Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Gov. Hair on the voting age

Thanks to the folks at D magazine for this hilarious compilation. It is a classic.

Available on DVD: “Putty Hill”

The young ladies of Putty Hill
In his impressive second outing — the deliberative drama Putty Hill — director Matthew Porterfield makes a simple but effective case that death isn’t quite so much about the dead as it is about those sorry suckers left behind to deal with it.

In this case, those grieving survivors are residents of suburban Maryland. They’re margin-dwelling Roseanne types, minus the punch lines at 45-second intervals. They’re decent people, but they’re sad people, which is often what happens when someone is one or two paychecks from nothingness.

And they’re all here to pay honor to a dead teen named Cory, an overdose victim.

There’s a shirtless tattoo artist. There’s a muscle-bound ex-con. There are cousins and a brother. There are troubled teens out the wazoo. Staying true to the film’s low-fi mumblecore roots, there’s nothing remarkable about any of them or their lives, really — aside from the fact that nobody seems particularly happy or anything resembling fulfilled. Maybe, it’s hard not to think, Cory is the lucky one.

We’ll never know for sure, because we never meet him, aside from the oversized photo at his karaoke-bar funeral. We do get to know a little about him, though, in the unconventional, confessional-style interviews with which Porterfield peppers his film — interviews with Cory’s friends, cousins and siblings. That blend of documentary and drama is an odd touch — and a jarring one at first — but it’s the fuel that makes this film go, mostly because of the high quality of the film’s naturalistic, often-improvised performances. With each succeeding interview, the story and the sense of quiet desperation trickles off the screen.

But "story" is probably the wrong word. Putty Hill isn’t a story-driven film as much as it is a situational one and a character-driven one. As such, it moves along at a measured, contemplative pace, the kind of film that is prone to long, lingering shots and that is awash in ambient sound.

In other words, it’s a film for patient moviegoers. But for those moviegoers, it stands to be a rewarding experience.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Truer words were never spoken

Gov. Perry: The ultimate hypocrite

Last week in New Hampshire our own ridiculous Gov. Hair called for an end to Congressional "perks," saying "They’ve been living lavishly off the taxpyers"

Back in kindergarten, we had the perfect response to statements like the above: "It takes one to know one."

How lavishly is Hair living off Texas taxpayers? Well, forget for a moment that we’re footing the $500,00 in rent he we’re paying for his mansion. (OK, I agree: It’s impossible to forget that.) According to this story in the Texas Tribune, at a time of a crippling drought, Hair consumed 88,000 gallons of water at his mansion in August alone, nearly 10 times the average use in Austin. That’s disgraceful.

But then Hair has been disgracing Texas taxpayers for years now and although the country and the world at large can now be spared the prospect of Hair even winning the GOP Presidential nomination, let alone the presidency, he will return to Texas stronger than ever where he will continue to destroy the state, enriching the already wealthy, saturating boards and commissions with appointees determined to destroy the state’s environment and crippling our children’s history classes.

Why I am secretly hoping for an OSU blowout Saturday

The BCS lost any sense of credibility when the Associated Press decided several years ago it no longer wanted its poll used to help determine the BCS standings. Now two-thirds of the formula used to determine the BCS standings come from the two least credible football polls in existence — the USA Today Poll which is comprised of football coaches who never get to see a game other than their own at any point in the season, and the Harris Poll whose membership is made up of has-beens and never-weres who should not be permitted to express an opinion on any subject that requires rational judgment. (Can anyone really be as stupid as Craig James appears to be on ESPN’s BCS countdown show? But he’s typical of the Harris voter.)

The most recent AP poll has Oklahoma State ranked No. 3 as does ESPN’s Power Rankings and, mosty importantly, my rankings. (OK, that last was meant slightly in jest). However, the ignorant USA and Harris polls have OSU ranked fifth, behind a Virginia Tech team that hasn’t won one single game against a noteworthy opponent all year and was embarrassed by a Clemson squad that turned out to be all flash and no substance. That No. 5 ranking probably precludes OSU from having any chance of playing for the national title even though the objective computers rank OSU high enough that the Cowpokes are No. 3 in the overall BCS standings.

For personal reasons, I’m going to be rooting for Oklahoma Saturday, but secretly I would love to see Oklahoma State win Bedlam by four or five touchdowns — to put on such a display that even the ignoramuses at USA Today and Harris reconsider the error of their ways and bump the Cowboys up the rankings. How high? High enough so we don’t have to sit through another unbearable LSU-Alabama game.

