Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Book of Eli: ****

The Book of Eli
Warner Brothers
Alcon Entertainment
Silver Pictures
Directed by the Hughes Brothers
Rated R for some bloody violence
Running time: 1:58
Spoilers below

Younger moviegoers may ask, "Who the heck are the Hughes Brothers?" Great question. Since their stunning 1993 debut Menace II Society, they haven't made any significant films. Well, welcome back and what a comeback! This is an amazing return with an exclamation point.

As I noted in my Tweet, the desert landscapes of New Mexico set the tone for the quiet desolation of a post-apocalyptic America in which the power went off 30 years before. Denzel Washington is headed west with his book and his date with destiny. Mila Kunis, the Russian-Jewish immigrant actress best known for her comedic work in That 70's Show, will surprise audiences with her serious turn here. She's quite effective, I thought, as Washington's unwanted sidekick. Gary Oldman is splendidly evil, as usual, and his Carnegie character wisely recognizes the power of the book Washington possesses.

This film is not for children or those who are queasy at the sight of blood and violence resulting from hand-to-hand combat in movies. I highly recommend this film. Those who plan to see the film should stop reading now.

A rabbi I know and trust tells this story, and I suspect it's true: a group of five Torah scholars imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp decided to memorize the Chumash text (first five books of the Bible--the Torah), one man per book. They knew the Nazis were destroying sefrei Torah (Torah scrolls) and were unsure if any would survive the war. If we memorize the text, they thought, we would still have the Torah in the postwar world.

I thought of that story as I was watching the film. I had a pretty good idea of what Book Washington had. It didn't occur to me that he had memorized it. It is possible but highly unusual; unlike Islam, rote memorization of text is not celebrated in Judaism or Christianity.

No way was Eli blind. Impossible to be blind and be a hand-to-hand combat expert like he was. Maybe he was farsighted. But not blind. Interesting that the directors would assume their audience would recognize Braille text. Even before the computer age, very few blind people could read Braille (10 percent, I believe). Learning it was extremely tedious. Now that blind people can carry a hand-held reader that can read text aloud, why bother? (For the elevator. Of course.) I wouldn't be surprised if there's an App for that.

I instantly thought of the secret of The Sixth Sense, revealed at the end of the film. Was The Book of Eli true to its character? Did Washington really never respond to what we could see? I didn't think it was consistent in the same way.

I didn't understand the reference to hands and checking for unnatural growth. The film never explained it.

I loved one of the final scenes of the film: the publisher shelved his new copy of the King James Bible next to the Stone Tanach (Old Testament). The Stone Edition is the one most commonly found in orthodox Jewish homes.

Great concept that an evil boss, as leader of a town/community, would place so much value on a copy of the Holy Bible. Did he intend to declare himself the Messiah, the reborn Christ?

Jennifer Beals is also great. Beals has had quite a career, from Flashdance to (more recently) The L Word and now a dramatic turn as Oldman's blind lover.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Can Joel send Jan packing?

It's tough, as a constituent, being represented by an entrenched incumbent in Congress. The incumbent typically builds up a huge war chest from supporters and lobbying groups who depend on his or her votes to keep them in business. In Illinois' 9th District, two of our three representatives on Capitol Hill have been there way too long: U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D.-Ill.), first elected in 1996, re-elected in 2008 to his third term; and U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D.-Ill.), first elected in 1998, running for re-election to her seventh term.

Seven terms, Jan? Really?

Trying to bounce an entrenched incumbent from her congressional seat is next to impossible. After a census, the district is gerrymandered to favor her. When Illinois reduced the size of the 9th District following the 2000 census, Rep. Schakowsky was able to keep her core support of lakefront liberals by keeping Lake Shore Drive (down to Diversey) in her district. Those voters really should be in the 5th, like their neighbors to the west. The incumbent enjoys widespread name recognition of everyone who voted in the last decade. In the 9th, it gets worse: since 1948, the district has had just two different representatives in Congress*--the sainted Sidney Yates, and now Jan Schakowsky. Thousands of liberals have pulled the same lever their entire lives, voting for just two different liberal Democrats like themselves.

People who would like a chance at the seat usually don't bother. Jan typically runs unchallenged or receives token opposition, like from that guy in 2006 who refused to accept campaign contributions. (I'm tempted to use the word "idiot" to describe him. He wasn't stupid, but obviously had no interest in people taking him seriously.)

