Sunday, January 28, 2007

Reel To Reel: Dreamgirls

The Motown Musical.

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy, Beyonce Knowles, Jennifer Hudson
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Some language, brief sex and drug references

Bill Condon knows how to make a musical. He did it with Chicago, and he applies the same formula here, taking a Broadway hit and translating it to film in a credible, believable form. It works precisely because the music flows naturally from the storyline, most of it staged as performances in clubs or recording studios. We don't have to overextend our suspension of disbelief, nor are we dragged into forgettable numbers for the sake of more music.

Dreamgirls borrows from the stories of The Supremes and Motown, following the rise of aspiring girl group The Dreams. Deena (Knowles), Effie (Hudson) and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose) perform at a talent show in 1960's Detroit. They don't win, but they do get noticed by manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (Foxx), a minor player in the record business who offers them their first big break as backup singers for James "Thunder" Early (Murphy) -- a hybrid of James Brown and Little Richard.

Taylor sees a future for the group in finding a sound which will make black music palatable to white radio, the same marketing philosophy Motown used. The urgency becomes especially clear after a white cover version of the Dreams' first hit eclipses the original. Even with payola, a sizable color barrier still dominates pop music radio.

The film follows the inherent pitfalls of mega stardom. Effie and Curtis fall in love, but Effie's diva demeanor and weight gain leads to her ouster. Early gets tired of softening his sound for marketing sake and regresses back into his wild stage persona. Deena rakes in Diana Ross-like success as the group's lead but has trouble finding her own voice. C.C. (Keith Robinson), the group's songwriter, begins to resent Curtis placing business before music. Effie, meanwhile, struggles to put her life back together as a washed-up singer.

The music is awash in soul and Motown nostalgia. It's highly enjoyable coming from Hudson, an American Idol reject who clearly shows she's no loser with an Oscar nomination and a powerful voice to back it up. In her performance as Effie, I have no doubt she drew inspiration from being booted off the country's most popular talent show. Now she's sticking it to Simon's bunch and loving it. She has at least two show stopping numbers. Eddie Murphy does his own singing, too. Many of you will remember his one-hit wonder "Party All The Time" from the 1980's with Rick James backing him up. He's also got an Oscar nomination in the bag.

Dreamgirls failed to earn nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, and that's the great mystery. One possible reason I envision is the Academy deciding Condon already had his moment with Chicago, a Best Picture winner. Another possibility: voters thought the movie had too many stage numbers, making it less a movie and more a filmed play. Split hairs if you want, but we know a winner when we see one. Right, Jennifer?

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Lightning Round:
Rabbit Season! Duck Season! Campaign Season!

It's a long road to the White House. We hope you like potholes.

DIRTY POLITICS. Now that Sen. Hillary Clinton is officially in the presidential race, we at your Lightning Round feel it necessary to warn you about the mud tsunami about to hit.

Provided the former first lady survives the primaries -- and our staff pool has her a 2-1 favorite -- right-wing operatives will attack with a rabid vengeance. They have a long grudge list, including:

* Her involvement in President Clinton's botched national health care plan
* Whitewater (again)
* Bill (again)
* Allegations of her shorting cattle futures
* Conspiracy theories connecting her to the death of White House counsel Vince Foster
* Monicagate (again). Yes, we know she wasn't responsible for that, but do you think the wingnuts care about technicalities?

Mrs. Clinton is already a heavy favorite in at least one poll. But this is now. Savor the moment and relax in the respite of these precious few months before you hear the words: "I approved this message." As John Kerry learned in 2004, there's lies, there's outrageous lies, and there's campaign ads.

SCHOOLED IN THE TRUTH. Hillary's chief rival, Sen. Barack Obama, is already showing he's no Kerry. Obama denies a school he attended in Indonesia as a boy teaches radical Islam.

Investigations by CNN, ABC, and other media organizations have found the allegations, originally reported in the conservative Insight magazine, baseless.

From the AP:
"We will not be swift-boated," said Obama communications director Robert Gibbs. "And we won't take allegations that are patently untrue lying down."
Of course they won't take it lying down. Bill Clinton already did that.

BURNED. Notorious Tucson Mexican flag burner Roy Warden is under orders to lay down his gun and stay away from public protests. He was found guilty of assaulting, threatening and intimidating Hispanic teenager Arturo Rodriguez during a burn in front of the Mexican Consulate last summer. Warden beat a similar charge earlier this year. He might have done so again if Rodriguez hadn't gotten the incident on tape.

