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Friday, Dec 21, 2007

Previous Australian Prime Ministers and a State Premier Write Op-Ed Pieces on John Howard’s Downfall. And Political Cartoonist Bill Leak Gives a Lesson on How to Draw New Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Australia's new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Cartoon by Bill Leak

Australia’s new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Cartoon by Bill Leak

Lumps of Coal in John Howard’s Christmas Stocking

“The refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol will almost certainly, in time, be remembered as the greatest failure of the Howard government—Tampa, detention camps and Iraq notwithstanding.” This quote was pulled from Tim Flannery’s 2005 essay, Beautiful Lies, and printed on the book’s back cover. The essay concluded: “It was a visiting American, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known to literature as Mark Twain, who said that Australian history reads like the most beautiful lies. I think that Clemens felt that way because the histories he was given to read were indeed filled with romantic falsehood. From now on—for the next little while at least—the history we create must be more mundane. It should tell the story of a small country that did the best it possibly could for the people and the environment of the world.”

Tim Flannery has spent 2007 as “The Australian of the Year”. It’s a symbolic role bestowed on a figure nominated by ordinary Australians. Late last year the former Prime Minister, a climate change skeptic, announced a $10 billion plan to save the Murray Darling River region, which produces around 40% of Australia’s food. “With splendid serendipity the popular environmentalist Tim Flannery was named Australian of the Year,” journalist Mungo Maccallum writes in Poll Dancing, his book on the 2007 Australian election. “A week earlier this would have been an embarrassment to Howard: Flannery had been a constant critic of the government for its lack of action on global warming, and indeed warned that he would continue to be so. But in the circumstances, the front-page snaps of Howard and Flannery shaking hands seemed to presage a new dawn of environmental concern. You wanted the big picture? They don’t come much bigger than this. The $10 billion figure itself was more than somewhat suspect; it turned out that neither the Treasury nor the Department of Finance had been involved in its preparation. Indeed, neither had done any significant work on the problems associated with global warming and the consequent water shortages. It quickly became obvious that the figure had simply been plucked out of the air; after all, it was a nice big round number, eminently suitable for a tabloid headline.”

John Howard is being assessed as a man who understood the immediate usefulness of tabloid headlines and failed to grasp the long-term symbolic power of government. “If you have any doubt that the election of a Rudd Labor government has changed the country, consider this: a year ago, did you imagine that the Prime Minister would be sending an openly gay woman of Chinese ancestry to Bali, to ratify the Kyoto protocol on Australia’s behalf?” Mungo Maccallum wrote in the online journal Crikey on December 3. “Because that’s exactly what Climate Change Minister Penny Wong will be doing ... Kyoto, of course, has been one of the great symbolic differences between Labor and the [Liberal - National Party] coalition; another is WorkChoices, and Julia Gillard is already busy putting that to sleep so she can concentrate on what she rightly sees as her main job, implementing Rudd’s education revolution. And the third major symbol will be the long overdue apology to the stolen generation, now being prepared, as it should be, not just by the government, but in consultation with Aboriginal leaders.”

Some of John Howard’s harshest critics have been former Prime Ministers and State Premiers, some from within his own Liberal party, who were steadily critical of his leadership in the opinion pages of the nation’s newspapers throughout his rule. Two days before the November 24 election that John Howard resoundingly lost, becoming only the second Prime Minister in Australia’s history to lose his own seat, Paul Keating, the Labor Prime Minister he’d defeated in 1996, wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald:

He has turned out to be the most divisive prime minister in our history. Not simply a conservative maintaining the status quo, but a militant reactionary bent upon turning the clock back. Turning it back against social inclusion, cooperation at the workplace, the alignment of our foreign policies towards Asia, providing a truthful and honourable basis for our reconciliation, accepting the notion that all prime ministers since Menzies had: Holt, Gorton, McMahon, Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and me: that our ethnic diversity had made us better and stronger and the nation’s leitmotif was tolerance. Howard has trodden those values into the ground…. Nations get a chance to change course every now and then. When things become errant, a wise country adjusts its direction. It understands that it is being granted an appointment with history. On this coming Saturday, this country should take that opportunity by driving a stake through the dark heart of Howard’s reactionary government.

Two days after the election, writing again in The Sydney Morning Herald, Paul Keating expressed relief that John Howard had been defeated:

Saturday night’s victory was not just a victory for the Labor Party, it was also a victory for those Liberals such as Malcolm Fraser, Petro Georgiou and Judi Moylan, who stood against the pernicious erosion of decent standards in our public affairs. The Liberal Party of John Howard, Philip Ruddock, Alexander Downer and Peter Costello is now a party of privilege and punishments. One that lacks that most basic of wellsprings: charity. The French philosophers had it pretty right with the Enlightenment catchcry of liberty, equality and fraternity. There was not much liberty for the boat people or fraternity for the Aborigines or the Muslims or equality for the trade unionists who believed in nothing more revolutionary than the simple right to collectively bargain.

