Movie Extra 2 : Loving Vincent

For my second pick in this movie bonanza (being run at SlicetheLife), I take care of the “Historic/Biography” category with a visual stunner – 2017’s Loving Vincent.

Loving Vincent flew somewhat under the radar upon its release, rather like its subject did in his lifetime. It’s a look at the life and death of Vincent Van Gogh… but it’s also a whole lot more than that. Amazingly, we learn the great painted over 800 canvasses in his final eight years…but sold only one while alive.

The movie was the brainchild of Polish artist Doroto Kobiela, and is a collaborative project of Polish and British film companies. While interesting enough as a story, the thing that makes it memorable and outstanding was the method of making it. It is billed as the “first fully painted animated feature film.” Indeed, although using rotoscoping (which as I understand it is the method of using live action film and drawing over it for added realism), the movie is finished in the only way fitting a great painter. Its 95 minutes are comprised by 65 000 or more oil paintings! A staff of 125 professional painters created the movie by painting every scene in a style reminiscent of the great post-impressionist… so much so that we actually see some of his most famous works come to life – “”Wheat Field With Crows,” “Portrait of a Postman”, and of course “Starry Night.” The result is like a very high-end graphic novel come to life. To accentuate the story, the “present time” bits are in vibrant color while most of the flashback bits are told in a more photographic-looking B&W.

The story itself is essentially a bio of the last year or two of Van Gogh’s life. The artist was besides a painter, a prolific letter-writer. After his death, the local postmaster, a friend of his, finds a last letter Van Gogh had written to his brother, and he sends his son on a journey to deliver it in person. The son, Armand, (voiced by Douglas Booth), starts out grudgingly, thinking Vincent an insignificant crazy man… something mirrored unfortunately by the artist’s self-perception. “”What am I in the eyes of most people – a non-entity, an eccentric or an unpleasant person…in short the lowest of the low,” he’d written before adding “I should one day show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody has in his heart.”

Armand finds he can’t deliver it to Van Gogh’s brother Theo, but sets out to find a person who would care about it, meeting with those who knew him, loved him, even despised him along the way including the innkeeper where he’d spent his last months and the doctor who treated him. As the miles go by, the courier’s opinion of Van Gogh improves and in the end he not only finds himself an admirer but openly skeptical of the report that Van Gogh had commit suicide.

The film, which its producers described as “without a doubt, the slowest form of film-making ever devised in 120 years” had a budget of about $5.5 million, and made it back easily at the box office although it was far from a blockbuster. Critics tended to like it, with it winning the 2017 Vancouver International Film Festival award for best movie and being nominated for the Best Animated Movie Academy Award (which it lost to Coco.) Rotten Tomatoes call it “a dazzling visual achievement” and the only real complaints about it anywhere were that the visuals outdid the story somewhat. Indeed, Loving Vincent might be a bit of “style over substance” but since it still told a compelling story and the style was so good, its an entirely forgiveable shortfall.

In short, Loving Vincent is what you wished Art History lessons were like in high school. Once you see it, you’ll never feel indifferent again when you hear Don McLean sing “Starry, starry night…”

I saw it recently on Hulu, although you can find it in hard copy too if you look around.

I give it 4 swirly stars out of 5.

Will Big Money Biden Mean Burgers For Billionaires Only?

“I guess Biden’s gonna undo all the good Trump did,” a Republican said to me with a straight face on Inaugaration Day. I resisted the urge to query as to what in the U.S.’s decreased respect around the world or Covid death rate two and a half times higher per capita than neighboring Canada’s there was that was good. “He’s going to raise the minimum wage to $15, then it’ll be $15 for a hamburger.”

There are many things wrong with that assumption. Many, many things, but I find it is a fairly common assumption among the right-wing segment of the population, so I figured it was time to look at the theory.

To begin, let’s look at that idea that he’s bound to do so. While it is true several prominent Democrats like Bernie Sanders made a $15 minimum wage a major plank in their platform, Biden didn’t. And his rise to power was largely facilitated working as Barack Obama’s Vice President. Obama had eight years to increase the minimum wage and ended up raising it by … 70 cents an hour, or about 10%. For better or worse, the last Democrat president did very little to increase the pay of the lowest end of the workforce. It takes a leap of faith to assume that his second-in-command will thus radically change course and more than double it.

