Saturday, January 02, 2010

Life in a Japanese "capsule"

Allow me to preface this post with two points:

1) I love Japanese culture, and have loved it ever since I first read Yasunari Kawabata's glorious novel Snow Country many years ago. I have come to love Japanese literature, film, art, food, drink, and design. I hope to travel to Japan in the not-too-distant future.

2) Oftentimes, during my commute into downtown Toronto for work, I think, as I shuffle my way through the dense crowds at Union Station, the city's main train station, and as I push my way onto a packed subway car, far more pushed than pushing, and as I stand there amid the unpleasant humanity, just how thoroughly uncivilized we and our daily lives can be.

Well, as I read Hiroko Tabuchi's interesting piece in yesterday's Times on Japan's "capsule" hotels, I realized, as clearly as ever, a) that not all Japanese culture is good, and b) that my uncivilized, dehumanizing commute from a lovely detached home in the suburbs to an office with a nice view in one of the nicer cities in the world really isn't so bad.

Make sure to read the whole thing. Here's a taste:

For Atsushi Nakanishi, jobless since Christmas, home is a cubicle barely bigger than a coffin -- one of dozens of berths stacked two units high in one of central Tokyo's decrepit "capsule" hotels.

"It's just a place to crawl into and sleep," he said, rolling his neck and stroking his black suit -- one of just two he owns after discarding the rest of his wardrobe for lack of space. "You get used to it."

When Capsule Hotel Shinjuku 510 opened nearly two decades ago, Japan was just beginning to pull back from its bubble economy, and the hotel's tiny plastic cubicles offered a night's refuge to salarymen who had missed the last train home.

Now, Hotel Shinjuku 510's capsules, no larger than 6 1/2 feet long by 5 feet wide, and not tall enough to stand up in, have become an affordable option for some people with nowhere else to go as Japan endures its worst recession since World War II.

I suppose there was once something vaguely appealing about these "capsule" hotels. For a night or two, they offered a fairly cheap place to sleep, if little else, for busy people in a busy city. There was something simply, well, Japanese about them. (You may even remember the Seinfeld episode in which three Japanese tourists sleep in, and get stuck in, a chest of drawers in Kramer's apartment. Somehow, it was thought, the Japanese were used to such tight spaces.)

But now? Well, there doesn't seem to be anything even remotely appealing, let alone charming, about them. It's one thing to sleep in a "capsule" when times are good, after all, but when times are bad, as they are now, with the economy about as decrepit as they are? Not so much, now that they've become home, as opposed to a place to get a bit of rest, for so many who have been "forced from their company-sponsored housing or unable to make rent" as a result of the economic crisis. And these "capsules" aren't exactly nice:

The rent is surprisingly high for such a small space: 59,000 yen a month, or about $640, for an upper bunk. But with no upfront deposit or extra utility charges, and basic amenities like fresh linens and free use of a communal bath and sauna, the cost is far less than renting an apartment in Tokyo, Mr. Nakanishi says.

Still, it is a bleak world where deep sleep is rare. The capsules do not have doors, only screens that pull down. Every bump of the shoulder on the plastic walls, every muffled cough, echoes loudly through the rows.

Each capsule is furnished only with a light, a small TV with earphones, coat hooks, a thin blanket and a hard pillow of rice husks.

Most possessions, from shirts to shaving cream, must be kept in lockers. There is a common room with old couches, a dining area and rows of sinks. Cigarette smoke is everywhere, as are security cameras. But the hotel staff does its best to put guests at ease: "Welcome home," employees say at the entrance.

Some home, eh? Now that's an uncivilized life, a darker, bleaker side of one of the world's richest countries, with one of the world's most beautiful cultures.

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The Irish Inquisition

By Capt. Fogg

I watched Julia Sweeney in Letting Go of God on Showtime the other night. Seeing how her thought processes led her at first to reject Biblical literalism and finally Theism and religion in general, put a big smile on my face since it mirrored my own in so much detail. For some reason it seems like the large majority of atheists I know come either from Roman Catholic or Jewish backgrounds but I won't speculate here about the reasons.

There is evidence that religiosity in the US is on the decline, with fewer people seeing religion as a solely positive influence and more feeling that religious teachings are out of date, but of course the opposition makes a lot of noise and has a lot of political power. I don't know whether any of the above applies in heavily Catholic Ireland, but the anti-blasphemy law which went into effect yesterday is sure to be challenged and the high profile of some of the challengers is sure to cause considerable embarrassment to those who have to enforce it. Whether Catholics in Ireland are as likely to let go of God as they are elsewhere, those in Ireland who have and those of other traditions are going to have a field day.

