March 06, 2016

THE KARAKORAM HIGHWAY:
 The World’s Most Dangerous Roadway
 by Ted Rall

Back in 1999 I went on a wild and wolly trip on the Karakoram Highway with my friend Ted Rall. Ted was doing a piece for POV Magazine, and needed a travel companion to the lands that Genghis Khan famously conquered. It was an amazing experience that I will never forget. Besides, we bought some awesome rugs while we were there. Anyway, here's Ted's telling of our trip through the Stans. 

A slightly longer version of this piece originally appeared in P.O.V. magazine in 1999:

THE KARAKORAM HIGHWAY:
 The World’s Most Dangerous Roadway
 by Ted Rall

KKH

On your standard map it’s a thousand miles of pavement connecting China to Pakistan. Of course, on that same map New York City is just a black circle with a big fat dot in the middle. The truth is, the Karakoram Highway is a nexus of madness in a place already chock full of every conceivable form of lunacy. Understanding that psychosis, however, requires experiencing it firsthand. In the course of traveling over those thousand miles, my pal Cole Smithey and I braved wild animals, a military coup and a full-fledged invasion by Taliban terrorists.

It was all par for the course for a road trip on the world’s most dangerous highway.

The first thing you need to understand about the KKH, as it’s called on the Pakistani side of the border, is that this expanse of asphalt may well be the most staggering engineering achievement since the Great Wall—1,400 kilometers of two-lane roadway clinging to the side of immense, crumbling mountains, running alongside racing white water rivers prone to flooding and constant erosion, soaring the whole time through elevations anywhere from 10,000 to 18,000 feet through areas so politically unstable that it’s impossible to find two maps depicting the same borders dated a year apart. Whereas Germany’s autobahn represents the ultimate triumph of man over nature, on the KKH it’s still up in the air as to which side will win in the end.

The KKH twists and turns through the Pamir, Kunlun, Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Himalayan mountain ranges; it’s a geological collision zone between tectonic plates that makes this junction between Asia and the subcontinent the world’s most seismically active place, period. Immense earthquakes that would flatten American cities in seconds are routine; fortunately, there’s nothing much here except animals, a lot of cool history and the highway itself. The mountains are constantly falling apart, and down on, the KKH; rock slides close down the road all the time.

At many points the highway, built from 1966 to 1986 as the result of a diplomatic resolution of a border dispute between Pakistan and China, runs alongside rivers that range from dry washes in late summer to vast, wide torrents during the spring. The rivers eat under the pavement, creating lethal sinkholes. They often close the narrow roadway until they’re repaired—and that can take weeks or even months.

KKH2

An extension of the Tibetan plateau, nowhere on earth is it so high for so long. This fact makes June blizzards commonplace and forces the closure of the road from October through April or May. Even in the middle of summer it can be closed for weeks or longer. Altitude sickness starts killing people at 9,000 feet above sea level; you’re rarely ever that low on the KKH. In short, the Karakoram Highway is a doomed, psychotic project that may no longer exist as a viable transportation link by the time you read this. But if it does, and you can survive the landslides, terrorists and snow leopards, the Karakoram Highway offers a cat’s-eye view to some of the world’s most dazzling eye candy.

Kashgar

Getting There

The KKH begins at the Silk Road trading town of Kashgar in western China and ends up in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. Because we went in September, we traveled south (from Kashgar to Islamabad) in order to minimize the effects of the already incipient Himalayan winter; in May you’d want to go the other way. You’ll need visas for China and Pakistan, obviously, but these may be hard to get because the KKH passes through the heart of Kashmir Province, where a war that began in 1947 over a Hindu chieftain’s decision to attach his Muslim region to India seems destined to continue forever.

Getting to Kashgar by air requires so many changes of plane through shitty airstrips that it’s virtually impossible; the most direct overland route from an international airport is the two-days-plus journey from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (that means a third visa). But there’s a catch—in Central Asia, there’s always a catch—the border crossing between Kyrgyzstan and China, through the Torugart Pass, is permanently closed to foreigners. That means you, Americano.

The good thing about Central Asia, on the other hand, is that as it has for millennia along this ancient road between the Western and Eastern worlds, cash opens sealed frontiers. Conversely, the budget-traveler approach is extremely risky; we met a trio of Dutch tourists who took the bus to the border, were released by Kyrgyz customs cops but had failed to arrange for transportation to pick them up on the Chinese side of the old Soviet triumphal arch that’s still there, riddled with bullet holes. The Chinese won’t let you in unless someone meets you and going back to Kyrgyzstan isn’t allowed. The woman and two men we met were in bad shape; they’d been trapped in windswept no-man’s land between minefields at the roof of the world for 29 days with no hope in sight. Severely sunburned, without tents or sleeping bags and totally out of food, they’d been reduced to eating grass and whatever leftovers passing Kyrgyz troops deigned to give them. Without official papers we couldn’t take them with us. For all I know, they could still be up there.

It took three days and cost about $600 for the two of us to get to Kashgar from Bishkek; we hired a pair of Ukrainian guides who knew which guards to bribe and how to bypass the worst police checkpoints on back roads.

Kashgar’s history is remote and romantic, but only the first remains—it’s a shithole. This legendary trading city still draws hundreds of thousands of people from Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and western China every Sunday to sell everything from camels to silk cushions to Soviet-made missile detonators in the Muslim Uyghur neighborhood downtown, but the Chinese government has decimated the city’s glorious past with vile concrete apartment blocks and factories that produce a putrid dusty haze that would clog the lungs of the most hardened Angeleno. Moreover, Muslim militants backed by the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan have passed the last few years bombing public buildings and assassinating Chinese officials. This has lead to the city being subjected to a sort of martial law lite.

Try as we did to enjoy Kashgar, Cole was still suffering from altitude sickness encountered at the Torugart Pass. I spent most of the time doubled over with stomach cramps and a brand of diarrhea that’s impossible to explain to the uninitiated. Fortunately the food was so putrid—they wash bowls with filthy cold water and zero soap—that I didn’t mind skipping the local laghman noodles.

It Begins

We caught the faux-lux “International” bus bound for Sost, Pakistan, the next day, so named because it departs from the former British embassy compound shut down during the 1949 Communist revolution. Trouble began within minutes: A Pakistani smuggler with an astonishing resemblance to Ted Danson ordered me to move my 6’2” frame to the back of the bus so that he and his brother could enjoy my front-seat view. “But I need to stretch my—” I began to reason.

“Hey asshole! What part of ‘no’ do you not understand?” Cole barked from the other side of the aisle at the guy. Danson backed off, but that outburst set the tone for our journey. Here we were on a bus full of pissed-off Pakistanis and Afghans, some of them visibly armed, heading straight into the Kashmir war zone.

Like a hot chick who talks dirty but never puts out, the KKH (the Chinese call it the China-Pakistan Highway, or just the G314) teases drivers with perfectly-maintained pavement—complete with painted markers every tenth of a kilometer—the first few hours out of Kashgar. Then the road enters the immense Ghez Darya River canyon. That’s where road maintenance ends for good, and the KKH really begins.

