Saturday, May 31, 2008

Jason watches some Johnnie To--"The Mission" and "Fulltime Killer"

As I mentioned in a previous post, there's a Johnnie To series playing for about a month at the Pacific Film Archives. This is the first time in a few years I've been to the PFA for a non-film festival screening (AsianFest and the International Festival play movies there). But now I've decided to become a member and keep a closer watch on what's playing there.

But first, I want to gripe a bit about the BART. You see, the first movie was started at 6:30. It's a 45 minute trip on BART from Fremont to downtown Berkeley, then about a 5-10 minute walk/run to the PFA. I got to BART about 5:10, in plenty of time to catch the train that would get me there at 6:00. There was a train waiting there, but it was bound for San Francisco, not where I wanted to go. I wanted the Richmond bound train, and there was one scheduled in two minutes--perfect. Or so I thought, because as the San Francisco train pulled away, there was an announcement that there were no direct Fremont to Richmond trains, and if you need to go to stations on the Richmond line, take the San Francisco train and transfer about 4 stations up. Thanks for telling me! For that matter, thank you driver for taking off with no announcement, you can see people waiting in the station and you're the only train they can take!

Anyway, no problem, I could catch the next SF train, as long as there wasn't a long wait or a long transfer, I could still make it to Berkeley in plenty of time. So I got on the next train, which showed up 20 minutes later (so now I have exactly 10 minutes to walk up from the BART to the PFA, if everything runs on schedule). So the train craaaaawls through the first couple of stations, and finally gets to the transfer point at Bay Fair. There I get off, and I can see another train waiting for the station, just behind us. Must be the Richmond train, I'm still in good shape. I was right, it was the Richmond train I saw. But it waited there at 2 more San Francisco trains passed through! Are you fucking kidding me?! I eventually had to run as fast as I could from the BART to the PFA, and was still 20 minutes late. To the people running BART--and for that matter, all people working in public transit: The reason people don't use public transit is because they have places they're trying to get to and you are completely fucking unreliable!

Incidentally, when I got home late that night, I saw there were fliers in the Fremont BART station explaining that there was an electrical fire a couple of weeks ago between Fremont and Hayward, and so at certain times some lines might not run. As a result, you should add about 10 minutes to your expected trip time. 10 minutes? It took me over an hour and a half to take a 45 minute trip.

Okay, on to the movies. Of course, I missed the beginning of "The Mission", and talking to people afterwards I heard that I missed Anthony Wong cutting hair (and he's so cool, I have to believe he even made that cool) and a scene where they lock a guy in a trunk. By the time I got in, the team of 5 friends/bodyguards are already hired to protect a triad boss. There are frequent attempts on his life from the rival gang, and these serve as sharp, exciting exclamation points for the movie. But it's really held together by the quiet moments of downtime and horseplay among the friends. Whether they're hiding match heads in cigarettes (so they flare up briefly, surprising the smoker) or just playing impromptu soccer with a wadded up piece of paper, it's the easy camaraderie of cool guys being cool that makes this all work. In the end, of course, their loyalty is put to the test, and of course no matter what happens there will be action and cool guys. Lots of fun.

Then I finally caught my breath before the second movie. "Fulltime Killer" might've been the first Johnnie To film I ever saw, when it played at the SF International Film Festival way back in 2002. So I'll reach waaaaaay back into my archives and see what I wrote then:
"Fulltime Killer." If you're a fan of action movies and you haven't seen any of the plethora of hyperkinetic Hong Kong action flicks, well then you aren't a really fan of action movies. This is a great standard bearer of the genre, an action flick by and for people who love action flicks. The plot is bare-bones simplicity. There's an old professional assassin, the best in the business who charges the highest fees. Then there's an up-and-coming young assassin. Very skilled, but unnecessarily flashy, he pulls tricks like throwing a bag full of fake grenades at his target, then throwing one real one, and letting the target search all the fake ones trying to find the real one. Anyway, the young, flashy upstart is tired of working for chump change, and wants to take out the old professional and become the worlds greatest assassin, with all the fame and glory. He's also a huge fan of action movies, from all countries, and makes allusions to other action flicks all throughout the film. So playing, 'Spot the Reference' is half of the fun. I got most of them: "Point Break," " Leon: the Professional," "El Mariachi." There was also a reference to "Crying Freeman" which I know about but have never seen. And there was a reference to an obscure french film that I didn't get. But I think that's intentional, as later a character yells at him about how he looked all over and couldn't find the movie he was talking about. Anyway, the movie moves briskly through a few double-crosses, to the eventual showdown. By that time, they have so much respect for each other that they're drinking and joking together, just killing time before they kill each other. The final showdown is a warehouse, with weapons hidden in it patterned after a video game they both like. This is the kind of fun sensibility this movie has. It seems nowadays so many action movies are trying to take the genre in a new direction, which is a good thing (too many action movies just feel stale and uninspired). This one prefers to celebrate the old directions, and ends up being a flawless piece of good ol' fun.
Yeah, I'll stick by that review. And I'll add that the love interest was also important (there's a love triangle between the old assassin "O", his housekeeper, and the young assassin). I'll also add that the young assassin is played by Andy Lau, who co-produced this movie, and he's cool as hell (it seems hard to believe, but 2002 might've been so long ago that I didn't know who Andy Lau was?)

Anyway, other than public transit frustrations, it was a good night. And the series continues all through June. I'll miss a lot of it for Holehead and then a week-long family reunion, but I'll be back for at least a couple more days of it.

Jason watches "Mongol"

At a special sneak preview put together by CAAM (the good people behind SFIAAFF).

This movie (which was nominated for the Best Foreign Picture Oscar) already played at the SF International Film Fest, and missing it there was one of the most heart-breaking decisions I made in my schedule. But I figured it would be released (and it will open in limited release on June 6. Not sure if that includes the bay area at that time, but if not it will be shortly thereafter). Anyway, I got the extra bonus of seeing director Sergei Bodrov there. So it all works out, like the movie gods are rewarding me (I guess for all the clean living I do?)

As for the movie, it's excellent. It's the first in a planned trilogy (although Bodrov claims that was originally a joke, and now he's only interested in making part 3, not the middle part), and explores the early life of the Mongol Temudjin, who grew up to become Genghis Khan. It's been controversial in Bodrov's native Russia for it's positive, sympathetic portrayal of the young Khan. And the character in this movie is at odds with the conventional western concept of Genghis Khan, too. This is before he was a leader and a tyrant who conquered half the world. It starts with him as a young boy, on a trip with his dad to choose a wife (he's only 10, so he'll come back and actually marry her 5 years later). At a rest stop (not where his father intended to find a bride), he chooses young Börte, who makes up the love story of this movie. In contrast to the Khan with 1,000 wives he later becomes, this movie is really a touching love story, as he survives hardships and attempts on his life to find her and marry her, only to have her kidnapped. He goes against Mongol tradition to start a war for a woman. He endures slavery, prison, and eventually unites the Mongols under a simple but ruthless code of law, all for the lover of Börte.

The adult Temudjin (he's never actually called Genghis Khan until the very end) is played by Japanese actor Tadanobu
Asano, star of many popular and cult movies (I'm still waiting for him to break into the mainstream in America, but I feel it'll be soon). He brings all his charisma to the role, and is just awesome. Khulan Chuluun makes her movie debut as Börte, and is also great. In many ways she's the true leader who Temudjin follows, and it's set up in the first scenes with Bayertsetseg Erdenebat playing the young Börte.

There is so much to love about this movie. It's beautiful, the acting is great, the story is compelling and offers a different (but fact-based and researched) view of a famous figure. I can't wait to see the next two.

I'll leave you with this pic of SFIAAFF assistant director Taro Goto with "Mongol" Director Sergei Bodrov. By the way, in the short Q&A afterwards, Bodrov was very funny (for example, when he talked about wanting to skip part 2 and go directly to part 3).
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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Jason advertises the DVD release of "Suspension"

Okay, this is something new for me. I don't normally review DVD's, and I've never publicized the DVD release of any movie. But I saw "Suspension" at Cinequest (read my review here--first review of the post), I liked it a lot, and the director Ethan Shaftel cared enough to e-mail me kindly asking me to publicize it.

