“Unbroken:” a story of endurance Reply

“Unbroken,” directed by Angelina Jolie, is the story of the courage and endurance of a young American held prisoner, and brutally mistreated, by the Japanese in World War II. With a slow pace and a running time of 2 hours 17 minutes, it is also something of a test of the endurance of the audience. By taking a straightforward biographical approach, broken up only by some flashbacks to fill in the backstory, Jolie achieves accuracy and honesty while giving up narrative intensity and a decisive climax.

The film is based on the nonfiction book by the same title, by Laura Hillenbrand (known previously for “Seabiscuit”). It’s the story of Louis Zamperini, a young athlete who placed eighth in the 5,000 meters in the 1936 Olympics. He is played very effectively by Jack O’Connell, an Anglo-Irish actor in his first big role. After attending USC, Louie enlisted in the Army Air Corps shortly before the U.S. entered the war, was commissioned as a lieutenant, and served as bombardier on a B-24 Liberator in the Pacific Theater.

Louis Zamperini about to be whacked by sadistic guard.

Louis Zamperini about to be whacked by sadistic guard.

Zamperini’s plane crashed in the ocean while on a search-and-rescue mission. He, the pilot, and one other crewman survived the crash and climbed into a life raft for what became the ghastly ordeal of floating adrift for six weeks in the hot sun, catching fish and birds to eat and hoping for rain to bring fresh water. A Japanese plane strafed the raft. The third man died after 33 days at sea; Louie and the pilot drifted 2,000 miles before touching land that was, unfortunately, occupied by the Japanese. Thus began Louie’s second hellish ordeal, imprisonment in several camps that ended only when the war did.

Being a prisoner is always awful, but Louie was targeted for special abuse by a sadistic guard named Watanabe, who did everything he could to break the American’s spirit. The guard is played by Takamasa Ishihara, an actor better known in Japan as a somewhat androgynous singer-songwriter and rock band guitarist. He brings a creepily erotic note to his sadistic treatment of the Allied prisoners. Watanabe’s ultimately unsuccessful campaign of cruelty provides the only real rivalry in the film.

And therein lies the problem. We know that Louie will somehow survive and triumph, because otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie made about him. Watching him get beaten time and again is a lot to pay for a brief scene in which Watanabe sinks to his knees, defeated by Louie’s unbeatable spirit.

In other war movies – “Bridge on the River Kwai” comes to mind – at least we have the satisfaction of seeing the bad guys killed (along with some good guys, of course) and the bridge getting blown up. It isn’t widely known, but in the “Kwai” book, the ending is very different. David Lean knew that a successful movie has to have a spectacular ending, so he took the liberty of providing it. Jolie remains faithful to her source and provides a story that is satisfying in its own way, but not one you would gladly see again.

CGI armies battle in “The Hobbit” Reply

“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” is the final installment in Peter Jackson’s trilogy of films based loosely on J.R.R. Tolkien’s first fantasy novel set in Middle-Earth. Unfortunately, Tolkien gave the battle short shrift in the book, leaving Jackson’s scriptwriters to rely mainly on their own imaginations, which run to vast, computer-generated mob scenes of battle without much of the charm and wit that enliven the book.

Bard the Bowman holds off the bad guys in "Hobbit: Battle pf the 5 Armies"

Bard the Bowman holds off the bad guys in “Hobbit: Battle of the 5 Armies”

The story, briefly summarized, revolves around the fact that Smaug the Dragon is killed, and the dwarves retake Lonely Mountain and its enormous hoard of gold, only to be confronted by human refugees from Laketown trying to cash in on the dwarves’ promise to share the loot, plus the elves trying to recover some sacred jewelry. Gandalf the wizard comes along to warn of impending doom, and Bilbo Baggins goes about looking puzzled and asking why everyone can’t just get along. Then the orcs show up to try to kill everyone. The fifth army (I think) consists of eagles and bears on the allied side.

Naturally, there is a huge battle, complete with earth-eating creatures who punch holes in the ground to help the orcs infiltrate the combat zone. I hate it when they do that. Plus there are bats who are supposed to terrorize the good guys but also provide Legolas a ride up a mountain when he needs it.

The formulaic, almost Power Rangers-style fighting is interrupted by a couple of interesting single combats, but the warfare is well below the gripping level set by Jackson in the remarkable “Lord of the Rings” movies.

