Wednesday, May 30, 2012

It's coming ...

...and it looks good

Good night, Doc

From an e-mail I received last night from The New York Times:

Doc Watson, the guitarist and folk singer whose flat-picking style elevated the acoustic guitar to solo status in bluegrass and country music, and whose interpretations of traditional American music profoundly influenced generations of folk and rock guitarists, died on Tuesday in Winston-Salem, N.C. He was 89.

Mr. Watson, who had been blind since he was a year old, died in a hospital after recently undergoing abdominal surgery, The Associated Press quoted a hospital spokesman as saying.

Mr. Watson, who came to national attention during the folk music revival of the early 1960s, injected a note of authenticity into a movement awash in protest songs and bland renditions of traditional tunes. In a sweetly resonant, slightly husky baritone, he sang old hymns, ballads and country blues he had learned growing up in the northwestern corner of North Carolina, which has produced fiddlers, banjo pickers and folk singers for generations.

His mountain music came as a revelation to the folk audience, as did his virtuoso guitar playing. Unlike most country and bluegrass musicians, who thought of the guitar as a secondary instrument for providing rhythmic backup, Mr. Watson executed the kind of flashy, rapid-fire melodies normally played by a fiddle or a banjo. His style influenced a generation of young musicians learning to play the guitar as folk music achieved national popularity.

"He is single-handedly responsible for the extraordinary increase in acoustic flat-picking and fingerpicking guitar performance," said Ralph Rinzler, the folklorist who discovered Mr. Watson in 1960. "His flat-picking style has no precedent in earlier country music history."

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Case of the Pesky Possum; or, another reason why my granddaughter rocks my world

The two paragraphs following this one are going to seem — at first, second and possibly third glance — totally unrelated; but stick with me here because it all comes together.

I have a Golden Retriever named Ginger. It’s 19 months old and I have had it since it was six weeks of age. I installed a doggy door so the dog could go in and out to relieve himself at will. I thought it would be especially useful while I was at work. Unfortunately, Ginger was not the only animal that apparently gained access through the door. About three weeks ago, a possum invaded my household and it’s been pure mayhem since, especially at night. One night a loud crash awoke me from a deep sleep and I went downstairs to find a half dozen wine glasses smashed on the dining room floor. Subsequent evenings produced overturned book cases, smashed wine bottles, broken picture frames, etc.

Once my son graduated from medical school here, he and his daughter, Grace, relocated to Austin because he wanted to establish practice there and allow his daughter to live closer to her mother. Every once in a while, I will put together a package of goodies to send to her. I recently shipped her a box with the latest edition of her Princess magazine, a plush toy, a Super Mario candy dispenser, a Barbie, a summer dress, and a couple of greeting cards, including one from Ginger with her picture in it.

Ginger, and
Grace, who is 6 going on 16, called me Sunday to thank me for the box and to tell me how much she absolutely loved everything that was in it. She told me Ginger "looked sooooooo cute." She then told me her dad had promised he was going to bring her here to visit during the summer and she was excited about that. And then she said: "Poppa, do you really have a possum in your house?" (I had kept her dad informed on my dilemma.)

"Yes," I replied disgustedly.

Now there are dozens of normal, followup comments or questions most people will have when told by a relative, a friend, a loved one that a strange creature is playing havoc with their lives. My granddaughter bypassed every single one of them. Instead, she asked:

"What did you name it?"

the unnamed pest
Update: About a week ago I purchased a trap, hoping to ensnare the critter. I baited it, according to the instructions that came accompanied it, with lettuce and "crisp" bacon. Nothing. I finally called a professional possum hunter (they’re listed in the Yellow Pages) and was told to try sardines and cover it so it didn’t look like a trap. I did. Still nothing. But I noticed telltale evidence every morning that the critter seemed to spending a lot of time on a certain kitchen counter. So last night I balanced the trap on that counter. About 3:15 a.m., I was awakened by Ginger’s wimpering. I went downstairs and found the possum in the trap. I took it outside and Ginger and I returned to bed for our first completely sound sleep in three weeks.

Oh, by the way, the doggie door is history.

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse …

I recently paid tribute to Levon Helm, the drummer/vocalist of The Band, which, along with the E-Street Band, is the greatest rock ‘n’ roll group this country ever produced.

Now it turns out that that some kind of movie (don’t know whether it’s theatrical or made-for-TV) is being made about The Band. That’s OK. What’s not OK — what’s definitely not OK — is that the first person attached to this project is the multi-untalented Robbert Pattinson. Lord, help us all!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Available on DVD: “Certified Copy”

The Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s delicious brain tickler, Certified Copy, is an endless hall of mirrors whose reflections multiply as its story of a middle-aged couple driving through Tuscany carries them into a metaphysical labyrinth.

The travelers are a beautiful, high-strung woman, identified only as Elle or She (Juliette Binoche), who runs an antiques shop in Arezzo, and a British author, James Miller (the operatic baritone William Shimell), whom she meets after he gives a lecture on his new book, Certified Copy.

James’s treatise, a tricky, erudite consideration of artistic authenticity, ponders why a reproduction is not considered as good as the original, then takes that question of copies and originals in any number of directions to illustrate his conviction that nothing is ever really new.

