Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Republican plan for increasing the deficit

This editorial from today's New York Times is a must-read, especially since it involves the nefarious activities of one of Texas's primary Congressional embarrassments:

Republicans claim to be deeply worried about the deficit — their favorite political target, followed closely by President Obama’s relentlessly demonized health care reform. So why are they so determined to overturn one of the central cost-control mechanisms of the new reform law?
Republicans in both the Senate and the House have introduced bills that would eliminate the new Independent Payment Advisory Board, which is supposed to come up with ways to rein in excessive Medicare spending — and stiffen Congress’s spine.

Starting in 2014, whenever Medicare’s projected spending exceeds a target growth rate, the board of 15 members (drawn from a range of backgrounds, appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate) will have to recommend reductions in payments to doctors and health care providers to bring spending back to target levels. These recommendations would become law unless Congress — not known for its political courage in such circumstances — passed an alternative proposal that would achieve comparable savings.

None of this poses any real threat to Medicare beneficiaries. The law prohibits the board from making proposals that would ration care, increase taxes, change Medicare benefits or eligibility, increase premiums or cost-sharing, or reduce low-income subsidies for drug coverage. It cannot call for a reduction in payments to hospitals before 2020.

If anything, we fear that the board’s power will be too limited. But its power to curb payments to other providers is projected to save $15.5 billion to $24 billion between 2015 and 2019.

That has not stopped Senator John Cornyn of Texas from trying to kill off the board. In July, he introduced the ever so cutely named “Health Care Bureaucrats Elimination Act.” It currently has 11 co-sponsors, and a similar version, introduced earlier in the House by the Republican Phil Roe of Tennessee, has 54 co-sponsors.

Neither bill will go anywhere so long as the Democrats run Congress, but expect to hear a lot of hype about bureaucrats hijacking health care — and nothing about the needed savings — in this fall’s campaign.

Republicans are also eagerly attacking another important source of savings: the new law’s elimination of the subsidies given to the private managed-care plans known as Medicare Advantage. That is projected to save $132 billion over the next decade, but don’t expect to hear about that part on the campaign trail.

Instead, Republicans are warning seniors enrolled in these plans that their coverage may disappear. Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, even charged that the cuts would “kill” the Medicare Advantage program, which now serves some 11 million beneficiaries. That is preposterous.

The law simply forces managed-care plans to compete on an even basis with the traditional Medicare program. Some beneficiaries may face higher costs or lose some gold-plated benefits, but only the most inefficient plans will disappear when the unjustified subsidies that are propping them up are withdrawn.

Republicans are also eagerly, and shamefully, pillorying Dr. Donald Berwick, the new head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. There are few figures who command greater respect for uniting health professionals and institutions to improve the quality of medical care while reducing costs. That is not stopping these critics from implying — baselessly — that he will introduce socialized medicine and death panels in this country.

The truth is that Dr. Berwick has praised the socialized British health care system, especially for its emphasis on primary care. This country certainly needs to do more to develop its primary care system. And he has, rightly, called for an open discussion of the health care rationing that is already widespread in our system. When insurers decline to cover procedures, or high prices screen out low-income people, that is rationing.

Dr. Berwick has endorsed the use of “comparative effectiveness” research to determine which treatments work best. He would use such research to judge whether a new drug or procedure is worth the cost of coverage, a step the reform law shies away from. He does not have the power to change that law. But the issue will have to be addressed at some point if there is to be any hope of restraining medical spending.

Democrats have to counter the Republicans’ demagoguery with facts. Americans need to understand that if Senator Cornyn and others get their way, runaway health care costs will only get worse.

Democrats should not be shy about touting reform’s benefits — for improving Americans’ lives or its potential for reducing the deficit. They also need to tell Americans that there are even tougher choices to make ahead. Voters may find it refreshing to hear politicians tell them the truth.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Listen up, mayor, the natives are restless

This evening I attended a budget town hall meeting on the opposite side of town from last night's in Far West Dallas. This evening's confab was hosted by District 9's Sheffie Kadane at Winfrey Point on the eastern shores of White Rock Lake. Here's the headline from that meeting: The overwhelming majority of those in attendance favor a tax increase to keep libraries and rec centers open, to maintain city streets, to maintain cultural affairs programs and to restore the jobs of those individuals just axed from the city's payroll.

I counted 126 persons, (not including city staff members) at the meeting, including one of Dallas's icons, the great Jac Alder, the guiding genius of Theatre Three. At one point Kadane, who is philosophically adhering to Da Mayor's "no tax increase" litany, made the critical error of asking all those who favored a tax increase to either stand or raise their hands (it was SRO by the time I arrived). I didn't get to count all those who were standing, but Kadane compounded his error by asking all those who did not favor to either stand or raise their hands. I had plenty of time to count those. There were five of them. A measly five out of 126.

Now what does that prove? Admittedly, not a whole helluva lot except that those attending Kadane's budget townhall meeting overwhelmingly favored a tax increase to solve the city's budget woes. Not even I will try to extrapolate those numbers to his entire district. So, no, it is not proof of what the citizens want their council representatives to do. But it's an indication. It's a signal. Especially since those persons I quizzed at Kadane's meeting who had attended other budget town halls said those at the joint Kadane/Angela Hunt meeting were even more pro-tax increase as were those attending the joint Ron Natinsky/Linda Koop meeting in Far North Dallas. What was it Arlo Guthrie said in Alice's Restaurant Massacree about what constituted a movement? Whatever we have going on here more than meets Guthrie's criterion. Yesiree, Tom, what we have here is a movement -- an honest-to-goodness "We are more than willing to pay for the city services we want" movement.

A day with the council circus, an evening with the council budget process

I spent the majority of the day today watching the Dallas City Council do what it does best -- waste the time of too many individuals, taking nine hours to accomplish what should take no longer than an hour and a half.

I'm referring essentially to a pair of items on today's council agenda. The first was Agenda Item 5:
An ordinance amending Ordinance No. 27932 and Ordinance No. 27933 to change certain election day polling and early voting locations for the November 2, 2010 special elections on whether to legalize "the legal sale of beer and wine for off-premise consumption only" and on whether to legalize "the legal sale of mixed beverages in restaurants for food and beverages certificate holders only" - Financing: No cost consideration to the City
If you can read, you can plainly see that this item only concerned polling places. Yet D-Wayne Demagogue and Carolyn Davis decided to turn it into a platform on the evils of selling spirits in South Dallas. And they went on and on and on and no one had the courage to tell these two that this meeting was neither the time nor the place to campaign on how citizens should vote on the issue. It was only about changing polling places to locations that are normally assumed to be voting locations in municipal elections.

The second had to do with the bidding process for concessionaires at Love Field. On this issue, Da Mayor was right. (Later in the day I had the opportunity to tell the mayor to his face on that issue but wrong on the tax issue. But I'll get to that in a minute.)

The entire debate on the concession issue -- a debate that lasted, by my estimation, almost seven hours, revolved around the manner in which the matters being debated were fair or unfair to the current concessionaires. Wrong argument! I could care less about the current concessionaires. The only matter of importance in this debate is what is in the best interests of those who will be using the airport for whatever reason. And, until someone can prove otherwise, competitive bidding would seem to serve those interests best because the bids should be judged on exactly that consideration. If someone can produce customer satisfaction surveys that illustrate (1) airports without competitively bid concession services rank higher with customers than those that do and (2) the customers' satisfaction is directly attributable to the lack of competitive bidding, I could be persuaded to change my mind. I doubt, however, anyone can produce such statistics.

There were several references to the Pittsburgh airport, one of many airports my former business partner and I frequented on a regular basis. In fact, it was during a drive to the Pittsburgh airport one afternoon that we devised our "Name That Subdivision" game. But I digress. The Pittsburgh airport resembled a shopping mall more than it did an airport and I remember making that observation to a resident who told me, "You're right. In fact, more people go there just to shop than go there to catch a plane." Of course, that's all changed since 9/11. I attended seventh grade at a school in Vallejo, Calif., which is northeast of San Francisco. And I vividly remember that when my dad wanted to take us out for a great dinner, we would go to this then world-renowned restaurant that was located in the San Francisco Airport. I'm not even sure that restaurant still exists, but whether is does or not is beside the point. The point is that those airports functioned under the concept that the people who used the concessions at the airport were far more important than the concessionaires, a concept that seemed to escape the minds of those on our city council.

Fortunately, the vote on this issue was taken in time for me to shower, dress and drive from my Northeast Dallas home to West Dallas to attend my first budget town hall meeting -- it being my first because I have been "transportationally challenged" until just recently. Usually I just sit, listen and observe at these meetings. Tonight, however, I broke that pattern, feeling it was somewhat hypocritical of me to hide behind the relative anonymity of this blog and not take the opportunity to make the same points in a public forum, especially when Da Mayor was present to disagree with what I said. I made to points during Council Member Steve Salazar's townhall meeting and I will repeat them here.

