Monday, February 28, 2011

Good Night to The Muse

These days I understand Ernie Gammage is a Very Important Person with the Parks and Wildlife Commission, but I will always remember him fondly as the bass player and a vocalist for the Austin-based Mother of Pearl back in the 1970s. At one point, just about half his bandmates were getting married around the same time and I asked him if this fact concerned him at all. He said "No. I'm looking forward to all the great songs they will write when their marriages break up."

I thought of what Ernie told me when I learned today that Suzan "Suze" Rotolo died at the age of 69 following a long illness. If you are not familiar with the name you might be familiar with the songs she inspired, songs like Boots of Spanish Leather, Tomorrow Is a Long Time and Don't Think Twice. Yes, for a short time in the early 1960s, she was Bob Dylan's lover and muse. She was also a class act, never once capitalizing on her association with Dylan. In fact, in his book Chronicles, Dylan talked more about Rotolo than she ever did about him.

She is probably best known as the answer to the question "Who's that girl with Bob Dylan on the cover of the Freewheelin' album?". She and Dylan met backstage after one of his concerts. The moved into an apartment together on Fourth Street (the Freewheelin' picture was taken on Jones Street in February 1962.) Just a few months later, she broke with Dylan to spend the summer with her parents in Italy. She returned to him however, but the romance ended when he began seeing fellow folksinger Joan Baez.

Rotolo led her own life after her brief but passionate affair with Dylan as a teacher, painter and illustrator. In 1970 she married Italian filmmaker Enzo Bartoccioli and they had one son Luca. She lived in Greenwich Village her entire life.

She was the child of extremely left-wing parents and she herself engaged in many civil rights activities in the early 1960s. She is credited with introducing Dylan to those causes which led to the writing of some of his most inspired early folk songs.

The Oscars: Predictable and non-memorable

No real surprises at last night's Oscar ceremonies unless you count how excellent Anne Hathaway was a co-host and how uncomfortable James Franco came across as her partner. I could see someone mounting a revival of Cabaret on Broadway with Hathaway as Sally Bowles. She would be superb in that role.

I thought the opening sequence was kind of clever until it ran out of steam and I was glad the show seems to have finally done away with for all time the big-scale production numbers that used to grind it to a halt. I was one of the few who didn't like the five actors extolling the virtues of the acting nominees. But I didn't much like the way it was done this year either, with a Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock handing out the kudos. (Bullock seemed so much more at ease than Bridges and either she ad-libbed much of her bit or had far superior writers). Why not just show longer clips of each nominee from their respective films? The Grammys have got it right. That show knows it's a celebration of music and it features almost non-stop music, interrupted only briefly for the handing out of another award. And most of the Grammys are distributed before the telecast even takes place. The Oscars could take a lesson here and be more about showing us the movies.

I did think it was ironic that all the talk before the telecast was about appealing to a younger demographic and then here comes Kirk Douglas who steals the show.

I also thought best actor Colin Firth continued his string of outstanding acceptance speeches. “I have a feeling my career’s just peaked,” he said upon accepting his Oscar and then added he was “experiencing stirrings” somewhere in the upper abdominal region, “which are threatening to transform themselves into dance moves.” The man is a real class act.

It was also good to see Billy Crystal again, but, omigod that Botox!

As for the awards themselves, my only real disappointment was that Roger Deakins was cheated out of an Oscar for his superb True Grit cinematography. I knew before the ceremonies began that the best picture of the year, The Social Network, was not going to win the Oscar for best picture so I couldn't say I was disappointed when it didn't. I predicted Tom Hooper would win best director but I did hold out a slight hope that Network's David Fincher might pull off the upset. But it was not to be. I was mildly surprised to see that the support for The King's Speech did not run all that deep, not even as deep as the support for The Hurt Locker last year. Speech was nominated for 12 Oscars, but only won four, the same number as Inception. But that fact is tempered by the realization that the great The Godfather received 11 Oscar nominations, but only three trophies.

But there's also the realization that Raging Bull, Network, The Graduate, Citizen Kane and The Wizard of Oz didn't win a best picture Oscar either and their legacies as among the greatest American films ever made are not in question. Now we can add The Social Network to that list.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Currently available on DVD "Client 9 : The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer"

If you have followed the strange tale of Eliot Spitzer you get the sense that the former governor of New York must have read his share of Greek classics. In Alex Gibney’s documentary, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, Spitzer says that hubris played a role in his stumble. Like Peter Elkind’s recent book, Rough Justice: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, the movie quotes from a 2005 speech in which Spitzer jokingly describes a T-shirt that he was given with “Hubris is terminal” on it. After being exposed, Spitzer told an aide, “Welcome to a Greek tragedy.”

More like a depressing lesson in power politics, though that’s probably not what Gibney was shooting for. While its full title suggests that Client 9 is about the highs and lows in one powerful man’s life, the movie is more rightly an anatomy of political gamesmanship at a high level. Coming seven months after the publication of Rough Justice, it is also the fruit of a cross-media partnership. Previously, Elkind helped write a book about Enron, The Smartest Guys in the Room, which Gibney turned into a movie. This time they chased the Spitzer story separately while “sharing ideas and information along the way.”

Gibney blends his ingredients — talking-head interviews, photographs, news reports, shots of a glittering, jewel-like New York — together in expert fashion, though much of it is familiar, including to readers of The New York Times, which, on March 10, 2008, broke the story that Spitzer had been linked to a prostitution ring. Two days later the governor — who as the state’s attorney general had overseen the 2004 bust of a prostitution ring — resigned from office, apologizing for not living “up to what was expected of me.” For two years the 54th governor of New York had been a client of one of those high-end enterprises, euphemistically called escort services, that offered the “girlfriend experience” for $1,000 (and up) an hour.

The movie spends some time checking into the prostitution angle and even tosses in some of the details recounted in Elkind’s book, including the assertion that Spitzer hired three women in a single day, which he denied. Somewhat unusually for a documentary, Gibney hired an actress to recite lines from interviews he conducted with Spitzer’s favorite playmate, a chatty woman who did not want to appear on camera. The use of actors in nonfiction film dates back at least to The March of Time, newsreel-like shorts that were shown in movie theaters starting in 1935. But it’s a distraction here.

That’s particularly true because, for Gibney, the juiciest parts of this story weren’t the explicit, sometimes banal details, like Spitzer’s famous black socks. No, the good stuff, as far as Gibney’s movie and Elkind’s book theorize, involves the power brokers who — enraged by Spitzer’s activism as attorney general, specifically in his hard-charging capacity as the Sheriff of Wall Street — might have had something to do with his downfall. (Although the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York at the time has indicated that they didn’t.) Spitzer had a lot of enemies by the time he became governor and quickly picked up more. One of those was Joseph L. Bruno, the longtime former Republican majority leader of the New York State Senate, who some in the Spitzer administration had unsuccessfully gone after in the scandal called Troopergate.

Whether he’s hitting a bag or yammering in news reports, Bruno, a former boxer and notorious political pugilist, makes a colorful, entertaining interview subject, as does the strategist Roger Stone. Both men are important stops on the trail of bread crumbs that Gibney persuasively sprinkles and that leads to Maurice R. Greenberg, the former chairman of A.I.G., and that snakes over to Kenneth G. Langone, a co-founder of Home Depot and a former director of the New York Stock Exchange. As attorney general, Spitzer sued Greenberg and A.I.G., and named Langone in a suit for his part in the compensation package paid to Richard A. Grasso, the former chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, whose $139.5 million haul became emblematic of Wall Street greed.

(Last May, Bruno was sentenced to two years in prison on federal corruption charges after receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from a businessman who wanted help from the Legislature. He remains free, and the case is before a federal appeals court.)

