Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Best Movies I Saw this Year

I should make a serious disclaimer before giving this list. I live in the middle of the state of Sao Paulo, in Brazil. This means many things, but what it means to my movie-watching possibilities is this: I cannot watch almost anything when it comes out in the US. So, lots of great movies haven´t made it here to this city of 370,000. Sadly. But, that said, I did see some great stuff.

So, without further ado, at the behest of Nicole, here is my list:

10. Coraline. Directed by one of Tim Burton´s disciples, this very creative work of animation is weird and fun on various levels. As A.O. Scott wrote in an article for the New York Times, the story focuses on how home and the concept of coming home, as did so many movies this year, and when the main character gets tired of her family and life at home, she enters a world that fascinates while scaring the hell out of the most jaded viewer.

9. Anvil: The Story of Anvil. A documentary that revolves around what happens to fame for dries up all too quickly. And the mundane sets in. Directed by an avid fan of the Canadian heavy metal band that toured at one time, many moons ago, with the likes of Judas Priest, Bon Jovi and Anthrax, this is the story of love for something that seems like it will never love back. The stars, the two founding members of the band, are great to watch doing what we all try to do: not give up.

8. The Cove. I love documentaries, and The Cove loves back. It plays out like a crime thriller, but the plot is anything but played out. A group of environmentalists, techies, and thrill-seekers, do everything and anything to get into a place that no one in Japan wants to think about: a cove where dolphins are being butchered in cold blood, and sold as meat. The leader of this A-team, ironically, started the Flipper series that was immensely popular years ago. His sheer dedication to the cause is worth watching.

7. Disgrace. Based on the novel by J.M. Coetzee, this disturbing look at post-apartheid South Africa is a tour de force by John Malkovitch. He plays a college professor whose life is made up of cozying up to students and taking them back to his empty home, after divorcing his wife. One of these victims is a black student whose boyfriend finds out, and threatens to expose and/or beat the hell out of Malkovitch. So, fearing reality, he runs off to see his lesbian daughter, who lives in the middle of the country. There, life, in all its messiness, follows.

6. Departures. This film, which came out in Japan in 2008, actually won last year´s Best Foreign Picture Oscar. But it came out in the US, and Brazil, this year, so it counts on my list. It, like many movies from the Far East, is the story of family, and lacks much action. It makes up for it in real emotion, something that is never going to come out of a CGI-based blockbuster. The story centers around a guy who finds a job working for a very demanding boss sending people off to the next world. He learns how to help not only to reduce the suffering of those who are left behind, but to be proud of a job that is one of the least-wanted in Japan.

5. Sugar. The Dominican Republic, for anyone who knows anything about baseball, is a land of milk and honey for Major League scouts. It has, for years, exported more great players per capita than pretty much anywhere else. But, as in anything, only a few make it to the top. Sugar, one of the top prospects of the moment, is sent on an odyssey around the States, until he has to make a decision about whether this is all worth it.

4. District 9. As one review wrote: we have met the enemy, and he is us.

3. Gomorrah. The most un-Hollywood mafia drama ever made. Based on the investigative journalism of a Naples writer, who is now under witness protection. Life in and around the Camorra, Naples tentacle-like network of organized crime. Fascinating.

2. The Hurt Locker. As the movie says, for many: war is a drug. Sadly. The story of a US bomb Iraq. Not lacking in drama, obviously.

1. Inglourious Basterds. Any movie directed by Tarantino will draw varied critiques, and for good reason. Anything the overbearing diva directs is self-promoted and media-driven to death. That said, this film is a work of revisionist art. Whether it is the crisp and fast dialogue, the over-the-top action, or the wild plot, it does not disappoint. If you have held off from checking this out, give it a chance.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Healthcare Crisis: Part I, Healthscare

Below is a true story of healthcare. Names have been changed for purposes of anonymity.

Sifting through the Guatemala travel guide, I thought I might visit Tikal, the ancient ruins in the northeast part of the country, though the book alleged the trip might take eight hours by bus. Do I have that kind of stamina in a “chicken bus?” Copan, in Honduras appeared closer via the map and Dominga and I were investigating that possibility. Though, Honduras held symbolic and very real danger to Juliette, her best friend murdered there in 2001, just before September 11th, so I lightly peddled that with a whisper only hinting it might be a possibility. I left for Guatemala in three days, nearly frantic to learn Spanish, sit at the foothills of volcanoes in Antigua, and sip dark roasted coffee in the cool, sunny air from a Guatemalan roaster. My former colleague and good friend Dominga volunteered her time in “Guaty” and helped me find housing, she was the reason I decided on Guatemala instead of Peru or Chile or even Argentina. Guatemala is also cheap by any standard used in the Spanish speaking world, excited and desperate to leave the states I was walking on air to leave Jersey City. That was until Tuesday night.

