Thursday, October 27, 2016

Joy

The Gist: A child of divorce with two substantially unstable parents, Joy is a driven and hardworking young woman who dreams of starting her own business making original everyday products.

Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence raked up her fourth acting nomination for her leading role in Joy, where she reunited once again with acting partners Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro, and director David O. Russell.

Joy is the third movie these four people have successfully worked together on, even though Joy, justifiably, didn't receive the same accolades their previous two efforts (Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle) got.

The Bottom Line: I enjoyed Joy, even though it did not reach the artistic heights of Russell's previous two efforts with Lawrence. Clearly, the two of them have great synchronicity, which always shows in their work. The story of Joy, which is based on true facts, is interesting and funny and sad, but through all the ups and downs, you'll surely be rooting for her.

Grade: 7

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Carol

The Gist: After a chance encounter in a New York department store, a woman's already troubled marriage becomes an inconvenience on the path to happiness.

Carol was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Screenplay, Supporting Actress (Rooney Mara), and Lead Actress (Cate Blanchett).

Mara's submission in the supporting category was controversial because she is on screen as much as Blanchett, but the studio didn't want to jeopardize Blanchett's chances and so they split the category. That's a studio's prerogative and totally allowed by the Academy's bylaws, and it's happened many times before.

Regardless, they are both absolutely terrific, but, given how hard it was for Meryl Streep to win her third Oscar, Blanchett's chances weren't looking too good, especially only two years after winning her second statuette.

The Bottom LineCarol is a really good movie, perfectly acted and very well written. It's a wonderful love story set against the backdrop of a time when this kind of love was not to be spoken of. A must see.

Grade: 9

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Veep

Season five of this incredibly, outrageously funny comedy continues to hit the mark with every episode.

Not having won the presidency outright, Selina is now navigating the insecurities of ballot recounts and obscure Congressional rules that will decide who the next President and Vice President are.

Surrounded by a phenomenal supporting cast, Julia Louis-Dreyfus never misses a beat and constantly has you clutching your belly laughing out loud.

As she said in her acceptance speech for her latest Emmy win for this role, what began as a parody of the American political system has now morphed into what looks more like a documentary, thanks to Donald Trump's insane campaign, but I'll take Veep any day of the week, thank you very much!!

Grade - Season 5: 9

When Marnie Was There

The Gist: A teenager who had been adopted as a young kid, has become withdrawn and sent to the countryside for a while to live with some relatives. One day, she meets Marnie, a girl about her age who lives in an isolated mansion. As their friendship deepens, events from both the girls' pasts start coming to the fore.

Nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar, When Marnie Was There is a hand drawn animated feature that I found a bit puzzling at times. I was having trouble keeping up with the mysteries unraveling, mixed up with current events.

The Bottom Line: Nevertheless, When Marnie Was There is a sweet and enjoyable movie that the little ones should have no trouble following.

Grade: 7

Cartel Land

The Gist: An in-depth examination of the drug trafficking problem along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Cartel Land is a Best Documentary Oscar nominee that successfully attempts to shine a light on the plight brought about by the Mexican drug cartels on both sides of the border.

On the American side, a group of volunteer vigilantes patrol a stretch of land in Arizona that is often used by the cartels to bring drugs across.

On the Mexican side, a small town doctor has lead a group of citizens to arm themselves and rise up against the drug lords who kidnap, kill, and maim innocent people with impunity.

The Bottom LineCartel Land is very well made and very current, and the truths revealed will likely get your blood boiling by the end.

Grade: 7

Shaun the Sheep Movie

The Gist: Sick of the same routine, Shaun decides to hitch a ride to the big city for some fun, but the adventures awaiting him (and those who follow him) end up being a lot more than a simple sheep can handle. Will he be able to return things to normal?

Not much else can be added to that without giving plot points away. The movie is yet another example of excellency achieved without computers, as this is all stop-motion animation.

Furthermore, there is no dialogue, and yet the story unrolls before your eyes effortlessly. It's a real treat.

The Bottom Line: Nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar, Shaun the Sheep Movie is very funny and will please viewers of any age.

Grade: 8

Racing Extinction

The Gist: A documentary about the current state of the world's animal life and how humans are accelerating a new mass extinction event.

This is one of those documentaries that really pull at my heartstrings and end up making me incredibly sad and mad, because I love nature and animals so much.

Frankly, it is a disgrace that the world governments don't do more to protect the beauty of our world and the marvelous creatures that have all made it their home.

It was nominated for a Best Original Song Oscar for the end-titles' track, Anohni's Manta Ray, which itself was the cause of some controversy (read more about it here).

The Bottom LineRacing Extinction is a must see documentary for every human on the planet. Watch it now before it's too late.

Grade: 8

Boy & the World

The Gist: A little boy, who never saw anything much past his family's hut in the country, embarks on a fantastical journey to find his father.

I think I can safely state that Boy & the World is unlike anything you've ever seen before, animated or not. In large part because it doesn't really have a single line of dialogue.

Nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar, the story is told uniquely with the aid of simple hand-drawn animation, but it's laid out so well, it really doesn't need any words.

The music is beautiful and the story enthralling. You'll find yourself rooting for this little boy while witnessing what happened to our world and ourselves.

The Bottom LineBoy & the World is a movie that everyone should watch. Yes, it's animated, but while looking cute for the little ones, it'll stir up plenty of thoughts and even some melancholy in the older folks. A must see!

Grade: 9

Creed

The Gist: Apollo Creed's illegitimate son Adonis feels the pull of fighting in the ring and seeks out Apollo's longtime foe, Rocky Balboa as a trainer. While at first reticent, Balboa agrees to train the unproven boxer for a fight against the current world champion. Adonis, however, has a lot of baggage wearing him down.

Nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Sylvester Stallone reprises the role that made him famous almost 40 years ago and turns in a very good performance.

Stallone was actually considered the favorite to win at this year's ceremony, but was bested in an upset by Mark Rylance for Bridge of Spies. I always disapprove of awards given out for sentimental reasons (Stallone has never won and was nominated here for the same role he originated 39 years ago and for which he had gotten his first nomination -- two actually, the second for writing Rocky's original script).

Someone inevitably loses out despite a better performance because an actor is getting old or has worked in the industry for decades and has never been recognized. Rylance won out, and deservedly I think. Stallone was good, but Rylance's performance was more refined.

Michael B. Jordan is very well cast as the angry young boxer confronting very old ghosts. Tessa Thompson is perfectly cast as the love interest.

The Bottom Line: The latest entry in the Rocky Balboa canon, Creed is a nicely made movie whose only real flaw is to be a bit too predictable. Good acting and plenty of nostalgia, however, save it from mediocrity.

Grade: 7

Amy

The Gist: This documentary recounts the rise of an ordinary girl from an unknown to stardom until her untimely and unfortunate premature death.

Amy Winehouse was a great singer who had really just started showing the world all that she was capable of. She had an incredible talent as a songwriter too, capable of mining the deepest recesses of her soul and bare it all.

Unfortunately, she had trouble with depression, which led to a lot of drinking and drug use, and some of the people around her either didn't have her best interests in mind or just didn't understand the seriousness of the situation.

Either way, she's now gone.

The Bottom Line: Winner of a Best Documentary Oscar, Amy is a very well put together film that will satisfy both her fans and those who didn't know Winehouse at all. A real tragedy.

Grade: 8

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

The Gist: Upset by Superman's tremendous power and seeming lack of care for his actions, Batman sets out to neutralize him. Lex Luthor's son, however, might be the master puppeteer behind the epic confrontation.

Plenty of spoilers ahead.

Superman had finally been successfully rebooted with Man of Steel -- after an initial misfire (Superman Returns). Batman had just come off a very successful reboot trilogy, even though it now needed a new star and director. Why have them face each other now?

Apparently, DC Comics and Warner Brothers (which owns the DC catalog), were either concerned or jealous of Marvel's continued success at the box office in developing franchises for both individual superheroes and collectives (with The Avengers), so they wanted their own.

The problem I see is that they simply weren't ready. They jumped the gun. They wanted to have a blockbuster that set up a franchise that involved several superheroes, but only one was established in its current form, Superman. The new Batman, brought to life by Ben Affleck, was completely untested. No other character was developed at all.

Furthermore, the villain doesn't fully work. Lex Luthor is played here by Jesse Eisenberg. Eisenberg is a very good actor, who shone in The Social Network, but here he's virtually playing a crazier version of a jacked up Mark Zuckerberg, and he recalls too much Kevin Spacey's performance without nailing its subtleties. Maybe he was going for something like Heath Ledger's Joker, but if that's the case he failed.

But wait, there's more! The producers were probably under orders to establish individual superheroes for future standalone movies, so the Flash makes an appearance (as do Cyborg and Silas). And then of course there is Wonder Woman, played by Gal Gadot.

Her character is actually one of the coolest things in Dawn of Justice, besides the eye popping visual effects of course. Gadot seems perfectly suited to play the Amazon in next year's standalone Wonder Woman, so I'm actually quite curious to watch it.

And then there's the last nail in the coffin of this uneven effort: the creature Luthor concocts from General Zod's corpse. I'm sorry, but swallowing that is really asking too much of the audience.

So many questions... Why would the spaceship still sit in the middle of Metropolis? How could a politician think it perfectly okay to hand over very powerful alien technology to a private individual who has immense wealth at his disposal? How did he quickly figure out a way to reactivate the ship and use it to create that monster while no other scientist had? How is it supposed to look like an even fight when the creature is clearly more powerful than even Superman, given they have the same physiology and therefore the same superpowers, and it's enhanced?

Ultimately, when the movie ended I just felt sad and sorry. Sad for Affleck and sorry for the 2 franchises. Warner Bros. had a good thing going with Superman, but they should have given the perfectly cast Henry Cavill the chance to build his bonafides a bit more.

I felt sad for Affleck because he was done a disservice here by not being allowed to build his own character at all before being thrown into a tussle with a superhero he sees as a threat based on the most risible of assumptions. Batman is supposed to be incredibly smart, first because otherwise he wouldn't have the empire he has, second because he wouldn't be able to keep his identity secret so well, third because he's always outsmarting all the bad guys. But if he's so smart, then how does he not understand that Superman had no choice but to fight against General Zod with all his might? Certainly there was a lot of destruction and some innocent people were hurt or killed in the exchange, but if he had not fought back against Zod, the latter would have wiped out humanity completely and terraformed Earth to his likings!! Would that have been better?!?

Frankly, the whole premise the film is based on, that Batman has some beef with Superman, which leads to a confrontation, is ridiculous. And that undermines the whole structure of the plot.

The Bottom LineBatman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is not a horrible movie, nor the worst superhero movie ever made. It's just too implausible, even for this genre, it's based on too flimsy a premise, and it tries too hard to be something it doesn't have to tools to be.

Grade: 5

Everest

The Gist: A climbing expedition on Mount Everest is suddenly caught into a deadly storm.

Based on a true story, Everest features great character development and a lot of suspenseful moments.

Hearing about the difficulties the climbers face at such high altitudes, made me wonder why people would put themselves in such danger and attempt something not only difficult but literally life threatening.

