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November 2007
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Neal Vitale Reviews: Atonement

3.5 stars out of 5

This adaptation of Ian McEwen's 2003 novel is stylish and well-made, yet chilly and even a bit off-putting. The story centers on the unpleasant and calculating Briony Tallis, a girl whose youthful misjudgment and lies inexorably change three lives for the worse. The film has moments of brilliance. It nicely weaves illusion and reality, history and the present. The cinematography is beautiful, and a protracted tracking shot on the beach at Dunkirk is a tour de force. James McAvoy (The Last King Of Scotland) again distinguishes himself, and a brief appearance by Vanessa Redgrave at the film's end revives and reconciles the narrative. But the skeletal Keira Knightley is underwhelming in the key role of Briony's sister Cecilia, and the film is far too long at over two hours. Most difficult, though, is trying to enjoy a film whose main character is completely unlikable and morally bankrupt. I found myself acknowledging the strengths of Atonement, but not liking it very much.

Neal Vitale Reviews: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street

3 stars out of 5

Stephen Sondheim's late 70s musical "Sweeney Todd" has made it to the big screen at last, courtesy of director Tim Burton (Batman, Ed Wood, Big Fish). It is a ghoulishly beautiful work, telling a Shakespearean story of savage revenge and regret in shades of steely blue-gray and sooty black, splattered with vivid, viscous, neon-red blood. While leads Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter do more than competent jobs acting and singing as Benjamin Barker (aka Sweeney Todd) and Mrs. Lovett, they are clearly secondary to the set design, staging, and, frankly, the blood. Unfortunately, when a film's core is inanimate, the result is more to be admired than embraced. Other than as an outlet for Burton's florid imagination and style, there seems to be little reason that Sweeney Todd became a film.

Neal Vitale Reviews: Charlie Wilson's War

4 out of 5 stars

With much of the work of writer Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The American President, TV's "The West Wing," Broadway's "The Farnsworth Invention"), the star of the production is the writing. Charlie Wilson's War is no exception. A top-notch cast - Tom Hanks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julia Roberts, Amy Adams - does a fine job delivering the lines, and veteran Mike Nichols directs a well-paced and attractive film, but it barely matters. Sorkin's clever dialogue and story-telling are the focus of Charlie Wilson's War. Though this true-life tale of behind-the-scenes political wrangling to support anti-Soviet efforts in Afghanistan in the 1980s - including the sobering cautionary note that the battle is not just conducted with weapons - could just as easily have been a TV show or a play, it is eminently entertaining.

Neal Vitale Reviews: The Golden Compass

2.5 stars out of 5

Rarely has a film so annoyed me as did The Golden Compass. I confess to not being a fan of the magical/mystical fantasy genre - I expect that I am one of the few humans who stopped reading Harry Potter after the first book, didn't like the film versions very much, didn't care for Lord Of The Rings, etc. So I was particularly impressed as the early stages of The Golden Compass drew me in, with a clever (anti-religion?) storyline, impressive special effects, lavish and beautiful costumes and set design, nice performances from the likes of Nicole Kidman and Sam Elliott, and a slew of impressive voiceovers. I was heading towards a very positive review when - bam! - commerce trumped art. After a staggering battle scene, which seemed to help build the film's momentum and put it on track to resolve many of its dangling storylines, The Golden Compass ends abruptly. The promise of a sequel - "The Golden Compass" is only the first of Philip Pullman's trilogy, "His Dark Materials," and the film uses only a portion of that volume - clearly overwhelmed the need for a proper conclusion. Grrrr...

Neal Vitale Reviews: Juno

4 stars out of 5

Juno is the first produced screenplay for ex-stripper Diablo Cody (who apparently has a cat named "Douchepacker") and the latest effort from 30-year-old director Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking), son of director/producer Ivan (Ghost Busters et al). The film is a sheer pleasure - smart, funny, human - the lovely product of a fine screenplay enlivened with excellent performances. The cast is led by the 20-year-old Ellen Page in the title role, with nice supporting work from "The West Wing"'s Allison Janney and veteran actor J.K. Simmons (a regular on HBO's "Oz" and J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man series, among many others) as her parents. Juno is this year's Little Miss Sunshine, and I expect that it will compete for an Oscar nomination.

Richard Dalton's Sad Summary of the Year in Iraq

As 2007 winds up, I'm reminded that we are still waging war in Iraq "against terror." I wonder if "terror" refers to what the 79,000-86,000 Iraq civilians felt before they were killed (Iraq Body Count

Lost in the endless wrangling about appropriations and the success or failure of the "Surge" is the fact that this war need not have been-- should not have been--fought at all. The best way we could "support our troops," Bush's favorite simple-minded, jingoistic slogan, would have been to leave them at home.

Have we all forgotten the chicanery that trumped up a case for Iraqi invasion? Anyone remember pleas from the Iraqi citizens for the immediate overthrow of Saddam Hussein? Instead, we treated Iraq as though it was our protectorate and invaded their country because we decided to make things better for our little friends. Oh... and to eliminate the imminent threat of Iraq's nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons that would be launched against the American Homeland. Anyone remember that?

