Looking to avoid another contentious fight after the recent Hoyer-Murtha melee, Speaker-elect Pelosi sidesteps both Jane Harman and Alcee Hastings for the House Intelligence Committee head. “Harman, a moderate, strong-on-defense ‘Blue Dog’ Democrat, had angered liberals with her reluctance to challenge the Bush administration’s use of intelligence. Hastings, an African American, was strongly backed by the Congressional Black Caucus but was ardently opposed by the Blue Dogs, who said his removal from the bench disqualifies him from such a sensitive post.” As with Hoyer and Murtha, Hastings’ questionable ethics record is more of a concern to me than Harman’s moderation, but a third choice is fine with me. Update: Pelosi chooses Silvestre Reyes for the post.
Considered historically horrible by the ever-expanding reality-based community, Dubya and his advocates plan to remedy the damage by buying their way into the hearts of historians. “Bush’s institute will hire conservative scholars and ‘give them money to write papers and books favorable to the President’s policies,’ one Bush insider said.” Hmm…don’t expect too many Bancroft winners out of that bunch. (Via The Oak.)
Speaking of politically partisan reading material, a brief plug: If you’re looking for a stocking stuffer for the politically inclined, How the Republicans Stole Religion (formerly How the Republicans Stole Christmas), a book I worked on last year with pundit and former seminary student Bill Press, is now available in paperback at a bookstore near you.
Due to its huge cast and multiplicity of stories, Bobby defies a full summation. Nevertheless, the film follows countless recognizable actors as they go about their lives at the Ambassador Hotel on June 4, 1968, the day before RFK was shot by disgruntled Palestinian Sirhan Sirhan. Among them are elder statesmen (Anthony Hopkins, Harry Belafonte), former A-listers turned B-listers (Emilio Estevez, Christian Slater), aging starlets (Sharon Stone, Demi Moore), TV standbys (Helen Hunt, David Krumholtz), likable character actors (William H. Macy, Freddy Rodriguez), strikingly attractive newcomers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Svetlana Metkina), and Frodo (playing, for all intent and purposes, Frodo.) Almost all of the performances are solid and likable (with the notable exception of Ashton Kutcher as a drug dealer — it’s unbelievable how a guy who’s made his living playing a stoner for years is so thoroughly implausible at it — he’s like a kid in a school play.) But there’s a lot of unnecessary overlap or what comes across as extraneous filler in these tales. Two separate stories (Wood and Lindsay Lohan’s quickie marriage, Shia La Boeuf and Brian Geraghty’s day off) cover basically the same ground about Vietnam. Hopkins, Belafonte, Moore, and Stone all talk about the indignities of growing old, while Stone, Macy, Moore, Estevez, Hunt, and Martin Sheen all lament failing marriages…but to what purpose? What, really, does all this have to do with RFK? I get it — it’s about shared humanity. But Bobby tries to do too much in the time given, and would’ve been more effective, I think, if it’d had been pared down some.
The most resonant parts of Bobby are the storylines involving Kennedy campaign workers (Joshua Jackson, Nick Cannon) and, most notably, the simmering racial tension among the kitchen staff (Freddy Rodriguez, Jacob Vargas, Lawrence Fishburne). The latter tale is particularly interesting — despite Slater being stuck as a cartoon “racist but a real person too” barely this side of Matt Dillon in Crash — since it highlights the concerns and aspirations of Latino immigrants, who are often completely neglected in movies dwelling on race in America (even in otherwise sterling shows like The Wire.) But, even here, it’s ultimately played too broadly: What we’re left with are “life is a blueberry cobbler” metaphors and monologues about King Arthur that’ll just make you wince. The problems with the movie can be summed up by the footage used of Bobby at the Ambassador Hotel — obviously powerful stuff. Unfortunately, it’s overlaid with Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” which even without the obvious Graduate overtones is entirely too broad a pick — It detracts from rather than enhances the already potent archival footage.
