Monday, November 30, 2009

New movies to be released tomorrow on DVD

A Christmas Tale (2008) ***** Late in A Christmas Tale Abel Vuillard (Jean-Paul Roussillon), the mirthful, patient patriarch in Arnaud Desplechin’s noisy, cloying and altogether marvelous film, reads aloud from the opening pages of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals. His audience is his oldest child, Élizabeth (Anne Consigny), who has been complaining about the inexplicable sadness that perpetually afflicts her. (Early in the movie she offered the same complaint to her therapist.) As comfort and chastisement, Abel recites a long passage about the futility of our desire for self-knowledge and our alienation from our own experience. "We rub our ears after the fact," Nietzsche wrote, "and ask in complete surprise and embarrassment, ‘What just happened?,’ or even, ‘Who are we really?’" A Christmas Tale, which follows the extended Vuillard family through a few days and several lifetimes’ worth of hectic emotional confusion, induces a similar state of astonishment. A movie that is almost indecently satisfying and at the same time elusive, at once intellectually lofty — marked by allusions to Emerson, Shakespeare and Seamus Heaney as well as Nietzsche — and as earthy as the passionate provincial family that is its heart and cosmos and reason for being. Grade: A+

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009) **½ The paradox of Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian is that a movie so bursting with novelty can feel so utterly familiar. This is partly because it’s a sequel, of course, but even the first Night at the Museum, directed, as this one is, by Shawn Levy, was a mixture of old hat and cool new stuff. That may just be the formula for pleasant, innocuous and intermittently thrilling family entertainment. Keep the emotions safe, simple and knowable, and focus the younger audience’s attention on a magic show of cute, funny, zany creatures and characters while throwing some half-clever verbal humor at the older kids and the accompanying parents. Apply a touch of prestige, on loan from widely admired educational and cultural institutions and voilà. You can’t lose. Where Ben Stiller fits in all of this remains a bit of a puzzle, but here he is again, a virtuoso of hostility playing the lead in a warm and fuzzy family comedy. A shallow and harmlessly diverting picture. Grade: C

Paper Heart (2009) **½ At the outset of Nick Jasenovec’s Paper Heart, the actress and comedian Charlyne Yi (playing a purportedly fictional version of herself) claims neither to need nor believe in romantic love. Over the course of the movie, however, she will be nudged toward conformity by two parallel forces: the actual testimonies of firm believers and the fictional unfolding of a fumbling affair. And since this is an American story, Ms. Yi’s conversion will come about in the quintessentially American way: as the result of a road trip. An unconvincing mash-up of the real and the fake, Paper Heart wavers between identities to no clear purpose and to its considerable creative detriment. Your enjoyment of Paper Heart will hinge almost entirely on your receptiveness to Ms. Yi and the extreme iteration of social awkwardness she represents. Grade: C

Terminator Salvation (2009) ***½ Terminator Salvation? Really, that’s a bit grandiose. Given the quantities of distressed metal on display in this sturdy and serviceable sequel — only the fourth Terminator movie in a quarter-century — Terminator Salvage might be a more apt title. Still, some things are saved, even redeemed, in the course of the movie, including, perhaps, the audience’s interest in killer cyborgs from the future and the fate of the Connor family. The movie, directed by McG (yes, him, the one-named auteur at the helm of the Charlie’s Angels pictures) from a script by John Brancato and Michael Ferris, has a brute integrity lacking in some of the other seasonal franchise movies. It parades neither the egghead aspirations of Star Trek nor the thick-skulled pretensions of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but instead feels both comfortable with its limitations and justly proud of its accomplishments. Grade: B

Thursday, November 26, 2009

My Thanksgiving Toast

There are many things I have to be thankful for, the principle ones being:

  • My Son.
  • My Granddaughter.
  • My Hero, My Hero's parents (who celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary last weekend -- how wonderful!) and My Hero's children and son-in-law, all of whom have graciously accepted me as part of their family and re-defined "compassion" for me.

But the above is what I was thankful for last year.

This year I must add:
  • Doctors Donald McCoy and Donald Levene. If it wasn't for them (as well as the stubborn insistence of My Son and My Hero), I probably wouldn't be around to celebrate this Thanksgiving.
  • My friends and partners at the Movie Trading Company in Allen.
  • The men and women of the Special Olympics, especially that gritty basketball team playing under the banner of the Highland Park Scots.
  • Medicare.
  • All those who take the time to read my meanderings here.

And, to a lesser degree:
  • The 11-0 Texas Longhorns, who better not let up tonight (but because the rest of the Big 12 seems so inferior this year, I really don't know just how good the 'Horns are).
  • The New York Yankees (I practically grew up at the old Yankee Stadium) for returning the MLB World Championship where it belongs.
  • The Dallas Mavericks.
  • The continued excellence of Michael Caine and Sean Penn.
  • Elizabeth Banks, my nominee this year as the most underrated actor working today.
  • Netflix.
  • Hammacher Schlemmer
  • The Boss, although, because I believe we'll never see him perform live again with the E-Street Band, I wish he had included Dallas on his farewell tour.

Monday, November 23, 2009

New movies to be released tomorrow on DVD

Angels & Demons (2009) **½ Since Angels & Demons takes place mainly in the Vatican, and is festooned with the rites and ornaments of Roman Catholicism, I might as well begin with a confession. I have not read the novel by Dan Brown on which this film (directed, like its predecessor, The Da Vinci Code, by Ron Howard) is based. I have come to believe that to do so would be a sin against my faith, not in the Church of Rome (I am not Catholic, anyway) but in the English language, a noble and beleaguered institution against which Mr. Brown practices vile and unspeakable blasphemy. And it was partly, perhaps, because I chose to remain innocent of the book that I was able to enjoy Angels & Demons more than The Da Vinci Code, which opened almost exactly three years ago to an international critical hissy fit and global box office rapture. (The novel Angels & Demons was published three years before The Da Vinci Code.) This movie, without being particularly good, is nonetheless far less hysterical than Da Vinci. Its preposterous narrative, efficiently rendered by the blue-chip screenwriting team of Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp, unfolds with the locomotive elegance of a Tintin comic or an episode of Murder, She Wrote. Mr. Howard’s direction combines the visual charm of mass-produced postcards with the mental stimulation of an easy Monday crossword puzzle. It could be worse. Grade: C

Evergreen (2004) ** In this waterlogged indie film, a moody ingenue takes in drive-by glimpses of Everett, Washington, her new hometown. To 14-year old Henri (Addie Land), the soggy terrain of Cobain country is a tough place for a schoolyard loner with a decent jump shot, until a high-school hottie introduces her to sumptuous suburbia. Her new boyfriend's perky mom (Mary Kay Place) hints at the strains of keeping the home fires burning, and the adolescent conclusion becomes clear: adults are, like, total freaks. And all a gloomy girl can do is wear sunglasses at night and ride out the rainstorm. Grade: C-

Four Christmases (2008) ***½ Every holiday season, either out of respect for tradition or sheer spite, at least one Hollywood studio is sure to release a drippily sentimental, gratingly cheerful "comedy," indigestible as a fruitcake and disposable as wrapping paper. All appearances to the contrary, Four Christmases is not this year’s version. Yes, it follows a charming, mismatched couple on a sentimental journey involving presents, family and the sharing of food and feelings, but the picture, briskly directed by Seth Gordon from a snappy, many-authored script, is refreshingly tart and lean, forgoing the usual schmaltz and syrup. Don’t get the wrong idea. Four Christmases isn’t anything astonishing, but at 86 minutes, divided into four farcical set pieces, plus necessary exposition, denouement and interstitial drive time, it’s an efficient and stress-free entertainment package. For the audience, that is. The main characters seem pretty miserable most of the time, which is as it should be. Grade: B

