Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Was that SZ or ZS? No Subtitles Required: Laszlo & Vilmos

No Subtitles Required: Laszlo and Vilmos - This documentary on famed cinematographers Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovaks gets off to a running start with footage of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, the Russian invasion of Budapest and Hungarians fleeing across the border into Austria. Two of those fleeing Hungarians were film students Laszlo and Vilmos, who risked death to shoot the film and then smuggle it across the border. This was only the beginning of two extraordinary lives that should have made for a more exciting biography.

No Subtitles captures the bio basics by mixing spectacular clips from their films with interviews of Laszlo and Vilmos themselves and a host of celebrity colleagues - directors and actors who worked with them. After a perilous return to Hungary by Laszlo to pick up their girl friends, the pair moves to America - but hard labor on an upstate NY maple syrup farm is worse than a Hungarian labor camp. They head to Hollywood, where the cinematography establishment rejects the foreigners like a heart transplant from the wrong donor. Instead of joining the union they work fast and cheap on "no budget" B minus pictures for a few years, then start to catch some breaks. Peter Bogdanovich (Targets) and Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider) hire Laszlo for serious films that are shot on the cheap, requiring some creativity and daring from the cinematographer. Robert Altman, John Boorman and Steven Spielberg find Vilmos for McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Deliverance and Sugarland Express. Each goes on to receive many, many, many nominations and awards, including Vilmos's Oscar for Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The many celebrity interviewees, Peter Bogdanovich and Sharon Stone come to mind as two with much screen time, add a little flavor. Laszlo was a handsome daredevil who loved to shoot woman and could improvise a rigging on a shoe string. Vilmos would build trust with an entire crew. The problem is that every interviewee is working hard to find new ways to say the same nice things about the title duo (by the way, isn't "Laszlo & Vilmos" actually a necessary subtitle?). The subjects themselves are cooperative, but they only really loosen up when talking about the escape from Hungary. Neither says much about their personal lives. Neither says anything about their working relationships with directors like Bogdanovich and Spielberg.

No Subtitles works well when its showing clips from the work of these two masters, and best of all when the clips mesh with a little talk about how they found the right lighting or rigging or filter (including an in-person tip from Orson Welles). Fortunately, there are a lot of great Laszlo and Vilmos movies from which to pull scenes, and this alone makes No Subtitles worth a rental. Unfortunately, the celebrity interviews don't capture the humanity of the subjects. No Subtitles would have been better off either cutting much of the interview footage and leaving the focus on the cinematography itself or going for more with the interviews. Maybe find some non-celebrities who are willing to dish a little not too embarrasing dirt (the forgotten location scout from The Deer Hunter tells all) and push Laszlo and Vilmos to talk a little more candidly about what it was like to work with, oh maybe, Spielberg compared to Altman. Sadly, Laszlo died suddenly of a heart attack while this film was being made and the chance of really capturing these two extraordinary lives on film is fading.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


Why has As Good As News failed so abysmally to cover the Stamford Chimp attack? Not just the chimp attack itself, but the big questions? As Good As News was in Connecticut gathering important details for an in-depth report.

Was the chimp enraged by Lyme disease, the official disease of Connecticut, or by the tea (official beverage of Connecticut) laced with Xanax (official drug of Connecticut), that his owner slipped him to ease the Lyme disease symptoms? Both, but what really set him off was that he called shotgun and still had to ride in the back.

Is it legal to keep a chimp in Connecticut, a state where you can't even buy liquor on Sunday? Yes, but not a 200 pound chimp. When a chimp weighs over 50 pounds, Connecticut deports it to New Jersey, thereby preserving the svelte image of the Nutmeg State.

Why was the knife counterattack unsuccessful? Sadly, the overweight chimp's vital organs were shielded by fat, and the effect of the knife blows lessened by the residual Xanax in the chimp's system.

Why did this story run ahead of the stimulus bill on news outlets everywhere? Chimp Attack Video + Connecticut = Big Ratings.

Why did this remain the lead story for a second day when the only new news was the release of the 911 recording of the panic stricken call from the chimp's owner? Chimp Attack Audio + Connecticut = Big Ratings.

How did the NY Post chimp cartoon get published? - Merely getting chimp and stimulus into the same cartoon is sufficient for publication, no pretense of humor or a political point is required.

Why is Al Sharpton so mad? The chimp is from Connecticut. Also, Mr. Sharpton interprets the chimp cartoon as an ugly attack on Obama (author of the stimulus plan), degrading the chimp's role to that of a vulgar stereotype (well, at least someone found a point).

Does Reverend Al actually have a point? Several. First and best is Sharpton's challenge to the Post to clarify the point the cartoon was "trying to make" and the sharp witted response of the cartoonist and Post editors - "the controversy is absolutely friggin ridiculous", "it's about the economic stimulus bill", it "is a clear parody of a current event" -strangely, these answers seem to include nothing resembling a point.

