Sunday, March 30, 2014


      Kidnapped for Christ is the first feature film directed by Kate S. Logan. And it was an accident. Kind of.
     While in college at Biola University, Ms. Logan was working on a film project at a Christian school for troubled American youth. The school, Escuela Caribe, was located in the Dominican Republic. She learned of it while there on a mission trip. She thought the visit to the school would give her an opportunity to film "a story about redemption." Instead, she witnessed hard labor, forced exercise until children were coughing up blood, humiliation, kids locked in rooms for hours, and physical abuse.
     While Ms. Logan had access to several kids at Escuela Caribe, the documentary was mostly about David, a seventeen year old boy from Colorado. Despite having good grades, good friends, and many scholarship opportunities awaiting him after his senior year of high school, he was awoken one night, taken from his bed by three men, and eventually ended up in the Dominican Republic. Why? He came out to his parents as gay.
Director Kate Logan
     David had an opportunity to share a lot with Ms. Logan while at the school. He recognized he had little
choice about being there, but when he turned eighteen and was not allowed to leave, others got involved. Family friends from Colorado were devastated about David's situation. They held regular meetings planning how to get him home, culminating in a trip by two adults to Escuela Caribe. But despite David being eighteen, he was not allowed to leave the school. Even the US Embassy offered little help in securing David's release.
     Meanwhile, Ms. Logan was receiving threatening letters from lawyers: if you make and release a film about Escuala Caribe, we'll sue you. She didn't finish the film. At least not then.
     A few years later, David agreed to talk. He had been threatened, coerced, and was frightened. Ms. Logan started her film making again, following David to a meeting of  a group called Survivors of Institutional Abuse. There were too many stories like David's, at schools for troubled teens all around the world, even within the United States. And no laws to stop or even regulate them.

     I have heard of several institutions like Escuela Caribe over the years. While I knew no details about them, I always thought of them as tough love boarding schools, a last resort for parents of incorigable children who were out of control, involved in criminal behavior, drug abuse, or were destructive to themselves or their families. I never thought one could be sent off for being gay. And I never would have thought of these schools as so demeaning and abusive as what was exposed in Kidnapped for Christ. Most of the filming that took place was with the full knowledge and in the presence of school staff. I hate to think about what happened when the cameras were not around.
“The afternoon that I arrived at Escuela Caribe, this scrawny 12-year-old was being ‘rebellious’… so they staged this boxing match in front of the students and the dean of the school basically beat the crap out of this boy, and the message of that was clear: either conform or be conformed.”  - Julia Scheeres, Author of Jesus Land, a memoir about her and her bother’s time at Escuela Caribe
“My parents thought they were sending me to a tough boarding school in the Caribbean run by Christians. I still have nightmares about Escuela Caribe about four times a week.” - Edgar Schoenwald Jr. former student at Escuela Caribe and additional editor on Kidnapped For Christ
“I believe every day [at Escuela Caribe] was a violation of my person … I am diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a direct result of my experience in the program.” - Lisa Brown, Former Student at Escuela Caribe
“Out of the country = NO US LAWS ... and they take full advantage of it.” - Chris Kam, Former Student at Escuela Caribe
“I remember being scared nearly every moment of every day.” - Bethany Leeuw (Beerhorst), Former Student at Escuela Caribe 
“I was abused under the illusion of 'God's love,' and refused the human dignity to disagree … These tales we tell are terrible & horrifying, but they are true.” - Joshua Sierk, Former Student at Escuela Caribe 
     Despite the title, the film did not put as much focus as I thought it would on the religious aspect of the school. It was a Christian school, but there was not as much proselytizing by school staff as I expected. Despite that, the cruelty the children were exposed to was enough to want to disassociate with any organization or faith that would proudly run an institution like Escuala Caribe. Ms. Logan herself, in her narration of the film, acknowledged that what she saw caused her to question her own faith. 
     But as much as I would like to have seen more of the religious justification of the abuse of these children, to demonstrate the dangers of such a strong influence religion has over some people and how it is used to justify atrocities by others, it would have taken away from the bigger picture about this school and the many like it. It is not about religion bashing; it is about the children being hurt in this kind of environment, and it doesn't matter if it is secular, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist. 
     Ms. Logan went from being a documentarian to playing an active role in helping David. While this might violate the rules of making a documentary, I understand if she felt she had no choice.

