Wednesday, October 28, 2009

W.

(Movie Reviews)

Well, as usual this movie got a delayed release in Japan. And, as usual, by the time I get around to reviewing it, everything that can be said about this movie has already been said. But I'll jot down a few thoughts anyway.

I like Oliver Stone. Looking over the movies he's done, we seem to have a lot of similar interests (classical history, classic rock, Vietnam War, Latin American Revolutions, and recent political history). On paper you would think I would be the biggest Oliver Stone fan ever.
If it weren't for the fact that his movies are so long and boring to sit through.

Now don't get me wrong, when he's good he's very good.
But "Nixon" was hard for me to sit through. And "Alexander" was absolutely awful. And there are a few more Stone films I had a hard time getting through.
And actually, now that I think of it, even his good movies usually have a few slow stretches in the middle.

So with all that in mind, the good news here is that "W." is a very entertaining movie to watch. The last 20 minutes or so Stone started to lose me a little bit, but on the whole I was not only entertained, I was glued to the TV the whole time. I didn't want to miss a word.

No doubt part of the increased interest is due to the relevance of the film. "Nixon" was released after the former President had passed away, so it was just another biopic of a dead president.
"W." came out before George W. Bush had even finished his Presidency. So, even if you watch it a year later like I did, the whole time you have a feeling like it is hitting below the belt.

But besides that, I think this film is just better written and better acted than "Nixon", and is just generally more entertaining all around.

Josh Brolin is really great in this movie.
I had never heard of Josh Brolin until a year ago, when I saw him popping up in "No Country For Old Men", "Planet Terror" and "American Gangster ." He did a great job in all of those movies, and he does a great job in this one. In fact he plays the part so well, it's hard to believe he was really a last minute replacement for Christian Bale.

I had read reviews of this film long before it came to Japan, so I knew that the film wasn't so much a liberal hack-job against George W. Bush (although there are a few jibes thrown in here) as it was an almost sympathetic view of a tragic life. So I was prepared for that going in, and knew there would be more character examination than politics.

Actually it's really both politics and personal tragedy, and that's what makes this film so engaging.

Bush's personal story, at least the way Oliver Stone has retold it, does have very Shakespearean overtones to it. Specifically Bush is the perfect Young Hal from "King Henry IV".

[In fact (short digression here) I remember the first time I heard George Bush Junior's name. In 1990, my 7th grade history teacher was telling us about John Adams and John Quincy Adams, at that time the only father-son Presidential team in American history.
"Can you imagine how strange that is?" he said. "It would be like if George Bush Junior ever became president."
Somebody in the class who was better informed than I was in those days let out a short laugh, and some comment was made about George Bush Jr's drinking habits. And the teacher said, "Alright, admittedly in the case of George Bush Jr it could never happen."]

However unlike Young Hal, Bush does not go on to become Henry V, one of the world's greatest leaders. Instead Bush has the bittersweet distinction of achieving the world's greatest office, only to go down in history as one of the worst Presidents.
In this final regard, the story of a man who overcame all his personal demons to become President, only to leave the office disgraced, the themes of this film are remarkably similar to Stone's earlier film "Nixon."

With such a polarizing subject as Bush, and such a polarizing film maker as Oliver Stone, the film's accuracy can be debated ad infinitum. And if you read the reviews across the internet, you can see that it already has been.

So for the most part I'm going to try and stay clear of it.
Obviously Stone is not above inventing fictional conversations to create the necessary scenes that serve to fill out the themes of his movie. At the same time though, after doing a bit of internet research, I agree with the review in Slate by Timothy Noah (link here) which says that often the scenes you most expect to be fictional turn out to be the ones drawn directly from real life.

I also agree with Timothy Noah that this film is not nearly as hard on Bush as it could be. There are numerous scandals the film could have explored which it leaves completely untouched.
And the film also gives Bush the benefit of the doubt by assuming his good intentions. I would not have been so generous had I been writing it.
However the choice to play Bob Dylan's "With God on our Side" as the end credits roll was absolutely brilliant. Simple, and yet devastating.

Obviously, this film is the first draft. It was released in theaters before Bush's term was even over, and I'm assuming writing and filming started some time before it was released. 20 years from now, when we have a more complete view of Bush's legacy (and when a few more tell-all books have been written by insiders) it will be time for someone else to take another crack at this film.