That first meeting this year between those teams was one of the worst played, most abysmally coached, poorly quarterbacked games between two ranked teams in college football history. Some misguided fools, although none who know anything about college football, called it an epic defensive struggle. Give me a break! It took almost five quarters for LSU to score a measly nine points against Alabama while Georgia Southern scored 21 against the Tide in less than two quarters and Georgia Southern is in something called the Football Sub-Culture Division or whatever the old Division 2 is known as these days. If West Virginia could score three touchdowns against LSU, why couldn’t the great Alabama even manage one. Face it: LSU-Alabama Uno was rotten football.

And I don’t want to see it repeated in the BCS Championship game, but I’m afraid the fix is in. Not only do I not want to see a terribly played/coached/quarterbacked rematch, the BCS title game has a tradition, albeit a short one, of featuring at least one quality quarterback: Auburn’s Cam Newton earlier this year, Alabama’s Greg McElway and (almost) Texas’ Colt McCoy last year, Florida’s Tim Tebow and Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford in 2009, LSU’s Matt Flynn, currently Aaron Rodgers backup in Green Bay, in 2008, Ohio State’s Troy Smith in 2007 and, of course, the best one of all, the Vince Young/Matt Leinert matchup in 2006. Neither LSU’s Jordan Jefferson nor Alabama’s A.J. McCarron are in that discussion. But OSU’s Brandon Weeden is. So is Stanford’s Andrew Luck, Houston’s Case Keenum and Boise State’s Kellen Moore. And OSU, Stanford, Houston or Boise State, playing either Alabama or LSU (I really don’t care which), would provide a far more entertaining BCS Championship game than another round of Alabama-LSU.

Please, OSU, win Bedlam big Saturday. Win big enough so even the nincompoops at USA Today and Harris can see the error of their ways. Win big enough to save mankind from an Alabama-LSU rematch.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

My top 25 college football teams

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

Thursday, November 24, 2011

This week's top 10 college football games

All games Saturday unless otherwise noted. All times central.
1. Arkansas at LSU, Friday, 1:30 p.m., CBS
2. Texas at Texas A&M, Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN
3. Notre Dame at Stanford, 7 p.m., ABC
4. Houston at Tulsa, Friday, 11 a.m., FSSW
5. Clemson at South Carolina, 6:45 p.m., ESPN
6. Georgia at Georgia Tech, 11 a.m., ESPN
7. Alabama at Auburn, 2:30 p.m., CBS
8. Ohio State at Michigan, 11 a.m., ABC
9. Penn State at Wisconsin, 2:30 p.m., ESPN
10. Virginia Tech at Virginia, 2:30 p.m., ESPN2

My friend and I would like to wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving

Bruce plans tour, CD for 2012

Bruce Springsteen has answered "yes" to the question of whether there’s a future for his E-Street Band following the death earlier this year of saxophonist and close friend Clarence "Big Man" Clemmons." According to his Website, Springsteen will release a CD of new material next year and kick off a tour in May with a series of concerts in Europe.

"Info on the US dates and the World tour dates will be coming up shortly," Springsteen says on his Webpage. "In addition, we want you to know the music is almost done (but still untitled), we have almost settled on the release date (but not quite yet) and that we’re all incredibly excited about everything that we’re planning for 2012."

Monday, November 21, 2011

Available on DVD: “Submarine”

Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige in Submarine
Submarine, the debut feature directed by Richard Ayoade, a well-known English television comedian, is as smart and self-conscious as its protagonist, a 15-year-old Welsh schoolboy named Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts). This is only fitting, since the movie, in the manner of precursors like Rushmore and Garden State, is more or less the movie Oliver would make about himself.

"Submarine is an important film. Watch it with respect," an introductory note from this peculiar, engaging young man suggests. After obeying the second part of that message, I can’t quite agree with the first, which I doubt was meant entirely in earnest. Significance can be overrated, and Submarine makes the most of its whimsical triviality.

Not that what happens — first love, family trouble, stray encounters with the weirdness of the world — feels trivial to Oliver. The key to any coming-of-age story, whether the author is James Joyce or John Hughes, lies in calibrating the distance between how momentous and unprecedented certain experiences can feel and how normal, how usual they really are. Learning to live with that discrepancy is part of growing up, which Oliver realizes at the end of the film.

"I don’t know if I’ve come of age," he says in a voice-over. "But I’m certainly older. I feel shrunken." You could say that he has achieved his actual size, through a process that is both funny and sad.

It may tell you everything you need to know to note that one of Oliver’s favorite books is The Catcher in the Rye, that he has a drawing of a young Woody Allen tacked to his bedroom wall, and that his idea of a date movie is The Passion of Joan of Arc. It says a lot about the world imagined by Ayoade (and by Joe Dunthorne, who wrote the novel on which Submarine is based) that the small seaside town where Oliver lives has a cinema that shows old foreign movies. While no period is specified, Oliver is growing up in an era of small, bulky television sets, VHS tapes and ill-advised hairstyles. That would make him roughly my age. Yikes.

