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Flick Pick: A War

The category for best foreign film at the 2016 Academy Awards is  strong. A lot of early buzz surrounds such nominees as the Hungarian Holocaust drama Son of Saul and the French coming-of-age tale Mustang . But in our opinion, Danish director Tobias Lindholm’s comparatively overlooked film A War deserves serious consideration. An in-depth look at the choices a soldier makes under extreme circumstances, and the consequences of those decisions, this drama explores the politics of war: What is right, what is wrong, and whose lives come first. The movie immediately throws us into a dangerous Afghan province. A young soldier steps on an active IED, and the handheld camera jerks around as other soldiers frantically fight to save him. From their base, company commander Claus M. Pedersen, impeccably portrayed in a heartbreaking performance by Pilou Asbæk, shouts instructions to his troops and is visibly shaken when the young victim is pronounced dead. Pedersen starts to join his men on all routine missions, no matter how dangerous or exhausting. While out on patrol one day, they stop to help a girl who has severe burns on her arm. When they return to check on her family, Pedersen and his men find them executed and are themselves ambushed by Taliban gunfire. One of the soldiers is shot. In order to save his life and get all of his men out alive, Pedersen makes a hasty decision that leads to the deaths of 11 innocent locals—including eight children. Meanwhile, Pedersen's wife, Maria (Tuva Novotny), has her hands full back in Denmark, taking care of the couple’s three young kids. The highlight of their day is when Dad can call home to talk. Although she keeps up a brave face, Maria is barely keeping it together. In one memorable scene, she holds back tears as she comforts her youngest son, who has to have his stomach pumped after accidentally swallowing several pills. Following the attack, Pedersen is sent home and must face trial. The question is, did he have grounds for authorizing a bombing that killed civilians? Did he or his men have a visual on the Taliban, or did he make the call in a desperate attempt to save his fellow soldiers? The courtroom scenes make it clear that A War is much more than just another war movie. It’s about the humanity of the people who fight. Pedersen is a good man, a good father and a good soldier, yet was he in the wrong? And if so, does he deserve to go to prison for it, keeping him away from his family for another four years? Check out the trailer below, and make sure to see A War during its limited release beginning Friday, February 12. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MyygZlPuoFQ Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