And I'm also assuming production on this film was rushed through a little bit so it could get released while it was still timely. In that case, it's amazing the film turns out to be as interesting and as engaging as it is.

Update: After re-watching "Nixon", I've decided it's not a bad film at all. It's quite a piece of art in its own way actually. The problem is that it goes on for 3 hours. "W" clocks in quite nicely at just over 2 hours, and thus is much more watchable. (And it would have been even more watchable if they had trimmed another 20 minutes off of it, but I guess you can't ask for too much.)

Link of the Day
Crisis and Hope: Theirs and Ours.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

(Book Review)

Yes, that's right. The infamous "War and Peace". I finally knocked it off my reading list. I now plan to spend the rest of my life at cocktail parties bragging about how well read I am.

Actually, a friend of mine noticed this book on my lap at one point when I was about halfway though it. "Ah, reading 'War and Peace?" she commented.
"Why yes I am," I answered proudly.
"I thought you had already read that," she answered.
"No, this is my first time."
"Hmmm. It just seems like the kind of book you would have already read."

And at that point I realized with horror that I was going to go through all the work of reading this book, and instead of getting credit for it, people would just assume this was the kind of book I would have already read.

Well, in a lot of ways it is I guess. At the very least, it's been on my reading list for as far back as I can remember.

As a young adolescent, I was always the kind of kid who was trying to tackle the great classics just because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. (I'm sure you other geeks out there can identify).
And, as a typical boy interested in war stories, a title like "War and Peace" was something that aroused my curiosity.

I never got around to this book as a youngster, but it got back on my radar screen again when I was a college student and was becoming interested in politics and revolutionary movements. I learned that Tolstoy had the same politics as me--he was an anarchist and a pacifist--and that the inspiration for "War and Peace" originally came partly from a novel by Proudhon, and partly from the Decembrist uprising.

Like most people I kept putting this book off because I was intimidated by its length, but it's been on my list of "books to read someday before I die" for a while now, and I thought this year was as good a time as any to knock it off. And so, the last time I was in Oita city I picked up a copy from the Oita Prefectural library.

But now, having listed all the reasons why I was attracted to this book, I should add that none of them are a good reason to read it.
For the politico, there's very little revolutionary, anarchist, or even pacifist themes in this book.
And the for the military nut, battle scenes, while they are very impressive (more on this later) make up only a small portion of this 1441 page book. The book spends much more time in dance halls and living rooms than it does on the battlefield.

The best description of this book I can make is to compare it (with apologies) to Quentin Tarantino.

Back in 1997 when "Jackie Brown" was released, I remember catching an interview with Tarantino on, I think it was, the "Charlie Rose Show". Tarantino was saying something like,
"A lot of people have criticized 'Jackie Brown' for being too long. Well, whether you like it or you hate it, at least give me credit for it. I meant to make it that way. Very seldom in movies do we get an opportunity to just hang out with the characters, but in this movie, I was trying to create scenes where the audience got to do just that, just hang out with the characters."

I imagine that if I had walked into "Jackie Brown"unprepared, I would have hated it. But because I saw this interview, and I knew going into the movie that the plot wasn't going to move very fast and that I was supposed to just relax and hang out with the characters, I loved it.

In the same way, "War and Peace" is a novel where the story doesn't move very fast, and you spend a lot of time just hanging out with the characters.
Fortunately, the translators introduction prepared me for it, and got me in the right state of mind before I started reading it.
From the introduction by Rosemary Edmonds: "Tolstoy never loses sight of his aim as an artist, which, as he said in a letter to a friend, 'is not to resolve a question irrefutably but to compel one to love life in all its manifestations, and these are inexhaustible. If I were told that I could write a novel in which I could indisputably establish as true my point of view on all social questions, I would not dedicate two hours to such a work; but if I were told that what I wrote would be read twenty years from now by those who are children today, and that they would weep and laugh over it and fall in love with the life in it, then all would dedicate all my existence and my powers to it.' "

If that sounds a bit boring, the good news is that Tolstoy has created characters in this novel that you enjoy spending time with.
Now I don't want to superimpose my own prejudices onto you, but if you're anything like me you tend to be doubly wary of a book like this. First of all, it's over 100 years old, and second of all it's from another country and another culture. I was worried the characters would all be stiff 19th century Russian nobleman walking around spouting off boring platitudes.

