Friday, December 31, 2004

Clarksdale Delivery Man

Indulge me a moment to muse on two of my favorites: Elvis Costello and Clarksdale, Mississippi.

As a longtime E.C. fan, I want to bring to your attention an upcoming release of his, "The Clarksdale Sessions," due out in January. The 7-song record features tracks he cut in a one-room recording studio in Clarksdale, smack dab in the Mississippi Delta. For all practical purposes, Clarksdale is the birthplace of the blues, the home town of such music legends as Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Sam Cooke and Ike Turner. Consequently, Clarksdale is also the site of the Delta Blues Museum.

Anyway, the Clarksdale Press-Register newspaper has a boffo story about a recent Elvis Costello trip to the town. "Costello has only been in Clarksdale maybe a couple of times, but says he loves it here because he doesn't face the usual fan pressures," says Guy Malvezzi, who co-owns Delta Recording Services. "Elvis is one of the nicest, down-to-earth guys you'll ever meet."

Costello's "The Delivery Man," which came out earlier this year, was partly recorded in Clarksdale. While the album didn't quite match Costello's typical genius, it is an interesting brew of roots rock, country, blues and folk -- and certainly his most rocking work in a long while.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

The Best Films of 2004

You all can start breathing again... I'm unveiling my choices for the Top 10 Movies of 2004 ...
(in ascending order) ....

10. Kinsey
The most impressive aspect of this biopic is the way writer-director Bill Condon balances admiration for his hero with the understanding that the man was, in many years, off his rocker. Liam Neeson is in top form as the controversial sex researcher Dr. Alfred Kinsey. The movie is far from perfect, but it lingers in your mind afterward.

9. Kill Bill Vol. 2
Quentin Tarantino might just be the biggest movie buff alive, and it shows in the hyper-caffeinated charge and boundless audacity he brings to his loving chop socky homage. This is nothing less than celluloid cotton candy (doesn't that sound appetizing), a riff on martial arts flicks, spaghetti westerns, John Ford and everything else rattling around in our collective unconsciousness.

8. I Heart Huckabees
Many critics labeled David O. Russell's metaphysical farce a disjointed failure, but this humble reviewer finds its trippy and ambitious sendup of philosophy to be, in the best sense of the word, delightful. I love the Sixties-era Richard Lester vibe and the performances by Mark Wahlberg and Jude Law, both of whom have never been groovier.

7. The Incredibles
Pixar maintains its standard of excellence with this stunner from Brad Bird, who, in addition to having an easy-to-remember name, is quickly becoming the great auteur of animation. Who knew that a computer-generated family of superheroes could be so emotionally rich and insightful? And if depth isn't your thing, "The Incredibles" also happened to be vastly entertaining.

6. Finding Neverland
A delicate, melancholy film that uses the story of Peter Pan author J.M.Barrie to springboard into a loving meditation on loneliness and the creative process. Most of all, it's a helluva tearjerker. Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet are excellent, of course (what else is new?) but the most interesting discovery here is uber-child actor Freddie Highmore (can't wait to see him in the "Willy Wonka" remake).

5. Before Sunset
A sequel that improves greatly on its progenitor, Richard Linklater revisits the two characters of 1995's "Before Sunrise" in this romance ripe with absorbing, insightful talk (yep, there's a lot of it here) amid the backdrop of Paris as twilight approaches. Surrender to it and you will be charmed and touched -- right up to its wonderful ending.

4. The Aviator
Martin Scorsese's best movie in nearly 15 years, this is epic Hollywood filmmaking at its zenith, a star-studded panorama of the genius and madness that was Howard Hughes. This is that rarest of rarities -- a three-hour biopic that never lags, but instead revels in cinematic fantasy, whether it's silent-era Hollywood or a ride aboard the Spruce Goose. Leonardo DiCaprio, incidentally, proves his naysayers wrong.

3. Maria Full of Grace
Catalina Sandino Moreno is remarkable as a teenaged Columbian girl who tries escaping the poverty of her hometown by serving as a drug "mule" for a drug cartel. Still, thanks to the extardinarily talented first-time writer-director Joshua Marston, this film is much more complex than it sounds -- expertly crafted suspense, taut drama and an unflinching character study of gutsiness and, yes, grace.

2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Who would have guessed that screenwriting mastermind Charlie Kaufman's biggest head trip to date would also be one of the most poignant (and realistic) relationship movies in recent memory? Played straight by director Michel Gondry, this Russian nest egg of a story ponders some pretty heavy concepts, but never loses sight of its very human drama and endearingly flawed characters.

1. Sideways
Alexander Payne's bona fide masterpiece strikes so many right chords in this moving story of two men grappling with inner demons on a road trip through Northern California's wine country. A uniformly excellent cast led by Paul Giamatti, an insightful screenplay, open-ended direction that gives these exceptionally well-drawn characters a chance to breathe and live. Oh, and it's also hilarious. You know what? I think I'll start a cult dedicated to this movie.

One final admission: As of this writing, there are a few potential contenders I have not seen as of yet (namely, "Bad Education," "Million Dollar Baby," "Love Song for Bobby Love," "Being Julia" and "Vera Drake").

And there you have it. Your thoughts?

Okie Bloggin'

A quick look-see at some of my favorite Oklahoma bloggers ... has this addendum on Michael Moore and his more good-humored years.

"In his younger days, he seemed quite a bit less doctrinaire about things. I remember his television series TV Nation, which had an interest in snark at least as high as my own, and which featured briefly something called the CEO Corporate Challenge, in which the chairmen would be pulled out of the boardroom long enough to demonstrate some actual familiarity with the products vended by the firms they ran. One of the CEOs targeted was Ford boss Alexander Trotman: Moore met him in Dearborn and challenged him to change the oil in a Ford truck. Trotman, to Moore's surprise, was a pretty fair shadetree mechanic, and finished up the task in less time than your local Spee-D-Loob; Moore, to his credit, left the segment in ..."

And kudos to Charles for his gentle reminder of what anti-blog venom is still being spewed by the increasingly anachronistic mainstream news media.

Lip Schtick's Lil Red has a must-read trip down memory lane for any citizens, real or imaginary, of Oklahoma City. She spins off from the Red Dirt Blog's recent call for Oklahomans near and far to weigh in with their pics for Okie kitsch. You can always count on Lil Red for sensitivity, hence, we get her remembrances of Norman, Oklahoma's Medieval Fair: "Lord, what a bunch of freaks. But if dressing like Azrael Abyss and being led around by a dog leash while you crawl on all fours is your thing, then who am I to judge?"

Speaking of our favorite center-right conservative (whom we sense is getting just a smidgen more liberal as the months tick by), the Red Dirt Blog is back and operational and waxing on his new Senseo coffee maker. That's right; even diehard Red Staters can be a little metrosexual.

Oklarama, that irrepressible booster of this land of sweet-smellin' wavin' wheat, muses on a topic near and dear to this movie fanatic's heart: Where are the indie filmmakers of our state?: "[New Zealand film] Whale Rider is a world-class movie, and we can make one too. If we need more ammunition, all we need to do is think of Afghanistan. They have a totally devastated country and yet were able to make the acclaimed film Osama. It's time Oklahomans thought of themselves as actors on the world stage. Literally."

Okiedoke starts a catalogue of Okie hate (as he succinctly points out, "We certainly don't want this wit to go to waste"). Still, who knew there was so much out anti-Okie venom out there? It's not like we have dumbasses for ambassadors to the world or anything ...

Dubya's listless reaction to the cataclysmic tsunamis and earthquake is on the mind of Existential Ramble. "There is a moral imperative to assist," writes LiteraryTech. "We would expect it of our wealthy neighbors, and they should expect it of us. Finally, an observation for those interested in a theocracy: if we are interested in a Bible-based government, I believe the Bible would argue for a 10% tithe to others; not 0.14%."

The Blue Dot Blog is back in the saddleblog with her account of what happens to naughty boys during Christmastime. As she explains in verse worthy of Seuss himself, the kids' gifts will end up on eBay.