This year is different. This year Jan will be up against Joel Pollack, a young man (Niles North '95) who is running to win. In order to send Jan into happy retirement--to spend more time with her grandchildren--Joel needs to convince a healthy number of Jan's liberal Democratic faithful to stay home or vote Republican for the first time ever.

How is Joel going to manage a miracle on that scale? I don't know. No one else ever has. It's like trying to beat a computer at tic-tac-toe, a game a computer can easily master. (Whether Big Blue completely mastered chess is debatable.) I can think of a couple of issues that Jan should address head-on and has not needed to or been asked to:

1. The finance-related felonies (bank fraud and tax evasion) for which Jan's husband, Robert Creamer, went to prison. Is it really possible Rep. Schakowsky had no knowledge of his crimes? If not, what did she know and when did she know it?

2. How has the 9th District improved since Jan was sworn in as its congresswoman 11 years ago? What has she done to develop and bring jobs to the district? I'm no fan of congressional earmarking, but in this race she is going to boast of her experience and seniority. Is her seniority really worth anything? And how is her experience helping her constituents?

3. Is there a connection between Jan and ACORN, the disgraced left-wing community group that recently had its federal funding yanked in the wake of an embarrassing scandal?

4. Is the health care plan Rep. Schakowsky so strongly supports going to hurt wealthy and not-so-wealthy seniors?

If Joel can make seniors in the district nervous about #4 ("Keep government hands off my Medicare!"), he can seriously cut into Jan's base. Can Jan fight off a serious candidate for the first time in her congressional career? Or can Massachusetts happen here? She will try to scare her base, saying Joel will "try to take away your Social Security and Medicare." Will she get away with it?

*in 1960, Yates ran for Senate and lost. The district had another congressman for one term. Yates ran for his seat in 1962 and won it back.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

"24": Dana apes "The Unusuals"

Mondays 9pm ET/PT

For all five of us who watched abc's New York-based cop drama The Unusuals last spring, the tale of the criminal-with-a-new-law-enforcement-identity is all too familiar. In the now-cancelled show, the NYPD officer became religious and was about to get married. His friend from back home blackmailed him into assisting him with a burglary or two. Now, Data Analyst Dana (about to get married) is visited by a friend from back home who wants a six-figure score, with help from her access to sensitive documents at her CTU office.

The solution is easy. She calls a criminal defense attorney and cuts a deal with the state's attorney: I'll lure my friend into an attempted robbery, and you'll let me off the hook for accessory to murder. In "24"'s compressed schedule, this could easily be accomplished in the space of a few hours. The problem with blackmail is it lasts forever unless the blackmailer ends up dead.

The main plot line seems a little weak--nuclear rods to the black sheep brother of a ruling family of a FSR breakaway -stan republic? I felt bad for the Russian mobster mutilated by Renée Walker, only to be shot point-blank by one of his mobster contacts. "Dump him in the river."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Guest spkr addresses full house at Skokie Chabad

Skokie Chabad invited Shimona Tzukernik to address shabbos dinner guests Jan. 15. Since no one wants to speak to a hungry crowd, we had dinner first:

challah (of course)
gefilte fish
matzahball soup
beef in gravy
sweet potato in philo (outstanding)
bottled water

Mrs. Tzukernik spoke about spirituality in a way that even I found compelling. The talk was titled "The Mind's Eye," and I think one concept she put forth quite well was suggesting that the ideal wasn't an extreme side of the spectrum but right in the middle--just right, so to speak. (I didn't put that in quotes because I don't think she used that term.) She pointed out that we think the opposite of stinginess is generosity, and she said it's not true--that the opposite of stinginess is the inability to manage one's finances, and that generosity (tzedakah) is right in the middle. She made another observation, the details of which now, of course, escape me, but I think it was about happiness. We shouldn't consider happiness to be one extreme, or the opposite of sadness. Happiness is in the middle--it's just right.

She told a couple of stories which I found to be utterly fascinating, including one of a Polish Catholic man dating a Jewish woman--a relationship both sets of parents vehemently opposed. Years later, they ran into each other--in the Vatican. She was in line to see the Pope; that Polish Catholic decided he could never marry after that unhappy ending to the relationship, and he eventually became Pope John Paul II.

