Politics / Economics

A recent interview with the always illuminating Noam Chomsky:

“President Obama just had a press conference, which was quite interesting in that respect. He praised the parabolic peace initiative, the Saudi initiative endorsed by the Arab League, and said it had constructive elements. It called for the normalization of relation with Israel, and he called on the Arab states to proceed with those “constructive elements,” namely the normalization of relations.
But that is a gross falsification of the Arab League initiative. The Arab League initiative called for accepting a two-state settlement on the international border, which has been a long-standing international consensus and said if that can be achieved then Arab states can normalize relations with Israel. Obama skipped the first part, the crucial part, the core of the resolution, because that imposes an obligation on the United States. The United States has stood alone for over thirty years in blocking this international consensus. By now it has totally isolated the US and Israel.

Europe and now a lot of other countries have accepted it. Hamas has accepted it for years, the Palestinian Authority of course, [also]; the Arab League now for many years [has accepted it]. The US and Israel block it, not just in words, but in actions constantly.”


“What happened in Iraq is extremely interesting and important. The few correspondents with real experience and who know something have understood it. Patrick Cockburn, Jonathan Steele and one or two others. What has happened is that there was a remarkable campaign of non-violent resistance in Iraq, which compelled the United States, step-by-step, to back away from its programs and its goals. They compelled the US occupying forces to allow an election, which the US did not want and tried to evade in all sorts of ways. Then they went on from there to force the United States to accept at least formally a status of forces agreement which, if the Obama administration lives up to it, will abandon most of the US war aims. It will eliminate the huge permanent military bases that the US has built in Iraq. It will mean the US will not control decisions over how the oil resources will be accessed and used. And in fact just every war aim is gone.”


“An overwhelming majority of the American population for years has been in favor, has agreed with the Non-Aligned Movement, that Iran should have the rights granted to the signers of the non-proliferation treaty, in fact to develop nuclear energy. It should not have the right to develop nuclear weapons, and more interestingly about the same percentages, about 75 to 80 per cent, call for the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the region, which would include Iran, Israel, and any US forces deployment there, within all kinds of verifications and so on.

That could eliminate probably one of the major sources of the conflict. There is no indication that the Obama administration has any thought of doing anything about this.”


“It is striking that the ways that Western countries are approaching the crisis [entirely contradict] the model that they enforce on the Third World when there is a crisis. So when Indonesia has a crisis, [or] Argentina and everyone else, they are supposed to raise interest rates very high and privatize the economy, and cut down on public spending, measures like that. In the West, it is the exact opposite: lower interest rates to zero, move towards nationalization if necessary, pour money into the economy, have huge debts. That is exactly the opposite of how the Third World is supposed to pay off its debts. That this seems to pass without comment is remarkable.”



I love this story…

The Covenant High School girls basketball team, on January 13th, beat Dallas Academy 100-0. A few days later, Covenant officials apologized, and offered to forfeit the game. Covenant’s coach, Micah Grimes, didn’t like this, and issued a statement:

“I respectfully disagree with the apology, especially the notion that the Covenant School girls basketball team should feel ’embarrassed’ or ‘ashamed,’ ” part of the post says. “We played the game as it was meant to be played and would not intentionally run up the score on any opponent. Although a wide-margin victory is never evidence of compassion, my girls played with honor and integrity and showed respect to Dallas Academy.”

He was, of course, fired.

Follow the thickening plot…


Movies – Sunshine

I’m gonna wait another week or so before I make the Oscars Movie pilgrimage. I need to see Wrestler, Rev Road, Reader and Frost/Nixon. As much as I like Fincher, Ben Button isn’t really tugging on my shirtsleeve.

But, of course, also on the list is Slumdog Millionaire. The larger fact, of course, is that Danny Boyle is simply one of the smartest mainstream filmmakers working today. Doesn’t it seem like he’s been around for years and years? ‘Shallow Grave’, ‘Trainspotting’, ‘A Life Less Ordinary’, ‘The Beach’, ’28 Days Later’, ‘Millions’, then ‘Sunshine’, then ‘Slumdog’. That’s it. Eight films. Lots of other TV work in England, some charming short films, but full-length, wide release? Eight. And 3 and 4 were generally considered failures. Are the others really that good? And my short answer is, in their way, Yes. Even 4 is at least an admirable failure – 3’s just a mess. And you don’t have to search much to find ardent ‘Beach’-loathers.

But this isn’t the Danny Boyle Project (the Russ conclusion is imminent!). Suffice to say you won’t find many more genuinely entertaining films to rent than ‘Millions’, and you could do much worse for science fiction than the intriguing and involving Sunshine.

