Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Jason watches "Miracle at St. Anna"

First, let me say "Shana Tova (Happy New Year)" to all my Jewish readers.

So immediately after watching Spike Lee's 160 minute epic of religion, miracles, attrocities, and black soldiers in WWII I thought this might be his most ambitious movie yet--moving beyond his uniquely New York perspective to a more global view.  So I was puzzled why I felt somewhat let down.  It was uneven, particularly in some puzzling transitions, like it came from a fragmented and damaged mind (which might be intentional, given the POV of the narrator), but I still should've felt better about it.  Then driving home, I realized this isn't Spike Lee's most ambitious movie, in a way it's his least ambitious.  He used to make movies to shake up the system (and still can, check out his 4-part Katrina doc "When the Levees Broke").  More recently he seemed comfortable as an accomplished and acknowledged filmmaker making commercial successes like "Inside Man".  Now, for possibly the first time in his career, I caught him Oscar-baiting at the audience, and it's a little sad.  Yeah, there's a lot of good, inspirational stuff in here, but it's so sappy, so maudlin, so melodramatic it was just way too much.  Much has been made of the fact that Spike Lee has never won an Oscar, and often the arguments hint at--if not outright declare--racism.  This year he's already speculated he won't win because of his spat with Clint Eastwood.  I have a better theory--this movie just isn't that good.  Or rather, this movie is too desperate for awards.

Look, I like Spike Lee, I find him funny, intelligent, and still capable of exciting, fresh filmmaking.  I want him to win an Oscar eventually, but I just don't think this one will do it.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Jason watches "Choke"

And then watches his beloved Quakes choke against Real Salt Lake.  Does anyone know if there's a movie out called "The Absolute Destruction of the LA Galaxy That Ends With David Beckham and Landon Donovan Crying Like Little Girls"?  Because I'd watch that over and over again.

Anyway, as for this movie, based on a book by Chuck Palahniuk, who's most famous for "Fight Club".  I never read the novel of "Fight Club", but I loved the movie and went out and read a lot of Palahniuk's other works.  Of the novels I've read, I liked "Choke" the most, so I was very excited about this movie.  Plus I'm a fan of Sam Rockwell (check out "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind"), so that's an extra bonus.

And the movie...mostly delivered.  Sam Rockwell is fine as Victor Mancini, a sex-addict who purposely chokes on food at restaurants so that wealthy people can "rescue" him.  Why does he do that?  Because they'll feel responsible for his life, and when he lays a sob-story on them, they'll send money.  He needs that money to pay for his mother's nursing home care.  Thing is, he hates his mother (Anjelica Huston), and doesn't care if she dies, he just wants to find out about his father before she goes.  Oh yeah, and he might just be the second coming of Jesus Christ.

Yeah, that's Palahniuk's sense of humor, and that's the strongest point of the movie--it nails his sense of humor spot on.  But what surprised me is how much humanity and redemption there was in the movie.  Palahniuk's books are nihilist--there is no redemption there.  If anything, they're about how elusive redemption is (what the hell was the ending to "Fight Club" about, anyway?).  When I want Plahniuk's sense of humor but with a dose of humanity and redemption, I'll read some Christopher Moore (and I do, quite often).  

So all in all, I give it a B (which is odd, because I've never given out grades before).  Well done, and I can't fault it for offering hope.  It'd be great for people who've read some Palahniuk but wish he had a little more humanity.  Or for people who haven't read Palahniuk, but have been told they should.  This would be a fine introduction.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Jason asks how much your vote is worth

Okay, first off this is not a political post, because this is not a political blog.  For the duration of this post, I don't have an opinion on who should win any race in this election.  In fact, this post would be just as relevant in a non-election year.

This is a post that muses about fucking with our voting system.  Which is fine, since we already have what political scientists agree is pretty much the worst voting system possible.

First, a confession.  The only blog I actually read on a regular basis is the one written by Scott Adams of Dilbert fame.  I don't always (or even often) agree with him (for the record, his taste in movies sucks), but I find his writing excellent and I appreciate his novel ways of thinking about things (his "philoso-tainment").  I think his recent survey of economists is quite possibly the best unreported (or under-reported) stories of this election cycle (for the record, I think the big surprise isn't that economists rarely cross party lines, it's that so many were Democrats--but that could be self-selection, Democrat economists are more eager to answer a survey on the election).  In a recent post, he theorized that to bail out the economy, we'd need to tax the rich more, because that's where the money is.  He further philoso-tained that it would be easier to pass this extra tax on the very rich if you gave them something tangible for it, like say an extra vote:
Suppose the next President made the following pitch. "This is a once-in-a-century cash crisis. To get us through, we are going to tax the rich heavily for the next ten years. In return, the rich will each get two votes in every election."  

Now remember that the spoonful of sugar can be more psychological than economical. A double vote is the one sort of thing a rich person can't already buy. And it wouldn't have much impact on democracy because there aren't that many rich people. Everyone gets something. The poor get money, the rich get slightly more influence.
He then goes on to suggest other things, and for the record he specifically listed these as bad examples (which I took to mean that they're appealing on the surface, but practically would never work).