A great cast includes Jason Clarke, John Hawkes, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Robin Wright.

The Bottom Line: Everest is a very good movie, well acted, and with great visuals. What these people went through, all for the sake of adventure, is mind boggling.

Grade: 8

Zootopia

The Gist: Zootopia is a big city where predators and preys have agreed to come together and live in peace. Judy, the first bunny ever to become a police officer, is eager to prove her mettle. When several different animals mysteriously disappear, the chief of police, begrudgingly, allows Judy to investigate.

This Disney effort introduces a whole barrage of new characters, which in itself is a commendable feat. The movie was successful, so I'm sure we'll see many sequels and maybe even prequels focused on "who they were" of some of the characters.

The Bottom Line: Zootopia is funny, well made, features impeccable animation, an original story, and likable characters. Still, it's not memorable.

Grade: 7

Kung Fu Panda 3

The Gist: Kai, an ancient threat, finds his way back from the realm of the afterlife with the goal of defeating all kung fu masters left and assert dominion over the land. Po will have to figure out how to defeat him with the help of his long lost biological father and the few pandas left in the world.

I've been a fan of the Kung Fu Panda franchise from its inception, and the third helping doesn't disappoint, but I wasn't as wowed as before.

It's technically impeccable, it's just that all the gyrations and clumsiness and aloofness feel more and more trite as time wears on. The third time around I've seen this panda gorge so much food, fall and bounce so many times, and ultimately always prevail in spite of his apparent shortcomings that the shtick is getting long in the tooth.

The Bottom LineKung Fu Panda 3 is a funny and entertaining animated movie that both young and old(er) can enjoy.

Grade: 7

Obama's post-presidency focus will be on gerrymandering

The U.S. presidency represents the highest job position one can aspire to, so once the term is over there is only so much a former President can do without it feeling like a demotion.

It looks like President Obama might have found a cause worth fighting for that would allow him to put his many talents to good use: expand the Democrats' edge in states' legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives, cutting into the GOP's unfair advantage:
As Democrats aim to capitalize on this year’s Republican turmoil and start building back their own decimated bench, former Attorney General Eric Holder will chair a new umbrella group focused on redistricting reform — with the aim of taking on the gerrymandering that’s left the party behind in statehouses and made winning a House majority far more difficult. 
The new group, called the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, was developed in close consultation with the White House. President Barack Obama himself has now identified the group — which will coordinate campaign strategy, direct fundraising, organize ballot initiatives and put together legal challenges to state redistricting maps — as the main focus of his political activity once he leaves office. 
[...] “American voters deserve fair maps that represent our diverse communities — and we need a coordinated strategy to make that happen,” Holder said. “This unprecedented new effort will ensure Democrats have a seat at the table to create fairer maps after 2020."
[...] The NDRC aims to tackle a central problem for Democrats: They complain about the need for redistricting reform all the time and have dozens of aligned interest groups pushing their own efforts, but none has gone far — and that’s left the party on the ropes every cycle. 
Lower Democratic turnout in midterm years has enabled Republicans to win governors' races and statehouse races that consolidate power in state capitals and Washington by being the ones to draw the maps that everyone needs to run on. 
They argue that Democrats have been losing races in large part because they’ve let Republicans tilt the field. The result: The ranks of up-and-coming Democrats have been thinned, and there are fewer and more difficult races for the ones who are left to run on. 
Donald Trump is "an acute symptom of their party in decline, and Republican leadership can't help but be aware that their majorities in the U.S. House and in many statehouses are inflated at best, wholly artificial at worst,” said Carolyn Fiddler, communications director for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the Washington group that coordinates among statehouse races and is also a partner in the NDRC. “A coordinated effort among Democrats to prevent another round of GOP gerrymandering is Republicans' worst nightmare for the long-term health of their party.”
I'm really hoping they're successful. If the country as a whole is generally more liberal, why are conservatives in charge in the majority of states' legislatures? Why do they hold more governorships? Why do they control the U.S. House and Senate?

If the voting maps were drawn fairly, more fairness would permeate the system as a whole. Here is a graphical representation of the issue:



Full article here.

And this quick search on Google shows the craziness of the current system. Check it out.

The Lobster

The Gist: In a not so distant future, a dystopian society requires every citizen to be happily married. When someone ends up single, no matter the reason, he's sent to a hotel where he has 45 days to find a new partner or face being turned into an animal of his choice and released into the wild.

Colin Farrell gives a very subdued performance that is one of his best, and Rachel Weisz is a great counterpart.

The cast is stellar overall, notably, Olivia Colman (the hotel manager), Ashley Jensen (the biscuit woman), Ariane Labed (the maid), Angeliki Papoulia (heartless woman), John C. Reilly, and Ben Whishaw, whose career has thankfully really taken off.

The Bottom Line: The Lobster is a very, very dark comedy. You won't laugh as much as smile because the darker undertones and occasional somewhat violent scene will leave you often incredulous. Definitely worth watching. Much food for thought.

Grade: 7

Eye in the Sky

The Gist: A drone operation is underway against a suspected terrorist cell in Kenya. The commanding officer is in England while the drone operator is in America. A number of military and civilian officials are watching remotely. The legality and morality of drone warfare is repeatedly put into question, frustrating the officer, whose duty it is to neutralize the enemy.

Helen Mirren is tough and laser focused. Aaron Paul and Alan Rickman join her in turning in great performances.

Eye in the Sky is not always an easy movie to watch. If you have a terrorist in your crosshairs, but killing him will result in the collateral death of some innocent people, should you go ahead and do it, knowing that if you miss this opportunity he will go on to kill a lot more innocent people for his cause?

