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by Chris Barsanti

12 Jun 2017


Black Code (2016)

It wasn’t that long ago that one-time proselytizers of the World Wide Web paradise to come, like Douglas Rushkoff, began to sheepishly come forward and admit that, yes, they might have been a tad over optimistic about the world-changing potential of the Internet back in the ‘90s. We are just now starting to see some reevaluations from the eager Netizens who proclaimed that the Twitter- and Facebook-fueled Arab Spring was the harbinger of a glorious new dawn of an empowered, jacked-in cybernetic citizenry. The darker side of the democratization of online messaging, however, is on full display in Nicholas de Pencier’s Black Code, screening at the New York Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

An adaptation of the book of the same name by Ronald Deibert, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, the movie is an anxious and earnest policy piece about the darkening Web that followed in the wake of the Arab Spring’s first flush of people-powered optimism. Deibert and the Lab’s band of “Internet sleuths” research monitor the state of worldwide human rights as it intersects with the virtual realm, where “Big Data meets Big Brother”.

What Black Code sees is that a tide turning against citizen activists around the world. In Tibet, the Chinese government’s strategy of total surveillance works to smother the decades-long resistance movement, particularly any online reference to the hundred-plus activists who self-immolated in protest of Beijing’s policies. The government in Ethiopia centralizes Internet access through a single, monitored server. Pakistan and Brazil keep close tabs on any anti-government activity online, while Syria’s place as the “Arab Spring’s dark aftermath” sees malware and Facebook misinformation weaponized against their citizenry. 

In what Deibert refers to as the “commercialization of cybercrime”, numerous companies now provide off-the-shelf products to companies and governments looking to monitor and stifle resistance movements. Deibert and the watchful researchers of the Citizen Lab don’t exactly provide answers to the campaigns of oppression they document, but they provide a hopeful reminder that at the very least, somewhere on the Web, somebody is watching—for the right reasons.

Bill Nye: Science Guy (2017)

Bill Nye: Science Guy (2017)

A curious inclusion in the Human Rights Watch Festival, David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg’s Bill Nye: Science Guy is a PBS-friendly thumbnail biopic of Bill Nye, the “Science Guy” who—if the legion of his fans who show up in the movie are to be believed—is a pop science hero of magnificent proportions. As the bowtied host of a goofy kids science show back in the ‘90s, Nye was a great popularizer of scientific inquiry for the after-school crowd; a kind of bridge between Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson. The former was, in fact, a hero of Nye’s and the latter shows up here as Nye’s slightly more authoritative but just as aggressively gung-go comrade in scientific arms.

While the movie itself is something of a hodge-podge, it keeps returning to one of Nye’s current missions: fighting the scourge of climate change deniers. While debating the reality of man-made climate change with oleaginous goons like the Creation Museum’s Ken Ham or the bodybuilding meteorologist Joe Bastardi (a glib and pugnacious propagandist who must be seen to be believed) might not seem like exactly the stuff of human rights, it is certainly a service to humanity.

The Blood Is at the Doorstep (2017)

The Blood Is at the Doorstep (2017)

Nearly the definition of the kind of movie an event like the Human Rights Watch Film Festival is made to showcase, Erik Ljung’s captivating The Blood Is at the Doorstep tracks the aftermath and struggle for justice that came after the 30 April 2014 fatal shooting of Dontre Hamilton in downtown Milwaukee during broad daylight by a police officer. Although it begins in fire and violence, the bulk of the movie is a timeline following that shooting itself and the passionate, quietly strong campaign fought by his family to ensure that the city found somebody accountable for what happened.

Ljung’s portrait doesn’t attempt to litigate the shooting itself. Instead of pulling apart the forensics of what happened, the angle of this bullet or the conflicting testimony of that witness, it focuses on the Hamilton family and their attempt to come to grips with what looked in all fairness like an unwarranted killing. There are times when this feels briefly like a weakness, that maybe a closer examination of the case itself could have helped clarify things. But Ljung’s approach is ultimately a humane one, embedding closely with Hamilton’s grief-struck mother and brothers as they move from shock to anger to steady and organized action. Before long, the family is leading a growing number of like-minded activists on marches protesting the reluctance of the city to file charges against the officer, or at the very least institute mental-health training for the police.

The outlines of the Hamilton shooting are depressingly familiar. From his history of mental illness to the officer’s history of excessive force complaints to the overwhelming amount of force used (14 shots fired at a man who by all accounts had started fighting with the officer after being woken up in a city park, but likely never posed a real threat) to the closing of ranks by police and the splits in tactics between nonviolent and more aggressive protesters, these are all elements that have become numbingly familiar in America’s cities.

Although there is plenty of outrage in The Blood Is at the Doorstep, Ljung is primarily an empathetic storyteller. From his surprisingly luminous cinematography to the intimate portrayal of the family’s stout and humble resilience, this is a movie that is always finding beauty in ugliness and manages to celebrate the former without forgetting the latter.

by Sachyn Mital

18 Apr 2016


The Show of Shows bears some similarity in terms of composition to a 2011 Tribeca Film Festival selection that I saw, The Miners’ Hymns. Both set black and white footage from a UK archive against an original score from an Icelandic composer (or in this case composers) to present a documentary feature. Each has a score essential to the narrative arc of the film yet stands alone—particularly the final cut in Miners, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s epic “The Cause of Labour is the Hope of the World”. But, while The Miners’ Hymns carried political weight, The Show of Shows is lighter, more entertaining fare.

