Saturday, May 29, 2010

Reel To Reel: Shrek Forever After

This is really the end, we promise!

Going Rate: Worth matinee price. 3D not necessary.
Starring: Voices of Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Some gross humor, but nothing the kids haven't already heard

The fourth installment of the Shrek franchise will make money, lots of money, and it will provide some financial bread and butter for its principals. And oh yeah, we can sell it in 3D. Those are reasons enough to greenlight another sequel to a saga that should've ended one picture ago.

So much of what was appealing in the first three films is absent, most notably its wry digs at pop culture. Shrek had become the ultimate Fractured Fairy Tale. Now, having wrapped itself up, the green ogre and company are forced to reboot in a hybrid of It's A Wonderful Life and Sleeping Beauty.

Briefly, married life is getting too routine for Shrek (Myers): tending to wife Fiona (Diaz) kids, chores, dinner with Donkey (Murphy), Puss (Banderas) and friends, cleaning the outhouse, putting up with the tourist buses, yadda yadda yadda. Hardly a moment to scare anybody anymore. A kids' birthday party gone bad leaves the Green One with a desire to get back to his ugly roots. Overhearing this is shyster Rumpelstiltskin, who offers Shrek a deal to go back in time for one day in exchange for a day of the ogre's past. After the deal is sealed, however, Shrek learns it's the day he was born, erasing his past and forcing him to put his life back together.

Shrek Forever After has some inspired moments. I'll never think of The Carpenters' "Top Of The World" the same way after I saw it here. But so much seems stale and overdone. It's time for this story to end, truly end, and go off into the land of DVD's to be played over and over by the kids during those long car trips.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

We Don't Need No Partisan Education, We Don't Need No Thought Control

Texas' board of education just approved a more conservative curriculum for public school students, and what gives me pause is that a politically imbalanced organization is setting the agenda for millions of children and thousands of teachers.

As the Dallas Morning News reports:
Regarding the complaint that Republicans and conservative ideology have been given more prominence, board member Don McLeroy, R-College Station, said the panel was trying to make up for the liberal-slanted curriculum now being used in schools.

"I think we've corrected the imbalance we've had in the past and now have our curriculum headed straight down the middle," said McLeroy, one of seven social conservatives on the board. "I'm very pleased with what we've accomplished.

Board Democrats accused the Republicans of a "cut-and-paste" job that included a flurry of late amendments undoing much of the work of teachers and academics who were appointed to review teams to draft the curriculum requirements last year.
Two big flags go up when I read these paragraphs: one is an undercurrent of revenge. I wonder how much of this is about correcting a mistake versus getting back at the ideological opposition. The second flag is the ease of which opinions of teachers and professional educators are swept away. Or are these people easily dismissible as "liberal hacks?"

Reading on:
Several Republicans left the board meeting room while Democrats laid out their objections to the document, but returned to defeat a Democratic effort to delay action on the proposal until July.
Wouldn't we all just love to leave the room rather than listen to the opposition? Many times, that's all right. But this group is appointed and paid to work together, and that means listening to the minority, even if they're the minority. Walking out on them conveys a lack of respect and dereliction of duty. I speak as somebody who had to learn that lesson the hard way. Please don't follow my bad example from the past.

I grow very angry at the sight of anybody using a child as a political pawn -- politicans, mostly. Arizona Congressman John Shadegg using a baby to make a point on health care was one of most disgusting things I have ever seen in Congress, and explains the loathing so many have for politicians.

In a nation that is growing more partisan and politicized, it's time we got partisanship out of the education boards and left it to the people who care most about making sure kids learn about their history, recognize its strengths and avoid repeating its mistakes without worrying about whether the material fits good conservative or liberal values. Teach kids to analyze and make up their own minds.

When our kids grow old enough to vote, then they're fair game for political recruitment and propaganda. Until then, in the words of Pink Floyd, "leave them kids alone."

Friday, May 21, 2010

Going, Going...

