Sunday, January 31, 2010

"Hurt Locker" is now the Oscar favorite

The Directors Guild of America on Saturday night named Kathryn Bigelow best director of 2009 for The Hurt Locker, elevating her film into the favorite's role to win the best picture Oscar on March 7. The DGA Awards have become one of the most dependable forecasters for the Academy Awards -- the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the DGA have disagreed just six times in the last 61 years.

Not only is the DGA Award the first guild win for the 58-year-old filmmaker, it is the first time a woman has won the award. Bigelow already has received the majority of critics' awards this year for her work on the harrowing Iraq war drama, including those from the Los Angeles Film Critics, New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics. In addition, she is nominated for the best director award by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. The Hurt Locker also received a BAFTA nomination for best picture, and won the Producers Guild of America's Darryl F. Zanuck producer of the year award last week.

Recently released on DVD: "The Boys Are Back"

Grade: C

Sometimes we are jerks to our children. Especially when they are cruel to us. That’s what Joe Warr (Clive Owen), an Australian sportswriter who’s left raising a family alone after his wife dies, learns in The Boys Are Back, a heartfelt but painfully slow-moving ode to the challenges of upper-middle-class single fatherhood.

Joe reacts badly when his tired, angry son Artie (Nicholas McAnulty) declares he’d rather live with another child’s mother than in his father’s home. "Oh yeah?" a visibly hurt Joe responds. "Then you have to go right now." As he storms out, leaving his crying son alone in his bed, Joe betrays how overwhelmed he is by the situation in which his wife’s cancer has left him.

When it explores the minute-to-minute difficulties of fatherhood, and the failures of even the best parents —- the way grown men can act like boys, wounded by the thoughtless words of their kids — The Boys Are Back is compelling, like an online parenting debate transplanted into real life. Caring for 6-year-old Artie as well as Harry (George MacKay), his teenage son from a previous marriage, Joe rejects rule-based parenting, and the house of men soon devolves into a kind of controlled chaos. "The more rules there are, the more laws are broken," explains Joe, and his boys are soon cannonballing into hot tubs and playing hide-and-seek in the darkest bush.

It’s too bad that in order to get to the scenes of Joe and his boys, you must first slog through the dreaded dead-spouse sequence, which takes up the first 15 minutes of a film that could easily have been 20 minutes shorter. Before you can even get comfortable on the couch, you’re plunged into flashbacks of Joe and doomed Laura (Laura Fraser), living the good life in their charming Outback home. From there, The Boys Are Back ticks off boxes: Here’s the scene where she collapses at a party; here’s where Joe tries to explain her illness to Artie; here’s where she dies; here’s where Joe lashes out at the wake.

Why put us though this? Why should we put ourselves through this? That the scenes are sensitively written (by Allan Cubitt, based on Simon Carr’s memoir) and filmed (by Shine director Scott Hicks) does nothing to alter their familiarity, or to mitigate the sense that the audience is being asked for too great an emotional investment in characters we hardly know.

Once we do get to know Joe, it can be hard to warm up to his plight. There are, after all, millions of single parents in the world without a steady sportswriting job, helpful friends and a cozy house in Australia. Owen, to his credit, is unafraid to make Joe irritating, the kind of dad who confidently mouths off about his philosophy of child-rearing based on his vast days of experience. His laissez-faire parenting soon butts heads with reality, as the movie gins up an unconvincing series of crises to force Joe and his kids apart — and then takes what seems like hours to resolve its thin plot.

What power the movie has comes from its stars, especially the two boys, who give very different but very convincing performances. McAnulty, as the younger Artie, is a twitching bundle of energy, forever flitting around the issue of his mother in conversation before suddenly, painfully, landing on it. MacKay, as teenage Harry, resembles a less-hysterical Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter series); he’s quiet and sad and lonely, and his resentment of his father’s abandonment mixes uneasily with his admiration for the life his father’s built.

Joe describes his parenting style as "Just say yes." By the end of The Boys Are Back, you will feel for Joe and his kids — but you might wish you’d just said no, instead.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

My Absolutely Final (And this time I really mean it!) Oscar Nominations Predictions

Listed in each category by the degree of confidence I have that they actually will be nominated.

The Hurt Locker
Up in the Air
Inglourious Basterds
An Education
District 9
A Serious Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adapted Screenplay
Up in the Air
An Education
The Lovely Bones
District 9

Film Editing
The Hurt Locker
Up in the Air
District 9
Star Trek

The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
The White Ribbon

Art Direction
Inglourious Basterds
District 9
The Young Victoria
A Serious Man

Costume Design
The Young Victoria
Inglourious Basterds
Bright Star
Coco Before Chanel

Sound Mixing
The Hurt Locker
Star Trek
District 9

Sound Editing
The Hurt Locker
Star Trek
District 9

The Informant!
A Single Man
Sherlock Holmes

Foreign Language Film
A Prophet
The White Ribbon
Samson & Delilah
The Secret in Their Eyes

Documentary Feature
The Cove
Food, Inc.
Every Little Step
The Beaches of Agnes
Mugabe and the White American

Animated Feature
The Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Princess and the Frog
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

Visual Effects
Star Trek
District 9

Star Trek
District 9
The Young Victoria

(I saved this for last because this is the one category in which I never come close to predicting the actual nominees)
The Weary Kind (Crazy Heart)
Cinema Italiano! (Nine)
I See You (Avatar)
All Is Love (Where the Wild Things Are)
I Want to Come Home (Everybody’s Fine)

Recently released on DVD: "Whip It"

Grade: B

Incredibly, Drew Barrymore, 34, has been in the movies as long as Tom Hanks, 53. Like him, Barrymore has distinguished herself as an actor and producer. Now, with the buoyant comedy Whip It, an archetype-busting and delightful roller-derby tale, she establishes herself confidently as a director.

Her feature debut stars Ellen Page (Juno), as Bliss Cavendar, a high school senior from Bodeen, Texas, where beauty contests and football are civic religions. Bliss’ mom, Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden), mail carrier by day and herself once a pageant princess, enters her daughters in the Bluebonnet Pageant, coaching them with the take-no-prisoners attitude of Bear Bryant.

In prim cocktail dress and pumps, Bliss appears to be in drag. She’s more herself in thrift-shop dresses and combat boots. Obviously, the pageant world is too restrained for her. It doesn’t permit a full range of social and physical expression.

When Bliss sees brazen skater-girls — hair flying and fishnets snagged — roll into a thrift shop, she finds her spiritual sisters. For her, these hellions on wheels nicknamed Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis), Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), and Smashley Simpson (Barrymore herself) fearlessly exhibit the free-spirited physicality Bliss hides under taffeta.

The derby daredevils don’t care that the men in the audience come for the girl-on-girl action. The girls are there because skating allows them to compete and, yeah, be physically aggressive in the context of contact sport.

More intimately than most in Hollywood, Barrymore knows how few female types there are on screen. Beyond the good girl and the bad girl (movie versions of the madonna and the whore), there are square pegs. Barrymore puts faces and gives backstories to these nonconformists trying to define themselves before others define them. The chief appeal of the film is to watch Bliss, misfit among angelic pageant girls, emerge as derby devil Babe Ruthless — sensitive, combative, girly, butch, timid, and fearless — whisking conflicting femininities into one tasty serving.

Working from the autobiographical novel by Shauna Cross, Barrymore celebrates a broad cross-section of females. These include blue-collar moms who are pageant ladies (Harden), brainiacs who work in diners (Alia Shawkat), cocktail waitresses who would rather compete at roller derby than perform pole dances (Lewis), tough dames who are tender moms (Wiig), and girls like Bliss who find a social outlet (roller derby) and first love (with an Austin alt-rocker, Oliver, played by Landon Pigg).

Barrymore takes us into the world of these women (and the men who both love and ogle them), diving deep into their emotions. None dare call it girl stuff. It’s human stuff. Surprisingly moving is the mother/daughter dynamic between Brooke and Bliss, well-played by the irony-free Harden and Page.

The first-time filmmaker is a most sympathetic director of all the actors, eliciting memorable performances from Wiig, Daniel Stern (as Bliss’ dad), and especially from Lewis, as the reigning skate queen resentful of Bliss’ youth and opportunities. Quite droll is Andrew Wilson — elder brother of Luke and Owen — as the coach who can’t get his team to read the playbook. (Less droll is Jimmy Fallon as the rink announcer.)

What Barrymore is less good at is the direction of the action sequences, which feature the actresses — including Barrymore herself as the punch-drunk Simpson — doing their own skating. (Perhaps an overhead shot or two would have helped clarify the game in which certain players get points for passing blockers from the other team.)