River Madness

High-altitude roads often follow riverbeds because they offer the straightest path through mountains; thus the KKH runs alongside massive flows of snowmelt. Rock slides occur frequently; our bus repeatedly had to drive around huge boulders that had fallen thousands of feet down the side of the Pamir range within the previous few days. On the left side of the bus, the road vanished wherever the Ghez made a turn—in a monumental testimony to short-sighted stupidity, the Chinese side of the KKH has no levies to hold back the water. Washouts are indicated by rocks lined up at a 45-degree angle by road workers; rocks are the one thing that aren’t in short supply along the KKH. In a scene out of the classic movie “Wages of Fear,” the bus was forced to go off-road, rocking at wild angles over three-foot rocks at a fraction of a mile per hour, sections of shattered asphalt cracking and falling off into the torrent below. It’s just the water, the mountain and you, and you’re in the middle the whole way.

Judging from their green faces, even grizzled locals seemed not to take these side trips very well. But I was suffering particularly badly, having undergone a hernia operation a month before. You just haven’t lived until you become fully aware of your large intestines, I always say.
 Passing a vehicle coming from the opposite direction involves a perverse game of Central Asian chicken; both drivers seize the middle of the road and floor the gas. It doesn’t matter if you were both all the way to the right to begin with—you move left as soon as you see the other bastard. At the last possible second before collision (and, according to locals, sometimes afterwards) the smaller vehicle of the two scoots over; it’s not rare for one tire to slip momentarily off the road over nothingness. At blind curves, it’s customary to speed up while honking ominously at whatever might be coming around the other side. Despite its low volume of traffic—it’s not unusual to go hours without seeing anything else—cars and trucks tumble off the KKH every few days.

I didn’t ask about the buses.

Aside from sheer rock faces and incredibly bleak vistas, the mountains are home to some of the world’s most endangered species, including the long-horned ibex, Marco Polo sheep and snow leopards. Man and nature collide in spectacular ways here, as demonstrated by the snow leopard that leapt from its perch on top of a passing Volga sedan a few weeks before our arrival. The animal died on impact, the car was totaled, and there was no word on the driver. But while car and beast routinely mix it up on rural roads throughout the Third World, nothing beats the KKH for sheer volume of animal traffic. You pass herds of goats or sheep every few hundred meters; I lost count of how many suicidal yaks and bulls jumped out in front of us. There are lots of Bactrian camels (they’re of the double-humped variety) too, but they’re smart enough to edge off the roadway when a double-tractor-trailer piled thirty-feet high with God-knows-what passes them at 70.

The Ugly Americans Reach Out

About five hours out of Kashgar, at least 200 miles from the nearest village, we rounded a turn to find a line of trucks at a dead stop. The driver of the one in front of us was fast asleep on a red blanket on the ground. I took this as a bad sign.

We got out and walked ahead; it turned out that someone had abandoned a fully-loaded fuel tanker in the middle of the road on an incline up ahead. As guys have since time immemorial, we carefully examined the situation and pondered how to resolve it.

More accurately, a hundred guys yelled at each other in Mandarin, Uyghur, Urdu and Tajik, which are languages that don’t sound anything alike. Inexplicably, the Chinese men saw the rocks in front of the tires as the main problem—never mind that the thing was parked uphill. The Uyghurs appeared to agreed with Cole’s plan, which was to remove the rocks from behind the tires, thus allowing the truck to go over the edge of the cliff into the Ghez Darya. And the Pakistanis turned to Allah, praying at wildly-divergent angles towards Mecca.

After several hours during which the Chinese occupied themselves by moving the same huge rocks back and forth, but with great enthusiasm, a truck appeared from the opposite direction. The driver backed up and parked just far enough away from the gas truck to make it impossible to hook up a single cable. Then the guys began arguing about how to tie the cable. All in all, the arguing process took four hours. Cole and I shouted and pointed to our watches, which was, I realize now, futile: In Central Asia, nobody’s time is valuable, much less yours.

“This is China!” one guy in a business suit yelled at us while lugging a dusty hundred-pound boulder to the side of the road, evidently to imply that we ugly Americans would do well to mind our own national business. The Chinese guys gave out an exaggerated guffaw. The Uyghurs, who chafe under Chinese military occupation, grumbled ominously, but I couldn’t tell if they were siding with us or merely expressing a general disgust with the situation. Tired, humiliated, and certain that these nimrods were going to blow the KKH into nearby Tajikistan, Cole and I returned to the bus. Somehow the gas truck got moved. This would have made for a better story had it exploded, but life often fails to deliver on desired drama.

Anyway, our sadly low-powered bus rumbled on, dodging goats, boulders, holes and gaudy Pakistani trucks in a furious attempt to make up time. Just before nightfall the Ghez valley opened up into a lush, green plain containing the idyllic ethnic Kyrgyz enclave of Karakul. Karakul features a few hundred people, thousands of yaks and cattle and a few stone houses. Cole passed the two hours we waited there—Chinese army troops were filling in a spot where twenty feet of road had been sucked into the sandy ground—passing out dozens of those free postcards they have in American restaurants downstairs by the restroom to local kids. They featured the cover of the previous month’s Playboy.

Five hours late, exhausted and covered with soot, we slouched into our freezing cold seats as an exquisite blackness enveloped the bus. Suddenly, to the right of the bus over a row of snow-capped mountains, a huge, dazzling light lit up everything. For about a minute a bright yellow ball streaked across the sky perhaps a mile away, a trail of light behind it. Then the meteor was gone, smashed into the countryside in an explosion of fire. OK, so you could see that in Wisconsin, but you could also live your entire life without ever seeing a meteor hit the ground—and I saw mine in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region from my seat on the KKH.

The Rooster Crows For Thee

Everyone has a rooster with his name on it. It’s only a matter of time before you and that rooster come together, and when you do, it’s never a beautiful thing.

I met my cock at 4:30 in the morning after barely four hours of fitful sleep in a dismal dump of a hotel in the backwater hamlet of Tashkurgan, the last town before the border. The rooster kept up the audio entertainment of the program until 5:30, when patriotic Communist songs and news updates, announced by a woman with an amazingly grating voice, began blasting from loudspeakers outside.

The bus picked us up first thing in the morning, and drove us to the Chinese customs office, where every single book, bottle of aspirin and banana on the bus was carefully inspected while every gun and fat wad of cash was duly ignored. This took three hours, during which our driver got nice and loaded out of a brown paper bag. Then we set off across an empty scrub of desert along the bed of the then-dry Tashkurgan River—the bus overheated twice—and climbed slowly up into the Pamir mountains, well into the snow line—and finally, majestically, inevitably—we arrived at the magnificent, wind-blasted Khunjerab Pass. By this point our driver was thoroughly shitfaced, a fact which with I had no problem. I don’t think I could have navigated that bus up those mountains without a little help either.

At 16,000 feet, breathing becomes an exhilarating, triumphant act. The pass marks a change from crumbling Pamirs to stony Karakoram mountains, as well as to far superior road maintenance. The Pakistani side of the KKH features better levies and walls to keep rocks and water at bay, but the flip side of better engineering is greater risk: Here the highway runs anywhere from 500 to 1,000 feet above the river. Glaciers turn the mountains wet, releasing them occasionally in the form of mudslides. Downed power lines criss-cross the road; the bus just drove right over sparking high-tension wires. (I lifted my feet off the floor.) Missing guardrails and telephone poles—and small Muslim death memorials topped with a crescent moon—offer mute testimony to those who came before but never left. Nonetheless, crossing the border into Pakistani-held Kashmir was far more frightening for something else that was missing: no one was guarding the border.

