Friday, January 31, 2014

Jason goes to Noir City--Day 6

I actually skipped day 5 (Tuesday) to attend the media launch of Cinequest. Great stuff coming up there in March! But I was back in Noir City on Wednesday for a double bill of British Noir. Which means, no subtitles!

IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY (1947): At least, it sure is rainy in this movie. In post-war East End London, Rose Sandigate (Googie Withers) lives an unexciting but stable life with her husband George (Edward Chapman.) Tommy Swan (John McCallum) is a small-time hood who has just escaped, and happens to be her old lover. So he shows up looking for sanctuary, and she's not exactly fond of the idea. A solid drama, with lots of side stories and an interesting look at the small-time criminals making their way in post-war England.

BRIGHTON ROCK (1947): Another story of crooks in post-war England, but this one stars Richard Attenborough as the wonderfully dangerous Pinkie Brown. He runs a protection racket in town. When a rival comes to town--under cover as a newspaper man handing out cards good for ten pounds to anyone who identifies him--he and his gang conspire to A) have him murdered and B) make sure he has an airtight alibi. But a complication forces him to woo a naive barmaid Rose (Carol Marsh) who is blind to his psychotic ways. An absolutely brilliant, career-starting performance by Attenborough in one of the greatest British films ever made.

Total Running Time: 184 minutes
My Total Minutes: 348,721

Jason goes to Noir City--Day 4

Gotta catch up. Last Monday was Noir City's take on post-war Germany.

THE MURDERERS ARE AMONG US (1946): One of the many, many bad things that the Nazis did was kinda decimate the German film industry (ummm...other than propaganda.) Writer-director Wolfgang Staudte actually wrote this script during the war, while reluctantly working with the Nazis. Had his script been discovered, he would have been put to death. But he survived, it survived, and after the war--with the backing of the Soviets, he made this film. Dr. Hans Mertens (Wilhelm Borchert) is an alcoholic (foreshadowing DRUNKEN ANGEL? Or just catching the same vibe?) Susanne (Hildegard Knef) is the most beautiful concentration camp survivor ever (although the word "Jew" is never spoken.) Turns out Mertens is living in what used to be her apartment. She insists on moving in, he refuses to leave, so...they live together. And it's actually a chance for some healing to happen. So enter Ferdinand Brückner (Arnno Paulsen) a successful businessman who just happens to be Dr. Mertens former commanding officer. He also happens to be (or at least, to have been) a sadistic murdering bastard, so Dr. Mertens sets out on a plan to get revenge for his victims. A powerful film, dealing with the uncomfortable subject of how to live when the entire world--including you--knows that you are the most villainous villains in the history of humanity. The ending is, unfortunately, kind of mangled due to censorship. But still a fantastic piece of film, and an important look into a very important moment of history.

BERLIN EXPRESS (1948): Then a Hollywood movie that explores the same time and space, but from an international (okay, really American) perspective. Directed by Jacques Tourneur, it's a thriller about post-war reconstruction. An international team is travelling to Berlin for a peace conference headed by esteemed German expatriate Dr. Bernhardt (Paul Lukas.) Only, his travel is shrouded in secrecy and misdirection. In fact, the whole thing is chock-full of misdirection and surprising (some might say arbitrary) reveals. In any case, an assassination attempt fails, but a later kidnapping succeeds, and the international team--American, French, Russian, British have to follow what few clues there are to rescue him. A fun movie, excellently photographed, and particularly interesting for its particular time in place--a post-war period before Berlin (and all of Germany) was split in two, when peace between all nations really seemed possible, if only we could all trust each other.

Total Running Time: 172 minutes
My Total Minutes: 348,537

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Jason goes to Noir City--Day 3

Last Sunday Noir City's world tour stopped in Japan, for a look at the post-WWII world through the eyes of the vanquished, courtesy of Akira Kurosawa (before his samurai phase.) These movies, while set in post-war Japan are careful to avoid any mention of the American occupation. These are stories about the plight of the little people in Japan, not about the "bigger" issues of occupation and rebuilding after the war. They also feature the team of Kurosawa's all-stars Takashi Shimura and Toshirô Mifune.

DRUNKEN ANGEL (1948): Shimura plays the titular drunk--a doctor named Sanada. Mifune (in his first role for Kurosawa) plays a young yakuza named Matsunaga. He visits the Sanada to get his injured hand looked at. After Sanada takes out the bullet he also listens to Matsunaga's cough and suspects he has TB. This leads to a strained friendship with Sanada desperately trying to save Matsunaga's life. While it's easy to make comparisons to the larger world (the doctor driven to drink over the hopelessness of trying to save humanity when humanity clearly just wants to destroy itself,) Kurosawa keeps this a very personal story. And when Matsunaga's yakuza boss gets out of prison, things go from strained to deadly as he ignores the doctor's advice and faces a fight to the death. But lest you think it's all bleak, Kurosawa is always (in my opinion) a bit of an optimistic humanist. While one patient is lost, he has another star patient--a young girl who is treating her TB well and recovering nicely. That's enough to keep the old drunk doctor moving along.

STRAY DOG (1949): This time Shimura plays veteran cop Sato to Mifune's rookie cop Murakami. In the opening scene, we see how a hot day, a crowded bus, and a pickpocket leave Murakami without his standard issue Colt. And then it's a police procedural (and kind of a police buddy picture) to get his gun back before the criminal who has it ends up killing. Some of it was shot guerilla-style in the actual slums and markets of post-war Tokyo. A thrilling story despite it's slow pace. It builds like the oppressive heat of a Tokyo summer, as both Murakami and the crook he's chasing get increasingly desperate. Just a wonderfully crafted and realized story.

Damn, I wanna go watch a bunch more Kurosawa movies now. There was a time that I tried to see everything he had ever made. There are of course his samurai classics that inspired so many spaghetti westerns (how connected is world cinema?!) But also THRONE OF BLOOD is perhaps my favorite version of MacBeth ever. Or THE HIDDEN FORTRESS which inspired STAR WARS. Or THE BAD SLEEP WELL, I haven't seen that in about a decade. Sigh...

Total Running Time: 224 minutes
My Total Minutes: 348,365

Jason goes to Noir City--Day 2

On Saturday, the worldwide tour of Noir stopped off in Mexico for a triple bill.

BORDER INCIDENT (1949): First up was the one Hollywood production (the other two being 100% Mexican.) It's a story of a Mexican cop (Ricardo Montalban) and his American colleague (George Murphy) going undercover to expose and prosecute the human trafficking and exploitation of undocumented braceros (Mexican farm workers.) Given the current attitudes towards immigration (which can be summed up with the paradoxical 'lazy free-loading foreigners are taking all our jobs!') it's quaint, refreshing, and important to hear the opening voice-over about how most braceros are law-abiding and wait for legal permits to enter and work, and how the ones who cross illegally are being exploited--first by the human traffickers who charge them high prices to smuggle them over the border, then by the corrupt farm owners who pay them less than legal wages, and again by the traffickers who lead them back to Mexico through a trap where most of them get murdered and robbed. Anyway, Ricardo Montalban (who was a proud Mexican but rarely got to play one) does a fantastic job as the cop going undercover as a bracero. George Murphy takes a pounding as his American counterpart going undercover as a crook with some stolen work permits to sell. There are many heavies at play, but Charles McGraw is definitely the heaviest of them (and I don't mean his weight, I mean his viciousness.) Cool story, with some great performances and a refreshingly sympathetic look at the undocumented workers just trying to support their families.

