BOSTON PUBLIC SCHOOLS : WHAT NEXT FOR REFORM ?

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^ Boston school reformer Mary Tamer : Marty Walsh needs to reappoint her

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Lawrence Harmon’s column in today’s Globe tweaked me to write once more about the prospects for school upgrade in Boston. My last column on this topic appeared well before the Mayor election. Much has happened since, and not just the selection of a new Mayor. School reform occupies center stage nationwide, as parents, students, and the job market push for — insist upon — huge changes in how we educate children, how rigorously, and to what purpose.

Harmon focuses on the City’s teacher evaluations, which he finds very suspiciously upbeat. 93 percent of teachers, he writes, land “in the exemplary and proficient categories on a new teacher-evaluation system.” He also notes that almost every BPS principal rated high. “Yet,” he goes on, “about two thirds of the city’s schools rank in the bottom 20 percent statewide based on student test data.”

He asks, “what is going on here ?” A few sentences later comes an answer : “It suggests that good teachers are unable to compensate for poverty, social ills, non-native English status, and other difficulties associated with urban schools.”

The suggestion rings true. Harmon says that it should not matter, that just as the Boston Police do not settle for the high rate of crime in certain neighborhoods but attack it head-on, so should the schools. No doubt that Harmon is right. But teachers aren’t a police force. Boston’s police patrol 24/7 ; teachers teach only seven hours a day, five days a week. Boston school children live by far the most of their day with someone other than their teachers.

I agree that the new teacher evaluations disservice everyone, the teachers included. No one working on any job does it perfectly. All of us can improve; all should try to do so. To have value, an evaluation system should do what my Phillips Andover American History teacher did ; “no one in this course will get an A,” he said, “because none of you can master the subject that well.” The best that anyone could do, he told us, was a B. My American history teacher was pressing the point that what he would be teaching us really, really mattered. Being the best teacher that one can be matters even more.

Harmon also quotes school committee member Mary Tamer at length, on the evaluation issue — especially of Boston Public school administrators. Her rigor and critique should be cherished by a system dedicated to improving itself.

That said, as I see it the big problem in urban public schools is not the competence of teachers or principals. The problem lies elsewhere, most often at home. If children are sent to school without a healthy breakfast; if they come from homes in dysfunction or commotion; if they cannot negotiate the English language; if they are prey to peer pressures, from bad decisions to worse; if at home no one ever reads to them, challenges them intellectually, engages their curiosity — if any or all of these home situations devils every part of a child’s life outside school, what is his life IN school likely to be ? Peer pressure becomes even more intense at school.

The home lives that I listed in the previous sentence come to school on the backs of all too many kids. Your kid may have the solidest home life in the neighborhood ,and it is not going to be enough, confronted as it will be in school itself by kids from problemed homes. A very few, remarkable kids can work through such peer pressure. A few can triumph even over their own home badness. But how many ? And there isn’t much that a teacher can do about it. Most Boston public school teachers I have known can rescue many kids from the badness; what about the others ? It cannot be all on the teachers.

School reform begins at home. If the parents or guardians aren’t fully committed to see that their kids triumph intellectually, morally, physically, and emotionally, and if they cannot rely on their neighbors to do the same with their own kids, urban public schools are going to continue to under-perform even with miracle men as teachers.

It is this time that we evaluate the parents and guardians. And time too that we expect no better of Boston public school kids than public school parents put into it.

Frankly if I were a Boston public school parent, I would grow grim about the certainty that my kid(s) will find it almost impossible to get that cutting-edge technology job — or even an entry level tech-competent position — because I am failing, my neighbor is failing, and thus the public schools are failing, too, because my neighbors and I aren’t demanding that school concentrate on testing, teaching, cajoling, piquing every child in class to work to the next level, to experiment, to imagine, and to really, really THINK. None of which my school can succeed at because too much class time is spent getting hepped-up kids to calm down, into some sort of order, into concentration.

No wonder that diligent parents choose charter schools if they can make the cut. But that too is not the answer. The only answer is the community-wide, full-metal jacket — much more than the competence of teachers and principals evaluated without compromise — that I have outlined. Anything less well work only partly, leaving some parents unsatisfied and some children unready for tomorrow’s mercilessly experimental jobs.

One final question : do you have any evidence that the new Mayor will spur a school reform as vast as the effort i have outlined ? I sure don’t. The voters of Boston already passed judgment on how much school reform they wanted. Mary Tamer supported John Connolly, as did I, for much the same reason: school reform cannot be piecemeal. Yet piecemeal it looks now to be. There will be some changes. More teachers and principals will be people of color. The school day will lengthen. Trade and technology curricula will expand, in partnership with universities, labor unions, and businesses. Some children will definitely benefit, somewhat. I doubt it will be anything like enough; yet I am willing to be proved wrong.