However, Joe Biden is expected to sign an executive order today regarding a $15 minimum wage. But it won’t raise the national minimum wage to that amount. Instead it only mandates federal contractors to pay their employees at least that much. As long as McDonald’s or Dollar Tree aren’t federal contractors, they can continue business as usual, paying as little as $7.25 an hour in much of the country. Because that, $7.25 an hour, is the federal minimum wage, although a number of states like Florida and Massachusetts have raised their minimums state-wide with no ill repurcussions. In California, the minimum is already $14, so a $15 wouldn’t really make a great deal of difference. Even staunchly Republican Alaska recognize that $7.25 isn’t a living wage and have their floor set at $10.34. For a point of comparison, to the north, Ontario in Canada has a minimum wage of $14, which converts to about $11 when currency exchange rates are factored in, and across the sea, Britain’s is 8.72 pounds per hour, or around $11.75 American.

The $7.25 might have been an adequate, though mediocre, minimum wage when it was set – in 2009. Back in 1968, it was $1.60 an hour… but a buck sixty bought a lot more then than it does now. Back then, gas averaged 34 cents per gallon, the average American car to put it in cost $2800 and the house with the driveway you’d park it in would be in the range of $20-25 000. If the wage had kept pace with inflation since then, it would now be around $19.33 an hour. Little wonder there’s a common perception that the rich keep getting richer and the poor, poorer.

But what about that $15 hamburger? Who could afford that? Well, obviously that would be rather prohibitive and no doubt cut into the viability of fast food chains, if nothing else. But at McDonald’s the golden standard for these types of hypotheticals, I find, the cost of a Big Mac, their prize burger, is $3.99. So even if it doubled, along with the minimum wage, it would be around $8. Still pricey to be sure. But…

…that argument somehow assumes that the cost of your two all beef pattied, sesame-seeded lunch is determined by the wages of the cashier and fry cook and nothing whatsoever else. In fact, needless to say, many factors come into play – the cost of the food itself (beef ain’t cheap!), the rent or mortgage on the restaurant building, the chunk of money the franchisee pays head office to cover advertising, the electricity, and of course, if things work out properly, a tidy profit. In fact, in their fiscal 2018 year, the Golden Arches reported total revenue of $21.1 billion, with a profit of some $5.9 B. That’s a lot of french fries!

It’s also a 28% profit. Google tells us that 10.6% of the fast food giant’s expenses go to wages. Since after profit, 72% of their total money is money they have coming in ends up going out, that means about 7.3% of the total pie (an apple one, of course) goes to the employees. And that includes everyone from managers on down. Their usual starting wage in states with the $7.25 minimum is $8, and many floor staff make more than that. As you can see, even if the minimum wage was doubled overnight, it would still only increase the cost of your Big Mac by 7%, or about 28 cents. And that would be if all their workers were making minimum, which clearly isn’t the case.

So that $15 hamburger… don’t worry about it. In a worst case scenario your four buck Big Mac might become a $4.25 one. In places like Texas or Alabama. In California, the added cost would be far less since they already pay their people far more. But on the positive side, the Congressional Budgetary Office say some 17 million Americans would benefit from such an increase. That might be underselling it, because if 17 million low wage earners suddenly get substantially more pay, they’re going to go out and put it back into the economy. They’re not notoriously big on stashing extra bucks in bonds or 20 year term deposits. It will have a side effect of generating a lot more business for retailers and realtors, and create ripple effects from there. Stores selling more means more work for truckers, more warehouses being built, more warehouse workers being hired on, to spend more in stores…and so on and so on.

I’m not sure I actually would advocate a quick jump to $15 an hour, but a substantial increase is necessary. Perhaps to $10 right away, $12 next year, $14 the year after. It’s not only the kind thing to do, it’s the economically sensible thing. That’s my two cents worth… even if it means I might indeed need to pay about two cents more for every takeout coffee I get down the road.

Movie Extra 1 – Moneyball

Thanks to Hanspostcard for inviting me to be a part of this movie bonanza! I was most pleased to take part in a similar event Slicethelife ran last summer and fall, which dealt with record albums.

