Saturday, May 27, 2006

Reel To Reel: X-Men (III): The Last Stand

How It Rates: **1/2
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Intense Action Violence, Mild Language, One Gropey Sex Scene

I walked out of the latest X-Men movie more fascinated by its societal quandaries than by its slick CGI action. Perhaps I've reached the tipping point where no F/X sequence is going to amaze me anymore -- been there, seen that.

The X-Men series has always set itself apart from other comic book movies because its superheroes and villains are an entire race of people, "mutants" as they are known, who possess both amazing power and deep vulnerablity. They are persecuted and relegated to freak status. And yet, even as you feel sympathy towards them, you must also consider some of them want to conquer the world, start fires or disrupt the Earth's magnetic field. I don't know if Halle Berry's character can kick up a storm to match Katrina, but we can wonder at the sheer power.

The stigma is so deep seated, it overrides any religious implication. A father discovers his son has sprouted huge white wings. Has God sent an angel? Nah, he has to be one of those crummy mutants.

That father provides the plot hook for The Last Stand: a cure for the mutant gene. It comes in an injection fast and powerful enough to qualify as a biological weapon. I imagine scores of soldiers roaming the streets, spraying mutant enclaves with waves of vaccine darts. I envision a three-way mutant civil war among those seeking a cure, those seeking power, and those who simply want acceptance for who they are without harm to others. I picture a movement paralleling civil rights struggles and a response paralleling the war on terror. Is peaceful coexistance even possible with a race of humans who have the potential to destroy civilization? Sadly, the film doesn't have much time for insightful social commentary.

Besides the cure, the film's other centerpiece is Jean, the member of the X-team with devastating psychokinetic powers. Drew Barrymore's Firestarter character looks like a Bic lighter by comparison. We thought Jean died in X2. But it turns out she's actually been in hibernation, protected by some sort of psychic cocoon, if you believe the explanation of X-team leader Charles Xavier (Stewart). That explanation, rushed and obtuse, registered a big fat "uh-huh" on the chart. Once she awakens, she is co-opted by Magneto (McKellan), the archvillian who's back on the streets with heavy metal thunder, seeking to destroy the cure.

The film presents us with new mutants and new mutant abilities. One man will force medical dictionaries to rewrite the definition of multiple personality disorder. Another is a human porcupine. I wonder what mutant frat parties are like. "Look at me! I'm a giant sticker bush!" The creativity and rule-bending of mutant fight scenes is what makes The Last Stand watchable. You're always wondering what's next in the arsenal of abilities. Does Storm whip up a tornado or use lightning? Does Magneto bend up a bridge or tear apart a car? Does Iceman freeze the bad guys or pellet them with baseball size hail? Excuse me, that's Storm's area.

For all its potential, The Last Stand fails to develop beyond a summer action blockbuster. That's fine for most of us. But I am reminded of M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, a film where the real story got lost in a silly premise. I wish for a film called The Mutants, where the societal issues can develop without the distraction of a superhero force. Spider-Man 2 and Batman Begins both proved comic-book films can connect with emotions in ways beyond the good versus evil motif. I find it disappointing X-Men: The Last Stand didn't take the hint.

Friday, May 26, 2006

The Rundown The Lightning Round:
Is That A Dress You're Wearing, Or Am I Looking At The Girl Behind You?

A lot of other blogs make their bread and butter commenting on the news, so I don't. But let's put an idea into beta testing: a few quick hits on some of the stories I'm running across here in Tucson and on the wires.

Fashion Sense. A gay Indiana teen was barred from entering his high school prom because he was wearing a dress. Eighteen-year-old Kevin Logan, we should point out, has been cross-dressing all year to school, wearing makeup, nails and girls' jeans apparently without any trouble.

From The AP:
Sylvester Rowan, assistant to Gary Schools Superintendent Mary Steele, said school policy bans males from wearing dresses. Excluding Logan from the prom was based on "the dress code, not the student's homosexuality. That's his personal preference."
Maybe, but it still begs the question: if you've been permitting cross-dressing all year long at school, why not the prom? Stay tuned for the lawsuit. And in other fashion news...

Engage The Cloaking Device. Someday, Harry Potter's invisibility cloak may end up in your closet. Researchers at Duke University are part of a team who have developed a theoretical blueprint for the ultimate in see-through fashion. The theory is certain materials can be composed to steer light rays around an object, rendering it out of sight.

Duke's lacrosse team should find it handy.

Life's A Pain... And Then You Need Health Care. Tucson First Lady Beth Walkup is still struggling with neck pain three months after an accident at the Tucson Rodeo Parade, when horses drawing the KOLD wagon spooked and ran into the back of the Mayor's wagon.