The Khunjerab Security Force outpost, supposedly controlled by the Pakistani army as the main passport control checkpoint, was unmanned. We continued about sixty miles down the road before we encountered a small shack where the bus’ passengers were asked to sign a register book full of phony signatures like “Joe Blow, the Lover Man.” The sleepy guard didn’t even bother to look at our passports; we’d find out why all semblance of authority was missing soon enough. 
The bus dropped us off at Sost, from which we caught a taxi to the stunning Kashmiri village of Passu. Surrounded by three magnificent glaciers, rope suspension bridges crossing the legendary Hunza River and clouds so close you can actually touch them, our stay at the Passu Inn was a case study in low-tech life. Electricity comes and goes every few minutes; phones actually use a crank! (The phone number for our hotel was 7.) We spent the next morning trekking and negotiated with a surly local jeep driver to take us to Gilgit for $30. We were glad to get out of town; no matter how spectacular terrain is, once you’ve seen it you’re done.

The Passu-to-Gilgit bus ride takes eight hours, but if you use the same jeep driver as we did, you can do it in three. Convinced that he was being underpaid—although our hotel owner said $20 was more like it, he kept saying that some Japanese dude had paid $100 a week before—he drove wildly back and forth like a madman, intentionally skimming the edge of the abyss even when there wasn’t any other traffic. To add to the sense of menace, local children and young men threw stones at us whenever we passed through a village. Cole read some film book (he’s a movie critic); I attempted to look bored while I checked out Rakaposhi Peak (26,000 feet) and the Hunza Valley’s terraced agriculture and stone-lined irrigation canals. Looking for the lost kingdom of Shangri-la? The myth places it squarely in the Hunza Valley.

From the perspective of scenery that you simply can’t see anywhere else, this section is the highlight of the KKH. Europeans with months of vacation to spare spend weeks on side trips to villages off the highway in this region. We drove through a canyon that makes the Grand Canyon look like landfill and limped across roped suspension bridges where half the boards were missing (Cole to me: “So this is it, Ted. It’s been nice knowing you”) across a massive, primordial flow of whitewater as impressive as the Mississippi and the Nile combined. Every few hundred feet signs advise: “Relax—Landslide Area Ends,” but that’s hard to do considering that no one has bothered to post where they begin. Because the Hunza is lined with farming communities, animals become a more frequent driving problem—and because the Pakistanis don’t sterilize their cattle the bulls are both huge and fierce.

The Taliban Attacks

Located at the southern bank of the Gilgit River, Gilgit is the spiritual and political center of disputed Kashmir province and a key stop on the KKH. Violence has been a part of life here since Pakistan and India were partitioned in 1947, and the signs of the cheapness of life are everywhere—starving children and maimed old men line the sidewalks. More than 10,000 people have been shot, bombed and lynched there during the ‘90s alone, which is more than live there now. A stone’s throw from the Line of Control between Pakistani- and Indian-held Kashmir, that rumbling in the distance is just as likely to be mortar fire as thunder.

Gilgit

Gilgit is “The Wild Bunch” meets the bar scene in “Star Wars” set in Kabul. Like Kashgar, it’s a dusty town where Pakistani, Afghan, Tajik, Kyrgyz and Chinese traders can get you anything for a price. There’s no electricity, phone or sewage system; even getting a postcard out requires greasing the proper palms. I liked it fine. Where else can you get your old Doc Martens resoled for a buck, munching a roti while watching wild dogs chew each other’s limbs off in the middle of rush-hour donkey-cart traffic? Still, our objective was the end of the KKH. After a few days of relaxation, we boarded a Northern Areas Transport Corporation (NATCO) bus for the 16-hour trip to the capital city of Islamabad.

The first thing we noticed as we assumed our customary spots at the front of the vehicle (we booked early) was the uniformed NATCO soldier riding shotgun—literally. He carried a shotgun right on his lap, occasionally pointing it right at me while chatting distractedly with the driver. He sat at the very front in a special seat, intentionally visible from the road. Then we checked out our fellow passengers. I hadn’t seen such a motley collection of smugglers and scoundrels since, well, the bus from Kashgar. Just outside Chilas I saw the first of several official signs stenciled on the rocky face of the mountain: “Ambush Point: 600 meters.” I asked the soldier about this.

“There are many, many bandits,” he explained apologetically. “Sometimes it’s not enough for them just to steal everything. Sometimes they kill everyone on the bus.”

“That’s a problem,” I said blandly.

“Yes, it is,” he agreed. “Then no one wants to take the bus anymore.”

The Gilgit next becomes the Indus River, home to one of the planet’s great ancient civilizations, and the views alternate wildly between lush green valleys and bleak chalky rocks tumbling off canyon after canyon into oblivion. It’s astonishing, but after a while sensory overload sets in; it’s the kind of experience best digested after the fact.

In any event, the bus blew through one switchback after another until, just as darkness began to fall, things started getting weird. Hundreds of turbaned men carrying rocket launchers, automatic rifles and grenades walked along the side of the Karakoram Highway, dragging ammo behind them on the ground. I recognized their outfits from TV news footage.

“Holy shit,” I realized aloud to Cole. “It’s the mujahadeen.”

A week before we’d left for Kyrgyzstan the Taliban had declared Kashmir an “American-free zone.” They reserved for themselves the right to shoot any holder of a U.S. passport on sight, including diplomats. No one had taken the declaration seriously, especially since the KKH was at least a hundred miles from the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. We found out that night that, in the interim, what had formerly been Pakistani-held Kashmir had become half occupied by Taliban militants. Now I understood why the Pakistan-China border had been unguarded; the Pakistanis had allowed themselves to be “invaded” so that the Afghans could fight their war with India on their behalf without provoking a nuclear confrontation. The Taliban, however, were far less interested in taking on the Indians over territory so barren that fighting has to be suspended every winter than its real goal: turning Pakistan into another Islamic fundamentalist state. They’d earned a rep as the Khmer Rouge of the ‘90s for stoning adulterers to death and denying medical care to women. Now, working in conjunction with a Pakistani general in Islamabad (his coup d’etat went down a few weeks later) they were in position to enforce their previous threats.

The bus crossed the border of the North-West Frontier Province and pressed on into the hamlet of Dasu, the northern section of which had obviously been the scene of fighting hours earlier. Fires crackled in brand-new ruins. Broken glass, from God knows what, was everywhere. An orange glow lit up the windows to the left side of the bus; something big had exploded there. Unattended horses wandered aimlessly through the streets, some bleeding from shrapnel wounds. A woman walked crazily in a semicircle—shock? The body of a man, in the generic brown frocks Pakistani Muslims wear, leaned against a storefront. There wasn’t any blood. Burned-out cars lined the KKH as it passed through what had been the bazaar district. On the outskirts of town, three Taliban soldiers flagged us down by making circles on the road with a flashlight.

In the Third World, military checkpoints are a frequent nuisance, sort of the way bridge tolls are to us. With a full-fledged war going on, two holders of American passports that the Pakistani authorities hadn’t bothered to stamp weren’t going to last long under Taliban occupation; checkpoints were bound to spring up everywhere. The bus stopped and the front door opened. The soldiers gave the driver a big grin. My fellow passengers, who’d been glaring at Cole and I for hundreds of miles, looked entirely too pleased about this development for my tastes. The NATCO soldier got up, looked at Cole and I, and walked to the door. Would we be taken off the bus and shot by the side of the road? It was entirely possible; certainly no one on this vehicle would miss us. I seriously doubted that anyone would ever be punished, or that there’d ever be an investigation. I considered that as bad as dying is, dying far away from home surrounded by people who hate your guts is infinitely worse. I thought about the European Community passport in my backpack (I’m a dual French-U.S. citizen); that red booklet would get me off the hook but, unlike me, Cole didn’t have a backup nationality. I thought about the best arguments I could employ to try to save my life. Finally, I was angry at myself for not preparing properly—we could easily have bought guns in Gilgit, but it hadn’t occured to us.