Tim Flannery wrote that the greatest lie that Australian history perpetuates is that it was an empty country when the first European settlers arrived. Former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser (1975- 1983) accepted refugees from the Vietnam War and was harshly critical of John Howard’s coldness towards refugees. Fraser has also been a great advocate for the rights of indigenous Australians believing that a formal apology from the Federal Government ” would help to rebuild trust and establish partnership. It is not the words that matter, so much as the acceptance of responsibility to put right the damage done.”

Malcolm Fraser controversially came to power after being instrumental in having former Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam (1972 - 1975) removed from office by Australia’s Governor General. (Australia is not a republic and ultimate power still rests with the Queen of England through the Governor General.) Yet a couple of weeks before the last federal election Fraser and Whitlam collaborated on a letter protesting the erosion of privacy and the weakening of Australia’s freedom of information laws under Prime Minister Howard.

In the last two decades the constitutional principle that ministers should be held accountable for the failings of their policies or administration has been seriously undermined. No matter how grave their failings may be, ministers no longer resign. This principle is the bedrock of responsible government. In its absence, the capacity of the parliament and the people to hold a government to account for its actions is substantially weakened.

It is 31 years since the last official inquiry regarding the principles of ministerial accountability at a federal level. That inquiry framed the doctrine for simpler times. It could not anticipate the major changes in governance that have occurred since then. These include an enormous growth in the powers of the executive, the now pivotal role of ministerial advisers, the outsourcing of many crucial governmental functions and the expanding influence of the lobbying industry. The Freedom of Information Act, an important safeguard introduced in 1982, has also been undermined significantly by the practices of recent governments and restrictive interpretation by the courts.

Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam. November 12, 2007.

The Australian Financial Review reports in its Christmas Bumper Edition that John Howard, at additional expense to Australian taxpayers, became the only Prime Minister in history to choose to live in the Government owned Kirribilli House in Sydney, the capital of New South Wales, rather than at the Lodge in Australia’s political capital, Canberra. He also ran up a $10 million flight bill on Australia’s Air Force one, choosing to fly on the more luxurious plane between Sydney and Canberra, rather than a cheaper aircraft that had been intended for the Prime Minister’s domestic travel. During most of the time that he was Prime Minister the Premier of New South Wales was Bob Carr, of the Labor Party. In this weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald Carr becomes the latest former leader to criticise John Howard’s legacy. 

To the Brits it may have had a touch of Little Britain. On March 28, Sir Nicholas Stern and his secretary were in a corridor of Parliament House. Suddenly Alexander Downer descended to enunciate: “So you’re the economist who is telling us we’re all going to hell in a handbasket.” Stern had just spent a week with the Indonesian President and his cabinet. He had been treated seriously and with respect. He shouldn’t have been surprised by the dismissive approach in Canberra. It was an approach that I witnessed first hand. ... In September last year when Al Gore visited Australia, Howard showed the kind of rudeness that was to inspire his foreign minister’s curt treatment of Stern. The two-term vice-president was “alarmist”: no meeting. Today I witness Australia’s decisive moves to international co-operation over climate change with pride, but with sadness at the lost years.

Bob Carr. Sydney Morning Herald. December 22, 2007

The Australian states have made gains in combating global warming that the Federal Government didn’t capitalize on. Carr writes that in New South Wales he introduced one of the world’s first carbon trading schemes, halted deforestation in some areas by preventing the removal of native trees, and required new buildings to be energy efficient and meet greenhouse standards. “When Howard and his ministers dismissed global warming they saw it as a battle in the culture wars, not a crisis in humankind’s relation to nature that towers above any left-right divide.Now we scramble to catch up.”

The Week in Review Section of The New York Times this weekend has a report on previous American Presidents commenting on their successors, starting with an attack Herbert Hoover made on Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940.

“I do not suggest that Mr. Roosevelt aspires to be a dictator,” Mr. Hoover said in Columbus. “It is however understatement to say that he has builded personal power to a dangerous point in this republic.” He went on to compare the “sinister” and “insidious” accumulation of power in the administration to “the rise of every dictator in Europe.”

... By a mile, American presidents are not men of small egos. A wallflower could not survive the nomination process and the general election, especially its current 22-month incarnation. But as partisanship intensified in the 20th century, and politics became increasingly defined by the personalities of party leaders, presidents and ex-presidents have found it hard to remain offstage, silently watching their successors, or would-be successors, grapple with the job — especially during campaigns.

The stakes may have proved too enormous for presidents to remain silent. If they could no longer be the nominees, then they would be pundits of the first order — men with credibility on Oval Office matters by dint of once sitting in the chair themselves.

