Friday, February 27, 2009

Let the spinning wheel spin, or another reason to favor a convention center hotel

Because of crap like this and this, there is one Republican, namely the one sitting in the governor's chair, that can't be out of office soon enough (before he comes up with another toll road corridor). Because of neat moves like this, however, there are Republicans like State Senator John Carona that are doing things right. Mr. Carona is sponsoring legislation that, if passed, would allow Texans to go to the polls in November to vote on having Vegas-type (or, for you right handed folks, Atlantic City-type) casinos right here in Texas. Where in Texas? Well, there would be 12 of 'em, located in Austin, Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, South Padre Island and two right here in Dallas, one of which would be located downtown (presumably at the spot where Reunion Arena is about to be torn down.)

Now I don't know about you, but a casino located just a chip's throw away from the Dallas Convention Center suddenly makes the proposed Convention Center Hotel an even more attractive option. A casino there would also go a long way toward the complete revitalization of the West End.

What might be fun is guessing where a second one might go. I'm leaning toward the Fair Park area for two reasons: 1. I want that area to develop into more of an entertainment destination with attractions happening inside Fair Park year-around (plus it would be near the new DART Green Line) and 2. It would further enhance the city's commitment to revitalizing the southern sector of the city.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

There's no such thing as clean coal

I understand this public service announcement comes to us courtesy of tge Coen Brothers.

Another two-newspaper city bites the dust

The Rocky Mountain News has announced it will publish its final edition tomorrow.

"Denver can't support two newspapers any longer," Scripps (the paper's owners) CEO Rich Boehne told staffers in a noontime announcement today. "It's certainly not good news for you, and it's certainly not good news for Denver."

The Rocky Mountain News, founded in 1859, has won four Pulitzers and earlier this week its sports section was named one of the 10 best in the country.

Last December Boehne said he was trying to find a buyer for the newspaper. Apparently there was interest from one out-of-state party, but when it learned it would cost $100 million on top of the purchase price just to stay afloat, the potential purchaser backed out. The Rocky Mountain News has had a joint operating agreement with the Denver Post for the last seven-plus years. That agreement was more inclusive than the one between the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star Telegram. The Denver model shared all business services -- advertising to printing -- while the local papers, as far as I know, are only sharing editorial content.

"I certainly feel that all of (us) did what we could to make this paper successful, and I want to thank you for that," Rocky Mountain News Editor John Temple told the staff. "To me, this is the very sad end of a beautiful thing."

Next up it appears that papers in Seattle and Tuscon, which are also operating with joint operating agreements, will shut down and word is out that the Hearst corporation is seriously considering closing the hallowed San Francisco Chronicle.

First he takes Manhattan, then Grand Prairie

"Leonard Cohen kept returning to the stance of a supplicant at the Beacon Theater on Thursday night, dropping to one knee, or both, to intone his wry and ruminative songs. At the same time, he basked in the rapture of the crowd, artfully courting adulation. His mix of humility and sovereignty felt effortless, entirely true to form. And it girded the concert, his first in the United States in 15 years, with a vibrant and effective tension."

"Mr. Cohen, 74, left little room for disappointment in a show that lasted just over three hours (with an intermission) and featured more than two dozen songs. The evening doubled as a preview, coming with the eagerly anticipated announcement of a North American tour this spring."

That North American tour has since been announced and the second stop on that tour will be at the Nokia Theater in Grand Prairie. Tickets go on sale tomorrow. "Everybody knows" you should break out your "famous blue raincoat" and see a concert I feel relatively safe in saying won't be coming this way ever again.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

It's simply great mate waiting on the levee

I received the following e-mail blast today from City Council member Angela Hunt:

"I was very concerned to see that the U.S. Corps of Engineers have deemed the safety of Dallas' levees 'unacceptable.' The Corps revised their safety standards after the Katrina tragedy, and re-evaluated Dallas' levees under this new system. They announced the results of their review yesterday.

"I was surprised that our levees failed to meet the new standards since the Mayor just got back from lobbying our Congressional delegation to pressure the Corps into speeding up their safety evaluation of the Trinity toll road, which is to be built within the levees. If you've been following this issue, you know that no major road like this has ever been built within a levee system. Knowing that our levees do not meet the Corps' new safety standards, I think it's irresponsible to lobby the Corps to speed up what should be a thoughtful, deliberate safety review of an untested engineering design like the toll road. Rushing to pour millions of tons of concrete into an already unsafe levee system is a dangerous plan that could have dire consequences.

"In light of the Corps' safety analysis, it is clear that we need to fix our levees NOW. Not next year, not five years from now, not after a catastrophic flood, but today. But the toll road is holding up our levee improvements. We fix all the safety problems with our levees until the design of this toll road is completed. As long as the toll road is part of the equation, all those parts have to be built to work together, and if we don't have the design for the road, we can't plan the design for the levees, and we certainly can't start fix them.

"The fact is, this toll road project is dead. There's no funding for it. Despite the Mayor's assurances during the Trinity referendum to the contrary, the NTTA just admitted that the toll road is facing a billion dollar funding shortfall. If the Corps is allowed to do their job without political manipulation, the toll road will likely face even more delays as a result of their new safety review. If we continue on this course, if we ignore the obvious warning signs and stubbornly plow ahead, the safety needs of our levees will continue to languish and be held hostage by this white elephant of a toll road for years to come. The dirt will not fly. The Mayor's 2013 deadline for toll road completion will come and go, the toll road cost will double again, and the funding gap will increase exponentially. In another ten years, 2019, future city officials will reluctantly admit that putting the toll road between the levees is not a viable, fundable option. The toll road will finally die with a whimper, and we will have wasted twenty years and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars without the levee improvements we so desperately need. It's time to change course and admit today that this toll road won't work, and find a better way to address our transportation needs without delaying or compromising the safety of our flood levees."

I wish I could share Ms. Hunt's view that the toll road project is dead. I distinctly heard City Manager Mary Suhm tell the Dallas City Council today "The toll road will be built" and the money is available to construct it. I'm not sure where she is coming from, but when she is that sure about something, she is correct 99.99 percent of the time.

