Thursday, January 31, 2008

Exit Edwards...Now Whither My Vote?

Well, there goes the scrappiest of the Democratic contenders...and he takes with him my full sympathy and respect. I was looking forward to voting for Edwards next Tuesday, even though I'd more or less resigned myself to the fact that he was not going to be our nominee. Oh believe me, I tried to talk myself out of voting for him. What irony was it that I, an Asian woman who's spent the last two years working for large corporate law firms, should end up going for the Southern white male trial lawyer running on an overtly anti-corporate populist platform? Some observers might mutter some nonsense about self-hatred, self-subjugation to the white male colonial paradigm, or stupid female susceptibility to good looks. But the truth is it took a while for me to warm to Edwards. I didn't like him much in 2004. I thought he was a little smarmy. Even now, I don't necessarily think he was the best of the 2008 Democrat hopefuls, or the most qualified, or even the most electable.

What I liked about him was that he stayed on message, and his message - "I fight for the little guy" - simply appealed to me more, even with repetition ad nauseum, than Obama's "I represent change and hope" or Clinton's "I've got 35 years of experience." And while I was skeptical at first of Edwards' sincerity, I gradually came to believe his advocacy was genuine. Whatever I might have thought of his trial-lawyer background or his meager track record as a senator, he came across to me as a man who believed every word he was saying on the campaign trail. I've always thought that a good politician must convince himself that he believes everything he's saying, at least at the time he says it. A great one convinces others, too. Part of Edwards' problem was that he was a good politician, not a great one. Still, he did convince me, and a fairly significant number of others.

But it was more than just his rhetoric that attracted me. Time and again, Edwards took the lead in putting forth policy proposals that, whatever their merits or failings, clearly reflected the concern he voiced for the working and middle classes. And in so doing, he pushed Clinton and Obama to follow suit. At the debates, he continually brought the discussion back to these bread-and-butter issues, which would likely have fallen by the wayside otherwise. Now that he's gone, I can only hope that the two remaining candidates remember to keep those topics, and not the fact of their rivalry, at the forefront.

And now that he's gone, I'm back to Indecision 2008 with respect to the two remaining Democrats. As I've said before, I'd happily vote for either of them in the general election, over any and all of the Republican candidates. Never mind the bickering or sniping between their camps or the Clintonian double-teaming and dirty tactics. That's politics, even if it shouldn't be, and the worst that the Clintons have done still pales in comparison with what the Republicans have done in nearly every recent Presidential campaign (except Bob Dole's, for which I respect the man) and are sure to do to whoever clinches the Democrat nomination. So I am not suffering from the disillusionment that appears to have afflicted many Democrats in recent weeks. Let's not lose sight of the big picture, folks: we desperately need to elect a Democrat President this year (three words: Supreme Court appointment); both Clinton and Obama are smart and qualified; and either of them would be an infinite improvement over the monkey we currently have in the White House. Nor do they appear to be particularly far apart on matters of policy, though I will say Clinton seems to talk about the specifics more than Obama does. The main difference I perceive in terms of how they propose to govern is that Clinton would operate thoroughly within the political system as it stands now (and by the way, she's proven to be able to work effectively with her Republican colleagues in the Senate), while Obama suggests he can transcend politics-as-usual.

To the latter, all I have to say is: how? How exactly do you propose to do that? Charm alone, however considerable, won't get that beast of a bicameral legislature to fall in line with your hopes of unity. Now to be fair, Obama has always struck me as a quick study, and he's shrewd enough to adapt his ideals to the need for political efficacy. But I remain uninspired by grand promises - unless they're accompanied by specific proposals of reform - that any one man, even a man of Obama's gifts, can effect a fundamental change in the sausage factory that is our national government.

So, in the end, I think my choice has to come down to electability...and there, it's anyone's guess who has the advantage, or rather, the least disadvantages. But I continue to fear that the unreasoning bile the words "Hillary Clinton" seem to arouse is still more of a threat to a Democratic victory this November than Obama's race, name, and lack of experience combined. Against all Obama's weaknesses as a candidate, he has his tremendous charismatic appeal. Against Clinton's - well, she has the loyalty of her base and her battle-tested armor from Republican attacks over the past ten years. Unfortunately, these assets, while possibly more durable, simply aren't as galvanizing as the "audacity of hope" Obama offers his true believers. Of which, however, I am not one. Not yet, anyway.

Update, 2/2/08:

I love how Edwards is getting better and more appreciative media notice now that he's dropped out than he ever got while he was running. In addition to Krugman's belated nod to the "Edwards effect," there's also this very similarly-themed piece in The Guardian. Granted, the latter's a British perspective, but still...