Instead, the book is filled with characters who are so life-like that I felt they were real people I knew.
The characters were almost all either people I strongly identified with personally, or they reminded me of people I know in real life.
I mentioned the same thing in my review of "Anna Karenina", but it's true in this book as well. As Tolstoy described the thought processes of these various characters, I felt like, "Yes, that is so true. That's exactly the way I think." Even when the characters make bad choices, we're given a glimpse into their thought processes to see how they justify it to themselves, and I always thought, "Yes, my mind works exactly the same way."

None of the characters ever feel flat or unrealistic, and none of the choices they make ever feels contrived. We understand exactly why they do everything they do.

In fact, reading this book, one can't help but be struck by how human nature remains unchanged, even across cultural and generational lines.

Recently, one of my students was talking about the brutal history of Russia, and saying what a savage race the Russians were. I reached behind me and grabbed this book. "If you read this," I said, "You'll feel that they're just the same as you and me."

The second piece of good news about this book, for those who might find its bulk intimidating like I did, is that the whole thing is character driven. Long it may be, but it's all story, unlike many other 19th century door stoppers. Unlike, say, a novel by Dostoevsky, this is not simply a 700 page philosophical discussion bookended by 300 pages of story.
Nor, like Victor Hugo in "Les Miserables" does Tolstoy leave the narrative to go off on a 50 page digressions giving this thoughts on religion or society.

In short, I was pleasantly surprised that this book read so much like a modern novel, and not like a dusty classic.
Someone was recently citing this book to me as the classic example of a book which intimidates people, but need not. And that is so true.

Now, there's no getting around the fact that it is a very long book. My edition was 1441 pages, and that with tiny print and very small margins.
So, if you're in a hurry to get finished, you're probably not going to enjoy it. And if you're impatient for the plot to get moving, this book is going to drive you crazy.

But if you can clear out your reading schedule and just let this story develop at it's own pace, you'll enjoy this book.
I'd be embarrassed to tell you how long it took me to read this book (cough, cough***9 months***cough), but even though it took me a long time, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

This book covers Russia during the period of the Napoleonic Wars from 1805 to 1812 (with a brief epilogue several years later on the eve of the Decembrist revolt).

However it's somewhat misleading to think of this book as historical fiction, because the the vast majority of the story, well over half of the book, is just about the personal struggles of the characters as they search for happiness or meaning in life.

Nevertheless the historical sections are an important part of the book, and it is these sections that, in my opinion, stick in your memory most after you have finished reading.

If you don't know much about this period in history, don't let that stop you. Like all good historical fiction, this is a book that teaches you history as you read it rather than demands that you already know it.

The book begins with Russia and Austria in an alliance against Napoleon. This part of the book is very interesting because it describes the awkward cooperation between the two armies, and the sometimes ambiguous chain of command as they prepare for battle. It reminded me a lot about the squabbles among the allied command you sometimes read about in World War II, and was a reminder that the Napoleonic Wars were the equivalent of the World Wars for the 19th Century.

In 1807, Napoleon and the Russian Emperor Alexander make peace and divide Europe between them.
But in 1812 the peace breaks down, and Napoleon invades Russia. Moscow is occupied, and ends up burning down to the ground.

This is the climax of the novel, and it's a climax that really pays off. Because we've spent so much time getting to know these characters and get involved in their lives, the climax has much more of an emotional punch.
Even though as a history geek I knew the burning of Moscow was coming, it was hard to believe it would actually happen. This city was the whole world to these characters, and because their world seems so real to the reader, you can't imagine it all being so completely shattered.

There are also several battle scenes in this book, and they are all amazingly well-written.
I knew very little about the life of Tolstoy before I started reading this book, but as I was reading about the battles and about army life, it seemed so real to me that I felt it must have been based on real life experience.
And sure enough, a little bit of research on Tolstoy's life reveals that he fought in the Crimean War, and based the battle scenes off of his personal war experience.

I suppose comparisons to "The Iliad" are cliche, but I couldn't help but be reminded of Homer as I read through this book. Like "The Iliad", "War and Peace" describes the progress of the battle as a whole, but also effortlessly switches back and forth between the greater battle and the experiences of individuals in the fight.

