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!"

Friday, December 7, 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 4, 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!"

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


"You see my son, you make your heaven and hell for yourselves on earth, you only bring it with you here."

Those are the frightening words spoken by Reverend Tim Thompson (played by the great Sydney Greenstreet) to a small group of passengers aboard an eerie steamship shortly after its departure from war-torn London. The year is 1944, and it will soon be "Judgement Day" for a varied array of unique individuals who don't yet realize they died enroute to the docks when a Luftwaffe air raid bombed their shuttle bus from above.

The opening shot indicates the passenger liner is owned by the Great White Steamship Company. I suggest one stay clear of this cruise line just as you would the White Star Line, the only difference between the two is you will probably go to a cold, watery grave aboard the latter whereas you will be forced to disembark forever in either Bali or Belize (my idea of Heaven and Hell) with the former.

(Yes, I've been to Belize -- I hope it isn't too late to clean up my act.)

The entire cast is truly terrific. John Garfield, Paul Henreid, Eleanor Parker, Edmund Gwen, George Tobias, George Coulouris, Faye Emerson, Dennis King, Isobel Elsom, Gilbert Emery and Sara Allgood comprise the entire passenger manifest. As Sara's name indicates, all are good (if not great) in their roles. Together, they comprise an excellent ensemble, although I will admit that Garfield tends to go over the top on occasion.

Of course, in this morality play the only baggage each brings aboard the unnamed ship is the baggage they carry inside. It is the magnificent Greenstreet as Reverend Thompson, aka "The Examiner," who sends each to their ultimate destiny. You can expect a surprise or two along the way but be forewarned -- the unexpected, unprincipled denouement is perhaps the most exasperating in the history of American cinema. Yes, the Gospel according to Jack L. Warner simply had to have a happy ending even if it makes no sense whatsoever. For this unpardonable indiscretion I'm sure he is now permanently residing in an outlying area near Belize City.

Two additional thoughts regarding BETWEEN TWO WORLDS:

Sydney Greenstreet appeared in a grand total of only twenty-three movies. His entire motion picture career lasted a mere eight years and it ended well over fifty years ago. However, starting with THE MALTESE FALCON and going on to such classics as CASABLANCA and FLAMINGO ROAD, Mr. Greenstreet remains one of the best remembered and most recognizable film actors of all time. Fittingly, there is a road named Greenstreet in Sydney, Australia. (I knew you were going to ask.)

Also, pay attention to the music in BETWEEN TWO WORLDS. The appropriately melancholy and mysterious score was done by Erich Wolfgang Korngold -- often credited with "inventing" the syntax of orchestral film music. Clearly he remains one of the best ever at his craft, and should you be looking for a little controversy, I encourage you to get a copy of KING'S ROW (1942), starring Ann Sheridan, Robert Cummings and Ronald Reagan. Listen to the powerful score and then tell me John Williams wasn't at the very least "extremely influenced" when he wrote his score for STAR WARS.

If George Harrison can be successfully sued for plagiarizing the Chiffons' "He's So Fine" for the melody of his own "My Sweet Lord," then Mr. Williams must have a hard time sleeping. I'm tempted to call the Law Offices of James Sokolove, but I refrain since an eerie, unnamed passenger ship belonging to the Great White Steamship Company awaits.

Mr. Williams -- meet Mr. Warner.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


Restaurant Review by Jerry L. Nelson

It reigned supreme in the meat market bars and restaurants of the eighties and nineties. It, coupled with a bottle of gawd-awful chardonnay with the buttery, oakey flavors of California, and the men among us would be guaranteed a score in triple digits. “It” is King Salmon, prepared any way you wanted, topped with (insert topping of choice here) usually some kind of teriyaki glaze. Well, its’ days are numbered for I have been to the kitchen top and have seen the light.

Amen, brother.

Higher than Salmon in those supposedly good for you fats and omega three stuff, the new kid on the block is Kona Kampechi, a South Pacific fish or, more specifically, Hawaiian (hence, I suppose, the word Kona). Reminds me a bit of grouper or even amberjack. This flakey, hearty, meaty fish stood out on my plate during a recent foray to The Grill At Leon Springs. The fact that The Grill is located in the original Romano’s Macaroni Grill building in Leon Springs, Texas, just north of San Antonio off Interstate 10, doesn’t hurt. A lot a great food passed out of that kitchen before Phil Romano sold out to Brinker International and the concept became just another “me too” Italian restaurant.

