erik lundegaard

Tuesday April 15, 2014

Movie Review: The Unknown Known (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

One of the first things we hear him say in the doc is a riff on one of his more famous (or infamous) press conferences:

There are known knowns. There are known unknowns. There are unknown unknowns. But there are also unknown knowns. That is to say, things that you think you know that it turns out you did not.

What did former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld think he knew but did not? WMD come to mind. Al Qaeda. Tora Bora. Quagmires. Henny Penny. He thought he knew the sky wasn’t falling in postwar Iraq when that’s exactly what it was doing.

But the ultimate unknown known of the doc is Rumsfeld himself, who talks and talks about the thousands of memos he wrote during his public career but gets us nowhere. The Unknown KnownIn the title alone, one senses the frustration of filmmaker Errol Morris, who, in his Academy Award-winning documentary “The Fog of War,” had a more open subject, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, one of the chief architects of our disastrous war in Vietnam. Indeed, Rumsfeld, with his nitpicky, overly semantic arguments and pleased-with-himself “aren’t I clever?” grins, makes McNamara, the numbers cruncher and company man, seem like the most soulful person who ever lived.

We and they
I’ve spent most of the 21st century despising Donald Rumsfeld and his policies so I didn’t even consider this question before I began watching; but I consider it now: Do I like Donald Rumsfeld by the end of the doc?

I’m frustrated with him, certainly. I get tired of the petty deflections and semantic arguments. We’re there to learn something and Rumsfeld seems forever blocking our attempt to learn something. In a way, Rumsfeld is to Morris as Osama bin Laden was to Rumsfeld and the Bush administration: forever escaping.

There’s this exchange, for example:

Morris: If the purpose of the war was to get rid of Saddam Hussein, why can’t we just assassinate him? Why do you have to invade his country?
Rumsfeld: Who’s ‘they’?
Morris: Us.
Rumsfeld: You said ‘they,’ you didn’t say ‘we.’

Well, he actually said “you.” But onward.

Morris: I’ll rephrase it. Why do we have to do that?
Rumsfeld: We don’t assassinate leaders of other countries.

At this point, I expected Morris to bring up, oh, I don’t know, the coups that the CIA, or “we,” have backed: Iran in ’53, Vietnam in ’63, Chile in ’73. But he doesn’t. He brings up Dora Farms.

Morris: Well, at Dora Farms we’re doing our best.
Rumsfeld: That was an act of war.

In case you’re unfamiliar (as I was), Dora Farms was where the U.S., on March 19, 2003, at the very beginning of the Iraq war, attempted to kill Saddam Hussein with a missile strike. It didn’t work. It might have been faulty intelligence. He might not have been there in the first place.

But it takes a second for the circular logic to filter down.

Wait: So Rumsfeld is arguing we had to go to war because we don’t assassinate foreign leaders—even though we do, or have. But once we’re in that war, all bets are off. Then we can assassinate him.  

No wonder he’s big on semantics.

In and out
We still learn things. He didn’t get along with George H.W. Bush and less with Condoleezza Rice. Morris details much of Rumsfeld’s early career: running for Congress in ’62, director of the Office of Economic Opportunity for Nixon, director of the Cost-of-Living Council for Nixon. Then run-ins with H.R. Haldeman that led to being banished to Brussels. This probably saved him, since, when Watergate blew up, he wasn’t near the explosion. He was one of the last Republicans standing. He became Pres. Ford’s Chief of Staff, then his Defense Secretary, where he argued against détente and for a stronger military. In 1980, probably because of this stance, he was among the top potential picks for Reagan’s vice president. “If that [VP] decision had gone another way, you could’ve been the vice president and future president of the United States,” Morris tells him. There’s a long pause. It’s not a thoughtful pause. It just leads to this: “That’s possible.”

Oh, Don.

