Sunday, July 31, 2016

Your own immune system might cure you of cancer

This is the kind of wonderful news I like to wake up to in my inbox:


Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Sugar shown to cause as much brain damage as extreme stress

Apparently a study has shown how seriously damaging to our brains sugar really is:
We all know that cola and lemonade aren’t great for our waistline or our dental health, but our new study on rats has shed light on just how much damage sugary drinks can also do to our brain. 
The changes we observed to the region of the brain that controls emotional behaviour and cognitive function were more extensive than those caused by extreme early life stress. 
It is known that adverse experiences early in life, such as extreme stress or abuse, increase the risk of poor mental health and psychiatric disorders later in life. 
The number of traumatic events (accidents; witnessing an injury; bereavement; natural disasters; physical, sexual and emotional abuse; domestic violence and being a victim of crime) a child is exposed to is associated with elevated concentrations of the major stress hormone, cortisol. 
There is also evidence that childhood maltreatment is associated with reduced brain volume and that these changes may be linked to anxiety. 
Looking at rats, we examined whether the impact of early life stress on the brain was exacerbated by drinking high volumes of sugary drinks after weaning. 
[...] We found that chronic consumption of sugar in rats who were not stressed produced similar changes in the hippocampus as seen in the rats who were stressed but not drinking sugar. Early life stress exposure or sugar drinking led to lower expression of the receptor that binds the major stress hormone cortisol, which may affect the ability to recover from exposure to a stressful situation. 
[...] The changes in the brain induced by sugar are of great concern given the high consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, with particularly high consumption in children aged nine to 16 years. If similar processes are at play in humans to what was found in our rat study, reducing the consumption of sugar across the community is important. 
The fact that drinking sugar or exposure to early life stress reduced the expression of genes critical for brain development and growth is of great concern. While it is impossible to perform such studies in humans, the brain circuits controlling stress responses and feeding are conserved across species.
Quite troubling. I'm glad we decided to simply not have soda in the house when we adopted our kids. If it's not in the cupboard, it can't be consumed.

Sure, they still drink sodas on the occasional night out, but in much more limited quantities.

From Raw Story.

When what you eat really isn't what you think it is

This article made my jaw drop. I, of course, knew that the packaged foods we ordinarily buy in a grocery store are overly processed and full of chemicals that are needed to either enhance the food's flavor or ensure its shelf life.

Apparently though, even foods like meat and fish aren't really what we think they are or what we're told they are.

Read on and get ready to be angry:
Yet most everything we eat is fraudulent. 
In his new book, “Real Food Fake Food,” author Larry Olmsted exposes the breadth of counterfeit foods we’re unknowingly eating. After reading it you’ll want to be fed intravenously for the rest of your life. 
Think you’re getting Kobe steak when you order the $350 “Kobe steak” off the menu at Old Homestead? Nope — Japan sells its rare Kobe beef to just three restaurants in the United States, and 212 Steakhouse is the only one in New York. That Kobe is probably Wagyu, a cheaper, passable cut, Olmsted says. 
[...] Fraudulence spans from haute cuisine to fast food: A February 2016 report by Inside Edition found that Red Lobster’s lobster bisque contained a non-lobster meat called langostino. 
[...] That extra-virgin olive oil you use on salads has probably been cut with soybean or sunflower oil, plus a bunch of chemicals. The 100% grass-fed beef you just bought is no such thing — it’s very possible that cow was still pumped full of drugs and raised in a cramped feedlot. 
Unless your go-to sushi joint is Masa or Nobu, you’re not getting the sushi you ordered, ever, anywhere, and that includes your regular sushi restaurant where you can’t imagine them doing such a thing, Olmsted says. Your salmon is probably fake and so is your red snapper. Your white tuna is something else altogether, probably escolar — known to experts as “The Ex-Lax fish” for the gastrointestinal havoc it wreaks. 
Escolar is so toxic that it’s been banned in Japan for 40 years, but not in the US, where the profit motive dominates public safety. In fact, escolar is secretly one of the top-selling fish in America. 
“Sushi in particular is really bad,” Olmsted says, and as a native New Yorker, he knows how much this one hurts. He writes that multiple recent studies “put the chances of your getting the white tuna you ordered in the typical New York sushi restaurant at zero — as in never.” 
[...] even when it comes to basics, none of us are leaving the grocery store without some product — coffee, rice or honey — being faked. 
The food industry isn’t just guilty of perpetrating a massive health and economic fraud: It’s cheating us out of pleasure. These fake foods produce shallow, flat, one-dimensional tastes, while the real things are akin to discovering other galaxies, other universes — taste levels most of us have never experienced. 
“The good news,” Olmsted writes, “is that there is plenty of healthful and delicious Real Food. You just have to know where to look.” 
[...] As with so much regarding food safety, the USDA, which makes the rules, and the FDA, which is meant to enforce them, are nowhere to be found. These institutions routinely cite cost-cutting and low staff.
“No one is checking,” Olmsted writes.
 
[...] Red snapper, by the way, is almost always fake — it’s probably tilefish or tilapia. (Tilapia also doubles for catfish.) 
[...] Ever wonder why it’s so hard to properly sear scallops? It’s because they’ve been soaked in water and chemicals to up their weight, so vendors can up the price. Even “dry” scallops contain 18% more water and chemicals. 
Shrimp is so bad that Olmsted rarely eats it. “I won’t buy it, ever, if it is farmed or imported,” he writes. In 2007, the FDA banned five kinds of imported shrimp from China; China turned around and routed the banned shrimp through Indonesia, stamped it as originating from there, and suddenly it was back in the U.S. food ­supply. 
[...] Grated Parmesan cheese is almost always fake, and earlier this year, the FDA said its testing discovered that some dairy products labeled “100% Parmesan” contained polymers and wood pulp.
That’s all the FDA did: you can still buy your woody cheese at the supermarket
.
 
[...] As for our own lax labeling standards, Olmsted is outraged. Ninety-one percent of American seafood is imported, but the FDA is responsible for inspecting just 2 percent of those imports. And in 2013, the agency inspected less than half of that 2 percent. 
“The bar is so low,” he says. “Congress could not have given them less to do, and they still fail. They’re not clueless. They know. They’re actually deciding not to do it. They say they don’t have the budget.” 
When it comes to beef, Olmstead reports that the USDA is no better; the agency repealed its standards for the “grass-fed” designation in January after pressure from the agriculture industry. 
All that stamp now means, he says, is that in addition to grass, the animals “can still be raised in an industrial feed lot and given drugs. It just means the actual diet was grass rather than corn.”

