FILM REVIEW: LONG STRANGE TRIP

Long Strange Trip is a documentary about the Grateful Dead that feels just like being at one of the band’s concerts. It is a sprawling, swirling psychedelic affair that lives up to its name as it celebrates a band that has notched up over 50 years in the music business as the reigning kings of the counter-culture movement. This documentary occasionally feels like a hagiography but it’s a fun and justified one because it’s ultimately a free-spirited love letter to one crazy, joyful psychedelic band.

This film was a labour of love that was around 15 years in the making for director and self-confessed Deadhead (the name rampant Grateful Dead fans wear as a badge of honour) Amir Bar-Lev. Martin Scorsese – who is no stranger to rock ‘n’ roll documentaries (see Shine A Light, The Last Waltz, etc.) – also serves as executive producer. The Long Strange Trip is broken down into a series of different acts in a loosely-based chronology to tell the story of the group and its fans while also giving some historic context.

A lot of time is naturally devoted to the band’s messianic front man, Jerry Garcia. It talks about his anti-authoritarian stance and his love of things like: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, drugs and beat poetry, especially Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. It also shows how the trappings of fame and stardom (something the group never actively courted as they are the most unlikely celebrities out there) were what contributed to Garcia’s premature death at the age of 53 in 1995.

The story of the Dead is traced back to the early days in the hippie movement and their natural habitat in Haight-Ashbury. It also covers the long recording sessions where the group were hyped up on nitrous oxide and the aborted film project, which was due to the group lacing the film crew’s cups with LSD. It also looks at their resurgence in the eighties and how they became like a travelling circus because when crazed Deadheads who “Needed a miracle” (to borrow from the band’s lyrics) as they had lucked out on tickets to Grateful Dead shows decided to simply set up street parties outside of the band’s concerts instead. Party time, excellent!

This film naturally includes a fabulous soundtrack that showcases the band’s music. These songs are complex ones where you can hear the influence of each member’s love of different musical genres like: bluegrass, folk, classical, avant-garde and the blues, as these styles permeate almost every note. This music attracted scores of different fans. There were deafheads, wharf rats, acid heads, coke fiends, spinners (people who spun around dancing ad nauseam), tapers (fans who rabidly bootlegged the band’s shows with the group’s blessing) as well as those who worshiped at the altar of Garcia.

The surviving members of the Grateful Dead are interviewed here while Garcia appears via old videos. Even the group’s elusive lyricist, Robert Hunter appears here though his contributions are as mysterious as his lyrics. Sam Cutler the former tour manager of The Rolling Stones and the Dead is also interviewed and he is a funny and fantastic talent who isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. One distinct difference with this documentary is the absence of industry types that tend to be given too much airtime in music documentaries.

Long Strange Trip expertly threads together interviews plus rare archive footage including photographs and films. At around four hours it covers a lot of ground. But it’s also staggering to think that there were still topics that this documentary failed to address like: Woodstock, the individual band member’s solo projects and the individual band member’s childhoods (only Garcia’s is briefly touched on.)

Long Strange Trip is about the magic, myth and madness that was the Grateful Dead. This epic four hour rock documentary is a freewheeling journey through one experimental group’s bizarre world. The film is essential viewing for Deadheads and assorted other freaks who consider themselves Deadheads-in-the-making. This film ultimately proves that once you start loving this band of weirdoes there is a point of no return from this long, strange trip.

Originally published on 20 March 2017 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/sxsw-film-review-long-strange-trip-usa-2017-celebrates-the-magic-myth-and-madness-that-is-the-grateful-dead/

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FILM REVIEW: MISSION CONTROL: THE UNSUNG HEROES OF APOLLO

 

Stop and take a moment to think about what you were doing at the age of 27 or what you will do if it’s yet to come. If you’re a musician it is likely that you are dead but if you were working at NASA during the Apollo era then you had a hand in putting man on the moon. Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo is a documentary that takes a leaf out of Hidden Figures’ book because it puts the focus on the boffins that achieved great things by working at mission control and it is one truly fascinating story.

