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Chained to Work.


“‘The United States is the only advanced economy in the world that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation days and paid holidays,’ said John Schmitt, senior economist and co-author of the report. ‘Relying on businesses to voluntarily provide paid leave just hasn’t worked.'”

A new CEPR report finds — once againthat Americans are working inordinately hard. “Workers in the European Union are legally guaranteed at least 20 paid vacation days per year, with 25 and even 30 or more days in some countries. Canada and Japan guarantee at least 10 days of paid vacation per year. U.S. workers have no statutory right to paid vacations.”

Pope of the People.

“‘Even them, everyone,’ the pope answered, according to Vatican Radio. ‘We all have the duty to do good,’ he said. ‘Just do good and we’ll find a meeting point,’ the pope said in a hypothetical conversation in which someone told a priest: ‘But I don’t believe. I’m an atheist.'”

Stunning more than a few minds around the world — and breaking strongly from his predecessor — the recently inaugurated Pope Francis tells the faithful that atheists are saved as well, provided they do good works. (Agnostics too, I hope.)

I must say, I’ve been very impressed with Pope Francis so far. From ignoring pomp and circumstance and rejecting material comforts enjoyed by Pope Benedict XVI, to breaking with precedent to bless a guide dog, to washing the feet of a female Muslim prisoner on Maundy Thursday, to castigating “the cult of money” and emphasizing the need to address poverty, Pope Francis has — thus far — seemed closer in spirit to the Nuns on the Bus than the US Conference of Bishops, and a welcome throwback to the more progressive days of Rerum Novarum and Vatican 2.

Simply put, Cerebus and “God’s Rottweiler,” he’s not. Let’s hope it continues.

Ich Bin Ein Heidelbergensis.


Although Homo heidelbergensis has generally been seen as a precursor to Neanderthals, its precise relation to us has been less clear. This fossil analysis is some of the most compelling evidence yet that we can in fact trace an evolutionary lineage back through Homo heidelbergensis.”

From a 400,000 year-old skull found in Ceprano, Italy, scientists believe they may have locked down humankind’s parent species. “The idea is that, aided by the favorable climates of the Middle Pleistocene starting around 780,000 years ago, Homo heidelbergensis spread far and wide throughout the Old World. Around 400,000 years ago, this mobility began to decrease and Homo heidelbergensis became more isolated, paving the way for the clear emergence of Neanderthals and modern humans in Eurasia and Africa respectively.

Venetian Grind.

Let’s get right down to brass tacks: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Tourist, his major studio follow-up to The Lives of Others (#11 on the decade list) is brazenly, woefully, blog-stoppingly awful. I’m serious — this movie is terribad. It’s been awhile since I’ve felt the urge to get up and leave in the middle of a film so strongly (and that’s something I never do, because if I break that seal, it’ll be katy bar the door from then on.) But it’s probably just as well I stayed, since pretty soon thereafter I got the 21 Grams giggles to carry me through this canal of Venetian drek.

So, oof, where to begin? It sounds like von Donnersmarck was mostly a hired gun for an already-troubled production here, so let’s give him a pass to start. (Sam Worthington, Charlize Theron, and Tom Cruise — who mined similar material this year in the considerably better Knight & Day — were all attached as stars at various points, and director Alfonso Cuaron was rumored to be replacing von Donnersmarck when he tried to walk away early on.) So how about the two leads? Angelina Jolie is one of the world’s great beauties, and Johnny Depp is no slouch in the heartthrob department either. But, here, she looks cadaverous, he looks paunchy, and together they have zero chemistry whatsoever.

I’ve long thought that Depp is one of our best working actors, but it has to be said — After two dismal Pirates sequels, he’s now been front and center in two of 2010’s worst bombs, this and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. And after seeing Depp play so many weird parts over the years, one has to wonder if he’s now like butter scraped over too much bread: Maybe he just can’t do normal anymore. (But now that I think about it, has Depp ever played a convincing “normal” romantic lead? Benny & Joon, maybe? Gilbert Grape?)

Anyway, Depp’s character — Wisconsin widower and schoolteacher Frank Tupelo — is meant to be just an average guy in over his head, unwittingly caught up in a spy drama as The Wrong Man. (Jolie’s character picks him at random on a train to be a mark for the Interpol-types following her.) But Depp seemingly can’t help but play Frank as all twitchy and affected. He speaks with Hunter Thompson cadences half the time and eyes his surroundings — and his co-star, for that matter — like it or she are going to sprout wings any moment. He can’t even sip his nightcap without Jack-Sparrowing his way through it. “Hey, look, a beverage! In my hand! I shall drink it! Ooh, it kicks!