Unlike "The Iliad", however, this is not the story of mythical heroes gloriously fighting each other. But nor is this book like "All Quiet on the Western Front," constantly hitting you over the head with the miseries of war every second. Instead, like everything else in the book, we get a very human portrait of war in all its aspects.

We see, for example, the soldiers preparing for battle, knowing that many of them will not be there tomorrow, but doing everything they can to avoid talking about it.
There is also the nervous joking that goes on when the men are actually under fire.
There is the confusion of the battle: people aren't sure what's going on, and when a Frenchman and a Russian grab each other, neither is sure who has taken the other prisoner.

After the battle, a young man who spent the whole time being thoroughly confused as to what was happening, feels the need to describe the battle to his friends in terms of his heroic charge, because he feels they'll never understand if he tries to tell them what actually happened.

Battles aside, we also get a lot of glimpses into the daily lives of the soldiers. Although I've never been involved in military service, I loved Tolstoy's description of army life.
"The Bible legend says that the absence of toil--idleness--was a circumstance of man's blessed state before the Fall. Fallen man, too, has retained a love of idleness but the curse still lies heavy on the human race, and not only because we have to earn our bread by the sweat of our brow but because our moral nature is such that we are unable to be idle and at peace. A secret voice warns that for us idleness is a sin. If it were possible for a man to discover a mode of existence in which he could feel that, though idle, he was of use to the world and fulfilling his duty, he would have attained to one facet of primeval bliss. And such a state of obligatory and unimpeachable idleness is enjoyed by a whole section of society--the military class. It is just this compulsory and irreproachable idleness which has always constituted, and will constitute, the chief attraction of military service." (p. 574)

Tolstoy occasionally intersperse his historical sections with his theories of history. Except for a 40 page epilogue at the very end, he limits himself to one or two pages at a time, so you don't have to worry about a big long digression from the narrative, but it is a major theme of the book.

Specifically, Tolstoy believes that history is shaped not by great men, but by historical forces beyond their control. Although it may appear as though Napoleon's ambition was re-writing the history of Europe, Tolstoy believes when you carefully examine history you find that Napoleon is no more than a puppet of historical forces.

This is contrary to the way most of us have been taught to read history. It also seems to go against common sense. And, needless to say, it's a controversial view.
(Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, in his introduction to the "World Leaders: Past and Present" series, states that the whole purpose of creating
this series on world leaders and their influence was to refute Tolstoy's view of history).

Personally I was not entirely converted to Tolstoy's view, but it was interesting food for thought. He makes some good points that are worth pondering over even if you don't buy into the whole thing.

Final verdict: length of this book aside, it's much more readable than you think it is. If you make the time for it, you will enjoy it.

Link of the Day
Chomsky on Humanism

Friday, October 23, 2009

Futurama: The Beast with a Billion Backs, Bender's Game, Into the Wild Green Yonder




(Movie Reviews)

So, last time I reviewed Bender's Big Score,and I said I would only review the other movies if my self-control broke down and I found myself wasting more time on the internet.

Well, guess what?

Now according to the rules I set out for myself on this project, I should give a separate review to each movie.

But then again, these movies were split up and on TV aired as season 5 of Futurama. And I don't usually force myself to review television shows. It appears I'm in a bit of a grew area.

Although they were originally released as direct to DVD feature-length movies, none of these really feel like real movies. They feel like TV shows. And in fact, they each have long meandering plots that seem like they were intended to be split into 22 minute segments rather than be watched all at once.

So, obviously I've decided to split the difference and review the remainder of this series as one post instead of 3 separate ones.

There's not a lot to say here that I didn't cover in my first review. The series is still a delightful mix of random and morbid humor. There are plenty of futuristic and alien gags to spice up the story line whenever things start to go dull.

The guest stars that they were able to attract are impressive: Stephen Hawking, Rich Little, George Takei, Snoop Dogg, and Penn and Teller. (Actually, really just Stephen Hawking is the only one who's truly impressive out of that group).

It's a waste of time, but it's a very pleasant waste of time.