The film marks the directorial debut of David Fairhead who has worked as a film editor for several decades. Fairhead was also the editor of the previous SXSW documentary, The Last Man on the Moon. In Mission Control Fairhead is close to the subject matter as he wears the multiple hats of director and editor yet he manages to produce a compelling, if rather technical story.

This documentary includes and focuses on interviews with the men who worked at NASA during the Apollo era. This includes astronauts: Charlie Duke and the late Gene Cernan as well the founder of mission control, Dr Christopher Kraft. It also includes a huge roll call of men who worked as flight directors, in life support systems and other areas. There are also two female interviewees: Ginger Kerrick and Courtenay McMiller who currently work at NASA.

This is a story that focuses on the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s one that doesn’t gloss over the failures of Apollo 1, which resulted in the deaths of Gus Grissom, Edward H. White II and Roger B. Chaffee during testing. Instead the documentary talks about how this was a major turning point for the team. In the aftermath of this tragedy the group at mission control bandied together and adopted the mantra of “tough” and “competent”. It was one that would see these ordinary men of different social backgrounds (with an average age of 27) including many who were either fresh graduates or soldiers setting out to achieve something that most had figured was mission impossible.

In 2017 people like talking about things like “digital disruption” and “working out loud” and yet it’s amazing to think that from the 1950s to the early 1970s when computers were dumber than today’s average mobile phone that people could achieve feats like those that were accomplished. Consider: Apollo 8 was the first mission to leave Earth’s orbit and to subsequently reach and orbit the moon before returning safely to earth as well as Apollo 11 where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made the small step that turned out to be a giant leap for mankind when they walked on the moon. The story is jubilant at these successes and it’s interesting to hear the proud and passionate engineers and scientists talking about the nail-biting moments where things went wrong and how they overcame some setbacks with quick-thinking, teamwork and good decision-making.

Mission Control includes archive footage that has never been shown before as well as old newsreels and powerful animations simulating the journeys into space. These latter moments in particular help to cut through some of the drier, more technical parts.

Our fascination with space continues to this day with an enthusiasm that remains unfettered. It is also a spiritual experience to witness scenes like the lunar sunrise where the perfect accompaniment comes from some recitations from the bible’s book of Genesis. Even those who aren’t religious could enjoy this moment and perhaps think of David Bowie singing, “Planet earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do.”

David Fairhead’s directorial debut is living proof that people can achieve big things by putting their heads together. To put man on the moon was a huge, staggering challenge that is still spoken about today (even if it’s just when comedians like Jerry Seinfeld joke about it). These scientists and technical specialists are an inspiration, as they had the vision, expertise, ability and quick-thinking to achieve one hell of a magnificent feat. This means that films like Mission Control should be mandatory viewing for anyone working in a team because it is like watching a love letter to NASA’s rocket men.

Originally published on 18 March 2017 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/sxsw-film-review-mission-control-the-unsung-heroes-of-apollo-uk-2017-is-a-love-letter-to-nasas-rocket-men/

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FILM REVIEW: THROUGH THE REPELLENT FENCE: A LAND ART FILM

 

As Donald Trump continues promoting his idea of building a wall between the US and Mexico it’s heartening to see that there are some people taking a different approach. Through The Repellent Fence: A Land Art Film is a documentary about a land art installation that attempted to reinforce the notion that borders are an arbitrary idea and that some fences cannot divide people. This is ultimately an insightful and hopeful tale about an important and relevant issue in politics.

This film is directed by Sam Wainwright Douglas who made the 2016 SXSW Audience Award winning documentary, Honky Tonk Heaven. In Through The Repellent Fence, Douglas follows an inter-disciplinary artist/activist collective named Post-Commodity. The group is made up of three Native Americans: Cristóbal Martínez (Chicano), Kade L. Twist (Cherokee) and Raven Chacon (Navajo) as they go through the process with the help of some volunteers of assembling the land art installation, The Repellent Fence.