The Left End of the Dial, good old-school leftist that he is, pleads his case for why the next chair of the Democratic National Committee must not be a Republican by any other name. "It's simple: know your core values, be able to articulate those values, use those values for framing policy," he writes. "The policies will flow coherently from those values - the frames will make those policies understandable to your audience."

This Is Class Warfare gives us his take on Rummy Claus spreading Yuletide cheer throughout the Middle East.

The Token Liberal is one of those damned ex-Oklahomans, but he'll always be a Sooner to us. And thankfully, he finally got off his Lone Star butt and started blogging again.

And as always, Oklahoma Wine News gives you the latest information on Okie vino.

T(V) & A

The Smoking Gun, God love 'em, has sifted through the thousands of complaints that followed Janet Jackson's infamous Superbowl nipple flash. Some of these outraged letters are just, well, wonderful.

Just one example: "Fine them, imprison them" -- "them" presumably being Jackson and Justin Timberlake and not Jackson's breasts, since there was only one offending nipple, the other apparently content to mind its own business --"along with the majority, if not all national news media including ABC, NBC, CBS PBS, they are anti American anti Christian anti Republican, pro death for babies and seniors. They are not reporters [but] fear and sex peddlers and bias against anything good."

Really now, I'm willing to concede that a sex-saturated mass media has fed the nation's cultural divide as much as anything, but it is mighty difficult to take the howls of protest too seriously when this is indicative of the mindset -- and let's be honest, does anyone doubt that this really is the mindset of many? It's not for nothin' that, excluding the Jackson episode, 99 percent of complaints registered with the FCC stem from the Parents Television Council. My own proposed solution for objectionable programming is a complicated one; it involves not watching.

And now to that other Jackson, the peculiar one, the bleached cyborg creature king of sleepovers, candy canes and delicious gingerbread castles. The Los Angeles Times tells us that upwards of 4,000 prospective jurors will be summoned for the Jan. 31 jury selection of his child molestation trial. "Under the direction of Superior Court Judge Rodney S. Melville," the paper reports,"prospective jurors will be probed for telltale attitudes on a spectrum of issues, including racial prejudice, divorce and plastic surgery."

OK, forget the regrettable wording about jurors being "probed" at the Michael Jackson trial. We wonder if would-be jurors will be asked to gauge their interest in writing a book or appearing on morning TV shows after the trial, because those are really the only two things we can think of that would be worth sitting through what is certain to be a months-long media circus.

Anyway, back to sex on TV (there's an old joke in that phrase somewhere), folks in northeast Ohio recently got an eyeful when they switched on the TV Christmas morning. Apparently, the local public-access station had inserted (heh heh) the wrong videotape to air. Instead of the scheduled Christmas carols, viewers got chickie chickie boom boom adult programming. No Christmas Carol, but plenty o' Dickens.

From a TV news report:

"I turn it to Channel 15 and there's this naked lady on the screen -- I mean full-frontal, get-the-hell-out-of-here pornography," said David Umana. "When I tell about Christmas 2004, I'm betting this will be one of my best stories."

And Tiny Tim was tiny no more. God bless us -- everyone!

Wednesday, December 29, 2004


As any visitor to the blog (are there any?) might know by now, I have a weirdly insatiable interest in lists of all kinds, which makes this time of year, and its inevitable glut of "top ten" lists, particularly resonant. Here are a few to chew on ...


Entertainment Weekly critics name their Top 10 Movies of 2004, and "Sideways" leads the pack. Woo-hoo! (on the incomprehensible side, "Spanglish" is deemed worst of the year). Newsweek film critic David Ansen offers his Ten Best Movies of the year, with "Sideways" topping he list. The New York Times' inimitable critic A.O. Scott gives his nominees for the year's finest flicks, continuing that newspaper's tradition of recognizing inscrutable art-house films not seen by anyone who lives outside New York, L.A. or San Francisco.

Oh, what the hell: You can pretty much find all the major film critics' lists catalogued on Movie City News.


The New York Times Review of Books declares its selections for the 10 Best Books of 2004. The Village Voice lists its favorite 27 reads of the year. (Note to self: Read Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America")


The New Yorker has its top 10 CDs of 2004. The gaggle of music junkies over at Pitchfork gives us a whopping 50 best albums of the year and, unlike Rolling Stone magazine's selections for its top 50, some of these are actually interesting choices. PopCultureJunkies offers five albums from 2004 worth the money.
Billboard asked acts such as Green Day and Robyn Hitchcock what they would deem 2004's best music. Stereogum also offers its choice audio cuts.

Oh, and for something completely different ... Media Matters whips up its Top 10 Outrageous Statements of 2004. Sure, it's a partisan source, but what the heck? Some of these quotes are doozies like this Michael Savage gem: "When you hear 'human rights,' think gays. ... [T]hink only one thing: someone who wants to rape your son." Savage, indeed.

Dubya Stiffs the Tsunami

I know this might be piling on Dubya over his (as of this posting) conspicuous absence since the catastrophic tsunamis struck, but ... why did the guy not make a statement in the flesh once it became apparent the death count would top 20,000+, to say nothing of the latest count being upwards of 52,000?

A big part of leadership is appreciating how one's presence and/or absence impacts perception. Your movements and words might be largely symbolic and ceremonial, but they do mean something. They send a message, both to your constituents and to the world as a whole.

When the United States is already seen by most of the globe as culturally insensitive, nose-thumbing unilateralists -- regardless of whether that caricature is well-founded -- why in the world would the commander in chief forgo an opportunity to let the rest of the world know quickly and unequivocally that, yes, we really do care about the worst natural disaster in recent history? Dubya will speak out on the events soon enough, but already he has executed a monumental snub.

Don't get me wrong; I don't think the president necessarily needed to cut short his vacation and jet back to D.C. I mean, c'mon, when you're in the zone clearing brush on the ranch, you don't want to lose all that momentum. No one expects the president's immediate presence in the Oval Office to make a tangible difference. There is an intangible difference, however, to be gained from expressions of grief and condolence. In an increasingly connected global community, and one steeped in high-tech communication wizardry that can link a Crawford, Texas, outhouse to a Malaysian dry cleaners through fiber optics, it is unconscionable that George W. Bush wasn't up on satellite pronto to express the nation's sympathy to the people of Asia.

The Washington Post reports:

"There was an international outpouring of support after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and even some [White House] administration officials familiar with relief efforts said they were surprised that Bush had not appeared personally to comment on the tsunami tragedy. 'It's kind of freaky,' a senior career official said."

Compassionate conservatism on the march! Maybe what that ridiculous phrase meant all along was that you've gotta be conservative with how you dispense compassion.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

"The Aviator": A Review

Some thoughts on "The Aviator," the latest masterpiece from Martin Scorsese.

Chronicling about 20 years in the life of business tycoon and aviation pioneer Howard Hughes, "The Aviator" is a big sprawling biopic that, like its subject, has style -- and money -- to burn. This is Hollywood filmmaking at its most sumptuous. Although Scorsese doesn't probe very deeply into the tics that motivated Hughes' manic energy and eventual decay, "The Aviator" achieves greatness on its purely visceral level.

Leonardo DiCaprio gives a career-topping performance in the role of Hughes, and that's coming from someone who went into the theater convinced that the filmmakers had seriously miscast the lead. DiCaprio made me a believer; it is a terrific performance, joyously maniacal -- and subtle when warranted ("The Aviator" implies strongly that Hughes, in addition to suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, was likely bipolar, as well).

In so doing, DiCaprio adds shades of complexity to John Logan's screenplay. "The Aviator" proffers that the real tragedy of Howard Hughes wasn't simply that he was a mad genius crippled by mental illness, but that he was painfully aware of his own cognitive distortions. In that vein, the movie's final image -- I won't say anything more -- is as stark and powerful as Jake LaMotta's dressing-room soliloquy at the close of Scorsese's "Raging Bull."

