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March 18, 2013

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Iran’s Argo Paranoia

March 15, 2013 by

Oscar winning ‘Argo’ director Ben Affleck (right) with actor Bryan Cranston (left). Warner Bros. Pictures

The film Argo has its problems. First it came under criticism for historical inaccuracies and in particular for not giving enough credit to Canada which director and star, Ben Affleck addressed during interviews and at awards shows. Second, the opening sequence was perhaps a little one sided. But with that said, Argo worked on a number of levels. With news that Iran is considering suing Hollywood over the depiction of Iranians during the period of the hostage crisis, the obvious question is whether Iran needs to realize that Hollywood is in the business of making money and winning awards, which it did with Argo. The overhyped and stylized violence depicted in the film is one way of drawing audiences. How exactly Iran plans on pursuing a lawsuit remains to be seen. Iran’s displeasure over the film follows a long line of perceived slights to the Iranian Republic.

While Tehran is undoubtedly unhappy over the portrayal of Iranians during the 1979 revolution, it wasn’t exactly a bloodless revolution and Argo attempted to show some aspect of the ensuing bloodshed. While the Shah escaped what would have certainly led to his execution, estimates range from several hundred to several thousand killed by the new Islamic government.

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Print Media on Hugo Chávez’s Death

March 6, 2013 by

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Photo by Ni

The news of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s death understandably made headlines across the world. Hugo Chávez died on Tuesday after a long fight against cancer. In his place, Vice President Nicolas Maduro will assume the presidency until new national elections are held.

To Chávez’s credit or detriment, he stirred opinion across the political spectrum. Following Chávez’s death, Venezuela has announced a week of mourning. Chávez died at the age of 58 after 14 years serving as Venezuela’s president. Thousands of Venezuelans poured onto the streets to grieve his passing. As Chávez’s body was being transported to the Military Academy, thousands came out to greet the procession. As expected, his fellow leaders began arriving in the country’s capital, Caracas, to pay their respects. Among them, Bolivian President Evo Morales, Jose Mujica of Uruguay and Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a staunch ally of Chávez, described him as a “martyr” and announced a day of mourning throughout Iran.  In announcing that Hugo Chávez had died, Nicolas Maduro called on Venezuelans to be “dignified heirs of the giant man.”

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Zero Dark Thirty wishes it could be The Battle of Algiers

January 24, 2013 by

As the moving finger of chaos hovered over Mali and Algeria last week, I took another look at Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 masterpiece, The Battle of Algiers.  I am somewhat puzzled that this movie is not at the heart of the Zero Dark Thirty debate.

Because in many ways, perhaps intentionally, ZDT is the mirror-image doppelganger of Algiers.  Both of them effectively employ an objective documentary style to depict a brutal, successful exercise in counter-terrorism.  And both of them deal with torture.  In The Battle of Algiers, torture works! Right away! In the very first scene! Short-circuiting any need for liberal handwringing or right-wing defensiveness for the next two hours of the film!

The film opens with Colonel Mathieu, the supremely able, objective, and ruthless commander of the French counter-terror effort in Algiers against the Algerian National Liberation Front or FLN, striding in to confront a scrawny, scraggly, beaten little man surrounded by a crowd of sturdy, confident French soldiers in crisp camo (in an interesting irony, Pontecorvo revealed that the “soldiers” were cast from students from Kabilye—an Algerian district known for its light-skinned Berbers- at the local university).

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Interview with Fredrik Stanton, director of Uprising

January 20, 2013 by

“The people of Egypt have spoken. Their voices have been heard and Egypt will never be the same…By stepping down, President Mubarak responded to the Egyptian people’s hunger for change, but this is not the end of Egypt’s transition. It’s the beginning.”

– President Barack Obama, Feb. 11, 2011

Uprising depicts the Egyptian people’s deposition of Egypt’s brutal dictator Hosni Mubarak, a quasi-military leader who for thirty years kept the country under emergency law and who was responsible for many deaths and disappearances.