Harmon suggests in his column that Mayor Walsh should reappoint Tamer, whose term is at end. “Walsh…needs to hear strong, independent voices,” writes Harmon, “as he tackles the job of improving schools.” I agree.

—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere

SALLY CRAGIN : NEWS FROM TRI-TOWN … DECEMBER ( VOLUME 3 )

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We’ve had a dusting or too of ESSENNOOUCH, but the big guns (e.g., the storms that are advertised as 4 inches for you, that turn into 18 inches for us) are yet to be seen. Not a problem — I can’t remember whether the big-tread tires are on the front wheels as they should be. Should ask my husband. These decisions matter out here in the land of no-reliable-public-transportation but beautiful scenery and sincere folks.

A lot has gone on since my last entry, and if you’re interested in theatre, come see a charming production of Christmas Carol every weekend in December leading up to Xmas at Stratton Players (currently housed in the UU church at the top of the Common, Main Street, Fitchburg). Strattonplayers.com for more. Also, a group of artists is having a discussion on la vie boheme on Tuesday, December 10, 6:30 pm at The Kiln, 353 Main Street, Fitchburg. This is a glass shop this is also (shhh) a head shop! I was so delighted when owner Michael Flanagan talked about their wares. He brought an amazing box of glass-made items by local glass artists — the kind of work you’d see under the glass cases at Harvard’s MCZ (anatomically correct milkweed caterpillar, surrealist beads, etc). This is free, and more on Facebook if you go to my site.

The bigger story is that a group of people are trying to launch a charter school here in Fitchburg. This would be a K-4 and is utterly unnecessary and redundant, particularly since 3 of our 7 schools moved up a level in the state testing, and one K-4; Crocker Elementary was voted #5 of the top 15 elementary schools by Boston.com. We had a public hearing and a lot of people spoke on behalf of FPS — eloquent testimony by parents and students, teachers and administrators, that really brought the point home to the DOE Board who was in attendance that FPS are very much on the right track. Since then, I have been doing research on charter schools and truly impressed by how their lobbyists have effectively commod-ified a public service. The last motherlode of public money was protected — until Ed. Reform! And so, we get egregious examples like the so called “STEAM STUDIO” charter project trying to launch in Andover (a top-tier public school system — but the folks who want their charter school want to limit further the number of kids who can take advantage of public money), and various frequent-flyers in the application process.

Our Representative, Stephen DiNatale, our Senator, Jen Flanagan, our Mayor Lisa Wong, our School Committee, our City Council have all voted against this proposed charter school, and we have lively meetings every week of “Fitchburg Public Schools First” (FPS 1) to discuss our ongoing support of public schools.

DOE makes this decision in February, so we have some weeks to go and if I’m not out and about doing cool things, I’m hunkered down protecting the public schools and the education of 5100 kids that I swore to protect six years ago when elected School Committee. Happy Hanukkah/holidays to all.

more at fitchburgfun.blogspot.com

— Sally Cragin / News from Tri-town

GROUNDED AND SKY-HIGH : CHUS & CEBALLOS @ BIJOU 11.27.13

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^ severely programmed at first, almost free form later : Chus & Ceballos at Bijou Boston

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The dance floors that DJ duo Chus & Ceballos fill these nights are smaller  than they used to be — the part time fans prefer flavors of the moment — but in no way have these two Madrilenos lost even a nick of their sonic imagination, their rhythmic force, or their powerful blends of boom and boomier. At Bijou, on Thanksgiving Eve, a Boston performance date that has now become a Chus & Ceballos tradition, they played a full three hours  of music expressive, in two modes.

The first mode came severely programmed; Chus made few edits, Ceballos fewer. Yet the program was a strong bodied blues, and blues is, fundamentally, a strict form. Sure enough, strict led to loose, as an overlaid voice cried “dance away the blues, you say” over and over till the people on the club floor got to it.

The blues dance lasted 90 minutes. It was an earthy, gravelly ground beat, and the voices that tooled onto it came in costume disembodied, like 1979-85 space disco: soaring, hyperbolic, woozy. Seductive was the flattened pitch thereof, ramped up deliciously as Chus pumped the “repeat” button, crafting lines that felt like tiny kisses pecked onto the music’s neck and jaw.

These effects arose from Chus and Pablo mixing single tracks, then two, and sometimes two into two more : the shift from one line to many lines gave the rhythm syntax and narrative — all of it handled deftly,  and seamless, as they famously know how. Seduction on several levels flowed like lip drool and breast sweat. (Both the grounded earthy beat and the flat affect chants were new to the Chus & Ceballos sound. have they been listening to Prok & Fitch ?)

After a flattish segment — heard in a Chus and Ceballos set only during a change of tone — the second 90 minutes started with a statement : “it’s a party, it’s a party, check the body check the body.” Nothing bluest there.