But I got stuck on this "higher taxes" for "extra votes" idea, and took it in a different direction.  How about allow everyone the opportunity to buy the right to an extra vote?  There would be some rules--you can only buy one extra vote, you can't buy a vote as a gift (to keep the ultra-rich from buying extra votes for poor people who would vote the way they want), etc.  Now I must stress that right off the bat I don't think it would work because abuse would be too rampant.  But to explain why I love this idea so much, I have to relate the following joke:
An economist goes to his polling place to vote.  When he arrives, he sees a fellow economist in line.
Economist 1: What are you doing here?
Economist 2: My wife made me go.
Economist 1: Me too....  Say, I won't tell anyone if you won't, right?
Okay, this is allegedly hilarious to economists, and the reason is that voting--economically speaking--is worthless.  Your vote is such a minuscule part of the total, and the costs are much higher.  You have to spend time, maybe money on gas to get to the polls.  Even if you vote absentee you have to spend money on a stamp.  And if you're in a crowded swing state, you might have to stand in line for hours--both painful and unproductive hours--just to vote.

You can point to Florida in 2000 and show how just a few votes can make the difference.  But I'd have to counter that Florida actually shows the exact opposite argument.  First, even in a historically close election, the "margin of victory" was more than one vote--so no single person's vote made the difference.  Second, with all the changing totals that vote was obviously determined not by the vote count, but by the counting errors!  Third, I recall a big deal being made about the punch card ballots having higher error rates than optical scan ballots or mechanical counters or various other voting machines.  But in all the numbers that were thrown around (and I don't recall, and can't find them easily on the Internet), the one thing I noticed (and no one on TV commented on) was that the machines with the lowest error rates still had an error rate higher than the "margin of victory".  I.e., no matter what machines they used, Florida in 2000 was a tie!  And the problem in Florida wasn't hanging chads or confusing ballots, it's that voting in the US doesn't know how to handle a tie (which is ironic, since the Electoral College could take care of that easily).

Anyway, I got a little off track.  But hopefully you can see why the idea of selling the ultra-rich the privilege of an extra vote has such a beautiful, almost poetic beauty to it.  Raise money for the budget by selling--for an exorbitant price--something that's absolutely worthless.

But that got me thinking.  Is an exorbitant price--one that only a few could pay--really the best idea?  Especially if you make the price high enough that the only one who could pay would realize that the "prize" is useless.  So, thinking purely in terms of raising the most money (which would ease the tax burden on everyone else), what is the ideal price to charge for an extra vote?  

As an aside, my gut instinct tells me that this wouldn't affect the results of an election.  A really exclusive price might only skew to CEO's (i.e., Republicans), but there would be too few to change the results.  A lower price might include movies stars (i.e., Democrats), but they're also very few.  A price of, say $1,000 would allow most but the truly impoverished to at least scrape together the money if they really wanted a second vote.  I think that would be a pretty even mix of Democrats and Republicans, as well as lots of third party nuts (who, given their more idealistic less rational bent, might be more inclined to pay for a second vote.  That might be the real electoral effect).  Maybe discarding the poor skews too Republican.  If that's the case, maybe instead of 2 votes, you get 1.666 votes.  That ought to scare some bible-thumpers away, and maybe balance the effect.  More importantly, I don't care.  I know this could never be implemented, so instead I'm wondering what would the right price be to maximize revenue?

There are apparently 449 US billionaires, so if the price were $1B, that's an upper bound on how many votes would be sold.  Of course, just because you're a billionaire, it doesn't mean you can drop $1B on a meaningless vote.  In the list of 100 wealthiest people, I count 32 Americans, ending with George Soros at $9.0B.  It seems unreasonable for anyone to spend more than 10% of their net worth on a single vote.  So reasonably we couldn't even expect 30 votes sold (or more importantly, $30B for our budget.  Given that the deficit is around $400B, this is significant but not that huge).  There are 4 American--Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Sheldon Aldeson, and Larry Ellison--with a net worth greater than $25B, and so could reasonably be able to drop $1B without feeling too much pain.  That's not much, let's lower the price.

Estimates of millionaires in the U.S. hover around 9 million or so (households, not people).  Many have the majority of wealth in home equity, so it's not a liquid asset they could spend on an extra vote (or an extra 0.666 vote).  Certainly the 449 billionaires I mentioned earlier should be able to waste $1M.  Maybe of the 9 million millionaires, 1 million of them have $1M in cash burning a hole in their pocket.  More importantly, if there are at least 4,000 who are willing to buy, that's better than the $1B price.  In fact, if 400,000 of the 9 million can be convinced to buy a vote, that takes care of the deficit, and it doesn't seem that impossible.  Let's lower the price more.

At $1000, nearly everyone but those living in poverty could scrape together the price of a vote.  According to the census, there 12.5% of the population was living in poverty in the U. S. in 2007.  In 2004, there were about 120 million votes cast for President, and that was a historic high.  We can assume that would be the amount in a reasonable high turnout election.  So if 12.5% of those voters couldn't afford a $1000 vote, that leaves 105 million who could.  Let's round down to 100 million.  Maybe half of them could easily be convinced to buy a vote (I think it would actually be higher, but rationally it should be much less).  That's 50M x $1,000 = $50B.  The same as convincing just 50,000 super-rich to pay $1M.  Interesting.

Hmmm...so far I'm not reaching an answer, but I am learning a lot of interesting facts about income disparity in the U. S.  And as much as we all care about quintile disparity, that's not the point.