Anyway, it's out on DVD today (May 27th) and you can purchase it directly from the film's website here. It's distributed by Warner Home Video, but if you purchase from their website they get more of a cut of the sales. Not that I have anything against distributors, but if you're reading about the release here, then obviously Warner Home Video hasn't publicized it well enough. So reward the filmmakers by buying direct from their website!

By the way, one extra thought about the film, since it has kinda stuck in my mind since Cinequest. They don't use much CGI, the frozen time effects are done mostly with practical effects and overlaying multiple takes with a locked down camera. Now this can seem downright quaint, especially in these CGI blockbuster times when even the most innocuous shot needs a swooping, motion-controlled camera. A static shot can stick out like a sore thumb nowadays. However, in this movie it completely works for the frozen time effect. When time stops, so does the camera. And besides being a technical limitation, it's actually an effective artistic choice. And if nothing else, the fact that I can still remember details like that about this movie proves it's good enough to stick in my mind (I've seen 93 movies on the big screen since watching "Suspension").

Monday, May 26, 2008

Jason watches "Speed Racer"

Because I felt like seeing lots of bright colors on an IMAX screen. And it delivered that. And I suppose if you bother to care what's going on it's not really a bad movie. There's some sort of plot where Speed--as the independent family racer--can take down the corrupt business leaders of the World Racing League by winning the Grand Prix. But this is more about excessive sensory overload than story. And if that's what you want, that's what you get. And I assume it's better if you know all the characters. I vaguely remember them from watching the cartoon a few times years (or decades) ago. As far as I can tell, they get them right, but I'm no expert.

Jason watches "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"

And it's good, really good, maybe even great. First, to let you know where I'm coming from. I love Indiana Jones--who doesn't. Just the first four notes of the theme music get my heart racing. And in my head, I knew I shouldn't be too excited for this. It can't possibly live up to the hype or the expectations. But for the past year my heart has stubbornly resisted my head and got excited anyway. I went in there wanting it to be the greatest thing ever, but expecting to be disappointed. I ended up with something in between, and something I can be very, very happy with.

The action literally had me gripping my seat more than anything I can remember. This is what Indy movies are known for, and I'll start by saying they knocked this out of the park. There's nothing in this movie quite as memorable as the boulder in "Raiders", but there hasn't been anything that good in any Indy movie since (or any movie, period). "Raiders of the Lost Ark" set a new standard in action, one that was copied and built upon in two more Indy movies and a score of imitators. Then a weird thing happened when Indiana Jones left the scene for 19 years--"action" came to mean shaking the camera like an epileptic monkey while something vaguely exciting happens on-screen. It was really, really cool to see an action scene--a live action action scene (the epileptic monkey rule doesn't quite apply to CGI yet)--where I can follow what's going on. And guess what, if you do it right, it's more exciting to know what's going on!

Okay, the action's good, what about the MacGuffin? The artifact, the "Crystal Skull" from the title? Well, like all the artifacts it's more and less than what it is. It's something that moves the action forward, bad guys and good guys want it, and it has some secret power that the bad guys think can be a weapon and the good guys want to keep from being a weapon. It's also a metaphor--usually for unbridled greed. In this case, the temptation to use it as a weapon overwhelms a desire to understand it, and as such it's a metaphor for knowledge. A knowledge so great that whoever looks it in the eyes goes mad (John Hurt was pretty awesome in his role). But really, it's just a MacGuffin. A who-cares-what-it-is, the important thing is both the bad guys and good guys want it.

The relationships are the big thing in this movie. Henry Jones Sr. is dead, so is Marcus Brody. Early in the movie, his old war buddy Mac betrays him. Indiana Jones has fewer and fewer people left. Even his relationship with his government is strained. After surviving a run-in with Russians breaking into Area 51 (where, yes, the Ark makes an ever-so-brief cameo), he's become "of interest" to the Red-Scare era FBI (bringing up the Red Scare sort of resonates with the current political climate). So when greaser Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf, doing his best impression of Marlon Brando from "The Wild One") tracks him down and tells him his old college buddy Oxley is in trouble, you can see the light in Indy's eyes. The world has passed him by, Indy hasn't changed but the world has, and it's changed into something that doesn't need or want him. So a reminder that there are still people who will call on him when they're in trouble is a second wind for him. And when Mutt's mother turns out to be Marion Ravenwood (now Williams) from "Raiders", well that's absolutely perfect. When he admits that all the other women he's had all had the same problem--"They weren't you, honey"--he's just echoing what all the fans feel. None of the romantic interests have been nearly as interesting as Karen Allen as Marion. And when it's revealed that Mutt is actually his son...well, it works, and they milk some of the best humor out of that.

So what of that changed world? Well, the bad guys are now Russkies instead of Nazis. They've defeated the Nazis (and Indiana is now war hero Colonel Jones). But the Russian soldiers never really feel like Russkies, they're just the army that's backing up Cate Blanchett's Irina Spalko, a KGB psychic warfare expert. But she feels more like a rival scientist than a Russian--more akin to Rene Belloq in "Raiders" than anyone else. She's a professional rival more than a political one. The Nazis in "Raiders" and "The Last Crusade" were always more like the Keystone Nazis than anything else. Even more so here, they aren't Cold War Russians as much as the same comically inept army that's always trying to kill Indy. And in that role, they're fine (as I said before, the action scenes were terrific).

So what of the big reveal at the end? The big secret of the Crystal Skull. Well, I don't want to give away spoilers but if you've been on the Internet at all, you'll know it's an alien skull. There's some reveal at the end about them being inter-dimensional beings who travel to the space between spaces. It's mumbo jumbo, and probably the weakest payoff of the 4 movies. But it's still passable. It's not like scientific plausibility was ever a strong point of the series.

All in all, it was pretty awesome. So why did I feel, in the end, that there was something missing, or something wrong? Was it just so much buildup, did I expect too much? Is it the pattern I noticed in the first three--that Indy is just better when he's battling Nazis and chasing Judeo-Christian artifacts? (and I say that with great love for "Temple of Doom", it's just not quite the same as the other two) Maybe, but I'm not sure. I just had this vague feeling about it not quite being right. I couldn't put my finger on it. Things that might've bothered me--older Indy, bringing back the old love interest, a son, aliens--were all handled very well, and didn't bother me. There's just something in the whole package that felt off. Not bad, not wrong, just "off".

So I slept on it before writing this, and when I woke up, I realized that Indiana Jones had Jumped the Shark. And I mean that in the original meaning of the term. "Jumping the Shark" is a term that is used in reference to TV shows, and it's a reference to the "Happy Days" episode where the Fonz jumped a shark. Afterwards, the show started going downhill, and the "Jumping the Shark" episode is seen as the point where the show peaked. Nowadays, it's too often incorrectly used to refer to when a show became bad. But that's not right--it's supposed to be the high-water mark, the moment that beat all (or most) moments before it, changed everything, and made it impossible for anything after it to be as good as what came before. "Jumping the Shark" is often the best--or at least most anticipated--moment of the series. Everything after is a letdown, but not the jumping of the shark itself. And that's what's happened. In fact, in retrospect this had many of the classic shark jumping cliches--a son, a marriage (yes, Indy and Marion survive and get married at the end), aliens. Even though they were all handled well, the fact remains that everything has changed, and nothing from here on can be as good as what happened before.

And so what it all means is that while "Crystal Skull" will find a treasured spot in the Indiana Jones story, when the inevitable rumors of "Indiana Jones V" start (I believe they've started already, but I haven't paid any attention) I won't get too excited. I simply can't get that excited anymore, because the whole Indy world has changed, and there's no going back.

Update: I wanted to say a little more about my "Jumping the Shark" argument. First, there's an obvious, gigantic hole in it. As I painstakingly explained, "Jumping the Shark" is an indication that all future entries will not be as good as the previous entries (more to the point, the universe of the series has changed so much that it practically becomes a different series). Of course, this means I can't actually declare that it has jumped the shark, I can only predict it (I.e., predict that any future movies won't be as good as the earlier ones). And it's a rather bold prediction, if I say so myself. It's entirely possible that any futures movies might be absolutely great, better than anything before. It's also entirely possible that there will be no more movies. If a series ends on the "jump the shark" episode, can it actually be said to jump the shark?

