Weiner became perhaps better known as the pugnacious, delusional punch line for his dick pics in a Twitter account to a college student in 2011. He resigned from the House of Representatives and two years later, in his bid for a political comeback, running for mayor of New York, he gained only 4 % of the vote.

Released in May, “Wiener” is  an IFC documentary with exceptional access bordering on voyeurism. We view campaign headquarters, eavesdrop on strategy meetings with his staffers, and witness the heartbreaking, humiliating experience of a breakdown of the political marriage.

“Weiner” pivots from the narrative of a comeback “kid” to the horror of an appalling, self-deluding narcissist’s quest for power at its most obsessive and incomprehensible level.

The questions the documentary implicitly promises to answer all begin with “why.” Why would a rising star squander his political capital by outrageous and compulsive behavior we might forgive in a teenage boy but not in a middle-aged politician? Why does he seem so insensitive or uncaring about his beautiful, intelligent wife at turns bullying her and humiliating her in front of a camera?

And most puzzling of all, why does the gorgeous and supremely talented Huma Abedin seem a victim of spousal abuse, reserved and resolute as Alicia Florrick in the TV series, “The Good Wife”? She rarely refuses his most callous requests. We cheer when Huma refuses to go with him to the polls on election day, so Weiner takes their infant son as a humanizing prop. And when he again breaks his promise and is caught sexting, we are relieved to see Huma refuse to stand next to him.

“Weiner” answers these questions tentatively. He is a glutton for punishment, who craves any attention, no matter how cringe-worthy.

Why does Anthony Weiner allow the camera to film him and his wife in excrutiatingly painful and intimate moments, immediately after Huma discovers his betrayal?   The implication is that, in spite of his sexual predilections derailing his bid to be mayor, Weiner is also “certifiably” delusional. He is incapable of seeing himself the way others see him: as a loser with disturbing character flaws unfit for political office. For him there seems to have been no risk-taking. Filming the documentary would justify his actions, not condemn them…in his mind.

And equally unsettling and flabbergasting: Why did Huma Abedin endure this treatment from her husband, and in front of their son? While Weiner is the paradigm for extremely poor judgment, lack of anger management and impulse control, Huma remains enigmatic.   The moments in the film where Huma is humiliated and her eyes reflect her deep sorrow and regret  may make viewers disheartened as well as puzzled.

Weiner seems incapable of self-reflection or taking responsibility for the harm to his family, especially when he is communicating face-to-face with his wife. Weiner’s deep delusions we can understand as a clinical diagnosis but what does Huma feel? She remains dignified but defeated.

Why would Huma Abedin allow this mortification? That is the ultimate mystery of this documentary.

We think we know the story, but we don’t.

 

“The Broad”—A Vast Expansion of Modern Art

 

Murakami
Murakami

The Broad Museum, funded by billionaire philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad, is one of the hottest tickets in downtown Los Angeles. Just scan the huge stand-by crowds for tickets (which are free) on a weekday early in the afternoon. Maybe they heard about the special selfie opportunities?

The millennial crowd seems to  swipe patiently on their iPhones while eating from food trucks parked in front of the giant white building. Origami-like corrugated folds covering a vault-like interior with glass elevator and escalator, The Broad’s architecture accentuates the contemporary art inside.

Housing more than 2,000 works of art (with about 200 displayed on rotation), this stunning museum exhibits some of the most prominent holdings of postwar and contemporary art worldwide. With its innovative “veil-and-vault” concept, the 120,000-square-foot, $140-million building features two floors of gallery space to showcase iconic examples of the prime works of Jeff Koons, Yayoi Kusama, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Takashi Murakami—to name a few.

Basquiat
Basquiat

I was left speechless by the special exhibit of Cindy Sherman’s body of work. Featuring her earliest black-and-white photos to images completed this year, this expansive exhibit extends over all of her major periods. We see her chameleon-like transition as she interprets different social themes using herself as the model—woman as sex object, victim, warrior, society matron. This is nothing less than spectacular. [The exhibit closes October 2 and advance reservations are highly recommended.]