Elle, a single mother with a 10-year-old son, has eyes for James. After the lecture, the two drive in her car to the village of Lucignano and along the way debate aesthetics and begin to bicker. When they stop at a trattoria in Lucignano, the cafe owner assumes that they are a long-married couple and shares her traditional views of men, women and marriage. A statue in the village square of a woman serenely resting her head on a man’s shoulder is scrutinized for its fundamental truth about the sexes. After the meal, during which James has a hissy fit about the wine, he and Elle slowly fall into the roles the waitress has assigned them.

By the time they visit a hotel in which Elle insists they spent their wedding night, you are uncertain whether they are collaborating in mutual playacting or if their initial meeting was actually a reunion after a long separation. If their 15-year "marriage" is just a facsimile, then the game they are playing, in which emotional darts are tossed, seems less and less frivolous.

Before the trattoria the main topic of conversation — authenticity in art — is a continuation of James’s lecture, during which Elle pointedly challenged his ideas. Artworks that were presumed to be originals and later found out to be forgeries are discussed.

The debate leaps into a broader contemplation of art versus life. Isn’t the Mona Lisa a reproduction of its model? Why does an everyday object as depicted by Jasper Johns or Andy Warhol take on value when exhibited in a museum? Aren’t we all DNA "replicas" of our ancestors? What does it imply about art and reality that not one of the gorgeous cypress trees lining the road they travel is like any other? Does that make each an original work of art?

Certified Copy, Kiarostami’s first feature film made outside his native Iran, is such a conspicuous leap from neo-Realism to European modernism, it sometimes feels like a dry comic parody. As the movie goes along, it begins to deconstruct itself by posing as a cinematic homage, or copy, if you will, of European art films of the 1950s and ’60s, with contemporary echoes.

Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, in which a couple played by George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman travel to Naples to sell a house, is the most obvious forerunner. Also alluded to are Michelangelo Antonioni’s Avventura, with its stark juxtapositions of ancient and modern images, and Alain Resnais’s elegant, memory-obsessed mind bender, Last Year at Marienbad. It has also been suggested that more recent antecedents like Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love and Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are role models. In any case, Certified Copy virtually announces itself as a deliberate stylistic composite.

Despite its modernist sensibility, there is little reason to be intimidated, unless you find the character of James abhorrent. An arrogant, short-tempered blowhard flaunting a cultivated charm, he fatuously declares at one point that human beings are the only species to have forgotten that pleasure is the purpose of existence.

Yet he dwells inside his head. The concept for his book, he remarks, was just an idea that occurred to him during a visit to Florence. Moving through one of the world’s most beautiful landscapes, he is unable to see what is in front of him or to begin to live in the moment. He is so out of touch with sensuous reality that in the restaurant he fails to notice when Elle disappears to put on lipstick and dangling earrings and returns all aglow.

The voluptuous appeal of Lucignano, a village where young couples flock to marry in a local chapel, is lost on him. His first impulse is to sneer at the naïveté of newlyweds who believe that their happiness will never end. The place is a vibrant paradise of stunning architecture, ringing church bells and cooing pigeons; the scented, sun-drenched atmosphere overflows with romantic promise.

Binoche, whose performance won the 2010 Cannes Film Festival award for best actress, humanizes the film and lends its theoretical substructure flesh and blood and emotional weight. For all her prickliness, Elle, who speaks fluent English, French and Italian, may be at home in the world of ideas but she is also a woman of deep feeling. She brings Certified Copy to intense, pulsing life.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

If you decide to live next to a swine processing plant, don’t complain about the smell

If you build a home along the Atlantic or Gulf coasts, you have to know that at some time you might be in the path of a hurricane. If you build along a California fault line, you do risk falling into a large crevice while you’re sleeping. But those risks may be worth the gamble in many circumstances. I, for one, would love to have a beachfront shack, like this one, on one of the Florida keys.

However, there are other things that are dead solid certain. For instance, if you decide to build or buy a home adjacent to an airport, you are going to be afflicted with some degree of noise that’s going to be of a higher decibel level than, say, if you decided to build next to a cemetery. Yet, it never ceases to amaze me. People will build or buy homes adjacent to a major airport and then complain about the noise. And what amazes me even more is that officials will bend over and grab their knees in attempts to appease these homeowners. Don’t believe me. Love Field sponsors a Web site where it practically begs adjacent residents to complain about the noise. It’s ridiculous.

Likewise, there’s a story in today’s Dallas Morning News about a group of homeowners who decided to build or buy homes next to a municipally operated golf course and are now complaining that golf balls may fly into their yards or through their windows. Duh! I can’t describe how little regard I have for dupes like this. Stop complaining and start selling used golf balls.

Available on DVD: “Pariah”

Sex is a complicated business, love more so. But self is the most inscrutable and convoluted quantity of all, especially when the impulse to love clashes with the need for acceptance.

That’s the message of Pariah, an astute coming-of-age drama from writer-director Dee Rees that looks at an African American kid from Brooklyn who explores her lesbian identity — while her parents are in severe denial.