The budget briefing tries to outline how we got ourselves into this fiscal mess we find ourselves in today. But it omits one important fact. In 2006, the city presented the voters of Dallas with a bond proposal. City council members held townhall meetings almost identical to the budget ones being held now. In the presentation of the bond package, the city staff member making the presentation always said "Here's how passage of the bond package will affect your property tax rates." Not, mind you, how passage might affect, but will affect them. However, by an overwhelming margin (All but one of the bond propositions passed with 65 percent voting in favor of them, the other received 55 percent approval.), the voters told the City Council they would be in favor of paying that bill in order to purchase those capital improvements. Yet the city council willfully disobeyed the instructions of the voters and never instituted the tax adjustments. Why? Because, I'm guessing, those were good economic times and the council mistakenly thought those good times would go on forever. Of course, they didn't and now, instead of correcting their error and doing what the voters instructed them to do in that election, the council is asking us to pay for their mistakes by taking away much-needed city services. Shame on them.

Interestingly enough, Da Mayor, who did repeat his worn-out "I'm against raising taxes" speech, never once challenged my statements on the bond election. I'm guessing because he knew he couldn't. He did challenge me, however, when I responded to his no tax increase speech by arguing that he does, in fact, favor tax increases -- he and the city staff are simply masters at masquerading these tax increases as fees. I reminded him and assistant city manager A.C. Gonzales, who recalled conversations I had with him on this topic last year, that PILOT is a tax increase. For those who don't recall, PILOT stands for "Payment In Lieu Of Taxes" and it's a form of property tax the city charges its own Water Department, which, in turn, raises our water rates to pay for those taxes. There is a proposal on the table -- although admittedly not part of the proposed budget (yet) -- to charge the Sanitation Department a franchise fee. Of course, if this does become part of the budget, the Sanitation Department will have to increase our fees to pay for it. I call that a thinly disguised tax increase because that money would go into the General Fund, just as PILOT does today.

Da Mayor and Mr. Gonzalez tried to argue it wasn't a tax increase, telling me after the townhall meeting that the city charges all its franchise holders these kind of fees and those folks would also pass those costs along to us in the form of rate hikes as well. The fallacy in that argument, however, is that none of those other franchise holders are a monopoly. I have a choice when it comes to my electrical provider or my television service provider, but I have no such choice when it comes to who will provide me with running water or who will pick up my residential trash.

I must give Da Mayor credit where credit is due him, however, and, as I alluded to earlier, I also had the welcomed opportunity to say this to his face as well. This mayor is the hardest working board chair this city has ever known. I make it a point to attend as many of those town hall meetings as I possibly can. More often than not, Da Mayor is there. In my 42 years of living in this city, I have never seen a mayor give more of his time and energy to this position as our current mayor. I salute him for that and tonight I had the opportunity to thank him for that, even asking him "Do you have any personal life at all?"

One final word before I end this long-winded monologue (although it will take you far less time to read this then D-Wayne spent ranting today on the evils of demon rum), I need to thank my soon-to-be doctor son for loaning me his laptop so I could compose this post. As I wrote in the post that follows this one below, my mid-20th century model gadget simply couldn't make it though the first part of this century before calling it quits. Until I can correct that situation (and because of other matters I won't bore you with, that may come much later than originally anticipated), these posts will come with greater-than-usual intervals between them. Thanks again for your patience. I will resume "jibberish as usual" as soon as possible.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Taking a forced break

Late Thursday, my computer decided to perform a spot-on imitation of Mount Vesuvius, circa 79 CE, and, so, while I'm shifting through the ruins in an effort to begin rebuilding Pompeii, this blog, this passion of mine, might be silent for much longer intervals than has been the norm during the last three years. Please bear with me. I hope to return to my normal sarcastic, irritating, self-absorbed (motivation behind any blog) self as soon as possible. Thanks for your patience and understanding.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Rick, keep your hands off our land

Could the Trans-Texas Corridor boondogle come back to haunt Gov. Hair? One PAC that raised money for this TV spot is doing its best ot make sure that it does.

The "real" issues in the midterm elections

This is funny.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I aged, Patricia Neal never did

I always admired Patricia Neal, who died earlier this week, as a superb actress, but, even more than that, a strong woman who overcame more tragedies than should befall one person. However, when Hud, the movie for which she won her Oscar, was released the year I turned 21 I questioned why Paul Newman's title character lusted after this housekeeper, especially with all the other fine babes that appeared to be at his disposable.

After I learned of Miss Neal's death, I went back and rewatched Hud and I understood Newman's motivations entirely. Neal's Alma Brown character was an independent and intelligent woman and those two characteristics are extremely erotic. More than that, I can see now that she was HOT!!!!!

What Mark Davis and his fellow idiots won't tell you

Apparently the Tea Party held a reception at a local high school football stadium in a response to PresidentObama's visit to the area during which radio idiot Marc Davis and his ilk urged all those attending to vote a straight Republican ticket. (Since the affair was paid for by the Republican Party, he was undoubtedly preaching to the choir.) What these jerks failed to tell you is that earlier in the week every single Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives (except for one from Louisiana and another from Delaware) voted against:
  • Providing $813 million that will go directly to Texas school districts for teachers and education staff support
  • Lowering Texas' budget deficit, caused by 12 years of Republican mismanagement, by $850 million.
  • Putting more cops and firemen on our city streets
  • Closing corporate tax loopholes that for companies that ship jobs overseas.
Come to think about it, I understand why Republicans continue to vote against improving education - a more intelligent electorate will see through their lies.

Here's Johnny again

According to this story, more than 3,500 hours of Johnny Carson's Tonight Show has been digitized and will soon be available on-line and possibly, at a later date, on DVD. This got me to thinking about what might happen if a television network programed this material opposite Letterman-Leno et al on late night television. My gut tells me it might have higher ratings than any of them.

The Great Movies: 1949

The 10 Best Movies of 1949

1. The Third Man. Directed by Carol Reed. Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Valli, Trevor Howard. Pretty darn close to perfection. Graham Greene’s superb script is literate and suspenseful. Reed’s direction is at its peak (the chase scenes in the sewers, the romantic moments, the flawless ferris wheel scene), the cinematography is at genius level with its fascinating framings and marvelous use of locales, the mesmerizing zither music is haunting and all of the on-screen performances are right on the mark. It all adds up to an unforgettable examination of loyalty and friendship.

2. All the King’s Men. Directed by Robert Rossen. Broderick Crawford, Joanne Dru, John Ireland, Mercedes McCambridge, John Derek. This movie rescued Crawford from B-movie semi-oblivion, however he was never again able to equal this portrayal of a southern political demagogue, a thinly-disguised Huey P. Long of Louisiana. McCambridge is also superb in this, her film debut. One way to measure a director's contribution to a movie is to experience the impact of this move and then compare it to the dead-in-the-water remake with a Holywood A-list cast.

3. A Letter to Three Wives. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern, Kirk Douglas, Paul Douglas. One of the best films about marriage ever made.and without question Darnell’s finest screen portrayal (“What I got don’t need beads.”) Studio chief Darrell Zanuck desperately wanted Ernst Lubitsch to direct this movie, but, much to Zanuck’s dismay, the job went to Mankiewicz who won an Oscar for his direction and another one for his acerbic script. This recognition further angered the grudge-holding Zanuck who got some measure of revenge 15 years later by blaming Mankiewicz for almost destroying the studio with Cleopatra.

4. On the Town. Directed by Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen. Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Vera-Ellen, Betty Garrett, Ann Miller. There have been better musicals to hit the screen, but I can’t recall a more energetic one, the first movie musical filmed on location (New York City) and not on a soundstage. MGM head Louis B. Mayer objected to the on-location shooting but compromised somewhat by allowing the crew to spend just one week in New York. I’m guessing the resulting rush to get as much as possible on film in that brief time gives the film its wonderful shot of adrenalin. That, and the pure energy of Ann Miller.

5. Twelve O’Clock High. Directed by Henry King. Gregory Peck, Hugh Marlowe, Gary Merrill, Dean Jagger. A movie that answers the question “What is the emotional toll on the human psyche for individuals who must perform at maximum efficiency every waking moment of every single day?”. One of the first films to portray American World War II fighting men as human beings and not superheroes. King and Peck teamed effectively again on The Bravados and The Gunfighter.

6. White Heat. Directed by Raoul Walsh. James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien, Margaret Wycherly. This film would not be on this list if anyone else but Cagney played the psychotic, mother-fixated gangster. The indelible moment when Cagney, after one of his fits, sits on his mother’s lap so she can soothe him, was not in the original script — it was Cagney’s idea. The scene in which Cagney learns of his mother’s death while he’s in prison is the finest moment of Cagney’s illustrious career. This is often referred to as the “last of the great 1930s gangster film” and I find it difficult to argue with that description.

