Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Obama: The Candid Candidate

When I listened to Barack Obama's victory speech after winning South Carolina, the whole speech was great, but one sentence jumped out and caught my attention as a great summation of why I am so excited about Obama:

"real leadership is about candor, and judgment, and the ability to rally Americans from all walks of life around a common purpose"

I am so sick and tired of spin, of elected leaders who tell us what they think we want to hear rather than level with us about what we need to hear, of candidates who will say anything and do anything to win the next election. I honestly believe that Obama is different. He has already shown that he is different. The man does not change his tune to suit the audience. He has stood in front of a hall full of Democrats, when it would have been easy and welcome to trash Republicans, and he has instead talked about the importance of working with them. He has stood in front of a teacher's union and said he thinks there may be some merit to merit pay. And time and again he has been inclusive of gays and lesbians, not just in his general stump speech, but when he spoke at Auburn University, and when he spoke from Martin Luther King's pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church. (Compare and contrast with Hillary Clinton, who doesn't utter a word that's not poll-tested and focus-group screened. She speaks a big game when in front of the Human Rights Campaign, claiming she would overturn the ban on gays in the military, and yet she is already sitting on the Senate Armed Services Committee, in the ideal position to do something about it, and has done nothing. I think it's clear we can expect Hillary to pander to the gay community when she needs our votes, but then throw us under the bus once elected, just as her husband did. Bill Clinton courted the gay vote, then not only gave us the Don't Ask Don't Tell compromise, but he signed the Defense of Marriage Act. Why should I expect Hillary Clinton to be any different?)

The level of politics in our country has sunk so low, that I would so much rather have someone who is honest, candid, and straightforward, even if I don't agree with all of his specific ideas, than someone who will spin, lie, and obfuscate. I'd much rather have someone who takes the high road, rather than someone who believes the end justifies the means (for instance, Hillary's willingness to break her pledge and change the rules on the Florida and Michigan primaries, which shows the only "principle" she's familiar with is "whatever it takes to win"). I look forward to being able to travel abroad and have a president I can be proud of rather than ashamed of. I hope that the rest of the country is as hungry as I am to restore the greatly damaged credibility of the presidency, and to elevate the tone of politics in Washington, by electing someone who can be trusted to speak openly and honestly. I think Obama is that man.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

BOOKS: The Kite Runner

The last many days of commuting to work have been emotional, sweeping, and at times tearful, as I have been listening to Khaled Hosseini read his novel The Kite Runner. What a beautiful tale of friendship, cowardice and honor, profound regrets and ultimate atonement. The story is driven by its fascinating characters, centered around the narrator, starting from his boyhood as he struggles to win his larger-than-life father's approval and affection, while navigating a complicated relationship with his best friend who is also his servant and from an "inferior" ethnic group. The plot follows an arc from an idyllic Afghanistan under the king, through a coup, Soviet invasion, an Afghan community in exile in the San Francisco Bay area, and a harrowing return to Afghanistan under the Taliban to confront the past. Hosseini's story is embedded in rich descriptions of the exotic Afghan countryside and culture (it helps hearing the author read his own work, pronouncing all the Pashto and Farsi words effortlessly), and had me wanting to visit Afghanistan (through a time machine, anyway). He deploys some beautiful imagery, describing coming to America as wading into a great river whose vast waters cover up regrets from the past, or the end of grief not in a revelatory moment but as packing up its bags and quietly slipping out. But most of all he had me thoroughly engrossed in this tale of fatal turning point moments, how they can shape a life and have repercussions across generations. As with Sheherezade's tales, each new episode in the life of these rich characters had me eager to hear the next, and it was bittersweet to have it come to an end.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

