Nov 7 2016

Citizenfour and Snowden two perspectives on the same story


We live our lives. We make phone calls, we take pictures, we text. We write emails. How much of all this information about is collected and categorized? Who sees it? What do they do with it? Does any of this make us vulnerable? Is it possible to have any secrets anymore? If we don’t have privacy, do we care?

Citizenfour and Snowden provide different perspectives on an ongoing event. Both films focus on Edward Snowden and his discovery and revelations to the press regarding the National Security Administrations program which indiscriminately gathered data through cyberspying. Both raise the issue of Snowden’s exile in Moscow and the governments’ continuing desire to prosecute him. Both infer the same basic question: How much does our government know about each of us and what might they do with the information? Is security worth privacy? Is privacy a right? Should privacy be sacrificed for the sake of security? Should Snowden be prosecuted for whistle blowing?Does knowledge of our secrets make us more vulnerable than the threat of terrorism does?

Citizenfour is a documentary directed by Laura Poitras, one of the journalists to whom Snowden leaked the documents. In it Snowden explains what led up to his decision, consequences of that decision and his motives. Poitras recorded many of the events while they occurred. While working for the NSA as a computer contractor Edward Snowden discovered that the government is gathering data about private American citizens. After much soul searching Snowden felt the American people had a right to know so he became a whistleblower. This film primarily takes place in a hotel in Hong Kong where Snowden turns over documents to American journalist Glenn Greenwald, who wrote for The Guardian, a British newspaper, and Laura Poitras.

Snowden is a more personal, fictionalized reenactment of the events directed by Oliver Stone This film tells the story of Snowden’s career with the CIA and later as a contractor to the NSA as well as focusing much more on his relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills. Snowden is the hero in both films, though he comes across as deflecting fame and focused on what he considers serious breaches of faith with the American people by its government. The scenes in the hotel room in this film were the most riveting.

The government’s position on this is that the Espionage Act makes Snowden a spy, not a whistleblower, and should be prosecuted. Snowden is currently hiding out in Russia. The Obama administration has prosecuted a lot of whistleblowers and Snowden knew that before he talked. Hillary Clinton has indicated she would prosecute and Trump called Snowden a “bad guy” and hinted that execution was on the table. Third party candidates Johnson and Stein seem amenable to pardoning Snowden. I doubt whether privacy is even a minor campaign issue. In fact polls conducted in 2015 show a majority of Americans agree with the government. Polls conducted in other parts of the world show that a majority of the world support Snowden. Support among Millennials (at least those who know who Snowden is) both here and abroad, is much higher. Perhaps this is because they are digital natives who conduct much more of their affairs online and do not like the idea of the government invading their privacy.

We all do many things to feel safe. We sometimes sacrifice freedom for security. We sometimes make choices for those around us without ever telling them what dangers we’ve avoided on their behalf. Think of all the safeguards we place on our children. Consider the conflict that occurs when our children reach a certain level of personal autonomy and yet we are still intercepting and filtering their communication. Up until a certain point we are within our rights to do so but this does not necessarily translate into consent.

When we are ones making a safety decision for someone else it makes perfect sense to us. We don’t see such actions as violations, but as protection. But when we are ones that decisions like this are being made for, without our knowledge or consent, we feel violated. Is security worth liberty? Does motivation to protect change the fact that what we’ve written in private could someday be made public? Could the day come when this information is used for purposes beyond the scope of national security?

Honestly CitizenFour raised my concerns for my privacy more, as a documentary, that’s what it was supposed to do. Snowden helped me understand the sacrifices Edward Snowden made trying to do what he considered the right thing and to feel empathy for him, and that’s what a fictional story is supposed to do. Of the two films, I liked Citizenfour more. I have been meaning to write about these two films for awhile but I procrastinated. Now, as I think about the election and the many issues facing our country, I wonder if liberty and privacy should be among them. They are for me.