Cindy Sherman
Cindy Sherman

The social media star at The Broad is undoubtedly “Infinity Mirrored Room”, the creation of Yayoi Kusama (better known for her polka dots). With its colorful blitz of glimmering outer-spacelike points of light, it resembles the LACMA’s “Rain Room” exhibit. [The singer Adele filmed a music video inside Kusama’s installation.]  “Infinitely Mirrored Room”  is a selfie magnet for posting on  Facebook and Instagram. The other popular selfie is the gigantic ten-foot-tall wooden sculpture “Under the Table” by Robert Therrien.

One of my hands-down favorite works is Murakami’s 82-foot-long mural “In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow”, featuring demons, dragons and mythic Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian figures roiling in a tsunami. This has been one of the Broad’s biggest attractions for children and teenagers.  His “Red Blood, Black Blood”, is also a mesmerizing painting.

Murakami
Murakami
IMG_3139
Murakami

Breathtaking in beauty, The Broad rivals any contemporary art museum I have ever visited (including MOMA in San Francisco, NewYork and Los Angeles, London’s Tate Modern, Chicago’s Contemporary Museum of Art, New York’s Guggenheim and Whitney.) As the preeminent museum for featuring the ever-growing popularity of younger artists, The Broad provokes and challenges our appreciation of art in our own era. Reserve your tickets now!

 

“Thirteen”—An Unlucky Life

 

Thirteen BBC America
Thirteen BBC America

The BBC mini-series Thirteen (available online) follows 26-year-old Ivy Moxam, who was held captive in a cellar for thirteen years. After escaping from her attacker’s prison, she returns to her family home outside of London, but struggles to put her life back together. There is an uncanny resemblance to the story in the American television series, The Family. (See July 3, 2016 review)

Thirteen presents the police investigation as a secondary plot and focuses on the victim’s situation and psychology, touching upon the Stockholm syndrome and the fragility and unreliability of memory. Everyone closely associated with the crime is also, in some way, a victim. With a steady, stark stream of plot twists we see the kidnapped woman (Ivy), try to adjust from being the thirteen year old abductee to a 26-year old woman trying to catch up to a world that has changed radically. It is a sensitive interpretation of an outlier—not unlike an alien from another planet–with memorable impact on the viewer. In some ways, she is a thirteen-year old pubescent girl trapped in a young woman’s body.

What happens once survivors return to their previous homes? Like oreign residents reentering their homeland, Ivy suffers from culture shock. How does a victim begin to return to their previous life? In Thirteen Ivy’s family attempts to turn back the clock with serious consequences. Things remain unsaid, and secrets and lies unravel.

Thirteen is fiction depicting a grisly reality only truly conveyed by dramatic plot twists allowing the viewer into that world. While the ending for this viewer did not have the tension I expected, never the less Thirteen is gripping and unforgettable television at its best!

 

The Fundamentals of Caring—A Different Sort of Road Trip

Fundamentals of Caregiving

In this Netflix original film, The Fundamentals of Caring, (based upon Jonathan Evison’s novel,“The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving,) takes us on a road trip with a sullen teenager, Trevor (the disingenous Craig Roberts), confined to a wheelchair with muscular dystrophy. His loving and overprotective mother– divorced and struggling with career and parental responsibilities—sequesters her son at home where he watches soap operas all day, bored out of his mind.

Along comes a writer wannabe (Paul Rudd), Ben, who is a freshly minted caregiver, desperately looking for a change in his life after suffering a horrific personal tragedy. Trevor’s mother reluctantly hires him after her son shows a fondness for his style, even though Ben lacks any experience or references.

Both Trevor and Ben share a fear of moving on with their lives and seeing their place in the world. The two embark on a bizarre road trip seeing sites like the world’s deepest pit, something the viewer can only imagine in a snow globe or other kitschy tourist souvenir.

Along the way they meet a young abandoned girl, Dot, trying to get to Denver ( a strong performance by Selena Gomez) and a pregnant women trying to get home before her baby arrives (excellent Megan FergusonThe road trip clinches the change in both of them.

The Fundamentals of Caring is a well-crafted, well-acted comedy-drama without predictability or cliche and  remains, at its core, a heartwarming story to watch, a solid choice even for family viewing.

