Friday, August 31, 2012

Paul Ryan: Liar, Liar Pants on Fire

Yesterday, I offered an editorial from the New York Times about all the direct lies and misleading statements emanating from the Republican National Convention in Tampa. But nothing that came before prepared me for the outlandish performance of VP nominee Paul Ryan Wednesday night.

Ryan claimed that Obama, while campaigning for President four years ago, promised a GM plant would not be closed. "That plant didn’t last another year," Ryan said. "It is locked up and empty to this day."

According to David Sherpardson, who covered Obama’s Wisconsin appearance in 2008 for the Detroit Free Press, Obama made no such promise and the plant actually closed in December, when George W. Bush was still occupying the White House.

Ryan criticized Obama for not supporting a deficit commission report. What Ryan failed to mention was that he angrily stormed out of the committee meeting considering the report, His actions, in effect, killed it.

He also charged the President took $716 from Medicare to help fund his health insurance plan. What Ryan failed to say is that his health care plan calls for the exact same transfer of funds.

He also blamed Obama for Standard & Poor’s downgrade of the American debt. In reality, the reason S&P took the action it did, in the agency’s own words, was because Congress, led by Ryan’s efforts, refused to take any action to increase revenues.

The man is pathological and unfit for public office.

Other impressions from Wednesday at the GOP convention:
After listening to John McCain, I was certainly glad he wasn’t elected. I lost count of how many wars he wanted us to fight during his speech. But, in a way, I do feel sorry for the man. He must have the record for appearing at the most Republican conventions that were nominating people he can not stand. (The reason Sarah Palin became the GOP VP nominee four years ago was because of McCain’s outright disdain for Romney.)

The best speech of the night did not come from former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (I know far too many individuals — all of them African Americans — whose memories of living in Montgomery, Ala., in the early 1960s were far more unpleasant, to say the least, than hers), but from New Mexico’s first-term governor Susana Martinez. Now there’s a Republican I could support.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

My Top 25 College Football Teams

Preason rankings
1.  Alabama
2.  LSU
3.  Oklahoma
4.  Oregon
5.  Southern California
6.  Oklahoma State
7.  Arkansas
8.  Stanford
9.  Michigan
10. Wisconsin
11. South Carolina
12. Georgia
13. Florida State
14. Michigan State
15. Texas
16. TCU
17. Boise State
18. West Virginia
19. Virginia Tech
20. Kansas State
21. Nebraska
22. Notre Dame
23. Florida
24. Missouri
25. Baylor

I know I may have Oklahoma State overrated, but coach Mike Gundy has been acting terribly smug this preseason, as though he knows something he doesn't want the rest of the world to discover right away. A lot of people have USC at No. 1 but I am concerned about the Trojan's depth (or lack thereof) and I'm still not sold on the coaching abilities of Lane Kiffin.

Available on DVD: “A Separation”

A Separation is totally foreign and achingly familiar. It’s a thrilling domestic drama that offers acute insights into human motivations and behavior as well as a compelling look at what goes on behind a particular curtain that almost never gets raised.

This year’s winner of the foreign-language Oscar and a rare triple prize winner at the Berlin International Film Festival (it took home the Golden Bear for best film, plus the actor and actress prizes were split among the male and female cast), this is a movie from Iran unlike any we’ve seen before. And it’s arrived at a time when other Iranian filmmakers, like the more overtly political Jafar Panahi, are being forbidden to work.

Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, A Separation is intense, focused and narrative-driven. Imagine Alfred Hitchcock’s intricate attention to plot joined to the devastating emotional impact of Ingmar Bergman: The result is so exhilarating, the movie was the first foreign-language film to win the screenplay award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assocation.

Films from Iran can be maddeningly slow, with elusive subject matter and elliptical style. A Separation is something completely different.

Its world is that of the sophisticated, well-educated middle-class residents of Tehran, people who have problems and personal situations much like our own. But gradually, bit by bit, like drops turning into a flood, the ordinary gets devastatingly out of hand, and minor misunderstandings, confusions and evasions morph into a slow-motion nightmare that threatens to destroy everything and everyone in its path.

Farhadi, whose four previous films include another Berlin prize winner, 2009's About Elly, has chosen his title with care. This incisive look at Iranian society reveals, without calling any special attention to it, divisions over class, over religious observance, over political philosophy. But what’s so inspired here is his decision to ground them all in the most personal of all separations, that between a husband and wife.

Husband Nader (Peyman Moadi) and wife Simin (Leila Hatami) are introduced looking directly at the camera, talking to an unseen judge. Simin has the opportunity to leave Iran, but her husband doesn’t want to go, so she is reluctantly suing for divorce.

Simin wants to leave to offer a better life to their 10-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s daughter). Nader wants to stay because of his 80-something father, who has Alzheimer’s. "He doesn’t even know you’re his son," she says in anger, and he snaps back "but I know he’s my father."

Frustrated, Simin leaves the family apartment and moves in with her parents. Nader, who is close to his daughter but has a noticeably inflexible side, hopes his wife will be coming back. But in the meantime, he has to hire someone to look after his father during the day.

Razieh (Sareh Bayat), the woman who gets the job, is less well off than her employers and extremely religious. When Nader’s father proves to be incontinent and incapable of changing himself, she calls an imam to see if it is permissible for her to help him.

Unable to cope with the situation, Razieh proposes her hot-headed, unemployed husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), for the job. But before he can take it, he gets detained for debt, and Razieh must return. Which is where everything starts to go terribly wrong.

