Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin in “Game Change”: Not too shabby

Available on DVD: “Mesrine: Public Enemy #1"

Mathieu Amalric and Vincent Cassel in Mesrine: Public Enemy #1
When I last saw Jacques Mesrine at the end of Mesrine: Killer Instinct two weeks ago, the notorious French bank robber and habitual prison escapee was in the backwoods of Quebec, having just blown away two more policemen and figuring out his next move.

Mesrine: Public Enemy #1, the second in director Jean-Francois Richet’s two-film epic about the life and death of the headline-grabbing criminal, picks up in the 1970s, after Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) has returned to his Paris home turf. There, he is soon arrested and makes another of his spectacular escapes, this one from a packed courtroom where he’s been arraigned by a panel of judges under the guard of several armed policemen.

But Mesrine doesn’t last too long as a free man: French authorities are too eager to put away this defiant thief who flaunts his ability to outwit them in the national press. Mesrine is once again caught and sent to prison, where he makes the acquaintance of the borderline psychotic criminal Francois (the usually civil Mathieu Amalric, effectively cast against type). The pair become instant, uneasy friends and they immediately begin plotting their escape from the maximum security facility.

Although it sounds a lot like Killer Instinct, Public Enemy #1 has a noticeably grimmer tone and pace. The contrast is reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh’s two-part biopic of Che, where the first film was imbued with the glory of victory (the Cuban Revolution) and the second haunted by a creeping sense of defeat and death. Mesrine has gotten older and thicker with age, but his swagger and hubris have grown even larger, and he fails to take notice of the considerable forces amassing against him.

Whether he’s ripping off a Deauville casino (in a brazen robbery that should not in logistical terms have even been possible) or granting a self-glorifying interview to Paris Match, Mesrine continues to believe himself invincible and starts thinking of himself as a revolutionary out to tear down a corrupt society (shades of Che again). When he kidnaps a billionaire real estate mogul and demands a ransom of six million francs, he briefly toys with the idea of killing the man after the money is paid, just to prove a point. But we know Mesrine would never actually go that far.

Cassel, who won a Cesar (France’s equivalent to the Oscar) for his performance, invests the character with a grounding of humanity and honor that imply there are certain lines even Mesrine would never cross. His relationship with Sylvie (Ludivine Sagnier), a high-priced escort who becomes his live-in girlfriend, is surprisingly domestic and tender. When his latest scam brings him a windfall of cash, he spends a lot of it buying jewelry and clothes for her, which she accepts eagerly (only when he catches her flirting with another man does Mesrine revert to his brutish self).

And despite his flagrant disregard for the law and the lives of those who work to uphold it, Mesrine remains honorable and loyal to those around him. He only loses his cool — and becomes sadistically violent — after a newspaper reporter writes a editorial blasting him. Mesrine’s revenge on the journalist is ghastly and horrific, and it marks the true beginning of the end for his reign of crime, elevating him from gun-toting crook to sociopathic murderer.

From that point on, the police decided he had to go, due process of law be damned. The last 20 minutes of Public Enemy #1 revisit the events we glimpsed over the opening credits of Killer Instinct — the final moments of Mesrine’s life — only this time Richet stretches them out for maximum suspense. Even though we know what’s going to happen, the sequence is still taut and agonizing, unfolding for the first time from the point of view of the detectives chasing Mesrine, who turn out to be far more afraid of him than he ever was of them. “Nobody kills me until I say so!” Mesrine brags at one point — a boast that turns out to be hollow. Public Enemy #1 definitively settles the question of whether the filmmakers were glorifying their subject. His violent, pathetic end makes you sad not for the man but for a world in which such a creature could exist — and thrive.

The 10 most useless college degrees

I’m not exactly sure what the Daily Beast is, but a lot of people take it seriously. It has come up with its list (and, as everyone who reads this journal knows, I’m a sucker for lists) of the 10 most useless college degrees. I wish the Beast had done a list like this 50 years ago — I probably would be a lot better off than I am today.

Here’s the list, in reverse order, of the worst college degrees based on, according to the Beast, which ones offer the fewest job opportunities as well as pay the least:

10. Nutrition
9. Chemistry
8. Mechanical Engineering Technology
7. Music
6. Child and Family Studies
5. Fashion Design
4. Advertising
3. Agriculture
2. Horticulture
and the No 1 most useless degree: Journalism.

Now the Beast can do us all a favor and give us the 10 best degrees.

They’re from across the ocean so what could they know about our presidential elections, right?

England’s great political rag, the Spectator, has chimed in on the 2012 Presidential elections and says that although President Obama is eminently beatable, the Republicans aren’t offering anyone to beat him. The author of this article, Richard Littlejohn, says the GOP’s strongest candidate won’t run until 2016.

Donald Trump
Littlejohn says former Alaska governor and GOP Veep candidate Sarah Palin “probably won’t run, but she remains a role model for women called Peggy Sue who waddle round Wal-Mart in their curlers.” He says Minnesota congresswoman Michelle Bachmann “is perhaps the only woman in American politics who can make Palin sound like Indira Gandhi” and thus can “safely be ruled out” of contention. He claims country singer Travis Tritt has more of a chance of beating Obama than Mike Huckabee. Mitt Romney has no chance because he passed in Massachusetts a health care plan similar to Obama’s. Tom Pawlenty’s flaw, Littejohn writes, is his total lack of charisma.

Mark Rubio

“But nothing speaks more eloquently about the talent drought in the Republican party than the emergence of Donald Trump as a serious challenger,” writes Littlejohn. “This suggests a kind of mass death-wish among the right. America may have been ready for a black president, but would it ever vote for someone who parts his hair under his ear? You should never trust a man who pretends he isn’t bald.”

But Littlejohn does see a legitimate Republican challenger, only he won’t be running in 2012. That’s Florida Senator Mark Rubio.

“It’s dangerous to make predictions about American politics,” Littlejohn writes, “but I offer one now: that Rubio will be America’s first Hispanic president by 2020 at the latest.”

Want to know how to grow the local economy? First, don’t listen to the mayoral candidates or Jim Schutze

Writing on the Dallas Observer’s blog today, Jim Schutze is correct when he says attracting new businesses in Dallas doesn’t do that much for the local economy, but he’s wrong on the reasons why.

About a quarter of a century ago, I teamed up with one a fellow by the name of Hylan (Hy) Lyons, easily the most brilliant individual I have ever had an opportunity to work closely with over an extended period of time. We were charged by the North Texas Commission with finding out ways to boost the local economy.

We studied local economies around the world with emphasis on local U.S. economies and we discovered re-locating companies, as Schutze pointed out, is not the answer (which is the main reason I can’t vote for either Ron Natinsky or Mike Rawlings for Dallas mayor because they are still convinced it is). But it has nothing to do with, as Schutze argues, the relocating companies’ property tax rates, although Schutze is correct when he says cities “give away the store” in tax and utility breaks to get companies to relocate. The main reason relocation doesn’t work is because it doesn’t create jobs and job creation is the chief ingredient in improving economies. Relocating companies also relocate their employees, so no local or, at best, minimal hires are required.

What Hy and I discovered is that those economies that improved the most where those where new businesses sprang up and, as they grew, they had to hire more people and construct bigger headquarters. I’m not going to bore you with how he and I went about creating an atmosphere that led to all the high-tech startups that Dallas hosted during the mid-1980s, but it’s that type of thinking that’s needed today and that’s not the thinking I’m hearing from any of the mayoral candidates. Which is why I’m planning to sit this election out.