     Kidnapped for Christ was not a big budget film. There were few charts, few diagrams, no special effects, no fancy filmography. But its message was strong, powerful, and well told. I hope it continues to be shown across the country, bringing attention to schools like Escuela Caribe, preventing parents from resorting to sending their children away to these places, forcing law makers to investigate the abuse and regulate them, and putting pressure on the schools to close their doors, or at least reevaluate their methods.

     It is a tragedy that so many children have suffered the way David and the other children at Escuela Caribe and so many other schools around the world have. But it will be worse if nothing is done, and the abuse continues, destroying the youth, hope, optimism from so many more children.

Kidnapped for Christ, 2014
The Film Collaborative
Directed by Kate S. Logan
Yada Zamora, Kate S. Logan, Paul A. Levin
Yada Zamora
Peter Borrud, Stash Slionski, Sam Allen, Joshua Csehak, Bradley Scott, Kate S. Logan
H. Dwight Raymond IV, Sean Yates

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Movie Review: IVORY TOWER

     College was the best time of my life. Without question, the four years I spent at Eastern Michigan University (1992-1996) were something every young person should get to experience. Independence; but with help and guidance of older students, faculty, and staff. Learning; not just in class, but through student interactions, student organizations, and the non-classroom programming offered throughout the University. Meeting new people; people from so many different places, with so many different interests, but with the bond of sharing college years together. Making mistakes; lots of them, but in an environment that expects you to, and has ways to help correct them. All while encouraging new experiences, questioning what you're told, and stepping outside comfort zones. 
     EMU, compared to other schools, is probably nothing special, your run-of-the-mill state school. But to me and so many other graduates, it is something to be proud of. The institution and my experiences there played a bigger role in who I have become than arguably any other influence. 
     Sadly, young people today are less likely to have that experience. Rising education costs and poor job outlooks are preventing many from attending college, let alone going away from home.

     Ivory Tower is a film that discusses all this and more. Directed by Andrew Rossi, it tells the story of higher education in America. But the American model, starting with Harvard and perhaps culminating with the University of California system, is changing. Education seems not to be a priority anymore. In the film, experts referred to an "arms race" between institutions. The best food, best reputation, best recreation centers, nicest dorms. But not the best education, student experience, post-college job outlooks, or value. 
     According to Ivory Tower, the cost of college education has increased 1120% since 1978, more than double the increase in health care costs. These increases are the result of several things, including higher administrative costs (money spent on new administrative employees versus faculty is astonishingly disproportionate), state funding cuts, and the previously mentioned "arms race". Meanwhile, the student loan debt in the United States is $1.1 TRILLION, more than the credit card debt of the entire country. 

    When I graduated from EMU in 1996, tuition, including fees, was just about $100 per credit hour. Today, it is $308.90 per credit hour for in-state residents. When I was a new student in 1992, my financial aid was based on an $8,500 budget, which included tuition, room and board, text books, and transportation costs to and from school. Today, on their website, estimated tuition and room and board for the 2014-2015 year is $17,120, with no mention of books (probably another $1000) or transportation.  
     I don't mean to pick on my Alma mater, it's just what I'm most familiar with. But the story is the same all over the country at public and private schools. 
Cooper Union Tuition Protests
     Another extreme is Cooper Union, founded by Industrialist Peter Cooper in 1859. He was committed to providing free education for all, particularly the working class. He was successful in his mission, until 2013. Despite an endowment left by Mr. Cooper, including the land the Chrysler Building sits on, despite a protest by Cooper Union students that occupied the President's office for two months, the school decided to charge tuition starting in 2013. It seems a combination of bad hedge fund investments and borrowing over $100 million dollars to build a state of the art building weren't such good ideas after all. 
     Since it was the first time for tuition, one might think it would be modest? Not so much. Tuition for the 2013-2014 academic year was $39,600, not including $1,800 in student fees and $11,000 for housing, and unknown expenses for books and supplies. The total for 2013-2014 academic year: $52,400 + books and supplies. It should be mentioned that all enrolled Cooper Union students in 2013-2014 will get a scholarship that matches the cost of tuition, but students entering in the fall of 2014 will only get about half of that amount, about $20,000/year, making their total estimated expenses, excluding books and materials, a hefty $32,000/year. A far cry from Mr. Cooper's dream of free education for all. 

