Monthly Archives: February 2014

‘Kids For Cash,’ Or Perhaps Not — But A Broken System For Sure


Sandy Fonzo confronts Judge Mark A. Chiavarella on the courthouse steps after he was convicted in the so-called "Kids for Cash" scandal in 2011. Fonzo's son, who eventually committed suicide, was among thousands Chiavarella had sent to a juvenile detention facility from which he'd received a "finder's fee."

hide captionSandy Fonzo confronts Judge Mark A. Chiavarella on the courthouse steps after he was convicted in the so-called “Kids for Cash” scandal in 2011. Fonzo’s son, who eventually committed suicide, was among thousands Chiavarella had sent to a juvenile detention facility from which he’d received a “finder’s fee.”


SenArt Films

Kids for Cash

  • Director: Robert May
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Running time: 102 minutes

Rated PG-13 for some thematic material and language

(Recommended)

There’s a moment, toward the end of the documentary that centers on him, when Judge Mark A. Chiavarella breaks down, his voice cracking as he mourns the likelihood that his grandchildren won’t have him in their lives.

It’s a human moment — and a hugely, grimly ironic one. That’s because Mark Chiavarella is the “Kids for Cash” judge, notorious for taking money from the private juvenile facility he enthusiastically sentenced thousands of kids to, effectively cutting those children off from their own families.

These aren’t hard-case delinquents we’re talking about, but in the wake of the Columbine school shootings, a zero-tolerance philosophy took hold across the nation. And Chiavarella, who handled juvie cases in Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County, really meant it when he said zero: hair-pullings, schoolyard fights, table-leaping in the cafeteria, and other moderately bad behavior would get kids sent away from his courtroom in shackles. Scare ‘em straight, was the idea; make them understand that actions have consequences. One young woman went up the river for making a fake Myspace page that mocked her vice-principal.

And here’s the thing: Chiavarella’s constituents cheered him on. They admired his sternness, his no-nonsense approach — until news broke that he and fellow judge Michael Conahan had taken nearly $3 million in “finder’s fees” from the operator of a private detention facility where many of those kids were being locked up. Scandal exploded. The Feds descended. And suddenly the hero of Wilkes-Barre was its biggest villain.

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Robert May, a producer on The Station Agent and The Fog of War, makes his directing debut with a carefully measured, admirably precise account of this sordid business. Kids for Cash even backs away from its own title as it parses the gritty details of the scandal: Chiavarella has always maintained adamantly that accepting the money was a bad idea, given the optics and ethics of the situation, but never a motivation. (Indeed, the film cites stats suggesting that his sentencing rates didn’t change much after the payout, and the eventual charges against him didn’t include bribery.)

The film lets the disgraced judge make that argument in a good deal of detail, in interviews that reveal a man who doesn’t much like the idea of leeway for troubled kids. His own father knocked him unconscious when he tried to steal a car, he explains, bemoaning parents who coddle their teens, and in that confession echoes the rattle of a skeleton that seems to haunt his entire approach to juvenile jurisprudence.

Kids for Cash, and the journalists and juvenile-law watchdogs who are its white knights, reserve a measure of scorn for the zero-tolerance policies that Chiavarella embodied, pointing out the irrationality of expecting a hormonal adolescent to rationally weigh impulse versus consequence. The social pendulum swung too far after Columbine, they insist, and a generation of teens are paying the price. Among them is one young man, once a star wrestler, whose mother confronts Chiavarella on the day of his conviction to hold him responsible for her son’s suicide.

The film has a few weaknesses — imprecise editing, a musical score that’s a little too over-dramatic, a recurring bit of visual business involving an attic full of musty dollhouses and paper-cutout kids. It also doesn’t quite interrogate the explosion of the privatized-corrections market and the corruption it might seem to invite, though it certainly bares the question and leaves it in plain view for audiences to ponder.

What it does ask is whether we the people, given the horrible reality of violence in our schools, can or will put the conversation around teen crime back on a less terrified footing.

As for Chiavarella: He’s in federal prison in Illinois, convicted on charges of racketeering, tax dodging, mail fraud, money laundering and more, sentenced to 28 years and stripped of his judge’s pension. Actions, it seems, do indeed have consequences.

