April 7th, 2012, by Jeremy Freed

As a longtime fan of the action and crime genres, I have a distinct appreciation for well executed on-screen violence–from The Dirty Dozen to The Sopranos to my latest obsession, HBO’s Game of Thrones. The second season of Game of Thrones started earlier this month, and, having set the bar fairly high in terms of blood and nudity in its first season (which ended following the graphic beheading of one of its most likeable characters), raised it substantially in no time. Not only do sex, death and incest remain the show’s central means of ratcheting up tension and driving its many plot lines, they have been joined by gruesome torture, infanticide and still more incest.

The above description may not make you want to watch Game of Thrones, a nd, if such is the case, I can hardly blame you. Indeed, I’ve found my own fanboyism tempered by the new season’s impossible ante of unpleasantness. It’s given me cause to consider the purpose of cinematic violence and at what point onscreen gore becomes its own justification.

Looking at two of my favorite movies–Scarface and Goodfellas–sheds some light on this. The former, a classic cautionary tale of a gangster’s meteoric rise and equally dramatic fall from power, is famously one of the most profane films ever. It also features a man being hacked to death with a chainsaw in a Miami motel room and another hanged from a hovering helicopter. In the case of that film, the violence and the foul language serve to create a realistic (or so I imagine) depiction of the world from which protagonist Tony Montana emerged–and eventually conquered. It raises the stakes while giving some insight into just what kind of person he was. Was it necessary to splatter Montana with his friend’s blood in that infamous chainsaw scene? Probably not, but I don’t object. It makes a very memorable (and historically realistic) point about the lengths people were willing to go to protect their interest in the 1980s Miami drug trade and the kind of person you’d need to be to go toe-to-toe with them as Montana did.

Goodfellas, one of Martin Scorsese’s finest films, has its share of graphic violence, but in true fashion, it is done with grace, dark humor and the added benefit of one of the best film soundtracks of all time. You need look no further than the murder montage to Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla (Piano Exit)”, in which the camera slowly pans and zooms across the corpses of half a dozen murdered mobsters while Ray Liotta’s laconic voiceover explains why they had to go. Like Scarface, this serves the narrative, as well as character development and exposition. Unlike Scarface, Scorsese uses music brilliantly–contrasting the easy tone of the song with the gruesome nature of the visuals–to show just how senseless these murders were and also how much they were a part of normal life for the film’s characters.

Game of Thrones feels different. While much of the new season’s violence occurs at the command of the evil young king Joffrey, it seems as though the same point could have been made just as well with half as much brutality. We get it–he’s a bloodthirsty psychopath. Do we need to see a boy’s mouth fill with blood after being run through with a sword? Or hear a young man’s screams as his body is broken on a torturer’s rack? These things certainly give us insights into the world of the series and what its baser characters are prepared to do to each other to protect their interests, but this is only true to a point. Then there’s the argument that these things really did happen in human history–and far worse. But is that something we really need to see on primetime television? I suppose the only fair way to evaluate this violence is in the context of the entire series, which has several seasons yet to go. Still, with the bar for graphic violence constantly edging higher, one wonders when it will reach its limit and what kind of awfulness that could possibly be.


April 7th, 2012, by Jeremy Freed

I recently mentioned my excitement at the 25th anniversary of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album, and the accompanying hoopla. Indeed, part of the celebration is the release of a new documentary on the making of the album entitled, Under African Skies (the film takes its title from the name of one of the album’s many great tracks). I was fortunate to catch an early screening of the film and can say with confidence that it lived up to most of my overly-hyped expectations. In addition to great behind-the-scenes footage of Simon in the studio with his incredible crew of South African session players, as well as the likes of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Hugh Masekela, the film delves deep into the album’s creative process.