Now while that one was easy to me – I don’t want to be a big braggard, but I have been a pretty serious music fan since I was a child and think I’m probably a bit more knowledgeable about artists and their works than a casual radio listener – this one could be a little bit of a challenge. I’m no Siskel or Ebert or Hollywood insider. But, like most people I watch movies and know what I like and what I don’t. So I don’t start out by claiming my list will be the ultimate list of the ten or twelve finest films ever created. Instead, I’m just going to fill you in on a movie per category that appeals to me and that has stood up to repeated viewings for me.

As Hans has noted by now, he’s chosen a dozen genres or types of movies for us to pick from (one per category), and I decided to start with “Sports”. There was no hidden meaning in it being the first pick, by the way. I’m not trying to count down from my most favorite to least or vice versa. This one just came to mind since I watched it recently and it’s a great representative of the category.

Anyhow, I am a bit biased because I am a huge baseball fan (some of you might even read my MLB blog), but I always feel like there are more good movies about baseball than all the other major American sports combined. Perhaps because it’s a part of the nation’s heritage and the “national pastime”. But there’ve been a lot of good ones through the past three or four decades . Many of them look at the struggles of individual players, real (The Rookie, 42) or made up (Bull Durham), others look at historical teams (A League of their Own, Eight Men Out.) The one I chose was closer to the latter. So my first movie pick is – Moneyball. The 2011 movie was based, loosely, on the non-fiction book by Michael Lewis, and starred Brad Pitt (who was not a bad fit for Billy Beane, but was quite possibly picked to help sell the sports flick to female viewers).

In short, the movie follows the 2002 Oakland A’s, a team coming off a great season but forced to try and fill holes in their roster. They had several big stars leave and a small budget to work with, posing rather a dilemma. Oakland is located in a large, prosperous metro area, but have the misfortune of being across the bay from the more popular San Francisco Giants and their better stadium. Crowds and money are usually scarce for them compared to most other teams. So their General Manager, Billy Beane, has the task of trying to stay competitive without having enough money to replace his departed stars with equal-quality players. Which is where it gets interesting.

Beane knows he can’t outspend big market teams like New York or Boston, so he needs to be smarter than them. He brings in a young computer nerd to be his assistant and starts to buy into the theories of Bill James, a bean factory security guard who happens to have a mind for numbers and stats. James has come up with brand new statistics that he thinks better show which players are great, average or need dumping. One very basic example the film mentions is that walks are not counted in many “conventional” stats like batting average. But a player who walks a lot gets on base and has a lot of chances to score runs…which win games. Few teams at that point paid much attention to that; Beane does.

Now this sounds rather esoteric and probably dry as fun as watching paint dry to non-fans. That’s where the brilliance of screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zuillian come in. They were able to find the human part of the story, the drama, which in turn makes it into a film on a larger scale anyone can relate to – a tale of underdogs fighting jerks, a tale of perseverance paying off.

Beane’s approach rubs many in the team and its organization the wrong way. He has conflicts with old scouts who refuse to buy into stats, relying on their guts instead (in one of the more humorous bits, a scout tells Beane a young player isn’t worth having because his girlfriend is ugly. “Shows he lacks confidence,” the scout declares). They hate the young nerd, Peter, played well by Jonah Hill, who comes in in a tie with a computer spouting numbers that go over the oldtimers heads. Beane has to choose who to believe, and takes a chance on several underdog players dismissed by other clubs based on his assistant’s numerical take. And then there’s the bench coach, a surly, old veteran, Art Howe, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, whose initial response is to simply scoff and refuse to obey his boss’ (Beane) instructions.

Needless to say, Beane’s experiment seems ill-fated at first, but then the team suddenly “gels” and goes on a historic winning streak. In the end, the A’s make the playoffs, he’s validated and ends up changing the nature of the game. Within three or four years, most teams would copy Beane’s approach.

The movie was in general accurate, but the true baseball fan will find a few errors in it as well as oversights. For instance, while the film focuses on the success of his “pet” players, washed up or under-rated types like Scott Hatteburg and Dave Justice, it ignores a solid core of established stars that had stayed on from the 2001 team, like Miguel Tejada, who won the league’s Most Valuable Player award that year. This doesn’t diminish the overall effect and appreciation of the film though.