The Irish constitution extends religious freedom only to Christians and that may be a surprise to many who see Europe in general as moving away from belief and from Church domination. It's worthy of curiosity to see whether the ordinary practice of other religious traditions will constitute blasphemy as well. Will it be blasphemous to say that Jesus was not the actual son of God but permissible to accuse Jews of murdering him and of eating Christian babies? I guess we'll see. Will showing Letting go of God be punishable? Will it be illegal to publish Nietzsche, or Dawkins? Michael Nugent, chairman of Atheist Ireland calls this idea
"dangerous because it incentives [sic] religious outrage, and because Islamic states led by Pakistan are already using the wording of this Irish law to promote new blasphemy laws at UN level."

Dangerous indeed and so diametrically opposed to American views of religion -- at least as reflected by those who wrote the Constitution -- that an attempt to import it to the US wouldn't be surprising. I remember former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's attempt to close the Brooklyn Museum because of a painting he considered blasphemous. ( it wasn't) Many people still wish ihe could have been successful.

The US constitution certainly does not grant special rights to Christians or to any other religious groups and that fact seems to be a massive thorn in the side of the religious right; a thorn they'd love to remove and I will be amazed if some Republican doesn't attempt to introduce something similar by next Christmas. The test of the Irish law is in whether it outrages a large number of people and if we had such a law within the viewership of Fox, we can be sure that outrage would flow forth like a mighty flood of medieval values upon the land and our courts would grind to a halt whild civilization is one again snatched from the jaws of victory.

(Cross posted from Human Voices)

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Rush Limbaugh, out of hospital, spews the same old lies about American health care

I didn't weigh in on Dear Leader Rush's rush to hospital in Hawaii on Friday -- three of us did: see Carl, Fogg, and JTD -- but I can't let what he said about the care he received go by without comment:

The treatment I received here was the best that the world has to offer. Based on what happened here to me, I don't think there's one thing wrong with the American health care system. It is working just fine, just dandy...

I just feel very grateful and thankful be an American and have this happen to me.

Right, because, of course, we Canadians, for example, like the British or the French or the Japanese or the Australians or the South Africans or any other non-Americans, with our non-American health-care systems, just would have let him die.

Or perhaps our supposedly terrible system would have killed him -- forget that health care in Canada ranks higher, like health care in many other countries, than health care in the U.S.

Perhaps, just perhaps, he would have been taken before one of those non-existent death panels and denied treatment.

Seriously, I know this is Rush Limbaugh we're talking about, and I know he's a jackass, but what the fuck?

I don't wish ill health on anyone, let alone death, but this is exactly why so many people have absolutely no sympathy for the man.

Does he honestly believe that there is nothing at all wrong with America's health-care system?

Does he honestly believe that all is "fine" and "dandy," that he wouldn't have gotten similar if not better care anywhere else?

Does he honestly believe that the treatment and care he received are the same any American would receive?

Well, who knows what he honestly believes, if he believes anything honestly at all, or what is just more of the same partisan nonsense he spews through every pore on this body. This is what he claims to believe, what he says, what he wants his followers to swallow, and its just the sort of poisonous dishonesty that compels many to live in utter ignorance, that has come to define today's conservatism, and that has been perhaps the biggest barrier to genuine and meaningful reform of a system that is expensive, corrupt, unfair, and unjust.

No, I don't wish ill health or death upon Dear Leader Rush, but it would be awfully nice if he were forced by some twist of fate to live like an ordinary American, to suffer like an ordinary American, to see what his great system is like for those who are on the outside, those without insurance, or even for those with coverage who are essentially required to beg for treatment, those who struggle to pay their bills, to put food on the table, to provide for their children, those who go into massive debt because an illness to them or to someone they care for requires treatment they cannot possibly afford, those whose requests for treatment are turned down by an insurance industry that puts profit, profiting off perpetual sickness, before all else.

Rush Limbaugh is a sickeningly rich man. He gets what he wants.

And he doesn't have a fucking clue, because he doesn't fucking care about anything except what benefits him. He's a disease on the body politic of the United States, and he's one of the very last people who should have anything to say about a system that, we hope, is soon to be reformed for the better.


