Thursday, December 30, 2004

Reel To Reel:
The Aviator

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Language, Intense Scenes Of A Test Flight Gone Bad, Some Nudity (Male), Some Sexual Content

Preconceived Notions: Big buzz. People are saying it's DiCaprio's best picture yet. And I'm a sucker for anything by Martin Scorsese
The Bottom Line: A highly watchable biography, even if it leaves some mysteries mysterious.

The Aviator is the doubly tragic and triumphant story of eccentric mogul Howard Hughes, an innovative maverick who looked for new ways to conquer the air and make movies outside Hollywood's studio system. Before his life was over, he would also have his hands in electronics and casinos. And yet this same man who commanded an empire fell victim to obscessive-compusive disorder and an irrational fear of germs. He could have all the women he wanted, but couldn't find a way to keep them short of paranoid surveillance. I kept expecting Hughes to be carted off to a mental institution, and I believe only his status and money kept him out of there.

DiCaprio carries the huge burden of the Hughes role without straining, right down to his looks. He is straightforward and commanding, yet consumed by his fears. The film opens with a scene from his childhood which will set the stage for his madness. Director Martin Scorsese then flashes forward to Hughes' bloated (for that time) war picture Hell's Angels, a film that almost never got to theaters because of Howard's insistance on perfection -- right down to keeping a huge private air force and dozens of cameras on paid standby until he can get a day with clouds in the sky.

Dabbling in movies seems so odd for a man whose heart is in airplanes, and he's constantly breaking records while looking for the next breakthrough, including the Hercules (aka the Spruce Goose), and a fighter plane that nearly kills him while flying it. The aircraft goes down in Los Angeles in a spectacular crash that's one of the most realistic ever filmed, even though it's CGI.

Hughes' lovelife doesn't stay up either. We see him fling with Katherine Hepburn (Blanchett, in a dead-on match for the greatest leading lady of all time) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale). But between his fame, his flirting, and his phobias, true love is elusive and damn near impossible. I theorize it has as much to do with Hughes' need for control as his OCD.

The picture builds to a climax involving Hughes' fight to become a player in international air travel as owner of TWA. The market is held by rival Pan Am, led by Juan Trippe (Baldwin) and in the pocket of Sen. Owen Brewster (Alda, in what could be a comeback role for him). The air war nearly destroys Hughes, both mentally and financially.

The Aviator is by no means a complete biography, but rather a highlight reel of a man at his peak, a la Ray. One can make a lot of comparisons between this film and Scorsese's Raging Bull, both of which featured men whose public successes were tarnished by their psychological shortcomings. The Aviator lacks the 1980 film's grainy art-house grit, but it still leaves it to us to figure out what kind of man Hughes was, showing rather than telling. That creates several mysterious moments, ones that you talk about after the film and think about for days afterward.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Francis' Five: The Big Tucson Stories Of 2004

Leaving out the presidential election and shockwaves from the war in Iraq, and the year that was 2004 was refreshingly free of major disaster (unlike 2003's Aspen Fire). But at the top of the list is something that may yet devolve into disaster -- one which was highly preventable had the people in the white collars simply done the right thing.

Before we begin, a note on how I came up with the list. It's purely subjective, not based on votes or measures of news coverage or any mathematical formula. In other words, the BCS computers didn't decide it. My criteria is simple: the stories that made the top five are based on the impact they made here in Tucson (and in some cases, around the country) and the impact they still yet may make. So here goes...


We all knew it was going to happen. Bishop Gerald Kicanas telegraphed it for months, and the legal experts said it was the only way out for a diocese facing more claims of sexual abuse than it could afford to settle. So in September, the inevitable happened. The Tucson Diocese became only the second one in the nation to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Many people asked us at Channel 13 about why the Pope wouldn't pick up the tab. Others wondered how the heck the Diocese could claim individual parish funds were seperate and not subject to claims. While there is a spiritual alliance, we are told, there is not a financial one.

And if you buy that excuse, you've been drinking too much holy water.