Where is it all going from here? The chimp has gone to chimp heaven. We pray the owner's friend will recover fully. We fervently hope that Reverend Al will orchestrate boycotts, marches and generally make the Post's life a living hell for degrading the President and all African Americans by comparison to a chimp, unless and until the Post publicly admits that the cartoon has absolutely no point - the editor saw chimp, he saw stimulus and he said print it - no point required.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Majority Rules

Tennessee House Member Wins Top Job, but Loses Party - How do you lose a party? Actually new speaker Kent Williams didn't lose the Republican party, it lost him.

Andrew Jackson, another Tennessean, screamed "corrupt bargain" after he won a plurality of the popular vote in the 1824 US Presidential election, then lost in the House of Representatives when Henry Clay threw his support to John Quincy Adams, who thereupon named Clay Secretary of State. Clay and Quincy Adams had nothing on Kent Williams and the Tennessee Democrats.

The Republican party just won a 50-49 seat majority in the Tennessee House of Representatives, it's first majority since Reconstruction (As Good As News will graciously overlook the fact that Tennessee seems to be trailing trends in the rest of the country by a century and the rest of the South by a generation). The Republicans planned to elect Jason Mumpower as speaker, but Republican Kent Williams had other plans. In a secret deal with the Democrats, Williams won election as speaker with 50 votes - 49 Democrats and himself. Williams then voted for a Democrat as speaker pro tem and named Democrats to six of thirteen Committee chairs. Now that's a corrupt bargain. The Republicans decided they would rather lose than be led by a rat, kicked Williams out of the party and lost their majority.

Uncovering the Perks of Albany's Fallen GOP - Tennessee House of Representatives? Big deal, who cares about control of one house in a state legislature? The Democrat's just captured control of the NY Senate for the first time in decades, and look what they found. The Republicans had given themselves 800 parking spaces (the Dems had 30), a secret TV studio, a 45 person partisan political research factory, a payroll of 75 at the Senate's private printer - 75 loyal Republicans no doubt, and the Brunomobile. In a political version of Where's Waldo, the shocked Dems are still poring over payroll records trying to find the secret stashes of padded payrolls and wasted taxpayer dollars.

TARP, we don't need no stinking TARP. Philadelphia's poorest neighborhoods were devastated by vacant homes, nuisances attracting break-ins, squatters, drug dealers. A civic minded organization decided to take matters into it's own hands, selling the empty homes to hard working buyers at bargain prices. Everybody wins right? Not quite. A grand jury indicted fifteen of these public spirited home vendors, noting one small problem. The actual owners of the houses didn't know anything about the sales. Let's sentence this gang to community service and put them to work for the banks who can't unload foreclosed properties. In Dubai thousands of foreigners flee, abandoning their cars at the airport. What's the problem? They borrowed money, lost their job in Dubai's economic crisis (plunging oil prices aren't good for everyone) and are now behind on their payments? So who isn't? Things are a little different in Dubai, where imprisonment for unpaid debts is still a reality. Charles Dickens wouldn't like it, but the threat of debtor's prison might have kept a lot of people, and the whole economy, out of trouble. If the words "negative amortization" don't scare you (and they should unless you expect to die soon) how do you feel about five years at hard labor.

87 months? Speaking of Pennsylvania, harsh sentences and heinous crimes, what about the two Northeastern Pennsylvania judges who collected millions in bribes for closing the public juvenile detention center, then sentencing young offenders to two private detention centers - the source for the bribes. The scariest part of this story is that stiff sentences in juvy were handed out to kids who should have gone home to their families on probation - kids like Hillary Transue, a good student with no prior history of getting into trouble who drew a three month sentence for setting up a spoof MySpace page mocking an assistant principal. The judges are taking a plea deal that includes an 87 month prison sentence. This would seem perfectly fair, if they also had their hands cut off at the beginning of the prison term. Yet another situation where a little old fashioned Dubai justice might come in handy. Just in case you wanted to see the face of evil, Judge Mark A. Ciavarella, Jr. is pictured above. He handled the sentencing end of the operation.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Strange Odors

Aromatic Mystery in New York City Is Solved - So the mystery maple syrup smell comes from Frutarom, a food flavoring manufacturer in North Bergen, NJ. First, it's good to know that our food flavors are manufactured in separate plants so the flavor won't be contaminated by any contact with the actual food, food presumably being processed at an unidentified location in - where else - New Jersey. Second, why is it always New Jersey. Don't you think, just one time, a mystery odor could emanate from some other source? This was a maple syrup smell, where is Vermont when you need it.

