Friday, April 30, 2010

That guy warning aliens will suck our brains

Patrick Williams has a funny, well-written "Buzz" column in this week's edition of The Dallas Observer. You can find it on Page 11 or you can read it here. It begins:

"We hate to say it, but what if the Tea Party people are right? Sure, they may look like wacky gun-loving, government-hating, thin-lipped, bigoted, paranoid loons. Completely deranged, ignorant...wait, we've lost our point here. Oh, yeah. What if they're correct?"

It's well worth the few minutes it takes to read the whole thing.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

What will the Big 12 Conference look like this time next year?

I recently wrote about a meeting of BCS conference officials during which the topic of expansion was definitely going to be in the air, if not on the agenda. Here's what several people have told me was discussed at that meeting, particularly as it pertains to the Big 12 Conference.

Expect the conference to lose three schools -- Colorado, Nebraska and Missouri -- possibly as early as before the start of the 2011 football season. Colorado (and Utah) will go to the PAC 10 Conference and the other two will join Rutgers as new additions to the Big 10 Conference, by far the wealthiest in all the land.

The Big 12 has already positioned itself to add two teams -- BYU and TCU -- to the conference. The question becomes one of balance. All three of the departing teams play in the Big 12 North. BYU, of course, would go to the North and even though TCU football coach Gary Patterson would dearly love to be in the north, that is simply not going to happen. So that leaves the Big 12 with four teams in the north and seven in the south. Problems. The only solution I can see is to shove the two Oklahoma schools into the north, leaving the split at 6 and 5. That, however, also presents a situation many will find utterly distasteful. The south schools play the north schools in football twice every four years, meaning, if that schedule is maintained, the annual Texas-OU game is history. Of course, the schedule makers could ensure that Texas and Oklahoma meet in the first two years of the new alignment and, after that, I believe the Cotton Bowl contract on the game has expired so there would be no legal obligation to have the two teams meet annually, only a traditional one.

The other problem with this alignment, a problem that affects all 11 teams in the newly formed league, is the fact that the NCAA requires a conference to have at least 12 members before it can stage one of those lucrative conference championship football games (one of the main reasons the Big 10 and PAC 10 are expanding). So a 12th school will need to be added, but who that team is going to be is anyone's guess. In order to maintain the geographical parity, it would seem that it would have to be another Texas school, so I would argue that either the University of Texas-El Paso or, even more likely, the University of Houston would seem the logical choices, with UH having an edge because of the rich potential television market in Houston and the wealth of potential recruits throughout Southeast Texas.

I could also present the argument (although I have found no one willling to join me on this) to convert the Big 12 conference into the Big 14. Make TCU the seventh team in the south and in the north add Air Force, BYU, Colorado State and Wyoming. Of course, that makes the conference even more bottom heavy, talentwise, but that can change as well over time.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Annette's next

Although it appears Warren Beatty has taken a permanent hiatus from acting, wife Annette Bening is not only continuing her professional career, but is a serious contender for a best actress Oscar nomination for this film, Mother and Child.

I have nothing against your right leg ...

As promised below, here is Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's hilarious Tarzan bit in which Moore plays a one-legged actor auditioning for Cook for the role of Tarzan. It is a classic.

Mike's origins

The other day I was introducing the original movie Bedazzled to a group of co-workers who were too young to remember that Dudley Moore came to notoriety as one half of the comedy team of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (I will try to find a copy of their Tarzan bit to post here).

Now that the American Film Institute plans a tribute to director Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Silkwood, Primary Colors et al) in June, I'm betting there are a number of folks that didn't know Nichols first gained fame as part of the comedy team of Miike Nichols and Elaine May. If you didn't, the above clip will give you some idea of what you missed.

Suhm names Brown police chief

I welcomed the news that Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm has named Dallas Assistant Chief David Brown to succeed retiring Chief David Kunkle as the head of the Dallas Police Department.

While I was the executive director of what used to be called the Dallas Northeast Chamber of Commerce I had the opportunity to work with Chief Brown on several crime reduction initiatives while he was head of the Northeast substation and then again when he became first assistant chief. He both commands and earns respect. Not only that, he is a 26-year veteran of the department and can really hit the ground running. This is a superb appointment.

