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A Look Ahead

Next week's column may be short and early, while the following column may well be late; I am leaving for Oregon on Sunday April 2 and will not be back until the following Saturday night--Spring Break. I will have my PC, but who knows if I can find Internet Access in Canon Beach, Oregon. It ain't Ft, Lauderdale, but it meets my needs. My time in my natal state, alas, is booked entirely with either my parents or my relaxation at the beach--I hope to see friends and fans on a visit this summer.

It's been quiet in the classroom; even though the third quarter is nearly over, I continue to tinker with classroom management, as decorum has broken down considerably in recent weeks. Veteran teachers point out that the students are growing tired of me and I of them, and this is a volatile combination. Spring break will help.

Craig Reynolds, whose real job has been soaking up his time of late, assures me he'll be back soon with Technobriefs. Neal Vitale has convinced me we need to pay closer attention to the feature in the right-hand column entitled "Recent Movies." Check it out later this week and see if you agree with us that we've improved its utility. Neal also notes that "What Paul Is Reading" hasn't been changed in a while. All this means is that Paul hasn't been reading anything other than New Yorkers and student papers lately.

Bush India Policy: Wrong

Richard Dalton writes:

Cover story in the March 11-17 issue of The Economist is an (appropriately) merciless cartoon showing Bush in cowboy garb astride a missile. George W. Bush in Dr. Strangedeal or: How I learned to stop worrying and love my friend's bomb.

The article bashes Bush for cutting a deal with friendly India that is illegal according to our law and which weakens existing international nuclear constraints. It goes on to recommend that Congress derail this agreement, stamped with a classical Bush combination of ignorance and arrogance.

Let's help Congress (especially Congressional Democrats) grow a spine and oppose this awful deal.


Briefs (If you have a lot of them do they stop being brief?)

Air Force One

The President, First Lady and Dick Cheney were flying on Air Force One. George looked at Laura, chuckled and said, "You know, I could throw a $1, 000.00 bill out of the window right now and make somebody very happy."

Laura shrugged her shoulders and replied, "I could throw ten $100.00 bills
out of the window and make ten people very happy."

Cheney added, "That being the case, I could throw one hundred $10.00 bills
out of the window and make a hundred people very happy."

Hearing their exchange, the pilot rolled his eyes and said to his co-pilot,"Such big-shots back there. I could throw all of them out of the window and make 56 million people very happy."

Neal Vitale Reviews: 16 Blocks, Inside Man, Pink Panther, Eight Below

16 Blocks - 4 Stars

Director Richard Donner has a long career in television ("The Rifleman," "Get Smart," "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.") and film (Superman, the Lethal Weapon series), and he knows how to create visual entertainment that is engaging, fast-paced, and clever. He has made a terrific film in 16 Blocks, telling the story of aging, rummy police detective Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis), who gets the chance and seemingly simple assignment of ushering Eddie Bunker, a chatty grand jury witness played by rapper Mos Def (seen in several films, including The Woodsman, Monster's Ball, and The Italian Job) the sixteen blocks of lower Manhattan from the station to courthouse. Of course, things are never that simple, as it turns out that Bunker's testimony will implicate a number of Mosley's fellow cops, including his former partner, Frank Nugent (David Morse, of "St. Elsewhere" and The Green Mile). The police are mobilized to stop Mosley and Bunker from ever getting to Centre Street, and the fun begins. 16 Blocks is full of good things - an excellent script, variously funny and sweet; strong acting; plenty of action (including the best bus-driving sequence since Speed) and plot twists galore. Don't miss it.


Inside Man -- 3.5 stars

Spike Lee has made a film that is very different from much of his work (He Got Game, Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X) and quite good. Inside Man is a thriller that centers around an apparent bank heist, but which takes on new dimensions as the tale unfolds. The storyline is clever and surprising, and moves along sprightly even over a two-hour-plus running time; a strong cast (including Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster - in a nice stylistic departure, and Clive Owen) turn in solid performances. As with many a Spike Lee film, the portrayal of Manhattan is colorful and rich with diversity. But I found myself contrasting this film with 16 Blocks, with which it shares many similar dynamics (including its New York neighborhood), and preferring Donner's work. Through a combination of skillful acting, writing, and directing, the characters in 16 Blocks come alive with human emotions and frailties; they connect with the viewer in ways Lee's never do.