Warden, always Mr. Personality, is unrepentant. From KOLD News 13's Dan Marries:
"If you attempt to commit an act of violence against me," a defiant Warden said right outside the courtroom, "I will draw my sidearm and blow your f---in' head off. That's what I told Arturo then that's what I told the judge up in the courtroom...nothing changes."
Rodriguez, to our surprise and amusement, holds a hint of admiration for this character.
"I actually respect the guy because he's brave enough to oppose what most of the city is standing for and what the city believes. He's respectable except for the fact that he threatens little kids."
Arturo, we note, is neither "kid" nor "little." We also note the sentence will do nothing to disarm Warden's machine-gun mouth. He's still free to go near flammable materials and start demonstrations of his own. The net results: more flag burnings, more incendiary rhetoric, and potentially more scuffles with counter-demonstrators.

To paraphrase an 80's gangsta-rap record, not a darn thing changed!

FUNNY OLD GAME. British drama students are doing stand-up comedy from the Victorian era after dusting off an old joke book from circus clown Tom Lawrence.

The gags are not likely to kill 'em in Peoria, much less Manchester. From Chortle:
Lawrence’s gags include: ’What's the difference between a rowing boat and Joan of Arc?’ To which the answer is: ‘One is made of wood and the other is Maid of Orleans.’
However, many jokes were topical. Many took cheap shots. And occasionally, the humor cuts across time... cuts like a knife.

Some more examples from the BBC:
"Bad husbands are like bad coals - they smoke, they go out, and they don't keep the pot boiling."
"You know I'm very fond of the ladies - I say bless those wives that fill our lives, With little bees and honey, They ease life's shocks, they mend our socks - But can't they spend the money."
Ouch, I say, ouch!

ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE. You don't need to tell 60-year-old Matthieu Ricard any jokes. Scientists call this academic turned Buddhist monk the world's happiest man.

From The Independent:
MRI scans showed that he and other long-term meditators - who had completed more than 10,000 hours each - experienced a huge level of "positive emotions" in the left pre-frontal cortex of the brain, which is associated with happiness. The right-hand side, which handles negative thoughts, is suppressed.
Ricard hangs out with a good crowd. He's the interpreter for the Dalai Lama. But happiness, like most things, does not come through osmosis.
"The mind is malleable," Mr Ricard told The Independent on Sunday yesterday. "Our life can be greatly transformed by even a minimal change in how we manage our thoughts and perceive and interpret the world. Happiness is a skill. It requires effort and time."
On that, I happily concur -- and a few rounds of "Come, Let's Be Merry" help too.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Reel To Reel: The Pursuit of Happyness

Will Smith runs after a dream.

How It Rates: ****
Starring: Will Smith, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Mild Language -- Brief Mention of the F-word

Horatio Alger wrote scores of novels in the nineteenth century lauding success through hard work and determination. He would've loved the true story of Chris Gardner, who went from broke to broker in early 1980's San Francisco. Gardner went on to form his own firm and write his autobiography, on which this film is based. But whereas Alger later drew condemnation for accusations of child abuse, Gardner's overwhelming goal is to provide for his five-year-old son.

Will Smith slips effortlessly into Gardner's character, a self-employed salesman desperately trying to sell bone density scanners doctors don't need. His wife (Thandie Newton) is working double shifts at a laundry. Overdue bills have the family on the brink of financial disaster, driving a wedge into the marriage and threatening the welfare of their son Christopher (Jaden Smith, Will's real-life son). Gardner already dislikes his young one's day-care, where kids watch TV and "happiness" is misspelled in a mural outside the front door next to an unprintable graffiti slur.

One day, after another fruitless attempt to sell a scanner, Gardner sees a man roll up to the curb in a sports car and asks how he got it. The answer: stock broking. Gardner decides to end his dead-end job and try for the big money, putting everything on the line for a Dean Witter internship that carries no salary and no guarantee of employment.

The dilemmas Smith's character tackles are both heart wrenching and exhilarating. Gardner has lost his car, so he literally lives life on the run, trying to get to a sales pitch, an interview, the bus, or some guy who snatched one of his scanners. This is clearly the "pursuit" part of the title. In one scene, he is hit by a car and angrily refuses an ambulance because he needs to get back to work -- a paramount display of Gardner's determination. He runs to a nearby store to write down a phone number when he can't find a pencil. He loses his house and his hotel room and nearly his sanity, but his dream refuses to die.

He can't let it die, especially in front of his son, who we sense has some knowledge of Daddy's difficulties but is shielded from most of the truth. Gardner takes great care not to burden his child with adult difficulties. "Are you happy?" he asks at one point. "If you're happy, I'm happy." You will not see any father-to-son movie talks about life's troubles. Christopher, on the other hand, lends his father inspiration in the form of wisecracks and innocent insight, such as when they talk about the difference between "probably" and "possibly."

