Monday, August 26, 2013

Lessons learned attending Dallas budget town hall meetings

This season I attended five budget town hall meetings around the city — one in East Dallas, one in Central Dallas, one in Southeast Dallas, one in Southwest Dallas and one in Far North Dallas.

After attending the first two — the East and Central one — I thought the domineering theme of these budget meetings was going to be those descendants of Punxsutawney Phil, that rodent-like critter in Pennsylvania who peeps his head from his hole in early February and then ducks back in before Bill Murray can whack him with a golf club. Or something like that.

Anyway, these relatives I’m referring to are the Friends of the Library who poke their heads out of their holes every August to attend budget town hall meetings and, following some sort of script from Hole Central, proclaim the budget simply doesn’t contain enough funds for the libraries. These folks are relentless. I’m betting if the City Manager devoted the entire budget one year to the libraries, it still wouldn’t be enough to suit these people.

There were five of them poking their heads out in the East Dallas meeting and four more in the Central One. But then there was only one in Southeast Dallas, none in the Southwest and only one in Far North, an event during which City Council member Sandy Greyson told the story about how, at one of her earlier town halls, some stupid chap recommended cutting funding for libraries completely.

City Council member
Sandy Greyson
That’s when I realized the real theme of this comparatively benign town hall season is that while most of the city has escaped the August heat relatively unscathed and unharmed, it has resulted in craziness, kookiness and outright racism running rampant in Far North Dallas. These folks are living in some sort of time warp, imagining it’s still the 1970s and 1980s when the city council was comprised of only white men from North Dallas who could hand out all the goodies they pleased to their friends north of I-30.

This is Tea Party land. These people think Ted Cruz is normal and rational, and that Rand Paul, the presumptive 2016 Republican presidential nominee, is too liberal. They despise Mayor Mike Rawlings’ Grow South campaign (although at one point, the most vocal racist in the audience whispered to his friend sitting behind him "What’s the mayor’s name again?") The aforementioned racist was particularly critical of the City Council’s decision to invest in a mixed-use development in South Dallas’ Lancaster Corridor, an investment the council believed would return handsome dividends to the city’s coffers. They also don’t believe litter is a problem and that the city should take no initiative to curb anything that, in their minds, is not a problem.

These folks believe the city’s budget should be used for one thing and one thing only — to make sure their alleys are the very best alleys in the world today and to keep Wal*Mart from gaining a foothold in their community.

I walked out of that town hall meeting shook and stunned. I took off my rose colored glasses, wiped my brow and thought to myself "I can’t believe there are still people this insular living in this world today." I know none of these people have ever driven through the streets or ventured into the neighborhoods of South Dallas. Who am I kidding? These folks probably remain at least a mile north of LBJ Freeway at all times.

I must give council member Greyson, a Tea Party advocate herself, credit, however. She finessed the most outrageous comments from her constituents with style and grace.

Now back to those library fanatics.

I am convinced there is a role for public libraries these days, although it might not be the one it was when the institutions were conceived. I am convinced it was a brilliant move to devote this year’s city library funds to additional materials, especially the replacement of outdated computers, and not additional staffing.

Today’s libraries must become less of a place where citizens go to check out books and more of a place where citizens go to learn. To learn about citizenship and how to vote. To learn English as a second language. To learn how to craft and submit resumes. To learn how to search for jobs and how to prepare for that job interview. And more.

And here is how those Friends of the Library can be of real public service, much more than just showing up at budget town hall meetings every August. They need to find and recruit the volunteers that have the capabilities to instruct these programs. These instructors should not be on the city’s payroll. It won’t be easy finding these volunteers, but if the Friends of the Libraries are the friends they claim to be, they should do whatever they can to unearth them.

Just don’t try to locate them in Far North Dallas.

This Week’s DVD Releases

33 Postcards **½ Guy Pearce. Directed by Pauline Chan. When Mei Mei, a teenage orphan, goes to Australia with her school choir, she sneaks off to find Dean Randall, her longtime sponsor whose treasured postcards have brightened her life. But she discovers that Dean isn’t quite what he seems. The main problem with this film is the criminal subplot, full of Aussie villains snarling "mate" at one another and landing bloodless punches on Dean. This is what happens when someone grafts a prison angle onto Pollyanna — the tough guys just get in the way.