IN THE PALM OF YOUR HAND (EN LA PALMA DE TU MANO) (1951): Next up was an oddity about fortune-telling, chicanery, blackmail, lust, and murder (hey, that sounds pretty good!) Jaime Karin (Arturo de Córdova) is the fortune teller. His wife Clara (Carmen Montejo) works in a salon and gleans the secrets from the patrons, which she passes on to him so he can fleece them out of their money. One bit of information gleaned is that millionaire Vittorio Romano is dead, and his wife Ada (Leticia Palma) was cheating on him with his nephew Leon (Ramón Gay.) And so begins the entanglement of Karin's and Ada's lives, where blackmail becomes seduction and everyone may be playing two or more angles. A story that is both funny and suspenseful, and almost the perfect crime before the twist ending (oh yeah, spoiler alert, there's a twist to the ending.)

VICTIMS OF SIN (VICTIMAS DEL PECADO) (1951): And then I had my first exposure to cabaretera films. These are films that revolve around action in a nightclub, always a female entertainer torn between the good guy and the handsome but bad guy. The girl is Violeta (Ninón Sevilla) a nightclub "dancer" (i.e., a whore who was pretty enough to be given a shot on the main stage) who adopts the abandoned baby of another whore and her abusive pimp. That pimp is, of course, the bad guy, and gets her kicked out of the nightclub for refusing to abandon the baby. The good guy is a competing pimp nightclub owner who sees her selling herself on the street and decides to help her out. But when her pimp comes looking for her to take her back, violence ensues. A wild ride with some hot, hot, hot action.

Then instead of sticking around for the evening shows I went off to a Primitive Screwheads reunion party. But that's a different story, and I was back again Sunday.

Total Running Time: 274
My Total Minutes: 348,141

Jason goes to Noir City--Opening Night

Last Friday, I was back in my favorite city in the world. But this year, it's much more than a city, it's international, celebrating the fact that it's a bitter little world.

Opening night took both Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles around the world.

JOURNEY INTO FEAR (1943): Orson Welles last picture for RKO (and one that the meddling by the studio turned into what Czar of Noir Eddie Muller described as a "mangled" effort by Welles) takes us to Turkey, through the adventure of American engineer Howard Graham (Cotten.) He's there to sell arms to the Turkish Navy, but some people have other plans for him. He narrowly escapes an assassins bullet during a nightclub magic show, and sets off into the titular journey (into fear...and to a different city to reunite with his wife) with strange characters and a thrilling climax on the ledge of a building. While definitely abbreviated, it's still a fun, tight little thriller. And Orson Welles dressed up as a Turkish colonel--that's quite a site.

THE THIRD MAN (1949): And then, an absolute classic set in post-war Vienna. Cotten plays Holly Martins, a pulp writer down on his luck invited to Vienna at the behest of his friend Harry Lime. Only when he gets there, he learns that Lime was just killed in--struck by a car accidentally. Not satisfied with the official story (that Lime was a no good crook responsible for many deaths, the world is better without him, and it was an accident anyway) Martins goes on his own investigation. He finds inconsistencies with the stories--in particular an alleged "third man" who helped Lime to the side of the road before he died. Well, not to give anything away (although honestly, this movie is now 65 years old, why haven't you seen it yet?) but the reveal of Orson Welles' character is perhaps the greatest reveal of a character in the history of cinema (the only thing I can think that rivals it is the shark in JAWS.) And his "cuckoo clock" soliloquy is pretty epic. And the chases through the intricate sewers of Vienna (where they still do location tours) is a brilliant use of space. Oh, and I can't end this without mentioning the amazing zither score by Anton Karas. I can't even describe why it works--it seems too happy for a noir film. But there's something so foreign about it that it captures this feeling of Holly Martins being a man out of place--in a Vienna where everybody else is dancing to the music but he doesn't know how to...yet.

Total Running Time: 172 minutes
My Total Minutes: 347,867

Friday, January 24, 2014

Jason watches HER

Well, that doesn't sound creepy at all, does it?

Spike Jonze, Joaquin Phoenix, and especially Scarlett Johansson take the old adage about the biggest erogenous zone being the brain to its logical extreme. Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a writer who works for an online service that creates beautiful handwritten letters for people. He composes the touching, romantic, friendly, tragic thoughts that people can't write for themselves. He's also going through a divorce, is kind of depressed, and stays up at night having anonymous online sex with strangers (one of whom asks him to pretend he's strangling her with a dead cat, but that's another story.) Scarlett Johansson is Samantha, the voice of his new computer OS, an advanced AI with the ability to learn from its experiences. And they fall in love....

Now I think this movie becomes a Rorschach test for your opinions on love. Their relationship is presented as...while not commonplace, at least plausible enough that it happens to other people and it's accepted (more or less.) So the audience's reaction--is he lonely and isolated? Is their love real? Does the lack of a physical body make it unreal?--says more about the audience than about the movie. And so I, as the reviewer, have to give my opinion which means I have to reveal at least something of my philosophy of love--something I've never articulated before and I admit it's kind of scary.

Well, let's start with this: their relationship is real. No doubt in my mind about that. He certainly feels it's real (we have the benefit of his physical reactions as well as his words to confirm that) and judging by her words I assume she feels it's real. That's another important point, I never for a second doubted that she feels. Is he lonely and isolated? Maybe, a little bit, at the beginning. He's certainly in a funk, depressed about his failed marriage. But there are plenty of indications that in good times he's a happy, friendly, social guy (one of the first things Samantha notices in going through his contacts list is that he's a pretty popular guy. So I don't buy into the premise that he falls for his OS out of some mis-connection with real human beings. They just talked and...just hit it off. Most normal thing in the world.

Their relationship isn't perfect, but whose is? He gets into a funk after signing the divorce papers, mainly because his ex-wife mocks him for "dating his laptop" but to me that played out as his ex being kind of a spiteful bitch trying to wound his new relationship and him--unfortunately--taking the bait. They have an awkward experience and a fight when she tries to bring a surrogate into the relationship--someone to provide the body she lacks. But that's just an example of one partner trying to add something new to the bedroom and the other partner not liking it. That happens in relationships where both partners have a body, too.

In fact, I see that as the key to the movie. They have neither difficulties nor joys that don't have an analog in a "normal" person-on-person relationship. By examining their happiness and their fights they put a microscope on all relationships.

And now I'm going to stop before I get myself into trouble.

But there is one nagging thought that keeps coming back to me. I fully accept her reality--as real as any woman--because of the effect she has on him. So is this a feminist movie because it can portray a fully female character--with hopes, fears, joy, sorrow, all the realm of feelings--without needing a hot body and a perfectly airbrushed face? Or is it profoundly anti-feminist for making the defining characteristic of its female lead be her effect on the male lead?

I'm not going to try and answer that.

Running Time: 126 minutes
My Total Minutes: 347,695

Jason goes to Niles Film Museum for a 9th anniversary celebration

Okay, really it was mostly like any other Saturday night in Niles. A couple of shorts, an intermission, a feature. But this marked 9 years of playing silent films with live accompaniment every Saturday night, the place was packed, and the movies were pretty awesome. So let's get to it:

MABEL'S STRANGE PREDICAMENT (1914): We're also celebrating 100 years of Charlie Chaplin in the movies, and featuring films from his first year at Keystone. This is one of them, and here's what I wrote the last time I saw it:
Chaplin's first role wearing the Tramp outfit (he said he didn't know what he was doing when he put it on, but new the character by the time he got to the set). We see him as a drunk (his "inebriate" act was a favorite in his Music Hall days) who chases Mabel Normand around a hotel after she gets locked out of her room. And her predicament gets stranger when she hides under another guest's bed.