Here is Suhm's memo to the mayor and city council announcing the appointment.

Where have these Mavericks been?

As a former sports writer, I have had the opportunity to cover more than my share of college and pro basketball post-season play and I heard on numerous occasions that a single basketball season is, like Gaul, divided into three parts. In college, it's the pre-conference season, the conference season and the NCAA tournament. In the NBA, it's the pre-season, the regular season and the playoffs. Each succeeding season requires a little more intensity.

That is something I never thought the Mavericks understood. They seemed to think they could take their level of play that took them to a successful regular season into post-season play. Teams like the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat know better, which is why the Spurs and the Heat have NBA titles and the Mavericks don't.

Last night, however, the Mavericks finally seemed to play as though they finally understood what it takes to win in the playoff season. Or as that fine basketball writer Eddie Sefko put it:

"The Mavericks' education in this series continues by the game, and like college kids who don't get what their professor sometimes says, it appeared that a light bulb went off Tuesday."
Now the question is whether they'll remember the course material and pass the final two exams in this series tomorrow and Saturday.

Which brings up another point. Everyone's been talking about how it's almost impossible to come back from a 3-1 deficit in a best-of-seven series. My response is: The Spurs won three consecutive games in this series so why can't the Mavs do the same thing? If they continue to play like they did last night, they shouldn't have any trouble doing just that.

Why do we continue to elect these idiots?

While most legal experts are predicting that Arizona's recently passed immigration law undoubtedly will not survive a legal appeal, we have a legislator right here in Texas saying that she wants to introduce an identical piece of legislation during the next legislative session which opens in January. Need I say, the woman is a Republican, however I doubt her fellow Republicans will be willing to sacrifice any hope of winning Hispanic votes by coming out in favor of such a measure. Even Gov. Hair is remaining mum on the topic, which should tell you something.

DART's money woes

I'm not shedding any tears over the news that less-than-anticipated sales tax revenues likely will force DART to scrap plans for a second downtown rail line. It was a waste of money to begin with, a possible convenience but not a necessity. I never thought it would increase rail traffic enough to justify its construction. I worked at City Hall, where today city leaders have been lobbying for a rail station to be located on this second downtown line, and took DART rail to work almost daily. I never found it inconvenient to walk to the nearest station and, in fact, found a way to get from City Hall to the Convention Center station without ever leaving the shelter of a building. That came in handy during inclement weather.

DART sacrificed its opportunity to be a realistic viable transportation alternative when it opted more than a quarter of a century ago for light instead of heavy rail. For that reason DART will never have the appeal of the New York subway system, the Paris Metro or the London Underground, to name just three municipal rail services I have used frequently. Besides, Dallas is not really a city in the way New York, London, Paris, Boston, San Francisco, Moscoe etc are. Dallas is a comparatively small downtown business center surrounded by predominatly individualistic residential neighborhoods. Rail really doesn't work that well in a Dallas-type environment.

About the only troubling news in DART's financial revelations is the scrapping of the Blue Line extension that would have taken it to the Dallas campus of the University of North Texas. That line, to me, should have the highest priority of all the ones except the Orange line to DFW airport. I also find concern in that plans for additional HOV lanes will be scaled back almost 80 percent, even though most people in Dallas think HOV lanes are more of a transportation issue than an environmental one.

Crowe allegedly threatened to kill "Gladiator" producer

Gladiator star Russell Crowe, who won an Oscar for his performance in that film, threatened to kill one of the producers for the film with his bear hands and almost refused to say the film's most famous line, according to a book expected to be published next month.

The book, The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company called DreamWorks by Nicole LaPorte, is about the three men -- Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg -- who formed Dreamworks, the Hollywood studio that put up the money to film Gladiator.

In the book, LaPorte writes that Crowe was unhappy with the day rate pay for some of his assistants on the film and, as a result, called one of the film's three producers, Branko Lustig, a 77-year-old Jewish concentration camp survivor, at 3 a.m. and told him "You mother*****, I will kill you with my bare hands."

According to LaPorte, Lustig was so terrified by the threat he called Spielberg and told him: "Steven, I'm leaving. Russell wants to kill me. I'm leaving."