It would be fascinating — and somewhat scary — to imagine what Dallas might be like today if there had never been a Texas Instruments.

There are two ways to grow the local economy — the very, very, very slow, but more sustainable, way, and a somewhat quicker fashion.

The slow way is to create and maintain a top-tier research university. New businesses, new industries come from research. Research conducted at Texas Instruments was responsible for many of the new businesses created here in the 1980s, even if many of them quickly relocated to the Silicon Valley after they were created (to be closer to the research being conducted at Stanford and Cal-Berkeley). But creating a research institute, as the cliche goes, is much, much easier said than done.

The second way is to create an atmosphere conducive to incubators. Here’s what I would do if I was in charge. The City has a department called Economic Development. I would force that department to get into the business of economic development. First I would create a special office within the Department of Economic Development to partner with SMU’s Cox Business School (one of the four or five best business schools in the whole U.S. of A.). The Cox School has a number of what it calls “Centers of Excellence” and one of them is the Caruth Institute for Entrepreneurship. The Caruth Institute designates fellows to form the alliance with the new office I’ve created in the City’s Economic Development Department. Now I would instruct this partnership office to solicit proposals for startup businesses. And I’m not talking about a proposal for another paint and body shop. They should be something that no one else is doing right now. For example, I have this idea for a business that would offer total support services for an industry desperately in need of such services. (I won’t go into more detail because I don’t want someone to steal my idea).

Anyway, the purpose of this joint City of Dallas-Cox Business School would be to find ways to to discern the best of the proposals and find ways bring those business ideas from concept to reality, companies that would grow, add jobs, build bigger headquarters — all those things that really drive the local economy. You never know — one of them could be this century’s Texas Instruments. Now wouldn’t that be a jolt to the local economy.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Oscars not moving up, at least not next year

There had been talk that the folks at the Motion Picture Academy were thinking seriously of advancing the date of the Oscar telecast closer to the beginning of the year. The thinking process was that because the Oscars came at the very end of the movie-award season, they lose some of their luster and hence ratings for the show.

Traditionally, the Oscar telecast comes at the end of February and that's where it will come in 2012 -- Feb. 26, to be exact. The Academy made that announcement today along with the word that Oscar nominations will be revealed Jan. 24.

And for those really interested in the nuts and bolts of moviemaking, the scientific and technical Oscars will be handed out by some comparatively young starlet on Feb. 11. This starlet will then appear on the Feb. 26th show to try to convince us that she really had a great time handing out these awards, that she understood what all the awards signified and that we should all join in the celebration for the winners. It's always one of those moments that brings the Oscar telecast to a screeching halt.

Available on DVD: “Made in Dagenham”

Sally Hawkins as Rita O'Grady in Made in Dagenham
Made in Dagenham is an art-house crowd-pleaser — a piece of topical toffee that’s entertaining, well cast, and predictable every step of the way. The subject is a 1968 strike by 187 female workers at the Ford assembly plant in the London suburb of Dagenham, a three-week walkout that pitted the women against management, their union, and often their own husbands and boyfriends. And it was a success: In 1970, Parliament passed the Equal Pay Act, ending wage discrimination between men and women.

You can guess the kind of tough, unyielding film a firebrand like Ken Loach (The Wind That Shakes the Barley) would make of this story, and it’s easy to see where Dagenham leans on borrowed Norma Rae-isms. But director Nigel Cole has made his name with films like Saving Grace and Calendar Girls, cheeky comedies in which well-behaved British ladies rattle the teacups by growing pot or posing in the nude.

Under his guidance, Dagenham doesn’t ignore the pitiful working conditions at the Ford plant or the fundamental inequity of the women’s salary, but it does fictionalize “the girls” into a broad gallery of cozy stereotypes: the salty one, the shy one, the slutty one, the ambitious one. And so on. Together they’re the most adorable union activists imaginable.

It falls to Sally Hawkins, the motormouth optimist of Happy-Go-Lucky, to bring their leader to life, which she does without breaking much of a sweat. Rita O’Grady is one of the gang when Made in Dagenham begins, sewing automobile seat-cushions in a workroom with a leaky roof and no air conditioning; the women cheerfully strip down to their skivvies on hot days. Their designated spokesman, Connie (Geraldine James), is an older woman averse to conflict, and shop steward Albert (Bob Hoskins in fine fettle) needs someone from the ranks. He chooses Rita, and Rita, to her shock, chooses to speak up.

The scene in which she does so — a meeting with management in which the ladies are supposed to sit quietly by while the men do the talking — is delicious, as much for the appalled look on the doughy old unionists’ faces as for Rita’s gathering righteousness. William Ivory’s script makes the essential point that the women had to separate their own dispute early on, since the men just weren’t interested. Dagenham builds slowly to a pitch of emotional conviction: a national union convention at which Rita shames her audience with the simple facts of the matter.

The movie makes sure she’s supported on all sides by a sisterhood unbounded by class. One of the script’s more far-fetched inventions is the friendship between Rita and Lisa (Rosamund Pike), the willowy, Oxford-educated wife of the plant’s young manager (Rupert Graves). Yet if the friendship seems unlikely, Lisa gets the film’s strongest scene when she tearfully describes the Barbie-doll life her husband expects her to lead. As Barbara Castle, the frosty Secretary of State for Employment, Miranda Richardson earns the biggest laughs by cowing male minions and forging a connection with the striking women over tea (and a little Scotch).

If only Made in Dagenham didn’t roll along such pat dramatic tracks. Cole directs the film with such conventional storytelling beats that you can tell how each scene will end moments after it has begun. When he holds a camera shot on one of the husbands a second too long, you know that tragedy will arrive on schedule, and so it does. Why is Hoskins’s Albert so empathetic to the strikers? Here comes the monologue about his sainted mum to explain it all.

The movie moves, but it doesn’t breathe. The period details are pleasing down to the Mary Quant hot pants and the Desmond Dekker hits on the soundtrack, and it all feels precisely engineered for our comfort. Made in Dagenham is a feel-good movie about women who felt so bad they had to strike out. It celebrates their grit and their triumph at the expense of their fury.

Life’s simple pleasures

Ginger and Ruby at Moss Park
Last December I added a 6-week-old Golden Retriever I named Ginger to my household. It was one of the smartest moves I have ever made. In the four-plus months since, I have become rather attached to the canine and, judging by the fact she is asleep at my feet as I write this, the feeling appears to be mutual.

Two of the many great joys I have with Ginger are (1) watching her interact with her best friend Ruby, My Hero’s dog, and (2) letting her romp around the fields and the woods of Moss Park.

This weekend I had the opportunity to combine the two. Trust me here: It doesn’t get much better than this.

All of you dog owners will understand this completely. I feel sorry for the rest of you.

Republican who said Demos cater to pot-smoking gay gamblers from Guatamala busted for possessing grass

Rep. Robert A. Watson
Earlier this year, Rhode Island House Minority Leader Robert A. Watson, speaking to the Providence Chamber of Commerce, made some rather inflammatory comments about his Democratic colleagues. “I suppose if you’re a gay man from Guatemala who gambles and smokes pot, you probably think that we’re onto some good ideas here.”

He was quickly forced to apologize. But his apology was not the end of the story.

Last Friday. as he was tooling down a highway in East Haven, Conn., he was pulled over at a routine checkpoint. The police arrested him on the spot and charged him with posession and driving under the influence of marijuana.
At least he didn’t have a Guatemalan gambler in the car with him.

