Monday, October 31, 2011

Wash bears most of the blame for Rangers’ failure

I always thought the 1961 Texas Longhorn football team was the school’s best, at least until the 1969 National Championship squad. That ‘61 team was far superior to the one that won the national title two years later. It featured three running backs who were the best trio to ever — ever — play for the Horns at the same time: halfbacks James Saxton and Jack Collins along with fullback Ray Poage. The quarterback was Mike Cotten. There were games when all four rushed for more than 100 yards each.

Texas manager Ron Washington
After winning the Southwest Conference, they were scheduled to play Ole Miss in the Cotton Bowl. I attended all the practices leading up to that game. I didn’t have much else to do. It was the Christmas break period, but back then that break didn’t come between semesters and most professors loved to give major exams the first class session after the break. Not only that, I really had no place else to go. I was also a sportswriter for the school newspaper, The Daily Texan, which was daily in name only — it published five days a week during the regular school year and not at all during the Christmas break.

Anyway, I was out at one of the practices during the week leading up to the Cotton Bowl game and the offense ran this incredibly complex trick play that actually worked. After the practice, the two or three sportswriters who were there huddled around head coach Darrell Royal and asked him if he was going to use that play or one like it in the bowl game.

"Nah," he drawled. "You gotta dance with who brung ya," meaning the Horns were going to rely on the same dynamic running game that had been successful all season.

Now I immediately recognized that as I great quote and was silently screaming at the gods for not having a place to publish it. But it was published by the others who were there and it immediately became a sports truism and earned a permanent spot in sports lexicon.

I have been thinking a lot about that moment lately because if manager Ron Washington had followed it, the Texas Rangers might be the current reigning major league baseball champions.

For most of the season, reliever Neftali Feliz was the Rangers’ closer. It wasn’t Feliz’s fault that in the ninth inning of Game 6 Nelson Cruz badly misplayed a routine fly ball that allowed the Cardinals to score a pair of runs and send the game into extra innings. But then Josh Hamilton gave the team new life with a two-run homer in the top of the 10th.

Why wasn’t Feliz on the mound in the bottom of the 10th?

This is the crucial moment in the Series. There is no reason to protect Feliz for a game the next day that should never take place. You think the Yankees’ Joe Giraldi would have pulled Manny Riviera had he been in this situation? Not a chance. You gotta dance with who brung ya.

I have yet to see an explanation from Wash on why he lifted Feliz. I’m not sure anyone has posed the question. I just hope general manager Josh Daniels and majority owner Nolan Ryan bring it up in their post-season interviews with Washington and that they receive an answer that warrants keeping Wash around another year as the Rangers skipper.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The “You-Don’t-Say” Dumb Headline of the Month Award

This month it goes to the jump headline in Sunday’s "Arts & Life" section of the Dallas Morning News on a story about film critic Roger Ebert’s recently published autobiography: "Ebert is a writer, too".

My Top 25 College Football Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  LSU 8-0 (1)
2.  Alabama 8-0 (2)
3.  Oklahoma State 8-0 (3)
4.  Oklahoma 7-1 (6)
5.  Stanford 8-0 (5)
6.  Boise State 7-0 (4)
7.  Oregon 7-1 (7)
8.  Nebraska 7-1 (20)
9.  South Carolina 7-1 (13)
10. Michigan 7-1 (16)
11. Clemson 7-1 (8)
12. Arkansas 7-1 (15)
13. Houston 8-0 (19)
14. Virginia Tech 8-1 (14)
15. Wisconsin 6-2 (12)
16. Kansas State 7-1 (9)
17. Texas 5-2 (24)
18. Arizona State 6-2 (18)
19. Georgia 6-2 (21)
20. USC 6-2 (17)
21. Michigan State 6-2 (11)
22. Texas A&M 5-3 (10)
23. Penn State 8-1 (22)
24. Southern Mississippi 7-1 (NEW)
25. Notre Dame 5-3 (25)
Dropped out: Texas Tech

Thursday, October 27, 2011

If I were an all-day college football couch potato

Here are the games I would watch this Saturday:
11 a.m. Michigan State at Nebraska, ESPN
2:30 p.m. Oklahoma at Kansas State, ESPN
7 p.m., Stanford at Southern California, Channel 8

Available on DVD: “Carlos”

Edgar Ramirez in the title role in Carlos
The term "epic" often gets bandied around to describe movies that don’t really fit the description. But Olivier Assayas’ Carlos is the real deal — a 5½-hour narrative, with more than 100 speaking parts, in eight languages, covering two decades in the life of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (Edgar Ramirez), better known as the terrorist Carlos the Jackal. Born in Venezuela, educated in Cuba and Moscow, and devoted to Marxism, Carlos — Ilich’s self-imposed nom de guerre — begins his career as a hard line idealist, aligning himself with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) as a way to strike a blow against western Imperialism, the enemy he proclaimed to be his life-long foe.

Beginning with a literal bang in 1973 Paris, when a car bomb takes out a PLFP agent, Carlos delves deep into the ignominious career of its titular subject. Although director Assayas (Irma Vep, Demonlover, Summer Hours), continuing to display a wholly unpredictable artistic palette, opens with the film with a title card labeling it as a work of fiction, a lot of what we see — the day-to-day machinations of grassroots terrorism, the exploitation of small-time criminals by world superpowers, the precise methods to carry out kidnapping raids — has the ring of documentary truth.

