too super too chewy


▼Sepp Blatter's slick patter sticks in South Africa's craw - Wednesday, July 14, 2010 @ 9:32 PM

Fifa's arrogant treatment of Nelson Mandela is the latest example of the power it exerts over World Cup host nations

by Marina Hyde

"He can be really proud of what he's achieved." Thus spake Alan Hansen on Nelson Mandela before Sunday's World Cup final, as the first democratically elected president of South Africa made his brief appearance, and the BBC pundit graciously glossed it with the same sort of platitude one might bestow upon a manager who had just reached the League One play-offs.

Admittedly, Hansen's paean could never compete with the Spice Girls' meeting with Mandela in 1997, during which Geri Halliwell equated Girl Power with the anti-apartheid struggle and explained to Mandela: "I think we are all on the same level." But it certainly lent something to the moment.

And yet, watching the frail nonagenarian being wheeled out, surely anyone who had heard his grandson's interview with 5 Live earlier that same morning would have found it difficult to surrender entirely to the Fifa-commanded spectacle.

"We've come under extreme pressure from Fifa requiring and wishing that my grandfather be at the final today," Mandla Mandela had explained, before reiterating that the family was still in mourning for the death of Mandela's 13-year-old granddaughter. "They [Fifa] said that Sepp Blatter wished that my grandfather comes out to the final. I think people ought to just understand the family's traditions and customs and understand we've had a loss in the family … Their focus is having this world icon in the stadium, yet not really paying attention to our customs and traditions as a people and as a family."

Even though Blatter's ghastliness is hardly surprising, do just picture that moral pygmy guilt-tripping arguably the standout political figure of the late 20th century into attending a football match. There can be few more eloquent testaments to the arse-about-titness of life under Fifa. Indeed, having sat through the final he deserved, one can only fantasise about Sepp being transferred straight to a spell on Arjen Robben Island, to contemplate his organisation's behaviour over the tournament and during the preparations for it.

Such a period of reflection is beyond unlikely. Perhaps the most valuable of the myriad benefits afforded to Fifa is the fact that in the wake of a World Cup, the debate unfailingly centres on where the host nation goes from here. And yet in light of the above and a host of other profoundly craw-sticking incidents, wouldn't it be nice if the focus switched instead to Fifa itself? How did football's governing body handle itself? Did it earn the estimated £2.5bn in tax-free profit it lifted out of the event?

Naturally, Fifa has developed a fine line in shrugging off such inquiries. It deploys that classic sleight of hand which allows the most self-interested authoritarians to style themselves as people's champions – namely, it dismisses all criticism of its modus operandi as a mere chattering-class preoccupation.

What ordinary people care about, it would insist, is love of the game, its transformative powers, and the magical opportunities for escape from their ordinary little lives. Yet having listened to irate callers to South African talk radio, and spotted several of the popular "Fick Fufa" T-shirts being worn by locals so ordinary that they certainly couldn't do anything so transformative as afford a ticket to Mr Blatter's tournament, I can't help feeling his argument wears progressively thin. Indeed, Fifa's invidiousness becomes somehow more pronounced when brought to bear upon a developing nation.

South African legal experts despaired that lawmakers displayed an excessive willingness to kowtow to Fifa, for instance in making unauthorised marketing a criminal offence as opposed to a civil one. Halfway through the tournament, it was estimated that the "Fifa World Cup Courts" established to appease Zurich were costing £160,000 per largely petty conviction, in a country whose justice system cannot cope with the serious crimes that swamp it.

We already knew Fifa could trump a medium-sized government. What South Africa underlined was the fact that Fifa can trump constitutional rights, cementing the organisation's status as a sort of travelling oligarchy, enjoying all the benefits of power with none of the disadvantages, like having to provide healthcare or be remotely accountable.

Fifa's MO is to ensure the country's statute book has been made comfortable for its arrival, take over almost entirely for the period of time needed to siphon out the money, before pulling up anchor and moving on to the next host organism. Naturally, we all wish Brazil the best of luck – but the time has surely come to ask who regulates the regulator. Perhaps it's one for the UN, assuming Fifa isn't about to take its first seat on the security council.