I don't know the answer, but here's a couple of questions for you:
  1. How much would you spend for the privilege to double your vote (or multiply it by 1.666)?  Hint: I'd pay less than diddly-squat.
  2. If this policy were implemented, and you were in charge of setting the price, where would you set it?  Hint: I'd set it at >$1M.  Not that I think it'd maximize revenue, but I'd like to sucker the super-rich.
Now through all this, I've maintained that my vote is absolutely worthless.  I really, really do believe this.  Please note, that doesn't mean I don't believe in The Vote--it's a great thing en masse, but just not individually.  But if it weren't illegal, I'd auction off my vote on Ebay with no minimum.

But it's illegal to sell your vote, so instead I'll announce another convoluted and pointless Jason Watches Movies contest!  

A sample of what's on the ballot in my county is here.  Not everything listed will be on my ballot.  I'm in U. S. Congressional District 13.  I'm in State Senate district 10 (not up for election in this cycle).  I'm in State Assembly District 20.  I live in the city of Fremont.  So from there you can figure out what's on my ballot.

Somewhere in this post I've hidden an intentionally racist reference.  The first person who finds it and identifies it in the comments is allowed to choose one element on my ballot.  It can be President down to school board member, or it could be any of the state or local propositions.  You tell me how to vote on this one item, and I absolutely promise I will vote the way you tell me to.  Good luck!

Jason watches "Bottle Shock"

In 1776, at a blind tasting "Judgment in Paris", the wine world was rocked to its core when wines from the unknown region of California known as Napa Valley beat out the most popular French wines.

This movie dramatizes that event, and evokes a world of 1970's Napa where hard-bitten redneck sumnabitch farmers work hard and enjoy their freakin' wine, even when it's served in mason jars. Gotta love the scene where a hustler bets a bar crowd that he can identify every wine poured, and a redneck patron shouts out, "any asshole can tell a Merlot from a Cabernet!" (response: "But can any asshole tell you the vintage?!")

I don't know how much of the father-son drama (between Bill Pullman as Jim Barrett and Chris Pine as Bo Barrett) that forms the core of the movie is based on reality and how much was punched up for dramatic effect. I also don't know if Jim Barrett really was on the verge of quitting the wine business and returning to work in SF. I don't know if Gustavo was secretly bottling his own wine on the side, or if there really was a love triangle between Bo, Gustavo, and their intern Sam (short for Samantha, played by Rachael Taylor). These all make the movie more dramatic and enjoyable, but mostly I was left wanting to taste all the wine. Man, I haven't been wine tasting in Napa or Sonoma in far too long.

I also have to give praise to the always excellent Alan Rickman. He plays Steven Spurrier, the Englishman living in Paris, founder of the Academy of Wine, and all-around French wine snob. He's the guy who put the blind tasting together and travelled to Napa to pick out the American wines for the competition. He's blown away by the uncouth demeanor of the locals and the amazing taste of their wine. And he just plays the role with the perfect mix of sliminess, snobbery, and sympathy. When Jim Barrett asks, "Why don't I like you", he deadpans "Because you think I'm an asshole. And really, I'm not. I'm just British." Even at the end, as he's struck with the horror that now the world will taste wine from anywhere...South America? Australia? New Zealand? Africa? India? China? And then he toasts to the future and you can see that while the judgement didn't go as planned and he's now a pariah in French wine circles, he can take pride in how he changed the wine world.

But enough about movies, I gotta do me some wine tasting soon.

Jason watches "Vicky Christina Barcelona"

Early in this movie, free-spirit love-seeker Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) talks about a 12-minute movie she wrote, directed, and starred in (and now despises and can't watch) about how hard it is to define love. Her host in Barcelona quips, "That's an awfully big subject to handle in 12 minutes." Woody Allen then goes on to show that you can't really define it in 96 minutes, either.

Cristina is spending a summer is Spain with her best friend Vicky (Rebecca Hall). They agree about almost everything--except love (as a narrator efficiently explains). Cristina is freer, more prone to short term tempestuous affairs. She doesn't know what she wants, only what she doesn't want. Vicky knows exactly what she wants--traditional, stable commitment. Not so much passion as comfort and security. And she has that in her fiance, a very nice man with a good job who's not afraid of commitment.

In Barcelona, they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a passionate painter with a crazy ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz). He attempts to seduce them both, and over the course of the summer does. Vicky just for one drunken night that she can't get out of her mind. Cristina for most of the summer, which turns into a three-way with Maria Elena. And then...well, love is still not defined and despite all the sound and fury, everyone is exactly who they were in the beginning.

Woody Allen makes so many movies, stories like this seem effortless coming from him. And this literally looks like something a true master slapped together in a weekend, moving as briskly as possible from one scene to the next. I think his movies have increasingly become about his ability to effortlessly make movies. He now exists in a weird strata where he can impress without trying, but it's unclear if he'll ever inspire again.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Jason watches "Man on Wire"

In August of 1974, French tightrope walker and street performer Philippe Petit and a team of conspirators snuck into the newly finished (but not fully occupied) World Trade Center buildings, strung a wire between them, and he tightrope walked between the twin towers for over 45 minutes, making 8 crossings.  

