Wednesday, December 30, 2009

After the Fox




It appears, unless negotiators pull a rabbit out of someone's hat in the next 48 hours, subscribers to Time Warner Cable will lose a number of Fox channels. The issue is the amount of money Fox wants to charge Time Warner for the rights to carry those channels versus the cable company's desire not to loose subscribers with a forced rate increase. I would actually welcome losing the Fox News Channel, but I would miss the Fox Soccer Channel and particularly Fox Sports Southwest, which carries at least 50 percent of the Mavericks games (Why isn't Mavericks owner Mark Cuban stepping up to the plate here?).

The question, however, is KDFW, Channel 4. Fox says it will deny Time Warner Cable subscribers access to Channel 4 along with all the other Fox channels. If Fox has its way, that means no telecast of the Sunday Cowboys-Eagles game to cable subscribers. Unlike most, that doesn't bother me. What does bother me is the possibility of not seeing two of the only three college bowl games that interest me this year -- the Sugar Bowl (Florida vs. Cincinnati) and the Fiesta Bowl (TCU vs. Boise State) -- both of which are to be carried by Fox. (Fortunately the Texas-Alabama title game is on ABC.)

Time Warner Cable is arguing that a federal rule mandating that cable companies "must carry" all local stations to its subscribers means that Fox can't include KDFW. Fox, however, says a loophole in its contract with Time Warner supersedes the "must carry" rule and it can and will pull the plug on Channel 4.

I may be overly optimistic, but something tells me the rabbit will be pulled before the plug is.

If I could afford it ...

... this is exactly the home I would love to own and live in. This is as close to habitat perfection as you're likely to find. And it's right here in Dallas.

An uninspiring list of Leppert sucessors and two who aren't

It appears certain that Tom Leppert intends to be a one-term-or-less mayor of Dallas. If Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison decides to resign to run for governor, Leppert plans to run in a special election to succeed her. Personally, I can't see Hutch resigning. She knows she doesn't stand a chance in the GOP gubernatorial primary against Gov. Hair, so why should she give up her Senate seat to pursue a lost cause? But I do expect that she will decide not to seek re-election when her current term expires in 2012 which, coincidentally, is when Leppert's first term expires as well.

So the rumors are rampant on possible candidates to succeed Leppert, even though such talk is probably premature (no one was talking about Tom Leppert two years before he was elected mayor). Gromer Jeffers, one of the best reporters at the Dallas Morning News, weighed in Sunday with the names he's heard -- council members Ron Natinsky and Angela Hunt (Yawn!); state Sen. John Carona (Leppert redux although I can't understand why he would scuttle a promising political future to run for Dallas mayor -- see Steve Bartlett); Dallas lawyer David Laney (noted conspiracy theorist and Dallas Observer writer/reporter Jim Schutze suggests promoting Robert Decherd's cousin is the sole reason for Jeffers' story.); former council member Mitchell Rasansky (a real horror story); and a bunch of other unknowns.

None of the names gets me excited at all, although I will admit the inclusion of homeless czar Mike Rawlings is, at least, somewhat intriguing.

Now I am going to throw out a pair of names no one is mentioning. The first is former council member Veletta Forsythe Lill, a champion of the arts and other causes in Dallas who superbly represented the multi-cultural interests of District 14 for eight years. I really would like to see her return to political office -- either county judge or mayor of Dallas. My second name is really out of the blue:

Mary Suhm. Who knows the city better than the current city manager? And, by 2012, not only will she have served longer than just about anyone else in this position, she could retire with more than 30 years service to her credit and receive a full pension. She would be the best, most qualified candidate, but I wonder if she has mayoral temperament or whether she could resist running the day-to-day operations of the city from the mayor's office. But, you gotta admit, this is a name that's more fun to speculate about than any of the uninspiring ones mentioned by Mr. Jeffers.

Update: The incomparable Sam Merten points out, quite correctly, that Leppert's first term expires a year before Sen. Hutch's. Probably no big deal -- former Houston Mayor Bill White was out of office for a while before announcing he would run for Hutch's seat -- Whoops!, White really meant governor.

Another outlaw bites the dust

Texas Tech finally does the right thing.

Hollywood Reporter's 10 best of the decade

The Hollywood Reporter is ranking (and I know everyone loves rankings) all kinds of show business top 10s for the decade just about to end. Here is its list of the Top 10 movies of the decade:
1. Letters from Iwo Jima
2. United 93
3. No Country for Old Men
4. The Fog of War
5. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (My choice as the best film of 2008)
6. Far From Heaven
7. Divine Intervention (a movie unfamiliar to me)
8. Cache
9. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
10. The White Ribbon

Top 10 TV Shows of the Decade:
(Shows that premiered in or after 1999, "judged on their artistic merit and overall contribution to the medium, not on their ratings or profit margins.")
1. The Sopranos
2. The West Wing
3. Curb Your Enthusiasm
4. The Shield
5. Damages
6. Mad Men
7. 30 Rock
8. 24
9. Lost
10. Modern Family

The Top 10 Biggest Sleeper Movie Hits of the Decade:
(Based on budget compared to box-office receipts)
1. Paranormal Activity
2. Napoleon Dynamite
3. My Big Fat Greek Wedding
4. Saw
5. Juno
6. Jackass the Movie
7. March of the Penguins
8. Slumdog Millionaire
9. Diary of a Mad Black Woman
10. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Top 10 Movie Flops of the Decade:
(Based on "lofty expectations dashed and high profiles brought low.")
1. The Adventures of Pluto Nash
2. Battlefield Lost
3. Land of the Lost
4. Gigli
5. Town & Country
6. Catwoman
7. The Invasion
8. Rollerball
9. Grindhouse
10. The Spirit

If you want to know the reasoning behind all these choices or to see other Reporter rankings for the decade, you'll have to go here.

How safe do you feel?

It's been more than eight years now since the Al Qaeda attack of Sept. 11, 2001, and in that time how much has our security against future attacks improved? As the events of Christmas Day, when a Nigerian with Al Qaeda links almost blew up a Northwest Airlines passenger jet as it was about to land in Detroit, not much.

Frankly, I am appalled at how little progress has been made. All we've done is convince ordinary law-abiding Americans that it's too much hassle to fly these days, especially of they want to take enough toiletries and cosmetics to last them more than two or three days. I agree with columnist Maureen Dowd who asked recently:

"If we can’t catch a Nigerian with a powerful explosive powder in his oddly feminine-looking underpants and a syringe full of acid, a man whose own father had alerted the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria, a traveler whose ticket was paid for in cash and who didn’t check bags, whose visa renewal had been denied by the British, who had studied Arabic in Al Qaeda sanctuary Yemen, whose name was on a counterterrorism watch list, who can we catch?"

As for me, I don't feel that safe at all, and I won't feel much better until Congress overcomes Republican opposition and implements full-body imaging as a screening tool at airports.

The urgent need for health care reform

Should Congress pass health care reform legislation? Readers of this blog know where I stand on the subject: the No. 1 priority of any government is protecting their citizens and that includes protecting them from sickness. Here's another credible source making a sound case for passage of health care reform legislation. My favorite paragraph from the article is:

"The fact that 46 million people in this country have no health insurance should be intolerable. Every other major industrial country guarantees health coverage to its citizens, yet the United States, the richest of them all, does not."

Here's another paragraph from the story that needs to be highlighted:

"The American Cancer Society now says the greatest obstacle to reducing cancer deaths is lack of health insurance. It is so persuaded of that fact that two years ago, instead of promoting its antismoking campaign or publicizing the need for cancer screening, it devoted its entire advertising budget (emphasis mine) to the problem of inadequate health insurance coverage."

Recently released on DVD

The three leads, Daniel Radcliffe (Harry, right), Rupert Grint (Ron) and
EmmaWatson (Hermione), give their most charming performances to date.

HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE
Grade: B
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince opens with the boy wizard, now a hunky young man, hurriedly checking his breath after securing a date with a pretty Muggle waitress. And that’s just the beginning of the sixth film in the series based on J.K. Rowling’s novels of a wizard’s magical education. They should have called it Harry Potter and the Teenagers in Heat: Hermione fancies Ron! Ron can’t keep his hands off Lavender Brown! Harry has a crush on Ron’s sister Ginny! Love potions, common-room snogging, adolescent heartbreak; such is the film’s infatuation with teenage coupledom that even ancient confirmed bachelor Dumbledore, a man with, you’d think, more crucial things on his mind, asks after Harry’s romantic prospects.

It’s hard to blame Half-Blood Prince screenwriter Steve Kloves or director David Yates for focusing on the romance. After all, as young-adult adventures go, the sixth book in the Harry Potter series is awfully light on the adventure, offering only one action sequence at the end of its exposition-packed 652 pages. It must have seemed a daunting challenge to adapt for an audience of casual moviegoers who don’t know a quaffle from a bezoar. The film’s sacrifice of Horcruxes in favor of hormones yields some comic highlights: The three leads, Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Rupert Grint (Ron) and Emma Watson (Hermione), give their most charming performances to date. Ron is particularly funny under the addling effects of a love potion, and Hermione is sad and sweet in a moment of romantic disillusionment, sitting at the bottom of a set of stone stairs, conjuring a flock of twittering birds to circle above her head.