Bob And Linda Read Internet Movie Reviews, Part Nine: ’12 Years A Slave’


This year, we wanted to look back at the nine best picture nominees and remind ourselves — and you — that reactions to film are complicated, hilariously varied and wonderfully individual. So we looked over every comment for every nominee at RottenTomatoes.com, and we brought you some of our favorites.

Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve looked at American Hustle, Her, Gravity, Philomena, Nebraska, Dallas Buyers Club, Captain Phillips and Wolf of Wall Street. But all along, we knew that 12 Years A Slave — which Bob and I both chose as our Best Picture — would be a challenge. We didn’t feel entirely comfortable setting it aside for different treatment, and yet couldn’t quite give it the same treatment, simply because people’s reviews were substantially less silly given a story so profoundly difficult. Following the lead of superstars Claire O’Neill and Kainaz Amaria from the NPR Visuals team, Bob and I have made it through to the end. (Well, almost the end. There may possibly be a little more material for those of you who have come with us this far.)

Bob’s sincere Internet movie review: Harrowing, intimate, unnerving. Chiwetel Ejiofor is shattering as a free black New Yorker kidnapped and sold into slavery, and the imagery — say, the glowing embers of a never-sent letter dying in the blackness as hope dies with them — would resonate even if the story weren’t so powerful.

Linda’s sincere Internet movie review: There’s little to say about how devastating this story is that hasn’t been said — a lot — but the thing is, it’s all true. It really is that much of a gut-punch, and unlike a lot of stories about slavery that have made their way to being well known, it actually is about slavery as a thing that happened to black people, and not a thing that was worried about or fought over by white people. The performances are superb, the direction is meticulous, and the script is just about perfect.

Know your stuff before Oscars day!

  • Bob’s full review
  • An interview about the accuracy of the film’s depiction of the true story
  • A piece about the music
  • An interview with Chiwetel Ejiofor and director Steve McQueen
  • McQueen and Ejiofor on Fresh Air
  • A story about what happened to the film’s subject, Solomon Northup
  • A Fresh Air interview with historian David Blight
  • A discussion with Slate’s Dana Stevens about “difficult” movies
  • An episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour, with Gene Demby and Kat Chow of NPR’s Code Switch, talking about the film

Bob And Linda Read Internet Movie Reviews, Part Nine: ’12 Years A Slave’


This year, we wanted to look back at the nine best picture nominees and remind ourselves — and you — that reactions to film are complicated, hilariously varied and wonderfully individual. So we looked over every comment for every nominee at RottenTomatoes.com, and we brought you some of our favorites.

Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve looked at American Hustle, Her, Gravity, Philomena, Nebraska, Dallas Buyers Club, Captain Phillips and Wolf of Wall Street. But all along, we knew that 12 Years A Slave — which Bob and I both chose as our Best Picture — would be a challenge. We didn’t feel entirely comfortable setting it aside for different treatment, and yet couldn’t quite give it the same treatment, simply because people’s reviews were substantially less silly given a story so profoundly difficult. Following the lead of superstars Claire O’Neill and Kainaz Amaria from the NPR Visuals team, Bob and I have made it through to the end. (Well, almost the end. There may possibly be a little more material for those of you who have come with us this far.)

Bob’s sincere Internet movie review: Harrowing, intimate, unnerving. Chiwetel Ejiofor is shattering as a free black New Yorker kidnapped and sold into slavery, and the imagery — say, the glowing embers of a never-sent letter dying in the blackness as hope dies with them — would resonate even if the story weren’t so powerful.

Linda’s sincere Internet movie review: There’s little to say about how devastating this story is that hasn’t been said — a lot — but the thing is, it’s all true. It really is that much of a gut-punch, and unlike a lot of stories about slavery that have made their way to being well known, it actually is about slavery as a thing that happened to black people, and not a thing that was worried about or fought over by white people. The performances are superb, the direction is meticulous, and the script is just about perfect.

Know your stuff before Oscars day!