 

 

 

“The Night Of”—A Tale of Darkness

 

"The Night Of" HBO series
“The Night Of” HBO series

In the mini-series “The Night Of,” currently on HBO, the opening scene showcases a mysterious and beautiful young woman who dies and someone goes to trial. Will justice prevail?

“The Night Of” combines elements of the popular podcast “Serial”’ and the  TV series“Oz”. “The Night Of” depicts the horrific conditions endured by Naz Khan on Ryker’s Island, reminding the viewer of “Oz”. And half-truths and damning evidence suggest the Serial podcast about a young Pakistani American teenager, Adnan Syed. Did he or didn’t he—that is the question in both. Both the real-life Adnan and the fictional Naz maintain their innocence, even as more distressing details of the crime surface.

Naz Khan (played by Riz Ahmed from “Nightcrawler”) is a young Pakistani American student charged with the murder of the mysterious young woman from the opening scene. Detective Sergeant Box   (the superb Bill Camp, Tony winner for the Broadway revival of “The Crucible”) charges Naz. A bottom-feeding, grizzled lawyer named Jack Stone (the astonishing John Turturro) is Naz’s legal counsel.

Turturro plays a smarter-than-he-looks lawyer: part-Columbo, part-Monk detective. He’s quirky and wry, his physical awkwardness, and his long trench coat make him as memorable as the more well-known Columbo and Monk. As Jack Stone, he picks at the eczema on his feet with a chopstick as he interviews witnesses and waits to appear in court. Layers of financial and psychological costs are embedded in a justice and penal system Naz and his parents do not know how to navigate. Naz pays the price of not knowing.

We see Naz transform. At first a virginal, studious young man who is naïve and eager, we see his vulnerability preyed upon. We witness Naz feeling cornered, bewildered, and terrified.

“The Night of” features spellbindingly subtle acting with pitch-perfect poignancy and desperation on the part of Riz Ahmed, and steely determination and grit from both John Turturro and Bill Camp, equally matched as dueling seekers of justice.

The connective tissue holding together the evidence both for and against Naz constantly shifts the viewer’s assessment of his guilt or innocence. This dark tale is addictive, deeply moving, compulsive television!

Note: The late James Gandolfini (of “Sopranos” fame) produced “The Night Of” and was intended to be the character Jack Stone.

“The Tunnel” — Turf War or Building Bridges?

The Tunnel .
The Tunnel

This British-French bilingual thriller is a PBS television series, adapted from the 2011 Danish/Swedish crime series “The Bridge” [also remade as a 2013 American Fox series with a Mexican/American police team]. Hans Rosenfeldt, the original creator, develops this British-French version, renamed “The Tunnel”,  as well.

“The Tunnel” stars Stephen Dillane (of “Game of Thrones” fame) as British policeman Karl Roebuck and Clémence Poésy (from “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”) as French policewoman Elise Wassermann. The mismatched detectives must work together to find a killer who has left the upper-half of a woman politician’s  body on the French side of the Channel Tunnel and the lower-half of another woman’s body on the UK side.

The murderer soon is revealed as a serial killer –nicknamed “TT” for “Truth Terrorist”– who is on a moral crusade. TT’s mission is to wreak vengeance for social injustices: particularly, the abolition of rights for immigrants and the poor, institutional mistreatment of the elderly, warehousing the mentally ill, jailing protesters rioting against government policies, and exploiting children. The “Truth Terrorist” revels maniacally in his own moral superiority. Forcing Roebuck and Wasserman into an uneasy partnership, the series of crimes involves ever more ingenious and horrific methods to underscore the moral bankruptcy of modern society.

“The Tunnel”, however, is more than a dramatic police thriller about fighting crime. The dualities of culture and personality, people divided by politics and history, are fascinating to watch for their layers of complexity. The uneasy chemistry between Roebuck and Wasserman are a metaphor for the cultural gap and ideological boundaries separating all of us: the powerful from the powerless, and the self-interest and turf-war conflicts between nations. “The Tunnel” is novelistic storytelling at its best!

