KUSP Film Review

Review: Embrace of the Serpent


Listen above, to the review by Dennis Morton. Transcript is below.

I’ve watched Embrace Of The Serpent three times, and the key word here is
‘watch’, because this film is visually spectacular. Almost the entire film is shot in black and white. This may seem an odd choice, considering that it was shot in the gorgeous jungle of the Columbian Amazon. But it works. Director Ciro Guerra saves the color for just the right moments.

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Two Films: ‘Lady in the Van’ and ’45 Years’


Listen (above) to the review(s) by Dennis Morton. (Transcripts below.)

It’s not often that a feature film focuses on the lives of elderly people. And even less often that there would be two such films released at the same time. Which is why I’d like to share a few words with you about The Lady In The Van and 45 Years.

The Lady In The Van borders on the bizarre and 45 Years feels as if a hidden camera has captured the real lives of a long married couple. But, oddly, the first film is the one that’s based on a true story – and the second, a work of fiction.

The Lady In The Van opens ominously, without an image – only the startling sound of a crash. Next we see Maggie Smith’s character, a Miss Shepherd, zooming down a rural highway in a van with a police car not far behind.

In the next scene a considerable number of years have passed. We know this because Miss Shepherd has visibly aged and her van is now decrepit. In fact, the van has broken down in an upscale London neighborhood. She asks the first person she sees for a hand, for a push, actually. She tells him she thinks the van is out of water. He asks her if she’s been using distilled water. She says no, she’s been using holy water.

And thus begins a very odd friendship between Miss Shepherd and the writer, Alan Bennett. Miss Shepherd is homeless and has been living in her van for years. Bennett has just purchased a house in the neighborhood. Before long, Miss Shepherd inveigles her way into Bennett’s driveway, where she’ll remain, in her van, for 15 years.

Though he owns a rather large house, perhaps Bennett commiserates with Miss Shepherd’s cramped circumstances, because, as a ‘not-out’ gay man, he lives in a metaphorical closet.

The Lady In The Van is a wacky and wonderful work of art. I recommend it.

The second film, 45 Years, is basically a conversation between two intelligent, long married folks. Five days before a shindig to honor their 45th anniversary, a letter arrives for Geoff. It informs him that the body of his previous girlfriend has been found – in a glacier, in the Alps. Over four and a half decades ago, they’d been hiking in the Alps when she slipped into a crevice – her body unrecoverable.

Geoff’s reaction to the letter generates a strong reaction from his wife, Kate. Viewers may wonder how Kate can be jealous of a relationship that ended as it did, and, before she’d even met Geoff. Watching them work through this latter day threat to their long and happy marriage is fascinating. No explosions, fisticuffs, or car crashes – just words and strong emotions. 45 Years is sometimes uncomfortable, which, in retrospect, is a measure of its authenticity. Prize winning performances from Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling make this a film worth your while.

‘Where to Invade Next’


Listen above to the review by Dennis Morton.

If one were to make a cinematic list of America’s most egregious problems, the film would be too dour to draw much of an audience. But imagine a movie that focused on solutions to these problems. That’s what Michael Moore does in Where To Invade Next.

The set-up is comic. Moore is summoned to The Pentagon. A room-full of military hotshots send Moore on a mission. His task: ‘invade’ a list of nations, most of them in Europe, and return with solutions to our problems.

The first country invaded is Italy. Moore converses with a working-class couple. She works in a factory. He’s a policeman. Noting their happiness, Moore asks them about their work and discovers that it’s typical in Italy to get up to 8 weeks of paid vacation per year, and also, a yearly bonus of a full month’s pay. Moore also visits the CEOs of several factories. They inform him that happy workers are good for the bottom line, and that their profits don’t suffer from the benefits afforded to employees.

There are eight other countries on his invasion list, so Moore heads to France. He visits a school in a small town. He discovers that a typical school lunch turns out to be the equivalent of a 3 or 4 star meal in a posh American restaurant. It’s nutritionally balanced and costs less per serving than the mass produced pabulum doled out in many, if not most, American school cafeterias.

