Wednesday, January 26, 2005

News from Illinois

I haven't had the chance to link to Jonathan Rowe, a Gay libertarian blogger with plenty of intelligent, well-written social commentary. Rowe is an attorney and a professor, which means that he can navigate the ins and outs of the legal system with considerably greater ease than a mere layman like myself could. He's made my list of "must-read" Gay bloggers, along with the Fightin' Sullivans (Alan and Andrew, no relation) and the Bilious Young Fogey.

Rowe seems to specialize in tearing apart the more specious arguments of the religious right. Granted, this can be like shooting fish in a barrel. But someone has to do it, and Rowe does it uncommonly well. In this post, Rowe takes on an old acquaintance of mine, Pete LaBarbera -- formerly of Americans for Truth, Concerned Women for America, and half a dozen other far-right groups. When I met LaBarbera some five years ago, he was employed with the Family Research Council. Now he's executive director for the Illinois Family Institute. I suppose this means he is moving up in the world, more or less.

At any rate, LaBarbera is featured prominently in a recent WorldNet Daily article, decrying a new Illinois law that prohibits discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. Quoth WND:

LaBarbera points out the Illinois law firm Ungaretti & Harris, which specializes in labor and employment issues, published an analysis of the measure, which says, "While many such municipal prohibitions on sexual orientation discrimination expressly exempt religious organizations from their coverage, the new amendment to Illinois' Human Rights Act does not."

Rowe ducks the basic issue of whether LaBarbera is actually being honest with WND readers, and takes him to task for intellectual inconsistency. LaBarbera, who decries Gay-rights groups for fighting anti-Gay legislation in the courts, is himself seeking to overturn the "will of the people," as expressed by the Illinois state legislature, in a court of law. For my part, I don't really have a problem with using the courts to overturn a law, especially if said law infringes on the guaranteed rights of individuals. That's one of the reasons courts exist, after all.

However, LaBarbera claims that Illinois's nondiscrimination bill would compel churches to accept homosexuals in positions of authority, force Catholic schools to hire Gay teachers, and so forth. This would be a fearful thing, if it were true -- and it isn't. The anti-discrimination measure is actually a modest affair: It simply amends the Illinois Human Rights Act (IHRA) to include "sexual orientation" in its protected categories. As it turns out, IHRA already provides an exemption for religious groups. Here's the relevant text (from Section 2):

"Employer" does not include any religious corporation, association, educational institution, society, or non?profit nursing institution conducted by and for those who rely upon treatment by prayer through spiritual means in accordance with the tenets of a recognized church or religious denomination with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporation, association, educational institution, society or non?profit nursing institution of its activities.

In other words, because religious nonprofits are not considered "employers" under IHRA, they are free to discriminate against absolutely anyone -- including but not limited to Gays and Lesbians -- as their own beliefs or whims may dictate. The law can't get much simpler than that.

I'm no fan of anti-discrimination laws -- though I don't necessarily mind them, as long as they apply to government agencies and no one else. But it seems to me that when government has the power to tell private businesses they must not discriminate, it also has the power to tell them they have to discriminate, whether they want to or not. In Virginia, for example, state law prohibits private insurance firms from offering benefits to same-sex domestic partners. A few large corporations, such as Capital One, evade this requirement by self-insuring -- an expensive option, but one they can afford. However, for companies in Virginia who lack the means to self-insure, anti-Gay discrimination is mandatory. Even though these businesses claim the law hampers their ability to hire qualified personnel, our democratically elected legislature won't budge. Why should they? Since they have power over private enterprise, there's no reason they shouldn't use that power precisely as they see fit.

Caveats aside, I suspect LaBarbera will have considerable difficulty getting Illinois's new anti-discrimination bill overturned, because his case against the bill is blatantly false. The man is either woefully ignorant, or he's lying through his teeth -- and with LaBarbera, it's hard to tell which.

Shame on Joseph Farah and WorldNet Daily for not only failing to catch this obvious factual error, but basing an entire news article on it.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

My Stupid Oscar Column

Everybody complains about the Oscars, but nobody does anything about them. This year's nominees are a fairly glum lot, with several good films but no real standouts. Overtly ideological or controversial movies were the big losers this time: Fahrenheit 9/11 was completely shut out of nominations, as it should have been; Kinsey was very nearly shut out, even though it was one of the year's best. Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ received three nominations in technical categories, including a very cheeky nod for "Best Makeup" (which I rather hope it wins).

So far, Martin Scorsese's The Aviator is the only big-budget film to score major nominations. As Scorsese films go, Aviator isn't in the top three, or even the top five. Still, it's the only live-action film with genuine Hollywood razzle-dazzle at this year's Oscars. The film will win big in technical categories, whether it deserves to or not.

