“In short, Bush could pull a win-win-win out of this shift. He could pre-empt the Democrats’ main line of attack against his administration, stave off the prospect of (from the GOP’s perspective) disastrous elections in 2006 and ’08, and, as a result, bolster his presidency’s otherwise dwindling authority within his own party and among the general population.” Slate‘s Fred Kaplan argues that, despite the administration’s demagogic attacks of the past few weeks and recent reports of faith-based blinders, Dubya may well bow to reality and announce a phased withdrawal from Iraq in a speech tomorrow.
Update: Dubya sets the stage: “‘We will make decisions about troops levels based upon the capability of the Iraqis to take the fight to the enemy,’ Bush said in El Paso, Texas. ‘I will make decisions on the level of troops based upon the recommendations of commanders on the ground.‘”
Update 2: Dubya makes his speech, and, in keeping with his usual MO, it’s basically just “stay-the-course” for now. Although, as suspected, he did argue that Iraqi forces have made great strides of late, which leaves the door open for withdrawal by Election Day 2006, as Murtha, Kaplan, and others have predicted.
“Mythologies aren’t created for the purpose of telling history, they’re created for the purpose of trying to devise some form of identity for people.” On the eve of Terence Malick’s highly-awaited The New World (out Christmas Day), the NYT‘s Steve Chagollan briefly assesses portrayals of Pocahontas in film. (Via Dangerous Meta.)
“I think right now we’re trying in these next five episodes that we’re filming — it’s blatant that we’re begging people to view the show. Like Ron Howard will say something like, ‘Please tell your friends to watch this show.’ We’re just desperate at this point.” Here Comes Trouble points the way to an extensive interview with Michael Cera, a.k.a. Arrested Development‘s George Michael, on the show and its unfortunately probable early cancellation.
Warning: Here there be spoilers. From the Battle of Britain to the Battle for Narnia, this new nine minute supertrailer for The Lion, The Witch, & The Wardrobe pretty much walks you through the entire movie. That being said, it does look right nice, and I’m looking forward to more of Tilda Swinton. (Liam Neeson, on the other hand, has done one too many mentor roles by this point.)
Via Cliopatria, Inside Higher Ed looks at increased use of Civilization III in college history courses. Um, yes, I’ve been playing Civ 4 in almost all of my spare moments of late solely for pedagogical purposes. Seriously, notwithstanding my own inveterate Civ addiction, I can’t see how the game would be in any way useful in teaching history, and particularly at the college level. And if you’re going to use games for elementary, middle, or even high school courses, I think you’d do better with a game grounded in specific history, such as old-timey classics The Oregon Trail or Seven Cities of Gold.
As the State Department stalls for time, the European Union considers suspending the voting rights of those member nations which were home to secret CIA gulags. (Human Rights Watch has said that Poland and Romania are the most likely suspects, although many other nations may have witnessed CIA flights go to and fro.)
Another week, another Republican goes to jail. Today, it’s Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-CA), who once invoked 9/11 to push a flag-burning amendment and whom prosecutors have been eyeing for months. (“Duke,” “Hammer,” “Casino Jack,” “Scooter,” “Mayor of Capitol Hill”…really, the fact that every high-ranking GOP official has a street name should tell you something.) At any rate, Cunningham pleaded guilty ‘to charges of conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fraud and wire fraud, and tax evasion for underreporting his income in 2004.’…[P]rosecutors said Cunningham admitted to receiving at least $2.4 million in bribes paid to him by several conspirators through a variety of methods, including checks totaling over $1 million, cash, rugs, antiques, furniture, yacht club fees and vacations.“
Update: In related news, The Onion has more on the continuing GOP meltdown: “As of [last] Tuesday, Topeka mayor William Bunten, 74, is the nation’s highest-ranking Republican official not facing indictment or public reprimand. ‘I have always prided myself on running a clean campaign, a clean office, and cleaning house when necessary,’ Bunten said. ‘”However, I have no comment on the charges facing my party’s leadership, fundraising apparatus, known associates, or advisory staff.’“
“After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the former official said, he was told that Bush felt that ‘God put me here’ to deal with the war on terror. The President’s belief was fortified by the Republican sweep in the 2002 congressional elections; Bush saw the victory as a purposeful message from God that ‘he’s the man,’ the former official said. Publicly, Bush depicted his reelection as a referendum on the war; privately, he spoke of it as another manifestation of divine purpose.” By way of Salon‘s War Room, The New Yorker‘s Sy Hersh scrutinizes the terrifying dogmatism and tone-deafness at work in the White House with regards to Iraq.