I also don't think, like writers from the Advocate and the Observer seem to think, that this assessment from the Corps of Engineers kills the road. This just says there are problems with the levees along the Trinity that need to be rectified. This, to me, is more like someone who wants to repaint his frame house but then discovers there's some rotten wood in parts that needs to be replaced. So, before he repaints his house, he needs to replace the rotting wood. The Corps this time around is simply telling the city to replace the rotting wood in its levees before doing anything else. But the Corps didn't tell the City -- at least, not yet -- it can't repaint its house.

I do, however, emphatically agree that the soundness of our levees is more important than any other part of the Trinity River Corridor Project -- any part, including the toll road, the bird sanctuary, the soccer fields, the fake lakes, the Calatrava bridges, anything. In my wildest imagination, I can't foresee a Katrina-like catastrophe happening here, but, then, I'll bet many people in New Orleans never foresaw it happening there either. Bringing the levees up to standard must be Priority No. 1 for the Trinity River Corridor Project and I would hope the City Council would refuse to approve any other parts of the project until the levee problem is fixed to the Corps' satisfaction.

The high cost of killing

An organization called the Urban Institute has found that it cost states and average of $3 million to prosecute a death penalty case compared to $1.1 million for a case where the death penalty is not sought. That's why many states are considering abolishing the death penalty -- not out of humanitarian concerns but out of financial ones. Moves are underway to cut costs by abolishing the death penalty in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and New Hampshire. Bills abolishing the death penalty now have an excellent chance of passage in Maryland, Montana and New Mexico.

Capital cases are expensive because the trials tend to take longer, they typically require more lawyers and more costly expert witnesses, and they are far more likely to lead to multiple appeals. Studies also found that most of these cases end up with the defendant receiving a life sentence anyway. In the last 20 years in Maryland, for example, prosecutors sought the death penalty 162 times. Of those, only five were executed and five more are awaiting execution.

A bill has been introduced in Colorado that would abolish the death penalty and use the savings to create a cold-case unit to investigate the state's 1,400 unsolved murders.

Texas faces budget problems as well but knowing its penchant for killing people -- dispensing frontier justice in these more civilized times -- I doubt if we have enough clear thinking lawmakers to bring this topic up for serious discussion.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The shot heard round the NBA world

Former (lamentably) Dallas Maverick Devin Harris delivers a miracle for the Nets to defeat the 76ers last night. (I will continue to do anything I can to remind the world that this trade was a miserable mistake for the Mavericks.)

Plastic shopping bags revisited

A month or so ago the Dallas City Council played around with the idea of trying to live up to the city's self-proclaimed boast of being "green" by imposing some sort of limits on those insidious plastic bags found at most grocers and many retail stores. The ideas ranged from an outright ban to imposing a charge for each bag. The New York Times has a story today about how those ideas are being discussed in many cities all over the country, ranging from a vote in Seattle in August on whether to levy a 20-cent-per-bag charge on consumers to a proposal from New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to charge five cents a bag. (The city of San Francisco has banned plastic bags.) Here is the "nut graph" of the story:

"Some officials say they fear a public backlash if they were to raise fees in an economic downturn; others say governments need the revenue now more than ever. Still others say a cleaner environment, not revenue, is their only goal."

I'm thinking it's time Dallas revisit the idea of levying a tax on each of these bags used by consumers (that would be added to the bill at checkout). For one thing it could generate revenue the city apparently sorely needs. For another, it could put Dallas at the forefront of environmental sensitivity. Here's the deal: If consumers feel the charge is too much of a hardship on them, they can switch to reusable bags like the one pictured above left -- bags many of us use already.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Oscar complaints

Only two really. The first is the fact that this song wasn't even nominated and the second is that "Waltz With Bashir" didn't win the documentary award. The manner in which the documentary Oscar is decided needs to be changed. There are approximately 5,100 voting members in the Academy, but less than 10 percent of them get to vote in the documentary category.

Next year's Oscars and last night's show

All the Oscars for 2008 have been handed out, so what's in store for the future? Kristopher Tapley, who's a keen observer on this subject, already has his charts in place for 2009's contenders and he likes the chances for Clint Eastwood's film on Nelson Mandela and Morgan Freeman's for playing the former South African leader.

However, before we get too far away from this year's Oscars I would like to add my two cents about last night's show, which, to me was one of the best ever. The highlights included Hugh Jackman's opening number, particularly the surprising duet with Ann Hathaway; Tina Fey's hilarious interchange with Steve Martin, the only time in the history of the Oscar telecast that banter between presenters has actually worked (I wouldn't be a bit surprised if they had written this bit themselves); and Judd Apatow's film that reviewed the comedies of 2008. But the best bit was the manner in which the acting awards were announced, with five previous winners of the award in question handing out tributes to each of the nominees. That is a feature I hope becomes a permanent part of all future Oscar shows.

Indy's Joaquin is funnier than Stiller's

Many viewers probably saw Ben Stiller's take on Joaquin Phoenix during last night's Oscar telecast, but fewer may have realized a similar bit was done the day before during the independent Spirit Awards and it was even funnier. Take a look for yourself.

Memo to Viet vets: Get over it

It's been 37 years now. You guys need to get a life. In her autobiography, she called it "a two-minute lapse of sanity." So give it a rest. You look like fools for doing this.

I yam what I yam

Let's make this clear, folks: a sweet potato is not the same thing as a yam. Sweet potatoes have an orange-ish skin, while yams have a yuckish brown skin. I think this is a southern thing, confusing yams with sweet potatoes, although, biologically, they are not even in the same family. The sweet potato is a member of the family Convolvulacae, while the yam is a member of the family Dioscoreaceae. But more important is that in cooking, sweet potatoes are far more preferable to the mealy yams.

Why is it, then, most grocery stores around here stock plenty of yams, but not sweet potatoes? Today I went out looking for sweet potatoes and could not find them at Kroger, Tom Thumb or Wal-Mart. They had plenty of yams, but no sweet potatoes. I finally went to where anyone serious about cooking should go, Central Market, and found exactly what I was looking for.

