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December 2011
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February 2012

Neal Vitale Reviews: Super 8 (download)

3.5 stars out of 5 

This collaboration between writer/director J.J. Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg is far more entertaining than I expected. It's a genre film set in the early 60s about aliens that landed in Ohio years earlier and their struggle to return home. Super 8 has a brilliant opening sequence, and it uses a terrific cast of teen actors (led by Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths, and Elle Fanning) to ride that engaging momentum almost to the end. As with other movies of its ilk, Super 8 struggles to find an appropriate ending, but it is a fun diversion nonetheless.

Carroll posts, Internet Memes, Reynolds finds Journalism Jokes, Dan Grobstein File

Chuck Carroll has a great post, Personal Voting Style. Also, the death of the Twinkie.   

A friend sends along an burgeoning internet meme: The wonder and amazement of Kim Jong-Il looking at things. And another one, to which I am also late: Honey Badger doesn't give a S***

Former contributor and long-time friend Craig Reynolds notes Journalism through Jokes.

Dan Grobstein File
Dana Houle (@DanaHoule) Really shocked that Perry's campaign was so bad, considering his manager was director of FEMA in the Bush administration. Also: We’ll Just Call It A Tie

Mali Journal

My older daughter, M, is in the Peace Corps in Mali. Here's her version of our Christmas visit:

I got access to the car and driver, Mo, on the 21st so I could start running errands before my family got there. I went to Azar and the Fourmi where I bought all the food for every meal my family was going to be eating for all 4 days. It was heavy on canned foods, which I know was bad for dad’s cholesterol problem, but it was hard to get around since I wanted to keep my family from all raw vegetables and fruits the whole time they were in country. I also stopped by Mali Chic (a boutique of Malian crafts I have been meaning to check out for some time), the suguba (big market) and Artisana, and Vietnamese food for lunch. None of these things would have been impossible to do without a car, but it was so much nicer to do them with a car. Everything went smoothly, but I didn’t get eggs, bread, or water until after my family arrived.

The Bamako Radisson was insanely nice. I took many showers, and enjoyed watching CNN international coverage of the death of Kim Jong-Il and the ascension of Kim Jung-un. I could have read about it later, but it was great to be able to see all the footage of the North Koreans wailing in the streets in real time. It turns out only Mary Horn and Tabitha were staying at the stage house, since everyone else who was going to leave for the holidays had already gone or their families had already come in. I thought it would probably be a zoo. I’m still happy I got the hotel room, because even though I like both of them, it was nice to have my own space. I also ordered room service like crazy. There were only three waiters, and they seemed more than amused that I could speak Bambara. They all had to speak at least a smattering of French and English, but they were thrilled to switch to Bambara.


December 22nd

My parents arrived at the airport at 9pm. I got there early with Mo and ordered a coffee at the Broadway Café express so we could sit at an actual table to bide our time. It felt like my family were the last people off the plane, in part because my mom veered off at the last minute to use the bathroom before they emerged from security, but I was just happy they were all there and made it through security without problems. I’d been having a minor panic attack that day thinking I hadn’t emphasized to my father the importance of bringing their up to date WHO cards with proof of Yellow Fever shots, but it turns out the expediter he used for their Mali Visas double checked all their documents before they left, and they had everything they needed. Everyone was in surprisingly good spirits and had high energy for just having come off one domestic and two international flights. They did long lay-overs in both NYC and Paris, which I guess really helped.

With Mo there, getting them out of the airport quickly was a breeze. He ran to get the car and bring it around as soon as I saw my family. We drove straight to the Radisson Bamako without incident. I gave everyone the clothes I’d had made for them, and the other little presents I’d picked up in the previous days and months. We made a plan to meet for breakfast the next day in full Malian regalia and parted ways for the evening.


December 23rd

Everyone but me ran a little late for breakfast, but that was fine since we weren’t in a rush. Everyone looked great in their Malian clothing. It felt a little weird to be wearing it within the Bamako Radisson, since there were other white people there, and all the Malian staff were dressed in western-style clothes, but all the Malians in the restaurant loved it. They all greeted in Bambara rather than French and told me how great everyone looked. One waiter even got so excited that he brought out his camera and asked to have pictures taken with us. Someone asked if we were going to a wedding, and I told them no, just to my village.