The Great Gatsby *** Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan. Directed by Baz Luhrmann. A Midwestern war veteran finds himself drawn to the past and lifestyle of his millionaire neighbor. The actors emote up a summer storm. Maguire’s otherworldly coolness suits the observer drawn into a story he might prefer only to watch. DiCaprio is persuasive as the little boy lost impersonating a tough guy, and Mulligan finds ways to express Daisy’s magnetism and weakness. You can find fault with virtually every scene — and yet in spite of all the wrong notes, Fitzgerald (and the excess he was writing about and living) comes through. The Deco extravagance of the big party scenes is enthralling. Luhrmann throws money at the screen in a way that is positively Gatsby-like, walloping you intentionally and un- with the theme of prodigal waste.

Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp ** Directed by Jorge Hinojosa. Blending archival elements with recent interviews, this biographical portrait tells the tale of pimp-turned-author Iceberg Slim, whose gritty books based on his life became bona fide literature. Though directed with some flourishes, including a riveting use of music and attractive animated pulp art, the film is weighed down by the testimony of bespectacled professors from hip critical studies and English departments and a psychologist.

Koch **½ Directed by Neil Barsky. A documentary on Ed Koch, the mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989. Barsky is aware of how a great and terribly troubling person can reside in the same body, but his occasional eagerness to appoint himself as his subject’s latest press agent is dubious.

Kon-Tiki **½ Directed by Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg. The story of legendary explorer Thor Heyerdal’s epic 4,300 miles crossing of the Pacific on a balsa wood raft in 1947, in an effort prove it was possible for South Americans to settle in Polynesia in pre-Columbian times. The movie lacks the fire and eccentricity that we want from our stories of adventurers driven by obsessions that could be seen as egotistical or just plain bonkers.

Pain & Gain **½ Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Ed Harris, Tony Shalhoub. Directed by Michael Bay. A trio of bodybuilders in Florida get caught up in an extortion ring and a kidnapping scheme that goes terribly wrong. When the story runs off the rails and crashes headfirst into a too-perfect ending, it’s because Bay was led astray by the same things that got the Sun Gym Gang into this mess in the first place: superficiality, ambition, and the belief that reality just isn’t good enough.

Pawn Shop Chronicles * Brendan Fraser, Elijah Wood, Vincent D’Onofrio, Thomas Jane, Lukas Haas, Norman Reedus, Matt Dillon, Paul Walker. Directed by Wayne Kramer. A missing wedding ring leads to a wild-goose chase involving meth addicts, skinheads and an Elvis impersonator. Hee Haw meets Pulp Fiction at the meth lab: That describes the style of this film, a hillbilly grindhouse yawp of a movie that belches in your face and leaves a sour stink.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist **½ Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber, Keifer Sutherland, Om Puri. Directed by Mira Nair. A young Pakistani man is chasing corporate success on Wall Street. He finds himself embroiled in a conflict between his American Dream, a hostage crisis, and the enduring call of his family’s homeland. Nair has crafted a handsome but clubfooted film that lurches through predictable hot spots. It most disappoints as a thriller, the flashbacks and voiceovers and romantic entanglements so dominating the proceedings you forget that someone is bound and gagged in real time.

Stranded * Christian Slater. Directed by Roger Christian. Four isolated astronauts on board a bio-dome space craft, experience a ghostly intercession after a meteor storm. A no-budget Alien ripoff with little reason to exist beyond the few creature-effects shots its design team now can add to its reel. The movie might leave viewers yearning for the director’s Battlefield Earth — a film that, terrible though it was, at least couldn’t be accused of a lack of ambition.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Just in time for the party

I'm wondering if the City of Dallas is planning on highlighting this as part of it's 50th anniversary commemoration.

The early front-runner

I hadn't even heard of this film until a few moments ago, but, according to Gold Derby, it is the current front runner to win this year's best picture Oscar.

