Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Top 10 Movies of 2010

I put in a late push to watch as many of the Oscar-worthy movies released in 2010 as possible, so that I might be more prepared for my top 10.  In past years, some great movies have been left out because I didn't get the chance to see them in time.  Here goes:

(10) Unstoppable -- Your basic popcorn movie but with good chemistry between Denzel Washington and Chris Pine. Director Tony Scott, if nothing else, is not bad with action flicks and has had a few films that even rise above that (True Romance, Enemy of the State).

(9) Harry Potter: The Deathly Hallows Pt. 1 -- Basically the first half of a particularly long movie, but it sets the scene well for this summer's finale. The youngsters acting skills have rounded out quite nicely while the veteran British actors do what they do best.

(8) The King's Speech -- From a strictly historical perspective, this is a fascinating story and gives you a better appreciation of the role of King George in World War II and how different it could have been if his brother had not abdicated the throne. But beyond that, it's a perfect excuse to witness two awesome actors (Rush and Firth) go at it.

(7) The Town -- Who knew that mediocre actor Ben Affleck would turn into such a fine director?  A gritty crime drama with a fantastic sense of place.  Looking forward to more from Affleck in the future. And he actually acted quite well in this one.

(6) True Grit -- True Grit, like all Coen Brothers films, has the vernacular of the time and place perfect ... something that has been most evident in films like Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou. But also with the essential Coen twist - that sense of irony. The sense that you are getting a knowing wink from the directors and that you are privy to some inside joke. All the actors are great in this, but I was particularly impressed by the child actor, Hailee Steinfeld.

This is probably the most straightforward of all the Coen films, but masterfully done and beautifully shot.

(5) Inception -- Visually original with a plot intriguing enough to keep you interested. Maybe not as odd as other Christopher Nolan fare (most notably Memento), but still a very good film.  I am rarely disappointed by Leo DiCaprio's choice of films or his performances in them.

(4) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo/The Girl Who Played with Fire -- For those that don't normally check out foreign films, do yourself a favor and check out these thoroughly original Swedish films based on the Steig Larsson books. Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander is riveting and an unforgettable character. Looking forward to seeing her in the Ridley Scott sci-fi project, Prometheus, due out in 2012.

(3) The Social Network -- One can question the fidelity of the facts of Mark Zuckerberg's life as told in the Social Network. But it would be hard to question the use of the story as a metaphor for the nature of relationships in the modern age. Well-acted and wonderfully directed by David Fincher.  Great music by Trent Reznor.

(2) Exit Through the Gift Shop - My favorite documentary of the year ... or is it (a documentary)? Directed (or staged) by street artist Banksy. A fascinating and funny study into the nature of art, the art scene, hype and documentaries. What is "truth" in a documentary? Is "truth" about facts or is it about revealing some kind of truth through an artful lie?

A quote during the movie by Banksy's former spokesman Steve Lazarides says it all, "I think the joke is on... I don’t know who the joke is on, really. I don’t even know if there is a joke."

(1) 127 Hours A story of adventure, ingenuity and of opting out of the rat-race ...a perfect mixture for me. Plus, its directed by one of my favorite directors, Danny Boyle.  Much like Into the Wild appealed to me a few years ago, 127 Hours explores a lot of the same areas of nature, society, and success. I love movies that make you examine what the hell you are doing with your life and if you are living it for someone else's definition of success.  James Franco is incredible and my pick for best actor.

Honorable mention: Waiting for Superman, Creation, Black Swan, Alice in Wonderland, Green Zone, Book of Eli, Shutter Island, Salt, Tron: Legacy

Several good kid stories that I liked: Despicable Me, Toy Story 3, Megamind, How to Train Your Dragon

A couple of 2009 movies that I didn't see in time for my list of that year: In the Loop,

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Great Debate: What is Life? at ASU

Awesome! I'm going to get to see Richard Dawkins speak in person again ... this time from the front row.

"Join a panel of renowned scientists and public intellectuals, including evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, human genome sequencer J. Craig Venter, Nobel Laureate molecular biologist Sidney Altman, NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay, Nobel Laureate biologist Lee Hartwell, and renowned physicist Paul Davies as they discuss some of the most profound questions in science today: What is life? When, where, and how did life begin? Can and should we create life in the laboratory?"

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Hitch 22 ... on outrage and irony

Reading the very first words of Christopher Hitchens' autobiography, Hitch 22, I knew I was going to like the book,

"I can claim copyright only in myself, and occasionally in those who are either dead or have written about the same events, or who have a decent expectation of anonymity, or who are such appalling public shits that they have forfeited their right to bitch."