Best Actor: Johnny Depp's performance in Finding Neverland is too precious for words: You either want to cuddle him or claw his face off, and I'll admit I lean toward the latter. Leonardo DiCaprio is passable in The Aviator, but he's still the film's weakest link (in a film with many weak links). That leaves Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby, which no one outside a major metropolitan area has yet seen, and Jamie Foxx in the maudlin biopic Ray. I haven't seen Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda, but from what I know of these films (and actors), I'd probably vote for him. Missing in action: Jim Carrey should have been nominated for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Tobey Maguire singlehandedly saved Spider-Man 2 from summer-movie purgatory, and Liam Neeson carried Kinsey on his ample shoulders. Gael Garcia Bernal played one character in at least three different roles (and as many different ages) for Almodovar's Bad Education. And how could the Academy have overlooked Paul Giamatti in Sideways? Were they that desperate to pile accolades on The Aviator? Of course they were, gentle reader.

Best Actress: It's indie time! Women got short shrift in mainstream studio releases, so all this year's nominees had to come from low-budget and/or arthouse fare. So what else is new? Well, for one thing, there's Catalina Sandino Moreno, nominated for Maria Full of Grace. Something to piss off the religious right: Imelda Staunton gets a nod as the sweet little abortionist who lives down the lane, in Mike Leigh's neo-Victorian melodrama Vera Drake. Missing in action: Bryce Howard gave a worthy performance in Shyamalan's underrated The Village, one of the few major studio releases with decent roles for women. Most notable omission: The best performance I saw last year, bar none, came from Kimberly Elise in a low-budget religious movie called Woman, Thou Art Loosed. She's a major talent, and this should have been a breakout role.

Best Supporting Actor: Tough category. In The Aviator, Alan Alda doesn't make an impression so much as leave a mark. He's made a career of playing slightly oily liberals, and Scorsese brought his previously subtextual creepiness right to the surface. Oh no, him again? Once again, Morgan Freeman plays moral conscience for a White guy in Million Dollar Baby. (Hey, at least he's not a sniveling butler.) I loved Freeman in Walter Hill's Johnny Handsome, but haven't enjoyed him half as much since. Overrated: Clive Owen, a very good actor, is nominated for Mike Nichols' Closer, a very bad movie. Missing in action: Alec Baldwin, also nicely creepified in The Aviator, worked with Alda to create the perfect tag team of smug. The ensemble cast of John Lee Hancock's The Alamo also offered out two worthy supporting performances -- Billy Bob Thornton (as Davy Crockett) and Emilio Echevarria (as the tyrant Santa Ana). William Hurt transmuted grief into pedagogy in The Village. The most egregious omission, however, is Peter Sarsgaard, who deserved a nomination for Zach Braff's Garden State or Bill Condon's Kinsey -- perhaps for both.

Best Supporting Actress: Kinsey gets its sole Oscar nod for Laura Linney's performance. She's brilliant, of course. Still, I think I'd cast my vote for Virginia Madsen in Sideways. Madsen breathes uncommon life and vigor into a teen-movie stereotype: an intelligent hottie who promptly puts out for the protagonist's unctuous praise. Right actress, wrong movie: Natalie Portman played the same free-spirited neurotic in Garden State and Closer. She was much more interesting in Garden, but in Closer, she performed a half-assed striptease. This is more proof that Oscar loves to see pretty girls in degrading situations. (Who'd have thought a naked 77-year-old man would be such a perv?) Missing in action: Cate Blanchett gave good Hepburn in The Aviator, but I thought Kate Beckinsdale offered a much better (if less showy) performance as Ava Gardner. Her omission from the Supporting Actress category was a major disappointment. I wish Reagan Gomez-Preston could have been nominated for her work in Ernest Dickerson's Never Die Alone, or Kristen Bell for a shattering third-act turn in David Mamet's Spartan. Few people saw either film, but since they're both available on DVD, you should take a look.

Best Editing: Eastwood's films are models of craftsmanship, and it would appear that Million Dollar Baby is no exception. On the other hand, Michael Mann's films (including Collateral) are too self-consciously flashy for their own good. If I had a vote, mine would go, faute de mieux, to Scorsese's The Aviator. The film may be a gigantic white elephant, but at least it moves like a panther. Missing in action: Almodovar's Bad Education is a postmodern puzzle-box of narrative confusion, but thanks to careful editing, the audience always knows more or less where it stands. The same observation holds true, oddly enough, for the multiplex smash Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Best Foreign-Language Film: I haven't seen any of these movies, and I'm not likely to see them in Charlottesville, Virginia. Why is that, exactly? Missing in action: I can understand why Academy voters might snub Almodovar's off-putting Bad Education, but where did House of Flying Daggers go? For that matter, where is Ousmane Sembene's Moolade?

