Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Photo sharing

Better than watching the Olympics opening ceremony

I'm still amazed that these folks realized sticking a ladder into the dumpster would work as quickly and as easily as it did.

Available on DVD: “Quill: The Life of a Guide Dog”

The opening shot of Quill illustrates just how willing the director Yoichi Sai is to exploit his film’s protagonist: it’s an irresistible close-up of a sleeping Labrador retriever puppy. Therein lies the essence of this simple, bluntly effective movie. Its principal selling point — the supreme watchability of dogs, especially working dogs — is undeniably powerful.

Quill (named after a birdlike birthmark on his side) is born in Tokyo and initially raised by a loving young couple who recognize his potential as a companion to the blind. He is taken to an obedience school where a firm but compassionate trainer, Satoru Tawada (Kippei Shiina), notes that Quill, unlike the rest of the dogs he is training with, responds thoughtfully to commands, not impetuously — an ideal quality for a seeing-eye dog. (The training segments are the movie’s most fascinating.)

Tawada finds a potential owner for him: the cantankerous Mitsuru Watanabe (Kaoru Kobayashi, overacting), an advocate for the disabled who has long resisted having a guide dog. Quill gradually wins Watanabe over, of course, and moves in with his family. And here the story, which thus far has underplayed its sentiment, overreaches: Watanabe’s wife is cool toward Quill, and he is consigned to an outdoor pen, in pelting rain and baking heat. At least Watanabe’s son plays with him.

Watanabe ages and grows ill, and so eventually does the title character. Quill lives only 12 years, but when you consider the devotion, responsibility and affection a dog can demonstrate in that time, you appreciate just how full their lives can be.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The innocent are not being punished at Penn State

Yesterday I read this letter that appeared on the editorial page of the Dallas Morning News criticizing the sanctions handed down by the NCAA. The letter writer said those sanctions only punished the innocent — past and present football players.

This person still doesn’t get it, but then she lives in a state that perpetuates the same kind of thought that led to the Penn State scandal.

The first thing I noticed when I moved to Texas was what a football-crazed place this was. It was back in 1956 and my dad had been charged with supervising the construction of a chemical plant in (where else?) Pasadena, along the Houston ship channel. We decided to locate in southern Houston, in an area that was then known as McGregor Park (for all I know it’s still known as McGregor Park) that wasn’t far from the campus of the University of Houston.

Now I thought, at the time, I was a comparatively well informed 14 year old, but I had never heard of the University of Houston prior to our establishing lodging in the Bayou City. My first mistake was admitting that to a new neighbor and a U of H grad. "You never heard of the University of Houston?" he asked with this look of absolute astonishment. "Why just two years ago we played Ole Miss!!!"

That, dear friends, was how I learned that, in Texas, the quality of the universities was measured by the notoriety of the schools its football team played.

So that’s the culture that this letter writer was raised in. Still, however, she doesn’t get it.

Let’s set the record straight here. The NCAA sanctions had nothing directly to do with sexually abusing innocent children. They did, however, have everything to do with the perpetuation of the culture I just described above — a culture in which football is so important that it takes priority over preventing the sexual abuse of children on the university’s campus. All these people involved in the football program — players as well as coaches — created and maintained this image of the ideal football program and nothing was to be uttered that in any way could shatter that image. Whether they knew that abuse was taking place on campus is irrelevant — the crime was willingly participating in a program that all the participants were convinced was above reproach.

And that’s what the NCAA punished. But more than that, it said loud and clear to all universities: "Sports have an important place in a university’s life, but they are not what keeps the institution’s heart beating."

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Available on DVD: “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”

Here’s your Zen koan for today: Is it possible to create something so pure in its simplicity that it disappears?

Sure it is, answers Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary by David Gelb. Just come down to Jiro Ono’s tiny restaurant in the basement of a Tokyo office building, near the Ginza subway stop. There you will be presented with what many food connoisseurs consider the finest sushi on the planet, gastronomic objects unparalleled in their unadorned elegance. Seconds later, they’ll be gone.

Be prepared to make your reservations at least a month in advance, though, and expect a bill starting at $365; also, don’t hope for much in the way of ambience. Sukiyabashi Jiro holds only 10 seats, doesn’t offer appetizers, and is a bare-bones experience that’s purely about the fish. A food critic named Yamamoto admits he’s nervous every time he eats there, whether from the pressure of living up to the food or simply from being in the presence of God.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a foodie’s delight, obviously, and best viewed either on a full stomach or with restaurant reservations immediately following. Gelb films the preparation of the nigiri with appropriate reverence: soaring strings on the soundtrack as knives glide through the red, glistening chunks of tuna in slo-mo close-up. But the film says as much about the human price one pays for perfection — or the pursuit thereof — and it’s not in dollars or yen.

At 85, Ono is the acknowledged master of his art. Michelin gave Sukiyabashi Jiro a rare three-star rating, meaning that it’s "worth traveling to the country just to eat there." Superstar chef Anthony Bourdain has bowed down and declared his unworthiness, and the Japanese government has named Jiro a living national treasure. In person, he’s smiling but ascetic, a lean, weathered artisan whose devotion to his craft is complete. Gelb’s camera follows him to the Tsukiji fish market, where we get a hint of what makes Ono’s sushi stand out from the pack (he has special arrangements with vendors whose standards are as exacting as his). Would you be willing to massage an octopus for 45 minutes, until its flesh possesses just the right amount of chewability? Jiro is. "It always has to taste better than last time," he says.

