“Icarus”: an amateur cyclist and filmmaker exposes Russia’s Olympic doping scandals, and gives “asylum” to a doctor running from Putin

A documentary purporting to expose cheating in sports turns out to be an international thriller. So it is with “Icarus” (2017), the film named after a Greek mythological character who failed because of his own virtues (the Icarus Paradox).

Bryan Fogel, who wrote and directed the film, is an energetic amateur cyclist looking in his early 40s perhaps. Most of the time, his bod is shaved, and he lives in a world where masculinity is more a matter of performance than trappings (I’ll get ahead of myself and add that the Russian sports circle insists its athletes be married).

He decides to do a citizen investigation of doping as he plans to ride the Haute Route in France and Switzerland. The film introduces the topic with a couple clips of Lance Armstrong, before getting to Fogel’s own story. First Fogel contacts Don Catlin about his experiment, who backs out due to the obvious risks. Fogel then makes the fateful turn to the Russians, contacting the doping doctor Grigory Rodchenkov.

The result is a huge expose of the entire Russian staging of the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014. I’ll add that the politics of the 2013 anti-gay propaganda law fed into this (not mentioned in the film), as did Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and Crimea (covered). Putin starts appearing more often in the film, which turns into a stinging indictment of Russian kleptocracy, obviously politically important now given all the investigations of Putin’s alleged collusion with Donald Trump. We get to see a lot of Moscow in some episodes. This turns out to be compelling “conservative film” that the mainstream GOP would like but that The Donald would not.

As Grigory gets in trouble, he calls Fogel back home in Utah. Fogel arranges Grigory’s trip to the United States, apparently for the sake of Grigory’s security from the Russians, a kind of unofficial asylum seeking. But then the FBI and US attorney in New York City get involved. Grigory winds up living incognito in a secret location (which the film implies is on the California coast in the last scene).  The film manages to show in detail how the Russians covered up their falsification of urine tests.  It’s pretty elaborate but all real-world spy stuff.

What seems intriguing is that a filmmaker and “amateur” sports enthusiast (reminding me of Minnesota filmmaker Shane Nelson and his “A Film in Three Parts” (2002) about amateur extreme sports) puts his own skin in the game of international political activism. He could have filmed a similar native about Central American or perhaps LGBT asylum seekers if he wanted to.

The film ends as Grigory admits “Slavery was my freedom”. We do get a glimpse of Rio in 2016, as a kind of redemption. The film’s tagline is “Truth is a banned substance”.

The music score contains excerpts from Alexandrov’s Russian National Anthem, as well as from Shostakovich Symphony #8.

The film was revised (from Sundance) somewhat when Netlfix acquired it, but the online version looks like a full director’s cut at 121 minutes.

Picture from Haute Route, France (wiki).

Picture from Moscow (wiki).

Name:  “Icarus”
Director, writer:  Bryan Fogel
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play
Length:  121
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Diamond, Sundance Selects, Netflix
Link:  official

(Posted: Wednesday, August 30, 2017 at 6:45 PM EDT)

“Raising Bertie” examines education of three underprivileged African-American teens in coastal North Carolina

On Monday, August 28, 2017. PBS POV aired “Raising Bertie” (2016), a documentary by Margaret Byrne, about three underprivileged African American boys being educated in an alternative school called the Hive House, in Bertie County, North Carolina, near the Tarboro and the area that was flooded by Hurricane Matthew in October 2016.

The three young men include “Junior” Askew, whose father and brother are incarcerated, Dada Harrell, the quiet teen, and Bud, who is on parole.  The boys are raised by single moms.

When the Hive House closes (or is threatened with shutdown), the boys face going back to inferior public schools, with perhaps limited prospects of getting the attention they would need to succeed.  Junior has to repeat his junior year, which (according to the show “Everwood”) is the toughest year. But the seems to be developing the possibility of becoming a landscape architect.