FILM: 27 Dresses

George and I both love a good "chick flick", so yesterday we went to see 27 Dresses, with much anticipation after having seen a barrage of trailers and commercials for months. We both enjoyed the film, but we both agreed that it was a cream puff of a movie -- sweet, light, and not very filling. Certainly it was fun to watch Katherine Heigl's character Jane work through her "always a bridesmaid" complex, with some good laughs along the way, and I was appropriately misty-eyed at the big "I love you" declaration moment, and at the final scene. We were smiling and saying "yea!" at the end. But we had hoped for more. This romantic comedy was, well, a bit light on the romance. One of the things we crave from a good romance is seeing the chemistry between two characters, moments when sparks fly off the screen, and, in a truly great romance, scenes that make us sigh even years later as we recall them in vivid detail, projecting ourselves into them and wishing for such moments in our own lives. Much as we wanted to like this movie, it left us wanting that kind of chemistry. I don't blame the actors (who are often to blame when chemistry fizzles instead of sizzles). Katherine Heigl was perfectly endearing in her part, and her expressiveness and range, everything from dreamy-eyed pining to guilty rationalization to happy-face-covering-hurt to pent up angry release, was everything you could want. Alas, Jane was the only character in the film that showed more than one dimension. James Marsden did the best he could to rescue Kevin, a character of poorly-conceived motivations, from the limitations of the script, and he really did some wonders with purely facial expression to try to persuade us of some sympathetic depth, but there's only so much an actor can do when the words he needs weren't written. (We know from Heights and The Notebook that he's certainly capable of more, if given good material to work with.) Sure, some crazy and inexplicable things are allowed to happen in the world of romantic comedy, but we need the characters to have a certain truth to them in order to draw our sympathy. Willing suspension of disbelief allows us to overlook unrealistic devices (e.g., that some wedding-crazy girl devotes a closet in her Manhattan apartment to bridesmaid dresses), and to forgive pesky continuity details (so those dresses show up in the final scene even though we saw her put them in the trash just a few scenes earlier). But the main characters, and their trajectory, have got to be believable.

[Mild spoilers ahead… in case you're worried that you won't guess how the story turns out, skip this next paragraph...]

Jane's 11th hour switch of affections comes from what, exactly? Fond memories of a drunk one-night stand? And Kevin -- who knows whether he truly is a sweet romantic guy hiding behind a mask of obnoxious cockiness, or is he really a cynic spinning sentimental crap? He doesn't know himself, neither do we, so how is Jane supposed to figure it out? Was Kevin smitten with Jane from first sight, or was he initially out to exploit her and then had a change of heart? (And if a change of heart, when, how, and why?)

The problem is that the writer just didn't think this character through coherently, so that Kevin's apparent motivations spin like a weathervane from scene to scene, with no explication except that he does what is needed to propel the plot. There are a few hints of dimension (that he was left at the altar in the past, that he did once cry at a wedding), which are just teases at how much more compellingly this character could have been written if given his due complexity. (And the ironic potential of a wedding-cynical reporter assigned to the wedding beat is missed, serving only as a bare plot contrivance.) What meagre crumbs of complexity Kevin has are tossed away by the director, whose lack of romantic vision didn't help. Perhaps director Anne Fletcher is guilty of what Kevin accuses Jane of: she doesn't want a relationship so much as she wants a wedding. But much as it pains me, I blame writer Aline Brosh McKenna for this film not living up to its full potential. This was especially surprising as she had written the screenplay for The Devil Wears Prada (as the 27 Dresses promotion machine constantly reminded us), where she did a stellar job, that very rare achievement where the screenplay actually improved on a great book (and the improvement came from deepening the characters). Based on Prada, I'd be willing to give McKenna another shot in the future. And I'd love to see Heigl and Marsden in a better story. They were like vintage burgundy and black truffles used to make meatloaf. Mind you, meatloaf's fine for a weekday meal. So if you go with appropriate expectations -- just wanting to be entertained rather than inspired, looking for something amusing for an evening rather than memorable for a lifetime -- 27 Dresses is good cute fun.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Neighborhood Notes: Top Bookshops of the World