by Sachyn Mital

19 Jun 2015


On Tuesday June 16th, eager animation fans who wanted to see the latest film from Disney Pixar Inside Out had the opportunity to see the film early via a “special event” screening from Fathom Events. Fathom Events often screen opera or theater productions on the silver screen but this was a notable screening as it was the first time I was aware of them working with a major popular animated film. The Inside Out screening featured “exclusive behind-the-scenes footage from Pixar Animation Studios and a Q&A with director Pete Docter, producer Jonas Rivera and the voice of Joy, Amy Poehler.” Essentially, these were unique offerings that might be expected to be on a DVD release but were prepared ahead of time to give the audience reason to shell out for higher priced tickets.

by Alex Ramon

17 May 2015


I finished reading Patricia Highsmith’s Carol while waiting in the (very long) press line to see Todd Haynes’ much-anticipated adaptation of the novel, which premiered here at Cannes last night. It was one of those unforgettable moments. Already loving the novel, and hugely excited for the movie, I was blown away by the grace, poignancy and quiet power of the final chapter and by Highsmith’s brave, pitch-perfect resolution of the narrative.

I went into the screening equal parts thrilled and nervous. Could the movie do justice to the novel, and yet emerge as something fresh and distinctive in its own right? Well, as it turns out, it’s a complicated story.

by Alex Ramon

16 May 2015


Another year, another Woody Allen movie. Or, rather, should that be: another year, the same Woody Allen movie? The appearance on screen of those oh-so-familiar white-on-black credits may still generate a certain excitement for some of us, but the extent to which you consider Allen’s tendency to return to favorite plots, themes, and character types to be evidence of a filmmaker still grappling bravely with personal obsessions, or simply evidence of desperate recycling, will likely determine your response to Irrational Man, which is screening out of competition (as Allen always stipulates) at Cannes 2015.

Following the wildly overrated Blue Jasmine (2013) and the slight but quite charming Magic in the Moonlight (2014), Allen’s latest offering finds him mining his preoccupation with crimes and moral choices once more. The result proves moderately entertaining, but Irrational Man is too overt in its mash-up of bits of previous Allen features, and, ultimately, too obvious all round. You won’t be able to miss the themes that the movie’s dealing with, since not one but two voiceovers keep stating them. 

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Abe Lucas, a philosophy professor who, as the movie opens, is arriving to take up a new post at a Rhode Island college. Sozzled and suicidal, Abe is blocked, depressed and impotent, suffering a major case of academic burn-out. But none of that matters much to Jill (Emma Stone), a bright, charming student who—“naturally”—is immediately smitten with him. “I wanted to be a world-changer and I’ve ended up a passive intellectual who can’t fuck,” Abe bleats, as Jill listens sympathetically. A turning point comes, however, when Abe overhears a conversation about an upcoming court case that leaves him with murder in mind—and, it turns out, the opportunity to get his mojo back in the process.

Allen has sometimes been too explicit in his approach to major themes, and a certain clunkiness pervades Irrational Man from the off. The movie actually begins by outlining what it will be about—“morality, choice and murder”—and ends by summing up. It’s like the work of a diligent, slightly insecure student who wants to make really, really sure we get the point they’re making. The notion of a dual voiceover—with Abe and Jill taking turns to chip in—is intriguing, and Allen used voiceover for some good, distancing effects in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008).

Here, though, the device is disastrous. The characters keep telling us what we’ve already perceived, or else filling in details that haven’t been sufficiently dramatized. (“I was swept off my feet by Abe Lucas,” Jill declares.) This spelling-it-out approach feels especially lazy and embarrassing when one has just emerged from a film by Radu Muntean (One Floor Below, reviewed yesterday). Muntean’s movie actually approaches some similar thematic territory to Allen’s: both films pivot on overheard conversations and explore the responses of the protagonists to the information they’ve learned.

But where One Floor Below allows the viewer a great deal of interpretive space, engaging us as emotional and intellectual participants, Irrational Man turns into a Cliffs Notes on itself. Moreover, the movie’s philosophizing, seasoned lightly with a few short snippets of Kant, de Beauvoir and Sartre (he wrote that “Hell is other people,” we’re informed), can’t be said to cut very deep.

A paunchy Phoenix and a radiant Stone perform proficiently but an air of artificiality hangs over many of the exchanges here. The talk is awkward and unwitty. (“I love it when you order for me,” simpers Jill in a restaurant scene before she and Abe end up in bed together, after which she announces “I loved making love with you.”) Pity poor Parker Posey, who’s drafted into the movie to complete a patented one-guy-two-girls Allen scenario, and then given so little that’s funny or meaningful to say or do that the actress can only deliver a clenched and constricted performance.

To give him his due, Allen is in a way attempting something fresh here in terms of genre: the movie might be described as a sunny noir. Still, it’s hard to know what tone is being hoped for when the director includes a clue in the shape of a copy of Crime and Punishment that comes handily marked up with a victim’s name and a Hannah Arendt quotation. (You can probably guess which one.)

For all its shortcomings, the movie does keep up pace, though, even as it reaches an elimination-of-an-inconvenient-female plot element that will come as no surprise at all to those who’ve seen Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) or Match Point (2005). While the film-making is occasionally shoddy (there are some bewildering dissolves early on), Allen, working again with the great director of photography Darius Khondji, does supply a couple of resonant images. The first is a terrific funhouse mirror sequence, and the second is a startling shot of Phoenix’s Abe, breathless with fear and exhilaration, as he walks away from the scene of his crime. That potent shot lasts just a few seconds but it makes the viewer aware of just how much the movie would have benefitted from more such genuine moments of irrationality.

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