Monday, February 27, 2012

Baylor and the Big Time

Brittney Griner
No one can argue with the fact that this is the "Golden Age of Sports" at Baylor University. Remember when the Big 12 conference was formed in 1994 and Baylor was the only private school in the league? (It remained the only one until TCU joined this year.) Baylor was considered the doormat, the poor stepchild, the one sure victory in just about all sports.

No more.

Consider that Baylor is the home of Brittney Griner, far and away the best collegiate female basketball player in the land and someone who has led the Bears to an undefeated season and a No. 1 national ranking. Consider that Baylor is the home of the reigning Heisman Trophy winner (Robert Griffin III) and a member of the men’s basketball team, Perry Jones III, is someone many consider a sure-fire lottery pick.

If you want to learn more about Baylor’s surprising emergence as a sports powerhouse, I suggest you take a gander at this story from today’s New York Times.

Available on DVD: “Mozart’s Sister”

Doomed by gender, and by the showier talents of her younger brother, Maria Anna "Nannerl" Mozart was a prodigy herself: composing complex sonatas in her teens, playing the harpsichord with preternatural grace, gifted with a voice like a choir of angels.

But then along comes little Wolfgang, and the attention — and relentless promotion, by the children’s father — pivot to the boy. Here was this longhaired pipsqueak, working the violin like a master, writing sheaves of stunning music. Never mind that Nannerl aided in the compositions, or perhaps even wrote them herself. In patriarchal 18th-century Europe, the boy was an easier sell.

And thus the premise for Mozart’s Sister, René Feret’s lovely period piece in which the itinerant Mozart clan — Nannerl (Marie Féret, the director’s daughter), Wolfgang (David Moreau), parents Leopold (Marc Barbé) and Anna-Marie (Delphine Chuillot) — wander through France, stopping to play for the noble set. There are long walks down palatial corridors, the rustle of silk gowns and clack of fancy shoes, as Wolfgang and Nannerl are led to candlelit music rooms to perform.

And there are long, cold rides in coaches, as the Mozarts go from chateau to chateau, finally — by the chance of a broken carriage axle — setting on an abbey where Louis XV’s daughter resides. Louise of France (Lisa Féret) and Nannerl hit it off, and before she knows it the 14-year-old from Salzburg is carrying secret letters to Louise’s brother, the Dauphin (Clovis Fouin), and then carrying on a strange, albeit abbreviated, emotional affair. The Mozarts have gained entry to Versailles, to the court of the royals.

A crushingly sad tale about art and ambition, family loyalty and love, Mozart’s Sister doesn’t claim to be historically accurate at every step. But writer/director Féret has thrown himself into the world of pre-Revolutionary France, and done his homework, and found a naturally gifted actress in his own daughter.

The music, of course, resonates. And so does this exquisite heartbreaker of a story.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Available on DVD: “Tiny Furniture”

There’s a fierce, self-lacerating wit on display in Lena Dunham’s tiny indie Tiny Furniture: as big and bold as the production is modest and (literally) homemade.

Written and directed by Dunham, who was 23 when she shot it — and when she cast herself in the lead, as a college grad returning aimlessly to the family nest — Tiny Furniture presents a darkly comic, piercing, and occasionally painful study of a young woman’s quest for identity.

Sex, employment, a strident sibling, a mother who pushes and pulls in equal measure — and whose stature in the New York art world can make her daughter feel even punier … these are the things Dunham’s Aura has to contend with.

Dunham’s talents have not gone unnoticed by the wider world (she has a Judd Apatow-shepherded HBO series in the works, and a Scott Rudin-produced movie deal).

But in Tiny Furniture, Dunham has her real-life sister (Grace Dunham) play her sister, her real-life mother (artist Laurie Simmons) portray her mother, and her real-life best friend (the sublimely droll Jemima Kirke) drop in as her best friend. On top of that, the downtown New York apartment Aura returns to is the downtown New York apartment Dunham grew up in. Autobiography is all over this baby.

But like Seinfeld or Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, both of which leave traces that a forensic team could readily detect, "real life" only goes so far. Aura’s like a sad-sack Hacky Sack, getting kicked from sorry romantic entanglements to parties with old high school pals to the humiliations of a low-wage restaurant job. Dunham serves up this alter ego with irony and with empathy. And she can distance herself, too — the observations, at times, have an anthropological fascination about them.

Aura is self-centered, cynical, easily wounded, and hard to read: We like her, we don’t like her, we marvel at her self-destructive gambits (the sex she has with the bartender where she works is awful, every way you look at it). And yet her resilience and intelligence shine through.

Tiny Furniture is very New York (think Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give, think pre-Continental Woody Allen). It bears resemblance to Bradley Rust Gray’s The Exploding Girl (with Zoe Kazan as a college student returning to New York for the summer), and although in scale and scope, design and intent, it is just about the opposite of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, the two films share more than their Manhattan backdrops: Each traces a twentysomething woman’s struggles with emotional and sexual issues and the looming presence of a strong-willed mom.

Aura emerges in considerably better shape than Natalie Portman’s Nina, and Dunham doesn’t have to dance in toe shoes, but the psychological turbulence hits heavy in both characters’ lives.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Available on DVD: “The Interrupters”

No concept in the critical lexicon has been more devalued and debased than "inspirational." The term has been so misused, it’s just about lost all meaning. A film that makes that word real and vital has to be special. The Interrupters is such a film.

