Thursday, March 31, 2011

Available on DVD “The Tillman Story”

What soldier, anticipating his death in combat, wouldn’t want to be remembered as a fallen hero who gave his life for his comrades? What grieving family wouldn’t accept the official account, however fraudulent, of a son or daughter’s heroism, stifle their doubts, keep their mouths shut and be content to find some comfort in the ritual honors?

That was probably the assumption of the military brass who concocted a bogus account of the combat death of Pat Tillman, a football star and a casualty of so-called friendly fire in Afghanistan in April 2004 at age 27. The official story initially had him saving the lives of fellow soldiers during a mountain ambush by the Taliban. It was a flag-waving, Rambo-worthy feel-good fantasy that played well on television.

But as Amir Bar-Lev’s sorrowful, devastating documentary, The Tillman Story, reveals, not every soldier or every soldier’s family is willing to be so glorified. Tillman, who had the square-jawed face of a comic-book warrior, certainly looked the part, and some of the details of his life supported the image of him as a rampaging gung-ho patriot. He had quit the National Football League in the wake of 9/11 to join the Army Rangers, turning down a multimillion-dollar contract from the Arizona Cardinals. After his death he received a Silver Star for valor.

But in other ways, Tillman didn’t fit the image. Thoughtful and private, he never made a public statement about his decision to enlist and asked that his privacy on the matter be respected. An avowed atheist, he studied the writings of Noam Chomsky and opposed the war in Iraq after serving a tour of duty there. Yet when the government and the N.F.L. secretly arranged for him to return to football without having to fulfill his commitment, he refused the deal, believing it was his duty to serve the three years for which he had signed up. His next stop was Afghanistan.

Several weeks after Tillman was eulogized by President George W. Bush as a classic American war hero, the military announced that he had actually been killed by a stray bullet during the confusion known as “the fog of war.”

The film, narrated by Josh Brolin, tells how members of the Tillman family would not let the story rest. The military gave them 3,000 pages of redacted documents covering the official investigation, perhaps assuming that the material was too voluminous to be studied in any depth. But in the Northern California home where Pat and his brothers Kevin (who fought beside Pat in Afghanistan) and Richard were raised, their mother, Mary Tillman, unearthed more and more disturbing facts, among them that the military had burned Pat’s uniform, body armor and diary.

Bar-Lev’s clearsighted, emotionally steady documentary examines the family members’ deepening inquiry into the circumstances of Tillman’s death and chronicles their mounting rage at the military’s misappropriation of his story. The film visits the canyon where he died and the soldiers who were with him and heard his final words, in which he tried to alert the unidentified troops only 40 yards away that he was on their side.

One theory expressed by Stan Goff, a retired special ops officer who assisted Ms. Tillman’s investigation, is that the soldiers responsible were itching for a firefight even though whatever threat existed had long passed.

It is a fallacy, he says, to believe that young soldiers enter such situations reluctantly. In his words, “It’s an imposition of a level of wisdom and maturity on soldiers that doesn’t apply to 19-year-olds anywhere, ever.”

The family’s outrage over the exploitation of their son boiled over in a letter that Tillman’s father, Pat Sr., wrote accusing the military of fraud. The letter led to an internal investigation and a Congressional hearing at which military leaders were grilled on what they knew about what the family asserted was a cover-up; their memories were vague. A midlevel general became the scapegoat and faced demotion.

The Tillman family — especially Mary, Kevin and Tillman’s widow, Marie — emerge as noble souls still choking on their rage and frustration. Kevin, who had not spoken publicly of his brother’s death, is seen reading a bitter, excoriating statement at the hearing. This devastating film persuasively portrays them as finer, more morally sturdy people than the cynical chain of command that lied to them and used their son as a propaganda tool.

“The Tillman Story” trailer

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Available on DVD: “Never Let Me Go”

“Students of Hailsham are special,” it is declared in Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go, a film more moving than most but not as devastating as it should be.

It’s best if you come to this story — adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s piercing novel — knowing as little as possible. So let’s just say that the children who reside at Hailsham, a British boarding school, are indeed unusual and not at all to their advantage. They are being groomed for lives unlike others, an ominous fate their headmistress (Charlotte Rampling) refuses to explain.

The students do have their pleasures, especially in friendships like the one between Kathy (Carey Mulligan) and Ruth (Keira Knightley). Their relationship is strained when Ruth begins dating Tommy (Andrew Garfield), the boy Kathy loves. But once the three leave for the outside world, they realize that whatever their differences, they’ll always need each other.

The film, set in the late 20th century, envisions a sci-fi nightmare in which humans have made life much easier for themselves — at great ethical expense. Romanek does an extraordinary job translating Ishiguro’s deliberate, almost excruciating pace onto the big screen: His images haunt us in much the same way the author’s words do.

Screenwriter Alex Garland also respects Ishiguro’s eerie understatement, rejecting easy shock value for a deeper, more horrifying calm. But he’s cut too much explanation, leaving gaps in logic. More frustrating is the superficial connection among the characters.

Mulligan’s deceptively passive turn is heartwrenching and should have earned her a second Oscar nomination. Knightley’s beautiful Ruth, however, is missing a soul, while Garfield’s unmemorable Tommy lacks any real chemistry with either woman.

The film’s flaws keep us at a regrettable distance. Though there are painful moments and beautiful ones as well, the end result feels more conceptual than real: a tragic notion, rather than a potential reality of unbearable sadness.

"Never Let Me Go" Trailer

Available on DVD: "Night Catches Us"

Although he finds himself in it from time to time — such as when he ended up onstage at the Oscars with his Hurt Locker co-stars during last year’s Best Picture presentation — actor Anthony Mackie doesn’t seem to seek the spotlight.

He’s just fine taking quieter, less-flashy roles in quieter, less-flashy films. They’re the kinds of roles that fly under the mainstream radar, but still showcase the actor’s acting chops.

The period drama Night Catches Us is such a film. It represents the rare lead role for Mackie, and he seizes the opportunity, convincingly playing the part of a soft-spoken former Black Panther named Marcus who, after a four-year absence, returns to his hometown of Philadelphia amid the racial turmoil of 1976.

It’s not immediately clear why Marcus moved away in the first place, but we know this much: As he returns to attend his father’s funeral, he’s not particularly welcome — not by his old running partners (who derisively call him “Snitch”), not even by his own brother.

Regardless, Marcus apparently harbors hopes of renewing his relationship with fellow former radical Patty (Kerry Washington).

Both Marcus and Patty have mellowed since he bolted Philly; she has even become a lawyer, joining the system they used to fight back in the day. But try as they might to move on, their shared past refuses to stay buried, as an angry young neighborhood kid (Amari Cheatom) and his anti-police sentiments dredge it all back up again.

Also dredged up: The secret tucked away in the black duffel Marcus carries over slung his shoulder — a secret that first-time director Tanya Hamilton unravels slowly for her audience.

Hamilton earned a nomination in the Independent Spirit Awards’ Best First Feature category, and it’s a well-deserved honor. In addition to directing, she wrote the screenplay for Night Catches Us, and she proves to be a surprisingly mature, patient filmmaker.

Unfortunately, the audiences for Night Catches Us will have to be patient, too. Although it boasts deftly drawn characters and establishes a believable period vibe despite its limited budget (including a funktastic ‘70s score by The Roots), it’s a talky film, one that consistently favors dialogue over action. Aside from a few moments of elevated emotion, Hamilton is happy to let it simply simmer.

