Saturday, July 30, 2011

Available on DVD: “Life During Wartime”

Ally Sheedy, Paul Reubens and Shirley Henderson
in Todd Solondz's Life During Wartime
Should you laugh or cry? Nearly every scene in Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz’s sort-of sequel to his 1998 film, Happiness, seems to pose this question, pitching the viewer into a queasy limbo between mirth and anguish. The characters are almost uniformly miserable — the one named Joy perhaps most of all — and whatever joy they do encounter is likely to be short-lived. And yet the painful conversations that make up the bulk of the film’s action are structured like mordant jokes. These people are so clueless, so bad at communication, so ridiculous that they must be suffering for our amusement.

But then again, maybe not. Solondz’s view of modern American humanity, from Welcome to the Dollhouse, through Happiness and Storytelling and Palindromes, has never really changed, though it has yielded uneven results. He is unsparing in his attack on the complacencies of the suburban upper-middle class, but to describe his attitude as cruel or contemptuous is to miss the compassion and the almost rabbinical ethical seriousness that drives his inquiries. And to take a movie like Life During Wartime as satire is to simplify its intentions and effects. Solondz exaggerates in the direction of mockery, yes, but his lurid colors, emphatic musical effects and dead-center framing also betray a commitment to melodrama that can only be sincere.

So as Joy suffers, you suffer along with her. Played by the mousy-voiced, quick-eyed Shirley Henderson (Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter movies), she is one of three sisters whose quest for contentment, fulfillment and normalcy sits at the center of this episodic exploration of failure and disappointment. Joy, played by Jane Adams in Happiness, has married Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams), and the first scene of Life During Wartime reconfigures the opening of Happiness, in which Adams and Jon Lovitz sat in an opulent restaurant acting out one of the most painful dates in movie history.

How you experience this scene will depend somewhat on your memory of Happiness. In revisiting that earlier film more than a decade later, Solondz has changed the cast entirely and allowed the characters to age at different rates, so that the events of Happiness occupy different phases of each one’s past. (Lovitz’s character, now a ghost, is played here by Paul Reubens.) Allen (originally played, with indelible creepiness, by Philip Seymour Hoffman) has tried to mend his perverted ways, with Joy’s help.

Joy’s sisters, Trish (Allison Janney) and Helen (Ally Sheedy), have left New Jersey hoping to put their own lives in order. Helen, a writer, has cut off all ties with her family, while Trish has started a new life in Florida, telling her younger son and daughter that their father, Bill (Ciaran Hinds), in prison for molesting children, has died. Trish has a new suitor, a solid older gentleman named Harvey (Michael Lerner), whom she likes for his sensitivity and his steadfast support of Israel. “He voted for Bush and McCain,” she explains to Joy. “But only because of Israel. He knows those people are idiots.”

Meanwhile, Trish’s freckle-faced, wide-eyed son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) prepares for his bar mitzvah, at which he plans to talk about the relationship between manhood and forgiveness. Bill has been released on parole, and he wanders across the country, from a sad sexual encounter (with Charlotte Rampling) in a hotel to an awkward reunion with his elder son, Billy (Chris Marquette), in Billy’s college dorm.

It is all perfectly dreadful and at times appallingly funny. Solondz winds thin tendrils of narrative around the dinner-table conversations, and allows everyone a chance to be earnestly foolish, unguardedly selfish and also, almost by accident, cruelly honest. The actors handle the awkwardness beautifully, each finding a way to make Solondz’s meticulous, slightly mannered dialogue sound like natural speech. Not that realism is exactly the intention here. Shades of the Happiness cast seem to flicker across the frame until you can’t quite be sure who is who. How did Dylan Baker turn into Ciaran Hinds?

Much as Life During Wartime draws you back into the fictional past of Happiness — and to a moment that looks in retrospect like the high-water mark of American independent cinema — it is also preoccupied, albeit obliquely, with more recent real-world events. The title is an indication of this concern, as is Solondz’s evocation of the ambient, interminable anxiety of the post-9/11 world.

Trish’s occasional outbursts about terrorism seem to displace her fear of more intimate disturbances, and it is Timmy, tumbling out of innocence, who grasps the link between his broken family and the dysfunctional republic for which they stand. He has the last word in the movie, a fitting and troubling epitaph for the first decade of the 21st century and the most complex and resonant punch line Solondz has yet produced: “I don’t care about freedom and democracy. I just want my father.” Should you laugh or cry?

Friday, July 29, 2011

Austin mayor to push ban on single-use plastic bag

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell and two other council members will introduce a resolution at the next council meeting Aug. 4 calling for the “phase-out of single use plastic check-out bags” in the city.

The bags “cost Austin taxpayers a significant amount of money,” Leffingwell wrote. “In fact, Austinites use about 263 million plastic bags annually, costing the city about $850,000 per year for collection, litter clean-up, landfill management and recycling contamination. This figure does not include the cost to our environment.”

Makes you wonder what impact single-use plastic bags have on the meager City of Dallas budget. Dallas needs to join such cities as San Francisco; Portland, Ore.; and Washington, D.C., in outlawing these things. Hey, aren’t we supposed to be this super-duper “Green City” or is that, like so much else, just a lot of talk?

Leffingwell said Austin engaged in an 18-month voluntary “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” campaign with Whole Foods, Target, Walmart, Walgreens and Randalls (Tom Thumb to those of us here) hoping to achieve a 50 percent reduction of plastic bags sent to the landfill. The campaign resulted in only a 20 percent reduction, however, and that simply wasn’t good enough for Leffingwell. Hence his push for an out-right ban.

“Our resolution calls on the City Manager to conduct a stakeholder process and develop an ordinance to bring back to Council this November,” Leffingwell wrote. “Concerned citizens and affected businesses will have a chance to help shape the timeline of a phase-out and determine if any exceptions should be made for certain types of businesses or situations.”

Anyone listening on the Dallas City Council?

Available on DVD: “Trust”

Liana Liberato and Catherine Keener in Trust
Trust is a very good movie that few will rent, because it deals with a subject that makes people squirm. What’s more, it deals with this subject effectively, which means that audiences most definitely will squirm and wish they were anywhere but home watching this, despite the fact that it features some of Clive Owen’s best work and a startling movie debut by the 15-year-old Texan Liana Liberato.

Yet for those that can take it, Trust is a special experience.

Set in a Chicago suburb, it’s the story of a girl who becomes the victim of a sexual predator. Young Annie (Liberato) thinks she has struck up an Internet friendship with a boy her own age who lives in California. They chat around the clock, and the boy reveals that, in fact, he is 20. Later, “Charlie” confesses to being 25. Then he announces that he is coming to Chicago, and when she goes to meet him at the mall, she finds a 40-year-old man with a sickening smile and a smooth line of talk about how age doesn’t matter.

Clearly, Charlie is well played by actor Chris Henry Coffey, because the moment you see this guy, you want to smash his face against the wall. Repeatedly. So it’s easy to get inside the mind of the girl’s father (Owen) who, upon finding out that his daughter has been taken advantage of by a middle-aged scum, starts becoming unhinged. He wants to find the guy and kill him.

Trust provides a chance for Owen to be nothing like the cool, unflappable fellow we know from most of his other pictures. He starts the movie as a loving, outgoing husband and father, then becomes angry and helpless, his emotions close to the surface. Trust is not a crowd-pleasing revenge film. If it were, it would have been far too popular for me to discuss on this journal. Instead it’s about the specific consequences of this particular crime, how it affects relationships, self-image and the family structure.

Some of the most profound consequences are psychological. The predator worms his way into the mind of a 14-year-old girl, convincing her that this is love, that he cares about her, that he thinks she’s beautiful. So in the aftermath, she doesn’t know what has happened to her. She’s a child and doesn’t know if she has been raped or if her parents and the authorities are aligning themselves against the one man who understands her.

Catherine Keener lends sympathetic support as the mother, but she is essentially there to bear witness to a pair of remarkable performances, from Owen and Liberato. Both go to deep places of emotion, and for that, some of the credit has to go to David Schwimmer, who directed. He sets Owen loose and provides a safe environment for Liberato to take things to the outer edges of feeling, to levels of despair, anguish and hysteria that movies rarely dare.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

This one also has possibilities

Ben Stiller, Edde Murphy, Alan Alda, Matthew Broderick together under the direction of Bratt Ratner. I’m on its side until I hear otherwise.