We went to Mali Chic and my mom and sister got some jewelry, of a quality much better than anything else in Mali, and I bought some bougalan (a scarf and an elephant), and mom got some little baskets. We took pictures with the masks outside, and again I fielded compliments on everyone’s outfits from every Malian who saw us. My family got their first taste of joking cousins, as everyone faked distaste that such a handsomely dressed family should be Fanes (blacksmiths), when obviously we should be Fulani or Bambara.

We picked up 24 bottles of water, 30 eggs, and 10 loaves of bread and headed towards N’tjilla a bit after noon.

We stopped in Bougani and did a little impromptu picnic next to the car in the shade while Mo wandered off to find a rice and sauce lady. We attracted a crowd of kids, obviously. I gave my family a lesson in Malian child crowd control, and the okay-ness of handing your trash to a child as if it were an actual gift. They took our empty water bottles and used Vache Qui Rit wrappings with pleasure. My mom got a good picture of some of the guinea-fowl-selling 10 year olds.

We got into village before dark, but still pretty late in the afternoon. Everyone was there. It seemed like the whole village was there to greet. The kids helped us carry all the food and luggage inside, and I broke out the Christmas decorations for my American and Malian families to hang up on the Moringa trees in my yard. That kept it from being too awkward initially. I excused us by saying we were tired from the road and that everyone wanted to bathe, and that we would cook our own dinner, and everyone cleared my yard. However, I was the only one who actually wanted to bathe. My family was weirded out by the idea of bathing with a bucket in the negen. I made a fancier than normal version of my pasta with cheese. Every meal we made I made sure we had enough extra for my homologue, and D, or whoever they wanted to share it with since so many people were staying at their compound to greet my family.

Things were slightly awkward with Mo. Obviously, there are no restaurants or hotels in village. I’d warned my homologue repeatedly that there would be a driver coming with us and that he would need to eat and sleep somewhere. She had seemed to understand, and said it wouldn’t be a problem, but then when we were actually there, she started asking me where he was going to sleep and what he was going to eat, as if these were new problems. I just turned the question around to her, and she finally agreed that D would cook for him and he could sleep at V’s compound. The next day we didn’t even need the car since we were going to walk around greeting, so he spent the whole day drinking tea and yaala-yaalaing with the men folk or sitting at S’s moto repair area. While I wanted him to be comfortable, my main focus was my family, so I didn’t pay too much attention to how he was doing, figuring he’d sort it out himself. He’s from Segou, and now lives in Bamako, so I think he was a little out of his element in village, but he never complained.

As we were finishing dinner my homologue came in. When I tried to give her food she took it back to her compound to eat, too embarrassed to use a fork in front of my American family, and then the former mayor and a bunch of the ladies who had come from farther away quartiers and even neighboring villages came into my compound to greet again and chat. We discussed the schedule for the next couple of days, including the dance party the next afternoon. One of the old ladies did a dance so my family would understand. When my family started yawning they took the hint, which wasn’t even necessarily meant as a hint, and excused themselves.

I gave the big bed to mom and Rae. I thought it would be too small for mom and dad. Dad got my single mattress and the mosquito net I got from the USAID campaign, and I slept next to him in my exercise room in my bug hut with my sleeping pad. No one was entirely comfortable, and no one slept well for the whole visit, but it was the best I could offer. I think my family would have had trouble sleeping in village under any conditions. Dad felt claustrophobic under the mosquito net. The night is incredibly dark with no ambient light. The donkeys braying and the 5:30 am call to prayer can be disturbing if you’re not used to them, and then there are all the birds that come out as soon as the sun rises. Everyone kept up good energy the whole time despite everyone complaining about not sleeping.

Christmas Eve

The old men, including the dugutigi and former mayor, came to our compound to greet us first thing in the morning. It was pretty incredible. They brought in two mats and gave us rice and a chicken. There was lots of greeting, and lots of saying how excited they were to have my family visiting and how happy it made them. I probably should have come up with some set response, but I did my best to stumble through an equally nice response from my family about how happy they were to be there, which my homologue fixed up for me. The whole pattern of having someone say something to someone else to say to someone else to say to you worked to my advantage because my homologue was the conduit in both directions, so I wasn’t forced to talk directly to the old men or to have to understand them directly.

