Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Fox News' Progressive Attitudes on Race

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

If there's anything Fox News loves more than liberals, it's black liberals, not to mention African-Americans in general. The same goes for gays, Muslims, and all God's Children™. Overall, the Fox News crew are a credit to their... profession.

Nicole Belle at Crooks and Liars posted on some news from New York Times blog The Caucus on 3/29/07:

Fox News Channel is announcing today that it has cut a deal with the Congressional Black Caucus Institute to sponsor two debates, one with Democrats and another with Republicans in the 2008 presidential race.

As many of you might remember, Nevada Democrats and Majority Senate Leader Harry Reid were slammed by liberal blogs for agreeing to a Democratic debate with Fox News a few weeks ago, and backed out of the deal under pressure. Liberal activists complained that Fox News was slanted toward Republicans, would distort the debate, and should be shunned. The breakpoint occurred when Roger Ailes, head of Fox News, in a joke at an an awards dinner, poked fun at President Bush for confusing Senator Barack Obama with Osama bin Laden. (Mr. Obama later said he didn’t take offense, but many in the blogosphere did.)

As Crooks and Liars notes, the group Color for Change is not happy with this development, and has issued a statement:

"The CBC Institute's decision is shamefully out of step with most Black voters, and we will continue to push on the CBC Institute to drop this deal." Rucker goes on to say, "Every presidential candidate now must decide whether to legitimize Fox - a network that calls Black churches a cult, implies that Senator Barack Obama is a terrorist, and uses the solemn occasion of Coretta Scott King's funeral to call Black leaders ‘racist.' We will be launching a petition at www.ColorofChange.org asking presidential candidates to attend the CBC Institute's CNN debate and reject the Fox debate."

Here's that petiton.

Blue Herald covered several of these developments previously (Here's the BH Fox News category). Predictably, the Republican pundits accused the Democrats of being cowards. But, as we noted in Rightwing Cartoon Watch #16:

Yeah, we all know how John McCain and George W. Bush have lined up to be interviewed by The Nation, Air America, and Keith Olbermann on Countdown.

In "Playing to the Freepers," Digby examines the crackerjack coverage Fox News provided for a 2003 Democrat debate. In "Legitimate Beef," Digby did a nice summing up and linked many of the best pieces on the defeat of the debate proposal, including this piece by Matt Stoller:

We argued that Fox News is not a news channel, but a propaganda outlet that regularly distorts, spins, and falsifies information. Second, Fox News is heavily influenced or even controlled by the Republican Party itself. As such, we believe that Fox News on the whole functions as a surrogate operation for the GOP. Treating Fox as a legitimate news channel extends the Republican Party’s ability to swift-boat and discredit our candidates. In other words, Fox News is a direct pipeline of misinformation from the GOP leadership into the traditional press.

Thankfully, Fox News immediately proved our point with a press release after the debate cancellation that made the following remarkable claim: "News organizations will want to think twice before getting involved in the Nevada Democratic caucus which appears to be controlled by radical, fringe, out-of-state interest groups, not the Nevada Democratic Party."

We luv you guys, too. Good riddance.

In case you missed it, Jurassic Pork assembled a great collection of Fox News screenshots, showing their fantastic, unbiased reporting (previously featured in The Bullshit Matrix).

Still, there's a special love for African-Americans over at Fox News. Thanks to Jesus' General for the tip — here's "Fox Attacks — Black America":

Fox Attacks is maintained by Robert Greenwald, who made the invaluable documentary Outfoxed.

Yup, fair, balanced, enlightened, and progressive on racial attitudes, that Fox News! Of course, what can one expect from people who blithely reveal their homophobia while running with a manufactured scandal on Hillary Clinton's accent? (A scandal further debunked in RWCW #16.) Why not question why no major Republican presidential candidates or politicians saw fit to celebrate the civil rights movement, as did Obama and Hillary Clinton?

As Fox Attacks shows, it's not as if bigotry and bias on Fox News comes down to one isolated incident. Then there's how they handled Bill Bennett's controversial comments back in Fall 2005 (covered here and here). You can always count on Brit Hume to thunder and bully his way about racial issues, because, as we've noted several times before, remember, the problem is not racism, it’s the damn left making a big deal out of it. Or as we also noted, in regards to Hume and Bennett:

I have to say, nothing eases my mind more than a rich, middle-aged white man assuring me that the comments of another rich, middle-aged white man were not in fact racist. Pass another wine cooler and the clam dip.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

On Faith and PostGlobal

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

The Washington Post and Newsweek have been running debate and discussion sites for several months now.

Running since November 2006, On Faith is "an interactive conversation on religion moderated by Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn of The Washington Post."


• Interfaith Issues
• Morality
• Personal Religion
• Religion and Leadership
• Religion and Politics
• Religious Conflict
• Spirituality
• Theology

Running since June 2006, PostGlobal is "an interactive conversation on global issues moderated by Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria and David Ignatius of The Washington Post."


• America's Role
• Business and Technology
• Culture and Society
• Environment
• Human Rights
• Iran
• Iraq
• Islamic Movements
• Israel-Palestine
• Reader Views
• Rule of Law
• Security and Terrorism
• The Global Economy
• The New Asia

The sites still need work. They both badly need some sort of search function. Still, the aim of both sites is admirable, and reader response and participation are heavily encouraged. It's nice to see a place where religion can be discussed from a variety of perspectives, and it's valuable to read about some of the trouble spots in the world from multiple viewpoints.

Update: David Waters, the publisher for the On Faith site, reports that website should be receiving an upgrade in the next few months, which should include adding a search function. He adds: "By the way, many of our non-panel pieces can be found on the Guest Voices Archives link on the main page. Links are at the bottom."

The Case for Writing More Accurately About Religion in America

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

(Click for a larger image.)

A recent "Holy Crap" installment of Mike's Blog Round-Up links the Time magazine cover story, "The Case for Teaching The Bible," by their senior religion writer, David van Biema. (The cover, as you can see above, says "Why We Should Teach the Bible in Public School (But very, very carefully).")

To expand on my comments in the post thread, the article was actually better than I expected, but reminded me of why I cancelled my subscription to Time as a teenager (heading to college) after trying it for a year. I remember a piece on religion they did back then that simply assumed that a decline in church attendance was a bad thing, that outward displays of religiosity actually meant those people were spiritual, and that morality could not exist separate from religion. In another piece, it was an unchallenged given that getting a tattoo was scandalous — that was in fact the article's entire point. A film review condescendingly derided the 'cesspool that is the teenage mind' (not a great way of winning over a teenager reader, and surely written by a out-of-touch parent). If van Biema's Bible piece is representative, sadly not that much has changed. Time does occasionally feature some good articles, but as a rule it's shallow and frankly, bourgeois. The perceived social norm and conventional wisdom are the guiding lights, not accuracy. False or misleading assumptions are deep-rooted and rarely examined. The point-of-view is relatively fixed and unreflective, with dismissive, inaccurate and imprecise characterizations the rule rather than the exception. (Hehe. I realize the Time rant belongs in its own post, with more detailed examples.)

Here's what David van Biema does well. He tries to be even-handed, and spends a great deal of time with teacher Jennifer Kendrick and her high school Bible literacy class. While most of the article is anecdotal, the main point of the piece is to show how the Bible can be taught in an educational, non-proselytizing manner. None of this is news to those in the teaching profession, but it may be useful to his readers.

Of course teaching the Bible is fine and legal in a public school, in an elective course or as part of a comparative religion course. (I wouldn't think that would be news, either.) Frankly, if you're an English major in college and don't have some basic knowledge of the Bible, you're going to be at a disadvantage. (I knew an English major in college who was advised to read the Bible by a professor, because her only knowledge of Genesis came from Paradise Lost!) A basic knowledge of mythology, particularly Greek, is also pretty important in most of the arts. However, courses involving the Bible need to be designed for non-Christians and in a way that does not entail proselytizing. Jennifer Kendrick really seems to do a fine job (but then, teachers almost always do a better job than the people so intent on telling them what and how to teach).

Sadly, van Biema also goes seriously off-track. He first quotes Stephen Prothero, "chair of the Boston University religion department" and author of a new book, Religious Literacy. Shortly thereafter, van Biema writes:

HERE IS ONE OF PROTHERO'S FAVORITE stories of Bible ignorance. In 1995 a federal appeals court upheld the overturn of a death sentence in a Colorado kidnap-rape-murder case because jurors had inappropriately brought in extraneous material--Bibles--for an unsanctioned discussion of the Exodus verse "an eye for eye, tooth for tooth ... whoever ... kills a man shall be put to death." The Christian group Focus on the Family complained, "It is a sad day when the Bible is banned from the jury room." Who's most at fault here? The jurors, who perhaps hadn't noticed that in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus rejects the eye-for-an-eye rule, word for word, in favor of turning the other cheek? The Focus spokesman, who may well have known of Jesus' repudiation of the old law but chose to ignore it? Or any liberal who didn't know enough to bring it up?

Van Biema then rattles off poll numbers about Americans and their professed love for, yet demonstrated ignorance of, the Bible. All that's fine, but his ability to breeze over this incident and completely miss the central point is astonishing, and frankly, troubling. Whatever its faults or merits, Time has a large readership and this is their cover story (in the United States).

Where to begin? First of all, van Biema should have written "any non-religious person who didn't know enough to bring it up." His use of "liberal" betrays a false assumption that liberals don't know the Bible! It also suggests, falsely, that all atheists are liberals, that atheists don't know the Bible, and that liberals are non-religious while conservative are. Sloppy, prejudicial, and typical of Time. "Know enough" also assumes that there's some moral, cultural or intellectual failing in not knowing the "turn the other cheek" phrase. (I actually agree most people should know Jesus said to "turn the other cheek" as part of their cultural literacy, but van Biema's assumptions are interesting.)

I agree that's it's very sad if a group of self-professed Christians, both the jurors and the Focus for the Family spokesman, aren't familiar with "turn the other cheek," and rather than turning to the Gospels, they're digging into Exodus. I have to wonder if the Focus spokesman is just taking a bloodthirsty stance, or raising a groundless stink about the Court being anti-religious for political effect.

However, the big, blatant issue is staring van Biema right in the face, and he even reports the crucial elements before traipsing right past them. America is not a theocracy. Jurors are supposed to render judgments based on the law, not a favorite religious text. What van Biema bemoans as a lack of knowledge of the Bible is actually a much more troubling lack of knowledge about our legal system, as well as a failure of civic duty. No juror should have to refute a religious argument with another one in any relation to a court of law!

