Monday, March 31, 2008

Is the Justice Department Sirius about this monopoly business

Just when you thought the Justice Department couldn't sink any lower, the folks charged with, among other things, protecting common folks like you and men from the predators that come with monopolies, put their stamp of approval on the merger of Sirius and XM satellite radio, giving them permission to form ... er, ah ... a monopoly.

The reasoning behind this decision is that common folks like you and me still have access to iPods and Internet radio, so this merger isn't really a monopoly. This makes as much sense as saying all auto manufacturers can merge into one company because there will still be bus, rail and airlines to provide alternatives to consumers.

The problem with monopolies goes beyond the obvious ones of denying consumers choices and allowing providers of these services to slowly jack up prices. I imagine there is some technique available for me to download Bob Dylan's satellite radio program to my iPod, but something in the back of my head still makes me feel the source for this download will be satellite radio.

But here's my real issue with the Justice Department's reasoning. I lived in London for a year when every British citizen was at the mercy of the BBC. There was one television station in all of England -- the BBC -- and two radio stations, BBC 1 and BBC 2. The programming on them was awful. BBC-TV gave us, for the most part, droll newscasts, financial reports and documentaries that made fifth grade health education films look like "C.S.I." There were probably three quality hours of TV per week, "Dangerman," an American import that wasn't good enough to get airtime on American television and the equivalent of Masterpiece Theater. As for BBC radio, well, let me put it this way: As someone Bruce Springsteen characterized as "a prisoner of rock and roll," BBC radio was a complete wasteland. If it wasn't for the thriving club scene the world may have never heard of the Beatles, the Stones, Cream, John Mayall, the Yardbirds et al. You never heard them on legitimate British radio.

But, you see, the BBC didn't have to cater to popular tastes because there were no real alternatives. OK, according to the Justice Department reasoning, there was London's great theater, the cinema and the clubs; but when you're driving from London to Birmingham or Manchester for a football game, you can't turn on the theater, the cinema or the clubs in your car.

That's the danger behind the XM and the Sirius merger. Each one of them offers distinct programming. According to my son, who is a student of the offerings of each, if you're a baseball fan, XM would be your choice because it carries broadcasts of every single game played every single day. However, if you're more of a fan of the NBA, like he is, Sirius is the only alternative. So, if we now have one station known as Xirius, you might get both major league baseball and the NBA, but at the expense of some fringe offerings that appeal only to weirdoes like me. (I never been able to find one Dallas radio station that I can listen to for more than 20 minutes at one sitting without it driving me absolutely bonkers. I've always dreamed of starting my own satellite radio station that played "my music." It would also broadcast all Dallas City Council agenda meetings, briefing sessions and committee meetings, as well as all Dallas Mavericks basketball games and University of Texas football games. Admittedly, it might not have much of a listenership, but it's satellite radio so it doesn't matter. But a merger of the two providers, by definition, cuts the total amount of offerings in half and guess which half my station will fall into.)

Earlier I said this merger makes as much sense as a merger of all the automakers. Think, for a moment, what such a merger might mean, especially if they all merged under the Chevrolet brand. A lot of those little niceties we find in our automobiles today would disappear. The company wouldn't have to provide them. You take what the manufacturer offers you, or you go by bus, train or plane. All the innovations we've seen in the automobile industry -- from safety features, to fuel efficiencies, to improved repair records, such as they are -- have come about because of competition. They certainly didn't come from the kindness of the automakers' hearts.

I guess I can always hold out hope that the F.C.C. will not allow the merger to go through. The good news is that when the commission granted the two satellite licenses, it actually issued an edict that would seem to prohibit them from merging. The bad news is that the same type of political hacks President Bush has named to the Justice Department also now populate the F.C.C. because of his appointments. So while I can hold out hope, I'm certainly not holding my breath.

'Struck' highlights strong AFI opening weekend


By PHILIP WUNTCH
Film Critic Emeritus

The second annual AFI Dallas International Film Festival is off to a triumphant start. At least judging from its opening weekend, it's what a film festival should be -- a rousing and robust celebration of movie going and movie making.

With Angelika Mockingbird Station, Magnolia, Inwood and AMC NorthPark as venues, it offers an abundance of intriguing selections and intelligent Q&A sessions. Well, OK, maybe Mickey Rooney rambled a bit when honored opening night Thursday at the Majestic. But anyone who saw the veteran ham at the latest SAG Awards can't have been overly surprised.

Other honorees, such as Bill Paxton, Helen Hunt and Josh Brolin, were just as friendly and less long-winded. Brolin reportedly made many media friends when "No Country for Old Men" played last year's Cannes Film Festival. And all reports were positive for his Dallas appearance regarding his short film "X."

One of the weekend selections, Stuart Gordon's "Stuck," had strong local interest, being "loosely inspired" by the notorious Chante Mallard case. Mallard, a Fort Worth nurse's aide, hit a homeless man, who remained lodged in her windshield when she refused to give him any aid.

Gordon's customary dark humor lightens the Mallard tragedy, and sensitive locals needn't worry. All names have been changed, plot elements restructured, and the action re-located to Providence, R.I.

Screenwriter John Strysik visited the festival, along with Stephen Rea, who stars as the homeless man "stuck" by Mena Suvari's shockingly selfish predator. Rea, of "The Crying Game" fame, had little to say but seemed like a charming eccentric. Strysik was loquacious.

"[The film] is not just about what happened in Fort Worth," the screenwriter said. "It has several inspirations. It's an Everyman story. It's also a medieval morality play. And one of the movie inspirations was [Alfred] Hitchcock's "Lifeboat" (released in 1944, starring Tallulah Bankhead). Hitchcock created enormous suspense with one claustrophobic setting. Much of "Stuck" takes place in the garage where Mena keeps her car with Stephen stuck in the windshield."

When asked about spending much of the shoot with his bloody body stuck in a windshield, Rea succinctly replied, "It was horrible. Horrible."

Anyone who's seen Gordon's 1985 "Re-Animator" knows how skillfully he can mix squishy mayhem with sticky merriment. A bit involving a nosy dog will generate groans and guffaws. With "Stuck," the director is in top form, and so are his main players. Suvari, the teen vixen of "American Beauty," never tries to soften her basically despicable character, while Rea brings wounded dignity to his scenes as a homeless city dweller and as Suvari's victim.

Another strong entree was Lee Kazimir's documentary "More Shoes," which he directed, produced, photographed, wrote and edited.

Stuck in a dead-end job, Kazimir yearned to be a filmmaker and was inspired by legendary director Werner Herzog's advice to skip film school and embark on a 1,500-kilometer trek on foot. So Kazimir set out from Madrid to Kiev, accompanied only by his camera, his curiosity about human nature and an occasional change of footwear.

"I didn't bring along any books," he said. "I didn't want anything to take me out of it. I just wanted it to be me and the road."

Along the way he meets a troupe of traveling Christian evangelists, a group of neo-Nazis who espouse Aryan supremacy as well as lovable oddballs of all ages and nationalities. Yet after the experience was over, he felt a strong sense of depression.

"It all gave me a sense of the world, which is really hard," he said.

The hardest part of the actual film making was editing 100 hours of footage to 75 minutes.

"Editing it was much harder than walking on foot for six months. But the result of it all is, I think, a film of memories. It's not cut like a chronological story. It's cut like a group of memories."

And those memories are earthy, ribald and poignant.

The AFI Dallas Film Festival continues through Sunday. For more information, log on to afidallas.com or call 214-720-0555.

GOOD "JOB": If you're in the mood for non-festival film going, check out "The Bank Job" before it's too late. It's a jolly good heist film that opened three weeks ago to modest business. Strong-of-mouth has allowed it to gain momentum. But in today's movie biz, opening weekend is what it's all about.

The movie is inspired by a famous 1971 bank robbery which resulted in no arrests and no refunds. Incriminating bank vault deposits reached up to the upper tiers of royal Brits.

"The Bank Job" is witty, violent, twisty and suspenseful, with splendid performances by Jason Statham, as a relatively decent bank robber, and the seductively androgynous Saffron Burrows.

It's also Australian director Roger Donaldson's best film since his 1981 breakthrough "Smash Palace." Considering the director's spotty resume over the last 27 years, that's scant praise indeed. But trust me. This "Bank Job" is a winner.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

"That'll do, Pres. That'll do."

By PHILIP WUNTCH
Film Critic Emeritus
An item in today's Variety made me grin. James Cromwell has signed to play the senior President George Bush in Oliver Stone's "W," a study of current president George W. Bush's "formative" years.