Director Andrew Rossi
     Ivory Tower explored online education. It seems to have caught on over the last decade, with online degrees available from myriad public, private, and for profit colleges and universities. But are they effective? Can student learn the same way online as they can in a classroom, face to face with educators and peers? The film highlighted one experiment that indicated an online experience could not, with a pass rate in remedial math classes of well under 60%. 
     Other alternatives highlighted include Uncollge, founded by Dale Stephens that suggests that college is not the only route to success. Similarly, The Thiel Foundation,which funded Mr. Stephens, started by Peter Thiel of PayPal and Facebook fame, paid a number of students $100,000 to drop out of college and take an alternative route. The results are not in. 
     Intentionally left out of the film were the many for-profit educational institutions that have sprouted over the last decade and what impact they have and will have in higher education.

     The message is clear: American higher education is changing. What is the prognosis? The film touched on that, too, but without clear answers. Perhaps a hybrid model, where lectures are viewed online and students meet in smaller groups for classroom and lab work. Perhaps a change in values where education is concerned, with bigger commitment from everyone to adequately fund institutions of higher learning, to return to making them affordable for all. Or perhaps more and more schools will close their doors, leaving higher education available only to those who can afford it, furthering the growing American plutocracy.  

     Something has to change, and I think that is what Mr. Rossi hoped to convey in Ivory Tower. While college educates, the college experience is about more than classes. It should focus on critical thinking skills, a liberal arts education, to help young people mold themselves into whom they want to be, to become responsible members of society. Without it, America will be worse off.

Ivory Tower
Directed by Andrew Rossi
Produced by Andrew Rossi, Bryan Sarkinen, Andrew Coffman
Editing by Chad Beck, Christopher Branca, Andrew Coffman

Viewed Ivory Tower at the Cleveland International Film Festival. The film was followed by a panel interview, which included Mr. Rossi. 

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Monday, March 24, 2014

The Cleveland International Film Festival

     There are a lot of great things about Northeast Ohio: museums, eclectic neighborhoods, sports (maybe not so great, but would you accept a good variety?), food, parks, Lake Erie, and so much more. Last week, for the first time, I attended the Cleveland International Film Festival. I immediately knew this would be another great event to add to the long list of great reasons to visit or live in Cleveland
     This year marks the 38th CIFF. The first was held over several weeks in 1977 at the Cedar Lee Theater in Cleveland Hts. In 1991, the event was moved to Tower City. That year, about 14,000 people attended. By 2013, attendance was up to about 93,000. This year, it is expected to surpass 100,000. 
     The CIFF works with a budget of over $2 million. Over 1800 films were submitted this year, and I'm sure it was difficult to select the 180 feature films and 165 shorts from 60 countries that made the cut. 

     Although I had heard about the film festival for years, I never knew much about it. Last year, one of the guys in my book club did something that shocked me: he demanded that our club meetings be scheduled around CIFF. The nerve! As we talked about it, and he shared some things about the movies he saw, I was intrigued. But I didn't think much about it until this year when another book club member mentioned that his company was a sponsor of the CIFF. It seemed I was being ganged up on by my book club friends, so I decided to try and attend. 

     There was only one day that my hectic schedule would allow me to go to CIFF: Thursday, March 20th. So plans were made. I was overwhelmed not only by the number of films to choose from, but how interesting most of them seemed after reading about them or watching the trailers.  

