Monday, February 25, 2008

The stuffing is back in the turkey

As a kid growing up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, all I knew about Texas I learned from watching the cowboy movies at the neighborhood 15-cent cinema. The films of Buster Crabbe (especially Buster Crabbe as Billy Carson), Ken Maynard, Charles Starrett as the Durango Kid, Lash LaRue (who came to our theater one Saturday afternoon for a live demonstration) and the heavyweights like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and, yes, John Wayne captured my imagination. I won't bore with the details of how I sat through repeated showings of "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" when I was 6-years-old, but I did.

Even years later, when my dad informed the family we were moving to Texas, I was convinced we would going to have to turn in 0ur car at the state line and take a stagecoach the rest of the way to our destination.

My other lessons about Texas all came on Thanksgiving. Each year on that day, the family would travel to my grandmother's house in Westchester County for the traditional turkey dinner. Part of that dinner included the viewing of the two football games -- one pro and one college -- that were shown across the nation on Thanksgiving. The teams never varied from one year to the next. The pro game always featured the Detroit Lions playing the Green Bay Packers and the college game was always Texas vs. Texas A&M.

Never at the that tender age did I ever conceive I would go to one of those schools (thoughts of college never entered this pre-schooler's head), but as the fates would have it a decade and a half or so later I wound up as a freshman at the University of Texas. Not only that, I wound up on the sports staff of the Daily Texan and found myself covering a number of memorable Texas contests, including those with A&M played on Thanksgiving. I remember after graduating, making sure the family Thanksgiving dinner was completed in time for me to jump in the car and drive to either Austin or College Station to spend the rest of that holiday cheering on the Orange.

All that ended around 15 years or so ago, when the television powers that be convinced the two schools to move their game from Thanksgiving to the Friday after Thanksgiving. The game was still special, but, for some reason, it simply wasn't that special any longer -- it was no longer the game I grew up on (of course, the Lions-Packers game left Thanksgiving long before that).

All this is my way of saying I was more than delighted to hear the news today that the game is going to be played on Thanksgiving again, at least for this year and next. And when I heard the news, I didn't think about the tradition, or the bonfires, or the memorable games, but I thought about a time, a place and all my family who are no longer with me now--my grandmother and her tiny apartment in White Plains where we all gathered, my father, my mother and my little brother. It's always a good thing to hold onto the past, even if it was shaped in large part by Buster Crabbe.

Predictable winners leads to dull Oscarcast

By PHILIP WUNTCH
Film Critic Emeritus


It's been less than two hours since I watched the Oscar ceremony, and already I'm having trouble remembering details.

The ceremony was comfortable. The mood was cozy. The awards were predictable. In other words, this was one dull Oscarcast. It wasn't the fault of host Jon Stewart, who started slowly but rebounded with his usual wry wit. Still, a couple of surprises would have been nice, not that I wanted anything as drastic as the "Crash" victory two years ago

The only borderline surprise among major winners was Marion Cotillard's victory for "La Vie en Rose," the Edith Piaf biopic. Julie Christie, whose provocative walk in 1963's "Billy Liar" brightened my high-school fantasies, was the anticipated winner for her radiant performance as an Alzheimer's patient in "Away From Her." Ms. Cotillard's Edith Piaf was also radiant, but her film was more conventional.

The Cotillard triumph makes sense -- at least from a dollars-and-cents perspective. Ms. Christie is an icon of a bygone era, the "swingin' London" of the '60s. Ms. Cotillard represents the future. She's recently been cast opposite Johnny Depp's John Dillinger in Michael Mann's "Public Enemies," also starring high-profile contemporaries Christian Bale and Channing Tatum. And she'll play one of several women in Javier Bardem's life in the movie version of "Nine," to be helmed by "Chicago" director Rob Marshall.

Bardem, of course, was the expected supporting-actor winner for his killer performance in "No Country for Old Men," as was Daniel Day-Lewis as lead actor in the searing "There Will Be Blood." They may play loathsome characters, but their acceptance speeches could bring tears to a mother's eyes.

Day-Lewis is on a roll as the most gracious awards recipient ever. When winning his first Oscar for 1989's "My Left Foot," he made a point of acknowledging Hugh O'Conor, the 14-year-old actor who played his character as a child. His recent SAG acceptance speech, in which he honored Heath Ledger, won plaudits for its warmth and sincerity. And at last night's Oscars, he lauded his wife Rebecca Miller (daughter of the late, esteemed Arthur), his three sons and "There Will Be Blood" director Paul Thomas Anderson. Of course, virtually everyone thanks families and directors, but with Day-Lewis it didn't sound obligatory. He seems the type of lovable eccentric you like to watch win awards.

I was rooting for another eccentric talent, Tilda Swinton, who first won attention as Virginia Woolf's gender-switching hero/heroine in 1992's "Orlando." As I suspected, Academy voters, marking their ballots in the midst of the writers' strike, could identify with her "Michael Clayton" performance as an edgy, nervous executive who never worries about doing the right thing. Also, a Swinton victory would be a convenient way of acknowledging George Clooney, now a resident of Hollywood's top tier and one of the major forces behind "Michael Clayton." I've heard several staunch Dallasites say they refuse to see Clooney's movies because of his political views, and I'm always delighted when their feathers get ruffled. Besides, Swinton's sardonic yet warm acceptance speech was a highlight.

It's impossible to imagine contemporary American cinema without Joel and Ethan Coen. But their most recent efforts prior to "No Country for Old Men" were the plodding "The Ladykillers" and the glossy "Intolerable Cruelty." The joyousness of "Fargo" and "Raising Arizona" threatened to become dim memories. "No Country for Old Men" can hardly be called a joyous movie, except from the vibrant perspectives of reinforcing the Coen brethren's talent and reminding us that watching a superbly executed movie can be indeed be a joyous experience.

In the future, we may look back at this year's Oscar race as a triumph of true eccentrics. At the moment, I'm in a dilemma when making a judgment call. The winners may have been predictable, but their movies were not. So maybe forget what I said about this being a dull Oscar derby.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Oscar predictions you shouldn't take to the bank

Only two of this year's Oscar races hold much interest for me--the ones for actress and supporting actress. Everything else seems pretty cut and dried and I'm going for the chalk in those categories: "No Country for Old Me," for picture, directing, adapted screenplay and supporting actor; Daniel Day Lewis for actor; and Diablo Cody's original screenplay for "Juno." I'll get to the technical categories in a minute.

Julie Christie is the favorite to win the actress Oscar, although I've read many pundits who are predicting an Ellen Page upset for "Juno." While there always seems to a major upset in at least one of the top 6 categories, I don't see it coming here. I don't expect the Academy to give this award this year to an actress who isn't even old enough buy a round of drinks to celebrate the honor. When the really younger set wins, it's usually in a supporting category. If someone else's name other than Christie's is called, my money would be on Marion Cotillard and, in fact, although I'm predicting Julie Christie to win tonight, I would be overjoyed if Ms. Cotillard took home the Oscar. Her nominated performance as Edith Piaf is one of the finest I've seen in many a year. As others have noted, actresses in foreign language parts don't often win this award (the last was Sophia Loren 47 years ago, although many are forgetting Roberto Benigni winning best actor for a foreign language role just a decade ago). But I think Ms. Cotillard's real handicap is that the film wasn't all that good. "Away From Her," on the other hand, is one of the best films of 2007. So in this race, I'm going with my head and not my heart.

In the supporting actress race, however, I'm going with my heart over my head. Everyone tells me this is Cate Blanchett's Oscar although Ruby Dee, on the strength of her support from fellow actors who make up 20 percent of the Academy's voters, could win this award. I understand why they are saying this. Although Ms. Dee only has three scenes in the film "American Gangster," and none of them are as defining as a lot of critics claim, this could be one of those sentimental votes. Ms. Dee is well respected as was her late husband Ossie Davis and just look at how many nominations and Oscars Kathryn Hepburn received after Spencer Tracy died. I also think Ms. Blanchett was probably liked more by the critics than many of the Oscar voters who never really saw her in "I'm Not There." She doesn't appear in the film until the second hour of its running time and many Oscar voters I talked to disliked the film so intensely they turned their screeners off before they ever saw her. Because of that, Harvey Winstein, who is running Blanchett's campaign for this Oscar, inserted edited DVDs of just her scenes in the movie in Daily Variety. (He couldn't mail them to Academy members, because NARAS rules prohibit the mailing of two different versions of the same film.) He's hoping they will be viewed by enough voters to make a difference.