A surprisingly moving documentary collaboration between producer-director Steve James and producer Alex Kotlowitz, The Interrupters paradoxically succeeds because it refuses to soften reality. A look at people trying at the ground level to stop street violence in Chicago, it tears at your heart with its depiction of the intractability of the problem. But it simultaneously insists, and makes you believe, that change is possible one person at a time.

If the names of James and Kotlowitz are familiar, you know the kind of integrity they bring to their work. James was one of the directors of Hoop Dreams, that most memorable of documentaries, while Kotlowitz, the author of There Are No Children Here, wrote the magazine article this film is based on.

The organization that moved both men is a Chicago-based group called CeaseFire, which believes that violence is both learned behavior and akin to an infectious disease: People who give in to it infect other people. The goal is to stop violence at the source, the group motto a deceptively simple one: "Stop. Killing. People."

CeaseFire employs a small cadre it calls violence interrupters, individuals who have become expert at defusing incendiary situations. As Tio Hardiman, director of CeaseFire Illinois puts it: "We’re not trying to dismantle gangs. Our goal is to stop killings. We’re trying to save a life."

Needless to say, not just anyone can do this work, and when the interrupters succeed it is because they’ve been there themselves: They’re people with major street credibility who’ve lived the violent life and left it behind. As Hardiman says at one of the group’s large weekly meetings, "There’s over 500 years of prison time at this table. That’s a lot of wisdom."

The Interrupters focuses on three CeaseFire members, showing them not only working the streets but also spending off hours with family and friends. The trio:

Eddie Bocanegra, a quiet and almost preppy-looking artist who spent 14 of his 34 years in prison for a murder he committed when he was 17.

Ricardo "Cobe" Williams, a veteran of three stretches in prison, including convictions for drug-related charges and attempted murder. A genial, bear-like individual who now lives in the suburbs with his wife and children, Cobe can talk to anyone. Cobe’s interactions include trying to bring together two brothers from rival gangs whose mother worries, with reason, that they will kill each other. He also tries to calm a hot-headed prison acquaintance aptly named Flamo who is enraged after a misunderstanding led to police handcuffing his mother.

Ameena Matthews, a passionate, articulate, absolutely fearless and remarkable woman, she’s the closest thing to a star The Interrupters has. The daughter of Jeff Fort, the founder of the Blackstone Rangers and a legend in Chicago gang circles, Matthews stands up for young people because no one stood for her.

Gaining trust and getting close to these individuals and the intense situations they become involved in was no easy thing. Working with the smallest possible team — James, Kotlowitz and sound recordist Zak Piper — the filmmakers shot more than 300 hours of footage, which has been edited to just about two hours by James’ long-time collaborator Aaron Wickenden.

As with Hoop Dreams, filming people over time leads to some surprising results, but The Interrupters is too honest a film to pretend that all situations end with tidy resolutions. If there is a message here, especially as regards the young people who are the focus of CeaseFire’s efforts, it’s summed up in the title of the Solomon Burke song that plays over the closing credits: Don’t Give Up on Me This film not only asks that of us, it shows us why we should care.

Dallas has been, still is and probably always will be a city of bigots

It is a bigotry I like to call "Tolerant Bigotry." I vividly remember the first time I ran across it, back in the early 1960s. "I have nothing against colored people. I just don’t want one moving in next door to me."

When I first moved to Dallas in 1968 to go to work for UPI I had hair down to my waist. I worked the overnight shift at UPI and usually around 2 or 3 in the morning I would make the short drive from our Patterson Street offices to the Dallas Morning News to pick up a paper as it was coming off the press. I could not drive three blocks without being stopped by a Dallas cop, told to get out of my car and being frisked. Back then we had press cards issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety and it go so that I would wear it as a badge when I had to go out at night. The cops would see that badge and back off a little bit after they stopped me and told me to get out of the car. I know if I had been black with an Afro back then, I wouldn’t have dared to go out at that time of night.

Dallas bigotry is well documented, back from when the white establishment created black residential neighborhoods in the Trinity River floodplains and divided the city between the white north and black south. It carefully crafted an electoral system that made sure blacks had no voice in city government.

Of course, much of that overt racism is gone, but it didn’t go without a fight or a series of lawsuits. But it still exists. I remember in early 1990s when Cinemark wanted to build its very first movie theater in Dallas — on Inwood Road just north of Forest Lane. The neighborhood rose up in fury and forced the city council (illegally, it turned out) to deny Cinemark the zoning it needed to build the theater. Why was the neighborhood so outspoken? Because blacks go to movies and they didn’t want "those kind of people," as one resident told me, roaming around their streets and homes.

This same kind of bigotry was out in full force Wednesday at City Hall when the subject of supportive housing was being discussed. It was another example of that same old tired form of Tolerant Bigotry. "I have nothing against homeless people. I just don’t want one moving in next door to me."