The chant reminded those old enough of how dance music talked 20, even 30 years ago, and there was more, as throughout the second mode, the DJs tooled acappellas from Celeda, Inner City, and two by the Murk Boys into the mix, and — less good — the season’s cliche track, “Bigger than Prince.” A joke ? The grin on Chus’s stubbly jaw said, yes, it’s a joke. Fortunately the “joke’ was not repeated.

Thereafter all felt ferociously serious as each man mixed the other’s PC program, then his own — and so forth. Chus especially. Lots of their top current downloads linked in — “Sweet Love,” “The Break,” “Nobody Freaks Like Us,” the ethereal “Reflections,”though not in the form written down, of course. Their present tour de force, “Partenza,” also jumped aboard the choogle — peaking at Adonis’s steamy”Boys Noize.” Chus and his sidekick like to end their sets with house music fireworks — a burst of all shapes, colors, and textures; and their last 30 minutes at Bijou was no exception. Chants, boom beats tribal delicacy, chug and choogle, monologue talk, the soft thump of house and the big bumps of techno: all could be heard, felt, tasted, and the dancers — room full, maybe 200 people including many of Boston house music connoisseurs — gave themselves up to wild strides, outstretched hands, wide mouths, twisted torsos. And screams.

This was music you had to shake off because it is inside you and demanding to break free of you. Those who dance a Chus & Ceballos set know what I mean. It’s why they still come to see house music’s most revered duo no matter what the partially involved trend to.

Wil Trahan opened the night’s sound with a ground-level blues set of his own, very different from what I usually hear him do but handled with his usual clever taste for tracks that gran your attention, even your love, for example Viviana Alvarez’s “Coldly” and Martin Accorsi & Brett Sylvia’s “No.”

—- Deedee Freedberg / Feelin’ the Music

MEEK AT THE MOVIES : NEBRASKA ( 3 stars )

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^ losing it or winning it — or both ? Bruce Dern and Will Forte in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska”

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In his films, Alexander Payne has shown strong predilection for men somewhere
north of their prime, still lost and looking for grounding. The roots of which
took hold with “About Schmidt” (2002), got whacky and whiney in “Sideways”
(2004) and then moved out to the island of Hawaii with a more dour tone in “The
Descendants” (2011). Payne’s latest, “Nebraska” maybe be the ultimate in mature
male malfunction — in a sweet elegiacal way — ties back to “Schmidt” too, as
its protagonist, Woody Grant, played by Bruce Dern, has a dry, fly-away
comb-over reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s hair-challenged Schmidt;
ironically, in both films, the men’s wives were played by the same actress,
June Squibb, who practically upends and nearly steals the film as it sails into
the third act.

The setup’s pretty rudimentary : the aging Woody insists on getting from
Montana to the State that’s the film’s title, because he’s received a note by
mail informing him he’s won a million dollars. We’ve all gotten that Publisher
Clearing House nonsense before, and we all know it’s bunk, but Woody, frail and
vacant, seems to be around the bend faculty-wise,;whether it’s depression, too
much sauce over the years or dementia (the film never floats such possibility,
though it would have gone the furthest in selling the rhyme behind Woody’s
insipid quest). As a result, Woody can’t drive, so his forty-year-old son, David (Will Forte),
stuck in a dead end job at a Best Buy knock-off and dumped by his Rubens-esque
girlfriend, agrees to take on road trip duties. These he passively views as an opportunity
to take stock and an odd chance to give his Dad some sense of closure. It adds to the
calm turmoil, too, that Woody was never a present father or husband, and drank too much;
and still does.

Woody and David drift along fairly innocuously until a bar brawl derails them
and, against Woody’s wishes, they make a side excursion to Woody’s old hometown,
where the streets have a depressed, 1950s sheen and Woody’s tangential kin are
little more than couch-potato rubes. Adding to the none-too-friendly homecoming,
Stacy Keach slithers in as Woody’s sleazy old auto shop partner; and the million
dollar prize becomes big news and a big joke in the sleepy cornfield town. As
push comes to shove and revelations hang on the horizon, the rest of Woody’s
Montana clan roll in. For all the hoopla, you’d think Woody held a contested
winning lottery ticket.

Dern’s gaunt frame holds the film up firmly even though the role is fairly
two-note. More is asked of Forte in a thankless bit as the rational son caught
up in the nonsensical senior moment, while SNLer, Bob Odenkirk fills the juicier
part of the cantankerous older brother who wants to be news anchor.

Payne boldly shot the film in muted black and white. The result is a gentle,
grainy dimming that mirrors Woody’s wayward cognizance. It’s a quiet
accomplishment, too, that Dern and Payne have notched. The pair have collectively
made an American asshole sympathetic and full bodied. Part of that’s done by
surrounding Woody with even deeper steeped miscreants. It may be a cheap trick,
but sadly there’s no sleight of hand in the truth.

—- Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies

2016 PRESIDENT : NOT A SENATOR AGAIN, PLEASE

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^ Lions of the senate ; the Presidency, not so much. At least not now.

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UPDATE : last night Senator Warren announced as follows : “I pledge to serve my full Senate term.” Her term ends in 2018. And so ends speculation about her plans to seek the Presidency. I applaud her decision.

— MF

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Three letters appear in today’s Boston Globe, all of them telling those who would Pres-boom our state’s Senator Elizabeth Warren, to cool out. I agree with the letters and their reasons. as the letters point out : (1 ) Warren in 2016 will still be working her first term and ( 2 ) her uncompromising stance makes her a kind of reverse-coin Ted Cruz. Advocacy for advocacy’s sake  becomes anti-advocacy; and in any case, while a Charles Sumner can advance a cause, the actual Charles Sumner would have made a horrible President.

This is not to say that I don’t applaud much of what Senator Warren advocates. I do applaud it. The financial regulation bill she has co-sponsored with John McCain is needed, and her call for he expansion of social security voices the needs and hopes of many, many Americans for whom Social Security is the difference between making it and not. Yet the progress that she calls for is going to be hard enough to enact into law, and as Ted Kennedy’s decades of work make clear, the Senate is the Forum in which to do it, and that only by long service. The Presidency is not the place to vanguard things.

That Warren is being touted for President seems a reaction, on the Left, to the radicalization on the right that has all but swallowed the GOP. As I wrote during the Mayor’s race, watching the Connolly versus Walsh battle come close to splitting the Massachusetts Democratic party, “you can’t radicalize an electorate in one direction only.” Radicalization on the Left is growing, fueled by an inflammatory Right. This we understand — and decry. It must stop short of engulfing the Presidency, the one office that all of us choose.

The greatest presidents are principled, dogged centrists : Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D Roosevelt, Harry Truman, George Washington, Ronald Reagan all held firm to their chosen course but refused to be hurried, bullied, or pushed over an edge. Confronters like Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson have done less well. Roosevelt and Wilson both achieved much, in a hurry, but they did not when or how to stop. Flame out was the result for Roosevelt, humiliation for Wilson. Jefferson’s terms, brilliantly begun, ended in disaster. Elizabeth warren is a confronter. (So is John McCain, but that’s another story.) There is a lot of Teddy in Warren — on much the same issues, too — and much Wilson. That alone should give us pause.

Frankly, I think we’ve had enough Senators in the Presidency for a while. The worst failing of President Obama, a Lincolnesque figure for sure, is his demonstrated inability to manage the Federal bureaucracy. We’ve seen it time and again, vividly in the stumbled roll-out of his signature legislation, the ACA. It is time to elect a Governor. Men and women who govern have to administer. it’s what a Governor is all about. those who succeed as a governor pass the first test — the most basic test — of a President. Managing the bureaucracy may not look sexy, sound dramatic, or feel like a crusade; but a President who cannot do it can’t succeed at much of the high drama and loud crusades that define the office for most voters.

The only reason that Obama’s failings as an administrator haven’t decimated the domestic agenda of his Presidency is that he knows his policy goals bottom to top, they’re modest enough, and he pursues them relentlessly, opposition be damned. He simply refuses to lose. That’s a good thing; but capable administration of his policy in action would be even better.  Conversely, the numerous triumphs of Obama’s foreign policy, an arena in which administration defers to manoeuver and decision, Here, Obama has had no equal since Reagan ; no Democratic equal since Truman.

2016 should be a Governor’s time for another reason : the office is chosen by all the people of a state and, in the hands of the most responsible governors, unites people rather than divides them. Cases on point : Andrew Cuomo (NY), Jeb Bush (FL) , Chris Christie (NJ), and Martin O”Malley (MD). In this time of radicalization, that has cleaved the GOP, paralyzing it, even rendering it a danger to the nation, and that threatens now to set Democrats at each other’s throats, the last thing we need is an inflamer of passions, a Senator Microphone, an advocate in a hurry.

Of course even a great governor can’t be an effective president without a responsible political party to lead, or tame. Mitt Romney had administrative ability to spare; but the party he led in 2012 had rendered him unthinkable, to a majority, by its virulence and its contempt for all but the successful, viewpoints that he unfortunately seemed to share.

To sum up : 2016 should be a Governor’s time. Let’s elect Andrew Cuomo, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush or Martin O’Malley — and leave Elizabeth Warren in the Senate, to advocate, advocate, advocate all she needs to, a Charles Sumner but no, NOT a president.