DiCaprio lends heft to the role, but the biggest star power comes from Scorsese. Although he came to the project late (Michael Mann was initially slated to direct and is still credited as a producer), there is no doubt that this is thoroughly his movie. Here he dazzles with knockout set pieces: the circuslike kineticism surrounding Hughes' making of the 1930 motion picture "Hell's Angels" (the most expensive movie ever made up to that time), lavish nights at the legendary Coconut Grove, electrifying movie premieres at Grauman's Chinese Theater, making his case for Jane Russell 's ample cleavage in the 1943 western, "The Outlaw" and -- perhaps most impressive of all -- a jaw-dropping sequence in which Hughes crashes during a test flight of the XF-11, destroying several Beverly Hills mansions and nearly killing himself in the process. All told, this humble quasi-reviewer (that's me) would call it Scorsese's best work since 1990's "Goodfellas."

Nevertheless, "The Aviator" weathers a noticeable drop in altitude about two-thirds of the way through, when Hughes is dumped by his love interest, Katherine Hepburn (a great performance by Cate Blanchett, who captures the late actress' bluster without lapsing into parody), a heartbreak that, the film suggests, advances his slide into mental illness. Not that the movie is through with Hughes as tinseltown womanizer, though; he then takes up with Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), but that relationship is given only perfunctory treatment and Beckinsale doesn't have to do much more than look great. While the tone does shift some, and it's surely more fun to watch Hughes' high-flying days than the inevitable decline, the change is hardly damaging. It's been a long, long time since I've seen a three-hour film in which I didn't check my watch.

You need a big spoon to scarf up this Spruce Goose-sized spectacle. The star-studded cast includes Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, John C. Reilly, Gwen Stefani, Jude Law (on the cusp of winning the Janet Jackson Nipple Overexposed Award), Willem Dafoe, Ian Holm and Danny Huston. All deliver the goods, but Alda is particularly effective as an unctuous, self-righteous slime (not that that's much of a stretch for him or anything ...)

Let me defer to David Denby's review in The New Yorker and Michael Sragow's piece in the Baltimore Sun, both of which are justifiably glowing in their assessment.

Happy Pills for the Terminally Ill

Medical researchers apparently will go to all sorts of lengths to get their freak on. In another example of a desperately needed medical investigation, the FDA has given the green light to a four-month pilot study exploring whether Ecstasy, the ever-popular rave drug renowned for causing feelings of euphoria, could help relieve the suffering of terminally ill patients.

Sponsoring the research is the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. On its web site, MAPS touts the study, adding that “the longest day of winter has passed, and maybe so has the decades-long era of resistance to psychedelic research.”

Hmm. Does Gatorade quench a thirst? Does spinach make Popeye stronger? Does Michael Jackson cruise Chuck E. Cheese? What exactly is the mystery here?

We have no doubt that Ecstasy can induce feelings of happiness and comfort for the terminally ill (not to mention give them the impulse to hump everything in sight). But we think oncologists should brace themselves to see an awful lot of silly hats and glowsticks.

Crumbs and Stuff, Take 3

Here's a curiously heartwarming story courtesy of the Boston Herald: An alcoholic waiter drinks himself into a coma and is only brought out of it when his boss visits him in the hospital and growls, "Get your ass back to work."

According to the Herald, "Five minutes later, in a whisper that hit a Massachusetts General Hospital room like a thunderbolt, [comatose patient Bill] DiPasquale awoke saying, 'I've got to get to work.' His would-be mourners were stunned."

I'll tell you why they were stunned. They were stunned that an asshole of a boss would march into a hospital room and order his comatose employee back to work. Where's the union when you need it?


Uh-oh. Hustler magazine horny toad Larry Flynt says he is set to publish photos of Paris Hilton in heavy petting action with (knock me over with a feather) another woman. You know what that means: Paris Hilton still won't go away.


The Blog of Death is a more sensitive site than it sounds, and definitely worth checking out. Think of it as an oasis of obituaries -- unless you have an aversion to alliteration, that is.


From the Pointless Trends Department: Reason surveys the cultural landscape of 2004, from the strings-attached sextravaganza of "Team America: World Police" to the Broadway success of "Avenue Q," and concludes 2004 was the Year of Puppet Sex.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Wanting Less of Moore

Michael Moore is at it again. The Los Angeles Times reports that the faux populist is at work on a documentary, tentatively titled "Sicko," that will shred HMOs and the pharmaceutical industry. Industry officials are frantically sending out interoffice memos directing employees not to talk to scruffy fat guys who arrive bearing cameras and boom microphones.

Golly, we can't understand why drug company execs would be wary. As for why Moore is making the movie, the corpulent crusader told the Times that "being screwed by your HMO and ill-served by pharmaceutical companies is the shared American experience. The system, inferior to that of much poorer nations, benefits the few at the expense of the many."

Well, as long as Moore isn't going into the project with a bias or anything.

As a center-leftist (some might just say leftist-leftist), I wish Michael Moore would just disappear for a spell. While I give him props for his propagandist skills and unequivocal showmanship, ultimately his left-wing extremism hurts the cause of liberalism a hell of a lot more than it helps, and he provides the Right with as much of a straw man as loons like Pat Robertson to the Left.

1. Moore's documentaries are patently unfair.

All documentaries are vulnerable to the selectiveness of their creator, but Moore's screeds are in a class of their own. One well-known example: Juxtaposition of footage in 2002's "Bowling for Columbine" gave audiences the false impression that NRA president Charlton Heston had traveled to Denver shortly after the Columbine massacre to tell NRA faithful that he'd give up his gun only when it was pried "from my cold, dead fingers." He said it, yes, but at a convention about a year after the infamous school shootings, and nowhere in Colorado. Moore misled intentionally to stack his argument.

2. His supposed facts are riddled with holes, lapses in logic and the occasionally outrageous lie.

While there is much to admire in the second half of "Fahrenheit 9/11," chiefly for its plethora of images and interviews that were nowhere to be found in the U.S.' mainstream media, its first half is stuffed with enough conspiracy-laden mumbo-jumbo as to satisfy an Oliver Stone attack of the munchies.

3. His shameless self-promotion both on-screen and off is an embarrassment.

How about Moore's pathetically staged confrontation with Heston at the conclusion of "Bowling for Columbine"? Or his asinine ambush of congressmen in "Fahrenheit 9/11"? The shtick wore well in "Roger & Me," his auspicious 1989 debut film in which he dogged then-GM chairman Roger Smith, but that was before the world knew Michael Moore was out for name recognition that would match his girth.

Oh, and yes, plans are in the works for a sequel to "Fahrenheit 9/11." He's keeping uncharacteristically tight-lipped on details. According to The New York Times, "Asked about that movie (the planned sequel) in a telephone interview ... Mr. Moore said he had to go." Presumably, the pizza delivery guy was at the door, and a dozen extra-large pepperoni pies can get cold mighty fast.

4. He's a crackpot prone to saying crackpot things.

He famously insisted before 9/11 that there was no terrorist threat, a view he didn't even care to modify after the World Trade Center attacks. In late 2002 he told Britain's Daily Mirror tabloid, "To me, al-Qaeda is a men's club. To have the world's only superpower at war with a men's club is a little ridiculous." Huh? How does any halfway rational human being make sense of that?

Oh, and on a semi-related note, Nancy Ramsey has an interesting piece in The New York Times about what all those rascally political documentary filmmakers are doing now that the election is over. Thankfully, there are a number of folks whose credibility makes up for Moore's growing abrasiveness.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Rummy the Contrite

Donald Rumsfeld has proven that he does so care about the troops. Lookee! He went to Iraq on Christmas Eve and visited with them and saw a few who were injured and said he liked them bunches and, just for good measure, he had a sandwich with the boys.

Still, you can take the cantankerous old fart out of the Beltway, but you just can't take the Beltway out of the cantankerous old fart (or something like that). When a soldier asked him (and surely with no coaxing from the White House PR machine) how to win the war in the media, a glint returned to Rummy's eye as he referenced the verbal knocks he'd taken from some troops several weeks earlier in Kuwait. "I guess what's news has to be bad news to get on the press," chortled Rumsfeld. "That does not sound like a question that was planted by the press."