UCal-Berkeley Journalism professor Alan D. Mutter tells us something a lot of us TV news people already know: the Internet is catching up with us, and with our viewers, and we need evolve or die:
As broadcast audiences shrink, ad revenues will tumble. As revenues recede and profit margins are challenged, it is all but inevitable that most local broadcasters will reduce the resources they devote to covering local news.

A contraction in local TV news coverage, combined with the recent curtailment of newspaper coverage in most communities, will deprive our society of even more of the authoritatively reported information that is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy. I have seen nothing yet to convince me that crowd-sourced websites possibly can fill the void.
In other words, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other homebrew 'net outlets aren't a substitute for people who are paid to go get you the news. But, it costs money to do news right, money newsrooms don't have as viewers head for the web. It's a vicious cycle.

Mutter says broadcasters need to be doing more with their extra digital channel capacity. Many are, including KOLD, where we run a 24-hour news and weather channel on 13.2. But beyond that, he doesn't offer any suggestions. And what's troublesome, he suggests the FCC "ought to give them (broadcasters) a nudge."

I don't have a lot of suggestions myself, but I know that more regulation isn't the solution. Government regulation mandated the switch to digital broadcast TV in the first place, an unfunded mandate that is costing stations across the country millions of dollars in equipment upgrades. On top of that, many of these new digital signals aren't reaching all viewers, forcing them to shell out money for new antennas, cable or satellite TV hookups.

So what do TV newsrooms do? I still think we're working out solutions. Forcing entire newsrooms to convert to the VJ model -- where everybody learns how to write, shoot, and edit their own material -- has been filled with challenges and several disappointments. Ask somebody at KRON in San Francisco or WKRN in Nashville.

Stations could've gotten a jump on the revolution years ago. But years ago, even as late as 1999, they didn't have the motivation to change. They were still making gobs of money. Web news was still in its infancy. Broadband was pricey and sparse. Previous online news outlets, such as those with pay services like CompuServe, GEnie, and Prodigy, didn't get a lot of people excited. Teletext -- a rudimentary, one way form of the Web delivered via TV signals -- never caught on in America.

TV news isn't going away. Radio news didn't go away when TV came along. It adapted. Newspapers didn't fold because of radio. They adapted. Right now TV is in the adaption mode, still trying to reformulate the model in a way that's going to cost both the fewest jobs and money.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Reel To Reel: Iron Man 2

Quit being weird and suit up, already!

Going Rate: Worth matinee price.
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Samuel L. Jackson
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Action violence, some mild language

The original Iron Man worked because it took a comic-book hero and made it into a quirky semi-comic action film. We loved Robert Downey's eccentricity... but not this much. The sequel is plagued by too many tangents, too much talking, and not enough time in the suit.

Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) has got it all and even more. He has "successfully privatized world peace," with the Iron Man suit, and nobody can stop him from using it, not even the government or a pesky senator (Gary Shandling in a cameo) who want the goods. He's also got toys -- lots of cool toys, with see-through displays and holographic virtual-reality working environments in his basement lab. I wonder why the government isn't asking for those, too. Stark's mobile device makes the iPhone look like Gordon Gekko's brick cell phone in Wall Street.

Stark has lots of trouble, too. The very technology that powers the suit and Stark's heart is also killing him, as toxic elements seep into his blood. A competitor, Justin Hammer (Rockwell) wants to put him out of business. Evil Russian Ivan Vanko (Rourke), the son of a spurned collaborator, is developing his own iron suit, and this one has high-voltage whips that cut through metal like butter. He's also got that bubbling love interest in his personal assistant Pepper Potts (Paltrow) that never seems to get going.

Can you keep track of all this for two hours and four minutes? Good. You'll enjoy the film. But be advised, you'll have to put up with about half an hour of meandering setup, where all of these elements are thrown into play and we're exposed to way too much of Stark's wonder-boy aura. This is highlighted in a rambling speech to a gargantuan technology expo that mimics a World's Fair.

Not that the picture doesn't have action: it features three good battles, including one against his Pentagon pal Lt. Col. James 'Rhodey' Rhodes (Cheadle) who decides to suit up in a haphazardly-executed plot twist. We also have the return of Nick Fury's (Jackson) super-secret spook agency who's either got Stark's back or is trying to stab it. I'm not really sure.