In the 1980s, Rumsfeld became the CEO of a Midwest pharmaceutical company but was called back into public service after the bombing of the U.S. barracks in Beirut. Reagan sent him to the Mid-East as his special envoy, which led to the famous (or infamous) footage of Rumsfeld meeting and shaking hands with Saddam Hussein—an image the left made much of during the Iraq War. Not me. You need to meet the world to understand the world. And Rumsfeld did. He said this about the megalomania of dictators in general and Saddam specifically:

You know, if you see your picture everywhere, and you see enough statues, pretty soon you might even begin to believe that [you’re a great leader].

In November 1983, he also dictated this memo to himself. You wonder how the man who said it could have done what he (or we) did 20 years later:

I expect we ought to lighten our hand in the Middle East. We should move the framework away from the current situation, where everyone is telling us everything is our fault and angry with us, to a basis where they are seeking our help. In the future, we should never use U.S. troops as a peacekeeping force. We’re too big a target. Let the Fijians or New Zealanders do that. And keep reminding ourselves that it is easier to get into something than it is to get out of it.

He almost sounds like Pres. Obama here. Cue Danny Elfman’s ghostly (and obtrusive) soundtrack music.

Don and me
That’s part of what’s so frustrating with Rumsfeld. How can someone so serious and studious, who’s a student of history, who dictated thousands of memos to himself and others to clarify his worldview, who was in Congress when the Vietnam War began and in the White House when it ended so badly, who foresaw in the 1980s that it’s easier to get into the Middle East than it is to get out of it, how can such a person preside over our disastrous war in Iraq? And not even see it as a disaster?

Rumsfeld is a tragic figure who doesn’t realize he’s a tragic figure. That’s his tragedy. He’s too busy playing small ball with semantics to see the larger picture.

Maybe that’s why, surprisingly, shockingly, I wind up liking him a little bit by the end. I guess I feel sorry for him. I see his faults. Keeping Morris’ questions at bay doesn’t hide his nature but reveals it. He wins the arguments but loses the war. 

Posted at 06:47 AM on Apr 15, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Monday April 14, 2014

Quote of the Day

“For the first time in six years, I have health insurance. As a response to Obama's election in '08, my coverage literally quadrupled. I made the wrenching decision to drop it because I simply couldn't afford it. That night, one of my right-wing friends very kindly included me in a forwarded email, purportedly a letter to the editor from an ER doctor, his face a rictus of anger, railing that all of the unwashed, sorry, shiftless, uninsured ”moochers“ and ”takers“ carried new iPhones and sported expensive tattoos and could easily afford insurance in the best country in the world if they would just prioritize their spending. Well, suck it, Mr. ER doctor — suck it long and hard. And thank you, Mr. President.”

-- Candice Dyer, Georgia freelance writer extraordinaire, in a Facebook post today.

The follow-up comments read like an ad ... or the bursting of a dam:

  • Up until Obamacare, I couldn't even get insurance. I had a very mild stroke at age 35. Nobody would even touch it.
  • I'm saving $175 a month ...
  • After being uninsured for over a year I signed up on ACA. And yeah... all the folks talking about moochers can kiss my ass. I've worked hard all my life and the Right wants us to die and be quiet.
  • The insurance we had went down 20%! Of course Blue Cross rewrote the policies but, even the co-pays went down! I love Obamacare, and I love my President.
  • Well, this post and the whole thread made my day.
Posted at 02:28 PM on Apr 14, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Sunday April 13, 2014

Quote of the Day

“I expect we ought to lighten our hand in the Middle East. We should move the framework away from the current situation, where everyone is telling us everything is our fault and angry with us, to a basis where they are seeking our help. ... In the future, we should never use U.S. troops as a peacekeeping force. We are too big a target. Let the Fijiians or New Zealanders do that. And keep reminding ourselves that it is easier to get into something than it is to get out of it.”

-- then-U.S. Mid-East envoy Donald Rumsfeld in a November 1983 memo entitled “The Swamp,” as recounted in Errol Morris' much-recommended documentary, “The Unknown Known.”

Donald Rumsfeld, the Unknown Known

Posted at 02:38 PM on Apr 13, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Box Office: Captain America's Legs are So-So, But He Still Wins Weekend

Captain America: elevator fight scene

Cap wins the fight, but not without effort.  