Funny People (2009) ** Comedy is always serious business, whether the joke is on the funnyman with the pie in the kisser or the woman trying, really trying, to fall for the schnook who didn’t use the condom. Funny People, the latest from Judd Apatow, the director of the hit comedies Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin and a prolific producer, is being pitched as a bid at gravity, earnestness, adulthood, whatever. It’s an angle that sounds as if it had been cooked up by a studio flack to explain how words like divorce and death got tangled in with all the penis (and thereabouts) jokes. But the only difference is that now Mr. Apatow also seems lethally serious about being Judd Apatow. Funny People, which he wrote and directed, stars Adam Sandler as George Simmons, a onetime stand-up nobody who has become fantastically successful by starring in the kind of crummy high-concept Hollywood comedies — in one, he plays an adult with the body of a baby — that have been the creative ruin of Eddie Murphy. The deep rituals of comedy aren’t really the point here, as becomes clear as Mr. Apatow forges into increasingly sticky territory, lavishing time on George’s contrition tour as he unconvincingly mends fences with his estranged family and socializes with equal opportunity comedy offenders like Sarah Silverman and Norm Macdonald. (Eminem, as himself, trumps those jokers by threatening to beat up the real Ray Romano.) Then George reaches out to an old lover, the laughs give way to tears and this promising comedy bloats, sags and dies. That’s too bad because while Mr. Sandler doesn’t have the necessary acting technique or even the natural warmth to convince you that his character cares about anyone else, he is undeniably a star, the movie’s biggest draw and its most effective and powerful presence. It’s easy to buy him as both a selfish jerk and a maudlin self-pitier, whether George is weeping alone into his designer sheets or confiding some medical news to his housekeeper, the only sympathetic ear around. With his flatline drone, stand-and-deliver gestural performance and prickliness, Mr. Sandler is effortlessly charmless, and in his performance you see the risky movie this might have been if Mr. Apatow had pushed harder. Grade: C-

Gomorrah (2009) ****½ There are no colorful characters in Gomorrah, Matteo Garrone’s corrosive and ferociously unsentimental fictional look at Italian organized crime; no white-haired mamas lovingly stirring the spaghetti sauce; no opera arias swelling on the soundtrack; no homilies about family, honor or tradition; no dark jokes; no catchy pop songs; no film allusions; no winking fun; no thrilling violence. Instead, there is waste, grotesque human waste, some of which ends up illegally buried in the same ground where trees now bear bad fruit, some of which, like the teenager scooped up by a bulldozer on a desolate beach, is cast away like trash. Grade: A

Shorts (2009) **½ "I wish I had friends," laments 11-year-old Toe Thompson (Jimmy Bennett), a picked-on kid with a mouth full of metal and a ZIP code full of weirdos. Toe’s lack of companionship, however, has less to do with his orthodontist than with the peculiarities of his suburban neighborhood: the ominously named Black Falls, home to Black Box Industries and locus of excessive looniness. Structured as five short stories connected by Toe’s irksome narration, Shorts surges forward and rewinds, pauses and skips around as if controlled by a remote-wielding toddler. This narrative device, assisted by appropriate on-screen graphics, soon becomes tiresome, but it’s emblematic of a film that is dancing as fast as it can to entertain. Grade: C

Saturday, November 21, 2009

What were these voters thinking???

Hoop Dreams was not only the best documentary of 1994, it was also that year's best picture. Just a little more than two weeks ago, film critic Roger Ebert called it "the great American documentary." Crumb, another magnificent documentary from that same year, was superior to four of the five of the films nominated for best picture (Forrest Gump, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Quiz Show and The Shawshank Redemption). Yet neither film was even among the five finalists for the best documentary feature of that year.

The committee chosen to name the final five continues to be an embarrassment to the Motion Picture Academy and to film lovers everywhere. This year they did it again by not only announcing the 15 docs from which they will select the final five, but once again omitting the two of the best documentaries of the year from that list of 15. And, no, I'm not referring to Michael Moore's much talked- about Capitalism: A Love Story. I would put it ahead of some of the films on the current list of 15, but, unlike some film fans, I certainly don't think it deserves an Oscar nomination. (Some even went so far to say that since the best picture list was expanded to 10 nominations this year, Moore's film would make that list).

I'm convinced the omission of Anvil! The Story of Anvil and Tyson from the list proves just how out-of-touch these selectors how and just how irrelevant this category has become. Should a film be nominated for the social significance of its message or how effectively it delivers its message? I would argue the latter; the documentary selection committee obviously feels "redeeming values," however the hell you define that, trumps expertise in filmmaking. How else do you explain the sloppily made Under Our Skin making the shortlist, or Burma VJ or Mugabe and the White African? One wag told me he didn't think an Oscar committee came up with this list; she thought it came from Mother Teresa.

I'm not saying some very good films aren't on the final 15. The year's best documentary, Food, Inc., a horrific look at what we eat, and Every Little Step, an up-close-and-personal observation on casting Broadway's A Chorus Line revival, are both on there. But the omission of Anvil, the story of the best heavy metal band I never heard of (Metallica was an opening act for these guys), and Tyson, which puts viewers inside the head of the most frightening sports figure this country has ever produced, is absolutely shameful. A disgrace.

Somehow, some way, the Academy must come up with a new method for choosing the nominees in the documentary feature category.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

It's time to give the area's other football team a little more attention

I picked up a hard copy of the Dallas Morning News today, something unusual for me. I glanced at the Metro section, then went to the Sports section and quickly realized why I feel hard copies of the Dallas Morning News are largely irrelevant (and I'm a former reporter/writer/editor for that publication).

On the front page of the Sports section was another story -- this time a column by Kevin Sherrington -- about TCU's possibilities to play in the BCS National Championship. Of course there was the obligatory front page story with the equally obligatory oversized color picture on the Dallas Cowboys. The Mavericks are playing their main rivals, the San Antonio Spurs, tonight so there's a story on the local NBA franchise. Along the far left-had column there are brief, one-paragraph, items on the Texas Rangers, the AL Cy Young Award winner, the Stars and Texas A&M's football fortunes.

Page 2 is virtually all-soccer, page 3 is all-NBA, page 4 is NHL and college hoops, and then we get to page 5 devoted to college football. On that page you'll find another story about A&M, the continuation of Sherrington's ode to TCU and briefs on Kansas, Texas, Baylor, Nebraska, North Texas and, for heaven's sake, Fresno State, Mississippi State, New Mexico, Pittsburgh, Tennessee and the all-popular and all-powerful Portland State.

I scanned the other four pages of today's SportsDay, as the section is called, and could not find a single reference to SMU.

C'mon, folks. SMU is currently in first place in the Conference USA West Division (When was the last time you read "SMU" and "first place" in the same sentence?) ahead of the University of Houston. But even more important than that, it now appears the Mustangs will be playing in a bowl game this year. A bowl game!!! SMU has not played in as bowl game in 25 years. SMU is 6-4 this season and 5-1 in conference play, a season record that is the equal of such so-called Big 12 powerhouses as Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Missouri and a conference record that is superior to every Big 12 team except unbeaten Texas, of course, and Oklahoma State, which is also 5-1.

