Friday, December 30, 2011

Fascinating prediction: Obama-Clinton

Robert Reich, the chancellor’s professor of public policy at the University of California-Berkeley, has come up with a fascinating prediction: That Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden will swap jobs next year. That means the 2012 Democratic presidential ticket will be Barach Obama - Hilary Clinton and if Obama is re-elected, a far more likely scenario with Clinton as his running mate, Biden will become Secretary of State, a job, according to Reich, "he’s apparently coveted for years."

The move also makes sense, Reich observes, because it puts Democrats in a favorable position for 2016 with Clinton ready to take the top spot on the ticket.

Reich does admit he is working solely on a hunch (similar to the hunch I had City Manager Mary Suhm would resign after her budget was passed two years ago) and that he has absolutely no inside information this change is going to take place.

Still, it’s a fascinating idea and one that has a lot of appeal to yours truly.

"...if the European debt crisis grows worse and if China’s economy continues to slow, there’s a better than even chance we’ll be back in a recession," Reich writes. "Clinton would help deflect attention from the bad economy and put it on foreign policy, where she and Obama have shined."

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Available on DVD: “Bellflower”

Evan Godell in Bellflower
Like any well-made piece of nihilism, Bellflower is a contradiction in terms. If nothing really matters — if all we’re doing is sucking down beer until the apocalypse — then why bother making a movie about it? Why waste your time with art at all? Why expend time, money and effort on crafting such a visually striking portrait of sloshed losers building a flamethrower?

But maybe this isn’t an exercise in nihilism. Maybe it’s a commentary on hollow lives and aimless fantasy, one fueling the other until the real world (and its real emotions) forcefully intrude. The protagonists and their idle dreams of a fiery wasteland may well be nihilistic. But the movie — with its stunning cinematography and lingering aftertaste of old-school heartbreak — most assuredly is not.

Aiden (Tyler Dawson) and Woodrow (debut writer-director-producer-editor Evan Glodell) are low-life slackers with a twist. Having grown up on Mad Max, they now devote all their free time to planning for Armageddon. Whether they believe the end times are truly coming isn’t clear, and doesn’t matter; what is and does is their obsession with the coolness of it all, the guns and cars and vistas pocked by fire.

Glodell’s screenplay takes a couple of har turns in its second half, one of them an unoriginal bait-and-switch that may infuriate viewers. But without it, there’s absolutely no reconciling the hard-core, hyper-violent absurdity of the movie’s final act with the oddball sweetness of the first. Either way, the bracingly stylized look of the film is bound to impress.

How hypocritical can Hair get?

Gov. Hair is a strong advocate for states’ rights, except when they interfere with his doomed presidential power grab.

According to Hair, the federal government has no right to interfere with Texas’s attempts to re-institute the poll tax institute voter ID laws designed to disenfranchise Democrats minorities and students.

According to Hair, the federal government has no right to interfere with Texas’ attempts to gerrymander legislative and congressional district boundaries to ensure Democrats the state’s burgeoning Hispanic population are denied fair representation.

And yet, according to Hair, the federal government has every right to interfere with Virginia’s law that requires presidential primary candidates to gather 10,000 valid signatures, including at least a measly 40 from each congressional district, in order to get on the primary ballot.

Hey, Hair! Get the message. Maybe you didn’t get the signatures because Virginians have the good sense not to vote for a hypocrite like you.

Take that Newt, Mitt, Ron, Michelle, Hair et al

Republicans are bringing us back to the days of the poll tax

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Republicans doing their best to prevent students from voting.

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

Next fall, thousands of students on college campuses will attempt to register to vote and be turned away. Sorry, they will hear, you have an out-of-state driver’s license. Sorry, your college ID is not valid here. Sorry, we found out that you paid out-of-state tuition, so even though you do have a state driver’s license, you still can’t vote.

Political leaders should be encouraging young adults to participate in civic life, but many Republican state lawmakers are doing everything they can instead to prevent students from voting in the 2012 presidential election. Some have openly acknowledged doing so because students tend to be liberal.

Seven states have already passed strict laws requiring a government-issued ID (like a driver’s license or a passport) to vote, which many students don’t have, and 27 others are considering such measures. Many of those laws have been interpreted as prohibiting out-of-state driver’s licenses from being used for voting.

It’s all part of a widespread Republican effort to restrict the voting rights of demographic groups that tend to vote Democratic. Blacks, Hispanics, the poor and the young, who are more likely to support President Obama, are disproportionately represented in the 21 million people without government IDs. On Friday, the Justice Department, finally taking action against these abuses, blocked the new voter ID law in South Carolina.

Republicans usually don’t want to acknowledge that their purpose is to turn away voters, especially when race is involved, so they invented an explanation, claiming that stricter ID laws are necessary to prevent voter fraud. In fact, there is almost no voter fraud in America to prevent.

William O’Brien, the speaker of the New Hampshire State House, told a Tea Party group earlier this year that students are "foolish" and tend to "vote their feelings" because they lack life experience. "Voting as a liberal," he said, "that’s what kids do." And that’s why, he said, he supported measures to prohibit students from voting from their college addresses and to end same-day registration. New Hampshire Republicans even tried to pass a bill that would have kept students who previously lived elsewhere from voting in the state; fortunately, the measure failed, as did the others Mr. O’Brien favored.

Many students have taken advantage of Election Day registration laws, which is one reason Maine Republicans passed a law eliminating the practice. Voters restored it last month, but Republican lawmakers there are already trying new ways to restrict voting. The secretary of state said he was investigating students who are registered to vote in the state but pay out-of-state tuition.

Wisconsin once made it easy for students to vote, making it one of the leading states in turnout of younger voters in 2004 and 2008. When Republicans swept into power there last year, they undid all of that, imposing requirements that invalidated the use of virtually all college ID cards in voter registration. Colleges are scrambling to change their cards to add signatures and expiration dates, but it’s not clear whether the state will let them.

Imposing these restrictions to win an election will embitter a generation of students in its first encounter with the machinery of democracy.
©New York Times

Celebrating the Mavericks’ title

Unfortunately, all the highlights of the Mavericks Sunday took place before the opening tipoff. Fortunately, they were some special highlights.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

For your holiday enjoyment

This Christmas Can-Can, courtesy of my ever-vigilant South Florida correspondent, certainly puts this whole season into its proper perspective.

Happy holidays, everyone!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Things that make a fella damn proud

The day my son officially became a doctor with his beautiful daughter

Available on DVD: “The Names of Love”

Sara Forestier and Jacques Gamblin in The Names of Love
How many years has it been since you encountered someone waving a placard or wearing a T-shirt with the slogan, "Make love, not war"? Resurrected in the French satirical farce The Names of Love, that hippie free-loving attitude is personified by Baya Benmahmoud (Sara Forestier), a charming, insouciant whack job in her 20s who boasts that she always sleeps with a man on their first date.