Patrick Healy. “As I Was Saying Before I Left Office.” The New York Times. December 23, 2007

Cartoon by Bill Leak

Cartoon by Bill Leak

Bill Leak Draws Kevin Rudd’s Head With a Compass

“March 2, 1996 marked the start of 10 long years of struggle for the nation’s cartoonists,” wrote Bill Leak on the tenth anniversary of John Howard’s reign as Prime Minister last year. “John Howard’s ordinariness is one of his most effective electoral attributes, but it is almost impossible to capture. It’s a bit like having to draw something that’s not there. As someone once said of British politician Gordon Brown, ‘when he leaves a room the lights go on.’ Howard seemed to us like that — or, as Paul Keating put it, ‘like a lizard on a rock — alive but looking dead.’ “

What we need is a feature to exaggerate to the point of absurdity, something — anything — to get a grip on … but, please, not ordinariness.

Journalists as well as cartoonists found it difficult to get a handle on Howard when he first rose to prominence in Malcolm Fraser’s ministry in 1977. Fraser himself, with his half-closed eyes lurking somewhere behind the hanging gardens of his eyebrows and his jaw, the length of which was restricted only by the amount of drawing space available, was a gift from God. But his Treasurer [John Howard] was a different matter.

Howard was mired in the 1950s, a man who came over all misty eyed when recalling those glory days when Australia was still hanging on firmly to Mother England’s apron strings, nice people lived in suburban houses on a quarter acre, a wild night was when someone broke free from singing songs around the piano and danced the hokey-pokey, and modern art was a foreign pestilence successfully quarantined from our shores. Cartoonists and journalists alike portrayed him as a man living in the past, defined by a series of tired clichés.

Bill Leak. New Matilda. March 1, 2006

“It’s a cruel business drawing caricatures. You have to be a bit of a sadist to get into it in the first place. There’s no denying the joy you get from ridiculing people’s physical features and knowing the hapless victims will have to see what you’ve done to them in the next day’s paper,” Bill Leak wrote in The Australian on May 21 this year. “What’s the first thing you look for when you start drawing a caricature of someone? The answer is shape. For instance, does this person have a big, square block of a head like Mark Latham’s, a soccer ball-shaped head like Kevin Rudd’s, or a Steeden football-shaped head like Petro Georgiou’s? Nick Greiner was one of those rare people whose head was like a horizontal football, the view you’d get if it was laying on a shelf. The things you look for next are the things that stick out: funny noses especially bulbous ones like Peter Costello’s; weird ears (thanks again Costello); whopping great chins like Peter Garrett’s; silly little chins like Mark Vaile’s which looks more like a lump in his neck; jowls like a frigate bird’s throat like Peter Reith’s, or bottom lips that poke out so far you wonder how their owners don’t drown when it rains.”

In The Australian yesterday Bill Leak wrote that he failed to grasp how important Kevin Rudd was going to be when he was named leader of the Labor Party in December last year because his appearance was so unassuming. The former diplomat’s mild manner reminded him of the earnest Belgian boy reporter Tintin, who overcame his opponents with brains, not brawn, and he began drawing him as Tintin, accompanied by a fox terrier who was a dead ringer for Snowy. “Rudd looks like the little bloke who is taking on the big adventure and who just might prevail in the end,” Leak explained [in a story reprinted by The Forbidden Planet] “All I did was add a bit of a chin to him. And sometimes a little bit of a firmness to the mouth.”

Cartoon by Bill Leak

Cartoon by Bill Leak

Moulinsart SA, which publishes the Tintin books owned by the Herge estate initially protested but reached a settlement with Leak that allows him to depict Rudd editorially as Tintin, but not sell copies of the cartoons. But, Leak wrote yesterday, when it seemed certain that Rudd would become Prime Minister he realized that the Tintin analogy had a “use-by date” and he’d have to start depicting him as his own man. The shape of Rudd’s head doesn’t give him much inspiration and he noted that he’s the only figure he’s drawn whose head is best drawn with a compass. Brendan Nelson, the new leader of the Liberal Party that John Howard left in tatters, inspires him however. His ascendancy to the leadership of the Liberal Party is a gift to cartoonists, Leak wrote, noting that Nelson has a head that’s a figure eight, and all that’s needed to bring him to life is a tuft of hair, like that of a toilet brush. Leak suggested that the Liberal Party might also be in need of tenaciousness and intelligence and drew Nelson as Tintin.







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Friday, Dec 21, 2007

The music industry is alleged to be dying, but a look at the scads of best-of lists makes it seem as though there is more good music than ever. The erosion of the big labels control over what we hear has been mirrored by an explosion of journalistic opportunities on the internet for people to espouse their idiosyncratic tastes. What emerges has less of a cram-down, lockstep feel to it than lists in the past would have, but it can still be bewildering and overwhelming if you fall like I do into the fantasy/trap of wanting to be aware of everything people thing is worth hearing. Just have a glance at Slate’s year-end critics roundtable series of posts. Intentionally or not, these critics make appreciating pop music—pop music, mind you—seem like a full-time job. No dilettantes allowed in the world of pop music.

