Sunday, May 29, 2011

Available on DVD: “Black Death”

Sean Bean (third from left) and his not-so-merry men
Set in the 14th century, when life was cheap, Christopher Smith’s Black Death is a moderately creepy, often garishly violent action horror film frontloaded with heretics, Christians, mercenaries, witches, witch-burners, and necromancers. There’s something here for just about everyone, or at least for everyone who looks back fondly on the similarly themed Wicker Man from 1973.

Sean Bean heads up a band of cutthroats hired by the Church to infiltrate a village rumored to be plague-free. If the rumor is true, it could look bad for Christianity, since the villagers are apparently pagans. As a young friar torn between his religious vows and his ardor for a hometown lass (Kimberley Nixon), Eddie Redmayne is far more evocative than the role requires. If anyone ever decides to remake Shakespeare’s Henry V again, Redmayne’s your man.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The case for fracking

Fracking, as just about everybody knows by now, is short for hydraulic fracturing, a system of extracting oil that involves a high pressure mix of water, sand and hazardous chemicals. There is mounting evidence that fracking poses risks to water supplies. However, there is also mounting evidence that fracking could increase our country’s output of oil by 25 percent within the next 10 years.

According to this story in today’s New York Times, one of the most bountiful such oil fields is Eagle Ford in South Texas where more than a dozen companies are erecting 3,000 wells.

“The oil industry says any environmental concerns are far outweighed by the economic benefits of pumping previously inaccessible oil from fields that could collectively hold two or three times as much oil as Prudhoe Bay, the Alaskan field that was the last great onshore discovery,” the Times story says. “The companies estimate that the boom will create more than two million new jobs, directly or indirectly, and bring tens of billions of dollars to the states where the fields are located, which include traditional oil sites like Texas and Oklahoma, industrial stalwarts like Ohio and Michigan and even farm states like Kansas.”

Real estate values have reportedly doubled in the Eagle Ford area, which is already producing 100,000 barrels a day and could reach 420,000 by 2015. That’s the same amount of oil produced by the entire country of Ecuador.

I’m thinking that with all this mother lode of riches all over the place, there’s no need to try to find more inside the city limits of Dallas. An effort to protect our ground water won’t put a huge dent in this oil glut.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

What’s wrong with Siegel

Ed Oakley
The Advocate’s Jeff Siegel is usually a fairly astute observer of the local political scene, but his obvious bias for mayoral hopeful David Kunkle appears to have blinded him. First he mistakenly thought that Kunkle might have latched on to an issue that voters care about when he attached himself to council ethics. Now he so incorrectly calls Ed Oakley “a guy no one has ever heard of” and suggests his endorsement of Kunkle’s runoff opponent Mike Rawlins is meaningless. Someone should tell Siegel (perhaps I’m doing it myself now) that Oakley’s campaign against his successor on the Dallas city council sealed Dave Neumann’s doom and his endorsement of Rawlins, if nothing else, tells the city’s gay and lesbian community who to support in the runoff.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

In & Out & Out & Out

You can scratch In & Out burger
 from places at which to dine
 I left work with only a few seconds left on the clock — on the clock of the crucial end of regulation of last night’s Mavs-Thunder game. The Mavs were down by two points with Dirk at the free throw line (where he’s been an astounding 50 of 52 during this series). As I drove from the lot I couldn’t help but notice there was no line of cars waiting to get into the In & Out burger joint across the street.

As Dirk calmly tied the game for the first time since it was 2-2 I was able to drive without stopping right up to the order microphone where I selected the No. 1 meal, comprised of a double-double (two patties, two slices of cheese) with everything, fries and a Coke. I got my meal and drove across the street to a parking lot to listen to the great Chuck Cooperstein (I’m willing to bet there’s not a better radio basketball play-by-play announcer in the world) describe overtime.

Here’s the summary: The overtime was far, far superior to the burger and the fries. Whoever is responsible for the marketing for this In & Out sham deserves the industry equivalent of the Nobel Prize. This person convinced a whole number of gullible consumers (true, they DO live in the farthest northern suburbs, so they might have never been exposed to the art of independent burger joints), that for some reason In & Out burgers are superior to say Jack ‘n the Box. They are not. They are average, chain-produced, drive-thru burgers, no better, no worse than you’ll find at any other chain drive-thru joint. I take that back — they are several notches below Whataburgers’ “A-1 Steak Burger,” but, unfortunately Whataburger only puts that gem on its menu periodically.

Of course, you’ll never hear that from those that waited in mile-long lines to get these Wendy equivalents because they have to justify wasting their time in a mile-long line. However, the real reason there might not have been a line tonight is that the truth about In & Out burger is finally setting people free.

Incidentally, anyone who wants a really good burger in the immediate neighborhood of the Allen location of In & Out burger only needs to go across Stacy to the Twisted Root in the Village at Fairview. It’s right behind Macy’s. Of course, you’ll have to park and get out of the car — there’s no drive-thru — but then I’ve never, ever seen a drive-thru at a REALLY good burger joint.

Schutze: Gov. Hair drove Hinojosa from Dallas

Jim Schutze
Dallas Observer columnist Jim Schutze had the courage yesterday to cast the blame for the sudden departure of Dallas School Superintendent Michael Hinojosa right where it belongs: in the lap of Gov. Hair.

I’ll let you read his fine piece in its entirety here, but let me give you some of his finest words:

“Governor Rick Perry and the Tea Party are charging ahead with an agenda aimed at the destruction of public education in Texas and massive ethnic-cleansing-style deportation of Mexicans. Perry and a cabal of ultra-right ideologues are exploiting a catastrophic $23-billion state revenue shortfall to engineer the decimation of public education. … Forget civic-mindedness. Texas is being steered by people who don't like America — not the country as we've always known it. They want a different country, and it won't include public schools.”

My hat is off to you, Mr. Schutze.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Available on DVD: “The Illusionist”

The Illusionist, Sylvain Chomet’s follow-up to his razzle-dazzle exercise in animation, The Triplets of Belleville (2003), is a more stately, melancholic affair. The source is an unproduced script by the French filmmaker and comic Jacques Tati, which Chomet has made into a posthumous homage to the artist.

The Illusionist then, is itself something of a conjuring act, resurrecting an old-fashioned watercolor-and-pencil style of animation (circa 101 Dalmatians), as well as reviving the distinctive cerebral tickle of Tati’s comedy.

Like Chaplin, Tati (born Jacques Tatischeff) was both a comedian and innovative filmmaker responsible for a series of inspired, language-light minimalist comedies in the fifties and the sixties, featuring the lugubrious Monsieur Hulot (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle, Play Time).

Chomet has even rendered an animated version of Tati as the star of the film, a stork-like middle-aged man in too-short pants and overcoat, with a mournful, resigned gaze. Before he was a filmmaker, Tati worked as a stage mime, and the film is also a tribute to the last remnants of music hall and vaudeville in the late fifties.

The story begins with the magician, Monsieur Tatischeff (voiced by Jean-Claude Donda), who is struggling to make a living pulling scarves and his ill-tempered rabbit out of hats in front of bored audiences. In desperation, he embarks on a tour to England in which he follows a raucous pre-Beatles band, the Britones, and everyone except a boy and his mother depart the moment the band finishes its encore.

Things pick up, marginally, when the magician travels for a gig at a Scottish island pub filled with enthusiastic drunken men in kilts, where he does his act. In the crowd is one genuinely astonished fan, a teenaged maid named Alice (voiced by Eilidh Rankin) who believes he can do real magic.