The daughter of an Algerian immigrant and a onetime French radical, Baya carries that philosophy to comic extremes that would have been unimaginable even in 1968. She is also a walking wardrobe malfunction, who is so absent-minded that her breasts are repeatedly falling out of her shirt. In one of the movie’s funniest scenes she dashes into the Paris Métro naked but for a pair of boots and startles an Islamic fundamentalist couple across the car.

Baya blithely wields her body as a weapon of political persuasion. On meeting a man who is even a shade to the right of her avidly left-wing politics — or in her words, a "fascist," a term she drops as casually as others say "dude" and "babe" — she drags him into bed for a quickie conversion. Just as he is about to lose control, she whispers things like, "Not all Algerians are thieves." The screenplay by Michel Leclerc, who also directed, and Baya Kasmi doesn’t pretend that her sex magic always has the desired effect.

Forestier, whose performance won her a César (the French Oscar) for best actress, is the spark plug igniting a movie that has the tone and structure of early-to-middle Woody Allen, but infused with a dose of Gallic identity politics. At any point the characters are quite likely to be joined suddenly by their younger selves or their dead parents.

The free-for-all structure allows for wildly funny set pieces. One is an illustrated history of a character’s tendency to embrace the wrong technology, be it a Betamax or a miracle cheese grater. Another is a dinner party hosted by Baya, who innocently drops words like "bake" and "oven" that evoke the Holocaust, a taboo subject for one guest.

The Names of Love is also an odd-couple rom-com in which Baya hooks up with Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin), an expert on avian diseases and a quintessential square. One of the movie’s many jokes that only French audiences will get is that Arthur Martin is a French washing machine brand, a fact that everyone to whom he is introduced feels obliged to note. Many obscure political references and a cameo by Lionel Jospin, the French prime minister from 1997 to 2002 and two-time Socialist candidate for president, will also be lost on Americans.

The film’s original French title, Le Nom des Gens (The Name of People), is also much more to the point than its fluffy English title. For this is a movie that pokes serious fun at ethnic and religious stereotyping based on names and appearances. Arthur’s mother, Annette (Michèle Moretti), escaped the Holocaust when she was sheltered in an orphanage under a changed name; her mother’s death in Auschwitz left her burdened with crippling depression and guilt. Arthur’s French Roman Catholic father, Lucien (Jacques Boudet), who runs a nuclear power plant, served with the French Army in Algeria.

Baya’s gentle, self-effacing father, Mohamed (Zinedine Soualem), is an Algerian Arab whose father was killed by French soldiers during the Algerian war. Her French mother, Cécile (Carole Franck), was a left-wing rebel. When both sets of parents meet, discomfort reigns. Although the light-complexioned Baya could pass as a non-Arab, she flaunts her Algerian heritage. Arthur, a nonpracticing Jew, never mentions his half-Jewish background, but when Baya learns of it, she is thrilled.

"That’s so cool! The two of us embody France," she crows. "We’re the future of humanity!" With its implication that the world’s problems might begin to be solved by one Arab-Jewish coupling, The Names of Love succumbs to glib sentimentality.

For all the potentially dangerous subjects it glosses, above all the tangled legacies of the Holocaust and the Algerian war, The Names of Love dances away from any uncomfortable provocation. Even when sticking out its tongue, it is finally just an airy comedy riding on one cheeky, incandescent performance.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

OK, so there will be eight for Oscar

Brad Pitt in Tree of Life
For months now I have been championing the fact that seven films will be nominated for Oscar’s top prize when the nominations are announced next month. That’s because I didn’t think the stodgy ol’ folks at the Academy could get their arms around Terence Malik’s The Tree of Life. I mean a film that digresses during its opening moments to give us the story of creation and whose view of eternity is a banal beachfront just did not seem like typical Oscar fare. If it was, why wasn’t a Federico Fellini film ever nominated for the big enchilada? But Tree is winning too many year-end awards to be ignored so I’m going to have to go with it and these other seven films to capture nominations (listed in alphabetical order):

The Artist
The Descendents
The Help
Hugo
Midnight in Paris
Moneyball
The Tree of Life
War Horse

Is “Margaret” being criminally ignored

Matt Damon and Anna Paquin in Margaret
Those who have seen this movie are few, but they unanimously rave about it. However, here it is — that time of the year when "prestige" pictures grab all the headlines — and no one is talking about Margaret. It has a stellar cast: Anna Paquin, Mark Ruffalo, Allison Janney, Jeannie Berlin (who disappeared from my radar 40 years ago after she illuminated the screen in the original The Heartbreak Kid), Jean Reno, Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick and Kieran Kalkan. It was directed by Kenneth Lonergan, whose last film was the great You Can Count on Me, which also featured Ruffalo, Broderick and Kieran’s younger brother Rory.

From what I understand the film was shot in 2005 and has been gathering dust ever since. It simply looks too good to be this ignored.

The story follows Paquin who is partially responsible when a bus driven by Ruffalo strikes and kills a pedestrian (Janney). At first, she tries to protect Ruffalo and lies to investigators so that Ruffalo’s ability to care for his family is not destroyed. But then she gets to know the victim’s best friend (Berlin).

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Available on DVD: “Page One: Inside the New York Times”

David Carr at his desk at the New York Times
Watching Page One: Inside the New York Times is like talking to a smart person with a severe case of attention deficit disorder: A lot of what they say is intriguing, but you wish they could stick to the point.

Though it's blessed with a strong subject and some memorable characters and situations, the drawback of this fitfully engaging documentary is that it can't settle on anything even close to a single theme or line of inquiry.

Rather, as directed by Andrew Rossi (who co-wrote and co-produced with Kate Novack), Page One ends up all over the map, covering a smorgasbord of situations with a scattershot approach that leaves you hungry instead of satisfied.

Even though its title leads you to believe it will be solely concerned with the New York Times, the mighty monarch of daily journalism, Page One has many other things on its mind, starting with the crisis that what's come to be known as "legacy media" face in the Internet age.

So we get many of the usual suspects, all with their own ax to grind, talking up the death of daily newspapers and insisting that in this brave new world the New York Times is "just one of many voices in the marketplace," which is a little like saying Arianna Huffington and Matt Drudge have no more power than a random blogger in Whitefish, Mont. If you've been paying attention over the last few years, this is not only questionable, it is very old news.

When it does focus on the Times itself, Page One doesn't exactly take you inside the place either. Huge chunks of the paper, like sports, entertainment and the foreign desk, are not even mentioned, and though we do get glimpses of the daily Page 1 meetings that select what appears on the front, at least as much time is spent on unnecessary tangents dealing with celebrated Times embarrassments like Jayson Blair's inventions and Judith Miller's misguided coverage of WMDs in Iraq.

As close as Page One gets to a focus is its extended look at the media desk, perhaps not the most compelling part of the paper, though editor Bruce Headlam does work under a camera-ready French poster of Orson Welles as Citizen Kane.

This part of the film does give us a sense of how reporters and editors talk and what kinds of power games get played behind the scenes, but even these conversations feel a tad constrained by the camera's presence: Both of the women who work on the media desk, for instance, declined to be part of the project.