The boy’s own shaggy schoolboy ’do is not so bad; nor is the Prince Valiant bob favored by Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige), his moody first love. Oliver’s mother, Jill (Sally Hawkins), wears a blond helmet rivaled only by her husband’s unkempt flop-over. Transcending all of them is the spike-topped mullet favored by Graham Purvis (Paddy Considine), a neighbor of the Tates who is also an old flame of Jill’s and a new-age guru with a customized van.

In three chapters, framed by a prologue and an epilogue, Oliver must negotiate his own relationship with Jordana and an apparent crisis in his parents’ marriage. His dad, Lloyd (the brilliantly deadpan Australian actor Noah Taylor), is a marine biologist with a depressive streak, and Oliver worries that Jill is drifting toward Graham. Meanwhile he faces a test of his devotion to Jordana, and it all adds up to a big, drily hilarious ball of confusion.

And not really to anything new. This is the kind of story, as Oliver himself would admit, that we have already seen dozens of times. But Ayoade’s keen visual wit and clever, knowing touches keep it surprising and nimble, especially in the quick, lurching early scenes, which are startlingly funny. At moments he approaches the mordant, heady sense of the sorrows and freedoms of youth captured by François Truffaut in The 400 Blows, a movie that, come to think of it, Oliver has no doubt already seen.

The freshness wears off a bit as the story takes shape, and crucial passages are handled by means of montage sequences accompanied by broody tunes from Alex Turner, frontman of Arctic Monkeys. But the growing familiarity is in keeping with the logic of Oliver’s discovery that, unique as he may be, he’s also just like everybody else.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

My top 25 college football teams

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

Thursday, November 17, 2011

This week's top 10 college football games

All games Saturday unless otherwise noted
1. Oklahoma at Baylor, 7 p.m., ABC
2. Nebraska at Michigan, 11 a.m., ESPN
3. Southern California at Oregon, no TV
4. Kansas State at Texas, 7 p.m., FX
5. Mississippi State at Arkansas, 2:30 p.m., CBS
6. Penn State at Ohio State, 2:30 p.m., ESPN
7. Oklahoma State at Iowa State, Friday, 7 p.m., ESPN
8. California at Stanford, 9:15 p.m., ESPN
9. North Carolina at Virginia Tech, Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN
10. Wisconsin at Illinois, 11 a.m., ESPN2

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Available on DVD: “Buck”

Buck Brannaman
Buck, the story of the real horse whisperer Buck Brannaman, comes at you with the understated eloquence of the man himself — a soft-spoken cowboy philosopher changing lives as he gentles horses, an aw-shucks hero who never claims to be more than an ordinary man. What a relief in times saturated with news of the worst of humanity to see something of the best.

In her first documentary, which won the coveted audience award at the Sundance Film Festival this year, director Cindy Meehl mirrors that sensibility. The film is deeply moving yet never maudlin in telling this hard-knocks-but-hope-infused story.

It would have been tempting given the broad strokes of Buck's life: A childhood marked by early stardom — he and his older brother were young trick-roping sensations — and vicious beatings at the hand of his father, the early death of his mother, the foster family that rescued him and the safety and solace he found in horses. Instead, Meehl allows the facts, simply told, to carry the weight.

The idea for the documentary came after Meehl attended one of the horse clinics Buck runs, a business that keeps him on the road most of the year. The fashion designer shelved her couture work for filmmaking, pushed, she says in production notes, by a story she felt compelled to tell.

The images — both beautiful and evocative — are culled from more than 300 hours of footage, much of it shot over two years by cinematographers Guy Mossman (Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work) and Luke Geissbuhler (Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan). The filmmaker and editor Toby Shimin rely on a mix of old film clips, current interviews and lots of day-in-the life shots to build a remarkably candid and intimate look at Buck and his world.

The film opens with a shot of horses running free, manes flying in the wind, dust kicking up in their wake, an endless stretch of sky overhead. It is a smart setup that underscores the beauty and power of the animal — at the same time reminding us that the very act of owning and riding a horse takes away that freedom.

Then the camera shifts to Buck, who is introduced without a word. Long before you see his face, you get a measure of the man — solitary; a steady stride that is confident without being cocky; the cowboy hat, the chaps, the boots and the rest worn for utility, not style.

Later in the film, Robert Redford, who brought him on as a consultant during the filming of The Horse Whisperer, recalls Buck walking into his Santa Monica production office for a meeting, dressed exactly like that. But what Redford first took as affect he soon realized was authentic and adopted the essence of that authenticity for his character on-screen.

