Monday, May 31, 2010

Your filthy hair made you a star

John Cazale's astounding 5 out of 5

HBO will be debuting a documentary on actor John Cazale tomorrow but this preview informed me of an amazing fact that I was previously unaware of: Cazale only appeared in five films before he died but all five of them were nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

To be released tomorrow on DVD

Talk about self-delusion! The grotesque spectacle of a 52-year-old thug with a graying pompadour, stripped to his briefs in front of a mirror gracelessly imitating John Travolta’s dance moves from Saturday Night Fever, haunts Pablo Larraín’s film Tony Manero like a nightmare apparition.

During his repeated visits to the nearly empty theater showing the film in Santiago, Chile, this obsessed fan, Raúl Peralta (Alfredo Castro), a petty criminal who lives on the outskirts of the city, mouths the dialogue spoken by Travolta’s character, Tony Manero, as though memorizing catechism.

When he visits the theater one afternoon and discovers that Saturday Night Fever has been replaced by Grease, he goes berserk. Nothing is allowed to stand in the way of his indulging a tawdry fantasy that gives him his only sense of identity.

Tony Manero is set in Santiago in 1978, four years into Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. As Raúl scuttles around the city like a rodent, ducking behind doorways at any sign of trouble, scenes of undercover policemen beating up and arresting suspected opponents of the dictatorship play out on the movie’s fringes without comment or elaboration. The handheld, sometimes out-of-focus camera, which trails him, often from behind, lends the action a queasy verisimilitude.

For Raúl incidents of street violence are opportunities for robbery. From the window of his apartment he notices an old woman with groceries being mugged and runs downstairs to chase the crooks away. Escorting her to her home, he spies her color television set and promptly bludgeons her to death, pausing long enough to feed the cat and eat lunch from the same can. He pawns the television to buy chipped glass bricks for an illuminated dance floor like the one in Saturday Night Fever.

More than an indelible portrait of a sociopath with the soul of a zombie, Tony Manero is an extremely dark meditation on borrowed cultural identity. Poker faced, emotionally cauterized and sexually impotent (the scenes of Raúl’s trying and failing with women are unremittingly ugly), he symbolizes this Chilean director’s vision of a Latin American country mired in passivity and despair. For the illiterate Raúl, Tony Manero’s night of glory on a New York dance floor is the only dream in sight.

Each week the tacky television contest in which he plans to impersonate Tony, strutting his dance moves in a white suit and black shirt, is devoted to a different star. In the movie’s opening scene he arrives a week early at the studio to find himself standing in line with a bunch of Chuck Norris look-alikes.

Raúl is polishing his act in a run-down cantina where he leads a weekly revue in homage to his hero. His fellow performers not only buy his fantasy, they also look up to him. Wilma (Elsa Poblete), a Pinochet supporter who runs the cantina, and Cony (Amparo Noguera) and Pauli (Paola Lattus), a mother and teenage daughter who perform in the show, are all rivals for his affection. Goyo (Héctor Morales), the fourth member of the troupe, is a young man with polished dance moves who rents his own white suit intending to compete in the television contest; he is also secretly distributing anti-Pinochet literature.

Unmentioned in a movie that touches glancingly on politics is the C.I.A.’s role in the 1973 coup that deposed Salvador Allende and installed Pinochet as president. Tony Manero implies that Raúl’s worship of a Hollywood movie is an indirect form of consorting with the oppressor.

Although Larraín, who wrote the screenplay with Castro and Mateo Iribarren, was only 2 years old at the time the movie is set, he makes no bones about his disgust with Chile, both then and now. In his director’s statement, he writes, “With this story, I intended to take a harsh look at a society that is incapable of coming face to face with its recent past; a society whose hands are covered in blood but that tries to look stylish and trendy, dancing under flashy lights while ignoring others’ suffering; a country that turns its back on itself, in exchange for the dream of progress.” Grade: A-minus

Other recent movies to be released on DVD tomorrow:

Alice in Wonderland (2010) Directed by Tim Burton. A 19-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) journeys through Underland, where she experiences strange ordeals and encounters peculiar characters, including the vaporous Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry), the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) and the sadistic Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). The Alice books have inspired an abundance of adaptations and spin-offs over the years, drawing everyone from Walt Disney to Jan Svankmajer to Tom Waits down the rabbit hole. The best adaptations have found ways to put a personal stamp on the familiar stories. Others have simply reproduced an Alice facsimile in the image of their own era. Surprisingly, Burton’s version belongs to the latter camp. That doesn’t necessarily make it a bad movie, just another frustratingly impersonal one from a director who once had trouble compacting his personality down to movie size. Filled with 3D-friendly CGI landscapes and roaring beasties, Burton’s Alice borrows characters and settings from Carroll, but otherwise trashes Wonderland (or “Underland,” as Disney veteran Linda Woolverton would have it in her screenplay). Gone: the liquid reality of dreams and a sense that anything can happen. In its place: another story of quests, destinies, and chosen ones. The Jabberwocky, March Hare, and Cheshire Cat all appear, but absent Carroll’s hallucinatory playfulness. Grade: C-plus

The Wolfman (2010) Directed by Joe Johnston. Based on the 1941 film classic, this horror film set in Victorian England centers on Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro), an American man who, upon a visit to London to make amends with his estranged father (Anthony Hopkins), gets bitten by a werewolf. What emerges is a banal horror film and a tepid action-adventure. What was the purpose in dusting off a Gothic classic, only to mount such a mediocre adaptation? Grade: C

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Good night, Dennis

This is my all time favorite Dennis Hopper moment in the movies and another reminder of how wonderful it is to see two greats together on the screen. Dennis Hopper died today of prostate cancer, surrounded by friends and family, in his home in Venice Beach, California. He was 74 and one of a kind.

How weird is this?