We then spent the whole morning greeting in Maserena, Kumela, and at the school. I hadn’t bought kola nuts for the old men, so I gave out cash instead. We saw the old men who had been too old to come to us, and greeted everyone my homologue told us too. My family started to see the pattern with the joking cousins as everywhere we went I was asked to introduce my family, who I had named Oumou (R), Worokia (mom), and Braman (dad). I gave them all the same last name as me, Fane. And since we were visiting Diallo and Sidibe-heavy quartiers, everyone insisted they change their names to become Fulani. Y was beaming with pride when they started to learn to say “ayi” on their own without my prompting and repeat that they were Fanes.

We did tours of the CSCOM with Bakkary, maternite, the women’s literacy center where we hold the bank meetings, and the butiki so they could see the cabine and meet Chaka.

We went back to my compound for lunch of bread and nutella or cheese, and mom and dad took naps while Rae and I sat up reading magazines and chatting.

In the afternoon we had our dance party with the old women. Y came at first, but he left after awhile and Dad was the only guy. Everyone was a good sport about getting up and dancing. The women sang songs specifically about my family. Dad got two songs dedicated just to him, as an important old man. We took a bunch of pictures. Rae wore the ridiculous sequined outfit I had made for her, which she ended up leaving behind with me, understandably so. I’m glad she had the balls to wear it to the party though. Several of the women asked her to give it to them. It was a little over-wrought for a village party, but she wore it well.

When the old women asked for the road, we went back to my compound to make dinner and take baths. I had bought a bunch of green beans and carrots in Bamako, so we did have some food that wasn’t from cans. We made falafel and couscous, and I also bought some chick-pea paste and we made some humus too. I was pretty happy with all of the meals. It is the best I’ve consistently eaten in village.

D was sick, so she wasn’t very active during the whole visit. When we went over to the compound to make s’mores, I had to request that she come out and join us. The s’mores were a success. Dad started freaking out a little when he remembered that gelatin, an ingredient in marshmallows is made from pigs. We proceeded anyway. The kids loved them. I didn’t have graham crackers, but I’d bought butter cookies for the occasion. When one of the marshmallows fell in the dirt you could see the kids wanted to grab it anyway, but one of the adults stopped them. My family excused themselves early, and I stayed to chat a little longer and make sure everything was going well, that everything was going as smoothly as it seemed to be. We smoothed out the few wrinkles that needed smoothing out, and then I excused myself as well.


Christmas Day

The next day we went to Niena to see the market, and everything else there. I wanted a Malian chaperone to go with us in case anything weird happened. I didn’t expect trouble, but I also didn’t know what to expect because I’d never gone into town with a car or with my whole American family. I asked M if she wanted to come, but she demurred saying she didn’t have any money so going to the market would be torture because she wouldn’t be able to buy anything. I asked D if she wanted to come, but she had to spend all day cleaning and cooking the guinea fowl that I’d bought to help celebrate Christmas (for my homologue’s family and myself not my own family since I didn’t want my own family eating any local meat prepared in village, even by D). My homologue started to see that I was fishing for someone to go with us and offered up B (9 years old), and then M2 (16 year old boarder in her compound). That worked. They put their market best on and hopped into the back of the car and we were off.

We wandered through market early before it was too crowded. I showed them fabrics, and food, and the Fane area where I leave my stuff when it gets too heavy, where they sell water cisterns, little ceramic stoves and baskets. M2 helped me haggle on some nice fabric to give to Ysince we’d given M1 a bunch of American presents in front of him, and I could tell he was kind of miffed all he got was a shirt, even though it was a really nice shirt my mom had picked out. Then we went to the tailor and I had mom and R help me go through the design books to pick a design for my paint and paintbrushes fabric. They decided on a ruffled design inspired by one of the old lady’s outfits from the dance party the day before. R got more into the right spirit, mom wanted me to do something under-stated. We stopped by the post office where the post master and Mo got into a tiff about where he parked the car, but everyone shook it off quickly enough.

We were back before 1 for lunch and naps.