The sun, in the near future, is dying, and the effects on the Earth are easy to imagine. The Icarus II has been sent to detonate a gigantic stellar bomb on the sun’s surface, essentially using the star to create a new star. Boyle doesn’t waste any time on How Bad Things Are For Everyone On Earth. The film starts on the immensely cool ship and stays on the immensely cool ship – the mission and its crew. In that order. Which raises some interesting plot issues, but also sets some nice conceptual boundaries for the filmmakers. Space and The Sun, and the immense scale thereof, are the primary subjects. The light, the heat, the dark, the cold, the silence – all of these specifics wind their ways into the look, feel and story in two or three different places each. And most of the time space feels like a positive place to be if you’re smart about it. Being in space is amazing. And The Mission is crucial. If they don’t do this, everybody dies. There’s no debate. Everything else is expendable – a reality acknowledged by the whole crew, but theory, of course, has an annoying way of turning to practice.

The people, while fully characterized and convincingly portrayed by really good actors, are nonetheless Boyle’s secondary consideration. This isn’t to say he squanders them, or takes them for granted, or can’t be bothered with them. It’s just that I think he decided early on that another crew of astronauts, military officers and scientists on a ship in space for years and years just didn’t require a ton of origin-story exposition or heart-tugging subplots, Again. No ‘Ever since I was a kid I dreamt…’ or ‘This one mission I was on this portentous thing happened…’ or ‘When this thing is over I’m gonna…’. They’re just pretty normal people with professional jobs. Boyle’s thorough in establishing, with his actors, the basics of who they are, what they do and where their individual strengths and weaknesses lie. And then he lets us fill in the rest across the threads of the story, keeping us in the present moment and giving us credit instead of spoonfeeding our highs and lows to us. (Curtis Hanson is another director who’s very generous about this – ‘L.A. Confidential’, ‘8-Mile’, ‘Wonder Boys’, ‘In Her Shoes’).

It’s not that anything that can go wrong will. What happens here is a series of well-intentioned decisions, initially based on seemingly good news (they find Icarus I, lost on the same mission ten years ago, intact), that start to distract our intrepids from The Thing Itself. If we just shift a little bit… whoops, that was bad, but Hey, we’re at ninety percent. Now we’ll just make it better – Hey, what happened there? Are you kidding? Oh,man… Each problem is solved ingeniously, but always at a cost. Each setback makes each crew member a little more survivalist, or supportive, or single-minded.

And then Boyle (and writer Alex Garland) throw us a curve, and introduce an outside element of sorts. The circumstances up until now have been so insular that it’s hard not to feel like this is a distraction, or a gimmick. For me, it fit, but I imagine not everyone will agree.

I found ‘Sunshine’ to be interesting and entertaining, as much for what it didn’t bother with as for what it did smartly. But I must admit, originality is not a hallmark here. I wasn’t bored with the familiar elements because they always led to fresher ideas and events. But it’s easy to point at that ‘Outland’ image here, that ‘Solaris’ feel in these scenes, those ‘Event Horizon’ plot points there. Here’s Kubrick, here’s Ridley Scott, here’s Doug Trumbull. It’s also pretty easy to pick apart after the fact – for instance, why go to Icarus I at all? Icarus II is good to go, tested and checked out. And how did that outside element get in in the first place? And appear in so many places with impunity? But Boyle and Garland have structured it so well that these are grist for the beer-after-the-movie conversations rather than distractions from within.

I should also express my delight that Chris Evans is really good here. I only knew him for his thankless and insufferable turns as Johnny Storm in the ‘Fantastic Four’ movies. Don’t be fooled by those travesties – the kid can act after all. Also good – the spectral Cillian Murphy, the dishy yet earthy Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh cast delightfully against type, and an unrecognizable Mark Strong as the aforementioned outside element. Strong almost single-handedly walked off with ‘Body Of Lies’, and if this guy’s workload stays consistent, he’ll be Oscar-bait in no time. Oddly enough, he was also in Istvan Szabo’s film ‘Sunshine’ in 1999 – an entirely different film with The Same Name! (It’s excellent as well.)

But I digress. I hereby declare ‘Sunshine’ to be a good time at the movies. It seems easy to pass on, but you’ll be glad you didn’t. Recommended.

Movies – Shakes The Clown

A neglected little comedy gem from 1991, Shakes The Clown does a lot of things very well in its modest package. There are lots of easy and dark laffs to be had here – the cultural targets are pretty easy marks – but the film’s creators found a nice balance between transgressive humor and sympathetic characterization.

Palukaville, USA is like any town in America, I suppose, if you allow for the fact that a great deal of its population is Clowns. Party clowns. Rodeo Clowns. Mimes. Clowns beating up Mimes. All costumed, all in make-up, with the locals grousing about what things were like Before The Clowns. They don’t run the gas stations, they aren’t the parents who throw the parties, there are no cop clowns (oddly enough), but when any of those people need a clown, for a party, or on TV, there are plenty to go around.

