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Michael Keaton stars as a washed-up film star trying to make a stage comeback in Alejandro Inarritu's Birdman. (Alison Rosa)

After A Ho-Hum Summer, Hollywood Ramps Up For Fall

Sep 1, 2014

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Gael Garcia Bernal is an imprisoned Iranian journalist in Jon Stewart's directorial debut, Rosewater.

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Bob Mondello

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Note: There are 26 films in the on-air version of this story — but here are three favorites.

Hollywood hauled out Apes, Transformers, and X-Men and still had a humdrum summer at the box office. For the first time in years, no summer blockbuster's managed to crack the $300 million barrier at the North American box office. In fact, until Guardians of the Galaxy came along, the film industry was looking at its lowest attendance figures in more than a decade.

Still, hope springs eternal, and with nearly 100 pictures lined up for the fall, there are bound to be a few that get pulses racing again.

Intriguingly, none of them — not even one — qualifies as a straight-up superhero movie. There is a black comedy about an actor who once played a superhero, and who is now so down on his luck he's fantasizing about a return to stardom ... on stage. That's Alejandro G. Inarritu's Birdman, with former Batman Michael Keaton suffering an elaborately visualized breakdown in the title role. Critics have been raving since the film's Venice Film Fest premiere earlier this week.

They've also had affirmative things to say about Rosewater, the film that first-time writer/director Jon Stewart took a leave of absence from The Daily Show to shepherd to the screen. Rosewater tracks the tough ordeal Iranian journalist (and Daily Show guest) Maziar Bahari was put through in an Iranian prison after authorities there decided his work for foreign news organizations amounted to spying.

And if the Middle East doesn't darken your mood, director Christopher Nolan may manage it in Interstellar, a vision of a future where humankind is rapidly running out of food, and the world's best minds are convinced that their task is not to save the earth, but to find a way to escape it.

Cheery stuff — and all hitting theaters before Thanksgiving, after which the awards contenders come out to play: Broadway musicals, biblical epics, hobbits. The sun'll come out tomorrow, dontcha know.

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Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on Aug. 26. in New York City. (Getty Images)

It Might Sound Stupid, But Maybe It Isn't The Economy This Time

Sep 1, 2014

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Gael Garcia Bernal is an imprisoned Iranian journalist in Jon Stewart's directorial debut, Rosewater.

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As they always do on Labor Day, political candidates will begin their campaign sprint to Election Day.

And for years, they have been running on simple advice: "It's the economy, stupid." But this time around the track, they may discover that many Americans want to hear about other issues as well.

Wait. What?

The economy is not the No. 1 issue?

That's right. Gallup pollsters asked voters what was important, and the No. 1 topic turned out to be dissatisfaction with politicians. No. 2 was immigration. The economy had slipped to only No. 3.

Given the depth of the recession and slow motion of the recovery, it can be almost jarring to realize that the U.S. economy no longer is in crisis mode. Despite a setback amid harsh weather this past winter, economists now say the recovery is advancing at a good clip.

Just last week, the Commerce Department revised its measure of total growth, the GDP, up to 4.2 percent for April, May and June. That very strong pace of expansion was two-tenths of a point higher than previously thought.

And the Conference Board's leading economic index's surged 0.9 percent in July, the sixth straight monthly gain.

"The big jumps in the leading economic index over the past couple of months indicate solid growth for the U.S. economy through the rest of 2014," Stuart Hoffman, chief economist for PNC Financial Services, said. "The economy is close to firing on all cylinders."

Of course for the millions of Americans who lost jobs or homes during the Great Recession, a true recovery may yet seem very far off in the future. But for many households, life really is getting back to normal.

Here are some statistics to help understand how much has changed since the last mid-term congressional election in 2010, when most people said the economy was "extremely" important in choosing candidates.

JOBS — In November, 2010, voters were heading to the polls in a country that had been staggered by job losses. That month, the unemployment rate was at a frightful 9.8 percent. Currently, it's down to 6.2 percent.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that in June, the most recent month for which it has data, employers had 4.7 million job openings, the highest number in 13 years. And July marked the sixth straight month with new hires exceeding 200,000, the first such streak since 1997.

STOCKS — If you had money in a 401(k) retirement savings plan back in 2010, you probably were feeling sick to your stomach heading into that election cycle. On Labor Day of that year, the Dow Jones industrial average was still hovering around 10,500 — down dramatically from its 2007 peak of about 14,000.