With that said, there are rumors of Indiana Jones V. I'm sticking with my prediction.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Jason watches "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian"

And it's a reasonably fun fantasy adventure flick. It does suffer from a few isolated moments of silliness ("It feels like magic!"). But overall, the story had the makings of the best Hamlet vs. MacBeth story I've ever seen, until the cheesy Leo ex Machina ending spoiled it all. But since it's a wide-release movie, I don't feel like I need to say more.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Jason draws a blasphemous funny

Although if you think about it, it's more about politics than religion:

I'm going to hell bed now.
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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Jason watches "Young @ Heart"

Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction. For example, who'd believe that the best movie of the year so far would be a documentary about octogenarian rock stars. Actually, the Young @ Heart Chorus isn't all in their 80's, that's just their average age. But it is a group of senior citizens who cover rock and roll songs.

Now that might sound like a joke, and the opening cover of "Should I Stay or Should I Go" (by 93 year old Eileen Hall with a thick British accent) does make the whole house laugh. But as a joke it couldn't fill either a concert or a 2 hour movie. By the time they honor Bob Salvini--a chorus member who had just passed away--with a rendition of Bob Dylan's "Forever Young", it didn't just bring tears to my eyes, it brought tears to the eyes of their audience--and this was a concert in a prison. There's just enough pathos in this movie--dying chorus members, medical problems, difficulties in rehearsal, etc. But the overall feeling is joy, as everyone soldiers on because they truly love it. And so do I. There's a part of me that can't wait to be 70 so I can join a senior citizen's rock band.

Jason watches "Son of Rambow"

And it's pretty good. A charming British comedy of childhood filmmaking, 80's nostalgia, and religious repression, and growing up. Will Proudfoot is a young boy who's family belongs to the Plymouth Brethren, a strict religion that forbids--among other things--watching TV or movies. While waiting in the hall while his class watches a documentary, he runs into bad-boy Lee Carter. Lee has surreptitiously recorded "First Blood" at the local cinema, and is selling copies. Will ends up watching it, and it excites his already overactive imagination, and he starts imagining he's the son of Rambow (the misspelling is intentional). Lee bullies/blackmails him into being a stuntman for a movie he's making, Will goes along cheerfully and turns the movie into "Son of Rambow". Things get even more complicated when the coolest French exchange student in school learns of the movie and wants to star in it. It's funny and charming, and part of the recent wave I've seen celebrating DIY filmmaking.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Jason watches legitimate theater: "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"

At the San Jose Rep. It's been a long time since I've seen a play that isn't either the Thrillpeddlers or the Primitive Screwheads (BTW, their Indiana Jones parody--without blood--is coming soon as part of Indiefest's Another Hole in the Head Horror/Fantasy/Sci-Fi Film Festival).

It's been even longer since I read the Robert Louis Stevenson story. In fact, I'm not sure if I ever actually read the original (maybe I only know the basics through the Bugs Bunny parodies). If I did read it, it was when I was a little kid. So I can't comment on how faithful this adaptation was.

Oh yeah, this is the world premiere run of a new adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher. In his notes in the playbill, he wrote about how he wanted to add a more interesting love interest (for Hyde, rather than Jekyll), and how he wanted to make Jekyll not entirely good and Hyde not entirely evil. Again, I can't speak to how it compares to the original story or other adaptations, but I can say it was an effective, entertaining show.

The stagecraft was brisk, which really kept the heart pounding and blood flowing. The red doors popping up everywhere were cool, and gave a feeling of constantly passing from one world to another. The choice to have multiple actors (and one actress) play Hyde (none of whom played Jekyll) worked. And there were Grand Guignol moments that, of course, made me very happy.

So yeah, I'm not a theater critic, but I had fun. "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" plays at the SJ Rep through June 8.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Jason watches "First Blood"

Aka, the good Rambo movie. I guess I should've let my readers know, thanks to Fathom Events this played one show only, one night only (last night) at select theaters across the country. It opened with a ~20 minute interview with Stallone, then the movie, then the alternate ending. I'll go ahead and assume everyone knows the movie (if not, you can find it anywhere). In the alternate ending, Rambo dies and there are now sequels. Awesome.

Next Fathom Event--Death Note, for two nights only, May 20 and 21. I saw it at SFIAAFF, it was awesome (although rumor has it not as awesome as the manga).

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Jason watches "Iron Man"

and it's the worst J-horror remake ever.

A few years back it looked like J-horror remakes would make a big splash in Hollywood, as the first few were pretty good ("The Ring", "The Grudge"). Then the disappointments came--"Dark Water", "The Ring 2". And then I stopped caring "The Eye" (although that's actually Hong Kong horror, but in a similar vein). Now they've reached way back to 1989 to remake the techno-erotic cult nightmare "Tetsuo, the Iron Man" by Shinya Tsukamoto, and quite possibly killed J-horror remakes forever (good riddance, at this point).

"Tetsuo" seemed like an odd choice, kind of like re-making "Eraserhead" (don't get any ideas, Hollywood!). But at least I figured if Jon Favreau thinks it deserves a remake, he must be a true fan. Nobody would look at "Tetsuo" and figure a remake would be a good way to make a quick buck.

Okay, I'm not upset about renaming Tetsuo to Tony Stark. I understand he needs an American name now, and keeping a semblance of the "T" and "S" sounds is a nice touch. And I understand the commercial choice to change from black and white to color--understand, but don't necessarily approve. But that's about all that didn't upset me.

The original Tetsuo was a simple salary man trapped in a nightmare of mechanization, as his body slowly transforms to a hideous metal beast. Tony Stark is possibly more closely aligned with the "metal fetishist" in the beginning who jams iron rods into his legs to run faster. But even that comparison breaks down. Instead he's portrayed as a billionaire playboy arms dealer--the cause of the very nightmare Tetsuo was stuck in. Perhaps they're trying a bit of role reversal, but Stark is far from the everyman of Tetsuo. He couldn't possibly understand the plight of a middle-class salary man, and in fact embraces mechanization in his robot-run Malibu mega-mansion.

When the metal body emerges, it's an actual suit, not organically growing out of his body. There's a little nod to the original in a bit of shrapnel stuck near his heart, and an implanted electromagnet that keeps it from hitting his heart and killing him, but it's not much. Rather than the metal body taking him over against his will, he builds it by hand to escape from Afghan terrorists. Then he later builds a fancier, shinier one. Perhaps it's making a counterpoint by making Tony Stark a willing and enthusiastic participant in his own metal form, but in doing so they completely lose the nightmarish quality of the organic misshapen beast Tetsuo becomes.

As for the love interest, are you freakin' kidding me!? Instead of a demonic metal she-beast, she's his personal assistant? Instead of raping him up the but with a gigantic prehensile metal snake, she serves him coffee and saves his life? She doesn't even get any giant phallic drill action from him? He doesn't even have a gigantic mechanical drill for a penis? I'm downright confused.

And to top it all off (I'm sorry there's a spoiler here, but I'm too annoyed to care) instead of ending by giving into his rage and turning the whole world to metal and rusting it to death, he becomes some sort of superhero and fights against bad guys? It's like the makers never even saw Tetsuo! What the hell!?

[Note: After drafting this review I learned that "Iron Man" (2008) is not a remake of "Tetsuo, the Iron Man" (1989). In fact, it's based on a Marvel comic of the same name, and I now have it on the authority of my comic geek friends that it is in fact a reasonably faithful adaptation, with lots of geeky treats thrown in. I'm sorry I'm not a comic geek. Judged on this criteria, it's actually a pretty fun adventure flick. But I don't feel like rewriting this review, so that's that. And I still say he should've had a gigantic mechanical drill for a penis. --Jason]

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Jason watches "Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay"

It never fails. Take a simple, effective, silly, sleeper-hit comedy. Make a ridiculously high-concept sequel, but don't put in any jokes. Make it an excruciating sequence of "wacky" run-ins with "wacky" characters, but again no jokes. It's like they expect the existence of the KKK to be funny, even if the KKK members don't do anything funny. Or a bottomless party (nice, but not particularly funny), or a gay guy (two guys kissing is a joke? I don't get it). I was disappointed. Whatever, the first one was better, the end.