If this documentary about his stunt was made and seen prior to 9/11...well, it might've looked exactly the same, but of course it wouldn't have had the same effect on the audience.  The filmmakers studiously avoid any mention of 9/11--someone emerging from a decade long coma who watches this movie might believe that his graffiti is still there and his lifetime guest pass to the observation deck is still worth something.  And I'm sure there's an interesting interview that could've been added--since Phillipe's life dream started with seeing a magazine picture of an artist's rendering of the twin towers (years before it was built), surely the loss of the towers affected him deeply.  

Post 9/11, watching a movie about people foiling the security at the WTC is a little weird.  Not creepy, it's actually pretty charming, evoking a more innocent time when people could laugh and applaud a scamp's ability to trick the authorities.  And he's charming enough, the interviews with his team are interesting enough, and the mix of reenactments and archive pictures are fascinating enough that eventually I mostly forgot about 9/11 and just enjoyed the movie (it also helped that some of the shots were amazing enough to trigger my slight acrophobia).

As I said, there are many ways this movie could've gone.  There could've been some focus on 9/11, and Philippe's reaction to it.  There could've been more about his sudden fame after the event (the DA agreed to drop all charges if he'd do a show for children--closer to street level).  But instead, the film keeps everything in a specific time and place, only drifting from the night of preparation and the morning of his walk enough to show his practice and earlier stunts (stringing a wire over Notre Dame and the Sydney bridge).  This tight focus keeps it in that "more innocent" time, leaves you with a clear impression of who this man is, and leaves enough out that an inspired viewer can go find out more about him.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Jason celebrates "Talk Like a Pirate" Day--ya scurvy bilge-rats!

And ye should, to, yaaaargh!

I sez a good way to celebrate be to go here http://www.tomsmithonline.com/freestuff.htm and download the "Talk Like a Pirate Day" mp3 and sing-along.


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Jason watches "Righteous Kill"

The ads for this movie focus so much on the pairing of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino that you'd think a) it's never been done before, and b) they were both still in their prime and not sad parodies of themselves by now.

If you think about a) for a minute (or go to IMDb), you'd realize that they've co-starred in two previous movies, both much better. They never actually shared the screen in "Godfather II", as they were the protagonists in the two stories separated by a generation (although technically, that means De Niro has played Pacino's father). And "Heat" was also much better than "Righteous Kill".

As for b), they've still got chops, and their acting is fine. It's just that De Niro is playing De Niro and Pacino is playing Pacino. The script seems to be written so explicitly for them that it gives them nothing that's remotely a challenge. They could both literally sleepwalk through this movie, and to their credit they don't.

While their acting holds the movie up, what drags it down is a lame script with a twist that seems so obvious that I almost thought myself out of it. You know the formula--set up one answer that is so obvious there has to be a twist. The audience will figure that out, so set up the obvious twist. The audience will think they're smart for knowing how it'll end, but then there's an extra twist at the end that surprises and delights them. Well, sometimes that obvious twist is so obvious that you know there's still another twist (which is usually completely nonsensical). But in this case, the obvious twist turns out to be right (oh, I guess that's a spoiler, but maybe I'm being general enough that it doesn't matter). And I'm left thinking, 'Okay, it was kinda nice to see two masters plying their craft, but I sat through all that for what, exactly?'

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Jason watches "Burn After Reading"

And the Coen Brothers are solidly back into comedy.  And they're funny--this is more "Big Lebowski" than "Ladykillers".  However, it might be their most deadpan comedy yet.  They've always had a cast of wacky characters, and oddly have garnered more praise by putting their oddballs into dramas like "Fargo" and "No Country For Old Men", when it seems like they should fit better into comedies.  Well, we've got the wacky characters--Malkovich's high-strung arrogant CIA analyst, Clooney's womanizer, Pitt's brain dead gym trainer, McDormand's lonely and body-obsessed gym employee, and several others (Tilda Swinton as Malkovich's cold, cruel wife and J K Simmons as the CIA chief are also excellent).  And they're solidly in comedy-land, but so deadpan (except for Pitt) it's like an experiment to prove they'd work just as well in drama-land.

They're working with common Coen themes--greed, confusion, crazy plans, and misdirection.  In fact, the Coens have done something truly amazing.  They've followed up a Best Picture Oscar with a parody of their winning film.  Spoiler alert.  In structure it's very similar--guy sees a chance to get away with the money, but he fails.  This tie it's played for laughs--even the deaths are funny.  They even mock the ambiguous ending that frustrated so many in "No Country For Old Men".  End spoilers.  It's like they're out to prove they can do anything with their craft, and I for one am convinced.  The Coens are artists in the way that a great auto mechanic can be an artist.  And that's kind of a back-handed compliment, but it's a compliment nonetheless.  What I mean is their greatest strength is their mastery of the mechanisms of storytelling on film.  And in large part their movies are based on playing with and breaking hose mechanisms.  Doing stuff like putting screwball comic characters in a tense drama or playing a bullet to the head for comedy is the cinematic equivalent of Shakespeare inventing words or breaking the rules of grammar.  Shakespeare could do it because he was that good, and so are the Coens (although "The Ladykillers" still sucked)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Jason previews upcoming events--Jews, Arabs, Docs, and Dead Channels

Hmmmm...must be fall in the bay area. Let's see what's happening soon, in no particular order.