The Bottom Line: The movie delivers as a whole, with lots of suspense and plenty of moral dilemmas for the audience to posit. Definitely entertaining.

Grade: 7

Friday, October 21, 2016

Sicario

The Gist: An FBI agent volunteers with a government task force whose goal it is to disrupt the drug traffic between the U.S. and Mexico. What she witnesses will shake her confidence in the system.

Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin are all top notch.

The Bottom LineSicario is a very well made thriller that will keep you glued to your seat for the duration of the high octane action and blood curdling suspense. Why didn't I rate it higher? I'm not so sure myself. Great acting, good script, very enjoyable. Still, not memorable.

Grade: 7

The Boss

The Gist: Michelle Darnell is a strong woman who built an empire without worrying too much about ethics and morals. Convicted for insider trading, she loses everything and has to start over.

I love Melissa McCarthy and will watch anything she does. Her comedy chops are unmatched, she's got perfect timing and her facial expressions are priceless.

The Bottom Line: The Boss isn't a great movie by any means and it's rather predictable at every turn, but it's still got plenty of skits that will make you double over with laughter.

Grade: 6

Grandma

The Gist: Grandma gets a visit from her teenage granddaughter, who needs cash right away and can't ask her mother for it.

I've always loved Lily Tomlin, and Grandma is a role that allows her craft to shine, but I have to admit that she felt sort of "old school." For instance, when she's driving, which is often, she still swings the steering wheel this way and that like they used to do in the 40s and 50s, which is absurd to anyone who's ever spent any time driving a car. Obviously, the vehicle was stationary.

Still, she's well balanced against Julia Garner, and when Marcia Gay Harden enters the scene, it's fun to have two such experienced actresses play off one another.

Oh, I should also mention the always handsome Sam Elliott, who has a small role, but impactful.

The Bottom Line: The topic discussed (unwanted pregnancies) is not for everyone's taste, but it's dealt with as tactfully as one could expect. Tomlin's performance makes it well worth your time.

Grade: 6

The Good Dinosaur

The Gist: The asteroid never hit the Earth and dinosaurs now live alongside humans and have perfected farming. Our hero is a fearful little guy who, separated from his family, has to learn the ways of the world in order to make it back.

Hard to believe that this very weak animated movie could have come out of the same Pixar house that consistently produces the absolute best films, raising the bar with each new release.

I guess every studio has a flop every now and then, but this is a little different. It's not that The Good Dinosaur is a really bad movie. We've all seen some of those, and this ain't that.

In fact The Good Dinosaur has a tender heart, a likable character, a nice friendship, good animation, and a rather entertaining (if boilerplate) plot. And yet, it doesn't feel satisfying.

I can only guess that somehow Pixar's recipe this time was missing some key ingredients, which left the different film elements out of balance.

The Bottom Line: If you have little ones, they will likely enjoy it plenty, so go ahead and rent it, just don't expect the same Pixar magic you've been accustomed to, it's all I'm saying.

Grade: 6

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Concussion

The Gist: A pathologist discovers that repeated concussions suffered during normal play by football players cause permanent brain damage that is often lethal. His quest to publish his findings and have the NFL (and some football fans) accept the damning results of his research will hit a wall of very powerful opposition bent on destroying his name in order to keep the sport from being changed in any way that could affect the NFL's bottom line.

Based on a true story, Concussion is a very well made film that highlights the dangers of playing a sport that is inherently violent.

I never understood the allure of a sport in which the players constantly hit one another. We have not nor will we allow our kids to play it.

Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, and Albert Brooks all give excellent performances.

At one point, a doctor in cahoots with the NFL complains with our hero that if just 10% of mothers across the country found out about his research and decided not to let their kids play football, it would spell doom for the NFL.

I would hope all parents across the country watched this movie, found out the truth, and made more informed decisions that have little to do with how many billions of dollars a mega-corporation is set to pocket. After all, the damage doesn't just occur at professional-level events, but it starts building from the very first concussion suffered by a player of any age.

The Bottom Line: Absolutely recommend this movie to anyone. Very informative, well written, and excellently acted.

Grade: 7

The X-Files: Re-Opened

The X-Files was one of my favorite TV shows. It had mystery, suspense, sci-fi, fantasy, action, and plenty of thrills. It was well written, perfectly cast, and totally original. It was like nothing else before, working well both as a stand-alone procedural and a multi-episode-arc drama.

Eventually, like all series, it reached its end, and two companion movies were worthy efforts even if they failed to ignite the box office.

The X-Files: Re-Opened was billed as a "6 episode event" and it was a mixed bag at best. It tried to give us an update on the larger worldwide conspiracy Mulder had always been after, but it also wanted to showcase stand-alone episodes.

Unfortunately, the limited event format itself couldn't allow enough time for the conspiracy storyline to really be dealt with. There was a lot of information thrown our way in too short a timeframe, ending up feeling stiff and lumbering (and hard to believe even for those of us who "still want to believe").

The stand-alone episodes also varied in quality from okay to pathetic, which can't be what you're going for if you want to convince the public to start caring about your show again after all this time.

I'm glad both David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson agreed to come back, as well as Mitch Pileggi and William B. Davis, as they were able to re-inhabit their roles as if no time had passed.

The new recruits, Robbie Amell and Lauren Ambrose, were a smart choice, given their resemblance (physical and not) to the younger Mulder and Scully, but there just wasn't enough time to really develop their characters, so they ended up looking like ineffective copies of the younger sleuths (and honestly, a bit too much tongue-in-cheek).

If you were a fan of the original, by all means take a look, as it's a decently successful attempt at recapturing the allure of what you loved.

If you're new to The X-Files however, you'd be much better served by going back to the original show and watch that.

