Friday, January 30, 2009

An alien on alien movies

I love the Weekly World News. While most supermarket tabloids publish articles of absolutely no journalistic worth ("How does Kate Winslet keep so trim" "What Angelina Jolie really plans for the twins" "The truth behind the Jessica-Tony splot rumors"), the Weekly World News uncovers the facts the regular media ignoes ("Aliens occupy 34 U.S. Senate seats," "Elvis is alive and well and serving as a political advisor to Sarah Palin").

In a recent issue, it had one of its alien correspondents, a creature named Mygar, list what folks in other parts of the galaxy consider the eight most influential alien movies ever to come out of Planet Earth. Here is the list, along with Mygar's comments:

8. Alien: A romantic tragedy for the ages. The story of an unnamed parasitic alien and the woman the stars destined him to be with. He is born into a confined and cruel world, unable to help what he is. Soon he falls in love with the strong and spirited Ripley, but she cannot understand his language and in ignorance kills him, committing his body to the stars. This has been turned into an opera in the Kleo system.

7. Close Encounters of the Third Kind: A rousing documentary of one fateful night in Earth’s history. The film is made ever more poignant by the final two hours, where the government hushes everything up, having been cut from the film so it could be marketed as a fictional narrative. A victim of its own message.

6. The Day the Earth Stood Still: The first use of actual aliens in cinema. After being abducted several times, writer Harry Bates eventually befriended his captors and they began a dialogue about the nature of mankind. Once released, Bates began working on a story based on his experience. It is a little known fact that during production, Bates was able to cast his new friends in small parts in the movie.

5. The Abyss: Written by an entirely alien staff, it gave voice to the Extra Terrestrial perspective on global affairs. It was a blatant metaphor, painted in broad strokes, but conveying the precise message that millions had wanted to say. Aliens even played a crucial part in the film. It was a distinct moment in a culture when aliens on earth finally felt that their voice was being heard.

4. Predator: The first openly gay alien to star in a Hollywood film. Rumors of a romantic affair between the two primary stars were never proven, but also never dis-proven. That two of the film’s principal actors went from action movie obscurity to elected office has only fueled the controversy.

3. Coccon: Few works of art can inspire hate-filled vitriol in dozens of species the way this film can. Riots broke out that covered entire planets once news of this film hit the airwaves. It is the benchmark of alien stereotypes in film: aliens having ‘magic’ powers, aliens forced to serve a lower life form, Steve Gutenberg. This film has become synonymous with insensitivity to inter-species relations, and as such has served as a warning sign to help promote healing across the galaxy.

2. Lilo & Stitch: Doesn’t everyone love this movie? It’s just fun, and depicts how friendly alien-human relations can be. And yes, I did cry a little the first time I watched it. I am mature and secure enough to admit that.

1. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians: Based of the epic of Kringlaar, which chronicled the failed Martian invasion of Venus. According to legend, after Kringlaar’s wife was put in stasis, he led the resistance to defeat the vastly superior Martian fleet. Originally intended to be much truer to the source material, arguments between the director and the studio led to the compromise of using an Earth folk hero in place of Kringlaar. The movie is still used in history classes throughout the system.

John Cornyn is a heartless bastard

How else do you explain the Texas senator's vote against insuring children? Last night Cornyn sided with 31 other Republicans in saying our children are far less important than big business (namely cigarette manufacturers and we all know what heroes those folks are). This was another example of this clown playing partisan politics over what's in the best interests of the people he is supposed to be representing. Geez, 66 senators (which means many Republicans) voted for this.

Someone, anyone, must come up with a credible candidate to challenge Cornyn when he's up for re-election again in 2014. That's bad for us here in Texas because we have to suffer this clown for another five years, but it's good for those looking for someone to challenge him. Where's Lloyd Doggett when we really need him?

Here's the final straw: The money needed to pay to provide insurance to low-income children and certain pregnant women will come from raising the cigarette tax from 39 cents to $1 a pack. That's a double anti-health whammy Cornyn delivered -- favoriing cigarette manufacturers over the health of children.

The sooner we're rid of this guy, the better.

Hunting with Angela again

There is no question that Angela Hunt is the City Council's most coherently outspoken member. There are times that I have agreed with her passions (the proposed Trinity River Tollway) and many times I have not (the convention center hotel. Jenny the Elephant, her reluctance trim sanitation services expenses while demagoguing about the low pay of non-city employees as though they were city employees, immediately come to mind).

This time around I must applaud her arguments for better planning that will provide Dallas with more walkable and, thus, more livable neighborhoods. In this blog entry, she argues for mass transportation over mass highway and street construction (something I have been advocating for years and which was the basis of my opposition to the Trinity Tollway) and she holds up Vancouver as an example Dallas should follow when it comes to how to create a livable city and not just be a whore for the suburbs, which we are today.

Her arguments are a must-read for anyone who cares about the future of this city.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Make way for the real dirty politics

Final Oscar ballots were mailed to voters today and the contenders wasted absolutely no time in revving up their campaigns. The dirtiest one so far appears to be the one for best picture.

It is assumed as I write this that "Slumdog Millionaire" is way out in front in this race but we'll know more this weekend when the Directors Guild hands out its awards. Second place right now is being conceded to "Benjamin Button," which is the only Hollywood studio product in the running, and the "Button" folks wasted no time in trying to sully "Slumdog"'s rep. A letter was sent to many voters, timed to arrive in their mailboxes today, accusing the makers of "Slumdog Millionaire" of exploitation, especially in their handling and paying of the Indian actors and extras who appeared in the film. According to the mailer, they were treated and paid only slightly better than slave labor. I have been told that "Button" promoters were behind the mailing. "Slumdog Millionaire" wasted absolutely no time refuting the charges, addressing each one specifically and, one hopes, honestly. I don't think "Benjamin Button" did itself any favors and, in fact, may have even hurt its chances.

If any film now has a chance to overtake "Slumdog" for the big enchilada, it appears to be "Milk." Its campaign has been one of slowly building momentum; in fact, the film finally goes into wide release tomorrow, just in time for the Oscar voters to see it at a theater near them. It will be released with all the accompany Oscar hoopla -- i.e. "Nominated for 8 Oscars including Best Actor Sean Penn and Best Picture" -- appearing in the local ads.

The other thing "Milk" has going for it is the "Brokeback Mountain" backlash. The Hollywood community has finally expressed its embarrassment at awarding a best picture Oscar to "Crash" when it should have gone to "Brokeback Mountain" and it is worried that the charges of homophobia that accompanied that mistake might actually stick. Therefore, this current theory (and silent campaign taking advantage of that theory) goes, that to prove its tolerance, voters will name "Milk" the surprise best picture winner this time around. Hollywood might also want to give its highest award to a film that actually has something to say instead of a glorified love story without a single recognizable Hollywood face in its entire cast.

Frankly, I don't see it. Well, I see "Milk" earning more support than "Benjamin Button," but I think the "Slumdog Millionaire" train has gathered too much steam to be stopped now. However, ballots don't have to be returned to the Academy's offices until Feb. 17 and a lot can happen between now and then. Three years ago, folks were saying the same thing about "Brokeback Mountain" that they are saying about "Slumdog Millionaire" today and we all know how that story ended.