  • Bob’s full review
  • An interview about the accuracy of the film’s depiction of the true story
  • A piece about the music
  • An interview with Chiwetel Ejiofor and director Steve McQueen
  • McQueen and Ejiofor on Fresh Air
  • A story about what happened to the film’s subject, Solomon Northup
  • A Fresh Air interview with historian David Blight
  • A discussion with Slate’s Dana Stevens about “difficult” movies
  • An episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour, with Gene Demby and Kat Chow of NPR’s Code Switch, talking about the film

Pop Culture Happy Hour: The Oscars Omnibus Of 2014


A drawing of two clinking martini glasses.


NPR

Sunday night, the Oscars will come around once again, and we’ll be watching. But before we do, we got together with All Things Considered film critic, silly video partner, emoticon learner and all-around great pal Bob Mondello to talk about all nine of the Best Picture nominees: American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club, Nebraska, Philomena, Her, Wolf Of Wall Street, 12 Years A Slave, Gravity, and Captain Phillips.

We’ve got a little of everything in this discussion — we cover the Best Picture race that seems to have come down to technical mastery versus emotional impact, we talk about comb-overs, we talk about Judi Dench, we talk about the makeup in Dallas Buyers Club, and we try to figure out what Glen has against high-waisted pants. And yes, in the end, we all choose our very own Best Picture picks.

In terms of our happiness this week, Stephen has found a new very silly television show to enjoy with his children. Bob has found a new very old book in a new (to him) place, and he will tell you all about it, no question. Glen is happy about several things, including a smart take on a much-praised television show. I am happy about a hilarious headline in response to a less hilarious unburdening of oneself, as well as about a very good audiobook.

You can find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter: Stephen, Glen, Trey, me, producer Jessica, also-producers Lauren and Nick, and our lifelong pal and music director Mike Katzif. And most importantly of all, the recently arrived on Twitter Bob Mondello, who promises to learn all the emoticons.

Book News: Author Criticizes S.C. School Funding Cuts Over Gay-Themed Books


The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

Alison Bechdel is the author of the graphic memoir Fun Home and the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For.i i

hide captionAlison Bechdel is the author of the graphic memoir Fun Home and the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For.


Elena Seibert/Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Alison Bechdel is the author of the graphic memoir Fun Home and the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For.

Alison Bechdel is the author of the graphic memoir Fun Home and the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For.

Elena Seibert/Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

  • Alison Bechdel, author of the graphic memoir Fun Home, has responded to this week’s vote by South Carolina’s House of Representatives to cut a combined total of $70,000 in funding to the College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina Upstate because two books with gay and lesbian themes appeared on freshman student reading lists. Bechdel, whose book was assigned at the College of Charleston, said in a statement released to PW, “It’s sad and absurd that the College of Charleston is facing a funding cut for teaching my book — a book which is after all about the toll that this sort of small-mindedness takes on people’s lives.” State Rep. Garry Smith condemned Fun Home, saying it “graphically shows lesbian acts” and “promot[es] the gay and lesbian lifestyle.” Bechdel is well known for her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, where she first floated the idea that became known as “the Bechdel Test” — a standard for sexism in movies based on whether a film has two female characters who talk to each other about something other than men. The second book, titled Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio, was assigned at the University of South Carolina.
  • More than 120 academic papers published by Springer and IEEE (the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) turned out to be computer-generated nonsense, according to the journal Nature, which says the papers are being withdrawn. A software called SCIgen “randomly combines strings of words to produce fake computer-science papers,” Nature reported, adding that “SCIgen was invented in 2005 by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge to prove that conferences would accept meaningless papers.” Computer scientist Cyril Labbé of Joseph Fourier University has been tracking such fake works. Nature says: “Labbé does not know why the papers were submitted — or even if the authors were aware of them. Most of the conferences took place in China, and most of the fake papers have authors with Chinese affiliations. Labbé has emailed editors and authors named in many of the papers and related conferences but received scant replies; one editor said that he did not work as a program chair at a particular conference, even though he was named as doing so, and another author claimed his paper was submitted on purpose to test out a conference, but did not respond on follow-up.”
  • The New York Times’ editorial board offered a sharp assessment of a book deal for the man behind the @GSElevator twitter account, which purported to relay conversations overheard in the elevator at Goldman Sachs: “Mr. Lefevre lives in Texas, never worked for Goldman, lied about it to reporters and presumably his publisher, Simon & Schuster, has just been exposed — and is getting his book deal anyway.”
  • The Israeli Embassy in Tokyo donated 300 books on Anne Frank to Tokyo public libraries after hundreds of books on the Holocaust victim were vandalized. At a news conference Thursday, Ryo Tanaka, the mayor of Tokyo’s Suginami ward, said, “Through this incident, I believe that people also learned about the horrid facts of history and of racism, and with this knowledge, I hope that our people were given an opportunity to reflect on the preciousness of peace.”
  • Colson Whitehead talks to The New York Times about writing spaces: “There’s always a better apartment, that’s the rule. I’m sedentary now, but I keep up the hunt by moving my desk around. Where’s the mojo these days? What room, what corner? How about by the window, one story above the street? Pluses: taking in ‘the life of the city'; nose-picking deterrent. Minus: overhearing ‘Who’s that sad man sitting there all day?’ A hundred pages in the dining room, 100 pages in the living room while the kid’s at school. It adds up. For the first half of a new book, maybe you want your back against the wall. Gunslinger style. Nothing can sneak up on you except your own bad sentences. Try it.”

