Syfy’s ‘Face Off’ Goes Boldly into the Klingon controversy

In Season 9, Episode 6, Syfy’s reality show, “Face Off” is boldly going where no cast has gone before–to the 1960s-1970s type of TV science fiction and into the Klingon conundrum of evolution. Tune in tonight (9/8c) for the episode “Extraterrestrial Enterprise” with special Star Trek guest stars Jonathan Frakes and Michael Dorn and advice from Star Trek makeup designers.

For those unfamiliar with the Sy Fy series, this is a reality Tv show on the Syfy cable network (also viewable online) which has prosthetic makeup artists competing to create the best looks for several challenges for potential science fiction and horror movies. The show is hosted by McKenzie Westmore who is best known for her role as Sheridan Crane in the NBC TV soap opera “Passions” and is a member of the Westmore makeup artist family. Her father, Michael Westmore also serves as a mentor.

This season, the judges are Glenn Hetrick (“Buffy,” “Angel,” “X-Files,” and “Babylong 5”) and Ve Neill (“Star Trek: The Movie” and “Galaxy Quest” as well as “Edward Scissorhands” and “Mrs. Doubtfire”) and Neville Page (“Avatar,” “TRON” and “Planet of the Apes”). Hetrick is the owner and CEO of Optic Nerve Studios (“Crossing Jordan,” “The Prestige,” “Heroes” and “CSI: NY”)  Neill has won three Oscars, two Emmys and four Saturn Awards.

Season 9 began on July 28 with 16 contestant and will have a total of 14 episodes. Typically, there is a winner and two runners up.The contestants range in age from the twenties to their forties, with the youngest 22 to the oldest 43. This season, the contestants are competing for a spiffy new economy car, a visit to Alcone makeup facilities and $100,000. At the beginning of Episode 6, there were 11 contestants.

This episode, Enterprise aliens, includes a Foundation Challenge in which the 11 contestants are supposed to create a “retro alien” in the mold of the science fiction TV series of the 1960s and 1970s, including “Lost in Space” (1965-1968),  “Buck Rogers” (1979-1981) and, of course, “Star Trek” (1966-1969)

 

Each person gets to chose backdrop to inspire their alien. The backdrops are:

  1. Monument Valley desert type of landscape with an orange sun
  2. Glacial cool colored landscape
  3. Purple surfaced land with a green river

Their mentor Michael Westmore judges the retro aliens, because he’s had 18 years with Star Trek, from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” to “Deep Space 9” to “Voyager” and “Enterprise” was well as 4 Star Trek movies.  He reminds the contestants that in the 1960s, the makeup artists didn’t have time to do a lot of appliance work so they used patterns and stencils. He tells them to “be imaginative, but paint in broad strokes.” The winner earns immunity for the Spotlight Challenge.

No spoilers here about who the winner is. All of the contestants are then asked to evolve the design to a more modern aesthetic as per the alien in Star Trek that has evolved the most: the Klingons. From the swarthy, bearded flat-foreheaded beings who looks suspiciously like Fu Manchu family members to the football head guy and to the new iteration in the reboot, somehow Klingons have managed to evolve quickly and bumpily while humans and Vulcans have remained relatively the same (despite some space-time continuum anomalies that are never discussed in this episode.

The contestants have three days to make, mold and then paint and finish. Jonathan Frakes appears with Michael Westmore during the clay build up of the faces and makes suggestions about the designs. The contestants then make whatever changes they have time to do before making a mold. The molds must be cleaned and then the material molded and set and finished before applying to their model. From the paint application on real models, they then leave the Face Off work room and go back stage for last-minute finishing touches. Not everything goes smoothly and not all of the contestants finish on time.

 

Tune in tonight to check out what the contestants come up for possible entries into a Star Trek universe and what the judges say about the finished products. Michael Dorn who played Worf on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” appears as a guest judge.

Get ready for Monterey Bay to take center stage on ‘Big Blue Live’

Reality shows thrive on big splashy characters with big heads and great survival stories. It doesn’t hurt of some of the stars are easy on the eyes and have great survival stories. Who doesn’t love a dolphin? What is the cute quotient of an otter? If you want scary, then there could be great white sharks. Tonight on television, online and on your smartphones and social media, you have two chances to view a reality show that is totally unscripted and yet bound to delight. And for Californians, this should be a matter of pride. Tonight and Tuesday and Wednesday on both coasts there will be a live feed from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. ET and PT from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in California on PBS.