The Next Plaxico? MVP Santonio Holmes wanted the ball in Superbowl XLIII, and he made the biggest plays - a 40 yard catch and run taking the Steelers to the six yard line with a little over fifty seconds left and then the game winning touchdown. A first round pick, Santonio has gained the strength and confidence to become one of the league's top receivers from the snap to the whistle. After the whistle? Not so much. Santonio has more in common with the sweat pantsed six gun dropping ex-Steeler Plaxico than just a unique first name. In 2006 Holmes was arrested for disorderly conduct and, in a separate incident, domestic violence and assault. Old news? Perhaps, but in 2008 he was arrested for possession of marijuana. As Good As News won't even mention that nude photo that popped up on the Internet. In a pre-superbowl interview Santonio announced he had dealt drugs as a teen - maybe a thoughtful choice, an honest revelation that shows kids they can turn things around, maybe a boast to establish his street cred and grab some extra press attention.

Santonio's problems aren't all off the field. Watch the replay at the end of that 40 yard gain. The clock is running and the Steelers are three points down with one time out left. The smart play is to get to the line and throw a very safe pass into the end zone very quickly. A completion wins, an incomplete pass stops the clock. With second down, six to goal, twenty five or thirty seconds and a time out left the Steelers could still have tried two more passes into the end zone, then kicked if necessary. Saving the time out would have allowed the Steelers to survive a sack or a recovered fumble and still get the tie. Santonio is not racing for the huddle or the line of scrimmage after his catch, he's doing a celebratory strut in the end zone - with the clock running and his team losing. The clock runs for a few seconds as Santonio struts, then the Steeler's own failure to regroup forces them to burn their last time out. On the next play Santonio is still mentally caught up in his own celebration, dropping a very catchable ball after fading to the left rear corner of the end zone. On the final touchdown Santonio is the last option, for good reason, but makes the big catch, then celebrates with a move that should have cost the Steeler's 15 yards and could have resurrected the Cards from the dead.

What does the Superbowl mean for Santonio? There's a chance he will have a long and great career as a star, with his Superbowl success leading to true confidence and a new maturity on and off the field. There's also a chance, probably a much greater chance, that national stardom will magnify and accelerate the effect of the demons already tugging at Santonio's psyche.

What to do? Trade Santonio now. He will never be more valuable. There's a wealthy team in the Meadowlands that needs a replacement at wide receiver. See, it's always about New Jersey after all.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Not Quite Ruined

Ruined, now in previews at NY City Center Stage I, features a moving story, an effective, sometimes brilliant cast and a desperate need for a tyrannical producer who will impose some discipline on a play that is too long by at least 30% and adjust the thermostat down from a setting that strives to convince the audience it really is in the Congo. Ruined is the story of a band of sisters, victimized by brutal rape in the Congo's ongoing war, gathered by the irascible Mama Nadi in the only B&B (that's brothel and bar) in a one-horse combat zone. Christian, a poetic travelling salesman who woos Mama ceaselessly, delivers Salima and Sophie, Mama's two newest employees. Each has an awful history, a reminder of the continuing nightmare going on in much of Africa, but this is a story, not a lecture. Salima, age 15, has been kidnapped and used as a sex slave by a rebel army for six months, then hurt most of all by her husband's rejection after she escaped. Sophie, 18, is educated, refined and damaged so badly by rape and assault that she can't work as a prostitute. She's a capable assistant who emerges as Mama's protege. Mama herself is the main attraction. Mama talks a tough game as an apolitical mercenary, hell bent on her own survival, controlling one little piece of a very chaotic world. Mama's history and mixed motives eventually emerge, thanks in part to Christian's persistent attentions.

The show expends much time on the painstaking, often redundant development of Sophie and Sulima then rushes into a final few minutes of furious action when Sulima's remorseful husband appears and Commander Osembenga (an "if you're not with me, then you're against me" kind of guy) threatens to wreak havoc on Mama's all customers welcome establishment.

Ruined is well worth seeing. Saidah Arrika Ekulona is particularly compelling as Mama Nadi. Live music from the costumed drummer and guitarist visible on the left stage front is highly effective. The bar/bedroom set works well through several rapid scene changes without requiring technical miracles. The regret here is that this could have been a great experience, the kind of exceptional night live theater produces when everything goes right. Ruined features interesting characters and a believable, emotional story set against a grinding slice of real life. Instead of enjoying greatness, the audience must fight through the slow pacing (and that Congolese heat) just to hang on for the finish. Even modest editing, just cutting the most obvious repetition, would help significantly.

Caution - Speeding Zombies

Societal Cost of Meth Use Gauged in Study - $23.3 Billion Dollars. That's what the RAND Corporation estimates meth use cost society in 2005. If all those tweakers would just say no, we would save nearly enough to bail out a very small bank.

Traffic Delays for Road Work, not Zombies - Hackers are playing with electronic road signs, including one that warned "Daily lane closures due to zombies" on I255 in Illinois. The zombies, presumably, are the two guys leaning on shovels with absolutely no sign of human activity, a fixture at every road work site. Did the RAND Corporation consider the positive value of meth - the occasional road worker who is scurrying frantically, if erratically, instead of leaning on his shovel?