Vox Lux @ The Ross

 

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Written and Directed by Brady Corbet and narrated by Wilhelm Dafoe, Vox Lux is a riveting commentary on fame and celebrity culture in the 21st century. Natalie Portman stars as Celeste, a high school student who is thrust into stardom after singing at a memorial for her classmates who were shot and killed by another student named Cullen Active, played by Logan Riley Bruner. Celeste and her song-writer sister Eleanor, played by Stacy Martin, and her manager-with-no-name, played by an unrecognizable Jude Law, navigate the waters of the music industry as they ride the waves of drugs and alcohol and other means of self-abuse.

Watching Vox Lux is like treading on razor blades; so many scenes I wished for … no longed for Wilhelm Dafoe’s narration to relieve me of the cinematic cuts and bruises. Corbet, however, refused to alleviate my discomfort. Julia Heyman’s art direction adds salt to the wounds as she splashes scenes in hues of blue grey haze, midnight blue, black, white, sepia, and purple and teal laced with silver.

Celeste moves through the film like a marionette whose puppeteer had too many whiskey shots but still thinks he can manipulate the strings. She is so thin so fragile so fractured that you view in fear at some point her head is going to drop off and roll down the street into traffic or one of her limbs is going to break off and land somewhere along the way.

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There is more. Corbet frames Vox Lux within the context of gun violence and terrorism. We see, for instance, the bodies of slain students on the floor and slumped against the wall as young Celeste, played by Raffey Cassidy, bears witness to the murder of her classmates. Wait.

There is even more. You will feel the sound effect of each bullet as it travels through the barrel of the gun to reach its intended victim. No one will escape the trauma of this heart break.

For all of its nail-biting drama, Vox Lux loses itself somewhere out there, but the loss has to be noted. Corbet explores in Vox Lux the strain of memories. How does a witness to trauma bear up under the strain when she has survived? Celeste gains fame and celebrity after her performance at the memorial of her slain classmates; this experience has to have had a psychological impact. How does that fact translate the next day and the next and the next?

Screen Shot 2018-03-09 at 6.30.01 PMVox Lux plays through Thursday, January 31th at the Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

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Ben Is Back @ The Ross

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Holly (Julia Roberts) and Ben (Lucas Hedges)

Julia Roberts plays Holly Burns, a suburban housewife whose nineteen-year-old son Ben, played by Lucas Hedges, unexpectedly returns home on Christmas Eve morning from rehab for his treatment of opioid addiction. Much to the angst of her daughter, Ivy, played by Kathryn Newton and her husband, Neal, played by Courtney B. Vance, Holly is determined to prove that Ben is worth every ounce of her love and belief in him, even though she doesn’t trust him any farther than she can throw him.

Roberts is a gem in this movie as she strikes at the heart of every mother’s fear. She plays Holly with grit and depth, and we feel her frustration that she just may not be able to control everything in her universe since Ben is back. Written and directed by Peter Hedges, the film opens in Sloatsburg Village, a suburb of New York. The drama begins Christmas Eve night when the home is broken into and, even worse, the dog, Ponce, is taken by drug dealers. Ben laments his coming back has put the family in danger.

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Holly listens as Neal shares his concern now that Ben is back

The abduction of Ponce is cause for grave concern, and Holly curries patience as she tries to ally the fears of the smallest children, Lacey and Liam, played by Mia Fowler and Jakari Fraser respectively. Holly and Ben, then, embark on a twilight trek through their neighborhood in search of Ponce. On the ride, Ben points out a house he robbed, one where he and his male history teacher had an arrangement of sorts in exchange for drugs, and a seedy part of town where Ben once frequented.