All of which is to say that Half-Blood Prince, with its romantic triangle (square? pentagon?), its Quidditch high jinks, its gorgeous production design and its bang-up final action sequence, might be the most enjoyable Harry Potter movie yet for people who don’t particularly care about Harry Potter movies. Whether die-hard fans of the books will love it, though, is another story. Count me as one who wasn’t enchanted.

My problems with Half-Blood Prince don’t feel like the kinds of quibbles that franchise fanatics often raise. I’m not upset about Hermione’s hair or the excising of a minor character. While I imagine the perfect Potter adaptation as a 30-hour miniseries in which every scene in the book is reproduced verbatim, I’m willing to accept that Hollywood adaptation is the art of omission and collage. A screenwriter struggles to excise everything nonessential from a book and then assembles the rest into a shape that’s pleasing to the eye.

But while previous Harry Potter movies have ranged in quality, each has managed, at least, to convey the basic spirit of the novel from which it was adapted, from 2001's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone which got across the wonder Harry feels at his new magical life, to 2007's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix which effectively outlined the growing political intrigue and rebellious fervor that drives the fifth book. Alas, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, though not without its excellent moments, doesn’t tell the two stories that, at heart, the book tells. It doesn’t present a compelling portrait of the birth, life and descent into inhumanity of the villain who has haunted this series from its opening scenes: Voldemort. And it doesn’t make the budding romance between Harry and Ginny feel inevitable and true.

There’s still plenty of magic in Half-Blood Prince. Jim Broadbent is the latest in the long line of beloved British actors to finance a country home through an effortlessly wry performance in a Potter film. New Hogwarts professor Horace Slughorn is an avid collector of talented and famous students — the kind of influence-peddling prof who loves to brag about the connections and accomplishments of his charges.

Director Yates brings the same energy and grit to Half-Blood Prince that he did to its predecessor, and though he’s no Alfonso Cuarón — the auteur whose 2004 Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban remains the on-screen pinnacle of Potter -- he shares Cuarón’s delight in the creation of a believably magical world. And Yates’s cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel (Amélie), has certainly shot the most lovely of the Harry Potter films. Hogwarts has never looked more ravishing, as a reflective Harry acknowledges at the movie’s close, while the trio prepare to say goodbye to the school that has molded their characters for six eventful years.

The ways in which Half-Blood Prince failed to satisfy me and the ways it will surely satisfy many, many other moviegoers are a healthy reminder that adapters of beloved stories cannot, should not, target the fanatics in the audience. And it suggests the fanatics might be much happier if they stopped expecting them to.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

10, 9, 8 ... How the Oscar nominees are chosen


Oscar ballots were mailed yesterday. When a voter receives his or hers, she or he will be asked to rank 10 picture nominees and (let's say this voter is a member of the writer's branch), five nominees each in the original and adapted screenplay categories.

Now it seems to me that a simple way to tabulate all the votes for best picture would be to award 10 points for each picture voted No. 1 on a ballot, nine points for No. 2, eight for No. 3, and so on down to one point for No. 10. Inthe writing categories, 5 points for No. 1, 4 for No. 2, etc.

But Price Waterhouse Cooper, the accounting firm that will tabulate the ballots, isn't going to do it that way. For some reason, the firm has decided to make this process considerably more complicated.

As I understand it, here's the way it will work. The Academy has 5,777 voting members who will receive ballots that will allow them to vote for best picture. PWC divides that number by 11 (representing the 10 nominees + 1) giving them the magic number 525. The returned ballots are then placed into stacks according to which picture that voter had in the No. 1 position. Any stack containing at least 525 ballots receives an automatic nomination. End of round one.

Let's say, for the sake of this explanation, The Hurt Locker, Avatar and Up in the Air all receive at least 525 votes. They are the best picture nominees from round one. The ballots containing those choices for No. 1 are then cast aside (the argument being those voters have already been heard from). Round two begins by looking at the stack of ballots containing the least number of votes. PWC places them into stacks according to those voters' No. 2 choice. However, if that voters' No. 2 choice was one of three pictures already to receive a nomination from round one, they go to the No. 3 choice or down until it comes to the first picture listed not already nominated. Any stack containing a number of ballots that, if added to the number it received in Round One, totals 525, receives a nomination.

This process continues until PWC has the required 10 nominees. Confused? I still think my 10, 9, 8 ... system works better.

Incidentally, the nominations in all the other categories that are voted upon work the same way except the number of members of that branch are divided by 6 (5 nominees + 1) to get the threshhold figure.

From Pundit Kitchen ...


Leach and Meyer


When Florida's football coach Urban Meyer said "Whoops! I was just kidding when I announced I was retiring.", my first thoughts were of Meyer's 18-year-old daughter. The news reports on Meyer's retirement 24 hours before said, when Meyer gathered his family about him around Christmas day and told them about his plans, his daughter gleefully replied "I've got my daddy back."

I hope those reports were incorrect because I hate the thought of a fatherless 18-year-old getting her hopes raised at Christmas only to have them crushed the following day.

When Meyer announced his "retirement" I figured one of two things: (1) Meyer's health was far worse than he was letting on; and/or (2) He would undergo treatment for a year or two or three and then accept his pick of any other coaching job he wanted, possibly even at Notre Dame or Southern California. In other words, I thought within three years Meyer would either be back coaching somewhere or dead.

When he announced his un-retirement I was not only saddened for his daughter, but some of my hopes were dashed as well. I was figuring that coaching Florida would be the only job Bob Stoops would leave Oklahoma for and I really want to see Stoops leave Oklahoma. Nothing against the coach -- quite the opposite, in fact: He's simply too good and he constantly has his Sooners too competitive with my beloved Texas Longhorns. I respect Bob Stoops which is more than I can say for some of his most-remembered predecessors.

Texas Tech's Mike Leach, however, is not someone I respect. I consider him a renegade coach who should be drummed out of the profession, so, unlike all the news surrounding Meyer, I was not surprised at all to hear that Leach had been suspended by Tech for his actions surrounding the son of former SMU great and current ESPN analyst Craig James. According to reports, Leach endangered the health of the younger James by ignoring the fact that James had suffered a concussion a couple of weeks ago.

I remember attending a game between Tech and SMU. In the fourth quarter, with Tech comfortably ahead by three or four touchdowns, Leach still had his first team on the field running his point-a-minute offense. A year later I saw a game between Tech and somebody -- it doesn't matter who -- on television. Tech, up four touchdowns, had a first down with the ball on its opponent's seven yard line with less than a minute left to play. Now a class coach in that position -- a Meyer, a Stoops or Texas' Mack Brown -- has his quarterback take a knee at that point. I know, I've seen them do it. But not Leach. That SOB calls a timeout to stop the clock in an effort to call a play that will allow his first-string quarterback, who's still in the game, throw one more touchdown.

Leach believes he hasn't received any respect even though he has amassed a credible won-loss record at Tech. He's right, he hasn't received much respect. But it has nothing to do with Ws and Ls. He has to learn that there's still some truth in that old standby about "It's how you play the game that counts."

Monday, December 28, 2009

New movies to be released tomorrow on DVD

9 (2009)
Grade: B

9, who is about the size and shape of one of those posable tabletop mannequins used by art students, has a soft burlap body and a zipper up his middle. His outsize eyes blink like camera shutters, and they take in a world of monstrous terror and haunting mystery.

In the 10-minute version of the animated film that bears his name, 9 and his comrades — who I suppose should be called robots, though they are softer and rounder than the contraptions usually evoked by that word — navigate their surroundings without speech. Now, at feature length, the main character’s muteness is a temporary impediment, and he finds himself surrounded by eight other numbered automatons, introduced out of order like a row of Sudoku. (The numerologically inclined will note that the film’s opened in theaters on 9/9/09). Some of these figures speak in the polished tones of well-known actors, including John C. Reilly, Jennifer Connelly and Crispin Glover.

Once 2 (Martin Landau) gives him a tuneup, 9 begins asking questions in the voice of Elijah Wood. And one of the virtues of this 9, as of its shorter predecessor (both were directed by Shane Acker, who wrote the feature with Pamela Pettler) is that it does not rush toward answers. Instead it lingers in a strange, sinister and brilliantly realized landscape rich with allusions to the histories of painting, animation, fantastic literature and 20th-century totalitarianism.

It’s a lot to stuff into 88 minutes, along with rattling monsters, hectic battle sequences and a series of debates between 9 and 1 (Christopher Plummer) about the proper response to danger. (1 wants to remain safe, hidden and ignorant, while 9 wants to fight, explore and learn. You can guess who prevails). But even though it grows a little busy at times and concludes with an unfortunate and unconvincing foray into mystico-spiritual mumbo jumbo, 9 shows remarkable imagination and visual integrity.

Combining two well-worn, endlessly fertile science fiction conceits — the postapocalyptic planet and the sensitive machine — Acker has made a parable of technological peril that is both exciting and satisfyingly enigmatic. Though he uses the latest computer-assisted techniques, his aesthetic has a pleasingly creaky, handmade feel, as if his main tools were not a mouse and a keyboard but rather a needle and thread.