Here’s more: “[Rove and Cheney] keep him in the gray world of religious idealism, where he wants to be anyway,’ the former defense official said. Bush’s public appearances, for example, are generally scheduled in front of friendly audiences, most often at military bases. Four decades ago, President Lyndon Johnson, who was also confronted with an increasingly unpopular war, was limited to similar public forums. ‘Johnson knew he was a prisoner in the White House,’ the former official said, ‘but Bush has no idea.’“
Meanwhile, the investigations continue. This weekend, Time reporter Viveca Novak announced she’s cooperating with Plamegate prosecutors, who have been asking her about her conversations with Robert Luskin, Karl Rove’s attorney, beginning in 2004. Doesn’t sound like Rove is off the hook, does it? Update: Apparently, Novak was Rove’s alibi: “‘This is what caused [Fitzgerald] to hold off on charging’ Rove, the source said. But another person familiar with the conversations said they did not appear to significantly alter the case.“
“‘A few people have already asked me why we’re taking twice as long to tell essentially the same story,’ says the director. ‘And I don’t really know. We’ve been asking that ourselves. I’m going to have to come up with a better answer.’” Newsweek‘s Devin Gordon sizes up PJ’s King Kong, and he seems to really like it: Jackson “proved once again that he might be the only guy whose films are worth getting on a plane and flying halfway around the planet to see.“
After Good Night & Good Luck and Syriana, how can George Clooney continue his hot streak? Easy…direct a Coen brothers script. Upon wrapping Stephen Soderbergh’s The Good German, Clooney will take a swing at Suburbicon, a Coen project that’s been in mothballs.
In a nutshell, The Ice Harvest plays like Grand Theft Auto: Wichita. (Or, put another way, it answers the question, “What if Kansas were more like Oz?”) As the film begins, we meet up with the Pushing Tin duo of John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton — here a mob lawyer and pornographer respectively — soon after they’ve acquired over $2 million of ill-gotten loot from the coffers of the local mafioso (Randy Quaid). All they have to do is wait out the night — Christmas Eve — on account of an ice storm (which doesn’t seem to prevent them from driving around much), before skipping town for warmer climes. So, Cusack decides to hit up various strip clubs and nightspots — including one run by Wichita femme fatale Connie Nielsen (as always, deserving of better roles) and another frequented by Cusack’s alcoholic buddy (and second husband to his ex-wife) Oliver Platt (doing a variation on his Huff character) — all the while evading the mob’s muscle (Mike Starr, playing to form).
The first half of The Ice Harvest moves languorously, but it feels like it’s building to something. But…unfortunately, it’s not. Around the midway point, right when we seem to be achieving narrative momentum, the movie instead starts somewhat remorselessly killing off many of the characters we’ve recently met. Indeed, entire plotlines seem jettisoned (Cusack’s ex-wife, the incriminating photograph) in favor of a high body count. And, frankly, by the time the last folks standing get to the final, bloody shootout, I had pretty much checked out. There are definitely some amusing episodes along the way, and special marks go to Oliver Platt’s comic lush and Billy Bob Thornton’s usual brand of weary resignation (particularly involving his wife). But as a whole, The Ice Harvest just doesn’t hang together. I’m as up for a Christmas dish served ice-cold as anyone, but this harvest, despite signs of early promise, comes up fallow.
As seen at many fine blogs this past Thanksgiving week (including FmH & Medley), some nice visual data to be thankful for (and for all those red state/blue state dualists to ponder): One year after Election 2004, America’s blue over Dubya.
While perhaps a bit too dry and convoluted for some tastes, Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana is, IMHO, a top-notch political thriller that’s easily one of the best films of the year. Admitedly, the movie is missing some of the Soderberghian visual flourishes that made the very similar Traffic so memorable, and the movie definitely can be tough to follow. But, in a way, that’s part of its charm — Like the film’s protagonists, we only occasionally glimpse the shadowy tendrils of the beast that is Big Oil, and come to share their despair that it can ever be subdued. In sum, like the other recent Clooney outing, Good Night, and Good Luck, Syriana is both an intelligent, compelling work of cinema and a enthralling piece of social commentary, one that not only feels pertinent but necessary.
