Friday, November 30, 2007

The Savages - Trailer

I am really looking forward to this film. I am convinced it will be the "Little Miss Sunshine" or "Sideways" of 2007.

This is what happens when you have a sick mind

Received a news release moments ago announcing an educational seminar called "Steps for Healthy Living: A Community Event for People with Nerve Pain." The second paragraph of this release says:

"Guest speakers will discuss ways to help manage diabetic nerve pain including healthy eating habits, exercise and medications. A healthy lunch will be served, and each guest will receive a product gift bag."

Now c'mon. One would hope a "healthy" lunch would follow a discussion on "healthy eating habits," but I'm concerned about that product gift bag idea. What if the participants are experiencing too much nerve pain to lift it?

That's why I'm here--to worry about these things.

What's wrong with this picture

Word is that Bobby Bowden signed a one-year extension at Florida State at a salary about four times--THAT'S FOUR TIMES--more than what Joe Paterno is being paid.

Thankfully, we have Brad Sham

For most of the first half of the Cowboys-Packers game last night I had the radio sound on so I was listening to the play calling of Brad Sham, still one of the best in the business in my book, and the commentary by Babe Laufenberg (no, not that Babe). I'm not going into the boring story of "why" this happened, but for the second half I was forced to listen to the NFL Network's audio. This morning, I railed about how bad I thought the NFL Network did to anyone who would listen (which, incidentally, is one person--my son), but I wasn't going to mention anything about it here until I ran across this from D Magazine's Frontburner Blog and then this from the folks at the Lakewood Advocate. Seems the civilized world is in agreement here.

What's the world coming to

Many, many MANY years ago, I used to make my living going to live music concerts. Trust me, it can get old after 15 years. So these days there are very few acts that will draw me out to a live music venue. Springsteen is one. I always enjoy myself whenever I see Shake Russell and Marcia Ball. But those who know me well will tell you they would never expect me to be attending a concert by these folks. It just goes to show you how a precious granddaughter (pictured here) can change my priorities.

The current state of independent films

The Independent Spirit Award nominations were announced earlier this week and, unlike last year when a number of very fine films were among the nominees, this year's list made me ... well ... yawn. Two films I have yet to see but are looking forward to, "The Savages" and "I'm Not There," dominated the awards. But there was no mention of such films as "No Country for Old Men," "Eastern Promises" and "Into the Wild."

Maybe that's because the Independent Spirit Awards are restricted to those independent films whose production AND post-production budget cannot exceed $20 million. I'm figuring the three films mentioned above exceeded that figure.

What that means is that I doubt any of the films nominated for best picture by the Independent Spirit Awards folks--"I'm Not There," "
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," "Juno," "A Mighty Heart" and "Paranoid Park"--will wind up with an Oscar nomination in that category. This is a reversal from recent history when Independent Spirit nominees such as "Little Miss Sunshine," "Good Night and Good Luck" and "Crash" scored big at the Oscars. Of course Gus Van Sant's "Paranoid Park" won't even be eligible because it won't go into theatrical release until sometime next year.

Of course, any discussion on independent films has to mention the birth mother of the movement, the
Sundance Film Festival. For those interested, here is the 2008 Sundance lineup.

And, no, I'm not going to Sundance. Northern Utah in January is just too cold for my tastes. Now, if this was a
Hana film festival with this same lineup, I might reconsider.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

FILM REVIEWS: "No Country" "Devil" both must-sees

Film Critic Emeritus

Most moviegoers cringe at the word "bleak." But when dealing with "No Country for Old Men" and "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," you can add "tantalizing," "compelling," "riveting" and even "brilliant" to the word mix. These movies are must-see's, and any moviegoer who avoids them doesn't deserve the honored label of "film fan." Each film's view of human nature is bleak, but the movies leave you with the rare satisfaction of a near-perfect viewing experience.

Faithfully adapted from Cormac McCarthy's moody, elegiac novel, "No Country" represents the sibling duo of Joel and Ethan Coen at peak prowess. It's not simply their best movie since "Fargo." It's simply their best movie. The brothers' trademarked wry humor is in evidence, albeit in smaller portions than in previous films and often lifted verbatim from McCarthy's prose.

Javier Bardem (pictured above) is an unforgettable scumbag, a man who enjoys killing and orchestrates his murders like a master chef. He makes Robert Mitchum in "The Night of the Hunter" seem like a Louisa May Alcott creation. This character would never have "love" and "hate" tattooed on his knuckles. He'd have "hate" tattooed on both of them. He is the trigger man behind an aborted drug heist, and he winds up playing a fatal feline-and-rodent game with Josh Brolin, as a mostly likable working bloke who comes across a fortune in drug money.

With "No Country for Old Men," "American Gangster" and "In the Valley of Elah," 2007 is the breakthrough year for "Goonies" alum Brolin. Never more will he be known primarily as Diane Lane's husband, Barbra Streisand's stepson and -- almost forgot! -- James Brolin's son. He delivers an intimately layered performance of an ordinary guy in horrifyingly extraordinarily situations.

As an honest sheriff, Tommy Lee Jones brings his gift of making maximum use of minimal expressions. The title reflects his weary, wizened presence, and his final speech will linger in your psyche. But every part is perfectly cast. In only a few scenes, the relationships between Jones and wife Tess Harper as well as Brolin and wife Kelly Macdonald are hauntingly realized. Beware, though. You may want to strangle Beth Grant as Brolin's mother-in-law, who does not believe in suffering silently.

"No Country for Old Men" is a magical movie, and so is "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." The title comes from an Irish proverb, "May you enjoy a half-hour of heaven before the devil knows you're dead," and most of the lead characters would have the devil's approval.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke play restless brothers who plot the robbery of their parents' jewelry store. Each brother has his own, less-than-honorable reasons for wanting money. The dominant Hoffman considers it a victim-less heist. After all, he easily reasons, insurance will cover his parents' losses. So what could go wrong?

The viewer knows that everything probably will go wrong, but it's fascinating to see exactly how things head south. Both Hoffman and Hawke are stunning. Hoffman's character is as far from Truman Capote as the actor could go, and his emotional odyssey is remarkable. Hawke, as the younger, frightened brother unravels with memorably tragic conviction. Albert Finney, as the grieving father, summons the rage of a Biblical patriarch.

"Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is a moviegoer's dream. It's directed, superbly, by 83-year-old Sidney Lumet, the cinema magician behind "Dog Day Afternoon," "Serpico," "Murder on the Orient Express" and "Network." Who says an octogenarian can't make movies that young audiences will cherish?

THIS AND THAT: How do you sports fans feel about Jake Gyllenhaal signing up to play Joe Namath in an upcoming biopic? There are some facial similarities, but Gyllenhaal's forte has been playing introverted types, not macho sports figures ... The first website photos of Harrison Ford in "Indiana Jones 4" have hit the net, and Hollywood Elsewhere website's Jeffrey Wells says it best, ungallantly stating that Ford looks more like Uncle Festus than the once-spry Indy.

Loza's political future

Sam Merten, one of the best local political reporters out there today, believes former City Council member John Loza is thinking of running for county judge.

"Rude"? "Immature"? Give me a break!

I don't know how others are going to react to this, but this story really makes me mad.

Rusty Wier benefit to be held at Poor David's

Rusty Wier has always made me want to dance.