But I wish other grocery stores in this area would wake up to the fact that yams are not sweet potatoes and should never be used as a substitute for sweet potatoes when cooking something requiring sweet potatoes.

New movies to be released tomorrow on DVD

Chris & Don: A Love Story (2008) ***½ A fascinating documentary, one much better than its rather flat and unimaginative title.

The Haunting of Mary Hartley (2008) * The real shocker is how hellishly yawn-inducing this utterly pointless and forgettable Haunting turns out to be. It’s enough to make you scream.

Sex Drive (2008) ** It’s not "Sixteen Candles," but it’s not "Road Trip," either. Instead, this comedic car-trip riff on the teen-male libido and the lengths to which it will go to satisfy itself falls somewhere in between part endearing emo love story, part gross-out semen gag-fest, and, very occasionally, a smart, inspired, non-sequitur-laden hoot.

What Just Happened (2008) **½ An industry in-joke between director Barry Levinson and his friends, who just happen to be Hollywood’s heavy weights.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Oscar Picks

It's put up or shut up time. For the past couple of weeks, I have been listing my predictions on who will win what Oscar, but these picks have been pretty easy to make. (That's not to say they are correct, just easy). Now it's time to go through the entire list so everyone can see where I go wrong.

If any picture other than Slumdog Millionaire wins this it will be an even bigger shock than Brokeback Mountain not winning three years ago.

Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle won the Directors Guild award and, thus, he wins this Oscar as well.

Most argue this is a two-person race, but I think any one of three nominess could win this: Frank Langella for Frost/Nixon, Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler or Sean Penn for Milk. I'm going with Penn for the following reasons: 1. (and most important) He gave the best performance by an actor in a leading role; 2. He is the finest actor of his generation and this is a way for the Academy to acknowledge that fact; 3. If an actress as limited as Hilary Swank can win two acting Oscars within five years, certainly someone as great as Penn can win two in the same period of time; 4. Milk is the best of the three films; 5. I'm convinced more voters saw Penn's performance than the other two; 6. I don't think Rourke resonates well among women voters; and 7. Voters based in California (i.e., the majority of voters) will want to atone for the passage of Prop. 8.

Everyone says this is a two-person race between Kate Winslet for The Reader and Meryl Streep for Doubt. I think it is a two-person race between Winslet and Melissa Leo for Frozen River and an upset by Ms. Leo here would not surprise me in the least. But Winslet wants it badly, she's been campaigning for it like mad, and I think the Academy feels it owes her.

Supporting Actor
Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, of course (unless voters actually go with the best supporting performance and award Michael Shannon for Revolutionary Road, but I don't expect that to happen).

Supporting Actress
All the signs, all the precursors, all the odds point to a win by Penelope Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which is exactly why I'm going for the upset: Viola Davis for Doubt.

Original Screenplay
My heart says WALL-E and my head says Milk, and this time I'm going to go with my head.

Adapted Screenplay
Slumdog Millionaire in a walk

Foreign Language Film
Waltz With Bashir outduels The Class.

Documentary Feature
Man on Wire

Animated Film
Personally, I thought WALL-E was the best film of the year and it's a shame that this might be the only Oscar it will win.

Art Direction
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Slumdog Millionaire

Costume Design
The rule here is always go with the film with the most nominations which means The Curious Case of Benjamin Button should win this. However, this time I'm flaunting the rule and picking The Duchess.

Film Editing
Slumdog Millionaire

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Slumdog Millionaire

"Jai Ho" from Slumdog Millionaire in a close one over Peter Gabriel's "Down to Earth" from WALL-E

Sound Editing, Sound Mixing
These are two Oscars that WALL-E deserves to win and quite easily could win. But for some reason, the Academy, most of the time, doesn't go with the film that deserves to win in these categories, but the loudest film in these categories. Therefore, I'm picking The Dark Knight to take home these two Oscars.

Visual Effects
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Animated Short
I'm hearing rumors about a Pixar revolt and if that materializes then La Maison en Petits Cubes will win this, but my money's going to stay with Presto.

Live Action Short
Toyland (Spielzeugland)

Documentary Short
The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306

Friday, February 20, 2009

Turn it on, wind it up, blow it out GTO

The first new car I ever owned was a 1969 Pontiac GTO. All my cars before that one had been used, a '49 Chevy, a '52 Kaiser, a '55 Ford, and a '63 Ford. But that GTO was some stylin' car. Right after I bought it, my girlfriend at the time and I decided to make an extended car trip, triggered by the fact that we learned the original New York Cast of "Hair" (which included Diane Keaton) was moving to Los Angeles. I purchased a pair of opening week tickets and we planned our entire road trip around seeing "Hair."

That trip resulted in a number of firsts for me -- my first visits to the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, Las Vegas, the Hearst Castle and Salt Lake City. I remember driving the GTO north from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon thinking "I'm going a long way out of my way just to see a hole in the ground." That "hole" turned out to be one of the most awe-inducing sights I've ever seen and, as a result, I now make regular pilgrimages to the Grand Canyon.

Anyway, I thought about that adventure in that particular car today when I read this New York Times story about the demise of the Pontiac as a stand-alone GM division. The Pontiac used to be a great American car and I'm betting just about everyone over 50 has some kind of memories associated with a Pontiac. Can't honestly say I'm going to miss the Pontiac -- I really never thought of getting another one after that original GTO. But I will always remember my first new car and how it took me to my first Grand Canyon experience and to see Diane Keaton live and totally nude in "Hair."

"Take it out to Pomona and let 'em know that I'm the coolest thing around. Little buddy, gonna shut you down when I turn it on, wind it, blow it out GTO. Wa-Wa ....."

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Oscar Prediction: Live Action Short Film

Gov. Perry's Saran Wrap

Back in the mid-1960s, I was living in Austin, sharing an abode with my brother, his wife, some musicians and other miscreants. One day my sister-in-law marched into the house defiantly and announced that she had just learned that Dow Chemical was the manufacturer of the napalm being used to defoliate Vietnam. She announced to one and all that, from that day forward, the Oppel household would boycott all products manufactured by Dow Chemical Company.