If there’s a flaw in her film, it’s that she misjudges exactly how much simmering she can get away with, as her story proceeds in fits and starts.

Still, as a debut, it’s impressive stuff.

"Night Catches Us" Trailer

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Forget about that 100-year flood nonsense

For years I've been hearing things like the levees along the Trinity River must be built to withstand something close to the 100-year flood, so named because the chances of such a catastrophe are so rare, it would only occur, at most, once every 100 years.

Bunk.

I have absolutely no scientific research to base this on and, even if I did I probably wouldn't understand it (science was never my strong subject), but I think we need to completely throw out this all-too-rare flood business. I am convinced that global warming is having a drastically negative effect on our climate. Winters are becoming colder, summers hotter, storms more intense. Weather extremes are widening. I don't recall in my lifetime a tsumami of the intensity that struck Sumartra in 2004. Now another one has ravaged Japan just seven years later. Look how much more intense hurricanes have become in the last three years.

So forget and abandon this 100-year flood business. I expect one to hit us within the next 20 years, at the latest. And then another one less than 10 years after that. So here's my message to the Corps of Engineers: Re-calculate that 100 year flood to say, at best, a 15-year-flood, and make sure our levees are built to withstand that kind of constant barrage. Our lives and our livelihoods depend on it.

Another go for 'Les Miz'

I first saw the musical version of Les Miserables on Broadway 25 years ago now and I have attempted to see it somewhere, someplace at least once a year since. I never tire of it. I want it made into a film, but I want it done correctly. Many years ago I heard director Alan Parker was assigned to bring it to the screen and that got me excited. Parker, after all, was the director of Fame, The Commitments and Pink Floyd: The Wall, which I thought was the perfect pedigree for a director of Les Miz. He also directed such other films as Bugsy Malone, Midnight Express, Shoot the Moon, Birdy, Angel Heart and Mississippi Burning. For those he earned a mulligan for the wretched The Life of David Gale. That mistake was made eight years ago and perhaps Parker hasn't forgiven himself because he hasn't directed another film since.

Now the word is out that Les Miserables is being readied by Universal, which is talking to Tom Hooper about directing it. OK, he just did win the Oscar for The King's Speech which certainly gives him some cred. I also loved his work on the much-underrated The Damned United. So right now I'm fine with Hooper and, being 28-years Parker's junior, he just may have more energy for what promises to be a demanding shoot. I just hope he doesn't cast "names" in the leads. If ever a film called out for unknown talents, it's the musical version of Les Miserables. Good news is Cameron Mackintosh, the musical's original producer, is closely involved in the project. The bad news is that William Nicholson, who wrote that hackneyed script for Gladiator, has been hired to write a script for Les Miz. Problem is Les Miz is an opera -- it doesn't need a script. A script, in fact, could doom this production.

I'm in a wait-and-see mode for now.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Available on DVD: "Monsters"

There’s so much right with Gareth Edwards’s low-budget alien invasion tale, Monsters, that you almost want to brush aside everything that’s not up to snuff. The writer-director more-than-convincingly creates a near-future Earth co-inhabited by humans and tentacled beasties from space, gussying up actual locations in Mexico, Belize and Texas (filmed guerrilla-style) with seamlessly integrated home-computer effects. Every image looks like millions of bucks, though the whole thing cost only $15,000. And Edwards should be further commended for using his F/X with a sparing eye, the better to focus on the human story at the movie’s center.

Photographer Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is sent to find his wealthy boss’s daughter, Samantha (Whitney Able), and bring her back home. Circumstances force them to travel through the alien-populated infected zone (a godforsaken Mexico), which leads to a very well-played tentative romance. Yet they also have a number of unbearably on-the-nose exchanges: Staring at a massive dividing wall on the U.S. border, the lily-white duo dreamily remarks how gosh-darn weird it is to be looking at America from the outside. There’s way too much of this overly explicit verbal folderol. It’s frustrating, considering Edwards deftly upends conventions elsewhere, as in the scene where Kaulder and Samantha get their first full look at the titular monsters — a strangely sublime piece of work worthy of a stronger film.

"Monsters" trailer

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Want to know the picture that will win the Oscar next year?



The winner will be the film that most successfully follows this formula. It hasn’t failed yet.

The Carriedaway Tapes

By now, everyone who is interested has learned interim Mayor D-Wayne Carriedaway lost his battle to suppress the police tape recordings of the encounter with Archie and Andrew or Mrs. Mayor or whoever it was that caused such a ruckus at his domicile that Carriedaway was forced to call the personal number of the Dallas Chief of Police to stop the brouhaha. They also know there was no Archie or Andrew, but a knife-wielding Mrs. Mayor who wanted to discard some of Carriedaway’s aprons.

So what’s the big deal? It’s certainly nothing about aprons or the fact that Mrs. Mayor goes after hubby with a knife. The big deal is the fact that the tapes prove Carriedaway is a liar and that it is probably wise not to believe another word that comes out of the man’s mouth. I know I won’t.

One more look back, beauty that can't be denied

Why Mike Rawlings lost my vote for mayor

Not that he really had my vote to begin with, although he stood a better chance of nailing it than Ron Natinsky, who is just Da Mayor all over again.

But today I got this slick new mailer from the Rawlings campaign designed to do exactly the opposite of what it succeeded in accomplishing. On the cover it says “It will take a leader from outside City Hall to change how they do business inside.” That could be true, but it will also take someone with far more knowledge than Rawlings has about exactly “how they do business inside.”

For example, the brochure states: “As Mayor, Mike (Editor’s Note: I guess, if elected, he will want to be known as ‘Mayor Mike.’) will build a strong foundation of basics that we can build upon into the future. That means … smooth roads, free of potholes. Beautiful parks where our families are safe to gather and spend time together. Libraries that are open and equipped with the books and resources to serve families. And rec centers that give our young people a safe place to have fun and get fit.”

And all the while I’m reading this I’m thinking “Where in the hell is he going to get the money to do all this?” Of course, as My Hero reminds me, Rawlings has built somewhat of a reputation for twisting corporate arms to get them to contribute to municipal causes. Still …

But then the very next paragraph of the brochure says: “We’re in a tough economy; and the upcoming budget is going to be just as difficult as the last one. Mike is the only candidate in the race who has personally managed billion-dollar budgets, cut waste and streamlined systems to make them more efficient and profitable. As Mayor, he will work department-by-department, examining the budget and getting taxpayers the greatest return on their investment.”

What? Does he really, in his wildest imagination, think he can accomplish all he’s promising simply by a “department-by-department” budget review? He’s not only from outside City Hall, he’s from another planet.

Here’s a man, because he is, by his own admission, “from outside City Hall,” who has never seen City Manager Mary Suhm prepare a budget. The man is an idiot if he thinks Suhm will submit anything but the leanest, most efficient budget imaginable. If there ever was any “waste” in a Mary Suhm budget, she found it and cut it years ago. The problem now is she has not only removed all the fat from the municipal budget, but also the meat. Now she is attacking the bones to submit a plan that will allow the city to operate within the confines of its current revenue streams. No one works harder, with greater diligence, achieving better results from the resources available to her than the budget wizard, the great Mary Suhm. What the next mayor is going to be faced with is not a budget that needs department-by-department examination to cut waste, but a bevy of City Council colleagues demanding cut services be restored.