One I'm anxious to see

I’m still not the Ryan Gosling fan that a lot of other movie-goers are, but from what I see here he doesn’t dabble with a lot of his usual mannerisms that bother me a lot. And he’s surrounded by one great cast.

Everything you wanted to know about the debt ceiling but were afraid to ask

Can be found right here.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

An inspiring story about a former colleague

When I was the Public Information Officer for the City of Dallas, Colleen McCain Nelson was one of the two City Hall reporters employed by the Dallas Morning News. She was a superb reporter, who always had her facts straight. But I remember her most for her knowledge of basketball. Specifically college basketball. Even more specifically, University of Kansas basketball. She was a UK graduate and an intensely loyal Jayhawk fan. She was also more knowledgeable than most about the game.

I didn’t get to keep much in contact with her after she left the City Hall beat. But I really did miss our conversations about basketball.

Then today I ran across this inspiring story about Colleen, a story that made me realize how little we really know about the people we call working colleagues.

What I want with me on a deserted island

I ran across a blog article this morning written by a well-meaning chap, I would guess, in which he talked about the 10 record albums he would want with him should he be stranded on a deserted island. Which, of course, made me think “What he hell good are 10 record albums or even CDs going to do for you on a desert island? I mean, even if you were lucky enough to find a record or CD player on the place, what good would it do you. A deserted island is, by definition, deserted and thus totally bereft of such things as electricity.”

OK, I know his article was just an excuse to talk about his 10 favorite record albums, but why not just say that instead of saying something completely idiotic like you would want these recordings with you even though you had no ability to listen to them?

But I also got to thinking, what would I want with me if I should ever be stranded on a deserted island. And my choice was other human company. So here’s a fun parlor game to play: What 10 people would you like to be stranded with on an otherwise deserted island? Here are my choices:

1. My son Chance because he’s funny and I always enjoy talking with him. Not only that, in less than three weeks he graduates from medical school and a doctor is always a valuable addition to the community. Today, the first thing he asked me when he got home from the clinic where he’s doing his internship was “Do you want an adjustment.” It was, as the expression goes, just what the doctor ordered.

2. My granddaughter Grace because she always makes me smile if not outright laugh. But not only that, she’s ingenious when it comes to taking simple, everyday objects and using her incredible imagination to turn them into playthings. “Poppa, let’s pretend this rock is a carriage and this piece of wood is a castle and you and I are the prince and princess riding in the carriage to the ball at the castle.”

3. My Hero if, for no other reason, than if I’m to be stranded on an island it would be ideal to have a drop-dead gorgeous female there as well. But, more than that, I simply never tire of her company, her conversation, of just being with her. There’s also the fact that’s she’s an accomplished engineer and engineers are basically, when you come right down to it, nothing more than problem solvers. I once had a business partner who claimed engineers are not happy unless they have problems to solve. And if I’m stranded on a desert island, I have a major problem that need’s solving.

4. Of course I would need to have one non-human with me, my devoutly loyal Golden Retriever Ginger. Just to be able to see her unconfined throughout the day, romping around and exploring the island, splashing in the waves, being completely free and uninhibited would fill my heart with immense joy.

5-10. Six of the world’s best shipbuilders. C’mon, I don’t want to be stranded on this island forever. You see, there’s 10 record albums I’m dying to hear once I return.

Are Tea Party Republicans out to destroy our country?

With the debate over the debt limit, it sure seems that way.

In a rather simplistic capsule, here’s the problem we’re facing. The Treasury Department says, unless it can borrow more money, it’s going to be out of cash on or about Aug. 2. All monetary payments will come to a halt at that point. Trouble is, legislation sets a limit on how much money the United States is permitted to borrow and we have reached that ceiling. So, unless Congress agrees to raise that limit, additional borrowing is prohibited.

So why not just raise the ceiling? In addition, why not find ways to get additional income?

That’s where the Tea Party comes in. Rep. Barbara Bachmann, the leader of this group of right-wingnuts and a person I find more dangerous to national security than Osama Bin-Laden ever was, says the Treasury Department is controlled by President Obama and one should never believe a single word the President says. We are not really running out of money, she and her fellow jerks proclaim, the President is simply bluffing. So there’s no reason to raise the debt ceiling unless we completely dismantle Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and all other entitlement programs in the process. And, she adds, finding ways to get additional income is completely out of the question.

Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois goes even further, recording a video in which he called the President a liar and in which he said “There’s plenty of money to pay off our debt and cover all our Social Security obligations.” He did not say, however, where that money might be.

There’s a minuscule chance Bachmann, Walsh and the rest of the Tea Party might be correct and, if they are, I will be the first person calling for Obama’s impeachment. He shouldn’t be playing chickie-run with the country’s economic future.

However, for some reason I trust the President far more than I trust Tea Party. And I really fear for the future of our free-market economy if the President is correct and no action isn’t taken to raise the debt limit within the next week.

But we need more than that. For some reason the Tea Party doesn’t realize that growth is required to restore the economy and the policies it is advocating will destroy jobs, much the same way the Bush economic policies did in getting us into the mess. So, how do we get growth?

This today from three-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Thomas L. Friedman:
“We don’t just need a plan for regaining American solvency. We need a plan for maintaining American greatness and sustaining the American dream for another generation,” argues Michael Mandelbaum, the Johns Hopkins University foreign policy expert (and co-author with me of a forthcoming book). “Such a plan requires cutting, taxing and spending. It requires cutting because we have made promises to ourselves on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid that we cannot keep without reforming each of them.”

But we cannot possibly generate the savings — or the new investments we need in our formula for success — by just taking funds from these social programs and shredding the social safety nets, adds Mandelbaum. “That would trigger a backlash against free-market capitalism. And free-market capitalism is the engine of our growth, and growth is the best way to reduce the deficit.”

That is why we need to raise new tax revenues as well — so we can simultaneously shrink the entitlements programs, but still keep them viable, and generate the funds needed to strengthen all five parts of our growth formula. Anyone who says that either entitlement reform or tax increases are off the table does not have a plan for sustaining American greatness and passing on the American dream to the next generation.

Alas, that is the Tea Party. It is so lacking in any aspiration for American greatness, so dominated by the narrowest visions for our country and so ignorant of the fact that it was not tax cuts that made America great but our unique public-private partnerships across the generations. If sane Republicans do not stand up to this Hezbollah faction in their midst, the Tea Party will take the G.O.P. on a suicide mission. No American politician was more allergic to debt or taxes than Thomas Jefferson, but he also appreciated the need to have the resources to make the Louisiana Purchase and insisted that on his tombstone it be written that he founded the University of Virginia.

It’s not going to take that long to see which side is correct. However, if it’s the administration and the economy begins to crumble next week, it will not be difficult to fix the blame for this catastrophe.

Plain and simple: The debt ceiling and all this other rhetoric the Tea Party is talking about are two, entirely separate, issues. During his eight years in office, President Reagan asked Congress for a straight up or down vote to raise the debt ceiling 18 times and 18 times Congress raised the ceiling. Bush the Junior asked for it and received it seven times. But now there’s a Democrat in the White House and a black Democrat to boot, and the Tea Party right-wingnuts are so determined to see him fail they are willing to destroy our economy and let millions of Americans to go without their Social Security payments and Medicare benefits, let soldiers, sailors and their families to go without pay, just to accomplish this personal vendetta.

So, to directly answer the question I posed in the headline: Yes, if it means the Tea Party can destroy the Presidency in the process. Their members don’t care about collateral damage in the form of lost jobs, destroyed businesses, increased home foreclosures, millions of more Americans going hungry and, yes, many others dying. They just don't care at all.