Juliette, happy for me to finally abscond on a trip out of the country to improve my Spanish kept to herself and did not let on that something might be afoot, until fright, and insurance malfeasance brought it to the forefront. Tuesday night, November 3rd she looked nervous and angry and needed to vent. “I can’t do this.” she screamed. “What” I said as I shut-off Keith Olbermann. “Nothing, forget it.” “Tell me!” I said. “I am worried about the procedure.” Both of us uneasy, trying not to discuss this subject I said, “Why?” “Because it is surgery and it is scary! I don’t know where to go for the surgery or if insurance is even going to pay. I am overwhelmed!”

In early October Juliette entered UMDNJ, Jersey's premier medical center for her the first mammogram of her life. The pleasantries of aging and turning 40, she took these measures seriously. Only one year before Juliette travelled deep within New Jersey, near her hometown, for a routine eye check-up and found herself on a gurney undergoing emergency eye surgery. We thought she might go blind in the only eye in which she had vision. Thankfully, the eye stabilized, but it was scary and I thought Juliette might be experiencing PTSD and I needed to help.

At the hands of healthcare technicians during the mammogram they shoved her boobs into the machine like an animal. “Please be still” they told her. “Don’t move” as if they were preparing her for the abattoir. She left, somewhat humiliated, but not unlike millions of women in our lagging healthcare system, a system that punishes women frankly, for being women. She received a call, a few days later, the test proved “inconclusive.” “What does that mean?” she asked on the phone to the caller, a technician of some sort. “It means nothing,” she says dismissively, “except you have to come back in the office for another look; we need to do it again.” “Great” Juliette said, at least this time I won’t have my period!” Juliette, back on the train toward Hoboken in late October while I obliviously planned a getaway as far away from health insurance as might possibly be, the poorest country in Latin America the next week.

This time, however they held her in the machine while the radiologist stuffed her boobs back in there, edging closer, focusing a little more intently. They focused on the right breast; clearly called into the office not because the tests were “inconclusive” but instead shades of a “gathering of cells.” “There is a problem area, I see,” the Radiologist indicated. “It makes me curious.” “Well,” Juliette thought to herself, “your language is making me curious.” Juliette anticipated in the waiting room, as she gathered her belongings another “technician” ran after her frenzied before she left.

“We need to do an ultrasound,” she announced to her. “When?” Juliette asked. “Right now! Stay where you are.” Please undo the gown and stick your left boob out please.” she heard not ten minutes later, yet again. This was indeed a cattle call. Instead of being curious, this time he was worried. “You see this area that has a group of cells or in the medical field we call a mass.” As Juliette heard the words ring through her ears the Radiologist said, “You need to see a surgeon right away.” Juliette failed to mention any of this to me when she arrived home.

She left in a dizzying fright. Exactly a year ago she was told she might and likely will go blind until we fought to get the best care money might buy. The diagnosis changed quickly. One year later here we are again. She downplayed the new procedure, in the healthcare field called a “biopsy” as we discussed Antigua and all the fun I will be having in Central America. Juliette didn’t say the word “biopsy” until Tuesday night when she nearly lost her mind.

On Monday her personal physician discussed with her the need to have a stereo tactic needle biopsy all new words in her vocabulary. She recommended a doctor in Hoboken that she thought treated her patients “well.” Juliette called them Tuesday morning. “We don’t take Healthnet,” she said abruptly. Juliette mentioned to her, “Actually we are changing insurance on December 1st, to Oxford. Does that matter?” “Yes, we do take Oxford,” the rude young lady stated. “But, you may have a pre-existing condition now, so you want to check with your insurance company. You might not be able to get the procedure right away; it could take six to nine months.” She hung up the phone without a response. Juliette now in her own tizzy called her personal physician back.

“Don’t wait until December 1st, it is better to do this quickly. You want to find a center that takes both health insurances,” her doctor told her somewhat anxious. She called breast centers, in Hackensack, other parts of North Jersey, some of which took one insurance, but not the other, some took no insurance catering to a more “suitable clientele.” I called one myself after the frenzy. “We don’t take insurance,” they told me smugly. "Our clients submit to their own insurance companies. We focus on healthcare.” “Oh.” I said, ready to lay into her with all the fury of every uninsured American, my words worth the 40 million of us. I hung up the phone without a word.