Completely unconstrained and in fact as close as the film gets to having a winning and charismatic central figure, is reporter-columnist David Carr. An irascible iconoclast who takes no grief from anyone, Carr can be counted on to be funny and to the point when those around him are not.

Even when it is nominally concentrating on the media desk, Page One further dilutes its focus by the way it gets fascinated by each story the team does; CNN's affiliation with Vice magazine, Comcast buying NBC and the crescendo of stories from the folks at WikiLeaks come off more like independent mini-segments than episodes in the broader picture of how the Times covers the world.

For readers of the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Orlando Sentinel, and the other papers owned by the Tribune Co., Page One has a special poignancy and impact. Carr's front-page story on the moral fecklessness of Tribune management showed the continuing power of the New York Times as it led directly to a corporate shakeup and the resignation of chief executive officer Randy Michaels two weeks later.

Eavesdropping as Carr cracks wise ("You could call that incentive, or you could call it looting, depending on your perspective," he says of $100 million in Tribune bonuses) and masterfully works the phone with both sources and Tribune flacks is worth the price of a rental. Too bad the rest of the film is not in this class.

City tells waste haulers they can dump their suit — the law is on the City’s side

Dallas city attorneys have filed a response to the waste haulers attempting to stop the city’s perfectly legal move that would require all trash collected within the city limits to be taken to a city owned and operated dump site — either McCommas Bluff Landfill or the Bachman Transfer Station.

Dallas wants to replace this ...
The haulers filed suit seeking a temporary injunction to stop the implementation of the so-called Flow Control Ordinance which the City Council passed 9-6. But the City says basically, "Wait a minute. The Supremes up in Washington have already ruled on this and found that Flow Control is absolutely within the right of a city to invoke. What follows is a story about the entire mess that recently appeared in that ever-popular publication Waste & Recyling News (a subscription to which would make the perfect holiday gift for that special person in your life).


.... with this
Flow control directly advances Dallas "fundamental aim to operate in an environmentally sustainable manner as a leader and innovator in green management," the city’s attorney wrote in response to the lawsuit filed challenging the law.

City Attorney Peter Haskel responded to the National Solid Wastes Management Association and various waste haulers which challenged the city’s flow control ordinance passed in September. NSWMA has asked the court to approve a preliminary injunction to stop the ordinance from going into effect while the challenge works its way through the courts.

Dallas has already agreed to hold off implementing the ordinance until at least 30 days following the court’s ruling on the preliminary injunction, scheduled for Jan. 12.

The flow control ordinance dictates that all waste picked up in the city must be taken to either McCommas Bluff Landfill or the Bachman Transfer Station, both owned by the city. Waste Management Inc. operates two landfills right outside of the city and Republic Services Inc. operates one right outside of the city.

Previously, NSWMA argued the flow control ordinance violates the various franchise agreements it has with haulers and the ordinance is contrary to various state and federal laws.

Dallas disagrees.

"[NSWMA and the haulers] purport to identify preemptive conflicts with state law that simply do not exist," Haskel wrote in a filing Dec. 20 in U.S. District Court in Texas.

The 26-page filing, arguing against the preliminary injunction, said nowhere in the franchise agreements does it grant the right for franchises to dispose waste anywhere they want, and it specifically outlines that the franchisees bare the risk of regulatory change.

The city mentions the landmark United Haulers v. Oneida-Herkimer case several times, a previous flow control case that was settled when the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the municipality’s right to institute flow control.

"Plaintiffs’ views are also ultimately incompatible with the Supreme Court’s own assessment of flow control in United Haulers, a case they never once cite," Haskel wrote.

The Supreme Court ruled that police power supports flow control as a legitimate and traditional government function, the city argued in the filing. The state legislature also explicitly authorized municipalities to tackle waste management, the filing said, with cities being able to "adopt rules for regulated solid waste collection, handling, transportation, storage, processing and disposal."

The city argues flow control is the first in a multistep process to "make landfills obsolete by using emerging technologies to reuse the city’s solid waste in the form of energy, fuels and reusable products."

Dallas is the largest city in the country to pass a flow control ordinance, predicting it would bring an additional $13 million to the city annually because of tipping fees. The city estimates that about 700,000 tons to 900,000 tons of waste is picked up annually inside the city and disposed outside the city at private facilities.

NSWMA will be able to respond to the filing before the Jan. 12 preliminary injunction.

This week’s proof that our governor is dumber than a box of rocks

In a debate at Sioux City Gov. Hair said the way to fight terrorism was to reinstate the Monroe Doctrine "just like we did in the ‘60s against Cuba." Say, what??? He didn’t even get the century right on that one.

Then he issued a release on the death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, only he referred to him as Kim Jong the Second.

Can you imagine the worldwide embarrassment befalling our nation if this jerk was elected president? Of course, we don’t have that to worry about any more.

Paul’s shoe leather strategy seems to be working

Front-runner Ron Paul
While Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Gov. Hair are spending more money than most of us will ever see in a lifetime on television adds in Iowa assaulting one another, Ron Paul is quietly, but effectively conducting an old-fashioned grassroots door-to-door campaign. The most recent polls have Paul replacing Gingrich as the front-runner in Iowa with 21.7 percent of those planning to vote in the Iowa caucuses saying they will cast their votes for the libertarian Texas congressman. Romney is second with 20.3 percent followed by Gingrich (15.7), Hair (12), Bachmann (9.7), Santorum (6.3) and Huntsman (4.3). If my math is correct that means only 10 percent are still on the fence.

All I Want for Christmas is … Jews

This video is courtesy of my intrepid South Florida correspondent, who, I must note, celebrated his daughter’s bat mitzvah less than a month ago. I haven’t decided if the video is funny or in terrible taste. It probably splits the difference.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Available on DVD: “Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest”

(L-R) Phife Dawg, Q-Tip and Jarobi White of A Tribe Called Quest
A Tribe Called Quest may be the first band ever fractured in part by a member with a sugar addiction.

That would be Phife Dawg, one of four members of the pioneering hip-hop group documented with tough love in Michael Rapaport’s Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest.

Phife suffers from diabetes. Fellow rapper Q-Tip is a visionary but a control freak. Jarobi White would rather be in culinary school. Ali Shaheed Muhammad is caught in the middle. And yet through all their struggles — maybe because of them — the group created one classic album (The Low End Theory) and two great ones between 1990 and 1993, before settling into a life of dysfunction.

Veteran actor Rapaport, deftly directing his first feature, splits the movie into two parts — following the group’s beginnings, and then charting the implosion. Tribe superfan Rapaport doesn’t fawn, but he juggles too much, and the ending feels pat. It’s still an outstanding effort, and one of the more honest band biopics in recent years.