Moore also visits a classroom where the teacher is having a frank conversation with her students – about sex. The conversation is focused on how to respect and please your partner, and how to avoid pregnancy. We also learn that the teen pregnancy rate in France is half that of the rate in the United States.

There are seven additional targets, so Moore must be off. I found his visit to Norway the most fascinating. He compares Norway’s criminal justice system with America’s. The difference is astonishing.

Where To Invade Next is my favorite of all of Michael Moore’s films. His focus on solutions to our morally vexing problems is uplifting, inspiring, and cause for optimism. Many of the ideas for creating a more just and humane society actually originated in America. To see these ideas turned into practice is cause for hope. There are more than a few nations in Europe where the pie is not in the sky. I’m grateful to Michael

Moore for showing us how we might reset our table. Invade your local theatre. Find out for yourself.

Dennis Morton Picks Three Favorites from 2015


By Dennis Morton

Long ago I realized that most of the films I enjoy never make it to that overly exalted Academy status. Occasionally I’m asked to name my favorite movies of the year. It’s not an easy question. I don’t pay much attention to lists like that. I don’t even know which films have been nominated for this year’s Academy Awards.

But this year, just for kicks, I decided to make a list of the movies I most enjoyed in 2015. I came up with nine or ten that I knew I’d never tire of re-watching. Let me share with you the three at the top of that celluloid heap (oops – it’s a digital heap now).

I’ll toss third place laurels to Amy Schumer’s comic masterpiece – Trainwreck. She wrote the script and stars in the film. She even names her character Amy. For most of her post-pubescent life, character Amy has followed her Daddy’s dictum, i.e. – that ‘monogamy isn’t realistic’. Amy maneuvers through a small army of sexual partners. She lives and works in The Big Apple, so the pickings are good. But one day, on assignment for the trashy magazine she writes for, she meets a sports doctor. Among his current patients is LeBron James. Egged on by LeBron, the doc and Amy enter into strange territory. Trainwreck is not about a wreck, but about re-training oneself. It’s smart and hilarious.

Second place on my list goes to the recently released Youth. Director and script writer Paolo Sorrentino is a brilliant man and he imparts much of that quality to more than a few of the characters in Youth. The film is primarily about the lives of two highly accomplished old men – one, a retired composer/conductor and the other, a still working film director. Life long friends – even the lives of their grown children are deeply entwined. Youth brims with scintillating conversation. But what I like best about the film is how cleverly Sorrentino demolishes popular myths. To name a few: that movie stars are dimwits, that children are incapable of serious and informed conversation, and that beauty queens haven’t a brain in their gorgeous noggins. At one point, the newly crowned Miss Universe praises an actor for what he considers one of his lesser roles. He says something rather snide to her and she responds that she appreciates irony, but not when it’s drenched in poison. Youth is filled with moments like that. It’s a great film.

And finally, at the top of the heap, is Ex Machina. This is a film about a moment that many of us are fascinated with, but also full of dread about. A bright young man, a code writer for a super successful computer company, is summoned to a luxurious estate in the country. Part living quarters and part laboratory, it belongs to the company’s owner. The young man’s assignment is to determine if a robot has been sufficiently endowed, not just with A.I., but also with a level of consciousness that it can pass as fully human. Oscar Isacc plays the inventor, a fellow without apparent emotion attempting to impart genuine emotion into a machine. How well he succeeds is at the heart of the film.

Many directors attempt to create a titillating moment by having a character disrobe. But in Ex Machina, the sexiest moment occurs when the robot is putting her clothes on. Consistently fascinating, I think Ex Machina is the best film of the year.

Screening: The Education of Auma Obama


Branwen_FINAL_lowBy David H. Anthony | KUSP -

Event info

On the second week of February, Santa Cruz shall be afforded a rare opportunity. On Wednesday February 10, Nigerian born Branwen Okpako will be present at a free public screening her widely acclaimed 2013 film, The Education of Auma Obama, about the Kenyan half sister of Barack Obama, at the Landmark Nickelodeon Theater, at 7:30 p.m. Director Okpako will be fielding questions following the screening.