BRONCHO BILLY AND THE BANDIT'S SECRET (2013): Our homegrown, brand-new silent film. This is the final screening of the work print (with all the intertitles added) so the next time anyone sees it it should be the finished print from the lab (with, for example, the light levels balanced.) Anyway, here's to recycling my old reviews:
The story starts--much as G. M. Anderson did before he was Broncho Billy--with a great train robbery. Broncho Billy (our own Bruce Cates) is on the train but instead of running away he pays careful attention to the robbers. Enough that he--along with his crew at the Essanay Studio--can assist the sheriff in catching the bad guys. Lots of adventure, and when it's all over Anderson has a great idea for a movie and it all ends with a proud Anderson and an embarrassed sheriff watching the movie-within-a-movie (that is actually an actual Broncho Billy movie.)

Then an intermission, and on to the feature film.

THE MARK OF ZORRO (1920): Another classic, another one I've seen before (at the SF Silent Film Festival in 2012) so another chance to recycle my review:
What's not to love about Douglas Fairbanks being heroic and athletic as Zorro and hilariously weak and foppish as his alter-ego Don Diego Vega. But what I didn't know before the introduction by Jeffrey Vance is how much of the iconic Zorro trademarks (especially the famous Z cut with his sword) actually originates with this movie and not the Johnston McCulley story (but then McCulley included it in the sequels he wrote after this movie.) I also knew that a young Bob Kane was a fan and based his most famous character on Fairbank's portrayal of Zorro. The mask, the double identity, even the hidden lair all came from Zorro and became iconic of Batman (so remember that when you watch THE DARK KNIGHT RISES next weekend.) And heck, this movie still totally delivers.
Wouldn't change a word.

Total Running Time: 150 minutes
My Total Minutes: 347,569

Thursday, January 16, 2014

36 (Alleged) Signs the Media Is Lying to You about How Radiation from Fukushima Is Affecting the West Coast—and why I’m Not Concerned.

This is quite a departure for this blog. But as someone who works with radiation I've been asked about this by a few friends, soI spent a bit of my free time putting this together. And I don't have a better forum for posting it. So enjoy (or ignore, if you come here to read about movies.)

This is in response to this article I’ve been seeing popping up on my Facebook page recently:

Author Michael Snyder has compiled an impressive list of scary headlines about Fukushima. And social media has done a great job of passing it around.

Now some background information about me. I’ve been working with radiation (as an engineer for medical device companies) for the past 13 years. I do not believe that makes me an expert in nuclear power plants or safe exposure levels. But it does inform my attitude towards radiation (in small doses)—respect, but don’t fear. I know, for example that if I stand next to a 1 mCi (37 MBq) gamma-emitting source for a few minutes, that will…do nothing to me. So when I see paranoiacs hyperventilating over 1000 Bq (0.001 MBq) per cubic meter of seawater, I don’t worry about it. I’d swim in that water. If it wasn’t so damn salty, I’d drink it (no coincidence, 1000 Bq/cubic meter is lower than the EPA limit for safe drinking water.) A lot of this comes down to detectable levels vs. dangerous levels of radiation (i.e., similar to chemical toxicity, the dose makes the poison.) That’s a huge, important distinction.