It’s not that Ono’s past is unimportant; he just doesn’t have much of one. Having left home at 9 — and being told by his parents not to come back — he became a sushi apprentice at a time when the food was still sold in the streets of Tokyo, well before it achieved global fame with the introduction of the California roll in the 1980s. We see old photos of Jiro in his youth, but they convey little. More compellingly complicated is the master’s relationship with his two sons. The elder, Yoshikazu, is still his father’s apprentice at 50, and he wonders if he’ll ever be his own man. ("Jiro’s ghost will always be there watching," he says with resignation at one point.)

A younger son, Takashi, is charged with the lesser task of managing a second restaurant, in Roppongi Hills, identical to the mother ship in every respect other than that everything’s reversed (the father’s a lefty, the son a righty). Both sons wanted to go to college, but Ono wouldn’t let them, and Yoshikazu says he hated making sushi at first. "I wasn’t much of a father," Jiro admits.

But what’s attentive parenthood when the universe is calling through the daily ritual of striving for the ineffable? The film’s title isn’t kidding -- Jiro really does dream of sushi — and his approach to life is the same as his approach to food: Do the same thing every day, only simpler and better. That means the same train to work, the same seat on that train, the same lean slice of akami placed just so on the same shaped ball of rice. "I don’t think I have achieved perfection," Jiro says, "but I feel ecstatic every day."

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Available on DVD: “Here”

There are vistas in Braden King’s metaphysical road movie, Here, that are so beautiful you want to step through the screen and disappear into the Armenian landscape where much of it was filmed. In the most evocative scene, the camera slowly pans across pastures framed by distant mountains in which cattle graze amid a sprawling grid of power lines.

In another startling juxtaposition of pastoral and technological images, a traveler in Armenia uses a Google map to go from outer space to the heart of San Francisco in seconds. What does it imply that nowadays you can bask in an Armenian field and visit an American city at exactly the same moment? The trains of thought stirred up by the film’s contemplation of what is here and what is there — and where you are — are endless and stimulating. And the movie is embellished with spectacularly beautiful, enigmatic bursts of abstract imagery.

More problematic is an intermittent narrator (Peter Coyote) who meditates in poetic language on the conflicting aesthetics of science and exploration and on the notion that "truth is conjecture." If what he says is helpful in deciphering the film’s aesthetics, it also sounds grandiose. And as the movie advances, you discover that the ideas voiced by the narrator are embedded in scenes that need no further explication. This is a film that begins with a printed announcement: "The story is asleep. It dreams." Whatever that means.

The scientist and the artistic explorer are embodied by Ben Foster (The Messenger) and Lubna Azabal (Incendies), an attractive couple with chemistry. Foster plays Will, an American satellite-mapping engineer whose job is to match objects on the ground to satellite photos. Azabal’s character, Gadarine, is an Armenian expatriate photographer who has returned to her homeland from abroad following a successful Paris exhibition of her Polaroid snapshots.

After they meet by chance in a restaurant where she translates his breakfast order into Armenian, Gadarine becomes Will’s traveling companion on a quest to photograph the rapidly changing country that she left behind. She also serves as Will’s de facto interpreter, and the two become lovers.

Both are searchers, she for her past, he for the future. Remembering his childhood growing up in a Northern California vineyard, Will recalls taking long walks in which he tried to get lost. "I wanted to find the edge of the world," he says.

In a toast while drinking homemade vodka with some locals, he is saluted for creating maps that "bring wisdom to the world." But do they? And is wisdom the right word? Gadarine, upon returning to her peasant family, is treated as a prodigal daughter who is wasting her life by not settling down and doing "real" work.

With its layers of weighted dialogue, Here has a lot in common with Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, a film whose intellectual superstructure didn’t preclude the emergence of vivid, quirky personalities. The same can’t be said of Here, where the ideas are more implied than stated, and Will and Gadarine never completely break out of their symbolic shells.

They ultimately clash, when Gadarine accuses Will of skimming the surface of the world while gathering geographic data that will be used for corporate exploitation of Armenian resources. In her pictures she is trying to preserve the moment and the sense of place that his work is helping to erase.

Here, to its detriment, never builds its ideas into a cohesive vision. The screenplay by King and Dani Valent too often wanders off into poetic vagueness. But visually, Here, filmed by Lol Crowley, is still a stunner. Flawed as it is, I admired it immensely.

The Morning News' “shocking revelation” about something we’ve known all along

At the top of the front page of today’s Dallas Morning News is the headline "Health law will shrink deficit, budget office says." Like that’s news.

In a stunning example of hyperbole, the first paragraph of the story goes like this:

"President Barach Obama’s health care overhaul will shrink rather than increase the nation’s huge federal deficit over the next decade, Congress’ nonpartisan budget scorekeepers said Tuesday, supporting Obama’s contention in a major election-year dispute with Republicans"

Wake up, News! The Congressional Budget Office has been saying the President’s health care plan would reduce the deficit from the moment the White House proposed it. In fact, if you read past the jump on the News’ story, all the way down to the 10th paragraph, you will find these words:

"The Congressional Budget Office has consistently projected that Obama’s overhaul will reduce the deficit …"

Duh! Then what’s the news value in this story? Maybe it’s just the Morning News that has realized for the first time what the CBO has been saying all along. Now, that’s a scary thought for those who depend on the paper as their primary news source.

Photo sharing

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Penn State sanctions

"We all have to remember that we can’t let our love of the games get ahead of the core values, and we know that happens often. This is a painful, painful reminder that awful things can happen when that occurs."
—MARK EMMERT, president of the N.C.A.A., announcing sanctions against Penn State University after the child sexual abuse scandal.