by Stephanie Adams

Feb 11, 2016

At Oscar Time, Don’t Bet Against The Big Short

“I have many leather-bound books, and my apartment smells like rich mahogany.” “It would give us so much extra space in our room to do activities.” “Shake ’n’ bake!” If you can name the sources of these quotes, then you, like me, are a fan of Adam McKay, the director behind such classics as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues), Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Step Brothers. McKay, who co-owns a production company and cofounded the Funny or Die website with Will Ferrell and Chris Henchy, is known for over-the-top farces, not the kinds of films that garner awards-season glory—that is, until now. His latest endeavor, The Big Short, is up for five Oscars, including best director. Yes, you read that correctly. So what kind of film is The Big Short? Anchorman it’s not, though there’s still humor to be had. Based on Michael Lewis’s 2010 book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, the movie depicts the men who anticipated the 2008 collapse of the U.S. housing market and made a winning bet against it. The necessarily elaborate explanation of what led to the collapse and how these men discovered it is the subject of this…comedy? drama? docudrama? McKay has called it a “tra-medy.” Not fitting neatly into any genre is one of the film’s many assets. If the 2008 financial crisis was unprecedented, shouldn’t a movie about it be as well? Will Ferrell and Adam McKay on the set of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (DreamWorks/Everett Collection) For one thing, there’s the unlikely director. Speaking to W magazine, McKay said he never expected Paramount Pictures, which owned the rights to the book, to see him as an obvious choice: “I knew they probably wouldn’t take me seriously. But I also knew that it’s so much fun not to be taken seriously, and then, when you are serious—and I was very serious about The Big Short—it’s a surprise. Everyone likes to be surprised.” Then again, maybe The Big Short isn’t that abrupt a shift. McKay’s other films, ridiculous on the surface, are clearly satirical. Anchorman ridicules the male ego and the often illogical arguments against gender equality. Via the masculine, openly gay race car driver Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), Talladega Nights confronts homophobia in its natural habitat. And The Campaign, which McKay produced, parodies insidious political rhetoric to great comedic effect. In each case, the old cliché applies—it’s funny because it’s true. The financial crisis of 2008 is true, but how could it be funny? The guys who saw the crash coming and bet accordingly are real people, and McKay mines that truth for all the chuckles it’s worth. Christian Bale (nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar) plays Michael Burry, MD, the hedge fund manager who first crunches the numbers and spies the impending storm. Burry has a penchant for death metal and plays air drums in his office, which he doesn’t leave for days at a time. As trader Jared Vennett, Ryan Gosling (like just about everyone in the film) has a filthy mouth; he also has a temple of a body, often taking business calls at the gym (in real life, this is pretty gross, but it’s Ryan Gosling so I can’t complain). Brad Pitt’s Ben Rickert is a former trader who has forsaken the karma-killing ways of Wall Street for a quiet life in Boulder, Colorado. Rickert is sucked reluctantly back into the game by his neighbors, a pair of young guys who need his credentials to get a seat at the big boys’ table. His deadpan disgust for the business is wryly funny, as when he counsels his protégés to give up banking and start trading seeds instead. Finally, Steve Carell’s take on tortured hedge funder Mark Baum is the film’s best performance and should have earned Carell an acting nom too. His acerbic commentary and DGAF behavior lend the movie most of its emotional heat. All the acting is superb, and it shouldn’t be held against the film that there aren’t many female characters (a standout is Adepero Oduye, who does a great job as Carell’s advisor), since there weren’t many in the real-life scenario, either. So are we supposed to hate these guys, or what? Although they didn’t create the housing-collapse shit storm, they did profit from it big-time. The film presents them as amoral, not as villains. They can’t stop the impending crisis, so, as professional gamblers faced with a sure thing, they do what gamblers do—they bet. Burry takes the initiative, and the smug condescension of the banks as they accept his money provides some grim humor. While we’re no doubt intended to look down upon these shortsighted professionals, the movie offers few clearly evil characters. Rather, it proposes that most industry insiders didn’t knowingly profit off the little guy. Many didn’t realize they were doing so, making the crime one of (perhaps willful) ignorance. Burry & Co. are powerless to help average Americans, but they can make the banks pay. In fact, since only one banker went to jail as a result of the crash, and the government bailed out the biggest banks, in a sense the payout they had to make to the big shorters was the only punishment these firms actually received. The stellar cast helps make murky ethical questions poignant, and the film also provides a service by stopping the action periodically to explain the more confusing elements. Celebrities such as Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain step in to put complexities like the credit default swap market, subprime mortgage bundling and collateralized debt obligation into understandable language. While occasionally jarring, these segments unearth pernicious wrongdoing from under the industry’s mountains of bullshit. If a concept is confusing enough, Wall Street has a history of betting regular folks won’t ask questions about it. This gamble has undeniably paid off, but The Big Short doesn’t let it stay that way. While my new understanding of this crazy-terrible event definitely pissed me off, it also had a lightening effect. When I walked out of the theater, I didn’t feel quite so helpless anymore. Photos: Jaap Buitendijk/©Paramount/Everett Collection

