Sundance 2016: A Film Festival Tackles Gun Violence, From Many Angles

Sundance 2016: A Film Festival Tackles Gun Violence, From Many Angles

By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

There were more than 40 mass shootings in the United States last year, prompting many politicians to hold forth and a large number of Americans to simply shake their heads. What needed to happen, they asked, for these tragedies to stop?

Now a new group is entering the debate: independent filmmakers.

When the Sundance Film Festival begins Thursday, it will do so with a rare accumulation of movies about the subject of gun safety. All of them hope to raise questions, if not provide solutions, in a place that has long been a ground zero for cultural movements.

“Every conversation has to start somewhere, and sometimes that somewhere is Park City,” Utah, said AJ Schnack, a documentary-film veteran who, with the input of Oscar winner Laura Poitras, has directed Speaking Is Difficult, a short about gun violence that will premiere at the festival. “Clearly everyone’s been talking about the issue, but the hope is that by talking about it artistically we can have a different kind of conversation.”

Schnack’s movie, a powerfully arranged collection of both everyday footage and 911 calls, is one of several films across both documentary and narrative categories to tackle mass shootings, defined by federal statute as the murder by gunfire of at least three people.

Others include Kim Snyder’s community portrait Newtown, the Katie Couric-produced policy piece Under the Gun and even a scripted film, Tim Sutton’s The Dark Night. An impressionistic tale set during the prelude to a movie-theater shooting, Night is loosely based on the tragedy at a multiplex in Aurora, Colo., in 2012 during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises that claimed the lives of 12 people.

Historically, Sundance, the nation’s most prestigious film festival, has displayed a flair for setting a cultural agenda. A decade ago, Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth helped kickstart a climate-change movement, and Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish in 2013 was the beginning of a long campaign to influence a policy shift at Sea World.

But rarely do multiple movies on a single issue come along at the same time, and from so many different angles.

While Under the Gun, directed by past Couric collaborator Stephanie Soechtig, examines many of the policy aspects more directly, Snyder’s piece, about the December 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, is concerned primarily with the aftermath of gun violence in one community.

Legislative questions are not addressed, and even the killer’s name is not mentioned. Instead, viewers are given wrenching access to a place that more than three years later continues to grapple with an attack that claimed the lives of 26 victims, many of them small children.

“I have this need to know what he experienced,” Mark Barden, who lost a son in the attack, says in heartbreaking tones. Imagine, he continues “try(ing) to interpret what your 7-year-old experienced as he’s being murdered in his first-grade classroom.”

Or David Wheeler, another parent who lost a child at Sandy Hook, says of what he and his wife Francine have endured since their son Ben was killed. “We’re all terrified of forgetting what he looked like or sounded like.”

Snyder, a New York-based filmmaker, traveled to Newtown just weeks after the attack and slowly won the trust of an understandably guarded community. She said she hoped to show both the tragic effects of violence and the resilience that can emerge in its wake.

“This film is not an either/or policy piece,” she said of her movie, which is one of the most emotionally devastating movies this Sundance veteran has seen in some time. “I was trying to create a portrait of a collective trauma, and do it in a way that becomes universal. I think it speaks more to the issue of how a society deals with grief.”

An even more observational style characterizes the work of Sutton, a veteran narrative filmmaker who here offers an homage to Gus van Sant’s 2003 Cannes prize winner Elephant in exploring the topic.

Taking a restrained, meditative approach, he follows a series of largely young people in a suburban town on the day a movie-theater attack will soon take place. Sutton subverts expectations of who the shooter is while also reveling in the kind of banalities that heighten the effect of the impending brutality. “This (movie) is going to be amazing,” said one young moviegoer later in the film as she sat down in the theater, just after she compliments her friend on her eyeliner.

Though he describes himself as politically to the left and in favor of more gun restrictions, Sutton’s film contains no overt ideology, and he said he had little desire to offer a policy rebuke. He hoped instead to offer exposure to the people who are affected by gun violence and, especially via long takes of a character cleaning and maintaining his gun, the weapons themselves.

“I wanted to show guns and the space they occupy in suburban America,” Sutton, who grew up with modest exposure to guns in upstate New York, said. “They’re always around, and yet for a lot of people the only time they see them is in a Michael Bay movie. I wanted to get the audience really close to them, but not in a sensational or glitzy way.”

He added, “I didn’t want to explain or judge (gun usage); i just wanted to observe. It’s just a portrait of America right now.”

But while almost everyone behind these pieces says they want to stay away from policy prescriptions on gun ownership, they are all motivated by a growing political dissatisfaction. The last five months of 2015 alone, they noted, saw brutal tragedies in locations as varied as Roseburg, Ore., Houston and San Bernardino.

“I think it’s the zeitgeist,” said Maria Cuomo Cole, who produced Newtown. “It’s burgeoning and burgeoning, and we are horrified and move on, then are horrified and move on again. As Americans we’re not very good at paying attention long-term; we’re mobilized and then fall back into our patterns.”

These films, she says, can create a more enduring reminder of the issue’s potency. (They also, it should be said, aim to offer an indie-film corrective of sorts to mainstream Hollywood, which on movie screens continues to glamorize gun violence.?)

Gun safety has occasionally flickered across the Sundance radar. In 2014, for instance, William H. Macy’s narrative piece Rudderless, about a campus shooting, closed the festival. But these new movies seethe in a different way, complementing and compounding one another. Taken together, they yield a composite portrait of a creative class angered by inaction.

Schnack’s movie, which will debut in the coming months as part of a new season of the Field of Vision documentary series, stacks 911 calls from mass shootings — people in hushed scared tones speaking from hiding spots during the attacks to officious operators— with a depressing repetiveness The idea that each time seems new and urgent to those victims is contrasted with the viewer’s growing sense of how familiar these calls have become.

Only when the film culminates in a speech from shooting victim and former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D.-Ariz.) is there some emotional release, and hope for a policy solution.

But whether these works of cinema can sway opinion is an open question. Even the most optimistic filmmakers say they know there are limits to how much they can move the needle on an issue on which many voters have long made up their minds. (That point was underscored recently when Taya Kyle, widow of American Sniper protagonist Chris Kyle, wrote a strongly worded op-ed for CNN arguing against gun safety laws.) The entrenched opinions on the issue, the filmmakers acknowledge, are infinitely more complex than the politics of responsibility articulated by movies like Blackfish.

Sundance filmmakers must also contend with the idea that they are simply speaking to the converted, particularly in a left-leaning industry like the independent-film business. As influential as the festival is among tastemakers and media elite, only a few movies each year, at most, break out in the larger culture and carry the possibility of reshaping a debate.

Festival organizers say they had no agenda in programming these movies. They simply slotted in the films because they saw a wave of powerful stories.

“I thought I knew a lot about Newtown before I saw this movie,” said festival director John Cooper.

“And then I saw it and it changed my perception. You can be callous in looking at news stories in a way you don’t when you’re watching a film,” he added. “That’s why I think these movies can really help change the way you think.”

Either way, the festival and independent film world at large is unlikely to see the number of such movies slow down. Like Middle East war documentaries and other sprawling areas, the 2016 crop of gun movies may be less a moment than the beginning of a wave.

“As long as the problem doesn’t go away,” said Sutton, “neither will the films.”

©2016 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Sundance Film Festival Travis Wise via Flickr

Entertainment’s Place In Post-Attack Rebuttal

Entertainment’s Place In Post-Attack Rebuttal

By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Global tragedy strikes these days with a kind of wearying familiarity. The pain is fresh, but our thoughts — as they did after Madrid, London, Mumbai and elsewhere — return to a well-known place.

As the Paris attacks and their aftermath have played out this weekend, once again we stare dazed at the cable news screen, facing questions we never imagined — questions we suspect have no answers, even as the scouring of CNN for motives and details and revelations provides a comforting illusion otherwise.

And once again, those of us immersed in entertainment — as producers, as distributors, as chroniclers, or even just as devotees — are left to ask where it fits in. Cultures have been grappling for centuries with how much space to allow levity in the place of a tragedy. But the relevance and even the defensibility of entertainment has lately been thrust forward as never before. These are new and confusing times, an age when mass civilian murders are common and our individual responses to them, thanks to social media, widely known. The proper reaction remains unclear; the rules of collective grief are still unwritten.

Was going to the movies, for instance, acceptable this past weekend? Was it OK to tweet about a television series or college football game? Was there a palatable way to return to, or justification for embracing, the shows, sports, movies, music and other pursuits that fill our typical weekends?