The Penn State football program is now irrelevant which is exactly the right place for it to be. It was rendered irrelevant because, in the minds of a few misguided people, the program was considered more relevant than the safety and welfare of innocent children.

It is impossible to have any sympathy whatsoever with those criticizing the severity of the sanctions handed down yesterday by the NCAA.

For one, the family of disgraced ex-Penn State football coach Joe Paterno should just shut up. Of course they don’t want to see their family name dragged through the mud, but they are beginning to sound like O.J. Simpson saying he will himself bring to justice the murderer of his wife. My message to the family: Suffer in silence.

To those who say the NCAA is unfairly punishing the innocent — those football players on the team far removed from the scandal — the organization was careful to do just the opposite by saying any one of those players can transfer to another school, if they want, and play immediately. Normally, an NCAA athlete must sit out a year after transferring.

And finally, to those who say "Why punish the football team when this wasn’t a football issue?", my response is: "Are you out of your f-ing mind?"

This was, above all things, a football issue. The scandal arose because Paterno and other school officials felt the football program was so important that it had to be protected at all costs — even if that meant more children would be sexually abused by a predator allowed to roam the campus freely.

I thought it was telling that every single head football coach and even former coaches interviewed after the sanctions were announced thought they were just. The sanctions’ critics are a very, very small minority — most of them located in central Pennsylvania — but they don’t have a leg to stand on. They still don’t get it.

An excellent profile of the Boss

David Remnick
Nearly half a century ago, when Elvis Presley was filming Harum Scarum and Help! was on the charts, a moody, father-haunted, yet uncannily charismatic Shore rat named Bruce Springsteen was building a small reputation around central Jersey as a guitar player in a band called the Castiles. The band was named for the lead singer’s favorite brand of soap. Its members were from Freehold, an industrial town half an hour inland from the boardwalk carnies and the sea. The Castiles performed at sweet sixteens and Elks-club dances, at drive-in movie theatres and ShopRite ribbon cuttings, at a mobile-home park in Farmingdale, at the Matawan-Keyport Rollerdrome. Once, they played for the patients at a psychiatric hospital, in Marlboro. A gentleman dressed in a suit came to the stage and, in an introductory speech that ran some twenty minutes, declared the Castiles "greater than the Beatles." At which point a doctor intervened and escorted him back to his room.

So begins a superb Springsteen profile appearing in the current New Yorker written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Remnick. It’s probably the next best thing to reading a full-scale Springsteen biography. You can find the entire piece here.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Available on DVD: “Black Butterflies”

Paula Van der Oest’s Black Butterflies is a rending biographical portrait of the poet Ingrid Jonker, who has been called the South African Sylvia Plath because both women destroyed themselves at an early age and had what might be called "daddy issues." Plath was 30 when she died of carbon monoxide poisoning in 1963. Jonker drowned herself two years later at 31.

Her poetry gained an international platform in 1994, when Nelson Mandela read her poem The Child Who Was Shot Dead by Soldiers in Nyanga (Die Kind) during his first address to the new South African Parliament. This searing work, in which the spirit of a slain child "raises his fist against his father in the march of the generations who scream Africa," comes from Jonker’s second collection of Afrikaans-language poems, Smoke and Ochre. Mandela’s tribute is heard at the end of the film.

Although Black Butterflies shows Jonker witnessing the event that inspired the poem, the movie is not a high-minded political film recycling the outrages associated with apartheid. In Greg Latter’s screenplay Ingrid (Carice van Houten) connects the death of a child shot by the police to her secret abortion after becoming pregnant by her lover, Jack Cope (Liam Cunningham), a novelist 20 years her senior.

Her affair with Jack, whom she meets when he rescues her after she swims too far out to sea, is the spine of the drama. The depiction of her emotional and mental instability is an unsparing portrait of a tortured soul. Van Houten portrays her as more than just a moody, volatile handful. To become involved with Ingrid is to juggle lighted sticks of dynamite. One minute she is ravenously needy, the next a vicious child who screams, "You’re nothing," if she doesn’t get her way.

Van Houten manages the difficult task of capturing the emotional and sexual magnetism of this toxic woman at the mercy of her emotions, and her intensity makes her at once irresistible and dangerous to men. When Jack, who is married with two children, says he is completely in love with her, you believe him. Ingrid sleeps with whomever she wants whenever she wants. The first rupture in their bond comes when she makes a blatant pass at another man in front of him at a party.

As their relationship seesaws, Jack barely tolerates her promiscuity and drinking, and is repeatedly wounded by her recklessness and cruelty. But as Ingrid’s mental health spirals downward, he wearily comes to her rescue. He is one of two lovers in the story who tell her, "You drain me," which is an understatement considering her demands.

Jack’s stabilizing influence is no match against Ingrid’s father, Abraham (Rutger Hauer), with whom she plays lethal emotional games. A racist Afrikaner — and the minister for censorship in Parliament — he is outspoken in his belief that blacks have inferior intelligence. He calls his daughter a slut and is infuriated when she gives a newspaper interview criticizing his politics.

But she can’t resist baiting him by presenting him with her poems, which he detests. In one scene she coaxes him into reading aloud The Child Who Was Shot Dead, until he refuses to continue and tears it to shreds. Yet he is enough of a parent to take her in when she has nowhere else to go, even though it is like welcoming an arsonist into his home. The hate flows both ways. She fantasizes that he is poisoning her. And when her mental health deteriorates, he gives consent for her to have the electroshock therapy that finally breaks her spirit and destroys her gift.