SMU has two games left on its regular schedule, this Saturday at Marshall (5-5, 3-3) and a home finale at 3 p.m. a week from this Saturday against Tulane (3-7, 1-5). Both games are winnable for the Mustangs but even breaking even (SMU should defeat Tulane at home) will give them a 7-5, a record that should guarantee them a bowl invite.

So it's ;pmg past time for the local media to begin paying more attention to the miracle that second-year coach June Jones is performing with the football program at SMU.

Speaking of college football, here is Sports Illustrated's weekly 16-team playoff bracket after the games of last weekend:
(1) Florida vs (16) Penn State
(8) Pittsburgh vs (9) LSU
(5) Cincinnati vs (12) Stanford
(4) TCU vs (13) Oklahoma State
(3) Alabama vs (14) Iowa
(6) Boise State vs (11) Oregon
(7) Georgia Tech vs (10) Ohio State
(2) Texas vs (15) Wisconsin

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Garland Road improvement projects may face insurmountable obstacles

From what I gather, there's a group of folks, at the behest of former Dallas city councilman Gary Griffith. that wants to convert Garland Road into another McKinney Ave. This is not a new idea. Mr. Griffith's predecessor, Mary Poss, produced a lengthy "Garland Road Master Plan," and, when I was director of the chamber of commerce in that area, I and another group of individuals representing both businesses and residents along that corridor presented a vision for Garland Road to Theresa O'Donnell, director of the City of Dallas' Development Services Department, who was putting together the Forward Dallas plan at the time.

During that same time, a developer wanted to build a high-end, high-rise condominium project on the west side of Garland Road. Its highest floors would overlook White Rock Lake and would have a magnificent view of the downtown skyline. The plan was killed by residents in the neighborhood and its death gave me my first clue as to why any kind of Garland Road rejuvenation program is doomed to failure.

It wasn't that long ago -- in fact, during my lifetime (although I wasn't living here at the time) -- that the Garland Road area was considered a comparatively distant Dallas suburb. The residents east of the road still look at the area that way. They don't want urbanization creeping in, even though it is, now, an urban area, and they will fight with all their political will (and they have plenty of that) to make sure their section of the city bears no resemblance to an actual city.

But there's another problem. The entire stretch of the corridor north of the White Rock spillway is dry. That's why there are no decent restaurants along Garland Road.

Texas did not allow liquor by the drink until the legislature approved a constitutional amendment in 1970 allowing local option elections. (When former Texas Gov. John Connally tried to convince the National Association of Homebuilders to hold its annual convention in Texas -- a convention that draws 50,000 delegates -- he was rebuffed. The NAHB said it was never come to a state "so uncivilized that a person couldn't even buy a drink.")

Voters statewide still had to approve the amendment in November 1970 and those in Dallas, Fort Worth, Wichita Falls and most of the state from Waco north voted solidly against, swayed for the most part by a campaign led by the Baptist Church that warned liquor by the drink would lead to more highway deaths, alcoholism and divorce. However, voters from Houston, San Antonio and South Texas voted solidly for it and the amendment narrowly passed.

Dallas voters passed a local option for certain precincts in 1971. Up until then, you couldn't find a really good restaurant in Dallas, but liquor by the drink changed all that. In fact, it was that same year that Mariano Martinez opened his first restaurant Dallas offering his patented frozen margaritas. And, on the culinary front, it's been, for the most part, uphill from there.

Of course, there are restaurants in dry areas of Dallas that serve liquor by the drink under the state's loose private club laws, but those restaurants are mostly the uninspired chain affairs like Olive Garden, Cheddars, Outback Steakhouse, Red Lobster, etc. Look what adopting liquor by the drink did for the City of Addison.

But getting liquor by the drink for the Garland Road corridor, from what I understand, is not that simple a chore because that decision can't be made just by the people in that area. It has to be at least a city-wide petition drive and election and that could be a dicey proposition, considering how those in Oak Cliff so closely protect their area as no-liquor-by-the-zone.

So without liquor by the drink and the residents of Forrest Hills, Little Forest Hills and Casa Linda realizing they actually live in a city, any plan to economically and visually rejuvenate Garland Road will remain at a standstill. Just ask Mary Poss: Her Garland Road Master Plan passed the city Council almost 20 years ago and has gathered nothing but dust since then.

Monday, November 16, 2009

I vote for Brown to replace Chief Kunkle

Like most folks around here, I was shocked to read of Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle's announcement of his retirement next April. It had always seemed to me that the two most prominent members of the city's staff -- the city manager and the police chief -- were pressured out of his office; they didn't leave of their own accord.

I have always felt that former City Manager Ted Benavides' major legacy to the city is that he appointed Kunkle as chief, an appointment that was much criticized in the media at the time because the chief was a former Dallas police officer who was the chief in neighboring Arlington at the time of his appointment. Critics claimed Mr. Benavides should have cast a wider geographical net for the next chief and Kunkle's appointment was going to be more of the same (his predecessor being the much-maligned Terrell Bolton, who rose from the department's ranks and whom Mr. Benavides both appointed and fired). History has proved Mr. Benavides was correct in the Kunkle appointment (boy, was he ever!) and the critics were wrong.

Chief Kunkle's announcement does current City Manager a huge favor. She now has a half year to find a successor. I'm hoping she will do the same thing Mr. Benavides did: Conduct a nationwide search for a new chief and then appoint someone close to home. I am referring to first assistant chief David Brown (pictured above).

I met Chief Brown when I was the executive director of the Northeast Chamber of Commerce (now the East Dallas chamber) and he was named chief of the Northeast Dallas Police substation. We worked tirelessly to implement the same kind of volunteer program that was successful in reducing crime residential in neighborhoods to crime-plagued shopping centers, particularly along the Skillman Road corridor. Chief Brown, however, took crime fighting in this neighborhood to an even higher level, conducting major undercover operations in neighborhood apartment complexes that housed drug laboratories, knowing that drugs was the root cause of most of the criminal activity.

His success in the Northeast, I'm guessing, fueled his rapid ascent to his current position, the No. 2 man in the Dallas Police Department. At one point, Ms. Suhm even appointed Chief Brown as an interim assistant city manager. I'm thinking if he's qualified to be the assistant city manager overseeing the police department, he's certainly qualified to be the city's next police chief. Sure, there might be someone equally as qualified in Sacramento, Phoenix, Charlotte, Indianapolis, whereever, but no one will know the city's problems and the police department as well as Brown. No one will be able to hit the ground running as quickly as Brown. No one will provide as seamless a transition as Brown.

Sure, the local media might complain, but, as in the case of Kunkle, they will learn that Brown's appointment will be the right decision.