Give it up to the Rude Pundit, for a no-holds-barred take on Rummy's newfound contrition in the face of stinging criticism and howls for his resignation:

"Donald Rumsfeld is a sad, sad man. How do we know? He said so ... at a Pentagon briefing ... in an attempt to get Santa to move him from the Naughty list to the Nice one: 'I am truly saddened by the thought that anyone could have the impression that I or others here are doing anything other than working urgently to see that the lives of the fighting men and women are protected and are cared for in every way humanly possible.' Poor Donald Rumsfeld. Having to bear the burden of the big ol' war on his arthritic shoulders. How could we? Are we not ashamed as Americans to want to beat up this old man?

"Oh, sure, sure, one might criticize Rumsfeld for having used a machine to sign letters telling families that little Jesse and Janey ain't comin' home for Christmas, but when you are as sensitive a man as Rumsfeld, how could you handle that? Tears smear ink, you know. But Rumsfeld
will sign them now, yes, yes, he will, because those thinning arms must support our demands, our whims, of a Secretary of Defense able to chill his heart so he can sign away life after life after life.

"Chances are Rumsfeld will have to go home and turn on video of the first month of war, a fire in the hearth, a cognac on the side table, embracing himself, trying to keep warm in the cold, lonely end of year darkness, hugging his body so hard, the sad man who so badly wanted the war.

"Thomas Pynchon's epic, absurdist, great big 'f*ck you' of a novel, Gravity's Rainbow, ends with a startling image: we, all of us, the readers of the very book we are holding, are seated in a movie theatre and we're waiting as a rocket, with a young man bound inside, is flying towards our cinema to destroy us all. The book concludes before that rocket completes its journey, but we know that the rocket will fall. It is the nature of gravity.

"It's the way the Rude Pundit's been feeling lately, like we're all in this giant movie cineplex, and we're watching some shitty film, and the thing is, we know - hell, we knew from the previews, how the movie's gonna end. And we just keep checkin' our watches, wondering if we could please stop wasting our time and get to the ending already. But above our heads a rocket is at the peak of its arc. It must return to earth. What rises must, indeed, fall."


A Final 2004 Atta Boy for Jon Stewart

Thank you, LilRed, for bringing to my attention the latest accolade paid to Jon Stewart, named by Entertainment Weekly as Entertainer of the Year.

The magazine explains its selection:

"In 2004, Jon Stewart more than earned both laughs and cheers across the board (at least, across most of the board -- we doubt Dick Cheney watches, but John McCain might). Republicans tolerate him because they know that you never pick a fight with a winner; independents like him because he attacks sacred cows on both sides; Democrats adore him because he's mastered the art of being funny and (spoiler alert!) partisan. In an era when ironic detachment is the norm in humor, Stewart pulls off something tougher -- he offers actual earnestness wrapped in uproarious comedy, and in doing so, he represents the dismay, disgust, and (though he'd hate to hear it) hope of a passionately engaged audience.

"Why is he our Entertainer of the Year? To start, his sterling stewardship -- and a made-for-TV election year -- brought The Daily Show to a new creative summit and helped earn its second consecutive Emmys for best comedy/variety program and best writing. His book America has topped the best-seller list for 12 weeks and counting. His blistering appearance on Crossfire, in which he trashed the yammering-puppet-head style of cable news ('I'm not going to be your monkey!' he snapped), wilted Tucker Carlson's bow tie, and made Paul Begala even paler than usual. ... Most of all, in a year characterized by bluster and polarization, Stewart's appetite for clarity felt like a battle cry, and his double-barreled mission — to point out the misbehavior of politicians and the slack-jawed sloth of those who cover them — came to seem like a beacon of light. But funnier."

OK, that's out of my system now. I promise: No more idolatrous praise of Stewart ... for the remainder of the year.

"The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou": A Review

There are plenty of filmmakers working today with a distinctive vision and viewpoint, but only a few possess a style so unique that you could identify one of their movies by sight alone. Robert Altman, David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch are a few who come to mind -- but there ain't many.

Wes Anderson is among them. His first three films -- "Bottle Rocket" (1996), "Rushmore" (1998) and "The Royal Tenenbaums" (2001) -- were wonderfully off-kilter creations of inner-kid whimsy, merging the childlike imagination of Lewis Carroll with the anything-goes aesthetic of fairytales. When Anderson tiptoes right up to the edge of preciousness without straying further, his movies are enchanting. Like Anderson's professional hero, the late Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, his movies explore the carnival of humanity.

"The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" is Anderson at his most precious yet, which means it's a love-it-or-hate-it proposition for audiences. Either you surrender to his willful caprice, or all the affectations -- the deliberate pacing, static compositions, unyielding quirkiness -- will slowly get on your nerves like an adult who insists on speaking in baby talk. It's all very adorable. Up to a point.

As for me, I surrendered to it. While it doesn't match the manic genius of "Rushmore" or charm of "Tenenbaums," there is much to enjoy in the latest Anderson meditation on father-son relationships.

Bill Murray, who appears to be in the midst of a career renaissance (if you forgive "Garfield," that is), stars as the anachronistic title character, a Jacques Cousteau-type oceanographer who has spent decades making documentary films about, aptly enough, the life aquatic. After his longtime sidekick Esteban (Seymour Cassel) is eaten alive by the mythical jaguar shark, Zissou and his crew set sail on their venerable ship, the Belafonte, to track down and kill the errant fish.

This time, however, there are some additions to Team Zissou. He is joined by Ned Plimpton (a surprisingly restrained Owen Wilson), a Kentucky pilot and son of Zissou's ex-love who suspects he is the oceanographer's son. And there is Jane (Cate Blanchett), a feisty magazine reporter who is pregnant and working on a puff-piece profile of Zissou.

Nevertheless, the plot is chiefly a canvas for the deadpan, vainglorious exploits of Steve Zissou. Some endearing silliness ensues, stuff about pirates and a wonderful running gag involving a ubiquitous Team Zissou member (Sen Jorge) who strums guitar and warbles David Bowie songs in Portuguese. Angelica Huston, Michael Gambon and Jeff Goldblum take part, although Willem Dafoe steals nearly every scene he's in with his take as Klaus, a shipmate slavishly devoted to Steve.

The movie revels in the artifice of its own make-believe universe. Anderson takes pains to show us that the Belafonte is a big multi-leveled soundstage. Henry Selick ("James and the Giant Peach") provides stop-motion animation of colorful sea critters that wouldn't be out of place in an old Ray Harryhausen fantasy pic. The action sequences -- Team Zissou must stop a pirate attack and later rescue a bond company stooge (Bud Cort) from the criminals -- are unabashedly ludicrous.

The linchpin is Murray. His mixture of smugness and sad-eyed melancholy breathes life into a character that easily could have been nothing more than a bundle of eccentricities.

Critic A.O. Scott provides a nifty review in The New York Times.

Friday, December 24, 2004

More on "Kinsey": Who is Judith Reisman?

As an interesting postscript to the "Kinsey" brouhaha, let me recommend an Alternet article on Dr. Judith Reisman, the former "Captain Kangaroo" writer-turned-champion of morality whose accusations against Alfred Kinsey -- she's charged him of everything from pedophilia to quasi-Nazism -- have fueled most of the controversy enshrouding him.

Writer Max Blumenthal does a good job encapsulating some of Reisman's Greatest Hits:

On the international gay conspiracy:
"I would suggest to you that while the homosexual population may right now be one to two percent," Reisman reportedly told a Christian Right conference in 1994, "hold your breath, people, because the recruitment is loud; it is clear; it is everywhere. You'll be seeing, I would say, 20 percent or more, probably 30 percent, or even more than that, of the young population will be moving into homosexual activity."

On Jews as babykillers:
"Everyone knows Jews do lead the abortion industry, and I'll thank B'nai B'rith from the bottom of my heart if they can prove otherwise," Reisman, a Jew, said in 1995.