First up, the second annual Dead Channels Film Festival. Fresh off winning a Best of the Bay award (best On-Screen Mind Warp) from the SF Bay Guardian, they're back with their solid week of fantastic film. The schedule isn't up yet, but I have an abundance of faith that it'll be great. They're hosting a kick-off party at the Vortex Room (7th and Howard) Sept 20, where they'll unveil the schedule. Should be a good night (and conveniently, the one Saturday night this month when the Quakes aren't playing at home).

Next up is Docfest, Oct. 17-Nov. 6, put on by the team that does Indiefest. Their schedule isn't officially up yet, but I got a sneak peak at it. First impression--it's huge. Spanning three weeks (2 in SF at the Roxie, one in Berkeley at the Shattuck) and about 50 different film programs (not counting all the shorts), I believe it's actually bigger than Indiefest this year. If I've done my math right, in order to see everything I'd have to go to shows both in SF and in Berkeley, and I'd have to go to shows either on my birthday (Halloween) or on election day (and possibly both). Some highlights I'd point out. They're giving Melody Gilbert a "Someone to Watch" award, and showcasing her past favorites--"Whole", "A Life Without Pain", "Urban Explorers: Into the Darkness"(which I saw at Cinequest last year)--as well as a couple new ones--"Disconnected" and "Married at the Mall". They're also showing "Dear Zachary", possibly the best and definitely the most heart-wrenching documentary from Cinequest this year (which reminds me, I meant to write a letter to the Canadian Minister of Justice , and never did that). There's one about Bigfoot, that sounds fun. And there's one called "Bunnyland" which made me smile until I realized, of course, it was about dead bunnies (or at least in part about a mystery involving 70+ dead bunnies). And they're showing "Anvil! The Story of Anvil!" which I missed at Jewfest.

Which reminds me, The Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival (previously the San Jose Jewish Film Festival, but to me always "Jewfest South") starts up again, from Oct. 26 to Nov. 19. Like years before, it plays Wednesdays and Sundays at the Camera 12, but this year they're also adding Thursday nights at the Cubberly Theater in Palo Alto. Actually, I haven't really looked closely at this schedule yet (they're schedule is up already), so I can't tell you what the "must see" films are, but they usually have a pretty good schedule.

And, while I'm promoting Jewish film, in the interest of bridging differences, the Arab Film Festival runs from Oct 16-28 in San Francisco, Berkeley, San Jose, and Los Angeles (LA is a development that started last year). Their film list is up, but no descriptions or schedule yet, so I can't tell you what to look for. And, as you can see, I'll be pretty busy with other film events around the same time, so I can't guarantee that I'll have the time or energy to attend this. However, in the past I've had a pretty good time at this festival. And I feel that by supporting both the Arab and the Jewish film festivals, I'm doing my part to foster Mideast peace in the Bay Area. Seriously, to my knowledge since I started attending this festival a couple of years ago (when it was called Cinemayaat), there have been no incidents of Mideast violence in the Bay Area--it's all been in the Middle East.

One thing, in the past there has been at least one weekend when both the Arab Film Festival and South Jewfest have been playing at the Camera 12. However, they've never played on the same day--Arabs on Saturday, Jews on Sunday. That always disappointed me (but in my optimism, I pretended it had nothing to do with competition or ethnic tensions--maybe it was just that the Camera 12 didn't want to rent out two screens at the same time when they could play general release movies instead). I thought it would be really cool to plan a day when I could attend both festivals, jumping back and forth between them, and either inspiring or confusing the heck out of everyone. Anyway, this year it looks like South Jewfest won't come to the Camera 12 until after the Arab Film Festival has left (if they repeat the schedule from last, the end of the Arab Film Fest is in Los Angeles). So once again, I can't do it.

Wow, and with all that stuff going on, I almost forgot that thing they do up in Mill Valley. Yeah, that's a big festival, put on by the California Film Institute. I don't have a lot of interest in going up there to see films that will play everywhere the next week (or day, sometimes). But I have been there before and had a great time finding some lesser known films. I haven't made it back in a couple of years, and this year my only chance would be the final weekend. We'll see if I can make it.

And that's (some) of what's coming up. At least, it's what I'm keeping my eye on.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Jason watches "Hamlet 2" and compares it to "Never Say MacBeth"

As I mentioned earlier, "Never Say MacBeth" is an ultra-low budget movie that came out on DVD a couple weeks ago, coincidentally right about the same time "Hamlet 2" hit the theaters. A comparison later, but first things first.

"Hamlet 2" is a pretty funny movie. In fact, it's almost a very funny movie. Steve Coogan is funny as the lousy actor turn barely paid drama teacher in Tucson, AZ. Elisabeth Shue is a trouper as Elisabeth Shue, former actress turned sperm clinic nurse (because the acting business was too demeaning), showing a self-deprecating humor that made me remember John Malkovich in "Being John Malkovich". What keeps it from being really great is that it's slow--much slower than the trailers let on. That is, it's slow until the play within the movie, then in the final 20 minutes it really cooks. This is the perfect example of a movie that plays great in a film festival, where weary audiences can discover it without too many preconceptions. But after an advertising blitz showcasing the best parts, the movie itself just doesn't rise to the expectations. However, I should reiterate that the play within the movie is awesome. Funny, with all the energy missing from the rest of it. And yes, offensive songs. "Rock Me Sexy Jesus" plays in all the ads, and I figured that would be the one I would be humming on the way out of the theater. And it almost was. But if you stick through the credits like I did, you'll be treated to "You're as Gay as the Day is Long" which was even funnier and more offensive. I assume it's from a scene that was cut out of the final film. Which just underlined my main response--pretty good, but I'd rather watch the entirety of the play within the film. Hopefully a bonus on the DVD? Or better yet, I hope someone actually puts it on stage!