Given that, I will stipulate that the rule with radiation is ALARA—As Low As Reasonably Achievable. Despite some theories that micro-levels of radiation might actually be beneficial (and of course, there are medical applications of radiation) the rule is that you want to have as little radiation exposure as possible. In that context, it would obviously be better if Fukushima had never happened. The question isn’t whether Fukushima released any radiation, it’s whether the extra radiation is tiny enough to ignore or if (as the opening line of the linked article states) we’re “being absolutely fried” with Fukushima radiation.
I will reiterate that I don’t consider myself an expert. I think my background and critical thinking skills give me tools to ask pointed questions of each of the 36 points in the article, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I can answer them (although many times it will look like I do.) So think of this more as an exercise in thinking critically about what you read (a skill equally applicable to articles downplaying the dangers from Fukushima) than a thorough debunking of the linked article.
  1. “Independent researchers have measured alarmingly high levels of radiation…” this shows a video of a man walking along Pacifica State Beach and showing his radiation detector sounding an alarm when he approaches the ocean. I guess it’s literally true that it’s an “alarmingly high” level, but perhaps that’s because he set his alarm too low? They breathlessly announce that “radiation levels near the water are up to five times higher than normal background radiation” but provide no context. Background levels are typically low. Is five times background still low, or is it dangerously high? Remember the difference between detectable and dangerous. Or to put it another way, if the ocean levels are dangerous and the background levels are only one-fifth of that, wouldn’t the normal background levels also be dangerously high? I don’t know the specs on his detector, so I don’t know how sensitive it is, so I don’t actually know if either the ocean or the background registers dangerous levels. I do know that when I watched it I was thinking ‘100 counts per second, that’s practically nothing.’ Then I saw elsewhere where they were claiming it was counts per minute, not counts per second (I can’t tell in the video) so that’s practically nothing divided by sixty.
There are also measurements confirming the spike in radiation but identifying the cause as naturally occurring.
  1. “…the total amount of cesium-137 that has been released into the Pacific Ocean from Fukushima is 10,000 to 100,000 times greater than the amount released into the oceans by the Chernobyl disaster…” Snyder links to an article that blatantly contradicts this. The article shows dangerous levels right next to the power plant immediately after the disaster. Then describes how once a major leak was plugged it dropped dramatically (to 1,000 Bq per cubic meter, according to the EPA, below the safe level for drinking water) but expressed concerns that it wasn’t dropping further, indicating there were other, smaller leaks. The article was from Spring of 2013, so I don’t know about further progress along these lines…but I’m getting off topic. The claim was 10,000 to 100,000 times more Cs-137 released in Fukushima than in Chernobyl. Scan to the end of the article and you find this: “…a total cesium-137 release of between 15 and 30 petabequerels (1015 Bq). In comparative terms, he said, this is slightly more than the amount put into the sea by Chernobyl—although the total environmental release from that accident, at 85 PBq, was much higher.” I have no idea how that equates to 10,000 to 100,000 times greater.
  2. This boils down to noting that there’s another (high profile, if you consider being on MSNBC high profile) person who is also paranoid about this—Cenk Uygur. Nothing about his qualifications to evaluate the dangers, just that someone else is afraid. Colleagues reminded him that the “official government position is that it’s safe” which is supposed to be damning evidence of a cover-up, and not the fact that the official government position was that it’s safe. As for the specter of lying to avoid a panic—Cenk was the one who brought it up (at least in the excerpted text.)
  3. The 71 sailors of the USS Ronald Reagan. I have massive sympathy for them and wish them as great a chance at recovery as possible (along with winning their lawsuit against TEPCO.) They were at Fukushima, assisting in the cleanup in the immediate aftermath. But that’s a long way from being on the west coast of America almost 3 years later.
  4. Starfish wasting disease. Fukushima radiation is one hypothesis, but far from proven (far from even the leading theory.) By the way, there’s a similar (smaller and isolated) outbreak on the Atlantic coast, too. So are they getting “absolutely fried” too?
  5. Bald eagle deaths. Again, radiation is one theory but not the leading theory, as they “aren’t ruling out anything.”
  6. Dead birds in Alaska (actually to quote Snyder “dead birds are dropping dead”) Okay, now the article stops linking to external sources and links to another breathless story from Snyder’s website. Following the links again to the original source we get a radio program that identifies the unseasonably warm autumn as the most likely culprit. Fukushima or radiation is never even mentioned.
  7. Dead birds in Oregon. The headline of the linked article again points to weather. In fact, it doesn’t seem to be “absolutely baffling scientists” as Snyder claims. Again, there is no mention of Fukushima or radiation.
  8. Seals and walruses in Alaska are losing their hair and developing oozing sores. At least the linked article for this one uses the word “radiation” once—in context of many hypotheses. Radiation and viruses have been studied, and “no tests have linked these origins to the illness.” Other theories include harmful algae blooms, thermal burns, allergy, hormone or nutritional problems. But clearly it must be the radiation.
  9. Polar bears in Alaska are suffering from fur loss and open sores. It kinda sucks to be an animal in Alaska right now, doesn’t it? The linked article at least mentions both radiation and Fukushima, in this quote: “Reuters noted that preliminary studies do not support a theory that the disease is due to contamination from the tsunami-wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan.”
  10. Sea lion deaths in California. The linked article…is really difficult to read. No flow to the writing at all, it’s just a series of statements, separated by trios of asterisks, amounting to the longest run-on paragraph I’ve seen in a long time. It’s also pocked by several hyperlinks, many of which are broken. Analyzing the claims and sources in this article alone would be as big of a task as what I’m doing for Snyder’s article, but about 50 times more annoying. So instead (and I apologize for this, I googled “sea lion deaths in California” and saw what I could see. And I saw…well, a lot sites similar to Snyder’s making unsubstantiated claims (or at best “asking questions”) that radiation was to blame. I found NOAA’s official site on it (not a lot of information, but the FAQ does include that they plan to test for radiation…that was a year ago.) And a number of mainstream news sites that include mentions of radiation in the context of not-ruling-anything-out but not as the likeliest cause. What was interesting is that there does look to be widespread agreement that the sea lions are undernourished. That is, the primary cause is starvation (including the pups being left to fend for themselves while the mother looks for farther away.) If that’s the case, then the question is what is disrupting their food chain, and that might point back to radiation (anchovies being killed off by Fukushima radiation is one theory here, I haven’t looked at how likely that is) but it’s important to make the distinction between this and deaths from radiation exposure—either from the contaminated water or from eating contaminated food.
  11. Sockeye salmon on the Alaskan coast are at a historic low. Neither radiation nor Fukushima is mentioned in the linked article. In fact, the article is about native British Columbians who rely on subsistence fishing, and blame commercial fishing (having lived in Alaska for some time, I know this is a constant issue there.) “Conservation groups have sounded the alarm, saying Alaskan commercial fishermen are contributing to the problem as Skeena River sockeye get caught in the nets of Americans fishing for pink and chum sockeye.”
  12. Pacific herring are bleeding from the gills, bellies, and eyeballs. Neither radiation nor Fukushima is mentioned in the linked article. “Dr. Gary Marty, fish pathologist with the animal health centre for the B.C. Ministry of Environment, said VHSV [viral hemorrhagic septicemia virus] and a second disease, viral erythrocytic necrosis, or VEN, are the two most likely suspects.”
  13. Cs-137 in mushrooms and berries. Oh, excuse me, “Dangerous levels” (according to Snyder) in mushrooms and berries. The linked article didn’t mention the level (or even if it was dangerous), only that some has been found. Googling revealed a UC Berkeley report. The highest levels of radionuclides were actually I-131. But I-131 has a half-life of 8 days, so there’s no way that came from Fukushima. Worst case reading was in the topsoil at 12.5 Bq/kg of I-131. Worst case for Cs-137 was 6.9 Bq/kg in grass. Worst case for an actual food product was mushrooms at 8.4 Bq/kg of I-131. Worst case food product for Cs-137 was 0.67 Bq/kg in strawberries. The FDA sets the level of concern at 55 Bq/kg of I-131…for infants. So the “dangerous levels” are well below the FDA limits for infant food. Remember the distinction between detectable and dangerous.