He was at the vanguard of the so-called "Texas Music Scene" when it first blossomed in the early 1970s. He was also a victim of that same scene. I remember when he was signed by a national record label, I think it was ABC Paramount, and then promptly buried because the record executives didn't want him competing with other artists they were promoting more heavily. That's how cutthroat this industry could be. He released one album on the label--an excellent recording that could have had some decent sales if only the label had promoted it to radio stations. But without airplay, nothing was going to happen.

But Wier, as far as I could tell, never lost his enthusiasm. He toured and played tirelessly and he gave everything he could in each show, regardless of the number of people he played in front of. I always left a Rusty Wier performance much happier than when I entered. One of these performances was captured perfectly on a "Live at Poor David's" CD. I hope it is still available.

I recently learned Wier has been diagnosed with a serious illness and being a touring Texas musician he is not going to have health insurance. Some friends are doing what they can to help out.

Poor David's Pub, 1313 S. Lamar, will be hosting a benefit for Wier Sunday, Jan. 6, from 3 to 6 p.m. According to an e-mail from Poor David's David Card, the club will feature on this date: " (1) cheap beer; (2) a $3 tequila special, "The Rusty," a shot of Jose Cuervo with lime and an attitude; and (3) a chili cookoff that will feature awards for the best chili, the most creative chili and the best chili named in honor of Rusty Wier. The cook-off is limited to 10 contestants and the entry fee is $20. Performers lined up to play during the benefit include Brian Burns, Mark David Manders, Blacktop Gypsy, B'Ann Grant, Mark Wayne Glasmire, Joe Pat Hennen, Jayson Bales and Tommy Alverson. Someone not on this list that I really hope shows is Steve Fromholz.

The way the Cowboys are playing right now, they should not be a wild card entry into the playoffs and this weekend is the one set-aside for the wild card playoff games. If, however, the Cowboys collapse into the wild card, I imagine David will have a television set handy.

All things being equal, I plan on being at Poor David's Jan. 6. I really hope I see a lot of old friends there as well.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

DVD REVIEW: "Rescue Dawn"

In masterpieces such as "Fitzcarraldo" and "Aguirre: The Wrath of God," director Werner Herzog has visited the themes and the locales of "Rescue Dawn," his first Hollywood feature film. The locale is the jungle and the theme is the madness that results from isolation and deprivation. This time, though, Herzog’s main character, Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), doesn’t go completely mad but he seems half way around the bend by the time his story ends.

Herzog has even visited this exact story before, in his 1997 documentary "Little Dieter Needs to Fly," in which the 60-year-old Dengler tells Herzog his life story, including his being shot down over Laos in 1966, his capture by the Pathet Lao, his imprisonment in a POW camp during which his weight dipped to 85 pounds, his escape and his survival through monsoons, leeches and machete wielding villagers. "Rescue Dawn" is Herzog’s dramatization of this story, although Herzog’s brilliance here is that he manages to make the dramatization seem more real than the documentary.

It is a model of precise film making told in the customary three acts. Act 1 shows us Dieter and his fellow pilots aboard an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin flying planes that look to be Korean War vintage (I was a reporter in Vietnam a year before the action in this film took place and I never saw anything remotely like the planes these pilots fly); Dieter’s first and only mission, a secret one into Laos, his crash landing, his capture and his travels and his tortures as a prisoner. (In one memorable scene, he is hung upside down with an ant’s nest strapped to the side of his face.) Act 2 takes place in the prison camp where he meets two other Americans, the neurotic Duane (Steve Zahn) and delusional Eugene (Jeremy Davies). Despite being held there for 30 months, Eugene is convinced that the Army that has forgotten him will be rescuing him any second now. Duane, on the other hand, sees Dieter as perhaps his only path to salvation, if not survival. Act 3 plays out in the jungles of Laos after Dieter, Duane, Eugene and two Southeast Asian prisoners, Phisit (Abhijati Jusakul) and Procet (Lek Chaiyan Chunsuttiwat) have escaped.

Typically, Herzog gives some human dimensions to the prison guards as well as the prisoners. There’s a telling moment in the film when some of the guards, foraging neighborhood villages for rice, come back empty handed. They decide they are going to desert and return to their villages; first, however, they will kill their prisoners and make it look like an aborted escape attempt. It’s Herzog’s way of telling us that the guards have home lives as well and they don’t want to leave these prisoners to starve to death either.

Other than a two final scenes, one in a military hospital and the other back onboard Dieter’s aircraft carrier, both of which seem contrived, this is a wonderfully conceived, executed and acted film. Although my descriptions of the acts may make it sound like a cross between "Papillon" and "The Great Escape," Herzog shuns the false bravado found in both of those earlier movies. This is strictly a character-driven film, it is not so much about what Dieter does or what is done to him, but the effect all this has on his soul. The film is first about fear and then about survival in the hopes that the central character can experience fear once again. Herzog’s jungle--with its thick, almost unpenetrable underbrush, its humidity, its snakes, its rivers and waterfalls, becomes as much a character as Dieter himself.

And what is Herzog’s moral? What does he want you to take away from all this? I dunno. At the end, Dieter is asked basically these questions and he repies ""Empty that which is full. Fill that which is empty. If it itches, scratch it. That’s it."


Monday, November 26, 2007

My 2-cents

If the Arkansas-Texas A&M series becomes a reality, then I really think the Texas-OU game will leave Dallas and become a home-and-home affair. I don't expect it to remain at the Cotton Bowl after the current contract expires and I don't think it wants to compete for attention with an Aggie-Razorback series at Jones Stadium, or whatever that joint will be called. Besides playing the Texas-OU game one year in Austin and the next year in Norman just makes good sense.

A&M's hiring of Mike Sherman also seems to make sense, although I'm not sure how much a connection Sherman has with Texas high school coaches. Of course, it didn't take Texas' Mack Brown long to make that connection. I'm also puzzled by this statement from A&M Athletic Director Bill Byrne: "Most of the all, the thing I like about Mike Sherman, he's an Aggie." Sure, he was A&M's offensive line coach in the 1990s, but he left in 1997 to coach tight ends for the Green Bay Packers. Does that one brief stint make him a full-fledged Aggie? Is Dennis Franchione now considered for all time to be an Aggie? How about Jackie Sherrill? If former assistant coaches achieve this status, how about former head coaches? A&M folks, help me out here!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

DVD REVIEW: "Colma: The Musical"

"Colma: The Musical" is a melding of the hometown values found in movies like "Meet Me in St. Louis," the anarchy of the Marx Brothers’ "Duck Soup" and the independent, free-wheeling spirit and don’t-give-a-damn attitude of "Slacker."

The movie is set in Colma, Calif., just south of San Francisco which is known for the fact that for every person living there, there are 1,000 who are dead there. Colma is the home of 17 different cemeteries for humans and one for pets. William Randolph Hearst is buried there. So is Wyatt Earp. And Joe DiMaggio.

But the movie is not about dead people. Just the opposite. It tells the story of three recent high school graduates — Billy (Jake Moreno), who is trying to get over a bad romance and aspires to be an actor; Rodel (H.P. Mendoza), who is gay and trying to keep his father (Larry Soriano) from finding that out; and Maribel (L.A. Renigen), who serves as the common-sense link between Billy and Rodel when she is not partying and having no-strings-attached sex. Billy and Rodel are not happy in Colma; Maribel seems at peace with her fate there.