Todd Phillips way overrates his “Hangover”

Todd Phillips
The Hangover is arguably the most overhyped comedy to come along since the dawn of the 21st Century. It had a smattering of funny moments but in five years, at most, it will be forgotten. It is certainly not on a par with this century’s fine comedies like Borat, Knocked Up, Fantastic Mr. Fox, In the Loop, A Mighty Wind, Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, High Fidelity, Best in Show. (500) Days of Summer, Superbad, The Royal Tenenbaums, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Amelie, Nurse Betty and O Brother Where Art Thou.

Of course, recent film history has proved you don’t have to make a good comedy to make a sequel. Latest case in point is the fact there is going to be The Hangover Part II. Yet for some reason director Todd Phillips found the cohones to compare his two films to another two-parter. He had the nerve to tell MTC:

“I think there are very few sequels that have been made that live up to or exceed their first film. The Godfather is the first one…We had always planned on calling it The Hangover 2 and when we finished the script, I changed the cover page and wrote The Hangover Part II, because I think the film lives up to or exceeds the first one. It was very much a nod to The Godfather.”

Republicans fiddle while Texas burns

Monday, April 25, 2011

10 worst Irish accents in movie history

Worst Irish accent ever?
Something called Irish Central has come up with a list of the 10 worst Irish accents in the history of movie and Academy Award winners Sean Connery and Julia Roberts together comprise 40 percent of the list. I won’t go into all the details of why writer Conn Corrigan (can’t beat that for an Irish name) chose these 10, but if you want the detail you can find it here. What I’m going to do is simply provide the list:

1. Sean Connery in Darby O’Gill and the Little People
2. Sean Connery in The Untouchables (I’m thinking Corrigan has something personal against Connery)
3. Kevin Spacey in Ordinary Decent Criminal
4. Tommy Lee Jones in Blown Away
5. Julia Roberts in Michael Collins
6. Julia Roberts in Mary Reilly
7. Tom Cruise in Far and Away
8. Brad Pitt in The Devil’s Own
9. Gerard Butler in P.S. I Love You
10. The Leprechaun in The Leprechaun

Let’s put this “Where was Obama born?” crap behind us once and for all

Want to see President Obama’s birth certificate? According to the Associated Press, anyone can do it. Simply take a nice vacation to Hawaii and while you’re there, visit any state vital records office on any of the islands. Ask to see the government binder on births in the state (it’s a blue binder) that contains the names of all the children born in Hawaii between 1960 and 1964. Check out page 1,218 and there is the future President’s listing.

Of course, all those so-called “birthers” are not interested in proof. They are simply too stupid for rational political discourse so they have to invent a fable they can get their weak minds around without too much difficulty.

Ayn shrugged

Ayn Rand
As a writer, Ayn Rand, to put it kindly, was a hack. I don’t think even her most ardent admirers will go so far as to praise her craftsmanship. What they dig is her political philosophy. Now that a really bad film has been released based on her trite and boring novel Atlas Shrugged, it is the perfect time to take a closer look at Rand.

And I thought things were bad with the Texas Legislature

A Tennessee Senate panel has passed 6-3 a bill that would make it a crime just to say the words "gay" and/or "homosexuality" in Tennessee schools. According to this account, this ridiculous bill "is on its way to becoming law in no time."

Sunday, April 24, 2011

One Love

One love, one heart, let's get together and feel all right.

What would Jesus cut?

Jim Wallis
I guess Easter is as good a time as any to take note of the fact that partisans on the left are taking lessons from the “religious right” by invoking the name of Jesus into the budget debate.

Jim Wallis, co-founder and CEO of Sojourners magazine, has launched an organization called What Would Jesus Cut? that sends emails and What Would Jesus Cut? bracelets to congressional representatives. The messages question why the Republicans’ budget plan should favor the “super rich” while cutting $758 million from the Women, Infants and Children Program, among other things.

As this article notes, What Would Jesus Cut? “represents the most viable, coherent and exciting vision for fastening a Christian moral vision to our national politics at the other end of political spectrum.”

Available on DVD: “Fair Game”

Naomi Watts and Sean Penn in Fair Game
Fair Game is an unintentionally perplexing film. Strongly written about a potent and still-relevant subject, smartly directed by Doug Liman and forcefully acted by Naomi Watts, Sean Penn and a carefully selected supporting cast, it seems to be doing everything right but still doesn’t manage to leave you with a completely satisfied feeling.

Certainly, Fair Game’s subject matter is inherently dramatic. It relates the ripped-from-the-headlines story of Valerie Plame (Watts), a covert CIA officer who found her cover blown and her professional life destroyed by “the most powerful men in the history of the world.”

According to the script by Jez Butterworth and his brother John-Henry, that would be the men in the Bush White House, key operatives like Karl Rove and Lewis “Scooter” Libby, men who placed Plame in their cross hairs to divert the public’s attention from her husband, Joe Wilson (Penn). He’d had the temerity to suggest that the administration was in effect cooking the books and ignoring critical facts in its zeal to invade Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

With Hussein now long dead and the American military focus shifted to Afghanistan, this may sound like so much ancient history, but the reverse is true. Now that we know that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the extent to which we were manipulated into a needless war that continues to wreak havoc in our world is more rather than less disturbing, like a perpetual nightmare that gets worse each time it replays in our minds.

In fact, the hitch in Fair Game is that the nakedness of what was publicly done to Plame and Wilson may be more compelling than the filmmakers counted on. They chose to focus much of their efforts on how having the White House gunning for the couple affected their personal relationship, but they shouldn’t have.

Though that dynamic is of interest, it is frankly dwarfed by the outrage you have to feel at both the misuse of governmental power and the pro-war propaganda offensive, and that unbalances the film. The way that Plame was considered, in Rove’s words to Chris Matthews, “fair game” in a world of brutal realpolitik is so disturbing it overwhelms the personal drama that accompanied it.

Certainly the first time we see Plame, in the typically brisk and to-the-point interlude that opens the film, she is the picture of steely covert operative competence, handling a tricky situation in Kuala Lumpur like it was the kind of thing she did every day. Which in fact, it pretty much was.

Back home in Washington, Plame pretends to even her close friends that she is a committed venture capitalist. If she is close-mouthed, her husband is the opposite. A night out with other couples in a bar on the October day in 2001 when the war in Afghanistan began shows him to be — and clearly not for the first time — a trouble-making loose cannon, a self-righteous individual with a noticeable temper management problem.

Their personalities may differ, but Fair Game takes pains to portray Plame and Wilson as loving parents as well as partners in a good marriage. He is trying to ramp up a consulting business while she punches a CIA time clock, even getting promoted to chief of operations for the Iraqi branch of the Counterproliferation Division.

In that capacity, Plame has to deal with persistent pressure from “across the river,” i.e. the vice president’s office, to prove that Iraq is hell-bent on acquiring a nuclear weapon and had in fact bought huge amounts of yellowcake uranium from the African nation of Niger. One of her associates wonders if Wilson, once the U.S. ambassador to Gabon, could investigate.

Plame is uncertain — it’s unpaid work in a hellhole — but when she mentions it to her husband he agrees and comes away convinced that the purported sale could not possibly have happened. When Wilson later hears President Bush mention the uranium deal in a televised speech as if it were fact, he is so shocked he writes an outraged op-ed in the New York Times headlined “What I Didn’t Find in Africa.” At which point all hell breaks loose.