  14. Pacific Bluefin tuna have transported radioactive material across the entire North Pacific Ocean. It’s an “absolutely shocking report!” Actually, given a 2 year half-life for Cs-134 and a 30 year half-life for Cs-137, it would be shocking if fish that cross the Pacific from Japan don’t carry it with them all the way. To put it another way, there’s detectable levels of radiation in Bluefin tuna, but it isn’t harming them enough to keep them from crossing the ocean. Sure enough, looking at the measurements in the linked paper, we see about 4 Bq/kg of Cs-134, about 6 Bq/kg of Cs-137, and…holy shit, 367 Bq/kg of K-40!? That’s the real story, Fukushima released massive amounts of K-40…oh, wait, K-40 is naturally occurring and was found in pre-Fukushima tuna. So…the story here is that there’s measureable amounts of radioactive Cesium in Bluefin tuna, but it’s orders of magnitude lower than naturally occurring radioactive isotopes. Detectable, but not dangerous.
  15. Killer whales are dying off the coast of British Columbia. Once again, the linked article says nothing about radiation or Fukushima. I’m getting kinda tired of this crap. Are we going to blame every animal death on Fukushima?
  16. High levels of Cs-137 in plankton. Excuse me “very high levels.” But the linked article shows they instead measured Cs-134 (a minor point, but Cs-134 has a half-life of 2 years, Cs-137 is 30 years, so Cs-137 is a bigger long-term concern.) The highest level was “8.2 to 10.5 becquerels per kilogram.” Remember the difference between dangerous and detectable, remember the limit that the FDA places on baby food (55 Bq/kg,) and ask if 10.5 Bq/kg is dangerous.
  17. All (15 out of 15) Bluefin tuna tested in California contaminated with radiation. “…all contained reactor byproducts cesium-134 and cesium-137 at levels that produced radiation about 3% higher than natural background sources.” I stopped reading there. 3% above background might as well be background.
  18. Practically all the fish tested in Japan and shipped to Canada had Cs-137. And the linked article says it was at low levels, well below the levels of concern Canada has set. Japan set a level of 100 Bq/kg in their fish (remember, the Bluefin tuna in the previous point exceeded that limit with naturally occurring K-40 before Fukushima, so I’m inclined to think Japan is being extra cautious here) but Canada has a level ten times that, at 1,000 Bq/kg. This is for fish caught in Japan and exported to Canada, and the article describes how Japan is actually being very aggressive and comprehensive in testing their fish. As for fish actually caught in the Pacific coast of Canada, “In August [2011], CFIA also tested a dozen samples of fish caught in B.C. coastal and inland waters. None of those tests found any radiation.” Of course, that was just 5 months after Fukushima, so perhaps the radiation hadn’t reached Canada yet. My favorite quote in the article: "Is it something we need to be terrified of? No. Is it something we need to monitor? Yes.”
  19. Up to 210 quadrillion becquerels of Cs-137 released into the atmosphere, according to an EU study. Well, 210 quadrillion is certainly a big number, even if we ignore the fact that this is an upper bound (the lower bound is 12 quadrillion.) I certainly wouldn't want to be exposed to 210 (or 12) quadrillion becquerels! But it's also a number without context. This is the amount released into the atmosphere, and the atmosphere is a huge place, so there's lots of potential to dilute it to concentrations where the health risks are negligible. The important question is what the absorbed dose to people is. Luckily the linked study calculated just that, and determined that people living in Japan (excluding occupational exposure of cleanup workers) were exposed to 10-20 mSv (the Sievert being the unit of absorbed dose) through inhalation from the time of the incident (March 2011) until May 2011. This is about the equivalent full-body CT scan. Not insignificant (I wouldn’t want to get a CT scan for no reason) but not panic-inducing (I wouldn’t expect to drop dead of radiation sickness after getting a CT scan.) Over a 50 year timespan, the maximum accumulated dose due to ground contamination is about 125 mSv. For context, the occupational dose limit (for people who work with radiation on a regular basis) in the U.S. Is 50 mSv/year. So over 50 years, the people of Japan near Fukushima may receive as much dose as U.S. Radiation workers are allowed in 2.5 years. Not great, but not panic inducing. And this study is all about dose in Japan, so I'm really at a loss to how this translates into panic in America.
  20. An Australian adventurer felt like “the ocean itself was dead.” However, in the linked article the lack of fish (and hence lack of seabirds) is attributed first to overfishing. Then in the Osaka-to-San Francisco there's a lot about the debris and garbage washed into the ocean. The only mention of radiation in the whole article is mentioning how he's involved (and enlisting help from other yachties) with U.S. academics' efforts to fill out surveys and collect samples for testing. My favorite quote from the article, when he asked the academics why there wasn't an effort to clean up all the debris: “But they said they'd calculated that the environmental damage from burning the fuel to do that job would be worse than just leaving the debris there.”
  21. The radioactivity of U.S. west coast waters could double over the next 5-6 years. In fact, the linked article says German researchers predict radiation from Fukushima could reach the U.S. west coast within 5 years. But I thought the radiation was already here! And, of course, the article also has those same researchers explaining that “these levels are still lower than those permitted for drinking water.”
  22. A Russian official said that seafood in the northwest coast of the U.S. is a “danger for mankind.” Even allowing for the possibility of the Russian-English translation missing some nuance (imagine if “danger” was replaced by “hazard” or “risk”) my initial response was ‘so what?’ Not that I doubt his sincerity or his qualifications, it’s that I care more about the data backing up his statement than the statement itself. But then I took another look and compared Snyder’s summary to his:
Snyder: The deputy chairman of Russia’s State Duma Committee for Natural Resources, Maxim Shingarkin, says that seafood captured off the northwest coast of the United States is so radioactive [emphasis added] that it represents a “danger for mankind”
Shingarkin: Currents in the World Ocean are so structured that the areas of seafood capture near the US north-west coast are more likely to contain radioactive nuclides than even the Sea of Okhotsk which is much closer to Japan. These products are the main danger for mankind because they can find their way to people’s tables on a massive scale.
Shingarkin does not actually mention the levels of radiation, so I think Snyder got those words “is so radioactive” from…deep within his body cavity. How I read Shingarkin’s statement is that the biggest source of radiation contamination for humans is from eating contaminated fish. But that’s also the easiest to avoid, simply by choosing to not eat fish or by taking care to know the source and avoiding fish from the Pacific Ocean. This is particularly easy in the U.S., where we don’t traditionally have a diet high in fish. I want to be clear, even though I’m not particularly afraid of eating fish caught in the Pacific, if you want to avoid it be my guest.
  1. A report predicts the radiation could affect our seafood for “many generations” and kill more than a million people. The report itself is mostly a critique of standard models of estimating the impact of nuclear disasters. I’m not qualified to say whether their methods are correct or not (e.g., they include not just those alive at the time of the accident but those born subsequently. And they include death from infectious diseases, cardiovascular diseases, and genetic diseases as well as cancer. And they project over an 80-year timeline instead of 50 years.) And in the end they conclude “within 80 years the number of victims of the Fukushima disaster can be expected to be AT LEAST in the range of 10,000 to 300,000 people in terms of deaths…” That’s 10,000 to 300,000 deaths over 80 years on a planet where about 56 million people die every year. I don’t want to diminish those deaths, but statistically they are a drop in the bucket.
So where does Snyder’s line of “kill more than a million people” come from? This line: “This cycle will last for many generations, because of the food chain of fish and other marine fauna, and the radioactivity will be recycled and in fact the meat content will increase rather than decreasing by decay. Even if only one one-hundredth of the radioactivity (more than 1e15 Bq of CS137) were to enter this recirculation pattern, the collective whole body ingestion dose over many generations would exceed 1e7 Sv, sufficient to kill more than 1,000,000 people.” This isn’t a prediction that 1,000,000 people will die; it’s a description of the scale of the whole dose in all the contaminated fish in the Pacific Ocean. It would be more accurate to say that if all the contaminated fish in the entire Pacific Ocean were eaten by just 1 million people, then those 1 million people would surely die from radiation. But I don’t think that’s a very realistic consumption model. I think more than a million people eat fish, and I don’t think they eat every last fish in the ocean.