When the nominations were first announced, Amy Ryan was considered the co-favorite with Blanchett and many are saying her performance as the uncaring mother in "Gone Baby Gone" will still win out, although I heard her stock was falling in the last couple of weeks.

So there you have it: A close race among Blanchett, Dee and Ryan. So who am I going with? Tilda Swinton. Don't ask me why, it's just a hunch and like I said there is always one big upset. This is where I think it will come. I also think "Michael Clayton" could be the movie the Academy likes the most, even if they don't think it's the "best" movie and this is a great place to display their affection for it. I also think within the industry, Swinton is the best liked actress of the nominated five.

In other races, "Ratatouille," which was not only the best animated film of the year, but perhaps the best overall motion picture, should win for animation and stands a real good chance of winning for score, although I'm going to go with original score of "Atonement," which I'm also picking for costume design.

"There Will Be Blood" should prevail in the art direction and cinematography categories and I'm picking "Transformers," believe it or not, to go home with three Oscars, for sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects. "The Bourne Ultimatum" should win for film editing simply because it had far more edits than any other nominees, and "La Vie En Rose" is my choice in the makeup category because of the way the artists made Marion Cotillard age so gracefully and perfectly. Other awards:
Foreign Language Film: "The Counterfeiters"
Original song: "Falling Slowly" from "Once"
Documentary feature: "No End in Sight"
Documentary short: "Freeheld"
Animated short: "Peter & the Wolf"
Live action short: "Tanghi Argentini"

Friday, February 22, 2008

Recent DVD Releases

"American Gangster" is a good movie that misses by a whisker of being a very good one. It stars Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas, a Harlem drug kingpin of the 1970s, and Russell Crowe as Lucas’ nemesis, police detective Richie Roberts. The two never come face to face during the first two hours of the film’s two hour and 37-minute running time, so what director Ridley Scott does is switch back and forth between the stories of the two men. That is a problem. Of the two, Lucas is by far the more interesting character and it feels like the early scenes involving Roberts were beefed up because a major star like Crowe was cast in the part. Not only are these scenes unnecessary, they constantly slow any momentum the film tries to build. But the biggest problem with the film is there is never any tension developed between Lucas, a man who doesn’t hesitate to set a gasoline soaked man aflame or shoot another one in the head at point blank range on a crowed Harlem street, and Roberts, a straight-arrow cop who follows all the rules. In fact, when the two finally meet, they seem to get along pretty well together. Then the film sells out as we learn that Lucas wasn’t Roberts’s real target all along. But the film does give us a fascinating portrait of the gangster trying to be to drug users what Best Buy is to its customers and Washington and Crowe are always fascinating to watch. There’s also a dynamite performance from Josh Brolin as a dirty cop and an Oscar-nominated one from Ruby Dee as Lucas’ mother. The DVD contains a theatrical version, which these comments are based on, and an unrated, extended version. I wouldn’t call the latter the "director’s cut," because I’m betting in a year or so Scott, being the savvy marketer that he is, will package a "version you were meant to see in the first place," probably combined with yet one more edit of "Blade Runner." Grade: B

"Margot at the Wedding" is a disappointment considering it was written by Noah Baumbach, who directed "The Squid and the Whale," a film I ranked as the fourth best film of 2005. This time Baumbach tells the story of Margot (Nicole Kidman) who drags her son Claude (Zane Paris, in his film debut) from their home in Manhattan to the Hamptons for the wedding of her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to a layabout named Malcolm (Jack Black). Margot is a writer who appropriates the lives of her family for use in her novels, appropriations that don’t sit well with the family. In fact, Pauline blames Margot’s appropriations for the failure of her first marriage. Each sister approaches the nuptials with a secret she shares with the other, only to have their confidences betrayed. The sisters have wounds they have inflicted on each other that obviously haven’t healed. Unlike the emotions dealt with in "Squid," the issues in "Margot" all seem superficial and inconsequential. Plus, none of the characters in this film are remotely likeable, except perhaps for Margot’s husband (John Turturro in somewhat of a cameo) and Margot is leaving him. The film is well acted, especially by Kidman and Leigh, but watching this made me feel like a normal person trapped in a never-ending group therapy session with a bunch of selfish neurotics. Grade: C+

"In the Valley of Elah" stars Tommy Lee Jones as Hank Deerfield, a Vietnam vet who now makes his living hauling gravel in Munro , Tenn. As the movie opens, Hank learns his son Mike (Jonathan Tucker), who has just returned stateside from a tour of duty in Iraq , has gone AWOL. Hank, distressed because he didn’t even know Mike had left Iraq , decides to drive to the army post where Mike was reported missing to find out what’s going on. He’s there for only a short time before he learns Mike has been murdered. The rest of the movie, unfortunately, involves Hank’s determination to find out who was responsible for his son’s death and why he was killed. I say "unfortunately" because the movie could have been and should have been more important than a retread of "A Soldier’s Story." Hank’s oldest son also was killed while on active duty, in a helicopter crash in North Carolina . The film could have explored the various stages of grief experienced by a veteran who apparently forced his sons to follow in his footsteps only to see both of them killed, but neither in a combat situation. There are two scenes in the film that illustrate how marvelous this film could have been and both of them feature the wonderful Susan Sarandon as Joan Deerfield, Hank’s wife. In the first one, she learns of Mike’s death in a telephone call from Hank. In the second, she views Mike’s remains for the first time. Those scenes dealt honestly with what the characters were feeling, which is far more courageous filmmaking than scenes dealing what what the characters are doing. It is also clear that the Mike Deerfield who came home from Iraq was not the same person who left Tennessee . Writer-director Paul Haggis wants us to know that the servicemen returning from the Iraqi conflict are completely desensitized, but for some reason he doesn’t want to explore the why or the how. Instead he settles for a routine whodunit in which Hank suddenly becomes Sherlock Holmes giving lessons to all the local investigators. Haggis, who gave us "Crash," which will be remembered as one of the worst movies ever to win a best picture Oscar, throws us a lot of red herrings a long the way before arriving at a conclusion that is totally unsatisfactory and then throwing in a final scene that is a travesty, ridiculous and completely unnecessary. Charlize Theron as detective Emily Sanders makes more out of the clich├ęd role of a police investigator than Haggis gave her to work with and Jones does remind us that he is an actor who can say more with a look than many other actors can with a page of dialogue. He has a scene with Devin Brochu, as the detective’s son, in which he tells him the story of the battle between David and Goliath that took place, of course, in the valley of Elah . In a prime example of how Haggis writes with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, this is a "tonight you go to bed as a boy, tomorrow you wake up a man" scene. Jones, however, has the chops to almost make the scene work. Grade C

"Lust, Caution" has far too much caution and not nearly enough lust. Director Ang Lee’s best films ""Brokeback Mountain," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and the terribly under-appreciated "The Ice Storm" – deal with simmering emotions his characters try to keep repressed until they finally erupt. With "Lust Caution" Lee gives us the eruptions, but none of the simmering. It tells the story of Wong Chia Chi (Wei Tang in a performance that should have earned her an Oscar nomination over, say, Cate Blanchett), who, in the late 1930s, is recruited by a semi-radical group of Chinese youth bent on administering their form of justice on fellow countrymen who are collaborating with the Japanese. I call them "semi-radical" because they are too soft to have ever made it as members of such 1960s U.S. radical groups as the Weathermen. They are idealists more than fighters. Still, they decide they must kill Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) who is involved with the Japanese in ways that are never really made clear by the film. Their plan is to have Wong Chia Chi seduce the heavily guarded Mr. Yee, gain his confidence and then lure him someplace where they can pop him. She performs her part in this plot admirably. She lures him into more "pop-able" places than Starbucks has outlets where they have sex that is so well choreographed the scenes earned the film an NC-17 rating. These moments, plus one other in which the hapless band of radicals knife another collaborator who has stumbled upon their plans, are really the only "alive" ones in the film. But I kept wondering during all this lovemaking why one of the radicals didn’t come out of a closet or out from under the bed and nail the guy. Instead, Lee stages his climax in a downtown Shanghai jewelry store in a scene that has no tension whatsoever. Grade: C

