Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Movie review: The Judge

I count myself lucky to have even heard about The Judge, David Dobkin's new film about --well about a lot of things, really. The film doesn't seem to have been promoted much.

I became aware of it when I just happened to catch Charlie Rose interviewing Robert Downey, Junior, a few weeks back. Rose played a short clip from the film during the interview, an exchange between Robert Downey and Robert Duvall. It was a powerful clip featuring two of my favorite actors and I knew immediately that this was a flick I wanted to see.

Wish fulfilled last weekend.

The Judge is the story of a hot-shot Chicago lawyer, Hank Palmer (Downey), who returns home to  small-town Indiana to bid farewell to his recently-deceased mother. Any homecoming is fraught with peril, as we all know, and Hank's is no exception. He's confronted with his past sins, which include a partially-crippled older brother, Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio), and an abandoned lover, Samantha (Vera Farmiga). But Hank's biggest challenge is his long-avoided reunion with his stern father, Joseph (Duvall). Joseph is a prominent citizen, the much-respected judge of the small town. The relationship between Hank and his father is complex and fraught with both respect and resentment. The plot thickens when an incident occurs on a dark night drive along a country road. The consequences of the event culminate in Judge Joseph being accused of murder and facing prosecution from a resolute and ruthlessly competent DA, Dwight Dickam (masterfully played by Billy Bob Thornton). Things look very bleak for the Judge, and Hank, the prodigal son, must defend his father in the very courtroom where Joseph most recently presided.

The strength of this film, as one might imagine, is the acting. It's a powerhouse cast and Dobkin seems a skilled hand at getting the most out of his actors. But despite all the big names, there is no scenery-chewing. The performances are restrained, but powerful.

Some reviewers complain that the story is cliché, but that seems like a nit. The film's value isn't so much its moral explorations or its bizarre characters. The Judge is a film about ordinary people facing ordinary dilemmas. That's why it succeeds. Nearly everyone can find a character in this film with whom to relate: the failed baseball star, the old man plagued with doubt, the resentful son. The superb cast does the rest, delivering convincing, heart-felt performances.

The Judge is a good flick that I can recommend to anyone.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Movie review: Gone Girl

Last weekend's date night for me and my Senegalese princess included a matinee showing of the new David Fincher flick, Gone Girl, featuring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. Maty and I rarely agree on what constitutes a good movie, but this one held promise. The story --husband falls under suspicion while searching for missing wife --is the kind of thing that Maty loves. My attraction was due to the mostly favorable reviews of the film and the fact that Ben Affleck was at the top of the bill. Despite his appearances in some real barkers, I've always held a reservoir of respect for Ben Affleck based on his performance in Good Will Hunting. So, all in all, Gone Girl seemed like a fair bet to please both parties.

The film is based on the eponymous novel written by Gillian Flynn, which I have not read (nor, it must be said, will I ever). Flynn derived the plot, I assume, from high-profile crime cases from the recent past (Scott and Laci Petersen come to mind).

Mr. Affleck plays the part of one Nick Dunne, a middling successful bar owner in Missouri who, on his fifth wedding anniversary, discovers that his beautiful and rich wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), has gone missing. That very morning, he reports the fact to the police, who respond with amazing (and altogether unbelievable) alacrity. Full scale searches are launched, press conferences held, and web sites established, all to find a woman that has been missing for less than 48 hours. Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) is assigned a lead role in the case and a couple of suspects from Amy's past emerge, including ex-boyfriend Desi Collins (Neil Patrick Harris). But as the investigation proceeds, suspicion begins to fall on Nick, who soon finds that his only allies are his sister Margot (Carrie Coon) and his high-profile celebrity lawyer, Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry).

Where to start? With the acting, I suppose. In a phrase, it's sub-par. Whether it was because David Finch didn't know how to coax performances out of his stars, or because the actors themselves realized that the script was a losing effort is impossible to know. Ben Affleck came across as a half-witted meat-head rather than a criminal mastermind. Rosamund Pike's character was a one-dimensional harpy. Tyler Perry seemed like he was in a car commercial. And it may be unfair, but Neil Patrick Harris will always be Doogie Howser to me.