Jason explains why Hillary Clinton should not drop out of the Democratic primary

I know I rarely write explicitly about politics, except in the context of political movies (and I'm sure regular readers can guess my politics as a result). I don't write about politics because in general I regard politics as the opposite of sausage--I hate the end product, but love to see it getting made.

Now let me clarify the title. I don't just mean that Hillary shouldn't drop out today, or this week, or anytime before the final primary on June 3. I mean Hillary shouldn't (officially) drop out until the convention when (and if, although that "if" seems pretty darn likely) Barack Obama is officially nominated. And I should also tell you, I'm an Obama supporter. I proudly voted for him in the California primary, and hope to again in November (although I don't like the term "Obamaniac". I think "hope smoking hippie" is funnier.)

A Recent poll shows that 55% of Democrats agree with me. That's pretty much in line with polls I've seen before, with maybe just a slight decrease after Indiana and N. Carolina. So my opinion shouldn't be controversial. But maybe I've just been spending too much time reading the Fark political forums (fora?), because I feel like the only Obama supporter encouraging Clinton to stay in the race (and cringing when I hear her called "Hitlery" or "Hildabeast"). This is important to note--hoping Obama wins (and therefore, Hillary loses) is not the same as wanting Hillary to drop out. Just the same as rooting for my football team does not mean I root for them until they're up by two touchdowns late in the 4th quarter and then call for the other team to forfeit.

I should also stress that this isn't a statement of support for Hillary. I still want Barack to win, and my support for him has not waned. If anything, I find recently he's become even more God-like--in that I think he's cool, but his fan club tends to piss me off (again, maybe too much Fark).

My argument for Hillary staying in stems mainly from history. In the history of Presidential campaigns, nobody who has had as high a percentage of delegates as Hillary has ever dropped out of the race before the convention. Period. The way the media is presenting this, you'd think that a close race going all the way to the convention is unprecedented, at least recently. But about 2 minutes of Googling revealed that not only has it happened many, many times before, but it's even happened within my relative short lifetime! Granted, I was only 2 when the upstart Hollywood governor of California nearly won the nomination from incumbent Gerald Ford (who had all but committed political suicide by pardoning Richard Nixon). And by the way, that popping sound you hear is millions of Republican heads a-splodin' as they realize I've just pointed out that Hillary is the most Reagan-esque of the candidates. But the important thing to remember is that if you pressure Hillary to quit, you're not asking her to step aside and take one for the team like any reasonable party loyalist, you are asking her to become the biggest quitter in the history of Presidential elections!

The argument for Hillary quitting can be summed up as this: She should step aside for the good of the party. There are sub-points--arguments that she can't win more pledged delegates than Obama (true), that he's a stronger general-election candidate (debatable), etc. But it all basically feeds the main umbrella point, that she should step down for the good of the party. We can break this into two points: First, that the drawn out nomination fight is bad for the party (which means that 55% of Democrats want to hurt their party?). And second, that she has an obligation to sacrifice for the party. I'll tackle the second point first.

It's odd that in a country that so worships individualism and a fighting spirit, anyone would be asked to sacrifice her own self-interest for the "good of the party". I cringe whenever I hear that phrase, since I'm kinda old enough to remember Cold War propaganda about the evil, heartless Soviets who are forced to go hungry so that Communist Party bosses can get fat (nowadays I have several Russian and Chinese friends and communists aren't scary at all). As a candidate for public office, Hillary has an obligation first and foremost to herself and her constituency. Maybe after that she has an obligation to the party, but that doesn't really matter. And I'm not saying she just gets to say "F**k the party, I'm more important". I'm saying that it doesn't matter if she says that because there are other people whose duty is to the party--these people are called "superdelegates". If you want to end this thing quickly, you don't ask any candidate to be the biggest quitter ever in Presidential politics, you pressure the undeclared superdelegates to declare for Obama until he has the magic number of delegates (whether they should, and whether she should quit even then, is a different matter).

Now back to the first point for her stepping down--that the long nominating process is hurting the Democratic party. There are arguments for this--the bitter tone has damaged both of them; they're spending money and time fighting each other instead of tearing into McCain; polls show X% of Hillary supporters and Y% of Obama supporters would either not vote or vote for McCain if their candidate wasn't on the ballot in November. And there are arguments that it doesn't hurt--or even helps--the party: Voter registration is up; each candidate has full nationwide organizations (Obama even opened an office in Guam); the eventual candidate is "battle-tested", etc. I'm not astute enough to know if the net effect of all this is positive or negative. But I do know that in the RealClearPolitics poll averages, both Clinton and Obama defeat John McCain in the general election. So if either of them have been hurt by the primaries, they haven't been hurt enough to cost them the general election.

If the bloody primaries have been a negative, there's every reason to believe that as soon as they're over and both candidates make some conciliatory gestures, the poll numbers will rise. If they've been a net positive, there's every reason to believe that the benefits (organization, registration, activated base) will carry through to November. However, isn't it possible that forcing a premature end to the process could alienate some voters? Wouldn't Hillary supporters be more upset if they saw the contest was called early and their candidate didn't get to play out the whole game? Wouldn't the voters in the few remaining states be upset that their vote didn't make a difference? (ignore the fact that an individual vote never makes a difference--this is about perception, not math). It seems to me that the danger of prolonging the race is that it might bring up weaknesses in the candidate--weaknesses that are likely to be brought up by McCain in the general election. Maybe it's good to get them out early, maybe not--I tend to think that's a wash. But I don't see asking for patience as alienating anyone. Obama supporters aren't going to not vote for their guy just because he wasn't the nominee until June (or July, or August) as opposed to May. Ending the race early does have a potential of alienating some voters--maybe not many, maybe not enough to make a difference, but at least some, and that's a danger.

Now back to those superdelegates. Wil Wheaton has called them "one of the worst creations in the history of politics", and he was on TV, so you should pay attention to him. With all due respect to Mr. Wheaton (whom I usually enjoy quite a lot), I disagree. The superdelegates, as I said before, are tasked with being the protectors of the Democratic party. In extreme cases, they protect the party from takeover by a popular demagogue who doesn't truly reflect their values. This will be a bit of a tangent, but in 1992 Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot ran the most successful independent Presidential campaign in recent history (in that he won no states and no electoral votes, but received enough votes to fuck with the system). By 1996 he had created his own party, the Reform Party USA, and ran for President again, with marginally less successful results. But we now had the most successful third party since Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party, and their success climaxed in 1998 with the election of wrestler and "Predator" star Jesse Ventura as the governor of Minnesota. Whether or not you subscribed to their platform of economic/fiscal responsibility (which was actually too protectionist for my liking) with almost no position on social issues, it was an exciting time when it seemed the country was ripe for breaking the 2-party deadlock. Then in 2000, Perot decided he didn't want to run for President again and the party held a contested primary. Bitterly contested, as it turned out, even ending up in court before ex-Republican demagogue Pat Buchanan won the nomination, largely on appeal to social issues. He subsequently finished 4th in popular vote to Gore, Bush, and Nader, winning 0.4% of the vote (including a surprising number of elderly Jews in Palm Beach County). His finish pretty much destroyed the Reform Party, which has not run a Presidential candidate since (although they've endorsed Ron Paul in 2008), and Buchanan went back to being a Republican. Had Perot the foresight to include superdelegates in the process, perhaps his candidate, John Hagelin, would've won the nomination, kept to the platform, and the Reform Party would still be a factor today (they're still around, but trapped in the sub-Green Party basement).

That was a hell of a digression, but it's an example of why superdelegates are not a bad idea. Maybe not necessary, but not a bad idea. Now neither candidate this time around is a Pat Buchanan-type demagogue, but the superdelegates are still valuable as protectors of the party. Here their role is (hopefully) to elect the candidate who will better represent the Democratic party--both in terms of electability and in terms of representing the core Democratic values (just don't ask me what those are). And the key is that they're free to vote however they like, and decide based on whatever criteria they like. Certainly popular vote and pledged delegates are a compelling argument, especially when considering the possible revolt if they overturn the will of the people. But consider, the fact that a small number of superdelegates could overturn the "will of the people" is proof that the people are pretty evenly split. So it's a question of overturning the will of ~49% of the people or overturning the will of ~47% of the people (with ~4% going to Edwards, other candidates, or undeclared). That's not such a coup d'etat.