Captain America has a nice ass but how are his legs? Turns out ... so-so. So far.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” dropped 56.4% in its second weekend for a $41.3 million haul and first place. It held off new releases “Rio 2” ($39 million), Oculus ($12 million) and Kevin Costner’s “Draft Day” ($9.7 million), which finished second, third and way fourth, respectively.

What kind of drop is 56.4%? It’s not horrible, particularly for a much-anticipated movie that did well on its opening weekend, but it’s nothing to write home about, either, particularly for a criticially acclaimed movie that’s been getting great word-of-mouth. On Box Office Mojo’s chart of second-weekend drops for super-saturated movies (3,000+ theaters), Cap ranks 526th out of 701 listed. That’s closer to the bad end. But it’s still better than the second weekend drops of “Thor: The Dark World” (57.3%), “Captain America: The First Avenger” (60.7%), and “Man of Steel” (64.6%)—not to mention the mother of all second-weekend suphero drops, Ang Lee’s “Hulk” (69.7%).

“Divergent,” which will never be “Hunger Games,” shed 500 theaters and dropped 42% for $7.5 million and fifth place. “Noah,” which Christians are still railing against, shed nearly 300 theaters and dropped 56% for $7.4 million and sixth place. “God’s Not Dead,” which gained 100 theaters, dropped 42% for $4.4 million and seventh place.

(BTW: The headline on the Breitbart site for all this? BOX OFFICE: ANTI-GOD ‘NOAH’ DIVES, ‘GOD’S NOT DEAD’ SOARS. Astonishing.)

For the year, domestically, it goes “The LEGO Movie” ($251), “Captain America” ($159) and “Ride Along,” the Kevin Hart/Ice Cube comedy ($134). “Divergent” is fourth with $124.

Worldwide, it’s Cap ($476), “LEGO” ($411), “300: Rise of an Empire” ($325), then “Noah” ($246).

All-time worldwide, “Frozen” is now in eighth place ($1.11 billion), having surpassed “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Skyfall.” 

Posted at 09:04 AM on Apr 13, 2014 in category Movies - Box Office
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Saturday April 12, 2014

Hank Aaron: Modern GOP = KKK

“A lot of things have happened in this country, but we have so far to go. There's not a whole lot that has changed.

”Talk about politics. Sure, this country has a black president, but when you look at a black president, President Obama is left with his foot stuck in the mud from all of the Republicans with the way he's treated. We have moved in the right direction, and there have been improvements, but we still have a long ways to go in the country. The bigger difference is that back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts."

-- Henry Aaron, on the 40th anniversary of breaking Babe Ruth's homerun record, in USA Today.

Of course, the GOP yelped about this one. The usual stuff. But the basics are correct. The intransigence of the GOP during Obama's two terms in office, the way his moderate policies and moderate personality have been vilified during this time—a time, I should add, of national crisis brought on in part by GOP policies—is one of the great shames of the Grand Old Party.

Meanwhile, Joe Posnanski has a good post on why Henry Aaron isn't really the homerun king—that he's much more than that. Nate Silver over at 538.com takes Posnanski's thought and crunches the numbers: What if all of Hank Aaron's homeruns had been singles? Would he still be a Hall of Famer?

Hank Aaron homerun king baseball card

I owned this card when I was 11.

Posted at 08:19 AM on Apr 12, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Trailer: Finding Vivian Maier (2013)

This is playing at the Seven Gables in Seattle. Might go see it this weekend if I get over to that side:

Hadn't even heard about it until this weekend. And you know me: I try to keep up.

Posted at 07:51 AM on Apr 12, 2014 in category Trailers
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Friday April 11, 2014

Why Breitbart’s Big Hollywood is Wrong About Almost Everything

Every other post on Breitbart’s “Big Hollywood” site is based upon the following assumptions:

  1. Hollywood is full of liberals.
  2. They try to inject their liberal ideals into movies.
  3. These movies fail at the box office, because ...
  4. ... you and I don’t like that shit.

