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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Hunger Games

Let me start by saying it's a terrific movie - beautifully made, wonderfully acted, and very well adapted from the book. Jennifer Lawrence carries the movie, and does a great job. I liked the scenes that the movie added, like the Gamemakers during the game - something the book couldn't have included, because it's all from Katniss's point of view.  That said, I do have a some complaints:

For an almost 2 1/2 hour film, it doesn't feel very epic.  The pacing is a little off.  The climax, when Cato is killed, feels rather muted and not very dramatic.  Because you spend the book inside Katniss's head, the fear, anxiety, and, especially, the urgency of her situation are much more powerful than they are in the movie. (My friend Suzanne agrees with me about this - we saw it together.)

In general, the relationships Katniss has with other characters, especially with Peeta and Rue, are understated compared to the book, and don't come across as strong, as complex, and as important as they are in the book

A couple of very significant things have been left out, which makes the movie less intense, less moving, and less meaningful compared to the book:

- Madge, the mayor's daughter, gives the mockingjay pin to Katniss before she leaves District 12, and insists that she wear it in the arena. We later discover that the pin is the symbol of the rebellion.  In the movie, Katniss buys the pin from a junk dealer in the market, so it's significance is completely stripped away.  I can understand the film needing to eliminate some characters, but this scene in the book is 1/2 a page, and very important, so it seems an odd deletion.  Even stranger, Cinna, who we later discover (in the second book and presumably in the second movie) is also involved in the rebellion, gives the pin to Katniss to wear on her uniform in the arena - this scene IS in the movie, but it doesn't mean the same thing.

- Katniss sings in both the book and the movie - to Prim and to Rue.  It's sweet.  But in the book, it's especially poignant and significant because singing is something that represents Katniss's father, who she was very close to.  He taught her to hunt and to recognize edible plants (central to her survival in the Games), and he taught her a bunch of songs which appear over and over in the books.  Losing him is one of the defining moments of her life, and it greatly shaped her character.  This entire relationship is eliminated from the movie - no flashbacks, virtually no references to him in dialog.  Discarding this important person takes some of the heart out of the story and out of Katniss's character.

- The cave scene in the movie is well done, but it leaves out a great deal about both the history of Peeta and Katniss, and several elements of their developing relationship. Perhaps most significant is Peeta telling Katniss how he fell in love with her - in the movie, he tells her she sang the Valley Song at school.  In the book, he explains that his father was in love with her mother, but her mother married a coal miner (someone below her station) because when he sang, the birds stopped to listen, and when Katniss sang the Valley Song in school, the birds stopped to listen.  The scene is the book is very important and meaningful, but in the movie, it's just sort of cute, because they left out everything that was moving and significant about Peeta's story.

- Another important aspect to the Peeta and Katniss relationship that the movie eliminates unnecessarily - when Peeta gives Katniss the bread, 1) she suspects (and the reader knows) that he burned it on purpose so he could give it to her, despite being harshly punished by his mother, and 2) she was completely at the end of her rope and starving, and his kind act saved her and the lives of her family members (her raison d'etre throughout the entire series), both by providing immediate sustenance, and, perhaps even more importantly, by giving her hope (hope - which happens to be a major theme in the series - the movie even adds a, frankly terrific, scene, where President Snow explains the role of hope to Seneca Crane).  The deliberation behind Peeta's action is left out of the movie completely, though it is central to the way Katniss sees Peeta and, perhaps more importantly, central to the way the reader sees Peeta (several movie reviews I've read talk about how insubstantial Peeta is, and I think it's partly because the film misrepresented this very important part of the story).

- The hunger aspect of the games, and of life in Panem ("bread"!), are not emphasized nearly as much in the movie as in the book.  Suzanne pointed this out to me and I found myself thinking a lot about it.  For example, in the movie (and the book), Katniss asks Gale in an early scene, "how many times is your name in [the lottery]," and he says 42, but the audience has no idea why - in the book, it's very clear that you have to put your name in to get extra rations for your family - so the "odds" are already much less favorable for poorer people. And, as I mentioned above, Katniss's connection to Peeta is a result of him saving her from starving to death. There's also more references to hunger in the games themselves, such as when Katniss thinks, after destroying the Careers' supplies, "Okay Cato, let the 74th Hunger Games really begin." because she realizes that one of her major advantages is that she can find food and he probably can't. Also, the winner gets enough food for life, creating a strong incentive to the tributes from poorer districts. I would go so far as to suggest that many viewers of the movie, if they didn't read the books, really have no idea where the title comes from.