Ben is Back joins Hollywood’s attention to suburban white teenagers and their problems with drug addiction. The camera romanticizes these teenagers; families are dramatized as fighting momma and papa bears who will stop at nothing to save the addicted child. Law enforcement is nowhere in sight, unless momma bear calls on them as does Holly in the police precinct. Even then, when she bangs on the window and wails in sheer desperation and pleads for them to arrest Ben because he has stolen her car, the police tell her to calm down and to wait her turn. Dickon Hinchliffe’s music score ensures the pull of the heartstring for wayward Ben. He’s just a teenager who went down the wrong path, and with a mother’s love and care, he will be alright. In addition, Hedges makes known and makes known clearly drug addiction affects not just the abuser but everyone within the home and those within the community. Fear and distrust find a comfortable residence not only in every space of the house but in the psyches of family members. We learn a young woman to whom he dealt drugs died of an overdose, and throughout the film, Hedges shrouds Ben in mystery.

Roberts shines in Ben is Back. She inhabits the stress of Holly’s try to control circumstances. The disappointment in the movie is Courtney B. Vance. The film underuses his talents in favor of Roberts; it’s just that obvious. His performance is an actor’s push to bring some value to a half-baked script that undoubtedly failed to meet up with his skill; it is painful to watch. When he tells Holly to come home, she says, “you take care of our children, and I’ll take care of mine.” Hedges, however, does not hesitate to ask, “Weren’t the class privilege, the breadth of love Ben received from his family and siblings, and the financial sacrifices made for him … enough?”

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Nation Hunger ~ Some Words

Screen Shot 2018-09-06 at 3.36.42 PM.pngBefore I begin Writing … , I have some words:

Be careful–very careful. When you beat down the door to drag a ‘moron’ out of the room, be aware of who is standing in the room–still. It is not empty.  Pay close attention to the person who scoots around the desk to pull out the chair for the next person to sit in it. Observe who will take the seat:

A well-versed and well-rehearsed official and his supporters who have been biding the time.

The emotional and psychological turmoil Americans have been experiencing every single day since November 2016 I believe, on serious reflection, has been well-orchestrated to create what I call Nation-Hunger for that someone else to take the helm. Once fed, and we are belching out perceived pleasure brought on by the change of the guard, watch how events will unfold. We will be too satiated and too distracted to respond because we will have been seduced into a faux-euphoria.

The strategy is brilliant in its simplicity. I fear, however, subsequent action on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will be treacherous in its implementation.

Be careful. IJS. Stay woke.

Maudie @ The Ross

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Sally Hawkins as Maudie

What is YOUR version of happiness?

Ushling Walsh’s newest film Maudie for certain will inspire you ask that question. Sally Hawkins plays Maud Lewis, the reclusive Canadian folk artist who rose to fame for her paintings of everyday ordinary life in Marshalltown, Nova Scotia. Ethan Hawke plays her husband, Everett Lewis, a fish peddler. Everett meets Maud after she arrives at his place in answer to a handwritten ad he placed in the local grocery store for a live-in housekeeper. She keeps the 9 ft by 10 ft 6 house in spite of her debilitating rheumatoid arthritis and her grump of her employer, Everett.

Everett and Maud, nevertheless, dwell in the house without the usual amenities … uhm … no running water, no indoor plumbing, no electricity – none of these — out in the middle of nowhere where the winters are ferocious. Uh uh … there is no heat. The couple live in these conditions until Maud’s death in 1970.

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Ethan Hawke as Everett

Painting gives Maude solace, and no wall, door, cabinet, window, appliance nor activity escapes the stroke of her brush.

Walsh’s interpretation of Maud brings to audiences a woman, who, in spite of her circumstances, yearns only for her paint, paintbrushes, and a seat by the window to create.

The fame her artistry brings is of no consequence to her.  Sally Hawkins plays Maud as an artist who just happens to sell her work. Fame is nothing she seeks but Ethan Hawke’s Everett finds the discovery of Maud’s work by the outside world discomfiting. The couple, nevertheless, endure each other. Hawkins and Hawke interpret Maud and Everett as a couple wrapped up in a blanket of a rugged and weathered primitive kind of love. If either one of us could have asked Maud, or Everett for that matter, how could they have lived in such a way. Maud would have answered this is MY version of happiness.