Although Cromwell remains best-known as the pig's farmer in "Babe," he's also had high-ranking roles. He played Prince Philip to Helen Mirren's "The Queen" and is currently before the cameras as Lyndon Baines Johnson in "Flying Into Love," another inspection of the JFK assassination.

But what tickles me about Cromwell playing a Bush is that he's the son of blacklisted director John Cromwell. He shares his late father's political views and has spoken openly in interviews about the dangers of W's policies. John Cromwell was a respected director whose credits include the 1944 homefront valentine "Since You Went Away" with Claudette Colbert, the 1934 "Of Human Bondage," which made Bette Davis a star, the 1937 classic adventure "The Prisoner of Zenda" with Ronald Colman and the 1938 "Algiers," in which Charles Boyer's Pepe le Moko inspired the cartoon character Pepe le Pew.

Yet by the early 1950s, the shameful McCarthy Era blacklisting rendered him no longer welcome in the film industry. He did good work on stage productions, but his movie career never regained momentum. He also acted on occasion, including a role in revered iconoclast Robert Altman's "A Wedding." Somewhere he must be smiling at the thought of his son playing a Bush. I know I am.

Meanwhile, Ellen Burstyn, who last won raves as a drug addict in "Requiem for a Dream," will play Barbara Bush. Elizabeth Banks, she of the "Spider-Man" franchise and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," will play Laura. And, as previously reported, non-other than Josh Brolin, stepson of Democrat Barbra Streisand, will play "W" himself. Photos of Josh in full make-up show a remarkable resemblance to the current White House dweller.

Director Stone has said the movie will surprise Bush supporters as well as Bush detractors. I, for one, can't wait.

Widmark too often taken for granted


By PHILIP WUNTCH
Film Critic Emeritus

Richard Widmark's death Monday at the age of 93 serves as a guilt trip for movie buffs, cinema historians and that vanishing breed known as film critics. It's a sobering reminder of how easy it is to take an actor for granted.

Sure, Widmark's linked to an iconic movie scene. As demented mobster Tommy Udo in the 1947 noir classic "Kiss of Death," he ties terrified, elderly Mildred Dunnock to her wheelchair and kicks her down the stairs, punctuating each fatal kick with gleeful giggles.

That one scene launched his steady career of mid-level movie stardom and remained an indelible part of film folklore. In the 1995 remake, Nicolas Cage was twice as deranged but half as memorable. The film also typecast Widmark in the public eye as a gangster. Just one glimpse of him in 1974's all-star Agatha Christie marathon "Murder on the Orient Express," and you knew what kind of no-goodnik he was playing.

Yet Widmark could do much more than sneer, smirk and giggle maniacally. As the zealous prosecutor of Nazi war criminals in "Judgment at Nuremberg" (1960), his authoritative performance provided the film's fervent moral compass. Yet audiences and critics responded more readily to dynamic newcomer Maximilian Schell (who won the Oscar) and the legendary ensemble of Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift and Marlene Dietrich. Widmark's grand performance received little media attention. Shamefully, he was nominated for an Oscar only once, in the supporting-actor category for "Kiss of Death."

As a contract player, he frequently was handed routine roles, for which he provided a depth not always in the script. "Broken Lance" is an above-average 1954 horse opera, a "King Lear" on the range, often revived on cable. Tracy was the aging, raging patriarch, Robert Wagner the loyal son and Widmark, the nominally bad offspring. Yet Widmark's performance had such leathery intensity that you found yourself dismissing the pallid Wagner as a goody-goody while reviling in Widmark's vitality.

He also had his share of unique roles, ones that required the urban grit that was a Widmark specialty. Samuel Fuller's mesmerizing "Pickup on South Street" (1953), polishes B-movie conventions into an urban symphony, with Widmark's frantic, highly physical yet sensitive performance as its centerpiece. The movie's a classic for Widmark, Thelma Ritter's superb character-actor performance and Fuller's masterful flourishes.

Don Siegel's "Madigan" (1968) was released before the director achieved cult status with Clint Eastwood action flicks. But again Widmark elevates the material as a detective lost in the urban jungle. He's an early "Dirty Harry," not yet completely de-sensitized. But he wasn't limited to urban and western landscapes. In Otto Preminger's notorious flop "Saint Joan" (1957), with Jean Seberg as the martyred Joan, his impish performance as the Dauphin won consistently solid notices among a cast that included such classical veterans as Sir John Gielgud.

Widmark's off screen life was equally admirable. Despite his gangster image, he was an outspoken political liberal who voiced his dislike of guns and war. Nevertheless he played Jim Bowie alongside John Wayne's Davy Crockett in 1960's lackluster "The Alamo," apparently without any on-the-set havoc. He was also commanding as a racist bigot in 1950's "No Way Out," with Sidney Poitier as the object of his most violent tirades. According to The New York Times, he apologized to Poitier after each abusive scene.

He was, by all reports, a devoted husband to his wife of 52 years, Jean Hazlewood, who died in 1997. For 13 years, he was Sandy Koufax's father-in-law, until his daughter Anne and the baseball Hall of Famer were divorced in 1982. Widmark married longtime family friend Susan Blanchard in 1999.

But here's final proof of Widmark's respectability. The guy was president of his high-school class. That's enough to make Tommy Udo giggle maniacally and want to push him down the schoolyard steps.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Runway traffic signals

I don't know about you, but the F.A.A.'s plan to install computer-controlled stop lights in the runways of 20 "busy airports" (I suppose D/FW but not Love Field would fall into that category) does not fill me with a sense of serenity.

Dallas ISD bond program

Just received an e-mail from the folks behind the May 10 Dallas school bond election, which, of course, encourages me to vote "yes," get a campaign sign and to generally show my love for DISD.

Now, I gotta tell ya, I'm a big supporter of public schools. I am a product of public schools, yet I'm still a supporter of them. But in this e-mail, which makes no mention whatsoever of the total amount of the bond proposal (it's a whopping $1.2 billion), it says by voting to sell these bonds I will "help give Dallas the best urban school system in America."

What a load of crap!

Spending $1.2 billion on construction, which includes funds for new cafeterias and athletic facilities, is not going to give Dallas the best urban school system in America. A complete overhaul of the way in which Dallas schools specifically and Texas public schools generally approach education might help. But the money shouldn't be poured into buildings, it should be poured into the salaries of our educators. I find it almost criminal that the highest paid educator at any high school is usually the head football coach.

If we as a city, a state and a nation really believe in investing in our future, then we should raise the minimum starting salaries of public school educators to $65,000 for those in elementary education and $80,000 for those in secondary schools. Then we might attract those who can make a difference in a young person's life but can't afford to because of what teachers are paid right now.

We also need the cooperation of businesses to incentivize students to stay in school. One of the problems, I think, we are facing as an urban school district is the feeling inherent in many students "Why should I put any effort into education. I could never afford to go to college anyway." A mayor in Kalamazoo, Michigan, started a program called the Kalamazoo Promise. I won't go into all the details, but basically it guarantees that a graduate of city's public school system will have his or her college tuition paid for. You can also click on the link to see how this program has raised the test scores of Kalamazoo public school students.

It's programs like this that are needed if we truly want "best urban school system in America." If, however, you think the recipe for success is simply more buildings, then go ahead and support the bond program.

Worst movie of all time

What is the worst movie of all time? What should be considered when evaluating what is truly a bad movie. Here is the opinion of Joe Queenan writing for The Guardian. The occasion is the British opening of the Paris Hilton film, "The Hottie and the Nottie," which Queenan argues can't even be in the discussion for the worst film of all time because everyone knows going in that a film with Paris Hilton is going to be awful. The article is well worth reading. Check it out.

Pacman Jones and the Dallas Cowboys

It's no secret that suspended Tennessee Titans cornerback Pacman Jones is making a big push to become a Dallas Cowboys cornerback and he has enlisted some prominent former Cowboys -- Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders, among them -- to be his advocates.

I think all this talk is a glaring example of putting the cart before the horse because it involves one major assumption, which is that Pacman will be allowed to play for any NFL team ever again. I'm not sure that is going to happen.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is staking his reputation as a law-and-order commissioner. That became quite clear last April when he issued his NFL Personal Conduct Policy edict. That same month Goodell suspended Jones for the 2007 season with no guarantees what he would be reinstated for the 2008 season or beyond. Last month, ESPN reported Goodell "remains disappointed" in Jones' behavior. That does not bode well for his immediate reinstatement either.