"We Own the Night" is a police thriller that strives and fails to be more than that. It was written and directed by James Gray whose last film was "The Yards," which, probably not coincidentally, also starred Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg. This time around Phoenix is Bobby Green who uses his mother’s maiden name instead of the family name, Grusinsky, because he claims it is easier to pronounce. The reality is that his brother Joe (Wahlberg) and his father Bert (Robert Duvall) are both high-ranking cops intent of bringing down the drug trade that operates in large part out of the Brooklyn nightclub Bobby manages. The story supposedly involves how Bobby is pulled into the his family’s police operations, but it is more like he jumps in, which brings me to the crux of the problems I have with this film. It is well-directed--there is one tension-filled scene where Bobby is brought blindfolded to the warehouse where heroin is being cut and another car chase film through a rainstorm that just crackles--but it is not well-written. Phoenix does what we can with the role but starting about the point where an attempt is made on his brother’s life, nothing Bobby does is remotely in character. Grade: C-

"Becoming Jane" is supposed to show us, I guess, the creative impetus behind the works of Jane Austen, but instead of ennobling the authoress, it diminishes her. One would like to believe her great novels came from a deep well of creativity but, according to this film, they are nothing more than superficial autobiographies, especially "Pride and Prejudice." History tells us little about Jane Austen’s life. Most of what is known about her is gleaned from letters she wrote to her sister Cassandra. It is known, however, that at the age of 21 she met Tom Lefroy, a friend of an older relative. Lefroy is only mentioned in two of Jane's letters to Cassandra so the consensus is the relationship didn't amount to much. In the second letter she wrote "At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy." "Becoming Jane" takes that as its nucleus and blows it up so that now a simple flirtation is a full blown passionate love affair with Jane as Elizabeth Bennett, Lefroy as Mr. Darcy and ... well, you get the picture. What saves the movie from being a total failure are the performances of Anne Hathaway as Jane, James McAvoy as Lefroy, James Cromwell as Jane’s father and that marvelous trio of British actors, Maggie Smith as a judgmental aristocrat, Julie Walters as Jane’s mother and Ian Richardson as Lefroy’s uncle and guardian. Grade D+

ePay could men ePain

Dallas Water Utilities customers might want to read this before deciding to pay their bills on-line. In fact, it may be a cautionary tale for anyone paying anything to the City of Dallas on-line. I don't know about you, but I think I'll stick to the tried-and-true check-in-the-mail system.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The sorry state of television news

I rewatched "Good Night and Good Luck" the other night and after it was over I thought a lot about the scene that frames the film. It depicts David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow and he's delivering a speech to broadcast executives warning them that their medium, television, is heading in the wrong direction. Instead of being a tool to illuminate the mind, it's becoming one to the dull the senses. It is, he claims, far more interested in comforting viewers than in bringing them out of a state of complacency.

To paraphrase Yogi Berra, if Edward R. Murrow were alive today, he'd be turning over in his grave. The state of television and its news divisions is worse than Murrow could have imagined it. Of course, this is not startling information and the only reason I bring it up now is because television news did have a wonderful opportunity for a rebirth recently and completely blew it.

I am referring to the just-concluded writers strike. When television was bemoaning the fact that they could not put on new episodes of their routine nightly pablum, why didn't any of the news divisions come up with programming that explored the whys and hows of what's going on in the world today? This could have been the perfect time to take a closer look at the war in Iraq, the mortgage crisis, a close examination of those candidates who want us to elect them as the next president. Instead, we got more "reality" shows which, of course, have nothing to do with reality.
The answers to my questions are probably the obvious ones: No one is interested in this type of programming, advertisers wouldn't pay for them, etc. But I don't think anyone even tried. No one raised a voice to say "let's take a chance, let's assume television viewing adults are smarter than we give them credit for."

Jim Schultze, a reporter I respect and admire even if I don't always agree with him, has started a blog the subject of which is the death of daily newspapers. Actually, I'm surprised they still exist. I'm an old-school kind of guy and still subscribe to the Dallas Morning News. My son who lives with me while getting ready for medical school never looks at it. His generation has no interest in newspapers whatsoever. So if the dailies aren't killed by rising production costs, they will die by attrition.

Television news, on the other hand, is commiting suicide by starving itself to death.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Shopping for shorts? Then head for the Magnolia Theater

By PHILIP WUNTCH
Film Critic Emeritus


Want to broaden your horizons? Want to be entertained while you're being enlightened? Most important, want to win your annual office Oscar pool?

Then head for the Magnolia Theater as quickly as possible. The collection of Oscar-nominated shorts, both live action and animated, is on view at least through Thursday night and may be held over beyond Sunday night's Academy Awards ceremony.

The visual cavalcade amounts to a lengthy, often delightful evening at the movies, but if you must choose between live action and animated selections, I'd go with live action. Although the animated flicks represent the top tier of stop-motion, traditional and claymation techniques, the story lines, perhaps inevitably, are sometimes fuzzily developed and pretentiously symbolic. All are worth seeing, but the live action shorts are more consistent in quality.

Belgium's "Tanghi Argentini" is a live-action highlight, telling a warm and ultimately surprising story of a nerdy office worker who hopes to impress a woman he's met online. He asks a cool colleague to teach him to "slink like a panther" when dancing the tango. The film ends with a charming twist that suits its holiday setting.

Denmark's "At Night" focuses on three young women in a cancer ward. Earnestly acted and directed, it's also a mite too predictable. But you will definitely find it poignant. "The Substitute," from Italy, is erratic in tone but ultimately rewarding. A substitute teacher finds satisfaction in demeaning his high-school class. Even after we discover his personal agenda, the film leaves a slightly bitter taste. But the ending is satisfying, and the vision of a student poetess's soulful face will linger in your memory.

The UK's "The Tonto Woman" will likely divide audiences. Adapted from an Elmore Leonard story, it tells of the friendship between a less-than-honorable drifter and an outcast woman, both of whom benefit from their relationship. Its desert vistas are exquisite, and the drifter is well-played by Francesco Quinn, who has a more accessible style than his Oscar-winning poppa Anthony. But the overall mood is frequently ponderous and self-important.

France's "The Mozart of Pickpockets" rivals "Tanghi Argentini" for the Most Charming Nominee Award. It's a lovable tale of accident-prone Parisian pickpockets whose luck changes when they're forced to unofficially adopt a deafmute urchin. It's a sprightly, engaging little film that never makes the mistake of seeming too confident of its own charm.

Among the animated entries, France's "Even Pigeons Go to Heaven" has a narrative charm that matches its delightful technical creativity. A priest, who may be just a wee bit of a con artist, confers with a miserly old man and uses unorthodox methods to convince him to buy his way into heaven. The film abounds with verbal and visual wit.

If Federico Fellini had ever made a stop-motion animated film, it would resemble Canada's "Madame Tutli-Putli," which in fact resembles Fellini's "Juliet of the Spirits." The titular protagonist arrives at a train station with excessive physical and emotional baggage. The other passengers resemble demons from her past. Will she exorcise her demons or succumb to them? Although never as meaningful as it strives to be, the film creates a stunning visual dreamland, simultaneously ominous and optimistic.

Russia's "My Love" is technically brilliant but dramatically cumbersome. It tells of a 16-year-old 19th-century aristocrat who, fresh from reading Ivan Turgenev's novella "First Love," falls in love with two women, a bubbly servant girl and an enigmatic "shady lady." Their dilemmas begins to mirror those of Turgenov's characters. However, the complex storyline is not the equal of the exquisite visuals.

For sheer minute-by-minute pleasure, "I Met the Walrus" can't be topped. In less than six minutes, it recreates the mood of the lamented 1960s, recreating the true incident of 14-year-old Jerry Levitan sneaking into John Lennon's hotel suite and interviewing him. Despite its brevity, this one has long-lasting impact.

"Peter & the Wolf" could capture the Oscar. This Polish-UK co-production oozes class from every pore, matching beautiful visuals with Sergei Prokofiev's enchanting, classic music. The film's characters are almost balletic in movement, while the beautifully textured atmosphere seems a timeless hybrid of contemporary and ancient Russia. Peter is a pallid youth who, after witnessing a wolf's slaying of his beloved duck, seeks vengeance from the alpha wolf. The film is too long, but class carries clout with Oscar voters.

Then again, Sunday night can bring plentiful surprises.

We got trouble, right here in River City

Today's New York Times takes the time to Ponder the Fate of places like Venus and Lavon, what the newspaper calls the bedroom communities of the bedroom communities that surround Dallas. And the news is not good.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Perhaps complete and utter stupidity will someday be eradicated but the signs indicate it won't happen in my lifetime

I am not going to bore you with the sad, sad story of my shredded tires and my visit with the good folks at Discount Tire in Sherman this afternoon to get four -- count -em, four! -- new ones.