These three often find themselves singing, but not in the way you find in most movie musicals, when it just seems like a major production number bursts from the seams of a particular scene. These folks just seem to slip naturally into song and the choreography that surrounds the tunes (men in black suits waltzing with women in white dresses in a cemetery, guys doing cartwheels down the block while Billy sings of his new love) feels as unforced as the songs themselves.

Which brings me to the songs, which are not so much songs as they are words these characters would actually say at the particular moment in the film set to music. I guess this is because Mendoza, who wrote the movie’s script, also composed its songs. Richard Wong, a friend of Mendoza’s from college, directed, shot and edited the film and he does some neat things with split screens here.

The movie looks as if it were made using what was left of the stars’ parents’ credit cards, although don’t take that as a negative. It has an R rating, solely because the language here is the street language of teenagers (and the language extends to the songs as well, adding a sense of whimsical credibility).

"Colma: The Musical" works because it uses its songs for self-expressions and its script for self-discoveries. Unlike "Hairspray," it doesn’t flood you with good feelings; it sort of sneaks up behind you and gives you a hug.


Friday, November 23, 2007

DVD REVIEW: "Hairspray"

Movies are designed to do many things, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a film whose entire motivation just seemed to make the viewer gloriously happy. "Hairspray" is such a film.

For a musical, "Hairspray" is somewhat of a strange duck. There’s not a memorable song in its entire score, but every singe song within the context of the film is absolutely wonderful and they are sung with the absolute conviction of those who have nothing to lose. And the songs are embedded in production numbers that can be inspiring ("Come So Far [Got So Far To Go]"), exuberant ("Without Love"), touchingly funny ("[You’re] Timeless to Me"), and ultimately danceable ("Run and Tell That," "The Nicest Kids in Town"). And when Queen Latifah lights into a tune such as "I Know Where I’ve Been" I wish Hollywood would make more musicals just so she can be in them.

By now everyone knows the movie stars John Travolta in a fat suit playing a woman (Edna Turnblad). Get over it. Travolta pulls off a near miracle with this performance. I never once forget I’m watching John Travolta, but I do forget Travolta is actually a man. I never saw the original John Waters film, so I missed how Divine approached this role, but Travolta nails it.

Travolta’s performance is just one in a galaxy of splendid ones. Let’s deal with the known actors first. Christopher Walken is appropriately strange as Edna’s devoted husband, Wilbur, who obviously purchases his shirts, his slacks and ties in three different parts of the world. Their musical duet in the backyard of their Baltimore home is a wonderful example of converting an impossible concept into an enchanting scene. Michelle Pfeiffer reminded me that she’s been off the screen for far too long as she turns pettiness into an art form as Velma von Tussle, who’s one claim to fame is that she was once crowned, quite appropriately, Miss Baltimore Crab. Allison Janney, as she often does, disappears within a part, this time as a bigoted, evangelical parent, Prudy Pendleton.

But the movie really belongs to actors not as well known. First and foremost is Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad, the overweight daughter of Edna and Wilbur whose fight against injustice (both racially and physically motivated) drives the story line. Her best friend and Prudy’s daughter, Penny Singleton (Amanda Bynes), does suggestive things with a lollipop at just the right times that makes me wonder how this film escaped with a PG rating. Her boyfriend is Seaweed (Elijah Kelly) who looks like Clyde McPhatter and sings like Smokey Robinson, the perfect combination for this role. James Marsden turns what could have been a one-dimensional part of a TV dance show host into a fully rounded character.

The film is set in the early ‘60s and revolves around an afternoon dance show (an "American Bandstand" with production numbers) that is segregated and, if Velma, the television station’s manager, has her way will remain so. (Velma is also determined that no overweight girls will get on the program either.) The show is the center of Tracy and Penny’s life and when, in one of the movie’s many classic throwaway bits, one of the dancers has to take a nine-month leave of absence, Tracy decides to audition. Tracy has learned most of her dance moves from Seaweed and other black kids who seem to habitually reside in their high school’s detention class. Although once a month the all-white dance show is replaced by "Negro Day," Tracy fights to get the show completely integrated.

That’s really all I need to tell you about the story line because in this version of "Hairspray" it exists as simply a clothesline on which to hang all the magical musical production numbers and some laugh-out-loud lines. (When Tracy, Penny and Tracy’s boyfriend walk into the record shop owned by Queen Latifah’s character, she says "If we get any more white people in here, we’re going to become a suburb.")

If you don’t have the biggest grin on your face when you take this DVD out of your player, you’re not a person I would particularly like to hang out with.


Thursday, November 22, 2007

DVD REVIEW: "Live Free or Die Hard"

Does "Live Free or Die Hard" defy logic? Is it wildly implausible? Of course it is, but, then, it this wasn’t true, "Live Free or Die Hard" would not be a worthy part of the franchise.

So let’s just stipulate that at the beginning and go on to say this is a fun, action-packed film complete with great stunts, an interesting plot and a bunch of characters that are defined more carefully than usual for films of this genre.

It’s interesting to note that legions of this film’s viewers would have been under the age of 5 the last time Bruce Willis appeared on the screen as John McLane in "Die Hard: With a Vengeance." I mention that only because I’m thinking teen-age males are this film’s primary audience, especially since this is the first of the four "Die Hard" films to have a PG-13 rating (probably because McLane’s language is toned down 300 notches this time around). But McLane is a character that doesn’t have to be familiar to his core audience. All he has to do is smash the driver’s side window of the parked car belonging to guy trying to grope McLane’s daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and his persona is established.

Here’s the narrative in a nutshell. Because the incident with Lucy and her "not boyfriend" happens on the campus of Rutgers University, the state university of New Jersey, McLane, a New York City policeman, is sent to Camden, New Jersey, at the behest of the FBI to pick up a computer hacker. So here’s the first implausible moment. Camden is 62 miles from the main campus of Rutgers, but only three miles — actually just across the bridge — from Philadelhia. So why wasn’t a cop summoned from Philly? I dunno, perhaps the Rutgers referenced here is the Camden campus, but let’s not quibble over geography or campuses. The reason this nerd is needed is because someone is hacking into all of the government’s computer systems causing havoc. In a brilliant casting stroke, the hacker, Matthew Farrell, is played by Justin Long, best known for playing "Mac" in those "Mac vs. PC" television commercials. Because of our familiarity with Long, we immediately accept Farrell as a computer expert. McLane is told to bring Farrell to FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. All hell breaks lose as soon as McLane arrives at Farrell’s apartment and doesn’t let up for two hours, time that flies by amazingly quickly largely due to Len Wiseman’s direction.

The bad guys are led by Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), who tried to warn U.S. officials that their computer systems could be easy targets for terrorist attacks and is banished because of it. So he decides to prove his thesis and make a lot of money in the process. He is aided by the best villainess Mai Lihn (Maggie Q) the screen has seen in an action film in a long, long time and a bunch of other computer geeks Gabriel plans to dispatch when they are no longer needed.