Worst of all was the story. The plot line writhes in agony. In order to stay with it, viewers must stretch credibility to its utmost limits. Police and FBI agents are stupid; doctors and medical personnel, incompetent; the general public, gullible and naive. (Well, that last one might not be all that far off the mark.) We must believe all these things for the story to work. As Maty later described it, Gone Girl is a flick that would be most at home on Lifetime Channel.

Three-quarters of the way through the movie, I was rolling my eyes and desperate for the scroll of closing credits. But Maty liked it, so that was enough to make me feel like I hadn't just wasted the previous 149 minutes of my life.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Voted! 2014

Gotta love Oregon's vote-by-mail system. My ballot's filled out and waiting to be dropped in the mail slot. Which I will do later today.

Here's how I voted:

US Senator - Jeff Merkley

Despite having met the Republican candidate, Monica Webhy, and judged her a nice person, I never considered voting for her. Jeff Merkley is a lot like me: from an Oregon timber town (he from Roseburg, I from Klamath Falls) with progressive, blue collar, power-to-the-people views. I met Senator Merkley when he was running against Gordon Smith back in 2008 and I liked him then. His performance as a US Senator is first-rate, in my book. It is nice to have someone in the Senate that is championing my views.

Sorry, Dr. Webhy. You're a nice woman, but I can't vote for you.

US Representative, 3rd District - Michael Meo

Earl Blumenauer is my congressional representative and I like him just fine. But he is in no danger of losing his seat. Which frees me up to vote for Michael Meo, the Pacific Green party candidate. I met Michael a few years back at the Oregon State Fair and we talked about the need to bring former Bush administration officials to justice for their lies and crimes. So, although I know he won't win, I voted for him again this year. Call it a vote to keep Earl honest.

Governor - John Kitzhaber

The bloom has definitely come off the Kitzhaber rose. But despite recent dust-ups over his girlfriend's sham marriage and trumped-up (in my opinion) ethics complaints, he's the only choice for this election. In past elections, I've been a full-throated supporter. I canvassed for him in the 2008 election. I met him once at a fundraiser. And I don't think it's his fault, necessarily, that his appeal has diminished. I mean, for goodness's sake, he's running for a fourth term! Even the most hard-core supporters have got to feel a little Kitz-fatigue. But it's a default vote. The Oregon Republican party is a shambles. Dennis Richardson is at the wheel of a rattletrap clown car. It would be good for Oregon if the GOP could get its act together, but I think that's still a long way off.

State Representative, 42nd District - Rob Nosse

As a Democrat representing Oregon's 42nd district, Rob Nosse faced his stiffest competition in the primary. But since he won that, he's a shoo-in for the general. His only competition is a Libertarian candidate named Bruce Alexander Knight. I don't know the first thing about Mister Knight and it doesn't matter anyway. I didn't vote for Rob Nosse in the primary because he seemed like a single-issue candidate. Rob is gay and married and during the primary, that's all we heard about. I'm all for gay rights and marriage equality, but there are other issues that are just as important. Anyway, all that aside, he got my vote in the general.

State Measure 86: Post-secondary education fund - Yes
I'll always vote to increase access to education for everyone.

State Measure 87: Employ state judes by National Guard and state public universities - Yes
Why not? It just seems like a good idea. And I note that there were no arguments in opposition in the Voter's Pamphlet.

State Measure 88: Oregon resident driver card without proof of legal residence - Yes
People, there are many undocumented residents in Oregon. They're here to stay and they're going to be driving on our streets and highways. It is safest and best to get them "into the system." But, of course, I don't expect the frothing xenophobes to understand that. Let's see if this measure passes.

State Measure 89: Prohibits denial or abridgement of equal rights based on gender - Yes
This seems like a measure that should have passed decades ago.

State Measure 90: Changes general election nomination processes; top two vote-getters in primary face-off in general election - No
In these post-Citizens United days, this is just another method for ultra-rich oligarchs to buy elections. I'm afraid this measure will pass. But let the record show that I voted against it.

State Measure 91: Allows possession, sale of marijuana to/by adults, subject to state licensing, regulation, taxation - NO!!!! (Just kidding!) Yes! Yes! Yes!
See here or here. Whether or not this measure passes (and I think it will pass), marijuana will be legal in Oregon in the near future. The humorous part of it is this: the state may think it can license, regulate, and tax it, but that'll never happen. Marijuana is easily available to anyone without the approval or oversight of the state. This measure won't change that.