Among the biggest challenges Simon faced in making the album was the cultural boycott on South Africa at the time, upheld by the U.N. and the African National Congress in protest of the deeply divisive and racist apartheid system. Indeed, to this day, his trip to South Africa at the invite of some of that country’s musicians still ruffles feathers among those who fought to end apartheid, and a good portion of the film is devoted to presenting both sides of the argument. While I came away from Under African Skies with a new understanding of the political landscape from which “Graceland” emerged, it was Simon’s ruminations on the role of the artist in our society that hit me hardest.

While the boycott forbade all relations with apartheid-era South Africa (from trade to sports to music), effectively isolating the country from the world as a protest against its leadership, Simon’s view of the situation went in the face of this strategy. The role of the artist, he maintained then (and still does today), should not be subject to the will of politicians. The artist, he says, is separate and above politics and nations and deserves free passage anywhere to create. This is a paraphrasing of Simon’s actual words, which are far more eloquent. And, combined with the sounds from the record, the stories of the musicians whose lives were forever changed by the making of “Graceland” and the world which embraced its music, the film has a powerful and profound impact. Obviously, I was a fan going in, but I have a far deeper respect for Paul Simon now.

April 3rd, 2012, by Carla Amurao

Photo courtesy: Van Evers, Tavis Smiley Media, Inc.

Airdate | Friday, April 6, 2012

Hometown | Miami, FL

Parents | Sylvia Landau and Clarence Kasdan

Notable Accomplishments | Contribution to pop culture by writing Star Wars installments The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. He also wrote, directed and executive-produced 1983’s The Big Chill.

Why He’s Buzzing | After nearly a decade-long hiatus from the movie business, Kasdan is making a comeback with Darling Companion. Starring Diane Keaton and one of his favorite stars, Kevin Kline, the film is based on Kasdan’s experience of adopting a dog with his wife and losing the dog while they were away at a wedding. Kasdan says Darling Companion was inspired not by the search for their dog, but the emotions they underwent and how people can come to care for animals in an intense way. (They found their dog, by the way.)

Lawrence Kasdan Trivia

  • His first screenplay was The Bodyguard. For a time, the film was categorized as one of the “best un-made films in Hollywood” due to being in the development phase for an extended period of time. The screenplay was originally intended for Steve McQueen and Diana Ross to co-star. Ultimately starring Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston, it was the second-highest grossing film worldwide in 1992. The film celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
  • The Bodyguard was rejected 37 times before it was purchased, giving Kasdan his big break in Hollywood.
  • One of his biggest contributions to pop culture and Star Wars fandom is the famously misquoted line spoken by Darth Vader, “Luke, I am your father.” The real line is, “No, I am your father.” (See clip below.)
  • His brother, Mark, is also a writer-producer. He co-wrote and produced Silverado, co-wrote Criminal Law and produced Dreamcatcher.
  • Meg Kasdan, Lawrence’s wife, co-wrote and co-produced Grand Canyon and Dreamcatcher.
  • Kasdan’s original career route was to become an English teacher. He earned a Master’s in education from the University of Michigan.
  • A Clio Award recipient, he worked as a copywriter for an advertising agency. He arguably did not enjoy that profession.
  • To date, he has never recorded or contributed audio commentary to his work on DVD, according to his IMDB profile.
  • According to the same profile, his work reflects his respect for Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. Kasdan’s The Bodyguard is reportedly named after Kurosawa’s 1961 film, Yojimbo (“yojimbo” loosely means “bodyguard” or “security person”). Scenes from Yojimbo are also seen in The Bodyguard. Furthermore, Star Wars characters that brought comic relief, R2-D2 and C-3P0, were based on two farmers, Tahei and Matashichi, from Kurosawa’s 1958 film, The Hidden Fortress.

