Monthly Archives: April 2017

“UNLOCKING THE CAGE”— Protecting “Nonhuman” Animals

“UNLOCKING THE CAGE”

Protecting “Nonhuman” Animals

Amos Lassen

From filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, we get a real-life legal thriller about one man’s lifelong quest to protect “nonhuman” animals. This is a PSA-style piece advocating nonhuman-rights activism that follows Harvard law professor Steven Wise over a three-year span as he attempts to help pass legislation that would recognize the personhood of certain nonhuman animals. Hegedus and Pennebaker worked for three-year efforts s to uncover animal rights violations.

Animal rights lawyer and activist Steven Wise has been fighting for non-human rights for 30 years. In 2011, he and his team at the NonHuman Rights Project upped the ante when they filed lawsuits on behalf of four captive chimpanzees. Their goal was to prove to the courts that animals have the rights of a “person” in “Unlocking the Cage.”

Steven Wise and his dedicated team of professors, attorneys and law school students who have spent years fighting for the rights of the animals that cannot fight for themselves in a court of law. This film helps us understand it all better. The directors have, essentially, divided the film into two distinctive parts.

For about the first half of “Unlocking the Cage,” Steven Wise and the members of the NhRP search the state of New York for suitable “clients” to present before the court. The search has its highs, when they find Merlin and Reba at the Bailiwick Zoo in Catskill, NY, and lows, when they learn that Reba died and, shortly after, Merlin does, too. The team faces an uphill battle to find the right chimp to represent but they keep dying. Eventually, of course, they do find their clients.

Once the search process is over, the movie goes into the actual litigation for the court. The legal drama unfolds in a succession of appearances in the NY lower courts, then, all the way to the state Supreme Court.

For decades, animal rights lawyer Steven Wise took on individual cases on the behalf of cats and dogs, but with 160 animals being killed with every heartbeat, he decided to reach higher.  Along with his team, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), Wise began to fight for personhood rights for cognitively complex animals like elephants, chimpanzees and dolphins.  In December 2013, Wise and his legal team filed three lawsuits using writs of habeas corpus to attain the release of four chimpanzees.  What he was doing, in effect, was unlocking the cage.

Wise, who has received national media coverage for his efforts, more than likely had a lot to do with the passage of new laws protecting animals.  The filmmakers then follow Wise as he searches for candidates to push his agenda.  We see amazing evidence of just how intelligent these animals are, from chimps using computers to conversing with researchers using sign language. 

Eventually the team settle on Hercules and Leo, two chimps in an ambulatory study at Stony Brook and the legal drama begins.  Wise has many pitfalls to sidestep in his arguments with judges frequently citing the animal welfare laws which have failed him in the past.  One judge takes exception to Wise’s comparison of the apes’ situation to those of slaves (he also cites former laws which excluded similar rights for women and children). The film is both heartbreaking and heartening at the same time and equally as what we see is a profound examination of animal rights issues and a portrait of a heroic activist.

The focus is on the efforts of Wise to rewrite the book on personhood, starting with higher-order mammals like primates, pachyderms, and cetaceans. The title refers to an actual book, Wise’s Rattling the Cage, which advances a “theory of mind” that puts some animals on a cognitive level with humans.

Wise and his team push several cases up through the appellate system of New York State, which happens to hold a number of chimpanzees in less-than-ideal conditions.

We go on visits with chimps and see their startling abilities to communicate. We see others that are being held in terrible conditions. Wise and company are very careful not to demonize their litigants, who are often quite attached to their charges, but who acting out of ignorance or profit motive. What’s most interesting here, on the dramatic front, is the genuine engagement they achieve with judges and state’s attorneys encountered along the way, suggesting that even opponents of the rebranding of animals from “things” to persons are interested in keeping the discussion open.

    Co-directors Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker have a knack for knowing how to make a documentary that finds just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally and intellectually.

Unless you’re made out of stone and have no compassion or humanity, you’ll find yourself rooting for the chimps. Ultimately, “Unlocking the Cage” is a captivating, alarming, gripping documentary.

“THE FIVE YEAR ITCH & OTHER SHORTS”— Comedy, Romance, Fantasy, Drama

“The Five Year Itch & Other Shorts”

Comedy, Romance, Fantasy, Drama

Amos Lassen

Filmmaker Andy Halliday is a New York writer and actor whose work is new to me but whose credentials including working with Charles Busch make him a person whose work I want to see. Andy says that it is his to make films about gay men and women, and in doing so explore the realities of what happens beyond “coming out”. He chooses to deal with sex, drug addiction and getting older. Here we have five short films that are candid and full of heart and humor. It just so happens that there is great eye candy of the men.