Update: For more, see Alan Colmes, who notes that "Hawaii has been a leader in health care reform, having instituted the kind of reforms Limbaugh has railed against. Ninety percent of the population has relatively generous benefits, and reform in that state has led the way to innovation."

Steve Benen has more.

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Friday, January 01, 2010


Happy New Year, everyone, from all of us here at The Reaction.

It's hard to believe it's 2010. But I hope it's a good one.

Ten years ago, I celebrated the arrival of the new millennium in a small village in England. Right now, I'm in suburban Toronto. A lot has changed, and I can't help but welcome in the new year, and the new decade, by looking back at what the last year, and the last decade, brought. It's a time of newness, of hope, and also of reflection.

But not in a bad way. I am, at times like this, reminded of the lyrics to Pink Floyd's "Time," including these:

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.

Well, time really does fly, as they say, and we're all getting older, and, yes, maybe I missed a starting gun or two along the way, but, even as I reflect, even as a certain melancholy washes over me, I cannot help but look around me with great happiness and contentment.

It's 2010. Crazy. Let's try to make the most of it.

All my love to my loved ones, to all my friends and family.

To everyone, take care out there.

-- Michael

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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Doctor Syntax

By Capt. Fogg

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall
The vapors sweep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan


Every year at this time I let Doctor Syntax out of the Vicarage and let him raise hell with the way we've ruined the greatest language on Earth: spray painted it like an old abandoned subway car, put it up on blocks and stolen the wheels and made it all but impossible to have an intelligent conversation because, like one of those German Enigma machines, every word seems to change meaning every time it's used.

Every year brings the same references to "language police" because you know it's true and you know we're guilty of polluting the minds of millions with silly, balbative portmanteau words like Ginormous or Sexting, our relentless verbing of nouns like texting and friending and our instant acceptance of every cliche metaphor, metastatic Malapropism, stupid solecism and yes, with every pusillanimous political polemic we pass along.

No, if conservative, liberal, reactionary, fascist, anarchist, Marxist, royalist, and Fascist are all used interchangeably, we might as well stop talking, legislating, voting and adjudicating and take up arms. And we do.

Every year, as our vocabularies atrophy, we make up words or as our overuse of superlatives diminishes them, as our misuse erases them, we have to invent new ones. After all, when your skate board or your X-Box is awesome, you simply can't discuss how you felt when you saw that Hubble picture of some distant nebula, now can you? What happens to the real verb "to befriend" when it's more fashionably idiotic to "friend" someone or worse, toBFF them? It dies quickly of course and any real dictionary these days is a virtual Arlington of fallen words.

There's a college up in Michigan, Lake Superior State University, that's been putting out an annual list of words that need to die for 35 years. I'm afraid the school will die before they have any results to show. In fact if we still have universities in 35 years I have to wonder whether they'll be teaching in Standard English in the way medieval Universities taught in Latin, while business and popular pursuits are conducted in some 'consumerized' argot or vulgate designed to boost sales and befuddle customers while the general population can't read Hemingway, much less Tennyson any more.

No, I'm not the language police. The real language police are the people who tell you you're a racist if you call an Asian tiger or bear an Asiatic tiger or bear -- or that you may never end a sentence with a preposition. No, I just love English and as you know I love wordplay and the inventive use of words. In principle I don't object to such silliness as "chillaxin," the compound of two bits of dialect; chillin' and relaxin' but only in principle and never when used by some underage hipster with a two thousand word vocabulary. I even thought the short lived "not so much" routine was cute for a few moments, but that's the thing: with fish, house guests, metaphors and the Macarena; after three days one notices a smell. At least I do. Maybe it's time you did too.

Yes, I agree that "shovel-ready" is shovel ready for burial; I agree that it's time to stop calling every adviser a Czar. I am sick unto death at the "app app app app" that I hear quacked out at the phone store, butLSSU's 15 words are not enough nor does the list expose the inverted elitism behind our linguistic cacophony. We may have majored in English at the best schools, but in our HowdyDoody hearts we know it's bad to be grown up and embarrassing to sound educated and so we try ever so hard to sound like the baggy pants crowd who know just how the really cool kids talk in the penitentiaries and crack houses. We always fail at it of course, because those kids change their jargon faster than we can.