And this is despite the writers’ palpable urge to relate to what ordinary people get out of music—it’s almost a desperate plea really (their irritating populist proclamations aside; these seem like overcompensation for being anything but an ordinary music fan) because thinking as much as they do about music is a sure way to forever alienate yourself from the natural, routine relationship with music, the one that is straightforward and brings those lucky enough to preserve it an uncomplicated joy. It’s enough to wonder whether pop music gets too much coverage, which threatens to suffocate all the pleasure out of it. More likely though is that I am too often in front of a computer with nothing better to do than read about music.

But it seems everyone now agrees that the music industry will no longer exist in the terms we know it, and this will inevitably change how both musicians and fans go about their business. David Byrne’s article for Wired about how musicians can adapt to changes in the entertainment industry is fairly comprehensive and surprisingly businesslike (it has infographics and numbered lists, in accordance with the assumption that businesspeople can’t process information presented in paragraphs or complete sentences). It’s extremely informative without being overly dogmatic, and It’s full of eminently sensible and realistic advice that doesn’t presume a draconian intellectual-property regime to protect intellectual property from technological despoilment. He highlights that the overhead labels used to cover is no longer an issue, and now all they have to offer bands is up-front money, which amounts to a life of indentured servitude as the bands give up control over what they create as they try to pay the money back.

Much of his argument has its roots in an idealistic definition of what music is, an inalienable experience that defies commodification and is essentially social.

In the past, music was something you heard and experienced — it was as much a social event as a purely musical one. Before recording technology existed, you could not separate music from its social context. Epic songs and ballads, troubadours, courtly entertainments, church music, shamanic chants, pub sing-alongs, ceremonial music, military music, dance music — it was pretty much all tied to specific social functions. It was communal and often utilitarian. You couldn’t take it home, copy it, sell it as a commodity (except as sheet music, but that’s not music), or even hear it again. Music was an experience, intimately married to your life. You could pay to hear music, but after you did, it was over, gone — a memory.
Technology changed all that in the 20th century. Music — or its recorded artifact, at least — became a product, a thing that could be bought, sold, traded, and replayed endlessly in any context. This upended the economics of music, but our human instincts remained intact.

That’s well-put, and in more philosophical moments, I tend to think of “real” music as being that pure. But I’m less optimistic that my “human instincts” are so intact. I sometimes fear that music is something I’ve never quite experienced because it is so foreign to the consumer culture that is all I have ever known. I feel I’ve had glimpses of music qua music—in impromptu jam sessions in a friend’s barn, or working on recording music on a four-track, or at a really inspired show when the band seems to be doing it for love. Reading old novels has given me intimations of this too, of women needing “finishing” so that they could supply music in the country houses that the characters in bourgeois novels tend to inhabit, of country fairs and balls being a much bigger deal to characters because of the occasions for music they presented. I would think about how much we take recorded music for granted and how it has robbed music of much of its enchantment. That you had to buy music, making it somewhat scarce, give it some ersatz magic, but it wasn’t like (so I imagined) when you had to know someone who could play or sing in order to hear it, when almost all music a person would hear in ordinary life was what we know would regard as amateur. And when you heard music, it was compelling; you’d never think to regard it as aural wallpaper. (Classical music, the product of this era, still demands that level of attention. Who has the time?)

Romanticizing garage bands and local scenes is part of pining for the “authentic: music of the days before music as product. Sometimes I fall for this notion, that before there were so many records and so many radio stations, local bands served a real function of supplying music where there was none, and their incompetence was lamentable but tolerated, rather than being kitschy or a perverse and deliberate badge of honor. One didn’t have to evolve contrarian tastes to prove one’s devotion to music, I imagine, one just had to show up at the high school gymnasium or the VFW or the church social, hear the covers of songs on the radio and maybe some songs that were new—to you at least, if not altogether original to the band—and be grateful that there was music at all.

The simplicity of musical taste is what seems so seductive to me, what makes the early 1960s seem a golden age. It’s easy to imagine that in the golden age, before the deluge, music appreciation was free of the posturing and calculation that is so palpable in, say, any publication’s best music of 2007 list. Making these lists forces on us a mentality where we’re listening to rate songs and rule music out and exclude things rather than embrace music and make taste inclusive. The selections on such lists are in earnest, for sure, but still they have a groomed, fussed-over quality. But these lists are so discouraging; the music alone ends up seeming insufficient. It feels obligatory to continue to discover new things, to broaden horizons, to incorporate more and more knowledge of what’s available. A list of good music seems like it should come across as a service rather than a challenge, but it always feels like homework when I read one. It’s no way to discover music; the best ways seem lost to the past—those days when your local scene and radio station dictated what you heard, and then all these surprises were still hidden out there in the world, things someone could bring back for you. Obscurantist MP3 blogs are probably motivated by the wish to bring that feeling of special discovery to people, but the instantaneous availability of everything tends to undermine it.