Finally, though, Whip It (which takes its name from a play in which skaters hold hands and form a human whip to propel the last skater forward) is heaven on wheels.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Will the clouds part enough for us to see this?

The biggest full moon of 2010 will be on view tonight and that thing you might see just to the left of the moon will be Mars. This all depends on the cloud cover, of course. The January full moon is also know as the Wolf Moon, according to Native American tradition, and it will appear 30 percent brighter and 14 percent larger than any other full moon this year, because it will be closer to Earth than usual.

It's About Time

President Obama went toe-to-toe with some of his fiercest critics today, engaging in an unscripted, unusual and public question-and-answer session with Republican members of the House of Representatives.

Obama, facing a respectful but disapproving crowd, repeatedly defended his policies and accused Republicans of distorting his positions for political gain. He was especially critical of the GOP's efforts to derail the healthcare overhaul bill in Congress.

"What happens is that you guys don't have a lot of room to negotiate with me," Obama said. "The fact of the matter is, many of you, if you voted with the administration on something, are politically vulnerable with your own base, with your own party, because what you've been telling your constituents is, 'This guy's doing all kinds of crazy stuff that's going to destroy America.' "

"I don't believe the American people want us to focus on our job security. They want us to focus on their job security," Obama said to a loud ovation.

Obama took the audience to task for opposing his economic stimulus plan a year ago, arguing that it contained the kind of tax breaks that the GOP typically advocates. And he accused lawmakers who opposed the stimulus of taking credit in their home districts for projects that benefited from the stimulus money.

"Let's face it," he said, "some of you have been at the ribbon-cuttings of some of these important projects in your communities."

Near the end of the session, the president pushed back firmly at our own Rep. Jeb Hensarling's insistence that the administration had dramatically inflated the nation's budget deficit, cutting off Hensarling in mid-sentence. "That whole question was structured as a talking point for running a campaign," Obama charged.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Mister Butterfly

State of the Union: The Day After

All things considered, I was pleased with President Obama's State of the Union address last night, as, I imagine, were most Americans. I mean, there was something in that speech for everyone to embrace. Well, everyone except Republican members of Congress whose attitude is "If it comes from the White House, we're against it, no matter how much sense it makes or how good it will be for the country and its people."

I was particularly delighted to see the President put the emphasis on job creation and not health care reform. I was glad to see him nail the Republicans for their obstructionism and to criticize his own party which tends, in his words, "to run for the hills," instead of using the power of its sizable majority. The message to his own party was clear: "Let the Republicans propose something better or, as they are more likely to do, let them simply filibuster and then we will show up these hypocrites for exactly what they are."

Bipartisanship would be nice, but it's not going to happen with these Republican clowns. The President managed to pass an economy recovery bill that saved this country from an even deeper recession and possibly even a depression. Yet, only three Republicans voted for it. On health care reform I wish he had sent a stronger message: Instead of suggesting the Republicans come up with a better plan than the one he has proposed -- one that will provide security for almost all Americans, will reduce costs and will reduce the deficit -- he should have demanded it.

The evidence has shown that the private sector is not going to fuel a much-needed economic recovery. Thus it has to come from the federal government with more stimulus programs. It will take a lot more -- in fact, a whole lot more -- than the $154 billion jobs bill passed by the House. But at least it's a start and I was delighted to see the President suggest more, such as lending money to small businesses and giving them incentives for capital expansion. Those are the types of programs we need more of.

And I was particularly glad to hear for the first time in a State of the Union address since we started this mess that we are managing an exit from Iraq.

In his first year in office, President Obama made the mistake of letting others define him and his policies. Last night I saw more of the man who campaigned for the Presidency, a man who speaks the simple truth and inspires in the process. I just hopes he keeps that up.

Recently released on DVD: "Michael Jackson's This Is It"

Grade: B

The announcement last year that Michael Jackson would be doing 50 concerts in London was greeted with equal parts euphoria and cynicism. Was he doing it for us? Was he doing it for money? Then in June, less than a month before the start of the sold-out run, Jackson died of cardiac arrest, and the news that a film of the show’s rehearsal footage was on the way added another layer of ambivalence. Awesome. Creepy. But, for now, Michael Jackson’s This Is It is the fierce last word on the matter. Jackson had no apparent plans to phone, fax, text, or IM it in.

The movie still arrives with an eerie taint. Its star, while far from death at the time, is a diminished version of his electrifying self, his face a wan mask..Yet watching Jackson pop, lock, rock, writhe, thrust, and clutch his crotch, even at 50 percent, leaves a feeling of woe: This show really would have been major.

Last summer news outlets ran some of the footage — or footage very much like it. For a movie audience, the question is whether an hour and a half of the same will be any fun, especially when so much of it is barely camera-phone quality. The opening minutes seem doubtful. Jackson chops, poses, and slides through Wanna Be Startin' Something. He doesn’t commit to any sort of vocal styling. And you can see him thinking about how to work the song out.

Watching a great artist decide how to move doesn’t seem much more exciting than watching a waiter set a table: When’s dinner? That, of course, is the terrible punch line of this entire experience: This is it. So, instead, we devour even Jackson’s lassitude. It’s our last supper. (Besides, what waiter is going to serve you wearing a tuxedo jacket with one sequined lapel and shoulders that look like something from a Tim Burton movie?)

Lest anyone get the morbid sense that the film is a necrophiliac’s delight, Jackson often feels vibrantly, reassuringly human. He sashays with one of his female dancers at one point. He puts the spotlight on his band and dancers, and his perfectionism never approaches divadom. When Jackson stands over the keyboard of the show’s musical director, trying to coax a note out of him, and says "I just want to hear it the way I wrote it,’’ what’s so funny is how little it is for him to ask. But also it’s a side of Jackson we never got to see. His Peter Pan syndrome and his professionalism truly coexist. He wants the show to be flawless. He also wants every element of the experience to appear to emanate from his every gesticulation. He’s a life force. He’s the Wiz.

He’s also a man with too much integrity to let anyone else call the shots. Indeed, the director of the concert and this movie, Kenny Ortega, seems more like a jolly personal assistant, repeatedly telling Jackson how much he loves him. It’s the sort of thing you expect to hear a fan blurt out as a movie star accepts an award. Jackson responds in kind: "I love you, too.’’

Ortega is a Hollywood veteran (he choreographed Dirty Dancing and directed the High School Musical franchise), and the movie is a dutiful tribute to its star. The crosscutting of footage isn’t seamless, but we get a decent sense of how most of the numbers would go. The crew filmed an inspired sequence in which Jackson inserts himself into classic Hollywood movies such as Gilda and The Big Sleep, alongside Rita Hayworth and Humphrey Bogart. The sequence is for Smooth Criminal, and it now has posthumous logic. Of course a legend plays with legends.

Clearly, Jackson expected just enough of himself to aim for some high points, even in these run-throughs. He tells the dancers and crew begging him to let go and really sing that he’s saving his voice for the actual performances. But you get the sense that he had to test how hard he could push that complex instrument. So even as he demurs when the band breaks out the gospel tambourine at the end of a Jackson Five medley, he still puts his foot into some of the songs. His singing voice is rarely more beautifully acrobatic than on the movie’s version of Human Nature.

This all calls to mind the comeback concerts of Jackson’s friend Liza Minnelli, who hit Broadway in 2008 at less than her best but was determined to bring the house down every night. There was no reason to think that Jackson wouldn’t have accomplished the same thing. Even if he didn’t manage to blow the crowds away 50 times, he would have risked it all trying.

Recently released on DVD: "Bright Star"

Grade: A

Bright Star delivers a prismatic depiction — tart, funny and piercing — of the romance between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne in the three years before he died, in 1821, at age 25.

It’s immediately refreshing in its unabashed flow of feeling, but it also wields a cumulative punch. It captures the power of poetry to convey thoughts and emotions that normally go beyond words. I knew how well the film had worked its magic when I found myself choking up afterward, trying to put the movie’s cathartic resolution into language.

In Bright Star, the quiet between syllables has a sensory tingle to it. The moviemaking, like Keats’ verse, is alive to the play of lights, shadows and figures in a landscape. Subtly and expansively, it exploits the dynamism of movies to express a passion that must bridge distances as wide as a sea and as impermeable as a shared wall. Keats and his friend Charles Armitage Brown, and the Brawnes, at times lived within their own halves of the same house — but there’s nothing merely cute about it.

The writer-director, Jane Campion, drawing on Keats’ letters as well as his life story and poetry, depicts him as a pure lyric spirit. As he works his way through his confusions (especially about women), he’s true to his poetic faith that "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all/Ye know on earth and all ye need to know." Although the film doesn’t paper over the cruelties writers commit in pursuit of their art or their defense of their own sensibilities, Campion’s Keats is fundamentally as moral as he is sensual. His conscience makes him reluctant to propose marriage to Brawne because he has no hope of supporting her.

