Thursday, December 31, 2009

Now Viewing: Avatar

Where do I even start reviewing this film? Countless film critics (professional and amateur) have already sung its praises in every way, shape, and form. But I saw it last night in 3-D, and thus feel the need to add my voice to the cacophony of people extolling James Cameron's latest epic.

And epic it truly is. In Avatar, Cameron truly creates a whole new world for his viewers. The quality of the film-making, the CGI techniques, the acting, the plot, the effects-- all are more than above par, and all become even better when you see the movie in 3-D. After putting on the 3-D glasses, viewers are quickly sucked in to the moon of Pandora, to the struggles between the human invaders and the native Na'vi population.

Sam Worthington delivers an impressive performance as Jake Sully, a paraplegic ex-Marine who replaces his recently deceased brother on the mission to Pandora, merging with his brother's Na'vi avatar and getting adopted into and slowly accepted by the local Na'vi clan. His teacher in the ways of The People is the chief's daughter, Neytiri, played to near-unrecognizable perfection by Zoe Saldana.

Most movie buffs agree that plot and script are not James Cameron's strongest abilities as a filmmaker, and to some extent that holds true in Avatar. In my opinion, I would say that although the script is fairly weak, he does get some great one-liners in, and the plot is also fairly strong. Parts of the story quite honestly harken back to a Pocahontas-style narrative, with greedy corporate humans coming in to drive out the native population by any means necessary in order to obtain the not-quite-cleverly-named "unobtainium," a tremendously valuable substance back on earth. Then of course you have the "Colors of the Wind" moments during which Jake begins to understand and appreciate-- and become part of-- the natural world of Pandora. When critics call it a tree-hugger liberal environmentalist film, I confess they have a point. Cameron clearly wants the audience's sympathies to be with the Na'vi people and their allies-- very few of the human characters are likable at all, unless you happen to have either a dollar sign or a gun for a heart.

But here's the thing-- most viewers probably won't really care about that, regardless of their political leanings. Because this movie is just that good. The visual effects alone will knock you back in your seat. The vistas off the mountains and waterfalls-- of which there are many-- are especially impressive. Cameron's Pandora is a spectacularly beautiful place, and I'm sure that if there isn't already, there will soon be a Facebook group called "I Want to Move to Pandora" or something along those lines. Then you have the not-unimpressive battle scenes, the love story between Jake and Neytiri, tragedies, some cynically comic dialogue-- all this plus the political intrigue makes for a movie that almost everybody will like.

Bottom line: Go see Avatar. And pay the extra money to see it in 3-D on the biggest screen you can possibly find (IMAX, if you can). It is truly worth it for the feeling of escaping the confines of Earth for three hours.

Two Lists and Two Columns

Just some quick hits today from my Reader-
  • Nicholas Kristof writes about how a reliable savings account can change lives in Third World countries. I still think saving money is something people need to learn how to do here, too.
  • Gail Collins bids a not-so-fond farewell to 2009 in "That Was the Year That Was." If you want to think about what a long year it was, remember that George W. Bush was still the president when the calendar switched to January 2009.
  • POLITICO presents: The Top 10 Weirdest (Political) Moments of 2009. And boy, are there some great ones. Starting with Obama getting sworn in twice and Sarah Palin resigning.
  • And always my favorite end-of-year highlight: TIME's list of the 25 Best Blogs of the year. Happily, Zen Habits (my favorite blog) made the list again. Sadly, I am not yet on there (haha). Maybe some day.
Happy reading, and enjoy the last night of 2009!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Featured Blog: The Julie/Julia Project

This is the now-famous blog that lead to Julie Powell's book Julie & Julia, and the 2009 movie that was based off of it. I watched the movie tonight (which is what lead me to track down the original blog) and loved it-- if I can, I'll do my customary review tomorrow, but bottom line was that it was both funny and sweet, throughly enjoyable and full of delectable-looking food. Made me want to be a cook and find a guy like Julia Child's or Julie Powell's husbands in the movie. Increased (if it's possible) even further my respect for the talents of Meryl Streep and Amy Adams. And most significantly, gave me hope that it is in fact still possible to make a decent chick flick-- as much as I shamelessly love the genre, most of the films that come out of it are totally awful. Wait-- okay, guess I don't need to review it tomorrow. That's a pretty decent summary review. But I'm supposed to be writing about the blog.