Though separated by language and age, the two lonely souls find a connection. In a gesture of kindness, the magician buys her a pair of new red shoes. She follows him to Edinburgh, where she moves into his boarding house and sleeps in the bedroom, while he folds his long body to fit on the sofa. In the same house are other performers working at the nearby Royal Theater: a team of leaping acrobats who enter every room doing cartwheels and yelling, “Hey!”, a drunken ventriloquist and his lookalike puppet, and a suicidal clown.

Meanwhile, walking the streets of Edinburgh, Alice gazes in rapture at the clothes in store windows, and soon — presto! —– they are provided for her. To keep the girl happy, the magician secretly takes extra jobs working nights in a garage, or demonstrating brassieres in a shop window. As he undergoes these indignities, she shows herself to be increasingly resourceful in caring for him and the other tenants of the boarding house.

As Alice transforms from a girl to a fashionable young woman, the magician’s undefined paternal/romantic relationship becomes more awkward. To my taste, at least, The Illusionist stretches this delicate business out to the point of preciousness. With very little dialogue (mostly garbled syllables, and the occasional word in English or French) and leisurely, episodic structure, the movie feels longer than its 82-minute running time.

Though something less than a masterpiece, The Illusionist is a rare animated film of fleeting charms rather than loud noises, aimed more at wistful adults than thrill-hungry kids. The gentle delights range from the depiction of late fifties’ Edinburgh with the milky light and gothic-influenced architecture, to the clever evocation of Tati’s bumbling, comic rhythms. With luck, it may even lead those wistful adults back to Tati’s own films, which are boisterous with life.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Available on DVD: “Blue Valentine”

Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling
Set in Scranton, Pa., and Brooklyn, N.Y., Blue Valentine depicts a working-class marriage hanging by threads of resentment, contempt and love, a very tricky braid to unravel. At its best the drama captures little bits and pieces of a relationship, the telltale signs and clues to its undoing. In the end it sympathizes more with the wronged, childlike husband than with the numbly exasperated wife. At least that’s the way it’s written; as performed, thankfully, it turns out more intriguingly.

None of its limitations has to do with Michelle Williams, who brought such straight-shooting truth to everything from Brokeback Mountain to Wendy and Lucy. Here she plays Cindy, a nurse who harbored dreams of becoming a doctor. She’s married to Dean, a heavy-drinking sweetheart who makes a living painting houses. Dean’s by far the showier role, played by Ryan Gosling, an actor of considerable emotional resources and a nagging showboater’s instinct to dazzle his way through a partially or largely improvised scene. But it’s Williams you never question, who makes every detail and close-up and impulse natural. She’s spectacularly good.

The movie, directed and co-written by Derek Cianfrance, begins with a search for a lost dog. Cindy apparently is at fault for not locking the gate. It’s Dean who reassures the couple’s preteen daughter (Faith Wladyka) that their pet has “moved out to Hollywood to become a movie dog.”

We sense the daughter has become, in effect, neutral territory in her parents’ cold war. Early on in Blue Valentine, just when many in the audience may begin wondering about how these people got here, we slide into our first flashback, to six years earlier in Brooklyn, (Cianfrance and his excellent cinematographer Andrij Parekh shot the present-day scenes on high-def digital video, contrasted with the flashbacks, shot on softer, warmer 16-mm film.)

The director has characterized the film as a love story in the flashbacks and a tragedy in the present, and the way the two halves are spliced together intentionally answers some questions and leaves others dangling. In the present, Dean and Cindy leave their daughter for a night with Cindy’s father (an emotionally abusive screamer, played well by John Doman) and head off for a night at a “theme” motel. There, in the eerily blue-soaked Jetsons-style room, they drink, despair, try to reignite what they once had. In the flashbacks, some of which are nicely observant and indirect and others heavily underlined, Blue Valentine gives us the story of how they met, how Cindy got pregnant, how amiable, directionless Dean always felt outclassed by the love of his life.

The movie caused a fuss late last year when it caught an NC-17 rating for sexual content, in particular for one brief scene of implied oral sex. Blue Valentine was later re-rated sensibly down to an R. The movie also has gained some notoriety for the intense rehearsal period the actors underwent, and for Gosling (at one point, during a scene shot on the Brooklyn Bridge) apparently taking some major-league chances at a great height, working without a net.

During Cindy and Dean’s first date, Williams and Gosling perform an impromptu duet (she tap-dances, he plays the ukulele and sings) to You Always Hurt the One You Love. In this scene everything good and less good about Blue Valentine comes together. It’s charming. Yet Dean’s strangulated falsetto (he has to “sing goofy,” he says, if he’s going to sing at all) feels like an audition piece. Did they have to pick a song freighted with quite so much ironically heavy-handed meaning? And yet: Watch the way Williams watches Gosling, and the way she makes you believe she’s falling, hard, for someone sneaking up on her affections.

Blue Valentine will strike some people as no less directionless than Dean, though it struck me as most affecting precisely when it chooses to hang out, in a fly-on-the-wall way, with these ordinary people. The best of it plays like an acting exercise that serves the intimate, often bruising relationship at the core. Gosling seems to be pulling from an impressive bag of performance tricks, Williams from a deeper well, drawn from life.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The issues in the mayoral runoff

Jeff Siegel at the Advocate is wondering whether “ethics reform,” something mayoral candidate David Kunkle has decided to make a big deal in his runoff with Mike Rawlins, really resonates with voters. The answer is “of course not.”

It’s really quite simple. The only issues voters care about are those that directly affect their everyday lives. On the national level, it’s the economy, which translated means “Why is it I can’t get a job or at least one that pays me what I’m worth?”

On the local level there are a number of issues:

  • “Why can’t the city keep the streets I drive on everyday in decent shape?”
  • “Am I going to need to put steel bars on the windows of my home so I can feel safe when I go to sleep at night?”
  • “What? They’re going to put low-cost housing only a block away from where I live? Next thing you’ll be telling me is that they plan to build a Wall-Mart a block in the other direction. Whaaaat???
  • “Are my kids going to have a safe place to play between the time school lets out and I get home from work?”
  • “When is that ugly pile of debris on the corner going to be finally hauled away? It’s been the neighborhood eyesore for months now.”
  • “Look, I don’t give a crap about tollroads, wave pools and convention center hotels. All I want is a halfway decent supermarket in my neighborhood. Perhaps a Starbucks even. And, while you’re at it, a movie theater would be nice.”
  • “Is anybody ever going to do anything about that abandoned boarded up house with all the junk cars in the front yard and weeds growing all over the place where all the gang members loudly gather late at night to smoke crack?”
  • “Highrise? Highrise? They’re going to build a highrise? What do they think Dallas is? A city?”
  • “I don’t care if another Borders does close. At least we still have our public libraries. What’s that you say?”

No, ethics reform and the budget deficit gap are not big issues with municipal voters. And the reason we have such a poor turnout for our municipal elections is because we don’t have candidates with the guts to address those issues that are important.

Kinda makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Here’s something the world could do without, but won’t: A 3D “Titanic”

I’m not a big fan of 3D. I thought it was a fad when it became all the rage in the 1950s and I still think it’s a passing fancy today. I will admit I enjoyed seeing Avatar in 3D Imax, but that’s about it.