However, popular vote/pledged delegate count doesn't have to be the only criteria. General election chances are important, and various head-to-head polls with McCain make different cases, as to various electoral map breakdowns. Or they can vote for who they honestly believe is more representative of Democratic values--there's an old adage that it's better to lose an election than lose your party. Or they can vote based on whatever dumbass criteria they can come up with. Vote for Obama because you think he's prettier. Vote for Clinton because you like her husband. Vote for the candidate who gives you more money, promises you more money, or gives the best head (just don't let me know if that's your criteria). Bottom line, superdelegates can vote for whomever they want, because that's the rules.

Now, I've avoided talking about Florida and Michigan so far. Some time ago, I came up with a nearly free, simple, elegant solution for those delegates--so it'll never work. But since I just brought up the subject of "rules", I thought I should bring them up. I understand why the Democrats punished them in that matter, and I respect true hardliners who insist the rules must be immutable, although I happen to be a more lenient "the punishment should fit the crime" type. I don't respect those who insist the neither Florida nor Michigan should count but the superdelegates have to vote for whoever is ahead in popular votes/pledged delegates/states won/whatever. There are two rules at play here. Rule #1 says that superdelegates can vote however they want for whatever reason they want. Rule #2 says the Florida and Michigan don't get any delegates because of the calendar. I see a modicum of sense in #2, in that it was based on the assumption that it wouldn't be close enough for their delegates to make a difference. I see a lot more sense in #1, for reasons I've addressed above.

When I said at the beginning that Clinton's responsibility is to her constituency, Florida and Michigan are part of that constituency. For better or worse--and I know she's going back on her word for purely selfish reasons--she's the only player advocating on behalf of Florida and Michigan, two of the biggest swing states in the general election. I don't care if it's a coincidence of selfishness, but she happens to be on the sensible side of this issue (although she's overplayed her hand a few times trying to tilt both states further in her favor). The fact is, although Obama has the rules on his side, I see him as the one who's less willing to work for a FL/MI compromise, and that's to his detriment. I think the current punishment for FL/MI does not fit the crime, and is not a good strategy for November.

Wow, this post has really grown in the writing of it. I'll try to wrap this up. I want to go back to the fact that the RCP average has either Clinton or Obama beating McCain. This is actually pretty remarkable, the Democrats have two candidates, either of whom is favored to win. Why the heck would you want to end that situation early, and put all your eggs in one basket? And even if you wanted to put all your eggs in one basket, why would you want to put them in the less well known, untested basket? Again, I like Obama and I want him to be President, and I think he's weathered the Rev. Wright incident and other recent distractions pretty well. There's a possibility of another surprise that might completely derail his campaign. I think it's a remote possibility, but it exists. For that matter, there's always the possibility of a surprise against Clinton--probably more remote given her longer history, but still possible. So why wouldn't the Democrats want to keep a viable emergency backup candidate for as long as possible? It seems like that would be a smart strategy, and I wouldn't be surprised if enough superdelegates hold back on announcing their preference for just that reason. And (I'm now anticipating the counterargument) as long as at a certain point the Democrats make it clear that Clinton is only staying in as an emergency backup, I don't think it would distract from Obama's campaign.

So here's my advice to Clinton (some of which she's actually following, if people hear what she says rather than the battle the rabid supporters are fighting): Strike a very respectful, conciliatory tone. Talk up Obama along with yourself, take shots at McCain while pointing out how both you and Obama would be better. At a certain point, depending on the actions of the superdelegates, the nomination might move out of your reach without some superdelegates defecting. At this point, make the explicit case that it's good to have an emergency backup candidate, especially if polls show either one of you two would beat McCain. Keep your campaign office technically open, but actively stump for Obama (although mostly in an anti-McCain context). You said in the Pennsylvania debate (in response to the opening veep question) that if you don't win the nomination she'll do whatever she can to help Obama--stick to that promise! Make it absolutely clear that although you haven't closed your campaign, the nomination is absolutely Obama's to lose and unless there's a game-changing surprise, you won't attempt to steal the nomination, and you'll do whatever you can to put Obama in the best possible position to accept the nomination and beat McCain in November.

Whew! Okay, no more political posts for a long, long time.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Jason goes to SFIFF--Closing Night

And I've never said this about a film festival before, but finally! Honestly, that festival was great, but seemed to take for-freakin-ever!

One last movie, back at the Castro for Alex Gibney's (Oscar winner for "Taxi to the Dark Side") documentary "Gonzo: the Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson". Now I knew of Hunter S. Thompson casually as the gonzo writer of the "Fear and Loathing" books, and had heard some stuff about how he became a gun nut liberal-libertarian who lived out on a ranch and was just bitter all the time. Then he killed himself. I loved "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas", both the book and the movie (and Johnny Depp appears in and narrates this movie). But what I'm getting at is I never really had a comprehensive view of the Hunter's work until now. I've never read "Hell's Angels", although I knew he wrote it. I never knew he ran for (and very nearly won) sheriff of Aspen. I knew he wrote about politics, but I always thought he was pretty bitter and cynical about it--I didn't know how much he truly believed in George McGovern. But since it's impossible to sum up the movie, I'll just say it's as well made as you'd expect from Alex Gibney (besides "Taxi to the Dark Side", he also made "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room", which actually made the Enron scandal comprehensible and entertaining). And I'll relate the one anecdote that struck me the most:

In 1974 Hunter S. Thompson was a guest of Senator Ted Kennedy at a dinner at the University of Georgia. The governor of Georgia gave a speech there where he talked about how his family was farmers for generations, but he never understood the conditions of the workers on the farm until he heard the words of the great American poet Bob Dylan and his song "Maggie's Farm". A politician citing Bob Dylan immediately caught Thompson's interest. And he listened to (and tape recorded) the speech, as this governor went on to rail against the ethics of lawyers--to a room full of lawyers. Thompson was mightily impressed, and thought to himself 'This Jimmy Carter, I must make him President'. And so he wrote a glowing review of his speech for Rolling Stones, and the rest is history (and apparently the last politician Hunter S. Thompson respected)

Here's a pic of director Alex Gibney, and I apologize but I don't remember who the woman next to him is:

And now SFIFF '08 is over.
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Jason has a Starslyderz experience

At the fabulous and 420-friendly Hypnodrome. Sorry I haven't written in a while, but I've been recuperating from SFIFF (I seemed to get a minor cold as soon as the festival was over). But here's the scoop from the day I skipped SFIFF.

So a movie "experience" is more than just a movie. It's a some stuff that makes it an experience. For example, this experience started with an outdoor concert by space aliens from the planet Zoopy and their Zoopy Girls:

Now that was an experience! Then a few beers, and whatever, and we all filed inside for the show. Then a little smoke-shrouded homoerotic interpretive dance space-battle (sorry I couldn't get a good picture of that), and finally the movie started.

As for the movie itself, I don't know what the budget was, but it looked like it was lower than the molten core of the earth--and that's part of the charm. In fact, the non-budget + sex jokes + pot jokes is about 90% of the charm (the rest is mostly taken up with the pun "Gorgon, take me away!") In the year 2420 (dude...I just got that) Starslyderz protect the United Planets of America from evil-doers, like the aforementioned Gorgon. Gorgon has kidnapped the President's daughter, and she's hot so Captain Taylor is on the case like...a horny guy chasing after a hot girl. That is, when he isn't getting high and chasing after other hot girls. And wacky hijinx ensue.

Anyway, I had a great time, but I've got a sneaky suspicion that it doesn't necessarily play as well sober. Sometime I might have to test that. And I can, since I bought the DVD, along with a Starslyderz t-shirt, made from 55% hemp and 45% cotton (in China, Earth). I just have to say, I've never actually worn a hemp t-shirt before, and it's really fucking comfortable! I don't care about your politics or opinions about pot. Legalize it or not, whatever. But everyone should wear a hemp t-shirt at least once in their lives. And you want to know a great place to buy one? Hey, you can get a DVD there, too!

Update: I forgot to mention that the "Starslyderz" experience was presented by Dead Channels, and it's a warm up for a summer of White Hot Wild Wednesdays (or something like that) at the Hypnodrome. The series starts on June 18th (when sadly, I'll be out of town) with "Socket". They played the trailer before "Starslyderz", and it's something about electricity freaks who grow electrical plugs from their wrists and plug in to each others sockets in the back of the neck. It's for gay pride month.