In the afternoon we drove to Sibirila. I liked the idea of showing my family another village, even though I’m sure it largely looked identical to N’tjilla to them. Everyone was thrilled to have us there. We greeted and greeted. I’d wanted to go to Sibirila rather than Bougoulaba because M3 had just had her baby a week and a half before, and I thought I was going to miss the denkundi (baptism) because I was in Bamako. When I got back though I heard from my homologue they hadn’t had it yet because the child was small. I don’t know if that means premature or sick, but I still wanted to greet her and the baby. We greeted in the first quartier in Sibirila, and O insisted we join him for some beans. I begged off for the rest of my family, and my homologue helped me explain that they weren’t eating village food, but I ate some myself. Lots of women were working on shea butter, and men were working on cotton, so there was plenty to take pictures of. It wasn’t till we got to M3’s quartier that O told us the baby had died that morning. I’d had my sister and mom practice denkundi blessings, which were now irrelevant. I gave money to my homologue to give to M3 rather than the baby wrap and soap we’d brought, which seemed insensitive to give and I offered my two funeral blessings. M3 looked sad and tired, but she did a good job of playing the host anyway, as M4’s wife did the day I greeted her the day after her baby died. It was an unintentional good lesson for my family in the harsh realities of Malian life.

On the way back we stopped at the school so I could show my family the future library. The school director was still at another village for a boy’s soccer game, but Teacher got the key and let us in.

We cooked dinner, same as the night before, and B brought over my servings of guinea fowl. I think she brought enough for me to share with my family in case they changed their minds, but I just ate it all myself. I had also bought onions, oil, vinegar, and mustard for D so she could cook it in the same grilled delicious way she had made the lamb for Tabaski. While it was delicious, I did not offer it to my family.

After dinner we set off fireworks I had bought in Niena the week before. I decided we’d just do half of them, and I’d leave the other half for them to use for New Years while I was in Paris. The doctors were there, as was the former mayor. I thought V or A or D, one of my host brothers, would do the honors of setting off the fireworks, but the doctors were eager to do it, so I gladly let them. Some of them were much more powerful than I’d expected, and one of the most powerful ones they set off upside down, while another got aimed straight into a mango tree. All the women, and my American family, and myself, ran as far away as possible from the doctors while they were setting off the fireworks, but I think it was a success. Everyone liked the sparklers too. While it seemed dangerous, no one got hurt, and I got some great pictures. Not exactly a normal Christmas tradition, but whatever, it was fun.


Dec. 26

Mo slept in, so we got a slow start to the morning, but not too bad. We went to Numula fitini to greet Yakuba’s people. We stopped by the mayor’s office on the way, and greeted M4 and his wife.

The Fanes gave us a bunch of cute little baskets and ceramic stoves. It was the first time my family was surrounded by Fanes, so no one asked them to change their last name, although they did get told they had to stay and couldn’t leave that afternoon.

We also visited Numula ba, where the boys were loading the cotton from the magasin into the big orange container left by CMDT.

My family was starting to get the pattern of greeting, just as we were finished doing it.

We went back to my hut and gathered up all the luggage and packed up the car to go. We were going to be in Bamako ridiculously early, but that’s what my dad wanted. We headed back to the Radisson, because as far as I know it is the nicest restaurant in town, and they have tigedegena (peanut sauce) and yassa (onion sauce) on the menu, so at least my family got to try those local specialties once, in a sanitized environment, on plates, with forks. We ended up getting a room for the afternoon. While extravagant, it was nice to take showers and naps and use the internet and electricity.

Mo looked refreshed too when he came to pick us up. He had also obviously enjoyed having water and electricity again. His phone had died in village because he had nowhere to charge it, which I overheard him tell several people who had obviously been trying to call him for days, and he looked well-scrubbed too.

I hadn’t realized just how nervous everyone had been in village, although I’d had an inkling, but when we got back to the Radisson, it was like everyone sighed a huge sigh of relief. They made it. No major illnesses, no major injuries, no one was offended by their decadent American or Christian ways (uncovered hair, celebrating of Christmas, etc.). Success.

We caught our plane to Paris no problem. The airport was much less intimidating than I remembered it from eleven months ago. I’m still not thrilled about flying in by myself on my return from Paris, but now I know I’ll manage.