He is mostly lucky in his friends, who support him, and even luckier in his moviemakers, who bring his story to life without a hint of affectation. Ben Whishaw locates the virility in reverie as Keats, and Abbie Cornish finds an inexhaustible well of pluck and passion in Brawne, a fashion-conscious seamstress. She responds to his transcendent soulfulness — and his sometimes obscure behavior — with a potent generosity all her own.

Brawne is the heart of the film, the one who allows us to share Keats’ imaginative flights. We come to see her as a woman who both inspires poetry and transmutes it back into living matter, especially when she turns her bedroom into a breeding-place for butterflies. Cornish, who earlier anchored Stop Loss with her empathetic grit, brings so much intuitive substance to the untutored Brawne that she becomes Keats’ perfect audience and spiritual receptor, as well as his love object and muse.

This movie renews the romance of idealized passion because it recognizes the doubts and hopes that hover around it — even in the poem "Bright Star, would I were steadfast as thou art," which expresses Keats’ desire to hear Brawne’s "tender-taken breath/And so live ever — or else swoon to death."

Around this couple’s enveloping swoon Campion sets a vibrant skein of family life and fraternity. Keats and his fellow artists are in their own traditional, manly ways renegade middle-class intellectuals. Amusing one another, caring for one another and offering security and sustenance to the desperate and homeless among them are not just matters of pleasure and devotion but of life and death. Brawne steps boldly into this tight-knit group. She seals her place in Keats’ heart when, after his tubercular brother dies, she presents the poet with an embroidered pillowcase on which to rest his loved one’s head.

Every Brawne makes his or her presence felt, including Kerry Fox as Fanny’s warm, worried mother, Thomas Sangster as her observant younger brother Sam, and Edie Martin as her kid sister, Toots, a sprite with the unactressy ebullience of the little girls in Jim Sheridan’s In America.

Best of all is Paul Schneider as Keats’ fiercely protective best friend, Charles Armitage Brown, who mistrusts Brawne, baits her, and flirts with her to expose her (he says) as a minx. Does he just want Keats’ companionship for himself? Schneider is equally upsetting and hilarious at the sort of confused proprietary bluster that can taint the selflessness of clannish men. And he’s emotionally harrowing when he realizes that he’s let down a friend. His climactic dignity is as haunting as Fanny’s resolute grief.

The triumph of Bright Star is that it gives its characters space to breathe and grow; it opens audiences up to mystery, just as Keats’ poetry does. An English professor friend in Austin recently passed along a quote from Philip Roth: "Literature takes a habit of mind that has disappeared. It requires silence, some form of isolation, and sustained concentration in the presence of an enigmatic thing." Campion’s Bright Star is a haunting romance and an act of cultural reclamation.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Obama too timid on the economy

I know that President Obama didn't create this economic mess, he inherited it from his predecessor. But the President's failure to begin to turn it around stems from the fact that his economic team is dominated by the same Wall Street advisers that got us in this mess in the first place. In his State of the Union address tonight, I understand the President is going to ask for some tax credits and other subsidies intended to help middle-class Americans with some big expenses, like day care, student-loan payments and retirement savings, and a a three-year spending freeze in many discretionary domestic programs, and for increases no greater than inflation after that. The spending freeze seems more image-building than anything else. For one thing, the President's pet programs -- education and the environment -- will be exempt. For another, the freeze will only account for $10 billion out of a total package of $500 billion in domestic programs.

The problem with these initiatives is that even if they work as planned, Americans need much more. They need leadership that is more inspired and an agenda that is bigger and more detailed than these ideas. This recession is not like others in our recent past. It has not been caused by a cyclical downturn in the business climate; instead it is the result of flawed economic policies that have severely damaged the core of our economy. This country needs to create at least 10 million jobs -- that's right, 10 million jobs -- to get this economy back on sure footing. Right now there are six applicants for every job opening, which means prolonged spells of unemployment for many of the nation’s 15.3 million jobless workers. Without new jobs, economic performance and tax revenues will remain inadequate.

I would like to see the President propose three possible solutions:

1. A stimulus package that would help bail out state and municipal governments. This is among the surest ways to preserve and create jobs because the money is pushed through quickly to employees, contractors and beneficiaries. The alternative is recovery-killing spending cuts and tax increases on the state and local levels.

2. Increased small business lending and direct creation of both skilled and low-skilled jobs.

3. Allow homeowners to include their mortgages in their bankruptcy filings.

Of course, the President must also embrace ways to pay for initiatives. I would suggest redeploying money from the bank bailout or endorsing a financial-transactions tax on Wall Street.

The President's timidity on solving the country's economic woes must end now. He campaigned on a theme of "Yes we can." It's past time to prove that we can.

It's now a two-film race

The Oscar nominations have yet to be announced (that will come Feb. 2) and already the best picture race is down to two films. Of course, that's better than this time last year when we all knew Slumdog Millionaire was going to be Oscars' big winner.

And this in a year when the best picture field has been doubled to 10 to incite more interest. It's a good thing, however, because the field could actually help provide a clue as to the winner.

Let me explain: First, the two front runners are The Hurt Locker and Avatar. I know, the Screen Actors Guild handed its equivalent of a best picture award to Inglourious Basterds, but that had to do more with the size of the cast than anything else. It appeared, after the Golden Globes and the box office results, that Avatar (or Avatanic as some wags are calling it) was running away with this contest. But then The Hurt Locker pulled off the stunning upset by winning the Producer's Guild Award over Avatar.

Here are two indicators to help you predict the winner. First, the Directors Guild announces its winner Saturday. If either Locker or Avatar win that award (and I'm predicting it will be Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker), than that film will have a leg up. Second, when the Oscar nominations are announced, check to see if either Star Trek or District 9 are among the best picture nominees. If neither are, that really helps Avatar's chances. If one or the other is, that movie could draw off enough sci-fi-minded voters away from Avatar to give The Hurt Locker a fighting chance. If both are nominated, Avatar is doomed.

The coolest outfit

Recently viewed (twice) on DVD: "Next Stop Wonderland" (1998)

Grade: B

I’m not sure what kind of a distribution Next Stop Wonderland had when it was released in 1998, but it was completely unfamiliar to me until I viewed it with friends Saturday evening. I had several problems with the film. First, the sound was not synchronized with the picture. Second, although the movie was set in Boston, not one person spoke with that distinctive Boston "accent." (To see how the Boston patois can be well integrated into a film, I recommend Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River or Martin Scorsese’s The Departed.) Third, there was this stupid subplot involving a businessman/gangster that was never fully resolved. And finally, there was this dumb inconsistency: The lead male character has a day’s growth of whiskers throughout the film except in the final sequence on a commuter train where he's perfectly clean-shaven. However, as soon as he steps off the train, he’s seen with the scrubble again.

But the more I thought about it the more I began to think that any film starring Hope Davis and featuring even a small, supporting performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman could not be all bad. And, perhaps, I was not in the proper frame of mind for the film Saturday night. Following a day’s worth of exciting Special Olympics basketball with the adrenalin still flowing, I would have rather seen a well-made adventure film such as the recent The Hurt Locker, District 9 or Star Trek. But that was my problem, not the fault of the film.

Next Stop Wonderland is about two attractive 30-ish urbanites drifting through the city and just missing each other until fate finally allows them to connect. Throw in some half-baked mystical notions that these two lonely hearts are truly destined to be joined and you have what came across to me as a hard-to-swallow sugarcoated cliche.

But wait a minute. What if the lovers-to-be are likable, smart, complicated people who seem recognizable without being stereotypical? And what if they're surrounded by a finely observed supporting cast of friends and co-workers who collectively constitute a richly diverse group portrait of a whole stratum of urban society?

That's what I discovered Brad Anderson's film accomplishes at its frequent best and that’s what really came across on my second viewing. Weaving together the movie's many vignettes and characters is a gorgeous Brazilian-oriented soundtrack that distills the exquisite mixture of melancholy and yearning — the bossa nova mood known as "saudade" — that often defines the emotional texture of the romantically charged single life.

Next Stop Wonderland follows the romantic peregrinations of Erin Castleton (Davis), a night-shift nurse and Harvard Medical School dropout, after her politically correct boyfriend Sean (Hoffman) walks out on her, leaving behind his cat, Fidel, along with a nasty videotape listing his grievances. Erin's widowed mother, in a meddlesome attempt to play matchmaker, secretly places a gushy personal ad for her daughter in a newspaper that flaunts several inaccurate adjectives, including "frisky."