▼ - Friday, July 9, 2010 @ 5:43 AM,1518,705164,00.html

▼ - @ 1:31 AM

Annette Bening and Julianne Moore in “The Kids Are All Right.”

July 9, 2010

Meet the Sperm Donor: Modern Family Ties

Published: July 9, 2010

I’m tempted to start this review by falling back on a tried-and-true movie critic formulation and saying something like “Lisa Cholodenko’s ‘Kids Are All Right’ is the best comedy about an American family since ...” Since what? Precedents and grounds for comparison seem to be lacking, so I may have to let the superlative stand unqualified for now.

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Suzanne Tenner/Focus Features

From left, Josh Hutcherson, Mia Wasikowska and Mark Ruffalo in “The Kids Are All Right.

Which is fine: Ms. Cholodenko’s film, which she wrote with Stuart Blumberg, is so canny in its insights and so agile in its negotiation of complex emotions that it deserves to stand on its own. It is outrageously funny without ever exaggerating for comic effect, and heartbreaking with only minimal melodramatic embellishment.

But its originality — the thrilling, vertiginous sense of never having seen anything quite like it before — also arises from the particular circumstances of the family at its heart. There is undeniable novelty to a movie about a lesbian couple whose two teenage children were conceived with the help of an anonymous sperm donor. Families like this are hardly uncommon in the real world, but Ms. Cholodenko (“Laurel Canyon,” “High Art”) and Mr. Blumberg have discovered in this very modern arrangement a way of refreshing the ancient and durable wellsprings of comedy.

“The Kids Are All Right” starts from the premise that gay marriage, an issue of ideological contention and cultural strife, is also an established social fact. Nic and Jules, a couple with two children, a Volvo and a tidy, spacious house in a pleasant suburban stretch of Southern California, are a picture of normalcy.

Which is to say that they are loving, devoted, responsible and a bit of a mess. Some of this is midlife malaise: not quite a crisis, at least not at first. Nic (Annette Bening), an OB-GYN, is the breadwinner and principal worrier. Jules (Julianne Moore), who has dabbled in various careers while taking care of the children, is restless and maybe just a little flaky. They are comfortable with each other, more or less content, but also frustrated, confused, a bit out of sorts. As I said: normal.

It is almost impossible to find the right shorthand for these women. Their speech patterns and habits certainly seem familiar. The screenwriters’ ear for the way therapeutic catchphrases and hazy insights recalled from college reading lists filter into everyday conversation is as unerring as Ms. Moore’s offbeat comic timing or Ms. Bening’s tactical use of silence. But though they are recognizable, Nic and Jules are hardly predictable; they are not types, but people, and the acid of satire is applied to them sparingly and sensitively enough to avoid corroding the essential empathy that grounds the movie.

Of course, in every family empathy has its limits. Nic and Jules don’t always communicate very well, and their children — the 18-year-old Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and her 15-year-old brother, Laser (Josh Hutcherson) — have reached the stage when parents seem like alien, irrational and outmoded beings. Your parents are supposed to understand you (not that they ever can), while you have no choice but to tolerate them.

Joni, about to leave for college, is trying to figure out the terms of her fast-approaching independence, while Laser follows along behind his best friend, a bullying goofball named Clay (Eddie Hassell). Laser’s wide-eyed fascination at the sight of Clay rough-housing with his father registers curiosity and barely articulated longing. What would it be like to have a dad? To help him find out — and to shut him up — Laser’s skeptical, kindhearted sister tracks down the sperm donor, who turns out to be a restaurant owner and organic farmer named Paul.

The shorthand description of Paul is that he is played by Mark Ruffalo, with specific reference to the goodnatured, feckless brother Mr. Ruffalo played in “You Can Count on Me.” Paul is sort of like a cleaned-up, more self-confident version of that guy, with the same hesitant intonation, crooked smile (behind a graying goatee) and slightly dangerous charm. When Joni calls him, Paul, a good sport and a bit of an adventurer, gamely accepts her invitation to meet the family (“I love lesbians!”), and his relaxed manner smoothes over an awkward initial meeting.