From the Arizona Daily Star:
One of Mrs. Walkup's biggest frustrations has been the slowness of her HMO to authorize treatment, she said.

She had to wait five weeks for the HMO to approve an MRI scan of her head and neck, and she has been waiting four weeks to begin physical therapy.
Mrs. Walkup should sign up for Barbaro's health care plan.

River In Egypt Department. After more than three months at trial, mounds of documents and dozens of witnesses, a Texas jury came to the reasonable conclusion that Enron's Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling are a pair of low-down, money-grubbing parasites, something most of us knew long before the gavel dropped.

But not Lay: "I firmly believe I'm innocent of the charges against me," he said after the verdicts were announced. "We believe that God in fact is in control and indeed he does work all things for good for those who love the Lord."

True, Kenny Boy, hence your guilty-as-sin verdict.

RTA And The F-word. Tucson voters last week passed a 20-year, $2 billion transportation plan which will expand bus service, widen roads and make other improvements to hopefully decongest the city's traffic. This plan passed after several others failed over the course of a decade. Let me offer some amateur insight into why:

* Things can only get worse. Tucsonans are finally at the point where they realize the traffic problem is not going to fix itself, and the city is not going to stop growing. Thus, something is better than nothing. And after a decade of approving nothing, something needs to be done.

* The freeway's day has come and gone. A crosstown freeway would have been the solution twenty or even ten years ago. Phoenix realized that back then and starting building them. Tucson didn't because it didn't want to become... ahem... Phoenix. Infrastructure snobbery carries consequences, and now it's too late. Gridlock or not, a lot of us don't feel like tearing up part of midtown to expand Aviation Highway north, or blading and grading more desert space. Those of you who still want that freeway, no problem. We'll put you on the delegation that will go door-to-door, kindly explaining to your neighbors why their home sweet home must give way to the asphalt albatross. Make sure you don't have Beth Walkup's HMO.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Reel To Reel: The DaVinci Code

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellen
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Gunplay, Mild Violence, Mild Language, Male Nudity, Intense Depiction Of Self-Injurious Religious Behavior

When I took Classical Mythology in college the syllabus contained a warning: some of what you are about to read may challenge what you learned in the Bible. Some of it did, but my faith held anyway.

I have not read Dan Brown's novel. Before I saw The DaVinci Code, I was warned again: this is fiction. I know it's fiction. The Catholic Church and many protestant clergy are making considerable effort to remind you of that, lest you buy too extravagantly into the movie's shadowy world of Catholic conspiracies, cover-ups and criminal acts. Now what would ever give people the notion the church is hiding something? Three words: Cardinal Bernard Law.

You probably know the plot basics. Symbologist professor Robert Langdon (Hanks) stumbles into a religious mystery after a murder of a freind in Paris' Louvre. The murder victim managed to leave behind a cryptic series of clues after taking a bullet, making this one of the longest drawn-out death sequences we've never seen. The clues lead Langon into a centuries-old society protecting a secret threatening the very tenets of Christianity and a radical fringe group of Catholics trying to keep that secret hidden.

DaVinci is an action film where most of the action takes place inside your head -- more Powerpoint than gunpoint. It requires considerable attention and focus, for it tosses a lot of historical allegations your way. Director Ron Howard borrows a techinque he created in A Beautiful Mind, using CGI and flashbacks to guide us through codes and ancient history. Some of you will still get lost in the shuffling of past and present. At the showing I attended, I heard one person say to a friend, "You wanted to see this movie so bad, and you slept through it!"

Some people will complain this film lags. Yes, it does. That's a side effect of trying to translate a book so cerebral into a popcorn blockbuster. We demand, like with the Harry Potter series, a religious adherence to the source material -- excuse the pun. Yet when such translations fail to engage us in a visual medium with THX stereo, the failure is placed on the filmmakers, not on the material. True, the screenwriters have something to do with it, but some book movies are better as books and DaVinci is one of them.

I don't believe the conspiracies. But the film succeeds in making you think about your beliefs. The Catholic Church is understandably nervous about that. Hanks' character, however, also talks about faith in a key scene late in the picture. Without giving any plot secrets away, the point is the world is a better place with Christianity than without it. The teachings of Jesus Christ have touched countless lives, including mine. While we can debate the foundations of the Church into the next century, we cannot deny Christianity is a movement that will survive rumors, schisms, secrets, antipopes, heretics, and yes, sex scandals. The need to hide anything seems pointless.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

All Hail The Queen Mother

She brought me into this world, and I almost skipped across to the next one.