Oh, one final bit of trivia. There's a minor reference to Burning Man in there. They use an old abandoned warehouse/party space to put on the play because the owner's at Burning Man. This happened to open just as I was on my way to Burning Man (hence I didn't see it opening weekend). It made me wonder idly if they were savvy and planned the release during Burning Man just for that purpose. I doubt it, but if true (or if they even realized this worked, even if it was a coincidence), then it's pretty cool.

Okay, now "Hamlet 2" is an "independent" film (and darling of the Sundance festival this year), but "Never Say MacBeth" was made for about 1% of its budget. I rewatched it today and I can say it holds up relatively well to multiple viewings. It suffers in some predictable ways for no-budget film. The special effects serve their purpose, but are pretty transparent. Some of the actors you could charitably say are still perfecting their craft. But the story is fairly engaging. The second time through I appreciated the love story more. A bit of a spoiler alert--first time through, I thought the love interest (the woman the hero travelled cross-country to be with) was kind of a bitch. Second time I realized she was supposed to be kinda bitchy and you shouldn't root for them to get back together. The slapstick created by people interacting with ghosts only they can see still makes me laugh (actors can only see the ghosts after they say "MacBeth" and come under the power of the curse). And, as a scientist and a patron of the arts, I really enjoyed the mix of the two (and that in the end science saves the day, even if it's pretty elementary science).

And now I realize I haven't compared these two movies at all, I've just reviewed them back-to-back. I guess that's because other than both referencing Shakespeare titles, they really have nothing in common. Oh well, this was still fun.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Jason just can't stop talking politics

But now that I'm back from a different universe, I have to write this post for a couple of reasons. First, I promised earlier that I'd say how much of this post was serious. Second, John McCain did something completely batshit insane maverick-y. First things first:

I'm serious that I don't want this to become a political blog.

I'm half serious that I thought it would be funny to review the campaign commercials as cinema.

I'm not serious that watching the ads made me throw up in my mouth. But they did annoy me.

I'm serious that I loved Mike Gravel's "Rock" ad, but I'm not serious that I supported him for President. Also, to my knowledge nobody else called his supporters "Gravel-heads", but that's probably because no one could find any. I think it would've been a good moniker (and I'm serious about that).

I'm serious in my generic support for negative campaigning, and I'm serious in my reason--that negative ads tend to be more informative than positive ads.

I'm very serious that McCain's first two ads completely broke this model and were utter, vapid crap. From what I can see he's gotten more substantive since then (if not more honest. Non-partisan factcheck.org has officially declared that the McCain campaign has engaged in a "pattern of deceit" regarding Obama's tax plan.)

I'm half-serious about not wanting to comment on the differences in tax policies (for the record, I'm in the range where the two plans have nearly the same effect on me, I prefer Obama's, but don't want to get into this debate).

I'm absolutely serious that people misunderstand the Laffer curve. Laffer said that the relationship between tax rates and revenue is non-linear, and it has a negative second derivative (i.e., it's non-linear in a way that a X% tax increase/decrease would lead to a first derivative (i.e., a "higher taxes" = "less revenue" relation).

I'm mostly joking with just a hint of truth when I say issues don't matter. It's true that Congress writes the laws, but the veto is a powerful tool, and the President can exert a lot of control over Congressional priorities. The argument that stances on legislation doesn't matter is only important if the candidate's stances are close enough that you can assume they'd both get the same thing out of Congress. E.g., the policy differences between Obama and Clinton were essentially nil. Everyone has the right to vote however they like, but if you're a former Clintonite who now opposes Obama because of the issues, you are fucking retarded.

I'm half-joking when I say you should vote for whomever makes you feel better. However I'm completely serious when I say that's what people do automatically anyway.

More than anything else in that post, I'm serious that I'd want to know who would be in the President's cabinet.

I'm serious that Joe Biden seems like a good choice for VP, and I'd assume he'd play a close advisor role, even devil's advocate at times. If I could trust Obama to keep a pattern of choosing smart, honest, expert, people who aren't "yes men", that would go a long way to making me feel very confident in his administration (and to my thinking, obliterate the "experience" argument).

However, the VP's primary responsibility (possibly more important than inquiring daily if the President is still alive) is getting the President elected. And as such it's hard to read a lot into a candidate's VP choice. I grant them a lot more leeway to make a purely political pick, as opposed to their selections for key advisers and experts.

And that brings me to McCain's maverick-y move. He selected something we've never seen before in a VP. Not a woman--that's been done before--he selected a freakin' Alaskan! My friends, I used to live in the Alaska national crazy person refuge, and I'm absolutely giddy at the prospect of the particular mix of corrupt and bat-shit crazy that is Alaskan politics being paraded out for the nation. We will all soon learn that she's the most popular governor in the nation, but her state is also #1 in crazy!