What I am going to mention is how desperately sad it made me feel while exiting the parking lot and having whatever satisfaction I had with four new tires completely destroyed by seeing the car in front of me sporting a bumper sticker that said "A vote for Obama is a vote for Osama."

What holes do these people slither out of?

Friday, February 15, 2008

But I need that double shot mocha latte grande light and I need it right now!!!

Don't take this to the bank just yet but I have heard that Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz has grown more than just a little unhappy about the product coming out of his stores. For example, milk is supposed to be steamed for each individual drink, yet Schultz has claimed to have seen Starbucks employees steam a small pitcher and then pour the ingredients into several drinks. Only 30 seconds, from what I have been told, is supposed to lapse between the time espresso is brewed until it goes into a specific dream yet Schultz has allegedly witnessed baristas brewing espresso and setting it aside to use when needed.

Finally, according to a source I have inside Starsbucks, Schultz decided he couldn't stand it anymore. To fix these problems, he has ordered a system-wide shutdown of all Starbucks stores for the purpose of re-training employees.

From what I have heard, all stores will close for at least two hours at 5 p.m. (local times) on a Friday afternoon either later this month or next month during which time all the stores' employees, regardless of what shift they work, will undergo a mandatory training program. During this time, each store has been told to place urns filled with gratis coffee along with coffee condiments outside to help those addicts like moi who just have to have a shot of something.

Truth in packaging: All this information is unconfirmed and comes from a single source inside the Starbucks corporation.

Post Valentine's Day romantic advice from the last person in the world who should be handing out romantic advice

Truth of the matter here, I'm really not the one who originated this advice. I'm just the messenger passing it along. It comes courtesy of Marc Hirsch, a contributor to MSNBC.

According to those who know about such things, there are five stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, depression and acceptance. So what Mr. Hirsch came up with are five songs that could serve as the theme songs, so to speak, for each of these stages. They are designed for someone who's just broken up with the love of their life. Here they are:

Denial: "And I"m Telling You I'm Not Going" from "Dreamgirls"
Bargaining: "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" by The Temptations
Anger: "Go Your Own Way" by Fleetwood Mac
Depression: "Without You" by Harry Nilsson (I might have gone with "Guilty" by Randy Newman)
Acceptance: "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" by Bob Dylan (I might prefer Dylan's "If I Had To Do It All Over Again, I'd Do It All Over You," which probably proves once again I'm the last person to be handing out advice like this).

Thursday, February 14, 2008

My thoughts on yesterday's City Council vote on the Convention Center Hotel

The debate over two items on yesterday's City Council addendum to its agenda concerning a hotel to be built adjacent to the Dallas Convention Center brought out some of the best and the worst dialog I have heard from the Council's City Hall Chambers.

The worst came from Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Carraway who argued that the council should not wait to decide on this issue, that waiting cost the city a horse racing track, a motor speedway and the Dallas Cowboys stadium. Talk about an apples and oranges argument. The only way this argument could have any relevance to the items being discussed would be if the Dallas Convention and Visitor's Bureau was thinking of moving the entire Dallas Convention Center to a location outside the city or abandoning the current convention center completely to build in a new one in Southlake or Grand Prairie or some place like that. Carraway's foolish tirade was certainly a low point in the annals of this City Council's discourse.

The best job on this issue was performed by a council member I usually think wear's the dunce's cap, Mitchell Rasansky. Unlike most of his colleagues, Rasansky actually did some independent research on this affair and come up with some interesting statistics that I will get back to shortly.

But first, a short description of what the council was considering. The first was a motion to finance a feasibility study that would determine whether the Convention and Events Services debt should be restructured. This would be necessary so that it could apply for bonds to build additions to the convention center or even a hotel adjacent to it.

The second item was the big one. That one authorizes the Convention and Visitors Bureau to give $500,000 to the owners of a 8.4-acre parcel of land at Young and Lamar streets that is now the home of a parking lot and a 2-story parking garage. (Both of these items passed.) This half-mil would essentially hold the land until May 31 when the city could decide to purchase the entire parcel for around $30 million. If it does, the $500,000 would be deducted from the purchase price. If the city waits until after May 31 but decides to purchase before Sept. 30, only $250,000 would be applied to the purchase price and the other $250,000 would be forfeited. If the city waits until October or later to make a purchase decision or decides not to purchase at all, the CVB loses the entire $500,000.

Let me say right now I have no problems with constructing a convention center hotel. The CVB argues that Dallas has lost significant conventions because it doesn't have such a facility. I don't think that's true. I do think it's true that conventions that have gone elsewhere have told CVB that's the reason they didn't choose Dallas, but I also think that's just nicer than saying "The other options looked like they would be a lot more fun for our delegates." If I'm a convention planner chosing whether to have my gathering in Dallas, New York, Honolulu, Chicago, Las Vegas, Orlando, San Francisco, Anaheim, Los Angeles, Miami, even New Orleans, I'm thinking Dallas comes in 11th on that list and that has nothing to do with a convention center hotel. Does New York have a convention center hotel?

In fact, I would like to a see a survey of conventions that evaluates why they make the location decisions they do. I'm betting the availability of a convention center hotel is not going to be at the top of that list.

Still, I can see the advantages of a convention center hotel of it's done correctly. My problem is, from what I'm seeing, Dallas isn't doing this correctly. Here's my problem.

The city is apparently willing to play $30 million of our money for a piece of property that has been appraised by DCAD (the same good folks that set the values for our homes) at $8.2 million. That's a significant difference. The $30 million figure comes apparently from two independent appraisers hired by the CVB. But, according to Rasansky's homework, these appraisers didn't even factor into their appraisals the valuations of property right across the street from City Hall that were valued far below the figures used by the independents.

I'm not even going to argue which figure is closer to the true value of the land. However, if DCAD's appraisals are closer to the mark, this is massive misuse of tax dollars to buy this property at an inflated price. If the $30 million is correct, then the city has lost thousands, perhaps millions in property tax revenues because this parcel has been so undervalued. Either way something is wrong. Before the city makes another move, I think someone should examine this disparity a lot more closely. (Of course, that May 31 deadline is going to nudge the City to act with speed instead of wisdom.)

If it turns out the $30 million is correct, here's what I would like the City do to on behalf of me, Terry T. Taxpayer, and all my fellow taxpayers. I want them to calculate the lost property taxes on that piece of land and then deduct that amount from the $30 million.

Oh, and by the way, I also want the City line up someone who knows a little something about developing, designing, building and operating successful hotels.

I don't think that's too much to ask.

Thursday Texas Trivia Fun

These days Kirk Dooley writes a column about the personalities, the places and and the legacies involving the Park Cities for Dallas' only daily. Knowing Kirk's reputation, I imagine he's also involved in other creative things as well, but I don't know for certain what they are.

I had the good fortune to meet Kirk about 27 years ago and I quickly realized he was one of the best "idea" individuals I had ever run across. I don't know how many of you remember Texas Taxis which were Cadillac convertibles with faux longhorns attached to their front fenders. That was his idea. He also helped create the Park Cities People newspaper and another publication called the Homesick Texan which sent news of interest about that was going on in the Lone Star State that couldn't be found anywhere else to those living far outside its borders.

At the height of the Trivia board game fad 20 years ago, Kirk conceived of, developed and marketed a game called Texas Trivia. I probably still have a copy of it tucked away in some overly littered closet in my overly littered house.

I was thinking about Kirk and Texas Trivia when I ran across this Texas trivia quiz. I only got 68 percent correct on the quiz. I'm willing to bet Kirk would score a whole lot higher. Probably most of you will too.