A college football playoff scenario I could live with

As regular readers know, I am not a supporter of a college football playoff for a couple of reasons. One, it dilutes the value of the regular season in which, as it stands now, every game really does count. Second, I don’t want to see teams with 8-3 or worse records having a shot at a national championship, which could happen with a 16-team or even an 8-team playoff. And finally, a playoff doesn’t answer the question the playoff was created to answer: Which team is really No. 1? The only question it answers is which team won that playoff. For example, I don’t think anyone can logically say the St. Louis Cardinals were major league baseball’s best team last season. They couldn’t even win their own division. Last season’s Connecticut’s men basketball team couldn’t even finish in the top four of their own conference. There are even those out there who will argue that the Dallas Mavericks weren’t the best team in the NBA last season (although I am having those critters hunted down and liquidated even as I compose this).

Most university presidents and athletic directors I’ve talked to or heard about also oppose a playoff for economic reasons I understand but apparently most sports columnists can’t grasp (I know, I have gone round and round with many of them on this subject). Thus, these writers revert to the theory the university officials are against the playoff because it takes the football players away from school for between three and four extra weeks (which is not true and is so easy for these writers who can’t understand the reality of the situation to argue against, thus making them feel superior in their own eyes, but no one else’s).

But I believe I have come up with a system that everyone can buy into. Here’s how it works: You take the four BCS Bowls — the Fiesta, the Orange, the Rose and the Sugar — and, for the sake of this argument, arrange them in alphabetical order, omitting the Rose Bowl. So, for this season, Fiesta is Bowl No. 1, Orange is Bowl No. 2 and Sugar is Bowl No. 3. Those designations rotate annually, so in 2012, Orange is 1, Sugar is 2 and Fiesta is 3, and so on.

In Bowl 1, the No. 1 team in the BCS plays the No. 4 team. In Bowl No. 2, the No. 2 team plays the No. 3. Then you go to the Rose Bowl where the top rated BCS teams not assigned to the first two bowls from the Big 10 and Pac 12 conferences are selected. And in Bowl 3, the top two BCS rated teams left would meet.

If that plan was in effect this season it would mean LSU would play Stanford in the Fiesta Bowl, Alabama would play Oklahoma State in the Orange Bowl, Wisconsin would play Oregon in the Rose Bowl, and Arkansas would play Boise State in the Sugar Bowl, all of which would be far more entertaining games than the lineup we’re currently being asked to suffer through (except, of course, for this year's Rose Bowl which will actually feature Wisconsin against Oregon).

As a momentary aside, I would also favor the Cotton Bowl being elevated to BCS Bowl level. In this scenario the Cotton Bowl becomes Bowl 4 which takes the next two highest ranked BCS teams. This year that would be Kansas State vs. South Carolina and would mean the entire Top 10 of the BCS got into a BCS bowl game.

But I digress. Then, one week after the last of these games is played, the winner of Bowl 1 plays the winner of Bowl 2 in the BCS National Championship game, which rotates among the four bowl sites (five if the Cotton is elevated) the same as it does now.

It’s simple. It gives us better BCS bowl matchups. It provides a playoff scenario of sorts. It maintains the integrity of the bowl system. It brings Cowboy Stadium into the National Championship game picture. And I think the university officials who are dead set against a major playoff system could live with this. I know I could.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Oscar race is over


Here's your Oscar winner this year for best picture
Around this time last year, I thought the Oscar was still a two-picture race between The King's Speech and The Social Network. The year before that I thought it was a tight race between The Hurt Locker and Avatar. There's no contest this year, however. What with the Screen Actors Guild nominations announced two days ago and the Golden Globes this morning, it's all over. The Artist is going to win best picture, director and probably a couple of technical awards. Although Hugo is making a big late push -- enough to land a best picture nomination as well as a director's nomination for Martin Scorsese (replacing Steven Daldrey), it simply doesn't have the support of the Academy's largest branch, the actors, to snag the big award away from The Artist. The only other films with a lot of acting support are The Help, but it is not a strong enough entry to win best picture -- it's this year's Blind Side -- and The Descendants, but that film has as many fervent detractors as it does supporters.

I do think it's some kind of poeticic justice that in this era of supercharged special effects and 3-D gagetry, this year's winner for best picture will be a black and white silent film.

The movies of 2011

As a quick look at the films of the past year, I’m not sure we’ll get a better montage than this one.

Available on DVD: “The Last Circus”

Carlos Areces in The Last Circus
If you are the sort of person who finds clowns terrifying — and many people do — by all means steer clear of The Last Circus, or else risk being scarred for life. For everyone else — particularly viewers with a strong stomach and an appreciation for surreal humor that borders on horror — the latest film from Spanish wildman Alex de la Iglesia (Perdita Durango, The Day of the Beast) is a must-see proposition.

The movie begins in 1937 Madrid, when a troupe of circus performers is forced to take arms in the country’s burgeoning civil war, resulting in the bizarre sight of a clown in full makeup wielding a machete against national troops in a way that makes Jason Voorhees seem like a Girl Scout selling cookies.

Flash-forward to 1973, the waning days of the Franco regime. Javier (Carlos Areces), still scarred from witnessing his father’s horrific acts, is now a clown himself — a sad one, with a permanent tear streaking his face, because he saw too much violence and bloodshed as a child. Javier is portly and shy and meek: He harbors a crush on the beautiful acrobat Natalia (Carolina Bang), but she’s married to the monstrously abusive Sergio (Antonio de la Torre), a fellow circus performer and psychopath who hides his misanthropic nature beneath his clown makeup. Javier doesn’t dare act on his romantic impulses — he, like everyone else in the traveling circus, is terrified of Sergio — until the brute pushes things too far, awakening a savagery in Javier that knows no bounds. And like Pandora’s box, once Javier sets his demons loose, there is no way to put them back.

The Last Circus, which in its native Spain was titled Balade triste de trompeta after the song by Raphael, cleverly incorporates real-life incidents into its stranger-than-fiction narrative, including the 1973 assassination of Spanish Prime Minister Luis Carrero Blanco, who died from a car bomb so powerful it propelled his automobile onto the roof of a building (there is also an outrageous scene in which Javier meets Franco that is hilariously daring). But you don’t have to appreciate the historical contexts to revel in the outrageous ride The Last Circus delivers — a ride that recalls David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, only much more furious and demented, which says a lot.

You could accuse de la Iglesia of being a sensationalist, as he was with many of his previous films. There are several moments in the movie clearly intended to do nothing but shock and disturb, and the picture is relentless in its assault: Every time you think it couldn’t get loonier, it does. The comedy is so dark, many won’t find it at all funny at all, and some of the symbolism can be a bit much (the climax takes place atop a building shaped like a cross). But the film is lightning-paced, packed with awe-inspiring setpieces and utterly fearless. If you’re the sort who demands logic and plausibility from movies, The Last Circus is not for you. But for those with a taste for the subversive and outrageous, run, don’t walk, to te nearest video store.

One way to look at it

Available on DVD: “A Better Life”

José Julián and SAG nominee Demian Bichir in A Better Life
At one point in A Better Life, an emotionally resonant film about how we live now, the director Chris Weitz opens a scene with a pair of adorable, gap-toothed little girls belting into karaoke microphones, giving their charming all to a song with un-self-conscious gusto. He then cuts to three bald men, crammed tattooed arm to tattooed arm on a couch, who are beaming at the girls with barefaced and shared delight, lighted up by the grace of children behaving like children. It’s touching and startling to see these men show such tenderness at this innocent spectacle, especially because all three are gangbangers.

