Handyfilm etc

Film reviews and other thoughts

My Photo
Location: New York, New York, United States

Thursday, February 28, 2008

One Oscar Worth Cheering

The extraordinary Taxi to the Dark Side won the Academy Award as Best Documentary last Sunday. I hope that means a lot of people will see the film now. You can read my review here.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Polemics in Small Doses

On the web site Blogcritics, where most of my reviews run, I am also an active participant in the political discussions. I enjoy writing these, most of which are comments on/replies to articles written by others. They allow me to clarify my own thoughts. Here are some recent excerpts.

On Obama and Change

Any of the leading Democrats will be a sharp change from the current president, eh?

Obama's ability to inspire people has more to do with appealing to their better nature. He's certainly open to criticism that his resume is light and his policy statements are less than comprehensive. But he really reaches people. Don't underestimate the genuine power of this - not just to get votes, but to change the country.

Certainly there are no guarantees, especially not in government or politics. But there is excitement in seeing people genuinely moved by a positive message. We can react cynically, or we can hope it leads somewhere good.

On Terrorism: The Right Way to Address It, and the Bush Way

As the "Awakening" of Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq demonstrates, terrorists and extremists do not automatically command the loyalty and respect of other Muslims. Many of the Iraqi Sunnis have decided that for now at least they are better off opposing the terrorists and accepting the protection of the US.

But what the Bush administration has done overall is to alienate moderate Islam [the vast majority] through sins of both omission and commission. If we made a genuine effort to win the hearts and minds of the Islamic world, instead of living up to the worst caricatures of our behavior and policies, there might actually be hope for this.

Think of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the Iraq invasion itself, the USA Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act, wireless wiretapping, our continued, uncritical 'friendships' with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and yes, certainly, our one-sided attitude in the Palestinian situation. When moderates in Iran sent an olive branch [pre-Ahmadinejad], Bush ignored it.

If we don't seriously attempt to refute and prove wrong the propaganda of the Islamists, their propaganda will of course win. That may sound obvious, but will someone please tell Bush and Cheney this?

And the Wahhabists have been running Saudi Arabia for decades without showing much interest in confronting other countries, certainly not the US.

It's a renegade group of Sulafists [better word] who align themselves with Zawahiri and bin Laden and who welcome direct confrontation with the West. Whether they are actually capable of planning and executing large plots together on Western soil is another matter. I tend to think they're mostly nutty and incompetent.

So 9/11 was what, an aberration? Dumb luck?

Not provable or disprovable. But it's beginning to look more and more like that's a possibility, yes. Most of the plots since then have been smaller in scale, only tenuously connected to each other if at all, often incompetent [e.g. Glasgow airport], or in fact mostly imaginary [this includes most of the guys arrested inside the US, like that pitiful crew in Miami]. This did not stop the government from wasting taxpayer money in prosecuting them, or from patting itself on the back for thus "keeping us safe." Pretty nauseating, really.

There is not one convincing case of another US-based plot, one that would ever have succeeded at any rate. If you believe this is because Bush's team are brilliant at law enforcement...well, I have a nice bridge for sale in Brooklyn you'll want to come look at.

We all know so little about this subject. We need to keep learning as much as we can. The ignorance of even well-informed Americans is appalling. And when we don't know something, we guess at the answers and make bad decisions based on the guessing. This is the story of the Bush debacle.

Yes, there are fanatics in the world who are willing to do unspeakable, unthinkable things. The question is whether we can actually prevent them from these acts, or whether it makes more sense to reduce the appeal of the fanatics' message and increase the appeal of our own.

By always responding to threats with more threats and with violence and with restriction of civil rights, and by invading countries without good cause, we increase the numbers of alienated young men who hate us and who are open to the ideas of fanatics.

We're digging our own hole.

Plain Facts About Taxes

Here I quote from a brilliant NY Times column last fall. It contains several bits of truth that the ideologues [on both sides] ought to consider. The title of this article, which everyone should read, is "Plain Truth About Taxes and Cuts" by David Leonhardt.

“The taxes that the federal government took in last year equaled 18.4 percent of the gross domestic product, almost exactly the average since 1980.

...moderate shifts in taxes don't dictate economic growth. Mr. Bush's father and Bill Clinton raised taxes -- and the economy grew for almost the entire decade of the 1990s. The current administration has cut taxes -- and the economy has grown for almost all of this decade.

This country really does have a high corporate tax rate, but it also has so many loopholes that companies can often avoid paying the tax. A much smarter policy, economists say, would include a lower rate with fewer loopholes.

...A family in that top 1 percent of earners paid a total federal tax rate -- including everything from payroll taxes to income taxes to capital gains taxes -- of 30 percent in 2004. That was down from 41 percent a decade before. Since the 1950s, tax rates on high-income families have generally been falling.