Geeks might already be somewhat familiar with the Monterey Bay. The Monterey Bay Aquarium was used as a filming location for “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.” The aquarium was supposed to be The Maritime Cetacean Institute in Salusalito, California. It was supposed to be the only late 20th century aquarium devoted to whales on earth and the home to the only two humpback whales in captivity, Gracie and George. Gracie and George were need to repopulate the species in the 23rd Century.

The aquarium will also be one of the “locations” used in the upcoming Pixar animated feature, “Finding Dory.” This sequel to the 2003 Pixar film “Finding Nemo” opens in the summer of 2016.

While “Star Trek” and the Dory story are fiction, the BBC and PBS joint live television and multimedia event, “Big Blue Live,” is science fact and will feature  scientists,  animal behaviorists and other experts coming together for two amazing live weeks in late August and early September to document the extraordinary rejuvenation of the once endangered and now thriving ecosystem of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in California. Some of the world’s most charismatic marine creatures – humpback whales, blue whales, sea lions, dolphins, elephant seals, sea otters, great white sharks, shearwaters, and brown pelicans – convene in this once-a-year confluence.

In both feeds, as well as streaming online and in social media, viewers can watch one of nature’s great “reality” shows delivered through state-of-the-art filming technologies and live reports from air, sea, and below the waves. The multi-platform event will be anchored by four on-air correspondents from a reporting hub at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and from aboard NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Office of National Marine Sanctuaries’ research vessels. Leading scientists and other experts will provide additional insights.

The on-air correspondents include Dr. M Sanjayan, the host of “Earth: A New Wild,” recently on PBS, and currently the senior scientist at Conservation International; Liz Bonnin, a science broadcast journalist based in the UK known for her work on the BBC science programs “Bang Goes the Theory”  and “Stargazing Live”; Dr. Joy Reidenberg, the host of “Sex in the Wild,”recently on PBS, and a comparative anatomist with expertise in marine mammals, will be on location as a primary science contributor, providing insight into the anatomy of the wide range of marine life that populates Monterey Bay; and Steve Backshall, an award-winning naturalist, writer and TV anchor known for his work on BBC’s “Deadly 60.”  Leading scientists and other experts will provide additional insights on different aspects of marine life and ecology.

Last week, a week prior to the PBS broadcast, BBC aired its live broadcast in the UK, and streamed online and through social media for UK viewers. Matt Baker, a UK-based news anchor known best for his work on “The One Show,” a daily magazine program airing on BBC appeared on the BBC live broadcast.

“Big Blue Live” is part of the new multi-title co-production deal between PBS, BBC, and BBC Worldwide North America announced earlier this year. The partnership provides a pipeline of high-quality entertaining factual programs that PBS and BBC audiences have come to expect.

Tune in tonight and get ready for some fun.The series will have multi-platform support from digital and social media, as well as from PBS Learning Media and local PBS stations. Anything can happen and anything can show up. Watch and share your thoughts on twitter. For more information, visit PBS.org.

Buy tickets now to see special screening of ‘The Iron Giant’

If you’ve only seen “The Iron Giant” on your own television screen (or worse, on your computer), then for two nights you can see this classic 1999 American animated science fiction movie from Warner Bros. on the big screen care of Fathom Events on  Wednesday, Sept. 30 (7 p.m.) and Sunday, Oct. 4, 12 noon local time.

You might want to catch this feature even if you have seen it and own the video–these screenings are the remastered edition with new scenes. The feature film runs 1 hour and 40 minutes. If ticketing is not available now at a theater near you, you’ll have to check back for the daily updates. Or you can always pester your local theater that has already held Fathom Events.

The movie is based on a 1968 novel, “The Iron Man,” by Ted Hughes. Set in 1957, during the Cold War, the film centers on a young boy, Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal), who lives in Rockwell, Maine with his widowed mother, Annie (Jeniffer Aniston). He finds a giant robot (Vin Diesel) from outer space whose strange habit of eating power lines and railroad tracks cause problems. The robot has amnesia and befriends Hogarth. When a government agent, Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald),  comes to town looking for the robot, Hogarth takes his metal friend to Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick, Jr.), a beatnik artist who has a junkyard. But it’s hard to hide a giant robot and eventually the robot is found.

At the 1999 Annie Awards, the movie won Best Animated Feature Film, Outstanding Individual Achievement in Directing an Animated Feature (Brad Bird), Outstanding Achievement for Music in an Animated Feature Production, Outstanding Individual Achievement for Voice Acting in an Animated Feature Production (Marienthal) and  Outstanding Individual Achievement for Writing in an Animated Feature Production for Tim McCanlies (screenplay) and Brad Bird (story).

Tickets are available through Fathom Events.