In its jagged style and tone Black Butterflies is as close to an inside-out view of Jonker’s tumultuous life as a movie could go without sinking into chaos. Its hues are continuously changing, and the seaside weather around Cape Town reflects her tempestuous emotional life.

The climate and environment, though dramatically beautiful, are rarely calm. Ingrid is so self-consuming that even her sister, Anna (Candice D’Arcy), and her daughter, Simone (played by several children), from a failed marriage are little more than baggage she drags around. As for literary politics, there is only a token effort to acknowledge her support of a persecuted black writer (Thamsanqua Mbongo).

Black Butterflies mostly avoids the sentimental cliché of the artist as anguished martyr and is content to be a harrowing psychological drama. At the same time, it gives Jonker’s despairing poetry its due in brief spoken interludes and shows her, in a creative fever, scrawling it on the walls of her apartment.

The movie reminds you of the extent to which poetry has been marginalized as a cultural force since the early 1960s. When Jack and his best friend, Uys Krige (Graham Clarke), meticulously reassemble torn fragments of her work into the manuscript that is published as Smoke and Ochre, it really matters.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Available on DVD: “The Fairy”

One’s enjoyment of The Fairy depends a lot on knowing why it’s worth seeing. It’s a comedy with two or three big laughs, but it’s not side-splitting. Nor does it have a particularly compelling story. Its appeal is rather in watching people who have devised their own original style of comic performance and have taken it to a rare level of refinement.

The romance of a hotel clerk (Dominique Abel) and a mental patient (Fiona Gordon) — she thinks she is a fairy who can grant wishes — becomes the clothesline for a series of methodically planned and meticulously executed comic bits. Abel and Gordon, who also wrote and directed the picture (along with Bruno Romy), have their antecedents in American silent film and Jacques Tati’s comedy, but they’ve come up with something that is very much their own thing.

They look alike. Abel was born in Belgium, and Gordon was born in Australia, but they look like brother and sister, with rangy dancers’ bodies and faces that have just a touch of Dr. Seuss in them. Their comedy has a presentational feel about it, almost like vaudeville, with hints of the circus, dance and Cirque du Soleil. There are elements of absurdity and of identification with the outsiders of the world, but with none of the sentimentality that usually goes with those qualities.

These people do not go for the tear and the smile. They go for the smile. You’ll find in The Fairy neither the steampunk art direction nor the forced and syrupy zaniness of a lesser Jean-Pierre Jeunet movie (Micmacs, Delicatessen). Abel and Gordon engage the mind, they surprise and they impress. It’s all very confident and expert. They know they don’t have to do anything but what they do, and the viewer will respond.

You might not love it; it might not be your thing, but you’ll come away with no doubt that these people have this thing honed. Seeing Abel and Gordon is like finally seeing the real version of something you’ve previously only seen imitated. They are as in control of the comic tone as they are of their movements — and they move beautifully.

After Aurora: Vigilante justice is not the answer

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

The most appropriate response now to the shootings early Friday in Aurora, Colo., is also the simplest: sympathy for the victims, for the injured and for their families.

President Obama asked a crowd in Fort Myers, Fla., "to pause in a moment of silence for the victims of this terrible tragedy, for the people who knew them and loved them, for those who are still struggling to recover, and for all the victims of less publicized acts of violence that plague our communities every single day."

He returned to the White House and, like Mitt Romney, pulled his political ads off the air in Colorado.

Romney addressed the senseless violence at a previously scheduled campaign stop in New Hampshire.

"I stand before you today not as a man running for office but as a father and grandfather, a husband, an American," he said. "This is a time for each of us to look into our hearts and remember how much we love one another and how much we love and how much we care for our great country."

Both men struck absolutely the right note. The country needs a pause for reflection, to wait for more information and to take a break from this ugly political campaign. But as Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, a leader in the search for sensible answers about guns, said, we will need to do more than reflect.

"Maybe," the mayor said, "it’s time that the two people who want to be president of the United States stand up and tell us what they’re going to do about it."

Sadly, however, it seems unlikely that they will tell us what they are going to do about it, or that there will be a national dialogue about it, just as there was no national dialogue after Columbine or after Virginia Tech or after Jared Lee Loughner tried to assassinate then-Representative Gabrielle Giffords.

Politicians are far too fearful of the gun lobby to address gun violence, and, as a society, we keep getting stuck on a theoretical debate about the Second Amendment, which keeps us from taking practical measures that just might help avoid the all-too-frequent tragedies like the one in Aurora.

Whether you believe, as many perfectly reasonable people do, that the amendment gives each individual the right to bear arms, or whether you believe, as (I and) this editorial page has often argued, that it is society’s right to raising a militia, there is no excuse to ignore the out-of-control gun market.

The country needs laws that allow gun ownership, but laws that also control their sale and use in careful ways. Instead, we have been seeing a rash of "stand your ground" self-defense laws, other laws that recklessly encourage the carrying of concealed weapons and efforts to force every state to knuckle under to those laws. Assault rifles like one used by the killer in Colorado are too readily available, as are high-capacity ammunition clips.

What we do not need is more heedless rhetoric like we heard on Friday from Representative Louie Gohmert, the Texas Republican who drew a bizarre connection during a radio interview between the horror in Colorado and "ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs."

Gohmert added: "It does make me wonder, you know, with all those people in the theater, was there nobody that was carrying? That could have stopped this guy more quickly?"

That sort of call to vigilante justice is sadly too familiar, and it may be the single most dangerous idea in the debate over gun ownership.