Mrs. Tzukernik is South African and grew up in the waning days of the apartheid government. In the late 1980's, most political observers thought that either the apartheid regime would continue its grip on power while violently suppressing its opposition; or there would be a violent revolution resulting in a bloodbath of the nation's civilians, both white and black. Many South African Jews were obviously concerned about the latter possibility and considered leaving. At the behest of the South African Lubavitch community, a community member flew to New York to ask the Lubavitcher rebbe his advice--whether the community should flee the country to Israel, Australia and the United States. In his wisdom, the rebbe replied, "Stay in your country. There is going to be a peaceful transition of power."

Now, I can try to imagine the Lubavitcher rebbe appearing on Meet the Press or This Week With David Brinkley and making such a declaration. He turned out to be absolutely right. South Africa remains a difficult place to live with its high crime rate. And many South African Jews did leave. But the transition of government from de Klerk to Mandela was indeed peaceful. Amazing.

pareve frozen dessert (faux ice cream)--chocolate and vanilla flavors
pound cake
fresh fruit
apple cider

From the new Cubs' ownership: more of the same

During last weekend's Cubs convention at the Chicago Hilton Towers, new Cubs owner Tom Ricketts put an end to any optimism in my mind that he is serious about winning.

No Friday night games. No video board.

The video board (often referred to by Sony's trade name, JumboTron) is a side issue. It's a nice amenity for fans who want to see replays or see themselves on Kiss Cam. More importantly for the club, it's an opportunity to sell video ads (commercials) during inning breaks. It would be another revenue stream for the Cubs, who sorely need more of them.

Playing Friday night games (which I would be unable to attend) is a competition issue. Every team has 13 Friday home games. Unless one of those is Opening Day, every other club in Major League Baseball plays those games at night. Playing at home at 1:20 Friday afternoon puts the Cubs at a significant competitive disadvantage. Whether they are returning home after a Thursday road game or playing after a rare Thursday night home game, playing a Friday matinée drives players absolutely crazy. They are exhausted, and they could use an extra six hours off. Instead, they're back at the ballpark. Why can't they play on Friday nights?

Parking, say neighborhood whiners. How can parking be an issue on Fridays? Neighborhood residents are entitled to resident parking permits that allow them to park in the night-game zone, a large area surrounding Wrigley Field that extends one-half or one mile beyond the ballpark. For non-residents, it's a 5pm-10pm tow zone on night-game dates. So what's the issue?

The Cubs have an informal agreement (not in writing) with the neighborhood not to schedule Friday or Saturday night games. Saturday nights are less of an issue due to MLB's current contract with Fox Sports. Fox's Saturday afternoon broadcasts force teams to schedule their games according to the network's wishes, meaning start times of 12:05 or 3:15 CDT. But Friday night is a real problem and will continue to hamper the Cubs' championship hopes.

The larger issue, of course, is the number of night games the Cubs can play. All other Major League Baseball clubs play about 55 of their 81 home games at night. By Chicago ordinance, the Cubs are limited to 30 (through 2018). This is a tremendous competitive disadvantage that the previous ownership stupidly agreed to: first in 1988, when the lights were under construction; and then again in 2003, when the Cubs revised and renewed their agreement with the city. Neighborhood stalwarts who have lived there since the 1970's (no night games) insist on enforcing the night game limit, which I like to call the "no-pennant" law. The Cubs have been playing night games for 22 seasons now. An entire generation of Wrigley Field's neighbors have grown accustomed to the night games, and I suspect most would enthusiastically support a full complement of 55 night games, including Friday and Saturday nights.

The Pittsburgh Pirates last won a World Series championship in 1979. The Bucs have now suffered 17 consecutive losing seasons. The Kansas City Royals last won a World Series championship in 1985 and have not been to the playoffs since then. The Royals are perennial bottom-feeders in the American League. The Cubs' owners can afford better records than the Pirates and Royals, but I fear their futility in securing pennants and world championships won't be much different.

The team's new owners, the Ricketts family, is proud of its new Chief Hospitality Officer position. If I were Tom Ricketts, I would quickly install a new Neighborhood Liaison Officer, charged with securing a full night-game schedule from Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) as well as permission for a complete renovation of the main grandstand. Obviously, Mr. Ricketts and I don't see eye-to-eye on the team's priorities. The team should have just one priority: winning a World Series. The previous two ownership groups (Wrigley family, then Tribune Co.) were either indifferent to that goal or financially unable to deliver. The Ricketts can certainly afford to bring a World Series to long-suffering Cubs fans. Whether they care enough is another story.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Michael Savage, surely you can't be serious

Michael Savage is a hard-core conservative talk show host (weekdays 5-8pm CST, WIND-AM 560 in Chicago) who pulls in about eight million listeners a week. I had an opportunity to listen most of the first hour of his Jan. 7 show on my way to Plainfield, Ill. He made two statements of opinion on which I believe him to be absolutely 100 percent wrong. I tried to call in but was unsuccessful in reaching the call screener.