A few minutes later she summoned me into the kitchen for a private conversation and asked me if, in fact, we used any products manufactured by Dow. I told her that. yes, she used a lot of Saran Wrap which, at that time, was a Dow product (after the chemical that prevented oxygen from permeating the wrap was removed due to environmental concerns, a less effective Saran Wrap was sold to Johnson & Johnson, which manufactures it today).

A few moments later, my equally defiant sister-in-law marched back into the living room and announced to one and all that from that day forward "I will continue to use Saran Wrap, but I won't like it very much."

I was reminded of that incident when I read this story in today's Dallas Morning News about Gov. Perry accepting Texas' share of the federal stimulus funds.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Oscar Predictions: Makeup

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" goes into this Oscar presentation with 13 nominations, the most of any motion picture. Regardless of what some have speculated, it's not going to pull an 0-for like "The Turning Point," "The Color Purple" and, most recently, "The Aviator," all of which had double-digit nominations, but came away empty-handed. "Benjamin" will end the evening with three Oscars. I have already said what two of them are and now this is the third and last one it will receive.

This also ends my slam dunk picks. The rest I'm not so confident in, but that, of course, won't stop me from trying to predict the outcome.

Advocate blows it big time

Don't get me wrong. I really do like and, more importantly, respect Rick Wamre, the publisher of the Advocate magazines and, in fact, consider him a friend. But this time he blew it.

In his February letter from the publisher, Wamre talked about visiting a neighborhood restaurant during lunch and, gasp!, the joint was practically empty. Wamre's solution was as simple as it was wrongheaded. He wrote:

"If you believe in the importance of small businesses as part of the fabric of our neighborhood, this is the time to prove it. The businesspeople who have their roots in our neighborhood, who hire our neighbors and who volunteer at our schools and churches need our help. Given a choice, if there was ever a time to shop locally, this is it. Because if we don’t, we could spend the next few years walking or driving by lots of empty storefronts that used to be staffed by people we know selling services and products we need."

For those of us who have found ourselves unemployed because of this financial mess and are struggling to make ends meet, such advice from someone fortunate enough to have enough to eat out on a regular basis is like receiving a couple of more knife wounds to an already stricken body. The last thing we need is for those with money telling those of us struggling during these times how to spend what we don't have.

Then to add more salt to the wounds, Advocate blogger Keri Mitchell compounds the error of Wamre's ways by telling us how we should all join in splurging for burgers and shakes in some corner of a wi-fi heaven she found in Lake Highlands. I felt like telling her where she could cram that wireless laptop of hers, but ...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Oscar Predictions: Animated Short

Perry the hypocrite

Gov. Perry is revealing his true hypocrite colors. He claims he is solidly against the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that President Obama signed into law today. He even came up with his own Web site featuring a bleeding American flag to rail against the stimulus program. Why? Because he wants to be able to run to the right of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the upcoming gubernatorial battle.

However, Perry has dispensed two of his top commissioners to the House Appropriations Committee to explain how the governor plans to use stimulus funds. HHSC Commissioner Albert Hawkins said the money will be needed for providing health care for Texas children and Education Commissioner Robert Scott told committee members that stimulus funds will be used to pay for textbooks that Republicans in the legislature have refused to fund for the last six years.

The man speaketh out of both sides of his political mouth.

DVDs downward spiral

Thirty years ago, box office receipts amounted to 55 percent of the worldwide revenue coming to movie studios. Today, box office accounts for only 20 percent of the pie and DVD sales account for a whopping 59 percent of studio revenues.

That's why the drastic decline in DVD sales is sending shocks through the industry. According to the trade magazine Variety, DVD sales dropped 11 percent last year. DVDs that were expected to perform well, such as "The Dark Knight" and the latest "Indiana Jones" all fell way below expectations. The obvious reason for this is the slumping ecomony but there are others who say it is more than that.

One culprit, interestingly, is Blue Ray, which has emerged as the winner in the high-definition DVD sweepstakes. Apparently, while the average consumer saw a major difference between videotapes and DVDs, they are not seeing the differences between regular DVDs and Blue Ray. The prices on regular DVDs are being discounted out of a belief more consumers are turning to Blue Ray, a turn that hasn't yet materialized. As a result, DVD revenues are down. It is also believed on-line downloading has cannibalized DVD sales.

So what does this mean? As far as I'm concerned, it's not a pleasant outlook. Studios may just want to release their major theatrical product on DVD and hold up on those that only enjoyed limited releases, which are often the movies I really want to see, films like the magnificent "4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days." I'm hoping this doesn't happen, but when the industry is controlled by bean counters instead of artistic types, who knows what these devils might do.

Austen meets Arnold

Imagine this: It's 18th Century England and some gent, let's call him Charles Bingley for the time being, rents this manor called, say, Netherfield Park. In a nearby village -- let's call it Longbourn -- a family that includes five unmarried daughters gets all excited at the possiblities associated with this new arrival and arrange for a lavish ball to take place that Mr. Bingley and other well-mannered unmarried men of means can attend and meet the daughters.

Then, right in the middle of the ball, a space alien invades the premises and begins killing all those attending the ball.

I have no idea whether that's how the movie "Pride and Predator" will unfold, but it apparently is going to go something along those lines, which could be a hoot. You can read more about it here.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Oscar Predictions: Foreign Language Film

This is a contest between two excellent films, superior to any of the five films nominated for best picture. Although I personally think "The Class" is the better of the two, I'm predicting the Academy members will choose "Waltz With Bashir."

New movies to be released tomorrow on DVD

Body of Lies (2008) **½ The film has one indelible asset: Mark Strong, who plays the Jordanian spymaster Hani. He’s sleek and lounge-lizard sharp like a young Andy Garcia, and he could be bigger than Garcia. The Jordanian holds all the cards, and opposite two superstars (Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe), Strong is the only actor who holds the camera.

Changeling (2008) **½ While the neo-Gothic tale is inherently intriguing, the film should inspire strong emotion, but deliberate pacing and a contained sense of melodrama make it a surprisingly passive experience.

