Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Reel To Reel: Invictus

It's not all fun and games when your country's image is on the line.

Going Rate: Worth full price.
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon
Rated: PG-13 (but probably more of a hard PG)
Red Flags: Brief Strong Language

In 1995, South Africa was just beginning to heal from years of Apartheid, and President Nelson Mandela realized the nation couldn't move on unless it made peace with the white minority who had oppressed blacks for decades. You've probably heard about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission but not the true story of South Africa's Springboks as adapted from John Carlin's book Playing The Enemy.

The film opens with the Boks in a hapless state, rugby's equivalent of the Kansas City Royals. Yet they have a loyal contingent of fans, mostly white, and mostly fans of the old regime. South African's black rugby fans are cheering for every other team. President Mandela (Freeman) sees the team as device for unifying the nation, if only they could win more games and get into the Rugby World Cup finals, which South Africa is hosting after years of boycotts. Mandela invites team captain Francois Pieneaar (Damon) to tea, and in a simple but heartfelt meeting, inspires him to push the Boks to win it all.

Freeman is highly convincing as Mandela -- and the only person Mandela himself said could play him -- capturing the South African's quiet charisma and inner strength. He speaks with just enough statesmanship to remind us of his extraordinary stature while keeping him real and relatable. Damon is the unlikely diplomat as Pienaar holds the nation's future in his hands like a rugby ball he can't pass. His teammates want to win, but they're uncomfortable with their greater role as unifiers. Pienaar soon comes to embrace that role as he draws determination from retracing Mandela's past: "I was thinking how a man could spend thirty years in prison, and come out and forgive the men who did it to him."

Invictus will no doubt make the list of Inspirational Sports Movies. My Royal Father says it reminded him of the 1981 soccer film Victory featuring Sylvester Stallone and Pele. But it's not just another one of those movies in the vein of Hoosiers, Miracle, Friday Night Lights or The Natural. This is not a film about rugby, even though the movie offers enough smash-mouth action without padding to make the NFL look like Pop Warner football. This is a film about two men seeking to get everyone on the same team and triumph over the past.

(Tucson Weekly columnist Tom Danehy offers more insight on the Springboks' 1995 season.)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Reel To Reel: Avatar

"Dances with Smurfs?"

Going Rate: Worth full price and then some. Absolutely see it in IMAX 3D if you can.
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Sam Worthington
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Medium Language, War Violence, One Scene of mild Alien Sexuality

Never ever count James Cameron out. When he spent $200 million to make Titanic, people cracked the sinking-ship jokes long before the first reel unspooled. Then Titanic hauled in $1 billion and then some. So then Cameron decides to make a $200+ million sci-fi film using advanced motion-capture CGI technology and custom-built 3D cameras. Here come the jokes, but then again, we see the finished product and it's absolutely astounding. Avatar is the perfect synthesis of computer graphics and live action, seamless in every detail and full of visual excitement.

The story, to express it with the Francis Movie Equation, is Dances With Wolves + The Matrix + Jurassic Park. In the year 2125, a mining corporation is digging into Pandora, a faraway planet with an earthlike environment except for the toxic air, which will knock you out in 20 seconds and kill you in a few minutes more. Pandora holds rich stashes of unobtanium, an allegorically-named rare mineral used for... oh, I dunno... I guess it's Cameron's equivalent of dilithum crystals. Getting it would be easy if it weren't for those pesky Na'vi, an oversized indigenous race of blue beings with big eyes, tails, and flat noses -- sort of what you would get if you crossbred a cat with a smurf. The Na'vi speak their own language (developed for the movie by Cameron with help from a linguist) and strongly distrust humans, who can't survive in their atmosphere anyway without a gas mask.

A research team led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver) is studying the planet's natural characteristics while the corporation tears it up, using "avatars" to get around and interact with the natives. Avatars are bioengineered Na'vi clones electronically linked to an operator who shares most of their genetic characteristics. Paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Worthington) takes a job as an operator to fill the role his scientist brother was supposed to play before he was murdered during a robbery. Dr. Augustine resents a non-scientist grunt stepping in, but that's a minor annoyance next to the lack of respect shown her by company manager Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) or security chief Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who hires Marines to do his bidding. Neither of them have much regard for the "blue monkeys," and brush off Dr. Augustine's attempts at diplomatic relations with the Na'vi. Who needs detente when you can just detonate?

Sully goes in as an avatar bodyguard, but he gets separated from the research team he's protecting after stirring up trouble with the wildlife, and he's left to fend for himself in his avatar body. Now with all the advanced technology in play, why doesn't Sully's team have some gizmo to locate and rescue him? I guess the company has been too busy mining the planet to install GPS. In any case, Sully gets into more trouble with the wildlife only to be saved by a real Na'vi named Neytiri (Zoë Saldaña). Playing the Pocahontas role, she takes Sully back to her clan, and her mother -- who happens to be a high priestess -- instructs her daughter to show the newcomer the real Na'vi ways.