As you probably know, the movie jetsets around the globe following several facets of the oil trade and its consequences. In Beirut, an aging, disgruntled CIA agent (a stout George Clooney, resembling in Stephanie Zacharek’s words a “depressed circus bear”) starts to ask questions above his pay-grade about the collateral damage from a recent operation. In Geneva, after a family tragedy, a fresh-faced energy analyst (Matt Damon) becomes consigliere to the ambitious heir (Alexander Siddig) of a Middle-Eastern emirate. In Washington DC, a resourceful lawyer (Jeffrey Wright) begins due diligence work on an merger between two oil firms (the smaller headed by Chris Cooper). And, on the oil fields themselves, an increasingly desperate Pakistani emigrant (Mazhar Munir) begins to contemplate drastic action to change his fortunes, and those of his family.
Along the way, Syriana‘s narrative is further fractured by the comings and goings of other famous faces, including Amanda Peet as Damon’s suffering wife, William Hurt as another grizzled agency vet, Tim Blake Nelson as the poster child for Abramoff‘s America, and Christopher Plummer as an insider among insiders. But, even though Plummer comes closest to being the Cigarette Smoking Man of this particular conspiracy tale, Syriana doesn’t offer any quick fixes or easy answers to the often grim story that unfolds. Some of our heroes find redemption or closure, true, but others become resigned to their fate, or even corrupted. And, ultimately, there is no Big Reveal or cathartic Speaking-Truth-To-Power scene to offer solace to the audience — Instead, we’re confronted with a system that, for better or worse, lumbers on, oblivious to either the machinations or the protests of mere individuals.
Depressing, indeed, even despairing at times, this film still feels like a story that must be told. And while viewers may quibble with some of the details of Gaghan’s Tarbell-esque expose of the political economy of oil, hopefully most will agree: We need more movies like Syriana.
“It almost doesn’t matter whether withdrawing or redeploying the troops is a good idea; it’s simply going to happen because there is no way for it not to happen (short of a major act of political will, such as reviving the draft or keeping troops on the battlefield beyond reasonable endurance). This is what Murtha meant when he told Russert, ‘We’re going to be out of there, we’re going to be out of there very quickly, and it’s going to be close to the plan that I’m presenting right now.’ Cutting through the congressional anger and the “cut and run” cheapshots, Slate‘s Fred Kaplan explains exactly what John Murtha called for last week, and why. “John Murtha’s proposal leaves open a lot of questions, but — seen for what it really says, not for how it’s been portrayed — it’s a start.“
“I was trying to escape. Obviously, it didn’t work.” If it’s any consolation, Dubya, we all feel just as trapped. In one of those resounding visual metaphors that capture a presidency and that life occasionally kicks up for all to see (the last one being Dubya’s fiddling during Katrina), our leader gets stymied by a locked door while trying to evade a reporter’s questions about his China trip (which were pretty softball, given all the things he could’ve been asking these days.)
In somewhat related news, in the relatively sanguine Post story about the door incident, the following depressing information is included: “In five years in the presidency, Bush has proved a decidedly unadventurous traveler…As he barnstormed through Japan, South Korea and China, with a final stop in Mongolia still to come, Bush visited no museums, tried no restaurants, bought no souvenirs and made no effort to meet ordinary local people…[Laura Bush] once persuaded him to go to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, only to see him burn through the place in 30 minutes. He dispensed with the Kremlin cathedrals in Moscow in seven minutes. He flatly declined an Australian invitation to attend the Rugby World Cup while down under.”
“This was a huge ‘Congress getting into the ballgame’ week,’ Mr. Graham said. Mr. Warner said wryly, ‘You know, Congress is a co-equal branch.’” Well, make no mistake: They’re no Clay, Calhoun, and Webster. Still, the NYT takes a gander at the self-named “Little Triumvirate” of John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and John Warner, three “Gang of 14″ members who’ve become the locus of GOP discontent with Dubya in the Senate.
“What was striking about Cheney’s assault was that while denying critics’ charges of manipulation and dishonesty involving prewar intelligence, he resorted to exactly the tactics that inspired the criticism. As he did with the prewar intelligence, Cheney told no outright lies, but he exaggerated the case, picked only evidence he liked, and ignored the caveats.” In case it wasn’t obvious, Slate‘s John Dickinson explains how Cheney is still misrepresenting the lead-up to war. (In fact, he did it again today, although at least he didn’t join his congressional colleagues in their recent spate of Murtha-bashing.) But, really, can we expect any less from the administration that brought us imaginary WMDs and the phantom Iraq-9/11 connection? Like George Costanza at his worst moments, these jokers have been lying so long they’ve lost sight of the truth.