The evil machines ranged against the soft-bodied robots resemble collaborations between Rube Goldberg and Hieronymus Bosch. They are demonic things with glowing eyes and ferocious appetites. The motive for their murderous zeal is one of the puzzles that 9, in the midst of struggling for survival, must try to solve.

This movie’s affinity with WALL-E, another fable of a soulful machine in a blighted, depopulated milieu, is clear enough, though 9 never achieves that film’s lyrical sublimity. Some of Mr. Acker’s influences are easy to spot, from experimental animators like Jan Svankmajer and the Brothers Quay to Tim Burton, a producer of 9. Its look is smoky, dusty and vaguely European, and its gadgets have an analog solidity that suggests the futuristic nightmares of a long-ago time.

9 and his brethren, scuttling through bombed-out buildings like partisans in an occupied city, evading predatory bird- and spiderlike foes and quarreling among themselves, also try to piece together their own history. Their inquiry is both metaphysical — who made them, and why? — and practical: what are they made of, and how does it work? Answers are parceled out in quieter moments and in vivid rushes of imagery that punctuate the fights and flights.

The action is breathless and intense, the ravenous villains are frightening to behold, and the overall mood is probably too dark and anxious for very young children. But every effort to expand the range of feature-length animation beyond the confines of cautious family fare is to be welcomed, and budding techno and fantasy geeks are likely to be intrigued and enthralled.


JENNIFER’S BODY (2009)
Grade: B-

Hell is a teenage girl. So observes the narrator of Jennifer's Body, tongue in cheek — not to mention other bodily regions.

The high school horror-comedy with a decidedly feminist bite stars Megan Fox as the traffic-stopping title character and Amanda Seyfried as her BFF, Needy.

It is Needy (short for Anita) who narrates the tale of Satanism, ravishment, and revenge in girlspeak courtesy of Diablo Cody, the writer of Juno. (While Cody's dialogue is endlessly repeatable, every line is delivered as though it has air quotes around it.)

As a horror movie, Jennifer's Body doesn't fully deliver. But as a comic allegory of what it's like to be an adolescent girl who comes into sexual and social power that she doesn't know what the heck to do with, it is a minor classic.

Cody and director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, Aeon Flux) have a lot of fun setting up Fox — seen here in all her glory, with that double-dip bod and triple-dip eyelashes — as the voluptuous vixen too cool for school and too hot for you. As this sexually ambidextrous character, Fox has a lot of fun, too. Her teasing message: I know what boys want — and I know what girls want, too.

Instead of sacrificing Jennifer as the hot chick who deserves to get punished, as girls of this sort routinely are in horror films, the filmmakers present her as one overwhelmed by hormones and male attention. Jennifer is tired of being the campus lust object. She's tired of the limited menu of men in Devil's Kettle, Minn. She's looking for fresh meat.

So, with bestie Needy in tow, Jennifer goes to the local roadhouse to hear an emo band, Low Shoulder, led by Nikolai (Adam Brody), and makes him her lust object. Then hell is unleashed, and Jennifer becomes a literal man-eater. Yes, there's a satanic initiation with a side of chili con carnage.

In a clunky but not unlikable way, the filmmakers play with ideas about female sexual voracity. At first, it is suggested, Jennifer is a nymphomaniac. The way Cody structured the film suggests that a not-very-interesting phenomenon has taken place when in fact it is later revealed that something much more interesting has happened. As the movie progresses, Jennifer emerges as the Jessica Rabbit of horror — she's not bad, she's just drawn that way.

As hottie and nottie, Fox is appropriately foxy, and Seyfried (a genuine beauty) is made to look geeky. These are archetypal characters, to be sure, but Fox and Seyfried are very good in expressing the intensity of teen-girl friendships.

Kusama, a good director of actresses, doesn't establish her own visual style. Instead, she borrows from other directors (Jennifer's Body pays tribute to many horror flicks, including Carrie, The Silence of the Lambs, Thelma & Louise, and Halloween). This makes the film seem derivative when, in fact, it is an original.


PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2009)
Grade: B

The surprise success of the microbudget indie horror film Paranormal Activity constitutes one of those pop-culture moments when you realize that mass taste is sometimes better than you give it credit for. This may not be the horror movie of the year—that crown still easily goes to Sam Raimi's similarly themed Drag Me to Hell—but it's good enough that its unexpected popularity is heartening. In a genre where a fresh mutilated corpse every 15 minutes has become a reasonable expectation, this slow-paced but relentless spooker is refreshingly un-extreme. It comes by its screams honestly, earning them with incremental, at times agonizing gradations of old-fashioned, what's-that-noise-in-the-hallway suspense.

Though it's a retro haunted-house movie at heart, Paranormal Activity is formally postmodern, departing from the same found-footage conceit as The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield. A title tells us that the families of Katie Featherstone and Micah Sloat have authorized the use of the images we're about to see. As it turns out, those are both the real-life names of the actors and the character names of the couple we're about to spend 86 claustrophobic minutes with. Micah and Katie live together in San Diego, in a house that, while not a mansion, is pretty swank for a couple in their 20s: two stories, three bedrooms, a backyard pool. (I'll get back to the significance of their apparent financial comfort later.)

In the first scene, Micah is setting up a home video camera in their bedroom, to Katie's mild protests. They've been hearing some weird noises at night around the house, and Micah wants to prove to her that the creaks and rustlings are nothing but normal house-settling sounds (not that he seems all that confident himself). All night, every night, the camera sits fixed at their bedside as they sleep through a crescendo of unexplainable events. Doors open and close. Chandeliers swing. Bedclothes ruffle. None of this is sufficiently horrifying to run screaming out of the house about, but it's enough to convince Micah to continue with the nightly recording, just in case.

The couple's mutual conviction that the haunting is sort of like a mouse infestation, a niggling household problem to keep on top of, is one of the funnier things about Paranormal Activity, which doubles, in its less scary moments, as a domestic comedy. Micah trails Katie around with the camera as they squabble and bargain (he for on-camera sex, she for a moment of privacy). As the creepy nocturnal happenings escalate, each proposes a different solution: She wants to call in a demonologist to exorcise the place (an approach that, by this film's logic, seems as rational and sound as getting a yearly mammogram). He wants to consult a Ouija board—not a popular idea with either Katie, her best friend, or the demon itself, who, when the couple has stepped out for dinner one night, sets the offending occult object on fire.

The writer/director, first-timer Oren Peli, bides his time to a sadistic degree, revealing only as much about the poltergeist as we need to know to keep us anxious. Katie has felt followed by an evil spirit since her house burned down in childhood. (Cut to the events of night No. 8.) A psychic she calls in for a consultation refuses to stay in the house. (Cut to night No. 9.) A childhood photograph of Katie—one that should have disappeared in that long-ago fire—surfaces in the attic. (Cut to night No. 10.) The film is rhythmically punctuated by these long, static shots of the couple sleeping, and we come to dread the nights as much as they do. When you're watching time-lapse film of two people asleep in a dark room, it's surprising how little it takes to scare you: The image of Katie getting out of the bed and standing stock-still next to it as the hours fast-forward past is inexplicably unsettling.

That's all I'll say of the minimalist plot, except to observe that, unless I misunderstood the ending completely, the last few seconds are a bit of a letdown. But since Paranormal Activity has been so widely discussed already—opinion is sharply divided—I'd like to end this review with my own possibly crackpot reading of the film as allegory for the credit crisis. As mentioned above, Micah and Katie live quite nicely for a couple of their age. His job is described only as "day trader," Katie's as "student," and during the 20 or so days of home movies we witness, we never see either leaving the house for work or school. Even if the couple flees the house their overleveraged dollars have bought, Katie's childhood demon will catch up with her eventually, as will Micah's hubris about solving the haunting problem with no help from anyone else. Both of them—especially the day-trading, night-filming Micah—consistently overestimate their own ability to understand and manage the forces that threaten them. And the apparent consumerist complacency of the movie's opening—as Micah fires up his new camera for the first time, Katie teases him about how much it must have cost—soon gives way to a far harsher focus on day-to-day survival. Though it never poses a question more abstract than "Where's that scratching sound coming from?" Paranormal Activity is all about spiritual and ethical debts coming due. As we watch the doomed couple fall asleep night after night, we ask what the day traders never asked themselves: How long can they keep pretending everything's all right?


A PERFECT GETAWAY (2009)
Grade: B

Those who happened to see the big-budget mess The Chronicles of Riddick five years ago may have sworn off David Twohy's films for life.

The cut that played in theaters was just enough of a bloated, over-caffeinated Dune-like spectacle to make audiences forget all the nice touches that the writer-director had with dialogue and action in Pitch Black. It says something that the two Riddick video games were infinitely better, with the pixelated Vin Diesel's performance in the video game somehow more engaging than the flesh and blood actor in the movie.

A Perfect Getaway is a clever, heart-pounding thriller, and a welcome return to form for the director. It probably has a thousandth the visual effects budget of the Riddick movie, lasting 97 minutes without a single explosion. But the acting is strong and the director sets a bold, interesting pace — at times verging on collapsing the fourth wall between the actors and the audience. It's the type of B-movie throwaway thriller that studios program as secondary films during the summer blockbuster season, but Twohy refuses to just go through the motions.

