Saturday, December 22, 2007


It doesn't happen very often, but occasionally one man can make a difference -- a big difference.

George Crile's 2003 best seller, CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR, is a fascinating and eye-opening account of the most unlikely "difference maker" imaginable. A relatively obscure Congressman from the Second District of Texas, "Good Time Charlie" was known more for his libertine lifestyle than his libertarian legislation. Likeable and licentious (even for a politician), Charlie Wilson served his constituency well since the good folks of Lufkin only really wanted two things, their guns and to be left alone. It's Easy Street replete with his bevy of beltway beauties known, appropriately enough, as Charlie's Angels.

When asked why his entire office staff was composed of attractive, young aides his response is a classic, "You can teach 'em to type, but you can't teach 'em to grow tits." No argument there.

But even the most rakish rapscallion has a conscience lurking somewhere underneath, and for Charlie Wilson the unimaginable atrocities being committed in Afghanistan moved him to muster his entire political savvy toward funding the utter, humiliating defeat of the Russian military and, possibly, to even help hasten the end of the Cold War as a result. Fat chance, huh?

Under the skillful direction of Mike Nichols and a smart, snappy screenplay by Adam Sorkin, CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR is a sparkling, sophisticated satire that chronicles the behind-the-scene machinations of three colorful charcters comprising "Charlie's Team."

The on-screen "Team," is composed of three marvelous actors with four (4) Academy Awards and nine (9) nominations between them. Charlie is beautifully portrayed by Tom Hanks in a solid, slightly understated fashion that is among his best work in years. He's aided, abetted and abedded by Joanne Herring, a wealthy Houston socialite played by the still-slinky Julia Roberts. Hey, why else have the bikini scene than to let the world know this? By all accounts Ms. Roberts looks good and holds her own, but the screenplay never gives us even a hint why Kabul and country is so important to her character. Maybe the two Afghan hounds usually by her side know -- but we as an audience never do. As for the third member of the "Team," Philip Seymour Hoffman steals every scene he appears in as Gust Aurakotos, a smart, street-wise (i.e. non Ivy League graduate) CIA malcontent who knows the score -- both in the Agency's boardroom and in Wilson's bedroom.

For the Mujahideen to succeed, the most important assistance the U.S. can provide is the ability to shoot down the dreaded MI-21 helicopter gunships which rule the skies. This takes money, lots of money, and eventually "Charlie's Team" covertly coerces those in Congress to fund the effort to the tune of $1 billion dollars for advanced weaponry to arm the Afghan rebels. This includes top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art anti-aircraft and anti-tank rockets as well as other highly sophisticated killing devices. Nasty, nasty stuff.

That this kind of multi-billion dollar illicit activity can and does take place behind Congressional doors is truly alarming. Every American should see this movie or read this book because it reveals a truly frightening aspect of the business-as-usual political scene rarely seen outside the walls of our very own government. Oh momma, I wish it weren't so...

Even though the initial outcome for "Team Charlie" was an unqualified success, the unimaginable, unanticipated final result is that these sophisticated weapons are now used against our troops by the Taliban and others. Since the funding was entirely "covert," the young generation in this part of the world has no idea the fall of Soviet oppression and the end to Russian barbarity was the direct result of American intervention. Yes, once the Russkies left, so did our aid -- zip for schools, zip for infrastructure, zip on maintaining meaningful relationships with the Afghan people. As a result, the overall consequence is an unmitigated disaster -- it's like the forerunner to "Mission Accomplished."

As Nichol's film so pointedly points out, "The ball you've set in motion can keep bouncing even after you've lost interest in it." Mike Krzyzewski knows this, Eva Longoria Parker knows this, little Lateesha in Lafayette knows this, but the typical American politician doesn't. So we go from good guys to bad guys because we couldn't let the world know we were the good guys. Talk about a Catch-22 (another Mike Nichols film).

Perhaps Charlie Wilson said it best, "We fucked up the end game."


Thursday, December 20, 2007


Keeping it real...

Werner Herzog has a totally different perspective on filmmaking than virtually any other contemporary director. He is demanding and uncompromising to the extreme, especially when it comes to insisting that everything seen on the screen is authentic, not some special effects wizardry or state-of-the-art CGI trick. It is the difference between art and science -- something that Lucas or Spielberg, for example, simply do not understand. Or, more likely, simply something too darn arduous for these wussies (vs. Wookiees) to pursue. Of course, that's par for the course for almost all of the current crop of "New Age" directors who don't like getting down and dirty.