The films were made from 2004 to 2012 and on tight budgets and resources. We immediately sense the director’s passion for his work and that he is truly an independent.

“The Five Year Itch” – 43 minutes

Matt and Greg have had a tough four years and as they go into their fifth year, life and love have become a bit easier. They want to celebrate their relationship and decide to do so with a group of their other “married” friends.

“Call Me Sometime” – 24 minutes

Billy has been in rehab for the last two months and he was determined to get his life in order and to be sober. However….

“Something Beautiful” – 37 minutes

Cory decides, after three days of drugs, that the time has come to change his life. He tries to get his friends Tommy and Charlie to do the same and what he learns is that each person must find the path for him and that we are not always the same as others.

“Slightly Dangerous” – 40 minutes

This is a film that is still in progress that is wonderful high camp. We have “drama, lust, suspense, witch’s magic, a crazed serial killer, and some very sexy guys”.

“A Day in the Life of a Lost Boy” – 14 minutes

What does one do when he is an attractive, talented young man can’t go a day without sex and drugs. Here is the day in which he tries to do so.

“THE FUTURE OF WORK AND DEATH”— Technology, Work and Death

“THE FUTURE OF WORK AND DEATH”

Technology, Work and Death

Amos Lassen

Sean Blacknell and Wayne Walsh bring us a provocative documentary in which worldwide experts in the fields of futurology, anthropology, neuroscience and philosophy consider the impact of technological advances on the two certainties of human life: work and death.

“The Future of Work and Death” looks at the exponential rate at which mankind creates technologies to ease the process of living. Then as we set out on the next phase of advancement with automation and artificial intelligence driving the transformation from man to machine, what we see here is a realistic look into the future of human life.

The documentary includes experts on this such as author Will Self, futurist Gray Scott, transhumanist Zoltan Istvan, and neuroscientist Rudolph Tanzi. Not only do we learn something here, the film often surprising, and always engaging.

We hear a dialogue that is as exponentially terrifying and increasingly utopian. Not only do filmmakers have to traverse a complicated narrative concerning the implications of technological advancement, but they also balance the arguments in terms of outlooks, themes and prejudices.
 We would think that a film concerning work and death would seems to be morbid but these are just themes that consume our lives. We spend huge amounts of time doing the former and apprehensively awaiting the latter, so much so that a film about these concerns will not only find its place with a large audience, it is also essential viewing. This is a film that is fervent and a thriller. It uses talking heads, animations, techno music, archival footage and much more to give us a collage of computer-aged conundrums. The main threat is that technology is advancing at such a rate that humanity is ill prepared and dangerously incapable of handling such a responsibility. Putting this into the everyday context of work and death, we get quite a complex and fascinating film.

 Both filmmakers freely admit to being frustrated by other attempts to tell a story such as this and that such films didn’t ask the questions which they wanted to hear. We soon understand that we are a part of an enormous conversation in which the result is a forceful film that delivers a coherent commentary on one of the most apparent yet ignored subject matters of our times. The frenetic pace and short run time is the perfect complement to a story about technology and life and it gives an urgency to it that is thought-provoking and compelling and the film allows for the inevitable philosophical debates which will ensue. Like all good documentaries, the film does not attempt to answer the questions it posits; instead it lets us think about what we have seen. Very few conclusions are drawn and even among  the scientific, anthropological, futurist speakers who appear on screen, there is no sense of a specific thread that emerges, except that we all need to start thinking more about it this. The film does an incredible job of challenging us. engaging.

The film charts human developments from Homo habilis, past the Industrial Revolution, to the digital age and beyond as it looks at the shocking exponential rate at which mankind has managed to create technologies to ease the process of living. As we embark on the next phase of our adaptation, with automation and Artificial Intelligence signifying the complete move from man to machine, this film asks what the implications are for the human purposeful fulfillment, making money and ageless immortality.

“MURDERS AT BARLUME”— A New Detective Series

“Murders at Barlume”

A New Detective Series

Amos Lassen

“Murders at Barlume” is a colorful new mystery based on the novels by Marco Malvaldi. It is set in the idyllic beach resort town of Pineta on the beautiful Tuscan coast where we meet Massimo Viviani (Filippo Timi), the recently divorced owner of the bistro, Barlume. Massimo is a man who loves puzzles of all kinds, and his sharp mind comes in handy when he frequently moonlights as an amateur detective, helping to solve strange crimes along with the gossipy gang of eccentric septuagenarians who come to his bar. The series is an irreverent mix of mystery, comedy and Italian charm.

