Don’t Push That Button!

Thursday started like any other day. After a good night’s sleep and a cup of coffee I settled in to fix the latest bugs on I say ‘latest’ but dealing with the aberrant behavior of rogue RSS feeds could easily be a full-time job, as it probably is for many people at Google, Technorati, etc.

I had just added a fix on my development server for feeds that use GUIDs longer than 255 characters (eg, from Clear Channel) and it was time to test it. As usual, this meant starting with an empty database on the dev box then scanning the feed in question to create new program records. I’ve done this a thousand times.

DELETE FROM programs;

It wasn’t even a second later that I realized what I’d done. That’s right. I was connected to’s live database server, not my development machine. And there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. Thanks (?) to MySQL/InnoDB’s referential integrity and my own orphan-detection scripts that I forgot were still running, deleting all the programs also deleted or damaged the media instances, the titles, the tags, the descriptions, the categories, the ratings and the collections. Hey, stuff happens; what are you gonna do?

So I fired off one of those email messages to Sysadmin Tim. He says he knows there’s trouble when I reply to my own messages, adding more details, before he gets to the first one. Tim was busy — he has a day job — but he dropped what he was doing to help.

We have a decent backup strategy. Every night we dump, tar and gzip the entire database. We keep the most-recent seven days’ copies on the database server as well as copy them to Amazon S3. And we keep one backup per month forever or almost. (Not sure why we’d ever use them though.) And hey — as luck would have it, the backup had run just two hours before my fatal mistake!

Only two problems: (1) that recent backup copy appeared to be corrupted, and (2) my script that copied the backups to S3 hadn’t run successfully since January 30, 2009.

I won’t bore you with all that happened in between, but 18 hours after the initial disaster, we did succeed in restoring everything on to the state it was in two hours before my gaffe. Incredible thanks to Sysadmin Tim for (once again) saving my ass. Just goes to show that you can be sober, well-rested and well-intentioned and still destroy a year’s worth of data with a single click if you’re not careful.

MVFF: Looking for Eric (B+)

Eric Bishop, an English postman, is divorced from two wives. His son is in trouble with gangsters and the rest of his life is crumbling around him. The one bright note: he idolizes footballer Eric Cantona. Then one night while Bishop is smoking a joint he stole from his son’s room, Cantona suddenly appears to offer life advice. This sets the tone for Looking for Eric, which from then on oscillates between tragedy, comedy and crime/violence, building steadily towards a terrifically satisfying climax.

At first I didn’t understand where this film was heading. Steve Evets is great as Eric Bishop, but at first we see only that the character is a pathetic mess. It would be difficult to watch were it not for the appearance of Cantona (playing himself) and other comedic moments. As we learn more about Bishop, his family and his great Full Monty-esque friends, and as Bishop learns more about himself, we’re completely sucked in. It’s an excellent script and all of the performances are first-rate.

I should be more familiar with director Ken Loach’s long career, but unfortunately I’m not. If Looking for Eric is representative of Loach’s previous films, I look forward to seeing them.

MVFF: Soundtrack for a Revolution (A-)

Soundtrack for a Revolution is one of the best documentaries of the U.S. civil rights movement. Structurally, the film glides smoothly between three styles: newsreel and stills, interviews and musical performances. The manifestations of all three are excellent.

The music is the new twist, and hence the title. The film includes traditional songs performed on camera in a recording studio (ie, not merely as background) by artists such as John Legend, the Roots, Joss Stone — okay, she’s white but never sounds like it — Richie Havens and Wyclef Jean. Most of the performances are very good and the audio quality is top-notch. Not only does the music support the rest of the film, it also serves to punctuate it, thereby avoiding the usually steady (boring) pace we’re all used to in historical documentaries.

The interviews are also excellent. They’re actually short monologues by the people who played lead roles in the movement. We don’t have Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., of course, but included are Andrew Young, Julian Bond and John Lewis among many others. (I hadn’t realized the extent to which Lewis was a part of the story.)

Finally, the historical footage and stills are also great. Director Bill Guttentag said they not only found previously unused material, but that they spent a tremendous amount of time in digital cleanup of what they used.

Beyond the good execution of each of these three styles, the reason Soundtrack for a Revolution works so well is because it’s so personal. Of all the films and stories I’ve seen about the civil rights movement, Soundtrack is by far the one that helped me understand why people did what they did to bring about change in America. And I don’t mean people in the group sense, but what it meant to the individuals, both famous and relatively unknown. I came away with a much greater appreciation for what these people sacrificed and what it meant (and still means) to them.

It appears this one is headed for the trifecta: theatrical release, DVD and public television. It’s ideal for the latter: political/cultural history combined with period music. Documentary meets the Oldies shows.