What makes the best of the "Die Hard" films — the first one and this one — work is because steps are taken to humanize McLane. Here is a guy who really wants to be a family man, but violence always gets in the way. What’s ironic is that the violence comes largely because of McLane’s attempts to protect his family. McLane was motivated in the first film because his wife was being held hostage by terrorists. In this one, Gabriel kidnaps and plans to kill Lucy. So for McLane, his quests seem to be far more personal than simply truth, justice and the American way and this makes them far less heroic and far more blue collar everyman. Not that everyman could drive an 18-wheeler over collapsing highway bridges or shoot down a helicopter with a police car acting as a missile, but he sure makes it seem like everyman could. McLane simply shrugs all this off and continues on his relentless pursuit.

Although the 18-wheeler vs. jet fighter and the helicopter vs. police car scenes are madly implausible, they somehow work in the context of the movie. As a matter of fact, all the action scenes deliver the goods. All except one. There’s a scene in which Gabriel directs (I suppose) Americas’s entire supply of natural gas to the center of a power grid and then asks us to believe that once it arrived, the gas would spontaneously combust. I think the gas could conceivably burst from its pipes, but I doubt it would explode. But there are a pair of other action scenes at this location that are so good — one involving McLane and a bad guy with more quick moves than Spiderman and the other in which McLane battles Mai in what seems like a bottomless elevator shaft — that I’m more than willing to forgive the gas goof.

There is a fine line that separates the time in an actor’s life when he should leave the action roles to the Matt Damons and the Mark Wahlbergs of the profession. It was obvious in films like "Firewall" and "The Sentinel" that Harrison Ford and Michael Douglas have probably crossed that line. It is equally obvious from "Live Free or Die Hard" that Bruce Willis hasn’t.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

I don't care, I'm still sleeping late

Maria Halkias, one of the best business writers around, had a holiday shopping roundup in yesterday’s Dallas Morning News that contained the following tidbits for the rabid shoppers among us:

“At Kohl's and J.C. Penney, where hard-core shoppers have enjoyed ever-earlier openings on Thanksgiving Fridays, the doors will open this year at the ungodly hour of 4 a.m.

Food, entertainment and even accommodations are being used to bring out shoppers.
NorthPark Center and La Madeleine will give away free coffee and a Danish at 5:30 a.m. Friday to shoppers waiting for stores to start opening at 6 a.m.

For the first time, Town East Mall is opening at 1 a.m. on Friday, and to attract a crowd it's holding a party with live entertainment at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving. Live performances are scheduled from Dallas country singer Chez Marie and 14-year-old rising starlet Courtney Now.

Most outlet centers are opening at midnight on Thanksgiving, and CompUSA for the second year in a row will open from 9 p.m. to midnight on Thanksgiving Day. It's offering pumpkin pie at its stores that day, as well as online-only specials.

Although Wal-Mart Supercenters and Bass Pro Shops are open on Thanksgiving Day, they reserve their best prices for Friday morning.

Wal-Mart plans to post its day-after-Thanksgiving door busters on its Web site today. Bass Pro Shops will close at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving and reopen at 6 a.m. Friday. Those arriving early can stay in deluxe camp sites and enjoy s'mores and hot cocoa.”

The Boss is Coming Back

The bad news is that Bruce Springsteen has shaved his current concert tour to a comparatively brief running time of two hours versus the three-plus hour marathons that were the standard for the last (gawd, should I say it?) 35 years. And he seems to have retired “Thundercrack,” a wonderful song he brought out of semi-retirement for the first leg of that tour. The sad news is keyboardist Danny Federici, one of the three original E-Street Band members left (the others being Clarence Clemons and Garry Tallent), has taken an extended leave of absence from the band for treatment of melanoma.

The good news offsets that bad and sad, however. The Boss has unveiled his 2008 U.S. tour schedule and it includes a Dallas show Sunday April 13 followed by Houston the next night. And nothing else even remotely close to the Southwest U.S. (unless you put Anaheim in this geographical region).

The announcement of the Dallas date did not say where Bruce would be playing, probably because the
American Airlines Center might be on hold in the unlikely event the Dallas Stars are still chasing Lord Stanley’s Cup nine days after the end of the regular season (the Mavericks will be playing in Seattle that night). But I’m betting on either the AAC or Reunion.

The 27th greatest live performance I’ve ever seen was one by
Elvis Presley in 1956. The 26 best concerts above Presley’s on my list are all Bruce Springsteen concerts. No one in pop music can compare to Springsteen live.

Power of Observation Quiz

OK, I’ll brag. I got 16 out of 25 correct on this test.

DVD REVIEW: "La Vie En Rose"

“La Vie en Rose” is a thoroughly depressing examination of the admittedly tragic life of singer Edith Piaf that is memorable for its gaps, its omissions and a truly astonishing performance by Marion Cotillard as Ms. Piaf. It is a performance that will be remembered when awards season rolls around, but more about that later.

The problems with the film are all at the screenplay level. The structure of the film—as a series of recollections by Piaf as she is dying—could alibi the gaps, omissions and half-truths, but an alibi is all it would be.

The film does take a lot of time, perhaps too much, to look at Piaf’s early life, although it suggests she was born while her father was a soldier during World War I. Actually she was born a year before her father joined the French Army. In fact, her father put his daughter in the care of his mother, a cook at a brothel, before he joined the army. The film claims this event happened after his enlistment and that his mother was the brothel’s madame, not its cook.

The film also presents the story of Piaf’s alleged three-year blindness (I say “alleged” because all but one of her biographies omit this detail of her early life) during the time she was cared for by the brothel’s prostitutes and her miraculous cure as a result of a pilgrimage to a site honoring Saint
Therese de Lisieux. The picture also takes pains to establish a mother-daughter relationship between Piaf and one of the prostitutes, Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner). It gives us a heartbreaking scene in which Piaf’s father (Jean-Paul Rouve) returns to snatch her away from Titine’s care and then promptly forgets Titine ever existed in Piaf’s life. Perhaps Piaf forgot her as well, but, if she did, she obviously didn’t play as important a part in her life as this film would lead us to believe.

And the only reason the father snatches her away is so that the film can show us how he got her to sing on the streets for money, because after this event is shown, the father is forgotten as well. The singing-for-money bit leads to the scenes of Piaf being “discovered” by nightclub owner
Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu) while singing for money on the streets of the Pigalle area of Paris. Piaf’s birth name was Edith Giovanna Gassion and it was Leplee who gave her the stage name La Mome Piaf (The Waif Sparrow; in fact, the original title of this film is “La Mome”) The film also haphazardly re-creates Leplee’s mob-related murder and Piaf’s questioning in connection with it, but never in any kind of context. Supposedly, Leplee was shot by gangsters with previous connections to Piaf, but the closest the film ever links Piaf to any “bad-guys” is with a pimp Piaf is working for when she met Leplee. However, his pimp, in real life, was Piaf’s lover at the time. So we get the murder and we get the subsequent questioning of Piaf by the police, but we never understand the “why” of any of it, nor do we learn that Piaf actually stood trial on charges of being an accessory to Leplee’s murder (she was acquitted).

Leplee’s murder and the subsequent trial almost ruined her image in France, so she hired a coach, Raymond Asso (
Marc Barbe) to revive her career. It was Asso who changed her stage name from La Mome Piaf to Edith Piaf. The film also claims it was Asso who introduced her to what became her trademark black dresses, when most biographers give Leplee credit for this. We get a brief suggestion that Asso and Piaf were romantically involved, although nothing to show how romantic this affair really was.