It is this devotion to absolute authenticity that makes Herzog so fascinating and admirable, especially since he is the first into the danger zone himself. A river teeming with poisonous snakes? Herzog takes the plunge ahead of everyone else. A bowl of swarming live maggots to be eaten? Herzog is the first with a spoon. A scene where the lead character must bite into a live seven-foot long snake? Yes, Werner shows the way.

RESCUE DAWN is the incredible, true story of Lt. Dieter Dengler, the only American POW to have escaped from a Laotian prison camp and make it to safety. It is a powerful, uplifting tale of personal survival against all odds that explores the power of the human spirit to overcome even the most devastating and hopeless of circumstances. Under Herzog's skilled direction, coupled with his inabiliy to compromise on even the most agonizing and torturous dangers facing cast and crew, RESCUE DAWN is possibly the most harrowingly realistic and unsentimental of all prisoner-of-war epics. The virtually impenetrable jungle is real, the giant leeches covering the actors are real, the ant nest strapped to the face of Dengler is real -- there's no sound stage or computer graphics department to be found anywhere. Hell, in true Herzog fashion, there isn't even a honey wagon.

As with all of his other films, Herzog's casting choices are flawless. Christian Bale plays Lt. Dengler -- his performance is riveting. Yes, the "American Psycho" is perfect in his totally unique, captivating portrayal of a born leader with an indomitable spirit. Think Candide, not Rambo, and you'll be close. Equally stunning is the work of Steve Zahn as Duane and Jeremy Davies as Gene, the most emaciated of all the prisoners. You will not soon forget this terrific trifecta -- that's a bet I can't lose.

But the true star is, of course, Herzog. If you have seen AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD you know what I mean. The same for FITZCARRALDO, WHERE THE GREEN ANTS DREAM, FATA MORGANA, EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF AND GOD AGAINST ALL or any one of the other fifty films he has directed. RESCUE DAWN is similarly unforgettable thanks, once again, to Herzog's consummate cinematic skill, visceral vision and his uncompromising, primative approach to "keeping it real."

Honeywagon be damned...


Oh what evil lurks behind these walls...

Leave it to the fine folks at Exxon Mobile to sponsor the absolute worst Christmas Special of the year. The Valdez oil spill was more cheerful, colorful and entertaining...and far less embarrassing. Videotaped at Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC, this ABC Christmas Special almost defies description.

Joining President Bush and First Lady Laura was an audience of un-subpoenaed administration officials who clearly would have preferred spending the night with Scooter rather than Santa. The on-stage performances were so atrocious that their mortified facial expressions were reminiscent of someone learning their dog had been shot. And speaking of shots, where was John Wilkes Booth when we needed him?

Among those taking the stage on this night of infamy were Wynonna, who sang a song so ill-conceived it made Thalidomide seem cheerful, comedian (and I use that word with reservation) Christopher Titus, whose "jokes" were so terribly testy he will be forevermore known simply as Elephantitus, and singer Jon Secada sounding like a cicada in heat.

And as for poor Olivia Newton, her career is now firmly in the john.

This abomination must never be seen again. The only reasonable course of action is to send in the CIA and have them destroy this tape immediately. Apparently they are very good at doing this kind of thing...

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


There have been at least a dozen truly outstanding baseball movies produced since the Great Depression. KILL THE UMPIRE isn't one of them -- not even close.

However, this rather silly, over-the-top comedy starring the always-delightful William Bendix is great fun to watch. Originally released in 1950, the tone is set at the very beginning when "Three Blind Mice" plays beneath the opening credits. Clearly this baseball film will be more in line with Stengel's "Amazin' Mets" than Steinbrenner's "Bronx Bombers." It's more Walt Dropo than Joe DiMaggio. More Marvelous Marv than Mantle & Maris. As for the plot, such as it is, we find Bendix portraying an ex-major league ballplayer who remains addicted to baseball. Regardless of his employment situation he simply can't let a game go by without skipping work to watch and, more importantly, to roundly heckle the umpires who he sees as representing "the lowest a man can get." Hey, a bleacher bum is entitled to his opinion, isn't he?

After being fired from yet another job, Bendix is about to lose both his wife and his family when his father-in-law suggests he think about becoming an umpire. After all, doesn't it make sense to try to find a way to make a living where one so very much wants to be, day-in and day-out? Reluctantly, Bendix enrolls in a school for wanna-be umpires run by William Frawley. "How can I be an umpire?" he declares. "I have perfect vision!"

A series of wildly humorous attempts at getting thrown out of umpire school sets the stage for even wackier antics later, including an outrageously undercranked chase scene that makes the typical Keystone Cops caper look like Slo Mo Drabowsky in pursuit of a Dodger Dog.