Was doing some of these things perhaps even an act of noble defiance — the attacks, after all, had taken place in part at a musical performance and seemed intended to strike at the freedom to enjoy life in such a manner — or an act of unsavory and even heartless self-distraction?

Would it be OK to wait 24 hours and then resume such activities? What about 48? Was the very idea of a statute of limitations untoward?

Entertainment companies faced their own dilemmas. Lionsgate weighed how to proceed with a Los Angeles premiere for its new Hunger Games movie on Monday, ultimately deciding to hold the event without a traditional red carpet. Saturday Night Live also scaled down but didn’t step out: It scrapped its usual comedic opening this past weekend in favor of a touching salutation, in English and French, from cast member Cecily Strong, then carried on with the show.

A friend at a Hollywood publication said he was in a quandary over whether to overhaul an upcoming issue to focus on the attack. On the one hand, Paris was all we were thinking about, and it would be insensitive, even inaccurate, to carry on with the coverage of ratings and box office and first-look deals as if we weren’t. On the other hand, the Paris attacks were not fundamentally an entertainment story, and wouldn’t it be tone-deaf to pretend that they were?

And yet through it all, entertainment may have already been playing a role in our processing mechanism. In movie theaters these past few months, films have, in their own oblique way that seem clearer after Friday, already been speaking to the issues underlying the attack, to the perpetrators and the victims, to the dangers posed and the values threatened.

The season has brought the high-wire-walking story The Walk and its spirit of unbridled humanity, whose main character uses ingenuity and showmanship to enhance lives instead of diminishing them, a fitting antidote to what happened in Paris. That said character was French and was walking between New York’s twin towers that themselves would become a target and symbol only underlines the comparison.

There is the new release Spotlight, an abuse drama in which truth-seeking journalists push forward and try to do what we all hope to do in the face of cataclysm: find justice, and maybe a little comfort for the afflicted, even as they are tempered by the knowledge their actions will always be insufficient. They press on while Sept. 11 strikes right in the middle of their efforts.

There has been The Martian, which in its own Hollywood escapist way has showed the power of countries and people around the world to band together when life is at stake, differences of nationality and ideology suddenly irrelevant.

There are, of course, literal attempts in Hollywood at understanding militant attacks, as with the upcoming 13 Hours and Patriots’ Day, each about those trying to prevent the murder of innocents. But comprehension also comes more subtly, as with the current Spectre, in which disparate acts of mass murder are chillingly realized to be emanating from a common source.

The movie seeks to fathom what could drive such bloodthirsty nihilism (while also depicting the struggles of democratic governments to contend with it). Like many other examples, Spectre is part of a feedback loop that circles between our brains and our screen, fears of an attack making their way from the first to the second, then coming back to us in a different form once such violence takes place in real life.

The question after attacks like Friday’s is whether to allow entertainment back in. But perhaps that elides the real issue. Perhaps entertainment has been here all along.

When it comes to a post-tragedy pop culture, there are the easy calls to make — the French distributor that decided to pull an upcoming movie in which Paris was under attack, for example. Most choices are harder. There are no answers — certainly no one-size-fits-all answers — on how entertainment can fit in during these shocking after-hours. Personal choices remain that way.

But whatever the response, there may be some comfort is not seeing these activities as separate. Asking the too-soon question may be, in a sense, asking the wrong question. Maybe entertainment shouldn’t be treated as a distinct refuge to which we tentatively crawl back when it is safe to do so and after we sheepishly check to make sure no one is looking. Maybe it’s something that can and should be part of the understanding of the attacks in the first place.

In its purest form, entertainment is built into the process — part of a post-attack rebuttal that allows us to stand up for a life of choice and freedom, sure, but also a way we’ve been understanding the tragedy all along, comprehending those who plot to kill, and the humanity they would seek to destroy.

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Shinya Suzuki via Flickr

Analysis: For the Oscars, Chris Rock Is The Right Host For A Race-Aware Moment

Analysis: For the Oscars, Chris Rock Is The Right Host For A Race-Aware Moment

By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

In one of his many quotable bits, Chris Rock describes his difficulties landing roles in Hollywood. “My job is like an ambulance chaser,” he said. “I’ve got to look for movies with white guys falling out of them.” Rock didn’t have to run down his latest gig. When the comic was named host of the 2016 Oscars this week – his second turn at the podium after a 2005 stint – it was for a job that Oscar producer Reginald Hudlin, Rock’s collaborator on the TV series Everybody Hates Chris, had keenly targeted for him.

Nor are the Oscars, which will be held on Feb. 28, the same lily-white affair of even the recent past. Rock joins Hudlin and academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs as part of a trio of black Americans in charge of Hollywood’s biggest night in 2016. The news comes barely 18 months after Steve McQueen became the first black director to see his movie win the best picture Oscar.

But the novelty of Rock’s status as the only black man to serve as a solo Oscars host points up the ways the movie business can still be racially challenged. And the kind of jokes the comedian trades in underscores how the show, for the first time in years, has an emcee who won’t be afraid to call out that dysfunction.

In many respects, Rock is the right man for an increasingly race-aware moment. As the Black Lives Matter movement continues capturing headlines, Hollywood figures like director Ava DuVernay and The Daily Show host Trevor Noah have come to prominence, while Straight Outta Compton makes piles of money by not shying away from racial injustice. Rock, then, is less a revolutionary choice than the product of a slow-moving industry shift. The comedian has often been a kind of racial straight-shooter, jabbing even at well-meaning sorts. (Recall his quips about white people complimenting Colin Powell as “well-spoken.”) With his high-volume delivery, a kind of wide-eyed wise guy, Rock has managed to work within the mainstream while retaining an outre sensibility. Most recently, he directed the taboo-busting Amy Schumer in an HBO comedy special at New York’s Apollo Theatre. Last year he wrote, directed and starred in the dark comedy Top Five, a shade-throwing exercise centered on the celebrity-industrial complex.

It is unlikely he will tone down that approach at the Oscars. Hudlin said last month that he and co-producer David Hill wanted to give the viewer “a little hint of danger.” And, in any event, Rock rarely pulls punches. Whether the audience is open to absorbing them is another matter.

The Academy Awards room can be thin-skinned, which Rock learned firsthand in 2005, when he joked about the ubiquity of a particular British actor. “Who is Jude Law?” Rock said at the time. “Why is he in every movie I have seen, the last four years? He’s in everything…. Next year he’s playing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a movie.”

The line famously set off Sean Penn (“Forgive my lack of humor. Jude Law is one of our most talented actors,” he said when he took the stage). Though the joke was not primarily about race, it was hard to avoid the subtext – an earnest white American actor coming to the defense of a British white actor for a joke a black actor made about the ease with which the Brit landed roles. The next day media pundits volleyed for and against Rock’s monologue, fueling a media storm that overshadowed many of the night’s winners. And this was before Twitter.

Rock has continued his frank approach of late. His SNL hosting gig last year was rife with fraught topics. In December, as he went on the Oscar stump for Top Five, he wrote an essay in the Hollywood Reporter calling out entertainment-business truths as he viewed them.

“It’s a white industry. Just as the NBA is a black industry. I’m not even saying it’s a bad thing. It just is,” he wrote.

There will be much for him to note from the Dolby Theatre podium. When it comes to racial inclusion, much has undoubtedly changed since Rock’s last Oscar turn. Four black women, for instance, have won acting awards since 2005 – compared with three who had won in the entirety of Oscar history before that.

But Hollywood’s overall lack of diversity remains. Movies with large black casts still struggle to get made, particularly over a certain budget level, and prestige film in particular has a monochrome feel.

At the Oscars, the past five years have seen a whiteout among the 20 acting nominees on two occasions – no person of minority status was nominated in either 2011 or 2015. (It hadn’t happened previously since 1998.) Under Boone Isaacs, the academy has sought to expand its membership, softening quotas so that nearly 600 people have been invited in the past few years, a decent number of them minorities. But with more than 7,000 members holding lifetime status, change is slow. The 2015 ceremony still saw the snub of the black British-born actor David Oyelowo, who many thought was a lock for a nomination for his lead role in Selma.

And this year is showing few early signs that that has changed. There are relatively few movies with large black casts in the mix – Straight Outta Compton, the summer hit about the rap group N.W.A, is one of the few contenders that could make a splash, and a number of experts have it on the bubble.

If he had larger race issues on his mind Wednesday, Rock didn’t tip his hand. “I’m so glad to be hosting the Oscars. It’s great to be back” was all he said in an official statement. Academy CEO Dawn Hudson was more direct about the kind of host the group was getting. “He is unafraid in his artistry,” she said.