New movies to be released tomorrow on DVD

Bruno (2009) ** In his various incarnations — Ali G, Borat and now, at feature length, Brüno — Sacha Baron Cohen leads his audience in a two-step of squirming discomfort and smug affirmation. Like Borat, this film offers both succor and sucker bait for liberal-minded viewers who may feel harassed and hemmed in by prevailing and ever-shifting cultural sensitivities. In Brüno, the main character’s foreignness — he’s from Austria, identified as the land of Hitler but not of Wittgenstein, Schwarzenegger or Freud — is at once amplified and trumped by his homosexuality. Brüno, a strapping fellow with good cheekbones and an obsession with high fashion, minces and swishes his way from Vienna to Los Angeles and then makes improbable and sometimes very funny excursions to Africa, the Middle East and the American South. Wherever he goes his bizarre fashion sense and his utter lack of inhibition elicit raised eyebrows, angry scowls and occasional bursts of full-blown rage. The film demonstrates, at a fairly high level of conceptual sophistication, that lampooning homophobia has become an acceptable, almost unavoidable form of homophobic humor, or at least a way of licensing gags that would otherwise be out of bounds. Grade: C-

Expired (2008) ***½ This funny, sad, offbeat, sometimes off-the-beat romance is one of those precariously balanced movies that might fall to pieces with a different cast. It’s possible that two actors other than Samantha Morton and Jason Patric might do justice to Cecilia Miniucchi’s story about two badly matched Santa Monica, Calif., parking enforcement officers who stumble and grope into a relationship. But it’s hard to think of a better match for the stubborn idiosyncrasies of Ms. Miniucchi’s visual style and worldview than these two. For the most part, Ms. Miniucchi’s bleak perspective seems more honest and heartfelt than her movie’s eccentric visual style. Grade: B

The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard (2009) **½ At one point during this film, a grubby-looking comedy about the art of the sale, two alligators crawl across a car lot. Who brought the alligators? a bewildered man asks. We’re the only ones who can hear his question amid the shrieks of the customers and salesmen and the whir of a buzz saw that brings a guy on stilts and in an Uncle Sam costume down to size. From one angle this frenzied moment looks like a metaphor for the American auto industry, but it’s just a throwaway in a comedy without a shred of obvious filmmaking and an endless stream of good, bad, sometimes terrible, often absurd jokes. Grade: C

Humpday (2009) ****½ To guys everywhere: Humpday has your number. With X-ray vision, this serious indie comedy, written and directed by Lynn Shelton, sees through its male characters’ macho pretensions to contemplate the underlying forces hard-wired into men’s psyches in a homophobic culture. Think of it as a Judd Apatow or Kevin Smith buddy film turned inside out. It is all the more remarkable for having been conceived by an empathetic woman with no apparent ax to grind and a sensibility tuned to the minutiae of straight-male bonding rituals. Men may be from Mars and women from Venus, but some observant Venusians understand the brute fundamentals of Martian psychology. Grade: A

Is Anybody There? (2009) **½ Sooner or later it comes to this: Alfie develops senile dementia and lands in an old-age home. That unsettling thought crossed my mind while savoring Michael Caine’s portrayal of Clarence Parkinson, a grumpy old traveling magician nearing the end of his life in John Crowley’s film Is Anybody There? Mr. Caine’s face may have aged (he is now 76), but from the glint in his eyes and his snaggle-toothed smirk, he is still Alfie Elkins, the mischievous, devil-may-care seducer of Alfie, the 1966 hit film with which his name is still synonymous. Innocent he is not. His character here, known onstage as the Amazing Clarence, has scooted around the English countryside for untold years demonstrating magic in a rattletrap camper painted like a circus wagon. When he pulls up at Lark Hall, a ramshackle seaside house that has been turned into a retirement home, he knows it is the final stop in his peripatetic itinerary. The film, which teeters between comedy and pathos, is essentially a two-character exercise from the Harold and Maude school of tear-jerking whimsy. Grade: C

The Limits of Control (2009) *** The walking man in The Limits of Control, a Minimalist exercise in the key of cool from Jim Jarmusch, wears through a lot of shoe leather during his feature-length tramp. One of cinema’s men with no names, credited only as the Lone Man, this peripatetic figure is played (and walked and walked) by Isaach De Bankolé with a determined gait and inscrutable gaze that initially reveal almost as little as the elliptical storytelling. Like Mr. Jarmusch, the Lone Man doesn’t share his intentions until he reaches the end. By that point, though, if you’ve paid attention to the cues and opening credits, you will be steps ahead of both. Grade: C+

My Sister’s Keeper (2009) **½ The prospect of a child’s death is so awful that to broach it in a movie or a book requires a special measure of caution and sensitivity. Or so you might think. But at least since Victorian novelists from Charles Dickens to Louisa May Alcott dispatched under-age angels to heaven on cataracts of tears, dead or dying kids have provided ready catharsis and money in the bank. In modern day commercial fiction, and in Hollywood movies, childhood mortality is handled with sometimes cynical care. It can authorize righteous, vengeful violence or else reawaken the dormant possibilities of melodrama. Nothing else quite guarantees the same queasy intensity of feeling. My Sister’s Keeper, based on a best-selling novel by Jodi Picoult, is an unapologetic — shameless? ruthless? — weepie, exploiting the grave illness of a lovely, lively, blameless girl from start to finish. But it has ambitions beyond mere ghoulish mawkishness. The director, Nick Cassavetes, has in the past, in movies like The Notebook and John Q, attempted a kind of honest manipulation, wringing outsize waves of emotion out of more or less ordinary situations, and trying to hold on to some notion of realism in the process. Grade: C

The Open Road (2009) Unseen by me.

Star Trek (2009) ****½ A bright, shiny blast from a newly imagined past, Star Trek, the latest spinoff from the influential TV show, isn’t just a pleasurable rethink of your geek uncle’s favorite science-fiction series. It’s also a testament to television’s power as mythmaker, as a source for some of the fundamental stories we tell about ourselves, who we are and where we came from. The original captain (William Shatner, bless his loony lights) and creator (Gene Roddenberry, rest in peace) may no longer be onboard, but the spirit of adventure and embrace of rationality that define the show are in full swing, as are the chicks in minis and kicky boots. Initially aired in 1966, Star Trek was a utopian fantasy of the first order, a vision of the enlightened future in which whites, blacks, Asians and one pokerfaced Vulcan are united by their exploratory mission ("to boldly go"), a prime directive (do no harm) and the occasional dust up. An origins story directed with a sure touch and perfect tone by J.J. Abrams, the fully loaded film — a showcase for big-studio hardware, software, muscled boys who can act and leggy girls who aren’t required to — turns back the narrative clock to the moment before the main characters first assembled on the deck of the U.S.S. Enterprise, a sleek spacecraft that invariably sails into intergalactic storms. Even Utopia needs a little bang. Grade: A

Thirst (2009) ***½ Sang-hyun, the hero of Park Chan-wook’s Thirst, is many different things: a Roman Catholic priest; a selfless volunteer in a dangerous medical experiment; a reluctant faith healer with a cult following; a vampire. And Thirst itself, which won the Jury Prize this year at the Cannes Film Festival, where Mr. Park has long been a favorite, is equally protean. It is a bloodstained horror movie, a dark comedy, a noirish psychodrama of crime and punishment, a melodrama of mad love, a freehanded literary adaptation (of Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin) and, of course, a vampire movie. Grade: B+

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Big 12 commish does not like the idea of a college football playoff

Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebee, interviewed on Fox Sports Southwest during Saturday's Texas-Baylor blowout, said emphatically he would never, ever support a college football playoff. In fact, he said, if there is too much pressure for college football to do away with the current BCS system, that college football would, instead of moving toward a playoff, return to the days of conference-aligned post season bowls.

"I was talking to a close friend who is a successful high school football coach in Texas and I asked him how he liked the high school playoff system," Beebee said. "The coach told me the problem he had with it is that only one team ends the season on a happy note. I have talked to many, many former college players and they talked about how their last game, playing in a bowl game, was their happiest memory. This game should not be played for the media or other special interests; it should be concerned about the best interests of the players. In fact, I am concerned that the current BCS championship game puts too much pressure on the players."

He also mentioned the main reason I am against a playoff and that is college football has the best regular season in all of sports and it shouldn't sacrifice that.