Somehow Spielberg convinced Lustig to say on and he joined fellow producers Douglas Wick and David Franzoni to accept the Oscar when Gladiator was named best picture at the 2001 Academy Awards celebration.

LaPorte also writes that Crowe twice walked off the set and threw fits because he refused to say the line near the end of the film ""And I will have my vengeance, in this world or the next." He was finally persuaded to say it and after it was shot told directly Ridley Scott: "It was shit ... but I am the greatest actor in the world and I can even make shit sound good."

LaPorte's book is scheduled to be published May 4.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Mulligan to get "Tattoo"

I'm hearing that Carey Mulligan, the Oscar-nominated actress from An Education, is the leading candidate to play Lisbeth Salander in the director David Fincher's English-language version of Stieg Larsson's popular novel The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, an engrossing thriller I am currently reading. It also appears that Brad Pitt is the leading candidate to play the financial reporter who joins with Salander to solve the 40-year-old mystery of a missing heiress. Personally, I think both are excellent choices. The question is whether the book's sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, which may even be more popular than the first book, be filmed with Mulligan as well.

The landfill fire

I'm not a conspiracy theorist - I'm really not. But when I read about the fire at the McCommas Bluff Landfill, I couldn't help but think it was started by one of those disgruntled residents, upset that the trash that used to be picked up in the alley is now collected at the curb, placed some kind of time-release ignition device in his grey cart.

I'm not a conspiracy theorist - I'm really not.

To be released tomorrow on DVD

DISGRACE (2009) As fiercely unsentimental as this film is, it offers by the end a measure of hope, and because that hope is so hard-won, it has the ring of truth. Star John Malkovich is one of the few actors capable of conveying genuine intellectual depth. GRADE: A

DISTRICT B13: ULTIMATUM (2010) A pleasurable nonsense and another reminder that one of the great pulls of cinema is the spectacle of other bodies in blissful motion. GRADE: B

FIVE MINUTES OF HEAVEN (2009) A feature-length talkathon built on a sketchy premise, some unpersuasive psychology, a pinch of politics and strong star turns from Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt. The appeal of all those words runs out long before the director Oliver Hirschbiegel turns off the spigot. GRADE: C-PLUS

THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS (2009) This is potentially wonderful, if not exactly new stuff, but co-writers Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown's willful refusal of coherent narrative and determination to pack every idea about art they ever had into one scenario, make this fiendishly gorgeous movie more exhausting than exhilarating to watch. GRADE: B

IT’S COMPLICATED (2009) It's funny but (sorry, ladies) unrealistic that Jake (Alec Baldwin) continuously sneaks away from his young wife to canoodle with Jane (Meryl Streep). Baldwin is a blast, but the role requires him to indulge in indignities such as a naked webcam conversation. GRADE: B-MINUS

TRANSYLMANIA (2009) Although the inept filmmaking and tiresome gags give the air of coming from one truly bored misogynist, it took two screenwriters (Patrick Casey, Worm Miller) and two directors (David & Scott Hillenbrand) to create this stake through the heart of film comedy. GRADE: F

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Joni Mitchell calls Dylan a fake

Ya think she may be upset because her music has been largely ignored this century?

Six signs the good guys are in trouble

1.  When J.J. Barea gets more court time than the two major players you traded to get -- Shawn Marion and Caron Butler -- combined.

2. When two players off the bench -- Barea and Jason Terry -- outscore 80 percent of your starting lineup 31-16.

3. When your team plays well for only two quarters -- the second and the third -- and begin to act like who they are -- the oldest team in the NBA -- the other two quarters.

4. When the bad guys' starting team outscores your starting team, 69-51.

5. When you're known as an outstanding free-throw team yet let the bad guys go to the line 11 more times than you do.

6. When you ask one player -- in this case, Dirk Nowitzki -- to carry the entire team. (Nowitzki accounted for 69 percent of the points scored by the Mavericks starting five Friday night.)

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Rebel and the Prez

James Dean and Ronald Reagan: I wouldn't have believed it had I not seen it with my own eyes.

In case you didn't see The Blind Side

You can read the entire script in a nutshell right here -- takes less than five minutes. I promise. And it's funny.