Fearing that the column will damage the White House, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Libby (expertly played by David Andrews with the darkness of Harry Potter’s nemesis, Voldemort), changes the story. Acting in concert with Rove (Adam LeFevre), the pair decides to focus on Wilson and his relationship with Plame. As a result, White House-friendly columnist Robert Novak outs Plame in an article and everyone around her, especially her colleagues in the CIA, abandons her and runs for cover.

Because this story is so real and so disturbing, it makes other parts of Fair Game weak by contrast. This is especially true of an invented subplot about an Iraqi nuclear scientist and his family. The problem with this segment, which had to be invented because Plame’s real work is still classified by the CIA, is not that it is fake but that it feels tidy and manufactured on the screen even without our being told that that is the case.

Though the differing ways Plame and Wilson responded to the White House attack and how those differences impacted their marriage is true, it just isn’t compelling. This despite excellent work by Bourne Identity director Liman (who did his own cinematography) in his best All the President’s Men mode and one of the finest performances of Watts’ career.

Rather than concern for the private lives of those acted upon, what we feel is outrage about the public act, and no amount of good work can change that.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Gun rights group compares itself to Holocaust victims

Only an Insensitive Blithering Idiot would even dare to compare people trying to hide the fact that they own guns with Holocaust victims. That makes Jon Boch, head of the oxymoronic “Guns Saves Lives” group of Illinois, a card-carrying IBI.

MLB considering diluting its regular season even more

It all started to go bad in 1969.

Before then, the winner of baseball’s National League played the winner of the American League in the World Series. That was the playoff scenario. Simple, but absolutely effective. It also meant the 162-game regular season meant something.

Then in 1969, each league was split into two divisions and the winner of each division played each other in something called the League Championship Series. The winner of that series met in the World Series.

That worked fine until 1994 when, after the leagues had split again into three divisions, baseball instituted the dreaded “Wild Card.” That came about because one year there was a team (San Francisco Giants, as I recall) that finished second in one of the divisions that had a better record than a team that finished first in one of the other divisions.

That’s the system that is being used today.

But wait. Now comes word that Major League Baseball is, in the words of commissioner Bud Selig, “moving inexorably” to adding another wild card to the mix. That would mean fully one-third of Major League Baseball’s 30 teams will now qualify for the playoffs each year.

Here’s the rub. Selig doesn’t want the season extending into November like it did last year. That’s the reason this year’s season began a week earlier than ever before. The owners don’t want to cut any games from the 162-game schedule (decreases owners’ revenues, you see) and the Players Association doesn’t want the schedule contracted with the addition of more doubleheaders.

But Selig still predicts the new playoff system will be in place by next season.

Dumb doc becomes East Texas hero

Wacky Wakefield
Why am I not surprised that Andrew Wakefield, described here as “one of the most reviled doctors of his generation,” has found a following in East Texas?

For those not familiar with this jerk, he’s the one who claimed back in 1998 that there was a link between the measules-mumps-rubella vaccine and autism, an idea that has been debunked unanimously by scientific and medical authorities.

Texas just seems to be a magnet for kooks.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Available on DVD: “Cool It”

Bjørn Lomborg
In the documentary Cool It, controversial Bjørn Lomborg is given a platform for his views on global warming.

Lomborg, who wrote the book The Skeptical Environmentalist, says climate-change problems aren’t as dire as Al Gore has led us to believe. But this isn’t really the anti-An Inconvenient Truth. Lomborg thinks it’s an issue and offers various approaches to tackling it.

For instance, he looks at alternative-energy sources (waves, solar) and such neat concepts as ships that shoot water into the sky in an effort to make clouds whiter to reflect more heat.

The gist of Lomborg’s message seems to be avoiding quick, feel-good fixes (i.e., buying a Prius) that ultimately do very little. Instead, he wants millions funneled into research and development to find ways to combat climate changes.

The film is presented quickly, with bullet points being tossed out in rat-a-tat fashion. It can be a little hard to digest so many ideas, especially in such rapid succession. The movie is never boring, but there may be some information overload for laymen viewers.

Cool It also spends a lot of time decrying the scare tactics of An Inconvenient Truth. But this movie is no less a piece of propaganda, especially in the cheerful way Lomborg is presented. A happy guy who always wears a T-shirt, he is shown serving hungry Third World children and caring for his elderly mother, who has Alzheimer’s. In other words, how can a guy this humble and sweet be wrong?

The over-the-top manipulation tends to mar one’s appreciation of the documentary and Lomborg’s message. Lomborg may be a skeptical environmentalist, but this isn’t a movie for skeptical DVD watchers.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Nice job, D-Wayne

Lois Finkelman
I have not been all that kind to Mayor D-Wayne Carriedaway in this journal, but today I must tip my hat in his direction, I was watching the Dallas City Council being briefed today on gas drilling and the talk revolved around the establishment of a task force to study the issue. Council member Angela Hunt has been calling for such a study for months, but it wasn’t until colleague Dave Neumann, in whose district the majority of wells are proposed, joined her crusade that the whole idea gained traction.

At today’s briefing, the mayor said he had anticipated this whole task force business and that he was using his prerogative as mayor to name the chairman. I closed my eyes, gritted my teeth and prepared for the worst. Then Carriedaway shocked me by announcing the closest thing to a dead-solid perfect choice, former council member Lois Finkelman. Well done, Mr. Mayor.

Which Chicago baseball team was the first to "throw" a World Series? (Hint: It may not have been the "Black Sox")

Eddie Cicotte
According to a 1920 deposition the Chicago Museum of History recently added to its Website, Eddie Cicotte, one of the Chicago White Sox players banned for life for allegedly throwing the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds, claimed the team got the idea from the Chicago Cubs, whose players took bribes to throw the Series the year before. In the deposition, Cicotte claims “the boys on the club” talked about how a Cub or a number of Cubs were offered $10,000 to throw the 1918 Series they lost 4-2 to the Boston Red Sox. Although most of the Cubs played extraordinarily well in that Boston series, the performance of outfielder Max Flack does raise some questions.

Available on DVD: “Waste Land”

Artist Vik Muniz at Jardim Gramacho landfill in Rio de Janeiro
It’s not a very good title, Waste Land — this isn’t a bleak film, at all — but just about everything else in Lucy Walker’s documentary works, and illuminates.

Traveling with the Brooklyn-based, Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz — an energetic figure whose large-scale photography and portraiture incorporates nontraditional materials (food, wire, metal) — Walker sets down with her small crew in Rio de Janeiro and watches as a truly transformative project takes shape.

Muniz has come to Jardim Gramacho, one of the largest landfills in the world, to shoot portraits of the catadores — pickers who sift through the towering hills of detritus, looking for recyclables to redeem for cash. Like those portrayed in Millais’ famous painting, The Gleaners, these women and men — and children — stoop over the land, gathering, collecting, reaping a harvest. That it is not a field of wheat and grain, but a mountainscape of toxic trash, speaks to the changes that have taken place in the last two centuries. On one level, Waste Land is a film about our planet and how humankind continues to abuse it.

But in more insightful, inspiring ways, Waste Land — one of the five documentary features nominated for an Oscar this year — is about what happens when an artist invites his subjects into a truly collaborative relationship. There’s a cook who sells food at the dump. There’s a young woman who has worked collecting garbage since she was 7. A spry, leathery old gent reflects on his past with wisdom and humor. Another man recounts with pride how he started a library for the pickers from the discarded books retrieved from the rubble.

Taking portraits of six of these catadores and blowing them up on a massive scale in a hangar-size studio, Muniz then reworks the projected images, augmenting the portraits with garbage and debris culled from the dump. And then he takes large-format photographs of these giant portrait/assemblage pieces. And sells them in a London gallery, with the proceeds going back to the catadores.