One fascination of A Separation is its depiction of the day-to-day intricacies of this very particular society, the complications of a country with a definite religious/secular divide and a legal system very different from those in the West.

Filmmaker Farhadi approaches this tricky material with a great deal of deserved confidence. Perhaps because of his extensive background in theater, he is passionate about the importance of rehearsal, and that belief has paid off with splendid performances across the board. It’s no accident those awards in Berlin went to all the film’s actors, not just the stars.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the way A Separation’s exquisitely human situations unfold is that the narration allows for as many points of view as there are characters. Everyone is fallible yet everyone feels justified in their own particular grievances, and the film is at pains not to pick sides. The great French director Jean Renoir, who would have loved this film, exactly sums up its situation in one of his most famous phrases: "The real hell of life is that everyone has his reasons."

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Impossible to find the truth in Tampa

From the editorial page of today's New York Times:

It was a day late, but the Republicans’ parade of truth-twisting, distortions and plain falsehoods arrived on the podium of their national convention on Tuesday. Following in the footsteps of Mitt Romney’s campaign, rarely have so many convention speeches been based on such shaky foundations.

Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, in the keynote speech, angrily demanded that the American people learn the hard truths about the two parties, but like most of those at the microphone, he failed to supply any. He said his state needed his austere discipline of slashed budgets, canceled public projects and broken public unions, but did not mention that New Jersey now has a higher unemployment rate than when he took over, and never had the revenue boom he promised from tax cuts.

"We believe in telling our seniors the truth about our overburdened entitlements," he said, but his party has consistently refused to come clean about its real plans to undo Medicare and Medicaid. "Mitt Romney will tell us the hard truths we need to hear to put us back on a path to growth," he said, but Mr. Romney has consistently refused to tell the truth about his tax plan, his budget plan, and his health care plan.

It was appropriate that "We built it," the needling slogan of the evening, was painted on the side of the convention hall. Speaker after speaker alluded to the phrase in an entire day based on the thinnest of reeds — a poorly phrased remark by the president, deliberately taken out of context. President Obama was making the obvious point that all businesses rely to some extent on the work and services of government. But Mr. Romney has twisted it to suggest that Mr. Obama believes all businesses are creatures of the government, and so the convention had to parrot the line.

"We need a president who will say to a small businesswoman: Congratulations, we applaud your success, you did make that happen, you did build that," said Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia. "Big government didn’t build America; you built America!"

That was far from the only piece of nonsense on the menu, only the most frequently repeated one. Conventions are always full of cheap applause lines and over-the-top attacks, but it was startling to hear how many speakers in Tampa considered it acceptable to make points that had no basis in reality.

Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, for example, boasted of the booming economy in his state, never mentioning that he and Mr. Romney opposed the auto bailout that has played an outsized role in the state’s recovery. (Apparently Mr. Obama’s destructive economic policies do not apply everywhere.)

Andy Barr, a Congressional candidate in Kentucky, made the particularly egregious charge that the president was conducting "a war on coal," ruthlessly attacking an industry and thousands of struggling miners.

He was apparently referring to the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions and prevent power-plant pollution from drifting through the East Coast states. The country desperately needs to reduce its reliance on coal, which is far more polluting than natural gas, but that goal gets harder to achieve every time someone like Mr. Barr makes it out to be an attack on a way of life.

Considering how Mr. Romney has conducted his campaign so far, most recently his blatantly false advertising accusing Mr. Obama of gutting the work requirement on welfare, it is probably not surprising that the convention he leads would follow a similar path.

Voters looking for a few nuggets of truth would not have found them in Tampa on Tuesday.

©2012 New York Times

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Available on DVD: “Thin Ice”

Mickey Prohaska, the smooth-talking, ethically challenged insurance salesman played by Greg Kinnear in Thin Ice, could well have wandered through the hotel hallways at the annual convention that figured pivotally in last year's Cedar Rapids. Mickey would have been one of the guys in the lounge, trying to nab new clients with a huckster's gusto.

And he would have been one of the guys who brings a drunkenly obliging woman back to his room, never mind the marriage back home in Wisconsin.

But if Mickey wasn't in the Ed Helms/John C. Reilly comedy, he is in Thin Ice. It's a darkly comic morality tale in which — if you ignore the upbeat, voice-overed prologue and epilogue — our hero finds himself trapped in a nightmarish scenario of larceny and murder. A nightmarish scenario of his own making.

Crisply directed by Jill Sprecher (Clockwatchers) with an effectively creepy (but funny) turn from Billy Crudup and a doddering (but funny) one from Alan Arkin, Thin Ice finds Mickey, desperate for cash, trying to scam Gorvy, an absentminded old farmer (Arkin), out of his prized violin. Gorvy has only recently discovered its worth — it's been a toy he lets his pet dog, Petey, play with. But an instrument appraiser tells him it's an 18th-century Viennese gem, valued in the five figures, at least.

And Mickey needs those five figures to get the debt and despair out of his life.

With a bit of the David Mamet-ian con about it, Thin Ice follows Mickey as he ingratiates himself with Gorvy, and then, through a series of ill-timed coincidences and encounters, finds himself caught up in a bigger and bigger mess: identity theft, a body dragged across an icy lake, cops sniffing around, and a jumpy ex-con (Crudup) threatening extortion, and, if that doesn't work, extinction.

Kinnear puts his affable everyman persona to work, insuring (so to speak) that his sleazeball insurance agent somehow wins our sympathy, although everything Mickey does — to his wife (Lea Thompson), to his secretary (Michelle Arthur), to his new salesman hire (David Harbour) — is contemptible, and even criminal.