Van Biema also ignores another glaring point. Even if the jurors knew the Bible passage in question, the appeal would still have succeeded. The grounds for appeal were not "They quoted Exodus, not Matthew!" It was that they violated the law, and I would presume, directions from the judge. Even assuming that the death penalty is preferable (and that's an awfully big assumption, and a whole other discussion) this kidnapper-rapist-murderer was spared the death penalty not because of ignorance of the Bible, but because some religious people decided to inject their religion into the legal process. Why is it that van Biema doesn't consider this central, dangerous issue for even a second?

This is precisely why I don't like Time as a general rule. Van Biema is trying to be a peacemaker, and that's fine, but boy, is he stuck in his own bourgeois sensibilities. Religion's role in our society is primarily a social issue or challenge. The legal issues are pretty much settled, and the existing laws are quite sensible. The educational issues are pretty much settled, and sensibly handled. I suspect van Biema is trying to make Christian folks comfortable that not everyone hates the Bible or something, and is trying to make the folks who value our society's laws about the separation of church and state (that includes many Christians) comfortable with the Bible being taught in public schools. That's a worthy cause, but you know what? I really don't care, if he can't be accurate and pertinent first, last and always. This isn't "let's chat about religion with Uncle Fluffy" time, after all. Van Biema is a reporter for one America's major newsweeklies, writing a cover story. America is not a theocracy. Nowhere does van Biema state that, or anything approaching that. To his credit, he does mention the Constitution, and case law, but presents the separation of church and state more as part of an ongoing legal and social dispute than as a defining characteristic of our nation's founding. If van Biema were more responsible, he would write something such as:

America is not a theocracy, was expressly founded not to be one, and the separation of church and state is inviolate. However, America is a predominantly Christian nation by demographics, and recent polls show that for all their professed love of the Bible, the majority of Americans are startlingly ignorant about its contents. Because the Bible has played such an important role in Western Civilization, some organizations have suggested an increased emphasis on teaching the Bible in a non-sectarian way in public schools. This raises pedagogical challenges — and strong emotions.

There. That wasn't so hard, was it?

Van Biema has decent ideas about guidelines for teaching the Bible, but then ends the piece by writing:

And, oh yes, there should be one faith test. Faith in our country. Sure, there will be bumps along the way. But in the end, what is required in teaching about the Bible in our public schools is patriotism: a belief that we live in a nation that understands the wisdom of its Constitution clearly enough to allow the most important book in its history to remain vibrantly accessible for everyone.

Who, exactly, is preventing "access" to the Bible? Anyone with an access to a library or the internet can read it. Many organizations offer free copies, and most hotels and motels have them. You can find fellows on street corners will give you one.

Digby recently considered the whole "Bible literacy" issue in the post What's Wrong With This Picture?

I agree that it's a little bit odd that the vast majority of people in a country that prides itself as the most religious in the world can't name the writers of the gospel, but really, whose fault is that? The last I heard, there were tens of thousands of churches in this country. Is it too much to ask that they be in charge of religious instruction? Isn't that their specialty?

I know that many of the conservative mega-churches spend most of their time instructing their parishioners on Republican politics and holding Christian rock extravaganzas so they don't have time for actual religious teaching. Understood. But maybe they could send their kids to the mainline and liberal churches once a month so they can get some actual Bible teachings. With all the pressure on public schools to find a way to teach biology that doesn't offend the Christian Right, they just don't have the resources to spend on special classes about Biblical references in pop songs and presidents 'n stuff.

I'm sure there are many churches that would be happy to accommodate those who want their kids (or themselves) to learn about religion.

Really, if the public schools are teaching kids how to read, write, perform mathematical equations and develop critical thinking skills, can't the churches do their part? Especially if religious folk are unhappy with the state of "Bible literacy" or what not.

For what it's worth, I certainly received plenty of Bible study in Sunday School as a kid, and also had an excellent, highly educational unit on comparative religion in the 6th grade (we studied the Five Pillars of Islam and the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism, and had to demonstrate knowledge of all five major world religions, along with some knowledge of a few smaller ones such as Taoism, Zen Buddhism and Shinto). I haven't seen anyone rail against a comparative religion unit (except perhaps the religious right!) or an elective on the Bible. Even Van Biema can't seem to find any "secularists" who do so (he cites some folks' "concerns," but does not cite a single instance of someone challenging such a curriculum).

Really, who is trying to deny anyone's "access" to the Bible? I suspect van Biema is a well-intentioned Christian trying to play peacemaker, but he completely ignores the glaring theocracy issue of the court incident he cites, and also declines to give any larger context for the American theocracy movement lead by religious authoritarian conservatives, no doubt to avoid "offending" someone. However, the context remains essential. As we explored in The Social Tolerance Charts and The Religion-in-Society Charts, it's important to remember that in American culture, members of the religious right are the aggressors, not the other way around. The religious right is not interested in better cultural literacy. They have the ability to pursue that, easily, if they want. They're interested in social control.

What rankles me is that this article touches on line-in-the-sand issues, but van Biema is either ignorant of the line or happy to ignore it. Why then does he deserve any trust? In this respect, I really can't view him much differently than the reporters who refused to ask the Bush administration tough questions in the run-up to war, or all the chattering idiots in the MSM who prefer gossipy (and often inaccurate) coverage over factual, accountability reporting. These avoidable failings hurt our national discourse.

You know what's even more important in America than knowledge of the Bible? Some basic knowledge of the United States Constitution.

Update 4/14/07: "Some religious people decided to inject their religion into the legal process" is imprecise on my part, although I would hope my meaning was clear in context. There's nothing wrong per se about bringing religion into a jury room. Of course a juror can say, I'm opposed to the death penalty, or I'm in favor of it, and I feel this way because of The Bible or some other holy text, just as someone can favor or oppose the death penalty for non-religious reasons. What's not cool in the jury room is saying, "We must execute this man because the Bible says so," or that he must be allowed to live or even be freed for similar reasons. The Bible may be the ultimate authority in an individual's life, but part of jury instruction is that jurors will render their decisions according to the law. There's a difference between one bringing one's religious beliefs into a jury room and bringing in a theocratic value system that (however well-intended) supplants our civil justice system. There's a frustrating lack of detail in van Biema's piece, but it's an anecdote versus the main focus of his article. I would imagine (or hope) Prothero's book offers more context, since I have many questions after van Biema's account.

The Conservative Brain Trust Takes On: Freedom of Religion!

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

HTML Mencken at Sadly, No! has a great post from 3/10/07 called "Gaywads Want to Persecute Religious People!" While his post is pithier and funnier than this one will be, its substance directly relates to The Chart Project, most specifically The Social Tolerance Charts and The Religion-in-Society Charts, so I felt compelled to take another look.

Again, I’d read the Sadly, No! post first. But here are the key points of a little discussion over at the Corner at the National Review Online.

In a 3/9/07 post, ”Can Religious Freedom Survive Gay Liberation?” David Frum argues that:

There is a widespread view that gay liberation is a movement toward greater freedom. Up to a point, that was true. That point, however, is now receding in the background. The movement for gay equality has rapidly evolved into movement to restrict personal freedoms, including freedoms of religion and conscience. The British example is not a special case. What is being done there today will be demanded here tomorrow.

Andrew Stuttaford, who HTML Mencken describes as “a libertarian and frequently an adult voice in contrast to the Corner’s playground cacaphony,” replies (also on 3/9/07):

Can Religious Freedom Survive Gay Liberation

That's the question David Frum asks over on his blog. Sure it can.

The more interesting question however is the extent to which religious belief should be privileged above all others. You can, quite legitimately, question the range and definition of anti-discrimination laws, but once a democracy has put those laws in place, I can think of no particular reason why some people should be exempted from that law, simply on the grounds of religion. To do so is to say that religious belief is somehow more deserving of special protection than other (perhaps no less deeply held) ideologies, an idea that, however well-intentioned, is irrational at best, dangerous at worse.

Stuttaford is being fairly polite, but he’s really stating the obvious here. Frum updates his original post to note Stuttaford’s “excellent point” then exclaims:

And of course he is right! When general laws are passed, they must apply to all.

That is precisely why the gay rights movement is inherently an illiberal one. When you decide to extend your nondiscrimination principles to behavior condemned by your society's majority religion, you are embarking on a course that will sooner or later require the state to police, control, and punish adherents of that religion.

That was (or should have been obvious) from the start. And it's the reason for the question posed in the title of this post - a question Andrew dismisses with uncharacteristic glibness.

Umm, at this point I’d be tempted to ask, okay, kids, who can spot the glaring logical fallacy Frum just made? (I'm reminded of a student engaged in an oral defense of a paper on a novel. When a central passage of the book that directly contradicted his thesis was politely pointed out to him, his response was, "Exactly, that proves my point!") But let’s continue.

As HTML Mencken astutely notes, Frum’s “reasoning here is identical to that which he used to justify the teaching of ‘intelligent design’. Participating in a 2005 phone survey of conservatives and their views on evolution, Frum stated:

Whether he personally believes in evolution: “I do believe in evolution.”

What he thinks of intelligent design: “If intelligent design means that evolution occurs under some divine guidance, I believe that.”

How evolution should be taught in public schools: “I don’t believe that anything that offends nine-tenths of the American public should be taught in public schools. … Christianity is the faith of nine-tenths of the American public. … I don’t believe that public schools should embark on teaching anything that offends Christian principle.”

Wow! If Frum were arguing that teachers should show a social sensitivity toward their students, realizing that there may be a few who might be upset by the idea of evolution (age and maturity being factors), I’d say he had a point. However, most teachers do show such sensitivity. (The “offensive” standard would also preclude the Socratic method of teaching, which depends at stages on making students uncomfortable.)

Frum is instead arguing that the majority rules. He's further arguing, at best, that the majority is entitled to ignore empirical truth, and at worst arguing that they determine empirical truth (shades of the faith-based community). It’s rather alarming that he argues in this direction, and can’t see the obvious problems with it. Science is not a matter of a vote. It’s about fact. A science curriculum is based on accuracy, to the best of the scientific community’s knowledge at that time, and centers on a process for determining accuracy. Frum further ignores that not all Christians are Biblical literalists who refuse to believe in evolution. Granted, this was a phone interview, perhaps Frum was merely pandering, but his is a profoundly stupid, dangerous argument. Logically, then, considering the Frum pieces we’ve sampled, if the majority are anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic, sexist or otherwise bigoted, that would be fine with David Frum. (Of course, Frum doesn’t want this. As Stuttaford pointed out already, Frum is essentially arguing for a ‘homophobia exemption’... and, apparently, a ‘creationism exemption.’)

