March 31, 2010

REVIEW: The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer has everything: mystery, power, secrecy, seduction, and two very sexy leading men. Everything, it seems, except for a reason why all these things appear on the screen.

The movie follows a young author, hired to replace the recently (and mysteriously) deceased ghost writer for ex-British Prime Minister (and obvious Tony Blair knock-off) Adam Lang. Lang's memoirs promise to be both dynamite on the best sellers' list (a la Harry Potter) and on the world political map, but there is still an odd bit of secrecy surrounding the book's final touch-up and the cast of characters sequesters itself at Lang's isolated beach house on Martha's vineyard.

In spite of rather stellar casting, direction, and dialogue, the fatal flaw in The Ghost Writer is the complete lack of an impactful plot to drive the story or make sense of what we subsequently see on screen. We hear allegations against Lang in the International Criminal Court that are more remarkable for how minor, indirect, and common they are. We see allegations of connections between Lang's family and foreign intelligence services, but are left asking the question, so what? The writer keeps acting like 'the man who knew too much', when in actuality he knows nothing (even at the very end!) and for that reason, the film falls apart.

While cinematically it is a good film, it is certainly not Polanski's best, and maybe if Polanski hadn't been arrested, it would have been worth seeing.

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March 30, 2010

REVIEW: Me Talk Pretty One Day

Arguably the most famous work in the canon of David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day has the kind of stories Sedaris fans will love, and Sedaris-virgins will love to discover. Since reading Naked and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, I've been amazed by Sedaris's talent for turning mundane life into fascinating explorations of the human experience, and have made it a passive goal of mine to read all his six books. With stories centering around family members or childhood figures (each with the kind of clear, constant voice you can effortlessly hear inside your head as you read), Sedaris must have an incredible memory, detailed diary, or convincing imagination. While those expecting to hear heartthrob stories of excitement and adventure will be disappointed by the National Public Radio-ready prose of Sedaris's books, everyone will be able to appreciate the mastery of his writing and brevity.

Some of the stories contained in Me Talk Pretty will be familiar to listeners of NPR's This American Life, which I believe speaks more to their strength than their redundancy. The book contains quite a bit on his experiences in France (touched upon in other works), and has a bit too much Andy Rooney-esque nostalgia at times, but Me Talk Pretty is Sedaris at his best.

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March 28, 2010

REVIEW: Game Change

A blow-by-blow tactical recap of the 2008 primary and general presidential elections, Game Change is a mind-blowing and eye-opening look behind the curtain in American Presidential Politics. What Otto Van Bismark said about laws and sausages (it's best not to watch them being made) can be equally applied to the minting of candidates; readers of this book will be startled at how impulsive, random, and junior-varsity the process is to crown the leader of the free world.

A few observations on the primary characters:

Hillary: Clearly the person best-suited and most deserving of being President. Foiled and propelled at times by her husband and drama-prone staff, Hillary fell victim to the resistance of her party's leadership to Clinton-Family Domination and the Media's infatuation of the hail-Mary narrative of Obama.

Obama: The coolest candidate in both senses of the world. Always confident, always in control, perhaps to the point of arrogance or megalomania. While his rhetoric has always been praised, Game Change reinforces the view that Obama has been weak on substance. Very weak. In spite of poor debate performances and long-shot odds (even though the establishment Democratic Party backed him), Obama was able tap into the right message, lift the right spirits, and win the impossible victory.

McCain: RISK LOVING... but what can you expect from a pilot? Curses like a sailor, but then again he was in the Navy. What you see is what you get, and as a regular good ol' guy, it's probably best he's not in the White House

: Eager if extremely, extremely naive. An undereducated Alaskan mom who really had little business outside of her state and certainly not in politics. She was catapulted onto the national stage by sheer, dumb, cosmic chance caused by the impulsiveness of McCain's VEEP decision (one that that needed to be a "game changer") and the complete lack of vetting. Fast and loose with the truth, though I'm not sure if she's a liar or if she just doesn't get it. Even McCain's staff twisted with regret when they learned exactly how completely unfit she is to be President

The Media: A violin to be played by the most talented maestro. Dutifully broadcasted any faux-outrage put out by the usually quite rational and understanding candidates. Completely ineffective as a vehicle for vetting and testing candidates as social narrative always dominates. Clearly the most embarrassed party in Game Change.