I went to bed around 2 this morning with my mind wrapped around an image of the great love of my life silhouetted against an open doorway. I awoke about 90 minutes later with a minor cramp in my right leg and wondering what had become of Chris Evert. After walking off the cramp and drinking copious amounts of ice water, I went back to sleep and had a dream in which I was the only passenger on a DART bus that was driven by a non-DART employee (who was a stranger to me) who had decided it would be a great idea to spend some time at the lake in Aubrey, Texas (I'm not exactly sure where Aubrey is or whether it even has a lake). When the bus stopped for a red light, the driver decided to get out momentarily. I gazed out the window and spotted former Dallas City Council member Ed Oakley sitting rather forlornly on a park bench. I waved but he simply stared back with a glazed look in his eyes. I said to myself that I guess he didn't recognize me. When the light turned green, the bus started moving again even though the driver hadn't returned. I decided it might be a good idea to slip behind the wheel and when the bus came to the next major intersection I managed to turn it around in a parking lot. I began driving the bus back to the intersection where the driver had gotten off and as I approached it, I saw the driver waiting by the side of the road. That was the end of the dream.

OK, you Freudians out there, explain all that to me.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Best Movies: 1936

The Ten Best Movies of 1936

1. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Directed by Frank Capra. Starring Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur. A completely irresistible bit of froth that firmly defined the term Capricorn and a film that deservedly earned Capra his second Oscar.

2.  Swing Time. Directed by George Stevens. Starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Just a notch below Top Hat, but still a marvelous addition to the Astaire/Rogers collection, especially due to Astaire's unforgettable Mr. Bojangles production number.

3. Modern Times. Directed by Charlie Chaplin. Starring Chaplin and Paulette Goddard. Chaplin's indictment of the machine age and other social ills featuring a final shot that is among the most poignant in film history.

4.  Camille. Directed by George Cukor. Starring Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor. Another great MGM production featuring Garbo as the female version of the role Ronald Coleman played in the year before's Tale of Two Cities. Taylor is stiff but Henry Daniell makes a great villain.

5. Libeled Lady. Directed by Jack Conway. Starring Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy. Wonderful comedy with the four stars all at the top of their form.

6. My Man Godfrey. Directed by Gregory La Cava. Starring William Powell and Carole Lombard. Classic screwball comedy in which Lombard and her weird family hire Powell, who they think is a tramp, as their butler. Eugene Pallette, as the head of the family, is hilarious.

7. San Francisco. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke II. Starring Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald and Spencer Tracy. I never was a big MacDonald fan, but Tracy's performance and the great earthquake scenes more than make up for her.

8. Show Boat. Directed by James Whale. Starring Irene Dunne, Alan Jones and Helen Morgan. Sure, it's mostly hokey melodrama but I'm willing to pay the price for Whale's moody touches and to hear the great Paul Robeson sing Old Man River.

9. Fury. Directed by Fritz Lang. Starring Sylvia Sidney and Spencer Tracy. With the actions of today's Tea Party, it's fascinating to look at this movie to see the mob mentality working in a small town.

10. Follow the Fleet. Directed by Mark Sandrich. Starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Randolph Scott. I'm not as big a fan of this Astaire/Rogers film as others (notably Leonard Maltin), but it is, after all, Astaire and Rogers and that counts for something.

Christopher Nolan's "Inception"

I'm not sure I understand the premise of this movie from its trailer, but it looks like one of the most visually stunning movies to come along in quite a while and that counts for far more than plot in my estimation. Judge for yourself.

TCEQ: "The Agency of Destruction"

When Gov. Hair lambasted the Obama administration for taking over Texas' environmental permitting process, he failed to mention that it was actually the Bush administration that warned the state that this was going to happen, saying the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality was simply not doing the job it was supposed to do.

Just how bad are things at the TCEQ? Read this and learn for yourself. It's a lengthy piece, but well worth your time if you care at all about environmental quality ever coming to Texas.

Here's one snippet:

"In TCEQ’s internal lingo, “customers” are the companies the agency regulates. In serving its “customers,” TCEQ has allowed itself to be overrun by powerful interests, shown disregard for both science and the law, and cast aside public opinion.

There’s no more eye-opening illustration of the agency’s MO than West Texas’ new radioactive waste dump. In 2007, a team of geologists and engineers at TCEQ unanimously recommended that a license for the vast dump, near Andrews, be denied. Water contamination was a prime concern. Then-Executive Director Glenn Shankle ordered the TCEQ team to issue the license anyway.

There was big money at stake. The company behind the dump, Waste Control Specialists Inc., is owned by Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, who’s contributed $620,000 to Perry’s campaigns since 2001, according to Texans for Public Justice. Simmons stands to make billions from storing “low-level” radioactive waste in West Texas.

Records show that Shankle met regularly with a team of lobbyists, lawyers and company principals at the same time his own experts warned him of the dump’s dangers. Seeing that the fix was in, three TCEQ employees quit in protest. Commissioners hardly batted an eye. In January 2009, after a brief, technical discussion, they voted 2-0 (with Soward abstaining) to issue the license. They also denied the Sierra Club and 12 individuals in Eunice, New Mexico, the town closest to the dump, a chance to contest the license before administrative judges.

Shankle stepped down as TCEQ’s executive director in June 2008. Six months later, he went to work for Waste Control Specialists as a lobbyist, collecting between $100,000 and $150,000 for his services thus far. Commissioners and top management frequently leave the agency to work for the industries they previously regulated ..."