OK, it might not be nice to bat around Reisman's kooky past, but it seems fair game if we are to put into perspective her longtime crusade against the legacy of Dr. Kinsey and, by extension, the so-called "sexual revolution."

Read more here.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Crumbs and Stuff, Take 2

Blogging can get you fired if you're not careful. First, a Delta flight attendant is canned for a personal blog. Now, the Riverfront Times in St. Louis details how St. Louis Post-Dispatch features reporter Daniel P. Finney was fired after his editors discovered his personal blog. Of course, it didn't help that Finney, who blogged under a pseudonym, dissed his bosses on the blog.

One such Finney entry: "Today was an absolute abomination. It began unwillingly at 7:30 a.m. when I was forced from my sweet, gentle slumber to go to work on a hideously lame story involving Santa Claus and the Hard Rock Cafe."


Note to self: Don't bash my boss while blogging.


Thanks to The Moderate Voice for bringing this creative homework assignment to our attention. It's always helpful to keep abreast of the latest developments in education.


Fox News summarizes the "wacky" catchphrases that permeated 2004. It's a clever list, even if the ironic "fair and balanced" didn't make it.


This has no bearing on anything, but if any cinephiles aren't familiar with this site, check out Like Anna Karina's Sweater. Some pretty nifty schtuff.


Finally, the Landover Baptist Church puts that whole Santa/Satan question to rest. Turns out they're one and the same. Read on here.

Oh, and if you don't hear from me before Dec. 25 ... Have a Merry Christmas! (unless you'd rather not; I leave that up to you, dear reader).

Swift Boat Zell

Zell Miller and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ... two great tastes in one!

"Hey! You got misrepresentation of a voting record in my character assassination!"

"Hey! You got character assassination in my misrepresentation of a voting record!"

Who says lying doesn't pay? The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, those lovable rapscallions who slithered from the muck last year to help derail John Kerry's presidential campaign, will be presented the Courage Under Fire award from the American Conservative Union in mid-February. Presenting the honors for the ACU will be none other than former U.S. Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, the beady-eyed human equivalent of Irritable Bowel Syndrome who delighted Republican National Convention delegates last summer when he swallowed a puppy dog whole.

Swift Boat Vets for Truth founder Roy Hoffmann told Associated Press he's proud his group played a part in crippling Kerry's campaign bid. ''That was our primary concern, and we are pleased someone recognized the effort, or at least the impact we had on the election," he said.

But talk about not being able to exit the stage gracefully. Now the Swifties tell the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that they will stay active speaking out against Kerry. Can you say "cuckoo"?

For his part, Zell Miller praised the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth for their "invaluable" service to America. He then clapped his hands together and demanded someone put on a minstrel show.

"Kinsey": A Review

Some thoughts on "Kinsey," the biopic of the controversial sex researcher, Dr. Alfred Kinsey ...

What's most interesting about the film, I think, is its decidedly ambivalent take on Kinsey, the pioneering sexologist whose exhaustive research in the 1940s and early '50s brought sex -- particularly its more offbeat practices -- out of the taboo and into the light. Director-writer Bill Condon ("Gods and Monsters") might pay only cursory attention to Kinsey's much-debated research of pedophilia, but his movie does an admirable job venturing where many biopics don't, by exploring his protagonist's more disturbing traits. Condon clearly respects Kinsey's efforts to end the guilt and shame that dogged many people with sexual peculiarities, but the Dr. Kinsey of the film is not the sort of guy to elicit many warm fuzzies.

As portrayed by Liam Neeson, Kinsey is the extreme scientist. Behind his social awkwardness and geeky smile is a man nearly incapable of human warmth. His obsessive research of human sexuality is clinical and dispassionate, effectively sapping anything remotely sexy from sex. Ironically, Kinsey liberates sexuality by thoroughly objectifying it.

The movie chronicles Kinsey from the time of childhood, growing up in the shadow of a strict minister father (John Lithgow) who rails against the immoral implications of telephones and zippers. Rejecting such religious indoctrination, young Alfred is swept up by the "cathedral" of the outdoors and eventually studies zoology. He studies at Harvard and goes on to teach entomology at Indiana University, where he dutifully catalogs millions of gall wasps. Kinsey is struck by the slight variations of each and every one of the small insects, fascinated by the idea that diversity itself becomes a sort of biological norm. It is a lesson he eventually transfers to human sexuality once he realizes how ignorant many of his students, especially young married couples, are about sex.

Kinsey can relate to this lack of knowledge. He and his unconventional wife, Clara McMillen (Laura Linney), are virgins when they marry, and their wedding night consummation is painfully inept. They learn the hard way (don't go there) the scarcity of credible information about sex. "Morality disguised as fact!" is Kinsey's disgusted reaction to the stodgy sex tomes of the era, books that pretend foreplay doesn't exist and dismiss homosexuality as the rarest of deviances.

And so is born Kinsey's determination to oversee a broad survey of sex. He and his cadre of young researchers, led by the sexually ambiguous Clyde Martin (the amazing actor Peter Sarsgaard), fan out across the country for in-depth interviews on sex. When did you first masturbate? Did you have premarital sex? Extramarital sex? What is this about you and a horse? The questions accumulate and Condon illustrates the process ingeniously by filling the screen with hundreds and hundreds of talking heads blanketing a map of the United States. The effect is funny, affecting and even a little enthralling.

But Condon consistently tempers his treatment of his hero. Magnificently performaed by Neeson, Kinsey is part visionary, part idiot. Increasingly aware of his own bisexuality, he lets himself be seduced by Martin and then spills all to Clare, seemingly indifferent to the ramifications of infidelity and ignorant of how the truth will affect his wife. Moreover, Kinsey encourages an environment of spouse-swapping among his researchers and is baffled when things get out of hand. Even after writing his two groundbreaking (and bestselling) books, 1948's "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" and 1953's "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female," Kinsey still doesn't seem to appreciate that humans and insects have some very real differences when it comes to matters of the heart.

Condon also draws a disturbing connection between sex researcher and sex predator. In one dramatically explosive scene, Kinsey and a colleague, Wardell Pomeroy (Chris O'Donnell), interview a life-long pedophile (William Sadler) who shows the researchers a journal in which he has logged copious information of his sexual experiences -- even down to the measurements of his victims' genitalia. "See?" says the pedophile as he proudly hands Kinsey the journal. "We're alike in some ways."

The film certainly won't quell the ongoing cultural divide over Kinsey's methodology and conclusions. Many Kinsey detractors, chiefly Dr. Judith Reisman, allege the sexologist sanctioned pedophilia because minute data about child sex-abuse victims surfaced in Kinsey's now-infamous Table 34. The Kinsey Institute, for its part, says the content of that table actually stemmed from a single individual -- the nameless pedophile depicted by Sadler in the film -- who had meticulously kept details of his crimes since 1917.

That doesn't bode so well for Kinsey's credibility. If he accepted the second-hand accounts of a pedophile (and perhaps more than one) who outrageously claimed their victims experienced orgasm, then he was, to put it mildly, a shoddy researcher. The other possibility, the one made by his most zealous foes, is that Kinsey or his staff actually observed (or otherwise had close knowledge of) the sex crimes at the center of Table 34.

Despite such controversies, "Kinsey" catches a few of the bugs common to formulaic Hollywood biopics. It suffers from periodic self-importancitis. Kinsey is a loquacious character, but Condon's screenplay occasionally matches the doctor when it comes to professorial dryness; and Carter Burwell's musical score telegraphs a little too much. The third act is especially disappointing, as Condon rushes through his hero's inevitable downfall (Americans devoured Kinsey's postulations about male sexuality, but were less keen on hearing that their mothers and grandmothers masturbated). Still, much is forgiven, thanks to a stunning cameo by Lynn Redgrave as a woman who literally owes her life to Kinsey's research.

"Kinsey" is far from a perfect film, but it is a gutsy one.

Kerik Update and More

It's a Blue Christmas for Bernie Kerik. In the wake of scandal and accusations, he has left the consulting firm he founded with Rudy Giuliani.

Kerik insisted he simply did not want to be a distraction for the firm.