Oh, and as long as I'm adding to this post, please allow me to compliment the Zoopy girls on their talent and professionalism. It was a pretty chilly night to be wearing so little, so I definitely appreciate the professionalism of the Zoopy girls.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Jason previews upcoming events--Santa Cruz Film Festival, Holehead, and stuff at the PFA

SFIFF winds down tonight. I'll finally sleep well, but here are some things that will keep me awake soon.

If I were truly, truly crazy, tomorrow night the Santa Cruz Film Festival starts. I'll sleep rather than going to opening night. Then Saturday there's a Quakes game, so that's out. Possibly I'll go Sunday. During the week it's a bit of a trek to go down to Santa Cruz, but there's always the possibility I'll go for the closing weekend. But just because I won't be there, it doesn't mean you shouldn't. There are some great movies playing there. Here's a rundown of the ones that jumped out at me (mostly because I've seen them before):
"2nd Verse: The Rebirth of Poetry" plays Sat, May 10, 4:30 at the Riverfront. Great doc I saw at Indiefest.
"Abie Nathan--As the Sun Sets" Fri, May 16, 1:00 at the Riverfront. Haven't seen it, but it's co-presented by the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival
"The Art of Travel" Sat, May 10, at the Del Mar. One of my favorites from Cinequest
"Fantasie in Bubblewrap" part of the Animazing! shorts program. Fri, May 9 2:00 at the Riverfront. You'll never look at bubblewrap the same.
"Jetsam" Thu, May 15 8:45 pm at the Riverfront. Cool little low-budget thriller I saw at Indiefest.
"Les Paul--Chasing Sound" Fri, May 16, 8:00 at the Rio. Good doc on Les Paul from Cinequest.
"The Metrosexual" Mon, May 12, 9:15 at the Riverfront. I actually missed this when it played at Cinequest. Any of my readers know if it's worth the drive to SC on a weeknight?
"Row Hard, No Excuses" Fri, May 9, 4:30 at the Riverfront. Amazing doc I saw at Indiefest, about a rowboat race across the Atlantic.
"Shuteye Hotel" also part of the Animazing! shorts program. Fri, May 9 2:00 at the Riverfront. I haven't seen it, but it's a Plymptoon, so it's gotta be cool.
"Sliding Liberia" Fri, May 16, 9:00 at the Cayuga Vault. Excellent social issues/surfing doc. My surprise hit of Indiefest.
"The Village Barbershop" Sun, May 11, 9:15 at the Del Mar. Good funny movie, one of the hits of Cinequest.
"Summer Scars" Fri, May 9, 9:15 at the Riverfront. I know nothing about this, other than it's by Julian Richards and I've liked his previous work.

In fact, "Summer Scars" would almost get me to come to SC on Friday when I should be sleeping off SFIFF. I was temped...seriously tempted...and then I was saved when the schedule came out for Holehead.

Holehead (or more appropriately, "Another Hole in the Head") is Indiefest's genre program, and it plays June 5-21. Since I saw "Starslyderz" last night (I'll post on that event soon), I've now seen everything that's played at Holehead since it started in 2004 (or 2003, if you count the all-genre weekend of Indiefest as the first Holehead).

I don't spend a lot of time researching the schedule, since I'll just see everything anyway. I am, as I explained above, excited about Julian Richards' "Summer Scars". I also met Robert Pratten, the director of "MindFLESH" at the "Starslyderz" experience last night, so now I'm excited about his movie. So apparently I'm really looking forward to the British horror this year. Neat!

A little note about the Holehead schedule. It's two weeks long, but the second week is all repeat screenings. You can see everything in the first week, which is good for me because I'll be out of town for the second week (up in WA to see my little bro' graduate, followed by a week-long family reunion). It's also a win for my local readers, as you'll be able to read what I like and what I didn't in time to catch the repeat screenings. It'll be interesting to see if attendance is up during the second week from word-of-mouth or if horror fans don't really care what other people think (which is kind of my suspicion).

On final note. If you buy the pass to see everything at Holehead, the new policy is that it only gets you in for the first week (through June 12). The repeat screenings are not included in the pass. This is new this year, and I expect people to be confused/not notice until it's too late. So I'm trying to do my part to spread the word (and biting my tongue about my opinion of this policy).

While that's going on, there's also some cool stuff happening at the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley. Most exciting is the Johnnie To series--cool Hong Kong action flicks. I'm definitely going to as much of that as possible (some screenings conflict with Holehead and with my vacation). There's a couple of other cool things I'll try to check out. "Berlin Alexanderplatz" I'll miss, since I can't make all of it--a 16 hour epic in 13-14 parts? No thanks, at least not if I'll only catch half. I know nothing about Zeki Demirkubuz, but I might at least try a taste and see if I want to see more. The punk series "Louder, Faster: Punk in Performance" looks cool, as does the Joan Blondell series. In fact, I'll mark it down right now: June 26th Joan Blondell in "Nighmare Alley" followed by the canonical punk doc "The Decline of Western Civilization" (and Penelope Spheeris is scheduled to be there)

And finally, I keep mentioning I saw the "Starslyderz" experience last night at the Hypnodrome. Well, that's a sneak peak at a Dead Channels summer series of White Hot Wild Wednesdays (or something like that). The series kicks off June 18th with "Socket" (in honor of gay pride month). They showed the trailer before "Starslyderz" and it looks to be a twisted queer story of people who shock themselves with electricity for kicks. Some even grow electrical plugs out of their wrists and plug in to their partners "sockets." I'm so sad I'll miss it for my family reunion. Yeah...sorry to miss that.

Anyway, that's what's coming up soon in the world of indie and weird films in the bay area.

Jason goes to SFIFF--day 13

Now we're really getting down to the end. Two more movies on Tuesday, I'm skipping the festival (to see "Starslyderz") tonight, and then closing night.

But first I have to mention that nobody took me up on my offer for the free Cinevisa for the last two days of the festival. If you recall, I announced a contest for anyone to use my Cinevisa for tonight (Wednesday) and Thursday. All you had to do was walk up to me on Tuesday and recite a romantic line from a movie. And nobody did. So I have to assume that either A) I have no readers, or B) I'm so unattractive that free movies are not worth saying something romantic to me, even in jest. Either way, I've been appropriately humbled. (I suppose there are other possibilities, like my readers are all so prepared that they already have tickets to whatever they want to see. Or the majority of my readers are from out of town--perhaps I'm one of those geniuses who's appreciated far away but not at home, like Kurosawa or Jesus).

Anyway, on to the movies. First up was a rather unique experience. "La France" is a French war movie with more singing than war in it. Camille (Sylvie Testud) is the wife of a French soldier in WWI. She stopped receiving letters from him, so she decides to go and try to find him. She cuts her hair, dresses like a boy, and a gambit that requires some willing suspension of disbelief, meets up with a regiment of French soldiers and joins them. They're all acting a little weird, though, hiding in trees and pulling out instruments and singing at odd moments. There's sort of a mythical, dream-like quality about what's going on. She eventually fits in, and befriends the gruff leiutenant (Pascal Greggory). In some ways the regiment acts as a collective character, highlighting the absurdity, tediousness, and pain of war, and also the strength of cameraderie. It's a strange mix of gritty war drama and 60's American surf-pop style music. And here's a pic of the director who managed to mix the two, Serge Bozon:

And then I treated myself to a big Hollywood movie, David Mamet's "Redbelt". Chiwetel Ejiofor is excellent as the too-noble-for-his-own-good jiu-jitsu instructor. He looks after his students more than he looks after his own business. When he saves the life of a cocky Hollywood action star Chet Franks (Tim Allen...seriously) he is invited into the high-class life of big entertainment (he's made a producer on Frank's film, and I couldn't stop thinking of the line in "State and Main" about what a producer credit means). Quickly he learns that he's been conned (how far back the con goes is never quite explained), and his training technique has bee co-opted for an ultimate fighting (mixed martial arts) competition. Faced with mounting bills and legal expenses, he's forced to fight on the undercard, where he could win up to $50,000, at the cost of his principles. But as he teaches his students, there's always an escape. Fairly impressive, with enough con games to be quintessential Mamet, but also enough hard-hitting fisticuffs to be something a little different, too. My only complaint would be that the ending was a little too abrupt and tidy.
And now I'm all caught up in my posts.