©2012 New York Times

Thursday, July 19, 2012

New Dylan album, North American Tour

If you're a big Bob Dylan fan, as I am, you may want to know that he will release the 35th album of his career, Tempest, Sept. 11. It is interesting to note that The Tempest was the name of the last play Shakespeare ever wrote. Could Dylan, who is now 71 years old and still tours constantly, be hinting at something here?

He will also kick-off a North American tour Oct. 5 in Winnepeg with Mark Knopfler on the bill with him. The first time I heard Knopfler sing was when Dire Straits' Sultans of Swing was initially being played on FM radio and I thought at the time he sound remarkably like Dylan.

There will only be one Texas stop on the tour and that will be (lucky us) Nov. 1 at the Verizon Theater in Grand Prairie. As I recall, the last time Dylan played the area it was right across the street from the Verizon, at the baseball stadium there. Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp shared the bill with him that time. That show happened to fall on my birthday.

Just saying.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Anybody know the name of an expert sadist, torturer

There are certain people who need to be tortured, who need to experience such excruciating pain that they are praying their lives will end quickly. But they keep on living and they keep on feeling a pain so intense it literally drives them out of their minds.

My latest nominee for this sentence is one Elisabeth Escalona.

Now in case you missed the story on the front page of the Metro Section of Friday’s Dallas Morning News, the aformentioned monster pleaded guilty Thursday to "injury to a child."

"Injury" doesn’t begin to convey what she did. When her 2-year-old daughter pooped in her pants, the woman dragged her daughter by her feet from the kitchen to another room in their house where she kicked her in the stomach, hit her with a jug of milk, a belt and a shoe. She then put glue on the poor girl’s hands and glued them to the wall. When the infant was finally taken to the hospital she was suffering from "extensive bruising, brain swelling, broken bones, swollen intestines, bruised lungs and an injured liver."

To all interested sadists and torturers: the line forms outside my door.

Baseball’s post season

I see that Major League baseball has added a second wild-card team to its post-season mix. As I understand it, the two wild cards in each league will play a one-game playoff with the winner in each league joining their respective league’s division winners in the normal playoff series.

We can all agree that’s a dumb idea, almost as dumb as letting the winner of the all-star game decide which league gets home field advantage in the World Series.

So let’s dump both of those.

What major league baseball should do is simply follow the lead of the NBA. First it needs to shorten it’s regular season by 20 games at the most, 10 at the least.

Then simply have the teams with the eight best records in both leagues begin seven-game playoff series with the team having the best regular season winning percentage always having the home field advantage, right through the world series.

Looking at the teams at the halfway point, here’s what a first round playoff matchup would look like (seeding is in parenthesis)

American League: (8) Detroit Tigers at (1) New York Yankees, (7) Cleveland Indians at (2) Texas Rangers, (6) Tampa Bay Rays at (3) Los Angeles Angels and (5) Baltimore Orioles at (4) Chicago White Sox.

National League: (8) San Francisco Giants at (1) Washington Nationals, (7) St. Louis Cardinals at (2) Pittsburgh Pirates, (6) New York Mets at (3) Cincinnati Reds and (5) Los Angeles Dodgers at (4) Atlanta Braves.

To me, it makes for a far more interesting and exciting post season. That’s one reason why it will never happen.

The Mavericks could actually be really good next season

I really believe the Mavericks have a better team heading into the 2012-2013 season than they did last year and possibly as good as the team that won the NBA title two years ago. Now for those with short memories, that title run involved almost as much luck as it did skill. Remember, the Mavs entered the playoffs two years as the No. 4 seed in the West and I think this coming year’s team has an excellent shot at finishing fourth as well. You know the Thunder will finish ahead of the Mavs as will the Lakers. I can’t see both the Spurs and the Clippers having a better record than Dallas, however, although one of them will. Also remember that if Labron James had played against us as he played against OKC in the most recent finals, Dallas would still be looking for its first NBA title.

Darren Collison is a major upgrade over Jason Kidd. Not, Kidd in his prime, but then Kidd has been past his prime for the last three or four years now. Collison brings Russell Westbrook-like speed and agility to the Mavericks at point guard (Kidd was never known for his speed) and he’s a far better defender.

If he can remain injury free (and that’s a big "if"), Chris Kamen could be the best center ever to wear a Mavericks uniform with the exception of ol’ What’s-His-Name who left Dallas for New York last year at this time. But there were injury concerns surrounding ol’ W-H-N as well and Kamen is more of an offensive threat than the dear departed Olympian ever hoped to be.

But the kicker is the addition of Elton Brand. He may not be the pure shooter that Jason Terry was (but then the Mavs aren’t asking him to play two guard either). He does, however, possess far more basketball smarts than Terry and the addition of Brand is going to allow coach Rick Carlisle to let Dirk have a lot more much-needed rest during games.

And if either rookie Jared Cunningham or Jae Crowder begin performing like a lottery pick (I’m not expecting that kind of miracle) than this team could go the distance.

But at the least, they will finish better than last year’s squad that ended the season seventh in the West.

Available on DVD: “The Hunter”

An ecological thriller about a professional animal killer and loner who discovers a newfound sense of stewardship for the planet — along with a concern for other people — The Hunter is engrossing and thoughtful entertainment. It’s a mystery with a message.

Based on a 1999 novel by Australian writer Julia Leigh, the film stars Willem Dafoe as Martin, an elite hunter who has been hired by a mysterious firm to bag the last remaining example of a Tasmanian tiger, a real-life (though probably extinct) predator that looks like it’s part dog, part cat. Though the firm’s reasons for wanting the animal are murky, they become clearer — and more clearly nefarious — as the mystery unfolds.

