Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Carjackers find the paper is mightier than the sword

Carjackers have come up with a new trick that has apparently proved successful. They paste a piece of paper on a potential victim's rear window. The thieves' thinking is that you'll notice the paper obscuring your view as you back out of your parking place. You'll put the car in park, leave the motor running, and get out of the car to remove the paper. When you do, the carnappers will jump into your car, put it in gear and drive off.

Today's tip, then, is obviously this: Wait until you get to your next destination, have turned the motor off, and locked the car before you remove that irritating piece of paper from your rear windshield.

Is the sun beginning to set on Oprahland?

Interesting story in yesterday's New York Times about all things Oprah. If you don't want to go to the link and read the entire piece, here are the substantial paragraphs:

The average audience for “The Oprah Winfrey Show” has fallen nearly 7 percent this year, according to Nielsen Media Research — its third straight year of decline. “Oprah’s Big Give,” an ABC philanthropic reality show, beat every program on television except “American Idol” in its premiere week this winter, but steadily lost nearly one-third of its audience during the rest of its eight-week run, according to Nielsen.

The circulation of O, The Oprah Magazine, has fallen by more than 10 percent in the last three years, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, and the magazine is now seeking a new editor in chief after the announced retirement of its longtime steward, Amy Gross.
And while Ms. Winfrey still displays a Midas touch when it comes to the endorsement of books and products, some of her latest picks have attracted criticism from longtime fans as she has strayed into new-age spiritualism and, perhaps more dangerously, politics. Her endorsement of the presidential bid of Senator Barack Obama appears to have alienated some of the middle-aged white women who make up the bulk of her television audience, many of whom support Senator Hillary Clinton.

Goodbye to a gentleman director who genuinely cared


By PHILIP WUNTCH
Film Critic Emeritus

None of the recent show business deaths touched me as personally as that of Sydney Pollack, the Oscar-winning director who died of cancer Monday at the age of 73.

I interviewed him many times through the years, the final encounter being for his 2005 documentary "Sketches of Frank Gehry." He was, as always, gentlemanly and witty. But a spark was missing. I sensed he was not feeling well and suspected it was something more than the exhaustion that accompanies a media tour. His mood was mellow, and when he appraised his films, it was with the wistfulness of someone who wondered if he would ever make another.

Some might consider him a director of the old school. He genuinely cared about characterization, actors, dialogue and male-female relationships. If such concerns do indeed make him old-school, young directors should consider his films a textbook.

Pollack would readily admit that he never made a flawless film. He once analyzed his 1973 hit, "The Way We Were," with sharp acumen.

"Tell me that it introduces a whole new plot in its third act, and I agree," he said. "Tell me that the movie is lumpish in construction, and I agree. Tell me that it treats the McCarthy Era blacklisting in a simplistic manner, and I agree. But one thing I do know: The movie has magic moments."

Pauline Kael said virtually the same thing, albeit in a wordier, self-aggrandizing fashion. Among "The Way We Were"'s magic moments were the Barbra Streisand/Robert Redford beer garden scene, the Redford/Bradford Dillman "best list" on the sailboat and the final Streisand/Redford scene outside the Plaza Hotel. A friend once told me that every time he sees the movie, he feels a sentimental urge to get in touch with his ex-wife.

Pollack's most popular film was 1982's "Tootsie"; his most lauded, 1985's "Out of Africa," which won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. "Tootsie"'s magic moments include all scenes between Jessica Lange and Charles Durning in their delightful, credible daughter-father relationship as well as Dustin Hoffman's first shock of disdain for Dabney Coleman, in whom he recognizes his own male chauvinism.

In "Out of Africa," Meryl Streep, flying in Redford's plane, muses, "This must be the way God sees the world!" It's a magic moment, as is her farewell to the native who will care for her farm in her absence.

A love of characterization brightens all Pollack's films. His first major critical success was 1969's "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?," the Depression Era dance marathon drama that established Jane Fonda as a dramatic actress.

"I loved all the characters in the movie," he recalled. "They didn't have to go back to that dance floor. They were exhausted. They were sick. They were hungry. But still they got up and went back. I loved them for that."

But he knew when characters didn't work. The 1979 Redford/Fonda opus "The Electric Horseman" earned a profit without being the anticipated triumph. He asked if I loved the characters, and I told him that I "liked" them.

"That's not enough," he said. "It's the kind of movie where you have to love the characters, not just like them. Otherwise, it doesn't work, and I'm afraid that's the case."

He skillfully used big-name stars but knew that supporting characters gave a film substance. "The Firm" (1993) was his last blockbuster, but Holly Hunter and Gary Busey were more memorable in supporting parts than Tom Cruise was as the centerpiece. His last feature film, the moderate 2005 success "The Interpreter," had strong performances from Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman, but Catherine Keener, in a secondary role, stole the reviews.

Having started his career as an actor, Pollack clearly respected and even loved many thespians. Many, yes, but not all. His bust-ups with Hoffman while filming "Tootsie" became a part of movie folklore.

"He was a total schmuck," he said, asking me not to use that word in print. "I had just done "Absence of Malice," and Paul (Newman) and I argued all the way through it. But there was respect and affection in all our arguments. Not so with Hoffman."

He commented wryly on Cliff Robertson's behavior on the 1975 espionage drama, "Three Days of the Condor."

"He was so jealous of Redford, he would check with the wardrobe department to find out what Redford was wearing in their next scene. Then he'd show up wearing an extra-flashy tie."

But such comments were noteworthy for their rarity. He spoke fondly of Streisand, Burt Lancaster, Faye Dunaway and other actors with reputations for not suffering suggestions gladly.

Pollack himself never recovered from the acting bug and never wanted to. He can be seen currently as Patrick Dempsey's irascible father in the otherwise lame comedy "Made of Honor." He was a semi-regular in "The Sopranos" and "Will & Grace." On the big screen his imposing 6-foot-plus presence was useful in slyly ominous roles in last year's "Michael Clayton" as well as Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999) and Woody Allen's "Husbands and Wives" (1992). Arguably, his most famous on-screen stint was as Hoffman's beleaguered agent in "Tootsie," in which their Russian Tea Room scene sparkled.

He was scheduled to direct the applauded HBO drama "Recount," but illness forced him to relinquish the job. The project was close to his heart. "The Way We Were" may have treated politics in a simplistic fashion, but personally he was always outspoken about his own liberal beliefs.

Inevitably, Pollack had disappointments, most notably "Random Hearts" (1999), "Havana" (1990) and "Bobby Deerfield" (1977). Some cinephiles were indignant when he remade Billy Wilder's "Sabrina." But Pollack's 1995 version was not without merit. All his failures, in fact, were honorable ones.

According to wire reports, when word of his probable demise became known within the industry, most of the big names he directed visited him. At the time of his death, he reportedly was surrounded by family and friends. I hope so. He was that show-business rarity, a true gentleman and a down-to-earth fella.

Monday, May 26, 2008

If you're going to San Francisco, don't wear a cell phone in your ear

California has a number of laws governing how people drive on highways that I wish Texas had the guts to incorporate and enforce. One of my favorites is the no-driving-in-the-left-hand-lane law. This means when you're out on those rural four-lane interstate highways (two lanes in each direction), the left hand lane is for passing another car only. Cruising in that lane is prohibited and the California Highway Patrol vigorously enforces the law.

Beginning July 1, California will be enforcing a law that prohibits a driver from holding a cellphone to his or her ear and talking, unless it's an emergency situation. First offense is a $20 ticket, subsequent offenses are $50. However, with court costs and penalties added, those tickets will actually cost $76 and $190.

California becomes the fourth state with such a law. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are the others.

Grades for new movies to be released tomorrow on DVD

(Click on the title for a review)

The Air I Breathe. Four short stories, each one involving a a different emotion--happiness, sorrow, pleasure and love. Grade: F

Cassandra’s Dream: Ewan McGregor and Collin Farrell play two brothers, one who owes huge sums of money and the other in love with a beautiful woman he recently met, who try to improve their lives in this Woody Allen crime drama set in London. Grade: D

Rambo: Sylvester Stallone (of course) stars as a supposedly peace-loving seller of poisonous snakes who gets sucked into taking sides during a civil war on the Thai border when some missionaries are kidnapped. Grade: D

Typhoon: A South Korean film about a modern pirate planning an attack on Korea. Grade: D

What Would Jesus Buy: A documentary about Bill Talen, the self-appointed preacher of the Church of Stop Shopping whose goal is to restore the non-commercial meanings of Christmas. Grade: C-

Thursday, May 22, 2008

You must now write "I will not abduct kids without sufficient evidence" 1,000 times

The Third Court of Appeals has agreed with what the sane world has been maintaining for six weeks now -- that the State of Texas had absolutely no reason to invade a religious compound near San Angelo and separate close to 500 children from their parents.