Much of the credit goes to the actors, starting with Cliff (Steve Zahn) as a screenwriter on a honeymoon with his less adventurous wife, Cydney (Milla Jovovich). A male-female pair of serial killers is offing couples in Hawaii, and Cliff and Cydney meet some prime candidates in the form of two grungy hitchhikers, and a seemingly friendly couple that they run across on the trail.

Even with a somewhat over-the-top final third of the film, the weaknesses will occur to audiences only as they think about the film later. Although a second viewing may clarify some inconsistencies, there are definitely a few actions by the principals that don't make sense once the spoilers are revealed.

The dialogue is sharp and funny, with most of the best lines going to Timothy Olyphant as Nick, a hard-core survivalist type whose brain isn't wired like the rest of ours. Twohy also takes two classic moves from the Wes Craven playbook: He uses Cliff's profession to make fun of the genre, while also letting the audience know it's OK not to take the movie too seriously. (A conversation involving the use of red herrings in movies is particularly spot-on, considering this may be the red-herring-est movie of the year.)

And when the bad guys are revealed and it's time for some kill-or-be-killed action, he allows his protagonists to do more than run and scream and trip over stuff. Before it's over, you might end up feeling a little sorry for the villains.


WEATHER GIRL (2009)
Grade: C

Engaging lead performances and snatches of witty repartee help lubricate the creaky plot mechanics in Weather Girl, a lightly amusing but thoroughly predictable dramedy that plays like a Lifetime made-for-cable production with an R-rated soundtrack. Sitcom vet (and, perhaps more important, co-producer) Tricia O'Kelley makes a winning impression in the title role of what's obviously intended as a star-vehicle showcase. Even so, this indie fim relies more heavily on the bigger names in the supporting cast —especially Mark Harmon of the hit television series NCIS — to grab maximum attention.

Opening scenes — as wildly improbable as they are undeniably hilarious — depict the oncamera meltdown of Sylvia Miller (O'Kelley), the "sassy weather girl" (as she's repeatedly referenced) of a Seattle morning TV news show. Long romantically involved with Dale Waters (Harmon), the show's preening host, Sylvia more or less commits career suicide by publicly trashing Dale for his loutish infidelity (and unimpressive sexual prowess) while, off in the control room, members of the snickering production crew — evidently unmindful or uncaring of FCC regulations — allow her foul-mouthed tirade to be aired live.

In the wake of this episode, not surprisingly, Sylvia finds herself unable to land a job at any other Seattle broadcast outlet. So she's forced to move in with her slacker younger brother, acerbic Walt (Ryan Devlin), and take a waitressing job for a demanding restaurateur (a fleeting, funny cameo by Jane Lynch). Sylvia is all the more anxious about being unattached as well as underemployed because, as her best buddies (Alex Kapp Horner, Marin Hinkle) none-too-subtly remind her, she is 35 and counting.

But her friends don't stop there: They also suggest that although Dale behaved atrociously — he cheated on Sylvia with his conspicuously younger co-host (Kaitlin Olson) — he wasn't entirely wrong when he accused Sylvia of maintaining a tight grip on her emotions.

Partly to deflect such criticism, but largely to get herself through a dry and lonely stretch, Sylvia throws herself into a strictly sexual, no-strings-attached relationship with Byron (Patrick J. Adams), Walt's friend and neighbor, a website designer who insists he's "a great rebound guy." Of course, they agree they'll never fall in love, because, hey, he's six years younger than she is, and they really have nothing in common, and she's not looking for anything permanent, and ... OK, so you know where this is going.

Writer-director Blayne Weaver doesn't cover any new ground, but he takes a few clever turns while heading toward the inevitable happy ending. The movie might have been even more effective if he had risked a bit more and pandered a tad less — he and O'Kelley seem reluctant to risk turning off viewers by focusing too long on Sylvia's less attractive but more intriguing qualities.

But O'Kelley and Adams develop an enjoyably edgy/romantic give-and-take, largely because they have some of the film's best dialogue. ("You're sexy," he says, "in a foreign film kind of way, with the angles and the attitude ... ") And Harmon deftly remains one step short of caricature while playing Dale as more clueless than caddish. Other supporting players — including Jon Cryer as a fatuous blind date from hell, and an unbilled Blair Underwood as a TV station manager — are well-cast. The production values are unspectacular, but sufficient.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

December's Oscar Poll

Results of my polling of a sampling of Oscar voters in the primary categories. The results are listed in the order of votes received:

Picture
Up in the Air
The Hurt Locker
Avator
Precious
Inglourious Basterds
Invictus
Up
Nine
An Education
A Serious Man

Director
Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Jason Reitman, Up in the Air
James Cameron, Avatar
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Lee Daniels, Precious

Actor
Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
George Clooney, Up in the Air
Colin Firth, A Single Man
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

Actress
Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Helen Mirren, The Last Station

Supporting Actor
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Christopher Plummer, The Last Station
Matt Damon, Invictus

Supporting Actress
Mo'Nique, Previous
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Julianne Moore, A Single Man
Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
Penelope Cruz, Nine

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

Adapted Screenplay
Up in the Air
Precious
An Education
A Single Man
Julie & Julia

This could haunt Hair in the general election

The Senate recently, albeit somewhat reluctantly, passed a defense appropriations bill that includes:

  • A 3.4% pay increase for our service men and women.
  • Nearly $30 billion for health care for service members and their families.
  • More than $100 billion operations and maintenance, and military personnel requirements for ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to support preparations to continue withdrawal from Iraq.
  • More than $23 billion for equipment used by our service members in Iraq and Afghanistan – including critical funds to accelerate the deployment of new mine-resistant vehicles.
  • More than $150 billion to increase readiness and training of our troops.

In other words, it was a bill designed to say "If we send young American men and women off to foreign lands to fight in a war they had no desire to start, we should do everything we can to protect and compensate them." Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Especially for defense-conscious Republicans. Which is why Sen. Hutch voted for it.

But why, in heaven's name did Gov. Hair attack Hutch for her vote? The answer: ridiculous, petty, partisan politics.

You, see, Republicans in the Senate and elsewhere, who obviously put a higher priority on sending Americans to their deaths in unnecessary wars in the Mideast than they do on the health of their own constituents right here at home, filibustered the defense bill because the health care reform legislation they oppose could not be considered until after the defense bill passed. Hutch saw through the hypocrisy in this tactic and joined others from her party to block the filibuster.

So Hair launched his attack on Hutch for standing up for American troops.

To me, his actions make no sense and may indeed come back to haunt him in the long run. Hair is going to trounce Hutch in the GOP gubernatorial primary, so he doesn't need to try to continue to outflank her on the right. And tactics like this are going to be a severe liability with the general electorate when he faces Bill White next November. Texas voters, I am convinced, support our troops overseas and they are not going to like someone who opposes the best interests of those troops.

Perry seems to forget that he won the last election with only 34 percent of the vote. That's about the voting percentage of the far-right wingnuts in Texas. This time around he's likely to face only one serious challenger in the general election, not three like he did four years ago. To get more than that 34 per cent, he is going to have to move more to the center. Stupid moves like this one aren't going to help his cause one bit.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Two improbable/impressive wins by our local pros

The only thing less likely to happen than a Dallas Mavericks team without Dirk Nowitzki beating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers was the hapless Dallas Cowboys defeating the unbeaten New Orleans Saints in the Superdome.

Yet both happened.

Both wins were impressive, although the Cowboys' victory was more infuriating. Who were those guys wearing the silver and white during the first three quarters of that game? They certainly didn't look like the same clowns who played so poorly in losing the previous two games and it convinced me more than ever that the Cowboys need an entirely new coaching staff. The problem with the Cowboys is inconsistency and that can usually be traced back to the staff. Although, except for DeMarcus Ware, they did revert to their sloppy game in the fourth quarter, they played their best ball of the season in the first three quarters. And it appeared, at least to me, they were playing up to their capabilities, not above their heads. If the Cowboys can find a coach who can keep them playing at that level (Mike Shanahan?), this is a Super Bowl-caliber team.

If the Giants lose to the Washington Redskins tonight, the Cowboys clinch a playoff spot with a win in one of their last two games.

The Mavericks obviously don't need a coaching change. That was evident Sunday when they were playing without Nowitzki who was out with a pained elbow sustained in a gruesome collision with Carl Landry during Friday night's game with the Houston Rockets. Landry lost five teeth -- make that three when two of them were found embedded in Dirk's right elbow, which required several stitches to close.

Compensating for the loss were players not even on the Mavericks roster last year -- Tim Thomas (pictured) who led all Mavericks scorers with 22 points, Shawn Marion whose defense of James held him to just two points in the crucial fourth quarter and former Cavalier Dwight Gooden who scored 12 points, collected eight rebounds and blocked two shots while playing 23 minutes.

Coach Rick Carlisle stuck to an eight-man rotation (Quinton Ross, James Singleton, Kris Humphries and Rodrique Beaubois didn't see any action Sunday) and always seemed to have exactly the right five people on the court throughout the game.

