Long Way North

This beautifully drawn animated adventure tells the story of a young aristocrat, Sasha, growing up in Saint Petersburg in the late 19th century. Sasha’s explorer grandfather, Oloukine, has gone missing while on an expedition to the North Pole, and though everyone else believes him dead, Sasha doesn’t. She discovers his itinerary and becomes convinced that he hasn’t been found because the search for him and his ship, the famous Davai, has been taking place in the wrong part of the North Pole. Sasha’s parents worry that she’s ill-suited for her aristocratic rank and make plans to arrange a marriage for her, but all Sasha wants to do is follow in her grandfather’s footsteps and become an explorer like him. Now that she knows the ship’s true destination, she escapes from her home in Russia and embarks on a journey north, determined to find out what really happened to Oloukine and save his tattered reputation—but the journey may not be as easy as Sasha would like. Long Way North tells a spirited and enchanting tale of hope and perseverance even in the face of unexpected obstacles.

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If There’s a Hell Below

Abe (Conner Marx), a young journalist from Chicago, travels to the rural American West for a scoop that will undoubtedly jump-start his career. There he meets Debra (Carol Roscoe), a self-described government whistleblower who supposedly has a national security story weighing on her conscience. Convinced that someone is watching their every move, Debra is paranoid and reluctant to tell Abe anything, even after checking to make sure he’s not wearing a wire; Abe, on the other hand, drove over a thousand miles for Debra’s story, and he’s determined to get it. The first step is finding some way to convince Debra he’s trustworthy. The beginning of the film showcases what happens when two people with opposing desires can’t seem to figure out how to negotiate. As Abe and Debra dance around each other, crucial information hangs in the balance. Nathan Williams’ film is told in real time, with numerous scenes dedicated to showing the two characters driving along endless stretches of highway, attempting to find a place to talk where they can’t be overheard. Accordingly, the vast, dusty landscape of eastern Washington plays an important role, providing an atmospheric backdrop of anticipation and dread to put the finishing touch on this 1970s-inspired political thriller.

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This heartwarming story follows two orphaned siblings living with their aunt and uncle in a scenic village in Rajasthan, India. Pari, the responsible older sister, acts as a guide for her blind eight-year-old brother, Chotu. Chotu remains cheerful and free-spirited, even as he yearns to be able to see again. Inspired by a message on a poster of Indian superstar Shah Rukh Khan, Pari promises Chotu that he’ll get his sight back before his upcoming ninth birthday. Pari writes letters to Shah Rukh Khan, asking for his help, and doesn’t give up hope even when he doesn’t respond. When she finds out that Shah Rukh Khan will be filming a movie just a few hundred kilometers from where she and Chotu live, the two siblings decide to run away from home to find the superstar and convince him to fix Chotu’s vision. Despite the obstacles in front of them, Pari and Chotu are determined to complete their excursion to Ranau, the village where Shah Rukh Khan is filming. As they cross the desert planes of Rajasthan, they run into a number of eccentric characters, each one helping to further their journey in one way or another.

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SEED: The Untold Story

This feature-length documentary takes viewers on a powerful journey that exposes the fatal secrets of the seed industry. During the 20th century alone, we lost an estimated 94 percent of our vegetable varieties and faced the largest seed shortage in history. A number of dedicated farmers and seed keepers have taken on the task of keeping the rest of our seeds safe from extinction, but they face significant obstacles: the commodification and hybridization of seeds by large corporations such as Monsanto. Not only are these companies depleting the seed industry, but they are also poisoning the communities who live near their unregulated test plots. Though these challenges may seem insurmountable, this documentary gives hope to a brighter future by highlighting the independent farmers, seed savers, and other good Samaritans who are doing their part to protect the diversity of our agricultural heritage and to alert the public to what the hybrid companies are doing. SEED: The Untold Story features a combination of interviews, archived footage, and animation to tell a compelling narrative about the seed industry. By the end of the film, every viewer will understand the magic of seeds and the importance of growing one’s own life force.

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Welcome to Norway!

Seattle International Film Festival – Published May 4, 2016

Set against the backdrop of a beautiful Norwegian village, this scandalous comedy follows a xenophobic ski-resort owner, Primus (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), as he attempts to find a way to save his failing business. The film brings humor to a serious, topical issue when Primus encounters a group of refugees and sees an opportunity: If he turns his family’s resort into a refugee camp, he will be able to support it with government funding. Unsurprisingly, Primus soon discovers how out of his depth he is. Although he has not finished the resort renovations and the government has not yet greenlit the facilities, he takes in 50 refugees. To top it off, his arrogance and habit of regularly making tasteless jokes about the people he’s sheltering brings up conflict after conflict. His entire venture likely would have gone up in flames if not for Abedi (Olivier Mukata), a young man from Congo who answers Primus’ questions about the refugees and advises Primus on how to run this new operation, in addition to speaking five languages. Eventually, all the new tenants, but especially Abedi, start to change Primus’ attitude for the better.

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Please, No More Peter Parker

With Captain America: Civil War set to release in May 2016, superhero fans everywhere are getting excited about the latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or MCU). This highlyanticipated film will revisit characters who have already appeared in Marvel movies such as The Avengers, as well as introduce a whole host of new superheroes to the movie franchise. Earlier this year, Marvel announced that Spider-Man will finally be joining the MCU.