It is safe to assume that the assortment of highly entertaining, almost-cartoon like visual gags in KILL THE UMPIRE is the result of Screenwriter Frank Tashlin, who had just moved to features after a long and successful career as a director for various Looney Toon characters including Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. Hi-jinks abound, but there is a nice moral or two and a vitally important reminder that "there's no place in baseball for people who aren't honest."

This was true over 55 years ago and it certainly remains true today.

Which brings us to Barry Bonds -- "What a revoltin' development he is!"

Sunday, December 09, 2007


NAIROBI (Reuters) - A new species of giant spitting cobra, measuring nearly nine feet and possessing enough venom to kill at least 15 people, has been discovered in Kenya.

According to Kenyan environmentalist Richard Leakey, the cobras are the world's largest and have been identified as unique. The species has been named Naja Ashei, a presumed Swahili phrase that roughly translates to "Big Mouth Bitch" in reference to the mother of these snakes.

Leakey was quick to point out the significance of the discovery, "A new species of giant spitting cobra is exciting and reinforces the obvious -- that pure evil breeds pure evil."

Research published by Wolfgang Wuster, of the University of Wales, said a field visit confirmed the Naja Ashei is, indeed, a new species. "The new species is diagnosable from all other African spitting cobras by the possession of a unique DNA, that of Ms. Ann Coulter."

The identity of the father is uncertain, although informed sources contacted by Needtovent staff members have pointed to Rush Limbaugh as a likely possibility.

Friday, December 07, 2007


Review by Jerry L. Nelson

The first time I can remember being in the old City Hall in New Braunfels, located at 200 North Seguin Avenue, just one block north of the plaza, was at the ripe old age of fourteen…and it cost me fifteen dollars…thanks to “Chapa the Coppa”, the youth of my era’s name for New Braunfels Police officer Raymond Chapa. I had my driver’s license for the grand total of thirty days when Chapa decided I was “driving beyond prudence.” All I knew was I was attempting to pass a much slower car on Landa Street when Chapa appeared out of nowhere, as he always did, pulled me over and posed the question, “Well, Brother Nelson, having fun?” to which my cleverness allowed, “I was until now.” We were friends from then on.

Fast-forward forty-five years to 2007, close the City Hall building to local government work and open a restaurant in the basement…specifically the Liberty Bistro. Open only since September of this year, Liberty offers a patriotic variety of lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch selections with a full bar. Having visited the basement bistro for dinner recently, my party came away with mixed emotions, leaning toward the positive…many efforts done well, some needing attention and one that just won’t go away without major expense in the form of sound deadening carpet to eliminate the raucous noise level that comes from a concrete floor.

We chose our evening of dining to coincide with the recently held Wassail Walk, an event hosted by many of the downtown merchants in an effort to bring the citizenry out for a social and economic good time. Our server indicated the crowd inside the Bistro was more than the norm for a Thursday evening…continuous rather than fitting into a one hour window. Good for them. Bad for us.

We were seated among mirrored walls filled with portraits of former Presidents and their wives. I didn’t walk around to see them all, and could only identify Wm. Howard Taft, Eleanor Roosevelt, and had to be reminded which one was Lady Bird. I feel certain all of the others were accounted for.

The dinner menu reads like an American History book from my high school years with descriptions as T. Jefferson’s Tomato Bisque with Madeira ($3 for the cup and $5 for the bowl). Move on to the Johnny Appleseed salad or the Independence Caesar or the Liberty Salad (you get the picture). Friend and his significant other both chose the bisque for their appetizer and expressed no disappointment. The child bride of nearly forty years selected the Colonial Crab Cake ($12), Maryland style lump crab with Garlic Aioli and smoked Paprika sauce. The texture was proper and it definitely was made with lump crab meat. Great without dipping into the aioli -- but rather a bit of lemon squeezed over the top.

My choice of appetizer was the Liberty House-made spreads consisting of Hummus, Eggplant, and the best of the three selections, an outstanding Fig and Olive Tapenade with Goat Cheese ($9). The only downside to the dish was the extremely over toasted bread on which to spread your choices. I don’t mean burned…rather baked so long in the oven that the toast was dry and crumbly, not even a hint of softness. If I had wanted saltines, I would have ordered saltines. It made for “crummy” eating (pun intended).

Our wine selection proved a bit more elusive as the first two bottles requested were unavailable. It seems they only had on hand more expensive selections of the Malbecs listed. They did offer to split the price difference with our first selection, a less expensive choice…a nice gesture, but only after I asked. It seemed as if it took longer than necessary to return with the wine, but since we were saving it for the entrée, the breathing time would do it good.