As I said, I only do this once a year and that's because it's useless, of course. It only lets me vent some excess steam pressure, to rant against the dying of the light. I know that "impact" will ever hence mean affect and effect and influence and inform and not be just a carrion metaphor. I know that those words are gone forever from popular parlance and that this little rant will be as hard for my grandchildren to read as Chaucer. Hell, animated video clips may have replaced the written word altogether by then and the University of Wii may be the new Harvard. I don't know. I do know that no one cares how much of value we lose every day or with what dross we replace it. I do know there are still people who can write well and I'm proud to appear here with them. I do also know It's New Year's Eve again and time for old Syntax and me to drown our sorrows -- metaphorically speaking, of course.

(Cross posted from Human Voices)


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Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting

By J. Thomas Duffy

Oh boy, leave it to Tweety.

H/T to John Cole, over on Balloon Juice, for the catch;

This Chris Matthews quote is a Palinesque work of art:

MATTHEWS: And I think we have got to get serious about catching terrorists, not just catching weapons. I‘m waiting for the terrorist who knows kung fu or something that gets on an airplane without a weapon. God knows what that is going to be like.

Hey, Gerald, happy new year, even under this circumstance.


We go from a kid, putting a bomb in his underwear, to sketching out a new Jackie Chan movie?

Steve Benen was also scratching his head;

Also note the context: Matthews is urging us to "get serious" about counterterrorism, and in the next sentence, warning us of the potentially deadly consequences of terrorists who know "kung fu or something."

Oh man ...

Was Tweety hitting the punch a little early this evening?

But, on another note, Tweety's wing-in-mouth solved our New Year's Eve music choice.

Everybody, get up and shake it!

Carl Douglas - Kung fu fighting(original)

Bonus Tweety Riffs

MSNBC's Matthews Uninjured Pulling Head Out Of Judy Miller's Ass ...Hardball Host Fawns Over Former White House Stenographer; Stays Away From Tough Questions

Clooney: Wouldn’t Cast Matthews In A Daydream ...When Pressed, Matthews Admits Miffed Not Cast in Clooney Film ...“Forget This Zelig Mishmash, I Could Have Played McCarthy … And Played Him Damn Good”

Was Tweety Covering Morning Jokes' Back?

(Cross Posted at The Garlic)

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Rush Limbaugh deathwatch

By Carl

Damn it!

Early reports had him actually dead, which means he likely suffered a very serious attack before they were able to clamp him down with bungee cords to use the AED. I wonder what whaling vessel they called in?

But I digress.

Perhaps the time has come to pronounce Limbaugh "
all but dead" and to determine what he will leave in his wake, besides a steaming trail of slug slime?

There's a small part of me, a very Christian, liberal part of me, that likes to think that deep down inside Rush is a scared little boy. You see, twenty, twenty-five years ago, this slug of a man, this Jabba The Nut, emerged with a shtick that saw him alter the reality of political talk in America, changed the direction of a major political party, and became a gravimetric force for evil.

Half-jokingly, so he could maintain the veneer of "comedian," Limbaugh launched anger as a weapon in the national political dialogue. Not that this hadn't happened before,
Father Coughlin springs to mind, but the hatred that Coughlin spewed was not so much anti-American ideals as just random hatred.

Limbaugh, on the other hand, just hated that he was behind the times, and since he couldn't muster the effort to keep up, he set out to deliberately drag the nation back to him. It wasn't about advancing a political agenda. It was about self-promotion.

In that respect, Limbaugh had no qualms about stepping over boundaries that anyone who actually loved a nation would never set foot near, accusing anyone and everyone of being a Nazi or a commie, or an Islamofascist, or worse...a liberal!

"Liberals got women the right to vote. Liberals got African-Americans the right to vote. Liberals created Social Security and lifted millions of elderly people out of poverty. Liberals ended segregation. Liberals passed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act. Liberals created Medicare. Liberals passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act. What did Conservatives do? They opposed them on every one of those things...every one! So when you try to hurl that label at my feet, 'Liberal,' as if it were something to be ashamed of, something dirty, something to run away from, it won't work, Senator, because I will pick up that label and I will wear it as a badge of honor." -- Matt Santos, The West Wing

Rush conveniently forgets that, if not for liberals, Rush himself would be begging loose change in exchange for butt-fucks in the Kansas City railway station. Rush, you see, the bastion of conservative, up-by-the-boot-straps, rock-ribbed self-sufficiency, was on both welfare and unemployment insurance.