7. The Heiress. Directed by William Wyler. Olivia de Havilland, Ralph Richardson, Montgomery Clift, Miriam Hopkins. Am I the only person in the world who tired of de Havilland’s tendency to smile in her films, even if a smile wasn’t needed? It drove me nuts. One of the reasons I like this film is Wyler broke her of that habit (although she resumed it in later appearances). But that’s not the only reason to applaud de Havilland here: Her trasnformation from a victimized youth to an iron-willed adult is simpy a tour de force piece of acting. In fact the only weak performance in this film comes suprisingly from Clift.

8. The Set-Up. Directed by Robert Wise. Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter. Five years before High Noon pulled off the same stunt, this 1 hour, 12 minute film is about 72 continuous minutes in the life of an aging boxer who thinks, if he can just win this fight tonight, he can finally collect a big purse, retire, and realize his dream of opening a bar. This is one of the most anti-boxing movies I’ve ever seen — the fight scenes are cruel, the fight fans are blood-thirsty maniacs, all those surrounding the boxers are uneducated opportunists of the lowest order. This was Ryan’s finest film performance.

9. Kind Hearts and Coronets. Directed by Robert Hamer. Dennis Price, Alec Guinness, Valerie Hobson, Joan Greenwood. Although Price is the star and has the biggest part in this black comedy about mass murder — one of the funniest British comedies ever — it was Guinness who gained international fame by playing eight different members of a titled family. This is a film you can enjoy over and over and over again.

10. The Queen of Spades. Directed by Thorold Dickinson. Anton Walbrook, Edith Evans. This film is not as well known as many of the others on the list, but it’s a thriller that packs more of a jolt than most of them. Edith Evans had been absent from the screen after making only three largely forgotten silent films in 1914-16. Thus her grotesque characterization of the countess with the secret in this film, for all practical purposes, launched her career at the tender age of 62. Walbrook, as usual, is superb as the Russian army officer determined to get that secret, regardless of the cost.

A flawed comparison of property taxes

Mike Hashimoto of the Dallas Morning News is irresponsibly suggesting that, comparing Dallas to neighboring cities, Dallas already pays too much in porperty taxes and thus the City Council should not pass a property tax increase this year to solve its budget problems. It's difficult to list all the reasons why his comparison is so flawed.

But the major reason is the most common argument: apples and oranges. Any comparison like this must be with comparable cities, at least those with a similar population. Not only that, the comparison completely ignores property values. The study he quotes uses a home with a $175,00 value as its base. But it doesn't account for the percentage of $175,000 homes in each community. I'm betting the percentage in Addison, to use just one of his examples, is much higher than it is in Dallas, If property values as a whole are greater, the tax rate can be lower.

What his comparison also ignores is that Dallas is unique among cities in the area in that the majority of its population are renters and not homeowners, a fact that also makes Hashimoto's argument completely irrelevant. But this is another example of how Tea Party conservatives like Hashimoto can take figures to make a half truth to try to convince people of things that are simply false. Shame on him.

K2: The questions nobody asked

Sometimes I simply have to laugh while watching the Dallas City Council appear so earnest and passionate on their way to being a body of buffoons. Take this entire debate over K2. Only one council member, Angela Hunt, questioned the need for this totally useless ordinance that banned the sale of the substance in Dallas. Hunt wisely was trying to restrict its sale to those under 21 saying alcohol still causes far more deaths (like a gazzilion to none) than K2.

But what about the questions that were never asked that should have been?
  • What has the Food and Drug Administration said about K2, if anything?
  • How long does anyone expect it will take for the manufacturers of K2, who are obviously much smarter than our city leaders, to come up with an alternative?
  • How much will it cost the city to defend the lawsuits that will be filed to challenge this ordinance?
  • How many of our citizens are using marijuana regularly compared to K2? I'm willing the bet the farm marijuana use is far more prevalent, meaning the laws we already have on the books regarding its use and sale are not working.
  • And, most important, has Desoto banned the sale of K2? Has Lancaster? Has Mesquite? How about Garland, Richardson, Plano, University Park, Arlington, Grand Prairie? If D-Wayne Demagogue and Da Mayor think this will prevent kids from obtaining K2, they are either naive or ignorant.
So the Dallas City Council, in its collective wisdom, moves today to protect the interests of the people of Dallas and only proves once again just how completely out of touch with those people they really are. Shakespeare's Macbeth perfectly described grandstanding like this by our city council had the perect description of the Dallas City Council: "That struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Can you picture her with a dragon tattoo?

It appears Rooney Mara is now the favorite to play the the title character in The Girl trilogy beginning with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. From what I'm hearing she's director David Fincher's top choice. I don't know that much about her except that she had a part in Youth in Revolt, but she certainly didn't stand out to me in that film. The problem with her becoming Yne Girl is the studio wants a bigger name. It's pushing for Natalie Portman, who, to me anyway, is about a foot too tall for the part. In the books, Liz Salander is under five feet tall. A final decision is expected by the end of the week.

Polanski's great 'Ghost"

I watched Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer again Saturday and this time was struck by how much the score reminded me of Bernard Herrman's great scores for Alfred Hitchock's films. Then today I had the oppotununity to read this assessment of the movie  - an assessment I agree with 100 percent.

Budget vote to be closer this year

I'm going to call it the Rasansky tradition. In his eight years on the City Council, former member Mitchell Rasansky never made a budget he could like. He voted against the budget proposal every year he was on the council. During those eight years, the budget passed 14-1. Last year, Rasansky's District 13 successor, Ann Margolin, continued the Rasansky tradition by voting against a budget that passed, you guessed it, 14-1.

I'm convinced the Rasansky tradition will continue this year. The proposed budget contains too many fee increases, which Margolin correctly labels as masked tax increases, and because she is opposed to any tax increase, she will not support the proposed FY 2010-11 budget when it comes before the council for a final vote in September.

However, this year I'm betting a lot more council members will join her. District 8's Tennell Atkins wisely has been advocating for a tax increase for a couple of years now. But this year he has entrenched himself so completely in the need for Dallas to raise its property tax rate, I'm convinced that he, and probably District 6's Steve Salazar and District 7's Carolyn Davis, will not support a budget that does not include a tax increase.

I only had the opportunity to see the first two and a half hours of yesterday's budget debate so I was fascinated to learn that it's possible that a majority of the council would support a much-needed tax increase. District 1's Delia Jasso and District 2's Pauline Medrano say they will listen to their constituents at their respective town hall meetings before making a decision. My bet is that those constituents, faced with cuts to services they need more than those in North Dallas, will argue for an increase. I say that because I recall attending a joint District 11 and 12 town hall meeting in far North Dallas eight or so years ago when Dallas also faced some severe budget cuts. Then Mayor Laura Miller, who was as firmly against a tax increase as Da Mayor is today, made a surprise appearance and was stunned to hear many of those attending in this conservative area argue for an increase. Finally the matter was put to a vote and those in favor of an increase in this part of town clearly were in the majority. I heard Miller say to then council members Lois Finkelman and Sandy Greyson as she departed the rec center that she just might have to alter her opinion.

People are willing to pay for a government that provides them services that make their lives better. When folks yell "No new taxes," they are talking more about federal and perhaps state taxes because they fail to see how these positively and directly effect their day-to-day lives. But when it's closer to home, it's a different story. I'm convinced a majority of the people of Dallas would vote to pay more to keep the recreational centers, the libraries and the swimming pools operating as they should. I'm convinced they would pay to have their streets repaired and to make sure the city had enough ambulances to meet emergency situations.

I also think it's grandstanding for people like District 11's Linda Koop, District 10's Jerry Allen and Da Mayor to say the city won't grow if we pass a tax increase. Dallas becomes a more attractive destination if it's a city with clean parks, active recreation centers, drivable streets, and a superb, accessible library system.

Monday, August 9, 2010

To be released tomorrow on DVD

For the lovers of Indian films — and they number in the hundreds of millions — the coming of Raavan held the promise of celebration: Holi and Diwali in one blast of musical drama. Its creator, Mani Ratnam, is the subcontinent’s premier writer-director, though he usually works in his home town of Madras, and in the Tamil language, not in Hindi Mumbai, a.k.a. Bollywood. The movie’s stars, Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai, are Indian cinema’s golden couple: he the son of superstar Amitabh Bachchan, she the former Miss World made her film debut in Ratnam’s Iruvar in 1997. The music director is A.R. Rahman, a Ratnam discovery whose infectious melodies in more than 100 films have made him, by some accounts, the world’s best-selling recording artist. Rahman won two Oscars for his Slumdog Millionaire score.