Via Andrew, I caught this Guardian piece on the "top ten bookshops of the world". I was curious to see what might be on it. I had expected to find Powell's Books, of Portland, Oregon, which in my experience is probably the most awesome brick-and-mortar bookstore I've been to in terms of mind-boggling selection (not just mass market, but thoughtfully selected stuff in a wide range of fields of inquiry). Alas, Powell's was not on this list. I also thought maybe to find City Lights, the literary landmark in San Francisco, but not that either. Being a world list, most of the selections were around the world in places I haven't been -- Maastricht, Buenos Aires, Kyoto, Porto, Mexico City, etc. But much to my surprise, the list included a comic book store in my own backyard called the Secret Headquarters. We walk past this place often, on our usual Friday night beat between the great neighborhood Mexican restaurant and the awesome gelato place. The place looks really cool, like a place you'd want to hang out, in fact, I thought it was a cigar bar when I first saw it. The Guardian piece describes it thus: "Nestled in the creative cluster of Silver Lake, just east of Hollywood, this boutique store offers a sophisticated alternative to most of its rivals and has a reputation for being one of the neatest, friendliest comic stores anywhere. Canadian science fiction author Cory Doctorow rates it as the finest in the world." You can check out photos of the place here. Just when I thought our neighborhood couldn't get any cooler.

Where's My Candidate?

I've done this before, but it's interesting to try the "electoral compass" exercise with the current crop of candidates projected on it. The Republicans are distributed vertically along the socially conservative axis of their quadrant, but with narrow variation in their economic positions. The Democrats are pretty tightly bunched in their quadrant, except for Obama who shows more progressive socially and a bit more conservative economically. Ron Paul is an outlier, aligned with Republicans economically, but verging on libertarianism socially. (Interestingly, this survey puts him in the libertarian quadrant, but just barely. Aside from Paul on the margin, the libertarian quadrant, where I find myself (the pencil), is vacant, as is the opposite fascist quadrant. It's a shame that there's a whole swath of "position space" unrepresented by candidates, but in which a fair chunk of Americans may locate themselves. (You can try the survey yourself here.) To me, that's a clear defect of the two-party system. I note that the two candidates closest to me in this survey are Obama and Paul. That's about right. I would add, as others have noted, that this survey captures policy position but not temperament, and in this race, I'm considering temperament as much if not more than policies. I'm hungry for a candidate who is pragmatic, able to understand viewpoints on both sides of an issue, and formulate policies that can appeal to common ground rather than division and polarity. That's why Obama is my choice.

Monday, January 14, 2008

FILM: The Great Debaters

Still working the year-end backlog of good films, we caught The Great Debaters on Saturday night. We expected an uplifting inspirational film, and it definitely delivered. The baseline story you know going in, so the success of the movie depended on the vivid depiction of life in east Texas 1936 for black people, the richness of the characters' backstories and development, and the powerful performances of a great cast. Denzel Washington plays Melvin Tolson, the English and rhetoric professor who inspires and coaches the famous team to victory, with great verve, and Forest Whitaker gives an outstanding performance as James Farmer, Sr., the educator, theologian, and father of one of the younger debaters. The elder Farmer is portrayed as a gentle, thoughtful man, and Whitaker conveys a rich variety of feeling in this character with masterful reserve. These are the "stars", but the film wouldn't have worked without strong performances from the three young actors who play the debaters. Nate Parker, as Henry Lowe, the oldest of the college kids, shines in this role as a scrappy orphan with a good heart and hard edges, torn between dropping out and striving toward a higher calling. Jurnee Smollett is spot on as Samantha Booke, the modest but passionate girl determined to become a lawyer. And Denzel Whitaker (no relation to Forest Whitaker, nor to Denzel Washington, except that he was named after him) won me over as the youngest debater, James Farmer, Jr., trying to grow in the shadow of his renowned father. Some of the best parts of the film were the interplay between James Farmer Junior and Senior, with each growing and responding to the other, illustrating the generational differences in that time of great trial. There is a powerful scene where James Farmer Sr. is shaken down and humiliated in front of his family by a white trash pig farmer, and his concern is to mollify the farmer just to keep his family safe and get out of the situation quietly. This makes a pivotal impression on James Jr., who is both appalled at the injustice of the situation and disappointed in his father for not standing up for what was his right. We see how the experience influences and reverberates in both father and son later in the film. With both James Jr. and Samantha, we come to see how much they've been sheltered by their parents from knowing exactly how brutal life could be for black people in Texas 1936, when they come face to face with the reality in a sudden harsh encounter. Their experiences, both of being somewhat sheltered and of having some harsh reality calls, ring true, I think, to explaining how these remarkable kids turned out to be the great people they would all three turn out to be.