North Korea's nightmarish leader Kim Jong il is at least as bad as Hussein was and his country even has real, authentic nuclear weapons with rockets to deliver them. We were able to turn that problem around with skilled diplomacy, not invasion. What a concept.

In 2006, overwhelming public opinion against the war caused the Republicans to lose control of both houses of Congress. Since then, the Democrats have put on an amazing display of impotence, hurling threats at Bush and acquiescing on every war appropriation. It makes me sad to see how flaccid democracy can be. How painful it is to see hope dashed on the rocks of political compromise.

The total cost of the Iraq war is fast approaching $480 billion with a new authorization of $70 billion just passed by congress. That's a spending rate of $275 million a DAY or a total of about $4100 a family (so far). California residents please note: everyone is tearing their hair out over the $14 billion budget shortfall anticipated next year. California's share of the FY 2008 appropriation to fund the Iraq war is $28 billion, folks. And remember, that's just 2008.

Meanwhile, we are spending ourselves into bankruptcy and cutting taxes for the well-to-do. China is buying up our chits wholesale and Abu Dhabi just bailed out struggling Citicorp, our No. 1 bank. Families living under the poverty line rose from 12.1% to 12.5% of the population. The number of people uninsured rose 1.4 million to 45 million, close to 15% of the population.

Is any of this related? The cost of the Iraq war in FY 2007 would provide health insurance for almost 40 million people. Or 23 million university scholarships. Or more than one million affordable housing units--like in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Or...

Decades from now, people will look back on the Iraq war fiasco as one of the premiere examples of governmental incompetence. Bush and his crew will receive appropriate amounts of scorn, but Congress will be viewed as a handmaiden to the tragedy. I'm afraid the American people, myself included, will be viewed as a mystery. How could we, in a democratic society where we have ballot box constraint on our government, have allowed this to happen, much less continue.


Links lying around, Lasusa Links, Dan Grobstein File

Daniel Dern has two new blogs: Trying Technology -- "a blog about the technologies I'm trying, and how trying technologies can be" and Dern Near Everything Else.

Links from Tom Lasusa: (many of which might well be more interesting before Christmas rather than after…)
Dreamin' of a White Christmas

A 'Holiday Classic' -- Hey Ya! Charlie Brown
That's not Santa...Could be Papa Smurf
SantaCON in NYC
How to properly photograph Christmas Lights
A Christmas Story -- told in 30 Seconds by Bunnies
The Yule Log -- a classic TV tradition
Norad Tracks Santa
Vaya Con Dios: 1 of 3 remaining WWI vets dies at 109
8 Fairy Tales And Their Not-So-Happy Endings
'Danger: Avoid Death' (points at cached version of story)
Seriously...the Hula Burger???
Some People Can Hear A Color Or Smell A Sound
Is it time for Bacon? Use this handy flowchart.
A-Holes of the Week: Woman Denied Care by 30 Hospitals; Dies
Student wins lottery, leaves school
From the Rankin Bass Classic "Rudolph's Shiny New Year" -- Father Time's Song
The Screening Room's Top 10 Life-Affirming Movie Moments
Mexico's pop stars are being killed by drug cartel bosses
Kid's attempt to scare sis doesn't go too well (and yes, we're not laughing with him...we're laughing at him)

  • Don Davis was amused by this Christmas Song.Not exactly Bing singing White Christmas…
  • Robert Malchman spotted this: The 91st-richest man in the United States, a roofing company billionaire, has died after falling through his home garage's roof, local authorities said Friday.

Dan Grobstein File

Christmas Message

[Note: I may be able to file a column from Oregon on Dec. 24 and Dec. 31; it depends on the Internet connectivity; this may be my last column for three weeks.]

In the fine old tradition of journalists who recycle their holiday messages year after year, here's the eighth rerun of my Christmas message since Dec. 21, 1998 (with a few slight modifications).

Season's greetings to one and all. Apologies to those of you who feel oppressed by the season. I know Christians, atheists and Jews who feel the seasonal oppression in equal parts. Oppression and depression. I'm sorry. This message isn't going to cheer you up, much.

This is a time of year that has inspired some of the most brilliant writing in the English language. It ranges from Dickens' A Christmas Carol (which single-handedly revived the celebration of Christmas as a major holiday in the English-speaking world), to the sturdy newspaper editorial entitled "Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus." In more modern times, we have, among other things, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and the unforgettable Bill Murray as Scrooge in the Dickens adaptation, Scrooged. (Not to mention Olive, The Other Reindeer).

Alas, like so many of us, the muse seems to have taken off early. I briefly considered, as I do every year, throwing in some of Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas In Wales which Fr. Harrison West and I recited several times at Benson High School assemblies (long before he was Fr. West). But then I decided just to do a quick Christmas column.

What is Christmas about? It can be about the birth of Jesus, but for most of us it isn't. It's about many things.