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

R.I.P. Heath Ledger

I had intended to blog tonight about the Oscar nominations, which were announced early this morning, but very unfortunately there is much sadder news that takes precedence.

First Brad Renfro, now Heath Ledger...What curse is mowing down our lovely and talented actors who are still in their 20's?

We don't know that it's drugs for sure yet for either of them. But if Renfro - so adorable and so riveting as the newfound child star of "The Client" - was already something of a emblem of wasted promise when he died last week, his career a reflection of the conflict between his natural abilities and his chequered history of substance abuse, Heath - who as far as I know had no record of drug addiction - was indisputably a star on the rise, with seemingly everything before him, since his extraordinary performance in "Brokeback Mountain." As a result, his death feels even more surreal and cruelly premature. He recently wrapped production on the new "Batman" film, in which he stars as the Joker: it will be eerie to see him in it when it comes out this spring.

I hope for his family's sake - especially his little daughter's - that his death was not a suicide. Frankly, it doesn't sound like it was to me, though there's something even more horribly senseless about the idea that it was a pure accident. Either way, it's truly a loss. He had so much talent left to give the film world - so much talent that could have ripened into greatness.

Friday, January 11, 2008

My Top Ten Movies of 2007

I've been having an interesting ongoing discussion with my friend LVJeff, since reading his own recap and top 10 of 2007, about the wide range of movies that have been appearing on the critics' top ten lists this year. It's a breadth that hasn't necessarily been reflected in the critics' awards, which have tended to cluster around the same few films and performers. Critics like to revile top ten lists even as they almost certainly enjoy making them - yet these lists, rather than the awards, are far more reflective of what Jeff pointed out has been a very strong (if dark) year in film that's allowed different critics to pick their personal favorites while leaving many other, equally worthy films, to others.

By this point, there have been many, many commentaries on the movies of 2007 and their recurring, mostly grim themes - the ravages of old age and death, the blood and evil "you can't stop from coming," though also, somewhat more cheeringly, the surprising resiliency and reinvention of the musical in a year that produced not one but four musicals I seriously considered putting in my top ten. (In the end, only two made it: sorry, "Sweeney Todd" and "Across the Universe." Come to think of it, I should have put "Sweeney Todd" on there as the one film that most perfectly embodied all the trends of the year.) It was also an exceptional year for the animated film, two of which made my top three. But when I look at my list, I see a lot of films that deal with two of the deepest human desires - the desire to create and the desire to connect with others - and the ways in which they both conflict and reinforce one another. Perhaps this pattern is hardly surprising, considering these are two desires that very much inform my own life.

Anyway, here they are - my top ten movies from 2007:

1. Ratatouille
2. Lust, Caution
3. Persepolis
4. There Will Be Blood
5. Starting Out in the Evening
6. Atonement
7. Once
8. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
9. Michael Clayton
10 TIE: Hairspray / No Country for Old Men

That last tie's a weird pairing, I know, and yet it makes sense because my response to these two movies were almost perfect inversions of one another. One of them, in my view, had fairly serious aesthetic and intellectual flaws, but was so infectiously enjoyable that it ended up transcending them. The other was, from an aesthetic point of view, damn near flawless, but so stylized and so unrelenting in its bleakness that it just didn't register emotionally with me. However, I include it because it *stayed* with me, in ways that few other films this year did.

Honorable mentions: PROTAGONIST; EASTERN PROMISES; THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM; SWEENEY TODD; JUNO; THE SAVAGES; GRINDHOUSE; ACROSS THE UNIVERSE; and a special little spot for ENCHANTED, which has even more flaws than HAIRSPRAY but is right up there with it and RATATOUILLE as the films I'd be most easily persuaded to see again.

Movies a lot of other people were crazy about that didn't quite do it for me: INTO THE WILD; ZODIAC

Movies I missed or haven't seen yet: I'M NOT THERE; CONTROL; BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD; AWAY FROM HER; THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES by the blah-blah-blah; CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR; KNOCKED UP; RESCUE DAWN; the Romanian abortion movie with all the numbers in the title; and every documentary that came out this year. What's sad is there were quite a lot of documentaries I *wanted* to see but didn't have time to catch: NO END IN SIGHT, LAKE OF FIRE, MY KID COULD PAINT THAT, NANKING, THE KING OF KONG, others. I didn't even see SICKO. Oh well - more titles to add to my Netflix queue, I guess.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

New Hampshire Serves Humble Pie to Pundits

Rumors of Hillary Clinton's political demise have been greatly exaggerated.

