Monday, August 31, 2009

Movie Review: Milk

Milk Movie Poster
Milk is the story of Harvey Milk, a San Francisco businessman turned activist who was the first openly gay male elected official in the United States (there were lesbians elected to office, and officials elected who later declared themselves to be gay.)

Well, I think this was intended to be inspirational. But it was jumbled. In there was a story about someone who overcame obstacles to his photo business then organized a business association, then got elected. But it is constantly interrupted. There is the ever present aggressive expression of sexuality (Milk and company are very openly gay). There are numerous episodes of pettiness that looks like a distraction from the goals of the people involved. And there are the romantic relationships that see romantic rivals in every interaction, complain of neediness of time and attention. And all of it sucks away from this goal of political influence.

But this is reality. Life gets in the way of projects, no matter how big and important. But you wonder how do people who are around this, supposedly in relationships with people who are doing what they recognize as important, and they don't get the idea that supporting their people is something that has a level of priority.

As silly as this seems, it is also a reflection of the culture. There is another sub-culture that loses focus on its proclaimed mission because of focus of issues of sex. That regularly looks at the relationship status of people as their primary and overwhelming attribute and often ignores all others. And what I see in Milk, as much as it makes me think "what were they thinking", I realize that this is other sub-cultures in the U.S. as well.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Movie Review: Julie & Julia (2009)

Julie and Julia Movie Poster

Julie and Julia is a story of two projects. Julia Child's book "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" and Julie Powell's weblog "The Julie/Julia Project". For Julia Child, the challenge was to learn French cooking and figuring out how to communicate. For Julie Powell, the challenge was to work her way through the 524 recipes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year and writing about it in her blog.

So the story is of a project. But projects are not things that happen in a vacuum. And they exist in the context of life. And this movie is not just about two writing projects. It is about living life in the midst of writing projects. And in both cases, life is in the context of a marriage and job transistions. Julia Child book was written while her husband was pressured for their past work. (Julia Child and Paul Child served in the OSS during WWII in China. The OSS was the predecessor to the CIA. At the time depicted (1950s), there was a movement in the United States that considered wartime service to be reason for suspicion for treason.) And in the midst of transfers she was writing her book along with her co-authors in Paris.

In 2002 Julie was in a dehumanizing job after recently getting married and in the midst of a move, undertook this cooking and writing project. And it causes stresses at home (like any project that takes up time every day).

What do we see? We see two couples dealing with the stresses of life, of goals reached, obstacles encountered, setbacks, and successes. There are times when the everything is good, times when life is hard but the project provides energy and drive to get through the day, and times when the project threatens to suck the energy out of life. Or aspects of life become overwhelming. And the movie shows them dealing with this. Sometimes gracefully, sometimes otherwise.

Some thoughts. I had a professor who gave the advice that we should have many aspects of life, because in every aspect of life, there are good times and bad. And when life is single focused, it becomes subject to the changes of that one aspect of life. But a varied life provides a buffer that can withstand the winds of change that life inevitably provides. And the movie shows that, with both Julia and Paul Child taking terms having success and failure in their project/careers. And it allows them to support each other in each other's setbacks. In comparison Julie who allows the project to become her life, dominating their time at home.

And it is here that the movie shines. In particular with Julia and Paul Child, both living full lives, and supporting each other the good times and bad, and their relationship strengthening the whole way. Julie and Eric have it rougher. We do not see Julie supporting Eric as she uses her project to escape both her job and her family.

Now, do they learn? It does look that lessons were learned. One advice more commonly given to people who are recently married is they get into a fight, so they can learn how to make it through a fight. And so do Eric and Julie. We don't know if Julie has learned how to support Eric as he does her, but we presume that they have learned something about relating with each other as they celebrate with each other over the end of the project and her publishing deals.

It was a good movie. Not just a foodie movie, but a movie about two couples, figuring out life.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Movie Review: Last Letters Home (2004)

HBO movie website

Last Letters Home is a documentary that is built around the letters home to family of soldiers who were killed during the first years of Operation Iraqi Freedom in a partnership between, HBO, Time-Life and The New York Times.

What is here? Yes, there are grieving parents, brothers, sisters, spouses. But these are letters of soldiers proud of their work, parents proud of their sons and daughters and how they have grown. Officers and NCOs filled with worry, pride and care for those under their command. Soldiers looking forward to going home after their combat tour. Making plans and goals for the future. Telling tales of living life among comrades in arms, even in far away places. Hoping beyond hope that their families are not worrying about them. And stories of the two officers in dress uniforms with a chaplain coming to visit homes.