“I never file taxes! What’s the big deal?” No, no, he just looks like Inconsiderate Cell Phone Man (Rob Huebel). The Post profiles Abramoff/DeLay flunky Michael Scanlon, who pleaded guilty today to fraud charges he picked up last Friday, and will soon act as a witness for the prosecution. “His cooperation…increases pressure on Abramoff to make his own deal with the prosecution…[Scanlon] may not have been privy to all of DeLay’s dealings with Abramoff, a lobbyist the Texas lawmaker once called ‘one of my closest and dearest friends.’ But Scanlon could be a guide to the activities of top House GOP staffers, some of whom are now lobbyists and political consultants who work closely with DeLay, now the former majority leader.”
Ground Control to Major Tom: So Michael Caine won’t be Nikola Tesla in Chris Nolan’s The Prestige (also with Christian Bale & Hugh Jackman)…That’s part’s gone to the inimitable David Bowie, who’s been basically out of the film scene since Basquiat in 1996. Now that’s fun casting.
While there’s no one hard and fast rule to a good artist biopic (and, indeed, last week’s Capote belies to some extent what I’m about to say), it should capture what’s innovative and idiosyncratic about its subject, and help to explain why we should care about their artistry. And, while James Mangold’s reasonably entertaining Walk the Line has its moments, and Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon are both excellent, I ultimately found this movie somewhat frustrating. For, except for occasional flashes, the movie, I think, misses the chance to do Johnny Cash justice — you never really get a sense of what was so unique and extraordinary about him. And, even considered solely as the romance of the Man in Black and his long-suffering muse, June Carter (of the fabled Carter Family,) Walk the Line stumbles ever so slightly. If you came into this film knowing nothing about Johnny Cash or June Carter Cash, I’m not sure this movie makes their case. Too often, it follows a standard Behind the Music “rise, drug-addled-fall, and rise again” structure, which makes it feel like it could be about, well, anybody.
To its credit, the film starts off well — We begin on a chilly day outside Folsom Prison in 1968, as a guard nervously listens to an ominous throb emanating from and through the high, grey walls. Slowly, it resolves into a readily identifiable Cash backbeat, and we go inside to find the Man in Black’s band waiting for him to take the jailhouse stage. But Cash is lost in reverie, struck by the sight of a buzzsaw blade in the prison shop room. For a soon-to-be-obvious reason, it takes him back to his boyhood days picking cotton in rural Arkansas, where the sounds of trains going someplace else are always in the distance, and the only respite from the sweltering heat is the voice of young June Carter on the radio. Ok, so far, so good…Mangold has shown that he’s not afraid to keep everything a little impressionistic, to color his palette with iconographic Cash-isms and help the man’s music breathe through the picture.
Unfortunately, though, most of the film thereafter feels depressingly literal. After apprising us of a childhood tragedy, the film takes us through Cash’s early days in the Air Force, his increasingly loveless first marriage to Vivian Liberto (Ginnifer Goodwin, looking like Audrey from Twin Peaks and feeling like a stock biopic trope), his rise to fame, his subsequent addiction to Go Pills, and his ultimate redemption thanks to a good-hearted woman, always there to help out a good-timin’ man in his hour(s) of need. This is all capably handled, I guess, but too often it feels rote, in an Insert-Rock-Star-Here kinda way. Worse, aside from one discerning monologue by rock-n-roll impresario Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) at Cash’s first audition, the film never really gets to the bottom of the singer’s appeal. We see Cash on his all-star Sun Records tours — and thus get impersonations of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and Carl Phillips, among others — but the film never explains what was unique about Cash among Phillips’ impressive stable of talent. (No Dylan here later on, though…but Cash’s close friendship with Bob is explicitly referenced several times, including a timely cover of “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and a lively use of “Highway 61“‘s police whistle intro.)
In fact, allow me to digress — one of the many fascinating aspects of the Dylan-Cash camaraderie (also briefly featured in one of the most memorable moments of the recent No Direction Home) is that, aside from a shared affinity for murder ballads and mind-altering substances, they were a study in contrasts, at least in the Sixties. Often, the young Dylan seems impetuous and invincible. Keenly aware of injustice, he nevertheless remains unfazed. He’s unrepentant in his anger — To paraphrase Herbert Croly‘s colorful description of Theodore Roosevelt, the early Dylan wields righteousness like a hammer, throwing the sins, taunts, and ridicule of this world right back from whence they came. Or, at many of his best moments, he turns his back on it all. Instead, he illuminates our experience by imagining the world anew, conjuring a landscape (what Greil Marcus has called the “invisible republic”) that renders both grievous sins and exalted sacraments to be often socially conditional, if not absurd and irrelevant.
