Sunday, December 30, 2007

The last man on Earth

On Thursday my wife and I saw "I Am Legend", a harrowing film that features an Oscar-worthy performance by Will Smith. (SPOILERS AHEAD.) Smith portrays Robert Neville, an Army scientist who believes that he may be the last human survivor of a virus that killed most of humanity and turned the rest into savage, vampire-like mutants. Smith spends his days scavenging for supplies in the ghost town that Manhattan has become, as well as hunting animals that now roam free on the island. He has turned his Washington Square home into a well-stocked fortress where, in the evenings, he uses his own blood to develop a cure that will transform the so-called "dark seekers" back into human beings.

Like Tom Hanks in "Castaway", Smith spends much of his screen time in "I am Legend" without another human actor to play off of. Hanks' character had a volleyball; Smith's Neville has a German shephard, Samantha, the family dog left behind by his daughter, Marley, as she and her mother were being flown out of New York as it was being placed under quarantine. (The relationship between Neville and his dog provide the film's most emotionally riveting scene, and some of Smith's best acting.) We learn about the virus and the fate of Neville's family in brief flashbacks; we get just enough backstory to follow the plot, but not so much that the film gets bogged down in exposition.

"I am Legend" is the third big-screen adaptation of the 1954 Richard Matheson novel of the same name, and a quick glance at Internet message boards reveal that devotees of the book are unhappy with the film's significant departures from its source material. (See here for my thoughts on comparing books to their film adaptations.) Some critics also complained that the film lost steam during its third act. The film held my wife and I in its grip until the very end (we sat, unmoving, even as the credits rolled) but we can see where the critics are coming from. There was, for example, a religious element introduced late in the movie that seemed a bit tacked on.

But some concessions have to be made to the film's story, which finds its central charcter robbed of human companionship for most of the film. His chatter with his dog is endearing, and the way he talks to the manequins that he has placed strategically in the abandoned stores he visits is humorous -- but once Sam is gone, we begin to understand that Neville is a man clinging tenously to sanity. His home, which maintains all the trappings of domesticity -- with the occassional newspaper clipping with headlines that fill in key parts of the backstory -- is actually a well-appointed tomb, a shrine to a life he cannot let go of.

It is only when he finally finds another normal person that we understand that Robert Neville has lost much of his own humanity, and it is all that more powerful when, just in time, he gets it back.


Monday, December 24, 2007


Recently I watched "The Queen", an engaging film that was grounded by the strong, measured performance of Helen Mirren, who was awarded the Oscar for her efforts. The film's subject matter gave it a certain made-for-TV quality; nonetheless, I'd argue that it deserved the big-screen treatment, given how imperiled the monarchy was in the days following Diana's death as well as the larger questions raised by the film -- namely, what place does a monarchy have in a modern, democraticized society?

I found myself, by the time the movie ended, feeling a bit sorry for Queen Elizabeth II, grasping for the proper role to play in modern British life, duty-bound to defend the very traditions that were alienating her from her people. The film was far less sympathetic to her husband, Prince Philip, who was portrayed as arrogant and unfeeling, giving Elizabeth disasterous advice that furthered her isolation. (The late Queen Mother wasn't much of a help either.) Prince Charles came off as somewhat sniveling, wanting to do the right thing by his children and his ex-wife but unable to stand up to his mother and father.

Tony Blair was the hero, the man whose public statements about Diana struck just the right chord and who finally succeeded in convincing the queen to grieve as her subjects wanted. There was something sad about recalling the heady, early days of Blair's tenure as prime minister, given how it ended. Shortly before the film's end, in a meeting a couple of months after Diana's death, Elizabeth warns Blair that the press and the British people might just as easily turn on him someday too.

It's possible that the queen really did say that to Blair. After all, her reign had witnessed nine prime ministers before him, and she had no doubt learned how suddenly political lives can end. But it's hard not to think that the filmmakers threw in that line as a post-script to Blair's career. Blair was there to save the queen from herself. Too bad no one did the same for Blair.

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Count my blessings? I'll have to take off my shoes and socks

Recently my wife asked me to name my favorite non-traditional Christmas song. I said "Christmas in Hollis", by Run-DMC, then mumbled about until I finally had to concede that one of my favorite modern holiday tunes is "Do They Know It's Christmas" -- the 1986 benefit song by British artists performing as Band-Aid.