Great Performances: Vienna Philharmonic Summer Concert

Want some wonderful background music for your end-of-summer parties, winter get-togethers or just chore times around the house? Consider buying the DVD for the “Vienna Philharmonic Summer Night Concert 2015,” but for now watch it on TV or online. Guest conductor Zubin Mehta conducts the world famous Vienna Philharmonic for its 12th open-air concert in the gardens of Austrai’s Imperial Schönbrunn Palace during May. The concert broadcasts on Friday, 28 August 2015, 9 p.m. on PBS and will be available online there after.

The program features Austrian piano virtuoso Rudolf Buchbinder who plays Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s “Piano Concerto in A minor,”a piece that was first performed in Copenhagen in 1868.  He also plays “Soirée de Vienne”by pianist and composer Alfred Grünfeld. Grünfeld, who was born in Vienna in 1852, was inspired by the waltzes of Johann Strauss.

The full musical program is:

“Wiener Philharmoniker Fanfare op. 109″” –Richard Strauss

“Piano Concerto in A minor”(Buchbinder soloist)–Edvard Grieg

“Soirée de Vienne”(Buchbinder soloist)–Alfred Grünfeldt

“Rustle of Spring, op. 32, Nr. 3”–Christian Sinding

“Peer-Gynt Suite Nr. 1, op. 46”–Edvard Grieg

“Finlandia, Tondichtung op. 26/7”–Jean Sibelius

“Copenhagener Eisenbahm Dampf Galopp”–“Hans Christian Lumbrye

“Wiener Blut, ‘Viennese Spirit’ Waltz”–Johann Strauss II

The “Vienna Philharmonic Summer Night Concert 2015″is a production of ORF in collaboration with the Wiever Philharmoniker in association with Thirteen Productions LLC for WNET.

If you think you need to understand more about how the piano should be played or how some of these original works were meant to be played before audiences, this concert will give you some notion of who the elite classes were entertained and how now in Europe that has changed.

The concert broadcasts on Friday, 28 August 2015, 9 p.m. on PBS and will be available online there after.

 

 

Press release: Free lessons from Pixar!

Are you a Pixar fan? Do you aspire to be a Pixar animator when your grow up or retire? Then I have the study program for you and it is free.

Pixar in a Box – a new online resource that explores the academic concepts behind Pixar Animation Studios’ creative process – goes live on KhanAcademy.org. Through a series of video lessons, interactive exercises, and hands-on activities, students will discover how the academic concepts they learn in school enable Pixar filmmakers to create new worlds, animate unique characters and tell stories through animation. Although designed especially for students in middle and high school, these resources are available to learners of all ages, completely free of charge.

“Our mission at Khan Academy is a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere,” said Sal Khan, Founder and CEO of the not-for-profit Khan Academy. “Sparking student interest in math and other academic fields is a key part of that, and we’re delighted to collaborate with Pixar to achieve this goal. Pixar in a Box gives students a new way to engage with key academic concepts and see how creative these concepts can be.”

“Learning makes us beginners again,” said Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios.  “In my experience, creativity involves missteps and imperfections, which is one more reason it is important for every one of us to keep learning – in order to remain flexible and keep our brains nimble.   By working with Khan Academy on Pixar in a Box, we hope to encourage the excitement of learning and creative thinking for middle and high school students and to provide the tools to do it.”

“For years, we’ve heard from teachers at every grade level interested in creating animation-based curricula,” said Elyse Klaidman, Director, Pixar University and Archives.  “We’ve wanted to provide free online resources for them, and Pixar in a Box makes that dream a reality. We hope that it not only gives students a behind-the-scenes look at how our movies are made but also gets them excited about STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) concepts.”

Khan and Catmull officially unveiled Pixar in a Box at a special event  on the Pixar campus in Emeryville, CA. After an introduction from Klaidman, local educators learned the story behind the project and then received a live demonstration of Pixar in a Box from two of its creators – Brit Cruise, Content Producer at Khan Academy, and Tony DeRose, Senior Scientist and Research Group Lead at Pixar. The evening concluded with a question-and-answer session moderated by Klaidman.

“Many students start to lose interest in academics in middle and high school, partly because they don’t see how academic concepts relate to things they care about,” said DeRose. “Pixar in a Box aims to address this disconnect by showing how Pixar filmmakers use these concepts for creative benefit in their everyday work.”

Starting today, students can access Pixar in a Box and learn:
●      How combinatorics are used to create crowds, like the swarm of robots in WALLŸE.

●      How parabolas are used to model environments, like the forest in Brave.

●      How weighted averages are used to create characters, like Buzz Lightyear and Woody.

●      How linear and cubic interpolation are used to animate characters.