The following day Thursday February 11 Okpako will be screening her 2000 TV documentary Dreckfresser, Dirt for Dinner at 10 am in Coll 8 240 for my History 30, The Making of Modern Africa. Dirt for Dinner is a 2000 about Sam Njankuo Meffire, son of a Cameroonian exchange student in East Germany and a German mother.

Both The Education of Auma Obama and Dirt for Dinner treat the subject of African emigration to Europe in general and Germany in particular. Branwen Okpako, herself of mixed heritage, is the daughter of a Nigerian father and a Welsh mother. After college in Wales and Bristol in the UK Okpako studied film in the German Film and Television Academy and lived in Germany before relocating to the US. Okpako currently teaches at Hampshire College.

At 6pm Okpako will be discussing her work and showing excerpts of her films for the Living Writers Series in Humanities Lecture Hall on the UCSC campus.

Few topics are of greater concern than immigration and Branwen Okpako has devoted years to the subject, not only intellectually, but as one who has lived in the space between Africa and Europe. Since embarking on her film career she has dedicated the majority of her artistic and family time to elucidating stories of Afro-Germans. Moreover, she is herself the mother of Afro-German children.

These details give a level of depth to the immigration debate that leaves viewers profoundly moved. Having seen both Dirt for Dinner and The Education of Auma Obama, I eagerly urge you to be present to witness the craft of this gifted cineaste.


The Martian


Listen above to the review by Dennis Morton and read it below.

For a long time, Blade Runner was my favorite movie – the original version, not the second release in which Harrison Ford’s narrative voice-over was removed. And ipso facto, Ridley Scott became one of my favorite directors. I’ve liked many of the twenty or so films he’s directed since Blade Runner, but none as much as I admire his latest work – The Martian.

The film is making a second run in the Santa Cruz area, and by now you probably know the outline of the story. It’s set in the near future. At least I’m guessing it’s the near future because the only automobiles we see in the film appear to be of current vintage.

And the folks who are running the show on planet Earth are dressed in conventional suits and ties and dresses. NASA has succeeded in establishing a base on Mars. Periodically, small crews visit the Red Planet, hang out for a while and then return home. But in The Martian, untoward circumstances force the latest crew to leave one of their own behind. They assume that he has died in a storm, the same storm that forces them to head back to Earth ahead of the scheduled departure. Of course, he didn’t die. But by the time he’s recoveredsufficiently to make it back to the base camp, his colleagues are on the way home.

The survivor is a fellow named Mark Watney and he’s played convincingly by Matt Damon. Watney is a botanist, a profession he trusts will prove useful as he hunkers down and hopes that NASA will one day return to rescue him.

How Watney attempts to survive on a planet on which he is the only living creature is at the heart of the movie. But there’s a lot happening back on earth, too. Aside from the science and technology that will determine if and how a rescue will be mounted,there are politics and PR issues to deal with.

Jeff Daniels’ role as the director of NASA requires a balancing act, and apt timing. Chiwetel Ejiofor is his usual brilliant self as the Project Director of the Mars Expeditions, and Jessica Chastain is the big hearted but clearheaded commander of the space craft that leaves Watney behind on Mars. Their performances quite perfectly complement Matt Damon’s.

As much as I was captivated by the events on Mars, and in the space craft, Ridley Scott’s portrait of civilization on Earth in the near future fascinated me even more. While some contentious issues remain, such as budgetary concerns, far larger ones, in particular – unbridled nationalism, sexism, and racism, seem to have vanished from the planet. And Scott does this so unostentatiously that I didn’t even notice it while I was watching the film. It was only after I started to ruminate on The Martian that it hit me.

Let’s hope this is a fiction that becomes fact. In the meantime, get yourself to the theatre and catch The Martian on the big screen. It’s a terrific film.

Heart of the Dog

Listen to the review by Dennis Morton above. The transcript is posted below.


Laurie Anderson’s Heart Of A Dog is about many things. It’s about painting and dreams, and about joy, and stories, and about what happens when we repeat our stories, over and over. It’s about the incipience of ‘the surveillance state’. It’s about guilt and birth and dying, and love and loss, and of course, it’s about a dog. But most of all, Heart Of A Dog is an experience, an experience unlike any I’ve ever had at the movies.