Dallas has a national reputation in certain circles because of its strip clubs. Ask someone at the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau off the record why most conventions choose Dallas and you'll be told it's because of its strip clubs. Jones is swearing he'll stay away from strip clubs, yet he is yearning to play for the team located in strip club nirvana. I'm sure Goodell is going to consider that in his decision along with the fact that, although he also promised Goodell he would stay away from strip clubs, charges were filed against Jones on Jan. 15 alleging he hit a woman at a strip club in Atlanta, Ga., on Jan. 3. Even thought the woman in question, Wanda S. Jackson, has since dropped the charges, the allegations, alone, are going to weigh on Goodell's decision.

Jones pleaded guilty to reduced charges stemming from the Feb. 19, 2007 shooting incident in Las Vegas and received only a one-year prison sentence, which was suspended. Yet, there is still a bad stench associated with the incident, so much so that Goodell has ordered his own investigation. This much is known: Jones and rap artist Nelly engaged in an activity known as "making it rain." The way I understand it, this involves showering exotic dancers with dollar bills during their act. According to the club's co-owner, Nelly and Jones tossed hundreds of one-dollar bills on the stage. Chris Mitchell, one of the club's promoters, told the dancers to start collecting the dollar bills. This allegedly incensed Jones who said the women did not have his permission to take the money. According to witnesses, Jones grabbed one dancer by her hair and slammed her head against the stage. A security guard jumped into the fray that by now included at least a half dozen other members of Jones' entourage. Jones and his group left the club, but one of them returned with a gun in his hand and opened fire, hitting the security guard and former professional wrestler Tommy Urbanski, who was paralyzed from the waist down as a result of the shooting. Jones has claimed he did not know the shooter, but, still, it was Jones who precipitated the actions that resulted in one person becoming a paraplegic. It also should be noted that the owner of the club claims he has a video of the entire incident and it proves Jones was far more involved in the actual shooting than he has claimed. I am sure that at some point Goodell will watch this video.

There's also the wiretapped phone conversations involving drug dealer Darryl Moore in which Moore allegedly talked about how Jones bet heavily on college football games in order to get money to purchase drugs.

Personally, I don't see Goodell reinstating Jones for the 2008 season, especially after the hammers have come down on Michael Vick and Bill Belichick. As a result, all this talk about Jones wearing the silver and blue of the Dallas Cowboys seem extremely premature.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The new News

Does anyone else think that the new Dallas Morning News look makes it look more like the old Dallas Times Herald? Tim Rogers of D Magazine also offers an interesting take on the redesign which I would have problems arguing with.

Guns don't kill people? Sure. Fine, Whatever.

There's got to be something that can be done to prevent tragedies like this.

When are you coming home, John Hughes

The Los Angeles Times today has a fascinating story on filmmaker John Hughes, talking about how he's influenced today's filmmakers and calling him film's answer to J.D. Salinger because he has simply disappeared from the scene.

"Married Life" works, 'Miss Pettigrew' doesn't


By PHILIP WUNTCH
Film Critic Emeritus

Two current movies are soaked in atmosphere, and one almost drowns in it.

"MARRIAGE" MAYHEM: To say that "Married Life" has a provocative premise would be an understatement. An ostensibly happy husband plots his wife's murder to spare her the humiliation of a divorce.

The film is a wry, dry and frequently intriguing film-noir comedy. But there's a downside. Director/co-writer Ira Sachs definitely knows what he's doing, and so does the audience. Camera angles and scene compositions seem too carefully calculated. Despite clever, unexpected plot twists, the film lacks spontaneity.

However, "Married Life" boasts an abundance of upsides. These include droll dialog, outstanding performances and delicious ambiance. The unconventional plot occurs in 1949, and the automobiles, office buildings, home furnishings, hairstyles, clothes and jewelry perfectly accent the time frame. Hey, there's even a single-screen movie theater for those of us lucky enough to remember such a relic.

More important is the skill with which Sachs captures the era's moral hypocrisy. The film's depiction of post-World War II suburban mores echoes that of Stanley Kubrick's "Lolita" although without the potent Kubrick sting.

Chris Cooper plays the pivotal character of morally conflicted Harry. He likes his wife Pat (Patricia Clarkson) but adores his mistress Kay (Rachel McAdams), a young war widow who lives near their weekend cabin. Besides, Pat equates love with sex and can't get enough, whereas Harry, poor fellow, frequently comes home exhausted. He wearily reasons that poison would be kinder than seeking a divorce.

Harry makes the mistake of introducing Kay to longtime friend Richard (Pierce Brosnan), to whom he confides almost everything. Richard, a charmingly dissolute bachelor, falls under the spell of Kay's speckled face and winsome smile. He convinces himself that the morally upright solution would be to steal Kay from Harry, and that's only the first of a series of complications.

The performances are superb. Without pleading for our sympathy, Cooper registers every inch of Harry's pain. Brosnan, showing his age to just the right extent, has wicked fun providing the film's unusual moral center. The marvelous Clarkson captures each nuance of Pat's chameleon character, while McAdams plays the sometimes enigmatic Kay with the right balance of innocence and guile. All four provide expert silent reactions and small, revealing gestures. And with this storyline, there's plenty of reaction shots.

"Married Life" is disturbing and thought-provoking. And, more often than not, a lot of fun.

"PETTIGREW" PROBLEMS: Like "Married Life" but with much less success, "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day" attempts to recreate the mood of the films that were popular during the era it illustrates.

Ravishingly evoking 1930s London, the madcap comedy wannabe is great to look at. It's even great to listen to, but with one important qualification. Concentrate on the nostalgic soundtrack instead of the lame dialog.

The movie wastes several first-rate actresses as it feebly strives for screwball effect. It's all about one day in the previously unexciting life of Guinevere Pettigrew, played by Frances McDormand as a humorless Mary Poppins.

The unemployed Miss Pettigrew bluffs her way into a job as Delysia Lafosse's social secretary. Delysia, played by Amy Adams, is a scatterbrained aspiring actress, kept by one man while fancying herself in love with at least two others. Within 24 hours, Miss Pettigrew solves everyone's problems, including her own. In the unlikely event of a sequel, even Miss Pettigrew will no longer be a "Miss."

Obviously, the film is buried in cliches. But the filmmakers apparently hope that we'll find reassurance in the cliches and welcome them like old friends. Sorry, but it doesn't work. The film's pace alternates between plodding and frantic and never finds the right tone. The result is less an old friend than a boring old relative.

McDormand, of course, can deliver a quip with comic ease, but the quips lack a zest that not even McDormand can provide. Adams, so memorable in "Junebug," has the more difficult job. She strains for the captivating style of such dizzy heroines as Katharine Hepburn in "Bringing Up Baby" and Carole Lombard in "My Man Godfrey." But when playing this type of dizziness, there's a thin line between captivating and annoying. Adams fails to navigate that line gracefully.

Also wasted is Shirley Henderson, fondly remembered from the underrated "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself." She's on target as Delysia's cunning rival, but it's a one-note role.

There's little suspense regarding which eligible male will win Delysia's hand with assistance from matchmaker Pettigrew. Comic momentum is not this movie's strong point.

Don't drink or call while driving

Starting July 1, all drivers in California will be required to use a hands-free device when talking on a cellphone. Five other states -- Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Utah and Washington -- plus the District of Columbia already have such laws. The question remains, however, what's the point?

"There's a common misperception that hands-free phones are safer when the research clearly suggests that they are both equally risky," Arthur Goodwin, a researcher at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, told the Los Angeles Times.

Forcing drivers to use hands-free devices is a political maneuver, not one designed to increase safety, according to most researchers. It's simply an action taken to make people feel safer. Statistics indicate, however, it will not reduce accidents or highway fatalities. In fact, Goodwin believes hands-free devices may make things worse by encouraging drivers to make more and longer calls while driving.

Former Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta had drafted a letter in 2003 that was supposed to be sent to governors urging them not to endorse hands-free only calling. He wrote in the letter "overwhelmingly, research indicates that both hand-held and hands-free phones increase the risk of a crash." For some reason never adequately explained, the letter was never sent.

The letter was drafted because a 2003 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a division of the Transportation Department, found that 955 deaths in 2002 could be directly attributed to persons using cellphones while driving.