There is a funny story of the eight hours spent by the movie's horse trainer trying to get the trick horse to do what was required for one scene, and the 15 or so minutes it took Buck to get his horse to step in and pull it off when the filmmakers finally turned to him for help. His take on Hollywood is ironic, humorous and says as much about the ways and whims of Hollywood as the horse and the scene in question.

But most of the voices in the documentary, other than Buck's, are the people whose lives he has touched. They are an eclectic mix — some competing and showing thoroughbreds, other raising and refining working cattle horses, some riding for pleasure, nearly all coming into his workshops thinking there is little he can teach them. And then he does.

He's a natural in the training ring, as much raconteur as resource. As he walks his classes through what a rider is actually asking of the horse — from the halter on his head to the stranger climbing on his back — you come to understand the core of his philosophy, that horses are a mirror of the person riding them. Though he suggests anyone can learn his techniques, just watching him work with a horse, it's hard not to believe there is a mystical connection that no workshop can pass along.

It is a connection that comes at some cost. As he drives from one ranch to another, you see the tug between home and work, softened during the summer months, when his youngest daughter travels with him.

These days, Buck has an easy smile, which by the end of the film you know was hard won. He has a loving family, longtime friends, a thriving business, but mostly he has the horses. They remind him of who he is and where he came from.

Together, thanks to the equally gentle touch of the filmmaker, they transport us into a better world, if only for a bit.

My Top 25 college football teams

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

Thursday, November 10, 2011

This week's top 10 college football games

All games Saturday unless otherwise noted. All times listed are Central Standard times.
1. Oregon at Stanford, 7 p.m., ABC
2. Texas at Missouri, 11 a.m., FX
3. Texas A&M at Kansas State, 2:30 p.m., ABC
4. Florida at South Carolina, 11 a.m., CBS
5. Alabama at Mississippi State, 6:45 p.m., ESPN
6. Nebraska at Penn State, 11 a.m., ESPN
7. TCU at Boise State, 2:30 p.m., Versus
8. Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech, 7 p.m., tonight, ESPN
9. Oklahoma State at Texas Tech, 11 a.m., ABC
10. Michigan at Illinois, 11 a.m., ESPN2

The end of Gov. Hair's Presidential bid

Watch him commit political suicide right before your very eyes.

Available on DVD: “Viva Riva!”

Patsha Bay Mukuna has the title role in Viva Riva!
Repackaging the revenge thriller in parakeet colors and distinctive African beats, the Congolese writer and director Djo Tunda Wa Munga gives Viva Riva! a playful sensuality that goes a long way toward disguising formula.

Opening in Kinshasa (Munga’s hometown) amid the bedlam of a fuel shortage, the story swirls around Riva (Patsha Bay Mukuna), an irrepressible thief newly arrived from Angola with a truckload of hijacked gas. Pausing only to grab a fistful of cash and a partying partner (Alex Herabo), Riva embarks on a drinking-and-whoring spree that is abruptly derailed when he falls for Nora (Manie Malone), the flame-haired moll of a local gang lord. A swan among pigeons, Nora becomes Riva’s obsession and his Achilles’ heel — at least as far as a posse of bloodthirsty Angolan thugs is concerned. They and their chillingly debonair frontman (Hoji Fortuna) would like their gas returned and Riva’s head on a spike.

As fleshy love scenes knock up against gory gunfights, Viva Riva! is at pains to prove that where money leads, sex and violence flamboyantly follow. In nightclubs, brothels and back streets, Antoine Roch’s excited camera charges around corners and lingers, rapt, while a military commander enjoys a time out with her female lover. Crime and corruption grease every transaction, but the director regards the raw enterprise of his country without judgment. He — and his wily antihero — are much too busy riding the gas pedal.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Four things I need to get off my chest

First: All those misguided football non-experts calling for a rematch of Alabama/LSU in the BCS Championship Game are either poisoned by the Southeastern Conference Kool-Aid or, even worse, they are shills for the SEC. There’s this myth out there that the SEC is always college football’s strongest. That’s simply not true this year. The Big 12, which lost only one non-conference game this year, is 2011's top dog. Yes, the SEC has won the last five championships. But the only way — the only way — the conference will make it six is if Alabama plays LSU again.

Second: Penn State Joe Paterno, who used to be one of my college football heroes, must go, for the same reasons President Nixon had to go almost two decades ago. Nixon’s albatross was not the break-in at the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate. It was the coverup he engineered afterwards. Paterno is not, in any way as far as the world can tell, culpable in the abuse of young boys. But he is part of the coverup of those heinous acts. When, in 2002, assistant coach Mike McQueary reported witnessing an assault by another assistant, Jerry Sandusky, of a young boy in the football building’s showers, Paterno should have asked McQueary "Are you prepared to repeat these allegations to the athletic director, the police and possibly testify about them in a courtroom?". He should have then marched McQueary to the AD’s office and the three of them should have gone to the police. I am also convinced that in 2002, at least, Paterno was the most powerful individual on the Penn State campus — more powerful than the AD, more powerful even than the school’s president. And if he had said "From henceforth and forevermore, Jerry Sandusky is to be barred from the Penn State campus," that would have happened. Of course there is such a thing as innocent until proven guilty. But in this case there’s the higher responsibility to protect the innocent — in this case, the young boys. That didn’t happen and Paterno bears much of the responsibility for it.