The article has a lot more shocking facts and some tips on how to avoid getting totally screwed, but when you think that when you order that expensive dish of sushi at your local restaurant you're probably not getting what they tell you they're serving, it's quite upsetting and discomforting.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Nicotine might help stem sugar cravings

I stumbled upon this Raw Story article and figured I'd share the news:
Bingeing on candy and smoking have a surprising thing in common — they are both extremely addictive, according to researchers in Australia. 
Excess sugar consumption is a key factor in rising worldwide obesity rates, and scientists at Queensland University of Technology in Australia have found that drugs used to treat nicotine addiction can be used to treat sugar addiction in animals, according to research published in two scientific journals. 
[...] “Excess sugar consumption has been proven to contribute directly to weight gain. It has also been shown to repeatedly elevate dopamine levels which control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers in a way that is similar to many drugs of abuse including tobacco, cocaine and morphine.” 
Bartlett said that long-term consumption of sugar produces lower dopamine levels over time, which means more has to be consumed to satisfy the craving. 
“We have also found that as well as an increased risk of weight gain, animals that maintain high sugar consumption and binge eating into adulthood may also face neurological and psychiatric consequences affecting mood and motivation,” she said. 
FDA approved drug varenicline can combat sugar cravings the same way it fights nicotine cravings in smokers. 
In another surprising find, sugar replacement sweeteners, including saccharin, have the same addictive effects as real sugar.
I remember learning a while back that sugar is one of the worst discoveries mankind ever made because of its addictive properties and its ill effects on the body.

Now there might be hope for those who really cannot say no.

This artist's hubris soiled several national parks

I consider myself an artist because of my love for photography and my method of expression doesn't ordinarily affect the subject being photographed in any permanent way.

The same cannot be said of this graffiti artist who figured she had every right to deface several national parks in the name of her art:
The debate over urban graffiti is a complex one, frequently pitting commercial interests against artistic ones. Graffiti in the wilderness is a much simpler matter: It is a despicable crime, never more so than when the tags mar national parks. That is the takeaway from the case of 23-year-old Casey Nocket, also known as “Creepytings,” who this week pleaded guilty to defacing government property by applying her images and tag to seven national parks in the West during a dismayingly productive 2014 trip. So prolific was Nocket during her 26-day adventure, that in two parks, Crater Lake and Death Valley, her masterpieces have not yet been removed. 
[...] The blog Modern Hiker had first alerted the world about Nocket’s work in 2014. In an October 21, 2014, post, Modern Hiker’s Casey Schreiner reported that Nocket “was so moved by all the natural beauty she saw that she just had to paint all over it.” Her calling card—usually, a stylized portrait, with her “Creepytings” tag—appeared in some of the most famous parks in the West, including the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Zion. Her weapons were acrylic paint and marker. And she incautiously recorded her exploits on Instagram and Tumblr. 
[...] According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, she will be on probation for two years and must perform 200 hours of community service. In addition, Nocket “was banned from entering any national park while serving her sentence and will be required to pay restitution.” 
Nocket was the target of plenty of outrage, but she is merely a convenient symbol for an entire criminal subculture that takes pride in the vandalism of national parks, particularly in the West, where the desert is some of the last truly American wilderness that remains. Much of the protected land is sacred to Native Americans too.
Just like many online commenters, I was outraged to learn what Nocket had done. What on Earth possessed her to think that it was perfectly okay to use paint in some of the most magnificent and revered natural spaces we still have??!

What the hell was she thinking!?!?

From Raw Story.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Books vs. TV: does it matter for your brain?

Apparently yes, and quite a bit, according to a recent research:

Researchers have devoted innumerable hours to studying how TV affects our brains differently than reading. 
[...] The more a child watched television or was exposed to television, even if it was playing in the background, the weaker their understanding of their parents’ mental state. Ultimately, if the television was on in the vicinity of the child, it impaired their theory of mind, which is defined as the ability to recognize their own and another person’s beliefs, intents, desires, and knowledge. 
"Children with more developed theories of mind are better able to participate in social relationships,” said the study’s lead researcher Amy Nathanson, a communications professor at Ohio State University, in a statement. “These children can engage in more sensitive, cooperative interactions with other children and are less likely to resort to aggression as a means of achieving goals." 
A more recent study from 2015, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, revealed watching too much TV could actually alter the composition of the human brain.  When researchers studied 276 children between the ages of 5 and 18, they discovered the more time spent in front of the TV, the thicker the frontal lobe region of their brains developed. It’s the same area that is known to lower language processing and communication, which researchers suspect is also why they had a lower verbal IQ. But that wasn’t all; the hypothalamus, septum, sensory motor region, and visual cortex were all enlarged — these are where emotional responses, arousal, aggression, and vision are processed. 
It may be why increased TV exposure for children under the age of three is linked to delayed language acquisition, which sets them up for years of playing catch up in school. When it comes to school, children who sit in front of the TV for two or more hours a day are more likely to have greater psychological difficulties, which include hyperactivity, emotional and behavioral problems, and social conflicts with peers in the classroom. 
[...] But aside from pleasure and practicality, reading strengthens the neural pathways like any muscle in your body. Even at a young age, children who are read to by their parents develop five enhanced reading skills, which include an advanced vocabulary, word recognition in spoken words, ability to connect written letters to spoken sounds, reading comprehension, and the fluency to read text accurately and quickly. 
Despite the benefits, it’s estimated that 42 percent of college graduates will never pick up another book after they earn their degrees. But just because their brains are technically finished developing doesn’t mean they don’t need to read any more.  A study, conducted by a team of researchers from Emory University, revealed that books can stimulate changes in how the brain is connected, which causes the reader to have lingering feelings from the story, such as a heightened sense of excitement from reading a page-turner. 
[...] “The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist, ” Berns explained. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.” 
Researchers believe this prolonged and measurable brain boost, which was found in the region associated with language and sensory motor skills, could improve brain connectivity over time. It brings using books as an escape to a whole new level.
From Raw Story.

This cartoon seemed apropos:


AMPAS' new invitees

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which hands out the Oscars, following this year's huge controversy (#OscarsSoWhite) about the complete lack of African-American nominees in its acting categories for the second year in a row, pledged to double its number of female and minority voters by 2020.

A few weeks ago they announced they had extended an invitation to join the Academy to 683 new members from 59 countries. The breakdown is 46% female and 41% minority.

Among the potential new members are Idris Elba, Chadwick Boseman, Eva Mendes, America Ferrera, and Anika Noni Rose.