Other studies are even more startling. The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis in 2003 estimated there are 2,600 deaths and 12,000 serious injuries a year caused by drivers using cellphones. A 2006 study by the University of Utah revealed drivers using cellphones were four times more likely to get into an accident than those not using them and there was no difference between those using hands-free devices and those not using them. The issue, they said, is not whether a driver has both hands on the wheels, but whether the driver is concentrating on a telephone conversation instead of driving. The same study showed that the rate of accidents caused by those using cellphones was the same as for those who were legally drunk although those that were drunk did a better job of braking and avoiding rear-end collisions than those talking on cellphones.

There are those who will argue that there are more accidents involving drivers without hands-free devices than those with them, but that's a faulty argument because fewer drivers use hands-free devices. The risk of an accident is identical.

It's interesting to note that DuPont, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell prohibit employees from using cellphones while driving, even hands-free cellphones.

Of course, no lawmaker desiring re-election is ever going to introduce legislation banning cellphone use while driving a motor vehicle. But don't go thinking that hands-free accessories are a safety device. They are simply devices.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Better slow down, pudnah!


A dear friend just sent me this picture of the new Zero Tolerance Speed Cameras. He should know about these sort of things -- he works with the North Texas Tollway Association (you see, Schutze, some of them do have a sense of humor).

Saturday, March 22, 2008

"Atonement" and other recent DVD releases

"Atonement" is the tragic tale of how a lie can destroy lives and completely redefine the life of the person who told it. It is a marvelously told tale from director Joe Wright, much darker than his "Pride and Prejudice," but equally as well adapted. In 1935 England, 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) has just finished writing her first play when she looks out the window of the family estate and sees an incident at a fountain between her older sister Cecilia (Kiera Knightley) and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the son of the estate’s gardener, that Briony doesn’t quite grasp the reality of. Wright does an interesting thing with this scene (as well as others in the film): First he shows it from Briony’s point-of-view and then we get to see it as it really took place. Robbie has been taken under the wing of the Tallis family to the point where Briony’s and Cecilia’s father is paying for his education. Somewhat emboldened by what happened at the fountain, Robbie writes Cecilia a note that makes a sexually profane reference to a certain delicate part of Cecilia’s anatomy. Realizing this is not the best thing to do, Robbie re-writes the note and then asks Briony to take it to her during a lush party on the estate. Robbie, however, gives Briony the wrong note and, already alarmed by what she saw at the fountain, Briony reads its scandalous contents. Later that the night she witnesses a scene of passion in the estate’s library and, probably no more than an hour later, during the search for twin boys who have run away from the estate, she stumbles across her cousin being sexually attacked. Because of what she saw at the fountain, read in the note and saw in the library, she is convinced Robbie is a sexual pervert and her cousin’s attacker. She identifies him as such to the authorities, who arrest him on the spot. That is Act I of the film. Act II tells the story of the effects of what Briony said. Robbie is given the opportunity to serve in the Army in lieu of prison time and winds up in France and at the evacuation of Dunkirk. Cecilia becomes a nurse and Briony, now played by Romola Garai and who has come to realize she made a mistake in identifying Robbie as her cousin’s attacher, is working as a nurse’s aide, apparently in a form of self-inflicted atonement for what she said she saw five years earlier. The brief Act III, set in 1990 and featuring a stunning performance from Vanessa Redgrave as Briony, now an acclaimed novelist, delivers one final punch to the gut. (In this scene, she is interviewed by a television journalist played by Anthony Minghella, who died the day I saw this DVD.) I have not read Ian McEwan’s novel from which this film has been adapted, but I’m thinking he made the Cecilia character more important than she comes across here. The film is really the story of Briony and the effect of her actions on Robbie, which is made even sadder by the fact that she carries a life-long infatuation for him. Knightley is fine in her scenes but this film really belongs to Wright, McAvoy and the Ronan-Garai-Redgrave trio that brilliantly brings Briony to life. But what really elevates the film, what stays with you long after you’ve finished watching it, is that it has the audacity to pose the question of whether the ultimate act of atonement is yet another lie. Grade: B+

For most of its running time, "Enchanted" is exactly that, only faltering in the last 30 minutes or so. This is satire on some of the memorable movies and characters created by the Walt Disney Studio and it comes from, of all places, the Walt Disney Studio. It begins in an animated fairyland like those places inhabited by Cinderella and Snow White with Giselle, a young beauty who lives in her cottage with her friends, the cuddly creatures of the forest. There she dreams of finding her prince and love’s true kiss. It just so happens that not far away is a prince, Edward, looking for his true love. They meet, they fall in love, and he whisks her away to his castle where they plan to wed the next morning. Only one problem: Once the prince weds, he becomes ruler of the kingdom thus disposing of the current one, Queen Narissa, the prince’s evil stepmother. Obviously the new bride has got to go so the queen, in the guise of a haggard old witch (the first of many Snow White references), throws her down a well, sending her to a land where no one lives happily after, namely New York City and more specifically Times Square. There she morfs from an animated woman to one of flesh and blood and portrayed by Amy Adams in a comedic performance so that’s so marvelously effortless it indicates that, after all these years, the cinema may have finally found someone to assume the throne vacated by the death of Carole Lombard. Ms. Adams is that good, that talented. She meets Robert (Patrick Dempsey) a single father/divorce lawyer with a young daughter (Rachel Covey) and a girlfriend (Idina Menzel) who acts as though she has a constant wedgy. During her first hours in New York and her being a cartoon character from the Disney production line, Giselle bursts into songon two different occasions, each time leading to incredibly inventive and choreographed production numbers. The first is the send up of the classic scene in which the princess summons the various animal creatures to help her clean house. However, this being New York City, the creatures she summons are, well, let’s just say they are not the lovable furry types normally associated with scenes like this. The second is a major production number that uses Central Park as its stage and what seems like every available dancer in New York City. These numbers are original and exhilarating -- so much so that they place the movie on a level that it can’t ever quite equal. Not that it doesn’t come close, especially with Timothy Spall as Nathaniel, a squire-like character sent to New York City by Narissa to dispatch Giselle with, what else, poison apples, and James Marsden who is incredibly funny as the incredibly square Prince Edward in NYC. His exasperated attempts at heroism are a howl. But the film’s most biting moment comes when Nathaniel has a scene with a chipmunk that comes dangerously close to a crucifixion. Then, however, Narissa comes to New York City looking amazingly like Susan Sarandon at which point the movie seems to lose its focus and sense of purpose. But until that time, "Enchanted," is pure enchantment. Grade: B-

"Love in the Time of Cholera," I’m guessing, should be this passionate, lusty, heartfelt tale of unrequited love with an uplifting coda of redemption. Under the direction of Mike Newell, however, it becomes a plodding, often dull, poorly scripted mess with, admittedly, a few redeeming features. It tells the story of Florentino Ariza (Unax Ugalde) who, as a teen, is dumbstruck by instantaneous love the moment he lays eyes on Fermina Daza (Giovanna Mezzogiorno). At first, Fermina returns his ardor, if from afar, until her father Lorenzo (John Leguizamo, who plays the part as though any minute he’s going to tie his daughter to the railroad tracks), who wants his daughter to marry up in society, whisks her away to the jungle retreat of childhood pal Hildebranda (Catalina Sandino Moreno). Fermina becomes ill and thinking his daughter has contracted cholera, Lorenzo summons the area’s foremost authority on the plague, Dr. Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt) to treat her. Urbino also falls in love or in lust with Fermina, but this is a match Lorenzo approves of and soon they are wed, much to the consternation of the now adult Florentino (Javier Bardem), who spends the next 50 or so years pining away for Fermina but also becomes this walking-talking aphrodisiac. It seems that every woman in the southern hemisphere craves his body and they keep hurling themselves at him -- 622 of them if my count is correct. I never bought into Florentino, especially as he advances in age, as this chick magnet, nor did I buy into any of the words the script forced Bratt’s character to say, especially his speeches on his wedding night. But back to those redeeming features. I did admire the performance of Mezzogiorno, an Italian actress who is new to me and who seemed to grow physically more beautiful with age and certainly stronger in character. She reminded me a lot of Debra Winger. I also admired the setting (the film was shot on location in Cartagena, Colombia) and a lot of the scenes, especially aerial ones of the countryside, were stunning. Grade: C+