It was an absolutely disgusting display, one that made me ashamed of the people who live in Dallas, particularly those who live in the area immediately surrounding the Farmers Market. Back in the ‘60s, the argument bigots used was all black people wanted to rape white women. These days, it’s all homeless people are habitual criminals who want to ransack your homes and cause you bodily harm. This in spite of reports that show in 100 percent of cases, crime has been reduced in areas where supportive housing is created. 100 freakin’ percent!!! But bigotry, by definition, always flies in the face of facts.

It’s really a simple proposition. The only way to solve the homeless situation — to even make a dent in it — is to find homes for as many of them as possible. In Dallas, the majority of the homeless congregate downtown. So it makes sense to find housing for them downtown and the area around the Farmers Market offers the most available property for the construction of this supportive housing.

Off course, it’s not a Farmer’s Market issue. If someone wanted to construct a project in just about any area of Dallas, especially any area north of I30 and east of I35, the same Tolerant Bigtory would raise its ugly face. It would simply be Tolerant Bigots with different names. But the message would be exactly the same. "I have nothing against homeless people. I just don’t want one moving in next door to me."

The only bright spot in all this, although it was a significant bright spot, was that the Dallas City Council, in a rare display of enlightenment and acceptance, voted to support providing tax credits for two of the proposed projects. That doesn't mean they're a done deal because it's the state, not the city, that hands out the credits, and the city can still vote to block the projects as the political process continues to unfold.

Upon further review ...

I'm making three last minute switches in my Oscar predictions. Nothing in the major categories -- those picks remain unchanged -- but in the so-called technical categories. Here are the new picks:

Costume Design: The Artist
Documentary Feature: Paradise Lost 3
Documtentary short: Saving Face

Available on DVD: “Circumstance”

In the past two decades, we’ve been treated to the riches of Iranian art house cinema, from Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry), Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Gabbeh) and Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon), among others. With her vibrant, colorful film, Circumstance, Maryam Keshavarz has announced herself as a bold voice, albeit from exile, in the new Iranian cinema.

Set against a backdrop of the underground party scene of hip-hop music, drinking and drugs (aboveground, the morality police will lecture you for playing your car stereo too loud), Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) are schoolmates whose love for each other becomes physical. Atafeh’s older brother Mehran (Riza Sixo Safai), knowing nothing of their lesbian relationship, becomes stuck on Shireen as well.

Mehran is technically the villain of the piece — he’s creepy, and a follower of the strict Muslim laws of the ruling mullahs — but he’s also a sympathetic figure. He’s a failed musician and recovering drug addict, an example of the talented young people wasted by the restrictive regime. Atafeh and Shireen represent a bright future, one that has its latest roots in the 2009 protests against a rigged presidential election.

Keshavarz grew up on the East Coast, and her actors also grew up outside Iran, in places as far flung as Vancouver and France. They filmed the movie, for less than $1 million, in Beirut. The film has a Western feel to it — in storytelling structure and in scenes like the one in an underground video store, where young people discuss the merits of Sex and the City and Milk, which represent two forms of illicit behavior.

But let’s not get too political here. This movie doesn’t work unless the central relationship between Atafeh and Shireen works. It does, beautifully; whether together in a nightclub or alone in a bedroom, Boosheri and Kazemy find a delicacy and sensitivity that reinforces, not diminishes, their strength.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Available on DVD: “The Elephant in the Living Room”

After watching Michael Webber’s alarming documentary The Elephant in the Living Room, you would be forgiven for believing that the State of Ohio is just one enormous, unfenced zoo.

Focusing on the misguided and often unregulated American subculture of exotic-pet lovers, Webber pulls examples from several states — including a reptile expo in Pennsylvania and a python hunter in Florida — but his raw meat is in Ohio. There he finds Tim Harrison, a softhearted police officer and animal-rescue expert whose concern for the welfare of these deadly houseguests is equal to his fears for their owners — and, one hopes, their neighbors.

"I don’t have any happy endings," he says ruefully, chilling us with tales of on-the-lam cougars, pythons, alligators and Gaboon vipers. As if to prove his point, the film spends rather too much time in the troubling company of Terry Brumfield, a barely mobile invalid who houses two full-grown African lions and their four cubs in a trailer in his backyard. Lengthy scenes of Brumfield gazing at his fanged charges and nuzzling their necks, accompanied by a selection of emo tunes on the soundtrack, advertise the inevitable tragedy with more sentiment than subtlety.

Fair to a fault, Elephant omits what could be considered crucial voices — like lawmakers, the Humane Society of the United States (which helped finance the film) and mental-health professionals — in its attempt to understand those who believe their particular beast is as harmless as a kitten. At least until it rips someone’s face off.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Available on DVD: “Project Nim”

Project Nim, a documentary by James Marsh, is a probing, unsettling study of primate behavior, focusing on the complex dynamics of power, sex and group bonding in a species whose startling capacity for selfishness and aggression is offset by occasional displays of intelligence and compassion.

The movie also features a chimpanzee.

His name — a human imposition, like everything else in this creature’s remarkable, heartbreaking life — is Nim Chimpsky. In the 1970s he enjoyed (or endured) a season of fame as a research subject. Shortly after his birth at an Oklahoma laboratory, Nim was taken from his mother’s side and delivered to New York, where he became part of an experiment, led by a Columbia professor, Herbert Terrace, to determine whether an ape could be taught human language.