●      How trigonometry is used to create the worlds in which Pixar stories take place.

●      How simultaneous equations are used to paint all of Pixar’s images.
I guess that means math is important, even for artists. You have to learn geometry, making calculations and averages as well as trigonometry. If math teachers could incorporate fun things like how math is applied to art, wouldn’t that motivate more students!

“These lessons are the first phase of the project,” said Cruise. “While the first year focuses on math, future Pixar in a Box lessons will explore science, computer science, arts, and humanities.”

All Pixar in a Box resources are available free of charge at PixarInABox.org. The site will be updated as additional lessons become available.

That rabbit and revised script dragged ‘Fatal Attraction’ into horror genre

When it came out in 1987, “Fatal Attraction” gave male viewers quite a jolt. Imagine a fling turning into a nightmarish obsession that traumatizes a family and nearly ends a marriage. The film also is a sad testament to the power of test audiences: The ending was changed for make audiences more comfortable instead of staying true to the characterizations.

The movie was adapted from a short film that James Dearden made in 1980 for British Television and was adapted by Dearden and Nicholas Meyer. With the last-minute re-write, the cast had to return for a three-week reshoot. The original ending is available on the 2002 Special Edition DVD.

In the movie, a New York attorney, Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas), meets an editor of a publishing company, Alex Forrest (Glenn Close), through business. While his wife, Beth (Anne Archer) and his daughter, Ellen (Ellen Hamilton Latzen) are away, Dan had a fling with Alex.

Although Dan is ready to move on, Alex is not. She persistently asks him out and when he finally comes over to her place for an evening, she attempts to commit suicide. He “saves” her and puts bandages on her slashed wrists, but she’s still not ready to call it quits. She invites him to a performance of “Madame Butterfly,” which should mean something in this movie, but the changed ending mostly robs the opera of its significance. Dan turns her down, but Alex will not be ignored. She introduces herself to Beth and she even slips into their house and kills Ellen’s rabbit, but leaving it boiling on the stove.

Dan finally tells Beth about the affair and that Alex claims she is pregnant. She asks Dan to leave because she’s not “stand by your man” type of woman, but Alex’s escalating actions forces Dan and Beth together. Alex even picks up Ellen at work, causing Beth to have an accident as she panics and searches fearfully for her child.

With this last outrage, Dan goes to Alex’s apartment and threatens her. This is where the ending changes. Instead of Alex listening to “Madame Butterfly” while committing suicide, Alex and Beth will fight it out back at Beth and Dan’s home. The women are fighting over a man with the scruples and sensitivity of an alley cat? Are women really that desperate? I guess it’s only romantic when an Asian woman commits suicide for the love of a man who has moved on (“Madame Butterfly” or “Miss Saigon”), but not something that Americans want to see white women doing for a white guy.

Still the movie received six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Supporting Actress, Best Directing, Best Film Editing and Best Adapted Screenplay. “The Last Emperor” won for Best Picture, and Cher won for Best Actress and Olivia Dukakis won for Best Supporting Actress (both for “Moonstruck”).

The movie is available on Netflix and Amazon Instant, although not with the alternative or original ending. In this case, it might be better to buy a DVD or Blu-ray and watch it with the original ending.

Ms. Geek Speaks: Celebrate heroes without hate

Recently three Americans were hailed as heroes in subduing a gunman on a high-speed train between Paris and Amsterdam. No one was killed. All of that should be reason for celebration, however, some people took it as an opportunity to display their prejudice toward Islam and Muslims.

During the incident, a French passenger first accosted the gunman according to the account by the New York Times. The gun went off, A bullet hit a passenger, but the gunman continued. Led by the impressively muscular Airman First Class Spencer Stone, three friends including National Guard Alek Skarlatos and college student Anthony Sadler.

What’s unfortunate is that comments for the Good Morning America/ABC/Yahoo article and other articles took this as an opportunity to condemn a whole religion: Islam.

One person took aim at President Barack Obama: “We need to send Spencer to Washington for the muslim in the White House.”

Another wanted to re-program all Muslims: “There needs to be some kind of coercive movement to force Muslim Leaders to help re-educate all Muslims that jihad, rape, beheadings, and shooting civilians will send Muslims to Hell, not heaven. These terrorists attacks from predominantly Muslims, are because they’ve allowed themselves to become brainwashed from rich Dictators, Communists, and evils people possessed by evil spirits to believe they’re going to get to their idea of Heaven. What Creator, what God would possibly want to share a blissful heaven with violent-thinking Muslim minds who have nothing but evil intentions to want to go around harming other people all the time?”