This is like McDonald's buying out Del Frisco's

I'm probably the last person on the planet to hear about it, but, still, I'm a little bit disturbed and apprehensive over the news that Planet Hollywood has purchased the Bucca di Beppo chain of Italian restaurants. Admittedly, I am not a regular patron of Bucca's -- probably been there not more than thrice in my life and one of those times was strictly for a chocolate cannoli -- but then I am not a regular patron of any chain restaurant. My local Italian restaurant of choice is the same today as it was when I moved to Dallas 40 years ago, Pietro's on Richmond just east of Lowest Greenville Ave. And I have never been to a Planet Hollywood -- never even had the slightest inkling to drop in on one. So why the news of this purchase rub me the wrong way? I dunno, but it has something to do with dragging down one place I have been eaten at to the level of a place I never had a desire to eat at. Make sense? Well, to me it does.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Bypassed by the Boss


Bruce Springsteen is launching a U.S. tour beginning about two months after his Super Bowl halftime show Sunday, but it appears the closest he will come to Dallas is Austin. The only other scheduled Texas stop in the tour is Houston. There are some open dates where he could squeeze in a Dallas stop, but they would require four shows in four consecutive nights in four different cities and Bruce doesn't even have three consecutive nights booked for this tour so a Dallas stop seems highly unlikely.

However, Bruce's tours usually have more than one leg. I wouldn't be a bit surprised to see, after his May hometown dates, Bruce and the E-Street Band head over to Europe for a couple of months and then return for more U.S. shows in the fall, during which he will play Dallas.

Anyway, here's how the tour shapes up right now:

4/1, San Jose, CA (HP Pavilion at San Jose)
4/3, Glendale, CA (Jobing.com Center)
4/5, Austin, TX (Frank Erwin Center)
4/7, Tulsa, OK (BOK Center)
4/8, Houston, TX (Toyota Center)
4/10, Denver, CO (Pepsi Arena)
4/15, Los Angeles, CA (LA Memorial Sports Arena)
4/21-22, Boston, MA (TD Banknorth Garden)
4/24, Hartford, CT (XL Center)
4/26, Atlanta, GA (Philips Arena)
4/28-29, Philadelphia, PA (Wachovia Spectrum)
5/2, Greensboro, NC (Greensboro Coliseum)
5/4, Hempstead, NY (Nassau Veterans Mem. Col.)
5/5, Charlottesville, VA (John Paul Jones Arena)
5/7, Toronto, ONT (Air Canada Centre)
5/8, University Park, PA (Bryce Jordan Center)
5/11, St. Paul, MN (Xcel Energy Center)
5/12, Chicago, IL (United Center)
5/14, Albany, NY (Times Union Center)
5/15, Hershey, PA (Hersheypark Stadium)
5/18, Washington, DC (Verizon Center)
5/19, Pittsburgh, PA (Mellon Arena)
5/21, E. Rutherford, NJ (Izod Center)
5/23, E. Rutherford, NJ (Izod Center)

All things considered, I would rather be on a subsequent leg. This tour is designed to promote today's release of his "Working on a Dream" CD. The last time Bruce played Dallas it was on the first leg of his "Magic" tour and on that night, as he did on most nights of the first leg of that tour, the bulk of the 2-hour show consisted of tunes from the new CD. By the time the second and third legs came around, however, Bruce was back to his normal self -- 3+-hour shows with the setlist changing dramatically every night.

I would love to see one of those Bruce marathons here in Dallas, but, since (unlike Austin and Houston) Dallas has never been that Bruce-friendly, I guess I'll just have to keep my fingers crossed, say a few prayers and hope.

Button, Button, Who Lost the Button?

Here is a fascinating article in which the writer describes a scenario in which "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" will lose all 13 Oscars for which it is nominated. Now, I'm not the biggest "Button" fan, but I can't see it being shut out at the Oscars. I don't see it winning any of the Top 8 Oscars, but I do see it winning at least two technical awards, Makeup and Visual Effects.

Monday, January 26, 2009

New movies to be released tomorrow on DVD

College (2008) ½* The grime, filth, slop, vomit, and crotch-nibbling pigs double all too easily as a recipe for this movie’s failure. It hasn’t been made so much as excreted.

Fireproof (2008) * Makes for fruitful soul-fishing but lousy drama.

Holly (2007) **½ A fairly good movie about an evil subject.

Lakeview Terrace (2008) ** Grabs a fistful of hot-button story elements — race, sex, politics — and promptly mixes them into the thriller equivalent of tapioca.

The Lucky Ones (2008) ** There’s something centrally pat and predictable about the coincidence-laden story, and by the time they get to Vegas, the film has been all but done in by a surfeit of serendipity.

Pride and Glory (2008) ** A movie full of actors improvising their idea of how cops in a Scorsese flick would talk. It’s a special sort of cartoonishness, a hard-to-pin-down brand of emotionally grandstanding fakeness you sometimes see in movies trying way too hard to be "gritty."

The Rocker (2008) ** Too bad it shortchanges the music and fails to provide much evidence for Rainn Wilson’s appeal.

RocknRolla (2008) **½ Writer/Director Guy Ritchie whisks you along on a whirlwind tour, but he’s not averse to putting on the brakes long enough to admire some of his favorite attractions.

Splinter (2008) **½ It’s short, taut, nicely shot, well-acted, astutely directed, specific where it might have been generic, original enough to be engrossing and derivative enough to be amusing.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) *** Gotham gives way to Gaudi and the Met to Miro, but the sensibility is the same, the city as a precious treasure, and so is the message: Life may be hard and short, love may be flawed or doomed, but, my, aren’t we blessed with lovely distractions.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes

In an article that will appear in Sunday's New York Times Review of Books, Mimi Schwartz, an executive editor at Texas Monthly writes:

It may be hard for outsiders to accept, but there is, in fact, a Texas canon. Opinions vary, but my list would include T. R. Fehrenbach’s “Lone Star,” John Bainbridge’s “Super Americans,” John Graves’s “Goodbye to a River,” Larry McMurtry's “Lonesome Dove” and his nonfiction classic “In a Narrow Grave,” certain Molly Ivins columns, the Texas portions of Willie Morris’s “North Toward Home,” Billy Lee Brammer’s “Gay Place,” ­Tommy Thompson’s vastly underrated “Blood and Money” and Edna Ferber’s “Giant.” Not all of these works are great literature, and not all of them were written by ­Texans, but they’re all required reading if you want to understand the Texas soul. It’s a complicated thing, a roiling psychic stew of narcissism, ambition, brilliance, humor, vengefulness, pettiness, fearlessness and, of course, a bottomless pit of need. (For what? Pretty much ­everything.)

This pargraph begins her review of a new book, “The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes,” by Bryan Burroughs that chronicles the lives of Houston's Roy Cullen, Fort Worth's Sid Richardson and Dallas' Clint Murchison and H.L. Hunt. “If Texas Oil had a Mount Rushmore, their faces would adorn it,” Burrough writes. “A good ol’ boy. A scold. A genius. A bigamist. Known in their heyday as the Big Four, they became the founders of the greatest Texas family fortunes, headstrong adventurers who rose from nowhere to take turns being acclaimed America’s wealthiest man.”

Schwartz says Burroughs' book makes for "lively reading," but, in the end, the author "bit off a little more than he could chew." At 466 pages, that does seem likely.

Peanut butter recalls

Here is a list of all the peanut butter products that the FDA has ordered recalled because of the risk they might be salmonella-tainted. The list includes candy, cookie dough, dog biscuits and such popular brand names as Little Debbie, Famous Amos and NutriSystems. However, one product not on the list is jars of peanut butter, like Skippy or Peter Pan, sold on grocery shelves. Figure that one out.

Out in the West Texas town of El Paso

Most of my visits to El Paso have been just passing through on my way somewhere else. There was a time, 30 years or so ago, that I covered a border meeting between then President Jimmy Carter and the then president of Mexico, but on that occasion I was shuttled around with the rest of the White House press corps and had absolutely no time ro explore El Paso on my own.

However, there was an occasion 20 years ago when I accompanied some Mexican tourist officials, called the Green Angels, on an extensive tour of Texas cities and one of our last stops was in El Paso, where we spent a couple of days. Now, it doesn't take a couple of days to see everything El Paso has to offer; hell, it doesn't even take a couple of hours. And one of the things we learned very quickly was that if we wanted a decent restaurant meal, we couldn't find it in El Paso. We had to cross the border to Ciudad Juárez.

