Friday, June 25, 2010

Summer Movies (so far)

We tend to go to the movies more during the summer months. First, we have more free time, as my wife (a teacher) is off of work. Second, when the temperature starts rising, it's nice to go someplace dark and cool for a couple of hours.

But it can be frustrating, as the types of movies that are out in summer tend to be the types of movies we avoid: anything with a number in the title, anything that's a remake of something we watched on TV 30 years ago, and the all important Rule of 15 (anything that's likely to have more than 15% of the audience under 15 years old). Still, we've managed to see a few good films so far this month; Exit Through the Gift Shop, Solitary Man, and Micmacs.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is a documentary about Thierry Guetta, a shop-keeper, turned documentary film maker, turned street artist, and the world of graffiti artists such as Banksy, Space Invader, and Shepard Fairey (the guy who designed the iconic Obama poster). It's an absurd story that calls into question the fine lines between street art and fine art, between fine art and commerce, between paying ones dues (the suffering artist) and overnight success, and between being a filmmaker and being just another guy with a video camera and a mental problem.

Yes, the big question is always "but is it art?" but it's all the other questions along the way, and larger-than-life characters, that make this a fascinating, fast moving, and entertaining movie.

Solitary Man is the most commercial of the three films we've seen so far this summer. Michael Douglas plays a successful businessman who hits the mid-life crisis free fall with swift, steep, and beautifully self-destructive results.

It's a story we've seen before (catering to aging baby boomers is big business itself), and if you pay too much attention there are enough holes in the plot to fill the Albert Hall, but the performances (including far too little of Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito, and a wonderfully viscous and spoiled Mary-Louise Parker) make it an enjoyable afternoon at the cinema never-the-less.

Micmacs is the truly amazing, charming, and creative gem of the group. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie) gives us the world of the luckless Bazil. While a boy, Bazil's father is killed by a land mine, destroying his family and childhood. Years later, the quiet life he's made for himself is again sent into turmoil by a stray bullet finding his head, which he barely survives. Now, out on the streets, he's taken in by an underground group of misfits and petty thieves (think Terry Gilliam directing Fagan, the Artful Dodger and the rest of the Oliver Twist gang), who help him exact revenge on the companies who made the landmine and the bullet.

But that plot, and characters like Elastic Girl, Slammer, and Calculator, only scratch the surface of how wildly inventive and visually stunning this movie is. I saw one review that said it was like a live action Toy Story. Having not seen the Toy Story series (see my rules for summer movies above), I can't say how accurate that is, but I would say that the style owes much to Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. There is a political message underneath all that creativity, but Jeunet slips it in quietly and without disturbing the creative flow. Best movie of the summer so far.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Post Election Hangover

Yesterday was election day in California, and I have to say, I'm pleasantly surprised with the results on most of the ballot propositions - an area where I was preparing myself for bitter disappointment.

Despite putting $46 million of our (ratepayers) money into Prop 16, PG&E's power grab attempt went down to defeat, along with Prop 17, Mercury Insurance's "please make us give you a discount" attempt. Nobody is giving you something for nothing, and just enough people saw through these two corporate abuses of democracy for what they were, and by slim margins turned them down. Good for California and good for Californians! We're not as dumb as we might look.

My one really big disappointment was the passage of Proposition 14, deceptively and cynically titled, "Increases Right to Participate in Primaries." The idea here is to eliminate the power of political parties, by putting all primary candidates on a single ballot. The top two vote getters then face off in the November general election.

Now, if you read this blog regularly, you know I'm a registered independent, and all for breaking the stranglehold of the two major parties ... if it is to open up the process to more choice. But nature abhors a vacuum, a rule that also applies to political power. In this case, party structure is simply replaced by money and name recognition.

The diagram from the official voter information pamphlet (shown here) says it all. Instead of several party primaries, each with maybe four or five candidates selecting their nominee to face off in a general election where again there will be a half-dozen candidates, each representing a different party, we'll now have a primary with a confusing dozen or more candidates leading up to a general election choice of only two ... and both potentially of the same party!

Supporters say this will give us "more moderate candidates" as everybody will have to play to the middle. But to rise above a field of 15-20 candidates in a state the size of California, it will only give us better connected and wealthier candidates. More corporate shills to continue the status quo.

Speaking of which, the Republicans nominated two former Silicon Valley CEOs for top office; eBay's Meg Whitman for Governor and Hewlett Packard's Carly Fiorina for Senate.

In her victory speech, Whitman, who will face off against former Governor Jerry Brown in November, said that she was ready to "shake up" the Governor's office with thinking from "outside Sacramento." Whitman (who spent over $70 million of her own cash to secure the nomination) said she'd be a different kind of Governor because she isn't "beholden to anybody."

Now, if she were following a Democratic Governor, or even a Republican "career politician," that might be a good argument. But she's hoping to follow the non-politician, self-funded millionaire, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Has she not been paying attention? Probably not. She's so new to this "democracy thing" that she's rarely bothered to even vote in her adult life.

The one thing I can say for Whitman, however, is that she at least was a successful CEO, not that that will automatically translate to governing success. On the other hand, Carly Fiorina, who will be trying to unseat Senator Barbara Boxer in November, just about destroyed Hewlett Packard. When they finally fired her, their stock value was about 1/3 what it was when she was hired. Along that path, she laid off over 30,000 employees, sent thousands more jobs from California to Asia, and accepted a $20 million golden parachute to leave Silicon Valley. Ummm... she's seeking to represent me?

At Fiorina's celebration, a spokesman for the California Republican Party expressed his joy at having these two candidates to run against the Democratic "professional politicians." He says he welcomes the perspective of these leaders because they'll remove the shackles of oppressive regulation from businesses. How he managed to say that with a straight face while millions of gallons of oil having been spilling into the Gulf of Mexico for the past 50 days show that he learned some acting skills from the current Governator.

This post is getting quite long ... sorry, that's what happens when I don't blog for a while ... so I'll end it here, but in coming months I'll explain why I fully support Jerry Brown, our once and future Governor, and our Senator Barbara Boxer. And where, and why, I will likely not be voting a straight Democratic ticket in November.

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