But now this hatred Limbaugh has spewed all over the land, this sludge of toxic waste, has morphed into something that, if it had been submitted to DC Comics, would have been laughed out of the office, and if it had been submitted to Mad Magazine, would have been met with stone-cold silence in its unbelievability.

Consider the birther movement. Consider the teabaggers. Consider the hatred spewing from the extreme right wing like an oil gusher that has not yet been capped.

I think Rush is terrified. I suspect it is this deep deep fear in him that forces him to marry every five years, to bloat up like a corpse in a cesspool, stopping only to blurt out what now sounds like almost moderate venom. He sees that the monster he has unleashed threatens to tear apart the very party he claims allegiance to, the party he claims he would like to see leading this nation. He sees that party slide into a cartoonish obscurity of obsolescence and obscenity. And with each passing election, he watches the internal strife of moderates versus radicals become more and more obvious, more and more spiteful, more and more divisive. And he watches his party become a footnote to history because of what he instigated.

He's lost the spotlight.

I don't give him much time.

(crossposted to Simply Left Behind)

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Rush lives

By Capt. Fogg

Whatever the cause of Rush Limbaugh's chest pains, they haven't been as fatal as some have reported but whether or not angina is involved, we can be sure they weren't pangs of conscience. His web site thanks us for our prayers ( if only he could hear mine) and is, as always, jam packed and bloated with fear mongering, dire predictions and apocalyptic warnings that if we don't "fight like hell" our country will be changed forever.Let's hope.

I recently read that only about 5% of those admitted to hospitals with chest pains die within a year, so one important and very needed change is probably not going to happen -- all the more so since most billionaires can not only afford health insurance but can afford to do without it. If you or I had rendered ourselves uninsurable through a lifetime of belly bustin' burgers, cigars, uppers, downers, pain killers and beer we might have a rather different experience and a bit less cause for optimism.

Yes, we have to fight like hell to stop this "buffoonery" says Rush about Bob Menendez' call to set aside ideology, turn off Limbaugh and pass the legislation that most Americans want. But Congress is ignoring the will of the people -- or at least the minority of the people he represents, says Rush. Public health insurance will change America forever -- forever! Government will "take over" health care just the way it took over all those plans you made for retirement. ( huh?) Just the way Veteran's benefits took over - well whatever they took over and medicare helped keep exploding profits from eating up every last dime retired people have set aside.

It's a tenet of Buddhism, and a nice bit of wisdom, that change is constant and suffering is universal when we refuse to accept it. It's too bad in this case that Rush's refusal to let go of failed 19th century ideas will cause more suffering for everyone else than it will for him. We have been changing from the outset in terms of making the US a better place to live for more of its people and Rush has been a major clot in the artery of truth and justice and decency.

No, I'm not going to descend to his level and wish him an immediate death, in fact I hope he lives long enough to see that not one dire thing he has predicted has materialized and that he's been pretty much wrong about every thing he's said -- and until that happens, I hope those pains continue to hurt like hell.

(Cross posted from Human Voices)

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I, for one, hope he lives a long, long life

By J. Thomas Duffy

There was much hub-bub on the World Wide Web last evening, with the news that the "Cheeseburger That Sweats" (h/t Barry Crimmins), aka Rush Limbaugh was rushed to the hospital, ironically, in Hawaii, after suffering chest pains.

No doubt, there are people out there, mumbling like Solazzo, from 'The Godfather' this morning with the news that Limbaugh is resting comfortably.

Some of the Flying Monkeys, of the Right Wing Freak Show, were, already, last night, sending out shots-across-the-bow, dare anyone start making death jokes about one of our grandfathered Ignorant Dolts.

I, for one, hope he lives a long, long, life.

Will Bunch, on Attytood, shares this;

So, get well, Rush Limbaugh. And get well quickly, because I want to make fun of you for vacationing in that "exotic" Barack Obama-producing state of Hawaii.

So does James Akers Jr., posting on Twitter, perhaps the best of well-wishes;

I hope Rush Limbaugh is saved by a black homosexual doctor with a questionable immigration status

Adrian Chen, over on Gawker, points out the Prayer Vigils taking place;

Our buddies over at the Free Republic know how to save Rush Limbaugh: Internet prayer vigil! There are like 150 prayers already! Do you realize what this means? Tonight could be the night we find out if God exists

Yeah, what if God was one of him...