Part of this is the paradox of choice in action: because there is so much music, so cheaply available, I have a hard time growing too attached to any of it without feeling I’m missing out on something somewhere else. Plus, hearing so much music makes more and more of it seem similar and mediocre. When you have only 25 albums in your world, you can forgive a lot of flaws; but the more reference points one has, the more listening becomes a game of comparison and categorization. It’s the nature of collecting music; when it becomes a product, one starts to taxonomize it. It becomes information to be comprehended and organized, rather than a sensation to experience.

Ordinarily I try to reject this sort of dichotomy between intellectualization and spontaneous authenticity, between thought and feeling. If authenticity is going to be assigned to any kind of aesthetic experience, it should be to those which fuse thought and feeling and make them seem synonymous. It’s hard to explain what that even means, but I think of it as the feeling that comes when a new level to something becomes comprehensible, when a hidden order reveals itself. When I realize some innocuous line in a song refers to much more than it initially seems, and the broader implications are suddenly dazzling or devastating or overwhelming—understanding more and then at once understanding that you hardly understanding anything, that the work you are contemplating is inexhaustible. 

The assumption that thought ruins real experience is usually urged by those who profit by our impulsiveness, marketers and proselytizers of various stripes. And it’s not thinking (mischaracterized as a hyperrational urge to demystify everything) that reifies experience. But the illusion that we can have a shortcut to mastering the experiences that life has to offer by turning them into data to be processed and filed is one of consumerism’s more seductive lures. The promise is always the same and always a false one: that there can be pleasure without effort, that convenience is for its own sake. In this way catalogable information is the enemy of thought; it refuses to let thought become feeling.

Still, it’s impossible to imagine life without recorded music or to pretend that recorded music isn’t our primary experience with it. The “economics of music” that Byrne sets against human instincts can’t be ignored or separated from the experience of enjoying music. We can’t return to an innocent stage where we listen to music instead of consume it.



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Thursday, Dec 20, 2007

For the weekend beginning 21 December, here are the films in focus:

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street [rating: 10]

As the perfect marriage of maker and material, this dark, disturbing splatter-etta stands as the best film of 2007.

The reemergence of the musical as a viable, awards season showcase has been fraught with inconsistency. For every example of the genre that seems to click with voters and moviegoers (Chicago), there’s ambitious flops (The Phantom of the Opera) and pandering populism (Dreamgirls). Finding the right balance between Broadway and the big screen is never easy, mainly because the source material inherently thwarts a carefree translation. What works on a stage before a live audience turns odd and even ineffectual within the two dimensional medium. Similarly, even the most gifted filmmaker can fail in capturing the true spirit of a piece.    read full review…

Charlie Wilson’s War [rating: 8]

Witty, wacky, and wildly inappropriate for our Puritan PC times, this story of a lecherous Congressman and his anti-Commie compunction sails along on breezes of effortless engagement, filled with performances so potent they act like double shots of soothing Southern Comfort.

Politicians will forever be known as slick speaking, backslapping, good old boys, re-feeding the coffers that got them into office with promises, perks and mindless policy decisions. Anything they accomplish is instantly compromised by shady dealings, special interests, and the ever-present perfume of scandal. Charlie Wilson had that undeniable aroma. He was a loose living, morally ambiguous Congressman carousing in a town overflowing with such specious experts, and he would have served out his terms in relative anonymity if it wasn’t for Afghanistan. When Soviet forces invaded the tiny Arab country, Wilson saw it as an affront to the cause of freedom. His eventual efforts on behalf of the nation resulted in one of the first major defeats of Communism ever recorded. And according to the new political comedy by American original Mike Nichols, he had a damn good time making it happen. read full review…

Other Releases - In Brief

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story [rating: 8]

The celebrity biopic has become the disaster film of cinematic spoof material. So forced and formulaic that it comes across like a politician’s debate answers, it’s a genre that practically parodies itself - as long as one’s working in clichés. Like the chum on any side of a format that’s jumped the shark, comedy genius Judd Apatow, and his current collaborator Jake Kasdan (son of Lawrence), are ready to pick the category’s carcass clean. The result is Walk Hard, a stunningly stupid and wildly hilarious farce that finds solid supporting player John C. Reilly playing the title character, a nimrod rube who uses the tragic death of his brother (and the resulting olfactory malfunction he suffers from) as his ticket to the top. Included along the way are spot on riffs regarding Elvis, Bob Dylan, and The Beatles, along with the typical familial farce that accompanies such rags to riches ridiculousness. While not as tight as Knocked Up or as scatological as Superbad, Walk Hard is one of the year’s biggest surprises. Yet when you consider the creative minds behind it, such a triumph is more or less a given.