This time I dragged Friend with me for a change. Both our wives were conveniently out of town working so the two of us could afford to play. I caught some hell for that one. Oh, well….some of us eat to live while the fortunate among us live to eat.

The first thing you notice about The Grill is the old limestone exterior. Once inside, you see a contrast of the old with new all around as well as a humongous wine room….wonder if they seat in there or is a bit on the chilly side? Friend and I were seated by Liza (with a Z) who immediately spotted us for trouble. She pawned us off on Jenn, a comely young lass of college age….in fact Jenn informed us she was a communications major at UTSA…and quickly added her boyfriend worked in the kitchen, should we get too rambunctious. However, after a couple of pre-dinner beverages and a glass or two of wine I told her to bring him on. Fortunately, (for me) she declined. But I digress.

Friend and I settled in for what appeared, from the menu, to be an excellent selection of everything from Pasta to Seafood to Lamb Chops and Pork Tenderloin with a variety of “side” stops in between. I was ready to jump on the Walnut Blue Cheese Salad and move on to Spring Rolls of shrimp, crab and pork and then, assuming there would still be room, make my entrée in the form of Chicken Picatta, and of course, saving room for dessert of an individual Chocolate Soufflé. (I’m stuffed just writing all of that.) Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed when Friend decided on the Grilled Rainbow Trout for himself, served with a Tomato/Caper Relish, Roasted Potatoes and Grilled Veggies….all for $15.95….very reasonable once I saw the size of serving and quite well prepared. Friend was pleased with his choice.

Sweet Jenn got my attention with one of the off-menu specials, quite often the best way to go. She offered up a fish I had never heard of….Kona Kampechi. She described this as being higher in those good-for-you fats and oils than Salmon. Since you already know I despise Salmon, this sounded like a viable option. It came topped with four Grilled Shrimp and just a “hinted at” Honey/Teriyaki Glaze (will anybody ever come up with something besides Teriyaki for a glaze?) over a Toasted Sesame Slaw which was really Sautéed Julienned Leeks and Carrots. I don’t know where the sesame flavor was supposed to come from unless it was done in a bit of toasted sesame oil. No toasted sesame flavor but none the less, quite good….and only $22.95. Having never before had Kona Kempechi, let alone heard of it, I knew not what to expect, only to discover my new, favorite fish.

It was surprisingly flaky and solid at the same time, holding up well and not falling apart. The larger-than-I-could-eat serving was properly grilled, not even the least bit tough or dry, something easy to let happen if you don’t pay attention to it. In one word, outstanding. I recommend a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with either of the seafood dishes we had. Really, any dry white should pair nicely but for gawd sake, stay away from that 1980’s style California Chardonnay with its oakey, buttery aftertaste.

By now Friend and I were bordering on the full mark but I persuaded him to try an individual Chocolate Soufflé for dessert. We both ordered one and should you do so, turn in your request with your entrée so you don’t have to wait so long. A good server should be able to time it out so there’s no overly long wait as we had. Unfortunately the wait wasn’t worth it. I do love soufflés and know a good one when I taste it. Sadly though, ours were on the cakey side, as if they were made with too much flour and not enough egg white….or perhaps mixed a bit too long knocking out all of the air, for ours were anything but light and airy. While Chef Tomme Johnson certainly knows his fish, he might double check the soufflé recipe. (Really a small disappointment when you consider the damage we did overall). Hint….don’t pour the Grand Marnier sauce over the Chocolate Soufflé….BAD combination. They need to offer a Grand Marnier Soufflé with that sauce.

This is a restaurant I will return to. There are too many other possibilities on the menu that sound delicious. Unfortunately a lot of people know about this place so, on the weekend, make a reservation.

Salmon, if there is a Neptune in the sea, your days are relegated to patties in the school cafeteria line. On second thought, that food is bad enough without forcing the kids to eat that crap every Friday.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


A recent sojourn to the Emerald Isle found the lovely Lynda and yours truly driving the perilous backroads of the Irish countryside with the jocular Jerry (Needtovent's intrepid restaurant reviewer) and his child bride of nearly forty years. The highlight of the trip was to hook up with Alan Moors, a redoubtable raconteur Lynda and I met on a previous vacation. We've been close friends since.

Among the gallimaufry of glorious Gaelic adventures is this Kodak moment taken just outside the idyllic little village we stayed in for four fun-filled days. Yes, that's the gregarious, glabrous Alan and the frequently bollixed, Bohemian Bob in a posed tribute to "Doolin Banjos."