Muniz finds the beauty in the garbage. But more importantly, he finds the beauty in the people who live and work in it and around it.

And Walker records Muniz, and records the pickers as they go through their arduous routines — and as they go to work with, and for, the world-renowned artist. They talk about their lives, their hardships and losses, but also the sense of dignity and purpose they’ve found. One man, Tiao, has organized the pickers — to give them better wages, better conditions, legitimacy.

Walker’s film, with an effective score by Moby, presents eerie montages of the workers as they scavenge the landfill. The images are surreal, and strange, but the people doing the scavenging, the culling, become wonderfully real and hardly strange at all.

Available on DVD: “Kites”

Barbara Mori and Hrithik Roshan in Kites
Everything about the American-set Bollywood movie Kites is over the top: The extreme and often garish settings, the outsized emotions, the broad acting, the massive action setpieces. Only the wafer-thin plot is simple, but given the movie’s emphatic tone, even that comes buried in exclamation points. It’s such a basic setup that it wavers between timeless and trite: A beautiful woman (Bárbara Mori) is caught between a rich creep ready to marry her (Nicholas Brown) and a poor would-be lover (Indian mega-star Hrithik Roshan) with little to offer but sincere devotion. It worked in Titanic, and it might work here, if the film could stop with the car chases, shoot-’em-ups, and self-admiration long enough to take just a few deep breaths.

Kites’ extra features eagerly emphasize the film’s “accessibility to American audiences,” which is largely based on the American and Mexican settings, and stars who veer between English, Hindi, and Spanish seemingly at random. (This 90-minute “remix” cut by Rush Hour director Brett Ratner that was released in the United States emphasizes the English dialogue and cuts a gratuitous but energetically fun dance-contest sequence, among other things.) But the filmmakers clearly visualize Mexico only as a charming backwater of adobe houses and sombreros, and America as the place they’ve seen on TV and action movies, a garish blur of Las Vegas’ burning neon, an Old West saloon, and vast plains filled with racing, exploding police cars. The screenplay reads as though the filmmakers worked through a checklist, trying to mash together the cinematic loves of a clichéd American audience (gunfights, chase scenes, romantic-comedy angry banter, sex) with the loves of a clichéd Indian audience (a dance sequence, good-hearted poor men, evil controlling dads, forbidden love). They even throw in some nods to Mexican audiences, in the form of Mori’s hot-blooded illegal immigrant, who speaks Spanish exclusively (except when the plot requires otherwise) and is fiercely devoted to helping her impoverished Mexican family.

The results are too often ridiculously excessive — Kites generally reads like the Jerry Bruckheimer version of Slumdog Millionaire — but to anyone versed in Bollywood conventions, it’s a natural outgrowth of the genre, and a comically overwrought but still generally fun time. The story mines some humor out of the fact that Roshan and Mori don’t share a language, and carry on their by-the-book romance even when they’re thoroughly at odds and have no way of knowing it. They’re both gorgeous charmers, capable of projecting intense emotion on cue. It’s just a shame that that’s the only kind of emotion Kites recognizes.

Remembering a gypsy songman

John Vandiver
I have only five framed photographs hanging on the wall in the office of my home, the place where I compose the entries for this journal. One is of a reflection pool in Seville, Spain, one of the few photographs I took of which I am incredibly proud. There are also photographs of my son Chance when he was 3, my marvelous granddaughter Grace, and my younger brother Jim who died almost 25 years ago and whom I still miss every single day. The other photograph is of John Vandiver taken during a performance at Rockefeller’s in Houston. John is at the center and he is flanked in the photograph by such other great musicians as Shake Russell, Michael Mashkes, Michael Mercoulier and Dana Cooper.

For the first 25 years of its existence I attended every single Kerrville Folk Festival. I especially remember the 1979 edition. Chance was less than a year old and this festival was his first experience outside the four walls of our Dallas home. I figured he would, at most, take three days and nights of tent living before insisting we had back north. To my wonderful surprise and amazement, the only time he threw a fit was when we folded the tent to leave after spending three weeks at Quiet Valley Ranch.

Anyway, John was on stage at one particular afternoon performance that year singing his incredible version of Cake Walk Into Town, when Chance got up from his seat next to me and began “cake walking” toward the stage. It marked his first steps on his own.

As the years and the festivals wore on, Chance and John developed their own special friendship. John would bring this old nag of a horse with him to the ranch and Chance fell in love with that animal. He would spend all day at the fence line reaching through the wire to pet and talk to the horse. As a result, John decided to call the horse “Chance.”

I remember once, a couple of weeks before John was murdered, taking Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top to a Houston club to see John perform. Billy could only stay through about a half-dozen numbers, but when we left he promised me he was going to get John into a recording studio and produce a album by him.

The weekend John was killed he called me and asked if Chance and I could come to Magnolia to spend that weekend at his ranch. As fate would have it, I already made other plans. I later came to learn I was down the list of people John called that day asking them to spend the weekend with him. He must have had a premonition.

I also remember very well being awakened at 3:20 a.m. that Saturday morning by a ringing telephone. At the other end of the line was Michael Mashkes telling me that John had been murdered.

All these thoughts came back to me this evening as I read singer/songwriter Robert Earl Keen’s fitting tribute to the Gypsy Songman. It is well worth the time it takes to read it.

Film to claim Onassis financed RFK assassination

Aristotle Onassis

Fernando Meirelles, the director of The Constant Gardener among other works, is planning a film biography of Aristotle Onassis that will not concentrate on his relationship with Jackie Kennedy, the widow of President John K. Kennedy, but on the Greek shipping magnate’s contentious dealings with the President’s brother.

The film, titled simply Onassis, will be adapted from a book written by Peter Evans and, according to this story, “As attorney general, Bobby had investigated Onassis’s sketchy international business practices and banned him from trading with the U.S., and Evans wrote that their rivalry over control of and access to Jackie culminated in Onassis’s alleged financing of the assassination of the presidential hopeful.”

Is this the end of Batman?

I didn’t find the fact that Oscar winner Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levett were reuniting with director Christopher Nolan for The Dark Knight Rises nearly as interesting as the fact the news release announcing the casting referred to the film as “the epic conclusion to the Dark Night legend.”

What’s with this “epic conclusion” business? Is Nolan, who is co-writing the screenplay from a story he co-authored, planning to bump off Batman? Is Nolan going to forever deprive Batman of a Robin? Everyone knows Nolan was not planning on directing another Batman film, but is he going to do his best to keep everyone else away as well?

I guess we’ll have to wait until July 2012, when the film is scheduled to open, to learn the answers.

Cuban getting out of the movie biz?

According to this report, Mark Cuban is putting the Landmark theaters and Magnolia Pictures on the auction block. That doesn’t mean he’s going to sell, but he’s trolling the financial waters to see if any big fish will bite. I gotta think Cube wouldn’t be going to all this trouble unless he planned to unload, but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. I also wonder why no local media was on this story.

Rumblings from Roger

Film critic Roger Ebert recently posed an interesting rhetorical question. “Why is it you never see this headline: ‘Psychic wins lottery’?”

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Available on DVD: “Four Lions”

Four Lions is a comedy about terrorism. No, not a thoughtful, intellectual take on the absurdities of suicide bombing. It’s slapstick. Actually, it’s the Three Stooges of Jihad. Or five, really: Five working-class young men from northern England meet in secret to plan suicide bombings but are so inept they cannot even agree on what to bomb.

“What we gonna blow up, Waj?”