It is a bit curious that Marsh’s film has nothing to say about the roots of Nim’s name, a jab at the influential linguist Noam Chomsky, whose theories about the innateness and uniqueness of language to humans were the implicit target of Dr. Terrace’s work. His project was an effort to discern if a chimpanzee could learn sign language and if that learning could proceed beyond the mimicry of specific gestures into the creation of grammatical sentences. If Nim could be raised more or less as a human child, and could master human communication, that would challenge the Chomskyan idea of language as a special, hard-wired trait fundamentally separating us from other animals. (Koko the gorilla, another celebrated signing ape born around the same time as Nim, also tested this hypothesis.)

Project Nim glances briefly at the scientific controversy that shaped Nim’s fate, but Marsh is less interested in comparatively dry matters of linguistics or neurobiology than in a humid, messy domain of identity and emotion that has, in the past, been the terrain of psychoanalysis. And of literature: Nim, thrown from one home to another, vulnerable to cruelty and neglect and dependent on the kindness of strangers, resembles the titular hero of a Dickens novel, an orphan buffeted by circumstances whose biography is also a fable of individual virtue and social injustice.

A helpless innocent compared with his protectors and tormentors, Nim bounces like a long-armed David Copperfield from one unnatural home to another — a Manhattan brownstone, an estate in the Bronx, a medical testing center upstate — living through periods of pastoral bliss and gothic horror. His tale is Dickensian, but also Kafkaesque, since he is at the mercy of powerful forces beyond his ken or control.

Red Peter, the learned ape in Kafka’s devastating Report to an Academy, dreams, above all else, of a "way out," and to watch footage of the young Nim at play and in confinement is to infer that he must have known a similar longing. Unlike the Kafka character, however, this educated primate never acquired enough words to tell us his story, and so Project Nim relies on human interlocutors, some of whom cared about Nim a great deal, almost all of whom wind up telling us more about themselves.

They are a remarkable collection, often at odds and sometimes in bed with one another, with Nim as their pawn, rival or surrogate child as well as the blank slate on which they inscribe their fantasies and intellectual conceits. Dr. Terrace, speaking with precision and detachment in present-day interviews, is either resigned to being the film’s designated villain or oblivious to being set up for that role. His former colleagues, some of them also former lovers, don’t have much good to say, and the ’70s footage, showing an academic dandy with a comb-over, a BMW and a Burt Reynolds mustache, is hardly flattering.

For the first few years of Nim’s life, Dr. Terrace was the master of his fate, though not always a significant presence in the chimp’s day-to-day routine. After leaving Oklahoma, Nim was installed in the home of Stephanie LaFarge, where he became part of a household that included seven children, at least one dog and Ms. LaFarge’s husband, a poet and "rich hippie" who appears to have been Nim’s romantic rival.

Ms. LaFarge, an open and genial interview subject, drops a few casual bombshells testifying to what the psychobabble of our own time might call boundary issues. "It was the ’70s," her now grown-up daughter Jenny Lee says, but even then, and even on the Upper West Side, it might have been a bit unusual for a woman to breastfeed a baby chimpanzee.

After a while, Nim was transferred to an estate in Riverdale, cared for and tutored by young people — most of them women — who come before Marsh’s camera in middle age to recall the pleasures and dangers of working with their spirited simian charge. It is hard not to be charmed by the affection that passes between these humans and the chimp, or to appreciate what seems to be a reciprocated effort at communication. But at the same time it is difficult to avoid a certain queasiness at the sight of a wild creature forcibly and irrevocably alienated from his nature — dressed in clothes, tethered and caged, smoking a joint out in the woods with his pals. You laugh, sometimes, to force the lump out of your throat.

There is no doubt that Nim was exploited, and also no doubt that he was loved. Marsh, by allowing those closest to Nim plenty of room to explain themselves, examines the moral complexity of this story without didacticism. He allows the viewer, alternately appalled, touched and fascinated, to be snagged on some of its ethical thorns. He also engages in a bit of manipulation, using sleight-of-hand re-enactments and Dickon Hinchliffe’s nerve-rackingly melodramatic score to sensationalize a drama that hardly requires it.

Marsh, whose last documentary was the lovely, Oscar-winning Man on Wire, is a patient listener and an able storyteller, but the subject of Project Nim is so rich and strange that it might have benefited from the hand of a wilder, bolder filmmaker. An obsessive like Errol Morris or Werner Herzog might have pushed beyond pathos and curiosity, deeper into the literal no man’s land that lies between us and our estranged animal relations. But it is also possible that our language and our science do not equip us to understand the truth about Nim — or the truth about us that he may have discovered through years of rigorous, involuntary research.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Texas presidential primary becomes meaningless (of course, it really always has been)

Normally it works like this: Citizens vote in their respective party primary and if they are really gung-ho about this whole political thing (and they usually are during a presidential election year), they return to their polling place that evening for the precinct conventions that decide how the delegates will be allotted for each presidential candidate.

That’s not how it’s going to be done this year. Since the likely date of this year’s primary is May 29 and the state party conventions are scheduled for the second weekend in June, both the Democrats and the Republicans are talking about eliminating precinct conventions completely. The first round of conventions will be the Senate district get-togethers and they will be held before the primary.

