Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Snow White, Wikileaks, Hitmen, Nuclear Energy & Disco Music at Landmark Theaters

From April through June, I saw five films at Landmark Theaters.

Blancanieves starring Macarena García & Maribel Verdú; directed by Pablo Berger; silent with intertitles; (2012) - Official Website
The Iceman starring Michael Shannon; with Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, Ray Liotta, David Schwimmer & Robert Davi; directed by Ariel Vromen; (2012) - Official Website
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks; documentary; directed by Alex Gibney; (2013) - Official Facebook
Pandora's Promise; documentary; directed by Robert Stone; (2013) - Official Website
The Secret Disco Revolution; documentary; directed by Jamie Kastner; (2012) - Official Website

I saw Blancanieves, The Iceman and We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks at the now (temporarily) closed Embarcadero Cinema.  I saw Pandora's Promise & The Secret Disco Revolution at the Opera Plaza.


Blancanieves was the Snow White story set in 1920s Spain among bullfighters.  That was an inspired choice - Snow White & the seven dwarfs are bullfighters, silent B&W film consistent with the period the film is set, Hemingway and The Sun Also Rises and heralded as the next The ArtistBlancanieves never quite reached those lofty heights.  It was a nice film (Maribel Verdú was quite good as the Wicked Stepmother) I felt like I was watching a finely crafted film instead of losing myself within the story.

The Iceman felt like Donnie Brasco or one of those Scorsese films set in the 1970s.  Michael Shannon plays Richard Kuklinski (a real-life Mafia hitman).  Even before he becomes an assassin, Kuklinski is tightly wound.  Early in the film, he kills a man for suggesting his girlfriend is not a virgin. Of course Kuklinski fails to tell his girlfriend and future wife (Winona Ryder) that he works as a film editor for porno film.  He has to keep his profession a secret when he switches from porn to paid assassin for the mob.  Ray Liotta is his mafia handler, David Schwimmer is Liotta's Jewish lieutenant and Chris Evans is a fellow hitman that Kuklinski frequently partners with on jobs.

The Iceman had a lot of style with Shannon playing Kuklinski as the type just barely controlling his rage.  Liotta is sociopathic, Schwimmer has this big mustache and is self-loathing wannabe Guido and Evans is just plain weird as the hitman.  The Iceman is pretty predictable - it's the rise and fall of Kuklinski but all these character make the ride fun even if you know where its going to end.  It was a very enjoyable film.

At over 2 hours, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks felt a little bloated.  The film starts by implying that Julian Assange hacked into NASA during space shuttle mission.  It was a nice tidbit of information but the film never really reveals what makes the WikiLeaks founder tick.  Parallel to Assange's profile, the film spends a lot of time interviewing people who knew Bradley Manning, the Army specialist who leaked the US diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks.

Their stories are fascinating but We Steal Secrets never adds value beyond informing me of particulars of the case which could have been expounded upon more.  For example, Assange was accused by two women of rape in Sweden.  According to one of the women, the condom broke and she wanted Assange to prove he was free of sexually transmitted disease.  Assange blew her off and it was only then (by her own admission) that she went to the police.  That is not rape.  I'm not sure why the authorities would charge rape if that is all there is to the story.  Assange may be a selfish and paranoid ass but the story recounted in We Steal Secrets did not amount to least for the woman who appeared in the film.

Similarly, Manning was suffering from gender dysphoria at the time he was leaking the documents.  Although that doesn't explain his actions, it puts them in a different context.  While he is the under stress of gender confusion, he is leaking classified documents.  What state of mind was he in?  Prior to be arrested for leaking the documents, Manning assaulted his superior officer.

How did Manning download all those documents and then upload them to the WikiLeaks site from a secure computer at an overseas military base?  The volume of data he leaked is mind boggling.  Where was the oversight such that a Army PFC could access such sensitive material and then upload to a non-secure website?  These are questions that are only broached in the film.

We Steal Secrets' reach exceeded its grasp.

I was familiar with much of the information presented in Pandora's Promise.  In fact, I'll go so far as to say I'm pro-nuclear energy.  Nuclear energy is free of greenhouse gas emission and dispatchable which means the operator can specify the output unlike photovoltaic panels and windmills whose output depends on ambient sunlight and windspeed, respectively.  The film does a good job showing that many people are anti-nuclear without knowing the fact.  They have been conditioned to equate nuclear energy with evil and so the debate over nuclear becomes one of good vs. evil.  I doubt Pandora's Promise will change the minds of hardcore anti-nuclear activists but I do hope open-minded people will listen.

The film is divided into two parts.  The first part covers the Fukushima nuclear accident and the second part is a history of nuclear energy in the West.  I was surprised at how far nuclear radiation readings in the area have dropped since their peak levels.  I learned that the volume of spent nuclear fuel would fill a football field from endzone to endzone and 3 feet high.

The Secret Disco Revolution was more of a faux documentary.  Ostensibly about the disco era, the film posits that disco's popularity was the result a secret conspiracy by s shadow group with reenactments by three actors representing a gay man, a woman and an African American - 3 demographics who benefited from disco's success.  I could take or leave the conspiracy subplot because the film had tons of interviews with people such as Gloria Gaynor & the Village People.

I did learn quite a bit about the circumstances surrounding disco's rise.  For example, before and since the disco era, popular music has largely followed an established pattern.  Record companies and radio stations work together to play certain songs which the audience enjoys and subsequently purchases the record, CD, iTune, etc.  Disco music started in the club scene of NYC.  Club DJs would play song they would like and the club patrons would go to the record stores to by those songs.  At one point, the #1 selling record in NYC had not received an commercial airplay.

I found the The Secret Disco Revolution to be fascinating because of the "inside baseball" look at the circumstances that led to the music.  Another example is that the film criticizes Studio 54 for leading to disco's downfall.  The club

As I ventured around the City on Gay Pride weekend, I was struck by the 1970s imagery and disco music blaring from the speakers at various locations.  It made me wonder why disco still resonates with certain subgroups today.

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