Then the soldier did something for which I will always be grateful. Wearing a bored expression on his face, he nonchalantly pointed his gun straight at the lead mujahadeen and said something to the driver in Urdu. The bus moved forward, and that was it.

The stretch of the KKH between Dasu and Pattan is notoriously violent even in “peacetime”—a number of Western travelers have been beaten up, robbed and raped there. But the military situation was relatively static; mujahadeen trudged along, too dog-tired to care about anything beyond their next footstep. Civilian vehicles, including small cars and trucks, shared the road with hundreds of refugees going south into Pakistan proper and Afghan soldiers walking towards the Line of Control. Finally, at four in the morning, the road made a sharp southern turn, and the KKH became dark and empty. A farmer’s mule darted out into the street; we hit the sucker doing about 50. Our driver never slowed down.

We had three more hours ahead of us, but I figured that it was OK to try to catch some sleep. I was weak, hungry and still processing my brush with death. The last section of KKH is notable for nothing in particular, which means that the road leaves the mountains, becomes straight and flat and the chances of getting killed by another vehicle or a terrorist or a beast of burden are relatively minimal. If it hadn’t been for the Pakistani film music blaring from the speakers directly above our heads, it might even have been peaceful.

Fortunately, Cole had wire cutters.

 

 

December 03, 2015

QT LAMF

Seeing Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful 8” is Your Civic Duty
By Cole Smithey

Hateful_8Quentin Tarantino is a national treasure. Unfortunately, Americans don’t much appreciate their great artists. If Tarantino were French, he'd already have a statue. If he were French, film-loving citizenry would flip out (and rightfully so) if the police tried to pull as disgusting an act of character assassination as the libel war police unions are waging against this revered writer, director, and prodigious film historian. There would be protests. Here, alas, nothing.

QT ran afoul of the corrupt Blue Wall of Silence when he spoke out against the ongoing plague of police-committed murders, which occur at an average rate of two to three times every day, at a “Rise Up October” rally in Manhattan.

The Rise Up October rally’s goal was to put relatable life narratives beside the names of victims who get quickly lost and forgotten in the escalating number of citizens shot, Tasered (you can picture the trademark symbol), choked, or otherwise destroyed by America’s highly militarized but poorly hired and trained police officers.

This demonstration was different from a “Black Lives Matter” protest in that it brought together families and loved ones of the victims in order to tell their personal stories about those who were senselessly taken away from them. It was a rare chance for people directly affected by police murders to bear witness. It’s impossible to put too fine a point on the obvious necessity for this forum of social communication, in order to provide people with a communal release of emotion and suffering. People need expression. They must be heard. We must listen. The families of victims such as Eric Garner, Sam Dubose, Antonio Guzman Lopez, Tamir Rice and Walter Scott took the stage one by one to express their grief and share stories of the people they still love.

During the course of the seven-hour march, Tarantino took the stage.

“I got something to say, but actually I would like to give my time to the families that want to talk," Tarantino said. "I want to give my time to the families. However, I do just want to also do want to say, what am I doing here? I’m here because I am a human being with a conscience, and when I see murder I cannot stand by, and I have to call the murdered the murdered, and I have to call the murderers the murderers.”

Quentin-Tarantino
Tarantino’s impassioned speech clearly came from his heart. It was messy. He was upset. These are the words of a man speaking a sad truth that has been gestating in his mind and gut. Evidently Tarantino’s use of the word “murder” — but really, is there a better word? — hit a nerve with police organizations unwilling to address the crisis at hand in an appropriate, much less ethical, manner.

The National Association of Police Organizations decided to go after the filmmaker behind such modern classics of American cinema as “Pulp Fiction” and “The Inglorious Basterds.”

The police group is calling for a boycott (by police officers) of Tarantino’s hotly awaited Christmas day opener “The Hateful 8.” The alliance is requesting that its officers “stop working special assignments or off-duty jobs, such as providing security, traffic control or technical advice for any of Tarantino’s projects.” One wonders if these guys have lawyers. What if something happened bad to the director because he couldn't get police protection? Their legal exposure could be breathtaking.

Wait, it gets better.

Fraternal Order of Police president Jim Pasco said, “Tarantino has made a good living out of violence and surprise. Our officers make a living trying to stop violence, but surprise is not out of the question. Something is in the works, but the element of surprise is the most important element. Something could happed anytime between now and the premiere. And a lot of it is going to be driven by Tarantino, who is nothing if not predictable. The right time and place will come up and we’ll try to hurt him in the only way that seems to matter to him, and that’s economically.”

The veiled message of inherent violence and intimidation is clear. Surprise? This is like a school bully telling the nerd, “You won’t see it coming, but you will feel it.” Disgusting.

Cops are threatening to “hurt” Tarantino (um, “economically”). I don’t know about you, but the last time I heard someone use “harm” in such a threatening tone, they meant bodily harm, It’s implied here that the director might be in physical danger from the very agencies charged with protecting public safety and paid by taxpayers — like Tarantino.

There's more.

Now the LAPD is attempting to smear Tarantino’s integrity by claiming that there is “no record” of an arrest for which QT has said he was jailed for eight days for unpaid vehicle infractions. There is an obvious possible explanation for that: Tarantino has repeatedly stated that he was sent to a LA County lockup run by the Sheriff's Department, not the LAPD. Anyone familiar with the LAPD’s well-documented history of conveniently misplacing evidence — including thousands of rape kits — will recognize the “leak” as a hack effort at obfuscation. Is there “no record” of the arrest because someone at the LAPD shredded it? I wouldn’t be surprised.

I also wouldn’t be surprised to see QT’s lawyers begin to open up cans of legal whoop-ass on police unions, and even the LAPD, in the days before “The Hateful 8” opens.

Apparently police union bigwigs have a problem with high-profile celebrities exercising their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. Their message is chilling; if you have something critical to say about police officers’ nonstop killing rampage, you have the right to shut the fuck up.

I suppose we’ve learned something about where police leaders fall regarding their would-be regard for the cultural significance of the filmic arts.

Tarantino intended his presence at the Rise Up October rally to open up a public discussion for police departments to engage in, to stem the plague of police killings. Rather than taking advantage of an opportunity to engage in public discussion about ways to correct the ongoing crisis, however, police unions across the country are doubling down on a pattern of murders that cost police departments millions of dollars in settlements.

How can they afford the tab?

The story is as old as the hills: follow the money.

Modern-day police departments are beholden to a myriad of corporations, some backed by the Pentagon. Gun makers, Taser (which also makes body cameras — as used by the LAPD), bulletproof vest manufacturers, and car companies are just a few of the players in the lucrative business of “law enforcement.” The biggest of all may be the prison-industrial complex that has reengineered American society. This matrix of commerce, authority, and power creates an invisible call for a set of lethal and racist ideologies to find their level in personal action.

Corporations instill their personalized fascist ideologies through product placement in police departments that arm, train, and shield their police officers from ever going to jail regardless of how visible their crime. That trend, however, is changing. The Blue Wall of Silence is being peeled away, though incrementally, one layer at a time.

We are seeing more instances where police officers are being charged with murder, as in the Chicago case in which officer Jason Van Dyke was charged for the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, albeit a year late.