Anyway, I tracked down the original blog and started reading through it from the first post. Haven't finished it, obviously, but I find Julie Powell's writing both entertaining and endearing. It's a superbly written blog, and even though she hasn't posted since Julia Child died in 2004, it's still fun to go back and laugh (or cry, whatever's your taste) at her exploits and attempts at mastering the art of French cooking, Julia Child style.

A New Year...

...well, almost. But it's the time of year where not only do we analyze what is behind, we look towards the future. There are certainly predictions to be made politically-- even, arguably, resolutions-- but I will, for the moment at least, leave those to people wiser than I. The matter of personal New Year's resolutions is quite challenging enough.

I've never been a huge fan of New Year's resolutions, simply because they virtually always fizzle in a very short amount of time. Also, there are things in my life (as is the case for most of us) that I know I should change but don't particularly want to.

The main one of these, for me, is my exercise habit. I have (usually) good academic habits, decent eating habits, and workable sleep habits-- at least, I do better than some of my peers at university (although that really does not say much at all). But when it comes to exercise, I have a difficult time pushing into it. Partly I think that relates to my tendency to be very accident prone-- almost every time I start to really exercise, I seem to get hurt. Which has the general impact of turning me off the whole concept altogether.

Still, since I had major knee surgery this summer, the anatomical problems with my body are theoretically fixed. However, my doctor and physical therapist both warned me that unless I get serious about exercising and strengthening, I will never get to a higher level of fitness than the functional place I am currently at-- able to walk, including up and down stairs, but bending rather stiffly and unable to run more than a couple of steps comfortably. So I guess that's what you might call motivation to change this habit.

Encouragement to exercise aside, I have no idea yet what (if anything) I will be doing for my New Year's resolutions. I will think on it in the next few days-- 2009 isn't over yet. Leo Babauta at Zen Habits has created a new website ( dedicated to helping people achieve six designated resolutions, or changes in their lives, with some useful and simple techniques. Since he has provided tremendously useful ideas for me in the past, who knows, maybe I will jump in and give it a try. Just for a preview of an article on the site-- How to Form the Exercise Habit. Do check it out, along with the other stuff on the site, if you are contemplating seriously forming any new habits for your resolutions in 2010.

Now Reading: The Healing of America

Anyone who has been following my blog in the last year or who knows me personally knows that health care is the political issue that I am, by far, the most passionate about. As a Canadian who has spent most of her life growing up in the US, I have seen the good and the bad of both systems, and have come to the conclusion that health care is a right for the many, not a privilege to be enjoyed by the few. I have held this opinion for quite a long time in some form or other, but it was strengthened this past summer when it became apparent that the US health care system had contributed to the rapid demise of one of my favorite professors, Fred Holliday. Naturally, I have followed the debates around the country, in the House of Representatives, and in the Senate with some considerable interest, and have also done some reading of my own on the topic.

The most recent book I've picked up on the topic is The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care by T.R. Reid, a correspondent for the Washington Post. During his years at the Post, Reid has served as bureau chief in London and Tokyo, so he experienced the systems in those two nations firsthand. For this book, however, Reid examined the World Health Organization's rankings of health systems, and set out on an exploration of the pros and cons of the different systems that ranked higher than the US-- which is actually a sampling of pretty much every other wealthy industrialized democratic country in the world-- in terms of providing cost-effective, quality, universal health care.

For this book, Reid traveled to France, Germany, Britain, Canada, and India to investigate the cures they each would offer for his personal medical ailment, a stiff and sore shoulder, and to report on the nation's system as a whole. In doing so, he discovered that although each country (with the exception of India) provided universal health care, they each had different methods for doing so. The four systems of universal care that Reid outlined are the Beveridge model (Britain), the Bismarck model (Germany and France), the National Health Insurance model (Canada), and the Out-of-Pocket model (most low-income countries in the world, plus the US, in part). In actuality, Reid points out, the US combines variations of all these models for different elements of society, whereas it would really be most effective to create one unified system for everybody.

