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The documentary about the Supreme Court case defending marriage equality finds a compelling character in Gibson Dunn lawyer Ted Olson. By Sophie Gilbert
Ted Olson addresses press outside the Supreme Court, with David Boies on his left. Photograph by Diana Walker.

At a movie-star mecca like the Sundance Film Festival, where celebrities strolling up and down Main Street or clogging up traffic in Lincoln Navigators are ten a penny, you wouldn’t necessarily expect Washington lawyer Ted Olson to be fending off requests for selfies. And yet, thanks to a new documentary by Ben Cotner and Ryan White, Olson spent much of his sojourn in Park City, Utah, surrounded by fans eager to take pictures with him and thank him for his work.

Olson is one of the stars of The Case Against 8, which won the Directing Award for US Documentary at Sundance Saturday night and has garnered enormously positive reviews since it premiered January 18. The film focuses on how the formidable (if unlikely) same-sex partnership of Olson, a conservative, and David Boies, a liberal, fought for marriage equality by working to overturn California’s Prop 8, the state amendment banning recognition of same-sex marriages. Washingtonians might remember the pair from their adversarial roles in Bush v. Gore; it was then, Boies tells the camera, that they first became friends, because everyone else was sick to death of discussing that case with them.

Over the course of five years spent filming the lawyers, the four plaintiffs, and the case’s many developments, Cotner and White capture scenes of wrenching pathos, including one in which plaintiff Kris Perry breaks down in a conference room as she tells Olson about having felt all her life like a second-class citizen. While we know the film has a happy ending for all involved, the suspense leading up to the Supreme Court hearing is still remarkably taut. Olson, by contrast, often makes for exceptional comic relief, whether he’s staring confusedly at a catered lunch of tacos or reading e-mails out loud in which strangers declare him “an honorary lesbian.”

Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin channels some of the general sense of skepticism about Olson’s involvement in the fight for marriage equality when he states that Olson “has been on the other side of everything I’d ever done in my life.” And yet Olson’s reasoning for same-sex marriage—that it strengthens families and defends all American citizens’ fundamental right to happiness—becomes the key argument Boies and Olson take to the Supreme Court. “Marriage is a conservative value,” says Olson. “We should want people to come together in marriage.”

This argument might not fly with Rush Limbaugh, who’s shown bemoaning on-air the fact that Olson “used to be one of us,” but it wins him a whole new fan base nonetheless. At one point in the film Griffin tells Olson to get ready because he’s going to be in parades in Dupont Circle and West Hollywood. Judging by the scores of people eager to meet the Gibson Dunn partner at HRC’s party for the film, they’re going to need a bigger float.

The Case Against 8 screens on HBO in June. For more information, visit the movie’s website.

Posted at 04:37 PM/ET, 01/27/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Michael Stevens’s documentary pays tribute to the dogged and fearless “Washington Post” cartoonist. By Jessica Voelker
Image courtesy of AFI.

For anyone born post-internet, it must be tough to imagine: all of Washington living in fear of a guy who doodled for a living and liked to ride a yellow tricycle on weekends. But in the decades that Herbert Block—known to all as Herblock—captured global events in his Washington Post cartoons, Beltway powerfuls knew on any given weekday they could open the paper to find a skewering sketch revealing their hypocrisies to the world.

Through more than 40 interviews with reporters, writers, and pundits, Michael Stevens’s documentary Herblock: The Black & the Whitescreening tonight on HBO at 9—paints the picture of a journalistic era that’s come and gone. Arriving to the Post each day at noon and working into the wee hours, Block contributed five cartoons a week to the paper (in his late years, that number shrunk to four). His early Republican leanings slipped to the left during the Depression, when he became aware of the corrupt forces that bailed out the rich while the circumstances of the poorest deteriorated. He was widely considered a liberal, but Herblock saw his deepest belief—that a free press must keep a close check on power—to be essentially conservative, harking back to the founding fathers.

In the 1940s, Block depicted the atom bomb not as a protective force, as most Americans dutifully accepted it was, but as a nefarious sausage-shaped character that loomed dangerously over the planet. His early mistrust of Richard Nixon proved prescient during the Watergate scandal; Block published a cartoon of dirty footprints leading up to the White House before Woodward and Bernstein confirmed the President’s involvement. His positions were sure-footed and fearless, and in an era in which everyone read the papers and watched the evening news, he was impossible to ignore. By the time he died in 2001, Herblock had earned three Pulitzers and the Presidential Medal of Honor. The latter he received from Bill Clinton—a man he once drew with his pants around his ankles, hearts dotting his drooping boxer shorts.

Actor Alan Mandell stands in for Block in the film. Stevens cuts between scenes of Mandell sketching at what’s mean to be Block’s desk—cluttered with pencils, wind-up toys, and presidential biographies—and interviews with media luminaries such as Tom Brokaw and Gwen Ifill (plus Woodward and Bernstein themselves), and comedians Jon Stewart and Lewis Black. The Daily Show guys, we are meant to understand, are the Herblocks of our era, able to tackle dangerous topics through the smoke screen of sharp-edged comedy. But Stewart lays bare the difference, pointing out that Block worked at a time when informed, reflective, deeply sourced journalism was the norm. His colleagues’ beat work was as essential to Herblock’s work as paper and pencil. Satire can put a fine point on essential truths, but only dogged reporting can expose those truths in the first place.