Leplee met Piaf in 1935 and he was killed on April 6, 1936, and the film gives no clue there is anything significant happening east of the French borders during this time. So I was anxious to see how the film would show Piaf’s Paris during the German occupation. For some reason, none of this era is depicted. So we don’t see how she discovered
Yves Montand (and became his lover) or Charles Aznavour. We don’t see how she openly dated Jewish pianist Norbert Glanzberg during the occupation, how she co-wrote a protest song, “On Sont-Ils Mes Petits Copains” in 1943 and refused Nazi demands she remove it from her concert set lists, or how she posed for photographs with French POWs, photos that were later pasted into passports that allowed many of these Frenchmen to escape. (Interestingly enough, the film never shows Piaf composing anything even though she wrote the song that is this film’s title.)

Instead, the film leaps to the late 1940s and her introduction to American audiences. The film argues that Americans never really “got” Ms. Piaf and she, in turn, despised America and all things American. It is true that her first American tour in 1947 was met with little initial success. Americans wanted to hear upbeat and were not prepared for Piaf’s downbeat, albeit heartfelt, songs. However, at what was supposed to be the end of the tour, she received a glowing review from a critic with the New York Herald Tribune that resulted in a five-month sold-out booking at one of New York City’s premiere nightclubs, two sold out Carnegie Hall concerts and eight appearances on
Ed Sullivan’s television show, none of which is depicted in the picture.

Instead, we get the tragic stuff. We meet
Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins), the world middleweight boxing champion, who is, according to the film, the one great true love of Piaf’s life. According to the film, Cerdan is killed in a plane crash when Piaf begs him to leave Paris and join her in New York. According to everything I have read Cerdan was actually returning for a rematch with Jake LaMotta when his plane crashed, although many believe Piaf may have convinced him to get New York faster by flying instead of taking an ocean liner.

We see the slide caused by her addictions to alcohol and morphine (initially used as a pain-killer following a serious automobile accident in 1951 in which Aznavour was also injured) and only very late in the film do we learn that Piaf, at the age of 17, married a delivery boy and bore him a daughter who died at the age of 2 of meningitis. It never really dwells on the fact that Piaf wantonly and repeatedly cheated on this husband and abandoned their daughter after taking great pains at the beginning of the film to portray Piaf’s own abandonment as a child.

I have spent probably way too much time talking about problems with the screenplay of a film that is ultimately worth seeing because of the aforementioned Cotillard performance, who plays Piaf from her teen-age years to her death at the age of 47. She doesn’t portray Piaf, she becomes Piaf. (Wisely, in all but four instances, the movie uses Piaf’s own recordings for the songs.) I have no knowledge of Cotillard’s physical stature, although she convinces me she is Piaf’s waif-life 4-feet, 8-inches. I feel her pain when she learns of Cerdan’s death and when she is separated from her half-sister and full-time partner Simone Berteaut (
Sylvie Testud). I also hated her when she later callously dismissed this woman she called Momone. And I empathized in those recollections she has in a scene the film label’s “Edith’s last night.” You can take this to the bank: Cotillard’s name will be one of the five announced in the leading actress category when the 2007 Academy Award nominees are revealed. It is Cotillard’s virtuoso portrayal that elevates this picture from melodramatic to riveting.


Monday, November 19, 2007

DVD REVIEW: "Amazing Grace"

Hollywood once really knew how to make a biopic, especially those about men who devoted their lives to great deeds, films like "The Life of Emile Zola," "Wilson," "Madame Curie." I guess Hollywood feels today’s audiences are too cynical for those types of films, so we now have biopics about musicians like Johnny Cash and Ray Charles who, of course, are not related to saints, or whacked-out geniuses like John Nash.

So here comes the British to the rescue with the movie "Amazing Grace," the story of William Wilberforce, who spent decades trying to convince Parliament to abolish the slave trade in Britain. It must be said at the outset that Michael Apted’s biopic of Wilberforce doesn’t tell the man’s entire story; it fails, for instance, to mention that as well as trying to end the slave trade he also tried to get rid of trade unions. In fact, there are those who claimed, with some justification, that Wilberforce cared more about African workers than British ones.

That, however, is a minor quibble in this film that steadfastly pursues Wilberforce’s abolition efforts and does so with the utmost conviction. It is helped by the fact that the film is perfectly cast. Ioan Gruffudd, the Welsh-born actor best known to most movie-goers as Reed Richards in the "Fantastic Four" series, plays Wilberforce with just the right touch of mania to keep him on the human side of sainthood. Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor unknown to me before this film, is absolutely brilliant as Wilberforce’s college buddy William Pitt who eventually becomes prime minister. The scenes between Gruffudd and Cumberbatch sparkle. There’s also a nice turn by Rufus Sewell as a reformer who continues to push Wilberforce toward his goal and Romola Garai, who will to become more familiar to American audiences and a likely Oscar nominee for her role in "Atonement", as the great love of Wilberforce’s life.

There are more familiar names from the school of fine British actors to be seen here. Michael Gambon plays Lord Charles Fox who has a nice speech at the end of the film in which compares Wilberforce to Napoleon and Albert Finney as John Newton, the former captain of a slave ship who sought redemption and in the process wrote the famous hymn that gives this film its title. He has a marvelous moment in the film when he is dictating his biography to a scribe--he has, in fact, become blind but finally does see.

The script by Steven Knight ("Dirty Pretty Things") wisely doesn’t tell the story chronologically; in fact, it leaps back and forth across decades, thus keeping the viewer more involved. One minor mistake however. At oine point Wilberforce, in failing health, seeks refuge in the waters at Bath and says "Why hurry? The waters have been around for a million years." I may be mistaken, but I don’t think the idea of the Earth being that old was a well-accepted theory in the late 18th century.

Apted, who’s probably most well known for his series of "7-Up" documentaries, brings a documentarian’s touch to this film. His scenes on the docks, in the estuaries, on the London streets and in the halls of Parliament actually put me in that time and place.

When Hollywood made those biopics, they trumpeted their arrivals. These were big-budget films with something important to say. "Amazing Grace," on the other hand, sneaked in under the radar. It played at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival and officially opened in the United States without much of a fanfare or promotion back in February. So there’s a good chance you missed when it played at the local multiplex. You shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to see it now that it’s on DVD. This is one for those who believe "They don’t make ‘em like they used to."


Sunday, November 18, 2007

DVD REVIEW: "Ocean's Thirteen"

I have often maintained the least important element of any movie is its plot. I think it was Roger Ebert who said something to the effect of "If you want plot, then read a novel."

That’s an important statement when you approach a movie like "Ocean’s Thirteen," which has so many things going wrong for it, yet still barely makes it out on the positive side. I recommend renting this DVD, albeit with reservations.

The main reservation is the whacky plot. Here’s the basic setup. One of the main characters from the past two "Ocean" films, Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould), is gypped by a partner, the appropriately named Willie Banks (Al Pacino), in a casino deal. As a result, Reuben has a massive coronary. That’s when Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his band of merry men set events in motion to avenge their buddy and wreck the Banks casino.