Irreverence and a unique command of the English language have marked all of his writings, and this was no exception.

I can respect Hitchens not because I always agree with him, which I don't, but rather because I know at least he has deeply thought about the positions he takes. As he says, "it matters not what you think, but how you think. This manner in which he thinks is admirable and something I strive for myself,

"It's quite a task to combat the absolutists and the relativists at the same time: to maintain that there is no totalitarian solution while also insisting that, yes, we on our side also have unalterable convictions and are willing to fight for them. After various past allegiances, I have come to believe that Karl Marx was the rightest of all when he recommended continual doubt and self-criticism. Membership in the skeptical faction or tendency is not at all a soft option. The defense of science and reason is the great imperative of our time ... To be an unbeliever is not to be merely “open-minded.” It is, rather, a decisive admission of uncertainty that is dialectically connected to the repudiation of the totalitarian principle, in the mind as well as in politics."

Certainly, his takes on Iraq (for the invasion) and Bill Clinton (would have testified during impeachment against) I find almost indefensible. But he goes to great links to do just that, especially in the case of Iraq ... a whole chapter. Leaving that whole chapter out of this book would have improved it greatly. And there is obviously room to leave it out, as Hitchens left whole areas of his life out of the book, including his first wife and several of his children, and his younger brother, columnist Peter Hitchens.

Some reviewers have rightly called out Hitchens for being a inveterate name-dropper ... and he is. But I don't mind it so much. When you have led such an interesting life and have had such interesting company: Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Gore Vidal, etc., you can be forgiven. His stories are funny and he is not afraid to poke fun at himself or to admit dalliances that others might be reluctant to admit, including homosexual encounters in his youth.  His well known propensity for drinking, among other vices, is well represented as well.

Several chapters are spent on his friends, including Amis, James Fenton and Rushdie. Many of his early friendships were strained or outright ended because of Hitchens' gradual turning away from his progressive (and to a certain extent, Marxist) roots. For many, his cheerleading for the Iraq invasion was the final straw. His position, while regrettable in my opinion, shows his willingness to follow his thoughts to their logical end. It may be hard on relationships, but it's probably a necessary choice for a public intellectual.  He's not swayed by religion or parochiality or even family and friends.

His autobiography goes to great lengths to recount his schooling and his parents. When describing the British public schools (the American equivalent of private schools) and his experiences there, Pink Floyd's Another Brick in the Wall (Pt2) came to mind,

"... We don't need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone ..."

With his father, a military man, his words are respectful but detached. With his mother, someone he found to be Jewish after her death, affection is more apparent.

One of the "four horsemen" of modern atheism, along with Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, Hitchens has the virtue of being the only non-academic, though he's obviously well-read. That detachment gives him the leeway to be more biting and distinctly more funny than the other three. That's not to say he is my favorite, at least on that subject. I've always been partial to Sam Harris, and then probably Dawkins.

Hitch 22 touches on his atheist contemporaries a little bit, and in glowing terms, "I feel absurdly honored to be grouped in the public mind with great teachers and scholars such as Richard Dawkins…, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris ..." Largely, the book is not about his atheism at all. The only time he touches on it is in the final chapter. But when he does, it is to great effect and one of the reasons that I admire Hitchens. On the "meaning of life" for non-believers,

"About once or twice every month I engage in public debates with those whose pressing need it is to woo and to win the approval of supernatural beings. Very often, when I give my view that there is no supernatural dimension, and certainly not one that is only or especially available to the faithful, and that the natural world is wonderful enough—and even miraculous enough if you insist—I attract pitying looks and anxious questions. How, in that case, I am asked, do I find meaning and purpose in life? How does a mere and gross materialist, with no expectation of a life to come, decide what, if anything, is worth caring about?

Depending on my mood, I sometimes but not always refrain from pointing out what a breathtakingly insulting and patronizing question this is. (It is on a par with the equally subtle inquiry: Since you don't believe in our god, what stops you from stealing and lying and raping and killing to your heart's content?) Just as the answer to the latter question is: self-respect and the desire for the respect of others—while in the meantime it is precisely those who think they have divine permission who are truly capable of any atrocity—so the answer to the first question falls into two parts. A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called 'meaningless' except if the person living it is also an existentialist and elects to call it so. It could be that all existence is a pointless joke, but it is not in fact possible to live one's everyday life as if this were so. Whereas if one sought to define meaninglessness and futility, the idea that a human life should be expended in the guilty, fearful, self-obsessed propitiation of supernatural nonentities… but there, there. Enough."

