Essay:

Zero Days, the Must-Watch Film That Explains Everything About Cyber Warfare

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Zero Days is a documentary about the Stuxnet computer virus that raised red flags throughout the cybersecurity world in 2010 due to its remarkable sophistication, ambiguous origins and potentially devastating threat to industrial control systems around the globe. The film unfolds in dramatic fashion, with first-hand accounts from cyber professionals detailing the intricate technical analysis surrounding the virus’ discovery and investigation, as its purpose and intent slowly unravel.

The bulk of the film is a detailed examination of the efforts of analysts and security experts to painstakingly dissect and interpret the Stuxnet code, and ultimately determine that it was the wayward product of a joint effort between the U.S. and Israel governments to sabotage centrifuges inside Iran’s Natanz nuclear plant—with the intent of slowing their enrichment of uranium and ultimately their development of nuclear weapons.

The unfolding mystery of this story plays out with urgency and dismay, as the details of this covert operation are disclosed, including high-level espionage, covert assassinations and direct links to key global leaders. It also delves frighteningly into the potentially dangerous ramifications of such actions, including the legitimate threat of retaliation by the Iranian government.

It’s a stunning real-life thriller from renowned documentarian Alex Gibney (Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) that not only details the complexities of advanced coding in a remarkably evocative visual manner, but also spells out much of the often fascinating intelligence operations involved in making such an elaborate operation possible.

Ultimately Zero Days’ message is that cyber warfare is very much our new reality, as it has become tantamount to Cold War-era concerns over nuclear proliferation. As Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and NSA ominously states in the film (paralleling the development of the atomic bomb): “This has the whiff of August 1945…somebody just used a new weapon, and this new weapon will not be put back in the box.”

As timely and urgent as any film that has been released in recent years, Zero Days is a film that demands to be seen by anyone with any degree of concern over our safety and security in the 21st century.

Available via Amazon Prime for those with a Showtime subscription.

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Essay:

Noam Chomsky’s Documentary on Netflix Is Essential Viewing on American Politics

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In his introductory remarks to “Requiem for the American Dream,” celebrated intellectual and linguistics professor Noam Chomsky expounds: “Inequality has highly negative consequences on society as a whole, because the very fact of inequality has a corrosive, harmful effect on democracy.”

Inequality is the central theme of this 2015 documentary from filmmakers Peter Hutchison, Kelly Nyks and Jared P. Scott, as they interview Chomsky over the course of 4 years in order to unravel the political and market forces that he deems to have systematically defeated the classic ideal of “The American Dream” over the past century.

The bulk of “Requiem for the American Dream” is built out as an examination of what Chomsky refers to as “The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power“. These principles revolve around the notion that political parties are dependent upon large corporations to support the high costs of political campaigning, and that the political power that corporations earn through their contributions translates into legislation that meets their own special interests. Ultimately this increases the concentration of wealth and power in a “vicious cycle” of influence and profit.

Chomsky, at his rational and coherent best, spells out his perspective regarding the modern political machine and the downfall of democracy, with a keen eye to the historical decisions and influences that have sabotaged the “common good” and shaped America’s current political, financial and social landscape. His views on the suppression of the general populace in favor of empowered members of the upper class are key to his argument, as he posits that the elite have hijacked decision-making in order to maintain their own entitlements.

Well-supported by archival footage and illuminative animation, “Requiem for the American Dream” paints a very concise portrait of political and social change in the 20th and 21st centuries, including the rise of democratization in the 1960s and the government’s often overlooked policy interventions that have helped to suppress social change in favor of corporate profiteering. It’s eye-opening stuff that provides a remarkable history lesson from one of the most esteemed and highly regarded social critics of our time.

On par with the best documentaries of the 21st Century thus far (from “The Fog of War” to “Citizenfour”), “Requiem for the American Dream” is essential viewing for the discerning viewer in search of a more complete understanding of how American society has evolved to such a dramatic point of polarization, and how both politics and big business have played such an inextricably role in this process.

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Essay:

Must-watch on Netflix: Fruitvale Station is a Rousing and Tragic Story of Injustice

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Fruitvale Station opens with authentic video footage from New Year’s Day, 2008 of Oscar Grant III being detained and shot by police in the titular metro station in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, California. The film is a dramatic recapitulation of Oscar’s final day on Earth leading up to this fateful encounter, and it’s a gripping, heart-rending depiction of a troubled but hopeful young man’s final hours before his tragic demise.