Then the mighty Jonah Goldberg weighs in with ”Religious Freedom.” He first tries to advance a version of the “secular humanist” argument we’ve already covered, but after a few digressions, eventually states:

I should also note that our constitution actually gives very wide berth to religious freedom. So while your discussion with David Frum about England is an exception, when you write that "once a democracy has put those laws in place, I can think of no particular reason why some people should be exempted from that law," you run into the problem of the US Constitution which guarantees the free-exercise of religion in the Bill of Rights. And, as you surely know, the whole reason we have a bill of rights is to protect us from democratic laws which are unjust and illiberal despite being supported by the majority.

Yes, you read that right. Jonah Goldberg just invoked the Constitution, and protection for the minority from the tyranny of the majority (incidentally, the exact opposite of what Frum was arguing in relation to teaching evolution) — to justify discrimination. Huh?

Oh, but it gets better. Then Jack Fowler weighs in, writing:

Andrew Stuttaford writes earlier here (“Can Religious Freedom Survive Gay Liberation?”) that he …

can think of no particular reason why some people should be exempted from that law, simply on the grounds of religion. To do so is to say that religious belief is somehow more deserving of special protection than other (perhaps no less deeply held) ideologies, an idea that, however well-intentioned, is irrational at best, dangerous at worse.

Err, there is indeed a “particular reason,” sorry to mention it: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (it’s located in a thing called the Bill of Rights). Damn that “free exercise thereof” – now there’s a well-intentioned notion that, when you think about it, is irrational at best, and maybe even dangerous.

It’s really breathtaking. Fowler’s so completely, astoundingly wrong here, yet he’s so very smug. (Shades of Bill Kristol back in 2003 dismissively talking about there being no sectarian conflict between Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites.)

Not covered by HTML Mencken was Stuttaford’s response the next day (3/10/07):

Jonah, Jack, two quick points.

I wasn't looking to address the question as to whether such laws are right or wrong (on small-l libertarian grounds, I'm often fairly skeptical, at least about the reach and scope of many of them), but, rather, how they are drawn up. Laws should be imposed on all citizens equally, regardless of their religious affiliation. If you like, I'm generally in favor of 'religion-blind' legislation (there are some exceptions to this in a country with a state church, but you get my drift).

US/UK: Yes, I agree with you about the distinction between the US and the UK. I was, of course, writing about the UK.

As far as I could tell, the discussion ended there. I can only imagine Stuttaford was astounded by his cohorts’ arguments, and was trying to be polite. Still, “religion-blind” is a useful phrase.

I understand the basic, social interaction level of saying, “you’ve got your opinion, and I’ve got mine,” but not all ideas are created equal. Not all arguments are based on facts, let alone sound reasoning. I understand these are quick blog posts. But when Right Wing News announced 2006’s favorite columnists of right-of-center bloggers, Goldberg came in a strong fourth and David Frum was one of several pundits who tied at sixteenth. Plus, this is the National Review, for goodness’ sake. Supposedly, Goldberg and Frum are leading luminaries of the right, part of the conservative brain trust! How the hell can they not understand the fundamental issues here?

We covered the core relevant issues in The Social Tolerance Charts and The Religion-in-Society Charts. But let’s tackle the conservative brain trust’s misunderstandings graphically:

(Click for a larger image.)

Basic anti-discrimination laws and civil rights apply to everybody. That includes both homosexuals and homophobes. (Obviously there are anti gay marriage laws on the books in some states, some of which are being challenged. Frum's post began by discussing anti-discrimination laws in Britain. Regardless, certainly no one in America has seriously argued that gays can’t vote, or don’t possess First Amendment rights, for example.)

According to the First Amendment, which protects both freedom of speech and freedom of religion (with both the exercise and establishment clauses), David Frum is free to be a homophobe, a racist, a sexist, an Islamophobe and an anti-Semite. However, he is not similarly entitled to act on those beliefs in a manner that breaks the law. Let’s consider the most blatant counter-example to the conservative brain trust’s arguments:

(Click for a larger image.)

According to the logic of Frum, Goldberg and Fowler, if they were to join the Cult of Kali from the film Gunga Din, their religious belief in murdering others would make murder legal.

America is not a theocracy, and was expressly founded not to be one. Overall, America is legally a tolerant society, and was founded as one. A tolerant society allows for intolerant people with intolerant beliefs, but that is not the same thing as allowing intolerant people to act on all of those beliefs. Intolerant people cannot legally strip others of their civil rights, such as denying someone the right to vote based on their race, gender, religion or sexuality.

Since conservatives like hierarchies, let’s look at this another way as well:

(Click for a larger image.)

An individual belief is a far different matter than a legal and social system that allows for different beliefs. The two are not equivalent, and exist on different planes. Again, being a homophobe might carry a social penalty, but it’s not illegal. But believing that gays should be persecuted doesn't automatically make discriminatory or violent action legal (and it remains immoral). This really comes full circle to Frum's anti-evolution teaching argument of majority rule. Belief does not change reality. As we discussed in "The Social Tolerance Charts":

If we believe that society should benefit the majority of people, but also protect the rights of minorities (in any sense), there’s simply no question that a socially tolerant society is superior to an intolerant one. (Put another way, the American system of equality for all people is superior to an authoritarian hierarchy of superiority for a few.)

Authoritarian religious activists can argue that they want America to become a theocracy. Some have even attempted historical revisionism, claiming America was founded as a theocracy, when it explicitly was not. However, it's simply false to say that America is a theocracy. Freedom of Religion does not mean a religious person is entitled to break the law, and to argue otherwise is profoundly silly.

I'm not trying to be mean, and anyone can make a mistake, but I remain astounded that Frum, Goldberg and Fowler don't get this. They misunderstand (or misstate) core concepts of American democracy. Yet in the conservative movement, Goldberg and Frum in particular are supposed to be among the best and brightest, and certainly are among the most popular. As far as I know, all of these gents are college grads (I couldn't find Fowler's bio). Yet I can't imagine that some of the issues that HTML Mencken points out, or I've pointed out, wouldn't come up in the course of a decent high school classroom discussion about Freedom of Religion, social tolerance or anti-discrimination laws. I can't remember being shown charts about this sort of thing in high school, but certainly a little debate and discussion would have elucidated these issues. Even in elementary school, I remember all of us understanding the basic concept of fairness in the Constitution and the First Amendment, even though "establishment clause" might have been over our heads. In point of fact, the mistakes of the brain trust survive an extended discussion — despite one of participants pointing out the obvious! It's also not as if this sort of lapse is a rarity for this crew. (Actually, as I was completing this, I noticed the commenters on HTML Mencken's post made quick work of the conservative brain trust, and the very first commenter brought up the murder counter-example! This seems to be less a problem of ignorance than obstinacy and obliviousness.)

The bottom line is that Frum, more than the rest, is trying to justify homophobic bigotry. He's free to hold this belief (offensive though it may be), but his justification is laughable.

I've said several times before that I'd enjoy finding some thoughtful, honest conservatives. A handful of conservative-leaning libertarians and socially moderate, fiscal conservatives are out there. Yet sadly, almost every major conservative pundit I've seen offers disingenuous arguments.

Perhaps Frum, Goldberg and Fowler are simply so used to tossing out shoddy, disingenuous arguments that, from force of habit, they can't switch gears and discuss the matter honestly with Stuttaford. They grab for something that sounds good, even if doesn't pass serious muster (a classic bullshitter's move). Perhaps they just don't understand the Constitution and the Bill of Rights very well. Perhaps they simply don't think things through thoroughly, think before they write, or consider counter-examples. Or perhaps they're simply dumb.

Our Nation's Wonderful Political Discourse in a Nutshell (Or, False Equivalency Theater)

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Lights up on the studio of a typical political talk show.

Rightwinger: I think we should kill all the fags.

Polite Democrat: Um, I disagree.

Rightwinger: You're a fag, aren't you? Or a fag-lover?

Polite Democrat: No, I – I am not a homosexual, but everyone has a right to live their life in the manner they choose…

Rightwinger: And everyone has a right to believe what they want, right?

Polite Democrat: Yes…

Rightwinger: Well, I believe we should kill all the fags!

Polite Democrat: I really don't think…

Moderator: Surely there's some middle ground here.

Polite Democrat: I suppose.

Rightwinger: No.

Moderator: Why don't we agree to just kill half the fags?

Rightwinger: No, all of them.

Polite Democrat: Everyone has a right…

Moderator: (to Rightwinger) How about three quarters? (to Polite Democrat) Three quarters? Come on, whaddaya say?

Polite Democrat: The Constitution…

Rightwinger: No, every single one of those faggots has to die.

Moderator: Well, how about a different compromise? Instead of killing half, or all of them —

Rightwinger: All.

Moderator: Why don't you just beat them all half to death?

The Polite Democrat sits befuddled as the Righwinger ponders this, then starts chatting it over with the Moderator as the show goes to commercial.

(This tasteless, unsubtle satire was brought to you by the same folks who brought you Color Commentary. More on false equivalency to come!)

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A Way to Talk About Religion

Back when I was teaching a philosophy class, some animated classroom discussions spurred an assignment: write a paper proving or disproving the existence of God. (The course involved an introduction to the major philosophers and major concepts, but was also designed to prod students to examine, articulate and re-think their own beliefs. Students became extremely engaged in this course.)

Of course, it’s impossible to prove the non-existence of God. We also went over such philosophical classics as cogito ergo sum and the ontological, cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of a supreme being. However, students quickly ran into dead ends, which was part of the point of the assignment — realizing what one can prove versus what one believes.

I suggested to the students they’d be better off arguing for the “use-value” of a belief in God, or disbelief in God. (“Use-value” is not the most poetic term, I know.) In other words, “I believe in God, and this makes me do [X],” or “My atheism leads me to do [Y].” It became an interesting enough assignment, with some great discussions, that we decided to have everyone re-write their papers, circulate them and perform an oral defense of them.

Two of the best jobs were delivered by Charles, a Southern young man who was quietly devout, and Mark, a young man from New York City who was a committed atheist. Each made a point of couching their papers and defenses in terms of his own personal beliefs and how it affected the way he lived his life. It was actually Charles’ best work to date, very well thought-out, consistent, coherent, and honestly, humble. Mark delivered a passionate, compelling piece about how his atheism made him a more moral person than he had been when he was younger and going to temple. Charles’ belief in the Golden Rule made him be much more considerate, he felt. Mark’s belief in mortality and no afterlife made him dedicated to fighting for justice for others in this life on Earth. In both their cases, self-reflection and choice played key roles in their philosophies.

Not every classroom would be ready for this sort of thing, but this was an elective for upperclassmen. They were a pretty bright, rough and tumble group, but also mature enough not to make any personal attacks (we had already completed a fun unit on logical fallacies, including ad hominem attacks). Were I to assign something similar again, I certainly would do a far more careful job setting the whole thing up.