It’s those events they set in motion that are ludicrous. The most bizarre and the most unbelievable is importing one of the drills that helped burrow the English Channel chunnel, have it bore a tunnel under the Las Vegas strip (without anyone noticing it) and then having it cause an earthquake that would rattle only Banks’ hotel, but leave all the others in Vegas clueless as to what was happening. Huh?

There’s also no thrill to the payoff, which is essential in a caper movie. It just happens, and you’re never really sure exactly what is happening. There’s also no sense that Banks is getting is just desserts.

Then there’s some casting problems, mainly with two extremely fine actors, Don Cheadle and Ellen Barkin, both of whom are wasted here. Cheadle seems to be cast only because he was in the first two, but then scriptwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien couldn’t find a way to successfully integrate him into their script.

But then the "Ocean" movies have never been about plot anyway. Except for the disaster that was "Ocean’s Twelve," they follow the basic caper movie formula pioneered in "Bob le Flambeur" and perfected in "Topkapi," even if the "Ocean" films ignore some of the basic caper rules (the main one being there’s always a scene in which the leader of the gang explains the entire caper to his gang for the sole reason that we, in the audience, know what is going on every step of the way. The avoidance of this rule means the audience watching "Ocean’s Thirteen" is going to be clueless about why all these things are going on and thus could easily lose interest).

What the "Ocean" movies are all about is style and "Ocean’s Thirteen" has style to spare. Of course, how could you not with a cast headed by Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, who seems more comfortable in his own skin with every new film appearance. And you know that you’re going to have style, even a highly personal sense of style, with Steven Soderbergh directing. Soderbergh’s genius is that he makes seamless filmmaking look so easy and, well, so stylish. And no one uses lighting and high-definition any better.

Style is what gave "Trouble in Paradise" its sophistication and "His Girl Friday" its pacing. I was reminded of those two great films while watching "Ocean’s Thirteen." I’m not saying this film is on the level of those two classics, not by a wide margin, only it’s nice to see a film in this age of CGI gee-wizardry that believes style is important, especially when there is so little substance.


Friday, November 16, 2007

DVD REVIEW: "Shrek the Third"

"Shrek the Third" reminded me of an incident I had with Neil Diamond. I was attending a Neil Diamond concert, not because I wanted to, but because it was my job at the time. I told my girlfriend that, out of the kindness of my heart, I was not going to ask her to accompany me because ... well, let’s just say she had the same preconceived notions about Neil Diamond as I (this was post "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" which to me marked the demarcation point in Diamond’s recording career when he went from relevant to schlock). Much to my surprise, Diamond put on one fantastic performance. So the next time he came around, probably about a year later, I told my girlfriend, "Trust me here. The guy gives a great concert." She conceded that my judgment had always been spot on up until this point, so she came with me. And she came away a convert to Diamond’s abilities on the concert stage. So a year later, he came around for the third time and now my girlfriend is trying to convince a bunch ofl her friends "Trust me here. The guy gives a great concert. And, if you don’t believe me, ask Pete." So this time five other couples, based on our recommendation, shell out some of their hard-earned to see Diamond in concert. I held my head in my hands throughout most of the show. "These folks are never going to trust my opinion again." I felt their cold, hard stares drilling holes through me all during the show. It was worse than bad. It went beyond bad when he stumbled through "Song Sung Blue" for the seventh consecutive time.

From that, I developed my "Third Time Around" theory which, by now, I don’t have to explain at length. Suffice it to say, "Shrek the Third" is another proof point in that theory.

Now there are some of you with children in a certain age bracket and you’re not going to have an option here. You’re going to have to rent "Shrek the Third." Actually, that’s a good thing, far better, in fact, than having to take them to see it in a theater. Because then you don’t have to sit through it with them. You can put it in the DVD player and then do something more worthwhile with that time, like sticking uncooked hot dogs in your ears.

There is a scene early in the movie when the Froggie King (John Cleese) dies. Don’t worry, I’m not spoiling anything here--his dying sets the entire TV-sitcom like plot in motion. Then, at his funeral, we hear the song "Live and Let Die" on the soundtrack. And I’m saying to myself "What were these guys thinking? Is this supposed to funny? It’s not. Is it supposed to be a satire of some kind? If so, it doesn’t work. If I had a youngster with me, would I have to try to make some kind of James Bond connection to all of this? Could I make that connection? Probably not."
The most endearing aspect of the original "Shrek" film was that is was funny on so many different levels. "Shrek the Third" is unfunny on all the same levels, but a particular disaster on the adult one. The whole idea of lampooning dinner theater is a waste of time because dinner theater, by definition, was a lampoon. And how many "Shrek" parents are even familiar with dinner theater anyway? And what parent is going to be comfortable explaining a "Hooters" joke to their children?

Now I will admit "Shrek the Third" has a few good moments, my favorite being a scene in which Pinocchio, to keep his nose from growing, engages in double speak that would make a politician proud. The movie also scored some points with a medieval high school bit.

But, all in all, "Shrek the Third" is not so much a movie as it is a marketing ploy.


City Hall's customer service initiative

Dallas City Hall is really pushing customer service. Why? The answer is obvious. When citizens complain about the level of service they receive from the city, they usually voice those complaints to their city council representative, who, in turn, tells city staff in no uncertain terms to rectify this matter immediately. So the less complaints coming through, the better the staff looks in the eyes of their bosses. And, yes, those on the staff of city government do consider the members of the council as their ultimate bosses.

So, how is the city doing? Crime does need to come down and customer service has never been the strong point of the Dallas Police Department. I’m not sure customer service is the hallmark of any law enforcement agency. And the city does need to work on strengthening its code enforcement, although City Manager Mary Suhm is well aware of that and is trying to hack her way through all the thorny hedges surrounding that issue.

But the city does so many things so well. Dallas Water Utilities is top notch. In fact, I fail to understand why people pay more for a gallon of bottled war than they do for a gallon of gasoline when they can get superior tasting water right out of their own faucets. Especially, when so many of those plastic bottles wind up in our landfill because too few people recycle.

Which brings me to the city’s superb Sanitation Department. Its comparatively new single-stream recycling program is far advanced of what’s available in most comparable cities. My only criticism is I am convinced we could save tax dollars by going to once-a-week garbage pickup and once-a-week recycling pickup. That is, if more people knew about the city’s recycling program and how to recycle.

And, in a nutshell, that is the area I consider the city’s greatest weakness. Dallas city government, for the most part, is giving citizens more than the maximum service they should expect for the amount of tax dollars they pay for that service. What the city is failing to do is informing the citizens of this fact.

And, frankly, I don’t know how to solve that problem. I wish I had a magic wand I could wave that would instantaneously make every Dallas citizen aware of the city’s recycling program and have recycling become part of their nature. Perhaps videos like this one will help, but I doubt it, because it doesn’t educate, it doesn’t even really inform. It comes across more like self aggrandizement. What’s more, it takes more than superb city services to make Dallas a great city. It takes a heart, soul, personality and character, four elements missing from the being that is Dallas.

But the video is a start. It does show the city is trying and it does highlight recycling. Besides, I even know some of the "average citizens" in the video.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Trolling for "dynamic" speakers

The City of Dallas is looking for “dynamic speakers” in the immediate North Texas area who can enlighten, captivate and entertain audiences, primarily if not exclusively composed of municipal employees, on such topics as “customer satisfaction and inclusion, public perception, and ethics.” If you know of anyone who fits the bill—and is willing to give of his or her time and energy without any thought of remuneration (OK, the speaker can think about getting paid, but shouldn’t expect to)—contact

Something to give thanks for

Is it just me, or do these things always seem to happen around holidays?