National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets [rating: 4]

There was a time when action movies were big, dumb, loud, and mindless - and those were all positive attributes. Buffed up actors spouting crass one liners were the standard hero du jour, and everything had a Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok tendency to blow up…blow up real good. So it’s easy to forgive the latest installment in the burgeoning National Treasure franchise, Book of Secrets, for being so unconscionably stupid. What it can’t gain absolution from is how dull it all is. Dealing with the assassination of Lincoln, the discovery of the fabled lost City of Gold, and the role played by a member of the Gates ancestry in both (potentially), we have Nicholas Cage back as our sleepwalking savior, a treasure hunter in possession of all the possibilities and very little panache. He is joined by fellow Oscar winners Jon Voight and Helen Mirren as blindly bickering parents. Add in the nonstop, non-comic chatter of computer geek sidekick Justin Bartha and vacant love interest Diane Kruger and you’ve got a cast going nowhere fast. Even the mandatory action is lame and uninvolving. As by the book spectacles go, this is barely a pulp paperback. It’s more like an incomplete pamphlet.

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Thursday, Dec 20, 2007

Charlie Wilson’s War [dir. Mike Nichols]

Politicians will forever be known as slick speaking, backslapping, good old boys, re-feeding the coffers that got them into office with promises, perks and mindless policy decisions. Anything they accomplish is instantly compromised by shady dealings, special interests, and the ever-present perfume of scandal. Charlie Wilson had that undeniable aroma. He was a loose living, morally ambiguous Congressman carousing in a town overflowing with such specious experts, and he would have served out his terms in relative anonymity if it wasn’t for Afghanistan. When Soviet forces invaded the tiny Arab country, Wilson saw it as an affront to the cause of freedom. His eventual efforts on behalf of the nation resulted in one of the first major defeats of Communism ever recorded. And according to the new political comedy by American original Mike Nichols, he had a damn good time making it happen.

While on a ‘fact finding mission’ in a Las Vegas hot tub loaded with strippers and cocaine, Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson learns of the ongoing Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Wondering why the US hasn’t responded to such a blatant act of invasion, he soon discovers that no one considers the situation a threat. But when Houston socialite Joanne Herring asks him to look into some covert funding for the freedom fighters, their longstanding relationship fuels Wilson’s interest. Before long, the Congressman is visiting refugee camps and bringing his fight to the floor of his House Subcommittee. With the help of CIA operative Gust Avrakotos and many insider connections, Wilson discovers what the Afghanis need - surface to air missiles that can take down the plague of Russian helicopters decimating the landscape. Getting the money won’t be easy, but with his reputation both in and outside of the Rotunda, if anyone can do it, Charlie Wilson can.

At this point in his illustrious career, Mike Nichols can cruise into legend and no one would blame him for such passivity. He’s often considered the original rebellious voice of the emerging ‘60s/‘70s post-modern movement (thanks in part to his brilliant proto-slacker statement, The Graduate), but has also helmed other symbols of cinematic significance like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , Catch 22, and Carnal Knowledge. Yet when it comes to politics, Nichols is less than nimble. His tendency is to beat people over the head with his stances, showcasing how corruptible and craven the system can be (Primary Colors) vs. how righteous and reverent his characters are (Silkwood). It’s not a terrible habit - many of the movies he’s made have the same entertainment spark as his commercial successes (Working Girl, The Birdcage). But those looking for insight usually wind up settling for irony, satire strangulating even the most powerful of big picture pronouncements.

Perhaps this is why Charlie Wilson’s War feels like such a triumph. It’s the first legitimate marriage between Nichols the comedian and Nichols the commentator. Witty, wacky, and wildly inappropriate for our Puritan PC times, this story of a lecherous Congressman and his anti-Commie compunction sails along on breezes of effortless engagement, filled with performances so potent they act like double shots of soothing Southern Comfort. Nichols can be accused of pandering or taking sides. The script by West Wing/A Few Good Men scribe Aaron Sorkin is unapologetically insular in that regard. And Wilson may have been, in real life, a cad of unconscionable proportions, but the message this movie delivers is loud and crystal clear - the US funded covert war against the Soviets in the early ‘80s led directly to the rise of the Taliban, the establishment of Al-Qaeda, and the events of 9/11.

It’s not that obvious at first. Tom Hanks, handling the lead roll like he’s just been cast in The Rat Pack Swing Washington, is all beaming smiles and smacked female backsides. He’s James Bond without the continental charms and license to kill. At first, Wilson seems to be formed out of swaggers and excess appetites. Even when he takes up the cause in Afghanistan, it’s more of a show of personal power (he’s the key vote that many of his fellow politicians count on) than a real concern or cause. During these sequences of backdoor wheeling and debauchery fueled dealing, Nichols lulls us into a sense of satiric complacency. We wonder how a movie so mired in moxie is going to turn around and deliver the proper policy denouement.