Still, I don’t want to suggest that I’m completely hating on Bobby. For all its ham-handedness, I enjoyed the experience, and I sat there with a smile on my face through most of the film. And I do applaud Estevez’s obviously strong admiration for Senator Kennedy. I was recently on a date where discussion arose as to whether things would’ve been different if Bobby had lived. She thought not, or rather that it’d be impossible to tell. I’m more inclined to agree with Michael Sandel, who wrote that: “Had he lived, he might have set progressive politics on a new, more successful course. In the decades since his death, the Democratic Party has failed to recover the moral energy and bold public purpose to which RFK gave voice.” Regardless, as with Dr. King, we shouldn’t even have to ask this question. Both men who were continuing to grow and develop, Dr. King and Bobby were tragically ripped from us before their time, a back-to-back blow in an already miserable year that felled progressive ambition in America for decades. I have to think that our nation would be a brighter, happier, and more compassionate place in the years since if we could have continued to benefit from their leadership and counsel.
Since we cannot, we can only honor their examples and remember their words. In the end, Bobby could’ve been a much worse movie than it in fact is, and I still would give it credit for reminding us of Senator Kennedy’s essential creed: “But we can perhaps remember — even if only for a time –that those who live with us are our brothers; that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek — as we do — nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.”
“In the Bible, God tells us for everything there is a season, and for me, for now, this season of being an elected official has come to a close. I do not intend to run for president in 2008.” Americans — and Sam Brownback — rejoice (and the stray cats of Tennessee lament) as former Majority Leader Bill Frist announces he won’t be running for president in 2008. Now he can delve full-time into his favorite hobby: cutting things…
Word officially comes down that Garth Ennis’ Preacher is being developed for HBO by Mark Steven Johnston (Daredevil, Ghost Rider) and Howard Deutch (Grumpier Old Men.) Not the most exciting development team in the world, but it’s nice to see HBO get into the comic game. (And if Zach Snyder’s take on The Watchmen falls apart for some reason, as so many earlier attempts at it have, a 12-hour series on the Home Box Office would be a good place for Alan Moore’s magnum opus.)
I’m talking about the man in the mirror…Two new posters for Sam Raimi’s Spiderman 3 make it online, showcasing the Spidey-Venom duality.
Like Requiem for a Dream and especially Pi, The Fountain is more about mood than plot, per se. Nevertheless, we begin in the sixteenth century, with a scruffy conquistador (Hugh Jackman, having a banner year) paying respects to what appears to be his beloved (Rachel Weisz) before embarking on a suicide mission against a Mayan temple. Before we’re fully acclimated to what’s going on, we’ve leapt to the twenty-sixth century (No, no Twiki), where that conquistador is now a bald, tattooed, Tai Chi practicing monk, traveling across the cosmos with an ailing tree and suffering visions from an age long hence. After a few bewildering minutes here, we find ourselves in our present, where neuroscientist Tom Creo (Jackman) is struggling against time to develop a cure for his wife Izzy (Weisz), before she succumbs to a brain tumor. As The Fountain progresses and we switch back and forth through these three timelines, a picture slowly coalesces of a man-out-of-time (no, not him either), determined beyond all bounds of hope or reason to defeat death and defend his one, true love from its thrall.
In all honesty, The Fountain suffers from some clunky moments in the early going, particularly when Weisz is forced to deliver exposition regarding Mayan beliefs about the Tree of Life, Xibalba (the Mayan underworld), and the Orion Nebula. And some, such as former Slate writer David Edelstein, couldn’t seem to get past the Clint Mansell score, which — as in Pi and Requiem — is hypnotic-bordering-on-intrusive. But, once you get past the somewhat unwieldy set-up, I found the movie’s themes considerably more sophisticated and less banal than most reviewers are giving it credit for. The romance here is pushed front-and-center, sure, but I found The Fountain moving less as a simple love-conquers-all tale than as an eloquent Zen meditation on mortality. (As one character puts it in the film, “Death is the road to awe.”) If matter is neither created nor destroyed, then, in a way, we are all immortal — the elements that make us up were around since the Big Bang and will continue to be around, reconstituted in other forms, long after we’re dead (“in the stars above, in the tall grass, and the ones we love,” to paraphrase a poet when he contemplated a similar plight to Jackman’s.) Indeed, in this fashion, each of us — made up of a combination of matter that, however briefly, has achieved sentience — is the universe trying to express itself. That is no small thing.