(Cross Posted at The Garlic)

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The right to primacy

By Carl

I have long believed, ever since Amy Carter, that the minor children of politicians should remain off-limits until they become of age. I didn't care much for the jokes about Jenna and Not-Jenna in the first Bush term, certainly I was disgusted when Rush Limbaugh called Chelsea Clinton "The White House Dog," and I'm pleased to see the right wing has kept hands off Sasha and Malia Obama.

Mostly. I'm not aware of any outright major blogging with respect to them and a quick Google search uncovers only the Beanie Babies controversy from February.

So it's with trepidation that I approach the news yesterday that
Bristol Palin lost her fight to keep the records of her custody fight with Levi Johnston private.

See, Bristol Palin presents a problem: on the one hand, she was a minor when she was dragged out of the Arctic obscurity of Wassilla into the hot lights of the Minneapolis mayhem, and her private pain fully disclosed.

On the other, she presents prima facie evidence of at least Sarah Palin's inability to keep her own house in order, much less take over the White House.

My suspicion here is there's a reverse-discrimination issue at play, at least as far as the
Chris Crocker wing of the GOP is concerned: after all, none of them had any problem when Al Gore's son was arrested for possession, calling that an example of the poor family values of the liberal Democratic party.

My instincts tell me that Bristol's name ought to be kept off the lawsuit. It's too late now, of course. Even if the ruling was reversed, it wouldn't take much to figure out which court docket was hers and to publish the details from it.

Which leads me to the dilemma. Legally, there is no question that the public's right to know is far smaller than the right to privacy that Tripp Palin is entitled to, and this is a nation of laws.


On the other hand, there's the whole nasty issue of Sarah Palin's exploitation of Tripp Palin. That cannot be ignored or denied, and that complicates the legal issue.

Part of Johnston's fight has been to protect his public image, which is his right to privacy such as he can maintain and the right to go about doing his business, whether it's being a public figure (which appears to be his destiny, however pathetic that career will be), from the smears and slanders of another public figure, Sarah Palin.

To privatize the records of these hearings is to shackle Johnston's hands from protecting himself. Indeed, his filings in this matter speak to that:
In an affidavit, he [Johnston] says he wants the case to be open to "public scrutiny as a check against anyone's need to be overly vindictive, aggressive or malicious." He adds that he's referring not to Bristol but to her mom.

Clearly, there are no winners here, only losers, especially Tripp. My suspicion is the testimony and evidence presented at the trial will speak to both sides of the family being rather...ugly...with perhaps Bristol the only one coming out of it with any chance of an improved public image.

Sarah Palin will be forced to spin, spin, spin mightily the testimony. That Johnston has already landed a few pre-emptive blows in his interviews with regards to how Palin behaved behind the scenes tells me that's about all he was allowed to say by his lawyers, and that there's more, much more, to come.

Which would be consistent with her harping image from the campaig trail, the "pitbull with lipstick" writ small.

For my part, I'll likely ignore the trial, except to note when there will be real damage to Palin's Presidential aspirations.

But she really only has herself to blame for that. She could have been a better parent.

(crossposted to
Simply Left Behind)


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Best Films of the '00s (zeros/aughts)

By Michael J.W. Stickings

What qualifies me to do a retrospective review of the best films of the decade? Well, I'd like to think that I know a lot about film, that I've seen a lot of movies, that I love movies, and that I have good taste.

Plus, I'm a blogger, so here you go, like it or not. (Oh, and I was a film critic way back when for The Tufts Daily.)

Seriously, it's been an interesting exercise looking back over the decade in film. These lists don't mean much -- and there are way too many of them already -- but wrapping up a year or a decade or whatever with "best of" lists allows one to reflect on what was, and on what was excellent, and to celebrate excellence, and, given that all this is subjective, to stimulate debate within oneself and more broadly within society, to contribute to a greater appreciation for film and to a broader discussion about film.

We live in a world that is all about the here and now, immediate and future-oriented. It is important to reflect, to look back, to consider the greatness that has come before, to celebrate the cinematic peaks of times past. This means Casablanca and Citizen Kane, Ozu and Kurosawa, and the towering peaks of film history. And it also means the best of more recent years.