One thing it doesn’t take a genius to realize, however, is that for a film to have any chance of working in 3D, it has to be filmed in 3D. That’s why I’m less than enthusiastic about James Cameron’s announcement that he will launch a 3D version of Titanic on the 100th anniversary of the ship’s sailing, next April 6. I, for one, won’t be on board.

My problems with the Harry Potter movies

A typical exciting scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
I have not read the Harry Potter novels. I never had the desire to. So, I don’t know if they suffer from the same problems that the movies have. I say this at the beginning because I want to limit my discussion to the movies only, not the books.

The Harry Potter movies fall into that genre I will, for the sake of this essay, call “good guys vs. bad guys.” Thousands of movies fall into this genre. By definition, the good guys in these films aren’t very interesting because … well, because they’re good guys. These movies rise and fall on the level of the villains in them — the better the villains, the better the “good guys vs. bad guys” movies.

I recently watched Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 and was bored out of my mind. The only halfway decent scene in the entire film was the opening one, what appeared to be a summit conference of all the movie’s villains. But even it petered out. There’s that wonderful banquet scene in Brian De Palma’s Untouchables in which Robert De Niro, as Al Capone, speaks on the values of teamwork as he’s waving a baseball bat. The scene climaxes with Capone bashing the skull of one of his unsuspecting minions with the bat. (According to Jonathan Eig’s excellent book Get Capone, this scene might have been based on an actual incident although in real life three goons had their skulls simultaneously smashed.) In this opening scene in Deathy Hallows, there’s a moment when the main baddie, Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) asks one of his faithful followers for the use of his wand. I kept waiting for him to do a Capone with it, but he never did.

The rest of the movie, however, concentrated on Harry and his two companions, the equally uninteresting Hermione and Ron. For movies like this to work, we need to see far more of the villains, to understand why they are bad guys and imminent threats to the well-beings of the good guys. Instead, we had loads and loads and loads of Harry, Hermione and Ron camping somewhere and just talking about things that made absolutely no sense unless you had seen all the other movies.

I realize the movies bear Harry Potter’s name in all the titles, but, ‘cmon, we need much much more of the villains in the piece. The movie Shane bore the hero’s name as well, but it also featured that marvelous scene where Jack Wilson (the great Jack Palance) goaded meek Frank “Stonewall” Terry (Elisha Cook Jr.) into a gunfight in which Wilson shot and killed the hapless Stonewall before the latter even got his pistol clear of its holster. For all practical purposes, Wilson coolly murdered Stonewall. The viewer immediately saw what a despicable human being Jack Wilson was.

There are no such scenes in this film. After that opening scene I described earlier, I can’t remember one in the entire movie that didn’t have Harry, Hermione and/or Ron in it. I’m betting Part 2 of the Hallows will correct this major fault to a degree, but it’s been a long, slow, boring slog to get there.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

No home should be without one

The motorized monocycle
 I received the latest Hammacher Schlemmer catalog in the mail a couple of days ago. I love this book. I have ordered some wonderful holiday and birthday gifts for My Hero from this pages. But this latest edition had me wondering whether either Hammacher or Schlemmer had completely lost his mind.

Take that contraption on the cover, for instance, the winner of this month”s “What the hell is that?” Award. Turns out, when I browsed the catalog, it’s a “motorized monocycle.” Here’s a partial description of the dang thing: “This is the motorized monocycle that propels a single rider up to 25 mph. Powered by a 31cc, four-stroke, 1½-hp engine, the wheel operates by using a centrifugal clutch on its inner steel frame to engage the larger 67" diam. outer flywheel that makes contact with the ground. It is steered by leaning to either side, and it can safely negotiate any dense surface such as pavement or grass.” This potential suicide machine can be yours for a mere $13,000 plus $800 in shipping costs. For those living in apartments, the thing arrives already assembled so I’m thinking it’s not going to fit in most apartment mailboxes.
Gigantic inflatable iceberg

Then, at the bottom of page 10 of the catalog, is displayed “the gigantic inflatable climbing iceberg.” And when Heirs Hammacher and Schlemmer say “gigantic,” they are not misleading a bit. It is a 14-foot tall gizmo with a climbing area of 3,920 cubic feet and only three sides of the thing comprise the climbing area. The fourth side is a slide, the quicker to get off the berg from its summit. The description includes the notation that it’s “for use in water at least 12-feet deep.” My first thought upon reading this was “where in heaven’s name could you use the thing and how could you get it there.” For those that have suitable answers to those two questions, the iceberg can be yours for six large plus $150 in shipping charges. An electric air pump, which is obviously needed unless you’re going to invite 600 porn stars to your iceberg party, costs an extra $79.95
33-in-one golf club

The catalog did have one item that interested me: A 33-in-one golf club. With a twist of a dial on this implement, a golfer could select from any one of five different putters, 14 irons, nine wedges, two drivers, three fairway woods and a partridge in a pear tree. Imagine the look on the faces of your golfing buddies when you show up for your next foursome with one club while they are toting around their massive bags. Plus the thing retracts to 19 inches, so you can stick in your suitcase for the next trip to Sea Island. The only thing keeping me from getting one of these immediately is the fact I don’t play golf. But if I did, I would consider this a bargain at $199.95 because it seems a starter set of decent clubs, plus bag, costs more than that.

Finally, if you’re looking for the perfect gift for under $100 for that cook on your gift list, the catalog is offering “the self stirring electric pot.” I’ll simply let you ponder that one.

A magnificent Texas film festival

The Royal Theater in Archer City
Texas Monthly and the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema (Didn’t we almost have one of those here?) are joining forces to present one great unique movie-going experience, dubbed the 2011 Rolling Roadshow. Together, representatives from the two organizations selected the state’s 10 best films. But they didn’t stop there. Next they selected 10 iconic locations around Texas to screen these films. And the screenings are free!

Here’s the schedule:

June 3: The Searchers at Old Fort Parker in Groesbeck. The film was inspired by the true story of a young girl’s kidnapping in 1836 by Comanches during a raid on Fort Parker.

June 4: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at Junction House in Kingsland. This is the house where the film was shot, although it has since been moved 80 miles from the original shooting location in Williamson County and now houses a restaurant serving Texas cuisine.

June 5: Blood Simple at Dessau Hall in Austin. Dessau Hall, one of Austin’s many live music joints, doubled as Marty’s bar in the Coen Brothers’ film debut.

June 11: Hud along the railroad tracks running through Claude. I finally understood why Oscars were given for sound editing when I heard Hud Bannion’s white Cadillac driving over the railroad tracks in this film.

June 17: Red River at the Fort Worth Stockyard Exchange because where else would you show the all-time great cattle-drive movie?

June 18: Bonnie and Clyde at Farmers and Merchants Bank Building in Pilot Point where the movie’s first major heist scene was filmed.

June 19: Tender Mercies at the Ellis County Courthouse in Waxahachie. According to a long-standing rumor, Robert Duvall prepared for his Oscar-winning role in this movie by playing guitar with musician Mike Daniel on the steps of this court house in the town square of where most of the film was shot.

June 24: No Country for Old Men somewhere in Marfa.

June 25: Giant at the Paisano Hotel in Marfa. The hotel was where the cast and crew stayed during the film’s lengthy Marfa shoot.