Jason goes to SFIFF--day 12

We're getting down to the end. Two more movies last Monday, back at the PFA (for the last time in this year's festival)

First up was "Cochochi", an unusual opportunity to see a movie about and starring Mexico’s Tarahumara natives (and in their native language, no less). Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas are photographers by trade, and their ability to frame a beautiful shot shows. They're aided, of course, by some beautiful and striking landscapes. And the story they tell is equally beautiful, while also being simple and charming. Two brothers, fresh from finishing the school year (the eldest is graduating grade school) are sent on an errand to deliver medicine to their great-aunt and uncle. In the particular social network of the community, they are informed of their task by the community radio program. Willfully disobeying their grandfather, they steal (or "borrow") his horse to make the journey. But things go horribly wrong when the lose the horse (or maybe it was even stolen by bullies). It's a sort of coming-of-age story, as they take on more responsibility (and more blame) then ever before. But it's also a fascinating depiction of the intricate social network of the Tarahumara tribe. And it's sweet, just sweet and charming.

And then I saw "Secrecy", one of the most fascinating documentaries in the festival, followed by one of the best Q&A's I've ever witnessed. Harvard professors Rob Moss (film lecturer) and Peter Galison (professor of the history of science and of physics) teamed up to make a movie not really about the specific secrets our government keeps, but the nature of secrecy itself. They use some pretty nifty cinematic techniques (including animation) to suggest the nature of that which (by virtue of being a secret) cannot be known and hence not shown. And they interview a wide range of experts with pro-secrecy (or pro-security) and anti-secrecy (or pro-openness) ideals. On the anti-secrecy side, two very interesting points. First, in the entire 9/11 report there is (claimed) only one mention of an act that could've stopped the attack. According to interrogations of top al-Qaeda prisoners, if we had reported the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui on August 16, 2001, they would've assumed that the conspiracy was compromised and called off the attacks. So in fact, openness would've made us more safe (granted, there's some conjecture there, but interesting). Second, and perhaps more damning, the legal precedent for the State Secrets Privilege in the United States is United States v. Reynolds (1953). In this case, a B-29 Superfortress bomber crashed, killing the entire crew aboard. Three widows sued for the accident report, the case went to the Supreme Court where they ruled that release of the report would threaten national security by revealing the bomber's top-secret mission. In 2000, the accident report was released as part of a mass declassification (organized by V.P. Al Gore). It was discovered that nothing in the accident report described the mission beyond "testing secret electronics". The report did detail negligence and incompetence at various steps--the plane should never have been allowed to take off in the first place. So the legal precedent for the State Secrets Privilege is in fact a fraud upon the courts. Interesting.

Also interesting, on the pro-secrecy/security side, are cases like how we were effectively tracking Osama Bin Laden by his satellite phone...until that fact was revealed in the news media. And there are plenty of experts more than willing to talk about the importance of keeping some secrets, and for the right people to be deciding what's secret or not. Now I can't remember if this was in the movie or the Q&A, but one interesting case was when a member of Congress showed a satellite picture of some Russian (or this might've been old enough to be Soviet) military equipment. It was not a secret that this equipment existed and we knew about it, so he asked--on the floor of Congress--why this is a secret. Turned out the secret was that we had a satellite in a specific location that could take pictures from a particular angle--and he revealed that secret.

Interesting stuff. I'm sure the right answer is somewhere in the middle of the extreme positions (not everything can be a secret, but some things must be). Another point (again, I can't remember if it's actually in the movie, but it definitely came out in the Q&A) is that one of the biggest problems is over-classification--too many secrets. It results is A) things the public should know not being released, and possibly more importantly B) people not taking the "real" secrets (the ones that should be secret) seriously enough--sort of a "boy who cried wolf" effect.

Again, fascinating movie and one of the best Q&A's I've ever seen. Here are the men behind it, Rob Moss and Peter Galison (and that's not a secret):

Just a couple more days left in this fest.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Jason goes to SFIFF--day 11

Okay, 5 more movies last Sunday, so let's jump right in.

First up was the special SFFS members screening. This is an annual tradition, where they don't tell us what they'll screen, you just have to show up at 10 am (after seeing the late show the night before) and guess as Graham Leggat gives you clues. Finally we learned the movie was the Scottish psycho-sexual comedy "Hallam Foe" (retitled "Mr. Foe" in America). Hallam (Jamie Bell) is a young man whose mother died just about a year ago. Now his father has married his secretary (Claire Forlani) and Hallam has retreated to his treehouse where he spies on people and has become quite an accomplished (and obsessive) peeping tom. He suspects his stepmother of murdering his mom--and in his defense she is a sexually manipulative bitch. After an incident (I'm trying to avoid spoilers) he runs away to the city, spies a young woman(Sophia Myles) who looks amazingly like his mother. He follows her and gets a job at the hotel where she works--she's in HR, he starts at the bottom as a kitchen porter. He simultaneously spies on her (and her affair with the married hotel manager) and befriends her. Hilarity (and grossness--quite a lot of oedipal grossness) occurs. I loved it. And it reminded me--next Sunday is Mothers' Day!

Okay, back to our regularly scheduled program. But first a joke: An American man and a Chinese man were driving down the road. They come to a fork in the road, and there's a sign pointing to the left saying "socialism" and a sign pointing to the right saying "capitalism". The American says, "Let's go to the right." The Chinese man says, "Okay, let's go to the right, but let's signal as if we're going to the left."

This joke opens "Up the Yangtze", a beautifully shot documentary by Chinese-Canadian director Yung Chang. It's set aboard a Yangtze "farewell cruise", which takes American (and European) tourists up the Yangtze for a view of modern China and a view of parts of rural China that are rapidly being flooded out by the completion of the Three Gorges Dam. It's a very lyrical, poetic view of China, where impoverished and doomed villages make way for giant cities with so much neon it looks like the Yangtze is a river of electricity. Although judgements can be easy to make--it's hard not to sympathize with the shopkeeper who cries about how China is so difficult for the common man--judgements are also very tricky (that very same shopkeeper brags about "sacrificing the little family for the big"). Even on the boat, there's a dichotomy in the joyful, charismatic attendant (who laughs at the silly Americans giving a $30 tip because he left them alone) and the poor girl whose family is doomed to homelessness when the dam is finished and who has to work in the kitchen on the boat to support them (instead of going to school). I suppose the starkest dichotomy is the world on the boat (where people always show cheerfulness and speak English) and the world on land (which is very, very complicated). Mostly it leaves the viewer with the understanding that China can not be reduced to simple stereotypes, and it's just as much (if not more) a land of diversity and contrasts as the U.S. is. Here's a picture of director Yung Chang answering questions after the film.

Next up was the brilliantly hilarious bitter pill, "The Art of Negative Thinking". My respect for Norway has increased dramatically with this anti-PC slapstick black comedy. Geirr was recently paralyzed (and left impotent) in a car crash. He has retreated into a life of booze, drugs, and watching movies. Doesn't sound too bad to me, but his wife is worried and depressed, so she calls on a self-help group for cripples. Relentlessly cheery and positive ("don't see problems, see solutions!") they go to pick him up, and he resists as much as he can. And, in fact, his negativity starts to infect the group, causing a wide-scale mutiny that kicks all the able-bodied out (the spouses and the group leader) while the cripples get high and re-enact the Russian roulette scene from "The Deer Hunter". Turns out, that's just what they needed. Never underestimate the art of negative thinking.

