Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Wilson's Wife is Fair Game

"Wilson's wife is fair game."  So says Karl Rove about Valerie Plame, wife of Joe Wilson, in the movie called Fair Game.

Former ambassador Wilson had been sent to Niger to assess whether that country sold yellowcake uranium to Iraq; he concludes it did not.  

The shipment of this uranium is one of the planks of Bush's allegation that Iraq has 'weapons of mass destruction'.  As the rhetoric to support the war ramps up, Wilson speaks publicly and gives interviews about his conclusion.  But an Op Ed piece in the New York Times seems to be the proverbial straw.  In the piece entitled "What I Didn't Find In Africa", he claims that the government is manipulating intelligence about weapons of mass destruction and thus undermines the case for the invasion of Iraq.  

Retribution is swift and brutal.  A leak traced back to Dick Cheney's office results in a column in the New York Times, blowing Plame's CIA cover and putting her and her agent network at great risk.

Eventually Scooter Libby is convicted for this leak, although many feel he is the fall guy for Rove and Cheney.  He is sentenced to jail in June 2007, but less than a month later, Bush commutes his sentence.  

I was particularly interested in seeing this movie, after having heard Valerie Plame at TED last year (see my blog post about her talk and the movie TED screened called Countdown to Zero).  Both are good movies, albeit sobering and chilling.  Definitely worth picking up at the video store.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Hot Coffee

A good meal often ends with coffee, and I will end my reviews from Hot Docs with a review of Hot Coffee.  

A good movie can change your perspective.  Hot Coffee did that, for me and most of the audience.

The movie is about US civil justice reform which restricts citizens' rights to sue corporations and caps the compensation allowed if they do sue.  The movie documents the orchestrated public relations efforts by corporations and the American Chamber of Commerce to bring about these changes, and nasty interventions in elections to oust people who do not agree with big business' position.  It's a rather horrifying story.  So-called tort reform is a major cause of 'crusading fiscal conservatives', as the Economist describes them and most of the American public has been convinced that desperate changes in the justic system are warranted.  This movie argues that the cure is worse than the disease.

But an audience would have no sympathy for this point of view, because they 'know' all about that famous McDonald's scalding coffee case - the one where the elderly lady drove her car with a coffee cup between her legs, received a mild burn and was awarded $2.86 million in compensation.  It's the poster child for 'frivolous lawsuits' and excessive compensation and sparked public sympathy for the law reforms mentioned above.

So Hot Coffee wisely starts off by debunking the myths around that case.  The woman was a passenger, not the driver.  The car was stopped.  In her attempt to remove the tricky lid to add sugar and cream, she spilled the entire cup of coffee over her thighs, buttocks and groin.  The third-degree burns on 6% of her body were horrific (as shown in gory detail in the movie) and required multiple skin grafts. 

McDonald required franchises to serve coffee at 180-190 degrees, considerably hotter than other establishments, a temperature that can produce third-degree burns in two seconds.  The company had received hundreds of complaints about the temperature of its coffee and failed to respond.  The plaintiff sued McDonald's after they refused her request for $20,000 to cover her out-of-pocket expenses for medical bills and lost income and reaffirmed their determination to keep the coffee temperature as it was.  She felt a lawsuit was the only way to bring attention to the issue.  The jury found in her favour, and calculated the compensation based on two days of coffee sales.

The results of the case were as follows:  McDonald's reduced the temperature of the coffee by 10 degrees; they changed the lid design to make it easier to open the coffee;  a judge reduced the compensation to $640,000 and the plaintiff ultimately settled out of court.  But the unintended consequences were far greater.  The settlement gave the right a poster child for frivolous lawsuits and helped gain support among the public for tort reform.

In the Q&A, the filmmaker asked the audience how many had heard of the McDonald's case and virtually everyone raised their hand.  When asked if their opinion on the case had changed, virtually eveyone left their hands up.  She unabashedly admitted she was one of those maligned 'trial lawyers', acknowledged that there were abuses in the civil trial system, but felt that the direction in US justice system and politics would lead to far worse abuses.