Which makes the entire voting process for the presidential candidate of your choice completely meaningless because the delegates for each candidate will have been chosen before the primary. But then the voting in the Texas presidential primary has always been superfluous, since the conventions, not the voting, decide the final results. Say 57 percent of the voters in a Republican precinct vote for Mitt Romney, 23 percent vote for Rick Santorum, 17 percent vote for Ron Paul and the last 3 percent for Newt Gingrich. However, if Ron Paul supporters attend the precinct convention en masse and comprise 60 percent of the folks attending and Romney voters stay home to watch CSI, then Paul wins the precinct. Follow that?

The Oscars: Is it all over?

There doesn’t seem to be any suspense in the Oscars this year, so let’s not wait until the last minute to announce the winners:

Picture: The Artist
Director: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Actor: Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Actress: Viola Davis, The Help
Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer, The Help
Adapted Screenplay: The Descendants
Original Screenplay: Midnight in Paris
Cinematography: The Tree of Life
Film Editing: The Artist
Art Direction: Hugo
Sound Editing: Hugo
Sound Mixing: Hugo
Visual Effects: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Original Score: The Artist
Original Song: "Man or Muppet," The Muppets
Costume Design: Hugo
Makeup: The Iron Lady
Foreign Language Film: A Separation
Animated Feature: Rango
Animated Short: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
Documentary Feature: Pina
Documentary Short: The Tsumami and the Cherry Blossom
Live Action Short: The Shore

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The resurrection of Robert

I was late jumping on the Robert DeNiro bandwagon. I didn’t climb aboard until I saw him in Mean Streets in 1973. I had missed his earlier work with Brian DiPalma. In fact, I still haven’t seen Hi Mom. But in the DeNiro became one of my favorites, if not my favorite, actor in the ‘70s, the ‘80s and through much of the ‘90s. But after Ronin, it seemed the DeNiro magic was gone. I defied anyone to name one – just one – decent film he had made since the turn of the century.

Now, a dozen years into this century, that film may be on the horizon. I know I shouldn’t judge a film from its trailer, but this one shows real promise. DeNiro co-stars with Paul Dano, a DeNiro for this age, Julianne Moore, Olivia Thirlby (Leah in Juno), and Lili Taylor in this film Being Flynn.

Davis, Hill coming across as anti-education council members

Why is Dallas city Council member Carolyn Davis so anti-education? And why is colleague Vonciel Hill joining this anti-education parade?

Davis is dead set against creating a mechanism that would allow charter schools in Dallas to issue low interest bonds for construction projects. And if such a mechanism is created, she plans to do her best to scuttle it. Why? She claims the city should be supporting DISD instead, an argument totally irrelevant to the subject up for debate.

Carolyn Davis
First, there is little the city can do to help DISD, which is content on digging its own grave and shunting aside anyone who tries to help. (Anyone remember the efforts of Ross Perot and Sandy Kress?)

Second, whatever power the city has in the field of public education should be directed at providing the opportunity for the best possible public education for its school-age chldren, not fighting stupid turf wars.

And who does Davis offer to speak on her side? Members of the various teacher associations, which, more than any other single body, is responsible for the mess our public schools are in. And, if you don’t believe me on this, but are advocates of public school education, then rent, borrow, download, or buy a copy of the documentary Waiting for Superman to learn why our public schools are in so much trouble. Then add to that the fact Dallas has a school board totally uninterested in education – a board that will run off any superintendent intent on improving educational standards (see Michael Hinajosa, among others), and you will understand why alternatives are desperately needed.

I imagine Davis is proud to be a product of the DISD, although she is not the best advertisement for a DISD education. She wants the traditions, the old ways of doing things preserved. But the old ways simply don’t work anymore. It’s a new and different day – far different from the days I attended public schools, far different from the days Davis attended them as well.

This argument should not be and cannot be about which educational body should be in charge of educating our public school students, as Davis and Hill think it should be. The subject of this debate – the only subject – is what can the city do to provide its school age children the best possible public school education. And how can that education be provided now – not in some utopian future when and if DISD gets its act together.

Perhaps if Davis and Hill had a child or a grandchild about to enter the school system, they would see the light. It makes a big difference when you really have something at stake in this fight.

Available on DVD: “The Last Lions”

One of the most urgent and certainly among the most beautifully shot documentaries to come to DVD in recent memory, The Last Lions isn’t just another cute and fuzzy encounter session with a different species. It’s a pulse-quickening, tear-duct milking and outrageously dramatized story about the threats — wildfires, chomping teeth, stampeding hooves and, worst of all, unseen humans — that face a female lion trying to protect her cubs. Here, single motherhood doesn’t mean juggling family, work and PTA meetings: it means parking the tots in the bushes and then trying to take down a water buffalo the size of a jeep.

Alas, the movie’s title is horrifyingly accurate. Conservation groups tend to put the current population of African lions at roughly between 20,000 and 50,000, a staggering decline from the estimated 400,000 that were born and roamed free a half-century ago. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, a global network of environmental groups, has classified lions as vulnerable and indicates that their numbers are only declining. Their future looks grim, even hopeless. (In Kenya, home to Elsa of the popular 1966 movie Born Free, wild lions might be wiped out within one to two decades.) All this makes a well-intentioned movie like The Last Lions, from the husband and wife filmmaking team Dereck and Beverly Joubert, necessary viewing.