From the producers of Detective Montalbano comes a new series of quirky Italian mysteries! In the idyllic town of Pineta on the beautiful Tuscan coast, recently divorced Massimo Viviani owns the local watering hole, Barlume. He also moonlights as an amateur detective, solving strange crimes with the gossipy gang of eccentric septuagenarians who frequent his bar.

Vivani and the ladies share a passion for chats, cards and drinks and a peculiar eye for discovering murders often causing them to put themselves into situations that are the cause of a lot of trouble. Vivani’s guesswork annoys the investigations of Detective Vittoria Fusco, the police officer in charge in town, who asks for his help in solving cases.

Below are synopses of the first six episodes:

1.”The King of Games” (Episode 1 of 6)

Massimo gets enmeshed in a tricky mystery after a car accident claims the lives of a prominent political aide and her son.

  1. “The Highest Card” (Episode 2 of 6)

The Barlume gang investigates rumors about a local restaurateur, and Massimo has to hire a new waitress.

  1. “The Crap Tombola” (Episode 3 of 6)

The funeral of Massimo’s uncle is interrupted by the murder of a local pharmacist, and some of the Barlume gang are suspects.

  1. Game For Five

Massimo investigates the murder of a young girl found in an abandoned building, and his love life goes from zero to complicated.

  1. “Chinese Whispers” (Episode 5 of 6)

Massimo finds the body of a well-known psychic in the trunk of a car, and the Barlume gang finds a suitcase full of money.

  1. “Action-Reaction” (Episode 6 of 6)

A Russian man collapses and dies while drinking at Barlume, and Massimo has to solve the case to save his business.

The characters have great chemistry and there are a lot of laughs. The acting is excellent all around.

“A CHANGE OF HEART”— Meet Hank

“A Change of Heart”

Meet Hank

Amos Lassen

Jim Belushi is Hank, a frustrated man who is fearful of diversity. He realizes that his Central Florida town is adhering less and less to the white, straight profile with which he’s comfortable. Then after suffering a heart attack, Hank’s life is saved by a transplant — from a Puerto Rican drag queen. Soon, Belushi is taking new steps in a new direction.

“This is a story about acceptance and learning about one’s true self, and Jim Belushi did an amazing job,” said producer Emilio Estefan. “There is a lot of Latino humor, and the message completely resonates with what is going on in our country right now. The timing for this film couldn’t be better.” However, I have to disagree with the film resonating with our country. It is not funny and quite simply is one of the worst films I have ever seen. It is dated and it stereotypes Miami’s LGBT community which is filled with homophobia.

Hank who had to retire from the Fire Service because of his weak heart. He runs his own bug-spraying business in Florida and cares little about his house and his marriage both of which have gone to seed. In fact, his wife, Deena (Virginia Madsen)  is leaving him and moving out.  Hank refuses to accept the fact that his youngest daughter Josie (Aimee Teegarden) is gay and has a girlfriend Teddy (Cody Horn). He also cannot accept that his oldest daughter, Laurie (Dawn Olivieri) has a new Cuban boyfriend, Carlos (William Levy) and that he really wants to marry her. We get quite a barrage of homophobic and racist jokes.

It then happens that Hank has a heart attack on the same night a young gay Latino hairdresser dies and everyone assumes that he is the donor of the new heart that Hank gets there and then. When Hank cannot perform when he seduces the voluptuous Ruthie (Kathy Najimy) and then he finds himself getting his hair streaked and liking everything that is remotely “gay”.  Now this former burly beer-swigging slob who was addicted to fried food begins wearing drag to wow the crowds by performing at the local gay club, and coming home to cook the latest food fashion.

As he struggles to accept his new persona, the Hospital then tells him that he received the heart of a heterosexual Japanese sushi chef, and he is not ‘gay’ after all!  This explains why he can make sushi out of the blue.

The movie was filmed in 2014 and has just been released which is a pity for all involved. The story plays with stereotypes as it tries to make this mess plot convincing. It patronizes both the LGBT and the Latino communities in such a clumsy manner that makes it a total insult to anyone with a mind.

