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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Movie thoughts - The Ice Harvest

Full disclosure -- I didn't see this movie, but my friend Suzanne (gradgirl) did and she confirmed my suspicions about it -- that it is unremitingly grim and not all that funny. Hmmm. I love John Cusack and I thought Gross Pointe Blank managed the perfect balance between charm and satire. So why is he making this movie? I read an interesting interview with Cusack and Harold Ramis on Salon.com, where they wax eloquent about the creative process and how fulfilling it is when artists like themselves get to collaborate and create without the burden of big budget Hollywood expectations. People like me love to complain about how empty and commercial and formulaic movies have gotten. But when performers we admire get a little creative freedom they seem to so often produce something that no one actually wants to see. Why is that? I want to be supportive of these performers, I really do. And I want to see movies that break out of the commercial mold. But I notice that these actors often choose to produce movies that are especially grim and violent. (I'm thinking of, for example, Edward James Olmos, who I totally adore, who, when he had a chance to make a movie, made a really nasty Mexican gang movie called American Me, and Bill Paxton, who I also adore, who, when he had the chance to make a movie, made a really nasty family murder drama called Frailty). Maybe it's the desire to break out of the happily-ever-after straight jacket that studio movies entail. Or maybe these stars are a bunch of crazies whose artistic vision is really dark. I guess it's impossible to know, but in the meantime, I'll wait for Cusack's next film.


Monday, November 28, 2005

"Walk the Line" -- the white "Ray"

I didn't put it like that, my movie loving friend Coleman did, but I agree with that charaterization. The story arc of the two movies is so similar, it's almost weird. I'm sure there were genuine similarities in the two stories, but you'd think the makers of Walk the Line would have made a better effort to not parallel last year's movie quite so thoroughly. I had hoped for more emphasis on Johnny Cash's creativity and his relationship with June, and less on his substance abuse and general failings. It was not to be. Oh well. Joaquin Phoenix gave an excellent performance, as always, and Reese Witherspoon is pitch perfect (pun intended). I hope the Academy is kind to both next spring.


Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Movie thoughts -- The Village/The Upside of Anger

Today I treated myself to two used DVDs at the video store.

The first is M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, a grossly under-rated film from last year. I had avoided seeing it for a long time because the buzz was not very good and I hadn't liked Night's previous two movies very much. Also, though I adore Joaquin Phoenix and will watch him in anything, I was quite suspicious of Bryce Dallas Howard -- I'd seen Sophia Coppala act and it wasn't pretty -- how good could Ron Howard's daughter really be? Night seems to have two distinct audiences, people like me, who enjoy a well-made movie, and people who like to be scared. The latter were clearly unhappy with the film and the former didn't seem much impressed either. When I finally saw it, I was very pleasantly surprised. I thought The Village had all the elements that had made The Sixth Sense so special -- a great cast, beautiful filming, a subtle story and truly poignant human interactions. Bryce Dallas Howard was perfect in the part -- I should have trusted Night! And the movie is about so much more than it appears on the surface - for example, it portrays a "handicapped" person as capable and well-adjusted. In addition, I thought it was more heartfelt and certainly more romantic than anything else that came out last year. With lines like "The world moves for love. It kneels before it in awe. " delivered so beautifully by William Hurt. It really is a hidden treasure.

The other film I bought was a favorite from earlier this year, The Upside of Anger, with the lumious Joan Allen, and Kevin Costner along for the ride. Critics were not kind to this movie and I'm not sure why. I thought the writing and acting were terrific and the story was fresh and engaging. It's rare that family dynamics are handled so authentically.

I'll enjoy watching both of these films again, and lending these previously unappreciated gems to friends who may have missed them.


Monday, November 21, 2005

Why isn't this front page news?

I hadn't heard about this at all until my friend Mary said something about it -- the use of white phosphorus in Iraq as a chemical weapon BY THE U.S. For some reason this story isn't getting traction in the "mainstream media" but I figure it can only be a matter of time (like the torture issue). There's a concise explanation of its use and the attendant issues at dailykos: http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2005/11/21/173814/60

Sunday, November 20, 2005

"The public doesn't like mess"

I mostly think the "public" are fools, but in this case, I welcome their disgust. I know it's unseemly to be happy about this, but the logjam is pretty good news for the Dems. More importantly, it feels like GWB is finally being held accountable for the mess in Iraq and that's good news for sure. I'm one of many who've been frustrated with the free ride he's gotten, both with regards to the war and to his other policy initiatives. Of course no one wants Congress to be ineffective, but most of the policy initiatives that are stalled are things I don't want to see progress on! Here's a few paragraphs of the WaPo article that I'm referencing (plus the link, if you want to read the complete text):