Written and directed by Ryan Coogler and starring Micheal B. Jordan (the same pair that would go on to huge commercial success with Creed), Fruitvale Station depicts Oscar Grant as a young man striving to make ends meet in order to provide for his girlfriend and young daughter. He has recently been released from prison and has just lost his job at the local supermarket, leaving him in dire straits as he strives to put food on the table and cover the monthly rent. And yet much of this last day for Oscar shows him in preparation for his mother’s birthday that evening, buying food, procuring a birthday card, and fielding calls throughout the day in anticipation of the evening’s festivities. This portrayal of a committed and loving family man is key to the film’s purpose.

Michael B. Jordan portrays Oscar as a candid, authentic individual, replete with eagerness, frustration, optimism and anger. We see moments of compassionate caring for his young daughter and family members, off-set by moments of anger and volatility toward a fellow inmate (in a telling flashback), his former employer and in a fateful moment, a rival gang member aboard the BART train. One of the very best things about the film is that it doesn’t attempt to candy-coat Oscar and portray him as a saint, but rather shows him as a struggling but purposeful young man trying as hard as possible to get by in life, even as the odds so often seem stacked against him.

Ultimately Fruitvale Station becomes a depiction of police brutality and tragedy, as Oscar and his friends are detained on their way home from San Francisco following New Year’s Eve celebrations, and singled-out as the culprits responsible for an on-train altercation. In their struggle with seemingly obtuse and inexplicably volatile officers, Oscar is mistakenly shot in the back by an officer who mistakes his gun for his taser, and dies hours later in the hospital to the agonizing grief of his family and friends (this does not serve as a spoiler, as the film opens with actual footage of the incident, and yet the viewer is left devastated and recoiling with anger nonetheless).

Fruitvale Station is a pointedly authentic experience—it’s genuine, it’s poignantly convincing, and it gives you a remarkable glimpse into one man’s life, cut far too short by injustice. At its heart it serves to showcase the real man behind the news headline, and to give you insight into his own personal struggles, his concerns, his aspirations, and sadly, his unrealized life’s potential.

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Essay:

Short Term 12: The Best Movie you Can watch on Netflix?

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The late Roger Ebert once asserted that a movie “is like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”

It’s an insightful analogy, and from this perspective one could say that virtually all movies serve as vessels for empathy (the ability to put yourself in the metaphorical shoes of another). And yet some movies are even more conducive to an emphatic response than others—some films really yearn to put you into the hearts and minds of its characters, allowing you to immerse yourself in their emotions, their fears and their actions. A very fine example of this is Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12.

In Short Term 12, Brie Larson stars as a young woman running a short-term shelter for at-risk youth in Southern California. The story depicts the world inside a residential home, with Larson playing Grace, a 20-something supervisor of both staff and residents. Grace fulfills her role readily yet warily, as she juggles her professional responsibilities with multiple struggles in her private life, including a relationship with her co-worker Mason. And in the plights and lives of her young residents, Grace repeatedly demonstrates her dedication to providing them with the safety and caring they desperately need.

Much of the story is built around Grace’s interactions with Jayden, a recent arrival to the center who struggles with depression, avoidance and self-harm. Grace seeks to help Jayden find some semblance of stability, and in doing so finds herself drawn into her world. Despite her own personal struggles, Grace is remarkably empathetic to Jayden’s plight and to her pain. It proves to be really touching, heart-rending stuff, this depiction of such a kind, considerate individual showing so much concern and care for another human being.

In fact it’s really impressive filmmaking across the board, including striking performances from an eclectic cast, including a number of young actors who have gone on to more prominent roles including Oscar-winner Larsen (Room), Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) and Keith Stanfield (Atlanta). Each shines bright in roles of varying degrees of pain, confusion, melancholy and hopefulness.

Ultimately you’ll find that Short Term 12 is not the type of story you come across every day, and certainly not in such a remarkably poignant manner. If film is an empathy-generating machine, as Ebert suggests, I can think of few other movies that so effectively allow you to identify with and even ache for the characters and their journey. It’s a legitimate human drama that paints a very poignant picture of human compassion.

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Essay:

The Immigrant on Netflix: A Perspective on Immigration That Trump Would Never Understand

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There is no more incendiary topic in America today than the issue of immigration—and the controversial efforts of the new leadership to block foreigners from entering the country. Immigration has long been a fiery topic of political debate and social discourse, yet in 2017 we are experiencing a new level of discrimination and xenophobia the likes of which modern Americans have rarely experienced first-hand.