Will Smith's son wasn't a shoo-in for this role. He auditioned with at least 20 others and earned it. The father and son chemistry is perfect, and it doesn't detract from the film. Jaden steals a requisite number of scenes, but those scenes are not there for cuteness. Christopher is not a Cosby kid but a tough, smart idealist.

The whole film is inspirational and genuine because it doesn't overdose on emotion. Every time you think Smith's character is going to break down into an unchecked rage born of frustration, he bottles it back up and keeps running. That's not to say you won't get emotional watching him. I did, and that's genuine, too.

Friday, January 19, 2007

The Lightning Round:
Respect Yourself

In our Lightning Round record collection, the Staple Singers intone, "If you don't respect yourself, ain't nobody gonna give a good cahoot." Thus, the following:

WATERY GRAVE. When WKRP dropped turkeys from the sky, nobody got hurt. When DJ's at KDND in Sacramento, CA sponsored a contest requiring people to hold it in for a Nintendo Wii, a woman died. The aftermath: ten people fired, a wrongful death suit pending, and criminal charges possible.

From the Sacramento Bee:
[Sacramento County] Sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Tim Curran said there was public outcry over the department's initial decision not to investigate Strange's death.

But, he said, the pressure did not spur the sheriff to seek charges. Instead, the audio recording changed the landscape.

Discussion during the Friday morning show indicates that disc jockeys were aware of the dangers of water intoxication.

"Can't you get water poisoning and, like, die?" a female disc jockey asked 16 minutes into the show.

Later in the broadcast, Judith Linder, a nurse practitioner, and co-worker Eva Brooks called KDND warning of the dangers of the contest. Disc jockeys rebuffed Brooks, saying the contestants would throw up before they die.
And then they would die!

Maybe prosecutors should force the fired DJ's to... no. We've already been through that in Abu Ghraib. Better to take them to court.

Also from the Bee:
McGeorge School of Law civil torts professor Lawrence Levine said previously that a civil suit likely would be successful, since there are indications that the disc jockeys knew of the dangers of water intoxication while they goaded competitors to keep drinking. He said the jury also will be asked to consider the social value of the contest -- which he characterized as low.
Once again we expect to see rumblings and grumblings about media misbehavior. But let us also remember this outrage involved a willing participant who decided her health took a back seat to winning a new toy for the kids. Sacrificing for your children is standard parental operating procedure, but not when it involves the bladder. Print us a button: Just Say No to Radio Stunts.

KEEPING SECRETS. President Bush quietly decided not to reauthoritize the so-called Domestic Spying Program, the one giving the feds the power to eavesdrop on e-mails and phone calls without a warrant if they suspect terrorist activity.

From Reuters:
"Any electronic surveillance that was occurring as part of the Terrorist Surveillance Program will now be conducted subject to the approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court," [Attorney General Alberto] Gonzales said.
However, according to the Washington Post:
Gonzales said a judge on the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on January 10 approved a government proposal allowing it to target communications into and out of the United States when probable cause exists that one person is a member of al Qaeda or an associated terrorist organization.
The question now -- did anything really change?

WANTING IT ALL, BUT THANKFUL FOR IT. A new poll finds teenagers are more materialistic.

From Reuters:
A survey by market researcher Harris Interactive found the majority of U.S children were materialistic with 71 percent of people aged between eight and 18 saying they would be happier if they had more money to spend on themselves.
The numbers get worse as you get older:
Teens, meanwhile, were less likely (81 percent) to say "I like to help kids who are new to our school" than younger children (91 percent).

The age difference showed up again in response to questions on gratitude, with 92 percent of preteens having "a lot to be thankful for" but only 86 of teens feeling the same way.

But despite the desire for more money for themselves, families rated higher than money with "mom" important to 84 percent of those surveyed.
Despite those bothersome numbers, we still note the high percentages of thanksgiving and family value -- at least 75 percent or better. Hope springs eternal.

GET OVER IT! Virginia lawmaker Frank Hargrove is in a mess after saying blacks should "get over" slavery -- on Martin Luther King Day, too.
In an interview with the Daily Progress of Charlottesville, Hargrove explained his opposition to an official apology for slavery by suggesting that it's time for blacks to move on. Goodness, he said, if Virginia expressed regret over slavery, next thing you know, people would insist that Jews atone for killing Jesus.
Once in the hole, Delegate Hargrove kept digging:
When Del. David Englin, a Democrat from Alexandria, held up a photo of his 7-year-old son so his colleagues could see the face of a Jewish boy who, because of Hargrove's comment about Christ-killers, is now "that much more likely to be verbally attacked or physically attacked," Hargrove displayed all the empathy of a doorknob:

"I didn't know you were Jewish," the delegate said, patting Englin's arm. "And I really don't care." And this about Englin's response to the Christ-killer remark: "I think your skin was a little too thin." This brought gasps even from Hargrove's Republican colleagues.
We admit Hargrove's honest, at least. Ill-mannered, ignorant, undignified, unsympathetic, coarse and curmudgeonly -- but honest. And we'll get over slavery when the rest of the world gets over racism. It's going to take awhile.