May 25 2015

5 Things that make a great war movie


Memorial Day is a great day for a good war flick. What makes a good war movie?

saving private ryan1.  A sacrificial hero. On Memorial Day we remember soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice. A good war flick communicates the loyalty and loss that going to war requires. A good war flick takes the hero on a journey that involves loss of innocence, growth of character, acquisitions of skills, and development of trusting relationships with other soldiers.  Capt. John Miller, a 30-year old married English teacher from Pennsylvania leads his company through Omaha Beach and into France in search on one man he’s been ordered to find. Miller is the picture of intelligent integrity and responsibility as he leads men he’s grown to care about into harm’s way on a mission he’s not completely behind.

Real soldiers say the Omaha Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan is an accurate picture of the chaos and horror of a real battle. Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks, Saving Private Ryan has all the elements of a great war flick, a great sacrificial hero, a worthy cause on both an epic and personal scale, a great ensemble cast, and carefully crafted and researched battle scenes.

black hawk down2. Research. It may sound nerdy but a well-researched war movie brings history alive. Authentic replicas of costumes and weapons, settings that mimic the real thing, re-enactments of specific details, dialog that voices that particular time period go a long way toward giving the audience a glimpse into what it was like to be there. There are times when keeping the story on track or developing a strong character arc requires altering or leaving out historical details, but those decisions should be deliberate choices that serve the story rather than the result of sloppy research.

Black Hawk Down depicts the Battle of Mogadishu on October 3, 1993 which occurred during the American intervention in Somalia. In polls of soldiers who actually fought and military historians, Black Hawk Down is frequently chosen as a film that is historically accurate. According to Dan Ryan, a soldier who served there “the uniforms were right, the way the soldiers talked and acted was right, the weapons were right.” A realistic portrayal of war often relies on realistic depictions of the responses and interactions of the soldiers involved.

band-of-brothers3. A group of soldiers. The bonding and loss that takes place between fellow warriors creates unique relationships. The obvious representative film for this is Band of of Brothers, a collaboration production between Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks. This HBO series premiered in 2001 and follows two lieutenants from training camp in Georgia to the end of the war in the European theater.

The series not only depicts the war effort but some of the simple practical aggravations that war brings involving everything from supplies and communication to strained relationships and military .

A highlight of the 10-part series are brief interviews with actual veterans of Easy Company.  It’s worth a Memorial Day marathon.

war film glory4. Inspiring Heroism. The protagonist soldier who understands why he at war and heroically supports that noble cause at great personal sacrifice can really inspire.

Brotherhood, courage, loyalty, and  overcoming prejudice are big themes that inspire in Glory, a 1989 Civil War film directed by Edward Zwick. Matthew Broderick plays Col. Robert Shaw, an idealistic white Union commander of a newly-formed black regiment who must learn to lead. Denzel Washington’s Private Trip has a powerful character arc as he overcomes his own anger and prejudice. Ideas like heroism and nobility can come off as corny, but Glory avoids corniness this by simply telling the stories of strong characters who grow as human beings through the experience of fighting together.

When the audience can get behind the reasons for the war being fought on screen it’s much easier to focus on the heroic and noble aspects of war. Glory doesn’t glorify war but it does glorify the heroic and noble character that serving in war sometimes inspires in imperfect people.

apocalypse now5. Battle scenes. Most war movies involve at least one epic battle. Soldiers protect one another. They fight. They lose friends on the battlefield. They kill. The sometimes they get to use cool equipment. Sometimes they have to get innovative with the equipment they have. Stuff blows up.

The helicopter battle scene in Apocalypse Now is one of the most epic in film. Target after target is destroyed. Machines, trees, and soldiers flash in confused cacophony to a score of Wagner’s Ride the Valkyries. The audience can practically smell the Napalm and it doesn’t smell glorious.

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film about Vietnam isn’t an “inspiring” war film about a noble cause. The psychological toll of this controversial war unfolds in the development and degradation of the main characters, Willard, Kurtz, and Kilgore, played by Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, and Robert Duvall.