Monday, August 19, 2013

This Week’s DVD Releases

Amour *** Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert. Directed by Michael Haneke. Georges and Anne, retired music teachers in their 80s, have a time-tested love. But as Anne’s health fails, Georges becomes her caregiver, and the couple’s bond is tested like never before. For all that it is, as promised, about love, it’s also a subtly punishing affair that grinds you into the ground as you watch an elderly couple deal with one member’s slow deterioration of health and sanity.

Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey **½ Directed by Romona S. Diaz. A documentary about Arnel Pineda, who was plucked from YouTube to become the new singer for the rock band, Journey. Two things hold this back as a documentary. The first is that it presents the world of Journey and the people in it through such a lens of love and light that it begins to seem like a publicity film. The second flaw is that it leaves out vital information. It doesn’t, for example, answer the big question, "What happened to Steve?"

Epic **½ Beyoncé Knowles, Colin Farrell, Josh Hutcherson, Amanda Seyfried, Johnny Knoxville. Directed by Chris Wedge. Magically transported to an enchanted forest, a teenage girl joins forces with a scruffy group of residents fighting a battle against evil -- and soon realizes they must win to save both their world and hers. Although this isn’t quite an animated masterpiece — or as enchanting as Wreck It Ralph — it’s still a fun, sweet-hearted kid-pleaser that boasts some downright lovely animation.

Evidence (no stars) Stephen Moyer. Directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi. A detective hunts down a killer using video footage shot by the victims of a massacre at an abandoned gas station. There have been a lot of shoddy found-footage flicks (a genre started by The Blair Witch Project) over the past few years, but maybe none quite so shoddy as this.

Killing Season * JohnTravolta, Robert DeNiro. Directed by Mark Steven Johnson. Two veterans of the Bosnian War, one American, one Serbian, clash in the remote Smoky Mountain wilderness. This is a hard movie to take seriously, which is particularly unfortunate since it deals with such weighty issues as genocide, the ethical compromises that everyone makes in combat, and the lingering effects of wartime decisions on participants years down the line.

No One Lives **½ Luke Evans. Directed by Ryûhel Kitamura. A gang of ruthless highway killers kidnap a wealthy couple traveling cross country only to shockingly discover that things are not what they seem. This is a cheap horror prank that’s ultimately not clever or accomplished enough to sustain its eccentricities, and they are very bloody eccentricities indeed.

No Place on Earth **½ Directed by Janet Tobias. A cave exploration in Ukraine leads to the unearthing of a story of World War II survivors who once found shelter in the same cave. A remarkable story made almost unremarkable in the hands of lazy filmmaking.

Post Tenebras Lux **** Directed by Carlos Reygadas. An affluent couple lives in the Mexican countryside with their two children. But their idyllic surroundings belie a disturbing existence where violence and suffering are commonplace and light and darkness struggle to eliminate one another. This works so well because — even at its most random — it always feels like more of a single portrait of a man in crisis than it does an impish bouquet of provocative incidents.

Rapture-Palooza **½ Craig Robinson, Anna Kendrick. Directed by Paulc Middleditch. Two teens battle their way through a religious apocalypse on a mission to defeat the Antichrist. More irrelevant than irreverent, the unworthy script from Chris (Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) Matheson might play to apocalyptically stoned college kids, but offers nothing in the way of broader social satire, suggesting the waste of a perfectly good Reckoning — not to mention the talents of a cast far funnier than the doom-and-gloom results suggest.

Scary Movie 5 (no stars) Charlie Sheen, Molly Shannon, Lindsay Lohan, Heather Locklear, Chris Elliott. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee. A couple begins to experience some unusual activity after bringing their lost nieces and nephew home. With the help of home-surveillance cameras, they learn they’re being stalked by a nefarious demon. This is so massively un-enjoyable, a hate crime against cinema, a ringing indictment of the depths commercialism will go to in search of the lowest common denominator.