As pointed out by one of the guests at Saturday’s viewing, the movie's best comic moments are amusing snippets of Erin's meetings in a bar with a motley array of prospective suitors. As they obsequiously spew their lines, Erin takes it all in with a cool, enigmatic reserve. (In many shots she resembles a younger Hillary Rodham Clinton.) These suitors range from a motor-mouthed salesman to a taciturn psychotherapist to a businessman whose concealed wedding ring accidentally drops out of his wallet. The funniest is an executive with pathetic bravado who touts the global importance of the small rubber parts his company manufactures. Also among the suitors is a group of friends who make a bet on which of them will be the first to make love to Erin. Discovering their plot, she devises a delicious comic revenge.

Erin's future lover, Alan Monteiro (Alan Gelfant), with whom she rubs elbows on the subway more than once without their connecting, is a financially beleaguered East Boston plumber who works in an aquarium and is studying to be a marine biologist. Unlike Erin, who is always on the brink of a sulk, Alan seems a little too good to be true. Working-class but refined, he is the only man Erin meets who cites the proper source (Ralph Waldo Emerson) for a quotation that is reiterated by various suitors (and continually misattributed) until it becomes a comic leitmotif.

Before Erin and Alan connect, each is diverted by other potential partners. At her hospital, Erin meets a suave Brazilian ethnomusicologist (Jose Zuniga) who pursues her avidly and begs her to fly with him to Sao Paulo. Alan is pursued even more vigorously by Julie (Cara Buono), his attractive airheaded study partner, who literally throws herself at him.

What I finally realized is that Next Stop Wonderland isn't really much more than a beautifully acted, finely edited sitcom, but it creates and sustains an intelligent, seriocomic mood better than most films about the urban single life. If the movie at moments recalls As Good as It Gets, its characters are subtler and its vision of humanity more truthful.

No, it doesn't have barnstorming performances by actors chewing the scenery while engaging in brassy psychological combat. Davis's Erin is not the kind of woman who lets all her emotions hang out. She is an introvert, a type that the movies rarely embrace unless that character turns out to be a raving lunatic.

With its smart savvy dialogue (some of it is so good it sounds overheard) and close attention to the minutiae of body language and facial expressions, it reminds you of how in an urban contemporary movie, the details are almost everything.

Recently released on DVD: "Gamer"

Grade: F

This year’s hot sci-fi concept — putting one person’s consciousness in another body — is really getting a workout. Earlier this year there was the Mexican film Sleep Dealer, and coming up soon to DVD is the Bruce Willis actioner Surrogates, and of course the Big Kahuna, James Cameron’s Avatar. For right now, though, there’s Gamer, which pushes its way to the front of the line like a gorilla with a chainsaw.

In a near-future world, Kable (Gerard Butler) is a Death Row inmate forced to participate in a simulated-world game conceived of by a mad Internet billionaire (Michael C. Hall). Prisoners can have "nano-cells" implanted in their brains which allow players in the outside world to control their movements through a war-torn battlescape game called Slayers.

Kable is controlled by Simon, a 17-year-old (Logan Lerman, showing nothing of the presence he showed in the recent My One and Only) who becomes a Web star for guiding Kable to survival. But Kable, his real-live avatar, wants independence, so Simon unplugs and Kable enters the real world, where his onetime wife is a robot-slave, his daughter is lost and a rogue group is trying to disconnect the billionaire’s influence.

There are elements of The Matrix here, as well as Rollerball, Strange Days, and, in the movie’s best sequence, A Clockwork Orange, as Hall sings a creepy version of I’ve Got You Under My Skin as Kable fights off a team of soldier drones. But rip-offs of other movies don’t make this one better; it just makes it seem like a Xerox of a Xerox, with vague technobabble standing in for story (and really, does anyone think it’s interesting anymore to see super-advanced computer technology at the movies?).

Hall (TV’s Dexter) vamps around like a would-be Bond villain and adds a bit of spark, and the lovely Alison Lohman has a small role as cyberpunk good-girl terrorist. Otherwise, a lot of people with too much time on their hands — Kyra Sedgwick, Amber Valletta, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Milo Ventimiglia, John Leguizamo — show up like they’re auditioning for a robot exhibit at DisneyWorld. Butler, for his part, appropriately hulks around like a videogame character, nothing more.

There’s plenty of violence, but the movie’s already-passe fear of a Web-based world is standard-issue. Directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, who did the manic Crank, bring their ADD style to this, but what I was attempted to use more than anything else was the fast-forward button.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Recently released on DVD: "Pandorum"

Grade: D

Pandorum may sound like a disease suffered by fuzzy black-and-white mammals who’ve been caged a wee bit too long, but the only fuzziness in this apocalyptic nightmare is between the characters’ ears.

Following in the sci-fi tradition of films like Solaris and the monumentally creepy Event Horizon, Pandorum presents a scenario where the line between reality and hallucination is constantly shifting. Set in the 22nd century, when, we are told, Earth has finally had enough of unchecked human proliferation, the movie unfolds aboard the spacecraft Elysium, a kind of Noah’s ark en route to populate a new planet.

Stickily awakened from hyper-sleep, Lieutenant Payton (Dennis Quaid) and Corporal Bower (Ben Foster, all systems clenched) find themselves alone and with only minimal memory. How long have they been in space? Where are they going? Why are their faces frozen in a single expression?

To answer these and other pressing questions, Bower sets off to locate the spaceship’s bridge and is dismayed to find himself the prey of pale, moist-skinned mutants who resemble a cross between the mole people in The Descent and the Reavers in Serenity. While Payton amuses himself by yelling, "Bower, do you copy?," the object of his anxiety is teaming up with a well-padded biologist (Antje Traue) and a well-armed farmer (the mixed-martial-arts world champion Cung Le) and squaring his shoulders to save mankind — or at least its genetic code, languishing in a laboratory as big as the Superdome.

Working from an undercooked screenplay by Travis Milloy, the German director Christian Alvart is an effective manager of atmosphere but an inept choreographer of movement. Fight sequences are shot so closely, so frenetically and with so little light that they’re just a blur of flailing limbs punctuated with flashes of slobbering mutant. Without schematics to show the ship’s layout, neither we nor the characters have any idea where they are in relation to one another. (When the beastie in Alien was headed toward you, you knew it.) So when Bower tumbles into a vast slurry of rotting body parts — perhaps a mass grave, perhaps the mutants’ stock pot — its location is as much a mystery as its ingredients.

Emulating the industrial-goth chic of the Nostromo, Richard Bridgland’s stunning set designs (carefully constructed in a Berlin studio) imagine a clanking womb filled with steam and shadows. Metallic walkways open onto vast, echoing caverns (some scenes were shot in an abandoned power plant), alternately evoking coffinlike claustrophobia and sickening vertigo. According to the press notes, pandorum means "Orbital Dysfunctional Syndrome"; whatever that is, by the end of the movie I was convinced I had caught it.

Recently released on DVD: "Downloading Nancy"

Jason Patric, Maria Bello

Grade: F

A nasty exploitation flick tarted up with art-house actors and psychobabble, Downloading Nancy stars Maria Bello as an unhappy hausfrau who goes trolling online to find someone to do her terminal harm. Crosshatched with self-inflicted wounds — she likes to cut herself, mainly, it seems, because such injuries have become an indie-film trend — Nancy discovers a partner in extreme pain, Louis (Jason Patric, embracing his role with his usual grim intensity). There will be blood, oh yes, along with a lot of emoting from two actors on the verge of permanent self-parody. Ms. Bello weeps beautifully, but what a waste.

Although the appropriately murky cinematography from Christopher Doyle evokes a dirty aquarium, the movie doesn’t contain a single believable beat or character. Johan Renck, a Swedish native with a lot of commercials and music videos on his résumé, moves the characters around like the stick figures they are. The cliché-ridden script by Pamela Cuming and Lee Ross offers no surprises, even when the story toggles between past and present. Poor Nancy not only comes with a history of abuse, she also has an inept therapist (Amy Brenneman), a cold husband (Rufus Sewell) and plastic on the furniture. These days before a woman can break out of her dollhouse, she really does have to submit to all kinds of hideous abuse.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Recently released on DVD: "The Burning Plain"

Grade: C

It's possible to admire the performances of stars Charlize Theron (left) and Kim Basinger in The Burning Plain, even as you backpedal from the film, hoping the ponderous megasoap will just go away.

The movie is the directorial debut of screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, former Mexico City street kid and author of 21 Grams, Amores Perros and Babel. Arriaga's calling cards are shuffled storylines and lost, wounded characters. Here, he adds a new wrinkle: His injured strays play themselves at different stages of their lives. But there is no before and after. No change in hair or car styles. Everyone, everything exists in the onrushing present.