It’s no accident that you commonly see officers emptying their revolvers, sometimes repeatedly, into their victims. Shooting someone 18 times isn’t just trigger-happy; it is the sociopathic behavior of an insane person pleading for help. These killings affect both sides of the equation — police and civilians. Killing another human being is a terrible thing that no one escapes without the experience etched forever in his or her darkest memory.

Hateful-Eight

To put things in a filmic context, notice when you watch a video of a police shooting someone more than once that it is 1000 times more upsetting than the most gory scene in any Tarantino film.

The Guardian reports that U.S. cops have killed 1,041 people so far this year. Although this is (disgracefully) the first year that such a comprehensive tally has been kept of people killed by police in America, all evidence points to police conducting this level of incremental genocide against its populace for decades.

Wake up, America! Between the mass shooters, white male terrorists, and the cops, your odds are getting worse all the time.

It’s more than a little ironic that New York Fraternal Order of Police leader Patrick Lynch is accusing QT of being a “cop-hater” (Tarantino never said or implied that he hated cops, his films don't depict cops as evil or really much at all, and has denied it) considering that hating the thing that scares the living shit out of most people would be a luxury. Lynch’s choice of words leads the discussion into a confrontational realm that also lets loose a self-reflexive inference to self-hatred. Hello, Sigmund Freud.

Let’s consider the boycott for a moment. There are 330,000 police officers in the country. Even if none of them buys a ticket to the Christmas Day release of a movie for which 100 cinemas have been outfitted with classic Panavision 70 projectors, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the number of movie lovers worldwide who will queue to see a movie that promises to dominate the 2016 Oscars.

Even if his films aren’t your cup of tea, any movie lover should acknowledge QT’s mastery of writing and directing. His exceptionally original stories expand cinematic language in a myriad of provocative ways. QT hasn’t just reinvented cinema, he has rekindled an ongoing interest in the directors (such as Howard Hawks) that continue to inspire him. Quentin Tarantino is a modern traditionalist. His use of Panavision 70 on “The Hateful 8” creates some of the most beautiful and lush images ever created on film, and by “film” I do mean old-school 65mm celluloid. Magical. The screen image you see is three times more picture than you see with your average film.

There’s a reason that there are so few filmmakers as talented as QT: he’s a one-of-a-kind thinker. In full disclosure, I had the pleasure of meeting Quentin during my first visit to the Cannes Film Festival in 1992. I’d been accepted into the American Pavilion volunteer program only to be cancelled at the last minute (after I’d already booked my flight). I went anyway. After sleeping in nooks and crannies of the Palais in my tux, I got cast in a Gaumout Studios-run program for student filmmakers. Gaumout provided me with food and housing throughout the festival while I worked with a German, Arab, and French crew. Luckily we were given tickets to the world premiere of “Reservoir Dogs.” I went to the much-coveted screening in the Grand Palais with my German co-actor pal Geza, a true force of nature. There’s a YouTube copy of the movie we made online.

I met Tarantino in the press area of the Palais. I introduced myself and told him his “movie kicked my ass” the night before. He laughed with that big hearty snicker and said, “That’s exactly what I wanted to hear.” Here was a first-time filmmaker, the same generation and age as me, showing a mind-blowing heist movie in the Grand Palais of the Cannes Film Festival. The energy was electric.

That screening of “Reservoir Dogs” hit me like a combination of “Fists of Fury” mixed up with “The Exorcist.” I felt as though my guts were being torn out of me. It’s interesting to revisit that "brutal" movie and realize how little violence there is on the screen. It’s not what you see; it’s what you imagine.

Police violence is an old theme in the movies, though not Tarantino's. If you watch Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon,” you’ll notice that Jim Kelly’s character Williams flashes back to the police brutality he suffered on inner city streets as a black man living in urban America. Williams is glad to be in Hong Kong. “Enter the Dragon” was made in 1973.

Hateful 8
In 1970, Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini spoke about the terrible problem created when impoverished young people take jobs as police officers, only to kill those in their community because they are acting as protectors of a corrupt system. The issue is much more deadly now that police departments act on, and engage, the public as militarized Robocops who escalate benign situations into SWAT team tactical maneuvers like something out of a Terminator movie. There’s a profound paradox in the fact that the lower to middle-class men and women who put on police badges to earn their daily bread are being manipulated by the shrinking economy that corporations pay politicians to squeeze through draconian strategies.

Check out “Across 110th Street” for its gritty depiction of an openly racist police chief lording over Harlem like a walking pariah. (Tarantino used the theme song from the movie for his Blaxploitation homage “Jackie Brown.”)

In his exquisite documentary “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” about the significance of LA’s locations in the many films shot there, Thom Andersen discusses the “incremental genocide” of minorities that goes unabated. Andersen points out Ethiopian-born filmmaker Haile Gerima’s 1975 neorealist drama “Bush Mama,” which shows police attacking black citizens on the streets of South LA with lethal force. About the area’s tormented citizens, Anderson states, these are “people made to feel that they live in an occupied territory.” Not much has changed.

Anderson also references Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep,” a deeply personal film that casts a damning eye on LA’s oppressive daily reality through the eyes of a black family whose father works in a slaughterhouse.

America’s systemic roots in a deadly ideology of colonialist racism has been killing many thousands of minority victims for decades but it is only now, thanks to citizens filming events on their cellphones, that the world is waking up to the scale of atrocities being committed by police officers who may or may not be incompetent, sociopathic, or suicidal. Video has contributed greatly to exposing the type, and scale, of assassinations being committed at an astonishing rate. Still, the crisis is getting worse. It’s significant to note that five-sixths of those people murdered by trigger-happy cops were unarmed. America’s militarized corporatocracy is sending coded mob signals, none of them with an iota of nuance. One of the messages is that police unions are sending is that Americans live in a country occupied by the wealthy, and unless you are one of them, you are not welcome here. Another message is, if you’re not happily siding with every U.S. police officer’s right to kill whomever they want with impunity then you don’t deserve your freedom of speech in the first place. Get in line and salute, asshole, and wipe that dumb look off your face.

This past July, respected veteran editorial cartoonist Ted Rall was unceremoniously fired from his post at The Los Angeles Times after an apparent conspiracy between the LAPD, the city's police union (the LAPPL), and probably the newspaper’s then-publisher/billionaire financier Austin Beutner, worked its intended witchcraft.

A secretly recorded (and almost certainly altered) police audio tape of Rall being arrested back in 2001 for [not] jaywalking in L.A. was illegally passed to the Times, and was leveraged as grounds for termination. The LAPD union website was quick to publish a gloating endorsement of Rall’s firing, which it praised as a potent message to journalists across the nation. (They took it down after the media investigated the story and sided with Rall against the LAPPL and their lackeys, the Times. Certainly, there are those weak-kneed writers, editors, and publishers who will never utter, write, or print a negative comment about this goon squad that makes the Nazis look like a bunch of pussycats. Fear of cops is normal, and even more pronounced under the conditions in which we live.

Less than six weeks after Rall’s unfounded termination Tribune Publishing canned Beutner. In case you don’t know, publishers are very rarely if ever fired. Heads up. While not directly attributed to the fallout from Rall’s firing, after he unequivocally disproved the Times’ false accusation of him misrepresenting his jaywalking story in a blog post containing basic audio forensics his paper ought to have done in the first place, Beutner’s firing will forever be inextricably linked to the Times/LAPD skullduggery.