But it’s obvious to me Mike Rawlings doesn’t want to face reality, at least not yet. He just wants to pander to the body politic, spouting anything, even if it makes no sense, just to get elected. But, in doing so, he has lost my vote.

Good night Liz



Today and for the next few days, the public, ardent fans and writers will struggle to define Elizabeth Taylor, to try to explain who she was and why, and to peg her finest role. To me, this luminous actress — the last of the great movie stars — was simply Liz and her finest role was as Elizabeth Taylor.

I was an impressionable 14 when I fell in love with Elizabeth Taylor, watching her up there on the giant screen in the movie Giant. I went to see the movie the day it opened because I was a member of the teenage James Dean cult and came away from it knowing why Jett Rink, Bick Benedict and a host of others lusted after this dark-haired beauty. Looking back at the film today I see a magnificent actress in the making; back then, I saw only the knockout.

A year later I began studying drama, the same year I saw her in Raintree County, which she made seem like a far better film then than it comes across today. But the drama classes made me begin appreciating her as an actress as well as a beautiful movie star, an appreciation that grew immeasurably the following year when I saw her in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Watching that movie at that time was terribly confusing for me, a 16-year-old. Because of the censorship standards of the time, the picture skirted around the edges of the sexual orientation of the character played by Paul Newman. So when Liz stood in their bedroom clad in a slip — as wondrous a creature as these eyes had beheld up until that time — for the life of me I could not understand why Newman didn’t want to pounce on her immediately.

The following year had Liz in yet another Tennessee Williams script, Suddenly Last Summer, which attracted every red-blooded male by promising a scene in which Taylor, wearing a one-piece white bathing suit, was dragged into the ocean and when the water hit the suit, it became transparent. Of course, that didn’t happen, but it sure did fill the theaters at first with anxious fellas.

But it’s that quartet of films — Giant, Raintree County, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly Last Summer — that will always frame my Elizabeth Taylor portrait. The year of Suddenly Last Summer was also the year of Taylor’s first “shocking” headlines — her “stealing” of Eddie Fisher away from Debbie Reynolds. I thought at the time — I still do, in fact — the world was too hard on Liz for all of that.

I didn’t like the film BUtterfield 8 for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the feeling she was forcing Eddie Fisher on me in ways he hadn’t earned. I also didn’t think she deserved the Oscar for that part and won only because of sympathy and politics. (My choice would have been Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment.) BUtterfield 8 began the slow fade of Liz in my mind as a screen acting presence. After that to me she was famous only for being famous. I never ceased to marvel at her resolve, I just no longer admired the talent (although I will give her credit for de-glamorizing herself for Virginia Woolf — she was only 34 when she made that film).

When I learned of Liz’s death this morning, I didn’t so much feel a sadness as much as an emptiness. The Liz Taylor I knew, admired and, yes, loved disappeared 50 years ago. Her later marriages to John Warner and especially to Larry Fortensky seemed like macabre, twisted jokes on the illustrious life that came before. I will admit to respecting her battles on behalf of AIDs, especially her courage in undertaking them at a time when AIDs was regarded a dirty little secret, but I was not on her side in her defense of Michael Jackson.

But she gave me Giant, Raintree County, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly Last Summer (it would be later, on the television screen, that I would discover A Place in the Sun) and that was more than enough.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Allen goes Gogh

A look at the poster for Woody Allen's latest, Midnight in Paris, which will open the 64th Cannes Film Festival May 11. Although only Owen Wilson is pictured, the film also stars a blonde Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Kathy Bates and Adrian Brody. The film will also open in some 400 French theaters on May 11 and, in an unprecedented move, those theaters will also receive live streaming of Cannes's opening festivities. None other than Robert De Niro will be chairing the jury at Cannes this year.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Available on DVD: "Conviction"

Had Conviction — formerly titled Betty Anne Waters — been made in the '80s, it would've starred Sally Field or Jessica Lange as an unlikely system-bucker setting her jaw in determination to save her family. Now, it stars Hilary Swank, who leads with her chin and provides a convincing earthiness but can't overcome the film's form-letter feel.


Betty Anne (Swank), a small-town Massachusetts girl and her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) have been local roustabouts since they were kids. As adults, Kenny's had numerous run-ins with cops and Betty's a divorced mom with two sons who always supports her brother, even when he's picked up for murder one day in 1982.

Betty Anne knows Kenny didn't commit the crime he's serving a life sentence for. So, on her bartender's salary, she takes part-time community college classes to earn a law degree and get access to court documents. With the help of New York attorney Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) and his Innocence Project, Betty Anne campaigns to have forensic evidence exonerate Kenny

Based on a true story, the movie's best scenes involve its heroine breaking down barriers by force of will as much as by legal wrangling. As in Boys Don't Cry and Million Dollar Baby, Swank's strength as an actress is in the integrity she gives working-class characters and her steeliness helps Tony Goldwyn's movie move past its by-the-numbers structure.

Rockwell, though, is the movie's ace in the hole. Over the last decade, he has become one of the most reliable of character actors, modulating his wiry dangerousness without losing his edge. When Kenny, during visits with Betty Anne, sits listening to her progress reports, we see the effects of prison in his face. But Rockwell doesn't go slack — instead, he seems to be banking his manic energy.

It's at those times when Conviction makes its strongest case.

"Conviction" trailer

Bruce Springsteen with the Dropkick Murphys



Ths took place Friday at Boston's House of Blues. I guess this is one way for a 60-year-old Springsteen to stay young.

My Top 10 NBA teams

Last week’s rank in parenthesis
1. Miami Heat, 48-22 (2)
2. Los Angeles Lakers, 49-20 (3)
3. Chicago Bulls, 49-19 (4)
4. San Antonio Spurs, 56-13 (1)
5. Boston Celtics, 49-19 (5)
6. Orlando Magic, 44-26 (6)
7. Denver Nuggets, 41-29 (8)
8. Dallas Mavericks, 48-21 (7)
9. Oklahoma City Thunder, 45-23 (9)
10. New Orleans Hornets, 40-31 (10)

NCAA tourney is geographically challenged

Don’t get me wrong, I love the NCAA basketball tournament. It’s my favorite sports event of the year. More excitement, more heartbreak, more euphoria, more unpredictable outcomes than any other sports event ever. I will admit the tournament was even better before the NBA ruined it by stealing talent way too early, but how can you complain that much when, on the first day of the tournament, five games are decided by two points or less.

However, the NCAA must — absolutely must — do a better job of identifying its regional matches. Today I watched a West Regional game played in Charlotte, N.C.; an East Regional played in Cleveland and two Southwest Regional games in Chicago. This wouldn’t be so bad except this is the NCAA and the “C” in that quartet of letters stands for “Collegiate.” These are institutes of higher learning playing in these games. I found this geographical mangling in this context embarrassing.

What the NCAA men’s tourney must do is adopt the same nomenclature as the women’s tournament so that the regional is named after he location of the regional finals. Thus in the men’s tournament this year we should have had the Anaheim Regional, the Newark Regional, the San Antonio Regional and the New Orleans Regional. It’s too late, of course, to do this renaming this year, but it should be on table for the 2012 tournament.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Radical idea for an Oscar host

The idea came to me when I read that a Botoxed Billy Crystal would consider returning as the host of the Oscar telecast if the Academy made certain changes to the show, like reduce the number of awards that are handed out.