Mom (Kim Wayans) won’t stop purchasing girly clothes for Alike (Adepero Oduye), determined to strip this smart, poetry-writing 17-year-old of her mannish wardrobe and her peace of mind. Dad (Charles Parnell) willfully misreads every cue his daughter broadcasts, including her vague allusions to a crush on "a friend." In his mind, it must be a boy. She must be straight. She must know nothing, absolutely nothing, about that "women’s club" near the liquor store, and she certainly wouldn’t set foot in it if she did.

Alike’s story is a painful one — in all the usual ways, expressing all the usual agonies surrounding love and teenagers. The potential for melodramatic overstatement is huge. But except for one or two scenes of ritualized family quarreling, which follow a dog-eared script, Rees avoids the pitfalls of soapy domestic confrontation and instead homes in on Alike’s quiet strength.

There we find, in Oduye’s composed performance, a splash of determination and humor alongside the inevitable swells of yearning. In one memorably funny (and unexpectedly touching) sequence, she straps on a rubber phallus for a night at the club. But it pinches, it feels awkward, and as she removes it later on, it’s obvious that she’s shedding something else, too, something much more burdensome and useless: falsehood. Coming out as a lesbian is not the same as becoming a man. It’s a process of reduction and revelation, not contrivance and disguise.

Pariah benefits from solid performances among its young cast — look for Pernell Walker as Alike’s out-and-happy best friend — and warm, lucid camerawork from cinematographer Bradford Young. The film benefits most of all from Rees’ careful screenplay, which dances that shifting line between fear and emergent hope. One of Alike’s poems says it best: "Even breaking is opening. And I am broken. I am open."

An anniversary of note

It was 78 years ago today that Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow met their grisly end. And it only seems like 45.

Available on DVD: “Kinyarwanda”

A speech about forgiveness — eloquent and compelling — sets the tone early in Kinyarwanda. A woman leading a "Reconciliation and Reeducation" session addresses both survivors of the Rwandan genocide and a group of Hutu perpetrators — young militia fighters who took machetes and guns to women, children, and Tutsi men.

In all, it is estimated that 800,000 people — mostly Tutsis, but also pro-peace Hutus — were killed during the 1994 tragedy. It was a brutal postscript to the civil war that racked the East African nation through the early ‘90s.

Healing and acceptance are overriding themes of Alrick Brown’s quiet, thoughtful film, a winner last year at the Sundance and Philadelphia Film Festivals. Through a series of interconnected stories, looped and overlapped in the manner of Paul Haggis’ Crash and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel, Kinyarwanda offers glimpses into the lives of Rwandans, young and old, religious and radicalized, in the wake of nightmarish carnage.

There are stories of a Tutsi woman and the Hutu man she loves, of a priest and an imam, of a little boy who innocently leads gunmen to his family’s door.

Kinyarwanda, the first film to be produced by Rwandans, does not linger on the violence, the atrocities. Instead, it reflects on the aftermath, and the healing — and also the inevitable impulse toward vengeance — that ensues. If the performances are sometimes stiff, or amateurish, Brown’s intent is never less than lofty. By detailing the allegiance between Tutsi Muslims and Christian Hutus, and the fatwa issued by a Muslim leader forbidding his followers to participate in the massacres, the film is hopeful rather than horrific, even as it describes events of impossible savagery and hate.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

I remember when being a “moderate” was considered a good thing

The revenge of George Lucas

One thing you got to admit about the guy: He really knows how to piss people off. The same guy who brought you Howard the Duck and Jar Jar Binks has now picked a fight with his tony neighbors in Marin County, north of San Francisco.

Lucas moved into the area in 1978, a year after his mega-hit Star Wars was released. He purchased 6,100 acres and began constructing his Lucasfilm empire, starting with Skywalker Ranch. His neighbors seemed to love the fact that he was in the area.

George Lucas
All that changed recently. After he announced in 2009 he was going to build a third facility — a 269,701-square-foot digital studio on a third ranch called Grady — a once defunct homeowners group resurrected itself last summer and announced its opposition to the project as county officials were putting their stamp of approval on it. The group said Lucas should find a "far more appropriate location for the development." The group sent a letter to Lucas that said his project would "pose a serious and alarming threat to the nature of our valley and our community," "dwarf the average Costco warehouse," and generate light pollution so that "our dark starry skies would be destroyed." As a result, the county Board of Supervisors postponed its vote on the project, although it was still expected to sail through at a later date.

But Lucas decided not to wait and pulled the plug. Tom Forster, head of community relations at Lucasfilm, said the company feared the homeowners would file lawsuits that would delay construction for years. On his Website, Lucas said he would relocate the facility to a place "that sees us as a creative asset, not the evil empire."

But that’s not all. Lucas sold the property to a philanthropic group, the Marin Community Foundation, which plans to construct low income housing there. Forster said "George, being the great guy he is, doesn’t want to build more housing for rich people since Marin is loaded with them."

Indeed it is and now a whole bunch of them are really upset. One of them said she now fears for her life, lives in "sheer terror," and likened it to living in Syria. Another letter writer said "You’re going to bring drug dealers, all this crime and lowlife in here."