Other alliances existed, the same ones that kept priest abuse on the Q.T. for decades. I don't believe for a minute the individual parishes should get a pass on this one. Neither should the Vatican, which was late to the party on dealing with it. It's time for the church to come clean and pay up.

But I also have a few words for the victims' rights groups who are complaining the church is trying to drum up sympathy for itself with the bankruptcy filing. I don't think any of them would like to see parishes closed and Catholic schools shut down because one single case resulted in a jackpot judgment of $20 million or more. That's what would have to happen, without a doubt, because insurance companies are dumping the church. It's already happened in Boston, home to Cardinal Bernard (Above The) Law. (This clerical coward is still performing masses in Vatican City, but that's another rant.) Going for the throat, while more than understandable given the abuse and its cover-up, will simply hurt parishoners. It's just not fair.

Hopefully, in 2005, we'll see a solution that dispenses something resembling a fair settlement. The clock is ticking for people to file claims. We shall see how many more victims come forward. But the Tucson Diocese will never be the same. And it's debt load will only be deeper, meaning I fear for what they'll have to slash to pay the bills.


It's a murder case taylor made for a TV movie of the week... or Court TV. A vengeful eye doctor, we are told by police, seeks revenge on a former partner who squealed on him about his drug abuse and took patients away. That partner is a beloved, caring pediatric eye surgeon. A hitman is hired. The job goes down. The bloody body of Dr. David Brian Stidham turns up in his parking lot. It looks like a carjacking... almost.

The mystery unravels. The stolen car turns up. So do clues about the wrath of Dr. Bradley Schwartz and his past. Police arrest him and the suspected hitman, Ronald Bigger, whose hotel room was paid for with Schwartz's credit card. But it doesn't end there.

It seems a lot of people knew too much and didn't do enough. One is Tucson Police Lt. Wendall Hunt, who dated a girl who worked with Schwartz. And we learn about four prosecutors in the County Attorney's office who knew a woman connected to Schwartz -- but don't bother asking County Attorney Barbara "Brick Wall" LaWall about them. Or maybe you should, in court, to try to shed some light on the office's dirty little secrets, which is just what the media in Tucson are doing.

The Schwartz-Bigger case will turn out to be Pima County's biggest trial since the Pizza Hut murder trials in 2000 -- and that one didn't even take place in Pima County. I set the odds at 2 to 1 the trial gets moved to Phoenix, Yuma or (gulp) Prescott. Pinal County prosecutors have already had to take over the case for conflict of interest reasons. A change of venue isn't much more of a stretch.


Kill them or move them. That was the choice state wildlife workers had when they determined cougars in Sabino Canyon were threatening visitors. The park was closed. The plan was to kill them.

Not so fast, friends of wildlife countered. Don't hurt the lions, they pleaded. If anything, we're to blame because we're intruding on their habitat. If they're a threat, just dart them and take them somewhere else and rehabilitate them (as if mountain lions can be taken to Maneaters Anonymous).

The state would have nothing of it, especially after the high liability cost of a bear attack on Mt. Lemmon several years ago. But the complaints grew louder. Finally the state relented after a lion hunt turned up no lions. The operation to capture and move would be more expensive, but maybe people would just shut the hell up.

Finally one lion was caught and taken away after being trapped. Sabino Canyon reopened, albeit with more restrictions and more warnings. Nobody was attacked, no lions were killed -- except for later, when one got out of line in Ventana Canyon after coming too close to visitors.

But the lessons were learned: Tucsonans will not allow Game and Fish to run the animal kingdom like its own personal fiefdom. And for crying out loud, if you're going to shoot lions, you might as well do it when you can catch them in the act.


News 13's Paul Cicala introduced us to a remarkable boy in 2000 -- one determined to beat leukemia, no matter how much it made him suffer. He badly needed a bone marrow transplant, but the odds were doubly against him. He needed an exact match from a registry that wasn't exactly brimming with Hispanic donors.