The cops set out to smear Rall, but it's Rall who came out looking good while the police have egg on their face. Yet they still haven't learned their lesson, as demonstrated by the attacks on Tarantino. But why are they so touchy? It’s ridiculous that the same cop squads that send thousands of their members to Leni Riefenstahl-scale funerals of any of their fallen brothers, are freaking out over QT’s public support for victims (and their families) of police murders at the rally where Tarantino spoke out.

The Guardian reports, “shootings involving Los Angeles police officers have doubled this year” (2015). Maybe the LAPPL should focus on the real problem, not the film directors and cartoonists calling them out on it.

Proving that when you're a hammer everything looks like a nail, PBA President Patrick J. Lynch laid it on thick: “It’s no surprise that someone who makes a living glorifying crime and violence is a cop-hater too. The police officers Quentin Tarantino calls “murderers” aren’t living in one of his depraved big-screen fantasies; they’re risking and sometimes sacrificing their lives to protect communities from real crime and mayhem. New Yorkers need to send a message to this purveyor of degeneracy that he has no business coming to our city to peddle his slanderous cop fiction. It’s time for a boycott of Quentin Tarantino’s films.”

So the filmmaker isn’t a fan of the incremental genocide being committed by cops against blacks. QT certainly isn’t the only American who holds such basic humanitarian views. But it doesn't do any good for good people to remain silent. It’s important that in this dark hour, not only that Tarantino’s fans come out to support him and all that he stands for as a preeminent film artist, but that other likeminded citizens step up to show their support.

Blue privilege rolls on. Blood fills the streets.

Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGindy announced an “expert’s report” that found “reasonable” the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. Rice, armed only with a toy gun, was shot less than two seconds after the officer arrived on the scene.

Two Louisiana State Police officers (Norris Greenhouse and Derrick Stafford) were arrested and indicted on second-degree murder and attempted second-degree murder charges for shooting to death Jeremy Mardis, a six-year-old boy, along with his father as they sat in their pick-up truck after being pulled over for no apparent reason.

Theantimedia.org reported that the Los Angeles police union (LAPPL) took umbrage at the creation of a new award intended “to encourage police officers to find more peaceful resolutions to conflicts.” Can’t have that.

In Chicago, the police scandal involving the public execution of Laquan McDonald shows explicitly how the city’s corrupt chain of power reaches right up to the top. If there’s any justice left, Chicago mayor/former Clintion flack Rahm Emanuel’s career is toast.

The American public is in a state of perpetual fear fuelled constantly by daily police-committed murders of civilians. Smart people avoid cops at all costs. Some people are afraid to leave their homes for fear that they might be pulled over and shot like so many others have been. It feels like wartime anywhere you go, even though we supposedly live in a free country, and not just in the slums anymore. America is being occupied by the same systems we built to protect us. There’s no need to worry about robots turning on humanity; cops already have that territory covered.

Quentin-tarantino
Tarantino is releasing “The Hateful 8” as a “Road Show” release similar to the glorious way epic spectacles such as “Gone With the Wind” and “Lawrence of Arabia” came out in the days when people got dressed up to go see a movie that came with a program, a musical overture, and an intermission. This nod to cinema tradition provides a once-in-a-lifetime chance to enjoy a long lost aspect of movie culture thanks to a filmmaker just as committed to his audience as he is to the films he makes. Quentin Tarantino wants nothing more than for people to come together to enjoy the magic illusion of movement that only 24 frames per second of celluloid running though a projector can provide.

Quentin Tarantino’s status as America’s most inventive, impassioned, and consistent filmmaker is justified. Even with its (albeit microscopic) flaws, “The Hateful Eight” is more fun and stimulating than any other movie that came out in 2015.

When you watch “The Hateful 8,” pay heed at how Tarantino leads up to the murders that occur with much discussion related to ingrained racist ideologies that persist in America, and are being actively exposed and supported in nearly every news media outlet in the country, Fox News and CNN especially, as well as from faux lefty outlets like NPR. Each death of a character in “The Hateful 8” arrives with a specific narrative theme attached.

The police unions have dared set foot inside Tarantino’s wheelhouse and inside our revered bastion of social discourse, the cinema. It is your civic duty to buy a ticket to “The Hateful 8.” As you watch the film, think about what makes these characters so hateful, and about the culture that made them that way. The discussion is yours — as long as you keep the cops out of it, they don’t want to hear it, and they can hunt you down and ruin your life.

Je suis Quentin.

Hateful-Eight

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July 03, 2015

The Best Films of 2015 So Far

By Cole Smithey

It’s a stretch to call “Mad Max: Fury Road” a Hollywood picture but we'll pretend so the left coast isn’t utterly left out of contributing to the best films of 2015, so far.

5. Ex Machina

Ex-machinaScience fiction has been a dying film genre in recent years. Largely this is because there are too few screenwriters or filmmakers with the imaginations to create compelling futuristic stories. Alex Garland has been an exception to the rule.

Smart, sexy, and back-loaded with a terrific twist ending, “Ex Machina” is an elegant sci-fi movie that considers the possibilities of artificial intelligence in thought-provoking ways. The stark narrative is essentially a three-hander for actors Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander to play out their diametrically opposed characters in an isolated “No Exit” game of winner-take-all.

4. Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad-max-fury-road“Mad Max Fury Road” makes up for what it lacks in storyline and character development with a groundbreaking blend of feminist politics and action-movie tropes in a broad physical spectacle featuring death-defying stunts atop and between a constantly moving canvas of motor-driven insanity. “Fury Road” is to cinema as the Ramones’s “Teenage Lobotomy” was to rock ‘n’ roll. The picture’s deceptive depth lies in its blistering backbeat of fast-paced action fulfilled by a cast of gnarly Wild West-inspired characters “living to die and dying to live.” A lack of water and oil has turned humanity into hordes of people living by their primal instincts.

Miller proudly announces the movie as a feminist think piece. Charlize Theron’s implacable bionic-armed heroine Imperator Furiosa leads the lion’s share of the action. The steely Furiosa turns a fuel-delivery (via the giant oil truck she drives) into a rescue mission to transport five “wives” to Immortan Joe (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne in a franchise return), the demonic despot who controls the flow of water to the starving masses. The Australian filmmaker balances the motherly power of femininity with tougher aspects of womanhood, namely a cold-blooded will to kick serious ass LAMF. Instant cult classic? You bet.

3. Amy

Amy_The must-see-documentary at this year’s Cannes Film Festival was Asif Kapadia’s ambitious biography of Amy Winehouse. It’s a devastating look at how some of the people closest to the singer/songwriter contributed to her untimely demise. By sticking with his voiceover-only narration (rather than taking the standard talking-head approach) Kapadia stays out of the way of his fascinating subject. The method is so much the better for rapt audiences to absorb Winehouse’s raw talent and sophisticated mastery of melody, songcraft, and delivery.

Most captivating are studio-recording sessions in which Winehouse delivers her unique voice and phrasing with a stark honesty that charms all. Watching her record her famous song “Back to Black” is nothing short of stunning. A duet recording session with her hero Tony Bennett reveals much about Winehouse’s craftsmanship as a singer and about the high standards to which she held herself. The instant rapport that she shares with a glowing Tony Bennett is a dreamlike moment of musical delight.

2. What Happened Miss Simone?

What_happened_simoneDirector Liz Garbus (“Bobby Fischer Against the World,” 2011) eloquently sets the film’s tone with an eerie quote from Maya Angelou.