We see Jake learning the ropes, including how to hunt with compassion, fall without getting hurt, and ride large flying beasts and interface with them by plugging in their tails. Turns out the Na'vi have a cool way of networking with just about anything, and Dr. Augustine is anxious to learn more. Selfridge and the Colonel just want the minerals, and they want Jake to convince the smurf tribe to move from their tree so they can get at a huge deposit underneath. Sully's on for that mission until he ends up going native.

Avatar amazes in conventional screenings, but it really wows in IMAX 3D, which is how my family and I saw it. My Royal Father compares it to when he first saw Star Wars or even 2001: A Space Odyssey in that both those films raised the special-effects bar to new heights. The film also scores points for not exploiting 3D for 3D's sake; you will not see the compulsory elements of spears flying into your face. Mostly though, you can't tell if the Na'vi are CGI characters or humans in really heavy makeup and puppetronic devices. It's that clean. The amount of computer power that went into rendering the flying scenes has to be jawdropping.

The Queen Mother was also impressed, but she flashed back to Dances With Wolves, especially with the Na'vi's physical and cultural similarities to Native Americans. If Avatar wasn't so original and breathtaking in its effects work, I could easily dismiss it just like I did last year's The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. At least this film tries to be fresh, and Cameron isn't rehashing his own material. The Royal Father also points out you can see this film over and catch some new detail every time.

The people who dislike this film are bothered by its anti-war tree-hugger vibe. And with names like "Selfridge," "Dr. Grace," and "unobtanium," the symbolism is a little overstated. But James Cameron didn't dump a bank of money into a protest flick. He sat on a script for more than a decade to let computer technology catch up with his imagination and do it right.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Stirring The Pot Who Met The Kettle

So Senate Republicans are hopping mad about all the Democratic deals needed to get the 60 votes to move health care reform forward, some going so far as to call them bribery.

So, what?

Let us think about this honestly. If the parties were reversed, and Republicans needed to hit that magic number, wouldn't you think they'd be doing their own wheeling and dealing and pork-barreling?

The outrage from the GOP over the gimmes to Nebraska and Louisiana and whoever else is simply laughable, willful ignorance of Washington politics. Dealmaking? Horse trading? Nahhh, we don't do that in the hallowed halls of Congress. My high-school civics textbook talked about logrolling and lobbying and buttonholing. We all know the game, and we know both parties play it.

If you want to get nasty about it, Cafe Sentido reminds us Republicans have been engaged in activities -- especially involving disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramhoff -- that went beyond mere dealmaking into the realm of criminal activity:
Sen. [Lindsey] Graham said that negotiating with individual senators amounted to offering “bribes”, and wants the specifics to be investigated, though nothing that is not part of the normal legislative process was done in the case of healthcare reform. On the other hand, there remain numerous cases in which real allegations of illegal threats and illegal bribery were alleged but have never been investigated. In the most infamous case, Republican House leaders not only extended voting in order to twist arms and let lobbyists roam the floor of the House making offers and claims to no-voters, but they allegedly threatened Rep. Nick Smith (R-MI) and offered a cash bribe (in the form of campaign money).
It's my conclusion that much of the anger over these deals isn't about the deals at all -- it's frustration. The filibuster has worked so well in the past for blocking controversial legislation, but it couldn't stand up against 60 votes. Health care reform is moving forward in spite of public opposition, town hall meetings, TEA parties, rantings, ravings, and whatever alternative the opposition has. To be sure, this horse that turned into a camel is gaining an extra hump in the process, but it's still walking and getting watered down. It's Frankenbill. It's alive... it's ALIVE... and nothing can kill it.

So instead of complaining about dealmaking to get 60 votes, Republicans ought to do some good hard thinking, shrug, and realize, "Hey, that's politics." Finding a way to win more seats wouldn't hurt, either.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Warning: Trying To Reform Health Care Is Hazardous To Your Political Career

The train may not be in the station yet, but I can see the smoke and hear the chugging. Unless it slows down or stops, health care reform is going to be the issue that kills many a Democratic congressional career next November.

The warning signs are there. We are seeing the Spruce Goose health care bill watered down to reach that 60-vote filibuster-breaking threshold. Sen. Joe Lieberman is satisfied, but Sen. Ben Nelson still wants more restrictions on abortion funding. And if the bill somehow makes it to conference, Southern Arizona's Rep. Raul Grijalva indicates he won't vote for something that isn't tilted enough to the left. The entire health care debate is turning into a gigantic game of a Whack-A-Mole.