Let’s look at these one by one.

  • Hollywood is full of liberals.

Sure, why not. Most cities are of the left, most artists are of the left, and Hollywood is a city full of artists. Plus businessmen. But we’ll let that go for now. Onward and downward.

  • They try to inject their liberal ideals into movies.

Sure, why not. Every once in a while anyway. I think of the framed portrait of Ronald Reagan that showed up whenever we dropped a defcon in 1983’s “War Games.”

But Breitbart’s second assumption comes dangerously close to the whole McCarthyite, HUAC-led and FBI-supported blacklist of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Back then, right-wing reactionaries searched for anything that might indicate leftist, un-American politics, and, in its fever dream, wound up condemning “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Among others.

This second assumption also ignores how conservative most Hollywood movies truly are. They are wish-fulfillment fantasies about men with guns who blow away objectively evil bad guys and save the day. They’re blueprints for any speech at any GOP or NRA convention.

We’ll take the last two assumptions together:

  • These movies fail at the box office, because ...
  • ... you and I don’t like that shit.

This is where Breitbart really performs a faceplant. I don’t even need a sentence to refute these two assumptions. I just need one word:

AVATAR

In the 21st century, there’s been no movie, particularly a big-budget movie, that contained more squishy leftist ideals (trees, etc.), and a greater attack on the right (war, etc.), than “Avatar.” It’s basically an attack on Bush, Cheney, the Iraq War, and the military industrial complex. As I stated in my review back in 2009:

Hell, it’s not even subversive. It states its apostasy out loud. “We will show the sky people they cannot take whatever they want!” Jake, the avatar, shouts before the final battle. “This is our land!”

Psst: We’re the sky people.

James Cameron’s “Avatar” is the classic Breitbart culprit: a Hollywood movie that sneaks its liberal, leftist agenda into a mainstream movie to poison us all.

And how did it do at the box office? You might have heard a little something-something about it. I think the first something was 2.7 and the second was billion. That’s what it grossed worldwide: $2.7 billion. No. 2 all-time also belongs to Cameron: “Titanic” at $2.1 billion. Third is “Marvel’s The Avengers” at $1.5 billion. Fourth, the last “Harry Potter,” is at $1.3 billion.

In other words, only two other movies are within half of what “Avatar,” with its awful, anti-GOP message, grossed.

I’m not saying “Avatar” did this well because it liked trees and disliked war, or because its heroic native peoples attacked a military-corporate complex hell-bent on exploiting natural resources for its own financial gain. I’m saying that whenever Breitbart’s Big Hollywood makes its four big assumptions at the top of this post, they need to solve a problem like “Avatar.” Or at least address it. And they never do. 

Avatar

Sooner or later, you always have to wake up.

Posted at 06:17 AM on Apr 11, 2014 in category What Liberal Hollywood?
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Thursday April 10, 2014

What Would You Put on Captain America's To-Do List?

Here's a screenshot of the list of historical and cultural artifacts Captain America was going to check into after awakening from a 65-year deep freeze in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”:

Captain America's To-Do List

It gets a quick laugh, as it should. Sam Wilson, the man he kept lapping in D.C. Tidal Basin, and soon to be the Falcon, was the one recommending “Trouble Man” by Marvin Gaye. Can't imagine how Steve Rogers, whose head and heart are still in 1945, can wrap his mind around that. Let alone Nirvana.

Probably too much film in there, right? I like “Star Wars/Trek” but the “Rocky” reference is unncessary. I like the economical way they handle the Cold War, though, with the Berlin Wall reference (up/down). But my favorite is probably “Thai Food.”

Question: If you were on the filmmaking team, what would *you* have suggested? “9/11” would obviously ruin the moment. The Civil Rights Movement? Or too much of a reminder of our racist past, into which, remember, Steve Rogers was born. Women's lib? Iffy terrority for the same reason. How about the A bomb, the H bomb, the Neutron bomb? Which Presidents? Which assassinations? Nah. Too close to the plot, such as it was, of that crappy 1990 “Captain America” movie.