The top earners pay a bigger share of the government tab than in the past because their incomes have risen so sharply -- even more sharply than their tax bills.

Mr. Bush has predicted that the deficit will disappear by 2012. But that prediction depends on the fiction that the alternative minimum tax will be allowed to grow ever larger in coming years. The Democratic presidential candidates, meanwhile, are promising to pay for their new programs in part by getting rid of some of Mr. Bush's tax cuts. But those tax cuts are already scheduled to expire under current law. The official budget numbers have already taken their demise into account.

White House officials are absolutely correct when they note that the current budget deficit isn't especially large. But it will soar in coming years, as baby boomers stop working (and stop paying very much in taxes) and instead move onto the Social Security and Medicare rolls If nothing changes over the next couple of decades, the United States will build up a debt burden to resemble Argentina's...”

Signing Statements: The Cheney-Bush Doctrine of Executive Power

The signing statement on the torture ban bill in 2004 [the one with the McCain amendment] would be strong enough evidence of how these documents have been used and abused. But it's just the tip of the iceberg.

According to the Frontline program I just finished watching, Bush's signing statements challenge the Constitutional authority of Congress at least 1,000 times - more than once per bill. The Charlie Savage article in the Boston Globe [Savage is a great investigative journalist, not an "editorialist"] is a long and expertly researched piece [9 pages on the web] that ought to convince even DN that there is a there there.

David Addington, longtime associate and counsel to Cheney, and now Scooter Libby's replacement as chief of staff, is identified convincingly in the Frontline piece as the source for most of the legal memoranda [along with John Yoo] that attempted to justify torture, warrantless wiretapping, indefinite detention without trial and other charming highlights of the "by any means necessary" doctrine of Presidential power championed by Dick Cheney.

Addington also wrote many of the signing statements, including the most notorious one, on torture. [He struck out the entire text of the bill in red ink, and substituted a single long sentence, which when it was picked up by journalists, started the whole signing statement controversy.]

I urge everyone to watch the Frontline documentary, called Cheney's War, when it is repeated on PBS. Frontline does investigative journalism, but only the most partisan would call it ideological. It's hard-hitting, convincing, and based largely on interviews with principals, lawyers and journalists. It's as riveting as a spy thriller.

Even Cheney wouldn't argue with the facts as presented, I think; but he would no doubt object to the appropriately doomy music that runs in the background.

There was also a near-mutiny about the warrantless wiretapping. Yet in both cases, Bush granted himself the authority to continue torture and wiretapping even without the written blessing of the Justice Dept. Anyone who doesn't find that at least a little disturbing is part of the problem rather than the solution.

This administration has taken a more aggressive approach than any other in using the statements to undermine the laws. Think about it: the President is signing the bill into law, yet appending language that says the bill has unconstitutionally encroached on his authority, so he'll limit its enforcement.

Wouldn't it be more honest to simply veto more of these bills? The signing statements received no publicity whatsoever until the press got hold of them at the time of the torture ban one. It's easy to infer, at the very least, sneakiness on the part of the Administration.

Money and Politics

From the time a congressperson is elected, their main job is to raise money for the next election. Serving their constituency and making reasoned decisions about issues become a distant second and third on their lists. That's a damn shame, and don't tell me you think it's a good thing.

And 30-second television ads, the main reason so much money is required, are not, shall we say, a very thorough or nuanced medium in which to explore issues or candidates. They only serve to deliver quick hits, sound bites. They lend themselves most easily to attack and distortion. Referring to them as honest contrasts in records is embarrassing hogwash.

An honest contrast in candidates' records would obviously require far more time and far more words, and would force candidates to reveal the exceptions to their over-generalizations, and to acknowledge the rationales behind their opponents' opinions and their own.

If you actually think the state of political discourse in this country is fine and healthy, then I'd say you deserve the consequences of it. The rest of us see a dysfunctional, ugly system that distorts the basic tenets of democracy.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Another Minority Opinion

Away from Her is far too fastidious and "literary" and "tasteful" for me. And maybe I'm naive, but how many Alzheimer's patients check themselves into a nursing home after such mild episodes as putting a frying pan in the freezer and taking a walk on a bridge? Talk about soft-pedaling an issue! I was also distracted by Julie Christie's strange accent, not that that's really important. (She will always be Sixties Brit Goddess to me.) She's pretty good, but I hated most of the supporting cast...both the way the roles are written and how they're played. It's visually undistinguished, clumsily written, and the ersatz Bergman touches make it worse.

This is actually similar to the way I reacted to The Lives of Others, which nearly everybody besides me also likes. These are what used to be done as prestigious special TV movies (except TV is often better than they are now). They take an Important Subject and don't really do anything interesting or imaginative with it; they are noble - and sterile. And the awards roll in.