Fairly early in the film, there is a scene where the professor is drilling the students on enunciation by making them answer a catechism while holding a radish in their teeth. The prophetic catechism (which makes a poignant reprise later in the film), goes like this:

Prof: "Who is the Judge?"
Students: "The judge is God."
Prof: "Why is He the judge?"
Students: "He decides who wins and loses; not my opponent."
Prof: "Who is your opponent?"
Students: "My opponent does not exist."
Prof: "Why does your opponent not exist?"
Students: "He is a mere dissenting voice to the truth I speak." *
It's a great message, and it's absolutely right. Nothing is so compelling as the truth. That message came back to me on Sunday when I was thinking, not about this movie, but about various people who have preached at our church, and about what made one sermon better than another. We have one young intern in particular, who has given a few sermons this past year, and she is dynamite. I remember her very first sermon, she had that congregation on the edge of its pews like nobody before her, there were moments you could have heard a pin drop. And there were other moments where our congregation -- which is NOT prone to doing this -- was spontaneously shouting out "amen!". Why was it so good? Because she spoke the truth -- the raw, unvarnished, vulnerable truth of her own experience. It doesn't get more powerful than that. Thinking about that, my mind flashed back on the movie, and that catechism, and the injunction "speak the truth". And that's exactly what those debaters did in 1936 when they beat Harvard.** And that's exactly what this movie did when it told this story.

* This is my memory of the quote. I've seen slightly different versions of it floating around the Internet, so I'm not sure which if any is authoritative. I don't think the one on IMDB is exactly right, as parts of it don't even make sense (a "dissenting voice of the truth I speak"??).

** Apparently, the Harvard part was a fictional embellishment. In the real life story, the historical debate was between Wiley College and University of Southern California. California leading the nation again, but then I suppose Harvard makes for better drama.

Catty gay postscript: In addition to being an impressive actor, Nate Parker is fine, easy on the eyes.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Awards Without Perspective

Tonight, as the Golden Globes are being announced (not awarded in a glitzy ceremony, due to the writers' strike, but just announced in a press conference), I'll take the occasion to register my perennial complaint about the short-sighted awards process. In the Golden Globes (which are usually a bit better than the Oscars), of all the many nominations for 2007, you can find few films that were released more than six weeks ago. Even though the awards are supposed to be for all 2007 films, in practice nothing counts before November. (They did manage to remember Hairspray, La Vie En Rose, and Across the Universe. But as I said, the Globes are usually a bit better about this. Oscar's memory won't go back to last summer.) This, of course, is just a manifestation of our society's short attention span problem. But the unhappy result of this is that movie studios all trip over each other to release their best movies in December, giving us a glut of movies at Christmastime, right when most of us are up to our ears in Christmas shopping, Christmas parties, getting together with family, not to mention year-end job pressures, and have little time to see any movies. Then there are other times of year that are real "droughts" when it comes to finding a movie to see. The various awarding bodies could do us all a favor, as well as up the quality of their awards, by delaying their decision process until later in the year. Just as it's impossible to judge the historic importance of any event right after it's happened, you also need some perspective gained with the passing of time in order to judge a truly great film. Many movies are very enjoyable, and you may be excited about them the next day or week. But give it the perspective of half a year or so, and then see which films you truly remember. (That's how I know "Once" was such a stand-out film. But where are the awards for that?) So, want to have some serious Oscars? Move the nominations back to July and make the awards in September for the prior year. Then a reprise of the award winners could help fill that film drought that usually happens in October.