At this time in history, El Paso was an anomaly among Texas border towns. It was dull, lifeless, backwater, stagnant, while its sister city on the other side of the Rio Grande was alive, vibrant and far more cosmopolitan. Obviously, according to this story in today's New York Times, this situation is no longer true. Juárez seems to be nothing more than the preferred turf for staging gangland drug wars. But what really made me sad was this paragraph:

"Across the river, the once-vibrant streets of Juárez are dark and gloomy, as residents scurry for home. The restaurants, bars and nightclubs that catered to American tourists, students and soldiers from Fort Bliss are shutting down for a lack of business."

There goes my only reason for ever wanting to spend time in El Paso.

The Chicago Cubs have a new owner and he's not Cuban

I'm not sure how much praise this is, exactly, but Mark Cuban is the best owner the Dallas Mavericks have ever had. I would also say Cuban is a superior sports franchise owner than anyone individual or group of individuals who have ever owned the Texas Rangers. Maybe that speaks more the quality of owners more than anything else, but there you have it.

From a number of items I have read (admittedly, I never addressed Cuban himself on this subject) I gathered he also wanted to own the Chicago Cubs baseball team. There were all kinds of questions that grew out of this interest. Was he too flamboyant for the staid image of baseball? Would other owners even grant him admission into their country club? If he couldn't produce an NBA championship, what makes him qualified to produce a World Series winner? Did he have the bandwidth to devote the required attention to the Chicago Cubs, the Dallas Mavericks, HD Net and what-have-you?

I actually thought those questions and others were being debated until I read this Associated Press Story which (1) announced the sale of Cubs to one Tom Ricketts, a member of the family that founded TD Ameritrade and someone who met his wife in the bleachers at Wrigley Field, and (2) said that Cuban was not even one of the finalists considered for the purchase. In fact, nowhere in this story does the name Mark Cuban even appear.

Did I miss something along the way? Did Cuban withdraw his offer? Was the Tribune Company, the current Cubs owners, just toying with him? Whatever, I'm personally happy that he is still just the owner of the Dallas Mavericks -- not that he can make them contenders anytime in the near future, but at least he restored some semblance of competition and excitement to pro basketball in Dallas.

But, hey, Mark, if you want to get a WNBA franchise for these parts, I'm behind you 100 percent.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Why "The Reader"?

Pete Hammond of the Los Angeles Times had an interesting theory on why "The Reader" snuck in as the fifth best picture nominee. Two of its producers were Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella, two well-respected giants of the industry, both of whom died last year. This could be the community's respectful way of saying "good-bye dear friends."

Immediate reaction to the Oscar nominations

Nothing major to quibble about, although I could probably come up with a couple of thousand films better suited for that fifth best picture nomination than "The Reader" (I'll start with "Wall-E" and include "The Wrestler" and "Rachel Getting Married'). But then there's an old Hollywood expression -- that's especially true around awards time -- that "There's no business like Shoah business."

I still don't see what all the "Benjamin Button" fuss is about, except for its technical aspects, but I knew it was going to get the most nominations, so there you have it. I was delighted to see Richard Jenkins' name among the final five for best actor, but mildly surprised that he took Clint Eastwood's spot and not Brad Pitt's, whose acting here is largely the result of makeup and CGI. I think he displays two, perhaps even three, emotions in the film.

I am somewhat angry that Bruce Springsteen's "The Wrestler" wasn't among the song nominees and surprised that only three, not five, songs were nominated.

My major disappointments were in the writing category, especially in the original screenplay nominations. I have no trouble with "Wall-E" and "Milk," but I would rank the screenplays of "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," "The Visitor," "The Wrestler" and "Rachel Getting Married" above the other three films that were nominated in that category. I would also rank the adaptation of "Revolutionary Road" ahead of the adaptation of "The Reader," although neither were as fine as the adaptation of "Tell No One."

Finally, I was glad to see the Academy didn't buy into Kate Winslet as a supporting actress in "The Reader," as did the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and even the Screen Actors Guild. I still think her performance in "Revolutionary Road" was more nuanced and if the genders had been reversed in "The Reader" -- if it had been an older man seducing a teen-age girl -- then the part would have been reviled more than praised. Of course, no one in my estimation will ever pull this off better than Anne Bancroft and, in "The Graduate," Benjamin was a couple of years removed from being a teenager.

Right now, I would list the favorites in the major categories as:
Picture, Director -- "Slumdog Millionaire." No other nominee comes close to matching this one.
Actor -- Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler." Rourke's tale is like a real-life "Rocky" and his only competition seems to be Sean Penn, who is respected, but not that well liked by the Hollywood community.
Actress -- Kate Winslet because voters will be showing their support for her performances both in "The Reader" and "Revolutionary Road." Only Meryl Streep has that two-movie approach going for her and since "Mama Mia" didn't get nominated for anything ...
Supporting Actor -- Are you kidding me? Can you see anyone other than Heath Ledger winning this?
Supporting Actress -- Perhaps the most interesting of the major races, especially now that Winslet is out of the picture. I'm going to rule out Taraji P. Henson because the luster around "Bejamin Button" is fading. Amy Adams' award is the nomination itself and I'm tempted to eliminate Viola Davis because she is only in one scene in "Doubt" (although that one scene is a blockbuster because of her performance). So that leaves Marisa Tomei and I can see the Academy voting for her just to justify their decision in the face of the poor reaction the last time she won this award, and Penelope Cruz, just because the Academy loves to vote for supporting players in Woody Allen films.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Final Oscar Predictions

The nominations for the 2008 Academy Awards will be announced tomorrow. Here are my predictions (listed in alphabetical order):


Picture
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Frost/Nixon
Milk
Slumdog Millionaire
Possible: Any picture knocking out one of these five would be a major shock.


DIRECTOR
Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon
Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight
Gus Van Sant, Milk
Possible: Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler


ACTOR
Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino
Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn, Milk
Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Possible: Richard Jenkins, The Visitor


ACTRESS
Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
SallyHawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Angelina Jolie, The Changeling
Meryl Streep, Doubt
Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road
Possible: Melissa Leo, Frozen River


SUPPORTING ACTOR
Josh Brolin, Milk
Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Dav Patel, Slumdog Millionaire
Possible: Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road


SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Christina Barcelona
Viola Davis, Doubt
Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
Kate Winslet, The Reader
Possible: Amy Adams, Doubt


ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Milk
Rachel Getting Married
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Wall-E
The Wrestler
Possible: Happy-Go-Lucky


ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Doubt
Frost/Nixon
Slumdog Millionaire
Possible: The Reader


FILM EDITING
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Frost/Nixon
Milk
Slumdog Millionaire
Possible: None that I can see


CINEMATOGRAPHY
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
The Reader
Revolutionary Road
Slumdog Millionaire
Possible: Australia


ART DIRECTION
The Changeling
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
The Duchess
Revolutionary Road
Possible: Slumdog Millionaire


SOUND MIXING
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Iron Man
Slumdog Millionaire
Wall-E
Possible: Quantum of Solace


SOUND EDITING
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Iron Man
Quantum of Solace
Wall-E
Possible: Slumdog Millionaire


COSTUME DESIGN
Australia
The Changeling
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Duchess
Revolutionary Road
Possible: The Dark Knight


ORIGINAL SCORE
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Milk
Slumdog Millionaire
Wall-E
Possible: Defiance


ORIGINAL SONG
Down to Earth, Wall-E
Gran Torino, Gran Torino
I Thought I Lost You, Bolt
Jai-Ho, Slumdog Millionaire
The Wrestler, The Wrestler
Possible: Once in a Lifetime, Cadillac Records


MAKE-UP
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Tropic Thunder
Possible: The Reader


VISUAL EFFECTS
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Iron Man
Possible: Australia


ANIMATED FEATURE
Kung Fu Panda
Wall-E
Waltz with Bashir
Possible: Bolt


FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
The Baadar Meinhof Complex
The Class
Everlasting Moments
Revanche
Waltz With Bashir
Possible: The Necessities of Life


DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Encounters at the End of the World
I.O.U.S.A.
Man On Wire
Standard Operating Procedure
Trouble the Water
Possible: They Killed Sister Dorothy

No Burning Bush

In his inaugural address, President Barack Obama let his predecessor have it yesterday. It was subtle, but it was clear. With the outgoing President sitting only a few feet behind him, President Obama blamed much of America's current problems on an era of “of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age" and, in an obvious reference to Guantanamo and the suspension of rights for anyone suspected of terrorism, a willingness to suspend our ideals "for expedience's sake."