Giuliani insisted he had not urged the resignation of his longtime friend.

The Easter Bunny insisted he was real. Santa Claus insisted he knows if you've been bad or good. Tara Reid insisted she could count and read.

Elsewhere in Big Apple news, the New York Post reports that the late Yasser Arafat was a secret investor in a popular, upscale New York City bowling alley that has hosted Jewish Defense League events and assorted bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs.

The tabloid reports:

"Bowlers at the lanes, where pins signed by Giuliani -- a vociferous Arafat critic who once had him removed from Lincoln Center -- Carson Daly and others grace the walls, said the Arafat connection left a taste in their mouth as sour as an old bowling shoe."

Damn terrorists. Bowling alleys?!? Is nothing sacred?

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

"Spanglish": Some Thoughts

Some thoughts on "Spanglish" ...

James L. Brooks is no misanthrope. As evidenced by his handful of movies -- an impressive group that includes 1983's "Broadcast News," 1987's "Terms of Endearment" and 1997's "As Good As It Gets" -- he loves people, or at least those who populate his imagination. Like any bright student of humanity, Brooks has a keen eye for the recognizable quirks that connect us all: the "tells" of deep-seated insecurities and modest vanities, self-aggrandizing acts of kindness and careless emotional brutality. Perhaps because Brooks comes from a TV sitcom background ("Taxi," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and the like) his big-screen films sometimes get dissed as visually unimaginative (fair criticism) and a little too pat for their own good (less fair), but that can also simply speak to economic storytelling. Brooks knows his characters and genuinely seems to like them. And he does it all without much fanfare.

"Spanglish," his latest effort, is uneven. A few subplots go unresolved in the movie's third act, which takes an unexpected detour to hone in on a single narrative thread. The movie is almost too ambitious, packing so much into its 2-hours-plus package -- the tribulations of parenting, marriage, insecurity, infidelity and the clash of Anglo and Latino cultures -- that some threads invariably go neglected.

"Spanglish" follows the story of Flor (the beautiful Paz Vega making her English-language movie debut), a single mother from Mexico who illegally crosses the border with her daughter, Cristina (Shelbie Bruce), in search of a better life in Los Angeles. In L.A. she is hired to be a housekeeper/nanny to the wealthy Clasky family.

The Claskys are a mighty troubled couple. Husband John (Adam Sandler) is a mild-mannered master chef who increasingly finds himself at the psychological mercies of his grandly neurotic wife, Deborah (Tea Leoni). Flor and her daughter gradually are drawn into the Claskys' dyspeptic world of arguments and resentments, and tensions rise when the family -- with Flor and daughter in tow -- spend the summer at a Malibu beach house.

"You get me" is a phrase that the characters often say in "Spanglish," and with varying degrees of irony. Communication, for Brooks, is a wondrous and precarious phenomenon; making a connection with others has little to do with language. Flor doesn't learn English until more than halfway through the film, yet she connects with the long-suffering John in a way that Deborah cannot.

But the movie is about many things. The curious dynamics of mother-daughter relationships are fully explored. Deborah is unintentionally cruel to her overweight daughter, Bernice (newcomer Sarah Steele), while acting as a decidedly "cool" surrogate mom to Cristina. Similarly, Deborah is stymied by strained relations with her own alcoholic mother (the always terrific Cloris Leachman). Through it all, Flor faces the challenge of keeping Cristina from succumbing to L.A.'s suffocating materialism. The cast is uniformly good, but Sandler is particularly impressive for a surprisingly low-key and emotionally rich performance.

I am at a loss to understand some of the downright hostile reviews "Spanglish" has drawn, most of which slam Deborah's narcissistic, shrill character as pure misogyny (read A.O. Scott's review in The New York Times for a particularly scathing critique). I respectfully disagree. Deborah might be mad as a hatter, but she's not the monster that Brooks' critics seem to imagine. Certainly, she's too insecure to inspire that much audience hatred.

So ... let me defer to some folks whom I think, to borrow a "Spanglish" phrase, "get" the movie: critic George Lang (a fellow Okie) in his review for The Daily Oklahoman and Roger Ebert (not an Okie) in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Rudy Can Fail

Ben Smith had a nifty piece recently in the New York Observer on the biggest loser to emerge from the Bernie Kerik fiasco: Rudy Giuliani.

As Smith points out, "America's Mayor," the guy whom many saw as a Republican frontrunner for the White House in 2008, is paying the price for his enthusiastic (and foolhardy) support of Kerik for Homeland Security chief.

In retrospect, it's not surprising that Giuliani rallied for Kerik, his pal and one-time business partner -- not to mention one super-duper slimeball. Until 9-11 resuscitated Giuliani's reputation, the former Big Apple mayor was on the political ropes because of an extramarital affair that included "entertaining" his mistress, Judith Nathan, at Gracie Mansion under the nose of wife Donna Hanover. Such escapades eventually prompted Donna to toss Rudy out of the house, later prompting Rudy's divorce attorney to accuse the goodly wife of "howling like a stuck pig."

Giuliani and Kerik? Birds of a feather. Of course, these days Rudy is frantically trying to distance himself from his old pal, telling Newsweek that Kerik has a very limited interest in the ex-mayor's consulting firm, Giuliani Partners.

Perhaps karma is in the air. Giuliani, a social liberal historically treated warily by the GOP's more conservative wing, did more than simply whore himself out to the Bush re-election effort. No, John McCain was just a whore. Giuliani was an absolute spank-me-daddy, gangbang-lovin' slut. He was downright obnoxious with his cockamamie attack-dog stance, guffawing to Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" over John Kerry's ostensible flip-flops, all of it a transparent attempt to curry favor with the Bushies -- and, by extension, Karl Rove for Rudy's likely 2008 White House run.

In the Observer commentary, Ben Smith concedes that Giuliani is damaged, but not out for the count.

"The fact that most of his Republican critics remain anonymous attests to his power and potential," Smith writes. "But any notion that he could be the consensus candidate of the Republican establishment is dead. America’s Mayor, purified by fire, is fading fast, and the public Rudy -- who went from crime fighter to troubled mayor to hero to Bush loyalist -- needs yet another reinvention."

Kerik might have been having an affair with publishing magnate Judith Regan, but it appears Giuliani is the one who got screwed most.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Rockin' Around the Holiday Tree ...

"I do believe that the majority of people, people of Christian faith, are under attack. No question about it."

These words, uttered by the Rev. Franklin Graham, are a sobering and powerful reminder that we can never let down our guard against the evils of non-Christian forces. Beware of the heathen who speaks of tolerance and love and peace as he impurifies all we hold dear. Increasingly, my friends, we find ourselves deprived of the very things that make this season special: Christmas trees and Christmas carols and Christmas lights and Christmas TV specials and Christmas sweaters and Christmas cream gravy and so on and so on.

Just kidding.

In response to the Red Dirt Blog symposium soliciting views on the current Christ-in-Christmas brouhaha, let me offer my humble views on the latest flailing from the aforementioned Graham Cracker and Loofa O'Reilly and every other Chicken Little squawking about the alleged whitewashing of Christmas at the hands of nefarious anti-Christians.

Here ye, for I say to both the Religious Right and the Secular Left: A pox on both your houses!

As for the claims of open hostility on Christmas, I will concede that things do get mighty silly when, for instance, school officials in Mustang, Oklahoma, feel they must scrap a nativity scene in a school play, while retaining aspects of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. Yes, that is just crazy. Either the school should remove all religious connotations whatsoever from the staged drama (at which point, you've gotta wonder what the point is of putting on the seasonal play) or you keep them all in. Speaking personally as an agnostic Jew in Red State America (yeah, I know, McInerney doesn't sound Jewish), I've got to say that I don't feel particularly threatened by the mere presentation of a nativity scene.

But I think that Mustang school administrators and similar cases around the country are primarily reacting to what they perceive to be a lurking anti-Christian machine that will spring into action and mow down all those who dare flout church/state separation. The ACLU, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and like-minded entities can and do target such things on occasion. Still, those groups are hardly the norm of secular America or the political left. And in fairness to those organizations, it can be tricky business ensuring that everyone abide by that darn constitutional separation.