State Measure 92: Requires food manufacturers and retailers to label "genetically-engineered" foods - Yes
I follow the general maxim that the more information that is available to the consumer, the better. Besides, Monsanto has spent $2.5 million to defeat this measure. When a corporation as unethical and amoral as Monsanto is against it, you know it's something you should support.

City of Portland Measure 26-159: Bonds to fix playgrounds, trails, parks - Yes
Portland is a great place to live. I'll pay to keep it that way.

Metro Measure 26-160: Retain prohibition on Metro-required single-family neighborhood density increases - Yes
The wording on this measure is tricky. But I think, if passed, it will continue the trend toward in-fill that is crucial to saving farmland outside Portland. Rural folks probably can't understand this, but Metro is a good thing. On balance. We pay to protect our quality of life.

Portland School District #1JT: Levy renewal - Yes
I'll always vote to increase the quality of public education. It's our future.

All in all, this was a pretty cut-and-dried set of choices. I didn't have to  do a lot of mulling over how to vote. Easy election. Let's see how it turns out.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Agnostic lament

Agnostic : a person who does not have a definite belief about whether God exists or not

By this definition, I'm an agnostic. As I see it, agnosticism is a recognition that Truth is forever beyond human comprehension. To believe otherwise is vanity --vanity and ignorance --whether it is the condemning piety of the faith-blind devotee or the scoffing cynicism of the jaded atheist.

I've discussed theology with persons from each of those groups --Believers and non-believers --and I've found that, apart from their fundamental disagreement about the existence of a "God," they share a dead-sure certainty.

Atheists discount scripture in favor of "science" or the "rational mind." That seems arrogant.  Scriptures are the collected wisdom of thousands of years of human contemplation. To mock the Upanishads or the Koran or the Bible is to ridicule our forefathers, our ancestors, ourselves.

Worse than the atheists, though, are the insufferably arrogant (and utterly misguided) religious zealots. The people who deny well-established phenomena (evolution, climate change, et alia) because such observations don't fit the simple reality they've derived from their shallow interpretation of scriptures. People like that deserve ridicule and scorn. When minds are that tightly shut, people become capable of all kinds of atrocities.

I'm all for ridiculing faith-healers, snake-charmers, and Tongues-speaking charlatans.  But not scriptures. The beauty and truth in scripture has outlasted the petty schemes of people like that for thousands of years. Atheists fall victim to the charlatans by allowing them to claim scripture as their own.

Consider these outtakes from various holy writings:
  • To every thing there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven --Ecclesiastes 3
  • A kind word and forgiveness is better than a charitable deed followed by hurtful words: God is self-sufficient and forbearing. --Quran
  • Just as, my dear, by one clod of clay all that is made of clay is known, the modification being only a name, arising from speech, while the truth is that all is clay --Chandogya Upanishad 6:1:2-6
Believer or non-believer, we can all recognize truth in these verses, no?

Monday, October 06, 2014

Feast of the Sacrifice

This is just a part of the spread
One advantage of marrying a Muslim woman is that now, in addition to the Christian holidays I've observed all my life, I have opportunity to enjoy Muslim holidays as well. And being something of a trencherman, I make note of an obvious benefit. More holidays means more feasts!

Halal lamb with trimmings
Last Saturday was the Muslim holiday of Eid. (West African Muslims refer to the day as "Tabaski.") It's a commemoration of the day when Ibrahim (or Abraham) led his son, Ishmael, to the place of sacrifice where he believed God had commanded him to sacrifice the boy as a demonstration of faith. Ibrahim, though saddened and horrified, was prepared to carry out the act, but at the last moment God revealed a ram to be offered up in the boy's stead. Thus, did God pronounce the end of human sacrifice.

It's a story that is, of course, common to all of the Abrahamic religions, although I don't believe that Christians or Jews commemorate the day as a holiday.

Maty and Nadia hard at work
Maty, devout Muslim that she is, endeavored to have a celebratory feast in our new home. After attending the big Muslim prayer gathering that occurred at the Convention Center, she spent Saturday and Sunday slaving away in the kitchen to prepare a grandiose banquet.