Iron Man 2 isn't a bad film, just a very disjointed one. It needs to be thrown into the lab and distilled down to its essence of a nerd genius with attention-deficit disorder and a need to repent of his arms-dealing sins. In sequels, the temptation is to go bigger rather than streamlining. Spider-Man 2 demonstrates this. This movie doesn't.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Getting Smarter About College

An Associated Press article asks whether we're spending too much on higher education for skills we can get faster -- and cheaper -- at specialty schools, what people called "Vo-Tech" when I was in high school.
Spending more time in school also means greater overall student debt. The average student debt load in 2008 was $23,200 -- a nearly $5,000 increase over five years. Two-thirds of students graduating from four-year schools owe money on student loans.

And while the unemployment rate for college graduates still trails the rate for high school graduates (4.9 percent versus 10.8 percent), the figure has more than doubled in less than two years.

"A four-year degree in business -- what's that get you?" asked Karl Christopher, a placement counselor at the Columbia Area Career Center vocational program. "A shift supervisor position at a store in the mall."
Even in the 1980's, my high school counselors were telling kids not to think of Vo-Tech as a place for people who didn't go to college. My parents did, though, and with the University of Missouri's world famous J-school down I-70 and no comparable Vo-Tech school anywhere, something less than a four-year university degree was never an option. I also had a Curators' scholarship, meaning if I kept my grades up, I had a free tuition ride for all four years. I pulled it off, but I passed on going for a Master's degree, feeling I'd earn a real Masters by building up some job experience. After 17 years of schooling, including kindergarten, I was ready to get out and start earning a living, anyway.

Many of you see a college diploma as part of the American Dream, just like owning a home. Just like home ownership, the government and other entities can help make a college degree happen for just about anybody who wants it. The truth is, not everybody needs it.

Just like those who rent all their life, we have people making a good living with GED's and trade schools, and for a lot less tuition. So what if they weren't exposed to all the flourishes of academia and humanities you get with a four-year degree? If I had to choose between being smart and being able to making a dependable income, the latter is a no-brainer... if you'll excuse the pun.

The AP article infers a troubling question: are we over-educating ourselves in an increasingly service-oriented, increasingly specialized economy? I don't think that's the problem. I think just as our economy evolves, we have to evolve too, which means getting a better buy for our education dollars.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Coronated At Last

My Queen Mother just received a Teacher of the Year honor from the town of Laverne, California, where she has taught Spanish to boys for the last nine years. She got a chance to make a 30-second speech, something in the mode of an Oscar acceptance address but nothing fancy. Mom said she would briefly thank everybody and step away from the podium. She was never a public speaker, despite thousands of classroom lectures.

For much of my childhood, I didn't think of her as a teacher. She got her Education degree from the University of Missouri and quickly locked up a first job at Raytown South Junior High teaching English. Then came love and marriage... and me. Mom saved up all her salary and placed her teaching life on hold to be a full-time parent, living with Dad in the Alpine Village apartments about two blocks away. "We just about wore a hole in the carpeting carrying you around," my father tells me.

She made sure I -- and later, my brother -- didn't slack through school. I zoomed forward in reading and then ran into trouble with spelling. She gave me mock tests at home the night before. Yet she really went out of her way with the math tests. My fourth grade teacher demanded all of us pass a series of timed exams: one minute to answer an entire sheet of basic addition, subtraction, multiplication or division problems with no mistakes. We had to pass each test four times, as indicated by an orange poster on the classroom wall, with a list full of names and gold stars to show how everybody was doing. Mom would make up sheets full of problems and time me with a stopwatch. "You have to keep your wits about you," she said. She could have homeschooled us. If my brother and I had been born twenty years later, she probably would have.

When we reached a cruising altitude in our schoolwork, Mom began preparing a comeback. She returned to substitute teaching in the Raytown school district and filled in at the elementary level. This led to a freak occurrence: "Guess what teacher I'm substituting for today?" she told me one morning. "Yours!" For at least two days, I was the most popular kid in class, with everybody telling me how nice Mrs. Francis was. Yeah, they were kissing up. It only lasted two days.