Shadow Dancer **** Andrea Riseborough, Clive Owen, Gillian Anderson. Directed by James Marsh. Set in 1990s Belfast, an active member of the IRA becomes an informant for MI5 in order to protect her son’s welfare. This low-key and engrossing drama is as much a well-acted character study as it is a thriller about the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Monday, August 12, 2013

This week’s DVD releases

3 Geezers! (No stars) J.K. Simmons, Tim Allen, Basil Hoffman, Scott Caan, Breckin Meyer, Lou Beatty Jr., Randy Couture, Mike O’Malley, Kevin Pollak, Sam Raimi. Directed by Michelle Schumacher. Preparing to play a movie character decades older than himself, an actor immerses himself in the creaky culture of a senior convalescent home. This is painful — one terrible movie.

The Angels’ Share **½ Directed by Ken Loach. After avoiding jail, a man vows to turn his life around for his newborn son. He has a talent for discerning fine whiskeys, and he and his community service cohorts hatch a plan to lift a few expensive bottles to buy themselves a better future. There might be a pretty good film lurking in this latest dramedy from the veteran Scottish directing-writing team of Loach and Paul Laverty. I use the conditional because at least half the dialogue is delivered in a Glaswegian Scots dialect so thick, it might as well have been Urdu.

A Band Called Death **** Directed by Mark Christopher Covino, Jeff Howlett. A documentary on the 1970s punk trio Death, and their new-found popularity decades after they disbanded. This rock doc rewrites punk history while telling an emotional story about an artist’s spirit and his faithful family.

The Big Wedding (No stars) Robert DeNiro, Katherine Heigl, Diane Keaton, Amanda Seyfried, Topher Grace, Ben Barnes, Susan Sarandon, Robin Williams. Directed by Justin Zackham. A long-divorced couple fakes being married as their family unites for a wedding. To say that Zackham’s farce takes the low road doesn’t begin to do justice to the sheer awfulness of this star-stuffed, potty-mouthed fiasco.

The Company You Keep ** Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Julie Christie, Sam Elliott, Jackie Evancho, Brendon Gleeson, Terrence Howard, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Britt Marling, Stanley Tucci, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Susan Sarandon. Directed by Robert Redford. A former Weather Underground activist goes on the run from a journalist who has discovered his identity. As a piece of suspense, it ain’t exactly North by Northwest, or even 3 Days of the Condor; the awkward attempts at chase scenes make it clear that Redford the actor, who has always given off a slightly lugubrious air, has lost a step or two physically.

Detour *** Neil Hopkins, Brea Grant. Directed by William Dickerson. Trapped inside his car by a mudslide, a smooth talking chap suddenly finds himself in a situation he can’t talk his way out of. This is a tautly efficient thriller that fully succeeds in making the viewer identify with its hapless protagonist’s desperate plight.

Emperor Matthew Fox, Tommy Lee Jones. Directed by Peter Webber. As the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II, a U.S. Army general must decide if Emperor Hirohito will be hanged as a war criminal. Given its true-life basis, the story is already devoid of suspense regarding Hirohito’s ultimate fate, and the general’s inquiry is made more sluggish by dramatically inert conversations with Japanese officials.

The Guillotines Directed by Wai-keung Lau. An elite crime-fighting unit in the court of the Chinese emperor relies on flying swords to defeat their enemies. The incrementally served up pieces never satisfactorily cohere. The blades fly as do the heads, but the movie remains disappointingly aground.

Hatchet III **½ Danielle Harris, Kene Hodder. Directed by BJ McDonnell. A search and recovery team heads into the haunted swamp to pick up the pieces and Marybeth learns the secret to ending the voodoo curse that has left Victor Crowley haunting and terrorizing Honey Island Swamp for decades. The execution of this film leaves something to be desired, as this effort seems more visually muddled and choppier than previous installments.

The Hot Flashes **½ Brooke Shields, Daryl Hannah, Virginia Madsen, Camryn Manheim, Wanda Sykes. Directed by Susan Seidelman. A group of middle-aged women — all former basketball champs — challenge the current all-star high school team to raise money for breast cancer prevention. Early in the movie, Shields is seen reading Menopause For Dummies, and it doesn’t take long to realize that’s precisely what you’re watching.