What is the purpose of something like this? Or the New York Times naming casualties as they are released in "Names of the Dead" and its "Faces of the Dead" feature, even as its audience largely pays little attention to the costs of war? Or Gary Trudeau (Doonsbury) sponsoring The Sandbox, where military personnel who have blogs that talk about life at war can be given a wide audience? In "Gates of Fire" by Steven Pressfield, he has a fictional scene where the Queen of Sparta gathers the wives of those who died at Thermopylae and tells them that those who were sent were chosen because of the ability of their wives to handle the loss. Reality is nothing so melodramatic, but a country that sends its sons and daughters to war would be so lessened if it did not remember them and consider the cost to those who have lost those they have cared about them. And not thinking of them in the romantic and fantasy of waving flags and fiery speeches, but in the practical sense of remembering that these are men and women, sons and daughters and they represent the dearest coin that our country can pay for causes that it deems worth the price.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Movie Review: I, Robot

I remember when I, Robot came out, and the awful reviews about how it was not faithful to the source material. But while it is a different story, I find it to be in the spirit of the Asimov stories. (I don't tend to care about the special effects as much as plot.)

The focus of the Asimov stories is to take the world where robots exist and are bound by the Three Laws. And the world is full of robot who are created to serve people, and have this higher order understanding that they need to protect humans. But then something happens that seems like a paradox and the protagonist needs to figure out how it happened, within the confine of the Three Laws.

And this movie follows one of those themes. That a robot is able to take the three laws and derive the Zeroth Law from them. And then the inevitable conclusion, that people inflict so much harm on each other, the best way to protect humans is to control them, and those that could cause harm are destroyed to better protect humans. After this, the action and special effects are details.

The parallel is not unquestioned reliance on technology. The parallel is unquestioned reliance on authority to enable our protection. It is a world where we are given rules to protect us from our own good, and we are asked to trust in authority. Or, as a friend of mine in grad school said, "we have to trust that authority knows things we don't and are making the right choices" (obviously, given my career path that has included such things as speaking truth to power, I don't follow that philosophy)

The alternative, I would contend, is to ensure that people are provided the means to make proper choices. Not the choices passed on to them by the powerful (corporations, government), but choices where the individuals are given the information and the means that make their own. Does it mean anarchy? No, because anarchy inevitably breaks down to rule by the strong, because the weak become forced to seek the protections of the strong for their own protection. Full libertarianism has the same effect, the strong are left with no restraints. We are better off with the ideas of the Federalist Papers, where interest contends with interest, whether those interests are economic, political, regional, ethnic, or other grouping.

But what it leaves is what the Coase Theorem suggests, that the proper role of government is to allow for the reduction of transaction costs, so that the market will by market forces flow toward the most utility. That means that ways are found to reduce the effects of market power and that information is allowed to flow to where it is needed (e.g. regulations). And the results of choices are allowed to occur.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Book Review: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

[Originally posted at Goodreads]

The Namesake The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
The Namesake follows an Indian-American from birth through middle-age. The focus is on his relationships with his parents and how that affects his attitudes towards life and relationships, and the outcome of those relationships. The McGuffin in the book is his naming, which was planned to be done in a traditional manner but complications prevented that from happening.

One of the things to remember is that as immigrants, the principle's parents had choices on how to engage their new world. His father chooses to engage in it as a professional, but not any further. His mother chooses not to engage, and withdraws into remembrances of home. And as an arranged marriage, there is no reason to expect that his mother has the same ability to adapt that his father showed as a graduate student in the United States. The cliche is that his parents inability to causes problems in his ability to relate to his world, in particular his relationships which capsize because he lacks the ability to adapt the bigger and more varied worlds of his partners.

So the question is: was he doomed because of his parents? His sister seems to do well, which his mother observes in her not-so-traditional marriage as compared to his traditional one. Or are there choices he makes, like his hangups on his name, both the originally given one and the formal one that he has claimed as his own. He spends much effort trying to flee his background, and conforming to its surface for the sake of his parents, both his efforts to avoid his background and the compromises he makes to conform lead to tragedy.

Many books of this type seem to have as their point the need to let the American born child go (e.g. the protagonists sister who goes far away from home for school, but ends up much better adjusted and even closer to their mother.) But I would claim that it is still his choice on how he chooses to engage in the world. For all their hopes that their children follow traditional (home) ways and their complaints when their children do not, most immigrant parents in the end are satisfied with children who maintain relationships with them when they are grown, a truism that is implied in the protagonists sister and her fiancee at the end of the book. The conflicts and separation in the interim is more of a tragedy then anything else, and is magnified by the protagonist's repeated dwelling on issues of his name and background.

The other theme is on relationships. In particular the unbalanced relationship where one person has a more adventurous history then the other and the less adventurous one has no desire to partake in the expansive life of the other.

The book is good in the sense that it has a lot of material, and it has an honest feel to it. But there is a lot of conflict avoidance. Certainly on the part of the principal characters, and maybe on the part of the author as well. It is very hard to write good characters when a big part of their personality is avoidance, even though lots of authors seem to try (because it is angsty and it has the appearance of depth) But the whole thing suffers because as a reader who recognizes the situations, I can see the issues, but they are not dealt with in the narrative.

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Movie Review: War of the Worlds (2005)

I had watched the 1953 version of War of the Worlds a few months ago, and I wanted to see how a modern adaptation fared.