“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord," the new President said. "On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn- out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

He said from now on Americans must make decisions based on science and not ideology and that our military power does not "entitle us to do as we please." He criticized policies that "use energy to strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.”

He said the current economic crisis showed how “without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control” and that the nation has to extend the reach of prosperity to “every willing heart, not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.”

Personally, I found it exhilarating that, after eight years of policies based on exploiting our fears, I heard a President reject “as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” And, after eight years of hearing a President dividing the world between Americans and those who hate us, I found it refreshing to hear a President offering to “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

In an analysis that appeared in the New York Times today, David E. Sanger wrote that President Obama's speech "must have come as a bit of a shock to Mr. Bush, who knew his policies had been widely criticized, yet rarely over the past eight years had to sit in silence listening to a speech about how America had taken a tragic detour. "

Actually, I think the truth rolled off Bush much as it has throughout his presidency. In fact, when he returned to Midland yesterday, Mr. Bush told an awaiting crowd: "“When I walked out of the Oval Office this morning, I left with the same values that I took to Washington eight years ago; when I go home tonight and I look into the mirror, I’m not going to regret what I see.”

And that, in summation, will always be Mr. Bush's greatest flaw, which makes him either a tragic figure of Shakespearean proportions, a puppet of the Chaney-Rove ideological machine or just plain stupid. History will provide the answer to that one.

Monday, January 19, 2009

A Sharp tuition idea

John Sharp, the former Texas comptroller and now a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate used the occasion of Martin Luther King Day to propose "a new initiative to pay the college tuition of any young person who gives one year of his or her time working at a neighborhood school, a community hospital, a housing program, an environmental clean-up operation, or another approved public service project. "

Writing in the Burnt Orange Report, Sharp said America's biggest challenge is facing the competition that will come from China and other emerging economies.

"That means strengthening our educational and economic infrastructure to keep us ahead of the technology that serves as the foundation of our future progress and prosperity," Sharp writes. "We need to raise our game in education especially, starting with universal pre-K programs and basic elementary school skills so that we can do a better job of feeding our universities, which are still the best in the world. If we raise the number of American workers with high-school diplomas and college degrees, we will also raise incomes across the board. "

Dirk does it


Granted, it shouldn't have been that close, seeing that the Mavs were up by 13 at one point in the fourth quarter, but Dirk Nowitzki's jumper that slipped through the basket with no time left in the game to give the Mavericks a 95-93 win over Philadelphia, ending the 76ers seven-game winning streak, was about as thrilling as it gets.

Martin Luther King Jr. -- In His Own Words

Lest we forget: Here is Rev. Martin Luther King's Nobel Prize acceptance speech and here, of course, is his I Have a Dream speech.

Tomorrow, as we celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, it is interesting to revisit the close of the Rev. King's address at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963:

"When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'"

Gay Carrey film receives positive vibes at Sundance


"I Love You Phillip Morris," a film about a onetime married police officer turned gay Texas con man (played by Jim Carrey) and the passionate love affair he has with a man Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor) he meets in prison after he's sentenced for credit card fraud, is receving a lot of positive attention at the Sundance Film Festival, although it has yet to pick up a domestic distributor. Apparently it was originally scheduled to be directed by Gus Van Sant, but he dropped out to make "Milk." It now sports co-directing credit for Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. It will be interesting to see how Carrey's usual audience responds to this one.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Gump

Ever since the film was released, I have said "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" reminded me a lot of another highly overrated film, "Forrest Gump." Judging from this funny video, I am not the only person who feels this way.

New movies to be released tomorrow on DVD

The Children of Huang Shi (2008) *½ An old-fashioned story of courage and self-sacrifice in the face of war and deprivation. It’s also sappy, boring and obvious.

City of Ember (2008) **½ For a kiddie adventure, the movie, based on the Jeanne DuPrau book, has a pleasingly moody, eerie quality.

Elsa & Fred (2008) ** This begins to get interesting in the home stretch, as the woman’s chronic deception begins to catch up with her, but for the most part it’s an extended Geritol commercial.

The Express (2008) **½ Has Dennis Quaid really never played a college football coach before? With his handsome, craggy face and likable intensity, he was born for the job, and he’s the main attraction in this film.

Henry Poole Is Here (2008) ** It’s easy to see how a film so unafraid of religious touchstones could become a phenomenon among the faithful. Nonbelievers, however, need not apply.

Igor (2008) *½ An animated twist on the Frankenstein story that never sparks to life.

Max Payne (2008) * A banal revenge melodrama-cum-detective story, but fans of the video game on which it is based should not be alarmed.

Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008) * The biggest mystery about this film is why the grisly Goth-horror musical opened the week after Halloween. The second-biggest mystery is why this unfunny, unscary, preposterous bloodbath about organ transplants opened at all.

Save Me (2008) **½ An earnest drama about the futility of "rescuing" gay men back to Jesus, this film presents a paradox: It’s an issue drama in which the most compassionately drawn character is on the other side of the issue.

Saw V (2008) ½* Oh, Jigsaw. Here we go again. You kill. I doze off. Someone at the studio goes "ka-ching!"

Sputnik Mania (2008) *** The archival footage here is great, and the cosmos-conquering craziness will satisfy space-race nuts.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Obama party more variety show than concert

The We Are One gala is underway and already it has featured appearances by Denzel Washington, Mary J. Bilge, Laura Linney, Martin Luther King III and Bruce Springsteen. But it appears that each of the performers are going to get one song -- it's not going to be a concert so much as a variety show. That's OK, because I got to see Bruce perform a nice E-Street Band-less version of "The Rising" (interesting choice there) along with a stirring choir that I didn't get an opportunity to identify.

1:56 p.m.: Bettye Lavette (who deserves much wider recognition) and Jon Bon Jovi are dueting on "A Change is Gonna Come."

2:07: James Taylor and friends sing "Shower the People" following Tom Hanks' (with a Marine Corps orchestra) tribute to the words of Abraham Lincoln and a short talk on compassion from Marisa Tomei.

Now it's off to Austin to pick up the granddaughter. Yeah!

Obama party free on HBO

President-elect Barack Obama's pre-inaugural party today at the Lincoln Memorial will be televised live by HBO and is free to anyone with cable or a dish. That's right, you don't have to be an HBO subscriber to watch it. Why should you bother? Because it will feature concert performances from Bruce Springsteen and U2 and you can't get much better than that in one afternoon -- NFL playoffs notwithstanding.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The problems with the Cowboys

In an article headlined "Crappy New Year" in the current issue of the Dallas Observer, Richie Witt argues (or at least this is what I think he is arguing) that asking Dallas Cowboys coach Wade Phillips to undergo a personality transplant is akin to asking Terrell Owens to ignore a live microphone or a television camera. Can't be done. Shouldn't even be tried. So what should be done? I guess Witt is suggesting the Cowboys should fire Wade Phillips.

Too late for that now, I says. Not only that, firing Phillips won't solve the problem.