July 1: The Last Picture Show at, where else, the restored Royal Theater in Archer City. Of all the screenings, this is the one I would most like to attend.
You can get more details on the festival here and here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Available on DVD: “A Somewhat Gentle Man”

Jannike Kruse and Stellan Skarsgard
Like its glum antihero, A Somewhat Gentle Man takes a little time to find its feet. Until it does, you may struggle to care about Ulrik (Stellan Skarsgard), a middle-aged murderer newly released from prison. Beefy and slow-moving, quiet and ponytailed, Ulrik seems content to observe freedom rather than embrace it. His former boss (a strutting Bjorn Floberg) expects him to kill the snitch who put him away for 12 years, but Ulrik is done with violence — or so he thinks.

A story about old men bobbing in the wake of a young man’s profession (among Ulrik’s former associates, diabetes, stroke and a colostomy have taken their toll), this Norwegian entry in the deadpan gangster comedy genre finds its mournful tone in Patsy Cline’s tunes and Skarsgard’s doleful puss. Surrounded by truculent women and ridiculous men — all of them sporting lank hair, dingy skin and homeless-shelter fashions — Ulrik accepts a job as a car mechanic and enjoys the steamed cod and sexual favors of his guillotine-faced landlady (Jorunn Kjellsby). In lieu of pillow talk, they watch the Polish version of Dancing With the Stars.

Patiently directed by Hans Petter Moland, Ulrik’s journey back to life slowly draws you in. As he tentatively reaches out to his estranged son (Jan Gunnar Roise) and an emotionally fragile co-worker (Jannike Kruse), his complexion visibly warms. When, in the film’s beatific final moments, Ulrik beams for the first time, it’s what we’ve been waiting for all along.

Dustin Hoffman having too much fun at Cannes

Monday, May 16, 2011

Available on DVD: “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench”

Desiree Garcia and Jason Palmer
You might want to tuck Damien Chazelle’s name into your memory bank if his filmmaking debut, the terrific jazz improvisation that is Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, is any indication of what his future might hold.

How many 25-year-old indie directors choose to channel 1930s B-grade Hollywood musicals into a contemporary, tap-dancing love story, with nearly all of its very limited budget poured into paying the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra (yes, you read that correctly) to play the smoky original score created by a talented friend? And — and this is a big one — actually make it work? I think there might be just one.

Chazelle, with his songwriting buddy Justin Hurwitz, whose name you should also jot down for safekeeping, has taken his Harvard thesis short and spun it into black-and-white, 16-millimeter, long-form magic. This is a story of few words, a lot of great music and countless emotional shadings.

The story is set in Boston, which is as lovingly shot as its residents, and chapters through a short time in the life of Guy (Jason Palmer) and Madeline (Desiree Garcia). The setup is ebullient simplicity itself: a summer day, a girl on a bridge wearing a strappy sundress that looks like a ‘50s find, with swing music blowing in the background like a warm breeze. When she turns, it comes with a smile, one of the last we will see for a while.

Next the camera takes a slow walk though the city set to the kind of New Orleans backstreet blues favored by Thelonious Monk. Along the way we encounter Guy, a street musician who turns out to be a rising jazz trumpet player, then Madeline, the sundress girl now in jeans. They pass as strangers, then emerge as a couple. But that park bench of the title is waiting.

By the time we get there, and it’s only a few pleasurable minutes, things have gone cold — there is snow on the ground, silence hangs in the air, the bench looks icy. Guy slowly leaves, trumpet case under one arm. He doesn’t look back, she doesn’t watch him leave. Not one word has been said since the film began. That the director instinctively trusts his audience to keep up with him, to understand, suggests a confidence not usually found in first films, and what we get as a result is a near-perfect beginning.

The reason for that cold day in the park is Elena (Sandha Khin), a beautiful girl so immediately connected to Guy that you know their chance encounter on a subway is going to combust. And so Guy and Madeline go their separate ways. The one constant is the music — always there, keeping time, framing the ups and downs, defining the disconnections and reconnections that will follow.

The director is a jazz drummer and had planned for his musician star to be one too. It was a stroke of luck that he found Palmer during his search of the Boston club scene, and turned on a dime to put the talented trumpeter at the center of the film. Palmer is reed thin and lanky, with a short Afro and a boyish face given some edge by hollowed-out cheeks. Garcia is lush to his lean, and it’s easy to believe her Madeline is forever getting lost trying to figure out her place in life. That she tap dances spontaneously with the wait staff at Boston’s Summer Shack one night after work is like winning a bonus round.

The film has the black-and-white beauty of the type evoked by old photographs, but the camera’s hither and yon pans infuse it with a documentary sensibility that helps infuse it with life. The effect is like the music Guy makes, one improvisation after another. It’s a roughness that works most of the time, and is easy to forgive when it doesn’t. Besides, you want to give them plenty of time to find their way back to that park bench if they can.

Available on DVD: “The Way Back”

Colin Farrell and Ed Harris
The Way Back is director Peter Weir’s first picture since the stirring Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), a film that looks better every year. His latest is one of his sternest — though, given the subject matter, and the film’s strangely muted impact, one suspects Weir and his co-writer, Keith Clarke, were vexed by a basic storytelling question: How much hell do we put the audience through with this one?

It’s based partly on Slavomir Rawicz’s The Long Walk, in which Rawicz (through a ghost-writer) relayed his experiences as a lieutenant in the Polish Army who escaped from a Siberian gulag prison camp. The World War II memoir, whose factual veracity has been widely disputed, remains in the words of Clarke “a great adventure story.” It focuses on the lengths Rawicz and six others went to in order to become free men, eluding their Soviet captors, contending with an excruciating 4,000 miles of Siberian forest, the plains of Mongolia, sandstorms in the Gobi Desert and the Himalayas. Some lived, some did not.

Weir’s film is fiction, taking a lot from the memoir and a lot more from other accounts of Soviet gulag survivors. The movie is half prison film and half raw-survival saga, photographed in Bulgaria, Morocco and India. The entryway character, accused Polish spy Janusz (Jim Sturgess), lands in the same lice-ridden camp as an American engineer (top-billed Ed Harris) and a Russian street thug (Colin Farrell) who more or less runs the gulag to his liking. The escapees eventually pick up a Polish refugee (Saoirse Ronan of Atonement and The Lovely Bones) who, some fear, will slow down the group’s progress.

Weir has a way with remote and challenging landscapes. Here, though, the characters and their interactions are stuck halfway between “the facts,” or the research used for the script, and old-fashioned dramatic necessity. The writing can get pretty prosaic. “I can’t see anything!” one man says at one point, adding, pointlessly: “The snow is blinding us!” The multinational cast, anchored by Harris and Sturgess, commits fully to the challenges. But Weir and editor Lee Smith seem preoccupied with hustling events along, and nervous about boring us for even a second. The result is a brisk trot through a story that is, at heart, a tough slog.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Don’t have sex with your spouse in Florida, you could be arrested

For those of you planning family Florida vacations this year, I felt I owed it to you to warn that if you want to have sex in the Sunshine State with your spouse or significant other either do it before October 11 or else consult with a vet or a handy livestock breeder prior to your lovemaking to make sure you are following “accepted animal husbandry practices, conformation judging practices, or accepted veterinary medical practices.” If you don’t, you’re breaking the law in Florida. And that means these guys could be busting through your door at any time.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Available on DVD: “Rabbit Hole”

Two superb performances: Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart
 in Rabbit Hole
There are moments early in the domestic vignette Rabbit Hole, starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart as a couple estranged by that which shall not be spoken, when they seem like cousins of George and Martha in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Wrenching, poignant, and quietly healing, John Cameron Mitchell’s adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire s Pulitzer Prize-winning play soon reveals what has come between the tightly wound Becca (Kidman) and the unraveling Howie (Eckhart).