Selection of projects

1980 Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, Writer
1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark, Writer
1981 Body Heat, Writer and director
1981 Continental Divide, Writer
1983 Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, Writer
1983 The Big Chill, Writer, director and executive producer
1985 Silverado, Writer, director and producer
1988 The Accidental Tourist, Writer, director and producer
1991 Grand Canyon, Writer, director and producer
1992 The Bodyguard, Writer and producer
1994 Wyatt Earp, Writer, director and producer
1995 French Kiss, Director
1999 Mumford, Writer, director and producer
2003 Dreamcatcher, Writer, director and producer
2007 In the Land of Women, Executive producer
2012 Darling Companion, Writer, director and executive producer

(Clip) Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back
Watch one of the most popular, misquoted movie lines of the Star Wars franchise (at approximately 1:42).

April 2nd, 2012, by Carla Amurao

Here’s a look back at some guests in February and March 2012.

Check out images of and quotes from journalist Thomas B. Edsall, R&B artist Anthony Hamilton, filmmaker Lucy Walker, former advertising executive Charlotte Beers, actor Don Cheadle, actor-musician Steve Martin, King of Otuam Peggielene Bartels, singer-songwriter Sinead O’Connor, equal payadvocate Lilly Ledbetter, former U.S. Army Ranger Sean Parnell, physician-author Mark Hyman and singer-songwriter Macy Gray.

For additional images and quotes from the “Made Visible” discussion, visit our slide show on the feature page.

All images by Van Evers, Tavis Smiley Media, Inc.

March 31st, 2012, by Sean Nixon

This fall, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments regarding affirmative action for the first time in nearly a decade. Photo:Duncan Lock creativecommons via Wikimedia

Since 1997, the state of Texas has had a policy in which the top ten percent of any of its high schools’ graduating classes would have automatic entrance into any state-funded universities, including the University of Texas.

This fall, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on claims that a female student was denied admittance to the University of Texas due to its affirmative action policy.

There are a two major concerns I have with her argument.

First off is the student’s academic standing at the time of her high school graduation. With respect to the “top ten” rule, this student just didn’t graduate in that percentile. So it wasn’t that she was denied admittance due to race, she simply did not meet the school’s particular qualifications at that time for “top ten” admittance.

Secondly, on the issue of affirmative action, I think it is important to note the evolving history of its standing. While affirmative action was, in its inception, designed to help African Americans, it was later expanded to offer support to other citizens who were discriminated against, including women. So, in essence, this plaintiff is arguing against a policy that is designed to help persons of color and women. President Lyndon Johnson made sure of it with an Executive Order in 1967.

This year’s upcoming case is sure to bring up a hotbed of topics, especially surrounding this issue of race. Before all the talking heads begin offering their opinion, I thought I’d go ahead and share my two cents.

March 31st, 2012, by Jeremy Freed

I recently posted about an exhibition of photographs from inside North Korea, some taken by an American photojournalist, others provided by the state’s news agency. While the photos afford a rare glimpse inside the notoriously secretive nation, they remain fairly benign, clearly the result of the extremely limited access afforded the photographer by his North Korean minders.

While researching the post, I came across this story about a young man’s escape from inside a North Korean prison camp. It is truly one of the most horrifying accounts I’ve ever read. Shin In Geun was born a prisoner. “The…crime Shin’s father had committed was being the brother of two young men who had fled south during the Korean war. Shin’s crime was being his father’s son.” He knew nothing of his mother’s crimes or past–she never spoke of them, and he never asked.

Shin was one of an estimated 200,000 political prisoners inside North Korea and is the only one known to have escaped from the unbelievably harsh conditions of its labor camps. He was regularly tortured, starved, beaten and terrorized. He was 20 when he learned–from another prisoner, an educated man who had traveled outside North Korea–that the world was round.

This story is truly shocking, and there’s no reason to believe that the conditions Shin describes in the account of his memoir, written by journalist Blaine Harden, Escape From Camp 14, do not persist for many thousands inside the socialist state. When held alongside the photos from the exhibition, they take on new meaning. Not only do we have almost no idea of the goings-on inside North Korea, stories like this one only underscore how troubled and broken the nation is.

