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Jessica Williams, Cate Blanchett star in Sundance premieres

Former “Daily Show” correspondent Jessica Williams flexes her dramatic chops. Cate Blanchett pays homage to great 20th century artists and “Silicon Valley” star Kumail Nanjiani tells a very personal story in some of the films premiering at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Programmers announced their selections for the documentary and narrative premiere sections at the Sundance Film Festival, which has launched films like “Boyhood,” “Manchester by the Sea” and “O.J.: Made in America.”

As with many years, the Sundance premiere slate can be a place for well-known comedians to take a stab at more dramatic and serious roles.

In what’s expected to be one of the breakout films and performances of the festival, comedian Jessica Williams stars in Jim Strouse’s “The Incredible Jessica James,” about a New York playwright recovering from a breakup and finding solace in a recent divorcee.

Nanjiani is another who might surprise audiences in “The Big Sick,” which he co-wrote with his wife Emily V. Gordon and is based on their own courtship. He stars alongside Zoe Kazan in the Michael Showalter-directed pic.

The festival also has films featuring veteran stars in different kinds of roles.

Shirley MacLaine stars in “The Last Word,” about a retired businesswoman who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a journalist (Amanda Seyfried) after writing her own obituary.

Festival founder Robert Redford, too, is in Charlie McDowell’s “The Discovery,” about a world where the afterlife has been proven. Jason Segel and Rooney Mara also star.

Cate Blanchett re-enacts artistic statements of Dadaists, Lars von Trier and everyone in between in “Manifesto.”

Michelle Pfeiffer and Kiefer Sutherland co-star in the drama “Where is Kyra.”

“Avengers” Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen re-team in the FBI crime thriller “Wind River,” the directorial debut of “Hell or High Water” writer Taylor Sheridan.

“Bessie” director Dee Rees is poised to be a standout with “Mudbound,” a racial drama set in the post-WWII South and starring Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell and Mary J. Blige.

“It’s quite topical to this time even though it’s a period piece,” said festival director John Cooper.

Among the documentaries premiering are a look at the Oklahoma City bombing from Barak Goodman; Stanley Nelson’s examination of black colleges and universities, “Tell Them We Are Rising”; and Barbara Kopple’s account of a champion diver who announces he is transgender, “This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous.”

“The beauty of independent film is it’s not a copycat world, unlike some of the Hollywood stuff where they follow trends,” said programming director Trevor Groth. “Independent film has always been about originality and choice and something different.”

The 2017 Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 19- 29.


On the Web


Study: Transportation sector now top carbon polluter

The U.S. transportation sector has produced more carbon pollution than any other sector of the economy over the last 12 months, including the electric power, industrial, residential, and commercial sectors.

The results, released by the U.S. Energy and Information Administration, mark the first time that carbon emissions from the transportation sector have exceeded emissions from each of the other sectors since 1979.

“These recent findings are an important wake-up call that highlights the need for urgent action to combat global warming-causing pollution from transportation sources,” said John Olivieri, national campaign director for 21st Century Transportation at the United States Public Interest Research Group.

“This is the first time in nearly 40 years that this has happened,” he added.

The new data present both good and bad news.

Carbon pollution from the electric power sector has decreased some as policymakers have focused more on reducing emissions from that sector.

However, the data also show that little progress is being made in the transportation sector.

In fact, transportation sector emissions are increasing.


“It is increasingly clear that there is no path to combating climate change that doesn’t adequately address carbon pollution and other greenhouse gas emissions from transportation,” Olivieri said in a statement. “Over-reliance on single-occupant vehicle travel and a failure to prioritize non-driving modes of transportation like transit, biking and pedestrian alternatives is having a profound impact on the health of our planet and the health of our citizens.”

A study from researchers at NASA and Duke University found that 120,000 premature deaths could be prevented by 2030 with a reduction in carbon pollution from transportation.

Meanwhile, MIT has calculated that as many as 53,000 lives are lost prematurely each year as a result of overall pollution from transportation sources.

Federal policymakers are considering moving forward with key steps that could help combat the problem. The U.S. Department of Transportation is currently considering new rules that may require localities to track, measure and reduce carbon pollution from transportation sources.

Pursuant to the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), U.S. DOT is required to issue a series of performance standards to provide greater accountability over our national transportation system and to ensure that local action is consistent with key national priorities.