Junior finally gets a regimented factory job, Bud graduates from high school before “aging out”, and Dada prepares to become a barber.

The film includes a speech to youth by Barack Obama.

There’s a great line, “You can’t live with mama all your life.”  A fight breaks out near the end of the film.

Finally the Hive House gets reborn.

The film was produced by the National Black Programming Consortium )NBPC).

There is a brief interview with the filmmaker, who is white. She says she was asked why she didn’t film “role model” star people in high school instead.  She says people need to think others matter besides the obvious achievers. But she really didn’t use race in her answer.

Name:  “Raising Bertie”
Director, writer:  Margaret Byrne
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  PBS POV 2017/8/28
Length:  84
Rating:  NA
Companies:  PBS POV, Filmbuff, Kartemquin Films
Link:  PBS

(Posted: Monday, Aug. 28, 2017 at 11:45 PM EDT)

“The Glass Castle” based on a memoir of white poverty

Is “The Glass Castle” a film about rebellion and living outside the system (and trying to get your kids to do so) and almost off the grid, or is it about the moral politics of poverty, especially for less well-off whites in southern West Virginia – specifically near Welch, very much in Trump’s coal country.

The dramedy, overlong at 127 minutes, directed by Dustin Daniel Cretton and somewhat freely adapted from the memoir of Jeannette Walls (not quite a “manifesto”), tells its story in two time layers.

In 1989, the young adult Jeannette (Brie Larsen) has escaped into the good life in NYC as a reporter and gossip columnist with a Wall Street fiancée David (Max Greenfield). When her alcoholic, derelict dad Rex (Woody Harrelson) barges back into her life, the movie goes mostly into flashback mode. We learn that at 3, Jeannette was left to cook on a gas stove and was scarred for life from the resulting fire, although it gets covered by clothes (something a fiancée would have to deal with).

Most of the narrative concerns Rex’s taking the family to a ramshackle clapboard house near Welch, and promising to build his fantasy “Glass Castle” with solar panels. In the meantime, the family goes hungry. Mom, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) does her thing as a painter. She thinks there will be little competition in coal country. The kids turn out all right. Brian becomes a police officer but looks pretty sharp in the film (Josh Caras, from “Bugcrush”).

People in that part of the world, in the mountain hollows, are quite self-reliant, as they demonstrated after the 2016 floods. They hardly used the volunteers churches tried to sent them.

The film does some travel in the desert and in New Mexico (the early road-movie scenes) but it doesn’t take advantage of a chance to mention the mountaintop removal in the area.

The Washington Post ran an article in the Outlook Section P. 2 today by Stephen Pimpare that talks aout this film a lot. The print title is “What movies tell us about poverty.” Online the title is more challenging, “Where do we learn that poverty is shameful and dangerous? At the movies.” This film echoes that view. You don’t want to walk in their shoes unless you’re coerced to.

Jeffrey Tucker of FEE reviews the film in an article, “Does Society Have Room for Brilliant Eccentrics?” Well, Rex is irresponsible enough that Jeannette tells him she never wants to see him again (that’s much worse than being blocked in today’s social media) but she does go back to West Virginia for his deathbed.


Name:  “The Glass Castle”
Director, writer: Dustin Daniel Cretton, Jeanette Walls
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Quarter, 2017/8/27 fair crowd
Length: 207
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Lionsgate
Link:  official

(Posted: Sunday, Aug, 27, 2017 at 10:30 PM EDT)

“Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo”

Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo”, directed by David Fairhead, focuses on the work of the professionals at the NASA Mission Control facilities, especially in Houston, putting men on the moon.

The film opens with a shot of the work area, and oddly someone is smoking, but this is back in 1970 perhaps.  Then it recreates the dilemma of the blown oxygen tanks that created the story for the 1995 Universal hit “Apollo 13” (directed by Ron Howard), which I saw twice, the second time on a cross-country flight back from California.