     Although difficult, I made good choices. They included: 

  •  Kidnapped for Christ, a documentary about schools for troubled youth that lack government regulation and are sometimes abusive towards students. Directed by Kate S. Logan; it is her first feature film. Watch the trailer here
  • Ivory Tower, a documentary about the increasing price of college tuition directed by Andrew Rossi, an Emmy nominated filmmaker who has directed Page One: Inside the New York Times, Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven, and Eat This New York. Watch a trailer here. 
  • Oliver, Stoned, a coming of age stoner comedy directed by Ohio native Tom Morris, who has also directed General Education
     Each of the three films were great, although very different. I'm hoping to provide a short review of each of them later this week, and was therefore intentionally vague in their descriptions.

     One of the many great things about the CIFF was that after each movie, there was a short discussion about it. For each of the three I attended at least the director was there, but sometimes cast members, producers, writers, and experts on the subject matter were also present for discussions and Q & A. 

     This year is the first of what I hope to be many years of attending the Cleveland International Film Festival. I encourage everyone to make an effort to attend, either this year or in the future. Not all films are for everyone, but I'm confident everyone will be able to find a few that are right for them. 

     The CIFF runs through March 30th, 2014. 

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Monday, March 17, 2014

Harry Bosch Comes to TV on Amazon!

     I don’t normally write reviews of television programs. Hell, I haven’t watched a television regularly since my kids were born almost six years ago. But when I heard Amazon Studios was producing a television show featuring MichaelConnelly’s Los Angeles Police Detective Hieronymus Bosch, I knew I had to watch. And I was in luck, because the show is watched by logging into Amazon, so I didn’t have to worry about getting the remote away from my family!

    Harry Bosch has been a favorite of mine since I began reading crime fiction. Mr. Connelly, unlike many in the genre, has done an amazing job keeping the character interesting over time and eighteen books; Bosch changes as he ages, but the changes are subtle, consistent with the character. When I pick up a new novel featuring Harry Bosch, it’s like meeting up with an old friend.
     However, as excited as I was when I learned Bosch would be brought to the small screen, I was also apprehensive. We’ve all seen more than one book or series get made into movies or TV shows with disastrous results. What would make this effort any different, especially since it is one of Amazon’s first attempt at an original production?
     So I was anxiously excited to see one of my favorite characters come to TV. I watched nervously. Twice.

     The pilot episode starts with Harry and his partner, Jerry Edgar, following a suspect. It ended badly, with Bosch killing him in a dark, rainy alley. Bosch was cleared of the shooting, but that didn’t stop the family from filing a federal 1983 civilrights suit against him. Harry is caught up in the trial, bored, going stir crazy, needing a case to work on to ground him. Despite being told he was out of the rotation, he switched weekend call with his coworkers, giving them basketball tickets to make it more enticing, and caught a case that involved the bone of a child found in the woods.
     The episode ends with the trial and the case unresolved, enticing viewers to beg for more. And it worked. I want more Bosch.