FOOTLOOSE AND FINED. Keep your feet firmly on the ground at the San Tan Flat Saloon & Grill in Queen Creek, Arizona. If you dance there, you'll cost the estabishment $5,000. Immediately comparisons to Footloose spring to mind. Visions of backward, joyless Puritans cavort through our heads.

But hold everything. The establishment has gotten noise complaints in the past -- which didn't hold. As East Valley Tribune columnist Slim Smith notes, this is really about juking the system.
Officials will say they are just responding to complaints. But we expect these officials to discern which complaints are legitimate or frivolous. The county should have dropped the matter after finding the noise ordinance hadn't been violated. Anything else is thinly veiled harassment.

Unfortunately, I can see why County Supervisor Sandie Smith, whose district includes the restaurant, has pursued the matter. The people complaining are the ones who put her in office. The path of least resistance is to go along with their demands. It would take character and courage to do otherwise.
And if The Powers That Be can't take the right stand on getting down, you have no choice to wonder how they handle the tough issues, of which dancing is certainly not. Or will they just dance around those, too?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

In Her Majesty's Elegant Service

The Royal Family of We Make History gathers for an evening of courtly manners, graceful dances, high fashion… and some intelligence work.

As experienced and related by Viscount Christopher Francis with Pictorial Assistance by Sir Michael C.

(Click any image for a larger view.)

Spies are among us!

The warning from His Lordship came as little surprise to the gathering of nobility from kingdoms afar, with rumours floating through the air as did the chill of a January evening.

“They are here looking for signs of weakness in Her Majesty's realm, but Her Majesty’s strength is resolute,” he reassured. “Their efforts shall be doomed to futility.”

Indeed, Her Majesty’s very presence exuded strength, her warm and steadfast countenance framed by a magnificent dress of red and gold. It instantly caught the eye of the Viscount as he stepped into the hall, his journey from Great Britain complete.

“Your majesty,” he offered with a deep bow, sweeping his gold-trimmed tricorn into his hand.

The Viscount adorned himself in fine blue silk and lace over floral print waistcoat. Others chose colours of cream and royal red, or dark shades of green and brown, topping themselves with the whitest wigs they could find, ambassadors of nation and fashion. Many conversations began with the choices of garment and inquiries of the maker.

“I am working with a new tailor,” the Viscount answered. “What he showed was perfect for me.” Perfect and a bit French, one observed.

He hoped it would charm many ladies seeking a dancing partner, and he did not wait long. A princess summoned him to her side to lead her about the hall for the procession, and then into the first dance, a lively circle of skipping about. The dancers stretched nearly to the perimeter of the room.

When it ended, he gathered she did not have a partner for the next dance. Although he knew he was flirting with the boundaries of decorum, he offered his hand once again, resolved that she not be ignored.

“Christ’s Church Bells!” the Royal Caller announced.

“This is one of my favourites!” the Viscount exclaimed to his partner in the long set.

Yet he had not danced it in awhile. He found himself a step or two off in some figures, as did others, many new to the styles of Her Majesty’s Royal Court. Perseverance being the hallmark of the gathered, the fog of confusion soon lifted, uncertainty falling to laughter and a determination to move and enjoy the beauty of each other’s company through any missteps. Several lords and ladies were so eager to dance they forgot to rest for one iteration once they progressed to the end of the set. Random couples found themselves stranded during figures of four when the geometry did not resolve itself correctly. Nevertheless, the song and revelry continued undiminished.

“Remember to use all of the music!” the gracious caller reminded, lest the dancers complete figures too hastily and end up with little to do but smile and share a moment of standing admiration and honour with one another.

Many other dances would invite such moments of warmth, in steps where the Princes and Princesses, Lords and Ladies, Counts and Countesses would all change places about the set. They looked into each others eyes as they rounded one another, not holding hands but perhaps holding hearts if only for mere seconds.

If the joy of the dance was not suitable motivation, perhaps a glance into the pupil might reveal a spy… or three. The Viscount found his attempts fruitless, overwhelmed by the beauty of all the noblewomen. He smiled often as he cavorted, often raising his free hand to the air in an open display of happiness.