 

“Buen Día, Ramón” –The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow

 

Buen Dia Ramon

The German-Mexican co-production, “Buen Día Ramón” (“Good Day, Ramón”) tells the unusual story of a poor young Mexican immigrant named Ramon who emigrates to Germany after having incredibly bad luck in his multiple attempts to emigrate to the US illegally. Desperately in need of finding work to support his mother and provide medicine to his grandmother, he decides, on a friend’s advice, to travel to Germany.

Ramon’s remarkable openness to accept the kindness of strangers and begrudge none of his hardships is rendered believable. Struggling to survive on the street, he sleeps in a train station, and becomes increasingly desperate to earn money to send home. Yet he never builds defenses, remaining optimistic and determined, with an innocent enthusiasm that is, at times, astonishing in its emotional generosity and guilelessness.

On an ordinary day shopping for something to eat, the young Mexican meets Ruth, a lonely senior.   Soon, she befriends Ramon and lets him sleep in her apartment basement, even though another tenant disapproves. In one especially poignant scene, Ramon has prepared a Mexican dinner for Ruth and they sit down to enjoy the meal together in her apartment. Ruth gradually reveals secrets she has never told anyone else. In turn, Ramon conveys his deep felt gratitude to her for changing his life. Confiding in each other in German and Spanish, neither understands the other in language but in emotion. Their bond is unbreakable.

I have to admit I am drawn to bicultural co-productions. The layers of complexity in navigating and directing actors with different cultural and linguistic points of view enriches the movie-viewing experience. “Buen Día, Ramón” exemplifies this. The alternating points-of-view are not only character-based but culturally based.

The actors who play Ramon (Kristyan Ferrer) and the German Ruth (Ingeborg Shöner) are understated, with such charm and poignancy that the incredible friendship becomes credible.   Ramon’s story is an unexpectedly lyrical tale of perseverance, tenacity, and generosity. “Buen Día, Ramóín” considers how friendship develops despite all sorts of challenges in a deeply affecting manner. This movie is a simple pleasure that no one should miss.

 

Note:  Available on Netflix

“The Past” (Le Passé)—Does the Past Define Us?

The Past

THE PAST (LE PASSÉ) was nominated for the 2013 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or award, the Iranian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award , and a Golden Globe. Directed and written by Asghar Farhadi of “A Separation” fame (winner of the 2011 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film).

 Ahmad, an Iranian man (the remarkable Ali Mosaffa) deserted his French wife Marie Brisson (the sublime Bérénice Bejo of “The Artist”) and her two children from a previous marriage. Now living in Tehran, he is asked to return to Paris to finalize his divorce because Marie wishes to marry a third time–to Samir (played by Tahar Rahim) who has a young son, Fauod. In the opening scene Marie meets Ahmad at the airport, they embrace, and they run through the rain to their car. In the rear window Marie doesn’t have a clear view and she almost hits another vehicle. This small scene is symbolic of what follows: looking back at events in the past, and not getting a clear view of their meaning.

“The Past” is a a web of intrigue of Rashomon proportions. Everyone tells their version of the truth, but they do not explain everything, and the viewer is puzzled by intentions, motives, and history. As “The Past” unfolds, each character is imprisoned by his or her own version of the past. Opportunities to move forward are constantly threatened by each character’s backstory.The past seems to dominate and destabilize, reminding us of our own mistakes and unintended consequences.

The movie, “The Past”, conveys Pedro Almodovar’s brilliant comprehension of women’s journeys: looking back at past turmoil without understanding how the past can define them if they let it. Here, in “The Past”, each female voice is counterpointed by an equally compelling male one, drawing us ever more deeply into understanding very flawed characters, involving shifting of point of view and perspective that we see in the very best novelists.

The mid-point of the drama hits a few speed bumps, but the plot twists command the viewer’s attention and the personal drama packs quite a punch with the impending day of reckoning for each character. The camera refuses to give us any relief even at the very end, when the most essential question of the drama is raised. “The Past is an emotional head-spinning ride that won’t leave anyone indifferent.