Sure, the song's synthesizer-driven pop sound and concern for starving Ethiopian children is sooo 1980s. (Though it's a far superior piece of music than its American counterpart, "We are the World".) And there's a patronizing, white-man's-burden quality to the song's charitable tone. (What! No snow in Africa! How can you have a bleedin' proper Christmas without any snow!)

Yet for all its cheesiness, the song gets to me. When Bono belts out "Well tonight thank God it's them instead of you," I belt it out, too. (Assuming I'm alone.) There's something about that lyric that's like a kick in the gut. How many times have we heard people say "There but for the grace of God go I", either as a figure of speech or as a sincere belief that they have been blessed by the Almighty. What many of us should be saying is "There but for being born to educated, middle-class parents in one of the most prosperous nations on Earth go I."

Trite as it sounds, the holidays offer the starkest reminder of this good fortune. There's nothing like pushing yourself away, stuffed, from the Christmas table, or loading up the car with your bounty of gifts, to make you realize that most of the problems in your life -- to borrow a phrase -- don't add up to a hill of beans. That's what that song says to me.

The more I think about it, though, the more I realize that my favorite modern holiday song is probably "The Christians and the Pagans" by Dar Williams, followed closely by "Fairy Tale of New York" as performed by the Pogues. In their own way, they each speak to loss and reconciliation, perfect themes for the holidays and the new year to come.

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Friday, December 21, 2007

I'm sure I can think of a few more

Here's a blog that documents the worst urban places.


Thursday, December 20, 2007

I go a-walkin'...

This web site shows you how walkable your neighborhood is. According to the Post-Gazette, it leaves a little something to be desired.


Sunday, December 16, 2007

The richest man in town...

Annie Korzen, in an essay that appears today in the Trib, doesn't think "It's a Wonderful Life" is so wonderful after all:

Poor old George takes the tedious job in the shabby loan office, lives in the abandoned old house at 320 Sycamore St. that he always hated and watches life pass him by. Meanwhile, his younger brother, Harry, and his pal, Sam Wainwright, go off and enjoy the adventures he yearned for. When George winds up suicidal, Clarence the angel is dispatched to remind him of the value of his personal sacrifice.

As the town rallies around the long-suffering George to rescue him from financial ruin, he finally realizes that what really counts in life is family and friends. I'll buy that.

But Harry and Sam -- those two guys who left town and became a war hero and entrepreneur -- also seem to have found family and friends. Why must we choose between the two? Why can't we find love and also pursue our passions? (link)

I've always felt that despite the uplift at the end, "It's a Wonderful Life" is a terrbly sad film. Sure, George Bailey gets to avoid jail, go on running the building and loan with his functionally retarded uncle, and learns that the good people of Bedford Falls know how to return a favor. But he's still stuck in the town he longed to leave, living in a musty old house in which he and his family appear to be squatters, hoping that Mr. Potter dies before the old miser finds another way to screw him over. That's why I always enjoyed Saturday Night Live's alternative ending, in which George learns that Potter took the money, and he exacts his bloody revenge. ("You made one mistake Potter. You double-crossed me and you left me alive.")

On the other hand, George has no one to blame but himself for the course of his life, and perhaps that's the true lesson of the film -- that each of us bears ultimate responsibility for the choices we make. After all, it was only his own sense of responsibility and moral obligation that caused George to stick around and take over his father's business, and his own selflessness that led him to release Harry from his obligation to run the building and loan. Those were noble choices, but like all choices, they had their consequences. In the end, George has to live with them.

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We've seen this movie before

Jack Markowitz is disappointed, though not surprised, that Pennsylvania hands out tax breaks to filmmakers:

The new Pennsylvania pattern is that nothing seems to get built, or even relocated, without politicians leaping in to "help" with your money. (link)

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Friday, December 14, 2007

A million here, a million there, and pretty soon we're talking about serious money

Lo and behond, the David L. Lawrence Convention Center continues to bleed red ink:

The authority, which owns local sports venues and parking garages, has failed to earn a profit at the Downtown convention center. Operating the building is projected to create a $3.8 million loss in 2008. Revenues are projected to reach $5.9 million, but expenses would be $9.8 million.