Is that Ned Beatty I hear squealing?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


"Rybnik's Cube"


"Elmer Valo was a journeyman outfielder who managed to stay in the major leagues for twenty years. He was an average hitter, but an exceptional pinch hitter, particularly in his later years. What I will always remember Elmer Valo for, however, will be his spectacular catches in deep left field in Philadelphia's Connie Mack Stadium, catches that inevitably had him crashing into the wall and crumpling dazed to the ground, with his glove in the air and the ball still in it."

Brendan C. Boyd

To my knowledge, Elmer Valo is the only Czechoslovakian-born player to reach "The Bigs." That, alone, makes him one of my all-time favorite players. After all, I am proud of my Czech heritage and so I followed Elmer Valo's career far more closely than that of more famous ballplayers like Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays or Wayne Terwilliger.

The Great One's nickname -- "Wall Crusher" -- is both descriptive and accurate. There is some dispute about whether or not he entered the final game of the 1939 season as an 18-year-old pinch hitter. Many claim this did actually happen, although the official records do not confirm this. (If he did play the team would have been heavily fined since he was not at the time officially listed on the Phillies' roster.) I mention this, because, if true, his major league career would have spanned a remarkable four (4) decades.

Two more things about Elmer. His baseball card photos were often far above the average -- this one with the triple lens TV camera in the background being just one example. Also, believe it or not, during his long, productive playing career Elmer Valo reached base as often as Joe DiMaggio.

That's extremely good company to be in, and so I cannot help but be puzzled as to why this talented, unassuming fellow isn't a household name -- except in his hometown of Rybnik, Czechoslovakia.

Yes, puzzling, indeed.

Pilsner Urquell anyone?

Sunday, November 11, 2007


One critic has called THE LIVES OF OTHERS "a perfect movie." Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, there's no denying that Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has crafted a remarkable motion picture in his directorial debut. This clearly is one motion picture that will stay with you long after the lights come up and the popcorn has been depleted.

Ulrich Muhe is brilliant as Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, a mid-level officer in the German Democratic Republic's secret service -- the Stasi. Appropriately, the year is 1984, and Hauptmann Wiesler is assigned to oversee the round-the-clock surveillance of Georg Dreyman, a popular writer who has exhibited no signs of disloyality to the state, and his live-in girlfriend, the acclaimed actress Christa-Maria Sieland. Sebastian Koch is excellent as the gregarious Dreyman. This goes double for Martina Gedeck as the vivacious, but vulnerable Sieland. These three outstanding performances, under the steady direction of von Donnersmarck, combine to deliver a heartwrenching, complex, suspenseful thriller of political and moral relevance as well as an unforgettable cinematic portrait of oppression and, surprisingly, compassion.

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall the Stasi had over 90,000 employees in a country of only 16 million. In addition, hundreds of thousands were recruited as "unofficial employees" who, for any number of reasons, spied on their neighbors, their co-workers and their families. This Orwellian nightmare of state-sponsored voyeurism had a shattering impact on even the most ordinary citizen -- but the atmosphere of secrecy and justified paranoia also affected many of the Stasi spies. What makes THE LIVES OF OTHERS so compelling is to see and viscerally feel the effects of what this policy can do to Big Brother as well.

(One can only wonder why governmental wiretapping is declared fascist when performed in other countries, but is deemed a "patriotic act" here in the USA.)

Thursday, November 8, 2007


Talk about confusing.

I initially thought THE WASP WOMAN was a bio-pix about Hillary Clinton. But it isn't.

Then I wondered if it might be the life story about some lesser-known "White Anglo-Saxon Protestant" female -- perhaps the honey-blonde hymenoptera haranguer who attacked a recent subdivision POA Board Meeting. (You know who you are.) Wrong again.

Alas, this "Wasp Woman" is none other than slinky Susan Cabot in her final film role. Written and directed by the King of Kitch, Roger Corman, some critics have hailed THE WASP WOMAN as the first feminist horror film. That's a bit of an overstatement, although the idea of any woman (even in reel life back in 1960) heading a multi-million dollar empire with unbridled determination and guile was as rare as a jet-black Jujube.

The opening twelve minutes focuses entirely on bees -- not wasps. We see beehives and beekeepers. We see real bees, not the colored Styrofoam pellets Irwin Allen tossed in THE SWARM (1978). There's nary a wasp anywhere -- neither the insect nor the female human variety.

It almost begs the question: Is this B movie a bee movie -- title notwithstanding?