Egyptian citizens’ peaceful and effective protest against Mubarak’s injustice is a pure example of Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha. (In Egypt’s case - it was on a nearly unthinkable scale - 20 million people took to the streets in protest.)

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2012 “Are You Serious?” Awards

December 30, 2012 by

Every year it is important to recognize news stories and newsmakers that fall under the category of “Are you serious?” Here are the awards for 2012 as recognized by Dispatches From The Edge.

Dr. Strangelove Award to Lord John Gilbert, former UK defense minister in Tony Blair’s government, for a “solution” to stopping terrorist infiltration from Pakistan to Afghanistan: Nuke ‘em.   Baron Gilbert proposes using Enhanced Radiation Reduced Blasts—informally known as “neutron bombs”—to seal off the border. According to Gilbert, “If we told them [terrorists] that some ERRB warheads were going to be dropped there and that it would be a very unpleasant place to go, they would not go there.”

The border between the two countries is a little over 1,600 miles of some of the most daunting terrain on the planet. And since the British arbitrarily imposed it on Afghanistan in 1896, most the people who live adjacent to it, including the Kabul government, don’t recognize it.

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Review of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty: The Hunt for bin Laden

December 12, 2012 by

“Waterboarding is torture. My justice department will not justify it, will not rationalize it and will not condone it.”

– Attorney General Eric Holder in a speech to the Jewish Council of Public Affairs in Washington

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty opens with an “enhanced interrogation” (the polite term for torture) of a Pakistani terrorist who has already been badly beaten by a CIA agent named Dan. Enter Maya, a new CIA agent and central character in the film, just off the plane in her best black suit. Maya, a willowy gorgeous intense redhead, seemingly unburdened by a sense of humor or maidenly vapors, does appear briefly overwhelmed by the violence of the scene before her but insists they return to the session even after a coffee break. She is not to be deterred. Maya says insistently, “we should go back in!” and charges back into the interrogation room, snapping at the bit.

The suspect is held down, mouth flooded with streams of water filtered through what looks like a sock, gagging and choking and trying to scream. It can’t be called anything but torture, waterboarding, and it is quite horrible for the viewer especially when you realize that this is standard operating procedure. And no one in charge of covert operations feels it necessary to justify it. In fact, it is also called “justifiable violence.” Or simply business as usual.

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“I Don’t Know Whether to Kiss You…or Waterboard You…”

December 7, 2012 by

A line that coulda shoulda been in Skyfall but wasn’t.  Skyfall was enjoyable, in a grim sort of way. I certainly regretted the shortage of many of the signature Bond tropes—babes, booze, quips, and gadgets—that enlivened the earlier films, especially in the self-mocking days of Sean Connery and Roger Moore, and made the gaping plot holes more endurable.

The wheels come off Skyfall in the final act, where Bond returns to his ancestral home in Scotland with his bosslady, M, to lure the archvillain, Silva into a trap.  For some reason, although MI6 is aware of this ruse, Bond receives no official backup and has to fight off a helicopterload of henchman relying only on his wits, courage, Dame Judy Dench, and the decrepit but murderous old family retainer and caretaker, Kincade, played by Albert Finney.

In the good/bad old days, Roger Moore would have marched into the old homestead calling peremptorily for Kincade! only to be pleasantly nonplussed by the appearance of the current officeholder, Kincade’s gorgeous granddaughter, wearing nothing but a bikini under an ankle-length fur coat and wielding a shotgun. Then, after some improbable but amusing mayhem, the villain would be subjugated, Felix Leiter would appear to mop up the underlings, and M would be on the helicopter back to London harrumphing, “Where’s Bond?” Cut to Moore luxuriating with the lovely Ms. Kincade in a profusion of mink before a roaring fire, purring, “I’ve always wanted to explore the hills and valleys of my native Scotland…”

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The Leveson Mandate: Regulating the Press

December 2, 2012 by

Andy Coulson leaving the Leveson Inquiry. Karel Prinsloo/EPA

Too many stories in too many newspapers were the subject of complaints from too many people, with too little in the way of titles taking responsibility or considering the consequences for the individuals involved.