“The Internet.”

“We should bomb the mosque,” says Barry. “It will radicalize the moderates.”

He then begins taping his video claiming credit for the planned attack.

That profound lack of connection between thought and action — how the video undermines the goal of the bombing — is a constant through the film. These are real idiots. In fact, they are clearly more in love with the idea of jihad than they are with any actual goals or strategies. In love with the trappings: the guns, the bombs, the videos, the buzzwords and, above all, the posturing. When one makes a threatening video, holding a toy gun, he is told the gun is too small to be believable. “No, my hands are too big,” he responds.

But that is already taking the film too seriously. Really, these guys are just knuckleheads. And the movie is full of outrageous laughs. One comforts another at the thought of dying: “Don’t worry, you’ll be in heaven before your head hits the ceiling.” Another films himself singing a rap song: “I’m the mujahideen and I’m making a scene/ Now you’s gonna feel what the boom-boom means.”

As a viewer, you’re stuck. The subject would not seem to be funny in any way. Terrorism is clearly a serious matter. Yet, funny is funny, and you laugh despite yourself. After all, with the Times Square car bomber, who locked his keys in the car, and after the underwear bomber, you begin to see that not everyone involved is a Ph.D.

And the absurdities of their beliefs keep piling up. When their car breaks down, one of them claims, “It’s the parts. They’re Jewish.”

What part of the car is Jewish?

“The spark plugs. Jews invented spark plugs to control global traffic.”

The film never makes fun of Islam itself. In fact, Islam hardly comes up at all, in any substantive way. No, this is about idiots and fundamentalism. About zealotry and violence. Our gang never discusses religion; rather, they discuss whether the battery is running low on their video camera.

I did have some major problems. The movie is set in Sheffield, England, and the working-class accents are sometimes impenetrable. The DVD should have included English subtitles (only Spanish ones are offered). But even then, the argot is so thick, even subtitles wouldn’t help: “You givin’ me batty chirps, bro? You calling me a whammer?”

Also, the film betrays its low-budget origins in cinematography, editing, acting and locations. Really, none of that finally matters. Mainly, you’ll laugh even through the credits which contain the notation: “One sheep was harmed in the making of this film.”

I now have something in common with Nicolas Cage

I, too, have been drunk in New Orleans. However, I never did any of that other stuff

Who is Ricardo Sanchez and why are all those Democrats talking about him?

Ricardo Sanchez
To answer the first question, Sanchez, a native of Rio Grande City, was once the Numero Uno military commander in Iraq. Unfortunately, for him, he was the Top Dog during that time when the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse stuff broke. In a memo signed by General Sanchez and later acquired by the ACLU through a Freedom of Information Act request, techniques were authorized to interrogate prisoners, including “environmental manipulation” such as making a room hot or cold or using an “unpleasant smell,” isolating a prisoner, disrupting normal sleep patterns and “convincing the detainee that individuals from a country other than the United States are interrogating him.” In return, Sanchez said the ALCU was “a bunch of sensationalist liars, I mean lawyers, that will distort any and all information that they get to draw attention to their positions.” Although he was never formally charged with anything, the scandal effectively ended his military career and he retired in 2006 to write his memoirs and other things.

To answer the second question, Democrats are actively recruiting Sanchez to run for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by the retiring Kay Bailey Hutchison.

“I would describe myself as during my military career as supporting the president and the Constitution,” Sanchez said in a recent interview. “After the military, I decided that socially, I’m a progressive, a fiscal conservative and a strong supporter, obviously, of national defense.”

He also said his political views have been shaped by his Rio Grande Valley upbringing.

“It’s my views and my history, having grown up in south Texas, depending on social programs and assistance, that America has a responsibility to its people,” he said in the same interview.

I dunno. It seems to me the guy is carrying a lot of negative baggage to be seriously considered a viable candidate. But maybe these crazy Texans might think that the techniques employed at Abu Ghraib are just what we need to solve our immigrant problem and putting all those uppity gay marriage folks where they belong.

DART may tie rates to where riders live’

DART has a plan to get break even.

David Leininger, CFO of Dallas Area Rapid Transit, recently told a panel discussing the future of Dallas, that staff is talking to the DART board about instituting a higher rate for those residents living in cities that are not DART members. My question, obviously, is how are they going to know who is who. Anyway, here’s what the man had to say on the subject:

Our demand has grown beyond our boundaries. One of our biggest challenges is dealing with Frisco and McKinney and all of the areas north of our service area. Ten percent of all trips are generated at our end-of the-line stations; 55 percent of those end-of-line riders are “non-residents,” or people who live outside of DART, and that rate is growing. At the time that the plan was put together, 25 years ago, out-of-area ridership was probably 1 or 2 percent. We are spending, on light rail alone, in terms of subsidies to people who live outside our service area, roughly $20 million on the operating side. If you fold in the capital costs associated with it, it’s about $50 million a year in expense for riders who do not live in the service area and whose cities do not contribute to DART. That’s the big economic challenge that we’ve got to address. There is literally a discussion going on with our board now, to have non-resident and resident price differentiation. And it would be a big differentiation. It wouldn’t be 25 cents, I can tell you that.

Bachman: “God is homophobic”

Michelle Bachmann

Michelle Bachmann, that looney representative from Minnesota, claims God told her to propose amendments to the Minnesota state constitution outlawing gay marriage. This wacko, who is actually mounting a presidential campaign, was trying to drum up votes in the early caucus state of Iowa during the weekend and told a group of two or three supporters there that one day back in 2003 or so she was letting it all hang out listening to her favorite Christian radio station when she heard that the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled gay marriages were constitutional.

“When that happened, I heard the news on my local Christian radio station in Minneapolis-St. Paul and I was devastated,” she said. “And I took a walk and I just went to prayer and I said, ‘Lord, what would you have me do in the Minnesota state Senate?’ And just through prayer I knew that I was to introduce the marriage amendment in Minnesota.”

Fortunately enough, while Bachmann was conferring with her homophobic God, the rest of the Minnesota state senators were channeling Rock Hudson and her attempt failed. But she tried again. Once more wiser heads prevailed and Bachman’s proposal was shot down.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Memo to ESPN: Bring ‘em back alive!

Jon Miller and Joe Morgan

I was watching the Rangers-Yankees baseball game on ESPN tonight and even more painful than the Texas loss was listening to the broadcasters. ESPN needs to get Jon Miller and Joe Morgan back in the telecast booth as soon as possible. Only Vin Scully is a better play-by-play broadcaster than Miller, and Morgan has forgotten more baseball strategy than Bobby Valentine will ever admit to knowing. At the very least, the Miller-Morgan team know the head guy in the dugout is the “manager” and not the “head coach” as I heard last night. Ouch!

Available on DVD: “A Film Unfinished”

Even the most harrowing drama is still, at its core, a form of entertainment — a way to pass the time. But A Film Unfinished shows that the medium can be used for more nefarious purposes, as a tool of propaganda, even a weapon in war.

Yael Hersonski’s documentary is infuriating, heartbreaking, devastating — and scary. It depicts a lie upon a lie. The manipulation and perversion of a form of popular culture with such casual indifference to human life is appalling.

In 1942, shortly before most residents of the Warsaw Ghetto were shipped off to Treblinka, Nazis sent cameramen into the ghetto to record daily life there for a propaganda film, Das Ghetto. It never was finished. The footage, four reels discovered by East Germans after the war, was studied for years. It shows wealthy Jews living happily as well as unspeakable suffering among the poor.