Titus Welliver as Detective Harry Bosch
     Amazon did a lot right in taking Bosch from Mr. Connelly’s books, and more importantly from my imagination, to the television…err… computer. The casting was excellent. Titus Welliver was a great choice; I can’t think of another mainstream actor that looks more like what I expected in Harry Bosch. The supporting cast was good, too. I particularly liked Amy Aquino’s role as the Lieutenant and thought she could be a great character as the show develops, even though that role is not part of the books.
     The show presented well, too. Since I don’t review TV or movies, it seems hard to explain, but the camera work seemed to present the show as a combination of professionally filmed with the just the right amount of reality TV to it. For example, the screen wasn’t jumping all over the place like in reality TV, but it wasn’t so smooth as to make it appear too controlled, either.
     I really liked how the show included Bosch’s love of jazz music. In reading the series that was always something I felt was neat, but nothing I could relate to. I never recognized the musicians that Mr. Connelly mentions, and despite my intentions to learn more about them while reading, that never happened. Hearing the music in the show, not overwhelming but there, with the character, in that setting, brings the jazz to life more than my listening at home could have.
     There were a few things that could have made the show better. First was Bosch himself. Mr. Welliver did a great job with the look and mannerisms of Harry Bosch: quiet, reserved, a black & white kind of guy about his job and frustrations with what he viewed as what was in the way of doing it. But I always thought of Harry Bosch as just a little more fidgety. The show did portray him as anxious, wanting a case, bored and frustrated with the lengthy court proceedings against him. But he was calmly so. I imagine a more frustrated Bosch, a little pacing, nervous movements, more obvious and recognizable impatience. Not a spazz, but more nervous energy.
     Another thing I thought would have been an easy fix to keep the show a little more real was the police station, Bosch’s office. In the books, Mr. Connelly repeatedly calls the work area of the detectives as “the table”, the homicide table, even going to the trouble of describing that desks are pushed together to create it. The TV show portrayed the office differently, and I think it would have been an easy and inexpensive way to show a little more of the reality of the working life of an LAPD Detective, of Harry Bosch, if it had been kept a “table” as Mr. Connelly had described in the past.
     One complaint many have when a book is made into a TV show or movie is what has to be left out. I understand that certain things have to be cut, either for time or because it’s doesn’t make the switch from the page to the screen very easily. In Bosch, there was a scene from a book that was included that I thought served no purpose: Harry was looking in the woods and fell, rolled down a hill, and collided with a tree. He broke or bruised some ribs on the way down. But the injury didn’t slow him down noticeably, and didn’t play a further role in the show.
     Without the aid of a photo or screen for readers to look at, an author can only do so much to describe things. Our imagination takes over. It fills in the blanks, sometimes even overrides one or two of the details offered by an author to better fit what matches what a reader creates in his or her mind. This is the beauty of reading. While we don’t control the story or its outcome, we can control how we envision it. It’s a wonderful thing.
     Unless you’re the one responsible for taking that book to television or the movies. Then it makes your job difficult, nearly impossible. The best producer, director, casting agent, and whoever else puts their talent and efforts in can’t replace the imagination of every person who picked up and fell in love with the books and characters that are the inspiration for their show.
     In the case of Bosch, Amazon Studios did a great job of bringing Harry Bosch to the small screen. The screenplay, story, casting, and acting all did justice to Michael Connelly’s Hieronymus Bosch. More than we can say for most efforts of televisionizing crime fiction!
     I hope other viewers agree, and the show is continued.

     This review was originally published on

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Runner by Patrick Lee

     Sam Dryden had been better. He was unemployed, struggling with the tragic death of his wife and young daughter. He was unfocused and having difficulty sleeping, with inexplicable urges to go running in the middle of the night along the California coast. While out running one night, a young girl, no more than twelve years old, runs into him on the boardwalk. She's terrified, being chased, with no where to go. Sam is again struck with an inexplicable desire, this time to help. 
     It soon becomes obvious that Rachel is in grave danger. The men chasing her have guns, advanced communications and techniques, and are very motivated to kill. Rachel's coincidental meeting with Sam seems too good to be true, at least for her. He misses his daughter. He has little to lose. And his background is uniquely suited to help her get away from her pursuers. 

     Runner is the first of what is to become a series featuring Sam Dryden. It is is Patrick Lee's fourth novel, following three in the Breach series featuring Travis Chase. Runner is a non-stop science fiction thriller that will keep the most action demanding reader satisfied. 
     But Runner is more than just a page-turning, action-packed thriller. I was impressed in the relationships that were developed along the way. Sam and Rachel became close emotionally. Sam recognized that he could save her in a way he couldn't have saved his wife and child, but his helping Rachel was more altruistic, more organic, than just easing his conscious. Likewise, the comfort Rachel felt from Sam was more than her self-serving need to be helped and protected.
"Sam's thoughts were unique. No matter what he was thinking at any one moment, there was a feeling that was always there, a feeling that seemed to be pointed right at her. It made her think of the warmth near a fireplace. That was how Sam's thoughts felt. Like protective heat. Like arms around her."
Author Patrick Lee
     A book is always better to me if it addresses some social or political issues of the day, even if indirectly and without taking sides. Intentional or not, Runner was not lacking in that area. The science fiction part dealt with altering genetic code and its consequences, how amazing the results could be, but how simultaneously disastrous and harmful to those who least deserve it. Government surveillance and the power of the military industrial complex were also underlying issues, as was implying the dangers of two defense contractors competing against each other to advance technology, at all costs, and with the blessing and assistance of the federal government. 