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A Quiet Passion @ The Ross

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Cynthia Nixon as poet Emily Dickinson

Miss Emily Dickinson composed almost 2000 poems from her room with a view of Amherst, Massachusetts. Her mother, Mrs. Emily Norcross Dickinson, inspired in her a love for gardening, and Miss Emily, along with her sister Lavinia, tended a host of plants in the conservatory her father Edward had built on the Homestead. She avidly read newspapers and periodicals; she waited with anticipation for the newest publications of poetry and fiction. Her favorite women writers were, among others, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the Brontës, and the writings by her best friend Helen Hunt Jackson. The poems she wrote she enfolded into letters written to relatives and friends along with pressed flowers from her garden. As for her health, she experienced visual difficulties that required two six month trips to see Henry V. Williams a well-respected ophthalmic surgeon and Harvard professor. It is believed by some scholars her eye problems accounted for her desire to stay home until her death in 1886.

 

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Emily Dickinson and her sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle)

None of these activities, however, are dramatized in A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies’s bio-pic on the life of American poet Emily Dickinson. Played with exquisite self-possession by Cynthia Nixon of Sex and the City fame, Davies imagines Miss Emily as a woman encased within the boundaries of the Dickinson family Homestead—a kind of self-inflicted imprisonment. Keith Carradine plays her father Edward who grants Emily’s request to write at night. From that moment on, Emily wrote her poetry between the hours of 3 a.m. and noon, times she believed the world itself was still and silent.

In A Quiet Passion, Emily eventually avoided the social life of Amherst—that of picnics, church socials, weddings and funerals, among other social activities; instead, the poet turned to a solitary reclusive existence. She enjoyed the company of her family, and, on occasion, witty exchange of banter with her friend Vryling Buffam, played with uncompromising joie de vivre by Catherine Bailey. The bio-pic, however, fails to portray Emily’s joy for nature nor is there an impression of any pleasure emanating from Emily’s writing of her poetry nor a portrayal of her excitement over receiving the latest news.

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Catherine Bailey, Emily’s best friend played by Vryling Buffam

Nixon, nevertheless, brings forth the strength of Emily’s independent spirit as well as her drive to nurture her own sense of self.

She doesn’t unravel Miss Emily; rather, Nixon delivers with a quiet passion how the poet navigates the socio-cultural restrictions of women living in the nineteenth century in the United States. Carradine interprets Mr. Dickinson as a father who didn’t see his daughter coming. Always a bit surprised by his daughter’s display of her intellect but, underneath, Carradine’s Mr. Dickinson curries a sliver of pride for his daughter’s courage. And Jennifer Ehle is delightful as Emily’s constant and loyal sister Lavinia.

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A Quiet Passion plays through Sunday, June 4 at the Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

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Toni Erdmann @ The Ross

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Meet Toni Erdmann (Peter Simonischek)

The lengths a father will go just to spend time with his daughter are explored in German director Mauren Ade’s film Toni Erdmann. The title of the film is not about a person by the name of Toni Erdmann and all of her or his adventures. Toni Erdmann is an alias. Winfried Conradi, a music teacher with no students, assumes the personality Toni Erdmann with the sole purpose of crashing in on the world of his daughter, Ines. After the death of his dog, Winfried, played by Peter Simonischek, longs to be more present in his daughter’s life. So, he shows up unannounced at her home in Bucharest.

Ines, played by Sandra Hahlur, has no patience for nor the inclination to grant her father’s wishes. She is a young strategist who successfully has climbed the corporate ladder; of course she is busy—always taking calls, going to meetings, giving presentations – sigh – to her father’s disappointment. What is worse she complains to her friends during lunch about how her father’s visit made for the worst weekend. So Winfried, feeling unwelcomed and unappreciated, packs up and returns home–or so Ines thinks.