Or another man wrote: “Islamic terrorism at it as usual we civilized non muslim people must unite to destroy forever this evil that confronts and threatens all of us islam is a evil ideology hiding in plain sight a s a religion no religion that ever was or ever will be commands the followers of that religion to commit the evil acts islam does of the followers of islam most people are born into this terror cult and cannot escape or become brainwashed and corrupted by the evil teachings to leave islam

In another comment, deportations of all Muslims was suggested: “We need to face reality and deport all muslims; they practice a religion of hatred and murder. To deny this is simply another facet of the deceit taught by the Koran. Having muslims in our country is analogous to having baby rattlesnakes in a petting zoo.”

The gunman is Moroccan and he is identified as an Islamic extremist. The anti-Islamic commentators assume that none of the people involved in disarming him were Muslim, a safe assumption since according to the 2010 census only 0.9 percent of the U.S. population was Muslim.

Muslims do, however, have a long history in the U.S. with the first recorded Muslim coming as a Moroccan slave in 1528. A few Muslims fought in the American Revolutionary War. Almost three hundred Muslims fought in the American Civil War according to the Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History. During World War I,

More recently we have other Muslim heroes who were American servicemen. Some have died serving the U.S. They include Capt. Humayun Khan of Bristow, Virginia who was killed on June 8, 2004 in Iraq. He was only 27. Then there’s Major James Michael Ahearn, the recipient of two Bronze Stars. He died in 2007 at age 43 after serving 18 years in the military. Then there is Kareem R. Khan who died in 2007 in Iraq at age 20.

There are more. According to The Islamic Workplace, the Defense Department estimated 3,500 Muslims have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. In Arlington, the graves of Muslim soldiers can be seen. Some of these soldiers served in World War II. During World War II, over 15,000 Arab Americans fought for the U.S. and some of those people were Muslims.

On Sept. 11, 2001, a young 23-year-old doctor named Mohammad Salman Hamdani ran toward the World Trade Center. The Pakistani-born Hamdani was a NYC Police Department cadet and an Emergency Medical Technician. His body was found in October at Ground Zero. Later that month, U.S. Congress declared him a hero.

Between 1980 and 2005, an FBI report found only 6 percent of terrorist acts were carried out by Muslims. Jewish Extremists were just slightly worse at 7 percent. Extreme Left Wing Groups made up 24 percent. Oddly 42 percent of the terrorist acts were simply categorized as Latino.

In the European Union only about 2 percent of all terrorist attacks are religiously motivated.  According to the same article in ThinkProgress.org, in 2011, not one of the 174 terrorist attacks were inspired by terrorist organizations. In 2010, only three were classified as Islamist. In 2009, only one was related to the Islamic militancy.

Earlier this year a young Mali-born Muslim man, Lassana Bathily, 24, was granted French citizenship after he hid a group of shoppers in the kosher supermarket when it was attacked by gunman Amedy Coulibaly.  French-born Coulibaly killed five people before being killed himself. Amedy Coulibaly was also ethnic Malian.

It seems unfortunate that some U.S. citizens cannot celebrate heroism without also celebrating their hate. In the current war situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military forces counts some Muslim nations as allies and Muslims continue to serve. Yet for some people, Muslims and Islam continues to be an enemy undifferentiated.

As with this current incident, the gunman was identified as Moroccan, Ayoub El-Khazzani, 25. Not all Moroccans are Muslims although the statistical information is 99 percent. Not all of those Muslims are extremists. Not even all of the Muslims in Morocco are Arab. Just as not all Americans are Christian nor are all Christians members of the Ku Klux Klan.

The three Americans, one French man and one British man helped stop a gunman in a train. Let’s commend them, but not by spreading hate toward a whole religion.

 

 

 

 

 

‘The Admiral: Roaring Currents’ Is Crashingly Boring

Usually, when I made critical comments about anything Korean, someone points out that must be because I am Japanese. Let me point out that although currently Netflix users (I will never trust you again) give this 4.5 stars, my friend who is South Korean and my husband who is only half ethnic Japanese, also found this movie tedious.

Although this movie is about the other side of the war, one that the Japanese lost and thus were all imperialistic expansion ambitions were squelched in Japan until the American Commodore Perry taught the Japanese about divine rights of superior beings to defeat other nations. The battle in question is the Battle of Myeongnyang in 1597. The admiral is Yi Sun-Sin.

Yi had 12 ships, but was able to defeat the Japanese fleet of 330 vessels. If you have a problem remembering numbers, don’t worry. That number, 12, will be bludgeoned into your brain if you are still awake.