In 2007 this eminent quartet collaborated on the popular, well-received Guru, a fictionalized biopic of the Indian plutocrat Dhirubhai Ambani. (Abhishek and Aishwarya, known everywhere as Abhi and Ash, fell in love on the set and were married shortly after the opening.) The new film would be a modern retelling of The Ramayana, the beloved Sanskrit epic about the kidnapping of Sita, wife of the monarch Rama, by the demon king Ravana; Bachchan would play the kidnapper, Rai the abductee and the Tamil star Vikram her husband. Filmed in three versions — Hindi (as Raavan), Tamil (as Raavanan) and Telegu (as Villain) — and released June 18 on 2,200 screens around the world, including 109 in the United.States, the picture had all the makings of a critical success and international hit.

Except it wasn’t. The local reviews ranged from disappointed to scathing (though the few American critics were more indulgent). The film’s global opening weekend take, of about $11.6 million, fell far below that of the recent Indian hits 3 Idiots, My Name Is Khan (see below) and Kites. Film fans were soon jamming the Internet to express derision toward Raavan and complain about Bachchan’s outsize acting style. So noisome was the tumult that on June 20, two days after the opening, Papa Amitabh took to Twitter to blame his son’s character’s “erratic behaviour” on the director’s vigorous editing style: “Lot of merited film edited out, causing inconsistent performance and narrative.” Ratnam tweeted back, “Amitji should have conveyed me whatever he wanted to say, he has my cell no.” One of India’s all-time top film stars and its greatest living auteur were dissing each other like sophomore cheerleaders in a Facebook snit.

So how is the movie? Well, Raavan — the Hindi version, being released on DVD — is better than you’d be led to think by all the outrage; it’s just not up to the director’s high standard. It begins with a vibrant chaos of images, as Rahman’s ultra-catchy tune Beera Beera (listen to it on YouTube) accentuates the propulsive pace. The movie boasts some impressive stunt work, as the stars or their stunt doubles slide down rock faces, drop through tree branches and navigate a giant waterfall. The best action scene takes place on a rickety footbridge with the purported hero dangling over a ravine, his life literally in the hand of the purported villain. At the end, the film ventures into the territory of ethical ambiguity. But in between are wastes of creaky incident without much enriching of character or plot. And the central performance by Bachchan is either a bold stab at thespic immortality or an essay in grotesque derangement. Maybe both.

A region troubled by insurgency gets a new chief inspector: Dev (Vikram), accompanied by his faithful wife Ragini (Rai). In short order, Ragini is kidnapped by the legendary rebel Beera (Bachchan) and held for 14 days — as opposed to the 14 years of the queen’s captivity in The Ramayana — while she juggles her hatred for Beera with a growing sympathy. In a flashback, we learn that Beera has abducted Ragini in retaliation for the long-ago abuse suffered by his beloved stepsister Jamuniya (Priyamani) at the hands of the local police. Meanwhile, in his desperate search for Ragini, Dev finds an ally in the forest guard Sanjeevani (Govinda). While on the wooden bridge, Den and Beera finally clash, but what seems like the movie’s climax is just where it starts to get interesting.

While Raavan may not be not up there with Nayakan, Roja, Bombay and Dil Se, it’s very recognizably a Mani Ratnam film. His work often touches on controversial real-life figures (Mafia bosses, revolutionaries) and incendiary political issues (terrorist kidnappings, the Bombay riots of 1992-93, the Sri Lankan war), and Raavan is no exception. Ahbishek’s Beera, while clearly a version of “The Ramayana’s Ravana” character, is also reputed to be partially based on Kobad Ghandy, a Maoist leader of the ongoing Naxalite insurgency in northern India.

One big difference: Ghandy is a well-educated, world-traveled theoretician; Beera is a primitive warrior. Bachchan plays him as a creature of wild gestures and grimaces, ever slapping his cranium and making chaka-chaka-chaka grunts, with a flashing of clenched teeth not seen since Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster had their showdown at the O.K. Corral. It’s a performance both feral and mopey, as if Sly Stallone had taken a crash course in the Stanislavski method before going into the jungle to play Rambo. And when Beera holds Ragini captive, the unmistakable point of reference is the fable of Beauty and the Beast. To put it in movie-monster terms, she is Faye Wray and he the Ramayana King Kong.

What’s odd is the lack of chemistry between kidnapper and victim, considering that the actors who play them are husband and wife. The love story the audience expects to develop has no hint of physical or even emotional intimacy. That’s partly because the clash of acting styles is as large as the chasm separating Ragini and Beera and partly because Rai, while easy to look at, lacks the spark of a natural performer. In Guru, Abhishek had said moonily to Aishwarya, “You shine as beautifully as polyester,” and Rai is always a fairly synthetic actress. The genuine screen charisma here is provided by the Tamil ingénue Priyamani, who invests the supporting role of Beera’s stepsister with a flirtatious charm during her bridal scene, then aching despair when the police violate her on her wedding night. And for the film’s core emotional connection, you must look to the relationship of the stalwart policeman Dev and his loving wife Ragini.

The movie looks terrific. This bucolic melodrama is set in some of India’s most spectacular natural settings, including Kerala’s Athirappilly Falls (which Ratnam also used in Iruvar and Guru), the lush hills of Malshej Ghat near Mumbai and the forests of Karnataka. Cinematographer Santosh Sivan contrasts the lushness of nature with Beera’s monochromatic mud war paint and the chalk-smeared faces of his followers, similar to the camouflage daubs worn by Martin Sheen and the Vietnamese natives in Apocalypse Now. In familiar Ratnam fashion, the camera often does 360-degree wind sprints around the actors. When the director creates a compelling fictional universe in other films, his camerabatics express the turbulence of characters in extremis. Here, the whirling technique is a case of going nowhere fast.

As a showcase for some of Indian cinema’s most renowned talents, Raavan has to be considered a disappointment. But as a 2010 epic about a forest bandit, hey — it’s better than the Russell Crowe Robin Hood. And, thanks to A.R. Rahman’s infectious songs, this one you can dance to. Grade: B

Welcome (2010) The subject of Philippe Lioret’s compelling social drama is about those who are not — welcome, that is. The bitter irony of the title is evident from first to last in the story of a young Kurd who aims to swim to England and the swimming instructor who tries to help him get there. The movie hit French screens trailing clouds of controversy after a government minister complained of its sympathetic view of illegal immigrants and those who give them aid or shelter. But Lioret hangs his polemic on a strong, simple story line that will engage viewers and appeal even to those who take a more restrictive view than the filmmaker on such issues. Lioret is able to achieve a seamless blend of the domestic and the social — the hopeless situation of the immigrants is portrayed with near-documentary realism — thanks to an impressive performance by Vincent Lindon as the instructor, whose characteristic shamble and hangdog expression have rarely been put to better use. Laurent Dailland’s nighttime photography evokes the limbo in which the unwelcome visitors exist, while the contained performances and the sobriety of the score remind us that these are individual destinies at stake. The movie offers no simple solutions, nor even a feel-good ending, but throws a cold light on the human tragedy that underlies many of today’s headlines. Grade: B-minus

Date Night (2010) Steve Carell and Tina Fey team up for an adventure that turns a run-of-the-mill married couple’s date upside down. When you’ve got two of TV’s funniest performers front and center, you don’t need much to make things click. So some of Date Night’s best moments are simply Fey and Carell quipping, deadpanning or bantering, often all at the same time. And the duo are fine in the movie’s early, bored-with-their-lives moments. The trouble is, too much of director Shawn Levy’s ‘80s-ish lark is filled with noise, when it really needed more quietly silly stuff. Through it all, Carell and Fey are charming and sly and even manage to be genteel while bumping and grinding through a strip-club routine. Neither of them are joke hogs; as in their previous big-screen efforts, they’re happy to toss laughs back and forth (this should, however, be as high-concept as Carell gets — meaning, no more Get Smart shtick). The two of them absolutely work. It’s just a shame they’re all dressed up with nowhere to go. Grade: C-plus

The Joneses (2010) The Joneses (Demi Moore, David Duchovny, Amber Heard and Ben Hollingsworth) are rich, beautiful and seem to be the perfect family. There’s only one slight problem. They’re not actually a family, but a team of stealth marketers which moves into upscale communities in order to hook the neighbors on all its wonderful toys. Writer-director Derrick Borte has a dark vision of maxed-out 21st-century suburbia where advertising is not only inescapable, but the essential fabric that bonds friends and family. What he lacks is follow-through. The perverse dynamic within the fake family — the “daughter” unprofessionally slips into bed with daddy — gives the early scenes a satiric cold-bloodedness the film gradually fritters away. Borte also succeeds, for a time, in making the family’s lifestyle seem convincingly seductive: Why wouldn’t potential consumers be enticed by the products and gadgets that are bringing happiness to this impossibly glamorous bunch? The inevitable breakdown on this commercial façade might have led the movie into more disturbing territory, but Borte goes the other direction, away from jagged comedy and toward well-meaning homilies. Grade: C