UPDATE: A number of individuals were correct in pointing out to me it's Michele, not Barbara, Bachmann. No idea what I was thinking of.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

New York Times: The Republican Wreckage

From the editorial pages of today’s New York Times:

House Republicans have lost sight of the country’s welfare. It’s hard to conclude anything else from their latest actions, including the House speaker’s dismissal of President Obama’s plea for compromise Monday night. They have largely succeeded in their campaign to ransom America’s economy for the biggest spending cuts in a generation. They have warped an exercise in paying off current debt into an argument about future spending. Yet, when they win another concession, they walk away.

This increasingly reckless game has pushed the nation to the brink of ruinous default. The Republicans have dimmed the futures of millions of jobless Americans, whose hopes for work grow more out of reach as government job programs are cut and interest rates begin to rise. They have made the federal government a laughingstock around the globe.

In a scathing prime-time television address Monday night, President Obama stepped off the sidelines to tell Americans the House Republicans were threatening a “deep economic crisis” that could send interest rates skyrocketing and hold up Social Security and veterans’ checks. By insisting on a single-minded approach and refusing to negotiate, he said, Republicans were violating the country’s founding principle of compromise.

“How can we ask a student to pay more for college before we ask hedge fund managers to stop paying taxes at a lower rate than their secretaries?” he said, invoking Ronald Reagan’s effort to make everyone pay a fair share and pointing out that his immediate predecessors had to ask for debt-ceiling increases under rules invented by Congress. He urged viewers to demand compromise. “The entire world is watching,” he said.

Mr. Obama denounced House Speaker John Boehner’s proposal to make cuts only, now, and raise the debt ceiling briefly, but he embraced the proposal made over the weekend by the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, which gave Republicans virtually everything they said they wanted when they ignited this artificial crisis: $2.7 trillion from government spending over the next decade, with no revenue increases. It is, in fact, an awful plan, which cuts spending far too deeply at a time when the government should be summoning all its resources to solve the real economic problem of unemployment. It asks for absolutely no sacrifice from those who have prospered immensely as economic inequality has grown.

Mr. Reid’s proposal does at least protect Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. And about half of its savings comes from the winding down of two wars, which naturally has drawn Republican opposition. (Though Republicans counted the same savings in their budgets.)

Mr. Boehner will not accept this as the last-ditch surrender that it is. The speaker, who followed Mr. Obama on TV with about five minutes of hoary talking points clearly written before the president spoke, is insisting on a plan that raises the debt ceiling until early next year and demands another vote on a balanced-budget amendment, rejected by the Senate last week. The result would be to stage this same debate over again in an election year. Never mind that this would almost certainly result in an immediate downgrade of the government’s credit.

We agreed strongly when Mr. Obama said Americans should be “offended” by this display and that they “may have voted for divided government but they didn’t vote for a dysfunctional government.” It’s hard not to conclude now that dysfunction is the Republicans’ goal — even if the cost is unthinkable.
©New York Times

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Can you hear me now?

Available on DVD: “Cedar Rapids”

Isiah Whitlock Jr., John C. Reilly, Anne Heche and Ed Helms
 in Cedar Rapids
Everything’s up to date in Cedar Rapids, which not only has skyscrapers, but also a hotel with a pool sparkling in the atrium like a blue diamond. For Tim Lippe (rhymes with yippee), the 34-year-old naïf at the center of this wistful, equally tender and raunchy comedy of self-discovery, also called Cedar Rapids, the hotel and the pool signal that he’s reached the big time. What he can’t yet know is that by entering the hotel, having guilelessly said no to the friendly neighborhood prostitute outside, he has crossed a Rubicon. He’s on his way to a moral awakening in a story laced with Oedipal overtones and giddy with longing and smut.

Played by a gravely comic Ed Helms (another Daily Show alum), Tim has traveled a great distance, psychologically if not geographically, to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, from the fictional town of Brown Valley, Wis. An insurance salesman, he has been sent to an annual convention to represent the tiny company that serves as the family he doesn’t have. Left fatherless as a boy, motherless as an adolescent, he has looked to his boss, Bill (the terrific character actor Stephen Root), for paternal guidance and to his seventh-grade teacher, Macy (Sigourney Weaver, perfect), for something more than maternal comfort. He’s so deeply tucked into the bosom of familiarity, so insular and unworldly, that he’s never been on a plane.

He ends up taking his first flight, straight to Cedar Rapids, blissing out the whole way. He’s tickled that he has to go through the usual safety gantlet at the airport: “It’s me,” he says to his friend working security, who treats him as gravely as any potential terrorist threat. Part of what’s satisfying about Cedar Rapids, which was directed by Miguel Arteta (“The Good Girl”) from a smart, generous script by Phil Johnston, is that it takes both Tim and his joy seriously, and without self-congratulatory winks and nudges. Tim is funny, with his Ken-doll hair and sweater vests, wide-eyed wonder and fear (“There’s an Afro-American man standing in my room,” he says with dismay on meeting a suitemate), but he only looks like a punch line.

The filmmakers do invite gentle laughter with this innocent who enters uncharted territory as if risking oblivion, though more as comic bait than for cruel sport. Tim carries a money belt strapped to his stomach, as if he were braving the wilds of New York, and thinks the hotel clerk who asks for a credit card (for incidentals) might be part of a con. His worries are tempered after settling into his suite, where he’s soon caught between different, oppositional forces: his black suitemate, Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr., deadpan and very fine), a man of reason and Apollonian sobriety; and a third member of this unlikely party, Dean Ziegler, a Dionysian figure played with vulgar gusto and at a suitably loud volume by John C. Reilly.

Together, though at different avuncular registers, Ronald and Dean help initiate Tim into convention rituals, including bleary nights at the bar, flirtations and official and unofficial team building. They’re there when he has his first drink (a sip of cream sherry) and when he meets Joan Ostrowski-Fox (a poignant Anne Heche), a melancholy party girl. Though he tries to keep his eyes on the prize, notably a hunk of glass called the Two Diamonds award that he’s meant to bring back to Brown Valley, Tim sways, bends and nearly breaks. Inside this hotel, with its chlorine perfume (“It’s like I’m in Barbados,” he enthuses), Tim, in friendship and with love, loses and then finds himself.

As he moves away from his surrogate mother (if panic-dialing her often) and contends with a patriarchal problem (the plot thickens, slightly), Tim travels a classic path of enlightenment that runs parallel with our own understanding of him. It’s a modest journey of a modest man that Arteta smartly doesn’t inflate in a movie that clocks in at a fast 87 minutes. In his characteristic unassuming fashion he gives the actors room to play, even as he keeps the mood as intimate as his filmmaking. And while Arteta likes a dirty joke as much as the next comic director, because those laughs burble up from characters whose raucousness comes from an honest grappling with life’s absurdities, the jokes sing as well as zing.

Not long after Tim arrives in Cedar Rapids, he and Joan take a walk in a park and then sit on swings like children. Tim talks about his father’s death (you see the mournful boy still in him) and also about how the river in front of them once flooded, and how in each case it was insurance agents who saved the day. Joan, joking, calls him Insurance Man, a kind of superhero. But Tim isn’t super anything (though he proves heroic), and what makes Cedar Rapids a low-wattage pleasure is its insistence that his ordinariness — with his decency and sense of wonder — is pretty extraordinary. Later, when Tim returns to the swing set, he’s choked up and alone, but it’s a fleeting setback for a man now very much in the world.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Available on DVD: “Small Town Murder Songs”

Peter Stormare (left) in Small Town Murder Songs
Ed Gass-Donnelly’s rural crime drama, Small Town Murder Songs, punctures the veneer of bucolic quiet in a mostly Mennonite farming community in Ontario. Beneath a deceptive calm, it uncovers a core of fear and loathing as ominous as the backwoods world of Winter’s Bone.

The protagonist, Walter (Peter Stormare), is a stocky, middle-aged policeman whose violent past has made him a local pariah. An early scene shows his baptism into born-again Christianity, and we listen in on his earnest conversations with a church deacon. But the movie doesn’t pretend that his conversion is more than a desperate defense against eruptive inner demons that continue to hound him.

The film is regularly punctuated with quasi hymns by the Canadian indie rock band Bruce Peninsula that dramatize Walter’s torment. These spare, harshly percussive, folk-gospel numbers shouted by a choir lash out like bursts of fire and brimstone; you feel assaulted by unseen forces of righteousness swinging bundles of sticks.