Carrey on, Jim

Admittedly, I have never been much of a Jim Carrey fan. I did like The Truman Show ... a lot ... but I liked it in spite of Carrey. I don't know what anyone sees in Man on the Moon and The Majestic and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of the most overrated films of all time. The nicest thing I can say about the bulk of his comedies is that aren't as bad as those from Adam Sandler.

Still, I wouldn't wish his recent track record on anyone in the film industry. First his private life takes a hit when he breaks up with Jenny McCarthy. But it's his professional output that's the real story. Two recent releases, A Christmas Carol and Yes Man, did not perform anywhere near expectations. His so-called gay comedy, I Love You Philip Morris, has been shelved, at least for the time being. Three other projects with which he's involved - Ripley's Believe It or Not, The Three Stooges and Damn Yankees - are going nowhere.

Here was someone who just five years ago appeared he could do no wrong. What's happened?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Reason #787,633 why Jesse James is the dumbest man in the world

Released today on DVD

AVATAR (2009) The movie’s story may be a little trite, and the big battle at the end between the ugly mechanical force and the gorgeous natural world goes on forever, but what a show director James Cameron puts on! The continuity of dynamized space that he has achieved gloriously supports his trippy belief that all living things are one. Glorious and goofy and blissfully deranged. GRADE: A

Follow that yellow brick road

What a turn around: the Spurs are going to win this series

I said yesterday the Mavericks were going to have to play a lot better to win this series against the San Antonio, mainly because you knew the Spurs would not play as poorly as they did Sunday night. But who knew the Mavericks would go from being average to being terrible. As a result of last night's blowout -- and let's face it, a 14-point loss in the playoffs is a blowout -- as well as a closer examination at the way each team finished the season, I'm backing way off my prediction that the Mavericks will win this series in five games. Now I believe the Spurs will win this series, probably in six games.

It's not only the way the Mavericks played last night, but more in the way the Spurs have been playing lately and it's a lot better than the Mavericks. Just looking at wins and losses, there's not that much difference. The Surs were 11-7 in the last month of the season and the Mavericks were 10-5. But look at the difference in what I call quality wins. The Mavs only had two of them in the last month -- a 109-93 win at home against Denver on March 29, and a 83-77 victory over Portland on the road April 9.

The Spurs, on the other hand, had a quite impressive, some might say "phenomenal,"  six quality wins during that same time span -- 88-76 at Miami on March 16, 102-97 over Cleveland (the team with the best record in the NBA) March 26, 94-73 at Boston (a team that beat the Mavs in Dallas eight days earlier) March 28, 112-100 over Orlando April 2, 100-81 at the Los Angeles Lakers April 4, and, finally, 104-85 at Denver April 10. That's spectacular basketball.

Dallas won the first game of this series because of (1) uncharacteristic San Antonio mistakes (too many fouls and turnovers) and (2) a monumental 12 of 14 from the floor shooting night by Dirk Nowitzki. Last night the Spurs cut their fouls from 28 to 15 and their turnovers from 17 to eight. And the Big German's field goal percentage plummeted from 86 percent Sunday night to 38 percent last night on 9 of 24 for 24 points. The mark of a good perfiormance is to have more total points than field goals attempted and only Jason Terry and J.J. Barea (albeit the latter with only five points) reached that plateau Wednesday while, for the Spurs, that level was reached by Tim Duncan, Richard Jefferson, Manu Ginobli and Matt Bonner.

From where I sit, things look a little bleak for the Mavericks right now, but then I'm sitting a pretty good distance from the American Airlines Center. And it's dark out.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Headlne of the Day

From Page 12A of today's Dallas Morning News:
"Flights slowly return to the skies"
Yep, that's where they should return to, alright.

I'm not buying Jones's story

If Cowboys owner Jerry Jones wanted to shift the media story from his comments on former coach Bill Parcells and quarterback Tim Tebow by blaming former Mayor Laura Miller for Dallas losing Jonestown, he succeeded beyond his wildest expecations. The Dallas Morning News ran this story on its front page today and I imagine it was picked up by other news outlets.

But I'm not buying it. Even if Miller had not responded by saying "The only person I've ever patted on the knee is my husband," I can't see the former mayor acting that familiar with Jones. This simply sounds like another chapter in his autobiography in which he paints himself as an irresistible ladies' man. (On the other hand, I don't see Miller encouraging Jones either - she was never a fan of sports-related projects.)