This is the Joseon period (1392-1897) in Korea’s history. During this time modern-day Seoul was made the capital. That Japanese invasions (1592-1598) were part of an ambitious expansionist move by Toyotomi Hideyoshi to take over Korea and China. Toyotomi’s death in 1598 ended the invasions from Japan but Manchu tried to invade twice in 1636. Korea, like Japan, closed off its borders to become known as the hermit kingdom, but had 200 years of peace.

The movie doesn’t show Toyotomi. Yi Sun-sin (Choi Min-sik) goes up against Daimyo Kurushima Michifusa (Ryu Seung-ryong). The daimyo has a great costume although my husband and I debated if the dress battle gear was being worn at the proper time and circumstances. Seeing it makes you think that Darth Vader is a Cubist abstraction of Japanese armor, but that’s a wild tangent inspired by my boredom.

You’ll be able to tell the Japanese from the Koreans. The Japanese are evil and have thin mustaches. The Koreans have more facial hair. You might have a hard time differentiating between which is crueler. The Korean side takes desertion seriously.  The Admiral’s motto is, according to my colleague Seongyong Cho, “Those willing to die will live, and those willing to live will die.”  If you want a more detailed account of history and the battles, you can read his analysis.

The problems here in this movie are character development and too much reverence for this historic hero. I enjoyed director and co-writer Kim Han-min’s 2011 “War of the Arrows” where the Japanese were also the villains. However “The Admiral: Roaring Currents” was not interesting enough for either myself or my husband to recommend.

“The Admiral: Roaring Currents” won Best Film, Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction at the 23rd Buil Film Awards and Best Film at the 51st Grand Bell Awards. The movie was wildly popular in South Korea. In Korean and Japanese with English subtitles.

Binge-worthy Watch: ‘Forensic Files’ brings reality to TV

One thing that used to bother me about “Law & Order” in its many incarnations is that the women were just too good looking. Then there’s that so-called CSI effect where people are inclined to believe police should be able to resolve to many things that remain unsolved. As a counter balance, “Forensic Files” which is available on HuluPlus is a refreshing dose of reality.

This American documentary series began on TLC in 1996 as “Medical Detectives” and has also gone under the tile of “Mystery Detectives” and on the British Channel Five, “Murder Detectives.” The show which looks at how forensic science helped solve violent crimes, supposed accidents and a sudden rash if illnesses is narrated by Peter Thomas. During the half-hour, there are re-enactments, interviews with victims, witnesses, suspects, prosecutors, defense attorneys and investigators (police officers, detectives, medical examiners and pathologists).  Each episode takes a particular case, some famous, mostly ones in modern times although some historical cases are also investigated. The case if followed from the beginning until there is some kind of legal resolution.

To protect the innocent, in some cases the names of the victims and the victims’ families have been changed, making the changing of some evidence necessary (re-created). If the family has given consent, then the real name can be used. Re-enactments of actors who look similar to the people concerned were found through open casting calls.

Well-known forensic analyst appear on the show. We see cases that are legal landmarks, particularly in the first season. The first episode, “The Disappearance of Helle Crafts,” is the first time a person was convicted of murder without a body. In “Planted Evidence,” plant DNA is used for the first time in the U.S. to convict a man of murder. The first time DNA profiling was used in a serial murder case in “Southside Strangler” frees a man who spent two years in prison.

The infamous case of “Legionnaires’ Disease” takes the audience back to the Philadelphia Convention. The case resulted in 29 deaths and one researcher seems to have found the cause. When residents of an area in South Dakota all have high levels of thyroid hormones, except in vegetarians, the investigation leads to a change in how meat butchering policies. Another case, looks a boy who almost died because of  E-coli in a hamburger and how he was saved.

Other cases such as The Norfolk Four, the Lindbergh kidnapping and President John F. Kennedy’s assassination are also covered. In the case of The Norfolk Four, four men were convicted of rape and murder based mostly on confession that were coerced. The Innocence Project took on this case

During Season 2, there are interesting cases where environmental concerns are brought forward.  A “Killer Fog” is determined to be caused by a paper plant. Fungus in the home is determined to cause respiratory problems in infants (“Fatal Fungus”). Parasites in the water cause a massive outbreak in illness in Milwaukee (“Deadly Parasites”).

There’s also the Excedrin murder where traces of a pet store chemical leads the authorities to a woman who wanted to poison her husband and make it look like an accident in “Something Fishy.” On the flip side, a brilliant Mensan plans a murder and tried to frame his neighbor in “Bitter Potion.” Of course, there are the episodes where tiny details or trace evidence results in a conviction such as “The Common Thread” or “Charred Remains.”