Writing with her sister, Karen, Jill Sprecher rigs up an elaborate cause-and-effect comedy of errors, with Kinnear's predatory protagonist as both perp and victim. I won't say more than that, but Thin Ice is deeper than it first appears.

Available on DVD: “The Raid: Redemption”

The Raid: Redemption is a slam-bang, knock-your-socks-off action bonanza with some of the most peerlessly shot, performed and choreographed fight sequences you’re likely to see on screen. Welsh-born writer-director-editor Gareth Evans (Merantau) proves a visionary force, grabbing hold of the viewer with a barrage of virtuoso set pieces that are both hide-your-eyes violent and mind-bogglingly stunning.

The Jakarta-set film lays out its do-or-die mission in a few brief, well chosen sentences and never looks back. The deal: An elite special-forces team must fight, destroy and kill their way — floor by floor — up to the 15th story of a rundown apartment tower to take out a brutal crime lord, Tama (Ray Sahetapy), and his combat-crazy henchmen, Andi (Doni Alamsyah) and the aptly named Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian, co-fight coordinator with Iko Uwais).

But when stalwart rookie cop and expectant father Rama (Uwais) must take over for the SWAT team’s fallen leader (Joe Taslim), he finds himself in one bone-crunching battle after another (the dazzling martial arts styles here include silat and judo), all while trying to protect his dwindling army of lawmen.

A tornado of character twists and plot complications ensues as fists fly, axes hurl, machetes slice and the walls literally come tumbling down. It’s exhausting, exhilarating, riveting stuff that fans of high-octane filmmaking should rent immediately.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Available on DVD: “Kill List”

The best horror movies — the ones that endure and fascinate and frighten us in perpetuity — don’t try to explain evil. There is no logical solution to the events in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (a radical difference from Stephen King’s novel, which did lay out a concise but much less satisfying answer). We know little about the creature in Alien, but the monster’s otherness is terrifying. The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, The Blair Witch Project, Halloween, Night of the Living Dead all provided intimations of what might be happening but left the bulk of it for you to decide. Even Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful Psycho, everyone agrees, would have been better without that five-minute epilogue in which a psychiatrist spells out what was troubling Norman Bates.

Kill List, British director Ben Wheatley’s follow-up to his debut Down Terrace, is one of the scariest films I’ve seen in ages, although I cannot in all honesty explain exactly what the movie is about. I could compare it to other pictures (including one in particular that Wheatley is obviously paying homage to here) but that would completely ruin the effect. This film is best approached cold.

There are a couple of things you should know going in, though. Kill List takes its time. At first, it practically crawls, coming on like one of those talky Ken Loach dramas about the working-class blues. Jay (Neil Maskell), an unemployed former soldier, argues with his wife (MyAnna Buring) about money. Jay drinks too much and shouts too much, and when he sits down to dinner with his friend Gal (Michael Smiley) and his girlfriend Fiona (Emma Freyer), tempers flare and arguments explode.

A lot of this stuff, simple as it sounds, is extremely difficult to follow, because the actors’ accents render the dialogue near-unintelligible to American ears, and they keep talking about events in the past (especially something that went down in Kiev during the Iraq war) that we haven’t been let in on. What’s worse, none of these people is remotely likable. The natural response at this point is to start checking your watch and thinking about that episode of 30 Rock on your DVR you haven’t watched yet, because that will be a lot more fun than this dull, dreary film.

Stick with it. Wheatley, who also wrote the screenplay with his wife Amy Jump, knows what he’s doing, and what he’s doing is awesome. The first half-hour of Kill List is intended to be off-putting and discombobulating: You’re supposed to feel a bit baffled when Fiona makes a strange little mark on a mirror for no discernible purpose, then goes back to behaving normally. The movie is laying down important groundwork, giving you a feel for the everyday lives of these characters so when the crazy stuff arrives, the horror is even more hair-raising.

And boy, does it get crazy. Kill List is so carefully constructed and so precise with its shocks that the movie is practically impossible to write about in detail, so I will remain vague. The plot involves hit men, but this is not another Quentin Tarantino rip-off (he would probably love this movie, though). There is a scene of violence involving a hammer that makes a similar sequence in Drive seem like an episode of Home Improvement. Wheatley doesn’t rely on gore to frighten you — this is a much more sophisticated work than torture porn — but when blood is spilled, you will feel it in your gut.

Halfway through the film, the pace suddenly picks up (you’ll know the scene when you see it) and just when you think you’ve figured out where Kill List is heading, Wheatley schools you by proving you know nothing.

Some critics have taken Kill List to task for its lack of overall logic or its unwillingness to tuck every plot strand into place. But Wheatley is tackling the kind of grand, sweeping evil most movies shy away from, because you can’t just blame it on Satan or a crazy dude or plain old supernatural weirdness. This is a wonderfully dark, twisted and deeply unsettling movie, and the fact that a big chunk of the story is left for you to figure out is a strength, not a weakness. The meek and squeamish can stay home: Everyone else, get ready for some nasty business.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

What’s next for city’s Solid Waste Plan

"I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment."

President John F. Kennedy uttered those words in a memorable speech delivered May 25, 1961, during which he also said this: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth."

At the time, everyone applauded his determination while, at the same time, thinking such a goal was impossible. Yet, a little more than eight years after he laid down the gauntlet, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, and, of course, returned safely to earth.

The Dallas City Council on Wednesday passed a Solid Waste Management Plan designed to achieve zero waste going to the city’s landfill. Originally the plan called for this goal to be achieved by the year 2040, but Council member Linda Koop successfully added an amendment to the plan that removed this and all other "timelines" contained in the plan. Basically, this gives the city a "do-over."