The possible end product is a bill telling us to take two aspirin and call our doctors in the morning. A lot of you won't mind that; I oppose the current health care reform package simply because this nation can't afford it. I wish I had the smarts to offer a workable solution, but insurance reform would be a good start. I wish Republicans could stop flogging each other long enough to put together something like the Contract With America for health care.

Democrats are now fighting a two-front war: on defense from the right, who says their reforms go too far, and the left, who says it doesn't go far enough. With campaign season right around the corner, they are finding themselves right back where they were in 1994, when President Clinton's health care plan nearly nuked them. (To be sure, a large number of retirements did not help, something the party leadership is trying to prevent this time around.)

We want reform. We need reform. But Congress just can't pull it off. And if we gut the ranks next November, don't expect any self-surviving pol to go near the issue again for a long time. Perhaps lawmakers will try fixing health care in bites instead of offering an entire course. After this episode, however, I see a lot of people losing their appetites.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Teaching The Controversy

The recent debates over global warming remind me of this Doonesbury strip from 2006:

This edition of Doonesbury is Copyright © 2006, Universal Press Syndicate. Used with admiration. Please don't sue my behind.

The point of this, just in case you missed it, is the growing politicization of science... just like everything else. I fear for the day when we will reject scientific facts because they're too "liberal" or "conservative."

A Birthday Prayer

A friend sent me this blessing on my birthday, taken from the Anglican (Church of England) Book of Common Prayer. It's so beautiful that I had to share it with you. And by all means, you are encouraged to adapt it for those you wish to honor on their birthdays...

O God, our times are in your hands: Look with favor, we pray, on your servant Christopher, as he begins another year. Grant that he may grow in wisdom and grace, and strengthen his trust in your goodness all the days of his life. Watch over thy child, O Lord, as his days increase; bless and guide him wherever he may be. Strengthen him when he stands; comfort him when discouraged or sorrowful; raise him up if he fall; and in his heart may thy peace which passeth understanding abide all the days of his life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Continuing Education Of Viscount Christopher At Eight And Thirty

Last night I attended a beautiful performance of Handel's Messiah with a few of my friends. All of us dressed in 1700's attire, in tune with both the era of the work and the candlelight atmosphere of the evening. I have heard many parts of this work before, and who hasn't heard the "Hallelujah Chorus?" Yet this was my first time seeing it, and thus I became aware of the tradition of everyone standing during the famous chorus. At first, I thought this was merely a traditional show of reverence and honor to THE LORD, much like standing to sing a hymn. That, indeed, is true.

Then I learned the full story: When this chorus was performed for King George II, he rose. And when the king stands, you stand. Taking this further, His Majesty was recognizing he was the servant of the King of Kings. What an inspiring and humbling statement for a monarch to make: proclaiming to the world that JESUS is LORD!

Here on my eighth and thirtieth birthday, I find once again I have much to learn about history, even as I re-enact it. So much of what I learned in school, particularly grade school, failed to pique my interest. My freshman history course in college -- 200 years in 4 months -- presented some of the toughest academic challenges I ever faced. Multiple books and lectures piled up. I wrote two analytical papers constructed from historical source documents in Missouri dating back to the 1800's. I worked my tail off to get an A in that class, but not without benefit of a curve.

Sixteen years later, I recall a few lessons from that class to help people understand their heritage. I am also disposing of old, problematic lessons from my grade-school days or tacking on new ones. It's a constant process and a challenge. I have a wonderful book (The Revolutionary Soldier 1775-1783) that has helped a lot with my Revolutionary War portrayals, and I have "cheat sheets" for the Civil War era. I have learned many more things from other re-enactors on the field, in camp, and on the dance floor. To them, I am grateful beyond expression.

History, as I have pointed out before, is complicated and riddled with exceptions, stereotypes and gray areas. Unfortunately, the version we learn in school does not always reflect this. That alone is a major epiphany: realizing much of the early American history I learned in school left so much unsaid.

Yet I have undergone remedial education in other areas: GOD, relationships, news producing, leadership, communication. When I graduated from college in 1994, I could hardly believe it was all over. It wasn't by a long shot. In the last four years, it has intensified as I got right with GOD and received some intense life coaching. I feel like I am going through a second adolescence, taking in all those things I should've learned as a teenager but didn't. Sometimes I have to remind myself I'm not a kid anymore, especially when I attend so many events with so many enlightened young ladies and gentlemen.

Still, a second adolescence beats a midlife crisis any day. A midlife crisis says you've messed up and you can't go back. A second adolescence says this is a turning point, and you've got so much ahead of you. Getting right with GOD was a huge turning point. I did not start over from scratch, but I have disposed a lot of worthless things in my life and focused on pursuing meaningful passions. I have learned to stand, when to take my ease, and when to bow. If you haven't noticed, I bow a lot. I learned a long time ago a bow from a student to a teacher in Asian cultures signifies "I am ready to learn." Perhaps a few of our Colonial ancestors saw it that way as well.