With looks deceiving, the gathered relied on their skills of courtly interrogation, politely asking each other their country of origin. Her Majesty’s Secret Service confirmed all three spies hailed from the same nation. Then word came they were all ladies.

The revelation discomforted the Viscount, having met two charming young ladies from Russia this evening. Surely the frigid land of the tsars had not plunged to the depths of using nobility -- especially young nobility -- for espionage. Yet he had heard of Peter the Great’s desire to rid his country of backwardness and align itself with the West. Information bred power. Power stoked conquest. Conquest abetted war.

He needed to find the third member of this treacherous troika, preferably during a pause for refreshments, but His Lordship summoned.

“Viscount Christopher!”

“My Lord?”

“It is an outrage,” the host lamented. “Are the men of Great Britain becoming so effeminate that they cannot dance with a fine lady about to turn 16?”

He indicated a countess seated across from him. She blushed at the fuss over her as His Lordship chastised the lack of willing partners for such a woman of beauty.

Shocked, the Viscount needed no prodding. He bowed low before her in his highest court manner and offered her the next dance, appropriately titled, “Come Let’s Be Merry!”

Merry they were as they danced in a three-couple set, honouring each other, casting off and down the middle, and leading each other in a graceful short procession between the other couples, catching each other’s eyes on alternating steps -- a fine birthday gift.

“You know you get more dances if you smile,” one nobleman told a lady during another pause for refreshments.

“I do,” she explained, but added the gentlemen looked too serious.

The Viscount, privy to the conversation, nearly dropped his ale.

“It is an outrage!” he grumbled. “Are we not capable of enjoying the dance?”

Hopefully they would be capable of enjoying fine song, he thought, as Her Majesty’s Royal Court Singers entertained and uplifted the assembled with a heavenly rendition of a Christmas carol, a harmonious farewell to a joyous season until the days of December passed over the horizon once more.

The fa├žade of the three spies soon ended as well, unmasked by a team of young noblewomen working together for Queen and country. The resourceful duo picked the impostors from the crowd to the astonishment of the guests.

All three of them stood before the court, two wearing masques. They had gone to great care to blend in, but their origins gave them away. His Lordship revealed they hailed from Prussia -- obviously sent to pry information on behalf of that conqueror King Frederick II. Justice should come swiftly, those gathered agreed.


For almost a minute, they were forced to perform a dance of lower classes. They seemed to enjoy it, raising the possibility they were commoners as well as conspirators.

Prussians, not Russians, the Viscount mused as he watched it all. One letter and three ladies off. Hopes of joining Her Majesty’s Secret Service faded into the night as the duo collected their prize of fine chocolate for their heroic efforts.

“Queens never make bargains,” the great author Lewis Carroll would pen many years later. But Our Beloved Majesty, both merciful and resolute, granted all three spies unconditional pardons, sparing them the dark and freezing gaol to enjoy the remainder of the festivities. The assembled royalty did not hesitate to join hands with them and welcomed them all into the world-famous Pineapple Dance, the simplest and yet most joyous frolic of the evening.

During the final set dance, the Viscount made a disheartening sight over the shoulder of his partner: a noblewoman in blue, dressed in a beautiful full gown, dancing a set dance… alone. She extended a hand to open air where a nobleman should have been, surrounding by nothingness, bowed to by nobody, turning and facing and curtsying to a void.

The Viscount felt his heart breaking as he watched it, almost losing track of his place in the set. As soon as the dance ended, he made haste to set things right.

“I cannot stand to see you dancing alone!” he proclaimed to her before bowing. “Will you share a waltz with me?”

She graciously accepted, and the two shared the final dance of the evening, one that would officially not come into fashion until many years later. But this was the time to ignore such anachronisms.

Her face brightened as they stepped back and forth in gentle motions, the Viscount and his beautiful partner losing themselves in harmony and elegance, friendship and smiles. Her gentle eyes pierced his heart.

“I could dance all night,” the Viscount said to her. “These are my favourite moments.”

His eyes misted over. “This makes up for so much in my life.”

When the dance ended, he bowed to her as he did before, thanking her profusely for the moment of shared peace.

His Lordship encouraged the gathering to return to their home kingdoms and times with the spirit of the evening intact, remembering their duties as members of Her Majesty’s Elegant Service. No oaths or pledges were required, for all the nobility knew their mission: a life in service to others, at any time, any place.

For the good of our world and ourselves, everyone deserved the royal treatment.

And now, a few more words and pictures from Her Majesty's Gracious Servants.

COMING IN FEBRUARY: In His Excellency's Loyal Service
FLASHBACK: If You Can Walk... (How it all began for me!)