Gibney and Elkind are not alone in floating the theory of conspiratorial payback. In March 2008, in a syndicated piece titled “Did Wall Street Nail Spitzer?,” the left-wing columnist Alexander Cockburn noted that in an interview with CNBC (which Gibney also samples) Langone seemed to have intimate knowledge of Spitzer’s activity: “I know for sure he went himself to a post office and bought $2,800 worth of mail orders to send to the hooker,” he said, adding, “I know somebody who was standing in back of him in line.” Those swayed by the argument in Client 9 that some of the rich and powerful whom Spitzer crusaded against might have exploited his stupidity should find all this enthralling. Others might just remember the hubris.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Da Mayor stumbles on his way out the door

You blew it, Tom. You could have made a graceful exit from center stage of the theater that is Dallas politics. But, no. You had to insert an "I was right and you were wrong" element into your speech moments ago announcing your resignation as mayor of the City of Dallas. You had to use this moment to pander to the Tea Party base of the Republican Party that will determine your future. You converted what should have been a melancholy, at best, moment into an ugly one.

Not only that, what you said contradicted itself. Please explain to me and the rest of the citizens of Dallas how you could say on one hand that the tax rate increase approved by the City Council last September ruined the opportunities for business development, especially in South Dallas, and on the other hand pat yourself on the back for the fact that WalMart is announcing major new developments in Dallas, the first of which are concentrated in South Dallas.

But you were not dealing with the facts here, were you, Tom. You were laying the foundation for your Senate run by positioning yourself on the side of those who think it's more important that students in this state are allowed to carry guns than to carry textbooks. I'm ashamed of you, Tom. I must admit I never voted for you, but, at first, I thought you might be good for this city. But your support for the tollroad-in-the-park folly and now your adherence to the wrong-headed policy that cutting taxes is the answer to every political question makes me realize you are on that side of making sure the rich get richer and to hell with everyone else.

Yeah, you had a chance, Tom, but you blew it.

Currently available on DVD: "Animal Kingdom"

Any movie about a crime family is destined to echo previous entries in the genre, from The Godfather to The Sopranos. But Animal Kingdom, the auspicious debut of Australian writer-director David Michôd, carves out a spot for itself that commands respect. Right from the opening scene, in which 17-year-old Josh Cody (James Frecheville) calls the police to inform them that his mother has overdosed on heroin while watching TV, the film establishes a menacing, unsparing mood that never wavers.

While the paramedics try to revive his mom, Josh - or J, as everyone calls him - can't tear himself away from a TV game show, the first indication of the emotional and psychological neglect he's suffered. That neglect quickly becomes something much worse after J moves in with his perky Grandma Smurf (Jacki Weaver) and uncles, the coke head Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and the dim-witted Darren (Luke Ford).

A third uncle, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), is currently in hiding, trying to evade a unit of vigilante Melbourne police officers committed to killing him on sight. One of the elements that supplies Animal Kingdom with its fresh edge (and anchors it as a Western) is that the cops are just as corrupt as the bad guys, happy to shoot first, plant a gun and then fill out the necessary paperwork.

Against this sort of lawless authority, the Codys have to be extra careful - and extra vicious - in order to continue their lifestyle of bank robberies and petty crimes. Much of Animal Kingdom unfolds through J's unblinking, incomprehending eyes: Kept away from his relatives by his mother for his protection, the young man must now assimilate into a family he doesn't know and learn to behave as they do (example: when someone at a traffic light gives you the skunk eye, pull out a gun and threaten to kill him).

The plot of Animal Kingdom kicks in after the quietly observant, extremely paranoid Pope resurfaces and orchestrates bloody revenge after an attack on the family. Played by Mendelsohn with a brooding, dangerous menace, Pope is a frightening creature, capable of anything, an insane man who doesn't realize he's crazy. But the real puppet master of the gang is the sweet and cheery grandmother, who tends to kiss her grandsons just a tad too long and whose bright blue eyes can go from welcoming to threatening in a blink.

Trying to be a normal adolescent, J goes out with his girlfriend (Laura Wheelwright) and does his best to steer clear of his family's schemes. But after a detective (Guy Pearce) intent on bringing Pope down senses the boy's innocence and courts him to rat on his relatives, the teen becomes stranded in a dangerous tug of war between right and wrong. Whichever side he chooses, he'll still end up losing.

Animal Kingdom moves with a brisk efficiency - Michôd trusts the viewer and doesn't waste time with unnecessary back story - and the plot twists and turns at brutal speed. This is the sort of picture in which anyone - guilty or innocent - can get blown away at any moment, and as the stakes get higher and J's dilemma worsens, it becomes a pressure cooker of duress. Animal Kingdom is practically devoid of humor - even Michôd's ironic use of Air Supply's All Out of Love makes you gulp instead of laugh - and the movie closes with a proverbial but shocking bang. "Crooks always come undone, always, one way or another," someone says, and the movie makes watching these particular crooks unravel a riveting, brutally tense experience.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Oscar Best Picture Rap-Up w/Shane Dawson

This is somewhat funny.

My Top 25 College Basketball Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Kansas 25-2 (1)
2.  Ohio State 25-2 (2)
3.  Duke 25-2 (3)
4.  Texas 23-4 (4)
5.  BYU 24-2 (6)
6.  Pittsburgh 24-3 (5)
7.  Purdue 22-5 (10)
8.  Washington 18-8 (8)
9.  Kentucky 19-7 (7)
10. Wisconsin 20-6 (9)
11. San Diego State 25-1 (11)
12. Arizona 23-4 (17)
13. Georgetown 21-6 (14)
14. North Carolina 20-6 (12)
15. Villanova 21-6 (13)
16. Syracuse 22-6 (16)
17. Louisville 20-7 (20)
18. West Virginia 17-9 (21)
19. Notre Dame 21-5 (18)
20. Illinois 17-10 (15)
21. Vanderbilt 20-6 (23)
22. Maryland 17-10 (19)
23. Missouri 20-6 (22)
24. Connecticut 20-6 (24)
25. UNLV 20-7 (25)

My Top 10 NBA teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Miami Heat 41-15 (1)
2.  San Antonio Spurs 46-10 (2)
3.  Boston Celtics 40-14 (4)
4.  Chicago Bulls 38-16 (5)
5.  Orlando Magic 36-21 (6)
6.  Los Angeles Lakers 38-19 (3)
7.  Dallas Mavericks 40-16 (7)
8.  New Orleans Hornets 33-25 (8)
9.  Oklahoma City Thunder 35-19 (10)
10. Denver Nuggets 32-25 (9)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Currently available on DVD: "Enter the Void

"They say you fly when you die," a character says early on in Enter the Void, the third film by French-Argentinian director Gaspar Noe - and his first since 2002's notorious Irreversible, with its nine-minute rape scene and graphic murder by fire extinguisher. Fortunately, Noe is in a gentler mood this time: Enter the Void is not a violent film (also: best opening credits - ever). But it is guaranteed to generate more shut-the-movie-off-before-it's over than Irreversible did.

Using 1947's The Lady in the Lake as his central inspiration (with a heavy dose of the stargate sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Noe aims for the ultimate mind-trip movie - a picture that never once leaves the protagonist's head. We see everything either through the eyes of Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), a young American drug dealer living in Tokyo, or from behind his head as he walks around. The only time we see Oscar's face is when he looks in a mirror, something that happens once or twice.

During the film's audacious opening 20 minutes, in which the action unfolds entirely from Oscar's point of view (complete with eye blinks, inner monologues and some DMT-induced hallucinations), some viewers may be suffer mild motion sickness. That passes, though, after your stomach gets used to Noe's gravity-defying camera, which ventures into places no other camera has gone before (including one place that will make many a porn-film director smack his forehead and say "Why didn't I think of that?". (It should be noted that the film's sexual content is plentiful, even superfluous in stretches, and leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination. Children under 17 have no business near this movie.)