But these days, the DJIA is hovering around 17,000. In other words, your savings have recovered all that was lost in the financial crisis, and you're watching markets set new record highs.

DEFICIT - In the 2010 election, a major issue was the exploding budget deficit. But in an update released last week, the Congressional Budget Office said the federal deficit is now shrinking faster than previously forecast because of sustained growth and low interest rates.

The deficit for fiscal 2014 is now projected to be $506 billion, or just 2.9% of gross domestic product. That is less than one-third of the deficit's recession peak — and below the average deficit level over the past 40 years.

GAS PRICES - Despite the turmoil in the Mideast, gas prices have remained tame this summer. Gasoline has been averaging around $3.43 a gallon, down by about a dime from last year. This will be the cheapest Labor Day driving period since 2010, according to AAA, the auto club.

AUTO SALES - In August, 2010, new vehicle sales were slightly below 1 million. This August, J.D. Power and its partner LMC Automotive say total sales reached 1.5 million units.

Other indicators involving housing and business investment also have been looking positive this summer.

So does all of this that mean voters are in a cheery mood?

No. There's still lots to worry about. In fact, a new Rutgers study found workers feel "insecure, underpaid, highly stressed, and generally unhappy at work."

Just as millions of older Americans never were able to shake off the financial and psychological impacts of the Great Depression, many people today are struggling get back on track and feel confident again. The Rutgers study concluded that "despite sustained job growth and lower levels of unemployment, most Americans do not think the economy has improved in the last year or that it will in the next."

That kind of reaction is common in a downturn. For example, following the 1980-82 recession, pessimism lingered. In October 1984, during the Reagan administration, 63 percent of Americans said they thought the next generation would be worse off.

But polling shows that over time, a recession's impact starts to recede as new issues grab center stage. This summer's news has been filled with disturbing reports about immigration, the Middle East, Ukraine, Ferguson, Ebola, ISIS and even airplane catastrophes.

"Many more Americans now mention a non-economic issue — such as dissatisfaction with government, immigration, or ethical and moral decline — than an economic one as the top problem," the Gallup poll concluded.

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Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on Aug. 26. in New York City. (Getty Images)

Judge Blocks Enforcement Of Louisiana's Abortion Law

by Krishnadev Calamur
Sep 1, 2014

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Louisiana's new abortion law requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges to a nearby hospital. But a lawsuit challenged the law on the basis that the requirement was medically unnecessary and would result in the closure of the state's abortion clinics. A federal judge on Sunday temporarily blocked the measure.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge John deGravelles said the law cannot be enforced until a hearing is held on whether an order is needed to block it while the case is in court.

Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement on the group's website, that the ruling "ensures Louisiana women are safe from an underhanded law that seeks to strip them of their health and rights."

But Kyle Duncan, who represents the state, said the law is aimed at protecting women.

"They are essentially focused on protecting the patient, such that if there's a complication that requires hospitalization, that patient can have the benefit of her doctor being able to go an provide care for her at the hospital, and so to provide what physicians call continuity of care," he told The Associated Press.

DeGravelles' ruling allows the law to take effect, but doctors who break it can't be penalized. He wrote:

"The Act will be allowed to take effect but Plaintiffs will not be subject to the penalties and sanctions allowed in the statute at this time or in the future for practicing without the relevant admitting privileges during the applications process. Plaintiffs will be allowed to operate lawfully while continuing their efforts to obtain privileges."

The AP adds: "Admitting privileges laws have passed across the South. A panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Louisiana, upheld a similar Texas law. But in July, a different panel of the 5th Circuit voted to overturn Mississippi's law, which would have shuttered the state's only abortion clinic, saying every state must guarantee the right to an abortion."

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During the rainy season, a canoe is a handy vehicle to have in the waterlogged Peruvian neighborhood of Belen. (Courtesy of Dave Ohlson)

Volunteer Docs In Peru Take A Shopping Trip To Look For Patients

by Dave Ohlson
Sep 1, 2014

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Medical student Dave Ohlson and Leovina, a local counselor, talk with potential patients in Belen, a neighborhood in Iquitos, Peru.

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After a couple days operating on people in Iquitos, Peru we realize we're going to need some more patients.

We started with about 50 candidates, with hernias, tumors or unidentified pains. But most were excluded for a variety of reasons. Some were too old or weak, and we feared complications with their hearts. Some never returned with the x-rays (relatively affordable at government clinics) we would need before operating. Yet others had conditions we were not equipped to operate on, like tumors of the ovaries or uterus.