MVFF: Hipsters (B+)

Hipsters (Stilyagi — Russian for ‘stylish guy’) is a widescreen eye- and ear-candy Russian rock musical. The scene is 1955 repressive Moscow. By night, a group of young adults dresses up in outrageous clothes and acts out their vision of America: rock-and-roll, trendy cocktails, great dancing and (most notably) the clothes. Oh, the clothes. Imagine the brightest colors in the most clashing over-the-top style, filmed with a look that’s a cross between Kodachrome and full-saturation Technicolor. Sneak in a bit of classical Russian cinematography. (Remember those exaggerated closups in the Odessa Steps scene in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin?) Then add an awesome mostly big-band soundtrack of bebop, boggie-woogie and rock. Maybe even a hint of rap in one late song. Throw in some great performances and beautiful young Russian women, and you start to get an image of what Hipsters is really like.

Hipsters deservedly won four Nika Awards (the Russian equivalent of our Academy Awards) for costume design, production design, sound and best picture. It was nominated for five more. We saw the U.S. premiere at a late-night screening. I don’t think there’s a U.S. distributor for this film yet, but hopefully it will get picked up so you’ll at least have a chance to see it in major cities. Highly recommended for a fun night out.

MVFF: The Most Dangerous Man in American: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (B+)

Full disclaimer: I’m an Ellsberg fan boy. To me, he’s an American Hero, which I believe even more after seeing this movie and hearing him speak. I went to Berkeley in the ’60s. I was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. I was a Watergate  junkie, covering the Senate Watergate Hearings for Visnews (now Reuters Video). And as if last night’s screening of The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers wasn’t something I was predisposed to enjoy, sitting to my left were former Alaskan senator Mike Gravel and former California congressman Pete McCloskey, both of whom appear in the film and played important roles in Ellsberg’s disclosure of the Pentagon Papers. (Interesting side note: Gravel, a former Democrat is now a registered Libertarian, while McCloskey a former Republican is now a Democrat.) Oh, and Daniel Ellsberg and his charming wife, Patricia were in attendance and took questions after the film. I’ve used the word “charming” too much in the past ten days of the film festival, but there’s no better word to describe this woman and this couple’s obviously still-fresh romance. Ellsberg is now a very youthful 78.

For those too young or too old to remember the story, Ellsberg worked at the RAND Corporation reporting indirectly to Robert S. McNamara at the Pentagon. Ellsberg helped gather data that was used by McNamara and Lyndon Johnson to build a bogus case for the escalation of the Vietnam war, which Ellsberg would come to regret. (McNamara would also come to regret his recommendations, but that was later and in another movie.) Locked up under Top Secret classification, Ellsberg found hard evidence that four U.S. presidents (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson) all lied to America about what was really going on in Vietnam. Ellsberg smuggled 7,000 pages of classified material out of the RAND Corporation’s Santa Monica offices, copied them, and gave them to the New York Times and 16 other newspapers who published the documents as the Pentagon Papers during 1971. (They had to serialize the publication in this manner because court injunctions against individual newspapers kept forcing Ellsberg to repeatedly move to different publishers.) Nixon’s ordering a break-in of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office was one cause of his impeachment and ultimate resignation.

Publishing classified documents was an act of civil disobedience. Ellsberg was indicted on charges under the Espionage Act and could have been sentenced to 115 years in prison if convicted. The charges were dismissed because of an incredible array of government and prosecutorial misdeeds.

But enough history. Read it all on Wikipedia or, better yet, try and see this movie. It’s a first-rate documentary by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, but one which plays almost like the political thriller that the true story was. It’s an excellent combination of interviews, newsreel footage and stills. Ehrlich told us that the only way they could get some great footage of Walter Cronkite’s coverage of Nixon was because Nixon had recorded and saved all the network-new broadcasts and that she (Ehrlich) could therefore get the material from public archives. Apparently it would have cost them too much to get the footage from CBS.

The Most Dangerous Man is still new, and I don’t know if or how it will be distributed. Educational institutions can buy a DVD from the filmmakers’ web site, but it’s not available to the general public. Keep your eye out for this film, which is particularly poignant on this eve of President Obama’s decision about expanding the war in Afghanistan. It all sounds so familar.

MVFF: Helsinki (A-)

The original title Rööperi refers to an area of Helsinki known as a previous haven for the mob. Re-titled Helsinki for its North American premiere yesterday, this film  initially appeared to be just another one of those “gritty underbelly” crime dramas that seem to be a common theme of what we in the U.S. get to see from Finland. But while it is indeed a mobster flick, it is one of the best of that genre and one of my favorite films so far at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival.

The top-grossing film in Finland this year and based on a true story, Helsinki is about a collection of thugs with big aspirations, but who’s individual lives take very different turns. Kari (Kari Hietalahti) is too attached to his mom. Tom (Samuli Edelmann) falls in love and tries his best to go straight. Krisu (Peter Franzén) ends up on his own and falls prey to a variety of problems.

Helsinki is violent, bloody and funny (in that Finnish kind of way) but the performances are what stand out as extraordinary. Most notable is Franzén who gives one of the best performances in any movie this year, regardless of the country of origin. The script is excellent and the look and sound are great.