Another quibble I have is that they left out some great lines - when Peeta tells Haymitch "She has no idea the impression she makes." and when Katniss tells Peeta, "You're not going to die, I forbid it."  I know they can't include everything, but certain lines of dialog are so memorable and so representative of a character or of a relationship, they seem almost mandatory!

Again, I thought the movie was great, and it's making oodles of money, so clearly fans like it too.  But, in my opinion, it does not adequately capture what makes the books so compelling and resonant and emotionally satisfying.


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lobby Day

Gorgeous sunny day, but windy and rather chilly:

Barry and I in the Canon Office Building, before meeting with an aide of Congressman Higgins (Buffalo):

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Monday, March 26, 2012

Gala Dinner, J Street Conference final night

The table was gorgeous, decorated with cherry blossoms, and you gotta love getting dessert first (if you want it):

Former (and frankly, disgraced) Israel Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, was the final speaker of the night:

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Sunday, March 25, 2012

J Street Conference

The conference is really intense, with sessions packed into the schedule back to back.  There's no time to take a break during the day, but I'm walking 6 blocks between my hotel and the conference center in the mornings and evenings, and spring is springing so beautifully in D.C.:

Probably my favorite session was this terrific movie, My So-Called Enemy, and the film maker, Lisa Gossels, who introduced the film and answered questions afterward.  Unfortunately, it's pretty expensive to bring the film for a showing, so I don't think our brand new Syracuse chapter will be able to host her any time soon unless we can find some co-sponsors for it:

Rabbi Donniel Hartman, who runs an education and research institute in Israel (founded by his father, David Hartman), was one of my favorite speakers:

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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Opening night, J Street Conference

Amos Oz greatly influenced my Jewish identity when I heard him speak in the early 1980s, and now he influences my Jewish political sensibility in the early 21st century:

‎"There is more than one way to be a good Jew and to be a good Zionist and to be pro-Israel."

"The patient is ready for surgery, but the doctors are cowards."

"Compromise has been treated like a bad word, but the opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death."

"My slogan has been make peace, not love - nations make peace with clenched teeth, and then, gradually, over generations, the hard feelings diminish."

"There are two resolutions of a tragedy: In a Shakespearean tragedy, the stage may be littered with bodies but justice has prevailed. In a tragedy by the Russian writer Anton Chekhov, everyone is brokenhearted, embittered, disappointed, sad, and disillusioned – but they remain alive."

And a bunch of other great stuff. He has such a way with words.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

"The Future of Pro-Israel"

I had to think about it for quite awhile, but after the trip, I was finally able to make a statement for J Street's campaign:

I am the future of pro-Israel because . . . I am the future of American Judaism, and Israel cannot exist without the love and support of Diaspora Jews. My passion for Israel as a Jewish homeland and a democratic nation begets the commitment of my children, and eventually their children, and so on and so on.


Monday, March 19, 2012

Fabulous bank of boiling clouds


Sunday, March 18, 2012

Trayvon Martin case

I just don't understand what the controversy is about - the (self-appointed) neighborhood watch captain chased the boy down the street and then shot him while the kid was on the ground.  He's not some sweet little old guy protecting his home.  Even the "Stand Your Ground" law that Florida has does NOT cover chasing someone.

And the heartless fuckers in the police department didn't even call the boy's family, though he had a cell phone on him.

How are people defending George Zimmerman?  Zimmerman was heard to say "They always get away with it."   With what, stealing some crap out of people's houses?  Even if Trayvon was the person who broke into local homes, he deserved to die?  Over what, a couple of laptops or a flat screen TV? When I lived in Philly, my car was stolen, and I was mugged in a public restroom, but I never thought, I wish I had a gun, or I wish someone would come along with a gun and kill this person who stole my stuff.  The thieves were jerks, but their crimes were hardly killing offenses.