The Pink Panther - 1 star

Peter Sellers must be spinning in his grave. This abysmal, unfunny film is a travesty of the memory of the original. Steve Martin, Kevin Kline, and Jean Reno - accomplished actors all - should be embarrassed; at least Beyonce has the excuse of an utter lack of acting ability. A couple of mildly amusing sight gags are as good as The Pink Panther gets. I have only one word for this film - merde!


Eight Below - 3 stars

While not breaking any new ground, Eight Below delivers a heartwarming dose of family entertainment. A scientist visits an Antarctic exploration base late in the season. He is injured, and needs emergency care back in civilization. The base's sled dogs - heroes already in helping the fallen scientist - are left behind, but winter's arrival keeps anyone from returning for them for months. Anthropomorphism is in full swing as we watch the dogs cope with their plight, care for each other, and fight to stay alive. Since this is a Disney film, the outcome is never in doubt. But, however predictable Eight Below may be, it is effective - I had a catch in my throat and tears in my eyes at all the right moments. And that's more than many films can deliver.

--Neal Vitale


4 stars

This South African film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year. In a brilliant piece of programming, a local theater is showing it as well as fellow nominee Joyeux Noël'; meanwhile, nominee Sophie Scholl - The Final Days is showing a few blocks down the street. God, I love living in the San Francisco Bay area. Anyway, Tsotsi means thug, and that is the obvious self-designation of this ultra-violent resident of a South African township in a film which earns its R rating with a nasty murder in the first 10 minutes. Tsotsi hijacks a car and shoots the woman who was driving it; when he crashes, he finds a baby in the back seat. "Torn from the headlines" as the plot line is (and by the way, South Africa doesn't come off looking too good in this film). Everything about this film, the acting, directing, writing and cinematography are all brilliant from top to bottom. If it were in English, it could have competed for best picture. It is thoughtful, dramatic, provocative and disturbing.

Don't Come Knocking

3 stars

Don't you love it when a movie teams two people who are together in real life, so when you see a picture on the wall or on a bedside table of them 20 years ago, it really is them 20 years ago and not some photoshop wonder? I know I do. Sam Shepard the playwright, who also acts (acts well, and whose choices of material are almost uniformly excellent), wrote this film and co-stars in it with his real-life wife Jessica Lange, of whom it can be said, "What a joy to see her on the screen again." The same can be said for George Kennedy in an extremely brief cameo. I'd pay $9 to watch Sam Shepard read the phone book. I thought, from the review in the Chronicle that I was going to a backstage Hollywood film, a genre I love. Instead, it turns out the shooting of the movie is a framing device for a road film with a radically familiar plot--a man finds out he has a child he didn't know about and goes to find him. Another excellent actor with generally good taste (at least when doing independent films), Bill Murray, did the same plot just last year. This is a genre I merely like, so despite some beautiful footage of downtown Butte, Montana and some five-star performances from known and unknown actors alike, the whole enterprise left me mildly moves and mildly entertained.

Peterman on Vodka, Dern on Jeopardy! LaSusa's Picks, Jobs Sells Stock, Dan Grobstein File

Kent Peterman and I exchanged email last week about how much we miss Herb Caen. He followed up with this:

Here is a site from today's Chron on Vodka. Herb's beloved "vitamin V". I think he would have liked the site and possibly embraced the internet.

Daniel Dern found a Slashdot item about Jeopardy! doing on-line screening. Could be trouble…

A few sites from my long-time friend and colleague, Tom LaSusa: Sick of Brokeback Parodies? Then you "Must Love Jaws"…Okay, one more Brokeback parody -- 30 second bunny style…Find That Tune: Ever watch a film or TV show and wonder "Who sings that song?"… Artist recreates San Francisco city scape -- in Jello … The "Real Time" [ED NOTE: You DO NOT want to miss this]… And they're playing it at the beginning of this Sunday's ep.

No Technobriefs this week, but isn't it curious: Jobs dumps Apple stock

Glen Speckert says it isn't so curious after all: the real story

Dan Grobstein File

The End of the American Republic

Friday night I went to see V for Vendetta with a pretty big crowd at the Orinda Theater (see review below). In that film, the fascist High Chancellor of Great Britain warns that "all demonstrators will be treated as terrorists." Remarkably, on my way home, listening to the BBC, I heard the president of Belarus say "All demonstrators will be treated as terrorists." The Patriot Act already defines anyone protesting in the vicinity of the President as a terrorist; what's next? Renewal of the Sedition Act?