The last of these rules, those governing air pollution and congestion, are open for public comment and U.S. DOT is expected to release the final version of the rule by the end of the year.

“U.S. DOT should be applauded for considering adding a carbon pollution performance standard to the current draft rule on air quality and congestion,” Olivieri said. “However, as the new data make clear, consideration alone is not enough. U.S. DOT must ensure that the final version of the congestion and air quality rule includes a requirement that localities track, measure, and reduce carbon pollution from transportation, as well as publicly report on their progress.”

Recent research also demonstrates that in addition to including a carbon performance standard in new federal regulations, there remain other steps that states can take to reduce carbon pollution from transportation.

A report from Frontier Group, “A New Way Forward: Envisioning a Transportation System without Carbon Pollution” showed there are a variety of tools available that could make a zero-carbon transportation system possible. Such tools include electrification of vehicles, increased use of shared-mobility services (car-sharing, bike-sharing, and ride-sharing), more and better public transportation, greater transit-oriented development, safe and walkable neighborhoods and smart pricing for roads and parking.

“While carbon pollution from transportation is a major problem, the good news is that the tools and technology we need to transition to a carbon-free transportation system already exist,” Olivieri said.  “What’s needed now is the political will at the federal, state, and local levels to take meaningful action.”

Despite state efforts, arsenic continues to poison many private wells

By the time Bradley Burmeister met his high school science teacher more than a decade ago, concerns had already surfaced about an ancient poison that was appearing in drinking water around their Fox River Valley community. Burmeister never suspected, though, that his family’s well would provide some of the scariest data.

High levels of arsenic, a substance used as a poison since the Middle Ages, had been detected in 1989 in several counties in the Fox Valley region of northeastern Wisconsin. In 2003, Seymour High School science teacher Dennis Rohr and his students began a study of private well water samples from the area that would continue for the next five years.

The arsenic level the students detected in the Burmeister family’s well was off the charts: 1,650 parts per billion (ppb), or 165 times the federal health standard of 10 ppb. Burmeister — whose experience in the study sparked an interest in science that culminated in medical school — recalls it being the highest level found in the study.

To this day, Burmeister’s parents regularly buy a case of gallon-sized water jugs at the grocery store to use for drinking and cooking. Despite the inconvenience, Burmeister said his parents feel it is a more affordable way to address their arsenic problem than drilling a new well or purchasing a water treatment system.

The Burmeisters are not the only family having to find alternatives to turning on the tap; arsenic is a major concern in Outagamie and Winnebago counties. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources designated an arsenic advisory area in these counties in 1993 and implemented stricter regulations for testing and well construction in 2004 and 2014.

But arsenic problems are not confined to northeastern Wisconsin. Levels above the federal standard have been detected in 51 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, according to a 2006 Wisconsin Groundwater Coordinating Council report.

The most serious health effects from arsenic exposure include a variety of cancers, nerve damage, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Chronic low-level exposure during childhood has also been linked to decreased intelligence.

In a 2014 study, researchers studying schoolchildren in Maine found regular consumption of drinking water containing 5 ppb of arsenic or more was associated with a significant IQ reduction in students in grades three to five.

“The magnitude of the association … raises the possibility that levels (of arsenic in drinking water) that are not uncommon in the United States pose a threat to child development,” the researchers wrote.

Human activity can mobilize arsenic

In 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lowered the federal health standard, or maximum contaminant level, for arsenic in public drinking water from 50 to 10 ppb. This step reflected the increasing scientific evidence for the dangers of arsenic exposure to human health and matched the World Health Organization’s global drinking water standard.

The highest level ever detected in the state was found in a private well in northeastern Wisconsin. The well tested at 15,000 ppb — 1,500 times the new federal threshold.

“We have an arsenic hot spot in Wisconsin,” said John Luczaj, a geoscience associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

Madeline Gotkowitz, a hydrogeologist at the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, agreed. “Arsenic is a big problem in Wisconsin, and I don’t think many realize that,” she said.

In 1987, the DNR discovered that the St. Peter Sandstone aquifer in northeastern Wisconsin contains a high concentration of sulfide minerals which, when exposed to oxygen, can break down into arsenic. Knowing that it was the water source of more than 20,000 private wells, agency officials knew this might spell trouble.

“Seymour High School rests directly above the St. Peter Sandstone formation,” science teacher Rohr said. “So arsenic was the main focus (of our water study) as it impacted our local community the most.”