Reid has many fascinating anecdotes, facts, statistics, and discoveries that he covers in The Healing of America, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about health care systems elsewhere in the world, and about what the US could learn from them. Regardless, however, here are my top 10 takeaways from the book, in quick summary form:
  1. It's basically true that doctors nearly always get screwed by universal health care systems in comparison to what doctors in the US earn...
  2. ...but on the grand scale, they're not exactly badly off in most cases. They usually earn around $100k or more per year and live comfortable middle-class lifestyles...
  3. ...Although this ability is partly because they accumulate much lower (or nonexistent) medical debts from their education, and have to pay so little for malpractice insurance (because there are so few malpractice lawsuits).
  4. The presence of a moral imperative (Is health care a fundamental right?) is an essential part of the discussion around having a universal system. Economic discussions won't get the job done because they don't reach to the core of the issue.
  5. Health care "rationing" is a part of life. In any and every system on earth.
  6. In universal systems (Britain is an especially good example) there is a high incentive for good preventative care and low administrative costs. Not so in the US.
  7. One of the best ways to lower administrative costs is to digitize health records (see: France's carte vitale).
  8. In order for a universal system to work properly, you must have both an individual mandate and a guaranteed issue. In other words, everyone must buy into the system (to create a large enough risk pool, especially if using the Bismarck model) and insurance companies cannot deny a claim or coverage if you pay your premiums on time.
  9. Guaranteed issue is another good way to reduce those hefty administrative costs. No need to pay claims adjusters, etc., when you can't deny claims and must pay them quickly.
  10. No health care system is perfect; all of them have pros and cons. But the US can-- and, in my opinion, must-- do better than it does now.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Now Reading: The Know-It-All

A.J. Jacobs used to think he was the smartest kid in the world. Then he grew up and became a writer and editor for pop culture magazines like Entertainment Weekly and Esquire and started feeling like he had lost his thirst for knowledge. So what did he do? He decided to read through the entire Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Y'know, a little light reading.

And thus begins Jacobs's memoir The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World. Outrageously funny-- I literally laughed out loud all the way through the book-- and by turns sweet, intelligent, and wise, Jacobs mixes telling about what he is reading-- the memoir is, like the encyclopedia, organized alphabetically-- and what is going on in his life outside the reading material. This includes personal things, like his and his wife's struggle to get pregnant as well as Jacobs's own lingering issues with his father, and tangential quests for knowledge. During the course of this experience, Jacobs applies to Mensa, tries out for Jeopardy and Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and meets to discuss the pursuit of knowledge with some of the smartest people in the world. These interviews included Alex Trebek, an intelligence expert, the founder of several of the highest-IQ clubs, and a five-time Jeopardy champion, among others. Each individual has a different perspective on the pursuit of knowledge-- some think Jacobs is wasting his time reading the encyclopedia, others think it could be a good thing-- but on several points, there is general agreement:

1) There is more than one type of intelligence.
2) Knowledge comes from everywhere, the encyclopedia is only one source.
3) The pursuit of knowledge is, in general, a very good and noble thing.

Those are ideas that I can get behind, for sure. As a life-long bookworm and as someone who loves learning, I can appreciate Jacobs's quest-- although I'm not sure I would be able to do it. However, there is something to be said for that kind of thirst for knowledge-- something that more people could stand to have these days, in my opinion. Bottom line-- The Know-It-All is a humor book, to be sure. But at the same time it manages to be fall-out-of-your-chair witty, it makes you think and even passes on a few intellectual tidbits along the way. Well worth the read.

Playing Catch-Up: Now Viewing

With movies, too, I have slacked off in my individual reviews. This is partly because two of my recent movie viewings were old favorites, but regardless, here's some quick hits on the movies I've watched most recently:

Love Actually: Probably my second-favorite chick flick, if I had to pick one (my #1 favorite, without exception, is You've Got Mail). A sweet exploration of the many different natures of love, as couples who interact in and out of each other's lives find true love in all its forms. "Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion's starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don't see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere." With a stellar cast including Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Laura Linney, and Keira Knightley, a number of endearing plotlines, and a heartwarming message, Love Actually is a great movie for Christmas or any time of year when you need a reminder about the presence of love in the world.

White Christmas: To me, the #1 classic Christmas movie. Yes, I love The Santa Clause and A Christmas Story and all the others (although I have to admit that Elf kind of drives me up the wall), but it just doesn't feel like a real Christmas to me unless we watch this heartwarming Michael Curtiz film about a pair of post-WWII entertainers who bring their show and a great Christmas gift to their down-on-his-luck former general...and, of course, find love along the way. Starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera Ellen, White Christmas instills me with feelings of nostalgia for holidays gone by-- not least of which, holidays where there was actually lots of real snow on the ground on Christmas Day!