And just think. They could have had Howard the Duck and Jar Jar Binks.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Available on DVD: “Rampart”

Rampart patrols some familiar streets, but this jarringly intimate study of a dirty Los Angeles cop sliding, crazily, down the drain has a distinctive new-cliche smell, pungent and alive. The story, which is more about observation than propulsion, suits what interests the filmmakers most: the scary charisma and dazzling hubris of Officer Dave Brown, played with wholehearted ferocity by Woody Harrelson.

This is co-writer and director Oren Moverman's second feature behind the camera. His first, The Messenger, co-starred Harrelson in an Oscar-nominated performance as a U.S. Army casualty notifications officer, the bearer of very bad news. In Rampart, Harrelson's character is the bad news. A 24-year veteran of the LAPD, Dave — nicknamed "Date Rape Dave," for the sex criminal he targeted and then killed some years earlier — longs for the old days, before the Rampart Division scandal led to a crackdown on all the freestyle brutality. "This used to be a glorious soldiers department," he says.

His life has complications. Dave lives with not one but two ex-wives who are also sisters, played by Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche. They coexist in a comfortable, upper-middle-class compound, along with a daughter by each ex. Increasingly intent on getting Dave to take his toxic, controlling act elsewhere, Nixon's character pleads: "You gotta let us go." No chance, Dave replies. The family, such as it is, must be kept together.

The movie takes place in 1999. When Dave is caught on video beating a man half to death, Rampart consciously echoes a host of real-life LAPD infractions of that time. Dave is a volatile master of coercion, blackmail, graft and self-interest, and he learned from his betters, one of whom (a friend of the family) is played by Ned Beatty, grimy to the core. Robin Wright plays a defense attorney sick of letting too many criminals go free too easily; in bed and out of it, she's Dave's partner in loathing and resentments. Little scenes pay off in unexpected ways here; Audra McDonald appears in two vignettes as a bar pickup with a thing for cops, but she and Harrelson work them for all they're worth.

This is not a conventionally exciting procedural, and it's not meant to be. Co-written by James L.A. Confidential Ellroy, Rampart stays close to its drug-addled powder keg. At times the script falls too in love with Dave's rhetorical flights of fancy. (Ellroy's dialogue always sounds better when set in earlier eras.) When Dave mentions the "somewhat hyperbolized misdeeds" of the LAPD, the line's meant to be showoffy, but there are a lot of these sorts of flourishes, some more suited to the character than others.

Rampart does not ratchet up the tension in its final half-hour. It's about a man taking a dying fall, trying to redeem himself in the eyes of his daughters while settling every score he can. Clearly a fan of Robert Altman's slow-zooms and pullbacks, Moverman's camera is a sidewinder, and he has excellent instincts regarding when, and how, to bite off the end of a scene. The director tries some moves that simply don't work, such as the whiplash swish-pans in a confrontation with Harrelson against Sigourney Weaver and Steve Buscemi. But in relation to the well-made and sensitive confines of The Messenger, Rampart required a more unruly visual approach. Beginning and ending with Harrelson, this sophomore effort is full of malignant life.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Available on DVD: “Shame”

Brandon (Michael Fassbender) wants sex. It’s all he thinks about, 24/7. At work, at play, at home, on the subway, in the street and especially in the bedroom. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is, or where it is, or with whom it is. He has to have it.

That makes him difficult to live with. Just ask his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Brandon doesn’t want her in his apartment and can’t wait until she leaves. She argues that, as family, they should be there for each other. He strongly disagrees. It’s hard to imagine more incompatible siblings.

But in Brandon’s defense, Sissy is seriously unstable. Singing New York, New York in a trendy nightclub, she sounds as if she’s on the precipice of a psychotic break.

Shame is a complex, challenging, emotionally devastating drama from one of the most exciting filmmaking collaborations to emerge in the past decade: Fassbender and director Steve McQueen. McQueen, working from a screenplay that he co-wrote with Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady), takes much the same bare-bones narrative approach that worked so well in Hunger (2008).

But as with that film, Fassbender’s contribution is essential. In McQueen’s hands, he’s not so much a blank slate as he is a reflecting pool, tapping into Brandon’s disturbing blend of self-absorption and self-hatred. His alienation, it’s implied, could be possible only in a world in which the more people turn to devices that supposedly connect them, the more deeply they sink into despair.

Shame is not for everyone; that NC-17 rating isn’t just a design element. The film is a raw, unsparing look at the downside of humanity. Some critics have complained that it doesn’t address the reasons for Brandon’s behavior, but it doesn’t have to.

To paraphrase a character in Michael Clayton, people are incomprehensible.

Project Trio hits the big charts

Congratulations to Project Trio. Their latest CD, Random Roads Collection, debuted this week at No. 15 on Billboard's classical music charts and, in a rare feat, simultaneously debuted at No. 17 on the trade magazine's jazz charts.

Project Trio consists of Greg Pattillo on flute, Eric Stephenson on cello and Dallas' own Peter Seymour on double bass. They compose a lot of their own tunes, but have also covered everyone from Beethoven to Guns 'n' Roses. Their YouTube videos have amassed an phenomenal 70 million viewings, making them one of the most viewed chamber music ensembles on the Internet.