Nomination Mess

Since this year's primary races are much more competitive and interesting than any I can remember, I've been paying a bit more attention to the process than I ever have, and I'm starting to wonder whether there will be a clear winner, or whether the whole process is headed for a train-wreck. For starters, we've got Michigan on Tuesday, who is holding a primary which may or may not count for anything, and in which Hillary Clinton's only significant competition is "uncommitted". Michigan, along with Florida, got in a pissing match with the Democratic National Committee about which states were allowed to have early primaries. Officially, it's only supposed to be Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. Michigan and Florida defied the national committee, and moved their primary dates up early anyway. The DNC announced that it was going to refuse to seat the delegations from those states (i.e., not count their votes). Obama and Edwards, deferring to the national committee, withdrew their names from the ballot. Clinton, however, did not, although she has pledged not to campaign in Michigan. Thus, it appears she is headed for a clear victory in Michigan, although there seems to be some grassroots efforts to encourage people to vote for "uncommitted", which is an option on the ballot. Uncommitted means that Michigan's delegates are free to make up their own mind on the spot at the convention. Also, Michigan has an open primary, so that frustrated Democrats can always cross over and vote the Republican primary. (And vice versa.) Of course, none of that will mean anything, if the DNC follows through on their threat and refuses to seat the Michigan delegates. But that's a big if. Many suspect that the DNC will buckle. If they do, that would give a bunch of not-really-earned votes to Clinton from a sizeable state. Then there's the "superdelegates". Only about 80% of the votes at the convention come from "pledged" delegates, who are pledged to vote according to their state election or caucus results. The other 20% come from "superdelegates", who comprise Democratic party leaders (e.g., Democratic governors, senators, and congressmembers). At least at the moment, the majority of those are breaking for Clinton. It seems to be a given among the beltway cognoscenti that Clinton is the choice of the Democratic party machine. Though given that the primary/caucus and convention process is supposed to be the decision-making process for the party, I'm not sure how the machine is supposed to have a "choice" in the primary process. But apparently they do. On the other hand, the superdelegates are "unpledged", which means that even though they may have given indications or promises as to how they will vote at the convention, they can ultimately change their minds at the convention. So it seems to me that if no single candidate has a lead greater than 20%, then we may not know until the convention in late August who the candidate is. That would be a first in my voting lifetime.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Looking Back on 2007 in Film

Looking back on 2007, it was a good year for us getting out to the movies (perhaps that was an unconscious resolution), as we saw nearly twenty films last year, more than double our average for previous years. One thing that stands out for 2007 is that it was the year of the musical. We had two new blockbuster musicals -- the rollicking film version of the Broadway musical Hairspray, which despite being an adaptation of an adaptation was fresh and rocked, and the very original new Disney musical Enchanted, which was totally enchanting. (We haven't yet seen Sweeney Todd, another Broadway musical brought to screen.) And 2007 also brought us a couple of movies that, while not musicals per se, were about making music and which featured music. Early in the year we had the cute but not particularly memorable Music and Lyrics (starring Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore), which was the big studio take on the theme. It was totally, well, pwned, by the small indie hit of the summer, Once, which really showed how to do it right. It's been six months since we saw Once, but the music, the characters, the very fresh and real story are still vivid in my mind. It was truly one of the standout films of the year.