There's a telling paragraph in Witt's story. In discussing the Cowboys' 1-3 showing in December, Witt wrote "Quarterback Tony Romo significantly regressed in ball security, body language and gritty leadership. Flozell Adams repeatedly forgot the snap count. Owens dropped passes. Roy Williams ran lazy routes. Ken Hamlin missed tackles. Andre Gurode lobbed mistimed snaps. DeMarcus Ware disappeared."

A simple change in one football coach is not going to correct all these problems and besides the best coaching candidate out there for the Cowboys -- New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels -- has already been snapped up by the Denver Broncos. (I kept thinking to myself, if McDaniels could craft Matt Cassell, someone who had not started a football game since high school, into a quarterback of an 11-5 NFL team, imagine what he could do with Romo. Ahh, but it's not to be.)

Let's face it: The Dallas Cowboys are not a football team, they are an ego-driven cast of a bad soap opera about a family more dysfunctional than the Sopranos. This is an outfit that needs to be imploded and then completely rebuilt if it ever intends to regain any sense of credibility. Unfortunately, I do not anticipate that happening because of Ego No. 1 and that, of course, is Jerry Jones.

Jones is a supreme businessman, one of the best this town has ever seen. As a football general manager, however, he is a disaster. The Dallas Cowboys are the only team in the NFL -- the only one -- whose owner is also its general manager. Whaddya think -- that all the rest of the NFL operates incorrectly and the Cowboys are the only ones doing it right? I don't think so.

If the Cowboys are to reach the level that Whitt and a lot of others demand, then Jerry Jones must concentrate on the business of running the Dallas Cowboys organization, hire a top-notch football brain to be the team's general manager, let that new GM hire a football coach with whom the GM can work and let them assemble a football team to replace the individual characters who currently take up place on the Cowboys roster.

The alternative is that the Cowboys maintain the organizational status quo, hire another hamstrung coach (Whitt claims "respected, credible candidates abound -- Mike Shanahan, Bill Cowher, Marty Schottenheimer..." but I think those three are way too smart to operate under Jones.) and continue being this disunited bunch of characters who somehow manage to have a slightly better than .500 record and may make it every now and then to the playoffs where they will lose on the road in the first round.

Is Angela Hunt another tool of the union?

Yesterday's post, which appears right below this one, discussed how the Service Employees International Union (SIEU) had purchased the votes of a number of Dallas City Council members, forcing those members to vote against the best interests of Dallas citizens and taxpayers and, in doing so, forcing these council members to mumble gibberish to mask the real reasons why they were voting the way they were.

I didn't think District 14 council member Angela Hunt was among them, but now I am not so sure. She is either mumbling the gibberish or she is just stupid and I don't think the latter is true. In her blog explanation in which she explained why she voted to defer a decision on a system for the Sanitation Department that could save the city and thus us taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, Ms. Hunt said "if we do have an extra $700k, I think we should spend it on giving our sanitation workers a raise. They make minimum wage right now, and $700k would almost get them to a living wage."

One would think that someone inside the City of Dallas, like a city council person, would know more about the operations of that city than someone outside the city, like yours truly. That's why I think Hunt is masking her union buyout with false gibberish. First "our sanitation workers," as she calls them, make far more than minimum wage. Second "our sanitation workers," those that are employed by the City of Dallas and receive pay checks from the City of Dallas are the truck drivers, the workers the SEIU wants to unionize. Many of these trucks are automated and, with the carts the city provides residents, a driver can dump a resident's garbage into his truck without ever leaving his cab. In some cases, however, laborers are needed to manually retrieve the trash and dump them into the truck. These laborers, who are NOT City of Dallas employees, are NOT paid by the city, are the ones making minimum wage. They work for a company that won the bid to provide this service to the city.

Now, do these workers deserve more money? Sure they do. I'm not going to argue about that. But the way to accomplish this and the only way to accomplish this, and I would be shocked if Ms. Hunt didn't know this, is by forcing the issue when the current contract for this labor expires. When that's about to happen, the City Council should vote to instruct the Procurement Department to insist, in its request for bids, that all those who reply agree to pay their laborers $XXXX, whatever amount the council decides. Of course, that means the contract will be more expensive, our sanitation fees will increase, perhaps as much as 15 cents a month (perhaps more if the union succeeds in killing the GPS plan), but that is the only way to raise the pay for these workers.

Ms. Hunt is also misrepresenting another fact. She wrote in that same blog entry "If we cleared the problem alleys, we'd speed up service and prevent our men from speeding down streets to make up for lost time (not that they should be speeding anyway). I don't really think we've got the money to do this... " The truth is, she knows the City doesn't have enough money to do this. She was presented with a detailed analysis of what such an endeavor would cost -- $23 million. Why she just doesn't come clean with all this is beyond me. I offered two possible reasons, both of which frighten me.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Dallas City Council members aren't stupid, they're for sale

Yesterday I mistakenly accused certain members of the Dallas City Council of stupidity for voting to defer a GPS program for the Sanitation Department that would save the city, and thus us taxpayers, a couple hundred thousand dollars a year. I need to apologize for those comments. I realize now these council members are not stupid, they just play that way on television. The truth is that many of them -- Dr. Elba Garcia, Pauline Medrano, Steve Salazar, Tennell Atkins, even Mayor Tom Leppert -- are just typical political hacks for sale to the highest bidder.

In this case, the highest bidder is the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the fastest-growing union in the country. It is the largest union representing health care and property services workers, but only the second largest representing public employees. It desperately wants to unionize City of Dallas employees and the Sanitation Department's hourly employees have told union leaders they would entertain the union's overtures if it could defeat the GPS. Thus, SEIU has put a full-court press on the Dallas City Council and, so far, seems to be winning, at our expense.

Let me make this clear right now. There is nothing illegal going on here, as far as I can tell. The SEIU is simply telling these council members "Play ball with us and we'll make sure significant sums of moneys will be contributed to your re-election (or, in the case of Dr. Garcia, her initial election campaign for a County Commissioners seat) campaign. Atkins, who will face a stiff challenge from LeVar Thomas in May, Salazar who also has an opponent and Medrano have all bought in. Da Mayor is caught in the middle on this one -- he wants the system installed but he has agreed not to buck the union. As a result, during yesterday's debate, he relinquished the chair to pro-union Mayor Pro Tem Garcia and was absent when the vote to defer was taken (he later went on record posting a "no" vote because, by then it didn't matter anyway -- his vote made the final tally 8-5 to defer). Dwayne Carraway and Carolyn Davis seem to be in the same place as Da Mayor -- they also mysteriously disappeared during this discussion.

Which brings me to District 5 council member Vonciel Jones Hill who, acting in the best interests of her constituents and the rest of the city, told the SEIU where it could stuff it. She told union officials to their faces she would welcome their campaign contributions but that no amount of money could buy her vote.

I must also criticize the city's staff for not doing all it could have to defend our (ordinary taxpayers') interests. The proponents of this system should label this proposal what it is -- a money saver -- and force those council members bought and paid for by the SEIU to be on the record as voting against saving taxpayer money and then forcing them to defend that decision. The GPS systems is merely a means to reach that money-savings end. So when Mr. Atkins starts mumbling something about stormwater fees, as he did at yesterday's council meeting, City Manager Mary Suhm or Assistant City Manager Ramon Miguez must say "This has nothing to do with stormwater fees, Mr. Atkins, but it could go a long way to keeping our sanitation fees down." Don't let the agenda become stormwater fees, branches in alleyways (council member Angela Hunt's irrelevant digression) or wages paid to non-city employees.