The “Rings” trilogy won 17 Oscars, an honor that has eluded the “Hobbit” series. Despite the abundance of gold in the recesses of Lonely Mountain, it seems unlikely that this film will bring home Hollywood treasure.

“Foxcatcher:” crime drama or portrait of madness? Reply

“Foxcatcher,” with Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo, is billed as a “crime drama,” but the term doesn’t quite fit. In a crime drama, the fascination is in seeing how the motivation for the crime unfolds, how the crime itself is conducted, and how its aftermath works out. In “Foxcatcher,” the crime is almost senseless; the criminal is clearly somewhat deranged, is something of an alcoholic and a drug abuser, and plays with guns to boot. You can see the horror coming; the question is who, exactly, will be the victim.

Steve Carell (front) as John E. du Pont, with Channing Tatum as Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz.

Steve Carell (front) as John E. du Pont, with Channing Tatum as Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz.

The great strength of the movie is in the acting. Every character is utterly believable. Steve Carell is nothing like his usual hapless characters. As John E. du Pont, heir to a piece of one of the country’s great hereditary fortunes, he is full of icy determination but oddly detached even while he yearns for some human relationship. He wears a very convincing prosthetic nose and cocks his head back to look down on mere mortals, but connects with none of them.

Tatum and Ruffalo play Mark and David Schultz, who both won Olympic gold medals in wrestling in 1984. Tatum is a gifted athlete who is not so good as a coach at the training center du Pont establishes on the family estate. His brother Dave comes in to take over the coaching, alienating his brother and setting up a conflict with du Pont. The brothers attempt to help du Pont carry out his dreams of athletic glory, but are foiled by the multimillionaire’s long slide into madness.

Ruffalo actually wrestled in high school, and he and Tatum got enough training to make their performances look very realistic (although the finer points of wrestling are far beyond me). The episode in which Mark has to lose 12 pounds in 90 minutes before a weigh-in is actually true. (Solution: sweat.)

The story is based on real events at the du Pont estate in Pennsylvania in the 1980s and 1990s, but the filmmakers take certain liberties to make the movie work better. In the film, du Pont is driven by his hatred for his mother, who disdained wrestling as a “low” sport, far beneath her own love of horses. The story is meant to be a psychological thriller as du Pont rebels against the limitations of his privileged life. In reality, it appears that du Pont simply went nuts one winter’s day and shot someone close to him.

The film is well done and has generated Oscar buzz for the lead actors. But the characters played by Carell and Tatum are so unsympathetic that it is hard to imagine audiences identifying very strongly with the movie. It is a breakthrough of sorts for Carell, but who wants to be known for playing a deranged rich guy? In the old days, the filmmakers would have changed the story so the victim lives and rehabilitates the shooter, but in the new age of verisimilitude, we are left with a rather depressing movie.

“Exodus:” Biblical epic in a digital age Reply

The good news is that “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is pretty successful as a Biblical epic and reasonably faithful to the original source. The bad news is that people apparently don’t want to see Biblical epics anymore. After all, how many ways are there to part the Red Sea? Everyone knows the story – the sea comes back and the Egyptians are drowned. Been there, seen that. So what’s new?

In the Ridley Scott epic currently showing to sparse crowds, what’s new are giant crocodiles whose chomping on fishermen starts the process of turning the Nile blood-red. Okay, I can deal with crocodiles. But a few twists like that really can’t sustain interest in a two and a half hour movie.

Christian Bale as a fightin' Moses.

Christian Bale as a fightin’ Moses.

Also new is the idea of personifying God as an 11-year-old boy. Presumably Scott didn’t want Morgan Freeman or some other Voice of God actor speaking from the burning bush. So he hired an English schoolboy, Isaac Andrews, to play God in person. He is listed in the credits as a character named Malak, but no one else besides Moses can see him – Aaron sees Moses talking to thin air – so the character is an divine apparition, not a boy.

Christian Bale’s portrayal of Moses as a reluctant hero is the film’s biggest weak spot. Moses is content to launch a sort of intifada against the Egyptians. Malak/God has to take charge and show the Pharaoh he means business and that it does not pay to mess with the Lord. The God of the Old Testament was not the warm and fuzzy type.