Here is the nutgraph from the ruling: "The simple fact, conceded by the Department, that not all FLDS families are polygamous or allow their female children to marry as minors demonstrates the danger of removing children from their homes based on the broad-brush ascription of every aspect of a belief system to every person living among followers of the belief system or professing to follow the belief system."

It's about time someone in authority uttered the words a lot of us have been saying for a while now.

Indy's return is "good enough"


By PHILIP WUNTCH
Film Critic Emeritus

Even on a list of four, being second-best is no disgrace.

That's the lesson to be culled from "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." On the Indy scale, it ranks substantially below the magical "Raiders of the Lost Ark" but far above such slapdash pretenders as "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." Great, it's not. But it's more than "good enough."

Since the film arrives with a price tag of roughly $180 million and reunites the triumvirate of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Harrison Ford, the first thing everyone wants to know is the irreverent but irresistible "What's wrong with it?"

For starters, the attempts at verbal humor are fairly feeble, with too many first-act "oldster" jokes. By now, most moviegoers know that Ford is 65 years old, and the screenplay's repetitive references to his vintage are gnawing. Also, the film has a perhaps inescapable "been there" air. In some ways, that's reassuring and even endearing. In other ways, it's cloying. In format, it most closely echoes "Raiders of the Lost Ark," with more than just a trace of such 1950s sci-fi thrillers as "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." The plot is both serpentine and outlandish although, in fairness, none of the previous Indy movies has been economically plotted

Yet much of the film works gracefully. The action occurs in 1957, and the mood is lovingly recreated, with Elvis' "Hound Dog" heard on the soundtrack even before Indy's familiar theme. In keeping with the Cold War, the baddies are Commies rather than Nazis. Although Spielberg and Lucas are staunch Democrats, they even allow an "I like Ike" homage in the dialog, while Shia LaBoeuf is introduced in a visual homage to another '50s icon, the leather-clad, motorcycling Marlon Brando of "The Wild One."

And in case anyone remains an infidel, Spielberg once again proves himself a terrific action coordinator. The chase scenes crackle with inspired chaos. While the jungle segments have such anticipated ingredients as quicksand, carnivorous ants and one large -- very, very large -- snake, they're choreographed with with freshness. The action vignettes frequently boast a wit that the dialogue lacks, and the entire enteprise shines with an enjoyably retro '80s style, appropriate for a franchise that was a high point of 1980s film technology.

Chief among the heavies is Cate Blanchett as ironclad Col. Irina Spalko, who wants well-worn Professor Jones to lead her to the mysterious skulls that hold the secret to mind control. It seems that Stalin was fascinated by psychic research, much akin to Hitler's preoccupation with the occult in "Raiders." Indy finds himself pursued by both the KGB and the FBI, not to mention some other-worldly alien weirdos.

Blanchett makes a dandy dominatrix, but you can't shake the suspicion that she's in this extravaganza strictly for the bucks. Some pundits foresaw failure in the casting of 22-year-old LaBeouf as Indy's wisecracking sidekick Mutt. Actually, he registers cockiness and confidence without the taint of obnoxiousness. After some initial bickering, Indy and Mutt get along great -- until they discover they're really father and son.

Which brings us to Karen Allen's return appearance as Marion Ravenwood, "Raiders of the Lost Ark"'s two-fisted heroine and, very possibly, the enduring love of Indy's life. Allen hasn't made a major feature since small roles in 2001's "In the Bedroom" and 2000's "The Perfect Storm." She still has an engaging presence and a beguiling smile even if you sense she's overcompensating for her lengthy absence.

And, of course, there's Indy himself, who Ford plays to an agreeable hilt. Both his sly attitude and physical dexterity have mellowed, but he's still convincing as an adventurer, a college prof and a somewhat roguish raconteur. He remains likable even after you realize that Indy's treatment of Marion was indeed shabby.

Ford, Allen and LaBeouf are all likable, and so is Spielberg's direction. All of which makes "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" more enjoyable than most reunions.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Netflix is going to sell a gadget to let viewers watch movies immediately

Netflix is getting ready to market a gadget that will allow consumers to do with the Post Office what they did with Blockbuster: bypass it.

Beginning today, Netflix is going to offer its subscribers the opportunity to shell out $99 for a paperback-book-sized device that will attach to their TVs and let viewers watch movies and television programs immediately without any change in their subscription fees.

There is a catch, however. The number of available titles through the box is only about a tenth of the number available through the mail and most of the ones that are available are older titles. They are the same titles Netflix has offered subscribers via Internet feeds.

The box's chief rival, Apple TV, costs three times as much as the Netflix box, and charges $3.99 for each movie rental and $14.99 for the purchase of a film. Apple TV does, however, get access to movies the same day they are released on DVD. Amazon does something similar through TiVo boxes.

What makes the Netflix box different from the Apple and Amazon offerings and perhaps somewhat more problematic is that it doesn't contain a hard drive. It plays the movies directly from the Internet which involves consumers having an Ethernet cable or a wireless network in their homes. This means it is probably not a good investment for those with connection speeds of 1.5 megabits a second or slower because the picture could freeze on them.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Council committee wants another option on skating rink

The City Council's Economic Development Committee was briefed today on the troubled (i.e., money-losing) Southern Skates Skating Rink located in South Dallas at 2939 East Ledbetter Road. The committee was given three options on what to do with the facility (1) have the Parks Department continue to operate it, (2) try to find and operator to lease it and hopefully make a profit from it, or (3) sell the building.

Council member Mitchell Ransansky's motion to sell it was met with a passionate, eloquent rebuttal from Dwayne Carraway, who argued that his neighborhood has no movie theaters and this skating rink is the closest thing there is for a community gathering place for the area's youth.

Led by committee chair Ron Natinsky, the committee asked the city staff to come up with a fourth option, something it called a Lease-Operate-Purchase option. It asked the staff to come back to the committee in 90 days, but staff warned that dealing with HUD, which contributed two-thirds of the original funding for the rink, is not something that can be accelerated, so it may take longer than 90 days. Rasansky reluctantly went along with the motion providing the city pay off the first lien on the property.

Grades for new movies to be released tomorrow on DVD

(Click on the title to read a review)

Bra Boys: Russell Crowe narrates this documentary about a gang of surfer-thugs living in a Sydney suburb. Grade: C-

Diary of the Dead: George A. Romero’s tale of a group of college filmmakers making a low-budget horror film in the Pennsylvania woods when the dead start returning to life. Grade: C+

National Treasure: Book of Secrets: Nicolas Cage returns to clear the name of his great-great-grandfather, who has been implicated in the assassination of President Lincoln. Grade: D

Strange Wilderness: Steve Zahn stars in a story about a wildlife TV show that tries to reverse its ratings decline by going after Bigfoot. Grade: F

Saturday, May 17, 2008

A radical idea for basketball

A foul is supposed to be bad thing in sports, something for which the team that commits it is assessed a penalty. You wouldn't think that, however, watching the NBA playoffs. The last couple minutes of your typical NBA game often features the exciting prospects of one team deliberately fouling another in order to gain a competitive advantage. Then there's what has come to be known as "Hack-a-Shaq," named in honor of Shaquille O'Neal, a notoriously poor free throw shooter. The technique involves the team behind in the score fouling the other team's worst free-throw shooter, counting on him to miss his free throws.

This may be strategically sound for a trailing team but I don't think it works with fans of the sport. So in the interests of basketball purity and fan enjoyment of the game I am going to offer the following proposed rule changes.

1. A team may designate any of the five players it has on the court to shoot fouls. It doesn't necessarily have to be the player who was fouled. That's the way it works in soccer penalty shots and the way it works when basketball teams shoot technical fouls.

2. In the last two minutes of a game, any team that would normally be awarded two shots for a foul would be awarded three.

If these rule changes were implemented, then fouls would be closer to what they were intended to be -- something to avoid.

What's the consumer electronic world coming to?

First IBM sold its personal computer business to an outfit out of China. Now comes word that GE may be selling its appliance division.

Is there a better known, more recognizable, household consumer electronic brand in the United States than GE? Sure, you'll now find more Whirlpool appliances in U.S. homes these days, but GE has been around for more than 100 years. Apparently, however, the brand's U.S. success hasn't been duplicated in foreign markets and that has led to the discussions that range from a partnership, a joint venture, a spinoff to shareholders or an outright sale. The appliance division accounted for only 4 percent of GE's total revenues for 2007.