     The science fiction involved the altering of some human genetic code, or more accurately uncovering a human gene that would give a person an ability that has long since been evolved away from. A reasonable explanation was given for why such an amazing skill was eliminated by natural selection, and why it would be so valuable today. However, those who had undergone the gene therapy were unable to use this special ability with each other. If this were the case, then before the gene was overwritten by the evolutionary process, it would have been unnoticed and useless because all or most humans would have had it; there would be no reason to change. Despite this, it only requires a little more suspension of disbelief to overlook that one issue and enjoy the entertaining, thrilling, and thought provoking story that Mr. Lee told so well.

     Mr. Lee is a talented author with the ability to do more than just tell a fast paced story. He can create an interesting and thought provoking plot and develop multidimensional and meaningful relationships among his characters. All of this is why I'm looking forward to more of the Sam Dryden series. 

Lee, Patrick. Runner, Minotaur Books, New York. February 2014. 
ISBN 978-1-250-03073-3

Runner was provided to The Thirty Year Itch courtesy of Minotaur Books. No compensation was received for this review. 

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Monday, March 10, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: In The Blood by Lisa Unger

     Lana Granger is a quiet student at a small private college in upstate New York. She keeps to herself, trying to figure out her troubled life. Several years earlier, her father killed her mother, was sent to death row, and Lana left to live with her maternal aunt. She felt directionless, unambitious, but went through the motions of life, hopeful of someday getting better. When a professor and adviser suggested she take a job babysitting a troubled eleven year old boy, Luke, she thought that would be a good way to start finding herself. 
     About the same time, Lana's roommate and best friend, Beck, goes missing after the two have a fight. Lana was the last one seen with her, and there are more questions than answers about the disappearance. When Luke suggests a scavenger hunt of sorts, she felt tested, and could not let go. But the game seems to hit a little too close to home, and Lana can't walk away from it, her past, or come to terms with Beck's disappearance. 
"When something unspeakable happens, or when you do something unspeakable, it changes you. It takes you apart and reassembles you. You area a Frankenstein of circumstance, and the parts never fit back quite right and the life you live is a stolen one. You don't deserve to walk among the living, and you know it."
     Interspersed into the story are diary entries written by the mother of a troubled young boy. She tells her diary about her marriage, her happiness, the excitement about a baby, and how difficult he turns about to be. Happiness leads to exhaustion, the couple become distant, resentful. But she's always hopeful for a better future, hopeful of helping her son function and find happiness in the world. 

     In The Blood is the twelfth book by Lisa Unger. It is a psychological thriller that from the first pages will capture a reader's attention, only to be pulled deeper and deeper into the world of troubled minds and souls. The story was well written, captivating, and unpredictable. The characters were believable and dynamic, deep but not over the top. Maybe most importantly, especially for a thriller, it was full of surprises that were not fully resolved until the end.
     The book also touched on some social issues. Most obviously is the mental health issue, intertwined with how violent crime can impact children and families. There are others, but revealing them could spoil the story! Making a social statement is certainly not a requirement for a good book, but it can make it a little more personal for some, more interesting for others, and eye-opening for everyone. 

     There were a few areas of the book I thought could have been better. Lana questioned her relationship with Beck several times, but her thoughts didn't grow, change, or solidify as the worry and anger over Beck's disappearance increased. Lana's suspected role in Beck's disappearance could have added more to the story, too. Police put pressure on her, but it was more implied and not a serious worry for Lana until near the end. For reasons that would give away too much, it would have been interesting if Lana and Rachel, Luke's single-mother, become closer.  

     In The Blood was my first read from Lisa Unger. It won't be my last.

Unger, Lisa. In The Blood, Touchstone, January 7, 2014. 
  • ISBN-13: 9781451691177

In The Blood was provided to The Thirty Year Itch as an Advanced Review Copy by Crimespree Magazine and Touchstone Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. No compensation was received for this review.

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