Martin doesn’t really care why though. He’s in it for the money.

Martin’s efforts to track the animal are hampered by unseen (and possibly dangerous) enemies: radical environmentalists, or "greenies," who want to save the tiger; local loggers who have somehow mistaken him for one of the greenies; and rival hunters.

Martin, in short, becomes both hunter and hunted.

That’s one part of the story.

The other, more interesting part involves Martin’s relationship with Lucy (Frances O’Connor) — a greenie in whose remote Tasmanian house he has set up camp — and her two children (Morgana Davies and Finn Woodlock). Although it behooves him to remain emotionally uninvolved, Martin can’t help developing feelings for Lucy, whose husband has recently disappeared and is presumed dead. But Lucy’s kids also insinuate themselves into his affections. As Lucy’s loquacious daughter Sass, Davies is a charmer. Woodlock is equally memorable — in a virtually mute performance — as the boy, Bike, a character on whom much of the mystery hinges.

Australian television director Daniel Nettheim tells both stories well, braiding them together into a single thread with a firm hand and evocative visual style. The forests of Tasmania are brought to gorgeous life — as is the tiger, in a few moments of believably executed CGI.

But the film’s neatest trick isn’t getting us to believe in a beast that likely disappeared sometime in the 20th century and that now exists only in taxidermied museum displays and black-and-white video clips.

It’s convincing us of Martin’s transformation from hard-boiled mercenary to almost-family man, precipitated by a tragedy that reveals the true heartlessness of his employer. Dafoe carries off both extremes of Martin’s character with aplomb and psychological depth.

At the core of the movie is the message that the real lonely hunter is the heart.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Available on DVD: “Bullhead”

An Oscar-nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, the Belgian drama Bullhead is a painful, determined film about a man who’s spent a lifetime so heartily compensating for a cruel act of violence done to him that nobody takes him seriously, even when he’s entirely right.

Matthias Schoenaerts stars as Jacky, who was emasculated as a young boy by a maniacal older kid and has become a hulking abuser of steroids, muscle-bound and hot-tempered and mistrusted by business associates and by the women he can never have. He’s a cattleman involved in the ugly business of doping beef cattle, and when the police crackdown on his nasty little industry gets bloody, Jacky is inadvertently (and innocently) fingered in a homicide.

That misidentification is, in part, triggered by a police informant (Jeroen Perceval) who was young Jacky’s pal, and it coincides with Jacky’s reconnection with a girl (Jeanne Dandoy) who was the object of his youthful affections. Given how awful Jacky’s past was, the reappearance of so much of it in the present simply can’t be good news.

The film opens with Jacky’s recitation of a doomy worldview, and writer-director Michael R. Roskam does little to suggest that this nihilism is misplaced. Characters in Bullhead act out of stupidity, greed, anger and vanity; their world is filmed in a washed-out haze; the miserable fortune that devastated young Jacky haunts him ceaselessly still. The film’s final notes hint at a state of grace, perhaps, or at least of release. But there’s a tautological determinism throughout that suggest otherwise.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Available on DVD: “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia”

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a movie with a grand title that at least implies you’re in for a long evening. It runs 157 minutes, and I can’t say you don’t feel them. You do — but in the way you would, reading a very good book in an uncomfortable chair. The first hour, if not more, is spent moseying with a police caravan down a lonely country road at night. The genre here is the procedural. Narratively, it’s a procession, the entire story marches toward its vague but satisfying conclusion.

Ceylan takes a granular approach to a genre that’s pretty granular to start with. Romania is a loose neighbor of Ceylan’s native Turkey, where Anatolia is set. The art-filmmaking that’s come out of Romania in the last decade has clearly made an impression on him. Ceylan is showier than the Romanians. He has a better eye and is in love with his artistry. The movie was shot digitally, but some of the compositions look like oils on canvas and others like blown-up photographs. The long, scrupulously composed scenes that unfold in a loose approximation of real time, with wry comedy, frivolous chitchat, and loaded anecdotes, strike me as a Romanian appropriation. Ceylan applies his own quiet mysticism and comfort with the alluring elusiveness of some certain mysteries.

Ceylan’s previous outstanding films — including Distant, Climates, and Three Monkeys — were small in scale, often about the Turkish soul and sometimes about him. This is a murder yarn. For the first act, the members of the caravan — a police chief (Yilmaz Erdogan); a doctor (Muhammet Uzuner); a prosecutor (Taner Birsel); two suspects; and an assortment of functionaries — comb the hills for a body buried beneath them. The search goes on for long enough that it starts to seem as if the law’s leg is being pulled. What we’re meant to notice is the sheer work involved in solving this crime, that it lasts through the stormy night and into the next morning, that it’s boring and disorienting, that not all of it is being conducted competently.

The filmmaking, of course, is another matter. That’s far beyond competent. In an early long shot of the cars making their way down the road, the headlights wind toward the foreground like a slow electrical surge. Ceylan creates and sustains an enveloping atmosphere of jocularity, beauty, and dread. There aren’t many movies whose nightscapes continue to acquire surprising nuances of physical and spiritual darkness.

An early shot features five men in one of the caravan’s cars. As three of them debate yogurt preferences, the camera pans patiently toward the silent fellow (Firat Tanis) riding the hump in the backseat. Even with the fresh scar across his face, he’s the handsomest man in the vehicle, but it’s his haunted expression that draws you to him. His name in Kenan, and he’s taking the police to the spot he thinks he and his friend dumped the body. The lovely first two shots feature the pair of suspects enjoying some food in the dead man’s garage during happier, if ominous times.