GE Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt issued the following statement Friday:

"GE appliances has a very strong brand, great distribution, a talented leadership team and for more than 100 years, has been one of the icons associated with GE in the United States. However, it remains primarily a U.S. business, meaning its fortunes are tied to the rise and fall of a single market. We want to make this good business great again by finding the right strategic solution -- a solution that will give appliances the global reach and investment required to compete more effectively."

I'm willing to bet that if a sale does go through, it will not be to a U.S. company.

New look for Tom Thumb grocery stores?

According to English folklore, Tom Thumb was a lad who was smaller than his father's thumb. Why J.R. Bost and Bob Cullum called their grocery store they started in Dallas in 1948 Tom Thumb is beyond me. But I read today that the chain may be moving closer to its original namesake, i.e. going smaller.

Since 1999, Tom Thumb has been owned by Safeway, which is beginning to experiment with the concept of a smaller, neighborhood grocery store initially being called The Market. (Wal-Mart is trying out a similar concept with something called Marketside.) Analysts are saying consumers are shying away from "big-box" stores and these smaller markets are "the next new thing."

The first of these new Safeway stores has opened in Long Beach, Calif. It features a wooden-floor entryway that leads immediately to stacks of fresh produce, a fresh bakery, a prepared-foods counter, a selection of some 1,000 wines and a Starbucks kiosk. In fact, half of the store's offerings fall into the categories of fresh produce, meat, cheeses and prepared foods. It carries only 15 percent of the items carried by the larger grocery stores.

Plans are to open four more of these markets this year and, if they prove successful, as many as 50 in 2009. No word yet if any of them will be in Dallas area.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Boss makes history again

A little over a week ago, May 7 to be exact, Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band played a historic concert at the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank, N.J. The concert was designed as a benefit to raise money for the theater and, as I understand it, tickets for the show cost in the thousands of dollars. It wound up netting an incredible $3 million that will go to renovating the theater.

But that's not what made the concert historic. Although no one knew what was going to happen when the band took the stage, Bruce let them in on their plans in the show's opening moments. He and the band were going to play all the songs from his album "Darkness on the Edge of Town" in sequence, take a break and then play all the songs from "Born to Run" in sequence.

What you will see here are video highlights from this concert, including the announcement of their plans and the opening "mistake." The video leaps from song to song, often the view of the band is obscured by other audience members and sometimes the images are blurry. But you get a sense of what it must have been like to have been at this incredible show.

I understand there are bootleg copies of the entire concert that can be found in all the usual places.

By the way, I have heard that Columbia Records is planning a special deluxe box set commemorating the 30th anniversary of the original release of "Darkness" this fall. What do you think the chances are of an authorized DVD of this concert being part of that package? Just a thought.

The first words from Cannes

... are good about Ari Folman's "Waltz With Bashir," an animated documentary (an interesting concept) about the 1982 massacres at two Palestinian refugees camps in Lebanon.

... are not so good about "Blindness," Fernando Meirelles' supposedly heavy handed allegory starring Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore.

A sneak peak at the newer, more comfortable, Inwood Theater


By PHILIP WUNTCH
Film Critic Emeritus

The official grand opening of the Inwood Theater's renovated downstairs auditorium will coincide with next Thursday's debut of "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." But I got a sneak peak -- and it looks great.

Being the theater of my youth, the Inwood has a special place in my movie lover's heart. Between the ages of 10 and 18, I probably saw more movies there than at any other theater. The nude mermaids on the lobby ceiling were topics of conversation on schoolyard playgrounds although they weren't suggestive enough to throw over-zealous parents into a panic mode.

Nostalgists need not worry. The mermaids are still are on view. But almost everything else in the main auditorium has changed. As an Inwood loyalist, I never felt that the auditorium lived up to the picturesque lobby's promise. But now the auditorium has never looked better or felt more comfortable. It has all the comforts of home, assuming that you're accustomed to an affluent lifestyle.

The lobby's nautical sirens were not the only Inwood touch that made schoolboys smirk. The 61-year-old showplace was the first Dallas theater to feature loveseats, situated on alternate rows of aisle seats. The renovated auditorium has loveseats that would even make the Incredible Hulk feel cuddly. They create a mood that's conducive to "making out," as we cool kids used to say.

The furnishings truly make the theater, and they're the creations of Lovesac, an alternative furniture company that has shops in the Dallas Galleria and in Stonebriar Mall in Frisco. The different types of seats have varying degrees of cushiness. So try to arrive early and discover -- yes, readers, I'll go ahead and say it -- discover which cush suits your tush. Among the selections are bean bags, bean bag chairs and sectional sofas, enhanced by tables, removable cupholders, throw pillows, back cushions and blankets, complete with "leggos" for your feet. The auditorium also provides different seating arrangements.

The Inwood's onetime balcony long ago became two small theaters. About three years ago, they were renovated into the city's most comfortable small screening rooms. The renovated main auditorium extends the smaller theaters' sense of luxury. It makes for a great moviegoing experience.

LOST "VEGAS": Those who visit the comedy wannabe "What Happens in Vegas" will come up losers.

Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher play opposites who meet on a wild Las Vegas weekend and marry in haste. They may "repent in leisure," but there's nothing leisurely about this tame farce. Every plot twist is predictable, and the losing enterprise is mercilessly over-directed by novice Tom Vaughan.

As an overly organized careerist, Diaz still has a strong, likable presence. But Kutcher, playing a rich, pampered slacker, tries too hard to trade on his presumed "cuteness." At 30, he's getting a little old for juvenile jocularity. The filmmakers apparently think that merely casting Queen Latifah as a marriage counselor who says things like "I've had enough of your bullshit!" will bring down the house. Like everything else in the movie, it doesn't work out that way.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Hotel is only part of the solution

Now that the City of Dallas has taken the first giant steps toward the construction of a convention center hotel, someone must realize that this hotel is only part of the solution and is, in and of itself, not going to make Dallas a destination for major conventions.

In my post yesterday I wrote the reason Dallas can't compete with the so-called Tier One convention cities is because Dallas is dull. There is no other way around it. Put yourself in the place of a Dallas conventioneer. Once the day's convention activities are done and you have cleaned up for a night on the town in your downtown convention center hotel, what are you going to do next. Where are you going to go? The best prospects are room service and ordering up a movie in your room.

I'm going to put this assignment square on the shoulders of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau. That is the organization that stumped mightily for this hotel. Now I want to see that organization put together a blueprint for adding some zip to downtown Dallas.

The city's idea of downtown redevelopment involves converting vacant office spaces into residences, trying to lure additional retail businesses and corporate headquarters downtown and adding another rail line or two or three. All that is fine, but it doesn't do anything to add to the excitement value. Downtown Dallas must spring to life when the sun goes down, not go to sleep.

Sure, there are a few options "in the neighborhood"--Victory, possibly, and Uptown. Deep Ellum, if you ask me, is dying. But neither is really within walking distance of the site of the proposed convention center hotel and everyone knows cab service here leaves a lot to be desired. I would not like to be stranded in Uptown anytime after 11 p..m., hoping to flag down a passing taxi. A year or so ago, I was stranded on San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf around 10 p.m. and couldn't find a cab and that is far more cosmopolitan than Dallas.

Dallas has some wonderful quirky little theater groups spread out in various places around the city. Someone needs to find downtown space for them and give them incentives to relocate and remain active in downtown. We need to do more to exploit and expand the musical offerings in the Cedars area (DART should provide every conventioneer with a pass that gives them free rail rides between the convention center and the Cedars stations and passes that provide free shuttle service to conventioneers between the proposed hotel and such destinations as the West End, Victory, the Arts District and Uptown) and we need to give nightclubs incentives to locate downtown. The same for restaurants -- and I'm talking about every kind of restaurant, from elite French cuisine and the fine steak houses, through Italian, Chinese, Thai, Tex-Mex, sandwich shops to boutique McDonald's like the ones franchisee Karen Skinner has become known for in this area.

Something needs to be done with the Majestic Theater. That place should be active at least six nights a week, at least 50 weeks a year.

And we need bars. Boy, do we need bars. There are no real general population bars in Dallas. OK, there's Louie's and there's the Inwood Bar & Grill, but is there something like that downtown? Is there a stand-alone Cheers type place where folks can gather for a great drink? (My definition of a great bar, by the way, is any establishment that serves liquor and does not contain a blender.)