So where should the city do next?

The city should establish the goals of having a 75 percent diversion rate by the year 2020 and a 100 percent diversion rate by the year 2030.

Too ambitious? Not nearly as ambitious as Kennedy’s "man on the moon" before the end of the 1960s. I know, many of you weren’t alive in 1961. But I was. Television shows were still broadcast in black and white. (1965 was the first year in which more than half of all television shows were broadcast in color.) Not only were there no personal computers in1961, that was the year the IBM Selectric typewriter was introduced. (For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, that was a revolutionary electric typewriter that replaced typing bars with a small sphere). However, most of us continued to use manual, non-electric typewriters. It wasn’t until 1970, a year after man landed on the moon, that Japan introduced the first pocket calculator.

So if President Kennedy could set less than a 10-year timeline for putting a man on the moon in that era, then achieving zero waste in 18years now should be a walk in the park.

The city must also lead by example.

The solid waste plan outlines things all of us must do to achieve zero waste. By all of us I not only mean us as individuals, but us as business owners, apartment owners, manufacturers, etc. If the city really wants "all of us" to follow its plan, it should take some actions to make it accountable.

The first thing the city can and should do immediately is to prohibit all city departments from using public funds to purchase bottled water.

Bottled water costs anywhere from 240 to 10,000 times as much as tap water and tastes no better than Dallas’s pristine tap water. An ounce of bottled water costs more than an ounce of gasoline and everyone these days is complaining about the high cost of gas. According to the Container Recyling Institute, only 20 percent of plastic water bottles are actually recycled; the rest end up in landfills where they take 1,000 years to biodegrade. In addition, large amounts of other resources, like energy, oil and even water are depleted in the bottle manufacturing process and transporting these bottles long distances burns enormous amounts of fossil fuels.

Require all city departments to purchase products that maximize postconsumer recycled content and recyclable or compostable materials, and that favor durability, repairability, and reuse.

Appoint a Zero Waste Coordinator to oversee the city’s diversion efforts and assistant coordinators for each city department.
This coordinator should regularly update the City Council on how the city is "leading by example."

Actions the City Council should take immediately are:

An ordinance requiring the entire city to separate recyclables, compostables, and landfill trash.  The city now "asks" residents to separate recyclables, but doesn’t make it mandatory. The time for "asking" has passed and the city should provide composting containers in the same manner it provided the blue recycling containers.

An ordinance requiring the use of compostable plastic, recyclable paper and/or reusable checkout bags by all retail establishments starting October 1, 2015 and requiring these establishments charge a minimum of ten cents per bag. This ordinance should also apply to restaurants starting October 1, 2016.

An ordinance prohibiting restaurants and food vendors from using styrofoam food service ware and instead to use food ware that is compostable or recyclable.

Establish a cigarette litter abatement fee of 20 cents per pack of cigarettes sold in Dallas to recover the cost of abating cigarette litter from city streets, sidewalks, and other public property.

Require Yellow Pages distributors to get the approval, or opt-in agreement of all Dallas residents before delivering phone book directories.

If we could put a man on the moon in the 1960s, surely we can accomplish these aforementioned recommendations now.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Available on DVD: “Margaret”

Typically, 11 years between movies means Terrence Malick has returned. But, apparently, Kenneth Lonergan also works at a perfectionist’s pace.

His first movie, You Can Count on Me, was released during the Clinton administration. His second, Margaret, started shooting in Manhattan in 2005 during George W. Bush’s second term. But, for a variety of reasons that turned one of the film’s biggest financers litigious (he and Fox Searchlight settled), Margaret wasn’t ready for release until last October. According to a 2009 report in the Los Angeles Times, Lonergan was given final cut but never arrived at one he liked, not even with the advice and assistance of Martin Scorsese and Scorsese’s longtime, legendary editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.

During these six years, two of the film’s producers, Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella, died, and several of its actors, namely Anna Paquin, became even more famous. Who knows what movie Lonergan was searching for in all that footage? But what emerges from the tinkering and legal skirmishes is an occasional marvel, a kind of everyday highbrow social X-ray, Paul Mazursky by way of Krzysztof Kieslowski.

Lonergan’s central character is a privileged 17-year-old named Lisa (Paquin) who has an intellectual understanding that the world doesn’t revolve around her. Still, news of other planets, other universes, the pain of others shocks her. It’s one of the truer movies I’ve seen about the consequences of the difference between being youthful and being young.

Lisa has a comfortable, relatively normal Upper East Side teenage life whose routine she struggles to maintain after she causes a bus accident that kills a pedestrian. She continues to explore and exploit her sexuality — with her fellow students (including one played by Kieran Culkin) and a teacher (Matt Damon) — and squabble with her mother (J. Smith-Cameron, Lonergan’s wife), an actress starring in a hit play. But the bus accident and her hasty decision to fib on the police report gnaw at her until she finds herself at the doorstep of the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) and frequently in the company of the dead woman’s best friend (Jeannie Berlin, superb). Together, they pursue legal action. The scenes that aren’t devoted to Lisa are spent with the mother, Joan, who has just started dating a Colombian businessman (Jean Reno).

You can feel in Margaret what might have vexed Lonergan. He’s going for a low-key version of the social-moral dilemmas that brought out the best in men like Flaubert and Chekhov and Bellow. His principle struggle probably involved tone. How would he keep his ideas about society, family, connection, and art coherent? How could he make a timeless movie that, even for 2005, is also a modern one?