The plot of Enter the Void follows what happens after Oscar, who has been reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead on the recommendation of his pal Alex (Cyril Roy), is set up by his customer Victor (Olly Alexander) and shot and killed by cops. For the rest of the film, we discover you do, indeed, fly when you die - or at least hover, the way Oscar does over Tokyo. He watches the police examine the scene of his shooting and his autopsy. He looks in on his distraught sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta), who works as a prostitute and has been his best friend since their parents were killed in a car accident. He peeks in on the guilt-ridden Victor, who might have betrayed Oscar on purpose after discovering his friend was having an affair with his mother.

More than half of Enter the Void unfolds via overhead shots: The camera floats above Tokyo, from its neon-lit downtown to its darker, seedier slums. At times, it soars so high that it crosses paths with a passenger jet. Other times, it pulls in close to things you rather not look at then goes in a little closer, and then inside.

As he did in Irreversible, Noe tinkers with chronology: After Oscar is killed, the story circles back to his childhood, showing us exactly how this young American came to die in a grimy toilet stall so far from home. Our inability to see his face hinders the emotional connection we might have made with him. Staring at the back of someone's head gets really dull after a while, unless you happen to be playing a video game. Instead, you start to wonder how Noe pulled off certain camera tricks or try to spot his invisible edits - until something happens onscreen that draws you back.

But testing your endurance is part of what Noe is up to here. Enter the Void, which runs a grueling two and a half hours, was about 30 minutes longer when it premiered at Cannes in 2009, a length that must have made it unendurable. I groaned when I checked my watch and saw there was still an hour to go (the trimming of another half hour would have done the movie much good). But in hindsight, I'm glad for the experience. Despite the sliver of a story, this is, above all else, a sensory ride down a cinematic flume - a movie to be felt, not told. Watching it may not always be a pleasurable experience, but there is something about Noe's relentlessness that worms into your psyche, the way aspects of the work of David Lynch and David Cronenberg sometimes penetrate.

"I hated that" will be a common refrain among people who make it through the entire DVD of  Enter the Void. Don't be surprised, though, if you find yourself still thinking about the movie the next day. Bold and intrepid film buffs: The gauntlet has been thrown. Here's something you don't see every day - thank goodness.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Currently Available on DVD: "Lebanon"

All of Lebanon takes place inside a tank on June 6, 1982, the first day of the Lebanon War, when the Defense Forces of Israel invaded its neighbor's southern region. With the exception of the film's opening and closing shots, the camera stays inside the vehicle, showing us only what the four young soldiers inside can see through its periscope. The limited perspective of the world outside, combined with the claustrophobic, clammy interior of the rumbling tank, immediately generate a tremendous tension, and the film wastes no time in ratcheting up the stress.

The unit is given simple orders: Guard roads, rendezvous with infantry at specific points and provide cover fire for ground units searching a bombed-out town. But at the first sign of conflict, the tank's frightened gunman, Shmulik (Yoav Donat), freezes and can't pull the trigger, resulting in the death of an Israeli soldier. The next time a potential threat appears, Shmulik follows orders, closes his eyes and shoots. When the smoke clears, the supposed terrorist turns out to be a chicken farmer who lies on the ground screaming in pain, mortally wounded.

Like Ari Folman, the director of the 2008 animated war film Waltz With Bashir, Lebanon writer-director Samuel Maoz bases his film on his personal experiences (he was a tank gunner), coming up with a unique, captivating perspective on one of the oldest of all film genres. Also like Bashir, Lebanon is critical of the Israeli invasion, which resulted in a colossal loss of innocent lives, while also giving a face to the treacherous, elusive terrorists who needed to be confronted.

Reminiscent of Das Boot, which was set inside a German submarine, Lebanon is a sensory experience: You can practically smell the stench inside the dank, cramped, dirty interior, slick with oil and water and sweat. The horrors that Shmulik often witnesses while peering through his viewfinder are unspeakable. The moral ambiguity and confusion of war have rarely been captured on film with this much power and efficiency.

Lebanon isn't quite so effective when it focuses on the bickering among the soldiers, which often feels forced. The emotional meltdown of the unit's commanding officer Assi (Itay Tiran), for example, is hackneyed, and the constant needling by the tank's weapon loader, Hertzel (Oshri Cohen), who only has two weeks left of military service, quickly grows tiresome.

But even though Lebanon fares better as a visceral - rather than emotional - experience, its most powerful moment takes place inside the tank, without a word of dialogue, when Shmulik performs an act of kindness toward a Syrian prisoner the men are transporting. Harrowing and grueling, Lebanon ends on a gentle, hopeful note: Even under the direst circumstances, simple human decency - even toward the enemy - can always find a way to survive.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Currently available on DVD: "Micmacs"

Micmacs is the equivalent of a circus troupe setting up a tent in a war zone: You’re entertained, even delighted, but after a while you suspect there are more serious matters at hand.

The film’s the latest work to spring from the playfully hyperactive brainpan of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the French writer-director who gave us the 2001 international hit Amelie and the underrated, little-seen World War I epic A Very Long Engagement (2004). Micmacs shares with Engagement Jeunet’s opinion of war: He doesn’t like it. But where the earlier movie earned its anger and its hope over the course of an exhaustive emotional journey, the new film comes off as a small, well-intentioned firecracker wedged between the toes of an elephant. It goes off, all right, but the elephant doesn’t feel a thing.

Jeunet still tells a story with style, though, and he never met a camera move he didn’t fetishize. Micmacs concerns a sad-sack Parisian named Bazil (Dany Boon) who in youth lost his father to a land mine and, more recently, a chunk of his skull to a stray slug from a gangbanger’s gun. Land mines and bullets are the products of, respectively, high-rolling armaments manufacturers Nicolas Thibault de Fenouillet (André Dussollier) and François Marconi (Nicolas Marié), whose headquarters face each other across the street like corporate pirate vessels in a Monty Python movie.

The fun begins — for Jeunet, anyway, and for a good while the viewer as well — when Bazil is reduced to homelessness after his accident and washes up with a crew of eccentrics living under the city dump. Cared for by the matronly, if abusive, Mama Chow (Yolande Moreau, of Seraphine), the group includes Tiny Pete (Michel Crémadès), an artist of recycled junk; Remington (Omar Sy), an overly effusive African; Calculator (Marie-Julie Baup), a pert numbers expert; the blustery human cannonball Buster (Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon), and Elastic Girl (Julie Ferrier), a contortionist first seen relaxing inside a refrigerator. They all join forces with the downcast but resourceful Bazil to monkey-wrench the death merchants.

And that’s all there really is to Micmacs — a sort of merrily demented Mission Impossible crossed with a human Bugs Bunny movie. The film’s full title, Micmacs a Tire-Larigot, is slang for "nonstop madness," which refers both to the global arms trade and our heroes’ fiendishly complex Rube Goldberg plans to drive Fenouillet and Marconi around the bend and out of business. It’s all in acerbic fun and, despite an undeserved R rating, perhaps best for really smart teenagers. Grown-ups who read too many newspapers might find the dissonance between serious subject and frothy tone overly jarring.

Jeunet works hard at maintaining the air of a fable, though, and his abiding passion for cinema gives Micmacs a lovely out-of-time patina. It’s the sort of film that recycles classic Max Steiner scores to give the suspense an old-school lift and that has its characters meet furtively at the grave of the French actor-director Sacha Guitry, who’d doubtless applaud what Jeunet is up to here. At times, Boon’s near-wordless buffoonery echoes with the spirits of Chaplin and Keaton and Tati; in other scenes, he’s a ringer for a young Michel Simon, the shaggy goat-god of L’Atalante and Boudu Saved From Drowning.