Some thoughts on local news items I stumbled across today

  • Expect substantially higher water bills by the end of the year. One of the reasons is, of course, Dallas Water Uitlities' plan to raise the rates. Then there's the possibility of this unfair transportation user fee I wrote about earlier today. And in a statement that escaped the attention of the media, Sanitation Services Director Mary Nix told the City Council Wednesday, in response to a question, I think, from council member Linda Koop, that the sanitation fee, which is also included in our water bills, would be increased to establish a fund to pay for emergency cleanups like the massive one required following this year's snow storm. And earlier we learned that another hike in the fee would be required for the sanitation department to pay its own transportation user fee. There's a possibility, however, that the increase in sanitation fees could be offset somewhat by a plan to only collect bagged green stuff (leaves, grass, yard trimmings) once a month and other bulk trash and large brush just twice a year, a move, that no matter how sensible, will meet stiff resistance and probably won't be implemented, no matter how much money it would save residents. Interestingly enough, it turns out that, if left alone, the sanitation rate would actually decrease for the second year in a row. All this is included in a briefing to be presented Wednesday to City Council which proposes a 3-cents-a-month reduction in the $20.34 cents we pay each month to have our residential trash collected, a decrease largely resulting from the money saved by going from twice to once-a-week collection. The briefing says the emergency storm fund and the user transportation fee would raise rates $1.11 a month and the modified brush collection program would reduce it 29 cents a month. The net of all this comes to an increase of 79 cents a month. I don't think the council is ready to raise the pay of sanitation workers and day laborers in this economic climate, although the briefing discusses the ramifications of such increases. I also think the council will try to compromise on the bulk collection, seeking to go to once a quarter instead of twice a year. If that happens and we assume it cuts those savings by 50 percent, then look for the rate to go up 94 cents a month.
  • Admittedly, this comes from someone who considers Henderson's Chicken one of Dallas' finest culinary experiences, but I can't give any credence to a list of the best Middle Eastern restaurants that doesn't include the superb luncheon buffet at Ali Baba's.
  • For once, Exxon can be happy that it has fallen to No. 2.
  • Just wondering: Were Angela Hunt and Lily Tomlin invited to this grand opening? Probably not, and, if they had attended it's doubtful they would have liked what Da Mayor had to say about those who opposed keeping elephants at the Dallas Zoo.

You drive? You pay

One of the more curious ideas the City of Dallas is considering to solve its budget problems is to convert all the city's streets into toll roads. That's right. Only this idea, referred to as a transportation user fee, is not nearly as fair or as equitable as the fees charged to drive up and down the North Dallas Tollway. For one thing, most of the population in the city wouldn't have to pay it, according to the way I read the plan, and those with multiple cars in their family would pay proportionately less than those with just one.

The idea behind the plan is that if you drive along the streets of Dallas, you should pay for their upkeep. The problem is we already do pay for their upkeep -- that's part of what the sales taxes and property taxes are supposed to be used for. But, unfortunately, the city simply can't increase the sales tax and the city council contains too many Tea Party-wannabees, including  Da Mayor, who will fight against a property tax increase that would be the logical way to go. So they will find yet another way to raise our taxes without calling it a tax increase.

According to what I've heard, this transportation user fee, probably somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 to $4 a month, would be added to our "utility bills." Guess what? There is only one utility bill the city can attach such a fee to and that's the water bill. The problem is the majority of Dallas residents (and Dallas is a city unique in this regard) live in apartments where their water is included as part of their rent and thus don't receive an individual water bill. That means they don't have to pay (unless their slum landlords raise their rents to cover it, but I'm betting the Dallas Apartment Association will make sure that doesn't happen). It also seems grossly unfair to me that the Dallas retiree who only drives to the grocery store, to visit the doctor, or to a nearby mah jong tournament would have to pay the same $3 to $4 a month as a family where both parents work and their teenage children both have their own cars that are really ripping our avenues and parkways. And what about all those folks living in Plano, Duncanville, Garland, Mesquite, Irving, etc., who work in Dallas and come here every day and rip up our roads? Hey, how about those really rich fat cats living in the Park Cities that drive the city's streets? Will they be exempt?

There is a foul odor eminating from this user transportation fee. It has all the prospects of being the most unfair, unrepresentative tax since the imposition of the sales tax.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Best Movies: 1935

The 10 Best Movies of 1935

1.  Mutiny on the Bounty. Directed by Frank Lloyd. Starring Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone. To this day, this remains one of the all-time great adventure films. Laughton is superb in his creation of an utterly dispicable Captain Bligh.

2.  A Tale of Two Cities. Directed by Jack Conway. Starring Ronald Colman. A lavish MGM production brings Dickens to roaring life and, as good as Colman is as the man who makes the ultimate sacrifice for the woman he loves, the movie is stolen by Blanche Yurka making her screen debut as Madame Defarge.

3.  Top Hat. Directed by Mark Sandrich. Starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The best of the Astaire/Rogers films featuring such great musical moments as Cheek to Cheek and Top Hat, White Tie and Tails as well as the great production number Picolino.

4. David Copperfield. Directed by George Cukor. Starring Freddie Bartholomew. This was indeed Dickens' year at the movies with another top notch adaptation and superb characterizations.

5.  A Night at the Opera. Directed by Sam Wood. Starring the Marx Brothers. This is not as good as Duck Soup mainly because of the unnecessary insertion of a love story, but the stateroom scene is still a classic.

6. Ruggles of Red Gap. Directed by Leo McCarey. Starring Charles Laughton. This movie doesn't get the chops today that it should, but it earns this spot on the list because of Laughton's marvelous performance as a butler won in a poker game by an uncouth semi-cowboy and his ambitious wife.

7.  The Bride of Frankenstein. Directed by James Whale. Starring Boris Karloff. One of the few sequels that surpassed the original mainly because it contained a touch of humor amid the horror.

8.  Captain Blood. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. The film in which Flynn first swashed some buckles and the one that deservedly made him a star.

9.  The 39 Steps. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. This one established a lot of Hitchcock's trademarks: the innocent man caught in a mysterious criminal web, the sophisticated banter between the two stars.

10. Anna Karenina. Directed by Clarence Brown. Starring Greta Garbo and Fredric March. It's really nothing more than a vehicle for Garbo, but Garbo is just so watchable.

"We'll probably have a tax increase but I won't like it very much"

Some 40-odd years ago I was living in Austin with my brother and his wife, Rita. I was home one day studying when Rita stormed in angrily because she had just learned that the United States was defoliating South Vietnam with napalm and that she had discovered the napalm was manufactured by Dow Chemical Co. She announced quite defiantly that from that day forward the household would boycott any and all products manufactured by Dow.