At a nice dinner out for my 30th birthday, amid the bustle of a busy night at the Macaroni Grill, I learned about problems during birth that nearly killed me. I am not wearing wings now because of the skilled staff at Independence Sanitarium and Hospital... go ahead, I'll let you make that wisecrack. But I have to believe my mother's love saved me just as much as those doctors.

Thirty-four years later, she's still the doting mother, wanting to know where I am, where I've been, who I'm hanging out with. I can't travel far from Tucson without getting the advisory: give me a call. During my New York City trip I called home every night, in addition to blogging my exploits. Moms want to hear your voice. And if I don't call her, she'll call me. She'll track me down.

I know because it happened while I was tripping in Washington, D.C. in 2004. One evening, I laid on the hotel room bed giving my body a break from tourist wear and tear. The phone on the nightstand rang. Nobody ever calls me when I'm on vacation. That's reality, not a rule.

"You didn't think I wouldn't be able to find you, Christopher?" she said in that voice of amused relief.

I planned to call later on, when late night in Virginia would still be early evening in California. She didn't want to wait that long. She couldn't get through on my cell phone, but she knew I was at the Quality Inn in Washington. That was enough for her to do some detective work and fish out my location with a couple of phone calls.

You can't grow out of being somebody's baby. Moms won't allow it, even if you give them a few grandchildren to re-channel some of that Mom energy. And what if you don't? I'm glad I have a brother and sister-in-law who have covered that part -- for now.

After spending most of three decades raising two successful sons, she deserves to dial down to a quiet life befitting a noblewoman. But economic realities dictate she continue to teach school and put up with a gaggle of miscreants. I am talking about high school students -- all of them boys -- who don't care to learn and care even less their parents' hard-earned money is paying for them to flunk at a private Catholic school.

Too many times, I have heard stories from Mom about the utter shiftlessness and immaturity of these people. They do things you would expect in public school eight grades ago: spitwads, cheating, verbal abuse. These infractions are correctable, provided people are willing to correct them. However, this particular school is tragically clueless at standing up for its teachers. The parents of said miscreants are either unwilling or unable to get a handle on their children. At least one of them lashed out at my mother when she tried to have a honest discussion about her son's difficulties. This, remember, is on top of grading stacks of papers from several classes.

The kids she taught during her first year at this school were pretty rough. It took nearly two semesters before some administrator wised up and said, "Gee, we really gave you some rotten kids." Took awhile for that Catholic guilt to kick in, eh?

I have asked her why she doesn't quit this miserable, demoralizing, dead-end job. She tells me she doesn't want them to win.

And so, she is The Queen. She will continue to be The Queen. She will rule her kingdom with soft-spoken strength, dispensing wisdom, love and discipline in appropriate measure. She will not be shackled by tyrants less than half her age.

Those subjects who respect and admire her will share the friendship of an amazing woman who has tolerated more than her fair share of setbacks and sorrow, things which I cannot elaborate on here. Those who turn against her, who mock and degrade her, who attempt to hurt her in ways unfathomable, deserve only wrath.

Unfortunately, All The Queen's Horses and All The Queen's Men are not at her disposal. But there is the royal court of her family and friends -- including one aspiring viscount in Tucson, one who loves her very much.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom.

Reel To Reel: Mission: Impossible 3 (M:I:3)

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ving Rhames
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Action Violence, Mild Language, Mild Sex

M:I:3 lives by the mantra "He Who Has The Most Spy Gadgets Wins." It exists in the geeky spook universe where any problem is solvable with a cool piece of hardware -- like a three-dimentional printer that can clone Philip Seymour Hoffman's face. Forget about being John Malkovich. With a little more tweaking, perhaps we could modify the device to add some expressions into Tom Cruise's repotoire between panicked and cocky. And if that doesn't work, you can always blow something up.

The third film in the TV remake series finds Special Agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) training agents instead of carrying out impossible missions, about as close to a desk job he's likely to take. He's hooking up with a nurse who thinks he works for the Virginia Department of Transportation as a traffic engineer. And somehow, she believes him when he suddenly has to go off on a business emergency -- actually running off to Germany save a captured agent.

This agent happened to be tracking a real baddie: Owen Davian (Hoffman), the Darth Vader of arms dealers. He has The Big One -- something called the "Rabbit's Foot," a device we're led to believe is the mother of all biological weapons, yet compact enough to fit in your child's backpack. So Hunt needs to find Davian, find the Foot, and save the world -- hopefully before his steady figures out he's not analyzing vehicle congestion patterns.