I'm delighted she won tonight. Not because she's my first choice candidate (she isn't), but because I have been REVOLTED by the way the media has turned on her in the past week - especially the circus they've made over her so-called "Ed Muskie moment." I'm so glad that she put to rest, at least for now, the idiotic notion that because she dared show a rare moment of vulnerability, she's somehow weak or unfit to be the leader of our country...this from the same people who love to paint her as a robot or frigid bitch. Of course the other half of the anti-HRC coin, which will no doubt continue to get a lot of spin from her haters, is the cynical assumption that she somehow faked the emotion as a ploy to get voters' sympathy. I've watched the video and I don't believe that for a second. And I have a hunch that quite a few of the women who decided to vote for her today agreed with me and were equally disgusted by the media response. Either that, or they read Gloria Steinem's op-ed in the N.Y. Times this morning. Regardless, while I in no way believe that women should vote for Hillary just because she's a woman and so are they, I was proud to be a woman tonight, and proud of my fellow women in New Hampshire. I am NOT, however, impressed by the Clinton campaign's attempts to put their own spin on the "moment of tears" as the decisive factor that convinced women to support her. Hillary: you know better. That just gives ammunition to the accusations that your tears were staged.

Such fun seeing the talking heads choke on their own words! True, I believed the polls as much as anyone else, and in the last five days went from anticipating a close race to expecting that Obama would clean up in New Hampshire. But I never thought the race should or would be over for Hillary even if she did lose NH. While I'll admit I'm interested to see what explanations the "experts" come up with to explain the gap between the polls and the results, my gut tells me three things tipped the balance in favor of Clinton: (1) the fact that quite a lot of voters were undecided until the last moment, (2) independents deciding to vote in the Republican polls for McCain, rather than for Obama, (3) not Hillary's teary-eyed moment, but the ridiculous response to it, combined with the media's premature anointing of Obama, which made voters (esp. female voters) balk. And no, I don't believe that any voters said they'd vote for Obama and then voted for Hillary because they secretly don't want to vote for a black man - though I'm sure that theory will get more currency than it deserves.

Props to Obama for a terrific concession speech. That man is a sensational public speaker, no doubt about it. Hillary's not quite as inspiring, but I was quite moved when she made that observation about finding her own voice. I hope it's true.

Now things are going to get really interesting...I don't know much about Nevada, but South Carolina now looks tighter than ever. And February 5 will be even more of a doozy. It seems clear from the results of both Iowa and New Hampshire that HRC's strength still lies with the rank-and-file Dems, the bluecollar workers, older voters, and women; Obama's with the educated, the young, and, perhaps most crucially, independents. Without independents he's very vulnerable in the Democratic primaries. But I think I read somewhere that among the states that have primaries on Feb. 5, they're split pretty evenly between closed primaries (meaning no independents) and open. And then there are the caucuses. There's also the X factor of Edwards possibly withdrawing from the race *before* then, if things go badly for him in South Carolina. Where will all those votes go? So even "Tsunami Tuesday" could conceivably be inconclusive.

I have to say Edwards almost lost my vote this past week for the sneaky self-serving way in which he responded to HRC's much-ballyhooed tearing up. (His supposed double teaming with Obama against Clinton at the debates didn't bother me so much, for whatever reason.) That said, if he's on the California ballot I'm still leaning slightly towards voting for him. If he's not, I'll have some soul-searching to do.

On the Republican side: McCain's resurrection is complete. I sincerely respect this guy, probably more than I do any of the other Republican candidates, but doesn't he look a little like Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers movies?

As a Democrat, I don't want him to get the nomination, because I think he's the biggest threat to whatever Democratic candidate ends up running, and he has the potential to turn pretty damn conservative if he gets elected. (As a Democrat, I want Romney to win the nomination, because he has no charisma & is therefore the easiest to beat, but also would probably be the most moderate of all the candidates if he did get elected...unless he pulls a Dubya.) Luckily, the GOP nomination is as much of a question mark as the Democrats', if not more so.

Now THIS is what I call a Presidential RACE!

Update, 1/9/08: Rebecca Traister has an outstanding piece in Salon today that eloquently captures exactly how I've been feeling about Hillary Clinton and the media treatment of her in New Hampshire in the last week, why it made me see red, and why one of my [female] friends and I texted each other in glee when Hillary pulled out her narrow win, even though neither of us was (or is) a Hillary backer.

Also in Salon, Glenn Greenwald quite effectively goes to town on the devolution of news media into the sorry state that was so fully & embarrassingly on display in New Hampshire.

Monday, January 07, 2008

There Will Be Brilliance


directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Ciarán Hinds, others
loosely based on the novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair

And I will break the pride of your power, and make your heaven as iron, and your earth as brass.
–Leviticus 26:19

Why this verse should come to mind after seeing “There Will Be Blood,” I can’t really say. I’m not a member of any church, and I don’t ordinarily go around quoting Scripture after going to the movies—even Paul Thomas Anderson movies. Nor is the quote particularly relevant: the film isn’t about drought (not in the literal sense, at least), even if it is filled with parched, unforgiving landscapes. And while it is to some degree a study of god-defying pride, whether that pride gets broken is, well, a complicated question.

