Sunday, September 28, 2014

Movie Review "1971" Milwaukee Film Fest 2014

"1971" is a powerful story about a pivotal event that I was unaware of.  In 1971 a group of citizens calling themselves "The Citizens Commision to Investigate the FBI" broke into an FBI office and stole documents. These documents proved that the FBI was spying on their own citizens.  Sound familiar?  Well the movie couldn't be more topical in the age of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden.  It raises the questions were they heroes or just criminals.  Their actions predated Watergate and in some ways probably helped pave the way for the Watergate scandal.

The event in question was the break in at an FBI Field office in Media Pennsylvania.  A group of citizens that were never caught stole the files and anonymously mailed them to various newspapers.   What was the FBI doing? Well they were spying on citizens.  They had undercover agents in different groups that they felt might be "anti-America".  Groups like the Black Panthers, Anti War groups, Women groups, and hippies.  Not only were they spying on them but they were attempting to disrupt the groups by spreading rumors and making people feel paranoid. This was at a time when the FBI had very little or no oversight and a lot of public support.

How did "The Ctizens Commision to Investigate the FBI" get their start? Well before the became the commission they were a group of anti war demonstrators in Philadelphia.  They heard about an attempted break in at an FBI office in Rochester NY.  That break in was stopped and that group was arrested.  What the group in Philadelphia decided to do was break into a field office that had very little security.  They also decided to do it on the night of the Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fight of the century so most people were distracted.  Their success was largely due to their thorough preparations and good timing.  What they did not know till much later was how big of an impact they would have on the country. 

The Washington Post was the only paper that had the courage to publish the files.  Nothing like this had happened before and since the files where stolen all the other papers decided to give them back to the FBI.  But the Washington Post decided that the info in the stolen papers were too important not to publish.  After they were published Anericans and politicians were shocked by what they found out. And the FBI went on a giant manhunt to capture the people responsible. But they were never caught.  The members remained a mystery till now when they decided to tell their story.  And what a story it is  

The documentary has interviews with the members along with home footage they took and reinactments.  It is expertly put together to tell their story.  The recreations are seemless and really helps you feel the tension.  The story of Bonnie and John Raines is one of the more powerful stories in the documentary.  While most of the other members were younger Bonnie and John were married and had children.  They knew if they got caught they would go to jail for a long time and leave their kids parentless.  The fact that they still chose to do it is amazing and kind of unimaginable if you are a parent. Their decision adds another level of intensity to the story and keeps us on the edge of the seat. The movie also has tons of humor that breaks up the intensity and makes the whole experiance a fun ride similar to a Hollywood thriller. 

In the end their actions opened the eyes of the country and the government.  Congressional hearings were formed and J. Edgar Hoover's unquestioned authority came to an end.  The FBI now had to follow stricter rules and Congress formed an oversight committee.  These rules stayed in place till the Patriot Act repealed some of them.  We now live in a time when we never know who is watching us.  It makes you pause and reflect on how far are we willing to let the government go to make us feel safe.  It was pointed out that them not ever being found probably helped the story stay focused on the FBI and it makes you wonder if Edward Snowden would have had better success if he had remained anonymous. Instead of hearing where he is hiding maybe we would still be talking about what he revealed. 

Bonnie and John Raines were in attendance at the screening and did a Q&A at the end. It was interesting to hear them talk about what they did and how difficult their decision was. But their views on current events was the most interesting. They see Snowden as a modern day hero. One of the quotes from John was"A nation governed by fear is a poorly governed nation".  Basically citizens should not feel like they are constantly being spied on.  

Overall 5/5-a great documentary that plays out like a thriller.  Keeps you on the edge of your seat and laughing.  Not only that it teaches you a history lesson and the power a few people can have.  

Sunday, September 21, 2014

“The Maze Runner” Outraces Most Of Its YA Competitors

While I was reading “The Maze Runner,” I remember being jarred that this was a YA book from the perspective of a teenage boy. Even more jarring, there is one girl in the story, and the fact that she is the odd woman out normally means that she would be the narrator. This simple change means that “The Maze Runner” already stands out from a herd composed mainly of teenage girls whose world revolves around whatever boy they happen to like. There was even more to enjoy in that there was a story that felt intriguing, and if not unique, then it at least had a few good contemporary touches.

But it had it drawbacks too, the main one being my annoyance at the protagonist and his love interest for their self-righteousness, their almost complete inability to empathize with anyone else, and worst of all, their propensity for always being correct and figuring out the answers with very little help.

Luckily, the movie solves that problem by making our hero Thomas (Dylan O'Brien of “Teen Wolf”), more human, more caring about those around him, and just less of an annoying jackass in general. Same goes for the girl, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), who both feel like kids trying to make the best of a bad situation they're thrust into.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Thomas is the teenage boy who wakes up in a very bad situation indeed: a mysterious place called the Glade, an isolated Eden populated by teenage boys of various ages, races, and even nationalities, a perfect fit for the demands of the modern age. All of the boys are blank slates who remember nothing about their lives before the Glade but their names. They are given everything they need to survive, and have long since learned to work together for their common survival before Thomas shows up. But they are surrounded and trapped by the high walls of the Maze, a treacherous place made even more dangerous by the things that go bump in the night: Grievers, ruthless, disgusting, terrifying killing machines who ensure that no one survives a night inside the Maze walls.

Since there's no other way out, the boys figure that if they solve the Maze, the people who put them there will let them go. Or will they?

When Thomas, and a few days later Teresa show up, things start to change quickly, a bit too quickly. Most of the sacrifices are made at the altar of film, and thus feel like a necessary evil. It's a credit to “The Maze Runner” that we barely feel the almost two-hour runtime. But some of the other sacrifices feel less necessary. Compressing the timeline is understandable, but the movie could've gone more into the world that made The Glade and its residents' backstories, rather than putting so much emphasis on the action.