Grade - Limited Event: 6

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Moby & The Void Pacific Choir - Are You Lost In The World Like Me

A great visual representation of our everyday world:

Are Americans afraid to take vacations?

Researchers looked into the staggering amount of unused vacation time accumulated by the American workforce, and the numbers are shocking to say the least:
Last year, the number of unused vacation days in the US reached a 40-year high . Researchers at Oxford Economics hired by the US Travel Association put the numbers at about 169m days, equivalent to $52.4bn in lost benefits. 
The main culprit? America’s workaholic culture. It’s not that Americans do not want a vacation – it’s that they are afraid to take it. Currently, on average, each US worker fails to use about five paid vacation days a year. 
As unused vacation days reach a record high, a number of employers are trying to take a different approach to paid vacations, helping create a movement for employees to reclaim their personal time. 
Despite the shift to empower workers to take their vacation, many still feel guilty about it, drag their feet and then struggle to schedule time off at the last minute. 
[...] In 2012, only about 77% of Americans working for privately owned companies got paid vacation days. On average, their allotted paid time off was 10 to 14 days. 
More than half of Americans, 56%, have not taken a vacation in the last year, according to the insurance company Allianz Global Assistance . That’s equivalent to 135 million people. The survey defined vacation as a week off from work during which those surveyed travelled at least 100 miles away from home. 
Another survey of 1,005 Americans , conducted last year by Skift, found that just 15% of Americans planned to take a real vacation in 2014. That same survey found that 33% of Americans couldn’t afford a vacation, 30% were too busy and that 22% were going to take a short vacation over a summer weekend. 
“The statistics are pretty alarming – 41% of Americans don’t take their paid time off,” said Cheryl Rosner, CEO and co-founder of Stayful, a travel booking site for boutique hotels, referring to the US Travel Association survey. 
“That doesn’t surprise me at all. We’re taught to work until we drop,” said Femia. “I doubt anybody who isn’t using them is doing it for spite or malice. It’s probably because their company is discouraging them from using them or because they feel like they’ll fall behind in their workplace if they do.” 
Last year, the US Travel Association found that 28% of workers did not take vacation so that they could prove their dedication and not be seen as slackers. Another 40% were afraid of the work they’d have to do when they got back from vacation. 
[...] “This fear is especially prevalent at a time of volatile change in the economy as we have experienced since 2008,” he explained. 
“Secondly, without backups, many workers feel that too much work will pile up while they are are gone and they will be so stressed when they return that time off won’t be worth it.” 
[...] “The United States has never indicated that as a country we take vacation time seriously. We are the only industrial country that does not mandate vacation days and 25% of our workers receive none of them all,” De Graaf said.
Full article here.

The Great cement Wall of China

Apparently, back in 2014, the Cultural Relics Bureau of Suizhong county ordered a 700-year-old swath of the Great Wall of China repaired by covering it with a nice layer of cement:

It was an effort to restore parts of the wall which have fallen into disrepair and are not open to the public, but the restoration has been met with condemnation by social media users and advocates. 
The repair work took place near the border of Liaoning and Hebei province and photos of the results were widely shared by Beijing News on Weibo this week. 
[...] Chinese internet users have slammed the repair job, with the Weibo hashtag "The most beautiful, wild Great Wall flattened" trending online. 
"Glad Venus de Milo is not in China, or someone would get her a new arm," one user said.
A photo from before China's Great Wall was cemented.
A photo from before China's Great Wall was cemented.
Great Wall of China Society deputy director Dong Yaohui said the restoration work had been done "very badly". "It damaged the original look of the Great Wall and took away the history from the people."
No one at the Bureau thought this was a bad idea? No one on the crew though it would be sacrilege?

Unbelievable.

What's 11,000 times dirtier than a toilet seat?

This Rawstory article answers the dirty question:
A study by Kimberly-Clark in 2015 investigating bacterial hot spots in the workplace fingered gas pumps as one of the unhealthiest things you can handle, and a new survey recently corroborates those findings. 
Admittedly, it’s probably no great surprise that gas pumps are not exactly pristine. Never mind the chemical contamination that comes from gasoline itself, think about the sheer number of people endlessly grabbing the pump, often after returning from a pit stop at the not-so-hygienic gas station bathroom. 
[...] It’s not just the number of germs present on gas pump handles, but the quality of those germs. The earlier Kimberly-Clark study, led by a University of Arizona microbiologist named Charles Gerba (whom colleagues know as “Dr. Germ”), found that 71 percent of the pumps were highly contaminated with germs associated with disease. 
[...] Based on laboratory results from swabs from the sample gas pumps, handles on gas pumps had an average of 2,011,970 colony-forming units (CFUs), or viable bacteria cells, per square inch. Worse, the buttons on the pumps (where you select the grade of gas you want), had 2,617,067 CFUs per square inch. To put that in perspective, money, which is considered quite dirty since it changes hands often, has only 5.2 CFUs per square inch. A toilet seat has 172 CFUs per square inch. That makes a gas pump handle about 11,000 times more contaminated than a toilet seat, and a gas pump button 15,000 times more contaminated. 
[...] If you want to minimize your exposure to these germs, use a paper towel to hold the handle and push the button, or keep that hand sanitizer around and wash your hands after filling up.
Many more ghastly details at the full article.

The Lady in the Van

The Gist: Ms. Shepherd is a homeless woman living in a van who, facing mandatory removal from the street, is allowed to temporarily park in the driveway of a playwright. She ends up staying over 15 years, during which time the two develop a close, if withdrawn, friendship.

Inspired by real events, The Lady in the Van is well written and perfectly interpreted by Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings. The supporting cast is picture perfect as well.