It’s said that in polite society, one should never discuss politics or religion. It’s a wise warning, but it can also make for very boring small talk. Most social interactions don’t require much depth, but I personally prefer company that can respectfully if passionately disagree about issues that really matter to them.

Rightwing Cartoon Watch #16 (3-27-07)

This latest installment covers three weeks, from 2/26/07 to 3/25/07. This stretch provided plenty of scandals — both the real kind, and the manufactured-BS variety. With Plamegate, Purge-gate, Ann Coulter, Peter Pace, and - for Republicans, the mere existence of Democrats - there was plenty of material! The litmus tests abound. If you didn't know where a conservative cartoonist stood before in regards to accuracy, hackery, and what generates his or her moral outrage, you're likely to find out!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

2006 Film Round-Up: Intro

Welcome to the annual Film Round-Up, which by tradition can only go out after the Oscars. This year it's a little more punctual than the last one, if still almost a month late! (At least the delay allowed me to catch up with the film viewing supplanted by a couple of major projects last year.) Feel free to read, skip, agree, disagree, ignore or inveigh as is your wont. Its main practical purpose at this point is probably just to aid with rental picks — as if those queues aren't long enough as it is!

As with last year, where available I've included a number of links to interviews with the filmmakers and actors about the films in question.

(The 2005 film round-up is most easily accessed by scrolling through the Oscars category. Round-ups prior to that exist in the strange netherworld of e-mail, for which you may curse or count your blessings.)

2006 Film Round-Up, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review

The Oscars telecast is at least two shows in one. The first show is entertainment, a television program where you can cheer your favorites, boo their rivals, remark on who’s looking great and make catty remarks about this year’s fashion wrecks. (“How can a woman that attractive be made to look that unappealing?”) For most viewers, it’s a mix of love and love-to-hate. The second show is about the nominations and winners of the awards. Of course these two shows overlap, but this year the division really struck me because the show was far too long and felt more bloated than usual, but I was ecstatic about several of the wins, so I really didn’t mind. Plus, if you’ve got a good group of like-minded folks, the mix is all part of the fun (and the Oscar drinking game worked well at the party I attended). I was happy to see one of my all-time favorite film composers, Ennio Morricone, honored with a special Oscar. Still, this was a great Oscar year because Scorsese finally won and Dreamgirls didn’t win Best Picture. (Dreamgirls is good but not great, and earned many nominations, but not Best Picture, despite the marketing blitz. The Departed isn’t Goodfellas or Raging Bull, but it’s an engaging and fun movie, and poor Scorsese shouldn’t always have to compete against himself!)

I was disappointed in DeGeneres. I’ve heard her deliver some great stand-up material in the past, and felt she played it way too safe. I want the host to make me laugh, not try to start a feel-good love fest. She did have some inspired moments, especially dropping off a script with Martin Scorsese and getting Steven Spielberg to take a photo of her with Clint Eastwood. Other than that — not so much, with no zingers out of the gate, the prime opportunity to do an actual set.

While some critics complain about the length of the award speeches, they weren’t that bad this year, and anyway, that’s not the thing that makes the ceremony feel so long. I do wish more people tried to be witty and entertaining. A backstage “thank you” cam for the winners was an inspired idea, to allow them to thank everyone on video while keeping the on-stage segment short. Still, I always feel bad for that second or third winner who doesn’t get to speak. For the Emmys, there’s a pre-decided speaker, and I wonder if the Oscars will formally move to this system. Personally, I’d like to have them have a set time that would be multiplied by the number of speakers, or have a slightly expanded time for multiple speakers, or a light that goes off when the first speaker’s time is up, or something. This will be a highlight in many recipients’ lives, and I hate to see anyone get stiffed.

Richard Roeper’s a decent critic, but he both plays up being an ass and just is one on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno for the annual Oscar wrap-up. He’s probably trying for cutting wit, but comes off as just snide and superior. This year, Roeper was ragging on spending any time on the “smaller” awards, and urged to eliminate them. Again, that’s not what takes the most time, and some of us give a great big damn about those. (Those who are nominated and those who win certainly do!) It’s bad enough some critics don’t consider the screenwriting categories "major," forming an essential part of "the big eight." (And good lord, as if actors don’t have large enough egos as it is!) My sound teacher used to say that back in his era, especially when the studio system was still intact, the greatest artists in movie-making were the soundies. Granted, there’s departmental pride there, but once you listen to some of their work, and learn how much effort went into it, you’ll hear his point (the work is easier now in the digital era, but it still takes skill, art and dedication). Cinematographers, editors and production designers give us the look and pacing of films. Together with the sound department, they’re often doing their job best when they’re not noticed. They deserve their brief prominent recognition versus being cast in the backroom. Similarly, the three short categories are a great testing ground as well as art forms in their own right, but the problem has been that so few people see the entries. Thanks to the internet, that’s changing. The issue is bringing more of the audience in, and that would be a wise commercial move by the Academy. If the audience can watch the shorts, or even vote on them non-officially, they’ll be much more invested.

What makes the show drag are commercials (not that that’ll ever change) and the special segments. I thought the Pilobolus silhouette segments were cool, as did the majority of folks at the Oscar party I attended, and they were quick. The sound effects chorus was also educational and entertaining. Al Gore had a funny bit. But the Will Ferrell-Jack Black musical number went on too long, and could have been trimmed or cut altogether. And then there’s the perennial montages.

The foreign language Oscar winner montage was a good idea, but I found it frustratingly hard to follow — and I’ve seen most of the films! While the cross-cuts from kiss to kiss was kinda cool, the montage should have proceeded chronologically, labeled clearly by year, or at least by country or even filmmaker. The entire point of the montage was to sell movies. It’s to introduce some great films to new audiences, or to show film buffs a clip of a film they’ve missed. Each segment should have been a mini-trailer, something to sell the film. Keeping it tight would be a challenge regardless, but when you have several films from Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa and countless other gems to work with, how can you produce something that disjointed? Meanwhile, while Michael Mann’s a talented director, what the hell was up with his montage?

Other than that — Scorsese made it all wonderful, but most every other winner was very deserving. Helen Mirren's win was predictable but great, and veteran Alan Arkin was a nice win in a small upset. I was torn over Forest Whitaker versus Peter O’Toole, both turning in great performances in less brilliant films. Whitaker's role was flashier, but he was certainly deserving, and since O’Toole has a special Oscar already, I wasn’t upset (although O’Toole was clearly deflated). Jennifer Hudson was good in the enjoyable Dreamgirls, but Cate Blanchett was much better (although she already has an Oscar), as were Babel’s Rinko Kikuchi and Adriana Barraza. But Hudson's win was certainly defensible and no travesty. In acting, Brits and African-Americans continue to dominate. This was the most diverse year yet, but the diversity of nominees and winners isn’t really a groundbreaking issue anymore. That’s a great sign. As for other awards, as wonderful as Pan’s Labyrinth is, The Lives of Others is powerful, intelligent, and moving. As is normally the case, the screenplay nominations were good, and both winners were worthy. I was a bit disappointed that in Cinematography, Emmanuel Lubezki's daring, difficult and extraordinary camerawork in Children of Men lost, but Guillermo Navarro's winning work in Pan's Labyrinth is poetic and remarkable, so it's a matter of apples and oranges and hard to fault too much. The bigger issue is that Children of Men is a bleak but fantastic film that did not get as much support as it should have. Meanwhile, it's exciting that Pan's Labyrinth won three Oscars and seemed to have found an audience.

On this subject, as many have noted, this was the year of the Mexican filmmaker, with Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men), Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel) all directing major, well-received films. All friends and in their forties, one of them remarked that in a sense, accidentally, they had released a set of films together that covered the past, present and future. Their energy, creativity and artistry is most welcome (or even needed). Keep 'em coming!

2006 also saw several good child actor performances, particularly Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine, Ivana Baquero in Pan's Labyrinth, and Jade Pinkett Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness. Breslin and Smith were also more smooth award presenters than many adults! (Breslin, all of ten years old, also gets style points for bringing a stuffed Curious George to all her award ceremonies.)

There were some weird coincidences in releases (although not as weird as the rash of films featuring cannibalism in the early 90s). What are the odds that two films would come out featuring magicians at the turn-of-the-century? What are the odds that Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson would appear in one of them, and then also appear together in Woody Allen’s contemporary Scoop, which deals with... magicians? (I missed Scoop, which I suspect is not one of Allen’s best, but when I saw the trailer for The Prestige, the casting threw me momentarily.)

As for movie-going, everyone likely knows the big issue of the year: Cell phones, and the general poor state of audience courtesy. I love seeing movies in theaters, but I’ve lost count of how many critics, friends, and strangers I’ve heard remark on this issue in some form. Many people just don’t like going to the movies much anymore, for this reason. Nice home set-ups and Netflix are another cause, but why go the trouble of leaving the house and spending more money if it’s going to be a compromised or unpleasant experience?

I attended a film conference years ago when someone presented a great paper about similar issues back in the fifties, and it’s wise to remember the 'Decline of Western Civilization' and the inattentiveness of young adults have been bemoaned since at least Socrates’ time. Back in the fifties, the key outrage was teenagers making out in the back row. However, the big issue was people treating a public space as a personal space. That’s what’s hasn’t changed, but the new technology’s made it worse, and I do think the attitudes have grown worse. Young curmudgeon though I may be, I should make clear I don’t mind teenagers making out in the back row (as long as they’re not loud), I don’t mind people whispering to each other once in a while, and I can even deal with the occasional muttering or hearing-impaired elderly person asking whether all the people lying on the ground at the end of the battle are sleeping (I’m not making that up). I expect a film like Borat or Pirates of the Caribbean on opening weekend to have a raucous crowd, as I do for something like Spinal Tap on a college campus. That’s part of the fun. What seems rude to me is constantly checking one’s neon-bright PDA, or talking full volume and throughout a film. I had two of my worst film-going experiences in 2006 due to these factors, and the trend does trouble me. In one case, the PDA guy started yelling at the guy who dared to ask him to stop, and then yelled again at film’s end, the better to prove his masculinity and his right to do whatever the hell he wants. In the case of the talkers, it was constant and their response to the most polite requests to be quiet was an aghast “We’re not even talking that loud.” Granted, since the film was The Fountain, I wouldn’t begrudge a little “What the hell is going on?” chatter. But this was from the get-go, and not even about the film. Alas, even with a refund, or a refund and a free ticket, you’ve lost time. Unfortunately, the audience members who treat movie theaters as their private living rooms aren’t the ones watching their movies only at home. While great home theaters and services such as Netflix will continue to fuel home viewing, sadly, the other factor for the decline in movie attendance is rudeness. (And I would have enjoyed the movie, too, if it weren’t for these damn kids and their dog!)