From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
The 2016 group of invitees is the academy's largest ever and more than doubles last year's class, said President Cheryl Boone Isaacs. 
She said the academy has worked for several years to diversify its largely white, male membership. Last year's #OscarsSoWhite movement amplified that conversation. 
The academy announced sweeping changes to its recruitment and voting practices in January after a second straight year of all-white acting nominees for the Academy Awards. 
[...] "We have recognized diverse talent throughout our history," she said. "What is of-the-now is how expansive and diverse our industry has become." 
She said academy members have been energized by the mandate to bring emerging or overlooked talents into their ranks. 
"It's been like a charge of electricity," she said.
More names from The Wrap:
Invitees were rolled out following a meeting on Tuesday night, at which the Academy’s board of governors reviewed and voted on prospective new members who were submitted by committees from each of the organization’s 17 branches. 
Actors invited to join the Academy include Michael B. Jordan, Oscar Isaac, Ryan Coogler, Cary Fukunaga Anthony Anderson, Adam Beach, Kate Beckinsale, Chadwick Boseman, John Boyega, Carmen Ejogo, Idris Elba, America Ferrera, Greta Gerwig, Carla Gugino, Tom Hiddleston, Regina King, Patti LuPone, Rachel McAdams, Nate Parker, Anika Noni Rose, Emma Watson and Marlon Wayans.
The Wrap also makes an interesting point about a potential issue with next year's list of new members:
AMPAS invited hundreds of women and minorities to join, but they’ll have to do it again and again to reach their goal. 
If the Motion Picture Academy’s goal is to dramatically increase the number of women and minorities in its membership, Wednesday’s list of the 683 people who will be invited to join the Academy this year is a very good start. 
[...] The Academy is trying hard to remake its 92 percent white, 75 percent male makeup. 
[...] But if you look at the Academy’s own figures, the task of doubling the number of women and minority members will require them to do what they did this week again in 2017 and 2018 and 2019 and 2020. 
And since the Academy looked far and wide to assemble an enormous, and enormously diverse, roster of invitees this year, it could be significantly harder to hit the same kind of numbers year after year. 
To double the number of women in the Academy, for instance, the AMPAS stats say that they’ll need to add about 1,700 female members between 2016 and 2020. This year, they added more than 300 — but that still would require adding almost 350 per year for the next four years to hit their declared target. 
That means the Academy will need to find and admit more women than they did this year, when the size of their outreach broke all records. 
Hitting the goal for people of color, though, might be easier. This year’s roster includes about 280 members of racial minority groups, which is more than halfway to the 501 that would be needed to double the existing number of members of color.
If coming up with this year's list took a considerable effort, then having to do even more and for several years won't be an easy task.

Still, I think the Academy should be applauded.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Trump officially Putin's pick for US presidency

That's not an official Kremlin statement, but I'm sure it's what Putin feels in his heart after hearing what Trump had to say about NATO:


This proves beyond reasonable doubt that Donald Trump is not at all qualified to sit in the Oval Office.

The US and NATO alliance is the only thing that prevents Putin from invading the whole of eastern Europe and recreate a sort of USSR. And after Brexit he is vastly more confident that the EU might eventually crumble, removing any economic incentive not to invade off the table.

The US-NATO alliance has survived the cold war. I'm afraid it wouldn't survive a Trump administration.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

In Memoriam

Garry Marshall (November 13, 1934 - July 19, 2016)


Another legend in the world of entertainment has left us. He was 81.

Marshall was a very prolific director, producer, writer, and even actor. He created some of the most memorable TV shows of all time, such as Happy Days, Mork & Mindi, Laverne & Shirley, and The Odd Couple. He was nominated for 5 Primetime Emmy Awards for his work in television.

He's also the one who turned Julia Roberts into a superstar when he picked her to star in his Pretty Woman, and he directed one of my favorite cinematic weepers: Beaches.

R.I.P.

Trump officially leads the GOP

We all knew this was going to happen, no matter how much some Republicans who can still use the gift of reason tried to stop it, but it still gave me pause when I saw this in my inbox this morning:

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

How to Train Your Dragon 2

The Gist: Hiccup finds out that a certain Drago Bludvist is seizing and gathering all the dragons with the intent of declaring war on Berk. He sets out to talk Drago out of war and convince him to leave the dragons alone. Things quickly go awry.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is the sequel to the very successful How to Train Your Dragon, and is one of the best animated films I've ever seen. Nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar, I am flabbergasted that it lost out to the mediocre Big Hero 6.

Aside from the eye popping animation, How to Train Your Dragon 2 tells a wonderfully developed story that will make you laugh and cry, and will keep you tethered to the screen with your mouth agape. It's absolutely brilliant.

The Bottom Line: This is a movie that will delight the little ones as well as their parents. It's a truly wonderful story, told with care and skill by Dean DeBlois and his team. Don't miss it.

Grade: 9

Humans' cruelty strikes again.

China, the country mainly responsible for continued poaching of wild and endangered animals all over the world because of the erroneous belief that their body parts have medicinal properties, are now guilty of yet another cruelty:

From Towleroad:

The bear is just one of a number of animals stuck within the Grandview shopping centre in Guangzhou. The facility has been dubbed “the world’s saddest zoo” and alongside two polar bears it also includes six young belugas, five walrus calves, a wolf and arctic foxes. 
Chinese netizens have repeatedly asked the public to stay away – effectively shaming the facility from the outset. There have, however, been enough curious visitors to ensure that animals are plagued by a repeated knocking on their window to gain their attention for photographs. 
“There is no excuse for any animal to be trapped this way but it’s widely believed that polar bears are one of the hardest of all animals to effectively provide for in captivity. Polar bears often exhibit ‘stereotypic’ behaviour as captivity restricts their natural instincts such as the need to forage. 
“Polar bears require huge amounts of space. Large enough for them to walk, run, climb and hunt. The list of what they need is very long – to a point whereby you can only really answer that what a polar bear really ‘needs’ is to be free to live life in the wild.
So upsetting and disgusting.

I got three words for these people: Shame! Shame! Shame!

Sad news for orangutans

More species getting closer to extinction because of human activity.

From Raw Story:
The Bornean orangutan is on the verge of extinction, a top conservationist body said Friday, also warning that the world’s biggest fish, the whale shark, and a hammerhead shark species were endangered. 
In an update to its “Red List” of threatened species, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature said growing human pressure was driving the three species ever closer to destruction. 
[...] The Bornean orangutan, which along with its cousin the Sumatran orangutan are Asia’s only great apes, has moved from being classified as “Endangered” to “Critically Endangered” — “only one step from going extinct,” IUCN said. 
“As orangutans are hunted and pushed out of their habitats, losses to this slow-breeding species are enormous and will be extremely difficult to reverse,” Erik Meijaard, an IUCN assessor of the species said in the statement. 
Around 100,000 of these great apes are estimated to live on the island of Borneo, which is divided between Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, down from 288,500 in 1973 and with their numbers expected to shrink to 47,000 by 2025. 
The majestic creatures have seen their habitat shrink dramatically as the island’s rainforests are increasingly turned into oil palm, rubber or paper plantations. 
[...] IUCN also warned that the slow-moving whale shark, which has been known to measure up to 12.65 metres (41.5 feet), had been placed on the “Endangered” list. 
The shark is fished for its meat as well as its fins which are used to make soup in some parts of Asia, but is also often caught by accident by fishermen casting nets for tuna. 
IUCN said unregulated fishing was also behind the fast-falling numbers of the winghead shark, a distinctive species of hammerhead shark, which had also been moved from being considered “Near Threatened” to “Endangered”.
How terribly sad.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

The Gist: A bamboo cutter finds what he thinks is a princess sent from Heaven in a bamboo stalk. He and his wife commit to care for her and raise her to become a noble princess, just as Heaven intended. The girl grows abnormally rapidly and turns into a beautiful young lady who enthralls anyone who encounters her. But the day comes when she realizes where she comes from and why, and what has to happen next.

Nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is very well made and tells a very sweet tale with the utmost gentleness.

The only reason I am not rating it higher is that I found it too long (clocking in at 137 minutes!) and while the story is certainly multilayered, it also runs slow at times.

The Bottom Line: This is not the kind of animation we're now accustomed to, flashy and perfectly rendered. Rather, it's the age old hand drawn kind, choppy, and roughly defined, but that doesn't detract from the whole. A nice movie for the whole family.

Grade: 7

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Jupiter Ascending

The Gist: A young cleaning lady is suddenly thrown in the middle of a deadly intergalactic squabble involving three noble and powerful siblings. She's apparently their "reincarnated" mother and owner of the Earth, whose human population is to be used to produce a rejuvenating serum.

Jupiter Ascending is clearly a labor of love for Lana and Lilly Wachowski, but the end result is uneven and disappointing.

The originality is evident in the characters and worlds created, and in the basic concept, but the script is simply trying to do too much in the allotted time. Character development feels rushed and incomplete.

The movie is visually stunning, wonderfully scored by Michael Giacchino, and, considering the material provided, rather well acted by Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Sean Bean, and Eddie Redmayne.

Redmayne was particularly savaged for his theatrical performance, but given the wafer-thin screenplay I think he simply tried to give heft to a supposedly important character that is given precious little to say and do. Also, he might have been asked to make his character look so affected.

The Bottom Line: After making the utterly original The Matrix, one of my favorite movies ever, I am always curious to see what the Wachowski's will concoct next. Jupiter Ascending could have marked the beginning of a new space saga, and instead fizzled for lack of development. Watch it at your peril if you long for some awesome visual effects or want to see Channing Tatum prance and skulk around bare chested for a while. Oh and Douglas Booth ain't too hard on the eyes either...

Grade: 5

Big Hero 6

The Gist: After discovering his brother's death was not entirely accidental, Hiro sets out to find and capture the culprit with the help of his brother's friends and Baymax, a sentient robot his brother created.

Big Hero 6 starts out very promising, but pretty quickly veers into outlandish territory, even for an animated movie featuring a robot with advanced artificial intelligence.

Two things I found particularly jarring. One, the technology available seems several decades in the future, and yet the world the people live in closely resembles our own. Two, no matter how sophisticated the suits or weapons, it's hardly possible for college students (nerds at that) to become proficient superhero fighters in the space of an afternoon.

Again, I know it's an animated film, but when it so closely resembles our world, it's hard to avoid drawing comparisons. To put it in perspective, the creators also made Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen, but those two worlds have nothing to do with our own. The former is fully encapsulated into video games, and the latter is a fantasy world, even if the people and animals look like us and ours.

The Bottom Line: While Big Hero 6 is wonderfully rendered and the story is at times incredibly sweet, Baymax is the one character I found most believable, and it is a robot. It's hard to believe that this movie won the Oscar for Best Animated Picture.

Grade: 6

Big Eyes

The Gist: After meeting Walter Keane, a fraudulent wannabe painter, and marrying him, Margaret is grudgingly cajoled into letting him sell her paintings of children with unnaturally big eyes as his own. When his pompousness turns dangerously delusional, she leaves him and will eventually sue to clear her name and regain ownership of her art.

Big Eyes, directed by Tim Burton, tells the true story of world-renown painter Margaret Keane and her fight for independence. Well written, it features great costumes and a cinematography dripping with rich colors.

It stars Amy Adams (winner of a Best Lead Actress Golden Globe) and Christoph Waltz (nominated for a Best Lead Actor Golden Globe). She's very good, he's good but too theatrical, even though perhaps that's how the real Walter Keane actually was.

Danny Huston and Terence Stamp also star in smaller roles.

The Bottom Line: I really enjoyed this movie. It's nothing memorable but it's a cool story, well put together, and well acted.

Grade: 7

Friday, July 15, 2016

Emmy Trivia

Some interesting statistics on this year's Emmy nominations from the emmys.com website:

This year’s Drama and Comedy Series nominees include first-timers as well as returning programs to the Emmy competition: black-ish and Master of None are new in the Outstanding Comedy Series category, and Mr. Robot and The Americans in the Outstanding Drama Series competition.  Additionally, both Veep and Game of Thrones return to vie for their second Emmy in Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Drama Series respectively.
While Game of Thrones again tallied the most nominations (23), limited series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and Fargo received 22 nominations and 18 nominations respectively. 
Some key nominees in the six lead performer categories are either first-time nominees, or familiar names with multiple nominations.  For Outstanding Lead Performer for a Drama Series category (actor and actress), newcomers include Rami Malek in Mr. Robot and both Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys in The Americans
Similarly, in the Outstanding Lead Performer for a Comedy Series category (actor and actress), names new to the nominations emerged this year such as: Aziz Ansari in Master of None, Thomas Middleditch in Silicon Valley, Ellie Kemper in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Tracee Ellis Ross in black-ish. In addition, previous three-time Emmy winner Laurie Metcalf (for her supporting role on Roseanne) emerged a multiple-nominee:  in the lead comedy category for Getting On, as well as for her comedic guest work in The Big Bang Theory and her dramatic guest work in Horace and Pete
Contenders for Outstanding Lead Performer in a Limited Series or Movie category (actor and actress), include twice-nominated Sarah Paulson in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (as well as in American Horror Story: Hotel), and first-time nominees Tom Hiddleston in The Night Manager, Courtney B. Vance and Cuba Gooding, Jr. in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, and Kirsten Dunst in Fargo.
The Emmys will be presented on Sunday, September 18.

Oh, and although American Horror Story: Hotel received several nominations, including 2 for Kathy Bates and Sarah Paulson, there was no mention of Lady Gaga. Just as I expected (see this and this for background, and my review of Hotel).

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The 68th Primetime Emmy Nominations

Announced today, the Emmys will be presented on Sunday, September 18. The host will be Jimmy Kimmel.