The Bottom Line: Dealing with the hardships of homelessness with humor is no easy task, but this movie will make you laugh for all the right reasons and will ultimately leave you feeling good about Ms. Shepherd.

Grade: 7

Boulevard

The Gist: Nolan has spent his entire adult life cocooned by the safety of his marriage of convenience to Joy. Then, one night, he meets Leo and his world is turned upside down.

Boulevard ended up being one of the great Robin Williams' final roles on the silver screen, and he doesn't disappoint. He crafted a very believable character who reaches a point in his life where he decides he doesn't want to hide in the closet any longer.

Kathy Baker, as his wife, gives a wonderful performance and delivers a narrative twist towards the end that puts their marriage under a whole different light.

The Bottom Line: I would absolutely recommend Boulevard to any Williams fan or movie lover. It's a rather slow-burn film, but wholly satisfying.

Grade: 7

Monday, October 17, 2016

Autoimmune diseases officially linked to processed foods

I don't think this should really come as a surprise to anyone who's ever taken a cursory look at the list of ingredients of any random food found on a grocery store shelf, which is often loaded with chemical ingredients:
The modern diet of processed foods, takeaways and microwave meals could be to blame for a sharp increase in autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, including alopecia, asthma and eczema. 
A team of scientists from Yale University in the U.S and the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, in Germany, say junk food diets could be partly to blame. 
'This study is the first to indicate that excess refined and processed salt may be one of the environmental factors driving the increased incidence of autoimmune diseases,' they said. 
Junk foods at fast food restaurants as well as processed foods at grocery retailers represent the largest sources of sodium intake from refined salts. 
[...] U.S. fast foods are often more than twice as salt-laden as those of other countries. While government-led public health campaigns and legislation efforts have reduced refined salt levels in many countries, the U.S. government has been reluctant to press the issue. That’s left fast-food companies free to go salt crazy, says Norm Campbell, M.D., one of the study authors and a blood-pressure specialist at the University of Calgary.  
[...] Many low-fat foods rely on salt--and lots of it--for their flavor. 
[...] Bread is the No. 1 source of refined salt consumption in the American diet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just one 6-inch Roasted Garlic loaf from Subway--just the bread, no meat, no cheeses, no nothing--has 1,260 mg sodium, about as much as 14 strips of bacon. 
The team from Yale University studied the role of T helper cells in the body. These activate and 'help' other cells to fight dangerous pathogens such as bacteria or viruses and battle infections. 
Previous research suggests that a subset of these cells - known as Th17 cells - also play an important role in the development of autoimmune diseases.  
In the latest study, scientists discovered that exposing these cells in a lab to a table salt solution made them act more 'aggressively.' 
They found that mice fed a diet high in refined salts saw a dramatic increase in the number of Th17 cells in their nervous systems that promoted inflammation. 
They were also more likely to develop a severe form of a disease associated with multiple sclerosis in humans. 
The scientists then conducted a closer examination of these effects at a molecular level. 
Laboratory tests revealed that salt exposure increased the levels of cytokines released by Th17 cells 10 times more than usual. Cytokines are proteins used to pass messages between cells. 
[...] It develops when the immune system mistakes the myelin that surrounds the nerve fibres in the brain and spinal cord for a foreign body.  
It strips the myelin off the nerves fibres, which disrupts messages passed between the brain and body causing problems with speech, vision and balance. 
[...] Refined, processed and bleached salts are the problem. Salt is critical to our health and is the most readily available nonmetallic mineral in the world. Our bodies are not designed to processed refined sodium chloride since it has no nutritional value. However, when a salt is filled with dozens of minerals such as in rose-coloured crystals of Himalayan rock salt or the grey texture of Celtic salt, our bodies benefit tremendously for their incorporation into our diet. 
"These mineral salts are identical to the elements of which our bodies have been built and were originally found in the primal ocean from where life originated," argues Dr Barbara Hendel, researcher and co-author of Water & Salt, The Essence of Life. "We have salty tears and salty perspiration. The chemical and mineral composition of our blood and body fluids are similar to sea water. From the beginning of life, as unborn babies, we are encased in a sack of salty fluid."  
"In water, salt dissolves into mineral ions," explains Dr Hendel. "These conduct electrical nerve impulses that drive muscle movement and thought processes. Just the simple act of drinking a glass of water requires millions of instructions that come from mineral ions. They're also needed to balance PH levels in the body." 
Mineral salts, she says, are healthy because they give your body the variety of mineral ions needed to balance its functions, remain healthy and heal. 
[...] Dr Hendel believes too few minerals, rather than too much salt, may be to blame for health problems. It's a view that is echoed by other academics such as David McCarron, of Oregon Health Sciences University in the US. 
He says salt has always been part of the human diet, but what has changed is the mineral content of our food. Instead of eating food high in minerals, such as nuts, fruit and vegetables, people are filling themselves up with "mineral empty" processed food and fizzy drinks
Here's the link to the full article.

Why does the gun industry have special legal immunity?

Because of the Constitution's Second Amendment, Americans enjoy a special right to own weapons that is pretty much unique in the world. Millions of weapons are sold each year, and after every mass murder spree sales go up.