Moreover, in The Fountain (and akin to Jacob’s Ladder), Jackman’s character ultimately isn’t fighting to save his love as much as fighting his fear and despair over loss, not only of Weisz but of himself, his own ego: in short, his fear of death. As Weisz’s character says several times over, “I’m not afraid anymore.…Finish it.” Jackman’s Creo is afraid, so he won’t or can’t. “Without accepting the fact that everything changes, we cannot find perfect composure,” writes Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. “But unfortunately, although it is true, it is difficult for us to accept it. Because we cannot accept the truth of transiency, we suffer.” To my mind, this suffering, and the overcoming of it, lies at the heart of Aronofsky’s The Fountain. I thought the richness of both its vision and its ideas helps it elide over a lot of the pacing and exposition problems in the early going. So, in sum, go see The Fountain: I’m not sure you’ll like it — it’s very possible you’ll love it — but I’m willing to bet, either way, that it’ll stick with you.
[One addendum/caveat/boast: As it happens, I saw The Fountain Monday night at a very private screening/cocktail affair. (How'd I get in? Long story...basically, Aronofsky and I have a mutual friend.) I've admitted earlier to being an inveterate celebrity hound, and in terms of celeb-spotting this was manna from Heaven. Of maybe 40-50 attendees, 10-15 were instantly recognizable folk: Not only Aronofsky, Jackman, Weisz, and Ellen Burstyn (also in the film), but a gaggle of other high-profile celebs: Bowie(!), Lou Reed, Mike Myers, Iman, Helena Christiansen, Ben Chaplin, Elizabeth Berkeley, etc. So, I'm almost positive I'd have liked and recommended The Fountain regardless, but I'm forced to admit (re: would like to brag) that I saw it under more-than-ideal circumstances. (Yes, I played it cool despite being famestruck, but I'd be lying if every so often in the first half-hour of the film I found myself thinking "Am I really sharing an armrest with Famke Janssen right now? How bizarre." Not very Zen of me, I know, but sometimes I'm just a material guy.)]
“This outcome is not what we anticipated or wanted, but neither do we see any positive value in bitterness and rancor. We now have no choice but to let the idea of a film of The Hobbit go and move forward with other projects…We got to go there – but not back again…” In an e-mail to The One Ring, PJ and Fran say they’re off The Hobbit due to outstanding and unresolved matters regarding their lawsuit against New Line, who want to move on the project now before they lose the rights. MGM (who owns the distribution rights) says it ain’t over yet, but, my, it’s not looking good.
Ready for another year at Hogwarts? The new teaser for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix which I mentioned on Friday is now online.
Not to say this isn’t a Bond film. Within the first ten minutes we’ve already traveled to Prague, Uganda, and Madagascar to witness various scenes of espionage and intrigue. And, however realistic Casino Royale is to the usual Bond drek (Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough, etc. etc.), it’s still set in the Bond-verse, where guns go “click” at exceedingly appropriate times and choice parking spaces are always available in front of scenic villas and vistas. Nevertheless, Casino Royale plays it downbeat more than most — Here, the recently minted 00, with the aid of beautiful accountant Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), must defeat the sinister LeChiffre (a memorable Mads Mikkelsen), a financier of terrorism in over his head, in a high-stakes game of Texas Hold ‘Em (?!) in Montenegro. (The switch from baccarat to poker is, alas, a mistake — For one, you half-expect Bond to be playing paunchy guys wearing ironic trucker hats, not tuxedo’ed supervillains. For another, the poker hands get increasingly ridiculous. I don’t want to give the game away, but it doesn’t speak to Bond’s savvy as a poker player to have him win with the hands he’s given.)
Still, Casino Royale succeeds in no small part because of Daniel Craig’s fine, layered perfomance as 007. Unlike the cartoon Bond of Moore-through-Brosnan, Bond here actually seems something close to a human being. As Craig plays him, he’s an arrogant bruiser with a ruthless streak, a guy — unlike any Bond since Connery — you could actually see bedding someone one minute and killing them the next. (Exhibit A: The scene with the knife, after the bad beat. Have we ever seen Bond this murderous?) Moreover, Bond not only endures here some of the agonies regularly inflicted on him in the books (but rarely in the movies), he also is given compelling reason (in an admittedly slow-paced third act) for his later remorseless womanizing, as following the book and its memorable last line. I’ve written before that I’d rather see another Bourne than another Bond. Well, with Craig at the wheel of Bond’s Aston Martin, I hereby rescind that statement…Welcome back, 007. (I’ll admit to being partial to Craig, tho’ — not only for Layer Cake, but because the world’s long past due for a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Bond. Our kind hasn’t exhibited this sort of badassery on film since poor Steve McQueen died and Newman/Redford got old. Ok, you could make a case for Tyler Durden, but generally we’ve been relegated to Zabka-ness for the past three decades.)