They have lost a child. Rather than bring them together, mourning isolates them. Becca is angry and rigid, a fist slamming the world. Howie is grief-stricken and slack, wanting to be scraped up from the floor. He will not be her punching bag. She will not be his warm embrace. They will not comfort each other. She is inconsolable; he wants to be consoled. Their silence is deafening.

And their dynamic is riveting. Employing minimalist means for maximum emotional impact, Kidman and Eckhart are superlative. As Mitchell frames them, they might illustrate Newton’s Law of Emotion: Every action of hers has an equal and opposite reaction in him.

See Becca, busy in the basement folding clothes belonging to her late son. She wants to pack up his effects and move on. Howie wants to stay put in the home that feels to Becca like a mausoleum. Howie benefits from and takes seriously a grief support group that for Becca is a farce. His default emotion is solicitousness; hers is snappishness. Disconnected from each other, they each seek connection elsewhere: Howie from a surrogate wife, Becca from a surrogate son.

Though his subject is heartbreak, Mitchell’s destination is acceptance. His purpose leavens the emotional heaviness, makes it bearable. So does Becca’s lacerating anger, which Kidman plays for black humor. It is the actress’ most engaged and emotionally layered work and a triumph for all involved.

While Rabbit Hole the title of which refers to a graphic novel created by one of the characters, may not be a cup of cheer, it is a most rewarding journey from the dark into the light.

Tommy Lee Jones speaks out against education cuts in Texas

The best illusion of the year

Start the video and concentrate your vision on the white dot in the middle of the screen. Do the colors stop changing when the dots begin to rotate? They don’t, but it appears they do. Apparently the spinning motion suppresses the viewer’s ability to detect the changes.

The official name for this illusion is “Silencing awareness of change by background motion” and on Monday it was named the best illusion of the year at a contest for this sort of thing in Naples, Fla.

I’m thinking Dave Neumann is toast

Ed Oakley
Actually, I’ve been thinking this for a long time. I had silently wished former District 3 council member Ed Oakley had run against him two years ago. I am convinced he would have made Neumann a one-term council member.

But Oakley didn’t run in 2009 and he’s not running this year either. But, unlike two years ago, Oakley has decided to jump into the fray with a strongly worded endorsement of Scott Griggs and a brutal condemnation of Neumann, saying the incument “has done such a poor job of representing the citizens of District 3 that I must speak out.”

In a letter to Griggs, Oakley wrote that Neumann “has not worked with the other council persons to make progress. He is very good at taking credit for everything that was put in place prior to him taking office.”

Pretty strong stuff and you can read all about it here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Beck and Stewart reuniting?

The original Jeff Beck Group.
 (Left-to right) Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart, Mickey Waller, Ron Wood
Had not heard about this before and if it wasn't for the great Mike Lindley I might not know about it now, but, according to this, Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart, the core of the original Jeff Beck Group, may be reuniting in a London recording studio.

This could be a great shot in the arm for Stewart who went over to the Dark Side recently with his recordings of standards. Beck, meanwhile, completely and positively re-invented himself with his recent Les Paul tribute CD and tour.

I remember loving the Beck-Ola and Truth albums when they were released. Truth, released in August 1968, was, looking back on it now, the very first heavy metal album and it obviously influenced the work of Led Zeppelin and all the other metal bands that followed. Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience were working in the same areas as the Beck group, but Beck put it all together with his blistering lead quitar, Stewart's dramatic vocals and the thundering rhythm section of Ron Wood on bass and Mickey Waller on drums.

Beck-Ola, which followed in June 1969, was not nearly as strong (second albums rarely are). The sound was still the same but the material was incredibly weaker. Also, by this time, Led Zeppelin had released its first album. The album could have been, however, the one that marked the Jeff Beck Group as an equal to Zeppelin, but Beck was sidelined for a year, the result of an automobile accident. This caused the band to cancel its scheduled appearance at Woodstock and impatient Stewart and Wood bolted to form Faces.

I'm not going to expect anything to rival Truth or even Beck-Ola from this reunion, but I am expecting something positive.

Monday, May 9, 2011

I wish more commercials were like this

No matter how many times I see it, I still really like this television commercial.

Bad Boy Bynum

Andrew (The Thug) Bynum
Following yesterday’s majestically wonderful sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers by the Dallas Mavericks, all the talk I’ve been hearing involves “blowing up the Lakers.” Most of this talk centers on Andrew Bynum. The most persistent rumor I’m hearing is that the Lakers want to trade Bynum and either Lamar Odom or Pau Gasol to the Orlando Magic for Dwight Howard.

The problem with that trade, or any other involving Bynum, is his status going into whenever the next NBA season starts. (Don’t forget the league is facing collective bargaining talks that are going to be far more contentious and games-threatening than what the NFL is going through now.) When Bynum committed the flagrant foul against J.J. Barea at the end of yesterday’s massacre, he de-evolved from a basketball player to a thug. And the league must — absolutely must — respond accordingly.

I am going to argue that anything less than a 10-game suspension for Bynum at the start of the next season would be far too lenient. He not only came close to handing Barrea a serious injury that could have sidelined him for the rest of the playoffs, he then displayed utter disregard for his team and the league by removing his jersey as he walked off the court. And, unlike Odom, he was totally unapologetic after the game saying only “I wanted to foul somebody.” Of course, being the thug he became, he picked on the smallest player on the court. Put all that together and it’s at least 10 times worse than Ron Artest’s clotheslining of Barrea in game two that led to Artest’s one-game suspension.

So now the question becomes how valuable is a Bynum who should not be allowed in the first 10 games of the next season. And what do you risk giving up the best big man in the NBA for a thug and his companion? If I were a GM of an NBA team, I don’t know if I would want to add Bynum to my roster right now and, if I did, I certainly wouldn’t give up my best player for him, regardless of what other players were included in the deal. Well, OK, if the Lakers included Kobe, I would talk, but that isn’t going to happen.

The Mavericks’ chip

Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki hits another one over the Laker's Pau Gasol
The Dallas Mavericks can’t get any respect and that is perfectly fine with me.

I have refrained from talking about the Mavericks’ playoff run before now because I was afraid I would jinx them. With the marvelous exception of the last NFL season (when I predicted Green Bay over Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl before the start of the season), if I pick a team or an individual to win a sporting event, it is the kiss of death. Counting that last season’s NFL prediction I think my total is something like one correct and 387,423 wrong. So even though I felt the Mavericks would sweep the Lakers after winning the first two games in Los Angeles, I didn’t want to say so publicly. And even if I did want to, my son — the hardest of hard-core MFFLs — would have cut my tongue out before I could have finished uttering the words. He really believes in jinxes.

The Mavericks have now won six playoff games in a row.Their last lost was that miserable game in Portland when they blew a 23-point third quarter lead. The Mavericks claim, and I believe the claim, that the Portland loss did not galvanize the team. But I do believe that the lack of respect paid to the Mavericks after that loss put a chip on their collective shoulders and since then they have been defying teams to knock it off.

After that loss, all I read, saw or heard in the national media was “Here we go again, another Mavericks el foldo, just as we witnessed in the NBA finals against the Heat.”