Third: I was appalled by the court testimony in the trial of Tyrone McGill, who, it is charged, let a cat die an agonizing death trapped inside the walls of the City of Dallas’ Animal Shelter. All the man had to say when the desperate pleas of the animal were first heard were "Get me a hammer or something else to punch a hole in this wall and get it now." Instead he left the cat in there for more than two weeks. But my main question goes out to City Manager Mary Suhm: Why on earth is this man still employed by the City of Dallas?

Fourth: My father had a job that required us to move around a lot. It was almost like the military. I never lived in the same place more than two years and often it was less than a year. Thus I never had the opportunity to form much of a loyalty to any one school I attended before college. In fact, I only attended the high school I graduated from for one semester my senior year. But, still, that is the school that once or twice has asked me (I’m betting reluctantly) to attend its class reunions. So I must admit I was almost proud when I perused the high school football playoff schedule in today’s paper and discovered that high school at made it to the Division II Class 5A tournament. I say "almost proud" because, according to the paper, the team’s record is 3-7. What? How do you make the playoffs with a 3-7 record? I’m expecting a quick exit for the lads.

The bad news about American jobs: they're gone, all gone

So if you're gonna leave your town where the north wind blow
To go on down where that sweet soda river flow
Well you better think twice on it Jack
You're better off buyin' a shotgun dead off the rack
You ain't gonna find nothin' down here friend
Except seeds blowin' up the highway in the south wind
Movin' on movin' on it's gone gone it's all gone

–Bruce Springsteen, Seeds

The Boss was telling people not to come to Texas expecting to find oil company jobs when he wrote this song more than a quarter of a century ago. And, indeed, things were pretty bleak in Houston, which was where Springsteen was talking about in this song, back in the mid-80s when the energy industry went bust. I was in the crisis consulting business at the time and I remember flying into Houston around 8 a.m., picking up my rental car at Hobby Airport, motoring up the Gulf Freeway to downtown and seeing, perhaps, two or three other cars on the freeway the entire time. And this was during what was supposed to be morning rush hour! It was so bad in Houston the pawn shops were going out of business.

As a country, we have not sunk quite that low, but it has gotten pretty bad. The cry echoing throughout the land is "What about jobs! Where are they? Where have they gone?"

I’ve got some bad news for you. You ain’t gonna find nothin’ down here friend, except seeds blowin’ up that highway … those jobs are gone, they’re all gone.

What happened? Trickle down economics happened, that’s what.

Here was the idea behind trickle down economics as perpetuated by a series of misguided Republican presidents beginning with Ronald Reagan 30 years ago. Give massive tax breaks to the major corporations and their leaders because these generous folks will not only contribute to Republican political campaigns but they will re-invest all this money they don’t have to pay to the government in building additional factories and facilities that will create jobs.

And it worked! Only one problem. The Greedy Bastards (GBs) who ran these corporations built all these factories and facilities outside the United States where they created jobs for people willing to work for a fraction of the pay of U.S. workers. So where did all U.S. jobs disappear to? To Korea, India, Indonesia and, most of all, China. And they aren’t coming back.

The United States has become a service-based economy. For the most part, the jobs now available to U.S. citizens are in retail, the restaurant or hotel industries and the like. Oh, of course, there are a slew of high technology jobs for the taking out there, but our education system has de-evolved to such an extent that the only ones qualified for those jobs are those who have been educated outside the United States.

Is there a solution? Outside of major public works programs akin to the ones created by Franklin Roosevelt, there is not one that will put a significant amount of unemployed Americans to work. And a major public works program is not going to happen for a number of reasons. First and foremost: The Republicans running Congress won’t let it happen. Working stiffs don’t make political contributions, at least significant ones, and if they vote at all, it’s probably going to be for a damned Democrat, so Republicans are not about to be doing any favors for the average American working man or woman. Another reason is that there’s not much out there that needs to be built. We need less dams, not more. Fewer miles of highways, not more. Of course the United States could join the rest of the civilized world and construct a nationwide high speed rail system. But the Republicans won’t let that happen either because the GBs that run the oil companies as well as the Republican Party won’t let it happen. In fact, the wrongheaded Republican Presidential candidates are all advocating completely eliminating passenger rail service in this country!

