“Trophy”: the sad story of Cecil the Lion is only a little of it

Trophy”, directed by Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz, from The Orchard, aired on CNN Films Sunday night January 14, and treated us to breathtaking African safari scenery.

It also presented self-serving rationalizations of poachers and commercial hunters in Africa.

There is a basic argument that killing wild animals makes the native villagers safer.  There is the more sophisticated argument that if you limit legal hunting of animals, the illegal poaching will go up. That sounds a little like legalizing drugs, where libertarian arguments seem to make sense.  Much of the film shows a commercial auctioneer and land manager (John Hume) who says he is protecting animals from illegal poaching, but he will stay in business only as long as he makes money. At the end, the film tells us that Hume has won his case.

There is also a “religious” argument about man’s dominion over the animals (and the speaker denies evolution).

The film opens focusing on rhinoceros tusks, and soon move to elephants, where the world population has shrunk by orders of magnitude.

During the last part of the film, the sad story of the 2015 “accidental” killing of Cecil the Lion, by a Minnesota dentist, is covered.

Name: “Trophy”
Director, writer:  Christina Chusiau, Shaul Schwarz
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  CNN, 2018/1/14
Length:  108
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  The Orchard, CNN Films
Link:  CNN 

(Posted: Sunday, January 14, 2018 at 11:30 PM EST)

“Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press”: AFIDocs shows film about secret efforts to silence the established press; what about amateurs?

Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press”, by Brian Knappenberger, confronts us with the problem that the wealthiest classes may try to silence the established press by secretly bankrolling litigation, and by secret hostile takeovers of media outlets.

The film does focus on the Fourth Estate, the credentialed press, as such.  The viability of the Fifth (the amateur base) would make a subject for another documentary, I think, one that could focus on open access, for example.

The film focuses on two big events.

The first of these is the lawsuit Bollea vs. Gawker, by “Hulk Hogan” against Gawker media, and personally against several employees, for posting some of a private sex tape online.  Some employees were bankrupted personally and had assets frozen by judgment.  There is a scene where one younger male employee testifies (in Florida) flippantly about the idea of fictitious sex involving minors, an idea that helped bring down Milo Yiannopoulos this year, and affected a serious incident in 2005 when I worked as a substitute teacher, the details of which I have written about elsewhere.  It also had an indirect effect on the 2016 elections, which the film gets into in its second half.  A visit to today’s Gawker shell is well worth a visit and rather sobering.  I do wonder about situations where individual speakers could be effectively silenced by aggressive litigation and bargaining, but that is another topic.

An important concept in the suit was whether Bollea’s conduct, as a WWE public figure, was newsworthy and generated a higher standard of proof from the plaintiff.  This was technically a privacy case;  similar ideas occur with defamation.

About 40 minutes into the film, the documentary introduces the clandestine role of gay Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel in bankrolling the suit, as revenge for his being outed in 2007 by Gawker. In one humorous scene Thiel stumbles as he calls Gawker “sociopathic”.  Thiel’s speech in Cleveland at the RNC is quoted, but I recall Thiel’s saying that the country (including LGBTQ people) has more pressing problems than bathroom bills. Indeed, Thiel has offered scholarships to young inventors to start businesses instead of finishing college.  One of these went to nuclear fusion power inventor Taylor Wilson, now 23, very much in the clean energy business (which Trump has sidestepped) but also new levels of port security.  (Sorry, some “inventors” do need to finish college:  Jack Andraka will have to finish medical school to become a cancer researcher;  both Wilson and Andraka would deserve their own documentary feature films, as Andraka especially fits into the open access debate). The film shows Thiel with a chessboard, and indeed he is an accomplished tournament competitor, preferring direct attacking openings starting with 1 e4 (as did Bobby Fischer); he could probably be a real challenge for Magnus Carlsen to beat.

But the film focuses on the fact that Thiel’s backing of the litigation occurred in secret for a while.  So we have powerful business people (even in the LGBTQ community) silencing forces that oppose them.  Trump is not the only one.  This happens on the Left as well as the Right.

For its last third, the film shifts its narrative to Las Vegas, and the clandestine purchase of the Las Vegas Review Journal by the family of self-made billionaire Sheldon Adelson who then reportedly influenced what would be published about high-roller developers.

The film covers Donald Trump’s particular vilification of the established media as an enemy.  His speech about opening up libel laws (to resemble those in England where the defendant has to prove truth) is quoted. Presumably Trump sees journalists as “watchers” or “spectators” who don’t put their own skin in the game;  but curiously, despite his reported disdain for computers, he loves Twitters and doesn’t seem to show the same disdain for journalists from smaller companies (like OAN) or independent bloggers.