It’s perhaps because the stakes are so high for lions — and also maybe because, Al Gore notwithstanding, environmental bad news is as hard a sell at the movies as it is off screen — that the Jouberts decided to personalize this story of survival. Steering clear of the customary talking heads and dire statistics, which might chance audience indifference, they have instead created an empathetic, heart-heavy story about the burdens of parenthood, and hired Jeremy Irons — the voice of the villain in the Disney animation The Lion King — to narrate. In other words, they went the route of March of the Penguins, the improbable hit about emperor penguins toughing it out in Antarctica that was reassuringly narrated by Morgan Freeman.

It soon becomes eyeball-poppingly obvious, though, that the fairly peaceable kingdom of emperor penguins is worlds apart from the tooth-and-claw lives of lions. Forget the ice capades of those tuxedoed, natural-born comedians. Here, in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, just north of South Africa, carnivores battle one another in a drama far wilder and bloodier than any that Marlin Perkins delivered on television on Wild Kingdom. Within the first 20 minutes of The Last Lions one adult lion dies in a ferocious on-screen fight, a battle capped with a shot of flies buzzing on a destroyed eye, and another becomes an off-screen snack for a crocodile. As television fodder like When Animals Attack! proves, death piques human interest in animals as much as "aww" images of playful kittens do.

The central lion in the movie, called Ma di Tau ("mother of lions" in Setswana, a language of Botswana), certainly has an arresting, hard-luck story. First, her old man splits, and then she and her three little ones lose their home in a fire. With nowhere nearby to run to — the nasty people, I mean pride, next door limit her options — she and her cubs move into a marsh surrounded by crocodiles. Hard-wired territorial demands and fast-encroaching humans might be why the family has to move into such a bad neighborhood. But from the absurdly personalized narration purred by Irons — he describes how the story’s beleaguered heroine feels and what she knows — the relocation is just another episode in As the Lions Turn.

It’s one thing to feel compassion for animals and to believe that they have emotions. At certain instances, rather entertainingly, Ma di Tau even seems to be remembering, via a series of flashbacks, moments out of her past. Yet turning animals into humanlike characters denies them their nature and, here at least, also makes for some deeply unpleasant and exploitative interludes. There’s a needlessly protracted sequence between the mother and a wounded cub that’s pure filmmaker sadism and that, in its cutting and framing, makes it seem as if the mother is consciously cruel rather than following her instincts. These techniques, along with the overwrought, heavily editorializing music, help build great narrative tension out of what often looks like separate documented moments in time. You might cry, but you also feel beaten up.

The Last Lions is a worthy, intensive labor of love that took years to shoot and edit, and it’s also more gripping than a lot of recent Hollywood thrillers. Commendably, the Jouberts and National Geographic (its movie division is distributing the documentary) have also established the Big Cats Initiative, an international conservation project to spread the word about endangered cats. Yet by sensationalizing and sentimentalizing a tale of animal life and death, by focusing on one lion family instead of the threats faced by a species, the Jouberts have risked reducing a real catastrophe into a tidy fiction. Then again, is the fault really theirs or of those who pay attention only when a tragedy looks like something they can relate to?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Available on DVD: “Thunder Soul”

You may never have heard of the Kashmere Stage Band, but by the end of Thunder Soul you will wonder why. A big-hearted, back-in-the-day tribute — and a stand-alone argument for public-school music programs — Mark Landsman’s bittersweet documentary has designs on your feet, heart and mind.

Celebrating a black Texas high school band that, from 1968 to ’77, vaulted over the color barrier to win nationwide contests, lay down albums and travel to Japan — with financial support from, of all people, Alabama’s governor at the time, George C. Wallace — the film is a riot of impossible Afros and irresistible beats.

Anchored by a 2008 reunion concert in honor of the band’s former teacher, the 92-year-old musical firebrand Conrad O. Johnson Sr. (known to everyone as Prof), a wealth of archival film resurrects a time of civil unrest and racial friction. While the middle-aged alumni, some of whom haven’t touched an instrument in decades, face the daunting task of whipping themselves into performance shape, their spirited interviews bless the day Prof chose a hometown girl and a high school gig over a blossoming musical career. By introducing funky licks, fancy footwork and many of his own compositions to the band’s stodgy set list of jazz standards, this indomitable leader (whose declining health adds a poignant twang to the film’s final scenes) instilled racial pride alongside musical competency.

The power of the tunes remains valuable, but the legacy of an inspirational teacher? Priceless.

Homeowners association president is freakin' out of his mind

I need to tread carefully with this because My Hero lives in Bryan Place. But then so does Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm. However, I don’t know if either of them realize Eric Williamson, the president of their Bryan Place Neighborhood Association, needs to be removed from his position of authority and it should be done before he embarrasses the residents of his neighborhood any further.

This man went before the Dallas City Council yesterday and said his association would rather have bars in their neighborhood than good schools. Howz zat? Yep, that’s what the lame brain said. Obviously he is a product of a bar and not a good school.