Iraq War Debate Eclipses All Other Issues
GOP Flounders as Bush's Popularity Falls
By Jonathan Weisman and Charles Babington
Washington Post
Sunday, November 20, 2005
After largely avoiding the subject since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, lawmakers are suddenly confronting the issue of President Bush's handling of the war. The start hasn't been pretty.
Political stunts by both parties have created an air of acrimony that is infecting the parties' entire agendas. The bitterness reached a new high -- or low -- on Friday when House Republicans forced a late-night vote on a resolution for immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces.

The resolution failed, 403 to 3, but only after members nearly came to blows when a GOP newcomer suggested a veteran Democratic military hawk was a coward.
"Iraq is now a cloud over everything," said Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan political analyst specializing in Congress. "It's the 800-pound gorilla in the room."
"After simmering on Congress's back burner for months, the Iraq war debate has eclipsed every other issue in the capital, slowing progress on some matters while stopping it on others. The GOP-led House and Senate are struggling to pass major tax legislation, an extension of the USA Patriot Act and a broad budget-cutting bill. Bush's top 2005 domestic agenda item -- revamping Social Security -- has sunk from sight, and more recently his bipartisan panel on tax reform barely made a ripple when it issued recommendations.
Public opinion has, in turn, emboldened Democrats to sharpen their attacks, and it has freed some Republicans -- especially Northeastern moderates -- to chart a new political course that separates them from the White House but wreaks havoc with the GOP's legislative agenda.
Politicians tried to calm the waters roiled by Friday's House maneuvering. GOP leaders had seized upon an impassioned call Thursday by Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, hoping to put Democrats on the spot by rushing a resolution to the floor calling on the administration to bring the troops home now. The ensuing bitter debate brought out calls for calm even before it was over.
Rothenberg says such confusion does not bode well for the political fortunes of the beleaguered GOP. "The public doesn't like mess," he said. "When they realize things are messy, they get frustrated, and they arrive at the general conclusion that you blame the people you figure are in charge."


Saturday, November 19, 2005

Ligers and Tigons, oh my

This story really captured my imagination. It's especially fun that these particular babies are the result of a natural affection between two animals raised together -- it gives one hope that peace among creatures is possible.

Three Liger Cubs Born in Russian Zoo
Three liger cubs have been born in the Novosibirsk Zoo to unusual parents: an African lion and a Bengalese tigress, the zoo’s director Rostislav Shilo told RIA Novosti Monday. The cubs are called ligers, a term derived from their parents’ species, lion and tiger.
The cubs were born as a result of a genuine attachment between the lion and the tigress who have been kept in neighboring cages since childhood. Such a cross would be impossible in a natural environment, since tigers and lions only mate with their kin.
The litter is the couple’s second, the zoo director added. In summer 2004 ligress Zita was born in the zoo. Zita is now one year and four months old. "She is growing and developing like any other young animal," Shilov said about the ligress. "She runs, she plays around, there are no problems with her at all."
It is hard to say whether the ligress looks more like a lion or a tiger, but she behaves more like a tiger, zoo keepers say. When she is angry or getting ready to attack, she holds down her ears like tigers do, they said. Zita also loves to swim, while young lions do not.
At the moment staff at Novosibirsk Zoo are considering the possibility of scientific research linked to the ligers.
"Whether they can breed, have cubs of their own, mate with lions, or only with tigers, this is what’s really interesting and what we are going to study," Shilov said.
Meanwhile, the newly-born liger cubs are not yet on public display, as they need to have vaccinations and gain some weight and strength.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Hurrah for John Murtha!

From the great commonwealth of PA (my very own state) comes a congressman FINALLY willing to say something against the war in Iraq. And none of the Democratic leadership will back him up! What's their problem??? The Dems finally have cover for criticizing the war (a war vet who voted for the invasion but has now come out strongly and eloquently against it) and they're all keeping their distance like he's carrying avian flu. Freaks! I guess we don't want any traction for the 2006 elections, since we're throwing away this opportunity with both hands. A pox on Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid!

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Prejudice without the pride

That's not a reflection on the movie, it's a reflection on me -- I wondered why we needed yet another version of this story, but I must admit, they did an admirable job. Such a luscious presentation too, with gorgeous shots of scenery and period costumes, etc. I agree with the many critics who approve of the casting and hope this version is remembered as the "Kiera Knightley version" (the filmmaker pointed out that previous versions are all marked by the actor playing Darcy - the Colin Firth version, the Laurence Olivier version - which isn't fair, since Lizzie is the key to the story).