So next up was a movie I know I chose just for the title--"A Girl Cut in Two". A French film based on events that took place around the turn of the century in New York, it stars Ludivine Sagnier in the title role, and is the story of a young girl; a famous writer who seduces her; and an arrogant, violent heir to a pharmaceutical fortune who pursues her and cultivates a hatred of the writer. The story unfolds smoothly and meticulously under the steady hand of master Claude Chabrol. It's like watching an expert puppet show--the strings are never invisible, they're an essential part of the show and watching how deftly he moves the strings is part of the entertainment. François Berléand plays Charles (Saint-)Denis , a very happily married and celebrated writer--happy in part because he freely indulges his womanizing desires. Ludivine Sagnier is radiant as Gabrielle Aurore Deneige (a name intentionally calling out images of angels and pure white snow), a local TV weather girl who falls easily (and completely willingly) for his charms. She's young and inexperienced, and he's only too willing to teach her everything she needs to know (and a whole lot more). Benoît Magimel is Paul André Claude Gaudens, the arrogant, drunken, violent pharmaceutical heir who falls for Gabrielle. Gabrielle clearly prefers Charles, but he'll never leave his wife and gets bored of her for months at a time. Paul will definitely be devoted to only her--psychotically devoted. And I don't know how to end this write-up. I've already given too much away, so here's a picture of Ludivine Sagnier at the Q&A:

And finally, I ended the night with "Secret". Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou has shown to be an effective film actor as well, with the street racing film "Initial D" (before "The Fast and the Furious" caught on to the "Tokyo Drift") and his role as Prince Jai in "Curse of the Golden Flower". Now he's made his directorial debut (and stars) in the piano-action melodrama "Secret". Chou plays a piano prodigy who just transferred to Tamkang Secondary School (his real-life alma mater). There he makes a name (and impresses the ladies) by beating the local master in a "piano-battle". But he's really interested in Yu (Kwai Lun-mei), an enchanting beauty he sees playing a haunting tune in an old music room. She seems to appear and disappear at will, teasing him and then flying away. She has a secret, of course, hence the title. this is another over-the-top melodrama that has been a staple of Asian cinema (for those who look beyond just the action flicks) for a while, and is definitely a staple of SFIFF this year (this could almost be a companion piece to "Linger"). Jay Chou shows a steady mastery of the craft of filmmaking, and I applaud his initial effort.

And that was Sunday. Now we're heading into the end stretch.

Jason goes to SFIFF--day 10

First off, allow me to show off what a film fest big wig I am (not that I need a big wig). Here's a shot of one of the slides that plays in all the theaters at the Kabuki between the films:

Check out that name. Oh yeah, they even spelled it right!

All right, enough of that garbage, on to the movies.

First up was the Taiwanese coming of age sweet comedy/drama "Orz Boys". Although it never comes into play in the movie, the title apparently refers to a common Taiwanese internet chat symbol, meaning on is defeated and bowing to your opponent (imagine the "o" is the head and the "z" is the legs. Which I guess makes the "r" the body and arms). But it's not at all about chatrooms, it's about two young boys--little scamps who earn the names "Liar #1" and "Liar #2" for their shenanigans. They're punished to spend the long, hot summer term in the library repairing old books, but that doesn't stop them from tormenting girls, inventing stories about ghosts and statues who get up and go home at the end of the day, or saving up for the coolest toys. Their main goal is to go to the waterpark, where if they go down the big slide 100 times, they'll be transported to the magical world of Orz (shown in some comical animation). The exact details of the narrative aren't as important as the tone, which is unapologetically sweet and funny without being saccharine. And here's a picture of the guy who put it all together, director Gillies Ya-che Yang:

Next up was a Johnnie To film. Johnnie To is best known for his wild action films like "Fulltime Killer" or "Exiled", but his new film, "Linger" is actually a romantic melodramatic ghost story. Of course, he has to start it with star (and Taiwanese pop idol) Vic Zhou dying in a motorcycle accident that is at least partly the fault of his girlfriend (played by beauty Li Binbing). Three years later, he shows up in her bedroom, sporting a deathly pallor and the scars from the accident and subsequent funeral. He scares the crap out of her, but subsequently he puts on his basketball jersey, they settle down for a good talk, and he gets along with the business of quietly and sweetly haunting her. Actually, he's there to make piece with everything he left unresolved in life, especially his father. Meanwhile, she has become a law clerk and is working on the defense of a roguish young man who's very similar to him. He notes it, and actually kind of approves. It's a fun movie with comedy and heart. It's not the action Johnnie To fans are used to, but he's still a steady hand behind the camera in a supernatural melodrama.

Oh, and if you're a fan of Johnnie To action flicks, there's a series starting soon at the Pacific Film Archives.

So after so much melodrama, I could use something really twisted, like Ben Kingsley making out with Mary Kate Olsen. By an amazing coincidence, that's exactly what "The Wackness" delivers, in one "where's the eye bleach?" scene. Thankfully, that's a fairly brief scene (and Mary Kate's cameo is short and actually not very annoying). Ben Kingsley plays Dr. Squires, a psychiatrist treating Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck). They first met in a different professional setting--Luke sold him drugs. Perhaps if I had known more self-loathing drug-addled bitter psychiatrists growing up, I wouldn't have such a deep abiding loathing for their profession today. But I digress, the important thing is that Luke just graduated high school (in New York, in an expertly recreated 1994) and is looking at one last summer before heading off to his safety school and plodding through the rest of his life. Most of his friends are gone, but Stephanie (Olivia Thirby) is still in town. She's hot, she's a client of his (small time pot), and oh yeah, she's Dr. Squire's daughter--make that step-daughter. So when Dr. Squires advises Josh that he just needs to get laid, well...hilarity ensues. A very funny, lively, and touching film about growing up and how sometimes you perpetually fail to do so. Here's director Jonathan Levine talking to festival executive director Graham Leggat:

So I had previously noted that depending on the timing of "Wackness" I either would or would not be able to see another movie before the late show. It was a question of whether "The Wackness" started at 7:00 (as listed on the website and big program guide) or 7:30 (as listed in the mini-guide). Actual start time--7:45. So yeah, only 4 movies for me on Saturday. I'll survive somehow.

So after a few bottles of Stella Artois, the late show was a Spanish sci-fi horror-thriller "Timecrimes". As the title suggests, it's a time travel flick. It took a bit to get going. The first pass through the timeline was interesting for it's use of horror-movie tropes. Most of the second pass was a little obvious for me. But by the third pass, it became really cool and really clever. Hector is hanging out in his backyard, looking at the woods behind his house through binoculars. He spies a girl in the woods. The girl starts disrobing. So he goes to investigate. He finds the girl naked and unconscious. He approaches slowly...and suddenly a sinister figure with a head wrapped in pink bandages leaps out and stabs him with a pair of scissors. He starts running, the pink-bandaged maniac is chasing him. He flees to a big building on top of the hill. A lone scientist is working there in a lab. He agrees to hide Hector in a big vat of white liquid...and then Hector emerges from the vat about an hour and a half earlier. You know, it's a bit much to describe all the details of the plot. Here's a Feynman space-time diagram of the movie (warning, spoilers!!): I have to point out that I sketched this from memory the next day while on a moving BART train. And regular readers no my skills of an artist. So while it's more or less right in the big picture, I won't swear by it's absolute accuracy. Anyone who can do a better job, feel free to e-mail it to me. I'll post the best Feynman diagrams of "Timecrimes" if I get any.

As a physicist and amateur philosopher, I'd like to say a few words about time travel logic and time travel movies. Basically, time travel is logically consistent if you can draw one of these diagrams (Y-axis is time, X-axis is space--three dimensions represented by one). Many purported time-travel movies cannot do this. "Back to the Future" is a fine example--a very entertaining movie, but the time-travel logic is crap. In the "Back to the Future" world, time travel (at least backwards travel) causes a split in the timeline, with the new future possibly bearing no resemblance to the original one (Marty goes back in time, changes the past, goes back to the future, and everything's different). Strictly speaking, that's not time travel. Or to put it more precisely, while you can describe it as time travel, you don't have to. You can describe it as travelling to an alternate universe that happens to share an identical timeline with our universe, until a certain moment. Nothing wrong with that, but then why do events in this alternate world affect the original world. If there's a Marty in the original universe and a Marty in the second universe with an alterred timeline, why would what happens to Marty (or George McFly) in universe #2 have any bearing on universe #1? Again, I'm not saying it's a bad movie, I find it very entertaining. But it doesn't have logically consistent time travel, as evidenced by the fact that you can't draw a consistent space-time diagram of the events. So I just want to applaud "Timecrimes" for getting the logic right. After seeing it, and sketching the above diagram, I thought about starting a project of sketching Feynman diagrams of famous time-travel movies, but became dismayed at how few were possible. "Terminator" (but not T2) is possible, "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" sadly is (but don't even mention their "Bogus Journey"), "Bender's Big Score" works (I think) but that's straight-to-video and TV, not big-screen.