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Toni Erdmann in costume

As soon as Ines turns around in a restaurant in the company of her girlfriends or looks around on the rooftop talking to her superior or at her naked-only birthday party, there he is – Toni Erdmann, bumbling around as an ex-con, a style consultant, or a German Ambassador made up with buck teeth and a shabby wig or in a bizarre costume that would scare bigfoot back to its cave. Where will Toni Erdmann appear next?

Peter Simonischek brings Toni Erdmann to a kind of crazy loopy peculiar life, and you can’t get mad at him. Every person in Ines’s life takes to him. Simonischek deftly manages his unpredictable character, and you can’t help but give over your heart to him. In fact, he is a kind of insufferable huggable lovable poppa.

When you see the film Toni Erdmann, be sure to pack a lunch or dinner; it is a long movie—almost 3 hours. And don’t count on a music score to guide your feelings—no—no violins or drum rolls here. Peter Orth, the cinematographer, lingers his camera on people; the camera outwears its welcome at parties and business meetings–even the goodbye between father and daughter is long in the tooth. Ade, however, refuses to pick up the cinematic pace; she makes you wait. The wait is well worth it.

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Erdmann with daughter, Ines

Winfried’s own reflection to his daughter on life uncovers the bright and shining gem in Toni Erdmann. What is worth living in life? Ines asked her father during one of his personality performances. In the backyard of his late mother’s house, father, without costume and daughter with no cellphone come together and alone and without distractions. Winfried finally gets the chance to answer her question. He begins, “The problem is it’s so much about getting things done … you do this or that but in the meanwhile life is just passing by. How are we supposed to The Ross logohang on to moments?  Now I just sit sometimes and remember how you learned to ride your bike. … but you only realize that afterwards … in the moment itself … it’s not possible.”

Toni Erdmann in German with English subtitles.

The Eagle Huntress @ The Ross

 

Screen Shot 2017-01-20 at 1.59.42 PM.pngWhen have you defied tradition against all odds to answer a fervent call to move into the unknown? When have you taken a leap into the abyss on a string of faith?

Documentary Filmmaker Otto Bell has made a breathtaking documentary called The Eagle Huntress. In this film, Bell focuses on a young girl named Aisholpan Nurgaiv, a 13-year-old Kazakh, who hails from generations of eagle hunters, a centuries old custom dominated by men. As she finds honor in her father’s own talents in capturing and training his eagle, she aspires to take a leap into the culture. If she is successful, she will become the first eagle huntress in her family’s 12 generations; and second in the modern history of Kazakhstan.

The Eagle Huntress is brilliant, and Daisy Ridley wonderfully introduces the true story of a young girl’s discipline and perseverance. Simon Niblett’s cinematography captures some of the most breathtaking scenes of nature in Kazakhstan, a transcontinental area in central Asia; Bell, too, gives the audience intimate access to the socio-cultural objections made by the men in Aisholpan’s community:

“This is not good”, laments one eagle hunter.

“They don’t know how to properly approach the eagle”, says another.

“Anyway, she will have to get married at one point or another”, predicts another. …

… you know, the usual suspects of doubt and protest.

But when dad and granddad consult with each other and agree to allow Aisholpan to compete in the Golden Eagle competition, the young girl hits the ground running to learn every skill necessary to realize her dream—and here is where Niblett’s genius unfolds.

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Aisholpan with her father Rys observing her captured eagle

Aisholpan’s father, Rys, instructs his daughter on the process for developing trust between her and the eagle as he prepares her for the Golden Eagle Festival. Once trust is established, the avian learns to listen to her call. One of the most heart-felt scenes is Aisholpan conversations with her Eagle after she has fed it. They must compete the next day, and amidst its cries for more food, she cautions her ward, “You might not be able to fly if you eat too much”. It calms down. I could not help but to feel a bit melancholy, however, when the eagle protests its capture from its nest but all subsides as Aisholpan meticulously cares for it.