Had this story aired in any other city, it probably would have sparked a huge outpouring, and then Carlos and his struggle would have faded away. But Carlos' determination touched us all, along with a realizaton that he was facing a problem bigger than himself. If hispanics were underrepresented as bone marrow donors, many more in Carlos' situation would not survive.

The first plea for help produced a record turnout in 2000. Carlos didn't find a match, but other children with leukemia did through his efforts. More marrow drives were held with no matches. Finally, doctors tried a risky treatment using stem cells in umbilical cord blood.

It looked like it was going to work. Carlos improved. His immune system strengthened and it seemed Carlos would fade away eventually into someone different -- a ravenous Arizona Wildcat Basketball fan who would be tearing up the court under Lute Olsen one day.

But then the leukemia came back.

Other cord transplants failed. A last-ditch attempt was made using disesed stem cells Carlos had stored for years. An infection set in and the boy slipped into a coma-like state. Doctors warned it was the beginning of the end. And then Carlos was gone.

The grief reverberated through Tucson. Bishop Gerald Kicanas led his funeral mass, one covered on live television on a Saturday morning. A boy who had touched so many lives while trying to save his own had left a legacy, a lesson, a cause for others to follow.


Nearly a year after it happened, we're still looking into why. In January, two corrections officers were held hostage by two inmates inside a guard tower at the Lewis State prison in Buckeye. A two-week standoff followed, ending on Super Bowl Sunday. One guard was freed about a week before the other, but not before she was sexually assaulted, among other things.

The stalemate frustrated those who wanted SWAT teams to storm the tower and kill anything that moved. The resolution frustrated those who claimed the state caved into the inmates' demands to transfer them to other prisons. But the bottom line -- two officers came out alive. However, state prisons still have security issues to address. Stay tuned.


When wildfire season comes around, everybody girds for the "big one" in the newsroom. Last year, it was the Aspen Fire. The year before, Rodeo-Chediski. Two devastating fires in two years, and this looked like it would be number three.

Lightning started the fire on Mt. Graham, home to millions of dollars worth of telescopes -- one owned by the Vatican. (Funny how the Church keeps coming up in the top stories of the year, eh?) Native Americans hinted it was bad karma -- my term, not theirs -- for building on sacred tribal ground.

The fire smouldered, then raged, and got close. And we all waited for the overrun on the telescopes that never happened. Finally, after two years of bad luck, bad winds and bad timing, the firefighters got a victory.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Reel To Reel:
Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Jim Carrey, Meryl Streep, Jude Law (voice)
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Brief Mild Language, Fantasy Violence

Preconceived Notions: Another children's book gets the Harry Potter treatment.
The Bottom Line: Imaginative, otherworldly, dark-humored fun, even if Carrey hams things up too much.

A Series Of Unfotunate Events is in many ways what the Harry Potter movies should've have been and weren't. But Lemony Snicket, you're no J.K. Rowling. Three of your books would fit nicely into one of hers, and thus the transition from page to screen is much easier. In fact, this film combines the first three books of the Snicket series in a way that is not hurried nor stretched.

I have not read any of the source material, but from what I saw, it's obvious the filmmakers did not have to pledge their loyalty (a la the Potter series) to recreating the books page for page. The result is a film that may lack words, but still resonates with meaning and heart.

Snicket, voiced by Jude Law, narrates the story of the Baudelaire orphans: 14-year-old Violet, who has a knack for invention; 12-year-old Klaus, a bookworm who remembers everything; and Sunny, the baby of the group who, well, likes to bite things. Some of the film's best moments come from her babbling, which is translated for us via subtitles. The children are left homeless and parentless by a mysterious fire, and in steps a banker to shuttle them off to the nearest yet least inappropriate guardians, the worst of which is Count Olaf (Carrey) -- an evil would-be actor who looks like a long lost relative of the Addam's Family -- who's grubbing for the family fortune. Carrey is simply a perfect fit for the role, but I did find a few scenes tugging for laughs. As Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind proved eariler this year, Carrey is at his best when he's not going out of his way to be funny. Before the film is over we will also meet Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly), the warm-hearted reptile expert, and Aunt Josephine (Streep), who's deathly afraid of death, accidents and realtors.