The staff also needs to find why council member Mitchell Rasansky, the self-proclaimed champion of saving taxpayers money, is not on the side he normally takes on this issue. Rasansky is not running for re-election. I have yet to hear whether he's planning to run for any other office. And, even if he did, he has enough money in his campaign coffers that he wouldn't be tempted by the SEIU. My feeling is Mr. Rasansky has this petty beef going on with the city's Procurement Department (he considers them all jerks of the highest order) and he is letting this blind him. The staff also needs to meet with council member Linda Koop and get her onboard with the benefits of this program. Ms. Koop is knowledgeable about all things involving transportation, is familiar with the efficiencies of GPS and should be in favor of this. Council member Sheffie Kadane voted to defer this item as well. I am not sure whether his vote has been bought by the SEIU -- it could have been -- but someone on staff needs to drill him on the fact that voting against this is voting against the best interest of taxpayers.

One other thing I should make clear. This is not meant to be an anti-union rant. I am actually pro-union. As a reporter for United Press International I belonged to the Wire Service Guild and marched a picket line when that guild went on strike. I led an admittedly failed effort to unionize reporters at the Dallas Morning News that was successful only in that it led to higher salaries paid these individuals. I am just pointing out why certain Dallas City Council members are voting and acting against the best interest of Dallas taxpayers on this issue -- they have sold their vote to the SEIU.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Dallas City Council can't see the savings for the branches

Once again, our Dallas City Council has taken the narrowest possible view on an issue, contradicted itself and failed to act in the best interest of the taxpaying and fee-paying citizens of the city. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Somewhere in the City Council offices there is a dispenser that spews out stupid pills and many of our council members take them regularly. How else can you explain their ineptitude.

The agenda item before the City Council today involved installing a computer-based system in the city's sanitation trucks that would allow them to operate far more efficiently and far less expensively. Here's just one way a system like this could help citizens. Suppose, for whatever reason, I fail to get my trash out in my alley on the normal pickup day before the sanitation trucks come by to pick it up. Being the honest, truthful citizen that I am, I, of course, will call 3-1-1- and complain that the garbage folks missed picking up my trash. Because Sanitation Services is all about customer service, it will instruct the driver of my route to go back and pick up my garbage. OK, so far. But that assumes the normal driver of my route is, at the minute he gets the call, the closest driver to my location. It could be that at that precise moment, another driver is only a couple of blocks away and it would be far more efficient, both in time and fuel costs, to send that driver to my location. However, without this system in place, those kind of decisions can't be made.

The agenda item is going to pay for itself very quickly and then begin to save money for Dallas taxpayers. On that question, no one disagrees. However, the City Council, at the behest of District 8 council member Tennell Atkins, who obviously has some private or personal issues with this system that he is too cowardly to come out and explain in the open, the item was deferred for four weeks. I say that about Mr. Atkins because the item originally appeared on a council agenda last November and he moved to have it deferred then. And I am willing to bet the mortgage that when it comes back up again in four weeks he is going to move to have it deferred again. He keeps mumbling about fees and how these fees are unfair to people in his district, yet his own actions are almost guaranteeing those fees will be increased and I hope someone holds him accountable for that fact. More about that later.

Council members asked a lot of questions about this issue but they danced around and failed to ask the single most important question that needed to be asked. They failed to ask how much their delay is going to cost us, the citizens. They failed to ask that because, like I said, they have their own private agendas that are in conflict with our best interests. (I do need to mention here, however, that District 12 council member Ron Natinsky did see the value in this agenda item and spoke out in strongly in favor of its passage, but I fault him for failing to ask the important question as well.)

Here's the deal. Like it or not (and District 14 council member Angela Hunt doesn't like it), the City Council back in September passed a budget that assumed this system would be installed and that we would realize the savings from it. Ms. Hunt criticized City Manager Mary Suhm for introducing a budget that made assumptions before the City Council authorized them and I agree with Ms. Hunt on this. I also recognize the fact that Ms. Hunt made those same arguments at the time the budget was being discussed so she has earned the right to say "I told you so." Problem is, however, the City Council passed that budget. It is in place. So here's the question someone on the Council, if they had the interests of the citizens of Dallas at the top of their agenda, should have asked: "What will be the effect on the budget if we delay this another four weeks or if Mr. Atkins gets his way and this is killed completely?" That's the information they needed to have before they made their vote, yet, no one on thge council sought that information, no one on the council asked that question, no one on the council had our best interests at the top of their agenda.

This brings me back to Mr. Atkins' duplicity. If there is a negative impact on the budget because of this inaction, the money will come from the budget of the Sanitation Department. Guess where it gets most of its money from? The sanitation fees we pay each month in our water bills. So, to make up for it, these fees will have to be raised. So much for Mr. Atkins' caring about fees the people of his district pays. He obviously doesn't.

Ms. Hunt suggests that before we install a system like this, perhaps we ought to cut down the branches that act as obstacles to our sanitation trucks. I have no problem with this, but, I wish Ms. Hunt would simply reverse her priorities. Instead of spending money now so that we might do something later that will save money, why not institute the money-savings program first and then use the money saved to cut down these branches? Doesn't that make more sense, especially in these economic times?

But then no one on our council displays much common sense, least of all my favorite target, District 13's Mitchell Rasansky, who in his typical grandstanding fashion waited until the last minute to unleash Zorro. OK, it wasn't Zorro, but some competing system that begins with the letter X and sounds like Zorro, a system that a quick Google search performed by Mr. Natinsky revealed would cost the city far more than the one proposed. Why doesn't Mr. Rasansky ask these questions before council sessions? The reason is because he really doesn't want his questions answered, he wants to showboat to the rest of the Council on how much he thinks he knows about all these subjects.

Of course, there was some more off-the-subject talk about paying day laborers more than minimum wage, as though these day laborers were actually employees of the City of Dallas, which, of course, they are not. Not to mention that is another example of this irresponsible council trying to spend money instead of saving it.

The whole thing reminds me of the last verse of one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs:
I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.
No, I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.
Well, I try my best
To be just like I am,
But everybody wants you
To be just like them.
They sing while you slave and I just get bored.
I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Some thoughts on Kate Winslet

Kate Winslet is a superb actress and deserves most of the recognition she is receiving for her performances. Much has been said about the fact that she has been nominated for so many Oscars without ever winning the thing. There's a very good reason why she hasn't won -- while she turned in wonderful performances, she never gave the best performance of any one year.

The same is true for her 2008 film work. It's a shame that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association felt it had to bend over and give Ms. Winslet two Golden Globes, not because she deserved them -- she didn't -- but because they felt she had gone trophy-less long enough and was trying to goad the Motion Picture Academy into follow suit with some hardware. I'm hoping the Academy doesn't get sucked into that "Well, I guess it's her time" argument, although it has often handed out many Oscars for exactly that reason.

I'm also hoping the Academy doesn't fall sway to Harvey Weinstein's fanatic push to have Ms. Winslet nominated for a supporting performance in "The Reader." Anyone who sees that film must realize that is NOT a supporting role, it is the lead role, much more of a lead role, in fact, than, say, Frances McDormand's was in "Fargo." Weinstein bought that undeserving GG nomination for Ms. Winslet and I know he's lobbying the actor's branch of the Academy for the same kind of double Oscar nomination.

The problem with awarding someone because someone feels they have been shortchanged in their career is that it robs more deserving actors of the recognition they have earned -- in this case, actors such as Penelope Cruz and Anne Hathaway.

I am hoping Academy voters, unlike the whores in the HFPA, will recognize talent and not decide to give the Oscar to someone out of feelings of guilt and regret. Plus it would be criminal for the Academy to do for Ms. Winslet what it would not do for the much more deserving Peter O'Toole.

New movies to be released tomorrow on DVD

Appaloosa (2008) **½ Actor-director Ed Harris is a major asset in a film that is entertaining but somewhat unfocused and occasionally badly cast.

Brick Lane (2008) **½ One of those feminist cries in the dark in which the heroine, a saintly sufferer, is more admirable than interesting.