Edge has not typically been the Oscars’ chosen register, as recent hosts Seth MacFarlane and Neil Patrick Harris, neither of whom was well-received, quickly learned. Neither garnered a comparatively huge audience either. Rock, on the other hand, has mainstream drawing power. His 2005 turn was watched by roughly 42 million people, which set a high mark for the eight years that followed, unbroken until Ellen DeGeneres hosted in 2014.

But how the show is promoted and received has changed a great deal. Since Rock hosted in 2005, Twitter and other platforms have risen, serving both as a welcome watchdog and, at times, an overly zealous bulwark against perceived offenses up on both sides of the race-relations aisle. In short, what could be a very funny Academy Awards could also, to some of those observing it, be a very charged one.

Rock didn’t have to chase any ambulances to land the coveted Oscars role. But there may be plenty of sirens just the same.

6 Lessons Drawn From Cameron’s Big Victory

6 Lessons Drawn From Cameron’s Big Victory

By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LONDON — The British election results Thursday night took even the seasoned by surprise. A race that was supposed to be tighter than a bearskin hatband and even potentially set off a parliamentary crisis turned out to be a romp for David Cameron’s Conservatives, who according to the tally so far defeated Ed Miliband’s Labor by 327-232 seats.

The events had implications for the United Kingdom’s two major parties as ?well as many others across the spectrum. We break down the lessons from a seismic day in British politics.

It’s a phenomenon that shares elements with the shattering losses of Democrats in several U.S. midterm elections: A party that once bore the working-class mantle is decimated by a conservative party,? especially in blue-collar areas. Labor’s demise in ?Scotland (to the nationalist-left Scottish National Party) and Northern England (to the Conservatives) was thorough, and will occasion hand-wringing for whoever takes over the party.? (Ed Miliband, who resigned Friday, tweeted that “the responsibility for the result is mine alone.”) Of course, politics loves a comeback. Miliband’s brother David, outmaneuvered for the head of Labor in 2010 and currently in New York as the head of a humanitarian group, could well return to the U.K. to fanfare and expectation, tasked with reversing a Democrat-esque collapse. And speaking? of blue and red state divides …

A burgeoning post-referendum movement for homegrown representation ?turned into full-blown political revolt Thursday as the Scottish National Party took 56 out of 59 seats it was running for. The Scots have been throatily endorsing the SNP, which also runs the country’s own (modestly mandated) Parliament and is led by Nicola Sturgeon, a straight-talking figure who is one of the fastest-rising stars in British politics (if also, for the right, one of its most polarizing). There’s a sense among many analysts that these are the first stirrings of another Scottish independence referendum and even eventual separation from the United Kingdom. The fact that the SNP will now be in the opposition instead ?of a Labor-led governing coalition should only boost those efforts _ members can snipe at and thwart Cameron’s agenda from the sidelines, delighting constituents, without being faulted for the government’s futility or ?unfavorable actions.

This is supposed to be the era of Big Data.? So how did all the polls _ from the BBC to the Guardian/ICM _ get it wrong? The surveys all predicted neck-and-neck races; indeed, the margin between Conservative and Labor was never more than 2 percent in nearly all the major polls dating back months.
One simple answer is the sampling methods. Pre-election polls tend to look at national sentiments, discounting the local and granular forces that make up a Parliamentary election. (After all, the House of Commons is pieced together via about 645 small local elections.) Or it’s possible that many voters who planned to vote Labor got to the booth and decided to stick with the Conservative status quo. Still, it will prompt some pollster soul-searching.

THE LIB DEM-ISE. It was just five years ago when Cleggmania gripped Britain and? the centrist-minded Liberal Democrats rode a strong election to 57 seats and a spot with the Conservatives in the governing coalition. But that time may as well have been the Tudor era ?on Thursday night_the party captured just eight seats, effectively sidelining it from the political scene, at least for now, and reversing Nick Clegg’s rocket ride, at least for now. (He narrowly won his seat Thursday night and stepped down from the party leadership Friday.) There will be much ruminating about what went so wrong for a party that not so long ago had seized the British public’s imagination.? But the coalition, and the party’s rough place in it, did it no favors.? Neither did a larger polarization of British politics.

On that subject of polarization, it was hardly a big parliamentary win_just one seat. Party leader Nigel Farage couldn’t even keep his own seat. But the United Kingdom Independence Party, a hard-right anti-immigration party, still notched over 10 percent of the popular vote. The result suggests that the party’s ideology is still popular with good chunks of the British population and that the country’s own version of France’s National Front is alive and well. Farage even says he hopes to come back.

David Cameron will claim a mandate after his party’s sound victory.? And given how many seats the Conservatives won over pundit predictions, he’ll have a case. But a number of close contests with Ukip candidates means he’ll continue to face pressure from his right. And he’ll encounter new challenges ?a-plenty in his second term, not least of which on European Union membership, an issue on which Cameron pledged a referendum in 2017_and which could cause a bitter Britain-wide fight that will be hard for a prime minister to stay above?.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times.Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
AFP Photo/Leon Neal

Scotland Tense Ahead Of United Kingdom Elections This Week

Scotland Tense Ahead Of United Kingdom Elections This Week

By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

EDINBURGH, Scotland — With only a few days to go until the United Kingdom’s national elections, tensions were simmering in Scotland.

The heads of the two leading parties in Scotland — battered Labor and the ascendant Scottish National Party — took shots at each other Sunday night in their final debate before U.K. polls open Thursday, exposing how much bad blood has arisen between two parties that, in fact, agree on a number of key economic issues.

“(British Labor leader) Ed Miliband said he would rather see the Tories back in office than work with the SNP,” Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon said, in one of several sharply worded statements. “I think that’s pretty appalling.” Sturgeon later called Labor “desperate.”

For his part, Scottish Labor leader Jim Murphy accused the SNP of reckless politics, saying it was “willing to bring down a Labor budget” to advance its own cause.

The campaign fight between Labor and the SNP in Scotland has highlighted a division that many thought was put to rest when a referendum on Scottish independence was defeated in September.

But the battle has larger implications. If the SNP gains many seats at Labor’s expense Thursday, it could play kingmaker in the new British government, since neither Miliband’s center-left Labor nor Prime Minister David Cameron’s center-right Conservative Party are expected to win a majority of seats on their own.

That means Scotland, despite accounting for only about five million of the U.K.’s 64 million residents, could swing an election that many believe will determine Britain’s future in the European Union and on the world stage for years to come.

The nationalist SNP has undergone a remarkable rise since the “Yes” movement it helped lead lost in September. Under Sturgeon, who took over from Alex Salmond after the defeat, the SNP has more than quadrupled its membership — fueled in part by a sense among Scots that post-referendum promises from London over greater autonomy have gone unfulfilled.

As a result, the SNP, which holds only six seats in the British Parliament, is forecast to win at least 50 of the available 59 seats from Scottish districts when final ballots are counted.

Meanwhile, Labor, which has long maintained a stranglehold on Scottish politics, has unraveled. Come Thursday, the party is expected to lose most if not all of the 41 British Parliamentary seats it holds in Scotland, according to TNS and other polling firms.

The new math has set off a political chess match.

In her bid to lure Labor supporters, Sturgeon has said the SNP wants to work with Labor (although not as part of a formal coalition).

But Miliband and Murphy have sought to put distance between themselves and the SNP, fearing that any association with a Scottish nationalist movement would hurt them with English voters. At Sunday’s debate, Murphy took aim several times at Sturgeon, seeking to pin her down on a five-year moratorium for a new independence referendum as Sturgeon equivocated.

Cameron and the Tories, meanwhile, have sought to capitalize with English voters on the rise of the SNP, telling them that, essentially, flipping the lever for Labor means voting for the Scottish nationalist group.

“The fact is that Labor cannot win a majority on their own. They can only get into Downing Street with the support of the SNP,” Cameron said in a campaign speech last month. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, who remains personally popular in Scotland, even though her party is a non-factor, also hammered the point at Sunday’s debate.

Despite the “Better Together” unity campaign that won by a margin of about ten percentage points in September, the issue of Scottish independence remains at the fore. The fact was highlighted last week when the Scottish and English editions of Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspapers atypically diverged on their election endorsement, with the former recommending the SNP and the English edition pushing for the Tories.