But Cash — Cash can’t escape his critics, because his worst critic is himself. Nor can he either simply condemn or intricately reimagine Evil, because he has been Evil’s instrument. He’s a man of our world — In fact, he’s the Last Man, the Fallen Man. (“But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back, Up front there ought ‘a be a Man In Black.“) Forget righteousness: Cash’s characters are just as cognizant of injustice as Dylan’s, but they also know they’ve done wrongs that can’t and never will be forgiven. They’ve been living desperate for so long they’ve become resigned to it. They walk the line, because they know what it’s like to stray far off the path, and they’ve paid the price in spades. And their adherence to their creed — be it a woman, the Savior, or something else, depending on the song — is all the more heartfelt and admirable because it has been tested, and even broken. In short, Cash has suffered grave consequences, and persevered in spite of them. He’s been through the Ring of Fire and out the other side, and his gravelly-delivered tales of guilt and penitence have set the stage for any number of later artists, including Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, and, by no coincidence at all, the older Bob Dylan.
Well, that’s my take on Cash, and there are many others (For example, Ed Champion had a nice read on him last week contrasting Cash with Franz Ferdinand.) But, back to the movie — I barely got any sense of a Cash critique at all in Walk the Line. At best, it assumes you already have an opinion and appreciation of the man coming in, which may be true but still seems like lazy writing. (Or, alternatively, I guess you could say that it attempts to explode the Cash myth — “He wasn’t really a jailbird!” — but that gets us back into staid Behind the Music territory again.) That being said, the fault with the film is not Joaquin Phoenix’s by any means. Admittedly, his singing voice is off — although, whether it be to his getting better or my brain sorting out the cognitive dissonance — he improves as the film goes along. But, otherwise, Phoenix goes for it, and despite often seeming physically and vocally far afield from Cash, he delivers a powerful performance from the inside-out. As Dave Edelstein noted, it’s hard to watch him wrestle with drug abuse and the memory of his dead brother here and not think of River Phoenix. (If anything, I was reminded of Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, which is another brilliant performance, although arguably one that doesn’t suggest Tricky Dick to anyone who remembers him.)
Reese Witherspoon is also superb (indeed, award-worthy) as June Carter, who, as in life, I suppose, was both a vivacious stage presence and a model of forbearance. (It’s also great to hear a genuine, unaffected southern accent onscreen. Too often, they sound actorly and are off by hundreds of miles — I’m looking at you, Cold Mountain.) But, the romance at the heart of the film is missing that certain je-ne-sais-quoi. From what little I know about it, Johnny and June Carter Cash are one of those love stories for the ages. She was his angel, his ray of light in the dark (images which the film does try to bring to life.) But, here, and I’m not quite sure exactly who’s at fault, Johnny Cash just comes off as a disciple of the mega-creepy Anakin Skywalker school of courting — i.e., act like a stalker for long enough and eventually she’ll come ’round. Again, I don’t really blame the actors. They do what they can with what they’ve got (although perhaps memories of Phoenix’s turn as Gladiator‘s Commodus are partially at fault.) But, to my mind, if the movie tried harder to sell us on Cash’s unique artistry, perhaps we’d have a better sense of what June, daughter of an estimable clan of folkies, saw in him. As it is, he just seems like an extremely lucky, albeit talented, amphetamine junkie.
And, to close an overextended review, that’s the basic problem with Walk the Line. The parts are all here, but, aside from the occasional flicker of life, the soul of Cash is mostly absent. Perhaps it’d be impossible to do right by him, to capture all the mystique of his music and his persona on celluloid. But, that doesn’t make this film any less frustrating. Try as Walk the Line might, the elusive and unforgettable Johnny Cash remains a ghost rider in the sky.
After some balking by GOP moderates — and a surprising defeat on a spending bill — yesterday, the House manages to pass their budget. Still, “Republicans salvaged the win this time only by jettisoning one of President Bush’s top domestic priorities, opening Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, then trimming planned cuts to food stamps, Medicaid and student lunch programs.” And, on the Senate side, GOP moderates not only joined Dems in preventing the renewal of Dubya’s capital gains and dividend tax cuts, but raised taxes on oil companies (which, of course, may prompt a Dubya veto.) Sure, there’s still a lot of lousy stuff in these bills, but it’s nice to see some of the central premises of Dubyanomics — soak-the-poor, cut the rich a break, a free ride for Big Oil — fall apart in a GOP-controlled Congress.