Yes, some anti-Christian bigotry obviously does exist -- but everything exists. There are people who get their sexual jollies fantasizing about Liza Minnelli while sucking on toes slathered in linseed oil. It's all a question of magnitude.

And call me crazy, but I just don't sense a marked rise in hostility to Christianity. I tend to agree with The Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum who has this to say about the zeal with which some religious conservatives are whipping themselves into a frenzy: "Hell, why not just compare the plight of besieged, persecuted Christians in America to the Holocaust and be done with it?"

It's difficult for me to stifle a chuckle when a group out there is railing against use of the phrase "Happy Holidays" or New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is roundly chastised for referring to a Christmas tree (a pagan symbol, incidentally) as a "holiday tree" (by the way, the White House and Republican-controlled Congress have been calling it a "holiday tree" for years now). Granted, these are nuanced P.C. expressions, but it seems fairly obvious that they do not stem from tenets of anti-Christian exclusion. I don't think such exclusion is too likely, anyway, in a nation where some 85 percent of the population call themselves Christian.

No, I suspect that instead all you're seeing is a well-meaning, if clumsy, attempt to nurture inclusion.

Now, such stabs at inclusion might be alternately heavy-handed and dumb, but hateful bigotry? I don't think so, hoss.

I suspect, too, that much of this current outcry about "taking Christ out of Christmas" is ginned up by the Religious Right for the chief purpose of stretching that so-called cultural divide. Empowerment and righteousness do not arise from complacency. Those things come from having your back against the wall. Those things come from being in the fight. Remember, Charles Atlas had to have the shit kicked out of him on the beach before he transformed himself into the paragon of dynamic tension.

In other words, you need an enemy. And so when times are good (i.e. Born-Again Christian in the White House, comfortable Republican majority in Congress, "Passion of the Christ" third top-grossing film of the year, etc.) you exaggerate those pesky nuisances and turn them into formidable threats on your very belief system. Rally the faithful, and keep 'em rallied.

As for my opinion, dear readers (Mom, take note), I feel kinda like the Woody Allen character in "Annie Hall" watching his parents bicker over something ridiculous and finally sputtering, "You're both crazy!" (for whatever reason, I'm unable to discuss anything these days without the inevitable reference to a movie scene).

But it fits in this case. The Religious Right and Secular Left are both crazy -- at least in these so-called "Christmas wars."

Bad Santa

Red Dirt's daughter, take heart: Apparently, there are lots of kiddies out there who are leery of fat old men who urge children to hop up on their lap. Check out this Scared of Santa picture gallery.

And while we're on the topic of freaky Father Christmases ...

I've said it before and I'll say it again ... Michelle Malkin might be a hottie in the (admittedly not-so-sexy) world of ultra-right wing punditry, but she is one crazy-assed wacko. Talk about humorless. Among the latest targets of her fury is Robert Smigel's recent "Blue Christmas" cartoon (aired on the Dec. 18 "Saturday Night Live") that satirizes the old Rankin/Bass Christmas specials while skewering the current political and cultural divide in our country.

The cartoon in question (available for viewing here) ridicules the stereotypes of Red Staters -- not Red Staters themselves -- by giving us a strident, left-wing Santa who refuses to bring Yuletide gifts this year to those inbred imbecile children of Red State America.

Evidently, Michelle takes the cartoon at face value. "In addition to cruelly mocking Rush Limbaugh," she writes," the cartoon ... shows Santa and Rudolph skipping over the Red States (referred to on a map as Dumbf*ckistan), commiserating at a Chinese restaurant with Al Franken, Natalie Merchant, Moby, and Margaret Cho, and then taunting a little girl as a religious bigot for believing in God. There's the liberal holiday spirit for you. Pathetic losers."

Memo to Malkin: Look up meaning of "irony."

Cutaways, Take 2

Some random thoughts on two recent so-called "popcorn" movies I've seen recently:

Among the executive producers of "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" is Barry Sonnenfeld, who had the directing helm on the "Addams Family" flicks, and his form-over-content aesthetic of those movies is fully evident here. "Unfortunate Events" looks terrific, thanks chiefly to the richly macabre cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki (who performed a similar miracle in 1999's "Sleepy Hollow") but it is yet another tale of Hollywood coasting along with no discernible story to tell and nothing much else to say.

Based on the series of children's books by Lemony Snicket (actually the alter ego of novelist Daniel Handler), the episodic tale follows the travails of the orphaned Baudelaire children who are shuffled among relatives alternately evil, crazy or saintly. What it really seems to be about is eye-popping production design and another opportunity for Jim Carrey to mug for the camera. Carrey is always fun to watch, and his manic bit here can be entertaining, but as villainous thespian Count Olaf, he isn't content to just chew on the scenery, he digests it, excretes it all over the screen and uses it to fertilize the pretty flowers. As a result, the film's other gifted comedic actors -- Catherine O'Hara, Jennifer Coolidge, Luis Guzman, Cedric the Entertainer, even Meryl Streep -- have little room to do much of anything (although Streep gets to be "dithering," which I guess is something). One running gag in particular uses irreverent subtitles on screen to interpret the babblings of the youngest Baudelaire child, and it is an excruciating embarrassment. I defer to critic Lou Lumenick's assessment of things in the New York Post.


More successful, but even more ludicrous, is "National Treasure." Directed by Jon Turteltaub (who also made the underrated "Disney's The Kid"), this shaggy-dog yarn follows a geeky American history scholar/treasure seeker (Nicolas Cage, sporting some mighty Elvis-like sideburns) and geeky but witty sidekick (Justin Bartha) hunting down a lot of far-flung gibberish about Masons, the Knights Templar, Benjamin Franklin's "Silence Dogood" letters and an invisible map on the back of the Declaration of Independence.

Contrivances abound. This is the sort of movie in which the heroes and bad guys apparently have epiphanies at the exact same moment, thereby ending up at the same place all the time. Roger Ebert suggests in his Chicago Sun-Times review -- and not inaccurately -- that the movie "is so silly that the Monty Python version could use the same screenplay, line for line."

But here's the kicker: "National Treasure" is still a hoot. It's harmless dumb fun, absurd and goofy and a decent kids' adventure story ideal for a weekend matinee.


Oh, and lookee: the American Film Institute has its Top 10 flicks of 2004. Finally, someone gives "Maria Full of Grace" its due.

Next Stop, Medicare Wreck

A very good article in the Dec. 20 Los Angeles Times is a stark reminder of the ballooning Medicare funding crisis, a disaster-in-waiting recently obscured by all the political jockeying over Social Security. As reporter Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar points out, the same aging demographics that threaten Social Security are poised to wreak mischief with Medicare, which is expected to deplete its trust fund by 2019, more than 20 years before Social Security's projected bankruptcy.

Oh, and in case anyone is keeping score, both political parties share culpability for ignoring this impending train wreck, especially since the Bush prescription drug benefit -- an election-year effort by the White House to out-Democrat Democrats -- tacked more than $8 trillion on to the Medicare budget hole. Some Republicans balked initially, but eventually fell in line. After all, the White House was sure, and rightly so, that the drug benefit would take some of the wind from the sails of Democratic pander boats.

Excerpted from the Times story:

"The hospital trust fund, the biggest part of Medicare, may also be the hardest to deal with. The fund, which is fed by a payroll tax of 2.9 percent split evenly by employees and employers, is on course to exhausting its surplus in 2019, according to Medicare's trustees.The trustees say the funding gap could be eliminated by more than doubling the payroll tax to 6.02 percent. But a substantial tax hike on workers, millions of whom can't afford health insurance for themselves, could spark a political backlash.

"Another option is to cut hospitalization benefits by about half. AARP policy director John Rother said the public would rather give back Bush's lower tax rates than accept Medicare cuts of that magnitude. 'The American people value their healthcare very highly, and they will pay for that,' said Rother, whose 35-million-member organization lobbies on behalf of Americans 50 and older.