Big chunks of the film are devoted to some of Ilich’s most notorious assassinations, bombings and crimes, such as his siege on the OPEC delegation in 1975 Vienna on the orders of his PFLP commander Wadid Haddad (Ahmad Kaabour), rumored to have been handed down by Saddam Hussein. The raid and ensuing hostage standoff consume nearly 90 minutes of screen time — practically a stand-alone movie — but Assayas’ extended and detailed re-enactment places you inside that horrible room, and later in an airplane sitting on a runway, as the tension mounts and the terrorists must contend with the reality that their demands are not going to be met.

Ramirez, in a bravura performance that was unjustly but predictably ignored by Oscar voters, doesn’t so much put us inside Ilich’s head as make us bask in the man’s vanity and grandeur (the pop music artists heard during certain montages, from The Feelies to New Order, are part of the soundtrack playing inside his self-enamored head). The movie also details Ilich’s multitude of romantic relationships, the most critical being his marriage to German revolutionary Magdalena Kopp (Nora von Waldsatten), who refused to be manhandled the way Ilich liked to treat his women.

His world view is a frightening one — a volatile landscape in which heads of state negotiate with terrorists, the same way the CIA has been known to cooperate with revolutionaries. When the head of the KGB meets with Ilich and other members of his group and promises "unlimited financial support" to whoever can assassinate Egyptian president Anwar El Sadat, you see these criminals for what they really are: Pawns used by forces that could squash them in an instant, but instead employ them to shovel their dirt.

Ilich either doesn’t realize he’s being used or intentionally takes a half-full approach, using the offer as a validation of his own righteousness. Working alongside German terrorist cells and the Japanese Red Army, he’s constantly spouting ideology that eventually begins to sound like anti-Semitism. He uses his political stance to mask his hatred, yet remains a charismatic and fascinating figure — a seductive hypocrite.

Originally made as a French TV miniseries to be shown in three parts, Carlos was released theatrically in the United States as one long film, a la Che, a man whose ethics and image Ilich aspires to, right down to the iconic beret. (The Criterion DVD release restores it to three parts.) But Ilich lacked the Argentine revolutionary’s conviction: Guevara would have never whined "I’m a soldier! I’m not a martyr!" when backed into a corner in which the only options were suicide or defeat.

A shorter cut of the movie, running 2 hours and 45 minutes, was also distributed to some theaters, but part of the accomplishment of Carlos is the sheer accumulation of detail the full movie amasses, and the longer running time gives you a deeper sense of the terrorist lifestyle, and when and why Ilich gradually succumbed to ego and self-glorification without realizing it. By the end of Carlos, the once-proud and vain warrior who stood naked in front of a mirror, admiring himself, has been reduced to a fat nobody, persona non grata the world over, crippled by a testicular condition and treated like a common thug — which is, for all his pomposity, exactly what he was, really. He just got lucky a few times.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Herb Wyans comes out of the closet. Any way we can stuff him back in?

I’m not sure what to make of Herb Wynans of Denton. Either the guy is dumber than someone who thinks Bucky Larson: Born to be a Star is good movie or more completely out of touch than someone who sat through Bucky Larson and enjoyed it.

One thing’s for sure: Herb Wynans is a racist.

But is he aware of that? That’s the crucial question. I know this, however: By having this letter appear on the editorial page of today’s Dallas Morning News, I’m not sure any of his oars reach the water:

"Whenever I visit my local Walmart, I’m struck by the number of Hispanics I typically see. And even more striking is the abundance of young Hispanic women, either pregnant or pushing a basketful of bambinos. I automatically think: illegals, anchor babies, America’s generosity and tax dollars being taken advantage of.

I wonder, God forbid, does this make me a racist?"

Two questions. First, Herb, why do you even ask the question? Second, Morning News, what public good did you think you were serving by printing this letter from this racist?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Not buying LaRussa’s communications story

St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa is blaming this for last night’s World Series loss to the Texas Rangers. Here’s what happened: Right-handed hitting Texas catcher Mike Napoli hit a two-run double in the eighth inning off left-handed reliever Marc Rzepczynski to break a 2-2 tie — the last runs scored in the game.

Mike Napoli
LaRussa claims Rzepczynski shouldn’t have been in the game at the moment, that the bullpen coach warmed up and sent in the wrong pitcher. He said the crowd noise at Rangers Stadium was so intense that the bullpen coach couldn’t hear LaRussa’s instructions over the phone connecting the bullpen with the dugout. (Rangers Stadium is constructed in such a way that you can’t see what’s happening in the visiting team’s bullpen from its dugout, but that’s just one of the reason it’s called "a home field advantage." Another reason is local crowd noise.)

But I digress. There are those who say LaRussa is throwing his bullpen coach under the bus. One St. Louis columnist quoted someone in the Cardinals’ bullpen as saying LaRussa’s account "is not what happened."

But even if I give LaRussa the benefit of the doubt, I’m not buying his story. This is the World Series. This is the time when you wear both a belt and suspenders. The crowd noise/bullpen issue probably wasn’t much of a concern in the blowout Game 3, but I’m betting it was there in Game 4, which the Rangers also won. I have to believe that LaRussa meets with all his coaches after each game to discuss issues/problems and what can be done to address them. If the crowd noise was that much of an issue, it should have been discussed after Game 4 and addressed then.

But back to my "belt and suspenders" comment. Even if the noise wasn’t discussed, LaRussa, if he’s the genius who thinks of all angles like we’ve been led to believe, should have come up with a simple plan, telling his bullpen coach: "When I call you, be sure to repeat what I’ve told you. If you don’t hear anything from me, it means I have hung up because you heard me correctly. If you still hear my voice, that means get out your cell phone because I’m about to text you."