Entering the Lakers series, all the so-called experts said the Mavs would provide little resistance on the defending champions’ trek to another three-peat. Even after the teams left L.A. with Dallas up 2 games to nil, the Lakers were still predicted to come back. (“Remember,” said one of them Friday morning on ESPN’s First Take, ”the Mavericks were up 2-0 against Miami and lost that series.” Not one of the commentators on ESPN picked Dallas to win two games before the Lakers won four. Then Friday night, after the Mavs took a 3-0 series lead, folks were saying that L.A. would be the only team of 99 to ever come back from that big of a deficit.

Now comes the coverage from the national folks after the Sunday’s marvelous clincher. And was it about how Dallas Genghis Khanned the Lakers? No, it was about how this was Phil Jackson’s last game as a head coach and whether this series would damage his legacy (the consensus was it would not).

But that’s OK. That type of talk should keep that chip sitting securely on the Mavericks shoulder and I’m really liking the way they play when they realize they are not getting the respect they’ve earned and deserve. So bring on Oklahoma City or Memphis. I know before that series starts all the talk will be about the changing of the guard in the NBA and the emergence of new, younger teams with new, younger superstars. Let ‘em talk. The Mavs will simply play as if they’ve got something to prove. And you know what? They do.

Available on DVD: “Hubble 3D”

One of the views from space provided by the Hubble telescope in Hubble 3D
The spectacular new Imax film Hubble 3D will be studied by astronomers, academics and Hollywood special effects artists for years to come. It’s a movie that not only puts you in space but lets you travel through it with a speed and wonder that would make James T. Kirk go a little weak in the knees.

The 43-minute documentary follows the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis on their May 2009 mission to repair and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope. A 700-pound Imax 3-D camera accompanied them, anchored in the cargo bay, loaded with a mile of film. That translates into 8 1/2 minutes of footage to chronicle a 13-day mission. Needless to say, crew members were paranoid that they’d forget to switch the camera off and waste precious film.

Those scenes of the astronauts walking in space, performing delicate repair work while wearing what amounts to oven mitts on their hands, have a certain suspense. Narrator Leonardo DiCaprio works hard — maybe a little too hard — to muster up boyish wonder, though all the talk about tiny screws brings to mind The Simpsons episode where NASA shoots “blue-collar slob” Homer into space because the public has become bored with scientific minutia.

Director Toni Myers seems to recognize this, focusing the film’s energies on powerful images both familiar and new. Yes, we’ve seen shuttles blast into space before, but never with the clarity and snap-crackle-pop rumble that is captured here in both the close-up and distant shots of Atlantis’ launch.

Where Hubble 3D really separates itself from previous Imax space movies is in the photographs taken by the telescope itself, using its new wide field camera and infrared eye. These photographs, enhanced through computer-visualization techniques made by the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, allow viewers to blast through the farthest reaches of the universe with a real sense of discovery.

We pass by Sirius, beyond Orion’s belt and visit candy-colored “nests” of stars, each one a potential solar system. We fly through our own galaxy and witness the beautiful deaths of stars, their boiling caldrons of gases radiating into space, each one a blaze of glory.

Here, DiCaprio’s astonishment feels entirely appropriate. It’s impossible to view these solar systems and not feel a humbling appreciation for our own.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Double your pleasure, double your fun

The only thing better than having one faithful companion is having a pair of them who are best buds, even if it's for only one day.

A monumental day at Casa Oppel

The beloved granddaughter loses her first tooth

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Available on DVD: “White Material”

Isabelle Huppert in White Material
Isabelle Huppert, one of the icons of French film, never made it big in Hollywood. And that’s probably lucky for us. If she’d opted for American moviemaking, by now she’d probably find herself relegated to clichéd grandma roles. But French directors — such as Claire Denis, whose films include 35 Shots of Rum (2008) and Chocolat (1988) — somehow come up with challenging work for actresses in their 50s.

Chocolat (not to be confused with the 2000 film starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp) was set in Africa, and Denis returns to that continent for the enigmatic but mesmerizing White Material.

Huppert is Maria Vial, a French woman who runs a coffee plantation in an unnamed, war-torn country. Urged to evacuate by French soldiers, she ignores them, confident that she’ll be able to bring in her crop as usual. Nothing, not even the threat of being shot point blank, can persuade her otherwise.

One of the mysteries of White Material is the reason Maria insists on staying. Almost everyone else has gone, including her former employees, who have better things to do than risk being killed by either the brutal governing regime or the rebel army. Flitting around in flimsy dresses, Maria seems curiously oblivious to her surroundings.

Working from a screenplay that she co-wrote with Marie N’Diaye and Lucie Borleteau, Denis creates a story that works both as an intriguing character study and as a portrait of paradise lost. Maria’s dilemma, while culturally specific, takes on a poignant universality.

Huppert has built a career portraying characters who aren’t necessarily likable but are virtually guaranteed to be interesting. As Maria, she’s not afraid to be unappealing and is sometimes downright exasperating in her stubbornness. Yet one can’t help but admire the character’s steely resolve.

White Material is unhurried in its storytelling but unshakable in its impact.

Time to leave Afghanistan

I opposed former President Bush’s invasion of Iraq from the beginning because, I felt, it had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11, regardless of how former VP Dick Chaney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld try to convince us it did. I was in favor, however, of going into Afghanistan with all the forces we could must because I wanted to see us hunt down and dispose of the Osama Bin Laden, the man responsible for 9/11.

Well, we’ve done the bugger in. And, as it turns out, he wasn’t even in Afghanistan.

So I say we’ve accomplished what we set out to do. It’s time to bring the troops home. I can’t think of one logical reason why we should keep any form of a military presence in Afghanistan.

My inquiring mind wants to know

Exactly how did Florida state legislator Nan Rich learn that a man apparently suffocated a family goat during a sex act? (There’s also a side note here to our mayor if he’s still serious about drooping pants — get the legislature involved.)

The gopher is dead

This is truly a great day for America.

Remember this exchange from “The Godfather”?

Michael Corleone: “My father's no different than any other powerful man. Any man who's responsible for other people, like a Senator or a President.”
Kay: “Michael, do you know how naive you sound?”
Michael: “Why?”
Kay: “Senators and Presidents don't have men killed.”


As for me, I’m perfectly happy with a President who has a little touch of gangster in him.

What happens when Republicans don’t show up for work?


Where the money is

As we head into the home stretch of this duller-than-dishwater mayor’s race, in which none of the candidates feel the need to address the city’s pressing budget problems, it appears Mike Rawlings has more than enough campaign funds to finance a major final push, David Kunkle doesn’t, and Ron Natinsky is in between. I still think, however, Kunkle may force Rawlings into a runoff. Nothing substantial to base that on, just a hunch.

What’s wrong with this picture? (What’s wrong with Richardson’s schools?)

We had to know something like this would happen when that jerk Carter got elected

Because of Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt’s dogged persistence, the city is forming a task force to look into all the harmful effects caused by gas drilling in metropolitan areas. Turns out, it may all be for nothing and it’s because of that Stefani Carter nutcase I knew would run amok once she entered into the Texas Legislature.