I really don't think Jones ever really considered locating his Taj Mahal in our city. For one thing, the city was insisting the facility be located in Fair Park. There's not enough room anywhere in Fair Park to build something as large as Jones has constructed in Arlington.

For another thing, he wanted tax money and the city's sale tax rate is already at the state-allowed maximum. Arlington, because it has no public transportation system that receives sales tax revenues, could up its rate to subsidize Jonestown.

But the telling paragraph is the second-to-the-last one in the story:
"(Friends of Fair Park Executive Director Craig) Holcomb said he too was skeptical about the likelihood of bringing the Cowboys to Dallas. He said there were a couple of productive meetings with Fair Park officials, but it never seemed like it would be a smooth process. The Cowboys wanted to get the issue on the ballot by that November, which is what happened in Arlington."
Here's the story I've been told by several sources: Yes, Jones wanted the issue on the ballot by that November but Dallas County officials flatly told him it would never happen because they feared it would attract more minorities to the polls. These Republican officials saw the county trending Democrat and didn't want to hasten that evolution by bringing more potentially Democratic voters out on election day.

It's interesting that the News' story also contained these paragraphs:
"(Dallas County Commissioner Mike) Cantrell said it's an oversimplification to heap most of the blame on Miller, and he isn't convinced the outcome could have been different.

"If they [Cowboys] really wanted to be in Dallas, I think they could have worked more diligently with the city or the county in order to keep it here," Cantrell said.

So why did Jones out Miller? Name value. If he had told his audience Margaret Keliher was to blame, half the audience would have wondered "Who's she" and another one-fourth or so would be trying to figure out what a former British prime minister had to do with all of this.

Where's the water?

Look  at the picture dominating the front page of today's Dallas Morning News and ask yourself again: "Why did the city insist on calling this avennue Cesar Chavez "Riverfront Boulevard?" To qualify for that name, it should have, at least, some hint that there's water nearby, even if you can't see the water. For example, businesses on one side, perhaps a levee on the other. But, no. The above-cited picture that accompanies this story in the print edition has businesses on both sides of the street. A chicken could cross this road and walk a long way on either side without getting wet.

Mavericks must play better to win this series

Don't get me wrong, I'm thrilled the Mavs are up 1-0 in this playoff series with the Spurs, but, unlike many, I was not that thrilled with the way the Mavs won this game. In fact, I would go so far as to say the Spurs lost the game more than the Mavs won it. And I don't think the Spurs are going to make the same mistakes tonight that cost them Sunday's game.

The reason the Mavericks came out on the large end of the final 100-94 score was the simple fact that the Spurs got called for committing 28 fouls sending the Mavs to the free throw line 34 times. They scored 25 points from the line compared 14 for the Spurs, a difference of almost twice the final scoring margin. Don't expect the Mavs to get that much charity tonight.

Not only that, the Mavs, an 82 percent free throw shooting team during the regular season, only shot 73 percent Sunday. Admittedly, that number was down because the Spurs intentionally fouled Eric Dampier who was only five for 12 from the stripe, but that Mavs may need to expect that throughout the series.

I'm also thinking Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is going to come up with a defense that will keep Dirk Nowitzki from scoring 36 points again. On the other side of that coin, the Mavs must find a way to keep Tim Ducan from scoring 10 points over his season average again while still keeping Richard Jefferson under control. Dallas must also get more production from Jason Terry -- he cannot continue to play 23 minutes and only produce 5 points (11 points below his season average), as he did Sunday.