His statements came when he spoke during the debate of whether the City should help charter schools have the ability to sell low-interest bonds. The geographically challenged Williamson changed the subject to the totally irrelevant argument of whether these schools should be able to locate in his neighborhood. He is against the idea. Here is his statement as transcribed by Rudolph Bush of The Dallas Morning News:

"Deep Ellum is an entertainment district just north (of Bryan Place [actually it is south, as shown in the map above]) separated only by the Meadows Foundation and areas along Swiss Avenue (along with a number of apartments and condominiums along Live Oak, the Baylor Hospital complex, and the DART Green Line, but I guess he doesn’t count those). We value that Deep Ellum is close to us and allows us entertainment options. We have people in our neighborhood who own businesses in Deep Ellum."

So, according to Williamson, if children in his hood want an education they should go to bartending school and if those in the neighborhood who own businesses in Deep Ellum want an educated work force, they will have to find them elsewhere.

It’s thinking like Williamson’s that will keep Dallas from being a first-class, perhaps even a second-class, city.

Available on DVD: “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale”

The Santa at the center of Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is not the sort Mommy is likely to be kissing beneath the mistletoe (or anywhere else) next season. Rather, the focus of this bizarre Finnish fairy tale — as black as anything the Brothers Grimm could have dreamed up — is a sinister old codger who chews off ears and whose demon minion kidnaps innocent children. Ho ho no!

Drawing on ancient Scandinavian mythology, Jalmari Helander’s feature debut (spun off from two of his short films) is a thing of frigid beauty and twisted playfulness. The time is just before Christmas, and the setting is northern Finland, where an American drilling operation has unearthed a mysterious block of ice sprouting a gigantic pair of horns.

Soon children from a nearby village begin to disappear, and a group of reindeer hunters finds its annual crop slaughtered in the snow. Only little Pietari (Onni Tommila) knows who’s responsible; now he must persuade his gruff father (Jorma Tommila, Onni’s father) to help him fight back.

Cocooned in a genuinely goose-pimply atmosphere and awash in marveling music, this Edward Gorey-meets-Joe Dante fable turns Santa (Peeter Jakobi) into a savage troll and his elves into naked, wrinkly graybeards. Kids will love the diminutive, motherless hero and a plot that’s completely bonkers; adults will enjoy the exuberantly pagan images and deadpan humor. Tots, on the other hand, will probably never sit on Santa’s lap again.

Mayor Mike’s finest moment

Mayor Mike
I was not a big fan of Mike Rawlings when he was running for mayor. He didn’t stand out as "a leader" to me. But how that has changed since he’s been in office! I can’t remember the last time I was this proud of someone sitting at the apex of the Dallas City Council horseshoe. First it was his impassioned, reasoned plea for the passage of the Flow Control Ordinance. Then there was his speech, which I made reference to yesterday, on behalf of charter schools in the City of Dallas.

If you missed it, you can see it in its entirety here, courtesy Dallas Morning News city hall reporter Steve Thompson. Trust me, it is well worth the eight to 10 minutes it takes to view the entire clip.

Additions to the E-Street Band

Eddie Manion
Bruce Springsteen has decided that no one single musician can fill the void left by the death of his longtime friend/associate/saxophonist Clarence "Big Man" Clemons. So he’s hired two: Eddie Manion, a veteran member of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes as well as a frequent Springsteen collaborator (he was part of the Miami Horns and a member of Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions Band), and Jake Clemons, Clarence’s nephew. For those wondering about Manion’s bona fides, here he is performing the solo from Jungleland.

Other additions to the E-Street Band for the upcoming Wrecking Ball tour are trombonist Clark Gayton and trumpeter Curt Ramm, both of whom also toured with Springsteen as members of the Miami Horns. Also being added to the band is trumpeter Barry Danielian and backup singers Cindy Mizelle and Curtis King.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Education: Why does it have to be either/or?

I was casually listening to the Dallas City Council debate this morning on a proposal that would create a mechanism allowing an outfit called Uplift Schools to sell low interest bonds to finance the construction of charter schools in Dallas. It seemed that some members of the council, most notably Carolyn Davis, argued approving the item would be a betrayal to the Dallas Independent School District.

Admittedly, I’m not an expert on charter schools. What I know about them is that they receive public money but are not subjected to many of the rules and regulations that govern other public schools. In return, they create "a charter" outlining the results they will achieve and are then held accountable to that charter. They are not allowed to charge tuition and are considered non-profit institutions. That’s about the extent of my knowledge.

If anyone has seen that wonderful documentary film about public education Waiting for Superman, then you know that charter schools were seen as a remedy for what’s ailing traditional schools. And, as we all know, the DISD is ailing. Mayor Mike appears to be passionately supportive of charter schools, especially those run by Uplift. In fact, at first I was siding with Davis on this issue until MM said that only 12 percent of DISD graduates are prepared to enter college whereas 100 percent of the Uplift graduates attend college. That’s amazing, especially when you consider charter schools can’t "cherry-pick" their enrollees. They are not allowed to admit only the best and the brightest. Entrance is strictly on a lottery basis from all the students in the neighborhood who would rather attend a charter school instead of a DISD institution.

That 100 percent announcement jerked my head around quickly. That’s when I started wondering why this had to be an either/or argument. Why can’t we help charter schools like Uplift and Dallas Can Academy and also continue to do what can be done to improve DISD. Why can’t this be a pro-education issue?