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Lightning Round:
We Are Driven

Nary two weeks have elapsed, but already we have a strong candidate for the biggest non-story of 2007: the public feud between Rosie and Trump. All of us here at The Lightning Round are going out of our way to ignore this waste of precious attention span. We invite you now to divert your brain cells to these stories instead:

SCRAP YARD. From our hometown papers comes relief for the casual mechanic. Pima County, Arizona is loosening its junk-car rules to allow people with rides needing repair to keep them around provided they screen it off from the neighbors. Out of sight or out of lawn.

From the Arizona Daily Star:
The ordinance doesn't distinguish between vehicles that are awaiting repairs and vehicles that are just trash.

County officials said such distinctions aren't enforceable.

"One man's junk is another man's treasure," said Greg Hitt, Pima County's principal planner. "To the inspector, it could be junk, but to the owner, it could be a parts car with a lot of value."
We suggest putting the new ordinance to the ultimate test by turning a 1973 Opel into a birdbath.

RIDING IN CARS WITH SMOKES. Bangor, Maine doesn't want you puffing in cars when children are around. Violators face a $50 fine under a new ordinance.

From the AP:
People who smoke with children present in the confined space of a car or truck might as well be deliberately trying to kill those children, said City Councilor Patricia Blanchette, who is a smoker.

"Let's step up to the plate and lead; our children are worth the fight," she said.
So are adults, many of whom are tired of cracking the window. And let's remember the driver distraction caused by digging out a Pall Mall and lighting up. Cancer or crashes -- one is going to get you.

THAT STINKS. The Big Apple was rotten to the core earlier this week, when an obnoxious odor fouled the city air. We'll take Manhattan, but pass the Renuzit. The New York Post followed its nose to a stinking swamp in New Jersey.

From the Post:
The odor, which sparked fears of terrorism, had people jamming 911 and Con Ed lines from Battery Park to Inwood from river to river.

"It was really, really bad, so bad it gave me a headache," said Kate Browne, who lives in the West Village.

Alfred Stewart, 47, who lives in Chelsea, agreed.

"That smell was stinking. It smelled, like, toxic," he said. "If you stayed in it and held it enough, you probably would have gotten dizzy from it."
Those living in Tucson near I-10 and Prince -- downwind from Pima County's premier sewage plant -- tell us, "Heh, you ain't smelled nuttin!"

SUPER SIZE ME! Our fast-food nation made the burger bigger. Now British researchers are beefing up the cow with clone farming. But the main attraction isn't meat, it's milk -- 70 pints a day.

From the London Daily Mail:
Lord Melchett, policy chief of the [British] Soil Association, said: "I cannot think of anything more likely to destroy the public's confidence in British food.

"High-yielding Holstein cows are already one of the biggest welfare concerns in farming because of the huge strain of producing vast quantities of milk. Government figures show that a third of dairy cows are killed after just one lactation because their bodies cannot cope with any more."
Researchers say bigger cows can handle more milk production. We at your Lightning Round wonder how bigger cows can even walk if they're turned into bovine milk trucks.

CONGRESSIONAL OVERSIGHT. Now that Congress is back in session, Democrats are passing several pieces of major legislation in the first 100 hours -- a minimum wage hike and ethics reform among other things. Republicans are getting into the game. Sen. Arlen Specter wants to know why former congressman Bob Barr ended up in the Sacha Baron Cohen movie Borat. Barr says he was suckered.

From the AP:
Cohen pretends he's a reporter from Kazakhstan in the film and meets with Barr. He gives the former congressman a slice of homemade cheese and after Barr eats it, Cohen tells him that the milk came from his wife.

Barr said he didn't sue over the film because he didn't want to draw more attention to the movie.

Specter told Barr "it was a most extraordinary movie" adding "the interview with you was about the only part of the movie worth seeing."
I share your sentiments, Senator.

Monday, January 8, 2007

The Cold Hard Facts

TV station KHGI in Kearney, Nebraska is a mess. A winter storm knocked out power, and now falling ice from the tower next to the station is cutting holes in the roof and making the newsroom too dangerous for work.

From blogger Sean Weide of the The Reader's Media Notes:
Staying safe meant evacuating the newsroom on Tuesday after a huge chunk of ice tore through the ceiling of news director Mark Baumert's office. Computers were moved out of the newsroom into a conference room and the station's lobby. While newscasts were still being delivered from the news set at that time, anchors wore hard hards on the air to protect themselves against the threat of more falling ice.
At least you don't have to worry about anchor hair.

Right now the station's news team is doing the best they can with limited equipment, working out of the Grand Island bureau (about 40 miles away) and what's safe at KHGI's headquarters.