Much more awkwardness will follow, along with some real emotional peril. Nic and Jules are not won over at first — “a bit full of himself” is their not inaccurate verdict — but he manages to connect with both Joni and Laser in ways that their moms can’t. His position as a sympathetic outsider grants him insights that the family members lack, and in turn Joni, Laser and Jules come to see him as a confidant and counselor, a special kind of friend.

But nothing is more disruptive to domestic order than an unattached heterosexual man. In mid-19th-century America, anxiety about guys more or less like Paul drove movements for social and religious reform, and Ms. Cholodenko suggests that those advocates of temperance and other remedies may have had a point. Not that Paul, an effortless seducer (of at least one co-worker and at least one lesbian mom), is exactly the villain of the movie. He starts out too good to be true and winds up causing a lot of trouble, but at the end he’s more scapegoat than demon, and the filmmakers forgive him even if the other characters cannot.

Along the way, Ms. Cholodenko somehow blends the anarchic energy of farce — fueled by coincidences and reversals, collisions and misunderstandings — with a novelistic sensitivity to the almost invisible threads that bind and entangle people. The performances are all close to perfect, which is to say that the imperfections of each character are precisely measured and honestly presented.

There is great music too, both on the soundtrack and, in one extraordinary scene, sung a cappella at the dinner table. (It’s Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” beautifully harmonized by Nic and Paul). The title is a musical reference, of course, to a song by the Who, a good choice for all kinds of reasons. Another one might have been the name of a lovely ballad of enduring love recorded a few years ago by Emmylou Harris and Mark Knopfler: “This Is Us.”

“The Kids are All Right” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). There’s sex, kids.


Opens on Friday nationwide.

Directed by Lisa Cholodenko; written by Ms. Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg; director of photography, Igor Jadue-Lillo; edited by Jeffrey M. Werner; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Julie Berghoff; costumes by Mary Claire Hannan; produced by Gary Gilbert, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, Celine Rattray, Jordan Horowitz, Daniela Taplin Lundberg and Philippe Hellmann; released by Focus Features. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.

WITH: Julianne Moore (Jules), Annette Bening (Nic), Mark Ruffalo (Paul), Mia Wasikowska (Joni), Josh Hutcherson (Laser), Eddie Hassell (Clay) and Yaya DaCosta (Tanya)

▼ - @ 1:08 AM

With Twilight: Eclipse (Summit Entertainment), the third installment of the teen-vampire film franchise based on the books by Stephenie Meyer, it's clear that the movie version of the series has become its own thing, a multipart organism that operates independently of the matrix that generated it. Like the Harry Potter movies, the Twilight films cater—some might say pander—to fans of the books. But three films in, the source material has become vestigial to the viewer's enjoyment—it's possible to be interested in Twilight based on the movies alone. After finishing the first book in the series, I wouldn't pick up another Meyer novel for anything less than a five-figure raise. But I wouldn't miss a Twilight movie. Not because the films are good, exactly, but because they are terrifying, transfixing, and, yes, moving bulletins from the trenches of contemporary American girlhood.

Dan Kois' Village Voice review of the film compares the task of the Twilight movies to "fan service," the manga tradition of breaking up comic-book narratives every few pages with a cheesecake drawing of a favorite character. Eclipse is certainly awash in cheesecake, or beefcake, or whatever the vampire and werewolf equivalents would be. (Fang-cake? Fur-cake?) Robert Pattinson as the eternally emo vampire Edward Cullen, and Taylor Lautner as the eternally shirtless werewolf Jacob, all but rub themselves up against the camera. But the itch this movie scratches is more complex than the enabling of sexual fantasy. The common object of Edward's and Jacob's passion, Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), is indeed passive and blank, a transparent proxy for the audience. This episode takes Bella's passivity to new heights, with one plot contrivance requiring her to literally be carried from place to place by Jacob. But to argue that this passivity makes Bella a weak character or a bad role model for young girls is to misapprehend the function of the Twilight universe. What Twilight has to offer its fans is not the wholesome noonday sun of feminism but the sick, weird moonlight of actual desire.