The Journal Review I believe is the same paper that was involved with “copyright troll” Righhaven starting in 2010.  The law firm bought rights to articles from various smaller client newspapers (“champerty”) and then sued even low-level bloggers who allegedly violated copyright in various trivial ways.  At the time, there was a theory that bloggers were destroying small newspapers.  I’ve covered the development with a Blogger label here.  Note the coverage in the Journal Review and in Arstechnica.

Director QA (some technical problems with feedback):

Fact Sheet:

Name:  “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press”
Director, writer:  Brian Knappenberger
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  2017 AFI-Docs, Landmark E St, Washington, 2017/6/16, sold out
Length:  95
Rating:  PG-13 (?)
Companies:  Luminant, Submarine, Netflix
Link:  Luminant

(Picture: Mine, 2012 trip in Las Vegas;  2015, Tampa Bay, near the litigation site; 2016, NYC midtown)

“The Strange Ones”: a man and a boy present a mystery as they travel through a wilderness

The Strange Ones”, directed by Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein, based on Wolkstein’ s short story, is another road gay mystery film, a little bit like yesterday’s.  It is actually based on a 2011 14-minute short film by the same name centered around the mysterious couple’s stay at a motel and around a swimming pool (same directors and writers, different actors).  The film has a moody, enigmatic presentation (underscored by the brooding music score by Rob Lowry) that reminds one of Jorge Ameer and even sometimes David Lynch.

The film introduces a muscular, bearded 20-something man Nick (Alex Pettyfer, from “Magic Mike”) taking a middle-school aged (maybe 13) boy Sam (James Freedson-Jackson) on a road trip around the Catskills in upstate New York.  Nick claims they are brothers, but as the film progresses we begin to suspect that this is an abusive, legally inappropriate relationship.  There are some off hints of the supernatural: Sam always takes on the first name (telepathically) of people he meets in new situations, and Nick seems to be able to make objects (like cups of black coffee) disappear.

They meet Kelly (Emily Althaus) at the motel, before going camping.  Nick tries to teach Nick how to use a rifle before a tragic encounter with other hunters and a cave ensues.  Sam escapes and winds up stumbling into a rehab camp for male juvenile delinquents.

The movie has lots of flashbacks as to what happened in Sam’s family, and it isn’t good.  The flashbacks aren’t always clearly delineated and can confuse the narrative (which, in a couple of police and hospital scenes, becomes quite explicit and disturbing).  Only the black tabby cat in the original family home really knows what happened, and when she sets out into the country to look for Sam (which a cat might do) the threads of story come together.  The cat turns out to be an important character. If only animals could testify in court.

Nick is indeed troubling.  His forearm tattoos are genuinely disfiguring.  Sam is remarkable for his articulations.  He can tell Kelly that his “brother” (who at one time had been a “babysitter”) doesn’t “get hard” with women and that makes him  “gay”.  But otherwise he is so macho, so cis.  The old man (Gne Jones) in charge of the juvenile camp is frank, and several more responsible teens (Tobias Campbelll) seem to be running the place.

2011 Short trailer


I took the liberty of using my own 2012 picture form Whiteface (actually in the Adirondacks) for art work for the review.

Name:  “The Strange Ones”
Director, writer:  Christopher Radcliff, Lauren Wolkstein
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Baltimore Film Festival, MICA Brown Hall, 2017/5/6
Length: 81  (short film in 2011 was 14)
Rating:  NA (would be R)
Companies:  Adastra, Stay Gold
Link:  FB

(Posted: Saturday, May 6, 2017 at 11:15 AM EDT

“Song to Song”: Malick meditates and characters talk to themselves, but Austin TX looks wonderful

Song to Song” is another mediation by Terrence Malick.  Set in and around Austin, Texas (mostly), it echoed “The Tree of Life” (2011).   The film presents stream of consciousness of the five major characters as soliloquies, as if they were talking to themselves and living primarily for their own worlds.

The main protagonists are two male musicians (BV, Ryan Gosling; Cook, Michael Fassbender) and their women friends (Faye, Rooney Mara;, who has affairs with both; Rhonda, Natalie Portman, who gets involved with Cook, and Amanda, Cate Blanchett, who sees BV).  Holly Hunter plays Rhonda’s self-sacrificing mom.

The plot moves along the vertices of this pentagon, and even includes some incidental lesbianism.  But BV is the perfect male with zero body fat, in a world where men, like red cardinals, should be noticed for beauty as much as women (although it doesn’t lead the men to gay affairs here).

There is some stuff about the music business, and a threat of litigation over copyright or trademark, in a situation that probably wouldn’t unfold this way in real life.

The scenery is gorgeous (as are the continual outdoor party settings, including probably SXSW). .  It moves out from downtown Austin to the Hill Country and probably Lake Travis.  It visits San Antonin’s Riverwalk and the Maya monuments in Mexico once.  It goes to the Texas Gulf coast, Galveston, a couple times.  And key scenes, especially the closing one, are shot on Enchanted Rock near Fredericksburg, TX, which I visited a few times when I lived in Dallas in the 1980s.