1. In discussing the Dec. 25 attempted bombing of NW Flt 253 AMS-DTW by a Nigerian Al-Queda operative, Savage said Jihadist, Islamofascist Muslim terrorists hate us because of the cultural ills of this country: gambling, prostitution, pornography, etc. Nothing could be further from the truth. Terrorists hate us because of what is great about the U.S. That would include democracy, freedom of speech and freedom of religion. In Muslim countries, not only is the practice of Christianity and Judaism absolutely prohibited, but practicing an unauthorized branch of Islam is illegal as well. The two Muslim sects--Shiite and Sunni--do not get along and often end up attacking each other, sad to say. Muslim terrorists find the fact that the U.S. allows Jews to practice their faith in public and as they please particularly galling and abhorrent.

2. In discussing the cultural ills of this country, Savage maintained that this country is worse than the worst excesses of Ancient Rome. Michael, don't get me started on the Empire. During that time:

--the Romans forced convicted prisoners to fight each other to the death in their world-famous Coliseum. Prisoners also had to fight predatory felines starved in advance of their Coliseum appearances to make them desperately aggressive.
--parties called Bacchanals featured unlimited wine, food and sex (every kind imaginable) and lasted for days.
--a homeowner could murder his family and slaves. This was not illegal.
--the Romans' pagan religion was practiced in the extreme, and not in a good way. A group of young women, the Vestal Virgins, tended to the eternal flame in the Forum. If one violated her vow of chastity, (1) her lover was whipped to death; and (2) she was buried alive.

And you would compare our civilized society to this barbaric culture, Michael? I truly hope not.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Tying up loose ends

1. On Dec. 4, a lyric from the Beatles song "Together" showed up on the Chicago Bulls' video board as "He got jew-jew eyeballs." I sent a note to the Bulls telling them that wasn't what songwriters Paul McCartney or John Lennon meant at all; they were referring to the ju-ju candies. A Bulls staffer called me to apologized and said the error will be corrected if the fan participation contest is repeated.

2. I wondered if Emirates, the airline of the UAE, enforces its country's no-Jews policy by screening for passengers' religious faith when boarding its aircraft in the U.S. I wrote to Emirates and asked if that was part of the pre-boarding process. The airline replied and assured me it was not. So I guess a Jewish Westerner is okay if he is just visiting. However, I would expect an Israeli stamp in one's passport to present delay, if not denial of boarding.

3. I emailed the Skatium, Skokie Park District's ice skating center, and asked if open skating hours could be adjusted to accommodate shomer shabbos residents. The Skatium manager called me and told me part of the agreement struck when the Skatium broke ground in the 70's was that its operation must be revenue-neutral. It is not supported by tax dollars, but by rink rental fees. To that end, the Skatium must maximize its rink revenue, and it does that by scheduling hockey and figure skating when the rink is in high demand. Since I am a tax hawk, I have no problem with that.

Two quick stadium predictions

I. If Cubs' owner Tom Ricketts moves the club's spring training facilities from Mesa, Ariz., to Naples, Fla., I suspect most Cubs fans who make an Arizona visit an annual rite of spring will go to Naples once and never return. They're not interested in the traffic, the overcrowding, or the New Yorkers who take over Florida at that time of year. They'll find out the hard way: a wasted spring vacation. The following year, they'll go back to Arizona and attend White Sox and Dodgers games.

II. Within the next five years, the Minnesota Vikings will successfully force the people of Minnesota to pay for a new retractable-roof stadium; or they will move to Los Angeles. A billionaire in L.A. has an offer on the table: he'll build an $800 million stadium if a team moves. Could be the Vikings. Could be the Jaguars. Could be the Bills. Move fast--beat the others! If the Vikings are stuck and the voters keep saying no, I wonder how much money the team is willing to invest to renovate dilapidated, outdated, decrepit, aging Mall of America Field (f/k/a Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome). The stadium's two other tenants, the Twins and Golden Gophers, moved out. The Gophers played in new TCF Stadium this season, and the Twins will open Target Field in April. They are both outdoor stadia. The Vikings want an indoor-outdoor palace like the ones in Houston, Dallas, Phoenix and Indianapolis. We'll see. Is the Metrodome paid for yet?