I've spent the past several days going through the decade year by year. I was brought back to so many films that I'd either forgotten about or just don't think about much. What I offer here is my own personal look back at the best of the decade that is shortly to come to an end. These are all films that came out in North America from 2000 to 2009. (There are many wonderful films I've seen at the Toronto International Film Festival over the years, many of which sadly were never released commercially here, but I've restricted this to films that qualified for Oscar eligibility along with major foreign films that are generally available on video in North America.)

Enjoy. And feel free to disagree.

(I include links to Wikipedia pages so you can read more about specific films.)


As I am not a professional critic, there are quite a few significant films I either didn't see or have not seen in full. Needless to say, I do not include them here. They include: Amores Perros, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, Brokeback Mountain, City of God, Crash, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, House of Flying Daggers, Mystic River, Spirited Away, The Triplets of Belleville, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Yi Yi: A One and a Two.

Several of these, such as Eternal Sunshine, City of God, and 4/3/2, are sure to make it onto many "best of" lists.

I have also not yet seen some of the major releases of 2009, such as Up in the Air and The Hurt Locker.

As of right now, my four favourite films of this year are Adventureland, District 9(500) Days of Summer, and Star Trek.


Great Films by Year (Top 16)

2000: Almost Famous, Traffic
2001: Black Hawk Down, Gosford Park, Monsoon Wedding
2002: Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Pianist, The Twilight Samurai
2003: Lost in Translation
2004: Hotel Rwanda, The Village
2005: Syriana
2006: Letters from Iwo Jima, The Lives of Others
2007: No Country for Old Men
2008: WALL-E
2009: nothing yet (maybe)

Best Film of the Decade: Almost Famous

(More specifically, Untitled, the extended director's cut, which is even better than the theatrical version.)

The rest of the Top Ten:

-- Black Hawk Down
-- Hotel Rwanda
-- Gosford Park
-- Letters from Iwo Jima
-- The Lives of Others
-- The Pianist
-- Syriana
-- Traffic
-- The Twilight Samurai

The next ten (11-20)

-- Before Sunset
-- The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
-- Lost in Translation
-- Milk
-- Monsoon Wedding
-- No Country for Old Men
-- The Village

Milk is #20, but it's a toss-up. (Other possibilities include Adventureland, Amelie, The Bourne Ultimatum, District 9, Good Night, and Good Luck, The Queen, and Stranger Than Fiction.)

And beyond those 20, some worthy recognition:

Two films I can't quite figure out (either very good or amazing): Children of Men and Synecdoche, New York

Film that may very well be brilliant but that I need to see again: District 9

Two stand-out comedies: Best in Show and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

Comedies I really liked but aren't great films: Bad Santa, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, High Fidelity, Melinda and Melinda, Napoleon Dynomite, Osmosis Jones, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Films I have a real soft spot for: Adventureland, American Splendor, The Dish, (500) Days of Summer, Lady in the Water, Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, Ocean's Eleven, A Prairie Home Companion, Stranger Than Fiction, Sunshine Cleaning

Along with WALL-E, Pixar films I really liked: The Incredibles, Monsters Inc. 

Other animated/non-live-action films I really liked: Persepolis, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Other foreign films I really liked: Amelie, Good Morning, Night, The Hidden Blade, Kontroll, My Mother's Smile, Volver

Two impressive films by Zhang Yimou (one of the greatest directors of the '90s, with such films as Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, and To Live) that looked fabulous but were otherwise deeply flawed: Hero and Curse of the Golden Flower

Superb action/adventure films: The Bourne Ultimatum and Star Trek.

Other action films I really liked: The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy.

I didn't include documentaries in my list, but here were some of the better ones: Bowling for Columbine, Encounters at the End of the World, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Fahrenheit 9/11, An Inconvenient Truth, Man on Wire

Movie not on the list but with some of the best scenes of the decade: Babel (anything with the Japanese girl -- if the film were just that part, it would easily be in my Top 20.)

Three of these I think are quite good: CT, HD, Finding Nemo, and Gladiator

One I think is deeply disappointing (and perhaps the most overrated Pixar film ever), if still pretty good: Ratatouille

One I think is quite fascinating but is overdone with an awful ending: There Will Be Blood

One I think is interesting and inventive but ultimately not nearly as good as its reputation: Pan's Labyrinth

One I think is one of Woody Allen's worst efforts at being serious (and yet critically accalimed -- I think he should stick to New York and to what he actually knows something about): Match Point

One I think is overblown, manipulative Scorsese: The Departed

One I think is overblown, manipulative Eastwood: Million Dollar Baby

One I think is one of the worst, most reprehensible films of the decade: Slumdog Millionaire


Speaking of Woody Allen, one of my favourite directors ever, it was not his finest decade. After ending the '90s on a really good note (Sweet and Lowdown), his output this decade was weak. I liked Melinda and Melinda (highly underrated) and much of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but not much else.