Fear not, eventually the bees are relegated to simply being extras when it is discovered that the royal jelly of a queen wasp has greater rejuvenating powers than that of a queen bee. Dr. Eric Zinthrop's laboratory now contains more wasps than the Republican National Convention. This research is fully funded by Cabot with the promise of her becoming young again and wrinkle-free, not to mention the millions upon millions to be made by her company marketing a cosmetic line that reinstates a woman's youth. Of course, Ms. Cabot ultimately overdoses on "jelly injections" and finds herself turning into a giant wasp who eats men alive. For the record, she does attack her secretary, but the deed isn't consummated. (We'll refrain from the cheap lesbian/wasp joke that you were expecting. Admit it, you're surprised.)

Recently re-released on DVD by Digiview Entertainment, THE WASP WOMAN is paired with THIS IS NOT A TEST, KILLERS FROM SPACE and UNKNOWN WORLD to provide 330 minutes of B-grade sci-fi fun. It arrives just in time considering the WGA strike is in full force and re-runs reign the airwaves.

(THE WASP WOMAN is a quintessential example of what is commonly called a B movie. One of our favorite definitions of a B movie is that it is a film where the sets shake when an actor slams a door. We didn't know that Joe Grosso once worked in L.A.)

Sunday, November 4, 2007


Review by Jerry L. Nelson

Tim O’Brien has a gold mine in the desert, at least as far as the desert goes in the hill country of Texas. Located on Texas Highway 46 in the nearly extinct community of Bergheim, about twelve miles west of U.S. 281 in what can only be described as a former Service Station/Grocery/House combination, O’Brien’s serves up what they describe as “Good Home-Cooking”. Yes and no. Yes, what we had was reasonably good and No, quite a bit of it was never found on your mother’s table…unless your mother served up Smoked Chicken and Bleu Cheese stuffed Mushrooms as an appetizer (by the way, lacking in Bleu Cheese flavor)…but only $7.99.

There was a constant undercurrent of something just not being “quite right” throughout the evening. I don’t think it had anything to do with the fake (I despise the word Faux) cow hide table coverings which, upon closer inspection, turned out to be vinyl. I imagine real cow hide would be impractical owing to all the food that would constantly get spilled on it…but why cow hide at all? What’s wrong with white linen? Nor can I solely blame the “gas station/house-like” interior. After all, that’s what this place was at one time, I’m sure. But it appeared as if there was no effort to improve the overall ambience, to make this a real dinning pleasure…and ambience goes a long way in creating an enjoyable evening. Although it can’t save bad food, it can add to good food to create a great evening of dining out and I think this is what O’Brien’s would like to become…a destination restaurant…which is what they are right now only because of their distant location…but I digress.

Their menu is an amalgamation of what one might consider Gourmet dishes such as Escargot in garlic butter with a pastry topping, the aforementioned Mushrooms, Pescado St. Lucian (I have no idea what the hell that means nor could our server explain it), the chef’s choice of Fish Blackened with Shrimp then baked to finish in a cilantro cream sauce, to a more localized -- for Texas anyway-- Fried Jalapenos, Macaroni and Cheese (excellent, by the way) and the ever standard Chicken Fried Steak…which recently received the People’s Choice Award from the San Antonio Express News. I ask again, what do they want to be?

My recent dining excursion resulted in mixed emotions. It began with my appetizer of two rather bland Crab Cakes ($11.99) served with remoulade and Peckin Slaw (a disgusting name for an ordinary German style cole slaw…and all I did was peck at it). The crab cakes had the texture of over mixed tuna fish, the kind my mother served me when I was a kid. There were no chunks to it. It was stringy and mushy…perhaps too much filler, but I doubt made with lump crab meat. While the 16 oz. Pork Chop ($20.99) was served as requested (medium-rare) and lightly smoky, the sun-dried cherry, chipotle and molasses glaze was dropped off on the side of the plate rather than topping the chop, as described in the menu. While this may seem a minor infraction, it made for a disappointing experience in eating as the flavors were not constant in every bite. My companion’s selection (once again I had managed to sneak out without the child bride of nearly forty years) began with the bleu “cheeseless” mushrooms followed up with an entrée of the Herb Crusted Rack of Lamb ($26.99) served with a dried fruit compote. I can only imagine the mixture of herbs, but, unfortunately, it came out covered in what can best be described in appearance as burned parsley…most unfortunate because the flavor of the lamb was quite good and cooked to a “just right” medium-rareness. The dried Fruit Compote was mostly dried apple rings but still went nicely with the lamb chops.