In any case, on with the films. I’ve tried to avoid spoilers, and to include notices in bold about spoilers and slight spoilers (where a significant plot point is revealed). If you’d know it watching the trailer, I haven’t held back, but if in doubt, don’t read it.

(Also, if you're a fan of great cinematography or Ingmar Bergman, check out this earlier post, sampling Sven Nykvist's work. Nykvist, one of the all-time greats in the field, died last year after a long, fruitful career.

And speaking of soundies, here’s a fun NPR piece on foley artists, and a great 2003 NPR piece on the sound effects editing for Master and Commander.)

2006 Film Round-Up, Part 2: The Top Four

Letters From Iwo Jima: While war makes for one of the most inherently dramatic situations, it’s pretty hard to break into the pantheon of great war movies because the standards are high and comparisons can be tough. On its own, Flags of Our Fathers (reviewed separately below) makes a good compliment to the pantheon, but Letters From Iwo Jima enters it with ease. Together as a diptych, the two films form an impressive achievement. As do most great war narratives, the deceptively straight-forward Letters... takes a pro-soldier, anti-war stance, where going to war might be the necessary thing to do, but unnecessary death is not glorious and anyone who wants to go to war is a complete idiot. Stately but unglamorous, Letters... features several memorable characters, but focuses particularly on General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), a highly educated, professional warrior, and poor baker and enlisted man Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya). Saigo has an expressive, open face, a gentle nature and is something of a joker. Recently married and missing his wife, he’s no natural soldier; he’s just trying to survive. The taciturn Kuribayashi’s intelligence and position allow him a much clearer, broader view than Saigo, but his goal really isn’t much different. Most audience members will know the overall outcome, especially after watching Flags of Our Fathers. Yet we still hold out hope for the individual characters, whose fates may be less fixed. Like Flags..., Letters... features some flashbacks, but they’re the exception, and very clear and contained. Its overall narrative is much more linear, which works well as the trapped and overwhelmed Japanese soldiers try to make their way progressively to the north, and more and more of them fall along the way. As critic Kenneth Turan puts it nicely, “It's not that we want the Japanese to win the war; it's that we absolutely do not want these men we've come to know intimately to lose their lives.” Some of the scenes are brutal, in part due to violence, but mainly because of this human dimension. When you care about the people being shot, violence isn’t abstract, cartoonish or something to cheer about.

The Japanese apparently liked the film, but it’s the added aspect of watching things from “the enemy” perspective for Americans and other Allied nations that gives Letters... special poignancy. All Quiet on the Western Front, Das Boot and other films do the same, but here is a film made in Japanese by an American icon about a battle legendary in the U.S. military. There’s a moral complexity to this film, because it does highlight individual courage and honor along with the recklessness and foolishness of the war leaders. Kuribayashi discovers the high command won’t even tell him the truth. The sad historical reality is that even after the war was hopelessly lost, the Japanese commanders still thought they could win if they could only force the Allied forces to mount a ground invasion of Japan. There’s a difference between sacrifice and waste, and there’s a terrible harshness to a code that insists suicide is preferable to surrender. Like Hamlet, Sisyphus, or (for the Japanese) one of the Forty-Seven Ronin, these characters cannot choose their fates, only how they face them. Eastwood has become one of our great filmmakers, and this is one of his best.

(Here’s Eastwood on Fresh Air. Here’s screenwriter Iris Yamashita in an online discussion. The Los Angeles Times article ”War is hell for the enemy too” gives some nice background. Kenneth Turan’s review is linked above, and New York Times critic A.O. Scott also delivers a nice one, invoking Kurosawa, Mifune and John Ford.)

Pan’s Labyrinth (Labyrinth of the Faun/ El Laberinto del fauno): In Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, there’s a character who observes “Little boys have fantasies in which they’re faster, or smarter, or able to fly... Now little girls, on the other hand, have different fantasies... Their parents are not their parents. Their lives are not their lives. They are princesses. Lost princesses from distant lands. And one day the King and Queen, their real parents, will take them back to their land, and then they’ll be happy for ever and ever.”

The brilliance and power of Guillermo del Toro’s film is his ability to invoke the magic and horror of classic fairy tales while also playing against the genre at times. Unless your last name is Mengele, here’s about the wickedest stepfather you’ll ever seen, Spanish fascist officer Capitán Vidal, played by Sergi López with menace and a brutal, selfish ruthlessness. Someone might lose their life merely for interrupting his dinner; when his full cruelty is engaged and focused, it’s even worse. He cares about getting a son from his pregnant wife Carmen (Ariadna Gil) much more than he cares about her, and cares about his bookish stepdaughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero, in a fantastic performance) not at all. Pan’s Labyrinth balances out reality and fantasy with a deft touch, and it’s never quite clear whether Ofelia’s visions of fairies and monsters are real, or a imaginary world she’s constructed for her very emotional survival. Is the Faun who gives her tasks to complete to regain her role as princess real, or not? (The Faun is not the Greek Pan, but the studio didn't think "faun" was familiar enough to American audiences.) There are few contrasts starker than the faerie world and fascism, between imagination and authoritarianism, dreams and conformity (I was reminded of a Russian animated short featuring Don Quixote trying to fight his way through barbed wire fences and guarded walls). Vidal is a villain you’ll love to hate or just plain hate, but Ofelia has a few allies besides her ailing mother, notably the brave Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) and compassionate Dr. Ferreiro (Álex Angulo), who both take risks in an environment where following honor instead of obedience can be fatal.

This is a fairly tale of the early, non-Disney-fied Brothers Grimm variety, violent and disturbing and not for young children unless you aim to terrify them. The unexplained arbitrary prohibitions of fairy tales (“Whatever you do, don’t do [X]”) make an appearance, leading me to my usual response, “why the hell don’t you tell Ofelia why she shouldn’t do that if it’s so damn important, that’s really stupid of you,” but that’s part of del Toro’s point. He wants us to question blind obedience, whether it’s demanded by Capitán Vidal or the increasingly sinister Faun. This film has its magic, but much of it is dark. Its poetry is at times rapturous but at points intensely sad. If you want to feel something, this film is for you; if you only want to “feel good,” it’s not. It’s not easy creating such an engrossing, unique world, but I found myself captivated by this one and intensely invested in the fates of the characters. Like Spielberg, Terry Gilliam and a handful of other filmmakers, del Toro has a wonderful feel for a child’s perspective as he delivers this dark, dazzling and moving fairy tale for grown-ups.

(I’d highly recommend the del Toro interviews on Fresh Air and The Treatment.)

Children of Men: Isaac Asimov remarked that what many traditional critics miss in science fiction is that the background, the world, is often as important as the characters and main story. That’s not quite the case in this science fiction film based on a book by a primarily non-science fiction author, P.D. James, because characters are still the center focus. Still, part of the triumph of Children of Men is that we buy it. We believe this world, and most of all we believe these characters — the film presents “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Perhaps the future dystopia Children of Men depicts is sadly too familiar, but there’s a grit to the landscape and weight to the actors that grounds the entire affair. (The closest equivalent may actually be 28 Days Later, because both films are stripped of all glamour.) In a world where women have been infertile for close to two decades, the possibility that a woman may have finally become pregnant throws the existing, oppressive order out of whack.

While Clive Owen’s a reliably solid actor, he makes a good noble-against-his-better-instincts protagonist here as Theo Faron. Juilanne Moore is always a boon, Michael Caine is lovely as Jasper Palmer, Chiwetel Ejiofor adds to his fine career as Luke, and Claire-Hope Ashitey as Kee and Pam Ferris as Miriam deliver memorable performances. Some of the plot twists are genuinely unexpected, and your views on certain characters will sometimes radically shift in a single scene. It’s also extremely refreshing to see characters who are smart. Theo in particular gets stuck in some very difficult situations, but it’s never due to stupidity on his part, and he’s either very sensible or very creative in tackling these problems.

Matching the solid acting and character focus is an impressive technical acumen. Emmanuel Lubezki’s camerawork is amazing. The 2004 Hong Kong film Breaking News kicked off with an action sequence that’s one astounding, unbroken camera shot, but Children of Men features several. This adds to the you-are-there feel, but adds even more during the centerpiece sequence. Depicting an elaborate battle with a barefooted Theo ducking through rubble from gunfire, the sequence's technical virtuosity underscores the import of Theo’s efforts, but the unbroken shot also helps the emotional weight build. The sound design is masterful throughout the film, but if you get a chance, watch this sequence and pay special attention to the sound and the shifts Cuarón sneaks in. The commonplace becomes miraculous, which is precisely the point of the film. My one caveat is that this film is awfully bleak (not King Lear bleak, but perhaps Dickens bleak). You will likely care about the characters, and they have their triumphs, but this is not a “nothing-here-to-upset-you-just-feel-good” movie.

(Final thoughts: I can’t speak to this film as an adaptation. As a general rule I’m wary of contemporary science fiction written by non sci-fi writers, just as I am of critiques of sci-fi literature by critics, who tend to be both simultaneously snobby and ignorant of the depth of the genre (there’s tons of crap in it, but there’s much splendid work as well). As a general rule, even the more serious Hollywood sci-fi rarely truly thinks out its premises and its world. I’m not sure Children of Men as a film does either, because its focus is character, but that’s clearly the right choice for it. When I first saw the trailer, and heard the premise, my honest reaction was, “oh god, here’s another one that could really suck.” When I saw the full team involved, it heartened me. The trailer does spell out the premise clearly, yet isn’t very representative of the film as a whole, but admittedly that might be problematic. In any case, my worst fears were unfounded, and if you’re up for a good drama in a sci-fi setting, check out Children of Men, one of the best films of 2006.)

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) : This winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar is a powerful and important film about the costs inflicted on human relationships, art and identity by not only oppressive political regimes but capricious men in power. It's an impressive, moving and memorable piece from German writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (whew!). In East Germany before the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall, leading playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is an intelligent idealist, an individual but loyal to the ideals of the party. When Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) lusts after Dreyman's girlfriend, famous stage star Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), he asks the Stasi, the dreaded East German secret police, to rummage around into Dreyman's life in hopes of finding dirt to take out his rival. Lieutenant Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) of the Stasi knows the investigation is ridiculous, because Dreyman's completely clean, but he also knows how the game is played and that he'll earn advancement if this plot succeeds. Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), assigned to head up the actual surveillance, is more conflicted. He's a true believer in "the cause," an expert interrogator, accomplished surveillance man, dedicated to precision and procedure, and willing to scare the hell out of others with threats to get his job done. However, the abuse of the system he's dedicated his life to starts to trouble him, all the more so as he starts to admire both Georg Dreyman and Christa.