Mali Journal: The Family

My wife, my daughter and I also wrote up our impressions of Mali:

Paul wrote:

On my fourth and final night in Africa, I was walking the 20 steps across a courtyard from a three-room mud-brick building with a tin roof to an open air space. In the United States the brick hut would be called an outhouse or privy, but in Mali, the landlocked Francophone West African country that once ruled Africa, it is now known as a Nyegen. On the way to the Nyegen, I doused my flashlight and looked up at the sky. So close to the equator, the constellations are mostly unrecognizable, but I could see the Milky Way. (1) I had an unusual experience; although I had read the phrase many times, it was the first time I had experienced the emotion, complete with the cliché adjective: I swelled with pride. M is living a quotation, “Of those to whom much is given, much is expected.” (2) She is a Peace Corps Volunteer. Her presence here validated every parental decision we ever made.

Paul and V and wrote:

 She has suspended her life and livelihood to serve the 1,200 people who live in N’tjilla, a commune capital that has no running water or toilets, no electricity, no cellphone service, Internet, and –probably hardest of all – no privacy. As a visitor, your biggest problem quickly becomes the lack of toilet. (See the viral video, you poop in a hole) She has also had to redefine her identity from a privileged American to the only white person among 1,200 poor black Africans who continue to pursue a life style which has hardly changed for centuries. Everything about what she is doing is amazingly selfless, especially when you consider the grim statistics. There is no way to calculate a precise statistic, but whether her chance of success is 0.1%, 1% or 10%, the odds are against her. She is putting everything she has into initiatives involving shea butter, a mobile bank, hand washing and sanitation in general, library, and starting a girls’ soccer team. The thing is - the Peace Corps invests capital, but not the usual kind that builds dams and roads. It is human capital, and the Peace Corps’ goal is to invest human capital to change behavior, because that is the only change the will be lasting. We wish her God Speed.

We spent two days and three nights in N’tjilla, 118 km west of Bougani on National Route 7, then hang a left and drive 7km on a dirt road. Her “Quartier” is on your left. NR 7 is in pretty good shape for an African road, since it has been recently repaved by the Chinese; they are investing heavily in the country because they plan to exploit its natural resources. We rented a car and driver for the week, which increased our mobility.

We got an up close and personal look at the world as it was before electricity, in a place with no ports (and so, no access to whale oil). Unlike 1930 rural America, there are LED flashlights, but the cost of batteries restricts their use. The lack of artificial light means everyone is up at dawn, hits it hard all day and is in bed shortly after sunset. In village, this time of year, that yields a 12 hour day, from 6am to 6pm. It was so dark in M’s hut at night that we literally could not see our hands in front of our faces.

The mosquito netting activated Paul’s claustrophobia. The netting is, however, also a good idea to keep out the creepy crawlers like scorpions and snakes. If we were in the first world in that situation, we would have slept outside in a chair. In Africa, that’s a bad idea. It was also deadly quiet, in a way that very few places in the first world are quiet; the nearest regular traffic is 7 km away (and even the regular traffic in Mali isn’t much), and there are no planes flying overhead, not motors on refrigerators, no fans or furnaces. An occasional animal (and you haven’t lived until you’ve heard a donkey go off at night), but that’s it.

The people follow a relatively relaxed form of Islam, as demonstrated by their tolerance of our decision to decorate M’s Moringa tree with Christmas tree bulbs; in fact, the villagers helped. They do pray five times a day, and now that the mosque has a solar/battery powered PA system, you can really hear the 5:30 am prayer call. If you miss that, chances are that you won’t miss the elaborate and repetitive bird calls that immediately follow; it is a riot of sound.

It is a very different society. There is an elaborate greeting ritual and if you are visiting from America you must go around, “Yaala Yaala,” and, at the very least, greet all the elders, starting with the males, of course. It is the job of the small children to carry around chairs for the guests because they – the chairs, not the children - are in short supply. For the occasion of our visit, M gave us African names: R was Oumou; V was Worokia; Paul was Braman; M had been given the name Fatoumata on arrival nine months earlier; all these names are from the Koran. Because she had already been adopted into the Fane family, the name of her host family, we also became Fanes (blacksmiths). The other major clan we visited, the Diallos (cow herders), kept insisting we were Diallos instead. This was a constant source of amusement. Another joke was to call the other clan “bean eaters.” We were constantly entertained by their sense of humor and their friendly, good spirits. V had worried that it would feel very strange, even threatening, to be a white in a black county (something she had experienced travelling alone in Kenya).