The Count Of Many Mistresses: Alexandre Dumas’ Lively Life


See Previous Installments

For this second installment of the NPR Books/Code Switch Black History Month project, we asked the legendary Kyle Baker — his work includes Why I Hate Saturn, and stints on the X-Men, Deadpool and Plastic Man — to illustrate one of his literary inspirations. Baker chose Alexandre Dumas, creator of the Three Musketeers — whose life was almost as eventful as his fiction. We recommend you click on the enlargement to get the full effect of all the detail!

Keen Eyes, Uncanny Instincts Keep Films In Sharp Focus


On location for Walk of Shame, camera crew members Larry Nielsen (center) and Milan "Miki" Janicin (right) help set up a crane shot. The wireless focus remote Nielsen will use is hanging from that purple carabiner on his jacket.

hide captionOn location for Walk of Shame, camera crew members Larry Nielsen (center) and Milan “Miki” Janicin (right) help set up a crane shot. The wireless focus remote Nielsen will use is hanging from that purple carabiner on his jacket.


Cindy Carpien/NPR

You won’t believe it — I didn’t — but the person responsible for keeping each and every shot of a movie in focus never looks through a camera lens.

“No,” says focus puller Baird Steptoe. “We do not look through the camera at all.”

Steptoe has worked as a first assistant cameraman on films from The Sixth Sense to Thor to last year’s Grownups Two. He says he’s learned to judge distances — precise distances — with his naked eye alone.

“I mean, I can tell you roughly from you to me right now,” he says. “I would say about 2-11.”

Two feet 11 inches, that is. Not that I brought along a tape measure for corroboration. But Steptoe has an eye you don’t mess around with. On a movie, if he’s wrong, he could lose his job.

Turns out focus pullers don’t look through the lens because the camera operators do that — they’re busy framing the shot, panning and tilting, and they don’t have a spare hand to focus in and out. So in Hollywood, where everything takes a village, pulling focus has become a separate operation, a job all to itself.

Larry Nielsen, the first assistant cameraman on the set of the romantic comedy Walk of Shame, has movies in the eye and the blood. He’s a third-generation filmmaker; his grandfather and father were cameramen and animators.

Nielsen's remote device controls focus, zoom and aperture on the camera; a white wheel is marked with numbers that indicate distance. Nielsen assesses the distance between camera and actor, and he needs to be precise: If he sets the wheel to 9 and half feet, but the distance is actually only 9 feet 3 inches, the shot will be out of focus.i i

hide captionNielsen’s remote device controls focus, zoom and aperture on the camera; a white wheel is marked with numbers that indicate distance. Nielsen assesses the distance between camera and actor, and he needs to be precise: If he sets the wheel to 9 and half feet, but the distance is actually only 9 feet 3 inches, the shot will be out of focus.