Perhaps the best option for young Americans these days is a career in the military, especially if we can extricate ourselves from all these messy wars. The pay’s not great, but you get three square meals a day, housing and medical care all tossed in and, as long as you behave, you can do 30 years easy, then retire in your mid-50s with a nice, comfortable pension. Plus you get to travel. As available jobs go, it’s a helluva lot better than slinging fries at Henry’s Hamburger Haven, or even yelling "Next in line, please!" at Best Buy.

Cities will always need police and firefighters. Many communities can’t find enough dependable drivers with CDLs to man garbage trucks. (With options such as these, it’s easy to understand why so many of today’s youth opt for the illegal drug trade and a guaranteed six-figure, minimum, annual income.)

As for the dream of a standard of living superior to that of your parents: For the overwhelming majority of today’s American workforce it’s "gone, gone. It’s all gone."

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Available on DVD: “Bill Cunningham New York”

Bill Cunningham at work in New York City
A few moments into the film Bill Cunningham New York, its subject — the legendary street-fashion photographer and society chronicler for The New York Times — is seen darting into the maw of Midtown traffic, unconcerned about the threat of death by taxi. Fast, intensely focused and apparently able to tune out all but the shot he’s after, Cunningham calls to mind a war photographer, which is an unlikely thing for an 82-year-old fashion photographer to call to mind.

Later in the film, however, Kim Hastreiter, the co-editor of Paper magazine and a frequent subject of Cunningham’s, makes the same observation. "He’ll do anything for the shot," she says, as he runs into the street to get in front of a young woman in a sequined sheath. "I’ve been in deep conversations with him where he’ll just run from me because he sees someone."

By this point in Bill Cunningham New York, Richard Press’s captivating and moving portrait of a singular man and a passing era, it’s possible to view what Cunningham does as the flip side of war photography, and not entirely unrelated. He seeks out and captures humanity amid the maelstrom of life, looking for what Harold Koda, chief curator at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, describes in the film as "ordinary people going about their lives, dressed in fascinating ways." In these fleeting and otherwise unseen or unremarked moments, Cunningham finds something creative, life-affirming and free, and preserves it forever.

The film goes about its business just as its subject does — quietly, modestly, almost invisibly. Press, along with Philip Gefter, the producer, and the cinematographer Tony Cenicola (a staff photographer for The Times) followed Cunningham around New York for two years, with no crew, tagging along to charity events and runway shows. They visited him in the lost-in-time world of the Carnegie Hall studios, where Cunningham and the 98-year-old photographer Editta Sherman, the last two residents on their floor, faced eviction after decades. Interspersing lively insights from Cunningham with affectionate stories from longtime friends and subjects — socialites, editors, models, eccentrics, dandies, avant-gardists, curators and neighbors — Press has created an intimate portrait that feels more found or captured than it does constructed.

To pay attention to Cunningham’s work, especially since his On the Street column became a multimedia slide show featuring his seemingly improvised commentary, is to sense that something sets him apart, that his work is animated not only by a refined eye but also by a worldview. With his raspy Yankee drawl, he sounds like Katharine Hepburn’s bon vivant cousin. But in one of the many contradictions that define him, his life is one of monastic solitude and simplicity.

He owns what look to be roughly five articles of clothing. (His signature piece is the same royal blue workman’s jacket worn by Parisian street sweepers, which sells for about $20 and comes in a plastic bag.) He favors $3 lunches. Until he moved, when Carnegie Hall reclaimed the artists’ residences there for other uses, he lived in a tiny studio with no kitchen and with a bathroom down the hall. He gets around on an old bicycle and sleeps on a cot surrounded by filing cabinets containing every negative of every shot he has ever taken. And yet somehow the patrician image is further burnished by the radical lifestyle. He’s an aesthete and an ascetic, a member of the establishment and a bohemian, and among the last of his kind.

In an essay in The New York Review of Books shortly after J. D. Salinger’s death, Michael Greenberg described Salinger’s characters as being what Tolstoy called "aristocrats of the spirit" whose "quest is for an almost impossible purity that drives them away from the workaday world, toward a dangerous, self-burying seclusion." Cunningham could easily be the eighth Glass sibling, and the other seven would be glad to have him. He loves taking pictures of people in the rain because they "forget about you," he says. "If they see you, they don’t go putting on airs, people are who they are." When France names him an officer of the Order of Arts and Letters, he spends the time up to when he is about to receive the award snapping photos of the guests in attendance.

If the film suggests that there’s something bittersweet about a life dedicated to a single pursuit cultivated with an almost religious fervor, it also stands in awe of its subject’s seemingly inexhaustible, self-abnegating capacity to remain attuned to the expression of others.

"I’ve said many times that we all get dressed for Bill," Anna Wintour, editor in chief of American Vogue, says in the film.