Two nice wins by two of Dallas' professional franchises this weekend.

New movies to be released tomorrow on DVD


(500) DAYS OF SUMMER (2009)
Grade: A-
There are two words that, I feel, perfectly describe (500) Days of Summer and ought to be words of recommendation. But they are words so debased in common usage that I fear that invoking them might turn some folks away from a fresh and smart and funny and delightful little film.

With great caution and trepidation, then, I unpack them.

The words are..."cute" and "quirky."

I know: kiss of death, right? But the cuteness and quirkiness of (500) Days are both earned and authentic. It’s a film of obvious intelligence that doesn’t care if it looks silly for having a big, visible heart. At the same time, it’s built and played with an inventive and spry blend of wit and energy that feels more homemade and personal than mass-manufactured and calculated. It’s a DIY-style film with the assuredness of mature craft. In fact, it’s so pleasurable and true that it might even be able to rescue words like "cute" and "quirky" and turn them into badges of honor. (Maybe....)

The film is set more or less between the ears of Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a decent enough guy who studied to be an architect but has wound up working as a greeting card writer. On the job, he sets eyes on a new receptionist named Summer (Zooey Deschanel), and he falls. Hard.
After a strained how-do-you-do, they start to hang out: singing karaoke and drinking and going to movies and even making love. But they’re not in love. Or, at least, Summer isn’t. She doesn’t believe in love, you see; it’s one of her tics, like the belief that Ringo is the greatest of the Beatles. Tom, though, has been waiting for true love all his life, and he doesn’t care if his friends, his co-workers, his cuttingly savvy little sister (played with relish by Chloe Grace Moretz) or even his sweetie know it. He is a romantic, and he has fallen for a cynic. And, poor sap, he thinks he can change her.

The highs and lows of Tom’s situation are conveyed in jumbled chronology (the 500 days of the relationship are presented in shuffled order), amid a panoply of new and old music (Hall and Oates and the Smiths, meet Feist and Wolfmother), and with a spirit on behalf of director Marc Webb that’s sufficiently playful to allow room for a cheekily ebullient production number.
Chiefly, though, the complexities are conveyed by the fine Gordon-Levitt, a child actor (Third Rock from the Sun) who has blossomed into a daring, confident and elastic young leading man. His Tom is a goof and a gallant, riding an emotional ferris wheel of bliss and agony, doubt and determination, fear and daring. Opposite, Deschanel absolutely nails Summer’s flitty, cool and casual nature (and sings the McGuire Sisters’ Sugartime predictably spiffily). Together, even in a tale of strained relations, they’re superb, a twentysomething Hepburn and Tracy tricked out with iPods and irony.

The friskiness of (500) Days (those parentheses, for instance) might strike some as glib or juvenile, much in the way that a backlash formed against Juno once its distinctive tone caught the ear of a larger audience. But the film does a lovely job of balancing emotional clarity, formal trickery, pop sweetness, and heartfelt narrative. It is, yes, cute, and it is, yes, quirky. And it is entirely justified, estimable and loveable in being those things.

ALL ABOUT STEVE (2009)
Grade: D-
Nothing against windbags or wackily dressed crossword-puzzle constructors, but I’m not sure a logorrheic cruciverbalist in go-go boots is someone I want to spend an hour and a half with in a darkened theater. In fact, after just a few minutes with her, I wanted to steal the woman’s shiny red footwear and use it to dropkick her straight back to the trash heap of bad movie ideas.

It pains me to say it, because I like Sandra Bullock. She’s smart, unpretentious and perky, three characteristics many in Hollywood would be wise to emulate. I wanted to like All About Steve, too, and not merely because it co-stars hunk-of-the-hour Bradley Cooper as Bullock’s unwilling love object. The notion of a crossword puzzler as a film heroine appealed to my inner word nerd, sparking hope for future epic dramas starring Scrabble champions and cryptogram fanatics. Sigh.

All About Steve is a drab name for a dreadful movie. A slightly better title might be There’s Something About Steve — or even All About Mary, because director Phil Traill and writer Kim Barker care about Steve only to the extent that Mary’s stalking him. Steve (Cooper) is the unfortunate fellow who shows up for a blind date with blabbermouth Mary (Bullock), who’s instantly smitten and jumps him like a rutting hyena in the cab of his truck.

He’s OK with this until Mary starts talking nonstop, and he’s even OK with that until she compares their sudden coupling to "two rare-earth elements brought together by the Norns — that’s Scandinavian for the destinies." End of sudden coupling. Start of Mary’s new career stalking Steve, a cameraman for a cable news network who covers the disaster beat with an ego-crazed reporter (Thomas Haden Church) and harried producer (Ken Jeong, Cooper’s cast mate from The Hangover).

Trailing Steve is a fairly simple matter of pinpointing the next crisis, which might be a hostage situation in Tucson or a mounting protest at a hospital in Oklahoma City, where parents are arguing over whether to amputate a baby’s third leg. If that doesn’t tickle your funny bone (birth defects: hilarious!), just wait until Mary and a couple of newfound friends (D.J. Qualls and Katy Mixon) head for Galveston in a ‘76 Gremlin.

We know from recent experience that stymied obsessive love can be a delightful basis for romantic comedy, but All About Steve has nothing like the melting heart of (500) Days of Summer. There’s no footing in reality. Nothing about it feels authentic: not the blathering Mary, not the lifeless secondary characters, not the bromide-happy dialogue or the plot that twists less often than it spasms.

Twice for our benefit, Mary lists the elements of any successful crossword, and they aren’t that different from the keys to a decent movie. The pertinent questions are: "Is it solvable? Is it entertaining? Does it sparkle?" The answers are: No, no, and no.


BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT (2009)
Grade: C-
In theory, digging into the RKO archives for remake possibilities is a fine idea, but this redo of Fritz Lang’s 1956 film noir is no improvement on a potboiler that was no great shakes to begin with. Director-screenwriter Peter Hyams has said that he wanted to redo this legal thriller with younger stars, but the lack of charisma exhibited by leads Jesse Metcalfe and Amber Tamblyn doesn’t help matters, and not even the stalwart presence of Michael Douglas fails to provide the proceedings with sufficient gravitas.

As is typical with remakes, this incarnation suffers from a bloated running time nearly a half-hour longer than the original and several gratuitous actions sequences that don’t add appreciably to the suspense level.

The convoluted plot revolves around the efforts of ambitious TV reporter C.J. Nicholas (Metcalfe) to get the goods on a corrupt and politically ambitious district attorney (Douglas) whom he suspects of planting evidence. Along with his eager-beaver cameraman (Joel David Moore), C.J. improbably sets out to get himself accused of the murder of a prostitute, contriving evidence after the fact that will reveal the D.A.’s crooked methods.

Needless to say, his plan goes awry when he’s sentenced to the death penalty and the exculpating evidence is gotten rid of by the D.A.’s chain-smoking henchman.

Complicating matters further is C.J.’s burgeoning romantic relationship with a lawyer (Tamblyn) working for the D.A. who naturally finds herself facing a serious conflict of interest.

The far-fetched plot might have worked if it had been executed with more stylistic finesse and if the performances were more engaging, but Metcalfe’s protagonist is hard to root for, Tamblyn’s love interest is bland, and Douglas is unable to make his one-dimensional role remotely credible.
Hyams’ screenplay mainly ignores the social aspects of the original, which took a highly dim view of the death penalty. As is usual for the director, he also serves as his own cinematographer, with the results displaying his usual technical slickness.


DISTRICT 9 (2009)
Grade: B+
For decades — at least since Orson Welles scared the daylights out of radio listeners with War of the Worlds back in 1938 — the public has embraced the terrifying prospect of alien invasion. But what if, notwithstanding the occasional humanist fable like E.T., all those movies and television programs have been inculcating a potentially toxic form of interplanetary prejudice?

District 9 a smart, swift film from the South African director Neill Blomkamp (who now lives in Canada and who wrote the screenplay with Terri Tatchell), raises such a possibility in part by inverting an axiomatic question of the U.F.O. genre. In place of the usual mystery — what are they going to do to us? — this movie poses a different kind of hypothetical puzzle. What would we do to them? The answer, derived from intimate knowledge of how we have treated one another for centuries, is not pretty.

A busy opening flurry of mock-news images and talking-head documentary chin scratching fills in a grim, disturbingly plausible scenario. Back in the 1980s a giant spacecraft stalled in the skies over Johannesburg. On board were a large number of starving and disoriented creatures, who were rescued and placed in a temporary refugee camp in the part of the city that gives the film its title. Over the next 20 years the settlement became a teeming shantytown like so many others in the developing world, with the relatively minor distinction of being home to tall, skinny bipeds with insectlike faces and bodies that seem to combine biological and mechanical features. Though there is evidence that those extraterrestrials — known in derogatory slang as prawns because of their vaguely crustacean appearance — represent an advanced civilization, their lives on Earth are marked by squalor and dysfunction. And they are viewed by South Africans of all races with suspicion, occasional pity and xenophobic hostility.

The South African setting hones the allegory of District 9 to a sharp topical point. That country’s history of apartheid and its continuing social problems are never mentioned, but they hardly need to be. And the film’s implications extend far beyond the boundaries of a particular nation, which is taken as more or less representative of the planet as a whole.