I still think the Mavericks can win this series in five games, but they must play a whole lot better if they expect to advance to the next round.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Live Bruce DVD coming in June

A recording of Bruce Springsteen's concert in London's Hyde Park will be released as a two DVD set on June 22. The concert, performed at the Hard Rock Calling Festival last June 28, was part of Springsteen's Working on a Dream tour. Here is the track list:

1. London Calling

2. Badlands
3. Night
4. She's the One
5. Outlaw Pete
6. Out in the Street
7. Working on a Dream
8. Seeds
9. Johnny 99
10. Youngstown
11. Good Lovin'
12. Bobby Jean
13. Trapped
14. No Surrender
15. Waiting on a Sunny Day
16. Promised Land
17. Racing in the Street
18. Radio Nowhere
19. Lonesome Day
20. The Rising
21. Born to Run
22. Hard Times (Come Again No More)
23. Jungleland
24. American Land
25. Glory Days
26. Dancing in the Dark
27. Music under end credit sequence: Raise Your Hand

The River: Glastonbury Festival, 2009
Wrecking Ball: Giants Stadium, 2009

Those who attended the Hyde Park show or saw excerpts of it on VH-1 will notice the absence of Rosalita, which Bruce performed at that show. I have not heard any explanation for it not being included. Regardless, it looks like a tremendous song selection.

The future of college sports

The 11 Football Bowl Subdivision conferences began meeting today in Scottsdale, Ariz., and, from what I'm hearing, the major topic will be how many of these conferences will still be in existence after the meetng is over. The word is that the Big East is the most vulnerable conference, followed by the Big 12.

The driving force behind all this is the Big 10, which is the most powerful (and the wealthiest) of all the F.B.S. conferences. It wants to expand from its current 11 to 17 teams. Independent Notre Dame is the obvious choice to become a member of the Big 10. If the Big 10 only adds Notre Dame, I'm not thinking much else will change. The problem is, however, simply adding Notre Dame will not help the conference's television revenues, which is really the driving factor behind all this. The Big 10 is the only conference I'm aware of that has its own television network. (It can be found on Channel 197 on Time Warner's local cable lineup.) The other five teams the Big 10 wants to add are Missouri from the Big 12, and Rutgers, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Connecticut from the Big East.

If that happens, other chips will fall. I see Colorado and Texas leaving the Big 12 to become part of the PAC 10, which will try to expand to 16 teams. In fact, the word is that two other conferences -- the Southeastern and the Atlantic Coast -- would like to form 16-team leagues and, together with the Big 10 and the PAC 10, bolt the jurisdiction of the NCAA, start their own football series and hold their own post-season basketball tournament.

“If you look at the history of what’s been going on for the last decade, I think it’s leading in that direction,” said former Syracuse athletic director Jake Crouthamel, who helped form the Big East Conference.

Monday, April 19, 2010

To be released tomorrow on DVD: "The Lovely Bones"

Grade: C-minus
There was cautious optimism among longtime followers of director Peter Jackson that The Lovely Bones might inspire him to create a worthy companion piece to his 1994 Heavenly Creatures, which similarly involves teenagers and murder in an otherwise tranquil setting and remains far and away his best film. The potential was certainly there in the book, which reminds of Dennis Lehane's successfully filmed novels Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone in its devastating emotional trauma, but offers the distinctive perspective of the most entirely plausible omniscient narrator in modern literature.

Unfortunately, the massive success Jackson has enjoyed in the intervening years with his CGI-heavy The Lord of the Rings saga (the source of which receives fleeting homage in a bookstore scene here) and King Kong" has infected the way he approaches this far more intimate tale. Instead of having the late Susie Salmon occupy a little perch in an abstract heavenly gazebo from which she can peer down upon her family and anyone else - all that is really necessary from a narrative point of view - the director has indulged his whims to create constantly shifting backdrops depicting an afterlife evocative of The Sound of Music or The Wizard of Oz one moment, The Little Prince or Teletubbies the next.

It's a shame, because the first half-hour or so suggests that Jackson, had he taken a vow to keep it real and use not a single visual effect, still has it in him to relate a human story in a direct, vibrant manner. Aided immeasurably by the spirited teen actress Saoirse Ronan (Atonement), who plays Susie, the early scenes depicting the ordinary life of the Salmon family in a midsized Pennsylvania town possess a heightened quality charged by lively acting and Andrew Lesnie's dynamic mobile camera.

"We weren't those people, those unlucky people to whom bad things happen," Susie intones from above, as we watch her interact with attractive young parents Jack and Abigail (Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz), sporty sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) and younger brother Buckley (Christian Ashdale), boozy glamorpuss grandma Lynn (Susan Sarandon) and handsome first crush Ray Singh (Reece Ritchie), just before she announces she was murdered on Dec. 6, 1973.