In a film in which there is conflict over whether that war should have been fought at all, the tone is often dark, cynical, or fatalistic. Films about wars like Vietnam often focus on the horrific aspects of war. Sometimes the worthy cause a war film communicates is avoiding war altogether.





Jul 31 2014

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is so good. Go see it.


Watching Boyhood is a reminder that all our lives are a series of seemingly insignificant vignettes that both reveal and shape who we are. Boyhood follows an episodic narrative style. It is driven by character and theme rather than plot. Shot over a 12-year period, scenes play out like a series of snapshots that communicate the mood and tone of what is happening each year.

It’s no accident that photography plays an important role in the film. Boyhood is like watching time-lapse photography. The audience sees Patricia Arquette’s hairstyles and weight fluctuate as she ages 12 years in a little under three hours. Ethan Hawke’s face develops lines. Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater grow up before our very eyes. Continue reading

Jul 4 2014

Movie Clips to celebrate the 4th of July


President Whitmore – Bill Pullman – Independence Day “Right to Live”

Stacker Pentecost – Idris Elba – Pacific Rim “United”


William Wallace – Mel Gibson – Braveheart – “Freedom”


Coach Boone – Denzel Washington Remember the Titans “Gettysburg”


V – Hugo Weaving – V for Vendetta “Revolutionary Speech”

Dec 6 2013

Apartheid primer in film


On the death of Nelson Mandela, some friends too young to remember apartheid may wonder why Mandela is a big deal. Just as Hitler’s regime ended, a different form of persecution was instituted in South Africa. In 1948 the National Party government instated a form of racial segregation, but restrictions and controls on the black population had been in place since the days of slavery. In 1970 as the Civil Rights movement in the United States was making strides, non-white representation in the South African government was abolished. I know there are more, and maybe better films, but here’s my list of movies that helped me understand a little better.

Invictus is based on the true story of Nelson Mandela’s quest to bring the 1995 Rugby World Cup to South Africa just one year after apartheid was officially abolished and multi-racial national elections resulted in Mandela’s presidency. Mandela hoped to use the enthusiasm of black and white fans to help unite the country. Because the Springboks, South African’s national team, have always been white, many blacks feel betrayed by Mandela’s support for them. Mandela and team captain Pienaar form a mentoring relationship in which Mandela communicates leadership in a climate of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Cry Freedom is based on the story of black activist Steve Biko and white journalist Donald Woods. The film traces Woods’ journey into the Biko’s world. Woods discovers corruption and cover-ups in the South African white government, including suspicious circumstances surrounding the deaths of anti-apartheid activists in police custody. The powerful message in this film is that loving our neighbors as ourselves means that silent disapproval of injustice and oppression is not enough. Our neighbors burdens really are ours to bear.

Forgiveness takes place in post-Apartheid South Africa. It is the story of a white South African policeman who is granted amnesty for his killing of an African National Congress activist (the group to which Nelson Mandela belonged when he was sent to prison).  It’s hard to watch this man’s struggle with guilt and shame for the killings he committed in the name of a corrupt system that no longer exists. He wants to make amends. He seeks absolution. The film explores big questions. What does it mean to be forgiven? What is required after that? Like Atonement and Unforgiven, the film exposes the tragedy of a life that cannot embrace the freedom of grace.

District 9 is basically Apartheid reimagined as science fiction. A disabled alien vessel hovers over the city where, fearful of their difference and unspoken intentions, the city has rounded up aliens and placed them in slum-like camps similar to those occupied by South African blacks during Apartheid. Told documentary style, the story involves a low-level bureaucrat whose eyes are opened to the “humanity” of his alien neighbors. This allegory drives home the emotional and intellectual justifications that can be applied when one group of human beings view another as fundamentally different.

Under African Skies is a documentary about Paul Simon’s album Graceland. It was recorded in South Africa during apartheid in violation of a UN cultural boycott. Graceland featured South African black musicians.. The film explores the responsibilities of artists to follow such mandates, however well meaning. 