Before Marvel reached their agreement with Sony, Spider-Man was prevented from joining the cast of The Avengers or appearing in any other Marvel-created movies, but now, he can show up alongside other characters from the Marvel comic books (or at least, alongside those who aren’t owned by 20th Century Fox). After appearing in Civil War, Spider-Man is set to have yet another solo film, marking the fifth since Sam Raimi’s 2002 movie with Tobey Maguire.

Unfortunately, Marvel has decided to recast Spider-Man yet again, since, although Andrew Garfield did an admirable job bringing the character of Peter Parker to life, he was not able to return the role. This means that Spider-Man’s solo film may be another origin story, and frankly, audiences are tired of this story. Uncle Ben dies. We get it. On the other hand, if the movie fails to show Spider-Man’s origin, but has a different actor playing the role, audiences may find the story jarring.

With that in mind, Marvel should take the opportunity to go in a new, unexpected direction with Spider-Man. Instead of recasting Peter Parker, the company should cast an actor to play Miles Morales, the Spider-Man from the Ultimate Universe (as opposed to Earth 616, the universe where Peter is Spider-Man). Miles, the son of an African-American father and a Puerto Rican mother, took the reins as Spider-Man after Peter died in his universe. It’s about time for a Marvel movie to have a lead that differs from their usual lineup of white, male superheroes.

Introducing Miles as the new Spider-Man would keep audiences from getting bored, and it would give Marvel a lot more freedom to explore the character. Unlike with Peter, viewers have little to no preconceived notions about Miles. Not only that, but some fans have already expressed aversion to the fact that Spider-Man’s solo film means the Black Panther and Captain Marvel movies are getting pushed back. These films were set to be the first Marvel movies led by a black superhero and a female superhero, respectively. Miles Morales replacing Peter Parker as Spider-Man in the MCU would be a good step forward for superhero representation, but it’s a step that Marvel seems unwilling to take.

The Academy Needs a Change

On January 15, 2015, Hollywood directors, screenwriters and actors nationwide collectively held their breaths as they waited for the 2015 Oscar nominations to be announced. When the time came, however, social media users immediately noticed something strange about the nominees: they were almost all white and almost all male.

Twitter users began using the hashtag “#OscarsSoWhite” to voice their concerns about the fact that all the nominees in the best actor and best actress categories were white, all the nominees in both screenwriting categories were white and male, and all but one of the nominees for best director were white and male as well—the one exception being Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, who was nominated for Birdman. This lack of diversity is a problem.

Though Selma, a biopic about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his work in the civil rights movement, was nominated for best picture, the director, Ava DuVernay, who would have been the first female African-American director to be nominated, was snubbed, along with the lead actor who played King, David Oyelowo. Other strong contenders that went ignored by the Academy were Gillian Flynn for best screenwriter (Gone Girl) and Angelina Jolie for best director (Unbroken).

There’s a lot to be said about why these particular filmmakers, writers and stars deserve nominations in their respective categories. For instance, DuVernay told Gwen Ifill in an interview with PBS that she does not own the rights to King’s speeches, and as a result, was saddled the difficult task of having to write her own versions of the iconic speeches while still maintaining the feeling and atmosphere of King. In an interview with Yahoo Movies, DuVernay explained her process: “I just unanchored myself from the words and went not even line-by-line, but word for word, to try to really understand what he was trying to say and then just say it in a different way.”

As for Oyelowo, one critic, Ty Burr at The Boston Globe, called his performance “deeply felt” and “quite brilliant.” Another top critic, Colin Covert at The Minneapolis Star Tribune, wrote, “What Daniel Day-Lewis did for Lincoln, Oyelowo does for King, mimicking his behavior and speech uncannily. He is both completely believable and someone we’ve never encountered before.”

In spite of all these reasons why DuVernay and Oyelowo deserve to be recognized for their accomplishments, some people will argue that the other nominees were just better. Some people will argue that even though Selma was good enough to be nominated for best picture, the directing, acting and screenwriting were not good enough, at least compared to the other nominees. After all, the best picture category has 10 spots, while the other categories only have five.

Most of all, some people will argue that Academy voters shouldn’t nominate minorities simply because they are minorities, and these people are right. Nobody should force the Academy to vote for any films or filmmakers they don’t think deserve to be nominated; however, this problem goes beyond who the Academy is voting for.

The lack of diversity in nominations can be attributed to a lack of diversity in the people who are doing the nominating.  Voters choose films that speak to them, and these are most often stories that match their own personal backgrounds. According to a study done by The Los Angeles Times, the Academy, which is made up of about 7,000 members, is 94% white, 76% male and an average of 63 years old.

Not only that, but there simply aren’t enough filmmakers who aren’t white and male. If there were more choices in minority directors and screenwriters, the academy might be more inclined to choose them. For example, research done by The Los Angeles Times shows that among 565 directors of top-grossing films, 33 were black and only two were black women. These numbers don’t mean that black female directors aren’t skilled, however—these directors just aren’t working on typical Hollywood films. As DuVernay said, “We’re finding ways to tell our stories outside the studio paradigm.”

The lack of diversity in the 2015 Oscar ceremony should be upsetting, but that doesn’t mean it can’t change in the future. The Academy needs to reconsider its membership guidelines before the ceremony next year, so it can allow more diverse audiences to vote. Also, Hollywood needs to be more welcoming to people who want to tell stories established filmmakers may not be used to. Only then can the Oscars truly be diverse and fair.