"I am Legend" has two brilliantly conceived scenes. One features Robert Neville (Will Smith) riding a Mustang and chasing a herd of antelopes. This time, however, the Mustang is a souped-up version of the popular car and the hunting ground is mid-town Manhattan. It seems that Dr. Alice Krippin (an uncredited Emma Thompson) has developed a virus that will cure cancer but it has the nasty side effect of turning the world’s population into zombies who only inhabit dark places. Which brings us to the second brilliantly conceived scene. Neville’s beloved dog chases another antelope into a building that is a very dark place and Neville’s search for the animal provides a couple of minutes of pure suspense. For some reason, Neville who, I guess, is a military scientist (what a scary prospect that is) because he wears a uniform in flashback scenes in which he is escorting his wife (Salli Richardson) and daughter (Smith’s daughter, Willow) out of Manhattan before it is quarantined, and then spends a lot of time in a lab in the sub basement of his apartment off Washington Square trying to find a cure for the zombie-causing disease, is one of a minute minority immune to the zombie causing disease. The other members of the minority, however, have apparently all been devoured by the zombies. Since the zombies only come out at night, Neville has all kinds of security devices that protect his apartment after the sun goes down. Thus, you can probably guess where this movie goes; that’s right, unfortunately it becomes a retread of "Night of the Living Dead," with the major difference being these zombies don’t lumber around clumsily but instead act like they constantly mainlined Starbucks’ most caffeinated offerings. As these kind of movies go, this one is OK, but I was hoping for a lot more, especially after being bombarded by trailers that never mentioned zombies. Grade: C

How producers assembled a team that included a Nobel Prize-winning writer, a two-time Academy Award winning actor, a director known for his adaptations of Shakespeare, and a talented good looking chap and came out with a movie this bad almost defies logic. My first meeting with "Sleuth" came almost 38 years ago when I saw Anthony Quayle and Keith Baxter play the leads roles on the London stage. Then, two years later, it became a wonderful film starring Laurence Oliver as mystery novelist Andrew Wyke and Michael Caine as hairdresser Milo Tindle. The film assumed an audience would be riveted by 2 and a half hours of conversation between two men in a British country manor and because the script was written by the play’s author Anthony Shaffer, who made Wyke's fictional detective St. John Lord Merrydew an important if unseen character and stressed the idea that in England class is far more important than fidelity, the audience was riveted. Kenneth Branagh, the director of this remake, doesn’t give modern day audiences that much credit. Perhaps he’s right, I don’t know. But, at any rate, he lopped off about an hour of the original’s script, threw in way too many stark interiors and all kinds of electronic surveillance gadgets and featured camera angles in almost every scene that draw attention to themselves and/or are just plain wrong. The film convinces me that, as a director, Branagh is a very good actor. Harold Pinter’s screenplay substitutes a homoerotic tone for the original’s wit. Caine, who is re-cast as Wyke this time around, and co-star Jude Law are fine, although it’s obvious Caine recognizes the assignment is nothing more than an exercise. For those not familiar with the story line, Tindle has been havng an affair with Wyke’s wife so he drives out to Wyke’s country estate to ask the writer to give his spouse a divorce. Wyke tells Tindle that he’ll never be able to afford to keep the woman in the style Wyke allowed her to become accustomed do, but, never fear, he has a plan that can help them both. He convinces Tindle to stage a robbery of his wife’s jewels, which are still at the estate. Tindle can keep everything he gets from fencing the jewels and Wyke can collect their full value from the insurance. However, the entire robbery is nothing more than elaborate setup that gives Wyke the motive and the opportunity to kill Tindle and make it appear justifiable. Grade: D

"Southland Tales" is going to rank close to the top of my list of most bizarre movies. Unfortunately, it’s also going to rank up there on my list of bad films. I’m still trying to figure out if I’m supposed to take this seriously or this simply as a very bad riff on the films of David Lynch. From what I gather, writer-director Richard Kelly adapted this from his own graphic novel, which explains the various chapters listed in the film but doesn’t quite explain why we start at Chapter 4 (unless, of course, it’s an offbeat "Star Wars" reference). I could try to tell you the film’s story if it had a coherent one. It seems Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea have teamed up to launch a nuclear strike against the United States and bombed the hell out of Abilene, Texas. Flash forward three years to the presidential election year of (I’m not making this up) 2008 when the son-in-law of the senator who is the vice presidential candidate on the Republican ticket becomes lost in the desert. The son-in-law, Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) is now an amnesiac who thinks he is a film maker named Jericho Kane and falls into the clutches of porn star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar). Sean William Scott wanders in and out of the film playing alter-ego versions of himself, Wallace Shawn is someone who harnesses control of the ocean to remotely power all vehicles now that all other forms of energy have run out, Miranda Richardson does a parody of the Mrs. Iselin character from "The Manchurian Candidate," Justin Timberlake lip syncs badly and shoots people, Jon Lovitz just shoots people and Mandy Moore stands around looking fetching. There are people who are probably going to try to convince you that this is some great morality tale. Don’t believe a word of it. Grade: D-

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A speech for the ages

I did not have the opportunity to see Barack Obama deliver this speech, but reading it convinced me it's going to rank up there with Lincoln and Roosevelt's first inauguration addresses and Kennedy's speech on the separation of church and state he delivered during the 1960 campaign. In other words, this is one for the history books.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

"No Country for Old Men" and other recent DVD releases

"No Country for Old Men" is about the arrival of the apocalypse and how one part of mankind tries to flee from it, and another part—the old men of the title—try in vain to prevent it. The apocalypse and the those directly in its path are personified by some of the most haunting characters I’ve ever encounted in film. There’s Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) as a West Texas rancher who stumbles upon a drug deal gone bad and leaves the scene with the millions that were supposed to be used for the purchase. There’s Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) who sees what’s coming but is always one step behind And finally there’s Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the devil incarnate, the force that heralds the end of civilized behavior and, thus, civilization itself. As played by Bardem, Chigurh is the most unforgettable screen villain since Hannibal Lecter. The plot of the movie has to do with Chigurh’s pursuit of Moss and the money and Bell’s pursuit of a sense of justice but, as critic Roger Ebert points out so often, great movies are about more than just their plot. For example, there is no hint of what Chigurh plans to do with the money if and when he recovers it, but it doesn’t matter. The Coen Brothers, who wrote and directed this masterpiece, have elevated their brand of story telling, which usually deals in archetypes, to grand poetry. Every frame of this film proves they are in complete control, something I never sensed in their earlier works with the possible exception of their very first film, "Blood Simple." "No Country" is a film I never wanted to end. Every single scene in this film is a wonder and there are some, such as a chilling bit at a motel, that create a sense of tension and suspense that would make Alfred Hitchcock envious. Every single shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins adds to overall impact of impending doom and annihilation (aided immeasurably by landscapes in and around Albuquerque, N.M., which stand in for barren West Texas). The film is based on the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy whose latest, "The Road," is set in post-apocalyptic America. There is a stunning final scene in this film in which Bell tells his wife Loretta (Tess Harper) about he dream he had that foretells the coming of this apocalypse and the entire movie is a brilliant telling of how he was powerless to stop it. Grade: A

"Dan in Real Life" is a smug, lightweight comedy that has absolutely nothing to do with real life. It revolves around one of those families you only find in the movies—the generations all coming together for days of touch football, charades, mealtimes, fond reminiscences, talent shows all in a big beautiful house on the sea shore. It’s like the Kennedy clan without the tragedies and the scandals. Ah, if only life could be this idyllic. There are some tensions to be sure. Dan (Steve Carell) is an advice columnist who can’t follow in his own advice, especially when it comes to his daughters, Jane (Alison Pill), Cara (Brittany Robertson) and Lily (Marlene Lawston). Dan’s wife died four years earlier and he is still in such a state of eternal funk, his parents (Dianne Wiest, John Mahoney) order him out of the family compound. He winds up in a neighborhood bookstore where he meets Marie (Juliette Binoche) and it appears she is someone who can re-kindle that spark of love. He rushes home to tell his family the news only to learn that Marie is there as well, as the new girlfriend of his brother Mitch (Dane Cook). Writer/director Peter Hedges is apparently going to specialize in family reunion pictures—his last one was the much superior "Pieces of April." This one has its moments, especially when it directly confronts the issue of a brother falling in love with his brother’s girlfriend, but, for the most part, this "real life" is fairly pedestrian. Grade: C