Throw in enough symbolism to choke an English-lit major and you have a film challenge that too often feels like a chore.

The Burning Plain begins with fire demolishing a trailer in New Mexico grasslands. After that, we meet Theron's character in Oregon. She's naked in a bedroom window, smoking, waiting for an unwanted lover to disappear. It's morning. School kids pass by outside. Still, she makes no effort to cover herself.

Later, she takes another lover, a customer with an oil slick in his hair. Someone else she doesn't like.

"Why are you like this?" a boyfriend asks.

The Burning Plain doesn't tell us, not right away, but we have to believe it has something to do with the film's other storylines: Kim Basinger plays a dissatisfied married woman who meets her Mexican lover (Joaquim de Almeida) in a trailer in the aforementioned New Mexico grasslands. Her disapproving teenage daughter (Jennifer Lawrence) follows her around. The daughter, who likes to play with fire, also has a Mexican boyfriend.

And so the various plots of Arriaga's film turn on and into each other, like figures in an M.C. Escher painting.

As mentioned, The Burning Plain is loaded down with symbolism. Aside from the fire motif (love's consuming passion!), there are free-flying birds everywhere. At one point, the teenage lovers knock a bird from the sky, and then roast it in a fire before making love. That can't be good, you're thinking. Sure enough, the kid becomes a pilot. Later on, his plane begins to cough and smoke.…

The film is not without interesting moments or performances. Theron plays her role without hyperbole or vanity. And filmmaker Arriaga never indulges his lead — he doesn't provide anything like a big crying-into-a-phone scene to impress Oscar voters. Theron plays her part mad and is all the more interesting for being unlikable.

Basinger has the more conventional role. Her character, Gina, is a middle-aged woman with too many dangerous secrets. It's a part that Basinger interprets with tenderness and insight, allowing us to understand that Gina, the straying housewife, is not so much deeply in love as deeply afraid.

Guillermo Arriaga remains an interesting storyteller. If anything, his script is overfull of good ideas — storylines taken too far. But he may not have the editorial skills to be a good director.
To paraphrase the old joke about lawyers, sometimes a screenwriter who represents himself on film has a fool for a client.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Democracy is dead in the U.S.A.

One of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs is Democracy in which he sings:

I'm sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can't stand the scene
And I'm neither left or right
I'm just staying home tonight
Getting lost in that hopeless little screen
But I'm stubborn as those garbage bags
That time cannot decay
I'm junk but I'm still holding up
This little wild bouquet
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Well, Leonard, I used to believe that, but the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision that's so wrongheaded, so stupid, so defiant of existing laws that the only basis for it had to pure partisan politics at its most base level, has decided we no longer have democracy in this country -- that, in fact, we have a government that's for sale to the highest bidder.

As a result of the Supremes' blunder, corporations have been unleashed from the longstanding ban against their spending directly on political campaigns and will be free to spend as much money as they want to elect and defeat candidates. If a member of Congress tries to stand up to a wealthy special interest, its lobbyists can credibly threaten: We’ll spend whatever it takes to defeat you.

This ruling -- perhaps the most blatant example in American history of the Supreme Court re-writing the law -- erodes a wall that has stood for a century between corporations and electoral politics. For some reason, the Court ruled there is no difference between a corporation and a person, thus saying corporations were protected under the First Amendment rights protecting free speech. Who do these five so-called justices think they are kidding? Of course there's a difference between corporations and a person and that difference is embedded in laws of this land. To prove the point, you need look no further than our tax laws: there's personal income tax and an entirely different corporate tax structure.

The five justices completely ignored the Constitution, which assigns and protects rights to the people, the press, religions, even militias. But, by gum, I can't find the word "corporation" in there anywhere. Corporations are one thing and one thing only: creations of the state that exist to make money. To say they have the same right to spend money on candidates as I have to speak about a candidate is patently ridiculous and a complete abandonment of laws that have stood in this country for more than a century. (It was 1907 when Congress passed laws banning corporations from contributing directly to political candidates.)

The court's majority opinion actually had the nerve to say campaign spending by corporations does "not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” C'mon. Let's say our own Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson decided to vote for health care reform and all the insurance companies and all the drug companies and all the hospitals banded together and told Rep. Johnson: "We are going to spend millions of dollars -- whatever it takes -- to make sure you are defeated in the next election" and then they do just that, wouldn't that have, at least, "the appearance of corruption”? Sure it would.

It is vital to the future of this country that justices be appointed to the Supreme Court that will overturn this dangerous decision that was wrong on the law. In the meantime, Congress should pass legislation as quickly as possible that would require two-thirds approval from the shareholders of any public corporation before that corporation could contribute to a political campaign.

Released this week on DVD: "Outrage"

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., is interviewed about gay politicians in Outrage

Grade: C+

Since his documentary on the peculiar tastes and hypocrisy of the Motion Picture Association of America rating system (easy on violence, harder on everything else), filmmaker Kirby Dick has upped his technical and design game. Outrage, in which Dick urges closeted politicians to quit the charade and own up to who they are, is a more artfully assembled documentary than the earlier This Film Is Not Yet Rated.

Yet Dick requires a little work on some fundamentals. A filmmaker, for example, may not be best served if his introductory titles assert the existence of a "brilliantly orchestrated conspiracy" on behalf of the government, the media and the nation’s culture to keep every nervous bisexual or gay politician living the lie. The film’s pretty good about saying why so much in the culture encourages a political life in the closet, either tacitly or directly. But even The Advocate had a problem with calling it a brilliantly orchestrated conspiracy.

The film’s primary targets are those Dick sees as double-standard-bearers, lawmakers of considerable political influence whose voting records belie a life many claim is being lived on the down-low. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist is painted as anti-gay-legislation hypocrite No. 1, though Crist did not consent to an interview for the film.

James McGreevey, the New Jersey governor who came out at a news conference with his wife by his side, offers plenty of eloquent testimony about the tortured years before acknowledging his true self. Navigating the double life, commuting between parallel universes, he says, got to be like "a bad Star Trek episode."

The film spends too much time with blogger Michael Rogers (, whose outing efforts entered the mainstream media coverage. But the Log Cabin Republicans, embodying a number of different strains of …well, strain, are fascinating. The most arresting bit in Outrage comes from former Log Cabin head Rich Tafel, who came out years ago. Among certain circles — the film infers that our nation’s capitol is more fabulously (if secretively) gay than San Francisco, even — Tafel’s life as an openly gay politician is a sign of weakness. Some of the comments he says he’s heard boil down to: "You didn’t have the stamina to stay in the closet."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A new SWAT team

Released this week on DVD: "Che"

Benicio Del Toro as Ernesto "Che" Guevara

Grade: B

Che is not your conventional biopic. Released in theaters as a "roadshow" version — no trailers, no credits, with an intermission and a beautiful program booklet, total running time: 4 hours, 17 minutes — and on DVD as two separate films -- Part 1 and Part 2, each about 2 hours, 15 minutes, with ending credits on each -- Steven Soderbergh’s portrait of the Marxist revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara dispenses with basic personal and historical data.

There are no flashbacks of the schoolkid in short pants, no epiphanies of college radicalization, no merchandising confab where the Argentine physician-turned-guerrilla fighter and posthumous counterculture icon negotiates royalties for all those T-shirts and poster sales.

What this slow-moving but fascinating two-part portrait does do is hunker down in the jungles and mountains of Cuba and (in the second part) Bolivia, capturing in keen, almost Zen-like detail the trudging and trekking, the recruiting and strategizing, the fighting and the philosophizing. With Benicio Del Toro delivering a fiercely indrawn and mesmerizing performance in the title role, Che is neither a hagiography nor a superficial character sketch.

Soderbergh, one of the most adventurous and prolific of contemporary American filmmakers, offers an ellipitical series of "moments" — benchmarks from Che’s involvement in Fidel Castro’s 2½-year insurgency against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, and then, after serving in Cuba’s Communist government, Guevara’s disappearance into the wilds of Bolivia. There, Che attempts to replicate his success, leading a similar revolt against a corrupt regime. But things don’t turn out so well: Captured by the Bolivian military — aided and advised by the CIA — Che was executed. It was 1967. He was 39.

Soderbergh does his own cinematography. He shot Part One in a lush, widescreen format, and Part Two in a closed-in frame, with a faded patina that speaks to Che’s failed and fatal final campaign. There are strong supporting turns from Demian Bichir (Fidel Castro), Rodrigo Santoro (Raul Castro), Catalina Sandino Moreno (Che’s wife, Aleida) and Julia Ormond (TV reporter Lisa Howard). There’s a revelatory sequence in which Guevara, post-revolution, an emissary of Castro, travels to New York to speak before the United Nations. His speech, and his rebuttal, verbatim transcripts of his 1964 appearances, are eye-opening in their unapologetic, anti-capitalist, anti-U.S. fervor.

