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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with the documentaries DIRTY WARS, SOMM, and PANDORA'S PROMISE!!!

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

There are times while watching writer and subject Jeremy Scahill's documentary DIRTY WARS that I thought, "This is simply too much to endure." And I wasn't referring to the sheer volume of information that is given to us in this film about a substantial and elaborate covert military force known as the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), an organization that is sanctioned by the president but essentially runs itself and justifies its existence by creating kill lists of enemies of America (including a few US citizens living abroad) and systematically kills the people on its every-growing list. Not surprisingly, JSOC's crowning achievement was the killing of Osama Bin Laden.

Scahill is a highly regarded investigative journalist for The Nation and author of a detailed book about the mercenary army known as Blackwater. The film begins as Scahill is sent to locations in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he kept hearing about these mysterious night raids that would result in the taking or killing of specific targets, but often would see many innocent civilians killed as well. Soon Scahill is traveling to places such unstable locations like Yemen and Somalia to find out more about these raids and who exactly carried them out. As much as his discoveries are jaw dropping, his skills as an investigator are remarkable and just as fascinating from a cinematic perspective.

The closer the Scahill gets to his truth, the more isolated and paranoid he begins to feel. He finds out his computer has been hacked, and he gets mysterious phone calls from potential confidential sources, who might also be trying to set him up. Directed by Rick Rowley, there are many shots of Scahill looking pensive, worried, tired, thoughtful, but based on what he goes through in this film, the looks seem earned. Even his narration takes on a surprisingly personal tone; he is in no way attempting to be unbiased about what he's discovering. It goes against everything he's grown up believing in what the United States and its military is supposed to do in its efforts to protect the country. What he's learning is challenging and destroying what he believes in freedom and justice, right and wrong. And it will demand that you do the same.

The film also covers the talkshow rounds that he made with this information and what he uncovered about Blackwater, including one where Jay Leno asks him, "How are you still alive?" A fair question, and one that the Scahill doesn't think about too much, lest he get even more paranoid than he already is. DIRTY WARS is absolutely captivating, essential viewing, and it makes it clear that political parties and who's in charge of the country doesn't really matter when it comes to the war on terror. Is JSOC a necessary evil, or is it the cause of future evils to come? Killing innocents leads to hostility in other nations that in turn fuels the birth of new enemies. It's an ugly, dangerous cycle that seems never-ending, and it's the reason this film is both difficult to watch and so very important to understand.

I'm kind of a sucker for documentaries about food, chefs, anything having to do with higher-end restaurants, probably because I know I'll never have the chance to truly experience these things and places myself to any large degree. But even I was impressed and caught up in the drama of a small group of sommeliers studying for the ultimate challenge of acquiring the knowledge and skills it takes to become a certified Court of Master Sommelier. The exam to get to this level is only given once a year, and only a small number of the 50 or so who attempt the combination taste test, theory and service exam actually are tapped to become members of this elite group, who almost immediately go on to get incredible jobs in the service or wine industry.

But the real thrill of the documentary SOMM isn't the test (although that's a close second). What absolutely drew me in was the obsessional lengths these (mostly) men went through to memorize every aspect of wine making imaginable. And to watch one of these "somms" go through a tasting is unforgettable, especially when they get it right in makeshift competitions among their peers. Partying with these guys is a whole other adventure.

Directed by Jason Wise, SOMM also dives into the personal lives of these contenders, who openly discuss (as do their significant others) the strain that preparing for the Master Exam has on their lives and relationships. Both parties look forward to the sommelier passing so that the piles of flashcards and hours of studying per day will go away. I'll admit, I was surprised who out of the group Wise follows is earns their title and who doesn't this time around. I won't say why because the drama is so wonderfully executed, I wouldn't want to ruin it. Cameras are not allowed in the actual exams, but we get to hear the sommeliers compare notes, especially on the wine tasting results, and it's clear immediately that some in the group got many wrong.

With nearly unlimited access to this process, great interviews with longtime Master sommeliers, and a glimpse of the mindset it takes to get to this level of perfection, SOMM is a fun and tense experience that will make you want to line up the wine and start downing glasses just to relieve the stress.

One of the rarest of all issue-driven documentaries are ones in which people who were once on one side of a hotly contested issue switch over to the other side and openly admit it. And yet in the truly thought-provoking film PANDORA'S PROMISE, there are several such educated environmental experts, all of whom are quite nervous about not just global warming but the painfully slow pace America is going to slow emissions to the point where it might actually make an impact. But these folks aren't changing their minds about global warming; they're changing it on the role nuclear power generation will play in slowing a climate meltdown.

Gathering a group of one-time anti-nuclear activists, director Robert Stone has, as the title suggests, opened a can of worms on the topic of this clean, non-CO2-emitting power source that will do a job that wind- and solar-driven energy simply can't do enough to effectively end the country's use of coal and natural gas. And as the world sees more and more third-world nations rise up to join the rest of us as car-driving, energy-using locations, the global warming issue is only going to get worse, according to experts.

PANDORA'S PROMISE examines the process that each activist and expert went through from anti-nuclear to pro-nuclear thinking. People like Michael Shellenberger, Gwyneth Cravens, Mark Lynas and Richard Rhodes clearly are as stunned about their turnaround as those who followed them still are, in many cases. But after doing extensive research on the true, measurable, well researched effects of nuclear disasters recently in Japan, as well as legendary ones at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, they have come to the determination that the aftereffects weren't nearly as terrible as they once believed, and the risk is worth it when put next to the much worse impact if nuclear isn't used.

Those profiled understand that nuclear power has always had an unfair link to atomic weapons, but one of the biggest eye openers in the film is that a huge percentage of the nuclear material that is used currently in US power plants comes from dismantled Russian nuclear weapons that these companies purchased, to the point where the former Soviet Union has no such weapons left. These long-feared devices are lighting our homes with no detriment to the environment. If ever there was a film and subject worthy of serious, fact-driven discussion, it is PANDORA'S PROMISE, which backs up its controversial ideas with facts, which don't hold as much stock in the world as they once did, but now is as good a time as any to change that.

-- Steve Prokopy
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