Link of the Day
Your World is a Forgery Noam Chomsky Speaks Truth
and Were They Poisoned By Camp Lejeune Water Supply? Stricken Marines Seek Help First of all, if we had national health care, those who served wouldn't have to beg for help with medical bills. And it never ceases to amaze me that we'll throw billions of dollars to incompetent but politically-connected war profiteers, but we fight the claims of those who put their bodies at risk while in the service. Unbelievable:

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Underworld

(Movie Review)

This is yet another movie that has been flying under my radar because I've been in Japan. I've seen it in my video store for a while now. And they have been advertising it as a cult classic. And recently a few sequels have been coming out. So I thought I would check this out.

I'm not sure if the pleasure of fantasy films can be explained to the uninitiated, but if you're a fan like me you know that the real value of these films is not the action sequences, but the pleasure of being able to immense yourself in a new world. The more imaginative and intricate this world is, the more you enjoy exploring it.

That was what I was hoping for, and that was precisely what I did not get from this film, which was largely just a waste of 2 hours with flat boring characters walking across the screen.

The movie is about a war between vampires and werewolves. And, if you listen to the directors commentary, you know they're quite pleased with themselves for coming up with this idea. "There are a lot of vampire movies out there already, and there are a lot of werewolf movies, but nobody had thought of combining them. That's what's really exciting about this story." (Paraphrasing-but that's the general tone).

However the old proverb "less is more" comes to mind here. There have been many vampire movies in the past which manage to immerse you completely in the vampire mythology, or (more modern movies) create a secret world of vampire politics and competing factions.

You get hints of that in this movie, but because it splits its time between both the vampires and the werewolves you never really get fully involved with either.

Problems are evident right from the opening scene, when we get treated to an explosive, loud, drawn out gun-fight between the werewolves and the vampires, before we know who any of these characters are or have any reason to care about the outcome.

We see some interesting visual distinctions between the vampires (who live like Gothic royalty) and the werewolves (who live more stray dogs) but that's about as far as the development goes.

The special effects in this film are pretty decent. And after all the cgi films lately, it's nice to see a film using a lot of old fashioned stunt work. But perhaps more energy could have been directed into the storyline instead.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky The Contours of World Order & 50 Years of the United Nations
and Jeremy Scahill: ACORN Got Pennies Compared to War Contracting Firms- Their Crimes Pale in Comparison
and The Rachel Maddow Show: The Truth About the Lies About ACORN

Friday, October 16, 2009

Burn After Reading

(Movie Review)

Because I live in Japan, I never even heard of this movie until it hit my video store. But it's another Coen Brothers film.

Now, as I said in my review of "No Country For Old Men", I like watching Coen Brothers' movies, but hate reviewing them, because of the legions of film school students and cinema buffs who are huge fans of these movies and have already critiqued them to death. I'm always worried I'm just going to expose my own ignorance.

So, once again I'm going to try and avoid the temptation to try and sound smarter than I am, and just write some off the cuff honest reactions I felt as I watched the movie.

Assuming everyone stateside is better informed than I am, I guess everyone knows the plot to this film, but I'll recap briefly anyway.

It's a black comedy about a series of misadventures involving bumbling spies, and bumbling blackmailers.
As black comedies go, it doesn't really get much blacker than this. None of the characters are likeable. And (spoiler slert) half of the characters get killed in the end. And the ones that don't get killed, you almost wish they did. (The characters who are the most selfish and who are manipulating the other characters for their own selfish ends are the ones left alive at the end).

As a comedy, I found very little of it laugh out loud funny. But it's one of those cleverly written stories with several different character plot lines all woven together that at least kept me interested as I was watching it.

The best parts of the movie are the discussions in the CIA headquarters. The CIA supervisors know everything that's going on and are keeping track of it, but because of their position they are forced to take seriously a convoluted series of events that they would rather have nothing to deal with. Their deadpan delivery as they talk about the case is just spot on. Brilliantly written, brilliantly acted, and very funny.

But aside from the spy story, this movie is really more about relationships. And it presents a very depressing view of romance.
Almost everyone in this movie gets screwed over in some way by romantic relationship. People in this movie are interested only in what they can get from the relationship, and no one really cares about the other person's needs. Instead, romantic love is presented as something that kicks you when you're down.

One striking example of this is how after John Malkovich's character loses his job, his wife divorces him and puts all his things outside in the rain.