Cindy Carpien/NPR

Nielsen's remote device controls focus, zoom and aperture on the camera; a white wheel is marked with numbers that indicate distance. Nielsen assesses the distance between camera and actor, and he needs to be precise: If he sets the wheel to 9 and half feet, but the distance is actually only 9 feet 3 inches, the shot will be out of focus.

Nielsen’s remote device controls focus, zoom and aperture on the camera; a white wheel is marked with numbers that indicate distance. Nielsen assesses the distance between camera and actor, and he needs to be precise: If he sets the wheel to 9 and half feet, but the distance is actually only 9 feet 3 inches, the shot will be out of focus.

Cindy Carpien/NPR

Bundled against the early morning chill, Nielsen wears a knitted cap, a warm coat and fingerless gloves. With his bare fingers, he’ll adjust focus on a wireless remote he’s using for this scene — wireless, because he can’t be right next to the camera as he usually is, controlling the focus knobs. Today the RED EPIC camera is mounted far from the ground, on a big hulking crane.

Down below, Nielsen’s remote has a wheel that is marked in feet; he moves the wheel based on what his eye says the distance is between camera and actor is. He’s got to be within inches for it to work — and the distances keep changing as the crane swings around to follow the main character, played by Elizabeth Banks.

“The minute she turns, it’s my job to bring the focus forward to her face so that the eye naturally sees what’s in focus,” Nielsen says.

In the movie, Banks’ character is on a wild journey; she needs to get to an audition for a network TV job, but her car’s been towed. In the scene they’re about to shoot, she’s racing around, dirty, her hair a mess, when she finally spots her car.

So Nielsen is busy thinking back and forth in inches and feet and zooms and aperture adjustments, to be sure the faraway camera tracks all her movements clearly.

“She’s starting at about 16 feet,” he explains. “She’s gonna walk towards the camera, and we’re gonna catch her at about 9 feet, and the camera’s gonna swoop around and get as close as about 5 and a half feet. It’s my job to make sure she’s in focus, frame for frame, 24 frames a second.”

It’s like a slow-motion mental exercise before the real thing begins.

Once the director calls “action,” there are only two people walking as the scene is being shot — Banks and focus puller Larry Nielsen, coordinating the changing camera distances with his remote. Walk of Shame director Steven Brill says he’s depends 100 percent on his first assistant cameraman to keep the scenes in focus.

“If they are not sharp and in focus,” he says, “the film isn’t usable, and we cannot go forward.”

Even Director of Photography Jonathan Brown is in awe.

“It’s a mystical art,” he says.

An art Larry Nielsen has clearly mastered. Not right away, of course. Nielsen began learning to focus with tape measures. After a while, his eye was trained and he didn’t need them anymore. Except, he says, in certain circumstances.

“After a 14-hour, 16-hour day, I’ll be pullin’ my tape occasionally,” he admits.

He finds himself metaphorically pulling focus in everyday life sometimes – standing outside a movie theater, say, in a really long line.

“Yeah, sometimes I’ll say, ‘We’re about 25 feet and the line’s … taking 10 minutes per person, yeah.”

At age 48, after years in the business — he’s worked on Avatar, The Kingdom, Shutter Island and many more — Nielsen is pretty confident about his craft. It’s a craft, he notes, that would have been harder in the old days, when they didn’t have monitors on set to double-check what they’d shot. Years ago, filmmakers had to wait until the next day to see the dailies — and it could cost a lot of money if they had to re-shoot a blurry scene.

Just imagine if the focus puller hadn’t been on his game for Gloria Swanson’s famous final scene in Sunset Boulevard — she might have been ready for her close-up, but it wouldn’t have looked like much.

Editor’s Note: Like others in their line of work, Larry Nielsen and Miki Janicin are mourning the death Feb. 20 of 2nd Assistant Cameraperson Sarah Jones, who was struck by a train while working on the set of the Gregg Allman biopic Midnight Rider. Their union and many other in the film industry are campaigning to have her honored during the Academy Awards’ ‘In Memoriam’ segment this Sunday.