Brideshead Revisited (2008) **½ The remarkable thing about director Julian Jarrold’s movie is how much of the book it manages to capture.

Bustin’ Down the Door (2008) **½ Jeremy Gosch’s documentary about the origins of professional surfing shines a light on four wave riders – three Australians and a South African – who helped transform a counter-culture life style into a billion-dollar industry.

Choose Connor (2008) ** Once the movie ventures into the larger political arena, it begins to work against itself.

Humboldt County (2008) **½ These characters are fully alive. But the movie attaches them to a conventional, not to say creaky, hip-meets-square drama.

Mirrors (2008) *½ Softcore horror at best, failed allegory at worst, the film reflects little beyond Splat Pack auteur Alexandre Aja’s desire to push his genre into less punishing and more profitable territory.

My Best Friend’s Girl (2008) *½ Dane Cook plays a smug jerk in this dismal comedy. Strike that: He’s only ACTING like a smug jerk.

Swing Vote (2008) ** Dusted off and brought up to date, it’s still the same old Capracorn – minus the populist pizzazz he might have provided.

Tyler Perry’s The Family That Preys (2008) **½ Though better than most of Perry’s broad comedies, it still suffers from excessive predictability and mawkish sentiment, which detracts from the story’s believability.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Golden Globe Predictions

For what it's worth, here are my predicted winners for tonight's Golden Globes:

Movie categories
Drama Picture: "Slumdog Millionaire"
Comedy-Musical Picture: "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"
Foreign Language Picture: "Waltz With Bashir"
Director: Danny Boyle, "Slumdog Millionaire"
Drama Actor: Sean Penn, "Milk"
Drama Actress: Anne Hathaway, "Rachel Getting Married"
Comedy/Musical Actor: Dustin Hoffman, "Last Chance Harvey"
Comedy/Musical Actress: Sally Hawkins, "Happy-Go-Lucky"
Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, "The Dark Knight"
Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"
Animated Film: "Wall-E"
Screenplay: 'Slumdog Millionaire"
Original Score: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Butler"
Song: Bruce Springsteen, "The Wrestler"

Television Categories
Dramatic Series: "Mad Men"
Actor Drama: Jon Hamm, "Mad Men"
Actress Drama: Anna Paquin, "True Blood"
Comedy Series: "30 Rock"
Comedy Actor: Alec Baldwin, "30 Rock"
Comedy Actress: Tina Fey, "30 Rock"
Actor in TV Miniseries or Movie: Paul Giamatti, "John Adams"
Actress in a TV Miniseries or Movie: Laura Linney, "John Adams"
Supporting Actor miniseries or movie: Jeremy Priven, "Entourage"
Supporting Actress miniseries or movie: Laura Dern, "Recount"

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Circling the Cuckoo's Nest: Research + Common Sense Supports Gun Control Laws

In case I ever wondered whether anyone reads this musings of mine, I quickly learned the answer when I wrote this piece about the number of handguns used in Dallas homicides and argued that is was evidence that more stringent gun control laws, perhaps a banning of handguns, was needed. Boy, the gun nuts are out there. The problem, however, is that they use arguments that they did not (because they could not) support with statistical evidence. I'm surprised they didn't drag out the tired old Second Amendment issue that has already been decided against gun advocates in the courts (Stevens v. U.S., United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit, 1971; Quilici v. Village of Morton Grove, U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit, 1982).

The big argument of the pro-gun people, judging from the responses I had were (1) Texans should have the right to defend themselves against bad guys and (2) the tired old "if guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns" (a theory brilliantly and hilariously debunked by Dallas author Richard Condon in his novel The Venerable Bead.)

One person wanted to know how many of those handgun victims were suicides, as though suicides shouldn't count. Well, they don't count as homicides so the direct answer to this person's question is "none," but, still, a suicide victim is another life tragically lost. According to Arthur L. Kellermann, MD, MPH; Frederick P. Rivara, MD, MPH; Grant Somes, PhD; Donald T. Reay, MD; Jerry Francisco, MD; Joyce Gillentine Banton, MS; Janice Prodzinski, BA; Corinne Fligner, MD; and Bela B. Hackman, MD, in their study, Suicide in the Home in Relation to Gun Ownership, appearing in The New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 327, No. 7, August 13, 1992, pp. 467-472, residents of homes in which a gun is present is FIVE TIMES more likely to experience a suicide than residents without guns.

What about the self defense argument? Well, according to Arthur Kellermann and Donald Reay. "Protection or Peril? An Analysis of Firearm Related Deaths in the Home," The New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 314, no. 24, June 1986, pp. 1557-60, a gun kept in a home is 43 times more likely to kill another member of that household or a friend of someone in the household than it is an intruder. Another study (FE Zimring, Firearms, violence, and public policy, Scientific American, vol. 265, 1991, p. 48), proves that the use of a firearm to fend off an assault actually increases the victim's risk and injury and death. This study also examined 743 gunshot deaths in a city comparable to Dallas during one year and discovered only two of them involved an intruder in a home and only nine others were determined by the police and courts to be "justified." An astounding 624 of these homicides were the result of arguments among family members. According to FBI Uniform Crime Reports, only 1.02 percent of shooting deaths each year are the result of someone defending themselves. Research by Dr. Arthur Kellerman (Arthur Kellermann et. al., "Gun Ownership as a Risk Factor for Homicide in the Home," The New England Journal of Medicine, October 7, 1993, pp. 1084-1091) has shown that keeping a gun in the home carries a murder risk 2.7 times greater than not keeping one. That is, excluding many other factors such as previous history of violence, class, race, etc., a household with a gun is 2.7 times more likely to experience a murder than a household without one, even while there was no significant increase in the risk of non-gun homicides.

As for the argument that when guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns, according to FBI statistics, at least 340,000 handguns are stolen each year from those who purchased them legally. That's they way outlaws get the guns -- they steal them from those who purchased them for foolish notions like self-defense. If these guns were never owned in the first place, that would be 340,000 handguns per year that would not fall into the hands of the outlaws. The reason outlaws have so many guns is because they are sold first legally, then stolen. Yes, there will be ways to get guns illegally, if they are banned, but when they become illegal, availability goes way, way down and the prices go way, way up.

As for the argument of a handgun being the great equalizer for a woman against a male attacker, that's an argument that's probably best handled by women. And it already has been. The following organizations have come out with public endorsements of gun control legislation: American Medical Women's Association, General Federation of Women's Clubs, International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, League of Women Voters of the United States, National Council of Jewish Women, National Organization for Women, Women's National Democratic Club, Women Strike for Peace, Women's Action for New Directions, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and the YWCA.

In the headline I alluded to a common sense argument. Here it is: In this country, in order to own and operate an automobile, the automobile in question must be registered and the driver must have a license. Each year that car must be inspected and re-registered and the driver must pass a series of tests to obtain a license. Doesn't it make sense, at a minimum, to require the same of gun owners? We desperately need a national system for registering guns and ammunition and licensing gun owners. Background checks should be conducted on everyone wishing to purchase a gun and anyone convicted of a felony should be prohibited from owning one, as well as those committing certain misdemeanors and juvenile crimes. One thing I agree with the National Rifle Association about is that there should be much stiffer sentences for those committing crimes involving guns.

So, yes, all of you who still adhere to the frontier ethic of vigilante justice and taking the law into your own hands, I've heard your arguments, but the statistics don't support them.

Finally, there was one responder who asked shouldn't I be more concerned about the number of abortions performed each year versus the number of people killed by handguns. I don't want to change the subject into why I support a woman's right to chose whether to have a medical procedure performed -- that's for another day -- but let me tell this person what I am really concerned about. I remember while working as a reporter for United Press International coming across a police story in which a 6-year-old boy accidentally killed his 3-year-old brother. It seems the children were playing in their parents bedroom where the father kept pistol in a holster slung over the bedpost. That story broke my heart. So if you want to know who I'm really concerned about, who I really want to protect, it's that 3-year-old boy whose life was wasted and the 6-year-old whose life was shattered because of a gun. Think about that for a while and then come back to me with your pro-gun arguments.