Religious exhortations in capital letters are flashed as chapter headings. “Repent and profess your faith,” reads one. “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn and offer him your left,” reads another. The soundtrack and the prophetic warnings evoke the consciousness of a man whose sorry personal history is suggested only in brief flashbacks of him giving a beating.

Walter’s past is also discernible in his studiedly blank face and in his eyes, which flicker with barely contained fury. His inner volatility is only slightly more masked than that of Brent Sexton’s vengeful father of a murdered teenager in the AMC series The Killing. One palliative for Walter is his new girlfriend, Sam (Martha Plimpton), a gentle blond waitress from the local diner who babbles a lot. Religious and flighty, she is the polar opposite of his previous lover, Rita (Jill Hennessy).

Walter’s newfound equilibrium is put to the test when the body of a young woman is found near a lake. It is the town’s first murder in decades. The 911 phone call reporting the discovery is quickly traced to Rita, who lies to the police when questioned and insists that her new lover, Steve (Stephen Eric McIntyre), was with her on the evening of the crime. The investigation quickly reveals that Steve and the victim were both seen that night at a nearby strip club.

That’s all I’ll say about the story, which is not really a whodunit but a character study of a man squeezed in a psychological, spiritual and professional vise. We never learn what happened to Walter’s relationship with Rita, who is as dark and scary as Sam is sweet and garrulous, but it must have been explosive. When Walter visits Rita, her palpable hatred of him leaves you shaken. Steve is a scruffy, shotgun-toting lowlife with a malevolent grin who looks as feral as a backwoodsman out of Deliverance. Push inevitably comes to shove.

Small Town Murder Songs is compellingly acted from top to bottom. As the raw passions of its hard-bitten characters seep into you, the songs hammer them even more deeply into your consciousness. The film’s only flaw — a big one — is its brevity. When it ends after 76 minutes, you are left wishing it had included Walter’s back story and had offered a more detailed picture of the town. A part of me wants Gass-Donnelly to go back and shoot those scenes, then re-release it.

Suspicions confirmed

I hate to say I told you so, but this time I actually told you so.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Seeing the world from Spider-Man’s point of view

It’s actually pretty neat. Check it out at the end of this trailer.

Looking at the glass as half full

Sure, we have had more of our share pf 100-degrees days and, yes, the perennial hottest month of the year is still ahead of us, but at least we haven’t heard a word about this in a while. For that, I am thankful.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Available on DVD: “Potiche”

Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu in Potiche
At the beginning of Potiche, a sweetly artificial confection made very tasty by its cast, Catherine Deneuve is jogging through the woods, communing with forest animals, looking like a million francs, while the opening titles do their split-screen thing and composer Philippe Rombi treats the prologue like a peppy Trois’ Company artifact of 1977, not simply a film set in 1977.

Potiche is French for “trophy wife.” It comes from a 1980 stage farce (here set back three years) from the team of Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy, who gave the world the comedies translated into English as Cactus Flower and Forty Carats. The movie, adapted and directed by Francois Ozon, is one of those diversions wherein the actors must compete with the wallpaper in every interior scene. But when you have Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu and (lesser known in America) Fabrice Luchini on-screen, the humans win every time.

Potiche is very Touch of Class and House Calls in its comic vibe and trappings, and if you’re old enough to remember those Glenda Jackson rom-coms, you’ll probably respond favorably to Potiche.

The wife of a philandering umbrella factory manager, Deneuve’s pampered character, Suzanne Pujol, is put to the test when a strike lays her husband low, and she takes over the business along with her right-wing daughter and left-wing son. The local socialist mayor urges progressive reforms; he also urges a rekindling of a long-ago romantic spark. Depardieu plays the politician; Luchini schemes magnificently as the husband, whose stance toward his workers is underlined by such lines as: “To hell with the workers!”

Ozon runs into some trouble rewriting and expanding the play’s original ending. (He and Deneuve worked together on 8 Women, also based on a play.) Watching Potiche in light of what’s been happening in Wisconsin, among other places, it’s amusing to contemplate just how quickly Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s head would explode watching any film, even a frothy French period piece, wherein the workers demand five weeks off as well as annual year-end bonuses.

Politics aside, even with its third-act wobble, the film moves with assurance and crisp pacing, and the actors are a pleasure to watch. Luchini proves a master technician, timing each bit of business (including a spit-take!) just so.

The intense stylization of Potiche might’ve become difficult to take with an aggressively comic actress at its center. Deneuve is not that sort. As with Depardieu, the leading lady has a light-fingered but sincere approach that takes the edge off the artifice. Even with that hideous eye-shadow, Karin Viard (looking disconcertingly like Dorothy Michaels in Tootsie) is enjoyable as the boss’s dishy but insecure secretary who stands up for herself, at long last.

“It’s the sign of the times, Mom,” says Suzanne’s son, played by Jeremie Renier. “Women everywhere are taking power.” The movie, thankfully, has a casual way with such thesis lines.

The R rating for Potiche is quite ridiculously punitive, given its mild sexual content, by the way. The Motion Picture Association of America strikes again.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Huntsman: A Republican Presidential candidate who believes it’s better to be correct than right

Jon Huntsman Jr.
 Jon Huntsman Jr. is one of the few Republicans out there today I can respect, a throwback to the days of Everett Dirksen, Nelson Rockefeller and Maragret Chase Smith — Republicans who realized the most important responsibility of government leaders was to govern.

Huntsman is a former governor of Utah (2004-2009) who managed to cut taxes by $400 million — the largest in the state’s history — and still maintain a budget surplus. The Pew Research Center named Utah “the Best Managed State in America” while he was governor. When he ran for re-election in 2008, he received 78 percent of the vote.

He resigned as governor on Aug. 11, 2009, to become the U.S. Ambassador to China. He had previously worked as a White House assistant for President Reagan, was appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce and U.S. Ambassador to Singapore by President Bush I and U.S. Trade Representative by No. 43. He resigned as the Ambassador to China effective April 30 and formally declared his candidacy for the Republican Presidential nomination just about a month ago, June 21.

But what I really like about Huntsman is that while the field of Republican Presidential ideologues are indulging themselves (i.e., handicapping themselves) by signing all these stupid pledges — the pledge never, ever to raise taxes under any circumstances (which is the main reason America is currently flirting with default); the Susan B, Anthony Pledge (signed by Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty and Rick Santorum) in which candidates promise never to appoint a pro-choice individual to any government position and to cut off all funding to Planned Parenthood; the cut, cap and balance pledge (signed by all the above plus Mitt Romney and Herman Cain), designed to completely gut the government and pass a balanced budget Constitutional amendment; and, the worst of the lot, the Marriage Vow (signed by Santorum and Bachmann) in which candidates pledge to oppose same-sex marriages and, until it was altered after a public outcry, contained a section that said a black child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by two parents than a black child born while Obama was President.

When asked why he hadn’t signed any of these pledges, Huntsman replied that the only allegiances he owes were to the American flag and his wife. You gotta admire a guy like that.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Prediction: Trader Joe’s on lowest Greenville Avenue

First there was this story a couple of months ago about Trader Joe’s coming to Dallas, Houston and Austin and that its Dallas location, which “would open within the year,” would include one in the inner city as well as some in the white collared suburbs like Frisco and Allen, where most of the action is these days.

Then today I ran across this about the now-abandoned Whole Foods site on Lowest Greenville Avenue. It doesn’t take much to put two and two together, especially when the great Robert Wilonsky quotes Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt as saying a “grocery store has been mentioned” to replace Whole Foods.

I could be wrong. I have only been wrong in my predictions about a zillion times and I’m not willing to bet the house on this one, but this prediction feels better the longer I sit with it.

This news may come as a blow to those folks in Lake Highlands trying to get a petition to get Trader Joe’s in their hood, but I don’t think Joe’s kin can wait around for that town center development at Walnut Hill and Skillman to get cracking and have it open “within the year.” Within the decade is a possibility, but not a year.