We enjoyed a soft Estancia Pinot Noir with our meat dishes and very enjoyable it was. The dessert offerings were limited to the usual “some kind of chocolate cake concoction, cheese cake, ice cream, etc., etc”…nothing really creative or different…so we opted to drink our dessert in the form of Irish Coffees. Having recently returned from Ireland and enjoyed a real Irish Coffee from the location where it was created, in Foynes on the Shannon River, I’m a bit spoiled and sorely disappointed in what they passed off on us…no sugar to sweeten the whiskey…sweetened whipped cream (I’m sure out of an aerosol can) on top instead of just lightly whipped cream (no sweetener…it’s already in the whiskey) spooned over the coffee. Then they topped that with crème de menthe…gawd awful. If you’re going to serve a classic, serve it the correct way. If you’re going to bastardize it…give us fair warning.

Our server, Sasha (pronounced with a flat A, Texas Style, as in bash and cash, not pronounced with a soft A, European style, as in posh, she was quick to point out) tried almost too hard most of the evening. She informed us this was only her second week on the job and she was enthusiastic. There’s no faulting her for that. She just seemed a bit smarmy. The owner, Tim O’Brien, stopped by our table…a nice gesture. He commented that things were finally heading in the right direction after several months of upheaval with the staff. I hope he chose the right direction for his restaurant because right now it just doesn’t knock your socks off…good, but not yet ready to be considered great. In fairness, I’ll return, hoping the gold mine in the desert has a bit more sparkle next time.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Other than the loss of close family members the saddest events of my life are:

Roy Campanella becoming paralyzed, his career tragically cut short due to an automobile accident -- 1958

The excruciatingly painful death of Fireball Roberts, my favorite NASCAR driver at the time -- 1964

The horrific crash of the chartered aircraft carrying the Marshall University football team, a loss so staggering that it defied comprehension -- 1970

And, in retrospect, the day I inexplicably purchased a Mercury Zephyr -- 1972

Three of these involve the world of sport and one of these has become the subject of a recent motion picture. I should mention that the dreadful circumstances surrounding the Zephyr is being considered by Troma Entertainment as the subject of a new film. The working title is THE TOXIC AVENGER PART IV: ED VERA'S REVENGE. If this story is brought to the screen I predict it will traumatize an entire generation of both cineasts and motorists. Having said this, the money received for the story rights would help soothe the emotional pain I have endured these past 35 years and so I really don't care.

But I digress...

You see, I always kinda rooted for Marshall and, since 1970, I have become a huge fan of the Thundering Herd. I like the team name despite my reservations that buffalo ever roamed the mountains and valleys of West Virginia. I also admire their inspiring return to gridiron glory -- SMU's "death penality" was nothing in comparison to the tragedy suffered by Marshall and the Ponies still find themselves mired in mediocrity. Imagine the horror, then, when I learned that Warner Brothers had selected Matthew McConaughey to play Coach Jack Lengyel, the key role in WE ARE MARSHALL. What could they possibly be thinking? Matthew McConaughey as a hard-nosed football coach?

My initial thoughts were that Brian Boitano must not have wanted to do the film or that Milton Delugg wanted too much money or that Jerry Espenson was simply unavailable. Heck, if Ed Vera wasn't in hiding they could have given him the part. It seemed that a decision this bad simply had to be made in concert with the Bush Administration as well as the 110th Congress.

I repeat, McConaughey as a hard-nosed football coach? Jeez-oh-flip, even the previews made it seem like Mr. McConaughey was going to come across as nothing more than a Thundering Nerd.

And I was wrong. Dead wrong...

McConaughey does far more than a creditable job as Coach Lengyel. To be honest, his quirky, off-kilter performance is one of the strengths of WE ARE MARSHALL. In fact, the entire cast is excellent, with Matthew Fox as Assistant Coach Red Dawson, the always-reliable David Strathairn as President Dedmon, Ian McShane as Paul Griffen and Kate Mara as Annie Cantrell deserving special mention.

The same holds true for my good friend Mike Pniewski who portrays Bobby Bowden, the coach of the rival West Virgina University Mountaineers. It is nothing short of remarkable that Coach Bowden actually gave the Marshall coaching staff full access to his playbook and game films so they could adopt the Veer Formation for their offense -- as a result I have admired Bowden ever since. Can you even imagine Jackie Sherrill or Barry Switzer doing something so unselfish? I didn't think so.