The whole story is utterly depressing.  You think we're making progress, we have a black president for crying out loud, but then you read something like this.  Why do we need petitions and rallies and celebrity outrage before the right thing is done?

Sanford, Florida, shame on you!


Saturday, March 17, 2012

Latest movies

Since I was completely incapable of sleeping on the 2 overnight flights during our trip, I took advantage of the in-flight "video on demand" programming to catch up on a bunch of movies; the following is basically in order of how much I enjoyed them:

A Dangerous Method - extremely entertaining; a very adult film about very adult issues; the cast was robbed at Oscar time

The Big Year - quietly charming comedy about competitive bird watching; Jack Black is a delight in an understated performance as an underdog who has rather a different "big year" than he originally planned; it's a shame that more people didn't see this gem

Tower Heist - not a classic, but an entertaining 90 minutes

Idea of March - yet another film that didn't quite live up to expectations; I was unpleasantly surprised by the film's second half, and felt they could have made a better, more involving film with this cast and this topic

Margin Call - surprisingly dull and desultory, I expected more from a powerhouse cast and rave reviews; instead the movie meanders along, stitching together vaguely related scenes of Masters of the Universe eating, drinking, and throwing each other under the proverbial bus; I don't think I needed to watch 2 hours of assholes being assholes to get the general message that the rich bankers behind the bank collapse were assholes

Drive - Ryan Gosling gives a bravura and nuanced performance, but I really hated this stylized and hyper violent  movie, particularly because it started out being something potentially interesting and just devolved into a pointless and almost plotless gangster movie, with more bodies littering the stage than a Shakespearean tragedy; a terrible waste of a terrific cast


Friday, March 16, 2012

Israel trip - random

A few more of my favorite photos~

Spring in Jerusalem:

"Coffee this way" in Jerusalem:

Dinner at Cafe Paradiso, first night in Jerusalem:

Entering Yad Vashem:

Scenic overlook at Yad Yashem:

Bedouin settlement, east of Jerusalem:

View of Dead Sea from Masada:

"Jordan river is deep and wide" (at least it was until they built a dam):

Golan Heights winery - bottling plant:

Bahai gardens and dome in Haifa:

Looking west from the Golan Heights:

Waves crashing at Caesarea:

Peace garden at Yardenit:

Waiting to start Masada tour:


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Israel trip - heading home

Wake up call at the ungodly hour of 3:30 am, but the hotel concierge brought us juice, coffee and cookies to help.  Quick drive to the airport and then the waiting began - we had to take our check bags through security:

We couldn't find breakfast at the airport, so the kids had burgers from Burger Ranch and Bobbie had a tuna sandwich from a coffee kiosk (I ate a now stale GF bagel that I had brought along).  Our travails were rewarded - we finally got to sit in Business class on our first leg, to London.  Breakfast tasted especially delicious with all that extra leg room.

But during the second, longer leg, we were back in Economy, and it felt extra bitter after our brief experience of luxury.  We weren't even sitting together, and the man next to me would not trade seats with Larry - a rare case of someone immune his charm.

We blearily unloaded at JFK into a brutally long customs line.  After about half an hour, a harassed looking clerk called for US passport holders and we walked around the line, which was even longer than we had initially realized.  We ended up at this window, which I found hilarious:

Then we met our airport van driver, Steve, who was as delightful as we remembered.  Most of us crashed out immediately, after over 20 hours of travel:

We all went right to bed when we got back to NJ, 23 hours after we woke up in Tel Aviv, and we awoke relatively refreshed on Friday.  We loaded up Larry's car and headed back to Syracuse; Matt left right behind us, on his way back to school.


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Israel trip, Day 6

We started out with a stop in Nazareth, for a tour of the Church of the Annunciation, built on the (supposed) spot where Mary Magdalene was born.  (The kids and I skipped the tour and walked down the main street, doing a bit of shopping.)  The tour guide talked about the solar water heaters, on the roof of every residential building in Israel:

Then we drove through Haifa, taking in the view from above the Bahai gardens. 