Here are the nominations:

Outstanding Drama Series:

The Americans
Better Call Saul
Downton Abbey
Game of Thrones
Homeland
House of Cards
Mr. Robot

Outstanding Comedy Series:

“black-ish”
“Master of None”
“Modern Family”
“Silicon Valley”
“Transparent”
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”
“Veep”

Outstanding Limited Series

“American Crime”
“Fargo”
“The Night Manager”
“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”
“Roots”

Outstanding Television Movie:

“All the Way”
“Confirmation”
“Luther“
“Sherlock: The Abominable Bride”
“A Very Murray Christmas”

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series:

Kyle Chandler , “Bloodline”
Rami Malek, “Mr. Robot”
Bob Odenkirk, “Better Call Saul”
Matthew Rhys, “The Americans”
Liev Schreiber, “Ray Donovan”
Kevin Spacey, “House of Cards”

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series:

Claire Danes, “Homeland”
Viola Davis, “How to Get Away With Murder”
Taraji P. Henson, “Empire”
Tatiana Maslany, “Orphan Black”
Keri Russell, “The Americans”
Robin Wright, “House of Cards”

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series:

Anthony Anderson, “black-ish”
Aziz Ansari, “Master of None”
Will Forte, “Last man on Earth
William H. Macy, “Shameless”Will Forte, “Last Man on Earth”
Thomas Middleditch, “Silicon Valley”
Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series:

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, “Veep”
Ellie Kemper, “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”
Tracee Ellis Ross, “black-ish”
Laurie Metcalf, “Getting On”
Amy Schumer, “Inside Amy Schumer”
Lily Tomlin – “Grace and Frankie”

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie:

Bryan Cranston, “All the Way”
Benedict Cumberbatch, “Sherlock: The Abominable Bride”
Idris Elba, “Luther”
Cuba Gooding Jr., “The People vs. O.J. Simpson”
Tom Hiddleston, “The Night Manager”
Courtney B. Vance, “The People vs. O.J. Simpson”

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie:

Kirsten Dunst, “Fargo”
Felicity Huffman, “American Crime”
Audra McDonald, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grille”
Sarah Paulson, “The People v. O.J. Simpson”
Lili Taylor, “American Crime”Kerry Washington, “Conformation”

Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Drama Series

Jonathan Banks, “Better Call Saul”
Peter Dinklage, “Game of Thrones”
Ben Mendelsohn, “Bloodline”
Christian Slater, “Mr. Robot”
Kit Harington, “Game Of Thrones”
Michael Kelly, “House Of Cards”
Jon Voight , “Ray Donovan”

Outstanding Supporting Actress In A Drama Series

Maura Tierney, “The Affair”
Maggie Smith, “Downton Abbey”
Lena Headey, “Game Of Thrones”
Emilia Clarke, “Game Of Thrones”
Maisie Williams, “Game Of Thrones”
Constance Zimmer, “UnREAL”

Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Comedy Series

Louie Anderson, “Baskets”
Andre Braugher , “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”
Keegan-Michael Key, “Key & Peele”
Ty Burrell , “Modern Family”
Tituss Burgess , “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”
Tony Hale, “Veep”
Matt Walsh, “Veep”

Outstanding Supporting Actress In A Comedy Series

Niecy Nash, “Getting On”
Allison Janney, “Mom”
Kate McKinnon , “Saturday Night Live”
Judith Light, “Transparent “
Gaby Hoffmann, “Transparent”
Anna Chlumsky, “Veep"

Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Miniseries Or Movie

Jesse Plemons, “Fargo”
Bokeem Woodbine, “Fargo”
Hugh Laurie, “The Night Manager”
Sterling K. Brown, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”
David Schwimmer, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”
John Travolta, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”

Outstanding Supporting Actress In A Miniseries Or Movie

Melissa Leo, “All The Way”
Regina King, “American Crime”
Sarah Paulson, “American Horror Story: Hotel”
Kathy Bates, “American Horror Story: Hotel”
Jean Smart, “Fargo”
Olivia Colman, “The Night Manager”

Outstanding Guest Actor In A Drama Series

Max von Sydow, “Game Of Thrones”
Michael J. Fox, “The Good Wife”
Reg E. Cathey, “House Of Cards”
Mahershala Ali , “House Of Cards”
Paul Sparks , “House Of Cards”
Hank Azaria, “Ray Donovan”

Outstanding Guest Actress In A Drama Series

Margo Martindale, “The Americans"
Carrie Preston, “The Good Wife”
Laurie Metcalf, “Horace And Pete”
Ellen Burstyn, “House Of Cards”
Molly Parker, “House Of Cards”
Allison Janney, “Masters Of Sex”

Outstanding Guest Actor In A Comedy Series

Bob Newhart, “The Big Bang Theory”
Tracy Morgan, “Saturday Night Live”
Larry David, “Saturday Night Live”
Bradley Whitford, “Transparent”
Martin Mull, “Veep”Peter MacNicol, “Veep”

Outstanding Guest Actress In A Comedy Series

Laurie Metcalf, “The Big Bang Theory”
Christine Baranski, “The Big Bang Theory”
Tina Fey & Amy Poehler, “Saturday Night Live”
Melissa McCarthy, “Saturday Night Live”
Amy Schumer, “Saturday Night Live”
Melora Hardin, “Transparent “

Outstanding Reality-Competition Program

“The Amazing Race”
“American Ninja Warrior”
“Dancing With The Stars”
“Project Runway”
“Top Chef”
“The Voice”

Outstanding Host For A Reality Or Reality-Competition Program

Ryan Seacrest, “American Idol”
Tom Bergeron, “Dancing With The Stars”
Jane Lynch, “Hollywood Game Night”
Steve Harvey, “Little Big Shots starring Steve Harvey”
Heidi Klum, Tim Gunn, “Project Runway”
RuPaul, “RuPaul's Drag Race”

Outstanding Variety Talk Series

“Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee“
“Jimmy Kimmel Live“
“Last Week Tonight With John Oliver“
“The Late Late Show With James Corden“
“Real Time With Bill Maher“
“The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon“

Outstanding Variety Sketch Series

“Documentary Now!“
“Drunk History“
“Inside Amy Schumer “
“Key & Peele“
“Portlandia“
“Saturday Night Live“

Outstanding Documentary Or Nonfiction Special

“Becoming Mike Nichols“
“Everything Is Copy“
“Listen To Me Marlon“
“Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures“
“What Happened, Miss Simone?“

Outstanding Documentary Or Nonfiction Series

“American Masters“
“Chef's Table“
“Making A Murderer“
“The Seventies“
“Woman With Gloria Steinem“

Outstanding Informational Series Or Special

“Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown”
“Inside The Actors Studio”
“Star Talk With Neil deGrasse Tyson”
“The Story Of God With Morgan Freeman”
“Vice”

Outstanding Structured Reality Program

“Antiques Roadshow”
“Lip Sync Battle”
“MythBusters”
“Shark Tank”
“Undercover Boss”

Outstanding Unstructured Reality Program

“Born This Way”
“Deadliest Catch”
“Gaycation With Ellen Page”
“Intervention”
“Project Greenlight”
“United Shades Of America”

Outstanding Directing For A Drama Series

Michael Engler, “Downton Abbey”
Miguel Sapochnik, “Game Of Thrones”
Jack Bender, “Game Of Thrones”
Lesli Linka Glatter, “Homeland”
Steven Soderbergh, “The Knick”
David Hollander, “Ray Donovan”

Outstanding Directing For A Comedy Series

Aziz Ansari, “Master Of None”
Alec Berg, “Silicon Valley”
Mike Judge, “Silicon Valley”
Jill Soloway, “Transparent “
Dave Mandel, “Veep”
Chris Addison, “Veep”
Dale Stern, “Veep”

Outstanding Directing For A Miniseries, Movie Or Dramatic Special

Jay Roach, “All The Way”
Noah Hawley, “Fargo”
Susanne Bier, “The Night Manager”
Ryan Murphy, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”
Anthony Hemingway, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”
John Singleton, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”

