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Archive for November, 2006

Don’t be Hastings.

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.

Paying for Plaudits.

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.)

That Old-Time Religion.

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.

The Ballad of Bobby.

Now that Dr. King is gone, there’s no one left but Bobby.” And, tragically, America would only have him for two more months. It’s hard to fault the sentiment behind Emilio Estevez’s Bobby, a humane, warm-hearted paean to the slain Senator, whose untimely end marked the final death rattle of hope for countless American liberals and progressives in the sixties. But, frankly, the film — while easy to sit through, to be sure — is also confused and overstuffed. It attempts to be Grand Hotel by way of RFK: Dozens of disconnected lives that intertwine one fateful night and that are ultimately bonded by their common humanity, as so eloquently articulated by Kennedy. But, however ambitious and meritorious its message and its patron saint, Bobby is a well-meaning muddle. The powerful stock footage and a few brief moments aside, a lot of the film just falls flat.

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.

‘Til the Last Cat Dies.

“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

Son of a Preacher Man.

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 Zack 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.)

Venomous Veil.

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.

Goldengrove Unleaving.

Admirably ambitious and running the emotional gamut from syrupy to sublime, Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain is a resolutely uncommercial big-think sci-fi piece that I expect will strongly divide audiences. (My guess is, you’ll either love the film or turn on it in the first half-hour.) I found it a bit broad at times, particularly in the early going, and I definitely had to make a conscious decision to run with it. That being said, I thought The Fountain ultimately pays considerable dividends as a stylish, imaginative, and melancholy celebration of the inexorable cycle of life, from birth to death ad infinitum. In its reach, The Fountain at times suggests 2001, and even if that reach probably exceeds its grasp by the end, it should still be applauded for so fearlessly tackling such heady themes, box office be damned. And if nothing else, The Fountain will not only make you contemplate the meaning of it all, but contains several haunting images, like scraps of a fever dream, that will resonate long after the movie’s over. All in all, not bad for ten bucks.

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.)]

A Cold Day in the Park.

Robert Altman, 1925-2006.

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