This is where Juliette found herself on Tuesday night as I sifted through the Guatemalan travel guide. She explained to me, “It is a surgery.” The radiologist told her that about 20 percent of these procedures turn up to be cancer. I said, “What?!! Cancer? Who said anything about cancer?” Wednesday morning I decided Central America will wait, we need to find Juliette a place for this procedure. Juliette found it that morning calling every place she “googled.” St. Vincent’s, the hospital of her birth built a brand new Cancer Center in New York City. First, however I called American Airlines and “postponed” the trip. I called Dominga who understood, but we were both a bit disappointed. I told her, “Tomorrow I have to bring Juliette’s films to the St. Vincent’s Cancer Center.” I hung up the phone and whispered the C word to myself letting out a giant sigh, “cancer.”

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Sub-Prime Debacle

This short video explains the subprime mess very eloquently. How regular people weren't to blame, but were assuaged by predators in the banking industry built only to make the next buck as fast as possible. It is unforgivable and disgusting.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Winter Solstice

Happy Winter Solstice. A day I like to refer to as the shortest day of the year. I celebrate it mainly because I know the light in the sky will start to lengthen. Thankfully. I always felt, however it doesn't make sense that the shortest day of the year is the first day of Winter. Why would the shortest day of the year (this is only in the northern hemisphere) and the sun's "daily maximum position in the sky" is the lowest be on the first day of Winter, the Winter Solstice?

In astronomical terms the term solstice refers to the two times a year when the sun is at its greatest distance from the celestial equator, the great circle on the celestial sphere that is on the same place as the earth's equator. This occurs inthe northern hemisphere during Winter Solstice when the sun shines over the Tropic of Capricorn. The earth spins on an axis as it rotates around the sun. The axis is tilted 23.5 degrees toward the plain of its rotation. Because of the orbit, the hemisphere that is angled closest to the sun receives more direct sunlight.

Winter Solstice is actually only a moment in time, "an instant in time." In many cultures it is known as mid-winter, not the beginning of winter like we know it here. Since winter is not a scientifically established fact it begins differently in many cultures. The Celtics begin their Winter calendar on November 1st, which seems to make sense. The temperature has reached the teens here in New Jersey and our weekend blast this weekend, with a Winter Blizzard on December 19th, which technically here in the states is before Winter would be a pre-winter blast. I don't think so. This is midwinter dammit!

Something I also found fascinating is the Julian Calendar established Winter Solstice as December 25th beginning in 45 BC, in all of Europe, but it fluctuated because of the calendar and moved three days every four centuries. It was changed in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII because the calendar was changed and it moved to December 21st, though it varies a bit. Is this the reason Jesus was said to be born on December 25th? Many European solar calendars still celebrate December 24th as the eve before the Winter Solstice. Coincidence? I don't think so.

Look at the Celtic Cross which represents Christianity's triumph over paganism. This may be another manifestation.In many cultures, especially pagan cultures Winter Solstice is a celebrated event of magnificent proportions. Stonehenge in England and New Grange in Ireland place both axis on the Summer Solstice (Stonehenge) and Winter Solstice (New Grange).
New Grange is in County Meath Ireland and is over 5,000 years old. It is more than 500 years older than the Great Pyramids and predates Stonehenge by 1000 years. Did my fucking tour guide not want to show us this? Many places have been built like it since, I seem to remember many pagans travelling somewhere in the north of Maine to celebrate. New Grange is one of the most famous prehistoric sites in the world and the most famous of all Irish prehistoric sites. It was built in such a way that at dawn on the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice a narrow beam of sunlight illuminates the floor of the chamber at the end of a long passageway.

This year Winter Solstice will occur exactly at 12:47 PM today, December 21st. Enjoy the pagan holiday.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Naomi Klein at Copenhagen

Listen to Naomi Klein at Copenhagen describe just what is occurring in Copenhagen and "global warming" that is not debatable. I think the debate on healthcare, bailouts, Afghanistan and now Climate justice is re-energizing the left after being blindsided by the mirage of Obama. We will never achieve anything through trust in our politicians. It is about a people's movement.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Chicken Reform

I said it the other day, and I feel the need to repeat it: the public does not yet understand that the government is about to order people to buy health insurance, with their own money. Yes, the government is about to order people to cough up hundreds of dollars a month each.

When the Republicans start using their toxic message-machine magic on this, and the public starts to understand that they are being ordered by the government to cough up a huge amount of money every month, Democrats had better have good hiding places, because things are going to get really bad out there.

This is the kind of policy that results when "centrist" Democrats give in to to the demands of Republicans and big corporations and the top 1% of the wealthy. Instead of just taxing the wealthy and corporations at reasonable rates and using the money to provide We, the People with health care -- thereby vastly improving the economy for ... the wealthy and big corporations -- they instead come up with a scheme to order regular people to pay for health insurance because they don't already have it because they can't afford it. - Dave Johnson - Open Left