The characters in this movie are often seen watching a movie-within-the-movie "Coming up Daisy". We don't see much of this movie, but just enough to let us know it is a typical romantic comedy.
However just this little taste is enough to evoke the comparison between the typical light-hearted Hollywood view of romance, and the more pessimistic view of romance presented in this film. Which view is more realistic is left up the viewers to decide.

Also:
Star studded cast for this film includes George Clooney. Who, for some reason, didn't look at all to me like he usually did. In fact with his beard, and his wide buggy eyes he reminded me of someone else. For most of the movie I couldn't quite place it, until I finally realized he reminded me of Paul Krugman.
I did a quick google search to see if it was just me, or if anyone else thought so as well. In fact there are several web pages with the same idea. Sample results here and here.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky Freedom of the Press
and Our awesome post-racial society
and The anchors are too dumb to realize the police are using sonic cannons, instead referring to it as "an annoying siren."Our America grows more authoritarian by the day, and the election hasn't changed that. Citizens are seen as the enemy, corporate interests are sacred and the police are the ultimate authority, answering to no one. They deploy weapons developed for war zones against civilian populations - and nothing happens.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

My Two Cents: Nobel Peace Prize

So there I was, sitting in a bar in Japan. The man next to me tries to strike up a conversation in his poor English. "You from, where?"
"America."
"Ah, America. President, Obama?"
"Yes, Obama is the President now."
"Nobel Peace prize."
"Ha, ha, well, someday maybe."
"No, now."
"No, not yet. Maybe someday."
"No, already got it. Look."
He pulled out his cell phone to show me the latest internet news. Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

What? That can't be right. I mean if he had ended the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, maybe, but now?

And apparently this was everyone's reaction. By the time I got home and went online, the internet was already buzzing. The right wing was already in full whine mood about this. (See here for some great examples). And almost everyone I knew had already commented on their facebook page.

That's the age of internet for you. The great thing is that everyone has a way to share their opinion. The rub is that if you don't get your opinion out there within the first 3 hours, then it just seems like, "Well, what's the point. Everythings been said already on this topic."

But actually, the Nobel Peace Prize has been on my short list of "things to rant about" for a long time now. So now that it's become topical again, I'm going to indulge myself, and add my two cents to the internet.

The "Nobel Peace Prize" is one of those extremely prestigous awards that we're taught to respect as if it came down from Olympus. But if you actually look at the history of the laureates, there's a lot of problems.

The list includes Woodrow Wilson, who ran for re-election in 1916 on the promise to keep America out of the war. And then shortly after he was elected, he threw a whole generation of American youth into one of the most pointless and bloodiest European wars ever. At the same time he put in jail anyone who dared to speak out against the war, people like Eugene Debs and Emma Goldman.

Another prize Laureate is Henry Kissinger, who's war crimes are too numerous to fully enumerate here (check out this media mouse article for a succient summary), but who is probably best remembered for carpet bombing several rice farming peasant nations back into the stone age.

Next to these two, Yasser Arafat seems pretty moderate. But I'd also include him in among the people who should never have gotten this prize.

And yet Gandhi was repeatedly snubbed by the Nobel Peace Prize committee, and was never awarded the prize.

So, obviously there's a lot of room for error in the selection process, and it's not like this list is annointed by the Pope or anything.

Which reminds, you know what else is over-rated? The Papacy.
Time was when a protestant country like America had a healthy wariness for "the whore of Babylon". But recently it seems like the Pope has become an icon for the religious right. I guess they must see him as an ally against secularism and the pro-choice movement.

Now if you like the Pope as a person, that's fair enough. If a particular Pope has done something to earn your respect, I've got no beef with you. But don't tell me to respect the Pope just because he's the Pope. Have you read a history book? Do you know all the terrible things the Papacy has done over the years? Popes have started wars, suppressed democratic reforms, inquistions, et cetera, but some of them have also lived very immoral lives, kept mistresses, had illegitimate children, built up treasures for themselves, et cetera.
Why anyone would have any respect for the office of the Pope is beyond me. But we do, don't we? Crowds wait to get his blessings, people faint over him, and even in protestant America we're taught to respect the Pope as a great Christian leader.

Sorry, short digression. Back to the Nobel Peace Prize.

My Calvinist background informs me that the whole thing is rooted in total depravity. It's a committee made up of fallen men selecting another fallen man. The process is bound to be flawed, and they're bound to select some people we might not agree with.