Giving the Army the boot

I must admit, I really got a kick (pun intended) and more than just a couple of chuckles out of this story. Go get ‘em, City Hall.

On the national political scene

If you’re a political junkie like me, you might enjoy reading this story that reports on the results of polling in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Advocating the Advocate

Residents of the Lakewood and Lake Highlands area should be regular readers of Advocate Magazine. Now publisher Rick Wamre and his staff have expanded their offerings with a highly informative e-mail newsletter as well as one of the best blogs in the area. You owe it to yourself to check ‘em out.

Terri Hendrix at Uncle Calvin's

I like Terri Hendrix CDs, but they never encouraged me to rush out and see her perform live. Then I saw her a couple of years ago performing at the Austin City Limits Music Festival, and I was enthralled. The woman, so laid back sounding on CD, really rocks in person.

Hopefully she will bring that same rocking attitude with her when she appears this Friday night at Uncle Calvin’s. A good sign that she will is the fact that she’s bringing Lloyd Maines with her.

R.I.P., Mr. Jones

One of the all-time great names (if little known persons) in rock music has died.

Is Dallas Police Chief Kunkle on the way out?

A series of events at Dallas City Hall is leading me to believe that Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle may be on the way out and that his successor has already been chosen.

The latest in this series was triggered by the resignation of
Assistant City Manager Charles Daniels and the naming of David Brown as his “interim” replacement. I believe City Manager Mary Suhm when she says Brown is serving in an “interim” capacity, but what’s to become of him when a permanent replacement for Daniels is found? How can Brown return to his previous position? How can he go from an assistant city manager back to No. 2 in the police department? I have this sneaking suspicion that shortly before or after Daniels’ permanent replacement is named, Kunkle will announce his resignation and Brown will be named to replace him.

It would be an excellent move. Nothing against Kunkle; he has been exactly what the department needed in the aftermath of
Terrell Bolton. I considered Kunkle’s appointment a masterstroke from former City Manager Ted Benavides.

I got to know Brown when I was the executive director of the Dallas Northeast Chamber of Commerce and Brown was named to head up the Dallas Police Department’s Northeast Division. I met with him on several occasions to discuss the crime problems along the upper Skillman corridor and panhandling issues in Lakewood. He instituted changes and programs in the area that had immediate crime reducing impacts. Not only that, he was a perfect police ambassador, a sought-after speaker at various neighborhood townhall meetings. It was a loss for the Northeast, but a definite gain for the rest of the city, when Kunkle quickly promoted him to the department’s No. 2 spot. Brown would make a remarkable police chief.

But why get rid of Kunkle? There are a number of reasons.
Benavides, a gentleman and a leader I personally admired having worked closely with him at City Hall, has long gone. A new team is in place at City Hall, a team put there by Ms. Suhm, Benavides’ successor. In fact, I believe the only two department heads at the city not appointed by Ms. Suhm are Kunkle and Jody Puckett of Dallas Water Utilities. Ms. Puckett, one of the finest administrators the city has ever known, isn’t going anywhere, however, except possibly to replace Jill Jordan, if and when she decides to leave the city (a decision that was probably delayed by the recent Trinity River Tollway vote; Ms. Jordan is, after all, the immediate supervisor of Rebecca Dugger, whose activities during the campaign were deservedly criticized by many. Someone high on the City Hall food chain would have had to fall on his or her sword if the referendum had passed, and Ms. Jordan, rightly or wrongly, was the likely candidate). So that leaves Kunkle as the one prominent department head not appointed by Ms. Suhm.

Do reasons exist however that warrant his departure? Three, perhaps.

First: The entire
Sarah Dodd episode has been a sticky issue at City Hall. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Ms. Dodd. She was Channel 11’s primary City Hall reporter when I worked there and I regarded her as a hard-working, diligent, professional journalist. I never bought into the stories surrounding her resignation from the station. Thinking back on it in the context of recent events, I could picture the powers-that-be at City Hall telling the Kunkles “One of you has to go. We simply can’t have a situation in which our police chief, privy to a lot of inside information, is married to a reporter.” Ms. Dodd, being the consummate pro that she is, swallowed the pill.

Second: Crime statistics. According to a July
Dallas Morning News story, “crime is about the same as it was last year when compared with the first six months of this year.” That’s simply not going to hack it. Kunkle has been given one primary directive: reduce crime. He hasn’t done it. Public safety is the current City Council’s top Priority and regardless of how the council feels about Mary Suhm now, you can bet future evaluations will put more emphasis on reducing crime statistics.

Third: This brings me back to my original question: How can David Brown go back to being No. 2 in the Dallas Police Department when he was essentially a No. 2 in all of city government? He can’t and he won’t. Perhaps he was told what the future has in store for him when he accepted the role of Daniels’ interim replacement.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: "Paris Je T'aime

Paris is my favorite city in the world. I've been there, I guess, four or five times. I always arrive in the heart of Paris by cab, staying in the Latin Quarter on the Left Bank. As soon as I step out of the cab and onto a Latin Quarter street, a wave of freedom and a sense of exhilaration sweeps over me. I don't speak French ... well, enough to order my favorite coffee and a croissant in the mornings ... but nothing more. Yet I feel completely at home in Paris, at ease, in a place where I belong.

I thought about all those feelings I have about Paris watching Alexander Payne's magnificent "14eme Arrondissement," the last of 18 five-minute stories that make up the anthology "Paris Je T'aime." In it, a Denver postwoman (Margo Martindale) alone in Paris on vacation, arrives at the same sort of ephiphany that shapes my opinion of the city while she reflects on her life up to that moment. It is funny. It is real. It is bittersweet. All the elements that made Payne's "Sideways" the best film of 2004 and arguably the best film of this still infant century.

Twenty international filmmakers directed the 18 short stories that comprise "Paris Je T'aime." Each of the stories is named after a different Paris neighborhood, and, yes, there is a fine one called "Quartier Latin," directed by Frederic Auburtin and Gerard Depardieu in which Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands amusingly snipe at one another over the circumstances of their impending divorce. Of course, not all of the segments reach the level of Payne's contribution, but many come awfully close. Among my other favorites were Joel and Ethan Coen's "Tuileries" in which another American tourist (Steve Buscemi) fails to heed the warning in his guidebook that advises him not to make eye contact with lovers in a Metro station, even if they are on the other side of the tracks. (Perhaps I liked this one because I always seem to run into unabashed lovers across the tracks from me at Paris Metro stations).

I was also drawn to "Loin du 16eme" by Walter Salles in which Catalina Sandino Moreno ("Maria Full of Grace") portrays a recent immigrant who, before rushing to work, leaves her baby in a nursery, soothing it with a lullaby. When she gets to her job as a nanny for a wealthy family living on the other side of Paris, she winds up singing that same lullaby to the infant in her care.

I also marveled at "Bastille" by Spain's Isabel Coixet in which an adulterous husband (Sergio Castellito) arranges to meet his wife (Miranda Richardson) at a cafe to tell her he's leaving her for his mistress only to learn his wife is dying of lukemia.