Far from being a powerless cipher, Bella Swan now occupies a position at the center of Twilight's complex cosmology. As the only human on earth who's privy to the secrets of the vampire world—thanks to her connection with Edward and the pale-faced Cullen clan—she's wanted by the Volturi, a kind of vampire Inquisition headed up by Jane (a baby-voiced but commanding Dakota Fanning). Thanks to her smoldering platonic friendship with the garment-averse Jacob, Bella is also the only person capable of brokering a truce in the age-old vampire/werewolf feud. And, as of this installment, a fresh contingent of supernatural meanies—an army of just-created vampires known as "newborns"—is being organized by a rogue lady vampire (Bryce Dallas Howard) for the express purpose of destroying Edward and Bella's love. This high-school romance actually has the world-historical significance that the rest of us only felt like our high-school romance had.

But global interspecies monster warfare is really only the backdrop to the Twilight series, just as the Civil War was the backdrop to Gone With the Wind. The real action takes place in the intersubjective space between Bella and Edward, or rather, among the threesome of Bella, Edward, and Jacob. The energy generated by this perpetually irresolvable love triangle manages, by some obscure law of physics, to supersede the viewers' goodwill toward the characters. In other words, even if you could care less who Bella chooses—if you're neither Team Edward nor Team Jacob—you may find yourself compelled, and amused, by the moments when their rivalry is exposed in its raw state. Nothing like kissing your boyfriend goodbye and then making him watch as you nestle against the bare chest of the wolf-boy who must, for obscure reasons, now carry you across an entire forest in his arms. The triangulation torture reaches its height in a scene where Bella, rather than freeze to death in a tent pitched high on a mountain, must snuggle all night against Jacob's extra-warm lupine bod while Edward—who, as a vampire, has neither body heat nor the ability to sleep—sits up all night watching them. We've all mistreated our fair share of suitors, but not even the most cavalier heartbreaker ever dreamed of getting away with this.

"It's not a choice between the two of you," Bella tells Edward at a key point in the story. "It's a choice between who I should be and who I am." If my Twilight decoder amulet is still working, that means that our heroine is torn between the warm, mortal, animal love she feels for Jacob and the cold, eternal, sexless-but-therefore-sexy sublimity of her bond with Edward. But this line of dialogue has another possible interpretation, one that (like the whole series) puts the audience in Bella's place. The choice of whether to see Eclipse isn't really a question of whether the movie is good or bad. (By any objective, thumbs-up or thumbs-down standard of aesthetic judgment, this installment, directed by David Slade, is in keeping with the previous two films: a competently made bit of Gothic schlock.) It's a question of whether or not the movie speaks to your secret, unregulated, inherently ridiculous experience of identification and desire—not who you should be, but who you are. Does the warm blood of a teenager still flow beneath your icy grown-up flesh?


▼ - @ 12:23 AM

Two years ago, when I began writing about the housing crisis, I got to know a bungalow in Sulphur Springs, a Tampa, Fla., neighborhood that was famous in the 1920s for its sprawling oaks, giant water slide and shopping arcade, but which is now a ghetto. The oaks are still mostly there, but the water slide is long gone, the arcade a parking lot for a dog track. Suffer Springs is what a lot of folks call it these days.

The house had just been foreclosed, and I was there working with my father, a contractor who cleaned out and repaired homes that had been seized by banks. I dragged metal into the yard for the junkman who lived across the street, stuffed pictures and letters and Bibles into garbage bags to be hauled off to the dump, and drenched the yard in fumigant to kill the hordes of fleas living in the balding yard, which was more sand than grass. The former owner was a born-again deacon who had bought into a complicated refinancing deal and was now living on the couches and floors of family and friends.

The house, and the owner’s plight, were typical of the hundreds of thousands of foreclosures across the Sunbelt. But what set the house apart was the new owner, an investor named Alan, who soon bought the house at auction for just $26,000, then sank another $8,000 into repairs, transforming what seemed like a hopeless tear-down into a charming home.