"Bee Movie" begins well but early on makes a tragic mistake from which it never recovers. Interestingly enough, the mistake is one an elderly bee warned about early on "Bees should never talk to humans." Once one of them does, this animated movie goes into a nose dive that sends it crashing. The story takes the concept of "worker bees" to its most illogical Orwellian conclusion—the notion that a bee will be assigned a job in the honey production cycle and will hold that one single job for the rest of his life. One of these bees, Barry B. Benson (Jerry Seinfeld) rebels against that notion, especially because he admires those bees who fly out of the comb, into the real world and gather pollen. So one day he contrives a way to join them. These early scenes with Barry flitting around the interior of the honeycomb and then the ones of the "pollen jocks" zooming through the streets of Manhattan into Central Park are expertly done and gives the movie an early promise that is never fulfilled. Because then, through a series of antics I won’t go into here, Barry winds up in the apartment of florist Vanessa (Renee Zellweger) who soon helps Barry file a lawsuit against the human manufacturers of honey. Now there’s a real thrilling idea for an animated tale—a lawsuit. But the whole idea of the bees and the humans interacting on a level playing field is an insult to both species because it robs each of their own characteristics. And then when bees start piloting jumbo jets, I’m really thinking this movie has stung itself to death. Ten years ago, two similar animated films, "Antz" and "A Bug’s Life," worked marvelously because they imagined a fascinating insect universe. That’s also the case with the first 10 minutes or so of "A Bee Movie," but when this move leaves that universe it imagines a world the viewer knows couldn’t possibly exist. As a result, we don’t care about any of these creatures—human or otherwise. But worse than that, the film loses its humor and evolves into as dull an animated feature as I’ve ever seen. Grade: D+

It’s a shame that "Nancy Drew" couldn’t have been made by someone who really cared about the books that inspired this film, or even the people responsible for the old television series "Veronica Mars." Then we wouldn’t have a movie written by adults that insults the young audience the film is aimed for. The one thing the books are known for is their carefully crafted plots and how, once the extremely smart heroine becomes absorbed in one of them, she gets closer and closer to actual danger. There is none of that in the film. Instead we get this rather irritating teen-aged girl who lectures the school principal about courses that should be taught in her high school and, one day in wood shop (a girl taking wood shop?) fashions a replica of the Cathedral of Notre Dame while all the boys are cranking out lame bird houses. The film starts out promisingly once it gets past the cliches of Nancy (Emma Roberts, who, for some reason, plays Nancy as plucky instead of smart) and her father (Tate Donovan) moving from Hollywood’s concept of small town middle America to Hollywood’s concept of Hollywood. They occupy a house that has been vacant since the death of its last occupant, a film star, 25 years earlier. Nancy sets out to solve the mystery of the actress’ death. Good concept, ruined by bad execution. This movie should have been called "Nancy Doo," because it seems closer in style to those featuring Scooby. Grade: D+

"Awake" proves one thing: There might not be a better actor to play a patient under anesthesia than Hayden Christensen, but then those who sat through Chapters 1-3 of the "Star Wars" saga already know that. It also proves that no matter how tedious or how ridiculous a film might be—and "Awake" is as tedious and as ridiculous a film as you’ll ever see—the mere presence of Terrence Howard brings it some semblance of credibility. Christensen plays Clay Beresford who apparently is the richest man in all creation or least his family has untold wealth, what there is of his family. His father (Sam Robards) died one Christmas Eve when Clay was but a lad and Clay doesn’t remember any of the details. His has an overly protective mother Lilith (Lena Olin) and an all-too-enticing girlfriend Sam (Jessica Alba). He also has a weak heart and is scheduled for a transplant as soon as a suitable o-negative donor can be found. It just so happens one is found on Clay’s last minute wedding day. He is rushed to the hospital where the transplant is to be performed by Dr. Jack Harper (Howard), much against his mother’s wishes (she has a more "respectable" doctor in mind). At the beginning of the film we are told that each year thousands of people are anesthetized, but they are not put to sleep. Instead the go into a state of paralysis during which they can feel everything that has happened to them. Clay turns out to be one of these people so right at the beginning of the operation we get to hear Clay screaming in pain to himself as the doctors cut open his chest and then saw through his rib cage. Midway through the operation another development comes to light which I won’t reveal so that the one or two masochists out there who insist on renting this DVD can’t say I spoiled it for them. Needless to say, we don’t get any more of Jack’s pain, only his anguish. The pain is left entirely to those who sit through this one to the end. Grade: F

Friday, March 14, 2008

Shake Russell channels John Vandiver

The camera work is shakey, and it looks like there's absolutely no one in the audience, but I simply can't pass up the opportunity to have a Friday afternoon video featuring someone I've known now for over 30 years, Shake Russell.

The wild, the innocent, the Brisbane shuffle

This comes pretty close to justifiable homicide.

A startling statistic

I found this statistic absolutely amazing. Steve Nash, twice named as the NBA's most valuable player, has averaged in double figures in assists for the last four years. If he keeps up that pace, in two years, at the age of 36, he will still have only half the number of assists recorded by John Stockton.

One other thing: With one more triple double, Jason Kidd will have 100, more than any other active player. Before you get too excited about that, however, remember that Oscar Robertson had 181 of them. And, if you think Robertson's record may be broken in your lifetime, consider the fact that in five seasons, LeBron James has only 17.

Highway 61 Revisited

I had a discussion the other day about HOV lanes -- actually, it wasn't a discussion, it was one individual ranting about what a waste HOV lanes are because no one drives in them and they take up space on the highway he could be driving in. What he failed to realize was that HOV lanes are not a highway issue, they are a mass transit issue. Here in Dallas, for example, our HOV lanes are not provided to us by the Highway Department, but my DART.

I commute 100 miles a day --half of it in a rural setting and half urban -- and I would love to be able to use the new HOV lanes along U.S. 75 north of LBJ. I recently registered with DART's rideshare program hoping that I might find others who have to navigate roughly the same route that I do, but so far my voice mail has not been flooded with calls.

The commute does give me the opportunity to see all kinds of drivers, most of them bad. Texas, I think, relishes bad driving, takes ownership of it, wears it on its chest. A dozen or so years ago, my son and I took a car trip to New York and back and that was when I first realized how bad Texas drivers are -- when I found myself in locales where the overwhelming majority of motorists actually drove sensibly. On our return trip, we noticed some automobile wackiness as he drove through Arkansas, but after we crossed the border at Texarkana we realized we were back in the land featuring the graduates of the Kamikaze Driving School.

For some reason, drivers in Texas believe it is their inherent right to merge into another lane, even though that lane might be occupied my another vehicle. But that's just one of the problems I have with Texas drivers. Another is the belief that on a multi-lane rural highway, cruising in the left-hand lane is OK. Many states have laws forbidding this practice; the California Highway Patrol, for example, is particularly known for ticketing those left-hand lane drivers. Texas has come up with signs posted sporadically that say "left hand lane for passing only" but no one pays any attention to them and I'm not sure that notice is backed by law.

My thoughts about HOV lanes and bad Texas drivers bubbled to the surface today when I read this hilarious article in the Onion about the an innovative solution that makes far more public safety sense than inane laws about using mobile phones in school zones. But that's a subject I'll address at a later time.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

This place is really going to the dogs (or maybe not)

We have the Arts District. That's a good thing. We have the civic district, where City Hall and all the county and federal government buildings are located. We have the fashionable playground district, sometimes referred to as Victory. We have the Fair Park district, the Deep Ellum District, the Animal District, the ...

Hold up there. The Animal District? Well, um, yes, that's what they're calling it. You see, the new Dallas Animal Shelter is located at Hampton and I-30 and soon the SPCA will re-locate to its new digs just a Milk Bone's throw away on Lone Star Drive (actually, the way the streets are configured around there, a Milk Bone thrown from one location to the other would travel about one-tenth the distance of an automobile making the same trip).

But, hey, I think that's reason enough to throw a party, don't you? The sponsors of this shindig are calling it "An Animal Attraction," and it will take place at the new home of the SPCA, 2400 Lone Star Drive, between 6 and 8 p.m. Saturday, April 5. According to the official invite, dress for this occasion is "elegant casual," which means it's a little high brow. And although the official city notices of the event don't mention it, I'm thinking this is going to be a fund-raising affair because the Animal District Web site (yes, it already has its own Web site), mentions something about $30 donations that will be doggone appreciated.

Wine from Lakewood's Ten Times Cellars will be served as will "heavy" hors d'oeuvres from Exposition Park Cafe. Kiehl's Highland Park Village is supplying gift bags. There's going to be a silent auction and a old-fashioned auction that will include one painting of and another painting by (trust me, I'm not making this up) Minnie, a "rescued" dog. Ron Burns will autograph his appropriately named book "The Dogs of Ron Burns."

Da Mayor is going to be there, along with some City Council folks and some folks who serve on various animal commissions.