 Cry the Beloved Country is set just before Apartheid took effect. It portrays two fathers, one black and one white, bewildered by the hatred around them that takes their sons and devastates their lives. This film brought the big picture down to the lives of two men. The message is that the human condition, the shared experiences, like grief and love, are universal.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” – Nelson Mandela

Jul 25 2013

Pacific Rim was conflict on an intimately enormous scale


Pacific Rim is another of the many apocalyptic movies out this summer. I was intrigued by the science in this movie, but mostly I enjoyed the action and the wholesale destruction that makes this a summer blockbuster. Because Guillermo Del Toro directed the visual style is artistically interesting. Since Pacific Rim is a summer blockbuster and not Pan’s Labyrinth his themes aren’t too ponderous but I found a few to ponder nonetheless.

Much of the action takes place in Asia with obvious tributes to Japanese monster movies, especially Godzilla. The name, Kaiju is a reference to the stable of monsters from Japanese film. Del Toro says that Goya’s painting The Colossus and George Bellows‘ boxing paintings were also inspirations for the look of the film. There is an intimacy in boxing and wrestling that is not present in other types of combat. Their weapons are their own bodies. For me, this idea of internal, intimate engagement was the most intriguing theme. Continue reading

Jun 12 2013

Lessons in appreciation of beauty and creativity from KA in Las Vegas


Cirque du Soleil’s KA was my first show on my first trip to Vegas. Pageantry is not generally my thing, but over the last year I’ve thought a lot about storytelling. As I watched the KA story unfold on stage, I was keenly aware of the details that went into the telling. The creativity and collaboration represented in those details have made me more keenly aware of the decisions about art and beauty all around me.

KA’s story is a simple legend of good and evil, love and loyalty, and the coming-of-age journeys of brother and sister who have been separated and must  find their way back to one another. It is presented without a lot of storytelling detail, which makes me think about early filmmaking, opera, and ballet. All those medium require less sophisticated stories and rely more on the emotional appeal and universality of the stories for the audience to connect. Marvel is currently working with Cirque du Soleil to adapt the imperial twins heroic journey into a comic book series. I did feel that, like opera, the performance could have done with a libretto of some sort. Continue reading

Jan 26 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild, poverty and preservation


I have been thinking about Beasts of the Southern Wild for two or three weeks, trying to decide how I feel about it.The accents carried flashes from my childhood in Louisiana, something was vaguely familiar in the fierce independence of the characters. But, like foggy childhood memories, the images in Beasts is full of non-sequiturs and child-like wondering. I have more questions than answers about the community it portrays and the perspective on poverty it presents.

Telling the story from 6-year-old Hushpuppy’s point of view and using the aurochs created a surreal fantasy in a brutally realistic setting. The aurochs are both a metaphor for the extinction of Hushpuppy’s community, the storm, her father’s illness and her fight for survival and yet they appear as real, threatening beasts pounding toward Hushpuppy’s fragile home. Continue reading

Dec 29 2012

Law and grace in Les Miserables



Les Miserables is a study in the conflicting motivations of law and grace.

Paroled after twelve bitter years of imprisonment for stealing bread to feed his family, Jean Valjean meets people who are pivotal in setting him on the course of grace. First Monseignor Myriel offers him forgiveness and protection even though the desperate Valjean steals from his church. In doing this he reflects redemptive, magnanimous grace that changes the course of Valjean’s life. In his new life Valjean supports the principles of grace and compassion, but has not fully integrated his attitude into his business practices.  He must face the consequences that his negligence has on Fantine. Continue reading

Dec 25 2012

The Hobbits’ Bilbo Baggins gives me courage


In The Lord of the Rings Bilbo warns Frodo that “it’s a dangerous business going out your front door.” In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Adventure it’s also a dangerous business answering your front door. Gandalf sends thirteen dwarves to Bilbo’s home having told them that Bilbo is right for the job of the burglar.