The music intersperses rock with a brooding classic score, including music from Mahler’s Second Symphony (the third movement scherzo), Ravel, Debussy’s Nocturnes, and Holst’s “The Planets”.  There is one surreal animated trip through Saturn’s rings.

Name:  “Song to Song
Director, writer:  Terrence Malick
Released:  2017/3
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Landmark E St, 2017/3/29, evening, Washington DC, small audience
Length:  129
Rating:  R
Companies:  Broad Green  (or “Broadgreen”)
Link:  Facebook

First two pictures: my 2011 trip.

(Posted: Thursday, March 30, 2017 at 11:45 AM EDT)

“Newtown”: documentary focuses on the families affected by the mass shooting


Name: Newtown
Director, writer:  Kim A. Snyder
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Fathom event at Regal Ballston Common (from NYC) 2016/11/02
Length 80
Rating NA
Companies: PBS Independent Lens, Abamorama
Link: official;   PBS aired 2017/4/3

Tonight, “Newtown” was screened by Fathom events, with a panel discussion from New York by Chris Cuomo afterward. The entire event was called “Newtown: A Conversation”.

The film, directed by Kim A. Snyder and produced by Maria Cuomo Cole, focuses on the families of the children and teachers and staff shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012 by Adam Lanza.

The film spends little time on tracing Lanza’s actions or background, although it shows the inside of the house after his mother’s body was found. It does trace the way parents gradually found out what was happening to their own kids throughout that day, and then traces five families afterward.  At the end, one of the dads takes up skydiving in a closing shot for the film.

The film includes some testimony about assault weapons and the tendency of bullets to tumble, something I remember from my own Army service.  Some homeowners (as in a case in Oklahoma in March 2017) might be able to defend themselves from a huge home invasion if they own them.  Gun control admittedly may put more weapons in the hands of criminals (as in Europe with terrorists) and leave average people more vulnerable to very determined attacks.  But gun control will prevent some domestic crime and rampages such as this one.  Different policy choices put different people at risk.

At one point, a father says that Lanza was not excessively bullied.  There is coverage of the effects on siblings of the victims.

The film uses background music from up to 13 composers, supervised by Fil Eisler.

Hollywood Life has an article here.

Cuomo moderated with his usual analytic style.  One of the panel members was a black female police chief from Orlando who had responded to the Pulse attack.  The panel was overwhelming in its refutation of the NRA’s idea that a “good guy with a gun” can always stop a very determined enemy attacker.  Cuomo suggested that what is needed is not so much new policy as closing loopholes and enforcing existing policy.  I think that gun control (as usually proposed) typically does reduce most domestic crime (and suicide) but it might make the public more vulnerable to some kinds of terrorist attacks.

On the day of Newtown, I made a bit of a pilgrimage to a high school where I had substitute taught to see a performance (which was not cancelled).

(Posted: Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016 at 11:15 PM EDT)

“Starving the Beast”: how “conservatives” have turned public universities into “businesses”, adding to student debt



Name: Starving the Beast
Director, writer:  Steve Mims
Released:  2016
Format:  16:9
When and how viewed:  Landmark E St, 2016/9/3, with director QA
Length 95
Rating NA
Companies: Railyard
Link: official

Starving the Beast: The Battle to Disrupt and Reform America’s Public Universities”, directed by Steve Mims (at the QA tonight, along with producer Bill Banowsky), documents the gradual erosion of state funding of their own universities since 1980, with the increases in tuition and obviously student loan debt.  The general idea is that public universities have turned into businesses selling education courses as fungible commodities.

The first part of the film focuses on the University of Texas (and Texas A&M), where Governor Rick Perry has encouraged reduction of public support and policies that expect professors to make the university system money (part of the “seven point” system).

Then the film moves to Charlottesville, where a female UVa president is forced to resign by conservative forces, before being reinstated.

It also visits the University of Wisconsin, after Scott Walker’s influence, Louisiana State, and then UNC, the University of North Carolina, traditionally viewed as an “Ivy League” level public university. I know people there, and it also has a great music program and great symphony orchestra.


Speakers in the film include James Carville (whom I have met), the libertarian Koch Brothers, Senator Marco Rubio with his bill to encourage private investors to fund the educations of individual students (Atlantic article ) , and an outspoken UNC professor, white but advocating for the poor and people of color, who thinks he keeps his job from conservative attack only because of tenure.

The film also makes the odd remark that Stanford’s business model works better than Harvard’s.

Some QA clips





5 (UNC professor of government)

(Published: Saturday, September 3, 2016, 11:45 PM EDT)

Distantly related is CNN’s “The Hunting Ground” (March 2015).