What gives the scene punch isn’t that Weitz has the ostensible courage to show that gangsters delight in their children like everyone else; their humanity is a given, as is their visceral threat. Rather it’s the ordinariness of the interlude, its everyday quality that makes it so good and points to what, at times, distinguishes A Better Life from the overly blunt social-issue tract it could have easily become.

For the teenaged Luis (José Julián), an outsider hovering at the edge of the room and watching the children sing while he shyly cozies up to his girlfriend, Ruthie (a vivid Chelsea Rendon), this isn’t a gangster’s paradise. It’s a place of conviviality and safety, of loving fathers and doting mothers; in other words, a home.

Set largely in East Los Angeles, an area that doesn’t often pop up in movies except as a scary, nominally exotic backdrop (or unless Cheech and Chong are going up in smoke), A Better Life involves a struggle to hold onto a home of one’s own. For Luis and his own father, a gardener, Carlos (Demian Bichir, who just received a best actor nomination from the Screen Actors Guild for his work in this film), that means the United States, though home is also — as laid out rather too neatly in the sentimental script by Eric Eason from a story by Roger L. Simon — the relationship between father and son.

For Luis, who’s all-American from his birth certificate to his accent, Carlos isn’t just his father, he’s also a periodically embarrassing ambassador from a foreign land, a Mexican immigrant as seemingly unassimilated as he is undocumented.

A Better Life is a blunt turnaround for Weitz, whose previous gigs were at the helm of The Golden Compass and the last installment in the Twilight juggernaut. Compass had its moments, but The Twilight Saga: New Moon was dutifully impersonal hack work, and it’s hard to remember what happened in it or to care why it did.

The same can’t be said of his best films (both directed with his brother, Paul Weitz), the exuberantly vulgar comedy American Pie and About a Boy, a near-seamless adaptation of the Nick Hornby novel. It’s unusual for a director to scale down again as dramatically as Weitz has with A Better Life (that polymath Steven Soderbergh makes it a habit), but it’s done him good.

There are hitches, including a narrative structure that mechanically keeps Carlos and Luis more or less apart, laying out their worlds — Carlos awake, Luis asleep, Carlos at work, Luis at school — until the strands are braided together, and the two have become one. A single father, Carlos worries about his son but is so wrung out by dawn-to-dusk labors, rising with bird songs and jackhammers, he barely seems to know him. When offered a chance to buy a truck, he sees it as a path to the promised life of the title. Bichir, a Mexican actor with a long list of credits in his country, and Julián (who was 16 during the shoot), are both very sympathetic, and they hold your attention despite some awkwardly directed patches.

Weitz at times struggles, including with his actors, and the film’s scale doesn’t always fit its story; all the crane shots and a score performed by the London Symphony Orchestra suggest he hasn’t scaled down enough. Yet he also gets plenty right, including a school that could be a prison and a shabby bungalow with old paint and a verdant garden.

His Los Angeles looks like the real deal instead of a tourist’s postcard, and in one memorable scene Carlos rides in a truck and watches as its richly diverse, multi-everything population races by. Later he takes Luis to a nearby rodeo, where they listen to the oompah oompah of norteño music in a place that looks like another country but is just around the corner.

As is sometimes the case with movies that take on civil and political rights without force-feeding the audience, A Better Life plays the human interest angle hard. It tries to put a lump in your throat and a tear on your cheek (it succeeds), pumping your emotions doubtless in an attempt to look nonpartisan. "We don’t really have a political agenda," Weitz told NPR.

O.K., sure, there’s nothing political about the hardships endured by a Mexican immigrant eking out a subsistence living as a gardener in Los Angeles, mowing lawns for jittery white ladies and motoring around without a green card or half a prayer. It’s just a story about a father, a son and the bicycle — oops, truck — that helps bring them together. If you say so!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Available on DVD: “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”

Werner Herzog's film crew inside the Cave of Forgotten Dreams
If you’re looking for a filmmaker to document, for all of humanity, "one of the greatest discoveries in the history of human culture," the great Werner Herzog is your guy.

Especially if that discovery is deep in a remote cave. The legendary German director of Fitzcarraldo, Rescue Dawn and the documentaries Grizzly Man, and Encounters at the End of the World was the one movie director to have access, with 3D cameras, to the oldest known paintings ever discovered. And in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, these 32,000 year old cave drawings come to life in Herzog’s latest meditation on the poetic soul of man.

Lights flicker across the undulating, liquid-smooth walls of the Chauvet Cave, where the work of a handful of artists decorated what appears to have been a religious or rite of passage altar used for perhaps 5,000 years of Paleolithic history.

Match that, Stonehenge.

Herzog interviews the various experts (helpfully, most all of them speak English) who study and interpret the drawings and the cave those drawings are in. Most fascinating of all, Herzog gives his own whispered take on the art and the artists. Illuminated, in ancient times, by torchlight, the drawings of horses, bison, mammoths, rhinos, bears and lions often have multiple sets of legs, a blur "like frames in an animated film."

As he sees the hand print of one particular Paleolithic man, whose crooked pinky finger gives him away, Herzog speculates on all those who painted, re-painted (even then, there were clean-up artists) and polished the vivid drawings.

"Do they dream? Do they cry at night?" He sees the drawings — which weren’t still-lifes or works done with a model right in front of the artist, after all — as "images of long-forgotten dreams."

Herzog celebrates the striking cliffs of the Ardeche River as something "straight out of a Wagner opera." The cave itself is almost as beautiful as the artwork — walls covered with bear claw scratch marks and torch burns made by those who used it, so fresh-looking that the art had its authenticity questioned by early experts (They were discovered in 1994).

Herzog’s poetic turn of phrase makes him the perfect tour guide. Noting those 5,000 years of use, he compares ancient man to modern man and sums up our differences in a sentence.

"We are locked in history, and they were not."

"It is as if the modern human soul awakened here."

There are moments of humor (an expert named Wulf Hein dons authentic Paleolithic clothes and plays a bone flute from the era). But the film is a trifle repetitive, as there are only so many images to cover, so many different ways and experts to approach about the era, the art and the people who made it.

Yet Cave of Forgotten Dreams is another lovely stanza in the epic poem of humanity that Herzog has been writing for half a century.

They should make room for this man on the last Space Shuttle flight. If we’re ever going to know what space looks and more importantly feels like, the visual and verbal poet for the job is the fellow with the German accent and the probing spirit.

Here’s to the man who brought down The Man

Billie Sol Estes
I was in college when the Billy Sol Estes "scandal" broke and, at the time, I didn’t think it was any big deal. It had to do with non-existent anhydrous ammonia tanks in West Texas. Somehow Estes convinced gullible farmers in the Pecos area to purchase the tanks and then he would lease the tanks from them for the same amount as the mortgage payments. Got it? What’s the big friggin’ deal? The farmers really weren’t out anything. The problem was that Estes used the fraudulent mortgages on these tanks to obtain loans from banks outside Texas that could not easily verify the existence of the tanks.