By the way, the same report predicts the health risks from I-131 are nearly non-existent and in fact taking potassium iodine pills may have worse effects than the radiation itself. So where’s your panic now?
  1. 300 tons of radioactive water is pouring into the Pacific Ocean every day. Well, 300 tons sounds like a big number, but what’s the context? The linked article (an NPR interview) does very little in providing context, although it does point out “the Pacific Ocean is a big place, so this gets diluted very quickly.” So how big is 300 tons of water? It would be a cube about 6.5 meters (21.3 feet) on a side. Suddenly comparing that to the size of the Pacific Ocean it seems miniscule. And it is. The Pacific Ocean contains 707.5 million cubic kilometers of water (or to put it in the same panic-inducing units, 7.78x1017 tons.) At 300 tons per day, it would take 7.1 trillion years to fill the Pacific Ocean. Or, given the best estimate is the Earth is 4.54 billion years old, it would take about 1,565 ages of the Earth (putting huge numbers in context is fun!) This all obscures the fact that it’s not the volume of water but the amount of radioactive material that is important, and this article contains nothing about that, so on to the next one…
  2. 30 billion becquerels of radioactive cesium and 30 billion becquerels of radioactive strontium” are being released every day. Now we’re talking! Real radiation measurements instead of just raw tonnage of water. And again, 30 billion sound like a lot (and 60 billion is even more) but the ocean is a big place. The question is how much is the concentration of radiation increasing, and the answer is…it’s not. In fact, the 60 billion becquerels isn’t measured, it’s an estimate to explain why the waters right outside of Fukushima aren’t showing any drop in radioactivity (after the initial large drop.) My favorite quote (and the one relevant to the west coast of the U.S. rather than the waters neighboring Fukushima): “But experts said levels of seaborne radioactive substances stay mostly below detection limits in the outer ocean because the substances have simply become diluted.”
  3. 20 trillion to 40 trillion becquerels of radioactive tritium have gotten into the Pacific Ocean since the Fukushima disaster first began. Snyder again links to his own article, but following it to the original story we find…well, a lot of criticism of Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Co, the owner and operator of the power plant) but also a claim (by Tepco) that the discharge of tritium “was within legal limits.” And we have this statement: “Tritium is far less harmful than cesium and strontium, which have also been released from the plant. Tepco is scheduled to test strontium levels next.” We also have this line from an EPA spokesman in the U.S.: “With the amount of dilution that would occur, any kind of release in Japan would be non-detectable here.” And this one from a UC Berkeley professor: “The Pacific Ocean is an enormous place… There's a lot of material between us and Japan. No matter what happens in Fukushima, it's not going to be a problem over here.”
  4. 3 gigabecquerels of cesium-137 are flowing into the port at Fukushima Daiichi every day. Okay, one gigabecquerel is 1 billion becquerels. If I wasn’t worried about the 60 billion (combined cesium and strontium) becquerels just two points up, why would I be worried about one twentieth of that? Turns out in reading the story the point isn’t that 3 gigabecquerels is a lot (even factoring in that the number he intended to say was 10 gigabecquerels) it’s that given the measured concentrations in groundwater runoff, those 300 tons/day doesn’t account for it all. This is important because finding the other sources is required to finish the containment/cleanup efforts, but not because the levels are too high to be diluted by the ocean (remember, the ocean is really, really big.) Snyder seems to have a pattern of picking out the most panic-inducing headline but missing the valid points of concern in his linked articles.
  5. Significant” levels of cesium-137 will reach every corner of the Pacific Ocean by the year 2020. “Significant” is a wonderful weasel-word, meant to put fear in your mind but actually meaning very little (one might say the word “significant” is pretty insignificant.) Interestingly, the linked article doesn’t use “significant” it just says, “the dispersion of Cesium-137, a radioactive byproduct, will reach every corner of the Pacific by the year 2020.” It also does a piss-poor job of linking to its source, linking to GEOMAR’s main page instead. But a little search reveals this article with a link to the full story here. Wait a minute, that’s the same story linked in point 22, above! And those researchers conclude that while there will be detectable radiation, those so-called “significant” levels “are still lower than those permitted for drinking water.” And come to think of it, if we’re relying on dilution in the Pacific Ocean, isn’t it better if it gets dispersed into the whole ocean? Wouldn’t it be worse if the radiation remained concentrated (say if it stayed within a major current instead of spreading to the whole ocean?)
  6. The Pacific Ocean will soon “have cesium levels 5 to 10 times higher” than during the era of atomic testing many decades ago. I’m actually surprised that Snyder didn’t make more out of the claim that Hillary Clinton (as Secretary of State at the time) made assurances to Japan that the U.S. would still buy their fish and not test them for radiation. I might not be paranoid about radiation, but I still think testing is a good idea. In any case, responding to their claim, much like many of these points, they provide no context. Is “5 to 10 times higher” a horribly dangerous level? Somewhat dangerous? Barely dangerous? Negligible? And the actual claim is “The net effect is the Pacific near Japan, and likely the whole Pacific, over the next 5 years will have cesium levels 5 to 10 times higher…” Claiming that the sea near Japan will have elevated levels, and then extending that to claiming the entire ocean will have the same elevated levels seems to ignore the element of ocean dilution, which we repeatedly see is what brings large amounts of total radiation down to concentrations of minimal concern.
  7. Environmental activist Joe Martino says “Your days of eating Pacific Ocean fish are over.” Hey, that’s the same linked story as point 29! (Which if you recall, ended up being a rehash of the study linked in point 22.) Rather than dissect the claims that I’ve dissected twice already, I’ll just make this pithy response: Mr. Martino, your days of eating Pacific Ocean fish might be over, but mine aren’t.
  8. The Iodine-131, Cesium-137 and Strontium-90 that are constantly being released from Fukushima are going to affect the health of those living in the northern hemisphere for a very, very long time, according to Harvey Wasserman. Since this was one of the rare times when Snyder mentioned someone by name (instead of saying “experts” or “researchers”) I decided to find out who Mr. Wasserman is. Turns out he’s been an anti-nuke activist for about 40 years. Now I want to be clear, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It influences how I consider his leanings, but just because you’re an advocate on an issue does not mean you’re not trustworthy. And although his formal education is in history and not science, I assume working on an issue for 40 years he’d naturally learn some things. So I started reading his article. He starts out by mocking the media coverage for focusing on “mere” tritium (his scare-quotes, not mine.) Most of what I’ve read has been about Cs-137, not tritium, but fair enough, maybe the articles he reads are different from mine (I’d even accept that he reads more mainstream articles than I do.) But then I get to this doozy: “Tritium is a relatively simple isotope with an 8-day half-life.” (emphasis added) Tritium has a half-life of 12.32 years! He has his facts blatantly wrong. Not that that means everything in his article is wrong, I just want to pause and marvel at the fact that someone who has been advocating on an issue for 40 years could screw up such a basic fact. I suspect he got it confused with I-131, which does have an 8 day half-life. I-131 is, of course, one of the isotopes he is afraid of; maybe he wouldn’t be if he knew it had an 8 day half-life (remember, the report linked in point 24 actually showed nearly no impact on health from I-131, and in fact questioned if health risks from potassium iodide pills meant to protect against radiation might be worse than the radioactive I-131 itself.) He does correctly identify that I-131 goes to the thyroid where it emits beta particles that can damage the thyroid (I-131 is used in radiation therapy for just that reason.) And he correctly identifies that Cs-137 has been found in fish and accumulates in muscles. And he correctly identifies that Sr-90 accumulates in bones (he ignores that fact that it also accumulates in fish bones so it’s commonly assumed that people eat fish flesh and throw away the bones, so doses from eating fish are assumed to be mostly Cs-137 and not Sr-90.) What he doesn’t identify is how much of any of those isotopes are found (or modeled) to be in the environment (e.g., in fish we eat.) As the old saying goes, the dose makes the poison, and he’s talked 100% about poison and 0% about dose.
  9. Outdoor radiation levels at Fukushima recently hit a new all-time high.” I put that whole line in quotes because that’s exactly how Snyder worded it. It’s an interesting teaser, because “Fukushima” could refer to something as large as the entire Fukushima prefecture, while only areas up to 30 km away from the power plant were evacuated and most of them have had their no-go zone designation lifted as of April of 2013 (the linked article is from December of 2013.) And “outdoors,” could be everywhere (everywhere that isn’t indoors, that is.) But if the headline had revealed that the readings were “in an area near a steel pipe that connects reactor buildings” then maybe it wouldn’t be quite as frightening. You’d expect a catastrophically destroyed nuclear power plant to have pretty high readings until the cleanup and containment is completed. The question is whether areas where they’re letting people return to live is safe. Or actually, since this whole list is supposed to be about dangers to the U.S. west coast, how about these lines from the linked article:
Meanwhile, the chairwoman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission assured that the radioactive water will reach the US West coast at safe levels.
“The highest amount of radiation that will reach the U.S. is two orders of magnitude - 100 times - less than the drinking water standard,” Allison Macfarlane said in Tokyo on Friday as cited by Bloomberg. “So, if you could drink the salt water, which you won’t be able to do, it’s still fairly low.”
  1. Cleanup of Fukushima could take up to 40 years to complete. The linked article is about how there’s finally an approved plan for the cleanup, instead of the disorganized ad hoc efforts. This is…good (it’s bad that it took this long, but the fact they have a plan now is good.) I hope they stick to it. I hope they update it as more information is available. As for the 40 years…given Cs-137 has a 30 year half-life, I would assume it would be much longer (although much of that time would be monitoring the stored radioactive material to check for leaks.) And the 40 years is just given as a number that “experts expect.” No context is given on how much of an effect that will have on the public (especially the public of the U.S. west coast) in that time…or after, for that matter.
  2. If the cleanup is done badly, humanity could be threatened for “thousands of years.” Well, damn! Then they better do it carefully, even if it takes 40 years! Actually, the linked article is very interesting and well worth a read. As an Emeritus Professor at Yale, the author Charles Perrow certainly has some impressive credentials (googling him further, I see he is an expert in complex risky systems, starting with his work analyzing the Three Mile Island disaster.) As a professor of sociology, I wouldn’t initially trust him as an expert in the physics of nuclear fission, but he seems to know what he’s talking about, and I can’t find any glaring errors like I did with Wasserman’s article back in point 32. The bulk of the article isn’t about this specific danger from Fukushima, but about the pattern of governments and compliant media denying or downplaying dangers from radiation. That’s an interesting point and should give everyone pause about everything they read (including this.) Snyder again ignores this important point to go after the most panic-inducing headline (and adds a “if the cleanup…is not handled with 100% precision” scare line that isn’t in the actual article,) but I actually have nothing but praise for the article itself.
  3. Unexplained plumes of radioactive steam are rising at Fukushima. This is interesting. The linked article presents three theories, ranging from another catastrophic meltdown (which they do say is “relatively improbable”) to rainwater coming in contact with hot fuel pellets, which is relatively benign. But there’s not enough information to know exactly what’s going on, so file this under ‘possible future concerns.’ Although this site claiming to debunk Fukushima alarmism has its own article. At which point I’ll step back and let the reader decide.