The Academy should ignore Crystal's idiotic demands and go in the opposite direction. It should finally decide to drop the idea of a "host" completely, eschew any and all attempts at comedy patter and, instead, concentrate on the awards and the films.

The show opens with the orchestra playing a medley of recognizable film scores, then an unseen announcer says "Please welcome (actor) and (actress)." The two come out to present the first award. There are no attempts at humorous banter between the two. Instead they announce the award they are going to present and after each nominee is announced, an extended film clip is shown that clearly illustrates why the nominee was selected. This process is repeated for each presentation.

The reason the Oscars are not as popular with the public as they used to be is because they are no movie stars anymore. The Oscars have lost their star power. What attracts people to movies these days are the films -- not the actors/actresses in them -- and the films that draw the crowds are not the ones that will be nominated for the major Oscars. If they are nominated at all, it will be in technical categories so give more, not less, time to those categories by showing more clips of those films when they are nominated. And have the actors in those films paired as your presenters: Robert Downey Jr. and Cameron Diaz from Iron Man 2, Maria Wasikowska and Johnny Depp from Alice in Wonderland, Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson from Twilight, Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page from Inception, etc. You get the picture.

One more thing. Absolutely, positively find a way to prohibit Oscar recipients from reciting a list of "thank-yous" in their acceptance speeches. If they start in that direction, immediately cut to another clip of the winning film.

It may not be foolproof, but I have yet to hear a better idea.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Currently available on DVD: "Dogtooth"

Dogtooth, featuring one of the most dysfunctional families in recent cinematic memory, doesn't rank as a great film, but it's difficult to take your eyes off it, as you wonder what impossibly bizarre thing might happen next. It's like watching a collection of Leave It to Beaver episodes co-directed by Lars von Trier and David Lynch.

The grim, somehow comic proceedings begin as we meet three walled-in college-age kids who have been sheltered (to the nth degree) by their misguided - and cruel - parents. The three children, in their 20s, are never allowed to venture beyond their yard, because the big, bad world out there is way too dangerous.

But whatever's happening outside couldn't possibly be as spooky as what's happening inside.

The family speaks in an alternative language (which provides some darkly funny moments), and sexual activity around the household is odd, to say the least.

What prevents this highly original work from being a masterpiece is its lack of narrative drive and character development. After the first 30 minutes, the set pieces become repetitious, even if they get increasingly shocking. The skilled director, Yorgos Lanthimos, gets the aesthetics perfectly right, but the script leaves the brave cast with almost nowhere to go.

Nevertheless, this Greek film has something to say about sheltered family life, and it ain't pretty.

"Dogtooth" trailer

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Dallas City Budget: Why there will be a tax increase and the budget killer no one is talking about

  • If you, like me, regard a tax as any money you pay to a governmental entity in return for some form of service from that entity, then be prepared for some hefty tax increases from the City of Dallas in the upcoming fiscal year. The major one -- the one most homeowners will have to pay -- will come in the form of a water rate increase. There will be other "fee" (read that "tax") increases, to be sure, but the water rate increase -- and I understand it's going to be a hefty one -- will be the biggest one and will hit the most residents. There's also the chance that after two consecutive years of sanitation fee decreases, that rate may also go up. There is one glimmer of hope on this one, however. The city is proposing an idea that basically says all garbage collected in Dallas should be dumped in Dallas, namely at the city-operated McCommas Bluff Landfill. Private garbage haulers are launching a major attack on this proposal and are willing to spend whatever it takes to convince council members this is not a good idea. They have already bought off a couple of southern sector council members and are working on others. If their efforts fail, expect to see sanitation rates remain at their current levels or possibly decrease for the third straight year. Should they succeed, sanitation rates surely will increase
  • Why will they increase? It has a large part to do with something on everyone's mind, but an item that has yet to be connected it to the Dallas budget (at least outside the city's budget planners) and that's the rising cost of gasoline. In case you haven't noticed, the city operates a lot of vehicles, not only garbage and recycling trucks, but police cars, ambulances, fire trucks and many other vehicles. All of them are dealing with the higher price of gasoline the rest of us are facing. Increased fuel costs are going to have a dramatic impact on the upcoming budget and I'm dreading what services the city proposes to cut to pay for these costs.

Currently available on DVD: "Kings of Pastry"

Early on, not all the signs are promising for Kings of Pastry, a documentary by the veteran team of Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker (Moon Over Broadway, The War Room). The jaunty version of The Marseillaise that keeps popping up on the soundtrack contributes to an overall feeling of fustiness and inconsequence as we’re introduced to several contenders for membership in the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, an exclusive fraternity of pastry chefs.

But the film builds in interest and intrigue as it goes along, helped immeasurably by the directors’ choice — canny or fortunate or both — of the astonishingly good-natured and likable Jacquy Pfeiffer, an Alsace-born, Chicago-based chef, as their chief protagonist.

The filmmakers follow Pfeiffer and two other chefs during the weeks and months of preparation for the judging, held once every four years. Sweets ranging from delicate cookies to ruinously extravagant sculptures are made, tasted, thrown out and made again. There is unintentional pastry-chef humor — “There’s no law about nougatine”; “Your table is a mess, horreur” — and, once the competition begins, nerve-racking suspense and bittersweet resolution. You’ll be surprised by how devastating the collapse of a chocolate tower can be.

"Kings of Pastry" trailer

Looking at the Dallas City Council races

Monday was the deadline for entering into this, so let's see how the races shake out

In District 1, Delia Jasso will face no opposition in her bid for a second term. The second time around is usually when incumbents are the most vulnerable so I'm betting Jasso is going to make it the full eight years, if she wants to remain on the council that long. Pauline Medrano does have an opponent in District 2, but I don't see Billy MacLeod offering much resistance to the Medrano machine.

District 3 could be interesting. Personally, I see incumbent Dave Neumann as vulnerable and I will be anxious to see what kind of a campaign attorney Scott Griggs can run against Neumann.

In District 4, D-Wayne has no opposition; neither does Vonciel Hill in District 5. With Steve Salazar term limited, District 6 is one of the few with no incumbent in the race. I'm thinking his replacement is going to be former JP Luis Sepulveda. He has one opponent, community volunteer Monica Alonzo.

In District 7, Carolyn (Somewhat less of an embarrassment than she was in her first term) Davis has drawn two opponents, but I give neither one of them much of a chance. She's already won re-election once and I don't see either retired auditor Helene McKinney or community activist Casie Pierce knocking her off this time. One can hope, but one can also hope to win the lottery as well.

Tennell Atkins is running unopposed in District 8 and in District 9, the mighty Sheffie Kadane will be running against a high school kid named Robert Foster. Go easy on him Sheffie.

I see Cynthia Durbin providing only token (if that) opposition to Jerry Allen in District 10 and Linda Koop is running unopposed in District 11. In District 12, where term limited Ron Natinsky is going for the mayor's chair, three candidates have filed to succeed him: retired CPA Donna Starnes, DART board member William Tsao and former city council member Sandy Greyson, whom I'm betting will win this race without even a runoff.

Ann Margolin is unopposed in District 13 which means this seat is hers for the next six years if she wants to occupy it that long.