The scenes have a weird rhythm all their own. One batch of shots spans days and goes from Lisa at a party to a rather shrewdly composed, searingly acted argument between her and Joan, first about whether Lisa likes the opera then about the sort of thing that warring mothers and daughters fight about best: each other. Too many scenes end just as they seem to have heated up. But Hina Abdullah and Olivia Thirlby are very good as two of the classmates who argue against Lisa in combative classroom debates around 9/11, Israel, Arabs, and American nationalism.

Lonergan, who casts himself as Lisa’s lukewarm father, a screenwriter, possesses a rare talent for elevating an embarrassing sequence into sadness or tragedy. That bus accident, which happens in the first half-hour, is a moving example. It makes no sense that it begins the way it does, with Lisa chasing a bus whose driver blithely won’t stop. But the chase produces a pieta scene, with Lisa cradling the dying woman (Allison Janney), who’s full of New York spunk until the spunk departs. It’s magnificent theatrical directing. The artifice falls away and the illusion of reality squeezes your heart. The best scenes in the movie are like this — visceral, raw, seemingly real, and ferociously acted. Lonergan lets you see the way Lisa’s parents’ occupational vanity has coded their daughter’s genes. She’s an almost pathological performer — other people’s lives are her stage.

Lonergan’s years of apprehension are understandable: How do you bring this movie into the marketplace? With Malick, you can see where the time went: war sequences, dinosaurs, the dawn of time. With Lonergan, you feel it. He makes art of predicament. This movie doesn’t always cohere, but there’s something beautiful and compelling about his attempt to realize a humane vision of complex, vividly imperfect, sometimes aggravating people, to build a movie that turns out to be based on a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem with the opening line "Margaret, are you grieving."

It shouldn’t be considered an act of bravery for a filmmaker to present characters as flawed as Lisa and Joan — or for actors to pour into the roles as much of themselves as Paquin and Smith-Cameron do. But long ago American movies bought into the idea that imperfection equates badness or villainy. We know better. We have warts, and we deserve to see them.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Available on DVD: “Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale”

Based on the true story of a 1930 uprising (the Wushe Incident) by the Taiwanese aboriginal tribe Seediq against its Japanese military occupiers, Warriors of the Rainbow is bloody and overlong, but has great heart and an interesting insight into the cultural traditions of the Seediq, an indigenous people who have struggled for rights much like American Indian tribes. Many of the actors in the films are actual aboriginal tribespeople.

The spine of the film is the elder but virile chief Mouna Rudo (Lin Ching-Tai, an Aborigine making a magnetic acting debut), who leads the revolt that massacred more than 130 Japanese, but ultimately cost the lives of more than 1,000 Seediq.

The original version ran about 4½ hours; at 2½ hours, the international version shown here seems a bit much. But it has commitment and style, and you can see why John Woo, the noted Hong Kong action director, would want to produce it: It fits right in with his "heroic bloodshed" cinematic legacy.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Available on DVD: “Marley”

A thorn in the side of the Jamaican reggae superstar Bob Marley was his lack of a black audience in the United States even at the height of his career. But in September 1980, eight months before his death at 36, that began to change with a triumphant engagement at Madison Square Garden, where he and his band, the Wailers, opened for the Commodores. The next day, according to Marley, a riveting two-and-a-half-hour documentary biography directed by Kevin Macdonald, he collapsed while running in Central Park. When examined, he was found to have inoperable, late-stage cancer.

Three years earlier Marley had chosen to ignore the danger signs when a malignant melanoma was discovered in one of his toes. He refused to have it treated — it probably would have meant an amputation — because he would no longer be able to dance onstage.

That stubbornness says a lot about Marley, whose obsessive drive seems only to have accelerated the more famous he became. He was so immersed in writing that he was said to sleep only four hours a night. Even when gravely ill he displayed a superhuman energy and willpower. Two of his children — David, aka Ziggy, now 43, and Cedella, now 44 — remember him as a disciplinarian who was hypercompetitive when they played games. All together he had 11 children from seven relationships.

His wife, Rita, who performed with his backup singers, the I Threes, made her peace with his womanizing and acted as his doorkeeper. Marley was not an aggressive sexual predator. A shy man, he was besieged with female adoration; women simply fell into his lap.

Though made with the cooperation of the Marley family, the film is far from a hagiography; and while stocked with musical sequences, it is not a concert film. Few if any of his songs are heard all the way through. Marley is a detailed, finely edited character study whose theme — Marley’s bid to reconcile his divided racial legacy — defined his music and his life.

The opening scene, on the coast of Ghana, shows what is called "the door of no return," through which countless Africans passed on their way to slavery. When he became a star, Marley passionately embraced his African roots, performing in Gabon (although it was a dictatorship) and at the ceremonies in which Rhodesia became Zimbabwe.

Born in an impoverished village in the Jamaican hills, Marley was brought up in a tin-roofed shack. He was the son of a young black woman, Cedella Marley Booker, who had a passing relationship with the much older Norval Marley, a British Army man of mixed race who was considered a white Jamaican. (He is seen in the film on horseback in a photograph.)

Because of his racially mixed parentage Bob Marley found himself a social outcast. At 12 he moved to the seething, poor Trench Town district of Kingston, where he soaked up music on the radio, learned the guitar and found a father figure in Clement Dodd, a record producer known as Sir Coxsone, who owned a recording studio. Marley was 16 in 1962, when his first single, Judge Not, set a righteous tone for what was to come.