But there's no reason why the Nobel Peace Prize has to suck as much as it does.
If I was in charge of the process, I would institute three simple ground rules (which you would think were obvious but apparently not):
In order to be eligible for the Nobel Peace Prize you can not have
1) participated in war or violence
2) advocated war or violence
3) ordered other people to commit war or violence.

Sounds very simple, but these rules would have eliminated a great deal of the past laureates.
Now, if someone had a conversion halfway through life, saw the error of their ways, and renounced their past violence, I'd be willing to consider them for the Peace Prize. But you'll note none of these past laureates have done that.

This qualification would elimate almost all world leaders and powerful politicans. Most of them have sent troops into conflict in one form or another, or advocated doing so. But so what? This award should go to the ordinary people of the world who struggle for peace, and get jailed for it. It should go to people like Eugene Debs and Emma Goldman, who were locked up for speaking out against World War I, not to the man who put them in jail.

Obviously the Nobel committee sees things differently than I do. And it's their prize, so I guess they can award it the way they want to. But there's no reason why the rest of us have to get suckered into respecting this institution. After Kissinger got the Nobel Peace prize, the idea that this prize still has any meaning is laughable.

Which brings me back to Obama. He may not have been the best person to recieve this prize. Or done anything to deserve it, really. But he's far from the worst laureate. So the right wing can stop grasping at it's chest in righteous indignation.

Further thoughts:
It seems that the basis for Obama's selection is simply him existing and being elected President. Which isn't really a credit to him so much, but in the sense that he is a symbol for the changing world it does make a certain amount of sense. The first black president was a momentous event, not just for America, but for the whole world. I can't imagine any other country electing an ethnic minority to its highest position.
But then, there's a lot of things I don't know. So, open question for fellow history geeks or political nuts. Try and think of another example in history (recent or ancient) of an ethnic minority being elected the leader of their country in a fair and open election. (No colonial or South African stuff. It has to be a free election).
Off the top of my head, the only other example I can think of is Disraeli.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky: Big Business Dictates the Presidency
and Here's Your Real Death Panel: CIGNA Employees Flip Off Mother Of Nataline Sarkisyan

Friday, October 09, 2009

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

(Movie Review)

After watching a lot of junk recently, here is a movie that was very highly critically acclaimed.

Among the positive reviews was Roger Ebert (link here) who wrote:

"Sidney Lumet's "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is such a superb crime melodrama that I almost want to leave it at that. To just stop writing right now and advise you to go out and see it as soon as you can. I so much want to avoid revealing plot points that I don't even want to risk my usual strategy of oblique hints. You deserve to walk into this one cold."

I'd agree with that actually. This film has a lot of different layers in it. As much as it's possible these days to walk into a film without knowing anything, you should try it with this film.

All the characters, their motivations, and their relationships to each other is revealed gradually in this film by jumping around in time. We get to see the climax right off the bat, but what led up to it is slowly revealed through a lot of scenes that each act as one more piece in the puzzle.

So, if you want to see this film as it was intended, don't read my review first. (And actually, don't read Ebert's review either. He breaks his own rules).

If you're still reading:
This is one of those films that is shown all out of order.
This is a gimmick, of course, and in the post-Tarantino age, it's a fairly common, even over-used gimmick.

In this case, it's used to add on layers of motivation to the characters even after we already know the story. Which is interesting, although I appreciated it more in repeat viewings than I did the first time through. The first time through I wanted the story to get on with itself, and I wanted to find out what happens next. In that respect, the fact that the movie keeps jumping back in time really kills the forward momentum of the story.

The story itself is a little hard to believe. I had a hard time believing the characters could be so stupid as to do everything they did.
Although some of the reviews I've read view the examination into criminal stupidity as a positive. But personally I just never really bought it.

What makes this movie is that the acting and directing are amazing. And again, this is something I only really appreciated on repeat viewings. The first time I saw this movie, I was so frustrated that the story wasn't moving that I couldn't appreciate how wonderfully each scene was acted in. But I watched it a few more times before I returned it to the video store, and it slowly began to sink in. Everyone in this movie does a great job. Philip Seymour Hoffman is brilliant, as always, but Ethan Hawke also puts in an excellent job.