March 31st, 2012, by Jeremy Freed

A trailer appeared online recently for Disney’s upcoming nature docudrama Chimpanzee, which tells the story of an orphaned chimp, his adopted parent and the bond that forms between them. The trailer is obviously adorable. You’d have to be made of stone to not be moved by the two of them cuddling and playing together as the little ape grows up. In pretty much every way, they appear to behave a lot like people.

Being the unrelenting critic that I am (and some might substitute “cynic” for “critic”, which would not be unfair), my first thought after watching this was, “Well this looks more than a little manipulative.” Chimps are indeed a lot like humans, from their DNA down to the fact that they are the only other animals who make and use tools; but the fact remains that they are not humans and should not be viewed as such. Just ask the lady who had her face mauled by one a few years back. Or these folks.

It’s worth noting here that Chimpanzee will likely have a great effect on protecting chimps in the wild, both through a percentage of ticket sales going to charity and by spreading awareness about the species’ plight, both very good things. If Jane Goodall is involved, the project has about as much chimpanzee street cred as anyone could want. My concern, however, is that this movie and others like it, go too far in their anthropomorphism of animals and are ultimately dangerous to people’s understanding of them.

Around the time March of the Penguins came out, there was plenty of criticism about the way the film applied human emotions to its animal stars. As experts subsequently noted, it’s highly unlikely that penguins are capable of the range of emotions–or bare intelligence–given them by the filmmakers. Sure, it makes for a better narrative, but at the expense of truth in what is ostensibly a nature documentary, it hardly seems appropriate or responsible.

To be fair, chimps are a lot smarter than penguins, and judging an entire film by the contents of its trailer is a bit like judging a book by its cover. However, if I were a parent taking my kids to see this movie, I’d want to make sure they had the whole story, not just the bit that makes for a good Disney narrative. Or, more likely, I’d just take them to see Ice Age. There, at least, we could enjoy a good story without worrying too much about facts getting in the way.

March 30th, 2012, by Sean Nixon

Donald Trump blasts Paul Ryan's latest plan. Photo: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

Can’t members of the GOP just all get along? Whether it’s Newt fighting against Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum undermining Romney, folks in the GOP just don’t seem to get along these days. Now, it’s Trump forging ahead with the latest GOP criticism.

According to a recent interview on CNBC, Donald Trump weighed in on the release of the Ryan budget plan that recently passed in the House of Representatives.

The former presidential hopeful thinks the timing of the release was a bad idea. The plan as it stands is also slated by political analysts to be DOA in the Senate. The Ryan plan calls for tax cuts for the wealthy and deep spending cuts, including in Medicare.

Trump ultimately cancelled his bid for the White House, citing his part-time gig as celebrity host of NBC’s The Apprentice as too much of a good thing to leave behind.

Back in 2011, Mr. Trump filed as an independent, in order to preserve his ability to run for the Oval Office should he find himself still interested in the 2012 election. However, his political adviser states that Mr. Trump still has strong Republican roots. Check out the full interview to hear more of The Don’s political viewpoints.

Speak Out: Was Trump being too critical of Ryan’s plan, or does his argument have some merit?

March 30th, 2012, by Carla Amurao

Photo courtesy: Van Evers, Tavis Smiley Media, Inc.

Airdate |
Monday, April 2, 2012

Hometown | Lansing, MI

Birth name | Earvin Johnson

Parents | Christine and Earvin Johnson, Sr.

Why You (Should) Know Him

  • He was drafted first overall by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1979 and played alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. All 13 years of his NBA career were with the Lakers.
  • Johnson and Larry Bird symbolize the Los Angeles Lakers-Boston Celtics rivalry in the 1980s.
  • His retired #32 Lakers jersey is still worn by fans across the globe.
  • His November 7, 1991 press conference, where he announced testing positive for the HIV virus and his subsequent retirement, was named as ESPN’s seventh most memorable moment of the past 25 years. He is an HIV activist, working under the Magic Johnson Foundation to spread awareness and educate people about the disease. ESPN Films recently aired “The Announcement,” which outlined that event and what followed.