The children rely on their brainpower (or bite-power) to get them out of various predicaments as they try to stave off Olaf. The results are sometimes more sad than funny, but Snicket has tried to warn us. The opening sequence even riffs off of the film's dark humor, inserting a brightly animated sequence called "The Happy Little Elf," which ends abruptly with Snicket's words, "I'm sorry, but this is not the film you will be seeing." Snicket's narration adds a highly enjoyable dimension to the film as the author, a sort of Dickensian detective, guides us through the storyline and themes.

The film takes place in its own world. It crosses a dark, bleak, turn-of-the-century England and America. The cast is dotted with both British and American accents. The costumes suggest early 1900's, but the dialogue doesn't. I finally gave up trying to date the film and decided it exists in the universe of children's books, where imagination is constantly bending the time-space continuum.

Watching Events is like watching a bedtime story come to life, but without the happily-ever-after. It does not overload us with subplots or deep mysteries. And even with Snicket's tounge-in-cheek warnings, the film is not overtly violent or depressing, although I wouldn't take kids younger than six. They won't pick up on the film's messages, although hopefully the adults will. And the film has a lot to say to the older folks: when the kids know what's really going on and you don't, that's really... unfortunate.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Reel To Reel:
Ocean's Twelve

How It Rates: **1/2
Starring: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Mild Language (some of it creatively bleeped!)

Preconceived Notions: The gang's all back, including directer Steven Soderbergh.
The Bottom Line: Twelve may be the new Eleven, but the numbers don't add up.

Steven Soderbergh proved in Ocean's Eleven that remakes can improve upon their predecessors. He took the original Rat-Pack caper film and infused it with coolness, style, surprises and razor-sharp dialogue. So I wasn't worried about a sequel.

Maybe Soderbergh should've gone back and watched that film before releasing this one, which feels more like a TV-series reunion movie than a slick ensemble con-man flick. Clooney and company are all back (including the woefully underutilized Bernie Mac) and they're still scheming, but their chemistry is overshadowed by scenes way overwritten and a poor structure.

Ocean's Twelve picks up two years after the original, with the casino-job guys split up and working straight jobs. Only casino owner Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) hasn't forgotten about the millions they took from him, and he pays each member of the gang a little payback call. One wonders what took him so long with Ocean. If you remember the end of Eleven, Benedict's thugs were following Ocean and his girl out of the prison parking lot.

Bottom line, the gang needs the get the money to pay Benedict back. Which means they're back to pulling jobs, and since they're "too hot to work in America," it's off to Europe. That begins a series of twists that makes a labyrinth look like I-70 through Kansas. And yes, there's another woman involved. This time it's the cop girlfriend of Pitt's character. And wouldn't you know it, she's got some of the con-man blood.

Eleven worked because it stayed focused on one job. Here, three are operating at the same time. Fellow critic Roger Ebert has called many a caper film a "jerk-around" movie because the audience gets jerked around through plot twists. Normally, I would say that's part of the genre. But here I agree because the plot seems layered in convolution.

Twelve runs two hours and five minutes, and I'm willing to bet it could've been pared down 20 minutes and been better for it. The prequel had a nice brisk pace, and the interaction between the characters grew naturally out of the plot. Here, we have way too many scenes that don't add anything bogging down the film, such as Ocean talking about whether he looks his age and an epilogue ending that is simply a throwaway. I like watching these people, but not that much.

I liked the first film because it was truly an ensemble picture. Here, Roberts and many members of the cast get short shrift and aren't playing to their characters' strengths. And that's largely because Soderbergh adapted a totally different screenplay by a totally different writer -- George Nolfi -- and tried to stretch it to fit the cast. Rule number one, as Ocean might say, a bad fit dressed up with stars is still a bad fit.