That brings us to District 14 where three-term incumbent Angela Hunt is somewhat shockingly facing four opponents who apparently (and erroneously) believe she is beatable because of her vote last September to raise property taxes. I hate to break it to these four misguided souls, but the voters in her district approved of her property tax stance; in fact, at a series of townhall meetings they insisted on it. You heard it here first: Hunt takes all four down without a runoff.

That brings us to the mayor's race. Right now I'm leaning toward voting for the only one of the four candidates in the race that doesn't stand a chance of winning. As for who is going to win? It's just way too early to tell right now.

"127 Hours" starring Wile E. Coyote

Currently available on DVD: "The Yellow Handkerchief"

The adage that you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear certainly applies as much to actors and the roles they inhabit as it does to the materials used in making accessories. In The Yellow Handkerchief, the gifted William Hurt, who specializes in playing high-strung, upscale neurotics, brings his formidable skills to the character of Brett, an itinerant oil rigger with a criminal record who, as the story begins, is released from a Louisiana prison after serving six years for manslaughter. The circumstances of the crime are only revealed in a flashback late in the film.

Hurt adopts a Kentucky accent for the role, and in certain shots his face reveals the flinty exterior of a hard-bitten Southern loner with low expectations who has endured some very tough times. But if Hurt gives a meticulously detailed performance, he is still so innately refined that Brett never quite registers as an authentic blue-collar type, either vocally or in his body language. Ultimately, men like Brett are just not in Hurt’s DNA, and you are left with the impression of observing a silk purse artfully (but only partially) disguised as a sow’s ear.

The Yellow Handkerchief, adapted from an early-1970s story by Pete Hamill and moved to Louisiana bayou country in 2007, is directed by Udayan Prasad, best known for his 1997 film, My Son the Fanatic. In The Yellow Handkerchief Brett, newly released from prison, encounters two volatile, insecure teenagers, Gordy (Eddie Redmayne) and Martine (Kristen Stewart), who have themselves just met for the first time, at a convenience store. Almost by accident, Brett, Martine and Gordy end up taking a roundabout trip together to New Orleans in Gordy’s beat-up blue convertible.

Wending their way through a rural Louisiana populated with alligators and snakes and pocked with the evidence of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, these three wary, defensive strangers gradually warm to one another in between their emotional scuffles. As they stop at one scraggly site after another, the settings, at once lush and desolate, and sensitively photographed by Chris Menges, reflect their psychological ups and downs.

The movie is a four-character study, the fourth person being Brett’s former wife, May (Maria Bello), a low-end boat saleswoman, who is introduced in flashbacks as Brett’s story leaks out of him bit by bit. Although the movie barely sketches its characters’ backgrounds in Erin Dignam’s elliptical screenplay, in little bursts of confession we learn that the mechanically adept Gordy is at least partly American Indian and feels he belongs nowhere. Because Redmayne is English, attended Eton and often plays aristocrats (he was his mother’s sexually ambiguous incest victim in Savage Grace”), he is as far away from the geeky Southern loner he portrays in The Yellow Handkerchief as Hurt is from an oil rigger.

Stewart’s Martine is a sullen, working-class version of her character, Bella, in the Twilight movies. Defiant and needy with a complex love-hate relationship with her father, who is never seen in the film, she steadily gravitates toward Brett as a parental figure. Brett rewards her trust by imparting his hard-won practical wisdom when she needs it most.

Martine and Gordy get off to a bad start, when he cajoles her to give him a friendly kiss that he pushes much too far, too fast. The same happens early in Brett’s relationship with May, when Brett mistakes her physical affection for lust and crudely gropes her.

More than anything, The Yellow Handkerchief is about how people read or misread each other’s signals. At various points Brett and May profess to be able to see each other’s histories in their faces. But if they trust their intuitions enough to connect, the everyday misunderstandings that arise threaten to shatter that trust.

In its final 20 minutes The Yellow Handkerchief makes a mawkish leap of faith. Demonstrating how much it likes its characters, the movie makes a mad dash toward a happy ending. Even if you can’t follow it over the rainbow, part of you wants to believe in the pot of gold on the other side.

"The Yellow Handkerchief" Trailer

Monday, March 14, 2011

My Top 25 College Basketball Teams

This will be my last ratings until the completion of the NCAA tournament. Last week's rank in parenthesis.
1.  Ohio State 32-2 (1)
2.  Duke 30-4 (3)
3.  Kansas 32-2 (2)
4.  Texas 27-7 (4)
5.  Pittsburgh 27-5 (5)
6.  Purdue 25-7 (6)
7.  Kentucky 25-8 (9)
8.  San Diego State 30-2 (12)
9.  BYU 29-4 (7)
10. Washington 23-10 (10)
11. Wisconsin 23-8 (8)
12. Syracuse 26-7 (11)
13. Louisville 25-9 (14)
14. Notre Dame 26-6 (15)
15. North Carolina 26-7 (13)
16. Connecticut 26-9 (NR)
17. Illinois 19-13 (16)
18. West Virginia 20-11 (17)
19. Arizona 27-7 (21)
20. UNLV 24-8 (23)
21. Florida 26-7 (24)
22. Cincinnati 25-8 (18)
23. Villanova 21-11 (20)
24. Georgetown 21-10 (19)
25. Utah State 29-3 (25)
Dropped Out: Vanderbilt

My Top 10 NBA teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  San Antonio Spurs 54-12 (1)
2.  Miami Heat 45-21 (2)
3.  Los Angeles Lakers 47-20 (4)
4.  Chicago Bulls 47-18 (5)
5.  Boston Celtics 47-17 (3)
6.  Orlando Magic 42-25 (6)
7.  Dallas Mavericks 47-19 (7)
8.  Denver Nuggets 39-27 (8)
9.  Oklahoma City Thunder 42-23 (9)
10. New Orleans Hornets 39-29 (10)

Criteria for reviewing films on this journal

  • All the films reviewed here are ones I recommend. I don't want to waste my time or yours talking about a DVD that isn't worth a rental.
  • They are all films that have somehow, someway, slipped through the cracks. Either they were only in limited release or they just stagnated at the box office. Whatever the reason, they did not garner the big bucks from the movie going public.

As a result, you won't see a review of Annette Bening in The Kids Are All Right, but you will see a review of Annette Bening in Mother and Child. I won't feature James Franco in 127 Hours, but I will in Howl. So don't expect to see reviews of Black Swan, The King's Speech or True Grit on here when they become available on DVD (and for those who want to know, True Grit comes out June 7). Anyone reading this has either seen them already or has read enough about them to form an opinion without any help from me. But do expect to see recommendations for the likes of The Four Lions, Waste Land and A Film Unfinished in the upcoming weeks.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Currently available on DVD: "Hideaway"

Hideaway, a French drama with lulling quiets and an undertow of emotional violence, gets off to an unpromising start with two addicts doing what they do best, nodding out and shooting up. The woman in bed, Mousse (Isabelle Carré), is sleeping or passed out, her hair spilling around her head. Her lover, Louis (Melvil Poupaud), is playing the guitar, his dirty fingers finding the notes as a cigarette burns between his lips. But he’s barely more animate and he soon fades, this time for good. Done in by a bad fix, he dies less than 11 minutes into Hideaway, upending Mousse’s life and perhaps our expectations for this story.