Plamegate prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald re-ups on another grand jury, suggesting anew that the Libby indictment was just the first phase of the investigation. Meanwhile, speculation run rampant on the identity of Bob Woodward’s new source: Apparently, it’s not Cheney, and spokesmen for Rove, Card, Bartlett, Powell, Armitage, Tenet and McLaughlin have all denied it, too (Not that the word of White House officials means all that much these days.) Stephen Hadley, perhaps?
“‘You know what bothers me?’ [Sen. Byron] Dorgan asked at the end of the hearing. ‘It’s pretty clear that this is one of the most disgusting tales of greed and avarice, and perhaps fraud and stealing. It’s unbelievable what we have uncovered here. It’s almost sickening to see what we have uncovered. And you come to our table and say, “Oh, gosh, this is just about friendships.”‘” Salon surveys the recent Senate testimony of Abramoff flunky Italia Federici, she of the quarter-million-dollar bribe. And it isn’t just the Dems disgusted by the flimsiness of her defense. “‘Since your answers are so bizarre, I won’t continue,” said McCain…’I will let others make the judgment.’“
Update: In related news, Abramoff/DeLay aide Michael Scanlon is charged with fraud. “The filing of a criminal information, rather than an indictment, often means prosecutors have reached a plea agreement with a defendant.” Does that mean Scanlon, so eager to turn on the Religious Right, will roll up on Boss DeLay? One can only hope.
Seen before Harry last night: the brand-new teaser for Superman Returns. I dunno…with Marlon Brando’s Jor-El voice-over and the John Williams music, this should really grab me. But everytime I see Supes, I still think Rushmore. (The trailer for M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water was also shown, but it doesn’t appear to be online yet. Well, if turns out to be as laughably bad as Signs and The Village, I may just have to see it.) Update: Here it is.
In other comic-film news, more X-Trouble on the horizon: In keeping with schlockmeister Brett Ratner’s earlier-professed desire to sex up the X-Men, X3 adds two come-hither mutants: Mercedes Scelba-Shorte of America’s Next Top Model as M/Monet St. Croix (from Generation X, which is after my time..they’re the new New Mutants, I guess) and Ashley Hartman of The OC as Emma Frost, the White Queen (formerly a villain, until reconceived during the Grant Morrison run.) I guess this means we’ll never get a full Hellfire Club X-film, which is particularly depressing after reading a fanboy dream-cast Deadwood‘s Ian McShane as Sebastian Shaw, the Black King, in the AICN talkback. That would’ve been ten kinds of perfect.
I assume most of y’all out there already know the story, but in a nutshell, Harry’s fourth year at England’s premiere Magickal Boarding School is one marked by three novel, terrifying, and wholly inscrutable challenges: (1) The Tri-Wizard Tournament (held every few years against rival academies Beauxbatons and Durmstrang); (2) the possible return of You-Know-Who (as announced by the sight of His Mark at the Quidditch World Cup); and (3) girls. Yes, on top of their usual troubles with magical enchantments and strange goings-on, Harry, Ron, and Hermione have hit those awkward middle school years, when a brief conversation with Cho Chang (Katie Leung), a waltz with Parvati Patel (Shefali Chowdhury), a bath with Moaning Myrtle (Shirley Henderson), or a date with Victor Krum (Stanislav Ianevski) becomes as nerve-rattling as facing down a wayward basilisk. Nevertheless, the Yule Ball is only the least of Harry’s worries, as — for some reason and in defiance of all the usual protocols — he’s been picked as a fourth entrant in the highly dangerous TriWizard Tournament…and, even with the aid of new Dark Arts teacher Mad-Eye Moody (a superb Brendan Gleeson), it’ll take all the wits and combined resources of our teenage trio (well, and Neville) for Harry to make it through intact.
To their credit, Newell and screenwriter Steve Kloves have done an excellent job scaling down the dense 700-page novel into a sleek two-and-a-half-hour film. Goblet moves at such a brisk clip that rarely did I find myself (as I did in Azkaban) enumerating the remaining plot points to be explained. [For what it's worth, the House Elf subplot is gone, Rita Skeeter (Miranda Richardson, note-perfect) has basically one-and-a-half scenes, and the other TriWizard contestants -- particularly poor Fleur Delacour (Clemence Poesy) -- get somewhat short shrift.] In fact, even Harry’s usual nemeses — Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) and the scions of Slytherin — are for the most part pushed to the background here (although fans of those Schoolboys in Disgrace, the Weasley twins, will be happy to know that they get considerable screen time, and Ginny’s always lurking around too.)