Not all the stories work as well. Wes Craven's portrait of a engaged couple who get into a fight at Oliver Wilde's gravesight only to reconcile with the help of Wilde's ghost did nothing for me. And Vincenzo Natali's take on vampire love, "Quartier de la Madeleine," starring Elijah Wood is goofy to a point where it knocks the film off its delicate balance momentarily.

Could this movie have been made in any city other than Paris? I can't think of one, but then I have not traveled to all the major cities of Europe so I can't say for sure. But Paris, with its distinctive neighborhoods, its disparate citizenry and its reputation for embracing love in all its forms is the ideal setting. Being my favorite city doesn't hurt either.


He's what?

Does anyone else think it’s strange that this guy, who never met a death row inmate he didn’t want to execute and has done away with more than any other governor, calls himself “the most pro-life governor in Texas history”?

Monday, November 12, 2007

This Obsession with No. 1

The brouhaha usually begins to get fanatical right around this time every year, especially on sports talk radio: The need for a playoff system in college football. It's all fed by the hysteria created around that one fundamental truth: "We need to know who is No. 1. We need to know who is the best."

Think about it. Our lives would simply spin out of control if we weren't constantly reminded of who or what is No. 1: What is the best-selling CD or book? What is the weekend movie box-office champ? And, then, at the end of the year or season or whatever, we must have some academy telling us what is the best movie, the best television series, the best Broadway play.

It's pervasive wherever you turn. How many times have you watched a news show in which a reporter asks a question like "What is the No. 1 reason ...?" "What do you consider the most important ...?"

This is especially true in sports where the competition is designed specifically to determine who is the best. That is, after all, the basis for the Olympics. That's why we have a Super Bowl, a World Cup, a Stanley Cup, a World Series. We need to have a champion, a No 1.

Why? I dunno. And no one has ever given me a satisfactory explanation. All I do know is that we are fanatical about learning who is No. 1.

Which brings me around to college football and why I love it so, perhaps more than any other sport. True, it does have its weekly rankings, but they are so imperfect. Everyone knows they are imperfect. Boise State vs. Oklahoma proves that they are imperfect. But I'll let them slide if only to appease the No. 1 fanatics.

But college football started something called the BCS which was designed to appease the fanatics without giving in to the pressure of having a playoff system. I'm not going to try to explain the BCS--I really don't think anyone can explain it. I'm not even going to even try to describe it. Leave it at this: It was a system designed so that at the end of the college football season, the No. 1-ranked team could play the No. 2-ranked team to determine which of those should wear the title of National Championship. Trouble is, there are those who claim that just because a team is ranked No. 1 or No. 2 doesn't mean they are the best or the second best team in the country (see above reference to Boise State vs. Oklahoma). So the fanatics scream: The only way we're going to settle this once and for all is to have a playoff system.

What a crock! A playoff wouldn't settle anything and would answer a question that's illegitimate in the first place.

The majority of the playoff options I have heard fall within two scenarios. There is the so called "Plus-1 Game," which goes something like this: After all the regular bowl games have been played out, including, presumably, the BCS game itself, let's pick the two best teams from the rubble that remains and let them play for the real championship. Problem is: Who is going to determine who the two best teams are? The second scenario is the "8-team playoff" scenario in which the major bowl games are done away with and replaced with a system in which the Top 8 teams in the final BCS standings find themselves in a seeded playoff format. What's wrong with that? I'll tell you. Why just eight? What do you think the reaction would be if we restricted the NCAA basketball championships to just the Top 8 teams in the final rankings? And who is really to say that the No. 8 team should be included and the No. 9 team excluded? Especially when there's a built-in bias in the entire system to begin with. I am still convinced that the last team Urban Meyer coached at Utah was the best team in the country that year, but the Utes never got the opportunity to prove it because of the built-in bias against Utah's conference, the Mountain West. The Utes did go to the Fiesta Bowl that year where they destroyed a good Pittsburgh team, but who was paying attention?

Yes, the current system is flawed but instituting a playoff system would make it worse, would only feed into this unanswerable No. 1 hysteria and would not be in the best interests of college football.

There are those who fail to understand what college officials have against a playoff system. "Why," the critics say, "a playoff system would draw more fans, a larger television audience, increased advertising revenues and thus more money."

Now, I will admit that I have never sat down with a college president to hear an explanation for opposing a playoff system. But, if I were a college president, here's why I would oppose it. It has to do with the money, but not the money for appearing in a playoff, but the money you don't receive for not appearaing.

Let's say I'm the president of ... oh, I dunno, let's say SMU because it's right here in Dallas. SMU hasn't even been to a bowl game, let alone come close to qualifying for what would be a playoff spot, since Peyton Manning began to walk upright. But with this playoff system, you are allowing other teams to play anywhere between one to three more games than I can, even if my Ponies did qualify for a bowl. Sorry, but I can't let you get away with that. I can't let those teams that I think are competing with me for recruiting talent get all that extra income that comes with additional games. I will never approve a system that tilts the money pool so unfairly. If you're going to let Oklahoma or, for heaven's sake, possibly TCU, play one or two additional games, than I want to schedule a couple of more games that will allow me to add more money into my athletic fund.

So what's the anwser? I recommend invoking "The Hercules Satele Rule." And who exactly is Hercules Satele? I'm glad you asked that (even if you didn't) because I selected Mr. Satele to be the namesick of my system chiefly because of his anonymity, at least to that part of the college football world for whom the Pacific Ocean is an extreme western boundary. Hercules Satele is a senior offensive lineman for Hawaii. Now I have no idea how good an offensive lineman Hercules is or what his pro prospects are. I hope they are good because I would like to see Hercules in the NFL; I would even play an Elton John song whenever he is introduced.

But there's also the chance that Hercules will play his last down of football in Hawaii's last game this season. There's also the chance that the last game could be a win for the Rainbows and they would thus finish the season undefeated. Do they have a chance at being crowned the National Champion. Can I fly without tickets? There's the bias I was talking about.

So "The Hercules Satele Rule" goes something like this. Forget all talk about a playoff. Scrap the BCS. Return to a form of the old bowl setup in which more than one bowl game meant something. Maintain the tradition of the Big 10 champ playing the Pac 10 champ in the Rose Bowl. Now that the Cotton Bowl is moving into the new finest-in-the-universe-without-question-ninth-wionder-of-the-world-my-jumbo-screen-is-bigger-and-brighter-than-your-jumbo-screen-Jerry-Jones-Cowboy-Stadium, make it a New Year's Day elite game in which the SEC champion is the host. Then send the Big East winner to the Orange Bowl, the ACC champ to the Sugar Bowl and the Big 12 champ to the Fiesta Bowl. I could care less who they play, or even who plays in any of the other bowls either. But after all these bowl games are played, find the team with the fewest losses and declare it the National Champion. But what if there are two or more teams tied with the fewest number of losses? That's easy. Declare them co-national champions.

You see, under this system and only under a system like this, Hawaii has a definite shot at being declared a national champion. Which brings me back to Hercules Satele. Even if he never gets to play a down of NFL football, at least someday 30-35 years from now, he could let his granddaughter climb up on his lap, open up the dusty old scrapbook and tell her about the time grandpa won the national championship.

Now, that's what college football should be all about.