Gandalf offers a couple of reasons for choosing Bilbo to take this adventure. The first is practical: Bilbo is small and light on his feet. Though he has never burgled anything, nor does he have the disposition of a burglar or an adventurer, Gandalf sees beyond who Bilbo appears to be and appreciates who he is and recognizes who he may become. But Gandalf’s choice of burglar was unexpected for the dwarves and, perhaps, a bit disappointing. Continue reading

Jul 24 2012

My The Dark Knight Rises Review



The Dark Knight Rises was a credible end to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. On the whole it was a great movie and I liked it a lot. Certain elements were incredibly well done and really satisfying. Even the storytelling choices that I didn’t like made sense. I can’t say they were bad choices, just that I wanted something else.

What I liked best:

1. Catwoman. She is a character who speaks to the present rather than operating entirely off her back story. This makes her decisions much fresher. She is a beautiful picture of the battle between the new man and the old man. She seeks transformation on her own terms but struggles with the actual journey. Catwoman’s transformation and story arc are perfectly played. Continue reading

Jul 3 2012

Captain America, Mayberry, and Independence Day


 R.I.P. Andy Griffith.

Griffith  is most remembered for his role as Sherriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry. Andy Taylor spoke with reason and restraint, humor and compassion. His reactionary deputy Barney Fife was always ready to “Nip it in the bud.” Everything was a crisis and every wrongdoer was a villain for Barney. Andy’s calm response was usually to “have a talk with them.” A talk with Andy led to a better understanding of oneself and one’s responsibility to one’s neighbors.

In the Bible Jesus describes the apostle Bartholomew as a man with no guile.  It was a compliment. Andy Taylor was a man with no guile. He was wise and perceptive but never insidious or sly. Captain America in Marvel’s Avengers communicates the same sort of sincerity. Continue reading

Jun 30 2012

Love and loneliness in Moonrise Kingdom




Sam and Suzy are both social misfits who feel alone and apart from other people. They meet at a church production of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde, an opera about Noah’s Ark, and make an immediate connection. Sam is only on the island for scout camp so they become pen pals. After a year’s correspondence they meet again and run away together when Sam returns for camp. As a huge storm approaches everyone pursues them to bring them back.

Moonlight Kingdom’s director and co-writer Wes Anderson’s storytelling involves attention to detail. Music, sets, and props all support the script in telling the story and communicating theme. Even the name of the town, New Penzance, is carefully chosen. The opera The Pirates of Penzance is about an orphan boy who falls in love at first sight. Continue reading

Jun 26 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter seriously serious?



Not since Snakes on a Plane has the title of a movie made we want to see it as much as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. I got what I expected. I’m not saying I wasn’t entertained. I was. The historical details like Lincoln’s mother dying or his job as a shopkeeper lend enough historical accuracy that it actually makes it harder to suspend disbelief. Suspension of disbelief has no power over this movie. It takes a silver bullet through the brain of reason. Once that’s done, it’s a decent ride.

The vampires are the dark, devouring, bloodsucking villains they are supposed to be. No romance here, just scary bad guys who have the advantage of thousands of years experience in fighting and manipulation. Abe Lincoln is believable in appearance and personality. He reacts in much the way one would expect Abe Lincoln to react if he were confronted with vampires. Abe’s sidekicks are decent.The stage was set for an awesome girl fight but Mary Lincoln was as bland as a hospital diet. That was disappointing. Continue reading

May 5 2012

Being a game-changer in the Hunger Games, the Roman Empire, and maybe planet earth


Warning – spoilers. The Hunger Games invites comparisons to other totalitarian dystopian movies like Gattica or V for Vendetta, with some Truman Show and Rollerball thrown in. But Sparticus and Gladiator, both set in that real-life dystopia we remember as The Roman Empire, seem like more appropriate comparisons. Characters from the Capitol sport names from the ancient world like Senica and Caesar. The name “Panem” comes from the Roman phrase “bread and circuses”, used by leaders of the empire to describe their strategy for keeping the Roman public happy.