Mom later moved up to the prep level, taking a job at a Catholic high school teaching English, American Literature and Spanish. The paper chase caught up with her, as she spent night after night grading tests and homework and compositions, often sitting in the comfort of bed. I helped out by putting her grade book into a Microsoft Multiplan spreadsheet, which shaved some time off of midterm reports.

Then the Queen Mother decided to go for the crown jewel: her Masters' in Education. She chose a graduate degree that wouldn't require a dissertation or thesis, but her final paper sure felt like one. She had to design a curriculum for a literature course. The monster paper grew to a monstrous thickness, even with help from AppleWorks. During her research phase, I went along with her to the UMKC library and fell in love with its vastness. It stocked just about every conceivable magazine. She took notes and left me to explore, so I pored over Radio/Television Age and wondered why anybody would subscribe to World Marxist Review.

Mom pulled it off just before we moved to St. Louis in 1989. She took a job at an all-girl Catholic school and taught Spanish exclusively. The nature of the workload shifted from the bread-and-butter homework and tests to a system of "packets" that let the young ladies work with a bit more independence. The girls were also better-behaved, giving her sanity a breather.

About a decade later, when Mom and Dad moved to California, she found the state wouldn't reciprocate her Missouri teaching certificate, leaving her to once again teach at a Catholic school. I joked that my Presbyterian mother was "common-law Catholic" for all those years in parochial education headed up by priests and nuns. Mom's been through many a mass on the job.

Her current gig at an all-boys school exposes her to more testosterone and behavioral issues. This institute of education is known for being a "jock school," meaning certain people who perform well on the football field can get away with lousy grades. My mother has also run into several parents who refuse to believe their son's subpar performance has something to do with a lack of effort, preferring to blame the teacher. It fascinates me how these families shovel thousands of dollars into a religious school, see their children flunk, and throw more money away.

This would be more tolerable for The Queen Mother if the administrators showed more willingness to stand up for their teachers. She told me about a drama teacher who nearly quit the school because, through a series of clueless mistakes, she had to hold class in the library. I guess she could have taught aspiring thespians how to act in their "library voice." I have also heard of troublemakers that should've gotten the boot long ago, if expulsion didn't also mean kissing away tuition revenue.

Thankfully, other students show admirable gratitude. So does a department head who nominated her for this honor. Though it's only one night of laurels, one brief respite from the grading and grind, it's long overdue.

Her acceptance speech ended up running past 30 seconds. She made enough thank-yous to cover all bases: to the Laverne Chamber of Commerce, the department chair who nominated her, to my Aunt Shirley and Uncle George for coming to the ceremony, and several others.

Mother reflected on the moment she found out about her laurels: "It was like one of those situations where somebody comes behind you and says, 'Congratulations, you're teacher of the year,' and you want to turn around and say, 'You're talking to me?"

She nearly had an Oprah moment.

A fellow teacher told her she "had a reputation for being tough but fair. But right now, I want to cry."

She didn't, though.

"It got the response I expected," she said. "I was just hoping not to embarrass myself."

No, not at all.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Hey, Show Some Respect!

I'm not sure what they teach about respect at Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill, California, but it's time for some remedial education following the blow-up over four students wearing American Flag shirts on Cinco de Mayo.

True respect must be earned as well as given. I like what the Bible says about it:
"Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody." (1 Thes. 4:11-12 NIV)

"Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the LORD and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other." (1 Thes. 5:12-13 NIV)

"Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear GOD, honor the king." (1 Peter 2:17 NIV)
So we see it's a two-way dynamic. Demanding respect from someone like a mafia padrone is not respect but coercion. It's no way to show love, either, as we are taught. Also, respect given for one particular thing, by definition, does not automatically translate into a lack of respect for something else.