I met Alan while still on the job; intrigued by his ambition, I kept up with his progress. In a few months, the flea-infested carpet was ripped out, replaced with white tile floors; the stained walls were painted white (requiring three coats); the outside was painted a festive scheme of yellow and green; the once sand-choked yard was now covered with grass. The house had been resurrected, and not just into something habitable, but as the anchor of that small and struggling block. Based on the value of the houses and duplexes nearby, Alan set the asking price at $80,000.

But as the block deteriorated, with surrounding properties slipping into foreclosure and decay, it didn’t take long for Alan to begin reducing his price by increments of five and ten thousand. Over the next couple of years, as I watched Alan struggle to sell this house, his story, and the story of Sulphur Springs, have become a prism for watching how the foreclosure crisis is and isn’t resolving itself on a granular level.

The housing market works like any other. Foreclosed homes, and foreclosure-afflicted neighborhoods, don’t stay that way forever. Eventually, the homes are bought and rehabilitated, resurrected, brought up a notch. This is a painful but necessary transformation, with investors like Alan seizing the real-estate remains of what my father and I cleaned out that spring day, and in doing so creating something that attracts life to the neighborhood. Call it the foreclosure ecosystem.

True, the very speculators who helped lead this economy into a crisis are becoming an increasing part of the solution, especially as banks continue to shy away from financing, preferring instead to work with “all cash” offers. But if banks persist in their financial stubbornness, you could very well see such investors filling the financing void for a portion of the housing market — a longstanding trend known as “owner financing.”

Here’s how it works: Alan buys property on the cheap — he sets his threshold at $50,000; other investors I’ve met set theirs even lower. He makes a few repairs (or not, depending on the condition of the property) and puts out a sign to attract a buyer.

In many cases, in poor and blue-collar neighborhoods especially, the would-be homeowner has trouble getting traditional financing from the bank. And this is where Alan and others fill the void left by the banks, financing a mortgage or even leasing with an option to buy. In the past, Alan had success financing mortgages to new buyers for a low down payment (around $5,000) and a reasonable rate of interest (around 10 percent). To protect himself — and to give him a return on his money so he could reinvest it — he’d set a balloon rate, in which the new buyer was given three to five years to find a conventional mortgage before the entire sum on the house was due.

Before the crisis, this informal-mortgage system always worked. “It’s a good alternative,” Alan says, “because half the buyers can’t get mortgages. They don’t have the income, they don’t have the credit. There’s a whole black market out there where people work under the table. They have no verifiable income, they work everything on the side. So they’re out of the mortgage market, basically.”

The system doesn’t work as well in a down economy, though in the past couple of years, with the crisis in full swing, I’ve met a handful of investors in Tampa and other parts of Florida who offer financing to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to own a home. Why do it in a down economy? Because houses are historically cheap, and many people remain undeterred in their desire to own a home. For $30,000, the risk is often worth it.

Of course, as the story of Alan and the Sulphur Springs bungalow proves, not every investment is a winner these days. In the six months since Alan finished fixing it up, houses on the block have sold for less than what he paid, which means much less than what he has put into it. It still sits there with “For Sale” signs plastered about — on the windows, tied to the chain link fence, in both Spanish and English.

The neighbors have come and gone, except one — a man in his nineties named George, who was good friends with the evicted deacon. He paid his house off many years ago, and watched the bubble come and go. Even the houses themselves have come and gone: one on the corner was recently torn down. In fact, the block is more blighted than when Alan invested here. He’s dropped the asking price to $40,000. He might rent it out, but hates it as a matter of principle, since it ties his money up, and money must keep moving in order to grow.

Given the bills and taxes that have stacked up, Alan is deeper in the hole each month. “I don’t know what the solution is,” he says, frustrated and confounded by the stubbornness of his block. “Most of these properties that are being bought by investors, the government owns them. The government should instead give first dibs to homeowners, give them the first chance before the investors get them all cheap.”

I pointed out what he’d done for the neighborhood, but he wasn’t convinced. “I’m not good for the neighborhood,” he said. “Well, I’ve helped a little, so I’m a little good. But it’s better to have homeowners in any neighborhood. Everybody knows that.”