So that's the assignment I want someone to take on and I guess the Convention and Visitors Bureau is the logical choice since it has so much to gain by enlivening downtown Dallas. That, combined with the proposed hotel could turn this whole area around, but the hotel by itself is not going to do the trick. It will help, but it won't be the ultimate solution.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Bear with me on this

I'm not sure why I putting these two items together, but, gosh darnit, they just seem related somehow:

1. The Interior Department has decided to protect the polar bear as a threatened species because of the decline in Arctic sea ice from global warming; and

2. John Edwards, 2004's Democratic VP nominee and someone whose own presidential bid in 2008 was abandoned after the Super Tuesday primaries, will endorse Senator Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination, according to a spokeswoman for the Obama campaign.

The proposed Dallas Convention Center Hotel

I am going to be one of the few local bloggers who has no problem with the actions taken today by the Dallas City Council today on a proposed hotel that may or may not be constructed on a tract of land in front of the Dallas Convention Center. All it did was authorize the sale of bonds needed to purchase the land. It did not authorize the construction of a hotel on the site.

OK, you're saying, but the vote today paves the way, so to speak, for the construction of that hotel by a financially strapped city that should be using those funds for public safety needs (fire, police, code) and improved city streets.

Those who make the above argument aren't paying attention. The money for public safety comes from the city's General Fund. The revenue for the General Fund, as most everyone knows, basically comes from sales taxes, property taxes, franchise fees and other special fees or fines. The money for the purchase of the land in question will not come from the General Fund, but from sale of bonds. What the council approved today was the issuance of those bonds. Now it is up to the hotshot bond salespeople to market these obligations to investors that will provide the revenue to purchase the land.

What does come from the General Fund, however, is the $4 million per year needed to make the Convention Center revenue neutral. The Convention Center is supposed to be, like Dallas Water Utilities, an Enterprise Fund which means the revenue it collects is supposed to pay all its operational costs. That's not happening, however, because of the general downturn in convention business, caused in large parts according to many experts, by the fact the city doesn't have an adjacent hotel. It also comes from the fact that the city is still funding that albatross known as Reunion Arena that sits vacant most of the year and something needs to be done to get Reunion off the city's books.

I was impressed, however, by the number of officials from other hotels in the downtown area who came to the council today in support of this idea. They see a hotel as benefiting them as well as all of downtown and not a competitor they need to be concerned about. The only hotelier that seems to be in opposition is Crow Holdings of the Anatole and I'm beginning to think they believe a convention center hotel may draw some shows that currently go to the Market Center away to the convention center. That could be but, if that's true, it suggests that a convention center hotel would be a plus for the city and its taxpaying citizens.

I had reservations about this project when it was first proposed but those reservations came from the differences in what the city was prepared to pay for the land compared to DCAD's evaluation of the same parcel, about one-seventh of what the city planned to pay. But DCAD has since revised its evaluations to align them with the proposed purchase price, so my earlier reservations have been resolved.

I also thought at the time that a convention center hotel was not going to position us any more competitively against such destinations as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Ls Vegas, Orlando or San Francisco. I still believe that to be true. Let's face facts -- compared to those cities, Dallas is dull. But it has come to light that the lack of a convention center hotel is costing us in competition with Houston, San Antonio, Phoenix, Denver and Minneapolis, cities we should be preferable to for convention business. C'mon, given the choice between Dallas and Minneapolis, it should be a no-brainer that Dallas would be the option. If the lack of a convention center hotel is causing us to lose convention business to Houston and San Antonio, and statistics indicate it is, then I say let's build a convention center hotel.

I have also heard the arguments that City Hall should not be in the hotel business. The problem with that argument is that no one is suggesting City Hall be in the hotel business. Its relationship to a convention center hotel will be almost identical to the one it has with American Airlines Center, it will finance the construction of the facility and get revenues from it. But the city does not operate the AAC. I also had to agree with Mayor Leppert's observation at the council debate on this subject today how much the land surrounding the AAC has appreciated since its construction and the development that ensued around it.

Now the city can go to private hotel developers and see if they can reach a profitable agreement to operate a successful convention center- affiliated hotel on this particular parcel of land. Those proposals will all be a part of the public record and subject to debate and council approval.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Movie Notes: "Blindness" hits Cannes

The Cannes Film Festival opened today with Brazilian director Fernando ("City of God") Meirelles' "Blindness" starring Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo about a plague of blindness sweeping the world. No word yet on how the film was received.

To the relief of absolutely no one and the costernation of quite a few, Michael Moore is working on a followup to "Fahrenheit 9/11" for no apparent reason except he hopes it will bring him back into the spotlight. He plans to release it next year, which, of course, means it will have absolutely no impact on the presidential elections. The film does not have a title yet.

I guess this means we can definitely call "Speed Racer" the first major flop of the year. And just when I thought the movie-going public had lost all semblance of taste.

Three of the four stars of "Sex and the City" make their home in New York. The TV series and the film that spun off from it are set in New York and were shot in New York. So where was the film premiered this week? London. Go figure.

"Maverick" was one of my favorite television shows from my high school years. But only when James Garner appeared as Bret Maverick. Jack Kelly as his brother Bart didn't do that much for me. Bret Maverick actually helped pay my way through college with his "Maverick Poker" (bet someone you can make five pat poker hands from the first 25 cards off the top of a shuffled deck) scam. Made a lot of money off that one. So it's hard to fathom James Garner now at the age of 80, especially when word comes in that he had a minor stroke last week. I understand, however, that the prognosis is good and he should be going home from the hospital in a couple of days, but still, I'm just not ready for Bret Maverick to fold his hand.

Monday, May 12, 2008

"Tax Increase" -- A city council person mentions the possibility

The Dallas City Council's Quality of Life and Government Services Committee got a preview of parts of the city's upcoming budget today and didn't like what it heard. This was especially true when it was briefed on "Culture, Art & Recreation." It wasn't either the culture or the art that bothered the committee members, but the recreation part struck a nerve.

The way the budgeting process works these days is the city sets what it calls "the price of government," which means "here's how much money we're willing to spend on providing city services." Then the various departments submit "bids" on what services they would like to provide that coincide with objectives stated by the council. Then another group of city staffers looks at all the bids and ranks them by priority. All the bids are funded by priority listed until the price of government has been reached.

The Quality of Life and Government Services Committee was briefed today on a number of these services the staff recommends be funded as part of the upcoming budget. The briefing included a list of bids that "fell below the line," i.e., they were nice and the citizens would love 'em, but, gosh darnit, there just wasn't enough money available to pay for them all.

Thus recreational center hours are being cut from 55 hours to week to 40. The zoo would only be open five days a week instead of seven and closes the aquarium. The city's golf courses would be open six days a week and not seven. Something called the Bahama Beach water park may have to be closed. Some graffiti maintenance at various parks might have to be curtailed. Several committee members took exception to a lot of these proposals.

District 6 Council Member Steve Salazar was the first to dance around the subject of a tax increase. Although he never mentioned District 13 council member Mitchell Rasansky by name, he warned other committee members about the person "who has never voted for a city budget and never will" and how he will argue for actually reducing the tax rate.

He was followed by Ron Natinsky of District 12, the area of far North Dallas that could be hit hardest by a property tax increase, who said that while the city must look at operational efficiencies and perhaps different groupings of services, that the council must not rule out a tax increase. And he said those words: "tax increase."

So there it is. The subject of a tax increase is now on the table. The question is how much are citizens willing to pay for city services. Because the economy has resulted in a decrease in sales taxes, we may have to pay more in property taxes just to maintain our current level of services. We may even have to pay more to keep the cuts being more on a line of what we are willing to accept.

It's not good news, but at least there are those on the council not shying away from the realities of the situation.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Grades for new movies to be released on DVD Tuesday (May 13)

(Click on the title to read a review)

The Great Debaters: Denzel Washington stars as Professor Melvin Tolson, who used unconventional and tough teaching methods in the 1930s to create a debate team at Texas’ small African-American Wiley College that was good enough to challenge Harvard University’s national championship team. Grade: C

Mad Money: Queen Latifah, Katie Holmes and Diane Keaton team to rob one of the world’s most secure banks. Grade: D-

Untraceable: Diane Lane and Colin Hanks play FBI agents who must track down a killer who displays his victims on the Internet and leaves their fates up to those who visit his Web site. Grade: F

Youth Without Youth: Francis Ford Coppola directed this story of an aging college professor (Tim Roth) who not only finds his youth restored following a cataclysmic event, but also his intellect heightened, attracting the attention of Nazi scientists. Grade: D-

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Battle At Kruger

For those of you who haven't seen this amazing life-affirming video, here it is before tonight's National Geographic special on the subject.

Friday, May 9, 2008

The best pitcher in major league baseball

For my money, it has to be Brandon Webb of the Arizona Diamondbacks. No one else even comes close. Take that, Johann Santana.