The movie does a fascinating job of showing how, almost by accident, reggae evolved out of ska, Jamaica’s popular dance music of the time. American pop-soul, especially the music of groups like the Temptations, was also a major influence. Marley and the Wailers’ ska rendition of A Teenager in Love from Dion and the Belmonts is heard. Another hybrid, fraught with even more significance, is Selassie Is the Chapel, a rewritten version of the American hit Crying in the Chapel. This version praised Marley’s ultimate father figure, Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian emperor whom Rastafarians regarded as a deity. Mortimer Planno, a drummer and Rastafari elder, was also an important mentor.

Once he embraced Rastafarianism, Marley and his inner circle maintained a self-disciplined regimen of exercise, training and abstemiousness, except for marijuana, which was considered a sacrament.

Chris Blackwell, the British record executive who signed and groomed Marley and the Wailers, comes across as a cool cookie who promoted them as "a black rock act" and created discord after they weren’t paid for their work on a grueling promotional tour. Two members quit, including Neville Livingston, known as Bunny Wailer, the movie’s most frequent commentator. (He would change his mind and rejoin the group.)

At this point the film becomes more of a career biography in which Marley, in spreading his global message of "one love, one heart," exhibits a messianic sense of himself. His symbolic importance put him at risk, and he narrowly avoided an assassination attempt in 1976. The culmination of his drive to be a peacemaker was his April 1978 One Love Peace concert, since called the Third World Woodstock, at a Kingston stadium. There he joined the hands of the rival political leaders Michael Manley and Edward Seaga.

His music has only grown in importance since his death. Bob Marley and the Wailers’ 1984 anthology, Legend, has sold 25 million copies worldwide, and his music and image proliferated at Arab Spring demonstrations. You have only to listen to him or see a filmed performance to understand the potency of a voice synonymous with fervent hope.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A few observations

  • I was more than pleasantly surprised by the reception the long-term sanitation "zero waste" plan received yesterday from the Dallas City Council’s Environment and Transportation Committee. Ultra conservative Sandy Greyson went on record as saying her constituents are demanding a ban on plastic bags, which the plan proposes to implement within five years, and even Mr. Anti-Environment himself, Sheffie Kadane, couldn’t wait to make a motion to favorably recommend the plan to the full council.
  • Now that Jimmie Fallon has been nixed as the host for the next Academy Awards show, I have an off-the-wall suggestion: Tom Hanks. He is beloved by the Hollywood community and, by the way, have you seen his hosting gigs on Saturday Night Live? I think he could pull it off. My real first choice to host would be Hugh Jackman but there’s a good chance he’ll be one of the co-favorites (along with Daniel Day-Lewis) for the best actor trophy this year so that might present a conflict. So let’s give Hanks a shot, if his schedule permits.
  • You would think a new hotel opening in the Cedars area would receive more attention than it has, but I have not heard a word about the Nylo. Maybe because it’s only 70 rooms, but, still, the Cedars is a hot area right now.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Dallas may get a little greener

A while back I wrote about how Dallas likes to consider itself a "green city," which, in reality, it is, but only lima bean green, not forest green. However, the city is proposing what, for Dallas, can be considered an ambitious plan to get a little greener. (Cities like Austin, San Francisco and Los Angeles would call this plan less than "ambitious," but there you have it.)

Mary Nix at McCommas Bluff
Tomorrow, Dallas Sanitation Services Director Mary Nix will present to the City Council’s Transportation and Environment Committee something that is being billed as a "Local Solid Waste Management Plan."

Sounds simple enough and it’s main goal is particularly worthwhile: Eliminating buried waste (i.e., taking trash to landfills) by the year 2040, which seems too far in the future for me. But then I’ll be lucky to be around in 2020 when the goal of the plan is to divert 40 percent of our trash, which is where I would have wanted us to be today. But, like I said, Dallas is only lima bean green.

There is an interesting strategy at work here. Around this time last year, the big argument was over "flow control," a perfectly legal plan in which all the garbage collected within the city had to be taken to a municipal waste disposal facility, either the McCommas Bluff Landfill or the Bachman Transfer Station. That plan narrowly passed, but then private waste haulers, notably Waste Management Inc. (which, incidentally is solidly in favor of flow control, but only after its own landfill is filled), filed suit and a pro-business judge directly disavowed Supreme Court precedents and granted Waste Management an injunction.

With this new "Local Solid Waste Management Plan," the city is not making flow control (now the politically correct term is "resource recovery), a goal, but merely an unmentioned strategy needed to achieve a 100 percent diversion rate three decades from now. The way it’s being phrased now (on Page 15 of Nix’s presentation) is zero waste can be achieved through, among other things, "maximum resource recovery," which will require (although the presentation doesn’t specifically say so) flow control. Then on the next page of the presentation, labled "10 steps recommended in plan to achieve ‘Zero Waste’ status," steps nine and 10 call for the construction of a "Materials Recovery Facility" and to "develop a Resource Recovery Park to convert waste products to energy." We’ve already been told that the only way these two ideals are economically viable is through the implementation of flow control. So even though the words are explicitly mentioned, it’s still the elephant in the room.

But an even larger elephant is directly presented. On Page 17 of her presentation, Nix is going to call for banning the use of plastic bags and Styrofoam cups within the next five years. Why she’s stopping at plastic bags and not all non-reuseable bags as the real green cities have done is hard to figure out. Perhaps she just doesn’t want to push her luck with our obviously reactionary City Council. But it is definitely a step — a major step — in the right direction. The idea was floated not that long ago and was not warmly embraced by those council members.