As The Economist put it in a recent article "Frivolous lawsuits are, along with criminal aliens and fraudulent voters, a bit of a bogeyman. They do exist, but are hardly as ubiquitous as the thundering rhetoric would suggest."  

The movie emphasizes how American big business has incredible power against the consumer.  In the US, in many contracts - espeically contracts with cellular providers and banks -  the consumer agrees to  'mandatory arbitration' and forfeits the right to sue the provider.  That doesn't sound too bad, does it?  A neutral arbitrator determines a reasonable settlement and keeps the dispute out of court.  Well, the problem is that the provider chooses the arbitrator, which puts the consumer at a significant disadvantage, and they have to recourse to the courts.  
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in March 2011 that a customer was allowed to proceed with a class action suit against Telus, despite having signed a mandatory arbitation clause.  So it appears that the situation in Canada is not as lopsided as in the US.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Dolphin Boy

After vicious torture and beating by relatives of a girl he was accused of seducing, Morad sinks into a closed world of his own.  At the start of Dolphin Boy, we see Morad in a catatonic state, unable to speak or even make eye contact.  His father is determined - and makes huge sacrifices - to do whatever it takes to heal his son.  

On a doctor's advice Morad's father takes him to Dolphin Reef on the Red Sea.  The reef is staffed with people who use dolphin therapy to reach the unreachable.  Morad's first contact with any living thing is with the dolphins, and over a period of three years, he reenters the world, strong enough to relive and face the terrors of the night of his kidnapping.

Underlying the surface story, just as the dolphins swim under the Red Sea, is a story of co-operation between Palestinians and Israelis.  Because Morad is Palestinian and the doctor and workers at Dolphin Reef are Israeli.  The dialogue in the film shifts back and forth between Arabic and Hebrew.  While Morad is at the reef, he speaks Hebrew and only as his healing is complete is he willing to revert back to Arabic.  The message is never highlighted in the film, but in the Q&A, the filmmakers clearly stated that one of their goals was to show some good news from the region.

This was a lovely Hot Docs movie and I recommend it.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Love Arranged

Another good movie at Hot Docs.

Two modern women are seeking a husband in India, a country steeped in tradition.  They try out the online dating sites.  So much for modern.  They also approach a traditional Indian matchmaker.  They're not about to be dictated to in the choice of a husband, but they place high priority on their family getting along with their husband and his family.  It's basically 'parental-facilitated matchmaking' rather than arranged marriages.

The two women are complete contrasts.  Divya, who came to India from Canada two years ago, is a sassy, glamorous, highly flirtatious party girl whose career is arranging weddings.  Neha is more traditional, a plump graphic artist who loves animals.  As the movie ends, neither woman has found Mr. Right.

The director, Soniya Kirpalani, fielded several questions from South Asian women asking about the relative merits of arranged marriages and how to get started.  But the fun doesn't end there.  Soniya's on the lookout for a husband for her daughter.  Before leaving for Canada, she asked her if a Canadian boy would do.  Her daughter thought that would be fine, and handed her mother the contact information for a man who just might do.  Soniya made contact, hit it off with his parents, and brought him up on stage to be introduced.  Whatever other qualities he might have, he is certainly a good sport.  

But Soniya is not content yet.  She introduces her Director of Photography, a single man that she describes as 'a great catch, girls'.  There were clusters of people with follow-up questions in the lobby after the movie.  Who knows if any of them were marriageable women?

Monday, May 23, 2011


New York lawyer Marc Dreier's massive fraud came unravelled in, of all places, Toronto.  

Dreier craved the high life.  Sponsoring big charity events was his ticket to hobnobbing with the rich and famous.  Alas, his law firm could not support this style. 

So Dreier orchestrated a fraud scheme, starting with paper forgeries and escalating to brazen impersonations.  His final, unsuccessful, impersonation at the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund led to his exposure and arrest.