This artwork was a 2m long installation that ran perpendicular to the US/Mexico border for four days in 2015. It consisted of 28 large, helium-filled balloons. Half of these spanned communities in the US and the other half spanned communities in Mexico. It was designed as a way of reflecting on why some people attempt to create artificial barriers. It also tried to suture together all of the different communities that it touched.

The balloons in this installation were a play on the ones that are sold and used by people to keep birds out of their gardens. These balloons feature a symbol called the “open eye” and they don’t always work at keeping these creatures away. In the context of the artwork, the balloons are symbolic of the previous acts that were taken out in order to marginalise, repel and destroy the culture of the indigenous people living within and beyond the different country’s borders in the Americas. In using the image of the “open eye” these indigenous artists were seeking to reclaim their own iconography and make this a piece of land art that was very much rooted in a tribal context.

This documentary also includes some information about land art in general and gives a brief history of this art movement that really only began in the 1950s and 1960s. There are scenes showing Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels. There are also interviews with art writer Lucy Lippard and Matt Coolidge of the Center for Land Use Interpretation. We also follow Chris Taylor from Texas Tech University as he – like the other participants – gives context, history and other information about these incredible land art installations.

The Repellent Fence is a film with an important message and one that seems to become more urgent through these fearful times. It observes how we should all collaborate and work together with the land and not attempt to control people, nature and other things. This film is ultimately a warm, inspiring and feel-good documentary about what can happen when individuals come and work together to restore power to the people.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Originally published on 12 March 2017 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/sxsw-film-review-through-the-repellent-fence-usa-2017-uses-art-to-make-an-important-political-statement/

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FILM REVIEW: CAMERAPERSON

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Cameraperson shines a light on the individual behind the camera. In this case it is cinematographer, Kirsten Johnson, a woman with some 25 years’ experience in the movie-making business. She’s also known for having worked on films like Fahrenheit 9/11 and Citizenfour, among others. Cameraperson is a documentary that lets the footage speak for itself with varying degrees of success and at its best is an illuminating look at the world of documentary filmmaking.

This film is basically a visual collage of assembled outtakes and pieces that were left on the cutting room floor but still prove important to Johnson after all these years. The locations are listed for each scene but no other important information is offered (for example, the year the video was short or any other details regarding the context). A list of films that this footage was shot for is included during the closing credits but in some cases this seems like information that has come too little, too late. The result is a kind of hodgepodge of different things although some themes about important elements in life like births, deaths and relationships do tend to emerge.

This documentary is a clever and inventive one because it makes the viewer ask their own questions about the role of the filmmaker, especially with respect to ethics, impartiality and objectivity. In some cases it is very obvious that Johnson is connecting with the subjects like in the case of a single female about to have an abortion in America, an Afghani boy who has lost his sight in one eye and the victims of rape and witnesses to other atrocities like ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. There are other moments that are especially intimate with Johnson showing footage of her parents and twin children. The scenes with her mother show her parent’s increasing signs of confusion due to Alzheimer’s and in one video Johnson makes a brief cameo opposite her Mum.

Cameraperson is a fun hybrid of different ideas and visuals. It’s an unusual and poetic tale that is full of varied subjects and at some points it also has a very atmospheric tone. A little more context may have made things a bit more powerful but as it stands, Cameraperson does provide some opportunities for some frank discussions about filmmaking because it shows all of its subjects in their natural environments and in rare, unfiltered glory.

Originally published on 20 February 2017 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/film-review-cameraperson-usa-2016-is-a-creative-and-artistic-look-at-the-world-of-documentary-filmmaking-cinematography/

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FILM REVIEW: WINTER AT WESTBETH

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Winter at Westbeth is a film that’s all about “the art.” And celebrating it at every age. This documentary looks at three young at heart, elderly, American artists who live in a vibrant, housing complex called Westbeth Artists Housing in New York. It is ultimately a film that is like a love letter to the power of creativity and pursuing your passion.

The three subjects of this film are all aged 75 years and older. There is Edith Stephen, a former danced turned filmmaker, Ilsa Gilbert, an author of vivid poetry and the late Dudley Williams, a man who performed modern dance with Martha Graham. The three show no signs of retiring or slowing down, they still doggedly pursue their creative endeavours and the things that make them happy. It’s an uplifting message and something that we can all take a little something away from.