Still, back then it didn’t seem to me the stuff to make national headlines. He didn't kill anyone. He didn't even rob banks. (OK, maybe in some form, he did. It just wasn't armed robbery.) But there were some other extenuating circumstances.

One was the fact that Estes was well connected politically. He displayed personally autographed pictures of then President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson on his office wall. Johnson, it was said, even convinced the Agriculture Department to look the other way when it came to Estes’s business dealings.

Another was the fact that Estes, for all practical purposes, literally owned the town of Pecos and most of the land around it, financing his purchases with the bank loans. The one thing he didn’t own was the town’s newspaper, a semi-weekly publication called the Pecos Independent and Enterprise. However, in 1961, when the paper refused to endorse Estes when he was running for a place on the local school board, he simply started his own newspaper, the Pecos Daily News. He established ridiculously low advertising rates in an attempt to run the Independent out of business. His plan seemed to be working. The Independent slashed the number of reporters on its payroll from five to two.

Oscar Griffin Jr.
One of those two was Oscar Griffin Jr., someone I had never heard of until my ever vigilant South Florida correspondent alerted me about him a couple of days ago. Seems that Griffin was in a small Pecos café one day when he overheard a conversation about Estes between two local farmers. He said one of the farmers described Estes’s easy money scheme as "like pennies from heaven."

Griffin decided to check into this a little more and went into his own newspaper’s records. There he found detailed information left by a previous owner, Dr. John Dunn, who discovered that Estes had borrowed $24 million (that would be $180 million in today’s dollars) using the non-existing tanks as collateral.

Griffin put together an investigative series that ran in the Independent, incredibly without much fanfare, in February and March of 1962. Few people paid attention to the revelations and the overwhelming majority of them were not disturbed by it. "You have to remember that Billy Sol was like a god in this town," a Pecos resident told a New York Times reporter later that year, adding "Anyone opposed to him might just as well pack up their bags and leave town."

Somehow, the series did catch the attention of the F.B..I., which launched an investigation that resulted in (1) Estes receiving a 24-year prison sentence (that was later overturned) on a number of fraud charges, (2) Kennedy deciding Johnson’s association with Estes was the reason he needed and desperately wanted to drop LBJ from the ticket in 1964 and (3) Griffin and the Independent winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1963 for distinguished local reporting.

I bring all this up now because Griffin died Nov. 23 at the age of 78 and it seems to me that his passing went unnoticed by too many institutions, especially those in the journalistic field. It was noticed, however, by one Billie Sol Estes who said in a telephone interview with the Times from his home in Granbury, Texas, "It’s a good riddance that he left this world."

By the way. Today there is only one newspaper in Pecos, The Pecos Enterprise. It is a direct descent of the Independent and Enterprise. The Daily News went into receivership soon after the scandal broke.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Available on DVD: “Beginners”

Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor in Beginners
How often do you see a story about a grumpy young man and his frisky father? Beginners, Mike Mills’ captivating film, centers on an emo son, his buoyant dad, their romantic partners, and a most philosophical Jack Russell terrier. It’s a movie about untangling roots in order to grow.

This is the challenge for the melancholy Oliver (Ewan McGregor), who at 38 is stunted, a human bonsai. Since the death of Oliver’s mother, his vivacious father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), has come out of the closet and into his own. Hal, a museum curator, thrives in the sunshine of attention. This has the effect of leaving Oliver, a graphic artist with a pronounced charisma deficit, in the shadow of his own introversion.

Mills tells their story in a chatty, nonchronological fashion. As with Annie Hall and (500) Days of Summer, we know from the top that certain relationships are terminal (Hal has cancer). Mills’ tone nicely balances the woeful with the whimsical by pairing McEwan’s rueful performance with Plummer’s raucous one.

The film chronicles the parallel stories of the father’s and son’s love affairs. The Cupid in both cases is Arthur, a no-nonsense Jack Russell who knows that if the lives of his successive owners improve, so will his.(Arthur communicates to Oliver via subtitles, explaining that Jack Russells were bred to hunt foxes and making Oliver wonder what he was bred for.)

What’s refreshing about Beginners is its sympathy for all of its characters, which translates into the characters’ sympathy for each other.

Oliver has mixed feelings about Dad. Hal’s longtime secret clearly created intimacy issues for his wife (played in flashbacks by the spirited Mary Page Keller) and his son.

Yet Oliver compassionately reconstructs the family narrative from his father’s perspective. This is what the sun looked like in 1955, he thinks, looking at light-filled photos of the year his parents met, a time when popular images of domestic happiness were strictly heterosexual.

Hal’s reticence to come out during Oliver’s formative years no doubt seeded the son’s attachment issues. How does the son who grew up without evidence of his parents’ love know how to express love?

And yet the father’s exuberant swan dive into outness, his commitment to the shaggy Andy (Goran Visnjic), his beginning again, inspire the son.

Oliver goes to a costume party dressed as Freud. There he meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent), whom he tentatively courts. (Why Mills named the female character Anna, possibly after Freud’s child-psychologist daughter, is the subject for its own disquisition.) Laurent is as wistful, wide-eyed, quirky, and tentative as her suitor.

Mills, whose previous feature was the underseen Thumbsucker, began his career as a graphic designer, and his compositions are sharp and well-outlined — all the better to contemplate characters evolving from fuzzy to defined.

He gets lively performances from his leads and from Cosmo, the supremely self-contained dog who plays Arthur. In his twilight years, Plummer shows all the colors of the emotional spectrum. Nearing his middle years, McEwan quietly is becoming the most relatable Everyman, one whose matter-of-factness in exposing human frailty is one of his greatest strengths.

Might just as well cancel next year’s legislative, congressional elections

The right-wing U.S. Supreme Court, which through its rulings on campaign financing has already turned over control of our electoral process to rich fat-cat Republicans, has now ruled that those same rich fat cats living in Texas are really the only ones who should have a representative voice in Austin and Washington. The court said Democrats, the poor, the middle class and minorities should just forget about having any say in how our government operates when it issued a stay Friday night on the resdistricting plan prepared by federal judges in San Antonio.

Problem is, however, the redistricting maps prepared by the racist, classist legislature can’t be used either because they still haven’t been cleared by the Justice Department.

Hey, folks, we got absolutely no maps. What’s a crooked politician to do? Stay tuned. It's not fair, but it just might turn out to be fun.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Available on DVD: “Mr. Nice”

Rhys Ifans as Mr. Nice
Howard Marks dubbed himself Mr. Nice as a means of evading the police of three continents during his career as a drug smuggler, which came to an end when he was imprisoned in the United States in the 1980s. After seven years in jail, he emerged to become an advocate for the legalization of cannabis and a raconteur who told tales of his drug-running years (complete with cameos by the IRA, MI6, and Pink Floyd) in best-selling books and at paid public appearances.