So where does that leave us? What do I expect or hope will happen from writing this? Well, I expect…that nobody will read this. Of those who do, if they’re already afraid of Fukushima radiation, I don’t expect this to convince them. I might even get some nasty comments about it. If they’re already unconcerned about it, they might like this and forward it to friends, but again I won’t have changed any minds. If you aren’t convinced either way…I don’t know what to expect your reaction to be. But I know what I hope—I hope I haven’t convinced you. At least, I hope you don’t replace your own judgment with mine. I hope I have convinced you to think critically about what you read. If you’re reading this online, you have the same access to information as I do, so it’s only a question of critical thinking and reaching your own conclusions. And you are perfectly free to reach a different conclusion than I do.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


In O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? the Coens adapted the Greek legend of The Odyssey to American folk music. And now they've done the same thing again...maybe, kinda. Actually, despite having a character named Ulysses, I think it's more the Sisyphus story that The Odyssey. In any case, I don't know why I brought it up, beyond the superficial connection they're very different movies.

Llewyn Davis, portrayed wonderfully by Oscar Isaac, is a struggling folk singer in the bars of Greenwich Village, 1961. He's also kind of an asshole who pisses off everyone he knows. It's a slippery kind of film, a film that--much like its title character--exists when it wants to live. In many ways, it's the most Coen-esque of the Coen Brothers films. A film punctuated with great performances and some scenes of sublimity, and of course great music. But in the end, a film that...I can't tell you what it's about. It's a film that ends the way it begins (literally) and for all the sound and fury in between, I don't know if any of the characters--or the audience--learned something. But it sure was a nice ride.

And, for some reason, the credits end with a Kosher for Passover symbol.

Running Time: 104 minutes
My Total Minutes: 347,419


(I spent a lot of time debating internally whether to use this opening line or not, but here goes...)

I knew it was supposed to be horribly, over-the-top misogynistic, but I didn't expect it to be so funny!

Okay, so Martin Scorsese's biopic on Jordan Belfort is very well made and entertaining. All the criticism has been about whether or not it glamorizes Belfort's life and about the running time. For what it's worth, I thought the three hours flew by. As for the first point, I am seriously shocked that there are people--people I respect...people whose opinions about movies I respect--who argue it isn't glamorizing his life. He actually includes a "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous"-type voice-over in one scene (Robin Leach isn't credited on IMDb, I don't know if Scorsese used him or an impersonator.) If this isn't a glamorous depiction of being filthy rich, banging whores, and doing tons of drugs...I don't know what is.

And now I wanna try quaaludes. Dammit, I'm not even into drugs but that's how much this movie glamorizes them! (As for banging whores...that sounds exhausting. As for owning a mansion, Lamborghini, yacht, helicopter...that sounds like a lot of upkeep. But doing quaaludes--that looks like fun!)

And yeah, there are ways of analyzing it that makes it not-so-bad. Primarily that Scorsese is holding a mirror up to Belfort--and the society that created him. So take that anger you feel at the movie and turn it on Belfort, turn it on Wall Street (there's an argument to be made that the title refers not to Belfort but to the "Wolf" that is Wall Street,) turn it on America (there's a wonderfully pointed scene where Belfort waxes rhapsodical about how his firm--Stratton-Oakmont--is the embodiment of the American dream.) But you know's also perfectly fine to turn it on Scorsese. I mean, he made the damn movie and intentionally ignored the actual victims who, remember, exist in real life. And I understand he's telling the story from Belfort's point of view, so ignoring the victims is a reflection of that. But if you show the FBI agent who took him down riding the subway home, you can devote a minute or two to the victims (counter-thought: maybe he doesn't actually ride the subway, if the whole film is Belfort's P.O.V., maybe it's Belfort imagining that he takes the subway when in fact he drives a reasonably nice car.)

Or, I don't know, maybe you can just fantasize about being obscenely rich and enjoy all the naked ladies on screen.

Running Time: 180 minutes
My Total Minutes: 347,315

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Jason goes to Niles for a Laurel and Hardy Talkie...ish Matinee

So normally the second Sunday of every month is a Laurel and Hardy Talkie Matinee at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum. But last Sunday was a special event--Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang shorts that bridged the end of the silent era and the beginning of talkies. So these films were made as silents, then had a soundtrack of music and sound effects added later.

THE SPANKING AGE (1928): Our Gang's Mary Ann and Wheezer get in trouble for stealing (and wrecking) a cake. Then they decide to have a secret party with the whole gang while their stepmother is out. But...they screw up the recipe of the cake and put alum in it instead of flour, leading to a lot of sour faces.

HABEAS CORPUS (1928): As I said when I saw the silent version back in October:
The Boys, Laurel and Hardy are hired by a scientist to help with his experiments. Problem number one--the scientist is completely loony-tunes crazy. Problem number 2--he hired Laurel and Hardy to go dig up a corpse from the local cemetery. Maybe times were just different then, or maybe L&H are geniuses who can wring a heck of a lot of humor from such a macabre setup. In any case, it was hilarious.
Then a short intermission, and the final two shorts.

SATURDAY'S LESSON (1929): As I said when I saw the silent version back in...2008 (wow, and it still seemed familiar):
(One of?) the last "Our Gang" silents, before they went all talkie. The gang doesn't want to do chores on Saturday morning. But a guy in a devil costume teaches them a lesson. Maybe a little too well, in fact.
WRONG AGAIN (1929): As I said when I saw the silent version back in 2010:
And we end with the boys, Laurel and Hardy. They work in the stables, and hear news that The Blue Boy has been stolen. There's a $5,000 reward for its return. Which is good news, because they know exactly where Blue Boy is. Too bad they don't know that the reward is for the famous painting, not a race horse named Blue Boy. Particularly funny when the owner (who's in the bath) tells them to just put it on the piano.
So three of the 4 films I had previously seen as silent films with live piano music. And they're all very funny. But it's interesting how the soundtrack changes things. It's actually kind of jarring to hear the music and sound effects (e.g., lots of knocking, or the horse neighing, etc.) Especially hearing the sound effects but not the dialogue...I don't think it works that well. I'd rather see the silent version with live music.

Total Running Time: 80 minutes
My Total Minutes: 347,134

Jason Watches 12 YEARS A SLAVE

Well, that was pretty freakin' sad.

And now that I think about there anything more to it? I mean, it's a great movie, based on the real story of Solomon Northup. It's very well made, acting was incredible, 'Slavery = Bad' really much of a lesson? Amy Poehler got a good laugh at the Golden Globes by quipping how she "can honestly say that after seeing that film, I will never look at slavery the same way again."

Well, for some who claim the Civil War was about other issues, or that slaves liked the good masters (only the cruel masters were a problem,) I guess they do need some reminding. But I'm willing to believe that they're a small but vocal fringe element. More importantly, if a system condones--even rewards--cruelty, than the system is the problem, not the cruel actors. There is  arguably  one "good" master in the movie. But when the chips are down, he doesn't prevent Solomon from being abused, he sells him to a cruel master. Not necessarily because he wants Solomon to be abused, but because he thinks he's powerless to do anything else (he claims he's saving Solomon's life.)

Perhaps just as important is the fact of how he's saved (and I apologize in advance for giving away some spoilers.) There is a man with a conscience (conspicuously, he's Canadian.) And when he hears Solomon's story he agrees to help, to send a letter to Solomon's friends in the North. And abruptly they show up, produce papers proving he's a free man, and he's taken home. Perhaps a message for our times is how easy it is--once you decide to act on conscience--to right a wrong.

Or perhaps the message for our times is less optimistic. After all, the men who kidnapped and sold Solomon were caught and put on trial, but never punished. Perhaps the message is that when injustice is tolerated on a grand scale, the injustice easily infiltrates areas where it's thought not to be.

No, there's still plenty to think about in 12 YEARS A SLAVE even if you're already comfortably anti-slavery.

Running Time: 134 minutes
My Total Minutes: 347,054

Jason watches The Book of Mormon

Hasa Diga Eebowai!

So I took a little break from watching movies to catch some live theater. And it was awesome. Of course, when you team up South Park and Avenue Q, it's bound to be funny. Really, really funny. Like literally your-sides-hurt-from-laughing-too-hard funny. And of course it blasphemous, and takes a lot of potshots at the church of Mormon. But when you stop to think about it, it's actually taking aim at all privileged rich westerners who think they can go to a third world country, stay for a little while, and actually help them. And in the end, it actually makes a pretty interesting case for religion--that you shouldn't let the truth get in the way of a good story. And if the story can actually help people, even less of a reason for truth.

Of course, that's the same kind of thinking that leads to believing TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE is actually an insightful critique and defense of American foreign policy. In both cases, first and foremost it's really, really funny.

Jason goes to Midnites for Maniacs and celebrates Nicolas Cage's 50th Birthday

Happy 50th Birthday to an actor who doesn't always get respect, but is always interesting. A man who never phones it in, even if what he brings is a little...out there. Or, in his words, Nouveau-Shamanic.

Before I get to the movies, I just want to tell you all about the time I very briefly saw Nicolas Cage in person. This was back in my college years. I went to college in Pasadena, and one of the favorite spots for my friends and me was the Original Pantry in downtown L.A.--a classic 24/7 greasy spoon diner. They would start serving breakfast at 4:00 am, but at one point we were such regulars if we showed up at 3:30 they'd switch to their breakfast menu right then. One night, we accidentally got off a few exits too early and we ended up driving through downtown L.A. in the middle of the night (if you take the 9th street exit you get off and you're practically there.) There was almost no traffic, and we knew the way by surface streets (some of us had actually walked there from Pasadena, but that's another story) so this wasn't a problem. But then a cop pulled us over. Although we thought we had obeyed all traffic signals (i.e., we waited for the light to turn green) it turned out the streets were partially blocked off for filming a major studio project. When that occurs, you're not supposed to look at the traffic lights, you're supposed to look at the motorcycle cop off in the corner and cross when he signals you to. Anyway, we were given a brief talking to but no ticket, and we made our way to the diner easily enough. As we were walking in, there was a guy in a dirty, bloody wife-beater walking out. This is...not common, but not that surprising for the place and time of day. So we sort of averted our eyes and walked past him. But something made me turn around for a second look, and I suddenly recognized Nicolas Cage. He apparently was taking a break from filming and grabbing a bite at The Pantry just before we got there. It was too late (and I was too timid) to stop him and say anything to him. But a few months later, we started seeing advertisements for CON AIR. So...I brushed by Nicolas Cage in costume during a break on CON AIR. Pretty cool story, isn't it?

Shut up. On to the movies.

VALLEY GIRL (1983): The movie that made Cage a star. And, of course, a teen classic. And an R-rated teen comedy with it deserves to be a classic. Why isn't director Martha Coolidge a bigger name? I looked her up on IMDb, and was surprised to be reminded that she also directed REAL GENIUS. Which--tying back to my rambling story about brushing past Nicolas Cage--was shot at and (sort of) based on my Alma Mater. So now I'm not just more of a Nicolas Cage fan, I'm more of a Martha Coolidge fan, too.

RAISING ARIZONA (1987): And of course, the Coen brothers (I swear I'll see INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS soon!) I love this movie. There was a time I watched this so often it was undoubtedly my most-watched Coen brothers film (I think THE BIG LEBOWSKI has overtaken it, mainly because of Indiefest's annual Lebowski party.) I don't even feel a need to describe it, instead I'll mention a friend of mine in college (bringing me back to my rambling Nic Cage story again!) who was adamantly not a fan of Cage (way, way before he was a joke to nearly everyone, this guy thought Nicolas Cage was a talent-less hack. But even he admitted that RAISING ARIZONA was a great movie and Cage was great in it. He just attributed it to the Coens giving him such a great role. And at the time, I would've listened. But after this night of Cage-apalooza, I disagree. Nicolas Cage is just...great. Just fucking great, man!

And it wasn't just the movies, it was the 20-some Nicolas Cage trailers. Kinda like seeing an abbreviated version of his career arc, I realized that there are a lot of Nicolas Cage movies that I've skipped (not necessarily avoided, just wasn't interested in) that suddenly seem a lot more interesting.

I still refuse to acknowledge that there was ever a remake of WICKER MAN, though. I know this is against all the high-minded principles of M4M, draw the line there.

Total Running Time: 193 minutes
My Total Minutes: 346,920

Monday, January 13, 2014


And my favorite part is the opening text, "Some of this actually happened." (Slate has a good article on what did and didn't happen for real.)

I liked it quite a bit, despite the fact that I'm a bit too young to remember the Abscam operation. The acting is great. Christian Bale is again a trouper undergoing a physical transformation to play a pudgy conman with an "elaborate" hairpiece. Bradley Cooper is great as the zealous FBI agent in over his head. Amy Adams is great, Jennifer Lawrence is great but isn't given enough to work with (she's basically a force of chaos.) And I especially liked Jeremy Renner as a corrupt-ish New Jersey politician (but see, his corruption is always for the people so he's really a good guy!) Robert De Niro appears in a cameo, essentially playing Robert De Niro, but he's just always great to see on screen.

The thing much as I liked it (and I did) I didn't think it was that award-worthy. There's something that just...bugs me about David O. Russell. He makes good movies, maybe even great movies, but lately they always seem to get more praise than I think they deserve. SPANKING THE MONKEY and FLIRTING WITH DISASTER were great "indie" works that have deserved cult followings. THREE KINGS was a surprisingly good movie--what looked like a "bro" war-comedy turned out to be very thoughtful and anti-war (but still with a sly sense of humor.) I HEART HUCKABEES is actually my favorite of his work, although it has his lowest Rotten Tomatoes score. Then I never saw THE FIGHTER, maybe it really is excellent and he's coasting off the glory of that one, because that's when I think overpraising Russell became common. THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, while well made and funny, I thought it was badly overwritten. And I get the same sense from AMERICAN HUSTLE. I can't put my finger on it the same way as I could with THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, I just feel like it's good but not deserving of all the praise and award nominations it's getting.

Running Time: 138 minutes
My Total Minutes: 346,727


I'm falling way behind in my blog, I guess I should at least finish up 2013.

We're back in Middle Earth, and it feels good, even if it doesn't feel the same as our first trip. The 3-D is fine, although it breaks Jason's Rule of 3-D several times, it wasn't too distracting. Interesting, the HFR (High Frame Rate--48 frames/sec) which I thought looked weird all through THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY didn't bother me at all this time. And the story is really picking up, too. Peter Jackson took on the difficult job of adapting what is essentially a children's story and trying to fit it with the darker tone of his LORD OF THE RINGS movies (and the LOTR books.) And he okay job. There's still an uneasy fit of silly slapstick and dark themes (including the introduction of a resurgent Sauron.) But it still a fun ride (often, quite literally looking like an amusement park ride) and Smaug in all his glory is pretty damn impressive. I still think he stretched things pretty far to get 3 movies out of the source material, but I'll be ready and eager for part 3 same time next year.

Oh, and we get to see Legolas many years before he appears in LORD OF THE RINGS. I want to know his fitness plan, because I swear he looks a decade younger than when we see him some 77 years later.

Running Time: 161 minutes
My Total Minutes: 346,589 (adjusted downward due to discovering an error in my record-keeping, I double-counted ~1500 minutes)