At a Labor rally in Glasgow on Monday, Murphy and the comedian Eddie Izzard, who supports the party, were heckled by a small number of nationalist supporters, forcing the pair to abandon the event early. Sturgeon condemned the hecklers.

On the streets of Edinburgh, there has been less fanfare than during the referendum vote, with fewer signs and overt campaigning. Still, the effects wrought by a post-referendum nationalist surge could be felt.

On Leith Walk, a main thoroughfare in the city’s northeastern neighborhood, candidates from the Liberal Democrats and other parties pumped hands with voters on the street, hoping to attract those fleeing Labor but unsure about the SNP.

And as bikers and joggers made their way through the city’s Hollyrood Park later in the evening, many said they were doing something they never expected a few months ago: looking toward the nationalists.

Lisa Webb, an environmental worker who was raised in Edinburgh, encapsulated the feelings of many Scots as she exercised.

“I voted no on the referendum, but I think might vote for the SNP now,” she said. “The way Labor has carried itself has really not appealed to me. And I’d never vote for the Tories.”

Photo: Lawrence OP via Flickr

The Subjects of ‘1971’ Were Snowden Before Snowden

The Subjects of ‘1971’ Were Snowden Before Snowden

By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

John and Bonnie Raines were an ordinary young married couple in the early 1970s. Raising three children in a Philadelphia suburb, he was a college professor, she was a homemaker. John had been a Freedom Rider in the 1960s, and he and his wife each attended anti-war protests. But neither showed a particular predilection for radicalism.

Yet as the Vietnam War raged, the Raineses joined a plot that belied their unassuming lives: They helped execute the break-in of an FBI office from which more than 1000 documents were stolen.

“She was a lot more enthusiastic than I was,” says John Raines, 81. “I was dragged along by her enthusiasm.”

“He had more sleepless nights,” Bonnie Raines, 73, says with a laugh, departing briefly from her quiet, no-nonsense manner for dry understatement.

The Raineses are the subjects of a new movie, “1971,” which chronicles the actions several unlikely radicals took that year in the name of throwing light on what they believed were illegal and intrusive government activities.

Led by Haverford physics professor Bill Davidon, the group’s aim was to break into a comparatively lightly guarded office in Media, Pennsylvania, to obtain proof of a part of J. Edgar Hoover’s infamous counterintelligence COINTELPRO program.

As demonstrated in Hamilton’s movie — set for a run on PBS in May — the so-called Citizens’ Commission to investigate the FBI carefully plotted over months to steal the files that detailed spying on the legal anti-war activities of ordinary Americans. By making the FBI program known via the press, the Raineses and their cohorts hoped, those overreaches would become known and corrected.

The idea basically was to provide damning proof of U.S. government malfeasance, a more meaningful act than the ceremonial burning of draft cards and other methods in vogue at the time.

The Raineses’ roles were significant: Another other things, she went undercover to scout out the office during the planning stage, even meeting agents in plain sight, while he drove the getaway car the night of the break-in. The raid was planned in their Germantown, Pennsylvania, home.

Those efforts bore fruit. The documents would come to show that Hoover had ordered a surreptitious infiltration of the protests both to harass those engaging in legal anti-war activities and to deter others from joining them. The spying, read the line in one memo, “will further serve to get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”

“1971” mixes more traditional interviews and thriller-like re-enactments to tell its story. The actual break-in, staged on a March night when much of the country was distracted by “the Fight of the Century” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, is a white-knuckler as the group is nearly caught.

But the primary effect of the film is less political and more human. The raid was planned by everyday people who never imagined themselves engaging in such an activity until perceived injustice changed their minds. At bottom, “1971” makes sharply clear the extent to which history’s acts of bravery can be uncertain propositions while they happen.

“It was amazing what they did, ordinary citizens who felt strongly to take action,” says Hamilton, who spent five years working on the movie after learning of the story from the Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger, who broke much of the news contained in the stolen documents. “I mean, there were children sleeping in the next room.”

Those activities might seem heedless to those thinking of the couple’s offspring, the oldest of whom was just eight at the time.

But the Raineses say there was a larger principle at stake: “We thought about the consequences for our children, but it just seemed right,” John Raines says. They had made contingency plans with relatives in the case long jail time awaited.

As it turned out, such a plan was not necessary. Despite a five-year manhunt, none in the group was captured. The Raineses lived quietly for decades in the same greater Philadelphia area. John continued to teach religion at Temple; Bonnie eventually earned her degree in early childhood studies.

Some of this is documented entertainingly in the film as, in the wake of the break-in, FBI agents descended on antiwar hotbeds in hilariously bad disguises to try to root out the Citizens’ Commission. Whether because of the group’s skillfulness, the FBI’s ineffectiveness, or simply the lack of a discernible trail in a pre-electronic age, no members were ever caught.

Meanwhile, Medsger and the Post published the stories (other outlets were skittish; whistleblowing was new, and the legal and moral dimensions were not yet fully known). The publicity eventually led to the creation of the so-called Church Committee and the first-ever congressional investigation into government intelligence activities.

The cultural effect was significant too. Government overreaches were comparatively little known or even fathomed at the time. This was, after all, before Watergate, and the idea that a democratic government would spy on its own law-abiding citizens was largely unthinkable.

The Raineses decided to step forward — they are also featured in a 2014 book by Medsger — because the statute of limitations has expired and they sought to spread the word of their backstory.

“People really had no idea this (FBI spying) was happening,” John Raines says, sitting next to his wife. Born perhaps of many years in hiding, the couple have a kind of efficiency of language, a way of getting to the nub of the matter. “You have to try to imagine how different it was,” he adds.

If the events remind of Edward Snowden, they should. The Raineses and the rest of the group put themselves at risk to expose government surveillance — to supporters, it was an act of heroic whistleblowing, to detractors, traitorous criminality. And their activities share plenty of similarities with the former NSA contractor (who, it should be noted, was still more than a decade from begin born).

In fact, Laura Poitras, who directed the Snowden doc and newly minted Oscar winner “Citizenfour,” is an executive producer on “1971.”

“It was the scope of what they did and the desire to do it that struck me,” Poitras says. “And both those qualities apply to Snowden.”

The Raineses have an unassuming air about their actions. But they say they are hopeful that their activities helped set the table for the more healthy skepticism of government activities that’s prevalent today.

“There’s no way to know exactly,” Bonnie Raines says. Then she adds with some understatement, “We’d like to think so.”

Photo: mrgarethm via Flickr

Edward Snowden Emerges As A Film Star

Edward Snowden Emerges As A Film Star

By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Depending on your point of view (or maybe on whether you’re Neil Patrick Harris), Edward Snowden’s actions could be read very differently: The former NSA contractor is either, in the end, a dangerous traitor or a laudable hero.

It’s that split that makes the 32-year-old a compelling — and increasingly popular — cinematic figure. That popularity is demonstrated by the doc phenomenon CitizenFour this season, and now by Snowden, the new Oliver Stone drama that recently began production in Europe with Joseph Gordon Levitt in the title role and Zachary Quinto as muckraking journalist Glenn Greenwald.

How Snowden’s decision to leak scores of documents about national surveillance should be interpreted is one of the key moral mysteries of the national security debate, and hardly a clear matter even for some of those telling his story.

“I’m endlessly fascinated by Snowden’s decision, his process, his motivation,” Quinto told Movies Now. “The vast majority of accounts had it one way or another — he’s either one more traitor or a righteous whistleblower. And the question is, which one is it? Or maybe it’s something more complicated than that.”

Contemporary news figures in the Snowden vein can make for some weak cinematic sauce (see: Julian Assange movie The Fifth Estate in 2012). Perhaps it’s that we grow tired of the cult-of-personality aspects of the story; maybe we’re just worn out by all the cable-news volleying.

But Snowden is proving resistant to the rule. CitizenFour, in which Laura Poitras offers an unusually intimate look at Snowden and Greenwald in the now-famous Hong Kong hotel room where documents were leaked, scored best documentary at the Oscars on Sunday, notched strong ratings in its initial airing on HBO last month and was one of the highest-grossing documentaries of 2014 when distributor Radius released it in theaters.

Sony, meanwhile, has bought the rights to Greenwald’s book No Place to Hide in the hope of making its own movie, and has set James Bond producer Barbara Broccoli for the project, though whether it still moves forward in the wake of Stone’s take is an open question.

Stone’s Snowden — which is backed by a group of U.S and European companies and will be released by Open Road in December — has plenty going for it. The film features an all-star supporting cast that includes Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson, Nicolas Cage, and Shailene Woodley, and takes matters beyond the hotel room setting of CitizenFour to the sanctuary Snowden sought in Russia. Basically it’s about the battle for freedom (for him) and for extradition and prosecution (for the U.S. government).