Still, I keep the epigraph because there's something peculiarly biblical about the epic scale of “TWBB”—not so much the narrative itself as the forces that drive it. So much so, in fact, that it’s best viewed as an ongoing conflict between opposing forces, both human and superhuman, internal and external, rather than as a narrative in the usual terms of plot and character development. Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to summarize what the film is “about” or to fully convey its strange, searing power.

In the most conventional sense “TWBB” is “about” the rise of one man, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), from toiling silver miner to successful oil magnate in the still-developing California of the early 20th century. Stripped down further, it's about the fierce, lifelong struggle of that one man, a ruthless but oddly compelling egomaniac, to dominate everything and everyone around him and to crush the obstacles that confront him along the way. The obstacles include an equally ambitious (and unscrupulous) young evangelical preacher (Paul Dano) who becomes Plainview’s chief nemesis; the explosion and collapse of a derrick that might well be styled an act of God; assorted individuals and companies who attempt, at their peril, to take advantage of Plainview; and his own inner demons, particularly those arising out of his complex relationship—a mix of calculated self-advancement and genuine tenderness—with his young adopted son (played as a child by the angel-faced Dillion Freasier, as an adult by Russell Harvard).

More broadly, “TWBB,” which is very loosely based on an Upton Sinclair novel, can be and has been variously interpreted as a disjointed parable of the American West, a dark satire of the myth of the self-made man, and a subtle commentary on that other American myth of endless national expansion—a myth that in reality is steeped in, and compromised by, its ties to the cynical manipulation of oil, religion, and, of course, blood. “TWBB” is certainly all of these things, yet the feeling one takes away from it is something simpler and more elemental. At bottom, it seems most concerned with exploring the question of whether man is ultimately master of his own fate. And it seems to suggest that he is not, even when he is most aggressively asserting his will. (Emphasis on “man” and “he”: women have virtually no part in this world, nor can one easily imagine what significant part they could have in Plainview’s existence.)

This is ambitious but diffuse, potentially unwieldy stuff, and no part of “TWBB” would ring remotely true were it not for certain key elements that hold the film together. One is, of course, the acting—in particular by my dear old DDL, the first actor I ever worshipped purely for his thespian skills and not his good looks. In a year filled with exceptionally strong male lead performances, his is a standout among standouts. He manages to make Plainview larger than life, yet not inhuman and not invulnerable; insane, yes, but holding his insanity in a tightly controlled grip, except at certain moments; and always brimming with barely suppressed rage and other, more complicated emotions, like the oil well that eventually erupts beyond all human control. In his best scene, his face seems to contract even as his eyes flash lightning and his voice thunders, and we catch a brief glimpse into Plainview’s soul. It’s a riveting moment, unrivalled by any other actor this year. Young Dano, for his part, smartly doesn’t try to steal this scene or any other from his co-star, yet accomplishes no small feat by holding his own as the more insidious competitor whom Plainview despises without ever underestimating. His Eli Sunday is tonally perfect as the snake-oil salesman who’s almost, but not quite, a match for the real-oil profiteer. Where Dano does flag somewhat is only at the very end, a difficult and already-controversial scene that tips the balance of power between the two adversaries in a way that some may find unconvincing. (I, perhaps somewhat perversely, found it hilarious, and am still trying to decide whether that was Anderson’s intended effect.)

But the phenomenal acting isn’t the film’s only, or even its most powerful, cinematic glue. That honor goes to the brilliantly minimalist score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. Spare and hauntingly dissonant, at once meditative and hair-raising, and like Plainview’s character, composed of a tightly constructed order that, with each ominous plink, always seems to be on the verge of splintering into chaos, it’s about as far removed from the sledgehammer emotional cues of even the most effective Hollywood music (which, by the way, I love, but which would have been wildly ill-suited to this film) as possible. Combined with the hypnotic visuals and the occasional ironic recursions into the more traditionalist strains of Brahms’ violin concerto, it practically takes “TWBB” into a new sphere of art—a kind of symphony with a visual dimension.

Which is not in any way to marginalize the latter, or to downplay the tremendous impact of Robert Elswit’s cinematography: To this day, I still have the image burned into my mind of a pillar of flame against a smoke-darkened sky, dwarfing the men scurrying around and bathing them by turns in an infernal red glow and inky shadow—the very picture of hell, a hell at once of Plainview’s making and, in another sense, his unmaking. But it’s precisely this fusion of visual and aural signage that succeeds in immersing the mere spectator into the hyperreality of Daniel Plainview’s world.