The film opens with a close up of an Anderson painting. The painting is a black & white illustration of a dream, a dream in which Anderson gives birth to a dog, her beloved rat terrier – Lolabelle. The entire film, with the exception of several musical interludes, features a narrative voice-over by Anderson. She tells us that in order to give birth to Lolabelle, Anderson had the wee terrier sewn into her stomach. And this latter information is told as if it were an admission, as if she’d be cheating the audience if she’d forgotten to mention it.

Anderson’s weird dream is followed by a recollection of the final moments of her mother’s life. Anderson and her seven siblings were gathered in the mother’s bedroom. The mother formally thanked her brood for being there and then began to speak to a slew of animals hanging out on the ceiling. We hear more about this scene and about Anderson’s troubled relationship with her mother later in the film.

Heart Of A Dog is artfully desultory, and yet, by film’s end, everything meshes. A few shots of a massive NSA facility in the Utah desert serve to remind us not only of the extent of the government’s intrusion into the minutest details of our lives, but that sometimes conversations get unintentionally blended in what they call “the cloud” – a mammoth technological savings account. The result is that John Q Citizen’s latest phone conversation may come out as unintelligible gobbledygook when it is withdrawn. Which, in turn, reminds us of the verbal disintegration of Anderson’s mother as she approached her last moments. Perhaps Anderson is suggesting that the ubiquitous apparatus of the “surveillance state” will be its ultimate undoing.

I think you’ll have a lot of fun fitting the pieces of Heart Of A Dog together - which is not to say that it’s necessary to do that to enjoy the movie. Each of the parts of the film work on their own.

At one point, Anderson reminds us of Kierkegaard’s famous line: Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. Either way you choose to look at Heart of A Dog, I think the chances are, you’ll enjoy it immensely.


Listen to the review by David H. Anthony above, and read it below.

Events of recent weeks and months in Paris have shone a bright light on emigrants from foreign lands in metropolitan Europe. Not always equally apparent is the duration and depth of the interpenetration of African migrants in Europe’s towns, cities and enclaves like the suburbs or outskirts of Paris called banlieue. Many (though not all) of these are actually slums, thus the antithesis of what we consider “suburbs” in North America.

The lives of African-born or African-descended immigrants in various European countries have increasingly come under attention from filmmakers. A new set of films addressing such populations and their circumstances has been offered by ArtMattan Productions. ArtMattan, whose works I’ve mentioned before distributes DVDs on Afro-European relations in France, Italy, Germany, the UK and the BeNeLux lands.

Playing Away is a highly regarded Afro-British film on a black cricket team from South London invited to a “Third World Week” match by a small English village. The Glass Ceiling by Yamina Benguigui shows black people in France. Otomo is the true life tale of Frederick Otomo in Germany, a black refugee from Cameroon, West Africa seeking work and asylum in Stuttgart, only to find racism, police trouble and death.

ArtMattan also showcases Fevers or Fievres, a 2014 French/Moroccan co-production by Hicham Ayouch, winner of the 2015 FESPACO grand prize, the Golden Stallion of Yennenga, the greatest award from Africa’s largest film festival. You can find more about these at www.AfricanFilm.com

Closer to home we in or near Santa Cruz will soon have the benefit of seeing works exploring related themes when celebrated Nigerian filmmaker Branwen Okpako visits UCSC and Santa Cruz early in February to show her riveting documentary The Education of Auma Obama. Auma Obama, half sister of U.S. President Barack Obama, guides viewers to the Kenyan family whose patriarch is treated in the famed memoir Dreams of My Father.

The Education of Auma Obama is in no way a footnote to the story of the history of an American President of Kenyan ancestry. It is tremendously important in its own right. I will have more to say about Branwen Okpako and her work after the New Year. Meanwhile, take advantage of these exciting opportunities to learn more of Africa’s diasporic populations in Europe. The experience can be truly eye-opening.