—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere

THE MAYORALTY OF MARTY WALSH : THE WEAKNESS COMES HOME TO ROOST

Michael Curry NAACP

^ “access, opportunity and results” : Michael Curry of the Boston NAACP and son at a rally recently

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In Friday’s Boston Globe appeared an article by Akilah Johnson in which was made clear that incoming mayor Marty Walsh will be monitored on his response to diversity issues and held accountable for his actions. Wrote Johnson in the article :

The group, calling itself The Inclusive Boston Alliance, is developing a score card to scrutinize the creation and implementation of education, public safety, employment, and economic development policies. The group plans to conduct status checks after the first 100 days of Walsh’s administration and again at the six-month, one-year, two-year, and four-year marks.

Access, opportunity, and results have to be the building blocks of the Walsh administration,” said Michael Curry, president of the Boston Branch NAACP, one of the organizations involved in the alliance. “That’s what communities of color voted for.”

The alliance, which plans to formally announce its intentions Friday, includes the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, the Commonwealth Compact at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and MassVOTE. These and several other community and civil rights groups came together during the campaign and held two debates focused on issues affecting communities of color.

In no way can any of this be a surprise to Walsh. He actively sought votes from Boston’s communities of color. The vote that they provided him tallied more than his own Primary vote. As I wrote immediately after the Primary and before it : one of the odd features of this election was that whoever won, a big majority of his vote would come from people who didn’t want him. It proved so. Now we see what the consequences are. The new Mayor either adopts as a priority the demands of those who voted for him as skeptics rather than supporters, or he is in trouble right away.

It would have been no different had John Connolly won. Except for one thing : Connolly was a much stronger candidate, politically, than Walsh. As Paul McMorrow has astutely pointed out, Connolly defeated Walsh in 95 of Boston’s 137 Caucasian-majority precincts. Connolly didn’t need to win any of the 118 COC-majority precincts; he only needed to break even, or to lose them slightly. Walsh needed to win these 118 precincts by 15 points. (He won all but 11, most of them by 20 to 25 points).

The numbers prove it. In the Final, Walsh carried 49 selected precincts (in Wards 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, m15, 17, and 18) by 5687 votes : almost 800 more votes than his city-wide win margin. In the Primary, Walsh won those same 49 precincts by a mere 110 votes. Between September 24 and November 5, Walsh’s Black community endorsers alone (I leave out precincts where Felix G. Arroyo was strong; his situation is different; see my Note below) brought Walsh an additional 5577 votes : again, about 700 more than his Final election win margin. Walsh has been called a “bridge Mayor” — bridge between the Menino years and a Mayor of color. The numbers and the politics of Connolly voters make a strong case for that assessment.

Connolly would have had much more liberty to negotiate the monitoring groups agenda than has Walsh. It is not clear to me that this calculation played a role in the endorsements that John Barros, Charlotte Golar-Richie, Gloria Fox, Russell Holmes, and most other politicians of color accorded Marty Walsh. But it would surprise me if (1) the political advantage offered them by Walsh’s vote weakness didn’t occur pretty soon after the endorsements were given and (2) the advantage didn’t occur right away to many of these endorsers’ advisors.

And another thing : make no mistake. Boston’s communities of color want a Mayor who “looks like them,’ as the campaign’s mantra often put it,  as soon as they can elect one. A Mayor Connolly would have been very hard to beat: because it is not at all clear that Marty Walsh’s Caucasian vote base would vote by 15 to 20 points for a candidate of color as readily as the precincts of color voted for Walsh. Whereas John Connolly’s voters are much more open to such a candidate and have always been. Can anyone doubt that had Walsh faced Charlotte Golar-Richie, she would have beaten Marty in almost every Ward carried by Connolly ?

Mayor Walsh will be much easier to defeat, than would have Connolly, if not in 2017 then definitely in 2021. I think that both parts of his coalition know this very well indeed. I think he knows it, too. He is moving all the chess pieces right now to make himself trusted as well as accepted, and nobody in Boston politics is better able to get there. But can he ? It will be interesting to see how Walsh’s political vulnerability plays out at the tables of power where Boston’s — and his — political future is decided.

—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere

NOTE : I have left out Felix G. Arroyo frrom my analysis for three reasons : ( 1 ) he is Hispanic, not Black, and has a significantly smaller vote base than Charlotte Golar-Richie had ( 2 ) his endorsement was, I feel, given entirely sincerely on the issues and not in any way out of real-politik calculation and ( 3 ) if he is to win a fight to be Mayor he will have to break free of the coalition that he whole-heartedly embraced this time around. It won’t be easy, but Arroyo has tgime on his side. He’s only 34 years old !