I nearly began my television career at KHGI in 1994. My first impression of the station was that it resembled two double-wide manufactured homes glued together on the outside. But on the inside, they had the people, the tools, and the talent to program three full-power TV stations and gobs of repeaters serving a giant wedge of west-central Nebraska. One of their old black-and-white studio cameras sat proudly in the lobby, a testament to years of service.

"We cover issues," former news director Al Zobel told me at the time, which made sense compared to chasing spot news in ten counties. And if you're ever in Kearney, ask one of the locals about the late beloved Bob Geiger, "the weather tiger."

I lost in a three-way tie for a job as a 10pm producer there, but then came an offer in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. I still had to worry about ice storms from time to time, but nothing like this.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Response Of A Town Without Pity

A few weeks ago, I told you the story of Brett Karch, the Snohomish, Washington high school student left injured and abandoned by a ceremonial cannon explosion. An article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer left the impression people cared more about the condition of the cannon than Brett. Among other things, he recieved death threats.

Now, the mayor of the town and the superintendent of the school district are having their say, and they want to reassure us things aren't as bad as they seem.
In the two weeks of hospital confinement, Brett was regularly visited by teachers, school and district administrators and students representing JROTC and the student body. Several hundred get-well cards were sent to Brett from the high school students; the football team sent him an autographed football to express support. In November, JROTC students went to Brett's house to bring his recliner from home to the school so he could attend the JROTC annual ball.
Read more of their response here.

Friday, January 5, 2007

The Lightning Round:
Your Government At Work

The hard-working, deadline-beating staff of your Lightning Round have spent the past week on mandatory R & R, with concise instructions from our Fearless Leader not to go near a newspaper unless it's for a Fry's Electronics ad. Still, news being the bread and butter bastion of our lives, worthwhile headlines will creep into our ears like Christmas sales into March. Don't take down that tree yet.

CLEANING HOUSE. Nancy Pelosi is now the first woman ever elected House Speaker. She is promising the most ethical Congress ever, to which we have a simple refrain: Rep. Jim Jefferson of Louisiana, a.k.a. "Dollar Bill," the guy caught with $90,000 in cold cash in his freezer and no ethical way to explain it.

Pelosi, in all fairness, asked for and got Jefferson booted off the House Ways and Means Committee over objections oozing of lameness. Notes The Washington Post:
But at the closed-door caucus meeting, several black Democrats complained that Pelosi was not their emperor or queen, while Jefferson implored his colleagues to keep him on Ways and Means for the sake of Hurricane Katrina's victims. No one spoke up for Pelosi -- except Pelosi.

She began by praising Jefferson's wife and five daughters: Jamila, Jalila, Jelani, Nailah and Akilah. But she quickly made it clear that Jefferson's legal problems had become her political problem: "I am not an emperor or a queen. But neither am I a fool."
And neither are we. The Democrats are promising an ambitious agenda. We have yet to see if High Priest Pelosi will sacrifice one of her own at the altar of ethics beyond drawing some token blood. If she doesn't, then who's the fool?

BY THE BOOK. Rep. Keith Ellison is now the first Muslim member of Congress and also the first one to take the oath of office with one hand on the Koran. This is no ordinary Koran, we observe, but one once owned by Thomas Jefferson. We also observe much fuss over its route to the ceremony in addition to the presence of the book itself.

From the AP:
To protect it from the elements, they placed the Quran in a rectangular box and handled it with a green felt wrapper once inside the Capitol.

Instead of using surface streets, they walked it [from the Library of Congress] over via a series of winding, underground tunnels -- a trip that took more than 15 minutes. Guards then ran the book through security machines at the Capitol.
Interestingly, we don't believe Nancy Pelosi's new gavel was screened for explosives. But back to the subject at hand: some people -- cough -- Rep. Virgil Goode -- cough -- think the Bible is the only appropriate book for a swearing-in ceremony, and he should follow tradition if only to prove he's not a duly-elected sleeper cell.

We can only wonder what Mr. Jefferson would think about the whole affair, but we do note his own stance toward God is the subject of much curiosity, outlined here by Unitarians. He even went so far as to cut and paste his own version of the Bible, rejecting what he considered the unnatural parts of the Gospel. What would Rep. Goode have said about taking the oath with the "Jefferson Bible?"

CALL FOR HELP. Mexico is considering giving out GPS locators to potential illegal immigrants. Those who get lost would push a button, setting off a signal for Border Patrol agents to come get them.

Naturally, the idea is drawing stink-eye from border-control groups. Mexican officials -- who have also handed out informational comic books last year to illegal immigrants -- again throw up their hands when quizzed.