Dreier was granted bail while he was awaiting sentencing.  Unraveled follows the unrepentant Dreier during that month, at his luxurious New York penthouse.  In his discussions with his lawyer, he forcefully argues that his wasn't such a horrible crime (especially in comparison with Bernie Madoff) and he should be granted a short sentence, close to New York so his kids can visit him.  Although he shows a stunning lack of remorse for his crime, he claims to regret the damage to his family.  But his interactions with his son wouldn't support his claim of a warm relationship.

This Hot Docs movie was a very interesting character study.  While Dreier wasn't a sympathetic character, it was fascinating to see his attempts to minimize his crime and shift the blame to events like his divorce.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Hand To Toe

Hand To Toe focuses entirely on feet, the dirty, ill-kempt feet of homeless people in Yellowknife who turn up once a week at the Salvation Army to receive the lovely attention of volunteers there who clean, and care for these feet and wrap them up with warm socks.  

This short film celebrated some very caring people, who treat all their 'clients' with respect and care.  Hot Docs double features are great.  This movie was paired with Family Portrait in Black and White.  It's probably a movie that wouldn't get seen much if it weren't for the Hot Docs double feature.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

How to Die in Oregon

Physician-assisted Suicide or Death with Dignity.  It's legal in Oregon. 

In the most thought-provoking movie I saw at Hot Docs,  How to Die in Oregon takes a hard look at the practice of physician-assisted suicide in Oregon.  And I mean a hard look.  The film opens with a man drinking the physician-prescribed deadly dose and the camera zooms in as he slips into a coma with his family around him.  A physician has prescribed the lethal dose; a volunteer mixes the Seconal into a glass of water; the patient drinks it himself.  The volunteer asks two confirming questions before handing over the drink.   "Are you sure you want to do this?  You know, you can change your mind." "Can you tell me what will be the result of drinking this mixture?"  Physician-assisted suicide is different from euthanasia in that the doctor does not administer a lethal dose; the patient has to be physically able to drink the liquid dose.

In the movie, we come to know Cody Curtis, an active, attractive, elegant, woman with a positive attitude, a caring husband and two children, who is suffering from terminal liver cancer.  She wanted to choose to die with dignity when the pain became intolerable.  Is it a sign of great moral courage to endure such pain in a hopeless situation when there is an alternative?  Clearly Cody didn't think so.  As Cody says near the end, "I don't ever want to have a night like that again".  

Doctors also face a tough dilemma when asked to prescribe a lethal dose for their patients.  Is this prescription at variance with their Hippocratic Oath or is it the ultimate good they can do their patients?  Cody's doctor was conflicted about this, but concluded that she owed it to her patient to give her freedom of choice.  

One of the reasons director Peter Richardson chose to focus the movie on Cody was because the doctor was willing to be included.  But he also included a statement by another doctor arguing vehemently that prescribing a lethal dose just couldn't qualify for doing no harm to a patient.  Opinions are fervently held on both sides of this question.  Richardson told us at the Q and A that he filmed 16 patients who had filled the lethal-dose prescription, but most did not use it.  Clearly just having the prescription in the drawer is comforting to many.

Cody postponed her original date when she was still feeling quite well;  she laughed about having to replace the the jewellery she had given away.  However, she knew the time had come in December.  Cody doesn't quite make Christmas as she'd hoped, but she does teach her son how to prepare the traditional Christmas squares.  When her husband asks where the cheque book is, she exclaims "I've been trying to tell him about that for 35 years!"  We watch through a lighted window as we hear the quiet conversation of Cody, her family, and her doctor as Cody achieves her peaceful end.

The movie followed the citizen-led push for a physician-assisted suicide law in Washington, led by a woman who has lost her husband in an ugly and painful death by brain cancer.  He did not have time after his diagnosis to establish residency in Oregon so he could not opt for physician-assisted suicide.  His wife pledged to him that she would fight for the law in Washington, and it ultimately passed by a significant majority.  Other states are considering adopting this law.  Laws for assisted suicide have been proposed more than once in Canada.

How To Die In Oregon won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and was third in the People's Choice Awards at HotDocs (How good must those first two be!).  The movie was funded by HBO and will thus be available widely.  