A classic David vs Goliath battle, with a likeable hero and a goofy but equally likeable sidekick. It’s a film for everyone, that shows sports is a lot more than just what goes on on the field. Moneyball was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Pitt and Best Supporting Actor for Hill.

I give it four fastballs out of five!

Stimulus Cheques Aren’t The Only Thing That Will Be Out There

Fox Mulder must be grinning because, it seems, within six months the truth will be out there, to paraphrase The X-files skeptic.

Seems like it’s good not to tempt fate by suggesting “well 2021 can’t get any weirder than the one we just went through”. Because lost in the news static about the pandemic, the election passed and the one which was coming up (which is to say the Georgia senate) and all the other things, lost in almost 5600 pages of government snooze-talk was a little item which might just vindicate Mulder. And the real life champions of his TV cause. Because in those 5000+ pages of the Pandemic “Stimulus” bill designed to extend unemployment benefits and give taxpayers those beloved $600 cheques, there’s a directive to the Pentagon and “spy agencies” to spill the beans about aliens.

Nope, I’m not making that up. News agencies from Fox News to Yahoo all have confirmed there’s a bit in there telling the military and the “spy agencies” as well as the Director of National Intelligence to report within 180 days to Congress and the Armed Services. They are to basically tell them everything you wanted to know about UFOs but were afraid to ask. It should contain “detailed analysis of unidentified aerial phenomenon”, the current preferred term for “UFOs” or “little green men.” Apparently it managed to do what nothing else in the public forum these days did – namely have full “bipartisan support.” Wait – they can’t agree on the wording for relief payments to out of work people they both agree should happen, but they are all now A-OK with the story behind Roswell, the Phoenix lights and other things like that being revealed? 2021 can’t get any weirder? “Hold my beer,” the government says.

This perhaps should come as little surprise. In the past few years, the U.S. military has verified some videos taken by fighter pilots of UFOs deftly out-manueovring them, albeit still declaring them inexplicable. And already this year a senior Harvard professor put out a paper stating that our galaxy was visited by alien life recently when a large object at first thought to be a comet went for a fly-by and defied gravity by zooming at, then speeding away from the sun. The old “weather balloon” or “drunk hicks seeing swamp gas” explanations are wearing thin even for the types more like Mulder’s partner, Scully, denying anything’s out there to the moment she’s beamed into one of the spaceships.

Will it happen? Who knows? The government is great at few things, but stonewalling is one of them. And even if it does issue some sort of report, there’s no saying it will be made available for public consumption…. although its equally true that these days, if hundreds of politicians have access to the papers, one might expect at least one will leak them to a friendly media type.

Personally, I’ve been fascinated by the subject for a long time. I think a lot of “UFOs” are actually identifable – high altitude planes, military tests, shooting stars and what have you. I also think some are very impossible to explain any way other than mechanical devices controlled by intelligent life. Probably more intelligent than ours as humans. I figure when you go out in the country and look up at a clear night sky, and see those thousands of stars, each one might have planets circling around it, just like our sun, and for each one of those that we see, thousands more are beyond our eyesight or telescope range. It actually seems like some pretty big amount of hubris to think that we are the one and only lifeform out there.

Expect the unexpected. That might be the best bet if you are looking for a 2021 slogan. And, “the truth is out there.”

After The Storm Of ’20, A Rainbow Ahead

Whew! We made it. 2020 is done and we have a new start, a new chance, simply called 2021. May it be one we’ll look back on as … “forgettable.” Seriously. When you think about it, the one thing that is undeniable about ’20 is that it was… “memorable”.

There’s a lot to say about 2020 and what may lie ahead. I have just a few thoughts on the topic. Off the top of my head, I’d say that yes, 2020 was a pretty terrible year… but it could end up being a useful, if not positive, one if we can learn from it down the road. Enough things have gone wrong in the past year to perhaps act as a global GPS for society at large, pointing the safe path ahead. And while almost everyone of us has had problems and losses in 2020, it would be remiss not to consider them and try to make some sense out of them. Find the hidden meaning; reassess.

Here in North America, the news has been pretty much dominated by two things for the past ten months – the pandemic and American politics, in particular the presidential election. Both should teach us a few things.