Recent DVD Releases

Gone Baby Gone is a triumph for the brothers Affleck. Ben displays a sure hand in its first attempt at direction, presenting a sense of place rarely scene with such accuracy and insight. Casey delivers a multi-layered performance that surpasses his Oscar nominated turn in "The Assassination of Jesse James" as Patrick Kenzie, a neighborhood private detective who, with Angie Gennnaro (Michelle Monaghan), his personal and professional partner, is hired to augment the investigation into the disappearance of a 4-year-old girl. The police investigation is being conducted by detectives Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton) and supervised by Capt. Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman), whose own son was killed many years earlier. The movie has the courage to pose moral questions: Does the (I'm trying to thing of a better description than "white trash," but I don't think there is one) of the world deserve the same treatment under the law as the priviledged class? Should justice really be blind or should those higher on society's ladder be given differential treatment in criminal matters. I watched this DVD with a group of individuals whose opinions I respect and I was shocked when I saw that every single one of them said justice should, in fact, be prejudiced against lower classes (personified in this film by Helene McCready [Amy Ryan, who justly deserved her Oscar nomination), the missing child's mother). But that's how well Ben Affleck presents the argument. I don't agree with that choice and neither does the morale center of this film, but I could understand how, based on the evidence Affleck offers, they could come to that decision. Grade: B-

In the Shadow of the Moon is a moving, riveting documentary from British director David Sington that recounts what is, in my opinion, America's finest hour -- that time when we sent 15 men on a journey to another world. The movie uses no narration. Instead it features interviews with many of those men today, who recall with humor, pathos, awe and words of inspiration what it felt like to be a part of the Apollo space program in general and this small select group of individuals in particular. The film focuses, of course, on the flight of Apollo 11, the first moon landing, with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Unfortunately, Armstrong refused to participate in the story but his cool-headed, heroic expertise is illustrated by the other two. Interestingly, although Collins was almost the forgotten member of this trio because he remained in the command module circling the moon while Aldrin and Armstrong walked on it, it his recollections that are the the most illuminating. The movie doesn't avoid the tragedy of Apollo 1 or the crisis of Apollo 13, but, for the most part, this is the story of how a group of men emerged from obscurity to unite the world in a shared dream. Grade: B+

Introducing the Dwights: A dreary comedy that tells the story of Tim (Khan Chittenden), a teen-aged, sexually inexperienced Australian teen, who becomes the rope in an emotional tug of war between Jean (Brenda Blethyn), his mother and a frustrated comic from the Rusty Warren school who likes to bill herself as "clubland's raunchiest homemaker," and Jill (Emma Booth), the precocious, somewhat more experienced lass with whom Tim falls in love. One thing you can take to the bank about a movie featuring Ms. Blethyn: She will always have one big emotional scene in it during which she gets to overact even more than she does throughout the rest of the movie. The one that comes near the end of this one is a doozy. The movie doesn't know whether it wants to be a serious examination of the sexual dynamics between a mother-son and a man-woman relationship or a sitcom and its happy ending seems forced and implausible. The DVD contains no extras. Grade: D

Martian Child: A predictable, sappy comedy/drama starring John Cusack as David, a science fiction writer still mourning the death of his wife two years earlier and facing something of a writer's bloc in an attempt to write a sequel to his blockbuster first novel. Because his wife always wanted to adopt a child, David decides to fulfill this wish. But the adoption agency he visits seems more like a day care center and the child he focuses on spends all his days inside a large cardboard box because he believes he's from Mars and can't be exposed to direct sunlight. Well, of course this single father chooses to adopt this problem child because, if he didn't, we wouldn't have a movie. Cusack does a marvelous job of playing the outwardly soft male father figure with an even softer interior -- one that you would only see in a movie, but never in real life -- and he's matched in the lovable department by Bobby Coleman in the title role. Joan Cusack plays (what else?) David's sister and Amanda Peet, who deserves far better, generally stands around looking cute as the best friend of David's late wife. Richard Schiff goes through the motions as the head of a board that will ultimate decide if David will be able to retain custody of his adopted son but, if you think that decision is the climax of the film (as well it should be), I'm sorry to inform you that you will have to sit through another tacked-on ridiculous climax at the film's end. Grade: D

Romance & Cigarettes: A musical, yes a musical, starring a lot of actors you would never expect to see in a musical (and, I guess, that's the point): James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Steve Buscemi, Bobby Cannavale, Mandy Moore (OK, you can picture her in a musical), Mary-Louise Parker, Aida Turturro (who this time gets to play Gandolfini's daughter instead of his sister), Christopher Walken (who has the film's best musical number singing "Delilah") and Elaine Stritch (who has the film's best scene as Gandolfini's mother). The first two-thirds of the film as a forced goofiness about it as these folks sing along with recordings like Elvis Presley's "Trouble," Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart," Tom Jones's aforementioned "Delilah" and Bruce Springsteen's "Red Headed Woman." These musical numbers hang loosely from a plot that involves Sarandon discovering her husband, Gandolfini, is having an affair with a sulty underwear saleswoman (Winslet, who has terrific fun parodying everything from vamps to her own role in "Titanic"). The problem is that it quickly feels less like a cinematic experience than a visit to a karaoke bar. Then, for reasons only writer/director John Turturro could possibly explain, the film abandons its wacky approach to take on such serious themes as redemption and mortality and to take them on very seriously. Grade: D+

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Don't pull the rope (redux)

Oh, no! The word is out that Dallas Mavericks are in discussions to completely sabotage their basketball fortunes in a boneheaded move to acquire Jason Kidd. The deal, which if it's true, will earn Dallas the right to be called the laughingstock of the NBA, would send Devin Harris, Jerry Stackhouse, probably Devean George, DeSagana Diop, Maurice Ager AND TWO FIRST ROUND draft picks to New Jersey for Kidd and Malik Allen. The only possible bright side to this trade -- and even this is not as bright as not making the trade at all -- is that the Nets would then give us back Stackhouse which would mean he plays for us but is paid by New Jersey. However, I can't for the life of me seeing New Jersey agreeing to that.

Why oh why are the Mavs doing something this stupid? Actually, I could see us making a trade with New Jersey but for Vince Carter, not Jason Kidd, and as long as that trade did not include Harris. What Dallas needs is a decent 2-guard, not a 1. Harris, when healthy, is a very good 1-guard and is constantly getting better. Jason Terry, as we saw at the beginning of the season, makes a wonderful backup. But who do we have at the 2? George? Eddie Jones? Carter would be an incredible improvement over either, especially if we don't have to give up Harris.

There were years when the Mavericks were irrelevant on the local sports scene. Then came Cuban and Nowitzki and Nash and after a series of so-called blockbuster trades that didn't pan out, the Mavs decided to build through the draft (Josh Howard, Harris, etc.) and shrewd lower-key acquisitions (Terry). Sure, the Mavs had their stumbles (losing Nash and getting nothing in return), but this Nash-less team made it the NBA Finals two years ago, something no other Mavs team ever did.

Then a couple of weeks ago the Lakers traded for Paul Gasol and the Suns traded for Shaq and all the pundits said the Mavs had to keep up and trade for somebody. Meanwhile, the team that has been the most dominant of the decade, the San Antonio Spurs, has not felt the need to do anything so rash. We should be following the Spurs' blueprint for success more than the gambles of the Spurs and the Lakers. Not to mention we should not repeating this mistakes of our own past.

If this trade happens, the Mavericks have, for all practical purposes, purchased a return trip to irrelevancy.

Don't plant that water resistant plant here, podnuh

It's a Wednesday City Council agenda day today and I've got WRR on in the background listening to a bunch of folks on the council who try to "out-hero" their colleagues. What I haven't heard -- at least not yet -- is the usual criticisms of the city's Code Compliance department.

That's not to say Code departments are not in the news. Take this story from today's Los Angeles Times that tells the story of a homeowner who thought he was wasting too much water on his landscaping, especially when the area was experiencing a drought. So he put in what folks around here called xeriscape landscaping. He did not reckon with the wrath of his local Code Nazis, however, who descended upon him in full fury.

That also reminds me that earlier today that I received a news release from the City of Dallas promoting its "green" campaign and urging me take a cooking class instead of taking my sweetheart out to dinner, to plant a tree in someone's honor, adopt a pet and, yes, plant water resistant shrubs around my house this Valentine's Day. I'm betting no one in Southern California got a release like that from their city government.

The writers strike is over, but ...

There is no question that network television programming was hit hardest by the just ended writers strike. In an interesting story in today's Los Angeles Times, writer Dawn C. Chmielewski recalled that during the strike of 1988, viewers sick of reruns quickly discovered the comedy "Married With Children" on a the then upstart Fox Network.

But the most interesting paragraph of this story was what the alternatives were in 2008:

"During the writers strike, people watched a record number of online videos. Teens spent more time primping their pages on social networking websites such as MySpace. Online game-playing surged. Cable networks attracted more channel surfers. And even DVD sales, which had been in slow decline, ticked up in January."

That's not to say all those things are directly attributable to the strike but it does say a lot about the additional fracturing of the television audience. And the story does predict popular TV shows like "Grey's Anatomy" and "House" will not have as many viewers after the strike as they did before the strike started.