Choke (2008) ** Cluttered and flavorless, it crams the novel’s nervy narration into an irritating voiceover, and leaps around in time and space with all the attention span of an ADD-addled child.

Flash of Genius (2008) **½ No matter how noble, not everyone’s life should be made into a movie.

High School Musical 3: Senior Year (2008) **½ Even if the refreshing gust doesn’t stay with you long, it’s fun while it lasts.

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (2008) *½ The movie based on Toby Young’s 2002 memoir is a good bit blunter than its source. One early laugh comes at the expense of a pig urinating on a woman’s feet at the BAFTA awards, the British equivalent of the Oscars. And it doesn’t get much better, or much smarter, than that.

I Served the King of England (2008) *** It’s a funny, even whimsical film about a man who survives tragic times, complete with Nazis, pratfalls and plenty of mugging.

Quarantine (2008) ** Director John Erick Dowdle manages a few nice shocks and some neat moments of pitch-black gallows humor, but this film nevertheless feels awfully familiar, and it grows less convincing with each passing moment. At its worst, it abandons realism entirely and flirts with gory kitsch.

Religulous (2008) **½ While even believers can support humorist/author Bill Maher’s skepticism, when he denounces the faithful in sweeping absolutes at film’s end, he sounds as absolutely certain as those he has mocked for the previous 100 minutes.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Pelham 123 to be taken again

Last night I had the perfect Valentine's: a grilled cheese sandwich/made-from-scratch Manhattan clam chowder dinner with My Hero, her son and his best friend followed by a movie. We watched Walter Matthau as "Charley Varrick," which, along with the below-mentioned "Friends of Eddie Coyle," is among my favotie "little" crime movies that flourished during the 1970s. Another one, that also starred Matthau, was "The Taking of Pelham 123," which came up in our conversation last night after watching "Charley Varrick." Now it turns out, as you can see from the above trailer, that the film is being remade with Denzel Washington playing the role originated by Matthau, John Travolta in the part originally played by Robert Shaw and James Gandolfini as the mayor of New York.

Oscar Predictions: Art Direction

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is another easy choice here.

A DVD release to anticipate

I have just learned that one of my all-time favorite movies, Peter Yates' "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," starring Robert Mitchum, will finally be released on DVD May 19. In his 1973 review, then New York Times film critic Vincent Canby called this film "a good, tough, unsentimenal movie about the last days of a small-time Boston Hood." It features one or Robert Mitchum's finest performances as well as another good one from Peter Boyle.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Oscar Predictions: Visual Effects

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" has no real competition for this Oscar.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Mavericks at the break

The Mavericks final game before the all-star break, a somewhat heartbreaking loss to the Boston Celtics (the Mavs were actually ahead by 15 points in the third quarter), proved a number of things:

1. The Mavericks are getting better. Their 6-2 record since the last time they played Boston illustrates this. It seems this unit is finally starting to play together as a team for the first time since the Jason Kidd acquisition. Which leads me to:

2. No matter how great the temptation, the Mavericks should refrain from making any trades. Don't disrupt the team chemistry that seems to be building.

3. The Boston Celtics are simply a better team than the Mavericks (which, I guess, should be obvious since they are the defending NBA champs). The Celts battled back without their coach (tossed after two technicals) and their all-around best defender, Kevin Garnett, who earned his fifth foul in the third quarter and largely rode the bench the rest of the way.

4. Paul Pierce is a better player than Dirk Nowitzki. I don't think there's ever been any doubt that Pierce is a better defender than Nowitzki, but last night, in the fourth quarter crunch time, Pierce scored more points than the entire Mavericks team.

Another sign that the end of the world is at hand

Starbucks is going to sell instant coffee.

A trashy campaign in District 13

The first "Look at Me -- I'm Really Stupid" award for the upcoming Dallas City Council election campaign goes to likely District 13 candidate Brint Ryan (I say "likely," because, as far as I know, he hasn't officially filed the necessary papers with the City's Secretary office).

Not filing did not stop him from mailing out campaign material that won him the above-mentioned award. The mailer lambasted the city for expanding the area of the highly successful once-a-week trash and recycling pickup. The picture he displayed on this mailer depicted two overflowing trash cans. The problem is, however, everything -- EVERYTHING! -- overflowing those cans were recyclables and belonged in a recycling container and not a trash container. If anything, Ryan's campaign photos were arguments for once-a-week recycling pickup.

Then, last night, when he had an opportunity to actually show his face in person to voice his complaints -- at a public meeting called by outgoing District 13 council member Mitchell Rasansky to discuss once-a-week garbage pickup in his district -- Ryan was nowhere to be found. Ann Margolin (pictured above left), who has declared for the post, was there campaigning quietly and, I believe, effectively. I have had one brief conversation with Ms. Margolin at a meeting identical in theme to the one held last night at the Walnut Hill Recreation Center and she told me, unlike Rasansky, who has hand-picked her to be his successor, she is a firm advocate of recycling and has, at least to date, not made switching to one day garbage and recycling service a campaign issue. Perhaps she realizes, as Mr. Rasansky noted during the meeting, the policy is a fait accompli and to rail against it now amounts to little more than demagoguery.
Of course, that doesn't seem to have stopped Mr. Ryan from looking incredibly stupid with his mailer, whose pictures advocate exactly the opposite message he was trying to convey.

Oscar Predictions: Actress

Not because she deserves it -- she doesn't -- but because she's earned it and I believe the Academy is thinking right along these same lines.

Kate Winslet doesn't deserve the Oscar because her performance in "The Reader" was not the best performance of the year by an actress in a leading role. Her performance ranks below three of her fellow nominees -- Anne Hathaway, Melissa Leo and Meryl Streep -- and below another that didn't even get nominated: Kristin Scott Thomas in "I've Loved You So Long." Now, if Ms. Winslet had been nominated for her best performance (in "Revolutionary Road"), I might have reconsidered this assessment.

She's earned it however for a fine body of work during the last 15 years: "Heavenly Creatures" (my introduction to Kate Winslet), "Sense and Sensibility," "Titanic," "Quills," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Finding Neverland." and "Little Children," just to name the highlights. Except for Ms. Streep, none of the other nominated actresses has anything close to this kind of track record and Ms. Streep has already received two Oscars (although her last win came two years before Ms. Winslet made "Heavenly Creatures"). I also think a lot of the Academy members will be voting for her for "Revolutionary Road" and not "The Reader."