And then there’s Jolie, who also seems bored throughout (and who has her own 2010 sins to atone for in Salt.) For one, Jolie and Depp definitely don’t seem to like each other very much: There’s no romantic spark between them at all. (So much for “tourist attraction.”) But the main problem here is they’ve given her character — Elise Clifton-Ward, beautiful femme fatale with a hidden agenda — a British accent. Now, Jolie can either act or do the accent, but, for whatever reason, she pretty clearly can’t do both at the same time. (And, as you’ll see if you somehow end up watching this disaster, she definitely can’t act, do the accent, and drive a boat.)

And so most of the movie Jolie just seems very far away, a cold neutron star. Her sheer presence can overpower a film sometimes — say, her turn as Matt Damon’s crazy wife in The Good Shepherd. But, here, any spark of personality, wit, or warmth is quickly snuffed out by her stultifyingly bad impression of an English person. It’s like the prom queen somehow got roped into performing in the high-school production of Oliver Twist, and she’s just going through the motions so it won’t negatively affect her cred.

So Jolie and Depp are definitely a drag on the material. But, to be honest, it’s hard to imagine a different set of A-list stars with real romantic chemistry — say, I dunno, George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones — pulling off this film either. Some fetching images of Venetian splendor notwithstanding, there’s just no there there. The Tourist moves at a snail’s pace for most of its run, and not in a contemplative Eurofilm way like The American. And more often than not, the movie makes no sense.

To take a few examples: Frank finds himself running from Russian mobsters but doesn’t think to change his appearance in any way. (Here’s a tip — lose the Jack Sparrow ‘do.)The Big Bad dispatches his minions in such an over-the-top Bondian manner that nobody would ever actually work for the guy (although that might explain why said Russian goons can’t hit the broad side of a barn.) And there’s a ridiculous third-act twist which many will see coming within the first five minutes of the movie. But just because you see it coming doesn’t make it plausible.

Granted, these are the type of foibles and Scooby Doo logic you might forgive in a more enjoyable film. But with nothing to latch onto here for entertainment value, they stick out like a sore thumb. So, is there anything good about The Tourist? Well, the movie does feature a cast of obviously European actors, which gives it more of a sense of place than your average studio film. And it starts out with a surveillance scene, which made me think fondly of The Lives of Others for a few beats at the start. Um…Timothy Dalton’s in it, so that’s cool, I guess. (He fares slightly better than poor Paul Bettany, who’s stuck with the clueless inspector role.)

But that’s about it, really. Make no mistake: This is a bad, bad film. Mr. von Donnersmarck, Mr. Depp, Ms. Jolie: Let us never speak of this trip again.

Regrets, He’s Had a Few.

After a busier than anticipated several weeks — sorry, as always, about the quiet ’round here — time to catch up in the review department: First on the docket, Anton Corbijn’s languid, meditative “thriller,” The American. I doubt this slow-moving, verging-on-ponderous film was everyone’s cup of tea — The folks in front of me basically laughed their way through it, and by the overwrought last few scenes I was chuckling along with them. Still, I wouldn’t sit through it again anytime soon, but I still admired The American for several reasons — for its striking travelogue cinematography, for an out-of-his-comfort-zone performance from George Clooney, and, perhaps most notably, for the film’s uncompromising artiness. Say what you will about this movie — it’s not one that panders to studio notes.

If you’ve seen The American by now, you’ll know that, despite the patriotic title and the presence of Clooney, this flick is in fact about as far from American as you get. Rather, it’s an unabashed throwback to European cinema of the ’60s and ’70s. More well-versed critics than I are name-dropping Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 film Le Samourai, and, in terms of camerawork and general philosophical approach, we’re definitely not too far from that fixture of college film classes, Michelangelo Antonioni.

So, yeah, if that last sentence didn’t tip you off, The American is arguably the most self-consciously artsy, existential, and Sprockets-y flick to hit the mainstream-multiplex circuit since Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s ludicrous 21 Grams. And, if you don’t roll with its arthouse ambitions, I figure The American will lose you…fast.

The reason being, you really can’t overstate how little happens in this movie. After a deceptively busy opening vignette where Things Go Horribly Wrong in Sweden, mystery man Clooney — he could be an assassin, or just a very good gunsmith (but either way, he’s got undeniable fashion sense) — is forced to cool his heels in an idyllic and self-consciously Old World Italian village, a la Joe Biden’s recent Mexican adventure. (Castel del Monte, to be exact.) There, he’ll amble across the cobblestones, looking pained, mopey, and/or hunted. Occasionally (very occasionally for Clooney — more on that in a bit), he’ll have a clipped and portentous conversation with one of the locals — usually either a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) or a beautiful woman (Thekla Reuten, Violante Placido.) Sometimes, he fiddles, in impressive craftsman-y ways, with the new gun he’s been assigned to build by his handler (Johan Leysen). Then he’ll go back to being pained, mopey, and/or hunted. Spoiler alert: This sums up about 85% of the movie.