Carter is one of the Texas Party idiots who was swept into office in the last election not by running on state issues but by campaigning against a black President, which will get you a lot of traction in racist Lake Highlands, especially of you are a black candidate. (If you’re not familiar with Lake Highlands, it is the community that is trying to drive out all black residents by demolishing the apartments in which they live and replacing them either with another Wal-Mart minus all the beautiful trees that used to be there, as is the case at Skillman and Northwest Highway; or with a replica of the lunar landscape, which is what Skillman and Walnut Hill has become.)

Now Carter is pushing House Bill 1305 through the Texas Legislature. This bill, drafted by another Lake Highlands representative, Bill Keffer,  would take away a city’s right to regulate oil and gas drilling. You think this might have something to do with the fact that Carter was purchased by the oil and gas industry?

Raymond Crawford, the local activist who has been pushing for a moratorium on drilling in the Dallas city limits has send a letter to state Sen. Royce West, seeking his help in derailing the legislation. Stand by.

Friday, May 6, 2011

This wouldn’t be happening if Mitch Rasansky was still alive

Mitchell Rasansky
Where is good ol’ Mitch when we really need him? Hopefully, he’s in good health somewhere in his ultra-conservative North Dallas neighborhood. As a member of the Dallas City Council for eight years, Rasansky made life miserable for many high ranking city officials. First a little background. The City Council’s meeting agenda is split into two sections — the consent agenda and “items for individual consideration.” The consent agenda contains the bulk of the items on the agenda and are considered “non-controversial.” These are items in which the city staff is telling its bosses “No worry here. We’ve crossed all the i’s and dotted all the t’s, so you can pass these items without discussing them or reading the fine — or even the large — print that describes them.” As a result they are passed en masse with one single unanimous vote from council.

Rasansky, however, didn’t trust anyone, especially city staffers who pleaded with him to trust them. Rasansky studied every item and, at the beginning of the council agenda meetings, you could hear the city secretary reading the long list of items Rasansky wanted pulled from the consent agenda so they could be considered individually. He usually pulled every item that required the expenditure of city funds and many others that didn’t. Rasanky went over every single council agenda with a magnifying glass and a hook.

I’m betting if Rasansky was still on the council, we would not be having all this discussion we’re having about the recent vote on an ethics ordinance that now has many council members shaking their collective heads and saying “I didn’t know I was voting for this.” That’s because Rasansky would have pulled the item from the consent agenda and opened the discussion on it when it first appeared on the agenda.

Today we have a Dallas City Council that’s just plain lazy, too lazy to conduct the home study program to adequately represent the people who elected them. Sure, they didn’t have to when Rasansky was on the council, because he did their homework for them — and then some, perhaps too much homework.

But council members Vonciel Jones Hill, Angela Hunt, Tennell Atkins, Linda Koop, Ann Margolin and Sheffie Kadane have absolutely no right to blame D-Wayne Carriedaway because they failed to do their homework. This change to the ethics ordinance came about recently because the agenda item authorizing it was placed on the consent agenda and because Hill, Hunt, Atkins et al were simply too lazy to read the consent agenda and notice the item ahead of time. That’s their fault, not the acting mayor’s.

Tom Perkins
Apparently city attorney Tom Perkins said a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows major corporations to buy all the politicians they need to make sure they are protected and the average citizen is screwed extends to the local level and Dallas’ ethics ordinance was preventing these fat cats from purchasing city council members. Perkins says that violates the doctrine of free speech, although when political discourse is purchased it seems to me it can longer be referred to as “free speech.” Anyway, Perkins reasoned, since the Supremes had already ruled on the issue, no dissent should come at the local level so he and Carriedaway had it put on the consent agenda.

To make matters even more embarassing for Hill, Hunt, Atkins & Co., the item was briefed to council earlier this year, but apparently only council members Delia Jasso and Ron Natinsky remained awake during the briefing.

Again, they should not be blaming others for their own shortcomings.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

They will survive

The Business Insider listed the 25 newspapers around the globe it thinks it has the best chance of surviving during the next 10 years. Not only did both the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star Telegram make the list, they were the only Texas newspapers to do so. The Star Telegram, in fact, was ranked No. 2, right behind the Chicago Sun-Times. The Morning News ranked 22nd, right behind the Los Angeles Times.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Wanna get away for a while?

A trip back in time with Obama, McCain and Clinton

It’s fascinating to look at this video now in lieu of this week’s events in Pakistan. The President-to-be said then he would go into that country to take Osama Bin Laden out and he kept his word.

When in heaven's name will people in this city grow up?

I really thought this kind of neanderthal thinking went out shortly after gutless WFAA (Channel 8) banned the first season of NYPD Blue almost 20 years ago. Look, parents, deal with it and don’t go around acting as blue-nosed censors, making our city a laughing stock all over again.

(I guess the Advocate blog didn’t think the artwork was that tasteless since it reprinted it.)

Available on DVD: “Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen”

Barbara Sukowa and Heino Ferch in Vision
Vision, Margarethe von Trotta’s sympathetic imagining of the life of the 12th-century Benedictine nun Hildegard von Bingen, opens with a prologue that establishes a contemporary secular distance from the film’s devotional medieval ethos. The members of a millennialist sect anticipating their last night on earth prostrate themselves in an abbey overnight only to awaken in the bright morning sun to discover that the world hasn’t ended.

The film is the most recent of several collaborations between von Trotta, the German feminist director, and Barbara Sukowa, the radiant actress who portrays Hildegard as a mixture of canny politician and fervent mystic who claims to receive messages directly from God. In the film’s sole attempt to visualize an encounter with what Hildegard calls “the living light,” the apparition resembles the CBS logo without the letters.

Vision offers a hard-headed view of 12th-century religiosity in which church politics and money conflict with the characters’ asceticism. It portrays Hildegard as a passionate humanitarian and a lover of nature who is shocked and disgusted by the mortification of the flesh through rituals like self-flagellation and extreme fasting.

Among the grim monks in the Disibodenberg cloister where Hildegard is elected magistra, she has one consistent supporter in Brother Volmar (Heino Ferch). Most of the others, but particularly the reigning abbot (Alexander Held), suspect her of being a tool of the Devil. By describing her visions, she risks excommunication. The movie offers a harsh portrait of a patriarchal environment steeped in fear and superstition. An individual here is either on the side of God or of the Devil, with no in between. For all the eloquence of Hildegard’s speeches, she was not quite a saint.

Of all the sins she mentions, the most recurrent, envy, afflicts her childhood best friend, Jutta (Lena Stolze). And when a charismatic 16-year-old novice, Richardis von Stade (Hannah Herzsprung), joins the order and becomes Hildegarde’s protégée, Jutta is secretly devastated. Hildegard and Richardis ride an emotional seesaw of possessiveness and dependence that suggests a love affair. Yet there is no mention of an erotic relationship (or even thoughts of one) between them. In any case, the intensity of their attachment and the shifting balance of power that initially favors Hildegard, then tilts toward Richardis, suggest a sublimated romantic passion.

The film meticulously ticks off Hildegard’s accomplishments. She composed Gregorian chants, fragments of which are heard in the film. She was a playwright whose lyrical drama, Ordo Virtutum is excerpted in a scene in which the nuns, as they were allowed to do on certain holidays, frolic in silk gowns and jewels. She was a scholar who amassed a library at a time when books were rare and difficult to obtain, and she was a practitioner of holistic medicine with advanced knowledge of herbal healing.

The movie’s admiration for Hildegarde is tinged with a worldly cynicism. At crisis points in her life, Hildegard apparently feigns near-death experiences only to revive suddenly through prayer or a miraculous intervention: a theatrical strategy that illustrates to adversaries her special connection to divine forces when she is thwarted by earthly ones.