“Miss Simone, you are idolized, even loved, by millions now. But what happened, Miss Simone?”

It proves to be a provocative question about a complex woman caught in a web of domestic and social abuse. Through dazzling archive performance and interview clips, and upfront contributions from the likes of Simone’s articulate daughter Lisa, Garbus hits every note in a biography that, like Nina Simone’s dynamic vocal range, goes from gravel to frosting. Intelligent audio interviews allow the outspoken singer to narrate in her own inimitable voice. Documentaries don't get much more intimate than this.

The rich narrative and musical material on display allows Garbus to work the audience into a compulsive lather of mixed emotions. The film flashes to modern day relevance over Simone’s scalding protest song “Mississippi Goddam,” a response to forty churches burned in Birmingham, Alabama.

Simone sings with a fury that explodes, “Alabama’s gotten me so upset, Tennessee made me lost my rest, And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam.“

From a political perspective, “What Happened Miss Simone” arrives at a key moment of crisis for Blacks in America, when the ongoing incremental genocide of Blacks is on the rise.

Nina Simone’s definition of freedom rings with the same truth as is found in her music.

“What is freedom? No fear.”

1. Girlhood

GirlhoodYou might read the title “Girlhood” and think that some ambitious (perhaps female) filmmaker is taking on Richard Linklater at his most recent game. Indeed, if you consider Céline Sciamma’s substantial pedigree, as the masterful writer-director behind such youth-centric LGBT triumphs as “Water Lilies” and “Tomboy,” you could arrive at the conclusion that Richard Linklater has been taking some notes from her.

When compared to her first two tour de force films, “Girlhood” reveals itself to be every bit as insightful and authentic a cinematic representation of a personal female coming-of-age experience in modern-day France. For the record, “Girlhood” stands up well opposite Linklater’s “Boyhood” as another essential filmic chapter in the global political, socioeconomic, and cultural challenges facing young people in the 21st century, albeit from vastly different cultural backgrounds. “Girlhood” is a stunner.

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June 01, 2015

CANNES 2015 — COMPLETE

CANNES 2015 — THE AWARDS

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 3.45.27 PM

YouthOnly two of my predictions for Cannes’s feature film awards held any note of accuracy. As certain as I was that Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth” would take a prize (either Michael Caine for Best Actor or a Jury Prize for the film) it came up empty handed. Still, the film’s provocative poster will surly help ensure that it find its audience far and wide.

I did manage to predict better than half of the Best Actress award however. Not only did I foresee Rooney Mara winning for her splendid performance in Todd Haynes’s “Carol” but I also guessed that the honor would be shared with another actress, even if I did fall short on foretelling that Emmanuelle Bercot (“Mon Roi”) would be the other selection (I supposed Cate Blanchett would split the prize).

DheepanWhile critics such as The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw feigned indignation at Jacques Audiard’s social realist drama “Dheepan” for winning the Palme d’Or, I had it down to win Best Screenplay (that award went to Michel Franco for “Chronic”). “Dheepan” (played by Jesuthasan Antonythasan) is the name of a Tamil Tiger, a freedom fighter in the Sri Lanka Civil War. Dheepan flees the country for Paris with two strangers (a mother and daughter). Upon settling into a rundown Paris suburb, the makeshift family discovers a different but equally violent social condition that requires Dheepan to once again take on the role of a tiger.

AssassinTaiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien has been a household name in Cannes for many years. His 1987 film “Daughter of the Nile” premiered in the Director’s Fortnight at the 1988 festival. Hsiao-Hsien’s 1993 film “The Puppetmaster” won the festival’s Jury Prize that same year. That the much-admired director should be awarded this year’s Best Director Palme for “The Assassin” seems fitting. The film is a visually lush story about Nie Yinnaing, a general’s daughter abducted by a nun to be trained as an efficient killing machine. Ordered to kill the man to whom she was once promised Yinnaing must choose between two opposing ways of life. It isn’t a martial arts film per se, but the action scenes fit the storyline with blinding economy and breathtaking ferocity.

Vincent LindonFrench native Vincent Lindon’s win in the Best Actor category, for his skillfully understated performance as an unemployed French family man who finally finds a job working as a security officer at a department store (in Stephane Brize's "The Measure of a Man"), is in accord with this year’s thematic through-line of films in the festival regarding social injustices in France. Lindon's persuasive bearing as a seen-it-all French everyman conveys a rare breed of integrity, well deserving of the Best Actor honor for which he eloquently thanked the Cannes jury. 
 

Son of SaulIt isn’t often that a first-time filmmaker captures the imagination the way Laszlo Nemes did with his Grand Prize-winner “Saul Fia” ("Son of Saul"), a devastating holocaust drama about a Jewish Hungarian father (Geza Rohig) forced to work in the Nazi extermination machinery. The prestigious award should aid in bringing audience attention to this powerful movie that impressed everyone who saw it at the festival.

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CANNES 2015 — DAY 7

Cannes Day 7

Neither Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario” nor Stephane Brize’s “The Measure of a Man” was able to hold a candle to Todd Haynes’s latest masterwork “Carol.” Although “Measure” features a solid performance from Vincent Lindon as Thierry, an unemployed French father trying desperately to get a job to provide for his wife and special-needs son, the script doesn’t go far enough toward addressing the systemic issue of joblessness currently crushing the lives of millions, if not billions, of people around the globe.

Cannes Birdy
“Sicaro” gives the muscular Emily Blunt space to stretch as an actress but the politically vague script, about corruption on all sides of America’s trademarked drug war with Mexico, drags and settles into a cheesy revenge-plot. Benicio Del Toro plays Alejandro, the “hitman” of the film’s title. Del Toro’s character plays all ends against the middle to avenge the brutal murder of his wife and daughter by a Juarez drug-lord who has learned every skullduggery technique the CIA has been busy teaching by example for decades.

Open-secretHot on a lot of people’s list is Amy Berg’s documentary “An Open Secret,” about young boys sexually abused by Hollywood managers, agents, and casting directors. The picture has been picked up for U.S. distribution; it opens on June 5th in Seattle and Denver, before rolling out to 20 other cities thereafter.   

One of the great pleasures of the festival is its beach screenings of select classic films. What could be better than reclining in the sand in a beach chair and watching a film such as the one playing tonight, Bo Widerberg’s 1971 “Joe Hill,” about the

Still to come is Hou Hsiao-Shien’s “The Assassin” and Guillaume Nicloux’s “Valley of Love,” a two-hander starring Isabelle Huppert and Gerard Depardieu.

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CANNES 2015 — DAY 5

32015 is the year that art-house directors loaded their competition chances in Cannes by utilizing Hollywood A-listers to beef up their movies.

Matteo Garrone (“Tale of Tales”), Justin Kurzel (“Macbeth”), Michael Franco (“Chronic”), Paolo Sorrentino (“Youth”), Denis Villeneuve (“Sicario”), Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster”), Gus Van Sant (“The Sea of Trees”), and Danish auteur Joachim Trier (“Louder Than Bombs”) all feature big name American stars in films that are about as far from typical Hollywood productions as you can get.

Still, not even Matthew McConaughey’s presence can do much for Van Sant’s latest snooze fest. Speaking of sleepy movies, Natalie Portman's directorial debut "A Tale of Love and Darkness" caused more than a few audience members to go into snore-mode.