The three musicians got together in 1996 at the Cleveland Institute of Music, but it wasn't until 2005 when they actually gathered as a trio for the first time. As conceived by Seymour, the band wanted to become a classical chamber group that incorporated jazz and rock music but also conducted educational outreach programs as part of their performing and touring schedule. As a result, they have performed in concert halls, clubs and classrooms. They have appeared at Montreaux, Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, South By Southwest, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, They have played concerts in 35 states as well as in Hong Kong and throughout Europe, Australia and Canada.

I first met Peter when he was a student at the Arts Magnet in downtown Dallas. Somehow, he and my son became the best of friends (they are still best friends today) and that's how I got to know Peter and his marvelously gifted family. In 1997, Down Beat magazine gave Peter its award as the best jazz solist. After graduating from Booker T., Peter went off to the Cleveland Institute of Music and later received a master's from Rice University, studying under the legendary Paul Ellison.

The attached video, a song that appears on Random Roads Collection, will give you a taste of Project Trio.

Monday, May 14, 2012

From the library: “Bad Day at Black Rock”

Nowadays, it’s hard to think of a mystery or suspense thriller that doesn’t include people chasing each other as a lot of stuff around them blows up. But occasionally we’ve gotten a rarity from Hollywood, the intelligent thriller. One such example that continues to hold up well is John Sturges’s 1954 production, Bad Day at Black Rock.

The movie combines all the elements of a good action movie, including the appropriately heroic hero and the properly villainous villains, with the addition of a script that delves into strong social and psychological issues. The mixture proved appealing enough to influence action thrillers for decades to come, including things like Clint Eastwood’s "Man With No Name" series and Bruce Willis’s Last Man Standing.

What’s more, there’s that title to consider. How many other movies can you think of that inspired a whole new figure of speech? I mean, when things go really wrong, it’s a "bad day at Black Rock," no? But, interestingly, it was Don McGuire’s adaptation and Millard Kaufman’s screenplay that changed the title of the movie from the story it’s based on, Howard Breslin’s Bad Day at Hondo. I suspect this was because John Wayne had just made a movie the year before called Hondo, and the Black Rock" filmmakers didn’t want to confuse their audience. It’s another of those felicitous quirks of fate that turn out so well in the end. The title Bad Day at Black Rock may seem at first blush a little corny, maybe even melodramatic in a B-movie sort of way, but the more you get used to it, the better it sounds.

The same can be said about the movie itself. The more you see it, the more you realize how well it’s put together, thanks in large measure not only to the writing, the cast, the music, and the photography, but to Sturges’s direction. He’s the same man who gave us It’s a Big Country, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Old Man and the Sea, The Magnificent Seven, and The Great Escape. You know he must have been doing something right when you count up his successes.

MGM made Bad Day at Black Rock a prestige product all the way. They got Spencer Tracy, always a classy actor, to play the lead, with a supporting cast of equal strength. The studio did it up in CinemaScope, their first venture in the recently launched widescreen format, and color. And they filmed a good deal of it on location at Lone Pine, California, a renowned spot for shooting Western action movies.

Make no mistake about it: Bad Day at Black Rock is a Western, no matter that its time setting is 1945, just after the end of World War II. It’s the classic story of a lone protagonist riding into a corrupt little desert town and cleaning it up. Only in this case, the subject matter is racism, so we’ve got the mixture of an old-time setting with a fairly new (at the time) theme.

Tracy is a mysterious stranger, a vet just out of the army, disabled in one arm while fighting in Italy. He arrives in the dusty little town of Black Rock, Arizona, by train — the only train to stop in Black Rock and let off a passenger in years. He introduces himself as John J. Macreedy.

Macreedy tells the conductor he won’t be staying in Black Rock for long, and it’s true. The movie covers a brief period of about 24 hours. In this and other respects, it’s a lot like High Noon, which came out a few years before: The compact little town, the compact time frame, the train, the clocks, and the townspeople all compare.

No sooner does Macreedy arrive than the townsfolk (although none of them seem to have any families) get curious about him, suspicious, and apprehensive. These people are anything but sociable. In fact, they pretty much tell him to leave town if he knows what’s good for him. Nobody wants him there, not even the hotel keeper, who initially refuses Macreedy a room in an empty hotel. But Macreedy isn’t the kind of guy to take "no" for an answer.

It’s clear from the outset that the whole town’s in cahoots on something, but we don’t know what. When Macreedy says that he wants to go out to a place called Adobe Flat and that he’s looking for a fellow named Komoko, a local Japanese farmer, things get really dicey. Clearly, this is a town with a dark secret it’s hiding, and as things progress, it’s clear they’re willing to kill to keep the secret.

There are only a couple of people in Black Rock who seem to feel any sympathy for Macready or any regret about the town’s past, but they’re too weak to act on their convictions. Or more accurately, it can’t even be said that their regrets are strong enough to be called convictions. Again, shades of High Noon. No one wants to get involved. Still, Macreedy is tougher and more persistent than the townspeople think, and the story quickly moves from mystery to suspense to action.