In this film version of Marks’ life, writer-director Bernard Rose (Candyman, Immortal Beloved) casts Rhys Ifans as this Robin Hood of reefer and runs him through Wales, Oxford, Swinging London, and various drug deals in Germany, Pakistan, Ireland, Mallorca, and L. A., with plenty of sex, danger, crooked cops, and stoned hijinks along the way.

Rose is a stylish filmmaker and Ifans is perfectly game for all that he’s asked to do (including, alas, play a Welsh schoolboy). But the film is built as a series of (possibly tall) tales that don’t add up to a plot, a theme or a purpose. Marks may be a gas as a storyteller, but there’s a long way between a string of anecdotes and an actual narrative film. And Mr. Nice, for all its energy, doesn’t make the transition.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Kudos to Leubsdorf


Carl Leubsdorf
Excellent column in today’s Dallas Morning News by the paper’s former Washington bureau chief Carl Leubsdorf in which he correctly exposes the right wing-nuts’ charges of "judicial activism" when the court makes landmark decisions involving the political process. (I would try to post a link to the column, but, under the Morning News’s paywall system, readers would probably be charged, so I’m not going down that path. But if you can get a copy of today’s paper, you can find the column on Page 15A).

"After all," Leubsdorf writes, "‘judicial activism,’ like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For decades, conservatives such as (Texas Attorney General Greg) Abbott have used those words to criticize federal court decisions they dislike."

He points out, correctly, that no one heard a peep from the right wing-nuts when the U.S. Supreme Court, which has been dominated by Republican appointees for the last 40+ years, tossed a presidential election to an undeserving candidate or award most elections to those with the most money.

The reason for Leubsdorf’s latest rant is Abbott’s attempt to derail the redistricting map created by Republican-dominated federal court in San Antonio and reinstate the patently unfair map prepared by the Texas Legislature. For those not following the debate, Texas was granted four additional seats in the House of Representatives, based on the last census, largely because of the dramatic increase in the state’s Hispanic population. But instead of creating districts that could be won by Hispanics (who consistently vote Democratic), the Republican-controlled Legislature created four rural districts safe for Republican candidates.

"Attacking ‘activist judges’ has been a GOP battle cry for many years, and it plays well with the party faithful," Leubsdorf writes. "But in this case, those allegedly ‘activist judges’ are correcting the action of an overly activist Legislature."

Well said, Mr. Leubsdorf.

Available on DVD: “Leap Year”

Monica Del Carmen in Leap Year
The deeply unsettling, psychologically acute Leap Year (Ano Bisiesto) won writer-director Michael Rowe, an Australian living in Mexico, Cannes’ Camera d’Or prize for best first feature.

Lowe and his co-writer Lucia Carreras wisely take their time establishing the character of Laura (Monica Del Carmen), a freelance journalist living and working in a Mexico City apartment. Laura is dark-skinned, pretty and desperately lonely; the sight of the uninhibited young couple across the way fills her with longing.

Most every night she hits up the bars and brings home a man for what invariably proves to be a one-night stand — until she connects with Arturo (Gustavo Sanchez Parra) at her most vulnerable. Arturo, a lean, good-looking aspiring actor, proves an aggressive lover, and Laura responds so strongly that he’s eager for more. What ensues is a series of graphic, increasingly intense sadomasochistic encounters that brings a dark secret within Laura to the surface.

Leap Year recalls Nagisa Oshima’s controversial In the Realm of the Senses, but Rowe heads in a different direction, subtly playing up the social and political implications of the story. It’s not for nothing that Laura looks indigenous while Arturo appears to be Spanish, but then appearances are not necessarily what they seem in this picture.

Not only must Lowe have inspired great commitment on the part of his actors, his trust in the visual power of the image is made evident by his decision to shoot almost entirely on a single set.

Leap Year might be too much for some audiences, but it is a potent and surprising work.

December's Oscar forecast

Picture
No one will know how many films will be nominated for the top award. It can be as few asfive or, at the most, ten. I'm betting it will be these seven, listed, as all the others, in alphabetical order:
The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
The Help
Midnight in Paris
Moneyball
War Horse

Director
Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
Steven Daldry, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Michel Hazanabvicius, The Artist
Alexander Payne, The Descendants
Steven Spielberg, War Horse

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

Actor
George Clooney, The Descendants
Leonardo DiCaprio, J. Edgar
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Michael Fasssbinder, Shame
Brad Pitt, Moneyball

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

Supporting Actor
Kenneth Branaugh, My Week With Marilyn
Albert Brooks, Drive
Nick Nolte, Warrior
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Max Von Sydow, Extremely Loud and Dangerously Close

Original Screenplay
The Artist
Beginners
Bridesmaids
Midnight in Paris
Young Adult

Adapted Screenplay
The Descendants
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
The Help
Moneyball
War Horse

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

This season’s bowl matchups — from best to worst

1. LSU vs. Alabama,BCS Championship, Jan. 9
2. Oklahoma State vs. Stanford, Fiesta, Jan. 2
3. Oregon vs. Wisconsin, Rose, Jan. 2
4. Arkansas vs. Kansas State, Cotton, Jan. 6
5. Nebraska vs. South Carolina, Capital One, Jan. 2
6. Georgia vs. Michigan State, Outback, Jan. 2
7. Michigan vs. Virginia Tech, Sugar, Jan. 2
8. California vs. Texas, Holiday, Dec. 28
9. Florida State vs. Notre Dame, Champs Sports, Dec. 29
10. Houston vs. Penn State, TicketCity, Jan. 2
11. Missouri vs. North Carolina, Independence, Dec. 26
12. Clemson vs. West Virginia, Orange, Jan. 4
13. Baylor vs. Washington, Alamo, Dec. 29
14. Iowa vs. Oklahoma, Insight, Dec. 30
15. Boise State vs Arizona State, MAACO, Dec. 22
16. Iowa State vs. Rutgers, Pinstripe, Dec. 30
17. Florida vs. Ohio State, Gator, Jan. 2
18. BYU vs. Tulsa. Armed Forces, Dec. 30
19. Cincinnati vs. Vanderbilt, Liberty, Dec. 31
20. Northwestern vs. Texas A&M, Meineke Car Care, Dec. 31
21. Georgia Tech vs. Utah, Sun, Dec. 31
22. Louisiana Tech vs TCU, Poinsetta, Dec. 21
23. Auburn vs. Virginia, Chik-fil-a, Dec. 31
24. Nevada vs. Southern Mississippi, Hawaii, Dec. 24
25. Arkansas State vs. Northern Illinois, GoDaddy.com, Jan. 8
26. Illinois vs. UCLA, Fight Hunger, Dec. 31
27. Louisville vs. North Carolina State, Belk, Dec. 27
28. Air Force vs. Toledo, Military, Dec. 28
29. Misssissippi State vs. Wake Forest, Music City, Dec. 30
30. Pittsburgh vs. SMU, BBVA Compass, Jan. 7
31. Temple vs. Wyoming, New Mexico, Dec. 17
32. Purdue vs. Western Michigan, Little Caesars, Dec. 27
33. Ohio vs. Utah State, Famous Idaho Potato, Dec. 17
34. Louisiana-Lafayette vs. San Diego State, New Orleans, Dec. 17
35. Florida International vs. Marshall, Beef O'Brady's, Dec. 20