It shows her as a sophisticated politician whose appeals to people in high places keep her safe from harm. Through careful maneuvering she secures the nuns their own well-situated convent after one nun in her flock becomes pregnant and commits suicide.

Sukowa makes Hildegard a likable and charismatic woman who risks a great deal to do good in an environment that leaves women little room for self-expression. Her intelligence and enthusiasm make her a proto-feminist force to be reckoned with.

This is for you, Glenn Hunter

I have always been opposed to the death penalty. I was ecstatic at the news last night that Osama Bin Laden had been killed. If that’s a contradictory stance than so be it. But that’s the way I roll.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Available on DVD: “Inside Job”

New York University’s Nouriel Roubini in Inside Job
Inside Job, Charles Ferguson’s bracing account of the financial collapse of 2008 and its continuing aftershocks, has the twists and turns of a classic heist movie. It is a crash course in the market crash and free-market free fall that caused millions to lose jobs, homes, savings, and pensions. And it is a damning indictment of the individuals and institutions who made money while customers lost their shirts.

Ferguson shows us that the conspirators are still at large. They make our fiscal policy, lead our banks, teach our children. They are appointed by Republicans and by Democrats. And so far, none of them has been prosecuted for fraud. Matt Damon’s narration explains it all calmly, in graspable terms.

A high-tech entrepreneur, policy wonk, and academic, Ferguson has a different style than other documentarians. Errol Morris (The Fog of War) is the interrogator who keeps subjects on their toes. Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine) is the confrontationalist who puts them on the defensive. Ferguson (No End in Sight) is the conversationalist who gets them to speak matter-of-factly.

And if his subject fudges or stretches the facts, the off-camera Ferguson will refocus him (the players here are almost exclusively male) with a “Seriously?” or “You’ve got to be kidding.”

Inside Job’s overture is a recap of Iceland’s financial meltdown, an early warning of the global collapse because of widespread investment in subprime mortgages. Beginning his film with the economic and physical landscape of the fire-and-ice nation provides a preview of the fiscal volatility to come.

What went wrong? Ferguson points to the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, the Depression-era legislation crafted in response to the 1929 stock-market crash. Once depository banks could merge with investment houses, the floodgates were open.

The result was a round robin of collusion. Bankers encouraged risky investments in subprime mortgages even as they used credit default swaps to protect their own exposure. University professors were commissioned by financial-services outfits to testify to the fundamentals of such dubious investments. Rating agencies such as Moody’s certified bonds, making them seem secure. And the Federal Reserve had no reservations.

Ferguson focuses on the mutual back-scratching arrangements between the financial-services industry and free-market academics that made such risky business practices appear prudent.

While the bank bailout occurred during the waning days of George W. Bush’s administration, Barack Obama’s economic brain trust includes many of the same players as that of the 43rd president.

While Henry M. Paulson, Ben S. Bernanke, Timothy Geithner, and Larry Summers declined Ferguson’s interview requests, the filmmaker scored fascinating sit-downs with academics such as New York University’s Nouriel Roubini, who warned of the impending crisis. Ferguson also had telling encounters with some scholars, such as Columbia University’s Fred Mishkin, who failed to disclose their own conflicts of interest, either as members of bank boards or as authors of commissioned corporate analyses.

The film takes what seems to be a tangent, interviewing owners of an escort service to talk about the extreme cocaine-and-call-girl habits of investment bankers, wonts fraudulently billed as business expenses.

Cut to talking head Eliot Spitzer. As New York’s attorney general, he vigorously prosecuted fraud in the financial industry. As the state’s governor, he resigned when his affair with a call girl was made public.

Thinking along the lines of the Feds who brought down mobsters by prosecuting them for tax fraud, Spitzer suggests that maybe the way to get the investment bankers behind bars is to prosecute them for the bogus expense reports. Spitzer acknowledges this suggestion might sound funny coming from him, but it’s an audacious suggestion befitting Ferguson’s most audacious film.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

CBS’s Schieffer calls Trump a racist

Bob Schieffer
CBS News chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer called Donald Trump a racist for questioning President Obama’s academic qualifications. After being made to look stupid on the question of the President’s birth, Trump is galavanting around New Hampshire saying things like “I heard he (Obama) was a terrible student, terrible. How does a bad student go to Columbia and then to Harvard? I'm thinking about it, I'm certainly looking into it. Let him show his records.”

Schieffer, appearing on the CBS Evening News, called Trump’s remarks “absurd.”

“That's just code for saying he got into law school because he's black.” Schieffer said. “This is an ugly strain of racism that's running through this whole thing. We can hope that kind of comes to an end too, but we'll have to see.

Available on DVD: “I Love You, Phillip Morris”

Ewan McGregor and Jim Carrey in I Love You, Phillip Morris
“I’m going to be a fag!” Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) yells at the paramedics tending to him after a car crash near the start of I Love You Phillip Morris, the likable but uneven comedy by writer-directors Glenn Ficara and John Requa (Bad Santa). Before that moment, Steven was leading a perfectly normal life, happily married to Debbie (Leslie Mann), a well-liked police officer and a devout churchgoer with lots of friends.

But then two things happen: First Steven tracks down his birth mother and discovers he was the middle child of her three kids — but the only one put up for adoption. Then comes the crash, which almost kills him, but also brings him an epiphany: Instead of continuing to lead a covert double life, he’s going to shed his heterosexual disguise and go the full gay.

So he moves to South Beach, gets himself a splashy pad and finds a handsome Latino boyfriend (Rodrigo Santoro). Soon, though, comes a realization: “Being gay is really expensive.” And so begins Steven’s amazing career of crime, which includes every sort of fraud imaginable, until the cops finally catch up with him and send him to prison.

I Love You Phillip Morris, which would be wholly unbelievable if it wasn’t a true story, gets a kickstart when Steven meets fellow inmate Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), a kind and gentle spirit serving a short sentence for failing to return a rental car. The two fall in love almost immediately, and when Phillip is shipped to another prison, Steven begins an elaborate machination for them to reunite.

Even after they’re both free men, though, the con games and shady business deals continue: Once Steven has gotten a taste of the good life, he’s unwilling to let it go, and the mostly oblivious Phillip happily complies, not fully aware of his partner’s criminal antics. A big part of the fun in I Love You Phillip Morris is watching these two giant movie stars plunge headlong into roles that would normally be played by lesser-known actors in a low-budget independent film. Carrey portrays Steven’s outsized personality and frantic energy honestly, without a trace of clownishness, and McGregor’s turn as the sweet and trusting Phillip makes you understand how the man could have been duped so easily. The film doesn’t shy away from the physicality of their relationship, either: Carrey and McGregor see their roles all the way through.

The problem with I Love You Phillip Morris is that Steven’s crimes eventually take over the movie: His elaborate cons may be fascinating, daring stuff, but the heart of the picture is the romantic relationship, which is squeezed out to the edges. McGregor doesn’t get enough screen time to fully flesh out Phillip — there has to be more to the man than just his innocence — and the humor gradually seeps out of the film as Steven’s legal woes become graver and his stunts more outrageous. By film’s end, I Love You Phillip Morris feels more like the seriocomic study of a huckster’s astonishing career than a romance interrupted by a man who wanted all or nothing — and thought himself invincible.