Monday, January 5, 2009

January's Oscar Poll

(Listed in order of likelihood of a nomination)

Picture
Slumdog Millionaire
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Milk
Frost/Nixon
The Dark Knight

Director
Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Gus Van Sant, Milk
Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight
Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon

Actor
Sean Penn, Milk
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino
Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Actress
Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road
Merly Streep, Doubt
Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Angelina Jolie, Changeling

Supporting Actor
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
Josh Brolin, Milk
Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder
Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire

Supporting Actress
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis, Doubt
Kate Winslet, The Reader
Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler

Original Screenplay
Milk
Rachel Getting Married
Vicki Cristina Barcelona
WALL-E
Happy-Go-Lucky

Adapted Screenplay
Slumdog Millionaire
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Doubt
Frost/Nixon
The Reader

Film Editing
Slumdog Millionaire
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Frost/Nixon
Milk

Cinematography
Slumdog Millionaire
The Dark Knight
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Revolutionary Road
Australia

Art Direction
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Australia
Revolutionary Road
The Dark Knight
The Reader

Sound Mixing
The Dark Knight
Iron Man
WALL-E
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mamma Mia

Sound Editing
WALL-E
Iron Man
The Dark Knight
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Quantum of Solace

Costume Design
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Australia
Revolutionary Road
The Duchess
Changeling

Original Score
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Slumdog Millionaire
WALL-E
The Dark Knight
Milk

Original Song
Down to Earth, WALL-E
The Wrestler, The Wrestler
I Thought I Lost You, Bolt
Jai Ho, Slumdog Millionaire
Once in a Lifetime, Cadillac Records

Make-Up
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

Visual Effects
Iron Man
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight

Animated Feature
WALL-E
Kung Fu Panda
Waltz With Bashir

Foreign Language Film
Gomorra
Waltz With Bashir
The Class
Everlasting Moments
The Baadar Meinhof Complex

Documentary Feature
Man On Wire
I.O.U.S.A.
Standard Operating Procedure
They Killed Sister Dorothy
Trouble the Water

New movies to be released tomorrow on DVD

Babylon, A.D. (2008) * When this Vin Diesel vehicle isn’t pointlessly frenzied, it’s narratively inert, wasting some decent production design, and a French-flavored cast primed for fun.

Bangkok Dangerous (2008) * Dimly lit, emotionally empty, and devoid of thrills, this film should disappoint Nicolas Cage fans looking for "Wicker Man"-style camp thrills just as thoroughly as action buffs looking for a passable thriller. It’s never close to good, and it can’t even get bad right.

Disaster Movie (2008) ½* It’s too easy to say this film deserves its title, but why put more effort into trashing it than the filmmakers did into writing it?

Pineapple Express (2008) **½ Perversely enough, the comedy is what keeps the picture rolling; it’s the so-called action that persists in bringing the thing to a screeching halt.

Ping Pong Playa (2008) **½ Has a certain silly, kid-friendly charm.

Righteous Kill (2008) *½ By the time the movie reaches its protracted conclusion, it feels like a slog. Al Pacino has a few funny lines, as does John Leguizamo, but not nearly enough to save the film from collapsing under the weight of its own self-righteous tedium.

The Wackness (2008) **½ A deeply personal coming-of-age story steeped in heady nostalgia and all the creative myopia that too often comes with it.

Oops there goes another yellow tree plant

The Dallas City Council's Trinity River Corridor Project Committee is expected to hear a briefing today on proposals for Project's Web site and the third bullet of Slide 3 really caught my attention. It says: "Increase the awareness of the web site through the new design and new features such as online contests." I gotta tell ya, after the way these guys ran the "Let's come up with a new name for Industrial Boulevard" poll, these are the last folks in the world I would trust sponsoring a contest. History argues you absolutely, positively know any contest will be rigged.

Another statistic to support gun control legislation

The Dallas City Council's Public Safety Committee is scheduled to be briefed Monday on the city's homicide rate. The good news is that it is down, significantly, from 197 in 2007 to 154 in 2008, a nearly 22 percent drop. What I found troubling, however, was slide 11 of the briefing, that lists the types of weapons used in the commission of these murders. Nearly two-thirds of them, 102 of the 154, were committed by those using handguns, another argument for outlawing these weapons. Rest easy, you bloodthirsty types that think it's great sport to knock off a deer or splatter a bunch of ducks, I'm not talking about a total ban on all firearms. Six people were killed last year with rifles and two with shotguns, according the briefing. I know we can't make this country completely civilized like many European nations, but banning handguns and perhaps saving 1o2 lives a year in the city of Dallas might be a wonderful place to start.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Nothing left to be decided: Utah is No. 1

Forget about the BCS Championship game and Oklahoma vs. Florida. OK, you can play the game, but it shouldn't have any bearing on deciding the national championship. Utah has already won it, fair and square. Let's look at the evidence. Utah soundly defeated in the Sugar Bowl an Alabama team that was ranked No. 1 for five weeks this season. True, Alabama was the most overrated team in the country next to Texas Tech, but then Utah is the most underrated, so there you have it. What's more, Utah is the only team in the country -- the only one -- to finish the season undefeated.

Now, I know what you're going to say -- that Utah is a mid-major, that it comes from a secondary conference. Who says so? The folks at the BCS, that's who, and since no one is allowed to have an independent thought anymore in college football, everyone is being led around like mindless sheep by the herding dogs of the BCS. That means none of the sports writers who vote in the polls, none of the coaches, none of the so-called experts will have the courage to do what's right and that is vote Utah No. 1. No, they'll do what the BCS bullies have instructed them to do, select the winner of the Oklahoma vs. Florida game, a contest between two teams that could not accomplish what Utah has -- finish the season with a perfect record.

OK, so I'm a college football purist. I detest the BCS and everything it stands for. It has rigged the game so that teams like Utah will never be permitted to win a national championship and that's not right -- to eliminate a whole host of teams just because they don't play in the "right" conference. Hell, I will take Utah and the Mountain West Conference over the Big East and the Atlantic Coast conferences. Hey, the Pac 10 Conference was undefeated in bowl games this year, going 5-0, yet the Mountain West Conference had a winning record against the Pac 10 this season. Does anyone remember TCU 31- Stanford 14, BYU 59-UCLA 0, New Mexico 36-Arizona 28, UNLV 23-Arizona State 20, Utah 31-Oregon State (the only team to defeat Southern Cal this year) 28? Don't try to tell me that Utah plays in an inferior conference.

Yes, I'm a college football purist which means I detest the thought of a college football playoff because it would only serve to drag the sport deeper into the pit that the BCS has brought the game to the brink of.

Back in 1984, when national football championships were decided the way they should be, BYU won the title because it was the only undefeated team in the country. And the Cougars couldn't even go to a major bowl game -- the conference champion back then was obligated to play in the Holiday Bowl, then considered a "minor" bowl, where it defeated Michigan 24-17. But this year Utah went the Sugar Bowl, one of the "BCS Bowls," and trounced Alabama. The Utes have done everything BYU did 14 years ago and more. They deserve the title.

Of course it won't happen. There's not enough "voters" willing to stand up and do the right thing. So they'll play a couple of meaningless bowl games later this week and all the little sheep will line up and proclaim either Florida or Oklahoma the national champions. Perhaps enough sportswriters voting in the AP poll will do the right thing, but I kind of doubt it. They've been brainwashed so badly that they are the ones leading the cheers for a playoff system.

But there will be some of us out there who will know the truth. Utah truly is this year's FBS National Champion.