Southern Airways Flight 932 was a chartered DC-9 that crashed on a non-precision approach under stormy weather conditions on that fateful night in November, 1970. All 75 souls on board were killed -- thirty-seven players, eight members of the coaching staff, twenty-five boosters, four flight and crew members and one employee of the charter company. Among the boosters were four of Huntington, West Virginia's six physicians, a city councilman and a state legislator.

This devastating loss to both the university and the community provides a complex and challenging story to tell. Director Joseph McGinty Nichole seems an unlikely candidate for this type of film. His previous credits consist primarily of the two CHARLIE'S ANGELS features and while he fumbles the ball on several occasions, WE ARE MARSHALL remains a solid, emotionally-charged sports-themed weepie that succeeds despite the use of an overbearing, soaring musical score and a parade of lame K-Tel "Semi-Classic" rock songs which pop up on cue.

Yes, the filmmaking is as formulaic as it gets and the on-the-field football scenes often look like they were staged by Josh Blue. Despite these procedure penalties WE ARE MARSHALL scores just enough to be a winner; you best have a Kleenex or two standing by.

Thursday, October 25, 2007


Jeepers peepers? Oh, there are "peepers" alright.

Shia LaBeouf plays Kale Brecht, a sullen teenage boy who punches Senor Gutierrez, his high school Spanish teacher, in the nose. Problema grande as Kale is placed under house arrest for this classroom indiscretion. With an electronic device chained to his ankle poor old Kale is unable to venture further than 100 feet outside his home before automatically summoning the police. What's a fellow to do?

Bushnell to the resuce. To pass the time away Kale spies on his neighbors, especially the new girl in town. Sarah Roemer is cast as Ashley Carlson and her drum-tight belly calls out for Ludwig to be stenciled on it. She's a fetching find, that's for sure, and no one can fault Kale for putting his trusty binoculars to use when slinky Ashley is swimming under the sunny suburban sky. On occasion Kale's best friend, Ronnie, comes over to take a longing peek as well. Going from window to window Kale declares their voyeurism as being "reality without the TV."

Kale slowly becomes convinced that another neighbor, Mr. Turner, is a well-publicized serial killer. As the tag line for DISTURBIA states, "Every killer lives next door to someone." Kale believes he is the "someone" in this case and he slowly convinces Ronnie and Sarah of his suspicions. A round-the-clock surveillance ensues and there are more peeps taking place than at a Tyson hatchery. But who is watching who?

David Morse plays Mr. Turner in a role that almost demands Anthony Hopkins -- especially when one considers the final act which becomes more than reminiscent of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. At best, he's Hopkins Lite -- Morse's menace quotient being only slightly higher than that Dennis fellow. Director D. J. Caruso might just as well have cast Wally Cox, the original Mr. Peepers.

As for the "jeepers" -- lets just say they are few and far between. Accordingly, the target audience -- teenage boys and their dates -- have plenty of time to cop a feel (or more) without missing a thing. Watching DISTURBIA I found myself reminiscing about those hormone-driven days when this New Braunfels Unicorn descended upon the local bijou with date in hand.

Fond (and fondling) memories aside, DISTURBIA isn't the worst film released this year, but it sure doesn't hold a candle to the now-classic offerings by James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff -- THE HOUSE OF USHER, for instance.

As Senor Gutierrez might say, "Eso fue una pelicula espantosa!"

One final comment: Any comparisons between DISTURBIA and REAR WINDOW are unworthy and pointless. Don't even get me started...

Monday, October 22, 2007


A question: Could any two individuals look more perfect as New Millennium Televangelists? You gotta give it to Central Casting for doing a phenomenal job.

For Joel, the Casting Call Notice simply read: "White, somewhat smarmy male with Jerry Lee Lewis-styled hair. Unctuous persona personified. No formal religious training required. None. Nada. Zero. Zip."

For Victoria, the Casting Call Notice was just as specific: "Blond beauty. Needs to possess a love of money. No religious convictions necessary. Official Tammy Faye Make-up Case provided."

Apparently Queen Victoria can be ill-tempered on occasion, as the little incident aboard Continental Flight 1602 illustrates. A $3,000 fine by the FAA for "interferring with a flight attendant" over a small spill on her seat in the First Class section shows a lack of class, if nothing else. It also showed her and the rest of the Osteen family the door. Even Eve wasn't as bitchy...

As for Joel's new book, BECOME A BETTER YOU -- Seven Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day, it might as well have been titled BECOME A BETTER ME -- Seven Keys To Improving My Bank Account. Keep passing the plate...

I say the heck with the both of them -- give me an Osteen I can trust.

Like Claude!