Whatsmore, we’re definitely in PG-13 land this time. [Warning: Here there be spoilers, particularly for non-book-readers] Goblet is a film filled with unsettling images from its opening moments, from the floating Death Head above the World Cup to the highly creepy Pensieve flashback of Karkaroff’s plea hearing (Given recent events involving torture and secret prisons, I found this scene — and the contraption they were keeping Karkaroff in — particularly perturbing.) So it’s a testament to Newell’s vision that the scene everyone’s waiting for in Goblet of Fire, the big climax, is the creepiest one of all. The wretched, fetal You-Know-Who was disturbing enough, but once Voldemort emerges in all his twisted glory (looking a bit like the head vampire in Blade 2), Ralph Fiennes ratchets up the freak to eleven and almost runs away with the film. As I went to sleep last night after the midnight show, it was Fiennes’ crisp, lithe, and serpentine Voldemort (and his band of Klannish Death Eaters) that stuck in my head, exactly as it should be.
[As a tangent, and I'm probably thinking about this too much, but now I really like the shaggy haired dos of all our protagonists in context of the film -- I don't think it's just a nod to Kinks/Pink Floyd-ish boarding house visions or a post-Anakin fad. There's method to Newell's madness...As Stephanie Zacharek also points out, he's deliberately invoking the 70's as the uncertain, transitional adolescence after the heyday of the Sixties, as well as the cultural moment just before Thatcherism and the Tory revival. Everything's going to change, indeed.]
Apparently the House and Senate have decided on a compromise over the Patriot Act, one that will theoretically reduce the disturbing number of FBI terrorism inquiries via fuller reporting. The bill is now being put on the fast track by the GOP, so as to give Dubya a much-needed boost on his terror credentials, which means the Patriot Act, warts and all, may be made permanent by Thanksgiving. Update: Feingold leads a bipartisan charge against the bill.
Dark Horizons procures a number of very fetching King Kong stills…some might be considered minor spoilers, if for some reason you don’t already know the basic outlines of the tale.
“Saddam is gone. It’s a good thing, but I don’t agree with what was done. It was a big mistake. The American government made several errors … one of which is how easy it would be to get rid of Saddam and how hard it would be to unite the country.” On the day after the GOP-controlled Senate tightened the reins on Dubya, President Clinton reasserts his contempt for this administration’s rank amateurism in Iraq and the Middle East.
Another week, another secret torture center…anyone else sensing a pattern? Tensions in Iraq simmer to a boil as a secret prison holding 173 Sunnis is uncovered in Baghdad. “The discovery…created a new aura of crisis for American officials and Iraqi politicians who hold power in the Shiite-led transitional government. For many Iraqis, the episode carried heavy overtones of the brutality associated with Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-dominated government.“
Whatsmore, the head of the Badr Organization, a Shiite militia suspected of pulling the strings and wielding the implements in this center, says: “This bunker is run by the Interior Ministry, the Americans are there every day.” Whether or not that’s true (and for the love of Pete, let’s hope not), it’s obvious that recent events, from Abu Ghraib to the Frist-sanctioned CIA black sites to the al-Jamadi murder, have seriously damaged our credibility as opponents of torture, in this prison and around the world.
Remember, remember, the…17th of March? Guy Fawkes teams up with St. Patrick this year as the ad blitz begins for the rescheduled V for Vendetta. Here’s one of four new teaser posters, with the rest to be released sometime today. Update: The others are here, here and here.
Well, I guess that explains why the GOP didn’t swear ‘em in. The Post obtains a smoking gun document that proves, contrary to their statements last week, big-time oil executives met with Cheney’s energy task force to determine the nation’s energy policy in 2001. No big surprise there — While Cheney has been trying to hide records of the meetings for years, we’ve known that 62 of 63 members of the task force had ties to the coal, nuclear, or oil industries, with nary an environmental group in sight. Plus, it was clear at the time that the final energy plan was tailored by Enron for Enron, and their ilk. Still, this does mean that Big Oil lied bald-faced to Congress (and specifically Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who asked them about this directly.) And, while perjury’s not on the table, “a person can be fined or imprisoned for up to five years for making ‘any materially false, fictitious or fraudulent statement or representation’ to Congress.”