When not doing magic tricks or piling up inside of cars, the clowns of Palukaville like to chill out over a few cold beers and pizza at their favorite hangout, The Twisted Balloon. The big news there is the retirement (forced or voluntary?) of Uncle Peppy, the host of the local TV cartoon show. Longtime veteran Shakes (Bobcat Goldthwait) is the clown everyone is leaning towards replacing him – he’s a great guy, and well liked in spite of the fact that he’s an alcoholic – but Horror of Horrors, the producers have selected Binky (Tom Kenny), an arrogant and unfunny show-biz manipulator. Shakes hasn’t heard yet – he was detained by Florence Henderson in a hilariously disarming opening scene that hits all the one-night-stand Hollywood cliches while presenting a perfect little capsule of why Shakes is loveable, and why Shakes is a loser.

Because, in spite of his alcoholism, he’s a really great clown. The kid’s party he entertains at (he’s late and hung over, of course) is genuinely fun and successful Thanks To Shakes. The kids love him. After the party, he makes his usual stop at the Twisted Balloon, where he not only hears that he didn’t land the TV gig (Binky? BINKY??!!), but also receives a dressing down from his girlfriend Julie (Julie Brown) for not supporting her aspirations to become a professional bowler. His best pals Stenchy and Dink (Blake Clark and a very young Adam Sandler) are always supportive, but have resolved to try to get Shakes to stop drinking. He’s always late, always letting his friends down, and obviously on the bad side of his manager, mentor and father figure Owen Cheese (Paul Dooley) – “I’ll fire you so fast you’ll be out of work immediately!”

Binky, of course, has a little coke habit, like all the playazz, and has found a semi-reliable connection with a couple of rodeo clowns. Unfortunately, Owen Cheese walks in on Binky and his party and threatens to squeal. With the hapless Shakes passed out on the couch, Binky grabs Shakes’ juggling pin and kills Cheese in a rage. He then recruits the rodeo clowns, and his own two dim-witted henchmen, to help him frame Shakes for Cheese’s murder.

Hilarity ensues, of course. In fact, things have been funny, or at least pleasantly entertaining, all along. And, these days, it’s easy to take that for granted.There aren’t long stretches of treading water between the momentarily hilarious showpieces like Ferrell, Sandler or Mike Myer’s films. It isn’t relentlessly never-let-you-off-the-black-humor-hook like ‘Bad Santa’. It doesn’t set up 90 minutes of transgressive humor for a pull-the-rug-out lecture on Responsibility, Family, True Love and Adulthood. It just tells a familiar story, in a genuinely original context, about people we either like and identify with, or people we don’t like and Boo and Hiss. Goldthwait knew that if he maintained a likable, identifiable context for everything, then he could pick his spots for the burping and farting and vomiting and drunken screaming, and those would never become What The Movie Was About. Even most of the way through the film, goof after goof after goof, we’re still genuinely frightened for Binky’s hostage Julie – clown makeup is smeared over the duct tape keeping her quiet, and Tom Kenny really turns up the malevolence under Binky’s show-biz facade, despite the old-as-the-hills knife-thrower cliche. Goldthwait never squanders his audiences’ goodwill, but never lets up on What Can I Do To Make You Laugh?

It’s nice to see that this directing debut has led to reasonably steady gigs. As a director, he’s done numerous episodes of ‘The Man Show’, ‘Chapelle’s Show’, ‘Jimmy Kimmel’ and a couple of other features. His IMDB resume reveals a steady, veteran working joe.

It’s also fun to spot the cameos and before-they-were-famous types riddled throughout the film. Florence Henderson is memorably easy to spot, but less conspicuous are Sandler, Kathy Griffin, Robin Williams (less conspicuous then, maybe), character actors Dooley and Sidney Lassick – and is that really an uncredited Milton Berle at the end of the bar with LaWanda Page? And Tom Kenny, it seems, is most famous as the voice of Spongebob Squarepants.

Very funny, very refreshing. Recommended.

Movies – Oscar crap

Everyone bitches about Oscar omissions, but Dustin Rowles has boiled it down to the ‘right on’ basics:

“But Let the Right One In was not only the best foreign language film of the year, but was easily better than all five of the Best Picture nominations. This is a true goddamn travesty, and it also means that the movie will probably be ignored even more by mainstream audiences, so that the Drew Goddard remake in development will be the only version most folks will ultimately be familiar with. And that’s a real goddamn shame because Let the Right One In was one of the most haunting romances I’ve ever seen.”


Allegedly, Sweden chose another film for consideration, just like France only put up ‘The Class’ instead of ‘Tell No One’ (zzzzzzzzz…). The rules are kinda stupid – countries should be able to submit whichever number of films they think are that good.

My only other pseudo issue is that ‘Rev Road’ got less action than ‘The Reader’; I haven’t seen either myself, so I’m talking out of my butt, but Sam Mendes aspired to a lot more than Stephen Daldry – somebody was gonna do the Oprah book, but Rev Road was a hard sell, and all indications are they nailed it. ‘The Hours’ was a mish-mash – some good performances – Nicole Kidman was in it, too – but not exactly auteurist. Daldry has landed ‘Kavalier and Clay’ as well…hmmmmm. I’m sure ‘The Reader’ has more going for it than This Year’s Noble Holocaust Film, but the Rev Road snubs are pretty discouraging.