To tell the tale, the director and producing partner Moritz Borman have acquired the rights to several books, including Luke Harding’s The Snowden Files, a Guardian reporter’s look at the pursuit of Snowden as the story was boiling over in the summer of 2013.

As of last month, Quinto had yet to reach out to Greenwald, though he was hoping to do so soon. The actor, who said he was mesmerized by CitizenFour, said he hasn’t made up his mind about Snowden’s actions, but did say that “from his writings, his intellect is indisputable, and it’s clear he has a thoughtfulness and a foresight and a meticulous attention to detail.”

Snowden himself, meanwhile, has emerged from the shadows somewhat as his cinema star has risen. He even weighed in on Harris’ now-infamous “for some treason” joke at the Oscars.

“To be honest, I laughed at NPH. I don’t think it was meant as a political statement, but even if it was, that’s not so bad,” he said in a Reddit Q&A on Tuesday. “My perspective is if you’re not willing to be called a few names to help out your country, you don’t care enough.” (Greenwald was less amused.)

There’s a long tradition of great whistleblower movies, from On the Waterfront to The Insider to Michael Clayton. Some of the best involve journalists (see: All the President’s Men). And Greenwald’s the journalist you want for your big-screen take. He’s a personality in bold colors (try watching CitizenFour without forming a definitive opinion of him) and his backstory has plenty of layers, as revealed even by small glimpses of he and partner David Miranda in Brazil, where the couple lives. And Stone can open the story up to new places and scenes that a documentary like CitizenFour, without the luxury of re-enactments, lacks the ability to do.

Still, can a big-budget globe-trotting thriller, usually forced to choose between hero and villain, capture a complicated figure like Snowden? Key to that might be finding the right amount of internal conflict and ambiguity. And though Stone’s politics are often well, unambiguous, he’s a figure who’s surprised in recent years with movies like World Trade Center and a hardly cut-and-dried critique of the financial crisis in Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps.

Quinto added that, despite both those expectations and the stream of coverage on Snowden specifically, he believed there’s a need for the new film. “I think our movie will open things up in a different way and shine a light on other perspectives,” he said.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Image: AFP

Raucous Party Follows Somber Recollections At Berlin Wall

Raucous Party Follows Somber Recollections At Berlin Wall

By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times

BERLIN — A day that began in mournful contemplation ended in a raucous street party for hundreds of thousands as Germany marked the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

The split nature of the commemorations — downbeat trumpets in the morning, gyrating pop stars at night — reflected the silver anniversary’s strange duality: A quarter of a century after it came down, the wall still evokes some of modern Europe’s darkest hours and hardest-fought triumphs, and in this nation of 80 million its demise is at once an occasion for sober reflection about its many victims and cause for rejoicing over the Cold War’s abrupt end.

Under chilly gray skies, dissidents and dignitaries gathered Sunday morning in a residential section of central Berlin next to an extant portion of the wall that has been refurbished as a memorial. With a former East German watchtower looming behind her, German Chancellor Angela Merkel received a flower from one of dozens of goodwill child volunteers and joined them and others in placing the blossoms in spaces in the wall.

Shortly after, Merkel told officials and journalists that the message of the wall continued to resonate.

“This concrete symbol of state tyranny brought millions to where they could not tolerate it anymore,” Merkel said. “But we have the power to create. We can change things for the good.”

Sunday evening, entertainers of all stripes took the stage outside the Brandenburg Gate, the ornate landmark that separated East and West Berlin and where numerous leaders, including Ronald Reagan, gave famous Cold War speeches.

The evening contained some political content — after nodding to Mikhail Gorbachev on a dais, Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit drew cheers of “Gorby” from the crowd — but for the most part music and revelry reigned.

Conductor Daniel Barenboim led the Berlin State Opera orchestra in a spirited performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a callback to a Barenboim-led performance of Beethoven’s Seventh in 1989.

Peter Gabriel performed his 2010 cover rendition of “Heroes,” the song David Bowie famously sang, in German, during a Cold War concert in West Berlin.

Various German pop stars, youth choirs and performance dancers took the stage in acts that reflected the era of the wall. An elaborate fireworks display was launched and Wowereit presided over the unleashing of lighted balloons into the sky; the orbs had been affixed on temporary stands and traced the path of the Berlin Wall for nine miles around the city.

Meanwhile, the East Berlin-raised techno musician Paul Kalkbrenner did after-hours duty, assembling electronica tracks for the throngs while the Brandenburg Gate behind him was turned into a canvas for a strobing light show.

Perhaps the night’s strangest turn came when the Cold War-era pop star Udo Lindenberg took the stage. The freewheeling singer had a key role during the era of the wall — he had played a show in East Berlin, rallying the city’s youth. “Beyond the Horizon,” a current hit musical about love divided by the Berlin Wall, is inspired by his life and career.

After performing numbers from the show, Lindenberg proceeded to camp it up, using a microphone cord as a lasso and kissing numerous female performers. He also high-fived a man in a Berlin bear costume and danced suggestively with a scantily clad woman who descended by crane from a neon hoop in the sky.

Then Lindenberg ascended a giant bird cage of sorts and drifted away over the crowd.

Berliners might have needed a release after the daytime events.

At the flower-placing memorial on the city’s once-divided Bernauer Street, now in the fashionable Mitte district, dissidents described the “tears of blood” that ran through the city because of the Cold War era-divide, as Merkel and Wowereit stood just feet from the death strip, the shoot-to-kill buffer zone where an estimated 138 people were slain trying to escape East Germany.

As a neighborhood in the center of Berlin, Mitte was both one of the most prominent areas to be sealed off when the wall went up unexpectedly in August 1961 — and, with its condos and restaurants that have sprung up since, ground zero for the revitalization that has occurred in the quarter-century since the wall fell.

The Berlin Wall memorial in particular has become a place for the city to process its darker memories.

The memorial is the result of a relatively recent phenomenon of Berliners looking to preserve their wall history instead of razing it. Large swaths of grass have been planted in spots where much of the death strip stood, creating an odd juxtaposition both with the metal pillars that once supported the wall just beyond it, as well as a preserved section of the death strip itself. Ringing the site is a formidable expanse of concrete that brings home the fearsome quality of the wall.

In her only scheduled remarks of the day, Merkel — herself a product of East Germany — cited Lech Walesa, Gorbachev and other reformers from the era, noting regions where today “freedom and human rights are still threatened or even trampled on.”

Her speech was notable because it also cited Kristallnacht — the anti-Jewish pogroms in 1938 that also began on Nov. 9 — and took a turn to the political with references to the wars in Syria and eastern Ukraine. They were quick mentions, in the context of a larger fight for just causes, but the latter underscored Merkel’s increasing split with Moscow on the Donetsk situation. On Friday, Merkel said she had “grave concern” about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions in the region after she talked to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

Gorbachev didn’t miss an opportunity either, excoriating the U.S. and Europe in his own speech Saturday for bringing the world to “the brink of a new Cold War.”

The comments served as a reminder that Europe’s divisions, particularly between East and West, haven’t disappeared and in some ways have resurfaced in the 25 years since the wall fell.

Around Berlin, there were other commemorations Sunday morning.

At the modern entertainment hub of Potsdamer Platz, once a no man’s land between the city’s sectors, tourists and visitors posed alongside sections of the wall that had been placed there for the anniversary.

An outdoor Jumbotron near the Bernauer memorial played East German propaganda and drew a crowd of hundreds, while inside a train station visitors perused an exhibit explaining the concept of “ghost stations” — East German metro stops that had been sealed off after the city was divided but that trains still ran through to get between points in West Berlin.

But things were perhaps most personal on Bernauer Street itself. An unassuming residential avenue, the road in central Berlin contains historical significance because of the proximity of homes on its east and west side.

Residents could see from one side to the other, and in more lenient moments in the 28-year history of the wall, East Berliners from other parts of the city could visit apartment-dwellers on the street and attempt to see family members in the West without fear of retribution from East German authorities. There were also numerous escapes from the East that were attempted over, under and across the boulevard.

An exhibit has been set up explaining the odd concept of East and West within eye line of each other, and in recorded interviews, residents of the street described the peculiar interactions they inspired.

In one, a woman named Ursula Gesch told of being unable to return home or see her parents upon coming back from a holiday out of the country, during which the wall had gone up. To keep in contact with family members who had been stranded in East Berlin, her parents “would visit friends with a window that allowed them to see us across the road,” she said. “And my parents would stroke their hair in such a way so that we knew they’d seen us.”