No group, from the mostly white soldiers and bureaucrats who corral and abuse the prawns to the Nigerian gangsters who prey upon the aliens and exploit their addiction to cat food, is innocent. And casual bigotry turns out to be the least of the problems facing the exiles. As it progresses, District 9 uncovers a horrific program of medical experimentation yoked to a near-genocidal agenda of corporate greed. A company called M.N.U. (it stands, none too subtly, for Multi-National United) has taken over administration of the prawn population, which means resettling the aliens in a remote enclosure reminiscent of the Bantustans of the apartheid era.

The M.N.U. executive charged with carrying out this program is Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a nervous nebbish whose father-in-law (Louis Minnaar) is the head of the company. Cowardly, preening and hopeless at projecting authority, Wikus is the kind of guy who gives nepotism a bad name. It says a lot about Mr. Blomkamp’s sense of humor, and about his view of his own species, that this pathetic little paper pusher is his chosen agent of mankind’s potential moral redemption.

But I’m getting ahead of the story, and perhaps overselling the allegory. Not that the metaphorical resonances of District 9 aren’t rich and thought provoking. But the filmmakers don’t draw them out with a heavy, didactic hand. Instead, in the best B-movie tradition, they embed their ideas in an ingenious, propulsive and suspenseful genre entertainment, one that respects your intelligence even as it makes your eyes pop (and, once in a while, your stomach turn).

The early pseudo-documentary conceit, which uses footage that pretends to have been harvested from news choppers and security cameras as well as some by the unseen crew accompanying Wikus on his tour of the prawn camp, fades away after a while. The academic authorities do too, having served the dual functions of providing narrative exposition and demonstrating the high-minded uselessness of official liberal discourse.

Once a terrible accident befalls Wikus, we are at his side and under his skin, and District 9 subtly shifts from speculative science fiction to zombie bio-horror and then, less subtly, turns into an escape-action-chase movie full of explosions, gunplay and vehicular mayhem.

In the midst of it all you almost take for granted the carefully rendered details of the setting, the tightness of the editing and the inventiveness of the special effects. Not the least of these are the aliens themselves, who are made expressive and soulful without quite being anthropomorphized. (Their whirring, clicking speech, partly understood by Wikus and others who work with the creatures, is translated for the rest of us via subtitles.)

One in particular, named Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope), becomes Wikus’s protector and ward, and their relationship turns District 9, in its final act, into an intergalactic buddy picture, with some intriguing (and also possibly disappointing) sequel opportunities left open.

At its core the film tells the story — hardly an unfamiliar one in the literature of modern South Africa — of how a member of the socially dominant group becomes aware of the injustice that keeps him in his place and the others, his designated inferiors, in theirs. The cost he pays for this knowledge is severe, as it must be, given the dreadful contours of the system. But if the film’s view of the world is bleak, it is not quite nihilistic. It suggests that sometimes the only way to become fully human is to be completely alienated.


EXTRACT (2009)
Grade: C
Sometimes you’re willing to give a comedy the benefit of the doubt. If you laugh, that’s enough. But a good movie can connect that comedy to how we live in the world. Or it takes risks and demonstrates a real sensibility. Mike Judge usually gets most of the way there. His animated television shows — Beavis and Butt-Head and King of the Hill are two — found perverse comic life in Middle American monotony. Characters stagnated on the sofa in front of the television or yammered around a grill in somebody’s backyard. Those shows bespoke an America where the suburban normal absorbed the weird the way a paper towel accommodates a spill. Like the folks over at The Simpsons, Judge is a comedian who can find the poetic glories in stupidity.

You can feel him straining for both effects in Extract, a meandering, only fitfully funny live-action comedy with Jason Bateman as Joel, the owner of a flavor extract business. Joel exists in chronic frustration. His employees on the manufacturing floor are nincompoops whose incompetence manages to cost a worker named Step (Clifton Collins Jr.) one of his testicles. The company is on the verge of being sold to General Mills, which is waiting to see if Step sues before it makes a move.

Lately Joel’s been trying to get home before 8 p.m., the exact time his wife, Suzie (Kristen Wiig), loses interest in sex with him. (She would rather watch Dancing With the Stars.) There’s a possibility for relief with Cindy (Mila Kunis), a grifter with the pertness of a Maxim cover girl. She seduces her way into Joel’s company and Step’s life for his lawsuit money, her sloe eyes popping open when she reads about the accident in the paper. (The camera jerks ecstatically between jackpot phrases on the page — "million-dollar settlement" and "lost a testicle.") Joel wants to sleep with her but doesn’t feel he can unless he knows Suzie is cheating, too. So he hires a pretty, young dunce (Dustin Milligan, in a wonderful haze) to pretend to be their pool boy and bed her. To Joel’s astonishment, it works hilariously well.

Extract is the opposite of Office Space, Judge’s now-beloved film about a life spent toiling amid cubicles. In that movie, the bosses were morons. In this one, the morons are the drones. A movie that mocks their incompetence would have to draw clear archetypes or create recognizably human characters.

Unfortunately, Judge is just whacking at piñata-size sketches.

One reason the popularity of Office Space grows with time (it was released with no fanfare in 1999) is that more people enter the workforce and discover they too work for idiots. It takes a heartless, more eagle-eyed farceur to make a movie about the idiots who work for you. Like the hero in Judge’s previous movie, a monotonous concept piece called Idiocracy, Joel is usually the smartest man in the room. But he needs a foil. For a minute, it looks as if might be Cindy, but she turns into the cupcake you were afraid she’d be.

Nevertheless, there’s classic screwball comedy lurking in this material, a cynic’s recognition that the world runs crookedly. But the movie is logy and repetitive. If we see the ubiquitous utility player David Koechner once as Joel’s pathologically talkative neighbor, we see him a dozen times. And even a little of Gene Simmons’s sleazy ambulance-chaser is too much. The scenes clump together. Rather than escalate to a head, they shuffle sideways.

Bateman, at least, reaches a boil. He’s very good when both backed into obnoxiousness and required to play it straight. The look on his face after he takes a hit off a bong as big as a light saber is priceless. He looks like he might actually choke to death. That moment is a bit in a movie choking on bits — including a few good ones with Beth Grant as the battiest of all the worker bees, Ben Affleck as a bartender with a curly wig, and a dim J.K. Simmons with no wig at all. All we have here are bits, so many, in fact, that Extract feels more like a collection of crumbs.

IT MIGHT GET LOUD (2009)
Grade: B
Rockers out there, it’s time to turn off Guitar Hero and turn on to the heroes of guitar in It Might Get Loud, a six-string "summit" featuring virtuosos of the ‘60s, ‘80s, and aughts.
They are: Jimmy Page, silver-maned lion of licks, guitar supremo of the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin; the Edge, wool-capped wizard of reverb for U2; and Jack White, pork-pie-hatted plucker of the Raconteurs and White Stripes.

In this electrifying triptych from Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth), Page is the extroverted performer caressing his ax like a lover, Edge the cerebral innovator of sound effects presiding over a high-tech arsenal, and White the eccentric Luddite favoring handmade instruments and effects.

The only things these guys would seem to have in common is their instrument and the fact that they are bipeds living in the 21st century.

Do these three artists, representatives of different generations and philosophies — not to mention sartorial styles — have much to say to each other? Glad you asked. Perhaps not, although the movie does climax with their surprisingly seamless, if not exactly timeless, jam on the Band’s signature song, The Weight. But they have a lot to say to the audience.

It’s in the individual interviews, where Guggenheim draws out his subjects, that the movie draws you in. (I say this as a U2 fan, one who never much liked Led Zep and who respects the White Stripes in concept more than I admire them musically.)

With varying degrees of success, the filmmaker gets each musician to talk about the personal and musical roots that blossomed into his technique. All of them worked in the musical eddies (skiffle for Page, punk for Edge and punk blues for White) before making their mark on mainstream rock.

And all of them are walking, strumming, keen-eared encyclopedias of music, helping the tone-deaf hear critically and appreciate the history, politics and poetry of the guitar.

Moneyball


Think college football is amateur athletics. Thing again. Perhaps the players aren't getting paid, but everyone else is and well, according to this carefully researched and well written story from ESPN.com's Mike Fish.

The story fails to make one connection so I will. It begins by noting that Texas coach Mack Brown is currently the highest paid college coach in the land. Then halfway through the story it notes that Texas, far and away, "generated the most football revenue last season, according to survey data that schools are required to file with the federal government." That income came to $87.6 million. Ohio State was a distant second with $68.2. The distance in dollars between Texas and Ohio State is greater than the distance between Ohio State and the school that finished 10th on the list: South Carolina ($57.1 million). Your team generates that much income and you deserve the big bucks.

I was somewhat shocked and dismayed, however, that, at many schools, assistant football coaches have a salary higher than the school's president.