The movie requires patience.

It avoids making judgments on the moral and political "truth" behind Che’s actions, but it does, in masterful and compelling ways, demonstrate his unyielding obsession and determination to establish a working Communist system. An intellectual, a writer, emotionally cold and physically hampered — he was asthmatic — Che nonetheless inspired hundreds of farmers and villagers, men and women, to become fighters, leading them in bold attacks against soldiers and police.

Like Terrence Malick’s World War II epic The Thin Red Line (but without that film’s pretentious, poetic voice-overs), Che takes its viewers into the thick, verdant forests where guns are fired, blood is spilled, and nature’s creatures dart for cover amid the destructive forces of man. If nothing else, the film depicts the grueling challenges and daunting logistics faced by the rebel militia — lacking munitions, medicine, food and shelter in their long and improbable slog to victory. In the case of Che, Part Two, of course, it’s a not-so-long and suicidal slog toward tragic defeat.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Austin: A big city with a small-town freeway

The Daily Beast came up with some intricate mathematical formula that I won't even try to explain to compile a list of the 75 Worst Commutes in the United States and right there at No. 4 -- the fourth most congested spot in the entire U.S. of A -- is northbound I-35 at Riverside Drive in Austin. Having been stuck in that mess more times than I care to mention (and, by the way, southbound is no great shakes either) all I can say is I would hate to find myself in one of the top three.

Here's what the Beast quoted one local reporter as saying:

“It’s the most traveled stretch of roadway of Austin and in the state,” says Joe Taylor, traffic reporter for News 8 Austin. “It’s quirky. It was designed for a small town, and we’ve grown into a very large city.”

One thing I can't understand is why Dallas does not have one spot on this list. I mean, have these guys ever been on eastbound LBJ Freeway between Webbs Chapel and North Central Expressway between 3:30 and 6:30 p.m. any weekday? Look, Houston's Loop 610 (No. 12), Fort Worth's 820 (No. 15) and San Antonio's 410 (No. 38) made the list! I think I have the answer. Much of the Beast's information comes from GPS devices on 18-wheelers and I must admit I don't see that many of those on LBJ at that time--just millions and millions of cars, too many of which are misusing the HOV lanes.

And either Boston's Southeast Expressway is ranked way too low (No. 14) or else they made significant changes to improve mobility since the last time I drove it.

City reviews new ways to make money

City Manager Mary Suhm presented to the City Council today some novel ideas to increase revenues for a city facing another budget gap at the beginning of the next fiscal year. Some of them I applaud mightily -- particularly a tax on plastic bags and bottles, although I would hope it wouldn't generate revenue as much as it would help to eliminate the use of both the bags and the bottles. Others -- like privatizing solid waste pickup -- shouldn't even be considered. Garbage collection used to be privatized in Dallas and the results were disastrous. We don't need to endure that pain again.

Others I thought are worth considering:

  • Charging an overhead fee to entities that use off-duty police officers for private security. The key word here is "private."

  • Becoming a self-serving Retail Electric Provider (REP) and taking advantage of wholesale power purchase rather than buying power in retail market through another REP. This idea by itself has the potential of not only closing the entire budget gap, but giving the City more revenues to restore what was stripped in the current budget.

  • Partnering with an energy service company to (1) install energy efficient lighting technology (such as LED) in street lights, parking lights, ball field lights, etc., and (2) implement technology to vaporize waste at the transfer stations rather than dispose of that waste at the landfill. These are ideas that should be explored even if there wasn't a budget gap.

  • Investigating the opportunity to require solid waste collected within city to be disposed of within city which would increase the volume received at McCommas Landfill and generate additional revenue. OK, I know it smacks of heavy-handed governmental interference, but, by golly, I like it, at least during fiscal years when necessary to reduce budget shortfalls.

  • Outsourcing alarm permitting and enforcement to increase revenue, improve compliance with ordinance, and reduce false alarms. I distinctly remember the city doing this at one time but, even though it was supported by Police Chief Kunkel, Da Mayor pushed through an ordinance to eliminate the practice.

  • Identifying the best and highest use of underutilized City property and either lease, swap, or sell the asset; and identifying City services that operate in leased space and move them into City-owned space if available. Why, in heaven's name, has the City waited so long to come up with these ideas?

  • Implementing a garage sale permit fee and fines for holding a garage sale without said permit. I may be the only person in the world who thinks this is a great idea; but just about every other "sales" outlet needs a city permit to conduct business, so why exempt these?

Ms. Suhm came up with some ideas, in addition to privatizing solid waste collection, I''m not that wild about:

  • Selling the use of City name/seal to promote private products or services. Look, we already have "the official hot dog of the City of Dallas" (Do I need to speak his name?), we don't need another one.

  • Renewing natural gas drilling leases which expire during FY11. There are simply too many unaddressed health and safety questions connected with this drilling for me to feel totally comfortable with it.

  • Outsourcing 311 service to a private call center or regionalizing 311 service by selling our 311 services to neighboring jurisdictions. This has all the earmarks of making a bad situation worse. Instead, why not charge other cities to hand over their 311 needs to Dallas?

  • Changing bulk-trash from monthly service to on-demand service. While I don't advocate "on-demand" bulk trash pickup, I would definitely like to see how much money the City would save by going to a quarterly pickup schedule instead of a monthly one.

  • Begin charging a franchise fee to the Department of Sanitation for the use of city streets and alleys. This is PILOT all over again. If it's wrong to sneak it into the Water Department's budget, it's equally wrong to sneak it into the Sanitation Services Department's.

It will be interesting to see how all this plays out. Of course, what is really required is a tax hike, but I imagine only council member Tennell Atkins will have the courage to point that out.

Obama needs to start playing dirty politics, too

I found this article on the Huffington Post and found it so right on the mark that I have re-printed it here. It was written by Drew Western, a professor at Emory University.

"You can blame a bad candidate, bad organization, bad timing of a vacation -- choose your rationalization. But the reality is that voters in Massachusetts were reacting to the same foul mist coming off Boston Harbor that New Jersey Voters smelled coming off the Hudson and Virginia voters off the Chesapeake.

What they all understood was that the source lay on the shores of the Potomac.

It is a truly remarkable feat, in just one year's time, to turn the fear and anger voters felt in 2006 and 2008 at a Republican Party that had destroyed the economy, redistributed massive amounts of wealth from the middle class to the richest of the rich and the biggest of big businesses, and waged a trillion-dollar war in the wrong country, into populist rage at whatever Democrat voters can cast their ballot against.

The President's steadfast refusal to acknowledge that we have a two-party system, his insistence on making destructive concessions to the same party voters he had sent packing twice in a row in the name of "bipartisanship," and his refusal ever to utter the words "I am a Democrat" and to articulate what that means, are not among his virtues. We have competing ideas in a democracy -- and hence competing parties -- for a reason. To paper them over and pretend they do not exist, particularly when the ideology of one of the parties has proven so devastating to the lives of everyday Americans, is not a virtue. It is an abdication of responsibility.

What happens if you refuse to lay the blame for the destruction of our economy on anyone -- particularly the party, leaders, and ideology that were in power for the last 8 years and were responsible for it? What happens if you fail to "brand" what has happened as the Bush Depression or the Republican Depression or the natural result of the ideology of unregulated greed, the way FDR branded the Great Depression as Hoover's Depression and created a Democratic majority for 50 years and a new vision of what effective government can do? What happens when you fail to offer and continually reinforce a narrative about what has happened, who caused it, and how you're going to fix it that Americans understand, that makes them angry, that makes them hopeful, and that makes them committed to you and your policies during the tough times that will inevitably lie ahead?

The answer was obvious a year ago, and it is even more obvious today: Voters will come to blame you for not having solved a problem you didn't create, and you will allow the other side to create an alternative narrative for what's happened (government spending, deficits, big government, socialism) that will stick. And it will particularly stick if you make no efforts to prevent it from starting or sticking.

Were Massachusetts voters reacting in part to the health care debate turned debacle? Sure. In a misguided effort to avoid the mistakes of 1993, the President decided that leadership on health care wasn't in his job description and encouraged the Democrats to make their sausage in public, after making his own deals with the same people who brought us pre-existing conditions and $150 prescriptions (and that's with insurance). He promised transparency, and he gave the country a huge dose of it. Unfortunately, what was transparent turned people's stomachs.