Outstanding Directing For A Variety Series

Ryan McFaul, “Inside Amy Schumer”
Paul Pennolino, “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver”
Tim Mancinelli, “The Late Late Show With James Corden”
Don Roy King, “Saturday Night Live”
Dave Diomedi, “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”

Outstanding Directing For A Variety Special

Beth McCarthy-Miller,  “Adele Live In New York City”
Chris Rock, “Amy Schumer: Live At The Apollo”
Louis J. Horvitz, “58th Grammy Awards”
Thomas Kail, Alex Rudzinski, “Grease: Live”
Glenn Weiss, “The Kennedy Center Honors”
Kahlil Joseph, Beyonc√© Knowles Carter, “Lemonade”

Outstanding Writing For A Drama Series

Joel Fields, Joe Weisberg, “The Americans“
Julian Fellowes, “Downton Abbey“
David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, “Game Of Thrones“
Robert King, Michelle King, “The Good Wife“
Sam Esmail, “Mr. Robot“
Marti Noxon, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, “UnREAL“

Outstanding Writing For A Comedy Series

Rob Delaney, Sharon Horgan, “Catastrophe“
Aziz Ansari, Alan Yang, “Master Of None”
Dan O'Keefe, “Silicon Valley”
Alec Berg, “Silicon Valley”
David Mandel, “Veep”
Alex Gregory, Peter Huyck, “Veep “

Outstanding Writing For A Miniseries, Movie Or Dramatic Special

Bob DeLaurentis, “Fargo“
Noah Hawley, “Fargo“
David Farr, “The Night Manager“
Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story“
D.V. DeVincentis, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story“
Joe Robert Cole, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story“

Outstanding Writing For A Variety Series

“Full Frontal With Samantha Bee“
“Inside Amy Schumer“
“Key & Peele“
“Last Week Tonight With John Oliver“
“Portlandia“
“Saturday Night Live“

Outstanding Writing For A Variety Special

“Amy Schumer: Live At The Apollo“
“John Mulaney: The Comeback Kid“
“Patton Oswalt: Talking For Clapping“
“Tig Notaro: Boyish Girl Interrupted“
“Triumph's Election Special 2016“

WE ARE HERE

An enormously powerful video that uses real life examples of how easy it is to be killed in 21st century America if you're black.

Watch it:

A Most Violent Year

The Gist: Abel Morales is trying to close a deal that will enable him to be a major player in New York City's oil delivery business. His competitors are trying to stop him. The city's DA is investigating him. And his wife, the daughter of a know mafioso, appreciates her husband's determination to remain an honest businessman, but won't think twice about resorting to anything in order to get what she wants.

A Most Violent Year earned the fabulous Jessica Chastain her second acting Oscar nomination. She's flanked by Oscar Isaac, who shows great promise and does a very good job.

Albert Brooks and David Oyelowo are good in less flashy roles than usual.

The Bottom Line: A Most Violent Year is a good movie, well directed and acted, that will ultimately leave you wanting. It seems to want to keep you on edge by suggesting the violence in the title more than showing it, but it's not really successful.

Grade: 7

Sunday, July 10, 2016

By 2050, there will be more plastic then fish in the sea

That's the shocking result of a new World Economic Forum report:
We’re putting so much of the cheap, non-biodegradable packaging material into the ocean that by 2050, ocean plastic will literally outweigh ocean fish. 
“This report demonstrates the importance of triggering a revolution in the plastics industrial ecosystem and is a first step to showing how to transform the way plastics move through our economy,” said WEF’s Dominic Waughray when the report was unveiled at Davos this week. 
The amount of plastic in the ocean today is estimated at 150 million metric tons (tonnes). Worldwide plastic production is expected to double within the next 20 years—having already multiplied by 20 since 1964.
More at the source.

I guess it's a very good thing that scientists might have found a bacteria that eats plastic...

Here's what evolution-deniers don't seem to understand

This Raw Story article perfectly crystallizes what's wrong with those who attack the Theory of Evolution:
1. It’s just a theory
[...] Although people use “theory” in everyday conversation to mean a not necessarily proven hypothesis, this is not the case in scientific terms. A scientific theory typically means a well substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that sits above laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses.
 
2. Humans are descended from monkeys
No, your great-great-great-ancestor was not a monkey. Evolution theory indicates that we have common ancestors with monkeys and apes – among the existing species, they are our closest relatives. Humans and chimpanzees share more than 90% of their genetic sequence. But this common ancestor, which roamed the earth approximately 7m years ago was neither a monkey nor a human, but an ape-like creature that recent research suggests had traits that favoured the use of tools.
 
3. Natural selection is purposeful
There are many organisms that are not perfectly adapted to their environment. [...] Natural selection can only randomly favour the best of what is available, it does not purposefully turn all living organisms into one super creature.
[...] Still, selection of the best option possible has led to an amazing diversity of forms remarkably well adapted to their environments, even if not perfect.
 
4. Evolution can’t explain complex organs
A common argument in favour of creationism is the evolution of the eye. A half developed eye would serve no function, so how can natural selection slowly create a functional eye in a step-wise manner? Darwin himself suggested that the eye could have had its origins in organs with different functions. Organs that allow detection of light could then have been favoured by natural selection, even if it did not provide full vision. These ideas have been proven correct many years later by researchers studying primitive light-sensing organs in animals. In molluscs like snails and segmented worms, light-sense cells spread across the body surface can tell the difference between light and dark.
 
5. Religion is incompatible with evolution
It is important to make it clear that evolution is not a theory about the origin of life. It is a theory to explain how species change over time.
There is more at the source, but you get the gist.

Evolution is not disputable. It is a scientifically established fact.

Under the Dome - Updated

Updates at bottom.

The third and final season of this pathetic excuse for a show didn't come soon enough. This was the quintessential "put it out of its misery already" kind of scenario.

Based on a novel by my beloved author Stephen KingUnder the Dome started out as a guilty summer pleasure: a decidedly unlikely and unthinkable event cuts a small town off civilization and we witness the people's reactions to it.

While the show was really supposed to have lasted only one season, the producers decided to ride its unexpected success a while longer.

The problem is that Mr. King did not provide them with fresh material from which to fish for ideas. So the writers were left with the ignominious task of coming up with more and more stories to fill the airwaves and give the cast something to say and do.

Unfortunately, with the action limited by the very nature of the central premise, meaning no way in and no way out, there are only so many food shortages, weather related events, chaotic uprisings, and mysterious murders you can come up with before you have to either start repeating yourself, or start bending the rules to allow for more wiggle room.

The writers had to resort to both techniques of course, because they were asked to spool tales not for one extra season, but two or more. I'm sure a shrinking audience and worsening reviews put a merciful end to it all.