The film does have its light moments, like when Stephen applies her green eyeshadow on camera but it also doesn’t shy away from showing some more complex and even dark emotions. Williams describes caring for his late partner and these scenes are both heart-breaking and profound. It’s a testament to filmmaker and cinematographer, Rohan Spong that he has forged a highly personal connection with his subjects and that he brings out the best from his on-screen talent in their talking head interviews. It’s also commendable that he invites the audience into a world where these artists are still vital and relevant and worthy of our respect and admiration.

Winter at Westbeth is a fine, fly-on-the-wall documentary that will inspire us all to leave behind the daily grind and go and live in a creative hotspot like Greenwich Village because it’s a place where artists are supported by the community and a place where they can offer so much more in return. This is one beautifully-realised film that showcases three unique souls and artists and one that manages to capture their essence in a truly joyful and life-affirming way. Utterly charming!

Originally published on 6 February 2017 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/film-review-winter-at-westbeth-australia-2016-is-a-love-letter-to-the-power-of-creativity-pursuing-your-passion/

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DVD REVIEW: FOR THE LOVE OF MEAT

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For The Love Of Meat is an original and eye-opening documentary series. This three-part show by former food critic and chef-turned-gourmet farmer, Matthew Evans aims to find out more about the animals we eat. Evans is no stranger to documentary films about food production with his previous series, What’s The Catch shining a spotlight on the fishing industry. For The Love Of Meat looks poised to follow in the footsteps of its predecessor as it gets us all to be more mindful about the protein we choose to eat.

Aussies love their meat. We eat on average a staggering 90 kilograms per person each year. This figure is around three times the OECD average and it leaves us second to America. But how much do people really know about meat? Evans looks at answering our questions with episodes dedicated to chickens, pigs and cattle (perhaps a second series could look at sheep, game and ducks?)

The first episode is a very difficult one to watch. Evans tries to demystify the different labels surrounding chicken (like organic, RSPCA-approved and free-range.) He is thwarted by his attempts to film in a “factory” farm. He does however, deliver some staggering statistics about the conditions battery hens are subjected to including being left in light for many hours per day so that they keep eating and living their short lives in cramped, dirty pens.

Organic farming is presented as a more sustainable solution. But Evans also counters this with the realistic fact that these birds cost more to produce and ultimately purchase. It is also quite harrowing to learn that chickens are smarter than we original thought, as they are capable of learning numeracy, empathy and self-control.

The second episode about pigs looks at the contentious issue of farrowing pens. These structures are like cages that sows are subjected to in order to stop them from accidently squashing some piglets while they are feeding from her. Evans also looks at alternatives to this pen including a swap pen and free-range pork. He also learns about a top-to-tail approach to cooking pork with former MasterChef contestant, Adam Liaw, who makes a Malaysian pork broth.

The final instalment looks at cattle and the environmental impacts of this farming, i.e. land-clearing and methane-gas emissions. An alternative is posed with the trial of feeding the cattle seaweed with early studies showing that this could help reduce or eliminate methane emissions. Chef, Shane Delia also appears and makes a Spanish dish out of beef’s tail. We also learn a staggering fact- that a 180 kilogram cow only has about four kilograms of eye-fillet steak. The message here is that we should look to cook with other secondary cuts of this large animal.

For The Love Of Meat is not overly preachy or forceful. It does not try to ram home the message of veganism or vegetarianism. Instead, Evans produces a knowledgeable and well-thought out program that poses a lot of questions for us to consider. It should make us stop and think about the environmental and health impacts of the food we eat. This show is ultimately a fresh and innovative look at food production and the questions it poses will ensure that we all have a lot to talk about when we sit down to dine, eat and chew the fat.