And therein lies both the film’s supreme strength and its one flaw. “There Will Be Blood” doesn’t really engage our emotions, or to be more precise, it doesn’t trigger any of our usual emotional responses. Instead, it pulls us into its own skewed emotional universe and holds us captive as we watch its fireworks of distorted passion explode and dissolve before our stunned eyes. We go willingly, we submit transfixed, and only when we return do we dare draw a breath. “That was one hell of a show,” Plainview mockingly salutes Eli after a particularly fiery sermon-as-exorcism. Minus the irony, he might as well have been talking about the film that showcases them both.


Friday, January 04, 2008

Post-Iowa thoughts

Cheers for Obama! Edwards would have been my personal first choice, but I’m heartened by Obama’s victory in Iowa, and by the enthusiastic turnout he inspired. And yet…and yet…a few caveats:

1. I was unmoved by Obama’s victory speech. Delivery: excellent. Substance: Meh. There wasn’t any. All platitudes and generalities, albeit nice-sounding ones. That’s what I’ve felt all along about his campaign. It’s selling him, perhaps shrewdly, as a person, not a policymaker. As we all recognize by now, the man is likable. Charismatic. And comes off as sincere, which is more important than almost anything else. Most voters can sniff bullshit from a mile away, and there isn’t any on him. But I want to hear more about policy.

2. By contrast, I found Hillary’s concession speech perfectly good, and don’t understand why the media’s been ripping on it. What else was she supposed to say? Her modulation seems to have improved greatly over the past year, though she’ll never have the natural gifts of oratory that Obama does (or Edwards to a lesser degree: I thought his speech was quite good, too, even if it struck all the predictable notes and wasn’t much stronger on specifics than Obama’s).

3. I also don’t understand why everyone is making such a big deal over the fact that Hillary finished THIRD as opposed to SECOND. For all intents and purposes, it was a statistical tie between her and Edwards. Guess I’m glad Edwards did eke out that tiny lead, or else the media would have pronounced him DOA.

4. It’s WAY too early to make any meaningful predictions about the nomination. Both Hillary and Edwards are fighters, and they’re not going quietly…though only Hillary has the resources and broad-based support to slow Obama’s momentum. It’ll be close in New Hampshire, but I have a good feeling for Obama. Nevada apparently doesn’t matter(?). South Carolina is harder to call at this point and will be one to watch – if Obama picks that up as well as New Hampshire, it will set him up nicely for Super Tuesday. However, I think it’s Hillary who has the most to gain from Super Tuesday. Unless something radical happens, she’ll likely pick up the big states (New York, California), and if she wins all or most of the others…well, we’ll see. Never underestimate the Clinton machine…or the fear of Dems who don’t believe Obama has what it takes to go the distance.

5. To the latter folks: you’re mistaken. Obama does have what it takes, if you’re willing to give him the chance. He may not have much substance in his speeches or much “experience” under his belt, but he’s a smart cookie and tougher than he looks under that affable surface, and he’s got a formidable campaign machine of his own, that’s tapped into a kind of enthusiasm this country hasn’t seen in a long time. As the Democrat candidate, he’d have to clarify his position on a lot of hard-hitting issues and ready himself for all manner of attacks, fair and foul, but he’s already shown he can adapt to survive. As president, he’d have good advisors, and enough brains to figure out whom to listen to. And experience isn’t everything – though I guarantee you that, and not his race, would be the biggest hurdle for him to overcome in the general election. (Except in the South, and no Dem candidate would carry the South anyway.) If anything, I suspect it’s his Muslim-sounding names that will probably cause more knee-jerk regressive voting than the color of his skin.

6. Edwards isn’t going yet, but I fear last night spelled the beginning of the end for him. I am genuinely sorry. I didn’t care much for him in 2004 – there always seemed something a bit too slick about him, and I still feel that way sometimes. But I find his evolution very interesting: he went from being the smiling, positive candidate of 2004 to the fire-breathing populist of 2008 (essentially ceding the conciliatory role to Obama), and yet somehow managed not to come across as overly bitter or strident. At least to me. He has crafted what sounds to me like the sharpest message and clearest vision of the three front-runners, and although I’m not exactly a member of the base to which he’s appealing (let’s face it, I’m not – in fact, as a corporate lawyer I more or less represent the side of the Evil Corporate Empire Edwards has been skewering), it resonates with me. The growing division between the Haves and the Have-Nots in this country that’s been generated by unbridled capitalism is becoming truly atrocious, and something needs to be done about it. Above all, health care.