MEEK AT THE MOVIES : HUNGER GAMES — CATCHING FIRE ( 3 stars )

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^ Jennifer Lawrence and josh Hutcherson as Katniss and Peeta in “Catching Fire” as sequel to “Hunger Games”

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The second time may be a charm, but hey, it’s all relative, as the first “Hunger Games,” written and directed by Garry Ross (“Sea Biscuit” and “Pleasantville”), felt paunchy, disingenuously deep and retro flimsy given the state of computer enhanced film-making these days. That cinematic first chapter of Suzanne Collins’s runaway YA hit was a tad muddled; then again, it had the burden of informing newbies of what they needed to know about the austere future-world of Panem and its kid-against-kid death matches without boring the stuffing out of its loyal readerships’ attention-challenged minds.

What made the first “Hunger Games” adaptation burn beyond its kinetic plot and high kitsch, was its star Jennifer Lawrence — already revered for her work in “Winter’s Bone,” and subsequently rewarded with an Oscar for her performance in “Silver Linings Playbook.” The actress, with her wide luminous face, aptly brought to the fore the deep disdain and skepticism imbedded in her can-do heroine, Katniss Everdeen. But living under the tyranny of a fattened plutocracy obsessed with power, control and hedonism while the masses slave and starve, tends to do that to anyone possessing faint embers of freedom and righteousness in their bellies.

Much has been made of the franchise’s lifting from the 1999 Japanese thriller, “Battle Royale” (also made into a movie). Both in their own right clearly borrow of “1984” and “Lord of the Flies,” and more to the point, do dumbed-down fusions of the two groundbreaking classics. In cinematic form, the series roils eerily with the grand cheesiness of “The Running Man,” “Logan’s Run” and even “Battle Star Galactica,” but where those vehicles were tongue-in-cheek, “Games” is either dead-on serious or wholly over-the-top spectacle. Both ends offer their rewards, but overall, it’s hard to consume the film’s higher reaching message–if there truly is one–with any respectable seriousness.

“Fire” picks up where “Hunger Games” left off : Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) taking the victors’ tour of the thirteen impoverished districts to pay honor to the fallen tributes (those who died in the last movie). The caveat injected by President Snow (Donald Sutherland oozing with megalomaniacal aspiration) is that the pair have to sell themselves as a romantic couple, a facade the Capitol wishes to project as an opiate to pacify the increasingly restless populace. It’s something Katniss, who has a secret lover (Liam Hemsworth), isn’t interested in doing, but when her family’s well-being is thrown into the mix, she plays nice–for a while.

That unrest grumbles with the nascent makings of a revolt (what took so long?) and bears Katniss as the reluctant face of the movement. Snow, none too pleased by this, invokes a double jeopardy clause of sorts and initiates a new Hunger Game, pitting the victors of the past against each other. It’s at this point that Phillip Seymour Hoffman wanders in from left field as the new game master orchestrating the deadly doings in the arena–which are far better imagined and more tautly rendered (by director Francis Lawrence, a vet of fantastical mayhem, with “Constantine” and “I am Legend” to his credits) this time around. The movie’s nearly halfway over by the time we arrive at the game, but the good news is that the steep preamble means plenty of raucous screen time for Woody Harrelson, back as the drunkard former victor, Haymitch Abernathy and Stanley Tucci as garish game show host Caesar Flickerman, who with his pompadour and false sincerity, is an entertaining rival to Richard Dawson’s indelible snake from the “The Running Man.”

If there’s one pebble-in-the-shoe issue I’ve had with the series, it’s the hokey grandiloquence about oppression and rebellion that postures some type of meaningful political statement. Simply living in such dire straits as those in the districts do, one can only imagine that it would be preferable to go out in a blaze of defiance than die a starving cur, beaten and broken. The script, bolstered by “Slumdog Millionaire” scribe Simon Beaufoy, doesn’t make true inroads here. Not yet anyhow. And in there too, Hoffman, the brilliant actor, feels inert and lost amongst the pomp. So too does Sutherland as the flat, cut-out dictator, little more than Ming the Merciless dropping in from Mongo. Places on our planet, less overt in their tyranny–Liberia and Libya, for example–have tossed dictators. Snow and his ilk have been in power for seventy-five years, and all that after a bloody revolution, which makes you wonder what kind of shit hole Panem was before. (Panem is purportedly some amalgam of North American countries).

In the end (again) it’s Lawrence and her resolve that carries “Games.” A star of less capability might have given a less nuanced performance and put the weight on Lawrence–the director. Once the games are on, the film flies like a deer through the woods. And it’s here too, that Jena Malone drops in as one of the victors, full of sass and verve, pulling off a loquacious costume change in an elevator before the eyes of other riders. Like Harrelson and Tucci she adds a well-timed shot of zest. The two men circling Katniss however don’t fare as well. Hutchinson and Hemsworth are often wooden idols enamored with Katniss, constantly dumbstruck and inert. Thankfully Lawrence is in the middle and capable of making the stilted eddy palatable.