Why He’s Buzzing

  • He’s part of Guggenheim Partners, a group that, as of March 27, agreed to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers from Frank McCourt for a record-shattering $2 billion.
  • His rivalry with Boston Celtic Larry Bird is the pulp of the stage production Magic/Bird, which will premiere on March 21, 2012 at the Longacre Theatre on Broadway in New York City.
  • ESPN Films’ The Announcement premiered on March 11, 2012. (See trailer below)
  • He’s recently linked up with Comcast to launch Aspire, his own 24-hour “inspirational-themed” cable television network. The channel will target African Americans and is scheduled to launch on June 30 of this year.

Magic Johnson Trivia

  • He was dubbed “Magic” after he scored 36 points, 16 rebounds and 16 assists while playing at Everett High School. He was only 15 years old. Furthermore, his mother thought the nickname was blasphemous.
  • The Johnson-Bird rivalry didn’t start with the Lakers and Celtics. The rivalry traces back to the 1979 NCAA finals, when Johnson and Michigan State defeated Bird and the Indiana State ball club. The two men became friends while filming a Converse show advertisement in 1984. Bird inducted Johnson into the Hall of Fame, and Johnson attended Bird’s 1992 retirement ceremony.
  • In 1980, he became the first rookie to start in an All-Star game.
  • According to his biography, his on-court skills “inspired the addition of the term ‘triple-double’ to basketball’s lexicon.” (A triple-double is when a player accrues a double-digit number total in any of three categories: points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocked shots.)
  • At 6 ft. 9 in, he is the tallest point guard to play that position in NBA history.
  • He hosted his own talk show on Fox called The Magic Hour in 2008.

The Magic Johnson Empire

Under Magic Johnson Enterprises, subsidiaries include: his promotional company, Magic Johnson Productions; Magic Johnson Theaters, a chain of movie theaters around the U.S., his movie studio, Magic Johnson Entertainment; and the Magic Johnson Foundation, a charity that, according to their mission statement, ‘works to develop programs and support community-based organizations that address the educational, health and social needs of ethnically diverse, urban communities.’

Selection of Honors

Elected to Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (2002)
NBA Finals Most Valuable Player (1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1988)
NBA Most Valuable Player (1987, 1989, 1990)
Nine-time All-NBA First Team (1983-1991)
All-NBA Second Team (1982)
All-Star Most Valuable Player (1990, 1992)
Olympic Gold Medalist (1992)


  • Magic’s Touch: From Fundamentals to Fast Break with One of Basketball’s All-Time Greats (1992)
  • What You Can Do to Avoid AIDS (1996)

ESPN Films: The Announcement Trailer

March 30th, 2012, by Sean Nixon

When hip-hop lost a brother, Ms. Voletta Wallace lost a son. (Photo credit: H.Depot)

Voletta Wallace mourns the loss of her son the way any mother would. Her son Christopher Wallace, aka The Notorious B.I.G. was shot and killed in California in 1995.

It’s been 15 years since the smooth rapper extraordinaire was taken away from us. Since that time, Voletta Wallace’s quest for justice has been unwavering.

Unfortunately to this day, no arrests or convictions from the 1995 shooting and subsequent death have been made. Now, Biggie’s Mom says it’s time for justice to prevail, and there’s talk of new information that may finally lead to just that.

L.A. Weekly journalist Chris Vogel writes that a former police detective, Greg Kading, recently wrote and self– published his account of the L.A. investigation in his newest book, Murder Rap.

In the article, Vogel goes on to write that Kading’s information may provide new evidence, which can hopefully lead to some closure and justice for the Wallace family. No mother or family should ever have to go through that.

It’s a tragic case that has been cold for too long. And while the hip hop community felt as if they lost a brother, it’s important to remember that Ms. Wallace in fact, lost a son. My hope is that the new information leads to an actual arrest and conviction soon.

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