The documentary presents the challenge of Sputnik in 1957, which I remember well.   These were the days when the mantra was “get all the math and science you can”, and JFK’s “Ask Not”.

I can imagine what working there on a mission would have been like.  Men wore jackets and ties then.  In my youth, I thought computer technology would take us to space by the time I was in middle age;  instead, it miniaturized and gave me the ability self-publish.

The film moves to the tragedy in 1967 with Apollo 1 when three astronauts were burned to death in a ground accident.  The workers were changed to face their personal accountability for mistakes that led to the fire.  Some of the veterans say that the lessons learned from this accident made the rest of the space program possible; a lot more mentoring happened in the workplace.

The film presents the December 1968 (Christmas Eve) manned Apollo 8 orbital flight around the moon, with real BW footage.

Soon it covers Apollo 11, which on July 20, 1969 landed man on another planet for the first time ever.  This happened three weeks after Stonewall.  I was at Fort Eustis but probably in the best physical shape of my life.  The world was pivoting, for the better for me.

The last part of the film reviews Apollo 13 — not only the problem in space, but the working conditions, the cigarettes, the BO, the 48-hours straight on the job.

What kind of mission control will it take to send a crew to Mars – six months each way, to live there.

What kind of person would want to go for several years, or maybe move there? Or perhaps live on a space station near Europa or Titan?

I visited the Houston center myself in 1984, Wiki link.

Name:  “Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo”
Director, writer:  David Fairhead
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play
Length:  99
Rating:  G
Companies:  Gravitas
Link:  official

(Posted: Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017 at 1 AM EDT)

ELIAN: the controversy over returning a little boy to Castro’s Cuba in 2000

ELIAN” (2017), directed by Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell, tells the biographical story of Elian Gonzalez, now 23, who became the topic of an international controversy over immigration from Cuba late in the Clinton administration.

The film starts with the amateur boatlift in November 1999 of Elian’s mother and boyfriend, when the mother drowns (not being able to swim), and 5-year-old Elian is rescued (almost as if he were Moses) and brought to Miami.

The film gives a quick history of the rise of Fidel Castro and the expropriation of the wealthy, who fled to Florida in the late 50s.  It covers the Bay of Pigs but oddly omits mention of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.  But the film covers the political effects of the anti-communist “right wing” in Miami on the Cuban issues, to the point that it sometimes could lead to political violence on both sides, with rather zombie-like behavior from crowds. It doesn’t directly mention the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, which led for calls for people to host asylum seekers in some southern states.

The film returns to the narrative of Elian. Back in Cuba, Elian’s father starts the legal process to get Elian back, and soon a public legal battle erupts between the dad and the “extended family” in Miami.  Attorney General Janet Reno gets involved (the film mentions Reno’s role in Waco in 1993) with her determination to apply the law literatlly.   In a rogue video, Elian gives some evidence of wanting to go back. But later he records an indoor video saying he wants to stay in the U.S.

Eventually the courts decide to return Elian to Cuba and considerable controversy happens, with demonstrations, after the “shock force” INS raid necessary for Elian’s repatriation. The scenes in the film get pretty violent.  I don’t recall this from the news accounts.

The film maintains that the Elian incident helped Florida go for Bush, after the recounts.  But the film also brings up the fiasco with the chads in Palm Beach County.

Elian, as a grown man, is dedicated “to the people” and to modern communism, not to differentiating himself from others for his own sake (however articulate and charismatic his personal manner seems). Yet he was made what he is today in Miami, the film says. At the end, he addresses Cuban youth. “The American dream” was not for him;  a future Cuban revolution may be so.