The film works because it moves constantly, bouncing around the globe, executing missions with the fun-to-watch flair of a heist picture. So when it tries slowing down to add some dimension to Hunt and some romantic interludes, you want to say, "Get on with it, already!" Director J.J. Abrams angles this film to be something more than an action flick when it doesn't need to be. We don't want that picture. We want Cruise jumping off buildings, scaling walls, and hanging Hoffman's character outside a plane. As such, Hoffman doesn't have a lot of screen time to develop his character. But he does the best with what he has, being the believable villain without stepping into caricature.

For all of the things that get shot or exploded, Abrams shows a rare bit of restraint at one point in the picture, where Hunt actually has to steal the Rabbit's Foot. This could have easily turned into a clone of a scene from the first picture of the series but Abrams works neatly around it.

According to Fox News' Roger Friedman, M:I:3 is causing some anxiety at Paramount because the $150 million pic did only $47 million on opening weekend. But remember, this isn't including the take from overseas, where Cruise isn't carrying the cross of the couch incident. By my estimation, the picture will need $400 million to break even, hardly an impossible mission, even by Hollywood accounting.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Where Will It Stop?

USA Today reports the NSA has put together a massive database of phone numbers called -- not the calls themselves, but just the numbers.

Qwest was the only major phone company that didn't contribute to this effort because of questions about its legality. This same company has a reputation in Arizona for lousy customer service. Ironic, no? When they say they have a "spirit of service," I'm more inclined to believe them now.

Sunday, May 7, 2006

When Worlds Meet

Mild agitation seeps into me as I maneuver the streets of Prescott. The Yahoo! map I printed out implied I should turn north on Arizona 89 from Arizona 69. But I didn’t realize the road I needed had already forked away from 69, leaving me heading in the wrong direction. The streets don’t match up to what I’m seeing. I flip a U-turn. I see Granite Creek, but where’s the park that goes with it? It’s surely not in that industrial complex. A fear gnaws at me: I might just have to stop and ask directions… wearing white 18th Century breeches, stockings and a waistcoat.

Eventually I figure out my mistake. I find my way to Granite Creek Park, discover I can’t get in from the west side, navigate around some more streets and find a place to park.

I emerge from my modern-day carriage with a haversack over my shoulder and a picnic basket in my hand. It’s time to picnic like it’s 1759 on a gloriously sunny day, as the family of We Make History gathers for good food, good company, and games from the past.

Lord Scott spots me nearly from the moment I step into the parking lot. Dressed in a red jacket and a rose-adorned tricorn, we exchange friendly wave-salutes. My blue felt coat with the pewter buttons, the one I decided would not cut it for the balls, suits me fine. The breeches and waistcoat, the labors of My Dear Aunt Susan, serve me well once more.

“Mr. Francis!” he says. So glad you could join us.

Always Mister Francis. Never just “Francis,” like people say at work, a nomenclature of my own invention designed to alleviate confusion amongst other Chrises.

Families are gathered in period costume, spread out on quilts, enjoying sandwiches and beverages in silver cups. A picnic table is devoted to dominoes, and young patriots in three-cornered hats enjoy an anachronistic game of Frisbee, running about in the clearing just before the highway and under the power lines. Young girls chase hoops with sticks.

I pull up a chair and get down to the business of eating, drinking, and making merry, munching on peanut butter and bread, reacquainting myself with people who I know I’ve met before and yet sadly don’t remember their names.

My shoes, the new pewter-buckle shoes, seem to be holding up.

“I wore them to work yesterday to break them in,” I say to Lady Scott. “I was sliding all over the place. People told me to go out in the parking lot and scuff them up, and I said I don’t want to wear them down. They’ve got to at least last me until November.”

“You’ll get at least six years out of those shoes,” Lord Scott replies.

I talk about how my colleagues enjoy hearing about my adventures in this other “world,” and how they can tell when another historic event is coming.

“Do you want your two worlds to meet?” His Lordship asks.

A colleague is thinking about attending a ball, I say.

Another family greets him and the subject changes before I can expand upon my answer.

I walk amongst the gathering, greeting others with an offering of home-baked chocolate-chip cookies. Yes, your patriotic producer does bake! It’s time for some Frisbee followed by lawn bowling.

The game requires only moments to learn. Roll your team’s balls closest to the “jack” -- a white ball about the size of a cue ball in pool, albeit much lighter. Your team scores a point for each ball you get closer to the jack than the competition’s, and double if the ball touches the jack. No pins stand to fall, but if you’re lucky, you might knock a few opponents’ balls out of place and improve your score. The game ends at a preset figure, 7 or 10 points in our case.