7. Unfortunately, Edwards still comes across as being too much of an old-school small-d populist Democrat, and the time for that seems to have passed. More than ever, it seems to me that a Democrat can only become President by presenting himself as the true “uniter, not a divider” that GW Bush so miserably failed to be. Ergo, Obama is indicated.

8. I am so tired of hearing people say they’re tired of dynasties – that they don’t want Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton. Gadzooks, how can you even compare the two?

9. Finally, a passing word on Mike Huckabee: While I’m a little disturbed by the evangelical turnout in his favor (though I don’t think it’ll be enough to propel him to the Republican nomination) and more than a little disturbed by his positions on most issues, I have to admit I was favorably impressed by his victory speech. He, too, comes across as likable and sincere (whether or not he actually is), and an admirably relaxed, low-key public speaker. He connects. However, methinks his politics are a little too cuckoo to get him the Republican nomination.

10. Mitt Romney has always struck me as the Republicans’ John Kerry: Boring, boring, boring. Only the Iowan Republicans had the sense not to pick him. It’s anyone’s guess what the other states will do. Look for a long, drawn-out fight on the Republican side.

The race is on...but we ain't even at the quarter-mile pole yet. Fasten your seatbelts, folks, it's going to be a bumpy month...

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Iowa Fever

Whenever I hear about caucuses, I always think of this passage from Alice in Wonderland:

“What is a Caucus-race?” said Alice; not that she wanted much to know, but the Dodo had paused as if it thought that somebody ought to speak, and no one else seemed inclined to say anything.

“Why,” said the Dodo, “the best way to explain it is to do it.” (And, as you might like to try the thing yourself, some winter day, I will tell you how the Dodo managed it.)

First it marked out a race-course, in a sort of circle, (“the exact shape doesn't matter,” it said,) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no “One, two, three, and away,” but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out “The race is over!" and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, “But who has won?”

This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”

This description certainly seems especially appropriate to the Iowa caucuses - on the Democrat side, at least. As of this hour, I have no idea what the finishing order is going to be, and I guarantee you none of the pundits, pollsters, journalists, or campaign veterans do, either. There are too many variables up for grabs - too much uncertainty about just who is going to turn out to vote, and even for whom they will end up voting. All I know is if *I* had to caucus tomorrow, I would be flip-flopping up till the last possible moment.

The fact is that, like many of my fellow Democrats, I like just about all of my choices. They each have their strengths and their flaws, but I believe all of them well qualified to lead this country. The key factor for me, at this stage, is electability - and I can't decide who has the advantage there. I can't get away from the feeling, though, that Hillary provokes too much irrational (and quite unjustified) but implacable hatred that would prove a serious handicap in the general election. By contrast, Obama has the likability factor in spades, which to my mind is the single most important quality for getting elected...but you can bet the Republicans, faced with Obama as the opposition candidate, would play the fear factor to the hilt, including dirt-cheap shots at his so-called Muslim heritage, and come down hard on his lack of political and/or governing experience. Edwards is a fighter who knows how to keep his head, and he has a passion that seems genuine, despite the slick-millionaire trial-lawyer facade - but I'm not sure how his populist posture (or posturing, depending on your point of view) will play among independents...and it's not like he's got that much more "experience" than Obama, unless you count running a presidential campaign that ultimately ended in defeat. (Despite my harsh words, I'm actually leaning slightly towards Edwards, though I fear his long-term prospects are dim and, like I said, I'd happily vote for any of the Democrat candidates in the general election.)

Bottom line is it's still anybody's race to win or lose. As for the Republicans, I predict Huckabee will pull out a victory over Romney tomorrow...but he won't be able to sustain his momentum in the states to come. (I fear the same will be true for Obama and even more so for Edwards, even if one of them does win Iowa.) I think for both parties Superduper Tuesday will be decisive.

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming...(I'm not normally a political blogger, esp. not at the height of movie awards season, but I do make an exception for the presidential race.)

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

December Movie Omnibus Part II

A very merry Christmukkahwanzaa and happy new year to all...Once again, I'm going to have to pile all the movies I've seen recently into an "omnibus" review. There have just been too many, there are still more I need to see (most notably, "There Will Be Blood"), as well as some I've missed that I probably won't be able to catch in theaters anymore. Damn the December deluge!