First up, that crazy band of secessionist kooks that Palin allegedly belonged to at one time? (and now maybe not...but maybe her husband was...and at least she was friendly to them...but maybe that was just ordinary mayoral politeness....) I can't wait for the country to learn that the Alaskan Independence Party is the third party in Alaskan politics, with more registered members in the state than the Libertarian and Green parties combined. Hell, I was there when we elected an AIP governor (and then tried to recall him because he didn't call for a secession vote). The 'Alaskan first, American second (if at all)' attitude is pretty damn mainstream up there, because it's generally accepted (for good reason) that those idiots "outside" don't know what the fuck it's like to live up here, and they shouldn't be writing laws that apply to us. When I saw her at the "America First" night at the RNC, I couldn't help thinking that a real Alaskan would kick her ass for even considering putting the national interests above our own.

How about that whole "Bridge to Nowhere" (that Palin was for before she was against it)? Well, it's actually a proposed bridge from the 5th largest city in Alaska (Ketchikan) to its airport (conveniently located on an island, about a 5 minute ferry ride away). It had nothing to do with the 50 people living on Gravina island. And by the way, she didn't say "no thanks" to building the bridge until Congress said "You need more money to build the bridge? No, you can keep the money but you don't have to build the bridge" (and of course she kept the money--she'd be a traitor to Alaska if she gave it back).

Oh, and as for that amusing plan to sell the former governor's state-owned jet on eBay. Yeah, she tried--and failed. We still has the jet and the state pays for upkeep without using it.  
[Correction.  She did sell it, just not on eBay.  I read this story about it on the Anchorage Daily News website today, and didn't notice that it was a reprint of a story from April of last year.  Sorry.  I fail the Internets.  --Jason]

Oooh, ooh! And when she gave birth to Trig she flew back home after her water broke instead of rushing to a local hospital. Real Alaskans don't question her judgement, they're in awe of her vaginal fortitude.

I'm not actually trying to attack Palin here. From what I know, she's been a good governor. Her social views are pretty close to the extreme opposite of mine, but I haven't heard about that affecting her ability to govern. I'm trying to point out how crazy Alaskan politics are. I've said before, I regard politics as the opposite of sausage--I usually hate the end product, but I love watching it get made. And Alaska is the perfect place for opposite-of-sausage politics.

People will try (and succeed, easily) to tie Palin to current corruption poster boy Sen. Ted Stevens. Full disclosure, I've met Ted Stevens twice, and he seemed like a nice enough guy. First was in junior high when I was on the team representing Alaska in a national mathematics competition. Second was the summer just after I graduated high school when I was an assistant scoutmaster for our troop attending the National Boy Scout Jamboree (full disclosure--I'm a hopeless, pathetic nerd).

But Ted Stevens is nothing. I'm offering a million Internet points (cash redemption value, diddly-squat) for the first person to link Sarah Palin to Theresa Obermeyer! Here's a little help--there's a one line mention here that Obermeyer was at Palin's inauguration ball (scroll down to 9:44). I'll let you figure out for yourself why Obermeyer would be such an entertaining albatross. Again, I think it might be pretty hard to link the two, and I don't think it would actually hurt her, I just think it would be really, really funny.

Okay, enough. I just wish the nation had more than 2 months to learn about crazy Alaska politics.

But I do want to make one final serious point. Palin has thrown the "experience" debate into a whole new light, and it seems conventional wisdom is that in terms of experience the Republican ticket is right side up and the Democratic ticket is upside-down. But fivethirtyeight.com offers a compelling case that the conventional wisdom might be wrong. So the question is which is worse:
  1. Electing an inexperienced President. Note that he will be given 2 months between the election and the inauguration. In that time he can choose his cabinet and set out the game plan for the beginning of his term. He will take office peacefully, in a general spirit of goodwill, and (something near) more than 50% of the electorate will be (at least somewhat) pleased that he's President.

  2. Having an inexperienced President take office immediately during a time of crisis. Due to a sudden death (a la Johnson after Kennedy) might be more shocking, but also elicit sympathy making the job easier. Taking over after a career-ending scandal (a la Ford after Nixon) could be a worse nightmare, depending on how closely the VP is linked to the scandal.

I think it's clear that scenario 1 is preferred to scenario 2. All things being equal, experience is preferred (of course, all things are never equal). And, of course, scenario 2 might not happen if McCain is elected (in fact, thinking about it is kind of ghoulish). So the question really is would you rather take the known scenario 1 or assume the risk of scenario 2, and at what probability would you prefer the risk of scenario 2? Is a 10% chance of scenario 2 is worse than scenario 1? What about a 20% chance? Or a 50% chance?

I'm not trying to make a case that should change anyone's votes. I think voting based on experience alone (without regard to judgement, temperament, stance on the issues, who has the nicest hair) is kind of stupid. And I think voting based more on the VP pick than the top of the ticket is equally stupid. I'm just suggesting that maybe everyone has this issue upside down, and an inexperienced President with an experienced VP is preferred.

I'm still saying nothing is likely to solidify or change my opinion more than a statement on who would at least on each candidate's short list for every cabinet office.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Jason Burns the Man

Sort of. For the first time in 11 years, I actually didn't run around the Man, I watched him Burn from the Esplanade. More on that later.

I've returned from another great week on the Playa, drinking, cursing, and generally being an obnoxious vicious drunk-as-a-rock-star savage. The abortion clinic was again a success in it's second year. I have bigger plans for next year, but that would require me actually doing work, and that's not my forte.