There's more intrigue and betrayals, but there's a major realignment with the introduction of alien forms that take over humans √† la body-snatchers, secret passages in and out of the dome, stratagems meant to up the ante that are undermined when a course correction is suddenly required, mind control, a private company hired in secret by the government to decode and harvest the immense power of the egg, weird and unlikely alliances, attempted assassinations, escapes, and more and more and more.

If that's not enough to turn you off, or make you switch channel, then at least you'll be able to enjoy the sight of Mike Vogel, Alexander Koch, Eddie Cahill, and Max Ehrich, but I would recommend setting your speakers to mute.

Update: I just realized there was one thing that really bothered me for virtually the entirety of this show, and I forgot to mention it: Julia's hair.
Rachelle Lefevre is a very beautiful woman with a gorgeous mane of red hair. Unfortunately, the showrunners never seemed to bother trying to make her look realistic in the situation at hand.
While other people (mainly men) looked quite disheveled at times, Julia's hair always looked like she had just walked out of a hairdresser, no matter how much she was running around, either in pursuit or chased by enemies, whether through a thicket of woods or on dusty city streets.
So ridiculous.
They even showed her getting out of bed already perfectly coiffed!!
I wonder if it was in her contract that she had to look great all the times or if the director (or whoever else) had a thing for her and just wanted her to look her best; always.
Either way, it didn't do her any favors; it only made her come across as less professional in her desire to fully commit to the role.

Grade - Season 3: 2

Why the "pro-life" movement is just plain wrong

I'm pro-choice because it makes sense. Because women shouldn't be forced to have babies they can't take care of or simply don't want to have, whatever the reasons.

A child is a big responsibility. It's a human being with needs that start out basic (eat, sleep, be clothed) and only grow from there. It's expensive too. Very expensive. And it's a lifetime commitment.

This opinion piece I found on Raw Story perfectly sums up why the other side's argument is just wrongheaded:
Since the 1970s, abortion providers have been the target for arson and bombings by the very people who claim they value life at the moment of conception. 
[...] While no one was hurt during this clear act of violence, there have been numerous instances over the last few decades where people were either seriously injured or killed by religious zealots who cherish the lives of non-viable zygotes over living, breathing human beings. 
[...] According to statistics gathered by the National Abortion Federation (NAF), since 1977 in the United States and Canada, there have been 17 attempted murders, 383 death threats, 153 incidents of assault or battery, 13 wounded,100 butyric acid attacks, 373 physical invasions, 41 bombings, 655 anthrax threats, and 3 kidnappings committed against abortion providers. 
While these direct acts of violence are clear examples of how disingenuous right-wingers are in regard to how much they value human lives, one can also look to their conflicting political beliefs. Of the 33 states that restrict public funding of abortion, 27 permit death sentences. Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana are among the most “pro-life” states, and yet are also the most supportive of capital punishment. 
While these extremist anti-choicers are quick to threaten or take the lives of people they disagree with on abortion, they’re rarely seen protesting for public assistance to help those in lower socioeconomic statuses so they can take care of their children.
Amen

A Montage on Meryl Streep. Just Because.

Surfing the web I stumbled upon this clip and think it's worth sharing. Enjoy:

Spanish Matador Killed by Bull

So apparently Victor Barrio, 29, was gored in the ring by the bull he was trying to kill for sport and entertainment.

According to tradition, the bull's mother will now be sent to the slaughterhouse and the lineage terminated.

Should I feel bad for Barrio or the bull, named Lorenzo? I pick the bull. Sorry, but the bull didn't choose to be put in a ring for thousands of people to watch him die at the hands of a man. Barrio, however, did.

This is the first professional matador to die in the ring in Spain this century. How many bulls have been killed in these 16 years?

This is one violent and senseless tradition that should absolutely be forgone.

The Daily Mail article is here.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Poachers Should Get Forced Labor. Or Be Executed.

I have no sympathy for poachers. Yes, some may be forced to do it to put food on the table, but even so, if your actions result in the loss of life, even animal life, and especially if it's endangered animals, I support a zero tolerance policy:
Poachers slaughtered a record number of rhinos last year in Africa as demand for their horns skyrockets in Asia.
 

At least 1,338 rhinos were killed last year, the largest number since the poaching crisis intensified nearly a decade ago, according to data compiled by an international group. 

The number of rhinos killed has gone up in the continent for six years in a row. 

Despite the grim statistics, there was a ray of hope in South Africa, where the killings decreased slightly for the first time in years. 

South Africa is home to about 80% of Africa's rhinos, making it a crucial conservation hub for the iconic animal. 
And Asia's delusions are mainly to blame:
The killing of the animal has increased in recent years, fueled by a growing belief in Asia that its horns purportedly cure cancer.

As clients in countries such as China and Vietnam pay top dollar for rhino horns, poachers are getting brutal and sophisticated.


The demand has attracted global crime networks, complicating conservation efforts. 
Grim statistics:
The western black rhino was declared extinct five years ago as a result of poaching.
The northern white rhino, a subspecies of the white rhino, is near extinction. There are only three northern white rhinos left in the world, all living at a conservancy in Kenya.
The northern subspecies is believed to be extinct in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Fund, while the "near threatened" southern white rhino population is growing in sanctuaries.
All five remaining rhino species worldwide are considered threatened, according to the conservation group Save the Rhino.
Experts say if poaching continues at that rate, rhino deaths could surpass births, pushing the animals closer to extinction
More details at the source.

Plastic Eating Bacteria Could Be Hope for the Future

If this new discovery out of Japan holds up on further testing, it could indeed be revolutionary and help make the world a better place for all species:
Scientists in Japan have discovered a strain of bacteria that can eat plastic, a finding that might help solve the world's fast-growing plastic pollution problem.

The species fully breaks down one of the most common kinds of plastic called Polyethylene terephthalate (PET). It's the type often used to package bottled drinks, cosmetics and household cleaners. 


This could be really good news for the environment. Almost a third of all plastic packaging escapes collection systems and ends up in nature or clogging up infrastructure, the World Economic Forum (WEF) warned. 
Source.

Prom

A very nice video that gives me hope for the future generations.



From Towleroad.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Paris Is Burning

The Gist: A documentary about the New York City's drag scene of the 80's, its balls, the birth of voguing, and the reality and dreams of those who lived it all.

Directed by Jennie Livingston, Paris Is Burning is a well put together investigation of what life was like for these gay men in that particular moment in time.

Coming from a different country, it amazes me to see the similarities in the attitudes, hopes, and fears that gay men likely experience everywhere in the world, no matter how free and open the society you live in.


The Bottom Line: This should be required viewing for any gay man. It's important to have an understanding of how people like you who live in different situations think. And it's important to have a historical record of what gay life in these tumultuous years was really like.

Grade: 7

Confirmation

The Gist: During the confirmation process to appoint Judge Clarence Thomas to the US Supreme Court, damaging allegations of sexual harassment are leveled against him by Anita Hill, a former employee who's now a respected law professor. The Senate will have no choice but to hold public hearings on the matter.