But Napoli did more than hit the crucial double. I thought his signature play was in the ninth inning when Rangers closer Neftali Feliz hit Allen Craig on a 1-2 pitch bringing Albert Pujols, the best hitter in the game today, to the plate as the tying run. But Felix not only struck out Pujols on a 3-2 pitch, but Napoli gunned down Craig trying to advance to second for a double play to empty the bases. (Napoli also threw out Craig in the seventh with Pujols at the plate in what was later described as a botched hit-and-run called by Pujols, not the coaches.)

By the way, has anyone else noticed how the won-loss pattern in this World Series is mirroring the W-L pattern of the NBA championship series? When the Rangers win this Series in six, I can’t see anyone other than Napoli being named the Most Valuable Player.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

My Top 25 College Football Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  LSU 8-0 (2)
2.  Alabama 8-0 (1)
3.  Oklahoma State 7-0 (5)
4.  Boise State 7-0 (4)
5.  Stanford 7-0 (6)
6.  Oklahoma 6-1 (3)
7.  Oregon 6-1 (9)
8.  Clemson 8-0 (8)
9.  Kansas State 7-0 (10)
10. Texas A&M 5-2 (11)
11. Michigan State 6-1 (18)
12. Wisconsin 6-1 (7)
13. South Carolina 6-1 (13)
14. Virginia Tech 7-1 (15)
15. Arkansas 6-1 (12)
16. Michigan 6-1 (14)
17. Southern California 6-1 (New)
18. Arizona State 5-2 (20)
19. Houston 7-0 (23)
20. Nebraska 6-1 (16)
21. Georgia 5-2 (22)
22. Penn State 7-1 (19)
23. Texas Tech 5-2 (New)
24. Texas 4-2 (21)
25. Notre Dame 4-3 (24)
Dropped Out: West Virginia, Auburn

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Available on DVD: “Bride Flight”

Waldemar Torenstra and Anna Drijver in Bride Flight
Bride Flight is a retro, lusty bodice-ripper about Dutch emigrants to New Zealand after World War II. One man, three women, and the secrets that bind and come between them are the subjects of this one about pioneers who leave their war-ravaged country for the island nation to build a future.

The film introduces its principals midflight into a historic air race from Europe to the Antipodes. The human cargo on the Dutch plane includes women bound for Wellington to meet their fiances, hence the movie’s title.

There is the flirty Esther (Anna Drijver), a fashion designer who has lost her family in Nazi concentration camps. There is the sensible Marjorie (Elise Schaap), already planning how many children she will have. And there is the shy Ada (Karina Smulders), a voluptuous blonde who catches the eye of Frank (Waldemar Torenstra), a farmer who has lost his family — Dutch colonials in Indonesia — in Japanese concentration camps.

The beauty of the actors and the ravishing landscape of New Zealand goes a long way to make Ben Sombogaart’s sudsy film so eminently watchable. But it’s fair to say that, despite an indiscretion or three, the characters don’t develop much beyond our first impressions.

Still, one should never discount the appeal of pretty people in pretty places. This, even though Bride Flight’s plot is reminiscent of the hoary 1950 women’s film Three Secrets.

Like that film, Bride Flight is schmaltz with illicit sex. For men of a certain age, there’s the added attraction of ample female nudity. For women of a certain age, there’s the bonus of Frank, played by Torenstra, a handsome hunk of Gouda, maturing into Rutger Hauer.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Want more representation on the council? Then vote!

I’m sorry, but I have absolutely no sympathy with Hispanic activists demanding another seat on the Dallas City Council when the Hispanic community doesn’t participate in the electoral process. For whatever reason, Hispanics don’t vote proportionately to their population. Some say much of the Hispanic population in the city is too young, below the voting age. That could be true. Others say much of the population is illegal and can’t vote. That could be true also. I would also argue that recent Republican efforts to depress voting by minorities — namely the requirement to show photo identification — will accomplish exactly what these racists want.

But representation should be based on voting strength. In its latest redistricting effort, the City Council created one district with a 75 percent Hispanic population. The activists claim a Hispanic can’t win in this district and they are probably right. But that’s not the fault of those drawing the map. I can’t see the Justice Department agreeing with the argument that a district that is 75 percent Hispanic is a non-Hispanic district.

Instead of wearing ridiculous T-shirts and protesting at City Hall, former city councilman and head activist Domingo Garcia should be initiating voter education programs and registration drives among his constituency. Initiate grassroots get-out-the-vote campaigns. Recruit talented Hispanic leaders such as Domingo’s wife and Delia Jasso, place them before this now-educated and voter-savvy constituency and keep getting them elected.

The recently redistricted city council map contains four districts with a majority Hispanic population: District 1 with 74.19%; District 2 with 56.1%; District 5 with 65.57%; and District 6 with 64.55%. African-Americans have only three districts in which they are a population majority and one of them is by the slimmest of margins: District 4 with 59.36%; District 7 with 50.76%; and District 8 with 60.57%. Yet, according to all the "experts," African-Americans are guaranteed four seats on the City Council. Why? Because African-Americans know they will send enough voters to the polls to win a seat (District 3) in which they comprise 45.19% of the population. Yet Hispanics claim they can’t win District 1. That’s their fault, not the demographers’.