Cannes Day 5With three features under his belt, Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos keeps improving in baby steps. Each film gets a little bit better than the last. “The Lobster” is his best film to date, behind such time-wasters as “Dogtooth” and “Alpes” but decent performances by Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz can’t elevate “The Lobster’s” flawed source material. The movie is mediocre at best. Perhaps, in another five movies, Lanthimos will make a good one.

“Sicario” is Denis Villeneuve’s drama about a lawless no-man’s-land between America and Mexico where Emily Blunt’s FBI agent Kate Mercer is brought in to battle America’s wrongheaded war on drugs. Benicio Del Toro also stars in what promises to be a gritty political thriller.

It remains to be seen whether the ever-annoying Jesse Eisenberg can pull off a naturalistic performance in Joachim Trier’s “Louder Than Bombs,” which also stars Amy Ryan, David Strathairn, Gabriel Byrne, and the ubiquitous Isabelle Huppert.

YouthMore promise lies in Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth,” which features Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel as a couple of old friends facing the last days of their lives on vacation in a plush hotel in the foothills of the Alps. If I were placing odds on which of the 18 films competing for this year’s Palme d’Or has the best chance of winning, I’d put my money on “Youth.”

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CANNES 2015 — DAY 3

In spite of the fact that there isn’t a lounge for critics and journalists to hang out and drink free beer like there used to be in the pre-austerity days of Cannes, you can pick up on conversations if you have good ear.

Cannes Day 3
MarylandAlice Winocour’s Un Certain Regard film “Maryland,” about a French ex-Special Forces soldier suffering from PTSD who gets a bodyguard job protecting a wealthy Lebanese businessman, is getting talked about. It doesn’t hurt that the film stars the versatile Matthias Schoenaerts and secret-weapon-actress Diane Kruger.

Cannes Style 4Every other girl on the croisette favors the Amy Winehouse eye-make-up style of heavy black eyeliner turned up at the outer edges. From the looks of it, director Asif Kapadia has a surefire hit on his hands for “Amy,” the documentary for which he and his team interviewed around 80 of Amy Winehouse’s friends, associates, and family members.

Auro 3D AudioMovie technology has a presence on the beach with Auro 3D Audio CEO Wilfried Van Baelen giving private exhibitions of the sound technology he masterminded. The process was used on the latest “Spider-Man 2” movie, and it truly does deliver on its promise of “immersive sound.” Just don’t get the loquacious Wilfried going on how his technology is not related to any “channel or object-based technology,” you might miss that screening of Natalie Portman’s directorial debut “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” Still, she’s hard to miss on the red carpet.

Amy

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May 13, 2015

CANNES 2015 — DAY 1

During the festival there are more exotic fast cars per square kilometer in Cannes than anywhere else in the world. Lamborghinis, Ferraris, McLarens, and Maseratis ostentatiously rev their engines through Cannes’s crowded narrow streets. Scooters and motorcycles somehow manage to slip past. Driven by brawny young men busy talking on cellphone headsets, or by statuesque women with big hair, the flashy cars embody all of the glamour, celebrity culture, and excess of Hollywood on the Rivera.

Cannes Day 1
It’s ironic then that the film that opened this year’s festival should be a reflection of France’s unsteady future in the face of rampant unemployment. Following the horrific Charlie Hebdo attacks, the festival heads made a conscious decision to deviate from its usual habit of giving the opening night slot to a piece of Hollywood tripe in favor of “La Tete Haute” (“Standing Tall”), a French social realist drama from director Emmanuelle Bercot. “Tete” avoids clichés as it digs into deep-seeded problems of psychological and social conditions. The powerhouse casting of Catherine Deneuve as a juvenile detention judge centers the film. Benoit Magimel more than pulls his weight as Yann, a counselor assigned to guide the rehabilitation process of Malony, a troubled victim of terrible parenting. The fiction that all mothers are innately good people is given a proper trouncing here.

Newcomer Rod Paradot is a revelation as Malony. His gut-wrenching naturalistic performance is as good as it gets. Paradot owns the movie with an instinctive portrayal that’s up there with Marlon Brando’s best work. If some critics recoil from “Standing Tall,” it says more about their inability to grapple with the genre than it does about the movie. “Standing Tall” is the kind of uncompromising film Ken Loach would love.

Cole with Peanuts
There were fireworks on the first night, but the cumulative emotional power of the films in this year’s festival promises to leave indelible memories and lessons far greater than burning bits of paper in a night sky.

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March 21, 2015

SOCIAL MEDIA GOVERNMENT

How to Make American Democracy Work For Real Now
By Cole Smithey

RevolutionThe 2016 Presidential election doesn’t matter. Not at all. There has already been so many clear examples of vote-rigging that anyone who listens to the news knows that America's voting process comes nowhere near the country's daily chest-beating about its superior [capitalist] brand of democracy.

A truly democratic social media mechanism that allows every American citizen to propose public policy (foreign and domestic) and vote on such proposals, would effectively put every single politician out of work. Firing American’s political functionaries will necessarily include the office of the President. The new face of American leadership will be an accurate [democratic] compilation of all of its citizens. Scary.

Modern technology could allow for an absolutely pure form of Democracy run by and for the people. It couldn’t have happened ten years ago, but it’s on its way now. We don’t need anymore stinking corporate-controlled monkeys pretending that they’re working in the interest of the public good. The public will decide on all policy priorities, big and small.

We’ve already seen the power of social media to effect immediate change in a mathematically democratic way. When Verizon announced it would impose a two-dollar charge upon payments made online, social media enabled the public to effectively vote down Verizon’s decision. The company retracted its would-be surcharge. That’s Democracy in action. It doesn’t matter who identifies as a Democrat, Tea-Partier, Libertarian, or Leftist — voting is an intrinsically independent and egalitarian action. How you vote on each particular proposal —not one of two corporate-backed candidates — will add up to your true political identity.

For all of the chest-beating American politicians do about how well Democracy works, those elected men and women have no clue about how a purely mathematically driven form of pure democracy could put them out of work. The Occupy Movement is already situated to execute the necessary revolution that will send senators, congress people, and White House staff packing once our new social media platform of automated Democracy is in place. It won’t take long.

How will it work?

Red-StarFirst of all a group of computer specialists and hackers will need to build the site’s infrastructure. It will need to be absolutely impervious to attack. It will also need to be organized in a thoroughly transparent way so that an ongoing record of all voting is always available for inspection. No more hanging chads or voter fraud. Everyone will be able to see exactly where every single vote came from. No more lobbyists. No more corporate string-pulling. You want Democracy; this is what it will look like very soon.

A group of moderators will need to be hired (I propose a modest annual salary, say $65,000.00). These moderators will handle the tasks of organizing the proposals that people post. Once a proposal reaches a specific numerical threshold, it will be put up as a bill which citizens will vote upon. If it passes, it goes into effect immediately.

There will be many bugs to be worked out, so it’s important that the system be put into place alongside our current structure of Government. Once Washington begins to be eclipsed by our more automated form of Democracy the Occupy Movement will need to take physical action to take over their offices, which will become completely open to the public. 24-hour voting will be available via cellphones and computers. An open-door public policy will add to a sense of well-being in the country. Unlike revolutions that leave behind a power vacuum, the gaping hole of Democracy will already be filled by the people—all of the people.

If this idea sounds anti-elitist and full of humanitarian social responsibility, that’s because it is. But what we the gathered masses do with such a pure form of Democracy is entirely up to us, the people—not a corporation or a bunch of rich white-guy bankers. Social Media Government is coming.

This article was first published on January 2, 2012 

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