What a strong movie.  Besides developing great affection and respect for Cody Curtis, and shedding some tears, I got thinking about end-of-life choices.  With the coming aging of our society, and the ability for medicine to keep us alive longer, this is a question that will be challenging many of us. 

 Would I want a 'get out of pain free' card, when faced with prolonged, futile suffering?  I would.  What do you think?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Draquila - Italy Trembles

We've all heard the scandals and allegations surrounding Berlusconi.  The film Draquila - Italy Trembles documents the aftermath of an earthquake which hit the city of Aquila, killing 300 and displacing 120,000.  It is also a scorching condemnation of Berlusconi's actions.  

According to filmmaker Sabina Guzzanti, the earthquake is viewed more as an opportunity than a tragedy by Berlusconi.  Firstly, it diverts attention from the sex scandal swirling around him, and secondly, it offers the a golden business opportunity to call for new housing to be built, with the contracts awarded to his political buddies.  Much is made of the few people who are moved into the new housing, ignoring the plight of the majority who don't get housing.  Berlusconi makes multiple trips to the Aquila area, every one of them a golden photo op.  There's even an accusation that the people in the temporary tent cities awaiting rehousing were essentially incarcerated - they couldn't leave, and journalists were not allowed in.

I found this a good but not a great movie.  

Bobby Fischer Against The World

Another good film.  A sort of blast from the past, remembering the intense worldwide, and particularly US, interest in the chess match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky.  I attended with my daughter and she was laughing hard at chess matches getting first place on news report against other significant world events.

Fischer was an extraordinary chess player, winning the US championships from the age of 14.   At the height of the Cold War, beating a Russian at chess for the world championship was a really big deal.  Fischer was unforgivably erratic leading up to the big match in Iceland, delaying the beginning of the match, losing a match by default, unsettling his opponent with his vexatious demands.  However, he was not to be denied the victory, after playing brilliantly, and, in at least one game, in a totally unorthodox way.  

Except for that brilliant flourish of the championship, Fischer's life was dismal.  His childhood was spent with his single and distant mother.  After winning the championship, his behaviour grew more and more eccentric as he faced escalating mental health issues.  A sad ending for a brilliant mind.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Family Portrait in Black and White

Family Portrait in Black and White opens in the Ukraine with scenes of laughing children playing together under the care of the saintly Olga Nenya, a foster mother taking care of 23 such orphaned children. Sixteen of them  are biracial,  and Olga's dedication is even more impressive when set against the malevolent, open racism in the town and the active skinheads who beat up and kill black people, seemingly with little intervention from the police.  

The children's lives are highly structured: strict rules and plenty of household tasks.  Life is modest - the council thinks the house should be condemned - but we see lots of caring and hugs between the children and their foster mother, whom they consider to be their real mother.  Through a charity organized to help Ukrainian children after Chernobyl, several children spend summers and Christmas with generous families in Italy and France, which adds enrichment to the spartan life they experience in the Ukraine.

But the movie slowly unveils problems within this unusual family.  Older children, especially the brightest ones, face difficulties following the educational paths they want.  When some of the European families want to adopt the children, they are blocked by Olga who holds their guardianship.  One girl 'escapes' from the family.  It's clear she's grateful to Olga and still holds her in considerable affection, but feels she needs to pursue the better life in Italy.

The movie ends with the reflections of Kiril, a bright and sensitive boy who makes it to university, resulting in estrangement from Olga.  Kiril characterizes the home as a totalitarian state with Olga in the role of Stalin, and Kiril a dissident.  

This film might have Black and White in the title, but there's nothing black and white about this situation.  It's a complex, nuanced film and not the one the filmmaker originally set out to make.  At first, she was going to make a film about racism in the Ukraine.  Then she thought it would be about the saintly foster mother Olga.  As time went on, the focus veered to the autocratic style of Olga.  The movie ended up containing elements of all these themes.

I wasn't the only one who loved this film.  It won the Best Canadian Feature at Hot Docs. 