Priorities

I'll grant you that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed has never won a Cy Young Award but am I the only one in this country who believes the trial of Mohammed and five others for their role in the 9/11 attacks is not receiving the attention it deserves while the Congressional trial (and admit it, it is a trial) of Roger Clemens for allegedly taking performance enhancing drugs is receiving far more attention than it warrants? I know the rest of the world is watching the events in Guantanamo Bay very closely -- giving in more importance than the Clemens affair -- and, from what I am reading, they are not liking what they are seeing.

"Romance & Cigarettes"

John Turturro's "Romance & Cigarettes" is one of the most audacious movies I've ever seen. It takes audacity to have James Gandolfini, following a confrontation with his wife Susan Sarandon, during which she tells him "I hate you with all the hate that you can hate with," to burst into song. It takes audacity to cast Aida Turturro as Gandolfini's daughter. It takes audacity to have Sarandon in a church singing "Piece of My Heart" backed by a choir that gives new meaning to the word "eclectic." It takes audacity to have Kate Winslet, having a ball playing a red-haired tramp in Queens with a Lancashire accent, send up her "Titanic" personna by singing a love song underwater as she appears to be drowning.

Unfortunately, all this movie has is audacity. Other than that, it's like spending an hour and 45 minutes with some well known actors in a karaoke bar and, in its last third, the movie forgets what was supposed to be.

The movie tells the story of a blue-collar bridge worker (Gandolfini) who returns to his home on the border of New York's Kennedy Airport one afternoon to confront the facts that his wife (Sarandon) has learned of his affair with a sultry underwear saleswoman (Winslet). The rest of the movie involves Gandolfini considering a circumcision which he thinks will improve his sexual performance, Sarandon calling her cousin (Christopher Walken) to help her get even with Winslet, and one of Gandolfini-Sarandon's three daughters, Mandy Moore, and her plans to marry a local jerk (Bobby Cannavale) who wants the world to know his name is "Fryburg." This gives Ms. Moore the opportunity to utter one of the film's best lines: "Dad, I'm going into wedlock."

For the first two thirds of this film, these actors play out their scenes to the hilt while they break out into such songs as "Trouble," "Prisoner of of Love," "Red Headed Woman," and the film's show-stopper, "Deliliah," with Walken channeling not only Tom Jones but also John Travolta and George Chakiris.

Eventually, however, the movie collapses under its own weight, especially during its third act when it forgets the grand musical numbers to explore such issues as redemption and mortality. I also have this strange feeling that this movie would have never seen the light of day if it had been written and directed by a relative unknown and not John Turturro, if it had not assembled this marvelous cast of actors (I didn't even mention Mary-Louise Parker as a third daughter, Steve Buscemi as Gandofini's clueless co-worker and Elaine Stritch, who has the movie's single best scene, as Gandolfini's mother) and if it had not been backed by the Coen Brothers. It says something that the film was made in 2005 and floated around for awhile--playing the Venice Film Festival that year, opening to a lukewarm receptance in a handful of European countries in 2006, before getting booked into a limited U.S. run only last September.

I'll give Turturro credit for having the chutzpah to attempt something this audacious. It's a shame he didn't have the moxie to pull it off.

Grade: D+

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Hook 'em

Ohhhhh, how sweet it was!

Campaigning for Oscar (Part 1)

I don't think "Atonement" has much of a chance to win the best picture Oscar, nor do I think Saoirse Ronan has much of a shot in the supporting actress race. But I guess any campaigning helps the cause, even if it's from as far away as Hong Kong, as long as voters get to hear about it courtesy of the Associated Press.

Harris in the Hall

I remember the first time I heard Gram Parsons's first solo album called "GP," early in 1973. I was a big fan of The Flying Burrito Brothers and thought their album "The Gilded Palace of Sin" was one of the great LPs in the history of rock. But then Parsons left the Burritos to go solo and I was more than just a little bit anxious to hear the results.

The first time I heard the "GP" album I was startled by this woman's voice of amazing purity that was featured on harmony vocals. I asked my brother if he knew who this woman was. He looked at the album's jacket and told me "Someone named Emmylou Harris."

That began my fascination with Emmylou Harris, a fascination that reached its apex one evening at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles when I enjoyed several dances with Ms. Harris at a post-Grammy Awards celebration.

Now today comes this word that Emmylou Harris is to be inducted this year in the Country Music Hall of Fame. I am happy for her--she has earned this recognition. However, it leaves me with the same feeling I have when, strolling through an antique mall, I see something, stop and want to scream: "That can't be an antique! I actually used one of those!"

Ever heard the term "dependency ratio"? It's important

The New York Times has a fascinating story today about population forecasts that predicts by the year 2050, 72 percent of the American population will either be above the age of 64 or younger than 18. This percentage is apparently called the "dependency ratio." That ratio today is higher than I thought it might be--around 60 percent.

Much of government spending--whether it's in the form of retirement benefits, health care or schooling--is devoted to programs for this group. What will the political composition of the country that will drive policies look like? The article says that by 2050, 23 percent of the workforce (those outside the dependency ratio) will be foreign born and many of them will be ineligible to vote.

At the risk of drastically alarming the folks in Farmers Branch, it is estimated that 19 percent of all Americans will be foreign born by 2050 (interestingly enough, that's the percentage of foreign-born residents living in Canada and Australia today) and the share of Hispanic residents will more than double to almost 29 percent. (Births will account for a large share of the Hispanic as well as the Asian population growth which is why the Hispanic population percentage is significantly higher than the foreign-born percentage.)

What all this boils down to is this: By the year 2050, those over 64 (a population that will include my son) will have the most powerful political voice in the country.

In a somewhat related story, the Times also reports that the economy of Arizona is weakening while the number of illegal immigrants seems to be dropping. No one is sure whether the illegal immigrants are leaving the state because of the economic downtown or whether the economic downturn is being caused by illegals leaving Arizona, which recently passed some of the toughest immigration laws in the country.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Presidential election trivia

Regardless of who wins each party's nomination, one thing is assured: This will be the first election since 1952 when neither the Republican nor the Democratic nominee was ever a president or a vice president. And 1952 was the FIRST time that happened. By the way, for those with short memories, the nominees in 1952 were widely respected war hero Dwight Eisenhower for the Republicans and Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson for the Democrats.

The cost of playing post office goes up again

I don't know about you, but it doesn't seem that long ago that the price of a first-class stamp went up a couple of cents. Now comes word that the price is going up again, albeit only a penny, beginning May 12. Why do I think this is a thinly veiled plot by the Postal Department to dump a bunch of already-printed 1-cent stamps?

Managing Internet access in Dallas public libraries

Dallas' only daily made a big deal recently about the amount of pornographic Web sites being accessed by folks at the Dallas Public Library. Tomorrow the Library System is making its recommendations to the City Council's Quality of Life Committe on what to do about it. Briefly it is this: The library plans to install a filtering system so that when a patron accesses a page that may -- and the operative word here is "may" -- be questionable, a warning box appears that says "The site you are requesting may violate the Internet Acceptable Use Policy" (at least, that's what I think it's going to say, but in the presentation the library made to council the word "Policy" was replaced by "Police," a Freudian slipup, I'm sure). Then the box says "Do you wish to continue?"

If you click "Yes," you will be granted access to your page but, simultaneously, a warning will be set to the librian's desk letting the chief know that someone has accessed a "dubious" Web site.

The briefing doesn't really go into what happens after that, although in the appendix to the briefing there is a reference to Chapter 43 of the Texas Penal Code. Section 22 of that chapter states: "A person commits an offense if he intentionally or knowingly displays or distributes an obscene photograph, drawing, or similar visual representation or other obscene material and is reckless about whether a person is present who will be offended or alarmed by the display or distribution." This offense is classified as a Class C misdemeanor which is punishable by a fine not to exceed $500.

Now the question becomes whether a librarian can write a ticket. I don't think so. So I guess a policeman must be summoned, which will give us a whole new debate about response times. Probably the main punishment will be a simple revocation of all library privileges, but, like I said, the briefing doesn't go into enforcement at all.

Wish I'd Said That

Mary Mapes writing about the upcoming Texas Primary on The Huffington Post:

"The ground here may have given up some of the world's best specimens of dinosaur fossils, but state school officials are still under siege by parents who believe that the earth is only a few thousand years old and that carbon dating means taking a girlfriend to the Texas A and M bonfire."