Almost every review you read about this movie praises the long career of director Sidney Lumet. I had never heard of him before, but reading his filmography (W) I have seen a couple of his films before. ("12 Angry Men" and "Network").

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky on "Antipolitics"
and Rachel Maddow: Blue Dog Mike Ross Pocketed Over $1 Million from Pharmacy Chain USA Drug
and Eric Cantor's insane rant at a Town Hall meeting. Just go broke and find a government program to help you or beg for charity

Friday, October 02, 2009

What Women Want

(Movie Review)

Well, obviously this is a chic-flick. And, as with any other straight male, there can only be one reason I sat down to watch this: a girl chose the movie.

You know, I can't even really remember the last time I saw a chic-flick. (That is the accepted term for these movies, right? I'm not going to get in trouble for calling them that, am I?)

But as the movie started up, I was surprised to discover there was a bit of nostalgia in me for these movies. They reminded me of my college days. There would be a huge amount of people crammed into a dorm room or a Calvin apartment for a movie night. Somehow the girls always ended up getting to chose the movie. And we would all do our best to be gentlemen about it and go with the girls choice.

Obviously we weren't part of the target audience for these movies, but the romantic comedy movies would often have some pretty funny parts that got even us guys laughing.
And then, as I recall, a wrestling match or something would usually break out during the slow parts or the overly sappy ending.

Often we would talk all the way through the movie. And in fact I almost wonder if these movies are specifically designed so that you can talk over them the whole time. You never have to worry about missing any important plot points, and you can have these movies on in the background and just kind of fade in and out of them as you like.

(If one were to actually sit down and give these movies your full attention from beginning to end, however, it's a bit of a painful experience, but I'll get to that later.)

In short, I think I associate romantic comedies with a night of fun college-age shenanigans in the dorm rooms.

And this movie came out right about the time I was finishing up my last semester in college. I still remember the previews for it (partly because I saw the previews over and over again. They seemed to be everywhere back then). And I remember being unimpressed.
And I think I might have read a couple negative reviews for this film as well.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised at how funny this movie really was. I was laughing out loud at several points.

The plot (as I'm sure you know already from the marketing blitz 9 years ago) is that Mel Gibson can read the minds of women.

The idea is almost exactly the same as that old Disney movie, "The Misadventures of Merlin Jones" (W)--(which used to be constantly shown on the Disney Channel during the 80s.)

Although at least in the case of Merlin Jones, the screenwriters go through a little bit of effort to explain how Merlin got these powers. In "What Women Want" the explanation is simply that Mel Gibson got an electric shock in the bathtub. Why this enables him to hear people's thoughts, and why only women's thoughts, is never even attempted to be explained.

I guess it's just as well. With a premise so fantastical as this one, you don't really care what the explanation for it is, you just want to see what the comic results are.
Still...still, I can't help hoping the screenwriters got a pay cut for such blatant laziness.

There were points were I felt Mel Gibson's maniac reactions bordered on over-acting, but for the most part this was a really funny movie with really great comic timing.

The problem is in the sappy ending scenes with the saccharine orchestra music playing as Mel Gibson makes his great romantic speech. That part can probably be safely talked over.

Further thoughts:
although obviously a movie made for women, this movie confirms one of the great male truisms of all time: we don't have a clue what women really are thinking.
It would be interesting to see someone's take on it in reverse--if a women could hear the thoughts of males. My suspicions is that they wouldn't find out much they didn't already know. That is to say, I think women do a much better job at imagining things from the male perspective than vice-versa. But I'd be interested in hearing a women's perspective on this.

And one last sidenote: while I'm on the subject of romantic movies and gender related preferences, I thought this blog post was pretty interesting: "Top 25 Romantic Movies That Are Really Made For Guys". I agree with some of the commenters that the tone of the post is boarder-line insulting to women, but the whole thing is interesting food for thought nonetheless. From my personal perspective, I do agree that "High Fidelity", "Casablanca", "Annie Hall", and "The Graduate" are all high on my list.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky discusses the slogan "Support Our Troops"
and Rachel Maddow: Former Bush Cabinet Secretary Gale Norton Subject of Formal Corruption Investigation
and Dick Armey Is Fighting To Keep His Government Health Care Coverage. Hypocrisy Much?