I had a chance to speak to Franzén for a few minutes after the film. He has played roles in CSI:Miami and other U.S. productions, but I have a feeling he and the other cast members are big stars in Finland. This guy is going to land and excel in some Hollywood film soon, and he’ll then make his mark on American cinema. Franzen is married to Irina Björklund, who was also at the screening. They live in Los Angeles with their young daughter.

MVFF: Zombie Girl: The Movie (A-)

If you’ve ever directed anything, even a school play, you’ll love Zombie Girl: The Movie. It’s one of those ‘making of’ documentaries with a few twists. Most notably, the documentary itself is a high production-value film about the making of a very low-budget amateur movie. In this case, it’s about Emily Hagins’ middle-school zombie film, Pathogen, which she started at age 11 and completed at 13.

Zombie Girl works well on so many levels. At the top of that list is watching Emily’s confidence grow over the course of the project. The film opens with her being asked about the shot list for the day. She doesn’t have a clue. “Oh, I think a wideshot and maybe a few closeups.” Later on she’s whimpering orders such as “Where do you want to die?” But by the last day of filming, she’s tellin’ ’em where to go and what to do.

On another level, it’s all about Emily’s relationship with her parents, particular her mother who is at once extremely supportive of Emily’s project, but at the same time owning too much of it herself.

Along the way, it’s entertaining, funny and sometimes agonizingly painful. There are great side-stories, too, such as the involvement of a local Austin film critic and a friend of Peter Jackson’s. (Emily wrote to and received a reply from Jackson when she was in the third grade.) The pacing is excellent until the last 15 minutes or so, when the film seems to have trouble calling it a wrap.

MVFF: Apron Strings (C)

Apron Strings is a 2008 film about prejudices: interracial, intercultural, socio-economic and sexual preference. It’s set in New Zealand. Most of the characters are of Indian descent. (Combine India and New Zealand and you have a fascinating accent.)

Okay, so maybe it’s a woman’s movie, if there is such a thing. My wife gives Apron Strings an A. The film started with promise: a title sequence with visually sensual closeups of Indian food being prepared. But I found the concept of tying everything to food and cooking one that quickly grew tiresome. My wife was completely wrapped up in the characters and their stories: two estranged sisters, a half-Indian gay son who’s trying to get in touch with his lost Indian side, a troubled mother with a vegan daughter having an out-of-wedlock baby and a drunk/gambler/loser son. And that’s just the start. For me, it was way too much to accept. The script is weak. Most of the actors are only so-so. (There are one or two good performances.) And that cinematography that teased me during the opening credits, became annoying. Too much fancy lighting. And sound that sucked. Skip it.

Update: Last night I reviewed Up in the Air and gave it a B rating. Somehow I manged to forget one of the most-objectionable aspects of the film: the product placements. The film was filled with American Airlines, Hertz and Hilton. I mean everywhere. Someone suggested it was actually intentional on the part of director Jason Reitman. True, the plot ties in with travel-related company loyalty programs, but this was ridiculous and interfered with the film far more than it supported it. Besides, the screening was sponsored by American Airlines. I think that discredits the ‘intentional’ theory. After thinking about it for these past 24 hours, I’ve downgraded Up in the Air to a B-. At this rate it could be a solid C by Sunday.

MVFF: Up in the Air (B-, downgraded from B)

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Jason Reitman’s new film, Up in the Air, which opens Christmas Day. It’s a competent movie, with some truly touching and funny moments. It just wasn’t special in the way we’ve come to expect from this young filmmaker’s earlier features, Thank You for Smoking and Juno. Reitman’s script is good, just not as good as Diablo Cody’s script for Juno. Hearing the director describe what Up in the Air means to him during tonight’s Q&A made me appreciate it that much more, but future audiences won’t have the benefit of those comments.

One highlight is George Clooney, who steps out of his usual slick role. He’s still charming — he is George Clooney, after all — but in this role he shows a vulnerability that I don’t recall seeing in his previous performances. Clooney plays  Ryan Bingham, a corporate downsizing consultant who spends his entire life flying from city to city, laying people off. (Yes, Reitman has updated his script started seven years ago to incorporate the current unemployment crisis.) Bingham is the “bad guy” but, as Reitman said tonight, “with a heart.” This is in contrast to the young MBA-ish Natalie (played by relative newcomer Anna Kendrick) who is revolutionizing the layoff biz by firing people via teleconferencing.

Also very good is Vera Farmiga who plays Alex, Bingham’s female soul mate. Reitman may have chose the name Alex for it gender ambiguity, for in both character and plot Ryan and Alex have reversed their roles from what we’ve come to expect in most stories. (I can’t say more without being a plot spoiler.) Yes, we get to see George Clooney’s softer, feminine side.

The music in Up in the Air is quite good, and everything else is, as I said, competent. It just wasn’t special enough to earn more than a B rating. Opening December 25, it may get a lot of sentimental support from the critics. It is a more mainstream film than Reitman’s earlier pix and it was apparently a big hit at the Toronto Film Festival.

Updated October 15.