Name:  “ELIAN
Director, writer:  Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1, much footage is cropped
When and how viewed:  CNN, 2017/8/24
Length:  107
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  CNN, Gravitas Venturas
Link:  CNN

(Posted: Friday, Aug. 25, 2017 at 12:15 AM EDT)

“TRANS/gressive”, by Riki Wilchins: now, expectations of binary gender even in a partner seem not quite OK

We’ve gotten used to understanding that being gay is very different from being transgender.  In fact, in my own experience, I look for “upward affiliation”, I get interested in men who look more “masculine” in appearance, swagger and bearing than I did;  I want someone to “have it all”, as I explained in Chapter 2 of my “Do Ask Do Tell III” book.

So, I would be perfectly happy to vote for “Lady Valor”, Kristin Beck, for president.  She would be about as well qualified on both national security and social justice issues as any candidate imaginable.  She would be a friend, but not an intimate partner. But note the pronoun, “She” (like the 1965 Robert Day film about an “African Queen” who had the secret to immortality). I perceive Beck as a woman.  She could become the first female president, instead of Hillary Clinton.  I don’t know if I would feel the same way about Caitlin Jenner (who says she is a Republican), and I would have real doubts, of course, about Chelsea Manning.

Doing away with the idea of binary gender could be very threatening psychologically.  Today the latest rage is “gender fluidity”, where the person bends genders and varies on a continuous scale, like the alien angel Pie ‘O; Pah in Clive Barker’s 1991 novel “Imajica”.  Activists try to change English grammar, so that the pronoun “they” can be used in the singular for a gender fluid person.  This sounds a lot more radical than gay marriage.

When I was growing up, in the 50s and early 60s, women were to be noticed for their appearance but men were not. Except that, under the table they were. Though rarely mentioned openly, colleges had rite-of-passage hazing ceremonies for freshmen (not just fraternity rushes) called “tribunals” in which men experienced physical shame – having their legs shaved – and had to get over it.  This worked more easily in the days of racial segregation, traditional gender roles, and before competitive cycling and swimming were routinely followed by the media.  I mentioned this in Chapter 1 of my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book, especially with the goings on at William and Mary in 1961 and my later inpatient stay ar NIH in 1962.   In such an environment, it was easier to eroticize bipolar gender and build up a lot of fantasy around it.  That’s one reason why, over the decades, many men resisted the gradual changes in norms of gender and sexuality.

I saw all this to introduce the book “Trans/gressive: How Transgender Activists Took on Gay Rights, Feminism, the Media, and Congress, and Won!”, by Riki Wilchins (b. 1952). I picked the book up in person at the DC Center’s Outwrite book fair in early Augusst 2017.   Riki doesn’t actually tell us that she has had the surgery until late in the book, but it probably doesn’t matter, because her activism would have made the same sense were she “fluid” or binary trans male-to-female.

She starts her narrative in the 70s, and notes right off that trans people were viewed as ‘gendertrash” even as conventional gay men and lesbians slowly gained acceptability if they could “pass”.  The Camp Trans, of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, was a centralizing activity. Over the years she dealt with many cases of anti-trans violence, especially getting into the 1990s.  1996 would be a critical year where she would deal with getting people to organize politically and resist, and pressure the HTC (Human Rights Campaign) to migrate toward a position where it would include trans people in ENDA and other non-discrimination matters.  As we know, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” regarding gays in the military was officially repealed in 2011, but Donald Trump has resisted lifting the ban on trans recently (by Twitter).

Riki understands well the idea that society expected men to confirm to gender roles in order to fit in to the collective security of the group. On p. 139 she writes “When I was 10 and was taunted for throwing a ball ‘like a gril’ those schoolyard bullies didn’t suspect me of sleeping with men.  They based me for not being boy enough. That goes for almost all of us. Whether we face prejudice for being too butch or too femme …, or being perceived as gay or lesbian, we are all ultimately disliked for the same basic reason: transgressing our expected gender roles.” I’m used to thinking of this as the “sissy boy syndrome”.

Yet, I always saw dealing with this in terms of my own individual capacity, not in terms of being part of a distinct minority facing systematic oppression, which is more the experience of blacks, given the history of slavery and segregation (and the recent threats from “white nationalism”).  But the solutions in the book definitely demand solidarity and mass movement tactics.