By staying at a distance from the objects of his obsession, Cunningham has molded himself into the designated noticer and interpreter of the city, a kind of Lorax of New York fashion.

"I don’t decide anything," he says. "I let the street speak to me, and in order for the street to speak to you, you’ve got to stay out there and see what it is."

My Top 25 College Football Teams

Note: If last night's LSU/Alabama contest was, indeed, the Game of the Century, we're in for a miserable century. Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  LSU. 9-0 (1)
2.  Oklahoma State 9-0 (3)
3.  Alabama 8-1 (2)
4.  Oklahoma 8-1 (4)
5.  Stanford 9-0 (5)
6.  Boise State 8-0 (6)
7.  Oregon 8-1 (7)
8.  Texas 6-2 (17)
9.  Arkansas 8-1 (12)
10. Clemson 8-1 (11)
11. Houston 9-0 (13)
12. South Carolina 7-2 (9)
13. Wisconsin 7-2 (15)
14. Georgia 7-2 (19)
15. Kansas State 7-2 (16)
16. Virginia Tech 8-1 (14)
17. Southern California 7-2 (20)
18. Penn State 8-1 (23)
19. Michigan 7-2 (10)
20. Texas A&M 5-4 (22)
21. Nebraska 7-2 (8)
22. Southern Mississippi 8-1 (24)
23. Michigan State 7-2 (21)
24. Notre Dame 6-3 (25)
25. Arizona State 6-3 (18)

Friday, November 4, 2011

Top Oscar nomination contenders as of early November

Overall trends: Support for The Artist is rising while support for J. Edgar is falling. The best picture list may end after the first eight films. Jonah Hill (Moneyball) and Jim Broadbent (The Iron Lady) are very much in contention for the fifth supporting actor's spot.

The Descendants
War Horse
The Artist
Midnight in Paris
J. Edgar
The Help
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
The Ides of March

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

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

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

Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Albert Brooks, Drive
Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Kenneth Branagh, My Week With Marilyn
Nick Nolte, Warrior

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

Available on DVD: “The Trip”

Rob Brydon (left) and Steve Coogan share one of their many meals
 in The Trip
What on earth is The Trip, besides hugely enjoyable? It’s not a documentary, since actors have been cast in minor roles and the two leads, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, are playing comic variations on their established personas of Spoiled Prat and Lovable Noodge. It’s not scripted — no writers are credited — but improv is rarely this sure-footed. It’s not really a movie, since it was edited down from a six-episode BBC series, but it’s not the original TV show either.

If anything, Michael Winterbottom’s latest film — his 25th in two decades, more or less — suggests a reality TV fusion of Sideways and a Bob Hope/Bing Crosby Road movie, or maybe My Dinner With Andre repurposed into a movable feast. Both a gastronomic tour of northern England (that part seems real, at least) and a hilarious battle of showbiz egos, it takes particular delight in the sound of grown men bickering as fast and inventively as they can. Above all, The Trip knows the special hell of being stuck in a car with a friend for a week. Maybe it’s a prison movie.

The setup is this: Coogan, a well-known British TV personality and Hollywood demi-star (the masses remember him as Octavius in the Night at the Museum movies), has been signed up to pen a magazine article on the finer restaurants of the Lake District. His girlfriend (Margo Stilley) has backed out — the two are "on hiatus," actually — and he asks old chum and frequent costar Brydon to come along instead.

If you saw these two in Winterbottom’s marvelous Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, you know how well they work together, and so it is here. Brydon is (or plays) a family man with a loving wife and new baby at home. Coogan is (or plays) a divorced dad with a roving eye, happy to take advantage of his fame with a willowy hotel manager or freelance photographer. Brydon is unknown outside of England but cherished inside it; Coogan is admired but vaguely resented for his Hollywood airs. Brydon’s a mensch, Coogan’s a bit of a — well, the word one character uses is extremely unprintable, if more in use in England than here.

One other thing: Both men like to eat, so The Trip regularly pauses at the tables of upscale restaurants like L’Enclume, Hipping Hall, and the Yorke Arms while waiters trot out scallops, pigeon, rabbit, and lamb — and that’s just one meal. The dishes can get baroque — duck-fat lollipops, anyone? — and our heroes aren’t exactly practiced critics. "The consistency is a bit like snot but it tastes great," is how Coogan sums up a mysterious green broth.

One other other thing: Both Brydon and Coogan do impressions. Rather, they do competitive impressions, the way some men try to kill each other on the squash court. The Trip finds its lunatic groove on the very first evening, as the two squabble over the proper approach to Michael Caine. Do you do the young Caine or the old Caine (the difference is two octaves)? Can you do the break in the actor’s voice when he gets emotional? This is more than a matter of professional pride; all the resentment and companionship each man feels for the other is in those warring Cockney diphthongs.