Beebee also turned around the argument that college football should have a playoff system because all other sports do.

"We should continue to be unique," Beebee said. "The way to do that is to be the only major sport without a playoff."

New York Times sports pages focus on Metroplex

Saturday's New York Times had a decidely Dallas/Fort Worth feel to it. The lead story focused on Dallas' Tyrone Davis (left, with the ball), who is currently the star of the Georgia basketball team. This is not the Georgia that goes to war with Southeastern Conference foes but the Georgia team that recently went to war with Russia.

The second lead story was about someone more well known hereabouts, Gary Patterson, and how he and his defensive minded philosophies has guided TCU to the brink of a BCS bowl. (It also mentions that Patterson is an accomplished singer/guitarist who could have had himself a successful career in Nashville had he not gone into coaching football).

Both stories are worth a read.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A BCS fairytale (or nightmare)

Play a game of "what if" with me here:

What if "the ol' ball coach" pulls a rabbit out of the hat and his South Carolina team ambushes Florida this weekend?

Then what if Florida defeats Alabama in the SEC title?

And, finally, what if Florida and Alabama are the only two undefeated teams to lose a game between now and the bowl season?

I'm saying that if those three what if's come to pass, and Texas doesn't play TCU in the very first intrastate BCS Championship game, there's going to be hell to pay and the BCS will lose all of the little credibility it has left.

"Precious" to win best picture Oscar?

That's what In Contention's Kris Tarpley thinks. He's also predicting right now that Gabourey Sidibe and Mo'Nique will win best actress and supporting actress respectively.

I'm not that sure. I remember this time three years ago I thought another film with an all-black cast, Dreamgirls, looked like a sure best-picture winner and it didn't even get nominated. I'm convinced Precious will get nominated this year and will be a strong contender, but, right now, my money is on Up in the Air to win the top award in a tight three-way race with Precious and The Hurt Locker.

I also think Cary Mulligan has a better chance to win the best actress Oscar for An Education, but I will agree that Mo'Nique is a lock for the supporting actress award.

I will also admit this: Those behind the Precious campaign are doing a fairly good job, even though they only got a half-full house for its screening last week to Oscar voters. The problem I have with their campaign is that it is based on preying on white guilt, which worked for Crash, but didn't work for Dreamgirls. But then Crash had a more diverse cast.

I have not seen Precious, but I have heard that the redemptive third act is preceded by two fairly raw first and second acts, much of which exploit black stereotypes. I'm not sure how well that will sit with Oscar voters.

The early box office for Precious has also been phenomenal, recording the fourth highest per-screen average in movie history. But, more than anything else, I think that popularity has fueled much of the excitement about it right now and that excitement might cool once Up in the Air opens Dec. 4.

If I had to pick the winners of the top six major races right now, I would go with:
Picture: Up in the Air
Director: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Actor: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Actress: Cary Mulligan, An Education
Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique, Precious

It is interesting to note that every one of Tarpley's predicted winners made my list of nominees in my first Oscar poll of the season with the exception of Forever Enthralled, his pick to win the Foreign Language Film Oscar. That picture missed my list by one vote.

Local officials should be finding solutions, not just celebrating, on Veterans Day

Today is Veterans Day and Dallas City Hall is all festive for the occasion. But city officials and others should take some time out during the day and come to terms with sobering facts about today's veterans. I don't know what the local figures show, but nationally it is estimated that 131,000 veterans are homeless, sleeping on the streets or in charity shelters. Not only that, 3 percent of them are veterans from our most recent incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, 18 months after their discharge, these servicemen and women have bottomed out.

Gen. Eric Shinseki, a foe of the President Bush's Iraq policies who is now President Obama's Secretary of Veterans Affairs, has promised to lead a national drive to to end veteran homelessness within the next five years. He has also pledged $3.2 billion to the effort for additional veterans' housing, job, education and medical programs.

But in order for the general to be successful, he is going to need the support of Congress and local communities. That's why I would like to see someone from the local community take time out today and acknowledge that we should not send our young men and women off to foreign lands to fight wars they didn't start, only to see them lose a major life battles when they return home.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

DeNiro's most famous line actually came from The Boss

Here's an interesting story -- at least I found it interesting. While preparing for his role in Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro attended a Bruce Springsteen concert during which the adoring crowd kept yelling Bruce's name. At one point, as the crowd is yelling "Bruce! Bruce!", Springsteen turned and said "You talkin' to me?"

A year or so later, De Niro is preparing for his role as a saxophone player in New York, New York and seeks out Springsteen's saxophonist Clarence Clemmons to show him the ins and outs of the instrument. While being tutored, De Niro tells The Big Man about his concert experience and confesses he stole what is unquestionably his signature line in Taxi Driver from The Boss that night.

There goes another great idea

I was going to yell, to scream, to stand on the mountaintops and hoist the flags from the valleys down below -- in another words I was prepared to raise the roofbeams with my voice-- to emphatically deny -- put all those vicious rumors to rest -- that I was the heretofore unidentified partner in Carrie Prejean's sex tape. And then I learned she flew solo before the cameras. Oh, well. I would give the former Miss California a hand, but apparently she already gave herself one -- on camera.

Why are some council members afraid to think for themselves?

I spent much of Monday reading, writing and just plain relaxing in my home office. For entertainment I had the Dallas City Council's agenda meeting on the television. I watched them wrangle with the question of "Just how ethical do we want to be?" for much of the morning before they broached the even trickier question of "Just how close to we want our chillun to get to demon likker?"

At issue was an ordinance, supported by state law, that says a store selling beer, wine or other forms of alcohol can't be located within 300 feet of the property line of a school, a church and possibly something else like a hospital. But the main issue is schools or churches. Not the school or church itself, mind you, but its property line. The proposed change offered during Monday's city council meeting would abolish that arbitrary rule and let council members determine these cases individually and perhaps grant variances to the rule if circumstances warrant it. In other words, it would force council members to think, to reason, to study the merits of each application and not hide behind an archaic ordinance.

Here's an example of how ridiculous the current ordinance is. A school could sit at the back of a large campus whose property line is, say, 275 feet from the front door of a proposed grocery store that wants to sell beer and wine. But that grocery store, under the current ordinance, would not be allowed to sell beer and wine even though the distance from its front door to the school's front door is 1,000 feet. Yet a grocery would be allowed to sell beer and wine if the distance from its front door to the school's front door is a third of that 1,000 feet, as long as its property line is more than 300 feet away. Stupid.

For some reason, two council members I always thought wanted to hear and decide issues on their merits, Angela Hunt and Linda Koop, voted against changing this ordinance, both for reasons that had nothing to do with the issue at hand. But Ms. Hunt is a master of dodging the real issue of any question and changing the subject matter to suit her personal agenda. In this case, she tried to change the subject to the square feet of the grocery store in question and not how far it was from the school. Ms. Koop simply expressed a desire to protect children. Fine, Ms. Koop: If a situation comes before the council that endangers children, I would hope you would vote against it. But why deny all applicants just because one of them might pose a danger to school children? Council member Steve Salazar, whom I thought was beginning to show some signs of intelligence that had not been on display during his previous council tenure as well as most of this one, snapped back into his old habits by arguing how the proposed change set "a dangerous precedent," as though it set a rule as arbitrary as the one it changed. The only dangerous precedent it sets, like I said earlier, is forcing council members to reason these cases on their individual merits -- a process, come to think of it, might scare Mr. Salazar.