The citizens of the urban seat of government called The Capitol are sheeple who simply accept the games as entertainment and never consider what it would be like to be vulnerable to the lottery. These people have all they need. They cooperate to maintain their well-fed, comfortable, fashionable lifestyles. The government feeds them information and attitudes via media.

The totalitarian government exerts control over the Districts by establishing a cultural/political tradition that calls for each District to offer up two teen “tributes” chosen by lottery to participate in what amounts to a reality-tv-gone-worse death match. The producers of the televised event and the government are one in the same. The government uses the lottery to illicit fear and continue to exact revenge for a nearly 80-year-old attempt at rebellion by the districts. The government also controls the flow of information and resources to the districts. Hunger, poverty, and lack of independence create a sense of helplessness and despair that fuels cooperation. Continue reading

Apr 7 2012

Blue Like Jazz is honest, funny, unreligous storytelling


Every life is a story. Blue Like Jazz is the new movie based on Donald Miller’s book, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. It opens in theaters this weekend.

The movie, Blue Like Jazz has taken considerable license to fictionalize the series of essay and reflections that make up the book Blue Like Jazz, in order to create a narrative story based on the book’s basic ideas. In fact, the movie Blue Like Jazz emphasizes the aspects of storytelling using the acronym SCCR which stand for setting, conflict, climax, and resolution, a device that links nicely  to Don Miller’s more recent projects. Blue Like Jazz is an honest, funny journey through conflict towards resolution. Continue reading

Jan 6 2012

We Bought a Zoo and 20 seconds of insane courage


Benjamin Mee offers romance advice to his 14-year-old son, “You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”  What he seems to be talking about here is a leap of faith.

Benjamin is struggling in his relationship with his son, Dylan. Benjamin, Dylan, and 7-year-old Rosie are grieving the loss of wife and mother. Benjamin is stuck in the fourth stage of grief, depression and loneliness. Dylan is still dealing with anger. Whatever else changes in their lives the life they knew with Katherine is over. In what had to be 20 seconds of insane impulse, recently widowed father Benjamin Mee buys a zoo hoping to provide a new start for his two children. Continue reading

Dec 8 2011

Admonitions to love the misfits from Dan Pearce and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer


Yesterday a couple of people I know reposted the same article on facebook entitled I’m Christian Unless You’re Gay . Despite the title, the author, Dan Pearce, is not issuing an indictment against the prejudices of the Christian Church but rather a call to love others. Even if we disagree with another’s beliefs or lifestyle, even if we don’t like something about another’s cultural or religious practices, Pearce contends that hatred is not an appropriate response and does not reflect the nature of Jesus. In fact he lists admonitions to love from every major religion.

Pearce also lists groups of people who are frequent victims of rejection and disgust: “gay people, people who dress differently, people who act differently, fat people, people with drug additions, people who smoke, people with addictions to alcohol, people with eating disorders, people who fall away from their faiths, people who aren’t members of the dominant local religion, people with non-traditional piercings, people who just look at you or me the wrong way.” Maybe it’s because it’s Christmastime but as I read through Dan’s list I had this vision of the Island of Misfit Toys in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. As a sometime inhabitant of the Island I appreciated Dan’s passion and kindness. Continue reading

Nov 11 2011

My favorite American movie veterans


Thank you to our veterans who are changed forever to preserve our freedoms. They go when they would rather stay home, they bear the marks of war on their bodies and their psyches. They are our friends and neighbors and our heroes. Here’s a list of my favorite veterans from some of our major wars.  Who are yours?

Benjamin Martin (The Patriot) – Revolutionary War. Brings not only his experience, but his wisdom and regrets to his second war. He won’t fight until it’s personal, leads reluctantly as a citizen soldier standing with his neighbors. It’s not about power.

54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.(Glory.) Civil War. A black regiment led by an idealistic white captain learn to put aside distractions and disagreements and focus on the cause. When one fell another took up the flag, a symbol of their determination to win freedom.

Sergeant York – World War I. Kinda hokey but I love this guy. He resists violence but he fights when his default setting is peace and love for his fellow man. Continue reading