Martin Scorsese's next

Ths sure looks like a different side to the director best known for Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and The Departed. Of course he did make After Hours, but still …

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

It’s mainstream’s turn for Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh is a fascinating filmmaker, the only director I can think of who was nominated twice for a best director Oscar in the same year. His usual pattern is to alternate between making purely commercial films (The Informant, the Oceans trilogy, Traffic, Erin Brokovich) with off-the-wall projects (The Girlfriend Experience, Full Frontal, Schizopolis).

This September it appears he’s going mainstream in a big way with this horror thriller, whose trailer does give away a major plot point (the death of one it’s stars), but I’m guessing that event occurs so early in the film it doesn’t matter.

The picture has a marvelous cast — Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Elliott Gould, John Hawkes (who was superb in last year’s Winter’s Bone) and Sanaa Lathan.

I just love this, a sane man reacts the way I do to an Adam Sandler movie

Available on DVD: “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”

Thanapat Saisaymar as Uncle Boonmee and Natthakarn Aphaiwonk as the ghost of his former wife
In May 2010, when a Cannes Film Festival jury headed by Tim Burton awarded the Palme d’Or to Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, there was widespread surprise and a few eruptions of outrage. The film — from the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who has become a familiar presence on the festival circuit over the past decade — is unquestionably strange, at times mystifyingly oblique. Those who insist on a linear narrative or an easily identifiable set of themes may find themselves puzzled, perhaps to the point of frustration. But it is hard to see how this movie, with its contemplative mood and genial, curious spirit, could make anybody angry. On the contrary: encountered in an appropriately exploratory frame of mind, it can produce something close to bliss.

Uncle Boonmee is not a difficult film. Like its title character, a farmer and beekeeper whose home in a peaceful mountain valley is occasionally visited by ghosts and mythical creatures, the movie is friendly and patient, welcoming you into its odd and beautiful world without much fuss or ceremony. You may need a bit of time to adjust your eyes and expectations — the nighttime forest scenes, like those in Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady, are shot in dim, shadowy light, and what story there is emerges slowly and in fragments — but after a while, like one of those ghosts, you will start to feel at home.

Boonmee is suffering from kidney disease, and as he goes briskly about his everyday business, accompanied by his sister-in-law, Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), and the young men he has hired as caretakers, it becomes clear that he is saying goodbye. His present life is shadowed by regrets, only some of which are alluded to, like his actions during a long-ago period of political violence. One evening, as he and Jen are having dinner outdoors, they are joined by the specters of Boonmee’s long-lost son (Geerasak Kulhong), who has assumed the shape of a man-size monkey, and of Boonmee’s wife (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk), whose appearance is more traditionally movie-ghostlike.

The living and the dead converse calmly and matter-of-factly, as if nothing especially unusual were going on, and this undramatic blending of the bizarre and the banal is one of Weerasethakul’s signatures. Though he is heir to a long tradition of cinematic surrealism, he does not traffic in shock or discomfort, or seek to upend the tyranny of conventional logic. Rather, he uses the illusion-making powers of the medium to propose, politely if also mischievously, an alternative way of seeing things.

Among those things are shadowy beasts with glowing red eyes and an amorous catfish that, in a dreamlike fairy tale within the film, seduces an unhappy princess. This scene, which may have had special appeal to Burton (whose oeuvre includes the fantastical Big Fish), is charming and a bit startling, and it provides a key to Uncle Boonmee’s cosmos.

For him, and for the movie that borrows his name, there is no real boundary between past and present, dream and reality, body and spirit. The world of nature, properly understood — and looked at from the proper angle — contains all of those disparate elements and affords them roughly equal value. Boonmee, a believer in karma, inhabits a world in which a Buddhist understanding of the transitory nature of various forms of being coexists with animist beliefs in the supernatural power of particular places, objects and living things.

This vision of existence is, to modern Western eyes, both peculiar and beguiling. That it is embedded in an exploration of the natural beauty of northern Thailand is certainly a bonus. A trip that Boonmee and his friends take to a cave deep in the forest would make a captivating nature documentary in its own right, and the characters’ serene acceptance of their amazing surroundings only deepens the sense of sublimity.

But Weerasethakul is less concerned with exhibiting the exotic glories of his native country — which, after all, is not exotic to him — than with drawing out the latent mysteries of ordinary existence. He is equally at home in (which is to say equally estranged from and curious about) the shadows of the countryside and the fluorescence of modern city life. The jungle fantasia of Tropical Malady was followed by the disjointed quasicomedy of Syndromes and a Century, which turned an urban corporate landscape of office work and consumption into something like science fiction.

And in Uncle Boonmee the lushness of Boonmee’s farm gives way to a drab hotel and a garish funeral hall. Instead of ghosts in the darkness, there are flickering apparitions on a television screen. And instead of nostalgia for vanished magic, there is the recognition that magic — like the memories of the dead, and therefore the dead themselves — is always present if we know where and how to look. Weerasethakul certainly knows where to look and is generous enough to share some of what he sees.

And the redistricting winner is … Donna Halstead

Donna Halstead
You can now visit the City of Dallas’s Web site and take a gander at the various ideas for redistricting the city’s 14 council districts, including one from former Dallas Observer writer Sam Merten. Of all of them, I like commissioner member and former council member Donna Halstead’s the best. She has solved one of the worst representation problems in the city, of which I am familiar because it’s the area where I live — what I call the “Forgotten Triangle,” that area of Dallas north of LBJ Freeway and east of North Central Expressway. Right now it is situated in District 11, but it has far more in common with Lake Highlands (District 10) than it does with North Dallas. And Halstead, being a Lake Highlands resident, obviously knows this.

My son auditioned for and was accepted in the Arts Magnet High School, but if he had gone to the high school whose district covered where we lived it would have been Lake Highlands High School. He did attend Forest Meadow Junior High, located in District 10.

A couple of years ago, a Walt-Mart opened between Forest Lane and LBJ Freeway, just west of Abrams, less than a mile from my town home, but not in the same council district as I. Former District 10 council member Bill Blaydes did a superb job of notifying all his constituents about the progress on that site (it included closing and demolishing a couple of whore/crack houses). But even though it impacted my area far more than the overwhelming majority of the residents in District 10, we never received any notice of what was going on. We were offered no chance to give input into the project. Not that I was opposed to the construction of the Wal-Mart, far from it, but its location in the northern most reaches of District 10 had a direct affect on us.

Donna Halstead’s redistricting map is the only one I saw that corrects this glaring mistake of keeping us in District 11. As Bob Dylan so eloquently put it, “One should never be where one does not belong” and those of us north of LBJ and East of North Central are currently where we don’t belong.

Incidentally, this area of Dallas does not have anything located within its boundaries, featuring the seal of the City of Dallas — not a rec center, not even a park, not a library — nada. As I said earlier, we’re pretty much forgotten, at least when we’re in District 11.

A pair of messages to the idiot making those Gillette Pro Glide TV commercials

1. Darwin’s law of the Survival of the Fittest covers any dumbo who shaves in shark infested waters.

2. I am never going to believe or trust a man who has shaving cream on his face, is applying a razor to said face, and says “It doesn’t even feel like I’m shaving.” C’mon. What the hell else could it possibly feel like?

The Girl Who Played Around with Sherlock Holmes

It appears the producers of this series are continuing to dumb down Sherlock Holmes to appeal to those movie goers with attention deficit disorder.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Even more reasons to love Dirk

According to this story, not only is Dirk Nowitzki leaving “tens of millions of dollars” on the table by refusing to jump on the Labron-Wade-Tiger-Peyton bandwagon, endorsing every product raised in front of him, the man doesn’t even have an agent,. For heavens sake, who’s going to introduce him into the Hall of Fame?

Harry Potter as it should be seen

All six movies condensed into one five-minute-plus film makes it all seem much more thrilling than the series actually is.

This could be special

Monday, July 11, 2011

Oscar meet Oprah, Oprah meet Oscar

If someone gave me a $100 bucks for everytime I’ve seen this story, I could host the Cowboys’ next rookie dinner at Pappas Steak House. In fact, I’ve seen it so many times, I’m beginning to think Oprah is actively campaigning for this gig.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A murderess' magnet

As human beings go, Casey Anthony is a rather despicable one. After murdering her 2-year-old daughter and hiding her body in a swamp, she partied and dance the night away at area clubs while officials searched for the missing infant. What kind of people does someone like this attract? The type that you could shower for a week, and not wash off all the slime.