The special effects, digital work, and stunts are all well done, but that is expected these days. Sorry, there’s nothing exciting about a digital ancient city or big wave.

I had the impression from some reviews that the film took great liberties with the Biblical text, like the “Noah” film starring Russell Crowe. In fact, the biggest departure from the book is that Moses is shown as a general of the Egyptian army and right-hand man to Pharaoh. The book of Exodus doesn’t go there; Moses could have been a busboy for all we know. But Scott’s version sets up the rivalry between two strong-willed men, so its works. Scott’s overall interpretation of the text seems reasonable and respectful to me.

Perhaps it is the very predictability of the story that that is keeping people away. Most people learned the Exodus story when they were children. If you have time for a long movie during the holidays, why not try something you don’t already know – something with hobbits and dwarves in it, perhaps?

“Philomena:” the search for a lost child Reply

“Philomena” is the story of an Irish woman who searches for the son she was forced to give up for adoption many years before. After years of fruitless inquiring, she teams up with a British journalist and learns the truth about her son and about the system that took him away.

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in  "Philomena."

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in “Philomena.”

Philomena Lee was a “Magadelene,” an unmarried girl who got pregnant and was packed off to a convent to have the baby. Then she had to work in a laundry for three and a half years to pay back the nuns who ran the place. She was forced to acknowledge that the baby would be given up for adoption. Little Anthony was given to an American couple who already had three boys and were looking for a girl, but decided to take him as well because he came right up and embraced the mother. The price: a donation of a thousand Irish pounds each.

The film belongs to Judi Dench, who plays the title character as a ordinary, working-class person, a lover of snacks, brandy, and mass-market novels, but one with a steely determination to find out what happened to her son.

The journalist is Martin Sixsmith, played with understated wit by Steve Coogan, a British comedian not well known in this country. Sixsmith has just been sacked from his job as a government spokesperson and sees Philomena’s story as a way back into journalism.

The search for Anthony takes unexpected turns that Philomena accepts with more grace and sense than expected by the somewhat supercilious Sixsmith. Together they solve the mystery and arrive at closure for Philomena, not to mention a career reboot for Sixsmith.

The film is based on Philomena’s true story, as told by Sixsmith in a book. The real-life Philomena said the film is reasonably true to life, and she is thrilled to be played by Judi Dench.

The book was published during an uproar in Ireland over revelations of abuses in the long-established “Magdalene” system. Coupled with disclosures of sexual abuse by priests, the scandal rocked the Catholic Church in Ireland. The film suggests that the church today is not as rigid and authoritarian as it was fifty years ago (which hardly needs to be said). Nevertheless, the emotional climax is a confrontation, initiated by Sixsmith, between Philomena and an aging nun, Sister Hildegarde, who is just as mean and judgmental as she was in the old days — eager to cast the first stone. Naturally, Philomena’s response is far more Christian than Sister Hildegarde’s.

The film is a civilized little British production in which sex is discussed but not shown, there are no car chases, and nothing gets blown up, so it seems unlikely to get much beyond the arthouse circuit. But Dench and Coogan are worth watching, and the search for Anthony provides enough narrative momentum to keep the film going.

Science: Major journal retracts anti-GMO paper Reply

A year ago, in November 2012, opponents of genetic modification in food and agriculture had reason to celebrate: a major scientific journal published an article claiming that genetically modified corn and the herbicide closely associated with it, glyphosate, caused tumors in

Unfortunate rat in Seralini experiment

Unfortunate rat in Seralini experiment

laboratory rats. Pictures of the unfortunate rats with enormous tumors flashed around the world. The principal author, veteran anti-GMO campaigner Gilles-Eric Seralini, was hailed as a hero by the anti-GMO crowd.

The flimsy structure of this particular exercise in rigged science has now come crashing down. The journal that published the study, Food and Chemical Toxicology, has retracted the article. The editors finally admitted what everyone else knew as soon as the study was published: it was bogus through and through.

The editors could not bring themselves to state the case quite that plainly. Instead they said, “There is a legitimate cause for concern regarding both the number of animals in each study group and the particular strain selected.” The strain of rats, that is. Seralini was careful to select a type of rats that are known to develop mammary tumors at about two years of age (which is old for a lab rat). He fed the rats genetically modified corn and spiked their drinking water with glyphosate. Then he kept the experiment going until the rats developed the tumors you would expect anyway, and claimed that the tumors resulted from the corn and herbicide.