M had beautiful native outfits for us to wear when we arrived, particularly for greeting. It solved our need to have clothes for the 90 degree days in Mali before we went to Paris which was 35 degrees when we arrived there a few days later. M has had many outfits made there because the designs on the fabrics are beautiful and fun. She has one with a black Jesus on it, another with symbols like “@,” another with hands one black and one white hand shaking, etc. It is definitely one of the best things to buy there and the different outfits and designs make the villages very colorful. R’s and V’s outfits were abstract patterns with matching scarves to wear around our heads (women are expected to cover their heads) and Paul’s had red ducks on it.

 With all the groundwork laid by M, we felt immediately included – part of the clan. M amazed us with her command of Bambara, the language of W. Africa, after only 9 mos. there. She spoke easily and naturally in directing our driver, haggling in the marketplace, greeting everyone, joking with the villagers, etc. There is much to be said for visiting people in their own element. Americans deprived Africans of their dignity in the US, but Mali is their own and it shows in their relaxed attitude and acceptance of us when we get to know them (because they do not share our unfortunate American history). We will not forget Mariam and Yakuba who are respectively her host mother and father. Mam is lovely, quiet and dignified, yet approachable. Yakuba is outgoing and helpful and also a talented handyman who does repairs on M’s hut. He led us as we visited various important groups. We met Djenebou, the lovely and shy 20, Jennabu, year daughter of Mam who has a 6 month old daughter (Adam). She is married to a man who works in a restaurant in France and sends money back to her. We met Lala who was immediately friendly and eager to teach us Bambara. We planned to visit Mineta who had just had a baby. We were informed at the last minute that she had lost her baby that morning. Mineta was upbeat and friendly and little mention was made of her loss as is the Malian way. Loss of old people is mourned more openly, but little importance is given to the death of a baby. Batauma is an eight year old girl who works for the host family which has more to offer her than her own family. She carries Adam around on her back all day as she does other chores. She will even fetch water for M and make the very short trip to M’s hut with food, etc. M is particularly fond of Batouma and sometimes takes her places like the local marketplace and buys her small gifts. Musokoroba (which means old lady) was the most fun of all when we went to a dance put on in our honor. She is provocative and in your face (they call her crazy, but she is not; she has “tude”) as lead musician in a three lady combo. She seemed to make up the lyrics as we went along. There is a circular line dance that ends with those who are brave enough to go into the center and dance very fast with your posterior out. The four of us took turns doing this, including Paul who was the only male present!

M has the greeting ritual down pat; Paul learned the all- purpose “N’ba” response which amounts to “I hear you,” while V and R responded “Nse” – the female equivalent. Works OK for most things, but sounds silly if they just asked where you are going or how old you are. R worked much harder on speaking Bambara which thrilled the dozens of people we greeted over two days. They repeatedly asked her to stay, offered a marriage partner (one man literally said he had many cows!), and V was once offered a new husband. Some women offered to change places with R; R would stay and she would go back with us as Paul’s second wife. (??) All this was done tongue in cheek, with a lot of humor.

The village grows cotton, corn, millet, sorghum and shea for cash. Of course, people who grow commodities are the bottom of the economic food chain, getting very little return for their effort. Among her projects, M is trying to help people further process the shea butter, so they can earn a higher profit. Although she spends time working on other things, her main focus is on economic development and literacy. God knows the people of Mali need it.