AFP Photo/Tobias Schwarz

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Russia’s Actions In Ukraine ‘Gasoline On The Fire,’ U.S. Diplomat Says

Russia’s Actions In Ukraine ‘Gasoline On The Fire,’ U.S. Diplomat Says

By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times

KIEV, Ukraine — The U.S. ambassador to Ukraine had stern words for Russia on Friday, continuing a week in which Washington has toughened its rhetoric against Russian President Vladimir Putin over his nation’s alleged involvement in clashes in eastern Ukraine.

More than a week after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Ambassador Geoffrey R. Pyatt lamented that rather than “take this crisis as an opportunity to put things back on a diplomatic track, instead what we have seen from the Kremlin is the pouring of gasoline on the fire.”

The Obama administration believes that Russia has increased its supply of munitions to separatist forces since the crash of the jetliner, which the insurgents are widely suspected of shooting down. The State Department said Thursday that it also believes Russia is firing artillery at Ukrainian military positions near the border in eastern Ukraine and has also increased troop movements on the Russian side of the border.

Pyatt’s comments continue the stern talk coming from the White House on Russia, with President Barack Obama saying this week that “now’s the time for Russia and President Putin to pivot away from the strategy that they’ve been taking and get serious about trying to resolve hostilities within Ukraine.”

Pyatt added Friday that “Putin can end this with one phone call.”

Pyatt told reporters that the latest Russian military activity — which he described as a sign that an escalation had “unambiguously occurred” — had worrying parallels to the country’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in late winter.

“If we roll back the clock to the end of February or March, we can all remember the Russian denials. ‘There are no Russian troops in Crimea. These aren’t our little green men.’ And history tells us that these little green men were Russian special forces,” Pyatt said.

He cited communications intercepts by Ukraine suggesting contact between Russian military commanders and separatist leaders and said that Washington has validated the intercepts’ authenticity.
“The totality of the picture should be clear to anybody who has their eyes open,” he said.

Some congressional leaders, notably Sen. John McCain (R-AZ.), have urged the administration to supply Ukraine with weapons in addition to food and other nonlethal supplies in the country’s fight against the separatists.

The administration does not appear to be considering that option nor any other military action, instead imposing and pushing Europe for harsher sanctions against sectors of the Russian economy.
Putin has denied supplying the separatists with weapons and said he seeks a diplomatic solution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

On Friday in Kiev, the British ambassador to Ukraine echoed U.S. comments about the Russian leader.

“There is a cooperative path to take and a noncooperative, destructive path,” said Ambassador Simon Smith as he spoke of sanctions against Moscow. “The logic of (our) policy is if you choose the destructive path and continue down that path, we’ll continue down that path too.”

Pyatt also expressed frustration over the actions of the separatists who control the crash site of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17.

“I think it’s tragic that the site has not been fully secure and that there is not unimpeded access for investigators,” he said. Pyatt rebuked separatists for not being willing to “demilitarize” the area in the same manner as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has said he would.

Dutch investigators have said they continue to be thwarted in their efforts to gain full access to the crash area, and inspectors from many countries remain grounded in Kiev or at home with security concerns over the site.

Just a small number of investigators, including some from Malaysia, where the flight was headed, and the Netherlands, where it originated, have been able to reach the zone, and wreckage has laid out unguarded — or, in some cases, been carted away — since the July 17 crash.

AFP Photo/Maxim Shipenkov

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Ukraine Prime Minister Yatsenyuk Resigns As Ruling Coalition Collapses

Ukraine Prime Minister Yatsenyuk Resigns As Ruling Coalition Collapses

By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times

KIEV, Ukraine — Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk abruptly resigned Thursday afternoon as Kiev’s ruling parliamentary coalition fell apart.

In a brief statement, Yatsenyuk told Parliament, “I announce my resignation in connection with the collapse of the coalition and the blocking of government initiatives.”

He criticized lawmakers for gridlock that he said had interfered with the body’s ability to pass measures on issues such as energy and military financing.

The resignation came on the heels of news that Ukraine’s governing European Choice coalition had collapsed as several parties withdrew from the government.

Among the parties pulling out were Udar, the pro-European party of former boxer and current Kiev Mayor Vitali Klitschko; nationalist party Svoboda; and Fatherland, the party of Orange Revolution leader and failed 2014 presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko.

Under Ukrainian law, President Petro Poroshenko will now have the right to set new parliamentary elections. Those elections already had been expected to be held earlier than a scheduled 2017 date, but the collapse of the coalition will further hasten voting.

The events took some observers here by surprise. There was little overt indication of fundamental discord in recent weeks, particularly in the last week as the government dealt with the geopolitical and logistical fallout from the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and as it continues to battle pro-Russia separatists in the east.

Yatsenyuk was one of several government ministers front and center in these crises, giving an impassioned news conference Monday in which he called Russia a country “on the dark side.”

Considered a rising star in Ukrainian politics, Yatsenyuk, 40, served as economic and foreign minister in previous regimes. His stock surged after the exit of pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovich earlier this year. Yatsenyuk met with President Obama in a high-profile White House visit during the Crimea crisis in March.

AFP Photo/Andrew Kravchenko

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Toronto 2014: Reitman, Baumbach, And Rock To Premiere New Films

Toronto 2014: Reitman, Baumbach, And Rock To Premiere New Films

By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times

New movies from veteran directors such as Jason Reitman, Noah Baumbach, and Shawn Levy — not to mention the work of some less expected filmmaking types — will make their world premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival when it kicks off this September, organizers said Tuesday.

The Canadian confab, considered a key early stop for autumn hopefuls and awards contenders, made its first round of announcements Tuesday morning. Highlighting the slate are world premieres of Reitman’s “Men, Women & Children,” Baumbach’s “While We’re Young,” and Levy’s “This Is Where I Leave You.”

The list also contained some less expected names. Chris Rock will bring a rare directorial effort, “Top Five” (formerly known as “Finally Famous”), about a comedy actor who tries to go dramatic that stars — who else? — Kevin Hart.

The noted playwright Israel Horovitz will, at 75, make his feature directorial debut with “My Old Lady,” a story of an inherited apartment and an unwanted guest; it stars Kevin Kline and another veteran who always seems to be up to new tricks, Maggie Smith.

And the actor Chris Evans, who while trying to save the world as Captain America also found time to direct and star in a new movie, will bring that film, titled “Before We Go,” to the festival. The movie is a drama about a woman who misses her train and ends up in an urban underbelly. Alice Eve stars alongside Evans.

Toronto can be a place where some beloved North American filmmakers help kick off their new releases — and, if things go right, a hefty awards campaign to go with it. Baumbach, Reitman, and Levy all fit that bill.

Baumbach, who last year had a breakout with “Frances Ha,” will come to the festival with “While We’re Young,” a story of two contrasting couples and the effect their lives have on one another; Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Amanda Seyfried, and Adam Driver star.

Reitman’s “Men” marks a return for the Toronto favorite after his turn to harder core drama with last year’s “Labor Day.” Based on Chad Kultgen’s controversial novel, Reitman new movie looks at modern sexual mores and how they reverberate through the lives of parents and children. It features a rather unexpected star, Adam Sandler.

Levy, best known for directing the “Night at the Museum” franchise (a third movie comes out later this year), marks a shift to more relationship-based drama with a look at a family that comes together in trying circumstances, based on Jonathan Tropper’s novel and starring Jason Bateman.

Levy is not the only studio director mixing things up. Comedy maestro David Dobkin (“Wedding Crashers”) will present the world premiere of his coming-home legal dramedy “The Judge” starring Robert Downey Jr. And longtime helmer Ed Zwick, not particularly known for fact-based drama, will premiere “Pawn Sacrifice,” his story about Bobby Fischer as the chess champion gets ready to face off against Russian chess grandmaster Boris Spassky.

Though carrying a reputation for awards-ready fare, a number of commercially minded movies will make their world or North American premieres at Toronto as well, including “Good Kill,” “Gattaca” director Andre Niccol’s story of a drone pilot that reunites him with star Ethan Hawke (that’s a North American premiere), and Antoine Fuqua’s “The Equalizer,” the Denzel Washington-starring revival of Robert Woodward 1980’s TV series (that’s a world premiere).