But now the Hispanic activists are yelling for five council seats, something even Garcia, who was on the redistricting committee, couldn’t figure out how to accomplish and remain with the voting population guidelines for each district. The Hispanic population is too geographically dispersed to create a fifth district and have that district pass Justice Department muster. In four other districts in which they are not a majority — districts 3, 4, 7, and 9 — Hispanics comprise at least a third of the population and I’m betting those numbers will increase.

The seats are out there for the taking. But the way democracy works is quite simple: the one with the most votes wins.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

No. 1 on my Must See list

Alexander Payne
Everyone has their own choices, but if you asked me what movie I’m most looking forward to seeing, it would have to be this one. I say this for a couple of reasons. First: I’m a big fan of writer/director Alexander Payne. His Sideways was not only the best movie the year it was released, it was the best movie of the first decade of this century. His Election is an underrated masterpiece and About Schmidt is an absolute gem. Second: I’m going to come out of the closet and admit I’m also partial to movies starring George Clooney. The man is an excellent actor (right now he’s the favorite to win the best actor Oscar for this role) and he has an overpowering screen presence. He’s the first "movie star" since the days of Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, et al. Yep, there’s not another film on the horizon I’m more anxious to see.

Monday, October 17, 2011

My Top 25 College Football Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Alabama 7-0 (1)
2.  LSU 7-0 (3)
3.  Oklahoma 6-0 (2)
4.  Boise State 6-0 (4)
5.  Oklahoma State 6-0 (5)
6.  Stanford 6-0 (7)
7.  Wisconsin 6-0 (6)
8.  Clemson 7-0 (9)
9.  Oregon 5-1 (10)
10. Kansas State 6-0 (17)
11. Texas A&M 4-2 (21)
12. Arkansas 5-1 (11)
13. South Carolina 6-1 (15)
14. Michigan 6-1 (8)
15. Virginia Tech 6-1 (25)
16. Nebraska 5-1 (19)
17. West Virginia 5-1 (18)
18. Michigan State 5-1 (New)
19. Penn State 6-1 (22)
20. Arizona State 5-2 (14)
21. Texas 4-2 (16)
22. Georgia 5-2 (24)
23. Houston 6-0 (New)
24. Notre Dame 4-2 (20)
25. Auburn 5-2 (New)
Dropped Out: Georgia Tech, Illinois, Baylor

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Available on DVD: “True Legend”

Vincent Zhao in True Legend
The ’90s were a heyday for kung-fu freaks, as Hong Kong continued to pump out top-shelf actioners while American video stores helped fans catch up with the classics of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. Since the turn of the millennium, the genre hasn’t been as vital, perhaps because Hollywood has plundered some of the best HK moves and talent, or perhaps because an overemphasis on repeating old stories and styles has sapped some excitement. Both those issues are in play with True Legend, a muddled re-hash of several familiar kung-fu epics, directed by Yuen Woo-ping, a Hong Kong veteran who recently spent a lot of time as an action coordinator for big American movies, and seems to have come away with the lesson that spectacle trumps storytelling.

True Legend stars Vincent Zhao as a warrior who retires from the battlefield to get married and start a wu shu school, but has his idyllic life shattered when his adopted brother Andy On beats him nearly to death — with the help of his literally poisonous "Five Venom Fists" technique — and kidnaps his son. So Zhao retreats into alcoholism and despair, until his industrious wife (Zhou Xun) and his imaginary master, "The God Of Wu Shu," whip him into shape for a rematch. Then the movie tacks on a bizarre third act that sees Zhao using his "drunken fighting" technique in a series of matches staged for decadent colonialists. True Legend weaves the fantastical, the technique-driven, and the historical sides of kung fu movies together with wire-work. It practically defines the term "warmed over."

Still, anyone who fondly remembers the kung-fu glory years will likely get a nostalgic rush from True Legend, and not just because of the cameo appearances by Michelle Yeoh, Gordon Liu, and David Carradine. The movie is wall-to-wall action, and features an eye-popping image roughly every 10 minutes: warriors clinging to the underside of a hanging bridge with claw-gloves; On’s veins and skin turning blackish-purple with venom; On’s body-armor, which is made of gold and has been sewn into his skin; Zhao using a sword to deflect the tiny flying daggers thrown by the costumed "Iron Twins"; Zhao fighting on a slippery rail by a rushing river; and so on. True Legend’s heart is in the right place. It’s just the body that’s weary.

Republican serial killers

Macreconomic Advisers, an independent economic group, estimated President Obama’s Jobs Bill would create 1.2 million jobs next year alone. A similar organization, Moody’s Analytics, forecast job growth from the bill at 1.9 million. 70 U.S. mayors, including Dallas Mayor Mike, supported the legislation with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigoso saying "The plan includes common-sense ideas which have historically been supported by both parties. It would invest in infrastructure jobs, keep teachers in the classroom, and help businesses hire more workers."

So what do Congressional Republicans do? They kill the legisation and offer nothing in its place.

Fourteen million Americans are out of work, wages are falling, poverty is rising and many are forecasting the coming of a second recession. And the Republicans, who care only about removing the first black President from office, refuse to do anything to help. Their only response is "cut regulations and everything will magically be okay." Cutting regulations does nothing to put people back to work. It’s all talk and no action.

This is criminal.

The last Republican presidential debate — the one earlier this week in New Hampshire — was supposed to be about the state of the economy, but what they debated had nothing to do with the economy that exists in America today. There was Herman Cain’s absolutely asinine "9-9-9" plan that would do nothing but cut taxes for the rich, increase them for the poor, raise the national debt and have absolutely no effect on economic growth.