Even before the deed is done, it's plainly stated that the perpetrator is neighborhood solitary guy George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), a man marked as creepy by his utter ordinariness. While Tucci, adorned with stringy blondish-brown hair, moustache, large glasses and a raspy voice that tightens and elevates under pressure, is good enough to validate all the scenes involving this bland monster, Jackson shows his low-budget horror-film roots in the way he shoots the sinister scenes, with silhouetting white lights, heavy fog effects, wide-angle closeups and generic synth backgrounding from Brian Eno's otherwise effective score.

While the script by the Rings trio of Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Jackson at first inventively reshuffles elements to cinematic advantage, over time it serves more to dilute the impact of some story elements - the father's obsessive determination to nail George no matter what, Lindsay's romance, the passage of years - and eliminate others, including Ray's beautiful, long-suffering mother and the relationship between Abigail and local cop Len Fenerman (Michael Imperioli), whose efforts to solve Susie's murder are maddeningly frustrated.

Once Susie is installed in her heavenly quarters, for which Jackson digitally dedicates himself to continuously changing the wallpaper, the emotional link to the family is ruptured and never fully repaired. There are intermittently intense scenes: Lindsey proves herself a resourceful if somewhat reckless spy, and the ever-meticulous George almost blows his cover on occasion. The way Jackson only partially reveals the killer's face at times is effective but stands in stark contrast to the wobbly treatment of so much else.

As the story progresses - in a way that points to resolution in one sense and a simple petering out in another - it becomes clear that the actors are being deprived of any meaty, well-developed scenes to play; we learn more about them early on than toward the end, making this a film of slowly diminishing returns.

With reddish hair, brilliantly alive eyes and a seemingly irrepressible impulse for movement and activity, Ronan represents a heavenly creature indeed, a figure of surging, eager, anticipatory life cut off just as it is budding. Less quicksilver and more solidly built, McIver's Lindsey properly begins in her live-wire sister's shadow only to grow gradually into an impressive figure. Chain-smoking and depleting the liquor cabinet, Sarandon camps it up for a few welcome laughs, while Ritchie seems a likely candidate for teen idolhood.

Mainly, it's Wahlberg and Weisz who are shortchanged by the film's divided attention between earthly agony and astral accommodation. Both actors are OK as far as things go, but that's not nearly far enough.

When it sticks to the everyday neighborhood inhabited by its characters, The Lovely Bones, which was shot on Pennsylvania locations and in New Zealand studios, finds a reasonable equilibrium between drama and production values. When it ventures beyond it, heaven turns into Hades.

To be released tomorrow on DVD: "35 Shots of Rum"

Grade: A-plus
Lionel and his daughter, Joséphine, live in a tidy and comfortable apartment in a high-rise housing project on the outskirts of Paris. Lionel (Alex Descas), a widower and a man of few words, works for the commuter rail system, while Joséphine (Mati Diop) studies social sciences at university. She and her classmates debate about colonialism, resistance and relations between the industrialized world and “the global South,” dropping names like Frantz Fanon and Joseph Stiglitz as they try to make sense of a world that is both distant and immediate.

35 Shots of Rum, a quiet and lovely film by the French director Claire Denis, is partly concerned with measuring that distance, the bewildering chasm between huge and tumultuous international movements and individual lives. It is self-evident that the story of Joséphine and Lionel, an African immigrant whose wife was German, is bound up in a complicated history of demographics and political economy. The fact that nearly all of the characters in this film are French while few are white is a further index of how the European landscape has changed in recent decades.

But the more salient change, the one that shapes Denis’s delicate narrative, is the one that occurs within Lionel and Joséphine’s relationship. It has to do with universally recognizable but nonetheless highly particular shifts in emotional weather, as a child and her parent undertake a gradual separation after years of solitary intimacy.

Denis has long been interested in France’s former colonies, particularly in Africa. In films like Chocolat (her 1988 debut, not to be confused with the more recent Juliette Binoche-Johnny Depp confection) and Beau Travail (1999) she has examined some of the political contradictions and psychological pressures of this colonial legacy, but in 35 Shots of Rum it remains in the background, like those classroom discussions. Which is not to say that matters of race and nationality are irrelevant to the movie, only that their relevance is implicit, either too obvious or not pressing enough for the characters themselves to discuss.