But, for now, here are my thoughts on my latest round of Awards Bait films, again in reverse order of viewing:


directed by Tim Burton
starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Sacha Baron Cohen
based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim

When I first heard that Tim Burton was directing a film version of Sweeney Todd, my first thought was “Of course!” What better fit for Sondheim’s macabre, pitch-black wit and the Grand Guignol antics of the legendary Demon Barber than the macabre, demented fairy-tale sensibility of the man who brought us Edward Scissorhands, Jack Skellington, and the original big-screen Batman? (Let us charitably forget a certain putrid remake of a Charlton Heston classic involving apes.) I’m pleased to report that Burton and Sondheim deliver on the brilliant promise of their pairing. With the aid of production designer Dante Ferretti and DP Dariusz Wolski, Burton creates a dank, shadowy, hyperstylized Victorian London in shades of mostly dark, pale, and gray—except for the jets of ketchup-colored blood that appear in increasing quantities when Sweeney (Depp) gets to work with his razor. The effect would almost be humorous if the throat-slittings weren’t so graphically detailed. Indeed, Burton stays in tune with Sondheim’s twisted sense of humor, as he films Sweeney’s serial killings and disposal of the corpses in perfect counterpoint to one of the musical’s most lyrical songs, “Johanna.”

Still, Burton’s Sweeney generally leans a bit more heavily on the melodrama than the satire. Depp is compelling and at times truly terrifying as the wronged barber who, unable to extract immediate revenge against his mortal enemy (Alan Rickman), decides to take revenge on the whole world. (Well, on all the unsuspecting Londoners who drop by for a shave, anyway.) Yet he also brings out the subtle comedy of Sweeney Todd’s one-track mind, especially in one brightly colored sequence (“By the Sea”) in which he stalks unresponsively through someone else’s romantic fantasy. Helena Bonham-Carter is a longer study as Sweeney’s fantasizing landlady and partner-in-crime, Mrs. Lovett, the enterprising pie-seller who gives a whole new meaning to the old adage, “Waste not, want not.” While her role on stage is more often played as a blowsy, Madame Thénardier type, Bonham-Carter’s Lovett is a tiny, melancholy thing, devious but not completely unscrupulous, her unrequited yen for the butchering barber ultimately more pathetic than comic. Oddly, her more wistful approach works, perhaps because aesthetically and tonally it matches the dead-faced beauty of Depp’s Sweeney Todd, though it doesn’t quite jive with some of Mrs. Lovett’s brassier numbers (“The Worst Pies in London,” “A Little Priest”).

While neither Depp nor HBC have strong voices, they can carry a tune well enough, and they’re both remarkably adept at importing their singing into their acting and expression of their respective characters. The rest of the cast falls at varying points on the spectrum between singing as an extension of acting (Rickman, Timothy Spall) and raw vocal talent (Ed Sanders as a very young, beautifully crystalline-voiced Toby), with Sacha Baron Cohen striking perhaps the best balance between vocal and acting chops as the flamboyant charlatan Signor Pirelli. The mix of film-acting and musical performance may not blend completely smoothly, but ultimately it helps Burton retain the theatricality of Sweeney Todd while lending the story a more fluid, cinematic feel. The result is what all good movie musicals should be—something that feels like both a movie and a musical.



directed and written by Tamara Jenkins
starring Laura Linney, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Bosco

“The Savages” may be the most sobering film I’ve seen all year. It also just may be the truest. Be forewarned: although the movie is beautifully acted and not without a wry sense of humor, it may be more painful than pleasurable for those seeking the comedic elements emphasized in the trailer. Funny as it often is, it’s more a comedy in the way that Chekhov styled his plays comedies. But it will resonate with anyone who’s confronted or even contemplated the problem of caring for an elderly parent who’s no longer capable of looking after himself or herself. It poses all the relevant questions without presuming any answers.

Writer and director Tamara Jenkins (“Slums of Beverly Hills”) sets her sights on John and Wendy Savage (Hoffman and Linney, respectively), a brother and sister both pushing into middle age, who learn one day that their father (Philip Bosco) has begun to show signs of dementia and no longer has a place to live or anyone to look after him. The rest of “The Savages” traces their efforts to figure out how to do right by him and work through their own mixed feelings of guilt and resentment towards a parent who was at best neglectful and at worst abusive. All this unspools rather slowly, and as it does, the film reveals all three of the main characters in progressively more unflattering lights. (In that respect, it reminded me a little of Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale,” and not just because both movies star Linney as protagonists you hate to love, or maybe hate to hate.) But the film, while unsparing, is never mean-spirited, and never loses sight of the Savages’ humanity even as it forces them (and us) to take a hard look at not only the choices they face immediately before them but the choices they’ve been making all their lives. Linney and Hoffman, two of our finest actors working today, have a wonderfully convincing dynamic as brother and sister, capturing the mix of affection, rivalry, and conflicting personalities that arises between two siblings who have always been close almost by necessity, even as their lives have grown apart. For their interactions alone, these Savages are worth watching.



directed by Julian Schnabel
starring Mathieu Almaric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Max von Sydow