What was the biggest thing to happen to the world since 1945? And what little pop cultural artifact might get a laugh?

Posted at 05:33 AM on Apr 10, 2014 in category Movies
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Wednesday April 09, 2014

Movie Review: God's Not Dead (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I don’t know about God but godawful is very much alive.

Haven’t heard of this movie? It’s already grossed $33 million against a budget of $2 million. Conservative Christians are out in force. Too bad. There are better movies for them to see. Pretty much anything, to be honest, but if they’re looking for something Christian-y, then “Noah” isn’t bad. If they want to be stunned by spirituality and artistry and beauty, then, you know, the usual recent suspects: “The Tree of Life,” “Rust and Bone,” “L’heure d’été.” But these are movies that raise questions rather than give self-satisfied answers. They embrace the mystery rather than have a college freshman solve the origins of the universe.

Philosophy 101
God's Not DeadOn the first day of college, freshman Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), a tall, bland, nothing of a kid, greets his hot blonde Christian girlfriend as asexually as possible, then heads to Philosophy 101, where Prof. Radisson (conservative Christian, and former Hercules, Kevin Sorbo), he of the Mephistophelean goatee, shows the kids a list of famous philosophers, including Bertrand Russell and John Stuart Mill, and asks what they all have in common. Answer? They’re all atheists! So is Radisson! He’s such an atheist he demands that each student write on a piece of paper “God is dead,” and sign it, or they’ll get a failing grade. After some vague screwing up of his face, Josh politely refuses. He feels like it’s wrong. So he strikes a bargain with Mephistopheles. If he can convince a majority of the class, in three presentations over the next three weeks, that God is not dead, he’ll be allowed to continue the class. If he doesn’t, he’ll fail, and his dream of law school will go up in fire and brimstone.

This is the main, awful plot of “God’s Not Dead.” But don’t worry: there are other, awful subplots, too.

For example: A conservative Muslim father makes his super-pretty daughter, Ayisha (Hadeel Sittu), wear a hijab to school, which, when he’s out of view, she takes off and exhales like she’s just been given a new life. Which she has. A year ago, she accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior. She lays in bed and listens to Corinthians on her smartphone. How to tell this to Dad? She doesn’t. Kid brother blabs. At which point, amid great histrionics and crying jags, Dad physically beats his daughter and throws her out of the house. Because you know Arabs. I mean the Muslim ones. Not the super-pretty ones who have already accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savoir.

There’s also a nerdy Chinese guy named Martin (Paul Kwo). He’s in the same class as Josh, or “Mr. Josh,” as he charmingly calls him in the manner of the backward Oriental. He, too, likes Jesus, despite, you know, growing up in communist China—represented here by his businessman father riding in the back of a limo. But eventually Martin tells his father about Jesus. He does so in Cantonese even though his father speaks Mandarin. I guess the Lord speaks in many tongues.

Let’s get the rest of this out of the way quickly, shall we? So Prof. Radisson’s put-upon girlfriend, Mina (Cory Oliver), his former student no less, is Christian, too, but her Mom’s in a home with dementia and her older brother, Mark (Christian conservative, and former Superman, Dean Cain), is too busy being an asshole of a lawyer to care. Plus he’s dating this ... entertainment blogger? I was never sure. Her name is Amy Ryan (Trisha LaFache), and she’s, you know, rude and late in the manner of non-believers, and has bumper stickers on her car reading things like “Meat is Murder” and “American Humanist.” (Right? Because I see that “American Humanist” bumpersticker everywhere.) Plus she engages in ambush journalism like Bill O’Reilly but from the left. She tries it, for example, on Willie Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” fame, who is just trying to worship at the local mall Worship Center. But Willie’s cool with her rudeness. He can take it. He’s also cool with Jesus Christ, the Lord, which she totally doesn’t get. Until, that is, she’s diagnosed with inoperable cancer. At which point her asshole boyfriend dumps her, she can’t write for crying, and, when she tries ambush journalism on the Christian rock group Newsboys, they pray for her and convert her backstage. Then they put on a show before Mina, Ayisha, Josh and Martin, and dedicate their song, “God’s Not Dead,” to Josh, “the defender of God,” while they encourage everyone to text “God’s not dead” to all of their friends, even as, across town, Prof. Radisson lays dying in the street after being hit by a car.