Finally, someone has something nice to say about Texas, Gov. Hair

An editorial appearing in today's New York Times had some complimentary words for Texas and our would-be presidential candidate governor concerning the reform of the juvenile justice system around these parts. Imagine this: the state that kills more prisoners than any other is not even sending a lot of juveniles to jail anymore. Instead, these "troubled children receive guidance and rehabilitation services in or near their communities, where families, churches and other local organizations can be part of the process." And, according to the editorial, the scheme seems to be working. Hooray for us!

It doesn’t get any better than this for a Yankees/Rangers fan

I was practically raised in Yankee Stadium, back when it looked like it does in the above picture — the 3-foot right and left field walls, the monuments in center field. From the time I was 3 until I was almost 9, my dad took me to every home Yankee game. I saw Yogi Berra in his rookie year hit a bunch of homers that barely cleared that friendly right field fence just inside the foul line. I once saw Jimmy Piersall of the Boston Red Sox, who was later diagnosed with a bipolar disorder, hide behind those centerfield monuments in the middle of a game and refuse to come out. I later learned he claimed to be having a conversation with Babe Ruth back there.

Somehow my dad got to know a bunch of the Yankees personally, although I never knew exactly how. Back in 1972, when I was working for United Press International, I covered a lot of the Rangers games when they moved here that year. Two years later, former Yankee great Billy Martin was named the Ranger’s manager. My UPI bosses in New York told me to make sure I got quotes from the new skipper. So immediately after the game — after I had filed my game story and the all-important box score — I headed to the Rangers’ clubhouse and introduced myself to Martin. “Oppel,” he said studiously, then repeated my last name in the same manner. Then he looked up at me and said “You wouldn’t happen to be any relation to Bill Oppel from New York would you?” That Oppel, of course, was my dad.

I still watch the Yankees every chance I get and I was watching them today (I guess it’s yesterday now) hoping to witness Derek Jeter get his 3,000th hit.

Some day, I hope to have a day as perfect as Derek Jeter’s day yesterday. I doubt that will ever happen but I’m also convinced hope is what keeps old codgers like me alive.

By now everyone who’s remotely interested in baseball knows how Jeter’s day went. How Jeter led off the Yankees’ half of the first with hit No. 2,999. How he came to bat in the third inning, worked pitcher David Price of Tampa Bay to a 3-2 count, fouled off two pitches and then launched a Price slider into the left field seats for hit No. 3,000. How he was mobbed by his teammates at home plate and how he was even saluted by the Rays who left their dugout, stood on the field and applauded. How he finished the day going 5-for-5, his last hit driving in the winning run in New York’s 5-4 victory.

What a performance! What a game!

During a post-game trip to Moss Park with my faithful companion (pictured right), I decided I didn’t want the baseball day to end. So I trudged out to Arlington and bought myself a cheap seat to the Rangers-Oakland game.

By now everyone who’s remotely interested in the fate of the home-town nine knows how the Rangers’ night went. How through a couple of walks, an error or two and some timely hits in the second inning, the Rangers fell behind 4-0. How they came back to tie the game at 5-5 by scoring four runs in the bottom of the fifth. How Oakland moved ahead in the seventh on Coco Crisp’s solo homerun. How Oakland’s ace closer Andrew Bailey, who had not given up a homer all year, retired the first two Rangers in the top of the ninth. How Elvis Andrus, who appeared to hit a game-ending grounder to second, was safe when A’s second baseman Jemile Weeks’ slow and wide throw to first allowed Andrus to reach safely. How the very next batter, Josh Hamilton (I’m not going to comment on the week he’s had) crushed a Bailey 2-0 pitch into the upper deck in right field for a walk-off home run. How he was mobbed by his teammates at home plate much the same way Jeter was mobbed around eight hours earlier.

It wasn’t my perfect day, but these days close is good enough and this one was damn close.

Available on DVD: “Of Gods and Men”

Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale in Of Gods and Men
A story of faith and doubt, of humanity and the horrors humans are capable of, Of Gods and Men is set in Algeria in the mid-‘90s, where a band of French Trappist monks go about their devotional and worldly duties. They pray, they chant, they sweep the floors and cook the meals and tend to their garden. The monastery sits on a hill adjacent to a village. The people are Muslim, but they’ve come to trust the monks, relying on the physician among them for medical care. There is a sense of harmony, peace, shared history.

But as political tensions rock the country and militant Islamic factions gain ground, that relationship is put to the test.

The grand prize winner at the Cannes Film Festival May 2010, Xavier Beauvois’ extraordinarily moving and troubling Of Gods and Men enters the quiet, meditative world of these devout men. Their leader is Christian (Lambert Wilson), who sits at his desk reading the Quran, looking for the common threads between Islam’s great book and the Bible that he and his fellow Cistercians look to for instruction and inspiration.

Beauvois’ camera is watchful and unobtrusive, panning the monastery and its spartan rooms, documenting the brothers’ quotidian tasks, but also the modest ritual, the beauty, the illumination.

And then forces from beyond its walls threaten to bring everything down.

Based on the true story of seven French monks who were abducted by Algerian mujahideen in 1996, Of Gods and Men, sadly, remains as relevant today as ever, as religious, cultural, and political conflict explodes through Africa and the Middle East. Is there a place for reason, for an inclusive God, in a world mad with militancy and dogma?

The great veteran French actor Michael Lonsdale — he of the wry countenance and bushy eyebrows — plays the doctor among the monks, a man named Luc who works his way carefully down the rocky slope to his clinic in the village to treat the men and women, the young and the old, who seek his help. At a dinner in the monastery, with his brothers stationed around a long, plain table, he quotes Pascal: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

It’s an observation of crushing truth.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Available on DVD: “13 Assassins”

The showdown between Goro Inagaki (left) and Koji Yakusho
 in 13 Assassins
“Your samurai brawls are crazy fun!” exclaims the 13th assassin, a nutty guy who lives in the forest in Takashi Miike’s sublime sword fest, 13 Assassins.

And while this tale of a band of 12 noble fighters (plus that goofball in the woods) who set out to kill a sadistic lord with designs on the throne is full of wild action, there’s dignity and beauty and poetry here, too. Set in feudal Japan, during the waning of the samurai era, Miike’s movie offers not over-the-top, Hong Kong-style martial arts, but rather is a throwback to wide-screen warrior epics where men steered their horses through verdant woods, and where ritual and rules of law were not broken lightly.

That said, there are some killer battle scenes — like the film’s entire final 45 minutes!

Things begin slowly, and hauntingly, with the hara-kiri death of a lord who can no longer abide the horrific violence of the demented despot. Although it defies the social order to go after Naritsugu (a terrifically twisted Goro Inagaki), whose vast legion of soldiers remains loyal despite his abuse of the citizenry, the samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho, a veteran of many Kurosawa films) agrees to lead a group of assassins. There’s no doubt about the justness of the cause once they encounter a woman who was Naritsugu’s plaything: He has cut off her limbs, cut out her tongue.

A film, like so many samurai stories (and American westerns) about brotherhood, justice and sacrifice, 13 Assassins is, at turns, thrilling and funny, visually exquisite and emotionally charged.

Friday, July 8, 2011

How not to use a mini-speech

My former business partners, the great Ken Fairchild and Lisa LeMaster, introduced me to the concept of the mini-speech as a tool to use in media interviews. I’m not going to go into great detail — or any kind of detail at all — about what a mini-speech is. Suffice it to say, this Brit has got it down and knows how to use it ad nauseum.

No more handwriting in Indiana

I had a friend once whose former husband used to type the child support checks he sent. She thought it was sort of strange and I must admit I thought so too.

But maybe he was just years ahead of his time. Either that, since I lost touch with the woman in question, her ex may have moved to Indiana and become a member of that state’s Department of Education.

I say that because that department has now decreed that schools no longer have to teach writing in longhand to students. Instead, they are expected to become proficient on a keyboard.