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Curious Thing

 A curious thing happened today.  This blog chalked up its 10,000 visit.  This is a very small traffic number as things go on the web, but I still find this quite remarkable.  This blog is not publicized in any way.  I don't choose blog topics because I think they'll be traffic magnets.  I simply address topics that I personally find interesting.  I write blogs the way people play golf: I find the process of writing enjoyable, and I want to practise the craft.  

So how does this modest little blog site end up attracting 10,000 visits?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Susya and The Hilltops

These two movies were on a double bill at Hot Docs and put forward two views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

The Hilltops interviewed a number of people living in the infamous Israeli settlements, on the hill tops in Gaza.  With zealous commitment, the settlers argue for Israel's right to own this land and are fierce in their determination to stay in the settlements.  We see a crew of men with tools erecting the frame of a new home, until the arrival of the Israeli Defence Forces, who tear down the walls and arrest all the men.  Soon after, the women return, and raise the walls, and hammering the nails in place with rocks.  

The Canadian director said that he had been criticized for not sufficiently demonizing the settlers, but his intent was to let them speak for themselves and let the audience come to their own conclusion.  It's harder to be engrossed in a film that has no particular narrative thrust.  Although interesting, I didn't find it particularly captivating.

Susya was a short 15 minute film that should have been shorter!  A Palestinian father and son return to their home village which is now an Israeli archaeological site.  Israeli police appear, and tell them they're not allowed, despite their having bought tickets.  The shot of the father walking down the road, with the Israeli military vehicle following him menacingly, ran way too long for my taste.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


Another must-see biographical film at Hot Docs, Buck documents the life of Buck Brannaman, the model for the character in the movie The Horse Whisperer.  

Calm, soft-spoken, with a wry sense of humour and a droll way of dispensing philosophical wisdom in his laconic drawl, Buck is acutely sensitive to the horses he works with, and passes on that wisdom to the many people who attend his 4-day clinics.  The degree to which he focuses on the horse is exemplified by this quote from the description of the clinic:  "Many people have questions as to just which class is right for them - and more importantly - which is right for their horse."  He recognizes that sometimes the horse's problem is rooted in the owner's problem, and tells the owner to look within themselves at those issues. 

Buck grew up with an extremely abusive father, whose abuse escalated after the death of his mother.  We read about how common it is for children who are abused to become abusive parents.  Buck veered in the opposite direction, towards a mild disposition, with a good dash of sensitive discipline thrown in.  

This film was the audience award winner at Sundance.  No wonder.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Carol Channing: Larger Than Life

Carol Channing at 90!  What a force of nature.  And what a good movie about her life!  Carol Channing's exuberance leaps out of the screen at you.  She's as ebullient in her personal life as she is on stage.  

Channing devoted her life singlemindedly to the stage. She did more than 5,000 performances in Hello Dolly, without missing one.  She persevered through a bout of ovarian cancer. She breathed life into the character Dolly Levi - in fact, she was Dolly.    She starred in a revival of Hello Dolly in 1995 at the ripe old age of 74.

The other theme in this movie is the love story between Channing and her boyfirend from when she was 14 years old.  Channing married Harry when she was in her 80's, after both she and Harry had had very long marriages, Harry's ending in widowhood, and Channing's in bitter divorce.  However, the romance was clearly still fresh.  Their infatuation is almost indecent.

There are more screenings of this movie - go see it!

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Battle for Barking

Incredulous gasps and indignant muttering at some of the most egregious statements of the BNP, a smattering of applause as they were challenged, the audience buzzing  as they left the theatre: The Battle for Barking certainly got people engaged!  

The movie followed the attempt by the leader of the British Nazi Party - oops make that the British National party - to take the seat in Barking Dagenham from the long-time Labour MP.  Surrounded by his team of tough-looking security men, Nick Griffin toured the riding urging the British people to take back their country by chucking out the immigrants, to cut foreign aid to zero, to bring the troops home from the Middle East.  Feeding on the insecurities of the people struggling with unemployment, Griffin lays all Britain's problems at the feet of immigrants.  On the other side, the recently widowed Margaret Hodge does her own share of scare-mongering about the dangers of the BNP being elected.