I listened to her rant, watched her march off into the kitchen and went back to my books. A few minutes later she came out and said "Pete, do we actually use anything made by Dow?" I told her that yes, she used a lot of Saran Wrap (which was made by Dow in those days while today it's a product of S.C. Johnson). She turned without saying anything and went back into the kitchen. About five minutes later she emerged and told me "OK, I'm going to continue to use Saran Wrap, but I won't like it very much."

Rita and her Saran Wrap come to mind when I read stories like this one, in which Da Mayor says he is absolutely, positively mortified by the idea of a tax increase. Oh, he could still vote against it when it the final Dallas city budget is adopted in September, as long as he is not the deciding vote. I'm guessing we're going to have a property tax increase but Da Mayor won't like it very much.

Tired of all that fighting between Democrats and Republicans? Then do what California might do and just get rid of them

Imagine a world without Republicans or Democrats or Libertarians or members of the Green Party? Well, imagine all you want to, it's still not likely to happen, but California is getting ready to pass a referendum that would, at least, lessen the influence somewhat of party politics in state and Congressional elections.

In a measure that appears, according to the latest polls, poised to pass June 8, California would get rid of party primary elections in state and Congressional elections. All candidates, regardless of party affiliation, would appear on the same ballot and then the top two vote getters would face off in a second round that would decide the ultimate winner. Candidates could either list a party affiliation with their name on the ballot or have "no preference" listed. All registered voters could vote in this single primary, regardless of party affiliation. The result could be that the second election would feature two Democrats or two Republicans running against one another.

The measure seems to have the support of just about everyone except ... you guessed it ... the political parties. Smaller parties are especially fighting it saying it would box them out of elections, as if their candidates had a chance of winning anyway.

Supporters, who include Gov. "Ahnold" and the lieutenant governor as well as Lewis Wolff, a real estate developer and the owner of the Oakland A’s baseball team; Steve Westly, a former Democratic candidate for governor; and John W. Thompson, chairman of Symantec and a supporter of President Obama, claim passage would result in more voters participating in the electoral process and more centrist candidates being elected.  The measure also has the support of Hewlett Packard (which donated $100,00 to the campaign) and the California Chamber of Commerce.

The proposition is modeled after a law in Washington state that was upheld as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008.A spokesperson for the Washington secretary of state says the measure encourages people to "vote for the person and not the party."

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Gov. Hair calls state's polluted air good for Texas

Texas ranks second only to California as the state with air that is the greatest health risk to its citizens. It ranks as first in the nation with the most pollutants emitted into the air. And yet, during a ribbon cutting ceremony today in Richardson, Gov. Hair had the unmitigated gall to say "We think it would be a good idea if more states were like Texas," when it comes to how it regulates air quality. This was in reaction to the EPA's decision yesterday to take over the process of issuing a permit for a Corpus Christi refinery.

I have friends I admire who won't support Bill White's gubernatorial bid because the Democratic nominee is not liberal enough for their standards. Maybe so, but anyone is better than the clown currently occupying the Governor's Mansion a $10,000-a-month rent house paid for by Texas taxpayers. A spokesman for White said of the EPA's move was "yet another example of Rick Perry managing a state agency into a ditch and hurting Texans along the way."

The greening of the Apple

It wasn't that long ago that Apple was given up as a lost cause. Yet today, it officially replaced Microsoft as the most valuable technology company in the world. In stock market trading today, Apple's shares rose 1.8 percent to give it a value of $227.1 billion, while Microsoft's fell about 1 percent to give it a value of $226.3 billion. How did Apple do it? In three words: iPods, iPhones and IPads. It's really that simple and it means that for the first time in history the technological demands of consumers have superseded the technological demands of businesses.

The Best Movies: 1934

The 10 Best Movies of 1934

1.  It Happened One Night. Directed by Frank Capra. Starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. The legendary romantic comedy still seems fresh today.

2.  The Thin Man. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke. Starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. This combination of mystery and comedy was the first paring of Powell and Loy who would become one of great romantic teams in the history of film.

3.  Twentieth Century. Directed by Howard Hawks. Starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. A wonderful example of the genre known as the "screwball comedy," featuring Barrymore, known more as a serious dramatic actor, at his funniest.

4. The Gay Divorcee. Directed by Mark Sandrich. Starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The typical Astaire-Rogers film in which the plot is not the point, the musical numbers (especially Continental and Night and Day) are.

5. It's a Gift. Directed by Norman Z. McLeod. Starring W.C. Fields. Fields's second best film (after 1940's The Bank Dick) and the one that features the classic bit about the salesman searching for Carl LaFong.

6.  The Scarlet Pimpernel. Directed by Harold Young. Starring Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon and Raymond Massey. The first non-comedy on the list featuring a fine performance from Howard leading a double life. An excellent early example of the "costume drama."

7.  Tarzan and His Mate. Directed by Cedric Gibbons and Jack Conway. Starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan. The best of all the Tarzan movies mainly because it was made pre-code (meaning it had more sexual overtones and less clothing on its stars).

8.  The Count of Monte Cristo. Directed by Rowland V. Lee. Starring Robert Donat. A rousing version of Dumas's classic tale. (I'm not sure this film is available on DVD.)

9.  Imitation of Life. Directed by John M. Stahl. Starring Claudette Colbert. This soap opera has dated more than the previous eight films on this list, but it is still believable. It should be noted that Preston Sturgess, who will be featured in subsequent 10-best lists, wrote the adaptation of the Fannie Hurst novel.

10. Charlie Chan in London. Directed by Eugene Forde. Starring Warner Oland and Alan Mowbray. Not the best in the series about the Oriental detective -- that distinction goes to 1936's Charlie Chan at the Opera -- but still a fine example of all that was good (a decent mystery) and bad (a non-Oriental in the lead role) with the series.

Council postpones (at least) demolition of historic buildings

The Dallas Observer's Jim Schutze wrote this morning of his concern over an ordinance the Dallas City Council was considering today that would, as I understand, allow the city to bypass other ordinances to tear down historic buildings. From what I gathered, Schutze was disturbed that last minute changes were made to the ordinance the implications of which may not be clear to the council.