 

Originally published on 29 January 2017 at the following website: http://www.impulsegamer.com/love-meat-dvd-review/

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DVD REVIEW: I AM JOHNNY CASH

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A lot of people would be familiar with Johnny Cash’s life and music thanks to the biopic, Walk the Line. But I Am Johnny Cash is a documentary about the late man in black that manages to be a great watch and offers us some more information about this iconic singer-songwriter. I Am Johnny Cash is not a comprehensive or definitive film but it is an entertaining look at his life and legacy as his family, friends and famous fans gather together to look back and describe Cash’s life in an honest and frank way.

Derik Murray and Jordan Tappis direct this documentary and frame the story around a number of Cash’s famous songs including “Cry Cry Cry,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk The Line” and “San Quentin.” It begins by describing how Cash’s mother would sing gospel songs in order to escape the drudgery of working in the cotton fields. It also talks about Cash’s fractured relationship with his father and it was one that suffered a terrible blow when Cash’s brother Jack passed away following an accident at the age of 15. This death was something that left an indelible scar on Johnny.

This documentary is forthright in describing the good and bad times in Cash’s career and saves the viewer from having to watch a hagiography. There’s Cash’s first marriage to Vivian Liberto and the births of his daughters as well as his long absences away from home after he began having success in music. There was also his amphetamine addiction and the career downfall he suffered in his twilight years. There is also lots of footage with Cash and his second wife, June Carter Cash. It was a marriage that lasted the long haul because the pair were like soul mates, so much so that even Cash’s daughter Rosanne admits that she could understand the reason why things worked out between her father and step-mother.

The film includes a number of black and white photographs as well as archive footage, including videos from Cash’s television series, The Johnny Cash Show. The latter sees Cash interviewing famous celebrities like Bob Dylan (the pair would record a duet together) as well as Joni Mitchell and Ray Charles. This documentary also includes a number of talking head interviews with Cash’s contemporaries, collaborators and famous fans including: Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow, John Mellencamp and Eric Church, to name a few.

I Am Johnny Cash is a celebration of one complex and mysterious artist. This film manages to describe some key elements from his life but there was also some room for further discussion and exploration. The film features lots of Cash’s music and it is an honest portrayal of an anti-authoritarian, political songwriter and a charming, larger-than-life character who really was an all-American hero.

Originally published on 7 January 2017 at the following website: http://www.impulsegamer.com/johnny-cash-dvd-review/

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DVD REVIEW: STREETS OF YOUR TOWN

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Streets of Your Town is a romp through history, suburban Australia and its architecture. Comedian, Tim Ross, a self-confessed modernist tragic who has performed his own live shows in significant Australian buildings takes us on a journey through different Aussie structures, from the significant ones to the humble family home ranging from the 1950s to today. This two-part documentary could have been longer and is ultimately a love letter by Ross to Australian architects and buildings, but the series is not without a few structural trappings.

This fly-on-the-wall program from director, Sally Aitken (Getting Frank Gehry) begins in the post-war years when materials like concrete, steel and glass were used to make sleek and functional, modernist designs. In this special, Ross describes important buildings like the Sydney Opera House, Rose Seidler House, The Australian Academy of Science Building and Blues Point Tower. He also interviews a number of interesting individuals including Kevin McCloud (Grand Designs,) writer, Kathy Lette and philosopher, Alain de Botton.

The final part of the series tackles the impact of immigration on Australia’s homes, particularly the ones from the eighties where columns, arches and balconies saw them dubbed “Late 20th century immigrants’ nostalgia.” There is also the recent phenomena of upsizing the family home such that media rooms and en-suites are a must and are no longer a negotiable commodity.

Over the course of this programme Ross and his team go into detail about Australia’s pioneering architects including Robin Boyd, Harry Seidler and Syd Ancher, to name a few. Ross is also a little condescending at times when he dismisses the McMansions of today even though they are punctuating the suburbs. He calls them ugly in an aesthetic sense and he also believes that many old buildings should be cherished and preserved.

Streets of Your Town is an interesting documentary series about Australian architecture, history and suburban life. Ross is a passionate and rather opinionated presenter and sometimes his ideas may not accord with his viewers, as he is a little biased towards modernism. But at the end of the day this intriguing show demonstrates just what it takes for a house to be appreciated and considered a home.