We had lunch at a Druize restaurant just outside Haifa:

Then wandered through the ruins at Caesarea (it was insanely windy, but most of us persevered, only Larry and Alana stayed in the bus). 


Then down the coast highway to Tel Aviv. Wonderful end to our final day - dinner at the home of lovely friends in Ramat Aviv, the parents of our 2011 scout, Yael - Avi and Varda:


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Israel trip, Day 5

First stop was Israel's center of mysticism - Tzfat. We spent a few minutes at the Kabbalah center and then went to a candle factory store and heard a brief presentation about their techniques. 

Then we wandered through the main shopping area and bought, among other things, both Caleb and I gorgeous tallits at a beautiful art gallery (mother-son theme: pomegranates). Alana made friends with a local cat named Johnny:


Then we stopped for lunch at Kibbutz Gadot:

Next we drove up (up up) to a monument to the 1973 Yom Kippur war on a high peak of the Golan Heights


Final stop was the Golan Heights winery, where we took a tour and tasted several wines:

Matthew Newmeyer bought a delicious Pinot Noir which we had with dinner:


We just had enough time for another visit to the spa before we met the group. We went to the lake front and watched a very cool water and light show, illustrating the history of Tiberias.  Then we had dinner at a lake side restaurant, where everyone ate whole fried local fish ("St Peter's fish") and enjoyed fresh dates for dessert:

We had a few minutes to walk along the boardwalk and buy ice cream (gelato) and other treats, and then it was back to the hotel to pack up for our final move, to Tel Aviv.


Monday, March 12, 2012

Israel trip, Day 4

Another packed day - up early for our trip north. Sad to leave Jerusalem - so much we didn't get to see and do, but onward! 

Drove through the Jordan Valley - I was super impressed with all the farming - dates, bananas, tomatoes, wine grapes and more, on a huge scale. 


We stopped at a nice little rest area, where we bought coffees and lemonades and frantically used the WiFi while we had the chance.  Alana posed for this photo:


Most of the trip was a journey through history! Stopped in Beit Shean (Scythopolis), an ancient city destroyed by an earthquake in 739 AD (CE) and just excavated in the 1980s; the site is managed by the Ministry of Tourism.


Stopped at Yardenit, a baptism site at the mouth of the Jordan river:


Then to Capernaum, a city at the north end of the Kinneret where Jesus first preached - gorgeous church there, built in the 1960s, and wonderful Byzantine-era synagogue:


Then we drove to our hotel in Tiberias, on the western shore of the Kinneret:


Our hotel was across the street from a mineral spa and entry is free to hotel guests, so we went and had a soak before dinner. Heaven! Huge group of American students there, finishing up their 10 day Birthright trip. We had dinner in the hotel tonight (the only dinner included in our tour).  


Sunday, March 11, 2012

Israel trip, Day 3

Big day in Jerusalem - Yad Vashem in the morning*. 


Lunch in the Old City:


Then we shopped til we dropped in the market. Something for everyone and then some. 

Then we took a van to Tel Aviv, had dinner at a seaside restaurant recommended by a friend (Bernice), Manta Ray - delicious seafood and their signature presentation: 12 salads brought to the table, each of us chose something and then we shared, all were superb (eggplant, sushi, calamari, shrimp). 

Alana and I took a brief walk on the beach after dinner:


Then we went to the Dizengoff Mall (you read that right, in the mall!), where Larry and I got tattoos at "Tribal Tattoo" (from Nik, for 200 NIS each).

View 2012-03-11_21-05-23_530.jpg in slide show 

This is my tattoo, it says sh'ma which means "listen" (which I think is always good advice), plus it's the first word in the most important prayer in Judaism:

*This ended up being sort of a mishegas - we accidentally bypassed the entrance to the centerpiece museum, which is completely unmarked as such; we walked all the way to the back of the property to see the children's bldg (as recommended by Beth), stopped at the eternal flame, walked further back to the resistance fighters' memorial, then to the education bldg, and the art museum.  Then, we finally returned to the front of the property and realized we had missed the museum.  Children under 10 are not allowed, so Bobbie and Alana stayed outside and the rest of the group power walked through - it was very crowded and we were tired by then. Overall, not really the meaningful experience we had expected.