Given all this plus the fact she's been campaigning for this award like mad, I think it's a pretty safe bet to declare Kate Winslet the winner of this Oscar.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Oscar Predictions: Original Score

See all five best picture nominees in one sitting

AMC Theaters is serving up all five best picture nominees -- "The Curious Case of Benjaming Button," "Frost/Nixon." "Milk," "The Reader," and "Slumdog Millionaire" -- the day before one of them will win the Oscar for that prize. Passes for the event are $30, which iseems like a bargain to me, and the passes allow you to come and go as you please. So if you would not care to see, for example, "The Reader," you can duck out while that one is playing and return to see the next film in the series. I have absolutely no idea in which order the films will be shown, but you might be able to call the individual theaters to get more information.

The theaters in this area that will be displaying this marathon are the AMC NorthPark 15 (214-360-4262), AMC Firewheel 18 (972-496-5473), AMC Stonebriar Mall 24 (972-377-0144), AMC Grapevine Mills 30 (972-539-5909), and the AMC Parks at Arlington 18 (817-505-4517).

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Why are our utility rates increasing faster than any other state?

Frankly, I don't know, but Peter Stern, writing in the Texas Observer, lays the blame squarely at the doorstep of the Governor's Mansion (or wherever it is Gov. Perry is living since the Mansion fire). Stern claims: "... the real reason Texans pay higher costs of electricity is due to a governor who places the needs of his wealthy campaign contributing special interests than that of the Texas community. "

Stern claims that Gov. Perry and his cohort, former House Speaker Tom Craddick pushed for deregulation in many areas to open up free competition and to reduce costs to consumers. "If not outright lies, Perry’s words are either extremely naive or delusional," Stern writes.
But then Stern also claims "Once upon a time in American deregulation was good." I'm trying to remember when that time was. Let's see, after the deruglation of the airlines, too many of them were forced out of business. After the government broke up the utility monopoly known then as "Ma Bell," the various phone companies were deregulated, leading back to the formation of an even larger monopoly.
Yes, Perry was an idiot for promoting deregulation and continues to be an idiot for pushing for private companies like Cintra to build tollroads, allegedly to reduce the costs of highway construction. Certainly, he shouldn't be re-elected, but Stern and others need to realize that, in Texas, the governor's office is possibly the least powerful of any statewide elected position and that the real villain here is probably the aforementioned Craddick.

The anti-"Reader" argument

I'm still stunned that "The Reader" made it into the finals for the Oscar's top prize, but now Ron Rosenblum, the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler really blisters the film in an article that appeared on, calling the film "The Worst Holocaust Film Ever Made," even worse than "Life Is Beautiful."

The basic flaw with the film, Rosenblum writes, is that it demands sympathy for an unrepentant mass murderer and argues that illiteracy is a crime worst than mass murder.

Rosenblum argues that the German people knew exactly what Hitler was doing during the War. For someone not to know, he claims, "You had to be deaf, dumb, and blind, not merely illiterate, to miss what Kate Winslet's character seems to have missed (while serving as a guard at Auschwitz!). You'd have to be exceedingly stupid. As dumb as the Oscar voters who nominated 'The Reader' because it was a 'Holocaust film.'"

He concludes by begging Oscar voters not to vote for "The Reader" for best picture, despite Harvey Weinstein's heavy, heavy campaigning for exactly that to happen.

Drought in Texas

After experiencing a brief and intense thunderstorm last night, which included a blackout at a restaurant where I was dining with My Hero and her son, it seems strange to read the following paragraph in a news story that appears today in The New York Times:

"The worst drought in nearly 100 years is racking three-quarters of Texas. Much of the state has not had a significant rainfall since August. Winter wheat crops have failed. Ponds have dried up. Ranchers are spending heavily on hay and feed pellets to get their cattle through the winter. Some wonder if they will have to slaughter their herds come summer. Farmers say the soil is too dry for seeds to germinate and are considering not planting."

The story did mention recent rains in Dallas and Austin but said they were "not enough to offset the 20-inch deficit in rainfall over the last 18 months."

The piece continues: "A weather pattern over the Pacific known as La Nina has pushed the Gulf Stream northward, keeping the normal fall and winter rains away, meteorologists say. In the last three months, only about a quarter of the usual rain and snow has fallen across the state."

Maybe I missed it, but I have not seen stories about this in the local media.

Oscar Predictions: Documentary Feature

"Man on Wire" is not only the best documentary in a year filled with many fine such features, but also one of the 10 best films of the year, superior to most, if not all, of the films nominated for best picture.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Who would play Judy?

According to Great Britain's The Guardian (which picked up the item from Variety), the Weinstein brothers have picked up the rights to a Judy Garland biography and plan to adapt it for the screen. The biography, Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland, is by Gerald Clarke, who also wrote the biography of Truman Capote that was turned into the fine film starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The book is pretty juicy. It claims two of Ms. Garland's five husbands were probably gay and that one of them, Mark Herron, was having an affair with Peter Allen, who, at the time, was married to Ms. Garland's daughter Liza Minnelli. The book also details Ms. Garland's own sexual dalliances.

So, who do you pick to play Judy Garland? An unknown or someone already established? Right now I am at a loss, although I might be able to picture Kate Beckinsale in the part.

I don't care what he says, my money's still on Winslet

Noah Forrest, writing in Movie City News, argues (1) Kate Winslet is the greatest living actress and (2) she doesn't deserve the Oscar for best actress this year. He said if the Academy gives her the Oscar (which is extremely likely, I'm thinking) it will be a makeup award, compensating for the times she deserved to win but didn't. Other makeup awards he cites are Jack Lemmon's for "Save the Tiger," Al Pacino for "Scent of a Woman" and Paul Newman for "Color of Money." Perhaps I'm an old codger, but he fails to mention my two favorite makeups: Jimmy Stewart for "The Philadelphia Story" and Humphrey Bogart for "The African Queen."