“To put it simply, create an account, join a league, draft a team of real U.S. Members of Congress and have fun as you compete to score as many points as possible. As the Members of Congress you drafted put real legislation through the lawmaking process they will score points for your team.” Fantasy Congress (by way of Triptych Cryptic.) I’ve shied away from Fantasy Basketball, just because [a] I see it becoming all-consuming and [b] I figure I’ll end up rooting for players to put up great numbers rather than for actual teams to win…but this might be fun.
Using the thankfully soon-to-be-refurbished Hubble, astronomers find more evidence of “dark energy” in the early universe working along the lines of Einstein’s famous fudge factor, the cosmological constant, to combat a gravitational crunch. “‘Dark energy makes us nervous,’ said Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology who was not involved in the supernova study. ‘It fits the data, but it’s not what we really expected.’“
The new Fiennes-centric Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix teaser poster is now online. Look for new photos from the film here, for a very brief clip here, and for the teaser — if, like me, you’re not going to see Happy Feet — on Monday. Update: Here it is.
Sick of all the 2008 presidential news yet? Ok, how about some 2008 Senatorial news…According to WP’s Chris Cilizza, the Dems look to be in very good shape for the next election: “Of the 33 seats up for reelection, just 12 are held by Democrats. And of those 12, only two Democratic incumbents received less than 54 percent of the vote in 2002 — Sens. Tim Johnson (S.D.) and Mary Landrieu (La.).“
“As George Shultz liked to say: ‘Everybody loves to argue with Milton, particularly when he isn’t there.‘” Milton Friedman, 1912-2006.
“Look, someone told me she hasn’t liked him since 1963, and it has had zero effect on how well they have worked together. We don’t have to guess at this. We have seen it. They can and will work well together as we move forward.” In what’s being billed as an early but probably not-very-significant defeat (although perhaps it should be) for Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi, her backing of her old friend John Murtha for Majority Leader seems to have backfired, as the Dem caucus instead chose moderate Steny Hoyer by almost 2-to-1. “‘He had been doing the tough work,’ said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.). ‘It’s just mind-numbing — all those fundraisers, the travel, sleeping in hotel rooms. It needs to be rewarded.‘” Well, given Murtha’s record on the ethics issue, I’m all for Hoyer too. Now — please — let’s start concentrating our fire on the other side (And that goes for Carville (Emanuel) v. Dean as well — be cool, James.)
Meanwhile on the GOP side, the House Republicans decide to stick with John Boehner for now. Great…he’s seemed pretty incompetent so far, good choice. And over in the Senate, guess who’s back? Think Strom…Yes, the GOP choose Mitch McConnell and Trent Lott as their go-to-guys, prompting a great line (which I’m paraphrasing) on The Daily Show the other night: “Lott’s new job is the “Minority Whip”…he should take to that job like white on rice.”
More trailers: Sly tries to go fifteen more rounds in the surprisingly effective second trailer for Rocky Balboa (It’s the music, for sure), and Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Jr., Chloe Sevigny, Donal Logue, Elias Koteas, and Brian Cox venture into Se7en territory in the preview for David Fincher’s Zodiac. (Panic Room was sorta dull and by-the-numbers, but Fincher still has a lot of goodwill in this corner for Fight Club.)
Emeritus historians John Hope Franklin and Yu Ying-shih are the dual recipients of the $1 million John Kluge Prize for the Study of Humanity. Congrats to both. (I knew there was money to be made in this business!)
Yep, it’s that time again: Ghost in the Machine is seven years old today. It’s been an up-and-down year, to be sure, but I’ve got no plans to give up the Ghost just yet, seven-year-itch be damned. (Particularly given that this blog has never seen a Democratic Congress — that should make things interesting for awhile.) At any rate, once again, and as always, thanks for stopping by. [0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]
“It’s not quite clear what George W. Bush wants Robert Gates to do. But it’s doubtful Gates would have come back to Washington, from his pleasant perch as president of Texas A&M, if the job description read ‘staying the course on Iraq.’” Invoking Clark Clifford to make his case, Slate‘s Fred Kaplan suggests what incoming SecDef Robert Gates may be able to accomplish over the next two years.