From the AP:
Supporters of the initiative argue that it could save hundreds of lives. Among those looking at the possibility is Jesus Torreblanca, who works for Puebla state's Commission for the Attention of Migrants.

"This won't guarantee that they won't be detained by the border patrol or face deportation, and it won't keep them from facing risks in the desert," he said Thursday. "It is simply an effort at rescuing people while they are still alive."
We at the Lightning Round are all for saving lives, but we note again the stark refusal of our south-of-the-border counterparts to address the root of the problem. Instead of pouring all that money into GPS units, why not use it to lift people out of the poverty they're obviously fleeing for better lives in the U.S.?

CRUMBLING EARTH. Call it prophetic, unfortunate, or just plain bad luck, but a million-dollar sculpture symbolizing our fragile planet now lays in pieces on the campus of Kennesaw State University in Atlanta -- just three months after its debut.

From the AP:
University officials say they suspect water damage or glue failure, but agents with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation are also looking into the possibility of vandalism, said Frances Weyand, a spokeswoman for Kennesaw State.
A crack staff member is drawing up the list of usual suspects, including the Earth Liberation Front, the Bonding Compound Strike Force, and the Defenders of Concrete.

WE ARE A GENEROUS PEOPLE. The Financial Times reports a record year for charitable giving in the U.S., with $35 billion in donations. True, a lot of that came from Warren Buffett, who offered $31 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

From the Times article:
People who made money in real estate and financial services dominate this year’s list. The second and third largest gifts were by donors who profited from the sale of Golden West Financial Corporation to the Wachovia Corporation.
So the rich may get richer, but they also enrich others. How many times do you hear that corollary?

Remember, you can't take it with you... even with debit cards.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Reel To Reel: Blood Diamond

A girl's best friend comes at a heckuva price.

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Connelly, Djimon Hounsou
Rated: R
Red Flags: Graphic Intense War Violence, Language

Blood Diamond will likely not guilt-trip your future bride into giving up dreams of a huge engagement ring, so forget using this as a date movie, gentlemen. In fact, your steady could develop a crush on Leonardo DiCaprio instead, and then you've got a bigger problem.

Levity aside, Blood Diamond plunges into Sierra Leone in 1998, mired in poverty and plagued by rebels who get their funding via "conflict diamonds:" precious stones obtained by slave labor and then sold to unscrupulous gem buyers who launder them like drug money. Danny Archer (DiCaprio) is a smuggler working for those buyers, an ex-soldier who grew up in Africa amongst bloody revolution and has seen the worst. His current line of work involves trading diamonds for cash or guns which he funnels to the higest bidder.

Archer has no loyalties and trusts no one but himself since everybody around him is either trying to make money or kill somebody else, and even the rebels aren't sure if they want to win the war they're fighting because they might actually have to inherit the socio-economic quagmire. "T.I.A.," Archer and his friends say. "This is Africa."

DiCaprio's character is after a huge diamond buried by African native Solomon Vandy (Hounsou) after a smuggling operation goes sideways and leaves him on the hook for a lot of money. Vandy is a poor fisherman trying to steer his children clear of poverty and violence. His young son wants to stay in school and become a doctor. Too bad the rebels don't have an ounce of respect for the people they supposedly are trying to help. They have stormed Solomon's village, sent him off to the diamond mine, and sent his son into the ranks of the rebels to become a child soldier. Solomon manages to escape, but he needs help finding his family. Archer offers that help if Solomon will help him find the buried treasure.

Both of them get help from Maddy Bowen (Connelly), a frustrated American journalist who knows a dirty diamond operation is going on but can't prove it. She needs Archer's inside knowlege and contacts to write a story beyond the Save The Children stories of impoverished young ones and weeping mothers. Archer isn't about to give up anything, especially to another idealist who probably won't end up changing anything. Still, the two of them develop a mutual friendship. Bowen needs information, and Archer needs redemption.

Blood Diamond interlocks several themes: the horrors of war, the ugliness behind beauty, the importance of family, the indifference of others, and good ol' fashioned greed. It is genuine in its rawness and yet emotionally nuanced, even in the sad scenes of rebels training captured young children as soldiers. Hounsou is right on his mark as the prototypical good father without stepping over the line into Father of the Year territory. I especially laud the film for not throwing Bowen and Archer into the sack, especially when both of them are too busy staying alive and focused on their respective goals.

The film could have ended ten minutes before it did. Without revealing the ending, I'm certain some Hollywood suit demanded the last scenes, if only to balance the movie's graphic violence and depression. We don't need Hollywood endings. This is Africa.