Best Documentary: The best film I saw in theaters last year -- and one of the best I've seen in any year -- was a documentary, Paper Clips. It made audiences weep with sorrow and joy. Naturally, the Academy ignored it. That doesn't mean you should. Also missing in action: Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation wasn't as great as most critics believed, but it was better than Super Size Me and Tupac: Resurrection.

Best Animated Film: The only truly good thing about this category is that The Polar Express and Home on the Range aren't here. Shrek 2 shouldn't be here, either. The Incredibles will win, of course.

Best Original Screenplay: Two good contenders here. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is another terrific mind-bender from the guy who gave us Being john Malkovich; Brad Bird's The Incredibles has intelligence and wit to burn. I think I prefer Kaufman (it's the arthouse snob in me, I fear), but I'd be happy if either script won. Hey, what's this doing here? Scorsese's The Aviator has many virtues, but John Logan's script is not among them. Missing in action: Spider-Man 2 works some fascinating variations on the tried-and-true superhero formula. Then there's Garden State, with its subtle deployment of a classic three-act romantic-comedy structure (jaded prodigal son returns home, meets pretty neurotic girl, learns how to love again). But the liveliest original script of 2004 was surely Team America: World Police, from Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The year's sharpest satire attacked left- and right-wing pieties, ripped mindless action flicks a new one, and even found time to off several obnoxious Hollywood celebrities. The climactic speech, which compared the War on Terror to anal sex (approvingly), was far and away the year's funniest movie moment.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Million Dollar Baby might be a contender here, but for lack of anything better I still hope Alexander Payne's Sideways wins. Yes, Sideways is a teen sex comedy with a bunch of middle-aged schlubs. At least it's a nice riff on that musty genre. Deserved omission: For Mike Nichols' film Closer, Patrick Marber adapted his own stage play -- with as little creativity as possible. Yecch. The Academy wisely snubbed him. Missing in action: Condon's Kinsey is the most obviously unjust omission, but I can think of two others worth at least a nod. Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy may have been a mainstream comic-book movie, but its theological underpinnings made it as profound as any arthouse indie. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban wrangled J.K. Rowling's kiddie epic into a well-paced two hours and twenty minutes, despite a labyrinthine plot, a double-fugue finale and plenty of new character development. "Mischief managed," indeed.

Best Cinematography: This category is noteworthy less for what it included than what it left out. Phantom of the Opera is a real eye-stabber; like a house trailer bedecked with Christmas lights, or an aspiring Lolita who loves her fruit-flavored lip gloss, this film is either much too garish or not nearly garish enough. Caleb Deschanel's overfiltered photography is much too aesthetic and rarefied for Mel Gibson's glorified splatter flick Passion of the Christ (though the opening scenes look like good day-for-night work), and the candy-colored visuals of The Aviator are so ootsy-cutesy they almost overwhelm the grimmer elements in the story. House of Flying Daggers is probably the best of the nominated lot, though several better choices went unmentioned. Missing in action: Tim Orr's luscious camerawork for David Gordon Green's Undertow, and Roger Deakins' color-conscious photography in The Village, merited nominations. But shot for shot, Sideways featured the best cinematography I saw last year. This film knew when to look pretty -- and more important, it knew when to look ugly. Phedon Papamichael deserved at least a nod for his outstanding work.

Best Director: Taylor Hackford's nomination for Ray and Mike Leigh's nomination for Vera Drake come as minor surprises, even though gooey melodrama has never been in short supply at the Oscars. Aside from that, it's a roundup of the usual suspects: Eastwood, Payne, Scorsese. Scorsese is long-overdue to win -- and probably will, in a classic case of "right director, wrong movie." Missing in action: M. Night Shyamalan created a minor masterpiece with The Village, though audiences -- and alas, most critics -- didn't know what to make of it. Alfonso Cuaron deserves special kudos for placing his personal, Gothic stamp on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Best Picture: With Sideways, Million Dollar Baby and The Aviator in the running, it's difficult to say which is the "best" of the year. All these films are wildly different, yet each one manages to be slightly stale in its own way. For my part, I think I'm still searching for the best film of 2004 -- aside from Paper Clips, that is.

Update (7:30 p.m.): Apparently, several prominent social conservatives believe Passion of the Christ should have received a few more nominations. But for what? Best Use of Anti-Semitism in a Motion Picture? Best Adapted Screenplay in a Mostly Dead Foreign Language? Best Performance By A Metal-Studded Bullwhip?

What a bunch of whiners. Rick Sincere explains why the Right should be tickled pink with this year's nominees.

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