The oxygen that sets off the breakdown of sulfide minerals can be introduced by well drilling and disinfection methods, or when the water table — the level below which the ground is saturated with water — is drawn down. This may occur during periods of drought, or be triggered by human use, such as the operation of high-capacity wells.

Because of this interplay between geology and human activity, Luczaj said, private wells whose water previously tested fine for arsenic may lose their integrity.

Patrick Laughrin is all too familiar with the effect of high-capacity wells in his part of the state. He lives in Hilbert in Calumet County, just east of Winnebago County.

“The arsenic in our well showed up for the first time when the high-capacity wells came in and dropped the water table,” Laughrin said. “It makes sense. If you drop the water table, you get more oxygen and that releases more arsenic into your water.”

State steps up regulation

In 2004, the DNR introduced tougher arsenic laws in Winnebago and Outagamie counties. With 20 percent of the private well samples there analyzed in 1992-93 exceeding the EPA’s new health standard of 10 ppb, this area was thought to pose the greatest exposure threat to the largest number of residents. The new regulation required all drilling and disinfection methods to minimize the exposure of sulfide rocks to oxygen.

For Luczaj, of UW-Green Bay, this was a step in the right direction, but he said it may not go far enough.

“The geology doesn’t stop at political boundaries,” Luczaj said. “The area definitely extends into the neighboring counties. It’s pretty likely that we’ll see increasing problems as aquifers get drawn down.”

A 2013 study of 3,868 private wells from across the state found 2.4 percent of them exceeded arsenic levels of 10 ppb. If that proportion was applied to all of the estimated 940,000 households on private wells in Wisconsin — a calculation endorsed by the study’s lead author — residents of 22,560 homes may be consuming unsafe levels of the chemical.

Testing, grants rarely used

The DNR has a well compensation grant program that makes residents whose well water exceeds 50 ppb of arsenic — five times the federal standard — eligible for up to $9,000 to drill a new well. The program can be used to address other types of contamination as well.

However, during the past five years, only 10 or fewer grants were awarded per year. Households whose water contains up to 49 ppb — almost 10 times the amount of arsenic shown to impact a child’s intellectual development — have to cover the cost of a new well on their own, or pay for other options that will make their water safe to drink.

To reduce arsenic exposure, people must be aware of its presence in their drinking water in the first place. But with a mere 16 percent of private well owners in Wisconsin estimated to test their water annually, the number of residents who are unaware is large.

Raising that awareness was part of Rohr’s goals when he began his water study in 2003. In 2014 — 11 years after Rohr’s study — the DNR revised its arsenic regulation yet again, recognizing the persistent nature of Wisconsin’s arsenic problem.

This time, the new state law required that arsenic, in addition to coliform bacteria and nitrate, be tested at the time of a property transfer, but only if the buyer requests a well inspection. The same three contaminants also have to be tested after the completion of certain well repair work, such as fixing a broken water pump.

Bad wells replaced by city water

Some communities in Wisconsin have addressed their arsenic problem by offering citizens a switch from private to municipal water. City water is required by law to be tested regularly for arsenic, which takes the burden of monitoring water quality off the homeowners’ shoulders.

The Stilson family in Oshkosh took advantage of the opportunity to switch in 2000, following several years of having bottled water delivered to their home after the level of arsenic in their well rose to 999 ppb, or nearly 100 times the health standard.

“We said, ‘Let’s just get city water and get it over with,’ ” Lynn Stilson said.

When drilling a new well is too expensive, a switch to city water not possible, or purchasing bottled water too big a hassle, another remediation option is to install an in-home water treatment system. The most cost-effective method is called a reverse osmosis system, which removes 95 percent of arsenic, as well as other contaminants.

Luczaj said vigilance is the key to avoiding arsenic, since human activity can increase the amount of the naturally occurring contaminant in well water. “A one-time test for arsenic is not at all sufficient,” he said.

Gabrielle Menard and Elise Bayer, students in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication, contributed to this story. This report was produced as part of journalism classes participating in The Confluence, a collaborative project involving the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

At South by Southwest: | Must-see acts in Austin

Preparing for the South by Southwest music festival is like shopping without a budget: there are just too many options.

The annual SXSW is jam-packed with thousands of performers and events – ranging from official showcases by Pandora and Spotify to unofficial ones, such as Raptor House and Roc Nation’s weekend event that featured Spike Lee, Nick Jonas and Big Sean – kicking off the music portion of SXSW, which officially begins on March 17.