African girls
On the menu was Halal lamb, grilled chicken, kale and fruit salads, various cheeses, yassa (Senegalese onion sauce) served over vermicelli, and ném (Senegalese spring rolls).

I ate too much, of course. By the end of the evening I was uncomfortably full. But I defy anyone to resist the flavors.

The woman that made it all happen
Muslim holidays are often hard for Maty. She thinks of her family in Africa and knows that they are celebrating and it makes her miss them all the more. So I'm very grateful that she's found a way to find joy in the holidays here in America, even though she's so far from her home. And we're blessed to have so many friends that love her and that we can call family.

A very happy Tabaski (Eid) to all!

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Book review: Here's to you, Jesúsa!

Here's to you, Jesúsa!, Elena Poniatowska's semi-fictional novel about the life of a Mexican peasant woman in the early 20th century, reads like the transcription of a long, rambling monologue.

In the foreword to the novel, Poniatowska explains that the main character of the book, Jesúsa Palancares, is based on a campesina named Josefina Bórquez whom the author befriended while living in Mexico City.

The novel is a recounting of Jesúsa's life. It begins with dim memories of her mother's burial, and continues through her childhood as she tags along behind her roustabout father, a foot soldier for the rebellion in the unsuccessful Mexican revolution. From there, the story progresses through the period of Jesúsa's marriage to an abusive cavalry officer, her widowhood, and her hard-bitten existence as a servant for the Mexican upper classes. It's a story of hardship, brutality, and poverty with only the briefest glimpses of love, laughter, and happiness.

Sounds like a downer, doesn't it? But really, it is not. The virtue of the novel is in its portrayal of Jesúsa's astounding resolution. Jesúsa is a suspicious, unforgiving woman, prone to believe the very worst about people. (And who could blame her?) And, yet, behind the unconquerable defenses of her pessimism and irascibility is a woman who yearns for a justice that can only be delivered by God. 

The book conforms to a uniquely Latin American tradition in literature, the testimonio.  It's not a form I had previously encountered, but Wendy Gimbel of the New York Times describes it as "basically a survival story, [that establishes] credibility by means of language that is direct, never ambiguous."

Consider this passage from the opening chapter:
This is my third time back on Earth, but I've never suffered as much as I have now. I was a queen in my last reincarnation, I know, because I saw my train during a revelation. I was standing in a beauty shop and there were these huge, long mirrors that went from floor to ceiling and I saw my dress and the train. It stretched back really far, and way back there almost at the end, at the tip, there was a triangle of marbled black and yellow tiger stripes. My clothing was all white, like a bridal gown, except for that forked piece of tiger skin, tike the very tip of the devil's tail. Columbine and Pierrot peered into the mirror on either side of me, both dressed in white with those black polka dots they always wear.
    I told them about my revelation at the Obra Espiritual and they said that the royal white clothing was what I was supposed to wear at my final judgment hour, and that the Lord had allowed me to see what I'd been like one of the three times that I came to Earth.
    —That spot on the train of your dress is all you have left to whiten, and if you don't, it will devour your innocence.
    I was wearing a queen's dress with wide sleeves covered with trim. Pierrot and Columbine were my servants but they didn't attend to me as they should have; they spent the whole time fooling around with each other. Queens are always alone. I also told them at the temple that I'd seen a large valley full of spotted cows:
    —It's the herd that the Lord has entrusted to you and you must return them to Him cleansed.
    I have a lot of things going on right now and I don't know when I'm going to get my herd together to remove their stains, if it'll be in this lifetime or in the next, when I evolve again ...
Direct and unambiguous language, just as Gimbel suggests.

The passage also reveals the narrator's deep-seated wisdom. It's a wisdom earned from a lifetime of hardship and from a secret hope and belief that there is more to existence than the bleakness of grinding poverty.

When at first I finished the novel, I wasn't particularly sympathetic to its protagonist. Nor was I all that enamored of the book. But now that I've digested it a bit more, I can see why Here's to you, Jesúsa! is revered among Mexican literary circles. It's a window into a world that is too often ignored and an homage to the Mexican spirit --a spirit that continues to endure even through the country's present-day torments.

Here's to you, indeed, Jesúsa!