Death at a Funeral (2010) A day in the life of an American family coming together to put a beloved husband and father to rest. Possibly setting a speed record for a remake, this movie takes a sporadically funny, little-seen 2007 British slapstick comedy and faithfully restages it with a B-list American cast. Both versions were written by Britain’s Dean Craig, who has basically changed only the dialogue for the California-set remake, efficiently if impersonally directed by playwright-director Neil LaBute with an ensemble headed by a relatively restrained Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence. It’s because of a superior cast that this version is the rare comedy remake that’s funnier than the original, however slightly. Personally, though, I’m not sure it was worth the effort. Grade: C

My Name Is Khan (2010) Rizwan Khan (Shahrukh Khan), a Muslim man with Asperger syndrome, lives happily with his wife, Mandira (Kajol), in San Francisco until a tragedy drives her away after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Now he is on a quest to recapture her heart. Traveling across America, Rizwan faces prejudice because of his religion and unusual behavior, but he also inspires the people he meets with his unique outlook on life. This is a very average, ordinary film that goes haywire. Racial biases, the aftermath of 9/11 and the war on terror are dicey topics to handle in real life, let alone on celluloid, and director Karan Johar oversimplifies the issues. The film is on a large scale and beautifully shot, but the story doesn’t live up to even half of that. The director cannot seem to decide whether he is making a love story, telling the story of a man’s journey or making a statement on the biases that pervaded the United States after 9/11. Words like jihad, 9/11 and Al Qaeda are thrown around without context. Khan’s actions seem contrived and out of line with the story. A lot of the supposed emotional moments seem gimmicky. The acting suffers as a result. Any film that underestimates its audiences and dumbs down its content is letting itself in for a failure. This is a huge disappointment. Grade: C

La Mission (2010) This was clearly a labor of love for the Bratt brothers: Peter wrote and directed it, Benjamin is the star, and both took a producer’s credit. They were born in San Francisco in the early 1960s, and the film conveys an intense nostalgia for the Mission District of their youth. The garage of Che Rivera (Benjamin Bratt), a bus driver, ex-con and middle-aged low rider, is a shrine to the post-hippie, pre-gentrification 1970s: César Chávez, Clint Eastwood, Vito Corleone, Alcoholics Anonymous, Chicano culture, the Stylistics. The distinguished cinematographer Hiro Narita (Never Cry Wolf) captures the hard San Francisco light and the burnished glow of the beautifully painted cars. Unfortunately, this care is lavished on an overwrought, predictable story of an angry ethnic father: Che discovers that his son, Jesse (Jeremy Ray Valdez), is gay, and he spends the rest of the movie hitting things, including the bottle, until he has an epiphany with the help of an Aztec ceremony. Bratt, so good as a conflicted, self-effacing drug counselor in the recently canceled television series The Cleaner, is less assured as the macho hipster Che, strutting around the neighborhood saying, “Check you later” and “Where the party people at?” Peter Bratt does his brother no favors: at the height of the father-son conflict, Che actually declares, “You’re dead to me.” Erika Alexander lends some dignity to the film as the new neighbor who catches Che’s roving eye. Grade: C

The Good Heart (2010) Why are people still making movies so beholden to creaky indie formulas? You could spend all of this film counting cliches, from the melancholy score and bleached-out tone to the quirky characters and painfully predictable conclusion. Brian Cox is Jacques, the cranky New Yorker with an unreliable ticker, while Paul Dano is Lucas, the homeless waif who teaches him to love. Together, along with French beauty Isild Le Besco, they run Jacques’ bar, planning for the day when Lucas will inherit it. Dagur Kari both wrote and directed, so he has no one else to blame for so little originality. Neither does his hard-working cast, all of whom deserve better. Grade: C-minus

Multiple Sarcasms (2010) It’s no accident that the unhappy architect played by Timothy Hutton in this 1979-set movie spends his weekday afternoons at the Cinema Village playing hooky, repeatedly watching a big film from that year, Starting Over. That film features what is arguably Burt Reynolds’ best performance, as a newly divorced man in what was a response to feminist films such as An Unmarried Woman. Hutton, who won an Oscar for 1980's Ordinary People, does fine work in Multiple Sarcasms as a man whose marriage is coming apart during his mid-life crisis. But the movie itself shows how stories like Starting Over have devolved since they were abandoned by major studios for threadbare, navel-gazing indies like this one. First-time filmmaker Brooks Branch underutilizes an estimable cast in a movie that basically sums itself up in a line of dialogue: “I love you, I really do, but this f---ing whiny white-guy s--t has got to stop.” It doesn’t. Not after Hutton, fired from his job, locks himself in the bathroom with his typewriter — and his fed-up wife Dana Delany (almost as chilly as Candace Bergen in Starting Over) flees with their precocious daughter (India Ennenga). It continues when Hutton, despite warnings from his gay male best friend (Mario Van Peebles), makes a pass at his longtime platonic female best friend (Mira Sorvino). It seems unlikely that Hutton’s loser will ever complete a play he’s been working on, and even more improbable that his agent (Stockard Channing) will find someone to produce it. Multiple Sarcasms happens to be the title of the play within the movie, and it turns out to be by far the most interesting thing in the film. Not that many people will want to suffer through the first 90 minutes of this vanity production to get there. Grade: D

Letters to God (2010) Christian filmmaking takes a turn for the worst with this treacle-y tale “inspired” by the true story of an 8-year-old boy fighting brain cancer who carries on a pen-and-paper correspondence with God. An alcoholic, substitute postman retrieves them and finds his own life transformed in the process. Basically a cinematic infomercial for the power of prayer, Letters to God is far too simplistic and pandering to find success outside of the targeted church-going family DVD renters/buyers it’s hoping to reach. Decent cash register receipts can be expected from this sector but the collection plate may be empty otherwise. Tyler Doherty (Tanner Maguire) is a spirited young man plagued with brain cancer and forced to endure endless chemotherapy sessions. His faith and ability to express his thoughts in letters addressed simply to “God” are what gets him through the experience and also eventually have a profound effect on those around him, including a part-time divorced postal worker, Brady McDaniels (Jeffrey S. Johnson), who hits the local bar when he’s not delivering mail and finds his life a mess as a result of his alcoholism. On top on his other problems he learns he is now going to lose any rights to see his son after a near-fatal traffic accident and DUI lands him in hot water. His encounters with Tyler and his letters give him a respite from the Jack Daniels and seem to have a life-changing effect on him as he grows closer to Tyler’s family and especially his widowed mom (Robyn Lively), who has a series of problems of her own including Tyler’s illness and the neglect of her older teenaged son, Ben (Michael Christopher Bolten). After a number of incidents provide the film’s desperately needed sense of drama, Brady finds a way to energize the entire community by turning Tyler’s letters into positive action. First time co-writer and co-director Patrick Doughtie used his own personal experience with the death of his-10-year old son (to whom the film is dedicated) to weave this tale of hope and faith in God and religion during the most trying times of life. While the effort is certainly laudable and understandably cathartic it’s also (sadly) a real slog for us viewers. The film’s whitebread suburban setting is so hopelessly old-fashioned and homogenized you’d swear Beaver Cleaver must live right down the street. Unlike other more sophisticated recent Christian movie successes like Fireproof with Kirk Cameron there is no complexity to these characters at all and the relentless pitch for prayer as the answer to all life’s problems is laid on like molasses. Under the circumstances performances are okay, with Greg Kinnear look-a-like Johnson and Lively getting the lions share of the big emotional breakdown scenes. Maguire does fine along with ever-smiling best friend Samantha, played by the delightful Bailee Madison (Brothers). Veterans Marie Cheeatham as Grandma and Ralph Waite don’t have much to do but offer bumper sticker platitudes or sit around on the front porch playing checkers. It’s that kind of movie. And you thought they didn’t make ‘em like this anymore. Grade: D

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Best Movies: 1948

The 10 Best Movies of 1948

1. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Directed by John Huston. Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt. I would argue that this is John Huston’s best film (in an extremely close call over Chinatown) and, while it’s not my favorite Bogart movie, I would also argue that this film features his finest acting performance. I also think his Oscar three years later for The African Queen was a “make up” tribute to Bogart who was not even nominated for this role. I also think Bogart thought so too because, at the time, he said the only fair way to pick “a best actor” was to have all five nominees recite the soliloquy from Hamlet. (The best actor Oscar this year went to the star of the next film on this list.) John and Walter Huston did win an Oscars for this film, the only time in history a father-son combination won for the same picture. Thirty-seven years later, John’s daughter, Anjelica, would also won an Oscar for a film directed by John.