The Associated Press breaks down six must-see acts in Austin, Texas.


Who’s bringing their mom to SXSW? Madisen Ward.

The singer is part of a duo with the woman who gave birth to him and they’re called Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear.

The Kansas City-based group, whose sound is a mix of folk and roots, perform sitting still next to each other playing instruments, while Madisen Ward takes lead with vocals and Ruth Ward softly steps in (like a gentle mother).

They will release their debut album, “Skelton Crew,” on May 19. It was recorded in Nashville and produced by Jim Abbiss, who worked on Adele’s colossal “21” album and was the main producer behind her 2008 debut, “19.”

Online: http://www.madisenwardandthemamabear.com/


Before Stromae performs at the famed Madison Square Garden this fall, you can see him in a smaller setting at SXSW.

The Belgian singer-producer, a major success in Europe, is steadily growing in America, thanks to his blend of hip-hop, electronic and rhythmic sounds.

The slick, fashion-forward performer has also gotten a boost thanks to new friends: Kanye West collaborated with him on the remix of his hit, “Alors On Danse,” and Stromae also appeared on the on “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1” soundtrack, alongside Lorde, Pusha T, Q-Tip and HAIM on the track, “Meltdown.”

Online: http://www.republicrecords.com/artists/stromae/


Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear aren’t the only family group heading to SXSW.

Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds is led by fiery vocalist Arleigh Kincheloe, while her brother, Jackson Kincheloe, plays harmonica.

The band, who have been on the New York concert scene for years, performs tightly onstage – dressed alike – while Kincheloe belts soulful vocals like a veteran.

They will play seven times during SXSW and their new album, “The Weather Below,” will be released on May 19.

The Dirty Birds also includes Sasha Brown (guitar), Josh Myers (bass), Phil Rodriguez (trumpet) Brian Graham (saxophones), and Dan Boyden (drums).

Online: http://www.sistersparrow.com/news/


Add the bearded-Jack Garratt to the list of British performers taking over music.

The multi-instrumentalist, who grew up in Little Chalfont, a village in Buckinghamshire, produces his own music – even though heavyweights like Rick Rubin have been watching the 23-year-old.

Garratt will release third EP, “Synesthesiac,” on April 13 and a full-length album in the fall. His sound blends the singer-songwriter vibe with alternative rock and R&B, and his songs range from eerie to danceable.

Online: http://www.jackgarrattmusic.com/


Who can get away with mashing up the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa” and “Let’s Get It On” by Marvin Gaye?

New songbird Andra Day.

The San Diego-based performer, who also blends Amy Winehouse and Lauryn Hill in another YouTube post racking thousands of views, is top-notch vocalist: Her voice, scratchy at times, sounds good over any beat.

At first glance, she may look like Rihanna, but her sound is unique.

Online: http://andraday.com/home


The Bros. Landreth just released their debut album and they are already winning awards.

The Canadian duo won roots and traditional album of the year: group at the Juno Awards last weekend for “Let It Lie.”

The brothers – Joey and David – recorded the album in a straw bale house in southern Manitoba.

The Bros. Landreth will continue to stretch to new heights with nine performances during SXSW, which wraps its musical portion on Sunday.

Online: http://www.thebroslandreth.com/

Multiple choice: Third party candidates complete ballot

Casey McDonough is a Goldilocks in the voting booth.

She’s not fickle, but she likes a candidate to be just right. Often that means she votes Democratic. Rarely has it meant that the progressive Wisconsinite has voted for a Republican. But occasionally, she finds an independent or a third-party candidate who fits.

“I’m not beholden to anyone or any party,” she said.

National polls show a growing interest among American voters in third parties. Last fall, amid the partial shutdown of the federal government, 60 percent of Americans said a third major party is needed. The percentage was the highest in the 10-year history of Gallup asking that question and consistent with polls showing favorability plummeting for the Democratic and Republican parties. Among independents, 71 percent said America needs a major third party to emerge as an alternative to the two that have dominated politics for 150 years.

“I’m loyal to my beliefs and to people,” said independent Wisconsin voter Paul Williams. “If you want to vote for the third-party candidate, do it. The only wasted vote is the one not cast.”

Without saying how they will vote on Election Day or in early voting, Williams and McDonough pointed out that their general election ballots contain independents, as well as candidates with the Libertarian, Green, Peoples and Pirate parties.