Displeasingly, the film ends abruptly. Like the penultimate “Harry Potter” chapter it’s a hinge for the next installment, and while that’s obnoxious in the broad sense, it does leave one wanting in all the best ways possible. Once skeptical, I’m now hooked.

—- Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies

“WE HAVE REACHED AN AGREEMENT”

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^ Javad Zarif looks happy, John Kerry looks exhausted. Last night in Geneva, signing agreement.

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“We have reached an agreement.”

With those five words, tweeted at about 9:30 EST last night, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif made history. He did not make it alone. Our Secretary of State, John Kerry, also made it. As did the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Russia, and China.

At 10:15 PM a proud President Obama addressed the nation. He outlined the specifics of the agreement.

And so it was ; Iran and the world have agreed — to the following :

1.Iran will cease enriching uranium beyond five percent grade. As verification, Iran will dismantle links between networks of centrifuges.

2.All of Iran’s existing stockpile of uranium already enriched to 20 percent, would be diluted or converted to oxide, thus making it not readily available for military use.

3.No new centrifuges, neither old models nor newer, can be installed. Centrifuges already installed, but not currently operating, can not be started up.

4.Iran can still enrich uranium to a level of 3.5 percent grade and need not dismantle its existing centrifuges.

5.In return for this interim agreement, the United States agrees to provide $ 6 billion to $ 7 billion of sanctions relief, of which about $ 4.2 billion represents Iran oil revenue presently frozen in coreign banks. It is noted that this sanctions relief requires only Executive Order, not approval by Congress.

The interim deal has a six-month time frame. This, to allow time for negotiators to agree upon the terms of a permanent agreement.

And there you have it. A deal with Iran. A year ago such a thing looked impossible. But where human beings are involved, things change. People change their minds, even people of different nations. In this case, everyone changed. Iran elected a new government with a clearly stated, change message that could not have won election without the OK of Iran’s Supreme Leader. And the Western powers — with Russia and China joining in at last — decided that they would settle for less than a permanent agreement.

And what an agreement ! It bears repeating : Iran has agreed to do what it insisted it would not do : stop enrichment of uranium and, indeed, to dilute uranium already enriched. Centrifuges turned off and no new start-ups. Centrifuge linkages dismantled.

The Boston Globe quotes as Zbigniew Brzeznski and Brent Scowcroft, former American national security advisers talking of “the apparent commitment of the new government of Iran to reverse course on its nuclear activities…” That is exactly what Iran’s new government has now done.

Of course an interim agreement leaves the future sort of open. But not completely. Agreements between nations that have barely spoken to one another, and then often vituperatively, do not congeal overnight. This first dip into the waters of concord may, however, prove addictive. Once even enemies begin to find that they have some interests in common, they often find that they have more. And thus larger agreements become doable, even desirable. It happened thus with the conflict in Northern Ireland. Why not between Iran and the West ? Iran is not a medieval tyranny. Its leaders are not desert illiterates. Iranians rank second to no one in science or in technological ingenuity. Iranians are educated, modern, entirely au courant with the cutting edge, modern world. Same for their leaders. Do not be fooled by the turbans and beards, so caliphate in appearance. These turbans tweet.

Israel’s prime minister professes to distrust this agreement. I find his distrust misplaced. I have no doubt that the new Iranian leadership is no friend of Israel ; that it will continue to fund and promote Hezbollah in Lebanon ; and that it would not mourn much were Israel to disappear. But I think it quite certain that Iran is not about to rain missiles or atomic bombs on Israel. Iran knows that that would be its end as well as Israel’s. Which means that Israel will simply have to accept that it has an undefeatable enemy nearby, and to live with it — as it has been doing quite successfully with other, nearer enemies for many decades. I think it will find a way to manage.

Meanwhile, kudos to John Kerry, our state’s former Senator, who has now brokered two heroic deals : this one, and the elimination of Bashir Assad’s chemical weapons. You haven’t forgotten that one, have you ?

—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere

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#MAGOV : FRAMING THE ISSUES FOR CAUCUS DAY

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^ Don Berwick : the “governor” as issues referendum

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The race for Governor of Massachusetts continues to feel less than grave. We all know that the REAL Governor is Robert DeLeo, Speaker of the General Court (as our legislature is called). Yet the office which we call “Governor” is filled by a vote of all the people, as that of Speaker is not; and so even if all the people’s Governor isn’t in fact a governor, he or she still embodies what we the people want leadership on. Thus choosing a “governor” is a kind of referendum, not much different from the several referenda that look likely to be put on our state’s 2014 ballot, except that the “governor referendum” is not one-issue specific but an entire menu of issues.

So, what are the issues menus on offer from each of the six servitors ?