2. Hamlet. Directed by Laurence Olivier. Laurence Olivier, Eileen Herlie, Basil Sydney. Even at 2 hours, 35 minutes, this is an abridged version of Shakespeare’s epic tragedy. To this day, however, I wish Olivier had handed the directorial chores to someone else — he seems too consumed with the visual aspects of directing and not concerned enough with acting directions for his cast. I do, however, applaud his decision to shoot this film in black and white. (He filmed his first run at Shakespeare, Henry V, in color). The photography perfectly suits the gloomy, brooding mood of the piece

3. The Red Shoes. Directed by Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger. Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring, Moira Shearer. The best ballet film ever made, which is feint praise from me because I am not that big a fan of the art. I would be, however, if more ballet performances were as engrossing as the title dance segment of this beautifully photographed, marvelously directed, superbly acted film. From the “Let’s Be Thankful for Small Favors” Department: Powell and Pressburger bought the rights for this script from producer Alexander Korda who originally commissioned Pressburger to write it for his wife Merle Oberon.

4. Oliver Twist. Directed by David Lean. Alec Guinness, Robert Newton. Not on the same level as Lean’s Great Expectations, but still a superb Dickens interpretation, with some of the best art direction and set decoration to be seen in a 1940s film. It really transported me to that place (London, mainly) in that time. The title role is played by John Howard Davies who went on to become the producer of such landmark British television shows as Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the related Fawlty Towers.

5. Red River. Directed by Howard Hawks. John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan, Joanne Dru. This was Hawks’ first western and it proved he could master this genre just as well as he mastered comedy (His Girl Friday), mystery (The Big Sleep) and, to a lesser extent, war films (Air Force). I would go so far as to argue that The Ox-Bow Incident was the only better western from the 1940s, that is if you don’t count the top film on this list as a “western,” which I don’t. Wayne was never better and strangely enough, Clift’s method approach perfectly complemented the Duke’s more traditional one.

6. Easter Parade. Directed by Charles Walters. Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Peter Lawford, Ann Miller. Too good only to be seen during the Easter holidays. Originally, Gene Kelly was supposed to star in this musical about revenge (admittedly, a strange topic for a musical), but he injured his ankle playing volleyball, of all things, and told producer Arthur Freed to convince Astaire to come out of his announced retirement. The result is one of Astaire’s best film appearances. The little tyke in the final number is Liza Minnelli.

7. Key Largo. Directed by John Huston. Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Lauren Bacall, Lionel Barrymore, Claire Trevor. Huston’s second classic of this year and, in my opinion, his direction made this a far better version of Maxwell Anderson’s material than it was on the stage. It also gives me the opportunity to bemoan the fact that Robinson was one of a handful of superb actors who never received an Oscar nomination, let alone a statuette. Robinson virtually invented the screen gangster 18 years earlier with Little Caesar and this is his excellent bookend to that type of part.

8. The Fallen Idol. Directed by Carol Reed. Ralph Richardson, Michele Morgan, Bobby Henrey. The first of two majestical Reed-Graham Greene collaborations (the second, even superior, one will be highlighted in 1949's list) is a wonderful thriller uniquely told from a child’s point of view. For those who want to know what a great director means to a film, simply study the camera movements, the lighting and the acting performances in this one.

9. Fort Apache. Directed by John Ford. John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple. The first and the best of Ford’s so-called “cavalry trilogy” a film that explored the everyday life of the solder and the women on the American frontier and, even more importantly, the difference between the facts and the presentation of heroism. I also disagree with all those who say Fonda was miscast in this role — I believe he was exactly the right choice to play this thinly disguised version of General Custer.

10. Johnny Belinda. Directed by Jean Negulesco. Jane Wyman, Lew Ayres, Charles Bickford, Jan Sterling, Agnes Moorehead, Stephen McNally. Had it not been for Negulesco’s atmospheric direction and Wyman’s majestical performance, for which she justly won an Oscar, this would have been nothing more than soap opera. Interestingly, studio head Jack Warner predicted this film would be a financial disaster, arguing that no one would pay to see a movie in which the leading lady didn’t say anything. Was he ever wrong.

Is it too hot for the birds?

The granddaughter and I were refilling our bird feeders Saturday and, in the process, I spilled some wild bird seed on her patio table. No problem, I thought. The birds would soon swoop in and devour it.

Yesterday, on my way to the garage, I couldn't help but notice that the food was still there, untouched. I walked around the neighborhood looking for birds and didn't see a one. Not one.

Not that I'm all that alarmed, mind you, but it did seem strange. In fact, it still does.

Elvis's Dallas No-Tell Motel; inquiring minds (especially mine) want to know more

I am currently reading Alanna Nash's biography of Elvis Presley called Baby, Let's Place House. and came across this paragraph:
"On the way to play his Vegas dates that August (1975), he again had trouble breathing on the plane. It made a forced landing in Dallas, and after recuperating in a motel for several hours, he continued on."
She did not cite a source for this information in the book's Endnotes. Does anyone have any additional details about this episode?

Gosselin's Greatest

Rick Gosselin, arguably the finest reporter covering the NFL these days, is offering, courtesy of the Dallas Morning News, his choices of the 10 greatest running backs in the history of the NFL. Since everyone, including yours truly, is a sucker for ranked lists, I was immediately attracted to Gosselin's. Trouble is, there isn't really a listing, just a picture gallery. At the risk of misinterpreting The Great One, here is my take on Gosselin's list:

1. Jim Brown
2.  Barry Sanders
3.  Gayle Sayers
4.  O.J. Simpson
5.  Walter Peyton
6.  Eriic Dickerson
7.  Emmit Smith
8.  Earl Campbell
9.  Marcus Allen
10. Marshall Falk

I have no arguments with the list, except that I might want to switch numbers seven and eight.

Update: After going through this exercise, I discovered exactly where Gosselin (or perhaps the editors of the News' picture galleries) identified each photo. So now my listing here serves as a quick guide for those who don't want to navigate the entire slide show, which offers a pair of pictures for each candidate.

City needs to recognize Lill's efforts

Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm will present her recommended budget for Fiscal Year 2010-11 Monday during a special city council briefing session. Most of the headlines will involve her recommended cuts in the library and parks departments, her elimination of jobs, and her recommended pay cuts for all city employees, including those in the police and fire departments.

However, if past budget presentations are any indication, her recommendations will also include cuts in cultural affairs. In fact, her last recommended budget included the elimination of the Office of Cultural Affairs, merging its activities into, as I recall, the Library Department. That plan was shelved largely because of the efforts of former city council member Veletta Forsythe Lill who is, without question, the most tireless champion of the arts this city has ever known. You can bet that Lill will be at the forefront of any attempt to slash funds to the arts and to the libraries again this year.

I may not always agree with every one of Lill's priorities. I was a longtime opponent of Dallas Community Television for reasons that are now evident to all: Since that institution's demise, the quality of the city's cable television channel has improved dramatically. Lill supported DCTV. But I also know that the city's so-called Arts District, of which most of us are proud (or should be), would not exist in its present form if it were not for the passionate involvement of Veletta Forsythe Lill.

The city now needs to recognize and celebrate those efforts. One suggestion would be to re-name something after her. How about The Veletta Forsythe Lill Bandshell at Fair Park?

I'm sure that greater minds could come up with something better than that, however. Specifically, what I would like to see happen is for Suhm to instruct the Office of Cultural Affairs to get together with the Parks and Recreation Department and come up with a series of recommendations to recognize Lill's efforts to preserve and enhance the arts in Dallas. I would then want these recommendations presented in a briefing to the City Council's Quality of Life Committee, which would then present one of these recommendations to the full City Council for enactment. And I would like to see the City Council vote to approve this recommendation before the end of this calendar year.

It's imperative the city honor its cultural hero.

The date rape debate

Five or so years ago I attended a District 10 budget town hall meeting, hosted by then City Councilman Bill Blaydes that featured a presentation David Brown who was then leading the Dallas Police Department's Northeast Substation. He spoke about crime statistics in the area and said the top crimes were property thefts, items stolen from homes or parked cars. He said property owners could help prevent many of these crimes simply by locking the doors of their cars and homes, not leaving garage doors open when no one was in the garage, and not leaving valuable items on car seats in vacant cars. Made sense to me and to this day I have followed that advice. But I never for one minute thought that Chief Brown was blaming property owners for property thefts.

During the City Council's Public Safety Committee meeting Monday, now Police Chief David Brown was again talking about crime statistics, specifically sexual assaults and said date rapes often occur when scumbag, cowardly sexual predators (my words, not his) take advantage of women who are more vulnerable than they might ordinarily be in the company of these gutless vultures they don't know that well because the women in question consumed too much alcohol. Unfortunately, what Chief Brown said is undoubtedly 100 per cent accurate.