Toronto this year is implementing a new policy in which films that screen at the Telluride Film Festival will not be eligible to screen in its all-important first four days. Fest director Cameron Bailey instituted the policy to avoid the practice made common in recent years for Telluride to steal the thunder of some of the season’s biggest films.

Last year, for instance, awards and commercial favorites such as “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Gravity,” and “12 Years a Slave” all received prime first-weekend slots at Toronto. But not all premieres are created equal: “Dallas Buyers” was a true world premiere, “12 Years” had a sneak preview at Telluride and “Gravity” played both Venice and Telluride. Neither of the last two films would be eligible to play the first weekend at Toronto this year.

That policy means that there will be more true world premieres at Toronto this year. It also means some films will choose Telluride and won’t be there at all.

Not on the list Tuesday, indeed, are some high-profile awards bait some are expecting to make an early September festival debut — Brad Pitt’s “Fury” and partner Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken,” most notably — but also Jon Stewart’s “Rosewater” and Thomas Vinterberg’s “Far From the Madding Crowd.” Toronto does have another round of big announcements scheduled for next week, so expect a few more dominoes to fall by the time the festival game gets underway.

Photo via WikiCommons

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Train Carrying Malaysia Jet Victims Completes Its Halting Journey

Train Carrying Malaysia Jet Victims Completes Its Halting Journey

By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times

KIEV, Ukraine — A train carrying more than 280 bodies from Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 arrived in the government-controlled city of Kharkiv early Tuesday afternoon, ending a nearly five-day waiting period for families who lost loved ones in the crash.

The train made a halting journey to the city after leaving the separatist-controlled town of Torez on Monday evening, remaining in the separatist stronghold of Donetsk overnight as fighting raged near the train station before resuming movement at just past 6 a.m. Monday morning. All told, it took about 16 hours for the train to make the journey to Kharkiv from Torez, which lies about 180 miles to the southeast.

The train is currently parked at a cargo station in an industrial part of Kharkiv. From there, the bodies will be removed and transferred to a Dutch military jet, which will transport them to the Netherlands for both forensic analysis and, in the case of non-Dutch victims, repatriation.

A total of 193 Dutch citizens died Thursday when the plane was downed by a missile suspected of coming from pro-Russian separatist forces. An additional 105 civilians hail from countries such as Australia, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. The bodies of about 15 victims remain unaccounted for.

While the train waited in Donetsk overnight, the black boxes from the plane were turned over to Malaysian officials in a late-night, pageant-filled ceremony at a separatist-controlled building nearby.

Alexander Borodai, leader of the self-proclaimed Donestsk People’s Republic, turned over the two flight recorders to Col. Mohamed Sakri, who referred to Borodai as “his excellency.” The black boxes, which were discovered by separatists at the crash site as early as last Friday, will be analyzed for relevant pre-crash data, though investigators are skeptical they will reveal much given the immediacy of the missile impact. Some have also voiced concerns that separatists could have tampered with the devices.

After the handover, the black boxes were carried on the train by the Malaysian investigators and are now in Kharkiv as well.

Meanwhile, fighting between the Ukrainian government and separatist forces continued Tuesday in Donetsk, with the two sides vying for control of the eastern Ukraine hub city.

AFP Photo/Dominique Faget

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Focus Shifts To Trainload Of Bodies From Plane Crash Site In Ukraine

Focus Shifts To Trainload Of Bodies From Plane Crash Site In Ukraine

By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times

The battle for control at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 entered a new chapter Sunday focused on the fate of victims’ bodies, and U.S. and British leaders pointed fingers at Russia for nurturing the separatists suspected of bringing down the airliner.

“There’s a buildup of extraordinary circumstantial evidence,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said, suggesting for the first time that Russian President Vladimir Putin may have supplied pro-Russia militants with the weapon that brought down the Malaysian jet with 298 people aboard.

In the eastern Ukrainian town of Torez, pro-Russia separatists, observed by a handful of journalists and monitors, guarded refrigerated train cars filled with scores of body bags that contained the remains of victims brought from the crash site at Grabovo, 13 miles away.

But the train was at a standstill because separatist leaders and the Ukrainian government hadn’t yet worked out a deal for its departure time and destination.

Also Sunday, the plane’s flight recorder, or black box, was apparently found but was being held by the separatists, and international investigators continued to be stymied in their efforts to visit the disaster site.

Remarks by Kerry and British Prime Minister David Cameron reflected rising frustration over Moscow’s support of the militants, who want eastern Ukraine to secede and become part of Russia, and over how the crash site is being handled by the separatists.

“The Russians have armed the separatists, trained the separatists, support the separatists, and have to date, not publicly called on the separatists to stand down,” Kerry said on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” one of five Sunday morning talk shows on which he appeared. “We need Russia to become part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

Cameron had perhaps even stronger words, writing in the Sunday Times that if it’s proved that pro-Russia separatists fired the missile that brought down the Malaysian jet, “we must be clear what it means: This is a direct result of Russia destabilizing a sovereign state, violating its territorial integrity, backing thuggish militias, and training and arming them.”

In eastern Ukraine, government emergency workers had begun gathering the bodies Saturday. Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were present, but said they could do little as the workers were forced to turn over the body bags to trucks overseen by armed separatists. By Sunday morning, the workers and the bodies were gone, transferred to the railway station deep in southeastern Ukraine.

“We have not yet received an opportunity to dispatch the train,” Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, who is overseeing the post-crash efforts for the Ukrainian government, told reporters in Kiev on Sunday afternoon. He said the train contained 192 bodies, with eight additional sets of partial remains. The search continued for other bodies, and as of late Sunday night, as many as two dozen more had been found and were being brought to the train station.

Separatist leader Oleksandr Boroday, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said he would wait for inspectors from the International Civil Aviation Organization before moving the train but did not commit to any timetable.

Families remained on tenterhooks for news about the bodies. Ukraine has said it is preparing to host these families from around the world but can’t make arrangements yet because it doesn’t know where the train will end up. The northeastern town of Kharkiv — the closest big city under government control — would be the likeliest option, but the separatists may push for Donetsk, a city they control. The Ukrainian government would strongly object to a transfer to Donetsk.

The train issue speaks to the trickiness of a site that is both a crash scene and a war zone. It’s possible that the bodies could be caught in a political tug of war between Ukrainian government officials and the separatists, who could be seeking concessions, such an unconditional suspension of violence in the wake of major territorial losses.

Asked whether he thought the bodies could be safely removed given the leverage they provided the separatists, Dutch diplomat Kees van Baar, who is overseeing the technical aspects of the post-crash effort, said, “I think right now there is hope.”

U.S. and British leaders sounded less optimistic about the overall situation. Kerry told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “what’s happening (at the crash site) is grotesque” and called the area “seriously compromised.” He added that the United States continued to amass data that suggested that Putin and Russia had supplied the SA-11 missile launcher suspected of bringing down the Malaysian jet.

Appearing on CNN, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) was direct in her remarks. “Putin, you have to man up,” she said of his alleged relationship with the separatists.

Even with the added pressure, Kerry deflected questions about whether the Obama administration would punish Moscow for its suspected role in the tragedy. He said that although the administration would consider more penalties, it was looking to Europe to get tougher with the Russians.

Cameron also took aim at neighboring nations. “For too long there has been a reluctance on the part of too many European countries to face up to the implications of what is happening in eastern Ukraine,” he wrote. “It is time to make our power, influence and resources count. (W)e sometimes behave as if we need Russia more than Russia needs us.”

Some European nations such as Germany, more reliant on Russian oil than the United States, have been less willing to impose sanctions.

Cameron’s new defense minister, Michael Fallon, has also said Putin should “get out” of eastern Ukraine.

Putin has so far stood his ground and denied any involvement with the separatists, but experts believe the new pressure could soon force a response.

More immediately, investigators are looking simply to get to the crash site. Ukraine is putting together a team that includes representatives from affected countries as well as the International Civil Aviation Organization and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. But until a cease-fire or a security zone can be established, it’s unlikely they would go in. A team of more than a dozen Malaysian crash investigators is entering its third day waiting in Kiev hotels for a go-ahead to visit the site.

Ukraine’s Groysman cautioned any group against entering on its own until a deal could be worked out with paramilitary groups. “Guarantees of security of territory controlled by the separatists cannot be made,” he said.

Time may be running short. About 200 Ukrainian emergency workers and 800 volunteers are at the sprawling site, but they are thought to be ill-equipped. On Sunday near Donetsk, a tractor driven by separatists lifted a large piece of aircraft, one of many instances that has investigators worried that the militants will soon strip the site of any forensic value.