Then along comes Gov. Hair who is so out of touch he thinks the entire country should have an environment as dirty as we have here in Texas by proposing to drill oil wells on every acre in America.

Was Obama’s bill the panacea to completely rescue the economy to the level it was before No. 43 and his Wall Street cadre destroyed it? No, but at least it was a solid plan combining a middle-class tax break and public works projects that would have created actual jobs and given the economy a needed jolt.

I just hope the American people are smart enough to realize who is coming up with solid plans to revive the economy and who is systematically killing them.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Who is this guy?

I’m not that familiar with former Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida, but I must admit I really love this guy after watching this clip of him explaining Occupy Wall Street. See for yourself.

Major Oscar predictions for the second week in October

All predictions lifted alphabetically.
The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
J. Edgar
The Help
Midnight in Paris
War Horse

Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
Clint Eastwood, J. Edgar
Michael Hazanabvicus, The Artist
Alexander Payne, The Descendants
Steven Spielberg, War Horse

George Clooney, The Descendants
Leonardo DiCaprio, J. Edgar
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Brad Pitt, Moneyball

Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis, The Help
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Charlize Theron, Young Adult
Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn

Kenneth Branaugh, My Week With Marilyn
Jim Broadbent, The Iron Lady
Albert Brooks, Drive
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Max Von Sydow, Extremely Loud and Dangerously Close

Bérénice Bejo, The Artist
Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life
Vanessa Redgrave, Coriolanus
Octavia Spencer, The Help
Shailene Woodley, The Descendants

Monday, October 10, 2011

Voter fraud is a myth

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

It has been a record year for new legislation designed to make it harder for Democrats to vote — 19 laws and two executive actions in 14 states dominated by Republicans, according to a new study by the Brennan Center for Justice. As a result, more than five million eligible voters will have a harder time participating in the 2012 election.
Of course the Republicans passing these laws never acknowledge their real purpose, which is to turn away from the polls people who are more likely to vote Democratic, particularly the young, the poor, the elderly and minorities. They insist that laws requiring government identification cards to vote are only to protect the sanctity of the ballot from unscrupulous voters. Cutting back on early voting, which has been popular among working people who often cannot afford to take off from their jobs on Election Day, will save money, they claim.

None of these explanations are true. There is almost no voting fraud in America. And none of the lawmakers who claim there is have ever been able to document any but the most isolated cases. The only reason Republicans are passing these laws is to give themselves a political edge by suppressing Democratic votes.
The most widespread hurdle has been the demand for photo identification at the polls, a departure from the longstanding practice of using voters’ signatures or household identification like a utility bill. Seven states this year have passed laws requiring strict photo ID to vote, and similar measures were introduced in 27 other states. More than 21 million citizens — 11 percent of the population — do not have government ID cards. Many of them are poor, or elderly, or black and Hispanic and could have a hard time navigating the bureaucracy to get a card.

In Kansas, the secretary of state, Kris Kobach (who also wrote Arizona’s notorious anti-immigrant law), pushed for an ID law on the basis of a list of 221 reported instances of voter fraud in Kansas since 1997. Even if that were true, it would be an infinitesimal percentage of the votes cast during that period, but it is not true.

When The Wichita Eagle looked into the local cases on the list, the newspaper found that almost all were honest mistakes: a parent trying to vote for a student away at college, or signatures on mail-in ballots that didn’t precisely match those on file. In one case of supposed “fraud,” a confused non-citizen was asked at the motor vehicles bureau whether she wanted to fill out a voter registration form, and did so not realizing she was ineligible to vote.

Some of the desperate Republican attempts to keep college students from voting are almost comical in their transparent partisanship. No college ID card in Wisconsin meets the state’s new stringent requirements (as lawmakers knew full well), so the elections board proposed that colleges add stickers to the cards with expiration dates and signatures. Republican lawmakers protested that the stickers would lead to — yes, voter fraud.
Other states are beginning to require documentary proof of citizenship to vote, or are finding other ways to make it harder to register. Some are cutting back on programs allowing early voting, or imposing new restrictions on absentee ballots, alarmed that early voting was popular among black voters supporting Barack Obama in 2008. In all cases, they are abusing the trust placed in them by twisting democracy’s machinery to partisan ends.
© 2011 New York Times

My Top 25 College Football Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis. AP rank in brackets
1.  Alabama 6-0 (1) [2]
2.  Oklahoma 5-0 (2) [3]
3.  LSU 6-0 (3) [1]
4.  Boise State 5-0 (4) [5]
5.  Oklahoma State 5-0 (5) [6]
6.  Wisconsin 5-0 (8) [4]
7.  Stanford 5-0 (6) [7]
8.  Michigan 6-0 (9) [11]
9.  Clemson 6-0 (7) [8]
10. Oregon 4-1 (11) [9]
11. Arkansas 5-1 (16) [10]
12. Georgia Tech 6-0 (12) [12]
13. Illinois 6-0 (17) [16]
14. Arizona State 5-1 (22) [18]
15. South Carolina 5-1 (15) [15]
16. Texas 4-1 (10) [22]
17. Kansas State 5-0 (23) [17]
18. West Virginia 5-1 (20) [13]
19. Nebraska 5-1 (13) [14]
20. Notre Dame 4-2 (19) [NR]
21. Texas A&M 3-2 (25) [21]
22. Penn State 5-1 (New) [NR]
23. Baylor 4-1 (New) [20]
24. Georgia 4-2 (New) [NR]
25. Virginia Tech 5-1 (21) [19]
Dropped Out: Florida, Auburn, Washington

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Available on DVD: “Incendies”

Lubna Azabal and Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin in Incendies
Now this is how you adapt a play for the screen. Not by opening up the action in extraneous, travelogue-minded ways. But by burrowing so deeply into the characters’ psyches, their discoveries become your own and at some point you realize you’re watching a better film than any you’ve seen in many months.