I've always been taught that every rule has its exceptions. Fortunately, a majority of the city council realized that and the proposed ordinance change passed by, as I recall, an 11-5 vote. So it was a case of all's well that ends well. But while the debate was going on I got to see Hunt, Koop and Salazar do their Three Stooges bit. Talk about Must See TV.

And I thought Texas" criminal courts were corrupt

Texas can't hold a candle to Florida.

Consider the case of Joe Sullivan, a mentally impaired boy convicted of sexual battery, largely on the testimony of two accomplices, both of whom were older than Sullivan, who each were rewarded for their testimony by given light sentences, one of them in a juvenile court. Sullivan, however, was sentenced to life in prison without parole. He was 13 years old at the time.

Or consider the case of Terrance Graham, a learning disabled teen born to crack-addicted parents. He was on probation in connection with a burglary when he allegedly participated in a home invasion. He was not convicted of the crime, but was sentenced to life in prison without parole for violating his probation. He was 16.

Two teenagers, both mentally challenged, both of whom need stern adult supervision and, yes, some time in prison. But for the Florida courts to decide these two are not capable of rehabilitation is barbarous, violates every standard of human rights known to mankind and is a clear violation of the eighth amendment that prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

Fortunately, there is hope. The Supreme Court heard the cases of Sullivan and Graham Monday. Hopefully the justices will reason that children who commit non-violent crimes should not be sentenced to life in prison with no hope of parole.

Monday, November 9, 2009

October's Oscar Poll

Last month, I conducted my first poll of the almost 500 Oscar voters representing all the branches who are willing to share with me who plan to cast their nominating votes for in this year's Oscar race. I just finished counting all the returns and here are who the nominees (listed alphabetically within each category) would have been if the Oscar ballots had to be returned to the Academy by the end of October:

An Education
The Hurt Locker
The Lovely Bones
A Serious Man
Up in the Air

Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Lee Daniels, Precious
Clint Eastwood, Invictus
Rob Marshall, Nine
Jason Reitman, Up in the Air

Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
George Clooney, Up in the Air
Daniel Day-Lewis, Nine
Colin Firth, A Single Man
Morgan Freeman, Invictus

Helen Mirren, The Last Station
Cary Mulligan, An Education
Saorise Ronan, The Lovely Bones
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia

Supporting Actor
Matt Damon, Invictus
Alfred Molina, An Education
Christopher Plummer, The Last Station
Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

Supporting Actress
Penelope Cruz, Nine
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Mo'Nique, Precious
Julianne Moore, A Single Man
Susan Sarandon, The Lovely Bones

Original Screenplay
(500) Days of Summer
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
A Serious Man

Adapted Screenplay
An Education
The Lovely Bones
A Single Man
Up in the Air

Film Editing
The Hurt Locker
Up in the Air

Bright Star
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
The Lovely Bones

Art Direction
Bright Star
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Inglourious Basterds
A Serious Man

Sound Mixing
The Hurt Locker
Star Trek
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Sound Editing
The Hurt Locker
Star Trek
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Costume Design
Bright Star
Inglourious Basterds
The Young Victoria

District 9
The Imaginarium of Doctor Paranassus
Star Trek

Visual Effects
Star Trek
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Original Score
Bright Star
A Christmas Carol
Coco Before Chanel

Animated Film
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs
The Princess and the Frog

Foreign Language Film
A Letter to Father Jacob
A Prophet
Samson and Delilah
White Ribbon

Documentary Feature
Anvil! The Story of Anvil
Capitalism: A Love Story
The Cove
Food, Inc.
Long Distance Love

SI's college football playoff bracket after games of Nov. 7

(1) Florida vs. (16) Miami
(8) LSU vs. (9) Ohio State
(5) TCU vs. (12) USC
(4) Cincinnati vs. (13) Iowa
(3) Alabama vs. (14) Houston
(6) Boise State vs. (11) Oregon
(7) Georgia Tech vs. (10) Pittsburgh
(2) Texas vs. (15) Utah

New movies to be released tomorrow on DVD

Ballast (2008) ****½ There isn’t much talk and not a drop of cynicism in this film, Lance Hammer’s austerely elegant, emotionally unadorned riff on life and death in the Mississippi Delta. Shot with a sure hand and a cast of unknowns, the film doesn’t so much tell a story as develop a tone and root around a place that, despite the intimate camerawork, remains shrouded in ambiguity. Mr. Hammer puts in the time, but never asserts that he knows this world and his black characters from the inside out, a wise choice for a white boy playing the blues. Grade: A

The Merry Gentleman (2009) ****½ The first shot in this film, an austere, nearly pitch-perfect character study of two mismatched yet ideally matched souls, is of its director, the actor Michael Keaton, sitting on a park bench. Still as stone, he stares ahead in profile, sphinxlike. He doesn’t say a thing, but the scene overflows with meaning, from the ringing church bells to the somber wintry light and the shallow focus that has turned the world around him into an undifferentiated blur. He seems less lonely than simply and bluntly alone. This man, you learn within minutes, seems entirely at ease shooting another human being to death. He is Frank Logan, who when not wielding a gun is sitting at a sewing table in a men’s custom clothing shop. He’s a question mark of a character, a question that remains as unanswered at the end of this satisfying film as at the start. Much like the straightforward visual style he has adopted for this film, his first as a director, Mr. Keaton plays Frank without any attention-grabbing, important moments. Though he can be an extremely animated performer with a gunning motormouth, he plays the character with such physical reserve that, while Frank might not be dead, you feel he’s almost certainly already buried. Grade: A

Spread (2009) **½ When Nikki (Ashton Kutcher), a lanky, arrogant Hollywood stud, confides his secrets of seduction to the camera early in Spread, you wonder if this might be the breakthrough movie in which a male hustler is not required to pay for his sins. We’re in the 21st century, after all. And Nikki, and the women on whom he preys (he has no home or car) operate on a level playing field where the combatants are buffeted without suffering mortal wounds or moral disgrace. The rules of the game are roughly the same as those in Entourage and Californication. Casual opportunistic sex practiced by beautiful people of both sexes is an easy-come, easy-go transaction. Each month, Nikki estimates, 30,000 hot young things arrive in Hollywood prepared for battle. Mr. Kutcher, who sprawls around half-naked through much of the movie, exudes a goofy, rakish charm, but Spread, directed by David Mackenzie (Young Adam) from a screenplay by Jason Dean Hall, doesn’t attach to him a coherent story. Grade: C

The Ugly Truth (2009) * That tap-tap-tapping sound you hear is another nail being driven into the coffin of the romantic comedy. Over the years this sturdy if supple genre has survived extraordinary cultural and social changes, most notably the suffragist movement in the early part of the last century and women’s rights toward the latter. Liberated women, along with the pill, quickie divorces, swinging couples, blended families and various wars both abroad and at home might have dinged the genre, but it has endured and adapted, even when the story now hinges on boy meets boy meets boy (as in Shortbus) or pops up on the small screen (Sex and the City). When it comes to the old straight-boy-meets-straight-girl configuration with big-studio production values, however, you might as well forget it, at least if you’re a woman. Which leads to The Ugly Truth, a cynical, clumsy, aptly titled attempt to cross the female-oriented romantic comedy with the male-oriented gross-out comedy that is interesting on several levels, none having to do with cinema. Grade: D