Since the Golden Globes are cancelled (and possibly the Oscars too), and since I'm in a look-back-on-the-year mood, I thought I'd make some of my own awards. Since it was the Year of the Musical, we'll start on that note and go from there:

  • Most made me tap my feet and want to jump up and dance: Hairspray
  • Most made me want to buy the soundtrack: Once (I also bought Hairspray, and may buy a few tunes from Enchanted and Juno)
  • Most made me laugh out loud: Death At A Funeral, with Enchanted a close second, and honorable mention for Stardust and Outsourced.
  • Most made me cry: Once, with The Namesake a close second.
  • Most made me think: The Bubble
  • Most entertaining story: Stardust, Enchanted, Juno
  • Most made me want to hop on a plane: Outsourced
  • Most visually beautiful film: After The Wedding (Susanne Bier is Bergmanesque in her filmmaking), Outsourced (a visual valentine to India, though not in the same league as Water), Love In The Time of Cholera (Mike Newell's filming of the decaying Spanish colonial splendor of Cartagena helped bring Garcia-Marquez's magical realism to the screen), Atonement (a classic English manor house, vivid wartime France scenes, and Sioarse Ronan's eyes)
  • Strongest sensibility: After The Wedding (intensely psychological visual expressionism), Hairspray (Adam Shankman's kitschy Baltimore 1960 tone is pitch-perfect), Juno (quirky perky and totally coherent marriage of nostalgic values and hip young attitude), Atonement (Joe Wright makes us feel the space inside Briony's head)

In fairness, it should be noted that we didn't get to nearly every film we'd liked to have seen. Notable films we missed include La Vie En Rose, Lust/Caution, Lars and the Real Girl, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and Into Great Silence. Films we may yet catch from the year-end rush-and-tumble of releases: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The Kite Runner, Sweeney Todd, The Golden Compass.

We look forward to see what 2008 brings.

Monday, January 07, 2008

New Years Resolutions

Even though, with one or two notable exceptions, I can't recall making New Years resolutions that have stuck, I nonetheless make resolutions every year. Hope springs eternal. If nothing else, it's a good excuse to pause on life's path, take stock of where you are, where you'd like to be, and what changes you'd like to make. That being said, here are my resolutions for 2008, most of which are retreads from last year(s).

  1. Fit some volunteer work back into my life. This one should actually happen this year. Several years ago, I spent a couple hours each week in a great program called Wonder of Reading, that provides one-on-one tutoring for elementary school children. It was a great experience, but after my first year, my job situation changed, and I didn't continue. It's been in the back of my mind to get back to that for a while now, and at the end of last year, an email came across our Echo Park neighborhood mailing list that the local branch of the LA Public Library was looking for tutors for their adult literacy program. I thought, that's my cue. So I responded, spent a Saturday before Christmas taking their training, and now am just waiting to be matched up with a student. I'm looking forward to it. I like the idea of making a meaningful contribution to my local community, in a form where I can be effective with just a few hours a week.

  2. Sit up straight. This one's been nearly a lifelong struggle. I have a great personal trainer who helps me out, but I need to do more on my own. It's a constant struggle against what I call "computer back". Somehow the screen has a magnetism that draws my head forward inexorably until I'm totally hunched over. I must learn to resist. I think this cartoon pretty much says it all:

  3. Exercise. This one dovetails with the previous. I'm been going for walks nearly daily, but I some days I let myself get too absorbed in work. I need to be more dedicated about getting out at least once and preferably twice a day. (In addition to the exercise, it's good to break up the day from sitting too long at a stretch in front of the screen.) And daily ab exercises and stretching would be awesome. I can dream, can't I? (Yes, I can dream. But can I actually exercise daily? Let's see…)

  4. Entertain a bit more. Last year, we had friends over for dinner once in a while, but not very often. And it's been over a year since we've had a party at our place. It's not hard to have one or two friends over for a weeknight dinner, a couple times a month. And we should have a few barbecues or something this summer.
In sum, not much new from last year, except that I've written them down. (Oops. I just looked at my blog history, and I see that I did publish my resolutions two years ago. They included exercise and entertaining. Sigh...