The White House allowed the health care narrative to be all about process, and the process the American people saw wasn't pretty. It scared seniors, who worried what would happen to their Medicare. It scared workers, who worried about what would happen to the plans their unions had negotiated so hard for in lieu of salaries. It scared middle class Americans with good health insurance plans, who had -- and have -- no idea whether their plans will be deemed -- if not today, in three or four years -- Cadillacs, which will first be taxed and then discontinued, leaving them with exactly what Frank Luntz told them it would leave them with: a bureaucrat between them and their doctor. And worst of all, it seemed to most Americans that the reason they were being asked to make such potentially big sacrifices was so that health insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, and millionaires wouldn't have to. It seemed not only risky but unfair.

So in that sense, the story of health insurance played right into the story that lies behind the looming tsunami that swept away Ted Kennedy's Senate seat and will sweep away so many more Democratic seats if the Democrats draw the wrong conclusions from this election. The White House just couldn't seem to "get" that the American people could see that they were constantly coming down on the side of the same bankers who were foreclosing people's homes and shutting off the credit to small business owners, when they should have been helping the people whose homes were being foreclosed and the small businesses that were trying to stay afloat because of the recklessness of banks that were now starving them. Americans were tired of hearing Obama "exhort" bankers and speculators to play nice as they collected their record bonuses for a heckuva job in 2009. It took him a year to float the idea of making them pay for a fraction of the damage they had done, and at this point, few Americans have any faith that a tax on big banks will ever become law or that the costs won't just be passed on to them in new fees.

The White House has squandered the greatest opportunity to change both the country and the political landscape since Ronald Reagan. It should have started with a non-watered-down stimulus package big enough to stop the bleeding in the job market -- and a smack-down of any Republican who dared to utter the word "deficit" after 8 years of reckless, unpaid Republican spending. It should have followed with stringent regulations on Wall Street and protection of homeowners and small businesses instead of with a jobs creation program inside the administration for failed bankers and failed regulators. A stimulus -- including a jobs program -- strong enough to prevent the hemorrhaging of 700,000 jobs a month and a muscular approach to the bad actors who had crashed the economy would have gotten the public firmly behind the President and the Democrats, demonstrating to the average voter that they have a choice between one party that's on their side and another that's not. Instead, the White House just blurred the lines between the parties so the average American couldn't tell the difference.

With all its efforts to tack to the center, the White House missed the point. The issue isn't about right or left. It's about whose side you're on. In Massachusetts, the voters believe they know. It's now up to the President and his party to convince the American people otherwise."

President Obama's wakeup call

The election of Scott Brown, a Republican in the most Democratic state in the Union, as the new U.S. senator from Massachusetts, should serve as a wake-up call to President Obama -- a warning that he needs to shift his emphasis.

The issue in Massachusetts was not health care reform and don't be persuaded by those who said Brown's victory was because he promised he would vote against the health care reform legislation in Congress. This election was a case of the voters of Massachusetts sending a message to the President of the United States that his focus should not be on health care reform, but on job creation. Health care reform is necessary, but it doesn't do anyone any good if they feel they can't take advantage of it.

I am convinced most Americans think there are only one of two ways they can purchase health insurance, no matter how "affordable" that insurance might be. The first way is that it is offered by an employer; the second is that they purchase insurance on their own. Both ways, Americans feel, require an income and that usually means a job.

The previous administration inherited a healthy economy and destroyed it. What makes matters worse is that the economic policies professed by Sen.-elect Brown and other Republicans would guarantee further economic deterioration. So now, President Obama doesn't have the 60 votes needed to prevent Republican filibustering on health care. Fine. Then put that on the back burner for now (especially since the health care reform legislation currently being debated is so watered down it's not worth fighting for anyway) and focus the administration's efforts on job creation and force Brown and his cohorts to oppose that.

Recently released on DVD: "Tru Loved"

Najarra Townsend in Tru Loved

Grade: D+

Quintessentially Ringwald-ian "arty girl" Tru (Najarra Townsend) hates, hates, hates being moved from diverse San Francisco to Southern California suburbia due to a job offer one of her two moms (Alexandra Paul, Cynda Williams) couldn’t turn down. Her new high school is ruled by jocks and unironic Valley Girl types who view her moderately boho dress, let alone her lesbian mothers, as proof she’s a freak — and most likely "lesbo" by association.

Tru (short for Gertrude) is thus surprised when star quarterback Lodell (Matthew Thompson) asks her out. At least, he appears to: After some oddly chaste "dates," heroine realizes she’s being used as a beard — or as the script wickedly phrases it, a "Katie Holmes" — for deeply closeted Lodell, whose best friend Manny (Joseph Julian Soria) and coach (Vernon Wells) exhale homophobia like carbon dioxide. Feeling kinship with Lodell nonetheless, Tru reluctantly agrees to carry on this masquerade.

Still, she chafes when her "boyfriend" turns a blind eye to the bullying of overtly gay student Walter (Tye Olsen). She starts a Gay-Straight Alliance at the school, an endeavor that earns both immediate success and backlash. Her loyalty to Lodell’s ruse is further tested when dreamboat GSA sign-on Trevor (Jake Abel) turns out to be an open-minded hetero eager to be her real boyfriend.

The performances by youth and parents (also including a barbed Jasmine Guy and Eartha-channeling Nichelle Nichols as Lodell’s single mom and cranky grandma, respectively) are good. Glorified B-list cameos by Bruce Vilanch, Alec Mapa, Marcia Wallace, etc., tend toward hamminess.

Wells’ homophobic coach, lone angry holdout amid an overdone climax that bowties every last plot string, is cartoonish. Likewise crude is the script’s earmarking Lodell as gay by exposing him as a passionate showtune lover. Tru’s fantasy scenes (one a lame West Side Story parody) are poor and gratuitous, though the real-world dialogue is often smart when not over-earnest.

Most of Tru Loved does a good job of appealing to kids who might otherwise be turned off by the subject (apparently, school screenings went very well).

The production values are professional, though the film just doesn’t look or play like bigscreen material. A soundtrack that is heavy on songs by undistinguished gay musicians (must so many lesbian singer-songwriters imitate Melissa Etheridge?) doesn’t further that cause.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Medina may force GOP runoff

Hutch, Hair and Medina

I did not see the most recent Republican gubernatorial debate, but those who did told me that Debra Medina bettered both Gov. Hair and Sen. Hutch and easily won the debate. Now poll numbers are supporting that assessment.

According to the poll, conducted by Rasmussen Reports in conjunction with the Fox Television Stations Group of 831 likely Republican voters, only Medina gained support (12 percent, an increase of 8 percent). Hair lost 3 points, Hutch lost 2 and the number of undecided voters decreased from 14 percent last November to 11 percent now. Hair still leads Hutch 43-33 percent, but if Medina continues to gain ground, she will probably force the two frontrunners into a runoff neither of them want.

Medina's showing has also forced the Dallas Morning News to include her in the Jan. 29 debate it is sponsoring. Here was the face-saving statement from Mike Devlin, president and general manager of WFAA, which will host the debate:

"The Rasmussen poll released today shows Debra Medina is now at 12 percent, which is a substantial jump since the previous poll. Factoring in the margin of error (+/- 3.5 percent) and using reasonable news judgment, it appears Ms. Medina is a viable candidate and qualifies for the Belo Debate to be broadcast on January 29."

Goodbye Cindi's: Worst Service Ever

This morning I took my get-acquainted tour of the fitness center at the Jewish Community Center, which will be my new exercise haven, and afterwards I thought I would swing by the neighboring Cindi's Delicatessen for a "quick" breakfast before continuing on with my day.

Boy, was that ever a mistake.

Usually, Cindi's is comparatively crowded when I want to go there so this time I gauged my initial decision on whether I could get a "quick" breakfast by how many cars were in the restaurant's parking lot. A positive indicator: I got a spot right in front of the entrance.

I walked up to the "Wait to be Seated" sign, held up one finger and said "one" when the host asked how many was in my party, and was ushered right to a table. Granted, before too long, a waitress appeared and asked if I wanted some coffee. I said that I did.

I received the coffee in the familiar thermal carafe a few minutes later and then I waited. And waited. And waited. Luckily I had a book to read. Several times I tried to discreetly signal my waitress I was ready to order but she never even looked in my direction. After reading more than 50 pages of my book and depleting the thermal coffee carafe I finally just stood up as my waitress came by and asked for my check. She stupidly told me, "I thought you were waiting for someone."

I say "stupidly" because her explanation would have been more logical had I been seated facing the front entrance so I could be on the lookout for someone I was "waiting for." But I was seated with my back to the entrance and hunched over my book the entire time. And even then, after more than 30 minutes, I would think a restaurant that had even adequate service would have inquired if the customer wanted to go ahead and order.