I saw Alan Shore (James Spader) give a hauntingly accurate summary of the current political state of America on Boston Legal, in which he talked about how he kept expecting the American people to rise up and protest each new indignity heaped upon them. We haven't, so apparently we, as a group, simply don't care.

The current American situation was also well described by Pastor Martin Niemöller describing Germany before the war: "First they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me." I am a trade unionist, so I guess I will be rounded up in the penultimate roundup. We've already rounded up the Muslims, thousands of them. We have suspended Habeus Corpus for "enemy combatants," defined solely by the president.

I went to a lecture by Walnut Creek native and Yale Law Professor Akhil Amar last week. He gave a rousing description of the history of the U.S. Constitution, reminding me again (although I really needed no reminder) of what a fantastic document it was.

I had always hoped I would not live to see the end of the American Republic. I am afraid, now, that I will live long enough to see America converted into either an empire or a dictatorship. We survived the string of idiots who served as president between Jackson and Lincoln, and between Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, because the Presidency was largely a decorative office. We survived the 20th Century presidents, good and bad, because, with the exception of Nixon, they believed in the rule of law.

Amar reminded his listeners that we are a government of laws, not men. When I look back (if I survive) and try to figure out the moment it all went wrong, I suspect it will be during the Bush presidency, some time between 9/11 and Iraq. Nixon, at least, knew enough to be ashamed of what he was doing and so tried to carry it out in the dark. Bush started out that way with warrentless wiretaps, but since his dirty little secret finally leaked out, he has boldly admitted ignoring the Constitution, and says he'll keep right on doing it, whenever he, in his sole discretion, thinks it is right to do that. His is a government of men, not laws.

Will I be able to tell when the moment comes to take to the streets to protest the end of the Republic? I certainly hope so. I hope I love my country enough to die for it, right here in the streets of California, shot by the police or the Army for exercising my first amendment rights, even if that does nothing but demonstrate that a few of us have had enough.

We may become an Empire, but I hope it is not a bloodless conversion. Perhaps, finally, Jefferson was right: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

Nixon shredded the Constitution for the ignoble motives of punishing his "enemies" and keeping himself and his appointees out of jail for abuse of power. Bush's primary motive is noble, for he has removed the quotes around "enemies," but his second motivation seems to be a well-founded fear of prosecution--for war crimes (among them torture and rendition). In any case, no matter what the motive, the end result is the same, a shredded constitution.

We are headed for a cancelled election in 2008 (since a fraudulent election is the same as a cancelled one). We already have an Emperor, since we are led by a man whose word is law--only he can decide on the meaning of torture, who is an enemy combatant and when he needs a warrant. Sounds like an Emperor to me. He scarcely pretends to be following the Constitution he swore to uphold, relying on the thin reed of his commander in chief powers (at a time of undeclared war) to trump the Bill of Rights. The Supreme Court is supine and stuffed with justices appointed by him or his father; its new motto: "Do Tread On Us."

The court will offer the same level of support for the Emperor's unconstitutional delusions as the lackey attorneys (each and every one of whom should be disbarred for professional misconduct) who wrote the memos that justified the end of the American Republic.

Urban Myth--Not

I subscribe to a newspaper called Funny Times, which consists of editorial cartoons and humor columns. The editor, Raymond Lesser, wrote what I assumed was a Dave Barry-style humor column, featuring two stories that seemed dead certain to be urban myths. I mean, they had all this detail and elaboration, and they were so absurd. Would GM really fire its China manager, who headed an operation that made money and innovated? Were there really Chinese teens sitting in front of screens for hours working role-playing games for "virtual gold" they could then sell? Surely, the world was not that far gone, was it? Well, yes, it was. Both items came from the New York Times. Since they appeared last August, I can't offer you free permanent access. But, if, like me, you've chose to surrender to the Times blackmail and subscribe to Times Select, you can click on the link and view the articles.

  • G.M. Thrives in China With Small, Thrifty Vans
    By KEITH BRADSHER (NYT); Business/Financial Desk
    In this obscure corner of southern China, General Motors seems to have hit on a hot new formula: $5,000 minivans that get 43 miles to the gallon in city driving.
  • Ogre to Slay? Outsource It to Chinese
    The people working at this clandestine locale are "gold farmers." Every day, in 12-hour shifts, they "play" computer games by killing onscreen monsters.