Thanks and a tip of the hat to my South Florida correspondent for alerting me to this story. It's long, but it's a fascinating read.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Newsweek predicts White to win governor's election


No. 10 on Newsweek's "Politics Predictions for 2010" is this doozy: Former Houston Mayor Bill White (pictured right) will narrowly defeat Gov. Hair in next year's Texas gubernatorial election. Here is what the weekly news magazine had to say about next year's heated election:

"If Texas is emblematic of America’s proclivity for bombast and superlatives, then its 2010 governor’s race will be no exception. Expect things to be big and bloody, as national ideological struggles play out, Texas-style. In one corner, the state’s longest-serving governor and occasional secessionist, Rick Perry, is battling it out with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, a moderate by Texas Republican standards who’s more appealing to a general audience. The colorful insults hurled over the past few months will only intensify as Perry, who’s favored by ultraconservatives, tries to escape Hutchinson’s charges that he’s marginalized and sullied the party. Our money’s on Perry as the victor in the March primary, if only for the anti-Washington sentiment swirling around the state. But he won’t emerge unscathed. As the primary takes its toll on his public image, doors open for the likely Democratic candidate, well-liked Houston Mayor Bill White, whose energy and planning initiatives, along with his economic management, have won him broad favor. By building a coalition of Hispanics, independents, and moderate Republicans from Texas’s growing, more Democrat-friendly urban centers, White will waltz into the governor’s mansion. But just barely."

Thursday, December 17, 2009

SAG deals a blow to Air's Oscar chances


Unlike last year, when Slumdog Millionaire was a slam dunk almost from the word "go," handicapping this year's Oscar race is going to be a little bit tougher. Up until today I thought Up in the Air was the distinct leader over The Hurt Locker. Then the Screen Actors Guild posted its nominations and Air wasn't among the five finalists in the ensemble cast category, SAG's best picture Oscar equivalent. It's been almost 15 years, back when Braveheart won the best picture Oscar, that a film has taken that award and not been nominated by SAG for its entire cast.

What makes Air's omission even more shocking was that it received three other nominations and no other film received more.

In looking over the list of nominees, I could see the lead categories perfectly forecasting the Oscar finalists. I'm not so sure in the supporting -- I can't see the Academy giving a nod to Diane Kruger, Woody Harrelson or Matt Damon, although I could change my mind when I get around to my next Oscar balloting. I'm convinced Julianne Moore will be an Oscar nominee, bumping Kruger, and I hear momentum is building for Alec Baldwin in It's Complicated.

Again I'm surprised to see the love given by SAG to Inglourious Basterds. This could be this year's equivalent to last year's The Reader -- not much admired by the critical establishment (except, of course, for Christoph Waltz -- you can take his Oscar win to bank), but lauded by the award-givers.

I'm now thinking The Hurt Locker is going to be the early favorite for best picture. Its director, Kathryn Bigelow, is already considered the leading candidate to win an Oscar for her work. It's also going to get a tremendous lift from the fact that it comes out on DVD on Jan. 12. Oscar nomination ballots are due back to the Academy 11 days later. I'm thinking a lot of voters are going to wait until the last minute to fill out their ballots this season. And SAG gave the picture one of its five ensemble slots and the acting branch of the Academy comprises almost 21 percent of the entire voting membership, so actors control the best picture contest. I'm also going out on a limb to say that Locker's main competitor will now come from Avatar, the picture from Bigelow's former husband James Cameron. It finally had its premiere last night and, both critics and audiences are swooning (the audience at Mann's Chinese in Hollywood gave it a standing ovation).

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Maybe it's not so "Precious" after all


Earlier I admitted I was surprised that Lee Daniels did not recieve a Golden Globes director's nomination for Precious, which I once thought was a prime contender to win many of the top Oscars, including best picture. However, here's what Moviefone's Jack Mathews, a critic I respect, says about whether this film even has a shot at a best picture nomination:

"In any year before this one, no. And if the Academy hadn’t just doubled the number of Best Picture nominees from 5 to 10 this year, we wouldn’t be talking about Precious as an Oscar contender now. In fact, if director Lee Daniels had cleaned up the language a bit and eliminated an unnecessary rape clip, Precious might have found its natural home—as a movie-of-the-week on TV—and we’d be talking about its rightful fate of an Emmy winner.

"I am not convinced that Precious will make the Best Picture ballot. Most of the 6,000-plus Academy voters watch the contenders—selected for them by critics, guild nominations and box office results—at home. And as a person who saw this movie in a theater with six people, watching it alone is not easy. I don’t think Lee Daniels will receive a Directors Guild nomination; directors aren’t easily swayed by emotion and the ugly truth is that Precious is an awkwardly-directed film. The fantasy sequences are almost embarrassingly inept. I do believe Mo’Nique is a slam dunk supporting actress nominee—what she does in speaking her dialogue is more humiliating than what Halle Barre did going-for-broke in Monster’s Ball—but those who vote the novice Sidibe are voting for her character more than her performance.

"What (previous) race-conscious movies (Oscars have cited( have in common with each other but not with Precious is that they were made by established filmmakers with established actors. You can call them elitist, or job-protective, but the actors who make up the largest branch of the Academy aren’t going to go hog-wild honoring performances by non-pros, semi-pros and musicians desperate for acting careers. Mariah Carey is only great in Precious if you consider how badly she has done in previous roles (a little Glitter anyone?) or if you give her points for appearing without make-up. Otherwise, it’s a performance that could have been by any of scores of actresses. The only past Best Picture nominee with a central racial issue and a no-name cast was Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies. But Leigh himself was by then a well-established and respected director."

Local film critics announce winners


The Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association announced its year-end awards. The winners are:

Best Picture: Up in the Air
Best Director: Jason Reitman, Up in the Air
Best Actor: George Clooney, Up in the Air
Best Actress: Carey Mulligan, An Education
Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Best Supporting Actress: Mo’Nique, Precious
Best Screenplay: Up in the Air
Best Foreign-Language Film: Sin Nombre
Best Documentary: The Cove
Best Animated Film: Up
Best Cinematography: The Lovely Bones

Top Ten:
1. Up in the Air
2. The Hurt Locker
3. Precious
4. Up
5. An Education
6. A Serious Man
7. Inglourious Basterds
8. District 9
9. Avatar
10. Fantastic Mr. Fox
Russell Smith Award: Precious

I can't quibble with these choices except to say that the film that tops my list as the best film I've seen this year is Goodbye, Solo, which has been totally ignored by absolutely everyone. In fact, if I had to name my 10 best right now, it would be:
1. Goodbye, Solo
2. Gomorrah
3. Tyson
4. The Cove
5. Sugar
6. Up in the Air
7. Up
8. Humpday
9. Il Divo
10. A Woman in Berlin

Bring local brands to Love Field


Here's an idea the City of Dallas should copy: instead of looking at the same bland concessionaires that now service Love Field, convince some local restaurants -- anything from Mothers and Daughters Diner to the Grape -- to establish locations at the city-owned airport. The Austin City Council is scheduled to vote tomorrow on a proposal that would allow Austin food stallwarts Saxon Pub, Hill's Cafe and Nuevo Leon to open locations in Austin-Bergstrom Airport.

Under the proposal, the concessions would be operated by a joint venture of Brazos Concessions Co. and Scott Roberts, who owns the original landmark Salt Lick barbecue restaurant in Driftwood. Brazos operates several other concessions in the airport terminal, including Maudie's Tex-Mex, Earl Campbell's Sports Bar, Schlotzsky's, Salt Lick barbecue, Amy's Ice Creams and the Longhorn Store.

The City is working on a new modernization Love Field Master Plan anyway. Here's another way the city could add some luster to the joint. Love Field becomes a more unique terminal if the concessions feature Dallas-only food establishments rather than ones featuring menus you could find in any other airport in the country.

Golden Globe nominations


I'm looking over the list of Golden Globe nominations as most people do -- a harbinger to what the Oscar nominations might look like, even though the Globes' Hollywood Foreign Press Association has 88 voting members and the Oscars' Motion Picture Academy has more than 5,000.

My first reaction is that Inglourious Basterds got far more love from the Foreign Press than I believe it will receive from the Academy. It would be a mild surprise if the film made the list of the 10 best picture nominees (although, following the lukewarm reaction to The Lovely Bones, voters may be searching for a replacement) and it would be a major shock if Quentin Tarantino made the Academy's list of best director nominees.

I thought the best picture Oscar was a two-film race between Up in the Air and Precious. After the recent spate of critics' awards and seeing the Globes' list, I'm not so sure. I'm beginning to think the race is now between Air and The Hurt Locker and I might even rate Locker's Kathryn Bigelow as the favorite for the directing Oscar (as well as the Globe) for several reasons. It's interesting to note that one of the other finalists for the Globes' best director is James Cameron for Avatar, which means, if memory serves, this will be the first time an ex-man-and-wife competed against each other in this category. I must also admit I was mildly surprised that Precious' Lee Daniels failed to make the Globes' list of director finalists. And blogger Sasha Stone pointed out the omission of Clint Eastwood from the lfinal five.