Paul notes his general impression of Mali: it sees a country mired in hopelessness, disease and early death. Escape is difficult, if not impossible, especially for women. Even education is not a ticket out. However, R pointed out that these are people who have nothing, yet are willing to share it and seem generous to a fault to those who visit briefly. V adds that even might be said that is has utopian characteristics: the immediate clan embraces everyone so the raising of children is shared and widows continue to be active members, and if one has a skill you need, it is offered without cost. The lack of technology means that socializing is everything so that people are close. Okay, sometimes too close. M’s hut is at the entrance and we had constant visitors looking over her wall, especially from the children. The women carrying a lot of wood invited V to fetch wood in the Broussey (bush) and then laughed knowing this was probably not one of her skills. Ordinarily, M tells us, there is not so much interest in what is going on at her hut now that she is one of them. And yes, they get into each other’s business as people typically do in a small town. But we were impressed by the seeming lack of loneliness and lack of emphasis on materialism and, of course, modern technology which although is out of lack of money, it emphasizes more important human values.

Paul’s mother, who had a rotten Great Depression experience, frequently pointed out to him that her family was dirt poor, but scarcely noticed because everyone around them was poor too. In a country plagued by illiteracy and innumeracy and the other trappings of the first world, there is precious little to which you can compare your life (like North Korea, except the starvation may be less in Africa). They are basically operating a co-operative, socialist, non-money economy at the village level. Apparently, you can run a society on the basis of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” if you are poor enough. P feels the rigid gender roles of the country mean they are wasting half their population. (3)

  P’s footnotes:

1 Very little light pollution in West Africa (see the famous shot from space of the world at night). I grew up in Portland, where the street lights wiped out the sky. Orinda, where I live now, doesn’t have street lights, but Oakland 10 miles away and San Francisco 25 miles away more than make up for it. I did see the Milky Way 20 years ago when we camped in the Trinity Alps in northern California, and four years ago on a walking tour of the upper Yosemite Valley, but this seemed even brighter than that. (return)

2 I first heard the quotation in a LBJ speech on March 31, 1968, when he announced he was not running for re-election. “Of those to whom much is given, much is asked.” I was so impressed, I used the phrase in my MIT application essay. As viewers of the PBS documentary “Secrets of the SAT” may recall, there is video of me advising M to use the phrase in her UC application essay. I heard it was from the bible; before the Internet, I tried to use a concordance to find it, but was not successful. Since then, I have discovered it is in Luke 12:48; the King James version is, “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more. (return)

3 That’s my opinion; I’m Paul Schindler. (return)

Political Briefs

Sherlock Holmes

1 star out of 5
The one star is there because the actors are still cute and the explosions still loud and expensive. The script is a dog's breakfast, and a REAL director would have cut the stupid assassination of Holmes "love interest" Ms. Adler. You could argue the scene establishes Moriarity's character. Or not. Anyway, not a total waste, but not as good as the first one either

Neal Vitale Reviews: Late 2011 Films Wrap-Up

Some time last fall I saw a well-reviewed film - Martha Marcy May Marlene - that left me completely cold, but it got me thinking about how I decide what I do or don't like. For me, connecting with the key characters and caring about them is critical. MMMM was an instance where I disliked almost everyone, even if I felt sorry for what they had been through - they were a bunch of unpleasant persons acting foolishly, cruelly, or evilly. Coming on the heels of the highly-regarded snoozefest The Tree Of Life (see PSCAOT 5/30/11), I found myself off my feed, acutely disinterested in films. Hence, few reviews from me over the fourth quarter of 2011.

Well, I got over it, and I spent much of the holidays in the dark or navigating through Netflix, DIRECTV Cinema, and Amazon Instant Videos. Here's what I thought of these films, in brief and in alphabetical order; stars are out of a possible five. [It was a season of great individual performances, not always matched by equally great movies.]

In Theatres

Albert Nobbs (3.5 stars) - Oscar-caliber performances from Glenn Close and Janet McTeer as women living as men in 19th century Ireland, in a sweet but slight and implausible story.

The Artist (4 stars) - A lovely and winsome conceit about the arrival of the talkies, shot in black & white and mostly silent, led by handsome actors and an engaging terrier (last seen in Water For Elephants). 

(Note that Paul and V also saw this one and thoroughly enjoyed it. Perhaps a little long)

The Descendants (4 stars) - A warm, intensely human film from Sideways director Alexander Payne, led by strong acting by George Clooney and the youthful trio of Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, and Nick Krause.

Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close (2 stars) - Despite an incredible first film performance from 14-year-old (and "Teen Jeopardy!" champ) Thomas Horn as a boy who loses his father on September 11, a hollow, unengaging effort by Stephen Daldry (The Hours, The Reader).

The Girl With Dragon Tattoo (3 stars)In the typically amped-up style of director David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club), this remake of TGWTDT is slicker and more brooding than the original, but adds little more than sex and skin.

Hugo (4.5 stars) - A delightful intrigue from Martin Scorsese - set in Paris in the 30s and involving cinematic pioneer Georges Méliès - is funny and sweet, clever and touching, gorgeously realized (particularly in the 3D version), and artfully acted.

The Iron Lady (4 stars) - Another Oscar contender acting performance, with Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher so well that you struggle to remember the original. Much has been made of the structure of this film - flashbacks from a clearly delusional present-day Thatcher - and limited insight into an important world leader, but I found it fascinating and fresh.

Like Crazy (3.5 stars) - Gone from the theatres by now, but worth tracking down on video when it is released this spring for its warmly unpretentious story of young love, the charm of its lead actors (Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin) despite their dumb on-screen actions, and a nicely hip soundtrack.

Margin Call (3.5 stars) - Not as good, in my view, as the Aaron Sorkin/Curtis Hanson HBO film Too Big To Fail, but still a captivating look into the 2008-09 financial meltdown, showing one 24-hour period in the lives of employees of a Manhattan investment bank early in the crisis.

Melancholia (2.5 stars) - Another arty epic in the vein of The Tree Of Life, this time by controversial Danish director Lars von Trier, musing on the end of the world, replete with complicated visual and musical symbolism; more appealing and intriguing than Tree, but just barely.

My Week With Marilyn (4.5 stars) - This hard-to-believe-but-supposedly-true story of the making of The Prince And The Showgirl  in the mid-50s is beguiling from start to finish, with a marvelous cast that ranges from Kenneth Branagh and Julia Ormond to Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi. But the undisputed star of the film is - watch out Meryl and Glenn - Michele Williams (Blue Valentine) who is incandescent as Marilyn Monroe.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (3 stars) - The title's commas are gone from this new treatment of the 1974 novel by John le Carré. What results is a intricate, often confusing, thriller with Gary Oldman - another leading awards candidate - at the center as George Smiley, all reserve and tightly-wound restraint. The intensity and narrow modulation of the film is exciting for a while, but ultimately fails to deliver an appropriate pay-off.

War Horse (5 stars) - My Oscar pick for Best Picture, a film that is life-affirming and uplifting, showing how humanity can survive even in the darkest and most desperate situations - a brilliant, beautiful rendering by Steven Spielberg of the award-winning stage play.

Young Adult (3 stars) - A surprisingly funny turn by Charlize Theron - dark horse acting nominee? - as a young divorceé with a lot of growing up left to do, in a screenplay from Diablo Cody (Juno), directed by Jason Reitman (Up In The Air). Unfortunately, what starts cleverly and with attitude turns a bit sappy and simple by the film's end.

At Home

Beginners (3.5 stars) - An engaging, warm story of a terminal cancer patient deciding to change his life before it's too late, much to the shock of his son. Fine acting, especially by Golden Globes nominee Christopher Plummer.

The Debt (2 stars) - A "thriller" delving into what may or may not have happened in the hunt by Mossad agents for a Nazi criminal during the mid-sixties. I wasn't thrilled, even with the likes of Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson in the cast.

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (3.5 stars) - A more entertaining-than-expected story of the revenge of laboratory simians that turn against their human handlers as business priorities overwhelm scientific and humanitarian goals. A great performance by Andy Serkis ("Gollum" in the Lord Of The Rings films) as the ring-leading chimpanzee.

Sarah's Key (4 stars) - An excellent and powerful adaptation of the Tatiana de Rosnay novel, with Kristin Scott Thomas as a journalist uncovering her family's past while researching a magazine article on French collaboration with the Nazis during the second World War.

Warrior (4.5 stars) - One of the year's best films, which I had totally dismissed during its theatrical run due to my aversion to its violent Mixed Martial Arts theme. Look for possible Oscar nominations for actors Tom Hardy (Inception) and Nick Nolte in a riveting movie of unexpected depth.