A usual suspect becomes a king

The current short-run of Lerner & Lowe's musical "Camelot" at New York's Lincoln Center sounds like a hoot with Gabriel Byrne as King Arthur, heading a cast that also features Stacy Keach as Merlyn, Christopher Lloyd as Pellinore and Fran Drescher as Morgan le Fey. Unfortunately, all this silliness ends tomorrow night.

Screenings at the Cannes Film Festival

I know a lot of you are planning your vacations around the Cannes Film Festival (and, if you are: TAKE ME WITH YOU), but are thinking "I can't spend an entire fortnight there just waiting around for the one film I want to see." So, as a public service, here is your schedule for all the films that will be shown at Cannes, where they will be shown, and when. You can thank me for this service while we're sipping cocktails at Dennis Hopper's birthday party or one of the other major events we'll crash once we've arrived. Plus, I know the place in Cannes that serves the world's best creme brulee.

Obama's VP choice

Now that it's practically a given that Illinois Senator Barach O'Bama will be the Democratic Party's presidential nominee, every political junkie's favorite guessing game can start. Who will he pick as his running mate? I see the two favorites being Jim Webb and Bill Richardson.

Webb, a senator from Virginia, is a former Republican, for goodness sakes, who was Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Navy, thus an attraction to many Republicans and independents who are trending toward Obama. Webb has the military credentials than can trump Republican nominee John McCain and could help the Democrats win Virginia. Richardson, the governor of New Mexico, has deep foreign policy experience and would sew up the Hispanic vote for Obama.

Where does that leave Hillary Clinton? Here's what I would like to see the New York senator do between now and when Obama officially has the nomination locked.

1. Keep on campaigning. It's her right. Until Obama's nomination is secured, she should continue presenting her case to the American people. That's what the spirit of the presidential election process is all about. (Although I am hearing rumors that if Obama and Clinton can work out a way in which the Illinois senator can pay off some of Clinton's campaign debts, she will drop her campaign immediately.)

2. Take a higher road in her campaign. Get off the attack mode. Her race-baiting comments of the last few days diminish her, especially when there are so many other topics she should be talking about. I would like to see her aggressively promote her ideas for getting the United States out of the quagmire that is Iraq, to hear what plans she has for helping the economy and solving the current mortgage crisis and to challenge Obama to publicize his ideas in these areas as well. This is what the American public needs. McCain is taking the stance of being George Bush revisited and the American public must decide whether it wants to continue the policies of the last eight years or go in another direction outlined by the Democratic candidates.

"Speed Racer" may stall at starting gate

The advance word of mouth on the film "Speed Racer" is not all that great, or at least not what its studio, Warner Bros., had hoped for. Instead of being this weekend's box office champ, as was expected when the studio scheduled its release date, it may be competing with "What Happens in Vegas" for second place. ("Iron Man" is predicted to maintain its box office superiority for the weekend.)

Second place is not bad, mind you. That means the Wachowski brothers film will net in the $25 million to $30 million range, but considering how much it costs to produce the film, that level would be a major disappointment. The film is tracking fairly well among males in the 8-to-25 age group. "Vegas," meanwhile is tracking extremely well among females of all ages, although it faces more competition from other romantic comedies currently in theaters like "Made of Honor" and "Forgetting Sarah Marshall."

It will be interesting to watch "Iron Man"'s totals, as well. If it's box-office drops by less than 50 percent over last weekend, that means it could be a sustainable hit like "Spider-Man," "Batman Begins" and "Transformers," possibly reaching a $300 million domestic total and $600 million worldwide. If it drops by more than 50 percent, it will be regarded as a quick fade, much like the "X-Men" films.

Regardless, it's expected to be a nice summer for Paramount Pictures. In addition to "Iron Man," in two weeks it will release "Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull" which is tracking to have an astouding opening weekend at the box office.

Talk about sinking property values

The Southeast Texas town of Daisetta is literally going down the drain ... or not. Geologists can't decide. But it doesn't look too good right now. Who's to blame? It could be a natural phenomenon or it could be caused by oil companies re-injecting produced water into the earth causing the salt domes to hollow out.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Remarkable goings-on at the landfill

The secret is finally out. It was revealed tonight at a City Council meeting at Richland College during which various city department directors outlined the ways in which they are promoting the city's "green" initiatives. Most of what was said was already known or so mundane it's not worth repeating. But two presentations stood out. One was by Paul Dyer, director of the Parks and Recreation Department, who announced the Dallas Zoo is constructing a facility that will transform all the waste generated at the zoo -- everything from elephant manure to discarded pizza cartons -- into energy that will power a couple of the zoo's buildings.

But the major news, the one that will affect all of our wallets, came from Sanitation Services Director Mary Nix who publicly announced that bioreactor technology is being installed at the city's McCommas Bluff Landfill.

Here's the situation. All of our garbage that we don't recycle is taken to the landfill. All cities either have a landfill (or two) or they have agreements with nearby cities that have available space in their landfills. Dallas' McCommas Bluff Landfill occupies the northeast quadrant of the corner of I-45 and I-20 in deepest South Dallas. It is the largest landfill in the state of Texas and the fifth largest in the United States. But as large as it is, it was destined, as is every landfill, to eventually fill up with trash. The latest estimates I heard was that McCommas would reach its limit in around 60 years, obviously nothing I needed to worry about, probably nothing my son needed to concern himself over, but his daughter was going to feel the pinch. Why? Because when it fills, the city is going to need another large parcel of land to convert into a landfill and there are no such parcels in the immediate vicinity. I would guess that the closest possible site would be, at a minimum, 50 miles outside the city limits and probably closer to 100 miles. That means severe transportation costs -- including, of course, all those rising fuel costs -- would have to be incorporated into our sanitation fees.

The significance of bioreactor technology is two fold. First, it will mean the landfill will never reach capacity -- the city will never have to concern itself for finding land for and constructing another landfill. Second, the landfill -- the place where all our garbage is dumped -- will become an environmental center, the source for a clean-burning alternative energy and compost.

Although the name, bioreactor, makes it sound like something that could create its own China Syndrome, the technology is actually comparatively low tech. In effect, in the words of Ms. Nix, each cell in the landfill would be converted into a giant compost pile. A series of pipes installed in the individual cells soak the garbage with water and gases, the combination of which drastically accelerates the garbage degradation rate. I'm not sure how long it takes a cell to degrade completely, but I do know that landfill processes must be monitored for 30 years after they are completely filled and closed. With the bioreactor, the process takes five years. During that five-year process, large amounts of methane gas are produced that will be converted on site to natural gas and sold to Atmos Energy. Plus, at the end of five years, the cell has produced reusable compost, which, when removed, allows the cell to be used again.

Here's the bottom line: Bioreactor technology at the McCommas Bluff Landfill will generate enough income and save the city enough money to build and operate a half dozen convention center hotels and still come out on the plus side.

Sometimes words aren't necessary


I guess I shouldn't be shocked that the Morning News is shocked so easily

The Dallas Morning News ran a series of "tipping point" articles a couple of years ago that criticized in every way possible the manner in which the folks at Dallas City Hall managed the city. Perhaps some of what was in those series of articles was true -- much of it was exaggerated -- but the Morning News probably believes every word of it was gospel then and believes it's gospel now.

In today's Letters to the Editors section on the Morning News' editorial page, a letter appeared from one Shirley R. Sloat of Dallas who wrote in to say that Sunday she noticed her gray city-issued garbage roll cart had a huge split. She wrote that she called 3-1-1 to request a replacement and her request was treated courteously and promptly. Two days later, her replacement cart was delivered and two days after that someone from the city (probably from its crack Sanitation Services Department) came to her home to make sure the cart had been delivered. Ms. Sloat was writing to commend the city and to say how pleased she was by its responsive service.

This type of service should come as no surprise any longer. City Manager Mary Suhm, the best thing to ever happen to this city, has stressed customer service from every city department. This is not lip service. Customer service is something she demands, insists on from every city employee.

But it obviously surprises the headline writers on the editorial page of the Morning News. The headline one of them wrote for this letter was "Shocked at prompt city service." The word the author of the letter used to describe her reaction was "impressed," which, to my mind at least, means something other than "shocked." A more accurate headline would have been "Pleased by prompt city service."

As someone who spent 16 years as a reporter/writer/editor for a major news service and the Dallas Morning News, I used to try to defend the media against charges of bias. But stunts like this headline on this letter make such defenses far more difficult.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Andrea Bogart: A star is born

Thirty-two years ago, a 29-year-old blonde beauty named Farrah Fawcett was doing television commercials for Noxema shaving cream and Wella Balsam shampoo and you could see a star being born. This woman, whom I knew as a beehive hairdo sporting Tri Delt at the University of Texas, had it. A short time after filming those TV spots, freelance photographer Bruce McBroom shot some pictures of Farrah by the side of her pool at her California home, using a Indian blanket that covered his car seat as the backdrop. The resulting poster made Farrah an icon.