Modern bowling has me hitting more gutters than pins, so I’m relieved to take a shot at this. No shortage of curious competitors awaits, so we enjoy several rounds in the green May grass. A star emerges. Miss Alia, a charming lady, proves herself to be a formidable opponent, consistently rolling balls closer to the jack.

“We need the tape measure,” is heard again and again as we have to make judgment calls on close balls. A whimsical thought crosses my mind of how that would have looked in 1759. Did two men in blue-and-white jackets and tricorns run onto the field from the sidelines with two sticks and a chain?

Everybody is keeping score, but yet we have to keep asking what the score is, as if nobody really wants to win or lose… let’s just try again!

Over the course of the day, curious onlookers from modern times wander over and talk to us. We explain ourselves and our mission.

“We just had to see the Pilgrims,” one woman says. A century off, but that’s not bad.

A woman and her daughter walk over to greet us. So does a man on a bicycle who starts talking about how he came from Vermont.

“Those Indians could fire ten arrows in the time you could get a shot off from one of those blunderbusses,” he says, rambling into a tangent about how development had taken out some historic land.

“People always look at me,” I observe after he leaves, not sure whether that’s true or not. It must be the tricorn.

“It’s that gleam in your smile.”

I had much to smile about. Relaxation and the beauty of a spring day. Some folk musicians are playing a few hundred yards away. An idea springs to mind.

“Maybe one of these days we get both groups together and we have a dance here on the lawn!”

Families come and go, but a small group of us remain, enjoying each other’s company and conversation. A woman from Portugal describes a history of oppression in her country. We hear other stories of tyranny in Africa, and it gives us pause, a reminder of how so many yearn for the blessing of liberty while we enjoy ours.

Afternoon dissolves into early evening. At one point, Lord & Lady Scott and I stand silently, savoring the moment and the wonder of nature around us.

“It’s a beautiful day,” he says.

If we could have frozen time at that point, we would have -- stretched the minute into an hour or more under the setting sun and the light breeze, the green leafy trees and the blue skies.

“Do you enjoy Starbuck's?” Lord Scott asks me.

* * *

We walk up the hill and through the half-empty parking lot in the full regalia, past the Staples and the closed shops. The sidewalks are nearly deserted, but I tip my three-cornered hat to a few smiling strangers as we make our way towards the coffee house. The warmth within me soon meets a cool double-chocolate concoction, compliments of His Lordship.

“Sir Christopher,” he introduces to the barista, who writes it on the cup.

Lord Scott tells me of how he would occasionally get discounts or even a freebie for walking into Starbuck’s in period costume.

Some folks in a pick-up wave to us as we cross back across the blacktop to the park -- making friends everywhere we walk.

* * *

At one point in the afternoon, a gentleman in modern attire asked me several questions about what I got from We Make History. He had derived some insight from Lord Scott, but he wanted to hear some more from me.

“How old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Thirty-four,” I said, “but today I feel like 22.”

I told him how I felt the entire experience -- three historic balls, one battle and now one picnic -- had uplifted and inspired me to be a better person.

“I see the world in a whole different way now.”

I told him how the journeys back in time had elevated my standards and given me something to take back into my other life and time as a television news producer.

“I had a choice to make the other night,” I explained to him. “I could either let my reporter do this story about two robbers who did a million dollar heist from the Gem Shows in February, or I could let this reporter do a story about the Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics which had great kids, great video, and a message of encouragement, and he could get it done in about 1:10. I chose the latter. I don’t regret that choice.”

I told him how I sought out relevant and informative stories.

“If I’m going to ask you to give me a half-hour of your life, I better make it worth it.”

He compared me to missionaries he’d known who had been abroad and then come home to find home wasn’t the same.

And then he hit me with the big question, the one my parents have asked in one form or another, the one I know my friends and colleagues ask silently.

“What message do you take away from all this?” he said, motioning to the people around me, submerged in the past.

Other times I would have struggled with the question. But now, my eyes misted and I immediately knew what to say.

“Life is worth living,” I replied softly.

I offered him a cookie before he left.

* * *

“Is that Francis in the background?”

The message crackled over the control-room intercom during a commercial break as I walked through the newsroom to the set, the plastic container of cookies in my hand, still fresh even after the long carriage ride from Prescott. I had to move quickly and surreptitiously to say hello without accidentally making it on the air.

“You look like Paul Revere!” a colleague exclaimed.

Someone pointed a studio camera at me as a joke and I shuddered for an instant. But no viewer at home saw this stranger in patriotic attire.

However, they’ve felt my influence for sure.

Did I want my two worlds to meet? They already have.

More photos coming soon!