Visions of courage abound as Bell makes sure to translate Aisholpan’s training into an adventure of reverence to a time honored tradition. You will absorb the grandeur of Aisholpan on horseback riding proudly with her eagle holding strong on her arm in the company of men.

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As I close my review, I leave you with the words of Aisholpan’s mother: “She decided on her own to become an Eagle Hunter; and I believe it is a woman’s right to choose.”

The Eagle Huntress comes back February 3 at the Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

 

 

Indignation @ The Ross

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Marcus (Logan Lessman) and Olivia (Sarah Gadon)

What is it about mom and dad? What is it about parents, period? They seem to know everything about the future in the present, don’t they?

We all have heard parental cautions, each one accentuated by a pointed finger or hands cupping your face: “Now you listen to your mother” or “You mark my words” or “I’m your father; I know what’s out there in that world, you don’t.” You would think that after having 18 or 20 years of life experience, parents at least could acknowledge your own awareness and understanding about life.

Rarely do parents assess themselves and conclude, “hey, I made it through all of the obstacles in life; I believe my child will too.” Ironic, isn’t it?

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Max Messner (Danny Burstein)

But for Max Messner, the Jewish father (Danny Burstein) in James Schamus’s film Indignation, one little mistake–one false move–can destroy a person’s life. These are the words of caution he delivers to his son Marcus (Logan Lerman) as he prepares for college during the time of the Korean War. Mr. Messner’s fear is fueled after attending funerals of his son’s friends and relatives who returned to the states in body bags after having fought in the war, and Mr. Messner knows the privilege of his son’s exemption from the draft as result of his acceptance into a conservative Midwestern college in Ohio; the future shines before him, and it is dazzling.

But one false move warns Mr. Messner …

As Marcus adjusts to Midwestern culture, he is exposed to the usual suspects of college life. In particular, members of the Jewish fraternity approach Marcus about membership; he does not wish to join much to the consternation of his parents.

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Mrs. Messner (Linda Emond) warns her son

Framed within the socio-cultural norms of the 1950s, Schamus brilliantly portrays the intense demands for compliance, if not, obedience to institutional rules and regulations and societal codes of conduct by the college student. In the process, Indignation dramatizes the heavy weight of self-determination that can implode as it enacts within such strictures; even romance and love are stifled within these constraints. Sarah Gadon plays Olivia Hutton, Marcus’s troubled love interest, and her liberal attitudes towards sex lands on no ground except that of the campus strumpet. Marcus does not care; but mother Messner, played by Linda Emond, does. She swoops down on The Ross logoMarcus as would an eagle to its prey to warn her son against marrying Olivia.

 

In the end, the movie boomerang’s the father’s major concern as Marcus’s fate pivots on one false innocent move, and this will leave you heartbroken. Sometimes, my father counseled me, you have to follow the rules even if you do not want to or suffer the consequences … if you get caught …

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Tangerine @ The Ross

Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and Sin Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez)

Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and Sin Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez)

Sometimes it is best to listen to your friend’s whole story before you divulge information that only you know. Failure to wait the story’s end can instigate all kinds of trouble and, before you know it, you are all up in someone else’s drama you have no business being in. Trust!

Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) meets with her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor), after her release from a six-week jail sentence. After hearing from Alexandra that her boyfriend has cheated on her, Sin-Dee Rella decides to go on a sidewalk trip through the seedier side of Los Angeles in search of her competition in Sean Baker’s independent film Tangerine. Alexandra decides to leave Sin-Dee on her own because her girlfriend will not keep her promise to side-step the drama.

Tangerine is filled with rough and wild misadventures commenced by these uber-confident transgender prostitutes. They are loud; they cuss like sailors; and, without apology, they use their bodies for both pleasure and for payment. One customer refuses to pay Alexandra for her services, and she promptly tells him, “oh, don’t forget, I got one of those, too” and thus begins the street fight in front two policemen.