One of the pleasures of Hideaway (Le Refuge), from François Ozon, an erratic talent of satisfying films like Under the Sand and misfires like 8 Women, is its insistence on ambiguity. The slowly unfolding narrative isn’t particularly novel — Mousse turns out to be pregnant and cleans up, kind of — and the ending can be glimpsed before it’s tied up rather too neatly. But before then, Ozon brings us close to Mousse, an often opaque, prickly, at times unlikable character who proves more complex than her addiction and her pregnancy might suggest. And he gives her a fine foil in Louis’s gay brother, Paul (the newcomer Louis-Ronan Choisy), whose insertion into her life and the story take both to unexpected places.

By the time Paul encroaches, Louis is buried and Mousse’s belly is jutting out from her slim body, thrusting her center of gravity forward and seemingly pointing her in the direction of motherhood and all that implies. She’s living in a bucolic country house that belongs to someone whom, she tells Paul, she slept with when she was 16. “He thinks,” Mousse says of her lover turned landlord, “he’s my dad.” The casualness with which she delivers that line, in between mouthfuls over dinner, is something of a minor jolt — there’s an entire other movie embedded in that one sentence — and it helps explain how Ozon shades in his characters and builds his story: with a few words, you catch sight of how the girl became the woman.

Nearly everything that follows works in a similar, deceptively casual register. There are minor incidents (some anxiety about a stove) and notably underlined details (Mousse staring at Paul’s body, her gaze and the camera lingering over a curve in his back). Another character, Serge (Pierre Louis-Calixte), provides some modest diversion. Mousse guzzles beer and prescription methadone. And, in one scene of her bathing, she looks at herself in a mirror, doubling her image. She then lies back and cups her belly with her hands, a gesture that suggests that this woman who, seconds before was captivated by, or just lost in, her own reflection, has begun, perhaps for the first time, to think about the life growing inside her.

Carré was actually pregnant during the shoot, which thickens the movie’s realism (nothing screams fraud like a pillow stuffed under a shirt) and further complicates the character. At one point Mousse tells Paul that when she learned that Louis had died and that she was pregnant, she decided to have the child because, as she put it, she thought her dead lover would continue to live on inside her. That might sound romantic or hopeful to some ears, but initially there’s something morbid and troubling about her confession, particularly since one of the last images of Louis is of him shooting up and collapsing into Mousse’s embrace, a physical surrender that Ozon stages in a visual echo of a classic Pietà.

This invocation of Jesus and the mourning Mary remains unsettling, partly because at first it’s unclear if Ozon is sentimentalizing his characters or groping for spiritual substance. (Mothers and their children have, with varying meaning and impact, populated some of Ozon’s other films, most recently in Ricky, a fable about an infant who sprouts wings, and Time to Leave, a melodrama about a dying man.) But while the Pietà imagery startles, it makes increasing sense as the story builds around it. Because as Hideaway deepens and evolves, you understand that the image of Mousse cradling Louis is a manifestation of her love: this was how she held him, with a tender love that in its depth was itself holy.

"Hideaway" Trailer

Saturday, March 12, 2011

What's wrong with today's comedies (Part 2)



Yesterday I theorized that the reason today’s movie comedies can’t hold a candle (or a bell, or even a book) to the comedies of 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s is that the comedies of today star and, in large part, are produced by second-rate comics (Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Martin Lawrence, Chris Rock—you all know who you are) who are not great shakes as actors. On the other hand, all the great comedies of yesteryear featured excellent dramatic actors. I used Dr. Strangelove as an example only because this notion struck me while watching Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece yesterday.

Well, I watched it again today and I realized that why great actors are needed to make comedies work is because they inherently know you must play the part straight to make it truly funny. They don’t play the scene for laughs — they trust their ability enough to know the laughs will come. Look at the above scene. If you read that dialog on a piece of paper it isn’t funny. I had the opportunity to read the M*A*S*H film screenplay. It is painfully unfunny. Yet, played by the actors cast in the picture under the direction of the master, Robert Altman, M*A*S*H becomes one of the funniest films ever made.

Today’s comedians think comedies are nothing more than a series of gag reels and so they rely on physical humor—too often crude physical humor— to try to make you laugh. A turd in a bowl of soup is less funny than the written dialog in M*A*S*H or the written script from the above Strangelove scene, but what today’s comedian/filmmakers don’t realize is that type of physical humor is just as unfunny when transposed to the screen.

As the great Philip Wuntch so wisely pointed out, it also helps that yesteryear’s comedies had the benefit of superior scripts. And they did. But let’s look at who wrote those scripts. Bringing Up Baby, considered the height of screwball comedy, was written by Dudley Nichols. I’m not sure he wrote another comedy in his illustrious career that included such screenplays as the original Stagecoach, Scarlet Street, And Then There Were None, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Hurricane, The Informer, The Lost Patrol, just to name a few. The extremely literate script of The Lady Eve is the work of Monckton Hoffe as in, “Who in the hell is Monckton Hoffe?” His Girl Friday was written by Charles Lederer who also wrote Kiss of Death, the film that illustrated the need for handicap ramps.

The point I’m trying to make here is even the great comedies of yesteryear were cast with great dramatic actors but also featured screenplays by writers who made their mark mostly with dramas (if they made a lasting mark at all).

In other words, they all knew how to play it straight. They knew it was best not to try to force or try to illicit laughter from the audience, but to let it flow naturally from the situation. Today’s writers/comedians ought to follow their example.

Friday, March 11, 2011

What's wrong with today's comedies



I was watching Dr. Strangelove for the one zillionth time last night and during some of the film's zanier moments featuring George C. Scott (not only the scene above but the one in which he tells how the bomber pilot can make it to his target), I was, between guffaws, wondering why Hollywood can't make a decent comedy these days.

And, like a bolt, it came to me. The stars of Strangelove -- Scott, Peter Sellers, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens -- were all great actors. Then I began to look at the great comedies of the '30s, '40, '50s and into the '60s and discovered they were all populated by great actors.

The comedies of today, on the other hand, are populated by comedians and not all that good ones. But look who starred in the great comedies of yore: Cary Grant, James Stewart, Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Rock Hudson, Jack Lemmon, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Rosalind Russell, Henry Fonda, William Powell, etc. were equally at home in dramas as well as comedies.

Look who’s in comedies today – Adam Sandler, Will Farrell, Steve Carell, Martin Lawrence. Would you cast any of them in a serious dramatic role?. Can you see any of them ever being nominated for an acting Oscar?

The closest thing I have seen to a fairly decent comedy recently was Red and the only reason it works at all is because of its cast — Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Richard Dreyfuss, all fine actors, not comedians. The Devil Wears Prada worked because it starred Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway and Emily Blunt. Yes A Fish Called Wanda had some Monty Python refugees but it also had Kevin Kline and Jamie Lee Curtis in the major roles. Pierce Brosnan was brilliant in The Matador.

So what we need right now is for someone like Tina Fey to get together with Steve Martin and have the two of them write a comic screenplay that will have Sean Penn and Annette Bening in the leads.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Currently available on DVD: "Howl"

As cautious as the poem itself was not, Howl began as a documentary but turned into something else in its making. It honors poet Allen Ginsberg, played here by a studious James Franco, and spends a good deal of its time re-creating highlights (verbatim, but selectively chosen) of the 1957 obscenity trial brought on by the raging poem championed, and then published, by City Lights bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

The poem's images of restless, rootless searching; carousing, yearning and mourning; institutional madhouse nightmares; and Beat icon Neal Cassady on a sexual tear are depicted in several animated sequences designed by artist Eric Drooker. (There's also a new Drooker-created graphic novel edition of the poem, working the same trippy visual territory.) A third strand of the script takes us to the first public reading of Howl in 1955; in a fourth, Ginsberg speaks to an unseen interviewer, around the time of the trial, about catch phrases (“The Beat generation? Just a bunch of guys trying to get published”) and Ginsberg's attempts to rid himself of an “inauthentic” persona.

Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman are careful researchers and passionate ones. Franco can be a wonderful screen presence, in everything from Milk to Pineapple Express but he appears to have gotten caught in a mimicry trap with this role, working like an earnest student to nail Ginsberg's speech rhythms and lovely little hesitations — all of which is an interpretive start, but not quite a finish.

David Strathairn plays San Francisco prosecutor Ralph McIntosh, who did what he could to prevent Ginsberg's feverish literary landmark from infecting the nation's morals. Jon Hamm plays the attorney for the defense; other roles include a University of San Diego literature professor played by Jeff Daniels, starchy as you please, brought in by the prosecution to put the poem in its place.

It didn't work; the poem would not stay put. Epstein and Friedman see in Ginsberg a man who lived too long in the closet but found his way out on his own terms. It's well-crafted, but I wish the film showed us an additional dimension or two of the central figure, who once said the great challenge in writing, any kind of writing, is “to write the same way you are.”

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Now available on DVD: "Catfish"

There’s a lot I can’t tell you about Catfish, the entertaining but highly problematic documentary (quotes optional) that has been causing raptures and squabbles ever since it debuted at Sundance in January 2010. A story of three young New York filmmakers discovering a social-media mystery and pursuing it to the ends of the earth — all right, Michigan — it seems to play as vastly different movies depending on who’s looking at it. To 20-somethings for whom Facebook is an extension of their root-file personalities, it’s a chilling, suspenseful ghost story; to their parents, it’s a cautionary tale. To urban hipsters, it’s a warning about flyover-country freaks; to Middle Americans, a joke about naive urban hipsters. To the sympathetic, it’s a tragedy of loneliness. To the doubters, it’s an obnoxious fraud.

What’s clear is that filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman — as well as Ariel’s brother Nev, a professional photographer who’s the film’s de facto star — are in way over their heads. Catfish documents Nev’s growing online friendship over the course of several months with a Midwestern family, the Pierces, whose 8-year-old daughter, Abby, sends him a painting based on one of his photographs. She’s clearly a prodigy, and as the photos and artwork flow back and forth, Nev becomes close with Abby’s mom, Angela, her dad, Vince — the whole extended clan. When he gets to know Abby’s grown half-sister, an amateur singer and model named Megan, the movie becomes a long-distance romance charged with delight and young lust.

Of course, Nev and Megan don’t really know each other. All of the Schulman/Pierce communication takes place in pixel-space against a whirring digital scrim of Facebook/texting/IM. Live phone calls are the only proof of actual existence. Because of that, the courtship is both virginal and hot: The two can’t keep their virtual hands off each other. Nev, a toothy young charmer, is so smitten with Megan that he Photoshops their images together — the 21st-century version of carving initials in a tree.

And then — but I can say no more, other than to note that what may come as a jaw-dropping shock to some viewers will be no surprise to others. After a certain point, Catfish is structured as a suspense thriller, and its sense of unease is punctuated by eerie moments of revelation but also some of the goggle-eyed fear of rural America that made The Blair Witch Project unintentionally comic.

What keeps you watching is the filmmakers’ flair for dramatizing their story entirely within the visual signifiers of Screenworld. When Nev, Ariel, and Henry take a plane trip, we follow their progress via Google Earth animation; when they journey by car, the Garmin GPS screen is their lone candle against the spooky Midwestern darkness. And so on and so forth: Nothing is not mediated. Clever as this is, no larger point is made: This is just how their generation processes the world. One wonders whether the three would even exist without their electronic mirrors.

As for the Pierce family — but I can say no more. A number of observers have raised the possibility that everything in Catfish is a hoax, a put-on engineered by smug, ambitious young con artists. It’s possible, but, honestly, I don’t think the filmmakers deserve that much credit. I do think that once they saw what was happening they realized they had a hell of a movie on their hands and began making that movie rather than recording reality.

Squint right, and you can feel them fictionalizing the story as they experience it, shaping the shots, thinking ahead to how they’ll cut sequences for goosebumps or pathos or laughs. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn they reshot bits that didn’t work out satisfactorily, staged scenes involving themselves, and rearranged chronology to suit the “narrative.’’ Hindsight and editing software are wonderful things, but they can obscure the truth of a matter as often as they reveal it.

As engrossing as Catfish is, then, it feels wholly disingenuous — not life observed but life tidied up and told. It may be that the filmmakers are too young to see the difference between documentary and fiction; it may be that for them there is no difference. Almost in spite of itself, Catfish raises profound issues about identity and community and belonging — about how much we see of people in the digital era without seeing them at all — yet it’s too superficial to truly engage those issues. When Nev callowly reads his flirty texts with Megan out loud for the camera, we cringe not for her — whoever she is — but for him.

Still, Catfish demands to be seen, if only for the excellent arguments you’ll have about it on the drive home. And if it is real, as I suspect much of it is, it’s impossible to ignore the still, small, enigmatic Wizard of Oz at its very center — a figure desperately begging the filmmakers and us to pay attention to the person behind the curtain.

"Catfish" trailer

Monday, March 7, 2011

"Red Hill' trailer

Currently available on DVD: "Red Hill"

The movie Western has returned. Only this one, Red Hill, is set in Australia, not the American West.

The story takes place in a little over a day and revolves around a young cop, Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten), who has moved to the one-horse town of Red Hill because the doctor thinks the slow life is better for Shane's pregnant wife, who has already suffered one miscarriage.

Only Shane's first day on the job is anything but slow. A convicted killer — Aborigine Jimmy Conway (Tom E. Lewis, scary) — has escaped from prison, where he was serving time for murder. Now he's hellbent on revenge against the people who put him behind bars, especially the town's top cop, Old Bill (Steve Bisley).

With the help of a shotgun, arrows and a boomerang, Conway wipes out anybody who gets in his way. Under writer-producer-director-editor Patrick Hughes, the suspense level is high and the action constant.

You might be reminded of the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men (2007), in which another strange-looking dude unleashes a vengeful bloodbath.

On the minus side, a subplot about a panther on the loose contributes little to Red Hill, and the character of Shane's wife is vastly underwritten. If that doesn't bother you, you'll find Red Hill to be fun entertainment.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Putting pizzazz back in the Oscars

This years Oscars telecast was the lowest-rated ever which has left a lot of folks scratching their heads wondering what they can do to get the audience back. Obviously trying to find that perfect host or combination of hosts isn't the answer. I have seen a couple of suggestions, neither of which I liked.

The first involved directly involving the audience by adding one more Oscar -- a viewer's choice Oscar -- that is voted on by the public at large and announced at the end of the show. That to me trivializes the entire proceedings and don't we already have some kind of viewers choice awards show? Why try to duplicate that?

The second involved a method of slowly eliminating the best picture nominees throughout the show by saying something like, "Finishing 10th in the voting was .... " toward the beginning of the show until, at the end, I'm presuming you only have two contenders left when you announce the best picture nominee. That one doesn't bother me as much as the first idea, but I don't think it will fly with the producers of the individual best picture nominees. How would you like the world to know your film came in last place? Plus, I'm betting the show loses 90 percent of its viewership the moment Inception and Toy Story 3 are eliminated from contention.