A couple of us medical students headed out into the neighborhoods to find more patients.

Iquitos is divided into four districts, each with its own mayor and demographics. Belen is the poorest, situated on the edge of town. It literally extends into the Itaya River, a huge tributary of the Amazon. The houses are built on stilts or just float, tied to posts to prevent them from drifting away. The further out on the river, the more questionable the construction gets: homes cobbled together with scrap wood and plastic. If you are truly poor, this is where you stake your claim.

We begin in the market, the largest in the city, and walk gradually downhill past stalls offering chicken, fish and monkey meat. There are clothes and shoes as well, but it's the meat that catches your eye, laid out on wooden tables and of questionable freshness.

Tarps strung over the street between the stalls lend red, green or blue hues to the scene. Through the open areas between these tarps, vultures descend to the street to squabble with stray dogs over scraps.

We're with Leovina Perez, a Peruvian counselor who works with the residents of Belen. We get a lot of attention from the vendors as we're still dressed in our scrubs from the clinic. As we walk between stalls a woman asks us what we're doing. When we explain that we are looking for people who might need surgery she asks us to examine her abdomen.

We step off the street through a door and into a concrete storeroom. She shows me her stomach while explaining the pain she has. Unfortunately, it is not a hernia, something we can easily fix in the operating room. It's likely a benign tumor of the uterus. Also known as fibroids, these growths can cause pain, especially during menstruation. We aren't equipped to perform gynecological surgeries during this visit but take her information so that Leovina can contact her if another surgical team comes through.

We turn and walk down stairs until we come to the edge of the water. It is the beginning of the dry season, and the water has receded a bit. The houses stand on their stilts about half a story above the waterline. From here you can get in a canoe or use makeshift walkways suspended above the fetid waters. Garbage is strewn about, collecting against the homes in the water. You can smell the human waste that gets deposited straight into the river. There is no sewer system or garbage collection. The current just carries it away — or so one hopes.

As I struggle to keep my balance on the narrow wooden planks I think about how much I do not want to fall in this water. Then I come across a group of children swimming, laughing and splashing each other. It's not exactly shocking. The reality is that more people live in similar makeshift communities around the world than live in American-style neighborhoods. Still, the water makes it seem especially unsanitary.

Leovina knows of a potential patient, so we follow her along the catwalk by rows of wooden houses. Eventually we come to the individual's home, where he waits with another man interested in surgery. Inside, a television is on next to a stereo with rather large speakers. It's one of the classic paradoxes of our times that we're here in the poorest area of Iquitos, yet some homes have satellite TV and we follow up with these patients via cellphone.

The home consists of a main room with two smaller rooms attached. Plastic sheeting lets light in through the ceiling. I can see the water through gaps in the wooden-plank floor.

After interviewing the patients I take them one at a time into a bedroom to examine them. One is suffering from quite a large hernia that he's had for 15 years. It hurts, he says and keeps him from working. He's in his 70s and I worry that his age increases the risk for surgery, but I tell him to come to the clinic for a final determination. The other man is younger, maybe 50, and has a smaller hernia that should be easy to repair.

We walk back via a different route finding more patients along the way. The walkways bring us to concrete streets, a recent improvement to the neighborhood. The receding waters have left behind large piles of wet garbage, which we pick our way around. The houses here are mostly concrete and brick. Various shops occupy their lower levels, but in the rainy season the water sits just below the second story. I am told that in very wet years the water can reach even higher.

It's tempting to call Belen a slum, but really it is a neighborhood like any other. Though the people are poor there are a range of incomes. Some people work in the market; others have jobs in the city. To call it a slum seems insulting to the dignity of the people who live here. They do the best they can with the little they have.

Leovina herself grew up here. People of Peru, the NGO she now works for, became part of her life when she was barely a teenager. Through this group she was provided with the opportunity to go to college. Today she counsels orphans and women in crisis centers run by the organization. Her story is a great example of how a helping hand can turn someone's life around — and that's basically what we're trying to do when we go out looking for patients.

The patients we found came to the clinic and most had successful operations. The reality, though, is that we couldn't get to everyone we wanted to help.

On our last day of clinic I had to go and speak with one of our patients from Belen to tell him we were not going to be operating on him. It was the older of the two gentlemen I had examined in the home above the water. We were leaving the next day and knew we'd already be operating into the night. As a medical student I know it will someday be my job to deliver bad news, but that doesn't mean it will ever be easy.