Oscar Predictions: Film Editing

C'mon, does anyone really think another film other than "Slumdog Millionaire" has a chance of winning this one? Another trophy in "Slumdog"'s big night and the little film isn't finished yet.

The Oscar for the best performance by an actor everyone overlooked is ...

... Reece Daniel Thompson for his magnificent, spot-on portrayal of a stuttering high schooler who's recruited for the school's debate team by the Frankensteinian and equally outstanding Anna Kendrick in the 2007 release "Rocket Science" (the two are pictured here in a scene from the film).

I missed this fine picture in its initial theatrical release, but caught it when it came out on DVD a little over a year ago. Last night I revisited it again and, if you haven't seen this film, you really need to pick up a copy and watch it to see one of the finest unrecognized film performances of the last 10 years. I do not remember ever seeing Thompson in anything else. His only other major film role, it appears, was as Young Beaver in 2003's "Dreamcatcher," one of the many Stephen King adaptations I go to great lengths to avoid. The rest of his work seems to have been confined to television.

At first, "Rocket Science" appears as though it's going to follow the well-worn path of the standard "sports film" with a miracle victory climaxing the whole shebang, until it decides to take a turn toward reality. It is filled with a number of interesting characters. In addition to Kendrick's fine predatory performance, there's a wonderful portrait of the complex sibling from Vincent Piazza, a surprisingly human look at the superhero from Nicholas D'Agosto and a wonderful interlude at the end of the film from the terribly underrated Denis O'Hare as Thompson's father.

I'm betting most of these names don't ring any bells of familiarity (except for fans of "Law & Order" like me who will recall O'Hare's many varied appearances throughout the 20-year run of that show), which is one of the wonderful things about this film. But I think, based on this film, great starring roles are in the futures for both Thompson and Kendrick. I urge you to see this wonderful film so you can tell your friends, "Yeah, Thompson was really good in that, but did you see his magnificent performance in 'Rocket Science'?"

Monday, February 9, 2009

A future of healing

I received this video from my son who is currently attending Parker Chiropractic School. He sent it with the following message:

"this is what i go to school for. i love the idea of one less kid "diagnosed and drugged". this is a small story, but hopefully more people will start seeing this side of chiropractic!"

Hey, you don't need capitalization skills to be a great healer.

Oscar smackdown: Penn vs. Rourke

The winner of the Academy Award for best actor will either be Sean Penn for "Milk" or Mickey Rourke for "The Wrestler." I thought Penn had it nailed until Saturday night when Rourke won the BAFTA prize. Last year, the winners of BAFTA's acting awards also won the Oscars, so this bodes well for Rourke. My money is still on Penn, but now I am a little less certain. One thing that favors Penn is, from what I understand, most the voters have already mailed their ballots. I think the late voters will side more with Rourke because they will be voting with their hearts and not their heads. A Rourke win will provide the ultimate sentimental moment and puts a little bit of sunshine into the bleakness of today's America.

That being said, my vote goes to Penn for one simple reason: The award is supposed to recognize an outstanding achievement by an actor in a leading role. I can't get over the notion that Rourke is not really acting that much in "The Wrestler," but just being himself in a film that is a slightly disguised story of his own resurrection. Penn's performance, on the other hand, is a master-class in acting. Look at Penn as Jimmy Markum in "Mystic River," Samuel J. Bicke in "The Assassination of Richard Nixon," Paul Rivers in "21 Grams," Sam Dawson in "I am Sam," Emmet Ray in "Sweet and Lowdown," and especially his Matthew Poncelet in "Dead Man Walking" and see if you can find a trace of his Harvey Milk in any of them.

Sean Penn and Daniel Day Lewis are the two best actors of their generation. Last year, the Motion Picture Academy recognized part of that fact by awarding Lewis his second acting trophy. Now it's time the Academy continue this by recognizing Penn's artistry a second time. Sentimentality, be damned.
UPDATE: I'm now hearing that any Oscar voter who saw Mickey Rourke's BAFTA acceptance speech will want that moment duplicated at the Oscars in two weeks and, thus, will vote for him. So I guess that means the award is really for the speech and not the performance.

Whatever happened to Leo Chaney?

The Dallas Morning News' City Hall Blog has an item that, in the headline, poses the question "Which Dallas City Council incumbent is the most vulnerable this election season?" and then has an entry that never answers the question. (OK, I am going to admit right up front I have no idea where Leo Chaney is this minute, but that's not the point of all this.)

I am going to tell you which incumbent is the most vulnerable. It's Carolyn Davis, but only because she is the weakest city council person this city has seen in decades, not because there is somebody strong lined up to run against her. So far her opponents are bus driver Gary Wayne Springer and Jeff Lipscomb, who claims to be a cousin of legendary politico Al Lipscomb. I understand DISD trustee Ron Price is considering running and his entry could make the race interesting. Price is a paradox -- while not all that popular in his DISD district, he does manage to get just enough votes to win elections.

Which brings me back to the question I posed in this headline because I really want to know where Leo Chaney is, what he is doing, why he has been so silent for the last two years and why, in heaven's name, he isn't positioning himself to take back his old District 7 seat. Chaney could defeat Davis in his sleep and I, for one, would like to see him bring intelligence back to that City Council seat.

As for the rest of the city council, I thought Dave Neumann would be toast in District 3 if former council member Ed Oakley wanted his old seat back, but apparently he doesn't, so I'm now convinced Neumann is absolutely safe. The District 8 race could be interesting. Personally, I think incumbent Tennell Atkins is doing a reasonably good job, but he might have to go against the Lipscomb machine and if that machine is still as strong as it once was (which is questionable) than Atkins could be in trouble. For some reason, District 4's Dwayne Carraway has decided to take on District 5's Vonciel Jones Hill and if Carraway's hand-picked candidate, former Park Board member Tiffany Young, can raise sufficient cash, she could at least force Hill into a runoff.