Many of his films would have been on my "best of" lists of the '70s and '80s and even '90s (Bullets Over Broadway, a fantastic film). Alas, he's not what he used to be.


Who were the greatest directors of the decade? Here are some, with their better films:

-- Pedro Almodovar (Talk to Her, Volver)
-- Robert Altman (Gosford Park, A Prairie Home Companion)
-- George Clooney (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night, and Good Luck)
-- Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (the best HP), Children of Men)
-- Peter Jackson (LOTR trilogy)
-- Ang Lee (CT, HD, Brokeback Mountain)
-- Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down)
-- Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean's Eleven)
-- M. Night Shyamalan (Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water)
-- Yoji Yamada (The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade)

In comedy, of course, it was the decade, notably from 2004 on, of Judd Apatow (40-Year-Old Virgin, Funny People, along with so much else that he was behind in some way -- Superbad, Walk Hard, etc.).

It was also the decade of Pixar, which keeps turning out brilliant effort after brilliant effort. The peak, for me, was WALL-E, but so much was utterly fantastic, including the amazing relationship/marriage sequence at the beginning of Up.

It was a decade which saw a great deal from giants like Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese, but, with one notable exception (Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima), I was not terribly impressed.

Spielberg was fine, too -- Catch Me If You Can, Minority Report, Munich -- even if his much better work was well behind him.


And the defining film of the decade -- this decade's Easy Rider or Wall Street? It's too early to tell, but I'd go with Syriana, a magnificent film about oil and terrorism, America and the Middle East, a bleak film for a bleak decade defined in many ways by what happened on 9/11 and its aftermath, by Osama bin Laden on one side and George W. Bush on the other, by the emergence of global terrorism as the new enemy, by America's two foreign wars, by the unravelling of the U.S. Constitution under Bush and Cheney, by new nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea, by an historic global economic crisis, by the fall of major banks and corporations, and by the hope of, and in, Barack Obama.

Black Hawk Down, a great war movie about an incident that took place in Somalia in the '90s -- an incident that points ahead to America's disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, two other Muslim countries -- is also a defining film.

So, too, is The Village. Though widely panned by critics, some of whom perhaps wanted Shyamalan to stick to shocking twist-endings like the one in The Sixth Sense, it is a beautiful, disturbing, moving political allegory about fear and community, about what binds us to our fellow human beings.

Up in the Air may define the decade, too, a film about rootlessness and the coldness of the market.

And then, of course, there's WALL-E, about which I cannot speak too highly, with its vision of our future that looks more and more like the nightmare we are inflicting upon ourselves.


So why, then, did I pick Almost Famous as the Best Film of the Decade? Well, the line between "best" and "favourite" isn't always clear, and the best here aren't necessarily my favourite. I'm not even sure what criteria I've used to list these films.

Almost Famous certainly wasn't the most meaningful film of the decade, the one that said the most, the most important, the most defining, the most technically brilliant, the most significant, the most historically grand. But I loved it, and love it still, and it is deeply meaningful to me in a profoundly personal way.

I admire these great films, but I remain detached from some of them, like Traffic and Black Hawk Down. With Almost Famous, I feel a deep connection, an attachment that I can't really describe. It may not be politically relevant the way, say, Syriana is, and it may not have a resonating message about our times, but it has a universality to it that moves me: It's about growing up, and we all do that. It is such an important movie to me, personally, that I can't, and don't, watch it all that often. It is simply too much to take sometimes, and I often prefer to think about it, to let it linger within me. It is, in a way, my movie, even if it is Cameron Crowe's story, even if it wasn't made for me, even if I am hardly alone in loving it so much and taking so much from it, and that is why it is at the very top of this very personal list.


So that is the decade in film. There was a lot not to like, with some terrible Oscar nominees and winners, and some awful box-office phenomena. Going over the annual lists, there weren't many gems.

But there were still some great films, perhaps even some historically great films that will survive the test of time and enter the pantheon of cinema.

And there were a lot that were just really, really good.

And for that, we can be extremely thankful.

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