Washington Post editor Bob Woodward testifies to the Fitzgerald grand jury about a third senior White House official involved in disclosing the identity of Valerie Plame, besides Libby and Rove. (Woodward’s statement.) This means Libby likely wasn’t the first to leak Plame’s identity, but the new info has no bearing on his perjury or obstruction of justice indictments.
For Woodward’s part, his statement and public comments about the case alternate between high dudgeon (“It was the first time in 35 years as a reporter that I have been asked to provide information to a grand jury”) and open ridicule (“When I think all of the facts come out in this case, it’s going to be laughable because the consequences are not that great.“) Mostly, he just seems cranky that he — award-winning journalist Bob Woodward! — was forced to take time away from another puff piece book on Dubya to testify about a felony in the White House. But this isn’t news. Frankly, Woodward has been embarrassing his legacy for years…almost any of his talking-head stints on Larry King illustrate that. Since at least the early Clinton years, he’s been more desirous of maintaining his high profile and insider status than in promoting good journalism or good government. (And in that, he’s reflected the trajectory of many in the newsmedia.) Update: The Post is somewhat irked.
Or is it Six Feet Under? (Nah, there’ll be no deep-sixing of this site in the forseeable future.) At any rate, Ghost in the Machine is six years old today. (And six here means a half-dozen over at Follow Me Here…congrats.) As always, thanks for dropping by, y’all. [0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5]
Wary of increasing public opposition to the Iraq war and spurred to action by a Democratic amendment advocating a specific timetable for withdrawal, Senate Republicans craft legislation calling for an Iraq exit strategy. “On the Iraq resolutions, the Democratic and Republican proposals say that ’2006 should be a period of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty, with Iraqi security forces taking the lead for the security of a free and sovereign Iraq, thereby creating the conditions for the phased redeployment of United States forces from Iraq’…The White House is also directed ‘to explain to Congress and the American people its strategy for the successful completion of the mission in Iraq.’” Unfortunately, with the exception of quarterly reports to Congress on the war effort, the language of the proposal is not binding. Update: It passes, 98-0 (Lamar Alexander and Governor Corzine didn’t vote.)
Armed only with his trusty Finger of Death and a deep, abiding love for his family, Security specialist Harrison Ford faces off against evil Paul Bettany in the highly spoileriffic trailer for Firewall, also starring Virginia Madsen, Robert Patrick, and Alan Arkin. I’m rooting for a Ford comeback one of these days, but this warmed-over retread of other Ford films doesn’t look to be the start of it.
“I am particularly proud of my contributions in recent cases in which the government argued…that the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion.” An unearthed 1985 job application by Sam Alito is chock-full of scary quotes by the Justice-nominee. “In the document, Alito said he drew inspiration from the ‘writings of William F. Buckley, Jr., The National Review and Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign.‘ ‘In college, I developed a deep interest in constitutional law, motivated in large part by disagreement with Warren Court decisions, particularly in the areas of criminal procedure, the Establishment Clause and reapportionment,’ he said.”
To be honest, I have no memory or sense at all of Truman Capote, so I can only assume that Hoffman’s performance here, with his fey, lilting voice and precise, carefully-constructed mannerisms, is of a piece with the real author. Regardless, Hoffman’s Capote cuts a complex and striking figure that’s hard to take your eyes from — He’s at once vainglorious and needy, extroverted and remote, compassionate and manipulative, convivial and detestable. Intrigued by a newsclipping of four brutal 1959 murders, he and childhood friend Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) venture to the stark landscape of Holcolmb, Kansas, to investigate. Capote soon realizes that that story of the murders could make for a new kind of novel. But, as he comes to befriend the killers — most notably Perry Edward Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.) — he also discovers that the problem with writing a non-fiction novel is that the characters have lives of their own, and events may not follow the path you necessarily intend.
This is Hoffman’s film through-and-through, and, like I said (sorry, David Strathairn), I expect that he’ll be a tough act to beat come awards season. Still, Capote is also anchored by a strong sense of place and by many fine supporting performances — most notably Collins and Keener — but also Chris Cooper, Bruce Greenwood, Bob Balaban, and The Wire‘s Amy Ryan. Strangely enough, Capote also bookends nicely with last week’s Jarhead, and crystallizes some of my problems with that film. While we were supposed to feel for Pvt. Swofford’s predicament that he’s gone to war and (sniff) can’t actually kill anybody, this film shows the devastating emotional consequences of a not-unrelated predicament — Capote can’t finish his work of genius until “the story ends,” so to speak. And, as Hoffman emphatically illustrates by the end of this powerful film, “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.”