It’s that same movie-love, though, that keeps Micmacs from connecting to the underlying seriousness of the issue and that in the end renders it an uneasily naïve experience. The movie is fun but only fun. It’s also the closest Jeunet has come to the wild, self-absorbed work of Terry Gilliam, and for the first time his fancies show their limitations. The most telling image in Micmacs is one of its last: a lovely, whimsical dance performed by a dress with nobody inside it.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Jewish mysticism

Or, things I overheard hanging out at a synagogue in the Far East:

Drink tea and nourish life;
with the first sip, joy;
with the second sip, satisfaction;
with the third sip, peace;
with the fourth, a Danish.

Wherever you go,
there you are.
Your luggage is another story.

Accept misfortune as a blessing.
Do not wish for perfect health
or a life without problems.
What would you talk about?

The journey of a thousand miles
with a single Oy.

There is no escaping karma.
In a previous life
you never called,
you never wrote,
you never visited.
And whose fault was that?

Zen is not easy.
It takes effort to attain nothingness.
And then what do you have?

The Tao does not speak
The Tao does not blame.
The Tao does not take sides.
The Tao has no expectations.
The Tao demands nothing of others.
The Tao is not Jewish.

Breathe in.
Breathe out.
Breathe in.
Breathe out.
Forget this, and attaining Enlightenment
will be the least of your problems.

Let your mind be as a floating cloud.
Let your stillness be as a wooded glen
And sit up straight.
You’ll never meet the Buddha with such rounded shoulders.

Deep inside you are ten thousand flowers.
Each flower blossoms ten thousand times.
Each blossom has ten thousand petals.
You might want to see a specialist.

Be aware of your body.
Be aware of your perceptions.
Keep in mind that not every physical sensation
is a symptom of terminal illness.

The Bible says,
Love your neighbor as yourself.
The Buddha says,
There is no self.
So, maybe we’re off the hook

Jewish Haiku

These are hysterical

Beyond Valium,
peace is knowing one’s child
is an internist.

On Passover we
opened the door for Elijah.
Now our dog is gone.

After the warm rain
the sweet smell of camellias.
Did you wipe your feet?

Her lips near my ear,
Aunt Sadie whispers the name
of her friend’s disease.

Today I am a man.
Tomorrow I will return
to seventh grade.

Testing the warm milk
on her wrist, she sighs softly.
But her son is forty.

The sparkling blue sea
reminds me to wait an hour
after my sandwich.

Like a bonsai tree
is your terrible posture
at my dinner table.

Jews on safari --
map, compass, elephant gun,
hard sucking candies.

The same kimono
the top geishas are wearing:
I got it at Loehmann’s.

The shivah visit:
so sorry about your loss.
Now back to my problems.

Mom, please!
There is no need
to put that dinner roll in your pocketbook.

Sorry I’m not home
to take your call.
At the tone please state your bad news.

Is one Nobel Prize
so much to ask from a child
after all I’ve done?

Today, mild shvitzing.
Tomorrow, so hot you’ll plotz.
Five-day forecast: feh

Yenta. Shmeer. Gevalt.
Shlemiel, Shlimazl. Meshuganah.
Oy! To be fluent!

Quietly murmured
at Saturday Synagogue services:
Phillies 5, Red Sox 3.

Hard to tell under the lights.
White Yarmulke or
male-pattern baldness?

Jewish Buddhism:
If there is no self,
whose arthritis is this?

Be here now.
Be someplace else later.
Is that so complicated?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

My Top 25 College Basketball teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Kansas 24-1 (2)
2.  Ohio State 24-1 (1)
3.  Duke 22-2 (3)
4.  Texas 22-3 (4)
5.  Pittsburgh 23-2 (5)
6.  BYU 23-2 (8)
7.  Kentucky 17-7 (6)
8.  Washington 17-7 (7)
9.  Wisconsin 19-5 (10)
10. Purdue 19-5 (9)
11. San Diego State 23-1 (11)
12. North Carolina 18-6 (14)
13. Villanova 19-6 (12)
14. Georgetown 19-5 (13)
15. Illinois 16-8 (19)
16. Syracuse 20-6 (18)
17. Arizona 20-4 (17)
18. Notre Dame 21-4 (21)
19. Maryland 16-9 (20)
20. Louisville 19-6 (16)
21. West Virginia 16-8 (15)
22. Missouri 18-6 (25)
23. Vanderbilt 18-6 (23)
24. Connecticut 18-5 (22)
25. UNLV 18-7 (24)

My 10 Top 10 NBA Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Miami Heat 39-14 (1)
2.  San Antonio Spurs 45-9 (2)
3.  Los Angeles Lakers 38-16 (4)
4.  Boston Celtics 38-14 (3)
5.  Chicago Bulls 36-16 (5)
6.  Orlando Magic 34-21 (6)
7.  Dallas Mavericks 38-16 (7)
8.  New Orleans Hornets 33-23 (8)
9.  Denver Nuggets 31-23 (9)
10. Oklahoma City Thunder 34-18 (10)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Currently available on DVD: "Let It Rain"

The pleasing diversion Let It Rain begins in the rain and ends with a reminder that with some things, you must simply let them unfold the way they're going to unfold. It's a good approach to take with the film itself.

The generalities cluttering up our notion of contemporary French cinema, middlebrow division, are much like the ones afflicting any other nation's cinema. Yet this generality I believe to be true: One of the reasons Let It Rain (Parlez-Moi de la Pluie) works is that the actors rarely indicate, externally, whether something's supposed to crack us up or not. The French know how to lay into a souffle without a heavy hand, and a comedy doesn't require strain or undue emphasis.

The film is the third feature of writer-director-actress Agnes Jaoui, after The Taste of Others (2000) and Look at Me (2004). As with her earlier films, this one's an ensemble piece of domestic crises and tangled emotions and no small amount of affection. Jaoui portrays Agathe, a well-known feminist writer and fledgling politician who has decided to run for an election in the south of France, near her sister's home. The recent death of their mother shadows the sisters' present unease.

The film, however, begins with the introduction of hotel clerk Karim (Jamel Debbouze, a shrewd comedian and actor) and self-styled journalist Michel (co-writer Jean-Pierre Bacri). These two have plans to produce a TV documentary project about "successful women." Agathe, whose family's longtime housekeeper is Karim's mother (Mimouna Hadji), appears to be the perfect interview subject.

The interview sessions are all disastrous in one way or another; Let It Rain is at its wittiest when Michel flails around, grousing about his own divorce and child custody troubles without ever quite asking his interview subject an actual question.

Affairs are conducted on the sly; flirtations such as the one between the married Karim and his fellow hotel worker (Florence Loiret-Caille) perfume the air with possibility.

Jaoui's directorial style isn't stylish, but it is relaxed, forthright and effective. She is married to co-writer and actor Bacri, who's wonderfully droll; their work together on all three features has been fruitful, and The Taste of Others is worth seeing simply for the way Bacri, whose arched eyebrows are the devil's own, handles an English lesson with an actress with whom he's fallen in lust.

This film is frothier than Look at Me, which took its cue from a genuinely troubled and troubling young protagonist trying to find herself amid her arrogant father's distracted celebrity. Let It Rain takes it easy on everyone, clucks, deceivers and all. It's slight. But the way Jaoui, Debbouze and Bacri set the ensemble tone at the top, the playing style is low-key, effortless and, when called for, moving. No major chords here; the grace notes are enough.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The House Republicans' destructive propoposed budget cuts

Just when Congress should be looking for ways to create jobs, ideologically House Republicans are proposing budget cuts that would drive4 thousands more into the unemployment rolls. This from today's editorial pages of the New York Tines:
"After two years of raging at President Obama’s spending plans, House Republican leaders have finally revealed their real vision of small government: tens of billions in ideologically driven cuts to job training, environmental protection, disease control, crime protection and dozens of other critical functions that only the government can perform.