Olympus Has Fallen ** A disgraced Secret Service agent must come to the rescue when Korean terrorists descend on the White House and take the president hostage. Feels from start to finish like a throwback to the action cinema and military thrillers of decades past. However, if you’re just going to rip off the action movies of yore, why not rip off more of the good stuff?

Reality ****½ Directed by Matteo Garrone. A jovial fishmonger and small-time con artist hopes to enrich his humble family by participating in an Italian reality television show, but his obsession with appearing to be an ideal contestant soon has his family doubting his sanity. The movie’s a funny, dark, increasingly razor-sharp inquiry into the metaphysics of modern fame — how the dream of "being seen" and thus validated on some primal level can completely unhinge the average schmo.

What Maisie Knew ***½ Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgård, Onata Aprile, Joanna Vanderham, Steve Coogan. Directed by Scott McGehee, David Siegel. A perceptive 6-year-old girl becomes a bargaining tool when she gets caught in the middle of a toxic custody fight between her self-seeking, childish parents. Anchored by five strong performances, including a piercing turn by Aprile in the 6-year-old title role, this beautifully observed drama essentially strikes the same sad note for 98 minutes, though with enough sensitivity and emotional variation to make the experience cumulatively heartrending rather than merely aggravating.

Monday, August 5, 2013

This week's DVD releases

Absence * Erin Way, Eric Mathany, Ryan Smale. Directed by Jim Loweree. Doctors are baffled when an expectant mother wakes to find her nearly-to-term pregnancy apparently disappear overnight. Police investigate the situation as a missing child, and only her husband and brother trust her version of events. What starts as a creepy, original conceit — mysterious Caesarean-section abductions during hospital stays — devolves quickly into standard talk-to-the-camera, jump-at-the-sounds, found-footage banality.

Aftershock ** Eli Roth, Andrea Osvárt, Ariel Levy. Directed by Nicolás López. A dim American tourist traveling in Chile convinces three attractive young women to accompany him and his friends to party in a coastal city, but the fun stops when a major earthquake devastates the area and they must fight for survival. There’s plenty of gore, but none of it is particularly inventive, nor does it engender any visceral or emotional reactions beyond jaded disgust.

Antiviral **½ Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Douglas Smith, Wendy Crewson, Malcolm McDowell. Directed by Brandon Cronenberg. A virus dealer makes a big mistake when he gives himself the same bug that killed a superstar. A one-joke movie — a good joke, yes, but Cronenberg’s agenda clouds the clarity that’s needed to fully deliver the punchline.

Mud *** Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Sam Shepherd, Reese Witherspoon, Michael Shannon, Joe Don Baker, Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, Jacob Lofland. Directed by Jeff Nichols. Two young boys encounter a fugitive and form a pact to help him evade the bounty hunters on his trail and to reunite him with his true love. Nichols’ much-anticipated follow-up to his breakthrough second feature Take Shelter feels less adventurous and unsettling but remains a well carpentered piece of work marked by some fine performances and resilient thematic fiber.

My Amityville Horror **½ Daniel Lutz. Directed by Eric Walter. In this documentary, Lutz discusses what happened in 1975 when his family was plagued by supernatural happenings at the notorious Amityville house in Long Island. Psychologists, reporters and eyewitnesses examine Daniel’s testimony. Walter has the case down cold and arrives at suitably ambiguous conclusions about terrors, both real and suggested, but he gets there through a mix of dimly lit interviews and ominous underscoring that wouldn’t be out of place on an episode of Unsolved Mysteries.

Oblivion **½ Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Melissa Leo. Directed by Joseph Kosinski. A veteran assigned to extract Earth’s remaining resources begins to question what he knows about his mission and himself. For its first hour or so, this is a visually mesmerizing, intriguing picture that doesn’t feel like the same-old: It engages your eyes and piques your curiosity. Then, gradually, the novelty wears off, the clichés start to pile up and we’re back to Post-Apocalyptic Dystopia 101. Oscar-winners Freeman and Leo turn up in cameo roles anyone could have played. Kosinski was smart to limit their screen time, because it’s awkward to have actors with weight and charisma hanging around those who lack both.