And then we move to the battlefield. In one of the most effective moments in the entire film, Wilson views a Pakistani refugee camp firsthand, and the brutality and carnage is unbearable: Children missing limbs, adults minus eyes, faces shorn off by shrapnel and bodies battered by an inability to properly defend themselves. These scenes are crucial to Charlie Wilson’s War and its effectiveness. A 2007 audience, already sick to death of the morass in the Middle East, has to buy a non-Red State rationale for our lead’s heroics. Jingoism and the pull of the patriot just won’t fly. But when given a human image, and a human toll, we instantly side with the concerned Congressman. Ethics violations or not, his role in Washington has to prompt the appropriate change.

As the baffles which this character careens off of, Nichols provides two stellar stalwarts. Looking a lot less glamorous than her rich witch Texas money baroness would bear out, Julie Roberts is excellent as Joanne Herring. With untold wealth to waste and Wilson as her power pawn, she’s more than just a bank account. There’s a brilliant scene where a post-coital Herring reapplies her face, and the diligence and dedication she shows in putting on this powder and pancake façade is just fabulous. Besides, Roberts has great chemistry with Hanks. One could easily see the two helming a series of retro-romantic comedies. They’re so winning, so endearingly effervescent that you can’t help but love them.

But the real maverick here is Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s the gruff, gritty Greek CIA analyst Gust Avrakotos, the kind of man whose done it all and seen it all. His no nonsense, world weary wisdom is a breath of protocol breaching candor in rooms full of stagnant Washington air. He’s the cutting edge to Wilson’s wide-eyed optimism, the calculated con to the Congressman’s cheerleading pro. If he wasn’t already an established star, it’s the kind of performance that would elevate an actor’s game. As the fulcrum between Hanks and Roberts, the realistic against their pert smile optimism, Hoffman is sensational.

And so is the rest of the film. Nichols does a good job of balancing moments of meaning against just plain partying. Wilson is viewed as a hard drinking womanizer, but there are times when the director let’s Hanks get reflective and hurt. They work to keep the film from falling over into parody. Similarly, the last act revitalization of the Afghan forces has a wonderful Fox News fakeness to it. It makes it easy to forget that this is the same rebellion that will eventually revert to Islamic fundamentalism and provide a proving ground for future terrorists in training. Nichols doesn’t let us off the hook either. During a balcony scene between Hanks and Hoffman, a sound is heard that reminds us of why Wilson’s fervor eventually became his folly.

Of course, the movie doesn’t martyr the man. Instead, it continues his position as prescient and prophetic. A final quote before the closing credits reveals such insights, and the cleverly crafted scenes before said statement show just how shortsighted our government can be. Still, audiences shouldn’t come to Charlie Wilson’s War expecting the kind of political resonance achieved by directors such as Oliver Stone or films like All the President’s Men. Nichols is more than happy to stay solidly in entertainer mode. If some minor message gets out, all the better. Some may see this solid bit of mainstream Hollywood moviemaking as all celebrity smoke and mirrors. In fact, it’s much more biting - and brazen than that. 


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Thursday, Dec 20, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street [dir. Tim Burton]

The reemergence of the musical as a viable, awards season showcase has been fraught with inconsistency. For every example of the genre that seems to click with voters and moviegoers (Chicago), there’s ambitious flops (The Phantom of the Opera) and pandering populism (Dreamgirls). Finding the right balance between Broadway and the big screen is never easy, mainly because the source material inherently thwarts a carefree translation. What works on a stage before a live audience turns odd and even ineffectual within the two dimensional medium. Similarly, even the most gifted filmmaker can fail in capturing the true spirit of a piece. 

So fans of Stephen Sondheim had ever reason to be worried. His Tony Award winning masterwork Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is perhaps the most difficult and obtuse of his shows to make the cinematic leap - and with a track record that includes the unbalanced A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and the miserably miscast A Little Night Music, he’s far from foolproof. Luckily, the right auteur came along, a director so perfectly in tune with the composer’s layered conceits that one imagines it was written specifically for him. Many have dismissed Tim Burton as a goofy Goth visionary who has never met a narrative he couldn’t defang. Even worse, some have suggested that, as his mainstream acceptance has grown, his artistic acumen has faded.

Not true - and his brand new version of Sweeney Todd is more than enough proof. As the perfect marriage of maker and material, this dark, disturbing splatter-etta stands as the best film of 2007. It is an outright masterpiece, a work of bravura craftsmanship by a man whose been preparing for this creative moment all his directorial life. Like soulmates bound at the most primal, bloodlusting level, Sondheim and Burton merge to form a cohesive, craven whole, the show’s thematic undercurrents of malice, corruption, and revenge splashing across the screen in monochrome mise-en-scene and torrents of arterial inevitability. Stripped of its need for constant self-referencing (fans may balk at the cutting of some key expositional numbers) and reduced down to its nastiest nature, it’s the reason that film continues its status as art.