In all, they want more than $32 billion in cuts below current spending packed into the next seven months. They would be terribly damaging to a frail recovery and, while spending reductions must be part of long-term deficit control, these are the wrong cuts, to the wrong programs, at the wrong time.

But they are not deep enough for many Tea Party members, freshmen and other extremists in the House Republican caucus. In a closed-door meeting on Wednesday, they forced the leadership to abandon its cuts and prepare to double them. The new list is expected on Friday and promises to be one of the most irresponsible budget documents ever issued by a House majority.

The Senate should make it clear that it is not worthy of consideration, and President Obama should back them up with a veto threat.

If House Republicans don’t come to their senses, they could shut down the government on March 4 when the stopgap measure that is now financing it runs out. If that does take place, it will at least be clear to voters that their essential government services were turned off in the service of two single-minded and destructive goals: giving the appearance of cutting a deficit that was deliberately inflated by years of tax cuts for the rich, and going after programs that the Republicans never liked in good times or bad.

Many of the Republican freshmen want to stick to the “Pledge to America” that they would cut $100 billion from the president’s 2011 budget, a nice round number apparently plucked from thin air. More experienced Republican leaders knew it would be impossible to cut that much in the remaining few months of the fiscal year and said they would trim the equivalent percentage. Harold Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, warned that the full cut would require laying off F.B.I. agents and air traffic controllers.

If he was trying to make his $32 billion in cutbacks seem modest by comparison, he failed. The list would cut $2 billion from job training programs — precisely what is needed to help employ workers mismatched with the job market. It would cut $1.6 billion from the Environmental Protection Agency, which is struggling to keep up with the growth of greenhouse gases. There would be significant cuts to legal assistance for the poor and renewable energy programs and an end to all spending for AmeriCorps, public broadcasting and high-speed rail.

The battle over the rest of the 2011 budget is only a prelude, of course, to the bigger fight about to begin over the 2012 budget. President Obama is scheduled to unveil his budget on Monday, and already he seems willing to feed the bottomless Republican hunger for cuts rather than fight them. An ominous early sign is his proposal to cut the low-income heating assistance program nearly in half to $2.57 billion. Administration officials say that energy prices have fallen, but, as Democratic lawmakers from the frostbitten Northeast have pointed out to him, there are many more unemployed people now.

Some cuts will have to be made, but strategically it seems to make little sense to start giving away important ones before reaching the negotiating table. Republican lawmakers in the House have already made it clear that they are indifferent to the suffering and increased joblessness their cuts will cause. As the extreme reductions are heaped up in the next few days, Democrats in Congress and in the White House need to make a clear case to the public that quality of the nation’s civic life is at stake."

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Time Out's misguided list

Time Out magazine has published its list of the 100 best British films of all time. I can't speak for the rest of the world, but such a list as this that does not include Tom Jones, Room at the Top and especially The Lavender Hill Mob has absolutely no credibility with me.

A dog hero

Dallas mayor's race: Hunt's out (forever); Rawlings in; my off-the-chart candidate

Angela Hunt's decision not to run for mayor in this year's municipal elections means she will never be elected mayor of Dallas. Term limits will prohibit her from running for her seat again in 2013 and the next mayoral election won't come along until 2015, at which time the incumbent may just decide to run again. That means Hunt will be out of the public eye anywhere from two to six years and that's political poison. I can't see her in any kind of role that will keep her in the spotlight during that time.

But she also shot her chances when she said yesterday "I think what will be best for Dallas is a mayor who comes from outside the current city council." That statement would definitely come back to her haunt her should she ever decide to run in the future.

Now here's an idea for all the conspiracy theorists to chew on. Hunt wins re-election to her final term this year and then two years down the road hand-picks a successor to run for her seat in 2013. Hunt promises this candidate the full backing of her effective grassroots machine, but only if the candidate agrees to serve one two-year term. Then Hunt runs for the District 14 seat again in 2015. It's possible, but if she thinks that's the way she will eventually be elected mayor shes' only deluding herself.

Mike Rawlings decision to enter the race is an interesting one. I thought all along the Park Board chief was Da Mayor's hand-picked successor, but in the meantime City Councilman Ron Natinsky seemingly lined up the support of the city's traditional power brokers, illustrated by the fact that Carol Reed is running his campaign. Both Rawlings and Natinsky appeal to the same downtown business/North Dallas resident voting base. Thus, Rawlings entry into the race is a shot in the arm for former police chief  and mayoral candidate David Kunkle who is going to emerge as the closest thing we might get to a "people's" candidate, now that Hunt has bowed out.

For my money, Rawlings brings a pedigree that's superior to Natinsky's into the race. What impresses me the most about Rawlings is that during the time he served as president of Dallas-based Pizza Hut, the largest pizza chain in the world, from 1997 until 2003, he directed a major turnaround in the company’s business, resulting in the then highest weekly store sales in Pizza Hut history with system sales over $5 billion. Under Rawlings’ leadership, same-store growth rose 19 percent, overall operating profit doubled and margins improved to record highs. As the city’s Homeless Czar, he helped Dallas reduce its number of chronically homeless by nearly 60 percent. Those are measurable results that Natinsky can't match.

However, neither of them will be able to tout the public safety issue as successfully as Kunkle. And public safety is still the No. 1 issue resonating with Dallas voters in municipal elections. During his term as police chief, the crime rate dropped dramatically and Kunkle will be the only candidate who can legitimately claim responsibility for that.

So what we have right now is a race among three candidates: Ron Natinsky, the candidate of the downtown business cabal; Mike Rawlings, the candidate with an impressive record of results, although not on matters voters really care about; and David Kunkle, the man who actually produced a reduction in the city's crime rate.
What bothers me is that the race is among three white men. I don't suppose there is any way someone could convince Dr. Elba Garcia to resign her just-won County Commissioner's seat to run for mayor. Probably not. I know I wouldn't do it if I were her.

But I'm going to throw a name out there that I'm betting no one else has ever mentioned, but makes a lot of sense to me: Clarice Tinsley. She has more integrity in her little finger than most of us have in our entire bodies, she's knowledgeable and she's absolutely capable. Anyone want to join me in a Draft-Clarice-Tinsley-for-Mayor campaign? It could be fun.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Robert Plant and Patty Griffin rock in a Band of Joy ("Been a long time")

No comment necessary

Yet another reason not to trust Fox News

Fox News is an embarrassment to reputable journalists everywhere. Take this apples-and-oranges story telecast on Fox 4 earlier this week about the city's efforts to pick up garbage not collected because of last week's winter storms. Although it admits most (and gathering by the footage Fox camera shot, they really believe "all") of the problems stem from the garbage produced by restaurants and bars, it then goes to interview City Sanitation Services Director Mary Nix (pictured) as though it was the city's responsibility to pick up this trash. It's not. The city's only responsibility is to pick up residential garbage. Restaurants, bars, office building, apartment complexes, etc., contract with private haulers to handle their garbage collection needs. I'm guessing Fox misled Nix, arguably the finest department director the city has right now, into thinking their story was about residential pickup. But that's why you simply can't trust that organization to present an accurate portrayal of today's news.

Speaking of the great Sanitation Services director, I've just learned she's to be the keynote speaker at an event no sane person is going to want to miss: the 34th annual Landfill Gas Symposium (You read that right -- they've been doing this for 34 years now) presented by SWANA’s Landfill Gas Management Technical Division. This event is being billed as "the leading forum on landfill gas utilization and technology (that) brings together landfill gas experts from around the country."