Hallelujah.

Josh vs. Aristotle, Darwin, Hawking
So ... a philosophy professor who makes his students write and sign “God is dead” pledges? Is this based on anything anywhere? Wikipedia calls it a popular urban legend, but I might dispute both “popular” and “urban.” To me, it feels like projection. Philosophy is generally about the search for truth, not shutting down that search. The shutdown comes from absolutists.

The final credits suggest the movie is based upon many legal cases supported by Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly: Alliance Defense Fund), most of which, apparently, it lost.

Josh, of course, doesn’t lose. He defeats his Mephistophelean professor. How? By taking on Aristotle, Darwin and Stephen Hawking single-handedly—like Daniel in the lion’s den. By offering the students, as God offered humanity, free will.

He also uses science to his advantage. Josh says the Big Bang is like “Let there be light” more than scientists will admit, while the creation of life on Earth is more like Genesis 1:21 than Darwin’s evolutionary theories. After that, it’s mostly gotcha moments. Sure, Hawking said what he said about religion, but he also said, “Philosophy is dead,” which totally burns the philosophy professor. The biggest gotcha, though, is personal. Why does Prof. Radisson feel how he feels about God? Because when he was 12, his mom, a believer, died of cancer, so he cursed God, and has kept on cursing God, and wants the world to curse God. Josh, in fact, gets his professor to admit, in front of everyone, that he hates God. Which leads to Josh’s final trump card:

How can you hate someone ... if they don’t exist?

That’s the final straw for the straw man. He folds. And that’s when the class, in a “Spartacus” moment, all stand and say the film’s triumphant title: “God’s not dead.” Then they all go to the Newsboys’ concert and party while, nearby, Prof. Radisson dies after being hit by a car. No, it’s not vindictive. At the last moment, Radisson is converted by Rev. Dave (Christian movie staple, and bad hair-dye model, David A.R. White). Radisson accepts Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. Because there may be atheists in college classrooms, but there are none on deathbeds.

Nice and comfy
What a sad thing this is. I’m agnostic but this will convert no one. It’s a tepid bath for true believers.

I did like one scene. Near the end, the asshole lawyer, Mark, finally visits his addled mother in the old folk’s home, and wonders aloud why he, who is the worst person he knows, has a great life, while she, the most devout, has been turned into a living vegetable. At which point she suddenly starts talking:

Sometimes the devil allows people to live a life free of trouble because he doesn't want them turning to God. Their sin is like a jail cell, except it is all nice and comfy and there doesn't seem to be any reason to leave. The door’s wide open. Till one day, time runs out, and the cell door slams shut, and suddenly it’s too late.

She says all of this staring straight ahead. When she’s done, she blinks a few times, then her dementia returns. “Who are you?” she asks her son.

Look, I get it. “God’s Not Dead” is popular with Christian conservatives because it’s their wish-fulfillment fantasy. Within its world, secularists are awful and tyrannical, believers are victimized and humble, but God has a plan. And in the end, the wicked are punished and the faithful prosper. It’s all nice and comfy. Why, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to leave.

Posted at 06:40 AM on Apr 09, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Tuesday April 08, 2014

Song for the U.S. Supreme Court

In the wake of last week's U.S. Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, in which the 5-4 majority struck down a cap on total donations that can be made to individuals during federal elections, here's a song by Leonard Cohen. Lyrics first:

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

Then the song itself:

Thanks, Justices Alito, Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia and Thomas, for fixing the fight a little further. And for not knowing what everybody knows.

Posted at 04:01 PM on Apr 08, 2014 in category Law
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