The Libertarian Party is running candidates for all the statewide offices. Haven’t heard of Robert Burke, the Libertarian running for governor? He is not raising money, which is a primary reason he’s been excluded from the TV debate process. The Wisconsin Broadcasters Association invites candidates who have raised at least $250,000 and who are polling at least 10 percent.

The new Peoples Party also fielded a candidate for governor — founder Dennis Fehr, who is calling for higher tech in government, a simplified tax code, judicial reform, a lower drinking age and legalized marijuana, which also is on Robert Burke’s platform.

“We believe people have lost faith in our polarized two-party system and think an alternative is needed for the people and families of Wisconsin,” Fehr said when he announced. 

Going down the ballot, there are third party or independent candidates for many offices, including:

• Joseph Thomas Klein, a candidate for Assembly District 19 from the Wisconsin Pirate Party. Klein, in a statement, said his political party is “dedicated to the transparency and accountability of government, the upholding of civil rights for all citizens and the personal privacy of citizens in all their effects. … This upholding of civil rights means equal rights without regard for sexual identity and for keeping the government out of your bedroom and whom you choose to love.”

• Angela Walker, an independent socialist candidate for sheriff in Milwaukee County in a race against incumbent Democrat David Clarke. She said, “I believe that it’s time to rethink criminal justice. It’s time we look at the impact poverty and harsh punitive measures have on crime rates and advocate for policy changes that will increase opportunity for everyone in our community.”

• Ron Hardy, on the ballot as a Wisconsin Green Party candidate for state treasurer. Hardy is polling at 10 percent or better and has said, “With support from progressives, fiscal conservatives, independents and anyone who’s fed up with politics as usual, I can win this race.”

The Green platform begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that we must treat each other with love, respect and fairness, and that we must protect the earth for future generations. The crises of our times demand a fundamental shift in human values and culture, and in our social, economic and political institutions.”

This appeals to voter J’acki Hayes, but she has a common concern. “I don’t want to split the vote or spoil an election,” said Hayes, a pragmatic person who remembers the 2000 presidential race in which Democrat Al Gore “lost” Florida by 537 votes to George W. Bush. Environmentalist and reformer Ralph Nader ran as a Green Party candidate and won 97,421 votes in the Sunshine State.

The dispute continues over whether Nader served as spoiler, but third party advocates emphasize the myriad problems with the balloting in that election and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that halted a recount.

“Ralph Nader didn’t wreck the election,” said McDonough. “We can’t be intimidated by polls or bullied by parties. I was inspired by Nader’s candidacy in 2000.”

Walker exemplifies

third-party runs

That year, Walker, who is a native of Milwaukee, was living in the South and she participated in the Florida recount. Like McDonough, she’s found inspiration in independent and third party candidates, among them socialist Kshama Sawant, who was elected to the Seattle City Council last fall and proved instrumental this year in enacting the nation’s highest minimum wage.

Walker has worked as a bus driver and the legislative director for her transit workers union and she has a history of activism, including engagement in the movement against the war in Iraq and the Occupy protests. “I was taught from an early age to fight for what you believe,” she said.

Walker shares Sawant’s holistic approach to politics and, as she campaigns for sheriff, she focuses on social justice. “Criminal justice,” said Walker, is an oxymoron.

Walker, with no background in law enforcement, decided to campaign for sheriff after a friend suggested she could talk about the roots of violence and crime in Milwaukee. “I’m not affiliated with any particular party and that frees me up to say anything. … I can be as blunt as I need to be and I think that works in my favor.” 

Poverty, she said, is violence that can lead to more violence. Her platform includes advocating for:

• A broader living wage ordinance.

• Full funding of public schools.

• Expanded alternatives to incarceration.

• Decriminalization and legalization of marijuana.

• Restoration of voting rights for people who have been incarcerated.

• A healthy transit system.

• Invoking the 2012 Immigration and Customs Enforcement Detainer Ordinance that allows the sheriff to refrain from ICE sweeps.

Walker talked with WiG about her candidacy one recent afternoon after addressing a rally in Milwaukee organized by Voces de la Frontera, an immigrant rights group. At the rally, Walker talked about solidarity and the power of the people.

“I want to remind voters that you are more powerful than you think you are,” said Walker.

She added, “The right to vote was paid for in blood. So vote. Please.”

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