I knew that Justice Thomas had been accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill and that his confirmation had been contentious as a result, but I didn't know very many details, so watching Confirmation seemed like a good idea.

I'm glad to report that the HBO film is informative and well cast, with the beautiful Kerry Washington and the always excellent Wendell Pierce as the leads.

Frankly, it is appalling that after the details of her accusations were made public, this man was still confirmed to sit on the Supreme Court, supposedly a position requiring a reputation beyond reproach.

Unfortunately, the attempts at character assassination the Republicans engaged in to ensure their nominee's confirmation would be employed again today, when the harasser is often turned into the victim whose reputation is being dragged through the mud, rather than the individual who engaged in criminal (and despicable) behavior.

The cast includes Greg Kinnear, Jeffrey Wright, Eric Stonestreet, Treat Williams, Dylan Baker, and even Jennifer Hudson in a fairly small role.

The Bottom Line: Another good TV movie by HBO; well written, well acted, and very informative. It's ideal for a generation that knows nothing about what happened in the hallways of power just over a couple decades ago.

Grade: 7

American Graffiti

The Gist: Slated to leave for college in the morning, two small town high school grads decide to make the most of their last night in town by cruising the main strip with their buddies, hoping to get lucky.

George Lucas' American Graffiti has become a revered title in the pantheon of classic American films, but in my opinion it's way overrated.

This is fairly common of course. Whenever a movie assumes a cultish status, it is often either rabidly adored (if you're one of those who "get it") or vehemently despised. Case in point, Donnie Darko.

Thing is, Lucas still retains a modicum of respect in spite of his poor performance as writer and director of the Star Wars prequels, in large part because of Graffiti, his last project unrelated to Star Wars in any way, and I'm not sure I understand why.

It's impressive to see Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss, and Ron Howard at such young ages, as well as early 60's cars, clothes, and late night joints, but the script is pretty shallow and the acting quite theatrical. I barely bought into the whole enterprise at all.

The Bottom Line: Watching American Graffiti is a good exercise if you're curious about vintage American anything, but as a movie in and of itself, I found it sorely lacking.

Grade: 5

Inside Man

The Gist: A well organized group of bank robbers break into a Manhattan bank and take hostages. The police surrounds the place and a detective is put in charge of the negotiations. Meanwhile, the bank's CEO hires a high-power broker to protect a very sensitive secret, which ends up dragging the Mayor in the messy quagmire.

Directed by Spike Lee, Inside Man is a very well constructed heist movie that features several twists that keep the action going at a fast clip.

Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, and Christopher Plummer bring the goods in terms of acting.

The Bottom Line: Although Inside Man won't leave a permanent mark in the history of cinema, it's a very intriguing caper with many twists and a good cast.

Grade: 7

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The Gist: Three decades after Luke Skywalker and Co. defeated the Galactic Empire, a new threat, perhaps even greater, has arisen: the First Order. Luke is absent, but Princess Leia is still with the resistance. They will be rejoined by Han Solo and Chewbacca thanks to a couple new freedom fighters, Rey and former Stormtrooper Finn. Kylo Ren is their main enemy, but a bigger threat hides behind him.

A long time ago, in our galaxy, George Lucas, famous for his desire to keep full control over the Star Wars universe, made the ill-conceived decision to self-direct three prequels to his wildly successful and deeply loved original trilogy.

He certainly had the financial resources to do it, and given that his Lucasfilm is always at the vanguard of visual effects development, he also had that advantage. The prequels were visually stunning, but were built on the flimsliest of screenplays, written by Lucas himself.

It was a really sad story. A giant presence in the world of cinema, thanks to the universe he had concocted in his mind, he simply couldn't accept to have other people mingle with his creation and potentially inject ideas of their own. As a result, the prequels made a ton of money for him but disappointed the fans. The films were widely panned and derided for their lack of depth and soul.

Subsequently, Lucas swore he'd never go back to the Star Wars universe for more chapters; but just when we thought all hope was lost, he decided to accept $4 billion from Disney to sell them Lucasfilm and every property connected to it, which included ownership of all the existing Star Wars movies plus the rights to make more.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the first movie produced by Disney and thanks to their decision to hand the reins of the Star Wars reboot to J.J. Abrams, the same guy who so successfully revived the Star Trek universe, it was a big success.

Abrams, very wisely, stuck close to the original trilogy in terms of the overall look and feel of The Force Awakens; perhaps a bit too close. One doesn't have to look too closely to notice similarities in the landscapes, the battle scenes, and the main characters.

Being able to get Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher to reprise their roles was a masterstroke, bringing a powerful aura of nostalgia to the whole proceedings. Mark Hamill donned his Jedi robes for a brief cameo too.

The new heroes introduced, however, are an excellent addition: John Boyega's Finn is funny and protective, while Daisy Ridley's Rey is strong enough to stand up to Adam Driver's Kylo Ren.

The Bottom Line: If you were pining to go back to a galaxy far, far away, then pain no longer. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a worthy successor to the original Star Wars trilogy and will make you quickly forget the prequels ever existed. In addition, the well written script introduces many new characters that will undoubtedly keep us coming back for years to come. May the Force be with the new showrunners!!

Grade: 8

Jurassic World

The Gist: A new, more high-tech park is built on the island of the original Jurassic Park. Business is booming, with thousands of tourists visiting the park and big corporations interested in sponsoring new exhibits. To appease the demand for ever bigger thrills, the scientists toil with the dinosaurs' genetic code in order to "improve" them. Their latest creation is a highly intelligent, stealth killing machine. When it escapes confinement, it goes on a killing spree.

It's been 14 years since Hollywood last ventured in the land of the dinosaurs for what felt like an insipid third helping of an original concept that stunned the world with its revolutionary images when it first came out.

Jurassic World showcases much more impressive visual effects, thanks to ever evolving computer resources, and the latest incarnation of the prototypical action star, Chris Pratt.

Unfortunately, not everything smells fresh in this tropical paradise. While Irrfan Khan is somewhat credible, Bryce Dallas Howard and Vincent D'Onofrio play two-dimensional caricatures rather than credible characters.

On top of that, the screenplay simply pushes things to a too far-fetched extreme. Aside from the question of who in their right mind would ever venture in a similar park after what happened before, one wonders how wise and/or safe it is to put visitors in transparent pods that are supposed to circulate freely among the dinosaurs (I don't really care that they're not carnivorous; vegetarians have bad days too!!).

Then there are the really out there concepts like the "domestication" of velociraptors, or keeping a colossal mosasaurus in a tank whose top side is open like it would be for dolphins, or mixing genetic traits from completely different animals and coming up with a perfectly functioning new type of dinosaur. While the original Jurassic Park put out there some revolutionary ideas, Steven Spielberg (a producer here) had nothing on these guys...

The Bottom Line: If you enjoy action and/or sci-fi movies, than this one will not disappoint you. There's plenty of both, it's made with the utmost care on a technical level, and Chris Pratt is such a charmer (and super hot) he'd make any bitter pill go down easy, just don't expect too much serious science...

Grade: 7