I was reminded of Farrah Fawcett and her exposure in those TV commercials as I watched Andrea Bogart, the blonde in the Taco Bell commercial in which her friend attracts men with the scent of bacon. Unlike Farrah at this stage, Andrea has already appeared in a number of television shows, including "Monk," "Crossing Jordan" and "CSI: New York." She also had some revealing (i.e., nude) scenes in a movie called "Dark Ride." But I have the feeling it's going to be the Taco Bell spot that is going to launch a successful career for the nearly 31-year-old Ms. Bogart.

I'll tell you this much: If she makes a poster, I'm buying.

And then there were six

Why is it that the current members of the Dallas City Council can't make a decision? Today the Trinity River Corridor Committee of the Council, led by Chief Wimp David Neumann, was supposed to narrow the list of 10 recommended new names for Industrial Boulevard to three. You could spot the indecisiveness rising immediately when someone on the committee objected to just three names and instead moved it be expanded to four. That, of course, was approved. Heaven forbid, these folks should exert some leadership, for heavens sake.

So they placed all 10 names across the top of a white board and asked each council member to write their names on three sticky notes and affix them under the names they preferred. When that exercise was finished, two names led in the voting and four others tied for third with four votes each.

Now why he didn't ask them to rank their votes is beyond me. But that would have required some thinking and decision-making on the part of the council members and we shouldn't be forcing them to take actions like that, should we?

So Neumann now asked each member of the committee to vote for two names from the four that were tied. What happened? All four tied again. But instead of asking the committee members to vote again, but this time for just one of the four -- in other words forcing them to actually make a decision -- he wimped out and said, lets submit all six names.

The six are Cesar Chavez Boulevard (which was favored by most of the citizens who came to speak before the committee wasted everyone's time with their non-vote), Eddie Bernice Johnson Boulevard, Riverfront Boulevard, Trinity Lakes Boulevard, Trinityview Boulevard and Waterfront Boulevard.

I have already expressed my opinions on the proposed names so I won't go into all that again, but I must admit I am disappointed (although not totally surprised) by the non-actions of this council committee today. What happens now is anyone's guess. Supposedly the public -- that's you and me -- will have a chance to express our opinions by a yet-to-be-announced polling system. How that will work and, more importantly, how "ballot stuffing" will be prohibited, has not been revealed. I can predict right now that none of the six will receive a majority of the votes, so what happens then? A runoff? And will those vote really even matter? I already said the majority of the citizens speaking before the vote favored Cesar Chavez, but second was Stevie Ray Vaughan Boulevard and that didn't make the committee's cut. I realize I'm being a little facetious here, but this whole process is becoming just as silly.

The City Council is supposed to make a decision June 25. That ought to be good for a couple of chuckles as well.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Rethinking the Mavs-Hornets series

For what it's worth, I'm thinking the Dallas Mavericks looked better against the New Orleans Hornets than the world champion San Antonio Spurs have in their first two games of the second round series. Advancing age appears to be catching up to the lads from the Alamo City. OK, the Mavs lost game No. 2 by 24 points, but at least they scored 103 against the Hornets in that game. The Spurs have yet to break the 90-point barrier in this series.

Marvel Entertainment blasts off

Marvel Entertainment is wasting no time capitalizing on the success of "Iron Man," the second biggest three-day release for a non-sequel in the history of Hollywood. Marvel Studios today announced its plans for the 2010 and 2011 summer seasons and, of course, it includes the "Iron Man" sequel which is scheduled for release on April 30, 2010.

But that's not all. Not by a long shot. It will release "Thor," about five weeks later, on June 4, 2010. However, the conglomerate is really pulling out all the stops for the following summer. First up is "Captain America," scheduled to come out on May 6, 2011, and in July it will unveil "The Avengers," which is supposed to feature Iron Man, Hulk, Thor and Captain America in one film.

I'm thinking, however, that someone other than Ed Norton may be playing the Hulk's tame side in the new version.

Cinco de Mayo

I'm trying to bury my cynicism here. I have been finding all this anti-immigrant hysteria sweeping our country to be absolutely distasteful and against everything the American spirit stands for. I could argue that the Pilgrims entered this country illegally, but what's the point.

I also find it distasteful that so many business owners and political leaders who are at the forefront of this anti-immigrant crusade now rush to embrace such holidays at today's Cinco de Mayo celebrations, which, if nothing else, is a day to celebrate the ties between the United States and Mexico, not an excuse for stores to advertise 10 percent off sales. Cinco de Mayo, as Rep. Joe Baca of California points out in this interesting story, is celebrated more in the United States than it is in Mexico.

Perhaps we would all be a lot better off if we didn't celebrate Cinco de Mayo, but, instead, honored what the day is supposed to represent.

Why I'm warming up to Rick Carlisle

When word leaked out that the Dallas Mavericks were in negotiations with Rick Carlisle to be the team's new head coach I was less than enthused. My main problem with Carlisle was his reputation as another defensive specialist whose Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons teams consistently ranked at or near the bottom in offensive categories. Nothing against defense, mind you -- I am aware of the philosophy that offense sells tickets and defense wins championships. But I wanted someone with more of a balance, someone who stressed defense but also had an innovative scheme when it came to offense as well, someone to exploit the talents of Dirk Nowitzki, Josh Howard (or whomever we get for him in a trade), Jason Terry and Jason Kidd. I thought the Mavs might be moving too quickly in their pursuit of Carlisle, that perhaps they should wait until after the playoffs were over to see if there was a bench coach out there somewhere who could become a star head coach with the Mavs.

But the more I think about it, the more a Coach Carlisle sounds appealing. For one thing, he drastically improved Detroit and Indiana after becoming their coach (although Detroit's won-loss record declined each year after his first). But I'm not sure Carlisle ever had the offensive weapons with those two teams that he can have with the Mavs. So perhaps all those offensive statistics are misleading. Finally, one of my problems with former coach Avery Johnson was that he stuck to his system of running isolation plays after the team acquired Kidd instead of moving to a motion offense that would take advantage of Kidd's abilities. Carlisle, on the other hand, has always employed a motion offense. As for the idea of elevating a current assistant coach at a team currently in the playoffs: The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that the Mavs are too veteran a team to entrust to a first-time head coach. NBA coaches should begin their head coaching careers with younger teams, like Seattle or Portland.

Upon further review, Carlisle seems to be the best available among those with head coaching experience. Mike D'Antoni couldn't win a title at Phoenix with better players than he would have with the Mavericks. Besides, if he leaves the Suns, he should probably go to the Eastern Conference. And if D'Antoni does leave, you can bet that Phoenix will go after Carlisle, if he's available, and, given the choice, I'm betting 99.999 percent of all coaching candidates would choose Phoenix over Dallas. For the life of me, I can't see what anyone sees in Flip Saunders. His teams seem to win in spite of him during the regular season and then consistently fold in the playoffs. He is the most overrated coach in the NBA.

So go ahead, Mark, negotiate with Carlisle. Better yet, sign him.

Now, speaking of trades, has anyone else heard rumors of a Dallas-Denver deal that would involve the Mavs sending Howard, Erik Dampier, Brandon Bass and Deaven George to Denver for Kenyon Martin and Carmelo Anthony?

"Iron Man" strong, but "Baby Mama" collapses


By PHILIP WUNTCH
Film Critic Emeritus

Let's first answer the most obvious question: Yes, it's as good as you've heard.

"Iron Man" stylishly rejuvenates the comic-book-superhero genre. But its success goes deeper than superficial style. The visually inventive film also has wit, heart and, rare for this increasingly paper-thin genre, strong elements of suspense. You know Iron Man will triumph over various forms of adversity, but how he manages it is always intriguing.

Marvel Comics, which produced the film, initiated the ironclad superhero in 1963. But by now, even non-Marvel connoisseurs know that the astonishing iron outfit hides the identity of billionaire Tony Stark, a sassy amalgam of Howard Hughes and Hugh Hefner.

Onetime boy-genius Stark now faces middle-age as a boozy womanizer. Upon his father's death, he inherited a vast munitions empire and enjoys being known as "the merchant of death." He gets ironic comeuppance when kidnapped by Afghanistan insurgents who favor Stark Industries weaponry. (Back in '63, the baddies were Viet Cong). His abductors order him to build a new weapon that will turn their leader into "the next Genghis Khan." Instead, the wily Stark invents a iron suit with enough hi-tech gadgetry to allow him to escape their evil grasp.