Sherlock Holmes: I have been excited for this movie since I first caught the trailer back in September or so, and I was not disappointed when I went to see it in theaters yesterday. Robert Downey, Jr. stars as the famous detective and Jude Law portrays his partner, Dr. Watson. The original character of Sherlock Holmes was (to my recollection) a rather peppery, sarcastic, elitist and slightly crazy man-- a brilliant chemist, an observer, a cocaine addict, a boxer, a violinist, and fascinated by science of all varieties. The caricatures of him in popular culture since-- with the deerstalker hat and whatnot-- have in my opinion fallen rather short of this original character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, so I was very pleased to see that this new Guy Ritchie Holmes film was much closer to the original character-- not a deerstalker hat in sight. The film's not perfect, of course-- for one thing, Holmes and Watson weren't nearly as funny as Downey and Law are in the film-- but it was a change that I could live with. Holmes's nemesis in this movie, Lord Blackwood (brilliantly portrayed by the sinister Mark Strong), was apparently gifted in dark magic, using his plots to kill people and build his power and influence, to a point in which he would use it to take over all of England (naturally). On the side, Holmes has to deal with his feelings for the clever criminal Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams)-- a character at the heart of the Holmes story "A Scandal in Bohemia," a woman who frequently manages to outsmart Holmes, or at least keep him on his toes. I was also pleased to discover that they framed the film perfectly for a sequel to come along next-- featuring the brilliant and devious Professor Moriarty, Holmes's number one nemesis in the stories. All things told, although far from a perfect film, I thoroughly enjoyed Sherlock Holmes and would highly recommend it to those who enjoy a pithy, clever, funny, action and suspense-packed mystery. Perhaps not a thriller of the highest order, but definitely a lot of fun-- most of all for the portrayal of the world's most famous detective as he was, just maybe, supposed to be portrayed.

Playing Catch-Up: Now Reading

Since I last posted about my reading material, I've read a couple of books and am almost done with a third, so I think I will just hit the two that I've finished now in this one post.

The History of God by Karen Armstrong: This book, frankly, blew me out of the water. It's been recommended to me a number of times through the years by various fellow bookworms, and I finally got around to plowing through it (although, on a personal side note, I think the doctors were a little confused when I was reading it while waiting for my surgery last week). Armstrong's book is a fascinating journey of the human perception of the divine in the three major monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Beginning with the earliest appearances of religion in ancient Mesopotamia, Armstrong shows how the Jews first developed the local polytheistic traditions into a blend of polytheism and monotheism, to a strictly monotheistic faith; then how Christianity developed out of that, and how Islam developed tangentially to both of those. She traces the traditions of the three faiths as they went through periods of mysticism and reform, of political strife and religious disagreement, right up through the Enlightenment and the development of atheism and fundamentalism as dominant thought patterns on religious matters. Always from an academic perspective, with theological, historical, and philosophical perspectives, Armstrong does a superb (and challenging) job of showing how, regardless of what you personally believe about God, whether God actually changes or not, human perception of the divine has shifted radically over time. While God has, in general, been an enduring concept, we have not all always thought about God in the same way-- and in my estimation, we probably never will. It's a challenging way to think about faith, but a fascinating one.

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll: The old children's classic, which I thought I would pick up purely in the interest of seeing how it compares (in March) to the new Tim Burton movie. I can guess right now that Tim Burton will make the film way more trippy than even Lewis Carroll could have imagined, but the book is so nonsensical to begin with, it would provide Burton plenty of material on its own. Wacky stuff-- but an excellent book.

Morning Reading (Slightly Delayed): End-of-Year Round-Ups

Continuing my recent trend of posting comic strips (which, I have to admit, is always the recent highlight of my morning reading), here is today's Garfield post-Christmas analysis. Thank you, as always, Jim Davis.

In other interesting reading, as always at the end of a year, pundits and journalists are having fun analyzing the year behind us and looking to the year ahead-- and, as this will mark the start of a new decade, there's some interesting pieces about the 2000s (or, as my old film professor called it, "the uh-ohs") as a decade.
  • Amusing as always, Maureen Dowd let her brother Kevin take over her NYT column today for a highly unusual (for this column) conservative perspective on the year's events.
  • Nicholas Kristof republished an old column today called "Johnson, Gorbachev, Obama" that is a truly excellent look at Afghanistan foreign policy, largely from an Afghan perspective. Well worth the read.
  • President Obama is in Hawaii for Christmas-- the first president to spend the holiday itself away from Washington in more than 20 years. But that doesn't mean he gets to escape the duties of the job-- as presidents throughout history have learned. The New York Times' White House Memo has a piece on "Taking Work Home-- Even When Home Means Hawaii." (Incidentally, for a great book on presidential vacation spots, check out Kenneth Walsh's "From Mount Vernon to Crawford.")
  • The Washington Post has an interesting piece on how Obama and the Democrats can possibly turn their challenging 2009 year around in 2010 and hopefully limit the losses in the House and Senate with a refocus on the economy and generally dialing things down from this extremely contentious first year.
  • The Post's Joel Achenbach also has a review of the decade we never expected-- the 2000s-- and where we've come since then.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Morning Reading: Miscellaneous Post-Christmas Round-Up