Tracy is a commanding screen presence in one of his best roles. A viewer could quibble about his age, I suppose; he appears a bit too old to have been recently fighting in the War. But it’s a small objection, given Tracy’s ability to hold one’s attention by hardly saying a word and then barely talking above a whisper. The town bullies attempt to goad him, but he’s above it. And when he is finally pushed too far, well, you can guess the results.

The town’s head bad guy is Reno Smith, played by Robert Ryan. He’s a ranch owner who orders everybody around, including the sheriff. His is not an obvious or overt villain but a calm, subdued one, a villain all the more repulsive for his seeming indifference. The other baddies, Smith’s henchmen, could not be bettered. They are Coley Trimble and Hector David, played by Ernest Borgnine (who the next year would win an Oscar for portraying the mild-mannered butcher Marty) and Lee Marvin (who, a decade later, would win an Oscar for basically satirizing the character he plays in this film). Borgnine’s toughie is a loudmouth bully, much as he had played in From Here To Eternity, but Marvin’s character is creepier, more menacing, a throwback to the old Western outlaw. Meaner, ornerier brutes you couldn’t ask for.

The hotel keeper, Pete Wirth, is played by a young John Ericson in another one of the James Dean-imitations that were popular at this time), and his spunky sister, Liz Wirth, is played by Anne Francis. The drunken, do-nothing sheriff, Tim Horn, is played by Dean Jagger; and the local veterinarian and undertaker, Doc Velie, who tries to reform the sheriff, by old but ageless Walter Brennan (who five years later would play exactly the same role, trying reform the drunken, do-nothing Dean Martin in Rio Bravo.

The wide-scope format is used to good advantage throughout the movie, back in the days when it wasn’t taken for granted and wasn’t designed to be cut apart later, panned and scanned for television. So every scene is well framed, well balanced, revealing a wealth of peripheral detail. This is necessary in showing us the vastness of the desert landscape as well as the closed-in, boxed-up feeling of the interiors; it gives us a visual impression of people imprisoned by their surroundings, large and small.

OK, so Bad Day at Black Rock is a message picture as well as a suspense thriller. It’s a psychological study of guilt and cowardice as well as courage, strength, and growth. It’s a short film, but its tensions mount in ripples and then waves you can feel spreading out and engulfing everything in their path. It’s a story of conflict between the Old West and the New West; between the lawless West and the modern West; between the law of the gun and the law of reason and order. In short, it’s a terse, exciting, thoughtful little gem.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

From the library: “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek”

A miraculously mad masterpiece. The marvel of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is how the film ever got made in the first place. This onslaught against American morals in small towns, against the wartime romances of servicemen, against just about everything that the country held sacred during WWII was reckless, exaggerated, and very funny.

Preston Sturges was at his irreverent best with his screenplay and direction of this most unlikely story. Betty Hutton is Trudy Kockenlocker, a man-crazy blonde who lives with her bitchy sister Emmy (Diana Lynn) and her policeman father (William Demarest). She gets drunk during one wild, passionate night with a soldier, whom she thinks she may have married, and becomes pregnant. The soldier, who she recalls is named something like "Ratsky-Watsky," vanishes, and since being pregnant in a small town without being married is the worst thing that can happen in a girl’s life, Trudy’s sometime bank clerk boyfriend Norval (Eddie Bracken) is tapped to be the father of her child. In one mix-up after another, Novral winds up being sought by authorities for impersonating a soldier, forgery, corrupting the morals of a minor, kidnapping and robbery. It looks bad for the young couple, and the only thing that can save them is a miracle. Of course, one does.

Every role is handled with deftness, and Sturges even gets in a few holdovers from an earlier success, The Great McGinty, by having Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff stop by for a few well-chosen words. The idea of having squeaky-clean Hutton shown as a (shudder) girl with loose morals was a sensation that somehow eluded the censor’s scissors. Some say that the plot managed to escape snipping because the picture was so funny that no one could take it seriously, but the truth is that this movie kept a tight grip on reality and that’s what made it so hilarious.

The manic Hutton, always an acquired taste, here gets a hilarious part that requires the frantic energy of a whirling dervish on speed. She was never better, and the same goes for the nervous Bracken, the grouchy Demarest and the wisecracking Lynn. Sturges, having begun his uninterrupted string of comic masterpieces in 1940 with McGinty, reached a peak in satirical zaniness with this one. Remade (sort of) in 1958 as Rock-a-bye Baby.