In film, we have seen immigration addressed and depicted in numerous forms over the years, from Gregory Nava’s “El Norte” to Diego Quemada-Díez’s “The Golden Dream” to John Crowley’s “Brooklyn.” Yet one film from 2013 that strikes a particular note in the depiction of the pursuit of the American Dream is James Gray’s “The Immigrant”.

Set in New York City in 1921, The Immigrant is a distressing yet engaging period piece about a young Polish woman, Ewa, arriving to Ellis Island with her sister, Magda, only to see Magda quarantined for health concerns—leaving Ewa to fend for herself on the streets of the Lower East Side. Desperate to earn the funds necessary to liberate Magda, Ewa in coerced into prostitution by Bruno, a devilish theater owner and pimp played by Joaquin Phoenix. Marion Cotillard plays the titular immigrant to aggrieved perfection. She delivers a remarkable performance as she ekes out all of the helplessness and distraught confusion of the young naïf, forced into complex relationships with both Bruno and his dashing cousin, Orlando the Magician (Jeremy Renner) in order to survive and rescue her sister from Ellis Island’s hospital purgatory.

The Immigrant is a tale about adversity, survival, compromise and ultimately some degree of reclamation. Even in its fictional form, the film serves as a true-to-life illustration of the trials and hard-won freedoms realized by so many Americans a century ago. And yet in this film you’ll find a number of parallels to America today—particularly the exploitation so many from around world endure in their pursuit of freedom and opportunity on American soil. With the character of Ewa, Cotillard depicts a young woman who experiences a profound struggle in order to pursue that freedom and opportunity, despite the brutal travails she endures. Unfortunately under America’s current administration, so many are now facing the very real likelihood that such an effort is no longer even a possibility—that the door has been shut to them altogether.

The Statue of Liberty, displayed pointedly in the film, is inscribed with the famous quote from Emma Lazarus’ sonnet, New Colossus, that reads in part: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The Immigrant offers an acute depiction of this spirit of sanctuary, despite all of the misfortune it so often entails. The question that ultimately arises is whether painful compromise in the name of liberty is worth the very opportunity for liberty in the first place. Ewa’s character certainly displays that conviction, though the film as a whole will no doubt open your eyes to the fact that, for many immigrants who are able to arrive upon America’s shores, freedom often comes at a great cost.

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Essay:

455 Words on Why You Should Watch Dear Zachary on Netflix

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What is the most emotional experience you have ever had from watching a movie?

What is that one film, more than any other, that left an indelible mark on your consciousness?

What is that singular feature that you will never forget, never shake, always reflect upon — and well up with emotion whenever you do?

For so many of those who have seen it, “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father” is that film.

Dear Zachary is a documentary that first aired on MSNBC in 2008, and acts as a message of love and testimony for a boy named Zachary Andrew Turner, the infant child of filmmaker Kurt Kuenne’s closest childhood friend, Andrew Bagby.

Andrew Bagby was a young doctor from Northern California who practiced medicine in Latrobe, Pennsylvania and who enjoyed widespread respect and admiration from colleagues and friends—before he was tragically murdered in November of 2001 by his girlfriend, Shirley Turner.

Following Andrew’s murder, at a time when Shirley was being investigated for the killing, she announced that she was pregnant with Andrew’s son, Zachary. This disclosure came as an enormous shock and surprise to all of those left grieving Andrew’s loss.

Upon learning of Zachary’s impeding birth, Keunne set out to travel across America, Canada and the United Kingdom to interview those who knew and loved Andrew, gathering footage and tributes for the young doctor, so that young Zachary could one day appreciate his father’s talent, character, and the extent to which he positively affected the lives of those he touched.

What begins as a tale of bittersweet remembrance, however, soon takes a dark turn when Shirley absconds to Newfoundland, Canada with Zachary. This forces Andrew’s parents, David and Kathleen, to relocate to the remote Canadian province as well, in order to be close to their grandson and to fight for his custody.

The events that further unfold within the story will shock and infuriate you; they will jar you with their legal complexity and overwhelm you with emotional grievance; in the end you will likely struggle to make sense of the full emotional impact of watching what has unfolded.

It is, however, the kindness and perseverance that David and Kathleen display throughout their ordeal that proves to be nothing if not extraordinary. Dear Zachary ultimately serves as not only a letter of love to Andrew, but a profoundly moving tribute to his parents as well. It is their compassion and humanity that brings so much light and inspiration to a story of so much poignancy and pathos.

Dear Zachary comes as highly recommended as any film you may come across. Take the time to experience Dear Zachary, and to celebrate the incredibly impassioned storytelling at hand from beginning to end.

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