The entrees continue on with the patriotic theme as in Friend’s choice of John Hancock Chicken ($16 for a half and $12 for a quarter), cooked under a brick ‘till crisp (I’ll take their word for it) accompanied by Liberty potatoes (nicely done au gratin style) and fresh green beans. The green beans were just right, crisp and fresh. His significant other settled for the Independence Caesar ($6), a bit on the small side for an entrée but understandable since it came from the salad listings, and to her liking. Only disappointment was upon searching, she found only one crouton and one piece of shaved parmesan. Good thing she added grilled shrimp to it.

Child bride of nearly forty years chose the Costa Nostra Gnocchi ($16), house-made potato pasta and topped it with Bolognese sauce. The gnocci was the finest I have ever sampled, light and eating tiny little potato clouds, puffy and flavorful. DON’T order the Bolognese sauce on top of it. It turned out to be nothing more than flavorless meat sauce, no nutmeg and the texture was not that of a quality Italian Bolognese. This one was way too chunky. Try the Wild Mushrooms and Arugula…it just sounds good.

My entrée was the Little Havana Pork Confit ($18), citrus marinated and slow roasted for at least five hours served on Tostones with Black Beans. My Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition defines Confit (a French word…the "T" is silent and the "CON" is said up in the nose…maybe that’s why so many French have theirs out of joint…ultimately sounding something like CONH-FEE…) as a meat -- duck, goose or pork cooked and preserved in its own fat. It says nothing about slow roasting. I have always felt that if something indicates classic preparation, then do it that way or change the name. A much more indicative name would have been Little Havana Pulled Pork…and the Tostones, something I was unfamiliar with by name, turned out to be smashed Plantains formed into patties and then quick fried, appearing like kartoffel kuchen, but these were cold and tasteless…not hot out of the grease as our server described. The black beans were…black beans. The flavor of the pork was quite good.

The fact it took a bit long to get our wine should have given a hint of things to come…the wait between our appetizers and the entrées was way too long, nearing thirty minutes. When we were finally served, three lucky persons got their food right away while the fourth had to wait another three or four minutes before that plate was brought out from the kitchen. We noticed this same pattern repeated itself at the table next to us. Did they not have an expediter in the kitchen? (More on that later). Knowing they were crowded this night and seeing things were running slowly out of the kitchen, we ordered dessert at the same time as our entrées…individual soufflés. Our server told us it took between eighteen and twenty minutes to bake one so this would be the best way to ensure we were served in a reasonable time frame. Made perfect sense to us and we applauded his foresight. It just didn’t work out that way. After more than thirty minutes the soufflés appeared. The Viarhona Chocolate ($8) and the Grand Marnier ($7) each came with individual sauces to be added at the diners’ discretion…chocolate sauce for the chocolate soufflé and a wild berry sauce for the Grand Marnier. They need to lose the berry sauce…it overpowers the soufflé and offer, instead, a Grand Marnier sauce, easily made from cream and Grand Marnier liqueur. The soufflés were acceptable, not overly cakey but a bit short of outstanding.

I think the service problems could be solved by improving the expediting or if there isn’t one, getting an expediter. This person’s task is to regulate the tickets given to the chef so he or she does not become overwhelmed and get “in the weeds”…restaurant speak for fall behind. He or she also makes sure what comes out of the kitchen is correct and that one ticket gets all items sent out at the same time…not one plate several minutes later.

To be fair, I must admit I have been nit-picky on some things, but when you’re spending a sizable chunk of change you have a right to expect things to flow smoothly and get quality offerings. New Braunfels needs the Liberty Bistro to succeed and I for one truly hope it does. There are far too few quality dining options in this area and the Liberty Bistro is very close to becoming one; I would much rather have spent that first fifteen dollars of mine on any one of their lunch offerings rather than line the coffers of the city government.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


There are more movie review websites on the internet than pubs in Ireland, and in this reviewer's opinion only a fraction of these have any merit whatsoever. (I'm referring to the websites; the pubs are all great.) By far one of the most original, informative and entertaining is Bryce Zabel's MOVIE SMACKDOWN. Yours truly has been recently invited to participate as a Guest Critic and what follows is my first submission. If you enjoy Smackdown's premise and format as much as I do, then I enourage you to check in regularly at

THE MIST (2007) - vs- THE FOG (1980)
Review by Robert A. Nowotny

THE SMACKDOWN. Don't underestimate the impact of a little cloud coming over the horizon -- and I don't mean the mushroom variety. You see, some types of ground-hugging hazy vapors possess evil things which brutally attack isolated villages and wreak more havoc than this year's BCS situation. I know, I've seen several films dealing with this concept and they make me think twice about venturing out when the sun ain't shining. Written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill, "The Fog" is a terrific example and may very well be the gold standard of this sub-genre. We now welcome John Darabont's "The Mist," based on a novella by none other than Stephen King. Two heavyweight directors tackle the same basic precipitation premise. Is "Mist" simply "Fog Lite," or does it weather the storm of this writer's criticism?