The glacial pace of The American aside: If all of this sounds like it could be maddeningly pretentious…well, it kinda is, and, worse, there are hoary cliches strewn about everywhere like spent bullet casings. We’ve got an oh-so-sage priest harboring a few secrets of his own. We’ve got a stunning hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold, one who falls for the protagonist despite his bad behavior. (Interesting film fact: The actress, Placido, is the daughter of Simonetta Stefanelli, a.k.a. Michael Corleone’s doomed Sicilian bride Apollonia in The Godfather. Maunday, Tuesday, Thursday, Wednesday…) And the last reel is so wildly over-the-top in its high-school existentialism that it verges on self-parody. One half-expects a fade to black-and-white and a “FIN” title card to close out the film.

For what it’s worth, The American — much more so than Corbijn’s first movie, Control (#45 of the Oughts) — also feels rooted in Corbijn’s music video work over the years. As someone with a fondness for Strange, Corbijn’s Depeche Mode mini-movie circa 1988 (a.k.a the Music for the Masses era), it was hard not to think of “Behind the Wheel” (see: femmes fatale and Old World moxy) and “Never Let Me Down Again” (every time Clooney chats up the priest) throughout The American. (For that matter, the scenes in the bordello are lit up like Corbijn’s photo shoot for “Policy of Truth” — Yes, I grew up taking my Mode seriously.)

So why did I end up appreciating The American regardless? Well, a lot of the credit has to go to Clooney. Sure, he’s stepped away from his usual fast-talking, charming-rogue persona before, most notably in Michael Clayton (where the usual charm offensive never helps him) and Syriana (where he gained a paunch and came off, as Stephanie Zacharek memorably put it, like a “depressed circus bear.”)

But, here, Clooney has gone wayyy out on a limb and stripped himself of his usual glib, “Dr. Ross” persona almost completely. “The American” isn’t charming. Heck, he barely even speaks. And so Clooney must construct this twitchy, haunted character without the benefit of his usual toolbox, and, to his credit, he gets it done. It’s an impressive star turn by one of the only honest-to-goodness movie stars of his generation. And, despite the many ways this movie could (and arguably does) go wrong, The American is another feather in Clooney’s cap, and doesn’t interrupt the rather remarkable string of quality films he’s been involved with. Just next time, let’s ease up on the woe-is-me pop existentialism, ok Mister Butterfly?

The Great Flood…and a blow to the Annalistes.

“In a period ranging from a few months to two years, the scientists say that 90% of the water was transferred into the basin. ‘This extremely abrupt flood may have involved peak rates of sea level rise in the Mediterranean of more than 10m per day,’ he and his colleagues wrote in the Nature paper.” A new study suggests that, over five million years ago and with an event called the Zanclean flood, the Mediterranean Sea may have been re-formed in as little as two years. “The team estimates the peak flow to have been around 1000 times higher than the present Amazon river at its highest rate.

Coincidentally, two years is about as long as it takes to read Ferdinand Braudel’s seminal two-part history of the Mediterranean. Cut to the chase, man!

Lisa Gherardini musta had the highway blues.

“‘All doubts about the identity of the Mona Lisa have been eliminated by a discovery by Dr. Armin Schlechter,’ a manuscript expert, the library said in a statement on Monday…’There is no reason for any lingering doubts that this is another woman,’ Leipzig University art historian Frank Zoellner told German radio. ‘One could even say that books written about all this in the past few years were unnecessary, had we known.’

After studying notes scribbled in a 1503 book, German art historians argue they’ve definitively pinned down the identity of the Mona Lisa. “Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a wealthy Florentine merchant, Francesco del Giocondo, has long been seen as the most likely model for the 16th-century painting…[the notes] confirm once and for all that Lisa del Giocondo was indeed the model for one of the most famous portraits in the world.” [Via Daily Dish.]

Roman(‘s) Catastrophe.

Following up The Pianist and Oliver Twist, veteran director Roman Polanski will next head to Pompeii, with a $130 million budget (his largest ever). “Based on the bestseller of the same name by ‘Fatherland’ novelist Robert Harris, the story follows a young engineer who has to repair an enormous aqueduct whose destruction threatens the Roman Empire.

Viva Italia!

A belated congrats to Italy on winning the 2006 World Cup. I was rooting for France, and a PK shootout is a truly terrible way to choose the Cup champion, but — after headbuttgate and the Baggio mishap in 1994 — Italy seemed karmically due. At any rate, see y’all in 2010. And, now, alas, we’ve hit the sports dead zone until September…perhaps it’s time to give MLS another go, what with Red Bull United now on the pitchUpdate: Zidane speaks.

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