Thursday, November 10, 2005

Election day 2005, cause for celebration

New Jersey continues to have a Democratic governor, and the candidate won by a larger margin than polls had indicated. Even more exciting, in the heavily Republican state of Virginia (where Bush won in 2004 by 9 points) the Democratic candidate for governor won, despite a last minute campaign appearance by Bush. Many pundits consider this a bellwether for the 2006 elections. In California, Ahnuld was seriously embarrassed -- all five ballot initiatives he was supporting were soundly defeated. In Maine, voters rejected a ballot initiative which would have legalized discrimination based on sexual orientation. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, a "marriage amendment" in Texas won at the polls. But the news is largely very good.

I was frustrated by an email I received today from a fine liberal organization, People for the American Way. In it, they credit grassroots organizing for these many election victories. Of course citizen efforts are always important, but if liberal grassroots organizing were that effective, there would be a different president right now. Spin is no more attractive on the left than it is on the right. While I understand the need to celebrate and I understand the impulse to take credit, I think it's inappropriate and even dangerous for liberals to misrepresent and misunderstand this situation. The Republicans have made many mistakes and are having a curiously difficult time staying on message (I say curiously because they have been so damn good at it up until recently). Many national leaders are distracted by scandals and Bush seems to have lost a lot of his luster. But he has three more years in office and a lot can change in that amount of time. As many pundits note, many two-term presidents experience low job approval ratings in their second terms. It would be foolish to assume too much at this time and to take for granted that the tide has turned. Dems have a lot more work to do to make themselves a viable political force in this country. We better keep our sleeves rolled up.

How infuriating is this???

From Salon.com

The toll on Bush: The Plame case surely isn't the only cause for buyer's remorse, but a new Fox News poll out today says that 6 percent of Americans who voted to reelect the president in November would vote for John Kerry if they had the chance to do it all over again today. Six percent may not sound like much, but it would have been enough to turn Bush's 51-48 popular vote win into a 51-48 defeat 11 months ago.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Get in the game, but which game?

My brother Leo has graciously offered to make a donation to a favorite charity for my birthday. Which charity? I must decide. It raises more issues than I expect. I have many favorites, all doing worthwhile work. But how to leverage my money, and my energy for that matter? What to care about most? My "right-wing friend" Todd, says "get in the game" but I find myself wondering, which game? Last year I gave a lot of money to political campaigns and organizations, and of course it ended all for naught. Leo assumed I'd want my donation to go to the Democrats, but I don't know if that money is very well spent. I still give to political causes, but I find myself turning my attentions more to poverty relief and economic development enterprises, favorite charities include the Bread and Roses Community Fund, a Delaware Valley organization that supports local economic development and social change (www.breadrosesfund.org), and Heifer International, an organization that provides livestock and training in third world countries (www.heifer.org). I also like the International Rescue Committee (www.theirc.org), "refugee relief, respect, renewal"-- whenever there's an international crisis like the tsunami, I always send money to them. What's more important, to address basic needs, or to try to get people elected who care about those basic needs (assuming such phantoms exist)? I have to contemplate it some more.

Aging gracefully

Today I turned 29 for the . . . oh, who am I kidding? I'm 43. There's something about that 3. I distinctly remember the same sensation when I turned 33 -- it's 3 years past that decade mark and suddenly it's closer to 45 (or 35) than it is to 40 (or 30). It's not that I mind aging -- as my mother-in-law says, it's better than the alternative! But I don't like this sensation that arises occasionally that time is going by too fast. I want to age gracefully, I really do. But I'm greedy about the years and I don't want to relinquish them.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Who are we???

Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough. -Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945)

This quote is so timely, as the Senate (specially John McCain) fights with the Bush Administration over language in the defense budget bill which would prohibit torture of any kind anywhere (Cheney is fighting hard to give the CIA exemption on foreign soil). It's so repulsive, it's hard to even write those words. How can decency be considered the opposite of strength? In his statement accompanying his amendment proposal, McCain concluded with these words: " . . . this isn’t about who they are. This is about who we are. These are the values that distinguish us from our enemies." Why are we even discussing this???

Monday, November 07, 2005

What is the relationship between art and intellect?

Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.
-Susan Sontag, author and critic (1933-2004)

When I sent this quote to my very intellectual and very artistic brother, Leo, he asked me what I thought of it in relation to my writing on film.