“Teamwork and competition do make the game much more fun, but everybody’s stuck in the same grind. With little at stake, your quests feel less like Frodo and Sam’s trip to Mordor than a night shift at Hardee’s. Every new level brings more of the same, and fatigue sets in the 10th time you’ve run through the same high-level dungeon, or when you’re trying to crack level 38 but can’t bring yourself to kill another goddamn swamp jaguar.” Also in Slate, Chris Dahlen calls out World of Warcraft (while, unlike too many contrarian Slate pieces, offering valuable suggestions for improvement.) I only recently tried out (re: binged on) WoW for the first time — I’m at Level 29 and climbing — and he’s got a point. The game is good, addictive fun, but I do wish there was more Infocom-style problem solving involved and less repetitive point-and-click pixel-bashing.
In the movie bin, Homer J. Simpson gets stuck between a rock (Iraq?) and a hard place in the trailer for The (long-awaited) Simpsons Movie; Edward Norton (brandishing a surprisingly lousy accent) and Naomi Watts struggle with a loveless marriage by way of W. Somerset Maugham in the trailer for The Painted Veil (also with Liev Schrieber, Toby Jones, and the always lovely Dame Diana Rigg); and Wilbur the pig picks up a “spin” doctor with a way with words in a new Internet-only teaser for Charlotte’s Web (Between Julia and Buscemi, it seems like the voice-work is going to be really distracting.)
The wreckage of the midterms behind him, disgraced GOP operative Jack Abramoff heads to prison today to begin a 5-year, 10-month stint in the Big House…but, not — according to ABC News — before dropping dirt on Karl Rove and “dozens of members of Congress and staff” including “six to eight seriously corrupt Democratic senators.” Sounds like the Ballad of Casino Jack might keep on keepin’ on right through the next cycle…Let’s hope the Dem Congress are much more vigilant about rooting out the corruption in their midst than were their predecessors.
“An Ehrlich aide who agreed to discuss the strategy on the condition of anonymity said the purpose of the fliers was to peel away one or two percentage points in jurisdictions where the governor would be running behind. No one inside the campaign expected a strong reaction. But that’s what they got.” The WP delves into the sordid tale behind the dirty trick ballots passed around in Maryland last week. (Very Royce-Carcetti, no?) Particularly disappointing (and bizarre), it seems that actor Charles S. Dutton may have been involved in hatching the scheme, although he denies it.
“For the first time in 50 years, the party that controls both chambers of Congress is a minority party in the South. And in the last four presidential elections, the Democratic candidate has either garnered 270 electoral votes, the minimum needed to win, or has come within one state of doing so before a single Southern vote was tallied. Outside the old Confederacy, the nation is turning blue, and that portends a new map for a future Democratic majority.” In Salon, University of Maryland assistant prof. Thomas Schaller suggests the Dems should forget about the South. So, what happened to the 50-state strategy? As the critical importance of Senator-elect Webb’s recent win suggests, the Dems write off any region of the country at their peril.
“This was a big deal. Certainly, it was the end of George W. Bush’s radical experiment in partisan governance. It might have been even bigger than that: the end of the conservative pendulum swing that began with Ronald Reagan’s revolution.” Despite starting off well here, TIME’s Joe Klein reads the 2006 election as a call to centrism. Hmm. Well, maybe…I suppose we’re still parsing the results. Nevertheless, I’ll confess to being somewhat irritated by TIME’s “centrist” cover after last week’s historic rout of the Republicans, so I went ahead and ginned up my own, one I find more fitting for recent events (and, of course, that is more apropos for this blog.) Procrastination, thy name is Photoshop.
“‘If John Murtha was running for dog-catcher or President of the United States, Nancy Pelosi would support him,’ one Pelosi ally told TIME.” Not a week after Election Day, the battle for the No. 2 spot in Congress roils top Dems, with Speaker-elect Pelosi drawing consternation for her endorsement of John Murtha as House Majority Leader (over more conservative rival Steny Hoyer.) More troubling than the leadership fracas, it seems that Murtha, for all his clarity on Iraq, has apparently been no friend of ethics reform in the past: “Murtha…has battled accusations over the years that he has traded federal spending for campaign contributions, that he has abused his post as ranking party member on the Appropriations defense subcommittee, and that he has stood in the way of ethics investigations. Those charges come on top of Murtha’s involvement 26 years ago in the FBI’s Abscam bribery sting.” Nope, that’s not good.