The 25 Best Films of 1944
1. Double Indemnity
2. Ivan the Terrible, Part One
3. Meet Me in St. Louis
4. To Have and Have Not
5. Laura
6. A Canterbury Tale
7. Henry V
9. The Woman in the Window
10. Jane Eyre
11. Going My Way
12. Hail, the Conquering Hero
13. Since You Went Away
14. National Velvet
15. Wilson
16. Gaslight
17. Arsenic and Old Lace
18. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
19. The Uninvited
20. Murder My Sweet
21. Lifeboat
22. Mr. Skeffington
23. The Lodger
24. This Happy Breed
25. The Way Ahead

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Gangster Squad

OK, I’ll admit it. Ever since I first saw Little Caesar and The Public Enemy I’ve been a sucker for a good gangster film. That’s why I thought LA. Confidential was a modern day masterpiece and why I even liked Bugsy more than a lot of folks. That’s just one of the reasons I’m looking forward to this companion piece to those two last mentioned films, with Sean Penn as real-life gangster Mickey Cohen and Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling and Nick Nolte among the LAPD outsiders who decide to try to take Cohen down. Considering (so I’ve been told) Cohen owned all the police, the politicians and the prostitutes in Southern California, that’s no easy task.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Shake & Dana back at Kerrville

I came upon this wonderful video of Shake Russell and Dana Cooper at Kerrville in a roundabout way. I became a fan of Shake’s the first time I saw the band Ewing Street Times, that also featured the late, great John Vandiver. The next I heard from Shake was on an LP that was recorded during a live session at a Houston radio station. One of the first songs I heard off that album was You’ve Got a Lover and my immediate reaction was "Who’s that girl singing with Shake?" Of course, "that girl" turned out to be the wonderful Dana Cooper.

I first saw them play together in the late-1970s when the Shake Russell-Dana Cooper Band played the Kerrville Folk Festival, which, for the first quarter century of its existence, I attended every year. I was completely blown away. Besides Shake and Dana, the band consisted of the late Michael Mashkes on bass, the incredible Riley Osborne on keyboards and Jim Alderman on drums.

Tomorrow is Jim Alderman’s birthday and, because of that, I searched for videos of Jim playing with Shake and Dana. I couldn’t find that one, but I did come across this wonderful version of Shake’s Acadian Angel at the 2001 Kerrville festival. In addition to Dana, the tune features Annie Clark on vocals and someone on fiddle that I frankly don’t recognize but might be a former friend of Shake’s who later had a falling out with him over something I could never ascertain.

Be that as it may. Enjoy the video and, in another roundabout way, Happy Birthday, Jim.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

It’s not Cuban’s fault

You won't ever see these guys playing together again
Tonight was a memorable one in the history of the Dallas Mavericks. No, not because the defending NBA champs were swept out of playoffs in the first round, but because it was the last time Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry shared a basketball court in the same team uniform. Dirk ain’t going nowhere, but I’m betting neither Kidd nor Terry will be in a Mavericks uniform next year and, frankly, that’s a good thing.

The prevailing opinion from the sports "experts" around here is the reason the Mavericks went from champs to chumps in one year is because owner Mark Cuban refused to do what it took to keep Tyson Chandler and J.J.Barea on the team. This myth has been repeated so often, the average Maverick fan is beginning to buy into it and even repeat it. So once again, I guess, it’s up to yours truly to set the record straight.

Sure, Chandler was named Defensive Player of the Year, but look where his current employers, the New York Knicks, wound up. They barely made the playoffs in the weaker Eastern Division, which used to contain only two good teams, but now (because of Derrick Rose’s season-ending injury) only has one. And that one team is flat out embarrassing the Knicks in the first round of the playoffs. The Thunder beat the Mavericks four games to nil, but it only embarrassed Dallas in Game 3. The Mavs played competitively for three quarters in the other three and had their biggest lead of the series, 13 points, going into the fourth quarter of this final game. Chandler and the Knicks, however, are offering no opposition to the Heat.

Look, when all is said and done, basketball is really a very simple game. It comes down to one thing and one thing only: How effectively can you put the biscuit in the basket. Last year the Mavs were good enough shooting the ball in the regular season to finish fourth in the Western Conference and became phenomenal in the playoffs, which is the reason they won the title. Look at the numbers: Last season the Mavs converted 46.1 percent of their field goal attempts during the playoffs. This season that number plummeted to 39.9 percent. Only four of the 16 teams in the playoffs have a lower percentage. Even more important, last season the Mavs hit on 39.4 percent of their three-point attempts and averaged 8.8 three-pointers per playoff game, the highest number in the history of the NBA. This season during the playoffs, they only made 32.8 percent of their shots from behind the arc.

Why the drop? The Mavericks have never had a good transition offense. And their half court offense, for the most part, consists of a couple passes before someone tries a comparatively long-range jump shot. Even when the Mavs do break free in transition, the lead player won’t drive to the basket; more often than not he’ll pull up just short of the three-point line and hoist one. To be an effective jump shooter night after night after night after night, you need strong, healthy legs to give you the required lift. The Mavs have too many old, tired legs, which is the reason they faded in the second half of the season and were outplayed in fourth quarter of every game in the Oklahoma City series. Kidd is 39, for crying out loud. Both Vince Carter and Brian Cardinal are 35 years old and Jason Terry is 34. Even Dirk and Shawn Marion are 33 and it’s questionable how many good years each of them have left.

The word is Cuban is going "all-in" during the upcoming free agency period to bring the 27-year-old Deron Williams back to Dallas, where he played his high school ball.Williams would be a major upgrade over Kidd at the point. Williams shot 40.7 percent from the field this season compared to 36.3 for Kidd. Kidd has the reputation of being the "assist master," but Williams averaged 8.7 assists per game this season compared to Kidd’s 5.5. I would also like for Cuban to see if he could make a deal with unrestricted free agent Landry Fields, a two-guard with the New York Knicks who is only 23 and had a field goal percentage this past season of 46 percent. This kid could really blossom playing alongside Dirk and Deron. And finally, if there’s any money left, I would like for Cuban to try to sign 7-1 Philadelphia unrestricted free agent center Spencer Hawes, who is just 24. Those moves give the Mavs the much-needed youth they need to improve on that one thing and one thing only.