Although, to its credit, the action scenes are genuinely thrilling and fantastic to watch, and there are some very humorous moments that range from light to dark. And while the characters couldn't be considered too layered, they do get you genuinely invested, with even the villains being somewhat sympathetic, and we desperately hope that they can find some sort of peace. The ending may be another franchise nonending, but it's more interesting than most. Hell, it could even be called jaw-dropping. I'm actually more interested in seeing the next movie than reading the next book. And I can count the times I've said that on one hand.

Grade: B-

Monday, September 15, 2014

“Love Is Strange” Casts A Cinematic Spell

Love is strange indeed. It can carry us to the highest highs and lowest lows. It can be as firm as a brick wall, and it can make you feel as if the very earth under your feet has given way. Yet we never stop seeking it, never cease embracing it, never stop needing it. One of the most painful aspects of the many-splendored thing is that just because the truly remarkable happens and two people find true love, does not mean an end to the pain it causes. Life can throw a wrench into the works, and many times no one who inhabits it is to blame.

Circumstances such as these arise in “Love Is Strange.” It starts out in the happiest of times, as Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) marry in (where else?) NYC after nearly forty years together. However, George, who teaches at a Catholic school and was always open about his relationship, finds himself fired after officials learn of his marriage. When George has difficulty finding another job, and painter Ben unable to support them himself, the couple realizes they must sell their beloved home and depend on friends to shelter them until things improve.

Unfortunately, Ben and George wind up living separately, with George shacking up on the couch of a few hard partying gay cops, while Ben ends up living with his nephew and his novelist wife (Marisa Tomei) and sharing a room and bunk bed with their typically surly teenage son. When he's not unwittingly disrupting Tomei's writing time, he finds out far more about their family than he wants to.

It's always a beautiful thing when such talented actors get rich material to work with, and there's loads of it here for Lithgow, Molina, and the various supporting characters around them. Even the most unpleasant, minor characters feel real, but never boring. The result is a sweet and tender portrait of the best kind of relationship put under major stress as first financial, then medical issues nearly push both men to the brink. When they weep in each other's arms after a long separation, the pain feels as piercing and as palpable as cinema gets.

If only the rest of the characters around Ben and George were as sympathetic. While each character feels human, not all of them feel worthy of our time or understanding. And by not all of them, I actually just mean Ben's family, whom we spend a great deal of time with after he shacks up with them. They're the ones who come off like spoiled, entitled brats who lash out when things get slightly less than easy.

But as long as we have Ben and George to keep us company, they always rise above the supposedly loving clan that surrounds them.

Grade: B+

Thursday, September 11, 2014

6 Movies We are Excited for at the Milwaukee Film Festival

Every year I look forward to the release of the Milwaukee Film Festival Program. I go through the program book page by page and read about every movie. Then I get down to the difficult work of trying to plan my festival schedule. This is not easy because as much I would like to see every movie playing I don’t have that much time between my actual job and spending time with my family. But after reading the whole thing I try to pick the movies that I consider a must see. Sometimes it’s because it is generating Oscar buzz or got big praises from previous festivals. Or it’s just sounds the right kind of zany that I will like it.

This year Chris and I will give you the six movie we think are a must see at the festival.

1. The Imitation Game- The movie is about Alan Turing who helped crack the Enigma code during World War II and then was arrested for being homosexual. But afterwards was The movie got rave reviews when it premiered at The Tulluride Film Festival. And everyone will be talking about Benedict Cumberbatch's performance come Oscar time.

2. Wetlands- Anytime a movie is called "The Grossest Movie of the Year" it gets out attention. The movie is about an 18 year old German girl who has an obsession with bodily fluids.  I have heard it's not one to eat popcorn while watching.

3. Witching and Bitching- Every year my friends ask me what is the craziest horror movie playing at the festival. This year it is Witching and Bitching. A movie about four guys that rob a store then end up in the Spanish countryside just in time for witch ritual.  It's said to have copious amounts of sex, gore, and comedy.  Sounds like the perfect midnight movie.

4. An Honest Liar- this documentary about  magician James Randi features a lot of people in the magic industry.  It looks like a fun documentary about a really fascinating guy.  Chris also has family connections to the magic world so that makes this a must see.

5. The Surface - The Surface is a thriller that tells the story of two strangers that meet out in the middle of Lake Michigan. It stars Sean Astin who was in one of our favorite movies The Goonies. The movie was filmed here in Milwaukee with local crew. One of the crew members is a friend of Chris so that has us very excited to see the finished product.

6. Shorts: Stranger than Fiction - I recommend everyone check out at least one short program. The documentary shorts is one of my favorites and after introducing the program last year it am glad it is back. You always learn something new and there are some strange people in the world and this is a fun way to learn about them.

One additional movie that is always a must see but I can't tell you the name. And that's because it's a secret. The Super Secret Screening is always a surprise till they start the movie. Last year it was Short Term 12 the year before that was Silver Linings Playbook. So you never know and it's always exciting that way.

Besides recent movies there are lots of other programs worth checking out.
The Mary Poppins Sing-A-Long- This sounds like a whole lot of fun and something to take the kids too.
Top Secret! With the directors Zucker, Abrams, and Zucker in attendance. The kings of comedy during the 80's Top Secret! was their follow up to the classic Airplane. It will be great to hear what they have to say about the movie and the many attempts to copy their success.
Man With a Movie Camera- One of the events I love at the film festival are the silent films they show that has live music played to it.  It's like a movie and a concert all in one.  This year the movie the 1929 film Man With a Movie Camera. The movie is a documentary about a man making a documentary.