Movies in November, 2015 featuring Nine to Five, Lime Kiln Club Field Day, The Bad News Bears, The Lennon Report, Far From Vietnam, Bridge of Spies, and more

I saw quite a few movies this month, partly because I added in some of the movies watched at home. In any case, here we go!:

  1. Nine to Five on DVD at home, November 3: Although I saw this at the Dryden a few years ago, I never reviewed it, so here's that review of when Jenn and I settled in to watch it. In short, it's a hilarious comedy that brilliantly lays out the benefits of workplace equality and workers rights. Lily Tomlin plays Violet, a secretary at Consolidated Companies who's assigned a new hire, Judy (Jane Fonda). Most of the women in the office despise their boss, Franklin—brilliantly played by Dabney Coleman to be a humorous, cartoonish exaggeration of a "sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot". And they sneer at the apparent affair he's having with his busty secretary Doralee (Dolly Parton). When Violet is passed up for a long-deserved promotion, she, Judy, and Doralee half-hatch, half-stumble into a bizarre plot to turn the office around. It's all a wild and fun ride that has all the comeuppance one could want.
  2. Wait Until Dark on DVD at home, November 6: Jenn and I revisited this popular old film. It's still tense and interesting, but neither of us could quite get over the extraordinarily convoluted plot by the bad guys. It's almost plausible that Alan Arkin's bizarre sadist Roat would have been amused by it, but even he was too practical.
  3. Lime Kiln Club Field Day at the Dryden, November 10: I was quite amazed and impressed by this presentation of 1913 footage of "the earliest known surviving feature with a cast of black actors" (according to the Dryden calendar). Since it was incomplete, the story had some gaps, but the gist was there and it was rather amusing. I'd like to draw attention to Bert Williams—the star of the film (in black-face among his unadulterated costars, ostensibly to make the film amenable to white audiences of the time)—who was as much a multidisciplinary virtuoso as the more well-known Duke Ellington. (And I can't omit a mention of the dazzling beauty Odessa Warren Grey, capably playing his love interest.) The film was reconstructed by MoMA Associate Curator Ron Magliozzi, and Preservation Officer Peter Williamson from seven untitled reels of unassembled negative footage from a 1939 acquisition from the Biograph studio upon its closure. Although a print was struck in 1976, it wasn't until 2014 that the footage was analyzed and assembled into a sort-of working print.
  4. The Bad News Bears on DVD at home, November 12: I didn't sell the film well enough, but Jenn agreed to watch. We both enjoyed it a lot—both of us under the mistaken belief that it's film for kids. It's actually more of a tale of redemption for the drunk, washed up, ex-baseball-player coach Butterworth, played perfectly by Walter Matthau. And it's funny. And the kids are all great—a rare treat in a movie with a lot of them.
  5. Tea & Cake (Kirsty Robinson, U.K. 2015, 92 min.) at the Little, November 13: Jenn and I stopped by this film at the High Falls Film Festival. I thought it was overall good, but quite uneven. Some of the color correction and cinematography were lacking, and the film was full of way too many ideas at once. Generations, friends, coming-of-age, growing up, moving out, the reality of one's dream job, one's visible life versus their internal life, tragedies, aging parents, and self-image all crammed into one movie.
  6. Odd Brodsky at the Little, November 14: Jenn liked this selection from the High Falls Film Festival more than I did. While I couldn't fault it for having a good heart—the story of trying, failing, and flailing in L.A.'s entertainment mecca—I didn't care for the bland characters and underwhelming story. On the technical side, while production values were generally quite high (especially in cinematography), much of the audio was ADR with the distracting artificiality of a studio recording.
  7. Bob Roberts at home on DVD, November 15: It was hard for me to watch this as its a little to close to reality … in it, a slick politician wins the hearts of voters through a campaign that celebrates greed and disparity. Written, directed by, and starting Tim Robbins, his political leanings antithetical to his character were glaringly obvious.
  8. The Lennon Report at the Little, November 16: Select as the winning narrative of the High Falls Film Festival, I decided to check it out. Its a great film that documents in near-real-time the sad and solitary events as John Lennon died from the gunshot wounds that cut his life short. When I heard about it at the festival, I thought it was a documentary as the filmmakers did extensive research into the events, interviewing everyone involved. As such, it's got a procedural feel to it, but somehow the lives of everyone involved make for compelling, rich characters.
  9. Underground at the Dryden, November 18: Having seen the recent documentary about the Weather Underground, I was curious to see what the members had to say at (what was to be) toward the end of their active period. The five interviewees formed what was the bulk of the most radical arm of a progressive organization, active in the early 1970s. After three of their friends were killed making bombs, they rethought their actions and decided to destroy property while (successfully) not injuring or killing anyone. Their ideas—that human beings have right to their lives, that the imperialist stance of America was wrong, and that the capitalist system that forced people to wallow in poverty was wrong—still ring true today. And that's when I realized I had lost hope. Here were these young people, fully believing in the possibility of revolution in America, had no idea that the election of Ronald Regan just five years out would result in inequalities and injustices for the next 35 years and counting. All they had worked for was for naught as it would be swept away in the coming decades.
  10. Smokey and the Bandit at home on DVD, November 19: I've been curious to revisit this odd film from the 1970s that was one of a couple of films at the center of the CB craze. Burt Reynolds plays The Bandit alongside his buddy Snowman played by country music star Jerry Reed, and against Jackie Gleason's hilariously over-the-top racist sheriff. The story is ridiculously simple—written by stuntman friend of Reynolds Hal Needham—The Bandit is bet he can't bootleg 800 cases of beer across state lines in under 28 hours. He and Snowman barrel through the highway and meet a young woman on the run from her planned marriage (Sally Field). As simple as it is, it's actually a goofy fun little movie.
  11. Sliding Doors on DVD at home, November 20: I saw this many years ago and remembered it was fairly good (according to IMDb's oddly detailed ratings, I gave it a 5/10 on May 22, 1999), but I have a "policy" that all reviews older than 10 years are invalid and this is no exception. The premise is fascinating: imagine if we could see what happens when some inconsequential event causes a major change in one's life? The execution, however, is severely lacking. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Helen who, after getting fired from her job, just misses a subway train / just catches a subway train home. As such, she is unaware / finds out about an affair her boyfriend is having (a discount Hugh Grant) and her life is suddenly changed. The rest of the film follows both lives until eventually reverting back to one story. The problem is the story is rather inane. Her boyfriend has no redeeming qualities yet inexplicably earns the undying love of two very attractive women; and although the other woman's story is unexplored, Helen is at least also successful. And both Helen and her boyfriend each have best friends whose functions are as sounding boards for their lives. So unfortunately most of the movie both Jenn and I were left wondering, "who cares?" and "why wasn't Paltrow's character just made an American so she could avoid that embarrassing fake accent?"
  12. A Manly Man and My Best Girl at the Dryden, November 24: The short "A Manly Man" was terrible, albeit only shown as an example of Mary Pickford's earliest work. My Best Girl was much better. Pickford was introduced by her carrying pots from a stockroom. As she walked, she dropped some and kept bending and picking them up—all the while a don't see her face … a clever and amusing way to introduce the star. The story was refreshingly mature and Pickford's love interest was well defined. I really did understand her appeal … at one point I found myself reading her lips and suddenly confronted by the reality of her having been alive and vibrant. It was kind of a weird, brief moment of pseudo connection.
  13. Loin du Vietnam (Far From Vietnam) at the Dryden, November 25: A very difficult movie for me to watch, it's a film showing the tumultuous opinions about the Vietnam War at its height. Although there were a few disturbing images, the most challenging parts had to do with the absolute futility of changing the minds of people who support war. One segment was basically a frustrated monologue, centering on the duality of living a privileged life that is predicated on the spills of past war that rang painfully true.
  14. Me and the Boys and Bachelor's Affairs at the Dryden, November 27: Jenn and I checked out this second installment in the UCLA Film Preservation program. The short was quite entertaining—just a couple songs performed by a jazz band (that apparently included an uncredited 20-year-old Benny Goodman on clarinet). Bachelor's Affairs was also rather entertaining. It's about a "middle-aged playboy" who is tricked into "marrying a beautiful but vacuous young blonde, after her older sister has expertly set the bait". It was fun, witty, and ribald, just as promised.
  15. Pulp Fiction at the Dryden, November 28: What a treat for Jenn and I to see a nice clean 35mm print of this defining Quentin Tarantino classic. I remember when I saw this (I think when it came out) and I had a hard time with the then-new-to-me non-linear, interrelated storylines involving a couple hitmen, their boss, a boxer, and a couple petty thieves. It really deserves its praise as all facets of the viewing experience are top notch, making the 2½ hour run-time paced perfectly.
  16. Bridge of Spies at the Cinema, November 30: I headed out to see the biopic double-feature starting with one about a New York lawyer who's selected to defend an unpopular, captured Soviet spy during the heart of the Cold War. With affable Tom Hanks as the lawyer, our affection for him is automatically assured (although I'm sure there are some Hanks haters out there who'd disagree). And Steven Spielberg gives a light touch to his trademark style, allowing the story to speak for itself with only a few heavy-handed metaphors. It turns out this real-life lawyer has a knack for negotiations and diplomacy and is invited to negotiate a spy-for-spy trade which he tries to leverage into a 2-for-1 deal. Overall it's an enjoyable movie to watch and offers a view of someone I never knew existed.
  17. Steve Jobs at the Cinema, November 30: In the second film, Michael Fassbender does his best to emulate Steve Jobs—the founder of Apple Computers who was infamously difficult to work with—but doesn't manage to convey the depth and totality of thought that I've come to understand Jobs had. Unfortunately, the meticulous reconstruction of Apple product releases overshadows the flimsy three-act story. In other words, if you had no idea of the cultural significance of Apple, Macintosh, and NeXT, the film would seem like a flat "so what?" Yeah, Jobs is an incessant jerk to the talented people all around him. So what? He had a challenging relationship with his oldest ally Steve Wozniak (underwhelmingly played by Seth Rogen). So what? Product launches are stressful. So what? And he was a lousy family man, treating his daughter and her mother like nuisances. So what? The whole thing really failed to come together.

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Thoughts on Steve Jobs "Lost Interview"

I decided to check out Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview at the Dryden. I think it was something to do with semi-morbid curiosity, and I feel like I have a connection somehow — what with being 10 years younger, but with a similar hunger for electronics and computers. We had Apple II's in our high school, and I learned machine programming and did some hacking, although my main expertise was with the TRS-80 Model III (and later Color Computer) we had at home. What I mean to say is that the seeds of how we lived our lives were rooted in the same kind of stuff.

Anyway, Robert X. Cringley, "during the making of his TV series Triumph of the Nerds about the birth of the PC, … taped an hour-long interview with Steve Jobs who proved witty, outspoken, and visionary." This was in 1995: 10 years after Jobs was ousted from Apple, during the time when he was developing NeXT computers on his own, a year prior to selling NeXT to Apple (which became the foundation for OS X), and 18 months before returning to Apple to take over as CEO.

From the film, I gather interviews Steve Jobs almost never gave interviews. In fact, I can't recall ever seeing him do one, knowing his presence only from the Apple shareholder meetings he was famous for. So it was a rare treat to see not only the interview, but also getting to see pretty much the whole thing without being edited down for television.

At one point, Jobs says he thinks computers are the greatest invention ever made. I reflexively agreed — I do everything with computers, and my job is centered around them — but I think I also agree more deeply. It's one of only a few tools ever invented that improve upon the qualities of the mind (akin to language, writing, books, etc.) rather than as a tool for saving labor or for improving health and safety. For instance, after the film, I noted that Joseph Fourier developed his Fourier analysis in the 1800's, but at that time, it was little more than theoretical math — worthless to everyday society. But with computers, we exploit it all the time, using it as a foundation for JPEG image compression and MP3's.

Also, I always seem to be surprised that someone had made a claim about the impact and significance of the Internet from its early days, as when Jobs claimed we'd be doing everything on the World Wide Web and the Internet. I remember, though, that it was pretty much obviously a big deal. Heck, even I had my first website sometime in 1996, although I didn't know exactly how it would manifest (nor did anybody else).

Overall I found it to be a fascinating time capsule, well worth seeking out.

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The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at the MuCCC

I was tired of running all around and today I had a full afternoon and evening of events to try and attend — heck, it's Sunday and I don't feel like leaving the house. Alas, I did go to just one thing: I headed to The Multi-Use Community Cultural Center (MuCCC) (142 Atlantic Ave.) for a reading of The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. I really didn't have much background (despite curating the events calendar on this site, I don't actually read much into descriptions) and I only recalled a passing interest in attending.

It is a monologue written by Mike Daisey and performed/read by Spencer T. Christiano which is a first-person account of how a fan of technology (and especially products of Apple) became disillusioned by visiting a factory in China. Christiano did a fantastic job voicing Daisey, who interweaves three tales: one is his own, personal relationship with technology, the second is the story of Apple, and the third is the story of his visit to Shenzhen, China. I found his style fantastically conversational and personal. The way he writes about technology demonstrates a deep understanding, and he genuinely seems like an eyes-wide-open kind of guy who is willing to lay any judgmental views right in the open.

But you don't have to take my word for it: you can go to his site and download the whole monologue as a PDF and read it for yourself (it's licensed with his unique open-source-like agreement).

I was drawn in to the story quickly. I grok the lust for technology, and his description of that experience fits with my own (for an example, one of the things he loved about his first computer — an Apple IIc — was that the keyboard was in Garamond; if that makes no sense to you, then you might not fully appreciate his geekery.) I have a fairly good understanding of the origins of Apple, and Daisey's details fully corroborated my own. And when he began describing the "retail" side of Shenzen, it fit with what I had heard, such as when SparkFun visited there (although I far more appreciate his description, "Shenzhen looks like Blade Runner threw up on itself. LEDs, neon, and fifteen-story-high video walls covered in shitty Chinese advertising: it’s everything they promised us the future would be.")

So when he started talking about what the "manufacturing" side of Shenzen was like, I could only assume it was just as accurate. I realize it's a logical fallacy — a twist on the "ad hominem" fallacy — where I believe a fact to be true solely because I found other facts true.

He then outlined the conditions in the factories which were different from, and, by my gauge, worse than what I had envisioned. I had an impression of workers on an assembly-line putting together and testing electronics.

But I didn't expect it to be in gigantic rooms where absolute silence is enforced. I didn't expect such a lack of machinery (it's cheaper to pay a Chinese worker to install a screw than to make a machine to do it, presumably until some astonishingly large scale.) I didn't expect there to be suicide nets on the outside of the building. I didn't expect regular working hours to be so extreme (although the government-approved union-busting and blacklisting would naturally make that so). I certainly didn't expect these factories to employ the "best and the brightest" — a college education in China gets you a job assembling iPhones.

But then, like I say, you can read all about this yourself in a far more engaging and entertaining form.

So stepping out of the writing, and stepping out of the monologue and the performance, there's an interesting twist to the story. NPR radio show This American Life had Daisey perform an abbreviated form of the monologue for the January 6, 2012 show. But then they did something unprecedented: on their March 16, 2012 show, they retracted the episode, claiming that Daisey lied.

Now this is unique, first because it's the first time This American Life actually retracted an episode. But more important, it's not a retraction because the facts of the account are false, it's because they didn't happen to Daisey personally as he had claimed. According to the after-performance discussion with Spencer T. Christiano, producer John W. Borek, and director Kelly Webster, Daisey does not dispute the fabrications and says it is a work of theater, not journalism. On the Star Wars Modern blog titled What Mike Daisey Did Wasn't Fair – It Was Right., John Powers puts it better than I can: "when did Ira Glass graduate from being a talk radio Casey Kasem to NPR's Dan Rather?"

I'll briefly mention that there's a flurry of activity about this. My take [I'd add, "as if you care", but you, dear reader, are indeed reading this, so I'll meta-self-referentially say it parenthetically] is that journalists like to believe the rules of journalism produce a work that is closest to reality. The truth is, no writing is remotely close to the truth. No account of any event — be it written, photographed, filmed, or recorded — has ever been an adequate substitute for reality. However, it is a new truth, just as this blog entry is a new essay that's about a new performance of a new monologue by Mike Daisey which is a new transcript based on new performances of Daisey which is a new account … umm … etcetera.

But what I think is so valuable about The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is the way it paints a picture of the hierarchy that exists. A journalist could play by-the-book and quote a business person, and a worker, and a technology geek, and a Foxconn liaison, and Steve Jobs — and they could never manage to put it together to describe the chain of events. For instance, here's an attempt to explain the hierarchy I'm talking about:

  • An evangelical Apple geek eagerly awaits the newest product from (although having never met the man)
  • … Steve Jobs whose staff designs a new version of their latest product and sends a representative to Foxconn in Shenzen, China to meet (a group of strangers, both in relation and in culture)
  • … the representatives at Foxconn and they all go to dinner and mingle and go to the shiny factory meeting room and discuss the product when the Apple representative asks to see the factory floor, so the Foxconn people make a call to (knowing they should show an idealized version)
  • … the factory manager who sets up (not wanting to lose work and get fired)
  • … a mock factory — well, a real factory floor with real products, but with the child labor replaced by their oldest workers who (desperate for employment)
  • … go along with the charade and work hard and say all the right things so the representative can report back about the great working conditions (all the while wondering why American workers can't be so happy for work).

So go back in that list and find the bad guy — find the person who caused the dangerous working conditions, or the child labor. This is where journalism falls down: there is no person who is at fault.

Those parenthetical phrases are key: they describe the gaps that are filled in by the systems we have. Ergo, it is the system itself that is the problem. The system rewards people for making small lies to preserve its own profitability and we humans have created this new life form.

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