Chief monitor Ertugrul Apakan said that access for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the only major outside group at the site, had improved since Friday, but was still far from optimal. “We need full access to the crash site,” he said.

At least one issue, however, seemed to be approaching a resolution. The mystery over the whereabouts of the black box of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was cleared up when video surfaced of separatist emergency workers apparently coming upon the device in a field in eastern Ukraine. The video, taken Friday, showed one worker calling out “flight recorder” in Russian and appearing to hold the orange-colored device, one of two on the aircraft to log flight information and cockpit sounds.

Still, because flight recorders are generally used to determine potential missteps or malfunctions ahead of a crash, they may be of limited use in an instance in which a missile is believed to have brought down a plane.

Times staff writer Paul Richter in Vienna contributed to this report.

AFP Photo/Dominique Faget

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Ukraine Prime Minister: ‘Russia Is On The Dark Side’

Ukraine Prime Minister: ‘Russia Is On The Dark Side’

By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk had harsh words for Russia and President Vladimir Putin on Monday, saying the country is “on the dark side,” blaming it again for the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 and demanding that it close its Western border to halt separatist activity in eastern Ukraine.

Russia “trained these bastards and supported them and even orchestrated this despicable crime,” Yatseniuk said of the missile strike that brought down the jetliner in which pro-Russia separatists are suspected.

Asked if Ukraine was pushing Germany and other European nations to lean more heavily on Russia to call off pro-Russia separatist activity in eastern Ukraine — an effort most experts believe will have the most tangible effect on the conflict — Yatseniuk didn’t single out efforts in Western Europe and instead said, “This is a global threat and Russia is on the dark side. This is our priority and (should be) the key priority of the entire world — to stop Russian aggression.”

He added: “President Putin has to realize enough is enough. This is not just a conflict between Ukraine and Russia. This is an international and global conflict.”

The remarks, made to reporters at a Kiev news conference, underlined the growing intensity of the showdown between Russia and Ukraine — as well as much of the global community — spurred by the crash of Flight 17. They came after Putin made comments seemingly directed at Ukraine in a video statement overnight, in which he expressed regret for the tragedy but also made veiled a reference to rhetoric from Kiev.

“No one should and no one has the right to use this tragedy to pursue their own political goals,” Putin said. “All those who are responsible for the situation in the region must take the greatest responsibility before their own people and before the peoples of the countries whose citizens were killed in this disaster.”

The Kremlin denies that it has provided any assistance to pro-Russia separatists who are suspected of bringing down the plane, and instead has pointed to the fact that Ukraine has surface-to-air missile capability.

Ukraine feels it has global momentum on its side in its fight against pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine, particularly as outrage grows over the separatists’ handling of the post-crash effort and Russia’s involvement with the paramilitary groups.

On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and British Prime Minister David Cameron pointed fingers at the Kremlin, accusing it of complicity with the separatists; Cameron said that Russia was “destabilizing a sovereign state” and called on Western Europe to exert more pressure on Moscow.
They also underlined Russia’s involvement in training and equipping separatists whom they strongly believe fired the missile that downed the jetliner.

In Kiev, Yatseniuk repeated that belief, using his characteristically harsh language in saying that operation of the weapon required veteran military expertise. “Any Russian drunken guerrilla cannot manage this system,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ukraine and pro-Russia separatists led by Alexander Borodai continue to wage battle in the eastern part of the country. On Monday, fighting intensified in and around the urban rebel stronghold of Donetsk. Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council spokesman Andriy Lysenko said Monday afternoon that the government was widening control around the all-important airport site but that separatists still held the city.

He also said the Ukrainian military believed that there was an “escalation” of Russian Federation forces on the other side of the border, with “100 new pieces of heavy machinery on the border of Ukraine.”

The fighting jeopardized the post-crash efforts in the region.

More than 250 bodies from the downed jet are now waiting in a train station in Torez, about 40 miles east of the Donetsk, but they appear to be caught in a political tug-of-war between Ukraine and the pro-Russia separatists with little imminent solution.

Putin also called for the post-crash efforts to move forward with an international investigation and a cease-fire in the hostilities between Ukraine and the separatists.

“Russia will do everything within its power to move the conflict from the military phase we see today to the negotiating phase, with the parties using peaceful and diplomatic means alone,” the Russian leader said.

Ukraine wants investigators and and other workers to have secure passage to and from the crash site without a cease-fire agreement. Yatseniuk blamed Russia for not doing more to call off separatist military activity around the sensitive area.

“The Russian government has done nothing in order to provide an opportunity for law enforcement and security bodies to have unhindered access,” he said.

AFP Photo/Dominique Faget

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Malaysia Defends Flight Path Of Downed Jet

Malaysia Defends Flight Path Of Downed Jet

By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times

KIEV, Ukraine — A day after a Malaysia Airlines plane traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur crashed near the Russian border in eastern Ukraine, the Malaysian transportation minister said he believed the crew bore no responsibility for the deadly flight plan.

“The flight path taken by MH17 was approved by the International Civil Aviation Organization and by the countries whose airspace the route passed through,” said Liow Tiong Lai at a news conference in Kuala Lumpur on Friday. “Fifteen out of 16 airlines in the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines fly this route over Ukraine.”

The crash, which U.S. officials believe was caused by a surface-to-air missile, spread wreckage over a wide area in the contested territory around Donetsk and is presumed to have resulted in the deaths of all 298 people on board. Ukrainian officials have blamed pro-Russia separatists who control large parts of the area; the rebels have denied any involvement.

Both Liow, who took over the minister job from interim predecessor Hishammuddin Hussein just several weeks ago, and Malaysia Airlines have come under fire for the pilots’ decision to fly that route. Critics note that they chose the path despite the recent danger faced by Ukrainian military transport planes at the hands of rebel fighters — and even though a number of European and other airlines had been choosing to circumvent the troubled airspace.

Liow — who said that Malaysia Airlines would send a team of 62 to Kiev to assist with the post-crash efforts — added that there had been “no last-minute instructions” to change the flight plan and called for an independent investigation into the incident.

But determining the circumstances that led to the downing of the plane won’t be simple. While aviation disasters tend to spur high levels of multinational cooperation, that’s far less likely here given the politically charged nature and geography of Thursday’s crash.

The intergovernmental Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which counts both Ukraine and Russia as members, said Thursday on behalf of itself and the two countries that an agreement had been secured from the rebels “to provide safe access and security guarantees” to investigators from Ukraine and other nations as well as to OSCE. A delegation from the group’s special monitoring mission in Kiev set out for Donetsk on Friday morning. Russian President Vladimir Putin also told Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Friday that he wanted a “thorough and unbiased” investigation, the Kremlin said.

But it remains to be seen if that goal is achievable given the various parties’ competing interests, and given the hostile climate between Ukraine and Russia dating back to Putin’s annexation of Crimea this spring. The two nations have also been engaged in a blame game over the crash.

Russia denied any involvement, saying it had not supplied separatists with a Buk missile system, which can propel missiles high into the air at great speed. Sergei Kavtaradze, a member of the Security Council of the Donetsk People’s Republic, also told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday that it “was not us who shot down the plane because we don’t have this hardware.”

But Anton Gerashchenko, an advisor to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, said that rebels indeed had the weapon and that it had been provided by Russia. (Russian state TV noted in June that rebels had captured an anti-aircraft system from the Ukrainian army.)

It is also unclear how quickly or easily the rebel forces, led in part by Alexander Borodai and his self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, will allow access to hard-fought territory. On Friday in Kiev, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said that “Ukrainian authorities are still not allowed to get to the crash site,” adding that “all lines have been crossed” with the incident.

Adding to the complications, Putin has been critical of OSCE in the past, saying it is a cudgel for Western interests.

The investigation could yield major geopolitical consequences. If it’s proved that Russia had a role in the downing of the plane, Putin could face increased pressure from the United States and the European Union to distance himself from the rebels.

The crash comes in the wake of recent gains by Ukraine’s military, which has won back at least half of the rebel territory in the past three weeks. But the fighting could intensify in the weeks ahead as separatists dig in for what experts believe could be a bloody urban battle.

Elsewhere in the country, the streets remained calm. In beachfront Odessa, far quieter this season because of the lack of Russian tourists, families, and couples strolled in the city’s restaurant district Thursday night, while Friday morning in Kiev, commuters embarked on the morning rush in a scene that offered few hints of the ongoing battle in the east.

Photo: ITAR-TASS/Zuma Press/MCT/Zurab Dzhavakhadze

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