Monday, December 5, 2011

My semi-final top 25 college football teams

I don’t like it. I am convinced LSU/Oklahoma State would be a far more entertaining BCS Championship game than LSU/Alabama. But I have to admit that the title game will feature the two best teams in college football this year. I simply can’t get past the fact that Oklahoma State’s one loss was against a 6-6 Iowa State team while Alabama’s was against LSU. I was also chagrined by the ho-hum attitude displayed by all those members of the OSU team who were interviewed immediately after the game. So, for better or worse, here are my final Top 25 rankings until after the end of the bowl season. As usual, last week's rank is in parenthesis.
1.  LSU 13-0 (1)
2.  Alabama 11-1 (2)
3.  Oklahoma State 11-1 (3)
4.  Stanford 11-1 (4)
5.  Oregon 11-2 (6)
6.  Boise State 11-1 (7)
7.  Oklahoma 9-3 (5)
8.  Wisconsin 11-2 (13)
9.  Southern California 10-2 (10)
10. Arkansas 10-2 (8)
11. Michigan 10-2 (12)
12. South Carolina 10-2 (15)
13. Kansas State 10-2 (16)
14. Baylor 9-3 (18)
15. Georgia 10-3 (14)
16. Houston 12-1 (9)
17. Michigan State 10-3 (17)
18. Virginia Tech 11-2 (11)
19. TCU 10-2 (19)
20. Nebraska 9-3 (21)
21. Clemson 10-3 (NR)
22. Notre Dame 8-4 (22)
23. Southern Mississippi 11-2 (NR)
24. Texas 7-5 (20)
25. Penn State 9-3 (23)
Dropped out: Texas A&M, Missouri

Available on DVD: “Beautiful Boy”

Michael Sheen and Maria Bello in Beautiful Boy
"We decided to use a campus shooting and yet write nothing about it."

So writes Shawn Ku, the director and co-author of the grim-times-10 Beautiful Boy. Premiering at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Ku’s debut feature provides a fierce acting opportunity for co-stars Maria Bello, the least affected first-rate actress on the planet, and Michael Sheen, equally strong, best known as a light-comic technician, and as David Frost in Frost/Nixon. They portray middle-class suburban L.A. parents lurching uncertainly toward divorce, whose college freshman son (Kyle Gallner, seen and heard only in fragments) turns his inchoate despair on his fellow students and then himself, in a massacre inspired by the 2007 Virginia Tech killings.

This happens early. Ku and writing partner Michael Armbruster were right to focus on the aftermath, not cheap suspense tactics or easy answers to the question: What fed this tragedy? Parsing the film’s visual strategy, we do get plenty of hints, some of them a little dubious.

Proofreader Kate and businessman Bill are empty-nesters living in a soulless, flatly lighted McMansion. Cinematographer Michael Fimognari deglamorizes the Southern California sunshine to such a degree, the characters begin the film nearly suffocating from a kind of emotional pollution. The love has left this marriage. Brackish light and empty space isolate these people even when they’re together.

Coping with the news of their late son’s murderous actions, the couple moves in with Kate’s brother (Alan Tudyk), sister-in-law (Moon Bloodgood) and their indulged preteen son (Cody Wai-Ho Lee), who brings out a desperate mothering instinct in Kate. In this warm-toned environment everything warms up; these people live in a lovely Craftsman-style bungalow, where love is possible.

Like the recent Blue Valentine, Beautiful Boy culminates in a motel-room catharsis, as Bill and Kate — by this point beset by media jackals, derided as the worst parents alive — confront each other in a messy combination of recriminations, accusations, rage and grief. (And sex.) Bello and Sheen rise to the somewhat schematic occasion with an emotional rawness that can be truly startling. Bello is especially fine, and almost arresting enough to take your mind off the film’s weirder implications. Is Ku really drawing a line, however crooked, between parents in separate bedrooms and blood all over a classroom wall? And if we’re left with a ray of hope regarding Kate and Bill’s future together, is Ku suggesting that, well, at least the massacre brought these two back together again?

In actuality the film is more nuanced than that. But if the key performances in Beautiful Boy were any less honest, the film’s half-formed suppositions would undo it utterly.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Available on DVD: “The Princess of Montpensier”

Gaspard Ulliel and Melanie Thierry in The Princess of Montpensier
Sixteenth-century France, the slaughter of heretics in Paris, the bloody war between Catholics and Huguenots, and a bunch of guys who can't take their eyes off a girl named Marie.

In Bertrand Tavernier's striking wide-screen costume drama, The Princess of Montpensier, Melanie Thierry stars as the beautiful Marie de Mézières, daughter of a sniveling nobleman who forces her into a marriage she does not want. She's in love with the strapping Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel), who happens to be her cousin and also happens to be handy with a sword. But after a good cop/bad cop talking-to by her parents, Marie dutifully weds the young prince, Philippe (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet).

The couple's wedding night is attended by a veritable throng of servants and advisers, orchestrating and enabling and puttering about — and then a decent sort of marital relationship ensues. But Philippe is called off to battle and asks his former tutor, the Count Chabannes (Lambert Wilson, looking sad and sage), to teach Marie literature, poetry, and astronomy. Wouldn't you know, Chabannes falls hopelessly in love. And then there's the Duc d'Anjou (Raphael Personnaz), a foppish wag who brushes his tongue and makes no secret of his desires for Marie. No wonder poor Philippe is mad with jealousy!

The four men represent different facets of Marie's psychological makeup, and Tavernier, while evoking the 1500s in compelling and telling ways, is keen to examine his heroine's inner life. Thierry manages to convey that interior world; her performance is subtle and seductive.

Tavernier pulls all this off with elegance and style; his battle scenes are tough and bloody, his châteaus grand. A masked ball proves to be a terribly unwise setting for an illicit tryst, and things don't end well for several of Marie's admirers. But The Princess of Montpensier ends more than well enough for the audience's purposes.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Court redistricting likely to stand

I may be wrong, but the way I interpret this is that the U.S. Supreme Court is not likely to overturn the legislative and congressional redistricting maps that were prepared by lower court federal judges in San Antonio. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott is requesting an emergency stay so that the racially biased maps prepared by the racist Texas Legislature can be put into effect. Whatever the court decides, however, it was nice to stumble across this new blog from the folks at Texas Monthly.

This week's top college football games

All games Saturday. All times Central
Oklahoma at Oklahoma State, 7 p.m., ABC
LSU vs Georgia, 3 p.m., CBS
Texas at Baylor, 2:30 p.m., ABC
Wisconsin vs Michigan State, 7 p.m., CBS
Virginia Tech vs. Clemson, 7 p.m., ESPN