One final thing. There are going to be two open seats available. One is District 13's Mitchell Rasansky, a man who has been a flat tire on the wheels of Dallas progress for the last eight years, and the other is Dr. Elba Garcia, who proved herself to be a passionate and able leader during her eight years on the council. When she first ran I thought she would be little more than a stooge for her husband Domingo, but that hasn't been the case. She leaves behind a positive legacy -- the new Dallas animal shelter on I-30. I had heard she was thinking about running for the Dallas County Commissioners Court, where she wouldn't be term-limited, and I hope she does. The area needs her sense of vision. A lot of us are going to miss her on the Dallas City Council.

Oscar Predictions: Director

Who else? His film will be winning all the other major awards so it should come as no surprise whatsover that Danny Boyle will win this Oscar for his direction of "Slumdog Millionaire."

New movies to be released this week on DVD

August Evening (2008) *** Writer/director Chris Eska seems to be attempting an ambitious Mexican-American variation on "King Lear," another tale of an aging patriarch seeking refuge but ultimately rejected by ungrateful children.

Blindness (2008) ** The trouble with this movie is that it’s so preoccupied with shouldering this symbolic weight that it gradually forgets to tell a story — to keep faith with the directives of common sense.

Frozen River (2008) ***½ Does what too many independent American movies only pretend to do: Takes you to an unnoticed corner of our country and shows what it’s like to actually live there.

The Guitar (2008) * That the movie is easy on the eyes (Saffron Burrows’ fetching silhouette against those sunset river views) doesn’t make it any less bogus.

The Lodger (2009) ½* Filled with second-rate Brian DePalma twists, noirishly blurred lights and usually solid actors mouthing potboiler brine, this movie resembles bottom-shelf ‘80s dreck.

Miracle at St. Ana (2008) *½ When director Spike Lee isn’t doing cinematic somersaults or mining for injustice, he doesn’t seem to know where to put the camera. The logistics of the plot make no sense, and he has nothing to sell but the theme of our common humanity — in which, on the evidence, I don’t think he believes.

My Name Is Bruce (2008) *½ The only things missing from this unfunny Bruce Campbell love fest are a passable script, Sam Raimi’s inventiveness, and a level of sophistication beyond nose-picking and ass grabs.

Nights in Rodanthe (2008) *½ A shameless puddle of romantic slop.

Soul Men (2008) ** Couldn’t be more unhip — it just never hits the groove.

W. (2008) **½ Director Oliver Stone paddles down the giant river of George W. Bush’s life without exploring any of the tributaries; he passes by two or three dozen better movies along the way.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Oscar Predictions: Adapted Screenplay

The original screenplay category is going to be a little bit tougher to call, so I'm saving that pick for later, but the adapted screenplay Oscar is another slam dunk. The winner will be Simon Beaufoy (pictured above, second from the right) for his brilliant adapation of the book "Q&A" that became the Oscar champion film "Slumdog Millionaire."

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Oscar Predictions: Animated Feature

Actually, "WALL-E" should not only be in contention for, but win the Best Picture Oscar, but because of the narrowmindedness of the Academy, it must be relegated to its own category, where it will win an Oscar, hands down.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Oscar Prediction: Best Picture

Like I said yesterday, I am going with the sure things first and if any other film other than "Slumdog Millionaire" wins the best picture Oscar it will be the biggest upset in Oscar history.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Oscar Prediction: Best Supporting Actor

I'm going to start my countdown to the Oscars with my annual predictions, starting with the slam dunks and working up to the more competitive races. I can't imagine more of a sure thing than Heath Ledger winning the Supporting Actor Oscar for his channeling of 1952-1954 Marlon Brando in "The Dark Knight."

Eight Minutes to Gold

Viola Davis has only about eight minutes of screen time in the movie "Doubt," but her performance in that eight minutes might be dynamic enough to win her an Oscar for best supporting actress.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Doing the right thing

Sitting here far removed from the inner workings of our nation's capital, I thought the selection of Tom Daschle to be President Obama's Secretary of Health and Human Services was a brilliant move. He was, after all, the author of a book on health care reform and this thoughts on this subject seem to mirror the President's. Not only that, as a former Senate Majority leader he knew how Congress worked and already had the respect of that branch of the government.

Then reports came to light about his failure to report certain incomes and to pay taxes on that income. What was even more troubling to me was that this income came from health-related companies he would have to do business with as HHS secretary. I winced. I am not saying that his ties to the industry would cloud his judgment, only that the subject should never come up in the first place.

So I was glad to see this morning that Mr. Daschle had withdrawn his name from nomination. It was the right thing to do.

Speaking of doing the right thing, however, makes me realize that President Obama and his team needs to do a better job on background checks of its appointees. Mr. Daschle's withdrawal immediately followed the withdrawal Nancy Killefer as White House Chief Performance Officer. And much earlier New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson withdrew his name as Commerce Secretary because of questions about his handling of state contracts. One of the reasons I was so enthusiastic about an Obama presidency was that I expected him to bring ethics back into the White House, so these ethical road humps have become a little too numerous for my liking.

Monday, February 2, 2009

New movies to be released this week on DVD

(All DVDs released Tuesday, except where noted)

Bottle Shock (2008) **½ I found myself in a tug-of-war between enjoying this film as entertaining fluff, and thinking that there might be a more serious, gritty, complicated story lurking behind the grab-ass soap opera.

Everybody Wants To Be Italian (2008) * So awash in tired ethnic clich├ęs that the story drowns.

Hounddog (2008) * An indigestible gumbo of Southern Gothic ingredients seasoned with snake oil, biblical hash and thoroughly unpalatable spice.

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008) **½ Young children will enjoy this piece of sweet cartoon candy. (DVD will be released Friday)

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008) *** Let’s call this "High Fidelity Nano." It’s a little bit less in every way, lighter and cuter than its archetypal elder, but it might just fit your present lifestyle all the better. Who needs to go back to the polysyllabic spree of John Cusack channeling Nick Hornby when you have Michael Cera making awkward emo look so lovable?

The Secret Life of Bees (2008) **½ Hampered by over-earnestness and tugs too intently at the heartstrings.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008) **½ Crude, hilarious, if a little corny, writer/director Kevin Smith’s latest hardcore comedy is right on the money shot.