So I paid for my coffee, left, drove home and made myself breakfast, which was probably superior to what I would have had at Cindi's, although I will never know for sure because I will never, ever set foot in that deli again.

Recently released on DVD: "Amreeka"

Hiam Abbass and Nisreen Faour in Amreeka

Grade: B+

A feel-good comedy about a Palestinian mother who moves to rural Illinois with her teenaged son, Amreeka is a kind of stealth political film that confronts issues of ethnic tension and American xenophobia.

First-time filmmaker Cherien Dabis (a writer on the television series The L-Word) based the story on her own experience, growing up as the child of Jordanian-Palestinian immigrants. In the anti-Arab hysteria of the first Gulf War, her family received daily death threats, and her father's medical practice went into decline when his patients quit. The script for Amreeka (Arabic for America) has no bitterness and, in fact, portrays the United States as the place where people from many lands become one, and everyone enjoys Disneyland and a good hamburger.

Even when it occasionally lapses into sitcom clichés, Amreeka is a hugely likeable movie, thanks to the unaffected warmth of Israeli-Arab star Nisreen Faour. She plays Muna, an amply-built Palestinian divorcée and bank employee, who unexpectedly wins the green-card lottery to the United States. Her sister is already living in Illinois with her family and Muna has a good education which should ease the transition.

The first 20 minutes of the film, shot mostly with a hand-held camera, are a portrait of her life living in Bethlehem and working in Ramallah, where the 15-minute car trip has been extended to two hours on Palestinian-only roads and through Israeli checkpoints. As well, Muna worries about her 16-year-old son, Fadi (Melkar Muallem), who sasses an Israeli soldier and finds himself taken out of the car at gun point.

Later, during the family's interrogation at Chicago airport, Fadi surrenders a tin of cookies, which, unbeknownst to him, contain the family savings of $2,500. To make matters worse, the year is 2003 – the Gulf War has just begun and anti-Arab feelings are running high.

Broke, jobless and unable to find work, Muna moves in with her sister Raghda (Hiam Abbass), her doctor husband (Yussuf Abu-Warda) and their three daughters. The change from the Mideast to the Midwest goes from summer to winter and the camera pulls back to reveal the widespread houses and snowy landscapes. (Illinois is played by suburban Winnipeg, thanks to the Canadian co-producers.)

The house is overcrowded and everyone has to share living space, which serves as a somewhat heavy-handed metaphor for occupation. One daughter puts a line of tape down the middle of her room, marking out her territory and preventing her sister from using the bedroom door.

Embarrassed by her inability to find a decent job, Muna pretends to her relatives that she has landed a position at the local bank. In reality, she's working alongside a recent high-school dropout with a ring through his lip, flipping burgers at the local White Castle.

At school, Fadi, mocked for his name, struggles with the teen bigots, though he's helped by his cousin, Sama (Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat), and her African-American boyfriend.

Solace comes, somewhat conveniently, from the kindly, divorced Jewish principal, Mr. Novatski (Joseph Ziegler), who wins Muna's affection by telling her, "I don't think you're fat at all."

Considered separately, the events that happen to Muna and her family border on dire — financial woes, accidents, a beating and an arrest — but in the context of the film, they're essentially opportunities for Muna to demonstrate her indomitable optimism.

At the same time, director-writer Dabis misses few opportunities to find playful humour in the midst of conflict. Sometimes, Muna's malapropisms feel forced ("Who beat you in?" she asks her bruised and dishevelled son). More pointed is the giant sign near the White Castle where Muna works, which has a couple of letters missing: "Support our oops."

The fact that the slogan also exists on a commercially available T-shirt doesn't diminish its bite.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The 50 Best Films of 2009

I'm a little late with this list and I still reserve the right to change it, but here are my choices for the top films of last year:

1. The Hurt Locker
2. Goodbye Solo
3. Crazy Heart
4. Avatar
5. Gomorrah
6. Tyson
7. The Cove
8. Sugar
9. A Serious Man
10. Precious, Based on the Novel "Push" By Sapphire
11. Broken Embraces
12. An Education
13. Up in the Air
14. Me and Orson Welles
15. Invictus
16. Fantastic Mr. Fox
17. In the Loop
18. Bright Star
19. Up
20. Lorna's Silence
21. The Messenger
22. The White Ribbon
23. Humpday
24. Il Divo
25. A Woman in Berlin
26. Public Enemies
27. Sin Nombre
28. (500) Days of Summer
29. Lemon Tree
30. Where the Wild Things Are
31. Coraline
32. Drag Me to Hell
33. Duplicity
34. Julia
35. 12
36. Food, Inc.
37. Big Fan
38. Star Trek
39. District 9
40. O'Horten
41. Two Lovers
42. The Girlfriend Experience
43. The Merry Gentleman
44. A Single Man
45. Adventureland
46. Every Little Step
47. Amreeka
48. The Hangover
49. Adoration
50. Big Man Japan

Recently released on DVD: "Big Fan"

Patton Oswalt and Kevin Corrigan in Big Fan

Grade: B+

The little man at the center of the spasmodically funny and bleak love story Big Fan doesn’t come with a halo slung over his head. His speeches are written in ballpoint with a heavy hand and delivered with bleats and bellows on the radio. (The words are so deeply inscribed on the page you could read them by touch.) He doesn’t come with a fanfare and, to judge by the square, squat cut of his jib, he’s an unlikely contender. He’s a regular guy or as close to regular as any 35-year-old can possibly be who sleeps under a poster of his favorite football star while tucked under a coverlet imprinted with the names of N.F.L. teams.

As its title suggests, Big Fan is about the love that speaks its name, though also often shrieks it in rock arenas, sports stadiums and other public places of worship. That love can be a beautiful, touching thing.

An inability to recognize that love gives Big Fan its igniting moment. One evening while chowing down on pizza in Staten Island, two friends, Paul (Patton Oswalt) and Sal (Kevin Corrigan), notice Paul’s favorite Giants player, the fictional Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm), gassing up his S.U.V. Giddy with excitement, the friends start tailing Bishop. They spend much of their days and most of their solitary nights obsessing about the Giants, swapping stories about the team’s triumphs and defeats like war veterans, so following him seems natural, even if it means entering unknown territory like Manhattan. (Where, an incredulous Paul marvels, there are no parking spaces.) Then Bishop discovers he’s been shadowed and flies into a rage, unleashing all the furious energy that makes him so magnificent on the field.

Paul ends up in the hospital, his head wrapped in bandages. Much of what ensues involves his coming to painful terms with the horror of that violent night, a reckoning that upends his life and a favorite late-evening ritual: his calls into a local sports radio show. These broadcast interludes are the high point of his day, week, perhaps life, giving "Paul from Staten Island," as he’s called, the chance to advocate on behalf of the Giants while trash-talking the competition. Reading from a notepad and pouring all his libidinal energy into the task, he drops statistics, predicts plays and taunts the enemy, his voice alive with swagger and heat. More than an enthusiast, he is a defender of the faith.

Oswalt, a standup comic who also voiced Remy the rat in the Pixar animation Ratatouille, seems to expand physically during these scenes, almost as if his love for his team made him a giant too. He puffs out his chest and rocks a bit, his voice ebbing and flowing with oratory grandiloquence. There’s no one around, save for his mother (Marcia Jean Kurtz) in the bedroom next door who, borrowing a favorite strategy from Rupert Pupkin’s mom, occasionally yells at him to shut up. But Paul has an audience, including the admiring Sal, who alone in his own apartment, takes visible, somewhat baffled pride in his friend’s radio performances, smiling along to every beat. Being a big fan also makes Paul into something of a celebrity.

The writer Robert Siegel, here making his debut as a director, doesn’t push the analogy. One of the pleasures of this agreeably low-key and modest film is that he isn’t selling a message or trying to wring a grand metaphor out of his humble material: he’s created a somewhat simple story about a man who turns out to be rather less simple than he first appears. The screenplay for Big Fan avoids sentimentality without abandoning sentiment. Paul might make you squirm, but Siegel refuses to sell him out so you can feel more comfortable with his eccentricities, no small thing in contemporary independent cinema.

Working with the cinematographer Michael Simmonds, Siegel finds a suitably grubby visual look for the film, which employs handheld camerawork that alternately puts Paul at an analytical distance and draws him close. (Only when Paul dreams of Bishop do the colors pop.) The unremarkable settings include the gloomy parking lot where Paul works and the much larger stadium parking lot where he and Sal watch Giant games on a TV run off a car engine. Like Paul’s bedroom, these emptied-out, liminal spaces in which other people are forever coming and going can seem terribly lonely, even sad. But to feel sorry for him is to miss the point of Big Fan, which is that a life filled with so much generous love needs no pity.