Then there’s the draft. At the very worst, the Mavs should draft no later than 18th this year, unless they choose to give up this year’s first round pick to Houston, which the the Rockets received from the Mavericks as part of the convoluted Lamar Odom deal. As long as that pick is in the Top 20, however, the Mavs could elect to keep it and then give the Rockets a first-rounder anytime between the 2013 draft and the one in 2017. At 18, there’s an excellent chance that Baylor strong forward Quincy Miller, Kentucky point guard Marquis Teague or even Duke shooting guard Austin Rivers (Doc’s son) would be available. In the second round, I’m betting Xavier point guard Tu Holloway would be on the board.

These additions make the Mavs a power in the West once again; in fact, I’m betting this would make them a better team than they were last year.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Arboretum parking

The Dallas Arboretum
One of the many reasons I have opposed the Trinity River Tollroad from the get-go is because it is my firm belief city officials should be deploying all their resources to finding ways to get people TO Dallas, not THROUGH Dallas.

As part of this campaign, I always thought one of Dallas’ shamefully overlooked treasures was the Arboretum on the east shore of White Rock Lake. I really believed this facility needed to be marketed nationally so that it became a vacation destination point and a reason to bring tourists to Dallas (where they will spend tax dollars). When I was the head of the East Dallas Chamber of Commerce (then called the Dallas Northeast C of C) I tried to convince the membership to support and work for the installation of highway directional signs on Interstates 30 (at the Grand Ave. Exit) and 635 (at the Garland Road exits) for the Arboretum.

But it now appears the Arboretum is gaining in popularity even without the help of city marketing or local business support. It’s doing it simply on its own. Congratulations and job well done to whomever is handling the Arboretum’s promotions.

However, all the Arboretum’s good work may be undone by a bunch of narrow-minded residents who refuse to accept one simple fact: They live in a a city, a metropolitan area, a major urban environment. These are the same ignorant fools who blocked the construction of a high-rise condominium project a little north of the Arboretum on Garland road that could have had a marvelously positive economic impact on the Garland Road/Grand Avenue corridor, an area that desperately needs an economic shot. These jerks don’t accept the fact that Dallas’ borders are completely closed and the only way the city can grow — the only way it can expand — is by going up!

Now these same idiots are trying to block plans for the Arboretum to add much needed parking to handle the larger crowds expected for some planned new attractions. Their opposition is wrong on so many levels. One of their spokespersons, according to a story on the front page of the Metro section in today’s Dallas Morning News, is one Matt White, identified as an American history professor at Ferris Junior College. (Sorry. I’m not impressed.) White laments the fact, according to the News, that "few pieces of the Texas prairie land, which once stretched along the Interstate 35 corridor from San Antonio to Dallas, exist today." It doesn’t exist in Dallas, prof, because Dallas is a city. I hate to break the news to you, prof, but few pieces of the rolling grasslands that once was the major feature of Manhattan island exist today either. It’s a city now, too. But I can also tell you this, prof: Yesterday and today I took my golden retriever to the prairie land and the woods of Moss Park, an island of wilderness in the middle of a metropolitan area. Yes, I had to drive to Moss, but there are plenty of wilderness experiences in Dallas if you just know where to look (and if you get to them before they build a toll road through them).

But there’s another reason opposing additional parking for the Arboretum is a form of mass suicide. The visitors are going to come, whether the parking lot is built or not. And they will park their cars and walk to the Arboretum. And if there is not a parking lot for them, they will simply go to the other side of Garland road and park all along the streets where the idiots live. Then these two-faced folks will come crying to the City to do something about that and I hope the City has the courage to respond by saying "We tried, but your narrow-mindedness prohibited us from taking care of the problem. Now you gotta live with it."

This area east of White Rock lake is in desperate need of major infrastructure repair. Problem is there’s no money in the city’s coffers to make those repairs. The ironic part of all this is that the residents of the area continue to do everything in their power to keep the city from collecting the money needed to really help this area. Shakespeare would have a field day with these folks.

Clinton on LBJ

The fourth installment of Robert Caro’s exhaustive and brilliantly written biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Passsage of Power, has just been published. It covers the period of his life from just before the 1960 presidential election until those months after the tragedy that led to his ascension to the presidency when he managed to cajole a reluctant Congress to pass stalled legislation that completely changed the American political landscape.

The New York Times chose former President Bill Clinton to write the review of Caro’s book, which will grace the cover of this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review section. I was fascinated with the first part of the review’s concluding paragraph.

"Even when we parted company over the Vietnam War, I never hated L.B.J. the way many young people of my generation came to. I couldn’t. What he did to advance civil rights and equal opportunity was too important. I remain grateful to him. L.B.J. got to me, and after all these years, he still does."