While the film is not based on specific real events, the activities it depicts are sadly all too real, and the Stasi was nearly as bad as the NKVD of Stalin's Russia (a precursor the KGB). No character is spared a moral dilemma, even if some agonize over them while other give them no thought. Dreyman is loyal to the party, but fights to find work for a friend who has fallen out of favor, and has to question the injustice of it all. Christa conducts an affair with Minister Hempf, feeling she must to protect her career and Dreyman's. She and Dreyman love each other, she feels guilty, he doesn't want to blame her because he knows it's not her fault, but of course it pains him nonetheless and he doesn't want her to let it continue. This is an oppressive environment where intellectual, artistic and personal honesty can be extremely dangerous, and even the strongest, most beautiful of souls can be ground down over time. Completing the central triangle is Stasi agent Gerd Wiesler, the Pontius Pilate figure on whom everything hinges. He admires Christa as an actress, and as he listens to Christa and Dreyman's most intimate moments unseen, they begin to move him. He begins to question the morality of his assignment, but his conscience conflicts with duty (as well as self-preservation). What can he do? And what will he do? Will Dreyman, as he gets angrier, risk writing subversive pieces? Will Christa break off the affair with Minister Hempf? Will her relationship with Dreyman survive the strain if she doesn’t? Will they lives be destroyed if she does? All these dilemmas make for gripping cinema.

The supporting characters are often fascinating as well. Lieutenant Grubitz is captivating because, like O'Brien in 1984, he knows the game and how wrong it is, but doesn't really care. However, in contrast to the weary, haunted cynicism Richard Burton imbued O'Brien with in the underrated 1984 version of 1984, actor Ulrich Tukur and Donnersmarck give Grubitz a dark sense of humour, all the crueler because of the nonchalance with which he toys with others' lives (a scene in a cafeteria is unforgettable). While some characters work to recognize each others' humanity, there are others who strive to obscure and eradicate it. It's also important to remember that all the suffering in the film is the result of one selfish, callous man willing to abuse his vast power without the slightest twinge of conscience. If Wiesler is Pontius Pilate and Grubitz is O'Brien, the shadowy Minister Hempf is a passionless, porcine Salieri, more than happy to destroy anything and anyone beautiful if he can't possess them, body and soul.

The Lives of Others does have its minor blemishes. I would have liked to see more of Hempf, because he really is the chief villain, but it's somewhat appropriate that he sets the wheels of a merciless machine in motion and then mostly sits back and waits. Also, the final section of the film is protracted, with the pacing really suffering since it seems as if the emotional climax of the film has already passed. However, this falls into the excusable-in-cultural-context category, as the final section focuses on reading-through-one's-own-Stasi-file. For East Germans, this is an incredibly powerful, culturally monumental act, comparable to the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in South Africa, or discovering Holocaust records on one's family, or discovering who owned one's slave ancestors. Heroism can be performing virtuous deeds with no hope of recognition or reward, but for several generations of Germans, it can also entail coming to terms with the past.

There's a powerful line near the end of the film: "To think that men such as you once ruled a country." Sadly, they still do in many places, and as with Animal Farm, the greatest mistake would be to assume that the important dynamics captured in this impressive film only apply to other countries, and the lives of others.

(I highly recommend this interview with writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck on Fresh Air. It doesn't give away the ending, of course, but provides invaluable background on the Stasi and at least one actor's own experiences with them.)

2006 Film Round-Up, Part 3: Other Notable Films

Little Miss Sunshine:
The indie and comedy hit of the year, Little Miss Sunshine earned all its good will and plenty of positive word of mouth by delivering a funny, witty, poignant film of many layers that's a blast on first encounter and gets better with each viewing. People just love this film, and for good reason. All of the characters could easily be just shallow and self-consciously quirky, but the script, the direction and performances all steer away from that. As odd as this family may be, they're recognizable and real, and each one of them has a handful of moments that flesh them out. Although Dwayne (Paul Dano) is committed to being a silent, sullen teen, at a crucial point he still pens a note to tell his little sister Olive (the adorable, impressive Abigail Breslin) to "go hug mom." (He's too cool and invested in his image to do it himself, but he still cares about his mom.) Later in the film, Olive demonstrates an amazing instinct for how to reach out to her brother. The most obnoxious character in the family, patriarch Richard (Greg Kinnear) and the most entertainingly caustic, "Grandpa" (Alan Arkin), have a brief, lovely moment in the van after Richard gets some bad news. A conversation between Frank (Steve Carrell) and his nephew Dwayne on a dock is the moral highlight of the movie, a quiet, moment of insight and connection that helps set up the unforgettable, energetic climax. It's impossible not to root for Olive throughout, and she's a real kid versus the Hollywood wise-cracking, artificial-supposed-to-be-precious kind. Americans love underdogs, but the dirty secret is that they love underdogs who win. Little Miss Sunshine is a great comedy, and a great film, because it in addition to all its obvious merits, it tackles those issues. Almost every character is obsessed with external success and recognition in some manner, as opposed to valuing the effort put in. Audience members might be Richard in real life, but it’s Olive who's going to win them over. Little Miss Sunshine also celebrates family in a non-treacly way, loving people for their goofiness, not despite it. Like many of the best comedies, from Shakespeare to Raising Arizona, Little Miss Sunshine possesses a strong anarchic, anti-establishment streak while simultaneously affirming the value of human connection.

As if you haven't seen the film! The first time I saw Little Miss Sunshine, I felt the major development with Grandpa and the family's solution to it broke the tone and suspension of disbelief for me somewhat. It didn't bother me as much the second time. Expectations dictate that Dwayne must speak at some point, but the Hollywood cliché is that he'd say break to say something sweet to his sister. Little Miss Sunshine explodes that cliché, and the cause of him breaking his silence is ingenuously set up. Similarly, I knew there had to be something brewing with Olive's final number, because we're very deliberately (if justifiably) never shown it in advance. But so what. Sure, in this day and age — and certainly after this movie! — most baby beauty pageant acts might receive some sort of pre-screening. But so what. I know this film has gotten some minor backlash over some of the issues I mentioned above, but I'm happy to defend it to the hilt, just as with a beloved dysfunctional family member. Luckily, not many people need convincing on this point. This is a great flick. While its success means a ton of crappy ripoffs will be in the wings, it also means some good indies might get a more serious look from distributors.

(I was fortunate enough to hear a lecture from screenwriter Michael Arndt last fall about the endings of movies (he has been working for Pixar), and he's a very sharp guy. He examined what made for a crowd-pleasing ending in Star Wars, The Graduate, and Little Miss Sunshine, and broke the films down along three conflicts and storylines: the external conflict, the internal conflict, and the philosophical conflict.)

(All from Fresh Air, here’s the directors and writer, here’s Greg Kinnear, and here’s Alan Arkin.)

The Departed: Poor Scorsese has been a victim of his own accomplishments, where every one of his films has been judged against his previous masterpieces, with a few critics even wondering if he’s just declined. I still need to see Infernal Affairs, the Hong Kong film that The Departed is based on, which some claim is better. Regardless, I found The Departed taut, gripping, and fun. Not surprisingly, it features short scenes of extreme violence, and thus isn’t for everyone, but audiences really enjoyed this one. It's got a great basic plot premise, two competing moles. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) serves on the police force but secretly works for the mob, while Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a deep undercover cop infiltrating the most notorious local gang, led by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). One of the best scenes in the movie occurs when Costigan and Sullivan duel back and forth during a sting operation without knowing each other’s identities, trying to tip off the cops and mobsters respectively without blowing their own covers. In this film, a cell phone ring can also take on deadly import, laced with a delicious tension. There are wheels within wheels here, a complicated, fun and engrossing chess game with bouts of brutal action and some really cracklin’ dialogue. While Alec Baldwin as Captain Ellerby and Mark Wahlberg as Staff Sergeant Dignam have smaller roles, they each have several great scenes and fantastic lines. Nicholson is so effortlessly menacing it’s easy to take his great performance for granted, just as Martin Sheen perfectly captures the paternal nature of the undercover division’s Captain Queenan. Damon, normally playing a hero, makes an awfully good calculating villain (shades of Ripley), and baby-faced DiCaprio is really starting to grow into a fine actor and become convincing as a young man. The great tension of the film is that sometimes you’ll find yourself rooting for Sullivan and sometimes for Costigan. (You might not want Sullivan to "win," but we spend so much time with him at times it's easy to wish that he doesn't get caught.) There’s also the question of how deep Costigan can get involved with Frank’s gangsters before becoming morally corrupted, and at times it seems Sullivan is just an ambitious yuppie climber in a particularly bloody trade. As Sullivan’s girlfriend Madolyn, relative newcomer Vera Farmiga is fantastic, giving a depth, tension and consequences to Sullivan’s actions. The tension ratchets up even more when in the course of her psychiatrist job she’s assigned to evaluate Costigan, and some romantic sparks fly. She gives some much needed female dimension to a film that’s brimming with testosterone, male chest-beating, and very much about fathers and sons. Queenan is clearly a father figure for the dedicated but unbalanced Costigan, and both Costigan and Sullivan essentially try to prove themselves the better “son” to Frank Costello, if for different reasons. (The Departed also features nice supporting work by Ray Winstone and Anthony Anderson, in a rare dramatic role.) In the third act, the film becomes a bit weaker, because suddenly Costigan seems to act much less intelligently than before — but I really want to see the film again to judge this better. The very end is highly satisfying. The trick of a great thriller is to keep us on our toes, keep us guessing, tweaking our expectations and giving us what we want, but in unexpected ways. The balance of plot to character leans much heavier toward plot than in most of Scorsese’s films, and I didn’t care about the characters as deeply as I did in some of his other films, but boy, was I engaged. The most seemingly effortless job of all comes from Scorsese himself, a master at his craft aided by usual culprits editor Thelma Schoonmaker (winning another Oscar for her work) and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. I need to watch The Departed again as well as Infernal Affairs, but this is easily one of the most entertaining, energetic films of the year. If America could produce more films like The Departed, Little Miss Sunshine, and Letters From Iwo Jima every year, I’d be pretty happy.

(Here’s Mark Wahlberg on Fresh Air.)