Up (2009) ***½ In its opening stretch this Pixar movie flies high, borne aloft by a sense of creative flight and a flawlessly realized love story. Its on-screen and unlikely escape artist is Carl Fredricksen, a widower and former balloon salesman with a square head and a round nose that looks ready for honking. Voiced with appreciable impatience by Ed Asner, Carl isn’t your typical American animated hero. He’s 78, for starters, and the years have taken their toll on his lugubrious body and spirit, both of which seem solidly tethered to the ground. Even the two corners of his mouth point straight down. It’s as if he were sagging into the earth. Eventually a bouquet of balloons sends Carl and his house soaring into the sky, where they go up, up and away and off to an adventure in South America with a portly child, some talking (and snarling and gourmet-cooking) dogs and an unexpected villain. Though the initial images of flight are wonderfully rendered — the house shudders and creaks and splinters and groans as it’s ripped from its foundation by the balloons — the movie remains bound by convention, despite even its modest 3-D depth. This has become the Pixar way. Passages of glorious imagination are invariably matched by stock characters and banal story choices, as each new movie becomes another manifestation of the movie-industry divide between art and the bottom line. Grade: B+

A Woman in Berlin (2009) ***** Somewhere in the middle of this film, the anonymous title character (Nina Hoss) runs into an old friend. It is 1945, the German capital has recently fallen to the Soviet Army, and the two women exchange what is apparently a common greeting at that time and place: "How often?" The unspoken, self-evident meaning of this question is "How many Russian soldiers have raped you?" That such horrific information can be exchanged so matter-of-factly, even with rueful, stoical humor, can stand as a concise summary of the insights offered by Max Färberböck’s sprawling, difficult, powerful film. Grade: A+

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Yesterday's elections

A lot of pundits are looking at the results of yesterday's elections in New Jersey and Virginia and calling them a rebuke of President Obama and a shot in the arm for Republican conservatism. Those pundits need to look more closely.

Gov. John Corzine of New Jersey lost because he failed to deliver on the promises he made to New Jersey voters in the previous election. And although Republican Christopher Christie (pictured), who won with just 49 percent of the vote, ran an anti-tax campaign, he did not campaign as a social conservative and, in fact, those responding to exit polls who said they voted for him weren't sure where he stood on any major issue.

Republican Robert McDonnell won in Virginia because he promised to create jobs and fix the state's transportation system. He also ignored trademark social conservative issues like abortion and same-sex marriages.

In fact, the only person to run on issues dear to the heart of the Republican right-wingnuts lost. That was Douglas Hoffman, the conservative who forced the mainstream Republican, Dede Scozzafava, out of the race for the northernmost congressional district of New York state because she crossed the line on issues like abortion. Democrat Bill Owens won the election giving the seat to Democrats for the first time in just about everyone's memory.

So what did yesterday's elections prove? It proved voters want their political leaders to focus on sound policy making and forget about party orthodoxy. But, above all, it showed the No. 1 issue on the minds of voters right now is still the economy.

As for me, I still think we can.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Kinky and Medina factors

To me, the surprising result of the University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll unveiled today is not that Gov. Hair leads Sen. Hutch by 12 percent among Republicans, but that Kinky Friedman has a nine percentage point lead over Tom Schieffer among Democrats. Could Kinky win this primary on name recognition alone?

I doubt it. The primary is still seven-plus months away and although Kinky polled 19 percent to Scheiffer's 10, the actual leader was "undecided" with a whopping 55 percent of Democrats.

The poll also showed that either Hair or Hutch would trounce either Kinky or Scheiffer in a general election, if it were held today, although Hutch would actually fare better than Hair.

It's also time to mention the name -- or perhaps, "introduce the name" of would be more accurate -- of Debra Medina (pictured). Even more than Gov. Hair. Ms. Medina is the darling of Tea Party/Ron-Paul-loving Republican right wing. Even though she is being ignored by the mainstream media, she polled 7 percent among Republicans in this poll. If those numbers hold, she throws the primary into a runoff and opens the door for her to run as a third party candidate, perhaps on the Libertarian ticket. Ms. Medina is a gadfly community activist who shows up at all kinds of political rallies. Her campaign Web page says this about her:

"Born in Beeville and raised on a South Texas farm, Debra Medina is a wife and mother, a registered nurse, a businesswoman, a rancher and a fighter. Debra has always drawn strength from the courage of her convictions. She first got involved in politics in the early 1990s, when she saw that local leaders were not honoring the pro-life principles that guide her beliefs. Now chairing the Republican Party of Wharton County, she took the Republican Party of Texas to court in 2008 over violations in how the state convention was run."

The two main issues on her platform are eliminating property taxes and "using a broader based sales tax" to compensate, and protecting the right of all Texans to carry guns. She also wants term limits for ALL elected officials.

It will be fascinating to see how far these wacky ideas take her and what effect she will have on next year's elections.

The Mavs at 3-1

If anyone told me the Dallas Mavericks would be 3-1, especially after their opening game home loss to the Washington Wizards, which hasn't done a thing since, I would have told them they were crazy. It's not that I was overly concerned about the Wizards game -- it was the first game of the season so it obviously no patterns were developed ... yet. What I was concerned about was the schedule that took the Mavs to two games in Los Angeles, a home game against Utah and road games in New Orleans and San Antonio before the middle of November. I could easily see the Mavericks, if they played as badly as they did against Washington, being 2-6 on Nov. 12.

I did not see the Clippers game on Halloween but in the game against the Lakers and, for three quarters of last night's game against Utah (the home crowd booed the Mavs at the end of the third quarter), the Mavs continued to play at the same level they exhibited against the Wizards. They were fortunate in that the Lakers, especially, played worse.

The main topic of Mavericks discussion this morning is Dirk Nowtizki's record-setting 29 point performance in the fourth quarter of last night's game with the Jazz. Put that in perspective: With eight minutes left in the game, the Mavericks trailed by 16; they won the game by 11. That's a 27-point turnaround in the last eight minutes with Dirk scoring 29 in the last 12 minutes.

Sure, Dirk is grabbing all the headlines, but the entire team on the floor in those last eight minutes contributed to this win with superb defense, passing, rebounding -- the fundamentals to winning basketball games. If Coach Carlisle could find a way to bottle those last eight minutes and then uncork it for a full game, the Mavs would finish this season 81-1.

Of course, that's fantasy. But I am anxious to see what carries over tonight against New Orleans. Was that last eight minutes of last night's game an anomaly or a turning point?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Top 25 Texas High School Football teams

I ran across this nifty Internet set that ranks high school football teams all over the nation and the Texas section offers an option where the teams are ranked regardless of class. Here is its ranking of the 25 best high school football teams in the state (the last number in parenthesis is the team's ranking last week):
1. Austin Lake Travis (4A) 10-0 (1)
2. Southlake Carroll (5A) 8-1 (2)
3. Dallas Skyline (5A) 9-0 (4)
4. Allen (5A) 7-1 (5)
5. The Woodlands (5A) 9-0 (9)
6. Coppell (5A) 8-1 (7)
7. Missouri City L.V. Hightower (5A) 9-0 (10)
8. Abilene (5A) 8-0 (14)
9. Longview (4A) 9-1 (8)
10. Cedar Hill (5A) 9-0 (6)
11. Katy (5A) 8-1 (11)
12. Desoto (5A) 8-1 (12)
13. Tyler John Tyler (5A) 8-1 (3)
14 Spring Klein Collins (5A) 9-0 (20)
15. Euless Trinity (5A) 7-2 (15)
16. Round Rock Stony Point (5A) 8-1 (16)
17. Katy Cinco Ranch (5A) 9-0 (18)
18. Denton John H. Guyer (4A) 9-0 (19)
19. Gilmer (3A) 9-0 (21)
20. Waxahachie (4A) 9-0 (17)
21. Lufkin (5A) 7-2 (13)
22. Dallas Highland Park (4A) 8-1 (23)
23. Angleton (4A) 9-0 (25)
24. Flower Mound Marcus (5A) 5-3 (29)
25. Austin Westlake (5A) 7-2 (24)