Happy Boxing Day! A delightful day where everybody heads for the malls and the movies to blow that Christmas cash. I'll be doing the latter, going with my little sister to see Sherlock Holmes this afternoon. Meanwhile, here's a few articles from here and there:
  • First of all, always the highlight of my morning reading, the comics. Calvin & Hobbes have a good one today, which I fully appreciate (see above, or click here for the link).
  • Ross Douthat of the New York Times has a good op-ed piece on "The Obama Way" and how hard he has been to characterize as a leader in his first year as president.
  • Teenagers are apparently "getting" that there is a recession going on this holiday, and cutting back on shopping-- much to the detriment of higher-end teenage clothing retailers like Abercrombie & Fitch, but to the benefit of stores like Aeropostale, Gap, and TJ Maxx.
  • At Christmas, it's easy to forget about people of other faiths-- as much as many people pay lip service to Hanukkah, for example, the Christian holiday dominates. The New York Times has a thoughtful article today on the challenges of celebrating Christmas for recent converts to Judaism.
  • Count on POLITICO-- highlighting the "Top Ten Tweets of 2009" from the political and media world, the list includes Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Chuck Grassley, and more.
  • The story is still developing on the attempted (but thankfully failed) terrorist attack from yesterday-- a frightening story that reminds us once again that we do not live in an isolated bubble from the rest of the world, and that the world doesn't stop entirely on our holidays. My prayers for safety go out to all those traveling today.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Feliz Navidad

Christmas blessings to all of you in the blogosphere! This holiday is always a joyful and pleasant time of year, and has become increasingly peaceful in my house. Whereas my sister and I would have once upon a time been up at 7am to tear into our stockings, in recent years we have been taking a laid-back start at the more civilized hour of 9:30 or so. We have also scaled down to a smaller number of gifts, ones that gives each of us the most amount of enjoyment and represents our passions. For me, that means books, movies, and music; for my sister, photography books and pictures; for my mom, books and jewelry; for my dad, assorted consumables and some books and music. What can I say, my family likes good reading material!

One special Christmas blessing for me this year was getting a phone call from my paternal grandfather. Grandpa Ron, who is basically the family hermit/adventurer moved to Ecuador last year, and is rarely in contact by phone (although he does keep in touch via emails). However, he saved up some of his cell phone minutes and called up all of his children and grandchildren this morning. I enjoyed the chance to hear his voice, and also hearing about some of the local Navidad traditions. In Ecuador, Christmas is chiefly a religious holiday, and lacks most or all of the North American commercialism, which I think is something that we could stand to get back to a lot more. I love the tradition of gift exchanges, but I think it's gotten out of hand in the US. My grandpa called his experiences with Christmas in Ecuador a reminder of the simpler holidays he remembered back in the '50s and '60s. I'm not going to go into a cliched "Jesus is the reason for the season" rant, but I want to offer this as food for thought: Christmas doesn't have to be complicated or commercialized to be something special and memorable.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Now Viewing: State of Play

I have been wanting to see this movie since the trailers first caught my attention last winter; having finally viewed it last night, State of Play did not disappoint my expectations.

Russell Crowe stars in this film as Cal McAffrey, a Washington, D.C. journalist from a bygone age, driving an old car and typing on an older computer, valuing legwork and accuracy in reporting in an age where getting the story first is more important than getting it right. Acting alongside stellar performances from Rachel McAdams, Ben Affleck, Helen Mirren, and more, the cast of the movie carries but does not steal from the story.

And what an intricate story it is. In order to fully understand the plotlines, I feel like I would have to watch the movie two or three more times. But at its core is two seemingly unconnected deaths that turn out to be threads of a conspiracy that reaches deep into the heart of the Washington political and military scene.

Perhaps my favorite part of State of Play is the starring role it gave to the city of Washington, DC. Most movies that feature DC stick pretty closely to the occasional shot of the Capitol, the White House, and the monuments. State of Play goes significantly farther than that. Viewers familiar with Washington will recognize that the opening scene is shot in Georgetown, near the intersection of M Street and Wisconsin Ave; they will smile at the inclusion of DC landmark restaurant Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street; and they may be able to note that the menu on Cal McAffrey's fridge is from Dupont Circle's Kramerbooks/Afterwords Cafe.