Tangerine is hilarious. Its action is brutal. Its story is raw. The transgender characters are wide open and vulnerable but fierce. The absence of slick editing and filming brings a welcomed realistic quality to this film, and the glossy world of Hollywood does not intervene in the film’s production. Well, there is a reason for that: Baker shot the film exclusively on iPhone 5s. Baker says in an interview, “the iPhone actually helped us out in a weird way with this because we weren’t able to use telephoto lenses so we always said that we wanted to step away from the observational way of approaching these characters and instead participate in the day with them.”

What is fantastic about Tangerine is its parallel story of the city of Los Angeles. Most films set in Los Angeles feature the automobile filled with people cosseted by tinted windows and made anonymous and beautiful by sunglasses. In the film, Baker’s lens follows pedestrians who are walking and walking and walking to and from places and people. There are scenes of people waiting for — get this — a cab or a bus that may or may not arrive on time. These scenes give the audience Baker’s “observational way” of approaching his characters.

Dinah (Mickey O'Hagan) experiences Sin Dee's wrath

Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan) experiences Sin Dee’s wrath

Yet, for all of its fun, danger, and laughs, I am upset that Baker features transgender characters as prostitutes—an all too familiar and overplayed stereotype of that culture. Even more troubling is the attack on Sin-Dee’s nemesis: a prostitute named Dinah (Micky O’Hagan), who is punched and slapped as she is being dragged like a rag doll by Sin Dee through the street and onto the bus. That scene, my friends, is not funny, especially, when it is enacted by a man in a wig.

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The Hunting Ground @ The Ross

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Documentary filmmaker Kirby Dick could not have been more provocative nor insightful nor incisive in his documentary The Hunting Ground. I’ll just get to the point: The Hunting Ground explores the epidemic of on-campus rape, and colleges and universities should make this film a requirement for every student who enters their hallowed halls. What is heart-wrenching about The Hunting Ground is that Dick gives over his film to the young women who have experienced the trauma of rape, and the humiliation that attends the crime when administrators, students, and even the police dismiss the allegations and blame the victim. These young women are brave as the camera closes in on their every emotion.

Erica Kinsman, a Florida State student, for example, tells her story of rape by the college’s star quarterback Jameis Winston, who went on to become the youngest player to win the Heismann trophy in 2013. No charges were brought against him even though the DNA matched Kinsman’s rape kit. The net of protection around the athlete absolutely will floor you! Dick, however, cuts through that net, and each and every player responsible for this protective shield drops out framed by the copious footage of Winston on the field, post-game, and all of the celebrations around his victories on the field and his Heismann win.

The young women in this movie survived their trauma; however, Elizabeth “Lizzy” Seeberg, a St. Mary’s College Student, committed suicide after receiving a text “messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea” when she reported her rape by an unnamed Notre Dame football player.

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Students Advocate for a Rape Free Campus

What is incisive about The Hunting Ground is that indicts the college and university administrator who turns a blind eye; Dick’s exposes their almost “hands off” response to the young women who come to them, and the University President, especially is exposed as a pretender of concern. But Kirby goes for the jugular when in a denouncement of on-campus fraternities whose members are accused of being the predators of female flesh at frat parties. Specifically, he attacks with a vengeance, and I mean with a vengeance–the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, better known as “Sexual Assault Expected.”— you know, that same fraternity who just has been expelled from the University of Oklahoma for its racist rant during an alcohol saturated party.

Go and see this documentary. It is necessary. You will feel so outraged that you will hard pressed not to draw up a placard and take to the streets the injustices that these young women have to endure once they drum up the courage to tell their stories.

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The Hunting Ground Plays through April 16 at The Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

Also The Hunt for General Tso opens today and plays through April 9th at The Ross.

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