Upon returning home, he decides to use his personal skills and financial means to make the world a better place. Such a noble change of heart does not please his second-in-command, Obadiah Stain, the silken epitome of corporate greed.

With Tony Stark/Iron Man in virtually every scene, much of the film's success rests on Robert Downey Jr.'s performance, and he underacts magnificently. RDJ, as the smart kids now call him, knows exactly when to curb the histrionics. He succeeds at being sarcastic but not snide and blase but not boring. Even more difficult, upon his reformation, he's earnest but not stodgy.

His physicality, so memorable in the sometimes drab "Chaplin," receives an even more demanding work-out here, and he never falters. He's equally deft with throwaway comic lines, a skill also showcased in last year's unappreciated "Zodiac."

Like any blockbuster, "Iron Man" benefits many careers. For Gwyneth Paltrow, a strong supporting role proves a savvy career move. A post-"Shakespeare in Love" backlash penalized Paltrow for becoming an icon too quickly. But as Pepper Potts, Stark's loyal, intuitive Girl Friday, she delivers a warm and frequently glowing performance that should win new fans. The largely silent romantic moments between Paltrow and Downey have real chemistry.

For years, Jeff Bridges has joked about his curse of giving strong performances in films that failed to attract large audiences. "Iron Man" will vanquish that curse. As duplicitous Obadiah Stane, Bridges' has shorn his wavy locks of hair, which renders his armory of facial reactions all the more emphatic, while his natural, easygoing manner turns Obadiah into a truly deceptive menace. Terrence Howard does a good-sport turn as Stark's Pentagon liaison Rhodey, among the first to learn Iron Man's identity.

A primary beneficiary of "Iron Man"'s victory is director Jon Favreau, whose previous films only hinted at his current milestone. "Elf" was a surprise hit and indicated his skill at playful human interaction. "Made," an indie success, gave evidence of an edgier perspective. But "Zathura: A Space Adventure" proved once again that big budgets do not always mean big movies.

However, working with "Iron Man"'s immense crew, Favreau maneuvers terrific chases, soaring dogfights and imaginative escapes. The final showdown between Iron Man and Iron Monger, which some have dismissed as anti-climactic, is actually a splendid display of action strategy.

Like his star, Favreau proves equally skillful with intimate vignettes, and Stark's one-on-one scenes with friends and foes manipulate the viewer in all the right ways.

I saw "Iron Man" over the weekend with a paying audience. Although it had only been showing for two days, several moviegoers said it was their second or third time to watch the film. As for me, I can't wait to see it again.

"MAMA" PROBLEMS: "Baby Mama," this week's feel-good comedy, collapses in its third act.

Prior to that catastrophe, you can enjoy the performances of Tina Fey as a 37-year-old businesswoman who unsuccessful strives to have a baby, Amy Poehler as the brassy high-school dropout who agrees to be the baby's surrogate mother and Dax Shepard as Poehler's redneck common-law husband.

And you'll delight in the inspired comic antics of Sigourney Weaver as a patronizing surrogacy expert and Steve Martin as Fey's boss, a health-food tycoon who fancies himself a New Age guru.

So what goes wrong with "Baby Mama"? Greg Kinnear does. From his opening scene, his role as a small-time fruit smoothie entrepreneur is an obvious plot device, and Kinnear's smug performance helps not at all. As written, directed and acted, Kinnear's good-guy character leaves a hollow after-taste. And so, I am afraid, does the movie.

First-time director/screenwriter Michael McCullers balances his clunky direction with sharp dialogue for as much as 60 percent of the film. But once the action shifts to Kinnear's fruit-smoothie king, everything tanks.

But do plan on seeing "Iron Man" twice.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

"Visitor" mixes human comedy with human drama while "Sarah" is a hoot


By PHILIP WUNTCH
Film Critic Emeritus


Having enjoyed and -- dare I say it? -- even adored director Thomas McCarthy's first film "The Station Agent," I approached "The Visitor" with mild trepidation. Second films have a way of disappointing both filmmaker and filmgoer.

Such hesitation proves happily unfounded. "The Visitor" may not be as immediately huggable as "The Station Agent." But ultimately it's even more provocative and memorable.

Some pundits have labeled the movie a post-9/11 political treatise regarding illegal aliens. But that's only a small fraction of the film's mosaic. It's basically a story of the reawakening of human emotion and the redemptive powers of friendship. Some of its plot twists are forecast as much as an hour before they develop, but director/screenwriter McCarthy's uncanny observation of human behavior makes them flow with natural ease.

Walter Vale, a disenchanted global economics professor played to perfection by veteran character actor Richard Jenkins, provides an initially grim centerpiece. He's the sort of prof students and even colleagues dislike. Unfailingly polite but always dismissive, the widowed Walter mentions his grown son only in passing. With no patience for any shortcomings other than his own, he seems to deserve his own loneliness.

His mundane existence undergoes a drastic change when he leaves his Connecticut campus for a brief visit to a Greenwich Village apartment he once shared with his wife. He finds it occupied by a Syrian musician named Tarek and Tarek's Senegalese girlfriend Zainab. Both are illegal aliens. Walter connects quickly yet convincingly with extroverted charmer Tarek and eventually with the more reluctant Zainab. Most importantly, he bonds with Tarek's devoted mother Mouna.

Tarek teaches Walter to play drums, which provides the emotionally dormant professor a joyous means of self-expression. But Tarek is unjustly arrested and faces deportation when his illegal status is discovered.

Jenkins is probably best-known as a patriarchal ghost in "Six Feet Under" although "Flirting With Disaster" fans will recognize him as the gay FBI agent who gets a hilarious heroin high. "The Visitor" should be his breakthrough movie. Walter being a man of few words, Jenkins exquisitely captures his body English. His facial features have the stillness appropriate for a man unaccustomed to smiling, but even his blankest stares become a mode of communication.

All the performances are superb. Hiam Abbass, fondly remembered from "The Syrian Bride," is a model of powerful understatement as the resolute, proud Mouna, and her relationship with Walter is lovely to behold. The character of warm-hearted Tarek could easily be overplayed, but Haaz Sleiman never strikes a false note, while Danai Jekesai Gurira registers each layer of Zainab's often unspoken emotions. The film is so well-cast that Marian Seldes, one of Edward Albee's favorite stage actresses, gives a sharp performance as a dour piano teacher.

"The Visitor" is a profoundly moving mixture of human comedy and human drama. And always the emphasis is on "human."

ABOUT "SARAH MARSHALL": "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" is one cheery, likable movie that, for the most part, manages to be cheery and likable without insulting your intelligence.

It's a comedy of the disasters that befall Peter Bretter (Jason Segel) when he's dumped by Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell), the star of a dumbed-down CSI-type television show. (William Baldwin does a hilarious cameo as her co-star.)

Since Peter is the composer of the TV show's music, every working moment reminds him of Sarah. To forget the titular character and find time to work on his long-gestating rock opera based on the Dracula legends, he heads for Hawaii. It's typical of his luck that he winds up at the same hotel where Sarah vacations with new lover, British rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand).

If that sounds like a lame premise, it is. But the screenplay, written by Segel, has an abundance of sharp dialogue and realistically constructed characters. Novice director Nicholas Stoller has a sometimes ponderous sense of pacing, but he's clearly an actor-friendly helmer who knows how to respect a solid screenplay. He draws outstanding performances from a cast familiar to couch potatoes.

"How I Met Your Mother"'s Segel plays yet another variation of that current comedy craze, the protagonist who fails to navigate the seas of romance. Although Peter occasionally resembles the characters immortalized by the young Woody Allen, Segel gives his own touch to the comic mishaps. The screenplay also calls for him to be caught literally with his pants down, familiarizing audiences with Peter's male appendage.

Mila Kunis, known from "Family Guy" and "That '70s Show," enchants both Peter and the audience as a warm hotel employee, while Bell never tries to soften Sarah's self-absorption. Brand is consistently hilarious as Sarah's new main man, whose deceptive friendliness to hapless Peter provides some clever moments. But as Peter's bossy stepbrother, "Saturday Night Live"'s Bill Hader overcompensates for having the screenplay's least developed role.

"Forgetting Sarah Marshall" is, more often than not, a lark and frequently a hoot.