The source material is the play Scorched (2003) by Wajdi Mouawad, a Lebanese-born theater artist who emigrated to Quebec and then Montreal. Brilliantly adapted, his play has become the Oscar-nominated drama Incendies by writer-director Denis Villeneuve. Both play and movie owe a debt to the Sophoclean tragedy Oedipus Rex. It’s a testament to the effectiveness of Mouawad’s story, taking place in a Montreal-like city as well as an unnamed Middle Eastern country resembling Lebanon, that once you’re hit with its enormous, logic-stretching revelation you’re emotionally prepared to follow these people anywhere.

Incendies is no mere riff on a Greek mainstay. It is its own entity, delicate and fierce. Already I’ve risked making it sound like homework. It’s not; it’s an enthralling drama of survival. It begins simply, with a meeting of siblings. Grown twins Jeanne and Simon are told by a notary that their late mother’s will requires them to deliver two sealed and utterly mysterious envelopes, one to their father (presumed dead but very much alive), the other to a brother they didn’t realize existed.

This requires a trip to the homeland of their mother, Nawal. Her early life was never much discussed. Incendies gradually illustrates the reasons, weaving an intricate web of flashbacks, revealing more and more about Nawal’s early pregnancy, her promise to track down her lost son, her involvement in one corner of her country’s latest civil war. There is only one way Nawal’s children can learn enough to become whole beings: by digging further and further back into the past.

Guiding the performances with an unerring hand, director Villeneuve removes all traces of schematics from Incendies. Two performances are key. As Jeanne, the haunting Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin is an ideal audience-identification figure; even when the narrative events practically goad the performers into overstatement, she’s there, quietly, holding back enough to pull us forward into every scene to which her character pays witness. Nawal is portrayed by Lubna Azabal, who conceals so much behind war-ravaged eyes, she rivets the attention even without saying a word.

As a six-year-old boy, playwright Mouawad witnessed a brutal attack by Christian militiamen on a bus carrying unarmed Palestinians outside Beirut. This was in retaliation for the unprovoked killing of a Christian outside a church. The revenge slaughter ignited a full-scale war. In Incendies, a variation on this horrific scene becomes a piece of Nawal’s puzzle. Every detail in the scene, as arranged and framed by Villeneuve (note the selectively unrealistic use of sound), adds to the impact without cheapening the visceral effect. Human beings do things like this every day, somewhere. Not monsters. Men.

The original play runs three hours, and its English-language version often groans under the weight of its brand of poetic language. The movie, nearly an hour shorter, moves like water and uses only as many words as needed to keep us oriented (some of the past/present jumps risk confusion) and ever-more compelled by Nawal’s destiny. The opening shot of Incendies shows a group of boys getting their heads shaved, presumably by those training them for a life of terrorism. One boy’s eyes, fixed on the camera, are not easy to forget. Nothing in this remarkable drama is.

Thoughts for the weekend and beyond

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Good news for the Big 12

I’m glad to see the talk today is about TCU joining the Big 12 and not about another school leaving it. Now if Missouri will come to its senses, we can settle back down to a nice, albeit misnamed, 10-team league.

TCU will be an excellent competitor in football and baseball. Not so sure how the Frogs will stand up in basketball. We’ll just have to see.

The two obvious losers in this scenario are the Big East, which now has lost three football teams in a month, and SMU, whose active campaign to get into the Big 12 appears to have been rejected.

TCU, on the other hand, never belonged in the Big East in the first place. It would be like Texas joining the Atlantic Coast Conference or Texas A&M thinking it could compete in the SEC.

Downey as Perry Mason

Raymond Burr as Perry Mason
Ribert Downey Jr.
Variety is reporting that Robert Downey Jr. is getting together with Warner Bros. to make a movie in which Downey will star as Perry Mason. According to the article, the film will be set in the 1930s; that means it could have more of a Chinatown feel than the popular B&W TV series did. Here’s hoping Downey doesn’t decide to subvert the Mason character the same way he did Sherlock Holmes. For those under 50 who are wondering who the hell I’m talking about, take a look at this.

“My Week With Marilyn” trailer

A couple of things came to mind as I watched this trailer. One, it reminded me of My Favorite Year because of its apparent young-kid-gets-to-chaperone-movie-star theme. Second (and I know I’m in the minority on this) I don’t think Michelle Williams captures either the look or, more importantly, the essence of Marilyn Monroe.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Meet the new boss, the same as the old boss

I stand corrected on my previous coalition statement.

The Dallas City Council redistricting process came to a swift and sudden end around 8:15 p.m. when the council voted 9-6 to accept Mayor Mike’s compromise map, which, at first blush, appears to have redistricted Delia Jasso, the primary author of a competing map, off the council. Voting against the proposal were the white Tea Party advocates and the Latinos on the council. The map was supported by the African Americans and other whites on the council. Interesting breakdown.

Although Jasso’s District 1 still has a predominantly Hispanic population, it now includes the North Oak Cliff areas of Kessler Park and Stevens Park who vote en masse to make sure they are not represented by a person of color.