1. Martha Coakley has yet to tell us what she will do as “governor” that she isn’t now doing as our — admittedly very effective — Attorney General. Perhaps her issues menu is “consumer protection” ?

2. Steve Grossman is just beginning to talk issues. His menu appears — so far — to be “business recruitment, lots of fund raising, and a higher minimum wage.” All good, but much more is likely coming.

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^ charisma to spare : Juliette Kayyem

3. Juliette Kayyem has drawn enthusiastic crowds of Democratic activists and certainly is the charisma champion of the field. It’s a little less clear what her issues menu is. Everybody knows that she was an NSA bureaucrat and wrote expertly — albeit in prose as dry as a month old egg sandwich — about national security issues for the Boston Globe. Who would have guessed that such a sere pen would, in person, exude such fire and warmth ? Perhaps that’s her menu : passion and charm.

4. Donald M. Berwick (see photo above) has, so far, put forth the most inspiring menu : health care as a human right, complete with a cost-control and care delivery plan; business recruitment and a higher minimum wage; and bold leadership on all civil rights issues. He seems to grasp, better than any of his rivals, that the office of “governor” is the issues referendum that I see in it. The activists seem to be responding; of late, Berwick’s twitter follower numbers have surged.

5. Joe Avellone says all the right things. his issues menu parallels Berwick’s although with less talk about health care (which is strange : Berwick is an MD, but so is Avellone). Still, Avellone draws smaller crowds and is — and seen as — a huge underdog. Running state-wide for “governor” is a difficult course for anyone as little known as Avellone, whose gentlemanly demeanor only adds to his difficulties arousing serious attention.

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^ meeting & greeting : the new, charimatic Charlie baker ; still the man to beat

6. Charlie Baker : his menu we already know from 2010 — or do we ? Unlike then, Baker is taking himself out to the people, doing meet and greets, just as Scott Brown did (and so doing, changed everything about Massachusetts GOP campaigns, which had tended to be press release and stand-out affairs merely, a soft touch of couch potato and hardly serious). Out and about — in Worcester County often — Baker stresses business recruitment (who isn’t ? But how about some innovation district initiatives as well ?), business confidence, and just a hint of education reform (surely we’ll see more of this from him). He’s also being Mr. Good Buddy, unlike the pissed-off persona he shopped in 2010. The change in demeanor is most welcome and seems to be catching fire. His twitter follower gains trail only Berwick’s and Kayyem’s.

The Democratic candidates are amassing issues rapidly; caucus day approaches. Hard to believe that caucuses will convene scarcely 120 days from now ! (According to the State’s Democratic party, they cannot take place later than March 2, 2014. For the Party Rule governing caucuses, follow this link : http://www.massdems.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/METHOD-2014_Proposed1.pdf ) Soon the issues roll-outs will give way to caucus commitments as candidates fight each other to secure the 15% of delegates needed in order to earn a spot on the printed Primary Day ballot at which the actual Democratic nominee will be chosen.

I will be covering this fight as it intensifies.

As with all Republican candidates, so outnumbered in Massachusetts by a host of Democratic hopefuls, Baker is running as if he and all of his Democratic rivals were part of the same selection slot. And they are. If the Republican candidate cannot outpoll all the Democratic hopefuls mano a mano, he won’t likely do so at the November election. Thus I am rating Baker on the same stage that I evaluate the five Democrats.

One big difference in quality between Baker and the rest : he has run for “governor’ already; they haven’t. He has tested the waters, against an incumbent no less. All the others have yet to prove anything. Most definitely do I include Martha Coakley in that assertion.

The way I see it right now, Baker is the favorite to take the people’s “issues referendum” into the State House and get the REAL Governor, Robert DeLeo, to listen to — us. I am not at all convinced that any of the five Democrats can capture DeLeo’s attention, interest, or concern.

—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere

NONE of your FAMILIES’ BUSINESS

Coffee or Vodka? Parenting 911

christmas gift

Come the Holiday season it seems everyone gets caught up in the hustle and bustle. Albeit the seemingly never endless shopping, or planning the perfect party — from dress, menu, and ambiance to invitee’s and traditions — the holidays bring a sense of urgency and anxiety gift wrapped with a pretty spirally bow — then perfectly finished with a heavy-handed sprinkling of Paxil, Prozac, and Xanax.

This year we looked forward to the Thanksgiving and Christmas related inquiries from our readers — begging even pleading for our help. So to thee, fellow “Holidazed” I say unto you — RELAX!!!!!  It’s only a few days of your entire heinous New England winter, you’ll survive!!! I beseech thee to stand up, leave thy padded rooms, unclench thy white knuckled kung-foo grip on your unrealistic expectations — and come celebrate that which makes even the burliest of men cry, and the mother of 6 natural birthed Satan spawned hellions — hit her knees…

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