According to Indiana clinical psychologist Dr. Scott Hamilton, after students are taught how to sign their name in cursive, “The time allocated for cursive instruction could then be devoted to learning keyboarding and typing skills. From an intuitive standpoint, this makes sense, based on the increasingly digital world into which this generation of children is growing up.”

Yeah, it does make sense. But are they going to teach students to type on a standard computer keyboard or on a Blackberry?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Available on DVD: “Barney’s Version”

Paul Giamatti and Rosamund Pike in Barney's Version
Barney’s Version star Paul Giamatti probably would be the first to admit he isn’t your ordinary Hollywood leading man.

Neither tall nor lean nor strong of jaw, he is more of an anti-leading man — a guy with the face of a character actor and the body of a movie critic.

So it speaks volumes about his talent — even more than the Golden Globe he took home in January — that he was even cast to hold down the lead role in director Richard J. Lewis’ comedic drama. With leading ladies including the likes of Minnie Driver and a luminous Rosamund Pike, this is a George Clooney role, a Cary Grant role — a matinee idol role.

It turns out, it’s also a Giamatti role.

Not only does this anti-leading man knock it out of the park, but he knocks the cover off it. That won’t come as an enormous surprise for anyone familiar with Giamatti’s career. He’s proven his talent and versatility, from his lead part in the HBO miniseries John Adams to the role of an easy-to-anger radio-station manager in Howard Stern’s Private Parts, not to mention Sideways, a brilliant performance which was unjustly ignored by the Motion Picture Academy.

In Barney’s Version, not only does Giamatti solidify his reputation as a great actor — a brilliant cinematic chameleon capable of shifting effortlessly among comedy and romance and tragedy — but he helps transform Lewis’ film into a lovely bit of dramatic comedy.

Based on the novel by Mordecai Richler, it’s a movie that becomes more dramatic and more moving as it proceeds. Giamatti plays the guy in the title, an aging television producer who, at the film’s outset, plops himself at a bar only to be confronted by an ex-cop who has written a tell-all book about a particularly sordid chapter in Barney’s past.

That gets him reflecting on his life.

It’s been a full one but also one with considerable regrets. He’s the kind of guy who has a knack for screwing things up, particularly when it comes to love. He has been married three times — once for honor, once for money and once for love — and none has worked out quite the way he hoped.

A major reason is that he has a way of letting his sharp tongue take over when most people would yield to politeness and political correctness. (It’s a trait he picked up from his ex-cop pop, played by Dustin Hoffman, having loads of fun with the role.) That character flaw makes for some great shock-fueled laughs in Lewis’ film — Giamatti does full-on comic rage as well as anyone — but it makes for a disappointing love life for Barney.

The ladies, they don’t seem to be as amused by it as much as I am.

Beneath it all, though, he’s a sweet, soft-hearted guy. So when his heart aches, it’s hard not to feel for him, another testament to Giamatti’s talents. Given those emotional underpinnings and a timeline that covers 40 some-odd years, Barney’s Version boasts a faint but embraceable Benjamin Button quality, albeit absent the elegant fantasy elements.

But it isn’t all about love.

There are other factors at work, too. Early on, Lewis introduces a murder mystery, a thread that he plays out slowly, resolving it only as the film is concluding.

Also at work is a poignant surprise in the third act that serves to put an emotional bow on it all. It’s a lot of moving parts, and it gives Barney’s Version a slippery feel plot-wise.

But when you’ve got Giamatti in the lead role, you can get away with flaws.

Despite his Golden Globe, he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar this year — a major oversight on the part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. You shouldn’t make the same one.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Available on DVD: “Harvest”

Robert Loggia and Barbara Barrie in Harvest
“The one thing in life that really matters is family.” So declares Siv Monopoli (Robert Loggia), the dying 83-year-old patriarch of a southern Connecticut clan, to his grandson Josh (Jack T. Carpenter), in Marc Meyers’s film Harvest. When feeling his oats, Siv, a burly World War II veteran with a guilty secret, likes to announce that he is “cooking with gas,” but now there is almost none left.

Siv’s family-first credo may have been heard countless times through the ages, yet when he voices it late in Harvest, it has an emotional weight that forces you to consider its relevance to your own life. In the end, is that where our final loyalties belong, no matter what?

During this meticulously written and exquisitely acted film, you come to sense the bonds and the wounds binding three generations of Monopolis, who definitely love one another, but with reservations. If Harvest didn’t convey the complex reality of kinship so forcefully, it might be dismissed as yet another dysfunctional-family drama, to use a noxious cliché that I vow from this day hence to banish from my critical lexicon. Aren’t all families dysfunctional in varying degrees?

The Monopolis’ woes — ailing grandparents, sibling rivalry, treachery and suspicion in money matters — are every family’s issues, especially at life-and-death turning points. They live in a sprawling house in Madison, not far from New Haven. Siv’s former line of work is never stated beyond the mention of his once having a shoe business. Although they live comfortably enough, they are clearly not rich.

Meyers’s screenplay is the stronger for not straining to explain the grubby details of the family’s history beyond what leaks out during conversations. When other relatives who have gone unmentioned suddenly show up, their peripheral appearances speak for themselves.

Instead of factual details, Harvest concentrates on the psychological subtleties of the family’s day-to-day interactions during a time of crisis. The quality of the ensemble acting is astonishing. Remarks, pauses and fluid facial expressions are so minutely expressive that you often feel that you are observing real people in real time. Sustaining this level of verisimilitude through an entire film is impossible, but Harvest comes closer than most.

Besides Siv, who fights decrepitude and illness with every ounce of will, we meet his fluttery, hollow-eyed wife, Yetta (UT-grad Barbara Barrie), whose worsening dementia requires constant attention; his sons, Benny (Arye Gross) and Carmine (Peter Friedman); and his divorced daughter, Anna (Dallas-born Victoria Clark). Hovering around the house is Yetta’s Mexican caretaker, Rosita (Adriana Sevan), who is distracted from her duties by her affair with Benny.

The film’s point of view is evenly split between Siv’s and Josh’s. Siv seesaws from bursts of energy (in one scene he rides a bike into town and orders a meal that is forbidden in his dietary regimen) to agonizing setbacks when his cancer acts up, and he is bedridden, moaning and raving.

Josh, Anna’s son, who returns from college for the summer, is inexorably drawn into the simmering war between Benny, who has never left home, and Carmine, a local politician. If the screenplay barely begins to explain their history of bad blood, which has to do with loans, debts, powers of attorney and competition for Siv’s favor, you feel its depth. Beyond exalting the primacy of family, Siv, now facing the end, has begun preaching forgiveness. Josh, seizing grown-up responsibility for the first time in his life, slyly inserts himself into the fray.

A gentle, reflective score by Duncan Sheik and David Poe weaves in and out of the movie and effectively evokes Josh’s introspective mood.

Harvest offers fair warning for viewers who haven’t been through the process that the final disposition of family property is often an ugly moment of truth, when decades of stored emotional baggage suddenly explodes.

Another explosion takes place when Josh’s girlfriend, Tina (Christine Evangelista), arrives in Madison unannounced and demands that he leave with her. At the same time, Josh confronts his mother about how he was forced to take her side in the breakup of her marriage. As Anna, a woman stretched to the breaking point, Clark gives an understatedly wrenching performance.

For all the tensions bared in the story, there are no cheap tricks. The line separating persuasive domestic drama and showy histrionics is never breached. If this isn’t King Lear or Chekhov, Harvest shows the truth of life as it is lived, growing messier and more complicated as the days dwindle and last chances loom.

Another killer walks

Caylee Anthony
 I have no doubt O.J. Simpson killed his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, on the night of June 13, 1994. The prosecution in his trial proved its case, but the Simpson jury had its own anti-police agenda and decided to let the killer go free on Oct. 3, 1995. Well, free for a while I guess. A civil case did go against the murderer on Feb. 6, 1997, when a jury found the preponderance of the evidence existed to hold Simpson liable for the wrongful deaths of Nicole and her friend Ronald Goldman. In Simpson’s case, what goes around comes around in certain ways — he is currently serving a 33-year sentence in a Nevada prison on robbery and kidnapping charges. Ironically, he was convicted of those charges 13 years to the day he was acquitted of murdering his wife and Goldman.