But even more unfortunately, in an example of irresponsible reporting, Andrea Grimes of the Dallas Observer, paraphrased Chief Brown's comments in an entirely different way: "And we all know what the solution to date rape is: getting women to stop drinking, because that is what causes date rape. Not dudes raping women, but women drinking."

Then Bethany Anderson of D Magazine, who did not see Brown's comments but only Grimes's totally misleading interpretation of them, added in a blog entry headlined Dallas PD Chief' Solution for Date Rape: Women Quiet Drinking added: "So date rape solved? Don’t drink if you have two x chromosomes. Forget the fact that the drunk cannot consent to sex, and nonconsensual sex = rape."

I will give Anderson credit, however, for somewhat backing off her comments later in the day. In a subsequent blog entry headlined A Mea Culpa, of Sorts, she wrote: "I do think that the resulting discussion was, by the whole, a good leaping off point for exactly the sort of thing Chief Brown said we needed – more preventive measures that educate both men and women."  She wrote the followup after looking at a video of the chief's appearance before the committee and not just on Grimes' erroneous interpretation of that appearance.

I wished we lived in a perfect world, but we all know that we don't. There are places in this city, many of them establishments that serve alcohol, where I will not go very late at night out of concern for my own safety. I wish that was not true, but, unfortunately, it is. The definition of rape makes me ashamed of my own gender. I don't own a gun or a rifle or any other weapon designed solely for killing another human being, but if someone sexually assaulted my granddaughter I would get one pretty damn quickly and use it pretty damn effectively. I also know, however, that, as she get older, her father is going to educate her on ways to avoid dangerous situations, such as what Chief Brown said at Monday's Public Safety Committee meeting. I hope Andrea Grimes doesn't object to my son empowering his own daughter.

Monday, August 2, 2010

To be released tomorrow on DVD

Near the end of A Prophet, one of those rare films in which the moral stakes are as insistent and thought through as the aesthetic choices, there’s a scene in which the lead character, Malik, travels to Paris to kill some men. The scene reverberates with almost unbearable tension but is briefly punctured by a seemingly throwaway image: Seconds before he begins shooting, thereby sealing his fate, you see him catch sight of a pair of men’s shoes showcased like jewels in a boutique window in a rich Parisian quarter. He does a double take, a reaction that might mirror that of the anxious viewer who wonders why he doesn’t just get on with it.

Much of what distinguishes A Prophet (Un Prophète) is revealed in Malik’s brief appreciation of the shoes, as well as the surprise it elicits. He’s window shopping — doesn’t he have some killing to do? Yet these luxury items are resonant, as is their exclusive setting and the way Malik’s admiring gaze momentarily stops the flow of the action: each adds another element to this portrait of an impoverished young Frenchman of Arab descent who is transformed in prison. Over the course of the film Malik will learn to read, to smuggle, to murder, to survive. Which is why when he pauses after unloading his guns, his pale face floating in the sanguineous dark, it looks as if he were emerging from a kind of womb: his metamorphosis is complete.

A Prophet was directed by Jacques Audiard, whose talents have deepened with each new film. (His previous one, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, from 2005, is a superb remake of Fingers, James Toback’s art-pulp thriller.) Like some other prison tales A Prophet, which won the grand prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, has the flavor of the ethnographic. Its subject is an individual in a context, and while Malik (Tahar Rahim, a stealth presence) is the story’s focus, he’s also part of an inquiry on power. When he first enters prison for a vague crime involving an assault, he arrives as a relative innocent, but, more important to his trajectory, he’s unschooled both as a criminal and a citizen.

His education is sudden and brutal. The film opens with Malik being ordered to strip for the guards on his arrival, a ritualistic divesting (and humiliation) that the inmates and the prison system continue. He soon attracts the unwelcome attention of César Luciani (the tremendous Niels Arestrup), an old lion who rules over the Corsican gang that controls the prison, including some guards. To protect his own, César orders Malik to murder another prisoner, Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), also of Arab extraction. Without friends or affiliation, Malik believes he has no choice and carries out the murder with a razor blade that he’s hidden inside his mouth and which he fumbles as the blood gushes over him, his victim, the walls.

It takes a few agonizing moments for Reyeb to die, perhaps because of Malik’s awkwardness, or maybe it just takes a while to bleed to death. At any rate it is a ghastly vision. But it isn’t simply the gore or Reyeb’s twitching body that make the scene difficult to watch: it’s the way the murder has been messily, even frantically staged and filmed, the two men thrashing inside a frame that can barely contain them. There is nothing exciting about the violence, and there are no beauty shots of the pooling blood. Audiard effectively turns us into witnesses to a horrible crime, though not in order to punish us for our ostensible complicity in the violence. He is instead, I think, insisting on the obscenity of murder.

This insistence is critical to A Prophet, as is the way Audiard wants you to feel revolted by the murder, even as he encourages you to feel something else for Malik by showing, for instance, how his body continues to tremble after Reyeb’s has stopped shuddering. Audiard doesn’t sex up Malik’s crimes, turning them into easily digestible spectacles, the kind made to accompany a large popcorn and soda. But he doesn’t solicit our pity: Malik is guilty. Yet guilt is like a poisonous gas in this film, it suffuses the prison, permeating the guards’ rooms and the cells in which corrupt lawyers counsel their murderous clients, and the larger world where politicians make decisions that send some to jail while freeing others.

All this is conveyed discreetly as Malik experiences the banalities of prison along with its shocks, surrealism and spasms of weird comedy. Having killed for César, he essentially surrenders to the Corsicans, for whom he serves a second, parallel sentence and who reward him with racist contempt. César keeps Malik busy running errands, which allows Audiard to take him (and us) all across the prison and sometimes outside of it. This expands the story and Malik’s horizon, as do some other prisoners, Ryad (Adel Bencherif) and Jordi (Reda Kateb). Every so often Audiard slows the film down and blacks out some of the image so we can linger on a detail as if to remind us to really look at what we’re watching.

A Prophet is about the education of a young man within a specific social order. You could read it as an allegory about France and its uneasy relations with generations of Arab immigrants and their children. As usual, there is room for diverging, even contradictory interpretations, and the political certainly is as much at play here as the Oedipal. Audiard, for his part, working from a screenplay he wrote with several others, avoids speeches that explain everything and instead opts for a materialist approach that attends to the realities of prison life, showing how guards and porters deliver the prisoners’ food (baguettes!) and how Malik, as he shakes off César’s grip, helps distribute illicit drugs.

Much as he does inside the prison, Arestrup, who played the thuggish father in The Beat That My Heart Skipped, initially dominates A Prophet, boring into the story with unnerving small gestures and the force of his presence. He’s playing another patriarch in this film, of course, the kind who rules small worlds with cruelty. With his overcoats, bulky frame and proud carriage, he can bring to mind the later-life Jean Gabin, though Arestrup’s terrifying smile quickly snuffs out such nostalgic thoughts. César is not a figure of sentimentality. Among other things he is a businessman, and the cold-bloodedness with which he wields his power might be a matter of personal depravity. It also serves his bottom line.

Like his character, Rahim’s performance sneaks up from behind. With his wispy mustache and a body that scarcely fills his clothes, Malik makes an unlikely center for such a thrilling film. The camera doesn’t love him, no matter how closely it hovers. But Malik was not meant for our love, and Rahim’s performance, while strong, is purposefully not flashy, as movie outlaws often are. Audiard seems to be after something else, and in A Prophet he shows us the truth of another human being who might otherwise escape from our sight because he is too foreign, or whom we might try to pity just to feel safe. But the world we make is not necessarily safe, and neither are those we leave alone to fight for their survival. Grade: A-plus

Other recently released films on DVD tomorrow:

The Ghost Writer (2010) A writer (Ewan McGregor) stumbles upon a long-hidden secret when he agrees to help former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) complete his memoirs on a remote island after the politician’s assistant drowns in a mysterious accident. The darkly brooding sky that hangs over much of this film, the latest from Roman Polanski, suggests that all is grim and gray and perhaps even for naught. But this high-grade pulp entertainment is too delectably amusing and self-amused, and far too aware of its own outrageous conceits to sustain such a dolorous verdict. The world has gone mad of course — this is a Polanski film — so all you can do is puzzle through the madness, dodging the traps with ironic detachment and tongue lightly in cheek. Polanski is a master of menace and, working with a striking wintry palette that at times veers into the near-monochromatic — the blacks are strong and inky, the churning ocean the color of lead — he creates a wholly believable world rich in strange contradictions and ominous implications. Polanski delivers this pulpy fun at such a high level that The Ghost Writer is irresistible, no matter how obvious the twists. Everything — including Alexandre Desplat’s score, with its mocking, light notes and urgent rhythms suggestive of Bernard Herrmann — works to sustain a mood, establish an atmosphere and confirm an authorial intelligence that distinguishes this film from the chaff. Unlike many modern Hollywood and Hollywood-style thrillers, which seek to wrest tension from a frenzy of cutting and a confusion of camera angles, Polanski creates suspense inside the frame through dynamic angles and through the discrete, choreographed movements of the camera and actors. He makes especially effective use of the enormous windows in Lang’s house through which the sky and ocean beckon and threaten. It would be easy to overstate the appeal of The Ghost Writer just as, I imagine, it will be easy for some to dismiss it. But the pleasures of a well-directed movie should never be underestimated. The image of Brosnan abruptly leaning toward the camera like a man possessed is worth a dozen Oscar-nominated performances. And the way, when Lang chats with the writer — his arms and legs open, a drink in hand, as if he were hitting on a woman — shows how an actor and his director can sum up an entire personality with a single pose. Polanski’s work with his performers is consistently subtle even when the performances seem anything but, which is true of this very fine film from welcome start to finish. Grade: B-plus

Kick-Ass (2010) Inspired by his love of comic books, high school student Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) decides to transform himself into a masked crime fighter — a decision that eventually thrusts the teenager into Internet stardom. Soon, Dave’s antics inspire a wave of would-be heroes to don costumes and live out their superhero fantasies, one of them a little girl (Chloe Moretz) who’s the star of her own splatter-happy head trip. Fast, periodically spit-funny and often grotesquely violent, the film at once embraces and satirizes contemporary action-film clichés with Tarantino-esque self-regard. There’s something about the killer schoolgirl that turns some filmmakers on, and audiences, too — who knows what further dangers lurk beneath that kilt? However chastely, British director Matthew Vaughn plays on that unsettling image, which shores up the false impression that because Moretz’s character, Hit-Girl, is a powerful figure she’s also an empowering one. Moretz certainly walks the walk and jumps the jump, loading a new gun in midrun like a baby Terminator. But as her deployment of a four-letter slur for women indicates, and as the cop-out last blowout only underscores, Hit-Girl isn’t a wee Wonder Woman. She’s not even a latter-day Lara Croft, who, however absurd, works on screen because of Angelina Jolie’s own outsize persona. A supergimmick, Hit-Girl by contrast is a heroine for these movie times: a vision of female might whittled down to pocketsize. Grade: B

Diary of a Wimpy Kid (2010) Middle school isn’t all it’s cracked up to be for self-described “wimpy kid” Greg Heffley, who discovers a frightening new world teeming with boys who are taller, tougher and hairier than he is — and decides to document it all in his diary. In this film adaptation of Greg’s life, however, a team of writers and an uninspired director are responsible for his woes, translating his tale to the screen with little verve, wit or grace. This Diary of a Wimpy kid is too often dull, unappealing and clumsy, hobbled by unnecessary changes and inventions that add no charm, energy or, truly, point. Zachary Gordon and Robert Capron play Greg and his doofy best buddy Rowley, and they’re fine for the most part. But director Thor Freudenthal (Hotel for Dogs) is a klutz, unable to do much of anything except watch along with us. The thing in this film that feels most alive is a slice of cheese rotting on a playground blacktop — which would be a funny joke if it was intentional. Grade: C-plus

Blood Done Sign My Name (2010) A drama from director Jeb Stuart based on the real-life 1970 murder in Oxford, N.C., of black Vietnam veteran Henry Marrow by virulent racists subsequently acquitted by an all-white North Carolina jury despite overwhelming evidence of their guilt. The flatness of the characterizations, combined with the slow, meandering pace of Stuart’s storytelling, drains some of the intensity from the story. This movie has the mood and tone of a made-for-television drama dutifully explaining an important piece of history, and at times the film’s ambitions stretch beyond its abilities. The cast is enormous, and Stuart’s evident desire to respect the truth of the story in all its details leaves him without a clear, emphatic dramatic structure. And yet these very shortcomings sometimes manage to turn into virtues. The difficulty in fixing on a central character means that the town of Oxford becomes both hero and villain. What the film lacks in psychological nuance it makes up for in unassuming, intimate social observation. Some of the people may seem to wear virtual signs around their necks. But the place itself — its physical layout and especially the manners and speech patterns of its citizens — breathes with an unusually delicate sense of reality. Stuart, himself a native of the Tarheel state, takes his time over family meals, informal parties, and the everyday exchanges of news and courtesies that make up Southern life even in times of tumult. He also shows how racism, rather than being the pathology of a few bad apples, was woven into the fabric of daily existence. This is a curious, somewhat ungainly movie. But it is also rich and fascinating. At times you think you are watching a clumsy stage pageant superimposed on a documentary; it’s so stiff, and yet at the same time so real. Grade: C

The Living Wake (2010) When his doctor informs him he’ll die soon from an unnamed disease, self-proclaimed artist K. Roth Binew (Mike O’Connell) — who’s never completed a work of art — decides to celebrate his life with a party. The film seems but a protracted act of stultifying self-indulgence (but then maybe that’s the point) and its star nothing more than a shorter, stockier Conan O’Brien. O’Connell’s K. Roth Binew speaks with unstinting grandiloquence and is transported everywhere in a rickshaw attached to a bicycle ridden by his adoring manservant Mills Joquin (Jesse Eisenberg). Binew remains enraged at having been abandoned in childhood by his father, spouts off on this and that and drinks a lot. None of this seems amusing or enlightening or even all that original. The film becomes a cautionary tale on self-importance fed by a need for recognition so desperate that it smacks of fantasy and madness. Grade: D-plus

After Life (2010) As the life of young Anna Taylor (Christina Ricci) hangs precariously in the balance, funeral director Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson), who has a mysterious ability to help the dead transition to the afterlife, has complete control over her fate. Though it’s possible she isn’t dead after all, it’s equally possible that she’s already in hell. Director Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo can’t figure out how to build on her base, overusing a melodramatic score to boost the mild shocks and solemn philosophizing. And as a first-time feature director, she doesn’t have the confident hand needed to guide her actors, who are so out of sync that they barely seem to be in the same film. While nobody comes out especially well, Ricci is the only one required to spend much of the movie naked. And for what? The only thing worse than bad horror is pretentiously bad horror. From title to finish, After.Life takes itself far more seriously than you will. Grade: D-plus

Finding Bliss (2010) Jody Balaban (Leelee Sobieski), a promising filmmaker, works at a porn studio while secretly creating her own “legit” movie when no one is looking. When she’s discovered, Jody is forced to work with porn director Jeff Drake (Matthew Davis) and a cast of adult film stars. This is a carnival of horrors. Writer/director Julie Davis’ Borscht Belt sensibility keeps the jokes coming at a rapid clip and even though nearly all of them are flopping, there’s a generosity to the attempt that keeps the film from scraping bottom. It’s a big-hearted, well-intentioned disaster. Grade: D

Happiness Runs (2010) Having been raised in a polygamous commune — where the clan guru, Insley (Rutger Hauer), uses his powers of persuasion to woo women into his bed — Victor (Mark L. Young) is finally old enough to realize he wants a different life. But now that childhood crush Becky (Hanna R. Hall) has returned to care for her ailing father, Victor is concerned she’ll fall prey to his own mother’s (Andie MacDowell) fate. As the film builds to a feverish hysteria, you have to work hard to keep from laughing. Victor finally escapes and moves to Hollywood to make movies, but first there’s beaucoup nudity, insanity, hallucinogenic mushrooms, self-mutilation with razor blades and suicide. O.K., life without structure or purpose leads to disillusionment and angst, but we knew that already. I’ll be darned if I know what deeper lesson we’re supposed to learn after suffering through 88 minutes of misery. Don’t raise your children in a commune? Duh. The struggle of the individual against the collective is a worthy theme, but the dismal Happiness Runs — amateurishly directed, clumsily written and choppily edited —l acks form and takes on the look and feel of personal therapy at the audience’s expense. Sometimes a filmmaker’s private hell is better off left behind the closed door of an analyst’s office. Grade: D-minus

To Save a Life (2010) After tragedy strikes a childhood friend, Jake Taylor (Randy Wayne) reevaluates his life. By reaching out to lonely outsider Jonny (Sean Michael), Jake risks losing everything that matters most to him, including a college scholarship and his friends. The director, Brian Baugh, was the cinematographer for the conservative screed An American Carol, a clumsy parody of Michael Moore movies, and here similar politics come in adolescent camouflage. The film would be a mere nuisance if not for its shameless exploitation of school shootings to advance its agenda. But forget the lame performances and arch, preachy sentiment; the movie’s sham hip-hop and spurious alternative music alone should keep teenagers from renting this. Thank goodness. Grade: F