Current events-aware viewers will also recognize the movie's Washington Globe for what it is-- a thinly concealed Washington Post. Other thinly veiled references include frequent allusions to the Watergate office complex and McAffrey's use of a shadowy informant as a source on the inside of PointCorp, a private military contractor that is seemingly taking over the entire US Homeland Security operation (obviously meant to represent Blackwater, the real-life contractor that came under so much criticism in the last couple of years for their conduct in Iraq).

For politicos, DC lovers, and movie aficionados alike, State of Play is a thriller that will not disappoint in its capacity to engage your attention and keep you gripped for several hours.

(For another review of State of Play, be sure to check out my friend Bryan's review over here at his blog.)

They (Finally) Did It

The Senate passed their version of the health care reform bill in a 7 a.m. vote this morning along a party-line vote of 60-39 (Kentucky Republican Jim Bunning was not present). Merry Christmas Eve-- and now the exhausted senators get to go home for a little break before coming back to resume the perhaps even harder work of reconciling their bill with the House bill in the new year.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Trailer Park

The first trailer for Sex and the City 2 was just released, and to my mind it reveals...nothing. Nothing that we wouldn't have figured out to begin with: you've got the four girls, significant others, New York City, extravagant clothes and locations...but what's the plot going to be? (Probably fairly weak, but fun for wish-I-could-be-Carrie-Bradshaw girls of all ages.)

Iron Man 2, as I have mentioned before, looks like it is going to be fantastic. Need I say more?

And have I mentioned how INSANELY EXCITED I am for Sherlock Holmes? It's coming out on Friday, starring the amazing Robert Downey, Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. Watson. It appears to be quite true to the nature of the original Holmes (the boxer, the violinist, the drug addict), and should be quite an excellent film...

...Probably unlike Valentine's Day (you can guess when that's coming out), which looks like it will probably be a worse version of two of my favorite chick flicks, Love Actually and He's Just Not That Into You. Granted that I will probably see Valentine's Day at some point, and that it has some potential due to an all-star cast lineup, I think I would much rather make my Valentine's Day movie viewing this year something more along the lines of Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief-- a promising adaptation of the first book in Rick Riordan's bestselling children's (pre-teen, really) book series.

Now Viewing: Cars

Having just had sinus surgery, I am taking my currently rather hazy brain as a good excuse to catch up on Pixar movies (not that I ever really needed an excuse...). I have long been of the opinion that Pixar just does not make bad movies-- even the few movies they've made that I didn't particularly like ("Antz" and "A Bug's Life") were still excellent.

Last night I watched Cars for the first time. I remember watching the previews for it when they first started to appear back in 2006, and I didn't think it looked particularly good. But I decided to give it a chance in my recent goal to catch up on movies, and I was very pleasantly surprised. Not only is it Pixar's usual top-quality animation that really brings the pictures to life, but the plotline was both engaging, sweet, and profound. Cars tells the story of Lightning McQueen, a top-of-the-line race car living life in the fast lane (literally and figuratively) and loving that he didn't need to think of anyone but himself...until, en route to California for a big race, he got lost and sidetracked into Radiator Springs, a small town off Route 66. There, forced into community service to pay for some early wrongdoings, Lightning gradually learns that there is more to life than the fast lane-- that sometimes it's better to slow down and enjoy the ride.

A bit cliche, perhaps-- but the combination of top-tier animation, big-name stars as the voice actors (including Owen Wilson and Paul Newman), a great soundtrack (ranging from James Taylor to Rascal Flatts), and a good plot makes Cars a thoroughly enjoyable film.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Sen. Burris: 'Twas the Night Before Christmas (Senate Style)

Morning Reading: The Health Care Debate Continues

Well, I was pleased to note the passage yesterday of the first procedural hurdle in the Senate for the health care reform bill (even if I couldn't blog on it because I was going in for surgery myself). This morning I am likewise pleased to note the passage of the second procedural vote-- but that sadly although not unexpectedly, the partisan line votes continue. Here's some reading on the topic:
On a separate topic, I find this religious debate going on at the Western Wall in Jerusalem to be very interesting. Run by members of the Orthodox Jewish tradition, prayer shawls and the reading of the Torah scrolls at the Western Wall (a remnant of the Second Temple) have traditionally been limited to use by men. The Women of the Wall are a group that is challenging this in public opinion and in Israeli courts. Will be interested to see how this turns out. See: "Jerusalem Journal- Challenging Traditions at the Heart of Judaism."

Sunday, December 20, 2009

What's the Buzz?