On the Road **½ Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Tom Sturridge, Danny Morgan, Alice Braga, Elizabeth Moss. Directed by Walter Salles. At the height of the Beat era, New York writer Sal Paradise, his freewheeling buddy Dean, and Dean’s wife set out on a journey of self-discovery. A dash of Tarantino might have juiced up Salles’ wrongheadedly well-mannered take on Jack Kerouac’s 1957 Beat Generation landmark. Kerouac’s semi-autobiographical novel comes to the screen looking good but feeling shallow. The film is rich with evocative period atmosphere and anchored by a trio of compellingly lived-in performances from Riley, Hedlund, and Stewart. Nevertheless, it’s another staid adaptation that misses the forest for the trees and confuses people into thinking that some novels truly are "unfilmmable."

Paradise: Love **** Directed by Ulrich Seidl. Teresa, a 50-year-old Austrian, vacations on Kenya’s sun-kissed shores looking for love among the local beach boys who survive on European "sugar mamas." She falls for Munga, but soon realizes that his false sincerity is part of the sex tourism game. Challenging, complex and frequently ugly, this is a ruthless exploration of how unlike our everyday selves we can behave when we’re "on holiday," and how much that illuminates who we really are.

The Place Beyond the Pines **½ Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta. Directed by Derek Cianfrance. A motorcycle stunt rider turns to robbing banks as a way to provide for his lover and their newborn child, a decision that puts him on a collision course with an ambitious rookie cop navigating a department ruled by a corrupt detective. It’s very much a film about men, their yearnings and discontents, and about the way sins tumble down from one generation to the next. It’s a bank-robber movie, too, as well as a drama about the pressures teenagers face from parents and peers. You can feel Cianfrance biting off more and more until his mouth is too full to chew.

The Sapphires *** Chris O’Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Sharri Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell, Tory Kittles, Eka Darville. Directed by Wayne Blair. In 1968, four young, talented Australian Aboriginal girls learn about love, friendship and war when their all girl group The Sapphires entertain U.S. troops in Vietnam. First-time director Blair and screenwriters Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs, adapting Briggs’ stage play, don’t shy away from the era’s social complexities, but they keep their eye on the ball, which in this case is the sweet pull of soul tune harmony.

Storm Surfers **½ Tom Carroll, Ross-Clarke Jones, Ben Matson, Toni Collette. Directed by Justin McMillan, Christopher Nelius. Now in their 40s, surfing legends Clarke-Jones and Carroll team with meteorologist and surf forecaster Matson to track down and conquer the biggest, most dangerous waves in Australia. Collette narrates. The real star is the ocean itself, which is so stunning in its furious majesty that we fully understand every risk these guys are willing to take.

The Story of Luke **½ Lou Taylor Pucci, Seth Green, Cary Elwes, Kristin Bauer. Directed by Alonso Mayo. Luke is an autistic 25-year-old who lives with his grandparents until his grandmother dies. Though the world expects little from him, he resolves to meet the challenge of finding a job and looking after himself. When it works, the film serves as a modest reminder that the challenges of autism may sometimes be no more daunting or fearsome than those that face anyone in search of an independent life.

To the Wonder **½ Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem. Directed by Terrence Malick. Soon after returning to his native Oklahoma with a beautiful woman he met in Paris, a man finds himself drifting toward an old friend. Meanwhile, the woman he brought back with him has unfinished business with her first husband. The film is distinctly lacking in oomph and, without an emotional connection, without anything interesting happening on the screen, the beauty can only take you so far before the endeavor falls like a house of cards.

West of Memphis **** Directed by Amy Berg. An examination of a failure of justice in the case against the West Memphis Three. Although it’s the fourth documentary about the West Memphis Three, this one doesn’t feel superfluous. This bizarre case rates at least 18 documentaries — one for each year Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley spent in prison for murders they clearly didn’t commit.