Herblock screens on HBO Monday at 9 PM. 

Posted at 12:10 PM/ET, 01/27/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Netflix and HBO scored big at this morning’s announcement but “Homeland” failed to pick up a single nomination. By Sophie Gilbert
No luck for Carrie this year. Photo courtesy of Showtime.

Homeland, which won Golden Globe Awards for best actress in a television drama, best actor in a television drama, and best drama less than a year ago, failed to pick up a single nomination at this morning’s announcement. Not even Mandy Patinkin (or his resplendent facial hair) made the cut.

It was bad news for one Washington-set TV drama, but House of Cards and Veep both scored big, with House of Cards gaining nominations for best TV drama, best actor in a drama (Kevin Spacey), and best actress (Robin Wright). Julia-Louis Dreyfus, who’s won two Emmys so far for her performance as Selina Meyer in Veep, got her second Golden Globe nomination for the role.

Posted at 09:01 AM/ET, 12/12/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
November 15 through 18, catch four free screenings of the filmmaker’s greatest hits. By Sophie Gilbert

Catch some of Steven Spielberg’s greatest hits for free in the next few days. Image via Featureflash/Shutterstock.

To pay tribute to its 2013 Records of Achievement honoree, Steven Spielberg, the National Archives is screening four of the blockbuster filmmaker’s biggest hits for free this weekend.

The Steven Spielberg Film Festival will host public screenings of Saving Private Ryan (Friday, November 15), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Saturday, November 16), Amistad (Saturday, November 16), and Lincoln (Monday, November 18) in the National Archives’ William G. McGowan Theater, with tickets distributed on a first-come, first-served basis an hour before showtime.

Spielberg is being honored by the National Archives Foundation for his achievements in fostering “a broader national awareness of the history and identity of the United States through the use of original records,” as well as for his efforts in creating the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, which captures first-person stories and accounts from Holocaust survivors.

Spielberg will be in Washington next Tuesday night to accept the award. For more information, visit the National Archives’ website.

Posted at 01:30 PM/ET, 11/14/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, and Morgan Freeman return for “London Has Fallen.” By Sophie Gilbert
Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart pair up again for London Has Fallen. Image via FilmDistrict.

If 2013 taught us anything about movies, it’s that if you’re going to make the same exact movie as someone else, for pete’s sake make sure yours comes out first. The epic, nauseatingly bloodthirsty battle for supremacy between Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down, both of which depicted terrorists destroying Washington in ridiculous and explosive ways, ended the summer with fictional Secret Service agent/President duo Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart defeating their counterparts, Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx. Was Olympus better? God, no. But it benefited from being released four months earlier, and was cheaper to make (and therefore much more profitable).

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Posted at 12:13 PM/ET, 10/30/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
Al fresco screenings are everywhere this year—here’s a comprehensive list of where to find them. By Stanley Kay
Catch free outdoor movies at the Mall and myriad other spots this summer. Photograph by Flickr user brunosan.

Seeing a movie in the summer usually means forgoing a warm evening outside for the refrigerated darkness of a theater. But not this year, thanks to the ever-growing array of outdoor film festivals and movie screenings in the Washington area. Throughout the summer, catch outdoor movies everywhere from your local town square or park to the Mall and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.


Screen on the Green
When: July 22 and 29, and August 5 and 12
Where: The Mall between Seventh and 12th sts., NW
Theme: See titles online, including E.T. and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Follow @SOTGinDC for updates.

NoMa Summer Screen 2013
When: Wednesdays, July 3 through August 21
Where: Loree Grand Field, Second and L sts., NE
Theme: “Outlaw heroes,” including titles such as The Hunger Games and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Follow @NoMaBID for updates.

Family Film Night at Sursum Corda
When: July 9 and 23, and August 6
Where: Sursum Corda at L and First sts., NW
Theme: “Family-friendly movies,” including Despicable Me and Toy Story 3.

Canal Park Thursday Movies
When: Thursdays, July 11 through August 29
Where: Canal Park at M and Second sts., SE
Theme: “DC Versus Marvel Comics,” including flicks such as The Dark Knight and The Avengers. Follow @CanalParkDC for updates.

The DC Drive-In
When: July 12, 19, and 26, and August 2
Where: Union Market at 1309 5th St., NE
Theme: “Movies about Washington,” including Dr. Strangelove and The American President. A car isn’t required. Follow @UnionMarketDC for updates.

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Posted at 02:45 PM/ET, 07/02/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
A moving and skillful homage to one of America’s most memorable leaders. By William O'Sullivan
Still of Letters to Jackie via AFI Docs.

When my father died, it was the first time I’d ever gotten a condolence note. Many times, I’d wondered if I really needed to write to a particular friend or acquaintance after a loved one’s death—maybe I didn’t know the bereaved well or simply couldn’t think of what to say. Too often I did nothing. Having now been on the receiving end, I’ve learned this: When in doubt, send a card (or an e-mail). It’s one of the cheapest and most meaningful gifts a person can give.