Contemplating "In Brujes," Ralph Fiennes, Roy Scheider, U2


By PHILIP WUNTCH
Film Critic Emeritus


If "In Brujes" didn't warrant its own strong identity, you'd dismiss it as yet another of the many sons of "Pulp Fiction."

It's got huggable hit men whose cheeky banter keeps their minds off their dastardly deeds. It's got violent, often slow deaths and dark, dark moments of humor. But it's blessed with its own vision and a plot filled with as many unexpected twists as a street map of the titular Belgian tourist spot.

With these distinctions, director/screenwriter Martin McDonagh makes an auspicious feature directing debut. The playwright, whose "The Pillowman" and "Beauty Queen of Leenane" won accolades on Broadway and the West End, balances "In Brujes" with wry yet rowdy wit and grimly honorable fatalism. The characters' imaginative profanity almost makes David Mamet seem like Louisa May Alcott, and it's obviously not a movie for everyone. But those who like it will probably want multiple viewings, and I plan on going back for more. Despite McDonagh's idiosyncrasies, the ghost of "Pulp Fiction" inevitably hovers, but "In Brujes" holds its own.

Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson play hit men Ray and Ken. Following a hit that tragically misfired, maniacal boss Harry (a deliciously malevolent Ralph Fiennes) sends them to Brujes to await further orders. It's Christmas time, and the medieval Belgian city overflows with happy tourists and eager merchants, all the while looking like a gingerbread village sprung to glorious sugar-and-spice life.

The older and mellow Ken takes to Brujes with desperate eagerness, finding solace in its churches, museums and canals. The sometimes clueless and anything-but-mellow Ray can't stand the place and voices his contempt to increasingly hostile listeners. Ray played the pivotal role in the tragically botched job that caused the duo's temporary exile, and he longs for some mode of atonement. With Harry's arrival in Brujes, it's apparent that all three men have their own codes of perverse honor.

As pathetic Ray, Farrell gives what is arguably his best performance. He showed unexpected vulnerability in "A Home at the End of the World," and here he deftly mixes savagery and vulnerability. With his little-boy face and caterpillar eyebrows, he's often had the appearance of trying to woo the audience. But here we sense that the forlorn character Ray, rather than Farrell the actor, longs for our approval.

Gleeson successfully transcends the older-but-wiser stereotype with a beautifully understated performance, and Fiennes, as mentioned earlier, delivers the deadly goods as a crime kingpin who knows where all bodies are buried. "In Brujes" is not a boys-only club, and two actresses, Clemence Poesy and Thekla Reuten, make strong showings in important supporting roles.

"In Brujes" always keeps you guessing, and you'll love it for that.

THAT FIENNES FEELING: "In Brujes" contains a quick silent close-up of Ralph Fiennes' eyes that gives chills to sensitive viewers like myself. His eyes glow and even sparkle at the prospect of potential mayhem.

I interviewed Fiennes twice, the first being for his breakthrough role as the concentration camp commander in "Schindler's List." Steven Spielberg said he thought of casting Fiennes when he recalled his performance in a version of "Wuthering Heights." Spielberg said that other actors, most famously Laurence Olivier, had emphasized Heathcliff's romantic nature whereas Fiennes emphasized the character's raging anger.

When Spielberg met Fiennes personally, he was convinced. When I told Fiennes later that Spielberg felt he had found the perfect Nazi after only one meeting, the actor roared with laughter and said that Spielberg was obviously intuitive.

Our second meeting was for Robert Redford's "Quiz Show." Fiennes played duplicitous quiz-show contestant Charles Van Doren, with John Turturro and Rob Morrow also starring. I interviewed Redford late in the afternoon, and during our session, all three actors came in separately to bid Redford adieu. Both Turturro and Morrow embraced the director with bear hugs. Fiennes came in last and spoke his appreciation with polite warmth. No bear hug, not even a handshake. Just a pleasant nod of the head.

I'm not saying that Fiennes has the makings of a homicidal maniac. I'm just saying that his humorous sense of irony and his armor of emotional distance can be superb tools for certain types of characters.

SCHEIDER MEMORIES: Roy Scheider's death Sunday was not a complete surprise, rumors of ill health having circulated for several years. But, this being awards season, it brought back a warm Oscar memory.

Scheider had been nominated as best actor for playing Bob Fosse's alter-ego in 1979's "All That Jazz." Dustin Hoffman in "Kramer Vs. Kramer" was the expected winner, and Scheider watched the ceremony in a New York cafe with his young daughter. When Hoffman was announced winner, a lucky photographer got a shot of a smiling Scheider being given a consoling hug from his daughter. He emerged the evening's most-photographed non-winner.

That's actually a significant anecdote. Although he had a strong speaking voice, Scheider's face often told the story. He was first noticed in a virtually mute, impressive small role as Jane Fonda's brutal pimp in "Klute." His breakthrough role was in "The French Connection," where his savvy underplaying combined with Gene Hackman's bravado proved a savory combo.

And of course, there's always "Jaws." He spoke the oft-quoted "We're gonna need a bigger boat!" line. But his facial expressions of shock, terror, dutiful courage and sheer fright grabbed the audience. Similarly, in "Marathon Man," his lingering look at William Devane reflected the unspoken nature of their relationship. In "Sorcerer," his silent final scene, in which he makes the fatal mistake of beckoning a homely woman for one last dance, reveals an unexpected soft side of his difficult character.

During the 1990s, Scheider had to settle for infrequent movie roles, mostly of inferior substance. But he was outstanding as a manipulative patriarch in "The Myth of Fingerprints." One of his best post-decline performances was in 1986's underrated "52 Pick-Up," from Elmore Leonard's novel. He played a less-than-honorable rich guy, with fine support from Ann-Margret as his ambitious wife and a youthful Kelly Preston as his ill-fated mistress.

But Bruce the Shark remains Scheider's most famous co-star, and his performance as an ordinary man in extraordinary horrific circumstances anchored "Jaws" as a fright fest everyone could relate to.

U2 3D: Cinemark 17's IMAX theater is holding over "U2 3D" indefinitely. It's easy to see why. Audiences have been jumping up and down in their excitement, acting as if they were at a live concert. Fortunately, the sightlines are so good that your view is never blocked.

"U2 3D" is simultaneously intimate and spectacular. Filmed during the group's lauded "Vertigo Tour," the 3D IMAX cameras capture the furious excitement of such an event, packed with spectators who have long anticipated the concert and are thrilled not to be disappointed.

More important, the film reflects the intimacy, the one-on-one artist-to-audience unity that the best concerts of any type of music provide. You'll feel a personal connection not only with Bono but also with guitarist The Edge. You can expect an abundance of zoom shots, but they never distract from the unique intimacy. In fact, the film is delightfully free of gimmickry.

Among the impressive selections are "Bullet the Blue Sky," "Sunday Bloody Sunday," "Miss Sarajevo," "Love and Peace or Else," "Vertigo" and "Yahweh."

Even if you're tone deaf, you'll enjoy the show. The sense of excitement is contagious.

"Feast of Love"

The Beatles sang "All You Need is Love" and this overly simplistic pattern for life is at the heart of Robert Benton's too-sweet "Feast of Love," in which a number of very good looking adults find themselves in various forms of love.

First and foremost, there's Bradley (Greg Kinnear), the proprietor of a coffee shop in Portland, Ore., called Jitters where most of the folks in this flm gather. He is married to Kathryn (Selma Blair) who early in the film leaves him for Jenny (Stana Katic), a woman who tagged out Kathryn out in a softball game and then immediately comes on to her while everyone in the world, except Bradley, notices. Bradley then marries Diana (Radha Mitchell), a real estate agent who is still in love with the married man with whom she's been having an extended affair.

One day, a young girl named Chloe (Alexa Davalos) walks into the coffee shop and immediately captures the heart of Oscar (Toby Hemingway), the kid Bradley has manning the counter who convinces Bradley to hire Chloe. Then there's Harry Stevenson (Morgan Freeman), the wise old college professor wjo hangs around all these youngsters but never with anyone his own age, and his understanding wife Esther (who, because she's played by the marvelous Jane Alexander, should have had a bigger role).

Story lines are taken up and then forgotten. For example, we never really here of Kathryn and Jenny again after they take up together except for one exploitative scene of them in bed (this film features a number of forced scenes of naked lovemaking couples). There's a silly subplot of how Chloe and Oscar have no money and are forced to make a pornographic film. Chloe gets less money than she thought she would for the film, but that's the last we hear about it. And after they meet, I don't recall another scene that shows them working in the coffee shop. There's an extended sequence in which Bradley steals a dog from an in-law, but nothing ever comes of that misadventure either.