The Queen:
Although I love Stephen Frears and Helen Mirren, I was wary about seeing this film. I must confess, I am far from a monarchist and tried to avoid the oversaturated news about Princess Diana back during her reign of People magazine just as I do with Anna Nicole Smith these days. However, it’s great (and if even I liked it...) Witty, briskly paced, and only 97 minutes, The Queen manages to depict a transformation in several characters with elegant economy, and delves into the odd, anachronistic institution that is the British Monarchy in modern, democratic Britain. It’s the glimpse into this unusual world and its sometimes bizarre mores and rituals, centered on a captivating character, that is likely to suck you in. Mirren has always been superb, capable of great power and tremendous nuance, and makes Queen Elizabeth II a fascinating figure. Her counterpart is new Prime Minister Tony Blair, vibrantly played by Michael Sheen. I had no idea this brief period in Britain was so momentous on a cultural level, and it’s interesting to listen to Frears and Mirren talk about the British reverence for the Queen, who has never before been depicted on film. Playing such a well-known, well-regarded and still-living figure could not have been easy, but if Mirren’s gotten anything less than a rave anywhere, I haven’t seen it. Given that Mirren’s a tremendously sensual person, the complete transformation she accomplishes into the formidable but un-sensual queen is all the more impressive. Thematically, there’s a real Shakespearean element as Elizabeth’s ideas about how she should conduct her public role come into conflict with her shifting private feelings. Perhaps part of the film’s appeal is the wish fulfillment of seeing a national leader bow to reason, learn something and adjust. We would like to think they all would be so wise. Regardless, The Queen’s a film of intelligent speculation and strong characters dynamics. I’m still not a monarchist, but The Queen accomplishes what most good movies do: it makes the unfamiliar known and makes the familiar new and intriguing.

(On separate installments of Fresh Air, here’s director Stephen Frears and star Helen Mirren.)

United 93: Saying United 93 is an “important” film makes me feel as if it’s an “eat your broccoli” piece, something one should feel obligated to see but won’t enjoy. The truth is it’s in an entirely different category from most movie-making. This is a great, important film, amazingly crafted and compelling, but the subject matter is something every viewer has his or her own reaction to, and not everyone’s up for seeing this. Similar to many of the most effective Holocaust narratives, United 93 wisely underplays the powerful emotional content, allowing each moment to speak for itself. It’s frankly a tough, unenviable task for British director Paul Greengrass to be the first out of the gate with a major 9/11 film, but he was exactly the right pick for it, this was the right time, and this is exactly the right movie to be first. Greengrass’ restraint and respect are commendable, and as American a story as this is, it probably helps to have someone with compassion but a little distance at the reins. It’s also completely non-partisan. This is about human beings, history, perhaps even healing, not political statements. Using many of the real participants, the film acts as a historical document where possible, and engages in intelligent speculation elsewhere. (The only times I felt pulled out a bit was during some of the speculation near the end, actually, because I couldn’t help but realize it was.) Using relatively unknown actors to fill out the rest of the roles was also a wise, essential choice. Some of the details are striking. It’s astounding that 9/11 was for Ben Sliney (who plays himself) his first day on the job as FAA Director of Operations. His unprecedented call to ground all flights after the two tower hits is all the more remarkable and courageous given this. For the most part, the film depicts people doing their best to come to grips with a terrible, unprecedented situation. As the chaos unfolds, they have to cobble together and adapt because there’s just no framework for processing it. As with Letters From Iwo Jima or a Brecht play, you know what’s coming, but that increases the tension rather than lessening it, and as with all good drama, even if you know the outcome you can find yourself wishing that this time it will play out differently, surely somehow it can. As with Letters..., the people on United 93 are fully aware that their chances of survival aren’t great, but they choose to act anyway. That does take a special sort of courage.

Greengrass received blessings for the project from all forty families of the victims, an extraordinary endorsement. This is anything but an exploitation film. If anything, it is a monument, and I’m quite certain the magnitude of Greengrass’ achievement will be much more appreciated in years to come. Critic Ann Hornaday had a great line: ""United 93" is a great movie, and I hated every minute of it." I know people who could not bear to see this film. I was wary of it, but while I was caught up in it, and the memories were inevitable, I found it quite bearable. For most, the most emotional moment is the ending. For me, for whatever reason, it was the second tower hit. Perhaps it’s because then the inevitable progression was clear. United 93 was one of the best film of 2006, but everyone will have to gauge for themselves if it’s for them.

(Here’s a good interview with Paul Greengrass. There are many good reviews out there, but I’d like to highlight two of the best, from Ann Hornaday and Rob Vaux.)

Casino Royale:
It’s normally too easy for critics to dismiss a genre or blockbuster film, but this was one of the most satisfying, pleasurable views of the year for me. If only every re-invention or re-working could be this potent, fun and stylish! Daniel Craig may well be the best actor to ever play Bond, but he also completely sells the character — a brawler in a tux, a tough guy with a sharp and nasty wit, and in this film, a warrior with a gruff exterior to cover a surprisingly tender side. Most of all, Craig is completely convincing as a badass, and that’s essential for Bond. Everything is re-tooled to a more realistic and human scale. Some longtime Bond fans didn’t like the lack of gadgets, thought the film should be set in the 60s, and the film does drag near the end (it’s at least 10 minutes too long), but I loved this flick. It worked wonderfully as an origin flick, with so many great touches: the black and white opening, with a direct salute to the Bond series POV blood shot, the card games, several great fights, and an amazingly kinetic chase sequence early in the film. This is a Bond who is bright but makes mistakes, and compensates in many cases by being tough, relentless and sometimes just lucky. One complaint: French actress Eva Green is spot on in her tone as Vesper Lynd, but her accent is a bit odd and her diction garbled, and she often pitches her voice low to be dramatic. The end result is it’s very tough to tell what the hell’s she saying at times (I couldn't decipher one of her key lines in the trailer, actually, despite multiple attempts, until I heard it again in the film, in the theater). Still, the scene between Lynd and Bond when they first meet on the train is a first-rate, fantastic piece of flirtatious character exploration, and all the exchanges between Bond and M (Judi Dench) are a joy. You fully believe M cares for Bond in a somewhat maternal way but nonetheless believe she’ll have him killed as she promises if he breaks one of her edicts. The suspense is often character-based, and the drama and action enhance each other well. Bravo, and keep ‘em coming.

The Good Shepherd: At least one critic dubbed The Good Shepherd “the Godfather of spy movies,” and that’s not a bad comparison, except The Godfather explodes with outsized Italian passions while The Good Shepherd simmers with the quiet resentments, privileged entitlements and secret ambitions of some very uptight Yalie WASPs. Matt Damon is superb as the supremely taciturn Edward Bell Wilson, who is recruited first during WWII for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) and then later for the newly-formed CIA. He becomes an expert in espionage (and would make one hell of a poker player). Based on the true history of the CIA but with fictionalized elements, The Good Shepherd is especially timely on the issues of torture and civil rights. Director Robert DeNiro is rarely flashy but quite skillful is laying out every scene, and our understanding of most characters will shift, sometimes radically, as the film progresses, especially when it comes to their loyalty and innocence. This is not a film for a lazy audience, as DeNiro often hinges an important revelation on a implication, or a prop. Meanwhile, the bigger questions are, what is the emotional cost of becoming a “spook”? What does it cost one’s family? Angelina Jolie fought for the role of “Clover”/ Margaret Wilson, but she isn’t on screen much and seems miscast here. While she and Edward are supposed to have a mismatched marriage, Jolie is some sexual jungle cat paired with Damon’s calculating monk. Michael Gambon is brilliant as always, John Turturro contributes his usual great energy, and Mark Ivanir is riveting as a torture victim. DeNiro reports he only really acted in the film to secure funding and for sales, but he’s great as usual, and given his statute it’s a wise move that he makes himself the practical-but-not-preachy conscience of the American spy world. The only actor who seemed ineffective to me was Eddie Redmayne as Edward’s son, Edward junior. It may well be the script more than his performance, but the character seemed far too naive for the spy game, especially in his beliefs of the importance of his personal life to world powers engaged in a fierce geopolitical struggle. The last section of the film focuses more on Edward and Ed junior, and it rang a bit false to me. With Italian mobsters, it might have been operatic. With the reserved, WASP-y Edward, there’s no Michael Corleone moment. I was engaged by this film throughout, but I find the subject matter fascinating and enjoyed the nuance. I do know several people who didn’t enjoy it all, mainly because they never felt invested in the characters. I would agree this is a pretty cerebral film, with an unemotional, or at least repressed, main character. If you want to see a dramatic, transformational personal arc, this is the wrong film for you, and while there’s a great deal of intrigue, this is a serious drama, not a summer popcorn thriller. It’s likely to find a smaller but appreciative audience.

(Critic Stephen Hunter’s review gives some superb background on the history the film is based on, and Hunter’s interview with DeNiro is also enlightening.)

Babel: The third of his “trilogy” of non-linear films, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel is also his most ambitious, set in Morocco, Japan, Mexico and the United States, as he tries to show the hidden ties that bind us and the vast chasms that alienate us. A film full of many gems, in Babel the parts nonetheless do not add to a greater whole. While everyone, actors and non-actors alike, give great performances, the two Oscar-nominated actresses, Rinko Kikuchi as Chieko and Adriana Barraza as Amelia are standouts. I found the sequences with Chieko, a deaf girl in Japan, the most affecting, perhaps because she’s the most wounded, having lost her mother through unusual circumstances we’re not certain of until the end (if then). Rejected by a cute boy or two due to her deafness, she compensates by becoming more sexually provocative and self-destructive. It’s clear she desperately needs some human connection, and her well-intentioned but reserved father Yasujiro (Kôji Yakusho) struggles to help but fails. The sequences with Chieko high and on a swing set and later in a deafening dance club, exposing her subjective perception of the world, are bravura filmmaking, some of the most poetic and masterful of the year (Iñárritu, a former club DJ, planned out every shot and cut of the club sequence in advance). Meanwhile, Amelia is just a good woman trying to do the right thing and honor her family who winds up getting caught in an increasingly nightmarish situation. The schism in the marriage of Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan’s (Cate Blanchett) may or may not be avoidable, but the tragedy that befalls them is completely unnecessary, and that’s what makes it so terrible. While the film shows it’s useful to at least try to learn another language or two, it also shows that more than language separates us. Except in Japan, the cops are mean, and apart from the cops, most of the pain and suffering results from ignorance or accident, not malice. Babel’s greatest wisdom is that much suffering, and much alienation, is not due to “evil” per se, and is avoidable. The storylines seemed to end rather than conclude, apart from the Chieko-Yasujiro one, which has some poignancy. (There’s also one weird seeming discrepancy between the Richard-Susan and Amelia storylines as presented with the time flashes, but I'll have to see the film again to be sure.) I still prefer Iñárritu’s much more intimate 21 Grams, but this is well worth a look.

(Here’s Iñárritu on The Treatment.)