Seralini’s published data did not even begin to support his conclusions. The German scientific academy, in an earlier review of the study, found his data presentation “incomprehensible.” He resisted requests for the raw data – although authors are supposed to provide it upon request. Apparently he eventually acceded to a request for the raw data, and the FCT editors delicately concluded that “no definitive conclusions could be drawn” from the data.

The rigging was so transparent that many prominent scientists pointed it out immediately, and it is still a mystery why a relatively prestigious journal like FCT published the article to begin with. Scientists around the world erupted in condemnation of the article, and scientific academies across Europe denounced it. But it took the editors of FCT a year finally to own up to their mistake and retract the article. They did so in a news release.

Hopefully the retraction will remind both scientists and scientific journals that peer review is supposed to occur before an article is published, not as the result of an all-out scientific war after publication. FCT could have saved itself a serious blow to its prestige by taking peer review a bit more seriously.

Regulatory burden on U.S. poultry industry Reply

The U.S. poultry industry is closely regulated by several agencies of the U.S. government, including several within the Department of Agriculture, OSHA, the Food & Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection

EPA is trying to set pollution limits for every basin and sub-basin in the vast Chesapeake Bay watershed.  (Photo: US EPA)

EPA is trying to set pollution limits for every basin and sub-basin in the vast Chesapeake Bay watershed. (Photo: US EPA)

Agency. Of these, EPA is the most aggressive in trying to expand its authority over poultry operations. Watt Poultry USA Magazine has just published my article on the topic, entitled “EPA’s heavy hand on the U.S. poultry industry.” I cover EPA’s attempts to rope poultry farms into the type of water pollution control regime used for industrial facilities. It looked to me like EPA was going far beyond its authority. And whaddya know — after the piece went to press, a federal court firmly rejected EPA’s attempt to regulate farms.
But EPA does not give up easily. I cover several other regulatory initiatives and pieces of litigation in the article. Unfortunately the magazine requires a subscription, but if you’re interested, it’s at http://tinyurl.com/Lobb-enviro

Regulations: GMO Apple Up for Approval Reply

On the regulatory front, there’s good news in food and agriculture: The federal government is moving towards approval of the Arctic Apple.

What in the world, you may ask, is an Arctic Apple? In short, it is an apple whose flesh stays white after you slice it. This neat little trick will make the apple more appealing to finicky eaters — children, say — who turn their noses up at slices that have turned brown. It would allow caterers to put apple slices on buffet tables where they have to sit for a while. It could significantly increase the demand for apples over a period of time.

So what’s the problem? Why is federal approval needed for such an appealing product?

Because it’s biotechnology, that’s why. The apple stays white because the gene that causes it to turn brown when exposed to air has been turned out. Gene silencing, they call it.

In most biotech crops — corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, sugar beets — the genetic engineering aspect is invisible to consumers. The plant is engineered to resist insects or to survive weedkiller, but the food made from the plant is no different in any meaningful way.

The Arctic Apple will be the only plant product on the market that you can tell at a glance has been bioengineered — because it doesn’t turn brown. The benefit will be out there for all to see.

McAuliffe scores unimpressive win Reply

How much satisfaction can the Democrats take in yesterday’s elections in Virginia? Not too much, I think. Their candidate for governor spent over $30 million and scored something less than an impressive win.

The biggest winners may be the downtown Richmond hotels, which will fill up with election lawyers coming in from all over the country for the recount in the race for Attorney General. Republican Mark Obenshain has a lead of 726 votes out of 2,205,843 cast, according to the State Board of Elections. That’s close enough that Democrat Mark Herring has the right to request a recount paid for by the state.

In the race for governor, Republican Ken Cuccinelli must be wondering what he did to deserve such rotten luck. Almost nothing went right for him. The government shutdown in early October infuriated tens of thousands of federal employees who blamed the Republicans for those anxious couple of weeks. The Washington Post published a poll showing him way behind, which no doubt cost him plenty in campaign contributions. And the embarrassing scandal of a businessman’s gifts to Governor and Mrs. McDonnell cost him the active support of a formerly popular figure.