But here's the rub. I might attend this event if I could bring my dog. Now that could be fun. My dog (actually my son's dog) could mingle with Da Mayor's dog and others. But apparently this "Animal Attraction" in the newly minted Animal District is not going to be Animal Friendly. Nothing I have seen says I can bring a four-legged companion. So I'm undoubtedly going to skip the inauguration of the Animal District and the Animal Auction and, instead, just head for the neighborhood park to play with the son's dog.

Quote of the Day

"We haven't seen a significant number of high-end escort services in the city. They could exist, but they might be so exclusive we wouldn't know about it."
--Dallas Police Deputy Chief Julian Bernal, commander of the vice unit

Chalk it up to the traditionalist in me

I have no idea what the stadium where the Texas Rangers play is called. To me, it's Arlington Stadium, although I do remember one time it was called "Ameriquest Field" or some such. The Delta Center in Salt Lake City now has an instantly forgettable dot com name. There's Minute Maid Park in Houston (which used to be Enron Field and now has the nickname of "The Juice Box.")

Yep, buying the naming rights to athletic stadiums is a big deal. I understand that when the Mets move into their new stadium, located adjacent to the old one, it will be called Citi Field and not Shea Stadium. I can live with that.

However, in my mind, there are three stadiums that must remain with their original names -- Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium (even the new one must be called that) and Wrigley Field. I bring this up only because real estate magnate Sam Zell, who now owns the Chicago Cubs and its home field, Wrigley, is seriously considering selling the naming rights.

And you know what? I don't think there's anything we can do to stop him. But here's what we can do. We can join in a worldwide effort to make sure that it is always referred to as Wrigley Field. I know I won't have any resistance from this from Cubs fanatics. They won't call it anything else but Wrigley. But I am imploring newspaper writers and editors the world over to join in this crusade.

I have heard there is one thing in my favor in this effort. The City of Chicago has apparently slapped a historic landmark designation of some sort on Wrigley Field that even protects the famous red marquee over the entrance. As long as that sign remains proclaiming the structure "Wrigley Field, Home of Chicago Cubs," I think everyone could legitimately refer to it as such, regardless of Zell'z zealotry.

Some news for the fans of the Harry Potter films

I have not read one -- not a single one -- of the Harry Potter books, but I have seen the films and, for the most part, I have really enjoyed them, mainly because of the way the special effects are effortlessly infused and the fact that they refuse to condescend. I did follow some of the events surrounding the release of seventh and final novel in the series, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," which, at 759 pages, was apparently the longest one in the series.

Because of that length (and, of course, not because of the possibility of increasing the revenue stream from this profitable series), Warner Bros. has decided that the final film will be released in two parts, with "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1" coming out in November 2010 and "Part II" hitting theaters in May 2011. The movies will be filmed concurrently with David Yates, director of the fifth and sixth films, also handling the final two. Steve Kloves will also be back as the screenwriter.

The main drawback I see to this is that this is a radical departure from the format of the films in which each one has covered one school term at Hogwarts Academy. But, as I understand it, author J.K. Rowling has approved of splitting the story.

The final book apparently contains an epilogue that describes the main characters 19 years after they have left Hogwarts. It will be interesting to see if his is translated into "Part II" and, if so, who will play the parts of the almost 40-year-old Harry, Hermione and Ron. I know I speak for millions when I say I can't conceive of anyone else in these roles except Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Ron Weasley, respectively. By that time, these three actors will have spent at least half their lives in these parts.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

What a long, strange trip it's been

And the news keeps getting stranger.

Where have all the flowers gone

The last couple of days have been hard. It began with a water heater malfunction that has destroyed the nice Pergo flooring I was so proud of after installing many years ago. My son has performed admirably during all this, pulling up all the wet flooring before mold could set in, but now the warm feel of wood has been replaced by the coldness of concrete throughout my kitchen and dining room.

But the immediate need was the replacement of the water heater which took too long, in my opinion to install. It finally happened yesterday, again under the more-than-capable supervision of my son, which led to my first hot showers in more than 72 hours. But that was not the end of the story.

During the installation process I was informed that the entire wiring in my townhouse is outdated and needs to be replaced at an astronomical cost. All this hits at the same time that I learned about the deaths of Rufus and Lynn Flint Shaw. I did not know Rufus well and did not know his wife at all. But I worked with Rufus on some political campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s and admired his tireless efforts. Although I didn't agree with him 100 percent of the time, I respected Rufus as a writer, first for his "Real Deal" column in the Elite News and then on Dallasblog. And like everyone else, I wondered what kind of events could lead someone to end it all like he did.

Then this morning comes the story about the woman who threw her two children off the Jim Miller overpass onto I-30. What level of frustration leads someone to do something so horrible, especially to innocent children?

The governor of New York resigns, Southwest Airlines grounds dozens of planes in its fleet, Pilgrim's Pride announces cutting eleven hundred jobs and the price of oil keeps going up and up and up.

Then there's the water heater, the wiring and all the rest that makes me remember the song lyric that asks "When will it ever end, when will it ever end?"

Saturday, March 8, 2008

"My Kid Could Paint That" and other recent DVD releases

"My Kid Could Paint That" is a fascinating, almost heartbreaking documentary about a family living in upstate New York; a quite unspectacular family at first glance. There’s the father, Mark Olmstead, who works the night shift at the local Frito-Lay plant. There’s his wife Laura who works days as a dental assistant. And then there’s the children, son Zane who’s just past his first birthday when the story begins and Marla, who is 3 going on 4. When she was 2, she watched her dad dabble in his oil painting hobby and told him she wanted to paint, too. Mark figured why not and much to his surprise she produced a painting that was quite advanced for a child her age. Then she did another. And another. And another. Soon the owner of a local coffee shop asked if he could hang some of his pictures in his shop. When his patrons started asking about the price of the paintings, it attracted the attention of the owner of a local gallery who decided to have a showing of her works. That led to a local newspaper article which was picked up quickly by the New York Times and before you could say "pint-sized Pollock," Marla had gone from a carefree 4-year-old girl who had fun playing with oils on canvas to a phenom whose works were selling for close to a $100,000 Then "60 Minutes" enters the picture, airing a segment on Marla that questions whether she really did paint these pictures, that perhaps the entire saga of Marla Olmstead is a fraud. The documentary reveals the devastating effect all this has on the Olmstead family, particularly Laura, who sensed from the very beginning that the media attention on her daughter could portray her as a freak. It is Laura’s story that is the heartbreaking one because, as she herself admits, she can’t remember clearly anything that happened to her when she was 4, so she doubts all this will leave permanent scars on Marla. The scars it leaves on Laura, however, are permanent, ugly and quite noticeable. In the end a movie about this family in upstate New York becomes a meditation on how we judge truthfulness and the effect the media has on those judgment calls. Grade: B-

"Into the Wild" is the overly romanticized version of the Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) story, the story of a 24-year-old graduate of Emory University who, in in the spring of 1992, hiked his way into the Alaskan wilderness, made his home in an abandoned bus, and died there four months later. Sean Penn’s filmed version of McCandless’ odyssey features some stunning camerawork and magnificent performances from Hirsch, Catherine Keener and Brian H. Dierker as a hippie couple he meets along the way and Hal Holbrook as the last human being McCandless had any real contact with and who wanted to adopt him. The film is based on, but significantly different than, a book by author/mountaineer Jon Krakauer. Penn gives us a McCandless who is motivated by a desire for ultimate freedom, spurred on by the writings of Thoreau and Tolstoy. According to Krakauer, McCandless was driven by much darker instincts, specifically a hatred for his father, who fathered a son by his first wife after his second wife had given birth to Chris. According to Krakauer, McCandless wanted to shed himself of the materialism his father represented (this is alluded to just once in the film, when Chris vehemently rejects his parents’ graduation gift to him of a new car). Penn is intent on portraying McCandless as a tragic hero when it appears he was nothing more than an idealistic kid who literally bit off more than he could chew. Grade: B-

Wes Anderson’s "The Darjeeling Limited" stars Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman as three brothers who try to heal their individual and collective wounds with a trip through India. Wilson as Francis is recovering from a motorcycle accident, Brody as Peter is running away from pending fatherhood and Jason as Jack is trying to get over some heartbreak. Collectively, they are also not fully recovered from the death of their father a year earlier and the fact that their mother (Anjelica Huston) never even showed up for the funeral. At one point in the film someone asks Francis what they are doing and he replies "We were on a spiritual journey but it didn’t work out very well." That about sums up my feelings about this movie -- there’s something missing here but because Anderson never makes clear what he’s trying to achieve, it’s difficult to identify the missing ingredient. It’s a road movie in which the travelers have no idea where they are going which makes it difficult for me to invest that much into their journey. But I will also admit I have gone one trips with a lot less entertaining traveling companions than Francis, Peter and Jack. Grade: C+