The duel continues across the countryside, and no one is spared: not Anthony Hopkins, Ian McKellan, Richard Burton, Hugh Grant, Sean Connery, Al Pacino, nor even Woody Allen. Thankfully, The Trip breaks into the occasional blissful freestyle, as when Coogan and Brydon improvise a Braveheart-style period epic while driving across the moors ("To bed! For tomorrow we rise at 8:30ish!") or burrow into the meaning and majesty of ABBA’s The Winner Takes It All.

For all the inspired silliness, The Trip nimbly balances joy and melancholy: The pleasures of Britain’s back roads, of communing with the shades of Coleridge and Wordsworth, as well as the bitterness of the aging actor’s life. Coogan’s neuroses surface repeatedly, both in comic form (why does Michael Sheen get all the good roles?) and with unexpectedly touching self-pity. I know this because my son and I made a similar trip almost a decade ago: To travel through ancient England in the 21st century is to be both in constant touch with the wired world and to be isolated from those who matter: the one’s you love who are not with you.

It’s a tricky juggling act, and while the original TV series (as yet commercially unavailable here) developed it at leisure, the theatrical version of The Trip is no less delirious or profound. "Would you go to my funeral?" asks Brydon in a moment of owlish introspection. "Of course I would," says Coogan. "If only to pad out the numbers."

Thursday, November 3, 2011

This week's 10 best college football games

(All games Saturday unless otherwise noted)
1.  LSU at Alabama (Duh!), 7 p.m., Channel 11
2.  South Carolina at Arkansas, 6:15 p.m., ESPN
3.  Texas A&M at Oklahoma, 2:30 p.m., Channel 8
4.  Kansas State at Oklahoma State, 7 p..m., Channel 8
5.  Oregon at Washington, 9:30 p.m., FSSW
6.  Texas Tech at Texas, 11 a.m., FX
7.  Michigan at Iowa, 11 a.m., ESPN
8.  Arizona State at UCLA, 6:30 p.m., Versus
9.  Notre Dame at Wake Forest, 6 p.m., ESPN2
10. Southern Mississippi at East Carolina, No area TV

Available on DVD: “Good Neighbors”

Emily Hampshire in Good Neighbors
Swerving from bland to brutal, endearingly coy to shockingly explicit, the Canadian import Good Neighbors finds pitch-black comedy among white-bread lives.

Set in the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighborhood of Montreal in the autumn of 1995, this third feature from Jacob Tierney unfolds mostly indoors yet leans critically on its time and location. Quebec is on the verge of a nail-biting secession referendum, but for three residents of a spacious apartment building personal matters trump political uncertainty.

The film’s hub is Louise (Emily Hampshire), an intense young waitress with an unhealthy attachment to her two cats. Each day Louise shares her newspaper with the sexy widower downstairs (Scott Speedman) — whose wheelchair has earned him a ripped upper body and a nonthreatening reputation — but their cozy friendship is disrupted when a neurotic schoolteacher (Jay Baruchel) moves into the building and moves in on Louise. Naturally, she is far more drawn to his imported puss.

Based on a 1982 novel by the Québécois writer Chrystine Brouillet, Good Neighbors is an extended tease whose twisty pleasures require carefully gauged performances. Hampshire’s unsettling misanthropy, Speedman’s shark-like grin and Baruchel’s bewildered-nudnik shtick cement their characters’ oddball alliance.

We are never in any doubt as to the identity of the serial killer who haunts the news and the neighborhood’s shadowy corners, but suspense is not the point — alienation is. For three English-speaking Montrealers, facing an outside threat means relying only on one another. And sometimes on their pets.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Another sign that the end of the world is near

The Village at Allen shopping center installed its Christmas decorations yesterday. Hey, I'm Jewish, but even I know that in civilized society the Christmas season doesn't start until Santa makes his appearance in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Time for another round of “College Football What If”

What if Alabama beats LSU this Saturday night?

And what if, in the following weeks, Oregon defeats Stanford and Oklahoma knocks off Oklahoma State?

And, finally, in the only one of these hypotheticals that would really be considered a surprise, what if Auburn ends its regular season by shocking Alabama for the second year in a row or South Carolina upends the Tribe in the SEC championship game?

If those outcomes come to pass, which two teams do you put in a National Championship game?

If these games do turn out as I have described above — and that’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility — then college football would have experienced what many have advocated for many years: an actual playoff. And if these misguided idiots who have been clamoring for a playoff have the courage of their convictions, they would have to accept the reality that only one National Championship matchup passes the credibility test.

And that would be Boise State vs. Houston.

And you know what? That could easily be the most entertaining, the most exciting, BCS Championship game since Texas/USC.