In fact, DISD can learn from Uplift. It is seeking these low interest bonds because the lower interest payments will save Uplift $300,000, money it will use on educating students instead of on interest payments to bond holders. The DISD should have been following this example years ago — instead of issuing bonds and paying the interest rates on those bonds to fund the construction of new schools, it should have focused on using whatever resources were at its disposal (and money is a major resource) to providing a higher standard of education to its students.

So now the schedule is that the council will be briefed on this issue a week from today and then the item that was deferred on today’s agenda will re-appear two weeks from today. Until someone has a sound argument to counter that 100% percent statistic, the item should be approved. After that, let’s examine what the city can do about the DISD.

Olbermann and Komen

Keith Olbermann had some harsh words for the Susan B. Komen Foundation in the wake of the resignation of right wingnut Karen Handel, who was Komen's senior vice president for public policy and the idiot behind Komen's decision to deny funding to Planned Parenthood. Neither did Olbermann spare Komen founder Nancy Brinker who has done a rotten job of trying to right the foundation's direction after Handel's disgrace.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

GOP politics plays role in Flow Control ruling

Judge Reed O'Connor
I didn’t really have to confirm the fact that U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor was appointed to the bench by 43. I could tell that by his ruling yesterday granting an injunction to put a halt, at least temporarily, to the city’s ambitious plan to convert the McCommas Bluff Landfill into an environmental center.

According to Judge Reed, using reasoning that comes directly from the Bush economic script that plunged this country into its current recession, increasing the profits of a private business at the expense of Dallas property tax payers "is in the public interest."

Yes, the 1 per cent wins again. The poor and the middle class get screwed again. And you wonder why those Occupy Wall Streeters are grumbling.

Available on DVD: “Mysteries of Lisbon”

A formal marvel carved from, and around, a narrative whopper, Raul Ruiz’s adaptation of the mid-19th century Portuguese novel Mysteries of Lisbon arrives on DVD as a two-disc, four-hour version edited down from a six-hour version produced for European television.

It’s a lot. But if you’re at all inclined, it’s just right.

The prolific Chilean director died last year at age 70. Throughout the machinations of Mysteries of Lisbon, adapted from Camilo Castelo Branco’s three-volume soap opera, the cold hand of fate knocks on the door of coincidence in a way that causes a click of amusement inside your brain (mine, anyway), no matter how dire the circumstance.

As Ruiz wrote: The characters "enter and leave the narrative system that Camilo proposes, get entangled in their own maze, relating improbable facts that you end up doubting." He added: "The storm of misadventures, which the three volumes is made of, is never followed by a ray of light."

And yet the results are strangely buoyant. An Oliver Twist dilemma guides the tale of the orphaned Pedro da Silva, played by Joao Luis Arrais as a child and Afonso Pimentel as a young man. He seeks the truth about his parentage, his history, his destiny. The boy’s protector, Father Dinis (Adriano Luz, calm concern personified), harbors a thicket of secrets himself. The boy’s mother, it is soon revealed, is the Countess of Santa Barbara, hidden away from the world by her husband. Yet the husband isn’t what he appears to be. No one is.

Each new character’s penchant for spinning the story of her or his life re-routes Mysteries of Lisbon until the next flashback is tapped into motion. Betrayals, lifelong grudges, the low-born transforming themselves into arrogant rich sots: It’s a heady experience. "In life," we hear at one point, "there are events and coincidences of such extravagance that no novelist would ever dare to invent them." Shakespeare pulled that sort of thing all the time in his later works, and Ruiz — who completed one final project following Mysteries of Lisbon — is well aware of what it sounds like when a monk murmurs to his visitor: "I have a long story to tell you … I’ve never told it to anyone." You smile at the contrivance; you’re already in the river of the overall experience, floating contentedly.

Ruiz and his young Brazilian-born cinematographer Andre Szankowski create their world of Portugal, France and other lands shooting digitally, in candlelight and natural light and wonderfully rich chiaroscuro images. Ruiz is no hands-off classicist, however (if he were, all that painterly business would dry out after an hour). A key character’s toy theater serves as the guiding metaphor for the story’s patent artifice. Often we see cut-out characters inside the theater reenacting scenes we’ve just watched visually; the idea isn’t new, but it’s beautifully rendered, as are Ruiz’s witty and surprising camera angles — a torn-up letter is shown from beneath a pane of glass, beneath the characters’ feet — and the ever-pivoting, gradually shifting visual perspective. Half the intrigue afoot in Mysteries of Lisbon takes place between noblemen and noblewomen while their servants lurk behind a door, or merely stand at attention. The long, languorous takes frequently sustain a minute or more of interaction and subtle choreography. Everything is slightly italicized. No one performance leaps out of the overall tapestry.

But there are human beings caught in the melodrama. Even if you struggle to remember who’s who and what’s what, the pulse is there. One character is described as being "as weak as every woman who fights two powerful enemies: the indifference of her husband, and the most loving warmth of desire." The overall effect of Ruiz’s film may be that of rigorous, wryly observed control. But what it observes is life in the form of a deeply improbable three-volume novel, which is both lifelike and its own form of purest artifice.