I’ll be interested to see and hear how the discussion goes in tomorrow’s committee meeting. But perhaps we may begin to color Dallas a slightly deeper shade of green soon.

 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Romney tips the scales the wrong way

Mitt Romney’s misguided choice of Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate paints a clear picture of the Republican’s vision for the future.
Republicans are against:
  • Job training for the unemployed
  • Tuition assistance for financially handicapped college students
  • Replacing aging infrastructures in our cities
  • Medical treatment or prescription medication for the elderly
  • Preventative medical care for the poor
  • Replacing retiring police officers and firefighters

Republicans are for:
  • Even more tax giveaways for the rich
  • Extravagant benefits for military contractors
  • Reduced mine safety programs
  • Reduced food safety programs
  • Reduced environmental protection and preservation programs

If you think none of this true, just examine Ryan’s federal budget proposals — proposals the nation’s Catholic bishops said "will hurt hungry children, poor families, vulnerable seniors and workers who cannot find employment."
The choice has never been clearer between two presidential contenders. I have not been pleased with President Obama’s performance in the White House, but a second Obama term is far, far superior to the doomsday being offered by the Republicans.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Available on DVD: “Le Havre”

"Miracles do happen," a doctor tells a character named Arletty in Le Havre, Aki Kaurismaki’s new movie. "Not in my neighborhood," she replies.

Welcome to the tender, deadpan world of Kaurismaki, a Finnish filmmaker who has set his story of timely issues and timeless values in the French port city of the title. It turns out that Arletty (Kati Outinen) isn’t lying about the town’s toughest precincts, where her husband, Marcel (Andre Wilms), works as a shoeshine man. Together they eke out a modest existence along with a tightknit community of friends and neighbors who approach life with a similar signature brand of cynicism and cheerfulness.

When Marcel unexpectedly encounters a young man from Africa named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), what begins as one man’s mission to make a small difference becomes a potent — and often hilarious — testament to the power of community and collective sense of duty.

This movie was recommended to me by the great Philip Wuntch, the only knowledgeable film critic in the history of the Dallas Morning News. Now I understand why. Filmed in a high, nostalgic style that gives its setting the gleam and romance of another era, Le Havre is a movie composed entirely of fantastic faces, starting with Wilms’s own ruggedly handsome Marcel, whose even-eyed unflappability gives him the air of Buster Keaton combined with the suavest noir anti-hero. (Le Havre fits right in at a time when such films as Hugo and The Artist are casting fond glances back at cinema’s silent era.)

Alternately lighthearted and deeply spiritually grounded, Kaurismaki’s distinctive sensibility spins what could have been a grittily realist polemic into a fanciful fable, all the more affecting for being so tethered to the urgencies of the real world.

With its ragtag cast of cinematic archetypes (from Jean-Pierre Darroussin’s trench-coated cop to Marcel’s faithful pooch named Laika), Le Havre is propelled by equal parts theology and whimsy. It’s a treacherous combination that in Kaurismaki’s capable hands results in one of the finest films of the year, a comedy of unusual compassion and generosity that can get away with its most fanciful contrivances because its style is so simple and its tone so gentle and forgiving. Le Havre is a playful parable that conveys profound truths about compassion, humility and sacrifice. It offers proof that miracles do happen — especially in Kaurismaki’s lyrically hardscrabble neighborhood.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Available on DVD: “Footnote”

Footnote is a film about Talmudic research, close analysis of the ancient writings on Jewish law. Talmudic scholars are detail oriented by trade, and the two in close-up here are a father and son long at odds, both emotionally and intellectually.

Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba), the father, is the traditionalist who compares himself to an archaeologist combing through pot shards. He pores over evidence — so much so that he once spent 30 years pursuing a breakthrough that collapsed when a rival published first. Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi) is the successful, admired, cutting-edge son, the one who expounds on gender and culture and the de-feminization of the Jewish man. Uriel gets the accolades, the academy membership, the adoring looks from women. Eliezer’s biggest triumph is a footnote: his name in the masterwork of a revered scholar.

Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar imbues his tale of academic maneuvering, misunderstanding and mystery with the zest of passion and the zing of intrigue, It’s a vivacious film, having its little fun with suspense-flick conventions (including Amit Poznansky’s bouncing score) that build to a climactic finish.

Its energy and eccentricity assert themselves in funky graphics, imaginative camerawork and everyday moments of awkwardness and absurdity. In a pivotal scene, people crowding a tiny room stand and rearrange their chairs each time someone opens the door to come or go. It’s one of many small but inspired comic touches that lightens the drama.

Cedar’s most recent film was 2007's Beaufort, a much grimmer, plainer piece of work that focused on Israeli soldiers entrenched in a mountain post in Lebanon. On the surface, not much links that film to this one, yet both train their sights on infighting in an airtight subculture that reveals larger issues of humanity and the truth.

Bar-Aba glowers magnificently, his compact form imploding with anger. Ashkenazi, his large, expressive eyes filled with anxiety or alarm, is a rough bear of an actor who transmits a piercing intellect and warmth. These two don’t look alike, but it’s easy work accepting them as a combative, complicated father and son. And it’s easy to see the passion they feel for the Talmud.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Available on DVD: “The Deep Blue Sea”

The most dangerous and addictive aspect of lust is its revelatory quality, the way it makes the whole of life that went before it feel like a wasteland of sleepwalking and tepid emotion. In The Deep Blue Sea, Rachel Weisz — in what has to be the performance of her career, and there have been lots of good ones — plays an intelligent woman in the grip of a lust that's too big to handle or suppress. She can either ride the tiger or be devoured.