– Leveson Report (2012)

He was regarded with some distain for “prejudging” the report, but British Prime Minister David Cameron did have good reason to be reserved about the regulatory recommendations of the Leveson Report. Lord Justice Leveson recommended, among other things, an “underpinning” for a new independent system of press regulation to target what essentially had become a disease in the press establishment. The entire barrel of apples had to be carted out.

Codes of ethical behaviour have their place. It might even be claimed, for all its difficulties, that an outline of ethics is required when it comes to the behaviour of the press. But the point made my Leveson was that members of the media gave little thought to any code whatsoever. “There has been a recklessness in prioritising sensational stories, almost irrespective of the harm that the stories may cause and the rights of those who would be affected like the Dowlers, the McCanns and Abigail Witchalls.”

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Speech that Spreads Conflict Requires New International Regulation

October 29, 2012 by

Charlie Hebdo’s Stephane Charbonnier. Image via The Huffington Post

The ease with which an individual opinion can cause international conflict has created the need for new regulation. Freedom of speech is respected across most of the Western world, is a tenet of American civil liberties, and is protected in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. U.S. Supreme Court decisions have upheld First Amendment protection of defamatory statements regarding government, gender, sexuality, race, and religion.

While frowned upon in the U.S., the Supreme Court has a record of allowing defamatory statements or behavior, even if they are seen as inflammatory (see Terminiello v. Chicago, National Socialist Party v. Skokie, R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul).

In all three cases, the majority opinion has overturned the right of states to prohibit speech based on content, regardless of racially or religiously charged language.

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Review: Tai Chi Zero

October 13, 2012 by

Yang Luchan (in real-life, China’s Jayden Yuan) is the butt of his village’s jokes and seemingly not very bright, he is also bullied unmercifully because of the strange horn like growth on his shaven forehead, which turns colors when it’s whacked. It turns first red, then purple, and then the deadly black which he is told will signify that he is dying.

After one too many fights which leave him bloody and dazed, (and his horn red and purple, turning black), his mother tells him that he must study tai chi in order to defend himself and give himself a sense of mastery. She is vehement about it: “Lu Chan, just learn this one thing (tai chi) superbly well and that will be enough.” She gently infuses this sense of mission into Lu Chan and dies on the spot.

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Welcome to ‘The Yabba’: Review of Wake in Fright

October 4, 2012 by

Welcome to “The Yabba”- short for Bundanyabba, a mining town in the Australian Outback. “Where nobody cares where you came from or what you’ve done” as John Grant’s new drinking buddy in the local Outback bar explains to him. “I’m a doctor. I’m also an alcoholic. But nobody cares about that. You won’t either…as long as you join the guys in the bar in rapid serial beer drinking- opening the throat and pouring the stuff down, quickly and sequentially.”  A fair recipe for alcoholism.  And no effete pommie behavior, either.

You must join in the pounding of the bar tables. Singing. Gambling racket. Fighting. Laughing like hyenas. There are whole scenes of huge straw headed bright red faced heads thrown back laughing and laughing and howling like dogs or like damned souls in a pot—pure Brueghel. (In case you were wondering, in the Yabba there is a grand total of one indigenous Australian guy who keeps well to himself.)

The protagonist of Wake in Fright is John Grant, a handsome, sensitive, well educated Englishman completely out of his element- posted to a very remote part of Australia and clearly hating it. We see him fastidiously ignoring his classroom of sturdy, blonde, mouth breathing blue eyed kids whose twitches indicate just how intensely they are waiting for the bell to ring so they may bolt outside and off to their vacation. When the bell does ring it’s pandemonium. They storm out.