From the symposium's official announcement:
"The keynote presenter, Mary Nix, P.E., director of sanitation services for the city of Dallas, will discuss how her department provides a competitively priced weekly collection of residential refuse and recycling, monthly bulk and heavy brush collection, operation of the state’s largest landfill, and fosters new and innovative ways to advance solid waste practices. The city of Dallas’s residential waste collection, recycling, transfer and disposal programs currently serve a population of 1.3 million, with an annual budget of $75 million."
The event is scheduled for March 21-24. I know many of you will want to squeeze into this gala at the Gaylord Texan, so here's the place to go to find out how. A ticket includes a guided tour of the McCommas Bluff Landfill, something not even last week's visitors to the Super Bowl had the opportunity to experience.

An Oscar race between two legends

The first time I saw this picture I did not recognize Glenn Close, a superb actress who will be returning to the big screen after devoting much of the last years to television, in a pet project, Albert Nobbs. This is a part she played on stage 30 years ago and has been battling to get it filmed ever since. She finally took matters into her own hands, writing the screenplay for this project and producing it herself.  An essay that looks at next year's best actress Oscar race is predicting it will boil down to a contest between Close and arguably the greatest screen actress of all time, Meryl Streep (left) as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.

Currently available on DVD: "Cyrus"

John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei and Jonah Hill give such wonderfully satisfying, full-blooded performances in Cyrus that it seems almost churlish to wish this creepy little Oedipal comedy were a little more well-thought-out, and handled its wilder shifts in tone with more finesse.

Cyrus is the much-touted mainstream debut of directors Mark and Jay Duplass (The Puffy Chair) — pioneers of the minimalist, DIY “mumblecore” movement, who are now improbably working with another pair of brothers, action experts Ridley and Tony Scott (The A-Team) as executive producers.

Reilly and Hill are veterans of the Judd Apatow school of take-no-prisoners comedy, and it’s interesting to imagine how Cyrus would have turned out in the hands of Apatow or one of his disciples.

The film initially heads off in this raunch-filled direction, as Catherine Keener (another Apatow alumna) surprises the slovenly, middle-aged Reilly — still her best friend seven years after the end of their marriage — during an intimate moment after she lets herself into his home.

Keener, who is planning to soon marry her long-suffering boyfriend (Matt Walsh), virtually orders her perpetually depressed ex to attend a party, where he meets a gorgeous woman (Tomei) while urinating into a bush.

Somehow his penchant for oversharing charms Tomei, and the actress makes her attraction to this shlubby guy credible with her warm performance, despite little help from an underwritten script.

Things get complicated when Reilly follows her home after a blissful night together. There he discovers she’s living with an emotionally withdrawn 21-year-old son named Cyrus (Hill) who’s way, way too attached to his mother.

A New Age musician, Cyrus doesn’t take the arrival of this potential stepdad well at all — Reilly’s shoes disappear after he spends his first night at their home, and things get weirder and weirder from there.

Hill, with his hair trimmed short, projects a menace that seems to signal that this is going to be a horror movie.

Then the Duplasses head back in the direction of uninhibited comedy as the son catches the interloper shagging his mom, and the two guys basically declare war on each other.

Some of these scenes are hilarious indeed. But the filmmakers don’t know how — or don’t want to know how — to segue into the more serious sequences, which are filled with too much touchy-feely talk.

Really, it wouldn’t have hurt to give these characters a few lines of expository dialogue to explain their odder choices, or to smooth out a few more of the rough edges.

Flaws aside, Cyrus is still one of the very few mainstream movies out there with any ambition, and you have to respect that.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

D-Wayne got Carriedaway once again

This is not an argument over whether society should or will forgive Michael Vick for his heinous treatment of animals. I'm as much a dog lover as anyone, but I also believe people deserve a second chance. So far, I have not found fault with the way Vick has handled his.

I also find it somewhat duplicitous that there's a significant segment of the population that will continue to castigate Vick while not saying anything about Ray Lewis, directly involved in the stabbing death of another human being. I also wonder why these same animal lovers are not out there doing what they can to ban bullfighting, a "sport" in which the bull has less chance of winning than the Washington Generals.

So this is not about whether Michael Vick deserved to receive the keys to our fair city. I imagine this ceremonial presentation has been bestowed on far more dubious characters. Has anyone ever seen and examined the list of all the members of this particular key club? Besides, I don't think they keys unlock a single thing.

No, my problem was with the way Vick received the keys. They should come from the City and not one rogue city council member (in this case D-Wayne Carriedaway), taking the law into his own hands.

According to Rudolph Bush, who should know about things like this because he does a superb job covering City Hall for the Dallas Morning News, here are the criteria for presenting said keys to individuals:

• Gold Keys to the City must be presented by:
- The Mayor of Dallas
- An elected official designated by the Mayor
- A Protocol Officer designated by the Mayor

• Crystal Keys may only be presented by the MAYOR or an elected official designated by the Mayor.

• Keys to the City may not be presented to officials abroad; they must be presented within Dallas/Collin/Denton/Tarrant counties.

• Person(s) receiving the key must:
- Be an elected official in their country, state, city or province
- Typically hold the title of Minister or above.
- MUST be international

Vick clearly does not qualify. D-Wayne could have just as easily come up with a proclamation from the office of the Mayor Pro Tem, (and, of course, D-Wayne occupies said office) that says something to the effect that the Mayor Pro Tem respects what Michael Vick has done for children and wants to recognize those efforts with the proclamation from his office. Of course, some misguided fools will still have a problem with Vick because they still hold a grudge against him (more because of his race than his actions) and would criticize D-Wayne for presenting the proclamation. But that's what fools do.

But D-Wayne's actions are an illustration of a far more serious problem. The man thinks his position allows him to do just about anything he damn well pleases, from calling the personal number of the Chief of Police to complain about a fictitious Archie and whomever to going off on his own with presentations like the one he made to Vick. Someone on the City Council needs to step up now and begin actions to strip D-Wayne of his mayor pro tem status. And if Ron Natinsky wants to prove he has the meddle to be elected mayor, he needs to be the person to step to the fore and lead this charge.

There's an excellent chance Da Mayor might resign before his term his up to begin his campaign for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate. If that happens, the mayor pro tem steps up. D-Wayne's actions prove conclusively he should not be the one in charge, even if it's for just a couple of days.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Irreconcilable Differences

This should make the split final. Now the only thing to decide is the division of the community property and who gets custody of the City Council.

Should Jonestown get another Super Bowl?

I'm going to say no unless the area completely changes its approach to hosting the game and I doubt that is ever going to happen, given its competitive nature.

I am willing to give North Central Texas a pass on the weather. Next year's Super Bowl is going to be played in Indianapolis and in 2014 it will be played in New York. Both those cities have a lot better chance for bitter weather than our area does. The problem, however, lies in the nouns I just chose to use: "cities" and "area." The RCA Dome is located in downtown Indianapolis. I went to a game in the old Indianapolis domed stadium and I could walk from my hotel to my seat in the stadium three blocks away and never have to go outside. And as DFW has bragged about since the day it opened, it's larger than the entire island of Manhattan.

The problem with the setup here was that everything was way too spread out. In weather where motorists were finding it difficult to get from the Park Cities to downtown Dallas, you can't try to host events in Dallas, Fort Worth, Grapevine and Arlington and expect it to work. Of course, we wouldn't be having this discussion if the old Dallas County commissioners hadn't played partisan politics and let Jonestown escape to Arlington, but that, unfortunately, is no longer a debatable issue. The stadium is where it is and that's that. But the first thing that must happen for another Super Bowl to come here is that the hosts must surrender, temporarily, this stupid notion of shared regionalism.