 

“The Innocents”—And War

Guest blogger: Barbara Donsky, author of the memoir Veronica’s Grave,  and blog owner of www.desperatelyseekingParis.com  For the unedited version of this review go to Barbara Donsky’s blog

 

Les innocentes
Les innocentes

Writers and film-makers continue to successfully mine stories stemming from World War II. “The Innocents”  is such a film—a Polish-French venture by the director Anne Fontaine that takes place in December 1945. Based on real events as described by Madeleine Pauliac, a French Red Cross doctor who had served with French troops in war-torn Poland, the film illuminates the various crises of faith that befall a convent of nuns who have been ravaged by marauding Russian troops who forced their way into the monastery and raped the helpless women.

Traumatized by their harrowing experiences, the nuns, having taken vows of chastity, are incapable of dealing with the violations of their bodies and their vows. None escapes the humiliation and shame of what has befallen them, no matter how unwarranted that shame might be.

How can God, in all His mercy,  allow such a terrible thing to happen to these unprotected sisters? What is the meaning of this diabolical turn of events? And what’s to become of the children?

The steely Reverend Mother (Agata Kulesza) is, above all, concerned that this scandal—a convent filled with pregnant nuns—not become public, as it could shred the authority of the Catholic Church. As the film engages the viewer from moral, spiritual and institutional perspectives, it brings to mind more recent scandals and institutional crises involving the Catholic Church that have, indeed, contributed to a weakening of religious institutions.

Filmed in muted tones by Caroline Champetier, the spare observational cinematography is magnificent—perfectly in keeping with the prayerful calm and simplicity of a Benedictine monastery, with the silence observed by the nuns at meals, and with the purity of the Angelus as sung at break of day, noon and evensong.

If the upbeat ending is unexpected, “The Innocents” is a blistering war movie by talented women about strong women looking out for one another and doing what needs to be done to survive.

Note:  “The Innocents” (Les Innocentes) is now in limited release at theaters nationwide.

“Closed Circuit”—We’re Under Surveillance

Closed Circuit 2

“Closed Circuit” (2013), an adrenaline-pumping political thriller, portrays corrupt government forces who will stop at nothing. It’s an exciting genre. The title “Closed Circuit” is designed to raise the alarm over both the injustice of closed court hearings and the use of surveillance technology. Covert surveillance amplifies the sense that London has become a police state with ubiquitous security cameras. We don’t know who’s watching or how they’re using what they see.

The opening scene provides the hook. After a truck explodes in London’s bustling Borough Market, killling 120 people,   authorities at MI5 swiftly arrest a Muslim immigrant, Farroukh Erdogan based on closed circuit surveillance. The government assigns two separate lawyers to represent the accused, one for public sessions, the other for secret sessions. The government argues the evidence is so sensitive that national security pre-empts due process. (Think Patriot Act). Martin (played by Eric Bana) will try Erdogan’s case in public and Claudia (Rebecca Hall), will present evidence in front of the judge during the closed sessions of the trial, evidence the defendant himself is not allowed to hear. Martin and Claudia, however, are ex-lovers but fail to recuse themselves, since the case is so compelling. Moral questions on all sides begin to proliferate as Martin and Claudia dig deeper.   They soon realize that their client is not who the prosecution is making him out to be.

Closed_Circuit_3

The acts of terrorism depicted in “Closed Circuit” are meant to justify national security agencies’ means and methods of indicting and trying the accused. “Closed Circuit” depicts the injustice of power wielded by MI5 in secret, in contrast to the MI5 that British society permits to bend rules for their citizens’ protection. The overriding theme of “Closed Circuit”–when the powerful makes the rules, all everyone else can do is play along.

This taut film represents a style of conspiratorial “nobody-wins” storytelling seldom seen since the days of “No Way Out” and “Ides of March”.  Here, the Power is represented with chilling smarminess and ruthless insincerity by Jim Broadbent. A New York Times reporter (Julia Stiles), the MI5 administrator (Ann-Marie Duff), and solicitor (Ciaran Hinds) all add to the intrigue, with unexpected plot twists. Everyone’s allegiances are suspect, and surprise betrayals abound.

“Closed Circuit” is definitely worth seeing, if you want something more cerebral and something that will bother you a bit afterwards. This British courtroom thriller challenges the validity of policies that shield key evidence from public scrutiny.