Saturday, January 05, 2008

FILM: Juno

George and I saw Juno this evening after several friends had recommended it. What a fun charming quirky jaunty movie! It had such an amazing sensibility to it, a combination of teen-outcast-rebel attitude and genuine innocence embodied in the character of Juno, a teenage girl who's both wise-cracking and wise beyond her years (sometimes). Imagine how Claire Fisher (the sarcastic and perenially pessimistic teen daughter on Six Feet Under) might have turned out if she had a sunnier disposition and grew up in a functional family, and that's Juno. I was a bit surprised to see that the writer (Diablo Cody) and director (Jason Reitman) of this film were not the same person, because it is infused with such a consistent sensibility and vision carrying through the witty contemporary teen dialog, the realization of the characters, the soundtrack, everything. This is a film about a pregnant high-school teen, and this core disfunctionality is surrounded by other peripheral disfunctionality (divorced parents, couples breaking up), and yet it is somehow firmly grounded in functionality, and a nostalgic innocence reminiscent of The Wonder Years. Juno messed up getting knocked up, but she's basically got her head on straight and her feet firmly on the ground, and she ends up doing the right thing in her own unconventional way. Part of the alchemy of the film was its sense of timelessness -- it was obviously contemporary in its language, music, and costume, and yet there was something about the neighborhood and the families that had a bygone "Wonder Years" feel to it (subtly reinforced with occasional pieces of kitsch -- like the football team in training running through various scenes, or the hamburger phone. I mean really, who has a hamburger phone?).

Actress Ellen Page gives Juno a winningly persuasive performance of a teenager who thinks she knows it all at the same time as she knows that she doesn't. (Much as I loved Amy Adams in Enchanted and Nikki Blonsky in Hairspray, I think Ellen Page has my vote for best actress in a comedy/musical.) Michael Cera more or less reprises his character from SuperBad, although he's gone to the Hugh Grant school of acting, so he's a bit more deer-in-the-headlights stammering, kinda dorky, but kinda cute and vulnerable. It works for Hugh Grant though, and here it works well for Michael Cera's American teenage version of it. Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner are both strong as the apparently-perfect yuppie couple, her determined but apprehensive about becoming a mother, and him stifled in his dreams of being a music star instead of composing jingles for TV commercials. J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney give life and fun as Juno's father and step-mother.

It was interesting seeing this film after seeing Atonement. Both of them are very subjective films, although with Atonement the subjectivity is an integral part of the plot, while with Juno it's an integral part of the sensibility. Juno's views of her parents and her peers makes you laugh, but it has an underlying sophistication that sneaks up on you. It wasn't until late in the film that it really dawned on me how much we'd been seeing the other characters as colored by Juno's perceptions. That comes into focus late in the film when she has a loss-of-innocence moment, forcing her to find her way back to her core values (or forward to her self-discovery). The film has funny moments, poignant moments, and is ultimately reaffirming that even amidst the crazy disfunctionality of contemporary social life we can still hold on to the values we grew up with, but in our own way.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Obama! Our Time Is Now

If I may indulge in some "l33t speak", in reax to Obama's clear victory and Hillary's third place finish in Iowa tonight, let me just say: w00t! Obama pwned her. (I had never heard of "w00t" until the other week when it was named the "word of the year" by Merriam-Webster. Since then, my 14-year-old godson has been filling me in.) But back to plain English… I am thrilled that Americans in the heartland seem to be as tired of the old politics as I am. Between Obama's 38% and Edwards' 30% (plus a few scraps for Richards and Biden), Iowa Dems rejected the "foregone conclusion" by over 70%. And over on the "red" side, though Huckabee triumphed, independent-minded GOP'ers accounted for 23% (McCain 13% and Ron Paul 10%). Note that that's 23% of GOP voters who would be quite likely to go for Obama over Huckabee if it came to that in November. Aside from the puerile and baseless Muslim smears, Republicans really have little to say against Obama. His negatives are the lowest of any in the blue field. But more importantly, Obama stands for a way forward, or upward, as the name of my blog suggests is the way beyond the stale left vs. right false dichotomy. I don't necessarily agree with every policy proposal of his, but I absolutely believe in what he stands for. Here is a man who will tell us straight what we need to hear, not what he thinks we want to hear. Here is a man who's not afraid to say that Social Security is broken, and who can face the teacher's union and talk about merit pay. Here is a man who is not afraid to work "across the aisle" to get things done that he believes in. Here is a man who just might be able to restore America's damaged credibility in the eyes of the world. Here is a man with a healthy measure both of idealism and pragmatism, who can inspire and who just might get some things done. This may be the first time in my life that I vote for a presidential candidate out of affirmation, rather than picking the lesser of two evils. That click you just heard was the sound of me sending a donation to the Obama campaign (also a first for me). Here is the face of hope:

(Obama's speech in Des Moines, December 27. Text here.)

Thursday, January 03, 2008

FILM: Atonement

On New Years Day, we met some friends and caught Atonement, which was highly heralded by a sweep of Golden Globe nominations. I think the film almost completely lived up to my heightened expectations. There were some great performances from Keira Knightley and James McAvoy in the lead romantic roles, and a knock-out performance by 13-year-old actress Saoirse Ronan, who plays Briony Tallis, the young girl who sees something she doesn't understand, and sets events in motion that change the other characters' lives irrevocably. She has the most intense eyes, which director Joe Wright took great advantage of. Wonderful performances too from all of the other actors, including Romola Garai as 18-year old Briony, and Vanessa Redgrave as the older Briony.

The story, taken from the book of the same name by Ian McEwan (I haven't read it, but heard it's great), is a novel and intriguing story, both in its plot and in the creative way that it is unfolded. I'm not sure how it went in the book, but Christopher Hampton's screen adaptation does some wonderfully clever plays on subjectivity and viewpoint, showing us a scene through one character's eyes, and then revisiting, Rashomon style, the same scene through another character's eyes. Sometimes it is signaled by a visual link, such as a dropped earring, while other times it is intentionally unmarked, so that you only realize partway through that the timeline has folded on itself. The scenery is as lush as you would expect for an epic of this scale, with the first part of the movie shot on a sumptuous Victorian manor estate (actually, an old pile semi-restored from harder times that this film is probably helping to save), and the latter part with vivid depictions of Normandie, London, and Dover during World War II. Many of the images are the sort of beauty that stay in mind long after the film: close-ups on Saiorse Ronan's face and eyes, soldiers walking through a French apple orchard and later finding the beach, both Keira Knightley and James McAvoy diving into the water at various times. The music by Dario Marianelli is pitch-perfect for the tone of the film, and brilliantly incorporates the sound of an old Corona typewriter throughout (as well as piano performances by the masterful impressionist interpreter Jean-Yves Thibaudet). And there's a very effective use of utter silence as "score" in Vanessa Redgrave's scene as the older Briony, where the absence of music and sound creates an intense vacuum, signifying the emotional weight of Briony's guilt. (The technique is unusual, but can be used to great effect -- Bob Fosse's All That Jazz comes to mind.)

One thing I didn't expect, and that ever-so-slightly disappointed me, was that I found the film a bit cold and detached. Everyone was talking about having tissue handy, and I cry at the slightest provocation, yet this film did not make me cry. (Okay, my eyes moistened a few times, but the tears never flowed.) In retrospect, I think the fault was mine rather than the film's, in that I was just expecting it to be something other than it was. The romance between Cecilia (Knightley) and Robbie (McAvoy) was never really explained, but then that wasn't really the point. It wasn't about them, so much as it was about Briony. The title of the film is not "Love In Wartime", it's "Atonement", and that should have been a big clue to me. That's not to say that there aren't some very poignant scenes of the lovers, separated by events including the war. But the director made a choice not to cue up the violins and make any gushy scenes, instead keeping a taut psychological tone throughout, building the pressure for the ultimate need for atonement. Appreciated for what it was meant to be, rather than what I expected, it was a brilliant film.