Why the film was shot isn’t known. It seems most likely that it would have shown that some Jews living in the ghetto were comfortable and had no regard for those who were less fortunate. Customers walk into a shop, ignoring the children begging outside its window. An elaborate funeral procession moves through the streets to a cemetery. Well-dressed people walk past a man lying dead on the sidewalk, not even looking at him, as if he weren’t even there.

However, a fifth reel of footage was discovered in 1998, and it is shattering. A series of outtakes, it shows that the scenes of affluence — nice dinners in restaurants, visiting with friends in a comfortable apartment — were staged. The boorish behavior often was conducted at gunpoint, under orders by uniformed soldiers, as the cameras rolled. Occasionally, a cameraman is caught on film. There are several takes of the customers ignoring the beggars, of the passers-by being marched past the dead man, again and again. The funeral procession is perhaps the most obscene depiction of all; the lost footage shows the reality of how the dead were disposed of — slid down boards into mass graves.

Hersonski showed the footage to five survivors of the ghetto and filmed their reaction to it. Their memories, both shared and witnessed, are profoundly moving. It’s sad, certainly, to see them relieve the horror, but it’s devastating to hear, as one woman says, that she’s happy that she can cry “now that I’m human.”

To say that the film is uncomfortable to watch is an understatement. It’s searing. Yet it’s also invaluable, not just as a further reminder of Nazi atrocities but also as a cautionary look at how anything we see can be manipulated, perverted. It is difficult to watch when Hersonski slows the footage, lingering over the haunted eyes set in gaunt faces. It’s worse to see those who avert their gaze, unable to look into the Nazis’ cameras, utterly defeated, as if their fate, which will overtake them in a few months, is known to them already.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Southwest Airlines Exposed!

Drove My Hero to Love Field this morning to catch a Southwest flight to St. Louis where she will be visiting her parents this weekend. I was supposed to pick her up at the airport Monday morning, but on a further examination of her ticket she realized she is returning late in the afternoon when I am not available. She called Southwest and a spokesperson said they could switch her flight to an earlier one but it would have to charge her a "CHANGE FEE." Or she could wait until Monday to attempt to change it and avoid the fee. My Hero attributed the problem to the fact that she is using her Rapid Rewards frequent flier miles for this trip so is embroiled in Southwest’s "RED TAPE."

Another damning report on fracking

Oil and gas companies injected hundreds of millions of gallons of hazardous or carcinogenic chemicals into wells in more than 13 states from 2005 to 2009, according to an investigation by Congressional Democrats. The chemicals were used by companies during a drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, which involves the high-pressure injection of a mixture of water, sand and chemical additives into rock formations deep underground. The process, which is being used to tap into large reserves of natural gas around the country, opens fissures in the rock to stimulate the release of oil and gas. This is the process the Dallas City Council, led by Dave Neumann, wants to approve to help add even more pollutants to the air and water here.

Many of the ingredients were “extremely toxic,” including benzene, a known human carcinogen, and lead. Companies injected large amounts of other hazardous chemicals including 11.4 million gallons of fluids containing at least one of the toxic or carcinogenic B.T.E.X. chemicals — benzene, toluene, xylene and ethylbenzene. The companies used the highest volume of fluids containing one or more carcinogens in Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas.

The report comes two and a half months after an initial report that found that 32.2 millions of gallons of fluids containing diesel, considered an especially hazardous pollutant because it contains benzene, were injected into the ground during hydrofracking by a dozen companies from 2005 to 2009, in possible violation of the drinking water act.

What do you mean “we,” white man?

I always thought the Ranger was the senior partner in the Lone Ranger-Tonto relationship. But with the announcement that Ryan Gosling is in talks to star as the masked man against Johnny Depp’s Tonto, you gotta wonder. Especially when the filmed version of The Lone Ranger is set to be directed by Gore Verbinski, who directed Depp in the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films. Well maybe screenwriter Justin (Revolutionary Road) Haythe’s script is going to center on Kemo Sabe being wracked with guilt over the fact that he was the only survivor of the Butch Cavendish ambush. Gosling would be aces doing that. But for some reason I can’t picture him leaping on his mighty steed, proclaiming “Hi-yo, Silver! Away!” as Depp mumbles “Git-em up, Scout.”

But speaking of casting, I thought it was a brilliant move by Steven Spielberg to cast Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln (pictured) in his upcoming movie that deals with the clashes between Lincoln and the members of his cabinet. Tony Kushner is writing the screenplay from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals. This project has Oscar written all over it.

The Lone Ranger is due to come out in 2014 and Spielberg’s Lincoln next year.

Available on DVD: “The Father of My Children”

The Father of My Children is a subtle work on an exceedingly difficult subject. Divulging the subject would spoil a kink in the plot that flips the thing abruptly on its head. Suffice it to say it’s painful — and the pain is a type not often explored on film with quite this delicacy, or quite this calm.

With the exception of that one instantaneous game-changer, writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve’s (All Is Forgiven) tale of a high-flying French movie producer starts slowly, builds slowly, resolves slowly and ends slowly, if indeed it can be said to end at all.

At first, it could be any old portrait of a harried businessman juggling work and family. The first seven or eight minutes follow Grégoire (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), his cell phone glued his face, as he commutes from Paris to his country home at the close of a long workweek. From his end of several frenzied conversations, we gather that all is not well with his company: An actor is having a hissy fit, a director is dragging his feet, a budget is lurching dangerously out of control.

But once he’s home, snuggling with his wife (Chiara Caselli) and three beautiful daughters (Alice Gautier, Manelle Driss and Alice de Lencquesaing, Louis-Do’s daughter), it’s clear that Grégoire has a borderline-perfect life. Hansen-Løve’s level-headed direction and Pascal Auffray’s serene cinematography underscore this semi-perfection (the trips to ancient chapels, the strolls at water’s edge) without a speck of overstatement, simply laying out a peaceful, pastoral counterpoint to the scrambled uncertainty of Grégoire’s job in the city. The only waves disturbing this sea of calm are Grégoire’s continual phone calls — the bad news piles on — and a single poignant shot suggesting a loved one adrift.

Winner of Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize at Cannes last year, Father of My Children succeeds as the sum of many small details. Observations made in passing prove monumental later on; oblique scenes emerge as central to the plot. Even that long, gassy string of cell calls at the start grows in significance as some connections are broken — phones go unanswered, words go unsaid — and others are revealed. In the second of the movie’s two distinct halves, a much older mode of communication drops major revelations on folks who absorb them, register a modulated shock and move on.

It’s the moving on that matters: The will to accept fate (Que Sera, Sera, sings Doris Day on the soundtrack) and push forward are the name of the game in The Father of My Children. Certain characters do it. Others do not. Therein lies the subtlety, and the pain.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Proof that those Tea Party jerks don't know what they're talking about

David Cay Johnston has probably forgot more about taxes than I’ll ever know. He teaches it at Syracuse University’s law school and in 2001 he won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing tax loopholes. He is about to publish a book called The Fine Print about how big business screws the little guys.

Anyway, Johnston has compiled a lot of research into an article called 9 Things the Rich Don’t Want You To Know About Taxes, which debunks all those myths and outright falsehoods of the so-called theory of supply side economics that were first proposed by Ronald Reagan, carried forward by the two Bushes and are now the mantra of the Tea Party right-wingnuts. It is a must-read, but unless you one of those top 1 percenters it will probably enrage you to learn how the rich take advantage of the rest of us.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

End of the soaps

I am not a fan of soap operas and admittedly not that knowledgeable about them. However, ABC's announcement that it is cancelling All My Children and One Life to Live seems to mark the end of an era, as far as I'm concerned. I guess that makes General Hospital the last of the dinosaurs.