Originally published on 12 December 2016 at the following website: http://www.impulsegamer.com/streets-town-dvd-review/

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DVD REVIEW: FORCES OF NATURE

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In Forces of Nature Professor Brian Cox answers the questions a child is likely to ask you. Why is every snowflake different? Why are honeycombs made up of hexagons? What is motion, etc.? This documentary series takes a leaf out of David Attenborough’s book by combining stunning natural scenes (where the high-definition video alone is worthy of a six out of five rating) and a learned presenter who can explain things in a relatively easy way.

This four part series is an ambitious one where the audience gets to traverse around the globe and watch the Northern Lights in one segment, to some volcanoes in Indonesia elsewhere and even the Serengeti Plains and some cliffs in Nepal. For the most part, Cox takes a back-seat and allows the mesmerising footage to speak for itself. When Cox does offer commentary and pieces to camera it is to use biology and physics to explain things like gravity, electromagnetism and symmetry in nature, as well as ways we can understand the universe and all its forces.

Professor Cox is an excellent presenter. It is obvious that he is a scientist who is passionate about his craft. It’s also apparent that he’s a great teacher. There is no doubt that this man knows what he’s talking about because Forces of Nature proves he is able to describe quite complex phenomena in a gentle, easy-to-understand way.

Forces of Nature is divided into programs about shape, colour, motion and elements. It is all about celebrating the complicated, everyday world and natural phenomena in general. This should be essential viewing to everyone as it strikes the perfect balance between information, entertainment and education. Professor Cox loves and enjoys celebrating science and it’s only natural that you should feel the same way too.

 

Originally published on 27 October 2016 at the following website: http://www.impulsegamer.com/forces-nature-dvd-review/

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FILM REVIEW: ZERO DAYS

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Imagine a scenario where a computer virus has the ability to affect a country’s power supply. It sounds like the plot of a thrilling, science fiction film. It is frightening to think that this could be the future of cyberwarfare, especially when one considers this in light of the Stuxnet event. Zero Days is a terrifying documentary about this very attack.

Zero Days is the latest documentary from prolific filmmaker, Alex Gibney (Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.) Gibney does an excellent job of covering a highly classified event and breaking down this complex computer catastrophe into some easily digestible and easy-to-understand elements. While there are some questions that are left unanswered – both the Israeli and American governments have denied responsibility for the attack – this film does lift the veil on some aspects of this important piece of cyberwarfare and it will get us thinking (and worrying) about what comes next.

The Stuxnet virus was first identified in 2010. It was a very sophisticated and targeted piece of computer code. It was apparent to those in the know that this was not the work of a lone hacker. Gibney interviews some representatives from the anti-virus companies, Symantec and Kaspersky Labs who explain the mechanics behind it all. They prove excellent talent as they show how interconnected everything is and how computer malware can compromise and affect physical, real-world items.

In this case a number of nuclear centrifuges in Iran were destroyed by this malware. Gibney also describes things within the context of the assassination of some Iranian nuclear scientists. This documentary also shows what happened when the attack occurred and how it left the nuclear boffins and IT experts scratching their heads.

The most illuminating interviewee is actually an actress named Joanne Tucker. She is playing the role of a number of anonymous intelligence analysts, including individuals that work at America’s National Security Agency. This commentary provides an informative take on how analysts could infiltrate and compromise systems and the other things that they were and are able to achieve. It’s scary stuff that proves that the battlelines for the next major war will literally be in cyberspace and through computers and technology, not the battlegrounds and artillery of yesteryear.

Alex Gibney’s fresh and topical documentary is a terrifying and slick look at cyberwarfare. This entertaining and comprehensive documentary serves as a cautionary tale of what can happen when technologies are compromised and information falls into the wrong hands. Zero Days does an excellent job of chronicling a subject that could have remained shrouded in the shadows and offers us a bitter pill as food for thought.

Originally published on 17 October 2016 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/film-review-alex-gibneys-zero-days-usa-2016-is-a-terrifying-and-slick-documentary/

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