I felt personally invested in this patient. We had walked out into the neighborhood and found him, offered him hope, and now we were going to just leave? It seemed unfair, but the hard truth is that there has to be a limit. There are a finite amount of resources, and there are physical limits to how much work people can do. Someone has to be the last patient. We operated on the younger man because he had a lower chance of complications. It was a triage decision that underscores the fact that there is a lot more work to be done here.

I talked with Paul Opp, the director of People for Peru, about this. His organization gave logistical support to our trip and they host many other types of groups throughout the year.

Sometimes he'll hold a dinner for new volunteers and give each of them a coupon redeemable for a meal at a local restaurant. And the volunteer is told to give the coupon to a deserving resident of Iquitos.

It sounds simple enough, but the area of downtown Iquitos that runs along the Amazon River has many needy children begging and they recognize these coupons. It's easy to give away a voucher for a free meal. What's not easy is a situation with ten hungry children begging you to feed them — and you can only help one.

Paul hopes this coupon experience will point up the enormity and difficulties of the task here. A city can't be changed overnight. But with groups coming in to help, at least some residents will get the help they need.

As for me, I can't wait to return.

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Charles Cumming's latest book is A Colder War. (Jonathan Ring)

Author Charles Cumming Ponders The Seductions — And The Sins — Of Spying

Sep 1, 2014

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Medical student Dave Ohlson and Leovina, a local counselor, talk with potential patients in Belen, a neighborhood in Iquitos, Peru.

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If you were making a movie about the world of British espionage, you'd want to cast someone like Charles Cumming as your undercover agent. He's tall and handsome and self-assured and utterly charming in that self-deprecating British way. You can imagine him effortlessly gliding through the small talk of embassy parties or sweeping a gullible female officer off her feet — in service of Queen and country, of course. In other words, it's easy to be seduced by him.

And seduction is what it's all about, according to Cumming — who is, in fact, a best-selling author of spy novels. "Spying is about relationships, and spying is about persuading people to do what you want them to do — and that is not so far removed from a romantic relationship."

Cumming was actually approached to join the British intelligence services after he graduated from university. A friend of the family suggested he might want to explore joining the "diplomatic" service, a delicate euphemism for the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6. He went through the early stages of application — and that experience inspired A Spy By Nature, which follows young recruit Alec Milius as he learns that while deception is necessary in the complex world of espionage, self-deception is something else entirely.

Cumming's new novel, A Colder War, stars Thomas Kell, an unjustly-disgraced MI6 agent called in from the cold to investigate the death of a seasoned officer in an apparent accident. It's got the requisite action scenes, exotic locales, and intricate spycraft, but it's what you might call "thinky;" light on the kind of derring-do found in a standard spy novel. "It's derring-don't," he laughs.

And in a way, he's right. Cumming is more concerned with the moral quandaries inherent in espionage. "I don't think spies think of themselves as liars. I think they think of themselves as patriots, and as a necessary evil, if you like, because by lying it's a means to an end — they are trying to save lives or protect people or gather intelligence."

Cumming has been hailed as a worthy successor to John Le Carr, and it's clear the great British spy novelist has had quite an influence on his approach to his craft. "There is a demand that American readers have for spies to be heroic," Cumming says, "to not have all of the gray areas that we explore on this side of the Atlantic ... here, we're all sort of George Smiley and self-doubt, and self-pity, even." George Smiley, being, of course, the mild-mannered and morally conflicted hero of many Le Carr books.

Kell is no George Smiley, but he's a sympathetic character, someone the average reader can identify with even if the average reader is not, in fact, a spy. He's middle-aged, with a failed marriage under his belt and a thoroughly stalled career. Despite that, Cumming also knows that the average parts of a spy's life can make for tedious reading "If I was true to the operational day-to-day teamwork of tracking some brainwashed mad mullah in Derbyshire, the reader would get very bored very quickly, because as Le Carr pointed out — and Tom Kell is fond of quoting, spying is waiting."

So Cumming includes the thrills — because an espionage thriller must thrill — but what really appeals to him is making room for depth and development of characters. "I don't really think of myself as a spy novelist," he says. "I just think of myself as a novelist who writes about spies, because by writing about spies I can get into all sorts of things about human behavior and relationships and ambition and frailty that the genre affords."

Madhulika Sikka is Executive Editor of NPR News, and an unabashed fan of espionage thrillers.

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