Eventually, something turns up, and the murder is somewhat ghastlier than it appears. Ceylan wrote the film along with his wife, Ebru Ceylan, and a physician and actor, Ercan Kesal. The film they’ve written is based on an actual case and envisions procedural grunt work with a richly comic sense of the blasé.

The men here are an assorted crew mildly basking in or simply stymied by their work. A wonderful one-way conversation is built around the substandard forensic tools at the coroner’s office, while the movie’s ideas gravitate toward an odd episode of lapsed ethics. Ceylan settles on the doctor as his character of interest. He’s rational, educated, and could be practicing medicine anywhere. He’s also a device that permits Kesal and the Ceylans to mix in a bit of snobbery: The doctor is a pragmatist among hotheads and buffoons.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia lacks the seismic linguistic payoff of, say, Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective. Nor is it as sharp and sanded down as the Romanians’ best films, which manage to prove how much daily life is inextricable from national history. I don’t know that Ceylan is thinking quite that big here, but his movie is more vividly photographed and even better mustached. It’s also eerily tragic and chillingly hard to come to terms with (we never know precisely why that man’s been murdered). Eventually, the title becomes an insinuating irony. "Once upon a time" could mean "every day."

Monday, July 9, 2012

Good night, Ernie

Still one of my favorite movie scenes of all time, I guess because I feel Marty's pain.

Ernest Borgnine, the rough-hewn actor who seemed destined for tough-guy characters but won an Academy Award for embodying the gentlest of souls, a lonely Bronx butcher, in the 1955 film Marty, died on Sunday in Los Angeles. He was 95.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Are Republican political candidates born stupid or does the party line make them that way

Chris Collins, a Republican running for the House of Representatives from New York, made a fool of himself this week during a newspaper interview in which he cited reasons he would, if elected, work to repeal President Obama’s health care plan.

Republican idiot Chris Collins
"The fact of the matter is, our healthcare today is so much better, we're living so much longer, because of innovations in drug development, surgical procedures, stents, implantable cardiac defibrillators, neural stimulators — they didn't exist 10 years ago," he said. "People now don't die from prostate cancer, breast cancer and some of the other things."

According to the American Cander Society, however, more than a half million people will die of cancer in the United States this year alone, including 39,920 from breast cancer and 28,170 from prostate cancer. Many of the victims would have been saved if the cancer had been detected early enough, but wasn’t because they were uninsured.

Shake it up baby

Even at the age of 62, The Boss still knows how to work a crowd into a frenzy.

Why is Safeway so anti-environment?

Some cities get it. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Austin are just four of many cities that have banned the use of non reusable shopping bags because of their toxic effect on the environment and their significant contributions to higher energy costs. Even some stores get it. IKEA is just one example.

Typical Tom Thumb customer wth groceries in plastic bags
destined to kill more animals and clog streams and landfills
Now, an outright ban on reusable bags will never happen in my lifetime in Dallas. Even if the Dallas City Council weren’t in the hip pocket of "big bizness" and the oil cartels, its members are simply too timid to take such a bold step. The city likes to brag how it’s "going green," but it’s more of a lima bean green than a forest green.

Plus Safeway has too many stores in the Dallas area (operating under the Tom Thumb brand) and Safeway is obviously anti-environment, anti-reusable shopping bags.

Have you ever brought a reusable bag to a Tom Thumb store and then tried to use the store’s self-service checkout lanes? It’s an exercise in absolutely frustration.

First, if you place your bag in the general bagging area, the machine will scold you, saying "Unwanted item in bagging area. Remove this item immediately before proceeding."

OK. So you put the bag on the floor, and then try to scan your items and place them in your bag. But each time you do, the screen will say "skip bagging" and you have to touch it to continue. After scanning four items and touching "skip bagging" four times, the machine will lock up on your and won’t allow you to continue to check out until store personnel come to your rescue, which they never do.

Sorry, I am firmly committed to using my reusable shopping bags, which means I won’t be shopping at Tom Thumb any longer. In fact, I urge everyone who cares about preserving our environment and doing whatever individuals can do to keep energy costs down to boycott Tom Thumb stores.

I have filed a written protest about this directly with the corporate Safeway offices and am anxiously awaiting a reply. If and when I receive one, I will make it public right here.

Further proof that sportswriters like Tim Cowlishaw are completely out of touch with the real world

It’s bad enough that as of Monday both Dallas Morning News sportswriters Tim Cowlishaw and Eddie Sefko believed there was a chance that Deron Williams would sign with the Mavericks. The day after the NBA draft, when it became clear that the Mavericks were using the exercise not to get good young players but to clear cap space, my son in Austin and I were already working on the premise Williams would stay with the Nets (all along he has stated his preference for remaining) and trying to figure out what Plan B might be.

Not that Plan A was all that great.

Tim Cowlishaw
Let’s just say the Mavericks got Williams and lost Jason Kidd and Jason Terry (Terry is already gone and I can’t imagine the Mavs trying that hard to keep Kidd). Is that the ingredient for a NBA championship? Heavens no! If Williams was that good, the Nets would have won more than 22 games last year. The addition of Williams would have made the Mavericks at best – at the absolute best – the fifth best team in the Western Conference, and the way Denver and Utah are improving, what with the great draft Portland and Sacramento had this year and with the moves the Rockets keep making, there was a very good chance the Mavs don’t even make the playoffs even with Williams. (The Nets have never made it with him.)