Here's my idea. Why not have a worldwide Oscar pool? Offices have 'em. Just about everyone who hosts an Oscar party except moi has one. The Academy prints official ballots that are only available at theaters showing an Oscar nominated film and they are handed out with each ticket purchased for an Oscar nominated film. They are filled out and can either be mailed individually by the person completing the ballot or dropped into a box at the theater which will mail them before a prescribed deadline.

In order to be eligible, a person must select his or her choice in every category. To be able to win, the submitted must pick every category correctly. At the start of the show, the total number of ballots received are flashed on the screen. After the first Oscar is handed out, the number of people still in the running are flashed on the screen. The same after the second Oscar and so on. I can see the suspense mounting for this as the numbers get smaller. Will there be a winner?

If there is one person who gets all the categories correct, that person will receive a one week all-expenses-paid trip to Los Angeles for two that will culminate with the two having front row seats at the next year Oscars presentations. (If the show's producers can find a way to get them on stage I'm betting they'll receive a warmer reception than the president of the Academy -- jeez, what a waste of time that is.) They will also be wined, dined, partied and given tours by others in the movie industry in the week leading up to the Oscars. If there is more than one person who gets all the categories correct, a drawing will be held to determine the winner right after the completion of the Oscar telecast. The winner will be notified by a telephone call placed by one of the four acting Oscar winners that night and a tape of the call will be early in the Oscar telecast the following year. Those who nailed all the categories but did not win the drawing would receive a platinum pass for two that allows free admission for the next year at all participating theaters.

I'd love to hear from those with a better idea.

My Top 25 College Basketball Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Ohio State 28-2 (1)
2.  Kansas 29-2 (2)
3.  Duke 27-4 (3)
4.  Texas 25-6 (5)
5.  Pittsburgh 27-4 (7)
6.  Purdue 25-6 (4)
7.  BYU 27-3 (6)
8.  Wisconsin 23-6 (8)
9.  Kentucky 21-8 (9)
10. Washington 20-10 (10)
11. Syracuse 25-6 (12)
12. San Diego State 27-2 (11)
13. North Carolina 24-6 (13)
14. Louisville 23-8 (14)
15. Notre Dame 25-5 (15)
16. Illinois 19-12 (20)
17. West Virginia 20-10 (17)
18. Cincinnati 24-7 (23)
19. Georgetown 21-9 (16)
20. Villanova 21-10 (21)
21. Arizona 25-6 (18)
22. Vanderbilt 21-9 (22)
23. UNLV 23-7 (NR)
24. Florida 24-6 (NR)
25. Utah State 27-3 (NR)
Dropped out: Maryland, Missouri, Connecticut

My Top 10 NBA Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  San Antonio Spurs 51-11 (2)
2.  Miami Heat 43-19 (1)
3.  Boston Celtics 45-15 (3)
4.  Los Angeles Lakers 44-19 (4)
5.  Chicago Bulls 42-18 (5)
6.  Orlando Magic 40-23 (6)
7.  Dallas Mavericks 45-16 (7)
8.  Denver Nuggets 37-27 (8)
9.  Oklahoma City Thunder 38-22 (10)
10. New Orleans Hornets 36-28 (9)

Saturday, March 5, 2011

'Jack Goes Boating' Trailer (Review follows)

Currently available on DVD: "Jack Goes Boating"

Jack, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Jack Goes Boating, is a middle-aged man encased in baby fat and periodically immobilized by teen terrors. In this film, the actor’s film directorial debut, Jack might be the spawn of Ernest Borgnine’s Marty.

This modest screen adaptation of the play by Bob Glaudini is the story of the gravity-bound fledgling who may never fly, but slowly, slowly, slowly overcomes his fear of water and women. It is a sign of Hoffman’s skill as a director, which may someday match his formidable acting talents, that he shows us how learning to swim buoys Jack, lifting him from a sinkhole of loneliness.

Jack’s friend Clyde (the electric John Ortiz), a fellow limo driver, is the sympathetic teacher who coaxes this lonely turtle out of his shell. First Clyde fixes him up with Connie (Amy Ryan), who works with Clyde’s wife, Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega). And when Connie, another lonely soul, tells Jack that she’d like to go boating, Clyde volunteers to teach the nonswimmer how to get in the swim.

The movie does not obscure its stage roots. Hoffman, Ortiz, and Rubin-Vega reprise their roles in the original Off-Broadway production by LAByrinth Theater, the company founded by Hoffman and Ortiz. While Hoffman has found ways to make the screen version cinematic, a pivotal scene in Clyde and Lucy’s tenement apartment feels so much like filmed theater that I could hear the squeak of the curtain lower.

The play’s structure, too, is more suited to stage than to screen. For while Jack Goes Boating announces itself as a character study of how Mr. Lonely will connect to a companion, it belatedly reveals itself to be a meditation on the different kinds of loneliness, presenting isolation as a form of social stage fright.

The performances are uniformly top-notch. It was a treat to see Ortiz, an actor known on screen mostly for his impressive cameos in movies like El Cantante, in a leading part enabling him to express his considerable emotional range. May this be his calling card for bigger, meatier roles.

Currently available on DVD: "Buried"



Buried opens with a long, sustained shot of darkness accompanied by labored breathing, grunting and rustling noises. Eventually, we hear the flick of a lighter, and with the flame we see the predicament Paul (Ryan Reynolds) is in. He's been buried alive inside a coffin-size wooden box. He has no idea where he is or how he got there. At his feet is a bag containing a cell phone, a pencil, some glow sticks and a couple of other items. Just reaching the bag, however, requires a Herculean effort, since the rectangular box is too narrow for Paul to turn around in.

You'll get no more plot details here — this is a movie best seen cold — other than a confirmation that all of Buried does indeed take place entirely inside that coffin, and that director Rodrigo Cortes never wavers in his conviction: He sees this potential stunt of a picture through to its harrowing end, and the result is a much more surprising and inventive ride than you might imagine.

A big part of Buried 's success rests with Reynolds, who is the only actor we see, for the duration of the film, often in close-up. Reynolds must not only sustain our interest in Paul and make us care about him: He must also give us a range of emotions to respond to, because watching a man panic and freak out for 90 minutes is no one's idea of entertainment.

But Buried, despite its seemingly impossible premise, is by turns funny, suspenseful, moving and — in one heart-stopping sequence worthy of Indiana Jones — incredibly exciting. The script, by Chris Sparling, consists of Paul's figuring out a way to escape his predicament, and although that process consists primarily of a lot of phone calls, the people he speaks to form a veritable supporting cast. Their voices become distinct, recognizable characters.

To say that Buried induces claustrophobia doesn't begin to describe the movie's impact — taking the puppy for a walk outside in the cool, brisk air after watching this DVD has never felt so good — but Cortes uses an endless variety of camera tricks and lighting schemes to ward off monotony. You're dying for Paul to get out of there, but you're never bored for a minute. Aside from being a showcase for Reynolds' considerable, previously untapped talent, Buried is also the work of an imaginative director testing the boundaries of the cinematic medium as a vehicle for storytelling. The result is more than a success: You won't be able to stop thinking about Buried for days after you see it.