The weather was great, except for the dust storm Monday as we arrived (which sucked, we didn't get camp set up until Tuesday). There was another, allegedly bigger dust storm on Saturday, but by that time I didn't give a shit, lit the barbecue in the blinding dust and cooked the most delicious bacon-wrapped filet mignon I've ever had (with thanks to my new friend Gabriel).

Which reminds me, I've now burned so long that I no longer care about the art, I care about my playa friends. The Man was blah--the lines were too long to go up in the tower. The temple was the best it's been in 4-5 years (loved the second story and the double-helix staircase), the 10-story tower was cool, and THE END was cool. But what I really came for were my long-time Playa friends. The Foxy Kokonaut team; Mayor Mike, Dave, and Magic Lady Glenna (and new addition, Magic Mom Loretta); Tommy, Kimmy, and Matt (when's the fucking saloon open!?); Maria (and your friend Ann); Brandy; Tanya; and my most savage and therefore best playa friend (lost for two years), Turkeeneck. Plus my new playa friends: Viva, Gabriel, and Milo; Derek and Victoria. I finally came to the realization that my neighborhood during the day was cooler than the Esplanade at night, because we are all total fucking badasses.

Which is not to say I was a total homebody. Sure, I spent a lot of time drinking in front of the TV and shouting at passing traffic. But I did make my yearly trek on foot to the end of the universe (the trash fence, where I found a giant "THE END" made of wood). I wandered to other neighborhoods and sampled other bars. I even met up with the Thrillpeddlers, whom I completely missed this year (although I still missed their show in center camp). In fact, the only night when I didn't go out at least a little bit on the playa was the night of the Burn.

I had already decided earlier in the week, after seeing the Man, that I would not attend the Burn. The Man was placed on a tall, thin tower, which I could tell would result in a tight, compact fire when it burned. And I wasn't about to run around that, not after last year.

You see, I'm old enough to remember when the standard line shouted around the fire was "rotate, don't spectate!" meaning run around the fire, don't just stand (or worse, sit) there and watch it. The other important point was only pass on the inside. So if you wanted to get close to the fire, you had to run around it faster than everyone else, and when you got too tired or too hot, you could just slow down and you'd automatically be pushed away from the fire. It sounds (and feels) like a lot of insane, dangerous energy, but it was really a safe-ish, exciting dynamic (the key being if you're too slow, you get pushed to safety).

Well, several years ago this dynamic started to fade away and be replaced by more and more people just standing (or sitting) and watching the fire. This makes it extra hard for the people who continued running. You see, if you get as close as possible and sit, the people running have to either trample you or run way closer to the fire than is comfortable (or safe). Worse yet, people would momentarily lunge forward to take a picture, getting directly in the runners way. Photographers at the Burn are the worst form of human garbage. For years I continued to run around the fire screaming two things: "Keep moving!" and "No pictures!" (actually, I also screamed "Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!" because I ran barefoot). I suspect people thought this was some sort of asshole performance art, but I promise it wasn't. "Keep moving!" was actually for your safety as much as mine--if the fire shifts and falls towards you and you're not already moving, you'll either get burnt or get trampled by people who are moving.

I was getting discouraged after several years of the Burn dynamic getting worse and worse, until about 4 years ago one of the firemen heard me yelling "keep moving" and shouted, "listen to him, keep moving!" I knew (I still know) I was in the right. The one person who was there specifically to keep me from dying agreed with my approach, so I didn't care how many stinking hippie spectators thought I was an asshole because they obviously didn't care if I died. And over the years, when I've tried to push my way away from the fire, I've had enough spectators push me back (i.e., towards the fire) to know that--by their actions, if not their words--they don't care if I die.

Well, that encouragement kept me going for a few more years, withstanding more dirty looks and questions like "What's your problem?" Then came last year, the Green Man. Last year the Man stood on a simple (but very tall) tripod, resulting in the tightest fire radius I've ever seen. As I ran towards and around the fire, I quickly realized two things. First, this was an incredibly tight radius, very hot, and the crowd was giving me no room to run (everyone was trying to crowd in close to see the fire, and there wasn't room for everyone). Second, I was the only person even trying to run (at least, the only one I could see). I realized quickly I could easily get burnt, so I tried the standard move out from the crowd, only to be pushed back. You god damn hippie spectators, get this straight--if someone pushes you away from the fire, don't push back! If you push back, you are pushing him into the fire, and that is likely to injure or kill him (me). Anyway, after being pushed back once, I lowered my head and bulldozed through the crowd, told the crowd to all fuck themselves, and marched back to my camp, where I had a great night with my neighborhood friends exactly where I wanted to be.

So that brings us to this year. I could tell immediately this Man would have a tight burn radius, too, and I avoided that shit. Anyone who did go to the Burn, feel free to let me know. Did anyone run around the fire (or even try)? Was there enough room for you to stand/sit as close as you wanted, or were you blocked by people who got there first? I don't really care, I just want to know if my predictions were right. As far as other predictions go, if this dynamic does not change, I predict there will be a death at the Burn within the next 5 years.

With all that said, I just checked out next year's theme and it looks like it if they go through with it and burn the whole structure, it will be a nice wide radius and there should be room for all (runners and sitters alike). So see ya next year!