When the item came up for consideration today, council member Carolyn Davis, who either read Schutze's piece or shared his concerns, voted to defer the item and then council member Angela Hunt made sure the Historic Preservation League would have more imput into the discussion.

To me this means that when the ordinance comes back to the City Council, it will not contain the same language it did when it came up for a vote today.

Some thoughts on "Law & Order"

Because I spend just about all of my waking hours (which are becoming fewer in number the older I get) working, writing, watching movies, reading, playing with my granddaughter, spending quality time with close friends, observing a major sports event and the occasional household chore, I don't have that much left to watch episodic television. I could not get all that excited about the final episode of Lost because I never saw any of the other episodes. I have never once seen a so-called "reality" show. Not that I have anything against Lost or 24 or Dexter or Mad Men or any of the other television programs folks tell me are extremely well done. It's simply a choice of what I prefer to do with my daily allotted 24 hours.

I did make it a point, however, to see Law & Order whenever I could even though I must admit that "whenever I could" usually meant when it was shown on cable channels USA or TNT. What I liked about the show was that it provided a slight twist on the normal television courtroom drama in which, before Law & Order, the heroes were always the defense attorneys. In fact, there was even a short-lived series in 1963 called Arrest and Trial that had a similar format to Law & Order, except in this one Ben Gazzara played a police officer who arrested a suspect and, in the second half of the show, Chuck Connors played the defense attorney who proved the suspect was the wrong person. (Here's a scene from that show featuring Connors and Peter Fonda.)

I did lose interest in Law & Order by the end of its 15th season, which is when Jerry Orbach, who played detective Lenny Briscoe, and Elisabeth Rohm, who played the latest in a long line of assistant district attorneys, left the show. The chemistry among the various actors who were featured in seasons 16 through 20 wasn't as potent as it was during the first 15. I must also admit I was disappointed that the show didn't make better use of that fine actor Steven Hill, who played district attorney Adam Schiff for the show's first 10 years. Hill, one of the founders of the Actors Studio, was reduced, it seemed to me, saying nothing more than "Make a deal" during this last couple of years on the show. Do yourself a favor and rent the excellent 1988 movie Running on Empty if only to see this beautiful, emotionally-charged scene between Hill and Christine Lahti. It's one of my all-time favorite movie scenes -- ranking right up close to the taxi scene in On the Waterfront. Not many folks remember that Hill also played Daniel Briggs, the original leader of the Mission: Impossible crew, when that show premiered in 1966. He left after one year because, as a Jewish actor, he refused to work on Saturdays, and was replaced by Peter Graves as Jim Phelps.

All that being said, I was rooting for the show to air for one more year just so it could have become the longest running episodic show in television history. Now it shares that distinction with Gunsmoke, a western I liked much better as a radio show than on television. The radio program seemed more realistic. I remember episodes in which Matt Dillon (played by William Conrad, who in the 1970s was the lead in the television show Cannon) performed an emergency amputation on someone who died anyway and another one in which he arrived too late to prevent a lynching. In another he saved a young woman from a gang of rapists yet couldn't stop her from becoming a prostitute. And, speaking of prostitutes, the radio show left no doubt as to the profession of Miss Kitty. Although James Arness was fine on the television version, when it expanded from 30 to 60 minutes in its seventh season it de-evolved from a western to a soap opera.

But then I have found that most television shows lose their creative energy by their seventh season. That Law & Order maintained its energy through 15 and its spinoff, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit continues to be strong through 11 seasons is miraculous. In fact, I have always found the writing for SVU to be superior to that of the original and SVU actress Mariska Hargitay has always been a revelation.

I understand that a new Law & Order show, called Law & Order: Los Angeles (I think),  is set to premier this coming fall. Dick Wolf, the creator of the Law & Order franchise and its executive producer, really blew it with this move. What he should have done is to simply pull a Johnny Carson, who, you may recall, moved his Tonight Show to Burbank, Calif., in May of 1972 after 10 years of hosting the show in New York. But it was still essentially the same show, only the location changed. If Wolf had just moved Law & Order to a new location, even with a new cast, and still called the show by its original name, he would have had his record.

One final thought: A couple of days ago I was in a conversation with My Hero and we were trying to recall who preceded Paul Sorvino as the lead detective on the show and it finally came to me it was that greatly under appreciated actor George Dzundza who played detective Max Greevey. Interestingly enough, the reason Dzundza left after one season to be replaced by Sorvino was that the commute from his home in Los Angeles to the set in New York became too strenuous for him. Dzundza is 64 now and I would like to see the Greevey character reprised in some way on the new show.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Best Movies

Beginning today and for the next several weeks, I will be posting my choices of the best films of the sound era--which, for the sake of this discussion, will be defined as 1930 to the present. I will list my 10 best for year each and a 100 best for each decade. However, the first year for which I saw enough films to even compile a 10-best list was 1934, so I will begin my posting my choices for the 10 best films between 1930 and 1933:
1.  All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
2.  Duck Soup (1933)
3.  Dinner at Eight (1933)
4.  City Lights (1931)
5.  Grand Hotel (1932)
6.  King Kong (1933)
7.  42nd Street (1933)
8.  Trouble in Paradise (1932)
9.  Frankenstein (1931)
10. I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932)

As always, comments and suggestions are encouraged and welcomed.

The film that won the top honor at Cannes

Somehow I can't see it being that big of a hit in this country.

This gives this charming movie an entirely new perspective

Monday, May 24, 2010

To be released tomorrow on DVD

Probably it was our fault, man’s nuclear folly. Or maybe not, maybe it was some massive cosmic accident. No one cares any more. Apocalypse’s cause is never mentioned, because all that matters now is the enduring effect — a frigid world of ashen snow where the sun never shines, where every crop has failed, where cars are rusted hulks and buildings stand empty, where all is withered and no birds sing. Such bleak surroundings are not unique to Cormac McCarthy’s novel, but what he does with them is. The Road is essentially a love story, as stripped of sentimentality as the landscape is shorn of green, yet an extraordinary love story nonetheless — powerful and poignant and, even in the midst of hope’s imminent extinction, hopeful too.