Obama's budget speech: Not perfect, but better than anything else out there

From today's New York Times:

"he man America elected president has re-emerged.

For months, the original President Obama had disappeared behind mushy compromises and dimly seen principles. But on Wednesday, he used his budget speech to clearly distance himself from Republican plans to heap tax benefits on the rich while casting adrift the nation’s poor, elderly and unemployed. Instead of adapting the themes of the right to his own uses, he set out a very different vision of an America that keeps its promises to the weak and asks for sacrifice from the strong.

The deficit-reduction plan he unveiled did not always live up to that vision and should have been less fixated on spending cuts at the expense of tax increases. It may give up too much as an opening position. But at least it was a reasonable basis for a conversation and is far better than its most prominent competitors. That is because it is grounded in themes of generosity and responsibility that, until recently, had been shared by leaders of both parties.

Because everyone deserves “some basic measure of security and dignity,” he said, the nation contributes to programs like Medicare, Medicaid and unemployment insurance. He said that “we would not be a great country without those commitments.”

But House Republicans and many of their party’s presidential candidates are trying to terminate that promise, he said, leaving seniors on their own and abandoning 50 million uninsured Americans. They are saying no to rebuilding bridges, sending students to college, to investing in research while giving the rich $1 trillion in tax cuts.

“That’s not right, and it’s not going to happen as long as I’m president,” he said.

Perhaps it was inevitable that Mr. Obama would begin to restate his most appealing principles as he embarks on his re-election campaign, which opened with this speech. But the timing could not have been better. It came just days after he seemed to swallow the Republican Party’s insincere talk of deficit reduction by praising a six-month budget deal that cuts too deeply, and a week after Republicans released their proposal to cut taxes and erase decades of social progress by rewriting entitlement programs.

Mr. Obama said he would “refuse to renew” the Bush tax cuts for the rich when they expire at the end of 2012. That alone would save $700 billion over 10 years, and he proposed another $1 trillion in savings by limiting itemized deductions for the wealthiest 2 percent and by ending various unspecified loopholes.

Still, his plan relies on about two parts spending cuts to one part tax increases. It should have been closer to 50-50, broadening the sacrifice. That could have been achieved by reminding those in the middle class that their income taxes remain low and will need to go up, and also through new revenue sources like energy taxes, a financial-transactions tax or a value-added tax.

Along with $770 billion in cuts to nonsecurity domestic spending over 12 years — more than is prudent — he also calls for $360 billion in savings from mandatory programs like agricultural subsidies and pension insurance. To remain true to the ideals he espoused in his speech, cuts to other programs in this category like food stamps and subsidies for the working poor should be off the table.

He said he wouldn’t follow Representative Paul Ryan’s plan to make Medicare a voucher program “that leaves seniors at the mercy of the insurance industry.” Instead, he would wring savings in the plan by using governmental tools to hold down annual increases in spending.

His target for those increases was surprisingly low, much less than the current rate of growth, and it is not clear that that goal can be met without harming providers or beneficiaries. He would try to do so by giving greater powers to a special board to promote and enforce changes in health care delivery. He also promised real savings on prescription drug costs in Medicare and refused to accept Mr. Ryan’s notion of shrinking Medicaid into block grants.

Negotiations with an implacable opposition are about to get much tougher, but it was a relief to see Mr. Obama standing up for the values that got him to the table."
copyright 2011 NY Times

Now for some good news about guns on college campuses

It seems that the overwhelming opposition to a bill that would permit students to carry guns on Texas college campuses may, in fact, be killing this legislation favored by the right wing-nut ideologues running this state

Shale oil drilling steals from school children

Rep. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth makes a valid argument that those drilling for gas in the Barnett Shale, those drillers that Dallas City Councilmanm Dave Neumann is carrying water for, are not only destroying our environment but they also “owe our children” $2.4 billion. Why? Because for some crazy reason (see post below as another example) our state leaders think it’s better to cut funding for public schools than to ask these drillers to pay any taxes.

Proof that Texas’ priorities way out of whack

 The average cost for housing a death row inmate is $240,000 a year and experts say the medical costs for inmates are increasing 10 per cent per year. The cost of sending a student to high school at Greenhill, one of Dallas’ more prestigious private schools, is $23,100 per year.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Available on DVD: “Waiting for ‘Superman’”

Many documentaries make you cry. They often present seemingly insolvable problems. But Waiting for “Superman," filmmaker Davis Guggenheim’s scathing, moving critique of American public education, makes you actually want to do something after you dry your eyes.

While there’s little doubt that the former controversial Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who appears prominently in the film, has at some point provoked tears — or at least spitting anger — there’s nothing about her blunt commentary that would make anyone mist up, as sad as the state of the District’s public schools is. As the film points out, Washington, D.C., has the lowest eighth-grade reading proficiency rate in the country.

In Guggenheim’s movie, Rhee comes across as a heroic, if polarizing, reformer. There may be an unintentional layer of tragedy, given Rhee’s characterization of the city’s 2010 mayoral primary results — an election that was widely viewed as a referendum on her tenure — as “devastating” for the children of Washington. Nevertheless, Rhee’s appearance will leave most viewers dry-eyed, despite the fact she resigned her post less than a month after the primary.

If there’s a villain in the piece, it’s Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. Her union, and its historical institutional resistance to such things as teacher evaluations, merit pay and the elimination of automatic tenure, are here seen as self-serving at best, if not downright harmful to children.

But there are others in the film with greater emotional pull on the audience. One of them is Geoffrey Canada. The founder of the Harlem Success Academy, a much-sought-after charter school in New York City, gives the film its title when he tells the story of his childhood disappointment upon learning that TV’s Superman wasn’t real and would never be coming to save him. Canada is among the film’s liveliest talking heads — he seems to get more screen time than Rhee and Weingarten combined — yet his sense of disillusionment with the U.S. public school system is palpable.

Disillusionment, in fact, pervades Waiting for “Superman.”

Mostly, it’s the result of Guggenheim’s decision to structure his film around the stories of several children across the country who are participating in the highly competitive lotteries that take place every year in successful schools for a limited number of openings. An audible gasp was heard at a screening I attended last year when the numbers flashed on screen about one such lottery: 792 kids fighting for 40 slots.

Harlem Success Academy is one of those schools; the SEED school, a public charter in the District, is another. Some the kids the film follows will get in. Most won’t.

We get to know all of them: Emily in Redwood City, Calif.; Daisy in Los Angeles; Bianca in Harlem; Francisco in the Bronx; Anthony in Washington. Their hopeful faces — and the looks of frustration when some of them don’t make it — are crushing.

But Guggenheim is no defeatist. The film ends with an inspirational litany with ways you can help. The director, who wrote the film with Billy Kimball, and who narrates it, passionately, as a kind of personal essay, wants to make a difference, in the same way he hoped to with his 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth.

As adults, he says, it sometimes feels easier to just throw up our hands and give up, rather than to take a good, hard look “at just one student.”

Waiting for “Superman” takes that good, hard look. And not just at one student, but a handful. They deliver the film’s real message, though it’s one echoed by Rhee, who laments that the fight for better schools inevitably becomes “about the adults.” In the end, Waiting for “Superman” argues, it isn’t the people named Michelle, Randi and Geoffrey who matter in this fight, but the millions of Emilys, Daisys, Biancas, Franciscos and Anthonys.