So now the prospects are that the next council will look just like the previous ones: three Hispanics, four African Americans, seven whites.

Sarah Palin decides not to run

And the civilized world breathes a collective sigh of relief. The downside, of course, is that we won't have that many brilliantly funny moments from Tina Fey this election cycle.

Dallas City Council: It’s now White + Latino vs. African Americans

The redistricting process currently going on at the Dallas City Council proves we have a different realignment on that body. On one side you have the white and Latino council members. On the other, you have the four African American members. The ultimate prize is who gets the most seats on a redistricted council.

The African Americans (along with Mayor Mike, I should add) are fighting to retain their four council seats. Currently seven seats are held by whites. They are willing to reduce that number by one, but only one. Latinos, who currently represent the largest segment of Dallas’ population want five places on the council. That adds up to 15 council seats. Only problem with that is there are only 14 available. So who’s going to give?

The white/Latino group submitted its proposed council redistricting map to the city. The African American representatives submitted theirs. During today’s city council meeting, at which council members are supposed to approve a map, Mayor Mike, in another of his brilliant moves, picked one person from each group (Delia Jasso for the W/Ls and Tennell Atkins for the AAs), locked them in a room with him and said "Let’s come up with a compromise." Within 45 minutes they had.

Then the full council reconvened, theoretically to discuss the compromise map. But they didn’t. Led by council members Angela Hunt and Scott Griggs and later joined by Sandy Greyson, they went off on an irrelevant argument about the process, saying they weren’t involved in the discussion. Give me a break. By refusing to talk about the map that was presented, they took themselves out of the discussion. They should not blame others for what they are doing to themselves. But blaming others is quickly becoming Griggs’ MO and Greyson, who, like Griggs, is a Tea Party advocate, will find a way to align herself with him on just about everything. I thought Hunt was more intelligent than she’s acting here, but her track record on the council shows glaring inconsistencies in that area.

Look, if you don’t like the map, then make suggested changes to it and see how the rest of the council reacts. That’s the way the system works.

Mayor Mike, who is rapidly becoming my all time favorite Dallas mayor (and that admission really surprises me as well — I mistakenly didn’t think he had this type of leadership in him), currently has the council in recess so all of them can study the new map.

Prediction: It will be voted down because the W/L faction has more votes than the AA faction and finally the W/L proposed map will be approved. I won’t be all that happy with it — fairness should come into play here — but when fairness butts heads with power struggles, power wins out every time. If you don’t believe me, just look at the mess going on in Washington.

One final nod to a dying breed: the great newspaper columnist

Jimmy Breslin as I knew him
I first met Jimmy Breslin when I was a tragically underpaid and underappreciated war correspondent in Vietnam and he was a New York columnist of great renown on a two-week material gathering mission. Over drinks one night at some long forgotten Saigon dive he told me to look him up if I ever got back to New York City. He even gave me his card.

Now I have no idea how many struggling newspapermen he gave cards to on his many excursions into the taverns of this world, but this one decided to take him up on his offer when I made back to New York two years later. By then he was a columnist for the World Journal Tribune, perhaps the world’s greatest all-time writer’s newspaper. Red Smith was on the paper’s sports staff. Art Buchwald was one of its Washington columnists. But Breslin was the man and he got me a job at the paper. Admittedly, it was not much of a job — I was covering sports played by Hofstra College — but I was working among the giants.

I quickly learned that whenever any major story broke in New York City, Breslin knew exactly the right New York City bar where he could get the complete story.

One day we all went to work and the paper was padlocked. There we were, all of us out of a job with little warning (OK, there were clear signs of an imminent collapse, but we ignored them). I remember sitting around table with Breslin and about seven other Trib writers at one of Breslin’s favorite taverns discussing what we were going to do with our lives. I made the mistake of saying out loud what I was actually thinking — that I might return to school to get my journalism degree. Breslin was apoplectic. He told me he education corrupts great writers, that he had ended his formal education at the sixth grade and he was doing OK. (He would go on to more than just "doing OK." He wrote one of my all-time favorite novels, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, and he teamed up with Norman Mailer in an unsuccessful attempt to relocate his residence to Gracie Mansion.

I really liked and admired Breslin. So it was nice to see his name today when I ran across this list of the 10 best all time newspaper columns. (Hey! Molly Ivins is No. 4 on the list) It was a piece about the day President Kennedy was buried. It was written two years before I met Breslin in Vietnam, but it illustrates why newspapers are dying today. Not only do we not have columnists like Breslin writing columns like this anymore, we don’t have newspaper readers with the intellect and the patience to read them.

I get choked up just looking at the trailer

Just try to convince me this isn't an Oscar contender. I still say the race is between War Horse and The Descendants and as much as I would like to see Alexander Payne recognized, this horse looks tough to beat.