Monday, November 2, 2009

New movies to be released tomorrow on DVD

Aliens in the Attic (2009) ** In Aliens in the Attic, basically a tweener cable movie on steroids, a group of intergalactic travelers comes to Earth with plans for widespread massacre and planetary domination. Most of the battling with the four-armed, knee-high green critters is done by a crew of young actors led by Carter Jenkins (the son in Surface) and Austin Robert Butler (Ruby and the Rockits). Ashley Tisdale, of High School Musical, is also on hand. The plot, a children’s adventure larded with some light twaddle about feeling different because you’re good at math, has a gimmick: the aliens possess a mind-control device, but it has been miscalibrated and works only on adults. The quick-thinking young heroes realize that rather than run to their parents for help, they need to keep the old folks out of the way while they figure out how to stop the invasion. This gives the filmmakers the excuse they need to spend most of their time focused on the youngsters and their animated foes, which physically resemble the nastier and much wittier monsters of Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984). Grade: C-

The Answer Man (2009) **½ This is a movie about the softening up of a curmudgeon: a familiar premise and not necessarily a terrible one. Jeff Daniels, playing a reclusive author of inspirational literature, is a fine curmudgeon (see The Squid and the Whale, for instance), and Lauren Graham is a perfectly effective curmudgeon softener (see Bad Santa). The cast also includes talented younger performers like Lou Taylor Pucci (Thumbsucker), Kat Dennings (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) and Olivia Thirlby (Juno). So far so good. The main problem is that the movie, in spite of some nice shots of Philadelphia, just doesn’t work. There are a few interesting ideas and potentially engaging characters, but everything slides around like a plateful of half-set Jello, convincing you of nothing beyond director John Hindman’s earnest intentions and uncertain skills. Grade: C

Food, Inc. (2009) ***½ Forget buckets of blood. Nothing says horror like one of those tubs of artificially buttered, nonorganic popcorn at the concession stand. That, at least, is one of the unappetizing lessons to draw from one of the scariest movies of the year, Food, Inc., an informative, often infuriating activist documentary about the big business of feeding or, more to the political point, force-feeding, Americans all the junk that multinational corporate money can buy. You’ll shudder, shake and just possibly lose your genetically modified lunch. Grade: B+

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) ½* This film offers gagging laughs, discount special effects, hoo-ha din and interchangeable action figures. The story here, spun off from the Hasbro-toy world and doubtless many notes from studio suits, follows the contemporary militaristic-movie template. Bad guys square off against good, amid heavy-metal machines, regularly timed explosions, conspicuously planted American flags, B-listers like Dennis Quaid and amusingly slumming indie talent like Sienna Miller and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The dialogue is expectedly risible, while the story is at once elemental and incomprehensible. You have to wonder how much longer the studios think they can force-feed such junk to a restless audience that’s only a few clicks away from other distractions. Grade: D-

I Love You, Beth Cooper (2009) *½ "It’s O.K. just to have fun sometimes," says a dad (Alan Ruck) to his anxious, nerdy son. So true. And if fun is what you’re looking for, you might want to avoid this film, a drab and incoherent teen comedy in which this nugget of advice appears. Directed by Chris Columbus with barely enough style and cinematic panache to eke out three minutes on YouTube, I Love You, Beth Cooper starts promisingly enough, with that anxious, nerdy son, Denis Cooverman (Paul Rust) delivering the valedictory address at his high school graduation. In a moment of reckless bravery that appears less and less in character as the picture wears on, he blurts out a number of shocking and uncomfortable truths about his classmates, including the five words that give the movie its name. Grade: D+

Lemon Tree (2009) ****½ Salma Zidane (Hiam Abbass), the proud, handsome 45-year-old Palestinian woman at the center of this film, an allegory of Israeli-Palestinian strife, has the misfortune of living in the wrong place at the wrong time. Widowed for 10 years, with a son in the United States, Salma earns a meager living from a lemon grove on the Green Line separating Israel from the occupied territories of the West Bank. The grove has been in her family for 50 years. Her solitary life suddenly turns upside down when the Israeli defense minister, Israel Navon (Doron Tavory), moves into a fancy new house that abuts the grove. Overnight a watchtower is constructed, and security guards and soldiers begin patrolling the property. No sooner have Navon and his beautiful, cultured wife, Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael), moved into the new house than Salma receives an official letter informing her that the grove poses a security threat from terrorists hiding among the trees and, as a military necessity, they must be uprooted. The letter, which Salma has translated because she neither speaks nor writes Hebrew, loftily offers to compensate her for her loss while mentioning that because of recent legislation, there is no legal obligation to do so. She weeps at the news. Thus begins an escalating war of words and of wills. Lemon Tree, directed by the Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis, whose 2004 movie, The Syrian Bride, explored Israeli-Arab border tensions, is also a wrenching, richly layered feminist allegory as well as a geopolitical one. Grade: A

Not Forgotten (2009) **½ February 2008: Simon Baker shoots Not Forgotten. March 2008: Simon Baker is cast in a new television series called The Mentalist. September 2009: Not Forgotten, a lurid yet plodding thriller, bobs to the surface in theaters, most likely to the chagrin of the now very hot Simon Baker. Mr. Baker and Paz Vega star as Jack and Amaya, an inordinately attractive couple living in a town near the Mexico border that is part Mayberry, part freak show. The abduction of their daughter (played by Chloe Moretz) sets in motion a plot full of twists that can be seen coming from some distance; the fact that the kidnapped girl is also the narrator doesn’t increase the suspense. Grade: C

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009) **** "I left my Rudy Giuliani suit at home," says the mayor of New York City, brushing off an aide’s plea to use an unfolding crisis as an opportunity to make a show of leadership for the cameras. Played by James Gandolfini with a demeanor more fussy than thuggish, this fictional successor to Mr. Giuliani presides over an identifiably post-Rudy, post-9/11 metropolis, a shiny, busy place ruled by money and ambition and shadowed less by fear of crime than by anxious memories of terrorism and perhaps by an intimation of leaner times ahead. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Tony Scott’s canny, energetic updating of the 1974 mass transit thriller, takes account of how much the character — to say nothing of the characters — of New York has changed since that almost mythic decade of decline and default. Like the original film, adapted from John Godey’s novel, this version, with a script by Brian Helgeland, deals with the brazen, borderline-insane hijacking of a local train on the Lexington Avenue line, but the subway system itself serves as an index of how the city and action-movie technology have evolved over the years. Grade: A-

Where God Left His Shoes (2008) **½ A fishy odor of unearned sanctimony clings to this movie, Salvatore Stabile’s queasy-making drama about a homeless New York family seeking shelter on a snowy Christmas Eve. The movie, which stars John Leguizamo as Frank Diaz, an illiterate, washed-up boxer who is the breadwinner for a family of four, including two stepchildren, flaunts irreconcilable ambitions. One moment it pretends to be a sober, neo-realist document; the next it’s a shameless tearjerker in the mode of The Champ. Grade: C