He also had to contend with a Libertarian Party candidate, someone named Sarvis, who barely campaigned but served as a sort of depository for the anybody-but vote. He collected 145,418 votes, or 6.5%. How many of those would have otherwise gone to Cuccinelli, no one can say, but he could easily have cost Cuccinelli the election.

Cuccinelli has only himself to blame for other misfortunes. His supporters made sure the statewide nominations would be awarded in a convention, which led to his being saddled with an unelectable candidate for lieutenant governor, the firebrand preacher E.W. Jackson. His support of a silly “personhood” bill pushed by conservative zealot Bob Marshall left him (and Obenshain) open to charges of wanting to ban birth control. And my impression is that Cuccinelli and Obenshain did not campaign very hard in Northern Virginia, where they might have been able to limit their losses.

Instead, Democrat Terry McAuliffe ran up the score in the Washington suburbs and urban centers downstate, and managed to carry the northern suburbs of Richmond (Henrico County) while leaving the more rural areas to the Republicans. More…

Lynas urges biotech companies: label GMOs Reply

Mark Lynas, the British author of books such as “The God Species,” delighted many in the biotechnology industry in January when he renounced years of anti-biotech activity and put himself firmly in the pro-GMO camp. Since then, he has given many speeches and interviews supporting GMOs in food and agriculture and blasting the opponents as quacks, charlatans, and nutjobs.

But now Lynas has taken a position at odds with the biotechnology industry – but it is a position the industry may come to embrace.

Lynas has come out for labeling.

Food label from Australia

Food label from Australia identifying genetically modified ingredient.

Labeling, that is, of any food item produced with the aid of modern biotechnology — which in theory could include the majority of packaged goods and many others such as cheese and beer.

Lynas has concluded that the public supports the “right to know,” so the battle against labeling is lost.

“It’s time to make a virtue out of a necessity,” Lynas said in a speech to the Center for Food Integrity (CFI) summit in Chicago on Oct. 15. (The text of his speech and a video can be found at http://www.marklynas.org/) “If enough people say that GMOs should be labeled, then labeled they must be.”

USDA won’t make up missed reports Reply

The U.S. Department of Agriculture got back into business today as the federal government reopened, but announced that it will not attempt to make up key statistical reports closely followed by agribusiness that were not published due to the shutdown.
The World Agricultural Outlook Board’s World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) report that normally would have come out Oct. 11 is canceled, USDA said in a news release.  The next report will come out on schedule Nov. 8, the agency said.  The same applies to Crop Production and Cotton Ginnings reports from the National Agricultural Statistics service (NASS).
Additionally, NASS’s Crop Progress reports scheduled for Oct. 7 and 15 are cancelled and its Cattle on Feed and Peanut Prices reports scheduled for Oct. 18 are postponed, the agency said.
“While the lapse in federal funding has ended, NASS has not been able to engage in the necessary data collection and analysis over the past few weeks,” USDA said in a news release.  “NASS is assessing its data collection plans and evaluating the timing of upcoming reports.”
Agricultural and food interests use the reports to help estimate supply and demand and facilitate price discovery.

What is it about chicken nuggets? Reply

There’s something about chicken nuggets that children love and food purists really hate.  Since McDonald’s came out with the McNugget worldwide in 1983 and created the category, critics of the modern food system have repeatedly jumped on the fact that nuggets are not exactly health food.

“When it comes to childhood nutrition, few foods are as unhealthy and insidious as the chicken nugget,” Tara Parker Pope wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2004.

Morgan Spurlock gorged on chicken nuggets and other fare at McDonald’s while gaining 24

McDonald's McNuggets

Is this what’s making Mississippi fat?

pounds for his 2004 documentary, “SuperSize Me.”   Spurlock also launched the spurious notion that nuggets were made from “old chickens” that could no longer lay eggs and are ground up into a “mash.”

A blog posting on that theme made the rounds a few years ago, supported by an authentic video showing the production of mechanically separated poultry (MSP), which consists of bits of meat squeezed off the frames (bone structures) of turkeys and chickens. The resulting paste-like product is used in frankfurters and other “pegboard” products but is not typically used in nuggets.  But the blog insisted not only that MSP is used in nuggets, but it is treated with ammonia to kill germs – which is also untrue.