It all seems very superficial. People engage in nefarious activities but suffer no consequences for them. All the loose ends are tied up at the end of this film. It's called "Feast of Love," but actually all we get is some warmed-up leftovers.

Grade: D+

"Elizabeth: The Golden Age"

"Elizabeth: The Golden Age" is a historically inaccurate mess of a costume drama with the emphasis on costume.

Although much has been made of Cate Blanchett's performance in this film (it's been nominated for an Oscar, for heaven's sake, and praised to the hilt), I think it was a mistake for her to portray Elizabeth as more of hungry virgin woman than a royal virgin queen. The movie takes place in 1585 when Elizabeth was 52 years old. Blanchett does not look like or act like anyone over the age of 30 in this film.

She is, of course, a Protestant queen, beset on all sides by Catholic usurpers. Across the seas, there's King Philip II (Jordi Molla) of Spain who is ridding his country of all its trees to build a mighty armada with which to conquer England. Then there's the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton) who plots to assassinate Elizabeth and assume the throne herself.

Luckily for Elizabeth, Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) has returned from the New World bearing gifts of potatoes and tobacco just in time to bring out the romantic yearnings in the queen, yearnings, of course, that can never be realized. (If they had been realized, Raleigh would have had to come up with a new name for the place he landed in the new world.) However, in the film, Raleigh does command the British fleet in a stunning defeat of the Spanish Armada, even though history tells us the real Raleigh never set foot on a ship during this battle.

Although Blanchett has received all the accolades, my favorite performance in the film comes from Geoffrey Rush as Elizabeth's trusted Sir Francis Walsingham. Rush plays him as a man of many dimensions. He is loyal to a fault, but has no compunctions about resorting to barbaric torture to get what he wants. Is a hero? Is he a villain? The genious of Rush's performance he is shows us both without ever forcing us to decide.

The film, of course, is a continuation of director Shekhar Kapur's "Elizabeth," which was much more alive and witty than this treatment. This time a luscious screenplay has been sacrificed for luscious sets and costumes.

Grade: D-

"Across the Universe"

Julie Taymor needs to take some lessons from Richard Lester, the British director who knew exactly how to place the songs of the Beatles in their proper exhilarating context. Look at Lester's "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help," for example, to see the anarchic joy the lads bring to their music. In "Across the Universe," Taymor captures some of the anarchy but none of the exhilaration the music of the Beatles brought to the 1960s.

Taymor's film tells the story of Jude (Jim Sturgess) who journeys from Liverpool to Princeton to find his father. (I found this premise somewhat distasteful as soon as I realized the film had no inrerest whatsover in exploring any kind of missing father-son dynamic.) Once at the university, he meets Max (Joe Anderson) who invites him home for Thanksgiving Dinner where he meets Max's sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) and, of course, falls in love. The three eventually wind up in New York City where they have a series of adventures with a singer named Sadie (Dana Fuchs), patterned after Janis Joplin, a guitarist named Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy), patterned after Jimi Hendrix, and Prudence (T.V. Carpio), inserted because Taymor needed a Prudence to fit the song patterns of the film and because I guess she felt she needed a lesbian to round out her 1960s group of stereotypes.

Under the old adage of "If you can't say anything nice ...," let me say at the outside that, at times, the film is, in parts, visually stunning (but that's Taymor's forte) and most of the performances are spot on.

Having said that, however, this film has problems. This is a musical comprised solely of Beatles songs. But instead of inserting Beatles songs into a proper context within the framework of the narrative, Taymor forces the narrative to follow the songs. And because it seems Taymor insists on forcing as many songs into the film as possible, it runs an unbearably long two hours and 15 minutes, much longer than needed to tell this skeletal a tale. As a result, I lost all interest in these characters and what their outcome would be.

It has been argued that the music of the Beatles is timeless. If this is so (and I'm not arguing it isn't), then why force a Beatles musical into the 1960s? I think by now we know that the 1960s gave us racial conflicts, anti-war protests, hallucinogens, assassinations, the birth of the counter-culture movement and so-on. Do we really have to see it all again, especially without any depth? Why not take the same concept--that the music of the Beatles can tell the story of a life--and set in the present day? Then the music is not a relic, it comes alive.

Grade: C-

Friday, February 8, 2008

"The Brave One"

"Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned / Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned."
--William Congreve, "The Mourning Bride" (1697)

"Lay that pistol down, Babe. Lay that pistol down. Pistol packin' mama, lay that pistol down."
--Al Dexter, "Pistol Packin' Mama"

If Congreve thought a woman scorned was furious, he ain't seen nothin' until he's seen a pistol packin' mama whose boyfriend has been killed by street thugs. Especially one as portrayed so expertly by Jodie Foster in director Neil Jordan's "The Brave One," an otherwise ludicrous, gender-twisting turn on "Death Wish."

Foster plays Erica Bain, the hostess of what comes across as the world's most boring radio commentary show. Armed with a boom mike attached to a portable tape recorder (in this digital age?), she walks the streets of New York City, which she repeatedly refers to as "the safest city in the world," recording all kinds of sounds -- everything from birds chirping to jackhammers pounding. Then she returns to her studio where she ways whatever comes to her head while the sounds play in the background. The format of her radio show has nothing to do with the events in the movie except the film asks us to believe that this show makes her so well known that all she ever needs to say in public is "I'm Erica Bain," and everyone instantly goes "Radio star."

One evening Erica and her fiance, David (Naveen Andrews), are walking their dog in Central Park when they are viciously attacked by three thugs. The reason for the attack is not made all that clear but there is the implication that it's so one of the three can "record his first kill." David, in fact, is killed in the attack and Erica is so badly injured that she remains in a coma for three weeks.

She no longer feels safe in her city; in fact, she has problems walking out the front door of her apartment building. One day she does, however, skittishly making her way to the nearest gun store where she is told the law requires her to apply for a license first and that there's a mandatory waiting period. That's no good. If Erica is ever to go out in public again, she needs a gun now. But, it just so happens (as these things often do when the plot requirements are that this woman get a gun pronto) that a shady gun dealer overhears the conversation in the store and says he'll sell her a gun on the spot for $1,000 cash. Now this assumes that Erica, who up until this moment has been too afraid of what might happen to her to even leave the confines of her home, will make her first tentative trip outside with $1,000 cash in her pocket, but, who knows?

So now Erica has a gun and she quickly gets an attitude. Erica goes to the corner grocery to pick up a few items. Next thing you know, a guy burst through the door and shoots the cashier (who also happens to be the gunman's wife) to death. He's about to leave, thinking no one has seen what he's done, when Erica's mobile phone rings. Thus begins the cat-and-mouse you-walk-up-this-aisle-while-I walk-down-this-one bit until Erica shoots him right between the aisles. Next thing you know, Erica is on the only completely deserted subway in the history of New York City when she is accosted by two more thugs who want more from her than the directions to Madison Square Garden. Bang! Bang! They're toast. Fortunately for her, the subway's nexy stop is at the only completely deserted subway station in NYC, so she can make a clean getaway as the bodies tumble out of the open subway door onto the platform. Next she runs into a pimp and a prostitute he's kidnapped ...

Well, you get the picture. Suddenly this woman can't go anywhere without meeting the dregs of the earth who cry out for Erica to kill them.

All these shootings, plus the shooting of a gangland-figure's wife, are investigated by a detective Mercer (Terrence Howard) and his partner Detective Vitale (Nicky Katt) because, it appears, they are the only two homicide detectives in New York City. And because Detective Mercer, like all of New York City, knows immediately who Erica Bain is, he agrees to be the subject of an interview for her radio show. OK, sure, this last little twist is a gimmick but I'm glad it's there because the best scenes in the movie are the series of conversations between Foster as Erica and Howard as Mercer. And they are the best scenes solely because of the way these two fine actors pull them off. It made me really wish I could see them in a psychological tug-of-war movie that didn't involve something so exploitative as vigilanteism.

That's all I'm going to reveal about the narrative of "The Brave One" except, if you value your life, don't hold your breath waiting for an ending that works.

Frankly, this movie did not convince me that turning the avenger into a woman was enough of a reason to trot out revenge-thriller genre for one more trot around the track. My advice? "Lay that DVD down, babe."

Grade: C-