In addition to Lionel and Joséphine, they include two longtime neighbors who are also suitors. Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), a chain-smoking taxi driver with high spirits and sad eyes, has been in love with Lionel for a long time, much as Noé (Grégoire Colin), a handsome slob who lives with his cat, has carried a smoldering torch for Joséphine. The father and daughter, both made more attractive by their apparent indifference to their own beauty, neither invite nor discourage romantic attention, though they must learn to find a place for it in their lives.

In its modest scope and mellow tone, 35 Shots of Rum resembles Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours, another recent film by a French director who has sometimes trafficked in provocation and extremity. Both movies embed extraordinary thematic richness within a simple, almost anecdotal narrative framework, and both achieve a rare eloquence about the state of the world by means of tact and reticence.

35 Shots is more eventful — to paraphrase an old Velvet Underground song, someone dies, and someone gets married — but its real drama is in quiet moments, in glances and whispers captured by Agnès Godard’s exquisite and expressive cinematography.

The film’s title refers to a feat of drinking that Lionel, who has an impressive ability to hold his liquor, vows to attempt on the appropriate occasion. When the moment arrives, it is at first not clear whether he is inspired by grief or joy, but by then Denis has shown how close together those emotions are, and how the melancholy strains of ordinary existence are also its sweetest music.

To be released tomorrow on DVD: "44 Inch Chest"

Grade: C
44 Inch Chest can be described as six guys sitting around in barely furnished rooms, talking. Actually, one of the six says nothing at all: he sits quietly in the chair to which he’s tied, bruised and bloody and shaking and wondering if — or maybe just when — the other five will kill him.

Or it could be that this fellow, known on screen and in the end credits only as Loverboy, is on hand to pick up some acting tips in a trans-Channel cinematic exchange program. He is played by Melvil Poupaud, a subtle and accomplished young French actor (with notable roles in A Christmas Tale and Time to Leave), and he finds himself surrounded by roaring British lions. Loverboy’s tormentors are Tom Wilkinson, Stephen Dillane, John Hurt, Ian McShane and Ray Winstone, an honor guard of refined ruffianism.

There is a woman in this movie, directed by Malcolm Venville from a script by Louis Mellis and David Scinto (authors of Sexy Beast, the great 2000 gangster drama in which Winstone trembled before the reptilian menace of Ben Kingsley). Her name is Liz, she is played by Joanne Whalley, and she is both marginal to the action and a central catalyst of the drama. Loverboy is her lover; Winstone’s Colin is her jealous, heartsick husband; and the rest of the blokes are Colin’s underworld pals, doing him a good turn by delivering up his rival for rough justice.

There is not much of a story here, and not enough of the mixture of menace and comedy that made Sexy Beast so memorable. There is, as I’ve suggested, a lot of talk: you often feel as if you were watching the workshop production of a half-written play. But the dialogue, richly profane and Mametically self-conscious in its idioms (if you can imagine David Mamet transplanted to London from Chicago), yields its own pleasures. Think of 44 Inch Chest as a piece of chamber music and you can compensate for the thinness of its story and the lack of visual distinction.

Winstone carries the main melody with his raging, weepy impersonation of a tough guy whose soft heart has been trampled and who doesn’t know how to respond. His impulses are violent, and you suspect that violence is a big part of his job, but he mostly seems to want to sit and cry.

This worries his friends, in particular Old Man Peanut (Hurt), whose views on honor, manhood and sex are brutally old school. This puts him somewhat at odds with Meredith (McShane), a suave gay man with a satiny voice and more nuanced views on matters of love and sex.

Mal (Dillane) is the handsome dandy of the bunch, whom Colin at one point suspects of having a thing for Liz, while Archie (Wilkinson), who lives with his aging mother, is the scoutmaster, or perhaps the mother hen.

The four of them, waiting for Colin to act, urging him on and leaving him alone with Loverboy, sometimes seem to be taking a break from some other, livelier movie, and it is a tribute to the skills of both the writers and the actors that the characters are so vivid and interesting. It would be nice if they had a little more to do.