Review: Truth


Listen to the review by David H. Anthony above, and read the transcript below.

Recent juxtapositions of “television” and “news” seem oxymoronic. What matter are ratings, audience numbers, market share, key metrics to assess and increase profitability of the enterprise.

Truth, a new docudrama revisiting a decisive transitional moment marking a shift of tv news from a principled profession to a corporate commodity, explores these issues.

Truth reconstructs events surrounding a 2004 story seeking to address questions concerning the military service record of then President George W. Bush. Centering on 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes and veteran news anchor Dan Rather, Truth recreates the intense high stakes gamble their team took to research and relate to America a potential election year blockbuster.

For Truth this began the end of CBS News as a voice of conscience, sounding the death knell of truth speaking to power, in mass media and politics. As Mapes and staff try to track down leads casting doubt on pilot Bush’s air national guard tenure, “old man” Rather serves as on-camera point person.

Director James Vanderbilt’s screenplay, based on Mapes’ memoir, Truth and Duty: The Press, The President and the Privilege of Power, is fast-paced, edgy and engaging.

The story is the true star. Truth aspires to take on big ideas: The right of an informed citizenry to know; the responsibilities of journalists, and the risks facing investigators daring to question entrenched corporate and state power. Simply stated, it is David vs. Goliath. This is summed up in Dan Rather’s clear closing comment, a coda for Truth and all that urgently remains to be done: “Courage.”

Film Review: ‘Dying to Know’


Listen to the review by David H. Anthony above, and read transcript below.



When the fabled nineteen sixties really began remains an open and lively question. Decades do not necessarily gain their identities simply by changing nines to zeroes or zeroes to ones.  In the opinion of filmmaker Gay Dillingham in Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy Leary, ex-Harvard Professor Timothy Leary and his colleague and erstwhile compadre, Richard Alpert, later renamed and reinvented as Baba Ram Dass, played major parts in this root and branch transformation.  Dying To Know tells their sagas in parallel in their twilight years, as Leary is actively dying of cancer and Ram Dass, an innovator in the realm of consciousness, turned attention to the hospice movement, then suffering a series of strokes, confronts his own mortality.

The film situates Leary and Alpert within the tumultuous times to which they both responded and contributed.  Key to their role in changing thought and behavior of a new generation struggling to emerge from Eisenhower era Cold War conservatism and cultural conformity is the investigation of psychotropic or mind altering drugs like psilocybin, a natural psychedelic byproduct of hundreds of mushrooms, and most notoriously, lysergic acid diethylamide-6, LSD. Leary and Alpert conducted scholarly investigations of properties and effects of hallucinogens under controlled conditions on clerics, academics, authors, inmates and agreed to Harvard regulations stipulating restrictions to graduate students. The trials both liberated and manacled Leary and Alpert. The latter proved literal for Leary, especially after a 1963 Harvard Crimson expose by undergraduate investigative reporter Andrew Weil, today a guru in studying mind expansion techniques, foretold an end to their university careers.

Yet both Ram Dass and Leary were survivors with astonishing abilities to recover, reconfigure, recalibrate and recreate their personae.  They each demonstrated the tenacity and resilience of the seemingly limitless minds whose imaginative powers they dedicated and sacrificed their ivory tower reputations to probe. The high risks inherent in their experimentation helped usher in novel approaches to living. These were informed by everything from psychoanalysis to yoga and meditative practices and “traditional” disciplines and shamanic healing practices associated with the vast world beyond the boundaries of European psychology, psychiatry or psychotherapy.

None of this came without its cost; the price proved exceedingly high. The societal backlash was immediate and wide-ranging, as period footage reminds us, spanning Congress to the streets, creating and destroying like Shiva and Vishnu, a combative, creative counterculture opposed to endless war, racial segregation and all manner of modes of social and cultural oppression. It is no surprise that within this struggle may be seen seeds of what some critics call the “culture wars” between left and right whose legacies still find echoes in the run-up to the next presidential election cycle.

Closer examination of Dying To Know shows it is about the brevity of existence and how urgently sentient beings need to come to terms with their finite time on earth.