When we first meet Sweeney Todd, he is returning to London after a long stint in prison. Jailed by a jealous Judge named Turpin for crimes he did not commit, the former Benjamin Barker learns that his beautiful wife was raped, and later committed suicide. Even worse, his equally attractive daughter Johanna has been taken in as the Magistrate’s ward. Desperate for retribution, Todd decides to take up his old profession - barbering - only this time, his clients won’t be leaving his shop through the front door. Upon meeting and conspiring with the impoverished pie merchant Mrs. Lovett, Todd attempts to reestablish his trade.

He challenges Italian barber Adolfo Pirelli to a shaving competition, and with the win, must face the dandy’s considerable wrath. In the meantime, a young sailor has fallen for Todd’s teenage daughter, and warns the barber of the terrible news - Turpin is in love with her, and is planning on taking her as his bride. Through murder, the anguished father will work his way to the man he feels is responsible for his miserable fate. It will also help Mrs. Lovett’s failing shop, as meat for her pies is hard to come by…

There are two ways to look at Burton’s version of Sweeney Todd - both of them successful. Fans of the original may wince at a few of the obvious edits (no “Ballad of Sweeney Todd”, a truncated “City on Fire”) yet should embrace the stark and quite stunning way in which the film illustrates Sondheim’s main symbol - the shedding of blood as a balm for the troubled soul. While the truth of this legend’s actual existence may never be fully known (people still swear Todd was a real person, without any proof of same), the notion of his mark as a frightening figure of unhinged justice is fully realized. Both tragic and terrifying, without pity and full of passion, Sweeney Todd is a crushed spirit working out his anguish in rivers of the red stuff, one slit throat at a time.

Anyone unfamiliar with the show, or simply showing up to see Johnny Depp deliver another remarkable acting turn will also come away more than satisfied. In a career arc that’s seen its fair share of experimentation and excess, the now marketable mainstream superstar is absolutely brilliant here. It’s a risky role - the music lacks a standard pop song structure, and for all his glorified depression, Todd remains a wicked, wicked man - but thanks to his undeniable talent, Depp turns a figure of immense evil into something somber and quite sad. He is not the bombastic vocal presence of a Len Cariou (the original Great White Way Todd) or George Hearn, but his performance of the musical material is heartbreaking. He syncs up flawlessly with Sondheim’s sentiments, resulting in the most menacing, mercurial Todd ever.

His is matched equally well by Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett. Unlike the stage versions of the character, which hinge on a broad based sense of surrealistic bawdy cockney slapstick to sell the cannibalism, this version of the pie merchant is all grime and desperation. Lovett is not comic relief or audience friendly joviality. She’s a shattered soul, just like Todd, and her ready kinship and scheming with the barber is never forced or implausible. Carter may possess the smallest of voices, but like Depp, she delivers in the mandatory emotional ranges. During their brilliant bits of byplay (the clever ” A Little Priest”) or her shattering solo spots (the hilarious “By the Sea”), Lovett is the levelheaded version of Todd’s evil. She wants the same results that he does - and by some accounts, a whole lot more.

The remainder of the cast is just outstanding. Timothy Spall is like a vile Victorian woodcarving come to life as the disgusting, devilish Beadle Bamford. Alan Rickman is also marvelously malevolent as the vile Judge Turpin. The movie’s brief bits of comedy are handled with amazing adeptness by Borat‘s Sacha Baron Cohen, and little Ed Sanders is a sensational Tobias Raggs. He handles the seminal song “Not While I’m Around” with a beautiful bravery. Since their roles are reduced here, the actors playing Johanna and Anthony don’t get much screen time. But both Jayne Wisener and Jamie Campbell Bower offer powerful voices and memorable moments.

But it’s Burton who ends up the true hero, his eye for the unusual and the downtrodden in full, flowering effect. Aside from the gallons of grue, he works in a very muted palette, the almost black and whiteness of his color scheme leaving room for lots and lots of blood. This is Grand Guignol glorification, a movie that celebrates arterial spray in ways genre efforts can’t embrace. Every spurting throat, every gaping wound, is an extension of Todd’s pent up anguish. He needs release, and the only way it can be found is via the blade. But Burton’s not just a slave to the slice and dice. He stages the many songs in a smaller, more minor note, keeping the multifaceted emotions inside Sondheim’s occasionally obtuse lyrics front and center.

The result is the year’s finest cinematic experience, a movie completely awash in its own outsized elements and internalized treats. Like all great artists, the talent involved here didn’t dishonor Sondheim, but instead, they make the material their own. That’s the true test of any adaptation. Perhaps the reason other recent musicals have failed is because of a disingenuous desire to stay true to the original while modernizing (or in other cases, pointlessly modifying) the source to satisfy unclear demographical concerns. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is proof that, when left to their own devices, the gifted will give over to something quite special. The undeniable greatness exhibited here certainly supports such a conclusion.


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