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A Chance to Renew Faith in the Catholic Church

Today marks the opening of Holy Week, the dramatic close of Lent when Catholics commemorate Christ’s triumphant ride into Jerusalem, the institution of the last supper, the crucifixion and resurrection. It is the holiest week for Catholics, and also serves as the final step of Christian initiation for those adults who choose to join the Church.

Holy Week also provides an opportunity for the faithful to renew and reinvigorate their spiritual life. Christian faith implores its followers to lead a life of constant conversion - to be always on guard against those actions that separate us from God and to regularly recommit to the basic tenets of Christ’s teaching, most fundamentally universal love.

This year, that message from the Pope has been clouded by the ongoing sex abuse scandal that has rocked the Church to its core. In his homily at this morning’s Palm Sunday mass, the Holy Father struck a defiant tone, asserting that he would not be intimidated “by the petty gossip of dominant opinion.”

As a Catholic, I want to stand behind that sentiment. I want to rally around the head of my church in the most trying time of his office.

But the meaning of this week won’t let me.

For decades, the Church’s leadership has led a closeted existence. While preaching the values of Christ, too many priests, bishops and Vatican officials knowingly put Catholic children in the jaws of sexual predators. Instead of exposing the crimes of the wayward priests, and turning them over to police for criminal prosecution, a fraternal network of priests and bishops shuffled the pedophiles from parish to parish and diocese to diocese.

In recent weeks, the media has shed new light on the role of Pope Benedict XVI in the unfolding scandal. While archbishop of Munich in 1980, then-Bishop Ratzinger allowed a priest who molested children to return to pastoral work. And after being appointed to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith – the Church’s highest ranking body on matters of dogma – Cardinal Ratzinger refused to defrock a priest who molested at least 200 deaf children in Wisconsin.

Pope Benedict has, past and present, shown remarkably bad judgment. He did not work to fully expose the crimes of priests for the past three decades, and as leader of the Church he has not fully investigated the scandal. (Even now, the Pope seems more interested in cracking down on liberal nuns in the United States than in settling the sex abuse scandal once and for all.)

And for weeks, the response from the Vatican has been neither introspective nor compassionate. The Church has generated excuse after excuse, with the Pope trying to push responsibility off on other officers while ignoring that, as a bishop and cardinal, the buck often stopped with him.

I do not dislike my Pope and I am not entirely disenchanted with my Church. But the office of the pope requires moral legitimacy. Any leader of the Church – at any level – who tried hiding abusive priests instead of bringing them to justice should stand aside.

Holy Week gives us, as we will be reminded over the coming days, an opportunity to renew our faith. The Holy See should also use it as an opportunity to renew our institutions and recalibrate the moral compass of the Church. I fear the true message of Christ will be drowned out by the cries moral outrage until that happens.

March 16, 2010

REVIEW: Brave New World

Aldous Huxley's 1932 novel Brave New World presents a vision of consumerism and mechanization, where social strata are bred into the biology of factory-produced twins, and stuporous stability is the highest government ideal. I found myself captivated by the book's system of society, its veneration of Henry Ford, and culture of instant gratification. If Orwell's vision was pure fascism, this is pure capitalism.

On the downside, Brave New World is nowhere as intellectually deep as 1984. The plot and characters are underdeveloped and inconsequential. Huxley makes the joy of reading solely in its exploration of his (brave new) world, but that can only carry the book so far. Throw in a compelling plot, differentiated tone of story-telling, and dynamic characters and it might have been perfect.

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March 10, 2010

Guiding Lights of Stewardship

The tactics on display during the trustee election are downright disturbing.