You can tell a lot about a year by its say Mark Leibovich and Grant Barrett in their New York Times piece "The Buzzwords of 2009."If that's so-- and I believe they have a good point with that idea-- then what a year 2009 was. From "teabaggers" to "death panels" to the "Octomom" and the Salahis, this past year was...nothing short of nuts. Check out the article here.

Stone Soup for the Holidays

Just in case you can't see the comic strip text, here's a link to the image too. Happy Holidays!

Morning Reading: Let's Make A Deal

The major story from the Hill from the last 24 hours is that the Senate has finally brokered an acceptable deal on the health care bill, winning the vote of the seemingly ultimate wheeler-dealer senator Ben Nelson from Nebraska. Adding more restrictive language on abortion (although not as restrictive as the Stupak amendment from the House bill) and increasing federal aid for Nelson's state, Majority Leader Harry Reid is hoping that he finally has his 60 votes. In my opinion, probably the biggest danger now would be one of the progressives opting to bolt from the bill on principle...but one hopes that they would wait for the actual vote on the bill for that, rather than blocking the cloture vote to end debate. From a progressive perspective, glancing over the summaries in the articles below, the Senate health care bill at its bottom line leaves much to be desired. But it could be a LOT worse, and from a more moderate perspective, this is actually a relatively fiscally responsible way to broaden the pool of individuals covered in the US. No matter what the Republicans (like my senior senator, good ol' Judd Gregg) are saying, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has given this bill the nod that it will actually decrease the deficit over the next twenty+ years.

Check out these articles:
In other interesting reading, the US Census Bureau has released the 2010 Statistical Abstract, and the New York Times has a piece highlighting various odd (and not so odd) bits of information from it, in "Counting Bits of U.S. Life." And-- in an older piece passed along to me by my friend Carolyn B., Nicholas Kristof has a piece on his blog about religion and women. It's a fascinating question, and I will write more on my thoughts on this issue later, but for now, here is a link to "Does Religion Oppress Women?"... and make sure you check out the link to Carter's speech too.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Now Viewing: Good Night, and Good Luck

Written, directed, and acted in by George Clooney, Good Night, and Good Luck is an homage to perhaps one of the greatest moments in television journalism, the clash between CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow and Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy. Murrow, played to near perfection by David Strathairn (who deservedly received an Oscar nod for the role), was the quintessential newsman in the mid-1950s, working with producer Fred Friendly (played by Clooney) and a team of other journalists to bring one of the early and great news analysis shows to the air, See It Now. McCarthy (brought into the film via authentic news reels) was at the height of his influence in the anti-Communist tirades and Congressional hearings. Long story short, Murrow and Friendly's team reported on the senator's vicious techniques and self-contradictions. With unimpeachable integrity and at significant cost personally and professionally, See It Now undeniably contributed to McCarthy's downfall in the Senate.

Filmed entirely in black and white, Good Night, and Good Luck retains an extraordinarily authentic feel for its times. Although the history within the movie is not entirely accurate-- sticklers will note that Murrow's ultimate showdown with CBS head Bill Paley came later than is portrayed in the film-- much of the film seems to be predominantly on target. The supporting cast, which includes Jeff Daniels, Frank Langella, and Robert Downey, Jr., is nothing short of spectacular.

In short: This film blew me away with the quality of its writing and acting, to say nothing of its subject matter. Good Night, and Good Luck instills a nostalgia for time when men were real men, women were real women, and journalism was courageous in its pursuit of truth. It is, in my opinion, a fitting tribute to Mr. Edward R. Murrow, and to the journalistic profession.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Good Day for Upcoming Movies

The trailer for Iron Man 2 has also been released as of today, and I gotta say, it looks fan-freaking-tastic. I cannot wait to go see it when it's released in May. Check it out here.

A Life-Changing Shift in Christmas Attitudes

The Advent Conspiracy is a new and growing movement of churches and individuals across the US dedicated to rethinking the Christmas season. Talk about the need for simple living-- Americans spend $450 billion on Christmas shopping each year, 45 times what it would cost to build clean water wells all over Africa. I hope this catches on-- as much as I loved the magical Christmases I had as a child, with the tree base covered in gifts, it's time to move past that young level of consumerism.

Harry Potter Sneak Peek!