Though Hitch 22 was written prior to his discovery that he had esophageal cancer, his words clearly envision his eventual passing, "The clear awareness of having been born into a losing struggle need not lead one into despair. I do not especially like the idea that one day I shall be tapped on the shoulder and informed, not that the party is over but that it is most assuredly going on—only henceforth in my absence. (It's the second of those thoughts: the edition of the newspaper that will come out on the day after I have gone, that is the more distressing.) Much more horrible, though, would be the announcement that the party was continuing forever, and that I was forbidden to leave. Whether it was a hellishly bad party or a party that was perfectly heavenly in every respect, the moment that it became eternal and compulsory would be the precise moment that it began to pall."

Hitchens has lived on his own terms, and shows a desire to leave this Earth on those same terms. We should all be so lucky.

"Your favorite virtue? An appreciation for irony."

"I hope never to lose the access to outrage that I felt then."

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

I'd have to say that, in general, the response to this last weekend's shootings in Tucson by politicians of both sides and the public has been the appropriate response - contemplation, sympathy, and calls for more tempered dialogue. Of course, you knew you could count on Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck to take it to new levels of narcissism and have their own little pity party. But, I knew it was just a matter of time before you'd have a few people go completely off the reservation. That's what's so entertaining about the far Right, especially my own state's far Right. Faced with a stupid and unfortunate event that calls for solemnity, they will double-down. In their book, their is no inappropriate response. If you are catching heat because inflamed rhetoric might have even remotely and indirectly influenced someone, then ratchet up the rhetoric and ratchet up the stupid:

AZ State Rep. Jack Harper, (Repub.) -- "When everyone is carrying a firearm, nobody is going to be a victim. The socialists of today are only one gun confiscation away from being the communists of tomorrow."

And if a situation calls for people to review our gun laws, then, of course, the response should be to ... promptly go out and buy more guns: Sales in Glock Pistols Up After Arizona Shootings

It's straight out of the Karl Rove playbook. Make a negative into a positive. I'd like to say I was surprised, but I'm not.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

I read the news today, oh boy ...

I had a whole bunch of ideas on how to express my feelings and thoughts on yesterday's senseless shooting in Tucson of Arizona Congressmen Gabrielle Giffords, a federal judge, a 9 year old girl and many others. Then I watched Keith Olbermann's Special Comment. I could not have said it better ... and I won't try:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Small Town Iowa - Know Your Enemy

Just a day or two removed from our trip to Iowa for the holidays. A good trip, cold, but family was nice. And I didn't get in any awkward conversations about religion or politics with the in-laws. I played nice. Wanted to get over to Chi-town to see some of gang, but unfortunately it was not to be. Weather, health and time conspired to prevent it.

I got quite a bit of reading done, Hitch 22 by Christoper Hitchens (review soon to come) and Zero History by William Gibson.

 I went walking around town just about every day. Osceola is not so different from where I grew up (Red Oak) or any other small Midwestern town. The small town checklist? Less than 5,000 people, little industry, a ridiculously large Wal-Mart, Indian gaming, decaying but interesting old buildings:

Largely white populations (Osceola 95.73%), a sinking economy with little hope for the future. Deprived of a longtime enemy,

they are forced to look for new ones. But, instead of looking at that Wal-Mart or casino on the edge of town ... those things that emasculate the community and render it generic and dependent ... they look elsewhere. Iowa, at once encouraging because of the law to allow gay marriages, at the next moment discouraging because of the drive to repeal the judges that made it happen.

And small town Iowan looks at immigrants. You don't have to go far to hear the phrase "damn Mexicans". (I didn't have to leave the house). It's too bad, but perhaps destined to happen. Osceola is named for the Seminole of the same name,

. Osceola was captured under a truce flag and died soon after,

To quote BSG, "All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again."

"From a certain point of view our real enemy, the true troublemaker, is inside." -- Tenzin Gyatso, The 14th Dalai Lama quotes (Dalai Lama, b.1935)

You can't be serious!

My FB "friend" with her latest status:

This is a status I just could NOT pass up: When you carry the Bible, Satan gets a headache. When you open it, he collapses. When he sees you reading it, he faints. When he sees you living it, he flees. And just when you're about to re-post this, he'll try to discourage you. I JUST DEFEATED HIM! Copy and re-post if you can...AMEN!!!

True Christians, you must not allow those among you to post things like this. It does not exactly sing out intelligence. I don't respond to her on Facebook because there is no possible way to. This kind of person has absolutely no grasp on reality.