"'Those are some mind-blowing alternatives,' [Paul] Fronstin [of the Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington] said. 'It is hard for me to imagine what this program will look like down the road.'"

Social Security remains the Big Hot Potato in D.C. because Dubya at least has offered a revolutionary plan to confront the mess (more on that from this blog in the upcoming weeks). But it is vital that we not let Medicare continue to suffer from neglect like a nursing home resident collecting bedsores in a never-visited back room.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Another Atta Boy, Jon Stewart

Chalk up another round of kudos for Jon Stewart. In an online poll conducted by the "I Want Media" Web site, the authentic comedian/fake anchor of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" was named 2004's Media Person of the Year.

According to "I Want Media," the comments from Stewart acolytes generally followed along the lines of that posed by The Nation media columnist Eric Alterman. "Literally no one upheld the honor better of what remains of the media than did this 'fake news' comedian," Alterman writes. "He is our leader. How pathetic is that?"

Pathetic, yes, but not so pathetic. Cutting to the Chase hereby nominates Jon Stewart for Media Person of the Decade.

Media Musings, Take 2

Dear God, forgive me for it pains me to say this ... but Maureen Dowd appears to be in a free-fall. Her latest column in The New York Times is a tepid satire on "It's a Wonderful Life" as applicable to Donald Rumsfeld -- and it is lamer than lame. Yeah, yeah, I can't stand the guy, either, but claiming that everything would be just Hunky Dory if he'd never been born is just dumb, disingenuous and seriously hateful. I mean, surely, he did something good in his 72 years of life -- helped a blind woman cross a street, fed milk to a stray cat, left a waitress a nice tip, personally signed condolence letters to the families of soldiers killed in action (well, maybe not that one), something like that.

At any rate, MoDo needs a muse. Our It Girl is coasting.

It's official: George W. Bush is Time's Person of the Year. Which we guess means that Karl Rove is Time's Meta-Person of the Year.

On the more self-absorbed front, Time also explores the world of blogging. Woo-hoo!


Over at "American Idle," the President gets his Trekkie on.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Rummy Update

"Secretary Rumsfeld is doing a spectacular job."
-- White House chief of staff Andrew Card on ABC's "This Week."

Move along, please. Nothing to see here. You folks go back home now ...

Diagnosing the Democrats

In the wake of the 2004 elections, Democrats have indulged a parade of postmortems about why their presidential candidate lost to an incumbent whom many (including this humble blogger) see as unmitigated disaster. While I think some of the hand-wringing has been overblown -- after all, the race was pretty damn close -- such self-assessment is only fitting as Democrats search for the next Democratic National Committee chair and ponder their party's future.

These are more than academic considerations. Potential DNC leaders include ex-presidential candidate Howard Dean, former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, former Indian Rep. Tim Roemer, ex-Texas Rep. Martin Frost, one-time Clinton advisor Harold Ickes, former Texas Democratic Party head Molly Beth Malcolm and the Rev. Al Sharpton (OK, I'm lying about Sharpton being a possibility; that suggestion is just a Christmas present for Republican readers of this blog).

Surveys and additional analysis, thankfully, have done much to erode the post-election conventional wisdom that "moral" issues (read: the Religious Right) dominated the race for the White House. A previous posting here and a surfeit of other blogs have pointed out that it was actually the War on Terrorism and War on Iraq that topped the concerns of most voters.

Subsequently, I would direct anyone interested to The New Republic editor Peter Beinart and his commentary, "A Fighting Faith." In both this and a prequel of sorts titled "The Good Fight," Beinart suggests that liberalism must appreciate its stake in countering the threat of Islamic totalitarianism.

While both pieces are certainly worth reading, let me offer a few key passages:

"Today, three years after September 11 brought the United States face-to-face with a new totalitarian threat, liberalism has still not 'been fundamentally reshaped' by the experience. On the right, a 'historical re-education' has indeed occurred -- replacing the isolationism of the Gingrich Congress with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney's near-theological faith in the transformative capacity of U.S. military might.

"But American liberalism, as defined by its activist organizations, remains largely what it was in the 1990s -- a collection of domestic interests and concerns. On health care, gay rights, and the environment, there is a positive vision, articulated with passion. But there is little liberal passion to win the struggle against Al Qaeda -- even though totalitarian Islam has killed thousands of Americans and aims to kill millions; and even though, if it gained power, its efforts to force every aspect of life into conformity with a barbaric interpretation of Islam would reign terror upon women, religious minorities, and anyone in the Muslim world with a thirst for modernity or freedom.

"When liberals talk about America's new era, the discussion is largely negative -- against the Iraq war, against restrictions on civil liberties, against America's worsening reputation in the world. In sharp contrast to the first years of the cold war, post-September 11 liberalism has produced leaders and institutions --most notably Michael Moore and MoveOn -- that do not put the struggle against America's new totalitarian foe at the center of their hopes for a better world.

"[John] Kerry's criticisms of Bush's Iraq policy were trenchant, but the only alternative principle he clearly articulated was multilateralism, which often sounded like a veiled way of asking Americans to do less. And, because he never urged a national mobilization for safety and freedom, his discussion of terrorism lacked Bush's grandeur. That wasn't an accident. Had Kerry aggressively championed a national mobilization to win the war on terrorism, he wouldn't have been the Democratic nominee."

Beinart goes on to argue that liberalism, truth be told, is particularly well-suited to fight the perils of Islamic totalitarianism:

"Bush has not increased the size of the U.S. military since September 11--despite repeated calls from hawks in his own party--in part because, given his massive tax cuts, he simply cannot afford to. An anti-totalitarian liberalism would attack those tax cuts not merely as unfair and fiscally reckless, but, above all, as long-term threats to America's ability to wage war against fanatical Islam. Today, however, there is no liberal constituency for such an argument in a Democratic Party in which only 2 percent of delegates called 'terrorism' their paramount issue and another 1 percent mentioned 'defense.'

"But, despite these differences, Islamist totalitarianism -- like Soviet totalitarianism before it--threatens the United States and the aspirations of millions across the world. And, as long as that threat remains, defeating it must be liberalism's north star. Methods for defeating totalitarian Islam are a legitimate topic of internal liberal debate. But the centrality of the effort is not. The recognition that liberals face an external enemy more grave ... than George W. Bush should be the litmus test of a decent left.

"Today, the war on terrorism is partially obscured by the war in Iraq, which has made liberals cynical about the purposes of U.S. power. But, even if Iraq is Vietnam, it no more obviates the war on terrorism than Vietnam obviated the battle against communism. Global jihad will be with us long after American troops stop dying in Falluja and Mosul."

Beinart makes a compelling case, but I think this final passage actually proves troublesome to his own argument. The War in Iraq and the War on Terrorism were inexorably stitched together in the minds of many Americans -- most Americans, perhaps -- when they cast their vote for Bush-Cheney.

Iraq had changed everything. The threat of Islamic terrorism is immediate and deadly serious, but once the bombs rained down on Baghdad, fundamentalist Islamic terrorism was no longer simply about fundamentalist Islamic terrorism. Even if Beinart doesn't admit it -- and, in fact, he espouses from the conceit that the War in Iraq and War on Terrorism were two separate issues -- the mission to stamp out terrorism had been co-opted.

You remember that scene in "National Lampoon's Animal House" at the fraternity disciplinary hearing where Otter turns the charge against Delta Tau Delta into an indictment against our entire way of life and the United States of America? Well, it's not for nothing that George W. Bush was a dedicated frat dude.

Anyway, I suspect that even if Democrats had single-mindedly circled the wagons around the War on Terrorism, they wouldn't have accrued much, if any, political capital from it -- aside from the self-satisfaction of doing the right thing, of course. But let's be honest; in politics, doing the right thing is weighed against a multitude of other factors.

I think Democrats, for the most part, have failed to approximate a post-9/11 reality into their worldview. But I am equally convinced that the Bush White House shrewdly -- and shamelessly -- manipulated that reality to further an agenda that stretched far beyond the parameters of battling terrorism.