Goodbye (?) TV Guide

As a kid, I collected TV Guide covers. I don't recall if I had the very first one, a photograph of Lucille Ball and her son Desi Arnaz Jr., published on April 3, 1953, but I had most of them from around that time. TV Guide cost 15 cents a week and was indispensable. My mother made sure she purchased a copy during each week's shopping trip to the grocery store. Later, when I became an adult, I subscribed to the magazine. To this day, I have no idea where exactly Radnor, Pa., is located, but I know I sent a lot of subscription checks there. Apparently, so did a lot of other people. TV Guide consistently ranked with Readers' Digest as the magazine with the highest circulation in America.

TV Guide was owned by Triangle Publications which also published another newspaper that was to become indispensable to me as well, The Daily Racing Form. Triangle also owned 16 radio and television stations, one of which, WFIL-TV in Philadelphia, was the birthplace of American Bandstand. Triangle eventually sold TV Guide, the Racing Form and another popular publication (never read by me, however), Seventeen, to the News America Corporation in the late 1980s.

By that time, however, TV Guide had become largely irrelevant. The introduction of cable began to spell the end for the publication. Cable companies listed their own guides within their systems, available through remotes. The amount and diversity of programming offered via cable made it difficult on print guides. While TV Guide's circulation in 1970 hovered around 20 million, by last year it was down to three million.

Which is probably why its current owner, Macrovision, has recently fired the magazine's editor-in-chief, its two managing editors and its entire marketing department. From what I've been told, in the deal in which Macrovision purchased Gemstar (the makers of the VCR Plus) for its digital technology, Macrovision didn't even know Gemstar was throwing in TV Guide as a part of the deal. Some folks are telling me they'd be surprised if TV Guide lasts another month, but are certain it will be gone by the end of the year.

As for those covers, I have no idea where they disappeared to. Right now, I wish I did.

Friday, May 2, 2008

When suddenly all hell broke loose

It probably didn't help that I was watching a documentary about the Japanese conquest of Nanking in 1937 when I heard the faint sound of popping outside my door and the dog started barking. By the time I got to my front door, the explosions were plentiful. I went outside and saw the dark eastern sky brightened by fireworks. Then I heard cheering, as though a town was being liberated and chimes ringing out.

I started go head back for my front door, when the fireworks display started again. I could tell now all this was coming from the grounds of Richland College which sits directly to the east of the townhome development I call home. By the time I got to a clearing where I had a view of the campus, the fireworks had stopped.

It's times like these that the Internet comes in very handy. I Googled Richland College and learned that if I clicked on a link I could watch the schools graduation live. I figured I had already watched as much of it live as I cared to.

As I write this, peace has returned to the neighborhood.

The Bridge On the River Trinity

Blame it on the fact that I had nothing better to do, but I was looking for something on the City of Dallas' Web site (didn't find it) and ran across a page that purports to show the construction progress on one of the Calatrava bridges across the Trinity. There are 10 pictures on this page and I could not find any difference among the 10. Perhaps better eyes than mine can spot what's going on here, but to me it looks like the City still has Col. Nicholson locked up in The Hole.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The worst thing that ever happened to the Mavericks

Vince Young had no choice. The Texas quarterback had to turn pro when he did, after his junior year. He had just come off the greatest performance ever by a collegiate football player in single-handedly willing his team to the National Championship in a stunning Rose Bowl upset of mighty reigning champions Southern California, the same USC team that had mauled Oklahoma 55-19, in a game that wasn't even as close as that score suggests, the year before. The only real difference between the USC team Texas played and the one that crushed OU was that the 2005 squad had one more year of experience.

As spectacular as Young's performance was in that game, it would then be set as the standard for Young to measure against the following season. It's unfair, but that's the reality. I doubt if I'll ever see another performance to equal that one. I know I've never seen one in my lifetime of watching college football games. I'm not going to tell you how long that lifetime has been, but I will say, in the very first college football game I saw in person, Rice quarterback King Hill threw a touchdown pass to end Buddy Dial to hand the Bear Bryant-coached Texas Aggies their only loss of that season. (Look it up.)

Young would never have a game to equal the one he played the evening of Jan. 4, 2006. But that's what he would be measured against and when he failed to achieve that level the questions would arise "What's wrong with Vince Young? Why has he gone downhill?"

I bring all this up because the Dallas Mavericks are facing a similar problem. Two years ago they were up two games to nil in the NBA finals and leading going into the fourth quarter of game No. 3. But, of course, they lost that one, the next three and the title. To this day there are those (Maverick owner Mark Cuban leads this cabal) who claims the title was stolen from the Mavericks through some conspiracy.

The fact that the Mavericks made the finals that year was a fluke. In fact, I want to thank Morning News Mavericks columnist David Moore for reminding me that the Mavericks got to the title series by beating a Phoenix Suns team that was playing without Amare Stoudemire.

Unfortunately, being in the NBA finals, a place this Mavericks team doesn't belong, is now held as the standard, much the same way as Vince Young's Rose Bowl performance would have been held up as the standard for him. And the fact that Avery Johnson was coaching that team two years ago (never mind he inherited it three quarters of the way through the season) was held as the standard for him.

Don't worry. I'm not going to be arguing that Avery was unfairly dismissed. Far from it. I've been questioning Avery as head coach since he lost to that inferior Miami team just because he couldn't or wouldn't alter his defensive system to find a way to make the game tougher for Dwayne Wade.

What I'm concerned about is all this talk about what changes the Mavericks must make during this offseason to win a championship. Well, there's a very simple answer to that. All the Mavericks have to do is switch rosters with the Boston Celtics, and even that wouldn't be a guarantee. It's also not going to happen, of course, so get over it.

This Mavericks team is not going to compete for a Western Conference championship, let alone an NBA title. In fact, I can't see how a Mavericks team in the next five years, at least, will be able to compete. They simply don't have the personnel and there is no way they are going to be able to get that personnel, especially since they are so far over the salary cap they can't even compete on the free agent market.

To expect the Mavericks to reach that level -- back into the NBA title picture -- is expecting too much. But here's what I would like the Mavericks to strive for:

1. Be competitive. Be a team that rarely, if ever, gets blown out of a game, a team that every other team in the NBA is concerned about defeating, a team that protects its home court and wins at least a third of its road games.

2. A team that consistently makes the playoffs. All that means is that the Mavs are among the eight best teams in the Western Conference and that doesn't seem to be too much to ask. I would also like them to win at least their first playoff series each year and, if they don't, at least take it to seven games. But never, ever, lose to a lower-seeded team, unless it's a close 4-5 seed matchup.

3. Be entertaining. This, to me, is the most important element of all. My one overriding problem with Avery Johnson, the main reason I'm glad he's gone, was he had made the Mavericks a comparatively dull team to watch. There was no fire to the team. There was no spunk. But, above all, there was no excitement, no flamboyancy, nothing that consistently got the fans at the AAC to leap out of their seats. Say what you want about Mike D'Antoni, that his style of basketball doesn't produce championships, but, man, those Phoenix Suns teams are fun to watch and they are always competitive.

Those are the three things I want the Mavericks to strive for in the immediate future. An NBA championship is unrealistic. The next time, if that time ever comes, a Mavericks team plays for a title I absolutely guarantee you that not one member of the current team will be on that title-contending roster.

But at least we can have some fun and watch some exciting basketball in the meantime.

Implosion at the Wall Street Journal

I've never thought of the Wall Street Journal as a "fun" read. It can be informative but I'm one of those who will reach for the New York Times and the Washington Post before I grab a WSJ.

But things are starting to get interesting over at the staid paper since it was acquired by Rupert Murdoch. People are even beginning to question the motives of a former managing editor who married a woman 25 years his junior, a woman who started her own blog because "I'm so sick of being admired for my keen mind and dazzling personality. It's about time people started loving me for my body." Now that's not the kind of thing one associates with the WSJ.

Last week I was hearing rumors about Murdoch trying to purchase Newsday with the intent of combining it with the WSJ to ultimately run my beloved NYT out of town. I would fall back on the old cliche "Bigger men that you have tried that," but, in this case, I don't believe that's true.

But who knew that the best media soap opera would come from the internal maneuverings going on at the Wall Street Journal?

Does this mean we'll finally get the NFL Channel

Not that I'm holding my breath, or anything. I know this is probably sacrilege in football-crazy Dallas, Texas, but I can get along very well without the NFL Channel. Just don't deprive me of the Fox Soccer Channel, especially with the Manchester United-Chelsea match for the European Championship on the horizon. First time in history, two English football (that's right, football) teams are meeting for the title.

But I'm getting a little off the main subject, here. When I first heard about this, being that Time Warner Cable is the provider of cable television service to much of the civilized world hereabouts, I was worried the result might be a reduction in service in some ways. But the interesting part of this report, to me, was in the last paragraph that suggests this was another case of the corporate tail wagging the dog.

I'm feeling a little better about this whole deal.