Now Arlington can't be the host city. The only reason Gertrude Stein said what she did about Oakland was because she had never been to Arlington. But if Jonestown ever hopes to stage another one of these games it must decide to name either Dallas OR Fort Worth the host city and allow everything to be concentrated in that host city, just as everything has been concentrated in the host city for all 44 previous Super Bowls and will be the case when the game is played in Indianapolis and New York City.

But I think the ticket debacle is going to hurt Jonestown's image more than the weather. You simply can't turn away 800 people, who had legitimate tickets, who paid their airfares and their hotel bills for thise once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I will give credit to the NFL which is trying to make it right, even though it can't ever make this right. It says it will refund these fans triple the face value of their tickets and they will be the NFL's guest at next year's game in Indy. But what if these folks were die hard Steelers or Packers fans? Will the event mean anything to them if next year's Super Bowl is between, say, Baltimore and Atlanta? This was more unforgivable than the weather. Someone -- and it should have been someone connected with Jonestown -- should have known before those tickets were sold that they should never have been offered.

So, should Jonestown host another Super Bowl? The stadium is too spectacular to shun it forever. But the host committee is going to have to convince the NFL that the debacle of the past week will not be repeated. It must designate a host city and compact all events into that host city (which, I'm afraid, might be impossible, due to the competitive nature of the cities in the area) and it must prove that there will be absolutely no chance that ticket fiasco will be repeated.

Currently available on DVD: "Mother and Child"

There's a certain kind of movie that begins solely so it can end. Once the filmmakers have designed their Big Finish, all that matters is getting us there. Usually, these pictures involve several characters who appear to be unrelated until the strands weave together and everything falls into place. Or, since this is a tough trick to pull off, falls apart.

Mother and Child is just such a movie, with writer/director Rodrigo Garcia working overtime to arrive at his conclusion. His talented cast is able to create several powerful moments along the way. But ultimately, what matters most is that everyone lands in the right place at the right time, no matter what twists of fate or unlikely actions are required.

Annette Bening's Karen starts the story's domino effect. She's a bitter, lonely woman, whose entire life has been defined by the fact that she got pregnant at 14 and gave her baby up for adoption. That infant became Naomi Watts' Elizabeth, an equally unhappy lawyer whose relationship issues reflect those of the mother she's never known.

Around Elizabeth's 37th birthday, she has an affair with her boss (Samuel L. Jackson), just as Karen is also wooed by a co-worker (Jimmy Smits). Each of these saintly men pushes his brittle beloved toward a new place in her life, which - oh, wait. There's one more essential thread in this braid, a young woman (Kerry Washington) desperate to adopt a child, with guidance from the nun (Cherry Jones) who's ready to reunite Elizabeth and Karen.

Significant credit goes to these committed actors, who are forced to give speeches and make choices regularly at odds with authentic human behavior. They all do an excellent job, especially since Garcia often appears so impressed by his own ideas that he neglects to allow either characters or incidents to unfold naturally.

Instead, everybody gets one rigidly defining attribute, while strangers (like a wise blind girl) wander in and out to affirm the movie's solemn themes. Meanwhile, very few actual mothers will appreciate the manipulative ending, which even a child could spot coming an hour away.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

My Top 25 College Basketball teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Ohio State 23-0 (1)
2.  Kansas 21-1 (3)
3.  Duke 20-2 (2)
4.  Texas 19-3 (6)
5.  Pittsburgh 20-2 (7)
6.  Kentucky 16-5 (5)
7.  Washington 15-6 (4)
8.  BYU 20-2 (8)
9.  Purdue 18-5 (9)
10. Wisconsin 16-5 (10)
11. San Diego State 20-1 (12)
12. Villanova 18-4 (11)
13. Georgetown 17-5 (13)
14. North Carolina 16-5 (24)
15. West Virginia 15-6 (21)
16. Louisville 17-5 (14)
17. Arizona 19-4 (15)
18. Syracuse 19-4 (18)
19. Illinois 15-7 (20)
20. Maryland 14-8 (19)
21. Notre Dame 18-4 (NR)
22. Connecticut 17-4 (22)
23. Vanderbilt 15-6 (16)
24. UNLV 17-5 (25)
25. Missouri 16-5 (23)
Dropped out: St. Mary's, Calif.

My Top 10 NBA Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Miami Heat 36-14 (2)
2.  San Antonio Spurs 42-8 (1)
3.  Boston Celtics 37-12 (3)
4.  Los Angeles Lakers 35-16 (4)
5.  Chicago Bulls 34-15 (6)
6.  Orlando Magic 32-19 (5)
7.  Dallas Mavericks 35-15 (9)
8.  New Orleans Hornets 32-20 (7)
9.  Denver Nuggets 30-21 (8)
10. Oklahoma City Thunder 33-17 (10)

Friday, February 4, 2011

Beware of the legendary Bat Dog

It springs from beneath the snow without warning, pouncing on vulnerable and trusting granddaughters. One could be lurking in your backyard. You never know.

Snow Day

The family frolicking in the weather.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

World's greatest film editor explains why 3D doesn't work

AvaIn a letter to reknowned film critic Roger Ebert, Walter Murch, whom Ebert desribed as "the most respected film editor and sound designer in the modern cinema," says 3D film is a system that defies 600 million years of evolution and thus, should be done away away with. If you question Ebert's assessment of Murch, this should ease those doubts.

I saw Avatar in Imax 3D and was somewhat impressed, but I thought the admission price far exceeded the value of the experience. Since then I have avoided 3D films like the plague. I just consider it an over-priced gimmick that failed miserably when they tried it in the 1950s and will fail again today. I noticed My Hero removed her glasses early during our viewing of Avatar because the 3D experience was causing her [hysical discomfort. In his letter to Ebert, Murch explains why:

The 3D image is dark, ... (about a camera stop darker) and small. Somehow the glasses "gather in" the image -- even on a huge Imax screen -- and make it seem half the scope of the same image when looked at without the glasses.

I edited one 3D film back in the 1980's -- Captain Eo -- and also noticed that horizontal movement will strobe much sooner in 3D than it does in 2D. This was true then, and it is still true now. It has something to do with the amount of brain power dedicated to studying the edges of things. The more conscious we are of edges, the earlier strobing kicks in.

The biggest problem with 3D, though, is the "convergence/focus" issue. A couple of the other issues -- darkness and "smallness" -- are at least theoretically solvable. But the deeper problem is that the audience must focus their eyes at the plane of the screen -- say it is 80 feet away. This is constant no matter what.

But their eyes must converge at perhaps 10 feet away, then 60 feet, then 120 feet, and so on, depending on what the illusion is. So 3D films require us to focus at one distance and converge at another. And 600 million years of evolution has never presented this problem before. All living things with eyes have always focussed and converged at the same point.

If we look at the salt shaker on the table, close to us, we focus at six feet and our eyeballs converge (tilt in) at six feet. Imagine the base of a triangle between your eyes and the apex of the triangle resting on the thing you are looking at. But then look out the window and you focus at sixty feet and converge also at sixty feet. That imaginary triangle has now "opened up" so that your lines of sight are almost -- almost -- parallel to each other.

We can do this. 3D films would not work if we couldn't. But it is like tapping your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time, difficult. So the "CPU" of our perceptual brain has to work extra hard, which is why after 20 minutes or so many people get headaches. They are doing something that 600 million years of evolution never prepared them for. This is a deep problem, which no amount of technical tweaking can fix. Nothing will fix it short of producing true "holographic" images.