Season 3 features an episode on the so-called Mad Cow Disease “Foreign Body.”  The I-5 serial killer’s investigation is also a highlight (“Knot for Everyone”). In another episode, a woman is jailed for the murder of her child (“Deadly Formula”) but science proves her innocent.

During Season 4, the Odwalla apple juice case is examined in  “Core Evidence.” Hypnosis is used to uncover a key bit of evidence (“Ties that Bind”). Bite marks identify a killer in “Body of Evidence.” A young couple dies due to a virus carried by mice in “With Every Breath.” In a true story of childhood repressed memory, a woman helps convict the murderer of her mother 30 years later (“Haunting Vision”).

In Season 5, a man finds a heavy barrel with a decomposing body and the police solve a murder that occurred 30 years prior to the grisly discovery in “A Voice from Beyond.” A former Nazi is recognized and deported from the U.S. in “Unholy Vows.”  A hit-and-run driver is convicted in the first case where video in a courtroom withstood an appeal in the death of six-year-old Nicole Rae Walker, “Journey to Justice.” In another case, a college student funds her studies by being a high-priced call girl and that ultimately leads to her death in “Deadly Knowledge.”

Season 6 features the heartbreaking case of six-year-old Cassie Hansen who was kidnapped from a church and murdered in “Church Disappearance.”  A South African physician uses his medical knowledge to beat a DNA test after he rapes a patient and his stepdaughter in “Bad Blood.” In an amazing tale of love and persistence, a young man goes to law school and eventually is able to free his mother who was convicted of the murder of his father and her husband in “Where the Blood Drops.”

Season 7 has “Reel Danger,” where an investigation into an attack on two boys near a pond uses diatom evidence to place three suspects at the crime scene. In “Purr-fect Match,” for the first time animal DNA helps solver a murder. In two cases, body parts are found–the torso of a woman in “Scout’s Honor” and a leg in “A Leg to Stand On” but the authorities are able to identify the victims and find the murderers. “Frozen in Time” involved a Newport Beach, CA. resident who was later found–frozen inside a truck “Frozen in Time.” There’s another warning against environmental problems in “Breaking the Mold.” For people in the Washington, D.C. area, “The Sniper’s Trail” looks at the Beltway sniper attacks.

Season 8 shows that dogs can also help solve murder in “Hair of the Dog.” The cause of the deadly 1993 Amtrak Railroad crash in which 47 people were killed is investigated in “Visibility Zero.” Computer technology recreates the fire at London’s Kings Cross Underground Station in which 30 people were killed.

In Season 9, twenty years after a woman disappears volunteer forensic scientists are able to solve the murder of a young woman in “No Corpus Delicti.” The seven-year bank robbing spree ends when police finally figure out how to identify the threesome in “Cloak of Deceit.” This season included the San Diego case, “Badge of Betrayal” and the Pasadena/Los Angeles arson case “Point of Origin.”

Season 10 begins with a nationally known fire investigator solving a murder mystery in “Trial by Fire.” If you love cold cases, “Marked for Life” shows how 50 years can make a difference in solving a crime. In “Headquarters,” the police are able to identify a dead person from a reconstruction of her face using only her skull. “Shear Luck” shows that the puzzle of a cut up computer disk could be solved. “Tight-fitting Genes” show that behavioral profiles arne’t always right, but DNA doesn’t lie.

During Season 11, the most noteworthy cases are “Bitter Brew,” the kidnapping Coors Brewing company’s chairman Adolph Coors; the resolution of a 30-year-old murder case involving a millionaire and his family in “Two in a Million,” the investigation into the 1991 bombings in Grand Junction, Colorado in “Small Town Terror,” and the sad tale of a person who knew she was going to be murdered, but left clues in “Murder, She Wrote.”

In Season 12, NASA gets involved in “Sharper Image.” If nothing else, future murderers will learn to vary their murder methods because although they might get away with it once, the second time isn’t always a charm as in “Cold Hearted” and “Insignificant Others.” Dogs are the best witnesses in “Dog Day Afternoon.” Two people prove their love in two different cases: “Brotherly Love” and “All Butt Certain.”

Season 13 finds another case where hypnosis proved handy in “House Hunting.” A psychic helps police fine the body of a missing girl in “Seedy Intentions.” A corpse found in 2005 was apparently dead in a building since the 1930s in “Dollars and Sense.” Then there’s the rich kid who hired his roomie to murder his parents in “Family Interrupted.” Then there’s another close to home murder in “Runaway Love” where a young woman murders her mother and dumps her in the Newport Bay.

In Season 14, the Last Call Killer is caught after ten years in “Touch of Evil.” The solution of one murder in 2004 leads to another solving of another murder committed in 2004 (“Seeing Red”). Your mother probably told you that you should choose your friends wisely and the case “Social Circle” proves that point.