What’s more, like No Country for Old Men (and unlike most everything McCarthy has written before), the measured sparseness of the book cries out for a screen adaptation. Director John Hillcoat’s answer to that cry is largely faithful to the text and skillfully evocative of the horrific setting. Shot on denuded locations, with minimal recourse to computer-generated effects, the visuals here are chillingly sparse. Almost literally so — we shiver at the sight of a world gone eternally grey. Yet that shiver puts readers, and now the audience, exactly where writer and director want us — warming to the slightest spark of heat, to the faintest prospect of survival.

Yes, there are survivors, among them the Man and the Boy, the latter born 10 years ago on the very eve of destruction and thus blind to even the memory of beauty. But not to the possibility of beauty’s resurrection. Says the father of his son: “The child is my warrant, and if he is not the word of God, then God never spoke.” Everything that follows takes us down the blasted road of that bald prophecy, and all the mounting evidence to the contrary. In this awful new beginning that is the beginning of the end, in a place of rampant amorality and silent devastation, can God be spoken of, let alone speak?

That damning evidence isn’t hard to spot. Gangs of cannibals roam the land, hunting the only meat left. From the beams of houses and the limbs of dead trees, the hopeless hang in nooses tied by their own hands — the strange fruit of despair. Wrapped in filthy raiments, our pair of pilgrims pick their way through the detritus — foraging for scraps, fending off the dangers that everywhere lurk, heading south to the sea. When the confrontations turn violent, Hillcoat adroitly ratchets up the suspense; indeed, at times like this, the Man shoots to kill, prompting the Boy to wonder, “Are we still the good guys?”

The answer lies in the abiding love between parent and child, and in the impeccable work of the two principal actors. Stripped down for the role, a gaunt Viggo Mortensen is the thin embodiment of resolve, clinging against all odds to his faith in the future — not his own future but his son’s. His unwavering vow echoes every good parent: “I’m trying to prepare you for the day when I’m gone.” But here the preparations are as hellish as the environment: How to walk past a starving stranger with his hand held out. How to position a loaded pistol in the roof of your mouth when the cannibals close inescapably in.

Yet the Man learns from the Boy too, and, thanks to a hauntingly muted performance from young Kodi Smit-McPhee, this lesson transcends the others: that the toughness life demands does not preclude the tenderness it needs; that, even in overwhelming darkness, the flame of human decency must, and can, still be carried.

All this is superbly lifted off the page and brought to the screen. Hillcoat’s only real departure from the book is his only slight mistake — he dramatizes the Man’s dreams of his late wife (Charlize Theron), and these insertions feel more intrusive than enhancing, robbing us of the chance to imagine for ourselves how the lost past must weigh upon him.

The other problem may just be unavoidable. Despite the movie’s many virtues, there’s still something missing, the ingredient that gave the novel both its gravitas and, at the end, its near-unbearable poignancy. Which is? Simply the rhythm, the texture, the Biblical cadences of McCarthy’s prose. Lines like this, plucked from a random page: “The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void. Carried forth and scattered and carried forth again. Everything uncoupled from its shoring.”

The weight of those words cannot be captured on film. With them, Homeric in their heft, The Road is an odyssey. Without them, it’s a journey — diligently rendered, bravely performed, often affecting, but still just a journey. Grade: B

Other new releases this week:

Dear John (2010) Directed by Lasse Halstrom. While on leave, U.S. soldier John Tyree (Channing Tatum) falls for Southern college student Savannah (Amanda Seyfried), whose ideals and heartfelt principles are at once attractive and unfamiliar. But their love is put on hold when terrorist attacks prompt John to reenlist. Unfortunately for Tatum and Seyfried, Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams did a far more convincing version of this same basic dance in The Notebook. You’re more likely to roll your eyes than swoon over this slow-moving and far-fetched love story. There’s no real depth or texture to the characters of any sort, sentimental or otherwise, and I say that as someone who can be brought to tears by a Hallmark commercial. Grade: C

Mystery Team (2009) Directed by Dan Eckman. A trio of ridiculously infantile detectives attempt to solve the biggest case of their careers. The results are hit-and-miss. Some bits fall thuddingly flat, and the characters are rarely more than stick figures. Grade: C-minus

Phyllis and Harold (2010) Directed by Cindy Kleine. Kleine exposes every aspect of her parents’ 59-year marriage, revealing touching details and a few painful family secrets. The problem with these my-family-was-messed-up-and-I need-to-share projects is that they require an audience of complete strangers to give a damn. And while we sometimes do, it’s usually because the material is inherently compelling (Tarnation) or the filmmaking uncovers truths beyond the template of family therapy (51 Birch Street). Sadly, Phyllis and Harold fulfills neither requirement. Grade: C-minus

Sunday, May 23, 2010

An idea for selecting judges

Historically, states have chosen one of two ways for naming judges. One emulates the way Supreme Court justices are picked -- lifetime appointments. The second way, the one used here in Texas, is partisan elections. Neither way works all that well. Lifetime appointments produces judges who are not accountable to voters, while those who are elected become influenced by political ideologies. A defendant in a court case they will have a long lasting effect on the rest of his life -- from drunk driving cases, to child custody disputes, to foreclosures, to criminal charges -- should only be concerned that the presiding jurist is accountable to the law, and not to some political constituency.

So why not combine the two systems?

Here's the way I would like to see judges appointed in Texas. Create a judicial nominating commission, a 31-member group with each member selected by a state senator. The one caveat I would place is that no more than 10 members of the commission could be attorneys and I will explain why in a minute. Whenever there is a judicial vacancy in Texas, interested individuals would submit applications to the commission, which would review the applications, intervie the candidates who submitted them, and finally submit a recommended list of no more than three individuals to the governor who would pick one of the three.