At the end, she provides a detailed discussion of intersex, which means having biological features of both sexes, not the same thing as fluidity.  She also discusses gender dysphoria and a lot of the evolution of AMA non-positions.

The book has goads of black-and-white photos and activism posters.

Author: Riki Wilchins, photos by Mariette Patty Allen
Title, Subtitle: Trans/gressive: How Transgender Activists Took on Gay Rights, Feminism, the Media, and Congress, and Won!”
publication date 2017
ISBN 978-1-62601-368-1
Publication: Riverdale Avenue Books, 2017, 209 pages, pager (and ebook), 8 chapters, Foreword, Afterword
Link: Blogger

(Posted: Wednesday, August 23, 2017. At 10”45 PM EDT)

“Tribal Justice”: how juvenile justice works in the sovereign native American system

Tribal Justice” by Anne Makespeace, looks at how juvenile justice works on two Native American reservations in California:  the Yorok, on the Pacific Coast near Eureka,  and Quechan, in thedesert.

Specifically, it presents two female judges, Abbie and Claudette, who deal with troubled youths (like Isaac) in their system.  They are confronted with the possibility that the state of California may take custody of them.

The independent tribal justice system tries to apply healing and resolution rather than punishment and justice.  The film makes the point that “restorative justice” could set a good example for mainstream courts.   The judges say they are well aware of the “devastation of history”.

The film presents life inside both communities.  I noticed that most of the young men seemed obese, from their natural reaction to western diets with processed foods.

The film appeared on PBS POV Monday night Aug. 21, 2017, late (10:30) after the PBS Nova coverage of the eclipse.  The film was followed by a brief director interview.

Wikipedia tribal art for Quechan.

Name:  “Tribal Justice”
Director, writer: Anne Makespeace
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  PBS POV 2017/8/21
Length:  87
Rating:  NA
Companies:  PBS POV
Link:  official

(Posted: Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017 at 1o AM EDT)

“To the Bone”: somewhat predictable drama about a young woman with anorexia

To the Bone”, written and directed by Marti Noxon, is a tough-to-watch and somewhat gratuitous drama about a young woman with anorexia nervosa.

Ellen (Lilly Collins) is referred to a therapist Dr. Beckham (Keanu Reeves) to an in-patient facility where, well, there are rules to make sure she eats and gains weight.  That’s not until Bechkam has made an odd remark about the lanugo hair growing on her forearms as she tries to keep warm (as if women shouldn’t have that).  At the dorm-like residence, there are rules.  Bathrooms are locked for thirty minutes after meals (bulimia).  Residents get points that allow them passes.  Sounds like the Army.  Or maybe being an inpatient at NIH in 1962 (when I was 19).  But patients get around it with vomit bags hidden under their bags.

But Ellen starts developing a budding puppy live romance with dance student Luke (young British actor Alex Sharp) who seems far too intact to need to be in a place like this.  He looks fine (he could use some more hair on his legs), and is quite sharp-tongued, with all his little metaphors.

But then, the movie needs to take us through her crash.  A person like this needs to hit bottom to want to live at all.  The film sets up a climax in the California desert where she camps out in a yurt and has a near-death experience with Luke.

The film sets up some camera shots of her back, where she is made to look like skin and bone.  All unpleasant.

Name:  “To the Bone
Director, writer:  Marti Noxon
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play, 2017/8/19
Length:  107
Rating:  R
Companies:  Netflix
Link:  official

(Posted: Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017 at 12:30 PM EDT)

“Spider-Man: Homecoming”: Tom Holland plays the perfect teen nerd hero

“I am Spider-Man.  With great power comes great responsibility”.

An earlier film where Tobey Maguire played Spider-Man ended that way.  This time, with the new Marvel film “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017), directed by Jon Watts and written by Jonathan Goldstein et al, the franchise presents a teen super-hero who might be comparable to Clark Kent in the WB “Smallville Series”.