Terence Davies adapted and directed the film, based on the play by Terence Rattigan, with a complete immersion in the viewpoint of his lead character. This is a small story, set in 1950, but the emotions are epic, and Davies expresses those emotions with an epic treatment — with a loud string section on the soundtrack, dreamy takes and scenes that crystallize in just a single line of dialogue, suggesting the power of memory to compress events into moments.

Weisz plays the 40ish wife of a 50ish judge who meets a 30ish young man (Tom Hiddleston), a former World War II pilot in the RAF. Her discovery of physical love cannot be ignored, even though she realizes that this young man, for all his surface bonhomie, has been dead since the war. The war was his great revelation, just as love is hers.

If I tell you this film is a study of one woman's torment, it might make The Deep Blue Sea sound unappealing, but it's riveting from beginning to end, because virtually at every moment, someone's entire life is in the balance. On most of those occasions, we're watching Weisz, but sometimes we're watching Simon Russell Beale as the husband, as he uses every ounce of British reserve, and every aspect of 1950s repression, to contain an impulse to burst into tears.

Weisz's performance, from moment to moment — in merciless close-up and long takes — is innovative, truthful and revealing. Her innate appeal helps, as well. I imagine most women watching will identify with her, just as most men will watch with the frustrating conviction that if only they were allowed into the movie, she could get rid of both men and finally be happy.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Gas drilling ordinance: a defining moment for the Dallas City Council

Dallas City Council to decide if this could happen next door to where you live
This afternoon I witnessed the presentations to the Dallas City Council concerning proposed gas drilling ordinances and realized the choice before the city body is a rather simple one: Do you place the health and welfare of citizens as well as the preservation of our environment over the corporate greed of energy companies and a handful of fat-cat landowners. That may seem rather blunt, but that’s the argument.

As it stands now, District 9 council member Sheffie Kadane has become, hands down, the most anti-environment council member in the city’s history. He is becoming an embarrassment, which causes me much pain to write, because I always considered Sheffie a friend. But he single-handily tried to defeat a pro-environmental resource recovery ordinance and today said quite clearly "I could care less if drilling makes my neighbor so sick he dies, I have a right to get rich off my mineral rights." So much for love thy neighbor.

It seems inconceivable to me that while we are under an EPA order to reduce harmful ozone in the air, the council is considering policies that will increase the amount of dangerous particles we breathe in every day.

But it all comes down to money. The gas drilling interests have the big bucks to buy any council member it wants. The environmental side simply tries to appeal the council person’s conscience. The vote on this ordinance will define the council and its members. The right thing to do is to approve an ordinance with at least 1,000-foot setbacks with absolutely no variances as well as strict prohibitions against drilling in city parks and flood plains. Those who vote for such an ordinance will be voting for the health and welfare of the citizens of Dallas. Those voting for anything less are caving in to the interests of the greedy.

Bad pollsters or lying voters?

Typical Texas pollster?
The one and only time when Dallas’ current system of electing city council members, known as the 14-1 system (14 single member districts with the mayor elected at large), was placed before voters for approval, it was narrowly defeated, even though polls taken before the election indicated it would win handily.

Here’s what happened. After making sure African Americans were disenfranchised for decades, a number of black leaders, led by the late Al Lipscomb, filed suit saying Dallas’ system of electing candidates was unfair. Federal courts, led by U.S. District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer agreed.

So the city’s white establishment came up with a plan called 10-4-1, in which 10 council members would be elected from single member districts, four council members would be elected from larger, "super," districts and the mayor would be elected at large. The city’s white voters recognized the plan for what it was — only giving minorities token representation — and approved it. The U.S. Justice Department, however, also recognized it for what is was and said the plan could not pass muster under the Voting Rights Act.

So, reluctantly, the city was forced to submit the 14-1 system to voters. At the time, in the early 1990s, I was working for a company hired to see that the 14-1 ordinance was passed. We conducted extensive polling and all the numbers indicated it would be approved easily. However, on election day, the vote was 45,624 against to 45,255 for.

Mike Lindley
It was the acute political strategist Mike Lindley (whose birthday is today, quite coincidentally) who realized why our polling numbers were so inaccurate. According to the Great Lindley, a voter saying he would vote against the measure identified that voter as a racist, someone in favor of denying Dallas blacks a political voice. And very few of those polled wanted to publicly admit, "Yeah, sure, I’m a racist." However, in the privacy of the voting booth, they were free to express their true feelings and motivations.

I was reminded of Lindley’s analysis in the wake of yesterday’s Dewhurst-Cruz runoff for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate. The morning of the election, all the political pundits were calling the election "a tossup." The results were quite another matter. Cruz crushed Dewhurst. When I was working for a news wire service the rule in a two-person election was that anyone receiving more than 55 percent of the vote was considered a "landslide" victor. Cruz got 56 percent.

So why was everyone calling it "a tossup"? I’m going to attribute it to Lindley’s Rule.

Cruz is directly tied to the racist Tea Party. The Tea Party came about, quite simply, because black man was elected to the White House. And all the policies it advocates are either overtly racist (voter IDs, strict immigration laws) or covertly racist (gutting programs designed to help the poor, killing public education, maintaining tax cuts for the most wealthy Americans). And there are still those who don’t want the world (or their co-workers) to know they belong to this lunatic fringe. But, again, get them inside the privacy of a voting booth and they are free to let all their prejudices run rampant.

The only other explanation is that pollsters in the state of Texas have no idea how to conduct an accurate poll. And you know what? There may be some truth in that as well.