John Replogle ’88 and his campaign team have, from the start of this race, sought to smear the character and accomplishments of Joe Asch ‘79, the petition candidate for trustee. Mr. Replogle has tried to play alumni against each other, availing himself of a brand of politics we know all too well – the politics of fear. With not-so-subtle references to Joe’s articles in The Dartmouth Review, Replogle hopes to prime alumni to paint Joe with the same brush as most do the Review, a tactic as underhanded as it is misleading. (Mr. Replogle has conveniently forgotten Joe’s dozens of articles, letters and interviews in The Dartmouth.)

Mr. Replogle has tried to scare alumni into seeing Joe as both a dangerous reactionary and an overinvested micromanager. In Mr. Replogle’s telling, Joe is – in one breath – both woefully ignorant of how to govern the college and over-informed on the issues that affect her. That his critiques indicate considerable cognitive dissonance seem of little import to Mr. Replogle, whose primary goal of winning has clearly supplanted his desire for anything approaching a fair and open debate.

What’s worse is the remarkably unapologetic bias in The Dartmouth. On the paper’s final day of production for the winter term, the front page bears a story dripping with insinuation and smacking of ulterior motive. With a misleading title suggesting that Joe has attempted to hide aspects of past business dealings, the article’s author intimates that Joe took part in a massive conspiracy to defraud French tax collectors. Then, by parsing quotes given by Joe and his supporters, the author wedges his version of reality into a broader narrative suggesting not-so-subtly that Joe is not qualified to serve on the board.

A real journalist would have painted a far more reasonable portrait for the students and alumni who rely on The Dartmouth for information on everything Big Green. In reality, Joe’s company, which shipped medical utensils to dozens of nations, made the mistake of paying a portion of their taxes to the United States instead of to France. Joe fully cooperated with the tax authorities of both nations, and resolved the issue without further judicial action.

The author of that piece also removed from proper context a paragraph from the endorsement letter I offered on Joe’s behalf. While I did write that, ‘Joe has a professional résumé packed with business experience and financial gravitas that our trustees need — particularly during a time of economic crisis — to help us navigate these hazardous waters,’ The Dartmouth’s reporter failed to point out what followed.

As I wrote next, ‘Those are all details that you can find on his website — and believe me, it’s just a brief sampling of Joe’s experience. But what I in particular feel the need to share is the side of Joe you’re unlikely to find replicated in the pages of The Dartmouth or around the web.’ I then go on to outline my personal relationship with Joe, and the reasons that I will be voting for him as soon as the ballot is available on March 10.

Unfortunately, I have neither the platform nor the time to counter the many examples of disinformation that have been unleashed against Joe over the course of this election. And perhaps I would not be the best person to do so, anyway.

You see, if politics has taught me anything it is this: you are never at your best when you’re angry. Many campaigns have made it second nature for me to take, as a matter of process, attacks against my candidates. It’s like watching members of your favorite football team get tackled – yes, it’s rough, but it’s just part of the game.

What politics does not desensitize you to, though, is watching your friends get sucker punched. I did not enter the trustee race as a political operative; I’m not a part of Joe’s campaign, only offering – as many students, alumni, trustees and professors have – my endorsement. Without the general detachment born of working on the campaign, I am just mad. I am mad at Mr. Replogle for his race-to-the-bottom electioneering. And I am mad at The Dartmouth for playing into that brand of politics by running journalistically misguided stories.

At the outset of this race, I had high hopes for this election. I had immense respect for Mr. Replogle and his professional accomplishments; I just knew Joe, knew his character, and knew that he would make an excellent trustee. Now, I am disenchanted with Mr. Replogle and his campaign.

I still believe that Joe will win, mostly because I have an abiding faith in the ability of Dartmouth alumni to see through the crassly political tactics employed over the past two months. But even with the best possible outcome, the very fabric of our union – those hill-winds that course through all those fortunate enough to share the Dartmouth embrace – has been frayed by petty and crude politicking. Grace and mutual respect must be the guiding lights of our stewardship. Otherwise, we no longer deserve to be vox clamantis in deserto.