The movie cheated a bit for dramatic effect, portraying the race as rather close by giving equal weight to BNP partisans, and by showing some early polling that suggested the BNP might have over 70% of voters in some wards.  However, in the end, Labour won handily (almost 25,000 votes, to Conversatives' 8,000 and BNP's almost 7,000).  As Hodge phrased it, they didn't just beat the BNP, they smashed them.  Nick Griffin stepped down as leader after the election.

Mama Africa

Miriam Makeba, the great South African singer, earned the name Mama Africa because of her activism in support of pan-African peace and unity.  Besides her singing career, she was friends with all the leaders of the newly minted independent African states in the 60's, and spoke passionately in the UN against South African apartheid.

The movie Mama Africa follows Makeba's life from her early discovery in South Africa, when her songs were included in an American documentary about South African apartheid.  When she went to the Venice Film Festival for the film's opening, the South African authorities expelled her.  She fled to the US, where friends helped her career, and Harry Belafonte's support shot her to prominence.  However, when she married Stokely Carmichael, her career immediately dried up in the US with the cancellation of all her engagements, and she moved to Guinea at the invitation of the president, before finally returning to South Africa after Mandela's release.

This was a good movie.  An audience question of the director revealed that the music had come from a wide range of sources.  Hot Docs is great in that there's often a film expert in the audience who appreciates how difficult it would be to weave such a diversity of audio sources into a smooth movie.  Take it in if you get the chance.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

How to Make a Book with Steidl

Germany, home to Gutenburg and the most sophisticated presses of today, is where you find the highly respected Steidl publishing house, best known for its publication of art books, many of which are considered collectible works of art themselves.  Given the title, I expected to be educated in the intricacies and technical details of bookmaking.  Not so.  Instead, the movie is an delightful portrait of the fastidious Gerhard Steidl, as he zooms around the world in first class airplane cabins or private planes to work with artists to make each of their books an individual masterpiece.

One of the books he prints, of which only 200 copies will be sold, is launched with an art exhibit displaying the pages of the book.  Whether his printing is supporting a French designer's fashion show, or publishing a collection of photos of a young Emir, he's always collaborating fully with the artist to choose exactly the right paper, format, type of printing and binding to make the book a unique treasure.  He purses his lips as he considers possibilities, a sparkle lights up his eyes when he has what he unashamedly describes as a good idea.  He can simply lay out choices without prejudice, or he can imperiously dictate.  He's cavalier to someone seeking to publish what he considers an unworthy book; he's told Steidl is full up for years into the future.

Consider the process for the book Steidl put together for highly regarded photographer Joel Sternfeld.  Sternfeld has taken  a portfolio of photos in the malls of Dubai - using his iPhone (!).  Because of resistance to photo-taking, he pretends to get a fake call, starts talking, seems to get another call, and then holds the camera in front of him, ostensibly to press the keys to switch to the other call, but in reality to snap his photo. Sternfeld and Steidl collaborate on all aspects of the book.  Should there be 1, 2, or 3 photos per page?  Three per page.  What should the size of the book be? Small and in the same proportion as an iPhone.  The discussion around the binding choice is hilarious.  To emphasize commercial decadence, Steidl looks in his 'ugly shit' pile of binding choices, and they settle on glittery bindings in many different colours.  The title will be in gold (what else) and the back of the binding will feature a blown-up bar code also imprinted in gold.  Sternfeld is tickled that this treatment will reinforce that this is not a high quality photography book - after all it was taken with an iPhone!

Steidl treats his publishing house like a lab.  He works in a white lab coat, completing the nerd image by filling his pocket with pens.  He misses the mark on the nerd caricature because he doesn't have pen protectors - and pays the price when a pen leaks all over his pocket.  How to Make a Book with Steidl is a thoroughly delightful character study of a man who has pride in his work to the point of conceit.  He's at the top of his game.  He is selective about what he chooses to publish on his single press,  and clearly loves what he's doing.