As for the former owner, the deacon, the last we spoke he was back on track: married, renting a home and looking to buy again, not the least bit discouraged by what he’d been through, but feeling the wiser for it. He said he missed his old house, and missed his neighbor George, too. It isn’t too much of a stretch to think that when he gets around to visiting, he’ll see those “For Sale” signs on his transformed bungalow, and give serious thought to taking another shot at it.


▼ - Friday, June 25, 2010 @ 1:54 AM

op-Ed Columnist

The Culture of Exposure

The most interesting part of my job is that I get to observe powerful people at close quarters. Most people in government, I find, are there because they sincerely want to do good. But they’re also exhausted and frustrated much of the time. And at these moments they can’t help letting you know that things would be much better if only there weren’t so many morons all around.

David Brooks

So every few weeks I find myself on the receiving end of little burst of off-the-record trash talk. Senators privately moan about other senators. Administration officials gripe about other administration officials. People in the White House complain about the idiots in Congress, and the idiots in Congress complain about the idiots in the White House — especially if they’re in the same party. Washington floats on a river of aspersion.

The system is basically set up to maximize kvetching. Government is filled with superconfident, highly competitive people who are grouped into small bands. These bands usually have one queen bee at the center — a president, senator, cabinet secretary or general — and a squad of advisers all around. These bands are perpetually jostling, elbowing and shoving each other to get control over policy.

Amid all this friction, the members of each band develop their own private language. These people often spend 16 hours a day together, and they bond by moaning and about the idiots on the outside.

It feels good to vent in this way. You demonstrate your own importance by showing your buddies that you are un-awed by the majority leader, the vice president or some other big name. You get to take a break from the formal pressures of the job by playing the blasphemous bad-boy rebel over a beer at night.

Military people are especially prone to these sorts of outbursts. In public, they pay lavish deference to civilian masters who issue orders from the comfort of home. Among themselves, they blow off steam, sometimes in the crudest possible terms.

Those of us in the press corps have to figure out how to treat this torrent of private kvetching. During World War II and the years just after, a culture of reticence prevailed. The basic view was that human beings are sinful, flawed and fallen. What mattered most was whether people could overcome their flaws and do their duty as soldiers, politicians and public servants. Reporters suppressed private information and reported mostly — and maybe too gently — on public duties.

Then, in 1961, Theodore H. White began his “The Making of the President” book series. This series treated the people who worked inside the boiler rooms of government as the star players. It put the inner dramas at center stage.

Then, after Vietnam, an ethos of exposure swept the culture. The assumption among many journalists was that the establishment may seem upstanding, but there is a secret corruption deep down. It became the task of journalism to expose the underbelly of public life, to hunt for impurity, assuming that the dark hidden lives of public officials were more important than the official performances.

Then came cable, the Internet, and the profusion of media sources. Now you have outlets, shows and Web sites whose only real interest is the kvetching and inside baseball.

In other words, over the course of 50 years, what had once been considered the least important part of government became the most important. These days, the inner soap opera is the most discussed and the most fraught arena of political life.

And into this world walks Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

General McChrystal was excellent at his job. He had outstanding relations with the White House and entirely proper relationships with his various civilian partners in the State Department and beyond. He set up a superb decision-making apparatus that deftly used military and civilian expertise.

But McChrystal, like everyone else, kvetched. And having apparently missed the last 50 years of cultural history, he did so on the record, in front of a reporter. And this reporter, being a product of the culture of exposure, made the kvetching the center of his magazine profile.

By putting the kvetching in the magazine, the reporter essentially took run-of-the-mill complaining and turned it into a direct challenge to presidential authority. He took a successful general and made it impossible for President Obama to retain him.

The reticent ethos had its flaws. But the exposure ethos, with its relentless emphasis on destroying privacy and exposing impurities, has chased good people from public life, undermined public faith in institutions and elevated the trivial over the important.

Another scalp is on the wall. Government officials will erect even higher walls between themselves and the outside world. The honest and freewheeling will continue to flee public life, and the cautious and calculating will remain.

The culture of exposure has triumphed, with results for all to see.


▼ - Thursday, June 24, 2010 @ 4:07 AM