It’s hard to know whether to describe “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” as inspiring or depressing, so exquisitely calibrated is it between the ever-shifting moods of suffocating despair (the diving “bell,” which I think just means a diving suit) and transcendence (the butterfly). The film, helmed by painter-turned-director Julian Schnabel (“Basquiat,” “Before Night Falls”), is based on the true story of Jean-Dominique Baudy (known as “Jean-Do” to his friends and intimates), a former French editor of Elle who at 40-odd suffered a debilitating stroke that left him with “locked-in syndrome”— an aptly and terrifyingly named condition in which one’s mental powers are left completely intact but trapped inside a paralyzed body. Le scaphandre et le papillon is the memoir Baudy wrote, dictating painstakingly word by word through blinking his left eyelid, the only part of his body he could move freely.

To its great credit, the film depicts Baudy’s near-superhuman effort without an ounce of false sentimentality, and is remarkably successful at depicting the mixture of whimsical fantasies and fleeting, poignant memories that kept him going from day to day. Schnabel’s visual techniques (not unlike his paintings) are a bit show-offy, but they work well in counterbalancing the film’s unavoidable reliance on voice-over by Almaric. Not that the voice-over is ever tedious in itself: even locked in, Baudy’s inner voice emerges as sardonic and witty as before the stroke, if not more so. And in his more reflective moods, especially as he’s dictating his book, his language—even in translation—is so lovely and evocative one wonders if it was his physical imprisonment that paradoxically freed a dormant poet inside him.

The film, presumably in keeping with the memoir, doesn’t gloss over Baudy’s faults as a man, including the heartbreak he inflicts on his loyal ex-lover (Emmanuelle Seigner), both before and after the stroke. Nor does it shy away from the wrenching tenderness and pain of Baudy’s interactions with his aged father (an excellent Max von Sydow), a man himself failing in health who’s still somehow lived to see his son in such a state. Ultimately, however, “The Diving Bell” focuses not on Baudy’s enforced isolation from the world but his fierce will to bridge that isolation through communication. For Baudy, communicating was living, and the film’s most impressive feat is to convey the intensity of that desire: the butterfly struggling to emerge from the cocoon.



directed by Jason Reitman
starring Ellen Page, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Michael Cera, Allison Janney, J.K. Simmons

This tale of a teenage pregnancy has got to be one of the most overhyped movies of the year, and yet I can’t deny I enjoyed it. Not at first: I don’t know whether it was the scripting or Ellen Page’s acting or both, but the character of Juno, with all her would-be-witty quips and flow of cultural references that date her creator rather than herself, really, really grated on me, as did the strained quirkiness of her interactions with family and friends. (The brief appearance of an Asian American character as a pro-life protestor who can’t speak idiomatic English didn’t help, either.) I’d been advised by many, however, that the film “gets better” as it goes on, and can now confirm that it does indeed…when it stops trying to be clever and starts being serious about the relationships between its characters. Ellen Page gets better, too. But it’s Jennifer Garner who really comes down to earth—and takes the movie with her—as Vanessa, the prospective adoptive mother to whom there’s more than the type-A yuppie that meets the eye. Her evolution as a character is nicely juxtaposed with an understated (and underrated) performance by Jason Bateman as her seemingly cooler, hipper, more appealing husband, and solid turns by Allison Janney and J.K. Simmons as Juno’s level-headed stepmother and gruff but caring dad. It’s no coincidence, I think, that Bateman’s character is supposedly based on the screenwriter’s ex-husband: he feels like a very real person, in a way that Juno never really does, and his relationship with Vanessa palpably recognizable. It’s like a more balanced and nuanced take on the type A female-type B male pairings that have dotted so many rom coms recently, and for that alone I applaud the screenwriter.

(You will notice that I have not yet identified the screenwriter by name, and that is because in my humble opinion she’s been named FAR too often lately in the media – see Vern’s hilarious take on that phenomenon, along with a spot-on evaluation of “Juno”’s merits and limitations.)

To be fair, Juno herself finally does turn into a fully developed character, and becomes more appealing as she becomes more visibly vulnerable. There’s a conversation between her and her father, when all her ideals seem to have crashed and burned, that brought tears to this old softy’s eyes. And there’s something sweet and endearing about (slight spoiler) what ends up being a high school love story that wouldn’t be out of place in a John Hughes flick. That said, the movie left the grouchy stickler in me with some unanswered questions: Like (BIG SPOILER) how will Vanessa manage single motherhood? Will Juno and Paulie start having sex again (presumably with protection)? Should they be having sex, and don’t any of their parents care? Why didn’t they use protection in the first place? (END OF SPOILERS) But its basic sincerity is impossible to resist – and really, why would you want to?