by Emily Burns Morgan

Feb 10, 2016

Your Body Is a Wonderland...of Microbes

Somewhere between 500 and 1,000 different kinds of minuscule organisms—bacteria, fungi, viruses—live in your mouth, taking up residence on your tongue, between your teeth and under your gums. Another 400-odd species may be nestled in the crease of your inner arm. A few thousand types live in your digestive system, and your stools are between 25 and 50 percent bacterial matter by mass. A “microbial cloud” that is unique to you alone surrounds and travels with you, like the dust haze that accompanies the Peanuts character Pigpen. Even your eyeball has its own microbe community. This is not news. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, the Dutch haberdasher known as the father of microbiology, wrote in 1683 of his “great surprise” upon finding that the plaque between his teeth, examined under high magnification, “contained very many small living animals, which moved themselves very extravagantly.” The little critters colonizing van Leeuwenhoek’s dentition were members of what we now refer to as the human microbiome, the collective of tiny organisms that live on and in us, in the folds of our skin, at the bases of our eyelashes, in the birth canal and, most of all, in the human digestive tract. You and Your Microbes Wikimedia Your body houses trillions of these teensy creatures—about one for every cell in your body, according to researchers from Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, who recently debunked the oft-quoted claim that we host 10 microorganisms to every cell. Each of us may contain 30 trillion cells and 39 trillion microbes, numbers similar enough, these scientists conclude, “that each defecation event may flip the ratio to favor human cells over bacteria.” The “defecation event,” more commonly known as a bowel movement or stool or poop (not to mention several other terms), is a focus in discussions about human microbiota, as most of our microbial companions reside in the intestinal tract and exit our bodies during defecation events. These microbes are with us from our first days, helping us digest breast milk, fighting off the critters that make us sick and keeping the linings of our digestive passages healthy. Our microbes have evolved along with us, and when they are in proper balance, they appear to contribute to our good health. The relationship between our own cells (and their genetic material) and the microbes (and their genes) is a complex and constant interplay that influences our bodily reactions to a myriad of stresses. Scientists theorize that the rising tide of modern health problems, including obesity, diabetes, acne, asthma and food allergies, may be attributable to our internal microbial environment and its interplay with our genetic material. The overuse of antibiotics has wrought havoc, wiping out helpful microbes our bodies have come to rely on evolutionarily and allowing the growth of destructive species. The processed-foods-heavy and plant-fiber-light Western diet only exacerbates the problem by failing to sustain microbial health. Evidence suggests that the decreasing diversity in the human gut is being passed on through the generations, a phenomenon known as the disappearing microbiome. These modern health epidemics, this suggests, will only get worse. Repoopulation Much of the scientific and medicinal research into the restoration of gut microbiota to healthier levels is focused on fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT)—the insertion of a healthy donor’s feces, often by colonoscopy, into the intestines of a person with a compromised microbial environment. The aggressive use of antibiotics during hospital stays sometimes results in a devastating proliferation in the intestines of the bacteria Clostridium difficile, which runs rampant once most of the other gut organisms have been wiped out by the medicine. C. diff., as it is known, causes chronic and sometimes fatal diarrhea and is notoriously difficult to get under control. Doctors have discovered, however, that FMT can cure C. diff. One set of researchers, in fact, found the treatment so successful that they halted their study so the control group could be given immediate access to the beneficial treatment. Fecal transplants have also showed promise in improving conditions for patients with ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease and other disorders. There have even been claims that children with autism accompanied by gastrointestinal issues have improved both physically and behaviorally with fecal transplants. However, as Emily Eakin explains in The New Yorker, FMT is far from a proven cure-all at this stage: “In the case of C. difficile, the impact of a fecal transplant is straightforward: Normal gut bacteria overwhelm and suppress the pathogen. In patients suffering from other conditions, the effects of FMT are harder to predict or to explain, and until rigorous trials are undertaken, reports of spectacular recoveries are merely anecdotes, without scientific value.” These anecdotes have spurred one of the strangest do-it-yourself trends yet, the DIY fecal transplant. Articles, books and videos abound offering instructions for performing a fecal transplant on yourself or a loved one. There are now stool banks, including one whose donors are known by code names such as Winnie the Poo, Dumpledore and Vladimir Pootin. Massachusetts General Hospital has developed a marketable “poop pill” (a.k.a., a “crapsule”), allowing patients the unpalatable option of swallowing someone else’s fecal matter rather than introducing it by enema or colonoscopy. An artificial probiotic designed to do the same job as a fecal transplant has also been developed. Its name? RePOOPulate. Research into the human microbiome shows great promise in unlocking many secrets of our health, both good and poor. While we wait, the best advice for maintaining microbial health is straightforward and doesn’t involve buying dubiously helpful probiotic products: Avoid antibiotics, eat a plant-based diet and play in the dirt. Germs, it turns out, are not only good for us, they are a part of us. Feature Photo: Flickr