The pandemic has shown us that we’re part of a big, worldwide community for instance. It’s a message we were fortunate to have escaped earlier in the century when diseases like SARS, MERS and Ebola raged elsewhere. They largely stayed overseas, out of sight, out of mind. Covid has shown all too clearly that problems in China and in the Third World can quickly be our problems. Throw in a season with an unprecedented 30 hurricanes or tropical storms in the Atlantic and record-burning fires in the U.S. West and Australia and we should be reminded that as smart as our species is, we’re still at the mercy of God or Mother Nature, or whatever name you’d like to give to forces far beyond our control. So maybe we should start trying to live in better harmony with this little planet we call home.

It tells me that we need to take a moment and reconsider the importance of some things we took for granted before. If or when this virus is wrestled under control, imagine how wonderful it will be to hug a friend you hadn’t seen for months that you bump into in a store – while not having to wear a mask no less! A good time to consider how important those close to you are… and frankly, perhaps jettison some that clogged up your life before. Months or not seeing people can tell your heart if they are needing of more of future you, or less. I know for me, I will be glad to be able to pop into a store I drive by on a whim without worrying about if the risk is worth it, without putting on a mask and plastic gloves… but I’ll also probably do so a lot less thanI once did. Hey, if I went nine months without needing to go in there, I probably don’t need to go nine months from now just because i have a few minutes to spare.

When it comes to the politics, I don’t envy Joe Biden. He has his work cut out with the economy still tanked due to the virus and the nation practically divided in half. Forget Trump’s Mexican wall, he has managed to pop the last few bricks onto a virtual wall dividing the populace in half that had been forged over the past decade. Republican vs Democrat. Black vs White. Urban vs rural. Cable vs Netflix… these days it seems like no detail is too small to make people hate one another.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I do hope though that he, and the government, will look to ways to make future elections more fool-proof and avoid the kind of stupidity we’ve seen this time around. I’m an environmentalist, but I still have to say that there is something to be said for paper ballots, with a circle to be inked in beside the name of the candidate of your choice, dropped into a locked box, opened and counted with representatives of both parties right there to over-see. Hard for foreign operatives to fiddle with that. There’s zero evidence any of the recent elections were tampered with across the U.S., but with electronic balloting there is potential for it to happen. Why not eliminate the chance?

And rather than divide people more, I hope we’ll see some sort of unification happening in the coming year. Years. That will be a tough job. I dare say an impossible one to do completely, but there is hope the chasms can be lessened, wounds healed. While I don’t know precisely how to do that, I think it wouldn’t hurt to focus on the things most of us agree on still … in a land of 310 million people, many of them ill-informed and prejudiced, there may be no one thing everyone will agree on. But for starters I think most will agree in:

the American Dream. If you work hard and are honest, you should make a living wage, and have a chance to move ahead, make a better life.

Education for our kids. Certainly there are different definitions of what a good education is, or how to deliver it, but most of us know that our kids need as good an education to get them on their way in life as we can give them.

a Liveable Environment. We’re tired of masks, we generally agree we want fresh air to breathe without needing to wear a mask to go outside; we want clean water to drink. Similarly we want a safe neighborhood. Almost all of us want to feel safe stepping outside their door or going to work, to school.

Equal Opportunity. Quotas and the like are divisive, but most would agree that if you have the talent and are the best candidate, you should have the job, or the spot in the classroom or the show on TV.

Democracy itself. Lord knows, we have different interpretations of how it’s been functioning of late, but most all of us still believe in people picking the government that will rule them and steer our lives and our nation, which in turn should

make the U.S. a Role Model. Few Americans would disagree that it’s not desirable for the country to be despised around the world. There must be a better way to have “United Nations” than to have them united in hatred of the U.S. We should be a beacon, a showcase of what people can do when they have opportunity.

Yep, that’s not a complete guide for utopia. Figuring out how these beliefs can be best implemented will even be cause for arguments aplenty. But if we continue to use them as guides, we might have a better chance than by looking at all the things we disagree about!

That’s my hope for 2021’s world. The bar is set pretty low. But we think 2021 can clear it. Happy New Year to all of you … and thanks for checking in here.