"Things We Lost in the Fire" is an uneven film highlighted by another dynamic performance from Benicio Del Toro and a return to excellence from Halle Berry who shows, finally, that "Monster’s Ball" wasn’t a fluke. The film is about recovery—Berry’s Audrey Burke must recover from the murder of her husband Brian (David Duchovny), killed trying to save a woman who was being beaten by her husband; Del Toro’s Jerry Sunborne must not only recover from the death of Brian, who was his best friend since second grade, but also his own heroin addiction. How Audrey and Jerry come to depend on each other is the crux of the film and the powerful scenes between these two characters make this a DVD worth renting. The film has the courage never to make it easy on these two. However, you’re going to have to put up with a lot of minor irritants as well, such as flashbacks to the deification of Brian; some silliness involving a neighbor, Howard Glassman (John Carroll Lynch) who for reasons I never could fathom decides that Jerry would make an excellent mortgage broker and for reasons I could understand completely decides to leave his wife; and Danish director Susanne Bier’s habit of filming people in extreme closeups, so all we see is an eye, a corner of a mouth, etc. Audrey and Jerry are fascinating specimens to watch, but I never wanted to be that intimate with them. Grade: C

If, like I have heard, the computer animation whatever-it-is that went into the making of "Beowulf," is the future of motion pictures, count me among the less-than-enthused. Watching this made me feel like I was trapped in a wax museum when all the pasty characters came to life. Somehow this film has a PG-13 rating, although it has more blood and gore than "Pulp Fiction" and "Sweeney Todd" combined. In the mid 5th century, Beowulf (Ray Winstone) sails to the Denmark kingdom of Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) because he has heard that the people there are being ravaged by the evil troll Grendel (Crispin Glover). Beowulf slays the beast but doesn’t reckon with Grendel’s mother (Angelina Jolie) who makes Beowulf a deal he can’t refuse (a deal similar to one, it appears, she made Hrothgar many years before). The deal results in a dragon who returns to annihilate what is now Beowulf’s kingdom many years later. The movie has its silly moments -- Beowulf fights Grendel in the nude in a scene right of Austin Powers, which I don’t think was meant to be the inspiration here. But it also has some breathtaking ones, like Jolie emerging from her watery lair wearing only stiletto heels that seem permanently attached to her feet. She was telling Beowulf something, but I’ll be damned if I was paying attention to the silly dialog at that moment. Grade: C-

The wonder of "Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium" is how director Zach Helm got such high-priced talent as Dustin Hoffman and Natalie Portman into this mess. It couldn’t be because his last screenplay was the Charlie Kaufmann-esque "Stranger Than Fiction," (in which Hoffman had a far more interesting part than the one he has here). Surely they read this script, about Edward Magorium (Hoffman doing an Ed Wynn imitation), a 243-year-old owner of a magical toy store who decides after all these years to just up and die and leave the store to his downhearted assistant Molly Mahoney (Portman, who doesn’t play it as Irish as the name would lead you to believe). This is a movie that would be more suited to people like Robin Williams and Shelley Long who don’t even have to try that hard to be irritating. I’m thinking the moral of the story is you can make magic if you just learn to believe in yourself, but that isn’t terribly original. I did like the set decoration, especially in a scene in which Hoffman, alone in the store, launches a paper glider in flight. Grade: D

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Still the idealist after all these years

I'm trying to work up some enthusiasm for the upcoming presidential election, but so far I just can't. And the prospects for a resurgence dimmed considerably after Tuesday's elections. On the Democratic side the lesson from Texas, Ohio et al seems to be "OK, they want to play nasty, I'll show them nasty." The notion that the campaign might actually focus on issues that are important to Americans--especially in the wake of the disaster that has resulted from the current presidency--seems even more remote now.

Instead, the campaign seems to be focusing on which candidate is the best equipped to answer a telephone. Let's get one thing straight right now -- not one of these candidates: Clinton, Obama or McCain, is any better equipped to deal with an international crisis than the other. None of them have had that experience. So get over it. Of course, the same could be said about almost every person whose sought the presidency in our nation's history.

Instead of arguing over who can answer the telephone, I wish the Democratic candidates would present us with detailed plans about precisely how they plan to get the United States out of Iraq. Mr. McCain has already gone on record as saying he intends to pursue the current Iraq policy. And just because one of the candidates voted for the 2002 Iraq resolution does not make that candidate incapable of coming up with a withdrawal plan.

I would like to know each candidate's plan for making sure the United States can compete in the global marketplace and that American college graduates are at least on a par with others around the world. What we don't need are attacks on NAFTA--that doesn't solve anything.

I would like each candidate to quit criticizing the health care plan of their opponents and spend more time detailing their own plans. I would like the candidates to come up with ideas about the economy and home mortgages instead of just trying to come up with answers to questions on these topics only when they are posed.

Polls indicate the policies of the current administration are not popular. This offers a wonderful opportunity for Democrats. But instead of engaging in character assassination and mouthing empty platitudes, I wish they would really engage in discussions about the actual problems we are facing.

Perhaps then I could work up some enthusiasm.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Mavs are better, but ...

Dallas Morning News sports writer Tim Cowlishaw has a column in today's paper that begins: "I don't understand how anyone can watch the Mavericks play their last eight games and think the team was better off before the Jason Kidd trade."

I swear, Tim Cowlishaw just doesn't get it.

Here is the same guy who keeps campaigning for a college football playoff system without ever realizing why there won't ever be one. He thinks because he feels that a playoff is the right thing to do then it should be done without even considering the notion that college presidents and athletic directors are never going to approve a plan that puts them at a competitive disadvantage.

Now he's defending the Jason Kidd trade on the grounds that the trade makes the Mavericks a better team. Sorry, Tim, but again you're on the wrong side of the trade argument.

Sure the trade makes the Mavs a better team right now, but it does not make them good enough to win an NBA championship or even a Western Conference championship. In fact, I question whether the Mavs can make it out of the first round of the playoffs again this year. That's not so much a criticism of the Mavericks as it is a comment on how the other teams in the conference have improved over last year or, as in the case of the Lakers, over the course of this season.

So my question still is -- why surrender your future in a trade that still doesn't make you competitive for a title? We gave up a point guard in Devin Harris that, admittedly, will never achieve Kidd's status, especially if was going to continue to be coached by Avery Johnson, but surrounded by the talent that the Mavs had was still going to be on the level of the Spurs' Tony Parker. And what the Spurs have achieved with Tony Parker is certainly more than the Mavericks have achieved. But the main problem is we also gave up draft picks in the Kidd trade that are going to come back to haunt the Mavs.

I remember at the beginning of this season, when Kobe Bryant was grumbling about staying in Los Angeles, that the idea of a trade in which we gave up both Devin Harris and Josh Howard for Kobe was discussed. Then all the pundits were saying "No, both Devin and Josh is too high a price to pay." If you saw that Laker game Sunday afternoon, try to imagine a team with both Kobe and Dirk Nowitzki playing for it. We'd be talking about that Maverick team as being on the same level as Boston and Detroit, right now the two best teams in the NBA. Now that would have been a trade for an NBA title.

The Kidd trade, however, wasn't. So that was why I didn't like it then. That's why I don't like it now. After the Lakers swung their big deal for Pau Gasol the idea that the Mavs had a shot for an NBA title this season went right out the window. But I had to figure that we had a brighter immediate future than either Phoenix or San Antonio, that a couple of solid drafts could move us up a level over Utah and New Orleans and two or three years down the pike we could be contenders. Now, after the Kidd trade, the truth is the Mavs' one shot was against Miami a couple of years ago and we blew that one because Johnson doesn't know how to come up with defenses to shut down players like Dwayne Wade or Kobe Bryant.

The next time anyone will be talking about the Mavs and an NBA title will be long after Nowitzki, Howard et al have retired. That is, unless Mark Cuban pulls some rabbit out of a hat that brings someone like Kevin Durant or even Kansas State's Michael Beasley to the Mavs, but, after the financial beating he took on the Kidd trade, I'm not sure he wants to spend the money it would take.

So, yeah, the Kidd trade made us a little better this season. The problem is it also started us on a rapid ride down the Western Conference, sending us to a lottery position without any draft picks.

I will say this, however. The future of the New Jersey Nets looks pretty good right now, thanks to the Mavericks.