Then, every four years, voters would decide whether to keep that judge in office in a strict "yes" or "no" vote. In that way, the judge is still accountable to the voters and the vote is strictly about the judge's record and performance, not partisan politics. The judge is, in effect, running against himself and not some semi-qualified political hack. I would guess that most voters today have no idea about the qualifications of the candidates on the ballots for judges around the state. If they vote for them at all, they vote along party lines. (One only has to witness what has happened in Dallas since Democrats started winning elections.) In a "yes" or "no" election, voters will have opportunities to learn more about the judges they are voting to retain or remove.

Now back to why I would not have more than 10 attorneys on the judicial nominating commission. It prevents the selection process from benefiting legal insiders only. Not only that, I would make all meetings of the judicial nominating commission open to the public and would require the commission to post the applications of all judicial candidates on-line.

Every year, millions of dollars are spent by individuals seeking election to various state courts. This is ridiculous. The type of merit selection system I have outlined will give us far superior jurists yet keep them accountable to the people they serve.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The sorry state of the military/academic complex

Back when I was graduating from high school (during a relatively peaceful period in our nation's history between the Korean and Vietnam wars), the fortunate few graduates got a special appointment to either West Point or Annapolis and the rest of us just went to ordinary colleges and universities. As I recall, it involved a special anointment by one of the state's two U.S. senators to make it into either one of the elite service academies.

These days, however, attending a service academy doesn't seem like such a great idea. Let's face it, the life expectancy of a newly commissioned officer isn't as long as it was back in "my day." Not only that, if you listen to folks like Bruce Fleming, an English professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, the schools themselves are going to pot - literally in the case of at least one football player, Fleming writes. Here's just one paragraph from his op-ed article that appeared in today's New York Times:

"Instead of better officers, the academies produce burned-out midshipmen and cadets. They come to us thinking they’ve entered a military Camelot, and find a maze of petty rules with no visible future application. These rules are applied inconsistently by the administration, and tend to change when a new superintendent is appointed every few years. The students quickly see through assurances that “people die if you do X” (like, “leave mold on your shower curtain,” a favorite claim of one recent administrator). We’re a military Disneyland, beloved by tourists but disillusioning to the young people who came hoping to make a difference."

Fleming also says academics at the schools have been sacrificed so that now "mediocrity is the norm." The situation, while serious, is not hopeless, Fleming writes. He outlines a series of steps the academies can take to return to their former standards of excellence. It's worth a read.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

How the city raises your taxes without calling it a tax increase

I have found no one better at this bit of a budgetary shell game than the financial wizards at the City of Dallas. Basically the plan these brainiacs have devised to help reduce budget deficits is to levy taxes on city government itself and then get us to pay for it through increased fees.

Let me give you an example of how this bit of trickery works. Every utility that holds a franchise with the City of Dallas has to pay the city a yearly fee for the right to maintain that franchise. The cable company pays it. The gas company pays it. The electric company pays it but not as much as it used to back in the days when the electric company was known as Dallas Power & Light Co. Because along came deregulation that allowed all sorts of ne-er to wells to infringe on the power company's monopoly -- a monopoly that was supposed to be insured by securing the franchise.

There was only one major utility that didn't pay the city a franchise fee and that was the water utility. Why? Because the water utility is a department of the city. But the water utility is known in City Hall parlance as an enterprise department. That means all of the money it spends must come from what it charges you, me and other cities for water. But those charges can only be used by the water utility and can't go into the General Fund, that bank account on which money is drawn to keep city government operating. So when money started becoming harder to come by at City Hall for the General Fund, the brainiacs said "We could get additional revenue by charging the water utility a franchise fee just like we do all the other utilities." Only they didn't call it a franchise fee; they called it Payment In Lieu of Taxes, or PILOT. In order to raise the money needed to pay PILOT, water utilities upped our water rates. See, not a tax increase, but your taxes have been raised; they were just disguised as a water rate increase.

Times have not gotten much better at 1500 Marilla, so the city, emboldened by the trickery successfully pulled off in the name of PILOT, began searching for other departments that charge fees to tax. The search was not a long one -- the target now is simply another department that includes its fees on our monthly water bill. That's right -- the city is going to start taxing Sanitation Services and force us to pay for it.

Again, while the tax is without merit, it is not without precedent. City garbage collectors only collect the trash and recycling from Dallas homeowners as well as at city parks and other municipal facilities. The refuges from apartments and businesses are hauled away and deposited by private companies, all of whom pay the city for the right to engage in such business. Why do they have to pay the city? The logic is that their heavy trucks chew up city streets and this fee is their share of street repair and maintenance.

But, so the logic goes, the city's trucks have been doing the same thing and no one ever demanded that hauler pay for its share of street maintenance. But all that's about to change. Word is that City Manager Mary Suhm is going to impose this franchise fee on her own Sanitation Services, which, while not an enterprise department in the strictest sense of the word, does operate on the revenue it generates from garbage fees paid by residents.

You have to burrow pretty deep into this Dallas Morning News story to find this telling paragraph:

"The city's sanitation department traditionally has charged only what it costs to provide service. In order to funnel money into the general fund, the city would charge its own sanitation department a fee for the use of city streets and alleys."
And where would Sanitation Services get the money to pay this fee? By raising what it charges us, naturally. The estimates are that the garbage fee would increase 71 cents a month, not a huge tax increase by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a tax increase even though the city will never admit to it.

You gotta admit. It is a diabolically clever, albeit underhanded, way to raise taxes without ever calling it a tax increase.

Monday, May 17, 2010

To be released tomorrow on DVD

As he approaches 80, living legend Clint Eastwood shows no signs of slowing down, nor shirking from challenges as a filmmaker.

Eastwood’s Invictus entertainingly delves into South African politics and rugby, two normally forbidding subjects for American audiences.

Thanks to expert performances by Morgan Freeman (as Nelson Mandela) and a buffed-up Matt Damon — as well as Eastwood’s old-school storytelling expertise — this movie depicts an unlikely intersection of sports and leadership in ways that manage to be inspiring and insightful without ever becoming schmaltzy or preachy.