Monday, October 3, 2011

My Top 25 College Football Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis. AP rank in brackets.
1.  Alabama 5-0 (1) [2]
2.  Oklahoma 4-0 (3) [3]
3.  LSU 5-0 (2) [1]
4.  Boise State 4-0 (5) [5]
5.  Oklahoma State 4-0 (4) [6]
6.  Stanford 4-0 (6) [7]
7.  Clemson 5-0 (16) [8]
8.  Wisconsin 5-0 (10) [4]
9.  Michigan 5-0 (12) [12]
10. Texas 4-0 (17) [11]
11. Oregon 3-1 (13) [9]
12. Georgia Tech 5-0 (19) [13]
13. Nebraska 4-1 (8) [14]
14. Florida 4-1 (9) [17]
15. South Carolina 4-1 (7) [18]
16. Arkansas 4-1 (25) [10]
17. Illinois 5-0 (18) [19]
18. Auburn 4-1 (New) [15]
19. Notre Dame 3-2 (23) (NR)
20. West Virginia 4-1 (New) [16]
21. Virginia Tech 4-1 (11) [21]
22. Arizona State 4-1 (20) [22]
23. Kansas State 4-0 (New) [20]
24. Washington 4-1 (New) (NR)
25. Texas A&M 2-2 (15) [24]
Dropped Out: South Florida, Baylor, TCU, Penn State

Available on DVD: “Meek’s Cutoff”

Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan and Michelle Williams in Meek's Cutoff
The first thing you see in Meek’s Cutoff, after a hand-scrawled title card placing the action in the Oregon Territory in 1845, is a small group of settlers fording a river. It’s a treacherous, tedious undertaking, and Kelly Reichardt, the director of this tough, quiet revelation of a movie, films it in an uninflected style that makes everything feel at once mundane and mysterious. We are seeing the world more or less exactly as it looked to those hardy, foolish souls on screen (and almost forgetting to notice that most of them are actors we recognize from elsewhere). The way that world looked to them was unimaginably strange, every hill and rock loaded with portent, promise and menace.

How much has changed? The period setting marks Meek’s Cutoff as a western, and it has some other familiar trappings of the genre: horses, guns, Indians (or one Indian, anyway). Most classic westerns, though, are set during the later decades of the 19th century, in a wilderness already showing signs of development, with railroads, trading posts and lawmen wearing tin stars on their vests. Reichardt’s pre-Civil War Oregon is a primordial, unconquered place, more like the Virginia in Terrence Malick’s New World than John Ford’s Monument Valley. And yet it is also recognizably the same Oregon Reichardt has explored in two previous films, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, both set very much in the present and both written with Jon Raymond (who is the screenwriter here and is also a writer of the Mildred Pierce mini-series on HBO).

Meek’s Cutoff makes it clear that those earlier movies, in their way, were westerns too. The three films form a loose trilogy in which the durable mythology of the West — in the American imagination it’s always where you run to, where you start over, where you lose yourself — comes up against some flinty realities. These movies are, at first glance, simple and austere stories in which very little happens: two friends go camping in the woods; a young woman’s car breaks down on her way to Alaska; three families tramp for days in search of a new home, or at least some fresh water. But tucked inside these carefully told, almost anecdotal narratives are intense emotions, intractable social problems and human truths that are too deep, too sad and perhaps too painfully absurd to name.

Among the items the Meek’s travelers have brought with them from back East — Bibles, blankets, housewares — is a bird cage with what looks like a yellow parakeet inside. The cage and its inhabitant are tokens of refinement, artifacts and symbols of a civilization being transported, piece by piece and at great risk and cost, into a new and hostile environment. The bird, a wild creature confined in the midst of an open wilderness, is also a metaphor for the contradictions at the heart of that enterprise and for the predicament in which Reichardt’s characters, the women in particular, find themselves.

Meek’s Cutoff is built around a dialectic of freedom and constriction. The landscape is wide and vast — coastal plains, rippling mountains and high scrub stretching toward a distant horizon — but Reichardt and her cinematographer, Christopher Blauvelt, enclose it in a boxy, narrow frame. The women (played by Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan and Michelle Williams, the Wendy of Wendy and Lucy) wear bonnets with long, straightened brims, which hide their faces from us and limit how much they can see. The small covered wagons look like coffins on wheels, as if the goal of this journey were not a new life but the discovery of a suitable burial ground.

The pall of fatality that hangs over this motley caravan provides an undercurrent of mordant comedy. The people appear so incongruous in their surroundings, and their sense of determination — and also of divine entitlement to good fortune and happy days ahead — makes their hardship look like a cosmic joke. But if the universe is mocking them, Reichardt is a bit more compassionate, acknowledging the bravery as well as the foolishness of their quest.

Sometime before we meet them, three families hired a man named Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who claimed thorough knowledge of the territory and promised to help them find a place to settle. It may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but now the menfolk (Will Patton, Paul Dano and Neal Huff) are debating whether to hang Meek from a wagon frame and forge ahead without him. Their wives, excluded from serious deliberations, strain to overhear the conversation and wearily submit to the dictates of their husbands.

Meek is a braggart and a blowhard, a blustery, broken-down incarnation of a familiar western archetype: the frontiersman whose half-wild, half-civilized status makes him both an ideal guide and a convenient scapegoat for the genteel migrants whose society will ultimately take root in the West. He is the most talkative figure in the group, and as such the most entertaining and the most annoying.

The others are variously fearful, stoical and weary, and the tensions and bonds of solidarity that develop among them are the film’s dramatic sinews. There is not much action, but rather a gathering mood of dread and suspense, intensified by Jeff Grace’s score and the alterations of the terrain. When the Indian (Rod Rondeaux) shows up and is captured, buried conflicts erupt and the latent threat of violence rises to the surface. And as in so many westerns, basic ethical questions arise with stark, life-and-death force.

Reichardt is too wise and self-assured a filmmaker to offer easy answers. Meek’s Cutoff is as unsentimental and determined as Williams’s character, its absolutely believable heroine. It is also a bracingly original foray into territory that remains, in every sense, unsettled.