Peter Parker is played by young British actor Tom Holland, now 21 but probably 19 when the film was shot. We get to see his ultra-lean body a couple times when he changes into the spider suit (I though about Milo Yiannopoulos saying fat people hate thin people like Milo).  His best friend in his nerdy hdgh school science crowd is Ned (Jacob Batalon), the same age as an actor, but rather pudgy.  Ned does all the computer hacking and shell-scripting.

The film opens with its own embedded short film, as “A Film by Peter Parker”, in the old 1.37:1 aspect projected onto the much wider screen, of Peter’s boyhood.  Then we see Peter living in Queens with his Aunt May (Marissa Tomei) playing with his superpowers and accompanying his classmates on  a trip to a Washington DC hotel for an academic decathlon.  The physics an calcolus teacher (Tony Revolori, as if right out the “Art of Problem Solving” videos) seems to be their mentor up to a point.   When the vulture (Michael Keaton) threatens terror on New York and Washington (a not so subtle political hint) Peter spins his web into action (sometimes recalling Captain America), rescuing his classmates from the Washington Monument (remember the 2011 earthquake), and then from the Staten Island Ferry when the boat breaks in half.  There is a closing climax over Coney Island, perhaps near the old Seaside Courts on the boardwalk.

Peter turns to the Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr) as a kind of “mentor”, despite multiple detentions from school system that doesn’t understand he Peter can save everybody.

Holland seems to be creating a combined persona of some clean-cut youthful science heroes now in their early twenties, such as Stanford undergraduate Jack Andraka (who has been called “nano-man” in a little comics series on Twitter), and Taylor Wilson, who invented a fusion reactor at age 14.  (Peter says he is 15.)  The body language and speech similarity of Holland’s character and Andraka is quite striking.  Jack wants everybody to have nanobots in their bloodstreams to detect and knock cancer before it can start.  Is that the premise of another Marvel movie?  (Echoes of “Fantastic Voyage”).

Name:  “Spider-Man: Homecoming
Director, writer:  Jon Watts
Released:  2017
Format: 2.35:1, 3-D, Imax-compatible, prologue is 1.37:1
When and how viewed:  Tyson’s AMC, 2017/8/16 late fair crowd
Length:  133
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Marvel, Columbia Pictures (Spider-Man Marvel productions are distributed by Sony)
Link:  official

(Posted: Thursday, August 17, 2017 at 2:30 PM)

“Southside with You”: Biograph of young Barack and Michelle tries to become a date movie

Southside with You”, written and directed by Richard Tanne, may play like a date movie.  It gives a gentle biographical retelling of the early days when young Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) courted Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter), who wanted to deny that their time together constituted a relationship.  In my one semester of heterosexual dating (in 1971) I didn’t want to push things that far, because I had fantasies on my mind.  Barack at an early point asks her if she thinks he is “cute”.  That wasn’t said much of men in the straight world in earlier times.

But Barack has his feet in the ground in interacting with real people in a real world, as a community organizer in Southside Chicago.  That gets pretty lively toward the end with some contentious rally scenes.  He also tells the story of his mixed race, mixed continent family. Barack tells the tragic story of his father, well educated in the U.S., who returned to Kenya and was fired after apparent political purges.  The father died in a car crash and was denied having his name put on his tombstone. Michelle thought Barack should fix that, regardless of what the father’s negative wishes might have been.

Michelle, for her part, has an interesting job working in trademark law.  Like with most young adults, you have to work for somebody to make a difference.

The film was distributed by Miramax, a resurrection of the old Weinstein brand that was bought by Disney.

Name: “Southside with You”
Director, writer:  Richard Tanne
Released:  2016
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play
Length:  84
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Miramax, Roadside Attractions
Link:  RA

(Posted: Monday, August 14, 2017 at 11 PM EDT)