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“Wake in Fright”: 2012, The Film Odyssey

September 19, 2012 by

What is Wake in Fright? A newly restored, outrageous Australian film classic to be screened at Film Forum this Wednesday. The two key people involved in the making and publicizing of the film are executive director and producer Ted Kotcheff, and his close personal friend director and producer Antonio Saillant.

Wake in Fright is variously described as one of the three great Aussie film classics ever made (along with Mad Max, and Walkabout), an expression of the Australian soul, a great favorite of Martin Scorsese, and of director and Executive Producer of TV’s Law & Order, Ted Kotcheff. It is also described as a deeply dark, raunchy, terrifying, madly intense film experience. It is a celebration of guns, booze, wanton destruction of outback-wild life, and descent into madness. Those who see it are inevitably blown away.

Wake in Fright is one of a kind. It is one of only two movies to hold the “Cannes Classic” distinction. 40 years after its first showing it has garnered rapturous press and all parties concerned are extremely excited to be bringing it back to New York and LA – in short it is rolling.

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One Hundred Million Porcelain Seeds: Review of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

August 11, 2012 by

A few years back I became acquainted with some Chinese grad students working at Teachers College Library’s conservation lab. They were charming, very quick learners, whose fingers were exquisitely adept, and they quickly became amazingly skilled at cleaning and repairing old books.  One day the topic of the Cultural Revolution came up—in fact, I think we had found archival photos of the Chinese intellectuals working in rice fields outside of Beijing.

The Cultural Revolution appeared to me to have been a civil war, waged by the government against its citizens.  Even those who appeared to have emerged in fine shape continued to suffer psychological pain as a result of their “re-education.”

My Chinese friends, to all appearances light-hearted, and not at all prone to self-revelation, gasped at the sight of these images and began to cry. They had been part of the group of intellectuals and artists targeted for “re-education.” They began slowly and reluctantly to tell us about the cruelties they had been subjected to. It was an appalling story, which I never forgot.

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Review of Takashi Miike’s Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

August 4, 2012 by

The question I posed in my review of Grand Illusion, a film in which the action took place within a POW camp and the war was almost entirely offstage, was, “where is the war?”  One might well ask the same question of Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai. Or perhaps – how are we (Japanese, samurai) to live without war?  Takashi Miike’s Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai is set in 1600, in a newly peaceful Japan. Many Japanese are delighted to have the warring states at a relative peace with one another and to get a chance to settle down and make money.

To the warrior class, the samurai, this peace of the Tokugawa shogunate, or bakufu, which includes the indolence of peace and the contemptible wish of the merchant class to amass money, are morally and socially bankrupt and they are devastating to their way of life. For one thing, they can’t easily make money—their skills as warriors are no longer needed. Many lack the ability to create new skills. They slide into poverty.

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Review: Daniel Espinosa’s Easy Money

July 27, 2012 by

Easy Money is a gripping, intense, truly unnerving gangster movie with a heart or two, but heart in the mouth terror is always around the corner. The movie never let up with the fear and the violence—the hallmark of a fine thriller. And the English title was well chosen- it lays the irony on with a trowel.

Not only is the cocaine/money central to this film not easily gotten, it vanishes- seized by the cops after the gang wars. And the living is not easy either—big score or no big score, just about everybody dies.  Espinosa’s Easy Money has two interacting themes- the brief rise and long fall of a feral handsome cold young business school poser who believes falsely that he can join a group of gangsters and beat them at their own game with his business school smarts. The poster hero/anti-hero Johan – J.W.- of Easy Money has a face that morphs from drop dead gorgeous – cheekbones one could slice a roast on- to a chilling long-snouted alien. Nicknamed, “Mathematica,” translated as “Mr. Brains” in English, John fails to understand that his schemes and plans which can be laid out on a glorious spread sheet are not thereby foolproof.

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