Warner Brothers has released a sneak peek of the upcoming first installment of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Having quite literally grown up with Harry Potter, I am super excited about these films; and as a movie lover, I am excited that David Yates is back to direct them.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Recommended Reading: Obama's Christian Realism

For those who haven't already seen this noted on my Twitter or on my Facebook, David Brooks's column in the New York Times today was a superb analysis of the historical, philosophical, and theological roots of Obama's recent foreign policy decisions-- namely, the decision to expand the war in Afghanistan-- and the speeches he has made defending that at West Point and especially at Oslo. I highly recommend that you take a minute and read about "Obama's Christian Realism."

Now Reading: The Great Awakening

After I finished American Gospel yesterday, I decided that it was time to pick up and finish a book that I had started over Thanksgiving break, The Great Awakening by Jim Wallis. This is the sequel to Wallis's book God's Politics, which I read and loved last summer. Wallis, the editor-in-chief of Sojourners, a progressive evangelical magazine that stands for a Christianity that embraces social justice issues and moves beyond the current left-right political and religious divides.

Mr. Wallis and the Sojourners movement have had a significant impact on my solidifying political and religious views. In God's Politics and The Great Awakening, he has expressed the need for Christians to reevaluate their views on issues all across the spectrum, from abortion to the death penalty, from poverty to the environment, from integrity to family life. His centrist stances have won the respect of many, and served to make both books into bestsellers. Wallis's position on the issues and call for the faith community to take an active role in building a better world evoke the memory of nineteenth century evangelicals like William Wilberforce and Charles Finney. Wilberforce and Finney were both anti-slavery activists who drew much of their inspiration for their reform movements from their faith. Wallis and Sojourners are not quite as focused on any one issue, but rather are urging a wholistic view of the issues: health care affects the poverty levels, the environment affects health, political integrity and building strong families relate to EVERYTHING... in essence, in today's society, virtually every issue has been synthesized with another, and we cannot address each one in a bubble.

Perhaps I have extrapolated a bit from Mr. Wallis's point in that last thought, but at its core, The Great Awakening builds the foundations laid in God's Politics in urging the American religious community to pull itself out of the bubble in which it has been living. We cannot afford to ignore the important issues that are at stake in the world around us. We cannot afford to let things continue on as they are. We cannot afford to believe that God is private-- rather, as Mr. Wallis says, "God is personal, but never private." And, in a related thought, we cannot afford to only be active about an issue publicly but not be trying to make a difference privately (and vice versa).

I have found great food for thought in reading Jim Wallis's books and various related blog entries (which you can find here on the Sojourners website). I have appreciated his call to re-examine the Christian faith and our role in the public sphere, and I agree with many of his centrist stances on the issues. However, most of all, I appreciate his call to a renewed commitment to social justice and active engagement with the issues of the world today.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Now Reading: American Gospel.

Greetings, blogosphere. I have returned from my semester's sojourn at college, and my long-awaited First Post of Winter Break is here. And what better thing to post about than books? I love to read, but vastly prefer the reading I do for pleasure to the reading I have to do for class. Something about the analytical papers I have to write and get graded on afterward. Anyway, the first book I picked up this break was Jon Meacham's American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation. Yes, that IS what I read for pleasure. I don't believe that taking a break from classes inherently means taking a break from learning.

Meacham is an excellent writer-- the editor of Newsweek, he has also written biographies like Franklin and Winston and, most recently, a biography of Andrew Jackson called American Lion. The book I just read, American Gospel, takes a historical look at the nature of religion in American public life, from Jamestown to Ronald Reagan. Citing documents written by many of the best-known Founding Fathers and some lesser-known ones, Meacham makes the case for the dominance of America's "public religion" in society-- the one that presidents have invoked since the country's earliest days, but that does not tie itself to any one particular religion. Meacham's core thesis here seems to be respectfully refuting the notion of the "religious right" that America is a Christian nation in its origins. Rather, Meacham writes,
The problem with their reading of history is that it is wrong. There is no doubt, as we have seen, that the Founders lived in and consciously bequeathed a culture shaped and sustained by public religion, one that was not Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist but was simply transcendent, with reverence for the "Creator" and for "Nature's God."
To make his case, Meacham references a variety of early American writings, including the First Amendment (of course) and Jefferson's famous "wall of separation" letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, but also Article 11 of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship Between the United States and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary (which explicitly stated that the government of the United States was not "in any sense founded on the Christian religion") and George Washington's letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport (saying that the government of the United States "gives to bigotry no sanction [and] to persecution no assistance").

The Founding Founders designed the American democratic republic and the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom with the idea that a separation between the church and the state would avoid the religious strife that the rest of the world had experienced. American Gospel is Jon Meacham's call for a return to the roots of American perception of religion, and to the truest interpretation of these viewpoints and intentions.