“CHICKEN”— Richard, 15 Years Old

“Chicken”

Richard, 15 Years Old

Amos Lassen

Writer-director Joe Stephenson, in his first feature film, follows a 15-year-old boy named Richard (Scott Chambers) who suffers from learning difficulties and lives a troubled life with his beloved but erratic and abusive older brother “Polly” (Morgan Watkins) in a seedy and rundown old caravan on someone else’s countryside property. With his brother too busy either working or drinking to really spend much quality time with him, Richard creates his own little world including talking to his chicken, Fiona, his only friend.

One day, Richard meets Annabel (Yasmin Paige), the seventeen-year-old daughter of the family that is threatening to evict Richard and his brother from their land. As the friendship between Richard and Annabel grows, his family bonds become stretched to breaking point as dark secrets and devastating future possibilities are revealed. Richard’s learning disabilities are unspecified but he is a teen with a sunny outlook, who lives his lonely existence in the countryside under the domineering eye and frequently violent hand Polly. Richard’s isolation and desire to be loved are emphasized from the outset by his desperate attempts to win his sibling’s affection with breakfast and his one-sided conversations with his chicken best pal, Fiona.

Annabell’s friendship starts to offer some hope for Richard. Stephenson uses his camera well to emphasize Polly’s dominance by frequently letting his features fill the frame. When “Chicken” starts to build up emotionally, Chambers keeps it small making Richard believable and sympathetic. Annabell has just enough edge to keep the dynamic between her and Richard believable. Richard’s character offers a continual ray of hope and by the time confrontation builds to climax we care what happens not only to Richard but to Polly as well.

“Chicken” is a gentle yet powerful film and the sensitive handling of its characters means their stories and individual plights – whether it’s Richard feeding his beloved chicken or Polly trying desperately to find work – never feel rushed or glossed over. This is a film that feels real and hits home with emotion.

Scott Chambers plays the troubled but utterly loveable Richard with a sensitive naiveté and quiet pathos. It’s a pleasure to be in his company and heart breaking whenever he is mistreated or the complex world around him gets too much for him to bear. Paige is wonderful as Annabel; she exudes charm and likeability as well as an emotional complexity that comes into play once she becomes irresistibly invested in Richard’s life. Morgan Watkins is a rising star who brings a believability and an empathy to a potential very unlikeable character.

This is a small film that packs a big emotional punch. It is deceptive in its initial simplicity and is full of relatable humanistic and emotive details.

“INCORPORATED”— 2074—The Future

“Incorporated”

2074— the Future

Amos Lassen

Climate disaster has caused a catastrophe. The world’s food supplies are controlled by two corporations— Spiga and Inazagi and the world is divided into two zones: red and green. Scum of the world are in the red zone and corporate “suits” are in the green zone. The border is defined, but it can be crossed and our protagonist is one of the few who succeeded in crossing it.

On the green side, everybody must contribute to the corporation. Children are brainwashed and people are obsessed with success. Everybody wants to climb up, all the way to the mystic 40th floor. They all dream of capitalism. The ultimate lucky ones are part of Arcadia, a place where all dreams come true. Arcadia is an elite place with only one motto: “What happens in Arcadia, stays in Arcadia”.

Ben Larson (Sean Teale) is the aspiring young hope of the corporation. He’s married to the director’s daughter and works hard to benefit Spiga. His other identity, a dark one, is the one he was born with— Aaron, a kid from the red-zone. In the corporate world, everything he is and everything he’s aspired to is false. His actions and words eventually come into the corporation’s scrutiny. His motivation, to climb up, will come into direct conflict with the hidden past. In the midst of it all, he has personal agenda and his “green-zone” identity is merely a tool for fulfilling it.

Allison Miller is Laura, Larson’s wife Laura and Julia Ormond is Elisabeth, Spiga’s director. “Incorporated” is set in the year 2074, a dystopian future world in which global warming has reduced most of the world to an impoverished husk and international corporations have been given unlimited power to rule over us 99 percenters. The show came on just weeks after one-man corporation Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, and “Incorporated” feels like an ominous sign of things to come.

Ben seems like the perfect corporate drone. He toes the company line, is married to an WASPy plastic surgeon and spends all his time trying to climb the corporate ladder. But Ben’s got a secret. For starters, his name isn’t Ben: It’s Aaron. And it seems he’s engaging in an elaborate, long-term ruse, worming his way into this major corporation so he can find a missing girl. The mystery behind Ben’s motivations is the show is about. The higher he climbs in the rigidly structured corporation, the more information he has access to. Julian (Dennis Haysbert) is the company’s very scary head of security who’s always looking for infiltrators and corporate spies to torture.