Letters to Jackie, the opening-night film of AFI Docs, demonstrates this phenomenon and its corollary during a time of shared grief: the ability of a condolence to offer healing to the writer.

The documentary, directed by Bill Couturié, uses letters written to Jacqueline Kennedy after her husband’s death—the White House received 45,000 alone by the Monday after his Friday assassination—as a vehicle to look back at JFK’s presidency. With the help of voiceovers (by Jessica Chastain, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Betty White, and others), rare film footage and home movies, and creative manipulation of handwriting and typescript, the film draws us into the broken hearts of individuals—not a nation but individuals—offering solace to a woman they felt they knew.

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Posted at 01:00 PM/ET, 06/21/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
A.J. Schnack and David Wilson look at the music tourism mainstay of Branson, Missouri. By William O'Sullivan

What comes to mind when you think of Branson, Missouri? Grand Ole Opry lite? Bible-belt kitsch? Osmonds? If those are the sum of your thoughts, add “ill-informed preconception.” And the antidote to that is We Always Lie to Strangers.

The quietly absorbing documentary by A.J. Schnack and David Wilson focuses on four music productions in Branson—where, it’s noted, the population is 10,520, the number of annual visitors 7.5 million, the yearly revenue from tourism $2.9 billion, and the number of theater seats 64,507 (more than Broadway).

The Presleys’ Country Jubilee—one of the town’s original shows, dating to 1967—stars patriarch Lloyd Presley and his extended family, including a son married to Branson’s Republican mayor. The Magnificent Variety Show (boasting “300 costume changes”) is the project of a young couple, Tamra and Joe Tinoco, and produced in the Osmonds’ theater. Showstoppers! is an extravaganza on a boat. And the Lennon Brothers are part of a clan that also spawned the easy-listening Lennon Sisters, a quartet discovered by Lawrence Welk in the 1950s and a TV fixture for decades.

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Posted at 01:50 PM/ET, 06/18/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
Filmmaker Grace Lee delves into the extraordinary life of her namesake, a 97-year-old activist and philosopher. By Alison Kitchens
Still of American Revolutionary courtesy of AFI Docs.

At 97, Grace Lee Boggs doesn’t look much like a social activist or someone with an extensive FBI file, but she’s exactly that. Filmmaker Grace Lee’s (no relation, although she came across Boggs while researching a film about women with the same name as her) American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs chronicles Boggs’s life from her childhood as a Chinese immigrant in Rhode Island through her adult life as a Marxist theoretician, black power activist, and philosopher. Boggs’s wit and charisma carry the film—it’s hard not to be charmed by her willingness to do what she believes is right and the matter-of-fact way she recalls accomplishments from the past. “You don’t choose the times you live in,” she says. “But you do choose who you ought to be, and you do choose how you ought to think.”

During her time in college at Barnard, Boggs came across Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s teachings, and, thus, a philosopher was born. After more schooling, Boggs moved to Chicago, where she came in contact with the civil rights movement for the first time. “I was aware that people were suffering but it was more a statistical thing, and here in Chicago I came in contact with it as a human thing,” she said.

After taking part in the 1941 March on Washington, Boggs eventually moved to Detroit to be closer to the African-American working population—beginning her love affair with the city. There, she met her future husband, James Boggs. Through clips from television appearances and speaking engagements, we get a clear picture of the couple as public speakers, passionately discussing the civil rights movement. In interviews, Boggs recalls her viewpoints of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X’s teachings with clarity (she preferred the latter’s point of view).

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Posted at 09:30 AM/ET, 06/18/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
Activist Matthew VanDyke provides a close-up look at the Arab Spring’s hardest-hit community in this searing short. By Diana Elbasha
Still from Not Anymore courtesy of AFI Docs.

A young Syrian girl holds her country’s flag with widestretched arms and sings cheerfully into a camera. Behind her on the sandy Aleppo street, a demonstration takes place—freedom fighters, parents, Free Syrian Army generals and children exist as one here, marching to express a single plea: Get rid of Bashar al-Assad.

Then an explosion occurs. The camera drops. The demonstrators’ voices turn into panicked screams; the girl’s singing stops.

The 15-minute short, Not Anymore, filmed by activist Matthew VanDyke offers a heartbreaking glimpse into daily life in today’s Syria—a country that prior to having a shattered infrastructure, outpouring of refugees, and massive casualties in the height of civil war was a close-knit Middle Eastern destination decorated with historic architecture. “It is beautiful,” says Nour Kelze, a 24-year-old teacher-turned-freedom fighter and a producer of the film, “without that monster.”

The film follows Nour, a fearless and passionate Syrian rebel, as she braces the front lines of a conflict that has taken her job, her friends, and her country’s picturesque landscape. She’s now a war photographer. “Everyone is going to know what’s happening to us,” she says, wearing a hard hat and sneakers in place of her former “fancy dresses and high heels.”

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Posted at 02:30 PM/ET, 06/17/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()