The gun industry likes to scare its followers by telling them that their constitutional right is at risk every time Democrats are in power, but nothing concrete ever really happens. On the contrary, this is the only industry that enjoys special protections no others do:
A key way to ensure that gun companies have the right incentives would be to repeal the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. 
Enacted in 2005, this federal law gave gun sellers a special immunity from legal responsibilities that is not enjoyed by any other industry. 
This law was enacted because a wave of lawsuits had put unprecedented pressure on the gun industry. 
[...] The lawsuits generated evidence of severe problems with distribution of guns, including undercover sting operations revealing how gun dealers knowingly allow people to make “straw purchases” on behalf of convicted felons who cannot pass a background check. 
The lawsuits also changed perceptions about the issue. Rather than seeing gun violence simply as a crime issue, the press and public began focusing for the first time on specific ways in which the gun industry’s practices contribute to the danger. 
Journalists wrote a flood of stories about topics like how gun companies boosted the lethality of their products to boost sales, how new technologies could make guns “personalized” to prevent unauthorized use and what government data showed about the illegal market for guns. 
The lawsuits put enormous pressure on the gun industry to either reform its practices or face serious potential liability. From the industry’s perspective, that meant the lawsuits were a major threat. Rather than doing the right thing and cleaning up its act, the industry turned to Congress for relief. The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act knocked out almost all of the litigation pending against gunmakers at the time. 
[...] The federal measure effectively bars almost any lawsuit against a gun manufacturer or wholesale distributor for failing to take reasonable steps to reduce the risk of criminal misuse of its products, such as exercising greater oversight of the retail dealers through which guns are sold. 
It also bars a wide range of claims against retail sellers of firearms, leaving only a few narrow exceptions such as for certain types of claims based on statutory violations. For example, a gun dealer can be sued for knowingly selling a gun to a convicted felon or other legally disqualified purchaser. But if a dealer takes an “I know nothing” attitude and recklessly disregards circumstances that ought to raise reasonable suspicions or concerns about selling the gun, the dealer can invoke the federal immunity statute to avoid liability.
The article has a lot more detailed information and examples of issues caused by this unique form of immunity, and the author closes with what seems like a reasonable argument:
At the same time, I would argue that gun manufacturers and dealers should not be subject to any extraordinary forms of liability that do not apply to other products. 
They should not be liable, for example, merely because a firearm is a weapon that is capable of being used to do harm. But if a gun manufacturer or dealer fails to take basic, reasonable precautions in distributing products, it should be held accountable under the law just as an irresponsible company in any other business would be. 
Think about what the threat of liability for defective cars like the Ford Pinto has done for auto safety, or how the risk of liability for a dangerous product like the Dalkon Shield contraceptive device gives good incentives to the manufacturers of pharmaceuticals and other medical products. Why should the makers of firearms be any different? 
With the risks of firearms in the wrong hands becoming ever more apparent, Congress should reconsider its regrettable decision to give the gun industry special immunity from legal responsibility.
And this CNN article comparing American deaths by gun violence vs. terrorism puts the crisis into perspective:
For every one American killed by an act of terror in the United States or abroad in 2014, more than 1,049 died because of guns. 
Using numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we found that from 2001 to 2014, 440,095 people died by firearms on US soil. (2014 is the most recent year for which the CDC has data for deaths by firearms.) This data covered all manners of death, including homicide, accident and suicide. 
According to the US State Department, the number of US citizens killed overseas as a result of incidents of terrorism from 2001 to 2014 was 369. 
In addition, we compiled all terrorism incidents inside the United States and found that between 2001 and 2014, there were 3,043 people killed in domestic acts of terrorism.* This brings the total to 3,412.

Dark Matter

The Gist: A brilliant Chinese cosmology student, at an American university for his doctorate, is certain his work on dark matter will lead to a Nobel Prize. His dreams are crushed when his professor turns down his work in favor of another student's, who is more willing to play along with school politics.

One of Meryl Streep's lesser known roles, and to be honest she plays a really small role. So does Aidan Quinn, whom I had not seen in years...

The movie really belongs to Ye Liu, who does a great job of portraying the inner turmoil and emotional rollercoaster his character goes through when he realizes his dreams won't come true.

The Bottom Line: I found out only afterwards that Dark Matter is based on actual events, which always makes me reconsider my final grade (usually higher). Indeed, the story is very current, especially for America, and with such a short runtime, it might be worth your time. I do have to point out that the production values leave something to be desired and that the final product feels lacking somewhat.

Grade: 6

Youth

The Gist: A retired orchestra conductor and his film director best friend, on a vacation in an exclusive resort, have daily conversations and interactions with a varied and colorful array of vacationers.

Michael Caine is as magnificent as always, and it's a delight to see how sharp his acting skills still are at his age. Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, and Jane Fonda all do a great job.

The Bottom Line: Youth is not a movie for just everyone. The story is very relatable, but the visual storytelling is a bit meta. It's in the vein of Fellini or Altman, in a way, and might therefore turn some people off.

Grade: 7

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Fear the Walking Dead


Season 2 of The Walking Dead spinoff ended and it's time to take its pulse.

Unfortunately, as much as I like love The Walking Dead and no matter how much I want to like Fear the Walking Dead, this show has not improved from its weak first season, and I can't imagine it lasting much longer.

I always believed that the strength of this iteration of the Dead universe lay in its ability to show us how and how quickly our civilization would unwind if something catastrophic like an unstoppable epidemic were to hit us.

That theme is certainly explored in different ways, like when our group of survivors either successfully cooperate with other people they encounter or have to fight off attackers. Or when, in spite of what has happened, geographical barriers between nations are still enforced by some.

Unfortunately, the writing is often predictable, things happen that are seemingly inconceivable (even on a show such as this!!), and the pace of action is often too slow.