What makes this series exceptional is balanced coverage, the care taken in finding actors who resemble the key players, the number of cases that cover a wide geographical area and because in one episode the investigator says he came upon one solution after watching the show. Several cases involved areas that I had lived in such as the case of John Leonard Orr, a former fire captain and arson investigator who was convicted of serial arson that caused millions of dollars in damages and killed four people.  The Season 9 episode, “Point of Origin,”  begins with the 1984 South Pasadena fire at a hardware store. Of the four deaths from that fire, one was a two-year-old child.

“Badge of Betrayal” takes place in San Diego. The body of a young woman is found under a bridge. A tiny fiber leads the investigators to the killer. It makes you wonder just who can you trust. During that time period, I was driving, sometimes alone in those areas.

All 14 Seasons (400 30-minute episodes) of “Forensic Files” are available on HuluPlus and on other online websites.

 

 

‘Top Spin’ hits Pasadena this weekend

Ping pong is one of those deceptively difficult sports. It seems so easy that people readily pick up a paddle and hit a few rounds with friends in what we’ll call basement ping pong. The documentary “Top Spin” is about that pastime taken to a different level: Olympic sport. Following three high school students, first-time co-directors Mina T. Son and Sara Newens take us through their training to the trials and we even get to the London 2012 Olympics.

Son and Newens met during their MFA Documentary Film and Video Program at Stanford University during one of the required group projects.  The documentary began as a short, focusing on Ariel Hsing, who at 16 was the top U.S. table tennis player. Son and Newens found out that despite local wonder Erica Wu, who did become a 2012 London Olympian, the Bay Area was a hot bed for table tennis talent.

Widening their focus, Son and Newens show us the journey of three players. Besides Hsing,  they include her main rival, Lily Zhang, also from the Bay Area and then hop over to the East Coast to look at Long Island-resident Michael Landers. Landers was then 17, but two years earlier he had become the youngest American male champion.

Yet in the world of table tennis, American champions aren’t really considered contenders. Mainland China dominates the world of table tennis and South Korea is a distant second. The U.S. doesn’t even rank in the top ten or the top 20.

While Son and Newens show us that this threesome are normal kids, thinking about friends and family and college, and they give us enough graphics to give us a feeling of the countdown to the Olympic trails, what they don’t do is ask the hard questions and really push their subjects. This is particularly true for Landers whose easy life at home is contrasted with his training in China.

Other problems is that you don’t really learn that much about the sport of table tennis. Early on we’re told by superimposed words a brief rundown of each of the three, but we’re never really familiarized with what the difference penhold or shakehand styles are and the benefits of one of the other. Further, I’m told what we’re looking for spin, but the filming of the matches doesn’t really show us that spin or help us read the ball. The music on the screener sometimes obscured the interviews and could become annoying, however, these are minor problems.

What is good about this documentary are the subjects are mostly fresh and frank. They aren’t coached and ready with prepared responses. and most of the opening weekend screenings are supported by demonstrations. If the aim is to get more people out to play table tennis, then their campaign strategy is sound and perhaps in time we’ll see the U.S. move up in the world rankings. Newens and Son are both sports fans and are already at work on another documentary.  Although the next one will not be a sports documentary, one does hope that they will follow up in the future with sports documentaries that give equal focus on women.

OPENING WEEK APPEARANCES:

Weekend Q&As at Playhouse 7:

Fri 8/21: Filmmakers Mina T. Son & Sara Newens + Teenage Olympian Erica Wu in Person
Sat 8/22: Filmmaker Mina T. Son & Teenage Olympian Erica Wu in Person
Sun 8/23: Filmmaker Mina T. Son & Teenage Olympian Erica Wu in Person

Weekday Q&A’s:

Wed 8/19: Filmmakers Mina T. Son & Sara Newens + Teenage Olympian Erica Wu in Person
Mon 8/24 (NOHO 7) : Filmmakers Mina T. Son in Person
Tues 8/25 (ROYAL): Filmmaker Mina T. Son in Person
Wed 8/26 (CLAREMONT 5): Filmmaker Mina T. Son in Person

Ping Pong Demonstrations at Playhouse 7:

Erica Wu (2012 U.S. Olympian), Grant Li (2015 U.S. National Team Member), Adam Bobrow (Professional Ping Pong Player and Actor) and Kim Gilbert (Professional Ping Pong Player) will be at Playhouse 7 August 19 & 21 to 23 for ping pong demonstrations on a JOOLA table outside the theater begining at 7pm.

 

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