The only other surprise to me was Robert Downey Jr.'s nomination in the category Best Actor, Comedy or Musical, for Sherlock Holmes. I have not seen the film, only the trailers, but the film looked more like an Indiana Jones-type adventure more than an outright comedy. I have seen Up in the Air and, while I would label that as a drama with some funny moments, I could more easily fit Air into a comedy genre than I could Sherlock Holmes. Admittedly, I saw a couple of funny moments in the trailers, but I also saw a lot of explosions and brutal fight scenes -- moments that usually don't tickle my funny bone.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Trying to find the bright side while dancing on the dark side of the moon

About the only positive side of the Supremes stealing the 2000 presidential election for George W. is the fact that this jerk never became vice president. True, he might not have been as dangerous as Dick Cheney, but he could have wielded even far more influence today. I'm thinking, however, the voters of Connecticut aren't going to stand for his flip-flopping on health care reform and will vote him out of office the next time he's up for re-election, which, unfortunately, is still three years away. In fact, Jim Shea, a columnist for the Hartford Courant, wrote recently: “If you think you are sick of Joe Lieberman now, just wait until you get sick.” A poll conducted by Quinnipiac College showed a majority of Connecticut voters favored a public option plan in any health care reform legislation.

According to the above-linked story in the New York Times, Senate Democrats can't understand why Lieberman wants to scuttle President Obama's health care reform initiatives. Hell, the answer is simple. His wife, Hadassah, is an unpaid lobbyist for a number of pharmaceutical and insurance companies and she previously worked in public relations for two pharmaceutical companies. Plus, during his 2006 re-election campaign, Mr. Lieberman ranked second in the Senate in insurance industry contributions. He has received more than $1 million insurance company campaign contributions since 1998.

What's interesting about all this is that when he was Gore's running mate in 2000 he advocated a public option in health care reform and even suggested a Medicare buy in for people who are 55 and older, two plans he now says need to be scrapped from the current legislation before he will support it.


Update: The New York Times has an excellent editorial on Liberman's flip-flopping in its Wednesday edition.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Kinky to run for Ag Commissioner


The Democratic nomination for governor is shaping up as a two-person race between Bill White, the former Houston mayor and the candidate with all the political clout, and Farouk Shami, the hair and skin products business owner and the candidate with all the personal wealth he needs to buy the nomination. So where does that leave Kinky Friedman, who less than a month ago led in the polls for the nomination? According to the Texas Tribune, it leaves him in the same place former gubernatorial candidate Hank Gilbert found himself in recently -- deciding to run for Agricultural Commissioner instead.

According to the Trib, Friedman met with both White and Shami during the weekend just past. Friedman has declined to endorse either candidate, but he did tell the Tribune this about White: "After my visit with Bill my mind was made up. There is a clear alternative for the people of Texas, and today I'm changing courses with a happy heart."

I think, however, Friedman was leaning this way before last weekend. In fact, he has been meeting with good friend and former Agriculture Commission Jim Hightower for more than a week now, seeking advice.

"I've got a pretty detailed plan of action that we'll be rolling out later in the week," Friedman told the Tribune. "From forming a statewide public defenders' office and setting a goal of at least one animal rescue facility in each county, to restoring our depleted woodlands and promoting a greater role for local producers in school cafeterias, we're going to shake things up and show folks what the office can be if you have someone there who actually cares about the job."

Personally, I think the Ag Commissioner's job is one better suited for Friedman. I have always been a tad uncomfortable with the thought of Kinky in the governor's mansion even though I count him as a former close friend back when we both made our livings primarily in the music industry.

Friedman plans to file for the office tomorrow.

New movies to be released tomorrow on DVD

G-Force (2009) **½ G-Force — perhaps the most expensive 3-D house-pet action movie ever made and, I’m willing to concede, probably one of the best — is about an hour shorter than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, half as pretentious and twice as witty. Call this faint praise, if you like. G-Force, as loud and enervating as the words "A Jerry Bruckheimer Production" might lead you to expect, can hardly be accused of modesty, but on the other hand no film full of talking guinea pigs would be so rash as to attempt the kind of lumbering gravitas that Michael Bay has seen fit to bestow on a bunch of toys. G-Force manages to be fairly entertaining in that exhausting, rackety, late-summer-kiddie-movie way.

The Girl From Monaco (2009) **½ I wonder if in France, where he’s better known, people speak of a "Fabrice Luchini type." Mr. Luchini, 57, who has appeared in dozens of movies, has over the years refined an adaptable persona that is recognizable across genres and periods. His startled-looking eyes, delicate chin and slight overbite convey a mixture of cynicism and cluelessness, as mature worldliness seems to do battle with childlike credulity. In The Girl From Monaco Mr. Luchini plays Bertrand Beauvois, an eminent Parisian lawyer who travels to that notorious principality on the Mediterranean to defend a 70-year-old woman (Stéphane Audran) implicated in a tawdry, tabloid-feeding murder. The case, however, proves to be something of a distraction, since Bertrand’s attention is quickly hijacked by Audrey Varella (Louise Bourgoin), a minor local celebrity — and major party girl — whose television weather report pretty much makes ordering soft-core pay-per-view on hotel-room cable redundant. If in the end The Girl From Monaco is neither a cogent psychological thriller nor an effervescent sex comedy, it does at least have an interesting sense of place.

The Hangover (2009) ***½ The immaturity of ostensibly grown-up American men is an inexhaustible subject, or at least one that has yet to exhaust American movie audiences and the well-paid guys who cater to their entertainment needs. Todd Phillips, the director of Old School, Road Trip and an HBO documentary called Frat House as well as a writer of Borat, has shown himself to be an adept and tireless connoisseur of male boorishness and stupidity, though the crude humor he dispenses is frequently leavened by nuggets of inventiveness and wit. So I should say up front that The Hangover, Mr. Phillips’s new movie (written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, who contributed to the shockingly nonterrible script of Four Christmases and wrote the less surprisingly dreadful script of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) is often very funny. This is partly thanks to the three principal actors, Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis, who incarnate familiar masculine stereotypes in ways that manage to be moderately fresh as well as soothingly familiar.

Inglourious Basterds (2009) **½ From the moment the charming, smiling, laughing Nazi in Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s latest cinematic happening, sweeps onto the screen, he owns this film even more than its maker. Played by a little-known Austrian actor, Christoph Waltz, Col. Hans Landa is a vision of big-screen National Socialist villainy, from the smart cut of his SS coat to the soft gleam of his leather boots. There might be a fearsome skull (the death’s head, or totenkopf) grinning on his cap, but Colonel Landa has us at hallo. Inglourious Basterds, is Mr. Tarantino’s sixth feature. (The bifurcated Kill Bill is really one film.) In many respects it looks and, as important, sounds like a typical Tarantino production with its showboating performances, encyclopedic movie references and streams of self-conscious dialogue. As usual Mr. Tarantino gives you a lot to chew on, though there’s plenty to gag on as well. Much depends on whether you can just groove on his framing and staging, his swooping crane shots, postmodern flourishes (Samuel L. Jackson in voice-over explaining the combustibility of nitrate prints) and gorgeously saturated colors, one velvety red in particular. But too often in Inglourious Basterds the filmmaking falls short. Mr. Tarantino is a great writer and director of individual scenes, though he can have trouble putting those together, a difficulty that has sometimes been obscured by the clever temporal kinks in his earlier work.

The Other Man (2009) *½ There is an all-too-brief moment in The Other Man when this muddled little dud of a melodrama emits a dangerous charge. It arrives when Peter (Liam Neeson), a software designer who lives near Cambridge, England, discovers e-mail correspondence and pictures on the computer of his absent wife, Lisa (Laura Linney), that reveal her affair with another man. Peter, who has fancied himself happily married for 25 years, is seized with sexual jealousy that quakes from within and transforms him into an anguished, wild-eyed monster; you can see his blood boiling. Lisa, a high-end shoe designer, has mysteriously disappeared without leaving word of her whereabouts. Suspecting she has gone to meet her lover, Ralph (Antonio Banderas), whose name and address in Milan Peter uncovers through unscrupulous computer sleuthing, he flies to Italy, bent on murdering his rival. No sooner has he arrived and spotted his prey than the movie fizzles like a lighted firecracker dunked in ice water.

Taking Woodstock (2009) ***½ Don’t be misled by the title of Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock. This likable, humane movie is not an attempt to recreate the epochal Woodstock Music and Art Fair captured in Michael Wadleigh’s documentary Woodstock. It is essentially a small, intimate film into which is fitted a peripheral view of the landmark event that took place on Aug. 15 through 18, 1969, on a dairy farm in Bethel, N.Y., and has since been exalted ad nauseam for its good vibes. Most of the concert takes place out of sight of the camera. The movie’s primary focus is El Monaco, a shabby Catskills motel in White Lake, N.Y., not far from the site on which 32 acts, including Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Who and Jimi Hendrix, made rock music history. The little bit of the concert that is shown is a glowing, golden circle glimpsed in the far distance amid a throbbing acid haze outside the tent of a gentle hippie couple. The music heard during the trip scene, The Red Telephone by the Los Angeles band Love, emanates not from the stage but from speakers inside the tent, where the couple initiates a shy young stranger into the mysteries of LSD. Like Mr. Lee’s 1999 Civil War drama, Ride With the Devil, which was set on the war’s western fringe, Taking Woodstock operates on the principle that contemplation of historic events from the margins can be more revealing than from the hot center.