A few examples of what I would tell the writers that obviously will contain spoilers:
  • The choice to have the survivors seek refuge on a boat, while brilliant at first (no zombies can attack you in open waters) turned out to kill all the action (no zombies = no danger = no suspense).
  • When it looked like a gang of bad guys was going to take their boat (or destroy it), which would have forced our people back on land, where danger abounds, they fought them off with the skill of a SWAT team, which is totally unrealistic.
  • This obsession Nick has with not treating/seeing the zombies as monsters, which lead him to embrace Celia Flores first and Alejandro Nuñez later, is total bullshit. The zombies' only goal is to feed on the living, which means killing them, and if that doesn't count as monstrous then what does? That's trying to apply religious views where not even the Pope would dare.
  • Having a man like Daniel suddenly lose his wits once they reached the relative safety of the compound just felt too convenient. We are talking about a man who has seen and caused a lot of death in his life, a really tough man, hardened by a lifetime of hardships, so his demise just came too fast for it to be believable.
  • It's understandable that Travis would avenge his son's death, but as soon as the two guys were shown arriving at the gate the rest of the story (vengeance, being banished, the group leaving together) was a given.
There is more of course, but you get the gist. The bottom line is that The Walking Dead has a team of writers who come up with far better storylines than those on Fear the Walking Dead. It's almost like there is no big picture or arch that the different characters adhere to.

The other issue is that the cast is too small for the writers to play with. While on TWD we regularly lose characters that we had gotten to know and had gotten close to, on FTWD the writers haven't take the time to introduce and flesh out characters that can eventually be killed off. The result is that when characters like Oscar Diaz or Thomas Abigail die, we don't really care that much.

So while I assumed after season 1 that the producers had heard the fans' criticisms and would have tweaked the formula to ensure the show's long term prospects, now I'm not so sure anymore.

Grade - Season 2: 5

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Antioxidant supplements have been found to be harmful

If you take multivitamins or supplements in general, you might want to read on:
If the antioxidants that occur naturally in our food, like broccoli and carrots, are good for us, a supplement with the same thing must also be good. But that’s not quite true. 
Antioxidants can help stop damage to our cells. 
Antioxidants are touted as protectors of our health because they eliminate free-radicals that damage molecules in cells and tissues by grabbing electrons from them, making those molecules, in turn, unstable. 
This process can then snowball until a cell dies or even a whole organ collapses, such as in liver failure or heart failure. An antioxidant should stop the electron-grabbing radicals, and keep us healthy.
So scientists labored to put these benevolent antioxidants in pills to help us fight off disease-causing free radicals.
But it’s not that simple. The constant interplay between electron acceptors (radicals) and donors (antioxidants) is a finely balanced and very complicated biochemistry at the core of how living cells survive and grow. When there is too much of either acceptors or donors, the system is out of balance, and damage can occur. So extra antioxidants aren’t necessarily a good thing. 
[...] The plan was to follow the men and women for 10 years; the researchers hypothesized they would observe a lower lung cancer risk in the beta-carotene tablet group, hopefully much lower. But the opposite happened and the trial had to be stopped early because the beta-carotene group suffered significantly more cases of lung cancer than the placebo group. The same thing was seen in the Finland trial. 
Importantly, the amount of beta-carotene in the tablet was much higher than occurs naturally in the body in both trials. The researchers assumed that if a little is good, more must be better. They were wrong. 
‘Antioxidant’ supplements in general are harmful.
And the evidence that when it comes to antioxidants, more isn’t necessarily better, keeps mounting. In 2007 a combined analysis of 68 randomized trials of any antioxidant supplements showed a statistically significant 5% increase in risk of death in the groups taking the supplements compared to the groups taking placebo pills.
So in conclusion, spending all that money for pills might just be worse for you:
This highlights a serious problem with all the attempts to put good food in pill form: the dose has been far in excess of what is in the actual foods. For example, wheat germ has the highest concentration of vitamin E tested, yet the tablets used in the trials of vitamin E had more than 10 times this amount. The Western medicine paradigm of “if a little is good, more must be better” is almost never true; for example, water is a good thing, right? But drink too much water in a short time, and you’ll drop dead. 
The vegetables that are linked to lower risk of disease contain many nutrients in addition to antioxidants such as beta-carotene. The combination of all these nutrients in a natural source may be the key to their effectiveness and thereby not amenable to a reductionist splitting into one “active ingredient” that can be put into a pill.
Source.

Old mine transformed into theme park

I found this curious little gem on CNN:
Deep in the Transylvanian countryside lies an ancient salt mine dating back over two millennia. 
Today Salina Turda has become an unlikely tourist attraction, with thousands of visitors descending its vertical shafts each year to play mini-golf, go bowling and row around its underground lake. This submerged wonderland even has a healing center for people with lung conditions. 
[...] Since mining activity ceased in 1932, it has had many lives. It was used as a shelter in World War II and has even served time as a cheese storage center. Salina Turda reopened as a visitor attraction in 1992, bolstered by €6 million investment 16 years later, which cemented its adaptive reuse as a museum and theme park.
Check it out:




Why it feels like the police can't be held accountable

The always insightful John Oliver takes a look at police accountability in the face of continuing violence against, primarily, the African-American community, and it's an eye-opener.

Monday, October 03, 2016

Watching bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics

Scientists have been warning us for a while now about the increasing number of bacteria that are becoming more and more resistant to known antibiotics.

When that happens, these bacteria pass their genes on to their offspring, making them resistant as well. As a consequence, it has become quite possible to die of a simple bacterial infection, oftentimes acquired in a hospital setting.

Well, in order to understand the evolution process these bacteria go through, scientists have created a giant petri dish that forces bacteria to fight for their lives.

Watch the fascinating experiment:


From CNN.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Comparing scandals

John Oliver recently took a hard look at the scandals that have plagued Hillary Clinton and those that relate to Donald Trump.

At the end of the day, while there's objectively very little to really be concerned about regarding Hillary's missteps, the Donald is a whole different matter.

Watch: