Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Slingshot Hip Hop

Slingshot - the preferred weapon of the Intifada and young King David in his faceoff with Goliath. Director/ producer/editor Jackie Reem Salloum sees Palestinian rap as a political weapon, giving voice to a people, creating unity across checkpoints and walls. Her documentary traces Palestinian rap from its origins in the nineties through to the near present, capturing the stutters and stumbles of flawed efforts to imitate US hitmakers, the excitement as a political message emerges with "Who's The Terrorist" by DAM (pictured) in Lyd, Israel and the efforts of young rappers in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel to spread the rap gospel and communicate with one another. She captures the movement from the rappers' view point with realism and flair.

Slingshot is a little heavy handed at times, with soliloquy after soliloquy on the despair of living under an occupying force cutting to a new rhyme or concert, but on the whole the spirit and the excitement of the young rappers comes through. This is Salloum's first full length film, and she trained in fine arts, not movie making, so her effort as a producer and director is remarkable. As an editor she still needs some practice - this movie would have far more impact if the length was cut dramatically. Every point could be made in two thirds the time. It is worth watching, but not at the cost of a full price theater ticket. Wait for a rental and be prepared to do some fast forwarding.

One footnote, the film adopts the view of the Palestinian rappers. Although the language is restrained (for a film about rap) and they don't directly promote violence (at least not in the subtitles of this movie), the Palestinian rappers' list of things they like about Israel is remarkably short. Some of the Mountainside, NJ audience was clearly offended that Israel was portrayed in a negative light, with little effort at balance and no ray of hope via a reconciliation ending. Chuck Rose deserves credit for showing a film that might cost him some customers and defending the proposition that the filmmaker can tell her own story from her own perspective.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Preview Review Catch Up

Let The Right One In - Swedish vampire flick gets massive MSM kudos because it's a tweener love story instead of the Texas Chain Saw Massacre. True, as far as it goes. Now read Dracula, the original novel. watch Mighty Joe Young. Horror works best with characters, story and suspense - the gore is always just a sideshow. Nothing really that new here, and a romance between 12 year olds is pretty creepy, even if one of them is centuries old. This is not a bad film, but it's overrated, worth a rental at best.

Moscow, Belgium - A character study of Matty, a 40 year old postal clerk choosing between A) her art teacher husband, who has moved out in a trial separation so he can have a fling with one of his 19 year old students but keeps telling Matty he is undecided about coming back, B) Johnny, a persistent truck driver who is violent when drunk, and C) throwing herself under a train. Matty is capably played by Barbara Sarafian - she's the customer at the car dealer who keeps stubbornly repeating that she just wants basic transportation but walks out with a fully loaded Vette because a good salesman knows no sometimes means yes. It's easy to understand why Matty might not want her husband back, in fact it's hard to understand why she doesn't just shoot him. Johnny and the train are running a pretty close race but we won't spoil the ending. Not enough here to justify a full price seat, once again a rental contender.

Gitmo Repurposed

Bush Decides to Keep Guantanamo Open - Calm down, this is not an anti-W rant. Let's face it, the guy has a legitimate problem. No other country will accept the Gitmo inmates (Gitmates), regardless of where they were born or captured. The Gitmates are the political version of a credit default swap. Transfer to the US mainland, where even W sometimes concedes that US law actually applies, is W's worst nightmare. The Gitmates and their lawyers, a swarm of pesky, white shoe, pro bono punks, would sue the pants off him. Every time W brings a Gitmate to trial in Gitmo before one of his new military tribunals, another headline grabbing whiner assigned to prosecute resigns his commission. Apparently these wusses are too honorable to participate in a conviction based on confessions coerced with torture and evidence that's too secret to reveal to a military court. Even the Uighars, basically victims of Chinese repression who even W doesn't think are really terrorists, are a PR pitfall. Sure W could just release them to willing host families in the US, but that would be like admitting it was a mistake to arrest them and hold them in a black hole for six years.

What to do? The MBA President should be smelling opportunity here. Location - Gitmo is in exotic and sunny Cuba, a tourist mecca just waiting to happen. Facilities - a secure gated community (aka heavily armed camp) is exactly what it takes to start a four star resort in this part of the Caribbean, check out Haiti if you have any questions. Special Attractions - Year after year the torture chambers in the Tower of London are the hottest attraction in Europe, need we say more. Affordable Labor - Let's start with the kitchen and waitstaff - Mr. President did you know that Uighar cuisine is prized throughout Central Asia? Security staff - already on site, just a few stop loss orders to keep the GIs in place while we retrain some of the Gitmates. Best of all, it's free. No law in Gitmo means we can just keep the Gitmates there forever, no minimum wage, no tips, just the room and board W was spending anyway. Management? VP "Happy Dick" Cheney will soon be available to fill the key position, Social Director. With this ultra low cost structure Gitmo is perfectly positioned as the resort of Joe Six Pack, the Red State Club Med.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Baylor Sacked by Its Own Faculty

Baylor Faculty Members Condemn SAT Retaking - In response to yesterday's post by As Good As News, Baylor's Faculty Senate passed a resolution criticizing the school's practice of paying freshmen to retake the SATs. "This practice is academically dishonest and should be discontinued", read the faculty motion.

Dr. Phillip Ballinger, Director of Admissions at the University of Washington, served on a panel studying use and misuse of the SATs for a national admissions counseling organization. Ballinger's reaction to the Baylor SAT scheme: "..people removed their brains and went to Mars."

Sounds like fighting words to As Good As News. Sensing an opportunity to turn a typically overheated academic spat into a shooting war that might become the Bunker Hill, or at least the Boston Massacre, of Texas secession, we arranged a second exclusive interview with John Barry, Baylor's Vice President of BS, who brought along Reagan Ramsower, Baylor's Dean of Dollars.

AGAN - Dr. Ramsower, you approved the plan as win-win, higher SATs for the school, more aid for the students. Why couldn't you just give out more aid - period. How does raising SAT scores for students who are already in college help the student? How does it do anything other than help Baylor game the US News rankings?

D$ - Gaming the rankings helps everyone in the Baylor community. More high school seniors apply and attend. Alumni give more. The whole campus just feels better about itself.

AGAN - OK, but won't US News and other college rankers just take steps to put Baylor back on an equal footing with other schools - for example, insist on SATs taken before high school graduation for any data used in college rankings? Isn't there some chance that somebody will get pissed and just throw Baylor out of the rankings?

VPBS - Calm down son, no one is throwin Baylor out of anything. We are followin all the rules, maybe we just got a little chalk on our cleats on this one. If the rules change, we'll go along. We can play some defense and just keep lookin for another opportunity for the Bears to push one across the goal line.

AGAN -What do you think of the resolution by Baylor's own Faculty Senate branding the SAT scheme "academically dishonest"?

D$ - We prefer "financial aid plan" to "SAT scheme". Waco is part of the USA, at least for the moment, and everyone is entitled to their own opinion, even those Trotskyite whiners in the Faculty Senate.

AGAN - What about Dr. Ballinger's comment, did you remove your brains and go to Mars? The fallout from the publicity on this thing has to outweigh any benefit Baylor got from sliding up a few notches in the US News rankings? And what do you mean "for the moment"?

D? - It's easy for Ballinger to talk, he works at a state school. Those guys don't understand what it takes to keep a 14,000 student university afloat without standing on the taxpayers' shoulders.

VPBS - Nothin is backfirin here. Our core constituency, thats alumni with check books, appreciate good old Baptist ingenuity when they see it. This whole thing will be forgotten by the time you post.

AGAN - And "for the moment"?

D$ - Huh?

AGAN - You said Waco was part of the USA "for the moment".

D$ - No I didn't.
VPBS - (glaring maniacally at D$) We need a little break now.

AGAN - Messrs. Barry and Ramsower never returned from the little break and we have been unable to reestablish contact. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Baylor's Game Plan

Baylor Rewards Freshmen Who Retake SATs - Baylor University pays its freshmen $300 per head to retake the SATs. That's right, the same SATs they took to gain admission. John Barry, Baylor's VP of BS explained that the purpose of encouraging the already admitted students to take the SATs again was so that more would qualify for financial aid. As Good As News arranged a follow-up interview with Mr. Barry:

AGAN - Mr. Barry, couldn't you just give out more financial aid by lowering the qualifying scores without paying freshmen to retake the SATs?

VPBS - No Comment.

AGAN - Is there any real reason for Baylor to do this - other than gaming the ranking system at US News & World Report by reporting scores from SATs taken by Baylor freshmen (who test in a relaxed atmosphere knowing they are already admitted), when other colleges are ranked based on scores from SATs taken by high school juniors and seniors competing under tremendous pressure?

VPBS - Well as I said, everybody at Baylor is very pleased with the higher scores.

AGAN - Why not have your grad students retake SATs and report them to US News, wouldn't they score higher than the freshmen?

VPBS - Thank you, we'll look into that.

AGAN - Baylor has over 3,000 freshmen but only 861 retook the SATs, despite the $300 reward. Does this mean A) the average Baylor student is wealthy, B) the average Baylor freshman paid someone to take their SATs for them in high school and can't risk exposure now or C) all of the above?

VPBS - Can I go to the bathroom now?

AGAN - Is Baylor still affiliated with the Baptist Church?

VPBS - Very much so, and Baptists all over the country are very pleased with the higher scores.

AGAN - Where does Baylor stand on Texas secession?

VPBS - The University hasn't taken any official position, but unofficially the administration is solidly pro Lone Star Republic. For us, it would be the good old days, we were chartered by the Republic of Texas and we'd love to go back. The way we see it, life would be a lot easier if we were just competing with Aggies, Horn Frogs and Mustangs. OK, let's face it. Off the record, (spoiler alert - do not read on if you feel constrained by any journalistic scruples - obviously not an issue for As Good As News, we report, you decide) the SAT thing is a gimmick to make us look better. But we are desperate. Have you ever seen Baylor, ever been to Waco? Pretty bleak, right? A lot of people around here think those Branch Davidians weren't so much crazy as just really desperate to leave. The closest thing we've got to excitement is W's ranch, and that was down to four visitors last year. Now add in the tiny little problem that Baylor is dry. That's right. We're trying to recruit students to attend a school in Waco, a school in Waco that bans alcohol. A school with a football team that went 0-8 in conference last year. Now if you think we're cheating a little in the US News rankings, well that's like saying a blind man is cheating when he uses a cane. So write your snotty little blog, we're stickin with our game plan, and if US News doesn't like it they can change the rules.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Black Balloon Soars

The Black Balloon - Thomas (Rhys Wakefield) is a teenager moving into a new home and a new school - life would be so much easier if he could just fit in, but his autistic brother Charlie (Luke Ford) makes the whole family different. Their mother Maggie (Toni Collette) is tough enough to hold everyone together, but her difficult pregnancy adds to the pressure on Thomas. Thomas finds romance with Jackie (Gemma Ward), a beautiful classmate who 's drawn to Thomas partly because she sees his caring relationship with Charlie. When Charlie startles Jackie with some surprising behavior at a family birthday dinner, Thomas finally explodes, then picks up the pieces and begins to accept the fact that Charlie can never change, only he can.

Director and co-writer Elissa Downs captures the love, resentment, humor and resolve inside this family with exceptional authenticity based on her experience with autistic siblings. Like Canvas, The Black Balloon stays squirm in your seat real from start to finish with no sacharine added, but Black Balloon does a better job of mixing in lighter moments. Downs draws on some of the zaniness within her own family (apparently considerable, including the liberal use of teddy bears to lubricate intra family communication) to make this movie funny and sometimes uplifting without a hint of artificiality.

The Black Balloon is worth the price of a theater seat (opens in November in New York) and certainly more than worthy of a rental. Best of all, if you have a chance to see this movie at a festival where Elissa Downs will appear, don't miss it. Think Hamptons this weekend if you can make it. Her post-screening Q&A is a stand-up act that is ready for prime time on Comedy Central.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Suicide Net?

Golden Gate Managers Vote to Build Suicide Net - The suicide net will hang twenty feet below the Golden Gate's walkway, extending out twenty feet on either side. Some questions the management needs to consider:

- Won't the serious suicides just take their business elsewhere? Unless the Golden Gate Bridge itself is causing people to commit suicide, the number of suicides prevented by the net will be approximately zero. Those truly intent on death will just pick another bridge. NIMBY managers of the Golden Gate, aren't you just sending your problems to the Oakland Bay Bridge?

- Will there be many customers for the net? Maybe one or two serious suicides who don't know about the net and jump at night without seeing it, but certainly scores of thrill seekers with no interest in suicide who can't resist a dare and scores of troubled people attracted by the opportunity to commit a dramatic near suicide - so much more exciting than taking just enough aspirin to pass out after calling 911. The net will be filled with people, far more than the number now jumping off the Golden Gate.

-What will you do with the people caught in the net, the fortunate exemplars of reverse Darwinism? Maybe you should just empty the net once a day onto a very tall boat with a very big, very soft mattress laid out as a landing area. Imagine dozens of people tumbling from the suicide net onto a giant mattress every day at Noon. The daily rescue itself would become a tourist attraction and the Golden Gate Net might eventually rival the Bridge as a San Francisco Icon.

- Can you build this thing fast enough to help the many people who just lost their life savings in the financial crisis and are about to lose their jobs in the recession? Will the headlines about the net actually create a flurry of suicides, people eager to dive from the Golden Gate before it's too late? Maybe you should stop making announcements and just put this thing up quietly.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Headline Crawl 5

Markets Plunge / 3 Physicists Share Nobel Prize - How do we stop the Dow from plunging? The winning physicists theorized that CP violations (changes in in charge and parity leading to unexpectedly asymmetrical outcomes) would support a model of the universe in which only 3 generations of quarks exist. Got that? Well the new Large Hadron Collider will soon be testing the theory, and one of the predicted results is measurable anti-matter. And the connection to the markets? Financial analysts are optimistic that bringing the Collider on line will finally end the plunge in the Dow. If the Fed can't stop the market from crashing then the destruction of the universe in a chain reaction between matter and anti-matter should do the trick.

Nepal: Goddess is Appointed - The new Kumari is a three year old selected by a panel of judges who conducted a series of ancient ceremonies to choose the living goddess from several 2-4 year olds. Ancient Ceremonies? It would be nice to get some real reporting here - exactly what ceremonies do you use to pick a goddess? Senator McCain, why are you settling for a former Miss Wasilla, with the right ancient ceremonies you could have done so much better.

Gay Couples Rush to the Altar in California Ahead of November Vote - The rush is on, as gay couples get married now just in case California voters outlaw gay marriage by passing Proposition 8 in November. With apologies, As Good As News will take the low road (also known as Jay Leno Boulevard) - are these people nuts? If Prop 8 eliminates gay marriage, won't it knock out gay divorce? Til death do us part - and we mean it.

For Air Traffic Trainees, Games With a Serious Purpose - The FAA will need to hire and train 1700 air traffic controllers each year for the next decade, up from a few hundred a year thanks to the impending retirement of the many controllers hired following Ronald Regan's mass dismissal of strikers in the early 1980s. Video games simulating traffic control allow training for more new controllers with less supervision. The FAA is worried about finding enough hires, but this economy is about to produce several years worth of graduating seniors with few job opportunities and extensive video game experience. As Good As News thinks the problem will be too many applicants, not too few. The solution? A video game tournament, winners get the jobs.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Pray The Devil Back To Hell

Pray The Devil Back To Hell - This is the inspiring story of a network of Liberian women, regular women from all walks of life, who became fed up. Fed up with the constant struggle for power and wealth between dictators and war lords that turned young boys into rapists and murderers and turned the country into hell. The women begin by establishing an interfaith group that prays for peace, then courageously establish a peace vigil outside the presidential palace. When Ghana sponsors peace talks between Liberia's warring factions, some of the women travel to Accra to demonstrate for peace and monitor the talks. The war lords enjoy the good life and talk in circles, until the women get their attention with a sit-in that traps them in the the negotiating room until they promise to get serious. After a peace agreement is signed the women stay organized, supporting disarmament, voter registration and the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as Liberia's President.

The story is genuinely fascinating and inspiring, but the film is flawed. It's built around interviews with six of the women, and each is terrific, but something is missing: News stories that captured the concerns and the courage of the women that first stood up to the murderous dictator Charles Taylor by demanding peace outside his window; News stories of the sit -in by mothers and grandmothers at the peace talks in Ghana that trapped the macho warlords at the peace table. It's not director Gini Reticker's fault that the mainstream news coverage was limited mostly to atrocities. She uses what she can find and there is some archival footage, just not enough.

Pray The Devil Back To Hell is worth seeing just for the story, but wait for a video rental or PBS showing, don't spend $10 on a theater seat. There is a great movie in here somewhere, but this one spends a little too much time on talking heads. A full blown fictionalized epic with an exploration of Liberia's fascinating history could be a hit. A documentary that somehow captures the real tension of the story's highlights could do well, but this one needs at least a few more ingredients.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Dear Zachary - Just See It

Dear Zachary - Doctor Andrew Bagby is dead, murdered. His childhood friend, Kurt Kuenne creates a documentary about Andrew, one that begins as a letter to Zachary, Andrew's then unborn child. Much of the film is a powerful eulogy of a beloved, very human and immensely likeable friend, son and colleague who died too young. Like most moving eulogies, it has moments of hope and humor, but you will be crying throughout this movie.

Dear Zachary is also a true crime story, one with real suspense that will not be spoiled here. It's a telling indictment of the Newfoundland child welfare, extradition and bail systems. Finally, it is a tribute to Andrew's parents, who persevere through tribulations that make Job look pampered.

Kuenne is on the inside of this story twenty years before it begins, with footage of Andrew from the movies Kuenne shot as a preteen. He has the complete cooperation of Andrew's family and friends and he makes this film as a friend of Andrew with no bones about objectivity. This trips him up only once, when he overuses a mechanically yapping still photo of a judge who did not need any help from Kuenne to look ridiculous.

Kuenne has a lot of footage to work with and he generally edits wisely. While distracting you with the heartwrenching eulogy (most of the many tributes develop something new, but a few seem repetitive) Kuenne sneaks in character and story development and the documentary is suddenly grabbing you like a drama, one that's more powerful because it's real.

Kurt Kuenne produces, directs, scores, etc. MSNBC is distributing this film and it will open soon. Watch for it. An extended eulogy may not sound like a commercial smash, but see this movie. you will be glad you did.