It’s difficult to get emotionally involved in Ben’s predicament and while visually, the show is a treat, I found it to be a bit shallow.

“STARLIGHT”— Secrets, Jealousy and Envy

“Starlight”

Secrets, Jealousy, and Envy

Amos Lassen

French filmmaker Sophie Blondy has set “Starlight” in the dunes near the North Sea where a small circus company is suffering from a serious lack of audience for their shows. Even though not many come to see the shows the magic of the circus is still there and thriving.

Each performer rehearses and performs new numbers, yet there is a fragile balance among them and this will quickly fall apart to unveil their real nature and their most obscure feelings. The circus becomes a place of romantic lust where each person uses their powers to satisfy their desires.

We meet Angele (Natacha Regnier), the diaphanous ballerina, her clown lover Elliot (Denis Levant) and the circus ringmaster who is cruel and disturbed by fits of schizophrenia on one side. Zohra (Beatrice Dalle), who is in love with Elliot, is haunted by an uncanny conscience on the other side. Secrets, jealousy, envy progressively take hold of them and bring about some irreversible acts causing the life of the circus will then take a whole new turn. Iggy Pop appears throughout the film as an “angel” type character.

 

“Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Manic Depression” by David Leite— A Candid Memoir

Leite, David. “Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Manic Depression”, Dey Street, 2017.

A Candid Memoir

Amos Lassen

One of the wonderful advantages of being a reviewer is that it opens me to books I perhaps would never have read. I have, until now, read very few books about food so reading “Notes on a Banana” was a complete revelation to me. David Leite keeps the website Culinaria and has been universally lauded as a chef but that is not what this memoir is about. Rather it is a look at a man who happens to be a chef and who now shares with us his candid story about family, food, mental illness, and sexual identity.

Leite was born into a family of Azorean immigrants and he grew up in the 1960s in a Catholic, blue-collar Portuguese home in Fall River, Massachusetts where food and the family really mattered. As a child he was a dreamer with determination, imagination and a flair for the dramatic. His mother nicknamed him “Banana” and called him as such. Leite dreamt of living in a middle-class house with a swinging kitchen door and fell in love with everything French and this he attributes to his Portuguese and French-Canadian godmother. He struggled with being a manic depressive and it seemed that the only way he found a sense of relief was through food— learning about it, watching Julia Child cook and his own cooking for others. In this book we read of his young years and self-acceptance and how he turned his love of food into a career that has brought him many awards. He writes of the people who helped to shape him and his career and at the ups and downs he encountered.

David had a wonderful childhood that was the stuff of sitcoms but no one knew was he was struggling with the frightening mood swings as part of hid bipolar disorder. He found relief and comfort in food, watching reruns of Julia Child, and, later as an adult, cooking for others. It was only when he was in his mid-thirties and after years of searching that he finally uncovered the truth about himself, receive proper medical treatment allowing him to heal. As we read, we are with him through his highs and lows of his life and this is what pulled me into the book and his life. We are with him when he bids farewell to his Portuguese heritage and begins his quest to be a star and when he tries to straighten himself out sexually through Aesthetic Realism, a cult in downtown Manhattan. We are there as he goes to war against his dark and we share the love that he shares with Alan (“The One”), his partner.

He very bravely writes of the rejection he experienced because he is gay. Leite went on to become a writer, cookbook author, and web publisher. What I love here is that Leite never loses site of how he got to where he is and as we read, we see that he returns to his family and this keeps him grounded.

There is so much to enjoy here and I feel that I know David Leite now. Through his writing, he has become my friend. I am sure that this has to do with his braveness to speak out on mental disorder and sexuality. There were times that I laughed aloud as I read and there were times when I held back tears. This is what a memoir should be.

 

“BELOVED SAM”— Two Gay Teens

“BELOVED SAM”

Two Gay Teens

Amos Lassen

Beloved Sam tells the story of two teenagers falling in love for the first time It is the story of David and American exchange student Sam, who meet at a youth group. They fall in love, but while Sam is out to his parents, David isn’t.

Then his brother walks in on the boys and later threatens David to out him. The film is produced by

Come In, a youth group in the city of Magdeburg in former East Germany, he film is the result of a filmmaking workshop with LGBTI media project Queerblick.

The film was planned to be an all-German production until Noah Hutchinson, a US exchange student, joined the team, and everyone switched to speaking English.

German media praises “Beloved Sam” for its sweet storyline, but also for spreading body positivity and going against the classic idea of who is considered attractive.

The film features two regular young men who falliin love for the first time, showing that everyone deserves love.