THE CHALLENGER. In the opening scenes of "The Mist" a violent storm passes through a small village in Maine (with Stephen King where else would it be?). As the townsfolk begin to clean up and attempt to make repairs, an approaching cloud of mist appears and slowly engulfs the entire community. Those inside the Food House supermarket are soon warned that "There is something in the mist!" by a frightened neighbor who seeks refuge inside.

Actually, there are a lot of things in the mist including intestine-devouring creepy crawlers, killer spiders who can shoot their poisonous webs farther than you can spit a watermelon seed, gigantic deadly mosquitoes (for lack of a better description) which make the Houston variety seem impotent, scores of what look like Zanti Misfits (or should I say Mistfits?) and multi-tentacled giant arachnids who have a propensity to probe where we wish they wouldn't. Scary stuff, indeed, but none of these creatures of destruction equal the horror of the Bible-spewing, supercalifragilisticexpiationdoses-demanding Marcia Gay Harden who proves that true evil is not lurking outside in the parking lot but within the souls of those huddled inside. It helps that the entire ensemble cast is quite good and you can rest assured that the overall graphic horror quotient will satisfy even the most blood-thirsty cineaste. And while I won't give away the ending, let me simply say it was a bold and unexpected one that will leave some viewers shaken as the end credits begin to crawl.

THE DEFENDING CHAMPION. "The Fog" is a traditional zombie film with an outstanding cast. Adrienne Barbeau, in perhaps her best film role, is accompanied by the real-life mother-daughter team of Janet Leigh and Jamie Lee Curtis as well as John Houseman and Hal Holbrook. It is the inimitable Mr. Houseman who sets the stage by telling an old ghost story by a camp fire on the beach of a seaside community about to celebrate its centennial. Apparently one hundred years earlier the town's founders set a fire to lure a sailing vessel to the rocks and a watery grave for all aboard, including the lepers who intended to land nearby to establish their own settlement. Legend has it that "When the fog returns to Antonio Bay, the men at the bottom of the sea will rise up and search for the campfire that led them to their dark and icy death." The legend was dead on.

At first only weird things happen; clocks stop, electronic devices go haywire, glass shatters, etc., but then the faceless killing shadows of the resurrected emerge from the ethereal fog that overtakes the town and the revenge begins. Unlike Mr. Darabont, Mr. Carpenter relies far more on atmosphere (pun intended) than graphic visuals to frighten the audience. In fact, most of the horror is left to the viewer's imagination and not to the special effects gurus.

THE SCORECARD. Let's start with the title. Clearly "The Fog" is superior to "The Mist." For God's sake, what's next? "The Haze" or "The Condensation" -- how condescending would that be? Points also go to "The Fog" for a superior cast. Sometimes a film can really benefit by having relatively unknown actors throughout, but a typical genre piece, or in this case a sub-genre film, generally benefits by having a recognized cast assuming they are right for the part. Who better than John Houseman to be the storyteller? Who better than Hal Holbrook to play the priest? Who better than Adrienne Barbeau to play the buxom heroine, at least back in 1980?

"The Mist" is a more ambitious film on several levels. It is far more dependent on special effects and for the most part the CGI creatures are reasonably good. And points will always be won when the Zanti Misfits are given a homage; it's like having a cameo appearance by Kukla, Fran and Ollie, you just can't go wrong. (That's my opinion and I'm sticking to it.) Whereas "The Fog" is simply a straightforward suspense/horror film, "The Mist" delves into a post-9/11 political allegory at times as it explores mob dynamics and religious fervor. That's quite an undertaking. You almost want to drink Kool-Aid rather than a Coke to wash down the popcorn.

THE DECISION. While both films are worth seeing, the clear edge must go to "The Fog." It achieves precisely what it sets out to do by delivering an entertaining, stylish suspense/horror story that works on all levels, despite a relatively small budget. That's what true talent can deliver, and while one may argue that "The Fog" isn't John Carpenter's best film, it certainly holds up very well after twenty-five plus years. I don't believe the same will be said of "The Mist" in the year 2025.

"Plunk your magic twanger, foggy!"