In the 2005 version, the narrator is a divorced blue-collar dock worker who shepherds his
two children to his ex-wife's family in Boston, which presumably represents safety. He is rather cocky, and presents an I-know-what-I'm-doing front to the world, which does not fool his ex-wife or his kids for a second. On top of that, the way he relates to his kids is one of I'm-the-father-I-know-what's-best, which also does not impress them.

This comes to a head during the invasion, which takes on the form of one pod not far from his house. And he sweeps his kids out of there in a stolen car, all the while trying to shelter them from knowledge of what is happening. Which leads to growing tension among the family as the little girl starts freaking out because she can tell her father and everyone else is scared and she does not know why, and the older son is getting pissed because he can tell that the father is not telling them something very important, like 'there is this big thing that is killing everyone and is unstoppable behind us'. ("Tell me what you know!!!")

It seems to have as an underlying premise that the ultimate goal is to shelter our kids from knowledge of danger and they will come out all right (witness numerous scenes where they blindfold the little daughter and comfort is not achieved by helping her deal with what she is facing, but by removal and having her forget) The son, realizes this and actively goes to help others (on a ferry) and looks for ways to help in the resistance to the invasion, because he wants to get away from his overprotective father (whom the son realizes is well beyond his level of competence.) The narrator here is constantly conflict avoidance, refusing to explain actions, include others in what he is thinking, and helping others. And while the movie shows the harm it causes, it treats this as the way to be, as he never learns.

The movie misses a lot in not dealing with the relationship between father and son. This could have been explored with the son pushing for more information on what is happening, and having this coming to a head, instead of dealing it by the son just leaving his father and sister. Also, the old deacon on several occasions identifies that he and the narrator have a conflict, but they never even try to work it out, the narrator only brings it up at the worse possible times (i.e. instead of talking it out in the quiet moments, he only brings it up at times of mortal peril.)

So, obviously, I did not like the movie. But it does potentially have the virtue of depicting one model of raising children. In this case the parent knows everything and the child only needs to blindly follow, blind to the realities of the world. My wife and I, should we have children, have determined that during the period said children are with us, they will not be hidden from the realities of life, that they will experience the world in all its splendor and horrors while we and our friends around us are there to serve as guides and guardians. So that their futures are faced in the knowledge of what is and what can be as they make their own choices for their futures.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Movie Review: Frost/Nixon 2008

Frost/Nixon portrays the Nixon Interviews of 1977 between former President Richard Nixon and British talk show host David Frost. It is prominent because it was the first public interview by Nixon after his 1974 resignation. Because of the blanket pardon provided by his successor, President Gerald Ford, there was no investigation, trial or finding as to his guilt, and the U.S. was still suffering from turmoil in the aftermath of Watergate and the end of the Vietnam war as public confidence in government and public service was at a low.

The actual interviews were best known as the point where Nixon stated the philosophy "Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal." The actual interviews are discussed in many places. This is about the movie.

The movie is not as much about the content of the interviews (although the interviews were the point) as it is about the two people involved and their cornermen (i.e. principle staff). You have Frost, who is more of a TV personality rather then a tough reporter, and Nixon, an experienced politician. For Frost, this was an opportunity to do something unique and special, incidentally trying to save a career that is looking like it will fall into banality. Nixon was a politician who missed the give and take of dealing that went with political life and wanted the opportunity to rehabilitate his place in history. For the people behind Frost, they wanted the opportunity to represent their generation in uncovering the truth of the events that ripped the heart out of the country, and Nixon was the demon that needed to be faced, with Frost being the very unlikely and not very qualified demon confronter. Nixon's staff viewed Frost as a lite-weight pushover.

The movie focused on the evolution of Frost in this environment. In one of the DVD special features, one of Frost's staff depicted in the movie describes how he never realized about how compressing TV was, that for everything done, TV has a way of focusing attention on one moment to the exclusion of everything. And that as bad as he felt most of the interview was, a single moment (a shot of Nixon during the interview described as grief and pain and self-loathing) saved the rest. The movie shows it this way as well, with Frost almost distracted in the midst of the interviews by the need to court investors and sponsors as opposed to preparing for the interviews, until the one focused on Watergate, which turned into the equivalent of a finals cram session as Frost prepared with an intensity he did not before.

What was good? You can see the issues of hubris. The most obvious one is Nixon and his team, confident that the inteligent Nixon can snow the pushover Frost. But also from Frost's side, who had the view that his role was to provide entertainment and a show. (Note: this was dramatic license. In reality, David Frost was a competent interview as needed, and his choice of staff was intended so he could be hard hitting, his previous interview with Nixon in the 60s aside. The idea that you can find a particular transcript that may or may not exist in courthouse records and integrate it into a TV interview in a couple days is not believable, or true.) And the purpose of the preparation was only that. And the turning point was when one side realized his hubris, which was Frost.

This is not a documentary, rather a dramatic work around a historical event. And its goal was the pointing out the effects of hubris on man, even those who could truly deserve the label great. So it was for many of the time and events in question. And, history shows, many other times and places.