Let's apply this to the current dispute. When the four students at Live Oak High wore American flag shirts on Cinco de Mayo, were they showing disrespect to Mexico or Mexicans? The argument is they were, because of the context of the day and what it means to people with Mexican heritage. As the Gilroy Dispatch reports:
"It's disrespectful to do it on Cinco de Mayo," said Jessica Cortez, a Live Oak sophomore. "They can be a patriot on some other day. Not that specific day."
My follow up questions to Miss Cortez, if I could have asked them, would be these: Why is wearing an American flag disrespectful on Cinco de Mayo? Do you see it as a swipe at your culture or heritage? Would you confront them on it? Would you want somebody who is not of Mexican heritage to wear a Mexican flag shirt? Would you be bothered by a Hispanic student wearing an American flag shirt on this day? Would you wear a Mexican Flag shirt on Independence Day?

I have questions for the flag-shirted students: Would it bother you if people wear shirts with Mexican flags in America? Why? Would you confront them on it? What would you say?

My point is this: this dispute is not about kids wearing flag shirts; it's about people who see mistakenly see pride in one's own heritage as oppression without any aggressive or separatist actions to back it up. One parent claims one of the flag-shirted students yelled, "We live in America!" The veracity of that claim hasn't been established, but if it's true, then that crosses the line from pride into aggression.

Another action by students also flirts with the line:
Locally, about 200 Hispanic students walked out of Live Oak and Ann Sobrato high schools, chanting "Si se puede" and "We want respect" and disrupting traffic as they marched through Morgan Hill to demonstrate their support for Mexico.
Tying up traffic and ditching classes isn't a good way to win respect from others on anything. You're not respecting drivers' need to get where they're going. Ironically, it's the 1st Amendment of the U.S., not Mexico, that allows these students to enjoy freedom of assembly. (Mexico, by the way, does have freedoms of speech in its constitution, but given the level of violence and corruption that country now struggles with, I have a lot of doubts.)

This whole sad saga started with the school's administrators sending the four students home for wearing the shirts. The admins thought they were heading off confrontations. Yup, that worked really well. They crossed the respect line by letting fear cloud their judgment, leaving the perception they were taking an anti-patriotic, politically correct side. We have evidence none of the current rhubarb would have happened if the school leaders had just let things be:
Over at Gilroy High School, Mexican and American patriotic colors commingled peacefully Wednesday, Principal Marco Sanchez said.

"Kids were in good spirits," he said. "I was out on campus most of the day and didn't see anything that was abnormal."

Plenty of students donned both countries' national colors, but none were sent home for wearing green, red, white, blue or any combination thereof, he said. Doing so would be "outrageous," he said.

"We're not going to be sending kids home for wearing American flags or wearing patriotic colors," Sanchez said. "That's discriminatory."
From this account, it looks like the people at Gilroy get it. They've found a way to celebrate heritage respectfully. Nice job!

I wonder what would've happened if I had worn my Highland kilt into school on Cinco de Mayo. I'm sure some people would've laughed or puzzled or asked The Question... or said "Wrong country, retard!"

Then I could've told them Mexico has a significant number of people who are either Scottish or descended from Scottish settlers. If we're all here from somewhere else, as people who love history and heritage like to say, nobody should have a problem respecting that.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Flash In The Road

Arizona's DPS will turn off its speed enforcement cameras this summer, citing a change of "focus." But you can see they're not paying their way. The Arizona Republic reports only 30 percent of the citations were paid. A lot of people figured out they could just ignore a traffic-camera speeding ticket and it would expire; overworked process servers couldn't make it to everybody to physically present them with a summons. This doesn't apply to red-light cameras operated by cities and counties, so you'll still have to deal with them around Tucson and parts of the Phoenix area.

You can't cross-examine a photo enforcement camera in court. DPS tells us the fixed cameras are checked once a month for accuracy, which leaves about 29 days or so for them to malfunction. If they do, how do we know when that malfunction took place and what tickets came from flaws in the equipment? I have a hard time believing, with those cameras baking in the Arizona heat, that a monthly accuracy check is enough.

Even if they've saved lives and slowed people down, the speed-cam project has turned into a net loss for the state, something that is going to have safety advocates grinding their teeth and saying, "What the heck is wrong with these people?" Nothing, really. We just prefer getting pulled over and asked, "Do you know how fast you were going?"

Er, no. But you can ask that camera back there.