Little Children: Ah, yes, another satirical look at suburbia. What makes Little Children so good, besides the astounding Kate Winslet, is that while it may poke gentle fun at its characters, it never truly mocks them. Even the most unlikable of characters, former child molester Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley) and the obsessive Larry (Noah Emmerich) have dimension to them. They may not always be sympathetic, but they are understandable. While Sarah Pierce (Winslet) and Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson) may be wrong to start their emotional and physical involvement, their marriages are in poor shape, and not entirely due to them. Similar to Babel, the denizens of suburbia in Little Children may be miserable and make bad choices, but it’s more due to their inherent natures, tough situations, and their confusion at trying to deal with those than malice. Sarah struggles with being an extremely bright woman robbed of almost all intellectual stimulation, caring for her young daughter as a stay-at-home mom. Ronnie has to fight his own disturbing urges. Larry is so filled with rage it’s poisoned him and all his relationships. Brad is still trying to find his place in the world or recapture his glory years, but is essentially being forced into a career role that doesn’t suit him (although I found him more immature and unsympathetic as the film went on). Winslet, a dedicated mother in real life, remarked that she’d probably be pretty harsh in judging Sarah Pierce if she met her, but you’d never guess that watching her performance, which is remarkably present, open and real. It is that suspension of judgment by the filmmakers that makes this film so welcome. One warning for the squeamish — there are some rather disturbing scenes, including an act of violence foreshadowed throughout the film.

(Here’s Little Children novelist Tom Perrotta on Fresh Air.)

Borat: Borat specializes in a a type of cringe-comedy also seen in The Office, and it’s not for all tastes. It’s more performance art than comedy in a way, and while some evoke Andy Kauffman to describe Sacha Baron Cohen's work as Borat, the closest contemporary parallel is probably Stephen Colbert, if he adopted a really obnoxious persona and went into places where he might get beat up. Like Colbert, Cohen uses his character Borat to mock his targets in a highly ironic fashion. He’s also the best type of fish-out-of-water — it not “let’s laugh at the yokel,” although Cohen plays with that approach, but “let’s question this society I’m stumbling into.” Still, the best parallel to Borat is probably Groucho Marx (albeit more crass and less clothed), because Borat embodies the long comedy tradition of anarchy and upheaval of social mores. (I also find it hilarious anyone could accuse Cohen of being anti-Semitic, as I’m sure he does, too!) Whatever you think of Cohen, he is fearless, and earned my respect for that. While the film is episodic and uneven, I don’t think any film made me laugh harder all year, and the packed theater I saw it in went crazy at several points. The highpoint is probably the nude chase in the hotel, and several people in the theater couldn’t breathe as a result. I’ll take some unevenness for that sort of laugh any time.

(Update: Sacha Baron Cohen's interview on Fresh Air is back up, and can be heard - for now - here!)

The Prestige: As Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday put it, “If you see one magic-at-the-turn-of-the-century movie this year, make it The Prestige!” Director and co-writer Christopher Nolan delivers a captivating tale of obsession and rivalry. The battleground is stage magic, with all its tricks and reversals, and the script wonderfully mirrors that, delivering one twist after another. However, almost all these twists are married to character, so it never feels that gimmicky. Even if you see one of the two major twists coming (or the many smaller ones), the film is satisfying. The magicians reading each other's journals makes for a great framing device, where the magician seemingly on top is dethroned and supplanted, for at least a stretch, and it's hard to tell what's a con and what isn't. This adds intrigue rather than frustration. If there’s a fault to Nolan, it’s that he tends to be a very cerebral director, and the obsessive nature of these characters won’t engender sympathy from many a viewer. Also, Scarlett Johansson, while a promising young actress, still struggles with accents and that extra level of nuance. (At her first entrance, I thought, “Oh, she’s an American in this one,” only to hear her inconsistent British accent in subsequent scenes. She’s sharp, very pretty and picks good projects, but I hope she continues to develop her chops, because it’d be a shame if she didn’t reach her full potential.) The underrated David Bowie has a nice creepy turn as enigmatic scientist Nikola Tesla, and Michael Caine delivers one of his better recent supporting performances as a mentor whose conscience is eventually aroused by the escalating rivalry. Caine’s Cutter probably becomes more of an audience surrogate than either of the two leads. This film’s unsettling and disturbing aspects come less from visceral shocks (although there are several) than watching the extremes these characters are willing to pursue, and the clear cost this has on them and those who care for them. This sort of tone is not for everyone, but if you liked Nolan’s other films, Memento and Batman Begins, definitely check this one out.

Notes on a Scandal: "Oh, it’s Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, of course they’re good, but do I really want to make the time to see yet another meticulously acted British drama?" I'd say yes for this very engaging film. Judi Dench as Barbara Covett makes a great screen villain, an aging, female Iago, a calculating spider, toxic and controlling. She can only interact with other people through a voyeuristic, secret, mocking disdain or through manipulation.

For all her adopted airs of superiority, she's so ferociously in denial of her own identity, most of all her sexuality (she pushes away even her sister's kindness about this) and so deeply insecure that she attempts to engineer indebtedness in her victims to feel valued. It's the only way she knows how to relate. Dench is always good, but she's fantastic here, and as much as I adore Helen Mirren and am happy to see her win her Oscar, Dench's performance here is probably better. Cate Blanchett as Sheba Hart is ethereral, and while Bill Nighy is consistently solid, as her husband he has two to three moments late in the film which are so well written and so pitch-perfect in delivery it’s easy to overlook how damn good he is. That’s true of the film as a whole. Patrick Marber (Closer) is no stranger to sexual politics and crafts a strong script (I can't speak to it as an adaptation). Meanwhile, Director Richard Eyre has a conductor's sense of tempo and shifts, and expertly leaves several moments uncertain. You really aren't sure what the outcome of some scenes will be, and Phillip Glass' score adds to the sense of unresolved, floating unease. For instance, just when you start to feel sympathy for Covett, she acts like a sociopath. When Sheba flees reporters back into Barbara Covett's flat, has she surrendered? Is she trapped, as Covett, well, covets? When Sheba goes to face her husband after the affair, standing in the doorway, the scene is drawn out tensely - will he actually take her back?

The one major stumbling block for me with this film was the affair itself. Obviously, it's plausible that a teacher would have an affair with a high school student. However, Stephen is only 15 in the film — probably because if he were older, there wouldn't be the same legal penalties involved. But wouldn't the scandal be enough even without the age factor? He still looks mostly like a kid, not quite a strapping young man. Also, Sheba Hart has a family and children. Even though she's unhappy and restless, she doesn't fit the more intensely lonely profile of most female offenders (in America, at least). Some critics found these factors really derailed the movie for them. Blanchett sells it about as well as anyone could, but there's no doubt it hurts the film (although it's probably unavoidable given the source material). Of course the affair will be troubling, but it seems we need to buy it more readily. For a recent comparison, in Match Point, Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is clearly a cad for cheating on his wife (Emily Mortimer), but it's pretty easy to see why a man like Wilton is tempted by a woman like Nula (Scarlett Johansson). Notes on a Scandal works well as a film of intrigue, and splendidly as a character study, but you'll have to gauge for yourself whether these characters are people you'd like to spend time watching.

Thank You for Smoking: Satire can be very hard to pull off, but the perfect casting of Aaron Eckhart as amoral charmer and tobacco flack Nick Naylor makes this film an enjoyable ride from start to finish. The trick the creators grasp is to make the Devil charming, smarter and just plain more fun than the stiffs that care about such inconsequential things as, oh, preventing lung cancer. Even though Naylor's obviously serving evil causes, he's got style and savvy to spare, and then there's the Yuppie Nuremburg defense (or Yuppie Faustian bargain) he cites: He's got a mortgage to pay. All the supporting cast is great, from J.K. Simmons as a blustery boss, Cameron Bright as Nick's son, Sam Elliot as a cancer-stricken Marlboro Man type, William H. Macy as a Senator, Todd Louiso as his inept aide, and Maria Bello and David Koechner as the other two members of the "MOD" squad (Merchants of Death, alcohol, tobacco and firearms). One of the standout scenes involves the MOD squad bragging about how many customers their products kill to complain about how hard their respective jobs are. (Rob Lowe is also fantastic as a Hollywood exec, and the footage on his lobby's giant TV of a killer whale attack is a brutally funny touch.) Finally, Nick's relationship with his son provides a nice, natural storyline for Nick to develop a conscience. As a teacher of mine once said, it's a useful talent to know how to bullshit. He might have added, it’s also important to know when to throw it away.

(Here’s director Jason Reitman on The Treatment. Here’s book author Christopher Buckley on Fresh Air in 2000, and in an online discussion after the film was released.)

Stranger Than Fiction: You can find plenty of stories-about-stories, especially in postmodern fiction, and the my-life-is-just-someone-else’s-story is hardly new. Stranger Than Fiction succeeds because it delivers some of the fairly-obvious-but-good jokes, yet also invents very clever and unexpected ones. Most of all, it’s got a strong cast and fleshes out its characters to make them quite likable, and delivers a highly satisfying and even moving ending rather than running out of steam. Will Ferrell plays a clown and an ass very well, but he brings a sweet, endearing vulnerability to schlub Harold Crick, who is bewildered to wake up one morning and discover someone narrating his life that only he can hear. Harold doesn’t quite “meet cute” with the feisty Ana Pascal (the adorable Maggie Gyllenhaal); they “meets audit.” Emma Thompson, always a pleasure, here plays reclusive, quirky and acclaimed novelist Karen Eiffel. The filmmakers get in some of the expected digs about her eccentricities and self-absorption, but then give her a soul and a conscience as well. Perhaps the most entertaining character in the movie, however, is Dustin Hoffman as Jules Hilbert, literature professor, who sees Harold’s predicament as a puzzle and a game. A more predicatable script would have made Eiffel the completely detached, amoral one. Hilbert’s obliviously self-centered joy, Ana’s passion and Eiffel’s goofiness all play nicely off Harold’s earnest befuddlement. Queen Latifah as Eiffel’s handler and Tony Hale as Harold’s best work buddy Dave also contribute nicely. If the film as a whole is about stereotypes defying their assigned fates, the film does a good job of presenting clichés and then tweaking them, at least a little. David Rose wrote a great essay about Hamlet’s enduring appeal being that everyone can relate to being cast in a role that’s not really a good fit or is just unfair. Harold starts hapless and passive, but even though he’s in way over his head, he takes action and tries his best, giving him some heroism. His final decision regarding the role he seems assigned achieves a real poetry (it reminded me of Tusenbach’s last scene in Three Sisters). I went into this film with modest expectations, but I really enjoyed it, as did the audience (which included many writers). Granted, I haven't seen Stay, but I've been pretty impressed by Marc Forster's directing in this, Finding Neverland, and Monster's Ball. (He's next slotted to direct the film adaptation of The Kite Runner.)

(Here’s Will Ferrell on Fresh Air.)