This was my reply:

I think she's being ironic -- I think most people believe that intellectualizing art ruins it -- that you have to appreciate it on a different level, not an intellectual level. Maybe I'm wrong -- maybe she's being literal and thinks intellect needs to be avenged, since art so often makes intellect seem foolish. I kind of doubt it, though.

I agree (with what I think she means) -- trying to write intellectually about an art form misses the point to a great degree. I think my enjoyment of films is often very visceral, i.e., it moves me or elicits a feeling. And of course I often find the visual form enjoyable for it's sheer beauty or power. Just from trying to write these sentences, I find myself struggling to express intellectually things that are fundamentally the opposite, or at least very different, from intellect.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Anatomy of political compromise

I have really been enjoying The West Wing (on NBC) this year as it focuses on a presidential campaign.

The live debate episode was just fascinating. Both men did a fine job of articulating issues that are important to the respective parties, without too much rhetorical crap and with more honesty and forthrightness than most real candidates ever do.

But I found the "abortion episode" the previous week to be more revealing about the political process. The way the issue impacts these campaigns shows how two decent men with great integrity are pulled in all directions by aides, political allies and interest groups. While the candidates have principles and good intentions, it's clear they cannot hold to these and still play the game to win. It was illuminating and ultimately rather discouraging.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

You go, boy!

Watching the CBS News Sunday Show, I saw a silly puff piece on Patrick Dempsey's hometown in Maine. It's part of an ongoing media barrage about the sexy star, whose five o'clock shadow is a high point in the CBS Sunday night hit, Grey's Anatomy (though Isaiah Washington's steely dignity is just as hot).

I'm feeling ridiculously pleased by Patrick's new (renewed?) star status, and find myself wondering why. I think part of it is that he's close to my age, and it's gratifying to see him as the object of lust for gorgeous women in their 20's. But more than that, it's the Teri Hatcher effect -- a virtual Has Been of A Certain Age suddenly enjoying a resurgence of their career. In our youth obsessed culture, it's great to see these performers in the spotlight. Dempsey was a pretty boy in his youth (think, Loverboy and Can't Buy Me Love), and while he's worked steadily since, he's basically been completely off the radar for at least 15 years. T.V. has been good to him, as it has for other baby-faced actor of that generation -- Rob Lowe's character was the moral center of The West Wing during his 4 seasons on the show, and James Spader has won Emmys on Boston Legal. (To be fair, James Spader was a darling of the indy crowd in such offbeat films as sex, lies and videotape, and Secretary, but he had little mainstream movie success after appearing as a string of shallow pretty boys in 1980s hits like Pretty in Pink and Mannequin.) Of course the line between TV and movies has blurred and performers of very high status now regularly work in both. To the benefit of the viewing public.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Are Americans this gullible, or just not paying attention?

White House Ethics, Honesty Questioned
By Richard Morin and Claudia Deane
Washington Post
Sunday, October 30, 2005
A majority of Americans say the indictment of senior White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby signals broader ethical problems in the Bush administration, and nearly half say the overall level of honesty and ethics in the federal government has fallen since President Bush took office, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News survey.
The poll, conducted Friday night and yesterday, found that 55 percent of the public believes the Libby case indicates wider problems "with ethical wrongdoing" in the White House, while 41 percent believes it was an "isolated incident." And by a 3 to 1 ratio, 46 percent to 15 percent, Americans say the level of honesty and ethics in the government has declined rather than risen under Bush.

I read this poll result with dismay. Although the story is trumpeting that a "majority" believe there are "wider problems," I think the real news here is that 41% of Americans actually believe that this is an "isolated incident." That's a lot of people writing this off. Scary.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

"Cheney's Cheney"

I read both Newsweek and U.S. News last week and the latter published what could reasonably be called a puff piece about Lewis Libby and what an all-around genial guy he is. This week, Newsweek presents quite a different picture in their profile:


Apparently, he was a fanatic who was convinced that he was nobly defending our nation. He's what my brother Leo would call a "True Believer." However, like so many True Believers, his fanaticism subsumed his sense. Among the chilling anecdotes -- Libby was obsessed with bioterrorism, particularly a smallpox outbreak. He apparently planted a story in the NY Times (through Judith Miller) about Iraq's development of an especially virulent strain, a story which, of course, was found to be completely false. True Believers can be quaint or annoying, if you're talking to them over your backyard fence or at the office water cooler, but when they hold high government office, are key figures in formulating important policy, and have access to (formerly) credible mainistream media sources, they pose a dangerous risk to our national security, as we have seen.