Of course, the Mavericks dream was the add both Williams and Dwight Howard. Put those two together with Dirk Nowitzki and a second NBA title is easily within reach. But obviously that’s not going to happen.

For some reason, the Mavericks are looking for the instant fix that helped both the Celtics and then the Heat to titles. No realistic person can see that happening for this team. And now the Mavs have wasted the opportunity to get younger and are looking at AARP members like Ray Allen and Marcus Camby to help out. What they should have been doing is following the model created by the Spurs, who keep adding good young talent to their nucleus of outstanding veterans who remain with the team. Or at least follow the examples of Oklahoma City and Chicago, two teams that seem to get better and younger through the draft.

But the proof that Sefko and Cowlishaw are completely divorced from reality doesn’t stem from their lack of knowledge pertaining to the mind of Deron Williams. What really proves it is statements like this from the column Cowlishaw wrote for Tuesday’s paper:

"The Nets can offer more money (for Williams), but it’s not that substantial (emphasis mine). Some people like to say the Nets can offer an extra $25 million since the NBA salary cap rules give them a chance to pay Williams about $100 million over five years compared to Dallas’ $75 million over four. That’s only an extra $25 million …"

For heartless Cowlishaw to say $25 million is "not that substantial" and to call it "only an extra $25 million" is a slap in the face of just about every hard working man and woman in the world today who toils outside the world of mass entertainment or Wall Street brokerage firms. And imagine how insulted and angered the millions of unemployed are going to be by statements like that. Reading those words made me absolutely furious. Geez, I’ll never see one million samollions in my lifetime. If he really thinks $23 million is "not that substantial," then you refuse it, Tim, if it’s ever offered to you and pass it along to me.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Available on DVD: “Oranges and Sunshine”

In the quietly wrenching Oranges and Sunshine, Emily Watson portrays Margaret Humphreys, an intrepid social worker from Nottingham, England, who exposed shameful national crimes. As recently as 1967, but especially in the 1940s and ’50s, as many as 130,000 children were removed from orphanages and group homes in Britain and deported to various locations in the Commonwealth, particularly western Australia. One deportee, now grown up, recalls being told at the age of 10 that he was being sent to a sunny paradise where he could pick oranges off trees.

Instead of lotus land, many found themselves virtually enslaved and forced into hard labor in institutions where they endured physical cruelty and sexual abuse. One of the worst was the remote Bindoon Boys Town, a hellish place presided over by the Catholic Christian Brothers, where many boys were raped.

The victims, who were told that their parents were dead, had no recourse but to endure until they were old enough to leave. Many were taken from parents, mainly unwed mothers temporarily deemed unfit. When they later searched for their offspring in orphanages, they were told their children had been placed for adoption in better homes.

If the film, adapted from Humphreys’s 1994 book, Empty Cradles, tells a true-life horror story, it refrains from exploiting that story for cheap shock. As directed by Jim Loach, the son of the great social realist filmmaker Ken Loach, it keeps its eye on the long view and maintains a steady, melancholic tone that conveys a resolute moral outrage.

There are two scenes in which Humphreys’s safety is threatened, but the hostility she encounters in her investigations isn’t overamplified. Nor is Watson’s Margaret a charismatic Joan of Arc leading a righteous brigade into the bowels of hell.

Margaret, who is assisted by her husband, Merv (Richard Dillane), is a fragile lone wolf who sacrifices the comforts of family life to pursue her work and eventually crumbles under the stress yet keeps on going. In Watson’s powerfully understated performance there are occasional speeches but no stentorian orations. Her cause is the only thing that matters. The awful fact of British and Australian complicity speaks for itself.

The scenes of reunions between long-separated siblings and between parents and their vanished children are all the more touching for their restraint. There is abundant emotion in the film, but it isn’t allowed to sidetrack Margaret’s quest for answers or to achieve whatever justice can be salvaged. In its quietude Oranges and Sunshine is the opposite of the recent film The Whistleblower, a devastating, high-pitched exposé of human trafficking involving United Nations workers in postwar Bosnia.

This film presents a chilling portrait of bureaucratic stonewalling and denial as Margaret presents her evidence to politicians who meet her accusations with indifference and skepticism, express only a vague regret and assume no responsibility. When she eventually faces a group of clergymen at Bindoon, she is met with absolute silence.

The story begins in 1986, when Margaret, a social worker for the Nottingham County Council, is approached by Charlotte (Federay Holmes), an Australian who pleads, "I want to find out who I am." Charlotte recalls that when she was 4, she was placed alone on a boat bound for Australia after being told her mother had died. Margaret, digging through official records, finds Charlotte’s mother, and they eventually reunite.

Margaret travels to Perth with a British woman named Nicky (Lorraine Ashbourne) in search of her long-lost brother Jack (Hugo Weaving), whom she finds. In Australia, Margaret discovers a loosely knit group of deportees, now adults, who voice a plaintive longing to know who they really are. When Margaret publicizes her search in newspapers and on television, victims flock to her, but she also finds herself increasingly under attack. The film devotes special attention to Len (David Wenham), a high-strung former resident of Bindoon who persuades her to accompany him on a visit to the place.

Rona Munro’s screenplay for Oranges and Sunshine is unnecessarily flighty. As the story ricochets between Britain and Australia, the film often loses track of time and becomes fragmented as it struggles to integrate too many subplots. What holds it together is Watson’s calm, sturdy performance.

Early in her crusade Humphreys established the Child Migrants Trust. But it wasn’t until 2009, 23 years after she began her search, that the Australian government formally apologized for the forced deportation of child migrants; the British government followed suit in 2010.