Christmas is about singing (or listening to) Christmas carols. My favorite annual Christmas party, bar none, is the Christmas Caroling party held annually by our best friends, the Strykowskis. They're Jewish, and so are many of the partygoers. Joyful voices raised together. Doesn't matter if they're not in tune. Doesn't matter if some of the lyrics are Christian claptrap. Jingle Bells, White Christmas and Jingle Bell Rock, along with the rest of the secular Christmas liturgy are just plain fun. I wince a little sometimes when we sing the later verses of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," or "Good King Wenceslas." (Question: speaking of flow muses, why is it that the muse flees most lyricists somewhere between the first and second verses?) Besides, Norm Schlansky and I get to do "Five Golden Rings" every year.

Christmas is about family and friends. It is about Egg Nog (or fat-free "Holiday Nog," or the South Beach low-effective carb version) and all the rest of the seasonal food. It is about the children--bless my wife for her decision a decade ago to give to the kids only; no adult presents. Since then, not another fruit basket has been sacrificed to the impossible task of thinking up presents for adults who already own everything they want.

It's about travelling, at the worst travel time of year, to be with your family. Marlow now lives in S.F.; she'll join us in Portland Dec. 22-25, after a brief Powerpoint presentation at our house [family joke]. Then she comes back to SF without us (her company does not shut down for the week between Christmas and New Years), while Vicki and I head to Gleneden Beach, on the coast near Lincoln City, Oregon, for the week between Christmas and New Years. Spending that week in that town is a tradition as old as our marriage (28 years on Jan. 1). We haven't done it every year in recent years, but we do it when we can. This year, we'll buy clothing at the outlet mall in town.

Christmas is about family traditions when you're a kid, and the blending of family traditions when you marry. In childhood, my family stayed at home on Christmas, my wife was always a Christmas runaway. My lights went up the Saturday after Thanksgiving each year and came down the Saturday after New Years. Vicki's went up on Christmas Eve and came down on Boxing Day. This year, there's hardly any lights at all. With two adult children, that's fine.

We've had artificial trees for years. Marlow asked for a big real tree her freshman year at college, so we put a 14-footer in the library in 1999; then Rae asked for one and got it in 2003. This year -- just a little tabletop tree with Mexican decorations.

Christmas is about giving thanks. Thanksgiving is the official holiday to give thanks for our good fortune, but nothing says you can't do that at Christmas as well. Every Christmas morning when I wake up with my health, my wife, my children and my parents as part of this world, I count my blessings. Mine are beyond counting. I hope yours are too. I have adult-onset diabetes, but there are lots of worse diseases in the world. Mine, at least, is under control. I almost died in a car crash in January, but I'm still alive. I had ventricle fibrilation, and now I have a defibrillator / pacemaker. And, medically supervised but eating normal food, I've lost 70 pounds. This is the least I've weighed since 1985, and I feel great!

Merry Christmas!

One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six...

GWOT Allies?

Dan Grobstein turned this in: Gerald Posner at the Huffington Post

It was at that point that some of the secrets of 9/11 came pouring out. In a short monologue, that one investigator told me was the "Rosetta Stone" of 9/11, Zubaydah laid out details of how he and the al Qaeda hierarchy had been supported at high levels inside the Saudi and Pakistan governments.

He named two other Saudi princes, and also the chief of Pakistan's air force, as his major contacts. Moreover, he stunned his interrogators, by charging that two of the men, the King's nephew, and the Pakistani Air Force chief, knew a major terror operation was planned for America on 9/11.

It would be nice to further investigate the men named by Zubaydah, but that is not possible. All four identified by Zubaydah are now dead. As for the three Saudi princes, the King's 43-year-old nephew, Prince Ahmed, died of either a heart attack or blood clot, depending on which report you believe, after having liposuction in Riyadh's top hospital; the second, 41-year-old Prince Sultan bin Faisal bin Turki al-Saud, died the following day in a one car accident, on his way to the funeral of Prince Ahmed; and one week later, the third Saudi prince named by Zubaydah, 25-year-old Prince Fahd bin Turki bin Saud al-Kabir, died, according to the Saudi Royal Court, "of thirst." The head of Pakistan's Air Force, Mushaf Ali Mir, was the last to go. He died, together with his wife and fifteen of his top aides, when his plane blew up -- suspected as sabotage -- in February 2003. Pakistan's investigation of the explosion -- if one was even done -- has never been made public.

Zubaydah is the only top al Queda operative who has secretly linked two of America's closest allies in the war on terror -- Saudi Arabia and Pakistan -- to the 9/11 attacks. Why does Bush, and the CIA, continue to protect the Saudi Royal family and the Pakistani military, from the implications of Zubaydah's confessions?

And then you have reports that say that this guy was just a gofer and insane to boot. They say that he made up stuff and sent the government into a frenzy checking out all the places that he said were targeted.

I don't know. I've read three of Posner's books and he seems to be careful in his sourcing and analysis.

This is a link about the guy who was waterboarded that Posner said was high level. This one says he wasn't. Anyway this torture stuff is beneath us as a country.