The story takes place during a few months in 1995, when South African President Mandela — like another president you may have heard of — was struggling to unite a badly divided country. Mandela shocks even his closest advisers when he decides to become the country’s biggest booster of the Springboks, the national rugby team beloved by the white Afrikaner minority that had brutally ruled the country through decades of apartheid. At the same time, the Springboks — with one black player — were seen by the black majority as a symbol of apartheid, with Mandela’s supporters even trying to disband the team before he steps in. A pragmatist who had closely studied the Afrikaners during his 27 years as a political prisoner, Mandela realized that humiliating his former enemies would only further destabilize the country.

Mandela finds an improbable ally when he reaches out to the team’s apolitical captain, Francois Pienaar (an excellent Damon), who only wants to turn around his perennially losing squad — and orders the team to tour shantytowns where black kids prefer soccer to rugby.

Anthony Peckham’s intelligent screenplay — adapted from John Carlin’s book "Playing the Enemy" — cleverly represents the polarized South Africa through Mandela’s security detail. Because of the security squad’s public visibility, Mandela insists that menacing Afrikaners from the apartheid regime be retained, joining his longtime supporters from the African National Congress.

The film climaxes with an exciting championship match against New Zealand’s All-Blacks squad, which ironically takes its name from the color of its uniforms rather than its members. While the unusual formations are fun to watch, I can’t say I actually understand rugby from Eastwood’s film, which is far more concerned with Mandela’s unconventional efforts at racial healing.

It would be easy to turn Mandela into a saint, but Eastwood and his longtime collaborator Freeman, in the role of his career, never let this happen. While upbeat and optimistic, Mandela is shown as a man with a healthy sense of humor and personal regrets — separated from his (never seen) wife, Winnie, and barely on speaking terms with a daughter who does not share his spirit of reconciliation.

Handsomely shot on location in South Africa, the slightly overlong Invictus takes its title — Latin for unconquered — from a poem that Mandela used as an inspiration during his lengthy imprisonment. Most filmmakers would offer a lengthy flashback or speech from Mandela about this experience. Eastwood, though, tells you all you need to know about the horrors of apartheid through the look on Pienaar’s face when he visits Mandela’s tiny cell. Grade: A

Other new releases this week

3 Idiots (2010) Directed by Rajkumar Hirani. While attending one of India’s premier colleges, miserable engineering students and best friends Ryan (Aamir Khan), Hari (Madhavan) and Alok (Sharman Joshi) struggle to beat their school’s draconian system, which, in their eyes, unfairly values grades over creativity. There’s an unavoidable joie de vivre and a performance charm that make this one of the more naturally gregarious Bollywood imports. Grade B

American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein (2010) Directed by Nicolas Rossier, David Ridgen. As a descendent of Holocaust survivors and a passionate critic of Israel, American academic Norman Finkelstein creates controversy with his fervent opinions. This documentary profiles him, illuminating his beliefs and those of his opponents. For some, the documentary will represent the endorsement of a self-hater spouting traitorous ideas; for others, it celebrates the courage of a reviled, truth-telling martyr to the cause of academic freedom. Because it is a film, it can only begin to sketch the complicated historical and political debates that engage Finkelstein and his detractors, but it allows both sides to make their cases. Grade: B

Defamation (2009) Directed by Yoav Shamir. In addition to gathering thoughts from political scientist Norman Finkelstein, filmmaker Shamir examines contemporary anti-Semitism and the possibility of a modern-day Jewish holocaust in his documentary. While he takes an evenhanded approach, the filmmaker appears on camera far too often and goes off point as frequently as Roger Moore. Grade: C

Extraordinary Measures (2010) Directed by Tom Vaughan. After their two young children are diagnosed with a rare genetic disease for which conventional medicine has no cure, John (Brendan Fraser) and Aileen (Keri Russell) pin their hopes on the work of unconventional scientist Dr. Robert Stonehill (Harrison Ford). Basically “Lorenzo’s Oil” without the earlier film’s visual flair. The story is poignant and compelling, but ultimately the film doesn’t have the heft it needs to fill out the big screen. The most intriguing aspects of the film relate to the behind-the-scenes politicking that goes on to keep the drug development on track, although the screenplay cheats toward the end (presumably because of time constraints and a concern that too much detail might bore audiences). Grade: C

Girl on the Train (2010) Directed by André Téchiné. A young Parisian woman (Émilie Dequenne) captures the attention of her country when she claims she’s been the target of a hate crime. The film can be described as a character study or a fictionalized slice of terribly real life. Mostly, though, it is an inquiry into the mysteries of other people. Téchiné’s many admirers will not be disappointed by this latest offering, but they might be hard-pressed to define it. Grade: B

The Messenger (2009) Directed by Oren Moverman. An injured U.S. soldier, Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), is paired up with by-the-book Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) to notify families of killed soldiers — a job that bonds them as they debate different views on serving America. Messengers with the worst possible message, they nonetheless manage to be human and alive, humorous and lively. In a film that itself bears such sad tidings about the costs of war, that is an affirming, even an inspiring, gift. Grade: A

The Spy Next Door (2010) Directed by Brian Levant. While babysitting for his neighbor, Gillian (Amber Valletta), Bob (Jackie Chan) is thrust into a world of top-secret adventure after one of the kids inadvertently downloads a secret code. Chan has more chemistry with the kids than with Valletta, but the story is so insipid that it’s likely to only sadden fans of the martial-arts icon and offer little enjoyment to its young audience. Grade: D

Valentine’s Day (2010) Directed by Garry Marshall. Follows the intertwining storylines of a diverse group of Los Angelenos as they navigate their way through romance and heartbreak over the course of one Valentine’s Day. This is many lousy movies for the price of one. Grade: D

When You’re Strange (2010) Directed by Tom DiCillo. A documentary that uncovers historic, previously unseen footage of The Doors and provides new insight into the impact of their music and legacy. DiCillo does his damnedest to make this documentary unwatchable, but the subject matter is too compelling — and the vintage footage too electrifying — to be completely worthless. Grade: C-minus