I bring all this up because now, in another high-profile case, Casey Anthony, who murdered her 2-year-old daughter, was acquitted of those charges Tueday by a jury in Orlando, Fla.

There’s a host of differences in the Simpson case and that of Anthony’s, however. Simpson should have been convicted on the DNA evidence alone. But the Anthony’s prosecutors had no concrete evidence whatsoever, just a logical theory of what happened and a completely implausible version of what happened from Antony. She said she was home with her father were at home June 16, 2008, when they noticed her daughter, Caylee, was missing. After an exhaustive search, they found the child’s lifeless body floating in their swimming pool. She said her father covered up the child’s death by disposing of Caylee’s body in a nearby swamp. As would be expected, the father has vehemently denied this version of events.

The prosecution maintained that Casey wanted to be free to date and live “the sweet life” (she had the words “bella vita” tattooed on her shortly after Caylee’s disappearance andbefore her body was discovered six months later) but couldn’t with an infant to care for. Therefore, she chloroformed the child, stuck duct tape over her mouth and dumped her in the swamp. But all they had was that theory, no concrete evidence to connect her to the crime.

So now Casey is free — free to date, hit the bars, sign a lucrative book deal, live “bella vita,” while Caylee’s murderer goes unpunished and Simpson waits for 2017, the first year he is eligible for parole.

Perhaps there’s some kind of twisted moral to all this, but I’m not sure I can find it. Perhaps it is in the fact that the jury found her “not guilty,” but it takes another form of justice to determine whether she is “innocent.” I do know, however, I’m glad Casey is free if only because, had she been convicted, she would have been subject to the death penalty and I’m just as opposed to the state murdering parents as I am of parents murdering their children.

A not-so-well kept secret

Apparently Gov. Hair and No. 43 are anything but the best of buddies. That’s the first good thing I’ve had to say about 43 in many years.

Monday, July 4, 2011

2011's Best DVDs so far

The year is officially half over so I guess this is a good time to offer this list of the 25 best films reviewed on this journal during the first half of 2011. Repeating the criteria for films to be reviewed here:

  • Must be available on DVD
  • Must have received only a limited theatrical release or those, for whatever reason, that netted less than $10 million in domestic box office receipts
  • Were films I believe were worth a home viewing.
So here are the 25 best ones fitting that criteria for the first half of 2011 (clicking on the title will take you the trailer for each film). If you have not seen a film on this list, I highly recommend you go either here or here and rent yourself a copy.

The best film reviewed on this journal
 so far this year
1. Another Year. Directed by Mike Leigh. Starring Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen, Leslie Manville. Extracting big drama out of small events is Leigh’s forte, and with this latest little masterpiece, the English director pushes himself to the extreme.

2. Exit Through the Gift Shop. A documentary directed by Bansky. That rarest of art documentaries, one that actually leaves viewers with a better sense of the gifted versus the phony.

3. Blue Valentine. Directed by Derek Cianfrance. Starring Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams. A description of the film would sound depressing, but it is a reminder that well-measured and expertly acted pain is as thrilling to watch as a 3-D spectacle.

4. Dogtooth. Directed by Giorgos Lanthimos. How perfectly perverse: In a season crammed with sequels, remakes, ‘80s nostalgia and the frustrated sense of “What else y’got?” comes the most original nightmare in years.

5. Inside Job. A documentary directed by Charles Ferguson. Narrated by Matt Damon. This is a true-life heist movie, and the thieves not only got away with their billions, they’re still doing business. Pay attention and blow a gasket.

6. Animal Kingdom. Directed by David Michod. Starring Guy Pearce. A remarkable film, a gritty, gut-churning, crime thriller based on a true story. Its greatness lies in its unwavering fidelity to human nature and the unstoppable laws of the wild.

7. Rabbit Hole. Directed by John Cameron Mitchell. Starring Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest. Yet another film a description of which would sound depressing, although it isn’t. David Lindsay-Abaire presents a perceptive, subtly dark-humored adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

8. White Material. Directed by Claire Denis. Starring Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Lambert. A portrait, by turns chilling, thrilling, mysterious and terrifying, of a woman who refuses to be terrorized.

9. Fish Tank. Directed by Andrea Arnold. Starring Katie Jarvis, Keirston Wareing. With this film, Arnold deserves comparison with a British master director like Ken Loach.

10. Four Lions. Directed by Christopher Morris. While the film is likely to find outright rejection among those who remain jittery with each turn in the War Against Terror, it should find a warm reception with fans of dark, outrageous humor.

11. Somewhere. Directed by Sofia Coppola. Starring Elle Fanning, Stephen Dorff. A fascinating, mature, beautifully crafted work of art, from a director who continues to surprise me. Coppola has absorbed the Italian avant-garde more completely than her father ever did, and has made a film about celebrity in the vein of Antonioni and Bertolucci, a film about Hollywood in which she turns her back on it, possibly forever.

12. Everyone Else. Directed by Maren Ade. The intensity of observation reminded me of Bergman’s "Scenes From a Marriage," though of course played in a much more benign key. For the patient, the deliberate pacing is perfect, as each additional layer is quietly and subtly put in place.

13. Never Let Me Go. Directed by Mark Romanek. Starring Andrew Garfield, Carey Mulligan, Kiera Knightley. The drama boasts a stellar cast, exquisite performances and a tense atmosphere. It is a film that the fans of the popular novel and lovers of mature, measured storytelling will embrace.

14. Enter the Void. Directed by Gaspar Noe. Suffice to say, unrelenting material like this isn’t for everybody. That it is a gloriously filmic gesture — by turns jaw-dropping, elusive, silly, obnoxious, painful and beautiful — is celebration enough.

15. The Tillman Story. A documentary directed by Amir Bar-Lev. Throughout this taut, true epic, we see a smart, sometimes angry, always loving family find their destiny: to speak truth to power, to call wartime myths what they are and to show how the American character is not about blind obedience.

16. The Illusionist. An animated film directed by Sylvain Chomet. A handcrafted jewel of a movie, it understands the illusions that sustain us in youth and that we have to let slip in the end. It’s the rare work of art that cherishes both the magic and the trick.

17. Lebanon. Directed by Samuel Maoz. Offers a view of war that is anything but epic. Instead of sweeping battles and swooping fighter planes, we are brought into the impossibly claustrophobic world of a lone tank crew.

18. Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. Directed by Damien Chazelle. This film is at once self-conscious and breezy, clumsy and deft, diffident and sweet, annoying and ecstatic. It’s amateurish in the best sense, and it radiates cinephilia. Very few movies I’ve seen this year have given me more joy.

19. Get Low. Directed by Aaron Schneider. Starring Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek. Duvall’s character simply wants to host his own goodbye, maybe have a band, and the reasons why are the reasons this movie is essential viewing. That, and the acting.

20. Down Terrace. Directed by Ben Wheatley. This muted mobster story reminds us that the ties that bind can also gag you, garrote you and slowly deaden your soul.

21. I Love You, Phillip Morris. Directed by Glenn Ficarra. Starring Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor, Leslie Mann. Think "Catch Me If You Can" mashed up with "Brokeback Mountain" if Mel Brooks directed and you’ll get the idea.

22. Night Catches Us. Directed by Tanya Hamilton. Hamilton’s intellectually ambitious debut drama is all the more notable for setting well-drawn fictional characters in a fraught, real moment in civil rights history.

23. Monsters. Directed by Gareth Edwards. An amazing achievement for a first-time filmmaker, which measures up to the finest indies for performance and character-work, and the biggest blockbusters for jaw-dropping effects. And it has the year’s best sex scene, too.

24. Father of My Children. Directed by Mia Hansen-Love. A tale of cinema, a story about the agonies of trying to work outside the cinematic mainstream (even in France!). Yet what makes the movie so affecting is that it’s also a love story about a family.

25. Nowhere Boy. Directed by Sam Taylor-Wood. Starring Aaron Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas. By the end of this film, you’ll feel you know John Lennon better than you ever did.