Consequently, the editing of 3D films cannot be as rapid as for 2D films, because of this shifting of convergence: it takes a number of milliseconds for the brain/eye to "get" what the space of each shot is and adjust.

And lastly, the question of immersion. 3D films remind the audience that they are in a certain "perspective" relationship to the image. It is almost a Brechtian trick. Whereas if the film story has really gripped an audience they are "in" the picture in a kind of dreamlike "spaceless" space. So a good story will give you more dimensionality than you can ever cope with.

So: dark, small, stroby, headache inducing, alienating. And expensive. The question is: how long will it take people to realize and get fed up?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Currently available on DVD: "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work"

Fear, as defined in the bawdy and surprisingly trenchant documentary,Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, is a blank calendar. There is a riff to do on the terror she finds in all those little empty squares. But by then you know it's no laughing matter. Work is life; not working might as well be death.

With a mix of moments like that — as poignantly revealing as they are entertaining — along with TV clips, many of them classics, and months spent following the comic through the long days and nights of her 75th year, filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg have managed to capture the "Can we talk?" comic in all her funny fury.

She is, to put it mildly, still brazen after all these years. When talking of being a sort of birth mother for the current caustic strain of female stand-ups like Kathy Griffin or Sarah Silverman, she explodes, "… them." Classic Rivers — half joke, half line in the sand, all R-rated.

But then, she has been crossing lines of decorum from the beginning, as the film deftly reminds. After all the dreary red carpet duty of recent years with daughter Melissa, it's easy to forget that Rivers was a groundbreaker. Using clips and conversations, the filmmakers go back through the pre-Roe vs. Wade early years when she made abortion a bit in her act — euphemistically when she was ripping through the TV talk show circuit, and unabashedly when she was onstage — despite being told it was career suicide. Nothing is off limits if it gets a laugh, and that's a lot as a wall in her apartment, lined floor-to-ceiling with carefully organized files of all the jokes she's ever written, testifies.

The story, though, begins with Rivers' 75-year-old face. The woman who has long been a plastic surgery punch line is, for all practical purposes naked, the camera zooming in on a makeup artist's careful ministrations — broken veins covered, eyebrows penciled in, lipstick put on a mouth cut tight by scalpels. In scenes like this, the filmmakers prove adept at exposing her reality — harsh under bright lights — whether Rivers chooses to talk about it.

Her unrelenting ambition and its often heavy costs, as much as her humor, becomes the documentary's central theme. In one particularly telling moment daughter, Melissa, who with her mother was cast on Celebrity Apprentice in 2009 while the documentary was shooting, explains that while Rivers might think she wants Melissa to win, it's just not in her genes to hold back. That's exactly how it plays out with Melissa booted and Rivers going on to claim the title.

The high price is the subtext as she remembers Johnny Carson. He would give Rivers her big break in 1968, and she became his permanent guest host. But he cut her off completely when she launched her own late-night talk show on Fox in 1986, and it still brings her to tears that he never spoke to her again.

On the surface, Rivers seems an unlikely choice for frequent collaborators Stern and Sundberg, who've made social justice stories their métier: from genocide in Darfur to a North Carolina man wrongly convicted of a murder-rape that cost him 20 years in prison. What does echo their earlier efforts is the presence of a strong central character and the film's quiet statements about the relative value of a life in a celebrity-obsessed society where even 15 minutes of fame is so avidly desired.

The film's weakness is the perspective on Rivers — it is single-focus and primarily hers. There are no detractors among the many interviewed, though with more than 40 years in the entertainment business there must be a few people besides Carson that Rivers rubbed the wrong way.

That singular focus is also a strength, with her candor as untempered as her ambition. She shows up for rehearsal for her one-woman play one day right after a cosmetic drive-by that has made her face a puffy pin-cushion, newly pumped with fillers and smoothers. Not a pretty sight. But the scene is not so much about the play as the fears that fuel her 18-hour days: that she won't look good for the show, and that some day, there won't be a show.

Among the few personal notes in the film is her annual Thanksgiving dinner for family and friends in her New York apartment, a luxe rococo-Victorian mash-up of silks and brocades. But the holiday, like any personal life in the traditional sense, seems little more than a brief interlude from the thing she really craves.

Best is watching her work the dive clubs beaten down by decay. In one, a bar stool on the stage is literally coming apart at the seams, and soon becomes a prop for her jokes; in another, there's a heckler she takes apart at the seams, an even better prop. She is by turns blue, bitter, hilarious, unbroken; a Hollywood-style portrait in infinite ambition. In that role, Rivers is unforgettable.

Currently available on DVD: "Soul Kitchen"

Soul Kitchen is a lively, easygoing farce filled with high-energy music and amusing complications. It sounds like the least likely film to be written and directed by Fatih Akin. Or does it?

Akin, born in Germany of Turkish parents, is best known for way-serious films such as the devastating Head-On and the somber The Edge of Heaven. Though he'd written this film before those two, he admits in a director's statement that after their success, "I didn't find Soul Kitchen important enough." He soon changed his mind and, aside from the desire to remind himself "that life is not only about pain and introspection," it is easy to see why he did.

For though his tone couldn't be more different, Soul Kitchen shares with Akin's other films a fondness for offbeat characters who live life to the hilt as well as a thematic interest in the way individuals of foreign backgrounds interact with the dominant German culture. What we're very much enjoying here are Akin's usual concerns displayed in a fooling-around mode.

The fish out of water this time around is Zinos Kazantsakis, a Greco-German who runs a restaurant in an industrial zone on the outskirts of Hamburg. As played by Adam Bousdoukos, whose restaurant ownership inspired the script he ended up co-writing, Zinos is powered by the juices of life and knows no speed but full speed ahead.

Romance, however, is about to provide a speed bump. Zinos' upscale girlfriend Nadine (Pheline Roggan) is headed off for a multiyear journalism posting in Shanghai, and he would desperately like to join her. But he can't bear to leave his restaurant even though the food he makes never manages to rise to the level of indifferent.

Because this is a farce with endless obstacles, the people Zinos meets further complicate his life. He runs into an old childhood friend turned real estate entrepreneur (Wotan Wilke Möhring) as well as a brilliant but temperamental chef named Shayn (Head-On star Birol Ünel) who tells everyone who asks — and many people who don't — that he's an artist, not a whore.

Adding yet another flavor to the mix is Zinos' brother Illias (top German actor Moritz Bleibtreu, the star of Run Lola Run and The Baader Meinhof Complex). Illias is a con man on a prison work-release program who wants a de facto job with no responsibilities that will leave him free for his criminal pursuits.

These characters, and lots more, interact in endless ways both expected and not. Soul Kitchen even finds the time and space to take comic pokes at German bureaucracy, from restaurant health inspectors to tax assessment officials.

And when Zinos slips a disc trying to lift a dishwasher by himself, the film's generous helpings of physical comedy come into play, culminating in a wild scene with a terrifying physical therapist named Kemal the Bone Cruncher, who Akin insists is a real person he has personally patronized.

There is so much going on in Soul Kitchen that you'd run out of breath before you could relate it all. That may sound tiring to experience but in fact watching all this plot on screen actually energizes the viewing experience.

Also helping in the energy department is the film's terrific soundtrack. Music is a major interest of Akin's (one of his films, Crossing the Bridge, is a documentary about the Istanbul music scene), and he's put artists such as Ruth Brown, Burning Spear, Artie Shaw, the Isley Brothers and Kool & the Gang on the soundtrack, as well as generous helpings of rembetiko and Greek soul music.

There's no denying that Soul Kitchen is a film that delights in contrivance and improbability, but it does so with such a big-hearted sense of fun that it is hard not to be swept away. No matter what style he chooses to work in, Akin is a filmmaker first and foremost, and that makes all the difference.