by Amy K. Hughes

Feb 9, 2016

Peggy Guggenheim: Visionary Art Collector, Victim of Love

It’s hard to know just what to think of Peggy Guggenheim. A genuinely impressive life, hers was also often a rather sad one, needlessly made so by her own unfortunate choices. By turns a compelling and exasperating figure, she receives an evenhanded treatment in her latest biography, Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern, by novelist Francine Prose.  Peggy slowly, organically came to be a great force for modern art in the 1930s and ’40s; as a collector and gallery owner, perhaps truly an unrivaled one. The shows the heiress more or less single-handedly presented in London, Paris and New York made modern art a central part of the cultural landscape—at once highbrow and pop, puzzling yet familiar. Imagining modern art and its place in our culture without Peggy Guggenheim is like imagining rock and roll without Sam Phillips. She had good instincts, and when she didn’t, she had the good sense to take advice from those whose instincts were even better. Marcel Duchamp helped her see the merit of some difficult modernists; Piet Mondrian convinced her to overlook her initial distaste for Jackson Pollock. Sad Young Man on a Train by Marcel Duchamp, 1912 (Wikimedia) She showed courage, perhaps even some foolishness, in France, first in Paris and then in Nazi-occupied Vichy. She frenetically bought art for herself (and, it turned out, for the world at large) and provided help to many seeking escape, herself enduring a harrowing encounter with Nazi officialdom. Professionally, she was indefatigable. The Louvre famously declined to protect her nascent collection during the occupation, saying her artists (Picasso, Kandinsky, Klee, Magritte, et al.) were insufficiently important. It’s fair to say that by the time of her death, in 1979, no one had done more to change the world’s mind on that matter than she had. And yet, and yet…what a complicated mess of a person she was! For most of her life, she labored under terrible insecurities about her worth, her intelligence and her looks. When narcissism and cruelty came wrapped up in the pretentious justifications of early-20th-century bohemia, she failed to get out of the way, and she endured a series of marriages and relationships in which she was treated terribly. It’s painful to read of such things—the sometimes truly dangerous physical abuse, the casual verbal cruelty. Sadly, for a long while, she even seemed to believe what was said to her: that she was worth less than the gifted, golden, ever-chattering, usually unproductive (though it must be said, quite sexy) men who took her money. Of course, these relationships did not endure; death and infidelity happeneth to them all. Through a growing sense of her professional self, she seemed slowly, in her early 40s, to be achieving something of a stable life, when she reverted to past behavior and fell for the surrealist painter Max Ernst, a ridiculous candidate for marriage from every point of view. Ernst, her second husband, pretended less than most: He made it painfully clear that he didn’t care for Peggy in the least and stayed with her only for money and legal protection, nor did he seem to think he should behave at all well in exchange. Between his nature and her obsessive determination to keep him, she made a horrible life, not just for herself but for her two teenage children from her first marriage. Birth of Liquid Desires by Salvador Dalí, 1932 (Walter Mori/Mondadori Portfolio/Everett Collection) When Ernst finally fell in love elsewhere and left her, Peggy again began a kind of independent, sexually active life, but more self-destructive relationships weren’t far away. In this domain, she never grew up, never insisted on an ordinary, respectful partnership. Sadly, she couldn’t make much of her relationship with her children, either. Without doubt, she loved them—she had fundamentally a very good heart—but she did some foolish things in bringing them up. She and her son were never close, and after a lifetime of depression her beloved daughter committed suicide. Prose’s aim in this biography is revisionist, and her timing is good. The thoroughgoing commercialization of today’s art world makes a collector like Peggy, driven by genuine aesthetic values, something of a heroine. And we’re more attuned than Peggy’s contemporaries were to the challenges a woman faces in a male-dominated world, especially if she lacks a certain polish or educational imprimatur. Then there’s the money thing, an unending difficulty in Peggy’s life. Some talented artistic types will apparently never forgive those who are prone to be generous with their money when they from time to time tire of being so. We are less likely than they were to condemn. When Prose quotes bits of earlier biographies or thinly veiled depictions of Peggy in fiction by her first husband, Laurence Vail (the novel Murder! Murder!), and Mary McCarthy (the short story “The Cicerone”), we see the justice of her cause. Peggy may have been unself-conscious and prone to mood swings, but she was usually a loyal friend. For someone who received a lot of slights in her life, she was rarely vindictive. And while sometimes money-conscious, she was almost always very generous where it counted. Prose does a welcome job of correcting the record. The biography is less successful on what to think about Peggy’s relationship with her children. Here the passage of time has the opposite effect, making us more likely to be censorious. Perhaps among her set in the 1930s, it might have seemed sophisticated to spend evenings engaged in exhibitionistic taunting, a protracted Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? sort of thing, and it must have seemed especially smart to involve the children, as audience and participants, enjoying their discomfort when teased about their own sexual exploits. The reader cannot help but have a “What was she thinking?” reaction to these stories, which show that Peggy failed to see what is a deep orthodoxy for us now: that children can provide the most straightforward love imaginable. It’s too bad, as it could have made quite a difference in her life. Peggy was ultimately imprisoned by a certain conception of what it was to leave bourgeois life behind. Combined with a determination to appear daring and intriguing to the narcissistic men in her life, this led her to be a foolish parent. It was a big ongoing mistake, and everybody paid. Prose doesn’t hide her subject’s flaws, and not being overpowered by them is to Prose’s credit as a biographer. But if the passage of time has made Peggy Guggenheim more impressive in some ways, it has rendered her more unfortunate, and more pitiable, in others. This short, excellent biography of this complex woman very much deserves to be read. Feature photo: CSU Archives/Everett Collection

by Steven Ross

Feb 8, 2016







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