Of course, people like me have been criticizing the convention center almost from the moment it was built. The reality, though, is that we are stuck with it. So what's to be done? In my opinion, we need to spend just enough money to keep the building safe, functional and attractive -- but not a penny more. That means no publicly funded convention center hotel, an idea whose time will never come.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

It's where Kennywood is

A while ago, Jason over at Tube City discussed what he perceived was the shabby treatment that Kennywood Park has received at the hands of the West Mifflin Borough government. Here is an excerpt:

I don't think that local government should be in the business of real estate development (for more information, see also, "City of Pittsburgh, bankruptcy of" or "City of Pittsburgh, failure of Fifth and Forbes"), but I have to wonder if better zoning and traffic and infrastructure improvements along "Kennywood Boulevard" would attract some private investment.

To put it another way: Since 1999, West Mifflin has collected $3.5 million in tax revenue directly from the sale of tickets at Kennywood. Does someone from West Mifflin care to show me the $3.5 million in zoning code changes, tax incentives for commercial development, and improved signals and lighting on Kennywood Boulevard that have been made in that period of time?

Or is the borough balancing its budget (including the cost of that spiffy $2 million three-story municipal hall on Lebanon Church Road, formerly a taxable privately-owned office building) on the back of its only tourist attraction and one of its few claims to fame?

I may be way off-base here. Perhaps there are more costs to the taxpayers of West Mifflin caused by Kennywood than I'm aware of. Perhaps West Mifflin is acting solely in the best interests of its taxpayers. As a West Mifflin taxpayer myself, I sure hope so.

Jason raises some interesting points. I don't believe that governments should coddle large employers, but nor do I think they should exploit them. Personally, I don't understand why West Mifflin wouldn't want to spruce up the corridor leading into Kennywood. Think of the thousands of people who drive into the community each year to go to the park, and think of the impression of West Mifflin they are left with.

My wife and I grew up in Westmoreland County, and we know that many people there regard Kennywood as something of an oasis in the midst of urban decay -- a perception that I suspect is not limited to the hinterlands. Is that really the image West Mifflin wants to project?

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By his bootstraps

The New York Times profiles Don Barden.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What's Spanish for "Kennywood's open?"

Other bloggers are all over the sale of Kennywood to a Spanish amusement firm. Jason offers some good analysis of the sale and its import, and Chris Briem tries to put into perspective the sale of a beloved local icon to a foreign concern.

For my part, I just hope the new owners don't get wind of the monument to the U.S.S. Maine in West Park.

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Friday, December 07, 2007

Last call

Jason thinks the arguments against the drink tax are nothing but foam. As you can see from my comment, I'm conflicted, but it's probably the lesser of all evils, given the situation.

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Not that it matters anymore, but...

The boys at the Sports Economist continue to poke holes in the arguments in favor of throwing tax dollars at pro teams:

Sports economists agree: sports stadiums are not the boon of economic development that they are often portrayed to be and, thankfully, public money has not been as easy to come by in many instances. That's why some recent public financing packages include plans to have ballpark villages developed as a part of an agreement for public financing. Otherwise the secondary development is not likely to happen.

The development is unlikely to occur because the returns for the development do not justify private investment. Otherwise we'd see a lot more "spontaneous" economic development surrounding stadiums. In other words, the people who frequent stadiums don't really care all that much about shopping/bars/restaurants/condos etc. around ballparks. They want to go to the event, do what they do there (get their private benefits), get in their cars, and go home. So politicians are seemingly more resistant, thankfully, to giving subsidies just for stadiums by themselves. But package in some secondary development (which, if it draws any extra economic activity to the site, will probably draw it from elsewhere in the region) with the subsidy request and see if you can get the necessary votes.

But if private financing isn't forthcoming for the housing and business development, is it really that good of an investment for the government? In other words, what are the public goods associated with the ballpark villages?

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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Yeah, that's a good idea

Well, I guess there is something to be said for swagger:

Safety Anthony Smith not only thinks the Steelers have a chance to beat the undefeated New England Patriots Sunday, he guarantees it.

"We're going to win,'' Smith said today after practice. "Yeah, I can guarantee a win.'' ...

Smith added a little more lumber to the fire when he said New England's receivers haven't been hit the way they will be hit on Sunday.

"They said Baltimore was their most physical game but I think we hit harder than Baltimore, so they haven't seen nothing like us yet.

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